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TRANSLATED BY Rashaan JORDAN
Sleeping: The traveling cyclist is led to make stops in cities that are not featured in Lonely Planet and where there supposedly aren’t any hotels. You would think one of our main problems would be finding places to stay. Yet every time, the solution has presented itself.
All you have to do is ask respectable people. For the most part, they will be delighted to house you for free or direct you toward a person in their entourage. They arrive even as people in cars stop on the edge of the road, give you their address, and beg you to come sleep at their houses. In Uzbekistan, “the guest is more important than the father” and there’s even a special room where mattresses and covers wait for you.
Another option in Central Asia are desert restaurants (“tchaihanas” in Russian). No table, no chairs, and the meals there are served on a “tapchan,” a kind of raised terrace that is decorated with covers. Put aside the coffee table installed below, rearrange the covers and you have a bed without spending money - much to the delight of the boss.
In the big cities like in Tashkent, it’s good from time to time to book a true hotel room just to take a proper shower and to wash laundry because home accommodations sometimes have disgusting toilets. Or even no water at all.
Camping: The tent, mattress and sleeping bag are part of a traveling cyclist’s essential equipment. However at this point, we’ve had few opportunities to use them as we’ve been invited to somebody’s house almost every night.
They can however be very useful in the case of an emergency. Depending on the land, use tighteners and stones to best resister the wind if the pickets of the tent can’t enter it. It’s also good to get information on night animals, such as scorpions, spiders, and snakes in the desert. The tent’s mosquito net can also be used as security against stings and itching that ensue.
It’s always good to have at least one day of dry meals in your bicycle pannier: prepare Chinese pie, powdered soup, cookies, tea, and sugar in order to deal with the unexpected. At this point, we’ve rarely cooked. Mainly because we tend to arrive rather late at night and also we prefer eating local food that has the advantage of already being ready.
At the end of several weeks in Central Asia, we quickly got tired of rice, bread, and even very fatty meat. The temptation to give into tomato salads then became big. But the punishment is immediate unless you can handle everything. The giardiasis lasts for two days as diarrhea and rotten gas prevent us from pedaling. It is though good to hydrate yourself afterwards. Generally, it’s better to obtain vitamins and mineral salts from fruits that can be peeled while carefully washing them.
Drinking: When you’re an eco-traveler, you say to yourself at the beginning that you’re going to filter the rivers’ water or put disinfectant pills to not produce tons of waste from plastic battles. But in reality on the ground, another piece of logic dominates.
First in the desert, there are no rivers, so the only solution is to buy mineral water. Be careful in Karakalpakstan, where refueling spots can be more than 100 kilometers apart. It’s necessary to prepare at least 10 liters of water per person, knowing that you can always stop a truck (several pass by all hours of the day, but one will always stop to help you).
On the irrigated planes, water is abundant. However, having seen unoriginal farming techniques still used in certain countries (massive use of pesticides including the DDT) and generated ecological disasters (disappearance and pollution of the Aral Sea), we say that it’s still better to buy bottled water.
There’s hardly anything in the mountains that can make you reasonably dream about using water filters and pastilles.
As astonishing as that can appear, even with salt, sand, and dust in the desert, we haven’t had a serious mechanical problem of this type. It is important to completely clean the bicycle’s training system: chains, pinions, chain wheels, derailleur gears – on the condition of having running water. At one point, when a chain on one of the wheels made a strange noise and one of the links was in the process of coming apart, we were able to successfully use our chain tool.
Communicating: One of the most interesting parts of traveling by bike is meeting people that drivers of a 4x4 would only have only have hurriedly photographed. Don’t let the opportunity to learn several words - even simple ones from their language like “hello,” “thank you,” and “goodbye” - pass by. It will make them very happy to see that you are interested in their culture and at worst, it will always make them smile.
In Central Asia, Russian is still present in the memories of many people. The young still learn it at school as well as basic English (at least, they feel less stupid). Kazak, Uzbek, and Kyrgyz are very close to Turkish, a very useful language for traveling.
Of course, the first question they’ll ask is “Where are you from?” (“atkouda” in Russian). Even if you don’t understand their dialect or because you’re going too fast on the road, shout: “France” (iz Francia). Their look will brighten up, and they’ll respond: “Good shot” (“maladiets”). If you arrive at holding a discussion, they will bombard you with questions they’ve never been able to ask tourists: “What is it like over there in your country?” Are there also watermelons and melons? How much does your bicycle cost?”
If you are limited in your vocabulary, as we will be in China, the digital camera remains an excellent manner of communication – most of all, with children. Don’t also forget to bring numerous photos of your family and your hometown to leave as a gift.
First nerve-wracking danger: dogs. For two months, a big disappointment is that we haven’t once needed to use our ultrasound horn, except for with harmless little dogs to check that it was working. It’s necessary to say that they are careful not to do anything wrong in Central Asian nations and China where they are susceptible to being tortured.
The biggest enemy of man is well known: it’s his fellow man. Generally, it’s better to ask women information than men. Especially when the men are in a group and they seem happy. Women: we advise you to form an alliance. That eliminates the tactless questions that begin innocently by: “Husband and wife?” (“mouch i jena?” in Russian) and that spillover into your sexual behaviors.
Up to this point, here are our worst memories: the ticket collectors on the Bulgarian trains, the Azerbaijani counter clerks who wanted to make us pay imaginary taxes for our bicycle, the Uzbek customs agents who went up to look at the content of our video cassettes and the employees of the Kyrgyz embassy who can only deliver visas between 4 and 4:30 p.m. and not on Thursdays.