The untold stories

It has been brought to our attention that this blog is perhaps presenting a fairly rose-tinted view of our last eight months. Therefore, in the interest of unbiased reporting and to show what lies behind the smiles and the sunsets, we have compiled a series of photos which should illustrate the somewhat less glamorous side of cycling from China to Africa.

Back to basics: bread, water and bikes have been our staples.

Not usually a fussy drinker, but the homemade Tajikistan brew was not to our liking.

The floor is often preferable to the bed.

With a limited wardrobe, all fashion sense was discarded early on.

The reason communism failed: an ex-soviet en suite bathroom.

Uzbekistan was hot! Taking a post-lunch nap under a bus shelter.

There is simply no greater (nor more widely available) refreshment.

Bike rebuild in Istanbul.

Language barriers occasionally require a more hands-on approach.

You know that storage room behind a hotel reception…. our first night in Egypt.

Finding a pesky thorn.

Another unsatisfactory breakfast.

Fire up the bedroom stove, again.

Beans for lunch and beans for dinner. Hope you like beans if you’re heading to Sudan.

Who would have ever thought that camping in a thorn field would result in multiple punctures?

Low key birthday celebrations this year.

‘Hotel’ rooms: there have been some heart-sinking moments.

Pursuit of cash in Africa has been a challenge: queuing for another empty ATM.

A familiar sight on rest/laundry day.

The washing Wife.

Don’t drop the soap… loo and shower combo.

The simple life: our luggage for the year.


The Enclaves

The international border demarcation in this part of the world is a bit of a mess and not entirely static. One particularly grey area relates to the few parcels of land that Uzbekistan has claimed within Kyrgyzstan borders. These are called the enclaves, and are irritatingly positioned directly between Osh and our only feasible open border crossing into Tajikistan.

Osh hosts: a thoroughly pleasant bunch

Understandably the enclaves are viewed by the Kyrgs with a degree of resentment, but also looked upon as a bit of a challenge to overcome. Our former host in Osh regularly ferries locals toward the border, taking great joy from avoiding the numerous police checkpoints and more importantly, being part of the Kyrgyzstan effort to overcome this irksome intrusion. Before departing, we were informed of the current road layout and how we would avoid entering Uzbek territory; the language barrier was a bit of an obstacle, but thankfully there is a universally recognised charade for ‘do not cross’ and ‘man with gun’. As Omran explained the intricate details of which dirt road to take and which hidden junction to turn down, it felt a little as if we were being briefed by the French Resistance in Nazi-occupied Paris. Briefing over, we left our faultless hosts in Osh and headed for the border town of Batken, although our primary objective  was really avoiding ‘man with gun’.

Enclave negotiation

Despite the deteriorating road surface and the Wacky Races style of driving adopted by the people of this region, good progress was made toward the enclaves through the beautiful Fergana Valley. Whatever reasons are given for the establishment of Uzbek land within Kyrg territory – and the numerous abandoned oil wells en-route gave us some indication – it was certainly not to facilitate cycle touring. The coarse gravel roads have been cut over, rather than between mountains, and do not make for particularly easy cycling terrain. However, one-by-one the enclaves were negotiated and the police checkpoints proved far more welcoming than we had feared.

After a rest day in Batken, which will be remembered as a largely bland town but one in which we were furnished with quite outrageous levels of hospitality, the Monday morning border crossing into Tajikistan passed with relative ease.  The series of oddly placed and remote sheds would have probably been better suited to a garden allotment (as perhaps would some of the occupants of said sheds), but the process was as smooth as we could have hoped for.

Finally, in topographical news: the last 100km into Tajikistan has been almost entirely downhill, which will make for an interesting few days through the central ranges, towards Dushanbe.

Russian roulette

Not exactly roulette in the traditional sense of the Russian game, but waiting in Osh for our various visas and permits for onward travel is turning out to be a bit of a guessing game.

We had heard before arriving that travel through this region is by no means smooth sailing, and so it has already proved. The Tajikistan government is currently battling with quite regular internal violent unrest and as a result, border crossings are closing and mandatory permit stamps are being locked deeply within embassy desks.  Any information information provided is in no way consistent or reliable, and so the 6-day ride to an ‘open’ border crossing would be a costly mistake if Sergei and all his chums decide otherwise on that particular day. Thanks Sergei.

Things could have been very different…

Upon reflection of the planning made for this trip and the issues we have encountered to date, it is becoming apparent that the world is sadly punctuated with many such pockets of unrest, rendering them inaccessible to to anyone who places value on their own life. As the Pamir Highway is looking less likely for us, it joins the Karakoram highway (dissecting the Kashmir/Pakistan melting pot) as a missed opportunity on this occasion. What a terrible shame that the only people able to enjoy these most spectacular regions of the world are those getting very upset at another group of people. An enormous statue of Lenin stands in the centre of Osh; I wonder what he would have made of all this?

In brighter news, the kebabs and beer in this town are plentiful and delicious.

The Russian summer

The Kyrgyzstan summer months evidently equate to the temperature edging closer toward zero degrees Celsius, without actually reaching it. And so our lightweight summer sleeping bags and tent were an absolute joy.

Summer in Kyrgyzstan

The first night in Kyrgyzstan was spent being rather cold. The two occasions throughout the night spent clearing snow from the tent were worthwhile, but also an indication of things to come.

We waited long enough in the morning for the weather to relent slightly, but not long enough for the Tonmurun pass to become passable. After the well-insulated Russian police at the passport check had told us the pass would not be possible on bicycle, we headed up to corroborate their claims. They were corroborated.

Barely halfway up, and with a ditch in the road as our only realistic option for some respite, a worried but kind Kyrg truck driver named Norlandbek stopped, looked in disgust that a man would treat his wife in such a way, and then placed the bikes into his truck. The snow drifts meant cars were not able to get through, but Norlandbek seemed to take the whole situation in his stride and delivered us safely down the other side.

In summary: don’t come to Kyrgyzstan expecting a summer holiday, unless – like Norlandbek – you are as hard as nails.