Gillian and her friend Jonathan are currently cycling across Central Asia. They started one month ago.
I reluctantly agreed to write this article before I left Singapore. But, if I were to be honest, the idea of laying out all my plans in physical form scared me. What if we got a week in and gave up? What if I got to London, fell in love with it and didn’t leave?
This whole journey began with what I thought was a joke. Having just met Jonathan in the Melbourne sharehouse that I had just moved into, he mentioned that he wanted to cycle ‘around the world’ but had no one to do it with. Thinking that it was a preposterous plan that would never happen, I laughed and readily agreed. That was probably my first mistake!
Contrary to what I had thought, the plan didn’t disappear. Some initial internet research uncovered a myriad of blogs and websites dedicated to the topic. So, soon we were discussing routes, bikes and equipment.
There are a number of popular bicycle touring routes across the world. With Central America, SouthEast Asia, Europe and Central Asia seeming to be the most well worn. Having travelled extensively in Europe and South East Asia, Central Asia with its Soviet Era architecture and many unprouncable country names ending with ‘Stan,’ seemed like a good choice. It’s relatively low popularity as a tourist destination and the opportunity to cycle through Azerbaijan, a country I had never heard of until they hosted Eurovision in 2011 also added to the appeal.
While the idea was still very much in its infancy Jonathan and I decided to cycle across Myanmar as something of a practice. We cycled from Mandalay to Inle lake from where we took a train to Yangon. Battling desert-like conditions and a demanding timeframe due to the limited number of government sanctioned hotels in Myanmar (camping is illegal). The most unpleasant part of the trip still proved to be the train journey. A trip that had been described as quaint, scenic and charming. The journey itself involved hour upon hour of monotonous scenery, a dining car with only monks and police for company and carriages that moved continuously in directions that aren’t exactly compatible with forward motion travel (or squat toilets toilets for that matter).
So, while we discovered that train travel may not be the best option in the developing world we also learnt that cycling through it may be easier and more enjoyable than previously thought. Especially given the (surprising) prevalence of repairs.
For example, upon the disintegration of my bicycle’s rear hub in Bagan, (a small town famous for its pagodas and not much else), we were able to find someone to rebuild the wheel overnight- probably an unthinkable task anywhere else!
So, having confirmed that cycling was indeed our preferred mode of transport, that the one thing that you don’t prepare for will happen and that our friendship could be sustained over a two week period of time; we considered the trip a success and started seriously thinking about the next one.
That leads me to where we are now. Just over a month ago we set off from Tbilisi, Georgia with the plan to cycle across to Azerbaijan and then onto Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Krygzstan, Kazhakstan and onwards to China.
I met up with Jonathan in Tbilisi, Georgia on the 22nd of April with plans to begin cycling on the following Monday. My arrival seemed to prove somewhat of a relief to Jonathan who, like some of my friends seemed to have thought that I would change my mind (i.e. see sense) and stay in London. However it also brought with it the fears and apprehension associated with having to reassemble a bicycle that had (hopefully) withstood multiple flights and airports, not to mention the London tube and it’s escalators in what was now a rather mangled cardboard box.
My arrival in Tbilisi also made me aware of a slight planning oversight. It was cold and windy. Probably not actually in a Europe, middle of winter kind of way but arguably uncomfortable for someone who had spent the last three years in Singapore! So, after spending Saturday constructing our bikes in the hostel’s common area (while explaining our plans to the slightly incredulous guests) on Sunday we set off in search of a bike store and polar fleece.
It was on this trip that the irony of our choice of location to begin our cycling journey was revealed. Tbilisi is a car city. So, while it has the grand boulevards, plazas and buildings that one would associate with Europe it’s main square and grand monument within it, function as a roundabout for at least three lanes of cars. This made what should have been a short trip to the bike store a navigation exercise involving changing levels, cobblestones and a fair bit of honking. Our subsequent appearance at the bike store was met with a slightly disappointing lack of surprise but we were able to properly inflate our tyres and to make some final adjustments to our bicycles.
The next day we fully packed our panniers for the first time and set off. The traffic and road conditions again prove difficult, although this time it was the incredibly strong side wind that proved challenging. As, despite the weight of our bikes and luggage, I felt as though I was going to be blown off the narrow road shoulder into the path of a truck. Which would have provided a hasty end to our cycle touring adventure.
As we headed out of the city we met our first fellow cycle tourer. A Russian, he proved to be a highly excitable and enthusiastic companion for a few kilometers who upon realizing that we didn’t speak his language continued to try to engage us in conversation albeit more loudly and enthusiastically.
That night we had our first ‘wild camping’ experience having established that Jonathan’s previous camping experience was irrelevant as it had only occurred at music festivals! We identified what looked to be a suitable field, set our tent up and unrolled our sleeping bags. The field’s slight angle made staying on our sleeping matts without sliding down them a challenge but given that we had managed to find a secluded place and assemble our tent with relative ease we considered it a success!
As we continued to cycle in the direction of Lagodekhi, the town that borders Azerbaijan, the roads seemed to become less crowded, the drivers more friendly and the landscape more inviting. While most passing cars made sure to honk at us we soon realised that it was an attempt at a friendly greeting!
After a relatively straightforward border crossing between Georgia and Azerbaijan we continued to cycle towards Baku. A city that had been described as a cross between Dubai and Europe. Obviously, I was curious. I also have to admit that my enthusiasm was somewhat based upon my strong desire for coffee. A desire that couldn’t really be dampened by the numerous tea stalls that seemed to exist everywhere even on mountain sides. Thus proving themselves to be somewhat frustrating to this exhausted cycle tourist who has always associated long days in the saddle with coffee, 100 plus, magnums and coffee. Yes, I did mean to mention that twice.
The country side of Azerbaijan proved itself to be scenic and the people incredibly friendly. Upon arrival at the first town across the border Jonathan was immediately assisted by friendly locals to buy a SIM card and directed to the town’s only ATM. Clearly itself an attraction, a curious hoard of locals thronged around it, eagerly watching each transaction.
As our cycling and camping continued, we grew better at choosing camping sites, tested out our camping stove and I confirmed that I do indeed cycle faster while being chased by wild dogs. Although I am yet to find out whether this is the way to improve my hill climbing performance.
Language, in particular our complete lack of Russian continued to create interesting situations. Upon arrival in one village we were told that we could not camp in a particular spot as we would be “eaten by wolves.” It became apparent after a night of fitful sleep in a field nearby that these wolves were actually wild dogs. While this experience wasn’t exactly ideal, being shown a field to sleep in and given tea, bread and honey by the locals the night before was a rather unforgettable experience!
Cycling into the city of Baku itself proved a rather fraught (and friendship-testing) experience with its elevated roadways, one way streets and very poor air quality. However, it was an interesting place to rest and our Iranian visas were approved with little difficulty.
From Baku we cycled along the Caspian Sea, across the border and into Iran in the direction of the Chalus, a beachside town popular with Tehran’s occupants in summer. While we had both envisioned this coastal cycle as being a pleasant one, we were met with very strong headwinds, at one point struggling along at 10km per hour which made for a rather demoralizing day.
These frustrations were definitely counterbalanced by the extreme levels of hospitality and kindness shown to us by the Iranian people that we met along the way. While I had read about this, nothing could really have prepared us for the continuous greetings out of car windows, a readily accepted invitation to be part of an extended family’s picnic lunch or the repeated invitations to stay in people’s homes when we were seen erecting our tent.
Almost on par with the incredible hospitality of the Iranian people has been the prevalence of fresh bread shops, each selling only one type of flat loaf that is available at breakfast, lunch and dinner time. It has proved difficult for us to buy the bread and stow it away for later after a long day of cycling! And we have hungrily eaten the hot bread directly outside the store more than once! (And been given cream cheese and tea to go with it by bakers who looked on slightly incredulously.)
The road between Chalus and Tehran provided the most difficult two days of cycling so far. A narrow road with single lanes in each direction it winds its way over the mountains. And very disturbingly for cyclists it’s tunnels are famed for asphyxiating car occupants as they sit in summer traffic jams. We took our time navigating the switchbacks and trying to stay on the narrow shoulder that the road provided. And while we had wanted to celebrate the first day of climbing the descending sun forced us to hurriedly choose a rather gravelly camping spot above a police station instead.
The second day proved similarly difficult but held the promise of a long descent. (Although this was something that the skeptical part of me was sure that would be punctuated by more hills.) Too exhausted to celebrate at the top as I had planned we finally began to descend but were greeted by the next challenge, a 1km long tunnel with minimal lighting and an almost non existent shoulder. After engaging in an internal debate as whether it would be cheating to jump into the back of a passing truck, Jonathan demonstrated that he is definitely the far more pragmatic and practical part of this team and we did just that.
As we raced through the tunnel in the back of a small truck, I clutched into onto both my bicycle and headscarf and knew that we had made the right decision. This feeling was reinforced when I noticed the steady stream of water flowing across the tunnel floor. After dealing with the next long tunnel in the same manner we were able to reach the nearby town of Karaj that night where we were invited to stay in the garden of a passing mountain biker.
We left the following morning determined to beat the traffic and cycle the final 40km into Tehran. This soon proved to be a misguided strategy as we got caught up in rush hour and watched with growing incredulity as drivers changed lanes indiscriminately, reversed into traffic after missing highway exits and motorbikes took to the footpath to avoid the jam. Upon adopting a few of these strategies we finally made it to our hostel where showers and cake awaited.
A week in Tehran followed in which I inexplicably began to feel affection for the city. This being despite the heat, near constant traffic jams, honking and almost sheer impossibility of being able to cross the road, even at a pedestrian crossing without being hit by a car or perhaps even a motorbike traveling in the wrong direction.
In Tehran we were able to organize visas for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (although we’re still waiting on confirmation for the latter.) And to prepare for the next part of our sojourn, a cycle through the desert to see the Silk Road cities of Isfahan, Shiraz and Yazd.