When I woke up it was dark! For a moment I had no clue where I was. There was this sour smell of vomit in the air. Then I realised what had woken me. A sweaty hand urgently shook my shoulder.
I sat up and took off the blindfold that had blocked out the light so I could sleep. The Persian guy sitting next to me wanted to go to the toilet. No wonder I thought. He drank more whisky on that flight than is good for most human beings. So I loosened my seat belt and climbed out of my seat. The stewardess looked at me and smiled a sad smile that seemed to say so much.
Welcome to Flight KC 252 - Tehran Almaty direct. Standing there in the alley way I understood once more why I hate flying. You cannot put that many people in such a small space without experiencing the worst mankind has to offer. Believe me or not but cycling is much more comfortable - most of the time at least.
After my neighbor returned - obviously relieved - from the lavatory he mumbled apologetically something about being the first time outside of Iran.
I guess this must be hard. Coming from Iran and getting offered strong liquor in the same quantity as water or coke free of charge. This is Central Asia, a totally different place just next to such a hardline Muslim country.
The rest of the flight was uneventful but sleep was not to come again. The guy slept his head half on my shoulder and his vomit bag in the hand over my knee. Now I really hated Turkmenistan even more for not giving me a visa!
In Almaty I took a taxi to a hostel and got ripped off by the taxi driver even though I believed to have bargained hard enough - another reason to rely on your own transport when traveling. But my bicycle was still in a box in the trunk of the taxi which happened to be an old and beaten Lada.
Gazing through the car windows I saw trees and a vegetation which I had not seen for weeks. Everything was green. Also the streets were different. They were clean and everybody was driving safely. This should have lifted my mood but it did not. The flight had seemingly destroyed the magic of my trip. That was my feeling and it should linger for a while.
I stayed in Almaty for some days doing nothing. I had this feeling of emptiness that I normally get when the university exams are over. At least I figured out why I felt like this. I had lost the continuity of the overland experience. The trip got ripped apart.
With this in mind I started to focus on this very interesting town… The centre of Almaty could be anywhere in the western world. Money just comes out of ATMs, everything can be bought and the streets look rather sterile.
Almaty is quite off my originally foreseen route. So I had to find some kind of public transport to get back on track. I decided for a night train from Almaty to Shymkent. To get my ticket and put the bike on the train I arrived at the station 6 hours before the train departure. That was way too tight as I soon realized. I should have known that taking a bicycle on a train in Central Asia is not the same as in Switzerland where you just show up and enter with it. Here you need to pack it properly (whatever that means) and give it to the logistics guys in the adjacent room. They then put in on and take it off the train at the desired destination.
The whole process took me 6 hours and so I missed the scheduled train. This was not a shame since in the next train only one seat in the 3rd class was left. The 3rd class is something you should not miss. It is a 52 passenger open sleeping wagon. No privacy but a lot of fun. One day I definitely need to travel with the Trans Siberian railway in one of these wagons.
From Shymkent it was a day's bicycle ride to Tashkent in Usbekistan. The border was smooth with only one officer who tried to get some dollars from me.
Getting money in Usbekistan is a strange process. The local currency is called "So’m" and inflation is really high. This is why most people try to get hold of hard currency which results in a big currency black market. For USD you get about twice the amount of So’m than by legal ways. You might ask: Why is this working? Since people know that the value of the So’m is decreasing rapidly they try to get USD and then change it back in some time in the future when the dollars yield even more So'm. Banks cannot cope with the inflation rate so storing money on the bank is bad and carrying it in cash even worse. Thus, for the majority the black market is the only way to stay liquid and sometimes even make a little money.
Another side of the inflation is that everybody is walking around with stacks of money since a single bill has almost no value. People with plastic bags full of money are probably going to buy a train ticket.
In Tashkent I met some Swiss guys who wanted to cycle the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan the same route I will be going. The only problem is that they didn’t have bicycles yet. So I tried to help out with my knowledge about bicycles and in return got invited to some Plov in the Tashkent Plov center, an institution that only serves this traditional food over lunch.
By the way if you wonder why there are no more pictures - my camera broke in Almaty for no apparent reason. I ordered a replacement part to be delivered to Samarkand but in the meantime I could not shoot many pictures.
I stayed in Almaty until I the wind shifted to my favor. Wind in Usbekistan is strong so it may make sense to even wait several days. As it turned out I was lucky to wait.
On a hot day I packed my panniers and headed off south. I could not cope with the heat of the day so I cycled slowly but with the wind from behind I made still good progress. In the evening I decided to continue cycling through the night as the temperatures dove to tolerable levels. This was safer than you might think: Cars are extremely respectful in Usbekistan and leave you a lot of space.
So I arrived in Samarkand the next morning. Samarkand is one of the places I really wanted to visit on the trip. The name of this city is - probably not only for me - a synonym for wanderlust.
The city has two parts both equally interesting though with different vibes: the ancient part and the Russian part. I stayed in the Russian part where there is plenty of life and you don’t feel to be in a museum as you might in the ancient part.
The ancient part of Samarkand is probably the most famous place in the whole of Central Asia. Pictures of the Registan can be found in every travelling agency not only focused on the mainstream. It is great to see a lot of local tourists are travelling here. The classical “Silk Road Traveller” is a cultural interested individual well over 50 years old. As these well-funded travellers love this city, prices of everything are considerably higher than in the rest of Usbekistan.
So after enjoying the “must sees” in Samarkand I wandered around and explored the city a bit closer. It is a lively city. Young people sitting outside and enjoying the cold evening breeze with a beer. One of those youngsters who saw my camera mentioned I should go to the old cemetery.
This cemetery became my favourite place in this city. So on a dark new moon night I got myself locked inside the cemetery to take pictures of the milky way over Samarkand. Sadly my camera was so scared of the place that I had to simply enjoy it like this.
After feeling rested, restored and fuelled up with culture I rode south through some oil and gas fields to Qarshi. This city seems to be rebuilt within the last 50 years. There were so many buildings in construction but they are all empty. Some neighbourhoods felt like ghost towns.
From Qarshi the road took me east into the foothills of the Pamirs. I passed through some beautiful landscapes on tough roads. The night I spent in the tent next to the road where I chatted with a sheep herder and enjoyed the beautiful stars. At this point I felt like being in the travelling flow again.
Finally, after cycling uphill the last few days, I enjoyed a lot of downhill paths. I guess this was just a taster of the roads to come. In the evening I actually wanted to camp somewhere next to the road but two youngsters who hung around nearby made me nervous.
They asked all the wrong questions. “How much…” was the beginning of most of them. They also asked me if was not scared - which was the moment when I got scared. No really - this was the first time I got a bad feeling to camp freely. So I decided to go on for another 20 km into a small town close to the border of Tajikistan. I had already covered 130 km that day and was not really keen to go any further. But my stomach feeling said I had to.
So I cycled on into the dark despite the fact that I don’t like to cycle into towns at night. There was also a very strange feeling in the air. I can’t describe it really but all the people wanted something from me. Too much attention in a situation like this does not feel right. An then out of the dark a dog attacked me. I learned to deal with aggressive dogs. But I was not prepared for this at night and this dog was an especially aggressive one. So it had to happen that the dog jumped up and bit me. Luckily he missed my thigh and only got my cycling shorts. I tried to outrun it which is easy if you are on adrenaline but not with a bicycle loaded up with over 30 kg of luggage. When he attacked me again I tried to fend him off with my foot and he bit into my shoe.
I saw no other option than to thrust the foot as hard as I could on the ground. I repeated that until the dog did not move anymore and I could dislocate the teeth from my shoe.
I just went on. I was in no mood to deal with an angry and incompetent owner of a dog or to deal with potential other dogs. So I ended up in a shabby hotel with an extremely unfriendly staff. Probably they where unhappy that I left blood stains on their carpet.
In the morning the town called Denov did not look any more inviting than the night before. There was a smell of sulphur and nitre in the air which made this town an uninviting place. Going north towards the border the smell got worse but my mood improved even though the border ahead is famous for being the worst in Usbekistan.
I seemed to be lucky. After all the stories I had heard from people on the road I expected a two to three hour transition. The paperwork was done quickly since they had them in English (sic!). The officer did not even bother about some missing documents.
The lady from the security did not want to go though the whole of my luggage after having seen my dirty underwear :). Only the guy who checked my electronics was a real time waster. He went through all my pictures starting three months and 3000 pictures ago.
He zoomed in all the pictures that showed women and asked me with a straight face if I had slept with them. I was genuinely surprised but could not suppress a joke or two. When he after quite some time realized that I made fun of him he gave me my camera back and started to check my laptop.
He searched for “.mp4”, “porn” and “sex”. He got very, very exited when he found the file labelled “sextant.pdf” but was pissed even more when he saw that it was a bunch of technical drawings for a navigation device. I guess he just missed his best opportunity for a bribe that day.
Eventually I got my stamp and could wander through no man's land towards the Tajik side. This side was easy. They were just surprised that I had a type of visa discontinued five months ago. As a Swiss citizen there is no need for a proper visa anymore. E-Visas are the new deal here.
Cycling on towards Dushanbe I finally found the source of the smell that stains the air here - an aluminium smelting plant. This process is known to be extremely power hungry and toxic unless the exhausts are filtered properly - which is not the case here.
This plant is said to be the biggest aluminium production site in the whole world and it consumes 40% of the country's power. The strangest fact is that Tajikistan has no natural aluminium resources. The reason is a classical soviet tactic. Make the countries dependent on eachother to guarantee a “stable” union.
So please kids recycle your aluminium, this is a much cleaner process and only requires about 5% of the energy that is required to produce aluminium from scratch.
Luckily for Tajikistan the predominant wind direction blows off the toxic air towards Usbekistan and the plant lies downstream of the capital city...
The road leading into Dushanbe is lined with pictures of Tajikistan's president Emomali Rahmon. These pictures all look as if someone had a hand full of pictures of him photo shopped into any possible environment. So weird it may seem it entertained me on the last few kilometres into Dushanbe where I could sleep at a friends place.
Dushanbe marks the end of the easy part of my trip. So I planned to rest some days before going off into the mountains.