Through the Turkmenistan Desert

Distance: 312km (2744km in total)
Distance: 312km (2744km in total)

8 – 11 October, 2015 – After having passed our passports to the fourth Uzbek soldier the barrier opened and we were in No Man’s Land between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. One hurdle overcome, the next could wait until the following day, the start of our Turkmen visas. Suddenly we heard someone calling us, we turned and saw Lukas, a German cyclist we met for the first time on the Pamir-Highway and later on in Dushanbe and Bukhara. He was on his way home from China where he had studied the last three years. Lukas had been stuck in noman’s land for five days now due to visa issues and was hoping to be able to leave the coming day. When we met last we were joking exactly about this, as he was relying on an email from the Turkmen embassy who promised him that he would get his visa directly at the border. From French cyclists we met the day before we knew he was still there and had bought some food for him. Together we went to the café to catch up on his latest news. We ordered drinks but had no Sums left and the owner would by no means accept Dollars. Lukas offered us to pay for us but we refused when we learned that it would cost more than twice the usual price. A friendly Iranian trucker who had watched us for a while called the waiter back, gave him money and we got our two drinks. The famous Iranian hospitality doesn’t only start in Iran but hundreds of miles before! Later another Iranian trucker invited us to sleep in the back of his truck and together with Lukas and the two Iranians we enjoyed tea and fresh watermelon next to the truck. We learned that our drink donor had been stuck between the borders for 13 days now because the weight of his truck didn’t match the declared weight on his papers.

Making ourselves a bed even at the weirdest places - this time the empty inside of a truck
Making ourselves a bed even at the weirdest places – this time the empty inside of a truck

At 8am the following morning we stood in front of the closed Turkmen border barrier. The soldiers were still busy with cleaning and watering the road so we had to wait another 30 minutes before we were let in. Our passports got registered and we cycled to the customs building where we had to fill in a Turkmen form as they didn’t have any English forms. Nobody would really explain to us how to complete it so we filled in what we knew and moved on to the next hurdle. After having paid a 24-Dollar fee, three officers sitting behind a desk were waiting for us and our forms. Johan was first and one of the officers complained about the incomplete form and started to explain how to fill it in correctly. I went there as well to speed up the process but got told off harshly by the officer. Johan then had to explain to me what I needed to fill in. When it was my turn, the same officer looked at my form and started to complain heavily in Turkmen. First he asked about the third currency on my form – I had entered Turkmen Manat, but he asked if I had Spanish money with me. I looked a bit confused and answered that I had Euros with me, which is also the Spanish currency and which I had declared one line above. He looked back at me without saying anything and suddenly started angrily crossing out everything I had written on my form and yelling “wrong, wrong, fill in new”. I looked puzzled not understanding what had happened and he continued pointing at what I had written and what Johan had written until I got it: I had to fill in the form with a blue pen, not as I had done with a black pen. Once that issue was solved another young soldier started searching our luggage. We again had to open all panniers. While doing so, another soldier looked at my bike starting to touch everything including clicking through my bike computer. I got quite upset but kept putting on my fake smile until we were out of the building.

At 9.30am we finally got going. We were anxious to cover a lot of miles that day, our transit visas would only allow us to stay in Turkmenistan for five days. The wind was heavily blowing, for about 10km against, but then the road turned and we were flying with the wind. We would now cycle until Mary through the desert and we were told by other cyclists that there aren’t many tea houses to fill up our water bottles. Hence, we carried 21 liters of water together only to discover later that there was a tea house at least every 50km. Despite the late start we were able to cover over 120km and pitched our tent in the middle of the desert behind some sand dunes. The wind had stopped and we didn’t bother about the rain cover for our tent. Little did we know. Shortly before the alarm went off at 5am it started to rain. After the third bad night’s sleep – our mattresses would still deflate despite all our prayers – we quickly packed up our sleeping bags and prepared breakfast when the rain stopped only to begin much harder by the time we were packing up our remaining stuff. At 7am we were finally ready – heavily delayed by the rain. We pushed our bikes out of the sand, carried our panniers up the sand dunes, loaded our bikes, took off and stopped. Johan had his first puncture since our departure. Swearing, he fixed the problem and by 7.30am we finally got going to take on today’s challenge. The wind had changed and we were now pushing against a slight headwind. Right at lunch time we arrived at a fancy hotel in the middle of nowhere and lunched in a yurt while we dried our tent. We continued slowly on undulating roads through a desolate desert and covered almost 130km.

Desert cycling - there is not much to get distracted, it's a monotonous and strenuous effort
Desert cycling – there is not much to get distracted, it’s a monotonous and strenuous effort
Even though the gradients weren't steep the signs would always indicate 12%
Even though the gradients weren’t steep the signs would always indicate 12%
Tough surface to cycle on
Tough surface to cycle on
Reaching a settlement right before sunset
Reaching a settlement right before sunset
Yummy but far too expensive dinner
Yummy but far too expensive dinner

After another bad night for the same reasons, another puncture, this time at my bike, we reached Mary the next day where we would take the train to Ashgabat. It rained most of the morning – this year’s first rain and for the first time we cycled in full rain gear! We are really lucky with the elements. The nice lady at the train station who didn’t speak a word English would sell us two train tickets for the next train that day, but told us “no baggage”. “What, no baggage?” was Johan’s response, “of course we have baggage!” The lady had to make a few phone calls and in the meantime we were surrounded by curious Turkmens who tried to help us by translating things we already knew. Around 10 minutes later we got tickets for a train at midnight and our bikes were allowed to travel with us. It was only 2pm and we had a lot of time to kill. So we went to the local museum which was described by our travel guide as being excellent. We were the only two visitors that afternoon and all the time accompanied by a bored woman in a beautiful green dress who again didn’t speak a word English. Her job most likely was to make sure we wouldn’t take anything with us. The most amazing part of the exhibition was the first room we entered: approximately 100 photoshopped pictures showcasing the president on a horse, in his SUV, in front his 40-meter motor yacht, in a race car, on a tractor, playing tennis, football, polo, plucking cotton, reading a book, doing business, cycling and what have you.

Beautiful signs to indicate village names
Beautiful signs to indicate village names

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The guard at a horse race track
A golden horse for the horseman
A golden horse for the horseman
Arriving in Mary
Arriving in Mary
In Turkmenistan everything is big - in the back you see the golden statue of the former president that you can find everywhere in the country
In Turkmenistan everything is big – in the back you see the golden statue of the former president that you can find everywhere in the country
A huge mosque in Mary
A huge mosque in Mary
Students preparing for a party
Students preparing for a party and the president always at the forefront
Killing time before the train leaves
Killing time before the train leaves

Durch die Wüste Turkmenistans

Geradelte Kilometer: 312km (insgesamt 2.744km)
Geradelte Kilometer: 312km (insgesamt 2.744km)

8. – 11. Oktober 2015 – Nachdem wir unsere Pässe dem vierten usbekischen Soldaten gezeigt hatten, öffnete sich endlich der Schlagbaum und wir waren im Niemandsland zwischen Usbekistan und Turkmenistan. Die erste Hürde war geschafft und die zweite konnte bis zum nächsten Tag warten, dem Beginn unserer Visa für Turkmenistan. Plötzlich rief jemand unsere Namen, und wen sahen wir: Lukas, einen deutschen Radfahrer, den wir bereits auf dem Pamir-Highway und später wieder in Dushanbe und Buchara getroffen haben. Er ist auf seinem Weg nach Hause von China, wo er die letzten drei Jahre studierte. Und jetzt hing er seit fünf Tage im Niemandsland fest, da es Probleme mit seinem Visum gab in der Hoffnung, am nächsten Tag ausreisen zu dürfen. Als wir uns das letzte Mal getroffen hatten, machten wir genau darüber noch Witze, da er nämlich kein Visum im Pass hatte und sich auf eine E-Mail von der Botschaft verließ, die ihm versicherte, er könne sich damit sein Visum an der Grenze abholen. Von zwei französischen Radlern hatten wir am Vortag bereits erfahren, dass Lukas noch festsitzt und haben vorsorglich Essen für ihn gekauft. Zusammen gingen wir in das einzige Lokal am Platz, um uns seine Geschichte anzuhören. Wir bestellten uns Getränke, aber der Wirt wollte keine Dollars annehmen und so ließen wir die Getränke wieder zurückgehen. Lukas wollte erst für uns bezahlen, aber als wir die Preise hörten, die mehr als doppelt so hoch waren als normal, winkten wir ab. Die Getränke kamen dann aber doch wieder zurück, ein iranischer LKW-Fahrer hatte uns beobachtet und sie dann heimlich für uns bezahlt. Die berühmte iranische Gastfreundlichkeit beginnt nicht erst im Iran, sondern bereits Hunderte von Kilometern früher. Später lud uns ein anderer iranischer Trucker ein, im Laderaum seines LKWs zu übernachten. Gemeinsam mit Lukas und den LKW-Fahrern tranken wir Tee und aßen frische Wassermelonen und erfuhren nebenbei, dass einer der Fahrer bereits seit 13 Tagen hier festhing, weil das Ladungsgewicht auf seinen Papieren nicht mit dem tatsächlichen Gewicht auf dem LKW übereinstimmte.

Making ourselves a bed even at the weirdest places - this time the empty inside of a truck
Mittlerweile können wir fast überall schlafen – auch im leeren Laderaum eines LKWs

Pünktlich um 8 Uhr standen wir am nächsten Morgen vor der immer noch geschlossenen turkmenischen Grenze. Die Soldaten waren noch damit beschäftigt, die Straße zu wässern und zu säubern und so warteten wir noch weitere 30 Minuten, bevor wir durchgelassen wurden. Unsere Pässe wurden registriert und wir radelten zum Hauptgebäude, wo wir ein Einreiseformular ausfüllen mussten, das wir nicht lesen konnten, denn englische Formulare gab es nicht. Es war auch niemand so richtig interessiert daran, uns zu erklären, welche Informationen benötigt werden und so füllten wir das aus, was wir wussten und bewegten uns zum nächsten Schalter. Wir durften eine Gebühr von 24 Dollar bezahlen und wurden dann von drei Beamten, die hinter einem Tisch saßen recht unfreundlich empfangen. Johan war zuerst an der Reihe und erhielt sofort die Beschwerde, dass das Formular nicht vollständig ausgefüllt sei. Der Beamte ließ sich aber doch herab, ihm zu erklären, was noch ergänzt werden müsse. Um Zeit zu sparen, gesellte ich mich dazu, um auch alles direkt in mein Formular zu übertragen, wurde aber sehr forsch und unfreundlich zurechtgewiesen und aufgefordert, zu verschwinden. Johan durfte mir dann alles nochmals erklären. Als ich dann endlich an der Reihe war, wurde der Beamte wieder äußerst wütend und schimpfte irgendwas auf Turkmenisch. Dann stellte er Fragen über die angegebenen Währungen und ob ich spanisches Geld bei mir hätte. Wahrscheinlich konnte er meine Schrift nicht lesen, denn ich hatte eigentlich die turkmenischen Manat angegeben. Ich bejahte und erklärte ihm, dass in Spanien ebenfalls wie in vielen anderen europäischen Ländern mit dem Euro bezahlt wird. Er schaute mich nur stumm an, blickte wieder auf das Formular und begann plötzlich, alle meine Angaben durchzustreichen und heftig zu schimpfen: “Wrong, wrong, fill in new”. Ich wusste nicht wie mir geschah, bis mir plötzlich ein Licht aufging: das Formular musste mit blauer Tinte ausgefüllt werden und meines hatte ich leider in schwarz beschrieben. Nachdem dieses Thema dann geklärt war wartete ein weiterer Soldat bereits ungeduldig darauf, meine Taschen zu durchsuchen, während ein anderer Soldat an meinem Rad rumfummelte und sich sogar durch meinen Fahrradcomputer klickte. Innerlich kochte ich, ließ mir aber nichts anmerken und lächelte freundlich, um Schlimmeres zu vermeiden.

Um 9.30 Uhr konnten wir dann endlich losfahren. Wir wollten eine lange Strecke hinter uns bringen, da wir ja nur ein Visum für fünf Tage hatten. Der Wind blies heftig, 10km lang von vorne und dann hatten wir endlich einmal Glück und für den Rest des Tages Rückenwind. Unser Ziel war es, in zwei Tagen in Mary anzukommen. Die komplette Strecke führt durch die Wüste und von zwei belgische Radlern, die hier wenige Wochen vor uns geradelt sind, erfuhren wir, dass es vor Mary keine Möglichkeit mehr gibt, um Wasser oder Essen zu kaufen. Also füllten wir unsere Vorräte auf und verstauten insgesamt 21 Liter Wasser auf unseren Rädern. Nur um später festzustellen, dass alle 50km Teehäuser oder Läden waren, bei denen wir hätten einkaufen können. Die Belgier hatten wohl Tomaten auf den Augen! Obwohl wir spät gestartet sind schafften wir am ersten Tag 120km und zelteten zwischen Sanddünen. Es war mittlerweile windstill und wir verzichteten deshalb auf unser Außenzelt, um am nächsten Morgen Zeit beim Abbauen zu sparen. Leider fing es aber kurz bevor der Wecker um 5 Uhr klingelte an zu regnen. Nachdem wir mittlerweile die dritte Nacht wegen unserer Matratzen kaum geschlafen hatten, packten wir völlig noch übermüdet schnell unsere Schlafsäcke und bereiteten unser Frühstück vor, denn mittlerweile war der Regen wieder vorbei. Kaum hatten wir gefrühstückt, fing es wieder an zu regnen, dieses Mal deutlich stärker und wir packten den Rest so schnell es ging zusammen. Um 7 Uhr waren wir dann endlich soweit – viel später als wir eigentlich wollten, der Regen hatte unseren Zeitplan durcheinander gebracht. Wir schoben unsere Räder durch den Sand an den Straßenrand, schleppten unsere Taschen über die Dünen, packten unsere Räder und fuhren los. Und hielten wieder an. Johan hatte seinen ersten Platten. Fluchend tauschte er den Schlauch aus und um 7:30 Uhr ging es dann endlich richtig los. Leider hatte der Wind gedreht. Aber für uns hieß es Zähne zusammenbeißen und tapfer mit noch müden Beinen vom Vortag gegen den Wind antreten. Zur Mittagszeit tauchte plötzlich ein Hotel auf, und wir gönnten uns ein feudales Mittagessen (Laghman) in einer Yurt, während in der Sonne unsere Sachen trockneten. Gut gestärkt kämpften wir uns den Rest des Tages durch die trostlose Wüste und schafften fast 130km.

Desert cycling - there is not much to get distracted, it's a monotonous and strenuous effort
Wüstenradeln – nicht viel, das einen ablenkt, das Radeln wird monoton und beschwerlich
Even though the gradients weren't steep the signs would always indicate 12%
Zum Glück waren die tatsächlichen Steigungen nicht steiler als vier bis fünf Prozent, trotzdem zeigten alle Schilder immer 12% an.
Tough surface to cycle on
Zu allem Überfluss kam dann auch immer wieder solcher Asphalt dazwischen
Reaching a settlement right before sunset
Gerade rechtzeitig vor Sonnenuntergang kommen wir in einem Dorf an
Yummy but far too expensive dinner
Leckeres aber viel zu teures Abendessen

Wieder schlecht geschlafen und ein zweiter Plattfuß später – dieses Mal an meinem Fahrrad – kamen wir am dritten Tag vormittags in Mary an, von wo aus wir mit dem Zug nach Ashgabat fahren wollten. Es regnete fast den ganzen Morgen. Es war der erste Regen im Jahr und alle waren glücklich, außer wir und wir fuhren zum ersten Mal in kompletter Regenausrüstung. Am Bahnhof wollte uns dann die Schalterbeamtin, die natürlich kein Wort Englisch sprach, Zugtickets verkaufen, Gepäck durften wir aber nicht mitnehmen. Wo gibt’s denn sowas? “No baggage,” wiederholte sie ständig. Nachdem Johan ihr klarmachte, dass unsere Räder sehr wohl mitmüssten, führte sie verschiedene Telefonate und wir bekamen ungefähr zehn Minuten später unsere Tickets für den Mitternachtszug, in dem wir auch unsere Räder mitnehmen durften.

Da es jetzt erst 14 Uhr war, mussten wir viel Zeit totschlagen. Also gingen wir ins lokale Museum, das von unserem Reiseführer so hoch gelobt wurde. An diesem Nachmittag waren wir die einzigen Besucher und wurden die ganze Zeit von einer gelangweilten Dame im grünen Kleid begleitet, die ebenfalls kein Englisch sprach. Wahrscheinlich sollte sie aufpassen, dass wir nichts mitnehmen. Am Interessantesten fanden wir den ersten Raum, durch den wir geführt wurden: hier wurden ungefähr 100 bearbeitete Großaufnahmen des Präsidenten ausgestellt, die ihn auf einem Pferd, in seinem Geländewagen, vor seiner 40-Meter-Jacht, in einem Rennwagen, oder beim Tennis, Fußball, oder Polo, Fahrradfahren oder sogar Baumollpflücken zeigten. So etwas hatten wir noch nie gesehen!

Beautiful signs to indicate village names
Rechts ein typisches Ortsschild für ein Dorf

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Berittene Wache an einer Pferderennbahn
A golden horse for the horseman
Ein goldenes Pferd für den Pferdemann
Arriving in Mary
Ankunft in Mary
In Turkmenistan everything is big - in the back you see the golden statue of the former president that you can find everywhere in the country
In Turkmenistan ist alles groß – im Hintergrund ist die goldene Statue des vorhergehenden Präsidenten zu sehen
A huge mosque in Mary
Eine riesige Moschee in Mary
Students preparing for a party
Studenten bereiten sich auf eine Party vor und der Präsident ist immer mit dabei
Killing time before the train leaves
Zeitvertreib in einem Restaurant bis zur Abfahrt des Zuges

Night cycling, toilet seats and other surprises

30 September – 8 October, 2015 – After four days in Samarkand of which Johan spent almost two days in bed with a severe diarrhoea it was time to move on for the 270km- distance to Bukhara, another well-preserved Silk Road town. The first day passed uneventful on good and undulating roads, through a boring cotton field landscape and in the afternoon against the wind. The first night we stayed at a huge house with an Uzbek family and for the first time we successfully refused sweets and bread. And for the first time there was a bathroom – basic, but we could wash ourselves and go to sleep clean. The second day begun uneventful. At a monument we met a funny Korean guy who works for Korean Air at the huge International Airport we just passed. He walked with a golf club to protect himself from chasing dogs in the villages. We had a very funny conversation and could have talked much longer but we had to move on as it was already getting late and we had to look for a place to sleep.

Leaving Samarkand
Leaving Samarkand
Johan was getting concerned about being on the wrong road as he couldn't find Buxoro (which is Bukhara) on his map!
Johan was getting concerned about being on the wrong road as he couldn’t find Buxoro (which is Bukhara) on his map!
Boring landscape and headwinds
Boring landscape and headwinds
Lunchtime
Lunchtime

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When the Korean asked where we would sleep at night when there are no hotels Johan replied that we would look for a nice house and ask if we could pitch our tent in their garden. The Korean's answer: "How can you find nice house, they all look the same?"
When the Korean asked where we would sleep at night when there are no hotels Johan replied that we would look for a nice house and ask if we could pitch our tent in their garden. The Korean’s answer: “How can you find nice house, they all look the same?”

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Cotton after cotton field
Cotton after cotton field

Which turned out to become a challenge. We dismissed the luxury 4-star-hotel on the way because we didn’t want to pay 60$. If we had had the second sight we would have just stayed and made use of a luxury stay. But we continued instead and stopped at a brand-new village to try to find a camp spot. We asked a few people but all refused and sent us away. One woman belonging to the local police asked 50$ to stay at her home but we also dismissed this ‘friendly’ offer and moved on to the next village. A few questions and a few more refusals later, one family finally invited us in. We showed them our instant noodle soup as we didn’t want them to cook for us – this time the place looked rather poor – and for the first time the whole family would join us for dinner. We of course would get our noodle soup but also had to eat their food – cabbage with saussages. All evening neighbours and more family members would pass by to say hello and at around 8pm we could go to sleep. About an hour later there was a knock on the door, our host came in repeating several times: “Palatka, you go, go!” Someone must have told the police about us and our hosts were getting into trouble. We quickly packed up our stuff and cycled in our pyjamas into the dark back to the very busy main highway. There was no way to pitch our palatka (tent) in the fields around us, that we knew from when we arrived here. We though remembered a small platform next to the highway and a house where we now wanted to ask to pitch our tent. As we couldn’t see anything, we cycled slowly on the shoulder against the traffic and reached that place after a few hundred meters that felt like kilometres. Unfortunately we were directly refused and couldn’t convince them to let us pitch the tent anywhere near the house. Instead, they sent us back to the expensive hotel. Grudgingly we moved to the right side of the road and cycled another five kilometres back to the hotel through the eerie darkness to where we’ve been a few hours ago, checked into a very nice, clean and luxury room with a soft bed, white bed sheets, soft pillows, and a perfectly working bathroom with white towels, a real shower, a sink and a Western-style toilet and still went to bed dirty at around 10:30pm. The shower had to wait until the next morning.

Family dinner
Family dinner

Given our blackmarket exchange rate we only had to pay 30$ for our hotel room including breakfast, as the hotel used the official exchange rate. After a long shower we raided the breakfast buffet. In fact Johan ate so much, that the toilet seat broke into 100 pieces when he sat on it later. Back in our room we also noticed that there wasn’t neither electricity nor water anymore – we once again had to use our headlights and drinking water for brushing our teeth. At the check-out I told the receptionist about the problems and all she replied was “Yes”. When I said that she didn’t even tell us about these issues, she again replied with “Yes”. Johan then told me that she doesn’t speak English and I gave up complaining. Five minutes later she approached us asking in perfect English for 25.000 Sum (5$) for the broken toilet seat! If it comes to getting money people suddenly know how to communicate. After a short discussion we left without paying the fine and reached Bukhara around lunch time. The following day was Johan’s birthday which we spent sightseeing in Central Asia’s holiest city with buildings spanning a thousand years of history. As per our travel guide Bukhara is one of the best places for a glimpse of pre-Russian Turkestan.

Village life
Village life
Refueling stop
Refueling stop
Beautiful remainder of the Soviet architecture
Beautiful remainder of the Soviet architecture
While we were having a short coffee break this family stepped out of their car, sat next to us to take pictures. The boy was nicely dressed up in a velvet suit.
While we were having a short coffee break this family stepped out of their car, sat next to us to take pictures. The boy was nicely dressed up in a velvet suit.

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And we reached another important Silk Road city
And we reached another important Silk Road city

Bukhara impressions:

A beautiful and - in the early morning only - peaceful square
One of the few surviving hauz (ponds) in Bukhara created in the 16th and 17th century which was in the past the principal source of water but also notorious for spreading disease.

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Boobies alert

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Counting money in Uzbekistan takes a while

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Counting money takes a while in Uzbekistan – even if it’s not much

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A restaurant with a view
A restaurant with a view
The same restaurant's cooks and kitchen - according to our travel guide the best place in town
The same restaurant’s cooks and kitchen – according to our travel guide the best place in town

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At the gate of the Bukhara fortress Ark
The massive walls of the Bukhara fortress Ark
The massive walls of the Ark

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Working at our 12-Dollars-per-night-including-breakfast guesthouse
Working at our 12-Dollars-per-night-including-breakfast guesthouse

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Knowing that it would be unlikely for us to return to Uzbekistan we took a taxi to Khiva, 600km North of Bukhara. The Silk Road town is famous for its slave caravans, barbaric cruelty, terrible desert journeys and steppes infested with wild tribesmen. The town itself is like an open air museum with well preserved minarettes, medressas, mosques and boring museums and feels a bit like stepping into another era, if it wasn’t for the many tourist shops and cafés mainly catering for groups. We met Christian from France again and decided to have dinner together. We had met him first in Samarkand, he has been travelling through Central Asia from France with his 4WD car and was now on his way back home on more or less the same route as we were. Earlier that day we had made a reservation at the best restaurant in town and thought it wouldn’t be a problem to dine with one more person. We could not have been more wrong. It took us 15 minutes to convince the waiter that we would either eat all together or not at all at this place. We were almost about to leave when they finally agreed and angrily put a third chair at our table. After weeks of Laghman (noodle soup), Plov (fried rice) and Manty (dumplings filled with meat) we happily ordered hamburgers. Our mouths were watering by the thought of yummy juicy hamburgers American style. The bigger was our disappointment: two meat patties with some rice and mashed potatoes decorated with a leave of lettuce. We were bemused about our own naivity but enjoyed a nice evening with Christian. To our surpise we got a free dessert from the kitchen – maybe they understood that their earlier reaction wasn’t appropriate.

Khiva impressions:

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Winter is approaching
Winter is approaching

Looking for the right outfit 🙂

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The beautiful unfinished minaret which was supposed to become the highest minaret ever to be able to see Bukhara

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The next day we continued sightseeing in the morning and got annoyed by the poor service culture once more. We entered a café and the first question they asked us was “do you belong to a group?” Our usual answer, “Yes, we do, we are a group of two and sometimes even our group is too big!” didn’t amuse the waiters and we could see their disappointment. We got seated but nobody served us, despite us desperately trying to order coffee until finally a group arrived who got served immediately. Normally we would have left but as this was a place where Wifi reception was good and I had work-related emails to be sent we endured and stayed. We spent the afternoon in the taxi back to Bukhara to reunite with our bikes.

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It was once more time to leave the country as our Turkmen transit visas started on 9 October. With only five days to cross the country we wanted to make sure to pass the border as early as possible. We now had two days for the 100 km to get to the border and we only left Bukhara in the early afternoon, cycled until 5pm and pitched our tent in an apple orchard. That night we noticed that our matresses were deflating and by midnight we were both laying on the hard ground. Not a very good prospect as we had to cross the desert in Turkmenistan and would have to camp the coming days with no possibilities to repair the matresses. After a bad-night’s sleep we woke shattered and bad tempered as on top we were facing headwinds. By midday the wind was becoming a sand storm, the air was completely yellow and sandy, our sight very limited and the atmosphere eerie. We struggled to get to the border on time even though we had only a distance of around 60km to cover. But this time our delay turned to our favour as the customs officers wanted to go home and hardly checked our luggage and within 20 minutes we were officially checked out of Uzbekistan.

The Silk Road
The Silk Road

We had a lot of nice experiences and a few bad ones in Uzbekistan. Despite opening up for foreign tourism, the country is still a harshly governed police state. Nonetheless we felt genuinely welcome by people be it through their greetings when we cycled through villages, their gold-teethed smiles, their tea invitations, their children running or cycling happily with us, by those who invited us to stay at their homes and who shared their meals with us and of course by those who gave us fruit or bread when we cycled past. We were deeply impressed by the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva with their fabulous architecture, positively surprised by the beautiful landscapes up until Samarkand and less impressed by the landscapes as from Samarkand dominated by vast deserts and cotton plantations. Dating back to Russian times – at least that’s what we assumed – the state administers itself to death. Our passport was stacked with little hotel slips, neatly filled in by the hotel managers, stamped and signed and when Johan got money from a bank he had to sign endless papers that were handed from one person to another, before they would retrieve the dollars.

Nacht-Radeln, Klobrillen und andere Überraschungen

30. September – 8. Oktober 2015 – Nach vier Tagen in Samarkand, von denen Johan fast die Hälfte der Zeit im Bett beziehungsweise auf der Toilette mit schlimmem Durchfall verbracht hat, machten wir uns wieder auf den Weg in die 270km entfernte Stadt Bukara, ein weiteres Highlight auf der Seidenstraße. Am ersten Tag passierte nicht wirklich viel, wir fuhren auf guten und leicht hügeligen Straßen an Baumwollfeldern entlang und am Nachmittag gegen den Wind. Wir übernachteten bei einer usbekischen Familie in einem riesigen Haus und zum ersten Mal gelang es uns, Brot und Süßigkeiten abzulehnen. Und zum ersten Mal gab es sogar ein Badezimmer – die Ausstattung war zwar sehr einfach, aber immerhin konnten wir uns waschen und sauber ins Bett gehen. Auch der zweite Tag begann unspannend. Die einzige Abwechslung war die Begegnung mit einem lustigen Südkoreaner, der am Internationalen Flughafen arbeitete, an dem wir gerade vorbeiradelten. Er war mit einem Golfschläger unterwegs, um die Hunde in den Dörfern abzuwehren. Wir hatten eine sehr lustige Unterhaltung und hätten ewig weiterreden können, mussten aber leider weiter, da es für uns an der Zeit war, uns um einen Schlafplatz zu kümmern.

Leaving Samarkand
Am Stadtrand von Samarkand
Johan was getting concerned about being on the wrong road as he couldn't find Buxoro (which is Bukhara) on his map!
Hier wurde Johan nervös, da er auf seiner Landkarte Buxoro (Bukara) nicht finden konnte und dachte, wir hätten uns verfahren!
Boring landscape and headwinds
Gegenwind bei eintöniger Landschaft
Lunchtime
Mittagessen

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When the Korean asked where we would sleep at night when there are no hotels Johan replied that we would look for a nice house and ask if we could pitch our tent in their garden. The Korean's answer: "How can you find nice house, they all look the same?"
Als der Koreaner fragte, wo wir denn schlafen würden, wenn es kein Hotel gibt, meinte Johan, “wir suchen uns ein schönes Haus und fragen, ob wir im Garten unser Zelt aufschlagen dürfen.” Seine Antwort: “Wie findet ihr denn ein schönes Haus, die sehen hier doch alle gleich aus!”

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Cotton after cotton field
Baumwolle, Baumwolle und noch mehr Baumwolle

Die Suche nach einem Schlafplatz stellte sich allerdings als etwas schwieriger heraus als erwartet. Das 4-Sterne-Luxushotel, wo Zimmer 60 Dollar kosten, ließen wir links liegen. Könnten wir hellsehen, wären wir geblieben und hätten den Rest des Tages in Luxus gebadet. Anstelle fuhren wir weiter und hielten an einem Neubaudorf, um einen Zeltplatz zu finden. Leider schickten uns alle weiter außer einer älteren Frau, die bei der Polizei arbeitete und uns ein Zimmer in ihrem Haus für 50 Dollar anbot. Dieses allzu großzügige Angebot lehnten wir ab und fuhren ins nächste Dorf. Viele Fragen und fast ebenso viel Kopfschütteln später, lud uns eine Familie zu sich ein. Der Hausfrau übergaben wir unsere Tütensuppen, da wir nicht wollten, dass sie für uns kocht, da dieses Haus etwas ärmer aussah, und zum ersten Mal setzte sich die ganze Familie mit uns zum Essen an den Tisch. Wir bekamen auch unsere Nudelsuppe, mussten danach aber weiter mit der Familie essen. Dieses Mal gab es Kohl mit Würstchen. Im Laufe des Abends schaute der Rest der Familie und alle Nachbarn vorbei, um uns zu bestaunen und gegen 20 Uhr durften wir uns schlafen legen. In etwa eine Stunde später klopfte es plötzlich an der Tür, unser Gastgeber kam ins Zimmer und schrie aufgeregt: “Palatka, you go, go!”. Irgendjemand musste uns bei der Polizei verraten haben und die Familie bekam Schwierigkeiten. So schnell es ging packten wir unsere Siebensachen und radelten in unseren Schlafanzügen so schnell es ging in die Nacht in Richtung Schnellstraße. Unmöglich hätten wir unser Palatka (Zelt) hier in den Feldern aufschlagen können, das wussten wir vom Nachmittag. Wir erinnerten uns aber an eine kleine überdachte Plattform neben dem Schnellweg und da wollten wir hin. Da es wirklich stockdunkel war und wir absolut nichts sehen konnten, mussten wir mehrere Hundert Meter auf dem Standstreifen entgegen der Fahrtrichtung radeln. Leider ließ uns der Besitzer auch hier nicht zelten, da half kein Bitten und Betteln. Sie schickten uns zurück ins Hotel. Genervt schoben wir unsere Räder auf die richtige Fahrbahnseite und radelten die fünf Kilometer zurück zum Hotel durch die unheimliche Dunkelheit. Wir bekamen ein sehr schönes, sauberes und luxuriöses Zimmer mit weichen Betten, weißen Bettlaken, weichen Kissen und einem funktionierenden Badezimmer mit weißen Handtüchern, einer richtigen Dusche, einem Waschbecken und einem Klo, wie wir es gewohnt sind. Trotzdem gingen wir ungeduscht gegen 22:30 Uhr schlafen, das konnte bis zum nächsten Morgen warten.

Family dinner
Abendessen mit der ganzen Familie

Zu unserer großen Freude konnten wir unser Hotelzimmer in usbekischen Sum bezahlen und so zahlten wir aufgrund unserer sehr guten Tauschkurses nur 30 Dollar. Nach einer ausgiebigen Dusche plünderten wir das Frühstücksbuffet. Johan aß in der Tat so viel, dass später die Klobrille in Tausend Teile zerbrach. Und nicht nur das, nach dem Frühstück hatten wir plötzlich weder Strom noch Wasser und wir mussten uns die Zähne wieder einmal bei Stirnlampenlicht und mit unserem eigenen Wasser putzen. Beim Auschecken beschwerte ich mich und die Rezeptionistin beantwortete alle meiner Kommentare nur mit “Yes”. Johan meinte dann nur, dass sie kein Wort Englisch spräche und ich gab schließlich auf. Fünf Minuten später kam sie plötzlich auf uns zugerannt und forderte in perfektem Englisch 25.000 Sum (5$) von uns für die kaputte Klobrille. Wenn’s um’s Geldeintreiben geht, klappt es auf einmal mit dem Englischen. Nach einer kurzen Diskussion machten wir uns dann auf den Weg, ohne zu bezahlen. Gegen Mittag erreichten wir dann Bukara. Johans Geburtstag verbrachten wir in Zentralasiens heiligster Stadt mit Gebäuden, die auf eine 1000-jährige Geschichte zurückblicken. Laut Reiseführer ist die Stadt auch eine der Besten, um eine Vorstellung vom vorrussischen Turkestan zu bekommen.

Village life
Dorfleben
Refueling stop
Nachschub
Beautiful remainder of the Soviet architecture
Wunderbares Überbleibsel sowjetischer Architektur
While we were having a short coffee break this family stepped out of their car, sat next to us to take pictures. The boy was nicely dressed up in a velvet suit.
Während einer kurzen Kaffeepause kam diese Familie an, setzte sich zu uns und machte Fotos. Der Junge hatte einen schicken Samtanzug an.

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And we reached another important Silk Road city
Eine weitere Stadt an der Seidenstraße

Eindrücke von Bukara: 

A beautiful and - in the early morning only - peaceful square
Einer der wenigen Teiche, die in Bukara überlebt haben. Sie wurden im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert gebaut und waren in der Vergangenheit die einzige Wasserquelle und verantwortlich für die schnelle Ausbreitung von Krankheiten.

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Atombusen-Alarm

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Counting money in Uzbekistan takes a while

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Geld zählen ist eine langwierige Angelegenheit in Usbekistan – auch wenn’s ganz wenig ist

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A restaurant with a view
Restaurant mit Ausblick
The same restaurant's cooks and kitchen - according to our travel guide the best place in town
Köche und Küche im selben Restaurant – laut Reiseführer das Beste vor Ort

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Am Tor der Festung Ark
The massive walls of the Bukhara fortress Ark
Die riesigen Schutzwälle der Festung

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Working at our 12-Dollars-per-night-including-breakfast guesthouse
Arbeit in der 12-Dollar-pro-Nacht-inklusive-Frühstück-Pension

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Da wir nicht davon ausgingen, irgendwann in naher Zukunft nach Usbekistan zurückzukehren, fuhren wir mit dem Taxi in das 600km entfernte Kiva im Norden Bukaras. Diese Stadt an der Seidenstraße ist berühmt-berüchtigt für ihre Sklavenkaravanen, barbarischen Grausamkeiten, schrecklichen Wüstenreisen und Steppen, die von wilden Stammesangehörigen heimgesucht werden. Für uns war die Stadt wie ein Freilichtmuseum mit gut erhaltenen Minaretten, Medressen, Moscheen und langweiligen Museen und wir kamen uns ein bisschen vor, als wären wir in ein anderes Jahrhundert eingetaucht, wenn da nicht die vielen Souvenirläden und Cafes gewesen wären. Hier haben wir auch Christian aus Frankreich wiedergetroffen und verabredeten uns zum Abendessen. Er ist mit seinem Geländewagen von Frankreich aus bis Zentralasien gefahren und war nun mehr oder weniger auf derselben Route unterwegs wie wir. Am Vormittag hatten wir einen Tisch im besten Restaurant am Platz gebucht und dachten, dass es sicherlich kein Problem sei, zu dritt aufzutauchen. Wir sollten uns täuschen. Es dauerte geschlagene 15 Minuten, bis der Kellner schließlich nachgab und verärgert einen dritten Stuhl an unseren Tisch stellte. Nach Wochen kulinarischer Entbehrungen und der Einnahme von Laghman (Nudelsuppe), Plov (gebratener Reis) und Manty (mit Fleisch gefüllte Knödel) bestellten wir Hamburger. Schon beim Gedanken daran lief uns das Wasser im Mund zusammen. Umso größer war unsere Enttäuschung als unsere Teller ankamen, auf denen je zwei Frikadellen, Reis, Kartoffelpüree und ein Salatblatt lagen. Schmunzelnd über unsere eigene Naivität verbrachten wir einen netten Abend mit Christian. Und zu unser aller Überraschung bekamen wir ein Dessert auf’s Haus – wahrscheinlich wurde dem Personal bewusst, dass sie sich nicht wirklich korrekt verhalten hatten.

Eindrücke von Kiva:

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Winter is approaching
Der Winter ist im Anmarsch

Johan sucht nach dem richtigen Outfit 🙂

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Das wunderschöne unfertige Minarett, das eigentlich das höchste der Welt werden sollte, damit der Sultan Bukara sehen kann

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Am nächsten Morgen schlenderten wir noch ein wenig durch die Stadt und ärgerten uns ein weiteres Mal über die nicht vorhandene Service-Kultur. Wir gingen in ein Cafe und die erste Frage, die uns entgegensprang war: “Gehören Sie zu einer Gruppe?”. Unsere übliche Antwort “Ja, unsere Gruppe besteht aus genau zwei Personen und selbst diese Gruppe ist manchmal zu groß,” fand der Kellner nicht wirklich lustig. Ganz im Gegenteil: Die Enttäuschung stand ihm ins Gesicht geschrieben. Wir durften uns an einen Tisch setzen, wurden aber nicht bedient, obwohl wir mehrfach versuchten, Kaffee zu bestellen. Eine Gruppe, die kurz nach uns ankam, wurde sofort bedient. Normalerweise wären wir spätestens jetzt aufgestanden und gegangen, aber da es hier die einzig funktionierende WLan-Verbindung kam, rissen wir uns zusammen und blieben, denn ich musste noch dringend ein Paar wichtige E-Mails verschicken. Den Nachmittag verbrachten wir dann wieder im Taxi auf dem langen Rückweg nach Bukara, um uns wieder zu unseren Rädern zu gesellen.

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Und wieder war es an der Zeit, ein Land zu verlassen, da unser Transitvisum für Turkmenistan ab dem 9. Oktober gültig war. Mit nur fünf Tagen Zeit, um das Land zu durchqueren wollten wir sichergehen, dass wir die Grenze so früh wie möglich passieren. Wir hatten zwei Tage Zeit, um die 100km entfernte Grenze zu erreichen und verließen Bukara am frühen Nachmittag, radelten bis 17 Uhr und zelteten unter Apfelbäumen. Leider stellten wir in dieser Nacht fest, dass unsere Matratzen leckten und gegen Mitternacht lagen wir auf dem harten Boden. Das waren keine guten Aussichten, denn wir mussten in Turkmenistan die Wüste durchqueren und würden die nächsten Tage zelten ohne die Gelegenheit zu haben, die Matratzen zu reparieren. Nach einer wirklich schlechten Nacht fuhren wir am nächsten Morgen schlecht gelaunt los. Denn zu allem Unglück kam auch noch Gegenwind dazu. Gegen Mittag wurde der Gegenwind zu einem Sandsturm, die Luft war komplett gelb und sandig, unsere Sicht sehr begrenzt und die ganze Atmosphäre irgendwie unheimlich. Wir kämpften hart gegen den Wind, um rechtzeitig an der Grenze anzukommen, obwohl wir nur eine Distanz von 60 km überwinden mussten. Zehn Minuten vor Schließung der Grenze kamen wir an, was für uns eindeutig vorteilhaft war, denn die Grenzbeamten hatten keine Lust auf Überstunden und so blieben unsere Taschen geschlossen und innerhalb von 20 Minuten waren wir offiziell aus Usbekistan ausgereist.

The Silk Road
Die Seidenstraße

Wir hatten viele schöne und wenige schlechte Erfahrungen in Usbekistan. Obwohl sich das Land langsam für den Tourismus öffnet, ist es noch immer ein streng geführter Polizeistaat. Trotzdem fühlten wir uns willkommen, sei es durch die zahlreichen Begrüßungen, wenn wir durch die Dörfer radelten, ein Lächeln mit blitzend goldenen Zähnen, die vielen Einladungen zum Tee, Kinder, die uns kreischend hinterherliefen oder -radelten, die vielen Menschen, die uns zu sich nach Hause einluden und Mahlzeiten mit uns teilten oder die uns beim Vorbeiradeln Obst oder Brot schenkten. Die Städte Samarkand, Bukara und Kiva haben uns mit ihrer sagenhaften Architektur stark beeindruckt. Wir waren positiv überrascht von den tollen Landschaften bis Samarkand, was danach kam, war dann leider eher langweilig, da die  Landschaft von Baumwollfeldern und wenig beeindruckenden Wüstenlandschaften dominiert wird. Der Staat selber verwaltet sich fast zu Tode, wir gehen davon aus, dass dies noch aus alter Sowjetzeit herrührt. Unsere Pässe waren voll mit kleinen Hotelzettelchen, die von den Hotelmanagern penibel ausgefüllt, bestempelt und unterschrieben waren. Als Johan bei einer Bank Geld abhob, musste er zahllose Papierfetzen unterschreiben, die von einem Bankangestellten zum anderen gereicht wurden, bevor er endlich seine Dollars bekam.

The 3Ms – Medressas, Mosques and Mausoleums

Fast facts Uzbekistan:

  • The region’s cradle of culture for more than 2 millennia and proud home to a spellbinding arsenal of architecture and ancient cities
  • Hospitality is an essential element of daily life, which we experienced every day in the non-tourism-spoilt countryside
  • The country is famous for plov (fried rice), which we could hardly get – cooking time is about 2 hours and usually needs to be pre-ordered
  • Population: around 30 million people
  • Neighbouring countries: Kazakhstan (North), Kyrgysztan and Tajikistan (East), Afghanistan (South), Turkmenistan (West)
Hier muss noch was rein
Distance: 395 km (2,012km in total)

20 – 29 September, 2015 – After almost 70km of easy cycling we reached the border at 1pm, changed some money at a really bad rate and got three huge piles of banknotes or 500,000 Sum, worth around 80 EUR. From now on we would carry our money in plastic bags as our wallets couldn’t bear so many bills. We made it easily through Tajik customs after our passports had been registered or checked at three different checkpoints and then arrived at the Uzbek border. We knew things would become more difficult now. We had thoroughly counted all our money in advance because we had to declare every penny. As there was only space for three different currencies on the form I almost panicked: I still had 0.20 Tajik Somoni (0.03 EUR) in my wallet and Johan received from our Australian Soccer friends Omani Real. We heard stories from other travellers who had to pay huge fines for not having declared their cents! Once we had filled in our forms the real inspection would begin: the customs officers made us open our panniers and emptied all of them. We had to start our computers and cameras so they could look at our pictures and everything else that’s on there. Johan had to give them a copy of a photo taken from an aluminium factory – the Uzbeks now officially appointed him as a spy. They were also very interested in the books we are reading! About 1.5 hours later we could continue our journey on slightly undulating roads. All we saw to our left and right were cotton, vegetable and fruit fields and small stalls selling grapes and apples.

The cotton harvest has begun
The cotton harvest has begun
More cotton harvesting...handy filling for our little self-made mascots
More cotton harvesting…handy filling for our little self-made mascots
Flowers growing in unison with grapes
Flowers growing in unison with grapes
Talking about harvesting...this is a slightly different harvest
Talking about harvesting…this is a slightly different harvest
En route
En route
Market en route to Samarkand
Market on our way to Samarkand

As it was difficult to find a spot for wild camping without being seen – there were people everywhere and we felt a bit like being back in India: each time we stopped within a few minutes we were surrounded by a crowd – we asked at people’s houses if we could pitch out tent in their garden or on their field. Without hesitating they invited us into their house, prepared tea, bread and sweets for us and gave us a room to sleep. Sometimes we could cook our own food but still had to eat their bread and cookies. We slept on the ground on thin mattresses that were piled meter-high in their living rooms, always ready to serve fellow travelers.

Staple meal in Uzbekistan
Staple meal in Uzbekistan
Our first homestay - they insisted on getting our phone number even though they wouldn't speak a single word English!
Our first homestay – they insisted on getting our phone number even though they wouldn’t speak a single word English!
This lady is selling home-made cakes and Nescafe - a cyclist's heaven!
This lady is selling home-made cakes and Nescafe – a cyclist’s heaven!
When I came back from grocery shopping, Johan was surrounded by this crowd!
When I came back from grocery shopping, Johan was surrounded by this crowd!
Our absolute favorite afternoon snack on a hot summerday
Our absolute favorite afternoon snack on a hot summerday – I am talking about the watermelon!
Sunflower oil - the staple oil in Uzbekistan
Sunflower oil – much used in Uzbekistan
Another popular means of transportation
Another popular means of transportation

On our third day travelling through now mountainous countryside we passed a police checkpoint at around 3pm. The police officer asked for our hotel slips and as we had none he made clear to us that we had to register at a hotel tonight. You need to know that it is mandatory in Uzbekistan to register at hotels at least every third day otherwise you’ll get into serious trouble at the border once leaving the country. Before this checkpoint we weren’t really worried about the registration and as this had been a tough day with a lot of climbing and headwinds we had planned to look for a camp spot or homestay once more. The distance to the next hotel was still around 50km. With a continuously undulating road and very strong headwinds we knew we would never make it to the town before nightfall and decided to hitch a ride. The first truck driver immediately stopped – but he was from Iran and his truck sealed – no way we could have squeezed our bikes in his cabin. Then another truck stopped and three men stepped out. After we made ourselves understood they had a huge discussion amongst themselves. As far as we understood there was another police checkpoint in about 35km and one of them wanted to take us and the other one didn’t, given the risk with the police. People in Uzbekistan also aren’t allowed to invite foreigners into their homes, let alone give them a lift. Ten minutes later our bikes were loaded into the truck and we were sitting next to them on a soft blanket trying to sit stable and at times jumping up a meter given the many potholes and the fact that the driver might have forgotten about his fragile freight. About an hour later we arrived a few hundred meters before the checkpoint, unloaded and repacked our bikes, thanked the driver and cycled the remaining 15km to the hotel. P1230113

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Selfie in the truck
Selfie in the truck

On our way to our first longer stop at Samarkand we had to cross a few unexpected passes, often struggling with headwinds and bad roads that looked as if a cow had shat asphalt. We met lovely people who sweetened our days with fruit and other goodies. We also met a few not so nice people: At a restaurant where they tried to screw us by asking far too much money for what we had. In the end we paid one third less than they asked for and we were quite upset as they had tried to ask extra money for napkins next to the 10% service fee.

The surprisingly mountainous countryside
The surprisingly mountainous countryside
Refueling before the next climb
Refueling before the next climb

After almost two months on the road through amazing landscapes we were now looking forward to some sightseeing of ancient towns featuring old Islamic architecture. Our first planned stop was Shakhrisabz, Timur’s hometown who in the 14th century turned the town into an extended family monument. Timur is considered the last of the great nomadic conquerors of the Eurasian Steppe. All that is left of his monuments is a gigantic 38m-high gate covered with gorgeous unrestored, filigree-like mosaics. Unfortunately most of the old town had been broken down for renovation at the time we visited and we continued our journey to Samarkand the same day.

A sand storm thankfully not affecting us - the wind was this time in our back and blew us to
A sand storm thankfully not affecting us – the wind was this time in our back and blew us to Shakhrisabz
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The massive remainder of the palace gate in Shakhrisabz, I am the little pink spot on the right

We entered Samarkand from a part that most likely no tourist will ever get to see. Several times I checked our online map to make sure we are entering the town and not going to some small villages. The road into town was non-existing, dusty, pebbly and pot-holed, just one big disaster. Small shops and houses lined the road and we felt sorry for the people having to live here. Only two kilometers before we reached the center the streets would improve.

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At the foot of the last pass before Samarkand
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The winding pass road
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Fruit sellers at the top of the mountain
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Jaws was here as well (remember the James Bond movies ‘The spy who loved me’ or ‘Moonraker’?)
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2,000km right before Samarkand
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The good thing about few furniture: if you are moving, everything fits in one car 🙂

Samarkand is a key Silk Road City and already Alexander the Great who took the town in 329 BC said: “Everything I have heard about Marakanda is true, except that it’s more beautiful than I ever imagined.” We really liked Samarkand despite knowing that most of the monuments have been restored by the Soviets and only few original parts remained. And while some parts of the town felt a little like Disneyland with its clean alleys, souvenir shops and cafés, these gigantic medressas, mosques and mausoleums made quite an impression on us knowing they belong to the world’s oldest preserved buildings.

Samarkand impressions:

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Mausoleums
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A beautiful mosaic mausoleum dome
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Peaceful street life
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The grande Registan Square with its Medressas (former Quran schools)
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The police is everywhere in a police state
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The Registan is a great backdrop for wedding photos, a few other couples were already getting ready for the set
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Traditional velvet dresses at the Registan
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The inside of a  Medressa/Mosque
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A peaceful courtyard at a Mosque/Medressa
Even the smallest space is used for souvenir shops
Even the smallest space is used for souvenir shops

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A typical Uzbek cemetry
A typical Uzbek cemetery

At the Samarkand market, where you can get everything from…

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…fruits, vegetables and and herbs,…
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…fried fish,…
...eggs...
…eggs,…
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…candy,…
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…pickles,…
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…and most importantly bread.

 

 

 

 

Relaxing in Dushanbe

Fast facts Tajikistan:

  • A small landlocked jewel with huge and beautiful mountains, second only in height to the Himalaya/Karakoram range
  • Neighbouring countries: Kyrgyzstan (North), China (East), Afghanistan (South), Uzbekistan (West)
  • Population: 8.5 million people
  • Poorest country in Central Asia: a teacher earns approximately 80 USD per month and it is estimated that 20% of the population lives on less than 1.25 USD per day.
  • Drug trafficking is the major illegal income source

9 – 20 September 2015 – We’ve had a wonderful time in Dushanbe. Only then we realized how tired we were. Not only from a 24-hour drive heart-stoppingly close to cliffs but also from the hard work over the past few weeks. The coming days we did not set an alarm, we did not struggle against headwinds and instead just slept, read, ate, updated the blog, slept, strolled through the city, relaxed a bit more, applied for our Turkmen transit visas, slept again, met a few other cyclists and enjoyed the luxury of our guesthouse.

Marian's guesthouse in Dushanbe - our little paradise
Marian’s Guesthouse in Dushanbe – our little paradise
Finally meeting Phoebe who is cycling to Singapore. We met her brother a few years ago in Singapore and have been following Phoebe's travels since earlier this year.
Finally meeting Phoebe who is cycling to Singapore. We met her brother a few years ago in Singapore and have been following Phoebe’s travels since earlier this year.
The world seen from Dushanbe
The world seen from Dushanbe
Tajikistan's president - smiling at us from millions of billboards
Tajikistan’s president – looking at us from millions of billboards
One of Dushanbe's landmarks
One of Dushanbe’s landmarks

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And another monstrous building
And another monstrous building
Once Asia's largest flagpole, the flag alone measures 2000 square meters!
Once Asia’s largest flagpole, the flag alone measures 2000 square meters!

The day our visas should have been ready we nervously cycled to the embassy. We had heard too many stories of people getting rejected for no obvious reasons. We arrived at around 9am only to hear that they would only open by 9.30am. Finally inside we were told to come back the next day, the visas weren’t ready as yet. Now we were even more thankful that we had arrived on time in Dushanbe as the next day was Friday and Sunday was the day we had to leave Tajikistan. If we wouldn’t get the visas on Friday we would have to leave without. But lucky as we are the next day it was ready – we only had to cycle across the city through mad traffic to pay our 110 $ visa fee to a Pakistan Bank located at the other end of the city and pedal once more all the way back.

Two happy chaps
Two happy chaps with their Turkmenistan visas

Finally we were ready to hit the road again. The next morning the alarm went off early again but we couldn’t believe our eyes. It was raining! We haven’t seen any rain in weeks. The forecast was bad for the whole day and eventually we stayed another day. Good decision, the following day we set off on a clear and sunny day with slight tailwinds. Mostly we cycled along boring cotton fields, apple plantations and grapevines, with a barren mountain chain in the background. But after 12 days off the bikes we enjoyed sitting once again on our hard saddles. Halfway to the border we got a water melon and ate it together with the friendly and very well English-speaking people. Later that day I got fresh grapes and Johan a freshly baked bread. From everywhere we once more heard friendly ‘Hellos’ and ‘Salams’ and people kept asking us how we liked Tajikistan. We were no longer ‘normal’ tourists but cycling travellers attracting a lot of attention and causing much confusion. ‘Why do you cycle? Why not go by car? This is so much easier!’, were the questions and comments we got from locals. Only the poorest or kids are cycling in Tajikistan, everyone else rides a car.

Leaving Dushanbe in the early morning
Leaving Dushanbe in the early morning
The melon has already been eaten
The melon has already been eaten

 

 

 

 

 

Let the president always be with us
Let the president always be with us
TAILWIND!!!
TAILWIND!!!
Aluminium production - we are now part of an espionage plot, as the Uzbek customs officer asked us for a copy of this photo
Aluminium production – we are now part of an espionage plot, as the Uzbek customs officer asked us for a copy of this photo
At lunch time
At lunch time
Cotton fields
Cotton fields
Time for the cotton harvest
Time for the cotton harvest

We entered the country from a very poor area and cycled through one of the most remote regions. The climate is rough with hot and arid summers and very cold winters. People are shy but very friendly and hospitable. Food is basic with little variety. Soup is the staple dish and if we were lucky there were a few other vegetables than potatoes in it. With it we usually got stale bread and sweets. Sometimes fried potatoes or plov (fried rice with carrots and mutton meat) was served. If we were very lucky we got tomato and cucumber salad, most likely the cause for our constant stomach issues.

Bathrooms are basic and usually quite dirty. This surprised us as they are very tidy if it comes to their houses. You must not enter the house with shoes, that’s a major offence. Early in the morning they start sweeping the floors and it continues throughout the day, often to our annoyance as they cause more dust than anything else. Squat toilets are built as far away from the house as possible and shower facilities usually don’t work – there was either boiling hot or ice-cold water, nothing in between. Sometimes there would only be a few drops coming out of the tap. But then these were bathrooms built for tourists. Locals on the countryside only have toilets, washing takes place in front of their houses with water out of a tin pot or a bucket.

Tajiks are very bad drivers, same as everywhere else in Central Asia. Due to the condition of the roads, cars – the majority being old ladas from the Sovjet era – are in the same poor state. Tajiks only know one speed: fast. Wheels spin whenever they leave, they are overtaking everywhere whether they see something or not, they are always on the phone and we’ve hardly seen cars without broken windshields.

Landscapes were absolutely stunning and breathtaking most of the time. Being such a mountainous country it’s been the toughest cycling experience for us ever. Despite all the pain and effort we’ve been through we are very grateful that we made it through the Pamirs in one piece and that we were able to explore these extraordinary landscapes.

Ausspannen in Dushanbe

Fakten Tadschikistan:

  • Ein kleiner, von Land umgebener Juwel mit atemberaubenden Bergen, die höchsten nach dem Himalaja/Karakorum
  • Nachbarländer: Kirgisistan (Norden), China (Osten), Afghanistan (Süden), Usbekistan (Westen)
  • Bevölkerung: 8,5 Millionen
  • Das ärmste Land Zentralasiens: ein Lehrer verdient ungefähr 80 USD im Monat und Schätzungen gehen davon aus, dass 20% der Bevölkerung mit weniger als 1,25 USD auskommen muss
  • Drogenhandel ist die größte illegale Einkommensquelle

9. – 20. September 2015 – Wir hatten eine sehr schöne Zeit in Dushanbe. Erst hier fiel uns auf, wie müde wir waren. Nicht nur von einer abenteuerlichen 24-Stunden-Fahrt am Rande des Abgrunds, sondern vor allem von der harten Arbeit der letzten Wochen. Jetzt stellten wir uns endlich keinen Wecker mehr, mussten nicht gegen den Wind ankämpfen, dagegen schliefen wir viel, lasen, aßen, aktualisierten den Blog, schliefen, ich arbeitete, wir liefen durch die Stadt, entspannten uns ein bisschen mehr, kümmerten uns um unsere Turkmenistan Visa, schliefen ein bisschen mehr, trafen andere Radfahrer und genossen den Luxus unseres Gasthauses.

Finally meeting Phoebe who is cycling to Singapore. We met her brother a few years ago in Singapore and have been following Phoebe's travels since earlier this year.
Endlich treffen wir Phoebe, die nach Singapur radelt. Vor ein Paar Jahren haben wir ihren Bruder in Singapur getroffen und verfolgen Phoebes Reisen virtuell seit einigen Monaten.
The world seen from Dushanbe
Die Welt aus der Sicht von Dushanbe
Tajikistan's president - smiling at us from millions of billboards
Tadschikistans Präsident, der auf uns von Millionen Plakaten herunterschaut
One of Dushanbe's landmarks
Eines der Wahrzeichen von Dushanbe

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And another monstrous building
Und noch ein monströses Gebäude
Once Asia's largest flagpole, the flag alone measures 2000 square meters!
Einst Asiens größter Fahnenmast – die Flagge allein hat eine Fläche von 2000 Quadratmetern!
An enormous tea house
Alles ist hier groß – hier ein enormes Teehaus

Am Tag, als unsere Visa fertig sein sollten, radelten wir nervös zur Botschaft. Wir haben so viele Geschichten von Menschen gehört, denen das Visum grundlos verweigert wurde. Wir kamen um 9 Uhr wie vereinbart an, die Botschaft machte aber erst um 9.30 Uhr auf. Nachdem wir dann endlich rein durften mussten wir leider erfahren, dass unsere Visa noch nicht fertig waren. Jetzt waren wir erst recht froh, dass wir so rechtzeitig nach Dushanbe gereist sind, denn der nächste Tag war Freitag und am Sonntag mussten wir das Land verlassen. Wenn wir morgen das Visum nicht bekämen, müssten wir ohne ausreisen. Aber wir hatten wieder einmal Glück, am nächsten Tag waren die Visa fertig, wir mussten nur noch quer durch die ganze Stadt und wahnsinnigen Verkehr radeln, um die Visagebühr von 110 $ bei der Pakistan Bank zu bezahlen und dann wieder zurückradeln, um unsere Pässe mit neuem Aufkleber abzuholen.

Two happy chaps
Zwei Glückspilze mit ihren Turkmenistan Visa

Jetzt konnten wir endlich wieder weiterradeln. Am nächsten Morgen klingelte der Wecker wieder früh und wir trauten unseren Augen nicht: Es regnete! Wochenlang hatte es nicht geregnet. Die Vorhersage war für den ganzen Tag schlecht und letztendlich blieben wir noch einen Tag länger. Das war eine gute Entscheidung, denn am nächsten Tag fuhren wir bei Sonnenschein und leichtem Rückenwind los. Die Strecke war langweilig, meist fuhren wir an Baumwoll- und Obstplantagen mit Äpfelbäumen und Traubenstöcken vorbei und einer kahlen Bergkette im Hintergrund. Das machte aber nichts, nach zwölf radlosen Tagen waren wir froh, wieder auf unseren harten Sätteln sitzen zu dürfen. Auf halbem Weg zur Grenze bekamen wir eine Melone geschenkt, die wir gemeinsam mit den netten und sehr gut Englisch sprechenden Menschen aßen. Später bekamen wir noch leckere Trauben frisch gepflückt und ein warmes Brot aus dem Backofen geschenkt. Von überall her hörten wir wieder “Hello” und “Salam” und die Menschen fragten uns, ob es uns denn in Tadschikistan gefiele. Jetzt waren wir nicht mehr länger ‘normale’ Touristen, sondern radelnde Reisende, die viel Aufmerksamkeit auf sich ziehen und oft für Verwirrung sorgen. ‘Warum fahrt ihr mit dem Fahrrad? Warum nicht mit dem Auto? Das ist doch viel einfacher!’ hörten wir immer wieder von den Ortsansässigen. Hier radeln nur die Ärmsten oder Kinder, alle anderen fahren Auto.

Leaving Dushanbe in the early morning
Auf dem Weg nach Usbekistan, Stadtausgang Dushanbe
The melon has already been eaten
Die Melone ist bereits aufgegessen

 

 

 

 

 

Let the president always be with us
Auf dass der Präsident immer bei uns sei!
TAILWIND!!!
RÜCKENWIND!!!
Aluminium production - we are now part of an espionage plot, as the Uzbek customs officer asked us for a copy of this photo
Aluminiumfabrik – wir sind nun Teil eines Spionagekomplotts – der usbekische Grenzbeamte hat uns um eine Kopie dieses Fotos gebeten.
At lunch time
Mittagessenszeit
Cotton fields
Baumwollfelder
Time for the cotton harvest
Baumwollernte

Wir sind in das Land von seiner ärmsten Seite eingereist und fuhren durch eine der abgelegensten Gebiete. Das Klima ist hart mit heißen und trockenen Sommern und sehr kalten Wintern. Die Menschen sind scheu, aber sehr nett und gastfreundlich. Das Essen ist sehr einfach und bietet wenig Variationen. Suppe ist DAS Gericht und wenn wir Glück hatten, dann gab es außer Kartoffeln noch anderes Gemüse in der Suppe. Oft aßen wir dazu altes Brot und Süßigkeiten. Manchmal gab es Bratkartoffeln oder Plov (gebratener Reis mit Karotten und etwas Hammelfleisch). Und wenn wir ganz besonderes Glück hatten, gab es Tomaten- und Gurkensalat, der war wahrscheinlich immer der Grund für unsere ständigen Magen- und Darmprobleme.

Die Bäder sind hier ebenfalls sehr spartanisch und oft leider auch sehr dreckig. Letzteres ist überraschend, denn die Häuser sind extrem sauber. Auf keinen Fall dürfen sie mit Schuhen betreten werden, das kommt einem schweren Verbrechen gleich. Schon früh morgens wird mit dem Fegen begonnen, dann werden die Böden genässt und gewischt und dann wird wieder gefegt. Die Stehklos sind immer so weit wie möglich weg vom Haus und die Duschen funktionieren in der Regel nicht, wenn es denn welche gibt. Entweder kommen aus dem Hahn nur ein Paar Tropfen oder kochendheißes oder eiskaltes Wasser, dazwischen gibt es nichts. Aber dann muss man auch wissen, dass diese Bäder auch nur für Touristen gebaut werden, die Menschen hier auf dem Land haben keine Badezimmer, sie waschen sich an einem einfach Waschbecken vor dem Haus. Manchmal gibt es noch nicht einmal ein Waschbecken und man gießt sich das Wasser mit einer Zinnkanne über die Hände und den Rest.

Die Tadschiken sind sehr schlechte Autofahrer, wie übrigens überall sonst in Zentralasien auch. Aufgrund des schlechten Zustands der Straßen sehen Autos nicht viel besser aus – meist sind es hier alte Ladas noch aus Sowietzeiten. Tadschiken können auch nur schnell fahren. Die Reifen quietschen, wenn sie losfahren, sie überholen, ob sie etwas sehen oder nicht, sie telefonieren fast ununterbrochen während der Fahrt und wir haben fast keine Autos ohne Risse in der Windschutzscheibe gesehen.

Die Landschaften waren außergewöhnlich und fast immer atemberaubend. Aufgrund der vielen und hohen Berge war es für uns wohl schwierigste Land zum Radeln. Trotz aller Schmerzen und Anstrengungen durch dieses Land, sind wir froh, dass wir es heil durch den Pamir und das Wakhan-Tal geschafft haben und dass wir die Möglichkeit hatten, diese außergewöhnlichen Landschaften zu erkunden.

The Infamous Pamir Highway – Part 3

23 August – 8 September, 2015 – As the Pamir Highway has been an important milestone of our journey you’ll find below our diary entries with the highlights of every day presented in four parts.

253km, altitude gain of 2,493 m (1,558km und Attitüde gain of 18.991 in total)
253km, altitude gain of 2,493 m (1,558km and altitude gain of 18.991 in total)

Day 10: Murghab – Alichor: 107km, altitude gain 841m
Early start and fantastic weather: no wind and another day with clear-blue sky. Shortly after Murghab we pass our first military checkpoint. We are now cycling through the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region for which a permit is needed. Our passports are thoroughly checked, details entered into a journal and ten minutes later we continue. We pedal up our first pass of today of 3600m, a piece of cake as we start climbing at 3500m. The coming hours the road is undulating uphill through a valley, we cycle through small canyons and to our left and right are red rocky mountains. Again hardly any vegetation, only a few thistles, succulents and grasses line the road. After the second pass of over 4100m the landscape becomes boring with a wide valley and brownish mountains around us. We feel a bit like in the movie ‘Groundhog Day’ as the road follows the same pattern over and over again: uphill, then left and downhill, another right turn and then uphill again. Despite the headwind as of 3pm we make good progress and end up at another homestay where we wash ourselves in the same room where we eat and sleep. We get two buckets, one filled with warm water. Our room also seems to be the only room where the phones can be charged and while Johan is standing naked in one of the buckets one after the other person tries to come in to check the status of the phones – of course without knocking on the door first. To avoid any embarrassments we watch the door until we are finished washing. The phone checking continues later on while we are trying to sleep. That evening we have a good laugh as we imagine all these interesting features of Tajik homestays to be added to our own B&B upon our return.

Leaving Murghab
Leaving Murghab
Right before the first pass at 3,600m
Right before the first pass at 3,600m

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Another break with instant noodles and cookies for lunch
Another break with instant noodles and cookies for lunch
Two very funny and inspiring guys from England and Poland
Two very funny and inspiring guys from England and the Netherlands
'Fantastic' roads - at least hazards are marked
‘Fantastic’ roads – at least hazards are marked

Day 11: Alichor – Kharghush Pass: 62 km, altitude gain 773m
25 km asphalt and then we leave the Pamir Highway to cycle a loop through the Wakhan valley along the border of Afghanistan, only separated by the river Pamir. Other cyclists told us not to be worried about the Taliban as they can’t swim. So we don’t worry. We first cycle on a pretty bad road through sand, over rocks, up and down and up again, along a few salt lakes until we finally reach the pass. With a strong headwind and steep gradients we often have to push our bikes – now we know why they are called push bikes! After the summit the weather doesn’t really improve but we move on to find a camp spot at lower altitude. We pass another military checkpoint – this time with armed soldiers who are first asking for cigarettes and then for earphones – we pitch our tent with a vista of Afghanistan and the Pamir River. Traffic is almost non-existing:  today we meet 5 French cyclists and 3 cars pass by.

One of the many salt lakes that follow
One of the many salt lakes that follow
The beginning of the end of asphalt
The beginning of the end of asphalt
Struggling through sand
Struggling through sand
Another loner in the vastness of this beautiful scenery
Another loner in the vastness of this beautiful landscape
At the top of the second pass - the snow-capped mountain belongs to the Afghan Hindukush
At the top of the second pass – the snow-capped mountains belong to the Afghan Hindukush
Protection from the cold wind
Protection from the cold wind
Finally arrived after a long and tiresome day - Afghanistan in the background
Finally arrived after a long and tiresome day – Afghanistan in the background

Day 12: Kharghush to the middle of nowhere: 22km, altitude gain 152m
A day we don’t want to remember. Extremely strong headwind and a maddening bad road prevents us from making any progress. At 3pm we have a huge argument: Johan wants to continue for about 9km – the last hour we only cycled 3km – and I want to stop as we’ve been cycling to the limit for the past days. Shortly afterwards we find the perfect spot for our camp next to a river and hidden under trees. At night Johan wakes up with a start as he dreamed that the Taliban were trying to kidnap us and I wake up because I hear strange noises. For the rest of the night Johan keeps his knife in his hand to protect us from the evil. Today we meet one Dutch cyclist and two cars are passing by.

Tough cycling on rough roads
Tough cycling on rough roads

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It's been a tough day
It’s been a day…
But the beauty of the natures keeps us going
…but the beauty of the nature keeps us going

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"To my left is Afghanistan"
“To my left is Afghanistan”
Our hidden camp
Our hidden camp

Day 13: Middle of nowhere to Langar: 44km, altitude gain 396m
We are descending from 3600m to 2800m and are still climbing almost 400m! Does that make any sense? We keep meeting cyclists who tell us we would only descend as from now and they lied! We promise each other to tell the next cyclist that they would soon cycle on tarmac again and that the next pass is a piece of cake! Other than that the day is great, well rested legs, no wind all morning and scenic surroundings, looking all day at the infamous mountain range Hindukush and the roaring turquoise river Pamir – at least when the road allows. In the evening we check-in at a homestay with a perfect German-speaking landlady. A film crew from the German TV station mdr shooting a mountaineering documentary has checked in as well and we spend a nice evening chatting with them. Today it’s been busy on the road: 2 French and 2 Swiss cyclists, 7 cars and 3 trucks full of workers at the back.

Rolling landscape with a Hindukush backdrop
Rolling landscape with a Hindukush backdrop

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Roads looking scarier on the photo than in reality
Roads looking scarier on the photo than in reality
Can you find the little cyclist?
Can you find the little cyclist?
The mightiness of the mountains
The mightiness of the mountains

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A few more hills and we're in Langar
A few more hills and we’re in Langar
We finally made it!
We finally made it – and yes, there are still trees on this planet 😉
Our nice homestay
Our nice homestay

Day 14: Langar – Ptup, 46km, altitude gain 350m
Late start and never-ending bad roads. Whoever told us that the roads would become better after Langar is a liar. Either we go through sand, over huge rocks, washboard or 20cm deep gravel. And yes, there is some asphalt as well, but that is melting, so once again no pleasure to ride on. By the evening our bottoms are sore and hours later we are still shaky from the bumpy roads. But enough ranting. The landscape has changed a lot. We are now at the wide river Panj, again marking the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The valley is semi-arid and apart from occasional clusters of shrubs or willow, birch and other small trees the landscape remains barren. The villages that emerge every few kilometers seem like small oases to us with all the trees, fields and vegetable gardens we haven’t seen since Osh two weeks ago. Between two villages we see about 10 to 15 men far away at the river, a rubber boat trying to get to the Tajikistan shore and five big 4WD cars waiting next to the road. My first thought is that they are fishing, but Johan’s got a better idea: the men are smuggling drugs from Afghanistan to Tajikistan. It is estimated that as much as 50% of Tajikistan’s economic activity in the last decade was linked to Afghanistan’s narcotic trade. We try to get away from there as quickly as the road allows. Today we meet a group of supported German cyclists, 1 truck and about 20 – 30 cars.

Another shop with extraordinary choice: 10 different types of cookies and candies, 100 packages instant noodle soup, Vodka and cigarettes
Another shop with an extraordinary choice: 10 different types of cookies and candies, 100 packages of instant noodle soup, Vodka and cigarettes
Field work
Field work
Cycling through another oasis
Cycling through another oasis
Resting from too much field work
Resting from too much field work
Another majestic mountain
Another majestic mountain

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"Sending my love to everyone out there"
“Sending my love to everyone out there”
Just in case you were thinking we are exaggerating about the roads...
Just in case you were thinking we are exaggerating about the roads…
Washing dirty laundry
Washing dirty laundry

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And here is the evidence: smugglers!
And here is the evidence: smugglers!
At the end of another exhausting day we got served fried potatoes swimming in oil with old bread and cucumber salad, cookies and tea.
At the end of another exhausting day we get served fried potatoes swimming in oil with old bread and cucumber salad, cookies and tea.

Day 15: Ptup – Ishkashim: 18km, altitude gain 341m
Another day we’d rather forget. We leave with Johan having severe stomach cramps on a sunny and stormy day. Guess what – we are cycling into the wind. Four hours later we are just 18km further, having pushed our bikes up most of the time due to the storm. Johan marks the road as I did a few days ago. We hire a taxi to Ishkashim as we know we won’t make it by bike, given the weather and road circumstances.

Village life on an early Sunday morning
Village life on an early Sunday morning
Today's vista of Afghanistan
Today’s vista of Afghanistan
Today's state of the road
Today’s state of the road: pebbles, …
...and sand. And have a look at our flags, sigh!
…and sand. And have a look at our flags, sigh!
No, I am not having a good time today
No, I am not having a good time today
Push, push, push...
Push, push, push…

The Infamous Pamir Highway – Part 2

23 August – 8 September, 2015 – As the Pamir Highway has been an important milestone of our journey you’ll find below our diary entries with the highlights of every day presented in four parts.

137km, 1047 meters altitude gain (1258km and 16,155 m altitude gain in total)
137km, 1047 meters altitude gain (1258km and 16,155 m altitude gain in total)

Day 6: Karakul – bottom of pass Akbaital: 48km, altitude gain 503m
A late start and a tremendous headwind prevents us from making any progress. We meet two Austrian cyclists and Eddy (not Merckx) from Belgium who are today’s lucky ones. We get updates on the road and continue. Extreme washboard after 40km doesn’t help us and I get weaker and weaker and even start walking at times as it is easier than cycling against this wind. Right before the pass we see a farmer’s camp and decide to call it a day. Johan and I agree to pitch the tent and cook ourselves and five minutes later Johan ‘books’ us into the hut including half-board for around 7 EUR. At first happy to be be done for the day, we would soon regret it. The people are very hospitable, prepare chai for us which is served with bread, kefir and butter. We relax in the overheated hut at temperatures of around 30 degrees but almost suffocate from the exhaust of the little oven used for cooking and heating. We can’t wash ourselves so we endure and soon dinner is served. Again chai and bread and a kind of ravioli filled with meat and onions. A tasty but greasy dish. Right after dinner our bed is being prepared next to the dining table. The 10-year-old daughter lays out many thick blankets and pillows on the floor and indicates that we now can go to sleep. The whole family is still sitting around the table eating and drinking and we feel a bit odd to go to bed, especially as we are still dressed in our cycling clothes and not keen on keeping them on all night. Not being able to wash has already been hard enough. We are being told another time to go to sleep and we finally obey. With low voices the family continues eating and firing the heating. After dinner the father lits a few cigarettes, farts with Johan laying right next to him and us almost dying with all our clothes on under two heavy blankets. About a sleepless hour later the family starts making their own sleeping arrangements, now stumbling over us as their bedding is right behind us. Finally ready, the daughter begins to talk endlessly for at least another hour, us still fully awake, but in the meantime secretly undressed under our blankets. No way I could sleep in my sports bra and cycling shorts as our clothes pannier stands on the other side of the hut. Now I am only wearing my sweaty tee. Johan had been smart enough to bring his pyjama with him. My challenge now is to keep my naked bottom under the blanket and to get dressed on time the next morning. When the talking finally stops we hear another strange noise – the girl is peeing into a bowl right next to the beds. This procedure is being repeated several times and in the morning we get up more shattered than the evening before. An altitude of 4100m and my beginning stomach problems most likely didn’t really help either.

Our nice little homestay
Our nice little homestay

Leaving Sary Tash

Leaving Sary Tash
Leaving Sary Tash
Lake Karakul
Lake Karakul
Eddy from Belgium
Eddy from Belgium

Day 7: Pass Akbaital – Murghab: 89km, altitude gain 544m
Today we would traverse our highest pass ever at an altitude of 4655m. As we leave early we start cycling without any wind. I feel very bad with stomach cramps and have to relieve myself right before the pass for the first time. The climb is very difficult with very steep gradients and we walk several times. The altitude adds to the difficulty and we often only manage to cycle 50m before we rest again. The landscape is surreal, red mountains that change colours with the light, hardly any vegetation and besides the funny whistles from the marmots that curiously watch us an eerie silence. After 12.5 km we happily reach the summit and as from now it would only go down – altitude and health-wise. I start feeling like a dog as I leave a mark every few kilometers. After lunch we have our first strange encounter. About 500m ahead I see people standing on the road, there is nothing else close-by and I get a little worried not knowing what to expect. We both take out our pepper spray and cycle next to each other. Only a maximum of 10 to 20 cars are passing us each day and we know we are on our own. Getting closer we recognize two soldiers armed with machine guns standing and another man sitting on the road. As we approach, the sitting man gets up to let us pass. Johan greets ‚Salam’, they are all greeting back and we are gone with the wind.  At around 3pm the wind picks up again and again it is headwind. I am very exhausted as my diarrhoea is getting worse by the minute and knowing I still have to cycle at least 10km against the strong wind makes me break down for the first time on this trip. I can’t stop crying not knowing how to get to the next village. Johan tries to comfort me and we continue slowly with me cycling in his slipstream. When we finally see the village after the last bend in a valley tears keep running again. This time they are tears of joy. We are nearly there. This night I spend mostly on the loo – another sleepless night!

Leaving our camp early in the morning
Leaving our camp early in the morning
Washboard!
Washboard!
First toilet break
First toilet break
Ascending the highest pass
Ascending the highest pass
Confident to be able to make it
Confident to be able to make it
Ha - we made it...
Ha – we made it…
...but we definitely didn't fly
…but we definitely didn’t fly
The beginning of a very long downhill
The beginning of a very long downhill
Sand storms
Sand storms
This was more or less the population between the pass and Murghab
This was more or less the population between the pass and Murghab
Happily arrived in Murghab
Happily arrived in Murghab

Days 8 and 9: Murghab
Long cycling days, food I should not have eaten, maybe contaminated water, headwinds, sleepless nights due to the altitude, the most demanding cycling ever on bad roads and a heavy bike had taken its toll. I am down with fever and the worst diarrhoea ever and we need to take two days off of cycling. My symptoms correspond with the traveller’s diarrhoea and I start taking antibiotics which make me feel much better the second day and confident to be able to continue our journey tomorrow.

A typical townhouse in the Pamirs
A typical townhouse in the Pamirs
The desolate township of Murghab
The desolate township of Murghab
Lenin welcomes us in the smallest village
Lenin welcomes us in the smallest village
Market time
Market time

The Infamous Pamir Highway – Part 1

23 August – 8 September, 2015 – As the Pamir Highway has been an important milestone of our journey you’ll find below our diary entries with the highlights of every day presented in four different parts.

293km, altitude gain: 5224m (1121km and 15107m altitude gain in total)
293km, altitude gain: 5224m (1,121km and 15,107m altitude gain in total)

Day 1: Osh – Gulcha: 85km, altitude gain 1436m
We’re in doubts if we should leave as heavy rainfalls are forecast. We anyway leave as we are on a tight schedule given our expiring Tajikistan visas and are happy we did as it doesn’t rain all day. It’s a climbing day through desolate landscapes with small villages in a bad state, a pass of 2,389m and little tailwind. On our way we are given apples and carrots and meet an Irish-American cycling couple. We are grateful for the guesthouse in Gulcha as we don’t have to cook ourselves as we are shattered after a long days’ cycling.

Arriving at the guesthouse with well prepared owners
Preparation at its best!

Day 2: Gulcha – Ak Bosoga: 77km, altitude gain 1369m
Early start on a beautiful day with clear blue sky and no wind. We continue on undulating roads through the Gulcha valley. High mountains to the left and right, the valley narrows and opens up again to make room for another small village. Later the landscape reminds us on the deserts of California. We are cycling into a strong headwind – one tailwind day had been too good for us. At the end of the afternoon we ask in the village for a place to sleep and the family invites us in. We get chai, cookies, fresh melon and soup and our own room to sleep. We love Kyrgyz hospitality.

An unexpected coffee break
An unexpected coffee break

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And another break
And another break

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The wind is picking up
The wind is picking up
Almost there...
Almost there…
The Kyrgyz family we stayed with
The Kyrgyz family we stayed with

Day 3: Ak Bosoga – Sary Tash: 30km, altitude gain 922m
Another early start and with heavy legs we are climbing up another pass, again against the wind. Gradients are tough, most of the time at around 8%. After four hours we reach the top at 3615m, annoyed with the wind and the kids who are touching everything. For the first time we see snow-capped Peak Lenin, the second highest mountain in Kyrgyzstan at 7134m. Later, Sary Tash offers superb views over a dazzling mountain horizon. We finally go down, but only for three kilometers, then the road climbs for another two kilometers to the second peak at 3550m. What a deception!  We arrive early, have lunch at our guesthouse, do the necessary shopping at one of the two shops that also serves as the local bar, money changer and telecom outlet. We are lucky as the shop owner’s husband seems to be shopping in Osh and every time we are asking for something that’s missing she is bellowing our order into her phone. We can pick it up the next morning at 7am.

Ascending the first pass before Sary Tash
Ascending the first pass before Sary Tash
Our first 1000 kilometers cycled
Our first 1000 kilometers cycled
Summit #1
Summit #1
Summit #2
Summit #2

Day 4: Sary Tash
Another rest day at 3200m as it doesn’t look inviting to fight against the heavy storm and rain outside. I don’t mind as it gives us more time to get adjusted to the altitude. The coming days we’ll be at over 4000m.

Downtown Sary Tash
Downtown Sary Tash: Left turn goes to China, right turn to Tajikistan
Locals
Locals

Day 5: Sary Tash – Karakul: 101km, altitude gain 1497m
A beautiful day with a clear blue sky and rested legs – ideal to tackle two passes in one day. For about 20km we cycle with a view of the dazzling snow-capped mountain chain, to the right Peak Lenin. We pass the first border at 10:30 am without problems and shortly after start the climb of today’s first pass through 20km of no man’s land. Around us are red mountains, marmots and a few eagles are circling in the air. Other than that there is silence. Shortly before the border we meet an Australian motorcyclist warning us that there are issues with customs at the Tajik border. Two French tourists are held by not returning their passports as they don’t want to pay a 10 $ fee for hoax-fumigation.
Arriving at the closed border gate a soldier walks slowly towards us asking for cigarettes. As we have none he walks away without opening the gate. Five minutes later he comes back, opens the gate, guides us to the customs office ( a sea container at an elevation of over 4100m), takes our passports and asks us to wait. Another five minutes later we get our stamped passports back and are officially welcomed to Tajikistan. We slowly cycle through another gate, always waiting for the fumigation-men, but nothing happens. We’re lucky again. We are now on a short downhill – just before the border we passed our ninth and last pass in Kyrgyzstan at 4336m – and cycle through a moon-like landscape with rough mountains around us, along an almost dried-out riverbed and dust storms that resemble thermal activities. We are even luckier as we are by now flying with a very strong tailwind making it easier for us to tackle today’s pass number two. At around 6pm we reach the summit with a fantastic view of lake Karakul. As from now it’s only downhill – 30km! However, the wind decides to change and the last 10km are a fight against it. Right before dark we arrive. Shattered but happy about our achievement – especially as we learned the next day, that we overtook a Scottish couple on their lightweight bikes!

Leaving Sary Tash
Leaving Sary Tash
Photo session with Peak Lenin as a backdrop
Is this an eagle?
Photo session with Peak Lenin as a backdrop
Photo session with Peak Lenin as a backdrop
The first Yaks we see
The first Yaks we see

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Lunch break right before the Kyrgyz border crossing
Lunch break right before the Kyrgyz border crossing
If an old R4 can do the Pamir Highway we should be able to do so, too!
If an old R4 can do the Pamir Highway we should be able to do so, too!
The beginning of the first pass in no man's land between the borders
The beginning of the first pass in no man’s land between the borders
Getting closer to the top
Getting closer to the top

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A fluffy marmot
A fluffy marmot
Highest point ever by bike at 4336m
Highest point ever by bike at 4336m
We can Selfie :-)
We can Selfie 🙂
Dust storms
Dust storms
Final destination: Karakol
Final destination: Karakul
And from here it's only: downhill, downhill, downhill
And from here it’s only: downhill, downhill, downhill
Arrived!
Arrived!