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Samarkand style


ABOVE Samarkand’s swarms of tiny, buzzing Daewoo taxis soar the ageless domes and minarets of the mosques and madrasas built by Tamerlane and his family. For years I have dreamed of riding the “golden road to Samarkand”, as in James Elroy Flecker’s poem. Here in Turkmenistan the sky, paled by summer dust, seems feeble against that blue tile work and the blues of kingfishers, glaciers, tropical shallows, Patagonian rivers and the deepest oceans. Such beauty, such skill, here at the end of the world. It is a reminder, of course, that central Asia was once not at the end of the Earth, but at the very centre of it.
It is now four years since I left England to try and cycle round the world in support of Hope and Homes for Children. The September 11 attacks, the euro, a World Cup or two and an Olympics have all taken place while I have been pedalling. But some things do not change – snail-paced central Asian visa procedures being one of them. In the past few months I feel like I have spent more time queuing in dreary embassies than riding my bike. After crossing Europe, Africa, South and North America and half of Asia, my way seemed almost to have been blocked at last. Week after week the Iranians procrastinated until finally they got round to rejecting my application.

Fortunately Turkmenistan eventually granted me a transit visa, a meagre seven days but a lifeline, hopefully, to making it through to Azerbaijan, the Caucasus and the end of my visa worries. Turkey, Europe and home lie tantalisingly close at last. My fourth year on the road is ending with a race against a visa deadline through the baking Karakum desert. It also began with a race against a deadline, but a rather colder race.

I began my ride across Eurasia from Magadan, the entry port for millions of Stalin’s prisoners. There was no exit port. I cycled into the Siberian winter along the “Road of Bones”, constructed at horrific human cost by the prisoners of the gulags. This section would be a massive challenge and I was glad to have my friend Rob riding with me. Having no proper winter experience, we skidded and slid and fell – we were on a steep learning curve. We crossed frozen rivers, tentatively. Once, dragging the bikes over a frozen swamp, I thought that, surely, this terrain was too bad for traffic. I was wrong: a tank passed that day.

With 5,000km to cover on a mere 90-day visa we had to begin our days in freezing black starlight and end them, after up to 15 hours of riding, by frigid moonlight. Even the northern lights did not make up for the lack of sleep. We did get through in the end, and with a couple of days to spare, but it was a close thing. Interwoven in that unpleasant long race is a constant memory of the horrible cold. Cold makes everything difficult (except for the bonus of being able to carry ice-cream in your panniers!). Plastic snaps, tyres freeze to rims, metal sticks to flesh, flesh moans a painful protest. My bum was numb until somebody made me a reindeer-fur saddle cover. Beards, eyelashes, sleeping bags crusted with ice. Camping was tough and sunrise brought little relief. I danced the “funky chicken” at dawn to thaw my toes – dignity is low on your priority list at -40°C.

After Russia, Japan was set to be a luxurious and gentle holiday. It did not disappoint. Japan was not even very expensive, unless you wanted to buy anything. But by eating nothing except instant noodles I kept my costs low and my blood pressure high. I slept on the floors of railway stations, waking with the day’s first commuters and fetching hot water for my breakfast noodles from one of the infinite number of amazingly convenient convenience stores. Japan is extraordinarily clean, safe and, above all, convenient.

I walked in the evening through the streaming crowds of Tokyo, down a street of Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Cartier stores. In a canyon of tower blocks rolling neon lights rose all around me. I stood still and rotated slowly in the rushing waters of the hurrying, silent crowds, my head tipped back, enjoying the Japanese version of Siberia’s northern lights. Tokyo was a busy city but it was also very quiet; like watching a concert with the sound off.

Kyoto’s graceful shrines and temples and Shikoku Island were a respite after Tokyo. I rode round low wooded hills and rocky coastal bays of clear green water and white fishing skiffs. I met white-clad pilgrims with staffs and straw hats trudging their famous pilgrimage round 88 temples. Nuclear attacks ended the second world war and made Hiroshima famous. 60 years ago Hiroshima was a busy, lively city spread over a flat seven-fingered delta. Today it is again a busy, lively city. It was a good example of regeneration, a reminder that bad times pass, and that there is always hope for the future. The children’s memorial in the Peace Park, draped with thousands of colourful origami cranes made by children worldwide, was particularly poignant.

The slow boat to China was fast. I looked out to sea and instead saw China right in front of me – 24 hours sooner than I had expected. I hopped around nervously before riding out into China. After the sterility of Japan my senses exploded into action – it was cold and windy, the streets were dirty and potholed and the traffic was a whirlpool of hooting chaos. And to think that I used to imagine Japan and China as being pretty similar.

We all think that we are the most important things to have ever happened in the history of the universe. Going to China was a good way of deflating that balloon. I was surrounded by a billion people to whom I could say just, “hello, one, two, three, I don’t understand and thank you”. China made me feel small. It felt good to be making progress westward and homeward, rather than my more usual meanderings. With thousands of kilometres between me and my next shower/toilet/conversation, I was able to relax, try to enjoy each day and settle for just arriving when I arrived. It was a perfect opportunity for me to practise living for the present moment – something I am terrible at doing.

Crossing the Great Wall’s snow-covered earth ramparts brought me into Inner Mongolia. I marauded westwards with the noon sun on my left cheek, on past the mausoleum of Genghis Khan, over a huge, cold wind-whipped plain where the distances and the sky seemed to stretch forever, motionless. I crossed the Yellow River (which is grey and green) that scours deep through a wide valley and suddenly a brand new city appeared ahead of me, too new for my map. Cities and factories were being built everywhere I went in China.

The deeper I rode into the dry-lands, westwards with the sun, dragging my weary evening shadow behind me, the further I left regular China behind as central Asian cultures began to dominate. In central Asia itself the language, food, shops, Ladas and maddening bureaucracy were strong reminders of the Soviet Union. But even that powerful legacy could not quench the spirit of the grinning Kyrgyz nomads living on wide green mountain pastures, watching their flocks of sheep and horses from their traditional white yurts. Racing green rivers and blue mountains soothed the fiery 45°C heat. Ironically though, the best preparation for hot weather riding was the Siberian winter, which helped to put any hardship into perspective!

Turkmenistan is my final country in central Asia, a baking desert sitting on vast gas reserves and under the control of the bizarre personality cult of its president. Getting in was difficult; if I can get out then I will have made it into the Caucasus, next door to Europe and to home. Fingers crossed, I should be home for Christmas…

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