All posts by Diaconescu Radu

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Crossing the Uzkek-Kazah desert, 2000 of kilometers of nothingness.

I had dreaded the Uzbek desert crossing. In the end what can sound less appealing to a cyclist than the monotony of a straight road through the middle of the nothingness, with the almost the same scenery from sunrise until sunset, day in and day out. It is the unknown around the corner that turns my wheels, except that in the case the next corner is just a slight angle variation in the road direction and I’m pretty sure what I will find after it: another stretch of bushy and barren desert.

And then there’s the wind, the constant side wind which has been blowing continuously for the past 5 days from the same direction. I think that there are few things more demoralizing than going to sleep after a hard day of fighting the wind knowing that tomorrow you will have to start over again.

But surprisingly as the days went by I have to admit that the desert became more and more enjoyable and somehow I found a certain tranquility of the monotony of each passing day. Usually when touring you have your mind set on the next destination on the map, the next mountain pass, the next city where you can take a rest but now only the Caspian Sea which the end of desert and it’s more than 1000 kilometers away. It’s impossible to plan anything when such distances are involved and quickly you forget about the destination and you settle in what seems like an endless daily routine.

But then there’s the light and the incredible clear and blue skies of the desert, accompanied by a million stars during the night. Slightly changing but constantly beautiful, coloring each sunset and sunrise in a different way.

And then there’s the peace and the silence which you find either on the bike while cycling or each evening at the chosen camping spot. While on the bike moments when you are completely present alternate with moments when your mind drifts off to an imaginary place following it’s own internal monologue.

Days fly by and your only worry becomes to carry enough food and water to get you to the next small village. The daily agenda consists of 120 kilometers of nothing, followed by a small village and another 140 kilometers of empty desert. Each evening’s goal becomes knowing that I put in a good effort for that day which I usually quantify as time spent in the saddle. Kilometers are completely irrelevant when you factor in the wind and the road quality.

Time seems to lose any kind of meaning. How many days has it been since the last real shower and the last night spent in a bed? Certainly more than a week… How many days until the well deserved swim in the Caspian Sea? No idea but probably also around one week. Probably this is the best test to see if I will ever get bored of myself.

And yet the days go by and finally after almost 1600 kilometers in Uzbekistan I finally cross the border into Kazakhstan, changing countries but unfortunately not the scenery. The welcome sign into Kazakhstan consists of 80 kilometers which could be easily classified as one of the worst roads I’ve ever cycled on.

Three days and 400 kilometers later I finally see the shimmering water of the Caspian sea in the distance. It’s hard to explain in words how you feel when realize that finally the desert is over and that shortly you will sink your dusty self in the cold and clear waters of the Caspian sea. I honestly cannot think of a better way of ending a desert crossing.

Looking back I have to admit that I really enjoyed what I had dreaded at first and that I had grown fond of the desert, of the feeling of being completely disconnected, of losing track of days and of time and of the monotonous peace and serenity of the desert. I would clearly rate it as one of the most interesting bits of the road back to Europe.

And now for some practical considerations.

1. Visas and costs.

It seems that all the people I met along the way were Englishmen and they were all cycling eastwards (or the wrong way as I used to say when I met them) and probably the only reason you would chose this route through Central Asia is that you can’t get a visa for Iran (which seems to difficult if not impossible for people from the UK and the USA). The visas for Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan while not cheap are at least obtainable, and you also avoid the Turkmenistan 5 days fixed entry/exit madness.

2. Road quality.

The tarmac isn’t as bad as I expected and there are construction work still going on both in Uzbekistan and in Kazakhstan so it will get even better the following years. In September 2015 there were plenty of newly opened bits where tragic wasn’t allowed yet but where you could ride your bycicle, perfect conditions. Also the bit between Beyneu and Aktau (once dubbed the worst road in the world) has been repaired. Just take care to choose the northern alternative and not the main road after Shetpe. There are some broken bits along the way though and the 80 kilometers between the border and Beyneu are absolutely horrible.

3. Supplies and distances.

Probably the most challenging bit is between Nukus and the border where for 400 kilometers you only have 3 settlements. And there is literally NOTHING in between (except camels) so depending on the speed you need to plan and have enough food and water for 140 kilometers / 120 kilometers (the greatest distances in between settlements). At the same time if you run out of food or water you probably can wave for help at one of the occasional trucks, the drivers are usually more than helpful. Also depending on the temperature you really need to carry a lot of water, I had temperatures around 30 degrees and I was still drinking around 7-8 liters per day. And Uzbek melons rock.

4. People.

My experiences in Uzbekistan were a bit mixed regarding the people, which is probably due to a real presence of a police state. And even though I had some genuine examples of hospitality something still felt strange. From the overly sanitized like Samarkand and Khiva, to the police checks every 100 kilometers to the monuments portraying Uzbekistan and it’s president in positive light something just didn’t fit in. And perhaps in comparison with other Stans when talking with the people they seemed to have a good opinion about the president and government which also seemed somehow strange. Other than that I had no problems with the police except for the 2 hours spent at the border crossing between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan where the customs officials were simply assholes (it seems that almost everyone passing through this border crossing had the same experience).

5. Money.

Be prepared to carry bags of money, or “Sum” – the local currency. With the biggest note having the equivalent value of 2 euro and with plenty of smaller notes worth as little as 0.05 euros be prepared to have a special place to store all the cash. A plastic bag worked fine for me though. As a side note cash machines exist only in the big cities (Samarkand and Bukhara should have one but they could be out of service). Also it’s worth asking around to find out which is the black marked rate, as the difference between the official rate and the black market rate can be as high as 30-40%. A good place to change money at the black market rate is the local bazaar, just as for the money changers corner.

6. Temperatures and the best time to cross Uzbekistan.

I spent most of September crossing Uzbekistan and the temperatures were almost perfect for cycling (between 25 and 35 degrees, but mostly around 30) but I heard horror stories from cyclists which crossed Uzbekistan in July and August and which had to deal with constant 40 degree temperatures. Weirdly enough while you are cycling and the wind is blowing around you temperatures above 35 degrees are tolerable, but the moment you stop sweet covers you instantly. There were many moments where I was thinking if how much extra water I need to drink each stop just to make up for the water lost through sweat in the same time span.

The bright future of the Tadjick people, on a mural before the border with Tadjikistan.

The bright future of the Tadjick people, on a mural before the border with Tadjikistan.

A tipical roadside meal in Uzbekistan (for about 2 dollars). Enjoying sheep meet really helps in Central Asia.

A tipical roadside meal in Uzbekistan (for about 2 dollars). Enjoying sheep meet really helps in Central Asia.

Igor from Ucraine, travelling with less than 2 dollars per day.

Igor from Ucraine, travelling with less than 2 dollars per day.

Hot air, hot asfalt and no shade in the Uzbek desert. Stoping is not an option as without the wind you're instantly covered in sweat.

Hot air, hot asfalt and no shade in the Uzbek desert. Stoping is not an option as without the wind you're instantly covered in sweat.

The standing minaret from Bukhara. One of the oldest in Central Asia.

The standing minaret from Bukhara. One of the oldest in Central Asia.

Hiting the 12.000 kilometer mark somewhere in the middle of the desert.

Hiting the 12.000 kilometer mark somewhere in the middle of the desert.

Up, up, and away! On a new stretch of road between Bukhara and Khiva.

Up, up, and away! On a new stretch of road between Bukhara and Khiva.

Uzbek road workers, as friendly as ever.

Uzbek road workers, as friendly as ever.

Desert skies.

Desert skies.

Geometrical patters in Khiva, the last surviving khanate of the Mongol Empire.

Geometrical patters in Khiva, the last surviving khanate of the Mongol Empire.

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Uzbek melons make the perfect roadside snack.

Uzbek melons make the perfect roadside snack.

Coffe brewing in the middle of the road. Also on a newly constructed stretch of road.

Coffe brewing in the middle of the road. Also on a newly constructed stretch of road.

It seems that the only people on this road are people from Great Britain or from the US, for whom the Iran visa is still unfortunately nearly impossible.

It seems that the only people on this road are people from Great Britain or from the US, for whom the Iran visa is still unfortunately nearly impossible.

The cyclists tan after 2 weeks in the desert. And the cyclist's legs after a couple of months on the road.

The cyclists tan after 2 weeks in the desert. And the cyclist's legs after a couple of months on the road.

Desert glamping.

Desert glamping.

Dancing in the middle of road in the middle of nowhere, what better way to celebrate a birthday.

Dancing in the middle of road in the middle of nowhere, what better way to celebrate a birthday.

Improvised karakapak sheep herding

Improvised karakapak sheep herding

The road can't get much worse than this. The 80 kilometer bit between the border and Beyneu were horrific.

The road can't get much worse than this. The 80 kilometer bit between the border and Beyneu were horrific.

Somewhere at the end of this railroad, 500 kilometers away was the Caspian sea.

Somewhere at the end of this railroad, 500 kilometers away was the Caspian sea.

A good book, coffee and some proteins make the perfect lunch break for the dusty cyclist.

A good book, coffee and some proteins make the perfect lunch break for the dusty cyclist.

Roadside smelly companions (somehow you can sense the smell of cammels from a great distance)

Roadside smelly companions (somehow you can sense the smell of cammels from a great distance)

Desert glamping take 2, this tame with a scenery which seems taken from Mars.

Desert glamping take 2, this tame with a scenery which seems taken from Mars.

The end of the journey, and an incredibly well deserved swim in the Caspian Sea.

The end of the journey, and an incredibly well deserved swim in the Caspian Sea.

The end.

The end.

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The Bartang valley, the adventure of crossing the wild Pamir.

As I reach a small crossroad on the Pamir highway, 20 kilometers after leaving Karakul, I once again take out the map trying to consider my options. On one hand I can follow the “official” Pamir highway towards Murghab or I can take the small road which branches off in front of me towards the Bartang valley and Rushan. On one side the safety of the know road and the beaten track on the other the promise of adventure and of the unknown.

But somehow I know that the decision was taken long ago, back in Bishkek when I heard for the first time about another alternative crossing the Pamir mountains. And then came the stream of news, first in Osh, a story of an italian and a german ciclist which managed to get through, a story of lost paniers during river crossings and of really rough roads. Then the info about heavy rain in the Pamir which caused landslides, blocking the official Pamir highway and also the road on the Bartang valley. And finally was followed by reports from locals in Karakul from which I understood that the water could be hip high but that the road is still closed for cars after the landslides but that it should be passable with a bicycle.

Probably the most important ingredient of a good adventure is uncertainty, the feeling of being unsure of what you will find ahead and how you will manage to get through on the other side. And the dirt road disappearing on the distance on the Pamir plateau had plenty of it.

And so the adventure began, with a first river crossing just 20 kilometers after staring from the crossroad, a river crossing where fortunately the water wasn’t too high but which reminded me how much I hate these things. If the water is high enough you usually end up crossing the river 5 times, two panniers each crossing and the bike the last time.

I don’t think there are many places so remote as the Pamirs, places which are at the same time wild but still reachable with a bike. For example during the first 3 days the only persons I met were a couple of German backpackers, turning back after they discovered that they didn’t have enough supplies to reach the village of Goudara. Basically it’s a 150 kilometers stretch with almost no human presence so it’s incredibly easy to disconnect and to feel In the middle of nowhere.

And the road, while incredibly beautiful is in a horrible condition, especially after you leave the Pamir plateau. Sandy bits combined with big and unstable rocks plus the occasional with corrugation make for a nightmarish ride at times and the kilometers go by extremely slowly. I only managed to average around 50 kilometers a day for the 7 days spent on the Bartang before finding once again tarmac near Rushan and each of the days included pretty long hours in the saddle.

Cycling the Pamir from the north seems completely reversed in comparison with riding in from Dushanbe. Basically in less than a day you go from a relatively civilized Sary-Tash to the barren Pamir plateau only to slowly return to civilization after several days in the wilderness. The change is quick, brutal and delightful and you come to appreciate the gradual return back to the comforts of civilization.

With the small note that in 2015 due to the landslides all the villages from the upper part of the valley were closed off for almost one and half months which basically meant that there nothing to buy from the small village shops. And as hospitable as the people are you soon discover that a diet of tea, bread and butter isn’t the best fuel while on the road. The craving for sweets and chocolate grew stronger with every day which went by, only to be disappointed once again at the next village shop. The salvation came close to Rushan in the form of a cheap wannabe chocolate which tasted better than any chocolate I had before.

And now for some practical considerations:

1. Road quality.

Simply put, it’s hart to imagine that it can get any worse than this. It’s not all bad though, for example the part from the Pamir plateau is actually in pressingly good condition (by Pamir dirt road standards). On the other hand the dencent (or ascent depending from where you come) to the Bartang valley and especially the bit around the Goudara village is in incredibly bad condition. Basically I ended up pushing my bike quite a lot, sometimes even when going down. Basically without wide enough tires you end up all over the place when you try to keep your balance on the dust and sand layer.

2. People and language.

Tadjik people are probably second in my opinion on the hospitality chart after the iranians. That being said on the plateau it’s kind of difficult to find any one to be hospitable but single shepherd I met along the way and his family were incredibly welcoming. Also when crossing the villages it seems that almost everyone wants to invite you for tea or to stay, especially if you can speak some Russian in order to hold a simple conversation. This is clearly one of the things which I really appreciate about the stans, for better or worse the Russian influence can still be felt and for the traveler it means that if you invest the time to learn the basics it’s going to work in several countries along the way. Come to think of it worked really well from Kyrgystan to Georgia.

3. Supplies and preparation.

From either direction you start it’s important to carry quite a bit of supplies. For example when starting from Karakul you should have at least three to four days of supplies depending on how fast you are. But be warned don’t expect to find anything fancy either in Karakul or at the village shops on the Bartang valley. If you don’t want to carry things from Sary-Tash you will probably have to settle on ginger bread (actually good), canned condensed milk, bread and cheap waffles with the occasional canned fish.

Also water levels can vary quite a bit and there are two river crossings which can become a problem if it’s raining. The first one is relatively close to Karakul on the Pamir plateau while the second one is a bit along side the Bartang river, 25 kilometers before the Bartang village.

The entrance into Tadjikistan is mark by a 1300 meter climb. The scenery changes completely as you pass into one of the highest deserts in the road. And yes, Marco Polo sheep decorate almost all mountain passes in the region.

The entrance into Tadjikistan is mark by a 1300 meter climb. The scenery changes completely as you pass into one of the highest deserts in the road. And yes, Marco Polo sheep decorate almost all mountain passes in the region.

River crossings, the bane of ciclists and motorists alike. If the water is too high each river crossing actually means 6 river crossings, one for two panniers, one for the other two and a last one for the bike.

River crossings, the bane of ciclists and motorists alike. If the water is too high each river crossing actually means 6 river crossings, one for two panniers, one for the other two and a last one for the bike.

The 4000 meter high Karakol lake has been formed by a meteor 10 million years ago. The village bearing the same name is the last settlement for 150 kilometers.

The 4000 meter high Karakol lake has been formed by a meteor 10 million years ago. The village bearing the same name is the last settlement for 150 kilometers.

Small sand-dunes across the Pamir plateau in the soft light of the sunset.

Small sand-dunes across the Pamir plateau in the soft light of the sunset.

Kyrgyz boys helping out in finding one of the shops in Karakul. With no official shops some locals have a room where they keep supplies and where you can find some really basic food-stuff.

Kyrgyz boys helping out in finding one of the shops in Karakul. With no official shops some locals have a room where they keep supplies and where you can find some really basic food-stuff.

Straight roads on the M41 highway, with surpisingly good asfalt some times.

Straight roads on the M41 highway, with surpisingly good asfalt some times.

The entrance on the Bartang valley, the shortest and probably the hardest way of crossing the Pamirs. With 300 kilometers of bad roads ahead and and with days of complete solitude it's sometimes good to have a moment and think if you actually want to start into the small adventure.

The entrance on the Bartang valley, the shortest and probably the hardest way of crossing the Pamirs. With 300 kilometers of bad roads ahead and and with days of complete solitude it's sometimes good to have a moment and think if you actually want to start into the small adventure.

One of the first river crossings, fortunately this time the water levels were not really high. After hearing stories of people lossing paniers in river crossing in earlier in the year I was quite relied when the locals generally said that water shouldn't be a problem.

One of the first river crossings, fortunately this time the water levels were not really high. After hearing stories of people lossing paniers in river crossing in earlier in the year I was quite relied when the locals generally said that water shouldn't be a problem.

The other way of crossing towards the Bartang, unfortunately low supplies and the need to carry to much water forced the two germans to turn back to Karakol.

The other way of crossing towards the Bartang, unfortunately low supplies and the need to carry to much water forced the two germans to turn back to Karakol.

Wild 6000 snow covered peaks rise up from the plateu, in a scenery which seems from another planet. The weather is incredibly unpredictable and you can go from sunshine to a severe storn  in less than half an hour.

Wild 6000 snow covered peaks rise up from the plateu, in a scenery which seems from another planet. The weather is incredibly unpredictable and you can go from sunshine to a severe storn in less than half an hour.

Chossing the right road can be sometimes difficult, especially on the plateu. Fortunately at this particular intersection it was pretty clear which was the main road.

Chossing the right road can be sometimes difficult, especially on the plateu. Fortunately at this particular intersection it was pretty clear which was the main road.

The storm and rain over the distant peaks.

The storm and rain over the distant peaks.

An ancient lunar calender lies at 3900 meters on the plateau. It makes you wonder of the times when it was built, and how much and at the same time how little the landscape and the people have changed since then.

An ancient lunar calender lies at 3900 meters on the plateau. It makes you wonder of the times when it was built, and how much and at the same time how little the landscape and the people have changed since then.

With no cars seen for two days pitching the tent in the middle of the road isn't a problem. Enjoying the long shadows of the sunset.

With no cars seen for two days pitching the tent in the middle of the road isn't a problem. Enjoying the long shadows of the sunset.

After two days on the plateau it's time to descent to the Bartang valley, which I would follow for the next 5 days.

After two days on the plateau it's time to descent to the Bartang valley, which I would follow for the next 5 days.

One of the landslides which caused quit a bit of mayhen in the Pamirs in 2015. Locals said that July was one of the hottest months they could remember, an issue which combined with unusually high rainfall caused a lot damage to the already battered roads.

One of the landslides which caused quit a bit of mayhen in the Pamirs in 2015. Locals said that July was one of the hottest months they could remember, an issue which combined with unusually high rainfall caused a lot damage to the already battered roads.

Finally once again civilization after 3 days, the Goudara village.

Finally once again civilization after 3 days, the Goudara village.

Weat, the main crop in the region. All villages are linked to a water source and they are like small green islands in an otherwise rough and barren desert.

Weat, the main crop in the region. All villages are linked to a water source and they are like small green islands in an otherwise rough and barren desert.

Cooking nan (bread) for the next week in the circular oven called tandor. The flat bread is just "glued" on the inner side of the oven and left to bake.

Cooking nan (bread) for the next week in the circular oven called tandor. The flat bread is just "glued" on the inner side of the oven and left to bake.

There is a clear delimitation betwen the people living on the plateau which are enthically kyrgyz and the people from the valles which are pamiris. Meeting once again indo-european features after quite a time.

There is a clear delimitation betwen the people living on the plateau which are enthically kyrgyz and the people from the valles which are pamiris. Meeting once again indo-european features after quite a time.

The hospitality of the pamiris is legendary, especially in the remote villages from the area. Fresh bread, butter, tea and the seasonal apricots are quickly layed out in the shadow.

The hospitality of the pamiris is legendary, especially in the remote villages from the area. Fresh bread, butter, tea and the seasonal apricots are quickly layed out in the shadow.

The village of Savdon, showing how little land is actually needed to supply almost all what is needed for the locals.

The village of Savdon, showing how little land is actually needed to supply almost all what is needed for the locals.

The dinner overlooking 7000 meter mountains.

The dinner overlooking 7000 meter mountains.

The host for the night. Knowing a bit of russian can get you a long way in the Pamirs as almost everyone speaks some Russian. The host, veteran of the russian afghan war and currently a teacher in the Nisur village.

The host for the night. Knowing a bit of russian can get you a long way in the Pamirs as almost everyone speaks some Russian. The host, veteran of the russian afghan war and currently a teacher in the Nisur village.

The cyclists tan, with probably one of the best possible backgrounds.

The cyclists tan, with probably one of the best possible backgrounds.

The village of Rusorv, perched at 3000 meters bellow the vertical 6000 meter Lapnazar peak.

The village of Rusorv, perched at 3000 meters bellow the vertical 6000 meter Lapnazar peak.

One of the bits where the road has been washed out by the river. The upper villages from the Bartang valley have been sealed off from the world and supplies had to be flown in with helicopters from Khorog for almost one month from Khorog.

One of the bits where the road has been washed out by the river. The upper villages from the Bartang valley have been sealed off from the world and supplies had to be flown in with helicopters from Khorog for almost one month from Khorog.

Riding on the along the Bartang river, as the valley gradually becomes wider and more tamed.

Riding on the along the Bartang river, as the valley gradually becomes wider and more tamed.

The dust and sand gather from the Bartang during the last evening spent in the valley, once again in a grassy camping spot.

The dust and sand gather from the Bartang during the last evening spent in the valley, once again in a grassy camping spot.

Fresh apples an another invitation for tea. One of the thing which almost all locals want to find out how is life in your country, how much things cost and how can you afford to travel on a bicycle. With an medium wage of less than 100 dollars a month Tadjikistan is one of the poorest countries in Central Asia.

Fresh apples an another invitation for tea. One of the thing which almost all locals want to find out how is life in your country, how much things cost and how can you afford to travel on a bicycle. With an medium wage of less than 100 dollars a month Tadjikistan is one of the poorest countries in Central Asia.

And finally the end of the Bartang valley, after 7 days of bad roads, a lot of bits when you feel in the middle of nowhere, a lot of adventure and an equal amount of hospitality. With only 3 tourits met in 7 days and none on bicycles it's clearly one of the most adventurous ways of crossing the Pamirs.

And finally the end of the Bartang valley, after 7 days of bad roads, a lot of bits when you feel in the middle of nowhere, a lot of adventure and an equal amount of hospitality. With only 3 tourits met in 7 days and none on bicycles it's clearly one of the most adventurous ways of crossing the Pamirs.

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Three weeks in Kyrgystan, wild mountains, bad roads and good company.

The wind is still blowing when I get out of my tent in the middle of the night, a warm summer wind which seems strange when I think that the hill where I’ve found tonight’s camping spot is at over 3000 meters. I turn off the light and while I wait for my eyes to get used to the darkness of a moonless night I can hear the blades of grass trembling in the wind.

Tonight is the last night in Kyrgystan and when I think of the road ahead I realize that it will be a while until I will hear this sound again. One by one the mountains in the distance become visible and start to see the snowy peaks of the Pamir mountains, rising like a barrier above the high grasslands around Sary-Tash. And the stars!

There are moments in photography when the camera can reveal things which are normally hidden from the human eye, and night photography is clearly one of them. It’s also one of the moments when I clearly don’t regret carrying the 2 kilogram camera after me. Sure, these moments are few and far between, but somehow looking back the effort seems more than worthwhile.

Kyrgystan has been great. Somehow it has a really good mix of wild places, stunning scenery, adventurous roads and exotic people while being at the same time “civilised”. In Bishkek and in Osh you have access to most of the comforts of modern civilization, and most larger tows and villages are well supplied. But it’s easy to take a detour and to find yourself in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains, with yurts littering the landscape and with incredible skies above.

I really enjoyed the two and a half weeks spent cycling from Bishkek, probably also because I wasn’t alone. I shared the road with Spaska, trying to help with her attempt of going from zero experience in bike touring straight to crossing Kyrgystan and the Pamirs, on a two hundred dollar chinese bike bought from Bishkek. Comparing with the endless preparation most of us go through before starting a new tour it really shows that in order to try a bike adventure you really don’t need really need too much. Just a plane ticket to Bishkek (and Pegasus has really cheap flights), 200 dollars for a bike and the will to do it. As simple as that. And even if I had my doubts the bike handled quite well the corrugated dirt roads of Kyrgystan, Spaska handled the bike and the kilometers went effortlessly. Effortlessly depending on the road quality and on the elevation.

Elevation, the bane of big numbers at the end of the day seems ever present in Kyrgystan. It doesn’t matter which road you follow, sooner or later you find your self climbing towards 3000 meter passes only to descend back down to yet another valley on the other side. Rinse and repeat. And if you combine this with washboard roads it’s needles to say that we didn’t manage to cycle to many kilometers per day. I would even dare to say that if you keep off the asphalt 60 to 70 kilometers per day is a fairly good average.

One area where Kyrgystan really shines is related to how easy it is to find stunning camping places. It seems that with just a bit of efort you can find camping places which seem to be taken from the cover of bike touring magazines, usually with all the comfort you could ask for: incredible view, grass all around, some water nearby and far from the road. And I have to admit that camping in two is way more enjoyable than camping alone, albeit with the sacrifice of the time usually spent reading each evening.

The road we followed took us very close to the huge Issyk Kul lake before going southwards towards the central mountains high mountain lake of Song Kul, perched at 3000 meters and sorrounded from all sides by mountains. The area around Song Kul is definitely in my opinion on the list of things worth seeing while in Kyrgystan, even if in mid-summer it can become a bit too touristy. But the panoramic view of the lake, with clouds rolling on what seems like an infinite scenery is definitely worth seeing. From here came a long decent to the Naryn river which we followed to Kazarman, with a lot of passes, followed by yeat another 3000 meter pass and a long descent towards Jalal-Abad and Osh. Unfortunately Spaska had to abandon the plans for the Pamir for this year as she had to return to Andorra but I’m pretty sure that bothshe and the bike would have made it until Dushanbe.

Regarding tourism I have to admit that things are slowly but surely changing in Kyrgystan and generally the attitude of the local people towards foreigners isn’t as natural as in the Pamirs. In order to encounter the same kind of hospitality you have to avoid the beaten track, which fortunately isn’t very difficult to do. And while the kyrgyz seem to be a bit less friendly and less helpful then their tadjik neighbors a basic level of Russian is more than welcome in order to keep the conversation going.

And now for some practical consideration regarding cycling in Kyrgystan:

1 Road quality.

The roads can range from impeccable asphalt roads recently repaired by chinese companies to really broken gravelly and muddy roads. But probably the washboard patters which form on these roads are the most tiring as you really can’t go to fast without breaking the bike in two.

2. People.

This is a place where like in every country it really depends on your encounters but generally I would say that the kyrgyz people are generally more direct and less warm then their tadjik and uzbek neighbors. When you factor in the growing tourism in the past years there are quite a few moments when you feel more like a tourist and less like a traveler (the “hotel”-yurts around Song-Kul are a good example of this).

3. Scenery

Simply stunning, especially in June when there still is snow in the mountains but everything is incredibly green. The effect is even more impressive if you arrive from the Pamir. Coming from the barren and lifeless high desert of the Pamirs Kyrgystan seems so alive. If you factor in all the horses and the herds of sheep it makes quite a view

4. Food and prices.

Food in Kyrgystan is pretty cheap and it seemed to us that even if you wanted it would be difficult to spent a lot of money while cycling through Kyrgystan. Once you leave the big cities and the main roads the shops are few and far between and you end up cooking a lot and buying only the basic food stuff which is really cheap. On the plus side though the bread is incredibly good (like anywhere in central Asia), the Vodka is only slighly more expensive than bottled water and it seems that you can find a wide assortment almost anywhere.

Maintanance mode before heading out into Kyrgystan for the 200 dollar chinese bycicle.

Maintanance mode before heading out into Kyrgystan for the 200 dollar chinese bycicle.

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The first night's camping spot with a sunset which reminded us why we love bike touring.

The first night's camping spot with a sunset which reminded us why we love bike touring.

Rainy and misty day on the climb to Sary-Tash.

Rainy and misty day on the climb to Sary-Tash.

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Whereever you go in Kyrgystan a herd of sheep is never too far away.

Whereever you go in Kyrgystan a herd of sheep is never too far away.

Serious climbing towards Song-Kul.

Serious climbing towards Song-Kul.

Stormy clouds over the Song-Kul lake and the surrounding plateau.

Stormy clouds over the Song-Kul lake and the surrounding plateau.

The old soviet road kilometer markings which can be found through Central Asia.

The old soviet road kilometer markings which can be found through Central Asia.

Lunch break.

Lunch break.

Once again a rainy and a muddy morning.

Once again a rainy and a muddy morning.

Ready for the descent.

Ready for the descent.

The road to Kazarman, here climbing towards yet another 3000 meter pass.

The road to Kazarman, here climbing towards yet another 3000 meter pass.

For a child, as well as for a grownup a bike is freedom. Anywhere in the world.

For a child, as well as for a grownup a bike is freedom. Anywhere in the world.

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Searching for a shelder from a storm which was quickly aproaching from the distance.

Searching for a shelder from a storm which was quickly aproaching from the distance.

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Hitting the 10.000 mark on the return journey.

Hitting the 10.000 mark on the return journey.

Long live the kyrgyz working class!

Long live the kyrgyz working class!

The long descent towards Jalal-Abad.

The long descent towards Jalal-Abad.

Enjoying a dinner in Osh, after 10 days of camping and stove cooking. As a friend said you've got to treat yourself from time to time.

Enjoying a dinner in Osh, after 10 days of camping and stove cooking. As a friend said you've got to treat yourself from time to time.

Perfect tarmac on the road to Sary-Tash.

Perfect tarmac on the road to Sary-Tash.

Kyrgyz children and the apricot season.

Kyrgyz children and the apricot season.

The rather menacing kitchen cook and the old russian restaurant background.

The rather menacing kitchen cook and the old russian restaurant background.

Last morning coffe with Spaska, before continuing alone toward the Pamirs.

Last morning coffe with Spaska, before continuing alone toward the Pamirs.

The passes become higher and higher as I'm getting closer to the Pamirs.

The passes become higher and higher as I'm getting closer to the Pamirs.

In the distance the gateway to the Pamir mountains.

In the distance the gateway to the Pamir mountains.

Looking towards Peak Lenin.

Looking towards Peak Lenin.

The perfect camping spot.

The perfect camping spot.

Good night.

Good night.

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Drawings made by Spaska, but I have to add it was not all true, at least the dishes were Spaska's chore.

Drawings made by Spaska, but I have to add it was not all true, at least the dishes were Spaska's chore.

And finally a short clip also made by Spaska.

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Tadjikistan, Dushanbe to Khorog, the first part of the Pamir Highway

The Pamir Highway, with it’s lure of the wild and the remote probably has a special place in the mind of any traveller crossing Asia. And even if you know that you’re going to have to endure bad roads, incredibly high passes and endless kilometres of barren terrain you are drawn like a moth to a flame. In few other places I’ve felt so disconnected from the world as on the “roof of the word”, camping at over 4000 meters, hundreds of kilo meters from the nearest place which could be called civilized.

But that’s the subject of a future post and in order to get to Pamir you first have to reach Khorog, the last town before the high plateau of the mountains. As soon as you leave Dushanbe you have to decide between the two possible routes of reaching Khorog, the northern route, with tougher roads and a 3300 meter pass and which is also closed during the winter, and the southern route, longer by 200 kilometers but which is better maintained and which is also used by all the cars.

In my mind it wasn’t hard to chose between the two variants, the only problem being that it was early May and near Dushanbe nobody knew exactly whether the road had been cleared of snow. The police men trying to guide me towards the southern route surely seem pretty sure that it was closed, but after avoiding some and after explaining to others that I had all the needed equipment I was finally heading towards the small village of Saferdoron, pitched up at 2600 meters at the end of a long mountain valley, the last village before the first high pass of my route.

The quality of the roads in Tadjkistan is more or less horrible and the mountains seem to work hard to slowly break down what ever humans try to build in this harsh environment. The Pamir Highway probably was completely covered with tarmac 50 years ago when it was built by the Russians as a road with military significance, but right now most of the part between Dushanbe and Khorog is just an earth / gravel road which sometimes completely disappears at river crossings. All in all it was the kind of terrain where depending on the elevation I was more that satisfied with cycling 60 kilometers a day.

Time, and life seem to flow differently in the villages around Tavildara, and I’m always surprised to see how many children are always in the streets. I honestly can’t imagine a better playground than the large valley surrounded by the snow capped peaks of the mountains. The hospitality is also incredible and when I ask for water in one of the remote houses from the village of Saferdoron I get instantly invited to spend the night with the family, sleeping in closed balcony overlooking the mountains and meeting all the family members. I’m not sure if I was the first cyclist comming this way this year as the road had been just recently opened.

In some ways this is one of the advantages of crossings the Pamir’s in spring as you have the place mostly to yourself, a sharp contrast with the number of cyclist from the summer months. On the other hand you do have to endure lower temperatures and the ocasional snow storm but if you plan the days reasonably it’s generally not an issue.

The 2000 meter descent from the pass down to the Panj River is at the same time spectacular and tough and it takes the better half of a day during which I see absolutely no cars. Fortunately in Kalaikhum I rejoin the main road and I officially enter GBAO, the Gorno Badakhstan Autonomous Oblast, find asfalt once again and relatively well supplied stores.

From here I would follow the Panj river towards Khorog for the next four days, always overlooking Afghanistan which is in some places a stone throw away. Some of the villages, with no road access and perched on the foothills of 5000 meter giants seem to be completely frozen in time, and by comparison the Tadjik side looks ages ahead. One of the surprises which I encounter along the way is a series of serious landslides in one of the nights after a torrential downpour which caused the road to be blocked in several places, completely stopping traffic along the Panj river.

And so after doing some carry bike across the bits affected by landslides I have once again the road entirely to myself, an experience which will repeat itself several times as I head into the Pamirs.

And now for some practical considerations regarding Tadjikistan:

1. Road Quality.

As I’ve said before the road quality in Tadjikistan can be appalling most standards but this also depends on the route choice. The Northern route until Khorog has worse road quality but at the same time is more spectacular. The Southern route is also 200 kilometres longer so the tougher roads do make up a little bit for a shorter distance. That being said you do have from time to time places where you find perfect or almost perfect tarmac but also places where your bike suffers the shocks of corrugated roads.

2. Visas and the president.

I got my visa from Istanbul and in comparison with other places it was relatively straightforward and pretty cheap at 75 dollars for one month. The tricky part is trying to estimate how much time it takes you to get there as the visa has a fixed entry date, and planning such things 2 months ahead can be a bit hazardous. Also one important note is that it’s necessary to get the GBAO permit in order to be allowed in the Pamirs, otherwise you are restricted to the south-eastern part of Tadjikistan.

As almost all the Stans the transition towards democracy didn’t go well but it seems that in Tadjikistan almost everywhere go you a poster of the president isn’t too far away. Whether you see him photoshoped in various situations, ranging from wheat checking to romantic flower fields he soon becomes a familiar face. The personality cult at it’s finest.

3. Food.

Food was one of my biggest concerns in Tadjikistan, and while riding through small villages there aren’t too many things to chose from if you manage to find a shop which si actually open. During summer you might find vegetables and fruit from locals but in Spring the fresh food was completely non-existant. One of the things which I did enjoy and which did fuel quite a few cycling days was the canned condensed milk with bread, which I find tasty even now. At the same time I buy some vitamins in Dushanbe in order to compensate for the lack of fresh food.

If you are lucky enough to find road-side stalls the food is good and cheap, laghman being the dish which I ate the most. The bread is also incredibly good.

4. People and the Russian language.

One thing which I find is impressive about the Tadjik people is that even in the smallest villages people speak a second language, in this case usually Russian. Knowing at least a few words and phrases does get you a long way but don’t worry, if you cycle through the Stan’s and if you are open enough to learning new languages some things will come naturally. You will learn to anwer the basic questions, to ask for directions and to have a really basic conversation.

The people are also incredibly friendly and they did remind me of the hospitality of the iranians sometimes, but at the same time as tourism is increasing in region I really wonder if this will continue or if the perception towards foreigners will change with time.

5. The mountains.

The Pamirs are breathtaking. Period.

 

Presedintele, aratand fermecator intre maci.

The President, looking as charming as ever.

Masa de pranz, cu lagman, un fel de ciorba extrem de consistenta.

Lunch, a very consistent Lagman.

Unul din cele mai faine locuri de cort de pana acum.

Camping above the road and the river.

Mancarea minune pentru Pamir, lapte concentrat si paine. O conserva dinasta ajunge la 1300 de calorii. Iar daca nu esti atent iese o lipiciosala generalizata.

The wonder-food in the Pamirs, condensed milk and bread. One can has 1300 Kcalories, but if you’re not careful the situation can become a bit sticky.

Doi rataciti in Pamir.

Two loners in the Pamir.

Si urmatoare trecere, datorita podetului nu am aflat cat de mare era apa.

One of the road crossings in spring.

3 fete cucuiete.

The mountains are their playground.

Gasiti fotograful in poza.

Find the photographer.

When the going gets though.. Pamant proaspat, panta de 10% si bolovani clar nu sunt cea mai fericita combinatie.

When the going gets though..

Batranul familiei.

The oldest member of the family.

Odihna.

Odihna si urme de gloante.

Rest and bullet marks for the long civil war from the region.

Starea drumului.

The road conditions.

Sa fie munti!

Let there be mountains!

Tunel.

Tunel.

Ceai.

Tea.

Drumul isi cere pretul

Sacrifices to the road quality.

No road, no problem!.

No road, no problem!.

Oare inseamna libertate.

Peace!.

Din nou asfalt!

The joy of tarmac.!

Partea afgana.

Looking over the Afhan side.

Reflexie.

Reflexion.

Ceaiul de dimineata.

By the campfire..

4 ani din Franta pana aici.

Four years from France, on alternative transportation.

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Samarkand, poppy fields and snowy mountains, and some practical considerations about Uzbekistan

Probably the strongest impression I have from Uzbekistan is seeing the mountains after leaving Samarkand, the first mountains I’ve encountered after almost 3000 kilometers through flat high plateaus and deserts. Somehow I really missed the mountains and even if I knew that tough times (and tough roads) are ahead I was really happy with the change.

Uzbekistan at the end of April looks almost magical in some places, with high mountains in the background, immense green pastures dotted by an infinite number of poppy flowers. It seems one of the best times to cross the country before the scorching temperatures of mid-supper, with more that two months with temperatures above 40 degrees.

From all the countries which I’ve crossed I think that the mixture of peoples and races is incredible in Uzbekistan, especially near Buchara and Samarkand. You see almost everything from blue eyed persians, to children with mongol looks, to Turkic faces and the blond hair and round faces of the Russians.

Also there is a huge difference between how travelers are perceived in the touristic cities and in the countryside. The human contact which you encounter on the least traveled cannot be compared with the way tourists are seen in major touristic site like Samarkand. There you one of many, while a hundred kilometers away on a dusty mountain road you might be the first guy riding a bike which they’ve seen this year.

This being said in the short time I’ve spent in Uzbekistan I did encounter some incredible examples of hospitality, and being invited to spend the night at locals happened quite a few times in the countryside, with the only mention that a little bit of Russian can really help up getting some information across. And it’s incredible how much you can express with a small vocabulary. I clearly remember an evening somewhere in the south of Uzbekistan, when the Maqsud was politely set the TV to a Russian channel thinking that I would probably understand something from it. I somehow got the impression that his Russian was not much better than mine.

And now for the practical considerations:

1. Visas and Money

Uzbekistan is a place where you literally carry with you a bag of money as large amounts of small and almost worthless bills make a wallet a complete joke. Samarkand was also the first place after Turkey where I managed to withdraw money from an ATM which was more than welcome as my cash reserves where dwindling. On the other hand it’s really important to try and change money at money changers using the black market rate which is usually 20-30% better than what you normally get in a bank,

Visa-wise the Uzbek visa has been the most expensive visa for me, cosing in total 150 dollars, 75 for the visa and 70 for the letter of invitation. If you have  an embassy in Tehran which can issue a letter of recommendation for you can skip the letter of invitation but on the plus side if you do pay for a letter of invitation you get the visa on the spot in Teheran.

2. Roads and food

The roads are really bad sometimes, with long stretches under construction and a lot of gravel in some places. On the plus side most of the cars are Ladas or small Chevrolets and generally the traffic isn’t disturbing.

The food can be summed up in Plov, the rice dish popular in the entire Central Asia, Laghman, a very consisten noodle soup, and Samsa, tasty baked pastry with bits of sheep meat and onions inside. Samsa on the other hand can be a bit dodgy if you have a sensitive stomach and I did meet at least two travelers which got food poisoning from it.

3. Bureaucracy and rules.

Theoretically in Uzbekistan a tourist should spent each night in a government approved hotels, where you receive a small note saying that you’ve spent the night there. Also theoretically police can check you for these notes and police stops (and there is one going from each county the the next) or when you leave the country. While biking following these rule is next to impossible and my experience was that the police officers were ok when I explained this at police stops. At the same time you can always meet the bribe awaiting policeman. 

4. Scenery and sites.

Bukhara, Samarkand and Shahrizabz are amazing well preserved medieval silk road jewels and probably if you want to travel a bit back in time and if you want to get an idea what the silk road meant to the region they are a must see. I did like Bukhara much more than Samarkand which seems overly sanitized. When you add the variety of the landscape in the south-eastern part of the country and the relatively empty roads you end up with a place which is really enjoyable to cycle through.

5. People.

As I’ve said before the people are incredibly hospitable and also really diverse. Near Samarkand you encounter Uzbek villages and you almost always see people working in the fields, maintaining  an incredible network of irrigation canals and perfectly aligned fields. Then you have the city dwelling tadjik and the shepherd villages of the relatively nomadic Kyrgyz, all in just a few hundred kilometers. And they are all generally hospitable and friendly, but a bit of basic Russian will really get you a long way.

A bag of money worth around 100 dollars.

A bag of money worth around 100 dollars.

The 3 wheeled tractor, always popular in Uzbekistan.

The 3 wheeled tractor, always popular in Uzbekistan.

Curiosity and the chance of practicing a bit of russian.

Curiosity and the chance of practicing a bit of russian.

Work begins with the first hour after sunrise.

Work beggins with the first hour after sunrise.

Blue overdose.

Blue overdose.

Sanitized.

Sanitized.

Searching for the shadow.

Searching for the shadow.

Shahrizabz and the imense gate of the Timur's summer palace of Timur.

Shahrizabz and the imense gate of the summer palace of Timur.

The entrance to a 600 year old mausoleum.

The entrance to a 600 year old mausoleum.

Geometry.

Geometry.

The typical breakfast, yogurt and bread.

The typical breakfast, yogurt and bread.

School crossing with slanted eyes.

School crossing with slanted eyes.

Finding shelter from the heat.

Finding shelter from the heat.

Details.

Details.

Following the road.

Following the road.

Inside one typical uzbek home.

Inside one typical uzbek home.

Red, yellow, green and blue.

Red, yellow, green and blue.

Heading towards the Pamirs.

Heading towards the Pamirs.

Uzbek.

Uzbek.

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Uzbekistan, the sunset over Bukhara, jewel of the east.

Entering Uzbekistan seemed way easier than exiting Turkmenistan, even though I made it across just barely before the border closed. And just after the border crossing, in the warm light of the sunset I saw the first time a street sign with Bishkek written on it. After more than 5000 kilometers into the journey seeing a sign with the destination was indeed something, even if it was 1246 kilometers away and even if the distance would be more than double with the Pamir detour. But time flies quickly and I need to find a camping spot, and after riding through the twilight I find a good spot, between the road and a nearby channel which takes water from the Amu Darya River, the same river which once filled the Aral Sea but which is now diverted to the cotton crops of Uzbekistan.

The following morning I finally have a short day ahead, only 80 kilometers until Bukhara, the first Timur jewel along the Silk road. And after riding 160 kilometers yesterday trying to reach the border before the border closed the short day ahead is more than welcome. Even though it was the second border crossing in just 5 days I can’t say the difference difference seems way smaller than when I left Iran. The people of Uzbekistan are a mixture of Uzbek, Tadjik and Kyrgyz people with the more recent addition of some Russians. The problem is that if you take appart the hats to the untrained eye uzbek people and kyrgyz people look a lot like turmen people so the change you can’t really see the change on the people faces.

One visible change is that the roads seem to be considerably worse than in Turkmenistan and that there seem to be way more villages along the way. Centuries of irrigation have transformed what was once a desert in green cultivated land. You also see signs using the Latin alphabet, a welcome change after Turkmenistan where it’s hard to find any signs at all.

After 5 days in the desert I’m in dire need of a shower so I search for a cheap hotel around one of the main square, and after a bit of searching and asking I find a pretty decent room for 20 dollars a night. Next it’s time to stroll through the city. And what a city Bukhara is. I have to say that after also visiting Samarkand and Shahrizabz is still consider that Bukhara is something different. It’s less like a sanitized museum and more like a an actual city which still lives and which has continued living since the since the times of Timur. Even though it is a bit touristic and it will become even more so if you wander through the 700 year old bazars and medresses you can get a feel of how this place looked like in the past. Regarding Timur even though the guy historically can be seen like an Adolf Hitler of the middle ages and while his conquests led to the death of millions of people he had at least good taste, bringing back besides the usual spoils of war also countless artisans which helped build Bukhara and Samarkand.

The sunset catches me on the old fortress, looking over the skyline of the city while the sun briefly shines between a break in the clouds after a summer rain. A single white pigeon lands on the fortress walls and I have someone to share the moment with in an otherwise empty place. The streets are still wet from the afternoon rain the the air is cool and it smells once again of spring, a season which I met so many time across my trip through Central Asia.

Un teanc de bani ce valoreaza 20 de dolari.

Un teanc de bani ce valoreaza 20 de dolari.

Just a bit more until Bishkek, even though the detour through the Pamir adds at least 1000 kilometers.

Just a bit more until Bishkek, even though the detour through the Pamir adds at least 1000 kilometers.

The camping spot for tonight.

The camping spot for tonight.

Once again no traffic.

Once again no traffic.

The Medreses of Buchara.

The Medreses of Buchara.

Finding shelter from the rain.

Finding shelter from the rain.

After the storm.

After the storm.

Framed.

Framed.

Above the city.

Above the city.

Fresh air.

Fresh air.

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A quick dash across Turkmenistan, the Karakum desert, empty roads and the ancient city of Merv

Turkmenistan is a country which wants to see you across it as quickly as possible, with a transit visa lasting only for 5 days and with 460 kilometer to cross it at it’s narrowest point, between Serakhs in Iran and Turkmenabat at the border with Uzbeksitan. When you add the fact that border crossings only work from 8 in the morning to about 5 in the afternoon (with a lunch break in between) and that crossing each of the borders takes around 2 hours there really isn’t that much time left for pedalling.

When crossing Turkmenistan probably one of the most important things is how lucky you get with the wind direction. There really is nothing which can stop the wind when you are in the desert and if you can end up battling strong headwinds or flying with backwind at 30 kilometers per hour. In my case it around 50 / 50 , two days of backwind and two days of headwind / sidewind in which I manged to ride the distance between the borders.

Four days isn’t enough to experience a country, especially a country which seems kind of reluctant with tourists and foreigners, and a country which is made up mostly of desert. Probably the first positive thing which you notice when crossing the border is that the traffic seems to disappear, especially if you take the secondary road towards Mary. And after one month of constantly hearing the roar of engines while riding through Iran I cannot describe how pleasant it was to be alone on the road once again.

Three days later, after a windstorm followed by a short rain in the middle of the desert, in the fresh smell of evaporating raindrops rain drops on the tarmac I have a quiet lunch right on the tarmac. Still 50 kilometers away from Turkmenabat and 120 kilometers away from the last settlement my improvised picnic is interupted by a car every 10 minutes or so. One other memorable moment was when I got invited by a group of turkmen working in the fields to join them for lunch, this being the first time after two months when I saw vodka sitting comfortably on the improvised table rug, while the men were quite tipsy even though it was only midday.

One other revelation was around the city of Mary, when I saw after quite a bit of time a car signalling when it wanted to change direction. It’s amazing how traffic still seems to work in Iran even without what would seem to be one of the basic prerequisites, drivers indicating when they want to change direction. Also seeing for the first time a Russian women with a short skirt and with blond uncovered hair was also a big change from the Iranian dress code for women.

One other place which seemed a bit otherworldly was the ancient city of Merv. It was once one of the great cities of central Asia, and it’s actually made up of five different city sites as each time the nearby river shifted it’s flow or when the city was razed by a conquering army a new one was rebuilt in slightly different place. As everything was built from adobe most of the buildings have dissolved once again in the desert but one can still see a glimpse of what once once one of the largest cities in the world.

And now for the practical considerations:

1. Visas and border crossings.

As far as I know if you want to visit the country as a tourist the visas are pretty expensive and you need to be accompanied by a local guide, sleep in approved accommodations, things that you simply cannot do when travelling by bicycle. The only remaining options is a transit visa, which has fix entry and exit dates and is valid for exactly 5 days. The border crossing was also “interesting” and for a moment it seemed that in order to get in the country you had to face the worst version of soviet bureaucracy.

It took two hours, a lot of waiting, scanning everything from the bike bags through an x-ray machine, unpacking and hand checking everything, filling out forms in Russian and paying a tax of exactly 12 dollars. On the plus side the first border guard dressed in a crisp uniform did welcome me in the country with a big smile. Getting out of the country was a bit quicker though as I was near the closing time and they were rushing to get people through. A couple of Belgian travelers which missed the border closing by a couple of hours got “detained” the next day until the afternoon, after finally being deported across the border.

2. Road conditions and Traffic.

Roads are generally worse than in Iran with the side road between Serakhs and Mary being especially bad. On the other hand there are way less cars than in Iran and it was really enjoyable to be once again alone on the road.

3. Money and prices.

Changing money is a bit problematic and can be done only in banks at the official rate as far as I know, so the strategy which I used was to use up the last of my Iranian money and buy food from Iran for around 3 days and change around 20 dollars at a bank in Mary.  Prices on the other hand seemed a bit higher than Iran and due to the relatively high temperatures (around 34 – 35 degrees) I ended up spending quite a bit on water. I drank water as if I had a leak somewhere and I distinctly remember one evening when I had 8 liters of water with me, and nothing was left from it when I stopped in the next place where I could buy water.

4. People

It’s amazing how much the faces change just after you cross the border. Sure, you can see the odd turkmen shepherd in Khorasan but after you cross the borders narrow and slant eyes become the norm. And the difference is quite big when you come from Iran where people have a facial complexion which is quite similar to what you normally find in Europe. With just 4 days mostly spent in the desert I didn’t have enough time to interact with the locals, especially as most of the time was spent travelling through barren stretches of desert. The ones which I did interact with were just as hospitable as the turkish people in my opinion.

5. The cult of personality and school uniforms

From all the countries in Central Asia Turkmenistan probably is ahead in both of the fields. If the new marble buildings from Mary seemed relatively normal in Turkmenabat the route took me on a 4 kilometer boulevard flanked on one side by new barble buildings with the picture of the president while the other side had pretty run down old soviet blocks of flats, adding the the contrast. The mandatory traditional school uniforms do look incredibly good.

And now for the photo journal:

Ignoring the relatively angry looking faces they were quite friendly. I had to refuse the vodka though.

Ignoring the relatively angry looking faces they were quite friendly. I had to refuse the vodka though.

Curiosity at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere.

Curiosity at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere.

Zero traffic.

Zero traffic.

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There be camels.

There be camels.

Handsomeness.

Handsomeness.

The turkmen school uniforms.

The turkmen school uniforms.

At the gates of the once great city of Merv.

At the gates of the once great city of Merv.

Sultankala.

Sultankala.

One of the ancient temples.

One of the ancient temples.

Blue afternoon.

Blue afternoon.

Watching the sunrise from the tent.

Watching the sunrise from the tent.

One typical store.

One typical store.

Roadkill.

Roadkill.

Meeting the sand dunes.

Meeting the sand dunes.

Camping in the middle of the desert.

Camping in the middle of the desert.

Quiet lunch straight on the tarmac, Iranian peanut butter and jam

Quiet lunch straight on the tarmac, Iranian peanut butter and jam

Sandstorm.

Sandstorm.

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The beloved leader of the nation.

The beloved leader of the nation.

Still one of the most popular cars in the soviets.

Still one of the most popular cars in the soviets.

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Cycling 2000 kilometers through Iran and some practical considerations

As I ride through the green wheat fields around Fand I can hear the familiar sound of crickets typical of a summer night. Soon I enter the village itself and I stroll through the mud bricked house in search of my host for tonight, Hashem and somehow I find it hard to believe that less than one week ago I was cycling in subfreezing temperatures in the Iranian plateau near Miyaneh. Looking only at today the first part of the morning which I’ve spent in the traffic of Teheran trying to find my way eastwards through the network of expressways which runs through the city. Probably if I were to sum up my experience in Iran in couple of words it would be exactly like this day has been, great people but a lot of traffic.

After a quick search and a phone call I’m able to finally find Hashem’s house and what follows is an evening filled with the incredible hospitality the Iranian people are known for. Dinner with the family and with the neighboring relatives, with traditional dishes and with the crusty rice which I haven’t encountered before or after Iran, and most of all with genuine curiosity about how life is in other countries and in other parts of the world.

Before travelling through Iran I read stories about the Iranian hospitality and after almost a month of travelling through Iran I can only confirm it. The Iranians are also over polite between themselves, and it’s customary to refuse something 3 times just to be sure that an offer is genuine, but somehow when foreigners are involved this is combined with a genuine curiosity and with trying to somehow mend the bad image Iran has at a personal level. I have been asked countless times by locals what I think about Iran and about Iranians after travelling through the country and just as many times I’ve answered that I think that the Iranians are more or less incredible. There have been countless situations when complete strangers spent time and/or money to help with whatever problems I was facing. This of course doesn’t mean that everything is rose and perfect but the percentage of people doing seems to be way higher than in other countries.

La masa cu Hasheen si cu familia lui.

Having dinner with Hashem and his family

On the down side considering my route of crossing Iran from west to east through relatively populated and industrialized areas I can’t really say that I’ve actually enjoyed the actual cycling. The main problem is that for my taste there is an immense amount of traffic in Iran. Gasoline is cheap (something like 0.2 dollars) and it seems that almost everyone has a car. And the cars aren’t necessarily the ones you would expect to see passing you, from 40 year old Paykans and Peugeot 405 which is apparently still produced over there to huge and incredibly loud and inefficient trucks. Either way I can say that in 2200 kilometers there have been really few moments when I was riding without a car in site. Perhaps in the southern part of the country things are a bit different but both the route along the Caspian sea and the actual silk road route suffer from pretty bad traffic.

Regarding traffic on the other hand I can say that after getting used to it traffic through Teheran did seem a bit less dangerous than in Istanbul. I’ve spent a couple of days in both cities sorting out visa issues and I used the bicycle in the process so I can compare them a bit. Even though in Teheran there seem to be countless scooters humming away and the traffic rules seem to be non-existant everything seems to be happening at a slower speed than in Istanbul and you don’t have cars passing very close you you at 70-80 kilometers per hour.

Temperature wise in April in really changed a lot and there was a cold spell which brought temperatures way bellow freezing in the area around Tabriz only to encounter summer like temperatures in the the desert after Teheran. On the other hand I would wouldn’t chose another time do cross it as I’m not a big fan of the 40 degree temperatures which define the summer in Iran.

And now for some more practical informations

1. Visas (Iran and onward travel)

Probably the easiest place to obtain the Iranian Visa is Trabzon in Turkey, but for more information the caravanistan section is also very helpful. From Iran I picked up visas for Uzbekistan and for Turkmenistan (in that order). The Uzbek visa took 1 day with a letter of invitation and for the Turkem visa I applied for it in Teheran and I picked it up one week later in Mashad.

2. Money (what the hell is a tumen?)

Iran can be a confusing country and the subject of money is no exception. The first thing you become when you enter Iran is a millionaire as in 2014 the exchange rate was around one dollar to 30000 Rial. The best place to exchange money I think is at exchange booths at bazars, banks will exchange at the official rate which is considerably lower. But then when you start spending it you discover that almost everthing is handled in tumens, 1 tumen beeing equal to 10 Rial. It takes a bit to get used to it especially when you add in consideration the fact that all the prices are written using Arabic characters.

3. Prices.

When comming from Turkey Iran is a pretty cheap country and when you get over the fact that paper notes just keep flying away (keep in mind that they still have a 500 Rial note which is worth around 0.016 dollars) and when you consider that you do get invited a lot Iran has been quite cheap to travel through. Food seemed to be almost half of what it was in Turkey, with restaurand meals starting at 2-3 dollars and alternatively buying food for one day from a shop for a bit more than that. On the other hand there isn’t much diversity regarding things you buy in small shops. A night in a cheap guesthouse / hotel was a bit less than 10 dollars.

4. People.

 As I’ve said before the people are incredibly warm, curios and welcoming and they would be the main reason why I would visit this country once again. Just as an example, after being stopped by the police for a checkup after leaving Hashem’s house he came to the police station with me and tried to help as a translator, spending quite a bit of time in the process. Somehow the Iranians didn’t seem to be as conservative as the Turkish people (at least in the eastern part of Turkey), and even though religion is important there is quite a bit of difference between the laws and what the people think about them.

5. Mobile and Internet.

Yes there is internet, yes all social media is officially banned but everyone still has access to them using vpn’s. While in Iran I bough a cheapish sim card for my phone from Hamrah-e-Avvall, after trying an Irancell sim card which didn’t work and which seemed to be restricted for phones manufactured for Iran. I haven’t tried internet cafes but when I had access to an internet connection is was generally pretty slow.

5. Places.

Iran’s culture and history is amazing and my only regret is that I didn’t have enough time to take a detour in the southern and central part of the country. But from the places which I did see one there were a couple of places and moments which became stuck in my mind. Riding my bicycle through the narrow alleyways of the Tabriz bazar after all the shops were closed was one of them, and the entire place seemed to be taken from the tales of the “One thousand and one nights”. The huge dome of Soltanyeh on a crisp spring day was another one, together with the old caravan-sarais from the barren desert east of Teheran.

And now in short, 2200 kilometers in photos.

Heading towards the stormy border of Iran.

Heading towards the stormy border of Iran.

The first morning in Iran.

The first morning in Iran.

Morning invitation for breakfast, during the Nowruz.

Morning invitation for breakfast, during the Nowruz.

Pedaling on the bazar alleways

Pedaling on the bazar alleways

I think it was boiled sugar beat, a sweet treat popular in the Azerbajdjan Province.

I think it was boiled sugar beat, a sweet treat popular in the Azerbajdjan Province.

Winter on the iranian plateau

Winter on the iranian plateau

Improvised dinner in the spare room above a car-was.

Improvised dinner in the spare room above a car-was

Sisters.

Sisters.

Facing Soltanieh.

Facing Soltanieh.

Bairam.

Bairam.

Iranian style.

Iranian style.

Down with the USA!

Down with the USA!

Hashem and his mother.

Hashem and his mother.

Endless wheat fields in the middle of the desert.

Endless wheat fields in the middle of the desert.

One of the emergency (somewhat religious) rooms from a hotel.

One of the emergency (somewhat religious) rooms from a hotel.

After 230 kilometers through the desert with almost no villages in between.

After 230 kilometers through the desert with almost no villages in between.

One of the restored caravan-serais.

One of the restored caravan-serais.

Semna ale primaveri.

Semna ale primaveri.

The pilgrimage complex from Mashad.

The pilgrimage complex from Mashad.

The suspended village of Kang.

The suspended village of Kang.

One of the first camping places with grass, in Khorasan before the Turkmenistan border.

One of the first camping places with grass, in Khorasan before the Turkmenistan border.

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Riding towards Ararat through the Anatolian plateau

Ararat is a mountain which you see from far away when you come from either direction and if the air is clear it’s probably visible from at least 200 kilometres in each direction. And as beautiful as the Anatolia plateau might be it is very high and relatively rough and so I didn’t manage to ride more than 80-90 kilometres a day, which basically means that I’ve had Ararat in the background for 4 days.

It’s more or less understandable why there are so many myths related to this mountain as it has a clearly distinctive shape and it’s huge compared to the mountains which surround it. From Igdir it basically rises 4000 meters above the valley floor.

Anatolia seems much more rural than other parts of the country, with little villages scattered across the endless grassy hills and with small cities which are few and far between, and so I ended up camping a lot and spending a couple of nights at the locals. It was probably the part of Turkey which I enjoyed the most, with it’s harsh and vast landscapes. It’s probably a good preview and a good training of what I’m going to see later in my journey along the Silk road. In my opinion if time is scarce and if one doesn’t mind a relatively hilly ride it’s an alternative to the Georgia / Armenia route for getting into Iran.

Dimineata pe racoare, trezirea a fost pe la 5:40 si oamenii erau deja in picioare.

In the morning the hosts were already up at 5:40.

Impreuna cu tractorul familiei.

Together with the family tractor.

Sate din podis.

Life on the plateu.

Pietre de mormant, la aproape 2000 de metri

Funaral stones, almost 2000 meters high in the plateu.

O casa tipica, asemanatoare cu cea in care am dormit. 2 camere, acoperis de iarba. Hobbit style

Hobbit style and the grass roofs of these houses.

Drumul stepelor.

The endless road.

Lumina asfintitului.

The evening light.

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Miros imbatator.

Spring on the valley floor near Igdir.

4000 de metri deasupra drumului.

Rising 4000 meters above the road.

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Ani, the deserted city

In just a few minutes the sun is going hide behind a mountain in the background and I’m rushing with my camera in my hand in order to catch the last glimpses of light over Ani. I’ve been pedaling the entire day at altitudes over 2000 meters with headwind and I’ve managed to reach the site just before closing time. The guys at the entrance gave me 10 minutes, but that isn’t the problem, the problem is that the sun will set in less than 10 minutes.

I have no time to think about exposure and I just rush trying to make the best of it, because the place really does look amazing. It was once a city like Constantinople and 100.000 souls lived within with walls but it was abandoned completely 200 years ago. You can still see the old layout of the buildings, the city walls and the two ruined but still standing churches. And you can imagine for a short moment how would have been life in a city situated in such a scenic place.

I think that East Anatolia has been the most stunning part of Turkey I saw along my route, together with the mountains through which I’ve had to pass to get here from the coast. It’s completely different from other parts of Turkey and life here is harsh but maybe at the same time beautiful.

As I leave the citadel darkness sets in and I try to find the shortcut to Digor, and while asking to villagers I distinguish the “Misafir” word as one of the guys tries to convince me to stay at his house. I say yes as I’ve been really curios to see the inside of a typical rural turkish house. And during the evening and after the meal I’ve been offered by the family I find out that the guys from google translate really did something useful, and by using the smartphone we manage to exchange some information. For example I find out that military service is still compulsory in Turkey and that it’s 15 months long, that no wood is used to fire up the stove. One of the small girls is in her first year of English and she goes through her notebook searching for things to ask me, and in the process I manage to learn a few extra words in Turkish.

The next morning after I’m also offered breakfast I head towards Digor on one rough but beautiful road with absolutely no traffic. I really love this moments, somewhere in the middle of nowhere on a deserted road after experiencing a sample of genuine hospitality.

Plat ca o campie, dar la 2200 de metri.

Aventura!

Adventure!

Araratul in departare, la peste 200 de kilometri.

Ararat in the distance, 150 kilometers away.

Pedaland catre Ani.

Pedaling towards Ani.

La poarta cetatii.

At the ancient city gates.

Ultimele raze ale soarelui.

The last days of sunlight

Momente magice.

Magic moments.

Si a tinut 5 minute.

And it lasted less than 5 minutes.

Si dus a fost soarele.

And there it goes.

Drumul principal din fosta cetate.

The old main road.

1 luna.

1 month.

Sot si Sotie.

Husband and wife.

Si unul din cei 5 copii.

And one of the girls.