This summer, I’ll be attempting to ride a bicycle across Central Asia, from Istanbul, Turkey–an unofficial divider of the European and Asia continents–to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan–on the edge of Western China. My route will take me through Georgia, Azerbaijan, a ferry or plane across the Caspian Sea, southwestern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The journey is roughly 5,500km long, and should take about 4 months.
This idea is a relatively recent one. Here’s how it came to be.
Kankan, Guinea is not quite walkable, so I bought a bike to get around. About two months ago, I was riding this bike, frail and Chinese-built, on the newly paved road to Bamako, Mali, while thinking about the next phase of my trip. For a while, the plan had been to go roughly overland from Israel to India, riding trains, buses, and the odd hitched ride through the Himalayan, tea-sweet mystique of the fabled Silk Road. I was enjoying that day’s ride, I remember, and at one point, maybe a hands-free plunge down a steeper hill, with enough speed to do nothing more than admire the mango trees and straw huts lining the road, as the rush of warm air pelted my face on a typically warm afternoon, I thought: “why don’t I do it on a bike instead?”
I pondered the idea for the rest of the ride, mentally reworked my travel schedule just a bit, and once back in town, I headed rather immediately to the Internet café to begin the preliminary research. Like that, idea was born.
The plan seems a bit nuts, well at least a bit different, and I’m sure you, the Reader, have a few questions. I’ll do my best to answer.
Am I cut out for this?
Am I in good shape right now? Mostly yes. Have I ever toured on a bike before? No. I’ve been doing a bit of training here in Kankan, though, putting something like 1,000km on my frail, Chinese-built bike, but regardless, I fully expect the first two weeks to suck. After that, as echoed by a few cyclists I’ve been in contact with, my legs will adjust, and it won’t suck anymore.
At the end of the day, you just pedal once, and then twice, and then don’t stop until you’re there, right?
How often will I ride?
5,500km in 16 weeks puts me on pace for roughly 50km per day. More practically, this translates into a pace of 100km every two days: I’ll ride half the days, averaging 100km on the days I do ride.
Where’s the bike?
In the weeks prior to getting started, I’ll be in Israel. Initially, I figured to buy everything–the bike, panniers, tools, etc–over there, and fly with it to Istanbul. However, I quickly learned that this was a poor plan: you need the right bike for this kind of trip, a touring bike, and while Israel has plenty of resources, the quality of product just isn’t there. In fact, when I called bike shops in Tel Aviv, they didn’t even know what a touring bike was. It’s kind of ironic, actually: Israelis aren’t much into bike touring because, being a tiny country and being forbidden to enter most neighboring countries, they can’t really ride very far!
Instead, I personally fitted myself for a bike, having Guineans in internet cafés helping me to take measurements with a tailor’s tape and an old keyboard as a straight edge, and ordered the thing from the US.
My basic setup is as follows:
2013 Surly Long Haul Trucker, in Smog Silver
Ortlieb Waterproof Panniers, Back and Front, in Black
Shimano A530 Pedals, in Black
Brooks B17 Saddle, in Black
It’s all being pieced together by the good people at Bilenky Cycle Works in Philadelphia, and will be shipped to Istanbul in the coming weeks. It’s going to be a sexy, motherf*cking bicycle.
Where will I sleep?
I’ll have a tent, a stove, and full camping gear.
Some nights, Ill be camping in the wild. Other nights, I anticipate sleeping in, with permission, lots of gas stations, and lots of mosques. Lastly, I’ll be CouchSurfing when I can, and staying in hostels if really needed, which I hear, in this part of the world and outside of capital cities, are generally families who allow you to pay to use a guest room. But hey, I’ll have to shower somewhere, right?
What will I eat?
I’m not sure. Couscous, sardines, pasta, rice. In cities, food obviously won’t be a problem. But when you’re on a bike, moving 100km a day, you’re generally not close to a city; I’ll make do with whatever’s there. I anticipate eating a lot of Turkish chocolate to stay energized–at least for the first leg.
What are the highlights?
The highlights, besides living on a bicycle for four months and covering a decent chunk of the historic Silk Road, are numerous. The mountainous northern coast of Turkey, along the Black Sea; the lunar destitution of Kazakhstan’s Utsyurt Plateau; the tiled mosaic city of Samarkand, a well-known Silk Road outpost in Uzbekistan; and finally, most formidably and most epic, the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, a sky-high battle through a jagged, biblical cathedral of Himalayan beauty. I’m excited to go camping as well!
What are the challenges?
Visas. I’m told the hardest thing about traveling the Silk Road is obtaining the visas. Quoting from www.cyclingsilk.com, a website dedicated to a 10-month, 10,000km Silk Road cycling trip done by two Canadian girls, in order to promote awareness for wilderness conservation and trans-boundary environmental cooperation:
“Getting sanction to cycle the Silk Road through Central Asia is the modern equivalent of the Great Game, a kind of diplomatic chess where enigmatic rules change on a dictator’s whim, where checkmate is risked with every move to a new country, especially a new ‘Stan.”
So. I plan to get a few visas in Israel–Uzbek and Kazakh–and a few in Istanbul–Azeri and Tajik. Americans don’t need visas for Georgia (we can actually stay for 360 consecutive days without any paperwork!), nor Kyrgyzstan. Truthfully, I think I have the visas figured out, and with a little bribery and strong sense of patience, I should be OK.
Aside from visas, other challenges include bike repair, in which I have zero training; I’m basically planning to find a bike shop in Tel Aviv, and offer a guy some beer to teach me how to fix a bike when he’s finished with his shift. The food in Central Asia might really suck too, the people may be sparse, and I’ve heard some wild things about Turkey, in which children have been known to throw rocks at passing cyclists. Big difference from Guinea, where the kids jump and laugh and dance and thank the heavens that they are fortunate enough to be basking in the glowing effervescence of an American citizen, as I cycle on by.
How can you help?
You can make me playlists! My music is beyond stale right now. Also, I’m guessing to have a cell phone, so, even though it’ll probably cost like $0.75/min, you can call me when I’m on the bike!
Why do I want to do this?
The big question, I suppose, is why. Most plainly, I really like being on a bicycle. I like the idea, I like the workout, and I think coasting down a hill–legs paused and hands behind your back, doing nothing more than enjoying the sun-splashed trees, the singing of the birds, and the sweet, baker’s aroma of the air, at a speed not too fast so as to miss it, but not too slow so as to overthink it–is one if the best things you could ever do in nature. I want more of that. In addition, I’ve been thinking for a while now that after the trip, I’d ride a bicycle from Anchorage to Los Angeles, or maybe Mexico City, or maybe Bogotá. This seems cooler though. And hey–maybe I’ll even get to do both.
Aside from liking bikes, the “why” of cycling Central Asia actually goes a bit deeper. I’ve been on the road now for about 14 months. I started off staying in hostels. I flew a bit. I did some group tour adventure activity type things. And then I started moving away from that.
I started doing some volunteering. I started CouchSurfing almost exclusively. I started slowing down, and getting to know some people a little bit better. I bought a tent. I started hitchhiking a bit, and camping a bit more. I started to all but swear off airplanes, if I could help it, in order to sit on buses and trains and in cars, and stare out the window at ground level instead of from above the clouds. I started spending less money too, realizing that even $20/day in the vast majority of the places I’ve been is much more than sufficient (and no more than $5/day in Guinea, when not moving much).
This whole backpacking thing, to me, is a very evolutionary process. And what you’re moving closer to, really, is not ultimate “badass-ness,” but a more intimate connection with the countries you’re visiting, and with the road itself; with the lessons it offers, the challenge it should be, and the heartbreak it can often become. I think travel, real travel, is something you earn; it’s that beer at the end of five days hiking through the rain, or seeing that train rattling through a cozy orange sunset, after 17 hours in the backseat of a bush taxi in North Africa. Travel is more about the things that don’t work, than the things that do. I once read, from this guy I sent a CouchRequest to in Buenos Aires, that travel, the real adventure of travel, doesn’t start until the original plan fails. The more difficult travel is, the more rewarding, and important, it ultimately becomes.
So maybe, at least for me, hopping on a bicycle is just the next step: another way to get closer to the road–another way to know it more deeply. On a bicycle, the climbs and the coasts–the vicissitudes of life–become much more real. Emotionally, and certainly physically, I’m hoping to crawl just a bit closer, to what this notion of travel really means. After all, travel is about pushing yourself forward, one pedal stroke, proverbial or not, at a time.
Lastly, when I boarded a plane to Iceland 9 months after my trip began, I made a pledge to put more faith, often blindly, in the people of the world. And by hopping on a bicycle, riding it through countries whose languages I don’t speak, with the likes of whose mountains I’ve never climbed, I’m relying on people to help me make it through in one piece. Offers of hot tea, directions to the next battle, and frantic gestures of “come sleep in my home!” really will be necessary instruments to my success–and to my safety.
On a bike, I’m putting myself “up against it” just a bit more, and relying, I do promise, rather heavily on the kindness of strangers to help me through. Like I said in my personal reflection after a year on the road, I really do have faith in the people of the world. And for those who don’t–for those who think I’m nuts to get anywhere near a country, alone, whose name contains the word “‘Stan,”–well, hopefully I can prove you wrong.
Out of Kankan, and back on the road again,
P.S. If my visas go through speedily, and I make good time on the bike in the first month, I might lock it up for 10 days, and head down, via bus, into Iraqi Kurdistan. A big reason for this, really, would just be to be able to tell people, especially Americans, about it afterwards. “Yes, I felt very safe, and no, the entirety of the Middle East is not one big terrorist cell. Iraqi Kurds were incredibly kind. I know this because I was there.”
We’ll see though. I don’t think my mother would be particularly happy if I went through with it.