Published: November 8th 2009
October 30th 2009
In the past 6 weeks, I've seen more Stans that a 1950's football team. Not that I'm complaining. I've had an out-stan-ding time. On the whole.
I last left you in Tashkent, undecided on my upcoming route to China. I had 4 plausible options to reach western China. The routes all subject to complex, twisted borders, traversing some of the world's highest mountain ranges and windy, winding valleys:
1. Transit through Kazakhstan - An uninspiring route, for which I didn't have a visa and meant encountering some notoriously corrupt border guards.
2. Through the Fergana valley - A high-tension region, following the Andijon massacre a couple of years ago, and again the frontier is reportedly still treacherous.
3. Directly through the Pamir region of Tajikistan - though I would have been cycling out on the brutal Pamir plateau above 4,000m altitude without much in the way of escape for nigh on a week, risking exposure.
4. Follow the Wakhan valley of Tajikistan/Afghanistan - a moderate climate and incredibly generous people on both sides of the border.
I was well aware that the word “Afghanistan” alone is emotive and conjures up images of bearded fanatics with AK47s strapped across their
shoulder. But such a perception could not be further from the truth in the Wakhan valley of northern Afghanistan. When I was sat in front of my laptop at work, watching the BBC World news ticker scroll numerous Afghan horror stories, I would never have considered travelling through it as an option. But all the advice and recommendations I took in recent weeks suggested that I would be crazy NOT to take this route. I have every intention of completing this journey, so despite any irrational reservations, I opted for route 4.
I did not spend long in Tashkent. Just long enough to do some power-sightseeing and secure my Tajik visa. I found the Tajik embassy and sought about understanding the visa application process. It sounded complicated, but no sooner had they finished the long-winded explanation of the week long process, than they said,
“Or you can have it by 5 o'clock tonight if you pop next door”.
Next door was an outsourced visa application office, which I expect is set aside for dollar-ridden westerners. No doubt to fast-track you after the embassy has scared you into submission. The fee was $65, payable on collection, so I left my
passport with them and went on with my day, visiting the 375 metre high Tashkent TV Tower and the Central Asian Plov centre. Plov being the Uzbek national dish of rice and meat - in the plov centre, there were vast vats of the stuff, swilling around in as much oil as there was rice, with local Tashkentians working themselves into a drooling frenzy as it came to the boil. It would be akin to turning the Dome into the Roast Beef Arena, with the centrepiece being a giant Yorkshire pudding with peas swimming in a sea of gravy, as eager Cockneys wait craftily for the first Duke of Yorkful.
It soon became apparent that I was down to my last fistful of dollars, so needed to withdraw some more from the bank in order to pay the Tajik embassy that evening. Unfolding was one of those Catch 22 scenarios that I seem to attract. Uzbekistan has next to no ATM machines. The local currency is the sum, and the banknotes are second only to the Zimbabwean dollar for their worthlessness (Monopoly money ranks a credible third from bottom). The highest denomination banknote is 1,000 sum, equivalent to 40
pence. 40 effing pence. When I first arrived in Uzbekistan I exchanged $100, which gave me 180,000 sums. It was like adding War & Peace to my baggage. The very few ATMs that do exist have an upper limit of 20,000 sums (£8), and carry a £3 commission fee. So the only practical way for foreigners to acquire cash is to withdraw dollars inside the banks themselves. Aha, but you need a passport to withdraw money. No photocopy, no drivers' licence, an original passport only.
So I had wriggled myself into a position whereby the embassy had my passport and would only give it to me in exchange for dollars, and the bank had my dollars but would only give it to me in the presence of a passport. Those are the rules. Luckily, in this part of the world, rules are nothing if not loose guidelines, and some frowning and shrugging usually does the trick. I have also mastered the art of nuisanceness - being enough of an irritant that they want rid of you, yet remaining light-hearted enough not to give due cause for aggression or offence. It's a fine art, to which I feel I am quite
Di Vincian. Playing the nuisance card has helped me through several sticky situations to which I was ill-prepared or lacked the necessary authority. And so I pestered some dollars from the bank without much further ado.
As my next stop was back-tracking to Samarkand, I decided it was within the rules to take a train. (There are formal round-the-world bike ride rules, which are surprisingly flexible - see footnote*) Taking the train was an experience in itself. I was eventually able to purchase a ticket for the train leaving next morning, but not before I had been bounced around ticket window to ticket window by unhelpful attendants and lost my place to endless queue-jumpers. To my cost, I discovered queueing is not something Uzbeks, or many ex-Soviets, take seriously. Subscribing to the British stereotype of queueing etiquette, I cannot tolerate anything other than one's rightful place in an orderly line. National stereotypes have come exist for a reason, and I possibly characterise more Britisms than I care to admit to. As a nation we are the world's middlemen. A bit of everything, but not fully anything. Between Europe and America geographically, politically, culturally, televisually, linguistically. We don't do extremes
- we like things to be mild. We practically invented the term. I'll have a pint of mild, with my mild jalfrezi, ideally in mild weather conditions. We can handle almost any weather type, just so long as it's mild. A bit of hot weather is fine, but anything above 30 degrees is a heatwave and the nation comes to a standstill; A bit of cold is fine, but 2 inches of snow and the nation comes to a standstill; A bit of wind, no problem, but if leaves blow onto the railway lines, standstill.
So in a land of extremes, I've had to shed that stereotype, as I've ridden from scorching, nose-burning deserts to sub-zero, nose-numbing altitudes within a matter of a week or two. That's one other Britism I do partake in fondly - a decent whinge. Especially about the trivial things in life. Anything serious and stiff-upper-lippism kicks in, but give me a blister, a hair in my plov, or a queue-jumper and I'll give you a great British moan. Not too loud mind, in case the culprit overhears and takes issue.
Then boarding the train was eventful too. As soon as the doors opened,
a surge of dozens of Uzbeks scrambled and scrummed over each other to get on first. Only to go immediately to their pre-allocated seat. Even if it was a free-seating policy, ala Easy Jet, I'd much prefer to board near the end. I'd then get to chose my seating partners, as opposed to having the filthy, sweaty, hairy guy imposed upon me (It's much better to be that guy, I find!).
If I wanted to join the bundle for my designated seat - which I didn't - I was hindered by having a bike to board. There are no designated bike areas, unlike the much-maligned British Rail. So a minute or two before the train was due to depart - and they're never late, unlike British Rail - I jumped on board, bike and all, and waited until the train started moving before the guards had the chance to tell me I couldn't bring a bike on this carriage. Oh, sorry about that, I won't do it again.
Samarkand was the springboard into Tajikistan, a country that is mostly at high altitude and mountainous, especially the Pamir region, which is both breathtaking and breath-taking at the same time. Home
to some obscure wildlife, such as the rare snow-leopard, Marco Polo sheep, yaks and wolves (I did see one wolf beside the road. To my regret - but more so his - he had just been shot or hit by a car, and several Tajiks crouched over his ailing body).
I gave the lungs a breather with a few days in the Wakhan valley, following the Pyanj river shared with Afghanistan. Dotted with natural hot springs, ancient fortresses and unparalleled views of the Hindu Kush mountains, I never once needed the distraction of my iPod to help get me through the days. You might think 8 hours a day in the saddle alone in my own company would be a mundane existence, which I guess at times it is, but on such days mundanities lose out to marvellous mountain sceneries and tediums to terrific tiered temples.
In and around the border, I had opportunities to meet many Afghans - although most will insist they are ethnically Tajik, not Afghan. The porous frontiers and respective civil wars mean a lot of Tajiks and Afghans sought refuge and settled in the others territory, of which the imposed frontiers themselves were dubiously
carved by Russia and Britain during “The Great Game”. The break-up of the USSR led most of Central Asia to political and economic upheaval. Nowhere was this more evident than in Tajikistan, which shares more in common with Iran and Afghanistan, in terms of language, religion and ethnicity, than it does (or did) with the Soviets.
There is a weekly cross-border market at the town of Ishkashim, and when I was there a cross-border football game was also taking place. Whilst simultaneously bringing my keepie-uppie skills out the closet, I chatted to several Afghans here. When meeting anyone on this trip, they will invariably ask where I'm from.
The bog-standard answer is, “From England” - Maybe Britain or UK if I'm feeling sufficiently diplomatic.
If they seem like they have an inkling of UK awareness, then I'm, “From near London”
To the more geographically astute foreigners (Europeans, Aussies, etc), I may be, “From Southampton”.
To fellow Brits, I'm usually, “From Winchester”.
So to meet an Afghan who not only knew my village, Colden Common, but had also been there, was a real surprise. This fact only came to light when we shared a recollection of a childhood headline: “POLICE CLOSE
CHINESE TAKEAWAY AFTER DUCKS GO MISSING FROM LOCAL RIVER”.
I knew that headline and I knew that takeaway. It was the biggest scandal of 1989 in the Hampshire Chronicle. Forget Hillsborough or the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the river Itchen was mysteriously losing its ducks.
Throughout Central Asia, kids run out of houses to shout, point and stare at me. As a tourist I'm a major novelty and a minor celebrity, especially in Tajikistan and especially being on a bicycle. I can count on the fingers of 3 hands, not including thumbs, the other tourists that have travelled in the Pamirs in October (I saw the permit-registration list). I would recognise most of them too, as there's only one route through so we usually meet or cross at some point.
There was one last mountain pass before I reached the Pamir plateau of eastern Tajikistan from the southern Wakhan Valley. The plateau is on average 4,000 metres above sea level, penned in by several 7,000 metre plus mountains (to put it in context, Ben Nevis is 1,344 metres high). My two-wheeled steed, with its one-wheel drive was not designed for such terrain and for the first time
in 9,800 kilometres, its refused to budge. So I needed some 4x4 assistance for this climb over the Khargush pass, and negotiated a lift with a local driver. Call it karma or just damned luck, but taking that Russian jeep (a Waz) instead of the bike was to be one of the more ill-fated decisions of my ride. On the punishing roads, the gearbox blew, all 4 wheels locked and we skidded uncontrollably down the verge, rolling onto the roof. It looked more dramatic that it felt, but nonetheless we were stranded in the unforgiving terrain and climate of the Pamir winter. As I stood shivering and dazed on the roadside, a Chinese truck came past and I was hurriedly ushered on to it by the Waz driver. He vowed to stay with his vehicle and deliver my bicycle and bags to me in Murgab, the chief town of the Pamirs, some 200 km up the road. I am being generous calling it a town - there are no shops of note, the guesthouse is a dingy cafe, its guest-bed being a mat in the corner of a semi-heated house, and electricity is switched each day between opposite sides of
the town. I was stranded in this freezing wasteland for 5 days. FIVE DAYS. With nothing to do and no-one to whinge to. Worse than that, all my gear (toothbrush, clothes, bike, multiple spare toothbrushes) were five days behind me. I spent most of the time cursing myself for allowing my belongings to be separated from me. Throughout, I was without any communication or news of the fate of my things. People happily live here, I know, so I shouldn't be too deprecating about the place, but I am a man used to certain niceties, and I couldn't find a decent replacement toothbrush, Colgate or gloves for the sanity of me. Instead I comforted myself with stale bread, even staler Snickers bars, mutton stew drowning in its own fat, and the occasional vodka. On the sixth day (this being the same day that God was creating man, having already polished off the Heavens and Earth - and what had I done? Got drunk and got food-poisoning, that's what) I was re-united with my bike and bags and made a swift exit from stage left, and raced to Kyrgyzstan. For what I intended to be some much-needed indulgence.
altitude of 4,282 metres, where three vast mountain ranges collide, the Kyzyl-Art pass that links Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is not your typical border crossing. It is definitely more rim-of-the-hill than run-of-the-mill. The snow was deep and my breath shallow as my odometer ticked to 9,999 kilometres since leaving London. Frustratingly, another kilometre forward, it reset to 0, as opposed to clocking 10,000 kilometres, and a significant milestone (er, kilometrestone?) in my quest for circumnavigance.
I reached the border the same day that my visa expired, but too late in the evening to be able to get to the next town before sunset - and up here you don't want to be stranded after dark. So I had to spend a night with the Tajik border guards in their cabin. Officially in nomansland. They were more than generous, which for my part meant graciously accepting more sheep fat stew and tolerating several more vodka toasts - to Ingerland, Tajikistan, the Queen, Manchester United (begrudgingly), Elton John. You name it, we shot to it.
I was unwashed and unchanged for 8 days now, needed desperately to do a laundry and have a hot shower, and all with a fragile stomach.
Abandoning my bike at a lodge near the crossroad to the Chinese border, I hitched a lift to Osh, Kyrgyzstan's second largest city for a much needed pick-me-up. But my wet run of rotten luck was not about to dry up. Again, the car broke down, this time the back axle breaking, and again had to be ushered into another car, arriving in Osh at midnight. Upon finding somewhere I was allowed to sleep (many of the guesthouses are not open to foreigners) I was hit with a bombshell: Osh would be without water for 3 days. They had even been so kind to lock the door to the toilet, in case anyone snuck in for a cheeky visit. No laundry and even no shower, I could just about live with, but no toilet! C'mon, what the crap!?
As soon as I could arrange transport, a 4x4 diesel Toyota, I was heading back to the crossroads to collect my bike. And we were going great guns until the sun set, and the temperature dramatically dropped. Too cold apparently for the diesel 4x4 to continue firing. So one more night in a random homestay, one more night without hot water,
one more night in the same 5 layers of clothing I had not dared slip out of for 10 solid days.
Even at this height, I was at my lowest point. These past weeks have afforded me plenty of time to re-address my motivations for attempting this bike ride; freedom, solitude, a chance for reflection, immersion into the surrounding environment, and the option to dictate my own pace (within a 28 km/hour limit) were my primary drives. But on the tougher days, freedom manifests itself as misadventure, solitude as loneliness, reflection as boredom, the environment feels hostile and the pace feels excruciatingly slow. And for sure, these last weeks have been the toughest so far. Thankfully such moments are few and far between. Even before leaving the comfort of Colden Common, I knew and accepted that Central Asia would be hard work at times. I'm certainly all Stanned-out, for now at least. Let's hope China will be more fruitful as I am feeling a bit short of plums.
But, like Eric, give me a decent banana and I'm sure an amazing transformation will occur.
Keep movin' on,
*Formal Round the World cycle criteria,
according to Guinness - I have edited for relevance:
1 - Start and finish points must be the same location - [I've got myself covered for this, with about 4 possible end points]
2 - The journey should be continuous and in one direction i.e. East to West or West to East. - [with the occasional backtracking?]
3 - The minimum distance ridden should be 18,000 miles/28,970 km and the total distance traveled by the bicycle and rider should exceed an Equator’s length, i.e. more than 24,900 miles/40,075 km.
4 - The rider must ride through two approximate antipodal points during the attempt - [Sydney is close enough]
5 - Flying is allowed, and often necessary - [After Australia, I will take full advantage of this].
6 - All traffic laws must be observed. Any offense committed invalidates the attempt - [Yeah, Yeah!]