Due to acquiring an extra day off, which I’ll go into shortly, I thought I’d squeeze in another short blog post. In the last stint of four days cycling I’ve covered the largest distance in that period of time of the whole trip thanks to, in no small part, riding a 185km day (116 miles) achieving one of my goals of this trip, riding a century (a 100 mile day). To achieve this goal I was forced, by circumstance, to ride well in to the darkness of night against my better judgement.
I headed north out of Samarkand towards the town of Jizzakh and had one of my first good days on the road in a month. No wind, half-decent tarmac and very gentle climbs and descents. A beauty of a day as I was now fully over the food poisoning and I smashed out the 100km to Jizzakh hardly even taking a break along the way.
I had a bit of a run around in Jizzakh trying to find somewhere to stay as, despite there being several hotels in town, none had a licence to accommodate foreigners. I eventually found the “Osiyo Grand Hotel” and checked in cooking up some pasta on my stove in the room.
I was off again the next day heading for the town of Goliston keen to keep picking up registration slips when possible. As I headed out of town I had a lovely 50km stretch on a road of perfect tarmac, no traffic and a huge tailwind…
Thanks to covering this 50km super fast I reached Goliston at about 2pm and went in search of a hotel. The first I found looked pretty dodgy and seemed to be part of what appeared to be a strip club. I was fairly relieved when they said they didn’t have a licence for foreigners and one of the clubs dancers, who spoke great English, came out and gave me directions to somewhere I could stay.
Hotel Firdav (I think that was the name) put me in shared double with an Uzbek guy called Akand for £8, not too shabby. After relaxing and showering Akand suggested grabbing some beers and food in the cafe across the street, sounds good! After 3 pints and a bowl of dumplings I excused myself as one of Akand’s friends had turned up and it looked like the drinking would get serious which would not bode well for the 120km I wanted to ride the next day. As I got my wallet out Akand insisted the meal and drinks were on him!
After relaxing in the room for a couple of hours Akand and his friend, who had a very impressive full set of gold teeth, returned to the room and asked if I fancied going swimming and told me they had bought a load of beer… Well I can’t say no to an offer like that! Turns out this cheap hotel was equipped with a pool and sauna which after doing a few rounds in each we sat down and proceeded to get pretty drunk.
The hotel owner joined us and by this point, the guy with the gold teeth (who was the only person who didn’t speak English), had gotten particularly drunk and would proceed to interrupt Akand when he was translating what he previously said. Thanks to this I had no idea what he was talking about and ended up going to bed in quite a state at about midnight.
I woke up very hungover, nothing that cycling 70 miles in the heat won’t sort out. Shortly after riding out of town I spotted what looked like a Meerkat of some sort…
The hangover lingered and I cooked up a big lunch of noodles and tuna to try and remedy it. Thankfully the roads were good and before I knew it I’d ridden the 115km to Almalyk. I rode around town asking about a hotel and finally found one. Frustratingly the staff said the hotel was fully booked that night as they were hosting both teams of a football match that was going on.
The people working in the hotel had that annoying trait some people have where they are not very forthcoming with the information you clearly require, the conversation (In Russian) went something like;
“So the hotel is full?”
“Well I need to stay in a hotel so I can register with the police”
“Yes you do need to register”
“Is there another hotel in town?”
Gives me the name on a piece of paper.
“Ok, but where is it?”
“Straight down he street?”
“Where is it?”
Thankfully one of the members of staff was more helpful and explained it was a couple of kilometres and to follow his car. I was shortly in the lobby of the most Soviet relic hotel I have ever been in. A huge fancy lobby that the current owners obviously couldn’t afford to light properly so there was a single desk lamp over the receptionist in a otherwise dim marble foyer.
I was taken to an office in the hotel to register my passport and it was all very reminiscent of being sent to the head of year at school. I had to wait outside, knock and be invited in to sit at a chair that for some reason was not facing the desk in the office. I was questioned and had to show all my registration slips for Uzbekistan as well as explain where I planned to sleep on the rest of my trip. This was all noted down and photocopied, crazy!
Finally once this was all done I was asked what room did I want? A lot of hotels here seem to have 2 or 3 levels of comfort but to make things extremely confusing this one had 15 differently priced options. Not confident enough in my Russian to figure out that spending an extra $0.50 to go up a level may be worth the money I opted for the cheapest room at about £8…
And what a room I got! Just look… four clashing patterns for a mere £8. To be honest I was very happy as the room had a bath tub and hot water, a magical combination I have not seen since I left London. I was quickly dismayed to find there was no bath plug but then remembered duct tape solves everything and quickly taped up the drain.
I popped out to buy some supplies and was surprised when the main behind the counter ask if I was cyclist. With a shocked expression I said yes and he said the only foreigners who come to this town are cyclists.
Up the next morning and I only planned to ride a short 50km to the town of Angren. I knew there was a hotel there and this would set me up for a 135km day to Kokand in the Fergana valley the next day.
As I’ve mentioned before you only need a hotel every 72 hours in most of Uzbekistan but in the Fergana valley, due to security concerns, you need to stay in one every night. This meant I needed to setup my route so I would definitely land in the hotel in Kokand on the same day that I went through the military checkpoint that marks the start of the Fergana valley region.
There is a large mountain pass separating Fergana from the rest of Uzbekistan and I had heard the checkpoint was near the top of the climb. This info. will make sense further on.
As I rode out of Almalyk I saw this interesting communist statue. The guy on the right seems to represent Russia and he has his hand on the back of a guy who is a conservative Uzbek (Hard to tell in the photo but he is wearing a the local style muslim skullcap as well as traditional dress). I’m guessing the statue was erected to promote cooperation between the two members of the Soviet Union…
I reached Angren and was annoyed to find the hotel was on the far west end of town meaning I’d only ridden 40km and would have to ride 145km the next day including crossing a mountain. This seemed stupid so I decided to ride on another 40km or so and camp at the bottom of the big climb over the mountain.
As I crested a hill I saw a big tail back of traffic with cars squeezed so hard into every gap that I couldn’t actually filter through and had to wait for about 30 minutes to get to the front…
When I got to the front I noticed it was a military checkpoint. Throughout the rest of the country I’ve crossed dozens of police checkpoints who normally just wave me through but this one was differant. I was stopped and directed over to a little window. I started to think that this might be the Fergana checkpoint but it was way earlier than I expected? Before I knew it I had been registered and told I must stay in a hotel that night. Uh Oh. The next hotel I knew of is not for about 120km with a fat mountain in the way.
I rode on trying to figure out what to do whilst rolling through some of the best scenery I’ve seen since Armenia…
And what I’m guessing is a fairly young reservoir due to the ecology around the waterline not having changed giving the weird illusion that the valley has just been filled up like a bath…
I decided I would camp at the bottom of the big climb over the mountain as I figured I could probably get away without registering that night, it would mostly be important to not have a gap in my registration slips from after the first night I spent in the valley until I exit.
I reached a small cafe right at the bottom of the climb and strangely bumped into a Spanish Engineer who was surveying the works to widen the road I was on. He explained that I was now in the Fergana region and that yes I would have a problem not staying in a hotel as the military checkpoint I went through earlier would’ve put me into the system, bugger. He said not to worry though, there is a hotel before Kokand just a few km over the top of the pass. No problem, it’ll be tough to do those 20km with the climb but it will be possible.
I crawled up the 12km of the climb at an average of 6kmph fuelled by cartons of Nesquik chocolate milk and oatmeal cookies. The view back down from near the top was something special…
Just after this shot I hit the first of the two tunnels that cut off the top of the climb. There is still the old road that will take you to the very top but I was in no mood to climb another few hundred metres I didn’t have to. At the entrances and exits to both the tunnels I was stopped my military, had to show my passport and was questioned about where I was staying. I mentioned the Hotel Karvon a few km down the rode and they nodded, confirming its existence which was a relief.
I rolled down the hill, reached the hotel and asked the owners in the Cafe if I could stay, they said yes. Perfect, 115km and a huge climb, a good day. I hung out relaxing in the Cafe for about 90 minutes during which time a couple of old guys invited me over to have tea, bread and salad with them.
Feeling tired I decide to check in to my room as it was getting dark and at this point the owner suddenly said that there is no hotel. What!? Yes there is I can see it. “No it is closed”. I explain my problem and they said I have to cycle 70km to Kokand to register. Even if the hotel is closed they must still be able to register me as they’ll have the license and I can sleep on the floor. The owner at this point becomes completely unsympathetic to my problem. I explain that by not letting me stay she has signed my death warrant forcing me to ride down a busy mountain highway at night. She didn’t seem to care at all and no one else in the Cafe was forthcoming with a solution.
I stepped outside looking dejected with every patron of the cafe staring at me as I mounted my bike and rolled off down the mountain. I stopped in the next cafe I saw and, whilst they were sympathetic, said that I would have to go to Kokand, there is no choice.
I rolled off into the fading light aware that my headlight is plenty bright in the darkness but nowhere near powerful enough to overcome the dazzling headlights of an oncoming vehicle which would blind me temporarily. The only thoughts going through my mind in a loop for the 50km descent off of the mountain were;
- Follow the white line
- This is the stupidest thing I have ever had to do
- Follow the white line
- This is almost dangerous enough that I’d rather risk the $1000 fine and sleep in a bus stop
- Follow the white line
- I am going to die
- I’m glad this road is new enough to not be pot holed
- Follow. The. WHITE. LINE!!!
For 20km of this I followed behind a truck riding at just the correct speed and found myself irrationally angry when he pulled into a cafe for a break. I couldn’t afford to take a break!
I finally hit the flat and went past a sign saying 22km to Kokand and promptly got stopped in another military checkpoint who seemed surprised to see me. Whilst one of the soldiers looked over my passport I broke the tension of the two other AK47 wielding, balaklava wearing fellows by showing them that I’d ridden 158km so far today. This got me a chorus of “Woahs!” and a handful of these cheeseball snacks that are popular here.
The first guy returned with my passport and asked me questions about where I was staying whilst I was stuffing more cookies into my mouth. I answered him quickly, trying not to spit food on his uniform in the process, and the conversation became confusing as I tried to explain in Russian that I am staying at “Hotel Kokand” in Kokand and not that I just plan to find a random hotel in Kokand. He was very emphatic I had to stay in the hotel and not in my tent, at least my efforts hadn’t been in vain.
They finally let me off and I rode the next 2km with my spare torch in my mouth shining on my cycling computer so I could see the magical moment it ticked over to 160km, the first century (100 mile day) of my cycling life! No time for celebrating I powered on into the pitch black very very glad for the super high power rear light my parents got me for Christmas (Thanks Mum & Dad!) as cars were giving me plenty of room as they over took.
If you are getting a bit of a entertainment out of what was quite a harrowing experience for me please consider cheering me up by donating a pound or two to the charity I am supporting 🙂 . They really help brighten up the lives of a lot of children with serious illnesses.
I finally reached the centre of Kokand and praised the GPS on my phone for getting me to my hotel without getting too lost, the final distance for the day was 184.55km (116.5 miles).
I hardly left my room the next day only venturing to the shops to buy more and more food and drinks. I’d acquired an extra day in my schedule due to the Herculean effort the day before and I needed it more than ever. It is hard to explain how I felt the next day. The best I can come up with is the weakness and frailness of a hangover but without the headache and replace the nausea with a raging appetite.
If you are wondering why the security in this region is so tough it seems to mostly stem as a result of the Andijan massacre, an event in 2005 where Uzbek security forces opened fire on a crowd of protestors killing an estimated 1,500 people. This event also pretty much destroyed the countries previously very friendly relationship with the United States and resulted in the closure of a huge US military base that was generating half a billion dollars a year in rent for the Uzbek government.
The following day I finally dragged myself out for a walk around Kokand…
A gonbsmackingly modern feeling city, not too far off the atmosphere of the coastal resort Batumi in Georgia I visited a few months ago. The main sight in the city is the Khudoyar Khan Palace. Khudoyar had this palace built as a home for himself and his harem of about 150 women. Now I know what you might be thinking, Islam allows 4 wives, not 150. Khudoyar seemed to think he found a loophole by having an Imam perform 24 hour marriages with which ever of his harem he wanted to spend the evening with. A practice that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic.
A mere two years after finishing the palace Khudoyar was exiled by his people and took refuge with his allies the Russians. Instead of helping Khudoyar reclaim his Khanate the Russians simple wandered in and took the territory for themselves. The Russians demolished a lot of the palace but what remains is some truly beautiful craftsmanship including some of the finest tile work I’ve ever seen…
I stepped out the front to try and do a quick sketch of the building but was quickly descended upon by a huge crowd of people all wanting to chat with the foreigner and see what he was drawing. After about 20 minutes of this my energy was waving so I said thanks and goodbye with a smile, packed up my drawing equipment and started to walk off only to find everyone was following me. I upped my pace and took a weird route through the park and still every one followed. Finally most of them gave up but one guy persisted and wouldn’t leave me alone. I eventually snapped at him, which I’m not proud of, and then wandered off to explore the rest of the city…
I’ve got three super-touristy relaxed days lined up to reach Osh in Kyrgyzstan where I will be meeting Stephen Cunningham, an Irish cyclist riding Dublin-Beijing, whom I mentioned in a previous post. This short stint will have me visiting a fine ceramics workshop in Rishtan as well as a Silk Bazaar near Margilon which should give some interesting fuel for my next post.
Next to explain a fairly significant change of route for the next section into China than I originally envisioned. My original route would actually have me entering China in a mere 5 days! The new route means it’ll be 3 weeks or so. It’s quite incredible to think I have almost reached China already, the world feels a lot smaller to me now.
The original route from Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Urumqi, China is marked in blue and the new route is in red…
Why the change? The ultimate reason is this route removes about 700km of cycling in China. All in all I may only get 80 days in the vast expanse of China and I’ve come to realise that I would rather have some leeway in my schedule for any illness or mechanical problems that arise. For anyone else considering these two route options I’ll list the other pros and cons I considered;
- Miss visiting Kashgar, China. One of the highlights of the Silk Road and one of the finest examples of Muslim culture in China.
- Miss the scenic Irkeshtam pass over the Tian Shan mountains from Kyrgyzstan into China
- Have to get a Kazakstan visa, but this is only $30 and is simple to get in 3 days in Bishkek.
- Aforementioned less distance in China
- Less desert riding (China), replaced with beautiful mountains (Kyrgyzstan) and grasslands (steppe in Kazakstan)
- See Kyrgyzstan fully rather than cutting through a small corner of it
- See the highlights of Kazakhstan, which are mostly squeezed into it’s south eastern corner
I hope I’ve made the right decision! Normally I have rough plans for the next month or so of my trip and as of my planning session last night this now includes China. It’s so weird, even though I have been gradually moving closer and closer and it has always been the goal, it feels surreal to actually be planning my route through China and I have to say I am very excited for some of the things my route will cover.
Silk road desert oasis’, remote sections of the great wall of China, Tibetan cities, the Terracotta army, the gravestone of John Rabe, the “Venice of China” and finally the megatropolis of Shanghai are all laid out before me. As my Dad says I just need to “keep on pedalling!”
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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.