Archive for June, 2009

The heros of Tashkent: Said and Steve

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

Posted by Dan
Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Donkey and horse carts greeted us when we were dropped off on the outskirts of Tashkent at 11 o’clock at night. Gutted, exhausted and disorientated we struggled to drag eleven heavy pannier bags, a delicate broken bicycle and my bike onto the curb.

We asked one of the horse and cart drivers if he’d take us the last 10km into the city to a guesthouse, but the silhouetted man refused, claiming it was too far. Any car, any vehicle can act as a taxi in this part of the world – all you have to do is flag one down and name your price and destination. An hour and a half later, after continuous failed attempts, I managed to convince a driver of a small van to take us in.

Reaching the guesthouse, we were pleased to find two bikes exactly the same as ours sat in the courtyard. Under the cover of night our spare parts problem could dissolve should we dare to tinker with these carbon copy velos while their lovely Belgium owners slept upstairs!

The following morning we met Sandrine and Gerard, whose bikes we had admired on arrival. Over breakfast they told us about their journey – great cycling stories from their recent time in South East Asia. They also filled us in on where we might find spare tubes and a new tyre as they’d had a few bike problems of their own and so had already worked out where the best Tashkent bike shops were.

Then, in the shade of the open courtyard, I leant over Krista’s damaged wheel and took a file to the rim, sweating with apprehension for a whole morning as I gently, tentatively, sanded and filed away the jagged edges until I’d made a smooth surface for the bead of the tyre to seat against.

And in the afternoon, following Sandrine and Gerard’s directions, we took the Metro to the street full of bike shops. Apparently, this was the best and most likely place to find the right size spares in Tashkent – though we were pretty sure that they would be of dubious quality.

The man running the shop want ed a highly inflated price for the worst quality inner tube ever, and refused to negotiate! Although there were rows and rows of other bike shops on that street, no other shop had the Presta valves we needed. Frustrated, disappointed and unwilling to pay so much for a bad quality inner tube, we walked away, not quite knowing where to turn next.

Trudging back along Rustaveli Street, I spotted Gerard whizzing by on the other side of the road. I waved frantically, hoping he would stop and help us negotiate a fair price for the tube, as he told us he’d made friends with the shop owner that morning.

As the cyclist came to a skidding halt, Krista looked at me and said, “Who the hell’s that?” When I looked closer, I noticed the bike had a basket on the back – and the rider suddenly didn’t look like Gerard anymore… But the guy had stopped and was waving back at us as if he was our best friend!

Apprehensively, we crossed over toward him – and we were greeted by an over-excited lad, speaking quickly at us in Russian – still as if we’d known him all our lives. His one English sentence was “I love you bicycle”. Krista thought he was crazy, and rolling her eyes, she said to me, “You’ve picked a right one here”.

The guy, who introduced himself as Said, was ridiculously hyper, and seemingly passionate about bicycles – motioning and gesturing the acts of riding and repairing bikes – so I thought, “what have we got to lose?” and tried to explain our story (complete with loud explosion imitation and deflated “PSST!”, injecting the Russian words we just learnt for tyre and inner tube).

So, with wheel in hand, we followed Said for the next 4 hours, slowing coming to realise – with awe and deep respect – that he knew far more about bikes than we did. With a quick glance he knew the materials that made up the different parts of the wheel and where they’d been manufactured, and as he walked through the bazaar, we also came to see that he knew every person in Tashkent who had anything to do with bicycles.

Said was so pleased to have met us that on the way to Chorsu Bazaar, he went in search of a street photographer who could take a picture of us all standing in front of the Circus.

When Said’s friends from the different stalls at Chorsu Bazaar couldn’t provide the spare parts we needed, he urged me to meet him at 5am the next morning to cycle 20km to a different bazaar. It all seemed so random, but I agreed anyway as we had no other options left.

Reluctantly I got up at 4:30 the next morning to meet Said, unsure of where I was going or why I was going there.

Yangi Bazaar was just how I imagined a market during the Soviet times to have looked – full of dusty old shoes, oily car spares and electrical parts salvaged from every Russian machine ever invented – loving collected up as if they were valuable antiques and then spread out on tables through the crumbling graffitied concrete walls of what looked like an old aircraft hanger.

Following Said through the labyrinth of dark corridors, I began to get the picture – not only did he know all of the 100 odd guys setting up their stalls selling tyres, mud guards, wheels, spokes, gears, bells saddles you name it they had it, all of which was from China of course, but he too ran a stall selling second-hand imported bikes – Russian, German, French and Italian steel frames from the 70’s and 80’s.

At 6:30am the penny dropped. I was holding 4 spare Presta value inner tubes and the best quality tyre available (in Uzbekistan!)

I had accidentally flagged down the most perfect person to help us find bike parts, the best case of mistaken identity ever made!

NB: Having said all this 3 of the 4 spare inner tubes broke the following day as I was fitting them! One exploded while only half inflated and the valves of the two others fell clean off! Thanks to Steve, a WarmShowers host living in Tashkent, who donated 3 of his precious and rare tubes to us.


Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Tashkent, Uzbekistan

500kms to Tashkent – the capital of Uzbekistan – was our next challenge.

I worried that the temperature would reach 50 degrees on that long and flat road. Desert temperatures had already given us heatstroke and nausea and riding just wasn’t fun anymore. So we made a plan to ride from 5am until 12 noon, then rest in the shade for a few hours and cycle again in the cooler evening temperatures.

We found some roadside trees that were full of apricots and collected a bundle – one for me, one for later, one for me, one for later…

All was going well until we heard that dreaded “PSSST”sound. Dan had a puncture… but when we took the tyre off and looked at the inner tube, we found it was completely ruined, a jagged split of 30cm that no amount of patches could repair.

We’d already used up one spare tube a couple of days back in Bukhara. The young boy running our guesthouse had rapped at our door motioning to us that we had a flat. When we took the inner tube out to patch it up, we were shocked and confused to find a split in it that was half a metre long!

Now, sitting dejectedly on the side of the road, we fitted our LAST spare inner tube, looking at each other, nervously. If anything happens to this… spares would be hard to find out here.

As midday approached, we began looking for a canal or a river to sit by, rest, eat lunch and wait out the intense heat of the day, when an almighty =BANG=! blasted out from my rear wheel.

From 25km/hr, I skidded and came to an abrupt halt, my heart sinking. I knew this time that my inner tube had exploded and we had no other spares. With my head in my hands, I looked round to see the bare aluminium of my wheel exposed to the rough road surface. I winced as I saw that my tyre had peeled off the rim and a torn and shredded inner tube was hanging limp.

Dan ran over and, in silence, we inspected the damage. It was worse than we could imagine. The bare rim had scraped along the ground, and had been grated, leaving sharp, spiky edges.

My wheel, my precious wheel! Even if we would have had spare inner tubes left, with the damage to this wheel, we wouldn’t have been able to have fitted them anyway.

With the help of a local family who had heard the canon exploding, we flagged down transport all the way to Tashkent. It was the only choice we had – there, we could work on the wheel and hunt down the right size inner tubes. In this little town, the local bazaar only sold parts for huge 28 inch wheeled Russian bicycles.

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Kyzylkum desert

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Posted by Dan
Bukhara, Uzbekistan

As we watched the full moon rise high above the mud walls of Khiva, we wondered whether it would bring a change to the weather. We’d had tailwinds for the last few days, which had helped us cycle far and fast. Would they continue to blow in the same direction and push us the 450 kilometres onwards through the Kyzylkum Desert to Bukhara?

Sure enough, the weather had changed – the wind swirling between our legs slowed us, making every kilometre a fight.

Towards the end of our first day, we passed though the last villages of the fertile river basin and over the Amu Darya river, clipping the border of Turkmenistan before reaching the long desert road. Just as Krista spotted strange opaque yellow clouds on the horizon, the wind picked up to such force it felt like the sky was collapsing on top of us.

We took a break and waited in a shop to see what the wind would bring next : people scurrying home to avoid the dust, spinning by locals on bicycles just as fast as the rubbish that it was scattering.

After an ice cream and a Snickers, we went back out to fight against the wind. We were trying to find a teahouse where we could sleep for the night. But when we turned a corner, we saw another set of yellow clouds heading straight for us. The sky and desert had merged to form a moving mass of biting sand. Krista quickly warned me to cover my eyes, ears and mouth, knowing full well it was a sandstorm having faced them while cycling across Pakistan.

Though squinting eyes I saw a small building – a police check point about a kilometre up the road. I put my head down and raced towards it, pumping my legs hard and feeling the sand grating in my front teeth.

Reaching the building, I turned to see that Krista had been forced off her bike and was walking, pushing into the wind. It was the first time I had looked up and could see the ferocious strength of the sandstorm – the first time I had even seen one – its power is definitely to be admired. And as the sand whipped and danced across the road, I ran back to Krista to help her push her bike.

We were invited inside the checkpoint by the policeman and his assistant, who put us behind a curtained room to rest, poured us bowls of tea and offered fruits and biscuits. They and treated us so well, and it was heart-warming to be on the end of such kind and gentle treatment from a checkpoint policeman when all the other police so far in Uzbekistan had been so arrogant.

The wind calmed and the sand settled after half an hour. Although the policeman had said we could stay there for the night, we decided we’d go on further. We pedalled til we reached a teahouse at Miskin – the last small settlement before the desert road started out across the vast Kyzlkum Desert.

We slept, free of charge, in one of the teahouse cabins, just as we had done all across Kazakhstan. They are basic rooms set aside from the café where you can eat in peace or move the low table aside and roll out one of the colourful mattresses to sleep on.

At 4:30 the next morning, just as the light was beginning to fill the sky and wake the birds, we pumped water from the well outside the teahouse and filled our empty bottles. We’d been told the water was really good and from 30meters below the ground. A day or two later we’d come to regret the glowing recommendation of Miskin Su-water!

The desert hotted up quickly. By 9am, it had reached 45 degrees and the tarmac had begun to melt, squelching under our tyres as if we were riding through sticky glue.

When we needed a rest, we tied the tarp between our bikes to make a shade to hide from the sun.

Photo: shelter

Photo: shelter

Psychologically and physically the road got really tough in the afternoon. The wind was still against us, and the undulating road was full of potholes, corrugation and sand. Tour buses, trucks and long distance taxis belted by without stopping and the bland featureless horizon went on and on.

It was hard to focus and find a motivating force when we knew all too well that the road and landscape would continue like this until we reached Bukhara. Our approach was to try and cover as much distance as possible each day to get out of the searing heat of this oppressive desert.

After three days of slogging it out across the desert for12 hours a day, either the heat , bad food from the greasy teahouse kitchens, a dubious hard boiled egg, or, as we prefer to blame it on, Misken Su-well-water ,got the better of us! While my Dad and our whole family were joined together celebrating his 50th birthday, I was doubled over a bowl throwing up, pained and uncomfortable in a sweaty sleeping room of a teahouse.

The following morning, 50km down the road, Krista was overcome by a severe case of dysentery, and I was really scared that she was loosing too much salt and sugars as she was becoming very weak.

We reached a teahouse and decided it a safe place to rest, but as I watched Krista dragging herself to the pit toilet 100 metres away across the hot sand, I saw her pause, then sit down, and then fall spread-eagle in the desert. I ran across the sand and without my hat on it felt like the sun could set fire to my hair. Krista had fainted and was a shade somewhere between ghost white and pale green. Her eyes were rolling around her head and sweat was beading out of her pores like a squeezed sponge.

Dragging her to her feet we stumbled into the toilet – a stinky wooden box infested with flies. Krista was too weak to stand, and fell once again, her eyes rolling into the back of her head, her face opaque. I got her back to the teahouse where the staff were shocked at the state their two new customers were in. Luckily enough, a man who was in charge of a telecommunications tower on the other side of the road said he had an air-conditioned room where Krista could cool down. Her temperature was rocketing and she needed a dark quiet place.

Over the next 20 hours we stayed in that room with the antique air con noisily blasting and I kept an eye on Krista’s temperature and bullied her to drink salt and sugar solutions to re-hydrate and replace the fluids she was continually losing.

The following morning, Krista had some strength back and we decided we needed to hitch the last 100km out of the desert to Bukhara – a big town where we could have a few rest days and access to a doctor if needed.

Photo: hitching into Bukhara with bad belly - Kamaz truck

Photo: hitching into Bukhara with bad belly - Kamaz truck

Staggering into Bukhara, we were greeted by cyclist Mark from Ireland, who’d just crossed the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan! He told us of the other cyclists that were in town – Maxime and Beatrice from France. It was great hanging out and sharing stories with other cyclists.

Four days of rest, great company, more mosques and medressas, we were right as rain and back on the road.

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Longest day in the saddle

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Khiva, Uzbekistan

krista and full moon

With the alarm clock still ringing in my ears, we dragged ourselves out of bed. It was 5am, yet light had already crept into the sky. Looking outside, I noticed immediately that the wind had already begun to blow dust up around the streets and swept courtyards of Nukus. The bowing branches and bending grasses indicated the wind was from the north-west. Yes! The perfect direction for a tailwind!

As soon as we left the ordered, wide and straight Soviet streets of town, the desert was upon us. Orangey-brown sand dunes rose either side of the road, held together by scrubby bushes, dry and prickly. Comical desert rodents scratched around in the sand and when they heard the whirr of our wheels, stood upright, alert, then ran quickly back to their burrows.

The desert was so hot that, even after swigging mouthfuls of water, my mouth soon became completely dry again. My lips cracked and bled and it was hard to swallow without my throat sticking together. But the tailwind was still with us, making the pedalling almost effortless, and a young boy named Rustam made my day when he proffered a litre of cold, fizzy mineral water to drink when we passed his home.

We were moving so quickly that by 9am, we had already covered 50kms. It was at that point that Dan suggested we try and make it all the way to Khiva that day – we weren’t quite sure how far it was, and didn’t think it would beat my personal record of 180 km in a day that I set in Vietnam 11 years ago – but it would definitely beat the distance record of 110 km for this trip.

The desert petered out when we entered Khorezm , the region fed by the Amu Darya which flows from the fast-shrinking Aral Sea all the way to Afghanistan. Village life and greenery surrounded us once more. Ordered canals criss-crossed the patchwork land, and groups of children, wound up in scarves and gloves, worked all day in the fields.

Some people waved and called for us to stop, but we kept on going, determined to achieve this physical and mental goal. A man on a motorbike invited us to stay at his house, explaining that he’d hosted a cyclist a couple of years ago. We declined his offer, he sped off, but came racing back 15 minutes later with a letter, written in English, from the Bristolian cyclist, thanking him for his hospitality. He hoped that this proof would persuade us to take up his kind offer and stay for the night with him and his family, but we still held the ancient city of Khiva in mind.

Evening arrived and we began to feel weary, our bums sore, our faces sunburned and squinting. When we stopped to ask for directions, a man assured us that Khiva was only 30 kms further. We’d already ridden 140 kms – it would mean a total of 170 for the day. I would be just 10 kms shy of my personal best.


Unable to continue without food, we stopped briefly to eat fish, which was caught in the river just behind the small teahouse. 10 kms further on, we sat at the side of the road, eating ice cream, needing all the energy we could get. When we asked the ice cream seller how far to go now, she scratched 13 in the sand, and we were relieved.

Darkness arrived and the nearly full moon rose in the sky. We were knackered, but Khiva still eluded us. On and on we went, 13kms, 14, 15,20…30…40… on a long, straight road directly south – realising that the all estimations of distance we’d been given had been wrong and that Khiva was still much further on.

We’d passed some camping spots a few kms back where we could have hidden amongst trees for the night and slept, but now it was dark and these places were much harder to see. We thought maybe we’d ask to sleep in a teahouse, but even they were difficult to see.

I shone my headtorch onto the odometer and watched the kilometres pass… as we clocked180 km we cheered that we’d beaten my previous record for the longest day in the saddle. And upon reaching 195km, we finally arrived in Khiva, the old city rising before us, its city wall, crafted in mud, towering above us in the moonlight, like a strange and bulbous sleeping animal.

We were elated.

And here are some of the sights that greeted us in the morning…




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