roads

On Climbing and Waiting for Rain

I wasn’t sure that I’d get very far after I left Samsun yesterday morning (Tuesday).

First, there were some horrendous weather forecasts flying around.  Most of which suggested that I’d be pinned down by thunderstorms and wave after wave of heavy rain until Saturday.

Second, it was time to hit the mountains again.  This was sure to slow me down, and so leave me trapped in the middle of nowhere as the lightning flashed and a month’s worth of rain fell in twenty minutes.

All in all, it looked a bit nasty as I pulled on my brand new cycling shorts*.  The cloud was already down on the tops of the hills around the city, and I almost decided just to go back to bed for a week, and wait for the rain to get to me.

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So far, it’s been a decent decision not to.

The clouds began to clear as soon as I turned inland, and the remnants of the breeze which had pushed me along the coast were funnelled by the hills into a little tailwind.  The road has been beautifully engineered throughout, too.  But it was still quite a surprise to start at sea level, and to hit a 900-metre (close to 3000 ft) pass before lunchtime.  At an average of 13 mph.  And in the sunshine, too.

I wasn’t fooled, though.  This was not allowed to be a brilliant day.  I knew the mass of rain that the TV news was showing couldn’t just disappear.  It was just a matter of time.  I watched the skies, suspiciously.

Still, as I rolled into Havsa yesterday afternoon, I was still bone dry.  There were a handful of heavy storms about, but they were all pretty small and none came too close.  I figured I’d got lucky, and prepared to be rained in the next morning.

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After watching the sun go down behind the mosque, I considered composing a few sentences on how my trip has also been a little window onto the Islamic world.  Then I realised that nobody likes a pretentious cycle-tourist, and went to bed instead.  To everyone’s great relief, I’m sure.

I was woken after midnight by the sound of rain pounding down outside.  I felt vindicated, and a little smug, and drifted back off again.

The morning sunlight woke me before my alarm went off.  I was confused.  There really wasn’t supposed to be any sunlight this morning (Wednesday).  I looked outside.  There were some clouds scudding about on what looked like a fairly strong headwind.  But nothing that really spelled the sustained heavy rain I was anticipating.

I put my jacket on against the wind, and pedalled onwards in the sunshine.  Towards Osmancik.  More hills, more tunnels, and another 1000-metre pass.  With a beautiful, swooping decent off the top (below), which was only partly spoiled by the headwind.

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But finally, as you can see above, the horizon was darkening.  A mass of cloud was rushing toward me.  This was obviously the forerunner of the huge area of rain.  I actually thought I’d cut it too fine as I dropped into town, with another small but vicious-looking storm pummelling the valley next door.

As you can see, I didn’t get under cover a moment too soon, as the sky blackened over the castle, and the rain began.

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It stopped five minutes later, having barely wet the street.  And although there have been a few evil-looking clouds about since, it’s still dry as darkness falls this evening.

The forecast, needless to say, reckons that it’s already raining here, and will do so (heavily) for the next 48 hours.

However the weather works out, I’ve got to congratulate the Turks on their main roads.  The climbs are very long, but barely get above 3%.  And the road surface is almost silky, meaning that the bike rolls really nicely on the inclines.

So, if the weather seems designed to make me look silly at the moment, the roads are making me look good.

There’s definitely a lot more climbing to come, though.  And I can’t help feeling that the rain’s going to have its say eventually…

* This was a great result: I found a far-flung branch of Decathlon (large, French outdoors store) in Samsun, so was able to get a cheap (but reasonable quality) pair to replace my original shorts, which… erm… seem to have melted.  Or maybe rotted.  Don’t ask…

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.

Bumps, Fibs and SIM Cards – An ‘Interesting’ Intro to India

I don’t know why some people lie.

I was on a long one yesterday; over 90 miles.  All was well until I turned north towards Jamshedpur.  The road had got steadily narrower ever since Kolkata, but had been lovely and smooth throughout.  It was probably getting a little too narrow by lunchtime; diving off the road to avoid overtaking lorries was already getting a bit old.

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But I was going fine.  About 90 kms still to go.  I should have been OK to get to Jamshedpur just before the sun went down (which happens ridiculously early here; clearly yet another country of morning people).

Then it all fell apart.  The tarmac cracked a little.  A couple of holes appeared.  Then more.  The traffic slowed down and started to weave (a little iffy when it’s that narrow).  After a while, you couldn’t even call it potholed any more; there was nothing flat to define where the holes weren’t.

Clunk, rattle, stop to clip the panniers back on the rack.  Repeat endlessly.  Grrr…

20 km later, a minor miracle.  A road surfacing crew, and pristine tarmac beyond! Happy days!

10 km later, a stop for a drink.  A man coming the other way in a car.  He stops.  We chat.  He confirms that it’s about 60 km to Jamshedpur, and that there were about three hours of daylight left.  Still tight, but on the beautiful new tarmac, it should be OK.  I ask how the road is.  The man confirms that the smooth track runs all the way to the city.

He lied.  Big time.

Ten minutes down the road, I passed a decent-looking guesthouse.  I could have stopped, but I knew I could make town, because I’d been told that the road was good.  Half an hour down the road, the roadworks began.  Potholes, followed by dusty gravel, followed by more of the ploughed surface I’d been struggling with before.

I rolled into Jamshedpur about an hour after dark.  Looking like this:

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I don’t think the lies are meant to be malicious.  I think people here might just not like telling you bad news.  I hope it’s just that, in any case.  Because there’s a bit of a pattern developing.

It’s been a while since I arrived in India, after all.  Why no updates?  Well, there’s another fib involved in that.  But first things first…

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I arrived in Kolkata (Calcutta) in the very early hours of Tuesday morning.  After a hair-raising introduction to Indian driving tactics in an antique Ambassador taxi (like the ones above), and a nice long sleep, I was up and about around lunchtime.  As with everywhere else I go, I went straight out to have a look at town, and get a data SIM, so I could get some reliable internet access.

Tuesday was Republic Day, so most of the shops were shut.  This was bad news.  After a while, I found a little place plastered in advertising for a mobile phone company.  The sort of place that had sorted me out with instantly-functioning SIMs in Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.  Great.

He sold top-ups, but not SIMs.  The place across the road sold them.  But not to foreigners.  They said I’d have to go to an official store, for registration purposes.  But the official stores were closed until Wednesday.  This was my first inkling that it’s almost impossible for a travelling foreigner to get a working SIM card in India.

So, I went to have a look around town, and watch some cricket in the park.  Which was nice.

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Cutting a very long story short, two days later I finally had a SIM card in my phone.  But, having been told when I purchased it, that it would be activated within two hours, it’s now over 50 hours, and it’s still not showing any sign of working.  Another lie.

Grrr.  Again…

So, three official shops in three cities; one was closed, one sold me a duff card, one couldn’t help because the card was bought out of town (don’t ask why, it doesn’t make sense).  Mind-boggling levels of bureaucratic nonsense.

While there’s only half a chance (at best) that I’ll get proper communications back before I get to Nepal, I’m pretty sure that there’s every chance that the roads will remain a bit interesting (at least away from the nice, smooth major highways).

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On the plus side, there’s also every chance that I can continue to gorge myself on curry.  Also, to add to the scary taxi drive, I’ve had the opportunity to get the more outdoor version of town-driving craziness on the back of a scooter and in a tuk-tuk (I know that’s the Thai word, but I can’t remember what they’re called here).  The temperature’s about 5C cooler than Myanmar, too, so the riding is a little easier.

And, once again (and even including the fibbers, who seemed nice at the time), people here are really great.  Not quite as smily as the South-East Asians, but friendly enough, and helpful with directions etc.

And they really seem to like bikes over here.  The Beastlet is getting stared at, prodded and admired every time I stop for a drink.  It’s getting a big head, which will only be truly justified if it continues not to break on the roads for another few hundred miles.  It’s doing well so far, but I do worry a bit.

Anyway, until I stay somewhere else with wifi (wifi that actually works is a bit of a rarity), or until the SIM card miraculously activates (some hope!), that’s it from India for now.  An interesting start.

It would be nice if things got just a little bit smoother, though.  And if I could get a blog post with pictures uploaded in less than two hours…

The Flat Country – Cake, Coffee and Communism

I’m slightly surprised to find it’s my last night in Vietnam already.

I probably shouldn’t be, though.

I’ve ploughed mostly straight down the main road for hundreds of kilometres, mainly with a handy tailwind to this point.  And coastal Vietnam is one of the flattest places I’ve ever ridden.  But it still seems too soon to be leaving.

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For the main part, the road’s been a bit dull.  Wide, flat, well-surfaced and mostly straight.  It’s only really been enlivened by the entertaining traffic, though there’s been quite a lot more of that than the picture above may suggest.  Certainly enough to keep the adrenaline spiking every so often.

On the other hand, I’ve got sore smiling muscles, arms and vocal chords from the amount of ‘Hellos’ and waves I’ve had to return all the way down from Hanoi.  I’ve also drunk a significant quantity of coffee in a variety of formats (who knew that Vietnam was the world’s second-biggest coffee exporter?).

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And I’ve really enjoyed the country’s interesting mixture of cultures; the usual south-east Asian hotchpotch of cultures and religions, with an added dash of French patisserie and 21st-Century-style Capitalist-Communism (all highly appropriate when the father of the nation – Ho Chi Minh – once worked as a pastry chef on a cross-Channel ferry, at least as Wikipedia tells it…).

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Anyway, after the heavy miles of the first few days, I settled for a couple of half days in preparation for tomorrow’s (Sunday’s) big climb to Laos, with the border nearly 700 metres uphill from where I start in the morning.

As a result, I was on a slow meander today, with only 50-odd kilometres to ride.  This gave me the opportunity to discover that certain well-known mapping software is not always entirely accurate.  The road I was on looked like a highway on the map.  For a while, it looked a lot like the first picture above.

And a few minutes later, it looked like this:

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It still looked like a highway on the map.  A lesson learned…

So, with a bit of luck, it’s on to Laos tomorrow.  Hopefully just as interesting and as much fun as Vietnam has been.  I met a pair of German tourers this evening, accounting both for the fact that it’s now well past my target bedtime, and for my optimism about the road ahead.  They’ve run a lot of my route in reverse, and are (fairly) nearly finished with their ride from Germany to Beijing.

Luck, it appears, may be required with the weather.  Having been dry since the morning I left Hanoi, it’s currently tipping down outside.  So I may have the choice of getting extremely soggy, or having a day off after all.

Decisions, decisions…