Monthly Archives: March 2018

Gillian’s cycling adventure| pt 3

The Pamir Highway

Part 3- The Pamir Highway

This is incredibly late, as I am still very much alive albeit in Singapore.  But please be grateful that I spared you the earlier drafts that were far duller than this one (hopefully this is not hard to believe).  This account is awash with place names that will probably mean little but basically this edition starts in Tajikistan and ends in Kyrgyzstan (a country that I still struggle both to pronounce and spell).

From my initial research and through discussions with the cyclists that we passed along the way through Central Asia, I was convinced that Tajikistan was going to be the cycling highlight of our trip.  So convinced was I, that even when Jonathan expressed hesitation due to its proximity to Afghanistan and appearance in the Australian government’s cautionary travel warnings I was not dissuaded.

The reason for my Tajikistan enthusiasm was the Pamir Highway.  The road that winds its way through the spectacular Pamir mountains and forms part of the Silk Road connecting Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan.  With a promise of challenging climbs and incredible mountainous scenery, I had decided that it could not be missed; even if it meant that I no longer had a travel buddy! (Jonathan went to Korea instead so we’re still trying to establish exactly who abandoned who….)

So, having farewelled/been abandoned by Jonathan, I set off from Tashkent, Uzbekistan alone in the hope that I would find some other cyclists along the way.  Crossing the border from Uzbekistan into Tajikistan this hope became closer to reality when the border guards failed to react to my present with much surprise.  Instead indicating that they had seen a cyclist earlier that day (or at least that’s what I could ascertain with my VERY limited understanding of Russian!)

With this knowledge in mind, I increased my cycling pace and was rewarded when I caught a glimpse of a fluro clad cyclist ahead the following day.  As it transpired, Eric a Frenchman had also been ‘abandoned’ by his cycling partner in Tashkent and was heading in the same direction as I.  While communication would prove somewhat of a problem due to the addition of yet another foreign language I didn’t speak, I was definitely relieved to have someone to talk to!

Khudzhand, Tajikistan

From our first meeting we cycled together, climbing the first serious mountain pass I would encounter and managing to navigate two 5km tunnels (fortunately no longer unlit and filled with water as previous cyclists had encountered).

While a passing motorist that we would later meet in the hostel in Dushanbe described me as looking ‘very determined’ as we cycled up this pass, I was already beginning to have doubts.  I had started to question exactly what I had committed to, given the incredibly steep gradient, heat and promise of many (many) more climbs!  However, these thoughts were quickly dismissed (as they always are) during a long and winding descent.

Tashkent to Dushanbe, Tajikistan

 

 

Dushanbe to Khorog

Dushanbe to Khorog, Tajikistan

Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan and a name that I still struggle to pronounce, proved a fairly unremarkable city.  Boasting what is apparently the world’s second tallest flagpole (Saudi Arabia stole the title in 2014), it is perhaps only memorable to me for being the place where I encountered a large group of Australians- the first for the trip.  Who, upon recognizing my presence tried to draw me into a discussion of Australian house prices.  Horrified, I fled the room, my tenuous break from reality well and truly shattered!

So, after several rest days in which I avoided aforementioned Australians, searched fruitlessly for cafes and interrogated other cyclists heading in the opposite direction about the route, we headed to Khorog.  The starting point of the Pamir Highway (M41) and possibly the last chance to stock up on supplies and glean information from other cyclists about the conditions ahead of us.

First mountain pass of the Pamir Highway, Tajikistan

On the unmaintained roads it took seven days to cycle the 500 kilometres from Dushanbe to Khorog.  It was hot (no surprises there) but this provided a good excuse to stop and chat with the other cyclists and locals that we encountered and to take post lunch naps in the shady gardens of restaurants.  Initially we cycled through green fields and we were greeted with the first glimpses of snow capped mountains as we neared the top of the first mountain pass at an altitude of a mere 3253m. (In comparison Mt Kosciusko, Australia’s highest peak is 2228m and Singapore’s Bukit Timah Hill is 163m!!)  After a rather terrifying steep and patchy descent we arrived in Qalai Khumb,  a small town that is most memorable for the beers that it provided, the deafening roar of the Panj River that flows through it and for my realization that I could see Afghanistan from my bedroom window!

After Qalai Khumb, Tajikistan

After fixing the first of what would be innumerable flat tyres we departed the following morning.  The route took us along the dusty and rocky road that winds its way along the Panj River, a river that separates Afghanistan and Tajikistan.  From this vantage point we were able to watch the Afghani villages go about their lives on the other side of the river (when we were not struggling to stay upright among the rocks of gravel!)  This part of the route was also scattered with small villages and communities.  Resulting in shouts of “hello, hello, what is your name? Where are you from?” from the hoards of children who seemed to know just when to appear.  Stopping to drink yet more Coca Cola or consume a mostly elusive ice cream, we would soon discover that these two ubiquitous questions, delivered in perfect English were as far as the conversation could progress.

While the river itself was mesmerizing and these greetings a joy, the road conditions proved to be some of the most difficult I had encountered.  As we negotiated rocky ascents more suited to mountain goats than a touring bike with fully loaded panniers, I did again wonder whether this was something that I was actually capable of!  I also wondered if it would be useful to engage the services of donkey….But, on a positive note, I did become much better at getting my feet out of my cleats each time I found myself teetering between large rocks or the edge of the mountain!

The road from Dushanbe to Khorog

Finally, after a welcoming sand storm on the edges of the town we arrived in Khorog.  While not a beautiful town by any standard, filled with cyclists, hiking boot clad backpackers and the ubiquitous white land cruisers of the various NGO workers who ply the region, Khorog contained a sense of energy, the promise of interesting company and information about what was ahead.

Khorog to the Wakhan Corridor

After two days in Khorog, I set off with a Turkish cyclist for the Wakhan valley.  Leaving Eric, the Frenchman, as he required weeks of rest due to a saddle related injury that I was far too squeamish to discuss.  The Wakhan valley/corridor is narrow strip of land that follows the river between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.  And while I had been hesitant about taking this route at first, the cyclists traveling in the other direction reassured us about its safety and gave high recommendations or perhaps were unwilling to admit that it had been a terrible, terrible mistake.

‘Cycling’ in Wakhan valley

That said, the Wakhan valley was indeed spectacular; even just for its remoteness and plethora of ever changing landscapes.  This sense of isolation was reinforced by the lack of shops and villages- requiring us in some areas to carry enough food for two to three days. Even when we came across villages their single shops often contained nothing more than stale biscuits, noodles, pasta, tomato paste and the occasional old snicker bar.

While we did have to battle yet more unpaved roads with various surfaces not limited to sand, gravel and rocks the scenery itself was truly spectacular.  I really did feel that I was ‘in the wild.’  And while the road surfaces made the 300km route into what felt like a six day test of endurance, the challenge itself was not so much physical as it was mental.  It was (and still is) difficult to push my bike up yet another rocky slope or through sand and not feel very very embarrassed!  So, the cycletouring became not about the distance that we could cover each day but simply about appreciating where we were and how fortunate we were to be there.  Although to avoid sounding too noble I should admit that I also spent a significant amount of time mulling over whether I would take the train or another mode of transport if it were an option.

Cycling through the Wakhan Valley, Tajikistan

Alichur to Murghab

 Eventually the ‘road’ through the Wakhan valley rejoined the Pamir Highway.  This brought with it asphalt, a restaurant and a warm yurt to stay in for the night courtesy of Alichur.  While expecting myself to be overjoyed or at least a little proud of what I had achieved by this point in time I just felt exhausted!  But, the next day brought with it the realization that despite facing yet another mountain pass the now (almost) continuous asphalt would enable me to cycle the last 100km in one day to Murghab, the next major town and rest point.

So, leaving my fellow cyclist to complete yet another isolated (and in my view unnecessary) route through the Pamir mountains I set off alone.  The morning provided sun, a mild headwind and an opportunity to admire the mountains on the other side of the border with China.  In contrast, the afternoon brought rain and wind as I neared the pass.  And to make matters worse, unable to find my rain jacket quickly, the poncho I donned soon became a sail.  But my initial concerns about how silly I looked to passing trucks were quickly overtaken by the fear that I would be found days later, frozen on a mountain top!  A passing 4WD, carrying the bikes of those who had presumably given up/been too sensible to continue woke me from these overly doom laden thoughts.  So, filled with what could have only been a slightly misguided sense of superiority to anyone who didn’t believe that cycling was the best mode of transport, I propelled myself across the pass from where I seemingly sailed, grinning, down the other side to Murghab.  Where dinner, a shower (albeit from a bucket), partial electricity and a warm bed awaited.

Murghab to Lake Karakul

Comprising of a series of mud brick houses perched on a dusty hillside and a bazaar assembled from shipping containers; Murghab is not exactly picturesque.  However the ‘homestay’ (basic accommodation, usually with a family where dinner, breakfast and copious amounts of tea are included) provided the perfect rest spot- even if I did have to sneak my bicycle inside so that I didn’t have to go outside to check on it during the night!

From Murghab I cycled over the Ak-Baital pass, which at 4655m is the highest point of the Pamir highway.  This rather rocky ascent was followed by a rather rocky descent that was then followed by a rather freezing night camping on the side of the mountainside.

In between the shivers I did wonder whether I was over reacting, but the ice I found in my drink bottles the next morning confirmed that it had been a rather chilly night!  Insult was added to injury the following morning upon my discovery of a homestay, just 200 metres away!

Having learnt my lesson, after a full day of cycling, I spent the next night at a homestay on Lake Karakul.  Seemingly devoid of other tourists or for that other people, I spent the afternoon admiring the startlingly blue lake ringed by snowcapped mountains.  And while I was tempted to swim, the lake’s 3900m elevation had created some seriously chilly water!

Lake Karakul, Kyrgyzstan

The next day brought with it the last two unpaved mountain passes with the latter marking the border to Kyrgyzstan.  Reaching the top of the final pass I was ecstatic and definitely a little pleased by the looks of incredulity on the faces of a group of mountain bikers who stood at the top, waiting to descend!  Finally I was in Kyrgyzstan, well I thought I was, but as it transpired I still had 20km of ‘no-man’s land’ to cross to reach the checkpoint.  This situation gave me more than enough time to start wondering if I had somehow missed the guardhouse.  So I was more than a little relieved when a small cluster of buildings made their appearance!

The final pass before Kyrgyzstan

Busy with a carload of backpackers, the guards gave my passport only a cursory glance before stamping it and sending me on my way.  Soon, I was riding through picturesque farmland dotted with goat herders and numerous yurts.  As dusk descended and the wind increased I arrived in Sary-Tash, the first town across the border.  I then spent the night in a hastily chosen guesthouse; eager to get out of the cold.  Filled with watermelons and children it definitely wasn’t the best choice of accommodation but I was happy to be inside!

The following days brought with them more mountain passes although they were rendered far less daunting due to the drastic improvement in road surfaces that Kyrgyzstan provided.  It was then with much excitement that I arrived in Osh, the end of the Pamir Highway, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan and the home of at least one decent coffee shop!

Kyrgyzstan

The Map.

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ANZA Bintan Feb, 2018| New Friendships Formed

Bintan Ride, Indonesia Febuary 11th, 2018
By Alan Jones

The thing about memory and the way life works is that even though we experience life forwards in time, we remember everything better backwards. The things which mark our lasting experiences in life are mostly the freshest: our lasting memories are our last.

And so, it is with my ‘mini-tour’ or Bintan report

Here, you can have mine”, Stephanie Lim shouted over the road buzz and wind of yet another little roller descent, waving her mostly empty bidon in my general  direction. Now we were isolated from the support van, the hot dry wind whipping over my salt encrusted arms,  I was hopefully re-checking both my bidons for any sign of water. “Empty as a gyspy’s bank account”, I noted. Diverting my dejected glaze from the heat haze of next little ‘kicker’, I turned to Seph “Isn’t that all you have?”. Stephanie, smiled. “I have a little left in the other – you can share what I have. And with that shared gesture, the kernel of friendship was formed”.

Of course, I wasn’t supposed to be there:  In the heat. Fighting off cramps. In the rolling hills. With Sephanie Lim. Dyhydrated. I was supposed to be with Juliane Wizner. You see, I was a “ring in”.  A late entry. New to ANZA. I didn’t even know what Bintan was until the week before.

The ping of  whatsapp heralded a message from Juliane Winzer just days earlier. That sweet young German temptress of cycling who always finds a way of cajoling me (and just about anyone else) into any ride. Please! Please! Please! Join me on a slow ride around Bintan?, she said in a sweetly persuasive eastern German accent. Hmm, we had both enrolled in the Tour de Phuket in March and needed a training ride. Bintan! No preparation? No planning? No idea! What could possibly go wrong? I said Yes, of course! – now again how far is this ride and where is this Bintan place?.

Just how much Fun can two people have: Alan Jones and Juliane Winzer Tackle the start of Bintan

About the Bintan Ride:
The ride itself was a fully supported ride of about 160klm in a loop around the island. Wonderfully organised by ANZA and carried out in a casual way – wonderfully Indonesian, helpful, well intended, but slightly chaotic.

The day began from the ferry terminal at Tanah Merah with the ferry departing about 8am. After an hour-long ferry ride and a journey through customs, the group assembled for our farewell photo.

The Bintan Group.  Yep that’s me the orange one NOT wearing his ANZA kit.

Bintan is an Indonesian island directly off the south-east of Singapore. Noted for its dryer climate, lack of shade and rolling hills and a sufficient size to log a longish Strava loop. 160Klm on Bintan is a real test for any cyclist.

The Bintan Route 11/2/2018

The Bintan Route Topology – lots of rolling hills

We started as unified group from the ferry resort terminal on Bintan. A long rolling flat of about 5 k’s greeted our enthusiasm before the first hills broke up the peleton as the faster riders showed their form.  At the first regroup point about 10ks into the ride, we then divided into two groups: the fast group and the slow group. No guesses as to which group this 52 year old was riding in!

Each group had its own support van to carry drinks and to transport rider’s backpacks and nutrition. Cheerfully piloted and supported by a great ANZA organised Indonesian crew. Plenty of ‘Pocari Sweat’ and water at each stop.

The first stop and a needed refuelling and water refill

The route saw us push through rolling hills with some sharper rises directing us  to the coast before the first stop. The route was taken at a faster pace, as the adrenaline was being worn from the group. The many legs pushing at this early stage would have something to say to their owners later in the day.

The first of many stops was a typical Indonesian fishing village with motor bikes, scooters and silent sedentary activity of the locals puzzled by the lycra clad appearance of we cycling sojourners.

A steady pace of 35-37kph in the slow group was hardly sluggish, as we enjoyed the sea breezes as the route headed south across to enjoy the coastal roads and cool sea breezes.

“Damn Chain”, I cursed as Stephanie passed me. The third dropped chain of the ride, reminded me again to send my beloved Giant TCR for a service. About 40ks left and I was fading. It was hot and getting hotter.  A dry parching heat getting dryer. Cramps were just tweaking my hamstrings. In fatigue, I could only but wait as my grease blackened hands struggled, fumbling to free that damned jammed chain.”

 At last moving again, our ‘slow’ group was now fractured, distant and scattered over shimmering road ahead of me. Cramping riders being picked up in the support wagon as the price was being paid for early exuberance. Riders now like scattered masts of  departing yachts- appearing briefly only to sink under the next rolling wave of a hill. Legs gone, I had now fallen behind. I wasn’t last, but I wasn’t far from it.”

The route headed in land as the heat of the day started. The first casualties of the fast group began to drop back to our slower group and we worked together to look after everyone.  The cool breezes of the morning were replaced with a dry hot wind and a harsh sun, as the shady lanes of the coastal route were replaced with baked tarmac.

I was alone. “Okay time to focus on my average ‘watts’ over these hills”, I thought. No youthful sprinter, my technique relies on constant but constrained pressing. “This is just a long hill”, I try, unsuccessfully, to convince myself. “Like Mount Nebo back home in Brisbane.” A distant rider finally appears. Ah ha! A motivating target!

Stephanie’s pony tail flick gave her away long before I could make out her physical form. Fifteen minutes after I was dropped, I had caught someone. “Well, done Alan. Welcome back!”, Stephanie encouraged.

 The route then headed north into the heat of the day. Roads were generally good, with only one nasty pothole causing a double pinch flat and a retirement later in the day. Rolling pelotons helped share the load as a wind picked up.

As we headed further north into rolling hills the peloton finally fell apart as fatigue and pinching hills separated the groups rides by their strength and stamina. The support van was busy catering for retiring riders and the heat began to take the toll on even the faster riders.

Passing a few struggling riders, Stephanie and I found some form together. Feeling a little stronger, I led and gave Stephanie a break, but she kept coming around to lead and to share the work load. “Jump on” I yelled as we passed and then picked up another rider. Being new to ANZA, I didn’t get his name. He tucked in and we became a troika of prisoners in the gulag of that punishing afternoon Bintan sun.”

Strong and fast all day, Stephanie was now fading. A slow leak on a rear tyre of our new companion had  reduced the troika back again to just a pair of survivors.  These rolling hills were clearly affecting Steph. I let her lead and set the pace at her speed –  as much as a mental break for me as it was to keep her from being dropped.  We were slowing, but still moving onwards. Forwards. The cramps had subsided. “Steph! How much further?”, I mumble as I squinted toward my Garmin trying to read it’s digital map. “Another 15kms still,  Alan ” reported Steph. “What again!?”, I chuckled. Stephanie had earnestly and erroneously reported 15kms to go for the last hour. We both laughed.

By this time, it began to become hard and unpleasant – a challenge for all involved. The last 50km of hot rolling hills were undertaken by individual riders or groups of one or two.

The finish line and Stephanie and I are just glad to be there.

“ ’Check Point Charlie’ marked the entry to the resort and the last 7 klm. Guiltily deciding not to wait to regroup with the last few fellow stragglers lest cramps render us immobile, we pressed on.  Juliane was somewhere back there hopefully ok. Sorry fahrradfrau. Stephanie, completely spent, was struggling to keep in contact. “No, we would finish this damned thing together”, I vowed as I thankfully emptied Stephanie’s gift of her bidon. I slowed and rode next to my new friend, Stephanie Lim. We crossed the finish line in unison,  fellow ANZA riders, and now, two who are bonded with a shared Bintan memory of travail and triumph!”.

The last 40klm were along the same route we started the ride, with the sharp hills, but now with a hot dry wind and full midday sun.

At the end of the ride enjoying a well earned beer, I learned the following lessons: Bring a change of clothes and some food to eat at the end of the ride.

All up for me it was 200klm on the day, with two and from ferry terminal and the 160klm on the day. However, it was a remarkable day, and one to begin new friendships with shared memories of achieving a great ride.