cheese

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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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…

The Mekong Cheese Obsession

Three days, just under 300 km.  Out of the hills, then a nice flat run along the Mekong river, then Christmas dinner in the capital of Laos, Vientiane.

Couldn’t be easier, could it?

Well, it could have been.  Just a little bit.  If I hadn’t somehow forgotten everything I used to know about riding a bike in the heat.  It didn’t help that I was trying to push the average speed up.  It certainly didn’t help that I’d only marginally upped my water intake from Vietnam, where it was about  15C cooler.  This was especially dumb, as I know full well how much I need to drink when the weather gets warm.

But what really, really didn’t help was the brutal little climb as soon as I started on Wednesday morning:

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I say ‘little’, but it was actually around 300 vertical metres.  It was 30 degrees C.  And yes, it really was as steep as it looks in the picture (maybe a bit steeper, in places).  But it still shouldn’t have been a major problem; I’ve done plenty worse.

Trouble was, that I was already dehydrated.  And that the hill was just 5 km into the ride, and after a rest day.  So I hit it cold, hit it hard, and blew myself up spectacularly.  I’ve been recovering slowly ever since.  And giving myself a good mental kicking, as well as massive doses of water.

On the plus side, the view from the top was spectacular.  And that was the biggest lump in the road before Vientiane.  Highway 8 from Vietnam eventually dropped me onto the flat, flat flood plain of the Mekong river, so I could take it gently to recover.  Just one turn right onto Highway 13, and that was all the navigation done to get to the capital, too.

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I hit the Mekong itself at Pak Kading (above – the river Kading about to enter the Mekong).  It’s just been a case of following it ever since.  Me on the Laos side, Thailand waiting for me on the other side of the river.

Two more uneventful days (heat, straight, flat roads, cheap hotels and litres and litres of water) saw me rolling into Vientiane on the afternoon of Christmas Day.

I’d developed a slight obsession about cheese after leaving Vietnam; rural Laos really doesn’t have any, and I’ve always had a bit of a habit.  Towards the end of the ride to the capital, a large, cheesy pizza and a large, cold beer had cemented themselves as the centrepiece of my ideal Christmas dinner.  The reward at the end of Highway 13.  Not exactly turkey and roast potatoes, but it was what was required.

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Just an hour after hitting town, I was sat looking at exactly my fantasy dinner.  An hour-and-a-half after hitting town, I was absolutely stuffed.  Possibly, the side dishes were unnecessary.  I waddled back to the hotel, lay down, phoned my Mum in the UK, and crashed out.  That’s what I call a proper Christmas Day; 93 km on a bike, one large pizza, one beer, and passing out.  Don’t say I don’t still know how to live…

Today was spent poking gently around Vientiane on foot.  It’s a really small capital city, and very relaxed.  There’s a very European feel to it, too.  So I drank a few coffees, ate a few pastries, and generally loafed about elegantly.  Or as elegantly as one can in creased, plastic travel clothes.

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Tomorrow (Sunday), it’s back to the road, and another border crossing, just ten miles down the river from here.  I’ll be leaving the ‘Communist’ world behind, and re-entering my nemesis, Thailand.  Back onto the correct side of the road, but with a little trepidation after what happened last time I was there.

Fingers crossed, it goes a little better this time…