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.

Day 6 Ak-Kya – Kazarman

Distance: 105kms

The most gruelling road conditions and terrain I have ever encountered. The fact that I am in Kazarman surprises me as I was absolutely spent at 60kms. My understanding of today’s route was an initial high pass (3000m) and then either downhill or level roads to Kazarman. The first pass was as promised: brutal. It switched back steeply (pictured left) on loose gravel for the first hour and a half and then turned nasty. The road surface and gradient made staying upright difficult and I had to switch from one side of the road to the other to keep my momentum. This would usually be dangerous except there was not a car to be seen. The road had been blasted by Russians in the early 1900s and they obviously weren’t thinking about cyclists when they designed the sharp, steep corners.

At the top of the pass, three hours later, I ran into four cyclists from the Ukraine. They looked like hard nuts and lamented that even in the Ukraine the roads were not like this. The descent was treacherous and at one point I almost washed out the front wheel on stony corner. The bottom came much quicker than expected – and hoped for – and surprise number one for the day: a second pass. It to an hour to climb and by now the sun was blistering. As I crested the pass I was hit with a massive headwind the remained for the rest of the day. At 1.30pm I spotted a lonely tree in the landscape, parked my bike against a signpost and walked down the embankment with water, bread and map for company. I rested for 30 minutes staring high above me at the second surprise of the day: pass number three. A fourth and fifth pass would come later…

With 60kms done I was toasted. I pulled into a small village looking for something sweet. A young kid on horseback took me down a laneway to the back of a house. Two young girls inside appeared with a bottle of creaming soda (Russian style) and charged me 50 cents. I was a sorry sight leaning against a wall with no energy, covered in dust, the wind howling and sipping on a sickly sweet soft drink. On the final climb of the day I oscillated between five and six kilometres an hour with riding, and four when I was pushing. I pushed a lot. For kilometres on end. Slow going.

At the top of the last pass the landscape opened up below me. Kazarman was still a possibility tonight, but I didn’t want to get ahead of myself. The descent lasted 15 kilometres and I hit a top speed of 50 when a massive dog sprinted out from a house and took off after me. The wind was stronger than anything I’d encountered in Tibet or Iceland, and I got grudging respect from a young cyclist who rode with me for a kilometre or two. With his Mongol haircut (left) and steel bike this kid was so different but so similar to me. He nodded approval that said “good on
you mate”. A fleeting but deep connection was made.

When I pedalled into Kazarman (pictured left) I had been cycling for 8 hours and 40 minutes. The only café serving food served up disappointment so many different ways. The food was terrible (old horse meat), the ambience frightening (bad central asian karaoke) and service neglectful. I found accommodation after some searching and stumbled across an oasis: comfortable beds and travellers! Two Australians from Geelong were staying there and it was great to slip into effortless speech and familiar subject matter.

Tonight I am wrecked and everything aches. Last night was a restless, eye half open kind of sleep with a procession of vodka-fuelled passers by and a decent sleep is required. I’d hoped to make Jalal-Abad and civilisation tomorrow but know it won’t happen. What awaits tomorrow I wonder…

Day 7 Kazarman – Kazarman

Distance: 80kms

Not only did I strike gold with two guests from Geelong, but one of them turned out to be a doctor. Robin kindly offered to look at and treat my saddle sore, which by now had taken on status as a passenger on this trip. The gauze patch and Betadine I had applied in Naryn had adhered completely, but was quickly replaced with decent dressings from the strong-stomached Robin. Unfortunately for Robin’s husband Peter he got the job of holding one cheek for the procedure. A debt of gratitude owed. They also donated food (prosciutto no less) and I was also able to source some iodine to purify water.

Freshly bandaged and stocked, I cheerfully pedalled off into the desert again. Despite the initial joy it was clear that I had paid dearly for my effort yesterday. Energy levels were low and the morale quickly followed as the road degenerated into deep sand. The rock and sand was so deep that I could hardly retain traction. After two hours I’d travelled just 20kms and was at my lowest ebb for the trip. To make matters worse the gale of yesterday returned and it reached 40 degrees by 11am.

I resorted to pushing my bike through the sand, kilometre after kilometre. As I pushed the bike up the mountain pass that never ends I started to have real doubts. The past two rivers that had been marked on the map turned out to the dry, and I was feeling vulnerable. At 30kms I stopped to contemplate what I was doing. I was covered in dust, sunburned, dehydrated and exhausted. As I’d done twice before on this trip I set myself the task of getting to the top of the hill before making an assessment of whether to retreat. For 10 more kilometres I pushed my bike uphill – two hours of toil. At the crest I collapsed on to a rock and lay there staring into the sun wondering what to do. I was concerned that if I didn’t find water soon I was in real danger. I hadn’t seen a car for three hours and at this rate it would take three days to get to Jalal-Abad.

My time on the rock was suspended animation. I waited and waited, somehow expecting that something would happen that would give me clarity. I burst the sun blisters on my arm in a kind of drunken haze, falling into a heat-induced delirium. It was high 40s and I was done. With resignation I mechanically stood up, turned my bike around and pedalled back down the hill towards Kazarman. It had defeated me. I felt I’d tempted fate a few times on this trip and eventually my luck would run out. With mixed emotion I pedalled downhill and downwind back to town. At first I was angry, upset and then resigned. I feel a little less superhuman than I did last night.

I arrived back in Kazarman just before 5pm – 7 hours of pedalling and walking. To distract myself I washed my clothes then finished off the book my friend Phil Montgomery had written – “Human Transformation”. The book struck a chord, partly because I’d just been through the kind of crisis that forces reflection, and partly because the book’s core theme was the role of ego. On a day like today my ego was reduced to tears… Today I chose safety. Tomorrow who knows.

Day 8 Unknown Hell-Hole to Jalal-Abad

Distance: 80kms

A strange, disjointed day with radical changes in landscape and culture. The day would end in the famed Fergana Valley – the most Muslim region of Kyrgyzstan – a lush valley in stark contrast to the desert where it started.

I hatched my plan last night to rescue the situation: find a ride to the point I got to yesterday and continue cycling from there. I tracked down a willing driver complete with 1960s Studebaker, but I would have to share the ride. The first pick-up was a drunk who’d obviously been on the vodka all night. I had to carry him to the car, then transport him to his family home. His wife, father and two kids were waiting and not impressed. Fireworks kicked off when he staggered across the paddock towards them. It was then I realised they had their bags packed – they were joining us! We had 6 adults, 3 kids, a bike, 9 people’s luggage and one dead weight on the end of a vodka bottle for the journey.

Ten minutes passed before vodka boy needed a pee, then another. He fell back into unconsciousness as we retraced the painful kilometres from yesterday. I winced as I passed the rock from yesterday. My fellow passengers were relieved when I got out of the car near the top of the pass, and so was I. The thought of tackling the descent on bald tyres and a loaded rustbucket was not one I relished.

Jalal-Abad is a great little town with a teeming market (left) and different feel. Forty per cent of the residents are Uzbeks and strictly Muslim, which manifests in manner, costume and attitude. I found a great little guesthouse, enjoyed shaslik and was able to buy my first bottle of still water for days. I played a couple of games of chess with some local lads in the market, and in the games I at last found a common language. The way you play chess says a lot about your personality, and I finally got to really know some Kyrgyz and overcome the language barrier. I felt like the fog of Central Kyrgyzstan had lifted.

Day 9 Jalal-Abad – Osh

Distance: 110kms

A phenomenal day. Despite very little sleep on account of the annoying nocturnal Frenchman I shared a room with, and the early start. I easily navigated my way out of the city and was relieved that the bitumen continued beyond the outskirts. Today’s ride could have been anywhere: Australia, the US, Europe or Nepal. Rolling hills were dotted with industrious workers harvesting sunflower seeds, melons and other produce. I felt for the female workers having to endure 45 degree temperatures in full burkhas. A few groups invited me to rest and eat but I was keen to spend the day in Osh.

I took a break in Ozgon at the halfway point, a town that had been the scene of brutal fighting only 15 years ago. The tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks boiled over one night and 1000 people were killed. My next stop was by the side of the road at a watermelon stall (pictured above). I don’t like watermelons, generally, but my thirst was sufficient to coax me into devouring a full melon. The family that sold it to me were waiting for me to explode. It was the best thing I ever tasted.

Found a great little hotel in the thick of the action. Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city and its oldest, at 5000 years old. Older than Rome. The market is famed for its spices, nuts, chocolate, silks and costumes. After a few hours of strolling I turned my attention to supplies and money. Strolling through a park I ran into Sergei, a Russian American I’d met earlier in the day, and joined him for shaslik. It was interesting to chat to him about the old USSR of the 1980s. Osh made a real impression.

Day 10 Osh – Gulcha

Distance: 100kms

Lazy start to the day with a sleep in til 7.30am. It was a restless night’s sleep, with frequent startling and moments of unbelievable disorientation. No sooner was out of town than I hit 15kms of road works: dust, slush and rock combining to slow progress. I had another bad stretch between 40 and 50kms. It was uphill, rocky and incredibly hot. I stopped at a roadside stall and could barely keep my eyes open, and eventually didn’t. I’d fallen asleep sitting up against a wall with a group of guys looking on curiously. Again I awoke disoriented – not surprising when you wake up in the middle of the day in southern Kyrgyzstan with a group of strangers crowded around – and pedalled on over the 2500m pass. The drop down into the valley below was spectacular, and for once the wind was behind me.

At Gulcha I crossed a rickety plank bridge over the river and found a café serving a kind of perogi and Pepsi. I made small talk with the young girls working there, and seemed to incur the wrath of a male diners who was obviously keen on one of the girls. The competition from a foreigner was riling him, and I made an early exit to avoid confrontation.

The plan was to cover another 30 kilometres or so before finding camp, but that plan was foiled when I can across Frank – a Dutch cycle tourist – on the side of the road. Frank implored me to camp with him and I obliged. He was a real character and had been travelling for 29 years, having covered a staggering 480,000 kilometres. He had made his living from publishing books on his travels (in Dutch) and slide nights. He had some great stories, including how he was robbed at gunpoint in Africa and tied to a tree with his own bicycle tubes. He’s also been ambushed with machetes in Central America, but outsmarted his captors by handing over currency from Africa that was worthless. He smiled as he recalled his assailants eyeing each other off over who would get to keep the 50,000 `dollar’ note – actually a 50,000 dinar note from Zaire worth 50 cents.

His years of isolation had also made him a bit cantankerous. He was annoyed that I would risk our safety by writing my diary entry by torchlight. It was like camping with a fun prevention officer.

Day 11 Gulcha – Sary Tash

Distance: 100kms

By far the best scenery of the trip, ranging from red cliffs in the first canyon, to lush green valleys and towering mountains. The final pass to 3600m was also the highest point of the route so far, and the day included 3000m of vertical climbing.

The day started early and I skipped Frank’s offer of breakfast. I knew that today would include a lot of climbing and I was keen to get as much of it done as possible before the heat of the day. Progress was slowed by frequent photo stops – not a bad complaint – but I still managed reasonable progress to a truck stop where I had a coffee and yesterday’s bread. The colours of the cliffs were amazing, with vibrant reds and greens, making a welcome change from the sandy browns of recent weeks.

As I climbed higher it got cooler and eventually rained as I made my way up the long valley towards Taldyk Pass. The valley was dotted with yurts and people begged me to stop and take shelter from the rain. But the pass loomed large and I needed to keep moving if I wanted to make a dent in it. The pass was the steepest and sandiest I have ever ridden and switched back to the top. Trucks loaded with TVs, fridges and assorted electronics from China crawled up and down the mountain in convoy. The dust from the engine brakes was choking, and noise deafening. Some of the trucks must have been 50 years old and had crank starts. Halfway down I saw a young Kyrgyz jump out of one of said trucks, run to the stream with a bucket and then throw cold water on to the brakes to cool it down while it was still in motion. I’m not sure that would have been in the warranty manual.

The crest of the pass was not the end, as I had been warned. After the 5km downhill there was another steep pass that took over an hour. After almost 8 hours in the saddle I rolled into Sary-Tash, a windswept village with limited facilities but some shelter. The guesthouse didn’t have a shower – which I badly required – so did a bucket wash in the backyard of body and clothes. I also painstakingly changed the dressing on my saddle sore which is gradually improving.

Dinner consisted of 5 fried eggs (the only menu item) washed down with a beer. Tonight I dug deep into the pannier for the warm clothes as I venture up over 4000m tomorrow for the first time on this trip.

Day 12 Sary-Tash – Karakul

Distance: 105kms

Couldn’t get breakfast – even bread – anywhere in town and so pedalled off towards the Tajikistan border hoping the 5-egg dinner from last night would do its job. It was with a gulp that I rode headlong into the mountain range of 6000m, snow-capped peaks that awaited me.

First stop was the Kyrgyz border control where I had to get stamped out. The security presence was significant, with AK-47s slung over guards’ shoulders and an overly enthusiastic German Shepherd giving me a hard time. At one point it latched on to my pannier and I suspected my calf might be next. I motioned to one of the guards that he should shoot it.

The next 20 kilometres were stunningly beautiful, with snow-covered peaks everywhere. But the view wasn’t free: I had to pedal to 4300m on a steep goat track. I say pedal but actually there was half an hour or so of pushing in there as well. A fantastic distraction was provided by two eagles sitting on the roadside, then soaring up the mountain valley. Equally distracting was the sight of two English guys in a rally car coming down the mountain. They were crawling along in their Volvo but stopped to find out more about why someone would be cycling this remote stretch. “Hello old boy” the gentleman shouted from the driver’s seat. “Fancy a shortbread?” All that was missing was the cravat and tweed jacket. He then proceeded to pull out a tray of shortbreads that he’s obviously carried from England (they were heading to Mongolia as part of a charity rally), which I gladly accepted.

After a short conversation I continued to the pass and the Tajikistan border control. The border post is one of the highest in the world, and is basically a collection of old containers fashioned together on a mountain-top. I sat at the boom gate for 5 minutes while they finished their lunch and then went through a painless administration process. The next 10kms descended down the valley and followed an impressive electric fence that served as the Chinese border. It was 10 feet high with 32 individual wires (Frank had counted them) and ran for 200kms (pictured left).

I dropped down into an eerie valley with no vegetation, little oxygen and baking sun. The going was made difficult by the fact that the bitumen was literally melting under me. I had to stop three times to remove large clumps of tar that had attached to the wheel and prevented the wheels from turning. Quality road building obviously. Peeling the tarmac off my calves was also unpleasant.

I hadn’t realised there was another pass (becoming a common theme) but sure enough I would rise to over 4300 metres again for the second time that day. Though I had been higher in Tibet, and had no trouble on the first pass, this next climb caused me real trouble. I had headache, dizziness, extreme and nausea that got worse the higher I climbed. Because I was in a valley there was no point retreating, as I would only lose a few hundred metres of altitude that I would have to reclaim. I dismounted and continued on foot to minimise exertion, stopping frequently to rest. I took a fruit chew out during one of my rests and knew I was in trouble when it took three minutes of fumbling to open the packet. I hadn’t seen a car in five hours and I was losing it.

Towards the top of the pass I hit another obstacle – a collapsed bridge. I pulled my shoes and socks off, headed downstream and carried my bike across the icy, knee-deep river. I was exhausted by the other side and still had five kilometres to travel to the summit. At the top I was able to see the spectacular Lake Karakul for the first time – a spectacular body of water flanked by icy peaks (pictured below). I dropped down to the lake at 4000m and immediately dissipated the symptoms of altitude sickness. I was 30kms from my destination but out of the danger zone.

The side of the lake was incredibly barren and the lush green hills of Kyrgyzstan were well and truly behind me. I cycled into
Karakul, a tiny windswept village, at 6.30pm and found a place to sleep. As well as eating dinner with the family I also put my stove on to get some carbohydrates. The combination of high altitude and cheap fuel meant that it took an hour to cook, and the results were disappointing. It was quite possibly the worst meal I’ve ever had, and definitely the worst I’ve ever cooked. I told myself to eat the fuel while gagging on the soggy noodles….

Day 13 Karakul – Murgab

Distance: 145kms

An epic day in both mileage and scenery. On the road by 7.30am after a great night’s sleep and dodgy breakfast of one solitary fried egg, I made great progress early. The road was dead straight and flat and at 30kms in I stopped at a river to refill the bottles. Stupidly I put my winter gloves on the back of the bike and took off not realising they were still there. After 5 kilometres I realised the mistake and ruefully turned around. I was tempted to leave them but the big passes were still to come and winter gloves were a necessity. The road degenerated into sandy corrugations at 45kms but the scenery compensated. High mountains everywhere, some of them with glacial tongues lurching down the valleys.

I stopped at the base of the highest mountain pass in Tajikistan (left), rising to a height of 4650m. By some stroke of luck the best I felt for the day was on the climb, and I was able to make good progress despite the road conditions and altitude. I was also relieved that the altitude sickness didn’t return. Once over the top I still had 50 kilometres to go to Murgab and started to feel terrible. Hot flushes, sweating, stomach cramps and nausea combined to make the final run to town unpleasant. I thought about camping but thought it would be better to ride out the sickness in proximity to a toilet.

I finally pedalled into Murgab at 6pm, more than eight and a half hours of riding, and found a great family to stay with. I enquired about the Internet facilities in town but apparently the electricity had been off for a week and a cow had fallen on to the town’s generator. I headed for the telephone exchange but the phone attendant had no idea how to use the switch.

The cold sweats came and went, as did I between the house and the toilet. I am desperately hoping it passes as now is not the time to get sick. That night proved to be the worst of the trip. Doubled over with stomach cramps I had to make several trips to the outdoor – and distant – squat toilet in the back garden. I can think of few things more depressing than sitting in a cold,
dank toilet waiting for the waves of diarrhoea to roll in. When I was in bed I was frequently awoken by bizarre hallucinations that may be the result of altitude. I would wake up in the dark room and struggle to get my bearings, imagining that I was asleep in the toilet one minute, a field the next.

Day 14 Murgab – Alichur

Distance: 115kms

Nightmare bureaucracy at its most zealous. My hopes of getting chores done quickly dissipated at the hands of administration. I was required to register with the KGB in town or risk a $100 fine it was supposed to open at 8am but actually opened at 10am. Luckily I had copies of my passport and visa which saved me an hour, as they were required for the GBAO permit for entry into the sensitive Afghanistan border zone I was travelling to. A poor Swiss girl hadn't and wasn't allowed to advance past Murgab - she would have to go back to Osh to organise the permit.

I visited the bazaar and bought food for the next5 days. I also had to exchange US dollars on teh blackmarket, which was more straightforward than I had expected but never without risk. I also had one last try at phoning home which killed two hours stone dead. The woman behind the counter was classic soviet administration. Though she'd dealt with me yesterday there was not a flicker of recognition in her eyes, or a molecule of competence in her work. A young guy came to help and inspired confidence, but he disappeared without trace.

Frustrated I pedalled off towards Alichur with a ridiculously late start of 1.30pm. Soon after the military checkpoint on the outskirts of town I rode into a hailstorm and howling headwind. It was the first time the goretex had been required and it was icy cold at the top of the 4300m pass through towering mountains (pictured right). My strength and motivation tracked at similarly low levels until the headwind miraculously swung around and pushed me all the way to Alichur.

Alichur is a dusty little village of not more than 100 houses. The sister of the woman I stayed with in Murgab lives here and I was able to track her down. It was 7pm and I was presented with a progressive dinner of biscuits, tea, bread, dip and finally rice with meat. I spent an hour helping the young kids (pictured with mum below) learn English which was a bit of fun. It was a great night immersing myself in the Tajik family unit. It's easy to get caught up in the cycling and the scenery but actually the reason I travel is the people, and today I felt genuine Tajik kindness. As an example, at the bazaar the bag of food I was carrying broke. A young boy appeared with a plastic bag and helped me scoop up the peanuts but
refused to take any. I definitely feel at home in Tajikistan.

Day 15 Alichur – Langar

Distance: 130kms

Possibly my best day cycle touring ever, despite 9 and a half hours in the saddle on some of the toughest roads I’ve come across. The scenery and cycling was sublime.

After a quick breakfast of creamed rice I left $20 for the family (I usually pay $10 but these guys really did it tough in the middle of nowhere) and hit the road at 8.30am. The first 30 kilometres were paved – the last I would see of it for the day. At the turn off to the remote Wakhan Valley a truck crew were boiling tea on the side of the road. I couldn’t resist when they invited me over, partly because the tea looked good and partly because I thought I could gain some update information on the road conditions in the valley.

The major pass of the day rose to 4350m with the road climbing in line with the temperature. Deep sand, loose rock and boulders punctuated the track which carried a car every few hours. The climb took two hours but the legs and stomach were great. From the summit I descended down to a military checkpoint. There had been big problems at this checkpoint, I’d been warned, with extortion and robbery. Cyclists had been relieved of batteries, bike computers and cash by bored and desperately poor militia manning the checkpoint. Knowing this I had bought several packets of cigarettes in Murgab which I handed over as a gesture. My theory was that these guys wanted to feel like they’d gotten something out of me, and cigarettes weren’t that easy to come by on a remote hilltop near the Afghanistan border. It worked and I was allowed safe passage.

The next stretch of road took me to the raging Pamir River. My side of the river was Tajikistan – the other side was Afghanistan. At one point a herd of wild camels were seen grazing on the Afghan side. I also watched a couple of Afghanis leading their donkey caravans along the river bank not 50 metres from where I cycled.

The road conditions were challenging but today was one where nothing could wipe the smile off my face. Even when I hit the second major pass of the day, and with temperatures still in the 40s, I was euphoric about finally being on the Afghanistan border that I’d craved for so long. In the late afternoon the low cloud dissipated to reveal great views of the fabled Hindu Kush mountain range which weave through Afghanistan and Pakistan. The river created lots of oases along its banks, and some of the best camping spots I have ever seen. Perfect patches of green grass among rocky outcrops, with the only drawback being the fact that these river banks had been land mined so camping was a treacherous pursuit.

Five kilometres from my destination I hit the town of Ratm, a small collection of houses near the confluence of the Pamir and Panj rivers. A young boy on a steel Chinese bike saw me from a distance and immediately prepared himself for a burst. As I drew up alongside him his pace quickened and it was clear that a sprint was in the offing. The speed increased gradually and he launched ahead. The finish line, it appeared, was the top of the hill we were approaching. Despite being on the bike for 9 hours I took the bait. We were neck and neck 100 metres from the top of the hill when he threw a hook (sudden movement across the track) that would have made the famed Uzbek Djomadin Abdujaparov proud. He almost put me into the trees but I recovered to pip him at the line. At the top we were both slumped over our handlebars laughing hysterically. Cycling, like chess, had provided me with a way to overcome the language barrier. We shook hands and I was off again.

As I descended into Langar I was absorbed by the lush vegetation. The river had created an oasis in stark contrast to the surrounding hillsides. The village was built into the side of a mountain and I found a family to stay with on the outskirts of town. The spokesperson from the house was Manovar, an English teacher who had spent time in Khorog and wanted to move to Dushanbe for decent opportunity. It was great to finally have someone that I could ask questions of.

Dinner consisted of boiling water poured over pieces of mutton, and bread that was (miraculously) less than two days old. After one of my longest days in the saddle ever I drifted off to sleep tired but content. The whole trip had been worth it for today alone. Tomorrow I can’t wait to watch Tajik and Afghan life unfold on either side of the Panj River.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Day 16 Langar – Ishkashin

Distance: 120 kms

Another phenomenal, gruelling but utterly magical day. Having become so used to solitude and isolation today was a feast for the senses. Village life was infectious and created a sensory overload of sights, sounds and interactions. The skies were also clear for the first time in weeks in this valley, creating amazing views of the Hindu Kush in nearby Pakistan (Karachi was only 50kms away as the crow flies).

The road today was a disgrace, rivalled only by the stretch through Kazarman in Kyrgyzstan. There were long sections of deep sand which I had to push the bike through, difficult work in 45 degree heat. I stopped in Vrang at the pharmacy to pick up a course of antibiotics for my deteriorating throat. A full course of 24 tablets cost 90 cents.

The road rose steeply to each village and descended just as quickly down to river level. There were lots of people working in the fields and surprisingly the women were eager for me to take their photo. In some cases the women would remove their head scarves for the camera - not what I expected. In fact Islamic culture is not what I expected. The longer this trip has gone on the more Muslim it has become. The more Muslim it has become the safer I feel and the friendlier the people.

I stopped for a break at a small store around 4pm and ordered a soda water. I took out the peanuts I'd been carrying since Murgab and sat down to eat them. The owner of the store - an elderly guy - sat down with me and we shared the peanuts. He then disappeared only to return with an armful of apples. We sat there side by side saying nothing (pictured below).

The last 30kms was into a gale. The highlight was an Afghan girl shouting at me from across the river and waving frantically. I stopped the bike and screamed back - we were just 50 metres apart and acting like a couple of schoolkids. I'm not sure what she made of this alien across the river.

I tracked down the aunt of Manovar in Ishkashim and had dinner with her two daughters. They had no spare room and so I had a mattress in the kitchen. For the second night in a row I was to wake someone if I needed to go to the toilet during the night due to the rabid dogs outside. I feel a little exposed laying here semi-naked beneath the sheet with three Muslim women wandering through my bedroom.

Today represented another 9 hours in the saddle and still no shower. I'm aiming to get to Khorog reasonably early so that I can get a few things done - washing, bathing and cleaning the bike - as well as using the Internet. The body is feeling the effects of almost two weeks without a rest day.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Day 17 Ishkashim -- Khorog

Distance: 110kms

A hard but smooth day which had me in Khorog by 3pm. I endured one of the hardest-to-stomach breakfasts I have ever eaten: a large bowl of salty milk with a tablespoon of pure fat added for `taste'. I was instructed to soak bread in the liquid and eat the concoction and managed just over half a bowl. I retched with every gulp and no doubt slightly offended my hosts by not finishing the bowl.

On the road I saw more of Afghan village life than Tajik. As I went through one village a drunk guy grabbed me by the arm and invited me for vodka. When I refused he became aggressive and tried to pull me off the bike. Luckily, at that moment, a car came around the corner and distracted him. As he released his grip I pushed him away and pedalled away.

The final climb towards Khorog was brutal - 15% and almost 1.5kms. After six hours of riding all that was left was to find accommodation at the Pamir Lodge (of course it was at the top of a hill). The lodge had been built by a Pakistani scholar who was in residence and was an oasis. Set in lush gardens the lodge was incredibly relaxing. I was fed fresh bread on arrival, with fresh honey, and about a gallon of tea. I scrubbed up for the first time in almost a week and did same with cycling gear. It will be hard to leave here tomorrow and head back into the heat...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Day 18 Khorog - Vanj

Distance: 140kms

Cycling paradise. Unbelievable canyon scenery, good asphalt, downhill and even a slight tailwind. Seven hours in the saddle never felt so good. As planned I had a sleep in and took a decent look around town. The bazaar was a hive of activity but not particularly exciting. Also had a great breakfast of fried eggs and honey from the hive in the back garden. Bliss.

I pedalled out of Khorog completely refreshed. I'd fixed the minor mechanicals on my bike, I was clean and I had a fresh dressing on my saddle sore. The first part of the ride followed an expansive river valley. At the 80km mark the valley tightened and I was dwarfed by high rock walls on both sides of the river.

While the scenery was great, not all of the people were. I had four anxious moments today:

1. At the 70km mark I stopped at a cafe for lunch. A bear-like guy grabbed me, ordered me to his table and proceeded to manhandle me in a way that was at first friendly, and then aggressive. He was obviously on his 20th vodka and decided he'd order for me (mantes and sour cream) and pour me a vodka. When I refused he became enraged, even though I told him Russian that I didn't drink because of my religion. When he thought I was sitting too far from the table he grabbed me by the back of the neck and pulled my chair in. I started to get really concerned when he started showing off his bullet wounds `from Afghanistan' and suggested that I would be staying at his place that night and to `forget about bicycle'. I was nervous and powerless. When he went out back for a cigarette I saw my chance and sprinted to the door as soon as he was out of sight. Adrenaline propelled me for the next 20kms or so.

2. At 100kms I was riding peacefully when a massive explosion rang out. My initial reaction was that someone had blasted in the rock wall overhead, and that I had someone missed the signs in Tajiki. I winced and waited for the rocks to crush me and then noticed a puff of smoke on the other side of the river. The blast was in Afghanistan...

3. At 110kms while taking a photo a young guy pulled up in a car demanding my passport and sunglasses. He was aggressive and had me hemmed in between the rock wall and his car. I decided to call his bluff and turned on him, forcing him to back down.

4. Towards the end of the day I stopped for a drink while sitting on a rock. I glanced up to an observation tower and the army officer was pointing a rifle directly at me. When he saw the look of panic on my face he immediately lowered the gun - apparently he'd been using the sight to get a better look...

One of the things that I hadn't taken into account was the time change in Khorog, which meant it got dark an hour earlier. At 7pm I was still riding and getting edgy as there was sparse flat ground for camping, and very little to hide me from the infrequent traffic. I then came across a cafe and negotiated food and a bed for the night - for $10 - and had tasty shaslik and bread. The guys running the show are a strange crew and I hope my gut instinct that they are harmless is right.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Day 19 Vanj - Tavildara

Distance: 140kms

Ying to yesterday's yang. Heat, headwind, hills, illness and poor legs made today one of the most difficult of the trip. Was up early and on the road by 7am after a quick breakfast. It was already stifling by 8.30am at my first passport control, and by midday I'd covered 70kms. The villages were few and hill climbs longer and steeper than days before. The 30kms leading into Kailachum were really tough, and I stopped frequently to put my head under every available water source. With temperatures deep into the 40s the climb of Tavildara Pass was excruciating.

Late in the day I stopped for a drink of water and fainted by the side of the road. I could feel my legs go and there was nothing I could do to regain my footing. Thankfully I was on a patch of grass when it happened which saved further damage. The incident prompted me to find somewhere to sleep immediately - it's not the Hilton but at least the tent is mosquito proof unlike last night.

I am still a fair way from Dushanbe but if my legs improve I'm still a chance to make it to Dushanbe for my birthday. But the reality is that I am incredibly drained and dispirited. I am also getting signals that I am nearing a city. The drivers are becoming more impatient, the traffic more frequent and the bewilderment at my presence negated. I had a couple of close calls with cars today and the helmet is back on permanently. The other negative of the approach to Dushanbe is that it's getting hotter as I lose altitude. Likely to be a thirst couple of days...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Day 20 Tavildara - Rosun

Distance: 100kms

Started poorly but ended well. I woke up this morning with a plan to get a ride to the top of the mountain pass and save myself half a day. I made the decision when I woke up with a splitting headache that had lingered since fainting. My ride up the mountain was a comical affair, if it hadn't been so treacherous. I was offered a lift in a beaten up Jeep Cherokee with 9 passengers and luggage. The fact that they believed they could squeeze another adult and bicycle in is testament to their spirit and comfort with discomfort

Though the trip was short in distance it was long in woe. The first problem was a puncture, which is usually a straightforward fix. Unfortunately in Tajikistan they don't carry a spare, but rather a tube and tyre levers. The change took 45 minutes of hammering away and pumping the tyre up by hand. I took my turn at the end of the pump and we rotated the strike. Second problem was failing suspension. The ride felt more like a speedboat than an automobile, and the occasional bottoming out send all nine of us into the roof. The third problem the gearbox. As I was next to the gearstick it was my job to quickly throw it back into the gear while the driver pumped the clutch. Eventually I was just hold the stick in second until he needed to change. And by the time we hit our fourth problem - another puncture (to the same tyre) - I pulled out my bike and kept pedalling. It had seemed like a good plan.

Back to solitude and grinding over long, hot hills on some of the worst roads I'd encountered. This route is only open in summer and obviously hasn't attracted a lot of government funding. I made good progress despite the heat and rode until light faded at around 7pm. I was getting a little concerned about how I'd find a flat, hidden campsite in this rocky landscape. I gingerly approached a guy standing in his front yard and asked whether I could camp. To my relief he not only agreed, but also offered me a place to sleep on the front verandah. He sat me down, fed my soup, bagels, cucumber, eggs and tea and gathered the whole family around me. The true Tajik spirit came through for me.

I'm now laying on the verandah next to the host's brother. He probably sleeps here every night and unfortunately for him he has to share. As much as I have looked forward to reaching Dushanbe it fills me with sadness to know tomorrow is the last day of cycling. It's also my birthday tomorrow.