Well, the boring connecty parts of this trip have turned out to be… pretty boring and connecty. This is a short post covering a little more than half of the distance from Bishkek to my entry to China at Tacheng. This stretch is about 1100km long, and has proved to be unexpectedly hilly and pretty hot. And thus, in comparison to the previous 1100km+ of riding, it was kind of monotonous. The scenery isn’t great (except for later after Taldykorgon), just endless steppe with tall mountains looming in the distance. The one fortunate thing about this stretch were the amount of services and (until Taldykorgan) the condition of the road. Kazakhstan is much wealthier than Kyrgyzstan, and this means that the average road condition is better, and the average town has more to offer. It’s probably the most developed area I’ve been in since Azerbaijan. Oil will do that to a country.
I spent almost a week in Osh, to the clear confusion of my hotel owners. Where does he go all day? Why doesn’t he eat our breakfast or have tea with us? The answer to the first was that I was usually wandering the aisles of Osh’s grocery stores reveling in the availability of things like cold drinks and yogurt. The answer to the second was that the breakfast was much better at my mom’s swankier hotel. I was also, as would turn out to be more common than I would have liked along this stretch, sick. It wasn’t the beans. It might have been the Nutella. But the third and final culprit, discovered two days out of Osh, was the peanut butter I’d bought in Dushanbe. I would end up throwing away any food (not very much left, mind you) I’d bought before Osh.
It’s somewhat demoralizing to wake up at 3,600m and see nothing out your hotel window but a whiteout. Especially when there’s no heating, and the next time you’ll have electricity (but no heat, mind you) is 7:30pm that night. That was my first morning in Murghab, Tajikistan. Murghab is a sort of depressing town with a good (for the area) hotel and a few shops selling the standard unhealthy Pamir fare. Juice, carbohydrates, candy, bread, etc. The market in town is just a collection of numbered shipping containers with various goods. The main point here being not to expect much from Murghab in this season. At the Pamir Hotel, the generator runs from 7:30pm to 11pm, so it’s only during this time that you can take a hot shower and charge electronics. I spent a rest day in Murghab, partly because I woke up after the first night with a few inches of snow on the ground. It melted very quickly, but the sight out my window upon waking up had already pushed me decisively into rest day territory.
Alright, on to part two of the Pamir Highway. The Pamir Highway is the second highest international road (or whatever, I don’t know what the internet says, it’s the second highest something or other) in the world. The more famous Karakorum Highway, which can be reached easily from the Pamir, but is more politically sensitive, is higher.
Man, where to even start with writing about the Pamir Highway? I’m going to split this, oh, 1300km or so into three posts, because It deserves it. The first post will be the ‘low’ section of the road from Dushanbe to Khorog, the second the ‘high’ part of the road from Khorog to Murghab way out in the middle of nowhere in the Pamir Plateau, and third the final pass and descent to Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
I was struggling to find an umbrella narrative for the first section of the Pamir Highway. The experience of traveling in this region alone on a bike just demands more nuance than just saying ‘it was difficult, here’s why.’ One night lying comfortably alone in my tent, watching the sun set over Afghanistan, I finally hit on something that ties this whole stretch together. It’s vulnerability. Here, in this wild, wild place, a sort of constant undercurrent of vulnerability affects everything I do. It affects how I interact with others, how I manage the ups and downs of each day, and maintain my mental and physical wellbeing over time.
I get very restless if I spend even a day not cycling. I don’t know why, but that’s what happens. When I’m not traveling, I regularly skip gym days. I don’t stick to routines. I don’t set an alarm. But when I’m out on the road, suddenly everything is regimented, and anything outside of my careful routine strikes me as almost frivolous. I wake up at 6:30am sharp pretty much every day. I’m on the road by 8am at the latest. Cities sort of become obstacles, because they break my routine. Also, hostels and other places to stay are close to tourist sites and not necessarily good grocery stores at which to restock on food. If I could just camp outside grocery stores, that would be great, but those tend to be high-traffic places where people would (gasp!) stop by my tent and question why I’m biking across Uzbekistan alone. The answer is supposed to be ‘because I like it’, right? The conviction has been lacking behind those words in recent weeks. Over tea and kebabs in Aktau I said it with a smirk and an abundance of swagger. 100km outside Bukhara I screamed it through tears into a suffocating desert headwind. Fortunately, as I rode for the Tajik border, conditions were about to improve dramatically.
A lot of riding and writing in this post, with fewer pictures. The scenery has been dull and somewhat unchanging day-to-day. This post covers three separate sections of the last bit of time. First, back to Nukus. Then on to Uzbekistan’s second desert, Kyzyl Kum to Bukhara. Finally, the ride from Bukhara to Samarkand along one of Uzbekistan’s most populated Silk Road corridors.
As I rolled my way past Jasliq, a tiny town out here in the vast expanse of Qaraqolpakstan, a local man walked up to me and, in perfect English, said “Hello there! What’s a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?” We shared a hearty laugh. This is probably one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite movies, Blazing Saddles. Newly-appointed Sheriff Bart has just ridden into the Western town of Rock Ridge, carrying Gucci-branded saddlebags, looking like a million bucks. But he’s obviously not welcome there, because he’s black, and the rest of the town is white. Gene Wilder’s character, recognizing that the Sheriff is out of his element, hits him with this line, which perfectly sums up the absurdity of the situation.
Baku is finally in my rear view mirror, and with it a week and a half of consternation, restlessness, and a gradual acceptance of my short- and long-term life fate. In the fall, I will be starting graduate study in Biostatistics at UCLA. Any new readers from there that might come across this poorly-written sequence of diatribes and petty grievances I call a ‘blog’, welcome. Thanks also to two particular individuals in Baku, Dan and Victoria, who helped me with accommodation and hospitality for what turned out to be more than a few days in Baku. I am in their debt for their willingness to put up with me for what turned out to be a longer-than-intended stay.
I know there were many anecdotes, stories, and images that I wanted to include in this blog post, but unfortunately the only record I have of them are hurriedly scribbled notes on loose-leaf sheets of paper attached to a clipboard over the last 10 days or so. Things like “… stuffed in the back of a Lada and thrown off a bridge”, or “… jackals, dogs, and military drums”, or “four boisterous dudes in a Lada”. I’ll try to remember what I was thinking at these points in time. I swear there were coherent thoughts behind each of these short notes, but for the life of me I don’t really remember them fully. Here we go…