Across Deserts & Over Mountains: Part One

Steep mountain passes, 50+ degree Celsius temperatures, and unobscured views of a lunar eclipse: Oli Townsend & Ruth Newton recall bikepacking through Central Asia

20th March 2019 | Words and photos by Oli Townsend & Ruth Newton

I can remember the first time Afghanistan came into view, across a huge gorge through which the frothing river Panj flows. I’d stopped to take a photo of Ruth who was now well out of earshot and disappearing around a sheer-drop hairpin bend. The mountains rose up on either side of us; Tajikistan on our left, Afghanistan on our right. This place was something of a mecca for long-distance cyclists and we’d be here for least a month. A month of high-altitude wilderness, home to eagles, yaks, and snow leopards. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I felt a rush of excitement as I tightened my grip on the handlebars and started the next descent.

Ruth Newton cycling in Central Asia

We’d left the UK five and a half months earlier in February of 2018 and, truth be told, neither of us knew a great deal about what was in store for us in any given country. We had enthusiasm and naivety in equal measure. We had plans but were open to change. Most importantly, we had time; time to watch continents merge and enjoy not being in a rush.

And so by the time we’d reached Central Asia, any echo of a European road-cyclist’s impulse to cover a daily distance was long gone and we felt well prepared. We really knew our legs, we understood our bikes and our kit, we had the measure of our stomachs and knew when to feed them and when to keep going, and if push came to shove we could probably look at a bunch of clouds and make an instinctive guess as to whether to try and make it over the next high pass or not.

Bikepacking in Maysari
Nothing prepared us for the heat of Uzbekistan

That said, nothing prepared us for the heat of Uzbekistan, our very first ‘Stan’. Online forecasts predicted we’d experience temperatures of between 41 and 44 degrees Celsius. Locals laughed at this though, remarking that it would be 50+ on unshaded desert roads in the south of the country. To be honest, it didn’t really matter what the figure was. The combined effect of the heat radiating back up at us from the tarmac and the black metal frames of our bikes quite literally being too hot to handle were more of an immediate concern. The first cruel irony of cycling in a hot and remote environment is that you have to carry more water and food than usual, so when you’re at your hottest and most exhausted, and can’t see so much as a stump for shade, your bike weighs more than ever before. The second is that the water you’re carrying turns out to be hotter than tea by the time you stop for a drink. Good thing we were carrying all that Earl Grey.

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We’d hoped to reach Dushanbe, the capital city of Tajikistan, by mid-July. Research had suggested a six-week window in July and August presented the most temperate period within which to complete the legendary Pamir Highway. But as the soles of our sandals melted onto our pedals, any sense that we should feel pleased with ourselves for having a weather-conscious strategy for the huge mountains ahead quickly evaporated when we realised we would be cycling through Uzbekistan in July; its hottest time of year.

The road to Khalikhum

We were now a three, having befriended Sophie, a cowboy-hat-wearing German cyclist who had originally planned to cycle back to Leipzig from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. We expected to cycle with her for a week or so, passing through some of the villages between Bukhara and Samarkand, but as things turned out Sophie decided to alter her course and we spent the next two and a half months together. We were in luck; not only is she great company but her Russian is excellent and this enriched our time in the region.

Touring cyclists coming from Europe will often remark that as you travel east, people just keep getting friendlier. There is a tradition of hospitality towards travellers which is deeply embedded in Islamic culture. I suspect this is especially true of mountain and desert communities encountering the curious sight of a pink-cheeked, heavily-laden, touring cyclist from the west. More often than not families would invite us to stay the night, wanting nothing more than to spend the evening together and ensure we left feeling well-rested and well-fed. The kindness and generosity of strangers was overwhelming at times.

Oli and Ruth met incredibly generous people on their trip
One magical night, we watched a total lunar eclipse from our beds in an abandoned flatbed truck

During the first two days riding in the heat, Ruth and I got five punctures. These were our first of the entire trip. We were on our second set of tyres, which had a medium-thickness touring tread, and although we were planning a change in the not-too-distant future, we expected to be able to ride another thousand kilometres without issue. Similarly, by all good estimates, our inner tubes should have been ok for a while yet. We’d done the maths. Unfortunately, it seemed the heat was making a mockery of our maths, and light work of the rubber for rogue thorns and splinters. Changing them became a careful race; it felt much hotter to be stationary in the sun. Thankfully we still had spare inners, so on the second day we sliced up the old ones and lined our tyres with them, hoping an additional protective wall would get us to Tajikistan where fresh new tyres and tubes would be awaiting us in Dushanbe. The bikes felt heavy and ungainly, it was as if the tread was sticking to the tarmac and we were having to peel it off with every turn of the pedals. It was exhausting and slow progress but thankfully we never had a day with so many punctures again.

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Whilst the extreme heat presented a new challenge, at least the weather was consistent. This meant that we could be assured of warm dry nights under a starry sky; I don’t think we used our tent once. During the hotter weather families sleep outside on raised day-beds, and we followed suit, finding rustic versions of these in the corners of fields for farmers and travellers alike. On one magical night, we were lucky enough to watch a total lunar eclipse from where we lay on our backs, bedded down on an abandoned flatbed-truck in the desert. The three of us were soon wide-eyed in amazement, not fully understanding what was happening as a huge moon glowed red above us in an otherwise clear night sky.

Bike silhouetted against the sunrise

We had a longer stretch of desert to cross, to the south of a town called Navoi, and were mentally readying ourselves for the feat. The day before we’d met a French cyclist, François, as he emerged from a week-long stint in the desert that connects Uzbekistan with Kazakhstan and eventually the Caspian Sea. He looked as if he’d come straight off the set of Mad Max Fury Road; dark grime giving the effect of thickly-applied eye-liner, smeared like goggles on his sunburned face. As he smiled, cracks appeared in the layers of dust and dirt on either side of his mouth and eyes. Two local women, Raya and Kuram, invited the four of us to share a pot of tea in the shade of an old madrasah. We told François he was less than half a day’s ride from Samarkand, an ancient city which is popular with tourists, where he could rest properly. This was music to his ears. As he cycled off we glanced at each other nervously; François was clearly a strong and experienced cyclist but his post-desert appearance was somewhat post-apocalyptic and more than enough to underline the fact that the road ahead would be difficult.

And it was. Over the last 24 hours Ruth had been feeling unwell and at times nauseous but, as ever, was determined to continue. That was our first mistake.

Read Part Two of Across Deserts & Over Mountains.

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