8 – 20 and 23 – 26 August 2016
This section covers the 850k from Almaty through the Kazakh countryside to Tashkent and my more than a week in Tashkent waiting for a Turkmenistan visa – a 3-day bike trip to Charvak Lake 100k east of Tashkent is depicted in the following section. I had set aside 7 days to reach the Uzbek border (820k), which turned out to be even more conservative than I had thought. And since the Uzbek visa is date specific, I quickly ended up riding only 5-6 hours per day (basically ½ days) not to progress too much.
Itinerary and weather
Because of the ample time, I was in no hurry to leave Almaty and headed out late morning and this quickly became an everyday habit. It was a fairly straight 700k ride west to Shymkent with the heat-hazy mountains and Kyrgyz border to the south – and from Shymkent, it was another 100k south to the Uzbek border. All the way, open countryside where only the colour of the grassy fields changed between yellow and green. It was mostly long gradual ups and downs with only a few decent hills/mountains to break the monotony. And all the way it was very hot – 36-40C in the shade of which there was little as almost all villages were 5-20k off the main road and I was unwilling to leave the bike at the road and walk to nearby trees - not much fun sitting around with all the intrusive flies and other bugs. It helped cooling me down that most days were quite headwindy except for day two where I had a very strong tailwind - of course on the day with the most downhill rolling on the often bad road which meant constant braking entailing countless rim-cooling breaks. When it’s so hot, the rims are already warm so it takes little braking to overheat them and because the wind was warm it also took fairly long time to cool them down again.
The border was incredibly busy on both sides, so it took several hours despite the Uzbek immigration officers insisting that I got first in line – as always, it felt wrong but it saved me around 30-45 minutes. I had heard “horror stories” of Uzbek customs checking everything even the computer for illegal literature, movies, etc. I have so much luggage that customs officers never bother checking everything - and also here I pulled it off (not that I had anything to hide – it’s just the time issue). First, I kept the scanner guy entertained so he missed looking at the screen - and secondly, I gave the bag checking guy the most “harmless” bags first so he got tired though still able to justify that he had done a proper check. To my surprise he didn’t even ask the purpose of my loose lying pills or check my camera/computer – he did however unroll my toilet paper J.
Tashkent is a big city so I left the sightseeing for days, I was biking around town to do practicalities anyway – shopping (including fixing my bike pants and the phone charger that was last fixed a month ago in Osh), applying for the Turkmen visa, etc. The Turkmen visa was an adventure in itself. To enter the embassy, it was necessary to sign up on a list and with lots of people, it’s recommendable to sign up early as you otherwise risk not getting in before the embassy closes at 13. Both when applying and picking up the visa, I went there at 5 in the morning, the first time being number 7 and the second time being first getting me in within ½-1 hour after opening at 9. To my great joy and immense relief, I could pick up my visa after 10 days, preventing the 1,500k detour back into Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea, where I could have taken the ferry to Azerbaijan but then entering Iran from the “wrong side”. A very long waiting time, but well worth it now that I actually got the visa. Always a lot of police everywhere in Uzbekistan but when I went to pick up my Turkmen visa on 26 August it had been further stepped up in preparation for the celebration of the country’s 25th Anniversary on 1 September.- police every 50 meters resulting in countless passport and bag checks. Happy to leave town on 27th August.
Road, drivers and bike
About 700k of the road was between decent and good and almost always with a shoulder. Of this, 600k was concrete slabs which became my preferred surface as the pavement - despite being fairly good - was often soft(ish) because of the heat. The bad stretches were mostly related to busy, old unmaintained roads being bumpy, potholed and cracked like puzzles - the first 60k out of Almaty, 30k around Shymkent and the last 40k to the Uzbek border. The two first caused broken spokes but not the last as I had changed to my Australian wonder wheel. Besides this, there were a couple of longer bad concrete stretches of fairly poor quality being cracked and washing board (however that’s possible?).
Riding the first 30k out of Almaty was crazy busy and absolutely chaotic especially in the centre and around the countless official pick-up and drop-off zones. However, everywhere was fairly dangerous with vehicles passing on the inside (gravel, gas stations, parking lots, etc.) to gain a few positions and without warning stopping everywhere to let out/pick up people. In the countryside most roads were four lanes, so most of the time there was ample room; though an ongoing problem was vehicles overtaking trucks when they overtook me. As always, there was a lot of honking particularly at the two-lane stretches, but when I continued most drivers went around with fair space and some even waited for room to pass (!). A construction guy offered me 5 litres of water – he called it “normal” but it was the first time anybody in Central Asia has offered me anything. Later I was also offered some vegetables, which I polite declined.
Besides the broken spokes, I had four flat tires of which the first three were on the way out of Almaty (after 3, 6 and 18k). All in the same place on the inside of the tube, so the problem was not solved until I changed the wheel tape (or plastic as it rightfully was).
Uzbekistan drivers doesn’t seem worse than other places in Central Asia and still I had two accidents within 24 hours of entering the country (maybe it was just long overdue). 8k after crossing the Uzbek border, I was hit by a car trying to go on the outside of me in a roundabout. There was (of course) no room, so when he hit me I jumped off while the bike went down. To his “credit” he stopped at the other side of the roundabout to see I was up before he took off – welcome to Uzbekistan (!). Luckily no damage when I checked the bike in the hostel hours later. The next morning, I had my second accident coming back from the Turkmen embassy at 5 in the morning. On a desolate street, a car cut me off and slowed down as he would turn right, but as I went around he suddenly (no signalling) made a U-turn so I hit him in the side – I think the car got a small dent in the side while nothing happened to the bike.
I had been warned, the Uzbek roads were bad, so I was positively surprised to ride many good/decent roads. In Tashkent, some roads were newly paved while others were very bad – there seemed to be no logic (e.g. road size or importance), so it was a “hit and miss”.
Camping, water and health
Even though it was almost exclusively open countryside, there were seldom very far between stretches with trees just next to the road. Some places were very nice next to rivers or creeks while others were less protected from the road but still doable. The trees were nice to get a bit of privacy but more importantly, they provided shade during the hot mornings – especially as the sun rose around 5.30 while I slept in until 8-9. Getting close to the Uzbek border the last evening, I ran out of public land but a farmer allowed me to camp in a corner of his land. Dragging the heavy bike through some of his deep irrigation ditches cost me a sore left wrist when several times “catching” the bike before it fell over. It was unlikely to be broken and there was no swelling to indicate it should be sprained, so I felt confident it would soon be back to normal. When I left for the trip to the lake it still felt sore, but after a couple of days of biking it felt better though still a bit sore. When camping the first evening, I noticed several tent zippers were malfunctioning which is very strange since they all worked the last evening before arriving in Almaty – I’m puzzled how it can happen when they were in a bag all the time?
I brought food for the whole week from Almaty – more kilos to carry, but so much easier not having to think about supermarkets along the way. All I needed was water and soft drinks, which I got at gas stations and village shops the few times they were on the road. As they were far between, I often carried enough for 1½-2 days.
The pillow in my bike pants got loose which - combined with the heat - entailed a sore butt. Fortunately, it was only a week’s ride before I could have the pants fixed in Tashkent.