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Blowouts

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.

teahouse

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…

khiva

khiva

khiva

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Roaring camels

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Beyneu, Kazakhstan

roaring camel

There is the sound of a roaring camel in my ears. Her growls and moans are more ancient and strange than any I have heard before – and Dan likens them to the noise of dinosaurs. I wonder if she’s shouting to welcome the rain that has finally arrived in this dry and dusty desert village, or, like the scuttling people running for cover, she’s lamenting the howling wind and the storm that’s soaking her.

I think back to the last bout of rain that hit us in Kazakhstan, just two days and two hundred kilometres ago. The camels were roaring persistently then too, whilst Dan and I were forced to take refuge in a chaykhana (teahouse) because the pitted track we were taking had turned into thick clay that completely clagged our wheels and stopped us moving.

muddy wheel

At first we were upset that we wouldn’t be able to cover the 85 kilometres we’d planned to do that day. But in the end, after a pot of sweet, milky tea drunk from bowls, a plate of plov, some eggs and a bowl of cabbage soup, we were thankful for the rest – knackered from battling the headwinds and gruesome track.

chaikhana

Then, the next day, when the rain stopped, and the fierce wind and sun had dried our track so we could cycle again, the camels were quiet once more, seemingly content to munch on the newly watered, fresh smelling desert bushes – suddenly resplendent with desert flowers of delicate purples, pinks and whites, and bright yellows – turning their heads to stare intently at us as we laboured slowly along.

the next day...

The Turkish truckies aboard the cargo ship from Azerbaijan had warned us that this road from Aktau to Beyneu would be difficult. In the ship’s mess, while we anchored for a day waiting for the Swine flu quarantine to be lifted, we mused over maps, trying to glean as much as we could from the drivers the conditions of our proposed route. Bulent even offered us a lift all the way to Beyneu, the last village before the Uzbekistan border. But we shook our heads and instead enlisted him to help us learn some Russian words that we thought would be useful for the way ahead …

But nothing could’ve prepared us for this road… Day by day we toiled, never able to reach more than 10km/hr, eating five meals a day to make up for the amount of energy we were expending pushing against the fiercest headwinds we’ve known, the dust and sand storms, the rough track and the lack of habitation.

difficult 500kms

We sought refuge in chaykhanas, which lay sporadically along the deserted wasteland, and when those couldn’t be found, we hid from the dust and wind in drains to eat nuts and sultanas and swig on fast-emptying bottles of water.

hiding in drains

And I noticed that it was only when we stopped hoping the headwinds would turn into tailwinds and accepted our pace that the desert’s vastness, its harshness and its unending horizon became beautiful in our eyes.

And then we sang to the rocky outcrops, the windswept canyons, the giant boulders sculpted into spheres by the wind, the ancient burial grounds perched on hilltops, the huddling herds of horses and, of course, to those ancient wandering camels that roared in the rain.

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The slow boat to Kazakhstan

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Posted by Dan
Aktau, Kazakhstan

finally boarding the ship to Kazakhstan

The smoke, thick and black from the ship’s diesel engine blows away from us to the south-east and we are finally sailing north-west. Relaxing, reading, we hear the sound of a helicopter leaving an oil rig and fly above us. We jump to the window of our cabin, which is wide open, only a gentle breeze flutters the curtain now. Yesterday afternoon, the wind was apparently too strong to sail, or there was a storm out at sea which the captain wanted to hide from. So he dropped anchor, having turned around and motored back to the coast of Baku, after only 3 hours of leaving port. The boat sat and bobbed there all night, whilst we made friends with the Turkish truckies on board and swapped maps and notes with the other overlanders travelling this way.

This morning, when the wind had dropped and the anchor pulled in, we snoozed as crew pumped out excess ballast or leak water. In a soft daze, I hadn’t realised we were actually moving again, the sound of the water pumping out had merged with the splash of the still water under the speeding hull. It was only when I saw the reflection in the Perspex cover of the cabin light above my head of the sea moving away from us, I realised we were on our way again.

rest at last!

Relief allows us rest, and the strain of the 15 day wait for the boat is being slept off. Probably too by the 8 European friends we have made in the last 2 days. Despite having waited the longest and joined the French, German, Spanish, Ukrainian and English travellers camped outside the Kassa (ticket booth) all day, 2 days ago now, we ended up being the last ones to be sold a ticket. When we’d arrived at 7am, the day of departure, we’d been singled out and pressurised, told that the last ticket had been sold to our German friends and that there was no space for us. This deceit and the ugly, arrogant behaviour by the staff of the Kassa had us running back and forth between the Kassa and customs, where our friends all waited with their tickets in hand.

waiting at the kassa

We had already sensed the staff at the Kassa were dishonest people, but thought it incredulous that after 15 days of telling us, “Tomorrow, tomorrow” they would now refuse to sell two cyclists a ticket. A huge ship, with more cabins than passengers, was being described to us as full. With aggressive fists, the Kassa staff crossed their arms to make an X, to mean closed.

Close to tears, with dates of our visas running through our heads, and maps of alternative routes confusing and flashing through our minds, our journey, for a moment, seemed in the hands of these despicable people. It was hard to hide our anger, we raised our voices, losing our grip of calm and reason. Ireyna, the Ukranian woman, ran with us back to the Kassa, to ask again, speaking fluently in their common language of the ex-Soviet states, Russian.

She was calm, she was bright, she smiled, she was friendly, she didn’t show surprise and she was patient. Then she spotted the chief outside the Kassa, whom we’d not seen before, and spoke briefly and precisely to him. When the chief entered the Kassa, me and Krista understood clearly this part of the conversation. He spoke in stern Azeri, “What’s the problem? It is nothing. There is no problem. Sell them a ticket.” Ireyna, she is a star.

With ticket in hand, we three ran back to the boat to have our passports stamped, in fear that the boat would now leave without us. The customs guards were pleased for us and were all smiles, though the day before and the hour previously, they had been quiet and unreactionary. Our new friends punched the air as we joined the gang readying to board, although after the challenge of patience, nobody showed too much excitement, all agreeing that we’re not there until we’re there… When wheels roll away from customs to the open road, we’ll know we’ve made it: away from Azerbaijan and into Kazakhstan.

Our desperation to take this boat was so great, since we’d waited for such a long time, told every day that we should come back tomorrow. It had only taken 8 days to cycle the whole length of the country, yet we’d been in Baku for over 2 weeks. We’d been expecting to take a boat in a matter of 4 or 5 days, but because we’d waited so long, any other option for an alternative way out of Azerbaijan should we not board this boat was now nearly impossible.

One of the aims of our journey is not to fly. Our ongoing visas to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are paid for and planned out with set dates of entry and exit. To apply for replacements would be a costly option and a race against time, since we only had 6 days left on our Azeri visa. Our visa to remain in the country could expire before being granted one for a neighbouring country. We didn’t have time to exit the country by cycling. And we had chosen this route to avoid Iran, since, interesting as it may be, Krista didn’t want to return there as she’d been put in prison there 12 years ago. Even so, this would still leave us with the problem of a Turkmenistan transit visa, and crossing 800kms of desert in just 5 days in searing heat. AARGH!

The three men and one woman of the Kassa were simply scaring us into offering them a bribe, knowing how long they had kept us waiting, being aware that we must take a boat any day now.

We drew these conclusions when we got on board and saw that indeed this huge boat had more cabins than passengers. And when we heard from the captain that there had been other boats that had come and gone that we could’ve travelled on, our suspicions were confirmed.

For the first time on this journey, we had both forgotten that time is the only thing that can change a situation. It is only a moment of drama, and if you wait it out, it will be a different outcome. Patience will put an end to a tight spot, if you stay calm! So we toasted a drink on the bow of the ship with our new group of friends in celebration of our departure and progress towards Kazakhstan.

toasting with vodka

Smiles and laughter and friendship grew aboard and we made plans to look out for each other along the road, although our overlander friends would move much faster than us, travelling with motorbikes and cars.

The important words to remember come to mind on the voice of our friend Gizem: “Now the adventure really begins”.

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New system, old thinking

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Baku, Azerbaijan

nodding donkey on the outskirts of Baku

When we asked a well-educated Baku man, Emin, today about the changes to Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he commented (somewhat stoically), “New system, old thinking”, meaning that not much has changed – democracy has not yet reached Azerbaijan, and doesn’t look like it will in the near future.

It was no surprise to hear that when national leader Heydar Aliyev died in 2003, he was shamelessly succeeded by his son Ilham in a dynastic handover. And just a few days ago, polls were fixed so he’s now in power for life – apparently with 97% majority!

People seem to accept that this is how it is, and get on with their lives. Traffic police continue to blatantly bribe drivers (so they can buy themselves a promotion) and if you want a job, be prepared to pay around $15,000 US for the privilege.

We’ve finally bought a new camera (and sent mine back to the States to get fixed) – so you can now finally see a few photos of Azerbaijan if you click here.

10 days and counting…

Friday, May 15th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Baku, Azerbaijan

I’m nervous today. We’ve been waiting for a cargo ferry to transport us from Azerbaijan across the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan for 10 days now – surely it must be leaving soon? But there’s no schedule – it just leaves when it’s full, and I’m worried that it will set sail quietly in the middle of the night, unbeknownst to us…

Although we’ve still got some time left on our Azeri and Kazakh visas, with every passing day I am feeling the tick of the clock. The next stage of the expedition will take us through over 1000 kilometres of harsh and sparsely populated desert – the globe is turning and summer’s fast approaching – we have to leave soon. So we patiently and earnestly trudge to the port every day, to check with the unfriendly man at the ‘Kassa’ on the ship’s status.

But, once again, he shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head, giving us no update other than a terse, “Yoq” – no. Oh well… maybe tomorrow…

The man with the golden smile

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Baku, Azerbaijan

***A tall man wearing the typical black flatcap, sporting a full set of dazzling gold front teeth, runs over and accosts us. He’s so energetic and eager that, after having crossed the border from Georgia and cycled 50 kilometres through heat and dust, we just don’t have it in us to match his conversation pace, and are apprehensive to stop and chat with him. Politely though, reservedness eeking out of pores and body language, we answer the where-froms, where-tos, whys and wherefores without too much animation, whilst preparing to get going again. But this man, Natik, is not put-off by our lack of warmth. In fact he is so excited that he hasn’t even noticed all our energies are pointing towards getting back on our bikes so we can reach our planned destination of Zaqatala before the sun sets.

“Come and drink çay!”, he exclaims, beckoning us over to a small, dimly-lit café, full of cigarette-smoking men. “Come, come!”. I look at Dan, who raises his eyebrows in a look of, “Do you really want to?”, whilst Natik’s beckoning becomes more voluptuous by the minute.

I am reminded of the words, “…to let go, or to hold on…”. We believe so strongly that we are in control of our own destiny, we makes plans and organise our pathways, and are not open to a change in direction, however big or small. We think we know what is best for us and try to manipulate the world to fit into our grand and rigid plans – which are really just arbitrary ideas that we’ve concocted.

“…to let go, or to hold on…” These words loop in my mind and, in this moment, I know I have to surrender to something deeper than myself. I look at Dan and nod – letting go – and with a golden smile Natik opens the café door.

Once inside, seated around a table with Natik and three of his friends, Dan and I begin to relax. Natik plies us with çay, served from a teapot into tulip glasses, sipped through a sweet or a rough sugar lump held between the teeth. He thinks we must be hungry and orders us kalem dolma (spicy meatballs wrapped in cabbage leaf) and salad, whilst introduces us proudly to his Azeri culture. Dan and I relax some more.

He tells us intimate tales of how he ran away from his parents house in the night so that he could fight the war in Karabakh against Armenia in the early ’90s, and compares nowadays with 18 years ago when Azerbaijan was part of the 15-country-strong Soviet Union. He invites us to stay at his home, explaining that in Azerbaijan, a Muslim country, everyone has a spare room for guests because they are revered as god. He can’t disguise his disappointment after we answer his questions about whether the same tradition exists in England.

When we finally depart, it’s with happy, full hearts and bellies – and it suddenly doesn’t matter if we don’t reach Zaqatala before the sun sets. ***

I thought that nothing particularly extraordinary had happened in this encounter, apart from some great hospitality and a gentle meeting of souls. But when we reached Baku, 10 days later, I realised that, indeed, magic had taken place. Natik – the first person we’d met in Azerbaijan – had given us so much warmth and generosity upon our arrival in his country that the spirit of his friendship accompanied us throughout. Without even knowing it, he had softened us, allowing us to open and trust more in this unfolding journey, and reminded us that the ideas we’ve created for ourselves can and may change at any given moment… and that’s not such a bad thing…

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Silk road

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Baku, Azerbaijan

A lump in my throat and tears in my eyes – as I stood on the dusty mound on the edge of the moonlike mountain landscape and saw the shimmer of the Caspian Sea in the distance below. The words, “Coast to coast to coast” entered my mind, and like flickering timelapse photography, I saw moving snapshots of two steady and determined bicycle riders traversing the lands that lie between the English Channel, the Black Sea and the Caspian.

Here we are in the strange land that is Azerbaijan. Back to sea level with 5500 kilometres on our odometer. In a new kind of place where gleaming golden-tooth strangers have greeted us, and where we learn slowly that not everything is as it may at first seem…

When we crossed the border we straightaway felt like minor celebrities. The Georgians had been fairly quiet, shy and even slightly insular. A controlled and restrained “Gamarjaobat” (hello) would be mustered, but usually only if we were the first to wave, smile, greet. But now, having crossed the Alazani river that separates the two countries, suddenly, every second Azeri car is honking, bodies and faces leaning from windows in amazement and bemusement, grabbing videos or photos of us on their mobile phones as we whizz by.

The question on everybody’s lips is, “Is the President of your country paying you to ride your bike?” If only… They obviously don’t get us when we shake our heads and try desperately to communicate the environmental reasons for our cycle ride across the world. We’re foreigners anyway, so we must be rich, and all prices are promptly doubled. It’s interesting that we’re still spending the same on groceries as we did when we lived in London.

Now that the days are getting longer and warmer, it’s becoming easier and easier to camp. Shepherds and goat herders point us to good spots near freshwater springs, and reassure us, in our shared common language of Turkish, that we need not be scared in the night. They’re fascinated with our set-up and point to tent, bikes, Trangia, rubbing fingers against thumb in the universal gesture of “how much, how much?”. It’s hard to convey that these two loaded bikes are pretty much all the possessions we have in the world… It’s even harder to answer their shock that, as a couple in our 30’s, we have no children – and they raise open hands to the sky in a plead to Allah to bless us.

We’ve joined the Silk Road and our path will now weave across its ancient strands all the way through Central Asia and into China. These trading routes brought amber and honey the the east, silk and jade to the west. One of its threads took us to Sheki, a famous silk weaving town, where we stayed in an 18th century caravansaray. In its heyday, Sheki had five working caravansarays to shelter and feed traders and pack animals resting at the junction where the caravan route between Baku and Tbilisi met the cross-mountain branch to Derbent in Dagestan.

The Greater Caucasus mountains have been so elusive – catching cloud and snaring mist – that we got up before dawn every day to see their impressive peaks in morning’s first light. And when fertile earth below our feet turned to desert dust, we craned our necks some more to see circling eagles spiral and soar above our heads.

We’re in Baku now, with the rural life and Caucasus mountains far behind. In this oil-rich capital, chok-a-blok with Ladas, Nivas, pick-ups, Mercedes, and the most enormous luxury 4WD’s I’ve ever seen, we’re tracking down a boat to ferry us across the largest lake in the world – that is, the Caspian Sea – all the way to Kazakhstan.

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New Georgia pix

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Sunday service

Click here to see our photos of Georgia… Unfortunately our camera broke just after Tbilisi, so we have no Azerbaijan pix to share… We’re in the process of trying to track down a digi repair dude in Baku, but that’s not as easy as it might sound!