Across Deserts & Over Mountains: Part Two

From soaring golden eagles to unexpected Morrisons bags, one adventurous couple recall cycling through Central Asia in the second half of this two-part series

25th March 2019 | Words and photos by Oli Townsend & Ruth Newton

In hindsight, it seems foolish to enter a long stretch of the desert when one of us wasn’t feeling 100%, but with little comfortable alternatives on offer we decided to begin. Up until that point, treats had come in the form of shops with cold bottled water, locals who would hose us down, truckers who would hand us watermelons, and in one village; even a dubious looking ice-cream that bore no relation to the picture on its packaging. However, we were now in a place that was featureless and unpopulated. We knew there was a lake and then eventually a town, fifty kilometres away, so we decided to push on, but it was slow-going into a hot wind. These were headwinds that at times felt like someone was holding a hairdryer to your face.

It was exhausting and when we stopped by a lone tree for lunch, Ruth lay down groaning, unable to continue. Within a few minutes she’d vomited, and not long after that, she was delirious, rolling out of the shade and into the sun. It was scary and I was especially glad Sophie was with us. We used some of our water to soak scarves and lie them across her forehead, taking it in turns to talk to her as she rested before both helping her sit up against the trunk of the tree to sip rehydration-salts. The three of us remained calm and kept each other’s spirits up, joking about the previous ‘worst-moments’ of our trips; gruesome toilets, dodgy-looking food, wild-dog chases and the like. Ruth’s shirt had ripped, I guess on some unseen thorns in the dirt, and she had another older, even dirtier-looking shirt tied around her head. The overall effect was kind of bicycle-punk-sheikh.

Oli & Ruth in Kyrgyzstan

After a couple of hours, Ruth had recovered enough to discuss what we should do next. It was now the hottest part of the day and we were lying close together in the small patch of shade cast by our tree. We debated whether to put up a tarpaulin shelter and sleep through the afternoon, continuing at night when the temperature had dropped, or to just keep going. Again, Ruth concluded she’d prefer to keep going but as we helped her to her feet she staggered forwards and dry-retched. I remember asking her if she was ok quite angrily and then immediately feeling guilty. I was unsure whether following the wishes of somebody who’d been rolling around deliriously only a couple of hours earlier was wise, but despite the initial wobble Ruth looked adamant and maintained that we should start cycling again. As we packed up we paused to take in the scene and all three of us couldn’t help but laugh. I leant over and whispered to Ruth, ‘let’s get..’ and with a little teary grin she duly completed our favourite saying: ‘…this shit-show on the road’. Things were probably going to be ok.

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Having got through the desert we began to enjoy ourselves again and a couple of weeks later, after a great many gold-toothy smiles, cups of green tea, slices of watermelon, and rounds of plov (the much-loved local rice dish), we arrived at the Tajikistan border. The mountains that had lain in the distance now rose up right in front of us, and the roads began to climb. After the flatness and heat of Uzbekistan, this dramatic altitude-gain was very welcome, as with the mountains came great curving roads which wound up and down along gorges and past waterfalls.

Pushing bikes on Shakdara Road

Our next chapter was now properly underway; Tajikistan. We were pedalling along old subsidiary routes of the Silk Road, a 1200km journey that links Dushanbe, Tajikistan, with Osh, Kyrgyzstan, to the north-east. There are a few route options from which to choose, but not many, and they all eventually link up on the main Pamir Highway. Hilariously, for British visitors at least, it is also called the M41. Though the name is where any resemblance to a UK motorway ends.

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Along this route, we gained in numbers and were soon riding in a group, sometimes of five, sometimes eight, weaving slowly in and out of an array of potholes, cracked tarmac, gravel, and washboard-roads. A caravan of heavily-laden bicycles, moving slowly forwards in a tiny line, dots against a backdrop of huge mountains. Soon it had become a lifestyle; one of gentle progress through a dramatic landscape. As darkness fell our group would share tips on the best ways to start fires, pooling our collected resources of yak-dung, and logs or coal that had fallen from passing trucks when we were above the tree-line. When you’re cycling all day food tastes better than ever and we enjoyed a great many evening meals together, huddled in a circle of tents, often besides rivers or in the shelter of rocky outcrops. Breaking through the ice at the side of streams to leave used pots and pans in soak overnight, before hugging each other goodnight and crawling into our tents.

Breaking camp in Central Asia

Our lives soon developed as many routines and rituals as everyday life back home. Getting up early with the sun and scraping the ice off your kitchen-pannier to retrieve your stove and put the kettle on, before taking your toilet-roll for a walk to a suitably discreet place to dig a little hole, smiling cheerily and knowingly at any friend you see, on his or her return to camp, along the way. Breakfast and packing-up were a communal affair too, and although getting ready always takes longer the more people there are in a group, it was worth it for the shared experience. Another couple we’d befriended, who confessed they were probably ‘at the bikey end of the cycling spectrum’, told us they’d concluded the plural noun for touring cyclists should be ‘a faff’. By the time the final person in the group is ready the first has realised they’ve got a slow puncture, or have left their Snickers buried too deep in a pannier and started rummaging all over again. And so it continues until, eventually, somebody just starts pedalling. Our ‘faff’ of cyclists spreads out along the road in ones or twos, those at the back content in the knowledge that we’ll come together again at some point for coffee and snacks.

And so it continued, and before we knew it we were in Kyrgyzstan, which felt like a prize after the high passes and rough, bike-wrecking, roads of its neighbour. The views were equally stunning but the road surfaces were smooth and wide. We no longer had to concentrate on avoiding holes and boulders, or not hurtling over the edge. We could cruise and look around at the spectacular landscapes that spread out in all directions. The roads here were at a lower altitude again and with that also came warmer conditions, bigger rivers, and trees which provided wood for fires at night. There were also many more places to stop and eat or buy food. It seemed our third and final ‘Stan’ was going to be no less exciting, but a good deal more comfortable.

Local children riding donkeys

Cosy-looking yurts with little smoking chimneys began to pop up on the plains either side of the road. And hundreds of horses grazed in great herds. After weeks of only seeing distant wildlife, the sheer numbers of animals was an exciting sight. There were more people around too and everybody seemed to have plastic Morrison’s shopping bags. At first, we saw one or two and found it amusing, after all, there aren’t even supermarkets let alone Morrison’s stores, but soon it was clear this was the grocery bag of choice. A weird fact of global capitalism; you could even buy rolls of the things from market traders. One theory is that the UK supermarket underwent a rebranding and flogged or dumped all its old-design bags in the east. Whatever the truth of the matter, the first sighting made us smile and think of home.

Bike-touring was an all-encompassing, arguably perfect, way to travel through Central Asia. Our journey here combined sensational and isolated landscapes, extraordinary wildlife, extremes of weather, and fantastic camping opportunities, with incredibly human experiences. From glimpses of ancient customs in remote communities to friendships forged on the road. It was exhilarating. And whilst it tested us and probably gave us the worst moments of a year-long adventure, it also gave us the best. There aren’t many places like it on earth. Without a doubt, it holds an enchanting place in our memories and is somewhere we long to see again; it’s one a hell of a place for a bike ride.

A group of cyclists in the desert

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