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The Great Central Asia Bicycle Trip: Part One

Chris Walker and Morgan Hartley spent three months cycling through central Asia as part of an 18-month bike trip. Here is part one of five of their account, in which their trip is almost thwarted from the start.

See part two, part three, part four, and part five.

“Chris and Morgan. Paris. 16 months cycling” we monotoned, introducing ourselves to the other guests at the Caspian Hostel in Baku.

The hostel owner had put all the cyclists together in a darkened den underneath the main part of the building. It was a wise call, considering the olfactory onslaught of beer, salt-caked bicycle jerseys, and musty bike shoes that greeted our noses. We smiled. We were among our people.

“Mark. Berlin. Four months cycling.”

“Wen and Simon. Stockholm. Three months cycling.”

There was a guy from Greece, one from Germany, and a pair from Belgium. Each cited their starting locations and months on the road like it was an identification number.

There were bicycles crammed into every nook and cranny of the hostel courtyard. They weren’t ordinary bikes; they sported flags, and stickers, and were drawn upon with markers with witty sayings like, “May the wind be with you.” They could only belong to bicycle tourists.

We’d joined the small, but colorful fraternity of vagabonds when we pedaled out of Paris the previous spring. The idea of the trip was born at the end of college, in a hazy evening at a Chicago bar. Neither of us felt inspired at the thought of an office—we wanted to travel—but the backpacker’s circuit held no interest. Instead, we wanted to try something so difficult we doubted we could finish. Bicycling seemed a worthy candidate. So we challenged each other to raise the money we’d need for two years of traveling and cycle 10,000 miles across Eurasia. It was a natural partnership. In the 10 years since we met running cross-country in middle school, we had been each other’s go-to buddy for outdoor adventures.

The original goal was a straight line to Shanghai, but it was not to be. By the time we’d cycled through Turkey, it was already August. The high passes of Tajikistan would be snowed over by the time we got there.  To the south, Iran was closed to us as Americans. The only way forward was an airplane.

So we flew to India, to spend the year cycling the subcontinent and Southeast Asia. But as we loaded our boxed-up bicycles on the plane, we made a pact that we would come back to Central Asia next summer, to cross the Caspian and the Steppe, that we wouldn’t cheat and head straight to Shanghai from Southeast Asia.

Ten months later, with dirtier bikes and skinnier bodies, we found ourselves in Baku, the neo-futuristic oil capital of Azerbaijan.

Baku is the staging ground of the Central Asian crossing, which is considered the cardinal trophy among bicycle tourists.  Looking at a map, it is easy to see why.  Whether the crossing begins in Aktau, a Caspian oil port in southern Kazakhstan, or in Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan’s equivalent, cyclists face thousands of kilometers of atrocious roads across a dusty and flat expanse of nothingness before reaching Uzbekistan’s historic Silk Road cities. Bursting winds can whip up sandstorms and delay travel for days, and parts of the road do not have a town for 300 kilometers. Then travelers are faced with the mountains of Tajikistan. That’s where the real challenge begins, as the Pamir highway swerves along the Afghan border and takes one over majestic passes as high as 15,000 feet. Through snow and unpredictable weather, the road levels out over the high plateaus of Kyrgyzstan, and finally ends in Kashgar, China, where one either heads east over the Gobi desert or south to Tibet.

Summer is the best time of year to make the crossing, and, judging from our new-found hostel friends, we weren’t the only ones in Baku making a grab for the trophy.

We played a short game of luggage tetris to create free space for our bike panniers, and jumped in on the conversation about rough stretches of road, the difficulty of getting camping stoves through airport security, and the countries with the best beer.

Mostly, though, we talked about visas. The den was a sort of war room, and reports from the ground were delivered in rounds as if to a general. “What’s the latest from the Tajikistan embassy?” we asked. The situation is always changing with Central Asian visas, and we felt lucky to have troops who’d faced down the enemy just before our arrival.

“Ask for Mikheil in the Tajik embassy. He used to be a cyclist. He even gave us a visa without an LOI!”

The other topic that kept resurfacing was the ever-elusive ferry that crosses the Caspian Sea to Aktau, Kazakhstan. The ferry is legendary among bicycle tourists, having stranded countless travelers in Baku for weeks on end. The boat has no regular schedule, because they aren’t actually ferries as much as cargo ships. The travelers are forced to ask ‘the lady’ down at the harbor each morning to see if maybe (fingers crossed!) a ship will depart that day. A few of the cyclists at the hostel had been waiting twelve days already.

The cyclists had recruited the Hostel owner Elisa to be their informant. She knew someone who worked at the dock, so each morning at 10am she would call him, and the cyclists would all gather in the courtyard below, faces gazing expectantly up at her window.

“Not today he says.”

The faces dropped. Brows furrowed. Things were getting desperate…

“I don’t know if I can wait another day for this damned ferry!” someone growled.

In the war room, alternate battle plans were drawn for a way to get across the Caspian. There was rumor of a bi-weekly flight from Baku to Aktau. But how small was the plane? Would it be able to fit 7 bikes? Intelligence was meager, and orders were doled out for more reconnaissance.

Then Elisa, the hostel owner, rushed excitedly through the door. “Wait, they say the ferry may leave tonight!”

The cyclists had heard this before, and were hesitantly optimistic when we decided to go out and explore Baku for the day. We wished our compatriots luck, and promised to have a last bread and nutella dinner with them that evening before they left. When we came back a few hours later they were gone. Our bikes sat alone in the courtyard. Suddenly we were the only ones in the den.

So began our own waiting game—10 days that would fulfill all the prophesies of frustrating visits to embassies that were unexpectedly closed, bureaucratic fees that squeezed our wallets, and conflicting reports on when the next ferry would leave.

When the day finally arrived (Elisa gave us the green light), we rode like madmen across the city to the port, eight kilometers outside of the center. It was the wrong port.

“No No No. The old port! You must go to the Old Port!” the security guards told us.

Shit. We’re going to miss it!

We raced back into the center city against traffic, because it was the quickest way. Somewhere in Baku the ferry was leaving and we couldn’t seem to find it.

In typical Central Asian fashion, the ticket office turned out to be an unmarked door in a cement wall. Inside, the famous ‘ferry lady’ was sitting behind a desk topped with fat stacks of cash, scowling at us in her heavy makeup and flower-printed blouse just as immortalized in bike touring blogs across the web. We thrust our passports at her and she jerked her thumb towards the harbor like, get on the boat you idiots.

A last frantic rush through customs and we were there. A Russian crew member with a unibrow helped hoist our bikes onto the cargo deck, and showed us into our cabin. We collapsed onto the beds, relieved and exhausted. We made it!

It turned out that the boat wouldn’t actually leave for another 12 hours, until 3 am the next morning. On the other side of the Caspian, we’d spend another 60 hours anchored outside Aktau, waiting for a cargo slip to open. But we couldn’t have cared less. We were going to Kazakhstan. The war with the bureaucracy was over. Our Central Asia adventure had begun.

Next: The punishing Steppe.

Seepart two, part three, part four, and part five.

Read more about Chris and Morgan at Postulate One.