Tajikistan: plenty of passes and where central Asia meets middle east

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS LOTS OF METRES

We decided to take a leisurely detour via Tajikistan in order to avoid an early monsoon-ridden entry into South East Asia. But before being able to cycle along the spectacular narrow valleys that border with Afghanistan and take up the numerous warm offers to stay with locals, we first had to tackle the extra-terrestrial-like Pamir mountain range and its famous high altitude “highway”, the second highest in the world in a country where 50% of land is above 3000m.


Looking at the map I noted that we were about to tackle seven passes. 2408m, 3615m, 4336m, 4232m, 4655m, 4314m and 4272m (1000m=3280ft). Surely if we failed last week’s 3062m pass that had a 10m high corridor of ice carved by JCBs at the top, how on earth would we make it to 4655m, let alone camp in the numerous 3000m+ townships?

And then there was our failed -20C attempt last winter in Kyrgyzstan which saw us having to hitch a ride at the 3000m mark, just 184m short from the summit. The cold there was unbearable and we found it hard to imagine what any life above 3000m would feel like or even look like, particularly from the comfort of lowland temperatures in excess of 30C.

There was even snow at the top of Austria’s 1788m Solkpass when we climed last JUNE! 1788! SNOW! JUNE!

Highlands

Approaching the Sary Tash pass in Kyrgyzstan, it already began to feel cold around the 3000m mark. But with the sun out, we felt warmed and camped up for the night, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. To our delight, we woke up in the morning surrounded by snow, making for a beautiful photo and further confirming my thoughts that indeed anything above this level was going to be another world.

Waking up to snow at 3000m

Waking up to snow at 3000m

Somehow ascending to the border-crossing pass at 4336m revealed no snow and all seemed relatively normal as the several days of sun had warmed the area. Passing over the switchbacks and into Tajikistan was an instant change of scenery. Desert-like and alien-looking with impressive rock formations; beautiful in its own respect. The sensation of whizzing with a tail wind at 40kmph on a flat and 72kmph downhill towards frozen lake Karakol was exhilarating. Here we caught up with friends who had got ahead in a brewing storm over the previous day’s pass, so now we were seven cyclists. From a high vantage point we observed the spectacular display of mini tornadoes forming around the plain below us where the lake sat. The weather around us was micro-climatic so whilst on one side you could see interesting and localised cloud formations, a clear day was being rendered on the other. This place really did feel like another planet.

That evening we camped up by the stunning frozen lake, joined in numbers by a further two Breton cyclists going the opposite direction; our camp was now nine big!

Breakfasting in front of the altitudes to come with Rude Jonas from the Swiz Taliban

Breakfasting at 3200m with a view of the altitudes to come. Accompanied by a very rude Jonas from the Swiss Taliban

Looking down at mini tornadoes

Looking down at mini tornadoes, approx. 3900m

Multicultural m8s: Hitesh, Jonas, Carmen, Vivek, Vienne

Frozen lake Karakol

 

We found any altitude above 3000m quite hard at times. Doing anything such as walking a short distance or blowing up the mattress would put us out of breath and lethargy overcame us at times. Head, neck and back aches were to become daily occurrences for me. One night we were constantly waking up unable to breathe. Hardly surprising considering that our respiratory system has to compensate for such altitude changes as those shown visually in my mini-science experiment pictured below.  It shows a squeezed bottle at 1300m, after having previously sealed – unsqueezed- some days earlier at 4650m.

Descending from 4650m to 1300m caused the bottle to squeeze

Descending from 4650m to 1300m caused the bottle to squeeze

Carmen got sick from exhaustion on our first day in the country so we sat-out the following day in a guesthouse. I spent the day slowly ticking off a list of chores.

Chores by high altitude standards: find some vegetables, find some cola, find some bread and clean the dishes. It took me most of the day to achieve them, crossing the village numerous times to find which house sold what, all with recovery rests in between. It’s amazing that despite finding no fresh produce nor electricity, you can still easily find an old guy in his mud house selling SIM cards, who then is able to advise on the best internet-tariff plans and then connect you up to the services via SMS codes and service phone calls. I spent the rest of the day surfing the web. Internet? Da. Apples? Niet.

The combination of freezing winds and constant sun meant that head gear and down jackets were required. Heavy wind and sunburn could be seen in the faces of locals. The wise ones wore black terrorist-like balaclavas, leading to a somewhat strange and confusing signal as they greeted us warmly into their guesthouses and cafes.

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It was a slight concern I suppose that only on day one of Tajikistan, Carmen had fallen victim to exhaustion with our highest pass yet to come the following day.
This pass ended up not being so bad actually. We paced ourselves down to about 40km a day and took the pass slowly. We didn’t have much choice in that matter though seeing as the track was awfully corrugated with huge rocks everywhere, resulting in our brains rattling inside their skulls. After the very slow snowy switchbacks to the top, we had a nice kip, all the while feeling out of breath. The scenery changed on the downhill- reds and yellows began to appear in the soil, with white snow peaks and blue skies contributing to a formidable palette of colours. An impressive storm hit us in the middle of an open plane with lighting bolts just above us, leaving us feeling particularly vulnerable and exposed.

It was the first time we’d had rain for a while, which reminded us that we were traveling south and therefore to warmer climates, where altitudes had different meanings. It was strange arriving into Murgab that evening and feeling like we were out of the alien and moody high altitude lands, despite the fact that the town lays at 3650m.

The next pass at 4314m to face us two days later pissed us off too much so we decided to hitch. Head winds the afternoon prior as well as all day up the pass made us impatient. We had made it over the pass, yet the gradual slope down still saw us travelling at a lame three. kilomeres. an. hour. For us, it was pointless. For others that enjoy the challenge aspect of cycling the Pamirs just to be able to say that they cycled the Pamirs, I guess less so. We hitched downhill and over the next pass in a couple of articulated lorries.

Kipping at Akbaytal pass, 4655m

Kipping at Akbaytal pass, 4655m

Enjoying the colours

Enjoying the colours

Lowerlands

We were dropped off by our friendly truckers late at night in a spa village down at 3200m. We had dinner together and they bought us beer before we went off to relax in boiling natural pools and checking into the trucker’s guesthouse for the equivalent £2.50 each- a welcome contrast to the high altitude rates of $15 each. In the morning we put our clothes in a luxurious and natural 60C wash and made for the rest of Tajikistan- pleased to have no more passes to conquer, and in theory only downhills.

Experiencing this part of the country was a big contrast; ditching the terrorist look for hot summer attire, plenty of villages with shops and vegetation everywhere and, Tajik hospitality. Our first lazy day into this new country saw us stop early and take up one of the numerous (free) offers of food and bed. Until we met the truckers, we were travelling through Kyrgyz part of Tajkistan. So it was here that we experienced the spirit of Tajik people: friendly, smiley, genuine, warm and hospitable. It’s exactly how Iran is described which is probably no coincidence as Tajiks are Persian in both ethnicity and language.

A Tajik house

A Tajik house


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Heading further south east we entered Khorog: the liveliness, the Indian-like women’s dresses and the fact that there was a curry house made the place distinct from any other central Asian town. We were very excited to see such changes after having spent seven months eating the same food and seeing the samey Soviet towns. The vegetable curry we had was supreme so we visited twice! We stayed in mountain lodgings for three nights, catching up with many friends we’d made along the way, drinking beer and celebrating birthdays. The place was made more relaxing by the fact that every evening the local Ismaeli Muslim prayer house would sing beautifully into our garden. Everyone seemed to speak excellent English in Khorog and we temporarily ditched Russian.

Chilling out at the Pamir Lodge, Khorog

Chilling out at the Pamir Lodge, Khorog. Jonas, Hitesh, Vivek, Karl, Nico, Joe, Carmen, Vienne

This town definitely felt like where central Asia meets the middle east. With Afghanistan now across the narrow river from us, these very parts of the world played stage to a long lasting battle between two great spheres of influence: the British and Russian empires.
Following this river border over the next 250km of gorge was exciting. Always within wave-able distance to the friendly Afghans, we admired their beautiful villages stretching up vertically into steep mountains, with high waterfalls and covered in green. These villages would show up every few kilometers, with nothing but a simple track carved out through daunting vertical mountain drops. Completely inaccessible and cut off from the rest of their country. How they managed to build these paths I don’t know.

Washing up

Washing up

Ubiquitous plov but now served with herbs and chickpeas

Ubiquitous plov but now served with herbs and chickpeas

Locals

Locals

The whole area from the start of the low lands onward lies within areas susceptible to natural disasters. Every few kilometers we would see a sign informing of a foreign aid agency reinforcing, rebuilding or improving various elements. GEOHAZARDS RELIEF PROJECT II read the UKAID signs, while Japan and a handful of other countries were rebuilding bridges, roofs, improving water supplies etc. Not that water was ever in shortage, quite to the contrary- water is a major feature of the area and with the channelled improvements from aid agencies, beautiful waterfalls and water features lie all around you, all naturally perfectly clean and drinkable.

Our side of the border was equally spectacular but it occurred to me that the village folk in their respective countries have probably never seen their own village from the opposite vantage point. The region we were in, Badakhshon was historically once included in the current Afghan side Badakhshon region that we looked at across the river. To this day inhabitants of both sides speak one language- Pamiri which is a variant of the Persian Tajiki. It was the British and Russians in the late 19th century who carved up the region into its current delineation.

Although the Taliban are still present in Afghanistan (only 25k away while we were there, according to one knowledgable guide), they are always circulating and being chased off. So it came as a surprise one evening whilst cycling in the gorge that my senses became violently arrested by six consecutive explosions fifty metres away from me on the other side of the river. I stood in disbelief for a few minutes and watched as the dust clouds from the cliff fizzled away as I contemplated my next move, searching for explanations. It was with mixed horror and delight that I saw high up in the cliff some men pushing broken stone off the edge into the rapids below. Luckily, they weren’t the Taliban about to enforce Shari’a law upon me but path builders. No sign of health and safety, just lots of courage and I guess skill.

Cliff track

Cliff track

Carving a track using dynamite and by pushing rocks off

Carving a track using dynamite and by pushing rocks off

 

Goodbye central Asia

The most desirable exit route was surrounded by rumour and lack of any official information regarding its opening to tourists. Travelling west when our destination was east was psychologically difficult so whenever the road got bad (often) we would quickly lose patience (often). We had been in central Asia too long and hearing of Chinese and south east Asian food and culture from our friends whet our appetites too much. We just wanted to be in China. Our quickest bet to achieve this was sadly to return the exact same way we came back in- via the seven passes, which sounds crazy but really was the best option.

So off we went 400km back on ourselves, but in order to make this bearable we hitched in trucks. Although at times hideously bumpy, it was a pleasant way of seeing the Pamirs and its magnificent scenery in reverse angle and from the comfort of the bed in the cab.

Of course we stopped off for a curry and a hot spring on the way back, as well as the final free ride back down into Kyrgyzstan and then to the international border with China (though not without another day of climbing), where we exited from seven months of central Asia, with a bloody great big diploma in CYLING PASSES in hand.

 

Getting the truck outta here

Getting the truck outta here


 

Click anywhere below to load the extended picture gallery. A Flikr image gallery of our trip so far is also available by clicking on the photos menu on this blog.

 

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Kyrgyzstan Part 3- Bishkek to Osh

We’re back on the road again, hurrah! After waiting and waiting in Bishkek for our Chinese visas, we realised that whatever the ‘problem’ was, it wasn’t getting sorted out any time soon and so decided to go on a trip across the border to Almaty to try our luck there instead. It turns out the problem is confined to Kyrgyzstan and after ten more days of waiting in Kazakhstan we were staring at the visas pasted into our passports in disbelief, checking they were real. It was a pretty enjoyable wait as well- we stayed with a couple of different couch surfing and warm showers hosts, one of whom took us hiking/scrambling up the mountains around the city.

Climbing to 3000m

Climbing to 3000m

Panorama Peak

Panorama Peak

With the elusive Chinese visas firmly in hand, we went back to Bishkek for a few days to get ready for the next leg of our trip. This isn’t actually directly to China, as if we entered straight away we’d hit South East Asia at the height of the monsoon season, which doesn’t sound fun on a bike. First, we decided to have an adventure in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, and then on to the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan (the second highest road in the world)! We persuaded two French cyclists, Nico and Vienne, who we met in Almaty to come with us, along with our friend Jonas, a hardcore solo Swiss cyclist who was also sitting out the winter with us in Bishkek. After a stress-free day getting the Tajik visa (thank you Tajik embassy), we found ourselves gathered in the rain the next morning in the middle of the city, waiting to leave it for the very last time…ever. It was a good feeling.

We lost Jonas on the first day. He wanted to try an ingenious ‘shortcut’ over the mountains on a dirt track through the snow over 3000m high (I mentionned he was hardcore) so we agreed to meet up with him again at lake Song Köl, if he made it to the other side alive. For the time being at least, we’d be taking the main road towards Naryn.  The first few days were repetition for me and Joe, as we’d already ridden to lake Issy Kul the previous month, so it was exciting to turn off to the south on day three into new territory, with the whole of the previously inaccessible (due to snow) south of the country laid out ahead of us. It felt like summer had finally arrived as we got into the relaxing rhythm of camping again, and in a group every evening was more of an occasion- campfires, radio, cooling off in lakes and rivers after hot days of riding, congnac (I blame the French)… On Nico’s birthday, Vienne even baked a pretty decent birthday cake on the fire! I didn’t know that was possible. Wild camping is so easy in Kyrgyzstan- nobody seems surprised to find you, and often the local shepherds will join you for a chat in the morning.

One of many camping paradises

One of many camping paradises

Vienne proudly displaying her cake

Vienne proudly displaying her cake

Some guests to our camp one evening

Some guests to our camp one evening

We never actually made it to lake Song Köl. After struggling with the rocky track leading up to it for a few hours and making slow progress, Jonas called to tell us the road was closed further up due to a huge blockage of ice. He’d had to turn back from his crazy path for the same reason and had checked with the CBT about getting to the lake. It was hard to believe it was still winter up there when we’d spent the past few days baking and trying not to burn in the sun. So that was a demoralising day, especially as the call came just after we’d enjoyed a steep downhill section, which we then had to crawl our way back up. The day continued with rain, headwind and a puncture for Nico, so by early afternoon we were sheltered under a roof doing bike repairs and drinking tea and biscuits, without much enthusiasm for getting back out there.  Luckily for us, that’s when we were found by a local old man who addressed us all as ‘sportsmen’ (I like this term) and instructed us to spend the rest of the day and night with him and his wife in their house. We didn’t need to think twice about it. A few hours later we were almost delirious with the luxury of being able to use their ‘banya’- basically a stone room with a scalding hot water tap on one side and an ice cold one on the other, with buckets to throw it over your head. On a rainy day and after washing in rivers and lakes all week, it was heaven.

Our home for the evening

Our home for the evening

Friendly hosts

Friendly hosts

Our experience of warm local hospitality continued the next afternoon after climbing the 3000m mountain pass leading towards Naryn (no snow at the top of this one). Halfway through the stunning descent, we stopped for a second on the outskirts of a small village to debate having some lunch, when a boy appeared and, in really impressive English, invited us to come and be guests at his village picnic to celebrate Victory Day. We turned to see a long table laid out on the grass, with about forty people sat around it, beckoning us over.  The next few hours were spent feasting on homemade bread and salads, drinking tea that magically refilled the second you put down your cup, and talking with the villagers through our young interpreter. This was followed by a scary adaptation of volleyball, where some unfortunate soul has to crouch down in the middle of the circle and try to avoid being knocked out by the ball. As soon as Joe got the camera out, it was a mad rush as everybody wanted to have their picture taken. One of the most enjoyable lunchtimes of the whole trip.

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The 95 year old village elder sitting proudly at the head of the table

The 95 year old village elder sitting proudly at the head of the table

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This kid liked the camera…a lot.

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To get to Osh, which is where the Pamir Highway starts, we’d already decided to avoid the main route from Bishkek, as we’d already cycled a lot of that road when we arrived in the country in November and wanted to see a different area of Kyrgyzstan. This meant that we’d be spending the next week on what our map described as a minor road, taking us across from Naryn. The asphalt disappeared on the second day, and we immediately realised it was going to be very slow progress. Nobody minded however, as it was clear as soon as we turned onto this route that we were now travelling through a part of the country where very few people venture. I could count the number of cars that passed us each day on one hand; there were more people on horseback than in vehicles.  The landscape amazed us every day, from the deep crevices in the land around the river Naryn (which looked completely insane from our viewpoint as we climbed switchback after switchback to get over the mountains) to the rich green valleys in between snowy mountains.

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This bumpy road was also where we saw our first genuine yurts, which was exciting. We were invited inside one for a cup of kumus- possibly the most stomach-churning drink in existence, made from fermented horse milk. Even the smell is enough to make you turn green. I politely feigned an allergy. As the road continued, the yurts become more frequent than houses, and it was really interesting seeing whole nomad families driving in wagons with their dissembled yurts to new spots, ready to build them all over again.

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Inside a yurt, confronted with the horse milk

Inside a yurt, confronted with the horse milk

The one worrying aspect to this amazing road was the fact that it ends in another 3000m pass to get from Kazarman to Jalalabad, but being a minor road, just like the one to Song Köl, we were beginning to have our nagging suspicions that it would be closed due to snow. People in villages further back had told us it would be no problem to cross, but as we got closer, the locals became less and less enthusiastic about our chances. Many people enforced their point with arms dramatically crossed in an ‘X’ sign across their chests, heads shaking furiously. Not too encouraging. We decided that we’d come this far, we might as well get to Kazarman and find out there, hitching a van back the long way round if it was closed (but we really, really hoped it wasn’t). Turning back would mean that in order to get to Jalalabad, which was only about 100km away, we would have to backtrack and then take a huge spiralling route for almost 1000km just to be able to get through the mountains!  Luckily, our worries were ended when we met a man on a motorbike who gave us two pieces of good news: firstly, the pass was open as of a few days ago, and secondly, he’d ridden past Jonas earlier that morning- confirmation that he was still alive and well and not too far from catching us up!

With our route now definitely open, we battled our way towards the pass on a road that seemed to deteriorate with each new kilometre. It took all of our concentration just to stay on the bikes. By this point, it was just me and Joe again, as Nico had got sick so they decided to meet us in Osh. The road was so demoralising that (now that nobody was watching us) we contemplated just hitching over the pass, but we were given a fresh morale boost by a German couple who passed us in their 4WD having just driven that way. “Oh don’t worry at all, the road gets much better and it’s only 20k to the top. It’s not steep at all and yes maybe a bit muddy but on bikes it would be easy”.

They lied. (But they did give us a Snickers bar, so we forgive them). If I was making a new map of this area, I would mark this pass with a skull and crossbones. Due to crazy storms, we only reached the switchbacks by the following afternoon but, based on their positive assessment, assumed that we’d be at the top in no time. Two hours later, we found ourselves doing pushing relays with the bikes against the wind and the rain, on a road that now consisted of sticky mud and rivers running off the mountain. Every bend we turned revealed even more switchbacks, and the top of the pass seemed to get further and further away. There was absolutely nowhere to camp as the road was literally carved into the side of the mountain, and so by 4pm we were beginning to wonder whether we’d still be pushing into the night. It was pretty bleak. Even the arrival of an old man on horseback offering us schnapps through grinning gold teeth wasn’t much comfort.

Doesn't look too bad from here...

Doesn’t look too bad from here…

OK, now it looks pretty bad

OK, now it looks pretty bad

Anybody for schnapps?

Anybody for schnapps?

As always happens in these situations, somebody arrived to save the day. As soon as we saw the big blue truck trundling its way up the snaking track towards us, we whooped with manic relief (we hadn’t seen a single vehicle all day) and were already waiting with our biggest pleading eyes by the side of the road when the friendly driver drew level with us. Moments later, we were warm and cosy in the front cabin, experiencing the Pass of Doom from behind a reassuring glass window.  To be honest, it was still a pretty nail-biting experience doing it in the truck. The clouds were all around us so visibility was terrible, and in the slushiest parts, it took three of four attempts to get past certain sections of road. With the sharp bends and sheer drop on one side, we really hoped the driver had done this sort of thing before. The top was incredible, with a ten metre high wall of ice on each side of the road, and other parts that looked like they could avalanche at any moment. Whoever declared this pass ‘open’ seemed to have been using a very loose interpretation of the word.

Welcome to the Pass of Doom

Welcome to the Pass of Doom

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Luckily the driver knew what he was doing and we made it to the other side in one piece, taking advantage of our warm ride through what was now torrential rain to get all the way to Jalalabad city and a relaxing guesthouse for the evening. From there it was a day’s ride to Osh, back on the main road through lively towns and green lowlands. We needed to fix our tent (yet again) as the zip had broken inside so I’d had to partially sew us in to avoid sleeping with the beatles. It was a good excuse to spend a day and a half in this lively city, with its sprawling bazar on either side of the river. In this bazar, it seems, anything can be fixed, and often using equipment that looks like it’s come straight out of the museum.  After completing our fixing to-do list of: a tent, a bike wheel and a shoe, we indulged in Osh’s lively and inviting atmosphere for a couple of evenings. (After all, we were about to go into the ‘wild’ and spend the next month pushing ourselves at dizzying altitudes, so I think we were entitled to our little party wekend…). There are a lot of Uzbek people in this part of the country, and in Osh their liveliness is immediately striking in comparison with the much calmer, quieter nature of the Kyrgyz areas.

Now we have been reunited with the French and Jonas, and are ready to start our long ascent onto the Pamir Highway. I wonder who’ll be the first to get altitude sickness…

Team Kyrgyzstan

Team Kyrgyzstan

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Our new friends outside their home

Our new friends outside their home

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Nico- very proud after his 2km

Nico- very proud after his 2km

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Happy cyclists

Happy cyclists

Living in Kyrgyzstan

For the past five months we’ve been sitting out the winter teaching English in Kyrgyzstan- as part of the wider trip of traversing part of the world by bicycle.

This little-heard-of country has plenty to offer but don’t be put off by its seemingly unpronounceable name. Although  Kyrgyzstan  looks like an inelegant splurge of consonants you’d find dished up to you in a serving of Scrabble, it’s actually pretty easy to say it. KUR-GISS-STAN.  Now everyone repeat.


We chose Kyrgyzstan as the place to sit out the winter for two principle reasons. First, the visa-free regime makes it an instantly attractive offer. Secondly, Google told us that it has some of the best countryside in Central Asia. Central Asia being the geographical location where we would start to hit the cold snap. It’s also worth noting that compared with other Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan is considered the most democratic (not to be confused with democratic.) The country has two official languages: Kyrgyz and Russian, the former being reinstated in the 1990s as an official language.

The objective of our stay (aside from avoiding freezing our ball bearings off that is) was to earn money; enough money for the stay there to pay for itself. We didn’t waste too much time enjoying the comforts of cooked breakfasts, running water, indoor toilets and pubs that our new-found-city-life offered so we set about looking for teaching work straight away. We had no idea how easy this would be. We had already sent out speculative e-mails to language centres back in July but this didn’t produce any worthwhile results. Our stay here relied on being able to earn.

Turns out it wasn’t too difficult. On day two, we realised we were a honeypot in Beeland; we simply had to be heard speaking English in order to generate interest from locals. While we were buying sim cards, we bagged our first student from the saleswoman herself. One day a kid even followed us off the bus to beg us to teach him. Then it was a case of putting up adverts on the local Internet forums. Our phone never stopped ringing. We did some work for an English centre but the quality was horrific and they insisted we had to follow their awful methods so we left after a few lessons. That put us off working for anyone but ourselves. We weren’t qualified teachers, but we could do a better job than some of the courses around town, that was for sure.

We did do some work for one reputable language school where foreign businessmen and diplomats sent their offspring. We were pretty much given a blank slate to teach whatever we wanted for the school’s extra curricular activity programme so Carmen fulfilled one of her ambitions of teaching a choir. I did arty crafty things with kids ranging from 6 to 12. The enthusiasm and outstanding behaviour in the kids run throughout the school and we looked forward to going there each time. The kids were brilliant. One seven year-old even broke the teacher’s wall and began questioning our teaching methods.

Teaching crafts

Teaching crafts

2.4 children. Our host family with whom we were lucky to lodge with during our stay

So we quickly became part of the Bishkek daily grind. Wikitravel sums up the country’s capital with fair words:

It is a relatively new city and has limited historical sites. It is however, an interesting example of a czarist planned city; laid on a grid with wide boulevards flanked by irrigation canals and large trees, buildings with marble façades, and Soviet apartment complexes.  It is more or less a museum relic of the former Soviet Union Bloc. (It) has its own kind of charm, which often arouses nostalgia in people who knew the old Soviet Union.

Our favourite activity in the city was attending the Ballet and Opera house. The whole evening was like stepping in to the 50s. The evening stood frozen in time with the building’s great marble architecture, attendants wearing their Soviet costumes, elegantly dressed spectators, bars with cheap beer and snacks as well as slightly out-of-sync dancers. All for £2.50. There are plenty of the usual bars and cafes you’d get in any city around the world. One amusing aspect was the city’s disregard for anything copyright. TGI Friday’s lawyer visited one of the branches here when we first arrived. He was so impressed with the replica branding that he apparently congratulated their efforts before issuing a cease and decist notice. German bars seems to be a theme here, as well as German supermarkets. Which was great because we got to taste microbrewery beer at a fraction of the price of the real Euro thing. One bar we used to go to would inform us that beer was free all evening. Quite how their business model plugs into British drinking culture, I’m not sure.

Victory Square, Bishkek

Victory Square, Bishkek

Abandonned disco, downtown

Abandonned disco, downtown

 

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Bishkek Opera House

 

One of the greatest things about living in Bishkek, was the ability to get out of Bishkek. Although the city is nicely lined with green spaces, every other weekend we’d go off with the local Trekking Union group, often only a short drive away into the mountains which encircle the city itself. For next to nothing, you’d get transported to a gorge, guided around and brought back the same day after picnicking surrounded by spectacular scenery. The country boasts possibly the best countryside we’ve seen on our trip. It’s undeveloped so you can get out there and see no safety railings, shops nor people. You can be spoilt to your own private canyon, as we once were when we cycled through a gorge, left our gear with a farmer and then hiked up to Bom canyon and slept two nights in our tent. Indeed, any western notion of Health and Safety is irrelevant as we found ourselves, guided and alone alike, scrambling up steep hillsides, some with fatal drops a mere shoe-slip away.

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Konorchek Canyon

Hiking Konorchek Canyon

 

This is where Carmen realised her fear of "heights"

Kegety gorge: this is where Carmen realised her fear of “heights”

Camping for two nights at Bom Canyon

Camping for two nights at Bom Canyon

Ask any Kyrgyzstan citizen where to visit and they will proudly declare Issy-Kul as the must-see. We remained sceptical; expecting the resort and development that lakes often attract but we found we could avoid these eyesores entirely by visiting the south shore of the lake, which was stunning. Again, spoilt for choice with plenty of quiet beaches on which to camp. It helped of course that we’d chosen to cycle around the lake off-season (when it was still as low as -12 celcius one night in March). The lake itself is at 1600m altitude, 180km long and sits perfectly nested within sharp mountains whose white tops contrasted perfectly with the water’s outstandingly saturated blue colour.

Issy Kul

Issy Kul

Issy Kul south shore

Issy Kul south shore

At the eastern point of the lake lies Karakol, the friendly base town from where people flock to go either skiing or horse trekking. We decided to hire a horse each for two days with a guide to take us up into the remote Altyn Arashan at 2400 metres. After a six-hour ride up into breathtaking white wilderness we arrived, me with an exhausted backside, and relaxed in the natural hot springs before cooking on a fire in a cabin and sleeping the night there. Carmen got to play her beloved game of chess all evening with the cabin owner, though I have no reason to believe that she wasn’t hoping to play with something else of his that night as she declared him to be “very sexy”.  The two days horse trekking set us back about £60 each.

Horse trekking to Altyn Arashan

Horse trekking to Altyn Arashan

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Trekking Union also organised single and multi-day ski trips. Carmen was able to try her legs at it for the first time and over four weekends she gained the confidence to come down some rather steep slopes with me. The best resort for advanced skiiers is near Karakol, only 150km from the Chinese border; the USSR would send their Olympians for training there. Of course by Alpine standards, it doesn’t compare in terms of expanse but it was big enough for me to go off piste for the first time and it felt like I had the slopes to myself many times. At the highest point, the white slopes before and below you blended with the white skies leading to blind-skiing down very steep parts. There was no one else up there the two occasions I went up and all I could hear was the whistling of the wind. Quite scary but excellent fun.

Skiing at Orlovka

Skiing at Orlovka

Skiing near Karakol

Skiing near Karakol

View from ski piste

View from ski piste

We cherished our weekends greatly. In retrospect, there was always something cheap to do. In total we attended six hikes and four ski trips. The two biggest irritations of living there were the congealed slippery pavements during the freezing months and the cramped transit vans used as public transport.

So did we fulfill our objective ? Well yes and no. We managed to do more than break-even and actually by the time we finished working we had about £400 of savings. But we blew most of that on seeing more of the country itself. So we left the country with a little less money than we had entered with but with the added bonus of having plenty of fun, and we also met some great people along the way.


Click on a thumbnail below to load the extended picture gallery. A Flikr image gallery of our trip so far is also available by clicking on the photos menu on this blog.

Kyrgyzstan, Part 1

(This post is over two months late because, well…we’ve been busy)!

Even Joe managed to smile through his horrific vodka-induced hangover as we cleared the Uzbek border fortress to find the Kyrgyz customs officer sitting in his tiny unassuming hut on the other side. We had finally arrived in the country we’d been pushing towards for months, where we plan to sit out the harsh winter and teach English until the snow melts. This was the final leg of part one of our adventure! We could have taken the easy option and headed north after Tashkent, back into Kazakhstan and along the flat plains straight to Bishkek, but we had been romanticising about the mountains of Kyrgyzstan for far too long to miss them because winter had come early. We decided to take the scenic route and deal with the consequences if and when they came, knowing that if things got too difficult, we could always hitch a ride.

Our route through the Jalalabad region would be the most mountainous stretch of the trip so far, with our three highest passes to date towering between us and Bishkek. Thankfully (for Joe’s delicate head), the first afternoon was a relaxing introduction to the country through rolling farmland with the mountains keeping a safe distance in the backdrop. Immediately we noticed how much calmer everybody seemed here in contrast to the previous few weeks. Still friendly and saying hello, but without the constant barrage of loudly shouted questions. At least for today it was a welcome relief to get a bit of peace!

image We spent a really memorable first night in the home of one of the sweetest families I’ve ever encountered. We’d asked whether it would be ok to put the tent up in one of their fields as we couldn’t find any land that wasn’t farmed, and were instantly told that it was far too cold to be camping, so we must come inside and be their guests. Five minutes later we were sitting on floor mats around a table filled with hot tea, borsch, sweets and an assortment of things grown on their farm. (I decided to nobly take on the role of vodka-accepting guest as Joe had suddenly become “allergic”). They had a great sense of humour, and we spent the evening talking and laughing (and being entertained by their chubby toddler) until it was time to curl up under warm heavy blankets on the floor and sleep. Houses in this part of the country are basic but beautiful. Most have a central courtyard around which the house is divided into separate buildings. Ok there may be no bathroom in sight, just a jug from the well and a hole in the ground outside, but there’s definitely charm to be found in their richly patterned wall hangings, floor mats and curtains concealing every door. Sleeping amongst all this decoration feels almost palacial, yet so refreshingly simple at the same time.

Dressing up

Dressing up

Our favourite Kyrgyz family

Our favourite Kyrgyz family

In the morning, it was difficult to turn down their tempting offer of “please stay here for ten days and relax”, but we knew we had to try to get over the mountains before it started to snow again, so after a very long breakfast we forced ourselves to pedal away. It seemed winter had temporarily forgotten about us, so we needed to sieze the opportunity! We left the village and began our first of many days of climbing. The first word that came into my head as we wound our way into the mountainy wilderness was “spiky”- I don’t think I’ve ever seen a landscape with so many jagged ridges, and our road zig- zagged amongst them all day, following the river. This is the part of cycle touring that I love most- finding yourself in a wild landscape completely unspoiled by humans, and so quiet that it feels like a secret. It’s hard to beat the feeling of putting your tent up next to a river, with mountains all around you, and watching the stars. That’s actually possible without freezing now thanks to our new found obsession with campfires. We decided to pull out all the stops for the fire that night, making toast from our stale bread, and even melting chocolate in a makeshift bain-marie for dipping. (We awarded ourselves an extra adventure point for managing to actually cook something on our fire)! image When we eventually found civilisation again the next day, it was slightly ominous. On the rock face at the entrance to the town of Karaköl, some cheerful soul had scratched a greeting in huge foreboding letters, “Welcome to Hell”. We decided to take the warning lightly and imagined that whoever wrote it was probably just having a bad day. A few hours later, we weren’t so sure. By this point we were quite high up and it was going to be a very cold night, so we decided to treat ourselves to a guest house before tackling the first pass in the morning. After asking for directions, we found ourselves in front of what looked like the bleakest of grey council estate blocks ever built, surrounded by smashed windows and graffiti, thinking,’this can’t possibly be it…’. It was indeed our new home for the evening, and we had to get used to it fast as it was the only place to stay in the town and it was already getting dark. The giggling pair of teenage boys who let us in told us that our room wouldn’t be ready for an hour, so we left our stuff and went out for some food.

Two hours later, we got back and asked to be let into the room, which led to more hysterical giggling from the boys, who appeared to be in charge. It still wasn’t ready, which was odd as they didn’t seem to be making any moves to clean it. Eventually I asked to see it, because I didn’t fancy sleeping on the smelly sofas in the hallway all night, which led to a very worried look between the boys, who reluctantly went to knock on the door. Half an hour later, a hooded man came skulking out without a glance at anybody, followed five minutes later by a very dolled up lady in a mini skirt. Oh lovely, we were staying in a brothel. I don’t know what was more worrying, the fact that our imagined peaceful warm haven for the night had just been playing host to god knows what kind of scenes, or the fact that it took the hysterical duo only five minutes of cleaning afterwards to declare it ‘ready’ for us to move in! Needless to say we slept in our sleeping bags that night. Well, it was only a fiver I suppose…

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The local bread maker on the streets of “Hell”

Two things were beginning to stand out about Kyrgyzstan in the days that followed: horses and fat soup. (The first being considerably more pleasant than the second). Horses seem to be to this country as bicycles are to the UK- if you’re not driving a car, you’ll be on a horse instead. Outside every village shop there would be at least three people sitting on horseback with their freshly bought groceries and all along the streets there would be men stopping to chat from their saddles. In a country whose history is based on millennia of nomadic herders, it was nice to see that the modern world hasn’t managed to erase this deeply routed tradition completely. It felt like a snapshot from centuries ago, cycling over rolling pastures and seeing people galloping around freely in the background.

I was less delighted every time we found ourselves confronted with a bowl of fat soup. This is a staple meal here- especially in the winter when people need to eat the fat to stay warm. Often when we’d stop at a chaikhana in hope of getting warm and having something to eat, it would be the only thing on the menu. Well, that and pickled cabbage of course. Even if we were lucky enough to find other dishes like plov or laghman, they were often drizzled in a fat sauce to give them that signature fatty flavour. I ate a lot of crackers and bread…

Anyway, after a few days off to gather our strength in Toktogul (I was feeling ill for some reason- I blame the fat), the time had come for us to tackle the monster pass of 3500m.    By this time, we were right at the foot of the Tien Shan mountains, and could see that snow was only about three kilometres away. This was the one that would really test us- we’d done snow cycling before, but at a much lower altitude, so we had no idea what the road would be like or how cold it would get up there. One thing we agreed upon was that we didn’t want to be camping anywhere near the top.

The first day of climbing was fairytale-like, following a winding river through a narrow gorge of jagged rocks, with the icy peaks towering in all directions. The climb was gradual, and the road was good, so we were beginning to think the whole thing would be easy. With about two hours of light left, it started to snow heavily, so we decided to look out for a building that could keep us warm for the night. It was too remote a place for villages, but there were occasional chaikhanas for people travelling through the mountains. We stopped at one just as our hands were beginning to go numb and the dusk was setting in, and asked whether we could stay if we bought some food. The inquisitive group of people outside seemed to think this would be a problem, and told us that we’d have to turn back. Apparently carrying on wasn’t an option as there was “nothing that way for 100km”. Normally when people give us advise like this (which is almost every day), we take it with a pinch of salt, as every time so far has been absolutely fine. With the heavy snow though, we didn’t want to take the risk, as camping would have been extremely unpleasant in those kind of temperatures. image Eventually, the owner of the cafe realised that we really didn’t have any options, and suddenly became extremely helpful. He led us around the side of the building, to a tiny caravan. Apparently, this was where the staff slept, and we were welcome to stay there to keep warm! I could have hugged him. We’d been seeing these little caravans a lot in the mountains, rather than actual houses, and were curious to go inside one. Inside we found that it was completely filled with bunkbeds, a little tv and a woodburning stove. We couldn’t believe that ten people slept in this tiny space every night. We spent the evening in the cozy warmth, chatting to our host in bad Russian (mainly answering the usual questions: “Why don’t you have children? You’re 25- you should have three children by now! Manchester United or Arsenal?” etc.) and then went to sleep in our springy bunk beds.

Our cosy caravan for the night

Our cosy caravan for the night

One of the more peculiar caravan-dwellers

One of the more peculiar caravan-dwellers, keen to impress us with his tongue trick

The day of reckoning had arrived. We had to make it to the top of the pass with enough time to descend to a warmer altitude and/or find somewhere warm to stay once it got dark. Our speedometer battery was flat, so we had no idea how far we’d come or how high up we were. For all we knew it could take us a few hours or all day to get to the top. I started to get nervous the minute we stepped outside and felt the stabbing cold. Getting going is the hardest part as it takes so long to warm up your hands and feet. Ever the master of good timing, Joe discovered (to our mutual horror) that he had a puncture just as we were about to start, so he had to get the tyre off and change his inner tube without any feeling in his fingers. (I can’t even manage it on a sunny day so I thought it was pretty impressive). An ominous beginning perhaps?

Because of the narrow-ness of the gorge we were following, the sun didn’t reach us for hours, so our hands and feet stayed numb pretty much all morning. We didn’t bother to have lunch as the bread we’d bought fresh that morning was frozen, as was all our water, so drinking wasn’t really an option either. Our plan was just to get to the top and over as soon as possible, then we could worry about things like eating and drinking. The higher we climbed, the more intense the cold became, until it reached a stage where we could no longer feel our faces. That was scary- that had never happened before. Eventually, even though we were both cycling in our down jackets (which is mental considering how hot they are to climb in), the cold felt like it had consumed our entire bodies. I couldn’t even tell whether I was holding on to the handlebars anymore. Surely we were near the top now? We could see the peaks all around us, everything completely covered in snow so thick it would have come up higher than the tent if we’d tried to put it up. Luckily the road had been clear, but even that changed the higher we climbed. Before long it was covered in a lethal sheet of ice and crunchy snow, and at that point, cycling became almost impossible. We had to get off and push for a while as is was faster than slipping off all the time.

Cold...

Cold…

It reached a new level of scary when we rounded a bend and saw a recently abandoned lorry overturned on the side of the road. It must have lost control on the ice. It was the first of many. By this point, we worked out we only had an hour of daylight left and we had no idea how close we were to the top of the pass, or whether there would even be anywhere to shelter from the cold on the other side. Even if there was, how on earth were we going to descend a steep mountain pass on a road that had turned to thick ice? Putting the tent up was absolutely not an option in such deep snow, and if we were scarily cold now, how much colder would we be once the sun disapperared? I’m not over exaggerating when I say that now panic began to set in.

Colder...

Colder…

Joe lost it first, which meant that he was the one who was allowed to panic. We seem to have a system for coping with stressful situations whereby whoever outwardly panics first is allowed the luxury of a meltdown, and the other person automatically adopts the role of the calm and rational one. Normally I beat him to it on the meltdown front, but this time I heard myself saying, “I promise you we will be warm tonight. We will sleep inside and laugh about this.” I didn’t believe it for a second.

We agreed the time had come to think about hitching a ride, and as though our thoughts had been read, around the next bend we found a transit van waiting with its doors open, and two concerned-looking brothers beckoning us in. Well that was easy. I’m against taking any other form of transport unless absolutely essential, but this time definitely counted as essential. We decided to ride with them until we saw that it would be possible to cycle again, i.e. when the road was no longer a sheet of ice and we could find somewhere indoors to stay. I was the lucky one who got to ride in the front and see what we were missing; poor Joe was assigned to the back of the van in the cold and dark. It turns out we weren’t far at all from the top, but in the ice it would have taken us until dark to reach it, and on the other side, I have never seen so much snow. A huge plateau as far as the eye could see, and absolutely no signs of life. It’s pretty impossible to describe how beautiful this was just after sunset with the pink sky reflecting on the white snow, and mountain streams as bright blue as sapphires, but I didn’t regret hitching a ride one bit. Sometimes you just have to accept that nature has defeated you. (Unfotrunately, our hands were too frozen to unzip the camera case).

To cut a long story short, the ice sheet on the road carried on throughout the mountain plateau and over the next pass, with overturned vehicles strewn all over the place. There was no way we were going to force ourselves to cycle at less that 5km/hr, falling off every five minutes and with the risk of being ploughed into by an out-of-control lorry, so we stayed with the brothers in their van until Bishkek, which was on the other side of the mountains. It was just too dangerous. And too cold. We had tried to beat the winter to Bishkek but it was laughing in our faces. Winter always wins! Anyway, the small part of us that felt disappointed at not having managed to cycle the whole way was quickly drowned out by the euphoria of a hot shower (it had been almost two weeks!) and a warm snugly hostel bed. The next morning we wandered around the city in amazement at the fact that you could actually buy things here, and eat food that wasn’t fat soup! We had been living so basically for so long and all of a sudden we had access to pretty much everything we needed. We had arrived at our winter bunker, and it was time to meet our new Russian family and start teaching English! Life was about to change dramatically for a while.

Narnia

Narnia

Wild-camping paradise

Wild-camping, fire-making paradise

Uzbekistan

(This post has been back-dated due to the lack of internet for uploading over the past month).

Uzbekistan is an immense hassle for tourists (ie. us) wishing to get money out.  Not simply because the country is 80% desert, but also because ATMs are scarse. Scarily scarse. Even in the cities.

So just how did we manage to traverse 1800km and end up on our final night making speeches through a PA in front of an audience of a hundred, the same amount of mobile phones cameras and a professional TV camcorder ?


We rely somewhat on a grapevine of information passed onto us by other tourers for such matters of nuance as the money sitation. With everyone else travelling through Iran (at time of writing, British people have been unable to move freely since April) we missed out hearing the crucial advice of entering the country with as many US dollars as possible to serve as your bank.

The €50 note and $100 note I had been carrying for such emergency measures dug us out of the north west part of the country (which was pure desert). As we crossed the border and cycled into the pitch black desert at night (where we subsequently managed to pitch up in the dark!), we were able to find traders who happily swapped the notes for local Som.  Despite the seemingly wealthy wads of cash this produced, we quickly realised that Uzbekistan isn’t the cheapest of countries; it just about bought us our train fares for the next day, food and the only “hotel” (floor in a cafe and absurdly expensive) in town.  Camping wasn’t an option here: the previous morning, we’d got stranded in the worst mud that saw us break a speed record of 200metres in three hours. 0.05km/hr.

On the eve of Carmen’s birthday we were counting our last few wads of cash and rationing every minute purchase. Tea and bread had to be justified.

Amazingly, upon opening her cards the following morning (I had been carrying them with me since Bulgaria) a €20 note greeted Carmen, all the way from Nan San and GDT on the Wirral. This would help us on the train journey but we still needed a lot more.

We knew we could probably rely on the goodwill of our fellow train passengers to feed and entertain us. A fantastic Soviet train with beds facing each other and people feasting on all sorts of produce served up by the dozens of traders hustling up and down the carriages. Fresh bread, cakes, biscuits, samosas, chocolate, drinks, the lot. They even have chefs hop on with giant vats of cooked food to dish out in plates which they collect after use.

And it wasn’t just food on the go: Barbie dolls, huge toy cars and trucks and electric appliances. All carried awkwardly through the narrow aisle in giant tall bulky plastic bags. This train had started it’s journey in St Petersbourg and I saw several Russian men alighting the train carrying their toy trucks and dolls. Subjects of Putin sporting Barbie dolls. It really didn’t conform to the stereotype. Was this the homosexual propaganda that Putin is so afraid of?

I informed the passengers in our vicinity of Carmen’s quarter-century milestone. It didn’t take long for them to share up their vodka, meat, bread, tomatoes and tea. Sadly no Barbie doll. We switched the €20 birthday note for local currency and bought ourselves some delicious plov and salad from one of the passing chefs. We kept the change and hoped we’d find ATMs once we reached Samarkand.

3rd class travel to Samarkand

3rd class travel to Samarkand.

We arrived the next morning at 5am, still pitch black, 20 hours after departure onto a chaotic platform in heavy falling snow. We carried our possessions over the railtracks and slowly rode towards the city centre 10k away, with iPad offline maps at hand to find the cheapest hotel. We rode into the sunrise with snow falling into our eyes. It was quite a beautiful scene.
More beautiful was arriving into the warm cosy hostel-like hotel and sharing an early morning breakfast with three other cycle tourers, a duo from Australia and a Thaiwanese chap. Long gone were the warm sunny days of joyfully bumping into other cycle tourers. So this came as a surprise to us as we had assumed that we were the only ones to be cycling in these colder climates. It felt reassuring to know that we weren’t alone and that others could soon be enduring such hardships as our Kazakh winter experience.

Samarkand Registan

 

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Samarkand Registan

 

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Meeting Chi from Taiwan at the hostel in Samarkand

 

We spent three hours going from bank to bank to ask if our Visa Caxton card can be used in their ATMs. Each “nyet” thrown at us added to the immense frustration of being gridlocked from doing anything. Power outages common, we’d walk into banks operating a reduced service.  After protesting some, we used crying and venting psychological manipulation to turn an unhelpful cold receptionist into an obliging and caring soul who sat us down with coffee while she phoned around to find us an ATM.  We were put in a taxi, dumped somewhere and we asked around “znayete gde Kapitalbank bankomat?”  Another hour later, our four day search was finally over.  We waited for the day’s 3rd power cut to cease and spent 20 minutes withdrawing $400 from a reluctant cash machine. Even the computer wanted to say “niet”.

Panic over. We found a lovely blues bar, sat by candleight (6 powercuts) and stayed up till 3am (9 hours after our usual bedtime) getting pissed.


We didn’t feel that we had missed much by catching the train, it all looked bleak and boring out the window.  The parts that we did cycle (from Samarkand onwards) were scenic and prosperous; roads lined with trees and with plenty of fresh fruit sellers. On a mountain pass of 2100m we asked to pitch up our tent but were given a hut to sleep in with a beautiful view.

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Over a 2200 metre pass

 

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View from our mountain hut. Approximately 1500 metres altitude.

 

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Our new Australian friends from back in the hostel had brought with them some new concepts. Among these:

Dumpster diving, cooking on the coals of fires every night, washing up gloves used as rainproof glove layers, cycling 100k a day and using a candle to dehumidify the tent for 30mins before use.

These were strange ideas to us that we assumed to be part of ordinary daily austral culture and language. And although it did baffle us a bit, we set about trying to implement some of it. (We instantly ruled out the 100k regime though). XL washing up gloves fitted perfectly over my new cheap cotton gloves and together acted as an effective pair of waterproof gloves. Genius. The candle trick may also be working, it’s hard to tell, but we have woken up to a completely dry tent on two occasions.

The rapidly reducing daylight hours and temperatures now brought about a new evening routine of gathering firewood and lighting fires every night. Not only did this toast us up tremendously but it gave us something to do other than simply fall asleep at six o’clock every day. But one step at a time; ‘cooking on the coals’ requires a little more expertise in fire management. Basic steps first eh?

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The enthusiasm we received from the locals was tremendous: constant attention and every other car honking us. It was as if we were famous. Any form of privacy whatsoever, including a simple conversation, stopped for us the minute we crawled out of our tent. Stopping for any reason such as lunch, buying a Snickers, map-check or just a quick pause would quickly force us back onto the bikes as a crowd would gather round and stare at us.

We would repeat about a hundred times a day the same well-rehearsed Russian dialogue with the locals:

-Where are you from?

England (curiously, the Russian word for this is that of our former kingdom ‘Anglia’)

-Where are you going?

Kyrgyzstan then China then south east Asia.

-Did you fly here?

No, England to here with bicycle. In Malaysia finish and aeroplane to England.

-How many days?

6 months

-How many km?

We don’t know. 6000 or 7000.

-Are you husband and wife?

Yes. (Spares Carmen the immense constant bore of men assuming they’re in for a chance)

-Where do you sleep?

Tent

-Do you have children?

Niet

-Why don’t you have children?

I don’t know.

-You are 33 and you don’t have children?

Yes.

-Are you not cold?

Niet

Just at the point of closing a conversation and taking our first pedal, we would be stopped and this entire script could be repeated. After three weeks of being deprived from having our own conversations, it did become exhausting. Sometimes the only way to get things done or even to concentrate was to shut everyone off around us for a minute, as if they were disposable avatars in The Matrix.

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Routine questionning. This one from The Melon Men, a mafia known to pull us over and offer us their goods free of charge

 

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Crowds gathering around the camera is common

We left Uzbekistan in style. As we were looking for a spot to camp we got waved in to a wedding party in someone’s garden. One minute we were exhausted from a 90k day, the next I was feasting on a flow of food and vodka surrounded by about fifty faces watching me, each person tapping my shoulder and each face shouting their questions through their golden teeth at me as I calmly ate. It was hilarious. It was chaos. Nobody would let me answer a single question before the next question would be fired. Two or three of these faces were an inch away from mine.

-Zhosef, vodka vkusno?

Da, ya lub..

-Zhosef? How years when are you?

I am thirty th

-(Tap on the shoulder) chai, chai pozhalsta, eta vkusno!

-Zhosef, my name is Abdullah and my name is (pointing to another person) Maruf

Pleased to meet you, ochen priatno, gde vi…

-Zhosef? Chai vkusno?

Da, da ochen vkusno, spaseeba

-Dance ? Eat after dance, ok?

Yes ok

-Zhosef, you dance now

Yes. Chai ee borsch patom dance, harasho?

-Zhosef,… (ad infinitum)

I was forced fed tea and vodka from all directions, everyone competing to put something in my mouth, with my mouth already full of either cakes, soup, vodka, tea, bread or meat. I was crying with laughter whilst eating. There was a professional video tape camera pointing at me. It was hospitatlitic chaos on another level and total sensory overload. Teaching groups of sugared-up 4 year old Korean kids required less management.  Here are a few photos showing my point of view.

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Nutters.

I had no idea where Carmen had been ushered to. I escaped and found her in a peaceful room by candlelight (blackout) sitting down and eating with the girls. All questioning from her audience was channeled in an orderly manner via an old lady, who conducted the interview in German and in Russian.

And then we were dancing and people were giving us money.

And then we were made to a produce a speech in English, camera phones pointing at us. I can’t remember exactly but I think I said something like:

Hello and welcome to this wedding party. Thank you for making today so special. Had a great time.

Sod the happy couple. We were the centrepiece, surrounded by dozens of faces at all times. Then, just like that, less than an hour after arriving, a couple of dozen people presented us with our belongings, ushered us to our bikes which were being steered to the exit and we were further ushered to bugger off into the night, 4000 som richer. But we think everyone may have been leaving because a minute later a van laden with golden teeth overtook us. With an arm waving from the passenger seat we heard a final “Zhosef!” disappear into the silent night.

High and merry, we cycled on for another hour or so and approached a garage to ask if we could pitch up. Naturally our bikes were put on the back of the customer’s pickup truck which was being serviced from the pit below. We waited for them to finish fixing it, and we were then taken into his peaceful family home. Two nights in one! For hours we were fed, vodka’d and tea’d by candlelight (blackouts) and put into the extremely warm and cosy floor beds that are found in every Central Asian home.

Today had been travel at its finest.

I was so vodka’d up that night that bad things happened to me. So bad that I am too ashamed to write about them. It wasn’t pretty.

The next morning we rode the last peaceful ten kilometers and proceeded through to the world’s quietest border crossing that we eventually found off the beaten track. Sunglasses on, a backstage door out of this insanely friendly country was exactly what my delicate head and stomach needed. No interviews or nothing.

Behind the backdoor was our final home-straight to Bishkek. But did we decide to take the easy route or the difficult and even potentially extreme route?
I guess you read that as a rhetorical question with only one clear answer?


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Carmen, operating a bicycle

 

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The numerous food bazaars kept us well stocked up

 

The Australian tourers also heading east at the speed of 100km/day

The two Australian tourers (right) also heading east at the speed of 100km/day

Cyclists Chi, Zig, and erm... J.

Cyclists: Chi, Zig, and erm… J.

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More aircraft marshalling

 

thjing, Samarkand

Registan, Samarkand

Kazakhstan

(This post has been back-dated due to the lack of internet for uploading over the past month).

Our first morning on dry land again after our Caspian Sea voyage, and we found ourselves standing in the middle of Aktau bazaar, bikes at the ready, wondering what on earth we should take with us into the desert. Our not-too-detailed map showed us stretches of over 100km at a time in between towns or villages, and we had no idea whether we’d be able to even buy supplies when we came to them, or whether they’d just be a cluster of houses that had made it onto the map. Nervously, we filled up Joe’s 10l water bag, packed my bags up with extra bottles of water, filled up the remaining space in the pannier bags with pasta, oats and dried fruit and decided, “Right, we’re as prepared as we’ll ever be…let’s go.”

We were eased in fairly gently, with a few villages hugging the coast and a surprisingly warm sunny day. As the road turned away to the east, we got our first glimpse of the desert proper, stretching out to all horizons and shimmering in the sunlight. It seemed like we were in a dreamworld as a herd of camels sauntered past, smiling a casual greeting. We cruised along through the warm afternoon, before pitching our tent on the sand and sitting out to watch the sunset. At this rate, the 550km to the Uzbekistan border was going to be easy!

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Hmm can you see anywhere to camp?

Hmm can you see anywhere to camp?

The next morning, the desert had different ideas. It seemed the welcome period was over and it sent a ferocious headwind our way, which we battled against all day long at less than 5km/h. In the afternoon the road changed direction slightly and it became an even more aggressive side wind, blowing us off the road several times! At around 3pm, having done only 20km but having used up more energy than a normal 70km day, and by this point pushing our bikes because it was actually easier to balance, we decided that it was pointless to keep going and set up the tent to get some shelter. Maybe it would be easier the next morning…

Nope, the desert wasn’t letting us off that easily. I woke up in my sleeping bag feeling unusually cold, to the sound of rain pattering on the tent. Boring. We tried to snuggle further into our bags and have a snooze until the rain stopped, but eventually I gave up and unzipped the tent to venture outside to investigate. I wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted me- everything was white! It wasn’t rain, but in fact snow that was falling! This was a big shock. We weren’t expecting snow for another month at least (in fact the plan was to make it all the way to Bishkek before the winter properly starts). It was still October! Two days before we’d been cycling along in the sun in our T-shirts! What on earth was going on?

Packing the tent up in horror

Packing the tent up in horror

We decided to bite the bullet and pack up as quickly as possible before our hands froze, and get moving to warm up. The wind was still ferocious, so it was pretty much a snowstorm. Wearing every piece of warm clothing we had, we set off for our first snowy ride, stopping every ten minutes to beat the ice out of our mudguards and snap the icicles off my derailleur. Our water bottles froze, and our sunglasses (which we were wearing to keep the snowflakes from blowing directly into our eyes) kept steaming up due the scarves covering our frozen faces! Does this count as ‘extreme conditions’ yet? We cycled past more camels, now looking a little out of place as they trotted along with their new white snow-coats.

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After a couple of hours, we saw to the junction we’d expected to arrive at the morning before, and right beside it, the glowing windows and steaming chimney of a chaikhana! We whooped with relief and rushed inside, to be greeted by a steaming pot of tea and plates of delicious plov (a rice and meat dish that tastes much better than it sounds). It was pretty surreal watching the blizzard through the window, trying to come to terms with the fact that it had caught up with us before we managed to beat it to Bishkek. We’d never dealt with anything this intense before on the trip and had no idea whether it would even be possible. Before we left, we’d read books and blogs of other cyclists who have done crazy things like cycle through Siberia in winter etc, but they fall into the category of ‘hardcore cycle tourers’, which we definitely do not. One thing was certain though- we only had a 15 day visa for Kazakhstan, so we couldn’t hide out in the warm forever. It was time to get back out there.

Brrrrr

Brrrrr

A few more hours of ice-cold pedalling (still against that headwind) and we started to feel anxious about where we were going to sleep. Was it even possible to get the tent up in such a ferocious snowstorm? Our map showed a little dot of a village maybe ten kilometres away, so we decided to aim for that and all would be well. Luckily a cluster of houses eventually materialised out of the whiteness, and we headed towards them looking a little more needy than usual. Before long we found ourselves sitting around a table in a warm house, drinking tea and being fed dumplings by a lovely Kazakh lady named Karina and her husband. They told us it was far too cold to be camping outside (some truth there) and laid out a couple of floor mats for us in a spare room. She even ordered me to sit at her feet and started giving me a head massage before bed! A warming end to a very scary cold day.

Houses here are huge, with three generations of families living together, and when a woman gets married, she is expected to move into her husband’s parents’ house. No more indoor toilets anymore though, so in the night you might find yourself trudging through the snow with your head torch on to the communal village hole in the ground. We learnt from the family that many villagers around this area own camels as domestic animals, and use them for milk and meat. Apparently they let them out in the morning and the camels go for a little trot around the desert, before coming back obediently in the evening to their huts. For some reason this tickled me.

We were saved from putting the tent up the next night as well. As soon as we arrived in the town of Shetpe in the early afternoon, we met a very friendly man who spoke pretty good English, and took us for a cup of tea to escape the snow. Three cups of tea later, he’d convinced us that 40km really was enough for such a bleak day, and we should stay at his family’s house. First though, he took us in his car up to the mountains to see the view from the top.

Is that a flying saucer?

Is that a flying saucer?

Monuments in the mountains

Monuments in the mountains

Luckily for us, after another bitterly cold day of riding, the sun came out and it stopped snowing. All of a sudden we could feel our fingers and toes again and enjoy riding through the stunning landscape. It was still cold enough to wake up with ice inside the tent and frozen water bottles, but as soon as the sun came up we could manage just fine. (Just as well really, as Joe had chosen this extremely cold snap as the optimum time to lose his winter gloves and so was cycling with thin wooly ones and a pair of socks over his hands. Let’s just say he didn’t take that realisation too well, quite understandably)!

For a desert, it was more hilly than we expected to begin with, with plateaus and craters like the surface of the moon, which was great as the scenery would change from time to time when we emerged from one crater and descended into the next. I found myself thinking in ‘horizons’ as units of measurement. “Shall we stop after that next horizon for a rest?” Two days out of Shetpye though and the landscape changed to the flat nothingness we were expecting from the start. It felt a bit like Groundhog Day, cycling along with nothing but the railway parallel in the distance, thinking, “This looks suspiciously like the part we were in yesterday…I’m sure I’ve seen that bit of old piping before…have we been here already?” The only thing to entertain us were the chaikhanas that seemed to pop up conveniently out of the sand around once a day. These little oasises of warmth became our lifeline, as we had already decided it was far too cold to sit outside cooking unless we absolutely had to, and we looked forward to warming our hands around a pot of tea and a hot plate of rice or bowl of borsch (cabbage soup, mmm). It was a bit hit and miss with these places though, and sometimes the only thing on the menu would be a plate full of meat…

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Amazingly, the desert decided it had maybe been a bit hard on us at first, and treated us to a powerful tailwind that had us soaring the last 50km into Beyneu, the last town before the Uzbekistan border. It felt good to be finally getting some distance done. By this point, we’d realised that at this rate there was no way we were going to be able to get across the whole length of Uzbekistan on the bikes, as we were already five days late for our 30 day visa (thanks to the wind) and it’s absolutely huge. Most people heading this way on bikes take the route through Iran and Turkmenistan, before cycling a short stretch of Uzbekistan which is possible on the visa time, but as we weren’t able to get Iranian visas, the only way we could approach Uzbekistan was from the furthest western point, and unless we planned to cycle into the night every day without stopping to talk to anyone or see anything, we wouldn’t have enough time. That hardly sounded like fun. There was planning to be done, so we needed the internet. After finding the sad-looking, ex-soviet town to be pretty much devoid of anything useful (including supplies), we decided our only option was to check into a hotel for a night. Surprisingly expensive considering it was in the middle of nowhere (they even tried to charge us extra for breakfast the next day!) but my god, it was worth it for the indoor shower. After nine days of washing in the cold with a bottle of water that is partially composed of ice crystals (a routine accompanied by lots of loud shrieking) I couldn’t help but laugh like a maniac as I stood under the hot water, thinking at the time that nothing could make me happier!

We learned that it was possible to get a train to Samarkand, but after a very stressful ten minutes in the Kazakh ‘queuing system’ at the train station, we were told that we couldn’t buy a ticket from Kazakhstan, we’d have to go to Uzbekistan. At least I think that’s what she said-it’s difficult to blunder through these exchanges in Russian at the best of times; even harder when you’ve got men on all sides, pushing you out of the way and trying to shove their passports through the window and shouting their own demands as you’re trying to translate your own dose of bad news.

The road to the border and onwards until the first town in Uzbekistan was a 400 km stretch of apparently terrible road surface, and headwinds. Weighing up our options, we decided we’d get more enjoyment cycling the eastern part of Uzbekistan in the time that we have available to us, so decided that our mission was to get that train ticket as fast as possible. It makes me sad that we don’t have time to cycle every single kilometre, but when short visas and big countries are involved, you really can’t be dealing with headwinds and short daylight hours if you’re going to make it the whole way by bicycle. I’m so impressed with the people who never have to fall back on public transport. We decided to hitch the 80km to the border and not waste our time on the bad road. Within twenty minutes, a friendly old man driving an empty minibus had stopped to give us a ride. It seemed to easy- we’d be at the border in a matter of hours- too good to be true. Of course it was. He drove 15km and stopped outside a railway engineering station. It turns out he was the driver for the engineers there.

At that point, a very bizarre stoke of fate happened. As we lugged our bikes and bags out of the bus in front of a crowd of curious engineers, a man stepped forward to greet us. He was the same man we had met over a week ago on our first day in Aktau when we got off the boat and were looking for somewhere to stay! He remembered us, and excitedly told us that we must come into their station for lunch and a cup of tea, and then he was going to arrange a pickup truck to take us to the border after we’d had a rest! It turns out he was some sort of boss man there, and had been in Aktau on business, where he bumped into us the first time. What a small world.

That afternoon, we found ourselves driving along in our newly aquired pickup truck with Albert and one of his employees, listening to russian rock music and getting to know each other. About 10k away from the border, he pulled into a little village shop and emerged with a large bottle of vodka and chocolate bars. “Now, before you go, we have Russian tradition,” he winked. Hours later, we were still 10k away from the border, by now feeling very warm and fuzzy. By this point we were all best friends, and making toast after to toast to our chance second meeting. We eventually got there just as the sun was setting (gone was the hope of putting up the tent in the daylight on the other side). After making some mysterious calls, Albert drove us straight to the front of the queue and had the border guards (in their impressive black furry hats) shaking our hands. We said an emotional goodbye, and our new friend shed a vodka-laced tear before the two of them drove off, back to work.

Albert

Albert

The border crossing was fun. Lots of different queues for stamping passports, scanning your baggage, being interrogated and filling in declaration forms. I was discreetly told by a guard to rip up my first form and start again- they were so obscurely translated and confusing that it seemed I had ticked boxes to imply that yes, I was a drug smuggler and yes, I was carrying spy-equipment into the country. He pulled me aside and instructed me to basically tick all the ‘No’ boxes, no matter what the wording said. Two hours later, passports stamped, baggage scanned, questions answered, and we were through. Out into the pitch black Uzbekistan desert.

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Our new daily travel companions

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...after stopping for a quiet lunch

…after stopping for a quiet lunch

Just an average day for the railway engineers...

Just an average day for the railway engineers…

Azerbaijan

The immediate thing that strikes us upon entering the country is the return to the Turkish-like enthusiasm of greetings and cheers from the locals. The two countries in fact share history and culture; both were part of the bygone Ottoman Empire and are even further glued by sister “Turkic” languages, which I gather are pretty much mutually intelligible. The numbers 1-20 at least are identical.

Azerbaijan had previously decided to follow in the footsteps of Turkey’s post-Ottoman westernisation by ditching the Arabic script for Latin. Russian, they also decided, was no longer really needed once it started converting to independence during the Soviet breakup. The Azeris were quick bring English into school curriculum. Consequently, most young Azeris here under the age of around 35 don’t seem to know any Russian. Nor any English for that matter. Most above that age speak Russian so we were able to practice on them.

The population is 99% Muslim,(presumably a resuscitation of Islam happened in the 1990s), though it is much less obvious than in Turkey because there are virtually no headscarves to be seen and alcohol is not concealed at all.

Anyway, history lesson over. The only reason I put that in is because I’ve just read a couple of chapters from Carmen’s heavy going “Inside Central Asia” where Azerbaijan is mentioned in the Turkey chapter. The book is so dense in technese that it’s unreadable; my brain is full up and wants to have a poo. The other reason to include it is because well really, I find the history more interesting than the country itself.

Train

We were barely one day into the country and I fall sick again. We consider our options and decide that the healthiest and happiest course of action is for me to recover alone from sickness and then catch a train to the capital Baku. Carmen would cycle off on her own and take advantage of Turkic family hospitality along the way. The police had already been warm and helpful, giving us a lift in their cop car to government offices to help us with the registration process and then take us back home again. So we felt in safe hands in this country. We were about to spend the longest time apart since May 7th.

It goes more or less to plan. I book onto the night train that would take me the 450km to Baku. My seat choices on the website are “kp”, “sv” and “pk”, I’m desperate to get the thing booked so elected a random one. “Pk” for 7 manat (£5), bargain!

The derelict train station was in the middle of nowhere, I got there early and checked with the ticket man to ensure that my bike wouldn’t be a problem. Boarding time came, each carriage had an attendant so I approached one of them to ask where to put my bike. She indicated that bikes are a problem and that I wouldn’t be getting on the train with my bike. Then she spoke with another attendant from the next carriage and said that actually I could get on if I paid a bit more. Then she saw the bike with the luggage and said that actually no, the bike is a problem really. The individual people working under the collective title of “train staff” seemed to me to be working more like separate companies with different policies.

One good thing about language barrier is that it’s so much easier to just play dumb than if you were in your own culture: I stayed put, conjured up some facial expressions and waited until I heard the next iteration of a correct answer. Maybe I thought, they’d just give up thinking inside the box and actually think up a solution. You are basically making your problem their problem.

The attendant then went off, presumably to find out how on earth she could possibly fit my small bike onto an empty 10-carriage train that was to leave in three hours. After five minutes of entertaining a growing arch of spectators around me, including a policeman, I looked around for clues but saw that the attendant was now sitting down on a bench doing nothing and making sure that my problem didn’t become her problem.
Fat useless shit.
At this point, an American expat who was also at the platform informed me that Azerbaijanis are generally unable to problem-solve. So after more waiting around patiently, certain that someone would eventually help me, the policeman took control. He found a carriage himself and put my bike on, with assistance from another carriage attendant. Bingo. Good old helpful police.

The train was a classic Soviet sleeper. The “PK” class was communal second class, 6 bunk beds arranged and stowed in doorless births. I realised that I had been on one before in 2008, travelling overnight between the capitals of North Korea and China, in “KP” or koupe class, a cabin of four beds. It was a great experience then and it was exciting being on one again. I found out that the other class “SL” means private room.

The family that joined my birth a few hours later were rubbish. Feeding their two hyperactive kids sweets until bedtime, they spent much of the journey staring at me as if I were invading their personal space. Any attempt on my behalf to communicate with them drew more expressionless blanks. Once they decided that they were ready to sleep and that their kids should now stop climbing over me and throwing balloons at me, they asked a member of staff to tell me to move from my allocated bed to the top bunk, for their comfort.

The next morning, the carriage attendant switched on the lights requesting for everyone to wake up, addressing me in person in Russian as she went past me,

“Englishman! Wake up please!”

I rolled up my bedding and sat below, once more awkwardly avoiding the awkward gaze of the Adams Family in silence for the remaining two hours.

Approaching Baku, I looked out the window in horror. Muddy, flat, brown and grey wastelands, sometimes with the odd house sitting up like an unfortunate island in a sea of hell. It was windy and rainy, I had barely slept for three days now and I missed Carmen. It was pretty depressing.

We pulled up at Baku station and I had to wait very patiently for one of the train attendants to open the carriage door for me to wheel out my bike. She curiously kept telling me to wait while she was chatting away to other staff. After ten minutes I started to realise that new passengers were boarding and the engineers were reversing the drive mechanisms. I pleaded some more to the woman before some girls boarded and asked what my problem was. I pointed to my velociped and bagazhe and indicated that I simply needed to get off. The three girls immediately helped me get all my stuff off by squeezing through the intercarriage doors and out onto the platform via the next carriage. All the while with the carriage attendant laughing and watching us. This was the same woman that the night before had decided to charge me extra for the bike; charging me for a service that doesn’t exist. And this woman had now decided to plead ignorance to my needs.

Fat useless shit.
The train left the platform the way it came less than a minute after I had got off it.

Things are different when I don’t have an attractive girl by my side, people aren’t quite as helpful. Unless of course it’s help from four attractive Russian girls!

Sleeper train carriage

Sleeper train carriage

The weather had been hard going for Carmen but luckily she was able to dry off most of the time in the evenings in the comfort of her hosts. She eventually became tempted by my warm apartment that I had booked for recovery purposes and she fast-tracked a day of cycling in a minibus and arrived three hours later.

I just asked her for descriptives of her part of the journey for the purposes of this part of the blog post.

“It was alright” is her answer.

Infer as you will. Apparently my train ride was more exciting.

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Baku

We parked ourselves in Baku for six days in the hands of a Couch Surfer named Jonathan, a scouser. Now finding myself surrounded by two of them, I kept my belongings even closer to me as we waited out to receive our Uzbekistan visas.

Seven weeks ago back in the Istanbul consulate, the clerk accidentally sent our visas to the wrong city. He offered to rectify his mistake by sending them to Baku for us to collect. The embassy in Baku was able to confirm by way of a telephone call to the Istanbul visa man in person that indeed the man had done nothing to arrange to forward on our visas to Baku for collection.
Fat useless shit.
We restarted the application process and waited all over again. 7-10 days we were told this time. We held no hope. Far better to stop expecting things to go to plan.

We filled our time in expensive Baku firstly by spending a couple of days with some of the British (and scouse) expats teaching English for oil companies.

After the USSR, Azerbaijan no longer needed to cyphen off its oil to its Soviet master so it has been able to boom and profit since then. The manat is on par with euro and costs here are very European. Baku consequently is home to a large expat community, feeding off, directly or indirectly, the country’s oil.

In our time off we enjoyed reading and watching the country’s plethora of propaganda crap. We noted with hilarity how the country mostly aspires to European standards but whilst feeling like it has to explain itself and apologise to Russia about it, almost as a sign of fearsome allegiance.

In an interview with an Azeri oil company executive that we read in a magazine:
“We plan to export to the EU more and more. Not because we favour the EU over Russia, simply because it’s good business.”

Baku is a strange place. It has a bubble of development a few square kilometres in size. This bubble stops very abruptly: perhaps 500m from the old city (which is beautiful) and main shopping area, the city rolls off into ugly derelict semi-residential wastelands comprising potholes, bulldozers and concrete blocks. Our expat friends told us that even inside the bubble, many of the buildings are merely concrete shells with nice facades.

The bubble itself is nice enough though, it’s comfortable and familiar and it could have used Paris or London as its’ style guide. It has the familiarity of having the UK commercial high-street landscape: WH Smith, Zara, Debenhams etc. to please its Anglo-Saxon diaspora. So when I say it’s nice, I don’t mean original or unique. Or even interesting really. But it’s probably what we needed, we were still low on energy, exhausting ourselves simply with an afternoon of walking around.

Baku

Baku

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Do you like cats?

Do you like cats?

We couldn’t believe it when we got a call to inform us that the visas were ready for collection. It had been six days since we reapplied. We had kind of lost hope in most things we were waiting for. To our surprise we had also received a package of replacement parts for the tent and stove that we had sent to a Warm Showers host’s address. We previously had no faith in the Azeri postal system which had many bad reviews. There doesn’t seem to be a robust address system either, finding stuff,including the embassy relies on meticulous directions on english speaking forums.

So our luck in Baku changed and bit by bit our missing pieces fitted back together again. The weather turned good and we even got on the infamous ferry to Aktau only two days after getting the visas. Carmen had to call the also infamous Russian boat lady to ask her, in Russian, when the next boat leaves and if we would be allowed on. The lady told her that it wouldn’t be today but to call back again the next morning for an update, which was what we expected. Cut to five minutes later, she calls us back and asks us to come to the port immediately to get on the ship leaving today.

Ship

We didn’t believe we’d actually get on the ship, simply owning a ticket wasn’t enough to fill us with confidence. We had to physically walk our bikes onto the ship before we were reassured that we really would be sailing away towards Kazakhstan today. We were very excited by now. It didn’t matter that we had to rush to get a taxi 70k away to the other port, contradicting all info we’d read on the forums.

Finally boarding

Finally boarding

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The two travelling motorcyclists we met in the port’s ticketing office had no such luck boarding with us. They were told they could also board but that they had to wait. After waiting, they were told to then wait more. We left them assuming we would see them on board but they never showed up. We felt rather lucky that it was all going to plan for us.

It turned out that we were put on the rail-cargo ship,which is rare for tourists to be put on, people usually have to wait longer for the standard cargo ship to leave from the city.

On board, we were able to move between three rooms: our bedroom, the living room and the dining room. Or if you prefer seaspeak, the cabin, the day room and the mess room. And of course the deck. There were 23 crew and only one other civilian passenger besides the two of us.

After sailing for four hours and into the night, we anchored up which we presumed, out of primitive logic, was because the captain can’t see where he’s going at night. The next morning, on our 14th hour, recognising the skyline, we realised that we were anchored in Baku. The actual sailing time is usually 23 hours.

The third captain, the only English speaker on board, explained that the wind was far too dangerous, at 40 metres a second, for fragile rail cargo to sail into. We would have to wait from control for permission to continue sailing.

Keen to make friends with him, I patiently asked when he thought that may be.

“3-4 days” he answered. Half way through this answer, I had anticipated the unit of time being hours. Carmen and I exchanged a brief smile that concealed our real emotions. We diagnosed the situation ourselves and decided that it was actually definitely very safe to get going. All he needed to do was switch on the headlights and accelerate away.

He invited us into the cockpit (or wheelhouse) whenever he was on watch. So like an excitable techno child, the next evening I took him up on the offer and began an acute line of questioning:
“So is it all computers these days then?”
“Is that a fax machine?”
“Is there a signalling flag that exists to mean that there’s been a hijack?”
“Can you tell from the RADAR screen what kind of vessel each one is?”
“Is that a chicken?”
“What qualifications do you have?”
“Do you not have satellite internet?”

The answers to the questions were:
“Yes, it’s all on auto pilot and we constantly check everything”
“Sort of, it’s a telex”
“No”
“Yes, I can click on each one and see data such as call sign and vessel type”
“Yes, we have 8 chickens in there, we use them for cooking…No, they don’t lay eggs”
“Marine nautical something degree for four years”
“No we don’t. Some other ships have internet and can receive their data that way. Captains sometimes use it to check Facebook”

He revealed a lot to us actually and was very honest about his job, which he didn’t really enjoy and was only doing it for the money. We were also very surprised to see that John Cleese was the first captain of the ship! He was there calmly sipping tea, expressionless yet concentrated.

The cockpit

The cockpit with John Cleese

I asked to read the manual but it was in Russian

I asked to read the manual but it was in Russian

The living room had a TV which was frequented throughout the day by the crew at various intervals. We were subjected to mostly awful pop music, surreal archives of traditional dance and AZTV, the ghastly government propaganda channel.

We observed that the country has many ingredients of a successful dictatorship:
-The ex-president’s face is framed in virtually every building and public space, including the vessel’s living room.
-If not the ex-president then his son, the current president.
-The current president has a silly moustache.
-The president’s daily movements are reported constantly by news. In much of the footage, he appears alongside huge framed versions of himself, or of his father.
-The president likes to go to places and look at things.

I would observe many of the crew members staring at this channel with no sense of expression, curiosity or disdain. As if they were accepting and absorbing what they were fed. Subjects of His quasi-dictatorship.

The good thing about such regimes though is election time. A local we had met who served in the army (compulsory) told us that they are given their ballot papers with the vote pre-ticked for the current leadership. Saving the populace entirely from troubling themselves with the hassle and energy of having to work out who to possibly vote for. (Our friend asked for a blank ballot for his vote.). Far less hassle the autocratic way!

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Even though we stayed anchored out to sea close to Baku for 68 hours, we very much enjoyed our time on board, from the beginning. Nothing to do other than recover, read, write this blog and eat our rations at the set 3 times a day. The crew bemused themselves at how much I ate (or wanted to eat). Every meal consisted of chicken and some form of carb accompanied with some great soups, including our favourite shchee. Breakfast did little to break our fast though: stale bread and sometimes semolina. The livingroom had a table tennis so that kept us active.

Lunch

Lunch

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At first the crew all seemed indifferent to us. They spoke neither Russian nor English so I guess it was mutual that we felt cut off from one another. We were surprised on the third night, during the storm when one of the dinner ladies came into our cabin and told us to dress up warm. She watched me put my trousers on and waited for us to accompany her outside. We had no idea what was going on. Actually that’s not true, we had a very good idea what this could have been about as we slowly walked to deck which I now recall in slow motion.

Much to our great relief, the lifeboats weren’t being lowered, the 23 crew weren’t wearing life jackets and neither was there a sombre looking captain shutting himself in the cockpit. Or a string quartet! Everyone was stood on deck around a table next to a fire with meat cooking on it! We were quickly offered red wine and some chicken. Red wine! Being British, we had been craving to fill this void of activity with drinking but didn’t expect wine to ever be on the cards. Guess the crew must have made up the 1% of the country’s non-Muslims!

Huge delight overcame us as we realised that being on the deck of a cargo ship in a small windy rain storm feasting on wine and food next to a fire on the Caspian Sea with a bunch of Azerbaijani sailors on route to Khazakstan is probably once in a lifetime experience. Try saying that aloud without pausing to breathe.

And all of a sudden, we all became friends, language was no longer a barrier, the crew opened up and each top up of wine was accompanied with a clinking of glasses. By the end of the evening, we had to leave as many of the young sailors’ tails were wagging in overdrive at Carmen’s presence and they couldn’t stop themselves taking photo after photo of themselves next to her.

Until this point we believed that John Cleese was the captain of the ship, he looked wise and he was the oldest. I was delighted to be rubbing shoulders with him. Carmen and I competed to see who could cheers him the most. Joe 5-2 Carmen. Then we learnt he was just the telex operator. The first captain was the geezer in the cap. He wasn’t keen on having his photo taken. It later occurred to me that maybe it was because it’s massively illegal to have any kind of fire on a cargo ship containing an oil train-tanker just below our feet.

BBQ

BBQ

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John Cleese with the first captain standing behind

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We retreated to the cockpit to get away from the manfest. Our English speaking captain was on watch and his calm sweet, composed and polite manner was a welcome end to the fantastic night. The cockpit was a calm and dark place lit up only by the flashing LEDs, with crew almost whispering whilst sipping tea, eating biscuits and checking up on beeping noises produced by the various technomachines. The captain’s English lexicon was at times wonderfully genius. Nighttime became night o’clock and crossing or journey was a voyage. These words tickled me whenever they came up in conversation.

“If we arrive at night o’clock we will complete the voyage maybe in the morning and go to the jetty.”

The second dinner lady warmed to us after a couple of days and on morning three we were rewarded for good behaviour with a shower and some laundry.

John Cleese

Our final night of the voyage was celebrated with another BBQ which went on well into night o’clock. The first captain’s powers stretched into socialising. He commanded verbally over salad preparation and fire maintenance. Then, after several sweet wines, silliness ensued. On the captain’s orders, salt was mixed with a sailor’s wine behind his back, producing a hurl of laughter at cheersing point. Then I cheersed John Cleese, using his name.

“What is ‘Jon Kleez’?” asks the captain in broken English.

I explained.

“Then you must show me on the internet. NOW!”

We marched to his palacial suite. He seemed to be the only crew member with a computer connected to the internet. No sooner had I typed “John Cleese” into Google images, the captain was roaring with hysterical laughter. He grabbed the tannoy and summoned John Cleese into his room, his voice echoing throughout the ship’s PA. By the time Cleese had arrived, we were watching the ministry of silly walks and the hitler march from Fawlty Towers, with the captain in exaggerated hurls of laughter, almost falling back behind his chair. I had never actually seen anyone LOL. LOL!

To our astonishment Cleese immediately replicated what we were watching, almost like an obliging monkey pleasing His hysterical powerful master and his guests. He seemed to be able to be John Cleese down to the T. We went on deck and took a load of photos.

John Cleese having watched videos of himself performing

John Cleese having watched videos of himself performing

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Brilliant.

We arrived in Aktau, Khazakstan five days after leaving the Azeri port. 70 hours of this was spent anchored in Baku waters and the remaining 25 hours anchored in Aktau.

We are now about to experience our first ever desert before the home straight to Kyrgystan where we will settle and build a life long enough for the icy winter to pass for some four months or so.

So there you go. A blog entry without a single story of cycling.

 

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Leaving Baku

Leaving Baku

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The english speaking third captain

The lovely english speaking third captain