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Kyrgyzstan

Headwinds And Magic Carpet Rides In Kyrgyzstan

So having arrived in Bishkek it was off to the Chinese embassy with renewed spirits. The embassy was built like a fortress. An aggressive façade, more communications dishes then Sky and a surrounding wall built in testament to their past, infiltration was going to be the first challenge. This was no biggy. Come back the next day, disregard any rules for order to be seen (of which there seemed to be none) by waving your passport in the air and shouting 'British', and then wait in the air conditioned room inside and admire the various pictures and ornaments of a culture you pray will hopefully experience. After a few redirections ……'we only grant tourist visa's to people who have lived or worked here 6 months'. Expel a frustrated mist of bad smelling breath into the dividing pain, clench your fists and buttocks to dissolve any impulse to use them, and take a minute or two to think of the even more insurmountable task of acquiring a wretched Chinese visa that lies ahead. At this point the attendant will by wondering why you are still there with a vacant expression on your face, and will ask you to leave.

So desperate times desperate measures. I have a friend in Tbilisi who has very kindly offered to take my passport through the process - huge thanks Kevin. Tbilisis is like this sacred realm for all things passport. Untouched by the usual bureaucracy which forces you to fill out visa forms in golden star dust and fixative, visa's are easy and fast. So I DHL'd my passport over, and thus far things have gone smoothly. That means I'm now illegally in Kyrgyzstan, but so far none of the authorities have bothered me. It as if my visa toils are written on my face. 'Poor bastard' they think. 'He's trying to get a Chinese visa. Let's leave him alone'.

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Mini adventure time. I'd met an intrepid cook known as Raz, proudly hailing from Cornwall. A few years ago she walked from the UK to Istanbul, and has lived in Turkey more or less ever since. Unified by too much tea and sarcasm, we thought we'd hit the road for a week of lake spotting. It was the first time both of us had been riding for a while, for a while, so out of town scrambling was a little bit …. entertaining for the locals. Many potholes and much traffic doesn't leave you with much to do but swerve like a drunken sailor. Out amongst the new green and the snow topped mountains, we spent the rest of the day trundling our way up a gradual valley. The fields where water logged from a recent down poor, and the trees where adorned in glistening rain drops. The sun came out beneath the cloud, just in time for sunset, and it felt like it's warm rays helped to push us on our way. We made camp, ate, chatted, toileted, sky observed, and slept.

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The next day was one of variety - this being the spice of life! So embrace it all. Looking at our map the road slowly turned to the right and headed up the floor of a meandering gorge. True to form, it did, though true to the typical misinterpretations of map reading, what we thought would take 10 minutes actually took 1 hour. Finally at the start of the gorge we stopped to power up. Stuffing our faces with chocolate biscuits and dried fruit, we left behind a generous serving of crumbs for the pigeons to finish off. Anticipating heavy headwinds and a steep gradient, we slowly rolled into the gorge. The hills became higher and the bare faced walls closed in, like we were entering a labyrinth of pain for which there was……NO RETURN! Ok mybe that's a bit much.

But we were blessed with the opposite. An enjoyable, undulating road provided us with some splendid scenery. Flat faces of various colored rock shot up from the ground, leading our eyes to the splendid ribbon of blue sky that was to stay with us for most of the day. The road played and teased with the river as they crossed over every few miles or so, and poplar trees and various other shrubs lined the floor, their leaves gently rattling in the afternoon breeze. But it wasn't to last.

Tired from a increasing gradient and the cruelly turning wind, we stopped at a roadside canteen for some refueling. As we both stepped through the door there was a very noticeable downturn in general room buzz. Looking up to see why, our stares where returned by just about every local in the canteen, beholding these strange sunburnt westerners with dirty clothes and weird looking bags. On other occasions I always thought my helmet would help to clarify my situation. Foolishly I'd left it on the bike, so walking across the canteen to peruse the semi warm food on offer, I accentuated my walk to make it look like I'd just dismounted a large horse. Whether this helped to alleviate the attention or only reinforce it, I don’t know, but before long everyone was again enjoying their food, and I was tucking into a microwaved pile of gravy, meat and rice. Oh and a plate of chips. Both comatosed from our excessive intake we shameless slept with our heads face down on the table, and I awoke to a string of dribble connecting my mouth to the table. Successfully dislodged I went to get a snickers for a kick start, and noticed to my dismay that by now the wind was flailing a cosy 30 MPH in not our direction. With heavy stomachs and even heavier hearts we sank onto the saddles and let our legs fall down onto the peddles. Like rowers condemned to circle the Antarctic for ALL ETERNITY!! Though it was warm. The Equator then. Somewhere in between. The 40's.

Eventually we turned away from the wind and headed up the climb of the day. The mountains were shredding the cloud. They stood firm and still against the swirling eddies and streams; the wind writing about the land, with the not so distant rain threatening to soak us in a moment, any moment. We pushed on. I left Raz behind, for her to meander her way in top gear. Beams of sunlight broke through the cloud and reflected off the newly laid metal pylons of Kyrgyzstan's modernisation.

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Round the final hairpin of the day, up a farm track, appease some dogs by praying and I secure us a campsite on a farm. Surprisingly for a farm, it seemed the only appropriate placing for our tent is just down hill from a giant mass of cow dung. Steaming and organic, there was something about it's purity that made you just want to dive into it. I didn't, thinking about the purity of Raz's tent instead. So we exchanged a few warm words with the farmer, confirmed with a firm handshake. Once the tent was up he was very interested in it. Though one question he had we couldn't understand and therefore couldn’t answer. For 5 minutes he tried his best to communicate his query, but without success. Finally, when he got down on his hands and knees and tried to walk under the outside of the tent, the light bulbs switched on. How do you get inside?! So we showed him where the zip was. Looking inside to see the sleeping bags laid out with our belongings neatly tucked into the corner he was clearly impressed.

Next day we woke to sunshine and the sound of sheep being herded across the nearside of a hill. I poked me head out to a see a shepherd on horse back, commanding a heard of at least 200 sheep simply with the tones of his whistle. Using his fingers, depending on tone and probably length of tone he was able to steer the sheep, left, right, forward, backwards and everything in between, as accurate as a shepherd with his sheep dog, except of course he didn't have one. It was something to watch.

Porridge then road. Finish the climb. Reap reward on the way down. Turn corner to a spectacular lake, it’s blue deepened by the barren brownness of which it sat it. A steadily southerly blowing nicely, it would have been perfect for a kitesurf. Just have to Imagine. Down to the junction and turning right. This was a bit a moment for me. About 15 years ago, a man called Alastair Humphreys cycled along the very stretch which I was about embark. He cycled the globe and wrote two books about it. So inspired by the abnormality of it, I decided to do the same. A great read for anyone who want's to get into cycle touring.

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Any soft sentiment for the road was soon blown away by the resuming headwind. It was so strong that to stick to our different paces and try to make any progress was madness. So we clumped up and shared the slipstream, swapping every 5 minutes. Progress was slow, arduous and our appreciation for the mountains and the doted clouded sky was robbed from us. It doesn’t matter how wonderful everything is around you. When there is a headwind, life is not worth living; at least on a bicycle. We pulled in for some bowls of lagman, and were treated to the house beds for an afternoon snooze. Back on, back in. The wind grew through the day, and the road surface worsened. As such our tea stops became more numerous and our already glutinous intake of chocolate biscuit became more so. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was to now avail. Not matter how much tea of how many biscuits we consumed, the wind would not abate. So we slumped against a mud wall and contemplated our fate. A few curious locals came and said hello with smiling faces and happy waves. Final push for the camp. 30 minutes later, after being sworn at out of a car window we found some ideally flat turf to bury our limbs from this day forth. The tent was put up discussing weak reasons for why tomorrow would be different. 'We're cycling towards mountains', 'look at those clouds, they somehow tell me the wind will be less tomorrow', 'tomorrow is Wednesday the 7th of May'. Anything that would give us hope.

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Guess what? It was worse! By now the road resembled the surface of a burnt cake, as did our interest to reach our destination. Today would be the final push - 50 miles give or take. Back to the usual grind. A few side-wind gusts thrown into the mix to blow you off the side of the road with no warning. I could hear a faint burble from behind. A tractor! Or a magic carpet as like to call them. No sign of Raz behind. I think she's jumped on. As he overtook me she came into sight, grinning like a Cheshire cat. A short burst into the peddle and we were side by side, leisurely cruising along at good 20MPH. With various chains hanging off the back and sharp things threatening to skewer any cyclist, vigilance is essential. He started to slow down. We both took a look out the side to see why. He was picking up his friend who was waiting at the side of the road. Not far afterwards the road kicked up for a short but steep climb. Raz and I looked at each. Both knowing that our ability to finish the day possibly rested with this tractor, we both knew what we had to do. With a burst of effort we broke away and soon afterwards reached the climb. I looked behind to see a puff of black smog come out of the tractors exhaust. The race was on. The climb came quite easily to me, and It wasn't long before I was half way. But Raz was struggling. Her face was down and she was clearly giving it the beans. The tractor was getting closer. I carried on. Nearing the top I took another look. Raz had slowed her pace, and like some monster playing with it's pray, the tractor slowed down for a while and stayed behind her, then slowly overtook and gobbled her up. She continued, unabated by the lose of her magic carpet. I just got to the top in time to jump back on - it was too good not to. I saw Raz from a distance come over the climb a few moments later, cursing either the wind, the tractor, or me with a raised fist. It was too funny not to laugh! She caught up with me later after a poo stop, and we both laughed hysterically.

Our carpet gone, it was back to the I'd rather cycle through a brick wall routine. The moment came. We finally succumbed to our heavenly fantasies of tailwind bliss, bolstered by feigned assumptions of worse weather conditions up ahead. Like a 'seen the light moment', that 180 degrees of difference turns pure suffering into pure pleasure. I turned the handlebars, daring to go back on 2 days of toil. The effort eased towards the 90 degree mark. Then over the threshold and towards the pleasure camp. The rest was more out of necessity so I wouldn’t cycle off the road. Then the hand of god took me by the back, and pushed me along without the aid of a single rotation. A recent convert, we breezed our back the way we came, just in time to charm the local school children out playing with our bike bells. What took a day of riding the day before took a mere 3 hours with the wind behind us.

In the mid afternoon sun we reached the bottom of the climb we'd done two days before. This was the steeper side. The sun was high and hot in the sky, and eagles were circling in the thermals above us. Pools of dust would be whipped up off the road by gusts of wind coming off the mountain. I dropped down to first and got down to spinning. Half an hour and I was half way. I waited for Raz, who appeared sweaty but going strong. We headed off for the second part together. This is when I would really ruffle her tail feathers. Before long another magic carpet came slowly belching round the corner. 'Right Raz you ready? 3, 2, 1 go'. Magically timed we were both traveling the same speed as the lorry when it was alongside us, so I grabbed onto the back. However, Raz was put off by me somehow, so again she missed her ride. Noticing that there was another slowly climbing lorry behind, I shouted 'There's another one coming'. I later learned that after missing that she dismounted and cursed me heavily. I at this point was enjoying a 10 MPH free ride up a steep hill. But the road flattened out, and 10 turned to 20, then 30…. The driver was going through gears like biscuits, but I was determined to stay because I knew the climb continued further on. After almost loosing it off the edge of the road and to my relief, he finally began to slow down, and his friend stuck his phone out the side for a photo of this unusual situation.

Over the top, down the other side and back down the gorge. We met our friend Isa for a few days hiking. It began in earnest. We managed to secure our bikes with some farmers and set off for some camping. The next day we headed up a very narrow gorge, following the river up a series of switch backs. This was perfect terrain to demonstrated the versatility and all round wonderfulness of Crocs, and try convert my very suspecting friends. I didn't work. They chose rather to retain their dignity. Eventually we topped out onto a large crown which was surrounded by the most impressive sandstone spires and ridges. In the middle was a giant table like structure known as The Cathedral. All attempts to assail it were fruitless. We pushed on to a nice camping spot. The silence was the most noticeable thing. If you listened closely enough you could your heartbeat. Except some pigeons and a few other birds communicating in the distance, we had the whole canyon to ourselves. A crackling campfire, a few farts and some stargazing was the perfect ending to our mini trip. Thanks Raz and Isa! Wonderful times.

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Please check my buds blog @ www.razistan.co.uk. Walking, riding and writing. Baby.

Much as always

xxx

Posted by Banana Spokes 02:19 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (0)

Au Revoir Almaty, Bonjour Bishkek

Goodbye Almaty, Hello Bishkek

Hi friends,

So all is on hold once again.

From a reasonable place to start ….

Having filled up the last 6 pages of my passport with border stamps, this time the stout lass behind the desk, wearing an excessively formidable officers hat, told me in very certain terms that visa runs across the border is not acceptable or tolerated. So basically, my time was up.

I departed from Almaty a few days ago, waving goodbye to some good friends and what was by all accounts, a comfortable life! But the sun is again high in the sky, and no longer faced with the prospect of frostbitten toes and water bottles that have been frozen closed, the road again seemed like a good place to be.

And it is. The cycle ride to Bishkek was a joyous re-introduction, and reminded me of all the variety that comes from traveling. The difficult goodbyes over, I hopped on and headed off. The dust, noise and smog that is customary of any out of city road soon gave way to fields of young crops, rows of poplar trees, and the occasional village. In contrast to the glitzy modernism of Almaty, this was a refreshing trip back to reality. People living off the land. Each house was squared off with about half an acre or so at the back, used to grow vegetables, house chickens and, I can only assume for reasons of domestic hygiene and fertilisation, place the toilet. Children ran around the dusty streets dressed in colorful dirty clothes, pulling plastic toys on pieces of string, wrestling with each other, or addressing group politics using whatever medium suited their mood. The local traffic comprised of rusty of Lada's, tractors and a few donkey drawn carts. It was back to my usual unusualness. People staring at me from the side of the road, or winding down their windows to expel what I can only describe as a case of drive-by tourettes. I never work out what it is they shout at me. I'm too busy swerving to avoid the pothole that threatens to engulf my front wheel and send me over the handlebars.

I pulled into a service station which housed a small Turkish café. As seems customary with almost all Turks, I was waved over and invited to enjoy some tea with them. We spoke about Turkey and my travels through, and I managed to recount a few words in Turkish from the recesses. I made no reservation for my particular fondness for Baklava, and as hoped, a generous portion soon materialised in front of me, along with another cup of chai and a large piece of fresh bread. Mr I've forgotten his name and his brothers moved from Turkey 20 odd years ago to start up a business and a life on this stretch of busy Kazakh road. He travels back and forth to visit both ends of the family a couple of times a year. Before I could utter the first syllable in offering to pay, he silenced me with a swift raising of his hand, gestured that it was on him by placing his hand on his heart, and bid me a pleasant farewell.

Soon I was out on the plains, and peddling down the longest straight of my journey yet. A mighty 40 mile ribbon of tarmac progressing to a point seemingly no bigger then the end of a needle. The road ran alongside a line of snowy mountains to my left. They eventually curved over the horizon, feeding my curiosity with their disappearing profile. An endless green plane stretched off to my right, with a couple of distant thunderstorms dropping their load and bringing the light greens of spring into fruition.

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Through a police checkpoint, a quick stop to superglue my stove and round the corner for the climb of the day. About 500 meters of up along a swerving valley floor. The road instantly kicked up to a gradient at least double of the 5% stated on the sign at the side of the road - a miss-calculation that although initially amusing, soon turned to irritation at the fact that the road clearly wasn't 5% gradient. I peaked out an hour later to the sight of wind turbines, dripping in sweat and joy. I'd passed about 10 lorries on the way up. They were descending down the valley very slowly and very cautiously, so much so that I think I was climbing at a faster rate. From what I could see through the slits in between the wooden planks, they appeared to be loaded with cabbages - a very common ingredient here, especially in the Russian dishes.

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As with any climb, there is always the blissful reward, though this often depends on which way the wind is blowing. Fortunately for me the wind did not rob me of an effortless, glycogen replenishing freewheel, though it was easing me towards a rather ominous thunderstorm. Watching it track left, I approximated that we'd meet spot on, a few miles down the road. Thoughts of surviving nightly thunderstorms in Austria where proceeded by worse thoughts that it may have all been in vain. But fortunately my estimations where wrong, and the storm passed a good distance in front, leaving me with some well greased hairpins to cautiously negotiate.

Just before sun fall I pulled onto a small gravel road, which lead me down to a small meandering river. Pitched up on a grassy bank and it was back to the usual evening routine; pitch tent, cook food, read two pages, try and fall asleep.
The next day there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I headed off around 8 am, and the air was already warm enough for cycling in shorts and T-shirts. A few hours of very gradual downhill peddling, past some not even remotely plausible dummy speed cameras, through a quick and friendly border crossing and before long I was in Kyrgyzstan's capital city of Bishkek. The air was thick with noise and smog, and overtaking dumper trucks farted past, defecating on me with their hot exhaust. I was back in the land of Soviet architecture, palatial squares and numerous parks.

Since then it's back to the visa game. Bit of a stalemate at the moment. I'm trying to get another Chinese visa, but for some reason (certainly the case in Kazakhstan) their withholding tourist visas. Apparently they just do this sometimes. So tomorrow I'll go to the embassy here and see what happens, though I haven't heard good things. If no then possibly fly to Hong Kong for a Chinese visa, or as an absolute last resort, fly to Delhi and continue on from there. A lesson in patience and perseverance as always!

In the mean time I'm staying with Nathan and Angie, my Warmshowers hosts. Camping in their garden I can stay here for as long as I need, surround by bike tools, spares and other cyclists. I just met a guy from Somerset who is mono-cycling around the world! Carrying everything he needs with him, he'll be the first to successfully complete a circumnavigation of the globe on one wheel. I see the appeal. Dirty chains are a bummer to clean, though traffic must be quite difficult.

My wonderful friends at Loco hostel bought me a GoPro type camera, so I'll giving video blogging a go. Bring you some amazing sights of the road!

Hope all is good with all,

From Bishkek, a fond adieu.

Posted by Banana Spokes 06:39 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (0)

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