Month: April 2016

Back Out of the (Former) USSR

The Black Sea isn’t black.

This was not exactly a massive shock.  What was quite surprising was that a day’s bike ride in Georgia can take you from snow-capped mountains to palm-lined seaside resorts so easily.  Though it might, I suppose, be trickier in the other direction.

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I made the most of what the weather forecast said was going to be the last day of tailwinds (on Sunday), and decided to get as close to Batumi as I could.  Before the wind decided to punish me again.  I ended up only around 30 miles short, and was rewarded by my first view of the non-black Black Sea (above).

Looks nice, doesn’t it?  Those snow-capped mountains in the background, dropping into the sea in the spring sunshine.

The short ride into Batumi on Monday was beautiful, marred only by the knowledge that it would be my last night in the country.  The last chance to stuff my face with delicious, cheap Georgian food.  And the last night for a while that I’d have a language in common with the locals.  I’m going to miss Georgia, I think.

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Batumi is one of Georgia’s major ports, and also a tourist resort, as well as being the last major town before the Turkish border.  The locals also seem to have developed a taste for architecture, with an impressive array of oddly-shaped towers springing up on the skyline as I approached.

The one aspect of Georgia which I won’t miss is the driving.  A bit like Thailand, they have good roads, but drivers whose skills have not caught up yet.  The massive amount of traffic cops on the roads (mostly in equally massive American police cars, for some reason) is hopefully an indicator that they’re working on it.  I had a sudden thought that I hadn’t seen a bicycle lane for thousands of miles.

A few kilometres north of the centre of Batumi, a cycle track magically appeared.  It took me all the way into town.  And then it multiplied.  The whole city is covered in bike lanes.  It was almost shocking.

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I had a wander around town in the afternoon, and marvelled at bike lanes zigzagging between cafes and their outside seating areas, between supermarkets and their fruit displays, and dead-ending at busy junctions.  The one above is one of the more sensible ones.  Which just stops at every road it crosses.

There doesn’t seem to be any great planning involved.  And the locals appear genuinely astonished when a bike actually uses a bike lane (which is usually for drinking coffee, walking the dog, or shopping).  But the effort is commendable.  And the major bike lanes along the seafront and the main roads are light years ahead of anything I’ve seen for months.  So, hats off to cycling city Batumi!

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Still, after my stroll, some seaside ice-cream, and a proper feed, it was time for bed.  And a few hours later, to cover the last ten miles of the Former Soviet section of the trip.  It’s been a great few weeks, all the way from Tashkent.  From the desert to the mountains to the seaside.  More people should come here.

The road to the border (and after the border, for that matter) hugs the shoreline, with the impressive cliffs, and more impressive snowy mountains, dropping straight to the water.  The picture below is from the last headland in Georgia (the border is in the next bay).  So the land ahead is Turkey.  It seems a little strange that the landscape it reminds me most of is New Zealand, which is a long, long way from here.

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Another five minute border crossing, and I was in country number 23, heading south-west along the Black Sea coast.  A coast which takes you straight to Europe.

It’s starting to feel perilously close to the end of the trip now.  Turkey’s quite familiar to many Europeans as a package holiday destination, and the local time has ticked back to within just two hours of the UK.  It begins to feel like home is just around the corner.  Despite the beautiful scenery, the sunshine, and the wide, smooth road, I was feeling a little melancholy as I trundled along.

Then I heard a muezzin calling from a minaret, and I remembered that there’s still actually a long way to go.  Turkey’s going to take a few weeks, as it’s another big country, and then there’s the huge variety of relatively tiny European countries to look forward to before home finally beckons.  No need to worry about the end just yet.

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I haven’t formed much of an impression of Turkey so far.  Yesterday was just the pleasant ride from the border, and I’ve cunningly spent today having a rest while the rain hammers down outside (above).  My weather anticipation is definitely getting better.

But the people have been friendly so far, even though I’m back to having significant language barriers.  Things are more expensive than anywhere I’ve been since Vietnam.  And it’s still cold when it rains, so it’s definitely not summer here yet.

I’ll find out more over the next little while.  I’m heading straight along the coast to start with, but I’m still not sure of my exact route after the first week or so.  There are three options, all of which are more-or-less the same length (though with massively different levels of climbing).

I’ll make up my mind on the way.  The Black Sea might not be black, but it is quite big.

So there’s plenty of time to work things out as I go…

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The Unbearable, The Unspeakable, The Unforgettable and the (Nearly) Undrinkable

Central Georgia.

Not top of many people’s lists of places to spend a few days on holiday.  But I think it probably should be.

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Since leaving Tbilisi (above) on Thursday morning, I’ve only covered a couple of hundred kilometres.  Pretty slack by my standards.  I even had an impromptu extra rest day yesterday.  But the last 72 hours have still felt quite intense.

Headwinds, tailwinds, sunshine, snow, climbing, descending, motorways, tunnels, falling off the bike, home-made wine and Joe Stalin’s bathtub.  Actually, perhaps it really has been quite intense…  Where do I start?

When in doubt, I sometimes resort to stats.  Not this time, though (but there will be some at the end).  This time I have photographic proof of how unbearable the weather was on Thursday afternoon:

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You’ll just have to imagine the painful legs and tiredness that had developed during the morning.  I knew there was a lot of rain coming, but reckoned I could beat it to Gori.  The wind (into the face, naturally) began at about 15 mph, and got stronger and stronger.  By the time the picture above was taken, it was gusting over 30 mph (50 kph).  I got slower and slower.  And then the rain came.

It was only a brief (but intense) cloudburst; a prelude to the main storm.  I hid for a while, and then put the hammer down for the last 25 kms to Gori.  When I say ‘put the hammer down’, we’re talking about maximum effort in return for less than 10 miles-an-hour.  Unbearable.

I’m sure there’s a scale for how slippery things are.  I don’t need to look it up, because if there’s one thing that’s more slippery than wet ice, it’s wet cow droppings.

An unfortunately-timed gust of wind drops your front wheel off the road and onto the gravel shoulder.  This is a problem, as it starts sliding.  And it has bags attached.  Time slows down, reactions kick in.  You get the front wheel back on the tarmac (somehow).  Then the back wheel’s on the gravel.  Sliding again.  You get your weight forward to lift the heavy back wheel onto the road, just as the front wheel hits the wet cow droppings.  Bags or not, you’re now doomed.

The only good thing about Thursday is that, having stacked the bike and smashed into the road with my right shoulder (yep, the one the truck broke in Thailand), I can now report that the bike is a tough little thing, and that my shoulder appears to be in decent condition.  Apart from the new abrasions, that is…

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Thursday night.  Looking at the weather forecast.  It says that it’s snowing in Gori.  I stick my head outside.  It is snowing in Gori.  And blowing a gale.  It says that tomorrow will be dry, but that the wind will be up to 40 mph.  Average.  In my face again.  I believe it.  I’m having a day off.

The weather forecast was spot on.  As you can see from the flag ripping itself apart on top of Gori Fortress (picture above), the wind is, indeed, a wee bit brisk.  Thankfully, as well as the castle, and a pharmacy, Gori is the home of the unspeakable Josef Stalin.  So at least there’s a museum (or dictator’s shrine, depending on your point of view) to poke around while I’m there.

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I got to see Stalin’s bathtub, on Stalin’s personal train carriage.  It’s hard to imagine Uncle Joe sitting in there, playing with his rubber ducks and smoking his pipe, while supervising the deaths of tens of millions of people.  Or industrialising the Soviet Union and winning World War 2, depending on your point of view.

The museum is pure Soviet, and could really do with a bit of updating to include some of the less positive aspects of Josef’s career.  But I guess it’s a little tricky for the Georgians.  How do you play it when the only world-famous person from your country is a character like Stalin?

Focus on the scenery and the food (and maybe the wine), I think…

Because, once the wind had not only died, but turned magically through 180 degrees, the ride today was unforgettable.  Sun out, wind at my back, snow-capped mountains everywhere.  The little castle at Surami (below) was an especially nice bit:

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And I met my first fellow tourer since India.  I’ve no idea where they’ve all been.  As usual, I forgot to ask his permission to use his real name, so I’ll call him ‘Mark’.  Another Brit, and another solo inter-continental rider, heading for India via China (which is an especially long way round, in my opinion; but then he’d got to Georgia via Morocco, so what do I know?).  A great chance for the standard bike chat, with projected routes and info shared.

Both of us have been struck by the Georgian hospitality, and especially their penchant for ‘forcing’ home-made wine and vodka, some of which is outstandingly dubious, on unsuspecting guests (in my case, it was the same in Armenia, too).  ‘Mark’ was actually running with a hangover due to last night’s host insisting on ‘four for the road’ this morning.  And I had a 500ml glass of unusually yellow wine waiting for me at my lodgings this evening.

Though to get here, I still had to drop out of the high mountains, towards one of the few flat areas of Georgia, which I’ll cross in the next couple of days, before hitting the Black Sea.

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Lower hills, but the same tailwind and stunning scenery.  By the time I got here, I’d all but forgotten Thursday’s hardships.  A really beautiful run down the valley, twisting and turning in the warm sunshine.  A coffee in the shade halfway down.  Lovely.  That’s bike touring for you…

And, somewhere along the way today, I hit some large-ish numbers.  23,000 km for the round-the-world trip so far.  8000 km (and 5000 miles) since I started Part 2 in Vietnam in December.

So that’s the last three days.  A milestone or two for the trip.  Some unforgettable scenery.  The unspeakable Uncle Joe.  Sometimes unbearable weather.  And the home-made wine.

Which, it turns out, isn’t undrinkable at all…

Capital to Capital: Across Armenia to Tbilisi

This update is a little later than originally intended.  This is not due to any unfortunate mishaps, mechanical disasters, or internet access issues.

It’s simply down to nostalgia and Georgian wine.  Which is entirely unavoidable here in Tbilisi.

Hold on a minute, though.  I’ve just skipped blithely on to another country.  You thought I was in Armenia.  I’d better rewind a little…

It turns out that Armenia has three features which are hard to miss.  Firstly, it’s small.  I’ve just ridden pretty much right across it in two-and-a-half days.  Second, it’s absolutely beautiful, as you’ll hopefully agree from the pictures.  And third, it’s a little bit hilly.

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As soon as you turn north in Yerevan city centre, you start climbing.  There’s no avoiding it, whichever road you choose.  To get to Georgia, you have to cross the southern Caucasus.  You can get an idea of the climbing involved from the picture above; the TV tower poking over the near horizon is massive, and perched on a hill above the city centre.  So the city is a long way down from where this picture was shot.

You might also have noticed the giant volcano in the background.  That’s Mount Ararat (where Noah allegedly parked his ark).  The Armenians love Mount Ararat, and there are hotels, cognac, and all sorts of products named after it.  The slight downside is that, although the town of Ararat is in Armenia, the mountain is now in Turkey.  This is one of several reasons that the two countries don’t get on too well.

Regional politics were not the biggest issue on my radar on Sunday, though, as I laboured uphill out of town.  Yerevan sits at an altitude of about 1000 metres, so the air’s already a little thinner that one would like.  And the day’s ride would take me up past the huge lake at Sevan, which is another 900 metres higher.  I was gasping a little bit, I must admit.

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Still, the big benefit of climbing hills is that the scenery is generally a little more interesting than on flatter ground.  And Armenia is pretty stunning all the way from Yerevan to the Georgian border.  Wiggling through narrow gorges and straining over passes was a fantastic change after the flat lands of the last few months.

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By Monday lunchtime, I was over my second significant pass (above), and dropping in to the town of Vanadzor.  With the exception of a few minor rises around river bends, it’s about 80 kms of generally downhill road from there, all the way to Georgia.

That’s not quite as easy as it sounds, mind you.  There are a handful of scary tunnels (think pitch black with potholes and trucks), and a few rough-ish patches of road.  And Armenian dogs are the most enthusiastic bike chasers that I’ve yet had the displeasure of running away from.  But to be honest, it was a blast, essentially just dropping down one long, stunning gorge for hours.

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My last night in Armenia was where the blog update procrastination really kicked in.  I stayed at a little B&B in Alaverdi, about 40 kms from the Georgian border.  It was a really nice, family-run place, and they made their own wine.  Of course, not to try would be to offend, wouldn’t it?

A few glasses later, and writing anything was off the agenda.  And my journey to Tbilisi yesterday (Tuesday) also got off to a remarkably sluggish start.  There’s a lesson in there, somewhere…

Still, start I eventually did, and enjoyed a relaxing run down to yet another astonishingly easy-going international border.  The Armenian immigration guy had a quick chat, the Georgian just stamped my passport and waved me through.  Maybe a minute of formalities all told (plus a three or four minute ride between border posts), and I was rolling into country number 22.

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I was looking forward to Georgia, although I’ve never been here before.  Long, long ago, when I was in Russia as a student, I kind of fell in love with Georgian food (and also, their sweet and dangerously alcoholic red wine).  Although I’d seen an increasing amount of Georgian restaurants in Armenia, I was going to hold off until I got to Tbilisi, for the full, authentic nostalgia experience.

It wasn’t a hard run from the border, despite a last-minute headwind whistling down the valley as I entered town, and first impressions of the Georgian capital are really quite good.  Entering from my direction, you run along the river, with cliffs, old churches and fortresses overlooking the road.  Apart from the mildly aggressive traffic, it seemed like my expectations were going to be met in full.

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Having found my accommodation, I ran into an Irishman and an Australian who were about to head out for dinner (if anyone’s got any Englishman, Irishman and Australian jokes, let me know).  This, fairly predictably, meant that I consumed a colossal amount of Georgian food, topped up with the obligatory dose of red.  So a blog update was once again out of the question, and a late night round of talking rubbish was inevitable.  And quite enjoyable.

I had a sore head this morning.  Poor me.

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And so, today (Wednesday) was restricted to a slightly tentative exploration of Tbilisi.  Thankfully, I’m right in the middle of the old town here, so there wasn’t too much walking involved between either sights or strong coffee.

As with so much of the Caucasus region, there’s a lot of history here, from churches to monasteries to castles, to impressive city squares.  There’s also a cable car, which was an especially handy addition, given my fragile condition.  The views of the city from the top are really quite impressive.  Although they do remind you that the hills certainly aren’t over yet.

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My next destination here reminds you of that too.  Assuming the weather stays decent (which it may well not, unfortunately), I’ll be aiming for Gori tomorrow.  And Gori (in Russian) means ‘mountains’.  It’s also home to another side of Georgian history; it’s where a certain, less than cuddly dictator called Josef Stalin grew up.

So Georgia should continue to be interesting, with a bit of luck.  I’ll just have to try to stay off the sauce long enough to update the blog again before Turkey…

All Change

It was probably pretty clear from the last update that I wasn’t likely to be in Kazakhstan for this one.  It was time to move on from Aktau.  And from Central Asia as a whole.

Enough deserts.  Enough camels.  And enough full-on ex-Soviet towns with planes on sticks.

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The last of those three may well continue to crop up, however, as I’m still in the former USSR.

The plan (once again, proving itself to be a flimsy and unreliable thing) was to follow the standard route of cycle tourists past, but in reverse.  The Beastlet and I would take a romantic voyage on a boat, across the Caspian Sea to Baku in Azerbaijan.

As a result, I had to leave the delightful panorama of Aktau, which I’d been enjoying from my room for the last couple of days (picture below).

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And, in the early hours of this morning (Friday), I finally arrived.

In Yerevan.  In Armenia.

I know just how sharp many of my readers are.  So it can’t have escaped your notice that this was not the city (or even the country) that I was aiming for.  It’s not like it’s far away, but it’s definitely not the same place.  So much so that Armenia and the country I intended to be in are pretty much at war at the moment.

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Not for the first time, though, doing things in reverse has proved to be a bit of an issue.  It was, once again, bureaucracy which caused the trouble.  This time, it was the Azeri government that was the problem.  Their foreign ministry’s website is quite excited about the fact that tourists can now get their visas online.  According to them, you just need either a ticket or a hotel reservation, put in an application, and the whole thing goes through in a few days.  Hey presto!

So, I sat down in Bukhara (Uzbekistan, for those with short memories) to apply for my Azeri eVisa.  I went to an approved travel agent’s website.  Only to discover that the foreign ministry is full of fibs.  You need to know exactly when you’re going to arrive.  You need both return tickets and a hotel reservation.  And the visa is only issued for the length of your hotel booking (i.e. you’d need to book somewhere for a week or ten days, and then cancel it after you get the visa).

If you can’t fulfil those criteria (few touring cyclists heading west would be able to: you won’t have a return ticket, and probably only a vague idea of when you’ll get there, especially as the boats don’t have a fixed schedule), you’re stuffed.  You’ll need to go to an embassy.

And, of course, by that stage, the last available embassy was already a week’s riding behind me, in Tashkent.  Grrr.  Bad Azerbaijan foreign ministry.

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Thankfully, Aktau has a surprising variety of destinations to fly to, so it was just a case of picking the nearest place for which I didn’t need a visa.  That was Armenia, so here I am (that’s Republic Square in Yerevan, above, by the way).

Sadly, that meant that the bike, which had fondly imagined that its days of being stuffed into boxes were over, had to take one last one for the team.  I’ve solemnly promised that there are no more planes from here on.  But I don’t think it believes me.

Still, I can just mosey up the road for a few days to Tbilisi, in Georgia, and rejoin the planned route.  The little research on Armenia that I’ve done suggests it should be stunning mountain scenery most of the way up there (with some big hills to ride, too).

Which will be a big change from the flat, sandy deserts I’ve been used to for the last few weeks.  It’s basically been flat ever since I left Nepal, in fact.  So it’s time for something a bit different.

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Armenia is also, apparently, the world’s oldest Christian country.  I’m not entirely sure how you prove a claim like that, but it’s definitely a very different culture from the Muslim countries I’ve just left, whereas I guess Azerbaijan would have been similar.  So another change.

And where all the signs in Kazakhstan were written in Kazakh and Russian (both of which use the Cyrillic alphabet), most signs here are in Armenian (and English, surprisingly often).  And as you can see from the picture below, the Armenian alphabet is very definitely new to me:

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I’m still not sure what I bought in that shop…

Given that Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Armenia were all part of the USSR, it’s amazing how different they are from each other now.  Yerevan, with its broad, tree-lined avenues and street cafes feels very European in comparison to the other side of the Caspian.  It really is all change.

And, as noted last time, I may actually be in Europe already (though not by any definition of Europe that I learned in school).  Yerevan feels European, and looks quite European, too.  So maybe it is?

But I still can’t get my head around the geography.  Turkey’s border with Armenia is closed (they don’t like each other very much).  But it’s just a few miles down the road.  To the west of here, there’s nothing but Turkey for hundreds of miles.  And the whole of Turkey, surely, is in Asia, until you get to Istanbul.  So Armenia, and the Caucasus region as a whole, must be in Asia, too.  Mustn’t it?

Maybe that’s something to ponder as I’m grinding up the first serious hills I’ll have seen in months.  Maybe I’ll be able to work out the answer by the time I’m definitely back in Asia.

But maybe it doesn’t really matter.  It’s different here, for sure.  There are so many of those changes to get used to.  And that makes it interesting.

Whether it really needs a label on it, or not, I don’t know.

Sailing the Steppe (to Where the Streets Have No Name)

In the olden days (olden enough that even I wasn’t born then), ships couldn’t sail against the wind.  Captains would wait in port for a favourable breeze before putting to sea.  Otherwise they’d just get blown straight back to where they started.

I know very well that loaded touring bikes work in exactly the same way.  So I waited another day in Beyneu, enjoying the surprisingly fast internet and the nearby supermarket.  Waiting for the wind to change.

And finally, on Saturday, it was time.  The wind flipped to a more-or-less favourable direction, and I weighed anchor and set sail across 475 km of steppe towards the Caspian Sea, and Aktau.  I was going to try to hammer it in three days, before the wind decided to change again.

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The Beyneu to Aktau road is notorious among long-distance touring cyclists.  A few years ago, it was described as ‘the worst road in the world’ and ‘the bicycle demolition derby’.  It was mostly rough dirt (remember that track from the Uzbek border to Beyneu?) until very recently.

The only reason I thought I could get across so quickly was my chat with the two German cyclists I met, way back in Vietnam.  They said that the new road was only a few months off completion when they came this way last summer.  And, as you can see from the picture above, times have, indeed, changed just a little.

With the exception of a handful of kilometres, the whole run is now on decent tarmac.  And it even has informative signs.  Although, I’d be slightly concerned about why a brand new road already needs warnings about bumps…

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While the first couple of hundred kilometres were just as featureless as the Uzbek desert, things started to change a bit after the little town of Say Otes.  There’s a steep drop-off from the Ustyurt plateau to lower ground (you can just see the – still dirt – road down the cliff on the right of the picture above).

And the scenery suddenly looks…  Well…  Like southern Utah or Colorado in the USA.  It’s not just me, is it?  It definitely has the look of the landscape between Monument Valley and the Rockies, just in different colours.  If you’re not convinced by the picture above, try this one:

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Or maybe it really is just me.  In which case, put it down to desert fever…

Anyway, with the wind still favourable, the riding was good.  I started to imagine I actually was in the States, rolling along long, straight, smooth roads between the Mesas.  This was only contradicted by the occasional disapproving camel, which I studiously ignored.  The wind actually got stronger, and at some points, I was being pushed uphill without pedalling.  Just the power of the wind on the bags / sails.  Fantastic.  This three day thing was going to be, erm, a breeze.

By the end of day two (Sunday), I was already 335 km (210 miles) down the road from Beyneu.  One more long-ish day to go; maybe 90 miles.  The wind would be mostly behind for the first stretch, pretty much across me for the second part, and a cross-head wind for the last forty-odd kms.  But I’d nearly be in Aktau by then.  It wouldn’t be a problem to gut through that.  I went to bed a very happy boy.

Then Monday happened.  These deserts really do have a habit of kicking you in the backside if you get ideas above your station.

The first stretch went much as planned.  Wind in my sails again, I whistled along effortlessly at over 30 kph to the junction at Tauchik, where I turned onto stage two of day three.

Then I got blown off the road.  Twice in five minutes.

Quite literally, blown off the road.

It’s no wonder I was ripping along that first stretch; the wind was gusting over 40 mph.  And now, it was being funnelled through the hills, so I never knew exactly where it was coming from next.  The only thing that was clear was that it was further round than it should have been, and pretty much stopping me in my tracks.

One minute, I was in my lowest climbing gears, struggling to make walking pace as the wind battered me head-on.  The next, I was leaning over at twenty degrees to keep the bike upright, as the wind made a concerted effort to push me off into a herd of those disapproving (and by now, slightly alarmed) camels.

Those sails of mine are really not great when the wind’s not playing ball.  But at least the scenery was still impressive:

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By the time I’d made it a few more kilometres down the road, though, even the landscape wasn’t keeping me happy.  My quads were fried from fighting to move forward.  My back was fried from trying to stay upright.  Even my ears were getting wind-burned.

And, maybe more importantly, I realised that this was actually quite dangerous.  If you’re leaning over against the wind, and the wind suddenly stops, you swerve uncontrollably into the middle of the road.  This is dodgy enough if it’s just the wind gusting and then easing.

If the wind happens to have been blocked by a passing truck, it has very alarming consequences.  Impressive though the wheel-nuts on articulated trucks are, I’d rather not be looking at them from a couple of feet away while swerving towards them in goggle-eyed panic.

After a few more near-misses with lorry wheels, I pulled over to rest and consider my position.  Maybe those sea captains of old had cunning ruses in hand for when they suddenly found they were being blown way off course.  Maybe.  But I didn’t.  At the pace I was going, I’d die of old age before I finished the last 50 miles to town.  If the trucks or the camels didn’t get me first.

For a moment, I was actually considering walking it (over two days, probably).  Thankfully, that particular line of stupidity was cut off by the arrival of Rustam in his shiny 4×4.

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Although he spent a bit of time mocking my idea of a windy day (apparently, you can get sandstorms out here which last for days when it’s having a proper blow), Rustam turned out to be an absolute gentleman.  Bundles of insulation in the back of the car were moved.  Seats were dropped down, the bike was loaded.

And, and hour or so later, I was in Aktau with my rescuer, who also insisted on buying the coffee.  I may not quite have sailed all the way from Beyneu under my own steam (so to speak), but this was a far better ending than I was contemplating by the roadside a short time before.  Thank you, Rustam!

And so, I found myself on the shores of the Caspian Sea.  In Aktau, where the streets have no name.  They really don’t.  I was vaguely aware of this from researching the region before I started riding.  I doubt if Bono and U2 had Aktau in mind when they wrote the song, though…

The city is divided into ‘micro-rayons’, which are essentially large city blocks.  The micro-rayons are all numbered.  Roughly speaking, the micro-rayons change at every major junction.  And, again roughly speaking, the numbers increase the further from the centre you are.  Your address here is just three numbers: micro-rayon number, building number, and apartment number.  That’s it.  It completely does my head in.

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It may also be the most interesting thing about Aktau, from a tourist’s point of view.  It’s a port town, so it’s pretty functional, rather than fascinating.  But it’s good to have the benefits of civilisation (beer, pizza, cash machines etc) again after the desert.  And there are Soviet war memorials, statues, parks and shops.  It’s getting wealthy, too, from oil, as is a lot of this part of the world.

And I’ve managed to get a ticket sorted out for the next stage already.

Depending on how you define it, it’s Europe on the other side of the Caspian.  The Russians see the sea as the dividing line between Europe and Asia, together with the Ural mountains further north.  As a western European, I’m struggling to think that a region which is east of Turkey (which is clearly mostly in Asia) can really be in Europe.

After all, I can’t be that close to home already, can I?  Anyway, more on that next time…

For Touring Cyclists:

I’ve put together a PDF guide to the Aktau to Beyneu road, as it was quite difficult to find anything current (after 2013), and the road has changed so much in the recent past.  The PDF has GPS distances, water and food points, road conditions etc.  Beyneu to Aktau – April 2016.  Or feel free to contact me, and I’ll be happy to discuss.

Desert Storms

I’ve taken a bit of a beating over the last few days.  Deserts are not to be taken lightly.  Even (or maybe especially) when they’re cold and wet.

I’ve also made it to country number 20 on the round-the-world ride (Kazakhstan).  But it hasn’t been easy.  And it hasn’t all been on the bike.

It all began well enough.  I picked up a decent tailwind on the way out of Nukus on Sunday.  It was a bit chilly, but the sun was out.  I was a happy boy, and fairly flew up the (generally) well-surfaced main drag towards my second stretch of Uzbek desert.  I had three long days (each between 130 and 140 kms) to the end of Uzbekistan.  If they were all like Sunday, it would have been a doddle.

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It’s easy to spot where the Ustyurt Plateau begins (spellings, once again, differ).  Not because, being a plateau, you have to climb a massive hill to get to it.  You can see most of the hill above, and it’s really not very big.

But the ‘city’ on the skyline to the left of the picture is an unmistakeable marker.  And it’s not a standard city.  It’s a city of the dead.  This is a local tradition, on both sides of the border; the dead are all put together, in tombs ranging from the basic (the ones that look like houses if you zoom in) to the flamboyant (the ones that look like mosques).  It’s quite a spectacular sight, and with only about 30 km to go to my first stop in the desert, it made a nice end to a good day.

Day two couldn’t have been more different.  I’d timed my exit from Nukus to coincide with what should have been two days of tailwinds.  The weather had other ideas.  A 30 mile-an-hour headwind greeted me as I turned north-west (the last turn for three days).  Within an hour, it was pretty clear that I wasn’t going to make the 130 kms that I had pencilled in for the day, to Jasliq.

It’s pretty demoralising to realise so early in a ride that you’re not going to make it.  And riding solo in the desert, self preservation dictates that you need to be careful.  I decided to give it another hour to see if thing got better.  Meanwhile, I began deliberating whether to turn back, or to try to flag down a lift.

Things didn’t get better.  After two hours on the road, I’d made 20 kms.  And it had started to drizzle.  As soon as I stopped, I could feel the wind-chill stealing my body heat.  This wasn’t going to end well.  I found some partial protection from the wind, and waited for a vehicle to come.

It took a while, but I was eventually picked up by a road-building crew.  I’m not sure exactly what the process is for building roads over here, but there were fifteen of them in the truck.  They dragged me and the bike on-board, with a warning that they were only going to their camp, another twenty kms on.  But that there might be a bus later.  They stopped twice on the way to the camp, once to hammer in a wonky fence-post, and once to pick up some wood.  That appeared to be the team’s entire output for the morning.

In any case, they were all really nice, and forced me to thaw out next to the stove and drink tea while waiting for the (possibly mythical) bus to arrive.  Eventually, four hours after they picked me up, a bus arrived.  The bike was thrown unceremoniously into the back, on top of a couple of slightly (and understandably) irate pensioners, and I got to sit in the front and be lectured at by the driver as he flew along the road to Jasliq.

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I felt a little bit defeated.  But I also know that being wet and being thrashed by a cold wind (counting the wind-chill, the internet says it’s only the equivalent of 5C at the moment) is not a good mixture.  The road-workers and the bus saved me from either retreating to the previous night’s accommodation or possible hypothermia.  So I’m very grateful to them.

On arrival at the picturesque motel at Jasliq (the town also comprises a gas compression station – in the picture above – and a notorious prison.  And nothing else.), I discovered another evil awaiting cyclists in this part of the world.  The Ustyurt mud.  You can see some in the picture.  It’s like no other mud I’ve ever come across, and clogs bikes to a standstill within a couple of yards.  More like wet concrete than traditional mud.  It’s horrendous.

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Thankfully, as Tuesday dawned, it was sunny again.  The wind had shifted to a crosswind, which is not comfortable, but doesn’t slow you down too much.  My composure and confidence returned, and I began making decent progress towards the tiny hamlet of Karakalpakiya.  Look it up on a map.

The picture above could have been taken at pretty much any moment in the last 350 kms of Uzbekistan, which gives an idea of the sheer monotony of riding slowly through a completely unchanging landscape.  Tuesday was only enlivened by an unexpected storm front moving through in the afternoon.  This time, I was too far out from shelter, so I spent an exhausting (but at least vaguely interesting) couple of hours trying to out-run the incoming rain on an increasingly broken road.

I nearly made it, too, before being thoroughly soaked about 5 kms short of my destination.  And that 5 kms was enough for me to be a shivering wreck by the time I finally collapsed into a basic, but super-heated tea-house for my last night in Uzbekistan.

At dawn yesterday (Wednesday), I had the most beautiful view in the world.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the metropolis of Karakalpakiya:

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I also had the headwind back.  And the border to look forward to.  And the infamous dirt road from the border to Beyneu in Kazakhstan.  A dirt road which I knew would be at least partially clogged unrideable Ustyurt mud.  Because it had rained some more in the night.

I got to the border at about eleven.  I’d read a lot of mixed reviews; most cyclists seemed to agree that it took about two hours to get through, as bags were thoroughly searched, medications inspected, dollars counted and so on.  It took me forty minutes in total.  As a tourist, you get to jump the queues.  And the customs on both sides decided that asking if I had anything illegal was enough.  I’m now in the slightly odd situation of being in country number 20, and not having had a bag searched so far.  The only land border that was easier was between Vietnam and Laos.

And so, I popped out of the Kazakh customs building, and into the dirt.  It’s still far from clear to me why, when the Uzbeks have gone to all the effort of building a tarmac road (not a great one in places, admittedly) all the way to the border, the Kazakhs haven’t done anything at all for the first 60 kms on their side.  It’s not even that there’s a poor gravel road.  It’s that the only route is desert dirt, compacted by trucks.

When it’s dry-ish, it looks like this:

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And yes, the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that I was in a vehicle again.  I already explained about the mud.  I knew there would be some.  And there was another line of showers incoming.

I talked to a man with a four-wheel-drive van at the border.  A price was agreed.  It was just as well.

Even with 4WD, it still took us over three hours to drive the 80-odd kms to Beyneu.  This was mainly because, about half an hour from the border, the deluge began:

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I counted at least ten articulated trucks stuck up to their axles in the mud within 20 kms.  I can’t imagine what it would have been like trying to push the bike through.  Or how the trucks will get out, come to that, once the concrete-mud sets.  It may be cheating, but taking that van was definitely one of my better decisions.

And so to Beyneu.  A small and not-especially attractive little town, although the fact that it has supermarkets, hotels and mobile phone shops is more than enough for me, after the barren wastes of the last few days.

I should be leaving tomorrow (Friday).  Apparently, the once-notorious road from here to Aktau on the Caspian Sea is very nearly finished (locals say that there’s about 30 km of dirt in the middle, but the rest is all gold).  And it’s not entirely impossible that the headwinds may ease enough to give me a decent chance of making the run.

It’s also not entirely impossible that I’ll have another day off, or that more cheating may be on the cards.

If I’ve learned anything from the last few days, it’s that the most sensible way across the deserts of the former Soviet Union is in one of these:

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Oh…  Spot the camel, by the way.

We’ll see how it goes.  But I’m not sure that I’m mentally strong enough to fire into another 450 km of desert just yet.  And yet that’s all there is in front of me.  And behind me.  Erk!

For Cycle Tourists:

April 2016 – The desert stretch from Nukus to the Kazakh border has not changed since previous (2012/13) write-ups.  There are still only three water / food points once you’re into the desert from the south.  They are still in the same places as identified in other posts.  The southern truck stop (Bon Voyage, on Google Maps – 140km from Nukus) is now a big complex with restaurant and good hotel rooms ($40, but at official rate, so really $20).  The Al’Yan at Jasliq – 130km from Bon Voyage – charges $10 (at official rate) for a bed, or $5 to sleep in the chaikhana itself.  Both Bon Voyage and Al’Yan will do registration.  The Karakalpakiya chaikhana (130km from Jasliq / 20km from border) is still free if you eat there.

The Full Soviet

I had to tear myself away from Khiva in the end.

I allowed the lady who ran the guest house to persuade me that I should stay one more day.  She’d read the tea leaves, or something, and was convinced that if I left on Wednesday, I’d just get soaked again, and probably freeze to death.  It would be much better to leave on Thursday.

Plus, she’d get an extra day’s money, of course…

I’d checked the more scientific weather forecast, and, while it didn’t suggest much rain at all, another day in Khiva felt like a good idea (I’m not sure I’d fully recovered from that marathon 200-plus kms a few days before).

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So I stayed.  I had another poke around the old town, sampled some more coffee and kebabs in various hostelries, and gave the bike a good clean, which it much appreciated.

Needless to say, it was sunny all day.  And when I awoke to get moving northwards on Thursday, I was greeted with a heavy shower, black clouds, and gusty winds that would be at least half in my face all day.

Oh, good.

Still, if I’d stayed in Khiva any longer, I’d have started growing roots.  So I resigned myself to a longish, slowish slog for a couple of days.  I donned the cold weather gear and the rain jacket again, and set sail for the last chunk of Uzbekistan that stood between me and  the border; Karakalpakstan.

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Or ‘Karakalpakistan’, as people took to calling it the closer I’ve got to it.  By the time I crossed the (frankly over-ornamented) border, above, the spelling had shifted all the way to ‘Qaraqalpogiston’.  It’s no wonder that it’s a bit tricky to search for stuff on the internet over here; there are usually at least two possible spellings in Latin script, plus at least one Cyrillic version.  It’s amazing you can ever find anything…

My target was Nukus (or ‘Nokis’, etc, etc), which is the capital of Karakalpakstan / Qaraqalpogiston.  It was only about 180 km up the road from Khiva / Xiva, but it felt like an awful lot further.

Thursday was essentially spent trying to outrun showers, while dodging potholes.  And averaging a colossal 15 kph into the teeth of the wind.  Urgh!  Progress was not really helped by the awareness that, after Khiva, I was out of charming Silk Road cities to explore.  And that all I was really doing was positioning myself for hundreds of kilometres of desert.

Given the lack of ancient historical sights, I thought I’d better concentrate on the more prosaic and everyday aspects of life in a post-Soviet republic.

Thankfully, Karakalpakstan is just the place to do this.  Which made the second day to Nukus (Friday) much more bearable.  I crossed a fantastically flimsy, improvised pontoon bridge, made it back to the main road, and took a left towards Kazakhstan.

The beautiful new road has not made it this far north yet, and you can see the consequences below; the old road (quite chewed up), the shoulder (dirt, but smoother than the road), and the unfinished new road (behind the camel).

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Oh yeah, the camel.

This was something new.  Although I’ve had my path obstructed by a number of beasts in the past, this was my first wild camel.  But they’re apparently quite common further up the road.  I’ll try to get a closer picture next time; this guy actually strolled right up to me, but I’d put the phone away by then, in case I needed to make a run for it.

Turned out he was much more interested in the bins at the nearby petrol station than in me, so I’ll try to be a little braver next time.

The camel is a fairly normal sight over here, but not something I’d usually expect to see.  Nukus, on the other hand, is a straight copy from the template of small, ex-Soviet cities.  It’s pretty easy to find Nukus clone-towns from the Sea of Japan to the Polish border.

Naturally, I’m once again staying in the most Soviet place I could find:

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And this hotel may actually not have changed at all in the last 25 years.  Certainly, the plumbing and electrics (as well as the carpet) are of that sort of vintage.

The town itself is a mixture of grandiose public buildings, large concrete blocks of flats, and dirt streets lined with small shops.  All carefully planned, and sensibly placed.  After all the beautiful mosques and minarets of the Silk Road cities, it’s a little bit of a come-down.

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On the other hand, it’s the last city I’ll see for quite a few days (if all goes according to plan), so it’s nice to be able to stock up at the supermarket, get a decent cuppa, and wander the broad, carefully-swept boulevards.

Soviet-style or not, I have a feeling I’m going to miss the benefits of civilisation as I head back into the desert again…