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Pedalling across the ‘Stans


“Hurry up and wait” is the unofficial motto of the British Army. Frantic bursts of activity are dotted amongst great swathes of time sat around and waiting until orders arrive: “GET ON THE BUS!!!”… inevitably followed by: “GET OFF THE BUS!”. Travelling is the same.

Today my glorious rolling progress across the enormity of China seems like just a happy dream as I sit and waste time waiting for visas to arrive.

But time wasting is not always time wasted- I have been catching up on the Brazilian soap operas that I really enjoyed in Siberia, dubbed in a monotone by a single Russian man who ‘acts’ all the characters- both male and female. I have been watching the A-Team too, and sitting in parks marvelling at summer girls in outfits so outrageous they appear to have been sprayed-on. Kazakhstan looks more LA than Allah. I watched Kazakhstan FC being trounced 6-0 by Turkey in a World Cup qualifier. The match was so bad that I was actually quite glad that 1/5th of the pitch was hidden from my view by the hat of the policeman a few rows in front of me: satellite-dish shaped and sized, the magnificent silliness of the hats was my very first impression upon entering Central Asia from China. I rode the rickety, shaking Ferris wheel in the Almaty funfair. It reached above the trees to show off the small city and the snowy mountains behind it. Relieved to be back on Earth again I felt astonished not only that Yuri Gagarin ever made it into space, but more so that he ever got back down again. If the fairground was not very relaxing, the Russian sauna was worse. It was much, much hotter than a normal sauna. The slightest movement wafted scalding air over your skin and was very painful. My hair was too hot to touch (which explains the comical lampshade hats the naked sauna veterans wear). Occasionally a masochist opened what looked like a Soviet torpedo tube and hurled buckets of water into the inferno. Gouts of steam spewed out across the room in angry response. Now even the local hard men scuttled crouching for the exit and relief. To finish the fun you lie down and let a good friend thrash your bare buttocks with a bundle of leafy twigs. They call it ‘Character building’ in boarding school…

Meanwhile CNN tells of revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, a massacre in Uzbekistan, a pre-election bombing in Iran and a crowd of 20,000 demanding the resignation of the government in Azerbaijan. These events make my onward progress more difficult, but paperclip-shuffling desk jockey bureaucrats are poised to stop it all together. To enter Iran I must have an ‘invitation’ so I have paid a tour company in Iran to obtain a little piece of paper from a little man sitting in a little office and wearing (I imagine bitterly) dreary, sweat-ringed polyester clothes, a weedy moustache and a see-if-I-care air, thoroughly enjoying his pinprick of power as he takes 6,7…8 weeks to decide whether or not he can be bothered to lower himself from re-arranging his biro collection to actually doing his incredibly pointless job and signing my piece of paper.

Forgive my bile, but if I do not get a visa for Iran then my next two options are so much the harder- either to try and ride1500km across Turkmenistan to the Caspian Sea within the 5 day Transit Visa which is the best that that paranoid autocracy will give me, or else I ride north for weeks across the empty Kazakh steppe to the dismal city of Aktau and wait there for the fortnightly ferry across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan.

I met an Italian who strolled into the Iranian embassy in Almaty in his shorts and t-shirt. He was thrown out for being inappropriately dressed. He returned (trousered) that afternoon and left just four hours later with his visa. Six weeks ago I paid an extra fee for an invitation to be kindly allowed to apply for the visa. As I am still waiting for the invitation I am beginning to get the hint that perhaps Brits are not flavour of the month in Iran. I wonder why…? After all this frustrating waiting I now feel ready to launch my own personal War on Terrorble embassy pen-pushers. If Homer had been writing today then surely Odysseus’s epic ten-year voyage home during which the Gods hurled every possible challenge and obstacle at him would also have included the delights of applying for visas in Central Asia.

Eventually I gave up waiting, forwarded my application on to the Tashkent embassy, and cycled to Kyrgyzstan. Out of Almaty I rode through English greenness, a tangled chaos of hedges and meadows confused with the riotous colours of so many flowers. Ladies wearing colourful headscarves and gleaming gold teeth sold buckets of fragrant strawberries and pyramids of pale plums. Villages were busy with people slowly watching the world go by, with bent ‘babushkas’ (grandmothers) digging fecund gardens and little children staring from big eyes safe under the watchful eyes of the entire village. Memorials from the Second World War here in the middle of nowhere reinforce just how much of a World war it really was. Summer roses climb all over the walls of the quaint white-washed Soviet cottages with steep sloping roofs that were so often my salvation back in the brutal Siberian winter. Girls filled metal churns with water at the cold gushing pumps spaced along the single street and I would wait my turn to fill my bottles and cool my head under the tap.

I saw graffiti, in Russian and English, saying “Beckham is Best!” and “Genghis Khan!” Kazakhstan swirls with cultures- Soviet and traditional nomadic and Western oil wealth- and from it all this young nation is trying slowly to decide what the new ‘Kazakhstan’ itself wants to be.

I see similar issues here in Kyrgyzstan too. At the border the guard’s cap still bore the hammer and sickle badge. A yurt stood about 50 metres beyond the border gate where a young soldier had laboured to enter my details into a brand-new laptop computer system recently donated by America. In Karakol I spent a night in a tourist campsite and for the first time ever I had a price quoted to me in Euros. The campsite had one of those signposts that point all around the world. 6000km to London it told me…

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