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10) August 2nd, Kyrgystan - Stardom in Osh

Uzbekistan looking to the West (at least while the West continues to ignore the government's atrocities). Mountainous Tajikistan reminising about better times, the hammer & sickle still seen on government buidings and the uniforms of the border guards... one thing is clear though - it is amazing how Russia unified all these seperate tribes under the common Soviet flag. But now the towns & cities are crumbling... slowly. A personal favourite is how half the manhole covers are missing on these unlit streets...
I've only just got my foot in the door of Kyrgystan, but the laid-back friendliness of the people has already put me at ease about the difficult mountain crosses ahead.

Yes.. this really is Central Asia --

16 july, Sat: The extra day's rest was really nice - a lot of it spent in the coutyard of the quaint guesthouse I was staying in. So my first solo cycling in two weeks and how did it go ?

Drugs and prostitution. Stopped by a restaurant and was invited in by the owner for lunch. Sat with a friendly group of blokes, one who said I could stay in a free appartment for the night. The group then casually lit up a few joints and carried on with their game of backgammon. Images of an Uzbek prison cell flashing through my mind, I made my excuses to leave, indicating that I really needed to sleep and recover from a bad stomach... Assad, the one with the appartment, said no problem and insisted he lead me there right now. Oh well..
Pretty basic but good enough to sleep in. He left the key ("Don't answer the door to anyone but me") and said he'd be back in a couple of hours. Sure enough, in a while there was a knock and he walked in - with two young ladies. His mate dropped by and we all sat around making small-talk (or small-mime in my case) for a while. It seems that nobody very much likes the police around here - they're always extorting money from people. This is a common theme throughout Uzbekistan, so much so that I don't think police can socialise anywhere that "civilians" do - the anti-police feeling was so open and blatant.
The conversation came to a pause, and Assad asked "Sex okay ?". I was put on the spot, as four pairs of curious eyes looked at me. I don't think this is quite what the Lonely Planet had in mind when it espouced "Meet the locals!" on the back-cover. And it wasn't quite how I had envisioned it as well - Despite eager prompting, I made my excuses ("bad stomach, all that movement will make me sick again") and after clearing up a few points ("no, I don't go for small boys either") everyone was okay about it.
Assad and his friend took turns in the bedroom next door.
Afterwards he took me to his house to meet his wife and two daughters. Lovely family, amazing house, overlooking a spacious courtyard of flowers, grape-trellises and pear-trees.

And the cycling ? Very good actually. For the first 60km the road was lined by tall trees, throwing shade onto the side of the road, with cotton fields stretching for miles behind. There was always some activity going on in the verges - small stalls, tea-houses, cows grazing, women in colourful Uzbek dresses going back and forth, tree-lined tracks leading away to small villages... I really felt I was in Asia. The next 50km opened out onto arid steppe, but I was so refreshed from the first half that I didn't mind at all. They are a genuinely friendly lot, the Uzbeks, and I didn't even encounter any antagonism from the police. The only real danger I felt was when Assad drove me in his car ("in Uzbekistan, no seatbelts!") at 150kph through the town centre.
Distance: 114km. Overnight in Navoi (Uzbekistan).

17 july, Sun: The road changed direction and I lost the shade of the trees. And the wind started. Ohhhh the bloody wind. In was struggling along flat roads at 10kph at some points. Kids were whistling for attention from the fields (I'm really beginning to hate that whistle) but I was now in a foul mood so just ignored them. Wherever I stopped, within seconds there would be a swarm of locals enveloping me, eagerly asking questions. Very curious, very friendly, but I really didn't have the energy today. Eventually found this old Soviet hotel (you know the type) and collapsed into bed.
Distance: 87km. Overnight in Kattagorgan (Uzbekistan).

18 july, Mon: Took the shorter, hillier cross-country route to Samarkand, and very nice for the first 30km - ups and downs through a verdant green, tree-lined landscape. Didn't last - views opened out, houses starting appearing, and the WIND, oh the wind... Exhausted arriving into Samarkand, but a few chats with some friendly folks and the sight fo the amazing Registan... wow, I perked up.
Staying in a nice backpacker B&B - Team Swiss are also staying here and also met the mad round-the-world-by-bike bloke Al (www.roundtheworldbybike.com), who's slideshow I'd actually seen in Tokyo in January. Small world. He's trying to convince me to reduce weight and dump half my stuff, while also giving me a load of 2-inch thick paperbacks.
Distance: 72km. Overnight in Samarkand (Uzbekistan).

19th - 21st July: Took a bus to Tashkent ($2, 6 hours and very very sweaty) to arrange visas for Kyrgystan, Kazakstan and China. Another nice courtyard B&B... got a double-entry visa for China so have promised myself a break once I get past Urumqui - maybe a trip to Ulan Batar.. or maybe a beach in Thailand!

22nd - 23rd July: Oh I'm getting to like this laziness. A few sights (two), picking up a few tips and oily bits from Al, and squashing a scorpion scuttling across our room. Saw the tomb of Timur at night after slipping the guard a few "som".
All in all, a very pleasant time. Meeting up with the Swiss, meeting other travellers.. just the break I needed. I think I could spend weeks hanging around here. But all temptation to stay longer successfully resisted, though it took some pretty strong discipline the next morning, after a couple of bottles of farewell "anti-septic" with the Swiss before bed...

24 july, Sun: A little sad to say goodbye to Alex, Pascal & Evo - have laughed pretty hard over the last couple weeks. The road to the Tajikistan border soon became devoid of vehicles, the area a lot more thinly populated. Through the villages I'd usually have a convoy of one or two local kids, accompanying me on their rickety bicycles. Dusty green fields, old men drinking chay in the shade of the trees, the women in their brightly coloured dresses walking with their kids, mouths full of gold teeth everywhere... no change here, but people seeming more & more laid-back.
The Uzbek border guards seemed happy with a go on my bicycle, but I had to play a waiting game with the Tajik customs guard who was after some "bakeesh". Eventually he lost, and resignedly handed me back my passport. Very few people around on crossing the border - I liked it! Some humongous mountains on the left - huge! - the largest I've seen so far. These are the ones I'll be crossing ? ...
Back on my own again, and now definitely a grade harder than Uzbekistan. But I think I'm looking forward to it...
Distance: 62km. Overnight in Pendjikent (TAJIKISTAN!).

25 july, Mon: Some stark scenery and brutal roads. I think I've been promoted in the adventure cycling ranks.
The road, for the most part un-paved, going up and down through small villages of mudbrick houses and huge bare mountain valleys. Lots of kids, some nice, and some very annoying (trying to pull things from bike, etc). Women stopping their work in the fields to look at me, nonplussed. Polite greetings from older folks. Straw laid out in the middle of the road. Difficult to acknowledge most people as I didn't dare take my eyes off the road infront of me. If I'd known what a rocky, gravelly, dusty road this would be, I wouldn't have taken this route through Tajikistan.!
A little paranoid about availability of food & water - started using my filter. Tasted horrible. Food is simple - a common meal around here is a pot of chay, a couple of large dollops of sugar, and bread (to dip in the chay). In any case, there was no need to panic. Although thinly populated compared to Uzbekistan, there was a tea-shop at 60km - where I had lunch and a nap - and another at 80km. This is the one I'm camping at tonight, and the setting is superb. Water gushing down the mountain side, deafening, and a view of the harsh mountain valley winding into the distance.
Distance: 80km. Overnight near Ayni (Tajikistan).

26 july, Tue: The road to Ayni was another up-down monster, and the climb to the pass (3378m) hadn't even started yet. Passed a small plateau with rows and rows of trees and then a precarious decent through red sand to a bridge. Phenomenal views, but by heck I was paying for it. Came off the bike several times today, usually because I was going so slow... the initial accent was through a narrow gorge with an inviting cool stream on the left, on a very uninviting unpaved and rocky track. After a tea-house, the valley opened out and the road was a long windy ribbon clinging to the rocky mountainside going up & up & up. It really was tough-going and I was filling my waterbottles from the occasional stream by the side of the road. Some kids followed me (occasionally jogging, mainly walking..) for the next hour, and I eventually reached my limit at a small shack selling biscuits and cigarettes, next to a mountain stream. There, an old man invited me onto his platform for chay, and then offered me a small shed to sleep in for a couple hours. I now realise that he is quite reverred in this area - many cars stopped to receive his blessing (I would too, given the state of these roads...).
I'm camping here tonight, with almost a permanent group of curious locals surrounding me (even as I write this).
Distance: 42km. Overnight before Ayni Pass (Tajikistan).

27 july, Wed: It was actually cold last night (I was camping at 2900m) - and I loved it! Again, some incredibly crap roads to the top of the pass, but at least I was in shadow as I climbed to the summit. At 3378m it's my highest pass! And oh the views. To the south, the hard rocky valley, sheer cliffs and snow-capped mountains in the distance. To the north (my descent), a wide winding valley, trees on the hillsides and wildflowers.
But the descent itself was abysmal. A slippery, sandy and rocky road winding steeply downwards.. I was going not much faster than I had been coming up... but still, I'm sure the views made up for it... silver mountain streams snaking down from the tops of mountains through verdant green pastures, small hamlets in the distance... stunning. The road improved for a while and I nwas racing throuhg a green valley. Up in a distant meadow I saw a mare and colt "frollicking" in the late morning sun. Ahhhh... I thought wistfully...

Had some laughs at a checkpoint whe the chief tried to ride my bike. The driver of every car & truck that went through greeted him like an old friend, while discreetly slipping him a few "somani"..
Eventually the landscape became drier, the road worse. On the way down I met two German motorcyclists I'd ran into a few weeks previously in Turkmenistan. Tonight I thought I'd "treat" myself to a hotel. Next to the bazaar, sharing a room with two young Tajik traders, and a toilet (urrrrgh) with the entire hotel. Cost: one quid. I think I'm beginning to like my tent.
Distance: 76km. Overnight in Ura-Tybe (Tajikistan).

28 july, Thu: It struck me this morning that what I now take take for granted on an average cycling day is actually very very remote from an average day in the UK or Japan. Fat men loping along on donkeys, women - gold teeth shining - working the fields, men holding out snakes for sale, and melons - melons for sale, piled high by the roadside.
Arrived in Kohjand - nice, next to an azure river and large rocky mountain range. It's a typical Soviet styled town, but it's leafy boulevards give it a pleasant cosmopolitan air.
And it looks relatively prosperous. In the mountains I saw poverty - families living in small mud or rock dwellings, kids in rags, people with fractures or deep cuts patched up with simple bandages. This country is poor, and is still recovering from a civil war which was only finally put to rest seven years ago.
Distance: 76km. Overnight in Khojand (Tajikistan).

29 july, Fri: A long day - the first 90km to the Uzbek border was a good tree-lined road through cornfields and appricot trees, and a blue reservoir in the distance. Gently rising and descending, quite tiring, but pleasant enough. Some great Soviet-era monuments (proud woman with basket of fruit, etc), but fairly monotonous, interrupted only by the ice-cream stalls on the side of the road (I ate four). The border crossing took some time - the usual questions, offers of chay that I couldn't refuse - and for the next 15km I cycled with a really nice local Uzbek guy on his way home. He only spoke Uzbek, but we managed okay. He invited me to stay with his family for the night but in my haste to press on, I refused. Regretted it afterwards.
Kokand - very pleasant, nice park, tree-lined streets, abysmal Soviet hotel. Ahh, should have stayed with the Uzbek guy.
Distance: 145km. Overnight in Kokand (UZBEKISTAN AGAIN!).


30 july, Sat: A rather inglorious exit from Uzbekistan - I noticed my visa expired end of today, and rushed with a rather tender backside east to Fergana, with the intention of crossing the border near there. The Fergana valley is very green - cotton and corn - and highly populated. Villages continuously lined the route. And people were so friendly - just on the day I least wanted it! Because of my visa, I needed to press on, but the natural hospitality of the people here soon broke through my bad mood, and I was stopping to be treated to "Plov" (a rice dish), drinks, ice-cream... slow-going (there was a headwind), and I was a little perturbed when a group of girls I passed, pointed at me and laughed, howled even, as I cycled past. This is not the kind of reaction I've been hoping for...

Arrived in Fergana city, checked an email from the agent who arranged the visa - "you gotta get oooout of there!" - and not willing to risk being turned back at the minor crossing south of the city, I decided to get a taxi to the main border-crossing near Andijan. Andijan was the scene of a vicious Uzbek government crackdown against demonstators a couple of months ago. The police gunned down hundreds of people, even thousands according to some accounts (5000 according to a report from an anonomous senior officer, 15000 according to a Tajik guy I'd talked to). Apparently the streets had been washed clean, re-painted, bullet-holes plastered over, and the bodies dumped in mass-graves. But while this government is an ally in the "War on Terror", atrocities like this pass without comment by the US government.

The border crossing took ages but was pleasant enough, and both the Uzbek and Kyrgz border guards were facinated by my trip. On the 5km into Osh (Kyrgystan) I got invited twice to stay in people's homes, but had to refuse, as this time I really was exhausted. In Osh, stopping to ask directions, a lady with her young daughter kindly led me to the hotel I was looking for. Bargaining hard with the receptionist, she was nevertheless unhappy with the price and insisted I stay at her place. So that's how I met the kind Gulya, her incredibly sweet 9 year old daughter Dinara, and Gulya's very knowledgable brother Shakir (who also spoke decent English).
A modest Soviet appartment block, and no doubt they struggle to make ends meet, but what a welcome! They live together and Dinara's father is no longer around - but what an amazing child: smart, confident, mature beyond her years. Whenever I tried explaining something in simple Russian and gestures, almost immediately she'd nod her head, saying "Da, Da" (yes, yes) , as if to say "Okay, okay, I know what you're saying, so get on with it" !
Distance: 105km. Overnight in Osh (KYRGYSTAN!).

31 july, Sun: A full day - huge breakfast, a trip up to the steep "Solomon's Throne", a blessing at the top, then off to the river - fast-flowing, rapids, lined by trees and grass banks. Everyone stripped off to their underwear, swimming and lazing around. Off to the bazaar - huge & chaotic - and then led back to the house on a complicated series of mini-buses by Dinara, while Gulya stayed behind to do some shopping.

The thing that has really surprised me aout Kyrgystan is how oriental the people look. Amazing! Sometimes I almost think I'm back in Japan.

On leaving the house this morning, Shakir had given me an outrageous Kyrgz 12-inch high pointed hat to wear. "Oh fer Chrissakes" I thought, "I can't wear that", but couldn't really refuse. It was incredible - I walked outside with this huge felt thing on my head and I became invisible.. For the first time in months nobody gave me a second glance! "You will be Kyrgz", Shakir had said. And he was right.

1 august, Mon - Osh: Today we took a walk around Osh, visiting a few of Shakir's relatives - a renowned Soviet-era theatre performer included - and stopping for chay in a tea-house over the river.

Oh - and an interview for Osh TV! Along with the questions I had to perform a few other actions - parking up my bike, buying water, etc... I don't know when they'll air it. Or maybe they won't - I caught a glimpse of the TV news later that evening, the presenter standing stiffly before the (slightly shaking) camera, barking out the news, clips of very serious people doing serious things.

Somehow I couldn't imagine a feature about a British cyclist wearing a 12-inch Kyrgz hat on his head...

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