Luke and I left Osh mid morning after negotiating transport with one of the local drivers. We had got ourselves down to the bazaar for a little after 9:00 a.m. and were swamped by the gang of drivers all trying to get our business. This all got a little unpleasant as they jostled and pulled us around and still feeling pretty beat up I was in no mood for it. They backed off.
Eventually one of the quieter drivers offered to take us to Bishkek for 2,500 com each (about $50) after we bartered and insisted we had the estate car, our bags and one bicycle to ourselves – we’d both had enough of being crammed into jeeps with other passengers on a 10 hour plus journey! As it turned out he was one of the best drivers I’ve ever ridden with, taking the road conditions with care but with an experienced amount of speed. At no point did he look like loosing control and we were both extremely impressed by his skill in the snow and ice.
Once we left the city it soon became clear that there was no-way either of us could have cycled this route. Fresh snow lay over the hard packed ice on the roads and the conditions were truly treacherous. Once we reached the valley separating the passes the temperatures plummeted and I took the following picture – minus 25° and the sun had yet to go down!
I like to think I’m pretty tough and will generally accept a bit of a challenge, but cycling in these conditions would be just foolhardy and even suicidal. I remember being told about a cyclist doing this route last November, who after camping in the valley (if you embark on this route you’d have little choice) died in his tent of exposure. So I was shocked to see a cyclist at the side of the road 200 km from Bishkek obviously struggling. What was he thinking? I don’t think I was being unkind when I told Luke the man was a complete idiot, because he’d of known exactly what he was doing – he was too far in the pass not to have had the choice of turning around. Still, I hope he made it through.
It was 9:30 p.m. by the time we reached the hostel in Bishkek, where we were made very welcome and I quickly rustled up some hot food and a drink as we had not eaten for ten hours. Note to self – take food with you next time!
Then it was a quick check of emails before crashing out exhausted.
Fundraising and replacing my bike
I’m truly overwhelmed with the response to my call for help. Alongside the donations which many of you have been kind enough to make, I have been offered a new frame and forks by Surly along with other necessary parts and these are now on their way from America. I could not have afforded to replace the bike and wait around here in Bishkek for them to arrive without your help. To be able to continue is all I ever wanted – you have made this possible. Words cannot express my gratitude to each and every one of you and I have planned a tough itinery to take full advantage of your kindness, if things go well for me. Details below.
I’m trying to be frugal in using the donations given because the daily cost of staying here in Bishkek while awaiting the replacement parts will quickly eat them away, along with the costs involved in getting parcels sent from the UK. DHL have charged me £170 for one box – absolutely scandalous but I had no choice. I think my biggest single outlay will be getting out of here, as it is now not possible to cycle, the roads are impassable for bicycles. That just leaves a train or flight and I have decided to fly to Beijing in China (as riding through the mountains of China would be very unwise in winter), then cycle south from there to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
If I have sufficient funds available, I’ll then take a flight out of Singapore to Vancouver in Canada, then embark on cycling across this huge country and down to New York. I will then cycle across America (almost certainly without any significant funds – a ‘goodwill tour’) to San Francisco. Again I have to re-iterate, without help this would not be possible, but what a challenge. Can’t wait to start cycling again!
For now though I’m slowly recovering. My head is the main cause of concern as I’m pretty sure their must be nerve damage because I have no feeling (apart from the blinding headaches) on the left side, but decent medical help does not seem likely here in Bishkek. My chest is very painful too, although I’m sure this will eventually ease as the bruising disappears. So I’m left just hanging around waiting for the kit to arrive and as nothing happens quickly in Kyrgyzstan, guess I just have to be patient.
Dealing with failure
Sometimes the hardest thing you can do is admit you failed. Well I failed.
It had always been my dream to cycle to Everest base camp, taking in the Pamir Highway along the way. The thing about having dreams is they should challenge you, least that is my take on them and when they don’t work out, you have to step back and look at what went wrong. From the very beginning my plans went awry. Maybe in my naivety I was asking too much, but the first major problem was having my passport stolen in Africa. This put me behind schedule, but I still felt I could get there before the trails closed (to cycles) due to winter snow.
Riding the Pamir Highway I would almost certainly have been the last cyclist crossing the high passes. Helen LLoyd was the last one to come the opposite direction and already it was starting to close in. I would have made it, had it not been for the unfortunate incident with the 4×4 and I’m struggling to come to terms with my failure, even though it was not my fault.
I have been thinking long and hard about what and where I should do/go next. I think I’ve missed the boat with Nepal, as it would now be impossible to ride the trails and while I could always settle for trekking, this is not what I wanted.
I am also not sure about my health. I know the accident has damaged my right ribs and this area is very painful, but am I struggling because of this or is my condition worsening? Because I can’t answer this question (and won’t be able to until the pain subsides) I feel waiting around is not beneficial. Getting into and the out of Nepal will take two flights whichever way I go and would mean me waiting around in India until conditions are right. I’d see this as wasted time, because there is so much more I want to do before ill health stops me.
So I’m thinking get the Visa for China in Bishkek, Visit Beijing and a few other places then make my way to Laos, visit South East Asia, then because of the kind donations I think it might just be possible to fly to Canada or America. I would so much love to end my tour here if things didn’t work out, but that would be a long way off and there is much cycling to do to even get there!
Back to the present and I met another Pamir Highway hopeful in Khorog, Luke, who quickly realised he was too late to take it on. We shared transport to Osh and will be sharing time together in Bishkek as he helps me build up a new bike so that I can continue my travels. More on this in the next blog. I also met up with a crazy (but very nice) German cyclist called Heino, who was keen to show me how he wanted everybody to know he was riding for world peace and a few other noble causes – quite a character!
Which just goes to show this journey is not just about me as I’ve met some truly amazing people along the way. The hospitality in Central Asia is legendary and I have experienced this myself first hand. Here’s a few images of some of the people who have changed my blinkered view of this whole continent forever:
The driver of the 4×4 is sat next to me in the photo above, and in the photo below is the kind patriarch that never left my hospital room during my initial convalescence.
I love children and had no end of fun playing games with them, despite my injuries. These included horse riding (I was of course the horse!), peek a boo, hide and seek and many more.
Food is never far away when you are invited to join a local family and this can mean you spend all day eating, as it’s considered rude to refuse. The fellow in the army uniform was in fact the English teacher at the local school – his English was pretty good!
And that’s it for this update. You’re probably all wondering how I’m doing recovering from the accident, well the leg is slowly returning to normal and my wrist though painful is usable. The big problem is the headaches and chest pain, the latter making breathing difficult. I will look at finding a decent hospital in Bishkek as the headaches really are very fierce and constant – my head is still numb on the left side and so I need to get it checked out.
I travel with Luke to Bishkek in the morning where we hope to sort out a bike for me, thanks to some very kind help. I’ll tell you all about this and how the fundraising is going in my next blog. Stay tuned…
Riding the Pamir Highway – The Impossible Dream
After all the bad news concerning my recent accident, I think a more positive blog post is required.
I’ve been told by friends and strangers that I’m an inspiration. If this is true then I’ve achieved at least one of my goals, which is to show others there is life and even adventure after being told you have cancer.
I’m no hero, but let me tell you the story of a Yorkshire lass (which explains her grit and determination) who was, and who became the single biggest influence and inspiration to me. Her name is Jane Tomlinson. Told she had six months to live, Jane had two choices: give up, or grab every moment and make the most of any time granted to her. She went on to raise £2 million for cancer charities, gained an OBE, became an inspiration to millions – and me.
Jane had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 26, but after having her breast and lymph nodes removed, she was told she was in remission. However, a decade later it returned, and in August 2000, a consultant told her she had six months to live (while the timelines are different, this is also what happened with my own wife Caroline).
Eighteen months after that diagnosis and various chemotherapy treatments later, to the astonishment of her doctors, she finished the London Marathon. That was just the start of her amazing endeavors and with her brother Luke, she completed a 1,060-mile bike ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End and then a 2,500-mile Rome To Home bike ride. In July and August 2006, Jane spent nine weeks cycling 3,800 miles across the United States, raising £250,000. This was to be her final cycling challenge.
On 3rd September 2007 Jane died peacefully in St Gemma’s Hospice, Leeds, West Yorkshire. She had defied both the doctors and the odds for over seven years.
Just over 12 months ago I also was told my cancer had returned. I immediately decided I wasn’t going to bother with treatment, not really much point this time. I suggested that I’d like to go off and do some cycling and this was met with enthusiasm and the words “it will even be beneficial, where will you go?”
‘Oh, I was thinking of cycling across the roof of the world (Pamir Highway) and onto the himalayas’
“Derek, you need to choose an easier challenge. In 12 to 18 months time you will most likely not be able to cycle at all, let alone ride in the mountains. What you are suggesting is impossible.”
‘That’s great, I like impossible and thank you for being so candid with me.’
After I’d completed the first part of the Pamir Highway, resting up in Khorog, I remember a conversation I’d had with Clive (who’s father sadly had only recently been diagnosed with cancer) and he asked me “do you think it’s possible to heal yourself?” to which I replied an emphatic ‘no‘. My illness is not going to go away and the chest x-ray taken after my recent accident clearly shows the damage caused by the cancer. The only thing I believe is that being positive helps and I think of Jane, who defied all the odds for a further seven years. I’ll ride until I no longer can, that’s all I can say for certain.
I may not have completed the full Pamir Highway, but I rode most of it and this makes me very happy on a number of counts. Firstly proving that impossible is indeed possible if you have belief in yourself, though I have to admit to having some doubts as to whether I could actually pull it off. Next I know from the various messages I’ve received that my travels and fortitude in the face of substantial adversity is helping others, this for me is the most pleasing aspect of what I’m doing.
I now face my biggest challenge to date, replacing the kit damaged in the accident. The bike I’ve now learned is a total write-off and along with the additional kit listed in my previous blog, this will completely empty my meager fund pot. This is why I’m asking for help. Not where I wanted to be, but sometimes things happen that you just cannot predict. If you’d like to help, please consider making a small donation by clicking the button in the right sidebar, or the one below. Thanks.
If I do manage to continue, then I plan to ride across the USA without money. I will call this trip “The Goodwill Tour” and every American I’ve so far spoken to tells me this is possible – sounds like a good next challenge!!
The 4WD jeep came around the corner on my side of the road, leaving me with only a split second to make a decision – stay on the same line with the vehicle coming fast towards me, or switch inside. I chose the latter, but so did the jeep. I don’t remember the impact and to be honest I’m so glad for this, because I know from the damage to both the bike and myself it would have been pretty awful.
Next thing I knew I was waking up on a trolley in the hospital in Vrang, screaming in pain as a splint was being applied to my left leg. I couldn’t see out of my left eye and my ribs were crushed, making breathing very difficult and painful. The doctor told me they would be taking me to Khorog hospital as they had better facilities, but I just wanted something to numb the excruciating pain. The journey on the mountain road was long and sheer hell, every bump adding to my discomfort and for the first time I wished it had all been over for me.
Arriving at the hospital in Khorog, I was immediately taken into surgery so my forehead and eye could be fixed up. There’s no finesse in this and I know the scar it will leave will be pretty unsightly. Not that it matters. I begged for painkillers, but had to make do with the ibruprofen tablets given to me by Stefan – nowhere near sufficient to blunt the pain. This was my lowest point, many of you think I’m strong but this incident saw me falling apart.
I stayed in the hospital for 4 days. The biggest problem apart from my constant discomfort was the risk of infection – this hospital was a million miles from the cleanliness we take for granted in Europe. I was not allowed to have a bath or shower during my stay and I stunk, adding to my feeling of just not coping with all this. It was with huge relief I learned the drivers family would take me to their home in the Pamir’s and care for me, this included taking me daily to the hot springs – sheer bliss. The family really did look after me, despite the police trying (and to an extent succeeding) in taking money from them. I insisted I did not want any money from the family, their kindness was more than enough and had quite a battle with the police about this. The corruption is a part of Tajikistan I have witnessed first hand and it’s very widespread.
I was given a lift back to Khorog with the hope of a lift then onto Murgab, but this never happened and I’m now even further away from Murgab, Osh and Bishkek. I’m really not good, as apart from the constant pain I have also developed a bout of sickness and diarrhoea which saw me violently ill last night. I’ve met another cycle traveller in the Pamir Lodge and we will see if it’s possible to arrange onward transport.
I need help
I have never publicly asked for help before, but if I’m to continue then I desperately need it. The biggest headache is where to get the new kit sent to in Bishkek, without having it taken apart by customs and charged ridiculous amounts. I’m wondering if it might be worth contacting the British Embassy in Bishkek for help?
I have put a “donate” button on my blog in the right hand sidebar (and also below), but if anyone would like to offer specific help then please get in touch with me.
Here is the list of kit which needs replacing:
Full set of front and rear Ortlieb Roller Plus Panniers
Front Ortlieb Bar Bag
Ortlieb Rack Pack 49L
Front Disc Specific Rim (to build up using my Supernova Infinity 8 Hub – I’ll get this done in Bishkek)
Spokes for above (please can someone check the size for me?)
Surly Disc Trucker Front Forks - Edit – The bike is a total write off
Headset for above
Mudguard for above
Schwalbe Marathon Mondial Tyre (might as well get a pair)
So that’s about all for this quick update. I have pictures and a nice story for my next one, but need good internet access to upload – this a an old PC in the youth center I’m using right now.
Firstly let me tell you about some really tragic news. Clive met up with me in Khorog and told me he may have to go back to the UK soon as his father (diagnosed with cancer just a few weeks ago) was deteriorating and he needed to get back asap. He left this morning (Thursday 31st October) for Bishkek and a flight home.
Although we had found riding together difficult, we had become firm friends in the times when we met up and I will miss him. I remember when I caught up with him on the Pamir Highway the first thing I saw when I got close enough was his huge smile – it can cheer even the weariest of souls. I’m sad for him that he’s had to leave at this point, because I know completing the Pamir was just as much a dream for him as it is for me. We’ll keep in touch and I hope it isn’t too long before he resumes his travels, but I’m also mindful that his family and father need his full attention now. Good luck my friend and I sincerely hope we meet again.
When I took my lift to Khorog, I had no idea how much help I would receive from Stefan and Tanya, although being taken to a restaurant for a meal before being dropped at the hostel should have given me a clue. I was offered use of their office WIFI and took them up on it the next morning, when I also got a better insight into just what they are doing in Tajikistan. Stefan is from Germany and has been working here since 2003 and met Tanya (who is Italian) two years ago when they worked together on a project. There meeting has a nice story to it, as two cycling friends who had met Stefan contacted Tanya (who was then living in Montana, USA) and told her they had found her a husband. She had never met Stefan, but had exchanged emails with him during collaborating on a project. When they did meet it was obvious they were compatible and a relationship developed.
They now both work for an organisation called Panthera, Tanya being the Snow Leopard Program Coordinator here in Tajikistan. I intend to do a full featured article on their work in the coming months (after I do my research) as a thank you for their kindness, but you can learn more about their work at: http://www.panthera.org or visit the Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/pantheracats
I was so tired after the first part of the Pamir Highway that I decided to take an extended break in Khorog. This first section had been the longest I had gone without a proper rest and I was exhausted on all levels. It was also a good opportunity to sort out a few issues, not least of all the annoying breakages associated with my rear pannier racks (I’ve gone through more than a dozen bolts and zip ties). I’m happy to say with the finding & purchase of industrial strength zip ties the problem is now (hopefully) finally sorted.
Wandering around both myself and Clive managed to find all our provisions in the local market and bazaar while enjoying the local cuisine made on the spot:
We also met up with a photographer and features editor doing a piece on the local area, both from Turkey. Their website(s) seem to be under construction, but I’ll try to establish contact later. I’ve not done much other exploring of Khorog, preferring to just relax and recoup my strength for the next part of the Pamirs which I will begin in the morning.
I’ve no idea when I will next get internet access, it may be in Murghab which is probably two to three weeks away. If I manage to log on sooner I’ll post a quick update. More soon…
Why am I doing this?
That was my thought as I awoke to find my tent covered in ice half way up a mountain. I had put my water bottles inside the tent, but they were still frozen solid. I remembered Gillian telling me she had to wait until the sun rose and warmed things up and it wasn’t until 10:00 a.m. that I got on my way again. I was having serious doubts about my ability to do this and wondered if maybe the doctor was not just being cautious after all.
I’m going to describe my journey through the Pamir’s in the form of a dairy, as I hope it will help others planning a similar trip. So let’s rewind to Dushanbe where I had enjoyed a good rest with a WarmShowers host, Veronique and her son Gabriel.
Veronique opens up her home to cyclists travelling and told me they have had as many as 15 travellers stay at one time – a truly wonderful host.
Clive had asked me how long I thought it would take to get to Khorog, the next stopping off point and our last chance to rest and clean up before we entered the Wakhan Valley. I’d worked it out at eight days (turned out I was spot on for Clive!) but never imagined how difficult this section would be, as Clive took the southern (longer but easier) route and I headed north over a huge pass.
Day 1 – Dushanbe to Takhtakhamit 72 km
A surprising amount of climbing on this first day (1435 m) as after 30 km of smooth tarmac the scenery changed and it was evident I was heading back into the mountains.
Soon after the tarmac ended to be replaced by the gravel roads I was by now so accustomed to riding. I followed the course of the huge river on my right, which would later become the dividing line between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It was enjoyable, but hard riding. I’d decided long ago to not worry about how far I rode in a day, I’d simply let the terrain dictate my progress (or lack of!).
Day 2 - Takhtakhamit to junction of A372/M41 78 km
The scenery was stunning as I passed through the first checkpoint, where my Pamir Highway permit was studied and then handed back to me. I spotted these beautiful painted stones signifying I was now on the Highway proper.
Clive had decided not to take the northern route because he’d been told one of the bridges was down, but I found no evidence of this and in fact the streams I crossed were nothing more than trickles, even after the rain on day two.
The valley closed in on both sides and the river had now become a fast flowing torrent as the clouds gathered and the rain started. It didn’t last long, but once again I was reminded how quickly weather changes in the mountains.
Towards the end of the day I got my first sight of the snow capped high mountains, just peeking through the clearing clouds. It was a pretty special moment for me as I knew now I would finally arrive at my destination which had both inspired and (still) scared me after another days climbing, this time 1384 m.
Day 3 – Junction of A372/M41 to Control Post 52 km
Another tough day of climbing (1540 m) from the valley floor and my legs were by now quite heavy, so my speed had dropped dramatically. I called it a day early and slept for 10 hours, after cooking a nice meal of macaroni milk pudding and dates, yummy!
Day 4 - Control Post to half way up Khaburabot Pass 37 km
The Khaburabot Pass at 3252 m is my highest pass to date and I was under no illusions as to how difficult this would be for me, but I’d determined it would be a good test for what was (hopefully) yet to come. I was by now definitely feeling the effects of the altitude and today’s effort of 37 km took me eight and a half hours – painfully slow going. But I was hanging in there and had yet to get off and push, so was quite proud of my 1524 m of climbing which took me over half way up the pass.
I camped in a small pasture and watched the sun cast it’s golden glow on the snow capped peaks. It was cold once I was out of the sun and I wasted no time in getting into my comfortable sleeping bag, then cooking my meal in the tent awning. The temperature plummeted to well below freezing, a reminder that I was behind my original schedule and myself and Clive would probably be the last people to tackle the highway this year.
Day 5 – Half way up Khaburabot Pass to Kalaikhum 52 km
The final few kilometers to the pass summit proved too steep and difficult for me to cycle, so I pushed the bike until I reached the summit plateau. It was ridiculously cold even in the sunshine, so I donned my duvet jacket and made a hot meal in the shelter before starting the descent. I had seen no-one on the climb, it had been a very lonely and solitary affair.
Over on the hillside there was an abandoned building, I assume they’ve all left for the winter as I saw no signs of life.
I made my way steadily down the long (37 km) descent, on a mixture of broken tarmac and dirt track. I was mindful to not allow the bike to get too much momentum as I was already on my last set of bolts for the panier racks, in fact one was held together with zip ties after the battering they had gotten on the rock strewn roads.
It was an amazing descent, frightening at times but a real feast of adrenaline. I wondered what it would be like on a unloaded mountain bike, thinking this would be the ultimate destination for anyone with sufficient funds to organise a supported tour of the area.
At times the road narrowed to single track, clinging precariously to the hillside with scary drops to the valley. It was no place to be complacent or lose concentration and I found it extremely tiring, not just on a physical level, although I regularly had to pause to unlock my fingers from the brake levers. Negotiating the more difficult rocky sections strangely became quite enjoyable as there is no doubt my bike handling skills have improved enormously over these last few months of riding difficult terrain.
Once I had returned to the valley, I made my way towards Kalaikhum and my overnight camp. Although it had been another relatively short day I was exhausted and found a quiet spot in a field just beyond the Kalaikhum control post, where once again they examined my Pamir permit.
Day 6 – Kalaikhum to Baravin-Tar 72 km
Despite my tiredness I woke early as it had been a warm night due to heavy cloud cover, which made for an early start to the day as I didn’t have to wait for the sun to warm things up. The sun tried to break through and a few lines from the Moody Blues came to mind (see pic below).
The road was now doing an impression of a roller coaster as it constantly went up and down, making the going pretty tough. I met two Japanese cyclists on this section coming from the Wakhan Valley and we chatted for a while and then exchanged details, see http://www.sekiji.net/
They had passed another British cyclist a few kilometers ago and this turned out to be Clive who had taken the southern route, so I set off to try and catch up with him – a big mistake as I later paid for the effort it took to join him. We rode for a while together and Clive seemed quite put-out that he had been given bum info about the bridge being down. I was amazed that he had covered so much ground and it was clear he is a lot stronger than me now, as I let him ride off while I searched for somewhere to camp. The days climbing came to 1665 m, which in 72 km is very heavy going and too much for my tired legs.
The sun did finally clear a patch of blue sky, but a strong wind was developing.
Day 7 - Baravin-Tar to Khorog 134 km
Horrendous. That’s about all I can say about the first part of day 7, which saw me hitching a lift for the first time. The reason wasn’t hard to justify, I had battled for 55 km through the worst headwind (and subsequent dust clouds) I’ve ever experienced and was totally exhausted. I could have camped, but I was already looking at being a full day or more behind Clive in Khorog and so the decision was an easy one. Getting a lift was not, as I waited two hours before I found my saviors, by which time I was frozen to the bone in the chilling wind.
So here I am sat in a cosy office in Khorog, using their WIFI. I’ll tell you all about my new friends and Khorog in my next update. More soon…
The road to Samarkand had little of interest, mainly cotton fields and more broken tarmac, although in fairness the surface was generally a lot better than what had gone before. It was a relatively short leg at just 278 km, which I broke down into three days riding. Although undulating (2,200 m of height overall) it had been much easier than I expected, probably because the headwind had not been as strong and I think the extended rest in Bukhara had helped me regain some strength.
The Bahodir hostel which had been recommended took some locating, even though I knew it was in the center of town and was fairly close. After being given the run-around by various locals and taxi drivers I finally found someone to take me there. Which brings me to an important point, my thoughts about Uzbekistan are constantly changing. I’ve noticed more so than any of the other central Asian countries that there is a real mix of feeling towards ‘cycle tourists’ and the way we are treated. On the road here I was stoned by the young kids, the first time this has happened in Asia. The majority of store keepers charge us well over the odds (or try), sometimes really taking the p**s and some locals have proved a little hostile. Yet it is one of the most hospitable countries I have visited and the kindness I have been shown has been amazing. Two sides to the coin I think.
I waited until 5 p.m. to see if Clive would turn up, as a double room (shared) was cheaper than a single, but when there was no sign of him I figured he’d probably run into some problem en-route. The single room was quite large and freezing cold, as the temperature had dropped during the day. All I wanted was a warm shower, but it just ran cold. Not impressed. Next morning it was still cold, so I decided to go for a walk and hopefully after speaking with the owner I’d have some hot water on my return.
Clive turned up at lunchtime. He’d had the same sickness as me and had been looked after by a local family, another example of Uzbek kindness.
During my walk I located the best supermarket I’ve been in since arriving in Central Asia, because it had just about everything (food wise) I needed for the next leg of the trip. I’d return later to collect my supplies.
Samarkand was much different to both Khiva and Bukhara with wide boulevards, cultivated lawns and huge parks, so much so if it wasn’t for the mosques and other ancient buildings (which have a very similar look) you’d think you were in a different country. The most noticeable feature was the overall tidiness and the feeling I got was that they take great pride in keeping it that way, though I never ventured far due to time constraints. But once again the architecture was simply stunning.
I set out the following morning towards my next destination, Dushanbe. We had reckoned it would take five days, but almost immediately I realised I had stomach problems and the first day was very hard, with a tough pass to climb. By lunch time I was getting stomach cramps and I struggled to finish the days riding, earlier than planned. The pass had been beautiful though, as once more I was back in the mountains I love so much.
Falling into bed later feeling pretty ill, I awoke during the night vomiting violently and was not quite quick enough to get out of the tent. By morning my stomach was empty and I was hungry, but any attempt to eat just saw it come back out. I considered staying put, then thought some exercise might help, so packed up and set off again. It was a short day, the roads were (thankfully) relatively flat but in places pretty awful and the scenery had returned to more tree lined roads and cotton fields – not very inspiring.
I had not eaten much for two days or been able to keep anything down, so used up the last of my energy drink tablets. On the third day it was back to climbing and although I felt very weak, I did manage to keep going. Thinking my main challenge would come from the altitude and all the hard riding, I never thought that food poisoning would play such a major part in this adventure. However speaking to other travelers (and seeing Clive have the same problems) it seems this area is famous for it’s cuisine, obviously not the quality of it either!
It wasn’t until I arrived in Dushanbe, a day later than planned that I was eating again (sadly I’d been offered hospitality by a local farmer the night before, but refused because of my sickness) and although it seems I’m having horrible luck, there are many highlights too. I’d met another British cyclist on the way here called Matt who had stopped with a Warmshowers host and he passed on the details to me, so I had a place to head for when I arrived. As I was wandering around looking for the house I bumped into another cyclist from the UK, Gillian, who was also staying with Veronique, our French host now living and working in Dushanbe. A real stroke of luck as I’m sure I’d never have found it on my own. Gillian shared her experiences with me, having just finished the Pamir Highway herself and her help was much appreciated.
I’ll leave the story of Dushanbe and my departure for the Pamir Highway until my next update, which may be in a while as I’ve no idea if I’ll get WIFI along the way. Hopefully more soon…
I stayed an extra day in Bukhara, to try and settle my still grumbling stomach and improve my general feeling of lethargy. To be honest I did very little, tiredness is very evident and I’m unsure if it’s a culmination of the hardships and illnesses of these last few weeks, or my underlying illness finally catching up with me. This worries me. I still have not yet (in my own mind) started the adventure I set out to accomplish and my breathing difficulties in the desert made me realize it’s not an easy challenge I have embarked upon.
But I’m close. The excitement within me is building all the time as I travel further East. Here in the hostel an Austrian couple have arrived after coming from the Pamir Highway, telling tales of the beautiful mountains and wonderful hospitality. It gives me courage and I chase about on the internet for stories from other cyclists who are on, or just finished the same journey. I know I can do this.
Talking of the hostel, they are a great place to meet other travelers and adventurers. Two Russians left yesterday for Samarkand, but they were not just ordinary travelers. These two guys are getting quite famous and building a following online, because they have chosen to do something ‘different’. Rather than write about them myself, I’ll give you a link to the Daily Mail article which does a pretty good job. Click Here
Then there’s Jeppe, a young (20) Danish backpacker traveling around the world. At 16 he was in a band, making movies. Just talking to him you realize he’s obviously gifted, and yet another example of the type of person I’m glad to have met, someone who wants to experience all the world has to offer instead of sitting at home on the couch. It’s the huge diversity that is making this trip so memorable.
Bukhara itself is a nice place to rest up. It had been a very hard four days getting here from Khiva, the first two days spent battling the ever increasing headwind were just cruel – I’ve never loathed being on the bike so much. Then when the wind did drop on day three the flies were everywhere, crawling in my mouth and up my nostrils. I’m not sure if this wasn’t worse than the headwind, which obviously keeps away the flies. I suffered, but just kept on. You have to.
When I finally ventured out to take photographs, I was impressed with this old city. The renovations don’t seem as noticeable as in Khiva and maybe the tourist season is ending, because it’s pretty quiet here with much less hassle from vendors and stall holders. You still need to be on your mettle when shopping, prices can be inflated and I’m getting reasonably good at haggling them down. But the real gems are the buildings, of which there are many to satisfy any photographer.
In both Khiva and Bukhara there were many weddings taking place, something which pleased the tourists in the large public areas. In some of the shots I waited until they had gone, but here I think they add to the picture:
We visited ‘The Ark’, which was unusual in that we paid to go inside and see the museum exhibits. Interesting, but quite a small collection. No photos were allowed inside, though I did sneak the odd one or two.
Note the water tower in the picture below. It used to be open and you could climb to the platform, but now it’s fenced by barbed wire. This didn’t stop me getting some pictures from the top though.
Once back outside, we wandered into the bazar to buy some food for the next stage of our journey. We finally managed to find oats, but still no luck locating the gas cartridges before heading back to the hostel. The light was by now overhead and I’d decided to wait another hour or so until the sun started to drop and then return for more photographs.
On my return the first stop was to climb the tower. I was hoping I’d get a clear view of the minaret and mosque in the distance, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I did take a couple of shots from the tower, but also decided to get closer and wandered around the streets to find the mosque.
By now the light was pretty good, as I love what is known in photography terms ‘the golden hour’ at this time of day. It really brought out the golden colours of the stone buildings.
A last night meal of chicken and it was time to start packing things away. The hostel had been comfortable and cosy and I’d really enjoyed taking time out. Next morning I finished off this blog and said farewell to Clive who had decided to take the Southern route to Samarkand – a brave man as I couldn’t find anything at all about this route. I would take the Northern route and we’d meet up again in Samarkand. I’ll let you know in the next blog how we both fared, should be interesting to compare.
Khiva was almost certainly geared up as a tourist trap, but even so I enjoyed my extended stay there. I left not really knowing if my leg would hold up and only time would tell. The stomach bug I’d also picked up was still troubling me, so I wasn’t really in good shape when I loaded up the bike and made my departure.
The hostel had been busy with tourists coming in at both lunch and dinner times, but there had only been one other traveler who shared our dorm, a nice lady doctor from France called Marionette who passed onto me some medication for my stomach. She left the same morning as Clive so I spent the last day on my own, not wandering very far from the lavatory.
During my time here I’d wandered around the bazar with Clive and we’d seen a shoe repair man stitching shoes. An opportunity too good to miss, I got my boots fixed for the princely sum of just 1,000 Som (about 50p).
The bazar was always busy and I picked up my supplies for the road the same morning I left (as did Clive) although trying to find oats for porridge was a mission impossible. I’d also had no luck replacing my now empty gas canisters – it seems Tashkent will be the most likely place to find them next.
There is lots to see in Khiva if you are visiting for a day or two and you don’t mind wandering amongst the very many tourists who disembark regularly from the coaches, following faithfully their tour leaders. Groups from France seem to be the most popular at the moment. Here’s a few pictures I took during my wanderings:
Next stop was Bukhara, which I made in 4 very hard days and even managed to locate the hostel and found Clive had arrived the previous day and was well chilled out. I’m still having stomach problems but at least my leg now seems to be OK after the course of antibiotics. I’ll do a proper update in my next blog and report on my trip here. More soon…
Once we left Aktau and it’s (relatively) smooth tarmac roads behind, we headed for Shetpe and then onwards to Beyneu. This was one of the harder sections of our passage as the road deteriorated and at times became just dirt tracks. They were building the new road alongside and it was with much relief when we could occasionally climb up onto the new tarmac, but the hard packed earth sections called ‘washboard’ in cycling speak really took it’s toll. By the end of a day my whole body would ache and muscles in my forearms would lock up tight.
Our next night was spent sleeping in a tunnel underneath the new road and these would become a regular stopping point to look out for, as there was no necessity to put up the tent, we’d simply lay out our mats with sleeping bags on top. It was also a good spot to get out of the wind and make a brew!
There is no doubt this is a ‘hard man’s route’ and not a road any sane cyclist would attempt if other options were available. The winds play a huge part in your progress, the headwinds are horrendous and can become very demoralising when (as in our case) they last for days. There were some highlights, like the time we said ‘wouldn’t it be great if there was a melon stop’ and literally two minutes later there one was – in the middle of nowhere. Most bizarre.
Myself and Clive parted on the road to Beynau as our riding was just not compatible, but we would later meet up again in Nukus and then share a dorm in the hostel in Khiva. I think if we’re around together at the start of the Pamir Highway we will most likely tackle it as a team, not least of all for the amazing photographs we can take of each other.
The border crossing at Beyneu into Uzbekistan was chaotic and I expected to spend a good few hours getting through, only to find ‘tourists’ were given special treatment and pushed through rather quickly, unlike the unfortunate locals. After declaring my 95$ and being amazed my bags were not checked at all, I was sent on my way with a bottle of Ice Tea from the guard, who welcomed me to Uzbekistan. A nice touch.
I had hoped the road would now be smooth tarmac to give some respite, but if anything they were just as bad and it was a long ride to my next stop, Nukus. The occasional repite came when as in Kazakhstan, I was able to ride on the new roads they were building for a short while. At times I struggled with the dust and consequently cursed Uzbekistan, but there is no denying how friendly the people are here and I had some very memorable moments along the way. My first taste of Uzbek hospitality came when I arrived tired at one of the roadside chianas and was invited to sleep the night, no charge of course.
Then I was offered a bunk in a roadside crew’s hut in Kungrad. After being plied with copious amounts of vodka and fed so much food my stomach was bursting they took me shopping and wouldn’t let me pay, absolutely amazing people. One of them, Dawron, invited me to his house in Bukhara, I’ll need to borrow a phone and let him know I’m now running a few days behind.
While trying to find the ‘short’ route into Khiva I got totally lost and ended up riding through some small villages. This turned up trumps as towards the end of a very long day I was looking for somewhere to camp and asked a local farmer if I could sleep on his land. I’d no idea I would end up staying the night with his whole family, watching Russian war movies and being fed the national dish, Plov, before showing them my whole trip photographs. Again amazing hospitality.
We take for granted clean drinking water and electricity here in the west, but many families in the villages struggle for these basic amenities. The family I stayed with had to wait until 7:00 p.m. until the power came on, then it would go off again at seven the next morning. But, as in when I stayed, the power often goes off unannounced and they rely on candles and torches. Melon season was about done and they were now into the back-breaking work of cotton picking, which pays 2,000 Som (about 1 UK pound) for each kilogram. It’s a hard life.
My final check-in with the locals was the day before I rolled into Khiva. Once again I was on the back roads and asking for directions, only to be invited for chai. In no time at all I was being fed fried eggs and bread, before the English speaking daughter turned up. I had wanted to get to Khiva today but couldn’t walk away from such wonderful hospitality without giving something back, so spent a few hours helping her brush up on her English, quite important as she was a teacher. When asked what an English teacher earns in the UK I was embarrassed to find she earns just 300 US dollars a month.
It was now too late to try and find the hostel, so I camped on the outskirts of Khiva and woke early the next morning to roll into town. Fortunately I had the name of the hostel from my internet browsing earlier, which once I showed to locals led to me finding it pretty quickly and the really nice owner Rashid allowed me to check-in early, a big bonus as I was badly in need of a clean-up and some decent rest. Once showered I fell sound asleep and was only wakened by the arrival of Clive later in the day.
I’ll post another update with pictures from Khiva, but for now I’m enjoying a well earned rest after what has been undoubtedly the hardest part of my journey thus far. The hostel is clean and tidy and the food is good, especially the breakfast.
More soon, please keep the comments coming…