storms

Isles of Thunder

Up the coast a bit, then some island hopping up to the very north of Croatia.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  After all, the road’s bound to be quite flat by the sea.  The islands have much lower hills than the mainland, too.  And there are ferries to cover the little blue bits between the lumps of land.  Definitely pretty simple.

Well, pretty is right.  Not so simple, though.

After just one clear, if slightly too warm, day on the coast (on Wednesday, pic below), the thunder started rolling.

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If you live anywhere in Europe, you’re probably aware of the massive thunderstorms which have been sitting over the central areas of the continent for weeks, causing flooding and hitting people with lightning.  Well, they’ve left the middle of Europe in the last few days, and meandered south to Italy and the Balkans.

Just as I’ve been heading north into them.

Thankfully, while the inland areas appear to be getting absolutely pasted, the storms only occasionally make it across the last range to the islands.  But this makes trying to plan a day’s ride quite tricky.

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As you can see in the picture above (from the very bottom of Pag island), the big clouds and heaviest downpours lurk behind the last range on the mainland.  Then, at a seemingly random point, and with very little warning, they rush out to either electrocute or drown you.  They don’t care which.

As you can also see from the picture, the islands are pretty rocky, and not exactly flush with shelter.  So there’s been quite a bit of ‘ride like mad, hide, check the sky, ride like mad’ etc, etc going on.

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The biggest storms seem to be in the evening (it feels like there’s a cracking one waiting to get going this evening (Saturday), and even then, as you can see above, you can have bright sunshine in one place and the world’s blackest clouds a mile or so away.  It’s all been a bit unpredictable.

The roads and ferries probably haven’t helped that much, although that’s mainly my fault for pathetic levels of research.  I got to Novalja yesterday only to discover that the ferry I thought I was going to get from there doesn’t take bikes.  So today ended up being three ferries (from Pag to the mainland, from the mainland to Rab, and from Rab to Krk – got to love the names of these islands!).

It also cost me an extra 600 vertical metres of climbing, which will also teach me not to assume that coast roads are flat…

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Still, at least a bit of climbing gets you some decent views (above).  And the scenery remains spectacular.  The hills might be a little smaller, but all the little islands are really pretty.

And a bit of time on ferries lets you have a proper look at the sea (below).  Crystal clear waters and millions of tiny fish sum it up.  The bike wanted a dip after all its hard work.  I had to assure it that if it jumped in, I wasn’t going to be the one to pull it back out; those fish looked like man-eaters…

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But the Beastlet was right; it’s time for a little rest and relaxation.  I’m having my first full rest day tomorrow since Dubrovnik.  Partly because tomorrow’s supposed to be the worst day for storms.

Mainly because Euro 2016 kicked off last night, and England are playing Russia this evening.  A beer or two will probably seem appropriate, so there’s little point in trying to ride tomorrow.  From this point until England (almost inevitably) get knocked out, I’ll have to juggle the riding with both the weather and being near a TV at the appropriate time for the football.  Another complication thrown into that ‘simple’ ride up Croatia.

Still, I’m nearly there now.  I should be able to move back into the mountains, in Slovenia, at some point on Monday.  If the storms and roads play ball; I think I’m done with boats until Calais now…

As a ‘Stop Press’, and in case you’re not following the footy yet, Wales just beat Slovakia in their first game.  Fingers crossed for England this evening…

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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.

Thunderstorms, the Queen and Crocodile Dundee

I watched a thunderstorm being born the other day, as I biked ever-westward along the Katy Trail. It’s an impressive process, as clouds organise themselves into columns before merging and blackening. And eventually dropping vast amounts of water everywhere. In the end, as you might be aware, they look something like this:

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Which is lovely, as long as you assume that your local weather tipster is correct, and that storms always go along the river, and not across it. I met an Irish tourer called Phillip a couple of minutes after taking this picture. Unfortunately, after a couple more minutes chatting (he’s doing a loop around all the 48 US mainland states), it became alarmingly apparent that the storm was not playing by my weatherman’s rules, and was, in fact, about to attack.

The couple of minutes chatting turned into an hour-long incarceration in a very tiny (but dry) post office, which at least gave us plenty of time to discuss frames, disc brakes and spokes, etc, etc. There really is no end to the excitement in touring cyclists’ conversations, and we were both slightly surprised to see that the postmaster hadn’t committed suicide from sheer boredom by the time we left.

I just had time to hoof it to Missouri’s rather beautiful state capital, Jefferson City before dark.

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I finished with Katy yesterday, in the pretty town of Clinton. It was a messy break-up, as I’d not been so lucky with the storms. An absolute monsoon hit at around 1205 (I’m never going to assume that ‘rain in the afternoon’ means about 3 or 4 o’clock again), which converted me into a half-drowned wretch, and the trail surface into sticky gloop which got everywhere.

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On a slightly different note, I’d been waiting for a fortnight to be mistaken for an Australian. This has happened reliably within a couple of days of arrival on every trip to the US. This time, it’s taken four states, but Missouri has enthusiastically taken up the slack with five misidentifications in three days.

I don’t blame the Americans; it took me long enough to be able to tell a US and Canadian accent apart. No, it’s entirely the fault of the Queen and Crocodile Dundee. If you don’t speak like Her Britannic Majesty, you’re assumed to be antipodean. Especially if you can’t quite kick the (entirely English, I’m sure, just stolen by the Australians) habit of calling people ‘mate’. That’s all most people took away from the, erm, classic film series; Aussies call people ‘mate’, not Brits.

Ah, well. No point getting worked up about things you can’t change. Especially things that don’t really matter. A rest day today by the Truman Reservoir, and then on with the show. Kansas is calling; maybe tomorrow if I go long, maybe the next day. It’s back to the flatlands for a while before the Rockies rear up. And the humidity has eased with the rain, so life on the bike and in the tent are a little more pleasant. Long may it stay that way…