The Silk Road
To ride across Central Asia from Iran to Western China I had to traverse often remote parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Along the way lay deserts and steppes, alpine valleys and high mountain passes. The weather varied from furnace-like heat to numbing cold and biting winds. Besides the physical demands of the trip, I also had to confront the bureaucratic certainties and political uncertainties of Central Asia, as well as the cultural challenge of encountering the Muslim peoples of the Silk Road during their holiest month, Ramadan. What follows are just a few of the highlights . . .
Sarakhs is a middle-of-nowhere border town between Iran and Turkmenistan where I needed to spend the night, as my Turkmenistan visa would be valid only from the next day. I headed to the local pharmacy to see if I could get some hydration salts.
Most of the time I made myself a rehydrating solution by mixing 1.5tbs of salt and 4tbs of sugar into a litre of water. On this occasion I had time to spare and decided it would be good to get more than just sodium into my system. Farsi and English are not at all similar however and my attempt to be understood by trying creative synonyms and gestures only saw more and more people gather around me, trying to help but also enjoying the unusual show. I counted six women in their chadors and five men actively debating my incomprehensible requests.
When I used the word ‘electrolytes’, I sensed a reaction in one man, so I started repeating in louder voice: “electro, electro, electro”. The man repeated my words, alone at first and then joined by the others: ‘electro, electro, electro’. The pharmacist nodded at this and gave me a medicine named Erecto, to the great appreciation of the crowd. I was not sure of its rehydration properties, but I gently declined: staying in the saddle after using this ‘erectolyte’ would quickly become uncomfortable.
I was cycling the storied Silk Road, connecting East and West. Much of it traversed inhospitable places: the toughest deserts and highest mountains, where innumerable men and beasts had died. But their effort, as travellers, merchants, missionaries and diplomats had somehow paid off, since here humanity developed for the better as great ideas travelled from one civilization to another alongside precious goods. In ancient times, between the cities lay caravanserai, fortified structures in the middle of nowhere where travellers could spend the night, find food, shelter and a place to rest the animals. The destination of my first day of cycling was one of them: Robat-e Sharaf, 137km east of Mashhad in Iran. I arrived at the caravanserai at sunset. It was always the practice to close the gates when the sun went down, with those outside having to spend the night in the wilderness, and I fantasised about being a merchant of the 12th-century arriving there, longing for lodging.
The place was beautiful; there was nobody there but me. The soft light illuminated a scene of only two colours: the perfect blue of the sky and the ochre of the sand, the mountains, the walls and the six fortified towers of the caravanserai. I left my bike at the entrance and walked through the gate, past the forecourt where the simple travellers lodged and stopped in the middle of the main square with the prayer halls, the cisterns and the restrooms for the wealthy merchants lavishly decorated with stucco ornaments which are still visible today.
More travel stories
I imagined the torches, the music and the dancers, and the meat being roasted over the fires. My merchant would have rested on carpets and cushions, satisfied with the fortune that God had bestowed on him so far, thinking of the profits he was soon to make, enjoying the pleasures of the caravanserai under a sky lit by the moon in full and a million stars. When did life taste more sweet?
I put up my tent quickly, ate a peach and some biscuits and readied myself for bed, settling down with my modern box of wonders: the iPhone, not because of its connectivity - the more disconnected the better - but because it can store lots of treasures, including a copy of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ which I started reading to let my imagination gallop on: “There lived once at Damascus, in the days of Khalif Harun al-Rashid, a wealthy merchant, who had a son like the moon at its full and . . .”
Ahead lay 500km of asphalt crossing Turkmenistan’s Karakum desert. Temperatures were at least 55˚C. The headwind was terrible, stronger than usual and bringing sand with it. At its mildest it slowed me down to 18km/h; when it blowed strong, I could manage only 8km/h, and that with great effort. I made good progress in the early hours, but by 10.30am the wind was unbearable and I pulled in to rest up at a roadside café, Kafe Keyik.
Two days before I had cycled a stretch of desert with no people or shelter for 110km, and had had to ration my water and rest in the hottest hours of the day to face the wind only in the calmer early morning and late afternoon.
But by 6pm that afternoon, the wind was still blowing hard. I was not keen to ride into the night, especially on a road with trucks and asked the owner of the cafe about the wind. He reminded me that it was up to God: the wind might die down in few minutes or after several hours. I decided to wait another hour: I would have to ride in the dark after all. I tried to see it as the epitome of adventure travel and I thought of Alexandra David-Néel and my fascination with her journey to Lhasa back in 1927, when she travelled only by night in order not to be discovered, at a time when mystical Tibet was forbidden to foreigners.
At 10.30pm – after a 12-hour break – I set out to try and make the last 45km stretch of desert. The wind was still strong but I had an urge to get moving, hoping it would soon die down. By 1.00am though, I had made little progress. Sand was constantly blown into my eyes and I was mad at myself for forgetting to bring transparent lenses for riding at night. I needed to stay healthy and strong and conjunctivitis wouldn’t help at all.
I decided to take a break. Stopping by the side of the road, I lay down on the asphalt to rest, looking at the stars. A car came past, then, a hundred metres further on, span around, tyres squealing. I stood up and gathered my energy to deal with whatever was coming. A drunken man stepped out blathering a “hello” followed by a second man, sober, and from his body language, someone that meant well. The drunken guy is convinced I am in trouble. Why else would I lay on the road, alone, in the middle of the night, in a desert? I am unsuccessful in explaining that I am all right and this is somehow fun for me. He cannot stand properly but he insists on playing the role of the Good Samaritan and wants to drive me to Turkmenabat. After much discussion and after fulfilling his desire to be able to say “I love you” in Italian, he gave me his mobile number and allowed me to go, after making me promise to call him the next morning to tell him I was fine.
I got back on the bike, pedalling but feeling tired, thinking it had not been a good idea to leave the cafe. But what choice did I have other than spending the night there and hoping that the wind would quiet down the next day? I wanted to get out of the Karakum fast but by 2.00am I was too tired and decided to rest for few hours. But where? I couldn’t hide from the road without hauling my 40kg bike over the sand dunes that skirted it. I was also not keen on blundering about in the desert as this area, Repetek is famous for its biodiversity: the Karakurt Spider, ten times more venomous than the cobra; snakes, scorpions, and the infamous Giant Grey
Lizard, baptised the crocodile of the desert because of its nasty bite. Luckily, after twenty minutes I arrived at a small hut by the road with a topchan, the elevated platform used as table and bed throughout Central Asia, behind it. Nobody was around and I lay down with my bicycle next to me and slept until 4.30am. Awaking, I found the wind had dropped to my relief and after little more than an hour I had pedalled out of the desert and arrived in Turkmenabad at the Amu Darya, the mighty Oxus river of ancient times.
At around six in the afternoon, when the men head back home after working in the fields or taking care of their small businesses in the villages, I would start my search for food and shelter. I call it generating benevolence: it entails finding a human being and appealing to their basic hospitality and wish to help a stranger.
On the high pastures in the Pamir or in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan a Western man in Lycra on a bicycle is as exotic and interesting to the locals tourists generally generate indifference or at best are seen as rich people from which to make some quick dollars, people engaged in sports are almost universally seen with sympathy. On previous occasions, tribesmen from the remote Wamena valley in Papua joined me barefoot for a few kilometres as they saw me running by; in the Turkmen Karakum desert, drivers stopped to offer me water; on remote beaches of the Philippines, in the plantations of Malaysia, in the slums of Jakarta, people stood by the road have offered encouragement and a thumbs up.
Generating benevolence requires a sixth sense on who to pick to ask for assistance, but I also rely on past experience. A house with a well-kept garden or with flowers, even if modest, is a sign of a good place to stay. A doctor is likely to have a clean house. I prefer to choose and generate benevolence rather than following those who approach me with an offer in the first place. My experience in Asia is that most of the times you are better off than staying at a hotel or camping, and, most important of all, you are always sure of an interesting glimpse into the real life of the locals. A home does not lie, it says who you are.
The most memorable moments in this trip were often the nights in local households. Women would prepare a special meal, sometimes very simple and modest but still out of the ordinary for my host. Abdullo, from a cotton-field region on the Uzbek-Tajik border, cut grapes from his vine as soon as I arrived; Dr Shadman, the pharmacist in the mountain village of Boysun, Uzbekistan, went to the bazaar to buy meat; Pisando, near the summit of the Kabukabot pass in Tajikistan, walked to his neighbour’s house to get a watermelon; Najiba, at the Pamiri village across the river from Afghanistan, opened the home-made syrup of apricot and strawberry reserved for special occasions.
Often my host called their relatives or friends to parade me as a subject of exotic interest, proud of me staying in their home. There was often no toilet where I stayed, but I was always offered a bucket with warm water to clean myself. Typically breakfast was tea, bread and biscuits. I would leave some money which was often promptly refused at first but later accepted and the family would see me off after giving me something for the road such as a few tomatoes, cucumbers, nuts or dried mulberries.
Generating benevolence resulted in greater comfort for me, the warm feeling of intimacy and the intellectual satisfaction of seeing something more than the surface. I looked with wonder at other foreign cyclists I met on the road who spent most nights under canvas or at a basic local hostel. One couple I met were content to set up their tent on a dung-dappled field at the entrance to a village at the foot of the Pamirs in Tajikistan while I cycled into the centre, picked the best, most charming house in the place and was soon happily making myself at home . . .
When you share out-of-the-ordinary travel plans before you go, people are very willing to share stories they have heard from friends of friends, often adding their own, unwarranted insights to them. To some, Iranians during Ramadan would angrily prevent me cycling because my obvious need of food and water would make me break my fast. The Hong Kong NGO that I first approached to link my adventure to fundraising, was enthusiastic at first, but later declined my offer as the board thought I was surely going to die and negatively impact their reputation while visiting such dangerously unsound countries. Others warned that it would take months to obtain visas, without any certainty of success, and the loss of time and money. A common view had me being kidnapped along the Afghan border or savaged by bandits along the backroads of Central Asia. A doctor in a well-known Hong Kong clinic suggested no less than 10 vaccines, including yellow fever which is not even an Asian disease.
To decide whether to listen or not to all this good-natured advice, I have a magic four-word formula: I simply ask: “Have you been there?” This question saved me over and over again over from suggestions that were mostly too pessimistic and sometimes too optimistic, very seldom accurate. If the answer is “no”, I stopped listening. The only way to get a fair and up-to-date assessment of the challenges and opportunities of visiting either the centre of Milan or the inhabited valleys of the Pamirs along the Afghan border is the first-hand experience of someone who has been there recently.
Meeting other cyclists who had just done what I was about to do was priceless, such as one meeting I had with a French couple at the border between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The conversation developed in the opposite fashion than with those people who have never been there.
First and foremost you talk about what you can do rather than what you cannot do. I told this couple that the often-stated need to produce an official receipt, proving that you had slept at a registered hotel for each night of your stay in Uzbekistan, is not implemented at the border. They could now make a decision that many choose not to: they could camp or sleep in local houses without fear of being fined. In return I got useful advice on which road to take to reach Khorog from Dushanbe, and it seemed that the summer road was not as dangerous as romantically suggested by other sources.
“Have you been there?” This is all you need to ask.