Tuesday, 29 July 2014

float, float on

if I hear the word short-cut again......
Looking at the map there is a short-cut to Ak-Tal following the main river.  It would shave quite a few kilometres off the route.  First we have to climb out from the valley before doubling back down on the other side of a big hill. It takes a while to find the turn off because it's only a farm track which drops down into a valley and we begin to wonder if there really is a way through.  We ask at the only farmhouse.  The man nods and laughs.  Pointing one way he says "Ak-Tal".  Pointing back the way we came he says "London" and smiles.  Off we go. And off I go - struggling to stay on my bike on the steep gravelly sections that lead down to a ledge above the river.  Here the trail goes cold but we can see ahead where we should go.   But what happened to the track?  

is this a short-cut?
Mudslides have wiped out what was the road, but the earth is dried out and we only have to negotiate a few crevasses before finally reaching a gravel road again.  This leads around a bend in the river and takes us in the right direction until it goes off on a big detour around a series of canyons.  We opt to take a short -cut on the short-cut with Suzy blazing a trail following horses' hoof prints.  The trail ends at a cliff.  
Dino rolls his bike down the path.  "No problem!" I look down at the drop.  Sure enough, it's doable, if we walk and keep hold of the brakes on the bike and keep our fingers crossed.  And after quite a dry day we find spring water just before camping. Back in Osh a motorcyclist remarked with no trace of irony "You've got it easy you cyclists" and the phrase gets aired whenever we reflect on the riding we've done.

We get a shot of tarmac before finally beginning the slow and steady climb towards Song Kol on more dirt washboard road.  At the next camp there's a big stream for washing, shielded from the road.  We like to wash as often as we can - it makes sleeping more comfortable and you feel great afterwards - once you've braved the initial chill.  As I'm lathering up in the freezing water the soap slips out of my hand and rapidly swims away from me.  Desperately I chase after it and with a fine dive forwards into the stream bed I grasp the bar before it disappears.  Phew.  Standing and turning round I just see at the last moment the soap dish floating past.  Damn.

With fresh supplies we are tempted to have a short day and camp beside the river in a picturesque spot.  Just before we stop we find a postcard from Chris with a note to any following cyclist - it's a fortnight old.  Hannah and Damian have added a footnote.  We are just one day behind them.  After the day's rest we are feeling good when we reach the switchbacks up to the lake.  There's a pass at 3300m and then down we swoop to the lake.  

on the way up
We cycle the long way around the lake.  There are yurts dotted around and clusters of animals - horses, cows, yaks, sheep.  The lake is huge and it is encircled by mountains.  A dirt road becomes a track.  We camp in a small bay.  Next morning Suzy, Gayle and Dino take a swim in the lake.  It's warm in the sun and we've been riding up and down steep tracks that eventually lead to a gentler shoreline.  We trekked here in 2008 before the yurts arrived.   Now there's a whiff of the farmyard about the place with dung everywhere and horseflies hovering around.  But when you look across the expanse of water you are greeted with sublime views.  Little kids pass by riding donkeys - what a place to spend your school holidays.  

We meet a few cycle tourists along the way.  Dave the Dread from Penrith is the longest travelled.  Quite a few people have come here especially for three or four weeks.  A young Korean woman wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with "Love Me" camped at the lake last night.  "There was no toilet!" she exclaims in horror.  She obviously hasn't spotted any marmot holes then.

The descent from Song Kol is a long one on dirt road.  It takes us almost the whole day to make it down the valley, with a siesta and swim, descending all the time and with a tailwind until we finally hit the asphalt.  It's only then that I discover a wobble on my front wheel - Dino diagnoses a wonky rear tyre and maybe a loose hub on the front wheel, neither of which would have been noticeable on the rough roads we've been riding.  Finally, in the town of Kochkor we come across Damian and Hannah.  They have stocked up for a backroad route to Bishkek while we have opted for an easier three day ride to the capital - on tarmac.

lunchtime swim anyone?

Early Saturday morning in Balykchi we stop for water and food.  A man walks into the shop and buys some pop and then the woman behind the counter pours him a large glass of vodka, half of which he knocks back before turning towards the doorway and vomiting on his way out.  Charming.  I sometimes wonder if half the men here aren't always drunk - quite a contrast with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan which seem to have a more conservative culture.

folding chairs are essential items for the more mature cycle tourist
Somewhere along the way we reach the 20,000km marker.  It's just over two years since we set off, so this isn't too bad a total.  The ride into Bishkek is taken at a lickety-spit to avoid the afternoon headwinds.  Both Dino and Gayle lead us off at a breathtaking speed which gets us into Bishkek before lunchtime.  We head over to the AT Guesthouse as recommended by lots of friends and immediately find ourselves in a peaceful relaxing home.

Jacques puts his bike to good use

Sunday, 27 July 2014

John, I'm only dancing

It's a little bit daunting setting off with Suzy and Dino.  I mean these two don't hang around.  Except that they've been doing just that in Osh for the past fortnight as well.
'Smarting Arse' Robert (a name given by Gabor in conversation to distinguish him from 'Worrisome' Robert) has done a short trip to Arslanbob and back while we've been hanging out at the guesthouse and he's convinced we're all frauds. "Cycling round the world, my arse."
Our new cycling buddies have come from Brighton by bike and boat only in about 10 months.  No wonder they needed a rest.  As it is we needn't worry.  After about two hours of cycling on new tarmac, just as the sun is starting to cook, we stop for a roadside watermelon.  The die is cast.  We're gonna be alright.

We are heading towards Song Kol - a jewel of a lake in the centre of the country - before continuing on to Bishkek to apply for a China visa.  Once we pass through Jalalabad we leave the good roads and head into the mountains once more. The heatwave we had in Osh continues until we begin to climb out of the east end of the Fergana valley and gain some altitude.  The first two days we need to take long siestas in the shade to escape the heat.  This part of the country is full of fertile irrigated land - wheat and corn fields sweep over the foothills.  The camping is good if you're prepared to get away from the road.  By the third day we find ourselves heading up a valley on a dirt road when Gayle spots a road high up on the mountainside ahead.  "At least we're not going up there!". Er, yes we are.  Dino plays sweeper at the back making sure no-one is left behind.  He is irrepressible - always quick with a smile and a positive word. "Only five more hairpins to go and we'll get a great view". The pass is about 2900m and it's blowing a hooley at the top.  After  plodding up the long switchbacks Gayle has got ahead along the final approach to the pass.  When I almost catch up with her she looks over her shoulder and starts sprinting.  Bugger.  I start sprinting too.  This is what comes of watching too much Tour de France.

The reward for slogging up a big climb is the views from the top followed by a free rolling descent down the other side and a camp by the river. Suzy and Gayle are always quick to get in any water for a swim and a wash.  The next day takes us through rolling fields full of wild flowers.  Up on the mountain there were yurts with families and their animals but down here the valley is dry so there's no-one around until we come to another river. After loading up with food in a village we take the easier (?) but longer (!) route to Song Kol, thus missing the charming mining town of Kazarman.  There's a surprising stretch of tarmac and a very long pull uphill which ends in dirt road switchbacks leading to a fabulous high valley full of wild flowers and horses. 

are you looking at me?
 The riding days are long simply because we are taking such big siestas.  Now and again Suzy and me angle for an earlier camp - Gayle and 'Dynamo' Dino have more stamina - but we have both succumbed to the old Central Asian Shits.  I'm blaming the watermelon. 

when a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do

The road heads down the valley and joins a wider one where the road flattens out.  Except it doesn't.  A flat road is a corrugated one.  We find ourselves riding the very edges of the road.  Perversely the other edge always looks better and those of a weak disposition may feel tempted to cross the washboard surface to try it out.  It's always a mistake - you fishtail through gravel and shudder violently to a stop on deep hard corrugated earth.  In the end we switch to the narrow trails made by donkeys and horses beside the road.

easy camping in Kyrgyzstan

The cycling is superb - the countryside is stunning and each day we ride through valleys and over hills with new views of the mountains on the Chinese border.  We also have a laugh because Suzy and Dino turn out to be a good double act - Suzy does the jokes and Dino gurns like a pro.   Or is that just trapped wind? The roads make the cycling harder work than it should be but it gives us more time to enjoy the views.

wot, no cars?

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