desert

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.

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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…

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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):

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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.

Erm, What’s that Big Blue Thing?

Turns out it’s the Pacific Ocean.

Three months and two days after leaving London, I seem to have emulated the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and (inexplicably) One Direction, and ‘broken’ the States.  It’s an odd feeling; with the time-warping properties of bicycle travel, it seems like I’ve been in the US for ever and for five minutes at the same time.  And it hasn’t really sunk in yet that I’m apparently capable of riding a bike across a continent.  Odd…

The day before yesterday, I was still in the desert.  Another blistering drag across a sandy and featureless landscape, with just the coastal mountains getting closer on the horizon to reassure me that I was making progress.  Still close to a hundred in the shade, if there had been any shade.  Thankfully, I had the sense to make it a shortish day after the 90-miler previously, so I didn’t have too many hours of the ‘sunscreen in eyes’ thing to put up with.  I’d have struggled to make it any further in any case, as the long desert run had really taken it out of me, and I was feeling fairly rough.

20141014RTW_1By yesterday, I was feeling much better, but those mountains had become a reality.  There are 30-mile rides and there are 30-mile rides.  This one was 30 miles of uphill.  With over 1100 metres, or 3500ft, of vertical gain, it was also (slightly oddly) the biggest single climb of the trip so far, just because it started near sea-level, rather than from much higher up.  It felt like it too, although at least the temperature dropped to comfortable levels with the increasing elevation.  And that scent of pines, which I’d been fantasising about in the desert, was back for real for the last few miles.

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Just before the last major section of climbing, I met Don (“call me Rainbow – everyone else does” – I didn’t even ask…).  He was yet another super-impressive pensioner, who’d just spent five hours thrashing a mountain bike over the same hills I was puffing up.  And who looked as fresh as a daisy.  He was giving out free apples which he’d pinched off someone’s tree further up the hill.  Sixty-four going on fourteen.  It was nice to chat, but I was exhausted in a matter of minutes.

After a rest and junk-fuel lunch at a shop, and recovering slowly from the encounter with Rainbow, I ground on up the hill.  Ten minutes later, I was stopped again, this time after meeting Tim and Laura Moss, a pair of Brits who are on the final leg of their round-the-world ride.  I tried to sound knowledgable and experienced with the cycle touring stuff, but given that they’ve been 14 months on the road, and are just nipping across the US before getting home for Christmas, I didn’t really have much to offer except admiration.

Thankfully, getting to the beautiful little town of Julian at the top of the climb restored my self-worth a wee bit.  I’d nailed the big climb.  My dodgy knee was actually feeling better than it had in the morning, which was good, but peculiar.  And I was only a day away from San Diego.

20141014RTW_12I celebrated (arguably a little prematurely) with a giant spicy burrito.  That’s not some sort of euphemism, by the way.  Just dinner.  I wandered round town for a while, breathing in those pine scents, and marvelling at the change from the arid, super-heated desert just a few miles away.  It’s a completely different world given that it must take less than an hour in a car (even though the roads are small and twisty).  Amazing.

And then today.  Basically just a 60-mile plunge down from the mountains to the sea.  Ignoring a couple of nasty hills which provided a little sting in the tail.  Another completely different climate, with drizzle threatened overnight, and extremely moderate temperatures.  And a couple of entertaining hours on main roads, playing with trucks and buffoons in cars.  I haven’t seen this much traffic since Portugal; such fun!

I was even welcomed into the area by a pair of F15s (I think – they were a little way away), which were circling the big military base at Miramar.  Really nice of them to make the effort to mark my arrival.  Must remember to write them a ‘thank you’ note…

But more important to me than the weather, the military or the traffic was hitting the Pacific at La Jolla Cove at half-past four this afternoon.  I immediately handed my camera to the nearest total stranger to capture the magic moment.  He did OK.  And he gave the camera back.

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And that was it.  Across a continent on a heavy, heavy bicycle.  Job done.

What next?  A rest in San Diego (probably a week or so), and a tedious period of financial calculations to work out quite how badly I’ve obliterated the budget.  Probably some fairly radical surgery to Plan A to compensate.  Certain places may no longer have the future pleasure of a visit from me to look forward to.  If you see what I mean.

But at least I know I can get around the world on a bike now.  Whether I will or not is down to a vast amount of factors, only some of which I can control. I can’t be worrying about stuff all the time.

So, fingers crossed for the next stage; I’ll tell you exactly what that looks like as soon as I know!

A Day in the Life

Today was always going to be a toughy.  It’s hot here, and today was my second-longest day of the trip so far, at around 90 miles.  Across the desert.  With barely any shade or supply points.  I was a little worried about it, to be honest.

I’m writing about it, which clearly destroys any jeopardy or suspense I may try to inject into this post.  Likewise, the desert, while impressive, is not especially photogenic, except in a few places.

So I have a choice.  A short, to the point, post to reassure those who give a monkey’s that I made it OK.  Or something a little different, trying to give you a flavour of what a long, hot day in the saddle actually looks and feels like.

I’m thinking that the latter potentially garners more hero points, so here we go…

The alarm goes off in the dark.  6am.  Urgh!  I’m dreadful in the morning, or at least until I’ve got some caffeine on board.  But with darkness falling again just after 6pm in this neck of the woods, I need all the daylight today.  Plus, an early kick-off at least means serious miles before it gets too hot.

Check the weather.  93F is forecast (that’s 34C in new money).  In the shade.  The road’s always much hotter, but could be worse.  Sun-hat or helmet?  Stick with the helmet for now, see how it goes.  Check The Beast.  Mechanically fine, a little air needed in the rear tyre, a little of my bizarre (blue coloured, strawberry flavoured) chain lube to keep things smooth.  Water?  Two 1.5 litre bottles in addition to the usual two bike bottles.  That’s 4.5 litres.  Enough?  Not sure.  Think there’s only one chance to buy more en route.  Check my own fluid levels.  Drink two kilos of extra weight.

Ablutions.  No point in washing with a sweaty day ahead, but gain shiny white teeth and fresh breath, and lose a bit of the extra weight I just put on.  ‘Nuff said.

Pack the bike.  Rear panniers, front panniers, bar bag.  Add the tent, and the high-calorie food I bought last night; bread, plastic cheese, cookies and crisps (that’s ‘chips’ for the Americans).  Extra classy and decent calories-per-gram.  Good.  Still need to eat before I head off, though.  And get that caffeine in.  Quick sweep to ensure I’ve not forgotten anything.

Somehow, it’s already seven-fifteen.  No idea how I take so long to get ready, but I seem to be stuck with it.

Quick calories and coffee required to kick things off.  A mile-and-a-half into town to the Golden Arches and a fat boy’s breakfast (well, they’ve got a special on, and two of everything is definitely required).  Pop next door to the gas station.  Bottle of multi-vit-reinforced water to keep hydrated.  Sunscreen application number one (factor 50 – no messing about).  Shades replace specs, crash helmet and gloves on.  I’m ready, finally.

Seven forty-five.  On the road.

Twenty or so uneventful miles across the valley towards the desert.  Then a bonus; one last gas station before the end of civilisation.  A bucket of lemonade from the soda fountain and some chocolate.  More empty calories, which is exactly what I need.

Into the desert.  The road’s pretty easy, but the heat’s building already.  The sunscreen and sweat mixture is picking up dust and diesel from passing trucks.  Lovely.  It’s all getting a bit gritty; standard problem, though.

Just after eleven, I meet a couple on touring bikes coming the other way.  We stop for a chat, cleverly placed just under the brow of a small hill, alarming oncoming truck drivers for a few minutes as we discuss routes, bikes, and all the usual stuff.  They are doing my ride today in reverse, but left long before dawn to avoid the worst of the heat.  I’m duly ashamed of my morning tardiness, and a little worried about having to ride through that heat myself.  No matter, I’m committed now.

The road starts to rise.  It’s not steep, and not especially high, but it rises in waves, due to being built on a dune system.  It’s hard to get a decent climbing rhythm, and the sunscreen-sweat-road muck combo is making a beeline for my eyes as my fluid intake comes straight back out through my skin.  More stops for food, water and eye-sluicing.  Tricky balance; do I want to see clearly, or make sure I’ve got enough to drink?

Around 1pm, I’m hitting the top of the drag.  There’s a building, which is the first shade I’ve seen all day.  It turns out to house a bunch of Border Patrol agents searching for illegal immigrants.  They let me cool off in one of their vehicle-search bays, as long as I stay out of the way.  Shade feels good.  More water.  More sunscreen.  And off again.  Still wondering why they didn’t check the documents of the only obvious foreigner in the area…

Two-thirty.  After another twenty-ish miles of rolling road, sweat and itching road grime, I hit the gentle downhill to Imperial sand dunes.  The couple I met earlier told me there was a shop.  I stop.  Massively overpriced, but really don’t care.  An extra litre of water, a Coke, and an ice cream to drop my core temperature out of the red.  Third application of factor 50.  Half-an-hour cooling off in the shade.  Just enough time for a headwind to spring up to obstruct my last 27 miles.  Grr…  Unpack the Cycling Zen, check the clock (should still be just OK for daylight).  Roll out for the last stretch at three.

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The sand dunes are spectacular, which makes the next few miles easier.  Then it’s back to the grind.  Trying to think about other things to deflect negative thoughts about the wind and the nasty sunscreen-dirt muck, which is in both eyes now.  Notice that the desert doesn’t smell of anything other than the occasional road-kill victim.  The warm pine smells of the Rockies were nicer.  I try to pretend I’m still there.  I pass sea level (going down), which ruins the Rockies fantasy.  There isn’t even a sign, which is a bummer.

Fatigue and heat kick in properly for the last ten miles.  And the usual (literal) pain in the backside from a long day’s riding.  Stopping every few minutes for water, and to relieve pressure on delicate areas.  Racing the falling sun towards Brawley.  I’m knackered, but I’m going to make it.  Just.

Roll into town at five-thirty.  Thermometer shows 97F, still, despite the fact the sun’s nearly gone down.  Find place to stay.  Shower immediately (ah, the itchy, sweaty, nasty gunk is gone until tomorrow!).  Food.  More liquid.  Consider a celebratory beer (it is Saturday, after all).  Decide against (on the basis of dehydration risk).  Check wi-fi.  Write some bits and bobs.  Shortly to sleep.

Tomorrow?  Same again, but only about 40 miles; good chance for a lie-in…  Then it’s over the coastal range, and a drop to the Pacific.  And probably back to normal reporting.  This is exhausting just to re-read…

 

Today in numbers:

Distance – 91 miles (145km);

Hours from start to finish – 8hr 45min;

Hours moving – 6hr 55min;

Average Moving Speed – 13 mph (21 kph)

Climbing – 456m (1496ft);

Max Shade Temperature (conservative estimate) – 100F (38C);

Sunscreen Applications – 3;

Approx litres of fluid drunk – 8.5l

Other Cycle Tourers Met – 2

 

California’s East Coast

It’s been a couple of fairly quiet days.  I’ve been within sight of my last US state, California, since the run-in to Lake Havasu City.  But I only crossed the border yesterday.

Here’s a view of California from Arizona, in the slightly bizarre desert drizzle (courtesy of the remnants of Hurricane Simon):

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Why so apparently slow?  Well, I’m in the middle of a desert.  For the last couple of days, I’ve followed the Colorado river south, as there are plenty of towns and small resorts where I could get water and supplies.  And there’s a large chunk of barren emptiness between the river and the coastal mountain range before San Diego.  I needed to head south to find a manageable route across (i.e. less than 100 straight miles of nowt).  I don’t really want to get stuck out there.

Following the Colorado river south gave me plenty of time to inspect California’s little-known ‘East Coast’.  The river is quiet (hard to imagine that it’s the same river that cut the Grand Canyon), and is dotted with small RV and trailer resorts, where people go to swim, boat, jet-ski and generally chill out.

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The picture above is pretty typical of the ‘coast’.  The left bank is Arizona.  The right bank is California, complete with small RV resort.  The road is where I should have been riding, apart from a small navigational issue.  Out of shot to the left is the busy highway I ended up on, complete with stacks of diesel-belching trucks.

I finally left Arizona yesterday, south of Parker.  En route to the border, I stopped only when flagged down by a man in a van going the other way, who swerved halfway across the road while waving a tin of spam at me.  I’m still not clear if this is a standard Arizona leaving present.

And somewhere just after that, I hit the 4000-mile mark for the trip.  Another little milestone, and a nice complement to hitting my final state.

About five miles further on, my left knee began to give me grief.  It’s been a little bit dodgy since Kansas (I think as a result of riding on an angle while leaning into cross-winds), but seems to respond well to rest.  Just hope I can limp as far as San Diego to give it a few days off to recover properly.

In any case, (yet) another rest day today so that the knee (and the rest of me) is fresh for the 90-ish mile desert run tomorrow.  It’s amazing to think that it’s only a week or so since I was sleeping in my down jacket at well over 2000m altitude; tomorrow’s run to Brawley will leave me below sea-level, and the daytime temperature is back into the 90s.  And you can tell you’re in California from the sudden appearance of millions of palm trees in every town.

IMG_0331Assuming the desert goes OK, it should only be three or four days from here to the real Californian coast.  I’ve nearly knocked off a crossing of North America on a bike, which is an odd thing to contemplate.  Anyway, a few more days of sore knees, legs and derriere to go before I get there…