Marcus & Kirsty are back. Part two coming from their journey through the ‘stans’, border crossing and the stories along the way. Catch up with part one of their bike touring adventure here
The soldier wasn’t happy that we’d pitched our tent there, not one bit. From his combination of broken English, a smattering of Russian and some interesting pantomime we got a rough idea of what the problem was. The idyllic, riverside campsite we’d chosen was within a restricted border zone and it was his job to prevent anyone getting across this natural barrier. It seemed unlikely, but he managed to explain that drug smugglers row or swim the raging whitewater torrent at night from the country on the other side and might become aggressive if they found someone at their landing site. It turns out that camping within sight of Afghanistan wasn’t as safe as we thought.
Borders in the former Soviet Union countries are always interesting places, particularly in central Asia. Usually taking the form of intimidating concrete structures with high fences marching out as far as the eye can see on either side making it clear that you’re not getting through unless you’re a model citizen with all the necessary paperwork to prove it.
The valuable visa stickers in our passports were the rewards for patience and diligence with several overseas embassies and should have been our tickets to ride straight on through. But border guards love to over-emphasise their importance so every single page of our passports were frequently thumbed through while Officer Jobsworth tried to decide what all the strange stamps meant and if he was supposed to consider them suspicious.
Once he was satisfied that everything was in order there was sometimes a baggage check. We found it was quite easy to bring the rifling of the panniers to an abrupt end by careful placement of some unwashed kit or a few oily tools. Turning up their noses they soon lost interest and waved us through before heading off to scrub their hands. Once they tried to x-ray the tandem with just the minor issue that there’s no way the bike would fit into the machine.
Then the hard-fought for rubber stamp would be brought down on a clean page of our passports and the process was complete, we’d gain entry to another country that ends in ‘stan’.
Entering any new country is an exciting prospect. Usually everything is fresh and new and different, it’s all waiting to be discovered and experienced. But in Central Asian countries the differences are matched by a few familiarities too as a result of their common history. Ugly and gigantic industrial buildings can be seen lying dormant, lovingly polished Ladas rattle along the streets, the cyrillic alphabet doubles the time needed to interpret road signs.
It was very much a case of deja vu crossing into Uzbekistan. We’d left the Kazakh section of the Kyzl Kum desert only to be faced with several hundred kilometers of the exact same view on the Uzbek side. A flat, featureless, long, straight road stretched out from the border and we were faced with the prospect of another night camping on the windblown sand. If it wasn’t for the invitation from a taxi driver to join him for chai, that then become a meal finished off with several bowls of vodka raised in honour of our new friendship that’s where we’d have ended up. The food and drink clearly making us too drowsy to ride so we stayed the night under a blanket in the corner of the taxi office.
First impressions reveal a lot and this kind of spontaneous hospitality became typical of most of the encounters we had while riding through Uzbekistan. Along with the exquisite Silk Road towns with their intricately decorated minarets, mosques and medrasses it was a country that can’t help but leave an indelible impression.
Entering Tajikistan was quite literally an uphill struggle, again a preview of what was to come. It’s the only border crossing we’d been through that required our granny gear, and from there on the smallest chain ring became the default for most of the high mountain passes we’d have to ride over in this small but amazing country. It was a test for our Vulpine Merino Cycling Jerseys too, with white tide marks of sweat from 45 degree heat one week and pulling on as many layers as we could find to keep us warm at night the next.
It was a border crossing we’d been looking forward to ever since leaving the suburbs of Bristol as it heralded the start of the fabled Pamir Highway. This challenging road with wheel bending rough roads, leg burning steep climbs and lung bursting high altitudes sits on many an intrepid cyclists ‘must ride’ list. The rewards for those who dare justify the effort. Frosted mountain views open up with every turn of the pedal and expansive solitude in a tent one night will be contrasted by a warm reception in a yurt the next.
The hoop jumping required to gain entry to a lot of these countries is another hangover from the Soviet days but it is getting easier. For instance Kyrgyzstan now offers visa free entry for most travellers. Unfortunately another Soviet trait is still very much a part of life in Central Asia: corruption. Luckily our exposure to it was limited but we heard tales from a Polish team in a Land Rover who were made to hand over dollars by the fistful several times, drawing the line at paying a ‘veterinary fee’ at one border after they explained that they had no intention of carrying any animals.
When our bike was stolen from outside the tent not far from Bishkek, the Kyrgyz police were very helpful, once oiled with a few spare dollars to pay for ‘advertising’. Three days after the theft Detective Inchar called to say they had found the bike. After signing a statement to say how we were pleased with the work of the police force and would not be pressing charges to culprits unknown we were liberated from a few more dollars to pay the ‘reward’ then were reunited with the bike. It may not be conventional by our standards but it’s a system that seems to work.
Back at the Afghan river border, our reward for persevering with the officious soldier was that not only did he let us leave our tent up for one night in that glorious location but he also returned later with a live fish for our supper. The drug smugglers must have been very quiet as we aren’t disturbed at all during the night.