Life in the Iranian Deserts

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Bardaskan to Yazd

I have really been struggling to write about Iran. It’s a country of extreme contradictions and a wide range of emotions for me. I hated and loved it. It drove me to the edge of my sanity and humbled me with it’s generosity. We had more problems with men than anywhere else (by a long shot) and the most gracious hospitality and generosity. Most of the Iranian people I met were absolutely wonderful. They are not religious extremists like a lot of the western media portrays. In fact, most people we met weren’t religious at all. Someone once said ‘we are a victim of politics,’ and yes, that often seems pretty accurate. The Iranians we met just want to get on with life, to choose whom they want to marry (or to choose to marry at all), to travel, hang out with their friends and find their place in this crazy world of ours. Sadly, they are often denied these basic rights by their government. Still, they often triumph too. Iranians live their live in their homes, where the police almost never reach them (we haven’t heard of the police coming into homes) and the rules of the state do not apply. Iran is changing, but I fear it’s too slow for the current generation, who mostly want to leave. I am not sure I will go back, but I am certainly glad I went.

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I woke feeling slightly morose on my 31st birthday. It couldn’t have felt less like a birthday. I missed my friends and family and felt overwhelmed by this new country.

Mina and her family were extremely reluctant to let us go but eventually they came to understand that we really needed to start cycling. They were so lovely. We were showered with gifts and fussed over and they made sure we had absolutely everything we needed. It’s true what they say about Iranian hospitality – it’s amazing. However, before heading to the open road there was one more thing for us to do. A publicity event at the local sports complex. We pedalled down there and were photographed and videoed for local media and given a trophy, which unfortunately we could not accept as it was too heavy. Astrid joked if it was edible we would have taken it. Tea and more photos followed and then finally we were allowed out onto the open road.

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The award we got from the lovely people in Bardescan

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Tea with the media and officials

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Taking my sweet time talking on the phone while the police wait nearby

Only we were not alone. The police had taken it upon themselves to escort us for ‘our safety’. For around 60 infuriating kilometres we had a truck full of policemen tailing us. Sometimes they were a few km’s behind, other times they would stop, wait for us to pass, then pass us and pull over again. Whenever we cycled by they would all stare at us intently. We are often a curiosity wherever we go, it’s part of cycle touring in these places but I was just not up for being harassed by the police again, no matter how good their intentions might have been. I already felt quite oppressed, given the intense nature of the last few weeks. All I wanted was to be alone in the desert with Astrid and Barbara, away from people. I felt at the edge of my sanity.  We tried to get rid of them and discussed how we would escape them in order to find a camp. I had visions of them trying to make us camp somewhere stupid because they thought the desert was dangerous. Even when we pulled off the road to get water from a village, they followed and tried to get us to go back out on the highway. We ignored them and took our sweet time (I even received a phone call from Australia and made sure to spend extra long on the phone) but they would not leave. Finally, driven passed the edge of my patience I yelled at them. I told them loudly “No police!!” and made emphatic hand gestures. To their credit they took it in their stride and finally left us alone.

I felt such relief. This country was making me crazy. I just needed to be away from people for a bit, to process the extreme contrasts of Iran.  We succeeded in finding a camp spot in the desert landscape, building a fire and drinking fake wine. The stars came out and it was beautiful. A good end to a trying day.

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Alone at last

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The sunsets after a day of frustration

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Happiness is a campfire in the desert under a clear sky

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Our awesome camp

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Desert sunset

The weather continued to be superb. Clear and cool we pedaled steadily towards our first destination of Yazd for the next week or so. The police continued to mildly harass us, driving by slowly and staring or stopping us in a town and questioning us about our employment, or who was paying for our trip. Or approaching us when we were trying to pee. Once a stupid officer tried to tell me my visa had expired. I pretty much told him he was an idiot and cycled off. Basically they just wanted an excuse to stop and question the foreign women on bikes. We are the entertainment after all. But for every frustrating interaction with the authorities, kindness counteracted it. One day some truck drivers shared their lunch with us. Another day a family invited us for tea. In a deserted desert town we could find no bread, so a travelling family cooked us a meal.

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Drink stop

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Desert cycling

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Distant camels

The towns we pedalled through had the most amazing buildings. Old ruins that were magical to explore and if they had been anywhere but Iran would probably have been museums, charging entrance fees. We consistently found great camps in the desert and would build a fire every night, drink cups of tea and try and to make sense of this country. This debriefing was invaluable as we all struggled with the inequality, hypocrisy and frequency of creepers (men who harassed us).

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A great camp in a dry river bed

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Another great desert camp

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Inside a ruin of a Mosque – may have slept on a dead guy

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Campfire in the Mosque ruin

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You could even climb onto the roof. Summer camping here would be amazing

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The morning light shines through

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Breakfast

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Outside the ruined Mosque

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The fairy and the salmon the morning

I guess it’s time to address this. I can’t write about Iran and not write about the issues we faced as three women cycling through this country. From other cyclist’s stories I felt like Iran would be some kind of paradise. That we could camp anywhere and enjoy endless hospitality. In some ways this is true. People are endlessly hospitable, although sometimes quite intense (it’s difficult to get to bed before midnight!). As for camping everywhere, as three women I would not feel comfortable doing this. And I don’t mean camping as such, I mean camping visibly, in public parks like people had suggested we could. Partly because of creepers and partly because we would attract so much attention and most likely the police would come and force us to go ‘somewhere safe’. So when we camped, we hid well. Also, perhaps a lot of the stories I had heard were from men or straight couples. Iran as a team of women was often filled with frustration, shouts, creeper stares, men pulling over and watching us cycle passed, approaching us if we stopped for a pee and a lot of condescending comments, sexism and patriarchal bullshit. We got really tired of the comment ‘where is the man?’ Being 3 women on bikes alone in Iran is so far outside of the cultural norm, it seemed to blow people’s brains.

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Sometimes the desert was salty

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Sometimes dunes

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More dunes

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Barbara cycling down an embankment to where we have found a spot to camp

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Another perfect sunset

And the dress code. For women not used to wearing a hijab, it was difficult to get used to always having an ‘outside of the house outfit’. You couldn’t just leave a hosts home wearing your normal clothes, assuming the host was okay to let you take your hijab off (most were). I need to say I actually have no problem with hijab as such. In Australia many women choose to dress this way, and why would I care about this? People in my opinion can wear what they want, as long as it’s their choice. What people choose to wear does not confront or affect me (unlike a certain Prime Minister). What got me about Iran was the hypocrisy. In the way I understand Islamic dress, both men and women are supposed to dress modestly. In Iran this is vehemently enforced for women but men could wear whatever they wanted. Tight skinny jeans and shirts were the norm. Sure, they couldn’t wear shorts, but that was about it. Loads of men wore tight t shirts. Women weren’t even supposed to show their wrists.  Enforce modest dress on men and I will shut up and wear the Hijab without complaint. But when I asked about this the answer I often got was women had to dress modestly because otherwise men might lust after them. Obviously, the responsibility of men’s reactions should fall on the woman. Sigh. I guess in the west we have a version of this too,  I mean how often is women blamed for being raped because of what she wears?

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Fight the creeper!

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Wild Dromedary

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The desert town of Tabas

It probably sounds like I am hating on Iran. I really don’t hate it. I guess I just want to reflect how I was feeling and how difficult and also contrasting I found it. For I could be thinking about all the things I just wrote about, cycling furiously through the desert, when a man would pull over and give me a pomegranate. Or someone would shout ‘welcome to Iran!’ Or insist on giving us all their sweets. Or bring us tea and dates. I met far more generous, respectful and delightful men, than I met arseholes. It’s truly a country full of the most intense contrasts.

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Shisha and lunch thanks to some truck drivers

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Cyclo ladies in the desert

By the time we neared Yazd we were all looking forward to some rest days. There had been somewhat of a misunderstanding about arranging a host but just as we considering camping in an abandoned building outside of Yazd we received a phone call and were invited to stay with a warm showers host (only in Iran can you text someone who then invites you to stay an hour later). It’s always wonderful to stay with people who actually cycle tour because they understand how exhausted one can be and we were thankfully allowed to go to bed early, which is not common in Iran.

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Exploring abandoned ruins in a desert town

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Up on the roof of the ruins we found this

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And this. Beautiful.

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Thanks for highlighting the slaughter house like a tourist attraction!

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The next morning our lovely host and his friend (both guys in their 20’s) accompanied us to the visa office to extend our tourist visas. Big mistake. Don’t take hosts to official places in Yazd (we hear it’s okay in other towns). The poor guys were grilled about how they met us and told they couldn’t invite foreign women into their homes and in fact couldn’t even talk to tourists without a license (WTF?). They were ordered to abandon us in the streets and never speak to us again. The official barely looked at us, even though he could speak English just fine. Our visa extensions were also rejected as we were too early. We had to try again in Shiraz. Barbara luckily could extend hers. The five of us left the place infuriated and one of our hosts turned around to say ‘and that is why I have to leave Iran.’ We suspect things are so strict in Yazd, not only because it is a conservative city, but also because the owner of the two cheap hotels in Yazd has complained about couch surfing (they don’t really know warmshowers) because it takes his business. He probably has a mate in the police. Anyway, we went back to the house, packed our gear and were guided to the cheap hotel in town. It was actually quite a nice place, a basic dorm and nice hang out area with moderately working wifi. We arranged to meet our new friends the following night. No, they were not abandoning us on the street, never to talk again.

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Night Mosque, Yazd

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Our dorm

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The courtyard in our hostel

We spent the first day in Yazd catching up on emails on the clunky wifi and drinking cups of tea. In the evening we walked around the ancient city, taking delight in the picturesque alleyways and beautiful, other worldly architecture. What we did not take delight in was the constant calling out, whistling and even duck noises the men made as we walked by. Sigh.

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Yazd by night

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The tower you can see is a wind catcher for the baking desert summers

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Steps to under the city..

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Yazd from the roof of our hostel

Relief however was at hand. For we had organised to meet another warmshowers host. Not to stay with, as they deemed it too risky, but to come for dinner. We caught a taxi to the outskirts of Yazd and entered another world. She was wearing a t shirt, he was wearing shorts, they had a pet dog they doted on and within the first half an hour we were offered homemade wine. We immediately felt comfortable and spent a delightful evening eating amazing food and discussing Iran, the culture, the politics and the life they led. As this was early on in our time in this country, we were thirsty for knowledge. Our hosts were Zoroastrians, the religion that dominated Iran before the Arab conquest bought Islam to Persia. Yazd is actually one of the main places Zoroastrians live. They believe in one God, Ahura Mazda and worship towards a light source. This eventually led to the development of fire temples but people are often confused, thinking they pray to the fire. It was extremely interesting to us learning about this other religion in the Islamic Republic. We talked well into the night and really had to drag ourselves away, it had been such a fascinating experience being able to talk openly and honestly in Iran.

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Yazd walls by night

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Wandering the alleyways

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Zoroastrian symbol on the fire temple

We spent another relaxing day in Yazd, exploring the fire temple, chatting to other travellers and reading. Astrid and I even managed a date at a tea house. In the evening we had tea with our hosts from the first night and chatted to them. Both are desperate to leave Iran. We would come to find this common in the youth of Iran.

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Tea House happiness

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In the Bazaar

Then it was time to get back on the road. Our route south towards Shiraz led us passed the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence on the outskirts of Yazd. This is where the people used to lay their dead. As Zoroastrians believe that you shouldn’t pollute the four elements (water, air, earth and fire) they used to leave the dead to be eaten by vultures. This was outlawed by the last Shah and they now bury their dead in cement coffins. The place felt kind of eerie and mysterious. We loved exploring this sacred site of this half forgotten religion.

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Zoroastrian Towers of Silence

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And this is where I will leave you as we head back out into the freedom of the desert towards Shiraz.

Loads of love

Jude

Two Years on the Road

Photo on 6-04-15 at 4

Two years!!!

I am sitting in an apartment in European Turkey, sipping my morning coffee. Outside the irresistible Istanbul skyline beckons, soon we will go out exploring.

A few days ago we crossed the Dardanelles, meaning we have cycled the Asian continent from Malaysia to Turkey. It was incredible setting our bikes down in European Turkey, a defining moment of our trip for sure. I can’t quite comprehend that 2 years ago today we wobbled out of Lewis Street and have pretty much pedaled the whole way to the gates of Europe. By the end of next week we will be in Greece. Obviously, like last year, we are behind in the blog. We are sorry for that, but a friend once said, ‘if you post more than every two weeks, you are not having enough fun. If you post less than once a month, you are having too much fun’. I guess we are having too much fun. And have suffered through some seriously dismal excuses for wifi as well!

So, two years on. I often find myself looking back on where we have come from and reflecting on the different elements of this adventure. Cycling through Australia will always be very close to my heart, even as I sit here, half a world away with plans to be gone longer than first anticipated. I am at the heart of it, a lover of nature above and beyond anything else. Give me an empty beach and a starlit sky over an exotic location any day. This is where I am most at peace, and cycling Australia is where this comes easiest. Perhaps it is also that I have some kind of romantic attachment to the landscape of the country where I have spent most of my life. I admit, I am the kind of person that gets attached to places in moody, nostalgic ways.

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Day one, outside Farouk’s Olive, Thornbury.

After the peace and space of the Australian bush and outback (and even Darwin, lets face it, Darwin isn’t exactly the worlds busiest city), Indonesia came as an assault to the senses. A good assault in many ways, but also a 10 fold increase in intensity. More people, more traffic and unabated curiosity. While in Australia we had attracted attention for sure, curious grey nomads, the odd person wanting a photo with us and to hear our story. In Indonesia we were the centre of attention wherever we went. Children in villages would scream ‘tourist, tourist!’ so hard I worried they might pass out. Everyone wanted to know where we were going and men and boys would follow and stare at us when we tried to find somewhere to camp.

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Indonesia held a few challenges after the solitude of Australia

Reaching Singapore was a relief. No longer were we the centre of attention. It was a slight culture shock too, being in this super clean, organised city after almost 3 months in Indonesia. We treated ourselves to the ‘western’ things we had missed. Good beer, bread, coffee. I celebrated my 30th year on this earth and then we pushed on towards Malaysia.

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Turning 30 in Singapore with a good brew

I will always like Malaysia more than most cycle tourists. I think coming from the other way, people find it dull (loads of palm plantations, flat boring roads) compared to Thailand. For me, I wanted dullness. I wanted not to be followed and stared at most places I went. Malaysia gave us that and I felt I could breath more easily. Sometimes I wonder how I would feel about cycling Indonesia now. I think I would find it a lot less stressful. After the relative isolation of Indonesia (in terms of other travellers), Malaysia felt full of tourists. We made some backpacker friends and it was fun to be more social.

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A long way to go, Penang, Malaysia

In Thailand the social feeling continued and we even had our friend Marita and Astrid’s dad join us on the bikes, plus my parents for a visit. Thailand is perhaps one of the easiest countries to cycle tour. Loads of places for refreshments, good roads, good secondary roads and plenty of cheap accommodation. Not to mention the natural beauty. Thailand was easy and fun and we stayed longer than anticipated.

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Meditation and temples, we loved cycling Thailand

Laos was a different world, back to needing to be self sufficient, with mountain villages and not a lot of food. A stark contrast to it’s rich neighbour. We loved the challenges of Laos and getting back to basics. We realised we had really missed camping. It’s not that you can’t camp in Thailand, we had just gotten used to staying in accommodation as it was so easy and cheap when split between 3.

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Mountain roads in Laos where it was back to basics

Vietnam was a side trip, mostly off the bikes where Astrid’s mum came to spend 2 lovely weeks with us. It was not a country we ended up being particularly fond of as we were hassled and ripped off more than we had been in a long time. Wallets on wheels is what I felt we were viewed as. In saying that, the last few days cycling back to Laos were absolutely stunning and I think we were able to make some peace with the country and leave on a good note.

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Enjoying some Pho is Vietnam. Not our favourite place but we did make peace in the end

We had a brief reencounter with Laos, where my sister helped us celebrate our one year anniversary of cycling in style. Then we pedalled into a country neither of us had been particularly looking forward to: China. What a surprise China ended up being. It was beautiful. The food was amazing and it was a lot emptier than expected as we stayed only in the South West and West. We had a brief encounter with fascinating culture of the Tibetans before tackling the harsh deserts of the far west. Here our trip took and unexpected turn as we met fellow cycle tourist, Neil and decided to join forces and head straight to Kyrgyzstan, rather than Kazakstan.

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China was full of surprises, including, sadly liking pepsi. The desert does strange things to you!

Our team of 3 pedalled into Kyrgyzstan, a cycle tourists paradise. It was summer and we met tourers everyday. After meeting almost no one in over a year, it now felt like everyone was cycle touring. Kyrgyzstan, aside from being ridiculously annoying to spell, was a month of mountains, yurts, questionable fermented products, too much meat, horses and really bad but beautiful roads.

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Kyrgyzstan, a cyclists paradise.

Tajikistan and the Pamir highway was another cycle touring mecca. We saw more cyclists than cars and at one point we were a group of 6. The beauty was extraordinary, the Pamiri culture fascinating and the altitude dizzying. The food was shit but we recovered in the capital, Dushanbe, in the wonderful house of Vero, which has an oven and is therefore sacred.

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The high altitude desert of the Pamir Highway

The police state of Uzbekistan is nothing to write home about it terms of cycling, but the ancient Khanates of Bukhara, Sammarkhand and Khiva and certainly worth a peruse. It was here that we began to get the creeper stares from men in a more intense way. I think we had been sheltered by having Neil along with us for so long.

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The Peoples Republic of Plov, Uzbekistan.

Turkmenistan is a blip on most Asia to Europe cyclist’s radar and we pedalled as hard as we could through the icy, mostly empty desert country. Our trip culminated in us getting deported for overstaying by an hour, which sounds way more bad ass than it was.

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Five days through the cold desert of the most obscure country in Central Asia, Turkmenistan

The much anticipated Islamic Republic of Iran was a hundred times more difficult than expected. Two words: Men and Police. Both hassled us frequently, but the people’s overwhelming hospitality did win us over in the end. Iran was a time of the women cyclo gang as a fellow cyclist Barbara joined us. The 3 of us struggled to make sense of this country that seemed to constantly contradict itself. There were cold desert nights under the stars, juxtaposed with hot (over heated) nights piled on the floor, sleeping beside wonderful Iranian families.

Ready to ride in Iran.

The Islamic Republic proved challenging for many reasons, but the hospitality won us over.

Some of you know, other don’t, but we went home for Christmas. It was a difficult decision to make but it worked out to be the right one for many reasons. Seeing our families and friends was lovely and intense. A far cry from the relatively quiet and simple lives we had been leading.

Arriving back in Iran was a relief in many ways. Certainly not because it was Iran, but because it felt like this is where our lives are supposed to be. Being home was both lovely and unsettling. It felt like home in some ways, but wasn’t. It was almost like I was revisiting my old life, but unable to really take part. Our lives right now are on the bikes and once we got pedalling again I felt myself become at ease and at peace with life again. Certainly there will be a time for being home again, and I am glad we went, but that time is not now.

And then it was winter, well and truly. As we have had not had a winter since 2012 (and certainly not what many people would consider a ‘proper’ winter) it was tough. The last part of Iran we only camped twice, mostly relying on the incredible hospitality of the Iranian’s. The landscape was stark and frozen and our water bottles remained ice blocks almost the entire day.

Leaving the Islamic Republic was mostly a relief, although we will always remember the kindness of the people. After the oppressive nature of Iran, we found Turkey a very different animal. It certainly is the gateway to Europe. Everything has taken on an easiness that we have not experienced in many months. Credit cards work, the internet works, the roads are mostly great, the police doesn’t pull you over, and all the familiar brands are back. There are both good and bad aspects of this new found easiness. I miss some of the ruggedness of the other places, but having working wifi is nice! Oh and being able to buy a beer!

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Happy to be in Turkey!

So that brings me to the present, sitting here in Istanbul, about to head into the European Union (at least for one country). After 2 years on the road, I now think I understand people who cycle around the world for years. It is only recently that I really grasped this. This feels like my life now, almost more real than anything else I have done. It is so simple and so beautiful, I could almost just keep going. I don’t miss the stable things as much anymore (aside from an oven!). I am more happy than I have ever been in my life (and I have mostly been pretty happy). It’s the simple things that really matter. Connection with people, finding a good campsite, the sun on my face, a clear night sky, dry fire wood, clean water. I think this adventure is starting to change who I am.

In my heart, I do know that we will be home some day though. Our wonderful friends and family mean the world to us, and we dream of our own bit of land, somewhere amongst the gums. Of growing food, sharing meals with our loved ones and being part of a community.

When this will be, I am not so sure. I feel like I am on this journey and one day Astrid and I will look at each other and feel like we want to come home. And then we will.

Love
Jude

Iranian impressions.

Sarakhs -> Mashhad -> via routes 95&36 -> Bardaskan.

Ready to ride in Iran.

Ready to ride in Iran.

By the time we had been deported from Turkmenistan it was late in the afternoon. Despite the kindness and the generosity of the border staff, I must admit that I was a little disappointed in the fact that we had no armed escort, no guard to make sure we left, none of the usual bru-ha-ha associated with being kicked out of a country. But these feelings were quelled by my excitement about going to Iran and the nervousness that beholds you when entering a religiously conservative dictatorship that is super paranoid. Looking back I guess we weren’t that nervous because while we were made to wait for our entry to be approved, we snuck into the bathroom to wash our socks and undies. We passed though immigration with a minimum amount of delay and questioning, and through customs even quicker, as when the officer found out that we were from Australia he gave a cursory glance at our bags and then launched into a discussion about soccer. This love of Australians and soccer would continue throughout our trip, until a recent fateful decision by an umpire ruined such sentiments.

Our route from the Turkmenistan border to Bardaskan.

Our route from the Turkmenistan border to Bardaskan.

But you’re not here to read about soccer, you’re here to follow our journey through the ancient kingdom of Persia, now know as the Islamic Republic of Iran. We chose to forego visiting the town of Sarakhs as we had enough food to last us until Mashad and a small amount of Iranian Rial from our Aussie mate Dave who we had met in Osh (remember foreign bank cards don’t work here). We were also a day behind schedule due to our deportation delay, and we were keen to catch up with Barbara again, to plan our kick-arse women’s cyclo-tour of Iran. The afternoon sun shone warm and golden as we cycled passed fields of maize and peppers. Agriculture soon gave way to our old friend, the desert landscape. As the sun was setting we pulled off behind some trees on the side of the road to set up our first camp in a new country. Despite having worn conservative dress and hijab for a matter of hours, it was liberating taking these off and such freedom became a cherished nightly ritual.

Camping and technology - the new style cycle tourist.

Camping, technology and hair freedom.

The extent of the restrictiveness of women’s Islamic dress became apparent the next day, especially with the hill climbs. We were just thankful that we were cycling in Iran in autumn, not summer when the temperatures can reach 40 degrees C. Hijab, besides being hot and annoying, blocks your field of vision, which is dangerous as a cyclist. It’s a reminder of your status as a second-class citizen and does ‘not’ protect you from harassment, contrary to what many men in Iran loved to preach to us. We joked that if men had to wear hijab even for a week the dress code would be changed immediately. Fortunately we didn’t have to wear the chador – literally translated as ‘tent’ – which many religious Iranian women wear. It’s a black piece of cloth that covers a woman from head to toe as not to incite desire in men, as women are responsible for a man’s feelings and desires towards her. I’ll leave Jude to rage about this in a later blog.

Climbing towards Mazdavand.

The hot climb towards Mazdavand.

This day was also to be our first day of experiencing the police ‘concern’ (read harassment) that we would constantly experience in the eastern provinces. In time we would learn that the IQ of many police officers is comparable to their shirt size and we would take turns in pointing out their mistakes and failings. This would normally make them leave us alone sooner rather than later, but not before the usual “Where is the man?” question. Really?

Jude using scrubs as her women's Islamic wear.

Jude using scrubs as her women’s Islamic wear, otherwise known as her arse protector.

We had been super excited about cycling in Iran as every cyclist we had met raved about Iranian hospitality and kindness. Unfortunately our introduction to Iran was far from what we expected or imagined. After our ‘first day in a new country’ excitement passed, the poverty and desolation of the tiny villages struck us. Small brick boxes better suited to a zombie apocalypse, housed tired and wary looking people. Large black flags flapped from every telegraph pole adding to the countries oppressive funeral feeling – we were later to discover we had arrived at the beginning of Muharram and a few days before Ashura (the yearly mourning/self-flagellation festival commemorating the murder of Imam Hussein over a thousand years earlier).

Campsite at the roadside mosque in Mazdavand, before the creeper incident.

Campsite at the roadside mosque in Mazdavand, before the creeper incident.

Oddities aside, we spent our second night camped next to a roadside mosque – we had been advised that camping/sleeping at mosques was a safe and common practice. Not so in Mazdavand. The mosque’s caretaker woke us before sunrise to invite us for some morning chai. In every country ‘chai’ has meant ‘numerous cups of tea’, at the mosque in Mazdavand it means ‘dirty old man groping two women before cleansing himself at morning prayer time’. Jude and I were too bleary eyed, worried about the locked door and cautious of cultural norms to punch him in the face and knee him in the balls as we should have. It was a baptism by fire of the sexual harassment we would experience on a very regular basis in Iran.

****A big note of warning for any sister cyclists passing through Mazdavand – the creeper here is real and potentially dangerous! We are not the only women to have experienced his harassment, Barbara went through a level 10 creeper experience with him just 3 days earlier.****

Ruins in the desert.

Ruins in the desert.

Fuelled by rage against the creeper and images of what we wished we had done to him, we set off on our cycle to Mashhad, Iran’s second most holy city. The initial beautiful scenery soon warped into the industrial wasteland that surrounds this city of pilgrimage. An unrelenting headwind battered us further, discovering that we didn’t have our host’s address or phone number frustrated us, and the reckless driving of the locals left us in despair. It really wasn’t our day. We made our way to a hostel I had scribbled on the edge of our Iran map months earlier and while waiting for someone (anyone) to answer our ringing on the doorbell we burst into laughter about the absurdity of it all. It taught us that we should expect nothing of any country because the more you expect the less it gratifies.

Jude & Arne walking in front of Imam Reza's mausoleum.

Jude & Arne walking in front of Imam Reza’s mausoleum.

Our highlight of Mashhad was not the beloved and bling covered mausoleum of Imam Reza that we visited the next day. Honestly, the second largest Islamic shrine in the world left us uninspired and skeptical about the charitable work the caretakers wished us to believe they did with the millions donated to them yearly. Maybe if we had not experienced the splendour of the ancient Islamic architecture in Bukhara, Samarkand and Khiva, we would have been more impressed. But gaudiness cannot be overlooked, flashiness and wanton spending for the sake of religious egotism and pride is not admirable, and there was nothing of the basic pious life that the Imam would have lived visible.

My polyester chador blowing in the wind at Imam Reza's mausoleum.

My polyester chador blowing in the wind at Imam Reza’s mausoleum.

Looking like a giant floral hippy tent (a polyester chador with an elastic strap for keeping it tight around our faces), I put our guide off side by questioning the excesses I noted. I made a quip about inferior workmanship when he explained to me that the grand doors and gold/silver shrine cover were replaced regularly as ‘they did not work any more’. My query about what he believed a devoutly religious man like the Imam would have thought about the extravagance that his shrine now portrayed, was answered with a stony look and an answer of “all the money is donated, I don’t know what he would think”. I think I do and it wasn’t appreciated. The message was clear – I was a woman and had been given a show bag full of glossy pictures of the shrine, why wasn’t I humbled and grateful?

Rocking the tent.

Rocking the tent.

Saying that, the religious fervor of the believers who made the pilgrimage here was intriguing. Uncontrolled grief, trance like prayer and requests for divine assistance, were mingled with a sense of serenity and awe. Such sentiments would increase in the next two days, as Ashura would be mourned then. It’s estimated that at least a million pilgrims will congregate here, as this is the only shrine of an Imam in Iran. We had witnessed people partaking in self- flagellation in the streets and men carrying massive wooden poles with decorations at the top as commemorations. The streets were lined with stalls giving out free tea and food to believers and non-believers alike.

The nature park and permaculture farm.

The nature park and permaculture farm.

Some of the garden beds we helped build.

Some of the garden beds we helped build.

Instead of watching the spectacle on the day, we decided to use our time productively by volunteering at a local permaculture farm and nature school for children, set up by our lovely hosts (yes we did finally meet them and Barbara). It was great to get our hands dirty by setting up garden beds, composting, moving rocks and soil, attempting to build a goat pen and petting all the stray animals that now call this little patch of land home. Nights were spent socialising and we quickly learnt the massive difference that exists between the public/outside lives of Iranians and their private/home lives. At home they are free to do what they want and live like any other person in the world, outside their lives are ruled by didactic laws that forbids anything the government (controlled by the religious elite) deems un-Islamic. After our rocky start, we now experienced the wonder of Iranian hospitality and the kindness of the people.

Our bikes getting admired at the local bike shop we went to for spare parts.

Our bikes getting admired at the local bike shop we went to for spare parts.

Our wonderful hosts.

Our wonderful hosts.

Kick-arse women's cyclo-gang ready to ride!!

Kick-arse women’s cyclo-gang ready to ride!!

Three days passed in bliss, but soon it was time to move on. Our route will take us from Mashhad, along the border between the great salt and great sand deserts of central Iran, to Yazd. It was exciting to join forces with fellow sister cyclist Barbara and to become part of a three-woman cyclo-gang (foonsonbikes meets http://caretaker.cc/barbels-blog/). As recently as two years ago, it was illegal for women to ride bicycles in Iran (I’m pretty sure the prophet did not mention women riding bikes in the Quran, as the bicycle had not been invented then) therefore it was empowering to provide an example of fit, strong, independent female cyclists wherever we went. People wanted to hear our stories and share in our adventures, as their access to the ‘real’ world outside Iran (there is satellite TV) is severely limited.

Barbara on the road out of Mashhad.

Barbara on the road out of Mashhad.

Cycling out of one of the many small villages on route 95.

Cycling out of one of the many small villages on route 95.

Rest break after some morning climbing.

Rest break after some morning climbing.

The days passed quickly as we cycled south-west, climbing over the mountains where saffron was in season and the ground was covered in their iridescent purple and yellow flowers. Snowy days slowly gave way to bright sunshine and the Iranian desert turned on all her glory. To experience the slight changes in landscape, hues and vegetation are what I love about cycling in such arid surroundings. The irrepressible Iranian hospitality continued to flow thick and fast – well wishes, cups of tea, gifts of fruit (especially promegranites) and food, invitations for meals and offers of accommodation occurred so many times I lost count. “Welcome to Iran” and “Welcome my friend” became my favourite greetings. One would be called out in jubilation or whispered when passing by, and a sense of happiness and love would surround me.

Roadside gifts of coffee and tea, got to love Iranian hospitality.

Roadside gifts of coffee and tea, got to love Iranian hospitality.

Chatting and warming up while waiting for a snow storm to pass.

Chatting and warming up while waiting for a snow storm to pass.

More gifts of food from a fellow cyclist.

More gifts of food from a fellow cyclist.

More lovely hosts.

More lovely hosts.

From route 95 we turned right on to route 36 as we had found a Warmshowers host in the little town of Bardaskan. Mina and her family sounded lovely and the prospect of a hot shower and a washing machine were exciting (yep, the little things). Not that we didn’t love our night under the railway tunnel being rocked by trains, or the luxury night in the school which we organised after an hour of police ‘concern’ and being told we couldn’t do anything ‘because we were women’, or the night with the family in the middle of nowhere drinking and dancing to the small hours of the morning. With Mina and her family in Bardaskan we experienced the full royal treatment – we were even interviewed by the local media, being the celebrities that we are. After eating our body weight in food, having girl talk with Mina and her neighbours, holding hands with her grandma and spending time with her family, we finally crawled into bed exhausted but happy. At midnight I kissed Jude and wished her a happy birthday, before the deep sleep of a content cycle tourist overtook me.

Not far now to Bardaskan and a hot shower.

Not far now to Bardaskan and a hot shower.

Dinner time Iranian style, like a big picnic on the living room floor.

Dinner time Iranian style, like a big picnic on the living room floor.

Goodbye Mina and your wonderful family.

Goodbye Mina and your wonderful family.

All my love as always,

Astrid.

Just a quick note  – not all of our stories and photos have made it on to this blog.  This is to protect the identity and safety of our Iranian friends from their government.  I’m sure you understand and I hope one day they will be able to live in a country where individual freedom and choice is cherished, not persecuted.

Saffron fields.

Saffron fields.

The stunning flowers up close.

The stunning flowers up close.

Yes I did go a little crazy taking photos of the saffron.

Yes I did go a little crazy taking photos of the saffron.

Jude loves her early birthday present of a coffee maker.

And a cheeky shot of the birthday girl with her early birthday present – a coffee maker.

A race across Turkmenistan

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 Bukhara to Saraks

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Often I find getting back on the bike hard after a long break.

Not this time. Aside from our 5 days across Uzbekistan we had barely pedaled since reaching Dushanbe. Both of us were ready for the adventures ahead, excited about Turkmenistan and more importantly, The Islamic Republic of Iran.

Our cycle out of Bukhara saw us pass many more cotton fields, and although the landscape was uninspiring, it was brilliant to be cycling again. We had planned to camp near the border as our Turkmen transit visa started the following day. Stopping at a house about 20km before the border to collect water, we were invited in for tea. We accepted and then the family insisted we stay the night. As it was getting dark and we were not really that far from the border, we agreed with the plan to leave early. There were three kids, two boys and a girl. The girl was clearly the clever one among them and we managed to communicate in very rudimentary English. It really impressed us how bright she was and we had a really lovely evening together. The mum taught us how to make Plov, I taught the daughter how to knit and Astrid played chess with the boys. When the father came home we all ate dinner together and then the kids, mum and us all slept together in the family room. A perfect last night in Uzbekistan.

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Hanging out with this cute Uzbek girl

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The family and their cows

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Astrid holds a baby chicken

We woke early, said our goodbyes to the mum and daughter who were the only ones up, and pedalled towards the Turkmenistan border.

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Tucks lining up and the Uzbek/Turkmen border

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The morning sun as we head out of Uzbekistan

Turkmenistan is an obscure country that almost every Asia to Europe cyclist must eventually face. It is rated second last after North Korea for journalistic freedom and once had a leader who banned listening to radio’s in cars and erected hundreds of gold monuments of himself (how unusual for a dictator).

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A typical Turkmen building. It’s forbidden to photograph most buildings

In the past, the Turkmen people were nomads who roamed the deserts of Central Asia with their animals, often capturing unsuspecting Russians on the edges of their Imperial Empire. These Russians were then sold on to the Khantes of Khiva and Bukhara to live out their days as slaves.

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Cycling through our last ‘Stan

The future of Turkmenistan lies in huge gas reserves. Now that the gold statue loving leader is no longer around, perhaps some of the resources will eventually find themselves into the people’s hands. It is said Turkmenistan should be as wealthy as Dubai.

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The Turkmen dessert

Anyway, for us Turkmenistan meant ‘transit visa’. A tourist visa is only granted with a guide for a phenomenal amount of money. Being from a non-Ebola country we were granted a 5 day transit visa in Dushanbe. For any cyclists reading we applied at the embassy and they emailed us a code (yep, it actually worked!) after a week which we presented at the border. These visas are date specific so one needs to be super organised. We had picked the border closest to Bukhara and had roughly 480km to cycle in 5 days. That should have been pretty simple. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way.

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More dunes

We reached the border in good time that first day and were ushered quickly though on the Uzbek side. Aside from stealing some of our Nurofen, the procedure at the Uzbek border went smoothly. They even had a working x-ray machine this time. The Turkmen border was not open when we arrived (it opens at 9am) so we watched ladies organise their piles of hideously patterned clothes to bring into Turkmenistan. Guess the fashion doesn’t get any better. Once the border opened we paid for our visa, someone helped us with some forms, there was a half hearted search of our bags, followed by some oohing and ahh-ing over Martha and then we were inside the most obscure country in Central Asia.

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Ah, the serenity..

As we had not had breakfast, we pedalled a few kilometres before sitting under some beautiful autumn trees and cooking our porridge. It was already late when we arrived (borders often take ages) and by the time we left it was a bit after midday. People were friendly and about an hour later we were invited for chay by the side of the road by some cotton workers. Like it’s Uzbek neighbor, Turkmenistan also contributes to the Aral Sea disaster by producing cotton in a dessert climate. Go figure.

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Autumn is really here

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Breakfast break

By the afternoon we reached Turkmenabat, the second largest city. We were greeted by loads of shiny buildings, statues and even a practicing parade (which we unfortunately couldn’t take a photo of as it is forbidden and the police are everywhere). Instead we stopped and looked confused until someone helped us exchange our US dollars for Turkmen Manet. I have found looking confused usually results in someone with a little bit of English stopping and assisting. It really is awesome how helpful people are. Anyway, once we had money we cycled to the outskirts of town and decided to have an early dinner, so we could continue to cycle until dark. Sadly our dinner was somewhat of a fail, pretty common for a new country. Although the cuisine is pretty similar to the rest of Central Asia, things have slightly different names. We were served a soup of doom, full of gross looking fat. The stray cats hanging around got most of it, and even they didn’t seem particularly impressed by it.

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Tea with the cotton workers

We pushed on after our soup fail until nearly dark and made camp in some sand dunes.

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Typical camping chaos

The next morning we woke to grey skies and a fierce wind. Sadly it wasn’t the fierce tailwind other cyclists had predicted we would encounter. It was at least a cross/tail but man was it cold. There was no time to waste so we knuckled down and cycled through the flat desert landscape, bracing the icy wind. The highlight that day was seeing a herd of wild camels. We ate lunch at a lonesome truck stop, a momentary shelter from the cold. It was a bleak day, we cycled until dark and just as it began to rain we crawled behind a sand dune, finding some shelter from the wind.

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A camel family, or I think technically Dromedary

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Truck stop cafe, sheltering from the cold

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The long road south

Overnight almost all our water froze. It was bitterly cold and we struggled to perform our morning tasks in the icy wind. The day was cold and long, we ate at another truck stop and pushed steadily southwards. To our delight, the weather did improve and blue skies greeted us in the afternoon. The one site in Turkmenistan we had time to visit was Merv, a UNESCO listed oasis city dating back to the 6th Century. We arrived at sunset and set up our camp on the edge of some farmland, overlooking the ruins of Merv. A truly beautiful spot.

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Camping near Merv

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View from our tent

 

In the morning we packed up and explored Merv in the early sunlight. Afterwards we pedaled hard towards Mary, which was an amazingly bizarre place, full of gold, extravagant buildings and monuments. We ate lunch there and then pushed on, making good time. I was so focused on making the kilometres that I almost didn’t hear when two cyclists shouted at me from the other side of the road. What are the chances of meeting two guys from Adelaide in the Turkmenistan desert? Not high I would have thought, but that’s where these two were from. We had a quick chat, they had cycled from Germany and were going back home. If this had been anywhere but a country that required a stupid transit visa we would have made camp together. This however was not possible, as we were all racing to opposite borders. Astrid and I pushed on until after dark, making camp on the edge of someone’s field.

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Merv

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It was fun to climb on the old walls

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Camping at the edge of someones field

We woke confident of making the border in time. A second breakfast was had at the turn off and we spent the last of our Manet. For anyone cycling this, turn left just after the bridge (google maps is slightly off). This is the road that will take you to Saraks. Many people had told us how bad the roads were in Turkmenistan. This was not true for us becuse of the route we took. We cycled the shortest route between Faraks and Saraks and the road is fine. Once you turn left, the last 80km is a lot rougher and you will find yourself sometimes pedalling along dirt tracks next to the road. However, if like us you have been through Kyrgyzstan and the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan, this road is not so bad at all. This was probably the most picturesque part of the journey and we really wished we didn’t have to rush but could have made camp in the sand dunes.

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On a random road in Turkmenistan, two guys from Adelaide!

Just prior to 5pm we made it to the border town of Saraks. We could see Iran! Our information stated that the border shut at 6pm and we pushed on through the town to make sure we made it. A note to cyclists – as you pedal out of town, parallel with the train line don’t bother going all the way around like the cars need to. Make sure you clear the station area, then turn left down a side street and push your bike over the track. This will save you a couple of kilomtres.

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Drying/melting the still frozen tent

Full of excitement we pedaled up to the border complex, ready to see what Iran had in store for us.

Access denied.

Apparently the border had shut. Arguing with the guards did not help. Fuming, we turned away and stomped off to find somewhere to camp. Another note to cyclists – this border shuts at 4pm to outgoing traffic. Apparently if you arrive late you can cycle back into town and get an ‘exit stamp’ which will avoid deportation. Unfortunately no one was able to tell us this at the time.

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Looking around the wasteland that was this border complex, we wondered where we would put our tent. Luckily a kind man came to our aid and gave us a room that would be an office in the new border area that was being built. This was luxury for us. We made a cup of tea and considered our situation. Neither of us was particularly worried. Cyclists get deported from Turkmenistan all the time. In the dark, so that no one could see into our all glass windows room we carefully stashed our US dollars (no ATM’s for us in Iran) inside our bikes (handle bars and seat post) to avoid any potential bribes the following day. After that we watched a mocumentary about Dog Shows. A random way to spend our last night in Central Asia.

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More Merv

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The following morning it took the Turkmen authorities 5 hours to deport us. Would have been easier for them just to let us through the night before. Most of the time I read War and Peace but occasionally we were made to sign things, have our fingers photographed and look apologetic. Right at the end we had to write a statement, explaining why we had overstayed. No one really seemed to get the cycling thing or how we could possibly not have known when the border shuts. It seems the more obscure a country is, the more they think they are the centre of the world. Then we had the option of paying $50 each or being deported and not permitted back into Turkmenistan for 3 years. As tragic as not being permitted back was, we opted for deportation. They seemed to buy our story about having no cash and family meeting us in Mashad.

Finally after much pointless paperwork we were officially deported, given some food and waved into no mans land towards Iran.

And there ends our adventures in Central Asia. We made sure our Islamic attire was properly in place and pedaled towards the Middle East.

Jude

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Goodbye Central Asia, you have been swell

 

Jude

The People’s Republic of Plov.

Dushanbe -> Bukhara -> Khiva -> Nukus -> Tashkent -> Samarkand -> Bukhara.

Delicious Plov.

Delicious Plov.

I want to start this blog with a big, heartfelt MERCI to Veronique, Gabe and Stephanie for the hospitality, kindness and friendship they shared with us during our time in Dushanbe. It’s hard to leave a place that feels like a home away from home. With heavy hearts and teary eyes we pedaled out that morning towards the Uzbekistan border. It was a lazy 70 kilometres along the M41, but the two and a half weeks rest (and illness for me) found us meandering slowly through the countryside. The landscape had shifted again and we now cycled through cotton plantations that would be our constant companions for the next few weeks.

Our route.

Our route.

Ready to ride!

Ready to ride!

Just before the border we stopped to spend the last of our Tajik Somoni on ice creams and chocolate, a pep me up, as we knew the border crossing process could be tricky. Leaving Tajikistan was no problem and for those cyclists who are on a 45-day visa, we did not register ourselves with OVIR after 30 days, and this was no problem at the border. Uzbek immigration was no problem, but customs was a tedious process. Being a paranoid police state many things are illegal here, especially numerous prescription drugs, and political, religious or pornographic paraphernalia. Our perfectly packed panniers were pulled apart and everything was scrutinised. Luckily our hard-drive was formatted only for Macs and my description of science fiction films bored them from investigating any further. After an hours unsuccessful search, they were disgruntled, and we suspect that they secretly keep or sell anything that they find.

Welcome to Uzbekistan.

Welcome to Uzbekistan.

Bok bok enjoys the cotton fields at sunset.

Bok bok enjoys the cotton fields at sunset.

Entering Uzbekistan late in the afternoon, we decided to push on to Denov as we had heard of a cheapish hotel there. Foreigners are required to register at a hotel within 72 hours of arrival in Uzbekistan, and technically they are meant to stay in hotels every night. We had heard mixed reports, both of people camping most of the way with no problems and others who had been deported or arrested for flaunting this law. Dad would be arriving soon in Tashkent and rumour had it that the hotel managers there are stricter than border guards about daily registration, so we chose to err on the side of caution. The sun was setting as we pedaled into Denov and our hotel room (at the Hotel Denov), like most things in Uzbekistan, was a throw back from the Soviet era.

Breakfast and maps at the Hotel Denov.

Breakfast and maps at the Hotel Denov.

Counting our cash.

Counting our cash.

Rested after a night’s sleep we were ready to hit the road early and headed to the market for a few errands. Money was exchanged freely on the black market and our single $100 bill was exchanged for about 300 Uzbek bills. Our friendly dealer then made the lady at the phone shop give us a SIM card under the false name of 10000, as foreigners are not permitted to have an Uzbek SIM. Cashed up with partial technological access to the world, we started our journey towards Bukhara.

Getting my shoes fixed at the market.  It only cost $1.50.

Getting my shoes fixed at the market. It only cost $1.50.

Street food-a-licious.

Street food-a-licious.

They start them riding young over here.

They start them riding young over here.

Fruit orchards and vineyards surrounded the city and fortunately delicious grapes were the flavour of the season. It was nice to see some greenery after so much dryness. And then the cotton plantations started again. Autumn is picking season and we were again reminded of the disparities that exist in a police state. Just a quick rundown of the problems with cotton – cotton is a water intensive crop and Uzbekistan is pretty much a dessert, farmers don’t have the right to plant another crop of their choice, the government buys all of the cotton at falsely decreased prices in exchange for providing slave labour at picking season, slave labour is provided by villagers that are forced to forgo paid employment to pick cotton for free for the government. We saw busloads of villagers picking cotton in the hot sun as we cycled passed being grateful for the freedom to do what we would with our lives and our time.

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Vineyards make a nice change from the cotton fields.

The white cotton balls look beautiful but the reality is much different.

The white cotton balls look beautiful but the reality is much different.

The cotton fields.

The cotton fields.

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Cotton in the desert landscape.

The afternoon scenery was the beautiful stark mountainous desert that we had become familiar with in this part of the world. It had been another long day and the distance and heat took it out of me, as did the hills. Six kilometres from town my energy levels disappeared and it was a hard slog as the sun set and we pedaled in the early evening darkness. My spirits were lifted when a group of workers stopped us for a chat and one cheeky man stole a kiss on Jude’s cheek. All the Uzbek men believe her to be beautiful, and I must say that I agree. After locating the only hotel in Baysun and the welcome we received revived our souls further. We were seated around a table in the kitchen of a small restaurant where the owners filled our plates with salad, rice and vegetables, and the hotel owner filled our cups with tea and then local vodka. Traditional Uzbek music sounded from the radio and we laughed at our conversation attempts in broken English and Russian. After such a day we didn’t care that the price of the hotel was ridiculously high and the quality a Soviet low.

The desert landscape we love so much.

The desert landscape we love so much.

The long road to Bukhara.

The long road to Bukhara.

The workmen who wanted to have a chat and steal a kiss.

The workmen who wanted to have a chat and steal a kiss.

An early morning walk brought me to the local market where I spent the equivalent of a dollar fifty on two loaves of fresh bread, a bottle of kefir and a mixture of apples, tomatoes and cucumbers. It was here that I received the SOS from dad and I spent a panicked hour trying to find somewhere with internet access. Eventually I was able to get into my email account to discover that he had not taken our advise about applying for his Uzbek LOI (letter of introduction) early, and as such would not be arriving in four days as planned. It would be another fortnight before the paperwork was in order, so plans had to be chopped and changed again.

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The things you see in the desert. Mirage perhaps?

Watch out for cows..

Watch out for cows..

The safe driving campaign photos here are interesting.

The safe driving campaign photos here are interesting.

There was a lot to think about that day on the road. Fortunately cycling provides the time and ability for clear thinking and meditation. The hills continued and we climbed and descended for the whole day. At one of the many police road-blocks we were asked for the registration papers for our bicycles and the ridiculous request left me laughing in the face of the poor officer who had asked it. That evening the requirement of staying at hotels left us feeling extra angry as we were charged $42 for a substandard room, the shared showers were useless and the men staying there were not able to aim properly when using the toilet – both for a wee or a shit. Additionally, all Uzbek hotels charge a foreigner price and an Uzbek price for the rooms, the difference is fourfold.

One of the kind people who gifted us lunch.

One of the kind people who gifted us lunch.

Bread anyone?

Bread anyone?

Fortunately most of the Uzbek people we met were lovely. On previous days we had been gifted our lunch at the restaurants we stopped at and such generosity continued. A man in a small village waved us down, bought us freshly baked bread, which we ate with honey, and he then provided us with walnuts from the tree in his garden. Others waved and called out greetings as we passed by and the dark mood of the evening before evaporated. The hills slowly gave way to flat riding and at lunchtime we found a restaurant in Guzar that was pumping. We feasted on six different salads, shared more freshly baked bread and drank cold kefir. Our destination for the evening was the ancient town of Qarshi. Not much remains of its 2,500 year history, but we acquired our very own Soviet era apartment for the next couple of nights.

Enjoying a drink.

Enjoying a drink.

Chilling out in our own Soviet era apartment in Qarshi.

Chilling out in our own Soviet era apartment in Qarshi.

Rejuvenated from our rest day we set off hoping to arrive in Bukhara in two days time. Unfortunately the wind had swung around and now blew strongly into our faces. Men had become super annoying as they gathered in groups to leer at us whenever we stopped. Jude’s man rage kicked in and my relaxed vibe dissipated when a male driver ran me off the road while ogling at me and his male passenger was blowing me kisses. Really, what do these men think we’re going to do when they behave like that? Act like we’re interested in them? I think not. That night after dinner in the ballroom of our hotel, the gold-toothed waitress pulled us on to the dance floor and we danced our rage away with a disco for three. It was Friday night after all.

Jude riding across one of the ancient bridges in Qarshi.

Jude riding across one of the ancient bridges in Qarshi.

Jude fist shaking at the headwind.

Jude fist shaking at the headwind.

More cotton and slavery.

More cotton and slavery.

Uzbekistan's version of identikit housing.

Uzbekistan’s version of identikit housing.

A cool change blew in that night and we woke to a crisp morning. A frigid headwind persisted all day, requiring us to find shelter for every rest break. The trees and the long grasses bent sideways in the wind and it was sometimes a struggle to stay upright. Hungry from the cycling and the cold we bunkered down with truck drivers in a makeshift restaurant and shoved spoonfuls of Plov into our mouths. Plov, the local specialty rice dish, was the staple of our mealtimes in Uzbekistan. The hundred kilometres to Bukhara dragged on yet late in the afternoon the city limits came into site. As with other cities it was the identikit housing that first greeted us. Imagine a Stan version of Roxborugh Park and you would be close. We navigated our way to the centre of the old city and were awed by the amazing Islamic architecture of mosques, medressas and minarets that are synonymous with the ancient Tamerlane kingdom. The beauty of the buildings is breathtaking and the first image of them will forever be imprinted in my memory.

Khiva's city walls.

Khiva’s city walls.

Jude in front of the Mohammed Amin Khan Medressa and the Kalta Minor Minaret.

Jude in front of the Mohammed Amin Khan Medressa and the Kalta Minor Minaret (Khiva).

Inside the Kuhna Ark.

Inside the Kuhna Ark.

View of Khiva from the city walls.

View of Khiva from the city walls.

And another.

And another.

Jude in front of the spectacular tile work of the Summer Mosque.

Jude in front of the spectacular tile work of the Summer Mosque.

The intricate tile work in the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum.

The intricate tile work in the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum.

Family photo.

Family photo in the Khan’s bedroom.

It was now confirmed that dad would not be arriving for another week, so the next morning we packed a backpack, left the bikes in Bukhara and jumped in a shared taxi to the ancient khanate of Khiva. Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand are the three major attractions of Uzbekistan, and despite all of them having spectacular Islamic architecture the vibe of all three cities are as different as one can imagine. Khiva feels like a museum, Samarkand a soulless Disneyland and luckily Bukhara has retained a friendly, comfortable, lived-in feeing. Despite the differing vibes, all were worth visiting. We roamed the streets, explored the buildings, and marveled at the intricate designs and patterns that surrounded us.

Walking the street of ancient Khiva.

Walking the street of ancient Khiva.

Allakuli Khan Medressa.

Allakuli Khan Medressa.

Juma mosque.

Juma mosque.

Streetscape, Khiva.

Streetscape, Khiva.

Cat love in Khiva.

Cat love in Khiva.

Exiting through the East gate.

Exiting through the East gate.

An afternoon stroll along the city walls.

An afternoon stroll along the city walls near the North gate.

Morning light on the Kalta Minor Minaret.

Morning light on the Kalta Minor Minaret.

Moonrise over Khiva.

Moonrise over Khiva.

From Khiva we headed further west to Nukus, home of the Savitsky museum and probably the only reason to visit this town. The museum is home to the most remarkable art collection in the former Soviet Union. There are 90,000 artworks and artifacts in the collection with currently only one building displaying a rotating selection of these. Another two buildings are under construction and will hopefully open in 2016. We spent the morning admiring the numerous Karakalpak artifacts on display, which left the afternoon to wander and appreciate the hundreds of artworks Savitsky bought to the gallery for protection from destruction by the Soviets. It was inspiring and we felt elated when we left the museum just before closing. Paper and pencils were pulled out that night to loose ourselves in the creativity that continued to stay with us.

In front of the Savitsky museum - photography inside comes at a heavy price.

In front of the Savitsky museum – photography inside comes at a heavy price.

Jude enjoying our 24 hour train journey from Nukus to Tashkent.

Jude enjoying our 24 hour train journey from Nukus to Tashkent.

Train love I.

Train love I.

Train love II.

Train love II.

Cafe love.

Cafe love.

It’s a 24-hour train ride from Nukus to Tashkent, and it was one of the best train rides I have ever had. We were in the second-class sleeper cabin where all six-bedded compartments are joined. Bedding was provided, the toilets were clean and hot water was available for numerous cups of tea. We had stocked up on food at the Nukus market and everyone on board shared what they had. It was a communal atmosphere and we spent the hours chatting, eating, reading and napping. Despite the long journey we arrived in Tashkent feeling refreshed and happy. Our guesthouse was a Metro journey away and as we settled in for the night it was hard to contain my excitement, as dad would be arriving the following evening.

Khast Imam Mosque, Tashkent.

Khast Imam Mosque, Tashkent.

The dome of the Chorsu Market, Tashkent.

The dome of the Chorsu Market, Tashkent.

Inside Chorsu market.

Inside Chorsu market.

The cooks get ready for the lunchtime rush at National Food, Tashkent.

The cooks get ready for the lunchtime rush at National Food, Tashkent.

Enjoying a coffee.

Enjoying a coffee.

Enjoying the treats that Dad brought us from home.

Enjoying the treats that Dad brought us from home.

The train museum, a photography gallery, a walk around town and a funky café were good distractions until pick-up time. Waiting outside in the cold did not dampen my enthusiasm for dad’s arrival and it was a sweet site when he walked out of the airport doors. We spent the next 10 days exploring the sites, sounds and tastes of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. This time we didn’t have any strenuous activity planned for dad and I think he felt relieved about this. Instead we walked around the cities, drank coffees, ate ice-creams, looked at the sites, explored the bazaars, admired the Central Asian fashion, sampled the various Plovs of the region, tasted the beers and wines, and enjoyed each others company. Thanks again Dad for joining us, we love it when you come and can’t wait for your next cameo appearance in the foonsonbikes journey.

The Sharq train that we caught from Tashkent to Samarkand to Bukhara.

The Sharq train that we caught from Tashkent to Samarkand to Bukhara.

Dada and I in front of the Registon

Dada and I in front of the Registon

You never will forget your first view of Islamic architecture.

You never will forget your first view of Islamic architecture.

Sher Dor Medressa.

Sher Dor Medressa.

Inside Tilla-Kari Medressa.

Inside Tilla-Kari Medressa.

Tilla Kari Medressa.

Tilla Kari Medressa.

Sunset over the Registon.

Sunset over the Registon.

I’ll leave you now to peruse the photos of the amazing sites and experiences we had over those ten days – enjoy! Love Astrid.

At Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

At Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque.

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum.

Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum.

It's huge - the entry to Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum

It’s huge – the entry to Gur-E-Amir Mausoleum

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Inside the Golden Mosque, Samarkand.

Inside the Golden Mosque, Samarkand.

Enjoying the view.

Enjoying the view.

Admiring the local fashion at the market in Samarkand.

Admiring the local fashion at the market in Samarkand.

Dad at Shah-i-Zinda, the Avenue of Mausoleums.

Dad at Shah-i-Zinda, the Avenue of Mausoleums.

Delicious vegetarian manty.

Delicious vegetarian manty.

Wine tasting anyone?

Wine tasting anyone?

Our wine tasting lady was hilarious.

Our wine tasting lady was hilarious.

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Kalon Mosque in the morning light.

Kalon Mosque in the morning light.

Prayer halls of Kalon Mosque.

Prayer halls of Kalon Mosque.

Dad points to the Ark, Bukhara.

Dad points to the Ark, Bukhara.

Entry to the Ark, Bukhara.

Entry to the Ark, Bukhara.

Just relaxing and looking beautiful doing it.

Just relaxing and looking beautiful doing it.

Mir-i-Arab Medressa.

Mir-i-Arab Medressa.

Jude walks through the ruins, Bukhara.

Jude walks through the ruins, Bukhara.

Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara.

Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara.

Vegetarian Kebab!!

Vegetarian Kebab!!

Tea and treats.

Tea and treats.

Mmmm, beer.

Mmmm, beer.

Bok bok at a Taki bazaar.

Bok bok at a Taki bazaar.

Jude loves the fat-bottomed sheep.

Jude loves the fat-bottomed sheep.

A cheeky beer with Barbara in Bukhara, we will meet again in Mashad, Iran.

A cheeky beer with Barbara in Bukhara, we will meet again in Mashad, Iran.

Locals travel by bike too.

Locals travel by bike too.

DUSHANBE

I don't think this needs an explanation.

I don’t think this needs an explanation.

Post Pamir Highway relaxation/ Visa application party

 What do I know of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan? The sites, the museum, the history?

Nothing really.

I know where the Uzbek, Iranian and Turkmen embassies are. I know where the cheap and expensive supermarkets are, and the ATM that disperses the most US dollars at a time. I know where the expat pub is and the café with free wifi.

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The bikes go to the pub for a pint or 3

Mostly though, I know Vero’s backyard. The high walls, garden scattered with cyclist’s tents, the porch, where at any point in the day some cyclists will be sitting, chatting, drinking coffee or beers, reading and resting.

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Best Backyard ever

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Love this porch

When we pushed our heavy bikes through Vero’s door (opened by the kindly guards whose job it is to do this and seem rather amused by the constant arrival of foreign cyclists) we stepped into another world. In fact we stepped into a home. After more than a year on the road, for the first time, we really felt at home.

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Breakfast time

Let me take a minute to explain. Vero is a legend in the cycle touring community. Not only has she cycled on a tandem with her young son, both in South America and here in Tajikistan (she cycled the Pamir Highway this summer) she is also the most wonderful WarmShowers host. Central Asia is a real bottleneck for long distance cyclists, not only is the area is plagued by complicated visa procedures but most people cycle the Pamir Highway and will find themselves in Dushanbe either before or after this epic feat. The people who come before general stay a day or two as they get their GBAO permit (unless of course they stop giving out permits, then people stay for weeks) and the people coming from the Pamir highway (like us) generally seem to stay a bit longer, recovering and applying for onward visas. As it was still warm when we arrived, some days there were up to 16 cyclists camped in Vero’s backyard!

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Dinner is served!

We had heard about the legend of Vero well before we ever arrived in Tajikistan from other cyclists, and had been looking forward to our stay. All three of us had visas to apply for and bike maintenance to attend to. Not to mention an epic amount of washing. And resting. The night we arrived there were already a handful of cyclists there and it was not long before we were sipping beers and sharing stories.

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Cyclists come and gp

 

After weeks on the road, Vero’s place was paradise. A flushing toilet (with toilet paper!) a hot shower and the most amazing thing – an oven! I don’t think I have seen an oven in over a year. We abused that oven every night.

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In the kitchen where he belongs, cooking up a storm! (-:

Our days at Vero’s began with yoga in the backyard, followed by coffee on the porch with Vero and whoever was up. After breakfast the morning was a slow meander, marked by cups of tea and coffee. We tinkered with bikes, read books, researched, emailed, skyped and chatted to whoever was around. Sometimes there were visa errands (we successfully applied for our Turkmen, Iranian and Uzbek visas) or runs to the supermarket. The vibe was really communal and in the afternoon we usually planned what to make for dinner (it usually involved the oven) and we would cycle off to purchase ingredients and cook together.

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More delicious food

The cyclists came and went. Sometimes the house was bursting, and you could hardly get to the kitchen and other times it was just 4 or 5 of us. Everyone we met was super cool. Most people were on long trips, and most were heading east. We eagerly shared our stories and swapped information. There was a lot of laughter, especially because Vero’s eccentric African Parrot had impeccable timing and would always choose the perfect moment to burst into an eerie laugh.

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This parrot has amazing comic timing! I like him so much

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There was a downside to our stay in Dushanbe, a lot of us at Vero’s got sick at some stage with ‘Tajik belly’. Neil succumbed once (after having just recovered from it on the road) and poor Astrid twice. I was one of the few lucky ones to remain immune. Astrid spent a lot of time on the couch reading Jane Austen and not writing the blog.

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Porch time

 

One night at Vero’s we went clubbing. I’m not the biggest clubber around, but I do like a dance and I must say clubbing in Dushanbe was a lot of fun, especially with a bunch of cyclists in their ‘fine attire’. I can’t remember the last time I had a good dance like that. Another night we crazy danced in the kitchen while making pizza. One Monday Vero generously poured us all champagne ‘just because it was Monday’. The longer we stayed, the more we got to know Vero and her son Gab, the harder it was to leave. Gab too is quite a legend. I don’t know many 8 year olds that have cycled the Pamir Highway, or switch so effortlessly between French and English. He was a lot of fun to hang out with.

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‘Champagne Monday’ 

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Early morning farewell

The nature of travel is that eventually one must leave and pedal off to the next destination. However, not without a party. The main reason for the party was that Stephanie, an intern at the EU (where Vero works) was to finish her Masters Degree. We had all gotten to know Stephanie as she lived at Vero’s and it seemed an excellent reason to celebrate. Plus a lot of the ‘long term’ cyclists (us included) were leaving that Sunday. Poor Neil, he had finally really been bitten by his Green Mumba passport. Despite having not lived in South Africa for years he was denied a Turkmenistan Transit Visa, possibly on the grounds of Ebola paranoia. So Neil and Courtney (an awesome Australian cycling alone) were flying to Tehran that Sunday and we were heading towards the Uzbek border.

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Barbara fitting Courtney for her ‘Iran appropriate’ wear

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One day we had a picnic in the garden

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“Eating Chocolate cake without hand’ night

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Awesome chocolate cake face from Gab

 

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How many people can fit into one 4WD…

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Afternoon beers overlooking Dushanbe

So that Friday we geared up to celebrate. Neil was on cocktail duty, Astrid, Courtney and I were the pizza makers, Anna and Nico (a cool French couple) baked amazing cakes and Barbara made an awesome salad. A quick side note on Barbara, an awesome Austrian cyclo woman who has been traveling by bike and sailboat around the world. Barbara and I have been emailing since we were in Indonesia as after 2 years cycling alone she was looking to form a woman cycling gang. However, we were too far in front initially, then behind in China and in front again through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Finally we met at Vero’s. Barbara is a really inspiring rad woman and after comparing Turkmen transit visa dates we realised we would be in Iran at the same time. Our plan is to cycle together from Mashad in Iran.

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Preparing pizza

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I think we are dancing, Astrid looks a little dangerous with that knife!

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The ladies of ‘sept 2014

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Jack eyeing off the pizza

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Cheers

 

 

Anyway, I don’t know if it’s the expat community, or the French expat community but the ability for mobilisation when there is a party was amazing. I don’t think many people would turn up if I set an email out on a Friday afternoon for a party that night. But by 9pm the house was packed, the music was pumping (Vero is also a DJ) and we were dancing like crazy. A great way to finish our time in Dushanbe.

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Tajik fashion and dancing

 

Needless to say, Saturday was a mellow day full of packing, coffee and ‘hair of the dog’ beers. It was sad to say goodbye to everyone. Our time in Dushanbe has been very special. Meeting so many other cyclists was inspiring and getting to know Vero, Gabriel and Stephanie was wonderful. Thank you.We miss you and hope our paths will cross again one day

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The ‘end of september’ group. Thanks Vero, we had the best time!

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Off to the Uzbek border

 

 

The other side of the Pamirs.

Khorog -> Kalai Khumb -> Dushanbe (via the new road).

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Khorog is a lovely place to relax.

We do apologise for the long delay between blogs and thank everyone who wrote to us to check if we are okay. Yes we are! We have been in the Central Asian internet blackhole and as daylight hours are getting shorter cycling and everyday living is taking up our time. So after a long hiatus, the stories of cycling and food are back. Our rest days in Khorog were truly relaxing. Time was spent tinkering with our bikes, people watching in the park, exploring the bazaar and stuffing ourselves with food. After weeks of bland, meat heavy central Asian cuisine, the local Indian restaurant was a vegetarian cycle tourist’s wet dream. Plates of curries were ordered and devoured with relish. We ate to celebrate and we ate to commiserate. After setting off from Japan a year earlier, MacG’s current cycle tour was coming to an end and our little pedal through the Wakhan together was his last cycling leg. MacG, you rock! Thanks for the awesome times and we hope our wheels cross paths again.

Thanks for the great times MacG!!

Thanks for the great times MacG!!

Back to being our family of three for the last time, the road would now take us 900 kilometres to the capital Dushanbe. It was a relaxing first day back on the bikes, the road meandering alongside the Panj River. The warm afternoon sun persuaded us to stop early and we found a lovely campsite under some trees at the junction of two rivers. As I lifted my leg over the bike an all too familiar feeling filled me with dread. I had been experiencing niggles in my back since pushing the Dirty Salmon up the hill of doom to Bibi Fatima, and now she let me know she’d had enough. I have learnt that movement rather than rest is what my back injury requires, so a yoga session was followed up by some pre-dinner Frisbee. I’m not the best player in the world and this coupled with me running about like I was sitting on a horse was a hilarious sight I’m sure.

Back to camping.

Back to camping.

The road hugs the Panj River.

The road hugs the Panj River.

The following morning we met up with Christine, a French woman who has been working with an NGO in Tajikistan for the last 4 years. She was a fountain of information and we spent the morning cycling together chatting about Pamiri and Tajik life, history and culture. What Christine shared was fascinating and at times frustrating and sad, especially with regards to health, education and equality. At my request she also pointed out the road leading to the Bartang Valley which is on my list of must do cycle routes for the future (Kev, Pabski and Rich – booking you in for this now). At 10am we arrived in a bigger village and the smell of shashlik lured Neil and Jude into a kebab-based morning tea. Neil amused the owner by doing a chicken dance and he confirmed that it was indeed chicken on the skewers. My back continued to give me grief so I decided to stop often to stretch and by the late afternoon I needed to get off the bike altogether. Our campsite was set up, perched on the edge of a cliff with a steep rocky scramble down to the water below. I interchanged yoga and walking exercises, while Jude and Neil cooked up a storm and brewed our mandatory cups of tea.

Calm waters of the Panj.

Calm waters of the Panj.

Looking up the Bartang Valley, a future cycle tour for sure.

Looking up the Bartang Valley, a future cycle tour for sure.

Camping on the edge.

Camping on the edge.

The road continued to follow the Panj River, but the wide valleys soon gave way to rocky canyons and little villages were located on the only flat land amongst these. The undulations along the canyon walls and the poor road surface provided a challenge for my back and I commenced a regime of cycling for 40 minutes followed by 20 minutes of yoga. In addition to these extra breaks we continued to be stopped regularly by locals offering us chai (tea). We learnt only to accept an offer when we were hungry, as chai is never just chai and today was no exception. We were provided with tea, fried eggs, bread, fresh tomato and cucumber, biscuits, confectionary and peaches picked from the tree we sat under. Such kindness and hospitality is the norm in the Pamirs

The valleys narrow into canyons.

The valleys narrow into canyons.

The valleys become canyons and the waters become choppy.

And the waters become choppy.

Afghanistan's mountains continue to impress.

Afghanistan’s mountains continue to impress.

Chai never means just chai.  Invites all round on the side of the road.

Chai never means just chai. Invites all round on the side of the road.

Late in the afternoon we crossed the dodgiest looking bridge thus far and proceeded to our final check point. While waiting, three boys came by and asked to have their photo taken. Little tough guy poses ceased when their (?extra) undies came out to be worn like hats. Once the photo shoot was over they asked to try riding our bikes. We told them it was not a good idea as they were heavy but they chose to give it a go anyway. Needless to say there was some falling and bruises, but they were super happy and they pushed us on our bikes through the sand track which the road became. Camp was set up in a sandy basin and we fell asleep to the roaring of the river (and the occasional truck).

The stunning scenery continues.

The stunning scenery continues.

Tough guy poses become funny with underwear.

Tough guy poses become funny with underwear.

Sand bank next to the Panj makes a lovely camp spot.

Sand bank next to the Panj makes a lovely camp spot.

Relaxing after a day of cycling.

Relaxing after a day of cycling.

Pedaling off in the morning I knew it was going to be a slow day. I chose to continue my cycle/yoga regime, and the road continued to undulate through the canyon. I was so slow that Neil was able to finish an entire book while waiting for me to catch up. At lunchtime a roadside restaurant appeared and the advertising signs were promising. As usual, reality did not match the picture. The only food available was fried eggs and frankfurters. And Cornetto ice cream – yes two of them did accidently fall into our mouths. Somehow during a yoga session Neil failed to see us as he cycled by and he spent the next hour and a half trying to catch up to the two of us who were now behind him. Not being sure where we were comparatively, we decided to spend the night separately. Jude and I pitched our tent on a beach with an Afghani village overlooking our campsite. The lights of the houses on the mountainside joined the stars in the sky and a deep feeling of peace settled on the night.

Canyon riding, the road on the right side is ours.

Canyon riding, the road on the right side is ours.

Sometimes the Afghan side looked more agriculturally developed that the Tajik side.

Sometimes the Afghan side looked more agriculturally developed that the Tajik side.

Yoga after cycling heals a sore back.

Yoga after cycling heals a sore back.

Late the next morning we met Neil at the township of Kalai Khumb. The size of a town here can be judged by the presence or absence of aisles in the supermarket – this one had many. Staples and many treats were purchased and eaten. Kalai Khumb is located at the intersection of the new and old roads to Dushanbe. Most cyclists take the old dirt road – which is 100km shorter and supposedly more scenic. Despite being longer I had chosen to take the new road as I thought it would be better for my back if I pedaled a road that was mostly tarmac. Neil’s bike continued to have rack issues so he made the decision to join us on the new road. Our decision to stay together was celebrated with a large bowl of plov and an afternoon beer. Afternoon beers are not so conducive with cycling, so after about 20 kilometres we pulled over and set up our tent in a food forest. It was an incredibly magical place. An old man from the village discovered us and used every excuse under the sun to convince us that we needed to come and stay at his house. Wolves would eat us, an avalanche would bury us, or the Afghanis across the river would shoot us. Realising that all his protestations were in vain, he then took pleasure in showing me all the edible fruits that were to be enjoyed around us. I’m so planting a food forest when we buy a property on our return!!

The children continue to request to have their photos taken.

The children continue to request to have their photos taken.

Our food forest, everything grown here is edible.

Our food forest, everything grown here is edible.

None of the aforementioned incidents occurred during the night and we pedaled into the morning well rested and happy. The canyon narrowed even further and I felt as if I could reach over and touch the mountainsides of Afghanistan. Being so close provided a different kind of problem for us though. The police along this stretch of road were hyper paranoid about us getting shot by Afghani’s. I stopped to do my usual yoga, to have 3 police officers materialize out of nowhere to try and inform me that I couldn’t stop there as I was in danger. I did my best ‘dumb tourist’ look and continued on with my stretching much to the officer’s chagrin. The same officers received the one finger salute from Jude when the last one blew her a kiss as she cycled passed. Our tolerance for sexist and overt attention from men continues to decline. Lunch was then interrupted by another group of police who again warned us of our imminent danger. Luckily for our paranoid police friends, we spent that night camped among giant trees next to a natural spring at a local families property. They found my yoga extremely amusing, especially the sun salutations. I wondered if they knew it was for stretching or if they thought it was some kind of weird religious ritual.

Lush greenery surrounds us.

Lush greenery surrounds us.

Looking back down to the canyons we had just cycled out of.

Looking back down to the canyons we had just cycled out of.

Knowing that we would have a climb, we woke earlier than usual and set off in the cool morning air. The road became super smooth tarmac after a few minutes and we flew along enjoying the lack of bone shaking corrugations and potentially bike breaking potholes. The canyon soon opened into a valley and rolling hills, the first difference in landscape for a couple of weeks. The tarmac soon disappeared as quickly as it appeared. Being more exposed to the elements the heat soon became oppressive and we stopped at the first Magazin for a cold drink, an ice cream and some treats. After sampling a selection of chocolate bars imported from Turkey, we are aware that we will be chocolate free for our time there. As the temperature climbed, so did we. The road now turned away from the border and up the pass that we were expecting. Finding some shade at lunchtime proved difficult, but not impossible. It was hard to get back on the bikes and start climbing again, but we were soon able to rest again. Road works were being carried out and as we waited, giant boulders were being dropped over the edge of the switchback above us. Ah the switchbacks and the false summits, not a good combination as the day comes to an end. The top of the pass remained elusive and we set up camp in a quarry as twilight set in.

The land opened up from the canyons we had been in.

The land opened up from the canyons we had been in.

Turkey fails to produce good chocolate.

Turkey fails to produce good chocolate.

Parking for lunch.

Parking for lunch.

The top of the pass was reached the next morning and soon the wind was rushing through our hair as we descended into the next valley. On the way down I noticed an apiary and stopped to see if I could buy some honey. Next thing I knew we were seated in their tent drinking tea, eating melons and enjoying freshly gathered honey on homemade bread. In true Tajik style we were gifted more honey on our departure and made to promise to visit again when we were next in the area. You would think that after stuffing ourselves with such good food and not expending much energy due to cycling downhill, lunch would have been the last thing we wanted. Sure enough it wasn’t and soon we were sitting in a shaded restaurant garden eating more. This was followed by a couple of ice creams, as we bought our own and then were gifted others. The valley we were in was fertile and the townships well developed. It came as no surprise to find out that the president was from the area and that most governmental funding is spent here. Our good luck did not last into the evening – we had been offered a place to stay but the guy didn’t return, therefore we made camp in an orchard next to the freeway and the roar of trucks and cars didn’t abate all night.

Chai again does not mean just tea. Our feast with the honey man and his family.

Chai again does not mean just tea. Our feast with the honey man and his family.

A farewell salute from our lovely honey host.

A farewell salute from our lovely honey host.

Descending into the next valley after the never ending climb.

Descending into the next valley after the never ending climb.

Our waitress tries on Neil's glasses.  I wanted to capture her gold teeth but she wouldn't smile.

Our waitress tries on Neil’s glasses. I wanted to capture her gold teeth but she wouldn’t smile.

French toast and coffee cured our fatigue and feeling rejuvenated we continued to cycle through fertile fields. The greenery gave way to golden grass as we climbed and then undulated our way through hills as far as the eye could see. Being gifted melons and grapes was a welcome treat as the heat of the day came on rapidly and shade was scarce. A post lunchtime break was enjoyed in the shade of the petrol station where we spent two hours reading books and drinking cold drinks. The road again improved but the attitude of the drivers didn’t. A plastic bottle was launched at me and luckily missed its target. Needing a good nights sleep we pulled off the main road and asked an old man if we could camp on the land there. He was obliging and very much wanting to converse with us. Despite his knowledge of seven languages and the combined five that the three of us knew, we unfortunately had none in common. After a quick chat in Russian he left us to set up camp and enjoy our evening of peace and quiet.

Camping in the orchard.

Camping in the orchard.

French toast of awesome.

French toast of awesome.

Golden hills rolling as far as the eye can see.

Golden hills rolling as far as the eye can see.

More donkey love.

Donkey love.

With cups of tea in hand we watched as the sun rose over the valley. It was another hot day and we had two big climbs to really make us feel the heat. After the first ascent lunch was eaten at a roadside rest stop where every stall sold the same two dishes. The next climb, some tunnels and a lovely downhill placed us further along the road than we expected. Finding ourselves only 30 kilometres out of Dushanbe with at least three more hours of daylight we decided to make a push for the hospitality and warm shower at Veronique’s home in Dushanbe. Fortune was with us as the road was flat and we sped along with happy hearts. The last gift of hospitality on our Tajik crossing came from an old man who presented me with a pear and some sweets. He had cycled his grandson into Dushanbe and back that day for medical treatment, but still had the time and inclination to welcome a guest to his country. Such acts of kindness continue to remind me of the inherent good that is found in the world.

Donkeys feeling as hot as we were.

Donkeys feeling as hot as we were.

The iridescent blue of the dam near Dushanbe.

The iridescent blue of the dam near Dushanbe.

Entry gate to Dushanbe, a welcome site.

Entry gate to Dushanbe, a welcome site.

Our family of three cycled into Dushanbe, the last leg of the road together since we joined forces in Turpan.  The feeling was bitter sweet, but this didn’t last too long.  The haven of Veronique’s awaited us, as did a cold beer to celebrate achieving our dream of cycling the Pamirs.

Love, Astrid.

I don't think this needs an explanation.

I don’t think this needs an explanation.

Note: I’m sorry for the less than usual amount and diversity of photos, I don’t take as many if I’m unwell.  Oh yes, and my back did fully heal with my cycling and yoga regime. Yay for freedom of movement!