Tuesday, 27 May 2014

seven days in Monday

"The taxi drivers here are monsters" Gayle declares.  Gabor nods in assent, adding "and everyone's a taxi driver".

We arrived in the capital of Tajikistan yesterday after riding from the border along a highway that alternated between brand new tarmac and bulldozed bedrock - at least the road is being built.  It turns out it may be the only one in the country that is - the Turkish and Iranian trucks bring food and goods along this route.  We are being hosted by a wonderful woman called Veronique who works for the EU and lives here with her young son Gabriel.  Being a cyclist herself, she is happy to host others who have taken to pedalling.  Her lovely house and walled garden is tucked away down a backstreet near the city centre, an oasis of calm and tranquility and a perfect place to rest and recuperate and plot the next steps.  On the way here we have agreed to try for a Russian visa.  And a Kazakh one.  It would make a nice route to Mongolia.  We also catch up with Gabor who has come directly south from Tashkent.  At Veronique's are another cycling couple, Tyson and Hanne, who were put in touch with us by Teona at the guesthouse back in Batumi.  It's funny to meet them after connecting on-line.

the new and the old in Dushanbe (which translates as Monday)
We are both a bit weary from the ride here - an alarming thought, considering what lies ahead - so we take it easy the first day, and just do a few chores.  Then we start the visa process at the embassies.  Hanne and Tyson are preparing to set off up the Pamir Highway when we learn that there has been trouble in Khorog, the main town of the Badakshan region where the Highway runs through.  Shootings.  Disturbances.  It happened two years ago.  The region was closed to foreigners while the army were sent in to sort it all out/mess it all up even more.  It's the start of the main season for tourists and cyclists and Veronique ponders what will happen if the region is closed.  She fears a logjam. I do not, for I discover that Central Asian diarrhoea truly is the Gift That Keeps On Giving.  While I lie low, an English cyclist called Chris turns up.  We have heard of Chris from his funny blog on 'A Crazy Guy On A Bike'.  He looks worse than me when he arrives, and I immediately perk up.  Meanwhile Veronique invites Gabor to stay, Tyson and Hanne head off, and Lynn and Raf from Belgium arrive in their Toyota Landcruiser.  Despite being a bit nesh, they're a lovely couple, and we take back all the things we said about them when they drove past us (twice) on our dash across Turkmenistan without stopping to offer us beer and chocolate, as all Belgians should.

We are blessed with Veronique's hospitality.  She tells us about some of the folk who have passed through, many who found it hard to leave.  It doesn't take much to understand why.  Gayle's replacement rim has arrived but we are unsure whether to attempt to replace it.  Her wheel has stood up well to the lousy roads and we know it was well-built even if the actual rim was cheap.  The joint has not got worse.  So, maybe we take the new rim as a spare in emergency.  If there was a recommended mechanic here we would replace it immediately.  Meanwhile there's more news about the problems in Khorog.  The roads have been closed to foreigners and permits to travel in Badakshan are not being issued.  We are in Limbo. Limbo is a place in Central Asia akin to Brigadoon.  Now and again it pops up out of nowhere.  The unsuspecting tourist may find themselves here for several days or weeks.  In 2008 we found ourselves in Central Asian Limbo whilst trying to get a Pakistan visa in Bishkek.  As that oft-quoted philosopher Yogi Berra once said, it's deja vu all over again.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

the ups and downs of cycle-touring

We're figuring on about seven days' cycling to Dushanbe which will take us southwards along the mountains separating Uzbekistan and Tajikistan until the road turns south-eastwards and crosses these mountains. At the risk of repeating myself, it's hot.  It's hot. Happily our first day takes us up into hills that still have some snow on their northern faces.  From the top we can look south across the flat desert plains that sweep across to the foot of the mountains on the eastern horizon.  On our descent we stop at a green grassy spot where fruit trees are planted on the hillside.  We are lured up a ridiculously-steep track to a thin ridge where we camp.  It's windy, it's fresh, it's wonderful.  Our next night's camp is completely different - a dry dusty dip in the desert landscape - just far enough away from a herd of sheep and their herders.  Oh, and the sheepdogs.  A full moon floodlights the night.
Lionel Messi and his mum
As we approach the mountains the temperature rises.  An overland truck with British plates passes us by.  "They're British!" Gayle shouts. "And the buggers didn't even stop."  But at the top of the very first climb they have. "Are you brewing up?" we ask.  Ed and Ros have hurtled over here in six weeks.  So there you go, Mum, we're not that far away really.  They offer us chilled bananas and Yorkshire tea. Fantastic.  After about two hours of gabbling about each other's journeys we finally move on...and up. In the heat of the mid-afternoon we stop in a bus shelter for lunch.  Six Turkish lorries pull up opposite.  They cook kebabs while we munch on bread and choco-cream.  Just before they leave, one of the Turkish drivers brings us over a plate of kebab and salad.  We like Turkish truck drivers.

We descend the other side into a high valley, past pretty villages set away from the highway.  Just when we're ready to stop we enter a small town strung out along the road.  It seems to last forever.  On the outskirts we find a grassy pitch behind a petrol station that has closed.  Next morning we take a road without tarmac that climbs to a high pass.  It's a slow and sometimes steep crawl to the top, with an almost equally slow descent through the dust and dirt of road-building.  

Cars hoot at us as they cast billowing clouds over us in passing.  Finally we reach the point when we leave the main highway and thankfully come to quiet and better roads through rolling countryside being farmed.  Lots of fruit trees.  Much more greenery around.  We stop on the roadside when we spot an orchard to camp in.  Behind us is a man and woman and boy waiting for a ride. We wait until a car comes and then dive into the trees.  Just as we are settling in a quiet spot the boy appears.  And then the man.  They want to see what we're doing.  We show them the picture of our tent.  The man tells us it's too cold to camp and indicates us to come with him to his house.  We follow them to a mud-brick house where they are living with extended family - three women and kids.  We are shown the guest room and invited to sit down in the garden to share dinner with them under the stars.  We try to talk with Ukdam and resort to pulling out the phrasebook which is generally useless for this kind of situation but helps a little. We are served bread and green tea.  A bowl of thick yoghurt/sour cream is brought as a dip for the bread, followed by a plate of fried eggs.  They obviously do not have much, but are happy to share what they have with us.  Once again the hospitality we are receiving is humbling.  They seem genuinely happy to have us here.  The world seems a wonderful place.

the workers
Rolling on the next day we are both feeling tired.  After a slow climb we have a good downhill and then start dropping down to a big valley. We stop to ask about a shop from two men sat in a car.  One speaks perfect English. He gives us directions.  We ask what he does.  He's a road construction engineer.  We smile knowingly.  Of course - that's why they are doing nothing.  The day ends in a low wide valley full of farms.  We've been told by another traveller, Laura, who speaks Russian, that most farmers rent their land from the government.  The government decides the crop and takes 50% of the produce.  We end up sleeping at a 24-hour petrol station with full amenities.  Well, not quite.  There's a well-built drop-toilet (concrete floor - much sounder than a few rotten boards and mud).  That's about it. And there's no petrol.  Only propane gas.  Most vehicles here have converted to gas.   We're invited in as we cycle past by one of the nightstaff whose just had his 5 o'clock vodka shot.  He's friendly and very helpful and he gives us the spare room to sleep in.

pimp my ride

In Denau it's market day.  We push our bikes through the bazaar melee and attract more than the normal amount of stares.  Some young women approach to ask for a photo with Gayle.  Then when we park up a small crowd gathers.  Gayle is happy to deal with the questions (England. Manchester. No,City) wile I shop.  On the way out of the town I catch a nail in my tyre.  It's long enough to come out of the tyre sidewall and takes pliers to extract it.  Out on the road we start to see the big mountains of Tajikistan.  Snow still skirts the ridges.  By late afternoon we're close to the border and looking for a place to camp.  Pushing intoa field with apple trees we meet the farmer who is collecting fodder for his cows.  We ask if we can camp and he agrees, pointing all around saying it's his land, but while we search for some flat ground in the ploughed field he returns with his wife and they invite us back to their house.  Following with our bikes we head away from the road along a dirt track which leads to a large village of courtyard houses.  It's that time of day when everyone is outside enjoying the cooler air.  We end up in their garden and while Salamat sets to cooking us up a huge feast Kurban Ali joins us on the raised bed under vines to talk.  And mime.  

It's a struggle but we do okay, using the phrasebook and the map.  After green tea and chunks of bread, nuts and sweets appear.  Then a small bottle of vodka.  Toasts are made.  Then it all gets hazy.  Jimmy Tarbuck (for it is he) tells us that they have four children, three of whom are working in Moscow.  They look after one grandson.  Salamat commences to cook plov over an open wood fire - it is the best way to cook it, Jimmy assures us, even though there's a gass cooker in the kitchen. Some more toasts. Followed by salted cucumber slices. A red-eyed Salamat presents a mound of plov topped with three chunks of mutton.  More toasts.  We chew on the meat for quite a while, longer enough for another toast, before trying to do justice to the rice.  It's getting harder now.  

One more toast and I'm ready to lie down for good.  Thankfully, so is Jimmy.  It's been a long day, and this last night in Uzbekistan has been fabulous.  We will not forget the generous hospitality of the Uzbek families who have opened their doors for us and kindly fed us.  As we lay down on the bed, under the canopy of vines we can see the stars up above.  But why are they moving so fast???

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

all the king's men (and women)

We abandon Gabor early in the morning.  The skies are clear, the sun is hot.  It's 7.10am  About 65kms away lies Samarkand.  The road is, frankly, shit.  When we ride off like cowboys in a comedy rodeo, Gabor is still loading his bicycle.  We won't see him again until late afternoon.  After an hour of bouncing and weaving from one side of the road to the other, playing chicken with the shared taxis that ply this road in both directions, we finally pause by a huge concrete cow under shady trees.  We are waved over by some blokes who point out a water fountain and then invite us to sit down to drink ayran (a salty yoghurt drink) and take a bowl of something like yoghurt cheese.  Both are cold and deliciously refreshing.  We chat a bit (England. Manchester. No, City.) before they disappear on a bus, having paid for us.

We belt along as soon as there's real tarmac again and the road gradually flattens out from the rolling countryside.  Soon we are at the city's edge, but still have 10 km through the city before reaching the tourist heartland based around the magnificent Registan.  This was Tamerlane's capital and the Registan is a large open square with three large portals fronting mosques.  The style is very similar to the brick and tilework of the great Persian buildings in Esfahan, although earthquakes and neglect over time show their cost.  The Russians attempted some restoration and preservation and today a new makeover of the grounds is being carried out at a feverish pace in order to be ready for a conference hosted by the President.  Old Big Head (as he is known affectionately by all Uzbeks) wants to impress.  There is a small army of women washing and scrubbing the pedestrian walkway next to the Registan every day for the next five days.  Short straw brushes are used to sweep up - these are a common sight, possibly invented by someone who wanted to inflict severe back-pain on those obliged to use them.  Meanwhile tile cutters and stonemasons are setting white marble on the staircases and relaying the whole courtyard area. It's chaos. I wonder if Mao's China would have looked like this.  Every whim and fancy is entertained with the herculean and possibly futile efforts of the peasants.  A single man with a street cleaning machine could do what all the women are doing.  It's strange.

just another fine mosque portal...

Old Big Head does not quite match Tamerlane's reputation.  I'm not sure what historians make of the man who claimed to be Genghis' descendant and set about trying to create another large empire through mass slaughter, inspiring fear and dread wherever he and his armies went.  At some point he went all mystic and turned to Islam, calmed down, wrote a few childrens' books and was about to organise a sporting tournament against the Chinese when he popped his clogs.  He is buried here in a mausoleum built for his teachers and sons.  It seems he should have been interred in Sharisabz, his birthplace, but it was wintertime and no-one could be bothered with the journey so they bunged him in with the others.  Last time we didn't visit his mausoleum, partly to avoid paying more entrance fees, a decision I later regretted.  On our first day walking around we come to the edifice just as a coachload of elderly Germans alight at the entrance.  I float along with them past the ticket counter and get a free guided tour, aber ich verstehe nur immer Bahnof. Never mind, the interior of the mausoleum is breathtaking.  A square domed room covered in gilded calligraphy and geometric patterns.  I think 40 kg was mentioned.  The effect is mesmerising.  
Tamerlane's mausoleum - even better on the inside

At our guesthouse we meet up with Daniel, the fast German cyclist.  After he leaves, Robert, an English cyclist, turns up.  Then there's Thomas and Thomas just leaving from the 'sister' guesthouse as Valentin and Min turn up from Bukhara.  It's the Central Asia Summer Cycling Circus.  There's a worrying unevenness on the welded joint of the cheap rim we got for Gayle's bike in Tehran.  The young guy in the guesthouse offers to take us to a local bike shop.  Judging by the wobble and scraping sound from his back wheel it does not promise much.  Sure enough, the shops are selling cheap Chinese bikes.  There's a bike mechanic in a tiny shop - the Bike Master - who has a quick look and says it's fine.  But now we're worrying/panicking about our onward route over the Pamir Highway - a long rough road across desolate high mountains.  So we order a new rim on-line to be posted to Dushanbe.  Our response might not be a well thought out one: the nearest good bike shop is in Kashgar or Almaty which also means the nearest good bike mechanic is probably that far away too.

souvenir suzani - maybe our last sight of it?
The city has two faces when you walk around - there's the old dusty town with crumbling streets now hidden by walls and new buildings to hide this 'unsightly' part of town from the tourists.  Uzbek men are generally dressed in the generic clothes of the world, although you still see the embroidered square box cap worn by some and a few old fellas with wispy grey beards in long dressing-gowns.  The women here wear fabulous (sort of) shalwar kameez made from outrageous 1970's style curtain material, often topped with a flowery headscarf.  Ikat patterns are also popular.  Over in the leafy green 'new' town, built by the Russians in the 1890's, things are slightly more modern and westernised.  After a few day's rest and sight-seeing we say goodbye to Gabor who is heading to Tashkent before going to Tajikistan.  We are heading southwards to the other border-crossing.  As we pedal out of the city centre the men and women of Samarkand are still brushing/scrubbing/washing/trimming...... The grass is green, the pavements spotless, the roads faultless.  This lasts for about three hundred metres.  As we get further away from the Registan the road deteriorates to nothing more than a dry riverbed, the houses all look shabby and neglected, the pavements non-existent....We can hear the whirr of Tamerlane spinning in his mausoleum.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

waiting for Gabor

A country road. A tree.


John, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his cycling gloves. He pulls at them, panting.
He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.
As before.
Enter Gayle.
(giving up again). Nothing to be done.
(advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart from chafing). I'm beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I've tried to put it from me, saying Gayle, be reasonable, you haven't yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (She broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to John.) So there you are again.
Am I?
I'm glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.
Me too.
Together again at last! We'll have to celebrate this. But how? (She reflects.) Get up till I embrace you.

(irritably). Not now, not now.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

the road to Samarkand

loading up again

While Franzi and Jona make a bee-line for Dushanbe, we mooch off in the direction of Samarkand with Gabor.  The heat in the afternoons has become unbearable so we are really keen to start early to allow enough time to cover some distance before our extended lunch periods.  At least that's the idea.  Gabor is good company but he remains painfully slow at doing anything.  I am sure he knows we feel frustrated by this, but probably not how much. It's inevitable that when you cycle with someone else there will be differences - it's really a question of how well you cope with them.  Our first day takes us on a quiet road out of the city and into a bleak desert landscape with hills in the distance.  We stop for lunch at a base for roadworkers because several guys call out to us to get water.  They have a very inviting well inside their gateway.  Little do they realise we intend to stop for four hours, but neither do they mind.  At around 3 in the afternoon Gabor notices the temperature on his bike computer reaching 38 degrees, in the shade.  He is preoccupied by a slow puncture and he sets about doing an appropiately slow repair.  No problem, we have hours to kill.  Later on we head off with some shade from clouds sheltering us from the harsh sun and we find a camp spot in amongst stunted pine trees next to a ridge of hills.  At nightfall we are treated to a light show courtesy of an electric storm raging in the distance.

friendly guys at the roadworker's depot
 This little fella passed by when we stopped for a break.  He was going quite fast, but then he did have a tailwind.

the open road, yawn

The morning brings us a headwind.  After a slow morning we reach a junction with a choice: continue into the headwind or turn our backs and over the hills to the main road.  It's a no-brainer.  From the top of a short sharp climb we get a flying descent down to the charming city of Navoiy, surrounded by nasty concrete works producing clouds of white dust.  The big park in the city centre provides us with our designated lunch stop.  Locals pass by us laid out on the park benches trying to catch up on our sleep.  These early morning starts are killers.  The afternoon ride is much more satisfying as we pick up speed on a decent road without any wind.  The main road is busier than our morning back road, but it's also greener, with plenty of farmland and houses along the route.  Inevitably this causes us a problem when we start to look for a camping spot.  
proud dad and kind host, Anwar

In the end Anwar comes to our rescue.  He lives in a hamlet of houses away off the main road and when we ask about camping he begins to lead us to a spot in the trees we have asked about.  But then a neighbour interjects and Anwar asks if we would like to come to his house.  We do not refuse.  Anwar was pushing his twins around in a pram when we arrived, and now we are introduced to his mother and father, while his wife stays out of the way.  They give us a room with thin mattresses to sleep on and seem happy for us to cook up our tea in the yard.  It's now a familiar scene to us: the house has a courtyard and garden area, shelter for cows and a pit toilet in the far corner.  There are fruit trees and rows of vegetables in the garden.  It seems rather timeless. But hardly perfect - there's no running water, no bathroom.

child labour is rife in Uzbekistan
The next day we are caught by Daniel, a German cycling our way.  We chat a while before he whizzes on ahead of us during a particularly scrappy patch of road.  The infrastructure here is very basic - most of the roads look like they have never been maintained and even new stretches of road look poorly built and doomed to a potholed future. We muddle along and find a roadside chaikhana for lunch.  There's a well in the backyard plus the traditional style raised platform with low table covered in matresses and pillows, so we have a kip here.  Then we drink the well dry before continuing finally into some open country where we find a little sheltered spot away from the road. 

Saturday, 3 May 2014

r&r in Bukhara

trying to get coins out of the boy's pockets
Day Eight continued  Border formalities are tedious but we are saved the torture of a customs inspection and roll into Uzbekistan, passing the clutch of taxi sharks who stiffed us the last time we came through.  I feel tempted to ride over and ask if any of the drivers would take us to Bukhara for $500 before cycling off while they clamoured and clawed for the business.  The road is wide and open and hot in the sunshine.  We have only Bukhara on our minds - still about 90kms away - and food - we spent our last pennies in Turmenistan on the train fare so we didn't stock up there.  It takes most of the day to reach a village with a bazaar.  At about 4 o'clock we sit down in a cafe to eat samsas.  The roadside scenery is green once again with farms and villages strung out along the road.  The only problem is where to camp.  We head off down a track past some houses in search of dead land but all of it is being cultivated.  We ask a man at one house and are directed to a park further on. 
best drink of the day
The problem is that as the sun begins to set the roads come alive with people enjoying the cool of the day.  Everywhere is busy.  Down a side road we ask again and the man indicates with a nod to the house he's standing beside.  He is inviting us to sleep inside.  This kind of hospitality is impossible to refuse.  So we push our bikes through the large door and he shows us a big empty 'guestroom'.  There's garage space for the five bikes, a clean pit toilet, and space to cook.  Perfect.  Kabul introduces us to his wife and kids and we get down to cooking our tea while his daughter lays out thin mattresses for us to sleep on.  We manage all this with very few words of understanding and a lot of mime and guesswork - like most of our conversations in Central Asia.  I worry that we are answering the questions in the wrong order:
Where are you going?  England
Where are you from? Japan
Which city? Bukhara
Bukhara United? No, City!
Are you married? No
Do you have children? Yes
How many? 16,943
How far have you cycled? None

Day Nine  It's a relatively easy ride into Bukhara, but we stop short at about 1pm to have lunch at a roadhouse restaurant.  Shashlik. Chunks of lamb and fat barbecued on skewers with dinner-plate-sized bread, salad and green tea.  We eat on a raised bed around a low table and then snooze for a while in the mid-afternoon heat before continuing on to the fabulous old Silk Road city ahead.  A towering brick minaret indicates the direction to the centre of the old city where the impressive old medressas, mosques and citadel are located.  Tour buses and gift shops.  Suddenly we are in another world - the mass-tourism world (if that's not overstating it) of Uzbekistan.  We remember the same feeling last time after crossing Turkmenistan, a country rarely visited, and arriving here seeing groups of middle-aged French, Italians and Japanese being herded around the main sights.  Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva were open to foreign tourists back in the Soviet era so these places have well-established tourist 'facilities'.  in other words there's a choice of hotels, restaurants with menus and locals used to fleecing wealthy tourists.  I'm not complaining - after 9 days cycling I'm looking forward to a comfy bed and a bit of sight-seeing and Bukhara is the perfect place for this.

Weary and elated at arriving, we are happy to find Raimon the Catalan, and his co-cyclist Valentin, parked up in front of the tall Kailon minaret and huge tiled mosques in the centre.  Uzbek tourists are taking their photos, intrigued by something a little different to the wealth of architectural gems surrounding us.  One man approaches to ask where we are all from.  When we point at Gabor and say 'Hungary' one excited man steps forward brandishing a tattoo on his upper arm.  Hungary 1982-83.  He was stationed there in the Red Army.  Gabor drily remarks "At least it's not 1956".  After a lot of catching up with Raimon we gang up and cycle through the old streets and past the magnificent old buildings that are now used as backdrops for a string of tourist shops selling mostly local handicrafts like the beautiful embroidered suzanis, carpets and traditional striped dressing-gowns only worn by elderly men these days.  Down sort-of-familiar backstreets we find the cheaper hotels and collapse into our rooms.  Hot showers.  Laundry piles of salt-stiffened clothes. Food supply assessment - it's evening already and we just buy bits and bobs from the overpriced mini-market in the main square.  Bittersweet dreams of desert roads, Turkmen women in long velvet dresses, tortoises, cold water refills, passport checks and currency exchanges involving bricks of notes, pungent pit toilets, instant noodles, waving smiling bemused people, shelling salty sunflower seeds, water channels and vivid green fruit trees, zzzzzzzzzz.............

It takes us a good rest day or two to break out of our catatonic state.  It's good to explore and shop at the bazaar in the cool of the early morning and wander the old town at the end of the day as the sunlight softens.  After a couple of nights suffering the odd moods of the hotel owner and realising that the wi-fi will never work unless he wants to use it himself, we all up sticks, load the bikes and resettle at Madina & Ilios' guesthouse - run by the friendly Madina (where is Ilios?) whose family home around a tiny shaded courtyard replenishes our energy reserves and spirit for the next stage of the journey.  There are bike chores and worries to deal with: Franzi and Jona's new MSR stove has been misbehaving and Gabor gets his first flat.  Lots of desert sand and dust to remove.  Going through our belongings yet again to see if anything can be off-loaded.  Typically, we are in one of those mystical fabled places that conjure up images of ancient exotic times and just thinking about laundry, repairs, sorting through photos, and writing messages.  It's the cycle-touring paradox: you expend all this energy to get somewhere and then you're too tired or occupied with chores to really enjoy it.  But actually we do.

In one of Bukhara's parks is the tomb of Ismaili Samani, the great ruler of the Persian Samanid dynasty which lasted a couple of centuries in Iran and Uzbekistan.  This heralded Bukhara's Golden Age when it became a centre of Islamic learning on a par with Baghdad and Cairo.  Ibn Sina  a.k.a. Avicenna was a local lad.  Ghenghis and his Mongol Mates finally put an end to the glory years.....