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Not so many tourists in the "Stans" (ex-USSR republics), maybe that’s why there is so much hospitality. Crossing to Xin Jiang (Chinese province) is a strong contrast.
Kazakhstan: Out of the seawater and into the desert. As soon as we touch shore, we find ourselves in Aktau, an oasis in the middle of the desert, to cycle away across teh sands. The desert enchants us with its wild beauty, but life is difficult here. Kazakh traditions have survived the Soviet period. The hospitality is fantastic.
– 19 July: We are invited to stay with Nazila and her children in Aktau. Swimming in the sea and barbeque on the beach...
– 21 July: We leave Aktau - the cycle journey starts.
– 22- 29 July: Cycling across the desert between Aktau et Beynew.
– 30 juillet : Day of rest in Beynew.
Read "A week in the Kazakh desert: water and sun...". – 31 July: A day of bumpy dirt track up to the Kazakh border.
Ouzbékistan: The visa race
Our Uzbek visas were only valid between the 1st and 21st of August.
Difficult to cover 2000 km in so little time. Victim to unbending Uzbek beaurocracy and suffering from digestive problems, we were forced to take a "shortcut" until Tashkent, the capital. There regained our forces, prolonged our visas by a week (paying handsomely for the pleasure), to finally cycle away in the direction of Kirghizstan. When it came to human interactions, Uzbeks matched the Kazakhs in hospitality - we were all the time invited to eat and sleep at people’s homes. The landscapes vary from the Karakalpak desert, eating away at the remains of the Aral Sea, to the fertile plains of Fergana Valley. Tashkent, the modern, green capital, is a successful example of a model Soviet city.
– 1 August: We enter the desert province of Karakalpakstan.
– 2- 5 August: Crossing the Karakalpak desert on a flat, straight, unending dirt track.
– 6 August: The track turns into a newly asphalted road.
Read "Modern-day nomads of the karakalpak desert", "The tarmac bites into the sand" and see "Kazakhstan- Uzbekistan : the desert by bike".
– 7 August: The desert ends brutally, with a steep descent from the plateau of Ustyurt into the lush, irrigated valley of the Amu Darya.
– 8 - 9 August: Visit to Moynaq, the phantom port once bordering on the Aral Sea, today almost totally dried up.
Read "Where on earth has the Aral Sea gone?".
– 10 August: Cycle up to Nukus in the Uzbek countryside.
Read "Rural Uzbek life: big family, few external needs".
– 11 August: Day of internet maintenance at Nukus (slow connection).
– 12- 13 August: On the road to Urgench...
– 14 August: With visas running out plus digestive problems slowing us down, we accept the offer of a lift in a truck, rather appropriately for the Silk Road carrying sacks of silk cocoons, up to Bukhara. The bumpy road is softened by the good humour of Shovkat, the driver, and his sons.
– 15 August: We visit Bukhara. More, erm, digestive problems (i.e. diarrhoea), which we try to zap using antibiotics, but as yet to no avail. Not in a state to get back on the bike.
– 16 August: Train to Tashkent. The grandiose megapole was built as a model of the Soviet Dream: wide avenues, modern buildings, immense parks... but not so easy to get around without a car. We stayed with Shaihida, Shovkat’s second wife.
Read "The rebel women of Central Asia".
– 17- 18 August: Time devoted to administrative formalities stretches out: visas for Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan, even getting money from a visa card takes half a day here.
– 19- 20 August: Tourist visit to Samarkand by bus. End of antibiotic treatment and digestive problems.
See "Samarkand: ancient heritage of a bygone era".
– 21 August: Herve gets his Kyrgyz visa in Tashkent. No need for Polish citizens. We manage to prolong our Uzbek visas for a week (70 dollars per person).
– 22 August: We get our Pakistani visas. Leaving Tashkent BY BIKE at last!
– 23- 26 August: Drastic change of scenery after crossing the Kamchit Pass (2267m, Tian Shan mountains), then back down into the fertile Fergana Valley.
Read "Roadsite merchants - fair trade, local products" and see "Uzbekistan: streets are for cycling!".
– 27 August: Marathon 110 km cycle up to Andijan, a town that still bears the scars of the 2005 massacre where hundreds of peaceful protesters and onlookers were shot dead by the Uzbek army. – 28 August: We cross the Uzbek - Kyrgyz border. The border guard searches our bags and demands to see our video tapes - luckily, only images of camels chewing grass in the desert and our Tashkent host Shaihida dancing to Uzbek music. The Kyrgyz border guard, on the other hand, tells us at length about the best places to visit in his country. A reflection of the contrasting approach the two countries take to tourism...
Kyrgyzstan : Getting used to the altitude After one and a half months spent cycling through the desert (hot and flat), time for our first low temperature – high altitude test. In Kyrgyzstan wilderness reigns supreme: vast empty spaces, mountain lakes, glaciers and eternal snow... Difficult living conditions in this mountainous country are behind the rebelious nature of its inhabitants. Although slightly more prone to drink than the Uzbeks, the Kyrgyz proved very welcoming and opened their yurts to us. From a political point of view, and perhaps thanks to their rebellious tendencies, this is the most democratic country of Central Asia.
– 29- 31 August: Stopping for a few days of rest and internet site maintenance in Osh, Kirghizstan’s second biggest town
(which isn’t saying much). Shashliks, bazaars, and the first good
shower in ages.
See "Back to school in Kyrgyzstan".
– 1 Sept: Departure from Osh into the mountains with Daniel, a German
cyclist on a recumbent bike.
– 3-5 Sept: Climbing two passes, the Chirchik at 2408m and the Taldik at 3630m.
A major part of the itinerary goes along the Altay high plateau at an altitude of over 3000m, facing the Pamir chain
that forms the border with Tajikistan, offering splendid views. Icy mountain nights spent in warm yurts.
Read "Yurt-surfing: green tourism in the mountains".
– 6 Sept: Across the Kyrgyz-Chinese border, Erkesh-Tam village.
Xin Jiang: A cultural fronteer. At first the Kyrgyz and their Uyghur neighbours from the chinese Xin Jiang province seem like the same people: practically the same language, religion, habits and clothes. Nevertheless on one side of the border it was once citizens of the Soviet Union, whereas on the other side they are Chinese. After we cross the fronteer stony tracks through the mountains transform into tarmac roads and motorways. Food is suddenly rich with monosodium glutamate, artificial flavours and colorants. The two models of communism long competed, until only one managed to adapt and survive. The China of Xin Jiang remains far removed from the China of enormous overpopulated, polluted cities on the coasts, although even here motorcycles have almost completely replaced traditionnal push-bikes. The faraway autoritarian regime still rests on the heritage of Mao, whose face beams down from propaganda posters, countless biographies in the bookstore, and marks each and every Yuan note.
– 7-8 Sept: Down almost 2000m, from the high plateau into the valley at 1300m. Two days of pure cycling joy, apart from a few spells of rain announcing the end of the summer. – 9 Sept: Arrival in Kashgar (Kashi), formerly a major town of the Silk Road and now, it seems, a meeting point of cyclists coming or going to Pekin, Tibet, Pakistan.
– 9 – 12 sept : Arrival in Kashgar (Kashi), Xin Jiang province.
Three days to explore Chinese cuisine and get truly connected with the world of long-distance cyclists. The hotel Seman where we are staying is filled with cycle-travellers and their stories of Tibetan, Central Asian or Pakistani adventures.
Read “Kashgar : a cyclo-nomads’ oasis”.
– 13 sept : Departure of Kashgar towards the South.
– 14 – 19 sept : 300 km on the Karakorum Highway across the Kunlun Shan range.
Paradoxically, it’s on this perfectly asphalted road that we have our first experience of a flat tyre. Our highest point so far is reached at Ulugrabat pass at 4098 m at the foot of the Muztagata peak (7546 m).
Read “China, Xin Jiang : head out on the Karakorum Highway”. – 20 sept : Arrival in Tashkorgan, capital of the Tajik Autonomous County of the same name. Tashkorgan isn’t more than a village built along a single road, 120km from the border with Pakistan. Two bad surprises await us…
1. The Khunjerab Pass road is forbidden for bicycles. 2. The local internet café is exclusively reserved for the locals. Foreigners cannot surf the net from here. The explanation: “we are too near to the border!” As our friend Robin put it, “they haven’t quite got the concept of cyberspace.”
Read "China’s selective tourism policy".
– 21- 24 Sept: Bus to Kashgar and back for website maintenance. – 25 Sept: Back in Tashkorgan, we load our bikes onto the roof of a bus to get across the Pakistan border (Khunjerab Pass, 4730 m) – cycling across is not permitted.