May 7

Well, it turned out to be 3700, which wasn’t that much worse.  Broke camp early and were climbing by 9am. As we were breaking another group of shepherds drove their flock right beside – we would be passing these guys all day. 

The climb wasn’t too bad, 800 metres up in 6km.  Met some german guys in a jeep with mountain bikes slung on the back who were cruising around Kyrgyzstan – their jeep seemed like a much better idea when I was sat at the bottom of the climb.  Only took two and a half hours for me to reach the summit, and the others arrived over the next forty-five minutes.  We took the obligatory top-of-the-pass photo and as the flock started to turn up, we finally got to descend – all downhill to China!  Or not as it turned out.

We descended about 400m and immediately had to climb up another 400, but once it was done, surely it would be all downhill!  Well, it was downhill to Sary-Tash at least, a tiny wee dot on the map, but what a downhill. Yaks and cows in the fields, beautiful road and the enormous Pamirs rearing up in front of us as we rode downhill towards them.  Probably something i’ll never forget – looking up at one point as I rode 40k down this hill and seeing the peaks and just thinking holy shit, where did they come from!? They were beautiful. 

Once we got to Sary-Tash, we stopped for a bite of samsa and then got a move on, finally with a tailwind on our side.  we managed to make a decent 20k or so, before we started climbing again.  The road was really great quality, and it was mainly just fun ups and downs as we headed along the valley, the Pamirs a constant presence on our right hand side.  We stopped for a break at the bottom of a hill, just at the snow line and decided we’d get over this hill, down the other side and find a place to camp.  We were all knackered, and it was about 4pm at this point.  Unfortunately, the hill had other plans.  It just went on and on for ever, and once we got to the top of it there was always another one that went on forever.  The road started to narrow as the snow crept over the sides until it was single lane with trucks passing every minute.  Finally, at about 630 I got to the top of the hills and looking back, realised I might have enough time to boil some water for tea.  I only had four matches, and these were shitty quality matches, so when three broke I was ready for disappointment.  The fourth struck though, so fifteen minutes later when everyone arrived we had some steaming bouillon to keep us going, and as the sun started to slip behind the hills we began to descend. 

Again, it was great riding, with the downs long enough that they would carry you right up the hills.  We were riding along the crest of a hill, with two massive valleys to either side of us and it was liberating to be able to move at speed after such a long day of often slow cycling.  We descended enough for the snow to disappear and I spotted a decent place to camp.  Ryan and Irene arrived a few minutes later, and we decided we should move off and find something a little slow, as we still had some daylight left.  Just as we were pushing off Anne arrived, shouting that there were people on the hill and they were waving a flag.  We thought they might need help so we rushed over to say hello.

They turned out to be Johannes and Flo, two German dudes who were going from Beijing to Germany.  Johannes had previously cycled from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the US so was now finishing the loop. We introduced ourselves, and pushed our bikes over to their camp and got set up.  They’d just arrived in Kyrgyzstan that day, and we were able to give each other loads of useful information on what to expect.  Here we were, two Germans, two Dutch and two Brits, in the middle of the Pamirs on, what turned out to be, the 70th anniversary of WW2.  How could we celebrate it better?

May 6

We had a relaxed start to the day, and soon we were running along the flat valley floor.  I wave to a man and immediately, another person – who turned out to be his son – waves me over and invites me in for lunch.  I explained there was four of us and he told me it was fine, there was food and tea for all of us.  Ten minutes later we were ensconced in Alan (the dad) and Tamerlane (the son)’s house where Alan’s wife served us loads of bread and apricot jam with fresh tea.  After an hour of their hospitality, the dutch girls gave them a small clog, and we hopped back onto our bikes.

The ride along the valley was simply stunning, with lots of wee villages and high plateaus.  There was a lot of climbing but beautiful roads throughout and loads to see.  In Kyrgyzstan it’s rare for there not be someone on horseback in sight somewhere, and you really feel like you’re in a completely different world.  At one point, as I was cycling along the side of a hill, I look across the valley to see a guy splashing through a river on his horse.  I stop for a few photos and as soon as he hits the other side of the river he starts to gallop.  I recognise a challenge when I see one, so I jump on my bike and do my best to try and race him, but horses are a damn sight faster than I am.  He rode up to the road and introduced himself before trotting off down the hill.  I think he just liked the idea of a race. 

After about 80km of tough riding, we were still three kilometres from the base of the big climb (and a sign said 9% gradient for the next km) so I called a halt.  I found a nice place to camp up beside a stream on the side of the road, and after we’d dragged our bikes over the burn, we set up camp. Food was getting low, so had an awful dinner of tuna, beans and undisclosed meat.  I messaged my brother, Iffy and he was able to tell me our elevation – 2900metres – and we only had to climb to 3500, so less than I was expecting.

May 5

I wake early and pack up before the others are out of their tents.  It’s a beautiful morning and I look across the valley to see a herd of sheep and cattle being driven across the river and up the road I’m on.  I wave to them as they come closer and pull out my camera for some photos.  The men on horseback pose with their whips for me before they drive the cattle onwards. 

We would spent the next couple of days leapfrogging each other.  We would pass them pretty quickly, but they would never stop, while we enjoyed a break now and again for lunch, whereupon they would pass us.  It was enjoyable sharing the road with a big herd of animals, even if a little inconvenient to pass them when they filled the whole road. 

I wait for them to pass out of sight and and before I know it, 10am rolls around and I’m waiting by the side of the road.  Suddenly, two tourers come flying down the hill towards me.  I wave them down and they turn out to be the Italian couple an English guy mentioned in Osh!  They were super friendly, and had been on the road for a year, including a winter in Kazakhstan so they had a lot of cold weather kit with them.  We chatted for an hour and then realised we really needed to hit the road.  We had three passes to climb before China, and this morning we took on the first one.  It took a fair while, and when I finally got to the top there was, obviously, two groups of people practising volleyball.  I climbed to the top of the nearby hill and there was a wee statue and a place for people to sit.

The rest of the gang arrived half an hour later or so, and the descent was just beautiful, one of the most beautiful rides I’ve done. There was a sheer valley to ride through, with towering cliffs on either side, just exhilaratingly beautiful.  We made it to gul’cha and went to the only market in town where we all picked up a little food for the next few days, as we weren’t sure we would have any thing before China really.  Headed out of gul’cha and managed to get about 20k before it started getting dark.  We set up camp beside a river where there was a bunch of weird staves propped up with things tied onto them.  I made a fire to keep the mozzies away and we sat up until 11 or so chatting. Beautiful night.

May 4

Up early to get our breakfast pancakes, and ready to set off about 9am.  However, the girls were still pretty jet lagged so slept a bit later and then got ready, leaving us good to go about 1200.  We hopped on the bikes and went to the bike master again, then grabbed some lunch and some supplies for the road, meaning we left Osh properly about 230.

The road was good quality for the most part but slow going – as expected.  Lots of gentle climbs, meaning we were going about half-speed the entire time.  Not fast, not slow, but going about 10km/h.  There were loads of kids along the way and they would, without a single absence, wave and shout Hello or ‘Wei-wei’ (I think).  It was especially nice when I was cycling past a field of girls picking flowers, and almost as one they all rose up and waved to me, smiling and giggling. 

Another one that stuck out was the kids that ran along side me as I was climbing one of the hills – just as they were about to catch I stood up on the pedals and was able to keep ahead of them, but only by a hair.  Then there was the toddler on his trike who rode alongside me on the pavement, then when I outpaced him he tried to keep up as best as he could – super adorable.  Finally, there were two boys, one on a bike and the other on roller skates (both a bit older, 9/10) who were able to keep pace with me for about five minutes.  They were super sweet and just wanted to ride alongside me as I went, but as soon as I reached the top of the hill I was flying on the descent.  Bike kid kept up for a little bit but rollerblades wasn’t even going to try it.  Even as I got further and further away, bike kid just kept waving and shouting goodbye.  Really nice.

We stopped for a break around 530 and sat in the shade by the side of the road for a while.  Anne bonked so needed to stop so we ate some eggs and bread, then got back on it – I would find a campsite and Ryan would try and find water.

Bottom of that hill I found some potential campsites, but nothing was perfect until I saw a nice spot – flat and near a river – but there was no way to enter it, all fenced off.  I cycled a little closer to find there was a patch that was a makeshift gate, so once the rest of the gang arrived I opened it up, we wheeled our bikes in and started to get set up.  Once the tents were set up, Anna and Ryan went to get water while Irina and I got the respective dinners on.  Twenty minutes passed and no sign of them, so I wandered down to find out the filter had stopped working.  I took a look at it and was able to get it functioning a little better, but not up to scratch.  Well we had enough water to cook so that would do.  One of the best camp dinners later – rice and tuna with beans, sweetcorn and green beans – we had a game of cards in my tent and then settled down to sleep.  Good first day of the climb, but we only got 42km.  It’s another 44 to Gul’cha and then another hundred to Sary Tash.  We really need to get to the Chinese border by Friday, which shouldn’t be a problem, but we definitely need to increase our daily distance. 

May 3

We spent our first day in Osh almost entirely in the hostel, just eating and chilling – I was still feeling pretty sick so wasn’t up to much.  Day two was spent doing much of the same, but we did have a trip to the Velomaster – the premier bike repairman in Osh.  It took us quite a while to find him, as he was down a dusty side street on an already dusty side street, but once we finally tracked him down we knew he was the right guy.  I wanted to get my spokes checked, as it had been a few thousand since they’d been looked at, and as soon as I whipped my wheels off he knew exactly what was going on.  Although he didn’t have a lot of fancy kit, he was really excellent at what he did and had all four of our wheels checked and sorted within a half hour.  He was a super friendly guy as well, and we talked as much as is possible.  He told me about his family, his kids and his life – all without us sharing a common language of course – and all the people in the bike area were really curious about our bikes.  They especially like the USB Plug I have and I almost always get asked how much it was.  After our bikes were ready for the road, we headed back to the hostel and I tried, unsuccessfully to change my chain.  It just didn’t happen as it was a tiny bit too tight, so I’ll ride with the old one and hope it’s fine.

When we woke up on the Sunday we were raring to go – these were the highest point we’d ever cross and it was probably going to be tough.  We went and got our customary breakfast of incredibly cheap pancakes, and just as I finished up I noticed two touring bikes parked outside.  Tariq, a Londoner living in Switzerland told me that they belonged to two Dutch girls who were cycling to Kashgar.  Well we hadn’t ridden with anyone on this entire trip, so we thought it’d be nice to wait for them – surely they’d only be staying in Osh one night.  They’d crashed in their rooms and I didn’t get to meet them until later that afternoon, but Anne and Irene turned out to be awesome.  They were cycling the Karakorum Highway, from Osh to Kashgar, then down to Islamabad in Pakistan.  We would ride with them until Kashgar then say our goodbyes once we arrived.  We decided to leave together the following morning/afternoon, as they were pretty jetlagged.  Decision made, they went back to bed and I whiled away the afternoon cleaning my bike and talking with people.

April 30

Finally it’s warm enough to sleep without the sleeping bag.  Only issue all night was when a dog came up and started barking at us but apparently a bollock-naked Scottish man waving a torch is enough to scare away any midnight hounds. 

We took it easy today, with Andijan and the border only 85km away.  We set off from camp about 830, waving goodbye to the group of children and Uzbek men who has gathered around us.  By 12 we’d found ourselves some red hot samsa to have for lunch and an hour later we’d found a green field to lie down in and relax.  The road conditions were pretty poor once we got closer to Andijan but we made it the city with good time.  We found a nice restaurant and got some cheap food, surrounded by hordes of interested people.  The waiters spoke good English and sat with us as we ate, asking questions and telling us about their lives.  We mounted up after finishing our meal and rode out of town, meeting a new cyclist friend, Tim, who rode with us to the outskirts of town.  A dark orchard offered us a great place to camp among the long grass and a friendly dog joined us for the night. 

The night wasn’t particularly comfortable for me, as I’d caught a touch of food poisoning.  I woke up at 11pm for absolutely no reason, and knew immediately there was a bout coming on.  Wandered out of the tent and came back about four hours later, a little drained but otherwise alive.  We hit the road, and even though we only had 40k to go, it was bloody hard work.  I was cycling much slower than I normally would, and even though it wasn’t too hot I was so dehydrated I was barely able to sweat.  It took almost three hours to go the 30k to the border with Kyrgyzstan – although admittedly the terrible condition of the roads added to the difficulty.  The govt seemed to be building all new roads along the route, so every so often we would have perfectly smooth tarmac roads, built just yesterday, and then the next minute it would be pebble-dash or dirt tracks which would slow me down dramatically. 

I finally reached the border and after being directed into the customs point by the friendly soldiers, I spied Ryan. He told me that customs would want to see all my photos and medicines, so I was a little concerned.  My intelligence so far was that the medicines I brought into Uzbekistan were illegal (basically anything stronger than co-codamol) and I might get in a spot of bother.  Also, we hadn’t properly registered in time so there was a good chance we were going to be deported when we left.  Not ideal. 

I filled in the forms with trepidation and handed them over, then was ushered past the metal detector where a very friendly guy interviewed me for a while.  I showed him the photos on my camera, my phone and my laptop – over 3000 so he got bored very quickly.  He asked me if I had any erotic photos, or anything of top secret facilities.  I thought that I probably wouldn’t know if they were top secret facilities, but I decided to stick with ‘no’ to both questions.  He then asked if I had any tablets, to which I assumed he meant tablet computers – another no.  It’s only once I’d answered he probably meant medicines – and since the guards on the entrance to Uzbekistan had stamped me with having no medicines he had no reason to check.  Conveniently, no-one even mentioned the registration so managed to dodge two potentially tricky obstacles with ease!

Pushing the bike through to the Kyrgyz border, I started speaking to a couple of officers and after twenty minutes of chatting about the world – one of them still wasn’t married at 25 which is wild for this part of the world – I wandered into the border checkpoint and got my stamp within twenty seconds. Wheeling into Kyrgyzstan, I saw Ryan standing on the corner and we pedalled the seven km into Osh. We arrived in the centre and I was able to find some bananas – the first thing that seemed appealing after the night before – and then Ryan found a fancy fast food place a block over.  We wheeled our bikes over and took a look at the prices and it was cheap as hell.  Two milkshakes, a caesar salad and a cheeseburger later, we were satisfied.  they also had great wifi – Kyrgyzstan was looking amazing!

The best hostel in town was 3k away, back the way we’d come, so we jumped on our bikes, and after a dusty ride through town, involving some Kabul-feel streets – all dirt and pebbles and people everywhere – we were able to cross onto the other side of the canal and find our hostel.  I was totally exhausted, so after chatting with the guests for a little while I passed out (4pm) and and woke up at 9am the next morning!

April 28

Hit the road by 7am this morning with the knowledge it would be slow going.  The rolling hills and gentle climbs were a nice way to warm up the legs, and by about 10 the climb started properly.  The ascent was incredibly beautiful, with lots of very friendly people waving support and saying hello.  There was a surprising number of military checkpoints, but they were all nice enough.  The road deteriorated quite often, but for the most part was hard top so didn’t slow me down too much and by noon I was at the top, thanks to a judicious bit of truck-hitching (grabbing on the back of a slow moving truck and letting it pull you), and about fifteen minutes later a truck pulled up and Ryan jumped out with his bike.

Once we reached the top, there was a tunnel, with the very standard military wielding AK-47s.  Not so threatening once you see there’s no ammo clips in their guns though.  As usual they started off trying to be intimidating and were soon laughing and joking with us.  We had about 6 checkpoints over two tunnels to run through, but finally we were into Ferghana and the last stretch of Uzbekistan.  We stopped for lunch near the top, grabbing some shashlik and meeting a couple of tourists from Macclesfield who were in Uzbekistan for a couple of weeks, looking at Silk Road sites.  Then we got to enjoy the descent – easily one of the nicest pieces of riding i’ve had on the entire trip.  At first, the downhill was steep, so we were able to fly past cars and trucks with ease, we were dodging left and right, flying past behemoths and ducking in front of them just as a car passed us on our left – it was bloody good fun.  Once the gradient flattened out a bit, it meant that we could ride in our top gear all the way down to the Syr Darya, about 25 km away from Kokand.  Great cycling. 

We took a wee break once the road flattened out and had a lie down, but it didn’t take us too long to get back on the bikes and get cracking into the city.  On the outskirts we met a couple of guys who took it upon themselves that were going to escort us to Kokand and that’s exactly what they did.  At first they were to content to film us, but then they worked up the courage to cycle up and say hello and we talked for a bit about the usual.  When they left us near the city centre (after the obligatory photo) a group of guys from an auto-shop waved us over, and since we hadn’t got rolling yet, we went to say hello. Immediately, we were surrounded by twenty guys who got quite childlike about the bikes, and Ryan was able to get a small piece of work done.

We got cycling after a photo with the auto-boys and got to the Khan of Kokand’s palace about 530.  Finding good internet signal, we stopped on the steps and awaited the crowds.  Very quickly two policemen came to say hello, but they were good natured and just curious so they were soon on their way.  The next was a couple of old women with some snazzily dressed kids in tow.  They were lovely and friendly and they told us a good place to get some food in town.  Just as we were about to leave, a group of lads came up to check us out.  One of them was 20, had a wife and a kid, but was cruising around town with the boys at 615 – strange.  Once they left, we went to grab some cheap food from a local market and as we were getting our food we had a constant stream of  near-perfect english speakers which was a very odd thing to happen.  They were all lovely, and wished us well on our trip. 

As the sun was starting to set, we got a move on out of Kokand and once it got dark, about 25km out of town, we found a place to shack up for the night.  Just as we settled down, I heard two people nosing around outside – I was butt naked in my tent so hastily dressed to find out they only wanted to give us some beer.  This country is just amazing. 

April 27

We bid good wishes to Feruza and her family as we waved them goodbye this morning.  Our route took us along the ring road on the outskirts of Tashkent where I saw the only collision of the trip so far and it was a very gentle one – a minivan rear-ending a car.  Thankfully it was back to a normal temperature after all the rains, 20C, with zero humidity so we were able to really cruise.  We reached Ahangoran around lunch-time and after a recommendation from a local for ‘Nur’ we trundled over to find another feast, this time delicious shashlik. 

After Ahangoran we were back into the hills, climbing over the mountains into Ferghana valley and it was tough work.  The drivers on the road were so friendly though, with plenty of beeping and cheering and quite a few people hanging out of the side of their cars to yell their support!  As the light started to fade we arrived at a long lake in the mountains and were able to find a small place to pitch our tents behind a shed.  The plunger for my gas container had broken in Jizzakh so I spent a few hours trying to fix it.  Gluing was no good, melting the two plastic parts together didn’t help and I was out of ideas until I bored four holes in it and tied them all together.  Coupled with a tent peg, it worked, but it was not efficient and it was certainly a little more work.  We’ve got a nice climb tomorrow before we descend into the supposedly beautiful Ferghana Valley. 

April 26

A red-letter day today.  My first English lesson went surprisingly well considering we had about ten seconds to plan it. Feruza had told us she wanted us to talk to her kids and help them with English, but as we were leaving it transpired we would be on our own with 13 Uzbek kids for two hours!  I had no idea what we were going to do, but with a stout heart Ryan and I prevailed.  Also, google helped.  It turned out to be great fun and the kids were so nice to us.  In a British school we would have been torn apart, but they were curious and eager to learn.  And they had bloody good English, Feruza had clearly been doing a good job.  When we were finishing up, one of the girls gave a small talk about Uzbekistan and then she handed me a small statue to help us remember Uzbekistan.  I’ve carried it with me all the way.

After our brief jaunt as English teachers, we went to the Chorsu Bazaar where Ryan got a new hat and we both got some handkerchiefs for the desert.  We returned to Feruza’s house where her mum made us a big pot of plov – a delicious rice dish with lamb, apricots, carrot and spices.  After we were all full of plov, literally everyone in the house went and had a nap.  I woke about two hours later to a text from Ali asking if we wanted to go to his house for dinner which I gladly accepted.

It was bucketing down with rain when we left the house, so Ali came to pick us up in his car – even though it was only 100m to his house.  The Uzbeks are such a great people.  He was a really interesting guy – his family having fled the communists in Uzbekistan to China, and then from China back to Uzbekistan when the Chinese started solidifying their power there.  He’d lived in England and the US and was a professor in the Westminster University in Tashkent. His mother made us an incredibly delicious meal of samsa, plov and cheesecake which we ate with Ali and his father  as we talked about the world.  He also had a couple of whiskies which I was more than happy to educate him about as we drank them.  By the time we’d finished our meal it was almost 11pm so we made our goodbyes and dragged our full stomachs back to Feruza’s house to fall into a deep, happy sleep. 

April 25

Two days of hot riding in a baking Uzbek landscape.  Hottest ever recorded in April is 37 and it was 36 for us. The morning we were to leave Jizzakh, neither of the promised Savaras turned up or picked up their phones, so by 1030 we headed north out of town.  Hot as hell and twice as humid meant it felt like we were drinking our body weight in water every few hours but we were finally able to find a place to swim – canals criss-cross Uzbekistan, but almost everywhere we asked people told us we weren’t allowed to swim there.  One friendly shepherd told us to jump in the canal he was standing beside and we did so with relish.  The current was strong, but it was so clean and so cold, it was one of the most refreshing dips I’ve ever had.  Soon after, we crossed the Jaxartes, the Syr Darya, one of the most famous rivers of the ancient world. 

200km from Jizzakh we arrived on the outskirts of Tashkent.  We had no idea where to go in the city, so we found a place that had wifi and served food – standard approach – and got in touch with our couchsurfing host for our time in Tashkent, Feruza.  The pizza turned out to be brutally expensive, but we managed to make contact, so not all bad.  We were to meet Feruza later that evening, and since it was only 2pm we went to the park in the centre of town for a swim.  We met a group of Uzbek guys our age who are all swimming and jumped in.  Again, the water was such a welcome break against the humidity and we stayed with them for a few hours until it was time to head to our home for the next few days. 

It wasn’t too hard to find the place we were meeting her, and as we waited a group of children appeared who tried, unsuccessfully, to talk to us.  One nice surprise was a new friend we made, Ali, who spoke perfect English and offered us his house if we failed to make contact with Feruza.  I took his number and we promised to stay in touch.  It wasn’t long before our truly amazing host showed up.  Feruza was an English teacher working in Tashkent, and she had the most amazing skill with children.  She knew all the kids that were hanging around us and was able to play them so well, it was wonderful to see.  She took us back to her family home with her friend Maktuba, where we met her mum, her brother and his wife and after a delicious meal we went back outside to hang out with the kids again.  They were super curious about us and had followed us all the way back to her house – when we opened the front door two of them were waiting for us.