The Golden Road
The last month has been hard going. Desert heat, a spectrum of road qualities, mechanical breakdowns, and saddle sores have all played their part as I've traversed Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan over the past few weeks; but the experience has been an incredible one. Central Asia has taken my breath away, pushed me far beyond what I thought my limits were, and filled my head with memories that will hopefully last for the rest of my life. I’ve cycled 4,895 miles through 17 countries, and – perhaps less a personal achievement than a testament to the quality of the engineering of the Ralf Bohle company of Reichshof, Germany – all without a single puncture. Faced with a barrage of experiences from which to draw, I hope the following will be interesting.
Khalon Minaret and Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan
As I waited at the train station in Shetpe, a local who had previously greeted me briefly with a “Hello” and a handshake now leered towards me, a bottle of vodka protruding from his trouser pocket. He didn’t seem that happy when I prevented him from making off with my cycling glasses, and when I evidently hadn’t given him enough recognition for his inebriated and tuneless rendition of Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word – thankfully not in its entirety – he’d playfully put his arm around my neck, but I could feel him slowly tightening his grip into a headlock. I broke away from him, and he shot me a dirty look before walking away, only to suddenly reappear an hour later and, with a sullen and utterly disingenuous “thank you” began to consume the food and water I’d propped on my panniers and was, in fact, in the middle of consuming myself. Not that he seemed to care. I stood, unable to interject in either Kazakh or Russian – the only useful languages in this situation, and of which I knew next to nothing – as he backwashed mouthfuls of crisps and detritus into the bottle, which he nearly emptied then left on the ground before meandering into the shop from which I’d seen him earlier getting his vodka. I was afraid, disgusted, and above all angry that he’d drunkenly squandered my most precious resource: water.
I tend to carry a minimum of two one-litre bottles (each of which should last me 20 miles even with inclement weather and road conditions) and a 0.8-litre bottle for emergencies, but in the desert this minimum was increased to a minimum of five litres at any one time. I require just a mouthful of water for washing, a mouthful for brushing my teeth, and a few drops for cleaning my penknife and bowl should I happen to use them. Otherwise, all water is for drinking only. After my experiences in Israel in 2017, I’ve sworn never again to put myself in such a vulnerable position regarding fluids. The effects of dehydration can, of course, be lethal on their own, but for me there’s a slight complication in the mix: type one diabetes. If mismanaged, diabetes can exacerbate the effects of dehydration. Blood glucose levels, if allowed to wander too high, cause the production of ketones, which the body tries to evacuate from the system via urine. Thus, water going in is wasted as it's simply redirected to push ketones out of the body, leaving the muscles starved of water and increasingly liable to cramping, which in turn retards progress and reduces the likelihood of actually making it to the next chaikhana (tea-house) with water. Therefore, an injection missed, or even just delayed, on a day of cycling in the desert can be both discomforting and dangerous, as I rediscovered the hard way in the Kyzylkum Desert; my calves, quadriceps, and hamstrings all cramped simultaneously in both legs, leaving me standing by the roadside astride my bike, screaming in agony.
A desert grave near Shetpe, Kazakhstan, a place where the line between peace and loneliness becomes blurry.
Perhaps my ire at this local drunk was a little misdirected, or not entirely justified. As I watched the cold, clean water sloshing down his throat I was seized by a possessiveness that belied my addiction to refrigerated, filtered stuff. Despite the fact that it is often imported, costs more, and gives me far more carbohydrates than I necessarily need to get me to the end of the day, I find myself drawn to milk, yoghurt, ice tea, and chocolate (the latter two more commonly to be found in the refrigerator in these parts, unlike the first two). I try to resist but can’t help enjoying an air-conditioned room as the temperature outside peaks above 40 degrees, and the sensation of any liquid, no matter how nutritional/-less, sliding down my throat as the sun burns overhead. The higher the temperature rises, the harder it gets to define the line between necessity and luxury. Thus, a bottle of frozen water sold at the side of the road is still likely to win my attention, even when I’m already carrying four litres, four kilogrammes of extra weight I carry for mile after mile after mile. My aquaholic brain is making a fool of my legs. And I’m one of the lucky ones who can afford so much filtered and refrigerated refreshment.
Travelling through a part of the world ravaged by years of resource mismanagement under first Soviet and then independent CIS governments, the need for systems which can sustainably provide for humans, animals, and their respective ecologies, is inexorably apparent. The shrinkage of the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake, has been descried as one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters. Pollution, exposure to toxic substances and even weaponised diseases such as anthrax, salination of aquifers, loss of livelihood and habitat are affecting humans and animals not only in the region but as far away as Antarctica. Current projects now not only have to deal with the consequences of Soviet systems that were, to quote a civil engineer I spoke to in Tashkent, “highly overengineered and yet still totally shit”, but have to convince current governments to recognise the importance of environmental and resource management amongst a competing agenda of priorities including economic development and boosting tourism. Though the water levels in the North Aral Sea are slowly rising and its salinity decreasing, the disappearance of the South Aral Sea has already been effectively chalked up as a loss to history, a lesson whose teachings must be sharply applied to prevent the ravages of further desertification in the area. To some extent, the desert here is inevitable, and for many, life here as it is now is inescapable. Yet, for all my overdramatization, there is still hope. Across the region, from the low deserts of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the Alpine reservoirs of the Tien Shan mountains, there is much to be done. But it will require humans as a species to swallow our pride, to listen to the earth, to read the water.
Big Almaty Lake, Kazakhstan
Quite a lot of not very much
I’ve been fortunate enough to ride a bicycle in two deserts before in my life: the Mojave in Arizona and southern California, and the Negev in Israel. Both were extremely challenging but rewarding experiences, from which I learned a lot about my physical limits in heat (especially without enough water), and coping with the psychological pressures of moving through inhospitable and sometimes monotonous spaces. But for me, the deserts of Central Asia are something else.
My first night of sleeping in desert ‘proper’ was in Usturt, a tiny settlement around a hundred miles from the border with Uzbekistan. Arriving by train at 2:30 AM, I wheeled my bike past the few houses and out of the light of the hamlet’s two streetlights, and set up camp. As I placed the last of my kit inside my tent I looked up and saw more stars than I have ever seen in my life. I fell asleep to the soft thuds of wild horses running fleetingly past into the night.
In Beyneu, the last major town in Kazakhstan before the border with the Karakalpak Republic region of Uzbekistan, I met Charlie, an older guy with twenty-two years of touring under his belt who swore like a trooper and warned me that “there’s fucking nothing for one hundred and seventy fucking kilometres”. It’s true that the deserts of Central Asia offer significantly less than, say, rural Essex to support human habitation, but it’s unfair to say that there’s nothing there. Even out along the emptiest stretches of road, there are still abundant signs of human interference with the landscape, and in more unmolested areas, the desert teems with life. Or rather, it would do, if it wasn’t constantly being run over by traffic. I saw foxes, hedgehogs, jerboas, snakes, and small birds (all dead), but was awed as a shadow flitted briefly and a golden eagle wheeled overhead. And of course, the camels. Wonk-jawed, bandy-legged, stinking-to-high-heaven, ‘ships of the desert’ is perhaps an over-romanticisation, but these creatures’ ability to eke out an existence on the fringes of such inhospitable terrain is constantly astounding to me. And it was thanks to these animals that I found myself bouncing along the road at a blissful forty miles per hour, having hitched a lift against a battering headwind with a driver who was heading to the edge of the desert to get feed for his herd of forty camels.
Once again the elements have bested me, I told myself, and as I looked out at the barrenness of the surrounding land speeding by my relief grew proportionately with my sense of fraud. I couldn’t really say I’d crossed the desert on my bike, only part of it, and my physical and psychological inability to cope with the stresses of the roads and the sapping headwind my excuse for not continuing on two wheels. By the time I arrived in Nukus, a town in the green, irrigated oasis surrounding the Amu Darya, I had begun to fear not the desert itself, but my own weakness and the growing doubt that I’d be able to get myself through it.
After leaving Nukus came the true Kyzylkum Desert, the vast expanse of sandier desert covering 115,000 square miles of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. From space it earns its name of Kyzylkum (Red Sand), but from the seat of a bicycle it looked pretty empty but still surprisingly green, with small hardy shrubs peppering the rolling sands. Yet for all the stark, silent beauty of such a landscape, I am still a child of greener climes. To cycle through the desert is simultaneously a challenge and a privilege, and an experience that will stay with me forever, but I could not dwell there for longer than I have done, every mile a reminder of my otherness to life here. To me, a soft, rain-wettened little Briton, this place was quite a lot of not very much. Or, perhaps, a little too much of not quite enough.
The Golden Road
The promise, exoticism, and allure of what is known in Uzbek as buyuk ipak yo’li, the Great Silk Road, has drawn merchants, mercenaries, and travellers to and across Central Asia for more than a millennium. I need not try and reproduce the scholarship of those such as Peter and Katherine Hopkirk or Peter Frankopan, but being a literature student it’s hard not to be sucked into the romanticism of one of the great crossing points of culture, religion, and knowledge, so I’ll restrain myself and add just two couplets of James Elroy Flecker’s poetic drama, Hassan:
We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
To be fair, Flecker’s Hassan was coming from Baghdad, so I can’t speak for most of that road. I can, however, say unequivocally that the Uzbek roads I took were by far the worst roads I’ve ever cycled on. The fact that Kazakhstan has been able to fund its infrastructure far better through its substantial oil and gas reserves perhaps makes comparing the two countries’ roads a little unfair, but when you go from smooth virgin tarmac to washboard gravel and potholes in the blink of an eye it’s hard not to.
My first day’s riding in Uzbekistan was definitely one of the hardest of my life. After the first fifteen miles the road deteriorated to packed gravel, punctuated by short sections of asphalt pocked with holes up to half a foot deep. My initial attempts to avoid these by riding to the side of the road were quickly upset as I rode into a thick layer of tar, hidden by dust but gloopy and half-melted in the heat of the rising sun. When the gravel finally gave way to more lengthy stretches of tarmac, it was often easier to ride on the packed earth than to weave down the middle of the road trying to avoid the patches and potholes. I found this out the hard way when, overtaking a truck, I hit a pothole at 16 mph, and the clips on my left pannier broke off entirely, leaving my pannier skidding along the ground, hanging limply by a single bungy cord. Both my panniers are now attached with a combination of cable ties and rope, and I’ve replaced several screws shaken loose by the almost constant vibration of the roads – I’m lucky to be returning briefly to the UK as this gives me the opportunity to replace them before starting on Leg 2 in East Asia.
Happily the winds died down the further across Uzbekistan I got, and as I left Khiva I received the blessing of not only a storming tailwind but the best road I’d cycled in all of Uzbekistan. With the road – miraculously – smooth once more under my wheels and the wind at my back, I rode 142 miles – my longest ever day’s ride. Sadly, this was not a sign of the tide turning for the easier. Leaving Bukhara into a headwind, I’d set myself the goal of Samarkand within three days, but as the morning progressed, it became clear that if I rode hard until Katta-Kurgan, I could reach Samarkand in two. I was, however, worried by a quiet groaning noise coming from somewhere beneath me, but after checking the frame for cracks twice I couldn’t figure it out, so kept riding. The afternoon was the regular Uzbek fare of short stretches of smoother road interspersed jarringly with potholes and tarmac more wrinkled than a camel’s testicle, but I pushed on, and was only three miles from Katta-Kurgan when I felt my chain go slack. Bugger. I should have oiled that freewheel in Bukhara. But it was worse than that. Two spokes had been wrenched from their eyelets, taking part of the hub with them, and had caught in the freewheel. The hub was irreparably broken. I couldn’t contain a frustrated scream as I stood by the roadside, wondering what the hell I was going to do.
Luckily this state of affairs was quickly cut short by the arrival of three guys in a covered pickup, who stopped within a minute of me discovering the issue and, without a word of English, helped me load my bike into the back and drove me into town to the nearest bike shop. I didn’t have high expectations of being able to replace a Shimano Deore hub at short notice at five in the evening on a Saturday, and though the solution proposed was imperfect – a 34-hole Dahon hub would have to do for my 36-hole Mavic rims – I was indebted beyond words to the mechanic who helped replace the hub and rebuild my wheel from scratch in a bare concrete workshop crowded by a random assortment of parts, watched by a gaggle of neighbourhood onlookers.
It wasn't until the following day I realised that he'd put the tyre on backwards
This bodge cost me £30 in som, most of my remaining cash, but despite the stressed and exhausted tears I let fall as the mechanic replaced my rim tape with good old fashioned Sellotape, I was so grateful for the help of these people, in particular one boy, Mekhrudin. A snappily-dressed guy who claimed to be 15 but looked about 12, he helped me to find everything non-bike-related I needed that evening: food, a bit of wi-fi to contact my family, and most importantly, a toilet. His English was by far the best of anyone I’d met in Katta-Kurgan, and once again put to shame my almost total lack of Uzbek.
Eventually the work was done, and Mekhrudin insisted on a group photo outside the workshop before escorting me out of town, honking enthusiastically on a pump-operated horn which rivalled the passing trucks in terms of decibels. At the turning towards Samarkand we parted ways, but not before he insisted on making a present of a folding knife he produced from his pocket (I didn’t worry about depriving him of it, as he’d already proudly shown me the shiv he kept tucked behind his belt buckle; better I as the ‘responsible adult’ take care of it). It was almost dark as I reached a café I’d seen on my map, and once again I was indebted in gratitude to the owners, who not only gave me a decent price for the food I ate but also, when I asked about putting up my tent, insisted on making an Uzbek-style bed on the floor with pillows and a blanket. The next day, I finally rolled gingerly into Samarkand, nursing two saddle sores the size of peas and doing everything in my power not to destroy my replacement hub.
Tilya-Kori Madrasah facade, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
I had dreamed of this moment for years, of rolling triumphantly past the Registon’s azure domes and feeling that I’d earned that moment of smug satisfaction. I hadn’t given myself time to think that things might be different. If anything, I was – and will forever be – in the debt of the many people who have shown me such kindness and generosity as I can never deserve. I might not have planned for things to go so spectacularly wrong in the mechanical and dermatological departments, but with these problems arose the opportunity to meet people and experience situations I otherwise could never have dreamed of, in far richer colour and depth than my imagination would allow. I cannot possibly understate quite how much I despised the quality of the road to Samarkand (and, prejudicially, most of Uzbekistan’s roads), but its lesson certainly remains golden: the road imperfect gives in experiences what you can never make in miles.
Tilya-Kori Madrasah interior, Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Lessons from Leg 1
The first stage of this journey has been one of superlatives, and of a few valuable lessons I'm trying to take forward as I prepare to start Leg 2.
I am soft – I will dig deep, but only if it means some short- or medium-term reward (for example riding additional miles every day to ‘earn’ an extra day off in a hostel, or climbing several thousand feet knowing that there will be a spectacular view at the top). I submit easily to adversity, and am not psychologically hardy enough to persevere because I either focus too much on the bigger picture (Why not skip this bit? After all, it’s only x miles) or get stuck too much in the immediate (How can I make it through this next mile? Or even a tenth of that? Or even a te-WATCH OUT FOR THAT FUCKING POTHOLE). As much as I’m perfectly happy to sleep in a tent for however long, I’m still addicted to refrigerated stuff, air conditioning, and taking advantage of the opportunity to not have my features eroded to nothing by Central Asian winds or my perineum pummeled by Central Asian roads.
I will need to spend the rest of my life making up for all the plastic I’m getting through – The amount of food packaging and plastic bottles I buy and dispose of every day – largely in countries whose waste disposal consists of burying, burning, or simply blowing in the desert winds – is truly disheartening. While I’ve needed to carry higher amounts of water over long stretches, I still can’t justify the amounts of waste I’m creating. Even though I’m eating a lot of raw fruit and vegetables, most of them still come in a plastic bag, and my attempts to refuse a bag are frequently met with a sideways glance or simply ignored.
Speak Russian – Even though armed with a second-hand copy of the Lonely Planet’s Central Asia Phrasebook, I was woefully inadequate at engaging with local people in their own language. As Russian is a second language for many people from Georgia to Mongolia, it helped to be able to learn just a few words of it (cold, toilet, here – perfect for asking for enquiring about an outhouse with air con) to get me through the painfully awkward limbo of ums and ahs normally arising from me offering a greeting in Kazakh, Kyrgyz, or Uzbek. It also forced me to engage with the Cyrillic alphabet, something I’d failed to do properly elsewhere in Europe. But largely I was very lucky: the people I met were almost always willing to join my game of overcoming the language barrier by signing, writing, miming, or trying other languages. Should I find myself in this part of the world again though, I will try harder to get some more phrases under my belt; in the national language in the first instance, and in Russian as a fallback.
Control the controllables – Before we both quit our jobs, my colleague had a post-it note with this mantra stuck on her computer screen, and it’s perhaps the hardest lesson I’ve yet to learn. Coincidence and circumstance are neither favouring nor cruel, but they are omnipotent and utterly indifferent to you, your endeavours, and your feelings. Why expend time and energy trying to change those things you can’t control? I can’t control the fact that I have diabetes, or that my pannier just completely broke off my bike, or that a truck nearly hit me because the driver was paying more attention to his phone than the road. But I can control my reaction to these things, and I can order my own world and routine as best as possible to reduce the impact of these things, even if I can’t control the likelihood of their happening. A sense of control does, arguably, increase feelings of responsibility for failure when it happens, but it gives you the satisfaction of knowing that you exercised your agency, and didn’t waste time fighting that which you couldn’t change.
Diabetes is not a barrier – I met two other type one diabetics whilst travelling in Central Asia, but whilst we approached the condition with different levels of trepidation in relation to travelling, it was clear that none of us would be deterred by it. If managed properly (or even half-properly) diabetes is not a barrier to long-term travel, or long-term cycle touring. Despite the additional faff and paperwork and stress, it’s nothing that anyone who can tie their shoes and answer their emails couldn’t do; it just needs a little more planning.
Be here now – I remember buying the second edition of The Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook and several other books on long-distance bicycle travel, and imagining myself sweating up long mountain climbs and stoically grinding through the harshest of conditions. What I’ve come to realise is that, as much as I love riding, I still relish the moments off the bike, floating mentally in the pool of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of these new worlds. Finding a balance between adventure (whatever that means) and cycling is now far more important to me than before this journey began. Days will be filled with type one fun, type two fun, and sometimes type three fun, and learning to take these all together, whether on a bike, on a bus, or on a train (for each has its own frustrations), is a learning objective I’m setting myself for Leg 2.
I’ll shut up for now. Thanks to my diabetes I’ll be back home in the UK for a few days to restock with insulin, before heading out to start the journey anew in Taiwan after a short break in Japan. For now, some silence, and memories of the mountains, and sands stretching far away.