Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Not a good start. I am sitting on the outskirts of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where my bike is supposed to be. In all my years of travel I have never had a bike go missing en route to the destination. Not only am I frustrated by the valuable days this is chewing up, there is no guarantee that the bike will arrive at all. To make matters worse, I am staying a fair way out of town with little to do but curse Turkish Airlines’ incompetence.

Rewinding a little, the trip so far has been an absolute nightmare. The flight itself was an epic: Melbourne-Brisbane-Singapore-Istanbul-Trabson-Bishkek. In all more than 24 hours of flying time and the same again in forced layovers.

The airport at Istanbul was particularly harrowing, and a little comedic. As I went through the x-ray machine near the check-out counter I accidentally took the passport and boarding pass of an Australian guy I had befriended en route. Rowan – whom I had spent the previous 10 hours with in Istanbul – had put his passport in the same plastic container as my daypack and I inadvertently grabbed both. I used his boarding pass and passport to clear check-in and found myself on the plane (with two passports no less).

Once on the plane there was a guy sitting in my (Rowan’s) seat and a quick exchange followed. He pulled out his boarding pass and emphatically pointed at the seat number – the same as mine. The flight attendant then calmly told him that he had the right seat, but was on the wrong plane. “This flight’s going to Bishkek,” she quivered, to which he screeched, “where the hell is Bishkek”. The poor muppet was supposed to be flying to Athens but had gone to the wrong gate….

As I looked closer at the boarding pass I realised that it was Rowan’s, and so was the passport. I told the flight attendant the story and she led me back to the gate (a little exasperated by this stage) where Rowan was surrounded by security and pleading his case. It then dawned on the officials that I had boarded the plane flashing the wrong passport, meaning there had been two security breaches (the Athens-bound passenger was also being interrogated). Within 10 seconds of the realisation a full security response was launched. All passengers and luggage were immediately evacuated pending a full bomb sweep of the aircraft (at a nearby hangar). I had caused an international incident.

As you can imagine I wasn’t too popular with the passengers, most of whom were mountain climbers en route to the high altitude peaks of Kyrgyzstan. The passengers were ushered into a holding bay for two hours while we awaited the outcome of the sweep. Our relief at taking off a full three hours late quickly dissipated at the sound of the captain’s announcement: “the landing gear has not retracted and we have to make an emergency landing in Trabson in northern Turkey”. We sat anxiously on the plane for the next hour hoping that the landing gear would hold up. The captain suggested that we would have to stay in Trabson for the night if the landing gear couldn’t be repaired quickly, which thankfully it was.

Finally we were in the air again for the last few hours to Bishkek. We were tired, emotional and all I wanted to do was collect my luggage at the other end and sleep. After 54 hours the last thing I needed was the news that my bike had been misplaced. I was disconsolate at the baggage claim office but knew there was nothing I could do. Her manner indicated I wasn’t the first passenger in this situation – probably not even the first this week.

The driver from the guesthouse was waiting for me and wasn’t impressed by the four-hour delay. He decided he’s make up some of the time on the drive back to the guesthouse, and was doing 160kph when a police officer jumped out to the road and flagged him down. The driver hardly flinched, got out and handed over a few notes and went quietly on his way. Welcome to the former soviet republic!

As I would find out in the next few days - Bishkek is a Wild West town where corruption and violence prevail. Three separate people in the guesthouse I was staying at would be robbed while I waited for my bike - two of them by police. I myself had a close call when a policeman asked for my passport. The standard scam sees the policeman take the passport and refuse to give it back until payment is made. Luckily I'd heard about the scam and carried only a copy of my passport, but others weren't so fortunate...

Link to video of this trip

More preliminaries

Despite the travel chaos I had a great 12 hours in Istanbul. I arrived at 5.30am in the morning and Rowan and I headed into Sultanahmet to check out the mosques, palaces and statues.

The trip to Istanbul had special significance for me. It was the first time I had been back since I was drugged and robbed on a park bench in Istanbul 15 years ago. I found the park bench where I’d been left for dead and marked it with a photo (bottom of page). I’d imagined feeling more sombre than I was, and more anxious, but it actually felt like driving past a house you used to live in. It’s familiar but there’s not much nostalgia.

The Istanbul story, for those that don’t know it, was a significant event in my life. I’d arrived late the night before from Sweden and checked into the first hotel I found. I rose early to watch the fisherman ply their trade on the waterfront, reading my book and occasionally looking up to admire their catch. I struck up a conversation with two tourists – well dressed Tunisians – and spent the next few hours talking and visiting some of the mosques. After lunch we wandered down to the Bosphorous Sea and took up residence on a park bench that looked to the bridge that separates Europe and Asia.

As I sat between my new friends one of them pulled out a baklava cake which he carved up for us to share. He offered me a piece – the marked one – and within seconds of biting into it I was unconscious. I woke up 18 hours later in a Turkish hospital with doctors and nurses swirling above me. To this day I don’t know how I got to the hospital, who found me or how long I was on the bench.

What I didn't know, but was able to find out over the coming days, was that:

  • I had been relieved of my passport, credit card, camera, address book and travellers check contained in my money belt
  • I’d apparently been clinically dead on arrival at the hospital, with the doctor suggesting that I only survived because I was so fit (had just finished a 5-month cycling tour)
  • $3000 had been spent on my credit card while I was unconscious
  • I would have to spend countless hours at police and medical facilities in the coming week to support my new passport application
Gavin and Jacqui Wesson – a honeymooning couple from Sydney – did what few in their situation would and put their holiday on hold to help me out. They accompanied me to hospitals and police stations and the embassy. They had to leave a few days later to see Jacqui’s brother play schoolboy cricket in England. I was to find out subsequently that her young brother, who apparently had some talent as a youngster, was one of Australia’s greatest in Adam Gilchrist.

One of my real regrets about the whole episode was that it spoiled Turkey for me. Sarah – who I would meet while waiting for my passport in southern Turkey – loved Turkey but I never shared her excitement. The 12 hours I spent in Istanbul helped redeem Turkey in my eyes, and I now counted Istanbul among my favourite cities as I’m sure I would have 15 years earlier under different circumstances.

Day 1 – Bishkek – Kemin

Distance: 100kms

As first days often are, today wasn’t a lot of fun. My bike arrived late last night – to my relief – and so what I thought would be another forced rest day changed suddenly. I was mobile. I got up early to assemble the bike and realised that it was in rough shape. Someone had ripped a hole in one end of the box and took my toiletries bag, one of my drink bottles and my tool kit. The toiletries bag contained my water purification tablets, sunscreen and zinc – devastating. Luckily a Swedish couple at the hostel had just finished a bike tour and gave me their tool kit.

I got everything loaded on the bike and was on the road by 10am. I was intending to use the Internet to let everyone know that I was mobile but the electricity supply was down and I figured I’d find a terminal down the road. Wrong. I pedalled out of town into the abyss where narry an Internet connection exists. I felt extremely guilty and rued the decision not to go into town and use the Internet before I left.

The riding today was hard and unbelievably hot. Temperatures in Bishkek were 40 degrees and it was more than that in the blazing sun with heat radiating off the bitumen. I stopped off for noodles and horsemeat (laghman – the national dish) to escape the heat of the day. Unfortunately sunburn and heatstroke had already landed making the closing stages of the day very unpleasant. Get up early tomorrow, I told myself.

I found a great little campsite in someone’s backyard. They were working in the garden and they obliged when I asked if I could camp (in bad Russian). It was a real relief as the wind was howling and there wasn’t a lot of tree cover to hide me from unwelcome visitors. I spent the remaining daylight doing a few running repairs to the bike, including fitting the mirror and adjusting seat height/handlebars etc. I feel like I left disorganised and I can only relax once everything is in its rightful place. I hope that as the traffic thins the body will adjust to this heat. The mountains loom large in the distance, and loneliness creeps in as I write myself to sleep…..

Day 2 Kemin – Kochkor

Distance: 100kms

Severely dehydrated tonight after one of the most brutal, scary days of my life. I got an early start to beat the heat but progress was slowed by the headwind and steady incline up the Shoestring Gorge. I stopped for breakfast two hours in with only 20kms covered. The five-egg omelette with bread was great, with plenty of salt but not much taste. As the day unfolded the heat became more and more excruciating.

At one point I stopped under a rare tree on the side of the road where a mother and daughter had set up a stall selling some kind of hard cheese. They looked at me like I was demented cycling in this heat, and I was inclined to agree. They took pity on me and gave up their bench and allowed me to sleep there for 15 minutes or so. They also gave me one of their cheese delights – congealed goats cheese I think – which was interesting…

From there I took a detour off the main road towards the mountain village of Kochkor. I had been told there was a small pass between there and Kochkor. It was in fact, to my horror, a 15km climb at 12% in places. I was travelling in slow motion for two hours before I reached the summit. I had also developed saddle sores, making climbing in the seat unpleasant and with little prospect of getting better. The relentless sweating has also rendered the sunscreen next to useless.

The scenery in the gorge was dramatic but I could barely lift my head to look at it. At the summit, however, it was a different story and the views coming down the other side of the mountain were a great distraction. Descending towards a huge salt lake I was amazed by the lush green fields that contrasted with the rock I’d just come through.

Unfortunately the extra time it had taken to climb the mountain had depleted my water supplies, and I ran out of water with 10 kms to ride. I inched my way to Kochkor trying to preserve my strength at the same time as trying to get to the destination (and water) quickly. The last five kilometres I had to stop under a tree every mile or so to regain my breath and hide in the shade. My urine was the colour of strong tea, I was nauseas and unsteady on my feet. I cramped in places I have never cramped before, including my ribcage.

I was almost delirious when I pulled into the Community Based Tourism office in town, where I was able to secure accommodation with a local family. After a large drink and quick shower I headed into town to use the Internet, which I discovered was not working due to power failure. The main reason I rode through the heat of the day was to time the email for when Sarah was still up – very frustrating… I was miraculously able to find a working phone and quickly called home – relief all ‘round. I’ve had four litres of water since I arrived and have developed an acute sense of respect for what this climate can do to me. Given that I will climb to 3000m tomorrow I’m hoping I will be elevated above the furnace.

Day 3 – Kochkor – Naryn

Distance: 130kms

The litany of disasters continues. I’m sitting in a depressing Cold War Russian hotel (balcony above) in dusty Naryn contemplating whether my bike has suffered a fatal malfunction: the rear hub. When I spin the back wheel it struggles to complete a single revolution before grabbing tight on either the hub or rear disc brake. If it’s the latter I might be OK, but if it’s the former the trip is doomed. The impact of the malfunction weighed physically and emotionally on me today. Physically it slowed my progress by a third – 130kms took 9 hours. The rear wheel resistance towards the top of the gravel pass meant that I had to walk the bike for the last two kilometres – something I usually refuse to do. I then had to nurse the bike down the other side, making today one of the longest and hardest I’ve ever done.

Enough complaints though. One of the more pleasant parts of the day was meeting a German couple over lunch in a dusty rat hole near Lake Song-Kol. It was while riding the three kilometres to their detour that I realised something was seriously wrong with the bike. As hard as I pushed I could barely keep up with them, despite the fact that they had way more gear than I and were clearly built for comfort not speed.

Witnessed a few funny things today:
  • The familiar sight of a policeman jumping out from behind a post or tree holding a radar and waiting for his baksheesh. The driver generally gets out, swaggers over and shakes the policeman’s hand. The policeman then glances into his palm and either nods in approval at the amount that’s been imparted, or complains to the driver. I saw one truck driver on the end of a verbal barrage from a policeman when he obviously underpaid his `fine’
  • I also witnessed the Kyrgyz version of environmental sustainability. The tradition is that when you are heading downhill you switch off the engine to save fuel. At one point I saw a Lada doing 2kph with a car full of patient guys on board staring blankly ahead like it was the most natural thing in the world
I also encountered some great mountain scenery. The drop into Naryn was particularly good as I was low on energy and the saddle sores unbearable. Had a frustrating hour trying to find accommodation as any semblance of information was closed. The salubrious Alo-Kol Hotel was straight out of Cold War Russia, complete with rude attendants. It took a full 20 minutes to find someone to check me in, the same to lug my bike up three flights of stairs and half an hour waiting for someone to repair the shower, toilet and light. The advertised warm shower was predictably cold, and the advertised balcony overlooked an abandoned housing block complete with smashed windows.

When I thought we were done in fact we weren’t. The babushka insisted on having someone sit in the room with me while she completed the paperwork. I finally got into the shower at 8.15pm, a full 80 minutes after I arrived… Tomorrow looks like a crunch one trying to diagnose and hopefully fix my wheel problems. The alternative is difficult to stomach: the end of the bike trip and return to Bishkek.

Day 4 – Naryn

Distance: 10km (standing)

Gave myself a checklist for today, in descending order of priority:
1. Get advice on/fix bike
2. Get medical supplies for saddle sore
3. Change money
4. Finally replenish toiletries
5. Get food for coming days
6. Get petrol for fuel bottle

The day started on the Internet with a kind of suspended dread while I tried to get to the bottom of the problem. The advice (from Ivanhoe Cycles in Melbourne) was that it was more likely brakes than hub, and I was able to follow instructions with immediate results. The problem remains but is far less acute, though I did have one nervous moment when I accidentally started to bleed the hydraulics and lost all brake temporarily.

News on the saddle sore was not so good. The sore has become even more inflammed and with little prospect of rest it appears that this sore will be my friend for the rest of the trip. I did manage to track down some antibiotics, Betadine and bandages – an interesting exchange in broken Russian. I hope they are in fact antibiotics…

Checked out of my hotel before midday and into an apartment. It was twice the size, double the comfort and half the price. With all other chores completed I turned to money and was devastated to hear that the bank had run out of money. I did a blackmarket deal with a haberdasher – albeit it a lower rate – which involved following her down back alleys to the workshop of a hardware stall to do the exchange. The best part of the day was a short Internet exchange with Sarah – felt strange to be discussing wedding plans from Kyrgyzstan.

Day 5 Naryn – Ak-Kya

Distance: 125kms

A rollercoaster today. Had a light breakfast and was on the road by 7.15am. The saddle sore was unbearable and I was forced to ride standing up for the first two hours. The kilometres ticked by with the assistance of a tailwind and smooth bitumen. The absence of rubbing back brake was also uplifting. The temperature started to rise as I hit Ak-Tal where I hoped to find lunch and replenish my water supply. Horror: the town was bare. Not a good sign when this was the biggest town on the map for the next 150kms. I decided that even with low water I had to press on to the next town 15kms away. The road turned to deep, sandy corrugations and traction and the terrain were difficult. The temperature was apparently 48 degrees and I was struggling to make any progress through the sand. I moved from the road to a horse track which was smoother and progress faster.

I took stock. I was down to 500ml of water and not a patch of shade in sight. I realised that the further I pushed on the more difficult it would be to retrace. I decided that I would crest a hill in the distance and make my decision from higher ground. Halfway up the climb, and spent, I discovered a small stream. I had to climb down a rock face and drank a litre in one mouthful, dousing myself to cool off. I knew then I was safe.

At the top of the climb the first car I’d seen since Ak-Tal passed me and disappeared into the village three kilometres below. Euphoria. I coasted down to the town to find out where I could get water but again there was none. I was tired, hot and hungry, and dry. It was then that one of two great people moments happened. The first was a guy that I came across in the street who insisted that I come to his house for lunch. We walked 100 metres, sat down in an open-walled bungalow in the backyard and proceeded to graze. He first poured me a large bowl of fermented mare’s milk – slightly better than it sounds – and a loaf of freshly baked bread delivered by his wife. I sat there for an hour trying to reclaim the few words of Russian from my scorched memory. He gave me another loaf of bread to take away – along with some jam – and assured me there was another village close by with a well. Off I pedalled…

The second people moment occurred at the next village. I found a small store that sold soda water and guzzled it as I took stock on how to proceed from here. A woman joined me and spoke to me in perfect English! She was the local schoolteacher and told me there was a stream about 20 minutes up the road. At this moment a Lada came hurtling around the corner and slammed on the brakes in front of us, passing six inches from my feet. I was about to jump up and take him on when I realised it was the woman’s husband. I shook hands with him as the dust settled and watched his vodka soaked mate stagger from the car to replenish his vodka supplies.

They disappeared in the Lada and I followed close behind. Sure enough, 20 minutes later I dropped into a gorge with green grass and a small stream. The woman, her husband, drunk friend and countless others were there as well, most of them drunk out of their minds. They
were cooking wild goat shaslick (just shot by the drunk guy and seen on BBQ in picture above) and invited me to join them. I was able to avoid drinking the vodka and beer but enjoyed the shaslick as I sipped heartily from the stream. During the circus the group was trying to set me up with the sister of the English teacher – a tough sell given she was on her 40th vodka, had one tooth and couldn’t speak English….

They headed off and I was able to truly relax for the first time today. I have had a few passers by wander past, including a few shepherds, but am hoping for a peaceful night.