Thursday 9 June 2016

Prison, Pistachios and Afghanistan

Dear Mum and Dad,
I know you are both busy with your lives so I’ll save you some time. The first paragraph of this blog is pretty boring, and I’d be almost positive that you’d be asleep after the first couple of sentences. Might I suggest scrolling down and beginning after the next photo. Love you both.

Your only son.

Oh shit, where am I? I wasn’t in the safety of my bed in the hostel I had just checked into. I certainly wasn’t in my tent out on the side of the road. What the hell are those bars for? Fuck! I’m in jail.
My heart didn’t just sink, it had exploded in a panic. Before I even patted down my pockets to check to see if their contents were still there, I knew they were empty. I jumped up and grabbed the steel bars of the door I was locked behind. “Hey! Hey!” I yelled out into the corridor to anyone that would hear my distress. I swore as loud as I could. 
I had foolishly been carrying all the cash I had in the world, enough for the next three months. A zip up pocket on my cargo pants had seemed like the safest hiding place. I was wrong. 
When a police officer finally appeared he seemed unfazed by my distressed attitude. I was removed from the cell and taken to a small office where my belongings lay out on a table. Even my watch had been removed. The cash was probably the least of my worries, I was more concerned about my camera and the thousands of irreplaceable photos I had taken across the previous months and countries I had visited. 
My camera was there on the table, along with my wallet and phone. A small plastic bag, once holding a small fortune, was now empty. I banged my fist on the table and shouted at the police. I had no doubt it was those around me who had helped themselves. Tajikistan police have a notorious reputation for corruption. They remained steadfast and unemotional at my attitude. Surely an outburst like this in my home country would result in a sly beating of sorts. Guilt was keeping them sedate.
I was put back into the cell to calm down, not once was I handled with force or told to shut up. It was hard to relax. All I could do was sit and wait, still with no idea how I ended up in this situation. One minute I was having a cold beer in a local nightspot, the odd vodka being shared among new friends. The next minute……..
I tried to tell myself that someone must have spiked my drink. They must have. I didn’t want to accept my own poor decision making had brought me here. A more likely reality. At the tender age of 34, I remain my own worst enemy. 

I was finally allowed to leave with my belongings in a small black plastic bag. I signed whatever document had been put in front of me with a big X, snatched back my passport out of the sergeants hand and made for the bright day outside. 
My head was a mess, it ached from whatever super powerful hangover had been thrust upon me. When I reached the street outside I still had no idea exactly where I was. I had been in Dushanbe for less than 24 hours and was completely lost. I wandered back and forth looking for any recognisable landmark. I found an ATM and drew the last drops of my empty bank account, found a taxi and made my way back to the relative safety of the hostel. 
This was it, finally a spectacular failure to end my journey. No stolen bike, no broken leg from a speeding Lada. I was robbed, a result of my own peril. 
I declined to let this experience make me say “Fuck Tajikistan”. I fell in love with this place on the first day, the mountains, the people, everything except corruption and greed, fashion one of the most pleasant travelling experiences you could ask for. I wasn’t even too agitated at the ones who stole from me either, it’s not hard to remind myself that this is a large portion of their yearly wage. I could’t blame them for taking the carrot dangling in front of them. I could always return home and recoup any loss far quicker than they could ever imagine. An unfair gap in our existence, something I learned long ago once leaving Australia’s golden shores.

I just wanted to call my mum. I mean, who else are you supposed to call? Mothers day probably wasn’t the most ideal time to have such a conversation. “Mum, I have to come home. It’s over”. She listened, and listened well. I made sure as to keep it together, fighting a lump in my throat. “No” she replied “sleep on it, ill transfer you some money”. She knew I was on the edge of a part of the world I had talked about the most since before I had even planned a route, Iran. And it was only around the corner. “Go to Iran” she said. And just like that, before I even had a chance to sleep on it, my mother had brought calm to the situation. 

I immediately felt better and as motivated as ever. The final message came after the phone call, “Don’t let the bastards win”. Thanks mum.

I managed to leave the past in the past and get on with it. It being finding a way to reach my goal. If nothing else, I now had a story to tell. 

The first of the trio of difficult visas to acquire was Iran. I had already pre arranged a visa authorisation number through an Iranian travel company online. All I had to do now was to visit the embassy, answer a few questions about myself over a cup of tea, fill out a form and pay a fee.
Anyone travelling overland will tell you that having to organise visas is by far the most inhibiting portion of the travel. Even with all the required documents a visa can be refused at anytime, and without reason.
The next day I waited patiently outside the embassy to hopefully receive my visa. It was a long patient wait, trying to prepare myself for any refusal. When the consulate official finally handed me my passport, I flicked through the pages, hoping to find a new page filled. And there it was. Christmas had come early, so much joy and relief can be brought by something as simple as a sticker in a passport. 

Number two was Uzbekistan. I had all the documents prepared before I even reached the embassy. But here there was a rush to reach the door. Men and women were yelling at the guards, and trying to push their way to the door, and each other out of the way. I was in no way exempt to this behaviour and after an hour of waiting and going backwards, I decided to come back the next day. This time, early.

Two and a half hours before the Uzbekistan embassy was to open there were already people standing in front of the door. I positioned myself in a way to start a line, some people even stood behind me. I had no problem letting a few older folk in front of me to stand in the shade. This seemed to work in my favour, when the guard appeared 15 minutes before the consulate was due to open, all those pushing to stand at the entrance to the door were told to basically ‘piss off’. My new friends wishing to make a line then pushed me to the front, the guard giving me the number one with his finger. I was first in line.
Documents handed over and a fee paid, I was told to wait outside. They were calling names, and people who were behind me called inside to collect their passports. “Kangaroo, kangaroo”. Hahaha, it was my turn. Another successful visa application. 

The third, final and most difficult of Central Asian visas to land is Turkmenistan. Living under one of the worlds weirdest dictators, only about 20% of visas seem to be granted. And only for a measly 5 days to allow transit. I wasn’t holding my breath. The embassy finally opened after several days. Now 10 days I would have to wait for an answer. 

There was no point in hanging around for another 10 days stewing over possible contingency plans to cross to Iran. I had seen on the map there were pistachio trees along the Afghanistan border to the south. A 500km loop was possible and for the first time I would go for a ride to nowhere and back again. Now it didn’t matter if I succeeded or failed. I would ride, and this time, just for the hell of it.

From the get go I harboured positive vibes, leaving the city behind, following the highway to the east. The first multilane road in months steered me towards Vahdat just 15km from the city centre before once narrowing and turning south towards Afghanistan. 
2 days of climbing, and ascending crisp green hills, the road remained smooth. Nights hidden from the road, camped in ditches behind whatever cover I could find. Shrieks in the night from shepherds attending to their flock, echoing from high in the surrounding mountains was unnerving at best. Still I was never too shaken by the unsettling noise bouncing around in the dark of night. I trusted the Tajik people would keep me safe. 

Sheep and cattle were often mustered along the road. None seem to really care, motorists simply get on the horn and push their way through. And those with their lively hood taking up the road were always encouraging for a photo or two. The road flattened for a day and the landscape become increasingly dry on the move south. The heat was become more intense as the days went on, a dryness I had left behind in Australia long ago. 

A section of small rolling hills ultimately brought me to a cross road just 30km from the Afghanistan border. Taxi drivers filled the small intersection town and took little time to descend upon my location. A group gathered around and watched me eat a hot dog and repack my bike with water. I was feeling that there are not too many tourists stopping here, let alone on bicycles. 
For 9 months I had now been out of Australia and away from anything familiar. I stood and ate my hot dog amidst all the stares, realising that after all this time the unfamiliar had become the norm.

Only a few hundred metres from the intersection I was stopped at quite a serious looking military checkpoint. I was asked to reveal my documents and handed my passport over much to the confusion of the young guards sitting in the booth. My passport was handed over to the boss who also looked puzzled. A man in plain clothes walked past and didn’t appear to thrilled I was trying to pass. He made his feelings known to the sergeant while I kindly told him “It’s got nothing to do with you mate”, and waved him away with the back of my hand. 
The sergeant then made a cross with his arms at me. I knew what this meant. I tried to jokingly ask them all to close their eyes and count to ten, when they open their eyes I would have disappeared. My best pantomime was understood and I felt like I was making a little progress when several phone calls were made to see if there was anyway I could pass. The result “Niet tourist”. Bugger.
I could see on the map there was another road that could take me around the checkpoint. It involved backtracking and taking another route, losing a day in the process. I didn’t really want to cycle for 3 days only to have to turn around and head back to Dushanbe. After all, the pistachio trees were only 50 more kilometres down the road. 
I showed the younger soldiers my proposed route. They nodded and made a large arc with their arms. When the sergeant saw one of them doing this, he quickly shook his hands in a feeble attempt to prevent me knowing another way. It was too late, and I left announcing my plans “I’ll go around then, see ya’s later”. When I returned to my bike I found 3 loaves of bread hanging from a plastic bag on my handle bar, a consolation gift to see me on my way.              

Back past the crowd who had intently watched me eat my lunch not 30 minutes earlier I continued past and waved at their stunned faces. I was left with a sense that real adventure was at hand and grinned while pedalling along the bumpy road. The usual stress of my skinny legs battling such friction was no where to be found. 

Stopped by traffic police just a short distance along the road I thought it was all over before it even started. The officer asked where I was going? I pulled out my map thinking ‘should I be lying about this? Has he just received a call to intercept my insolence?’. No time to think I stuck with the truth, he nodded with a smile when I fingered my proposed route on the map before spotting the whip sticking out of my bag. I pulled it out and gave it a crack, the cop flinched when I wound it up for another go. The officer too had a turn and cracked the whip without fail before being distracted by a speeding driver. I took my chance to leg it, packed my whip and scurried off up the road. 

Soon I was off the main road and heading down a narrow path into the midst of a salt mountain. Rock and trees, with slivers of salt peering through the cracks. The road became an obstacle course of potholes, with the map now showing the road as the thinnest of lines, It would surely get worse before it gets better. 

The path climbed into the hills while the sun went down. I needed to find a place to camp and fast. A ‘2001, A Space Odyssey’ style monolith stood on a hill off the road. If there was ever a sign to camp, this was it. Rarely had I had an opportunity to camp so far away from an actual road. Not a car could be heard, just me and the birds, and a weird concrete structure. It’s possible this was one of the most peaceful camps I have had to date.

Woken by the sun and the sound of a heard of sheep and cattle approaching. A small boy soon stood in front of my tent. The youngest shepherd I had ever seen stood there and talked, and talked, and talked some more. The only information I could get out of him is that he was 4 years old and more than happy to pose for a photo. I packed up my tent while he continued to talk, his father soon appeared to get him to come along and carry on with work. 

The road narrowed even more as it passed through another village. The asphalt slowly transitioning to rocks and dirt, and power lines usually following the road were thinning out. 
I had never been so happy to be pushing my bike through deep river rock, my front wheel unable to hold its own line, skidding sideways through the pebbles. It’s the sort of place I always thought I would end up, it just took 12,000km of tar to get here.

I followed a narrow stream along a dry rocky gorge, salt from the mountain making its way through the rock and into the small creek. The rest of the day was spent pushing and heaving through sand and rock. Past small farming villages, occasionally being stopped for a chat and asking what the hell I was doing here. 

The road split into, what I though was two, both taking me back to the road I had been blocked from travelling the previous day. The southern road hugged the Afghan border so I was forced to take the longer northern route. With no road signs to direct me, and the offline map on my phone unwilling to play nice, I was forced to stop a passing car and ask for directions. Thinking I was lost I asked “Farkor” (the town I was headed to) and simply pointed further down the rocky road I was already on. 

The map on my phone came to play the game, I wasn’t even close to the north road I had hoped to find. Instead somewhere in the middle, the small blue arrow pointing in the right direction, albeit in a lost no mans land. I was indeed lost, and loving it.
At last I could see the end of the road, cars whizzing past in a perpendicular direction. Getting lost had unknowingly taken me on quite the short cut, just 10km from Farkor. Plenty of daylight left I had a quick rest before heading on to town.

Riding into town came with calls, whistles and waves from nearly everyone I passed in the street. I don’t mind people calling out” hello” and having a wave, but after a hard day in the sun there is nothing more frustrating than attempts to get my attention by whistling at me like a dog. All I needed was a quick feed before I would head off and camp down the road. 

I found a restaurant and sat down. An unusual time of day to eat I was the only one inside. For three or four seconds that is. Every bloke within smelling distance of my arrival had soon found me out and came to sit with me at the table. Each one wanting to shake my hand and ask me a million questions while I was trying to eat. I had to stop, sit back, and tell everyone to relax. The loudest of the group understanding and telling everyone to get out.

Two police soon came to join in the fun, or ruin it. A pair of lanky officers, both with neatly trimmed moustaches, sternly charged to my table in the restaurant. “Documents!” Not particularly in the mood to be bothered I answered “hang on mate, let me finish and I’ll come so you can take my picture” and kept eating. “Passport”, still he did not look very happy. I handed my passport for inspection. 
From what I understand I was told to finish my meal and then follow him to the police station. He would wait for me outside. 
My appetite was ruined by this. The thought of a stranger who had just come and wandered off with my passport didn’t sit well. I paid for my meal. The ladies in the restaurant looked quite concerned for me, “Arrest?” one said. I shrugged my shoulders. Before I left I quickly took all my cash and shoved it into my shoes, the ladies giving approval with this. 

Outside the lanky police were standing there in a crowd. All were stood peering into my passport, they had all the gear and no idea.
I grabbed my bike and followed him to the station. When a young man gave a “hello, where are you from?”, in excellent english, I asked “come with me”. Quickly explaining the situation and requesting he follow and help me translate. That afternoon, Abdul was my angel.
A dozen police stood outside the police building. Mr unhappy lanky moustache cop tried to get me to follow him inside, and bring my bike. “It’s ok mate, I’ll just hang out here”, still unsure as to what was actually happening I waited outside, explaining to the other police my intentions and showing where I was going on the map. Also showing a photo one of their own just up the road who wanted a turn of my bike. 
With the help of Abdul I found out quickly I had snuck into an area of the country that required a permit. A permit I didn’t have. Immediately I realised why the army had stopped me passing, and why lanky moustache cop was so unhappy. I had wandered into a sensitive area of Tajikistan, this close to the Afghanistan border has come under some trouble in the past. Kanduz in Afghanistan was very close, a region most certainly under recent taliban control. This must make the underprepared and peaceful Tajik side most definitely nervous, especially with bearded tourists. In fact beards are even illegal in Tajikistan for under 45’s. Would you ever believe that in a state with a 98 percent muslim population, they were not even allowed to wear a beard? I often wonder what we actually know about the world. 
My arresting officer returned with my passport. This time there was something wrong with his face. He looked far less menacing and his teeth were showing, I think it’s called a smile. 

I didn’t want to waste any more time in Farkor in case the local police were to change their minds. Peeling the paper money off the bottom of my socks before it dissolved in a pool of sweat, soon I was back out on the flat, chasing the evening sun.
Id been set upon by snarling dogs before, but never two at a time. A sort of dance around in circles trying to keep my bike between me and the pair of barking beasts. Before I could even pick up a rock, a pair of heroes appeared. Would you believe me if I told you my heroes were a pair of cows. Its true. The bovine legends appeared out of nowhere and saved me from a rabid attack. I still can’t believe it.

Finding a good spot in busy farm land is never that easy, especially doing it with some degree of stealth. Carrying on into the twilight, somehow, a magical spot always appears.

Into the night I could hear the farmers still on their way home. The same at first light in the opposite direction. 17 hours of sunlight, heaving away in a field just to put food on the table. Respect goes out to the Tajik people toiling away for their meagre existence. I can’t imagine getting further away from home. 

The wild pistachio tree were just around the corner. A 30km corner anyway. The rough black tar road vanished again, green pastures became dry rocky plains and I climbed slowly towards a brown rolling mountain range. 
I stopped for lunch at the base of a set of 18 switchbacks overlooking the Panj River and over into Afghanistan. Into the hottest part of the day I went, climbing the steep winding road. The summit was always in sight as I clambered closer to the top. Sure the road descended on the other side, but again it climbed over and over again. Descents taken with the brake on full, ponderously and scrupulous over the goat track of a road. 

There they were, scattered all over the sides of the mountains. Wild pistachio trees as far as the eyes could see. An excellent hideaway from the burning sun was about all they were good for this day. After every effort and risk I could take to reach this spot, not a pistachio was ready for me to eat. An irony I enjoyed with a sense of fulfilment. In a way, I hadn’t come all this way just to eat a nut off a tree, but to find something different, go somewhere, anywhere, nowhere, and return to tell the tale.

I battled the remainder of the day, cycling in the shit. A car would pass every hour or so, each one stopping to offer me a drink of some sort. Each crest had to be crossed, each corner had to be checked, you never know whats on the other side. Satisfaction doesn’t come without a little hard work, the road culminated with a final drop and back onto the dusty tar towards the town of Panj. 

Through numerous grubby herds moving along the road, I squeezed my way past sheep, goats and cows towards a decent meal and a cold drink. 
Stopping to check the map way taking me in the right direction, a local villager, in fact the teacher, asked if I was ok. He explained Panj was 8km along the river following the road. We chatted for a while as others gathered, mostly children, and then the local police officer. I imagined the plain clothes gentleman was some sort of self appointed village police. A short man, he stood over his own bicycle next to me, dripping sweat from his forehead, his eyes as white as could be, wide open with a huge grin on his face. He looked like a child at Christmas who though he was getting nothing and had received the world. 
A tractor passed taking our attention for a moment. “Do you have tractors in Australia?” asked the teacher, followed by the police guy adding “in the willages” (not a spelling mistake). “Ummm, yeah. In the willages”. 
I offered my email to the teacher, he looked confused. No email? 
Here on the Afghan border in southern Tajikistan, interacting with a few beautiful souls, I was having a revelation. I thought I had been to places far away, an honest realisation…..I hadn’t.

I moved closer to Panj, now at great speed back on a real road. When I reached the centre the first one to spot me was…. Yep, you guessed it…. Police. By now I knew the drill, I followed and had my passport ready. “You look like the boss” I said to the cleanest looking one with the most stars on his shoulder, and the only one sitting down. This was quick and painless, two minutes “you can go”. 
Where can I get some shashlik? Hungry for meat I wandered in the direction they pointed me, quickly joined by a pair walking in the same direction. 

Narzalib and Jahonjir (can you tell I wrote their names down?) sat with me, ordered and when the meal was over, they even paid. 
Narzalib could speak a little english and explained the trouble Panj has with the people using it as a hub to escape to Afghanistan (that’s right, to). The restaurant we ate in was no more than 200m from Afghanistan, but you would never know just sitting there. I found it quite an honour when I was told that they might only see a handful of foreigners a year, mostly hitchhikers, and only during the summer months.  
I was offered a roof for the night and a place to have a shower. At least I think that’s what was going on. They led me to the local hotel and we went inside. ‘Sweet’ I thought, after a few days camping I could do with a bed and a shower. Unbeknownst to me I was only there for the shower, the owner giving me a bar of soap, a towel and some shampoo and showed me to a shower at the end of the hall. When I went to leave after using the hotels facilities for free, the owner seemed more thankful than I was. Owing to the fact I hadn’t showered for 5 days surely. 
A space on the floor in an apartment block was a luxury I had missed the past 5 days. I slept like a baby in the cool room, next to a window enjoying a light breeze on my face. A simple pleasure.

An early start so everyone could head off to work I hit the road running and made it to another checkpoint 30km from town. This time it wasn’t the military, just the corrupt police. I found a seat on a bench with the officers while my passport was again scrutinised. I ate some melon and joked around and laughed with them all, one eye watching the boss sat at a desk. Each car was stopped and the driver would get out and come and hand over their ID. Inside was of course a small bribe, slyly taken out and pocketed before the driver could leave. I must have happened over 20 times in the 15 minutes I sat there. Not wishing to overstay my welcome I quickly said my goodbyes, took a melon off their hands and continued on. 

As close as I would ever be to Afghanistan the road was just metres away from the barbed wire fence. The Panj river on the other side, and watchtowers scattered along the horizon. Knowing not to get too close, especially beyond a most foreboding sign, a land mine warning. This had become quite the ominous assignment filled with overtones of extreme personal danger. 

The road curved away from and back towards the fence. But never too far away. The wind was picking up and I slowed to a crawl. My internal thermometer was creeping over the 40 degree mark, the dryness , and only access to hot water, not helping my cause. 
I napped under a tree for a couple of hours, the only shade for miles. A car pulled up and offered me a lift. A little dehydrated and stinging for an ice-cream I asked if they could take me just to the next town, Dusti, about 15km down the road. What the hell, I had already lost a day dodging the army and now surely I needed a day off tomorrow in Dusti. Just killing time waiting for a visa to move on, I could justify cheating…. This time.

With no english between us I wondered if I was actually been taken to the next town. Especially when 20 minutes passed and we hadn’t stopped. Was this guy taking me to Dushanbe? We seemed to sort of communicate, notably when he said the word “Peeva” (beer in Russian). I knew we were going to get along just fine. In the end he took me all the way to his home in Kurgonteppa just 100km south from Dushanbe. 
I spent the evening with Sulam and his family. We ate and drank and they really made me feel like part of the family.
He lived with his mother and father, 2 brothers and one sister. Each of the boys also with their wives, each with two children. It was a full house and they treated me like a king. The family were more than happy to talk about the political situation in their country, something I know little about, and not enough to express thoughts about in this blog. Sulam’s father showed me wounds where he had been shot during the civil war, he told me of the hatred between brothers and sisters during this time. I found these things difficult to imagine. 

In 6 short days I had found adventure up to the eyeballs. A little tired and hungover from days in the sun and my evening in Kurgonteppa, Sulam helped me find a taxi the final 100km to Dushanbe. Local knowledge resulting in a 100km taxi ride for the grand total of $3.50 AUD. Pittance in our known worlds, of course I gave a tip.

Back to my lodging at the Green House Hostel in Dushanbe. I had already spent a couple of weeks there during my time in Tajikistan. Walking through the gate I felt right at home. 
One last piece of my Central Asian puzzle to go, a Turkmenistan visa. Fingers crossed……….         


Wednesday 8 June 2016

Free Hugs

Have you ever heard of Tajikistan?
Do you think you could find it on a world map?
Go on, have a look, I’ll wait…….

Did you find it? Right between China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and………..Afghanistan *Gasp*?
Don’t worry mum and dad, I’m sure I’ll be ok. 

One of the poorest and most least visited Central Asian countries, Tajikistan has had its fair share of turmoil. Only 20 years ago this beautiful little country began to recover from a civil war caused by a nasty breakup from the Soviet Union and grappling for independence. Slowly finding its feet, unsavoury incidents are far and few between. Beginning the journey on the eastern rim of the Fergana Valley to the north. Basically the only flat land in Tajikistan, its been at least a couple of years since any tourists here have been reported missing. 

Another day, another border crossing. With the sun now beating down I moved south and closer towards the equator, leaving the brisk northern winter behind. Evidence of Tajikistan’s economic struggle was pretty clear when I got to the border, the checkpoint and passport control nothing more than a shipping container with a small office. There were several soldiers hanging around, none too interested in sorting out my entry. Finally my details were written in a ledger book and my passport stamped. 

I needed to find my legs again. All I could do is hope (the basis of my entire trip) that whatever parasite had set up shop in my system was long dead, drowned in vodka, never to return. 
A buzz from penetrating the Tajik border and a flat road which lay before me, winding along through open farm land, and a strength I had once known was back on side.

The plan was, as always, vague and simple, turn the pedals and let the universe decide my fate.

The town of Isfara was a short 10km ride from the checkpoint. One of the most ancient towns in Central Asia on the northern branch of the silk road showed nothing of its centuries old history. Many a Mercedes clogged up the main strip around the local bazar and grand government buildings, all with huge posters of Tajikistan’s supreme leader (usually doing manual labour in his crisp blue suit) lined the road through town. 

Within three hours I was already on the receiving end of the legendary Tajik hospitality. Everyone waves as I pass, lunch was paid for by a couple of strangers (who also helped me decipher the menu) and a black Mercedes with three young fellas onboard had stopped me twice to make sure there was nothing they could possibly do to help me out in anyway possible. It was beginning to feel like the extreme friendliness of Indonesia all over again, just without the “hello mister’s”.

Isfara became a speck in the distance as the road veered towards the Tajikistan capital Dushanbe, 400km to the south. 
Out into the desert landscape I went, vast nothingness along a bumpy tar road, wide and deep cracks bouncing my bike along till I could stand it no more and found my feet on the road pushing along the rocky shoulder. It was interesting to see as a backdrop to such a desolate landscape, snow capped mountains in the misty distance. 

I had set and surpassed my daily goal before the early afternoon, a minuscule 25km to get the ball rolling. I moved the goalposts and sought another challenging 30km to Konibodom where I knew there was a bed and shower for my first night in Tajikistan. It was a restart I had dreamed of after a lonely month in Kyrgyzstan.

What was to become a somewhat uninspiring road through the Fergana Valley was not without its challenges. A long straight road via particularly fertile farm lands, the heat was building and the road would transition from smooth to less than smooth without warning. When the road was smooth the wind was in my face, when the road became rough and rutted, the wind would turn to my tail. Murphy’s law constantly making a mockery of my efforts, as it always has.

The local people of Tajikistan are incredibly friendly. Cars continuously stopping to say hello, almost taking me to the point of frustration. Although its difficult to stay mad at someone who just wants to shake your hand, something they do with meaning and gusto. Hands come together with a loud slap, something I feel is important with the humble handshake. If your going to do it, you have to mean it. Handshakes also can quickly become a hug. When was the last time you pulled over in your car just to hug a stranger on the side of the road?

3 days and 200km down on the way to Dushanbe, I ended up in Istaravshan. I’d pushed hard in the heat and exhausted myself in yet another induction to life on the road. The Alay mountain range and the Fan Mountains stood before me. A forced day off before the inevitable climbing ahead was a must. Travelling to a place like Istaravshan you have to be prepared for a little attention. This can often be an exercise in patience when you’re the only tourist in town, and even without the bike at hand it is nigh on impossible to blend in. 

Im sure the road out of town was still from a time when asphalt was in the experimental stages of road surfacing. I endured the short stretch of road resembling the surface of the moon before returning to the main highway and beginning a short climb into the rolling green steppe. 

Stopping for lunch would signal an anti climax to a short day when the wind howled and rain pounded the muddy ground. A consolation prize to another lost 24 hours due to unsavoury weather, the small restaurant (and the only one for miles) was also offering accommodation. Although my Russian was improving quickly, a day of conversation was as tiring as a day on the bike. There was no magic english speaking angel to appear and help this day, instead we reverted to either hand signals (which didn’t seem to be understood on either end) or just a confused Australian sitting, listening, and drinking endless pots of tea. 
2 nights in a hotel, 6 meals, 3 beers, and a shitload of tea later I left with a bill totalling $16 AUD. My new friends, unable to communicate in any real capacity, had also gifted me a Tajik name “Karim”. A name which would prove to be a valuable asset.

Cloud covered snow capped peaks moved ever closer. A rolling road ascended gently towards the first pass which, thanks to the neighbouring Chinese obsession with infrastructure, had been cut drastically short with the help of the Shahriston Tunnel. 
The day was getting on and the nearest town of Ayni still 30km away. I could only be sure that on the other side of the 6km long tunnel, the road would descend.

Cars and trucks lined up at the entrance to the pair of tunnels. The police letting only one side go at a time, I had the sinking feeling I would be forced to jump in a truck for the ride through. Confidently I stood at the entrance and began to assemble my lights on the bike. Several motorists and the two young police came over to see what was happening. I refused all offers of a lift through and switched on my lights, the police waving me through before the rest of the traffic was to follow. 
A slight upward slope in the tunnel made for tough going. The trucks soon bared down on me while I tried to pedal as fast as I could. Flying through the tunnel at great speed, truck after truck, overtaking each other at will and filling the tunnel with diesel smoke and dust. I resisted stopping to put on a mask fearing it would just increase time in the now heavily polluted path through the mountain. Maybe not the finest decision I have ever made, I watched the heavy dust in the beam of my headlight and tried to keep focus ahead. No music as a gauge of time, the light at the end of the tunnel seemed to never appear. I tried not to breath and exerted myself to the eventual exit where I was able to once again breath deep.

The police on the other end were quite keen for me sit in their diminutive booth and share some tea. Daylight was running out and I could see the road disappear into a near horizon, it was going down. I politely refused the tea and began the evening plunge.

Cut into the side of the steep mountainside, a road steered me directly into the eyes of the Fan Mountains. Grasping the brake lever hard, my hand cramped quickly as still I travelled down the side of the mountain with great speed. Blind to bumps and dips in the road launching my bike off the ground, or bashing it into large potholes, I had to keep my eyes on the road and off the spectacular scenery around me. Green mountainsides, snowy peaks and red rock, glowing out of the monstrous shadows cast from the dwindling daylight. My favourite part of the day, and immediate satisfaction.  

The clouds parted allowing a full sun to brighten the coming gorge. A fast flowing brown river cut the mountain range in two to form a deep gorge. Sheer cliffs perpetually crumbling onto the narrow road suspended over the moving water. Clefts in the gorge manifest to dramatic earth structures. Rocks jutting high into the sky in every direction, layered in various earthy colours. Backdrops of impressive green mountains dwarfed by an eternity of snow laden summits. With a road even a BMX can traverse, this is a cyclists heaven on earth.  

I rested in the town of Zefarson at the base of the next pass. Contemplating continuing to begin the final confronting climb before Dushanbe, a stiff wind carried a dust storm into the town. I turned to move my eyes from the impending dust cloud. Not only had I managed to find a cool drink in the mountains, at a most perfect time the dust storm arrived, I was also sitting at the entrance to the local hotel. In the face of adversity, during the gamble of cycle travel, I had found a safe place. 

Ominous clouds loomed over the rugged mountains. Climbing a final pass along side mountain folk villages. Small mud brick structures built very much into the ground in a most hobbit style, chimneys poking up through their grass covered roofs. The sun shone for a short while, just long enough for me to tackle the steepest sections of road. The clouds then reverted back to their place in the sky, right overhead, this time fostering a quick hail storm followed by a light rain. Just enough to wet my socks, but not enough to slow me down. 

Large amounts of snow on the roadside had avalanched from the adjoining slopes. Reaching the Anzob Tunnel (a notoriously dangerous tunnel known for flooding), one side of the duel tunnels completely blocked by snow. I first watched to make sure that traffic was travelling in both directions. It looked as if there was only just enough room for one vehicle each way. I waved on a handful of trucks which had stopped to offer me a lift. And in I went. 

The tunnel was sloping in just the right direction for me to effortlessly pedal like a mad man down the narrow tube. Trucks and cars having to sit behind me at times, waiting for a safe place to overtake. Not once did I get an angry horn, only patience and arms waving from open windows. A wet road in the tunnel was keeping the dust down, and I could hear the rushing of water beneath the road in the newly built drainage duct. The light came fast and I had survived what could have been one of the most dangerous 5km stretches of industrious dark road in Tajikistan. 

The grim grey sky and damp atmosphere was not enough to retract the astonishing views. Without doubt Tajikistan is showing off some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. And down into the vast green gorge I went. 
A most serious down hill would take me all the way to Dushanbe for the next 90km. The wet road did nothing to help my braking ability. I couldn’t squeeze the lever any harder if I tried and ended up having to wedge a stone in between the lever and the perch as the only way to keep the brake on without causing extreme pain to my hand. As a back up, jamming my wet shoe onto the back wheel did absolutely nothing. There was no back up, only to keep an eye on somewhere to bail if disaster would strike. 

I hadn’t made the descent in one go and had a final nights sleep on a bench in a small road side eatery. The resto was open air and sat just metres by the raging Varzob river. I had ridden past the darkness and woken up to the sounds of birds and the rampant brown river, a torrent from the impending change of season.

It couldn’t have been a more pleasant day to reach the final 50km to the Tajik capital. Every corner I expected a climb, even a flat, it wasn’t to be. The closer Dushanbe came I noticed a definite change in living conditions. Small hobbit houses were left high in the mountains, large brick homes and fancy hotels filled the affluent Varzob Gorge all the way into the city. 

Clean streets and large tree lined avenues took me from one end of the city to the next. Once named ‘Stalinabad’ during Soviet rule, until the early 20th century Dushanbe was nothing more than a small village. 
Having to now spend more than my fair share of time in the city to attempt the Bermuda Triangle of visas (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran), I found a hostel, peeled off the socks I had been sweating in for the last 10 days and enjoyed a cold beer in the warm sun. Nothing could possibly go wrong……….



Sunday 15 May 2016

This is not the Kyrgyzstan you are looking for

Ride a BMX around the world – Now with 95% less cycling

The road ended, the final Chinese checkpoint hidden behind a closer roller door, a ninth and final passport check before entering Kyrgyzstan. A desolate mountainous wasteland on the millennia old Irkeshtam pass, the village in which we sat seemed completely abandoned, the small buildings all but reduced to rubble twisted in barbed wire. I had taken up host of a heavy flu during the ride to the border which was progressively getting worse. Motivation was at an all time low, and at the worst possible time.

After a lengthy wait, my border crossing mate, a hitch-hiker named Luke from Switzerland, and I made our way down a small hill towards Kyrgyzstan customs. 
Krygyz customs were a friendly bunch. Finding out I was from Australia was unexpectedly reacted with “ooooo, Australia. Crocodile Dundee”. Such a simple reference, but knowledge of Australia past ‘kangaroo’ I was yet to see anywhere across Asia. 
Kyrgyzstan is known for the most relaxed borders in Central Asia, entry granted with an uncomplicated stamp at the border and we were free to roam.
Foolishly I hadn’t changed any money to local currency (Kyrgyz Som) before crossing the border. Reports were of a currency exchange on both sides, although there were none to be seen, nor any ATM’s. This could prove to be one of the biggest mistakes I had made to date. A trusted method of ‘winging it’ the entire way had backfired miserably. We were in the middle of absolute nowhere. The nearest city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city was 250km to the west. Food and water which I carried from China, ready for the mountain journey across the country, would have to last. 
Only this incessant flu now stood in my way.

This was a landscape I was yet to witness. Rocky desert mountains, stained with layers of red rock shadowed by snow covered peaks. Gasps of awe were disappointingly short lived. Finally in the less travelled ‘Stan’s’ and all I wanted to do was close my eyes and sleep. 
Luke was happy to camp straight away and a few kilometres up the road we wandered into a dry sandy river bed, hidden by a row of thorny bushes. The temperature plummeted as the sun dropped behind a mountain and an icy wind blew through valley. With no energy to cook I climbed into my warm tent, surely I would feel better soon.

Luke had quietly disappeared in the morning. All that remained was a flattened out patch of sand where his tent had stood. 
My health had nowhere near improved but I didn’t want to remain static if I could help it. The pack up procedure was slow and painful. Each part of the pack up puzzle required a break in between. Simply shoving my sleeping gear back into its bag reduced me to a frowning mess, sitting in the sand with my head in my hands. Somehow it all came together, as it always does. 

A short walk up the road was a small farming village of Nura. I was immediately spotted by a group of kids on their bicycles. They surrounded me like an intimidating gang while I walked slowly. This was the last thing I was in the mood for today. If I kept walking and speaking to them in my best Australian english I hoped they would leave me alone. It was only reaching the other side of the village that left them behind and the climb up the first pass was to begin.
Still in plain sight of the village I found refuge on the inside of the first switchback in the road. I must have only gone about 3-4km for the day before reaching, and passing, the limits of determination.
By 2pm I had been floored yet again. Hidden from the road I set up my little green house and fell asleep. 

Woken by a herd of sheep passing my open tent and the sounds of a shepard whistling and calling out to keep them moving. I fought the urge to stay inside and rose to see who was there. Nothing to do except wave and force a smile to the horesman mustering his sheep. He waved back and as the sheep all but passed he turned his horse towards me and charged at my tent. A short 20 metre gallop, pulling up his steed in a cloud of dirt just before my tent, covering it in dust. The white of the horses eyes beared down upon me, the breath from its nostrils steaming in the evening air. Not even for a second had I thought to flinch or feel the slightest of menace. It was obvious he was trying to give me a fright, instead I laughed. 
The horseman with all but three teeth in his mouth and mangled broken fingers dismounted and wrestled to keep his horse under control. A perfect match of man and beast. 
I was offered a drink of cold tea, which I felt I had no choice to accept. The ominous character crouching in front of me and now asking for a cigarette. I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head, he asked over and over again. 
I didn’t have the greatest feeling but poor health had not impaired my judgment of such a character. His demeanour reminding me more of the sort of bully you may, at times, meet in a pub back home. 
Instinctively I had kept my tent closed, camera and such things hidden. I didn’t feel like I was going to be robbed at all, more subtly encouraged to give something up. 
I wanted nothing more that for him to piss off and leave me alone. Reaching into my tent to grab a bag of dried fruit to share. I passed him some dried banana and ate some too. He then signalled for me to place the bag on the ground and we both ate another piece before he grabbed the whole bag, tied the end and put it into his saddlebag. I didn’t care, he had what he wanted and I was just glad he was leaving. Asking me to take a photo of him before he left in a somewhat guilty gesture to compensate for his rudeness. I again shrugged to say “no camera”, he must have though I was born yesterday.

Its entertaining to continually see people being, well…. people. Regardless of age, race or religion, all sorts could be found. Kindness clearly reigns supreme but occasionally, even on a remote Kyrgyzstan mountain pass, a douchebag can be found. 

Glad to be alone I again could hide myself from the world. A most uncomfortable night ensued, shivering from a combination of cold mountain air and what has now become a serious bout of powerful Chinese flu. Discontented from aches and pains I hadn’t felt for some time I made a rash decision that, if I woke without relief, I would try to hitch a ride.
And try I did. Another agonising pack up and I made my way to the road and waited for a car. I was aware that in Kyrgyzstan, and especially coming from Irkeshtam on the south east border with China, no-one rides for free. A predicament I would have to try and overcome without the right cash. I did however have a fistful of Chinese Yuan to entice a driver with. 
The first car stopped, clearly a transport coming from the border. I tried my best to solicit a free ride and then went about having a crack offering some Yuan. I worked out the driver was insisting I pay the equivalent of $100USD, an exorbitant amount in these parts, and this was to take me only 60km down the road to the next village of Sary Tash. I felt altogether insulted. This was a vain attempt to take advantage of a stupid tourist stuck in the mountains, and there was no budging on the price. 
I said the opposite of “thank you” and then “I’ll walk”. Being insulted in such a way gave me a new found energy, to defy an endeavour to rip me off I was determined to push on again.

The road began to wind up and down through some of incredibly rugged terrain. The asphalt remained smooth and I was now actually making a little ground. This would’t last long. I almost regret not bowing to the pressure of the easy road, by now surely I would have been somewhere safe and warm. 
A bitter disappointment I wasn’t enjoying what could have been an incredible ride across the country. I tried in vain to force something, anything, to make life a little easier. I had nothing. 
I had once again forced myself beyond a reasonable realm of my ability and became incredibly stressed when my hat blew off flying down a hill into the wind. This was a clear sign to find a safe place to rest.

A small bout of fortune at the bottom of the hill stood a reasonably tall bridge with a path to one side leading down to a rocky stream, watering trickling through the snow. The other side went straight up again. It was a no brainer to camp here.
I felt safe and hidden under the bridge with a supply of fresh running water and a supply of firewood. Although the firewood was somewhat useless drift wood, combusting like tissue paper and making more of an ash cloud than providing real heat. 
Now 20km in three days, 230km to Osh seemed impossible. I still had plenty of food but there was no sign of recovery. The pass was still to climb.

Another horse and rider on dusk had found my secret hiding place. I sighed and zipped up my tent waiting for them to get closer. This guy however couldn’t have been more opposite than the dickhead from yesterday. He dismounted and shook my hand, again asking for a cigarette. There was no pressure when I wasn’t able to supply one. When he crouched before my tent I could see the gentle kindness I was more used to in fellow humans. His horse stood behind him without being held and rested its head on my visitors shoulders. I felt at ease while he was there, neither of us saying a word. Soon he left me there to slowly deteriorate towards what was beginning to feel like a slow painful death. 

I didn’t move from my tent the next day, I couldn’t stomach the thought of having to move another inch. In fact even moving an inch positively sent a sharp discomfort throughout my entire body, my head pounded and I was coughing up vital organs. In other words, it really sucked. 
This had quickly and undoubtedly become the toughest 4 days yet. It wasn’t the first time I had been down, though each time getting back up is harder and harder. I was long warn out and had been for several months. 

What sounded like another farmer in the morning was actually two military officers. How did they find me? Either way they didn’t look too impressed. There is nothing quite like being woken up by an unimpressed man with a machine gun. I ran through the usual pantomime, explaining with charades my predicament and story of how I ended up here. Getting my passport, my camera was spotted and soon they were looking through the photos. My backpack was also open for inspection. I soon realised I had to kick into suspicious gear when the larger of the two soldiers put both my camera and passport in his pocket, as soon as I asked for them back they were returned. I had a couple of cheeky buggers on my hands. 
Not exactly in a position to argue, although I did try, I was instructed to pack up and come with them. It didn’t help when they just began to walk off with my bags.

From what I gathered my camping spot was subject to flooding if I stayed much longer, giving reason to their discontent. Perhaps it was ill health, or maybe the bloke with a machine gun walking off with my bags, but soon I was in their van and heading up the hill. 
In a caustic twist of fate, not 500 metres from where I camped, around the next bend was a military checkpoint. A barrier across the road and a small grubby looking soviet style caravan. Had I just moved that little bit further when reaching the bridge, conceivably help was at hand. 
I couldn’t quite work out if I was being helped or detained for some unknown reason. I was instructed to come and sit in the small caravan. Inside was a desk, bench, bed and small wood fire stove. A third soldier sound asleep on the bed. Asked if I wanted to also sleep, I refused. I had a hard time figuring out my new found friends, or if they were indeed friends. I sat on the bench with my hands tucked underneath my arm pits and eyes half open, carefully watching as my camera, and now phone, were being scrutinised. 
I tried to explain I wanted to go, the answer was always “sit, sit”. I finally was allowed to fetch some water from my gear which was still in their van, and followed the whole way. 
Other military seemed to come and go. Each time upsetting the balance of mood in the caravan. It was these moments which made me feel uncomfortable. Other than that I wasn’t too bothered with the thousands of photos I had been looked at one by one, that was until all the batteries had run out.

“Come, come”, I didn’t even have time to think. Almost literally dragged outside to find my gear had been loaded into a small car. All except my bike. “Where are you taking me?”. “Don’t worry I take for sleep”, the driver of the car spoke, at the very least, a little english. I climbed into the back seat and had my bike loaded on top of me. 
Certainly I was disappointed to be in a car. Kyrgyzstan was supposed to be the beginning of the rest of an uncompromised journey, it was becoming a spectacular failure.

The world was flying by at great speed. My driver happy to gamble his fate on the road, overtaking on blind turns and plowing into snow drifts covering the road. 
The pass was an incredible sight, plateauing at the summit to a vast alpine tundra. Scattered with abandoned caravans and sights of the enormous Alay mountain range which extends from the Tien Shan mountains, running east to west across Kyrgyzstan and the northern rim of the Pamir range in Tajikistan.
I let my eyes get heavy and then close having no idea where I was about to end up when they opened. 

“Where are we?”. “Osh, my city”. Oh Shit, these blokes had taken me the entire way across the country. Negotiating the price for, what I thought was a free ride, at the end of a journey is one of the biggest travelling no no’s. It was agreed I could pay with Yuan which was a bonus and the price only a fraction of what I had been asked for previously. For Kyrgyzstan though it was a lot. 

A small laminated sign on the gate said ‘Osh GH’. I had been delivered to a guesthouse located amongst some very drab four story apartment blocks. Disappointment turned to relief that I could now crawl into a warm bed. 
The owner of the guesthouse, Denya, greeted me with a warm smile. The short bearded man making me feel very welcome. 

After a lengthy rest I found a pharmacy to try and assist the slow recovery. On the way back to the guesthouse I stopped in a small grocery store and was met by a boisterous Russian lady. My ailment was clearly noticed by the lady as she reached behind the counter and pulled out a large jar with a liquid with some sort of flowers inside. “Medicine for you, drink”. “What is it?” I asked, “Wodka and…..” I’m not sure what she said but she pointed to a flowering tree outside. “Drink, drink. Look, my boys not sick”. It was quite a large serving which I was made to stand in the store and drink. Probably just the immediate effects of a large straight vodka (sorry, wodka), I did feel some temporary relief.

Slowly I pulled myself together and was able to look around the city. Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city after the capital Bishkek.
I had now teleported from Chinese text, to Cyrillic (what we know as Russian). Menus were no easier to read although Osh did offer a few rather good restaurants, provided you like meat and bread. The largest bazar in Central Asia is in Osh. A rather relaxed affair without the usual spruiking or harassment to buy which is most unusual. 
If walking isn’t your thing there are tons of marshuka’s (small busses) to take you anywhere you need to go. Alternatively there is the local trolley bus, or tram, which is actually a regular rubber tired bus tethered to overhead power lines. I love these things, I could just see the possibility of so many things to go wrong. 

For tourists, Osh is more of a transit city rather than a tourist attraction. A day would be more than enough time to take in the sights and climb the small Sulaiman-Too mountain in the middle of the city. 

Feeling well enough to continue I needed a new plan. I had only been granted a one month entry at the border instead of the usual two and now getting to Bishkek to organise visas for the leg to Turkey would mean another motorised transport. 
The guesthouse offered a range of tours for backpackers and also was able to arrange a Tajikistan visa’s. Hmmmmm, I had never even considered this route. Heading north would mean I would have to reach Bishkek, and then continue further north into Kazakhstan only to travel south through the length of Uzbekistan towards Iran. I felt tired just thinking about it, Tajikistan on the other hand was a viable shortcut. 

And soon a shiny new Tajikistan visa was in my passport. The only problem was that it was date specific meaning I could only enter after the specified date. This gave me a window of a few days before I would tackle the 300km stretch along the Uzbek border to leave the country. 

As I have always said, “Its going to get harder before it gets easier”.  True to form it happened by way of a debilitating 24 hour migraine, and not 24 hours before I was planning to leave. I was beginning to get worried about my health. Not so much that I considered giving up, more to the tune of “are you fucking kidding me?”.

An extra day was all it took to get ready to leave. Boredom was also assisting in the leaving process after nearly two weeks in Osh, now aptly named by myslelf as ‘Kyrgyzstan’s most boring city’. 
I knew any fitness I once had was all but gone. Far from 100 percent fit I cycled out of the city and headed south. A smooth flat road left the city behind and toward the rolling green steppe of the Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan border. 

Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have always had tension regarding the location of their borders. Until only a couple of years ago the road which was now taking me south to Batken on the Tajik border actually found its way into Uzbek territory. This would require someone like me to have an Uzbekistan visa for the short ride south. Fortunately though some clever people involved with the mapping of such borders came to their senses and resolved the simple logistical problem. Still, further south, there are three enclaves of Uzbek territory inside Kyrgyzstan, completely unattached from Uzbekistan. An area which has dealt with much tension in the past is now completely safe… for now. 

After a great start I quickly faded. My muscles ached all over after such a long break without cycling and even my neck became increasingly sore. The consolation prize was that it was now warm, warm enough in fact to produce a little sweat from my brow. 
The beautiful simple green scenery was making way for a new spring. The odd red or yellow flower poking its head up through the dirt, checking if the snow had subsided for the rest of the flowers to join in. It wouldn’t be long before the flowers were in bloom.

25km and I was spent. Laying down on the soft grass in a ditch off the road, I wasn’t about to move in a hurry and waited for the sun to find the horizon before setting up my tent.
A dog appeared out of nowhere (not literally nowhere of course) and sat itself in front of my tent. At first it was quite timid about sniffing me hand. Once I managed to give it a pat it became my new guard dog, barking at any horses or cows that came too close. Thinking of a way to bring my new friend along with me he vanished, just as quick as he appeared. 

Energy was still dangerously low. One short day of cycling and I had not had the over night recovery I am used to. I had to tackle a short pass to begin the day, a not so steep incline with the top in plain sight. I strained all the way knowing that on the other side was the village of Nookat. Down I went towards the village, the road taking a turn for the usual and deteriorating quickly, leaving only a narrow potholed strip about as wide as a single lane, the rest a compact gravel shoulder. I call this ‘flat tyre territory’. 

Today was not the day for flat tyres though. I reached the village with my last ounce of strength and walked through the busy Friday street. With the amount of people around I was surprised to find out there were no guesthouses around. Trudging on away from the busy streets the rough road inclined slightly. I was now walking ever so slowly, cars and trucks kicking up massive dust clouds. 
The fight continued. At least for a portion of the afternoon anyway.   

Farming land came to the very edge of the drivable road and finding a camp spot was nigh on impossible. I found a bus stop to park myself and find some resolve. The timber on the bus stop seats had been removed leaving only steel frames, so there I sat on the concrete ground. I was once again completely fucked. 
I really don’t know why I put myself through this at all. I could barely move and felt the irrevocable sting of a relapse in flu punch me in the face.

For two hours I sat there, health rapidly failing me yet again. I was ready to spend the night right there on the cement patch on the side of the road. But soon I couldn’t hack it anymore and decided to return to Osh. It was irrefutably stupid to continue in this fashion. It was time to see a doctor, a real doctor, and not one that will prescribe vodka.

Hitching a lift was again difficult. My lack of patience doesn’t at all help. The only way was to roll back down the hill into busy Nookat and find a taxi.
The transport area was simple to find. Busses and vehicles parked without rhyme or reason and loud taxi drivers soliciting anyone who came too close.
I managed to dodge the loudest of spruikers and found a quiet gentle driver. A most reasonable price of 100 Kyrgyz Som ($2 AUD) would get me and my bike the 50km back to Osh. Before we could even begin to jam my bike into the back of his hatchback the other taxi drivers noticed me and crowded around trying to get me to change my mind. This was the most aggressive circus of taxi solicitation I had witnessed. My arms were being grabbed and people were right in my face “Osh? Osh?”, my poor driver having to almost wrestle my bike out of someone else’s hands. “FUCK OFF!!” is about all it took to calm everyone down, or at least get them to fuck off. 

I made it out of Nookat unscathed, that is if you don’t count the deathly relapse in health. I had clearly gone too far without a full recovery and now it was time to think seriously about how I was going to deal with it. A week and a half left on my visa wasn’t long. Recovery wouldn’t only have to be quick, it would have to start soon. 
During the terrifying taxi ride back to Osh (I wondered if my driver was indeed a driver) I came up with a feeble plan; see a doctor, make sure I am not actually dying, 6 days to start to feel better, if not, make the heartbreaking decision to find a way home. 

Back to my bed in Osh, I don’t think they were expecting to see me quite so soon. Denya was able to help me find a doctor and organised one of his staff to take me there the next day. Had I not had a translator seeing a doctor would have been an ultimate challenge. They checked my blood and amongst other things urine but found nothing serious, or at least nothing serious which I could understand in Russian. Thank goodness. I could only think that I had worm myself down time and time again. 11 months overland on a BMX could do that I suppose.

As the point of no return drew closer I actually began to look at flights back home. I was slowly feeling better but wondered if it was enough. My life coach and girlfriend Nicole (crazy I know, she is still standing by and encouraging me), always knows the right things to say at the right time. 
“You can do it Cal”
This time? I’m not sure I can.