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From Sandstorms to Somalia

Posted July 20th, 2009

Lee when we met him in TurkmenistanI can still see him emerging from the sandstorm. Between the clouds of dust being whipped up in the Turkmenistan desert came a Chinese man on a bicycle so frail and with so little luggage, it seemed obvious that he couldn’t have come far. I should have known better. After all, few people get to Turkmenistan without embarking on an epic trip and Lee Yue Zhong was no exception. As he joined us in a roadside cafe for a Pepsi, the photo albums poured out of his meager bags (there must have been 20 albums in all, entirely filling his front panniers) and he told us tales of an 11-year journey through some 90 countries. “I’m quitting soon,” he said in earnest. He was worn down after being robbed in Afghanistan. It was time to go back to China or maybe to Bulgaria, where he’d started and then sold a Chinese restaurant to fund his travels. That travel bug is hard to shake though and it seems Lee is still on the move. Today we were surprised to see his picture on the BBC website, his 15 minutes of fame after being denied passage through Somalia. In the past year, his country-count has reached 114. It’s hard to imagine that this little setback will stop his quest for long. Destination South Africa?

Cycling Central Asia

Posted September 20th, 2008

A Kyrgyz familyCentral Asia is one of the few places in the world still firmly off the backpacker trail.

On a bicycle, you’ll feel even more as if you’re a great explorer, tackling uncharted waters and exploring an area caught between a host of cultures – Soviet, Middle Eastern and Asian. If you’re a history buff, tracing the ancient Silk Road will be a real highlight.

Let’s be honest. To get there, you’ll probably have to get out a map first. The whole region is a blank space in many people’s minds but the countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan offer an incredible chance for cultural immersion. And that’s not all; don’t forget quiet Georgia and Azerbaijan, as well as western China.

The only cluster of tourists is around the Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarqand, and the market in Kashgar, China. Elsewhere, you’re more likely to be the only foreigner in town than see a tour group walk by.

Andrew in front of the mosqueYou’ll relish the solitude when you’re taking in incredible mountain views. You may find it less endearing when spending the night in a crumbling hotel. The breakup of the Soviet Union and low visitor numbers means that most infrastructure in Central Asia is in desperate need of repair. Don’t come here if you need those little luxuries like a hot shower.

Need to know more? Read on…

Podcast 18: More on Central Asia

Posted August 3rd, 2008

Greg cooking us breakfastIn the Cambodian beach resort of Sihanoukville, we put together our latest podcast. This time we talk more about Central Asia – the amazing Lake Song Kol in Kyrgyzstan, our favourite and not-so-favourite parts of the region and what to bring. Plus we have an interview with Greg, a Hungarian cycling the Silk Road who made us a great vegetarian breakfast. And we tell you why it’s important to know how to say ‘I am a carrot’ in Russian. Or you could read the blog of Hirsch, the cyclist who introduced us to this important phrase!


97km Jalkym to Yakatut

Posted April 7th, 2008

“Any carpets? Drugs? Guns?”

We shook our heads and giggled. The thought of carrying a carpet or a rifle on our bike tour was oddly funny to us. The guard smiled too. “We’ll search your bags, just to make sure there’s nothing dangerous.”

Turkmenistan was trying to be thorough as we made our way through their customs formalities and towards the Uzbekistan border post. They turned out to be quite soft in the end. The bag check never materialised and when an official came over to berate us for not registering with authorities after five days (something we checked with the Tehran embassy and were told we definitely did not need to do), he immediately backed off when we said we were sure of our position.

A few minutes later the exit stamp was in our passports and we were on our way, past the last smiling picture of Niyazov and across no-man’s land to the Uzbekistan frontier. Several families were pushing their belongings on carts between border posts and  for perhaps the first time ever we caught people enviously eyeing our relatively speedy and efficient bicycles. The deluxe mode of transport! The Uzbek officials were efficient and friendly, helping us to fill out a customs form entirely in Russian and then speeding us through the rest of the process. All told, it took us just over an hour to leave Turkmenistan and enter Uzbekistan. (more…)

21km Turkmenabad to Jalkym

Posted April 6th, 2008

More Ruhnama publicityThe Turkmenabad hotel was a little pricey for our tastes so we moved on this morning but not before we stopped to watch a few women in the kitchen preparing samsas for a nearby restaurant, putting chopping beef and onions into pastry, brushing the dough with chicken fat and baking the delicious looking treats for about 30 minutes. Food to drool over!

When we finally tore ourselves away from the kitchen it was off to the market to spend our remaining manat. As usual, we caused a stir and several children and adults alike gathered around Andrew to pepper him with questions in Russian while Friedel did the shopping. It was hard to figure out what to buy because we didn’t have much money left and needed to make sure we got the right things to last us until Uzbekistan. It took about four trips in and out of the market, checking prices, discussing what we wanted most and then running back in to make the purchase before we’d spent the very last of our coins and notes.

To give you an idea of how far money goes here, for about $3 U.S. we bought three large rounds of bread, a large bag of carrots, a few mixed cucumbers and tomatoes, a large tin of sardines, pickles and a small portion of a prepared salad.

After our shopping, we set off the road to Uzbekistan, across a bumpy and unstable floating bridge which forms yet another part of the main road through Turkmenistan. They collect a toll for crossing it (not from cyclists) but it still looks like it might give up at any moment and traffic drives all over the bridge, trying to avoid the worst parts. This country must be such a joke among truckers. Its transport links seem to be falling to pieces everywhere we look. What a shame because the Turkmen people are lovely. They deserve a better government.

We stopped in a quiet place to read for a few hours but wind and threatening rain sent us off to look for a campsite before long and we had to search for a while in the heavily cultivated fields. Finally we found a spot at the end of a track and we were glad to get into the warmth of our tent. We heard on the radio that snow – yes snow!! – in London had forced many flights to be cancelled and we wondered if this was the same cool weather pushing through Turkmenistan. It was certainly a world away from what we’d seen over the past week.