Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Kyrgyzstan - Uzbekistan

11,200 miles

Current location: Kungirot, Uzbekistan

I spent some time in Bishkek pondering over my onwards route towards Uzbekistan. On the one hand, I had the opportunity to head directly south from the city immersing myself into this dense mountainous region of Kyrgyzstan, tucked in the very heart of Central Asia, and on the other, I was also dealt the possibility to by-pass these challenging climbs in favour of a ‘cruisier’ route skirting north of this region. I was slightly hesitant to head back into the mountains- spring had sprung at last, I was easing into the noticeably flatter riding conditions and I had ditched most of my winter gear fully committing to the warmer climes ahead. However, I had also spent well over a week riding alongside these towering peaks, constantly in awe of their magnitude, their presence, their brilliance. They had been beckoning me in for so long now and it was ‘high’ time I tasted this terrain. Thus, decision made; I bid a reluctant farewell to the lush green spring pastures, trading them in for winter blizzards, wolves, chasing dogs, emptiness, toxic tunnels and some blimmin’ steep pedalling……all in the name of ‘pleasure’ #LivingTheDream #Approximately78%OfTheTime

Up ’n’ up!
Having previously tackled a number of mountains along my journey, I was no stranger to the monotonous, gruelling hours required to conquer these climbs, pedalling at seemingly pedestrian speeds up, up and up….however a ‘death-trap’ tunnel at the top was something new! Yes, at the top I was greeted by the sight of a tunnel which often indicates the top of the incline, whereby the road then passes through the mountain briefly. Yet, unlike so many of the tunnels I had passed through in China, this was a tunnel with a ‘difference’- the possibility of not coming out again…

As I casually pedalled towards the tunnel, congratulating myself on my completed ascent, I was approached by the resident tunnel guard, and in much of a frenzied manner, whilst pointing in the direction of the tunnel, he yelled out to me “gas, gas!” - My initial thought was “Christ, the tunnels flooded with carbonated water…!” - soda water, often termed  ‘gas’  is particularly popular in this part of the world - however, he was in fact bringing to my attention the dangers of entering this poorly ventilated passage; Only a few years earlier this tunnel had in fact claimed the lives of an entire broken down bus load. Whilst overstaying their time inside, they sadly fell victim to carbon monoxide poisoning.... Well theres a reassuring thought for any slow moving vehicle… a bicycle per se?

 Dairy for Dinner
I have to admit, I hadn't fully anticipated quite how wintry it was likely to be up at those dizzy heights, and only as I plodded (*PodPlodded) up this 3100m mountain did it really dawn on me. The weather turned on me in a matter of hours and for the first time in a little while, as I cycled through this empty wilderness, nightfall only a matter of hours away, I was feeling slightly uneasy. In addition, my map indicating a settlement of some sort (my pit stop to retrieve food and drink supplies) really just consisted of a small collection of roadside ‘Kurut’ stalls- stalls solely selling the much loved salty cheese balls, oh and fermented mares milk  (Do I spy a gap in the british dairy market….? Nope). Not ideal; The weather had taken a turn for the worse, I knew wolves became a cause for concern as night drew closer and my evening meal was about to involve a heavy dose of dairy- if a wild beast didn't claim me, the sore in my cholesterol levels probably would….

 As I pedalled down the road eyeing up a spot to pitch the tent, resigned to the fact I had another cold night in my highly inappropriate lightweight summer sleeping bag (Incidentally, a sleeping bag I have stubbornly used through the seasons, regardless of plummeting temperatures #LightweightTouring, #Light ’n’ easy ), to my luck, I did stumble into a settlement and better still a Kyrgy woman took pity on me, kindly inviting me into home for the night.

 The following day I arose early ready to battle my second peak, Ala Bel Pass, before descending towards the stunning views of Karakol lake whereby yurt living nomads roam its rich green pastures during the summer months. 

 Onwards to the border
4 days later and I had successfully navigated my way through this breathtakingly beautiful part of the world- I was now headed for the Uzbekistan border, or so I thought…..

I arrived into the small settlement just short of the border late on into the evening, ready to pick up supplies, pitch the tent and head into Uzbekistan first thing the following day. 

As is often the case, upon arriving into small communities, the ‘Wandering Brit on a Bicycle’ becomes a point of interest which usually leads to a handful of fairly routine questions;

“How old are you?”, ”Why are you not married?”, “Why do you not have children”, “Would you be willing to be Mahmuds third wife….?”, “No? How about Musa’s?” 

Eventually, I told them of my whereabouts and confidently let them know (all through the medium of ‘charade’ of course) that I was headed for the Uzbek border, just down the road from their town, to which they all looked slightly puzzled. As I later came to realise, I was right to think Uzbekistan was near, just a stones throw away in fact, but the actual border crossing was some distance in the opposite direction to which I was pedalling…. Ah, I was in a pickle (*Charade of a pickle*). Before long the entire town had come out to join the action and somewhat of a ‘how to cross the border’ committee had formed. One fella suggested I throw caution to the wind and just jump across? To which another mimicked the action of a soldier with a shotgun - this particular area between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan has long been rife with conflict and hence heavily armed with soldiers. Thus, I felt ‘jumping’ the border was probably one adventure too far, probably my last…..and It only took a glance towards the most sane member of the border committee, the woman, incidentally the only person without an alcoholic beverage in hand, to confirm this was a not a sensible option. 

Eventually, I accepted that I would have to back track several miles the following day to seek out the official border crossing and in the mean time I was kindly invited to stay with a lovely Kyrgyzstan family. We had a wonderful time together, and once again, though there was no mutual language, we all had a jovial evening. Together we drained the translation book for every phrase it had. In fact, it was only as I scanned my way through their ‘Lets Learn English!’ language book that I began to reassess my own grasp of my native tongue- how have I managed to let 24 years pass without ever uttering the words “Would you like a cake of soap?”

 Entering Uzbekistan
Eventually I made it to Uzbekistan. If Kyrgyzstan had blessed me with endless days of scenic beauty, Uzbekistan was most certainly its ‘Cultural cousin’- a predominantly dry, barren country punctuated by the architecturally beautiful Silk Road cities of Tashkent, Samarquand and Bukhara. 
I tend to find  that the border control areas at national crossings always give a good indication of what the ‘feel’ of the following country is likely to entail. Unlike the freedom with which tourists can wander in and out of Kyrgyzstan, visa free, merely waving a passport in the direction of any border official willing to take their attention, crossing into Uzbekistan felt far less relaxed; Much like the whole of this harshly governed country, there was a strong presence of armed guards, security being a top priority. Crossing into Uzbekistan, I was required to have an eye print taken, my bank balance scrutinised, various forms filled out, my movements monitored, one couldn't help but feel I had entered into a much more ‘closed’ country.

And in this part of the world, one requires at least a pannier’s worth of cash to make any kind of financial transaction- the money is worth so little that every purchase requires at least a fistful of notes. I leave the market stall feeling like I have just been involved in a shifty drug deal with such huge displays of cash flying about the place. I have always favoured a lightweight approach to cycle touring though I can safely say, I had never factored cash being such a burden on my bicycle, actually, come to think of it, I had never foresaw money ever being a burden in my life….!

Central Asia has welcomed me in with open arms, every step of the way I have been led to feel a total ease being invited to stay at peoples homes, out for meals, general guidance, help etc- hospitality, friendliness, giving- clearly such important parts of muslim daily life here. I spent one particular evening with the lovely Bobir and Bobur and after devouring a delicious banquet of Uzbek food, they kindly flicked the television onto international news for my benefit. Sometimes, one can feel slightly out of touch with the comings and goings of life beyond the bike so it was a good opportunity to catch up on global affairs; devastating earthquakes, financial crisis, Justin Bieber's new haircut…… and then in came to Britain to which my fellow tv watching company all looked to me, “aha” I thought, time to put my nation of the map, my time to shine, what have you got Britain….and to my dismay I was greeted by the headline “Political Pig race at Pennywell Farm seeks to predict UK vote.”….the entire couch looked to me as if “Wow, I wasn't aware miniature, rosette wearing farm animals carried such importance in England….such political confidence in snout nosed critters?” 

 Desert pedalling
So having passed through the inspiring cities of Samarquand and Bukhara, I continued west across Uzbekistan. Beyond Bukhara, there is very little to comment on- merely long stretches of fairly bumpy desert road alongside camels, honking trucks and a number of fairly relaxed looking workmen carving out an improved highway (something for the cycle tourers of 2094 to look forward to perhaps?). With little else to do but pedal, I managed to average over 100miles a day during this stretch of asphalt. I did however stumble across two fellow cycle tourers only yesterday- it’s always a joy to catch up with fellow cyclists, not least because its an opportunity to speak English, fluently, no…..delay…..necessary, no hand gestures, no mime, no re-enactments, no need for a drawing, no need for a phrase book….. Its really only when you stumble across another English speaker that you realise how starved of your own language you have been for so long. I think we spent the best part of almost 2 hours standing on the road side all falling victim to heavy bouts of verbal diarrhoea. 

 Where next?
I had long hoped to pedal down into Turkmenistan and on into Iran, however the difficulties with being British and gaining an Iranian visa have forced me to re-route my journey home (Despite trying to bribe them with a cake of soap, it seems entering into Iran with a British passport is an almost impossible option at present). Instead, I will cycle across the Uzbek and Kazakh deserts towards the Caspian Sea. Here I will board a ship to Azerbaijan (always a strong contender on eurovision) before completing my journey across Georgia, Turkey and eventually on into Europe.