5 days I got to cross the 500km across Turkmenistan. Peanuts, I thought when I got the visa in Ankara. But on the way to the border I start to realize that it might not be that easy. The wind has become stronger...
At the border I have to fill in some documents, give the doctor a 'thumbs up sign' and my bags get x-rayed. But everybody is very friendly and after an hour I can enter. I am not quite certain anymore whether I should be happy about that when I leave the house. Outside a terrible storm is blowing and I can hardly see the road for more than a couple of hundred meters because of the dust. At the beginning I get virtually blown off the road more than once. On the good, flat road I move with less than 12km/h ahead. Shortly before sunset I fall exhausted off my bike. On my odometer I see the ludicrously little number 80. I feel as if I had cycled 200km. When I wake up next morning at 5:00 and realize that the wind is not that strong anymore, it am in the saddle only 20 minutes later, trying to gain back some of the lost distance.
The big plain is crossed by many channels. To boost agricultural production (mainly cotton), soviet planners have built this giant irrigation system in the 60's, recklessly taking away virtually all the supplying water from the Aral lake, further north. The lake is today only a fraction of its original size anymore. One of the big ecological disasters of central Asia.
Besides the endless, dry Karakum desert and some dusty featureless towns, there are not many scenic highlights in Turkmenistan. The main attraction of Turkmenistan is its people! They have a great sense of humor. When I have just cycled for another couple of hours across the dusty plain and stop at a restaurant, there is always big laughter. The Turkmen have always a joke ready - often about themselves.
A car driver who speaks english has stopped me. He is just going the other way, but invites me to stay for the night at his home. I take his address and we say goodby until tonight. The wind is a little bit less strong now but I have to fight many hours until I finally reach the village. At the first shop I ask for directions to the address and get a perfect sketch map. After one hour of cycling, everybody I ask for MIR (the name of the street) still shows further up the road and I start to believe that I really have to go all the way to the space station today. But then I seem to have reached it and a boy shows me to a house. The man I meet is also called Anton but there seems to be another MIR somewhere! But the family welcomes me anyway and they make it no question that I am now their guest for tonight.
When the first bottle of wodka appears I try to defense that I should rather stay with chay after 2 month of abstinence and 9 hours (!) on the bike today. With not much of a success...
I have passed the irrigated plain and ahead are 200km across the Karakum desert. The wind gets stronger again and I terribly suffer for 2 days until I see Turkmenabad on the horizon. A car stops and asks what I was looking for. A Hotel, I repeat. Hotels are expensive and boring. There certainly is no boredom tonight, when I enjoy the excellent dinner with the big family. But before that, we go with all the kids to the nearby river swimming. What could there be better after having just crossed a desert! We sleep outside on big bedstead. In the houses it is far too hot.
Turkmenistan is a police state and there are a lot of checkpoints along the road. But they are soon more interested in testing my bike, then seeing my passport. At the border, the official who should check my baggage just says:"I trust you!" He's Usbekistan colleague is taking it a bit more seriously, taking my whole medical kit apart.
The camel caravans must have felt very much like me now, when they saw the first minarets of Bukhara after many days in the desert. The town is packed with mosques, medressas, mausoleums and caravansarais and is almost like an open air museum. The tile work is not as colorful as in Iran anymore and often earth colors dominate.
It is no secret, that I most like to cycle in the mountains. But there there was not much of mountains recently. Instead I have been cycling far too long across endless flat plains. I can hardly wait to go into the mountains. On the way to Samarkand my eyes constantly scan the horizon until they finally see it in the distance. At first very little but then quickly getting bigger: the mountains. After almost 6 month and nearly 12'000km I have reached Samarkand at the foot of the Pamirs!
We travel not for trafficking alone
By hotter winds our hearts are fanned
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
Samarkand - no other town is so much linked to the legends of the ancient silk road. Between the 2nd and 13th century it was in the middle of this trading route connecting Europe and Asia, where goods, religions and ideas where exchanged.
On the way to find an accommodation I already pass the Registan, the highlight of Samarkand. Speechless I stare at the minarets and Iwans. It is not so much the single buildings, but the combination of the complex that make it so breathtaking. After more than one month without having seen any tourists, I have to get used that there are so many now here. But I of course enjoy being able to have a longer conversation again with someone.
The border crossing to Tadjikistan is somewhat chaotic. There are only a couple of huts. An official asks me about the content of my bags but I don't get an entry stamp, even after I ask for it.
When I was asked back home, what country I was most looking foreward to see, besides Tibet I always answered Tadjikistan. So I am curious what it will be like. The way of greeting I like already very much: a slight bow with the right hand moving towards the heart.
Soon after the border I follow a beautiful valley that gets narrower until it is a gorge. On the few flat places, there are nice villages where the green fields make a beautiful contrast to the red mountains.
That the roads in Tadjikistan would be of a different sort I knew and was actually looking forward to. But that the change is so abrupt does take me a little bit by surprise. Asphalt, if there is some from time to time at all , seems only to be here to frame potholes! Although the valley climbs only very slowly, I am constantly cycling up and down steep ramps. I have to get used to this new scale first. Until now, cycling 130km on a good day was no problem. Now 80km is most I can reach.
On the right hand side of the valley big snow covered mountains up to 5500m high appear - the Fan mountains! Already here I cannot resist to make a detour into those mountains. On a road far too steep for my 'heavy goods vehicle' towards the end, I climb to the Iskander Kul lake. The water has the temperature of glacier water but after a couple of days on the dusty road there is no question I go for a swim. Two days I enjoy the beautiful mountain scenery and the finally cooler temperatures.
Oh yes, and then I got married. But that's a story I promised to keep for myself... :-)
Back on the main road, it climbs towards the first serious pass. While I get higher and higher I pass beautiful alpine meadows. 1300m further up on the snow covered ridge I can see the pass at 3374m. It feels great finally cycling longer climbs. The only thing I don't like is the fine dust on the road. Soon the bike and I have perfectly taken over the red brown color of the road.
40km before Dushanbe the road becomes very good out of a sudden. Later I find out, that this is exactly where the president has one of his Dachas...
The next goal is the Pamir Highway. A high mountain road right across the Pamirs, built by soviet engineers in the '30s. The start of that road is in Khorog, but the 500km to get there offer quite some action already.
The first 80km the road is quite OK but then follows a tiring up and down on often very bumpy roads. All along the road old rusty tanks can often be seen. Sad memories of the civil war in the '90s.
It was only a question of time on these roads: after 12'000km I have my first flat tire!
A bridge has been washed away by a flood. I first go without bags to check how deep the water is: almost to my hips. So I carry everything on its own across. I don't mind the very cold water but the refreshing effect is quickly forgotten after I have pushed the bike back the very steep ramp to the road.
Finally the up and down is over: it starts climbing towards the 3252m high Khaburabot Pass. From 2500m on I pass again wonderfully green meadows with incredibly colorful flowers. While camping close to the top of the pass, I get surprised by a heavy rainstorm. The first rain in 2 1/2 month!
Back down in the valley, for 3 days I follow the Payni river, making the border with Afghanistan.
The road is often bumpy, but mostly paved. In the valley there are many little villages on both sides, but partly it is also a narrow rocky gorge. In that gorge the air heats up very much in the afternoon. Then I flee into one of those little restaurants. They seem to be just made for tired cyclists. There is nothing better then killing a couple of hours in the heat of the afternoon on those ' bedframes' stuffed with carpets and pillows in the shade of some trees.
Bam-i-Dunya, "roof of the world" is what the locals call the Pamirs. From Khorog the road climbs only slowly to that roof. While cycling along the green valley, from time to time big, beautiful mountains appear in the side valleys. After the last village I find a great place to camp next to a crystal clear stream.
Next day I want to make a detour to the Turuntai Kul lake. But the road is so steep and bad, that I can only push the bike. After an hours I give up, accepting it is senseless going further.
Meanwhile I have reached 4000m. So often I have been cycling at this altitude already. But this time altitude sickness hits me fully and with all its symptoms: headache, nausea, dizziness and loss of appetite. Although I don't like it at first, but there is no choice but to go down a little bit, where I put up my tent even if it is only noon. All day I lie in my tent like a dead dog, to tired to do anything or eat. If there are moments on that journey, where I really feel lonely, it is times like now when I feel really shitty.
Fortunately next day the symptoms are gone and I feel great again to cycle the switchbacks to the 4272m high Koy Tezek Pass.
Crossing the 4000m mark is like entering into a different world - my world! Nowhere the air is as clear, the colors as intensive, the nature so untouched and the silence so complete.
The Pamirs have two faces. In the west, where I had been cycling so far, it is deep valleys with rivers and high, sheer peaks. I the east it is a dry, high plateau at about 4000m with rolling hills - like Tibet. The pass I just crossed is the border between these two different regions.
The next detour from the main route brings me to the turquoise colored Yashil Kul lake. Just before the lake, there is a little village, Bulunkul. If there is an end of the world, it must be here! This place is so remote.
Supported by an NGO, there are many places in the Pamirs where you can stay in private houses or yurts. A great opportunity to get an insight view of everyday life here. But tourism is less than in its infancy: less then 200 tourists visit the Pamirs every year.
Only 2km I stay on the main road after that detour, when the 4344m high Kargush Pass attracts me to leave it again. And cycling a high pass is something I could never really resist...
I camp on the top of the pass and go for a short walk to the top of a hill from where I enjoy great views towards the Whakan valley.
Back on the main road I cycle across that barren high plateau. Salt lakes make a welcoming change in this otherwise desertlike environment, which is hardly populated year round. During the summer month Kyrgys herders set up their yurts on the few green spots, letting their yaks cows and sheeps graze.
They have 'warned' me be email and then I really meet my Slovenian friends, with whom I stayed at the very beginning of this journey in Ljubljana. They have come to cycle the Pamirs for 4 weeks and we spend a entertaining evening together and there is lots to be told.
The next detour brings me to Rang Kul. Another big salt lake with beautiful views of Muztagh Ata (7546m) just across the border in China. But they way to get there I will not forget very soon: Countless mosquitos chase me and almost drive me nuts. I have put on insect repellent but they bite me through my cycling pants. In the evening I count 50 bites only on my bottom! If there is any place I would have not expected mosquitos, it is here in this desertlike place at almost 4000m.
Crossing the 4644m high Ak-Baital Pass I get to Karakul. Karakul? Haven't we had that before? Indeed, there is another Karakul lake only 100km east of here on the Kharakorum Highway, where I camped 8 years ago.
My visa for Kyrgystan starts only in a couple of days, so I enjoy an easy time at the lake with beautiful views of Pik Lenin (7134m) and other snow mountains all around before I continue towards the border.
Shortly before the border the headwind becomes very strong one more time. When I hardly make any progress anymore, I decide to put up my tent. I am just in the middle of a sandy moonlike desert. As soon as I have put up my tent, the wind becomes stronger and finally it is an enormous sandstorm that whips over my tent. Inside it sounds as if it was heavily raining. But the sand is not only blown over my tent but finds its way inside, filtered by the mosquito net. Soon everything is covered with a thick layer of sand. For many hours the storm goes on and I start to believe that I am getting buried alive here... When the wind finally slows down, I bail many cups of sand out of my tent. For quite some time I will get remembered of that event, for the sand just really got everywhere!
The border to Kyrgystan I cross at the 4280m high Kizil Art Pass. Kyrgys migration is another 20km further down, so I spend already a night in the country although my visa only starts the next day. After having had not too much luck with my last camp sites (mosquito, sandstorm) I am desperate to find a good one for tonight. And really I find one of the best sort: hidden from the road on a green meadow with beautiful flowers and countless Edelweiss, next to a crystal clear stream, in the middle of a marmot colony and with spectacular views into the glacier covered 6000ers on the other side of the valley. That's how it has to be!
Have I already cycled all around the globe? The first views of Kyrgystan let me believe I have really just reached the Alps. Beautiful green pastures everywhere. But there are no huts on the pastures, but yurts. OK, not the Alps then.
The whole scenery is very idyllic: All the green pastures with big herds of yaks and horses and snow covered mountains in the back. But best is the view back: like a giant white wall there is the Pamirs where I have just come from.
As the landscape does remind me very much of the Alps, so do the passes. The climbs are no more endlessly long but rather short, steep and with switchbacks.
Two rather tough days of cycling bring me to Osh, the first bigger town for quite some time. I directly go to a Chaikhana (teahouse) and order 3 plates straight away. The food had been very simple in the last weeks. Fresh fruits never taste as sweet as after you have missed them for a while.
Originally I had planned to cycle a little loop in Kyrgystan. But I am running a bit short on time and so I decide to go back already from Osh to Sary Tash by Jeep. From here I continue towards China. In the last 2 days It has rained and so the ride becomes quite a mud bath. The mud is about a foot deep and the trucks have created big ditches. During the whole ride towards the border, there are great views of the glacier covered Pamirs just south of here.
You certainly have heard, about the fact that China is buying scrap metal everywhere on the world market. Here I can actually see that in reality. A constant stream of trucks loaded with scrap metal is driving to China. No wonder the border post of Kyrgystan loooks like giant a junk yard.
When I reach the Chinese border post, the big clock shows 12 o'clock already. The border to China is probably the only place on this planet, where even cyclists can get a jet lag! Time is fully 3 hours (with daylight saving time 2 hours) ahead of Kyrgystan as all clocks run on Bejing time, still 4000km air-line distance away.
Entering China is no problem und efficient. When I leave the building a jung soldier salutes me "Welcome to China!". I salute back - learnt is learnt.
Kashgar is another 230km away. The road is incredible. Since Iran I have not been cycling on such a good surface and I enjoy the 'sunday ride' knowing that it will soon be the last of this kind of road.
I was very curious getting to Kashgar because I was here already 8 years ago. I have heard a lot of stories of how it had changed. The 'shock' starts 18km before town already when I join '314', the road going east along the Taklamakan desert. The provincial road has become a brand new, wide highway! I have not been on a highway since Greece and there is little traffic, so here we go. In town there are everywhere new buildings, broad avenues, big shopping centers and fast food chains. I hardly recognize the town anymore. Incredible how much it has changed in only 8 years. Only the Chinese can do that. Fortunately the good, old Seman Hotel, where you can get a cheap room is still there.
But the food... I have been looking forward very much for the food here, which is just great. Perfect to put on some 'reserves' for the time to come.
Then it is sort of Christmas for me in the middle of august. I receive a big parcel, that me parents have sent for me. No, there is no Swiss chocolate and cheese in it, although I would give a lot for that by now... It contains spare parts for my bicycle. With all the new parts the bike looks almost new again which has been incredibly reliable in the past 7 month. 3 flat tires and a broken off rack eye was all I had in 13600km!
It is getting time to solve the biggest logistical problem of this journey: the Chinese visa. I would like to travel across western and eastern Tibet for which I will need 4 month at least. But in central asia a 3 month visa is most you can get and extending it once in Tibet is not possible, because I will not be quite legally there. So other solutions are needed: for 3 days I fly to Hongkong where I get a 6 month visa within a couple of hours! Now I only have to think of something to tell the officials when I will be cycling across Tibet with a business visa... a business trip?
While I am there, I stock up on lots of food for the next weeks.
Now I am back in Kashgar, have a new-looking bike, a 6 month visa in my passport and loads of food in my panniers. Everything is ready - ready for rock & roll!