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Curveballs


Kazbegi


Georgia is a country of curves – from its meeting with the Black Sea, a bitemark of coast, to the probing tongue that composes the border with Azerbaijan. From its looping script, to the roads that circulate packs of mountains, succeeding in switchbacks like the restive rivers they chaperon. But before my friend Oli and I take on these roads by bicycle, I encounter another sinuosity: that of the Georgian toast.

Sand and caravans


North of Termiz the land turned to semi-desert: knuckles of sandstone, punched by the green plumes of weed. After the pale, deathly world of Afghanistan I was coming into the hunk of Uzbekistan that can be farmed, though irrigation costs the Aral Sea, which shrinks towards extinction. But a blankness lived ahead too – I was inching toward the Kyzyl Kum, a desert too large to traverse by bike before my visa expired. After the cities of the fabled Silk Road, I would have to take a train.

There were a few police check points as I edged north where the officers would order me to a halt and demand to know how much a ticket costs to watch Manchester United, or to examine an old Indian visa in my passport and ask ‘How is the Maharaja?’ At the bazaar in the village of Sayrab I was enclosed by a band of wispy beards ancients who draped arms over my shoulder and cackled benevolently. Conversations flowed towards an inevitable question:

‘How old are you?’

‘35’

‘Where is your wife and children?’

‘I don’t have any’

Much muttering, a gasp, wide eyes, ‘Get on with it!’, ‘What do you live for?!’

The next day was ending well: a lively wind coaxed me down to Karashina. But with the sun low in the sky my pedal fell off, oily bearings scattering into the dust. With no spare I had to make do with the thread, my foot slipping off on almost every turn. I found a plane of hilltop and set my tent up. An hour after sundown I noticed the dance of a torch a hundred metres or so below me, and so I slunk back into my tent, hoping the search wasn’t for me.

I poked my tent out into a sunny morning and saw the source of the torchlight – another cyclist had chosen almost exactly the same spot to camp. I waved him over – Charlie was a twenty something biker from Virginia. He had a hammock that was proving unsuitable for desert-living, so he just stretched it out on the earth and used it as a bivy bag. Yesterday, he mentioned, had been a long one. 230 km, and he’d started at 12. But that’s late, I thought, until I realized he meant midnight. He’d scored a puncture and pushed his bike off the road, my bike problems had moved me to do the same, at almost exactly the same spot of reaching Uzbek scrub, and only minutes before.

We were heading the same way, so we filtered coffee into mugs and pedaled off together, camping the next night in a tilled field, a fat and painted moon bleeding over the horizon. We climbed the pass south of Samarkand, threw ourselves into a frenzy of fruit eating at the top amid traders of trinkets and cheese, and then dropped into the clamour of city, where the enrapturing and long-venerated blue domes seemed dimmed amid the less alluring traffic and tourist tat. In Samarkand we met up with Kay, an American biker and friend of Charlie.

Tamerlane was not Uzbek, but that didn’t stop him achieving hero status in a region reaching for its misty history and sense of self after the Soviets pulled out, leaving Central Asia a strange commotion of borders with dislocated peoples pocketed away, adrift from their ethnic groups. It was deliberate: Stalin discouraged unity in permanent fear of an Islamic uprising. Tamerlane, a fierce dictator whose empire once sprawled over half of Asia, his sacked villages marked by pyramids of skulls, is buried in Samarkand. We stalked his mausoleum, hoping the guard would let us enter the real crypt beneath the show one, as travel writer Colin Thubron had done, but Colin was probably not looking quite as deviant as us, in ragged cycling clothes and Russian as halting as London’s traffic.



Kay’s plan was to come with us to Bukhara, 300 km to the west, but she’d left her bike in Tashkent from where she would fly home. ‘If I buy some rollerblades…’ she tentatively asked me in the hostel ‘will you guys tow me there?’

Charlie had agreed to try, and Stuart, a student from St Andrews was on board too.

‘Sure, why not?’ I said. It’s testament to the personalities present that no one offered any of the hundred obvious answers: because it was 300 km away, or that roads in Uzbekistan were piteous, or that any available rollerblades would likely be worse. Instead a pact was made and Kay went hunting for wheels.

When she returned I found her in a corner of the hostel, clutching fearfully to a chair, her legs involved in some kind of mad Irish dance routine. She managed after a time to let go of the chair and barrel across the courtyard, her windmilling arms madly hunting for more furniture before her new skates could set her violently on her head, or ass. ‘I think…’ she told me after another panicked expedition between a potted plant and desk ‘I’m gonna need some elbow pads.’

So we met Kay an hour later outside the store she’d bought her blades (for 40 dollars), now wearing as much protective gear as they sold. We used Stuart’s hammock stings to make a kind of reigns for Kay, she was supposed to cruise fluently behind, like a water skier, but Samarkand’s sketchy paving and bolshy drivers meant it was easier at first for Kay to drape herself over Charlie’s rear rack with legs straight and blades rolling. He towed her out of the city, me and Stuart alongside. Imperfections sent her into wild, helpless wobbles, a slight incline was nightmarish.

Gradually though Kay grew skillful, soon she was on the reigns, hopping over obstacles and she got to the end of the day one without emergency surgery. The Silk Road has flowed for ages with merchants and their curious caravans, and Uzbeks marveled again at three laden bikers and a girl on rollerblades carving out their own Silk Road odyssey. It must have been knackering for Kay though, hard on the ankles and back, hostage to constant concentration, and when we stopped to rest she would throw herself extravagantly into the nearest dust (‘the Kay-dive’) arms and legs starred like a depleted sky diver after a crash landing.

The next evening we camped by some ruins, boiling up pasta and then gorging like animals, when a boy arrived and stood about watching us. After a while he loped off into the dark, it wasn’t until the next morning we realized Kay’s skates were gone. With Charlie’s two rear panniers redistributed to me and Stuart, Kay sat on his rear rack and for the last 100 km Charlie lent low over his handlebars, Kay rested her chin on his back, music poured from speakers and they raved and weaved their way into Bukhara.



In all three of Uzbekistan’s ruined and reconstructed Silk Road cities, I felt that familiar depression that comes with being commoditized. It was unthinkable in the Uzbekistan I had relished in the south and east that anyone would invent a five-fold price hike because I was an outsider, in fact if I didn’t leave a town with five times the amount of free fruit I could eat, I would have felt unappreciated, such was my soring expectations of central Asian generosity. But in touristville I bartered for bottles of Fanta, argued with the plague of unofficial cashiers who popped up around monuments in well-rehearsed scams to pluck the tourist dollar, or with unscrupulously tricky taxi drivers and hoteliers. I don’t begrudge a two tiered price system, I am after all from a country that spends money on putting large ferris wheels in every major city, and a guest in one that has uses forced labour to pick cotton, it’s almost singular industry, in hardening times. But its hard not to get antsy when the cost of everything gets quadrupled.

My birthday came so we went out on the town in Khiva, it was a spectacular extravaganza of vodka and shisha that was spent in the company of a large group of well-middled, middle-aged men, who danced with racing legs, their arms drooped out in front, like a bunch of sweaty tyrannosauruses. Charlie ended up backflipping into a flower bed, ‘its so poetic’ he told me, breathing vodka fumes.

Khiva was my favourite of these ancient trading posts, from the minaret it was easier to imagine the ragtag caravans that would lumber into what must have been paradise after a long troop through the sere wastelands which fill the flats to a far horizon.

I said goodbye to Charlie and Kay, and set off with Stuart. The hotel in Nukus had the floating fragrance of toilet, but I’d been in worse, even considering the five minute on-off cycle for the running water and the belligerent alcoholic parked in the restaurant. There were three bored women sitting in the currency exchange office who offered the official exchange rate of 2600 somme for a dollar. But the blackmarket is booming. In any shop outside I could get 4500. Still, they sat. Maybe some travelers are dumb enough every month or so, and it becomes worth it.

Cotton plantations grew to consume everything outside the road and only the few purple bushes on the edge of the crops spiced the world with colour. I ran into Tim and Fin, two bright eyed Brits on bikes, I’d even been on a bike repair course way back when with Fin’s uncle Ray. Back then I might have exclaimed ‘small world!’, perhaps not now.


On the road I was wind-splashed by great trains of buses, holding the cotton pickers of Uzbekistan. There has been international pressure and boycotts of Uzbek cotton because of this forced labour, especially when it concerns children. In 2012 the president issued a decree banning children from working in the cotton fields, though the buses I saw were full of kids, faces planted on the glass, but how many ended up picking cotton is impossible to say.

In Kungrad I shuffled into a murky half-light of jumbled shrubs on the town’s outskirts. I’ve spent so many nights sequestered in this type of edgeland now, stalking civilization like a stray, and it can feel more adventurous than camping in the wilderness. There’s something seductive and outsiderish about the fringe of towns, here I listened to the clank and grumble of a strange city, sounds particular to the embers of the day. I woke in the fledgling moments of the next, the factory still beeping, the pylons above hissing like vipers, the journeying lights of the first cars on the horizon, the harangue of farm dogs that had fixed my scent. And then above me a team of red objects were tearing though the sky, something breaking up in the atmosphere, not the quick dash of a typical shooting star but the careering burn of something bigger and closer, appearing much slower in the sky.

I boarded the train the next day, almost all the passengers were economic migrants, bent on laboring in the building sites of a more prosperous Kazakhstan. I’d never before encountered so many vendors on a train, their number competed with that of the passengers, it was a mad melee of money changers who can count notes with bewitching speed, others carrying dried fish like a stack of newspapers, and spreading them for selection like a deck of oversized cards. Two silver bearded men gave blessings in exchange for money, which looked easier than the women’s harried task.

I sat with my journal open, waiting for an apt metaphor to hang onto this window view, but this was cliché desert, remarkable only in its unabating sameness, the train shadow stealing and releasing a thin strip of desert scrub for mile upon sandy mile. Gradually local people gathered around me, one old women was particularly brave. ‘Do you have an old grandmother in England? No? You can have me! Come on, let’s go!’ the women around me shrieked in delight as this old eccentric took centre stage.

On the next train there was no seat for me because I got on last with my bike, and passengers outnumber seats as a few bribe the conductor and board without a ticket. It didn’t matter, as I spread myself out in the cramped smoking section between carriages, a stocky man waded in, set his head to one side and made a meditative face which cracked into a grin. ‘Come on tourist, we’ll make room’. His son hopped out of his bed and I watched aghast as he squeezed into the luggage rack, high up above the other berths, to make space for me. They say a Kazakh has three faces: a smile for the guest, neutrality for the friend and a scowl for the stranger.

I arrived 20km kilometres from Aktau, a port town on the Caspian, now a fading tourist industry trying to fill the void after uranium mining retreated and died. I stepped out of the station and looked around. A sign on a shop blinked redly: ‘paradise’. The sky was baubled with grey cloud. I made my way in those delicious minutes before sunrise, past single story homes, the cheap gaud of restaurants, but alongside expensive SUVs, rushing testimony to the providence of oil. The sun rose at last, switching on the baubles of cloud, they burned a lingerie-pink.

In the end I flew to Baku just over the Caspian, it was cheaper and faster than the boat and I had the deadline for a school talk to make. Pedaling away from the airport, an intimation of blue coloured the horizon, venus still glittered bright. The sun rose, cold and orange. The highway of this new country, Azerbaijan, was perfect. Trees were trimmed into spirals like shells, petrol stations had video screens, there were street sweepers even before the first sunbeams rouged the highway, the first I’d seen since China. There was order and money everywhere, I embodied neither of those things and received some stares. I passed the Expo centre, the great stadium for the European games, the dreamlike grace of the Heydar Aliyev Center, the flame tower skyscrapers, not red, but blue with reflected sky. In the city the Azeri girls were beautiful, dark and sultry and sunglassed from the world. One in a group flicks their hair, and the others do the same, a Mexican wave of hair tossing. Their kids are accessorized to the max.


For years Azerbaijan has been quietly getting rich, though the cynics, and there are silent stacks of them, would argue that all that money barely drips from the elites. I cycled out of Baku under the previous president’s gaze, his mouth a straight line, like a hyphen, promising more to come. And it did, when he died in 2003 his son dropped into his seat as top dog, commanding the oil barrens and tycoons, the silencers of the press, the mobsters and cronies, from the tip of a very broad pyramid. Azerbaijan can put on a show, but behind the gleam there are faultlines and the pong of impermanence. The street cleaners don’t do the backroads, just the route from the airport to city. Journalists are regularly imprisoned, more in just the few days I was there. I wondered what will become of Baku in fifty years when the oil has run dry, whether only then discontent will better reach the surface, and boil over into rebellion.

But that, of course, is politics; as ever the people were entirely welcoming, from my great host Araz in Baku to all the rural folk that I met en route to Georgia. My first days in Azerbaijan took me through a tawny grassland, the land folded away in a wind made of dust. Men sat playing Nard (a form of backgammon). I stopped at a fruit stall and the vendors all charged towards me to begin a quiz. I answered what I could in Russian, and then the gifts arrived: apples first, by the arm full, then grapes, then men lunged in bearing tomatoes ‘Present! Present!’ they crooned. The ladies behind the crowd decided that they couldn’t let these rival vendors become the epitome of Azeri hospitality, and they burrowed though the arms of others, popping up in front of me to thrust aubergines and cucumbers into my overladen arms.

The world smelt of loam and mushrooms and woodsmoke, and I’d missed the woods after so long journeying through mountains, desert and steppe. I topped 70 km/hr on the downhill, passing Ladas who probably couldn’t speed up and not risk breaking up like a rocket entering orbit at the wrong angle, making debris of wipers and bonnets and bumpers. The weather was perfect, 28 degrees by day and sunny, the forest canopy a shut door preventing all but a few cracks and misshapen keyholes of light to stipple the leaf litter. Eventually I was released from kind the hug of the Great Caucasus mountains to zip through a flat farmland where the smell of horses muscled through the woodsmoke and where tribes of turkeys cavorted around stacks of hay.

I spent a night in the caravanserai of Seki and left the following day, asking directions for Qax, which if you do so articulately, will leave your assistant wiping the phlegm from their eye. It must be hell for the residents of Qax at borders.

‘Home town?’

‘Qax’

‘Get out’

Georgia: no more running for visas, here I was instantly granted a year as an EU citizen. I pedaled up towards Sighnaghi, the old town walls looped over the forested hillsides, a different sprouting of mountains these, the bulk of the Caucasus still just visible across the valley, half eaten by shadow and distance.

It was harvest time for the grapelands of Signhangi, wine flowed as the town celebrated. I met Nina, a German girl, and with another friend Emma we visited the monasteries carved into mountains at David Gareja.

Nina and I then decided to try and buy two donkeys and ride together to Tbilisi, but Nina, being sensibly German (and also correct) decided the risk of a wayward, uninsured donkey causing a fatal road accident was too great, so we found her a bike and cycled together for three days around the wine country. It was ace.





I’m now in Tbilisi where it was an honour to meet Paul Salopek, a double Pulitzer prize winning journalist working with National Geographic and walking around the world for a planned seven years following the earliest human migration out of Africa.

Thank yous:

Aigerim and Bakhtiear, Araz, Paul, everyone at the International School of Azerbaijan, QSI in Aktau, Vladimir and Fabienne, Paul Salopek and Kevin Sullivan.

Next up: My good pal Ollie has just flown into Tbilisi. We will go lightweight bike-packing into the remote parts of the country for the next month, surviving on the bone marrow of the mountain lions we hunt. And then I’m off to Europe. Having already cycled once across the behemoth of Turkey, I’ve decided to eschew another crossing and will head, perhaps by boat, to Bulgaria. From there, three straight months and I’ll lumbar over the finishing line, and down a vat of Earl Grey.

An unlikely tourist: travels to Afghanistan


Part one: Tajikistan


The Tajik border patrols usually came in trotting formations of boyish men in camouflage gear but this troop were in the black get-up of special ops. My new friend James and I pedaled past, and soon after a shot rang out from a rifle, aimed not at us, the bullets sent somewhere into Afghanistan. I tucked in beside James anyway, keeping myself near the cliff face.

‘What are you doing?!’ he asked, somewhat hysterically. ‘I’m not a human shield!’

‘Jesus, calm down’ I said, as I took some rough measurements, shuffled further into his shadow and ducked.

James was, on first meeting, a soft outline that bloomed from the darkness of Khorog’s campsite. He arrived late on a loaded bicycle, smoking a cigarette which he immediately dropped, and then turned to the other bikers and announced, in a British accent: ‘Right make a grid everyone, let’s get to it. I have to find this fag before it burns a hole in a pannier!’ I liked James straight away; we decided to pedal on together for a week to Dushanbe.

Near Rushan the valley opened up, fields were dimmed by a thin mist which captured the evening, infusing a light the colour of olive oil over the valley floor. Cockrels sounded out over the pleasant-sounding gabble of children playing games. The hospitality of the Pamiri people continued as we were ushered into homes and plied with curds and tea and apricots and those reminders: ‘You’re a guest in Badakhshan! My house is your house!’ There’s nothing dutiful about the hospitality of the Pamiri people, they give naturally, as if it’s their own privilege.

Humpy rock formations loomed from our left, divided up by pie slices of scree. Outside a solitary house a man holding a newborn in a slightly reckless looking scrum-half style, beckoned us over for a chat. He was a 28 year old new father, but we didn’t discover much more because as we talked a great explosion sounded close by, echoed, and the air above the river pooled with dust. James and I turned wild-eyed to each other and then to the man who shouted ‘Afghanistan! Afghanistan!’ in what I now know was an attempt to reassure us, but which of course achieved the opposite. But as I looked across the river from a half-crouched position, I could see what he meant: thirty metres off, across the water, they were carving a new road through the cliff, using dynamite to break trail.



We passed a military base in the evening, the soldiers lolling in mosi nets, giant machine guns trained on Afghanistan which for Tajiks was a source of increasing anxiety, travelling west we were nearing the Taliban strongholds of Kunduz and Faisalabad. The hunt for river wading refugees is a constant one and I’d heard of two bikers who been detained by the army recently for rough camping near here. Heavy looking clouds moved in for evening, reigning in the hour of twilight, and with the river on one side and a virtual wall of rock on the other, camping with enough tact to evade sharp-eyed border patrols would be an achievement. But I glimpsed a steep trail which led to a flattish rocky area hidden from view, and so in the dying day we made a quick recce and then pushed one bike up and then the other. On top was a hideout for the military to inspect Afghanistan: a caravan-sized tilted boulder provided shelter, and we were shut off from view and wind on the other sides by a low wall of rocks. Perfect. We settled in.

Unfortunately we weren’t to be entirely incognito. The first problem was James tent, which was yellow and of the proper luminosity to attract the attention of remote helicopter pilots after an avalanche, not so good for ‘stealth-camping’. For my part I’d zipped myself into my inner tent, but about a foot of zip was broken, and I figured I could leave it open, it was warm and too dry for mosquitoes to be a nuisance. As I lay back, full of dinner and lassitude, something caught my eye: a shadow whipped across the net inner, and leaped, LEAPED!, inside my tent and landed on my sleeping bag.

I learnt that night what sound I would make in my final moments if I was ever to meet a violent untimely death: it’s an effeminate quivering trill, think front man of a failed glam rock band. I began a manic drum solo inside my tent, using my notebook to swat the intruder to death. It was a spider, big, desert-coloured, with unmissable fangs. Later I would learn this is in fact a Camel Spider, not really a spider at all, and one that has a particular fetish for leaping into shadowy spaces, and can bite a bit too.

We continued the next day downriver, which brought a feeling of momentum more than just the modest boost of gravity. The opposing track on the Afghan side was hewn into sheer cliff faces, the river a tantrum of wavelets and eddies and cascades as the water rioted past boulders long ago toppled by landslides. The sky lived now in just a gap between spires of rock, an incidental strip of blue, and as our track lunged down to the melt-water, a cool radiance lunged up. The next day we came to a beautiful tongue of green land extending into a bow of river, specked with mud brick homes below unarable looking tilts of land: it was Jumarj-e-bala. Massive dove-grey mountain loomed behind the village, the peaks fluffed by cloud. 



We stopped for food and I complained the only bread I had left was stale. James turned to me: ‘Here’s how to deal with stale bread: you dip it in some tea, and then in some sugar, and then… (he paused for drama) it’s not bread any more… (he was silent again, his eyes full moons of delight). ‘…It’s cake’. He settled back, staggered by his own genius. ‘Cake?’ I asked. ‘Cake’. He said, making little nods of self-satisfaction.

Ten kilometres from Kalaikhum we camped by a small military base, where two young soldiers thrashed us at pull ups. The next day was a 1500 metre climb over 25 km over rocky terrain to the Khaburabot pass. We snaked up to a green and open culmination covered at points in red tape explained by a sign: ‘Land mine clearance in progress’. They’d been left in the civil war and a joint Norwegian and US project was getting rid of them at last. I had a brief sentimental moment on the summit: there would be other mountains, but this would be the highest point I would ride to for the duration of my journey back home.

We dropped one thousand metres and hit a stream which slunk below massive forested sandstone cliffs, something of prehistory in the overhangs, the crab-coloured rock, rich green trees in the furrows, the nightmarish build of shadows in the valley. There were twenty thorny plants over the several acres of land aside the river, and James managed to set his tent on top of all of them, muttering something about the world’s plants being out to get him.

We were at last out of the Pamiri region, the men had longer beards, the mosques more elaborate, the lingua franca Tajik, but the hospitality was unchanged and the stops for tea and food continued. We were following a new river now: the Obikhingou, as still and grey as cement, Afghanistan was no longer in view.

That night I heard a familiar sound: it was a return of the frontman of the failed glam rock band, and it was coming from James’ tent. The crystal hum of night shattered under the words: ‘Fucking giant scorpion death spider!’ I found him leaping from foot to foot, the same generously fanged Camel Spider scuttling around him. I slapped it to a goo with my sandal.

We met a Swiss cyclist near Dushanbe who complained endlessly about the road which really wasn’t too bad. I had the sudden urge to lay a patronizing arm on his shoulder, look him in the eyes and say ‘its gets worse son. This is a fucking holiday. You’re gonna wish the road was this good in a few days’ time when you can’t walk without wincing and have to photograph your own ass to find out why.’ I didn’t of course, I just said ‘Yeah, I guess it’s a bit bumpy.’




Our last night on the road together we camped by a small stream, and when James made a lantern with his water bottle and torch we noticed a giant unlit blot on his tent outer. ‘It’s back!’ he wailed, and it was. The ‘Fucking giant scorpion death spider!’ had returned for the third time in four nights. This time James smacked his fabric from the inside, sending it on a six metre tour to the bush. We both then zipped up our tents until just a small section of door was open at the top, from where our eyes peeped out and our arms stretched through as we tried pathetically to cook.

The penultimate day to Dushanbe was an ugly one: a big mining area, the sky filled with pale dust making a haze nothing like the cathedral quality of light that we’d known in the evenings in the Pamirs. James disappeared somewhere behind me and reappeared ten minutes later wearing a kind of plastic visor.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘Sunglasses. I lost mine, so I made these. I can’t see anything in this dust’

‘How did you…?’

‘Fanta bottle’ he said. I could see that now. He’d chopped up a Fanta bottle and attached it to his face, looking very much like his elderly cohabiting mother had fashioned an outfit for him for a star trek convention.

Coming into Dushanbe the president welcomed us from countless mawkish posters: he shook hands with the working class, hugged religious leaders, held grain and, my favourite, waded through a tide of poppies. (really? In a suit?).

I stayed in the Green House in Dushanbe, a spacious hostel with a mix of eastbound cyclists praying for mountains, mentally thrashed by the monotony of Iranian, Turkmen and Uzbek flats, and westbound wiry cyclists like me, Pamir-fresh, acting like Vietnam vets in front of the ones who had it all to come: ‘you weren’t there man. You don’t know what it feels like to climb 26,000 metres before breakfast and fight your way out of landslides with a flip-flop’. Everyone seemed to have diarrhea by now, and cyclists had taken to touching fists instead of shaking hands. Nick had christened the toilet ‘the porcelain express’.

I cycled away from Dushanbe, to my north the foothills of the Gissar range were a crowd of dome-shaped land, each hump a different size and depth, like an enormous beige explosion in freeze-frame. Starlings moved between trees, the surprising whirl of them spreading and contracting, rising and collapsing, a watery race of specs moving through the peach-toned dusk. The white Land Cruisers of NGOs zoomed past too close and I decided that if I was to meet my end in Tajiksitan, it would likely be under the wheels of a humanitarian. Or if not, then a wedding party, who drive just as madly, at handspan range, in pimped up beribboned SUVs, and who occasionally must spoil the bride’s special day by decorating the windshield in some poor soul’s spleen.



Part 2: Uzbekistan


The Uzbek border is well known for especially thorough searches for drugs and illegal currency. They also search your hard drives as pornography is illegal, and they suspect everyone of being a sort of James Bond level spy until proven otherwise. Also, they’re bored, and poking about in travelers bags is a better way of spending time than doing nothing. I was particularly worried when I could see there were few others crossing apart from me, and two officials were doing not very much.

And then it began: the most frustratingly thorough search of my five and a half years on the road. The younger officer spent half an hour on one of my two iPods alone, watching every music video I’d forgotten I had and listening with a puzzled expression to the sounds of Jungle at 140 bpm. There were some notable low points: the languorous palpation of the lining of my headbag, the ten minutes he spent peering into every individual section of every tent pole, the search of 4 memory cards, a USB stick, my computer, two cameras and hard drive. And how can I forget the moment when he broke open my bread with his fingers and inspected the inside? The implication being I suppose that I had gone to the trouble of borrowing, or perhaps taking by force, an entire Tajik bakery, and then on receiving some instruction from my hostages on how to bake bread, baking a batch with heroin inside.

The officials spent an age watching my movies and fast forwarding to the sex scene of the film version of 1984. It was a surreal moment when one border guard pressed pause and they all crowded around to ogle at a nude Suzanna Hamilton, tutting and not really meaning it. Luckily they saw the insanity of detaining me for a movie, even if it was a bit racy by Uzbek tastes, or perhaps they just couldn’t rise to the irony of locking me up for possessing a film about totalitarianism. I began to understand their dedication to the search: it was more than the pride of professionalism, it was more than boredom, this level of commitment is the territory only of the sex-starved. On the plus side they were so thorough that they discovered kit I didn’t even know I had. ‘Wow’ I found myself thinking ‘so Hilleberg tents come with a tent pole repair kit then. I needed one of those!’

Three hours later I was released into the darkening cicada-ringing flats of Uzbekistan, but this is a well cycled road and even my silhouette inspired shouts of ‘Otkuda?!’ (where are you from?) which punched through the walls of building night. I shouted ‘Anglia!’ in reply, and the word was swallowed for a moment by the gloom, and then returned with ‘welcome!’

I cycled for two and half days past luscious spreads of cotton plantations, cabbage fields and sugar cane, spending my now stacks of money on melon and round bread (in Uzbekistan fifty dollars equals a 5 cm high stack of notes and supermarkets come with note-counting machines). Shop signs were outlandishly optimistic, glossy seductions of apples and cheese, inside they did a not-so-roaring trade in chewing gum and out-of-date noodles. The days were relentlessly clear-skied and even at 6am there was a creeping heat and the promise of drenching sweats.

Part 3: Afghanistan



Whether to journey to Afghanistan has been one of the hardest decisions I’ve made, and not telling my family was another. I didn’t want to end up a cautionary tale, the Chris McCandless of Central Asia, and yet the country intrigued me more than anywhere, this wasn’t a move born of bravado or box ticking. There was though a sense I was putting myself at risk, but that it was in some way inevitable, as if I was watching myself make a ropey decision with the interest of an outside observer. I couldn’t bring myself to think of home until it was over, and my thoughts turned occasionally to the fearfully silent cancer of extremism, imported through Wahhabism, and nourished by poverty, miseducation and fear.

I drew a line at cycling away from Mazar-e-sharif. It’s been a bad year for the north of Afghanistan. Even the historically safe city has seen massacres and in the past months alone there was an attack on a legal building in daylight in the city centre with many dead, and weeks later the murder of eight ngo workers in their beds. These were targeted attacks as opposed to opportunistic, but they were still a cause to be concerned. Luckily I had company, my friend Sam was heading the same way, and we arranged to pedal together into Afghanistan from Termiz.

On the road to the border I pulled level with Sam and tucked myself between him and the roadside. ‘um, what are you doing?’ he said warily.

‘Nothing’ I said, scrutinizing Sam’s slightly larger outline.

‘Are you checking if I’m a good human shield?’

‘Ok I was, but you’re taller! You have more stuff! If the Taliban attack then it makes sense you should be the human shield, otherwise we both risk being killed. Take one for team, selfish bastard.’

‘You’ll get shot first anyway, you don’t look anywhere near as Muslim as me.’

It was true: Sam had grown a bushy beard for Afghanistan, and even shaved his moustache in the Islamic fashion. It was offset a little by his eye brow and ear piercings, and the tattoo of the Grateful Dead on his bare lower leg.

‘Well with those piercings, if we get into a point blank situation, I’m confident you’ll be executed first’ I told him.

We carried on like this for a while, not belittling the threat, but just to trying to quell the nervous energy building up inside. We were dressed in trousers and long sleeved shirts, but even so there was no evading the fact we were obviously westerners, and on a bicycle you are utterly exposed.

It took us a couple of hours to leave Uzbekistan, but we talked the officials out of another full search of all our panniers and electronic devices three days after my last one. The Afghan border was an easy one, the soldiers welcomed us with cheery surprise, and then Sam got a puncture on the bridge crossing the Amu Darya river, after which we entered a very different world.

On the streets of Hairatan the wandering women were all draped in blue burquas; rippled and tugged and shaped by the desert wind, it looked as if a substance was melting upon them. Police cars and armoured vehicles, dragging long shadows like capes, revved up and down the road. Gangs of men sat in the open topped backs, slung with silvery-worn AK 47 assault rifles, legs draped casually over the side, their turbans wrapped around their heads and faces, just a slit for the eyes. One of these wraith-like men per car attended to a massive mounted machine gun that made my heart race, pause, race again. The homes were low, crumbling mud brick about which goats sniffed in the crannies.

This was wild, soul-seizing country, an embattled nation, unkind to intruders. As I was thinking this a car pulled up. ‘Hey guys. I’m from Slough!’ cried the driver. Oh for Christ’s sake, I was drinking in the exoticism, and I didn’t need to be hearing the names of provincial towns in the English home counties. The speaker was Afghani of course, and lived in Mazar now, he couldn’t know he’d popped my bubble.

We left Hairatan fast, unsure about safety, into desert proper where unlike Uzbekistan, irrigation was mostly undeveloped. The desert dunes looked to claim the road with reaching arms and tentacles of sand, but we had a good, quick surface. The temperature rose to 40 in the fleeting shade, Sam was looking increasingly dismembered by the heat and I’d drunken eight litres of water with the day just half gone. Eventually we met the main road at a junction thick with parked lorries where drivers prayed beneath. Turn right here and we’d head to Mazar-e-sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, left towards Kunduz and in twenty kilometres or so the land would be under Taliban control. We went right.

My main anxiety now was that we’d be caught after sundown on the outskirts of Mazar, a place we’d been told contained pockets of Taliban supporters. But probably I had mixed up the value of the threats: as cars sped past at insane velocity I realized getting hit was more likely than getting shot or abducted. Later I’d visit the orthopaedic ward of the city hospital and discover this was true, 70% of the patients have been in road accidents. Police checkpoints were many, the officers delighted to see us, but wary too: ‘careful. Taliban near here’ said one, miming a beard with a drop of his hand below his chin, and a turban by turning circles above his head. ‘But we’ll protect you’ he told us by way of a pantomime of shots into the desert. We span through the industrial outskirts of Mazar, a chinook helicopter skimmed through the sky above carrying US special forces, the last of a retreating international mission. An airship floated to the south, used for surveillance. Afghanis waved and shouted and generally made us feel welcome amid the building picture of ‘war zone’.

Eventually we hit the city centre: a square around the blue mosque and a picture of the characteristic face of Massoud, the Afghan national hero, savior and bane of the Soviets, killed by an exploding TV camera in an assassination in 2001.

The next day I woke before sunrise and watched Mazar-e-shairf come to life: the sun broke the horizon behind me, twinkling the aquamarine domes of the mosque and turning the sky a barley-yellow. The vendors began their day, yet to become embattled by the rush of city-life, and men began to get stuck in those interminable handshakes of South Asia. A tough gang of street kids were fighting. Most, around three quarters of women, were clad in the blue burqua, but some in black niqab (eyes showing) and about 10% with a hijab pulled so far back behind a plume of dark hair that it looks almost defunct. Men wore the loose Khet Partug and every day I’d spot a new use for the Shemagh, the Afghan man’s scarf – to shield the head and face from the sun, to carry melons, to swat flies, as dental floss, to sit on and for the kids, to whip each other with. Mazar homes a great variety of peoples, the city’s history written into hats, skin tones and faces: from Hazara and Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen, to a whole bunch of lesser known ethnicities. And the population is growing fast as those affected by the spreading violence flock to the safer streets of Mazar which is under the control of an immensely wealthy Tajik governor Atta Muhammad Nur known previously as ‘the teacher’ for his time teaching the Mujahidin in the art of war. He has the monopoly on violence and is respected for keeping order, and the Taliban at bay.

Little things worried me, our hotel had no guard and was left open all night. On our little explorations of the city centre, I found that everyone knew who we were: word had spread, Mazar had tourists, we were the only ones. So much for blending in. But the reaction we got from those we met was one of warmth and even gratitude for coming. We ate a ton of Mazar’s famous ice cream, chatted with students who’d often assume we were soldiers, met Afghan translators for the US military, two American teachers, local doctors, and a lovely Hazara family. Too much happened off the bike in Afghanistan to relate here, so I’m afraid I’m going to save it for the book. Instead I’ll leave you some photos from the streets of Afghanistan:




A sign warning people that women police officers will check under burquas in case of suspecting a suicide bomb attacker.












Photos courtesy of Sam Lovell and myself.

Thank yous: Dr Ralimullah, Mattias, Wahed and Ru, Naser and friends, Ethan and Aaron, and the three cycling buddies I’ve had over the last month: Sam, James and Nick.

Next up: the meat of Uzbekistan, a sliver of Kazakhstan and the boat to Azerbaijan.

I was happy to win the We Said Go Inspiration Writing Contest this month as well as getting Highly Commended in the Bradt / Independent writing contest.

Equipment Reviews 2015

As it turns out, cycling six continents is a particularly savage way to prove the quality of gear. Things have been fraying and snapping and dissolving, and once, actually exploding. I’ve been busily tossing kit confetti-like into the world’s various dustbins. There’s not much left. Three things actually – My bicycle, a Craghoppers base t-shirt which I have developed a kind of profound friendship with and will sew and patch up and coddle like a comfort blankey until England, and a ‘sleeping bag’ – in bold inverted commas because sometimes I wake up to a scene that evokes a (victorious) fight with a vigorous flock of passing geese.

First off – a caveat. Please don’t feel you need any of this stuff. People who sew together their own panniers and sleep under tarps make me smile. Why delay a bike tour because you can’t afford top kit? That said, if you can afford cool clothes from Endura and the like, then go for it, and if you’re off on an exceptionally long bike tour then investment in extra strong and more pricy kit becomes more worthwhile.

Some general advice

  • Beware of super lightweight stuff: tempting it may be, but often you’ll regret it. On the plus side, it’s nice to have tent pegs that can double as tooth picks.
  • Think multi-functionality, but don’t be obsessed by it. Notice how much more frustrating it is to work with a multitool than lovely solid set of separable allan keys?
  • Think compatibility. Wherever you plan to tour, think about what is available locally. When things break you don’t want to have to get replacements shipped from home. For instance tubes with Presta valves are not available in many countries outside the western world. Widen the hole in your rims before you leave and stick to Schroeder valve tubes.Odd sized wheels and unusual components might be tough to replace.
  • Think of what gear will leave you completely stuck if it breaks, and plan for that – in remote places a busted bike pump, stove or cracked rim may mean you can’t keep riding, other bits of kit can break but not threaten your ability to pedal to the next big town.
  • You can of course skimp on everything and still go touring, but I think there is a rough hierarchy to the kit it’s important not to skimp on. Recognise where you can easily save money (I offer: cycle computer, bike chain, clothing, ? bicycle) and when you may well regret going cheap (back tyre, tent, rims, racks).
  • Weight should always be considered in relation to how often something is used, not just in its own right. Some bikers carry foldable chairs – relatively heavy perhaps, but if used every day they are usually touted as indispensable by those who carry them (I don’t).

The best of the best


The following annual run down of killer kit has some old favourites and some young upstarts. The affiliate links I’ve provided are to products offered by popular cycle touring retailers, including the extremely competitively priced Cyclocamping.com – an expert retailer run by expert round-the-world cycle tourers. And if you click on a link and make a purchase, a small bit of money comes my way which helps to keep me pedalling across six continents.

 And so, in no particular order…

Tubus racks – the Front Novo Low-Rider and The Rear Cargo Evo

Well the Indian monsoon did eventually coax rust into the crevices of these exceptionally strong steel racks, but they have lasted so long that they sit proudly on the list once again. They remain a favourite amongst cycle tourers the world over, and their weight to durability ratio is hard to beat.

Ortlieb Panniers

Another old favourite. Though the competition might be hotting up in regards to panniers, I still haven’t seen a competitor that offers the same favourable combination of supreme toughness, low weight and reasonable price tag. Do yourself a favour…

Ortlieb Front Roller Classic
Ortlieb Back Roller Classic


Buff

There are a bunch of alternative multifuctional headwear bits out there, but none have cooler patterns, the in-house design to production, or the tendency not to fray or fade than Buff. There is a headspinning range of items now available, and an equally exciting number of ways to wear them. Peep the video.

Sawyer water filter

There are a range of options if you want clean water and to avoid a ghastly gastro-intestinal Armageddon in your tent on the side of an Indian road. This one is my favouite – it uses nano technology to rid the water of bacteria. Very light, simple to use, no moving parts to break, and no chemicals.

Schwalbe tyres

Another obvious choice. If you’re hitting a combination of rough and paved roads, my advice is to go with the unfoldable classic Marathon Tour Plus which are joyfully puncture resistant. The Supremes are the best choice if you’re sticking mainly to paved roads, but the Mondials can fail at the side wall – have they shaved off a little too much weight? Either way, Schwalbe tyres still come recommended by most riders I run into, and I’ve clocked up more than 15,000 km on one Marathon Tour Plus in the past.

Keen sandals

In hot places sandals clearly win out over cycling shoes, and Keen have a sturdy reputation. I’m using a new pair of Keen Newport Mens sandals so I can’t yet comment on durability, but they look and feel great, so I’ll keep you posted.

Hilleberg Staika Tent

Hilleberg are the Don Corleone of tent manufacturers and the question is not whether you want one, but whether you can afford one. Hillberg use vastly stronger material than the rest, the tents are fast to put up and after two years of use (pitching my tent on the majority of nights) rain has been kept at bay, even amid the torrential downpours of the Asian monsoon. When winds rushed over the Mongolian steppe at over 70 km/hour I waited for the fateful snap of a sheared tent pole but was treated to only the howl of the wind. The Staika is three-poled, and free-standing (a feature I would suggest is essential in selecting a tent for cycle touring so you can do the cool stuff pictured, as well as pitching in gas station forecourts and the like), and if you buy the Staika Mesh Inner Tent you can pitch just the inner, which is a good idea if it’s very hot and dry. It has two doors and plenty of porch room. A great choice for two people, though at 4 kg it’s a bit on the heavy side for one.

I camped on the frozen surface of lake Khovsgol in Mongolia in a Hilleberg Staika

Petzl MYO RXP headtorch

This is the best head torch I’ve seen – you can vary the brightness and the spread of light with the bulb cap. The off-on button is hidden away by a raised plastic bit that means it won’t turn on accidentally in your head bag and run out the battery. And its dazzling enough at full beam and battery to double as a bike light.

Altura Orkney headbag

Mine has been going for two and a half years now and shows no sign of needing a replacement. The Klickfix clip is the best way to secure a headbag to handlebars I’ve seen. There’s lots of space inside the rigid bag, and a decent front pocket. The map case will probably come off fairly quickly, but otherwise it’s a great choice.

iPod

(A real dark horse). 160 GB of music, podcasts and audiobooks do me nicely. Use fleetingly and judiciously, but when you’ve been tangled up in your own boring thoughts for too long, it’s a great escape route.

Brooks B17 saddle

I have nothing to compare it to, but my Brooks B17 is doing a great job. One saddle didn’t make it all the way home, but I’m confident number two will hold out. Again this is another brand tourers fiercely stick to, with good reason.

Cane Creek Thudbuster Long Travel suspension seat post

This little beauty gives you a little suspension in your seat post to dull the impact of those big bumps, and together with the Brooks saddle, this will help ensure that for men, future paternity remains a possibility. It probably also helps prolong the life of the rims and other components, plus its very sturdy and you can rebuild the joints and replace the elastomers if required.

Panasonic DMC G-range Lumix camera

My Panasonic G1 Lumix camera eventually bit the dust in China, but it had made it extremely far and I was so happy with it that I stayed with the same range and upgraded to the G2, although they are now on the DMC G7. These are ‘bridge cameras’ – they fill the niche between very heavy and expensive DSLRs and the more wimpy point and shoot. In other words, ideal for a bike tour if photography is a particular passion. I use both the wide angle lens that comes with the camera and a zoom. The battery lasts ages. If you’re on your own: bring a remote to get the best shots. The following shots were all captured on this camera (click here if this plug-in doesn’t function)…





Chris King Headset

You da man Chris. 80,000 km now, and still going strong. With the frame, this is the only component of my bike that has survived this far.

MSG Bikes – Ergonomic Bike Fitting

Alisdair and Shelagh at MSG bikes are experts, they offer an ergonomic bike fitting which I would recommend to anyone UK-based setting off on a cycle tour. They also sell a range of great touring bikes and kit. Check ’em out.

The debate rolls on…


Sleeping mats

I used to run with an Exped, but the seams failed too often to continue with them, and so I changed to a Thermarest Pro Lite which has proved very reliable so far. Exped in the meantime say they have corrected the previous fault and improved the pump, if so (and I have yet to verify this) then this is exciting news indeed as the Exped XP 9 mat is definitely more comfortable than the Thermarest. Another much touted alternative is made by Vaude – I have no personal experience with it, but it’s very reasonably priced and in the absence of a clear favourite, it might be worth checking out.

I’ve also used the crazy looking Klymit Inertia O Zone which I combined with a Thermarest when I needed a little extra distance between me and the icy ground as I crossed Mongolia last winter. A major pro is the weight and price tag. Probably not super tough, but if you’re going into cold conditions, why not take one along as well as a thicker mat – it will make all the difference.

Update: seams failed again on latest Exped. Conclusion: go with Thermorest

Stoves

I’m still a big fan of the screw top gas canisters if you have the option (which these days may be more frequent than you think – abundant now in places like Chile, Argentina, China and in a great number of capital cities). Using propane/ butane is cleaner, easier, safer, quieter, requires no priming and no stove maintenance. Luckily plenty of multifuel stoves now have adapters for gas canisters, which is a case of better late than never.

MSR – why do people still buy them?! Almost everyone I’ve met has a broken fuel pump at some stage. Come on – move to the Primus Omnifuel people (invincibility almost guaranteed).

Rohloff

There is a very well established procedure for dealing with a broken Rohloff – it involves a pained sigh, a great deal of shrugging and a telephone call to Germany. And that’s not exactly reassuring.

I’ve been standing by the Rohloff like you might a criminal in the family. I am on my fifth Rohloff Hub. FIFTH! Here’s how it went down:

First one needed replacing after just 10,000 km when the flange broke (so not an internal failure, but a crack in the shell leaving me unable to tension a spoke). A new wheel arrived within five days to Khartoum. Rohloff report the incidence of this failure is one in five thousand. I know of two more cases. A coincidence? (I don’t know 15,000 cycle tourers).

The next one lasted about 45,000 km, until I lost four gears. The sliding clutch rings had failed. Rohloff replaced the hub in Australia in three days. All for free of course. Then after almost 20,000 km I lost four gears again. A new hub appeared in Mongolia in 4 days, again all courtesy of the company. Recently I’ve developed excessive play in the rear wheel and Rohloff are giving me another entire unit, the cause of the failure is not yet known.

A few things are clear: Rohloff are certainly not the ‘fit and forget’ they’re often considered to be. Plenty of riders are reporting issues. However their customer service remains impeccable. The obvious pros of the hub: No tinkering with front and rear mechs (good for the more reticent brand of mechanic like me), chains last longer as they don’t move between cogs, no need to replace cassettes and derailleurs, no mud or ice to clog up your gear mechs, you have the ability to change through multiple gears without pedaling, stronger rear wheel, no need to worry about broken derailleurs in trucks or on planes.

But…

If one goes one wrong, it will be a major hassle at the very least. And plainly they do go wrong, much more frequently than Rohloff would have you believe, although they will virtually never leave you stuck – often an internal failure means the loss of some gears, not the entire mechanism. They are also very expensive (budget in the regular oil changes as well, not just the hub) and you usually need to use special parts for replacements, and you often won’t be able to find these locally: cables, shifters, oil change kit, sprockets. Of course the reduced range of gears and absence of a very low gear when compared to the standard setup are also drawbacks.

It’s getting mighty tough to defend them, even with the company’s trademark personal touch. If you really don’t like to tinker with bikes, and if you have the money to spare, perhaps it’s still a good investment, then again perhaps not. The jury is still out.

Some Final Tips

  • Thermos Flask: for hot tea when it’s cold, to keep water from freezing when it’s really cold and for cool water when it hot.
  • Firesteel – cos they’re cool, and lighters break.
  • Always use a cheap ground sheet for your tent
  • Don’t use anything that requires a key, which you’ll lose. Bring combination bike locks and padlocks for lockers.
  • Kick stands often snap and can damage the frame. Try out a click-stand.
  • The medical kit: bring what you know how and when to use – If you can’t administer IV adrenaline, then why have it?! My kit has shrunk significantly during my trip because I realised you can buy most things in pharmacies en route as and when you need them without prescription – obviously if you’re going very remote then you’ll need more bits. I’ll expand on what to pack in a later post.
  • Tool kit. Clearly what you pack will depend upon your propensity to get into the wilderness and your skills as a mechanic. Quality needlenose pliers which cut cables are a good idea. A simple frame pump is better than a mini-pump. Pumps live hard lives, so keep it simple. Square-taper bottom brackets last a lot longer than outboard bottom brackets. If in doubt: go Shimano. For rims – the Tungsten carbide Rigida / Ryde ones kick ass (I did 55,000 km on a rear Ryde Andra 30 Rohloff specific) – pick some up from MSG bikes or Chicken Cycles.
  • Mud guards – avoid.
  • Mosquito repellent: use something DEET based if you’re going to the northern or southern latitudes in summer, where there’s a short season and mosquitoes come in clouds. In these circumstances natural alternatives in my experience don’t  cut the mustard, but they might be suitable where there are less insects around, and are less likely to cause adverse reactions.
  • Side mirror – a good idea. The case for mirrors.

As per usual I have to make a disclaimer – some, but by no means all, of this kit came from companies that sponsored my trip. You only have my word that I’ve been honest about what I liked and what I didn’t. Not all my sponsored gear made it into the list, plenty that wasn’t sponsored also appeared and I have even negatively critiqued some of my sponsored kit. I genuinely want tourers to go away with the quality, reasonably-priced stuff and, unless stated, I have only recommended kit I have used and can personally vouch for.

Blood, sweat and Pamirs


‘Oh hey, do you have a map of the Pamirs?’

I shook my head as the Irishman, one of four cyclists I ran into on the climb up from Osh, rummaged in his head bag and handed me a shred of dark-spotted paper.

‘Oh yeah, my blood got all over it’ he added, mysteriously.

I didn’t ask. The less I knew about snow leopards, or gangs of rampaging marmots, or roving warlords the better. Climbing to 4655 metres in three days invited trepidation enough.

After Osh the land was green and open, studded with yurts and clusters of shambling livestock. The temperature soared to 40 degrees. I asked for clean water but people would always point to the river ‘our river is very clean, drink! drink!’ I didn’t chip into local pride by mentioning the donkeys pissing and shitting and sometimes inconveniently dying on the banks upstream.

The scruffiness of the children grew with distance from the town, until they were a ragtag bunch with wet coughs and perennial grins, calling ‘bye bye!’ as a welcome because they liked the sound of the words more than they cared about the meaning. I climbed from 1600 to 3100 metres in a day, and spent the evening next to the scrappy caravan a herding family called home. After showing one of the boys how to click tent poles together and use the clips, he set to helping me put it up and then crouched down in the entrance and marveled at my gadgets – the inflatable sleeping mat and stove – with little ahhs and ohhhs, disappearing briefly with each shriek from his mother to help rounding up goats into the pen or collect dung to burn.

The next day I completed the switchbacks and dropped into Sary Tash while looking past the town at the more captivating backdrop: the Pamirs were a white belt chopped by peaks, taking up a great swathe of horizon, reaching high over the grassland ahead.

I crossed the Kirgiz immigration and began climbing up through the extensive No-Mans Land in a valley alive with marmots – I caught russet dashes in my peripheral vision, like shooting stars. Then I’d see one tall and still, paws-front. Or is it a rock, tinted with lichen? I’d stare until it flashed into a nearby hole, or remained where it was and 30 seconds of my life had been taken up with rock spectating.


Marmots
At the pass near the border a Marco Polo sheep, in statue form for live ones are scarce, looked out indomitably over the wavy land. For the next days skulls and horns and sometimes attached vertebra would lie over the rocky ground, the gruesome echoes of a dying breed, hunted to near extinction. Just beyond the statue was the Tajik immigration, and after getting my entry stamp I was ushered into a hut where a man told me I needed a disinfection certificate, adding with a practiced nonchalance ‘400 Somme please’.

This was, I was sure, a scam: officials at this border post are notoriously corrupt. When I refused he made a cross with his forearms: no money, no passage. I stood up and strode over to an immigration official I’d noticed to be the centre of an orbit of other officers – and demanded to know why I was being taxed. I was hoping the corrupt man was working secretly and alone but the booming laugh from the boss told me they were all in this together. I realised I’d been using the wrong tack, I needed to offer him a way out, and give him the chance to look generous. It was time to bring Clive into the mix, my cap.

‘Look’ I began, using my most pathetic tone of voice, ‘I’ve been traveling for five years. I have no money. I eat stale bread.’ I showed him some from my pannier. ‘Look at me! Look at my hat!’ I showed him the tears and holes, the flailing fabric. I shrunk into the chair, covered my face in a hand and coughed a long spluttering cough. There was a moment of silent contemplation, and then ‘OK. You go’ he said, handing my passport back, and I was soon rallying through Tajikistan, my 60th nation, the dusky red ridges of Kirgizstan at my back.

I was up on the Pamir plateau now, firing along with the swift wind on my tail. Some so-called ‘washboard’ road followed, which is being generous to the world’s washboards. More like back to back speedbumps. For a couple of days I’d noticed two tyres marks in the dust, I knelt down now to inspect them and could see the direction of tread meant they were heading my way. I felt like I was tracking a wild beast. I took a couple of sniffs, mmm, Nutella, must be a cyclist. They can’t be far.

Soon I was back to tarmac which had a habit of melting under tyres and feet if you loitered for more than a few seconds on it. The azure sheen of Lake Karakol arrived earlier than I expected, and it was in the nearby village I met Nick and Romain – an Australian and a French biker I’d met before in Bishkek, who immediately invited me down to the icy lake for a swim before Romain got targeted, in what was to be a familiar scene, by the majority of the world’s mosquito population. ‘Putin! Putin!’ rang through the Pamirs as Nick and I watched on, wondering how on earth one man can be deemed so delicious to insects. ‘They love ‘im.’ said Nick. ‘He tastes like Camembert’.






The home stay in Karakol was copiously rugged – at least four rugs hung per wall, they overlapped on the floor in a literal rug-fest, typical, I would learn, of many a Central Asian home. I wondered if homeowners here had black outs and woke up in alleyways behind rug shops, slumped over a pile of new rugs with no money left for food or their children’s clothes. I half expected to find the lumpy shapes of people under rugs, making muffled cries, pinned to walls.

The next day I discovered the pounding headache of the altitude sickness I thought I’d escaped, the telltale ripple in my vision with each heartbeat, the post-night-on-tequila sense of doom.

We set out anyway, climbed through striking steel hued mountains and stopped just before the steepest climb with a Kyrgyz woman who filled us with cream and yoghurt and tea in her cosy home by the road which had a TV in the corner showing Days of Our Lives. ‘But Troy, the baby’s not yours. What will I do?’ At over 4000 metres up in the remote Pamirs, the woman’s daughter avidly pondered Maria’s predicament by Russian subtitles.

With the altitude and steep ascent on dirt, my head span and I became woozy. I was heading to the highest point on the Pamir Highway, a road whose name derives from altitude and not the volume of traffic. I’d calculated there were 4 km left to the pass, and at once I had a brilliant idea: if I weaved left and right, the climb wouldn’t be as steep and I’d ride those four kilometres in better time. For some oxygen-deprived moment I knew I could cheat physics, trick the laws of nature, and not that by weaving my way up I would just make the pass further away.

The rocks grew pink and orange in the dying daylight, an eagle roved the blue sky far above. The summit was a round of high fives, and a quick lie down before we whizzed downwards into a desert amid a starlit dusk.The next day we spotted Murgab, the not-really-beating heart of the eastern Pamiri region and one of only two towns en route. ‘We’ll get the Big Macs in first and then hit some clubs later’ offered Nick.






The Pamir Hotel is the place to be in Murgab, and alongside a Japanese tour group, an assortment of bikers, motorbikers and hitchhikers, were balding, bearded and exclusively male geologists who leaned over strange maps and chatted excitedly of ‘checking out that Jurassic section’. Nick, Romain and I looked like our room soon smelt.

Solidream’s room probably smelt of roses. These three clean-cut Frenchmen who a couple of years back had completed a three year bike ride around the world, and were now accomplished film makers, speakers, authors and professional dreamers, were making a living through the fruit of their adventures. They were in the Pamirs on bamboo fatbikes, of which there are vanishingly few in the world. Frank Denman and a host of other bikers passed through too. Some arrived with worrying regularity on bikes broken by the bad roads of the Wakan corridor, cable ties everywhere, holes in tyres.

I stocked up on supplies from the bazaar, a jostling alley between old shipping containers turned shops. I’d decided on heading on a tougher and more remote route through a different valley and then across high mountain plains and two 4400 m passes into Zorkul National Park, after which I’d join the road which runs through the Wakan corridor and borders Afghanistan.

I cycled over a dreary plain first, screwy tendrils of black cloud brought cold rain, but the next day was blue-lit and still. The din of rain and wind was replaced by the tepid gurgle of water flowing in the nearby river, and the occasional trill of passing bees. In between, the silence hummed.

Tokthamish had a real outpost feel: a desolate ensemble of mud brick and stucco homes separated by desert, where an EU funded school and a couple of water pumps and a lumbering donkey figured in the main street. The shop sold sweets and cheap packet noodles of the type that often have to be recalled for having toxic levels of lead (I bought some anyway).

I headed off to Shaimak, the last village for days at the end of the valley which sat under 5265 metre Attash, a humpy snow-dashed mountain rising out of the heat shimmer, it was hard to imagine it could be this hot at 4000 metres above sea level. The mountain collected light long after the valley fell into shade and loomed over at least a quarter of the sky. Insects were on my tail, and I aimed for the winging dust devils in hopes of losing my congregation.

It was here I thought of how fucked I would be if my bike broke, there were no cars at all now, and with this thought came the memory of Nathan building my rear wheel in Bishkek, and the beer I now recall he’d been chugging at the time, and the words ‘Fuck the Rohloff manual, I’ll just do it my way’ and later ‘tell me if I get anything wrong, OK?’ Luckily, through luck, or Nathan’s practiced skill at building wheels whilst inebriated, the wheel held strong.

In Shaimak, population 60, I quickly gained a twittering string of children, the older ones wearing traditional Kalpak hats which pointed to their Kirgiz roots. Women stood in fenced off meadows and made cheese. The shop was predictably bare, but a young round-faced student, home from studies in Dushanbe, gave me bread and cheese. The gift meant a lot in this poor village, where there was no power, a fog of mosquitoes in the summer dusks and long, brutally cold winters. As is usual, I tried to pay, I failed. ‘We have so little here’ she said. ‘Well Shaimack is a very beautiful village’ I managed, pathetically, quickly realising this was like saying to a patient ‘Mr Jones you have end-stage pancreatic cancer. But on the up side… nice knees!’

Solidream

Admiring Attash


Shaimak village


After reaching a ring of snow topped peaks at the valley’s end I crossed the river, no longer the grubby snake of the lower valley but an appealing grey-blue gush bordered by banks of smooth pebbles spotted with tussocks. I rounded a reddish fist of rock, the colour of an old bruise, to my left the land became spiked with a type of high altitude grass and the earth grew salt stained, stretching away to the mountains until the white of salt met and blended with the white of perennial snow.

The junction I came to didn’t exist on my map because the road straight ahead led close to the Afghan border the authorities didn’t need advertised. I turned right to climb a pass, leaving a note under a rock for Solidream if they were to follow to show which direction I had travelled, marked by an arrow I made in stones.

The meat of the climb was on a smooth trail cutting through a sandscape studded with low shrubs, but the last kilometres were grueling, steep and rocky ones. At each false summit, another loomed, each more disastrous to my mettle. Up ahead I could see the silhouettes of people standing stock still, and then falling to their bellies and scampering off and chirruping as they went… marmots. By dusk the track crested the hill and I received the vista of a nameless lake and its silvered tributaries, where I set up camp. The pass almost killed me. I left another note for Solidream: ‘Je Suis Desole’.

My map suggested it would take five days, probably, until I reached another village and so I began to ration my food and devour the stale bread knocking around my panniers. There were no vehicles at all, the road ranged through green valleys where even herders were out of sight. I had that gorgeous, delectable way-in-over-my-head feeling. There was no one for miles.

I arrived at a spot intriguingly marked Jarty Gumbez on my map, where I found a small cluster of buildings around the river. I dropped down, expecting to find a deserted hunting camp, but there were builders milling about, preparing camp for the season which begins in October. The boss, a short bearded man in a camouflage cap, the epitome of a hunter, who’s used to escorting rich Americans on hunting trips to shoot Oryx or Marco Polo sheep for around 30,000 dollars a pop, ordered a lady to fill me with rice and meat and melon and tea, and I left with calories to burn.

I cut through a narrow valley and found a few yurts near the entrance to Zorkul National Park where I stayed for free with a kind family content to feed me and show their hospitality. They lassoed yaks to cut the wool of the adults and tag the young, a frenzied exercise of horn and leg grabbing. I slept in my own yurt bedecked in stitching of wing-spread birds and insulated with sheep wool. The daughter showed me her phone ‘This is I!’ she whispered and showed me a selfie, but one in which she was wearing lipstick and jeans, and not the headscarf she had on now, and then snatched it away, suddenly embarrassed.

The next day the father cried ‘Marco Polo! On the hills!’ Knowing this was unlikely to be the reincarnation of the Venetian explorer, I ran over, borrowed his binoculars and made out the shapes of the famous sheep grazing on the higher slopes. The sad fact is that in Marco Polo’s time, there would have been no need of binoculars – the sheep now number less than 10,000.






I lugged by bike over the grassland between the mountains and the lake, bridging streams and maneuvering around the 4×4 trail when it became flooded with river water. The track faded and finally disappeared. I stood on boulders and used my camera’s zoom to check for trails but found none. I left my bike and hiked from the lake backdropped by Afghanistan’s Great Pamir range, to the peaks of the southern Alchur range, but seeing no track I began riding off-road. For forty kilometres I walked with my bike, dragging it over rocks and tall grass, following the line of broken telegraph poles that led west. Streams became harder to cross, deeper in gullies and churning with melt water. I worried constantly about rain, for if it came the entire area would be whipped into thick mud.

At the western end of the lake a vast swarm of black flies found me. They coated every pannier, swarmed around my head, disappeared into my ears and nose. My suncream was a sticky variety and this turned my exposed arms into something resembling fly paper, a mausoleum for insects, hundreds died on my forearms alone, I didn’t want to know what was occurring on my shoulders. The monstrous storm of flies stayed with me for a couple of hours, and it was worse when I moved.

The telegraph masts went over a ridge, and knowing that eventually the road was depicted on my map aside the river, I walked my bike down to the shore of the Panj just after it left Lake Zorkul and pushed along. By the end of the day I hit a net of thrashing tributaries too large to hoist my bike over, and the bridges of soviet times were two rusted piles of long ago collapsed scrap metal languishing in the white water, like much infrastructure post-independence, they hadn’t been replaced. Two herding boys arrived and together we carried my bike over each river. I ate pasta and sauce in my tent for the thousandth time, but the first in which the view was of Afghanistan, a mere 20 metres away across the clear waters of the upper Panj. It was an unpeopled place of grassy slopes and peeping snowy peaks, but an exotic vision nonetheless.





Khargush is a Tajik military base of strategic importance on the Afghan border, and border patrols wander to and fro, scouting Afghanistan with binoculars. I’d arrived on the Wakan corridor at a point most cyclists dread for the road is in a bad state – but for me, fresh from a roadless hunk of fly-infested land and uncountable river crossings, it was brilliant. Glorious washboard!

Cyclists brought news of Nick and Romain. ‘Australian guy? Yeah, he’s good. Drinking beer in Iskashim’ ‘How about the French guy with a trailer?’ ‘Oh Him. Shit. That guy looked terrible’. Soon after Romain would fly to Malaysia to be with his fiancé.

The valley was a desert – the parched, dun-coloured shoulders tall over a river trimmed by green. From somewhere a voice rang out and looking up I saw a military watchtower, ahead the road was gated. Two soldiers made their way towards me.

‘You! Where did you come from?’

‘From Zorkul’ I said.

The captain, ethnically Russian, in wrap-around sunglasses, a cap and army fatigues, got close and stuck a finger in my face.

‘Border area. Terrorists’ he said slow and loud, as a parent might a disobedient child. ‘You’ve been to Afghanistan’

‘No no!’ I appealed. ‘Just Tajikistan’.

‘Documents!’ My bad feeling was growing.

I gave him my passport, the letter I’d received from the hotel in Murgab and the permit I’d bought from the father of the family in the yurts. He seized on this immediately ‘Conterfeit!’ he yelled. Actually I’d guessed that much, but I bought it anyway. The family were kind and had fed me, and the fake permit only cost 5 dollars. ‘Search him’ he ordered a junior soldier, scowling.

I’d been robbed by police in Mexico on the pretense of a search, and so I was resistant now. In a foreign city I’d sometimes ask police for ID if they demanded to search me or tried to get a bribe, mainly to put them on the back foot, to hint I wouldn’t be a pushover. Out of habit I did this now, and instantly realised my mistake. This was a military post, not a police stop, plus I was in the middle of nowhere. The captain came up close again. ‘You want my ID – here’s my fucking ID’ he pulled a gun from his belt and there was a moment where I wondered if he’d aim it at me, but he lost courage, returned it to his belt and then made a gun with his index finger and thumb and put it to my temple. Had I been a Tajik, no doubt he’d have used the real gun.

During the search the younger soldier distributed my gear in the dust and I scrabbled to collect it all and return it to my panniers. Did they think I was stupid enough to smuggle Afghan hash or opium in a pannier? (I would have stashed it in the frame – much safer). I watched closely when he came to an envelope of money in my computer case, but didn’t open it. Finally the younger soldier took my passport and disappeared with it, leaving me with the captain who started at me through his sunglasses in silence. After a minute or two he began idly kicking the back wheel of my bike, over and over, whistling as he did so.

Eventually I was told I could go and the younger soldier returned with my passport and some freshly baked bread. This was becoming a recurring theme of my journey: being detained, threatened, interrogated, searched, fed great food and released with a smile.

The landscape remained arid and bare save a few lolloping camels and whistling goat herds on the far bank – it was the Afghanistan of my imagination: mountainous, wild and dry. Small hardy narrow leaved shrubs reluctant to take root higher up the mountains scattered the lower valley. The blue sky and gush of water were constants, the river now mucky and thrashing. Snow appeared on the spines of the Hindu Kush, which spoke of their epic reach, as it was 33 degrees here, at almost 4000 metres above sea level.

The road climbed from the river to scar the mountainsides, gracefully swerving through smaller valleys, and the river’s voice fell to a whisper. The road fell at last to Langar – the first village I’d come to in five days. It was a comforting rug of green sitting in the now wide and flat valley base. Trees followed streams making verdant veins of the land, and I descended through a blizzard of dancing poplar fluff.





I stayed in a homestay in the most garish room I’d ever seen, and the sign of an entirely new culture. These were Pamiri people, who speak a language similar to Farsi, and the same as the Afghans on other side of the river. The women wore colourful gowns, the men topped Argentina football team tracksuits with traditional hats.

The road in the Wakan was of the type that threatens all hope of future paternity. In a break from the bumps of the corregated surface, I only hit one traffic jam. A donkey carrying a huge cooking pot and a load of firewood trotted into me and pushed me into the side of a bridge whilst his embarrassed owner, a small boy, jabbed at him with a stick.

I met Claude, a giant of the cycling world, literally and figuratively. A Swiss man who’d previously toured the world for seven years and published seven books about his adventures, translated into 3 languages. I’d drawn a map of my route through Zorkul and he was heading that way, but I realised it was something Tolkien might of created – marked places included: Ruins of fghisn, swarm of black flies, treacherous river crossing number 8. I decided not to give it to him, but described the route instead.

Violent gales wracked the Wakan, and I had to stop by 4 pm. On a nearby road near Khorog the high temperature and wind had led to a massive landslide which decimated 77 homes and left a mass of displaced people, more were evacuated. Nine died on another landslide when a bridge collapse on main road to Dushanbe.

In Hanis guesthouse in Iskashim, I met Nick again and we pedaled off together to Khorog, marveling at green segments of Afghanistan. It was ace.

A grandfather and his grand daughter, who smiled constantly, until I readied my camera




The green of Afghanistan


Next up: I’ve spent the last few days visiting the cross border health service, the camp for displaced people and the medical facilities in this part of Tajikistan. When I leave I’ll ride to Dushanbe, the capital, from where I’ll post a new kit review piece. And then I’ll cross into a steamy Uzbekistan, and stop by the Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

Thank yous – Romain for some of the photography included in this post, Dr Umed, Nizoroma, Dr Mahbut from The Aga Khan Foundation, Vero for the introductions.