planning

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.

Rehab

Four weeks ago today, I woke up in hospital in Thailand.

At the time, it appeared that I just had a broken collarbone.  Since then, I’ve been repatriated to the UK.  The medics here have found nine more broken bones in my shoulder and back, plus damage to my neck.  I’ve had time to reflect on what happened to my cycle helmet when it was hit by the truck.  And I’ve realised just how close my injuries were to being, at the very least, life-changing.

I’ve had four weeks of gentle improvement, slowly reducing pain, and gradually increasing mobility in my damaged arm.  But also four weeks of almost total physical inactivity as a depressing contrast to my previous life on the bike.

And then, this afternoon (Monday), this happened:

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It wasn’t for long (about fifteen minutes before my back decided enough was enough), and it wasn’t exactly comfortable.  But I was pedalling again.  I wasn’t going very far.  But I was definitely pedalling.

This is, in no uncertain terms, progress.

Along with rediscovering several even more advanced capabilities in the last week (including lifting two coffee cups at once, pulling t-shirts over my head, and drinking a handful of pints of cider without falling over), it looks like the rehab is getting properly underway.

I’m attributing this to a cunning tactic.  I’ve already taken delivery of the Replacement of the Beast, to give me an incentive to get better quicker.

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Like my recovery, it’s far from complete yet.  It’s a Kona Rove (kind of half touring bike, half cyclocross bike), which, because it’s a 2014 model, was reduced by over 40%.  So it seemed like a good idea to get it now.  In its current spec, it’ll be perfect for the long distance day rides I intend to target as my condition improves.  It should be a good bit quicker than the old Beast.

As I hopefully get myself together over the next little while, I’ll use the money it was reduced by to turn it into a proper custom tourer.  New wheels, tyres, gearing adjustments, racks and so on.  It’s one of the very few types of shopping that I enjoy, and it gives me a little project to focus on until I’m fully mobile.

And I’ve been giving a little more thought to what to do next.  I guess my last post on here probably reflected my far more limited physical condition a week ago.  I said the trip was over.  I put up some modest targets to get me moving again.

But the more I think about it, and the better I feel, the more it seems to me that I’m going to have to go back to Thailand and finish the trip eventually.  I can’t just leave it half done.

There are a few issues with this (not least, how I’d afford it).  But I guess I’ve still got a bit of time before I’m fit enough to go back.

So time to get the thinking cap on about how to make it work…

The Invalid

I’m having touring withdrawal issues. For nearly nine months, I was outdoors almost every day, staying in a new place pretty much every night, seeing the world and covering hundreds of kilometres a week on the bike.  This was good. 20141130RTW_8 Roli For nearly three weeks now, I’ve been (with the exception of a couple of days’ travelling) indoors, sitting or lying in differing levels of discomfort, getting fat, and covering maybe a couple of hundred metres a day shuffling around the house (or hospital).

It’s a bit of a shock to the system.

Now that the relief of being alive after the accident has bled off, it’s being replaced with frustration.  Being stuck in the same place with no exercise and a non-functioning arm is not working very well for me.

I met an ancient Frenchman in New Zealand who’d been on the road for five years.  He said he was just going to ride across North America before returning home and ‘stopping’.  I remember wondering how he’d be able to adjust when his trip was over.  I wondered how I would. Now I’m finding out.  It’s hard. 20141129RTW Christian No regrets, thankfully, as I gave the trip my best shot.  Having got close to covering 10,000 miles, I know that I was physically able to complete the circumnavigation.  I thoroughly confounded the unkind expectations of a few friends who thought I wouldn’t get past France.  And there was nothing I could do about the way it ended.

But I need a plan to avoid stalling.  I need to feel like things are moving forward again.  And I really need something to distract me from the tedious, gibbering nonsense of the ongoing UK general election campaign.  And daytime TV.

I need targets. So, what’s next? Well, I need to get better.  I’ve got the operation to put my shoulder back together tomorrow (Thursday).  Assuming that goes OK, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get back out on a bike within six weeks or so.  With a bit of luck, I may be able to get on a stationary trainer a couple of weeks before that.  There will be an awful lot of fitness to regain.

That gives me a few weeks to sort out Beast II.  I think it’ll be a little lighter and faster than the original Beast.  Maybe more of a Mini-Beast.  Or a Beastlet.  Mainly because I felt the Beast was probably a little overbuilt for the conditions I faced on the ride, and I can’t see myself hitting the rough dirt roads of the Andes or Alaska for a while.  I’ve found a few suitable candidates.  And most of them are actually British brands, as a little bonus.  Hopefully, I’ll have it on order fairly soon, to give me an incentive to recover quicker. 20150122RTW_23 Then I need something to do with the new bike.  My current thinking is to get myself fit enough for a sportive (semi-competitive day ride, usually between 75 and 110 miles) or a charity ride sometime in June.  And then aim to do a two or three week tour in the summer with the bags back on.  Maybe the length of the UK (Land’s End to John O’Groats – around 900 miles), or a similar distance in Europe.  It would be nice to pick something I can actually finish.  And I’ll need to work up gently to anything more energetic, I think.

So there we are; a loose plan to get back on wheels for the sake of my sanity.

Things are already looking up a bit.  After their triumph in the FA Trophy, which I reported on from Thailand, Bristol City won 6-0 last night to confirm their promotion to the second tier of English football.

So, good things are still happening.  I just need to make sure I focus on them, rather than the fact that I’m banged up at home for the next few weeks. It’ll be a good trick if I can pull it off.

Photo Credits:  Top photo – Roli Merz.  Second photo – Christian Zenker