Friday, 11 July 2014

on yer sofa

Osh.  A traffic jam on the way into the city.  So many cars.  So many new cars.  Six years ago all we saw were old Audis and Mercedes and the farmer's choice, the Lada.  Now it's all shiny new Lexus, 4-wheel drives, little Matiz.  It's hot in the sun - over 35 degrees.  We are intimidated by the heat.  Robert has recommended the Biy Ordo Guesthouse to us all and we know why.  The established backpacker options in Kyrgyzstan are "quirky", whereas this place has all mod cons: air-con, wi-fi, satellite TV (don't forget there's a World Cup going on), garden courtyard.  Over a couple of days the Magnificent Ten are reunited in some sort of tropical torpor and apathy. Worn out, emaciated, emotionally exhausted.  We slowly start the recovery process: eating plenty of fresh food, sorting photos, writing up blogs, relaxing in the lounge, ice-cream, enjoying fresh bread after a week or two of stale bread.

An Austrian woman comments on how most of the cyclists she meets just sit around and do nothing.  This gets the old hackles up but essentially she's right. Have we been to Osh's downtown? No we haven't.  What are we missing?  A nice park, some nice shops???  She tells us that she thinks the best way to travel is on horseback.  Yeah, right.  Somehow I can't imagine her saddling up and riding to Dushanbe through the Pamirs.

We catch up with Gabor before he departs for Bishkek.  He has been here for five days having made it across the Tajik border just before his visa ran out.  We enjoy a lagman (freshly made hand-pulled noodles) and a beer with him and Pascale, another cyclist he met on the way from Sary Tash.  Maybe we will meet up again somewhere?

Central Asia is undoubtedly a top destination for diaorrhea.  Inevitably there is much talk about bowel movements.  How was it for you?  Asford & Simpson! Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Grand Clearance - Everything Must Go! The real punishment though is the toilet paper.  You can remove the dead skin on your heel with it, it's that rough.

Central Asian torture implement

By 10am the sun is unbearable.  Mid-afternoon it's mad dogs.  Five o'clock and the sun is still frying.  Late evening there might be a whisper of a breeze.  We remain in confinement in our air-conditioned rooms like quarantined passengers on a ship.  Some of us emerge at night to catch football matches in the wee small hours.  Gradually over the course of a week our cycling friends recover and continue the journey around Kyrgyzstan.

Gayle has been cleaning the bikes, and still clearly lacks some basic bike knowledge: "There's enough dirt in the back thing to grow plants." The back thing?

Day Five of the Tour de France (Day Seven of the Osh Interlude) and Chris Froome retires after his third crash.  We watch in awe as the cyclists race over muddy cobbles.  We are agog, glued to the sofa.  Osh has a UNESCO World Heritage site: Solomon's Throne, a muslim pilgrimmage site.  Not half as tempting as another evening on the sofa watching Le Tour.  Surely it's time to move on?

Thursday, 3 July 2014

are we nearly there yet?

our last view of the Pamirs
Riding into Sary Tash across the big grassy plain we sweep up Hanne and Tyson who had also pitched camp before the village.  Rob also caught up with us last night so when we roll into the village there are ten of us.  A bicycle caravan.  We raid the local shop ("Ooh look, eggs! vegetables!!") and cook an impromptu brunch by the village stream.

and that's only half of us
Out of Sary Tash is a climb up to a double pass.  Conscious of the ridiculous size of our group we all set out in separate stages, but the climb is a great leveller.  Coming down from the first pass we find Tyson, Hanne and Rob in conversation with two cyclists coming the other way.  We know them - it's Ollie and Dan who we met in Istanbul at the beginning of the year.  We're so happy to see them again after all their adventures.  Bizarrely, Tyson knows of them too - he left a note on their bikes at the Sumelian Monastery near Trabzon but has never met them.  The small world of overland cyclists.  We stop a long while chatting and catching up.  They are on their way to the Chinese border crossing to Kashgar, taking the road east from Sary Tash.

not so supersized
As we start heading up to the second pass I turn a corner and hear a coal truck rumbling up behind me.  Some of the trucks have loaded trailers too, so they are pretty slow - almost as slow as me.  This one seems to have something to hang onto at the back so I try it.  My first tow.  The pass comes after a short while by which time my left arm has grown by three inches.  Gayle and Dino follow behind by their own steam.  The descent is a wonderful switchback drop into a narrow valley filled with yurts and caravans.

The next day we ride into Gulcha with Hanne and Tyson for lunch in a restaurant.  It feels almost decadent.  We know there's one more pass before Osh so we set off early afternoon trying to beat the looming rainclouds.  Up ahead are Rob, Hannah and Damian, whom we all pass.  Damian makes a joke about a sprint finish to the top.  The race is on.  Unfortunately no-one else seems to realise. Rob paces himself.  Tyson dawdles.  Hannah is trailing.  Hanne makes a go of it and up we go.  The rain starts.  I pause to put on waterproofs and Damian steams past. The rain stops.  Hanne has waited to give Tyson his jacket and a Snickers bar.  The climb continues.  There's false summit after false summit.  I hear a coal truck heaving up the road behind me and get ready for a tow.  Now, that's better.  Except the road narrows and I end up on the verge, so I have to let go.  No problem though, there's another truck right behind.  As I get ready to hang off the back of it, a voice pipes up "Seat taken".  It's Tyson taking a ride.  Hanne is furious after waiting for him.  Gayle catches me up "You might as well get a lift!"  And the climb continues.  It's over 1000m ascent but despite us all being pumped full of red blood cells the climb is tough. The reward is worth it - more or less 60km of descent to Osh.   We pause at the pass.  All around us on the mountainsides are yurts, horses, families.  Lots of kids.  They're here for the summer grazing their animals.
the road to Osh

On the way down we meet herders driving their sheep up the road.  And one or two naughty boys who think it's fun to wave sickles at cyclists kung-fu style or try and block the road.  A little 'fatherly advice' in their ear sorts them out. Their grasp of colloquial English is quite impressive.  And finally, after one more camp by the river, we reach Osh - the end of the Pamir Highway.  From Dushanbe to here we have experienced some of the best cycling we've ever had and shared it with a surprising number of cyclists.  We knew we would meet a few - we just didn't expect to ride with so many.  The plus side of this is that we've had really good company each evening with some very special people and we've learnt a lot.  Robert in particular has been an inspiration - quick with the one-liners and always on the look out for a cup of tea.  What's incredible is that on his first cycle tour he has done a roundtrip from Osh crossing the Pamirs on probably the two toughest routes.  No wonder he has a sore arse.

Robert can spot a pot of tea at fifty yards