Friday, July 17, 2009
Its been a while since I've got a chance to update the blog, but the following passages are of some of the craziest times since starting the tour..... So to begin where I left off. As soon as I had the Kyrgyzstan visa pasted into my passport, I was pedalling fast and hard out of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan and towards the Kyrgyzstan border near Osh. My Uzbek visa finishes on the 26-6-09 and its a 400KM uphill run to the border. All things considered, we're tight on time but we're doing ok. The heat is crazy in Tashkent but it would be worst in Samarkand and Bukhara. Khiva would be just unbearable now. And as for the Karakum desert, surely even the camels must be discussing the pros and cons of migration.
Today I got a Uzbek exit stamp in my passport and I'm sitting in a cafe in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. I had a 30 day visa for Uzbekistan and it took the full 30 days to cross it at a lively but comfortable pace. Its a challenging country to cycle across but I imagine, it would be a interesting one to do a designated tour of. The architecture throughout the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are just incredible. The desert ships at Moynaq are unreal. Travelling through the nothingness on the edge of the Kyzylkum desert is surreal. And meeting the friendly locals in the markets is just an afternoon full of laughter. Looking back over the last month in Uzbekistan has been a fascinating, exciting and difficult adventure.Its a country I'm thankful I wasn't born into. Its harvest season in the Fergana valley and it seems you are not long walking before you are carrying something. And when you get too old and tired to walk, you can always direct a donkey and cart to the fields. But Ireland 50 years ago was probably a similar picture. I was really surprised by the levels of poverty I saw here. I can't even imagine the state of desperation someone must be in, to sweep the grain off the road as it falls off the passing trucks. Sweeping their breakfast up off the street in full view of their whole village to witness.Its very ironic how the country is a complete police state and yet I was offered heroin about 10 times during my months' stay here. Especially along the desert road between Nukus and Bukhara. I can only guess that the desert heat and my poor diet had me mistaken for a junkie in need of a fix. Every single day I had dealing with the police. I'd honestly stay, I've seen as many police in Uzbekistan in the last 30 days as I've seen in Ireland in the last 30 years. They are mostly traffic police and the cycle tourist is the perfect fodder to feed their amusement and boredom. Once a passing policeman even stopped to help me repair a puncture but generally its just friendly curiosity. I do my best not to look wasted on opium (or the desert heat/poor diet equivalent). But occasionally you met an awkward cop who has to telephone someone to check if my visa is valid, or he wants to see what photos I've taken, to ensure there is no sensitive material photographed. But that said, no officer ever attempted to extort a bribe from me. Although one full time policeman/part time pimp pitied my solo venture and suggested he could arrange for a "special lady friend" to visit my hotel later if I wished. Obviously in a complete police state, "fly-tenting" is illegal. Tourists are supposed to stay at designated tourist hotels instead of camping in the wilds. You must register with the hotel and each morning they will give you a registration slip. When you finally leave the country, the police may wish to check your registration slips. I was in the country 30 days but I was missing 27 slips. I had jumped in a canal earlier in the week and that morning I put on my cleanest (dirty) clothes, but I still anticipated the "Where have you been sleeping?" question. The border guard spoke perfect english. I just pretended not to understand him.Border guard:'Where did you sleep last night?'Wasted tourist:' Oh tonight I'll probably sleep in Osh'.But he kept questioning. A search of my bags revealed my tent, sleeping bag and stove. He wanted answers. I was afraid this might happen. But this is how I got out of the situation and it may be of interest to the cycle tourers coming behind me. My advice is, when you are filling out the declaration form only disclose that you have a few dollars and hide the rest well. I only found 1 working ATM in Uzbekistan and considering thats 400KMs away in Tashkent, the largest the police can fine you is the figure you disclose on your declaration form. I told the police a medical student invited me to his home for food and a spare bed and so he could practice his english with me. I continued talking about the great generosity of the Uzbek people and their helpfulness and the amazing architecture and the beautiful landscapes...etc etc. They are less likely to fine someone who is leaving the country and full of praise for Uzbekistan. And besides he is supposedly only got US$20 in his pocket. It worked for me but I've heard of tourists facing fines of hundreds of dollars upon leaving UzbekistanIf you are coming to Uzbekistan, make sure you pack a lunch. I didn't expect to get this far without an occasional dose of food poisoning, but its so frustrating when you see markets packed full of the finest fruits and tastiest vegetables and yet the road houses outside of the main cities serve such fatty, oily and greasy slop. I've ordered even the simplest dishes, such as soup, and I've gotten, what is best described as a bowl full of boiling oil with lumps of fat. And the crazy thing is you could be sitting at a table in the shade, under a tree full of the tastiest apricots. But even the top class hotels seem to have no understanding of food hygiene. In Tashkent, I was sitting under a tree in the car park of a 4 star hotel, using their unsecured wi-fi connection. A delivery guy arrives and takes a load of meat from the booth of his car and wheels it into the the kitchen. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Ladas don't have a refrigerated boot, do they? I have a very strong stomach and have never got food poisoning before, but everyday in Uzbekistan has been testing on my system. Thankfully, I got my stove working again and I enjoy spending my evenings preparing the food I buy from the markets.And so by leaving Uzbekistan, we have pretty much completed stage 2 of GCR. I'm only 240KMs west of the Chinese border but I need a break from the bike. (We are starting to argue and its not good for the overall morale of the trip). Its been 6000KMs since Istanbul and I've lost over a stone in weight that I need to gain before I head into the deserts of Western China. The biggest desert of the global circuit is coming up,- The Taklamakan desert, which is Chinese for 'He who enters, does not leave'. And so the plan is to spend the next 2 months getting fat and lazy. Its time to take a holiday from this 'holiday(?)' and return to Osh after the 2 months and continue pedaling across China to the Pacific Ocean.My dad, Jim, recently retired from work and we are keen to do a 3 week tour Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. And my girlfriend, Genevieve, has an eye on a amazing island in south Thailand, which is full of white beaches and waterfalls. It should be two perfect weeks. So on the 16/7/09 I plan to fly from Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan to Bangkok, capital of Thailand. I return to Bishkek on the 1/9/09 with, hopefully, a Chinese visa in my passport and an extra layer of fat under my belt. I plan to continue cycling east from where I left off. By mid September the Taklamakan will start to cool down, which should make the ride around it (or possibly through it) more possible. I've staying a cheap comfortable central hotel in Osh. (Hotel Alay) and I'm presently happy just sitting in the shade, drinking tea and watching the world go by. I've just over 2 weeks to kill in Kyrgyzstan and I'm just weighting up my options. Kyrgyzstan offers some of the best mountain scenery in the world, but the first thing I need is rest and then I'll decide what direction to take.........Stage 2 complete. I think I'll order more tea.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
The photos above are just the briefest snap-shot of the modern day 'silk road camel'. They are an amazing vehicle and are used by everyone from boy-racers to bulk hauliers. A Lada that breaks down just once a month could be described as "being in perfect condition". They are fed the dirtiest of fuel, transporting ridiculously heavy loads across deplorable roads and all at break neck speed. I've seen Ladas packed full of everything from melons to goats. It seems as long as the car horn is working the car is deemed road worthy. Like most of the locals from this part of the world, I too, have been requested to help out when a Lada needed a push start. They are a surprisingly light vehicle and very easy to push. Is it possible that the engineers at Lada took this fact into consideration and designed an 'easy-to-push-car'.
The single greatest thing about getting into Kyrgyzstan is that the pressure is now off. The pressure of having to make borders before visas ran out is no longer my daily headache. The food is a better, but could it have gotten any worse. The heat is less intense and there is also the option to venture into the cooler mountains. And it is so much easier to manage your finances here. In Uzbekistan, I found only 1 ATM working in the whole country. In Turkmenistan, I found only 1 bank that would give me cash advances on my credit card. And in Iran, visa, mastercard, cirrus and maestro are not accepted throughout the whole country. But here in Osh, there are 3 working ATMs within walking distance of my hotel. And they give out local currency, so there is no need to go looking for the black market money changers. In Uzbekistan, these guys give a 25% better rate than the official bank rate, but you really have to have your wits about you, or you'll get a pocket full of change for your 100 dollar bill.Osh is Kyrgyzstan's second largest city after the capital Bishkek. I've found a few other tourists in town and from emails I received there are a few friends on the way. Its kind of a cross roads on the silk road route. Some are heading north to Lake Issyk-Kul and the Tien Shan mountains, others are going east into China, while others plan to go south on the Karakoram highway to Pakistan. I'm presently happy enough going down to the park, or having a stroll through the markets or wandering down to see the massive statue of Lenin. I'll get itchy feet to start moving again soon. But for the first time in a long time, I'm happy just chilling about.
I had a feeling that "itchy feet syndrome" was about to return soon. I had wanted this rest so badly, but now after 5 days of drinking tea in the shade, I want to get back on the bike. What Uzbekistan has in architecture, Kyrgyzstan has in mountains and although I've enjoyed my time resting in Osh, you don't come to Kyrgyzstan to visit its cities. I've met some very interesting cyclists in this town. There was Jurgen from Germany, who has spent the last 2 years riding across Europe, Africa and Asia. His favourite country was Iran but he has been robbed twice in the last week and understandly, he feels its time to fly home from his epic adventure. He'll be home for the weekend. There is Kyle from America who's just rode 7000KMs across China. His stories of China are enough to make me consider following Jurgen's path and going home for the weekend. And then there is Markus from Austria. He rode his bike from home to here and had spent the last week living with some goat herders in the mountains. This time last week, I was tired of cycling. And I had considered putting my bike into storage and travelling Kyrgyzstan by public transport, but with recharged batteries, I've decided to join Markus on the 650KM ride north through the mountains to Bishkek. This is going to be a challenging cycle. We are presently at an altitude of 950M, but theres two passes we need to cross to get to Bishkek and both are over 3000M. The highest passes I've crossed since starting the trip have been about 2900M in eastern Turkey. Its time to select a low gear and go back up to the snow line.
Traffic was heavy but the road was flat as Markus and I pedalled out of Osh on the road north to Bishkek. Spirits were high for the adventure ahead. We pedalled at a similar speed so it made touring together quiet easy. We got about 100KMs pedalled and camped up by a wheat field. The next day we continued along the main road, till we saw a sign for Alsanabob. Markus and I had both heard of this mountain side village at an altitude of 1600M and we went into a cafe for some tea and discussed whether it would be worth taking this difficult but potentially rewarding detour. After a few pots of tea we decided to climb up to this village which is home to the world's largest walnut groves. Although the village is quite pretty, it was the weekend and was packed full of Kyrgyz day trippers and thumping music. Our plans of pitching our tents in the walnut groves ended with the arrival of a massive downpour and so instead we found a room in a children's recreation centre.The rain didn't stop till 9am the next morning. Now we started talking about going further into the mountains. From our maps we could see there was a rough road up to the town of Kyzyl-Unkur, but after that, it seemed to be just tracks that did not connect and the gradient of the altitude increase was very steep. But it wasn't just the maps that would indicate the road,(or lack of) ahead. At this stage we were so close we could stare up into the mountain range. The main problem was there was a 50KM stretch with little or no tracks through the mountain range. And these mountains had summits in the mid 3000M range. The idea of attempting to take two bicycles loaded full of stuff up and over this mountain range seemed completely impossible. The locals told us it was impossible. I don't know which worried me more; the locals who laughed at us, the locals who looked genuinely worried, or the massive mountains that loomed large in front of us. We were both confident it would be possible, but the worrying part was the level of difficultly it would take to make it possible. The road ended and the track begun. Then the track got narrower. We camped up by a river and had a right sized camp fire. A cold wind blew down from the mountains into our valley. Tomorrow was going to be tough.
The scenery was getting spectacular now as we pedalled slowly into the hillside. We were rolling through indigenous areas where little has changed through the generations. People still lived in yurts and these large circular tents could be moved from valley to valley as the family searched for better grassland for their animals. The trail now disappeared and we were now down to just a horse path. An old lady pointed up at three rocks sticking up from the pass and signalled it was here we should aim for. We came to a massive empty plain, where a glacier probably melted a few millennia before. We were still about a 1000M below the pass and it was already getting very difficult. We were invited into a yurt camp and for the first time, the locals considered our task to be possible. People came from the surrounding yurts to witness the arrival of the 2 'lost' tourists looking to get to Bishkek. A sheep had been slaughtered that morning and we watched as they cooked it. We got a big bowl of mutton soup (head and all). Markus found the cheek a little chewy but the lips were surprisingly meaty. A local boy was summoned to bring a donkey. It was decided that the best way to get to the top of the pass was to put our bags on the donkey and we should manage our own bikes. Everyone was happy that a plan had been arranged and so a bottle of vodka was opened to toast our departure. At this altitude, sheep head soup and a large measure of pure vodka would not be the recommended nutrients for a safe passage through this mountain range, but the general encouragement, helpfulness and welcomes from the people was incredible. It was looking like we may even make the top of the pass before the day was out. But of course, it was never going to run that smoothly. We got off to a great start. We were barely able to keep up with the fully loaded donkey. The young boy sat up on the animal and whipped it frantically to get it into top gear. Animals have a tough life out here. It reminded me of a time in Turkmenistan, I once saw a guy punch a donkey in the face. After an hour of this needlessly fast pace, the animal was truly exhausted. A older passing sheppard was fearful the donkey would get a heart attack and ordered the boy to get off the animal and take it back down the mountain to rest. Using sign language, he seemed to be signalling that it was pointless to go the top, as the other side was just full of cliffs and glaciers, so we would never get down it anyway. The air starts to get thin at our present altitude of 2500M and now we had our bags loaded back up on our bikes and were pushing with everything we had. And that large shot of vodka wasn't helping. Some areas were so steep, the 2 of us would push one bike at a time. Each kilometre was taking over an hour now. But we were so far into the mountain that we might as well continue as go back. About 2 hours before sunset, 2 guys arrived up on a horse. Obviously, the word was out down in the valley, that the donkey couldn't take our stuff and that we were managing on our own. We had plenty of food, but these guys brought up food and directed us towards a yurt. These 2 guys were just fantastic. They seemed to be fascinated by everything we did. They watched us put up our tents and were amazed at all the stuff we could carry on our bikes. The way the sleeping bag could be packed into such a small bag, the way the mattress could be blown up. The tiny, but powerful stove. And we had plenty of food and suitable clothing for the journey over the pass. Conversation was based around sign language and basic Russian. It was a great evening and the 2 guys offered to take our bags on the horse, and to guide us to the top of the pass in the morning. It was all coming together nicely.
We rose at sunrise but the day got off to a bad start. There was no sign off the horse. Apparently it has a habit of breaking free and fighting with the other horses in the valley. At least we would have a feisty animal (when we find it). Ali was particularly impressed with our breakfast. Whatever we gave him to eat, he was very interested in where it was from. We had tea from Uzbekistan, nutella chocolate from Osh and biscuits from 20KMs down the valley. He seemed genuinely surprised that such biscuits could be found just down in the valley. In fact, when he heard Receed wake up in the yurt, he quickly heated up the sheep soup and brought it in to him. He then returned to us and continued eating biscuits. It was pretty obvious to Markus and I that he didn't want his sheppard buddy to know about the tasty biscuits that were been devoured just outside the yurt. Once all the biscuits were gone, Ali helped us with our bikes up the pass, while Receed went off to look for the horse. About 2 hours later Receed arrived on the horse and took our bags on up the hill. Ali took a particular fancy to my bike and was happy to carry it uphill, as long as he could pedal it on the flat parts. It was about 11am when we finally made it to the top of the pass. The relief. And the view across the other side. The altimeter read 3065M. We walked along the top of the pass, following the 2 guys until they found a suitable point to start the descent down the other side. We boiled up some tea and we all had a fine picnic of bread, chocolate and honey. These guys just helped us because its in their nature to help anyone that they can help. Anytime Marcos and I started laughing at something, the 2 guys would laugh along too. They hadn't a word of english but just enjoyed the novelty of hanging around with the unfamiliar sight of 2 guys bringing bikes up the side of this mountain. There was just a 'happy-go-lucky' sense to this whole part of adventure. After the picnic, I literally picked up my bags and threw them over the other side and let them slide down the frozen snow. I'd find them later. Ali hopped on my bike and rode it down the other side. I truly have no idea how he managed it without falling off and breaking his neck. Receed and I reached the top speed of the day by sliding down the frozen mountain snow on my tent bag. We used our elbows as brakes, and now 10 days later, I still have a large scar on my elbows. We said our goodbyes on the other side of the pass and Markus gave them a torch that the lads took a particular interest in. It can be recharged by winding it up rather than using batteries and that would be a big bonus to these sheppards, who rarely leave the mountainside.In the very distance we could see a path and this is where we needed to aim for. The sheppards directed us to the valleys we should aim for, while also pointing out the valleys we need to avoid. It was great to be finally rolling downhill rather than pushing and dragging the bike uphill, but downhill is more dangerous. I've walked up and down glaciers before, but I've always wore crampons (a shoe attachment made up of steel spikes that you place on the sole of your shoes to give you extra grip). Now picture two cyclists skiing down glaciers, with our fully loaded bikes sideways. One hand on the handlebars, one hand on the saddle. The braking system was simple and effective; we would tilt the bike towards us causing the pedal to lock into the ice. It was probably the craziest thing I'd ever done, (but it was still only early in the week). Once out of the snow line things got a bit easier. The priority was always to get into the right valley. As we dropped altitude, we came across a nomad family that were in the process of skinning a goat. We were welcomed in and it was amazing watching how the whole family worked in harmony to prepare the goat for dinner. The father skinned the animal, the two sons prepared a camp fire and barbequed the head and hoofs, the mother and daughter remained mostly inside the yurt boiling up water and herbs and preparing the different parts of the beast as the father cut them out. And the guests are not left too long to sit around staring and taking photos. We were quickly signalled to roll up our sleeves and help the boys barbeque the head. And so lunch was a fine lump of meat from a goat that spent the morning grazing on mountain grass that has never seen a pestitside. It doesn't get more organic than that. We continued down the valley. The path became very difficult to track. We were up to chest height in vegetation, pushing the bikes with a lot of force because of the resistance caused by the plant life. Later we got another invitation into a yurt, this time for a bowl (followed by another bowl) of fermented horse milk. It doesn't taste too strong but it goes straight to the head. An hour later we were running parallel to a small river and we had a definite horse path. It was a good day. In fact it was a great day and we set up the tents beside the river and got a big campfire organised for the evening.
Another extraordinary day. We continued north along the river. We have faced all kinds of terrain throughout this week and so it couldn't really be seen as a surprise when the trail turned into a very difficult path of large rocks. It was just another level of difficulty. The fully loaded bikes had to lifted through many parts now. But help arrived in the form of a sheppard on a horse. Life is hard for the people out here and its the community spirit of people helping each other that makes day to day life easier. If someone can see a way in which they can help us then they automatically do so without hesitation. We loaded our bags onto the horse and continued downstream for the next few KMs. The sheppard's timing was perfect. This part of the trip would have been very difficult without the aid of a horse. Soon we were even pedalling again, fully loaded. It was then that we came across a wild gangh plantation. We had heard of wild gangh fields from the children who we had the BBQ with yesterday. I had Pink Floyd on the ipod. Markus had Bob Marley and we spent 2 hours having a 'Class A' horticultural experience. Once we had plenty saved for a bit of dessert for the evening, we continued on down the track. But again the track got difficult. This time it became very narrow along side a steep section. There just wasn't enough room to walk alongside the bike and so we turned back in search of a different route. We were soon back pedalling again, and pedalling through a field full of gangh. The broken stems would fill the air with the plants' scent. We thought we had lost our way and so I hiked on up a nearby hill to search for trails in the area. And that's when I saw it. Just 200M in front of where we were standing there was a clearly marked path where a tractor had passed. The relief. We knew we were getting close now. We shook hands believing the hardest part was behind us. It wasn't. For all the warnings people had given us, no one mentioned the Kara Su river crossing. A few KMs down the road we were faced with a 60ft wide, waist high, powerfully fast river. We searched up and down its banks looking for a bridge, but the only potential crossing was where the tractor path crossed. We all have our limits. This river crossing was mine. I managed 3 crossings of it, bringing across my luggage, but I fell many times and was almost swept away. We tied tent ropes, scarves, bags straps, belts and anything we could find to make a rope long enough to stretch across the river. We tied an inflated spare tyre tube onto the end of the rope and while one of us attempted to cross, the other would stand near the opposite shore and by keeping the rope taut, it made it easier for the person crossing. Markus was stronger than me. I was right on the limits of my capabilities carrying the bags. To take the bike was beyond me. Its a frightening, exciting adrenalin rush to know you are right on your limits. Markus coped up the river really well and he took across both bikes. Notice in the photo above, how deep he is in the water and yet how close he is to the opposite bank. I'm holding one end of the rope while he holds the other. But no photo could do justice to explain the force of that river. And anyway, we were more concerned about getting across it safely rather than taking photos of getting across it. The relief when we had everything across the river was probably the highpoint of the Osh to Bishkek run. We were immediately onto a more widely used track but we were exhausted. We pedalled only 2 KMs down the track before ending the day and setting up camp.
This morning we used the last of our fuel,but it didn't matter as we had nothing left to cook. We rode downhill and then the sound of passing traffic came into range. Came around a corner and rode back up on asphalt. We were back on the main road between Osh and Bishkek. Both of us agreed it was the hardest thing we had ever done. For me it was the river crossing, for Markus it was taking the bike down the glacier. We ate 2 main courses and a loaf of bread each in the first restaurant we found. We were still a long way from our destination, Bishkek. If fact we were still closer to Osh. And although we were back on asphalt, the adventure was far from over. We still had two passes to climb before reaching the capital and these would be the highest passes I've ever crossed by bicycle. Theres something really special about cycling over passes like this. At first they seem almost impossible as you stare up at the snow peaked inhospitable terrain ahead. You may be able to make out a line of pylons as they rise over the mountains. You scan the region trying to see which route your road will take you. As you get closer, you may be able to see distant trucks crawling over the landscape. If their is a strong smell off the brakes of the oncoming trucks, you know you have a while to go before you get over the upcoming pass. You stand on the pedals; rocking the bike left and right as the temperature continues to drop. The sight of an radio mast, the increase in wind speed, the sound of a truck making a gear change are all signs that the summit is close. From the top you see whats on offer for tomorrow. Even if the view isn't spectacular,its worth taking a photo because of the effort it took. You put on a jacket and free wheel down that road with the brake levers firmly held....... Ah who am I kidding? Its my left arm that is hurting more than my legs. And the reason for this is because I'm spending more time holding onto the back of slow moving trucks, than I spend pedalling up the mountainside.