The Hands of the Red Sand – The Kyzylkum Desert

kyzylkum desert, cycle touring

The Hands of the Red Sand
Wrap, Slap and Whip around us 
Screaming “You Are Mine”

The Qizilqum, meaning Red Sands, is located in Central Asia between the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya. For us, this meant 4 days of undulating road, sand everywhere and demanding conditions as we hurried from Khiva to Bukhara.

From Khiva we went to Urgench and on to the main road towards Bukhara. This was a mistake as we suffered head wind to Urgench, the road was poor and it was the long way round. The thing with all mistakes is that if they didn’t happen we wouldn’t have experienced the outcome, which often outweighs the mistake itself. In this case it was the love and hospitality from two Uzbek families and Kurban Hayit (Eid al-Adha) celebrations. Two nights in a row we ate and slept in homes, played with the children and learnt about their lifestyle as we made our way to the edge of the desert.

About 20km before we reached the beginnings of the desert, a main road appeared. This was smooth, big and easy! The road gradually rises and drops through a hilly desert landscape. At regular intervals (about 50-100km) you encounter a “Yol Patrol”, police check point, which is often accompanied by a çay house or small shop but other than that there is nothing around. We had no problems at the checkpoints, occasionally they would call you to stop and maybe check passports or just chat – everyone was friendly! Amusingly this desert landscape has a big expanse of water running adjacent to it, marking the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. We only discovered this after finding it hilarious when we encountered a lone fish restaurant by the side of the road and wondering where all the fish came from.

Unfortunately for the majority of our time in the Qizilqum, the wind was not quite in our favour. Blowing from the NNE, it pushed into our left side with such force that it took a lot of energy just to remain upright. We had a poor day on the second with heavy head wind and lack of motivation so we decided to pack it in and build a massive fire and had a few beers.

The wind didn’t let off the following day so we decided to take on some night riding on the third. We stopped in a roadside caravan, cooked up some supper having only done 60km set out into the dark. There were long stretches of half a road built that we were able to lift our bikes onto and enjoy the luxury of a road completely to ourselves! Knowing we were safe from traffic on the new road, we decided to make it our mission  to make it to Bukhara by morning. By Midnight we had done 120km and had 120km left to go…easy. Energy levels were high as we listened to a rendition of the Tarzan soundtrack. 1am came and Cliff and Richard called it a night, they could ride faster than us and as we were both still raring to go we thought we’d continue for another two hours and see where we got and how we were feeling.

We managed another 30km, where the new road ended we found ourselves sharing it with truck after truck. We stopped for a break and decided to push out another half an hour, but we managed about 3km before we couldn’t go any further, the stresses of seeing a bright lights, unsure if they were getting closer and then them suddenly turning into two and a truck hurtling by was starting to drain us.

So there it was our longest stretch without sleeping, 150km, half three in the morning. Half asleep we pitched the tent trying not to think we were still in the desert and had another 86km.

Five hours sleep later, feeling sorry for ourselves, we ate the last of our biscuits and raisins. We half expected Cliff and Richard to cycle by before we had even left. To Julia’s calculations they would pull up at the tea house we had a stop at for a coke and to finish our halva in 10 minutes. They never turned up.

Instead we made a new friend in the form of a Turkish Super truck driver, Mustafa, who took us under his wing and became our support vehicle. He stopped every few km’s to hand us, water, fanta, gum and sunflower seeds out of the window. Then he treated us to lunch at a nice tea house, which was just as well as we were beginning to fade, biscuits, halva and raisins was not enough to get it to Bukhara.

It was dark by the time we reached the city and to were no surprised to see Mustafa calling us over. He had parked at the TIR parking and went about asking a shop owner to make sure we knew where Madina’s B&B was and even called her up – to which she then arrived with a Mini van and loaded us up and took us get a whole chicken each and into her sister’s hotel as she was full.

Whilst we were tucking in, the Turkish man appeared – ok that was a little bit weird, he’d now decided he wanted to stay at the same hotel and hadn’t brought anything with him. Anyway although it sent our alarms ringing it seemed like he was just enthusiastic about the fact that we could speak Turkish and was bored of hanging out with other truckers.

The following day, we headed to Madina’s and were reunited with Cliff Richard – who had some stories of their own, unfortunately not as smooth running. A night of pizza and wine made it all a bit better and we set off the next day, with Cliff and Richard taking an extra night to recover were to join us in Samarkand.

The Road to Istanbul

100km, Forks on Wheels,

Day 51-55

We had read from many blogs and heard from those that have done it to avoid the D100 at all costs. We entered Turkey through the Greek border into Edirne. The city was bustling and immediately

We planned to stay on the D100 for 50km before cutting down south towards Tekirdag, but having spent 20mins at a cross road watching the traffic as Beth went to change money and get us some lunch I decided I did not want to lose a limb on the first day in Turkey.

We found a route out of the city on our OSM app and although the road at times wasn’t great, pot holey, gravelly and sandy, the scenery was infinitely better.

We were wondering where we would sleep in this vast open farmland, it was all taken up by crops with very little tree cover. Luckily we came across a football pitch just up from Serbettar village and were thankful for some flat, not overgrown ground. The track from there was very sandy and we got stuck in the sand and had to push, luckily it didn’t last too long but meant the going was slow.

From Kircasalih  village the road was good, flat and compact. We had a swim in the lake just beyond Cerkezüsselim. We headed to Tekirdag via Hayrabolu. It was a larger road with no hard shoulder but it wasn’t too busy and the vehicles weren’t going that fast. The hills though, went up and down, up and down. They never seemed to end! You thought you were almost at the top and then it would just continue – Beth has a nice little rant about this in a video somewhere! The descent down into Tekirdag was very satisfying though.

We hadn’t taken into account the coastal winds and we were hit by strong winds blowing us sideways, our arms were aching from trying to compensate with the force. Every time a lorry past we’d be shielded for a second which only knocked us of balance. The hard shoulder was a good 2 metres wide so we has plenty of wobble space.

There were a few times we had to cycle on the road due to roadworks, cars will try and over take you so be cautious. We were glad for our axiom wing mirrors and stopped when something bigger than a car went by.

Once we reached the outskirts of Istanbul we left the D100. Navigating through the suburbs wasn’t too bad, but it quickly transpired that we wouldn’t be able to avoid the D100 completely. We rode on the road that feeds onto it, like an extended hard shoulder but after a few minutes we stopped, rush hour had started and it was too crazy. A man came up to us, and said he would drive slowly and we should follow him to the coastal road.

It was pretty easy after that, a main road but less busy. Only drama we had was when the heavens opened and Beth stopped briefly to close her dry bag, just as we were coming up to a tunnel, Julia went through the tunnel, the others decided to exit the road and go around the roundabout above it…so there was a bit of panic for 15 minutes but we found each other!

Having reaching the outskirts of Istanbul at 4:30 that afternoon we finally arrived at the hostel at 10:30pm absolutely knackered and ready for a well-deserved break from the saddle.

Vienna to Budapest

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So despite getting horrendously lost and going in multiple circles, a recurrent occurrence for us when it comes to getting out of major cities, the road to Budapest was fairly easy. We headed towards Slovakia and Bratislava on the EuroVelo 6…that was when we eventually found it! We spent a mere 2 hrs in Slovakia, ticking another county of the list!

 

We followed Velo 6 until Györ and then decided to leave it as the main roads were very quiet and Beth kept saying Hungary was flat…which it was until we went up the steepest hill imaginable… Thanks ‘Sal’ (our GPS).

 

We met Mattieus on the way to Tata and camped with him next to a lake. It was nice to have some company. The fishermen gave us a bit of fright in the middle of the night but we quickly established that they were just saying hello!

 

We set off early as we all wanted to reach Budapest early that day but it soon transpired that we were a bit too slow for Matt! It had been a long 110km the day before and our legs weren’t having any of it. We needed a coffee and a sit down.

 

Rested, we got back on our bikes and got back into a rhythm. At the rate we were going we thought we’d be with Joey and his family by 2, shower, eat and be back out to meet someone involved in the Hungarian foodbanks by 4.

 

7km to go and we found ourselves faced with the muddiest, steepest, not-cyclable hill imaginable. Great. It took us 2hrs to move 1km, when I say move I mean scramble, slide and slip. Normally people see a black triangle with 436 next to it on the map and think that means a summit, do not go this way, but we did. Wolfing down 2 snickers and a granola bar each we regretted not picking up anything for lunch. The only reward at the top were these old bunkers and the way down wasn’t much better as the road surface was covered in gravel.

4:30 we made it to Joey’s in Èrd, tired hungry and covered in mud!

We spent 2 nights in Budapest. We spent much of the following day in a thermal bath and had a wonderful tour courtesy of Joey, who took us around both the tourist spots and the ghettos (not the old Jewish quarter… The real ghetto!) Thanks Joey and Esme for looking after us!