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China: Dancing to the Music of the Giant Panda

“The old world will burn in the fires of industry. Trees will fall. A new order will rise.”
Saruman, Lord of Isengard
JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Twin Towers, 1954

Ok, so I’m not saying that China’s rapid development is exactly like the fall of Middle Earth but there are some striking topographical similarities between the two places.

Consider this map of the Taklamakan in Western China (with our position and previous route highlighted):

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Now look at this map of Mordor.

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It’s uncanny. As you can see, both are large deserts, enclosed on three sides (north, south, and west) by mountain ranges. Both are also famous for their hostile conditions – Taklamakan in the local Uyghur language, literally means something like ‘place of no return‘. Given these ominous circumstances, we decided to hop on a train (our first since leaving England) and travel 4300km from Kashgar to Chengdu, hence bypassing the metaphorically Orc infested Plateau of Gorgoroth. In practical terms, this would also allow us to spend our last two months of cycling in cheap and cheerful South China, Laos, and Vietnam, where I have just booked a flight home from Hanoi on the 15th of December.

imageSo from Chengdu, after a whole two weeks off the bikes, we eagerly set off southwards into the densely populated Sichuan Province. The roughly London-sized city was crowded and enormous, but still managed to feel harmonious and unstressful. Everyone seemed unshakeably even tempered, and there was none of the frenetic urgency and grumpiness that often infects Central London. Exotic street food fried and boiled everywhere, and in the parks and open spaces crowds of people practiced Tai Chi, danced to music, and drank tea. It was a very different world than the one we had left behind in Central Asia. As we cleared the city limits, a cool wet mist hung in the air, and for the first time since Azerbaijan, the landscape was green. With 1000km of extremely mountainous rural China to cross before reaching the city of Kunming in Yunnan Province, we were looking forward to some tough, but peaceful backcountry cycling. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out as expected.

imageAs the above quotation suggests, Tolkien had an intense dislike for the side effects of industrialisation. When he wrote The Lord of the Rings, his portrayal of the forced ‘industrialisation’ of the Shire was widely believed to reflect the transformations going on in England at the time. It may now seem unfair to equate the British post-war government with the dark forces of Sauron, but 60 years later those same transformations are currently underway in China and it’s easy to see what Tolkien hated so much: The invasion of the countryside by machinery and noise and pollution; the disruption of nature; and the end of a simple rural way of life for millions of people. Is it ultimately for the best? Who knows? Either way, it did kind of spoil the chilled out cycling vibe we were hoping for.

As we cycled along through our new surroundings, I scanned the roadside for potential camp spots to see what we might expect to find come nightfall, but found absolutely nothing. Day after day, most of the land was too slopey, and everything else had either been turned into terraced plantations or claimed by thick undergrowth. Fortunately, hotels in China turned out to be incredibly good value and not hard to find, so like many other cycle tourers in this part of the world we’ve slipped into a new routine of setting a daily target where we know we’ll find a hotel, and going for it. In light of this new development – and with very similar conditions ahead – we have decided to take the unprecedented step of posting home our tent and cooking pannier. It was a difficult decision, but with five weeks left to cycle a very hilly 2100km, speed is now of the essence and we’ll certainly be a lot faster without them. Even so, saying goodbye to our beloved bedroom and kitchen will be a sad moment. They are the closet things we have to a home, and they also have the miraculous ability to be a source of spontaneity and adventure, but at the same time, a source of comfortable familiarity and routine.

image Unsurprisingly our new cushy existence of clean sheets, warm showers and hot pork-bun breakfasts is working out quite well so far, but it does come with its own set of challenges and pitfalls. The main one involves misjudging the difficulty of the terrain and failing to make it to a hotel town. This has already happened three times! On one occasion we were forbidden from staying in our chosen town by the police. The whole area was apparently off limits to foreigners (presumably due to a cluster of sinister looking metal factories in the surrounding hills), and after being escorted 15 kilometers down the road, we were abandoned to carry on to the next town, in the dark.

imageOn another occasion two days later, we got stuck up a mountain at 2600 metres in thick fog. Just as we were resigning ourselves to a wet and hungry camp spot right on the roadside, we came across a lonely brick compound with a man smoking outside it. After an elaborate mimed request to camp there, and a brief phone call from the man, we were beckoned inside and given a bare – but very welcome – concrete room in which to roll out our mats and sleeping bags. In the kitchen, the man’s wife and mother insisted on warming us by their charcoal cooker and feasting us on pomelo (a grapefruit-like fruit), tea, rice, pork, and vegetables. Conversation was impossible, but they managed to explain that they were from Chengdu, and we guessed that they were stationed here as road workers, to inspect – and if necessary clear – the nearby mountain pass in bad weather. The next day, after a big breakfast of noodle soup and lettuce, our saviours absolutely refused any money for the food, and cheerfully sent us on up the mountain.

To be treated with such kindness had come as a bit of a surprise. Up until this point, we had felt a distanced from the locals, and slightly intimidated by China’s formidable language/cultural barrier. Everything seemed alien to us, and supposedly ‘universal’ words like OK, kilometres, and toilet were suddenly useless. Even our well honed charades and Chinese dictionary phrases were being met with blank stares. It felt very disempowering – and still is frustrating – but since our encounter on the mountain, we’ve come to realise that behind the initial confusion, there are usually some incredibly patient and friendly people.

imageAs we carried on cycling over the pass, the fog finally cleared. For the remaining five days to Kunming, the road wound up and down through deep, fertile valleys and along the Yangtze River, under a warm and sunny sky. The background cacophony of earthmoving, truck driving, and miscellaneous banging never went away for long, but at least our Chinese food-ordering skills were improving. Learning the words for ‘fried’ and ‘no Sichuan pepper’ were major breakthroughs and before long, we were mostly getting what we wanted.

imageOn our way through the countryside, we saw another side to the glitzy modern China presented to the international media. Colourful ethnic groups like the Yi (photo, left) still lived and dressed traditionally in their mountain villages. And the towns, again, seemed to evoke notions of post war Britain. In amongst the signs of growing prosperity, conditions were still basic and most people lived very humbly, with no obvious luxuries. In Chengdu, high streets may have been full of iPhones and designer labels, but here they sold the raw materials of manufacturing, and were full of people making things – from mattresses to wooden ornaments to window frames. Always though, there were simple open fronted, family run restaurants where we would guzzle down delicious bowls of rice, noodles, meat, and vegetables, all cooked with generous pinches of salt, spice, and MSG.

Although the weather was perfect, the November days grew short and we had to cycle all day to make our ambitious targets and reach our hotels. For added motivation to keep going, we would be ruthlessly bitten by tiny black flies if we stopped for too long. These were no joke, and Emily was especially bothered by them. One evening we gave her a full-body bite audit and counted 81 in total! As we closed in on Kunming though, greenery gave way to urban sprawl and the clouds of flies were replaced by equally unpleasant clouds of dust and diesel smoke. By the time we arrived at the Cloudland Youth Hostel we were more than ready to hang up our cycling mitts.

Now, having rested up for the last few days with a big crowd of fellow cyclists, we are once again raring to go and will head south tomorrow – tentless and stoveless – toward the tropical forests of Southern China and South East Asia. What could possibly go wrong?

Photos of Sichuan, China

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The Pamir Mountains: Noodle Overload on The Roof of The World

“Jack climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and he climbed till at last he reached the sky. And when he got there he found a long broad road going as straight as a dart.”
Jack and The Beanstalk
Joseph Jacobs, 1890

Our two week advance over the Pamirs – from Tajikistan to China – was planned like a military operation. We’d be going higher than either of us had ever been, but our feeble efforts over the past month to find winter clothing and warm sleeping bags had uncovered one second-hand Soviet airman’s padded head warmer, for £2 in a flea market in Bokhara. And that was it. Therefore, the main objective of our planning was to find guesthouses to sleep in, and avoid camping out. From our base in the luxurious gardens of the Serena Inn in Khorog, we spent many tea-fuelled hours comparing our new large scale map with altitude profiles downloaded from the Internet and snippets of information collected from other travellers en route. But on at least two nights, it looked as though we would end up stranded in between villages so without any further delay, we refilled our kitchen pannier in the local market and hit the road hoping that the end of summer would drag on for at least a couple more weeks.

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Clearing the fields before Winter closes in

We got off to a gentle start, cycling for three days up the Wakhan Valley toward the start of the high altitude plateau, through an endless string of leafy and welcoming villages. In the surrounding fields, entire families of men, women and children worked from dawn until dusk as we rolled past, making hay, ploughing fields, and taking in the last of the harvest. Apart from this, there were no obvious signs that winter was on its way. The skies were clear, the air was still hazy and warm, and we remained optimistic about not freezing to death. It was hard to imagine that such a sleepy cul-de-sac with virtually no traffic had once been a vital strategic link through the mountains from Central Asia and China. But over seven centuries ago, Marco Polo had walked up the very same valley, also on his way along the Silk Road to China.

imageAt 2800 metres, Langar was the last village in the valley, and from there the road began its steep ascent into the Pamirs. In shorts bursts of determined effort we climbed slowly, at times having to haul the bikes by hand through sections of sand and gravel. The reward for choosing a disintegrating road-less-travelled, is usually the privilege of eating one’s bag of M&Ms in a truly isolated and natural setting, and this occassion was no different. Having strained up one of the most difficult roads in memory, we were duly rewarded with one of the most remote and beautiful places on our whole trip. Only two other vehicles passed us by all day, and looking back over the Wakhan, the ethereal snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains could be seen nestling in the sky above Afghanistan and Pakistan. At 3500 metres, afraid of the cold, we set up camp early next to a stream on the Afghan border. By the time the sun went down at 6.30pm, we were already tucked up in bed, having cooked our noodles in the tent. Fortunately, the temperature only dropped to about zero degrees, so the next morning we carried on upwards in a mild state of euphoria at having made it through the night.

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Chilly camp spot at 3950 metres

For the last two weeks – for motivation and general amusement – I had been performing a new animal impression for every 100 metres of altitude conquered. However, by the time we reached the 4355m Khargush Pass, the few remaining animals I could think of in my oxygen depleted state had ceased either to motivate or amuse. On the other side of the pass, the road was in such a state that by nightfall we were still hours from the nearest village, at around 4000 metres altitude. Camping – anxiously wrapped in all of our clothes and sleeping bags – was alarmingly cold this time, and flannel washing was out of the question. Here, the oxygen levels are 40% lower than at sea level, and during the night I kept waking up short of breath and desperately thirsty. Emily coped much better, but even so, when we cycled onto the Pamir plateau the following day, we were in quite a sorry state.

imageFortunately, things did ease up after this, as we rejoined the tarmac road and began to acclimatise to the altitude. The new landscape we found ourselves in was unlike anything we’d ever seen. It had an otherworldly, almost Mars-like quality, and felt more like a desert in the sky than a mountain range. Bone dry (without even snow), silent, and nearly lifeless, the rocky plains and hills were coloured only by the swirling reds, browns, and mustard yellows of inorganic chemistry. Also like Mars, the thin atmosphere held little heat, creating a sharp contrast in temperature between sun and shade. Surprised by the lack of water, our short supplies quickly ran out and we ended up having to drink from a cloudy and sinister looking, mineral encrusted lake, whose Tajik name (we later found out) translates as ‘stinking lake’. We should have taken the 700 year old hint from Marco Polo!

After Polo came here, he wrote:

“The plain is called Pamir, and you ride across it for twelve days together, finding nothing but desert without habitation or any green thing, so that travelers are obliged to carry with them whatever they have need of. The region is so lofty and cold that you cannot even see any birds flying. And I must notice also that because of the great cold, fire does not burn so bright, nor give out as much heat as usual.”
The Travels of Marco Polo, c. 1300

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Kyrgys girl, clutching her teddies

It was enchanting to think that we were experiencing this serene world, virtually unchanged from when Polo saw it. Now of course, there are occasional habitations (the Pamir’s have the world’s highest year-round settlements outside Tibet) and on our first night we stayed with a lovely Kyrgyz family of sheep herders, in their small two-room mud brick bungalow. Their lives seemed very tough. As we plopped down our panniers in a pile, it became apparent that even whilst ‘travelling light’, we owned more clothes and possessions than the whole family of five. Much worse than the lack of material possessions, were the apparent effects of the harsh climate: no opportunity to grow interesting food, and none of the lively communal outdoor culture that we had seen in so many other poor countries. For most of the year, it’s too cold even for the kids to play outside, and in the Winter communities can literally be trapped for months at a time living off their stores of potatoes and bread flour. We ate a meal of yoghurt and nan bread, and when the sun went down it was time for bed. The family rose with the dawn and after some more bread, we paid for our food and board, and continued on our way.

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Instant noodle lunch

Over the next few days, all went smoothly and we managed to find guesthouses every night. By the time we reached the last pass at 4280m on the Tajikistan-Kyrgystan border, we had run out of snacks and developed a healthy aversion to instant noodles (there was little else to buy). We had also run out of camping gas, so had to make do on that last day with a rather miserable lunch of nuts and raisins.

The border post consisted of a few sheds and the only other people around were a group of Russian couples on a driving holiday, waiting for the Tajik customs to clear their huge gleaming SUVs. As we stood around waiting, the Russians leaned on their vehicles, smoking cigarettes and eating a selection of exciting foodstuffs, clearly not purchased in the Pamirs. They were the cleanest looking people we had seen in ages and I watched, coveting their snacks and relishing the onset of middle age. Time dragged by, and after a while a mangy looking dog appeared from amongst the customs sheds, followed by a litter of puppies. Amidst much cooing, one of the Russian men produced from his car three delicious looking ginger muffins. Me and Emily exchanged horrified smiles as the Russian started to hand feed morsels to the dogs. It was almost too excruciating to watch and I briefly considered interjecting to try and buy their spare muffins off them before they were all gobbled up.

Sary Tash, Kyrgystan

Looking back towards the Pamirs in Sary Tash, Kyrgystan

Dropping out of the Pamirs to the Kyrgyz town of Sary Tash, we were now only a day’s ride from China and we could hardly wait to get there. Annoyingly though, the border was closed for the next three days on account of the Chinese National Day public holiday. Three days later at 9am, we stood at the very front of the queue to get into China, gazing longingly through a huge pair on faux-wrought iron gates, decorated with brass dragons, and flanked by impassive Chinese soldiers. With us were a motley crew of equally excited fellow travellers including two french cyclists we had met way back in Macedonia, and a somewhat out-of-place German astrophysicist. We had been looking forward to this moment for so long and through the hardships of Central Asia, China had – in our imaginations – become an idealised cycling heaven of amazing food, perfect weather, and silky smooth roads. Waiting before the ornate gates felt strangely profound, as if we were actually about to be let into heaven. Behind us, the chaos of Central Asia defiantly prevailed in the form of a seething mass of trucks and pedestrians. Ahead, was order, and an end to the mortal coils of bumpy roads, stray dogs, and fly infested chaihanas.

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Our first Chinese meal

The reality – initially at least – was almost better than we had imagined. We cycled the 90km to Kashgar with our French friends, down a freshly constructed six-lane motorway, totally empty because it had not yet been opened to the public. There were some pressing decisions to made about what to do next but they could wait a while. We had just cycled to China! And it was time to rediscover the wonders of clean underwear and cold beer.

 

Total Stats

Days on the road: 191
Kilometers: 11,128
Average Dıstance per [cyclıng] day: 85km
Highest point: Akbaital Pass at 4655m in Pamirs
Longest number of days without washing clothes: 17

Photos of the Pamirs, Tajikistan

Photos of Kyrgystan and Western China

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Tajikistan: Moving Up in The World

“It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe”
Muhammad Ali

Lowland valley leading to the Pamir Highway

Lowland valley leading to the Pamir Highway

Dushanbe is the western start/end point for the popular ‘Pamir Highway’ cycle route. As such, there is always a handful of long haul cyclists at The Adventurers Inn during the summer, and they are a strange breed. Stepping through the perimeter wall of the compound, we emerged into a dusty yard full of weather beaten tents, and equally weather beaten men in their 20s-40s. As expected, all were European, deeply tanned, and beardy, and all had the same peculiar countenance, falling somewhere between supremely healthy and worryingly malnourished. Unlike other breeds of traveller, the long distance cyclist (especially on rest days) is mostly concerned with practical matters. Maurice the German soil scientist was carefully cleaning his chain in a pair of latex gloves. Two spaniards sat trying to work out the quickest way to extend their visas. And Franz, the talkative Swiss language student bemoaned the price and scarcity of his favourite brand of iced tea to anyone who would listen. Everyone swapped tips on the road ahead, and stories of the road behind.

There is nothing to do in Dushanbe: No sights, no day trips, no entertainment. This suited us perfectly. After six weeks of monk like abstinence since leaving Azerbaijan, we had only very simple – but admittedly very specific – requirements, all of which involved food. We were up early, firstly because a cat had mysteriously appeared in our room, and secondly because it was our anniversary and we had a very special meal planned. Like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan is infamous for its unfriendly stomach bugs, and the communal bathroom had seen plenty of action during the night. We took it in turns to tiptoe across the floor and clean ourselves under the dribble of cold water coming out of the shower. Looking at least superficially respectable, we left our fellow cyclists eating their frugal homemade breakfasts and caught a bus to the nearby Hyatt Regency, – the most expensive and luxurious hotel in Tajikistan – where we eagerly coughed up £15 each for the buffet breakfast. imageFor the other guests – NGO staff, consultants, and the odd rich tourist – it was just a hotel breakfast, but for us it was the most extraordinary meal we’d had in two months. It also worked out to be extremely good value. Over two hours we demolished plate after plate of pancakes and syrup, bacon, eggs benedict, muesli and yoghurt, cheeses, fresh fruit, croissants, pastries, cakes, and smoked salmon. Afterwards, overwhelmed with the kind of lethargy usually reserved for huge Sunday lunches, we collapsed into the lounge like a couple of bloated pythons, where we sat for the entire rest of the day, digesting our prey. I was amused as the afternoon wore on, to see a posse of French and Italian NATO troops come in, presumably having snuck over from the nearby Afghan border. Dressed in full combat gear they looked very official but I suspected they were there for the same reason as us.

When we finally left Dushanbe after a slightly excessive five days of rest, we were aiming for Khorog, the only seizable town between us and China, roughly half way (550km) across the Pamirs. Because of the amount of climbing ahead, we decided not to carry much of our own food. We brought instant noodles for emergencies, Snickers bars for energy boosts, and a jar of delicious Italian pesto as a talisman to ward of the evils of any especially horrible chaihanas. As we cycled out of the Adventurers Inn and through the backstreets of Dushanbe, the air was still cool, and shop owners were still hosing down and sweeping the dust from the pavements in front of their shops. The city was soon replaced with fields of fruit trees and bleached straw coloured grass.

Traffic jam on the road from Dushanbe

Traffic jam on the road from Dushanbe

With summer threatening to disappear at any moment we were keen to make good time but on the second day out of Dushanbe we awoke in our tent to cold and cloudy skies, which soon turned into rain. Sheltering under a derelict petrol station forecourt we gazed at the sky, probing signs that the cloud would break. Rain is a nuisance at the best of times but it was particularly distressing on this occasion. With only one set of warm clothes and a potentially chilly night of upland camping ahead of us we dared not get completely soaked. Opposite the petrol station a huge bearded man in a muslim cloth cap was standing under his porch, bellowing instructions at one of the women in his household, who was running to and from an outhouse, becoming increasingly bedraggled. Spotting us, he immediately beckoned us over, shouting something about chai and we gratefully scuttled across the road and into his house. We sat on rugs around a low table with his two children, and the bedraggled woman materialised with chai and two bowls of hot white milky stuff which we have since learned to avoid at all costs. ‘Pamir Tea’ as it is deceptively called is a soup of warm condensed milk, salted, and enriched with a generous knob of unpleasantly tangy homemade butter. I slurped mine down so as not to cause offence but Emily was physically unable and had to make excuses about being sick (which in fairness she was). After sitting through a very long hour of Koranic stories on DVD, the rain eventually abated and we pushed on, thanking our kind host and giving his son a banana.

Our outdoor sleeping arrangements at the Chaihana

Our outdoor sleeping arrangements at the Chaihana

With the bad weather, the unsurfaced roads, and Emily feeling unwell it was a slow and frustrating day. Our attempts to stay dry failed spectacularly when I got two punctures in a row, and was caught by consecutive thunder storms whilst fixing them. At the next chaihana, worn out by the day’s events, we decided to call it a day. Pitching the tent (or packing it away in the rain the next morning) was more than we could face so we slept outdoors in the chaihana’s garden, on a wooden platform under a tarpaulin shelter. I always love sleeping outside and it was a peaceful night, but at some point I was struck with severe tummy troubles (the ‘Pamir Tea’ perhaps?). I shan’t dwell on the finer details but what happened that night was the worst possible thing that can ever happen when you have diarrhoea. With only freezing river water to cleanse myself in the morning, I toyed with the idea hitching back to Dushanbe and starting again, but this wasn’t a sensible option, so on we went, and up we went.

imageDespite the inauspicious start, cycling in such a magnificent and intense place as the Pamirs is all consuming, and made it impossible to dwell on the relatively trivial problems we had faced so far. As we climbed out of the wide lower valleys into tighter gorges, the landscape became more brutal and elemental with every pedal stroke. In every direction rose towering, fractured walls of stone, occasionally breaking to reveal even bigger mountains behind, dusted with fresh white snow from the recent storms. The road, if you can call it that, was carved crudely into the steep black and grey rock of the gorge. Twisting and turning unpredictably along jagged contour lines, it fell away sharply on one side toward a wide fast flowing river of murky grey water. For long stretches there was no obvious human or animal life, and no other vehicles. Whenever we stopped cycling on these stretches, an eerie brooding silence seemed to ooze out from the surroundings. I thought of Sam and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, sneaking quietly into Mordor, via the Morgul Pass, over the precarious Stairs of Cirith Ungol.

imageSix days after leaving Dushanbe we reached the narrow Panj Valley, which we could follow all the way to Khorog. The weather had become dry and sunny, and we revelled in the stark mountain scenery as it got better and better. An added attraction in the Panj Valley is that the Panj River, which runs down the centre of the valley, marks the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. So, as we cycled along the Tajik side of he river, we got to watch Afghans going about their business on the other side. Essentially, they were doing the same things as the Tajiks – tending their orchards, going to school, driving their sheep up and down the road – but because they were Afghans they were for some childish reason, an endless source of fascination.

Girls on their way to school

Girls on their way to school

Before the formation of the Soviet Union the whole valley was part of the same community, but for almost 100 years they have been divided down the middle. Some similarities have persisted: Both sides are still Ismaili Muslims, a more liberal branch of Shia Islam; both sides are still very poor, due to their remoteness, their harsh winters, and because they have virtually no potential for agriculture or industry. But differences were also apparent: the Afghan side – at least to European eyes – looked prettier, and more traditional. There were no power lines and the road was too narrow to accommodate cars so the only vehicles were motorbikes. Villages were picturesque, consisting of a cluster of shoebox shaped mud houses, surrounded by orchards, poplar trees, and small emerald-green terraced fields. The Tajik side was more developed and hence less romantic but the people made up for it with their gentle unimposing friendliness.

imageWhen we finally rolled into Khorog at a cool-but-not-cold 2100m altitude, we were exhausted but exhilarated. By all accounts, the most physically demanding section is now behind us, but the cold high altitude section (4000m+) is still ahead. With a severe lack of cold weather gear and winter beginning to close in, we are desperately hoping that we can get through the mountains and down into China without mishap. Fingers crossed.

Total Stats

Days on the road: 172 (118 cycling, 54 rest days)
Kilometers: 10,257km
Average Dıstance per [cyclıng] day: 87km
Average Dıstance per day over total days: 60km
Highest point: 3250m on pass between Dushanbe and Khorog

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Uzbekistan: [Temporarily] Sick of the Silk Road

After the adrenaline of our long desert crossing had drained away, we found ourselves struck by a distinct lack of motivation. Whatever charm Uzbekistan had was quickly evaporating, and there was still another 1000km of hot flat featureless cycling between us and the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. On any other cycling trip, we would hop on a train but this wasn’t really an option so we had to be pragmatic. In the words of fellow long distance cyclist Alistair Humphreys, it was time for a period of “miles not smiles” as we ground out the kilometres between Khiva and the border with Tajikistan. Blessed with strong tail winds we began clocking up considerable distances including one record breaking day of 186km. Yet time passed slowly as we became disenchanted, and we began to see each day as an obstacle to be overcome, rather than an adventure to be savoured.

Cycling through alternating stretches of desert and agricultural floodplain, my resting state for the most part was mildly ill with stomach trouble, irritable, and deeply cynical about all things Uzbek. The whole place seemed almost wilfully neglected. Road surfaces were disintegrating, cars crowded around petrol stations with no fuel to offer, and basic infrastructure (e.g. running water, ATMs accepting Visa) was completely lacking. This sort of stuff may be normal in remote or troubled areas, but not in the populated heart of a reasonably developed country. Emily tried to remain positive as I ranted to her about who was to blame. With an admittedly scant knowledge of the subject, I directed my contempt equally toward the Soviets of the 20th century, and the current Police State, both of which were reputed to be as corrupt and inefficient as the other.

Bokhara's infamous 'Tower of Death'

Bokhara’s infamous ‘Tower of Death’ (see tiny Emily for scale)

Some respite was offered in the tourist enclaves of Khiva, Bokhara, and Samarkand – all legendary Silk Road cities of old – which had been beautifully restored by the Russians. However, the absence of any connection between the modern country and the stunning architecture and tradition that had prevailed until only 150 years ago was sad to see, and I found these places disturbingly soulless.

Setting out from Bokhara with 500km to go, nothing changed and all we could do was keep pedalling. As the scenery drifted past, I was plagued by images of burgers as Emily fantasised about ice cream and swimming pools. We very rarely listen to music on the road, but retreating into our iPods proved to be a very effective means of killing time and shutting out Uzbekistan. From sunrise to sunset, the locals were consistently friendly and genuinely pleased to see us, but in our increasingly morose state we avoided interaction as much as possible. A large proportion of people would whistle at us to try and elicit some kind of greeting or wave. Although clearly well meaning, I grew to find this intensely annoying, so all whistlers were ignored on principle. Others would bark ‘at kuda’ (‘where are you from?’ in Russian) and I’m afraid to say this also got on my nerves, so the ‘at kuda’ shouters were also mostly ignored. I feel slightly ashamed at having not been a better ambassador for western tourists, but I felt at times like I was nearing the end of my tether and wanted to do my cycling in peace. Emily needless to say was a lot less begrudging with her attention but still got thoroughly pissed off at times.

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It takes a lot for us to not look forward to meal times!

As was also the case in the previous blog post, chaihanas (tea house/restaurants) provided some particularly disgusting and fly infested low points to our days. Forced to spend hours at these places to escape the midday heat, we attempted to doze, and listlessly ate bowls of fatty meat soup or fried eggs with bread. Afterwards we would blot the grease from our faces and hands with tissues and pray that we hadn’t just consigned ourselves to a night of diarrhoea. The worst of our chaihana lunch stops came in a small village near a larger town called Baysun. There was no outdoor seating so we stooped through a tiny doorway into a sort of dark concrete bunker. The tables were covered in remnants of food which in turn were covered in flies, and the whole place reeked of vodka and stale beer. ‘Only a day and a half left to the border’ I told myself as I walked outside, grabbed an uncomfortable looking homemade chair, and plonked myself down underneath a tree. Emily followed suit. There was no way we were eating anything prepared here so we waved a packet of instant noodles at the teenage boy in charge, who kindly gave us a free kettle of hot water and left us to our own devices. As we ate our noodles on our laps, we watched one of chaihana’s less sober customers repeatedly falling over into the gutter before being manhandled onto the back of a motorbike and carted off to his house. A procession of other drunk customers periodically stumbled out to ask us the usual barrage of questions – where from? were to? name? – to which I patiently reeled off answers. I could scarcely imagine a worse place to live.

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Enjoying the novelty of some mountain scenery as we near Tajikistan

Fortunately, things did start to improve after this as the first ripples of the mighty Pamir Mountains began to disturb the monotony of the desert, injecting new vitality into the landscape, and into us. One evening, as the sun sunk into the low rounded hills, we followed a farm track through recently harvested wheat fields to a large mound of earth behind which we concealed our tent from the road. Emily gazed at the stars whilst I took the first flannel wash, using an empty bag as a shower mat. Distracted by our respective activities and with the wind whistling in our ears, neither of us noticed the tractor coming up the track from the road until it appeared right next to us from around the mound of earth. We had joked many times about this scenario, but now that it was actually happening it didn’t seem quite so funny, at least not to me. Emily yelped in shock as I spun round into the blinding headlights of the tractor which was bearing down on me from above like an angry UFO. Naked and wet, and feeling absurdly vulnerable, I cowered pathetically in the tractor’s beam, unable to move. When the engine stopped, Emily told me to put my towel on, which for some reason hadn’t occurred to me yet. I tried to think of something appropriately apologetic to say but, “hello, we’re tourists…“, was the best I could manage. As the farmer climbed down from his cabin I was relieved to see that he was just as shocked to see a naked wet Englishman in his field, as I was to see him. He very gently explained in Russian that he had seen our head-torches from his farm house and got worried that we might accidentally start a fire in his very dry wheat field, but we were more than welcome to camp here. Still feeling very embarrassed, we thanked him and apologised sheepishly until he drove off.

The final day and a half of cycling to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, passed uneventfully and it was with a considerable sigh of relief that we collapsed into the Adventurer’s Inn hostel, glad to have the mind numbing cycling of the last two weeks firmly behind us. Preparing now for a month in the high altitude mountain passes of Tajikistan, our usual levels of excitement are quickly returning and it’s great to know that what ever else they may be, the Pamirs will not be boring. What’s more, if all goes to plan, we will emerge on the other side having finally, officially, ‘Cycled to China’. Fingers crossed…

Total stats:

Days on the road: 156 (109 cycling, 47 rest days)
Kilometers: 9728km
Average Dıstance per [cyclıng] day: 89km
Average Dıstance per day over total days: 62km
Longest ever day: 186km
Days in a row without seeing a hill (even a small one!): 20
Number of times motorists had the cheek to ask us for water in the desert: 4

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Kazakhstan to Khiva: The Rhubarb Road

“When you have exhausted all the possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.”
Thomas A. Edison

The two main Silk Route highways from Baku – south through Iran and east through Turkmenistan – were closed to us so a much less travelled branch to the north through Kazakhstan was our only hope of continuing overland toward China. In old silk route parlance, it was known as the rhubarb road because Peter the Great had used it to create a Russian monopoly on Chinese rhubarb exports which – somewhat fantastically – were regarded in 17th Century Europe as a medicinal superfood of unsurpassed potency. Now devoid of rhubarb or any other healthy foodstuffs, it has become a long and lonely desert road, but with a bit of luck we would be able to follow it all the way from the Caspian Sea to the medieval Silk Route city of Khiva in Uzbezkistan.

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‘Our table’ on the Shahdag

We arrived in the Kazakh port of Aktau at dawn on the Shahdag, a cargo ship carrying train carriages of crude oil from Azerbaijan. It had been an unexpectedly pleasant 24 hour crossing and my preconceptions about the unsavoury conditions and crews of cargo ships had been proved wrong. After impatiently waiting all morning, the train carriages finally clattered out of the hold to continue their eastward journey, with us following close behind. A nightmarish 1000km of desert now lay before us and we were itching to make progress, but by the time we cleared customs it didn’t seem worth leaving town.

Having been an avid fan of Borat, I was surprised to see that few locals looked anything like Sacha Baron Cohen. Instead, many had asiatic features that wouldn’t have looked out of place in China. In the most budget hotel we could find, a friendly young woman unashamedly showed me round a mosquito infested room with fist sized holes in the door, no running water, and someone else’s poo in the toilet. It was very cheap though, so we dumped our stuff and retreated to the relative sanctuary of the Guns and Roses English Traditional Pub for a last meal of cheeseburger and chips. For the next couple of weeks we would have to get by on whatever slim pickings could be found on the road in chaihanas (tea houses) and in the threadbare convenience stores of a few isolated towns, supplemented by the following selection of goodies from the supermarket in Baku:

500g rice
500g flour (for chapatis)
4 x instant noodle packets
2 x tins of tuna
1 x can of sweet corn
1 x jar of tomato sauce
4 x onions
1 x bulb of garlic
1 x tinned pineapple chunks (I said it was too heavy, Emily insisted!)
6 x supersize Snickers
2 x large bags of peanut M&Ms
2 x large bags of nuts and raisins
1 x tube of salt and vinegar Pringles
1 x bag of dried apricots
2 x apples, oranges, and bananas
1x loaf of bread
1 x carton of cheese
1 x jar of extortionately priced but worth every penny Bonne Maman Raspberry Jam, imported from France
….plus our faithful tupperware box of essential kitchen supplies (salt, pepper, olive oil, turmeric, cumin, chilli powder, ground coriander).

imageAs well as this, we decided to top up our water supplies to about 10 litres each whenever possible. That we reasoned, should see us through to civilisation on the other side of the desert. As we pushed inland, the temperature crept up into the mid thirties (in the shade) and the traffic died away to a thin but steady trickle of goods lorries and construction vehicles.

Resignedly eating poisoned plov

Resignedly eating poisoned plov

At 7pm having covered a respectable 100km, we came across a chaihana and ordered a supper of plov, the quintessential Kazakh dish of rice – glistening with animal fat – topped off with a few chunks of braised beef. The depressing noise of microwaving could be heard emanating from the kitchen and I thought about how awful it would be at this point to get poisoned by old reheated rice and meat. Against our better judgement, we wolfed it down anyway and headed out to the desert to find a secluded spot to camp… By early afternoon the following day I started to feel weak and shortly afterwards, was making regular dashes from the road, toilet paper in hand. Emily was also afflicted although not as badly as me, and to add insult to injury I managed in the space of a few hours to break my kickstand and lose my helmet. Without the energy to lose my temper, I consoled myself with the thought that I was at least about 1.1kg lighter now.

imageIt was a bad start and to make matters worse, a persistent headwind was keeping our speed down, and the road had disintegrated into an appalling surface of uneven compacted dirt, studded with large jagged stones and interspersed with lethal dust filled potholes. In an incredible feat of pointlessness, the Kazakhs had managed to create a road that was more difficult and treacherous to drive on than the natural surface of the surrounding land! Consequently, the desert was criss-crossed with dusty tracks, forged by cars and trucks searching for a smoother path. This is where most people – including us – preferred to drive and once we’d abandoned the road our progress began to speed up.

For the most part we were now alone, and the sight of two forlorn cycle tourists must have inspired a fair amount of sympathy, because what little traffic there was often stopped to donate water, ice cold red bull (particularly welcome), and bits of fruit. We were occasionally delighted to see wild camels and horses near the road, but disappointed on closer inspection to see that they were almost all branded. God knows who owned them and how they are controlled though – we never saw a single fence or shepherd. imageThe utter desolation of the landscape, day after day, was at the same time boring and magnificent. The modern world can seem like a small place, but at times like this, one is reminded that physically it is still as large as it ever was. To see such expansive tracts still unsullied by human presence was immensely reassuring and despite the hardships and long days, this was turning into one of the high points of the journey.

On our map, the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan is a perfectly straight line, indicating that it was drawn up arbitrarily by politicians, rather than according to some topographical or cultural logic. imageAs such, very little changed when we crossed the border. Two things that did change were the road which thankfully reverted back to tarmac, and the currency which became very strange indeed. Uzbekistan is not a cheap county by Asian standards, yet the highest value note is worth about 30 pence! As a result everyone carries around ludicrous mafia-like wedges of cash. Exchanging a hundred dollars I was given a thick wad of 267 bank notes held together with elastic bands. The locals have become highly adept at leafing through their stacks, but whenever we had to pay for something, we invariably ended up with money everywhere, clumsily counting out piles of cash and feeling rather self conscious for flaunting our wealth so indiscreetly.

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Instant noodles by moonlight

On the Uzbek side, the desert became even more featureless and inhospitable, although there were gerbils living here which I had no idea were so hardy. The view was completely flat as far as the eye could see in every direction, reminiscent of an ocean floor without the water. And indeed, marine fossils in some of the rocks suggest that it was an ocean floor at some point in the past. On one stretch of road there was nothing whatsoever for over 140km, not even a single tree. The climate combined with the increased isolation now presented a number of logistical problems. Because the morning and evening were less hot and less windy, we set off before sunrise and would only stop to strike camp as the sun was going down. The cool and peaceful nights came as a huge relief and although a bright moon robbed us of the desert stars, it did provide plenty of light for cooking, eating, and the all important flannel wash. For three hours in the middle of the day, we would attempt to get out of the sun to dose, read, and guzzle water, but because there was no shade we had to construct precarious shelters by stringing up Emily’s pashmina and sarong. These were uncomfortably exposed and made unruly by the wind, so these hours weren’t as restful as they should have been.

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Chaihana serving cow organs

Our only true respite from the battle against dust, wind, and sun were the chaihanas, sat by the road in splendid isolation roughly every 50km. However, these bore little resemblance to the enticing English vision of a tea shop, and were as much a test of endurance as anything else in the desert. Grimly functional and sparsely furnished, the average desert chaihana was actually a poorly stocked cross between a restaurant and a convenience store, frequented only out of necessity by long distance truckers, and flies. Most also turn out to be stuffy, smelly, and dirty. In one particularly depraved chaihana, we arrived at 8am searching for yait-sa (eggs), but the only food they had were some left over cow organs that under normal circumstances would surely have been given to the dogs. With no other choice though, and in need of fuel for the long day ahead, we sat on floor cushions next to three truckers and stoically gobbled down two portions of the fried chopped up organs, washing them down with chinese-style ceramic bowls full of sweet black tea. The truckies, unperturbed by the disgusting breakfast were merrily making their way through a bottle of vodka in preparation for their equally long and bleak day on the road. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen people getting wasted at breakfast time and later that day another trucker cheerfully offered me some dubious looking black powdery sludge from a see through plastic bag (chewing tobacco?). When I asked what it was he rolled his eyes back and swayed around like a zombie… ‘No thanks, it’s quite hot today, I’d better give it a miss‘. Evidently drink/drug driving is not frowned upon here as it is elsewhere. In this extraordinarily poor and environmentally harsh corner of Central Asia there is very little in the way of treats or comforts to motivate oneself or to look forward to at the end of the day, so perhaps it’s understandable.

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Frenzied melon selling outside Khiva’s old walls

When we eventually rode out from the desert, the end was abrupt. One minute there was nothing but sandy monotony, the next minute, we had dropped thirty metres over a small rise and found ourselves on a lush, heavily irrigated, agricultural floodplain. The air was suddenly thick with an overpowering smell of plants and soil and moisture. There was also something more exotic than usual about our new surroundings. Having pondered at various points from Eastern Europe to Azerbaijan whether we had crossed the invisible dividing line between east and west, it was now abundantly clear for the first time since leaving home. We had arrived in Asia. Cotton fields and rice paddies stretched back from the road. Goats, donkeys, and cows nibbled at the verge. Pleasantly asymmetrical mud built houses sat in clearings of bare earth in amongst the vegetation. My smattering of Turkish no longer seemed to work as well as it did in Azerbaijan, and with no Russian whatsoever, we were completely incomprehensible to the locals, and vice versa. But it didn’t matter. We had passed the most prolonged physical challenge of the trip so far, and it felt good. Sterner opposition awaited a few weeks down the line in the form of the Pamir Mountains, but having successfully reconnected to the main strand of the Silk Route, it was time for a well earned break.

Total Stats

Days on the road: 144 (101 cycling, 43 rest days)
Kilometers: 8715km
Average Dıstance per [cyclıng] day: 86km
Average Dıstance per day over total days: 60.5km
% of total distance done: 48%
Longest number of days in a row without a shower: 6
Longest number of cycling days in a row without a rest: 13
Longest number of days in a row in the same T-shirt: 13

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Under a canopy of walnut trees

Georgia and Azerbaijan: Ex-Soviet Excitement

“Her Britannic Majesty’s
Secretary of State
requests and requires in the
Name of Her Majesty
all those whom it may concern
to allow the bearer to pass freely
without let or hinderance
and to afford the bearer
such assistance and protection
as may be necessary.”

Inside cover, United Kingdom Passport

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Baku’s iconic Flame Towers

A few days ago, we rolled into Baku, the elegant oil rich capital of Azerbaijan, on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Normally it would be time for sightseeing and air conditioned cake eating, but we had work to do. Armed with passports, maps, photos, application forms, fictitious hotel bookings, and a small fortune in US dollars, it was time to get our ‘Stans’ visas. Despite the polite notice in the front of passports, we were in for some serious ‘let and hinderance’, which ended up with the surprise addition of a whole new country to our itinerary. At one point it looked as if we may not be able to continue overland from Baku at all, but more on that later.

When we left Turkey after the last blog post, the way ahead through Georgia and Azerbaijan – apart from the heat – didn’t look too tough, but we were in for quite a culture shock. Immediately after cycling across the border we saw people relaxing by a river, skimpily dressed. Not an unusual sight in England, but after spending so long in Turkey, it felt unnerving to see such ‘lurid’ behaviour in public. We then hit, Vale, a small border town which was even more unnerving. As we slowly rolled down the main street, we felt like wild-west gunslingers arriving by horse in some dusty backwater. People stared unsmilingly, everything seemed unnaturally still, and the only noise was the soft ticking of our gear hubs. Something didn’t feel right. The road was lined with grand European-looking buildings, with ornate stonework and pretty decorative features. Clearly, Vale had once been a handsome town, and wealthy, but something must have happened because everything was falling into disrepair and many buildings – especially the big municipal ones – stood derelict. The people looked poor, dressed in old t-shirts and tattered shorts or trousers, and somehow out of place amongst the old buildings. It was as if they had recolonized them after some apocalyptic event had wiped out the original inhabitants. Was this all down to the fall of the Soviet Union 22 years ago? It was tempting to think so, but we were too intimidated to ask anyone.

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Akhaltsikhe

Thankfully we soon arrived in a more normal and friendly town called Akhaltsikhe, with shops, restaurants, and even a few other tourists. With all the pork eating, beer drinking, and church going, it felt like we were back in Western Europe. But we also saw more remnants of Georgia’s communist past: A middle aged man selling old Soviet war medals out of a battered suitcase; and our huge eerily empty 1950s hotel, which looked like the set of an old Russian spy movie with its gloomy wood panelled reception area, illuminated by dim naked lightbulbs.

imageAs we continued onwards, the cycling was easy going, mostly following the course of the Mikvari River, through the foothills of the Caucuses. There was a welcome tailwind for most of the time, and although the landscape wasn’t particularly inspiring, it was nice not to be huffing and puffing up mountains for a change. Like England, Georgia seemed like a small country with a lot in it, so there were plenty of places to stop and guzzle down cheap and delicious kachapuri (bready cheesy pizza like things) or khinkalli (like Chinese dim sum dumplings, but bigger). imageThere were also a lot ruined castles perched improbably on outcrops of rock, and medieval churches, still being well used by the devout locals. It was great to be amongst such a rich and proud history, but I was secretly more intrigued by the dying embers of the USSR that still littered the way: Rusting industrial hardware, bulky Russian pick-up trucks left for dead, closed down factories. I wondered whether it would have felt the same to ride through Britain 20 years after the Romans left.

The night before arriving in the capital Tbilisi, we stayed in a town called Gori, unremarkable except for the fact that Joseph Stalin had been born and raised there. He was apparently revered as a local hero and his childhood home – a poor two room hovel – stood alone in a large memorial park, the rest of his neighbourhood having been bulldozed in order to create it!

In Tbilisi, instead of the usual sightseeing, we locked up our bikes in the basement of a family run hostel and took a short ‘half way to China’ break to fly back to England for Emily’s brother’s wedding. It was surreal to suddenly be zapped back to our starting point, but it was a welcome break, and we felt full of renewed enthusiasm when we got back on the bikes.

Entering Azerbaijan, we were pleasantly surprised. Without any guidebook or prior research, all we knew about Azerbaijan was that it had loads and loads of oil, so (rather illogically) we were expecting a dry, dusty sort of a place, with lots of unfriendly oil barons. Fortunately it wasn’t like that at all. The landscape was green with all sorts of edible goodies growing everywhere, and culturally it seemed almost exactly like Turkey. The language was very similar, chain smoking and chain tea drinking had returned, and best of all, everyone seemed to have the same super-friendly disposition that we’d grown to love in Turkey.

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Our favourite tea man with beautiful tea-dispensing samovar

Only a couple of kilometres over the border we were accosted by a man with a roadside tea stall. For at least an hour we sat drinking tea and communicating in scraps of Turkish that we’d learned on the road. After a while, his mother joined us for a cuppa, and I was shocked to see that when she smiled, she had a full set of gold teeth! It was strange to see such a sweet little old lady with such gangster-like cosmetic surgery, but we soon realised that it was quite normal in Azerbaijan for men and women to get as many gold teeth as possible, supposedly as a kind of fashion / status symbol.

Bumper fruit and nut harvest

Bumper fruit and nut harvest

Anyway, after tea, our host took us on a little tour of his vegetable garden and we left laden with armfuls of freshly picked hazelnuts, pears, apples, and cranberries. Of course he wouldn’t accept any money for the fruit or tea, so we gave his mum a snickers instead, which was well received. I strapped the cranberry branches onto the back of my bike and passers by helped themselves as we rode past.

We only had 400km to ride through Azerbaijan, but it was surprisingly hilly and hot. On top of this we were beset by laziness and dodgy stomachs (possibly due to bad tap water, although a minced beef wrap was also implicated), so it took us longer than expected. We rode eastward, with hazy flat plains to the south, and the forested foothills of the Caucuses, towering to the north. The upper reaches of the mountains were often hidden by cloud, and somewhere up there was the border with Russia. Unfortunately, the road itself was busy and not very pleasant, and the Azeri driving was absolutely atrocious. Although well meaning and respectful of our bicycles, people drove way too fast and recklessly for the narrow roads. Almost every day we saw cars (mostly old Ladas) losing control and skidding around the road. Even so, we were really enjoying Azerbaijan simply because the people were so full of fun and good humour. We’d never been anywhere where so many adults want to play with our bells whenever we park the bikes.

Halfway through the 400km ride to Baku, outside the town of Gabala, we pulled up at a water fountain next to a hazelnut plantation / packing factory to fill up our bottles before finding somewhere to camp. As luck would have it, Tofiq, the 60 year old owner of the plantation saw us and insisted that we camp there as his guests, in the grass amongst the hazelnut bushes. After setting up camp, he sat us down at his table in the busy outdoor staff canteen and started ordering large amounts of food.

Having both been up the night before with the runs, we were keen to get to bed as soon as possible but Tofiq was a great host and when he suggested a little glass of vodka to toast our journey, we could hardly refuse. So, out came a small bottle of vodka and three glasses. One thing led to another and the toasts kept on coming: Azerbaijan, England, the hazelnut business, mine and Emily’s future children…I lost track.

Lethal vodka with Tofiq

Lethal vodka with Tofiq

Emily was getting off quite lightly with very small portions (although still getting quite drunk). But I was having to match Tofiq glass for glass, and fared considerably worse. Two bottles later, I got up to pee and realised I could hardly walk. It was time for bed, but the damage had been done. On my hands and knees, I unceremoniously vomited into a hazelnut bush, before crawling into the tent and passing out. The next morning Emily was in ok shape but I was not. Still, we had to keep going due to visa deadlines in Baku, so after a plate of fried eggs, Tofiq (also worse for wear) sent us wobbling on our way with wishes of luck, and a kilo of hazelnuts. What an awesome guy! I felt like shit but it had been worth it.

imageAs we neared the Caspian Sea and Baku, the scenery became browner and more desert-like. Finding a well hidden camp spot became difficult. On the night before we reached Baku, surrounded by desert, and with no villages nearby and no cover to hide ourselves, we had to settle for a campsite that was more exposed than we would have liked. We ate dinner and went to sleep hoping not to attract attention, but we’d been spotted by some road workers.

Later that night, we awoke to the sound of voices and the harsh glow of torchlight around the tent. ‘Shit!‘ I looked at the watch, it was midnight. ‘What did they want?‘ Maybe they had reported us and we were going to be moved on. Or maybe they had come to make trouble. One of voices was shouting “Yemek”, “Yemek” (‘food’ in Azeri). ‘Did these people really want food?’, I thought. It sounded like bad news… I opened the zip, blinking into the torchlight, heart pounding, expecting some kind of confrontation. From behind the torch, somebody thrust a loaf of bread and two polystyrene containers toward me. Unexpected chicken breakfastThey had chicken and rice in them… It was the road workers! They’d had gone back to base and got us a load of food. I breathed a massive sigh of relief, and thanked them extremely gratefully. I popped the food in our porch for breakfast, and collapsed back onto my bed. This little episode topped off a week of gobsmackingly kind treatment from the Azeri people since arriving in their country. It had totally made up for the unpleasant and dangerous cycling, and we arrived in Baku the following day in high spirits, even though we had no visa for onward travel in any direction.

So where to next? Well, the original plan was to go to Iran but this hadn’t worked out. Plan B was to cross the Caspian by boat to Turkmenistan, but this too was thwarted because their dictatorship – sorry, I mean government – make it extremely hard to obtain a visa. Their first line of defence in Baku is to hide their embassy deep in a residential area with no signage. Next they demand a letter of invitation which takes up to 14 days to process, and conveniently isn’t mentioned anywhere online. This ended any chance of us going to Turkmenistan, leaving Plan C, the only remaining option that didn’t involve flying. It was to take a boat across the Caspian to the remote Kazakhstan port of Aktau. From here there would be a daunting 1000km desert crossing to the Silk Road oasis cities of Uzbekistan.

There isn’t much information to be found about this forgotten corner of Kazakhstan, but it seems to be inadvisable to cycle through it, especially during summertime. At the same time, the peace and quite and vastness of the desert is exciting. I guess it’s easy to say this in the air conditioned lobby of the Baku Hilton (where we’re sneakily spending the afternoon for the free wifi), but we can’t wait to get there. Hopefully, with enough water and peanut M&Ms anything is possible.

Total Stats

Days on the road: 127 (88 cycling, 39 rest days – this doesn’t include our 10 day time out in UK!)
Kilometers: 7487
Average Dıstance per [cyclıng] day: 85km
Average Dıstance per day over total days: 59km
% of total distance done: 42%
Foraged goods: hazelnuts, walnuts (not ripe), plums, apricots, cranberries, blackberries, mulberries, apples, pears, cherries, funny sour plummy things

Photos of Georgia

Photos of Azerbaijan

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Turkey: Kebab Feasts and Heading East

Cycling lengthways across turkey turned out to be a serious undertaking, with over 2000 kilometres of natural barriers and cultural curiosities, both of which have caused considerable – but welcome – delays. In fact, it’s taken a full month to get from Istanbul to the eastern frontier town of Ardahan, tucked away in the mountainous high altitude pastures next to the Georgian border. At times we’ve been exhausted and soaked in sweat, on roads so punishing that i’ve found myself cursing the people who built them. But in Turkey, no challenge is insurmountable, because there is always someone close at hand to put a smile on your face with a friendly word, a cup of tea, or a chair in the shade.

imageHaving cycled through Turkey once before, we were full of excited nostalgia as we cycled into Istanbul and headed for the apartment of our university friend, where we were staying for a few days before heading east. From Mert’s fifth floor window, Istanbul looked as beautiful and peaceful as ever, with Turkish flags fluttering in the breeze, and birds wheeling gracefully about the elegant stone minarets that pierce the undulating skyline of red roofed apartment blocks and silver domed mosques. But, down at street level, all was not well. Anti-government protests were in full swing, with Taksim’s main square barricaded and strewn with burnt out cars. In the surrounding neighbourhoods, political graffiti covered every available surface. Fortunately we had come during a police ‘cease fire’ so with no immediate threat of a tear gas infused show down, we were able to get on with the important business of BBQ’ing, slobbing around, and beer drinking, until our departure.

imageWe chose to leave the city to the north, following the path of least resistance (traffic-wise) toward the Black Sea, which was only 50km away. I wanted to steer clear of the coast, but was outvoted by Emily and Monty who had been seduced by the idea of swimming and camping by the sea. I tried not to complain too much, but this was difficult. The weather was hot and sticky, the roads were busier than expected, and the terrain whilst low-lying, was impossibly hilly. Each day was filled with short gruelling climbs, which were immediately neutralised by sharp descents, creating a constant feeling of putting in maximum effort for minimum gain. To top it off, the sea was cold and neither Monty or Emily ever managed to stay in for more than a minute or two.

Still, despite this, Turkey was shaping up to be a fun and exotic place to cycle. European delicacies like pork, toilet paper, and mild weather had disappeared, but they were more than made up for by the unwavering hospitality of the people we met. Every day, motorists and passers by would stop to chat or to give us little presents of fruit or baked goods to keep us going. These were very gratefully received. Less welcome were the people who stopped to berate me for cycling too far ahead of Emily, or for ‘making’ her carry too much luggage. This happened fairly often and one occasion we were mischievously cajoled into putting our fully loaded bikes on weighing scales, to prove to onlookers that I hadn’t sneakily given Emily all the heavy stuff to carry (my baggage+bike was heavier by the way!). Needless to say, Emily greatly enjoyed these tellings off, and the way in which I had to politely accept them, with promises to correct my unchivalrous behaviour.

imageAfter a week in the lush forests of the Black Sea coast, we turned inland toward the much drier central part of Turkey. Within two days the scenery had changed dramatically. The forests disappeared as soon as we were out of range of the wet coastal weather system, and the low hills gave way to tall mountains and high grassy plateaus, often over 1000 metres above sea level. The climbs we now faced were much longer, requiring hours of sustained effort to reach the top. But getting there (and rolling down the other side) was a lot more rewarding – and somehow less tiring – than the relentless short ups and downs on the coast. Before long, it was time for Monty to say goodbye and head back to England. We’d had a fantastic eight weeks together, but Monty had new adventures in store, and we needed to speed up now that the fierce central Asian summer was beginning to set in.

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Foraging for cherries

The onset of summer had its pros and cons. On the upside, fruit trees everywhere were straining under the weight of apricots, cherries, and mulberries, which were readily available at makeshift stalls by the road, for negligible amounts of money (or for free if you keep your eyes peeled for foraging opportunities). On the downside, daytime temperatures were rising to the point where we started dragging ourselves out of bed at 5am, just to get going whilst it was still cool. In order to make the early starts more acceptable, we’ve created a new time zone – Max and Emily Standard Time – which is always an hour ahead of local time, meaning we can stay in bed for an extra hour and get up at 6am (and go to bed at 10.30pm instead of 9.30). A bit absurd, but we find it helpful, psychologically.

Surprisingly – in view of the heat and limited bathing opportunities – personal hygiene has not suffered. This has firstly been due to the amazing recent discovery of ‘flannel washing’, which has revolutionised our camping routine. Believe it or not, half a litre of judiciously used cold water and a flannel, can be almost as good as a shower, so long as you don’t mind stripping off and lathering up in a field, under cover of darkness. Washing like this keeps thing civilised for few days, and then in larger Turkish towns, which crop up every five days or so, there is the opportunity for a more professional clean…

I’ve always dismissed ‘Hamams’, a.k.a Turkish Baths, as pretty buildings where people go to be violently massaged in 100% humidity. It’s only on this trip that I have come to see them – from a more functional perspective – for what they really are, which is a kind of human carwash. The cleansing procedure involves changing into a loincloth and sitting in a sauna for 10 minutes, before being abrasively scrubbed to within an inch of your life, soaped, washed, and sent on your way, gleaming and slightly dehydrated. These wonderful institutions as you can imagine, are very much appreciated by the perpetually sweaty / dusty cycle tourer during Turkish summertime.

BBQ in a petrol station (don't try this at home)!

BBQ in a petrol station (don’t try this at home)!

Another good thing about Turkey has been the camping. With its long history as a silk road highway between Asia and Europe, nobody seems at all surprised to see long distance travellers pitching up, and looking for somewhere to sleep. Wild camping is usually possible, hidden in the folds of grassy hills, or amongst copses of trees in river valleys. Failing that, it’s always possible to camp in villages, building sites, or petrol stations. Out on the open road, petrol stations especially have have been a favourite and reliable place of refuge. There’s usually tea making facilities, a nice patch of grass, and a clean-ish bathroom (all at no cost). Once – ignoring the obvious health and safety issues – we were even treated to an impromptu BBQ on the forecourt, by the attendant and his friends.

imageAnyway, with camping and cleaning taken care of, the only remaining cycling-based consideration is food. Fortunately, Turkey is the global epicentre of kebab consumption, so nourishment is always close at hand. At home, I tend to think of kebabs as sordid late night affairs, conducted under the influence of cheap alcohol. But in Turkey this is not the case. There are over 100 types, mostly region specific, and all juicy and delicious. By way of a small personal challenge, I successfully managed to eat an average of one per day since leaving Istanbul – a total of 30 – with no adverse affects as yet. Photographic evidence here! Emily, it should be said, in support of the challenge, has inadvertently eaten almost 30 as well.

If kebabs are the culinary bricks from which Turkey is built, then tea is surely the cement that holds them together. England may be famous as a nation of tea drinkers but Turkey without any doubt, outbrews even the most industrious of British tea shops. ‘Chai’ as it’s called here, follows every meal, and is offered as an essential courtesy in almost every social encounter, even during a brief toilet stop at a petrol station. Served in small glasses with no milk and lots of sugar, we consume at least five a day, and still end up politely declining a handful more.

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Making chapatis

When we end up cooking for ourselves, our repertoire of camp meals is somewhat limited, but we’ve recently spiced things with a couple of new bits of kitchenware: A lightweight chapati frying pan – great for impressing friends at campsite dinner parties; and a Turkish coffee pot – excellent for washing down inadequate breakfasts of stale bread and Nutella, or warm yogurt and cereal.

Anyway, after a good deal more cycling we eventually rolled into Ardahan, the last Turkish town on our map. Then, having spent a month in Turkey, and after a melancholic last kebab and cup of tea, we saddled up and rode off toward the Georgian frontier. Finally, three-and-a-half months after setting out from London, we were leaving the ‘known world’ of our previous travels, and entering the mysterious sounding former Soviet states of Central Asia. We’d been looking forward to this moment ever since leaving home and we couldn’t wait to see what came next.

Total Stats

Days on the road: 106 (76 cycling, 30 rest days)
Kilometers: 6517
Average Dıstance per [cyclıng] day: 86km
Average Dıstance per day over total days: 61km
% of total distance done: 36%
Hıghest Poınt: 2600 metres (Pass on approach to Ardahan)
Most kebabs eaten by Max in one day: 4
Most sugar-lumps consumed in one day by Emily (due to excessive tea consumption): 24

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Greased Lightning: Thessaloniki to Istanbul

‘I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date, no time to say hello goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late!’
White Rabbit, Alice in wonderland
Lewis Carroll

The 667km cycle from Thessaloniki through the north of Greece to Istanbul was going to be against the clock. We had friends to meet in Istanbul and as usual, we were running late. imageFor city folk such us ourselves, two days in the busy hi-rise metropolis of Thessaloniki had been a breath of fresh air after a month spent meandering through the peaceful backcountry of South east Europe. In crisis ridden Greece with its 64% youth unemployment, I expected the atmosphere in Thessaloniki – a city with over 70,000 students – to be uneasy, or even threatening, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. In the city centre, hundreds of chic cafes were packed day and night with easy going, fashion conscious young Greeks drinking coffee and socialising. I naively asked a local girl working at our hostel how everyone could afford to be out all day buying 3 euro coffees. She told me it was because coffee was all they could afford and that if they didn’t have somewhere to go and exchange ideas then they would all go mad. ‘Fair enough‘, I thought.

As we prepared to leave our hostel, disaster-prone Monty realised he had lost his passport, and after a few hours of frantic searching, phone calling, and visiting the police, only one course of action remained. He would have to make the 500km trip to Athens by bus, wait two days until Monday to get an emergency passport from the British Embassy, before flying on to join us in Istanbul. The thought of separating for the final stretch of Europe was gutting, but we were now later than ever so we reluctantly said our sad farewells, and Emily and I rolled out of town.

It was already mid-afternoon, and we only had 6 days to get to Istanbul but we were now travelling through doner kebab land so success was virtually guaranteed. That day, we cycled until sundown making the most of the strong tailwind, before quickly buying some bread and cheese for dinner, and setting up camp behind some bushes, 100 metres off the road, next to a lake. In our rush to throw up the tent, we failed to notice the mosquitos until we’d already been peppered with bites. It’s always particularly frustrating when they get you like that, right at the end of the day, just when your most looking forward to zipping yourself up in bed with book and head torch, only to have it ruined by a brief moment of complacency. I sprayed myself with repellant and finished putting up the tent, angrily wondering why in the modern day and age, I should need to cover myself in toxic chemicals just to get a good nights sleep.

imageOver the coming days, our route would follow the Aegean coastline, along the contours of an old Roman road called the ‘Via Egnatia’. In antiquity, it was one of the most important roads in the world – linking Rome to Constantinople – for the benefit of marauding crusaders, invading Persians, and other historical ne’er do wells. Sounds romantic but unfortunately, it’s now been superseded by a modern highway surrounded by boring wheatfields and the odd industrial plant. Not too pretty for cyclists, but there was one legacy left by the ancient way which proved very useful. In olden days, traveller stations with inns and markets would be spread evenly along the route, about every 40-50km, which was the length of a full day’s travel on horse or foot. Now in modern times, these stations have grown to become the major towns and cities of northern Greece, and travelling on bikes -twice as fast as the Romans and co.- we could reliably hit two each day, providing ideal lunch and dinner stops.

Apart from this regular spacing of kebab shops, the only obvious clues to the region’s heritage were occasional signposts to mythical sounding places like ‘The Baths of Eleftheres’ and ‘The Lion of Amphipolis’. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for sightseeing, but we did try to have a daily dip in the sea, if possible. Emily insisted on this, and although I generally avoid going in or near the sea, it was good to escape the midday heat, and also to have a legitimate reason to use the beach showers to wash. This was important as we were wild camping almost every night.

One night we attempted to wild camp in an area that wasn’t quite wild enough, and ended up getting moved on to a nearby campsite by some locals who said that police wouldn’t allow it. It was a very annoying experience, and reminded us that campsites can sometimes, ironically, be the worst thing about camping. We had to pay 10 euros (haggled down from 15) for a tiny patch of bare earth sandwiched between two giant camper vans, 10 metres away from a toilet, and 30 metres away from a Greek wedding, complete with enormous sound system, that played unimaginably loud traditional Greek music, well into the night. My futile polite British requests to have it turned down were of course rebuffed. ‘Give me swarms of Mosquitos any day‘, I thought.

imageWe did get to sleep in the end though, and despite my ranting about insects and campsites, we were having a very good week all in all. The road was mostly flat, the weather was mostly sunny, and we were making good time to Istanbul, averaging well over 100km a day. We had also met possibly the most outrageous cycle tourer I have ever heard of. He was an eccentric young Greek guy who, fed up with being jobless and broke, was cycling with two friends from his home in Komotini, to the coastal town of Alexandropolous, to take a ferry to the island of Samothraki. Among his few pieces of luggage, were a dog (in the front basket), 7 euros, and a bow and arrow, which he intended to shoot goats with once he got to Samothraki. Was he a fruitcake? Possibly. But then cycling to China isn’t entirely sensible either. Anyway, we would have been keen to join them if we hadn’t been on a deadline, but Turkey was drawing near and the clock was ticking.

Not far for the border, we entered a vast area of wetlands, and unwittingly cycled into one of the most bizarre and disturbing natural phenomena either of us have ever seen. The whole road was suddenly covered with tiny little frogs, about two centimetres long, all trying desperately to get from one side to the other. We tried to weave around them but it was impossible, there were thousands. Crunch…squelch…I winced every time I went over one, and Emily squealed hysterically as she wobbled about the road. Stopping wasn’t an option lest we get mobbed by frogs. ‘Let’s just go in a straight line down the white strip on the edge of the road!‘, I shouted. We did this, one behind the other, which meant we were only squashing half as many frogs. This was good, but out in the centre of the road scenes of carnage were unfolding. As frogs hopped over their fallen brethren like some horrific D-day reenactment, cars would drive past, flattening some, and scattering others all over the place with the whoosh of air they generated as they sped by. It’s often very apparent whilst cycling, how deadly the roads are for all sorts of local wildlife, but this was the most extreme example yet.

imageWhen we finally escaped the tarmac killing fields and crossed the border into Turkey, the only remaining challenge was getting to Istanbul without being squashed ourselves, but a huge Turkish truck. The notoriously dangerous roads leading into the city is a common topic on cycling forums. Having studied various maps, talked to other cyclists, and ridden in and out of Istanbul twice, I can confidently say there is no quiet/safe road when coming from the European side. So as expected, our two day ride from the Greek border started off fine, and gradually built to a crescendo of near death experiences for the last 30km, before we managed to exit the evil D100 into residential neighbourhoods.

We’re now almost half way across Turkey, but across the courtyard of our hotel, there’s a kebab with my name on it, so that’s all for now.

Total Stats for Europe

Days on the road: 76 (53 cycling, 23 rest days)
Kilometers: 4649
Average Dıstance per [cyclıng] day: 88km
Average Dıstance per day over total days: 61km
% of total distance done: 25.8%
Camping nights: 21 (8 campsites, 13 wild camping)
Hotels, hostels and apartments: 37
Other (including pilgrim accommodation, staying with friends etc): 18
Punctures: 7 (all Emily’s)
Broken Rohloff hubs: 1 (Emily’s)
Number of wheels that have fallen off unexpectedly: 1 (Emily’s)
Longest day: 151km (Vevey to Brig in Switzerland)
Hıghest Poınt: 2005 metres (Simplon Pass ın Switzerland)
Favourite national food: Burek
Favourite countries: Bosnia, Montenegro and Albania

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Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia: Into the Wild

“The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

Apologies… it’s been a while, but we’ve had unfinished business with the Balkan mountains. For some time it seemed as if they weren’t going to let us leave, but after many long days negotiating with gorges, passes, and plateaus, we’ve finally rolled back down to sea level in Thessaloniki, to replenish our depleted stocks of blood, sweat, and tears. Althpugh the Greek road signs look a bit too much like A-level maths homework, it does feel fantastic to be back on flat(ish) roads with a clear run ahead, along the Aegean coast to the edge of Europe.

When we left Sarajevo three weeks ago, the road ahead looked deceptively straightforward, with only three tiny countries between us and Greece’s sun, sea and sand. As usual, we plotted an ambitiously winding route through small backcountry roads in an attempt to find the most exciting cycling. The rewards were well worth the effort, but the going was pretty tough, and almost every kilometre was hard fought.

imageWith almost 200 peaks over 2000 metres, crammed into a country smaller than Wales, and with less than a million people, Montenegro is truly a land of mountains and nature. When we got there after a days cycle from Sarajevo, the close confines of Bosnia’s wooded hills opened up into a gaping forest-covered valley. Signs of human life virtually disappeared and as we cycled happily along, it became evident that we had acquired a new travelling companion.

Stray dogs often pad along with us for a few hundred metres, but this one was unusually persistent and the steeply undulating road meant he could easily keep up with the bikes. In retrospect we should have probably shooed him off, but he was friendly and very earnest, so before long Emily had made the fatal error of naming him. Even Monty, who generally hates dogs, became helplessly smitten. For Brutus the feeling was clearly mutual. Sensing the air of acceptance, he decided that we were his new owners and from that moment on, we were inseparable.

It was a hot and hilly day and we stopped often for breaks, and to admire the views. Brutus would lie panting in the shade of a pannier whilst we cooed over him, worrying that he was overheating or getting tired. Monty squirted water onto the road and encouraged Brutus to lick it up, whilst I fed him chocolate biscuits. I vaguely remembered that dogs aren’t supposed to eat human-chocolate, but I figured that a Montenegrin stray would probably have had worse.

image26 kilometres later, Brutus was still in tow and the sun was beginning to go down. None of us knew much about dogs but 26km seemed like a long way for one to run, and Brutus looked tired. As we approached the first settlement we’d seen since crossing the border (a lively little town next to a lake) we were eagerly stopped by a middle-aged woman who offered us a reasonably priced room in her apartment, so we followed her into the town whilst she talked incessantly at us in Montenegrin. We went via a bar to get a bowl of water for Brutus, at which point our landlady broke off from her one-way conversation to eye Brutus suspiciously, before turning to me and saying in an accusatory tone, “Bosnian?”. I shrugged. It was clear he wouldn’t be coming in for the night.

The next morning, I woke up at 6.30am thinking about Brutus. We had brought him to a dog-friendly restaurant the night before, but there hadn’t been much for him to eat… I went downstairs and found him curled up on a doormat outside the apartment block, “Wait there boy, I’ll just be a minute”. I dashed to a small supermarket. They didn’t have dog food, but they did have a large can of chicken pâté for 0.60 euro. Ironically, it smelled and tasted exactly like dog food, and Brutus wolfed it down. It was a happy moment, but in our hearts we had all begun to realise that Brutus wasn’t going to get to China. Although I make light of it now, it felt like an awful thing that we had done – taking poor Brutus miles away from his stomping grounds and letting him become attached to us. Later that day, with a long sweeping downhill section ahead, we knew what had to be done. Nothing was said, but when we got to the bottom, Brutus had been left far behind. It was for the best. In order to regain our good animal-karma, we’ve been trying to save as many tortoises as possible from the roads (and concrete ditches beside the roads which they get stuck in), but I still think about Brutus often and hope that he’s ok.

imageAs we continued through Montenegro, we didn’t meet any more locals, but that was fine because the cycling was really stunning. Quite simply, we had never been to a country with more varied scenery and epic backdrops per-unit-area, and it was easy to see why Montenegro was once considered as a potential filming location for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.

On one day we rode through upland conifer forests where snow still lay on the ground in drifts. On the next, we found ourselves in a craggy heathland of rolling hills, where gnarled and stunted oaks grew out from gaps in the stone. I couldn’t stop thinking about how stereotypically biblical it looked, like the sort of place where you might expect to cycle round a corner and find an enrobed disciple perched on a rocky outcrop, preaching to a gaggle of shepherds.

imageTwo days later after a brief stop in the medieval port town of Kotor, we climbed from sea level to 1380 metres in 6 hours – the equivalent of cycling up four Eiffel Towers with 35 kilos of luggage! Fortunately, the road from the Bay of Kotor to the upper reaches of Mount Lovcen was so breathtakingly beautiful that sore legs were the last things on our minds. As we neared the top, we gazed down at our starting point as if seeing it from an airplane window. I honestly can’t remember a more enjoyable day’s cycle than this, ever.

The following day, more surprises were in store as we were back at sea level, on the shores of the vast freshwater Lake Skadar. Completely different again from everything that had come before, the undergrowth was alive with all sorts of lizards and insects and it was so hot and humid that the very air seemed to weigh us down. After 30 minutes of cycling I was soaked in sweat but but by the afternoon, we were in chestnut forests 500 metres above the lake surface. We stopped at a house to fill our bottles and met a 14 year old girl who spoke perfect English. I assumed she must have lived abroad but she was just a normal schoolgirl, who had come 5th in the national children’s English speaking competition. Amazing!

As we approached the border with Albania, I was so saturated with the experiences of Montenegro, that I didn’t feel able to engage with a new country just yet. But with nowhere tempting enough to take a rest day, we ploughed on. The choice of route was between a flat coastal highway via the capital, Tirana, or steep mountainous dirt roads, via the middle of nowhere. For some reason I can’t remember now, we chose mountains.

We’d been eagerly awaiting Albania because it sounded like such a strange and incongruous place: the black sheep of Europe, unlike any of it’s neighbours, and home to all sorts of weird and wonderful tales: e.g. In 2012 the government chose to celebrate 100 years of independence by killing and cooking 1000 lambs for an enormous feast.

Making our way through the first village after the border, we noticed a suspiciously high number of Mercedes’ for such a poor country. We saw a group of kids loitering was with intent at a turning, and we’d read some disturbing tales of roadside robberies, so we approached with trepidation. Fortunately, they were only after some hi-fives, and this became typical of our four days spent cycling through the country. People seemed really excited that we were there – beeping horns, smiling, and waving. On a couple of occasions strangers even bought us a coffee or a glass of wine. They also had a wonderfully helpful attitude when faced with our daily cycle touring dilemmas: Can we eat our muesli in your cafe? Can we wash up our dishes in your sink? Can I photograph your dilapidated factory? Can we pitch our tent in your village? The answer was always ‘thumbs up’, no problem.

What happens when you camp in a school field

What happens when you camp in a school field

One evening, we were cruising down a valley packed with farmland, looking for somewhere to camp. We couldn’t see anywhere sufficiently hidden, so we stopped in at a sweet shop to ask for advice. The shopkeeper’s English speaking son had soon been called to direct us – via mobile phone – to the playing field of the village school, where he assured us we would be welcome to spend the night. It looked like a nice spot so we discreetly pitched our tents behind a row of bushes, but were quickly discovered by a local family. Fortunately, all the wanted was to drag us off to their house for coffee and rakija. Me and Monty played football with the kids in their yard, whilst Emily was fussed over by the mother and grandmother. I was just glad that they hadn’t found us during my pre-bed flannel wash. A naked grown man in a school field is probably as unacceptable in Albania as it is in England.

Fording a river on an Albanian 'road'

Fording a river on an Albanian ‘road’

Anyway, as we cycled further into the interior, Albania felt much more untamed than the other Balkan countries. Roads had been cut roughly into the hillsides, and followed much steeper gradients than you would commonly find in other European countries. On one particularly exhausting day, we took a wrong turning and found ourselves on a very remote and rocky dirt road for nearly 50km. Some parts were almost uncyclable, and at one point, our bikes became so completely clogged with sticky mud, that we had to stop and wash them in a stream. I always think that Tarmac roads have the uncanny effect of making you feel connected and close to civilisation, even in remote places, but rough tracks often have the opposite effect. The feeling of isolation was exhilarating but it was a relief when we finally reemerged onto the road we had lost earlier in the day.

imageMacedonia in many ways was more of the same – gorgeous lakes, unspoiled wilderness, etc – and this post has gotten quite long, so I won’t elaborate here, suffice to say that we were bizarrely picked up by a local TV station who filmed a lengthy feature for their weekly current affairs show. Unfortunately for me, I was having an extremely bad hair day, and also harbouring a piece of cucumber between my teeth, which I only discovered after our interview. If you happen to speak Macedonian, you can check it out here.

In the end, we only spent three days cycling in Macedonia. It would have been nice to see more of the country, but we’d cycled enough hills for the time being, and we were being pulled south by the promise of warm sun and sandy beaches. Today we’ll leave Thessaloniki to beach-hop our way through Greece to Turkey. It’ll be a welcome change, but the last few weeks have shown us a totally unique corner of Europe that we never knew existed, and I have a feeling that it won’t be long before we’re missing the lonely mountain roads of Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia.

Total stats:
Days on the road: 66 (47 cycling, 19 rest days)
Total kilometres: 3982km
Average distance per day: 60km including rest days (85km excluding rest days)
% of total distance done: 22%
Highest climb in one go: 1380m
Countries cycled: 11

Montenegro


Albania

Macedonia

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Croatia to Bosnia: Over the Hills and Far Away

In a Dark Dark Wood
David A. Carter

“In a dark dark wood
There was a dark dark path,
And down that dark dark path,
There was a dark dark house,
And in that dark dark house,
There was a dark dark door,
Behind that dark dark door,
There was a dark dark room,
And in that dark dark room,
There was a……”

….bunch of totally wasted Bosnians listening to Iron Maiden!

No, we didn’t expect that either, considering that the house in question was listed in the Lonely Planet as a secluded artist hangout / Eco-camp, which we had cycled 135km through torrential rain, dirt roads, and mountains in order to reach. But, by this point we were too wet and exhausted to do anything but join them, which was just as well. They turned out to be the first of a growing number of wonderful characters that we’ve met since arriving in Bosnia, where we are now, enjoying the elegant cafe culture of ex-wartorn Sarajevo, before heading up yet another mountain toward Montenegro.

Despite meeting our fair share of locals, we have shamefully only managed to learn five words in Bosnian. Even more shamefully, those words are: hello (dobrodan), beer (pivo), kebab (cevapi), cheers (zivjeli), goodbye (ciao). I should point out that this says more about us than the people we’ve met, and also that Bosnian is an extremely difficult language to learn. Anyway, we’ve actually had an eventful week, spending relatively little time in bars and kebab shops.

Firstly, since leaving Zagreb, we have a new addition to the team! Monty, our friend from home and erstwhile travelling companion, has joined the trip for 7 weeks. With a formidable track record of adventurous antics, he was sure to hit the ground rolling. But, having spent the last few months in Africa doing no exercise, it was bound to be a tough first week cycling into one of the most mountainous countries in the world. Before that though, we still had a few days in Croatia, and they providing the perfect introduction to cycle touring: A couple of nights wild camping, a few light dog chases to get the blood pumping (welcome to Eastern Europe!), and a constant supply of strength-giving borek (Balkan answer to the Cornish pasty).

Miniature tortoise

Miniature tortoise

As we left the city limits, Zagreb’s urban sprawl dissolved immediately into a bright green patchwork of deciduous woodland and overgrown farmland, which we picked our way through on quiet minor roads. The sunny humidity and enormous mosquitos made the countryside almost tropical, and there was plenty of interesting wildlife to be seen. Unfortunately, much of it was squashed and festering by the roadside (snakes, lizards, toads, hedgehogs), but not all.

imageAfter crossing into Bosnia, everything changed very fast. The landscape became compressed into rugged tracts of tall forested hills and mountains, interspersed by a network of deep, steep sided river valleys. This remained the case all the way across central Bosnia to Sarajevo, and presented us with a choice of two extremes: Follow the twists and turns of valley floors, or go cross county through the hills? Both are spectacular, both have pros and cons. The hills are mercilessly hilly, and often involve steep dirt tracks, but they take you to the heart of the country, and away from the bustle of the main roads. The narrow valleys often have a river, busy road and railway squeezed into them, so they can become a bit congested. But they are easy to cycle (no hills) and hard to get lost in.

On the first day, we went for a valley. It rained hard and we had to stop early in a small town and find a room for the night. The second day was also rainy but we chose hills this time. It was sparsely populated, with no shops for 50km at one point, but we saw many abandoned and destroyed houses left over from the civil war. I normally hate cycling in rain and mist but it felt appropriate in this landscape, and heightened the sinister aura that hung about the old buildings.

As the day wore on, the weather improved and we decided to push on beyond what was sensible, in order to reach Zelenkovac, the eco-camp mentioned in our guidebook. We’d been going for 105km, with little energy left, and the when we started up a hill that didn’t look too bad on our map, but just kept on going up for almost 20km. Emily as usual was unfazed and took it slow and steady, but Monty and I ran out of steam. Monty had sped ahead on his road bike, but we found him at the top, a bit shaky, having downed two cans of coke to get some sugar into his blood. I made it about three quarters of the way up before collapsing by the side of the road and fumbling open my medical pannier, to access my emergency rations: a pack of Hob-Nobs, which I like to think of as the cycling equivalent as an intravenous shot of adrenalin. Emily caught up as I was eating my way through the whole pack in silence, so I gave her the last two.

imageWhen we finally found the ‘Eco-retreat’, it nestled in some stunning woodland, a few kilometres from the nearest village, and we were expecting to be greeted by ageing hippies and perhaps some other travellers. As mentioned above, what we found was a group of very fun but very un-hippy like Bosnian Serbs, hilariously drunk, in a haze of cigarette smoke and heavy metal music. And there were no other guests. The first person to greet us enthusiastically insisted on dragging us into the woods to try the water from the stream, which we dutifully did. Next up was a man in a tracksuit (who shall remain nameless). After giving us a beer and a shot of home brewed plum rakija, which was much appreciated, he showed us to our cabin, before enacting the most dangerous and inept attempt to chop wood and light a wood burning stove I have ever seen in my life. Needless to say he didn’t light the stove, although he did come perilously close to burning down our cabin, and killing me with an axe. It’s probably fair to say that we’ve been to better run hotels, but I don’t think we’ve ever been to any with more character. It was very hard not to love Zelenkovac with it’s motley band of staff and hangers on, and we ended up spending a couple of super-chilled days there, drinking beer, drinking rakijah, and drinking the stream water, before cycling back out into the real world.

From here, it was three days to Sarajevo, over some quite long stretches of mountainous unsurfaced road, but it didn’t rain, and we were feeling refreshed after our time in the woods, so we made it without too much hardship.

imageOn the last night, we found the most beautiful wild camping spot of the trip so far, at the top of a 1000 metre pass. When we reached it, the woods opened out into a small grassy plateau and on one side, was a small hut, which acted as a field station for the forestry commission. The forester staying there at the time was a particularly friendly Bosnian muslim called Ekram, who was very welcoming and let us camp next to his hut, and even made us some coffee.

He didn’t speak English and with our limited Bosnian vocabulary, there wasn’t much scope for conversation, but, Monty and I both speak the universal language of ‘football’ and fortunately so did Ekram. This might not sound especially useful but the language of football really does come in handy when travelling and it follows consistent rules of etiquette, wherever you are in the world. In case you’d ever like to learn ‘football’, the standard conversation goes like this: The foreign person as an opening gambit mentions a top English club – e.g. Manchester United – to find out whether or not you speak ‘football’. ‘Mmm yes, Manchester good’ you say, ‘but I….support Tottenham’. The foreign person politely acknowledges that Tottenham is a good team, and goes on to name some footballers from his country, who are well known internationally or play in the Premier League. You must immediately recognise them as being of high quality (eg. ‘aaah, Edin Džeko, yes…very good, very good, Man City!!’). Having shown the customary respect for each others footballing heritage, you may then attempt to show off by recalling obscure historical football matches between English and Bosnian clubs (e.g. ‘Newcastle vs Željezničar Sarajevo…Champions League…Newcastle one-zero…ooooh’). When no one can think of any more common ground, the ritual is complete and you may return to your business of eating, tent pitching, and fiddling with equipment.

Anyway, we’re now about to leave Sarajevo, where we’ve been for a couple days, talking and trying to learn a little about the complicated recent history of the city and its inhabitants. Although reminders of the war are never far away, the parts of the city we’ve seen have been vibrant, and clearly people have moved on and started afresh. It’s somewhere I want to come back to, but for now, the clouds are clearing outside our hostel window, and Montenegro beckons.

Total stats:
Days on the road: 48 (34 cycling, 14 rest days)
Total kilometres: 2903km
Average distance per day: 60km including rest days (85km excluding rest days)
% of total distance done: 16%
Fastest speed: 52kmph
Countries cycled: 7

Croatia


Bosnia

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