bicycle

On the Edges

Borderlands are always interesting places.

Mountains plunging into the sea provide stunning landscapes.  Places where cultures bump into each other produce fascinating history (even where they also – all too often – provoke conflict).  It’s at the edges where things are most compelling.

I’ve been in border country since the last post, although I’ve only really appreciated it today.

IMG_1598 Edit
Bolu (above) was the last proper city in the hills.  Since then, it’s been small towns and smaller climbs (and some immensely fun downhills), as I’ve crossed from the mountainous interior of Turkey back towards the Sea of Marmara.

And the sea (together with the Aegean, immediately to its south, and the city of Istanbul at its northern end) has been a cultural crossroads since people started writing history.

So the borderland between the hills and the coastal areas is also the edge of a fuzzy cultural boundary.  Although I’m not in Europe yet, things are changing already.  Up in Bolu, things still felt very Asiatic, with the fairly mono-cultural cityscape of mosques, minarets and square buildings dominating.  Within a couple of hundred kilometres, things are much more cosmopolitan.

But the noticeable changes had already begun at Bolu.  Just a few kilometres east of town, my road had been joined in its valley by a motorway.

IMG_1600 Edit

That’s not just a road with a designation beginning with ‘M’, as was the case in the former Soviet countries.  It’s a proper, European-style motorway (the main drag between Ankara and Istanbul).  The sort of road where bikes are not allowed.  It’s the first road I’ve seen for months that I can’t ride.

I know that this will be the new normal from here on (and that it’s my normal normal in any case).  But I’ve got so used to rolling along whichever road I want that it feels like a big change.  So does the fact that the chocolate bars in petrol stations have suddenly become the same as at home, where further east, they are all Turkish versions.

I think my perspective might have got a little skewed somewhere along the way…

There are still plenty of reminders that I’m not home just yet.  It’s pretty certain that a flatbed van in Europe wouldn’t be allowed on the road with a ton of apples tied loosely on the back with string.

But that appears to be what caused me a twenty minute delay this morning:

IMG_1621 Edit

Thankfully, things got slightly more organised after the big guy in the red shirt started waving his arms and shouting.

This afternoon (Tuesday), the cultural variety and complexity of this area became clearer.  I dropped down to lake Iznik.  I’d been trying to get to a town on the edge of the lake, which is marked up on Google Maps as ‘Nicaea’.  And I’d been getting increasingly concerned that I’d not seen it signposted.  I was just following signs for ‘Iznik’, and hoping that Nicaea would become obvious.

It turns out that Iznik and Nicaea are the same place.  Google uses the Greek name for some unfathomable reason.  Although that was the town’s name when it was established (by a Greek mythological character, apparently), it’s been Iznik for ever as far as the locals are concerned, and Google should probably have caught up by now.

IMG_1628 Edit
But it’s not just the names of the town that show how many cultures have had a say in this region over the full course of recorded history.  The city walls, which I casually parked the bike against on the way into town, were originally built by the Ancient Greeks.  The local tourist guide notes, sadly, that ‘only Roman and Byzantine construction remains’.  And that’s still not counting the role of this area of Turkey in the birth of the Ottoman Empire.

There’s an intimidating amount of history in this part of the world, on the edge of so may empires.

I’m going to have a day off tomorrow (Wednesday) to have a proper look around Iznik, and digest some of this stuff.  It’s only about half a mile across, but has ancient churches, mosques, Roman arches, and so on.  It even has a mosque called the Ayasofya, which used to be a church.  Just like Istanbul.  But much, much quieter.

20160510RTW_6 Edit
I’m happy I can get all the layers of history around here, as I’ve decided not to head to the metropolis on the Bosphorus.  I could probably have got to the outskirts today, and entered European Turkey tomorrow.  But I’ve been to Istanbul before, and I’m not quite done with the Asian continent just yet.  And I’ve heard a lot of nightmarish stories about the Istanbul traffic.

Instead, once I’ve had my rest, I’ll head along the south of the Sea of Marmara.  It’ll take an extra few days to get to Europe, but I should see some more interesting places, and enjoy the coastline.

There’s one other, slightly fuzzy edge which merits a quick mention (in my book, at least).  And that’s the edge of space.  This is usually considered to be the Karman Line, and is 100km (62 miles) above the surface of the Earth.

Why is the Karman Line of any interest?  Because, yesterday, while grinding up yet another incline, I reached 100,000 metres (or 100 km) of vertical gain on the round-the-world trip.  I’ve climbed to the edge of space on a bicycle with bags hanging off it.

No wonder my legs need a break…

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.

IMG_1485 Edit

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.

IMG_1490 Edit

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.

IMG_1507 Edit
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!

IMG_1511 Edit

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.

IMG_1514 Edit

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.

IMG_1517 Edit

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…

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.

20160420RTW_3 Edit
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:

IMG_1467 Edit

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…

20160422RTW_4 Edit

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.

IMG_1469 Edit
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:

IMG_1476 Edit

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.

IMG_1477 Edit

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…

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).

IMG_1294 Edit.jpg

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.

IMG_1299 Edit

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).

IMG_1312 Edit

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:

IMG_1321 Edit

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.

IMG_1323 Edit

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…

50 Shades of Beige

Plans are strange things.

I’ve often been asked why I’m riding around the world on a bike.  I find it hard to answer.  I tell people that I’ve always liked bikes, and I’ve always liked travelling.  So putting the two together was obvious.  This is all true.  But I can’t pinpoint when it became obvious, or why.  I can’t tell people when the idea was born, or when it became a plan.

But at some point, it did.  And then the vague plan became a more detailed plan (though still outstandingly vague by most people’s standards).  And then the plan started to happen.  And now, here I am, bouncing around on a bike in Uzbekistan.

IMG_1270 Edit

Leaving Bukhara on Saturday, another plan was mysteriously germinating.  My conscious mind was preparing for a four-day ride across the Kyzyl Kum desert to the oasis city of Khiva.  I didn’t realise that my subconscious, having noticed the weather forecast, had already decided to do 450-odd kilometres (marginally under 300 miles) in three days.

Kyzyl Kum translates as ‘Red Desert’, and it’s the fourth-biggest desert in Asia, covering a massive swathe of Uzbekistan and neighbouring Turkmenistan.  But as you can see from the picture above, the rickety road out of Bukhara took me not into redness, but into a sea of beige.

The plan worked, as far as day one was concerned.  Just over 100km to Gazli, wafted along by a gentle tailwind (as my subconscious noted).  And the road improved all the way there, even turning into super-smooth concrete about 10 km before town (my subconscious noted, again).  Shower, kebabs and bed at a truck stop.  All very much according to plan.

IMG_1273 Edit

I still hadn’t worked out what my subconscious was up to when I woke up early on Sunday to discover that the south-easterly breeze had strengthened.  That’s a strengthening tailwind.  How interesting.  Eventually, after two cups of coffee, I started to put things together.  If the brand new road remained the same…  If the wind stayed put…  Maybe…

The wind stayed (at least until the last hour of the day).  And the road actually got better, turning into a perfectly smooth, almost completely deserted, dual carriageway, which might, for all I know, go all the way to Kazakhstan.  It certainly runs all the way until I got off it at the end of the desert.  So I got my head down and kept going.  There was nothing to see, anyway, and everything remained beige (picture above).  I stopped for a drink, and realised I’d been zipping along at 30 kph.

Lunchtime.  It may not be red, but the desert certainly is monotonous.  Concrete, sand, scrub.  Beige.  And 100km down.  Feeling fresh.  And finally, the thought lodged in my head properly: I might actually be able to hit 200 km for the day.  Which would be almost the end of the desert, and within one more day of Khiva.  Head down, push on.  Let’s see what happens.

This is what happened:

IMG_1276 Edit
That’s a record.  For me at least.  I’ve not been near 200 km before in a day (and quite possibly won’t be again), so I was reasonably chuffed with myself.  213 km.  132 miles.  And a friendly little teahouse at the end of it (or, more accurately, in the middle of nowhere), which was only too happy to let me stay, for a small fee.  Kebabs, bread, bed.  What a good day.

IMG_1278 Edit

It couldn’t last, of course.  The weather forecast in Bukhara had said there was rain on the way, which is one of the reasons my subconscious had decided to put the pedal(s) to the metal.  My pleasure at waking up to a view over the Amu Darya river to Turkmenistan was marred by two things: it was already drizzling, and Turkmenistan appears to be just as beige as Uzbekistan.

It doesn’t seem fair when it rains in the desert.  It certainly doesn’t seem fair when that rain continues for nearly the whole day.  Yesterday (Monday) was ugly.  Already wet and cold as I reached the end of the desert, I swung off the beautiful main road, onto the shortest way to Khiva.

Big mistake.

Potholes, washed-out roads, landslips, sand, mud.  The whole gamut of road problems.  Much grinding of drivetrain, much splashing of beige dirt onto previously non-beige shoes.  Wet feet.  Oh, and the most aggressive pack of feral dogs I’ve yet had the displeasure to meet (many thanks to the three locals who positioned their cars between the beasts and me, so I could make my escape!).

Still, cycle touring’s nothing without a little rough to make you appreciate the smooth.  And eventually, after a signposting error (i.e. there wasn’t one – a standard Uzbek problem) had cost me an extra ten miles, I finally ground and scraped my way into the ancient city of Khiva.

20160329RTW_27 Edit

Which was…  Guess what?  Beige.

Not entirely surprising, as the old city is surrounded by impressive walls made of local mud.  Hence the colour.  And, having recovered from the beigeness of the place, I think it’s probably my favourite of the three old trading cities I’ve seen in Uzbekistan.

Khiva’s much smaller than Bukhara, which in turn is smaller than Samarkand.  And Khiva’s old town is pedestrianised, meaning that you can just meander through the ancient alleyways and bazaars.

And there is even the odd splash of colour (like the famous unfinished minaret, below):

20160329RTW_45 Edit

I’ve had a rainy day off here today, but the plan (assuming the weather plays ball) is to get back on the road tomorrow, through the last of the irrigated areas of Uzbekistan, towards an even larger stretch of desert, and, eventually, Kazakhstan.

At least, that’s the plan as far as I know it.

If you’re still having doubts about plans being strange and unpredictable, by the way, consider this.  After eventually deciding to go, and with a little bit of a plan, I set off on my bike around the world.  I rode for a long way.  And I’m still riding.  Stuff has happened, plans have changed (whatever happened to South America?).  But I’m still rolling.

Today is the 29th March 2016, and in terms of days spent cycling around the world, today is day number 365.  Exactly a year spent on the round-the-world ride.

Of course, it’s a lot more than a year since I started.  The plan was a little disrupted by getting hit by the truck in Thailand.  And when did that happen?  The 29th of March.  Exactly a year ago…

Pretty sure I couldn’t have planned it like that…

For Touring Cyclists:  
If you’re coming this way on a bike, be sure to check out the Pedalling Prescotts excellent guide to this section of Uzbekistan.  They rode the other way (from Khiva) in early 2015, and their info is by far the most complete I’ve seen.  
Apart from the main road having improved (it’s still being built, so should continue to), a couple of police checkpoints having moved, and a couple of new chaikhanas having opened (so more accommodation options), their guide is pinpoint accurate in terms of where stuff is, and what’s there.  Including the hotel on the edge of the desert which no locals have ever heard of.  Oh, and where they say that the small road to / from the A380 deteriorates a bit, take that to mean ‘descends into hell’.
If you want my full list of places and mileages (from March 2016), I’ve put together a PDF sheet:  Bukara to Khiva March 2016.  Or give me a shout via the Contact page to discuss.

Back in the (Former) USSR

I’ve been off the bike for a whole week.

I’m feeling a little bit chubby, and a little bit lazy.  Especially lazy, as I watch from my warm room as yet another band of cold rain strafes Tashkent.

It’s been worth the time off, I think.  A few days to recharge, and to ready myself for a lot of long, hard miles to come.  And a little time to adjust to the cultural and meteorological differences between India and Uzbekistan makes the change less stressful.

And it really is a different world on this side of the Hindu Kush.

IMG_1175 Edit

I was a little nervous flying over Afghanistan on the way here (above).  Not because I was worried about flying over Afghanistan, but because of some of the stories I’d read about Uzbekistan.

It’s apparently impossible to get hold of dollars here, as the handful of cash machines in the country are always empty.  And I wasn’t sure I’d managed to collect enough in India to get across Uzbekistan.  Customs apparently take your bags apart, searching for prescription drugs, undeclared cash and pornography.  And the currency is apparently so shot that you have to take your money around in carrier bags (due to the fact that the highest note here is only 1000 Soms).

All very dramatic and a bit worrying.  And mostly not quite right (dollar cash machine working, customs polite, bags scanned but unsearched).  Although the currency is definitely shot, and my Uzbek Som are, indeed, in a carrier bag…

IMG_1183 Edit

As it turns out (so far, at least), I feel surprisingly at home here.  Yes, it took a few minutes to get India out of my system.  I got in the wrong side of the taxi at the airport.  I gawped at the cleanliness and quietness of the streets on the way into town.  And I thought I might have gone deaf for a moment, due to the almost total lack of honking.  We even stopped at a pedestrian crossing to allow people to cross.  It was all a bit disorientating.  Disconcerting, even.

But, fairly shortly after arriving at my magnificently old-school Soviet hotel (above), I realised that I actually knew how things worked here, and that I was probably going to enjoy myself.  Not that the relatively posh hotels will last for long, mind you…

I was lucky enough to spend many months in the former Soviet Union when I was (a lot) younger, as countries crashed, recovered and crashed again in the 1990s and the noughties.  And I speak enough Russian to get by (it’s the common language here).  By the time I’d had my second conversation about unofficial money changing (with the second person I spoke to – it’s a national sport over here), things were starting to come into focus for me.

The currency here is, indeed, something of a mess.  The government sets the official rate (currently just under 2900 Som to the dollar).  The market sets a more realistic rate (currently around 6600).  Although you’re unlikely to get quite the market rate as a foreigner, you can get close with a bit of haggling (another national sport).  You can see both rates here.

IMG_1191 Edit

The dual exchange rate basically halves the cost of anything which is priced in dollars.  Which means that dollar prices initially appear really expensive.  For example, my SIM card and internet package, which was outrageously priced up at $35, actually cost more like $17.  Still very pricey, compared to South East Asia and India, but not too bad.  And, unlike India, it worked as soon as I bought it.

While it’s no longer true that the biggest Uzbek note is 1000 Som (less than 20 cents), things have not changed that much.  The biggest note is now 5000 Som, which is still less than $1 at the ‘real’ rate.  The picture above is a million Som, or less than $200.  And it’s still pretty bulky.

Apart from readjusting to life in the 1990s, I’ve spent my two days in Tashkent generally staring at driving rain.  I managed a couple of little strolls, to inspect the impressive city centre buildings, but the weather has been woeful here since I arrived.

IMG_1187 Edit

I’ve also been enjoying the widespread availability of proper cheese, which is an immense step forward.  And I unpacked and rebuilt the bike today, alleviating the last of the major concerns that were bothering me over Afghanistan.  As always (so far!), the bike survived the flight with no obvious problems, and is ready to hit the road tomorrow (Friday).

And it’s hitting the road in a big way over here.  Most riding days will be over 100 km, as I head south-west for a long, long way, before turning to head north-west to Kazakhstan (for another long, long way).  Ancient cities, camels, and long desert days should be in the offing.

There are likely to be some tough days ahead.  But for now, I’m fed, rested, and raring to go.  The Silk Road is calling, and I’m excited to see what it brings.  As long as the rain stops, I’ll be happy…

Finishing India

Well, here it is.  The last post from India.  Assuming I get out of the airport OK tomorrow (Tuesday), of course…

Just the one day’s riding; a final 80-odd kilometres last Thursday, bringing me into Amritsar.  Still flat, although with some truly awful traffic in the city centre to keep it interesting right to the end.

And I got here just in time.  There’s been nothing but unseasonal rain and thunder since I arrived.

Well, not quite nothing.  I took advantage of a break in the weather on Sunday morning to go and have a poke around Amritsar’s (and Sikhism’s) crowning glory; the Golden Temple:

20160313RTW_3 Edit

A bit like the Taj Mahal, it’s one of those places that stops you in your tracks as you enter.  Or, at least, it would if you weren’t being propelled bodily through the entrance by a huge surge of Sikhs.  I think Sunday might be the busiest day to go, but it was really the only option, given the weather.

Anyway, once you’re in, and padding around on marble in your bare feet, you can soak up the magnificence of the place.  There’s a huge amount of real gold on the inner sanctum itself, and the combination of reflections in the water, and the square of buildings around it, really make an impression.  And best of all, it’s free!

20160313RTW_28 Edit

Apart from the Golden Temple (and stuffing my face to put a bit of lard back on before the long miles to come in Central Asia), it’s been mainly sleep and admin in Amritsar.  After all the bureaucratic nonsense involved in getting a SIM card, I should have anticipated that something as apparently simple as buying some US dollars would cause issues.

Thankfully, I first tried to get my dollars back in Delhi about ten days ago.  I’d have been in trouble if I’d waited until Amritsar.  Because, to cut a tedious and very expensive story short, it’s taken me nearly a week to withdraw enough rupees (in small, permitted, instalments) from cash machines, which can then (in small, permitted, instalments) be changed back into dollars at an exchange office.  With all the cashpoint fees and poor exchange rates you can imagine.

If you’ve remembered to keep the receipts from the cash machines, of course.  And if it’s less than a week before you leave the country.  And if you have a plane ticket to show the money changer.  Like it’s any of their business.

I’m not going to miss the bureaucracy of India, that’s for sure.  Although there’s a fair chance that the former Soviet version will at least match it over the next few weeks…

IMG_1165 Edit

India does have the great advantage of being bicycle country, though.  While the technology is a little dated in general (above), it does mean that finding a bike box for the flight was nice and easy.  The Beastlet is nicely tucked up and ready for flight, although I’ll still no doubt have the usual terrors about rough baggage handlers tomorrow.

As it’s my last day here, I should really have come to a conclusion about whether I’ve actually enjoyed touring northern India on a bkie or not.  I’m not entirely sure I have, but let’s see…

It certainly fair to say that the riding has been dustier, bumpier, and less interesting than many other places I’ve been so far.  The difficulties doing things that are simple elsewhere, simply because someone made a clunky rule about ‘security’ or whatever, are an absolute pain.

On the other hand…  The food’s great.  The people have been really nice, in general.  And places like the Taj Mahal and Golden Temple really do blow you away.  It’s just the length of the bits in-between.

The real decider is probably the driving.  I’ve moaned about it enough in past posts, but the standards here are just appalling.  I found out yesterday that the Punjabi traffic police offer salutes to careful drivers:

IMG_1157 Edit.jpg

I’m pretty sure that most of them will be well out of saluting practice.  Because the answer to ‘Do You Deserve It?’ is a resounding ‘No!’.  I only gave out three ‘thumbs up’ for good driving across the whole country.

So while it’s easy to make long distances here, I can’t pretend it’s been ideal touring cycling.  And sadly, the situation’s likely to get worse as more and more Indians get cars and motorbikes.  Unless all the millions of drivers over here get trained properly, I don’t think I’d want to ride (or drive) here at all in a few years’ time.

And getting so accustomed to near-disaster that your adrenaline no longer spikes when a truck comes charging towards you on the wrong side of the road?  That just can’t be healthy…

Well, there we are.  India very nearly finished, and the Silk Road of Central Asia about to begin.  What the roads, drivers, weather and bureaucracy of Uzbekistan have in store, I don’t yet know.  But it should be interesting finding out.

Next stop, Tashkent…

Big(ish) Miles in the Big Dust

So… back in India again.  How’s it working out?

Well, to be honest, it’s much the same as the first time.  But with better roads.  Long, flat miles, unchanging scenery, sweat and dust.  A few interesting temples and imperial relics (and kite flyers, below) in town centres.  A third (so far, but I suppose you never know) non-activated SIM.  Oh, and headwinds, for a ‘nice’ change.

IMG_1048 Edit

The main roads which I’m following have the great merit of being flat and smooth.  If you were looking to set round-the-world cycling records, heading along here (with the wind, rather than against it) would be a good way to get your 200+ kms a day.

I’m not, of course, trying to set any records.  So for me, it’s more a case of trying not to lose concentration.  Because the second the long, straight road lulls me into relaxation, a piece of Indian driving insanity is likely to cause me significant amount of grief.

IMG_1055 Edit

It’s a bit like that famous definition of war; long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

I think I’ve sorted out the ‘rules’ of the road here, now.  Which is helpful, if not exactly encouraging.  Essentially, it’s all about the horn.  And I haven’t got a horn on the bike.

If you hit the horn, you are in the right.  It doesn’t matter which level of motoring insanity you’ve just descended to.  It doesn’t matter if you’re doing things (like driving a car the wrong way down the fast lane of a dual carriageway) which would get you imprisoned in most countries.

If your hand is on the horn, you can do exactly what you want, and expect everyone else to get out of the way.  Or die.  And, best of all, you get to stare aggressively at people who have the temerity to remain on their own side of the road, minding their own business, while you try your best to kill them and yourself.

IMG_1050 Edit

For the last few days, the trick to keeping myself alert (and therefore alive) has been cows.  Uttar Pradesh, which is the region I’ve been traversing since crossing the border from Nepal on Friday, seems to have a lot more of them than the other parts of India I’ve been.

Yesterday, I had the privilege to witness a lengthy tug-of-war between cow and man at a large roadside cattle market (above).  But I’ve also seen cows in vans, small cows in rickshaws, and cows wandering across the highway (relying on bells, rather than their horns, strangely).

And, of course, there’s that classic Indian ‘cows lounging in the middle of the street in the city centre’ thing going on, too:

IMG_1059 Edit

I’m in Lucknow at the moment, which is the biggest city around here by a margin.  It’s a major centre in northern India, home to about a million colleges, a large Muslim population, and stacks of historic buildings, running right through from the Mughal Empire to the British Raj.  It’s actually a really interesting town to stroll around (once you’ve reminded yourself that you’re not a pedestrian in Nepal any more).

IMG_1063 edit

From here, the road should remain flat and smooth all the way to Delhi.  Hopefully, the headwinds will give it a rest for a day or two.  No doubt the driving clowns will still be out in abundance, but there’s another possible cloud on the horizon.  There’s a lot of civil unrest just to the north of Delhi at the moment, which The Times of India says has spread around the country a bit.

The main road to Agra (which I’ll be taking) was blocked for a few hours yesterday.  And most of the highways to the north of Delhi – towards Amritsar, which is my final target in India – have been disrupted by protests too.  Apparently, the water supply to Delhi’s been interrupted, too; it’s clearly all kicking off.

This is one situation where being on a bike may work to my advantage.  There are still a few days before I get to Agra, and another few from there to Delhi.  So there’s a chance that things will have calmed down up there by the time I get that far north.

I’ll just have to wait and see whether this ends up affecting things or not.  With a bit of luck, a change of plan won’t be required, but I’m not going to know for a while.

In the meantime, it’s back on those crazy, dusty roads tomorrow (Tuesday).  Wish me luck!

Coming Down the Mountains

With the after-effects of that dodgy high-altitude chicken masala still haunting me as I rolled out of Kathmandu, I could have been forgiven for taking it a bit easy on the way back down to the plains.

So I did.

There’s no point in hammering yourself when you’re not 100%, and I’d lost a lot of energy.

IMG_0990 Edit

Nepal’s not the most difficult country if you want to slow down a bit and enjoy the scenery.  After just a few kilometres of gentle climbing on the main drag out of Kathmandu on Monday, I tipped over the pass (above), and had about 1400 metres of altitude to drop off before flattening out on the approach to the Indian border.

It’s not quite as easy as it sounds.  I was still in the Himalayas, after all.  So although there was all that height to drop, there were still quite a few climbs to deal with as the road contoured around valley sides and gorges.

And, despite being foothills, these are not exactly small.  Hopefully, you can get an idea of the scale from the size of the bike in the picture below.

IMG_1014 Edit

Given their proximity, and close economic ties, Nepal and India don’t seem to have a great deal in common.  Nepal loses on economic development (apparently, although it doesn’t feel any poorer than India), but wins on scenery, cleanliness, mobile internet access, traffic levels, chocolate availability, driving skills (marginally), the general level of English spoken, having bikes with gears, and having pavements to walk on in town.

But there is one area where both countries are on a par.  Unannounced, unsignposted, major roadworks.  As I headed down to Bharatpur on Tuesday, I suddenly hit a roadblock.  Loads of irate locals, trucks, buses and all, piled up at a barrier.  There’s only the one road to Bharatpur, so this was a bit of an issue.

It turns out that the highway is shut in both directions from 11 until three every day.  At three, the traffic tsunami at each end is released to smash together somewhere in the middle.  Probably right where the roadworks are.  This didn’t seem like a great idea.  Fortunately, after discussing with a few locals (and promising to carry a couple of them on the back of the bike – I think this was a joke), the fierce guardian of the gate agreed that it would be a tad dangerous to be caught up in the three o’clock stampede.

So I got to ride the valley road pretty much by myself.  This was good, because it was a rather nice valley to ride:

IMG_1022 Edit

After Bharatpur, it was more-or-less back to flat country.  Yesterday (Wednesday) gave me a chance to see if I’d fully recovered from the stomach bug, as I put in the first 100 km ride for a while to bring me to the border.  It went OK, although I still don’t think my energy levels are quite back to where they were.

Just one last big hill, which gave me one last Himalayan downhill to smile about as I headed onto the plain, in company with some of the many bicycle commuters of southern Nepal.

IMG_1041 Edit

Today is another rest, and a chance to refuel and look forward to heading back to India.  A few more decent roads and a little less dust than the eastern side of the country provided would be a good start.  And I’m going to give them one more chance to sort me out with mobile internet.

With the Taj Mahal and Delhi on the route for the next section, there should be a good chance for India Part 2 to improve significantly on Part 1.

Assuming the border presents no more problems than it did on the way into Nepal, I’ll start to find that out tomorrow…

Kansas to Colorado – the Sequel

To answer the question that I know has been burning in your minds since the last update: no, neither of my Indian SIM cards ever activated.  Hence the long gap between posts, again.

Needless to say, within half-an-hour of crossing the slightly shambolic, but unusually friendly border into Nepal this morning (Tuesday), I had a new, shiny, fully-functioning mobile internet connection.

A tiny, poor, landlocked country can make this work perfectly.  A country with both nuclear weapons and a space programme just messes you about for a fortnight without success.  Go figure…

IMG_0909 Edit

Anyway, it’s not been a bad few days to be off the air.  Almost nothing of interest has occurred, except that the unfortunate rash cleared up, and I developed a rather brutal cough from my daily doses of dust and diesel.

After crossing the Ganges (above) on the way out of Patna on Saturday, there’s been a lot of flat, flat country.  Fields, a few trees.  Then some more fields and a few more trees.  Northern Bihar is just like Kansas was.  Minus the soybeans and sweetcorn, but plus a total lack of driving standards.

Take five seconds to spot the two people in the picture below.  That’s about as exciting as things got…

IMG_0913 Edit

The roads were, at least, of a pretty reasonable quality.  Most of the way.  Nice, quick riding all the way from Patna to Motihari.  Motihari, for the trivia buffs amongst you, is the birthplace of George Orwell.  Who knew?

And then…

IMG_0919 Edit

The short, 35 mile run to the border at Raxaul yesterday was meant to be a formality.  Pan flat, and on an international highway to a reasonable-sized border crossing.  It might become a formality in a few years, once they’ve bothered to finish the road.  For now, it’s an unsurfaced nightmare, meaning that India (Part 1) finished in a cloud of dust and a rattling of racks and panniers.  An all-too familiar feeling for me and the Beastlet.

So, the verdict on India so far?  Nice food and people, but could do better in a few areas.  Like roads, driving standards, pollution, dirt, bureaucracy and (guess what?) internet connectivity for travellers.  Hopefully it will improve when I return for India (Part 2).

Nepal looked much the same for the first few kilometres.  This was fairly unsurprising, as the miles after the border are still part of the same plain as I’d been thrashing across for days.  And most of the lowland population there are ethnically Indian.

IMG_0923 Edit

But as soon as the road started rising into the first ripples of the Himalayas, things started to change.  The air cleared.  The road was a little bit lumpy in places, but not bad at all.  There was hardly any traffic, given that I’m piling up the main highway to Kathmandu.  And the scenery got quite pretty quite quickly, although I’m still very much in the foothills.  The high mountains should be spectacular.

And you can feel the culture change as well.  I’m only 60 kms up the road from India, but the feeling of Nepal is completely different.  There’s a significant wealth differential (India, on paper, is a lot richer than Nepal), so I was expecting the country to feel much poorer.

IMG_0926 Edit

But it doesn’t.  It feels much more relaxed (maybe because of the relatively low population).  And the town where I am this evening, Hetauda (picture above), has an unexpectedly European feel to it.  I had a wander along the smooth, wide pavements this evening.  Yes, that’s smooth, wide pavements!  You can walk around town without risking getting mown down or tripping over an exposed electrical cable!

Families were wandering about doing a bit of shopping or a bit of eating out.  Some drunks were playing in the traffic.  Almost British behaviour…

There’s a bar on the ground floor of the hotel, which feels like a nice cosy pub, and there seems to be more English spoken than in India, too.  And, of course, there are those big mountains looming at the end of the high street.

The Himalayas are just beginning, but I already feel like I’m going to like Nepal.  Now it just has to live up to my impression that it’s the subcontinent’s Colorado to northern India’s Kansas…