Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Kazakhstan

Cycling Baku to Uzbekistan via Kazakhstan and Karakalpakstan.

















I didn’t have to wait long for a boat to Kazakhstan. The boat ride was an experience. It is meant to take 18hrs but mine took 55. There was a lot of vodka drunk and a lot of fighting. The first fight broke out before we even left Baku port. (A lot of people have asked so I’ve put all the info on boats, visas in a post at the start of this blog, here.

Leaving Aktau and heading for a far flung border between two far flung countries I was at best feeling nervous and at worst scared shittless. Much like I felt back in England then. The first day was glorious, perfect asphalt and blue skies. The asphalt soon ran out and an icey headwind picked up. I made most of the 500km to Beyneu rattling through the steppe at about 8kmh, teeth bared and muttering curses that would make Chubby Brown listen with interest. It doesn't matter though. I now realise that headwind builds character! The sheer scale and emptiness of the place is awesome and the memory of that headwind fades against the memory of camping out on the steppe, miles away from anything under a million stars with only a few camels skulking aroung for company. An experience I will never forget and something you have to do for yourself to fully appreciate.

The asphalt runs out 200km out of Aktau and it's pretty bad ruts all the way, 300km to Beyneu. Be prepared to make all distances between villages on your own. There are meant to be truckstops/cafes but you can't garuntee they'll be open. For the last 190km to Beyneu there was nothing, absolutley zero save a dilapadated building that was meant to be a cafe, a few camels and about 1 or 2 cars an hour. I think most of the roads in west Kazakhstan are unsealed. The long haul north across the entire country must be one hell of a ride.

Made it to Beyneu, a ramshackle mad max jumble of a place that looks like it's just been dropped onto the steppe. Kazakhstan was meant to be the easy part, there was 300km or so of even worse roads through even more empty land to get to Uzbekistan proper. The thought of dissappering alone, into complete isolation onto the Eurasian steppe for 5 more days didn't appeal and I ended up on the train for 350km to Kunghirot, the first sizeable town in north Uzbekistan. The conductor led me onto the train, announced to everyone that I was a tourist, an Arab from England and then, with all eyes on me, sat me down and gestured for me to lead the cabin in pray.

Will I regret not cycling that leg, or not even attemting to cycle it....maybe. I know it's possible because i've heard of other people doing it but at I was wasted after the Kazakh leg and the sight of the train sitting at the platform was too big a lure. I went into auto pilot and before I knew it was buying a ticket. I was told there was a "road" of some description within sight of the rail tracks but all could see from the train was a couple of tyre tracks through the sand running parallel to the train tracks and zero traffic.

Kazakh kids.

It's not as flat as you think out here, climbing onto the Ustyurt plateau.

Beyneu: A long way from Kidderminster.

A view from the train, I think thats the road down there.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Causcusus
















I'm in Baku and the Caspian sea. 10 weeks and 6500km on my bike ride to somewhere. I'm waiting on a boat to cross the Caspain to Aktau, Kazakstan. From there I'll try to cross into Uzbekistan from the North West for the long haul to Tashkent.

Interesting Fact: My great great grandparents were Azeri.

Georgia: A quick look at the map shows there are some pretty extreme routes through the Causcusus mountains but I don't have time to make any diversions. The best thing about this country has to be the people. I wonder what it is about the sight of me riding a bike that makes a man who has been dozing away in the sun all day suddenly leap up and start waving and shouting passionatly. A love of sport maybe? It would be fun to stop and talk with everyone but I dare not. Just simple things like stopping for water almost always results downing wine (they are very proud of the wine they make here), exchanging phone numbers and having photos taken with every random with nothing better to do. Made it to Tbilisi, a chaotic little city, for a short break before setting out across Azerbaijan.















For the love of sport.






















Riders, past and present.

Azerbaijan: The fisrt thing I like about this country is the language is similar to Turkish so I can communicate (very basically) with people again.
The first thing I don't like about this country is the currency. There are currently two currencys in use in Azerbaijan. Both have the same name and both have completely different values..confusing! When I first exchanged money at the border I thought I had been ripped off, then when tried to spend my money I got even more confused. It took days for me to figure out the system.[1 new Manat = 100 Oebik = 5000 old Manat = 1.2 USD]
Azerbaijan is a flat, featureless place but the over the top hospitality of the people and all the crazy encounters (lunch in a roadside brothel with some very drunk and worked up boxers) more than makes up for that. Long days in the saddle stroking out the kms. The final leg to Baku was fairly horrendous. Another strong headwind reduced me to pushing the bike, it was so strong it had blown a few trucks off the road. At the end of the day (Fri 13th) I thought "oh well it couldnt get any worse, right?"..WRONG. I noticed the rear sprockets were loose on the hub, I took the wheel off and the whole assembly fell apart in my hands. Result: I bodged it back together and cycled the last 100km to Baku stopping every hour to sure up the fix I had made. By the time I reached Baku the sound of metal gouging on metal was deafening and I eventually rode the entire rear hub and sprockets to destruction, made it though.
I thought I would be stuck here waiting here for replacemet parts to be shipped over, but earlier today in a primitive bike workshop in a crappy market in a crappy part of the city the mechanic reached into a box and pulled out some top of line Shimano replacments for me..I could have kissed him.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Turkey

I finally got out of Istanbul and started along the Black Sea coast. That was tough cycling. Short, steep climbs followed by short, steep descents all the way. Loads of 'welcome to turkey' shouts and handshakes through car windows. Lots of fun passing through the villages. I have to admit feeling abit of shame rolling through these villages. All the young men my age are fashionably dressed whilst I, maybe the first stranger they have ever met, look like primitive man on a bad day. Even the shepards seem to all sport a pair of imaculatley polished winkle pickers. I got ill soon after that and spent a three days flat out in bed.

When I got back on the bike I started to get sick of the coast, it is very busy and for every nice coast view you come across plenty more industrial waste sites. I headed inland. Hundreds of kilometres of quiet road flanked all the way by mountains. No villages along the way, so no dogs to chase me. Just nice mountain towns Toysa, Amaysa.... and the constant mountains.
















The Turkish mountain highway.

Peolpe have asked me, whats the cycling like? Turning the pedals is not the hard part. I am lucky that I can cycle 130km a day, day after day and not ever feel (too) tired. The hard part is making yourself do it, being alone in the saddle for hours everyday with only your own thoughts for company. When everything is going good the legs and lungs work in perfect sync, I put my head down and almost forget I am cycling. But when I can't get into a rythm and I can't find my legs it can turn a simple ride into a real beasting.

After all the climbing I started to get abit obsessive about weight. I got ruthless with the contents of my panniers, then with the bike, removing the reflectors from the wheels and pedals, trimming the brake and gear cables, cutting away the storage pockets from inside the tent etc. I saved a couple of kilos and I could have dumped even more stuff but luxuries like books and a walkman I need.

















Excess luggage.

It has been Ramadam throughout my whole ride through Turkey. I have not been fasting. Normally pulling into a town for something to eat is a welcome way to break up the day and to meet people but with all the restaurants closed during the day I rarely left the road, pretty much stayed out of towns altogether and cooked almost everything I ate. Of course all the restaurants were packed for Iftar at dusk but I was normally tucked up in bed by then. The days of sipping chay and stuffing my face with kebabs were over.
Late one day I was looking for a camp spot when the local Jandarma, army, stopped me. They told me it was impossible to cycle to the next city (80km away) and too cold to camp (about 15 degrees). I thought being in the army was supposed to make you hard?!? Who were this bunch of sissys? Before I knew it the bike was being hauled into the van and I was driven to a hotel. I left early the next day because I thought the sergeant would come and put me on a bus to the next city.
For the last stage through the east I left the main highway and tried out some back roads. They definatley save the best for last out here. I have to recommend the strech from Serin Karahishar to Artvin via Bayburt (especially Ipsir to Yusefeli). It had everything, moonscape mounatins, tough tough climbs, 20k downhills, valleys, gorges, cliffs, rapids, waterfalls, fording rivers, on road, off road and even a plain to ride across! (yes a flat plain in Turkey), and it was all stuffed into a 500km naturefest with only a handful of cars everyday. They are sitting on a tourist goldmine out here, I noticed the odd Hotel had appeared offering trekking and fishing, 'Trout' their signs proudly dispalyed.
Turkey is a tough place to cycle, no doubt about that, but the rewards are so worth it. I nearly crashed the bike quite a few times because I was too busy gaping at the scenery or staring over my shoulder at something.

















First sign of autumn.

















These monster storms stalked me almost the entire length of Turkey, always appearing just before dusk. Made me glad I upgraded my tent to a more waterproof model in Istanbul.

















Worth getting out of bed for?

















The climb up to Artvin.