Dictators and Divorce
If we were married, this is the week the divorce papers would have been filed.
The last nine days has been one long case of domestic abuse.
If we were married to our bikes that is….
Our poor bikes have been through all sorts of mistreatment, it’s a wonder they’ve not given up and left us.
The last section has taken us from the city of Osh in Kyrgyzstan, to Uzbekistan briefly for one night, down into Tajikistan, and back into Uzbekistan.
We've been chomping up the the kms, covering 1200km of challenging riding in 10 days. You can view the live map to see the route here.
You can check out the Tajikistan album here. It's a cracker.
Our first foray into Uzbekistan was a brief affair for one night only.
We needed to cut through Uzbek as the two borders between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were either closed, or led to the Pamir Highway which we’re not equipped for (more on this later).
We crossed the border no problem and span on 80 km to the city of Shakhrikhan where we’d banked on finding some accommodation.
There was nothing listed online which wasn’t uncommon, but it looked a decent sized town so we were sure we’d find something.
Uzbekistan is a funny old place.
You legally have to register with a government approved hotel every third night. Upon leaving the country you need to present your registration slips to immigration. Non-compliance with this rule can lead to a 1000 dollar fine, which apparently does happen.
Because we were only staying one night, we needed to register somewhere.
It was getting dark and had been a long day when we pulled into Shakhrikhan. In our broken Russian we asked around for a hotel. The answer came back every time: “Andijan” – a town which was 35km back the way we’d came…
We eventually had this confirmed by an English speaking lad – in order to get our registration slip, we needed to return to Andijan.
It was too dark, and we were too tired to cycle back, so our English speaking friend kindly agreed to call us a taxi to take us back, which we agreed to.
“Thank you mate – just to confirm, it will definitely need to be a big car or jeep in order to take the bikes as well?”
“Yes yes no problem to take the bikes as well”
Thirty minutes later the taxi pulled up – no space for bikes.
Or at least not by any normal concept of how to transport a bike in a car.
With little choice but to get the cab back to Andijan as we didn’t want to be fined 1000 USD, we proceeded to load the bikes into the boot, with the help of about 10 of the local lads who’d come along to watch.
It was hairy to say the least, and not helped by the Uzbek roads being riddled with potholes. Every bump made us wince, but all four of us (the bikes and us) made it safely to a grotty over priced hotel where we got the all-important registration slip, and set off again the next morning to ride over the same bit of road we’d just come from.
The next bike abuse, was a full on crash – although in this instance the bike was the least of our worries.
It was in Tajikistan on the approach to a city called Istaravshan. As is common across Asia, the correct side of the road to drive on is often a matter of personal interpretation.
We were spinning up a steady incline when a kid, about 13 years old, came careering down the street on the wrong side of the road. For a split second, him and Katie did that thing when you almost walk into someone in the street – you both go right, both go left – then laugh and pass each other.
In this instance, instead of laughing and passing each other, they crashed head on.
We’ve each had our fair share of crashes and falls on the trip – to be expected when you spend the majority of every day on a bike – but thankfully with no damage.
This time however Katie landed hard on her hand.
Ewan was some way behind and on seeing what happened rushed up to find the kid had bounced up and ridden off, and Katie lying on the road under a crumpled bike clutching her hand.
We moved off the road and inspected the damage.
Bike was okay, hand was swelling fast.
It was a potential trip ending moment. If it was broken there’d be no way to continue cycling, and as the medical facilities in Central Asia are pretty much non-existent, we’d likely need to fly somewhere to get it treated.
Thankfully after some rest, anti-inflammatory drugs and pain killers the swelling started to go down. We tentatively carried on and it seemed okay – disaster averted.
We’d got lucky this time, but it was a reminder how careful we need to be all the time.
We thanked our good fortune, and continued on and into the mountains of Tajikistan.
You know when you go into the John Lewis electronic department and they have the latest widescreen HD TV on the wall?
Crystal clear, sharp, incredible colours and images of unbelievably beautiful mountains and landscapes.
Cycling in Tajikistan is like cycling through one of these TVs. The colours, landscapes and scenery is stunning.
We rode up the mountains north of Dushanbe, the capital city, where we would end this mini leg.
The other major cycle touring route in Tajikistan is called the Pamir Highway. It’s the second highest major highway in the world at 4,655m and is supposedly “mind blowing" scenery. It’s very famous in bike touring circles.
It was on our initial plan to do, but unfortunately we had to reschedule due to lack of time. We also don’t have the right warm weather kit to go to that altitude at this time of year – so it’s parked for the time being, but firmly on the to do list for next time.
The scenery on our route wasn’t bad anyway!
One thing that wasn’t beautiful, was the Anzob Tunnel.
The Anzob tunnel is a 5km long tunnel, built in 2006 through a mountain to save Tajik lorry drivers going between the major cities in the north and south, having to drive via Uzbekistan.
It’s not pretty.
Dubbed “the tunnel of death” by locals, this article from Australian website News.com describes it as follows:
“It’s a dark, dangerous place, with hardly any lights inside and it’s suffocating as there’s no ventilation bar one fan. Locals have shared stories of a number of people dying inside it due to traffic jams that leave people trapped, where they succumbed to carbon monoxide."
"There’s also the fact it’s almost like an obstacle course, with huge, axle-snapping potholes threatening to swallow up the car, along with flooding that almost turns them into tunnel ponds."
"Throw in the hazard of falling rocks and you’ll want to be alert if you take on the journey.”
The tunnel looms up ahead of you from way down the climb, a black open mouth gaping out the side of the mountain.
It’s reminiscent of the Mines of Moria from Lord of the Rings – and equally as scary.
We hung around at the entrance debating whether or not to ride through it. We had ridden through a number of other tunnels before with no trouble – we have good lights and reflective gear.
On the downside, it was near pitch black, very poor road condition and generally scary.
Only problem was, there was very little traffic on the road, and the traffic there was wasn’t capable of taking us through with our bikes.
After about 40 minutes of waiting, we were close to biting the bullet and riding through… when up pulled a digger.
He stopped, and motioned for us to put our bikes into the “scooper”. It was far from ideal… but we figured we might not get a better chance.
So we went for it – bikes loaded into the mouth of the digger. The man moved his joystick up and they were lifted off the ground and into the air, in the mouth of a giant metal monster.
Katie took the luxury seat on the rubbish bin inside the cockpit, whilst Ewan sat on a step outside and clung onto the side of the digger…
And off into the darkness we went.
It was all the things described in the above article. Freezing cold, with dust and fumes everywhere, no lighting and monstrous potholes.
Ewan clung on for dear life getting dripped on from above, and spattered with water from puddles below.
Each time the digger hit a pothole, the whole thing would jump in the air and our bikes would bob and roll around like fruit in an aggressively pushed shopping trolley.
It was horrible, more for the thought about what was happening to the poor bikes than anything else. Here’s Ewan clinging on….
Finally, we reached the end.
Natural light. Clean air. Snowy mountains.
We offloaded the bikes and waved goodbye to our chauffeur.
Rattled and dazed, we conducted a quick inspection… no immediate damage. Great news!
We unpacked to cook up some scenic pasta in front of the mountains in order to recover some strength – it was only when we took out the laptop to find a big dent in the back of it and the screen not working.
Turns out our hardy bikes could withstand the Anzob Tunnel, the sensitive macbook however had met its match.
It was a blow as that laptop has been invaluable for us the last seven months.
Was it a stupid idea to hitch in the digger? The broken laptop would say yes… but if we hadn’t hitched and had cycled through, and then been rolled over by a truck that didn’t see us, the laptop would have been a cheap price to pay.
With hindsight we probably should have taken it out the bag and held onto it, but then if that laptop hadn’t been damaged, maybe the bike frame would have snapped instead.
Who knows. Impossible to say.
Anyway, main thing was we were through the tunnel, both safe – and ready to roll down the 80km descent into Dushanbe, which we did.
Here we are about to set off on the descent, once we’d gotten over the laptop breakage, and recovered from the digger ordeal.
It was brilliant to reach capital city Dushanbe after another fantastic mini leg. Dushanbe is the home to the world’s tallest flagpole – here’s our long suffering bikes in front of it.
In Dushanbe we stayed with Warm Showers (Cycling Network) host Vero.
Vero is a legendary host, at whose house more than 500 cyclists have stayed. Pretty much everyone who comes through Dushanbe stays with her and camps in her garden. She often has 10 plus people there at any one time. When we were there we were joined by a couple from England/Japan, and two Belgian girls.
We had a great dinner where we swapped cycle touring stories about things like getting chased by dogs… and throwing our bikes in the mouth of a digger…
Our “day off” resembled another apprentice task. The main challenge was that Katie’s front hub – the bit in the middle of the wheel that holds the spokes – had given up all signs of life and had been ground down to a pulp after over 14,000kms.
We needed to locate a replacement part, and someone to fix it. Only issue is there are no bike shops in Dushanbe.... The consensus seemed to be that we might be able to find someone at the market to do it, so we headed down.
Whilst wandering around, we were befriended by English speaking Alisher, who understood what we needed and led us down a side alley to a gentleman sat amongst a pile of old rusty bike parts.
Via Alisher, we explained what we needed, and he seemed to think he could do the job.
Incredibly, when we returned he’d patched it up good as new and replaced the hub. Even with a tip, it only cost us 5 pounds, in the UK it probably would have been about 40.
We then worked out how to courier the laptop home, did a shop, changed some money, and then as we always do at the end of our “rest days” – crashed out exhausted.
Tajikistan has been brilliant. Not quite on Kyrgyzstan levels, but great nonetheless.
The people have been friendly – we spent a lovely night being hosted by Komilla in Ayni (below).
We were greeted by an exceptionally excited man who stopped his car to take a picture with us.
As he pulled away he exclaimed:
“God bless you! God bless your country! God bless your families! I am so happy – I will never forget this day!”
It’s not been all friendly. We took a small detour to a place called Lake Iskanderkul. We’d never heard of it, but many locals had recommended it so we took the 25km detour, trawling our bikes over some appalling roads to reach the lake.
It’s absolutely stunning. At 2,100m altitude, it’s surrounded by mountains and blue skies.
We pitched up at a campsite, and ate in the restaurant that night.
The owner had been trying to rip us off all day. Katie bought some crisps:
“Hmm – it says 4 som on the packet here?” (pointing)
“Okay I will give you it for 4”
After we’d eaten with a Belgian and a German we’d metm he tried to charge us double for what our dinner is worth. When we tried to calmly explain it said 12 in the menu, why was he charging us 25, he exploded into a loud rant in Russian.
Via a translator, he explained the additional charge was for the bread and salad (which are always provided free with the meal here), and that the prices quoted in the menu were from last year so not applicable.
After an argument, he got so animated we just paid it as we were actually worried he might get violent and we were camping there that night.
It made no real odds to us, the value was only a couple of dollars, it’s more the principle that he thinks it’s okay to rip off his customers at every opportunity that’s frustrating.
It’s a shame as his campsite is one of the most stunning places we’ve been in the world.
The lake is so beautiful even the President has a dacha (holiday home) here.
In the awards for the wierdest Central Asian leaders, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon has to be up there.
He has been the President since 1992 after the Soviet Union collapse, and runs the country in a whacky dictatorial style.
Only last month, it was passed in law that whenever state media are referring to Emomali Rahmon, they must use his full title which is:
“The Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation, President of the Republic of Tajikistan, His Excellency Emomali Rahmon,"
Read this article from the BBC for more info, it’s fascinating.
In December last year he passed a law giving himself, and the rest of his family legal immunity, meaning they can never be convicted of any crime. More info here.
His son heads up the Tajik football association, and is also in charge of the anti corruption unit. He has nine children who hold various governmental or high profile positions.
In 2011 he warned people against giving their children what he described as "scary names". He stated: "I pay close attention to surnames and names when I appoint anyone to a leading post in the government"
His Excellency is a hard man to miss in Tajikistan, his face is everywhere.
There are no roadside adverts here – because he takes up all the advertising space.
We decided to do a random test of how many there were. In an arbitrary 12km stretch of road, there were exactly 35 adverts of His Excellency.
Not small posters, these are huge roadside banners, each one depicting His Excellency doing a different activity.
It turned into a game to spot all the fun and wholesome things Mr. Rahmonm gets up to.
Once minute he’s strolling in a field of roses, the next he’s having some friendly banter with the kids, then he's presenting an award to a no doubt deserving pensioner, then he’s being welcomed by a fanfare of trumpets as he strolls down the red carpet with a rainbow at his back, rocking his signature blue suit with dashing red tie.
Perhaps if Theresa May wins a big majority we'll see giant banners of her on the M1 doing typically British things: milking a cow in Devon, working in a chip shop in Brighton, salmon farming in Scotland, drinking a pint in a Yorkshire pub... the possibilities are endless.
Like all self respecting dictators – a key part of the strategy needs to be get the kids onside early.
Here’s a giant banner in a school playground picturing His Excellency shaking hands with none other than Mr. Putin.
A couple of squeaky clean role models for the kids to (literally) look up to.
Alisher, the translator from the market said:
“We live in one of the most corrupt countries in the world. If anyone says anything bad about our President he will just throw them in jail. I’m only saying this to you just now as no one else here can speak English…”
The 2016 Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International, ranks Tajikistan in 151st place out of 176 countries for corruption.
Not everyone thinks he’s bad. As we were leaving Tajikistan, the border guard, about to stamp our passports was giving us some chit chat about where we were from.
“You see our President (points at picture on the wall), he is great man."
"Is this your president?”
He was pointing at a picture on one of the pages in our passports.
“Erm no I think that’s Sir Isaac Newton, he discovered gravity”
And so we left Tajikistan. A beautiful country, but not without it’s troubles.
Here we are hitting our 14,000th kilometre in front of the big man himself.
As mentioned above, Uzbekistan is a funny old place...
It’s one of only two double landlocked countries (the other is Liechtenstein). That means every country that it borders (Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) are landlocked, hence it’s double landlocked.
On roundabouts you give way to the person coming onto the roundabout, not the person already on it. That took a bit of working out.
Uzbek border guards are known to be thorough. There are certain things they look out for: banned medicine for which you can be jailed (including codine), weapons and porn.
Our second entry in Uzbekistan was our hardest border crossing yet.
After having all our bags fully searched, the lady said:
“Okay, we need to look through all your photographs and videos.”
She took both our phones, camera, gopro and even our spare memory cards for inspection. Whilst Katie was re packing everything away, Ewan went to help the guy work the gopro.
Once he was satisfied with that, and after looking though the pictures on the camera he started scrolling through the gallery on Ewan's phone, and watching videos.
Some of a triathlon we did... some from our friend's wedding... some from cycling... all very innocent.
Then he said:
“Do you have sex?”
He then pointed at the phone.
“Ah right – I don’t have any porn on there no”
“Okay you can go”
And we were in for the second time.
Like all of Central Asia, the people are friendly and the countryside is beautiful.
We were aiming to get 549 km to Bukhara in four days. A stretch as there was a fair bit of climbing and some horrendous roads.
We made good progress, it was awesome to watch the landscape change from snow-capped mountains, to lush green farms, to desert and camels within a few days riding.
We stopped at this abandoned petrol station to cook some food and shelter from the sun.
One memorable evening we were riding into Qarshi, when we stopped at a shop to get some food. We met a lady on a road bike and her cute daughter who was very excited. We took some pictures and had a chat in a mixture of what little Russian we’d picked up and google translate.
She cycled with us for a bit, during which time we explained we were heading for a hostel we’d seen online. She shook her head and beckoned for us to follow her which we did.
Before we knew it we were in the front room having dinner and drinking tea. The mother was called Helema and the daughter Sabina. Helema was a PE teacher, and quickly called the school English teacher, who she put on speaker phone and translated for us.
We had a lovely night, the Kyrgyzstan hats we were gifted going down especially well.
We slept that night on mats in the front room with the family, as they do every night, wee Sabina outlasting Katie after a long day of cycling!
The final day to Bukhara was 166km on bone rattling roads, and into a strong headwind. We set off early, and 9 hours of grueling pedaling later we were closing in.
Bukhara is one of the most ancient cities in Uzbekistan a key stop on the silk road. The area around here has been inhabited for 5 millennia.
We were looking forward to exploring town and checking into a hostel to get the all-important night three registration.
At the top of the final climb we could look down across the desert and see the spires of the mosques poking above the sand in the distance.
It was a magical sight and one that humans must been marveling over for thousands of years.