Some three months ago with just one toe in Europe I set off along the Silk Road, an ancient trading route which wends its way from Europe in a web of roads and tracks which eventually thread their way through Persia, the Himalayas, Siberia and the Gobi desert to China. It was along these paths which silk from which the trading route gets its name, was transported on the backs of horses, camels and men from the depths of the Orient. But it was not just a one way street, goods such as gold, silver and wool travelled east from Europe and in return the obvious commodity of silk came to the west as well as spices, sugar and importantly tea. Knowledge, ideas, mathematics, art, religion, people and philosophy were also exchanged and now the ancient route can boast the accolade of having transported Harry Morris from west to east.
As with my time spent in Africa I have been over whelmed with the generosity of the people, barely a day has gone by where I have not been given a cup of tea, lunch or even a bed for the night. It must be said that I have enjoyed the fact that the regions through which I have been ambling have been distinctly less full than in Africa. I finally managed to get some peace and quiet finding myself in the likes of north western Mongolia camping in the wilderness without another sole for a hundred kilometres. But at the same time this has its draw backs, Asia as a place to tour has been distinctly tougher than the regions of Africa that I travelled, desert crossings and the lack of people have meant that food and water have been tough to come by on occasion; only occasionally and normally when I’ve been half arsed on the planning front.
But I quickly discovered that I am not alone out there, when planning over a pot of tea, my route along the Silk Road, I had no idea just how popular this area is for cyclists. Since leaving Istanbul I have met or at least waved at 103 fellow tourers and there I was thinking that I was special. Most of these lot were heading to cycle the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan which apparently is the most popular big tour route in the world. But what a bunch of good eggs. They mostly seemed to be Europeans; Swiss, French and a fair few Dutch; a not so insignificant proportion of them were in their golden years, putting their pensions to good use. Take note, its never to late to give it a go.
Central Asia is under the vast majority of our radars, quietly keeping them selves to them selves without us sparing them so much as a thought. More fool us, we have missed the biscuit on this one. If you are into your hiking or climbing then Kyrgyzstan should be your Holy Grail, architecture and history your bag? Then Uzbekistan is your treasure trove. And the cuisine well its more of a trough than fine dinning, there isn’t a Michelin star in sight (they can’t have it all). But amongst this weird group of cyclists every man and his dog seems to have been, is planning to go or is dreaming of going to Central Asia. These places you might think are off the beaten track but the Silk Road is probably the most trodden path throughout history.
Food and roads are the focus of much discussion for cyclists and over landers passing through Asia. In Istanbul it started well, everything from high end to my budget was great, the chicken kebabs were a staple until I reached the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea and the wine wasn’t half bad in Georgia either. The roads followed the same trajectory worsening with the easterly longitudes until they both culminated in an all time low in western Mongolia. I managed to avoid anything more than a nibble of the aryl, a teeth cracking cheese like brick which tastes like foot and keeps the nomads going through winter; I also only had a smidgen of the fermented milk known as airag or kumis, it comes in various varieties; goat’s, cow’s, mere’s or even camel’s milk. Its sour, lumpy and makes your jaw shudder. They even put salt in their tea, salt! To be fair there has been a few culinary bloopers that I only have myself to blame: being reduced to eating my morning watery porridge with my fingers as I couldn’t for the life of me find my spoon, was a messy business. Accidentally buying a litre of sour cream instead of yogurt but eating it all the same did not sit well. But the worst hands down resulted in me riding incontinence in the Uzbek desert after eating a somewhat dubious none descript meat pasty, god knows how long it was sat there in the heat.
Georgia was an unexpected gem and it’s on our door step, well more like at the bottom of the back garden. The people greet you with open arm and full glasses. They are very proud of their wine and of their Khinkali which I think can claim the accolade of the best dumplings in Asia or perhaps the world. Tbilisi was a modern vibrate city with a young forward thinking population who at times in recent years have been clashing with the more old fashioned and religious generations; at the front of the fray is homosexuality, abortion and the freedom of self expression; the magisterium aren’t exactly known for being progressive. Wander just a little way out from the city and into the mountains that you can see from its centre and you’ll find yourself in rural Georgia; walking or driving on mud roads and waving to families tilling their earth and drinking straight from refreshing mountain streams, no taps necessary. If ever you get the opportunity get your derrière over their and up into the Caucasus Mountains.
I climbed to new heights in Tajikistan as I followed the border with Afghanistan before turning north along the Pamir Highway to reach just over 4600m. This is the bottle neck for cyclists in the region but even here I would cycle for five hours or so with only seeing one or two lorries and the odd car which would be struggling for air almost as much as me. The mountains in this far extent of the Himalayas aren’t your typical granite and basalt greys but everything from earthy browns, off whites to blood reds. The wind and the snow only added to my feeling of exposure and satisfaction that I am actually out in it, in a true wilderness. Peering up valleys or over the edge of ridges and you command a vista like know where else I’ve visited in the world and there isn’t a single man made structure in sight, not even a lone shepherds hut.
The drive behind my route through Central Asia rather than skirting more southerly through Pakistan and India was to visit the steppe, to see the great grasslands which fuelled and gave rise to the Mongolia Empire. I was worried that it wouldn’t live up to my imaging’s. Rushing to get there in time for the Three Games of Men festival or Naadam, in which scantily clad men wrestle one another onto their backs, children race horses in a feat of endurance which probably tests the child more than the horse and seeing a goat tenderised through flesh ripping mounted tug of war in the sport of kokpar, was a triumphant start and introduction to the people of the steppe.
Its difficult to give it justice but I think it is the scale of Asia that makes it so immensely impressive which is only emphasised by the lack of people. In Africa you could be camping in the arse end of know where and still some mug would likely stumble into your camp. But In the valleys and rolling hills of Mongolia dinosaurs wouldn’t look out of place, the sheep might object. Though my shabby looking tent certainly did when pitched along side pristinely white gers which nestle on the great grass plains by rivers and streams. As I cycled through driving rain and thick sand I still didn’t loose the shear joy of actually reaching Mongolia which for me has been the greatest experience thus far; and hearing the howling of wolves as I hunkered down one night was the cherry on top.
After such a pleasure my short stint in China was never going to compare to the emerald that was the previous country. But I had the opportunity to cycle under the arch of the Great Wall, walk its ramparts, eat some exceptional and authentic Chinese cuisine and reach the end of the silk thread which was my route through Asia. I must admit I have been a touch disappointed with my Chinese experience though: with all their gadgetry and tech on going to the loo I was disappointed to find a plane old boring porcelain. I was expecting lights, sprays and a robotic toilet which guided me through the process and told me “well done,” afterwards .
I’m now half way (that’s if I resist the urge extend, after all there is so much more still out there), to reach this point I have visited a total of 21 countries and cycled 12,126 miles across two continents. I am two and a bit continents down having yet to really cycle through Europe, that will be my final leg and return to the UK. But that is future Harry’s problem. Arguably my hardest cycling has been dealt with but who knows what the likes of Central and South America have to offer. I have little concerns over my next continent Australasia .I think I am more likely to suffer from a severe hangover rather than a black eye from a boxing kangaroo. But I have been warned that koalas have epidemic of chlamydia but despite my celibacy things haven’t gotten that bad, yet, I don’t think I will be needing a course of antibiotics down under.