Chain of Wrong Decisions

P1020830 (1024x768)This is my shadow. Some weeks ago,  he was more or less the only company I had. Together we crossed the Gobi Desert. We sang songs, and had great chats and laughs. The real adventure started in Saju Sand, a province capital 400 km southeast of Ulan Bator. Until there, the road was paved with the smoothest asphalt I’d ever seen. Strange for Mongolia, but I didn’t complain. The only problem with such good road conditions is that it gives you the feeling there is civilization everywhere. Indeed, there’s a shop around every corner. If only there were any corners. Mislead by this, I had survived the last 200 kilometers on half a bread and a pot of Bisella, the poor man’s Nutella. I left the main road to find some provisions. It had been a big cycling day, so I pitched my tent near town, and slept till noon.

P1020865 (1024x768)Next day, to avoid backtracking, I searched for the main road guided by my compass. Not much later I reached the asphalt and started battling the strong headwind. My mind had made a strong ‘asphalt-mainroad-connection’ and ignored all the indications that told me otherwise. Different milestones, a slightly wrong direction. But look at the asphalt, it had to be the road to P1020899 (1024x768)China, right? I asked some people. Some said yes, others no, but most of then probably didn’t understand me. Or they didn’t know, and were too proud to admit that. But of course I believed the ones that said yes.

It took me 5 hours to reach the end of the asphalt, forty kilometers further. There, some construction workers stopped me and told me I had to go back to Saju Sand to reach the border. No way. It couldn’t be that big of a detour. I had been going more or less the right direction. Fortunately, after hanging around for a while, I met an old man who spoke Russian. After a short chat, he whispered in my ear that there also was the old road to Zamin Ude, the border town. He guided me to a small dirt track, with a rusty signpost that confirmed this fact.

Until that point I wasn’t really satisfied with the cycling I’d done in Mongolia. The road from Russia to UB is completely paved, and not very exciting. I’d heard tales of fellow cyclists, about navigating by compass through the steppe, hauling bicycles through chest-deep streams, etc… These stories made me feel like a middle aged man, riding the ‘Mosel-radweg’ on an e-bike. The moon was shining bright, and I really felt ready for a night ride through the desert. Now it was my time for adventure. I’d left the banks of the Mosel. Besides, what could go wrong? I was prepared this time. A whole bread, 3 sausages, a tomato, and a stomach full of Tsuivan, a Mongolian noodle stew. And of course, two liters of water. I started following the trail, which was going straight south instead of southeast. But in the worst case, I would bump upon some modern day Chinese wall, they probably have built to prevent a possible Mongolian invasion. There I’d have to go left, and follow the fence to the border town. It was as simple as that. No way I could be lost. Three hours later I called it a day and camped.

P1020886 (1024x768)Next morning, I noticed that I’d almost gone through my water supply. The track I’d been following, didn’t look as much like a road as the night before. But there was good new too, not much further I saw a ger, so I walked there. The nomads topped up my water bottles, and gave me some dried yogurt. They also assured me I was on the right road. I just had to turn left…. somewhere. Life was good again! There was only one new problem. My visa would expire the next day, and I had to cover about 200 kilometers more. Hard but not impossible. At sunset, I’d done a forty, mostly pushing my bike through the loose sand. I was too tired for a night ride,  so all I could do I hope for a car next day. To prevent running out of food, I’d gathered all the wood I’d seen during the day, to be able to cook some strayed items in my panniers. It became a noodles and salsa feast.

P1020897 (1024x768)Day 3. The car didn’t show up. At least, not in the right direction. I stopped a van, to ask if I was on the right road. I was. So the random left I’d taken the day before seemed to be the right one. I showed them my passport, to explain the problem. They started laughing. I’d misread the date, and was already 4 days overtime. This released all the stress. The harm had been done. The consequences would follow, but there was nothing I could do about it anymore. No more time pressure. The only problem now was the food stock. I could squeeze a modest dinner out of my bags, but then it was over. I was ready for another night ride, but soon I bumped into a big crossing road, where I had no of clue where to go. I’d figure it out next morning.

That night the wind got very strong and my tent got blown away. I didn’t sleep for a minute. Waiting for a car was no option so I picked the road that offered me the best tailwind I’d ever had. A bit later a car passed by. The driver told me it was still much further than I thought, and offered me a ride. I swallowed my pride an boarded the car. Once in town, I went straight to the internet café to find out what the consequences of overstaying my visa could be. I didn’t get specific numbers, but different sources mentioned high fines. By reading the history of Genghis Khan, I’d learned that Mongolian Punishment is something one should avoid.

P1020837 (1024x768)

All the dates on the visa extension where written with a pen, and the officers sloppy handwriting allowed me to change some numbers. I though the chances that I was in some electronic system where rather small, so this would be a gamble with positive expectations. The border guard wasn’t a stereotype. No severe looking man, but a smiling young woman. I high-fived my shadow and handed my passport. After a quick glimpse, she grabbed the stamp, and lifted it. The next minute became one of the longest ones in my life. My heart was hammering its way outside my chest. Something stopped her. She had a closer look, slowly grabbed a telephone and I knew it was over. I got guided to some small office in the back, where they explained me I had to pay a fine. Communication was hard, so I played stupid, and quickly agreed to pay. This could have ended much worse. At least I was in China.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Issyk Kul Detour

The Bishkek crew had slowly disintegrated during the last weeks, and before I knew it I was alone and homeless again. Solo bike adventures belonged to the distant past. Although being in a group is a lot of fun, it’s not good for your confidence. You can always hide in the group, so it takes ages to make decisions. Riding out of Bishkek felt like riding out of my hometown again. Full of energy, but sad because of yet another home I abandoned.

Apart from the scenic, but quite busy road from Osh to Bishkek, I hadn’t seen too much of Kyrgyzstan, which has so much to offer. Dragging the route to Almati around the lake was the perfect solution to make up for this irresponsible form of tourism I’d been part of. Apart from some abandoned Soviet project, tourism is close to non-existing on the south side. Paradise for cycling, camping on the beach and swimming. Finally enjoying summer like I should.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Bishkek Break

IMGP0845 (1024x768)Bishkek, the Paris of Central Asia. Everything would be possible there. After several months of visa pressure, it was time for a break. During our ride together we’d been fantasising a lot about getting a flat, job, etc… . One month would be enough to enjoy the sedentary lifestyle, while arranging visas for the upcoming countries. Kaleb left, and Raph and Clem, a hilarious French duo joined instead. Miraculously, disguised as professional journalist, we managed to fetch the flat. After having experienced so much hospitality, it was payback time. We opened the Couchsurf-floodgates, and in no time the flat was populated with 15 people, age 10 to 69, from all over the world. Cycling around the world? Cool story bro. Bikes go on the balcony, if there’s any space left.

IMGP1308 (1024x768)Living like students, without annoying classes to attend, we’d always find a reason to celebrate. A new arrival, another departure, an occasional birthday, or just a fit of boredom. We put a ban on the words ‘thanks’ and ‘please’, to avoid artificial politeness. Because of the crowd, even simple things like sleeping became complicated. A stranger could be sleeping in your sleeping bag. To find a spot, you had to limp through the corpses of fallen warriors. If you were unlucky, the kitchen floor would be your spot, where you’d be waken up, either by the night crew, munching themselves through the stock of cheese, or the morning crew, up with the cock for a visa run.

IMGP0792 (768x1024)Bishkek is a rather boring city, and we didn’t leave our oasis of entertainment so often. Weekly excursions to nightclubs was about the furthest we got. Fancy places with terrible Russian music. For the Kyrgyz, there is a huge contrast between the westerners on television, and the ones in their country. Most of them are hairy men on bicycles, wearing rags instead of classy evening wear. While turning the dance floor into a barbarian battlefield, they drink smuggled in bottles of cheap vodka, which even seasoned alcoholics would refuse. Confusing caused sporadic aggression.

One month later, none of us had made it to an embassy yet. Let’s stay another month….

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Tadjikistan

Still in our little peloton, we continued to Tadjikistan. We’d all been looking forward to this country. Me in particular, because I had a visitor. Back in februari, when I was planning my onward route from Tehran, and mentioned I was going to cross the Pamir mountains, Wannes, one of my best friends, and also a bicycle enthusiast impulsively booked a plane to Dushanbe. He’d spend all his whole annual vacation, to take the challenge together. Since high school, there has been a funny kind of competition between the two of us. We’d rather drop dead in gym class, than get beaten by the other one. So I knew I had to be in good shape when he arrived, and he probably expected the same. The warm up: 2 big passes on the road to Dushanbe. Unfortunately both cut off, either by a decent Chinese, or a lethal Iranian tunnel.

Like Uzbeks are ancient Turkic people, Tadjiks are Persians. Likewise, soviet times have completely changed their traditions. This created cocktail can be found in every detail. Persian language in Cyrillic script. Persian hospitality, numerous food invitations, sporadic shots of vodka, etc… .

Wannes would land the first of April in Dushanbe. We had vaguely arranged to meet in Khorog some days later. This is where the real climbing starts, and this way we could get ourselves a few more days reach Osh, from where he’d fly out. Days to spend on side events, like hot springs. The day of his arrival was one of those days everything goes perfectly. By evening, a four wheel drive passed us, with a bike packed on top. It could only be him. This happened just when we cycled through Kaleikhum, a slightly bigger town. In our euphoria, the five of us managed to completely ignore the small policeman, who wanted to register our passports. The situation was hilarious. We bought ourselves some drinks, and celebrated. Next morning, after a quick stop at the local screw-and-bolt-shop, to replace some ball bearings, the journey could begin.

What followed was a three week dream for cycle touring. First through the Vakhan corridor, where the Panj river seperates Tadjikistan from Afghanistan. On the other side of the river, you could see how Tadjikistan would have looked like if the Russians hadn’t interfered. Instead of the asphalted, but outdated Russian road, there is an amazing walking trail, crossing cliffs. No matter how rugged the edge was, the trail was always there. Most time, crowded by Afghans, and their flocks, walking to the next village. The valley gradually took us to the first real pass, the one to the plateau at 4km altitude After this pass, there was not so much climbing to do, but the lack of oxygen made it rather tough.

Pamiri people are different from Tadjiks. Their language is similar, but, because of their isolated location, they are clearly much less influenced by the Russians. Many people don’t even speak Russian. We often got invited for a cup of shir chay - milk tea – in one of their chids - traditional houses. These houses are built when a man marries, with the poplar trees that were planted when he was born.

As usual, the bad roads couldn’t be completed without mechanical problems. A broken front axle easily got replaced in the next village, where the only shop was selling biscuits and bicycle axles. When my frame cracked again, some days later, the first man we met, appeared to be a welder. Powered by a generator, the job was done some hours later. This is why I really love my old bike. Parts are so general, that even in the most desolate places like these, replacements can be found. No Rohloff hubs, belt drives, or other features, that the more specialized bikes of my comrades contain. Those things are not supposed to break, but if they do, waiting for packaged is all you can do.

It was still a bit early in season to cycle these mountains, and much to my annoyance, my companions had been reading a lot of cycling blogs, to be aware of the conditions. Since these are often hyperbolically written, focusing on the tough days, we were expecting daily blizzards, polar temperatures, and a permanent headwind. We were probably very lucky, but nearly every day was a sunny one. Only the nights were chilly, but a stone in the tent, warmed on a cozy yak shit bonfire, could provide me some comfort.

The team spirit was strong. On a bad day, one’d be protected from the wind, and fed by the others. We arrived some days in advance in Osh, so we could finish the trip   in style, with too much vodka in a ridiculous night club, and the irrelevant consequences. Wannes immediately fitted well into the group, and from the first day, it felt like we’d left Belgium together. When three weeks later, when his car drove off to the airport, likewise, it felt like he’d never been there. and it had all been just a dream.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Uzbekistan

Uzbeks are tough nuts to crack, real businessmen. No more Middle Eastern presents. Every deal is a struggle. It’s one big conspiracy. On the other hand, their businesses are designed to be bad. In Karimov’s dictatorship, as we learned, success means sharing with the government. This is why you cannot buy decent street food in Tashkent. And when one man starts selling motor oil next to the road, next week, all his neighbors are doing the same. For brooms, go to the next village. Creativity still suffers from the Soviet era.

Still traveling in our little group, socializing with the locals, gradually became harder. We ourselves were entertaining enough. Uzbek, and in general, Central-Asian conversations, don’t get far below the surface. Most of the people just want to label you. Atkuda? Where are you from? How old are you? How much is the bike? Why are you wearing a wig? As soon as you answer their limited list of questions, the dialogue is over. Devay. Great chat.

It felt like the people don’t know their identity. Once they were these traditional, Islamic people, whom you can still find in the countryside. Unconditional hospitality. Heaps of plov for breakfast, accompanied with a shot of vodka, the Russian touch to their cuisine . Apart from that, the Soviets demolished this whole tradition.

Tashkent is definitely the greyest city I’ve ever visited. Two million people, nothing to do. Policemen, checking your passport at every street corner, more likely out of boredom than duty. Cotton export, started in Soviet times, pays for this joke. This monoculture  requires extreme amounts of water. All this water comes from the Amu Darya, the artery of the Uzbek economy, causing the famous drain of the Aral Sea. Combined with the overused pesticides, nowadays scattered by sandstorms, is this one of the biggest environmental disasters of the present time. Of course, the bulk of the population doesn’t ever get their hands on any of that money. Cotton pickers get paid a fraction of a dollar cent per kilo.

Oh, this all sounds very negative. Still, we’ve encountered much more hospitality in the villages, than you could imagine getting in Europe. In Tashkent, I met some old friends, Stas and Olga, who hosted us in between the mandatory hotel stays. They probably are the coolest citizens of Uzbekistan, trying to blow some life into their capital, with illegal photo exhibitions, and other projects. And of course  there are the famous silk road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, a pleasure for the eye. We just suffered, from what we called the post-Iranian trauma.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

First Taste of Spring

I opened my eyes, and like every morning, I needed a handful of seconds, structure my thoughts. Uzbekistan, a friendly man invited us, that’s why it is a house today, etc. Like always, Tieme, and the slightly insomniac Kaleb, who joined the peloton since Bukhara, were already awake. Me and Will, on the other hand, were still enjoying our morning snooze. Dear Kaleb was making the espresso, that, according to our little pact, I’d get every day, as long as I don’t touch any cigarettes.

‘It’s snowing outside’, they said. We’d been cycling so long together now, that the bulk of our communication had already become nonsense. How could it be snowing? 14 hours before, we were enjoying a cold beer in the evening sun. Blossoms all over the place, spring had finally arrived. But they were not lying, the temperature dropped a stunning 25 degrees in one day, and the green grass had been replaced by a carpet of powdery fresh snow. Our host of the day fed us with a mountain of plov, the Uzbek national rice dish, a real champions breakfast. And maybe because of the sudden cold, but more likely because of daily routine, he tapped his throat with index finger, the well-known Russian sign, meaning a sip of vodka would suit the circumstances. We drank a bit, to warm our bodies, and be prepared for the ride. But, unsurprisingly, the longer we stuck around, the less we felt like going. Staying there another day was no option, despite the family had offered us. We had to be in Samarkand that evening, 75 km further, to get registered in a hotel. It’s either that, or a high risk of getting trouble leaving the country.

It became a tough but hilarious ride: skidding lada’s, more vodka invitations, traditional music, a sporadic crash of the entire peloton, and a lot of Uzbek support. In the end it got a bit tough: the slush in our wheels froze every time we stopped for some minutes, making riding impossible. We even failed to stay together – they ditched me. Some friendly people drove me to the cheapest place in town, where half an hour later, our little peloton miraculously congregated again. The reward: the beautiful silk road city of Samarkand, covered in a layer of fresh snow. It made us worry a bit about crossing the Pamir mountains in april though, where we were all heading to. Worry, or open our eyes.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Extended race through Turkmenistan

I stayed so long in Tehran, that it almost became physically impossible to reach the border of Turkmenistan before my visa expired. The solution: a 150-km-a-day-schedule, which gave me one day off in Mashhad, the second biggest, and most holy city of the country. The third, torchless night, I curved the bike accurately around a pole. Distorted forks. Half an hour of hammering couldn’t avoid a bus ride. 

This incident gave some extra days in Mashhad, to visit the shrine of emam Reza, and prepare for the famous race through the Turkmen desert. Five hundred kilometres in five days, on potholed roads, and if you’re unlucky, with a hellish headwind. At my host Behzads place, I met Tieme, a Dutch cyclist, and we decided to take the challenge together. A day later Will, a young Brit, who I’d met in Esfahan, rolled in. He’d only been issued a three-day transit-visa, which made us wrongfully think that we had time enough to relax.

We tried very hard to fail, and almost succeeded. After three - more or less – sober months in Iran, we smashed a bit too enthusiastically into the cold beers they were selling at the first restaurant we passed by. Half a day down the drain, and a nice headache to start the second with. Combined with the notorious Turkmen headwind, we thought we’d lost the battle. Day three and four we cycled like maniacs to undo our fooleries. We suffered, it got colder, and I got a slight fever. But the wind had turned, and blew us high pace through the desert. Day five, things looked bright again. By noon, we’d reached Turkmenabat, thirtyish km from the Uzbek border. Time enough to stroll around the bazaar, and why not, to drink another beer. Surprisingly, the Germans cartographers were wrong, and the border was 15 km further than expected. My pedal also decided to break during this stretch, and it can be called a miracle, that we made it in time. The barrier got closed a minute after we’d crossed. Overstaying one days in Turkmenistan, means getting deported to your home country, and paying a big fine.

Turkmenistan, the North Korea of the Middle East, ran by ‘president’ Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, successor of the lunatic dictator Niyazov. Banning smoking in public, after having to quit himself due to medical reasons, is one of the many absurd laws he imposed. Unless you’re up to pay for a guided tour, a transit-visa is the way to go. They don’t want any independent travellers nosing around. People were very curious and welcoming, but clearly scared of the government. There is no lack of huge portraits of the president, showing how to behave: harvesting the field, or praying in front of a mosque.

Although five days wasn’t much, it was enough to notice the many borders we’d crossed. Women in colourful dresses, who’d even talk to us! Empty roads – another big contrast with Iran. The scarce traffic consisted of relatively new, Asian cars. Black tea, one of my newer addictions, became green tea. Only mutton dishes on the menu, Asian faces, etc… . A new chapter had begun. Central Asia!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment