Wow, Iran! We’re not even sure where to begin – too much to say about this country!
While cycling was not all that great in this country connecting Central Asia and Turkey, we were massively impressed by the people and by the stories they told us. We found that two things impressed and got us thinking the most.
One was the incredible hospitality we got to experience in this country.
Getting in touch with the locals never proved to be a problem. Just sit in front of a store or a bakery and after a while people would just come up to you and start asking questions: “What do people think about Iran in your country?”, “what do you think about Islam?”, “are people in Europe like in the movies?”. Eventually they would ask us where we planned to stay for the night and telling them that we would sleep in our tents was rarely an accepted answer: “You can’t sleep in a tent! Come to my house, you are my guest!”
Accordingly we only camped out three nights while being in the country for three weeks! One could even recognize the original colors of our clothes as people offered to wash our clothes for us on multiple occasions.
Before entering Iran we were concerned that we would have a hard time finding enough food as we entered the country during the fasting month of Ramadan. When we look back now this concern seems really funny as we were encouraged to eat as much as possible every time we got invited. We probably even gained weight in Iran as we developed a really big craving for Bamir, a typical middle east sweet that is served in the evening after sunset!
Other than being invited in the evenings, people were also very kind on the roads! Buying us drinks or ice cream and yelling “Welcome to Iran” or “I love you Mister!” out of their cars! Iranians also showed their support by honking at us, a practice that we are not really convinced off 😉
The other thing that left its marks on us were the stories so many people told us about how their lives were limited by rules and regulations imposed on them.
We were fortunate to meet people who told us very directly and honestly about the restrictions but also about how it’s really handled by many people.
For example it’s officially forbidden to watch international TV channels, have a Facebook account or to drink any alcohol. Even more rules apply for women. They always have to cover their hair and sports like cycling or climbing are off limits for them.
In reality however, if there is no officiall store to buy alcohol, many Iranians might just use a traditional family recipy to make their own wine. If they don’t want to wear a headscarf, they will wear whatever they want upon being in their homes. To watch international TV stations, they will just hide a satellite dish in their jards. We got to meet very impressive and brave women, who actively decided to ignore many of theses rules, taking off their headscarfs when no police was close by or hopping on their bikes anyhow! We even got to meet three female climbers who told us that they had been arrested by the police on the charge of climbing two times already… When we met them they where on their way to the local climbing crag!
Nevertheless we were told and could see that all those restrictions and rules, even though circumvented in many instances, still made life really hard for many of the especially younger people we met! Often we were asked by the Iranians what we liked the most about their country. On one occasion we asked a young women the same questions back. She thought for a while and then answered: “To be honest, nothing really!”
It was quite depressing to hear from almost every person, who received higher education, that they saw little perspective in the country and wanted to emigrate as quickly as possible. Some could see a bit of hope but rather for the generation of their children and not themselves.
It was very often that we were told that we should be thankful and happy that we got to grow up and live in a free country. Really something we don’t think about too often – but they definitely got a point there!
The governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are really not very interested in having tourists like us come to their countries. While Uzbekistan welcomes tourists that are shuttled from attraction to attraction in big buses, don’t ask any questions, spend a lot of money, and then leave quickly again, Turkmenistan really doesn’t want anybody to come!
The consulates, where one applies for the visa, are the first place, they make sure that you know you’re not quiet welcome. We applied for the Uzbek visa in Bishkek. Just getting an appointment at the embassy took us four days. While we got the visa quite easily and quickly afterwards, the lady issuing the visa was rather unfriendly. After having the visa in our passports, she found it more fitting to yell “Out!”, than to just say good bye. In circles of travellers and cyclists she is actually better known as the ‘Monster of Bishkek’!
At the Turkmen consulate in Almaty, while being fairly friendly, they told us that once we were in the country we should just get to Iran as quickly as possible: “No left! No right! Just straight!”, as the consul put it.
Unfortunately for the Uzbek government we were not bringing any big money, neither would we sit in big buses, and we had no intention of not talking to the people. Same was true for Turkmenistan, often called the North Korea of Central Asia. Telling us that we should just go straight and not look at anything just made us more curious.
While these encounters at the embassies, the very restrictive registration rules in Uzbekistan, and the stories which are told among cyclists and other travellers got us to be quiet anxious before entering these two countries, we actually had a really good time there!
We got to enjoy the beautiful Orient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, two of the most historic cities in Uzbekistan. Cities where you cold feel the old spirit of the silk road.
In both countries we were met with incredible hospitality and curiosity! In Uzbekistan and even more in Turkmenistan, foreigners are a rare sight. While language often proved to be the biggest barrier, we still got around using the few Russian words we knew and finding an English speaking person from time to time.
In Uzbekistan we got to spend one night with a small farmer family. We loved hearing about their lives and were truly humbled by their selfless hospitality. To avoid the biggest heat of the day we told them that we would leave by five o’clock in the morning and asked them not to wake up because of us. When we got up the next morning they had already prepared a wonderful breakfast!
In Turkmenistan we asked a woman where we could find a store in her little village. Rather than pointing us the way to the store, she invited us into her house right away! She and her daughters prepared an incredible meal and we spent a long time looking at the family photo album and listening to their stories.
Other than these wonderful encounters Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were the hottest places we’ve been to so far. Temperatures above 40°C were rather the norm than an exception. If it gets so hot the entire rythem of the day changes. We would get up at four or five in the morning, have a quick breakfast and be on the road as the sun was just rising.
At noon the latest we would find a tree, eat a bit, and then just lay in the shade and wait until it’d get a bit cooler again. We used any chance to cool of, jumping into rivers and irrigation channels. In the evenings we sometimes even cycled into the dark to make use of the cooler temperatures.
Exiting Turkmenistan we left the last of the Central Asian states behind us. We can honestly say that we had an incredible time in this part of the word. We are quite certain that we’ll be back some day, even though Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan might not have the highest priority 😉
While we had originally not planned to go through Kazakhstan, needing to apply for our Turkmen visa in Almaty led us to visit the largest of the Central Asian countries.
After having finished our applications in Almaty and Bishkek, as well as having spend some wonderful days hiking the mountains of Kyrgyzstan we finally continued our journey westwards again!
Cycling along the southern border we got to enjoy views of stunning mountains to the south and rolling grasslands to the north!
During the few days in Kazakhstan we were blown away by the incredible hospitality of the Kazakh people. We were invited and fed in an Islam school, by a family filling their tables with national specialties, and by a medical rescue crew who fed us with shashlik until we couldn’t eat no more!
We also got some first impressions of the heat that we would get to experience in the next countries, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. We used every possibility to cool of, jumping into lakes, rivers, and even irrigation channels!
The next stops are Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey. After spending so much time waiting for our visa, which sometimes felt like a little vacation from our trip, we are really excited to be moving westwards again and to be seeing so many different and fascinating places!
After rather challenging days cycling through the Taklamakan desert, we had big expectations for Kyrgyzstan! A country where one doesn’t need a visa to enter, where due to the nomadic culture camping is no problem, and where the mountains would offer a great alternative to the sometimes dull days in the desert.
Kyrgyzstan didn’t let us down! Entering the country was a great experience – a lonely soldier with his Kalashnikov at the border, a handshake, a small checkpoint, simple procedures, friendly border guards! Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!
But our first day in the “Switzerland of Central Asia” kept on getting better! Cycling through the first village we knew right away that this place was a bit different. High pitched voices yelling “Bye bye, bye bye, …” greeted us and swarms of kids started running towards the street, waving their arms like crazy! Just asking for a store, we got invited into a families home right away being fed until we couldn’t eat no more.
For the rest of the day we cycled up mountain roads until we met the majestic Pamir mountain range, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful we have witnessed so far!
Setting up our camp we suddenly spotted four little dots, slowly moving down the road! Could it be true? Other cyclists? Like mad we started running towards the road, yelling, whistling, throwing our arms in the air! Would they see us? One of them passed, another one, the third one as well! It seemed like they didn’t see us! But then, the final cyclists stopped! Yes, the effort of our sprint at 3300 meters high seemed to pay off!
We are not quiet sure if non-cyclists will understand but meeting the first other touring cyclists after almost two months on the road makes you so incredibly happy, it’s hard to describe! The smile across our face must have been so big, it could probably only be matched by the ones of the small Kyrgyz kids!
As the two young women from the Netherlands and the two lads from the UK were just on lookout for a camp spot we invited them over to our tents! After setting up all the tents, the before remote hill in the Pamirs suddenly looked like a little campground. Five tents in the middle of nowhere – what a wonderfull sight! For the rest of the evening and until late in the night we shared our stories, laughed, cooked dinner, played cards, and just enjoyed each others company!
Ryan and Charly, an Englishman and a Scott, had already started their journey in the cold days of January. Cycling from Venice to China they follow the ancient silk road and are quiet close to finishing up their trip soon! Anna and her friend (we forgot her name – sorry) had just started their trip in Osh and intend to cycle the Karakorum Highway to Pakistan! Not all the way to Islamabad because, as they put it, the last miles to the Pakistani capital were “a bit too terroristy” but to Gilgit instead. We were heavily impressed by the company we got to enjoy this night!
As we cycled off the next morning we realized that the very day the marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II!
Two Dutch, two Brits, and two Germans celebrating life in the middle of the Pamir mountains of Kyrgyzstan – We couldn’t think of a better way of celebrating 70 years of peace!
During the final weeks in China we cycled through Xinjiang, the country’s western most province. One of the main things we were able to discover in this big and beautifully wild part of China was sand.
For both of us it was the first time to spend a good amount of time in such a large desert. While at first we were thrilled to cycle through a landscape where you could not see anything but sand from one horizon to the next, this fascination soon made way for a sense of dullness. We caught ourselves dreaming about cold water as the desert days grew hotter and hotter. Ideas about ice cream made their way into our daydreams.
About once per day the sandy desert was interrupted by an green oasis! The joys of seeing green trees, gras, and little rivers was worth all the hardships of a long day in the desert.
One of the especially wonderful things about the oases in Xinjiang province were the big and delicious breads, which the local Uyghurs bake in big round stoves. In the middle of the stove is a burning fire while the breads are spread around it in a circle on the wall. On our best day we ate eight of those round breads – each of us!
Overall we noticed a change in the culture as we rode towards the western border of China. Food, behaviour, clothes and buildings were different from what we had experienced further east. The more and more muslim culture sometimes made us feel like we were in the middle east already.
These cultural differences seem to cause tensions between the Uyghur and the Chinese government, leading to a very high police presence in this province. Several check points per day were not unusual. A young Uyghur explained us that the Uyghurs have difficulties to get a passport and therefore can’t leave the country. That reminded us of our privileged situation. Nevertheless we ran into some trouble with the law enforcement as well when a villager called the police on us as we set up our camp one night.
Leaving Kashgar, the capital of Xinjiang, we got to enjoy a few more days in the spectacular mountains at the very western end of the country. Heading into Kyrgyzstan we both still can’t quiet wrap our head around everything we got to experience in China!
Now we are looking forward to all the adventures that await us in Central Asia!
“Shue, shue” – the Chinese word for water is the only thing we understand. The guy who just got out of his truck keeps on repeating these words and points down the road. After a while we understand. The road is washed away. The man tells us it’s impossible to pass by bike and then roars off again. We are left contemplating. Should we continue, should we turn back?
Everything started a day earlier when we had decided to take a shorter, but smaller road through the mountains which were the last barrier between us and the Taklamakan desert.
Upon arriving at the start of the planned shortcut we found it to be blocked by a huge pile of sand. The intention was clear. The pile would tell any reasonable person: This road is blocked, do not continue. But as we both have a weakness for wild places we just couldn’t resist…
For the next 250 km we got to experience a place so incredibly wild, beautiful and lonely as we had never seen it before. No cars, no shops, no asphalt. However the gravel road was in such a terrible condition that we were seriously worried about our bikes during the four days on this road.
Where it was possible we followed dirt paths next to the actual “road” to avoid the bumpy riding.
After one and a half days, and about two hours after our encounter with the man who had warned us about the washed away road, we got to a place were the road just vanished in the river. Would we need to ride back all those bumpy kilometres?
We were incredibly happy to find the river to be lower and less swift than we had been warned about. We first carried our bags and then pushed our bikes to the other shore. Several crossings followed. By the time we had passed the river for the last time it had almost become routine. Afterwards our bikes, feet and trainers were freshly cleaned – what a nice bonus.
The next challenge was a long, hard and steep ride to a 3800 meter high pass.
The sun was burning down on us and the sweat was flowing. We were looking forward to the downhill ride, but this was harder than expected. Snow, mud and rain had destroyed parts of the road and we had to carry the bikes around those parts.
Furthermore a big rock fall had covered the road completely, leaving us no other option than to climb over the still moving stones.
Finally on the last day we reached the end of the mountains and also the end of the street. It just vanished into an empty canyon. We had to push the bikes again, trying to find our own way. The temperature was rising and more and more sand was blocking our way. We could feel that the desert was not far ahead.
Suddenly the street reappeared and also some fancy dressed Chinese men. We were both equally surprised to meet anybody out here. They appeared to be civil engineers ordered to investigate the condition of the “street” in order to rebuild it. They were very keen on seeing the pictures we had taken as nobody had passed through this road in a decent time. In return for the information they offered us water, cookies and fruits. As we were running low on supplies, this made us really happy.
After four days in the mountains and upon reaching the main road again we kissed the road and celebrated the perfect concrete, which we had not seen for four days.
While we were not allowed to bike the autonomous province of Tibet we still got to experience some Tibetan culture and nature when cycling over the extends of the Tibetan plateau reaching into the neighboring provinces. Yaks, lakes, pilgrims, and gigantic mountains kept us excited day after day!
When the first warm beams of sunlight are falling on your face, while you are sipping your warm coffee and enjoying the view over the snow covered mountains it’s the perfect start for a bicycle day.
A few days ago we started our day like that. After breakfast we biked to a town called Dulan and bought some food for the next days. While searching for rice we met a fruit shop owner who gave us apples for free. Really nice! When we were done shopping we decided to change into our short biking outfit because the temperature was rising quickly. As we stood in front of a new building, trying to cover every bit of naked skin with sun lotion, a car arrived and a man with a huge camera jumped out. He greeted us and asked if he could take some photos. We smiled for the picture and turned our attention to the bikes again. Meanwhile two old and traditionally clothed man joined the photographer. He told them to stand next to us and more photos were taken. Now we noticed that this was something more than just a photo of crazy Europeans on bicycles. This was our second job as photo models. The new building was not any building, it was a new museum shortly before opening. We were guided into the Museum and had to act as visitors together with the two old man. A second photographer showed up and in the next 15 minutes every move of us in the museum was documented. We were wondering if we should quit our bike tour and start earning our money as models. But as our payment was just a warm handshake, we decided to carry on. Motivated we jumped on our bikes and reached the 3000 km point of our journey on the same day.