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Pedalling the Silk Road

12 December 2023

Words & Photos: Rod Oram

Standing near the top of the Kara Koo Ashuu pass in the mountainous centre of Kyrgyzstan, I finally felt at one with the world. The views from the 2,771m summit were vast, beautiful and seemingly untouched by humankind, the weather pleasantly cool and my fellow riders cheerful companions.

It was only the 11th day of our 62-day ride from Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Istanbul, with much of our 5,145 km journey along the remnants of the ancient Silk Roads. But it was the first day I began to believe I could do it.

The start in Almaty.

The first 10 days had been brutal. Day 1 out of Almaty the temperature soared and the roads got rougher. I set a new PB on water bottles – 10 for the 135 km ride. But even some 7 litres of water over nine-hours still left me dehydrated. That night in camp, I ate little and the bouts of diarrhoea that would punctuate my first week of riding began. But, thankfully, I slept well.

Day two was worse. By the time we stopped for lunch, the temperature was around 40C. I could barely eat a thing and I knew I’d drunk much less than I had the day before. As one of my companions said weeks later: “You had that 100m stare. I knew you were cooked.”

Indeed, I was. I saw out the rest of the day riding in our support van. My spirits soared though when we reached a beautiful campsite, beside a river, with mountains far beyond and the border with Kyrgyzstan just up the road, with our first rest day thereafter just 80 km from the border with China.

Heading into Kyrgystan.

Camping breakfast in a 2 degree dawn.

Meadows and mountains.

From there, we had a three-day ride along the southern shore of Issyk Kul, the second largest freshwater alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in the Andes. One night we camped in tourist yurts and over dinner we were serenaded in local songs by an old fella and his wife, two of their adult sons and a young grandson.

Splendid in his traditional clothes, including a black fur hat despite the heat, he played a variety of traditional instruments and a beautiful white accordion. His father had got it in the late 1930s by swapping one of his prized dogs, which a local Russian engineer admired, for the instrument he had brought from his homeland.

That was just one tiny story from the couple of centuries of the Russian Empire’s history and impact that we glimpsed as we rode west through four of the 'stans'; and that in itself was just a brief chapter in the millennia of empires rising and falling, wars raging, peace and prosperity prevailing then destroyed, cultures and religions flourishing then persecuted that we sensed as we visited the minuscule villages and spectacular cities along the Silk Roads.

But first we had to endure the toughest stretch of the route. A few days after our restorative ride alongside Issyk Kul, we began a four-day, 460 km ride in which we climbed Kara Koo Ashuu and two other passes in central Kyrgyzstan. The highest, Dolon Pass at 3,030m was paved but the other two weren’t. Still in recovery mode, I took the van up the two unpaved passes but revelled in riding their long, challenging descents.

On the way up Kara Koo Ashuu Pass.

Near the top of the Kara Koo Ashuu Pass.

At the top of the Kara Koo Ashuu Pass.

By now we riders were getting to know each other well. There were 19 of us – four Americans, four Danes, four Australians, two Canadians and a Brit, a Finn, a Slovenian, a Singaporean and me, the Kiwi.

Our youngest rider was 45, our oldest 75. Those of us in our 70s, me included, accounted for one-third of the group. Halfway to Istanbul, three riders left as planned, and three more joined us – a Brit, an American and a German.

We were very well supported by our crew from TDA Global Cycling, a Canadian company with more than 30 years’ experience in long distance cycle adventures. Cairo to Capetown was their first and is still one of their most popular. All up we were from some 18 countries.

Choice campsite.

Dawn in the Uzbekistan desert.

We camped half our nights on the journey, all of which were on our 44 riding days; and we spent the other nights in hotels, mainly on our 18 rest and travel days. Because of wars, geopolitics and some otherwise troubled countries, riding all the way was too problematic. Thus, mid-journey we flew from Uzbekistan to Georgia.

Each of us had our favourite places along the way. Mine were the ancient Silk Road cities of Khujand, Samarkand, Bukhara and Kiva, which were magnificent and glorious in their history and their exuberant, present day lives. And for me, each country had its memorable riding, particularly Kyrgyzstan for its mountains, Uzbekistan for its desert (one day we pedalled for 160 km with barely a few kinks in the road, in the high 30Cs with strong headwinds), Georgia for its hills and Turkey for its vast landscapes.

Often, special moments came in serendipitous encounters with local people, particularly when we stopped for drink and rest breaks in small communities along the way. Chatting was easy thanks to Google Translate, particularly if the community had 4G so we could do twin-language, live conversations.

Google translating with the locals.

But despite a lot of good training in Aotearoa in the many months before the ride, there were some huge challenges I could never have prepared for – notably early on, day after day in high mountains, and the high heat, particularly in the first five or six weeks of our nine-week ride.

In the first few days I rode, like most of my companions, in short sleeves and thick sunscreen. But I quickly reverted to my long-sleeve Ground Effect Berglar shirts, grateful for their cover and excellent wicking. Likewise, my Tournadoes bib-shorts kept me cool and dry, crucial comforts on such a challenging, long ride.

But nonetheless, the heat was fierce. Moniek, the Dutch doctor on our crew, repeatedly reminded us to keep well hydrated and to watch out for the early warning signs of heat exhaustion.

I thought I was taking her advice but on Day 25 as we rode on from Samarkand in the high heat of the afternoon I suddenly blacked out and crashed – without any warning signs at all. I took a couple of days off (1 riding day plus 1 rest day), then resumed riding. Thanks to ibuprofen and paracetamol my sore body made it (enjoyably) all the rest of the way to Istanbul. Only when I got home, did an X-ray showed I’d cracked four ribs.

So, in summary the cycling was sensational, the scenery glorious and the countries fascinating. Best of all, though, were the people. My fellow travellers and the people we met made it the deeply fulfilling and exhilarating adventure it was.

Never before in my life have I spent so much time, so intensively, over so long a period pursuing the same goal with the same bunch of people – or been so challenged physically, mentally and emotionally all at once.

Georgia mountains.

Turkish descent.

Initially, that was a shock. I’ve spent far too much time over the past two decades working on my own as a freelance journalist; and as a columnist, that work is always judgemental.

Worse, the great passion inspiring my work is humanity’s urgent search for a symbiotic relationship with the living Earth. But I was ever more discouraged by the seeming impossibility of that goal, whether on climate and nature or justice and equality.

So, as I travelled to Almaty for the start of our ride, I was at my lowest ebb in years, professionally and personally. I hoped the adventure ahead would help me revive both aspects of my life.

However, the first 10 days or so of our ride were so tough, I quickly forgot that lofty goal. High heat, rough terrain, long days on the bike, plus dehydration and diarrhoea, focused my mind on more elemental aspects of life – hydration, nutrition and digestion, and routine and recovery.

My travelling companions – riders and crew – helped me through all of that. Their good humour, help and friendship brightened every day, solved every problem and heightened every memorable moment.

Start of the last day at Sile en route to Istanbul.

Along the way, we had journeyed through a cavalcade of history and cultures. We saw people persevering and progressing, through adversities and opportunities, in their own ways big and small.

As I rode, I realised I too can still rise to challenges, still learn, still contribute in my own infinitesimally small ways.

Above all, I came to believe the Living Earth can teach us all how to create a better future for it and for all of humanity.

The daily blog of my trip, with lots of photos, is on my website.