Pedaling from the Black Forest to the Yellow Sea
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Posts from — September 2008

Day 181 (Tajikistan): somewhere - Dersu (Pamiri hospitality reigns supreme)

daily distance: 96km
total distance: 10,935km
riding time: 7h

I woke up in my tent with a cloggy nose, a big fat headache and a lump in my throat. Not a good way to start the day. Really, it isn’t. Add to that a kid that just wouldn’t go away after I had crawled out of my tent and you can see that I wasn’t a super happy camper at that point. After packing up I figured that I would flag down a car and get myself to Khorog by car. For some reason the first car I let pass (which would have been the perfect car with plenty of space) and the same again with the second. And then there weren’t many more. OK, about 20 in all, but most of them were full or not suitable. And I felt better after a couple of hours.

Annoying checkpoints and bored soldiers again … one patrol telling me that the road would be closed ahead when it wasn’t. I told them that a car had just passed and that I couldn’t see it any longer. And that I was going anyway. It was clear what they wanted and I was in no mood to give them any money.

The road continued its up and down fashion for quite a while, mostly on bad surface, bumpy for the most part. But again the scenery was breathtaking and made up for all the difficulties. I started to feel better too. Had loads of pseudo-chocolate to boost things and after a while things were back to normal. Keep your fingers crossed that this isn’t coming to haunt me once up in the Pamir. Here is some confidence-instilling piece of construction.

And this girl is becoming quite popular judging by the number of plastic bags that are adorned with her face.

And don’t ask what the girls had to drink …

In the afternoon the scenery opened up dramatically. The riverbed became much wider after a good number of fast-moving sections - the river that is. Markus was kept low by a blustery wind that was coming down the valley pretty hard. But once in the more wide open area the wind was switched off it seemed. And I didn’t have the underappreciative biker mentality when the wind comes from behind and we complain about it not being there. It simply stopped.

The area is amazing and the last bit was pure pleasure riding. I stopped to get a bite to eat for dinner and was overwhelmed when the lady started going to her own home to grab some tomatoes, but came back with bread, apples and peaches on top of things. And she wouldn’t take any money for it. No argument would convince her.

My quest for a tent site met with a similar fate. No, you have to come to our house. The daughter spoke really good English and so we had a great time discussing all sorts of things with the entire family. Things up here are a bit different. People are wonderful and extremely caring in a way that has been described to me many times, but that is hard to put down in words. Maybe I’ll be able to in a few days. And boy … the stars are out in force up here at 2200m. This promises to be a great ride up in the Pamirs.

September 20, 2008   No Comments

Day 180 (Tajikistan): Shirgovad - somewhere in the Pyanj valley (Kalashnikov beats annoyance, if the guy could read things would be easier)

daily distance: 101km
total distance: 10,841km
riding time: 8h

Early morning in Shirgovad and it was much colder than I had anticipated. The Pamir nights should be fun up at 4000m in the tent. Tonight was under the stars though and with a blanket and the silk liner only.

Off on the Russian asphalt, which means broken pieces for some time, but also mostly rideable. The fun thing is that you just never know when it starts or ends. I had been told that it would be 22km until I reach the town of Khalaikum - and 22km on the mark it was. Nothing spectacular - the stores weren’t even better stocked than in small towns, so I set out. Not without calling my sister to get some things organized. I have decided that I will apply for my US visa in Bishkek, the Beijing trip would take much longer and the wait times are not attractive. The decision in Bishkek is practically made on the spot and if approved you can pick up the visa the next day. For me, this means scrambling in every direction, trying to get everything to Bishkek in time without email connections to speak of. I have one day in Khorog for that. Then everything must be green and on its way.

Calling was easy - but not cheap. Nor easy to get the operator to find out the code she had to punch in for international calls. I knew 49 for Germany, but how do you come up with 8 and 10 before that? $1 for a minute. But under the circumstances I was glad that I could make the call after some discussions.

The rest of the day was devoted to one thing only. Riding. Long stretches with decent roads and long stretches without so decent roads. My TV program from days prior was on again. But much was on repeat. But the landscape is simply fantastic. If only the road was better so that I could look more often. The road also climbs a lot. The total was only a 300m gain or so, but overall I did more than 1300m in altitude. Roads at the end were kind of like yesterday, which was no fun. And I wasn’t sure where I would end up. As dark was approaching, I was still in a canyon-like part without any place to stay. The valley was narrow, no village on either side. I was sure it would open up eventually. Rockslide and mudslides and falling stone wasn’t my idea of having a good night.

I ended up out of the canyon part and found a good spot in an orchard. Good apples too.

The title of the email … Yes, yet another couple of soldiers being bored out of their mind stopped me. It must have been like no. 6 or 7 at the time. And I couldn’t help but showing my annoyance. The guy showed his Kalashnikov. I showed my passport. Then it occured to me that he couldn’t read. He kept staring at the Iranian visa. At me and then the Iranian visa. Over and over. Finally, I grabbed the passport, said that this was the passport, this was the visa and the permit for the Pamir. That out of the way, they let me go. Frustrating and sad at the same time.

September 19, 2008   No Comments

Day 179 (Tajikistan): Khermanjo - Shirgovad (Janus-face of roads)

daily distance: 92km
total distance: 10,740km
riding time: 8h

Another one of those days where you curse being on the bike. And then you love it and you can’t make up your mind. But in the end you’re glad you made the trip.

I left the teacher’s house with him at 7:30am and took off on a bad road, followed by a part that was paved. I thought to myself that this is grandiose riding. I still had this smirk on my face (again rather) when I looked across the river and saw Afghanistan and thought to myself that I biked all the way here. Did I want to go over to see what things are like in this part? Sure. Will I go? Hell no!!! Although curious I am, I must admit.

So, after the initial section of asphalt the rest of the next 50km (30 miles) were nothing but … well, what was it? Rocks, stones - something that may have been a road once. But it was bad. No fun to ride. Very rough going and needless to say I didn’t make a whole lot of mileage. But the landscape was grandiose. The Pyanj river cut a valley that is incredibly beautiful, deep and … dangerous. Well, human beings add to the danger quite a bit - needless to say, venturing off the road didn’t seem like a good idea.

I followed the river for a long while … all day and will do so for the next 4 or 5 as a matter of fact. All the while Afghanistan to my right. And the TV station that I saw was great. Burka-clad women on donkeys, traditional clothing, kids playing in the water, mud houses and what I thought was a Westerner with an umbrella shielding him from the sun.

The difference to my side was also stark. Yes, some satellite dishes, but no road - only trails hewn into the rockface with people walking on them and the occasional donkey. And … no powerlines. Plenty on my side (only transmitting power half the year though), none on the other.

During the rocky part of the day I also came through an Iranian construction site - just one example of the considerable influence that Iran has and has had historically. People speak the same language and - again - I get all the Aryan relationship between the Tajiks and the Iranians, and the Germans of course. I keep holding the same line as in Iran. Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter.

Just after the Iranian construction site, things went from bad to worse. The road was unrideable, climbs up to 28%. Good pushing … I was absolutely glad to be out of this mess. I was bounced around like hardly ever before, the temperatures hovered over 40C and I was wasted.

Then the miracle happened at Zigar. The beginning of a super silky smooth 40km stretch of asphalt. Turkish construction. They had done a great job. This was a masterpiece. All the thoughts from earlier in the day were wiped clean, everything was good again. I took breaks and watched the other side of the river, had some apples here and there and just enjoyed what I had. Then I rounded a corner and saw … the road steeply climbing up. This was not what I wanted for the day. I was done. Small climbs OK, but nothing like this. It turned out not to the road I was to take.

I hunkered down in a small village after being invited by a family. Cooked my own food and slept soon enough though.

September 18, 2008   No Comments

Day 178 (Tajikistan): before Kuljab - Khermanjo (darkness descends - moon rising over Afghanistan)

daily distance: 99km
total distance: 10,648km
riding time: 7-8h

I set out after a yummy breakfast and continued my way to Kuljab. I was there soon enough and wanted to try my luck with finding an internet cafe. Some of you may wonder about this obsession, but the visa question for the US is burning on my mind. And sure enough. There was paperwork to be taken care of. And decisoins to be made. I need to figure out whether to make the application in Bishkek/Kyrgyzstan or someplace in China. I figured China would be easier and started preparing for that. Things have to be sent there, interview times set up and the like. Not good to do this on the road on a bike. Final consideration is to head to Germany and cut the trip short. Not something I want to do, but something I may have to consider.

I was so engrossed in everything that I went the wrong way. I found out 12km later. Back to where I was and I decided to head to the internet cafe again and do some more work. The guys were nice. It was part of a university and funded by a US agency and the person running it was extremely helpful with everything. Not only once, but twice. Thanks so much. Things changed a bit and it was a good thing I came back. I looked more closely at the wait times and prep times at the Chinese embassies and the whole thing is a bit more complicated than in Bishkek. There, it’s a one day affair really and so I am thinking about shifiting everything there. Time is an issue of course and we shall see how it goes. Will have to prepare everything in Khorog and then take it from there. After that, no more internet and until then, no internet. I know … 15 years ago. And then the Neanderthals …

It was uphill for a long time and I kept hacking away at a 2200m pass, starting at 600m or so, maybe a bit more. Up, up and more up. It was hot, though beautiful and I reached the top around mid- to late afternoon. Too much time due to the detour.

On the downhill you get checked twice. Once by the military and once by the police. The checkpoints are 100m apart. I am sorry, this is stupid. I have exactly zero understanding for that. Each time, they do the same stuff and it is nothing but annoying.

In town I stocked up and headed out, knowing it would be a close call to get to the valley bottom before dark. I didn’t make it and sort of did. I headed through a steep valley, which never seemed to end. And it was gettting dark. Too dark for riding and the road was getting worse and worse. Really bad as a matter of fact.

Somehow I managed to signal a car to stay behind me and I was looking for a place to pitch. The people in the car had other plans though and said that I should move 2km further (turned out to be 12km) and I would sleep there. Deal. Murderous run through the night, but I made it in one piece. I was shot and drained when we got there in the pitch dark. What I saw before though was majestic. The mountains on the other side of the river must have been Afghanistan and the moon rising over them was a moving sight. Got here in one piece (barely over that downhill).

I did however ponder that I will most likely no longer be able to make it to the Yellow Sea without the help of motorized vehicles. Either way … Bishkek or Beijing, I will not have enough time unless I race like crazy and I don’t feel like doing this. We shall see what happens.

September 17, 2008   No Comments

Day 177 (Tajikistan): close to that U-turn behind Nurek - just before Kuljab (the internet rocks … yes, it does and I so depend on it I hate it)

daily distance: 120km
total distance:
riding time: 8h

That U-turn is telling. And the tunnel that they are digging a bit further is too. It means that it goes uphill steeply. And I mean very steeply. Everything is up and up and unrelentingly so. Can’t complain about not having a good workout in the morning. The top saw - yes - yet another useless police checkpoint and some great views.

Lots of ups and downs lead me to Dangara, a town of some size here and I tried to find out whether more about the US visa situation. The quest for an internet connection was on. The first lead went straight to a toilet. I guess it rhymes with internet. The second to the post office. Computers … but no internet. Go back there says the postmaster. All the while my bike is rather unprotected and too many kids milling about. Nothing it seems. More computers in a room, but it’s games only. Finally I go into a place without having any hopes, but they advertised picture developing. There wasn’t anything, but I suddenly saw a printout with the Interent Explorer symbol as background and decided to push the agenda. Can’t be there for no reason and it had a local number on it. An older man with authority was called in. He makes phone calls and after a while we come back to the guys that said no internet before.

We get to the sole internet computer in town - in the Tajikistan Telecom building. One guy knows how to operate the machine and he says: “No problem”. And then he pulls out a 230.4kb/s connection over a dial-up modem. Never seen that - maybe someone can enlighten me how that works. At any rate, the visa exception was granted, so now I was celebrating. It still means a lot of back and forth I am sure, but the big news that I got was worth all the trouble to get that connection. Now I have to go through the interview process at a US embassy and hope that the big fat Iran visa in my passport isn’t too much cause for concern. I don’t see why it should be really.

The remainder of the day was cycling through golden hills and wonderful territory. Tough at times and hot. But awesome in so many ways. Reminded me a lot of California in the early fall. It’s called Golden State for a reason. I pushed on for a while and ended up in a farm, asking whether I could pitch. The shorts were objectionable. So I put on long pants and right away was invited in. The young farmer would not let me stay outside … and soon enough everything was set up for many people to come by. Communication was much easier after Olimjon came by, an aid worker who had studied in Kayseri / Turkey and who spoke excellent English. Thanks so much to him and the family for putting me up. I again learned so much over dinner and during the time I spent there.

September 16, 2008   No Comments