Cyclists tackle deserts and mountains

KASHGAR The just risen sun shines in our eyes, filtered to an orange red by a haze of dust and pollution.


The just risen sun shines in our eyes, filtered to an orange red by a haze of dust and pollution.

We are cycling out of Tashkent before the traffic and the heat builds up, nervously excited by the idea that the real adventure is just beginning.

The boulevards of downtown give way to narrower roads; commercial blocks and factories morph into fields of cotton and sunflowers.

When the irrigation tails off, dry, brown scrubland is a reminder that this is desert. 

The road slowly curves South East, towards hills we can hardly see through the pollution.

By lunchtime we are climbing gently towards our first 2,000-metre pass, by evening we are still climbing, but now around switchbacks and starting to worry about somewhere to stay.

A gang of road workers comes to our rescue, offering the crab apple orchard below their bunkhouse as a place to camp, and to join them for dinner. This act of generosity is just one in a day of generosities.

Two families, whose cows are grazing in the orchard, offered us apricots and tea and promised fresh milk in the morning.

Earlier we had been given a meal in a chaikhana (café/teahouse), and a car had stopped to offer us bottled water.

“Passports” is the only English word the soldiers know, and they love to practise it.

We are stopped by them at the entrances and exits of two tunnels that shaves 200 metres altitude off the pass — and then down, for 60 kilometres into the Fergana valley, zooming by every truck grinding downhill in first gear.

The well-watered and prosperous farming country of the Fergana valley lies between the western extremities of the Tian Shan Mountains and the Pamir Mountains.

It has a reputation as a hotbed of Islamic religious fervour: Darlene wears long-sleeved tops and long pants despite the 40-Centigrade temperatures.

Arriving in Kokand we have a fine time finding a recommended B & B. We gather a crowd whenever we stop, women around Darlene and men around me.

Everyone wants to help, so there are always plenty of differing opinions as to which way to go.

This time, when consensus is reached, we get an escort of seven boys on four bicycles to lead us there.

The couple running the B & B are a worldly pair.

He is a school principal, she works for a women’s organization and proudly tells us she has facilitated a conference in the states with Hillary Clinton.

Breakfast is perfect for cyclists: boiled eggs, salad, bread, curds topped with rich fresh cream, honey, walnuts and lots of green tea.

Villages and small towns in the valley have kilometre after kilometre of sidewalks with eco-friendly shade from metal trellises hung with grape vines.

We stop to take photos and are immediately given a big bunch of grapes, which is very nice, except that they first get a rinse in the roadside ditch.

Between villages the road is lined with pollarded Mulberry trees. Every year the trees are pruned, to harvest their leaves to feed voracious silkworms.

The town of Margilan has several silk factories and we take a tour of one that still operates traditionally.

In an ill-lit room two women working together, boil the silkworm cocoons to loosen the fibre and kill the grubs inside.

One fishes in the cauldron with a stick to gather enough filaments to spin into thread, which the second winds on to a bobbin.

Outside, an opaquely green pond thrashes with fat carp when the dead silk worms are thrown in. The thread is dyed and hand woven on bulky wooden looms by girls and young women, laughing and singing and stopping work to dance to a cassette tape.

Beyond the pond, the loud clatter of mechanical looms rattles out from the broken windows of a four storey factory.

I suspect the real work is done there, in Dickensian working conditions.

The climb out of the Fergana valley to the Kyrgyzstan border is easier than we expected, past orchards and more cotton fields.

A merry gang of women fieldworkers leave their hoeing and surround us as we take a break in a bus shelter. They ignore the shouts of the foreman, fuming in the background, while they inspect us and the bikes.

Crossing into Kyrgyzstan is straightforward and soon we are lost in the streets of Osh, the country’s second largest city.

Signs are rare and in Russian anyway, so it takes a while to find the hotel we want.

Osh, has a crowded and colourful bazaar, though the lack of hygiene is obvious.

Persistent flies fight over the butchers stalls and rats run along the garbage-choked open drains.

The bread stall owners vie for the shiniest bread, polishing each piece to a gloss with a wet and none-too-clean rag.

Older women dress in the traditional Muslim way, headscarves and dresses over baggy pants.

Old men, bowlegged after a lifetime of horse riding, wear long coats, baggy pants tucked into high boots, and slightly silly looking felt hats.

Younger people have succumbed to the casual western fashion of tee shirts, pants, even shorts.

A gravel road with patches of broken pavement leads us south into the Alay Mountains and we climb into picture book Central Asia.

Bands of half-wild horses roam over treeless green hillsides.

Yurts, the traditional felt-covered homes of Asian nomads, set in sheltered nooks contrast white against the green.

Descending from another pass, we stop for water at the only shop in a village.

Other customers give us a bottle of Fanta while buying beer and vodka for themselves.

In the next village, still looking for water, we are invited to join a group of old men enjoying their liquid lunch of vodka.

Even accounting for the Russian influence, the popularity of vodka is no surprise given the only traditional alcoholic drink in these parts is fermented mares’ milk.

Now we are climbing again, towards the highest pass so far, at 3,600 metres.

Reaching the village of Ak Bosogo, at the foot of the pass, we ask an old man, first for a hotel and then a chaikana; there is neither.

He invites us in for tea and lets us camp in his front yard.

Life in the village is basic, water is brought in pails from some unseen source; just before sunset, boys bring the villager’s sheep down from the hills, and each family stands at their gate to cut out their animals as they pass. Most families grows potatoes and corn in a small garden and keep a cow for milk.

For up to date information we have made notes from the website (, of an Australian couple who came this way.

They describe the ascent to the pass as “tough, tough, tough.”

From the top, looking back down the rutted dirt of the switchbacks, we agree, and congratulate ourselves on getting up it.

Looking forward we see big snow peaks on the skyline, our first view of the Pamir Mountains.

It is downhill into Sary Tash, a small village at a major crossroads, where we find five other long-distance cyclists.

Some have come through Tajikistan along the Pamir Highway, some, like us, are going to Tibet.

Listening to their stories, feeling the camaraderie of like-minded souls, and with the confidence gained over the last few days of bad roads and a high pass, we feel we have passed a milestone of our own.

We need that confidence because the road is as bad as we had been warned.

The constant jolting over ruts, potholes and rocks give us sore butts, and numb hands from being ever ready on the brakes.

We take to riding along tracks by the road whenever we can, the softer, sandy ground allows a little relief. The road parallels the Pamirs and the panorama is colossal.

A strata of colours begins with a river, red with sediment, separating us from the green grasslands which stretch to the base of the snow white mountains, all under a pure blue sky, dimmed only slightly by the haze.

Here and there, horses, or a twist of smoke from the chimney of a yurt, add movement to the picture.

There are a few more passes close to 3,000 metres on this diabolically bad road before we come to an army check post, and beyond, like magic, is perfect, new pavement.

It is less than 20 kilometres to the Irkeshtam Pass and the Chinese border.

The Irkeshtam Pass was an historic Silk Road route through the mountains. Until the breakup of the Soviet Union it marked the end of the Russian empire, and the beginning of the Chinese, yet peopled with a culture that is alien to both.

The Kyrgyz side of the border is an absolute shambles.

Hundreds of trucks are parked in rows, people are living in abandoned containers and trailers, and every centimetre of ground is littered with bits of metal and discarded truck parts.

Our passports are examined by six different officials and details are recorded three times.

The Chinese side is a complete contrast.

It is clean, orderly and efficiently thorough, to the point that the bicycles get X-rayed.

Another day in the mountains as the road winds around and over a mess of moraines, scoured from the red brown hills and dumped by long gone glaciers.

There is no more green as we ride out of the mountains.

Every cyclist knows of the hotel in Wuqia, the first place in a long time with modern facilities.

For $11 we get a clean room with a king size bed, a TV and a bathroom with hot water. And the impression that Chinese hotels feel that every guest is stopping there by accident, because they not only supply the usual soap, shampoo and shower cap but also bath foam, combs, toothbrush and paste, slippers and condoms.

We drop 1,500 metres into the desert surrounding the oasis haven of Kashgar.

The last 20 kilometres into Kashgar is along a six-lane freeway, which I think is totally wrong for one of the most important places on the Silk Road.

Reflecting later, I change my mind.

The other important Silk Road cities we’ve visited are now living off tourism and need to preserve the old.

Kashgar has maintained its importance as a transport hub into the 21st century, with trans continental routes to each quarter of the compass.

David Sillery is a Haines Junction-based writer.

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