Category Archives: Bike Touring

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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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Litomsyl

Czech Republic on two wheels, Žďár, Telč and Třebíč

We start off saturday morning against the same wind we’ve been fighting for the past two days. It’s interesting that while in Europe wind is generally blowing from west, we manged to head eastwards one of the few periods when a cold front from Russia was advancing from the east.

At least we should have back wind for the second half of the day, between Žďár nad Sázavou and Kutná Hora. But before that we have to continue advancing like snales for the next 40 kilometers. Really for the bits which were slightly uphill we were probably averaging around 10 kilometers per hour. And there were moments in which the side-wind made balancing the bike at high speeds quite difficult.

Dimineata pe racoare...

Early in the morning.

Atacul gastelor scapate de sub control.

Attack of the geese.

Deal-vale, deal-vale...

Hilly terain.

So the first part of the day went on relatively uneventful. We were out of food, the battled the wind and we had no place to seek shelter, we were making slow progress so we couldn’t wait to see the silhouette of the Žďár monastery. The Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk, erected in the name of a 14th century saint, is situated on a round hill overlooking Žďár. The complex is included in the UNESCO list for it’s unusual baroque architecture, as everything was built around the number 5.

But before getting to the mausoleum, we need to replenish our food supply from one of the supermarkets in Žďár,  moment in which we realize that the products which are found in similar supermarkets vary greatly from country to country. For example the things which can be found in a German Lidl are different from the things which can be found in a Checz Lidl, and you think of it it’s relatively normal, as different nations have different tastes.

But skipping ahead to the pilgrimage church, the church and the surrounding complex has an original architecture, at least for that time. It’s the brainchild of an czech architect, named Jan Blažej Santini Aichel, and it’s probably one his most important works.

Zdar

Zdar

Cinci este numarul magic.

Five is the magic number.

Unduit.

Curved perspectives.

Umbrele cicloturistilor la Zdar.

Our shadows at Zdar.

The building is based on the number 5 ( the 5 wounds of Christ, the 5 letters of the latin word for remaining silent, the 5 stars which were seen here after the saint was killed), and so everything every detail in the church relates somehow to it. As a style, it’s a mix between Gothic and Baroque, which was then used again in other buildings in the Czech Republic.

After the windy visit to the Church, we change direction and we start pedaling back to Kutna Hora where we’ve left our car, with hopes of getting there before nightfall. The plan is to visit two more UNESCO sites, the city of Třebíč and Telč on Sunday. At least for the first 40 kilometers we have have back wind, and boy does it help. So instead of riding with an average of 10-12km/h, we dash with averages up to 25-30km/h.

Frontiera dintre Bohemia si Moravia.

The border between Moravia and Bohemia.

Cehia intr-o singura imagine.

Czech Republic in just one photo.

Even though we make good progress night catches us with another 20 kilometers to go, so we spend an hour pedaling in darkness through small villages, until we reach Kutna Hora, and after another 5 kilometers our car.

During Sunday we drive the 70 kilometers south towards Telč, and we get there early enough in the morning to avoid the tourist flux. The town has one of the most beautiful town squares from Europe flanked by gorgeous medieval houses with colorful facades. It does have Hans Christian Andersen feel to it. The harsh light didn’t really help for photography, but still it’s a nice town and it’s well worth the visit.

Casele de povesti din Telc.

The  fairy tale houses from Telc.

After another 30 kilometers of driving we reach a completely different  town, Třebíč, which looks completely different from Telc. The town is also included on the UNESCO list, with it’s benedictine cathedral, the Jewish quarter and the Jewish cemetery. They can all be seen by following a 3 kilometer trail, which travels through the city.

The benedictine church can be visited but the guided tours are only in Czech, but you usually receive a translation which you can use to discover the place on your own. Regarding the cathedral, it bears signs of almost all the different religious eras from the Czech Republic. In the begging catholic, with the reformation of Jan Hus by the mid 16th century most of the country switched to Protestantism,  a trend which got an abrupt stop after the defeat from the Battle of the White Mountain. This defeat, brought Czech Republic under Hapsburg control for the next 200 years, and it initiated a successful counter-reformation. In the beginning of the 19th century almost all the lands which still belonged to monasteries was confiscated, and churches ended up being used for different purposes. For example the benedictine church was used at one point as a beer cellar, and as a military warehouse.

As other old churches it was restored at the end of the 19th century, with an effort of keeping it as close as possible to the original form.

Basilica Sf. Pricopius.

St. Pricopius church.

After the church we head to the Jewish cemetery, one of the largest and the best preserved in Europe. Wondering through it’s narrow paths you see tomb stones which are hundred of years old, and it’s easy to understand how long was the history of the Jewish community from this town. I said was, because a small exodus started when jews were allowed to leave the ghetto, in the mid 19th century, and the remaining community was decimated during the second world war. And thus, today no jews live in Třebíč, but the traces still can be seen as a reminder of a once thriving place.

You cannot help but wonder how was the life of the people which are buried here and what was their world view. And you cannot help but feel that the end treats in an equal way, regardless of wealth and class.The oldest tombstone dates back to the 1625th century, and it’s interesting to see how the writing and the names have changed during the four centuries.

Haos si ordine.

Chaos and order.

Zidul, lumea celor vii pe de o parte, lumea celor morti in partea cealalta.

The wall, separating the world of the living from the world of the dead.

Everything is hidden by a blanket of autumn leaves and ivy plants, and some tomb stones are already breaking apart, you have the feeling that nothing is eternal, and in time the tombstones will completely disappear, weathered down by the elements and swallowed by the earth.

Meditativ.

Nothing is eternal.

Morminte de peste veacuri.

Ancient tombstones.

We lingered around the cemetery and we started late back to the city, in order to wander through the ghetto for a while, in order to see the place where these people lived. The jewish quarter from Třebíč has 123 houses, erected along 2 main streets and interconnected by a number of different alleys. One can still identify the landmark buildings, the town hall, the synagogues, the rabbi’s house, the hospital, the home for the elderly and so on.

It’s one of the best preserved Jewish neighborhoods outside Israel. In 1890 here lived 1500 jews, by 1930 there were only 300 left, and currently ony 10 still live in the city. Nowadays there is no community, the houses are either empty, or are inhabited by people with a different religion. We visited the new Synagogue (which is 400 years old), where we find a small information center, and a 3D model showing the entire ghetto.

Prin ghetou.

Through the ghetto.

Sinagoga abandonata.

The abandoned Synagogue.

After reaching our car around 17:00, we start the long 500 kilometer journey back to Berlin, pleasantly surprised with Czech Republic, with it’s history and rural landscapes.

Infobox

Bike touring in Czech Republic

The country is somewhere halfway between Romania and Germany from the infrastructure. There are some bike touring routes, and they usually follow smaller roads, and the are marked by yellow signs bearing different numbers. You usually see the route number and the distance to the next one or two cities in that direction. Free maps with the routes can be found in towns which have tourist information, but they usually only cover squares of bout 20 kilometers.

Other variants of bike routes in english ca be found here .

One online planner can be found: here.

What we really used was a road map bought from a gas station, just follow the secondary roads and you will be fine: Czech Republic 1:250,000 Travel Map with city plans Freytag&Berndt

Even though there are 4 EuroVelo routes which cross the country (number 4, 7, 9 and 13),   from what we’ve checked on their websites there special infrastructure doesn’t really exist. Probably the most popular from the four is the Prague-Vienna Greenway.

Now regarding tourisn in the Czech Republic:

  • Usually there is a tax for each site. At some sites you have guided tours, usually in Czech, organised every hour or every couple of hours. If you are a foreigner you get a leaflet with a translation of the content of the tour.
  • All the names are in Czech, which is a language which is sometimes difficult to pronounce, so doing a bit of homework before asking people for directions is useful.
  • For outdoor sites the information is usually provided in english and in czech, but there may be exceptions to this rule.
  • Well organized sites describing the 12 UNESCO sites in Czech Republic can be found here or here.
Litomsyl

Czech Republic on two wheels, Kutná Hora and Litomyšl

Our opinion after riding two days and a half against a small hurricane is that the Czech kilometer is longer than the German one. Considerably longer. Almost as long as a nautical mile. The signs also do not help, and on several occasions even though we were riding in the right direction, the distance to the next town seemed to be increasing.

But other than the Czech Republic welcomed us with open hands, and from the bike touring perspective it has quite some potential. On one side you have a large network of secondary roads, which do not have a lot of traffic, and almost every town has a rich cultural history.

We didn’t find to many informations regarding bike there, but armed with a road map we start of on a Thursday morning towards Kutná Hora with a steep climb, which signals the nature of bike touring here. The terrain is really hilly, at least in the eastern part and there aren’t so many flat areas where one could ride fast.

In Kutná Hora we catch our breath and we visit the Sedlec Cathedral , the ossuary, and the Saint Barbara church (both are UNESCO sites). 

Lumea de apoi.

The after-world.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the ossuary, which was relatively empty of tourists. It’s a sobering experience to spend some time in the old crypt, with the macabre interior decoration. The entire thing started in 1278, when a monk traveled to Jerusalem and brought back some earth from the Golgotha hill, and he scattered it over the cemetery.

Since then the cemetery was considered as part of the  holy land, and it was seen as “The place” to be buried. At one point there was also the legend that if buried here, the corpse will rot in just 3 days, and only the clean bones remain. And it proved to be quite a popular burial place, and it is estimated that only during the plague between 40.000 and 70.000 persons were buried here. And in order to cope with the overcrowding around 1400 the first ossuary was already built.

Auto portret

Self portrait.

Turcul si cioara care ii scoate ochiul

This heraldic coat of arms shows a Ottoman soldier and a crow which plucks his eye, commemorating a victory from the late 1600s.

Decoratiuni interioare.

Interior decoration.

Unul dintre multi.

One of the many.

Kutná Hora’s history is a one with a lot of ups and downs, as the entire Czech history. Once it was one of the richest towns in Europe, thanks to the silver mines around the town. This period ended after the 30 years war, when Czech republic came under Habsburg control, and it remained there for the next 300 years, in a period which is called the “Dark Age”.

History teaches us that nothing is eternal, no even the imposing Gothic cathedral upon which we are looking, with it’s beautiful spires and stone arches which stretch over a crystal blue sky.

Imposing isn’t the best word to describe it, because we’re not talking about the massive Doms of western germany, with it their large bodies and even larger and darker interiors. The cathedral is small in comparison, and I can only compare it with a small gothic jewel. It took 600 years to finish it, but it is well worth the time. And as with the Cologne Cathedral, the works were suspended for quite some time, as money ran out after the silver mines closed down. Saint Barbara is the patron saint of the miners, and the church has a large number of original frescoes.

Cel mai reprezentativ exemplu al stilului gotic tarziu din cehia.

The best example of Gothic architecture in the Czech Republic

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But after visiting the the town, it’s time to start battling the head wind, and to see how the rural parts of the Czech Republic look like. And from our point of view, they are half-way between Germany and Romania.

As we ride through small villages, with a lot of abandoned houses we feel the smell of burned wood, and we see the smoke rising the chimneys. It’s a familiar smell of the villages in Romania, and if we would close our eyes we could picture ourselves back home.

In each larger village there is an old shop, which sometimes is transformed in the franchise of local grocery chain. As in Romania, a lot of the houses are abandoned, and one can realize that the same process is happening throughout Europe, and that people are leaving the villages for the better prospects of a life in a city.

Peisajul tipic de pe drumurile secundare din Cehia.

The typical side road in the Czech Republic.

Inserare.

Dusk.

We easily find wild camping spot and we stay around the stove the tomato soup which should warm us on the inside in a rather cold day, spend pedaling against the wind. The night goes by as we warm ourselves in our down bags, a long 12 hour night.

Friday morning is cold, and the grass field on which we’ve camped is split into to two. The part which is in shade is covered by frost, while the other side is already melting the the sun. And we feel in the air the humid smell of the forest.

We skip breakfast and we start moving in order to get the circulation going, and we take our brunch by midday, when the temperature rises a bit, and it get’s comfortable enough.

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Exemplu de bucatarie ceheasca, un fel de pateu local de carne.

An example of Czech food, we had no idea what it was when we bought it, and it the end it was was some sort of a meet pudding.

Versaill-ul dintr-un satuc uitat de lume.

Visiting a small Versailles like castle in a forgotten village.

We reach Litomyšl in the afternoon, our second cultural destination for the trip. We know that the main site is a Renaissance castle, but before reaching it we circle around the the city, through the main square and through small cobble streets.

We finally find the castle, and we’re amazed regarding how cool it looks. The warm autumn light and the patterns on the walls work together to create sharp images. And we have the place all to ourselves, which also contributes to it’s beauty.

Dupa ce serpuim putin pe stradute cu piatra cubica, de undeva de dupa schelele unui muzeu ne iese in fata castelul. O constructie rectangulara, alba, cu peretii exteriori decorati cu diverse modele (sgrafitto) desenate in culori calde, nuante de galben, mustar, ori maro ce ma trimite cu gandul la soarele Italiei. Nici nu e de mirare, deoarece castelul a fost construit in stil renascentist declarat, in secolul 16.

Renascentist

Renaissance

Castelul.

The Castle.

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Geometry.

Eden.

Eden.

We leave Litomyšl in the late afternoon and we start once again going uphill, this time towards Zdar. And we climb, and we climb until we can sea small hilly peaks which should be around 800 meters high, and the wind of course blowing from the wrong direction.

Night sets in as we still haven’t found a camping spot, but just after darkness sets it we find a protected spot on a green field, and we starting cooking the usual soup to warm us a bit before going to sleep. It’s really interesting how all the tasks are so naturally split when travelling in two. For example even though at home I rarely cook while travelling that’s usually my responsibility, as is buying food. And so I’ve become an expert of quickly getting what we need from a supermarket, even if it’s a completely new supermarket and even if the language is unknown.

Din nou pe drum.

Once again on the road.

Sfarsit de zi.

The sunset of the day.

Balotii din Brandenburg

Luther, Ferropolis, bauhaus, english gardens and an artificial volcano

The titles is a short summary of a varied tour from the last weekend. It wasn’t extremely long, just around 120 kilometers (as excuses I could say that we did have head wind for a large part of the tour, and the hours spent turning the pedals weren’t so many), but it was really varied, at least from the sights we saw. It was surprising as the area was really close to Berlin, only around 100 kilometers away.

Regarding a less than perfect planning, I decided to change the bike chain on Friday evening, and I realized only after taking apart the old chain that the new chain was to short. And all this happened after washing the bike at a gas station near us, so I had to get back home with the bike without a chain which was a bit hilarious. Not checking the chain length before taking apart the old clearly wasn’t the smartest thing to do…

Now getting back to the the actual bike trip, we decide for the destination only Saturday morning, so we allow ourselves one extra hour of sleep. That means however that after getting a new chain and setting it up, we start pedaling only around 13:00, and after a couple of kilometers we reache the historic center of Wittenberg, a small town from Saxony which is linked with Martin Luther. This is the place where he preached for a large part of his life, and it’s also the place where he is buried.

We met his shadows in different parts of Germany, and I think that the history of Germany and of Europe has been shaped by the Protestantism. It’s interesting to see how the history you learn in school is more or less oriented on your country, and on your region at best. In Romania we probably had a couple of pages about the entire issue, and while bike touring through Germany we discovered that the events which were triggered by Luther’s teachings had a profound effect on European history for almost 300 years.

Even there is a lot of controversy about him, I think that almost all historians agree that he wasn’t necessarily a likable person. The best description would be that of charismatic man who knows really well hot to argue, extremely blunt and capable all the way for things he believes in.

He wasn’t the first reformer, Hus had similar ideas almost 100 years before, but he was the first one who wasn’t burned as a heretic, even though he was excommunicated by the catholic church. During his lifetime he was probably the most read author from Europe, taking advantage from the large scale use of the printing press, thus in only a few years his 95 theses were read throughout Europe.

He also caused one of the largest social movements before the french revolution, the peasant uprisings from southern Germany which ended in a bloodshed with the massacre of 100.000 peasants. He’s also blamed for the antisemitic trait of the Germans up to the second world war. And in his free time he also translated the bible, thus standardizing the German language.

But probably the climax of his life was during the Diet of Worms, when he was tried before the court made up from German princes and in front of the papal representative. He was asked to resent his theses, and even though the chances of being burned at the stake were high, he argued his case up to the end, ending with the famous quote “On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me”. He became so the symbol of a man ready to die for things he believes to be true. At the same time he was lucky enough to have a few German princes which shared his beliefs.

Now getting back to our tour, in Wittenberg we visited the church were Luther was buried with a free toured guide with one of the best guides I ever saw, and it was enough to trigger our curiosity. We also visit the church where he preached, and after the long break we finally start pedaling towards Dessau, through endless forests until we reach a place which seems a world away from the medieval Wittenberg.

To be more acurate, we reach a place called Ferropolis, the iron city which is actually an industrial open air museum near Graefenhanchen, on a peninsul which extends into an artificial lake, with huge cranes from an old socialist mining venture. And even though the nature started reclaiming the land, you can see the deep traces left there.

After the iron city the rain starts, so we end the cultural visits for today and we find a wild camping spot around Oranienbaum, just before entering a natural park around the Elbe river.

Sunday we wake up to a day with almost perfect weather, and we start the day with the Elbe natural park which includes one of the largest beaver reservation from Europe. It seems that around 2000 beavers live there, and that the overgrown rodents are know to reach up to 30 kilograms. But I think that Sunday was a day of for them, as we saw no beaver while riding through the reservation.

When we passed the reservation we found a couple of plum trees on the side of the road, and we found the plums to be just ripe. It’s brilliant that in Germany you find fruit treeson the side of the road, so this summer we really had from what to chose from during our bike tours. And in my humble opinion, nothing compares itself with the taste of a ripe fruit picked up directly from a  tree.

The kilometers flow under the wheels of the bicycles, and we reach Dessau, a city know for the Bauhaus movement, and for the English garden around the city. Both are on the UNESCO list.

Regarding Bauhaus I find it really interesting that even though today the buildings seem to be completely normal they were innovative for that period. And they seem normal because a lot of the concepts were used throughout the 20th century when designing buildings. Cubical forms, large spaces, a lot of glass, functions before form, architecture as  way of gathering several arts under a single roof.

We leave the bauhaus buildings behind and after a short ride through the English gardens we head towards Woerlitz, also know for the English gardens around the small town. I should say that during the 18th century a lot of german dukes and princes started setting up parks and gardens for relaxation. They are huge in comparison with the size of the cities, and back then they probably seemed even larger.

And in this part of Germany English gardens were really popular, parks which were designed to seem natural places, with endless green loans, old trees and small pavilions. And sometimes an artificial volcano.

I find it hard to imagine what was the price thinking, and how would it be to have an artificial volcano in your backyard. I can imagine, that after a sumptuous evening party one could invite your guests to watch the eruption of this artificial volcano. It seems that the trend didn’t catch on, as it’s the only artifical volcano from Europe. It was built by duke Leopold the third, which was so impresed by Vesuvius during a trip through Italy that he built his own version. Maybe the french revolution wasn’t so wrong in changing things…

After ending our cultural vists for the weekend, from Woerlits we rode the 20 kilometers back to Wittenberg, and thus we ended one of weirdest and most varied weekends from the last period.

From this point of view I really love Europe, with so much history per square mile that it’s difficult to go on a bike tour without stumbling upon it. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, as you could probably do tours through the middle of nowhere (at least in the northeastern part of Germany), but even so the amount of cultural sights can be really astonishing.

The door where Luther nailed his theses.

Luther, the thorn in the body of the catholic church.

Touring through wild forests.

Ferropolis, the iron city.

Looking for a camping spot.

Riding through the natural park.

The typical German bike paths, wilder than in other countries.

Through English garden from Dessau.

A typical example of a Bauhaus building.

And the building of the architecture school.

Design.

Back to English gardens

The Woerlitz castle.

Mosaic.

The park church.

And the artificial volcano.

Colour.

Autumn is knocking on the door.

Checking the SPDs.

The conqueror of the hay ballot.

Ruegen Beech Forests

The Island of Ruegen on a bike

Night sets in somewhere on a seashore on the north end of Germany, while we’re setting up our outer tent as  canvas for the bivouac spot, trying to limit the amount of sand that we’re going to take back with us to Berlin.

An almost fool moon lights an long beach, and somewhere in the distance fires we can see small burning camp fires, while on the horizon a ship floats quietly and the rhythmic sound of waves reminds us that we’re near the sea. Behind us the moon sheds it’s light upon the deserted ruins of a nazi beach resort which was never finished. Planned before the war, when the national socialism gained ground, it should have offered relaxing and cheap holidays to the arian workers. But then the war came, and after more than 70 years the ruins still watch over the sea and over empty beach, silent reminders of times which seem almost impossible to imagine.

A couple of hours later we’re in the warmth of our sleeping bags, watching the clouds glide over the sky, covering the stars from time to time. But still, when we wake up through the night we see the same sky which has fascinated so many humans through out history. For a while I though that you could have such a sky only in the mountains, where the air is clean and you’re a bit closer to them, but since then I’ve met the same sky in a lot o different places. The only condition is the lack of a light source which would hide them, and the remote beach we chose for our bivouac spot is perfect for that.

And thus as the night goes by, each time we open our eyes and each time we fall asleep we do it under the same porcelain sky. This place seems a world way from the Romanian beach resorts. At the same time it depends what are tourists searching for, if it’s parties, loud music and clubs the Romanian coast  might be better suited, instead for us the spartan beach is all that could have wished for.

When you are sleeping under the open sky, the sunrise will most certainly wake you up, even if only for a couple of seconds. This usually doesn’t happen during the actual sunrise, but almost half an hour before, when the twilight starts to replace the darkness of the night. The eyes sense the change and you will wake up, and you will have to choose between sleeping a bit more or starting a new day. It’s not hard to guess what we chose.

 

Bathing under the moonlight, on the deserted beach.

Our bivouac spot, and the sunrise.

Good morning sunshine!

Maybe I should say some things about Ruegen, a relatively large island which belongs to Germany (yes, surprisingly Germany does have some islands), with a contested history which is largely unknown if you didn’t grow up in Germany.

Probably the most fascinating period in the history of the island is the time when quite a few megaliths where built, spread throughout the island. Dolmens, which today seem unlikely stone mounds placed in unusual position, are older that the pyramids and maybe just as mysterious. Built sometime at the end of the neolithic in Europe and in Asia (they occur from north Ireland to Korea), the dolmens are especially fascinating as they didn’t have a clear destination which can be pinpointed. Some where burial mounds, some weren’t, some involve some astronomy, some don’t. What is clear is that many traces which could have told the story of the people which built them disappeared long ago in the humid European climate.

On the other hand it’s fascinating to think that 5000 years ago, people built these tings. And even though they looked just like you and be, they probably believed in completely different things and they had another world view. And after more than 200 generations, we have these stones, like a bridge across time, and when touching the dolmens you cannot help but wonder if other people ages ago didn’t do the same thing. Different people, from a different world and different time.

A dolmen, a gate to another world.

Now continuing with the history of Ruegen, what is know is that around the birth of Christ the island was the home of a Germanic tribe called the Rugii, from which we the name of the island. Only that an one point, probably tired of the life on a wind ridden island they packed their things and left for modern Hungary, where they also grounded a kingdom at one point.

The Slavs filled in the empty space so, and during the second half of the first millennium they grounded a kingdom here and they built cities and ports. A lot of the names on Ruegen come from this period. And they were skilled seafarers, so that in a period when the vikings ravaged the coasts of Europe their dominion didn’t include Ruegen for quite some while.

The slavic fortress of Cap Arkona.

But in the end they were conquered, and the island went from Denmark to Pomerania, and from here to Sweden, and then to Prussia for a while, and then back to Denmark, and then back to Sweden before finally becoming part of modern Germany. In the begging of the 20th century, probably in order to be sure that the island will remain in their possession the germans buit a 2 kilometer bridge which finally connected the island to the mainland.

In the island is also Germany’s most norther place, named Cap Arkona, which was before christian times the largest Slavic pagan temple from the Baltic sea. But the sea has gradually eaten from the island, and now only a small part of the old temple can be seen. The Jasmun national park can also be found where, where ancient beech forests meet up with white chalk cliffs and with the sea.

Riding through ancient beech forests.

The kings throne at Jasmun.

A detailed journal, written unfortunately in Romanian for now was written by Mihaela here.

In the middle of nowhere nr 9, equiped with a PO box.

The typical bicycle path.

No it’s not a south american general, but prince Wilhelm Malte, which transform Putbus into a beach resort.

Upside down with a new meaning.

Through young beech forests.

At the first dolmen.

Exploration

And the most picture friendly dolmen. A photo which could be titled “A rock between rocks”.

The smallest ferry from Germany.

As a bike touring viking.

One of the typical sea bridges.

The road winds through ancient forests.

A small glimpse on how these forests probably also looked like thousand of years before.

Sunset fishing.

The dove, the sun and the ship.

Waiting for the sunrise.

Heading for the Koenigstuhl.

The kings throne from Jasmund.

Wandering through the chalk cliffs of Jasmun.

Going for a walk on the beach seems to be considered a bit unsafe by the germans.


The most northern piece of land from Germany.

The partial GPS tracks from the two days can be found here and here.