Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Crazy Adventures of Crazy Max


‘Ahhh you from England!’ said the man behind the counter of the snug photocopy shop in downtown Bishkek ‘you like zero zero seven?’

I had to think for a minute

‘Double-O-seven? James Bond?’

‘Yes. But…’ he eyed my bike, anxiously. ‘Your bike look like some-sing from that film… Crrrazy Max’

I took another moment

‘Mad Max?’ I tried

‘Yes Yes. Mad Max. Crrrrrazy Max’

Six years ago I had christened my bike Belinda. But Belinda was too precious and pristine a name for what my machine had become. ‘Crazy Max’ did more for the rust, cable ties, dents in the frame and air of looming catastrophe.

The first thing I saw on pushing open the door to the AT house ( a home away from home for passing cyclists) was a tall, determined, hairy man in Spandex: a ready spoon in one hand, he scoured the depths of a pot of Nutella looking for hidden sweetness. He held the pot up to the light, a look of profound disappointment in his eyes. Like he’d lost a son. This devastating realisation (‘I’ve eaten all the Nutella’) was to be a familiar ritual, repeated by men and women from various nations passing through this part of Central Asia by bicycle.

Usually when I arrive to a city I’ve taken weeks to get to, I’m not looking my best: lavishly bearded, bedraggled, desperate-looking. Like I might abduct your grandmother and ransom her for extra strong cider. People look at me, and then cast fearful glances in the direction I came from, perhaps wondering whatever debased me so thoroughly might be coming for them.

Not so in Bishkek. I sailed in on a tailwind, the sky was empty of clouds, the blueness felt unfleeting. My sweaty mullet fluttered out behind me, gleaming like the mane of a galloping wild stallion. Girls swooned.

It was hot, and the air so still that even the poplar fluff drifted downwards instead of dancing on the air. Kids played around the fountains off Chuy street, screeching their way around the errant sprays of cool water, high above the national flag of Kyrgyzstan was draped limply like a discarded dress on a hook.

Throughout the world there are biker-bottlenecks and Bishkek, as the capital of the country with the friendliest visa policy of the central-Asian bunch, is a popular place for riders to stack up, chill out, score onward visas, fix bikes and eat copious Nutella.

Angie and Nathan at the AT house opened up their garden for bikers a year ago and since then bikers had arrived in numbers to pitch their tents, potter in the attached workshop and share their stories. For a gratuitous 18 days I dipped in and out of conversations. I read books in a hammock. I built a wheel with Nathan, gave talks at the university and a local bar, looked in on an anti-gay protest (to subtly deride the participants whilst trying not to get beaten up), wrote, and mused. Yeah, there was a lot of musing. Punctuated by languorous beard strokes.

The stories I mentioned? They were good ones.

Oliver a Frenchman who had travelled for eight years with a paraglider on his bike and had a tendency to leap from mountains he’d pedalled up. His beard was so bold and unruly, if you’d inspected him upside down, the Jackson Five came to mind.

My friend and yogi master Sam who I’d met in Urumqi turned up too, with Rosalind who he’d previously met at a border in west Africa. Rosalind is a 70-odd year old lady who’d lived and worked in Antarctica for three years. There were two cheery Italians on a tandem they called ‘the big red gate’ with stories galore from Iran. Adam who had worked as a weapons collector in Afghanistan. Grum - pedalling around the world and entertaining kids in schools back home. A Korean couple with scary memories of the Nepali earthquake. A young German climber who videoed the avalanche at Everest basecamp, three Brits who’d lost their bank cards whilst drunk and ended up begging for food on the streets of Kazakhstan, an Aussie and French guy with videos of epic sandstorms in Mongolia.

With Alessandro and Stefania

With Nathan and Oliver
So cyclists came and went. Empty pots of Nutella accumulated. And I went to get a visa… 

The Uzbek embassy had collected a grim cloud of applicants drifting about its metal fence waiting to be let in. I waited with two young German guys on bikes, and Stephanie, a German girl. There were twitterings about the creature inside, someone so foul-tempered she had gained something of a reputation online and was causing international problems by virtue of her personality and position. She enjoyed screaming at applicants who broke some unspoken rule, and hung up if you phoned her. She was high on power, and possibly injectable testosterone.

Outside we christened her ‘The Beast of Bishkek’. People talked of trying to appease her with gifts of chocolate, but by the look of those leaving the embassy, I was fairly sure she ate fetid goat meat and orphans. I was rechecking my documents for the 15th time when I heard a voice to my left. ‘How long do we need to wait for the Kazakh visa?’

It was an American girl, looking lost.

‘Umm, this is the Uzbek embassy. You’ll need to go to the Kazakh embassy’

She thought about this.

‘I’ll just wait anyway. See what they say’

I persisted: ‘This is the Uzbek embassy. They don’t issue Kazakh visas’

‘Do we need like, a form and stuff?’ she asked

Oh God

‘Yeah. And a photo. And dollars. And photocopies. Do you have anything?’

‘I got my passport. Hey, where are we again?’

‘The Uzbek embassy’

‘No no I mean… Bis… Bisss…Bisssss’

She doesn’t know what city she’s in?

‘Bishkek?’ I tried, cringing inside

‘Yeah yeah Bishkek’

Suddenly I was feeling better about my chances. The Beast of Bishkek would eat her alive.

When I gained entry alongside Stephanie, the beast looked sullenly at us, with eyes of dull ice. We’d applied for visas on the same day, and received them on the same day, but I had been charged 120 dollars, and her 65. And as crazy as this sounds, I wanted to know why.

‘You ticked urgent. She didn’t’

‘But you said there is no urgent service!’ I appealed

‘That is right.’

I awaited something vaguely logical

‘But you ticked the box’ she said after a time

‘But, but… you’re gonna charge me 55 dollars for ticking a box that shouldn’t even be on the form?’

‘DO YOU WANT VISA OR NOT?! WE CANCEL IT!’

I choked back the urge to say something that would result in a lifetime ban to Uzbekistan, nodded glumly and paid up.

If you are reading this as a citizen of Mali or Chad or Nepal or any of the countries in which obtaining a UK visa is about as likely as being granted citizenship to North Korea – then I apologise. You probably think I’m an entitled twat. I realise how lucky I am, with freedom to roam more or less wherever I choose, but I hope you’ll allow me this little moan. The following might make you feel better…

One day as we sat around the table in AT House the door opened and a cyclist staggered in, blood soaked his t-shirt, his chin was covered in plasters and was now of superhero proportions. ‘The embassy…’ he trailed off and collapsed onto one of the chairs looking dazed, and possibly dying.

Jesus I thought. The Beast of Bishkek has really done it this time.

It turned out he was talking of the Chinese embassy. As he’d cycled around he'd noticed the gate was open and brazenly cycled through. Someone had decided he was a possible suicide bomber, which given the spandex, go-faster stripes and absence of anything in which to store a bomb, would have to be said to be unlikely in hindsight, but you have to presume someone was acting on impulse. That person activated a spiked metal fence which resides beneath the ground. It shot up at the exact moment he was cycling over it. He doesn’t remember the rest, only coming around to a ring of faces, lots of blood, a world of pain and then being bundled into a soviet era ambulance.

The car crashes I saw in Bishkek were almost funny in their implausibility. I’d cycle past an aftermath of a head on collision which was at the exact spot of a no-entry sign. The sign towered over the wreckage, glinting ironically. I know I moan a lot about drivers on this blog, but things really are getting worse! Kyrgyzstan is a deathzone!

For sixty kilometres as I cycled out of Bishkek I was driven off the road. Tailgating is particularly in vogue here, and so when one car veers away from my rear pannier at the last moment, the one behind doesn’t have the time to react and skims past me. To make matters worse, cars are a mix of right and left hand drives, and drivers are of mixed opinion about which is the correct side of the road to use. They only concur about an acceptable velocity – which is ‘Neck-Snapping’.

I like the advice of an Aussie biker I met lately: if the car that almost killed him stops at traffic lights up ahead, he cycles up, opens their back door, politely explains they have generously proportioned male genitalia on their heads (translate as you will), and leisurely rides off, leaving them stuck in traffic with an open back door. This is Genius.

But no matter how irate I get with drivers, the people I meet regularly in Kyrgyzstan always cheer me up. On the way to Osh policemen stop me for mass selfies, which is unprofessional in only the most wonderful way. Women gently goad me into drinking fermented mare’s milk, and when they flash gold teeth flash under their bandanna style headscarves, they look more than vaguely piratical. I sit with men wearing Kolpoks - the traditional hats, which is slightly evocative of the papal mitre, and therefore quite funny because Kirghiz men in Kolpocs like to sit around and drink beer. Children scream ‘Whatisyourname’ pronouncing it as one word and perhaps unsure what it means. Some mischievous somebody had taught the kids of one particular town to shout ‘fuck you’ and give tourists the middle finger. Trust me – it’s adorable. I was a little worried once when I cycled past a car which contained a youth leaning out of the window with a rifle aimed at the road. Once I’d passed he fired – it turned out to be a pellet gun, and the target was a tin can in the grass.

After turning off the busy road, I climbed up from 800 to 3100 metres above sea level over the course of a day – a lot of altitude on a heavy bike, but it felt good to be back in the mountains – I hadn’t reached these heights since Nepal. I began in a steeply sided valley, the verdant slopes broken by patches of maroon slate, and eventually hit some switchbacks which led up to a tunnel in which a few years before a car had broken down and left the engine running. Several drivers behind died from the fumes. I needed no encouragement to get a lift through it.

On the other side was an area of high steppeland where nomadic herders, here for the summer months, were gathered outside their yurts and rusted caravans selling delicious honey, fermented mare’s milk and balls of strong cheese (which if after being offered one by a proud local and asked what you think, you wipe tears from your eyes and reply: 'interesting')

The next day a storm dissolved into a blue sky. There were growls of distant thunder, and then fork lightning began to strike the steppe close by. I camped early and awoke to a scene of near perfection: aside the road land fell away in a series of grassy natural platforms, each sprinkled with pink, yellow and purple wild flowers, and boulders of pink granite patched with orange lichen. Small coniferous trees of the sort you find in English gardens were dotted about and scented the air. Beneath the lowest platform white water thrashed over boulders and cascaded down the valley. Beyond the stream mountains ruled the view – massive, green and tiger-striped with snow and the silvery flash of hidden streams. 



I dropped to lowlands covered in tawny grassland and circumnavigated a reservoir. A gang of women and one man waved me down shouting ‘Photo! Photo!’ They were all cheerfully drunk and I was soon wrapped up in a large lady who had taken a shine to me. ‘I’m not married!’ she shouted in Russian. ‘mmmph, mmphhh’ I replied, my voice muffled by what I think must have been a mixture of arm and breast.

I climbed away from the reservoir and dropped down through a valley, the rustle of sugar cane competed with the churn of roiling water. The drabness of the town of Karakol was not entirely due to the Soviet style apartment blocks (glumness cementified) but probably had to do with the roving alcoholics, and the kids playground: a crumbling jungle of concrete which seemed to promise great fun until Tetanus. Luckily the town’s teenagers were not in glum mood – it was graduation day. In the steamy afternoon they leaned out of car windows shrieking wildly, the girls in dinner dresses and boys suited and booted. 






I cycled along the green-blue Naryn river, an unearthly artery which looked painted on. On the shore I found a big bunch of families who’d come to splash about in the water and eat kebabs. I joined them. The braver teenagers asked me questions: did I love Kyrgyzstan? Are Kirghiz women beautiful? (they really, really are).

A young couple asked my name. ‘Stephen’ I said.

‘Like Stephen Seagal!’ they cried. In Kyrgyzstan this was becoming a familiar refrain.

Later I was eating some trout and salad when an old man came over and asked my name as well.

‘Stephen’ I said, but he frowned, so I added: ‘Like Stephen Seagal!’ He didn’t seem to have heard of the celebrated actor, star of Under Seige and… um… what was that other one?

But now he thought my name was actually Steven Seagal. For the next hour he introduced me to people: 'Meet Steven Seagal' he said gravely. It was too late to correct him, even when he introduced me to people who did know of the actor and raised eyebrows ‘your name is Steven Seagal?’ they asked. ‘Yes’ I said. What could I do?

As I cycled to the town of Massi, devouring watermelons en route (50 pence pop), a young man in a Muslim prayer hat cycled up. ‘Will you come and stay in my house?’ was his second question.

‘OK’ I said

It was another example of exceptional Kirghiz hospitality: that evening I ate plov with his family, and slept in the garden on a bed surrounded by roving livestock, and of course they dressed me up like people are wont to… 


Naryn River
I cycled up to the hill town of Arslanbob where I found a brilliant Swiss couple – Anais and Gilles - on bikes heading east (like most trans-Asian bikers). The next day I struck out on foot for a nearby waterfall and planned to walk a circuit through the surrounding forest, which is the largest walnut forest on earth. When the rain arrived, it was with punch. In minutes the path atop the ridges was a mud slide. I fell a few times, covering myself almost entirely in thick mud, and staggered wide-eyed back to camp whilst inviting the gleeful glances of the townspeople. It made me a touch nostalgic: this is how every walk in the English countryside ends.

After a lovely couple of evenings with Anais and Gilles and their other Swiss friend David, I pedalled the final kilometres to Osh where a noticeably Uzbek and more Islamic culture prevails and men greet one another by touching heads.

Anais and Gilles and David
Thank yous – Nathan and Angie and Isabelle at the fantastic AT House. My three Quebec friends from Karakol. All the bikers.

Next up: A kit review piece is well overdue so I’ll be posting one soonish. But next I’ll be cycling through the Pamirs, one of the most celebrated and highest cycling touring routes on Earth. I will post again from Dushanbe.

The piece I wrote about crossing the frozen Lake Khovsgol in Mongolia has been published on BBC Travel: http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20150528-sleeping-in-mongolia-while-ice-cracks-below

(Bizarrely this may not be viewable from the UK. If so a workaround is to plug the URL into google translate, translate into any language and click on 'original')