måndag 27 maj 2013

From summer heat to snowy mountains

When I lest Fergana I had about 110 km to the border and planned to cross it the next morning. At lunch time I stopped at a store to spend my last Uzbek money and I thought it would be nice to sit by the river and eat. After buying some things I got on my bike but only cycled 20 meters when a man at a restaurant invited me in for tea. He was the owner of the place and also gave me a nice lunch before I got back up on the bike and cycled the last bit towards the border.

I got there faster than I had thought even though I got lost at one point and had to turn around when the road stopped. They don’t like to show people the way to Kyrgyzstan. Luckily there are helpful people along the way to ask. It was not a very busy border crossing and I wasn’t sure at first that I was at the right place. I cycled up to the gate and got the attention of a guard who walked over and opened the gates for me. There where contractions going on and the office was a table outside where I for the first time had to open all my bags for inspection. Strangely they never checked the hotel registration that everyone told me was so important to have. I took some time to through all the bags, but eventually I got the stamp and could cycle over to the Kyrgyz side. There they were more relaxed and the border consisted of two barracks on either side of the road and the cutest guard dog ever!
In the first barrack there was a huge man who when I came put on his hat before starting to write down my information in the notebook. It didn’t take long until got my stamp and it felt really good to be in Kyrgyzstan and it’s great that I don’t need a visa, it’s two months for free. Some of the first people I met in this new country waved me to the side of the road and game me a bag of cucumbers and a bag of delicious peaches. In the next small town I asked around for a place to stay and was directed to what they told me was a hotel. It was a little difficult to find since it didn’t have any signs on it and it didn’t look like much. And it wasn’t much either. It felt like some old Soviet military place, the room a slept in had five beds in it and when I had to use the not so clean toilet I had to find the woman who worked there to get the key for the padlock that was on the bathroom door. And as always I was bargaining for the price, especially at this place where she wanted way too much. We eventually agreed on a price that was half of what she started off with, but since I didn’t have any Kyrgyz SOM I had to wait until the next morning to go to the bank. A very good thing about Kyrgyzstan is that you don’t have to exchange money on the black market to get the right rate. But I had a little problem since the woman in the bank didn’t want to exchange 20-dollar bills which were all that I had. But after a little begging she agreed and I got some SOM. So I paid for my “fancy” hotel, bought a SIM-card since mine wasn’t working here and cycled into the mountains.
The road followed a nice valley next to a river that unfortunately had a couple of dams along the way. And another negative thing is that the crazy bike chasing dogs have made a comeback here. It was the worst in Turkey but in Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan I didn’t have much problem with dogs. But here I have been chased many times usually by two at the time. For the first time in a couple of weeks I was sleeping in my tent when I found a great spot right by the river. I had almost forgotten how nice it is camping especially in a beautify valley with a view of the mountain on both sides.
The next morning started off with a long slow uphill. But on the other side I had a nice view of the Toktogul Lake below. And for the rest of the day a cycled around the lake, up and down many hills towards the town of Toktogul. It was a cloudy and a little cold day and at lunch time I could hear thunder closing in. I was hoping that I would reach Toktogul before it started raining, but it’s difficult outrunning a rainstorm when you’re doing 6 km/h up a hill. So once I got to the town I had been cycling in heavy rain for an hour. I didn’t want to cycled any longer than Toktogul because after the town the road went higher up into the mountains towards Ala-Bel pass at 3184 meters above sea level. And I wanted a good night sleep before tackling that. It felt good to wake up and hear that the rain had stopped after pouring down constantly since yesterday afternoon.
The road up there went through yet another beautiful valley. But I was moving slow because it was uphill almost all the time. I stopped to by some honey from a beekeeper that was really nice and invited me in for lunch. And it was a good lunch with lots of meat, potatoes and of course honey for the tea. Perfect energy for the rest of the days uphill.
Not long after that I met a German man who was travelling by foot and was walking back from Bishkek where he had walked to during the winter. He had to find another was east since China didn’t let his dog in to the country. He had some good stories and some information about the road I was taking towards Bishkek. When I was getting closer to the top it got colder and started to rain that after climbing higher turned into snow. It was a nice to get to the top after almost seven hours of uphill. And 3184 meters was a new record for me almost 1000 meters higher that my precious record from Turkey. There was also another milestone for me that day when I reached 15.000 km! It doesn’t feel that long since I passed 10.00 in east Turkey, and I realize how far I have cycled through Asia.

Going up you can’t wait to get to the top and glide down the other side. But going down wasn’t much fun since it was snowing, raining and I could not keep warm with the cold wind at me all the time. The road came down into a valley where I was stopped by a man in a car got out and wanted to have a little chat. He didn’t speak much English but we understood each other still and talked for a while and drank some Bishkek cognac. He wanted me to load my bike in his car and go with him to Bishkek, but I tried to explain that I wanted to cycle all the way. He probably thought I was a bit crazy to turn that down when I was cold and wet. We said goodbye only to meet again a few kilometers down the road where he had stopped by a yurt and waved me in. We had some tea and he arranged so that I could stay with that family for the night.
It was an interesting evening and I got to experience the life of Kyrgyz nomads. I also got to ride a horse and help bring in the sheep’s for the night. The family was very nice but since they didn’t speak a word of English we had some problem communication. And even if I had come down from the snowy mountain it was still very cold and the night I spent in the yurt I had on all my clothes and three blankets. I woke up to another rainy day. But that wasn’t the worst thing that morning. I had left my bike outside and had forgotten to take in the bag where I had my food. So during the night a cow had smelled the bread I had in the bag and ripped it open with its horns to get to the food. The bag had one big hole on the side, some smaller rips and one attachment broken. The worst thing was when I saw that the bag I keep my tent in had a couple of holes in it, but after a closer inspection breathe a sigh of relief that the tent was undamaged. And I’m hoping to find someone who can fix the bag here in Bishkek.
I tried to make the bad somewhat waterproof and got back on the bike and headed for the next mountain pass. This pass was “only” 2564 with a serpentine road winding up the mountain. I wasn’t in a very good mood after a not so good start of the day, and a slow climb up the mountain didn’t feel that fun. But I pushed on and once I got up a little higher I could enjoy the great view of the valley below and It was all worth it.
At the top the road went through a tunnel and when I came out on the other side I was met by a very thick fog, or clouds as it is called at this altitude. I could only see 20 meters in front of me and took it really slow, most of the time=) After a while I was out of the clouds and cycled down a nice valley. But it was still cold and I needed lots of clothes to keep warm. After all the hard work in the mountains the reward came here and I was following the valley downhill for almost 70 km! And once the mountains stopped the air was much warmer and the sun showed itself for the first time in a while.
I spend the night in Kara-Balta since it was still about 60 km to Bishkek and I didn’t have the strength for that. So I had a rest there and yesterday I cycled the rest of the way to Bishkek where I’m staying with a couchsurfer for the moment. Now I have to sort out my Chinese visa and hopefully with some luck I can get a three months visa. But I’m not sure I will, and then the option it to get a one month and then extend it once I’m in China. But it feels great to be here and there is no rush for me to cycle on since I can stay in Kyrgyzstan for two months. I won’t stay that long but it nice not to have any time pressure.

söndag 19 maj 2013

Fergana Valley

After Samarkand the landscape became greener and also some hills appeared. But even if it’s a little hard sometimes getting up there in the warm weather, I do prefer it much more than the flat desert. Because once you’re up there there’s always downhill on the other side. During the day I met a guy from USA who was travelling the world on his motorcycle. We had a little chat and then he got back on his bike and left when some local guys came up to us and wanted to talk and take some photos. I wasn’t in such a hurry and like to try and talk to people along the way, and I also don’t mind taking some photos. I think my photo is on many mobile phones after all the people I have met just by the road.

I came to a small village that evening where I stopped to talk to someone and ask if they knew a good place where I could set up my tent for the night. But the construction workers I met there arranged with a room in one of the houses they were working on where we had some tea and I rested for a while until one of the workers came and told me to come with his. Islam was living in another house close by where I could stay for the night. We had a nice dinner and tried to communicate as best we could.
The next day I ended up cycling 135 km. the wind wasn’t as bad as before and I started early in the morning. When I started thinking about where to stop for the night a man pulled me over by the road to ask about my journey and to give me a cold beer. He asked me if I needed any help and I explained that I was looking for a place to sleep for the night. He said no problem, and told me to follow him for 5 km to what I thought was his home. It turned out being a petrol station that he owned and was renovating. But it had a nice comfy couch in one room so I was really happy with that. Ozod was very helpful and also brought me dinner later. But I had a strange feeling about the man and realized that the young woman that was with him wasn’t his daughter when they went in to another room for some “privacy”. Later that night after dinner and a couple of beers Ozod, his brother, friend and “lady friend” wanted me to come with them to what I understood was one of their homes. But I told them I needed the rest after a long day on the bike, but it was mostly because I had a bad feeling about them. So I made my bed on the couch and fell asleep only to be woken up in the middle of the night by a car pulling in to the petrol station. It turned out to be Ozod who spend the rest of outside playing music from the car and continued drinking. I didn’t get a very good night sleep that night and also turned down the offer to go to Ozod’s home for breakfast. Because there was no way I was getting in a car with someone who was still clearly drunk.
I had about 130 km left to Angren from where the road would go up into the mountains. It was another warm sunny day and I had a very nice lunch at a restaurant with some men I met there. They also invited me in to stay at their home, the only problem was that they lived in Toshkent. I soon arrived in Angren and decided to have a look at the prices of hotels and if it was too expensive I would camp somewhere outside of the city. But it turned out to be neither when a man whom I asked for directions to a hotel offered me a place to stay. Genna was a pastor at a church in Angren and the church had a rehabilitation center where I could stay for the night. I had a really nice time there and two church members who spoke good English came by and we had a nice interesting conversation. They had to leave so during dinner the conversation was more basic with the other guys living at the center. But we had a nice evening and a huge contrast from the night before with drinking and questionable “female company”.
For dinner we had Plov, which is a traditional Uzbek food with rice, fried vegetables and meat. It is good, but I have a little problem eating it because it was what I ate my first night in Uzbekistan and also what came up the other way the next morning when I had my stomach problem. But I can still eat it and the hunger after a long day on the bike takes over. It was a little bit more difficult to eat when the leftovers was served for breakfast the next morning.
But I needed the energy since the “Kamchik Pass” at 2267 meters was waiting for me this day. And even before the real climbing began I had to struggle with a strong head wind. So I knew this would be a slow day on the bike. The ride was beautiful and something I had been waiting for during the boring cycling in the desert. But it was hard work when I was cycling up the steep serpentine roads on a very hot day. But it was an amazing feeling once I reached the top after almost six hours cycling. At the top there was a tunnel I had to go through and since the military presence is something else in this region I had to show my passport going in to the tunnel and also the other guard at the other side. I think I showed my passport seven times during the day which is a new record for me and probably more times than I had to show it for my first months of travelling.
On the other side of the mountain waited the reward of all the hard work during the day. And luckily the road was okay for most of the way down. I was probably averaging 40-50 km/h for the first 20 km and it was a lot of fun. I know my mother doesn’t want to hear this, but I can’t help myself! I thought about doing a video with my GoPro on the way down but decided not to because of the military presence. It wasn’t worth taking the chance and maybe getting in trouble for filming something I wasn’t allowed to film. And on the way down I passed a couple of places with sighs of crossed over cameras. I was going downhill for a long time and even when the landscape flattened out I was going at good speed thanks to a nice wind and could make up for a slow day going up the hill.
I set my sight on Qoqan and though I would find a hotel there mostly because I needed to get online and have a look at my emails to see if there was any progress with an invitation for China. But I didn’t make it to Qoqan when I met some people in Danghara who invited me in for tea who turned in to a dinner (Plov again!) and they let me stay there for the night. I was woken up at 6 in the morning and we got in a minibus to somewhere that we would have breakfast. It turned out to be a wedding of some of their friends, and apparently they start the festivities with breakfast for everyone. It was a fancy  place and I felt a little out of place in my T-shirt and shorts, but it was nice even though Plov was served again=)
Today I have been cycling to Ferghana in the perfect weather. It’s been cloudy and windy, but this time wind was in my favor and I was going really fast and got here early in the day. I looked around at all the hotels but they were all very expensive but I had a look at one last Homestay on my way out of the city. They were renovating the place but had another place a little further from the center. So after a little bargaining I now have a big apartment to myself for just 7,5 $. I’ll stay here for at least two nights to relax, sort some things out and to spend my last SUM before crossing the border into Kyrgyzstan.   

tisdag 14 maj 2013

Into the wind

After four days in Bukhara my stomach felt okay and I was ready to get back on the bike again. It was a beautiful old city with some great old buildings. But it felt a little strange seeing tourist again. I think the last touristic place where I’ve been was Cappadocia two months ago.
I felt okay when leaving Bukhara but the energy wasn’t 100% and after cycling 95 km into the wind I didn’t have much strength left in my legs and stopped close to Navoi. The next day I continued east and was hoping for some luck with the wind only to be disappointed once again. The wind has been blowing from the north for all my days cycling north, but now when I turned to the east then that’s where the wind is coming from of course. I think the last time I had a proper tail wind was when I left Tehran, but the weather was nice and warm so I probably shouldn’t complain too much. I also realized how cheap it is to by a lunch at the small restaurants along the way, so there’s no reason to go to the store and make some lunch myself. And I always meet some nice curious people when I stop. At the evening I came to the town Kattakurgan where I met a nice man who told me that there were no hotels open but that he would like me to stay at his house in a small village outside of town. I never turn down an offer like that and we managed to squeeze in my bike and bags in his extremely small car. I was sitting on the passenger side holding on to my bike that was sticking out from the back. But we made it there without losing anything driving on some really bumpy roads. We met up with his friend Jamshid who was an English teacher which was great since my host knew as much English as I know Uzbek. We had a nice evening with some food and Uzbek beer at a summer camp in the village. And once it got dark we headed back to his home where his mom served us even more food.
Yesterday I started off early in the morning on my way to Samarkand. The wind was blowing in my face and the roads continue to be very bumpy, so I probably won’t break any speed records here in Uzbekistan. But it would be nice to average more than 16km/h someday. But after many days of constant burning sun it was really nice to finally have a cloudy day and a little cooler temperature. Since I started cycling at seven in the morning I reached Samarkand at about two and had plenty of time to find a nice place to stay. It wasn’t the easiest city to find the right way, but with kind, helpful locals I always find my way at the end. After looking around a bit I settled in to a cheap room and after a couple cups of tea in the courtyard the rain started pouring down. I hadn’t seen rain in almost two weeks after cycling in the desert, so I could really enjoy the refreshing rain. Mostly because I’m inside. I ended up staying here in Samarkand three nights. It’s a very beautiful city with a lot of old majestic buildings. I’ve had a nice relaxing time here just walking around the city, seeing the sights and eating amazing strawberry’s and lots of ice cream. I have also been trying to figure out the best way to get my visa for China, and I have to say that they don’t make it easy. Hopefully everything works out and I can get it from the embassy in Bishkek. And I’m not that far away now. I have maybe ten days left in Uzbekistan before heading into the mountains of Kyrgyzstan towards Bishkek

tisdag 7 maj 2013

The Turkmen Race

I got up early last Tuesday morning to be at the border as soon as possible since I only had five days to get through Turkmenistan on my transit visa. I was there at 6:30 only to find out that the border doesn’t open until 7:00. So I waited outside with at least 50 truck drivers until the gates opened and everyone rushed in. Luckily the truck drivers where going to the commercial hall so I was the first one to get to customs. But it didn’t help much that I got up so early since I had to wait for a customs worker for about 1,5 hour. And after he had looked in one of my bags I could get a stamp in my passport and cycle over a bridge and 1,5 km through no man’s land to the Turkmenistan border. And after showing my passport to 3-4 different people and waited about one hour for some document I only had to show my passport to one more person before a was free to go. By then it was eleven a clock and I felt I had to hurry up so that I would get somewhere on my first of five days. I was also hungry and didn’t have any Turkmen money, but that sorted itself out when I met tree nice men working at a railway crossing who invited me in for lunch and also helped me to find someone who could change my Iranian Rials to Turkmen Manat. It wasn’t that easy since most only changed dollars, but we found someone and even if the exchange rate for my Rials to Manat probably wasn’t very good I was still happy to get it sorted out and start cycling.

Because I was cycling west I didn’t have to deal with the ruthless wind from the north on my first day. The only problem was the condition of the roads, and they were really bad. Most of the time I was cycling in the gravel by the side of the road since it was a smoother ride. Even if I started cycling late I still managed to do 114 km on the first day. When it was time to find somewhere to sleep I stopped and asked some people in a small village. They didn’t even hesitate and just waved me in. The dinner was already ready so I sat down with Murat, the father of the house and had a good dinner and since I was now in Turkmenistan vodka goes with every meal.

The next day I got my first taste of the northern wind. The roads continued being bad and the surroundings more sandy. Two times a small sand tornado formed in front of me, the first one I could avoid by stopping but the other one came right at me. But I knew crossing Turkmenistan was going to be hard and because of the time pressure there was no other thing to do but to keep pushing on. In the evening I arrived in a village just outside of the city Mari. At the first house I came to I met an old lady who invited me in to stay with her. She had a nice house by Turkmen standards and a big garden with geese, chickens, bunnies and a couple of dogs. She emptied her fridge with all that she had and put it in front of me. And after a long tough day I was really hungry. And when washing off before going to bed I noticed how dirty I was and that I could scrape of layers of sand from my face.

After passing Mari the road got better but the wind kept on being strong. The speed was really slow, but I had made good distance the two other days and felt confident that I could make it to the border on Saturday. By lunchtime I was lucky to get invited by some nice people having a little pasty in a garden. There I had a big lunch and of course some vodka and when I left they filled my bag with so much food that I couldn’t close it and had to leave some behind. After this point villages got further and further apart so I had to be careful and make sure I had enough water since it was really hot. And the landscape had become sandier with sand dunes right next to the road. And many times I passed by some camels who looked very surprised to see me.
That evening I arrived in a small village and met two guys who were working with mobile network in a house next to the road. They let me stay there for the night and we had a nice dinner and tried to talk a little even if it was really hard since they didn’t knew any English. But I’m used to that by this time and somehow it’s still possible to communicate.
Again I headed out into the hot desert and into the wind. My speed was about 14 km/, and many times when I had picked up a little speed holes appeared on the road and I had to brake. It was really frustrating at times and I was day dreaming that I was cycling along the sea and could just stop at any time for a swim to cool off. But then a big truck passed by throwing a gust of wind at me bringing me back to reality. I also had a flat tire which wasn’t much fun to stop and fix under the hot desert sun.
There weren’t many villages along the way and since I was drinking a lot of water I needed a place to fill up. I came by a small village and asked a man I met for water. He gave me a bucket and pointed towards a well. Taking water from a well was a first for me on this trip, but I really needed water and didn’t have any other choice. That evening I thought I would sleep in my tent out in the desert, but in the distance I saw a tower and pushed on in hope that there would be a village there. And there was one and when cycling in I met two friendly bee keepers and one of them invited me in to sleep in his house. He didn’t speak a word of English and when I parked my bike by his house and sat down outside he went away and didn’t come back until 1,5 hour later. So I was sitting there watching the village life. People getting water from the well, arriving with donkeys pulling there carriage and all the noise from the animals around. It was relaxing sitting there as the sun set.
Eventually the man came back with his family, his wife and four little boys. But after a we sat by the train station that was right next to their house they went away again and told me to wait for them. One of their neighbors came by and invited me in for tea. But a cup of tea turned into a dinner and when the other man came back I was in the middle of a meal. But since he was so kind to invite me to begin with I couldn’t just leave even if the neighbors wanted me to stay with them instead. We walked down to the place where they kept the bees where his two uncles where. And they had been drinking one to many vodkas and I think that even if I could speak Turkmen fluently I probably wouldn’t be able to understand what one of them was saying.
It was now Saturday and my last day in my transit visa. I had about 60 km left to Turkmenabat and after that a bit more to the border. Once I reached Turkmenabat I had to ask a couple of times for the right way since they don’t have that many signs in Turkmenistan, I saw just a few during my five days there. I was longer then I had thought to the border and by the time I was there I had cycled 100 km during the day. The Turkmenistan side was fairly quick even if there are many people who need to see our passport. Luckily there where one soldier who spoke a little English and could help me fill out the customs paper since they didn’t have it in English. At the Uzbek side it took longer and in a little warm house I had to fill out more customs papers and show my passport three different times before I could continue to the customs house which was packed with people. And everyone tried to get through the metal detector at one. Eventually a fight broke out and the soldiers had to break it up. By then I was just sitting on a chair watching the madness. But it has its advantages being a tourist and a customs worker came up to me, looked at my papers and let me go. It was a relief to be in Uzbekistan where I had a 30 days visa and didn’t have to hurry at all. But I was tired after cycling 100 km and crossing the border. But I still had a bit left to a town where I planned to find somewhere to stay.
When I arrived there the sun was setting and at the first places I asked at they just told me to continue on the road to a hotel. And some guy’s even wanted me to load by bike in their taxi and that they would drive me 80 km to Bakhara. I had to say no many times and eventually just cycle away since they didn’t seem to understand that I didn’t want to take a taxi to Bukhara. When I arrived in in the little town of Alat a man waved me down and invited me in for tea. It turned out to be a birthday party for his sister and we ate a great meal and they let me sleep there for the night. The next morning wasn’t so good and I woke up feeling ill, and after trying to eat a little breakfast last night’s dinner came back up. After that I felt better and after resting for two hours I thought I could continue on cycling. But I didn’t get very far and asked for a hotel in the next town. I was told there would be one a little further on and after a while I arrived at a motel. It looked like it was closed and when I stopped outside I was met by a man who told me that the place was under construction. I explained my situation and he was kind to let me stay in a little house next to the motel. It was a small warm room filled with flies, but I was happy to have a place to rest and access to a bathroom that would be used frequently. The guys there where really helpful and checked up on me and brought me water. And this time it was bottled water and not some water from a well out in the desert which probably was the cause for my stomach problem. And when thinking back at it I don’t know why I was so stupid to not use the water purifying pills that I have in my bag. A lesson learned for the next time I’m in that situation.
I could keep down a little dinner and some breakfast in the morning. So I felt like I could continue the 60 km to Bukhara to get a hotel room where I could really relax. So off into the wind again and I was going really slowly since I didn’t have that much energy in my legs. But after many breaks along the way I made it here and managed to get a good price on a room with air-condition and my own bathroom. My stomach is still not okay and I’m planning to stay here until I’m 100% and ready for the road again. And I’m really looking forward to going east to the mountains since I feel I have had enough of desert for a while.