Desert rides

We got up early to start the desert ride while the weather was still bearable. Fail. At 9am it’s already 30 degrees. And we were off. Bye bye Beyneu, hello desert!

From Beyneu, the last proper town before the Uzbek border there is a 90km stretch of very bad road. Not the worst I would see on this trip but

Peace
Peace camel

pretty bad. Dirt, corrugations, camels, sand patches, all the guest stars were there. And there I was gliding over the sand at 70kph, desperate to regain control of my trajectory and to stay vertical. I am not of the kind that rides the sand fast, I prefer the other riding technique: slow and both feet down, I know it’s not the best but I feel safer. But this particular sand patch, I didn’t see it coming and had to cope with it the best I could. I did quite well actually, I didn’t come off and that’s the most important. Now I would be more on the lookout for sandy patches.

The road was so bad that it took us 3 hours to get to the border. Around the second hour we saw a lone cyclist and stopped for a chat and to check if he needed anything. Leo, English. Here’s a what a cyclist looks like:

An English cyclist
Leo, the English cyclist

He had camped near a small hamlet by the side of the road and was on this way to the border too. With all the time the border took us, we thought we would see him again there but that was the only time we ran into him so far.

We spent two hours at the border and were finally admitted into Uzbekistan where the road turned “better”: instead of being good dirt, it was bad tarmac. A big change and we could ride much faster. It’s such a featureless road that there’s not much to say about it.

We did meet people on the road, other travellers like Jyri, Artur (Finns) and Christian (French). Christian was riding with another French guy, both on Africa Twins but they had split and he was now riding through the desert with the Finns for security. Days later I met his road companion in Bukhara but that’s a story I’ll tell later. We were riding this lone road and after 257km since the last fuel top up, I was starting to wonder if we would find a gas station on the way or just run out of fuel in the middle of the desert when I spotted what looked like one on the left side of the road. I pulled over and when I was getting closer I saw 3 bikes parked a bit further. Not only there was a gas station but also a little shop selling sodas and cold fizzy water. If felt like finding water in the desert. Wait, that’s exactly what it was 😉

KTMs and oasis
Getting ready to leave

We rested, we exchanged tips about the road and the fuel availability each way, we also exchanged some money, mostly to help Christian get rid of all his Uzbek money, we had our drinks. I tried to use the filthy toilet that probably hadn’t been cleaned once since the last century and decided against it. After a while we wished each other good roads and went on our opposite ways.

Africa Twin
Christian leaving on his Africa Twin

The road went on straight, featureless and potholed but the landscape was not completely devoid of a certain beauty. On our way to the end of the day we met some more English cyclists and after some fast riding, I had to convince Neil that we wouldn’t get to civilization that day and that we had to start looking for a camping spot. It wasn’t very hard, he was tired too and the sun was setting, soon it would be dark so we set up camp some 50m away from the road behind a little dune. That night I used my stove for the first time to cook rice with a beef sausage I had been carrying since Sinop in Turkey. The best meal on the menu that evening. The other dishes were stuff only Bear Grylls would eat like sand and insects.

The silence of the desert at night is, quite appropriately, very hard to describe in words. It is just beautiful. And peaceful.

Desert camp
A beautiful sunset on our camp in the desert

You may notice the tent doesn’t have the rain cover, you may also realize there’s no use in explaining why it doesn’t. Plus, that way you can enjoy the beautiful night, take advantage of any wind that could refresh you and wake up at dawn to ride again.

After an instant noodles breakfast (I think I had bought them in Kazakhstan by chance), we set off on our way to civilization.

Bike, stove, tent, breakfast
Noodles and coffee, the breakfast of champions

As the bad tarmac turned into an excellent road as I have never seen on this trip, the desert also turned to green and we had a second breakfast at a trucker’s stop. Soup, bread and tea, the taste of civilization.

Desert turns to green
The desert just ended abruptly
Me and Z
The end of that desert

We were in Kungrad and would soon arrive to Khiva where we expected to spend a couple of days visiting the ancient city of Ichan-qala.

 

 

Osh, Kyrgyzstan

Meanings

Some things lose their meaning as you travel East, other radically change their meaning. Take this roadsign for example:

In Western Europe it usually means that there is some kind of roadworks ahead, probably taking one lane of the road you are riding. From Romania tu Turkey it means that you are in for some traffic jam and alternate circulation for probably a hundred km. I don’t really know what it could mean in Georgia because I have never seen it. Up to now, the meaning is about the same but when you get to Russia, it starts getting more difficult to decode. So far, I think it means “some time ago, this road has been worked on and there may be a better bit ahead” whereas in Kazakhstan it gets more philosophical. In Kazakhstan, the presence of this sign just means that there is a red triangular sign with a black worker holding a black shovel drawn on it by the side of the road. It gives absolutely no indication about the future characteristics of the road.

Another sign that completely lost its meaning after the Russian border is this one:

Even when it is accompanied by a “15 km” panel.

Other signs that are usually useless in Western Europe should actually be put at the entrance of the country together with the ones announcing the local top speeds. I’m talking about this one:

It starts in Romania but then in Georgia, they’ve just given up using it.

Cows on the road
Sharing the road in Georgia

By the time you get to Kazakhstan, it’s a whole different thing…

Camels on the road
Kazakh road users

 

Atyrau, Атырау Г.А., Kazakhstan

Staring at the language barrier in the face

Let’s have tea at the gas station.

Tea is big in Turkey. We’ve all heard about Turkish coffee but let me tell you, the real deal here is tea. It is everywhere. The first days it was a bit strange. I stopped close to a gas station to buy a salad to eat with my Bulgarian ham and some guy sitting at a table uttered in my direction: “Chai?”. I didn’t get it and said no. The following time it was easier. I stopped at a gas station, bought my usual Coke shaped caffeine dose and when I was leaving the cashier said “Chai!” and pointed with an open hand at the sort of tea dispenser you see at conferences and hotel breakfasts, a big metal cylinder with two taps at the bottom. One pours water, the other one tea. And it’s not mint tea like the Arabs, it’s plain black tea. So I poured myself some tea and wondered what the other tap was for. Yay! Double dose of caffeine!

Needless to say, I’m not the only tea drinker. Everywhere you look there’s people drinking tea, they have roadside stall serving tea and some bars advertise their tea price to attract customers (it’s usually 1 lira). But the day before yesterday it went a bit further. I had stopped for some gas and a rest at a one of the big brand gas stations here. Rest routine is always similar: get a cola drink (sometimes it’s Pepsi), ask for the wifi password if available and just sit there sipping the drink. Everyone leaves me alone if I’m looking at the phone, everyone tries to talk to me if I’m not. Either way it works for me. This time, there was wifi so I was left alone. Until I stopped looking at the phone and stood up. The eldest of the pump guys came to me and said… He said what? Yes! “Chai?”. I couldn’t say no. It was a special moment, the guy who pumped my fuel was now pouring me tea from the employee office. We couldn’t talk much, some other guy came and I heard them exchange the usual Q&A that is usually addressed to me: “Almanya?”, “Fransa”. I waited for him to finish his tea and left. By now, I was getting used to their tea and starting to like it.

In the evening, after checkin myself in at a hotel in Persembe, I decided to go for dinner. I must be missing something because when I go out for dinner everything is closed and no one is having dinner but I found this little place close to the hotel and Mehmet was happy to serve me some tavuk with pilau (or chicken with rice for those of you who are not as fluent in Turkish as I am).

My dinner buddies
My dinner buddies Mehmet and Ekrem

Did I say his name was Mehmet? Yes, this guy was really determined to have a conversation with me. When someone, probably his wife, mentioned the language barrier he played deaf and just kept talking to me not caring the least in the world that my Turkish vocabulary totals 20 words and most of them are food and roadsigns and that his English vocabulary comprised not more than 5 words. He grabbed my book and started to ask me about China and Henry Kissinger. Who is he? Where is he from? What did he do? Obviously this is what I think he asked me since I have no idea what he was saying but I answered anyway and the conversation was there. I explained my trip to him and called up on his friend Ekrem and soon we were having a lively chat, probably about different subjects but we didn’t care, it was fun. At some point his son came by, he spoke English and we clarified some points that weren’t quite clear on the previous conversation but he couldn’t stay so we went back to baby talk and scribbling stuff in pieces of paper to try to understand each other. They asked me many questions about myself: my age, the trip’s budget, my job, whether I was married. They advised about the beauty of the women from different countries I would find on the road. Really, it’s amazing the things you can talk about when you can’t talk.

And in the jumble of mimicking and scribbling they told me I should absolutely visit the Sümela monastery and the Uzungöl lake. The former for the history and the latter for the nature. This resulted in the most beautiful road I’ve ridden so far and the visit to a beautiful monastery perched on the side of a cliff for the first day and on stunningly beautiful lake with a little mosque on one side for this morning.

All in all, excellent advise.

Sümela Monastery
Sümela Monastery on its cliff-face

PS: There is also a video of the road. This time I have removed the nasty wind sound and replaced it with some Andean music to make it easier to the ears

Hopa, Hopa, Turkey

Diogenes

Diogenes' statue
Diogenes and his dog

That guy there, the stone one, is Diogenes, the great philosopher and founder of Cynic philosophy. He was born here in Sinop, where I’ve been lazing at the beach since yesterday. The sign at the bottom of the statue says something in Turkish that I don’t completely (or even start to) understand and then gives in English his most famous quote, something in the lines of “would you mind stepping a bit to the left, you are blocking the sun”.

Not bad for a great philosopher, who said they spent all their time thinking about the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything? (the answer is 42, btw). No, they also spent time working their suntan. And when Alexandre the Great met Diogenes, he was so thrilled that he asked what, in his all-powerful greatness, he could do for Diogenes. Guess what the philosopher’s answer was? Right!

I also went into town this evening. Now I can confirme it, Turkish people really love to go out. It’s only Tuesday and admittedly we are at the seaside but the town was full of people walking around and sitting at bars having dinner and drinks. There was even a “game” bar where everyone was playing a game with numbered tiles (like rummy, burako or mahjong).

Game bar
People playing at the game bar

Sinop, Turkey

Bye bye Bulgaristan, hello Turtsiya

My day at the beach turned out to be a rainy day. And that’s an overstatement. It rained for 10 minutes, then it was covered for 1 hour, then it rained for 10 more minutes and then it was finally sunny until the end of the day. I read Kissinger’s book on China throughout the day and I’m loving it. Not much to say about a day at the beach so let’s skip to the road.

The next day, I left as shortly after breakfast as I could because I knew it was going to be a long day. And it was! The roads were beautiful mountain roads. The border crossing I had chosen was at the summit so I enjoyed the Bulgarian road to get there and the Turkish road to get into the country. Both were really beautiful, albeit the Turkish one being of much better quality. And that was where I learnt that I had entered the ‘stans much earlier than expected. It seems that in Turkish, many countries are ‘stans and that includes Bulgaria, my first ‘stan. :-D.

Another Turkish quirk is that gas stations don’t sell road maps but even without a map I took the small roads, confident that I would find my way and not counting with the hurricane level winds that slowed me down to 80kph and with my first real rain on the road that slowed me down to 50kph. It doesn’t matter, when you plan 1 full year of travel, you expect rain. It was refreshing but as soon as it stopped I started cooking again.

It was as uneventful as roads can be aside from an interesting form of road toll I experienced when I took the highway for the last bit into Istanbul. It looks like a toll, everybody behaves as if it is a toll but there’s no barrier and the booths don’t even cover the whole width of the road. Also, there are no humans to interact with and no credit card slots, only prepaid Turkish road toll card slots. What to do? Did I mention there was no barrier? And I skipped while hoping this was the usual way for foreigners to treat a road toll in Turkey.

It wasn’t. The next toll was the city entrance one and this one had real barriers and occupied the whole width of the road. Still no humans though. Well, no official humans anyway. Enter the guy selling “used” cards. He wanted to charge me 100TL (50 euro) for a card. In the end he ripped me off only 50TL for a card that had enough charge for a total of 3 road tolls. Not so bad since that is exactly how many times I plan to pay tolls while in Turkey. Let’s see how that works out.

I arrived in Istanbul right on time to the address I was given. I’m staying at a friend of my father’s house and they have welcomed me in their home with open arms. The days in Istanbul are supposed to be  my rest days, I’ll tell more of my great stay in this amazing city in a future post.

No pictures this time, I need to go to sleep. I made a couple of videos of the road though, they will be available when they are available.At the time of posting, one of the is being uploaded to Youtube and will be available here (cut the sound if you don’t care for listening to the wind):

Istanbul, Istanbul, Turkey