Passing Pigs in a Gansu Gompa

Our mini pink rubber ‘dice’ finally came bouncing to their resting positions both prone on their backs, tiny trotters pointed skyward. Tse Jam Tso beamed at us with swelling satisfaction. But what had he achieved? His querying grin was in search of answers. He wanted to know how much he had scored. He knew it was big. Under normal circumstances a single sentence explanation would have sufficed, but our knowledge of Tibetan stretched little further than “Tashadelik” and our phrasebook did not appear to have the rules to “Pass the Pigs” anywhere, no matter how many times we thumbed it through.

Samba for Sam
Samba for Sam

With enough time and creative charades energy anything is possible, even when little more than a word or three is shared. And so it proved.  Tse Jam Tso, Chung Le and “Jimmy” (we never quite got hold of how to pronounce his name properly) repeatedly thrashed us at a game that we had only minutes before “taught” them the rules. And they loved it. These monks appeared to be able to invoke the assistance of Buddha at will, rolling and rolling those little pigs until we were soon scampering away from the table with our curly tails between our legs.

Some of you will no doubt be familiar with “Pass the Pigs”, an extraordinarily wonderful and ancient game from our home shores that transcends age, race and certainly cultural norms. But if you are still at sea, all is made clear here.

Stacking dumplings Gansu style

Stacking dumplings Gansu style

Our last blog ended with our “Odybed-on-a-train” which had deposited us in Lanzhou in Gansu province, one of these mightily heaving Chinese cities, more or less in the middle of China. Yet within a 100km ride, much of which was merely leaving the city limits, the countryside was awash with Tibetan communities, replete with beautiful hillside Gompas (monasteries) that dot much of the surrounding provinces to Tibet itself, of which Gansu is one.

Clockwise stroller

Clockwise stroller

And our bicycling plan was simple. To abandon eastwardly intentions and pedal now almost due south for about 5,000km from central Gansu into Sichuan (of the spicy food fame), and onto Yunnan province which borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. South East Asia is now in our sights.

But back to Gansu and a modicum of chronological austerity, for tales of pigs and monks comes from the very borderlands of Gansu and Sichuan. It is Lanzhou with its curiosity-filled night markets, goopy Yellow River, wicked food, deeply serious kite-fliers and evil railway baggage-handlers that deserves a mention.

Captain Kite on the Yellow River

While we had arrived mostly refreshed in the big smoke (Lanzhou is notorious for being known as the most polluted city in China, which is no mean achievement), our bikes had endured a harrowing ordeal. We greeted them at the cargo terminal, like doting parents awaiting their offspring at the school gates, only to have this idyllic scenario well and truly smashed by the sight of Francesca’s bike being wheeled wonkily through the warehouse. The front forks were mangled, the lights and water bottles pilfered, and Sam’s compass, that had guided us so honestly for months, making a non-appearance too.

Virtually no English is spoken in China, certainly in our experience so far anyway, and our Mandarin phrasebook wilted in the face of, well, 20 railway faces that gazed on with zero sympathy. In most countries we have visited, we have either been able to garble a word or so of the local lingo or English has found its way into our communications, but not here. The frustrations mounted and we wonkily wheeled the bikes away, deflated (like Sam’s punctured rear tyre) and in search of help.

Treats on the streets

Treats on the streets

But Lanzhou came up trumps just when we were yearning for more peaceful rural climes. Between visits to the plethora of smile-inducing eateries, where you can (and we did) fill-up for less than a quid on spicy madness, checking out the well presented but hilariously propagandistic Gansu State Museum, and chilling with the ever-so professional kite-fliers of Lanzhou, the metropolis grew on us. We idled away many an hour on the banks of the Yellow River gazing at the feats of the latter fellas, as they tussled and sought to outdo each other with bigger kites, longer tails and laughably large wheels on which to reign in their lofty dragons.  Some of the tails were so lengthy (and weighty) that even the Yellow River gusts could not get them airborne.

Lanzhou also found us a charming bike mechanic, who tweaked and measured and twiddled some more (as if performing an ancient Chinese martial art) until once more Francesca’s bike resembled what it once did in happier days gone by. Despite the ease with which we had found this delightful man, we were perturbed (if not somewhat disoriented) by the strange absence of fellow cycles and cyclists, something we had also noted in Kashgar. This is China after all, where any self-respecting tourist publication must daub images of meandering Chinese on bikes on its front pages. Where bicycles queue up in their hundreds at traffic lights. Surely, the bicycle is the icon of China?

The pace of development, however, appears now to be far outstripping that of education and social advance. And with it comes petrol guzzling 4WDs, belching buses, SinoTruks and humming electro-scooters that have left bicycles to gather dust and dirt in the alleyways of China’s towns and cities.

An increasingly rare enlightened soul

Increasingly rare enlightened souls

While bikes were mended and spicy Hui Muslim Chinese noodle soup digested, we searched out a ‘Wangba’ (Internet Café) to tend to Odycycle and learn of life in the outside world. Bank upon banks of computer terminals, jam-packed with engrossed locals chuffing away on cigarettes, greeted us as we entered the darkness of one of Lanzhou’s such salubrious establishments. Initial thoughts may have been how impressive – such voracious consumption of information from the web. As the clouds of cheap fag smoke cleared (a little), the truth revealed itself.  Far from educational nourishment, mindlessly tedious gaming was taking place. Plinky plonky sounds providing endless delight for the rows of boys as web browsers lay dormant. And not a girl to be seen.

And what of Odycycle itself? So concerned were we that WordPress would be blocked that we went to great lengths in Central Asia to set up our own odycycle.com webpage. That approach appears to have truly bamboozled every one the 70,000 censors, which it is reported the Chinese government employs just to patrol internet content, as WordPress remains alive and kicking (although paradoxically odycycle.com is blocked).

And it was now time to set off. The tumbling green hills of southern Gansu owed much to the ever present rains that now greeted us nigh-on each day and reminded us how fortunate we had been for so much of this trip. Tibetan villages and gompas came and went through the bubbling cool clouds as we began to climb slowly towards the Tibetan plateau, which would provide days of thin-air cycling to come.

Monk-y-ing about

Monk-y-ing around

And it was after leaving Xiahe, home to Labrang Monastery, the most important Monastery for Tibetan Buddhists after the Potala Palace in Lhasa, that we came across the soon-to-be-pig-rolling Tse Jam Tso. On a dank and unfriendly evening in odd little Luqo, he cajoled and convinced us to take a 100km pedal detour the next day up to the dead-end of ‘his’ lush emerald valley and onto the slopes that housed Mo’re’se Gompa, where he has been a monk since the age of ten. For two days we revelled in his company and that of his fellow monks, nursed our bikes back to health with his bewilderingly unhelpful input, ate mounds of samba (barley, rancid butter, corn, hot water and a smidge of sugar), passed pigs and “listened” with immense admiration to tales of his recent 3250km (4 month) stroll to Lhasa.

The Laughing Ladies of Labrang

The Laughing Ladies of Labrang

Our journey southwards has begun and the province of the four great rivers (Sichuan) is our next stop. Photos of our days in Gansu can be found here.

But we end this blog with a plea for help, a request for creative input. We really enjoy receiving comments on the blog and have been plotting how to generate more responses. So, a caption competition. Just provide a caption for the photo below and the winning entry will have some fine goody posted all the way from Yunnan Province in China. What more could you want?

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MADE (it) IN (to) CHINA – Xinjiang

As you read this post more than 11 million people are travelling the trains of China. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Greece all rumbling along the rails at any given moment. The sheer and immense scale of the place. Not just vast expanses of territory but so many people, people, people everywhere.

Ni Hao Know How

"Ni Hao" Know How

So this is China. Next port of call on our way eastwards. To be precise, the tumultuous “Autonomous” Province of Xinjiang, home to the rebellious Muslim Uighurs who have agitated and riled against Northern Chinese rule since, well, whenever it was that this most westerly extreme of China got swept up into the empire. This is a region with comparable aspirations to Tibet, namely greater (if not) total self-determination, yet with far less international attention. No gentle-talking dulcet Dalai Lama here.

Xinjiang is periodically and invariably frequented by Chinese Army troops that line the streets in over-the-top displays of State force, whenever ethnic violence convulses through one of its two big cities, Kashgar and Urumqi. In fact, so periodic have the “terror attacks / military responses” become that access to this region appears to operate now on a traffic light basis, and we were lucky to catch Xinjiang in an amber moment. Beijing is keen to demonstrate that all is under control in this turbulent realm yet can’t have tourists being blown up, hacked to death or, more importantly, observing the State’s “response”. It all just looks bad. Beijing points the finger at Islamic extremists in the area targeting the ever-burgeoning Han population but can provide no sensible answers for why Muslim Chinese have also been victims alongside the Han Chinese in the same attacks. And nor can we, but the situation is certainly more complicated than that reported in the China dailies.

Mighty Mao's friends

Mighty Mao's friends

And the backdrop to these difficult times, where Human Rights lawyers, activists and journalists occasionally disappear, never to be heard of again, is the quite curiously charming (albeit the now uber Han-ified) Silk Road city of Kashgar, where many a trader and traveler from times-gone-by has embraced the warmer (considerably lower and flatter) desert climes that is the first port of call to offer such clemency after months in the unforgiving high peaks of Central Asia.

Da boyz basking in the Kashgar sun

Da boyz basking in the Kashgar sun

Having crossed the border there was still the small matter of almost 300km of riding through dusty roads, all under construction, that link the border-post to Kashgar. It is no understatement to declare the Chinese as prodigious road-builders. We saw more people working on the road into Kashgar in the first 10km than we had done in the entirety of Central Asia. And they were a friendly and hospitable bunch too. Along with Tanya and Rafael, our soon-to-be-departed Portuguese, we camped one night with the road-workers who stared on in bemused fashion yet still brought us tea.

No visa troubles for these guys

No visa troubles for these guys

After a night in the curious Han-ified town of Wuqia, where we gorged on vegetarian food until our faces hurt, and the police bizarrely paid for us to upgrade our hotel, we were soon rolling past our 10,000th kilometer and down and into Kashgar.

The mish-mash of the Ye Olde Islamic “Old Town”, that probably has looked much the same way for centuries (save for the occasional touring bicycle) strangely nestles in surprisingly comfortably just a street away from the glitzy neon of Han China and its brash and brutal capitalist zeal, with shopping malls, supermarkets and MSG-riddled restaurants on every street corner. Not that we were complaining. Far from it. Our distended tummies were in search of nourishment, and the junk food variety on offer was simply too great a temptation not to dive into.

Ever get the feeling you're being watched?

Ever get the feeling you're being watched?

All manner of sweets, biscuits, cakes and drinks cocooned in quite literally layer upon layer of high-grade thick plastic, all shiny, glitzy and new. The novelty factor was intense and we plunged right in to cans of Wong Lo Kat, and crates of Yappy (or Woof Woof) Rice Biscuits (they sound grim but are actually fantastic). Once sated, we would look down at the spuming mound of plastic waste that lay before us, that had been the vehicle for all that lovely sugar and salt, and the guilt would begin. If this is how much two little bicycling souls generate, then what about the amount produced by the other 1,339,724,852 Chinese?

As with any self-respecting Silk Road town, there has to be a decent market. And for those of a non-vegetarian bent (which we half-heartedly tried not to be) the famous Sunday Livestock Market is a treat. We got there early, convinced that this would be the best time to feel the true rhythm and vibe of the place and the place was empty. Not a lamb, goat or yak in sight. We felt a little silly waiting in full view of the ever-climbing sun. And then the dust began gently to unsettle as truck after car after mini-scooter after wheelbarrow arrived with all manner of creatures tethered this way and that, such that it would have brought tears to a vegan’s eye. It was actually more humane than it sounds, save perhaps for the Yak shackled one inch from its post by its nose-ring.

Kashgar International Fringe Festival

Kashgar International Fringe Festival

The dust clouds blossomed as the market ebbed and flowed and sheep and goats and Chinese Yuan all swapped places in a procession that has gone on almost unchanged for centuries. And then it was time go. Time to leave the market, time to leave Kashgar after its regenerative days of tofu, fresh fruit and veg, and of course the plastic goodies. And time to leave Xinjiang.

We had considered a visit to Urumqi, the furthest city in the world from any sea or ocean, and big brother to Kashgar, but a decision had been forged between us after the months of attritional cycling through Central Asian deserts and steppes, that our odycycle was to receive a sling-shot. Not for us 2-3 months of churning out more than 3,000km to cross the monotonous Taklamakan Desert (the ancient translation of which means, “Go in by bicycle, Don’t come out”). No, a pact had happily formed between Sam and Francesca to do what has ungenerously been described by certain family members as “cheat”, and join that heaving mass of 11 million Chinese travelers on their railway and take the train (2 days!) to Lanzhou in Gansu province. Having cycled over 10,000km and through 20 countries, such insults don’t even get past our mud-guards!

And so our final days in Kashgar revolved around buying train tickets (despite our best efforts to get Hard Sleeper we only managed to lay our hands on Hard Seat tickets due to the popularity of the railways!) and packaging up the bikes and the bags to be sent ahead of us by cargo train. Unfortunately, the bikes fared less well than us, but more about bent forks and stolen bike-parts in our next post.

Play nice and look at the camera. And remember, Smile

Play nice and look at the camera. And remember, Smile

We boarded the 58-hour train and were pressed up close in a packed carriage to sweaty incessantly chattering Chinese grannies and as the train slowly chugged past hour number 3, talk turned to our deep regret for abandoning the bikes so callously. The Taklamakan Desert took on an appeal we never thought it would have. Just as we were thinking we could not possibly survive (there wasn’t even room to sleep on the floor) the gods re-emerged from their hide-out and offered us a life-line. Hard Sleeper tickets!!!! Bingo. For an additional tenner, a train guard whisked us down the train to clean sheets and horizontal beds and bubbling groups of kids, who were easily blocked out with suitably high volume mp3 players. The sense of abandonment on the faces of the grannies made us feel guilty. The guilt just about lasted the time it took to walk down 4 carriages and onto our lovely beds.

Xinjiang has been a fascinating introduction to China, a massive contrast for us to the desolate wilds of the Pamirs. But having been bolted eastwards, it certainly does not seem like the ‘real’ China now. As with many of the other countries we have rolled through, the politics of the place is volatile and we will be doing our best to follow events in this region. It will definitely not remain static. The central authorities may wish to bear in mind the words of one of China’s famous philosopher-story-tellers, Luo Guanzhong from the 14th century who said this,

They say the momentum of history was ever thus: the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.”

As ever we have tried out best to get as many photos uploaded as possible so click here to see the very latest from China – Xinjiang. Given the size of China and the amount of time we are likely to be here, we hope to follow this post up with tales of Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan in the days to come.

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Kyrgyzstan – Yurt to go

Better than a flat in Hackney
Better than a flat in Hackney

The land of the Kyrgyz begins, as is so often the case in these Central Asian nomadic lands, not at the swirling Kyrgyz border (drawn up by Stalin, on Acid, chanting maniacally the ubiquitous Divide and Rule Mantra) but in the ‘Tajik’ Pamirs. Alichur, to be precise. A tiny village, famous for its fish, where the road along the Wakhan Corridor rejoins the Pamir Highway, as it begins to veer north towards Osh.

Kyrgyz yurt before Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz yurt before Kyrgyzstan

Here the hats and the faces lurking beneath them change. The colourful scull caps give way to tall, white, felty Kyrgyz hats  – the taller the hat, the higher their local mountains. And the yurts begin to spring up too. Sleeping in a yurt is a truly magical experience. Surrounded by warm, colourful felty felt and whispering women and children. Aromatic herbs in the stove, delicious yak butter on the table (we had fallen into culinary delusions by this point) and gawping up at the stars through the rooftop before drifting off peacefully.

What better to add to this nomadic fairytale, than Ernest. Our very own Swiss moped rokenrollrevolutionary. Having set out from Khorog at around the same time, we had continued to pass each other on the roads and Ernest (a cyclist at heart rather than a motorbiker!) had saved our lives by giving us his spare swiss army knife when we desperately needed to get into a can of tuna.

Rokenrollers of the 112cc variety

Rokenrollers of the 112cc variety

Although we had been rumbling through Kyrgyz inhabited terrain for the last few hundred kilometres of Tajikistan, it was only after we crossed the border that the landscape changed. And suddenly too. On the other side of the mountain, immediately after the border post at the pass (4282m), we were greeted with green everywhere.  Rolling meadows, beautiful white peaks and gushing brooks. No more filthy browns and sandy yellows of the dusty southern Pamiri Gorno-Badakhshan.

Oi, that's my spot!

Oi, that's my spot!

We were only flitting through the south-eastern tip of Kyrgyzstan to reach the Irkestam pass. Our gateway to Xinjiang Province in China and the East. The pretty alpine scenery of northern Kyrgystan was not for this trip.

Just a year ago, not far north of the corner that we cut, Osh was awash with brutal ethnic violence.  But we, in soporific Sary-Tash, remained blissfully unaware of what legacy or repercussions there may have been. Our focus was on getting clean. We were finally able to have a five-star hot shower after days and days (and days) of wild camping and inadequate icy river washing. Now was also our chance to relax, after our mad dash to get out of Tajikistan before our visa ran out, to rest our limbs before heading to China and to be entertained by Ernest and stories of his rock and roll days.

I'm clean at last!

I'm clean at last!

Sary Tash is the consummate cross-roads town with its only highways ( with freshly minted Chinese asphalt) fanning out to each point of the compass, and each shop replete with “fake” Coca-Cola (Can you believe they even forge the stuff?!!!) and mounds of Snickers bars. And it was among this warehousing of bicycle calories that we noticed two familiar three-wheeled bicycles propped up lazily by the road-side. Happy days! After 2 weeks of separation in the windy Pamirs, fate had re-united us with our dear Portuguese and their broad clowning smiles. It was quickly agreed we would hit the trail again together this time to Kashgar in western China, for one final “stage” before our planned routes truly parted company, they to Pakistan and the Karakoram Highway to the South and us onwards and Eastwards.

Let's go to China

Let's go to China

Once again we found perfect spots to pitch our tents and idle away the evenings with the growing expectation for our next country to come. On our final night in Kyrgyzstan, a mere 15km from the frontier we resolved, “Let’s go to China tomorrow”. And we did. We swung down dipping bends at exhilarating speeds and dropped from 3800m to the Immigration controls at Irkestam through earth-quake affected little Nura with its post-Katrina-esque pre-fab homes.

Beware the Kyrgyz Highwaymen. Particularly the one in the pink hat.

Beware the Kyrgyz Highwaymen. Particularly the one in the pink hat.

As we neared the border crossing the density of SinoTruks became intense and the air was filled with expectant petrol fumes as eager truckers waited impatiently for the border to open, after its weekend repose, and to leave behind crumby roads and crappy cuisine. The four of us bubbled with excitement for what lay ahead.

Having now found a slightly better internet connection, there should be here the latest snaps from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

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Tajikistan – Touring the Extremities

Maria’s fingers curled once more into a perfect circle, with forefinger and thumb kissing lightly and the remaining digits fanning out delicately. She repeated with even greater Castilian clarity this time her response to our duplicated question.

She mouthed the words precisely and even more deliberately as if we were somewhat slow-witted:

“B-u-e-n-a C-a-r-r-e-t-e-r-a.” (“Good Road”)

Bless Maria. With hindsight we assume that she must simply have been trying to calm our fears about the state of the road along the Wakhan Corridor. One of the most curiously thin geographical strips of land (at times a mere 20km in width) that juts out for approximately 400km north-east within Afghanistan, with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south and a tiny border with China at its most easterly end. But it seems that Maria may also have been suffering from what can only be described as the sheer blissful ignorance that 4×4 passengers have in respect to what may constitute a decent, or even passable road for us poor old two-wheeled non-automotive voyagers.

B-u-e-n-a C-a-r-r-e-t-e-r-a

B-u-e-n-a C-a-r-r-e-t-e-r-a

Maria was heading in the other direction to us and her mendacious words of encouragement certainly propelled us onwards, even if it was into the valley of shifting sands (6” deep) and miles of unpedalable paths. The way, however, was glorious. And having completed what was undoubtedly the most arduous leg of our trip so far, we are so grateful that we did “plough” (oh, what an fitting word to use) onwards and upwards towards the heavens and the upper reaches of the Hindu Kush.

But again, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning and leave diminutive Spanish ladies and frantically waving Afghans until later. Given that we spent more than a month in the high altitudes of this beauteous mountain state this blog entry will not be a short one but bear with us. At least for the photos.

Cheesey photo in the lovely Hindu Kush

Cheesey photo in the lovely Hindu Kush

Four exhausted cyclists eventually rolled into and through Dushanbe’s late night revelries. The Portuguese were still in tow (or really vice-versa) and together we recharged our energy reserves, sussed out more visas and the ways of the currency in the local markets, and generally recovered from the multiple stomach baddies that had hounded us doggedly for days on end. Dushanbe remained unassuming, functional and perfectly perfunctory throughout our time there. A place to visit, but not more.

Our thoughts had already turned to a word that had long been legend in our preparatory days when on cold winter nights in our bathroom on Haberdasher Street in London we would trace out with one index finger (the other hand always occupied with the brushing of teeth) a possible route on our laminated world map through the….PAMIRS.

The stuff of yore not just for modern day cycle tourists but the upper most reaches and battle ground for dastardly secret agents during the ‘Good Ol’ Great Game’. It was here in the oft-impassable Pamirs that posh Brits and suave Ruskis got fancy-dressed in the local garb, learnt the bizillion dialects of the region (that vary entirely from one small valley to the next), and generally spied on the activities of their imperial opponents.

Oh those lovely Pamirs. Hours before exit stage right.

Oh those lovely Pamirs. Hours before exit stage left.

This is a part of the globe that is virtually shut off from the rest of the world for 8 months of the year as temperatures nose-dive to well under -30°C with the numerous mountain passes usually comfortably higher than any inhabited area in Europe. Along the notorious Pamir Highway itself, a marvel of Russian road-building, we even climbed to over 4655m, literally just inches (well, almost) lower than the very highest peak in Europe.

Rolling on through the Wakhan

Rolling on through the Wakhan

Our route from Dushanbe to the high peaks began by swishing this way and that through softly rising valleys until the green and brown of the grasses faded to nought and bare, gnarly rock was left in its place. The first 525km of “road” took us to Khorog and within 75km of leaving the capital, we gave the rolling-wrist-regal-wave to the tarmac as it disappeared and greeted the rock, gravel and sand that became our travel companions.

Francesca and Sam, not merely content to take up the challenge of ascending the one fabulous and grizzly pass on route (1500m up in one day!), decided that chronic tummy trouble and multiple-bee-sting-induced-fever should be added to their travails. And so it was that lessons were learnt. Sam promised not to run screaming around a bee-hive hut in an attempt to buy local honey and Francesca resolved not to eat again in Central Asia.

Just another "Hard-On-The-Eyes" vista

Just another "Hard-On-The-Eyes" vista

What had been due to be a 6-day gentle introduction to the mountains turned into what felt like an epic 9-day adventure. All the more so for our erst-while pedalling Portuguese whose bikes simply crumpled in the face of the unforgiving roads. (They have fortunately been sponsored and they presently await new bikes in China).

Despite our leviathan efforts, and our daily saluting at the grand (6000m+) peaks we were somewhat deflated to see a sign just a few kilometres before Khorog that read, “Welcome to the Pamir Mountains”. So what had we just done then? Well, quite a lot actually. Having climbed Bee-Sting-Tummy-Trouble mountain we dropped down almost the same height to reach the southern border of Tajikistan where it greets its troubled neighbour, Afghanistan. And it was close, truly a stone’s throw away. We know because Sam chucked one.

And so it was for the next 500km and 2 weeks that we cycled along the cloudy Panj river that separates former Soviet Union from old time Mujahedeen hang-out. An area of modern-day clashed civilisations and one still peppered with unexploded land-mines. Be sure that we camped very carefully each evening.

Watch your step please

Watch your step please

From Khorog, the “real” Pamir Highway is said to begin and we could have taken the soft option of starting there, but that would have been too, well, soft, and in any event we were repulsed by the idea all that sweet asphalt, so instead of cutting directly eastward we continued further south into the fabled Wakhan Corridor and to its market border-village, Ishkashim, where each week the good folk of Tajikistan (and the odd bemused western tourist) are permitted to exit through Tajik immigration and cross on to an island in the river and do their Saturday morning shopping in no-man’s land (just like Sainsbury’s). This was a special experience, to finally transact up close and personal with Afghan traders and shoppers alike who for days on end had waved energetically at us as we zoomed along the opposing shore of their Panj River.

The would-be King of Peckham Market

The would-be Afghan King of Peckham Market

As ever a visa-clock was ticking and we cajoled each other onwards over stunning scenery with side valleys along the now Wakhan River Valley revealing titillating peep-shows of the super high-peaks of the Afghan/Pakistan Hindu Kush, as the “B-u-e-n-a C-a-r-r-e-t-e-r-a” turned once more from cracked tarmac to rubble, then gravel, then sand and finally mulch. But we pressed onwards. Poor Sam, all the while, labouring under the weight that he had valiantly volunteered to shoulder to help us across yet another 4000m+ pass.

And then there it was, the glistening black tarmac of the Pamir Highway snaking off to the east and China. We got down, prayed and fully repented for our disobedience. And we resolved to praise our new “Black Stuff” at every turn. Days of trudging through sand with 45kg bicycles were over, just sweet rolling from here on. Almost.

The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake

The days on the Highway that followed were delicious. 25°C (and dry) and we basked, particularly after the infernos of Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The nights, however, were cold and we finally found use for the long-redundant kilograms of winter clothing that we had hauled all the way from our time back on the Rhine Valley in February, when foot warmth was in some ways an issue. We were not fazed by frost on the tent in the mornings, as we Europeans seem to operate best when the mercury is resting on its haunches.

Skirting now northwards and skimming within metres of the Chinese Border fence, the Pamir Highway was carrying us fast. Fast towards mobile phone coverage. Fast towards internet. Fast towards the delights of scrumptious Chinese food. And fast towards the Tajik border crossing with Kyrgyzstan (we made it out with 2 hours of our visa remaining!), which would be our final Central Asian country before entering the Beast of the East, our “initial” final country: China.

The Western Edge of China

The Western Edge of China

Yes, we have been thinking that this adventure-cycle-touring is really quite fun and we might like to head on a bit further than we initially planned. But more about that later.

This has been an overly-lengthy blog entry but there was much we wanted to say. No insightful commentary, however, on regional customs and politics and barely a note on the friendly, hospitable Tajiks themselves (somewhat tourist fatigued on the Highway despite the relatively paltry numbers that pass through. On average we saw 15 vehicles per day (usually Chinese trucks) on the Highway itself and around 4-a-day in the Wakhan) who laughed heartily while listening to our Farsi, a sister language to Tajik.

Ready for Take-Off

Ready for Take-Off

Finally, please click here for a look at all the most recent photos we have lovingly uploaded onto our blog. Truly, we have learnt the zen art of patience getting these things up and available. And click here to see (drum roll please, or a slow clap) our finally updated “route so far”, after numerous requests.

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Uzbekistan – Watermelons for the Great Game

Titilating tiles

A vast white wall of mountains – the very western gates of China – stare back at us now somewhat tauntingly as if to say, “are you ready for this?” And we do not know. But we are tickled with excitement at the prospect of the entirely different to come. The Chinese border controls of Irkestam, where Kyrgyzstan abuts the Eastern behemoth, lie a mere 80km off to the right from where we currently sit in the sleepy Kyrgz village of Sary Tash, attempting to catch our breath after thousands of kilometres of, well, breathless sky-high cycling. We presently gasp for oxygen at 3200m above sea level after having spent large chunks of the last four weeks well above 4000m where our lungs have persistently grumbled at the lack of fuel. But we are getting well ahead of ourselves – skittish excitement again has overtaken measured reporting of our trail tales.

Bukhara Cycle Super Highway

Bukhara Cycle Super Highway

It is way back in the much lower and decidedly hotter climes of Uzbekistan and its sand-lands that we must drag you back, to more than a month ago. Such a lapse in time is testament to our indiscipline in keeping the blog up to date, the utter lack of internet access away from the primary populated arteries of Central Asia, being entirely absorbed by our days full of cycling and finally, running the gauntlet with the local cuisine and its highly dubious hygiene.

We had made it across the deserts of Turkmenistan and done so in strict accordance with the requirements of our stingy transit visa and, as promised, green fields did unfold to right and left of the highway that rose gently to the notoriously special Uzbek town of Bukhara. Within a few kilometres of the border we were enjoying (gorging ourselves on) the excitable hospitality of an Uzbek matriarch who dominated an equally lively family unit. Having consumed our yearly quota of the ubiquitous watermelon we were soon within sight of the turquoise domes and khaki minarets of one of the most famous of Silk Road cities. Once the mother-ship of intellectual, religious and cultural enlightenment, the town is now a pleasant (if somewhat over-preened) walkable museum, packed with sparkly ancient medressas, foreboding citadels and eager hawkers of all, and anything, Central Asian.

Our Uzbek/Tatar/Russian hostess and friends

Our Uzbek/Tatar/Russian hostess and friends

We had both visited here in 2006 and Francesca had been here in 2003 and the metamorphosis since those days was palpable. No gently naïve local traders anymore but ruthless business folk primed to extract the very last Uzbek Sum from your pocket. But we were grateful for the chance to re-acquaint ourselves with the joys of Snickers and good quality (shhhh!) Coca-Cola (Yes, the excellence of Black Stuff varies wildly across the region and you need to suss out your dealer before any purchase).

Both the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand are as synonymous with the Silk Road as they are with the antics of British and Russian spies during the years of Great Game activity, as these two imperial super-powers vied for control of Ye Olde Turkestan and generally world domination at the turn of the last century. Surprisingly, given the relatively newly nascent nature of this former Soviet Republic, the Russian connection has waned over the last 8 years to the extent that only the wrinkly elders continue to speak a smattering of Russian.

Culture Vultures

Culture Vultures

The temptation was strong to re-visit Samarkand not only to tread the footsteps of former explorers, adventurers, imperial cartographers and devious spies, but also to re-live the scene of one of our greatest triumphs and the source of inspiration for our current Odycycle. It was in Samarkand 5 years ago that we stumbled across the disconsolate Maurizio, a Swiss-Italian who had just had his beautiful touring bike pinched (the very bike that had carried him from Basel and was to take him yet further onto and into Tibet, to Lhasa on the infamous and no longer traversable G219).

It was while combing the back-streets of the city that we came across the 10-year old thieves and wrestled the disoriented stead away from its captors and returned it to Maurizio’s tear-filled arms. As the vodka flowed that night in celebration of the re-coupling of man and machine, Sam and Francesca quietly clasped hands and made their pact that they would one day trace much of Maurizio’s tire tracks on their own way East.

But a return to the Den of Thieves (we had our camera nicked the very same day we returned Maurizio’s bike 5 years ago!), was not on the cards for us this time. The Samarkand border crossing was closed and in any case, both of us had already done sufficient gawping at the stunning Islamic architecture of Samarkand’s prime jewel, the Registan, and Bukhara had once more injected us with a satisfactory cultural fix to allow us to concentrate on traversing the southern plains of Uzbekistan and make a bee-line for the cool mountains of Tajikistan.

Birthday boy blues

The crushing emotional blow for Sam of not only reaching the ripe old age of 32 in dusty Guzor, but also his entire family forgetting about it, was ameliorated to the point of joyous celebration by the happy crossing of paths with Rafael and Tanya late in the afternoon on his birthday. Two three-wheeled Portuguese trans-continental pedallers, who endlessly amused and charmed us and who eventually became our fellow travellers all the way through the borderlands and onto Dushanbe in Tajikistan and beyond. Camping each night with this pair of sociable acrobats invariably led to exhausted belly-hurting laughter before crashing into heavy sleep in anticipation of more kilometres the next day.

No cake but icelollies with the best Portuguese in the world!

No cake but icelollies with the best Portuguese in the world!

As we neared the Tajik border and the rolling dust-bucket hills of the south-east, chirpy bicycle chat had turned to our stomachs and the fateful interplay with the local gastronomy. For any of you who have followed this blog since its early days, you may have noticed a slight over-emphasis on the pleasures of food that we have attempted to describe as we have passed through each country.

We have invariably spoken in glowing terms of sumptuous this and glorious that, bicycling foods of the gods. But not now. We have now been in Central Asia for more than 7 weeks and to put it bluntly, the food is dire. Worse yet the limited culinary array is sprinkled with various bacterial nasties, from your bog-standard Giardia to the shock-and-awe-inspiring amoebic dysentery that seems to have laid many a decent fellow traveller to waste. It is curious how skilled human memory is that we had both successfully blotted out the trauma of the food from this region.

Food-wise, the options across the breadth of Central Asia, and in this case Uzbekistan, extend at their extremes to meaty-greasy rice, fatty cubes of shashlik kebab meat or samsa (pasties of a non-Cornish variety) with the most dubious of contents. This limited diet is only very occasionally supplemented by anything approaching a fresh vegetable or fruit (save the venerable Watermelon). And what has struck us so much about this sickness-inducing-vitamin-free platter of depressingly flavourless foods is that of all places in the world, this should by any right not be the case.

A love for the evil Black Stuff

A love for the evil Black Stuff

Uzbekistan is pretty much ground-zero on the old Silk Road, which itself was effectively a “Spice Motorway” throughout the ages funnelling all sorts of tasty goodness east and west from the very far East to the Portugal’s most westerly tabernas. This great fortune has been augmented by the fact that the fertile turfs of Uzbekistan are blessed with sun-rays and rain in such goodly measures year-round that even the most stubborn of seeds will sprout into any of the delicious raw ingredients necessary for one satisfying dish after another. Finally, add in the whirlwind of cultures, shared skills and know-how that have circulated these lands for centuries and we ask why. Why the utter lack of anything pleasing to the palette? And why the utter lack of interest in broadening their daily grub. Whatever the reason, we are now eager to head on and pass through those western gates of China and sample what promises to be the entirely different.

The best people from Portugal. Ever.

The best people from Portugal. Ever.

As ever, we have tried to upload some of the images of our time in Uzbekistan and they should be here.

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Turkmenistan: 500 km – 5 Days – 50C

Former Despot of the Desert Land

Former Despot of the Desert Land

There is a saying in this part of the world, one that we suspect holds equally true in many other places – “be wary of the fat policeman”. The thinking is that the chubbier the official, the more corrupt he is likely to be. With this in mind, you can imagine the sense of trepidation as we entered the inner sanctum of the customs and immigration terminal at Saraghs, our first port of call in Turkmenistan and caught sight of a Jabba The Hut squished into the one seat of prominence in the airless hall – sweat already (at 8am) collecting in pools on his military shirt. Our buoyant mood, after the ceremonial tearing-off-of –the–headscarf after we had wheeled past our first Turkmen soldier in no-man’s land between Iran and Turkmenistan, was momentarily stayed.

A golden local

A golden local

But the anticipated patter that invariably precedes the demand for a “facilitation fee” never came. Do not, however, misunderstand the daily workings of this border post. Corruption is alive and well and was very much in full-swing. We were in fact treated to front-row seats as long-distance truck drivers pressed clammy wads of Turkmen Manat resignedly into the awaiting over-sized palms of Jabba. Those same packets of cash then, without ceremony or even the barest coy turn-of-the-back, were enveloped into the folds of flesh and uniform. Ah yes, sweet Soviet corruption is still greasing the wheels of this bizarre former USSR republic.

After two hours of needless bureaucracy we were finally unleashed on the wilds of Turkmenistan.  Our requisite mad sprint across the interminable sands of the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan was not by choice. A result of the wacky bureaucratic constraints imposed on all impoverished tourers through this former Soviet republic that is so deeply wary of foreigners rumbling about. So much so that the only financially feasible visa to traverse this ‘stan was the transit visa. This allows for a whole 5 days (actually 4 days and 9 hours, when you take into account the lackadaisical openings hours of the border posts) to cross the 500km desolate stretch of desert to the border with Uzbekistan.

Pesky desert winds

Pesky desert winds

Turkmenistan, the next country on our route eastwards must surely be one of the most despotically dotty places on planet earth, a veritable Disneyland dictatorship that one can barely struggle to imagine. Awash with oil and gas riches (the price of fuel hovers around a mighty 10 cents a litre, with gas actually given away free – resulting in the ludicrous situation of locals leaving lamps burning 24/7 to save on the cost of matchsticks!), the basics of life are provided to the populace at a minimal cost by the state but “social mobility” is not a phrase that holds much, if any, traction here and indeed the country and people we met were permeated with a depressing sense of stagnancy.

The current dictator (Mr Berdymukhamedov – “Birdy”) has followed a very similar tack to his predecessor, Turkmenbashi (Father of all the Turkmen) Niyazov, to whom he was apparently the personal dentist (and possibly the illegitimate love-child!), and continues to exert a suffocating grip on all things political. Such a state of affairs has resulted in a crushed population that understandably finds little room to laugh at the absurdity of a country where the ‘father of their nation’ went about re-naming the word for “bread” and “Monday” after his mum. This is also the country where mini-speakers are secreted in city parks so that their benign former leader could twitter to his people each evening and talk about his latest ridiculous creation, such as the Melon Holiday where Melons were annually purloined from the rural population to gift the city-dwellers.

Karakum Night Camp

Karakum Night Camp

Depressingly, vast natural resource wealth has been absorbed by rampant corruption and funnelled towards the insanity of building huge shiny new buildings in the capital, Ashgabat. They remain entirely empty and are simply there for show, alongside the golden statues of Turkmenbashi, which ludicrously rotate throughout the day to follow the sun. Ah, the joys of being an omnipotent dictator with too much time on your hands and with so many whims to indulge.

This was not, however, a country under whose skin we can claim to have crawled. Such limited time and a clammed up, fearful populace meant little opportunity to hear from the locals about life here, save for one taxi driver who fatalistically lamented the complete absence of democracy or even a glimpse of a progressive way forward. He wanted to get out, but without huge sums of cash or the right connections (or more likely both), it is not possible to leave.

Mad Turkmen keeping cool

Mad Turkmen keeping cool

What we can talk about in depth, however, is how we took on our second desert (having swatted aside the Sinai in Egypt during cool April days) and wrestled with the sticky melting asphalt (where there was asphalt!), which wilted in the face of daily temperatures nudging 50°C (in the shade). With each passing kilometre the landscape changed as little as did the head-on wind that infuriatingly, stubbornly and hotly persisted each day in slowing our progress and sucking on our energy reserves.

Evidence of the vapourising effects of the Karakum

Evidence of the vapourising effects of the Karakum

But we had learnt our lessons from the heat of north–eastern Iran and we accordingly tinkered with our body clocks to rise two hours before sun-up (around 3:30am) each day, packing up our tent under sequined skies absolutely bulging with fulminating stars and kissing the thankfully cool highway that had generously chilled to around 30°C. By 9:30am the bulk of our day’s cycling was over and we would seek out shelter (a cow shed if we were lucky) from the relentless heat that desiccated our bones. Turkmenistan apparently has the lowest incidence rate of rheumatism as a result of this vertiginous dry heat. Now, there’s a perk! At each truck stop where we would grumble about the intolerable temperatures, we were often met with refrain of, “you should visit in December, its only 40°C then”.

The real insight we were given by the nature of our travel was into the long-distance trucking community; those ploughing their way from Turkey, Iran and further west, via our Turkmen transit track to the rest of Central Asia, Russia, China and beyond.  One comical Iranian who bought us food, bottles of cold coke and drowned us in more and more Iranian tea, told us tales of the heady profits to be gleaned from transporting Iranian watermelons to Vladivostok. He also showed us another side of Iranians, a side that we certainly hadn’t seen in Iran.  Iranian truckers, as you can imagine, tend to let their hair down as soon as they cross from the Islamic Republic into lands of beer and vodka and buxom, blond post-soviet beauties. So curious to observe after five weeks in Iran.

Beach Cruiser of sorts

Beach Cruiser of sorts

Eventually after five painful days, the 50 degree heat and 500km of desert were behind us. We crossed triumphantly into the green plains of Uzbekistan knowing now that the fabled Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara lay not far to the North and East. Tales from the next in our line of former Soviet Republics will hopefully follow shortly.

In the meantime you can take a look at the latest rash of photos that we have painstakingly (maddening internet connection speeds in Dushanbe) uploaded on the blog for Turkey, Iran and Turkmenistan.

And the other big news is that we are moving. We mean in cyberspace. In anticipation of wordpress being blocked in China we will hope that you will be able to find us at www.odycycle.com but give us a little time to get it set up. If we are not accessible there we should be at the old address of www.odycycle.wordpress.com

 

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Iran: Part 2 – May your hand not hurt

We start part two where we left off part one with another curious bit of ta’arof. Not content with the mundane language of “thank you” to express gratitude, Iranians smear far more colour onto their linguistic palette with the phrase, “Dast-e-shoma dard nakone” (Literally – “May your hand not hurt!”). Try it sometime, you’ll never go back to plain-old, “thanks”.

Camping with the wild boars

Camping with the wild boars

So we abandoned you last time approximately 1300km across Iran, somewhere on a Silk Road. We had hoped to avoid the grizzly pollution of Tehran, the smoggy trafficky belching heart of Iran, but this was not to be. Having visited twice before, we knew what the big place was mostly about. Or so we had been led to believe.

Another visa hunt, that would have made Marco Polo burn crimson with pride, ended up requiring three trips to the capital to tease those special sticky stamps from the avaricious hands of the various consular bureaucrats at the Turkmen, Uzbek, Tajik and Chinese Embassies. All this time spent shuttling around T-town could have left us bereft and potentially in need of a lung transplant but through the kindness of Mahnaz and Mustafa (mum and dad of our friend, Laleh, from London) we were cocooned in gentle north Tehran and happily close to Embassy-stan, which softened the daily commutes.

Spot the big hair and nose jobs, north Tehran style

Spot the big hair and nose jobs, north Tehran style

During our daily pilgrimages to the embassies we explored Niyavaran Palace, former home to the Shah, which although full of fabulous Persian rugs, was surprisingly modest for the so-called king of kings. We later discovered that our friend Mr Funman had run around these grounds as a little boy in the late 1950’s, as the son of the Shah’s tailor. Our visit to the Iranian Film Museum was another highlight, with added relevance for us, given our enjoyable stay with a cinematic family dynasty of film-makers in Mashad.

But most importantly stalking the embassies meant something dearly beloved was in daily grasp. Glorious Havij Bastanti. Literally, carrot ice-cream.

Erggghh???

But wait!

This is what they do…… A glass is filled with traditional goopy Saffron flavoured ice-cream made with whole pistachios and a smidge of rose water. This already heavenly collaboration is taken to the final level (“Hasht behesht” – “Eighth heaven” – Iranians trump bog-standard old “Seventh heaven”) by drowning the ice-cream in oceans of freshly zuzzhed carrot juice. We swear that each time this concoction touches our lips world peace seems eminently feasible and right around the corner.

A pint of the good stuff

A pint of the good stuff

While we have both preferred cycling life far from the cities, the lure of Havij Bastanti seemed to bring us back repeatedly to urban centres, where the road-side galleries of glimmering fruit-blenders that we know and love would deliver our next hit of the good stuff. Or freshly squeezed melon, blackberry, strawberry, pomegranate or any other delicious fruit juice you care to mention. Iran is a truly blessed land! For the cyclist, food and drinks are the fuel that we obsess over, as you doubtlessly have noticed. But enough of this. We have spoken too long without mention of the other preoccupation of the cycle tourer: traffic.

You cannot cycle 2500km across the breadth of Iran without paying tribute to the lunacy that the average Iranian road-user displays with reckless abandon every time they get behind the wheel of a car. Of all the 16 countries we have passed through to date, the millions of licence-holding Iranians, who extraordinarily are permitted to drive, are categorically without question or a glimmer of a doubt the worst of the worst. We could continue to joke about the absurdity of their practices for page after page were it not for the real-life tragic consequences of their risk-taking on the roads.

Another chai break - sheltering from the traffic storm

Another chai break - sheltering from the traffic storm

In 2006 more than 28,000 people in Iran died (more than any other country per capita) as a result of road traffic “accidents” (This is surely the wrong word given the deliberately dangerous decisions that drivers take), a figure that President Ahmadinejad described as “below our nation’s dignity”. Of all people, you might think, Mr A has been best placed to do something about it considering his PhD in Traffic Management! How curious that a training in understanding the utter chaos on the roads could skill one for life at the top of the political tree. Hmmm…

Our knowledge of the above statistics was shockingly brought home to us with the tragic news that the father of one of our kind hosts, who days before our arrival had been hospitalised due to a car crash, had in fact died. Political pronouncements and the odd increased speeding fine have done little if anything to improve road safety here. The only glimmer of wisdom so far appears to be the cap (250cc) on the power of motorbikes (a very common form of transport which regularly and precariously carries a full family of 4!).

Hurdling the peaches

Hurdling the peaches

The consequence for us of all this was that, somewhat counter-intuitively, we began to seek out the motorways on which to cycle as these roads tended to have wide hard-shoulders and better asphalt. The secondary roads were at times frighteningly narrow and often busy. The roads in the wilderness were pleasant, however, and the lesson for us was simple: – the middle way is not the best way. It’s all or nothing.

One such small country road led us to the generous home of an English teacher and a day spent with him and his family not only afforded Francesca the chance to sup her favourite Iranian meal of Khoresht Fesenjun (a thick and rich chicken, pomegranate and walnut stew) but also provided us with many answers as to how Mr Ahmadinejad has retained his political power base and that of the forces of his brand of political conservatism.

Over the course of 5 hours feasting, we discovered how Mr A had ensured a stream of funds directly into the homes of certain supportive lower middle-class families (rather than putting it to use for public projects (health, education etc). And this appears to be where much of Iran’s current oil revenue has gone. Presidential mismanagement in many areas of government were simply overlooked (“He’s courageous…. Yes there have been mistakes, but he’s only human. Like us”). When we asked why the family thought there had been such strong opposition to Mr A when disputes arose about the legitimacy of his 2009 re-election, the response was swift and straight-faced, “yes, but it’s only the educated people in the country who do not like him and were protesting”.

As the meal continued, we also learnt that our host was a member of the Basij (known for their brutal treatment of those who transgress the rules of the Islamic Republic: – women’s head scarf too far back, singing in the street, vocal criticism of the government etc). The Basiji are the ‘moral’ enforcers on the street. They are also those who inform the authorities of potential trouble-makers or insurrectionary elements within the community. What also became apparent, however, is that this ‘volunteer’ group that belongs to (and reports to) the religious establishment (Sepah), often join up because obtaining employment or entrance to a university course is dependent upon so doing, and nigh-on impossible without. Membership also enables men to reduce the 24 months of compulsory military service down to 6. Interestingly throughout the entire meal, the men sat quietly while the women (all chadored inside the home) vociferously defended the regime and its strictures. Three minutes later they were whisking Francesca off into a bedroom to show her their wedding photo albums (all taken in a studio, by a female photographer and for female eyes only of course). My my, what make-up, what bouffants, what crevasse-like depths of cleavage on display!

Hanging out with the holiest of holys in Mashad

Hanging out with the holiest of holys in Mashad

After almost 350km of Caspian capers we began slowly to ascend to the sashaying yellowy barley-esque (not actually sure what it was) fields of Iran’s north-eastern Turkmen tribal areas, with the Kopet Dag mountains fanning out as the perfect frontier between the Arians of Iran and the Turkmen of Turkmenistan. Here we did not dawdle, save for the usual libations of choice, as the sea-side cool winds – that had puffed irritatingly against us now for weeks – were beginning to fade and we could feel that summer days, pregnant with heat were near by.

The arrival of summer and the 45-degree temperatures left us desperately seeking ways to cool down during the heat of the day (10am – 6pm!) We found a 34th use for our ortlieb sink  – a miniature paddling pool to soothe the feet – but one day in Minudasht there was nothing we could do to escape. We found shade but the shade sizzled over 45 degrees, the ground shimmered underfoot and the heat stroke struck.

Cool baby

Cool baby

Luckily the Iranian Red Crescent compound was just a few desperate cranks of the pedal away and a kind paramedic instantaneously had Francesca on a saline drip – trapped while he showed her photos of the Royal Wedding on his phone!

What happens on the day you forget your bike

What happens on the day you forget your bike

As we sit typing deep in Central Asia, the delights of Iran are receding fast.  We are constantly nostalgic for the incredible people, the food, the tea (chai, chai, delicious black chai) and of course above all, the havij bastani. We wonder what the future holds for this country.

One wise Iranian theorised that Iran, over the last 30 years, has paid its debt to the religious establishment and its time to move on. People have come to realise that a mullah’s robes do not imbue him with super-natural powers to govern without the elitism, self-interest and incompetence that are familiar to civilian rule. We share the view expressed in the comments to Part 1 that while the root cause of a number of the problems facing Iran are due to external meddling, things will only improve here through the will of the Iranian people and not because of foreign intervention. In the meantime, we will watch on with interest as the manteaus get shorter and shorter and the headscarves slip further and further back….

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Iran Part 1: Don’t be tired

Iran should be the country that, of all the places we will or have now visited, we know best and are most informed about (or should be, at any rate) and indeed there is much – so very much – to say. In fact, there is so much say that we cannot stick to our habitual format of one blog for each country. So here is Part One: roughly speaking from the Turkish border in the tip-top north west of the country (Azerbaijan province) to Tehran – A vaguish half-way point on our journey to the eastern border with Turkmenistan.

Cycling hejabi-style

Cycling hejabi-style

At the outset we confess that the last 5 weeks here in Iran have polarised even further our real love, and serious distaste, for almost all aspects of life here in Iran. Our visits to Iran in 2005, 2006 and now, have effectively bookended much of Mr Ahmadinejad’s presidency and we have seen considerable changes in day-to-day life, not least the rocketing inflation that has had a deflating effect on absolutely everyone. (If only we were given a Rial for every time we heard the smoulderingly angry complaints of taxi-driver, baker and fruit seller alike, regarding the 500% hike in the cost of fuel, we could live handsomely indeed – irrespective of the fact there are almost 20,000 Rials to the British Pound).

Clandestine Camping on Lake Orumiyeh

Clandestine Camping on Lake Orumiyeh

On the eve of our departure from Iran – we presently sit in Serakhs, a scrawny border town, waiting for the commencement of our Turkmen visa – we are as conflicted as ever about Iran, its politics, its people and cultural identities. It remains, we suspect, one of the most misconstrued countries in the world, not least due to the meagre trickle of information that finds its way out of Iran and onto Western television sets. No, Iranians do not want (amazingly enough) to launch nuclear bombs all over the globe but DO want to ensure that this country is never again treated like a play-thing, or enormous piggy-bank, for imperial powers as was historically the case.

The British and Americans have a great deal to answer for here. Not least in terms of decades of oil theft (take a bow, Anglo Persian Oil Company) and the US orchestrated coup that brought the reviled Shah (and his secret police – Savak) to power, in place of the dignified and popular Prime Minister Mossadegh. It is no exaggeration to say that Iran’s politics and history are intensely rich and complicated. While the last 32 years have been dominated by the Islamic Revolution of Imam Khomeini and his crew of theocratic power-mongers, who have introduced savage restrictions on social and political life, it is important to remember that this is the country that was home to a highly sophisticated and civilised society 2,500 years ago (See Persepolis) and that drafted the first ever charter on Human Rights (Cyrus’ Cylinder) way before such a bill of rights was on the lips of revolutionaries elsewhere in the world.

The last 32 years have resulted in a truly schizophrenic society. Officially access to much of the internet is blocked (BBC, Guardian, NY Times, (even poor old “Odycycle”)…..forget about it) and yet people in their homes have filter-breakers routing them to the internet through remote, California-based servers, keeping them connected to each other through facebook and twitter. Television is completely controlled and censors pour over every film, play and museum exhibition, ensuring all remain “on message”, but umpteen farsi (including BBC Persia, Man-o-To from London) and international satellite channels are beamed in through the dishes hidden in the nooks and crannies of north Tehrani rooftops and backyards all over the country.

The demands of ‘hejab’, that women are covered from head to toe, make cycling for Francesca in 45 degree heat all the more trying. But as rural and urban chador-clad women (a cross between Darth Vader and a crow) bite at their black fabric to keep it from straying too far from their faces, the women of north Tehran, in their tight manteaux, high-heels and nose jobs, show off more bouffant hair-do’s, under their very loose and pushed-back head-scarves, than you’d see at a 1960’s beehive convention.

Darth Vader and her brother

Darth Vader and her brother

Men and women are separated at every turn –buses, taxis, mosques etc etc etc; women are prohibited from singing or dancing and, not least, excluded from any position of political power – and while they are incredibly strong and educated, definitely wearing the household trousers and at the same time managing to  hold down high-powered jobs, they are not allowed to run for the presidency and no high government position is held by a woman. And yet…….And yet……

We are drawn back time and time again to the hugely generous and kind world of Iranian life, full of mighty gastro-feasts (always prepared by women), peaceful gardens – with their sophisticated balance harmonising all things human and eco. This is truly a nation blessed with some of the most pleasurable natural beauty. No Iranian, tumescent with pride, is shy to speak of the lush green ‘JANGAL’ of the north, the snow-capped Alborz peaks – their skirts brimming with carpets of poppies, verdant river valleys and glorious waterfalls, to name but a few.

Caspian frollicks

Caspian frollicks

And so we have peddled. From those first few early days across the seemingly endless shimmering wetlands of Lake Orumiyeh onto the surprisingly tranquil (yet bustling) city of Tabriz, notorious on the Silk Road (which we had joined up with), for its bazaar, full of Astrakhan-style ‘papakh’ hats and sumptuous Persian carpets (all depressingly leagues beyond our means. Instead we just ogled).

Mad hatter (on the left)

Mad hatter (on the left)

As the kilometres ticked by we hopped (2 days of cycling over a mountain range) from one of those strands of Silk that represented a primary trading route for centuries on end (ferrying spices and – you guessed it – silk westwards and European treasure eastwards), to the muggy and populous southern Caspian coast route. A sadly and unfortunately tiresome 300km strip of tarmac, depressingly awash with sea-side tat and concrete crap.

We say unfortunate due to the tantalising beauty that lies off to either side of this highway. An expansive (though unhappily somewhat polluted) Caspian sea that abruptly ends with the precipitously green-jungled slopes of the Alborz mountains, speckled with the opulent villas of goodly north Tehrani folk who periodically grit their teeth to crawl through the hours of traffic to find their bit of cool paradise at their second homes. In complete contrast to us Brits, Iranians seek out rain, cloud-cover and greenery for their dream holiday destination!

Beware the shrinking effects of too much cycling

Beware the shrinking effects of too much cycling

Our time at the coast coincided with Iranian holidays. We contentedly bustled along with the multitudes of holiday-makers ‘gardeshing’ their hearts out. ‘Gardesh’ – so hard to translate. ‘To picnic’ does not even come close. ‘Gardesh’ is a quintessentially Iranian pass-time, indeed a life-style choice, not just something you do with some provisions from Sainsbury’s on a Saturday afternoon. It involves packing up the car to bursting with the 5 litre chai thermos, glass mugs, the entire kitchen in fact, 4 picnic rugs, ten tonnes of food and the standard issue luminous tent to pick a spot in the mountains, along the coast, even in a town park to pitch and eat and enjoy being out of the urban smoke. We fitted right in (sort of!).

Iranians "mourning" the death of Imam Khomeini

Iranians "mourning" the death of Imam Khomeini

With our blogs we have deliberated tended not to single out any one person that we have met, as it would be invidious to do so given the armies of wonderful and interesting people we have met along the way, of whom we have only been able to make the briefest of mentions. But we must make exception for Mohamed and Mahboubeh. Self-styled “Funman” and his wife. Two gentle and kind-hearted retired souls who swept us off the fume-filled sea-side highway and into their own little lusciously overgrown garden of Eden, and filled our days with hiking in the hills, bat-chasing nonsense, and heavenly rejuvenation. If in old age, we end up like these two young-at-hearts, we will have done something right.

Funman having Caspian fun

Funman having Caspian fun

And that about brings us to the mid-point of Iran. We have Tehran, the North-East, Havij Bastani, Plastic coverings, Women’s fashion, Traffic, and more and more politics – both internal and external – all to discuss.

But we end with mention of the weird and wonderful world of Ta’arof. One of the endlessly charming aspects of Persian culture that invariably brings smiles to our faces. While Ta’arof is a cultural linguistic code to adhere to, the primary feature of Ta’arof is essentially a set of pleasantries used in day-to-day life to express in paragraphs when often a word or two would suffice. And so for us it has been the thousand-upon-thousand encouraging shouts of, “Khaste naboshid!” (“Don’t be tired” – A phrase simply used to greet anyone mildly exerting themselves) from road-side fields, tea-houses, honey-sellers, school yards and any other place for that matter from where the people of Iran have watched us roll on by.

"Khaste Naboshid, little chick"

"Khaste Naboshid, little chick"

So we say to all of you, now undoubtedly flagging from reading a lengthy blog, “Khaste naboshid!” to which you might sweetly reply, “Salamat boshid!”  – “Be healthy!”.

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Bullets from Above

Visa hunting had admittedly left us dazed and confused. For those with knowledge of Futurama, “confused and aroused” may be more apposite, given the heady anticipation that began to swell as our goodly bikes shuttled us along the Anatolian pastures towards the towering and brooding mounts of south eastern Turkey.

A plane ride from Amman had dropped us (and our excruciatingly beautifully bandaged bikes) in the broad sweep of a swaying green valley 60+km long, cradled on both sides by the aforementioned peaks. Although officially we had landed at Muş airport, the word “airy-strip” might even have been generous on our parts. As our mini plane trotted to a standstill, blustered airport staff stood by in flapping uniforms bemused at the Dead Sea tourists who were equally bemused, and anxious to know whether their babies had survived the flight. For more than two hours, smiling Kurds gathered in the limited shade and gawped at our flat-pack boxes that gradually unfolded and once more took the form of lean touring machines. We smiled back. The air was fresh, the valley floor carpeted green, green, green and not a stone-hurling little runt in sight.

Tea with the Boys

Heading through the would-be secessionist region of Kurdistan, we were confronted by not only the ever-rising mountains that have semi-shielded the locals from rogue government intervention for centuries but also the notorious hospitality of a “people” who have weighty footholds in SE Turkey, NE Syria, Northern Iraq and Western Iran (and a whole litany of other places if you believe the locals’ tall claims about the extent of the Kurdish diaspora). By conservative estimates there are around 40m Kurds residing in the aforementioned areas.

Historically, and persistently, squeezed and marginalised by the various regional powers, the numerous Kurds we met – supped chay with, ate mounds of food with, and upon whose beds, sofas, carpets and couches we slept – exhibited towards us unfathomable kindness and curiosity. Wishing us well and encouraging us up their mountainous climbs with every turn of the crank.

The grin of a girl yet to start the climb...

Our limited (read “crap”) conversational farsi, learnt years ago in Iran, was a bonus, however, as apparently a crap farsi-speaker sounds very much like a passable Kurmanji polyglot. We got on famously with the Kurds and felt humbled by the extent to which they continually subjugated their own needs to allow for the needy needs of the cyclists. Whether it was the last egg in the box, the only bed in the house or the willingness to lay down their tools and lead us to the right road, it was always done and with a gentle nodding grace that spoke of the mindset: “this is just what we do for guests to our lands.”

With such warmth along the road, the progress to Tatvan (with its gentle lake) and remarkably liberal Van – with the best bicyclists breakfast on earth, tell me how you can beat clotted cream, local lavender honey and ground walnuts – was joyful, if not entirely a doddle.

Bullets from above. A vengeful deity, of course, could not allow for such benign free-flowing passage through rugged terrain. No, there has been at least one reminder that all these smiles, baffling (and usually hilarious) conversations over chay about the size of the Kurdish diaspora, and bottomless hospitality, comes at a price. A painful price from above. Not truly bullets but cousins thereof, surely. As we reached to within 50m of the Kurubaş pass, a lively 3-hour trot uphill, the heavens went sooty (not the childrens’ program) black. And angry too.

Bullets from above a mere 20 mins to the left

The first hail-stones to fall upon us were frozen peas, sailing down from god’s kitchen counter. There was no harm at this stage, just a couple of girly squeals from Sam’s blue lips, as ping-ping the peas bounced ever more energetically off gore-tex threads. What followed, however, was nigh-on sadistic. 3 layers of tech clothing melted away in the face of a barrage of now ice-rocks crashing down from above. No more ping-ping. Hail stones the size of a small child’s head (limited hyperbole) brought bruises rushing to our skins’ surfaces. Pain, yes. Memorable, yes. Will definitely try to avoid such freaky weather again. Er, yes.

But we survived to write this blog. Clouds parted and multi-kilometre descents re-kindled our love of the road, and particularly our love for the road that hugs the Iranian border for miles and miles southward before ducking eastward through a gap (please read “another high pass”) in the mountains. Eventually, we arrived at a dust-bowl of congested truck-jam, assorted competitively fluttering flags, and numerous audible chatted dialects being tossed about, and it all meant the obvious….another border crossing and one we had been very much looking forward to.

Iran: Just over the "hill"

The over-sized and placarded beneficent faces of Messrs Khomeini and Khameini stared down suspiciously from high up on a barb-wired hill over-looking all things humdrum below, including the two cyclists tucked behind a disused tea-house, preparing themselves for the next 2500km. Trousers for the boy; and trousers, long monteau, long shirt and head scarf for the girl. Not the most ideal cycle-wear but the four-eyes that gazed steadily downwards appeared mostly untroubled by the unordorthodox nature of our new garb. All the battling in Amman for an Iranian visa had boiled down to this crossing into the Islamic Republic: “Khosh Amadid”. Stamp Stamp. And on we went through jostling money changers, attempting to pull various fast-ones, and into the open spaces of Azerbijan province and Iran’s northwest.

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Sneaking past the censors….

We write to you from behind closed doors. This is going to be a very short and sweet blog. We speak in hushed tones on the back row of a backstreet alleyway internet café with the nervous assistance of the owner. We are online but only just. Odycycle with its insurrectionary spirit coursing through every word is a threat to the regime here and we are BANNNED. Hence the use of a remote server and our friendly geek.

We are now in an undisclosed location in Iran and having a wonderful time. Shhhhhh, don’t tell the Mullahs. We will probably write more via our home team in the next week or two as we can not bear the tension of committing illegal acts in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

We look forward to communicating uncensored again soon (probably from the bastion of free speech that is Turkmenistan!!) Keep posting the comments. We promise they will appear on the blog eventually.

Peace from the Republic…….

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