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Continuing east from Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan. The market in Osh, older than Rome, Spanish company for a day, and serious high altitude cycling up the Alay river valley – no habitation or traffic, caught in a blizzard approaching a mountain pass. And arrival into Kashgar, Xinjiang province in China – a milestone on the journey.
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‘Direction driven’ travel and missed opportunities, the route so far through Transoxiana, on holiday in special company, and lots of pics of the fabled Silk Road cities including Samarkand, home six centuries ago to the cultured yet barbaric Timurlane. The night train to Khiva and desert fortresses before getting back to ‘real life’ – the road. Tough cycling to the border through the barren Pamir mountain foothills. Indisposed on the road from traveller’s affliction, rude Uzbek border guards… and the familiar excitement at entering a new country. Tajikistan.
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Having crossed the difficult bit of sand, another thousand kilometres of desert lies ahead to the Silk road city of Bukhara – faced with an aching backside, aggro with a Kazakh drunk, then 160 kms between chaihana and no water. Uzbekistan and a raw deal for the Karakalpaks, the revelation – and contradiction – that is “Le Louvre des steppes”, and the pro’s and con’s of cycling alone. I experience the weakening effect of exhaustion, learn a little of Uzbek work practices and have some meaningful encounters on the road, before making it to the legendary Bukhara.
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A long way from where the ship deposits us in Aktau to the next road on the map. A bit of desert to cross, 600 kilometres of it. The midsummer heat, no shade, the condition of the road, the huge distances – one long day had us cycling 100 kilometres with just one chaihana stop for shade and water – and the lack of visual stimulation making it difficult for the mind at times. But what a feeling of satisfaction reaching Beyneu. I’m glad I did it!
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After the desert and mountains – the big, bad oil city of Baku! Actually quite nice, spectacular architecture, Azerbaijan’s autocratic strongman. Refreshingly helpful Uzbek consul, and the exciting decision to head across the Karakum desert with Will and Fred – in the searing heat of July! Desert preparations, Azeri clampdowns on protests and opposition, and the thorny problem of Armenia again. Mad rush to the port, the two day cruise to Aktau, manic Basques and shipping tales. We land – ahead of us the desert!
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Reluctantly leaving wonderful Georgia but not before the charm of hilltop town Sighnaghi, the wonder of 1400 year old Davit Gareja monastery in the wilderness (any influence from the Desert Fathers?) and observing a response to perestroika in remote, uninhabited Georgia. A step closer to the east, Muslim Azerbaijan. A suspicious border guard? Robbie Keane (again), a caravanserai, the trouble with Armenia, shaky to Sheki, delicious mutton fat stew, vulnerable women and an enjoyable evening with fellow cyclists. Baku in sight after a tiring hilly cycle, and a restless night in the tent disturbed by odd traffic. And despite the alarm – no snakes!
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Light shows and rainbows crossing the Black Sea to Georgia, homeless at 3am in Batumi port, but more importantly – how damaged is the bike? In the footsteps of Jason and his Argonauts to Joe Stalin’s hometown, the charms of Tblisi, a James Bond movie in the Iranian embassy, and masterful Georgian choral singing. A digression up the magnificent Caucasus mountains, William Wallace again, and… what is it travellers get out of the discomforts and adversity?
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Leaving the EU and ‘Europe’ into former Soviet Union, falling in Lvov, Ukrainian nationalism; ‘mob’, CIA and an American character; embarrassing scenes after a drop too much. On to exotic Odessa and ballet in the world class Opera house, vodka toasts, ferry to Georgia and… my bike – what have I done???
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