Tian Shan 12/20/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: blizzard, camping, china, kazakhstan, mountains, tian shan, winter, xinjiang
Things changed after Uzbekistan. Nightfall became something ugly, the darkness was interminable. I couldn’t sleep. The sounds I’d always ignored now echoed through my tent, squeezing my throat tighter against a pounding heart. My nerves were shot.
Kazakhstan didn’t help. I’d only been in the country a few days when a car skidded to a stop in front of me. The driver stumbled in my direction until his nose nearly touched mine. He was yelling.
I remember wondering why liquor never stinks until it hits someone’s mouth.
When I turned away the man grabbed my beard and nearly pulled me off my saddle. I pushed his hand back, but when I started pedalling he threw me into a guard rail, bike and all. I think he startled himself sober because he just stood there gaping at me sprawled on the road.
I dusted myself off and biked away. I never saw the guy again.
There was no sense to be made of it, no lesson to take away. The randomness hit me harder than he ever could. It’s tough knowing that careful isn’t good enough. Sometimes strength or smarts don’t count for much. The world spins on dumb luck – the only thing we control is whether we want to take a ride.
I did when I left. Now I wasn’t so sure.
I thought about packing it in, boxing my bike and heading home to hide. I’d be secure in the road behind me, rolled into good days and bad, bound with all the faces in between. No one could take it away from me.
But that can’t work, at least not for me. I go crazy unless I have something to fight for. A chance to sit around and reminisce certainly isn’t it. I need the promise of what lies ahead, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to hand it over to some worthless thugs.
I made a choice that night. I will never go looking for trouble, but the next person to bring it will find all they can handle in me. I cut a branch from a tree and carved it into a billy club. It’s been strapped to my handle bars ever since.
I’ve only had to use it once, and perhaps that’s the strangest story of all. One night, after crossing the Chinese border, I heard a terrible crash in the woods. I squinted through the firelight until five figures emerged from the shadows.
At first I thought they were sheep late for the dinner bell. Then I saw manes and tusks and realized I was staring at wild boars. They sniffed and grunted, closing around me until the biggest one lowered its head and charged.
When I shone my flashlight in its eyes it stopped dead in its tracks. I grabbed my club and ran yelling through the trees, chasing it away. The others scattered in a squealing mess. They were not happy. For an hour I could hear them huffing, circling my camp. But they stayed away.
I wasn’t scared. I get animals – they play by rules, and even if they attack, there’s a certain fairness about them. That night made more sense than dozens that had come before it. I slept soundly. My nerves haven’t bothered me since.
Afterwards I made my way over the Tian Shan mountains, a range that began in eastern Kazakhstan and seemed to stretch on forever. It took me weeks to reach the top. Each day was colder than the last and the gaps between villages grew longer and longer.
The summit was a wasteland. At nearly 3,000 meters above sea level, I saw no trees, not a single hint of life. There was only a thick blanket of snow and a howling wind. The road was iced over so I joined vehicles in a snail’s pace as I walked my bike to the top.
It took me all day to get there, and as the daylight faded so too did my courage. The top of a mountain is a very bad place to spend the night. There’s no shelter, no firewood and the temperature drops much too fast.
I was frantic at the peak. I bundled myself in all of my clothes and started the descent as fast as I could pedal. It didn’t do any good. My shirts were frozen solid with the day’s sweat. I couldn’t stop shivering, couldn’t feel my hands or feet.
But sometimes dumb luck swings the other way. As the last traces of purple disappeared from the snow I spotted a three-building village in the distance. Those on the other side of the mountain had all been abandoned, but I didn’t care. This one was going to keep me warm.
The first building was a crumbling auto garage. I poked my head inside, ready to beg for a corner to lay out my sleeping bag. Instead an old woman put her hand on my shoulder and led me down a hallway with numbered doors. The place doubled as an inn for truckers.
My room had a wooden bed, a faded velvet card table and an old coal stove. I have never been so thankful in my entire life. A star was shining over me somewhere that night.
The next day I cycled 80 km over a plateau, never making it out of the snow or below the treeline.
But I’d been smarter about it. I was dry and wrapped in my warmest clothes – six shirts, two jackets, four pairs of pants and three sets of socks. I camped in a culvert to stay out of the wind. I had no reason to worry.
That changed in a hurry. By the middle of the night the wind became a gale and then a full blown blizzard. Snow whipped into the culvert, covering my tent, pressing down on all sides. I woke up half buried, sure that my tent was going to collapse.
As I opened the door, all the powder that I was going to brush away poured into my tent, falling over my sleeping bag and blanket. I got out anyways, trying my best to push the weight off the tent poles. I was covered in snow by the time I zipped everything shut. I knew I was in big trouble.
There was nothing to do but wait until morning when I hoped the storm would ease. It only got worse. At dawn I found one end of the tunnel completely blocked by snow and the other closing quickly. I dug my way out to get my bearings but couldn’t see a thing. It was a total white out.
My water and cooking fuel were frozen. I had no food and no idea how long the storm would last. If I stayed put, I would be trapped. I needed to get down the mountain, and fast.
Dragging my bike and gear through waist-high snow was almost impossible, but after three trips and a lot of cursing I managed to get everything back on the road. Thankfully the wind was going my way, so all I had to do was get myself in the saddle and steer.
I biked 60 km through the storm, never able to see more than a few meters in front of me. I had to use my boots to stop because my brakes were iced over. My gloves froze around my handlebars.
In all my winters on the Prairies, I’ve never seen another blizzard like it.
Halfway down the mountain I reached a town called Balguntay. The people there wore fall jackets. The earth was wonderfully brown. For the first time in days I saw trees and a river that flowed.
I didn’t have the energy to celebrate. There was no whoop, no fist pump. I just sat on a curb and buried my face in my hands.
Sometimes I don’t know if I’m doing everything right or making every mistake there is.
Here a Stan, there a Stan 10/15/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: border, iran, kazakhstan, police, robbery, turkmenistan, uzbekistan, visa
Central Asia is like nothing I could have imagined, and even now, in the capital of Uzbekistan, I still shake my head to make sense of it all.
Cycling through Iran was without a doubt one of the most incredible experiences of my life. From west to east, past villages and deserts, mountains and forests, every lie I’ve been told about the country lay shattered on the road behind me.
Iranians are not slaves to the Ayatollah. They are not terrorists. I saw no women wailing in the streets, no gangs burning American flags. Nobody locked me away or tore out my toenails.
Instead I was invited into homes, doted on and fed until I could barely move. I was showered with gifts – everything from jewelry to a bike tire. Old men kissed my forehead and said I travelled with God.
I was there for a month and no one, not a single person I met, wanted anything but peace with the west.
That’s the truth, the real picture.
But what we’re spoonfed is something else entirely, something twisted and ugly. Our ideas come in high definition, in 3D and surround sound, but the message is always the same. All we know of Iran is fear and intolerance.
That is the real danger in this world.
The hazards in Turkmenistan seem small by comparison. At the border, the military guards jeered at me, pulled on my beard and dug through my pockets for money or cigarettes. All I could do was grit my teeth.
Thankfully, my time inside the country was altogether different. Soldiers at the many highway checkpoints were scarcely older than boys, but they were professional and kind.
The stamps in my passport were usually more interesting than me, and after a few minutes I was always free to move along.
It seems like a lot of hassle, and maybe it was. But I desperately wanted to meet average folks in Turkmenistan, to experience their way of life, if only for a short time.
I wasn’t disappointed. People stopped their vehicles at the roadside just to shake my hand. One man rummaged in his backseat and plopped a newborn baby in my arms for a photo.
Schoolgirls waved and then dashed away squealing. Boys produced impossibly worn soccer balls and pointed at my bicycle pump excitedly.
I so cherished my time in Turkmenistan that I nearly overstayed my five-day visa. After prying myself from a wonderful mob of kids in Türkmenabat, I raced to the now-closed border and had to beg the guard to let me through.
He stamped my exit papers and tipped his hat. In less than five minutes I was across the border and biking in Uzbekistan.
And this is where the trip nearly ended.
I sat in a field one night, eating dinner after pedalling 180 km through endless rows of cotton. I was exhausted and noticed too late a group of teenagers staring at me from the highway.
Three walked towards me. One shouted, inches from my face, enraged in a language I don’t understand. The other two began wheeling my bicycle away. When I tried to stop them, the first boy pulled a knife – my knife – which had been sitting on the ground beside my dinner.
I was more angry than scared, and even that didn’t carry much weight in my frustration. I swore and started across the field, back to the highway to get help.
People on the road just shrugged and turned away from me. I walked back to my camping spot very much alone. My bicycle and two of my panniers were gone, just as I knew they would be.
I packed the grubby, sad gear that remained and dragged it to the nearest farm house. I knocked on the door and managed to persuade the sleepy-eyed owner to call the police.
Among travellers, stories about the Uzbekistan militsiya are legendary. At best they are supposed to be indifferent, at worst greedy and corrupt. But there was nothing else to be done, so I silently awaited their arrival, my stomach in knots.
I was afraid of something I didn’t understand, and I was wrong.
Within the hour a half-dozen officers were slogging through a dirt field in search of my bike. They shone flashlights on tire tracks and found a long trail of gear abandoned by the thieves.
The police neatly stacked my equipment in a car trunk and drove me to their station. There we slowly bridged the divide between English and Uzbek.
I explained that I was a tourist, travelling by bicycle, and on its two wheels I carried everything I owned.
The mood changed. High-ranking officers arrived and everyone told me not to worry. Everything would be okay.
After a long wait a suspect was hauled in. The field had been dark and I said I couldn’t be sure the contrite youth standing before me was one of the thieves. But I thought he was.
The police led the kid into a room for questioning. There was shouting. At one point an officer brought in a gas mask, another a rubber strap. I don’t know what happened behind that door, and I don’t want to know. But it worked.
At 4 o’clock in the morning, my bicycle and bags were brought into the station. I gave the nearest officer a koala hug and tried to explain, with teary eyes, how much that stupid hunk of steel means to me.
The thieves were lined up. I walked past them as I left, but I didn’t look up. I don’t want to remember their faces.
I doubt they will ever forget mine.
I spent the rest of the night at a sergeant’s home. His wife served us a pre-dawn meal, and in the morning, his kids grinned as they poured me cup after cup of coffee. The officer even gave me a new set of clothes – a frumpy tribute to Neil Diamond’s denim days, but comfortable all the same.
Later, at the police station, I was given a free lunch. Then another. An officer was sent to the pharmacy to replace my asthma inhaler. And when it was finally time to leave, the force stuffed my bike into a car and delivered me to the door of a hotel in Tashkent.
There I slept for nearly two straight days. Now I feel stronger, much wiser, and I’m ready to continue down the road.
I have a 30-day visa for Kazakhstan. After I get my Chinese stamp this evening I won’t need to visit another embassy for a long time.
I’m glad. These past months have been very intense, and sometimes I long for my favourite faces, for the old days back home.
With six beers and a full moon we’d bike to the rail bridge and never see a shadow. It was simple and silly and nobody tried to make sense of it.
That’s why I loved it.