Xinjiang to Pakistan

August 6th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Sust, Pakistan

Goodbye Kashgar…

…the old…

…and the new…

…the delicious…

…and the not so nutritious…

How happy we were to have met met Lok, Fish and Bruce, 3 Chinese cyclists about to embark upon the infamous G219 Tibetan Highway to Lhasa, the day before we left for the Karakorum Highway to Pakistan. They invited us to come with them to Yecheng and try and get permits, but we declined – albeit reluctantly – and wished them the best for their long and difficult journey.

But our route wasn’t to be so easy either, not just because of the terrain – but also because of these strange and ever-changing rules and regulations that make independent travel a nightmare in China. A few days before, we heard of a cyclist that had taken our road and had been turned back by the military at the first checkpost just out of Kashgar – forced to take a bus all the way to Sust in Pakistan. Another traveller we met had wanted to visit the high altitude lake at Karakol, also on our route, but was told he wasn’t permitted unless accompanied by a guide in a hired vehicle. Very expensive and very annoying. We didn’t know if we’d be lucky enough to get through this first checkpost, but we thought we’d give it a go.

The checkpost appeared, we kept close and put our heads down. I heard a loud, “OY!”, but kept pedalling. I heard another louder, “OY!” but still kept pedalling, not knowing if Dan was behind me or not. “Dan, Dan, are you there?” I shouted.
“Yes, keep going!” he replied, so we did.

Later that day, we saw a bus pass us with four bikes strapped onto the roof. Oh no, the cyclists we’d met in our hotel in Kashgar hadn’t been as lucky as us…

The intolerable wind blowing from the desert was dehydrating and exhausting. We stopped for a rest, sheltering from wind and blinding sun near a mosque and its mud cemetery. The family harvesting the field nearby came to visit us, proffering a honeydew and watermelon! When we cracked the watermelon open, the man was horrified that it wasn’t ripe, and he rushed back home to get us another two. Relief all round when we opened one to find it juicy and red.

The other 2 melons we strapped precariously onto the backs of our bikes. Goodness knows how they balanced there. But they refreshed us at the end of the day as we camped in the backgarden of a local family. After the pips had been spat, a giant sandstorm hit, and we escaped into our only-just erected tent.

The next day, the valley narrowed into a deep gorge. Mountains, bare and foreboding loomed above us, threatening landslides. Dan heard a rumble across the river and, looking up, saw a cloud of rubble and dust descending from the heights.

It was a tiring day as we followed the river up just past the military checkpost at Ghez. Reading the contours on our map, we decided this would be the best place to stop for the night as the gorge would continue steeply for another 20kms and there would be no place for our tent between river, road and sheer mountainside.

The only chaikhana (teahouse) in the village also served as a petrol station (selling fuel from old plastic coke bottles), and a raucous drinking hole. It had a small, stinky room attached to the restaurant with hard beds, which, much against Dan’s intuition, we decided to stay for the night. Just as we were about to sleep, we heard a loud, sharp rap at the door. “Police!”

A drunk and disorderly captain, wearing 3 stars on his breast, motioned Dan and I out of our room. Using aggressive arm swings, he signalled to us that we could not stay here the night and we must take a bus 70 kilometres away, to the lake at Karakol, where we were obliged stay in the tourist hotel.

This was ridiculous! We’d arrived in Ghez at 3pm, and it was 8pm now. Why hadn’t the soldiers told us we were prohibited to stay when they’d taken our passport details at the checkpoint 5 hours ago? We had unpacked, washed, were ready for bed and completely exhausted.

We argued, debated, pleaded and tried to reason with the unyielding military man – whose blatant misuse of power disgusted us to the core. Conversations went back and forth between myself, a translator that he had phoned, and him. After a 3 hour stand-off, the translator finally told me that if we did not leave, we would be sent to prison.

I attempted one last bluff. With a stern face I demanded the captain tell me his name and number because I wanted to make an official complaint. It was at that point that he disappeared, and never returned!

We left Ghez just before dawn broke. No-one was around as we filled up our water bottles with warm mountain spring water trickling from the mountainside. We knew the next part of the road would be steep and thirsty work.

It was beautiful. Occasionally, the road opened up and small settlements appeared, from where we could buy a fizzy drink, boiled eggs, or get some hot water to make noodles.

And as we passed Bulungkol Lake and Sand Mountain (Kumtagh), we raced against the wind and a fierce storm in the mountains.

This was the first time I was hit by altitude sickness, I was giddy and seemed to have tunnel vision, and the last 10 kilometres was tough as we ascended further to reach the striking Karakol Lake, framed by the Kongur-Muztagata mountain range.

We made camp and rested for a couple of days, swimming at midday in the icy water…

…and circumnavigating the lake by horse to find more springwater to drink…

It was a great rest and important acclimatisation, for the next section of the road would bring us to the Ulugrabatdavan Pass of 4098 metres – the highest yet.

Along the way, we passed woolly yaks and screeching marmots, ancient Kyrgyz burial sites and breathtaking mountain views.

The Karakorum Highway on the Chinese side is like a runway. With never a pimple or a crease, the gradient is always steady and smooth. It was therefore effortless to reach the top of the pass, where we ate lunch and had a siesta. We were woken suddenly by two other cyclists, heading in the other direction: lungi-clad Paulo from Italy and Fran from Argentina, who was carrying a didgeridoo! They only had 3 yuan (30 pence) and a few rupees to their name, so we gave them what Chinese money we had in exchange for their tatty, ageing Pakistani and Indian rupees. Fran didn’t think we’d get into Pakistan without a visa, and this put some doubt and worry into us.

It was then a long descent to Beskorgan, where we stopped the night in a yurtcamp run by some local Tajiks.

In Tashkurgan, the exit point for China, finally the Chinese rules and regulations caught up with us. We were forced to take a bus to Sust, the immigration point into Pakistan, 210 kms away! We were really disappointed as it would mean our journey would be broken up and we would miss cycling over the Khunjerab Pass. However, we managed to persuade the bus driver to let us out as soon as we got outside of Chinese territory, so we got to wheel down the 90kms from Khunjerab to Sust after all!

The border guards on the Pakistani side at Khunjerab welcomed us heartily.

It was a glorious and exhilarating ride from Khunjerab down to Sust, the official Northern Areas entry point into Pakistan. Giant, jagged peaks…Switchbacks…

…Meltwater rushing from ever-shifting glaciers… Smiling roadworkers…

…Crazy colourful trucks with jingling bells attached to their bumpers…

We were in Pakistan without a visa, and late for the immigration entry point at Sust, 89 kilometres away. Lonely Planet warned that all documents should be in order before entering Pakistan – firstly as there was a chance the Chinese wouldn’t allow you to exit without an onward visa, and secondly – because Pakistan may not grant a visa upon arrival. Fran, the cyclist we had met on the Ulugrabatdavan Pass had also put some doubts in our minds about this, as had the countless other travellers spinning gossip, fear and dramatic hearsay.

But we pushed on anyway, against the dry, strong headwind, and the dust that blew from the withered track that is the Karakorum Highway on the Pakistani side, stopping only occasionally to check where we were on the map and grab a handful of scroggin.

We finally reached Sust at 9pm, stumbling off our bikes at the gated post and saying a weary, “Asalaam ailekum” to the border guards.

Shereef, a large, fatherly figure in the local dress of shalwar khameese, appeared as if from nowhere and declared that he was, “Immigration”. But he seemed flustered – it was evening prayer time and his friend had the key to the locked customs building. As well as this, there was a power cut and he was reluctant to turn the generator on. So he told us to take a room in Sust and come back for immigration formalities at 9am the next day.

We asked him to recommend a place to stay and he escorted us down the road to a cheap guesthouse, chatting all the while. By the time we reached the bazaar, evening prayers had finished and we bumped into his friend who had the key for the customs building. So we turned back to immigration.

The generator was switched on and the building buzzed and lit up. Shereef’s friend took our passports to stamp and we admitted that we didn’t have visas, but please could we get one? “Oh, yes, no problem. I will give you 30 days visa, no problem. You can extend easily if you like, in Gilgit, Skardu, or Islamabad. As you like!” declared Shereef. “Let me just call another friend, he has the key for the visa stickers.”

And so it was, another friend was called in to help us. Meticulously, this man took our details, the visa fee, and gummed the visas neatly into our passports. “Please wait a moment”, said Shereef when this process was finished. “One more friend must come to sign your visas” he said, tapping at his mobile phone.

This was incredible. Not only had immigration been closed for the day, but 4 men had come out from their family homes to welcome us to their country and help us to fulfil the entry requirements of Pakistan.

And when all was done, Shereef declared, “This is Pakistan. We welcome you as our honoured guests!”

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Change of heart

July 22nd, 2009

Posted by Dan
Kashgar, Xinjiang

We still hadn’t let go of the idea of cycling the Tibetan Highway, the G219 that leads through the heart of Tibet to sacred Mount Kailash and onto Lhasa, when we passed through customs and across the Chinese border into Xinjiang. I had folded and hidden our Tibet maps in my back pocket in case of a bag search. So much fear, intrepidation and drama had filled many of the travellers reports of journeys through China and particularly pathways that lead to Lhasa. We didn’t want our maps confiscated or entry blocked.

However, after a 3-hour wait in the scorching sun, border guards opened the gate, and with relative ease, slack and random swine-flu checks and a single pannier bag through the scan machine, we were processed as Aliens and entered ‘The People’s Republic of China’. Just whose ‘people’s republic’ is anyone’s guess! ‘Power to the people’ seems like a very alien concept here. It didn’t take us long to see this as the first example of Communist propoganda. This land does not belong to the people.

Initially, we were excited by the friendly Chinese people we met, and challenged by Chinese script and a hopeless chance of understanding anything said to us. But we soon discovered that Chinese wasn’t the only language spoken here. A variation of Turkish, spoken by the indigenous people of this land, the Uighurs, saved us from pointing and gesturing. Their traditional script is Arabic, which luckily Krista can read, helping us to decipher roadsigns.

Reaching this giant landmass, called China, feels like a huge accomplishment to us and means we’ve almost covered the distance we set out to attempt. But getting here is bitter-sweet. We see now that if we’d reached Kashgar 60 years earlier, we’d actually be in East Turkestan, the homeland of Muslim Uighars, and a very different place. For in 1949, the Chinese government expanded its borders and forcefully occupied Xinjiang, just as it did when it entered and began to decimate Buddhist Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

These occupied regions, rich in natural resources and ancient cultures, make up more than half of the landmass called The People’s Republic of China.

A beautiful but thought-provoking 250km ride from the border at Irkeshtam took us to Kashgar, the most westerly city of China.

In Kashgar, every morning, just after dawn, we hear a recorder version of “Happy Birthday” ringing out on the citywide PA system to celebrate 2009 being the 60th year of China as we know it. However, according to the faces of the indigenous Uighar population, we are very much in an occupied region under a Chinese government regime, and this is no celebration.

Unfortunately, the Uighars, who want for a quiet, content, peaceful life, practising Islam and tolerance, don’t have a figurehead and spokesperson like the Dalai Lama of Tibet. So when the Chinese government shut down all telecommunications and internet access in Xinjiang at the start of July, the Uighars voice was silenced.

A local man, calling himself Abdul (but probably disguising his real identity from us in fear of the Secret Police) told us that reports of the number of people killed by the military in the July demonstration in Urumqi, before communications were cut, could easily be five times greater. He explained the events that led to the demonstration, which sound very much like an effort to dilute the Uighar culture and population. The government took young Uighar men between the ages of 15 and 25 from their home and forcefully put them to work in a Chinese government toy factory thousands of kilometres away. In this factory, 80 Uighars suffered physical injuries from racial attacks and 2 were killed. As a result, Uighars demonstrated against Chinese government repression of their people, but killings and indiscriminate arrests by the military silenced their freedom of speech.

As we entered Kashgar, we were met by troops of heavily armed Chinese soldiers on street corners and military trucks circling the Uighar districts, day and night, in convoy. 19-year old soldiers, crammed into caged troop trucks wielding machine guns and riot shields naively and innocently waved to a sarcastic foreigner cycling behind. PA system messages blasted from the back of these trucks as they circled, leaving no moment of silence, propaganda of which locals told us they’ll never believe.

In the days we were in Kashgar, we saw huge troops occupying the shady spots in the main square under the trees outside the mosque where the pious old Muslim men have always sat. New recruits for the local branch of citizens’ police practice walking drills and aggressive chants, taking delivery of uniforms and huge wooden batons outside our hotel. We spotted snipers on the roof of buildings surrounding the bazaar.

A friend we made told us how the government are destroying the Old City and paying people out of their traditional mudbrick homes to replace with with ugly, faceless Chinese concrete appartments – actions that are very obviously erasing the presence and history of Uighar tradition and culture.

He doesn’t want to sell his home that has been passed on from generation to generation, but is worried that next year, his block will be demolished anyway and he’ll be left with nothing. So far, about 50% of the Old City in Kashgar has been destroyed.

We were left feeling sad and disturbed at seeing a very palpable example of racial genocide, cultural dilution, regime and oppression. The weight of our feelings could of course never be compared to that of the repression Uighar people are being forced to live with. Tibetans have been living under the same kind of conditions, but the international world is more aware of their plight due to the proactive and vocal Dalai Lama. He states clearly that the Tibetan people in Tibet are not free and are constantly living in fear. We feel that this is also true for the indigenous population living in Xinjiang.

For us, the journey we are on is not about politics or fighting the grain of a situation, yet we feel that, since we have the fortune of freedom of movement, we owe it to those who don’t, to remove ourselves from an area of the world that is controlled by such ‘bloody-bastard-guys’.

Passport in hand, Pakistan is the closest country we can enter without prior arrangement of a visa (at least we think so!). We’ll head south-west towards the Khunjerab Pass, past the Kongur-Muztagata and Sariqul mountain ranges through Tajik and Kyrgyz settlements.

Deciding to change our route and reach the Himalayas via Pakistan and India instead of via Lhasa has not been easy. But we have chosen to do this in opposition to the occupation of Xinjiang and Tibet by the Chinese government, who are imposing a fearful and oppressive regime over the Uighur and Tibetan indigenous people.

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Halfway round the world

July 15th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Kashgar, Xinjiang

Greetings from the road!

As we freewheeled down to the city of Kashgar, sun and dust in our eyes, haze in the air, second-largest sand shifting desert to our east, we felt elated to have made it this far. To me, reaching China symbolises having ridden halfway around the world – HOORAY for pedal power!

From Osh, Kyrgyzstan, we were joined by two cyclists, Ben and Sylvie, who’ve ridden all the way from France on recumbents.

The first 60kms of road was smooth as a runway. But then, as predicted, the roadworks began.

Smiling faces greeted us and we learnt our first few words of Chinese, yelling, “Nee-ha” (hello) to all the Chinese road builders as we bumped and clunked along. My forearms and hands ached from the vibrations and corrugations, my lungs stung from the dust of the trucks, but my heart sang with the mountains that surrounded us.

At the end of our second day, we were waved down by a young lad, Timur, who invited us to camp in his back garden. We stayed there for 3 days, swam in the mountain meltwater and visited the jailoos – the summer pastures – riding a donkey!

The families living in the yurts invited us in…

…and plied us with yoghurt, hard balls of cheese, green tea, fresh cream, nan bread and… fermented mare’s milk, a Kyrgyz specialty, known as kummuz.

Crossing the 3615m Taldyk Pass wasn’t half as difficult as I had imagined (I’d been creating a nightmare road based on what all the cyclists in Osh had described). As we climbed higher and higher, a cold flutter of snow greeted us.

Dan sped ahead, strong and sure, I was slower, having to stay in Granny Gear. This was not because of a steep incline, but because my gears were becoming more and more jammed. Ben and Sylvie had a near collision with a speeding truck, which hadn’t judged the angle of the hairpin bend.

The air was thin at the top, and I was breathless but happy.

And when I looked back at where we had come from, I was quite impressed.

The village of Sary Tash was horrible and we fought with the local kids who were throwing stones at us and trying to catch hold of our bikes. But to counterbalance this was the stunning view. And we followed this mountain range all the way to China…

The road deteriorated quite a lot more, but we didn’t care, we just loved being amongst all these beautiful mountains …

And 250kms later, we were in China, where the stinking floppy-humped camels, the wind-sculpted rocks and the mud-brick Uighur settlements kept us constantly surprised.

Towards Xinjiang

July 8th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Osh, Kyrgyzstan

China has seemed so elusive, so far away for so long, and yet now its snow-capped peaks are beckoning us, inviting us, challenging us. These grand mountains bring tears to my eyes – their presence and strength remind me of my own eternal nature.

From Osh, a road winds its way into the Alay Mountain range. We’re gonna follow it for some 250 kilometres, crossing three high passes, to reach Irkeshtam, the border with China.

I’m a bit nervous cos we’ve met a stack of other cyclists here who’ve reported that this particular road is the worst they’ve ever ridden. Its whole length is currently under construction, and by all accounts, apart from the first smooth and tarmacked 60kms, it’s rubble, mud, diggers, sand and gravel all the way to China.

I hope my bike will last until we reach Kashgar. It’s creaking and groaning from within the front hub and the gears have some unsolved problems that elude even Dan. And neither of us know how we’ll deal with the altitude yet – the Taldyk Pass is at 3615 metres – and is the highest we’ve been on bikes.

But, one pedal at a time, and I’m sure we’ll get there.

Rainforest Rescue update

July 7th, 2009

Posted by Krista

Our trip is to raise funds for Rainforest Rescue, an environmental organisation working to protect rainforests of the world. Here is an update on their progress…


Good news! Since January of this year Rainforest Rescue has planted 10,000 trees on previously cleared land inside the Daintree National Park in far-north Queensland.


Also, on 13 May 2009, Rainforest Rescue purchased Lot 29 Cape Tribulation Road in the Daintree! This is the 11th property in Rainforest Rescue’s Daintree Buy Back and Protect Forever Project – identifying and purchasing precious rainforest at risk of development and establishing Nature Refuge status, which protects it forever under covenants ratified by the Queensland Parliament in Australia.

Owning this 11th property not only means that the unique rainforest flora here, including the impressive fan palms are safe, but rare and endangered species like the Bennett’s tree kangaroo and cassowaries now have a vital corridor through the rural residential subdivision from the Daintree National Park on its northern side to two declared Nature Reserves in the south. This is particularly important in this area, as residential development fragments essential cassowary habitat through clearing and the introduction of weeds and dogs.

Unlike the properties to the south of the adjoining road, which are in wet lowland areas, Lot 29 runs up the side of the foothills of the Daintree National Park, offering a significantly different ecosystem especially worthy of conservation.

The vegetation type here is described as notophyll to mesophyll vine forest with significant numbers of fan palms on the slopes with the main emergent being the swamp mahogany — host to the rare redeye butterfly and bottlebrush orchids. The biodiversity values of this ecosystem type are described as being ‘very species rich’.

As a dedicated Nature Refuge, no development is possible at all now on this property; no dogs, no traffic, no clearing, nothing. Just nature doing what it does best (under the watchful eye of biologist and Conservation Manager David Cook). You can visit this and other properties we have secured on a self guided tour, Rainforest Rescue can give you directions any time.

Your continued support is vital in keeping up the momentum on this project. Please help secure even more of the Daintree by making a donation to Rainforest Rescue.

Click here to donate, thank you! xxx

Onward from Osh

July 5th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Osh, Kyrgyzstan

Osh is situated at a major travellers crossroads – if you go south-east you reach China via the Irkesham Pass, south will take you to the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, go north and you will reach Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek and just a few kms away to the north-west is the border with Uzbekistan. All very nice cycling territory! And it’s here that we’ve met NINE other cyclists! Yee ha!

Together with our new two-wheeled friends, we’ve been discussing routes and plans and ideas for the way ahead. It’s becoming more and more apparent to us that the original route we wanted to take – along the high altitude Tibetan Highway to Lhasa – is virtually impossible this year.

Travellers and cyclists reaching Osh from China have reported that the Chinese authorities have clamped down EVEN more strongly on independent travel through this region since the Olympics. And for the past couple of months, travellers have been forbidden to enter Lhasa without an official guide.

So we’re reconsidering our route and here are the possibilities.

The heros of Tashkent: Said and Steve

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.


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

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

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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