Halfway!

Halfway!

I’ve left a bit of a longer gap between blogs this time around, 556 miles to be precise, but thought I’d wait to hit the major milestone of the halfway mark in Mashad, Iran! This section has featured food poisoning, the threat of leopards, desert riding and the pleasure of three broken spokes in a single day, but after all of that, I am about to knock on the door of one of the least visited regions of earth, Central Asia.

How do I know this is the halfway mark? I’ve used a couple of measures for this, mainly I am at the closest city to the 60.3 degree (60 and a half) marker which is halfway through the name sake of this trip, 121 degrees of longitude from London to Shanghai. I’ve ridden 4,918 miles of an estimated 10,000 and have been on the road for 152 days with an estimated 154 to go.

Some fun facts of the trip so far;

  • 4,918 miles (7,867km)
  • 15 countries
  • 152 days (98 of which I cycled)
  • Average of 50 miles (80km) on each cycling day
  • 1 puncture
  • 4 broken spokes
  • 1 broken rim
  • Body weight at start 108kg, now at 88kg.
  • Long distance cyclists met: 15

After heading out of Chalus, with my spirits lifted after running into Austin Vince and Lois Pryce in my last post, I cycled along my final stretch of Caspian sea road towards the city of Amol. I have to say this coastal road has been horrible. The anticipated sea views were instead replaced with a 7 day battle with traffic, I was keen to get away from it.

The day went by fairly quick listening to music as I rode but towards the end of the day massive stomach cramps started to kick in and I felt awful. I spotted a hotel north of Amol and ran in only to find it was £26, way over budget. I went back to my bike planning to ride on when the pain in my stomach became quite severe and suddenly I felt that £26 was not such a bad amount of money.

I won’t go into detail about my unpleasant evening and night but bunged myself up with Dioralyte in the morning and set off down the road even if I only got far enough to find somewhere cheaper to stay to wait out the illness.

After 30km or so, whilst lying on the ground by the side of the road letting some cramps pass, I heard a “Hello” in an English accent and looked up to see two British cyclists, Oli and Dan. In a strange twist of events I’d actually previously been in contact with Dan about various visa problems (the two of them had been denied Uzbek visas) and they were about to try out an unridden route up the west coast of Turkmenistan to Kazhakstan.

We decide to ride together for the day and my stomach mostly behaved itself but the last 10km into the city of Sari were pure agony with me stopping every 5km to nip off into the bushes. I bid them farewell in Sari as I knew of a fairly cheap hotel and checked into Hotel Asram, £10, for the night. I was delighted to find that this hotel had a western toilet in the room with a padded seat! It was like they’d read my mind.

Dan and Oli, about to cycle up through Turkmenistan on their way to India.

Dan and Oli, about to cycle up through Turkmenistan on their way to India.

After a severely bad night I was feeling even worse in the morning and struggled to drag myself to the grocery store to buy enough water and some food. I bought a huge pot of yoghurt, the only food I could face, only to find it was onion yoghurt when I took a huge mouthful of it. In my state this was particularly harrowing. I booked another night as there was no way I doing any riding that day.

If you are getting a bit of a giggle out of my suffering please consider cheering me up by donating a pound or two to the charity I am supporting 🙂

The following morning, still feeling awful but improving, I set a goal of Behshahr, a small town 55km a way. I took me all day to ride this tiny distance, sweating all the way, and once again checked into a cheap hotel hoping that good sleep would help.

View of the scenery around Sari, Iran.

View of the scenery around Sari, Iran.

In the morning I was continuing to improve so set about riding the 80km to Gorgan where I was planning to meet a Warmshowers.org host, Siavesh, who would be hosting me for a couple of night.

Again I don’t have much to say about this day’s riding, I had my head down most of the time riding with very little energy and trying to force food down myself due to a very reduced appetite. I was sweating like a mad man in the heat, which when combined with dehydration from my illness, led to a personal record of drinking about 12 litres of water in a single day. I really needed to take days off to rest but the dates I had to be in Turkmenistan were already fixed and approaching fast.

I finally reached Gorgan and as I rode into the city two seperate motorcyclists decided to ride along side me and try to have conversations with me. I don’t think people realise how dangerous this is, their motorbikes swerving towards and away from you  as they are not looking where they are going. In my shattered state I couldn’t handle this and slammed my brakes on and the motorbikes flew off down the road looking confused.

I called Siavesh, arranged a place to meet, and then sat by the Gorgan tower waiting. Whilst there I spotted a familiar face from the Disney film Ratatouille. Chef Gusteau’s descent into commercialisation may have been halted in the film but seems to have blossomed in the Iranian seafood industry…

Art meets reality. Ratatouille's Chef Gusteau hits the big time in Gorgan, Iran.

Art meets reality. Ratatouille’s Chef Gusteau hits the big time in Gorgan, Iran.

After a few minutes a tall skinny European looking guy with red hair walked up to me and introduced himself as Siavesh in a German accent. I was particularly confused but got my stuff together and headed off to a taxi he had stopped, awkwardly asking if he was originally from Iran to which he replied “Yes”. Not wanting to be rude I asked no more questions.

I followed the Taxi to his house and the driver helped unload all my luggage into the house. It was at this point the driver turned to me, burst out laughing and said that he was Siavesh, apologised for the joke and introduced Philip, a backpacker he was also hosting from Germany!

The next morning another cyclist arrived at Siavesh’s, Oskar from Uzbekistan. We all hung out for a couple of days relaxing and heading into town to buy various bits of gear we all needed and hatched a plan to go camping up in the “Jungle” south of Gorgan. I put Jungle in quotes as it’s closer to what would just be called a forest in Europe, but, due to the humidity and wildlife it is like a jungle in many ways.

The Jungle south of Gorgan, Iran.

The Jungle south of Gorgan, Iran.

We setup our camp and went about making a tonne of kebabs…

Kebabs in the Jungle, Gorgan, Iran.

Kebabs in the Jungle, Gorgan, Iran.

Over dinner we recounted various stories about encounters with wild animals of the types found in this area, my story about the wild boar I ran into in Austria causing Siavesh a bit of concern. Siavesh also reinforced my concerns about my plans to cycle through the Golestan national park in two days time. A camper had recently been attacked and almost killed by a Leopard and Siavesh has also been used by the police several times to translate to foreign campers about the dangers of the park.

During my research into a safe way through I read through several blogs of cyclists who were unaware of the danger. One couple had ended up camping in the park only to find their food bag missing in the morning with large animal tracks running throughout their camp, a lucky escape!

The trees in the jungle. Not too differant to the ones in England but with much higher humidity.

The trees in the jungle. Not too differant to the ones in England but with much higher humidity.

Feeling much better for the two days off I set out on a longer 90km north to the city of Gonbad-e-Kavus. Another flat day on a busy road with not much to report but that evening was spent with a lovely pair of hosts in the city, Samira and Amin, a pair of mountaineers who have climbed Mount Damavand, the highest peak in Iran at 5,610m, during winter and Amin had also sumitted Lenin peak (7,134m) in Kyrgyzstan.

An absolutely huge dinner was laid out for me and my panniers were kindly loaded up with loads of great food for the ride the next day. On top of this Samira and Amin managed to solve my problem of crossing Golestan national park. They explained that it is possible to stay at the various Red Crescent ambulance stations that are dotted around the country and there is one in the park about 65km form their home, perfect! You can turn up unannounced at these stations but Amin phoned them up for me and arranged for me to stay.

Off the next morning happy in the thought I had somewhere safe to stay and sat out a rain storm devouring the treats my hosts had furnished me with…

My big stock of treats in the rain east of Gonbad-e-Kavus, Iran.

My big stock of treats in the rain east of Gonbad-e-Kavus, Iran.

But despite the rain at least today I finally had some scenery whilst cycling…

The start of the climb up through Golestan national park.

The start of the climb up through Golestan national park.

I reached the park soaked and made my way through the final km to the ambulance station and received a very warm welcome and was shown into one of their dormitories. The guys then took me on a tour of the neighbouring visitors centre for the park, waving away the security guard who asked for my entrance fee, and I caught sight of some taxidermy that made me very happy I wasn’t camping…

You do not want to run into one of these guys in Golestan national park.

You do not want to run into one of these guys in Golestan national park.

Back in the ambulance station we cooked up some kebabs over a massive fire in the yard and the guys showed me some videos of them doing their job which I would’ve rather not seen, namely them unloading the reamains of a family of nine who had died whilst trapped in their car which was on fire.

We rounded out the night with a cheesy horror film with one of the guys very worried that I would be terrified by what turned out to be quite a tame film (The Collector).

The friendly staff at the Golestan Red Crescent station.

The friendly staff at the Golestan Red Crescent station.

I climbed up through the rest of the park next day getting some great views of the wildlife on the way…

Wild pigs in Golestan national park, Iran.

Wild pigs in Golestan national park, Iran.

Epic views on the climb through Golestan National Park, Iran.

Epic views on the climb through Golestan National Park, Iran.

Once out of the park I put in a solid 120km day to reach the town of Ashkhaneh as I was out of food and made the mistake of asking the police for directions to a Mosafernkhaneh (cheap hotel, this one was £3 for the night) who then followed me there and spent a long time phoning in to check my visa and extension were valid as well as detailing my whole itinerary through Iran.

The next two days were spent riding through the heat with me making the mistake of tackling a long 10% climb up to the city of Bojnurd in the mid day sun. Once the road levelled on onto the plateau I got some lovely views of the mountains in the distance…

Distant mountains on the long flat road from Bojnurd to Mashad, Iran.

Distant mountains on the long flat road from Bojnurd to Mashad, Iran.

I had decided to break the last 200km into Mashad into a half day (60km) and a long day (140km) to give some variety and this plan proved perfect when just before the town of Quchan I heard the sound of a spoke snapping. I knew what had caused this, this entire stretch of road has been littered with these groves cut into it which serve as a traffic calming measure. These stretch the full width of the road in some cases meaning they cannot be avoided and they really cause an impact on the wheels…

I blame these speed rivets, and my tyre choice, for the spoke problems.

I blame these speed rivets, and my tyre choice, for the spoke problems.

I stopped and checked my wheel to find that not one, not two, but three spokes had snapped. You’ve got to be kidding me. I’d been listening to a lot of music on this dull road so most likely one snapped a few days ago and the weakened wheel had slowly been giving up on the speed rivets. To exacerbate this problem I’ve been riding with a narrow 32mm tyre on my rear wheel which I’ve been keen to get as many miles out of as possible before swapping to my spare 38mm tyre which would give more cushioning on the road, I should’ve swapped earlier.

I crawled into a cheap guesthouse in Quchan and set about sorting my spokes. Despite having my new cassette tool I picked up in Armenia I found that my plan to us my spare chain as an improvised chain whip didn’t work and I was still unable to remove the cassette. Balls. I replaced the one spoke that was not on the drive side, trued the wheel, put on the fatter tyre and decided to ride the 140km to Mashhad carefully and that if any more spokes went or the wheel began to wobble too much that I’d hitch hike into the city.

Thankfully the wheel stayed round and no spokes went and I made the 140km into Mashhad in 8 hours, not bad considering I stopped for about an hours worth of breaks throughout the day. All along this road I got a lot of entertainment from the gophers that populate the area. They’d be running along, spot me, stop perfectly still and then stare at me with their mouths agape and all the food they were carrying would fall out.

These little Gophers gave me a lot of laughs on the road to Mashad, Iran.

These little Gophers gave me a lot of laughs on the road to Mashad, Iran.

I rolled into “Vali’s non smoking home stay” a piece of accommodation that has become a virtual staple for any cyclist or backpacker that reaches Mashhad. I actually had three offers of hosting in the city but I had to check the place out as it’s mentioned in so many blogs due to Vali’s big personality and he certainly did not disappoint. Huge meals are prepared and Vali recounts various stories of his travels around Europe in the 70’s, including being detained for 48 hours in British customs due to his hippy attire and stash of Iranian rugs he was selling to fund his trip.

I spotted three other touring bikes as I checked in and it turned out two of them belonged to some French cyclists who I’d met back near Tabriz. We realised our Turkmen visas were for the same dates so decided to meet at the border and ride the country together.

The next morning I headed out to pickup my very own Turkmen visa which I applied for back in Tehran. A fairly quick process but they stuck to the policy of the embassy in Tehran in having some unusual and slightly difficult to fill requirements. The embassy in Tehran demands colour photocopies of your passport, not the easiest thing to track down in Tehran, and the one in Mashhad requires a photocopy of your Passport ID page and onward visa, Uzbek in my case, on a single sheet of A4. Fortunately there is a copy shop around the corner who are used to this request and will do all the fiddling for you, and in my case refused to charge me as well!

I was soon walking back to Vali’s $85 poorer and with a shiny new sticker in my passport…

For $85 at least the Turkmenistan visa is pretty!

For $85 at least the Turkmenistan visa is pretty!

Next stop the bike shop. Vali recommended a good one nearby who quickly set about the repair. Incredible value. I bought a new chain whip, 10 spare spokes plus the labour of replacing the two drive side spokes and truing the wheel came to a grand total of £4.50. I also finally succumbed and picked up a bicycle computer for myself so that I can ensure I am on track to cover the 480km of Turkmenistan within the the limits of my 5 day transit visa, a country notorious for its lack of road signs.

Whilst in the city I also went to checkout the Imam Reza Shrine, the third holiest site in the world for Shia Muslims. Two guys from Vali’s and I headed up there and managed to accidentally circumvent the guards and stumbled upon the shrine itself after wandering through a labyrinth of mirrored rooms.

I’ve never seen such full on displays of devotion before, people throwing themselves through the crowds to touch the shrine. The separate women’s section, visible through a glass divide, was even more intense with an even larger crowd of people pushing and praying.

We stumbled out, all surprised at what we’d seen, and went off in search of some of the cities delicious Banana and Ice cram milkshakes.

I’ve now got a two day ride to the Turkmen border before the five day dash across the country. After this I’ll spend a couple of days in the ancient Uzbek silk road city of Bukhara resting and celebrating my 26th birthday with my first alcoholic drink for 6 weeks.I’ll then head through Samarkand and Tashkent before heading to Osh in Kyrgyzstan where I will pickup a visa for Kazakstan. I will then cycle on to Bishkek and Almaty before final heading on to Urumqi in China.

For the last few months I’ve been swapping tips with another long distance cyclist from Ireland, Stephen Cunningham, who is currently in Azerbaijan riding from Dublin to Beijing. It looks like our schedules are about to lineup and we will hopefully run into each in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and will ride together for a while. You can have a read of his blog here.

Onwards into Asia!

If you’ve enjoyed reading this then checkout my site 121degrees for more info and subscribe to this blog for more entries along the way!

I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.

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