So none of us had explored the place before but we had heard good things… so lets find out…
Let’s just say we weren’t disappointed and some eyes were opened …
Driven by our MTB Matriarch.. Liesbeth Kanis .. we got our shyte together .. found a date … finally got to understand why Wilson Low is the man if you want to learn how to MTB in the region and did it…
One day.. 6.15 am at Harborfront.. home about 4.30 – 5.00 but there is not one of us that regrets that…
Real countryside.. out of the city .. just do it enjoyment…
Obviously we were not locals .. so our attempted team photo at the entrance to Brak Bike Park was photo bombed a smidge … (the XC (Cross Country .. i.e. less technical) park in Batam … not to be confused with the Enduro Park very popular with locals called Dangas)
.. which kinda sets the scene for riding in this region on MTB… you gotta just go with the flow…
So.. into the flow we go… what a superb bike park to hone your MTB skills… if you want to learn or get confident on your bike this is the place.. sorry Singapore.. there is nowhere in this league here…
A day or too here and Singapores tree roots and technical trails will change for you.. this is the land of gaining your mojo..
Not a lot of words needed… we were under a forest canopy cruising beside water when the outside temperature was hitting mid 30’s or more.. just that little breeze…
What was critical to the success of this jaunt was the guidance and technical on the job coaching provided by Wilson Low…
To give you and idea of the value.. so ok, I might be a competitively natured old uncle .. but I ain’t no Mountain Biker when it comes to technical skills.. but I went from yesterday trailing this group and carrying the last man walkie talkie to today ..staying over and scoring 6 strava cups (4th to 7th) over the same trails thanks to the little tips that Wilson and this little group of riders gave me yesterday…
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!
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!
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.
Would you like to learn more about trading? On 1 November 2017, OANDA will be holding an introductory trading seminar hosted by proud Kiwi Jeffrey Halley. With more than 30 years’ experience in FX – from spot/margin trading and NDFs through to currency options and futures – Jeff is OANDA’s senior market analyst for Asia Pacific, responsible for providing timely and relevant market commentary throughout the region.
Date: 2 November 2017
Time: 6:30-8:00 pm
Venue: OANDA Asia Pacific
50 Collyer Quay, Unit 04-03
World class mountain bike trails, famous wineries, and breweries, delicious food and perfect weather for riding definitely put the Cape to Cape MTB event on the top of our list when we were planning our race calendar for 2017.
The Cape to Cape mountain bike race is a four day stage event for riders of all levels that winds itself through Western Australia’s stunning south west region. It has been running for the last nine years and traditionally starts at Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse and travels 220kms to Dunsborough at Cape Naturalist. This year, for the tenth anniversary, the organizers decided to make the event more family friendly and to use the favorite world class trails of the Pines, Boranup and Middle Earth forests more effectively. All of the starts were within a 5km radius of Margaret River town and started and finished at a different winery each day. The hardest decisions to make were how many glasses of wine or beer we should have after each stage so as not to affect the next days racing!
Seven intrepid ANZA mountain bikers made the trip down to Margaret River for the 2017 event, Chris Rawlings, Nick Richmond, Arran Pearson, Hilke Rode, Joergen Nailer, Shane Snijders and Marcin Szot. All regulars on the Thursday night and Saturday morning mountain bike rides in Singapore. As this years event was designed to be more family friendly with an event village and less travelling, most riders came with family as their support crew.
Started and finished at Xanadu winery with 55kms of trails around the 10 mile dam and into the world class Pines and Compartment 10 trails with huge burms, jumps and switchbacks. All of the ANZA team finished the stage with no crashes or mishaps other than Joergen suffering with cramps. The stage was an extra 8kms than advertised, which caused a few grumbles from other riders.
Started and finished at Leeuwin Estate winery with 63kms of trails in the Jarrahdine area, Boranup Forest, Highway to Hell and Caves road. This was the longest and hardest of the stages with lots of sandy tracks, which can make riding very difficult. Once again all of the ANZA team completed the stage with no major tumbles or mechanicals. Our race preparation had definitely paid off!
Started and finished at Colonial Brewery with 56kms of trails on fast fire roads up to Middle Earth. With trail names like Mirkwood, Helm’s Deep, Frodo, Eagles Nest, Bilbo Baggins, and Mordor. Almost 20kms along these amazing trails of jumps, burms and swithchbacks and lots of ‘Gotchya’ rocks to throw you into the bush. Again all of the ANZA team completed the stage but Joergen, Arran and Marcin took tumbles along the way. The full suspension bikes definitely paid off on this stage due to the big sections of rock gardens. At the finish line Joergen discovered his phone and sunk to the bottom of a ditch he took a tumble into, alas never to be found.
Started and finished in Margaret River town with a controlled roll out through the town center and then 50kms of trails through the world class Pines forest. Smashing through runs such as, Burnside loop, Princess Leia, and Return of the Jedi, by pumping and jumping all the way through. Next into Compartment 10, for more switchbacks and jumps, and finally swinging by Colonial Brewery and back to Margaret River town. Another awesome day for the ANZA crew who pushed hard through the pain and tired legs to all finish with strong times.
A special mention goes to Hilke Rode with a general classification finish place of 20 in the ladies and Arran Pearson for the most improved FGP training award. Well done to all of the ANZA MTB team who all placed in the top 600 out of 1600 riders. The team represented ANZA proudly and with great team spirit, plus some fun social events with the families and support crew. Well done all, a great effort!
From Tehran the (overly) ambitious nature of my planning became obvious as we cycled down to Shiraz (where we consequently found no Shiraz, or any other type of wine for that matter) and then onto Isfahan. Whilst both cities were magnificent and beautiful, the 40 plus temperatures made appreciating their sights a challenge.
Cycling in Ramadan created another layer of difficulty, as many restaurants and shops were closed during the day. I also felt uncomfortable eating and drinking in public thinking that we were breaking the law. We later discovered (much too late) that travellers were exempt from these restrictions!
From Isfahan we stopped at Persepolis where were allowed to camp next to the guard house for the night. The night of our arrival the guards quickly found an English speaking guide who arrived at our campsite with tea and stories of his work as an archaeologist during the original dig.
We then began the trek across the desert to Yadz. While this part of the trip involved long stretches without towns or people, being able to watch the landscape constantly change proved fascinating. All the podcasts that I had subscribed to in an attempt to stave off boredom went unlistened to as I focused on the road ahead.
I have heard cycling being described as being about the passing of time,
and with the wheels continuously turning, sometimes fast and other times painfully slow, it definitely felt this way. During these stretches of desert in 30-40 degree temperatures the focus became about getting to the next sign, the next hill, to the first 30km and then over the 100km mark. There has obviously also much time spent watching my Garmin waiting for the kilometers to tick over! (Much to Jonathan’s disgust!)
When we finally did arrive, Yadz turned out to be just as enchanting as expected with its desert coloured buildings and blue tiled domes.
From Yadz we attempted to cycle across the last stretch of desert to Mashad, the city considered by Muslims to be the holiest city in Iran (i.e. The Iranian equivalent of Mecca) and our border crossing point into Turkmenistan.
The highlight of this 900km dusty and hot bicycle journey turned out to be camping next to the site of the remnants of a helicopter and plane crash, an ill fated attempt to end the US hostage crisis. There, we were hosted by the Red Crescent staff who made us dinner and breakfast before providing us water for the next part of our trip!
We then managed to cycle another 120km through the searing heat and wind before Jonathan realised the stupidity of the endeavor and took the bus. I stubbornly cycled another 270km before I was waved down by a passing motorist, invited into her home for lunch and dinner and then I was bought a bus ticket for the next day!
Watching yet more desert roll by from the bus window I definitely realised that I wasn’t missing out!
While a great place to see the finish of Ramadan, Mashhad proved to be the least exciting of the Iranian cities that we visited. So after a very long tour of the mosque, involving me wearing an extra long borrowed chador that was not dissimilar to a bed sheet; we were glad to receive our Turkmenistan transit visas. This event was somewhat of a lottery win as many people are rejected with no explanation. The irony of wanting to visit a country that did not want us was not lost on me!
Arguably the strangest and least visited ‘stan, Turkmenistan gained nortoriety through the dictatorship of former President Saparmyrat Niyazov. In this role, Niyazov covered the country in golden statues of himself and ruled as ‘Turkmenbashi,’ leader of the Turkmen until his death in 2016. So, it was with much anticipation and curiosity that we crossed over the border into what our Lonely Planet guide described as a “totalitarian theme park.”
While it didn’t feel right to be excited about visiting a totalitarian regime, having spent a month in Iran it was a relief to finally cross the border and enter another country, any country! I would also have to admit that the opportunity to have a beer (or two) and not be obliged to wear a headscarf was playing heavily on my mind!
With only five days to cross the country, after successfully navigating the border crossing we loaded our bikes into a waiting taxi and headed towards the nation’s capital, Ashgabat. Once there, we spent the afternoon cycling around admiring the marble buildings, gold domes and large areas of uninhabited lush parkland before checking into a hulking Soviet era hotel. A fairly bleak option, we were provided with one towel to share, no toilet paper or toilet seat and told to open a window if the Arctic blast of the air conditioning became too much. All for the princely sum of $50 USD!
The next day we took a series of taxis to get to the Darvaza gas crater in the Karkarum desert. While the desert had been described to us as an opportunity to get a glimpse into traditional Turkmen life, with its collection of ramshackle huts and occasional camel the landscape proved rather bleak! The crater itself, a result of Soviet-era gas exploration in the 1950s was definitely worth the trip. Basically a pit of flames, the fire burns with incredible ferocity and can be seen from a great distance away (which is handy given that it felt like standing next to an open oven door!)
Alone at the crater, we managed to take innumerable photos before camping for the night and returning to Ashgabat the next day. After a another night there we took the overnight train to Turkmenabat and cycled the remaining 30km across the border into Uzbekistan. With its seemingly unending bureaucracy and paperwork, this crossing took up most of the morning. This left us with little choice but to cycle through yet another desert in the midday sun as a ferocious headwind blew sand into our faces. Delightful.
Thankfully, the next day proved to be a vast improvement. We met up with a French cycle touring couple that we previously encountered in Iran. The day was then spent singing and chatting while cycling through lush green fields criss crossed with irrigation channels and dotted with workers in colourful headscarves. This was a definite change of pace for us!
As we cycled along we were greeted by villagers and many children and adults on bikes, who seemed to delight in whizzing past, chains squeaking and rattling.
As expected, Bukhara proved beautiful and was not full of the bus loads of tourists that we had expected. After two days of exploration, we set off to Samarkand, arguably Uzbekistan’s most impressive city with its grand monuments, colourful bazaar and rich history.
Our time in Samarkand was spent wandering around the city and enjoying fresh food and copious amounts of ice cream before we set off to last destination in Uzbekistan. While having enjoyed much of the history that both the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand had to offer it was Tashkent with its plethora of Soviet-era architecture that I was most excited about. Obviously Jonathan was not as thrilled at this prospect.
As I had anticipated Tashkent proved impressive with its plethora of mostly well maintained monuments, Stalinist ministries and highly decorated apartment blocks.
Somewhat distracted by this haze of architectural induced happiness, at this point Jonathan and I decided to go our separate ways (so yes, Hooper, I owe you a beer).
While the trip had been Jonathan’s idea, he decided that he had seen enough of Central Asia whereas I wanted to head to Tajikistan, home of the Pamir Highway, with its promise of some of the best mountain scenery in Asia (and difficult climbs).
Amicably, we repacked our panniers, I learnt how to use our stove and Jonathan jumped on a flight to Korea as I headed in the direction of the Tajikistan border with the hope of finding a cycling friend.*
*Slight spoiler alert but I should probably note at this point that having spent two 150km days alone I managed to meet up with a French cyclist who had also lost his travelling companion just after the Uzbekistan/Tajikistan border. So no, I am not still trying to utilize my poor navigational skills in Uzbekistan although I did manage to get lost. Twice.
Just a quick reminder that our club sponsor OANDA are hosting this month’s club drinks on Wednesday 28th June. Yes folks, that is tomorrow! If you didn’t spot it on Facebook, then here are all the details. The original Facebook Post is HERE.
SPONSORED CLUB DRINKS – JUNE 28 OANDA’s ANZA Cycling Trading Competition
Join us at the Lime House for cocktails on 28 June for an evening of friendly competition with a chance to win SGD 1,000. Drinks and nibbles will be served while you join in the contest.
You will need to do the following to join the competition:
Register now (via the link below) to reserve your place, you can explore the trading platform from now until the start of the event at your leisure.
Bring your smart phone to the event to participate in the competition.
A global leader in online multi-asset trading services, OANDA combines award-winning technology and institutional-grade execution across a wide range of asset classes, enabling clients to trade global market indices, commodities, treasuries, precious metals and currencies on one of the world’s fastest platforms.
We look forward to welcoming you and finding the ultimate OANDA trading genius.
Date: Wednesday 28 June 2017
Place: Lime House, 2 Jiak Chuan Road, Singapore 089260
Cost: Free for Club Members
But even if you have an aversion to planning more than a day in advance and therefore cannot bring yourself to register, you are welcome to come along on the day when you find at 6pm that you really need a drink and to bring some sanity to your life by talking about the upcoming TfF which starts this weekend.
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.