Day 24. Tuesday, August 22. Rest day – Samarkand.
Well, 1,962km ridden since Almaty…only another 3,183km to go to Istanbul! Yippee!
Piece of cake. Only a couple of hundred clicks longer than Cape Reinga to Bluff on the Tour Aotearoa, which I rode in 28 days in 2020.
So, sitting here on our second rest day in glorious Samarkand seems like a good moment to reflect on the first third of our Silk Road ride…and what lies ahead.
I’m thrilled to be here…and my legs are particularly grateful for having a real day off. No pedalling. No sightseeing. Just snoozing flat out and redundant in front of me as I’ve sat here on my bed much of today catching up with this blog.
We needed the rest. While I knew this was going to be a very big ride, given the heat and terrain, my extensive training on home roads only partially prepared me for the reality here.
The first three days from Almaty were very tough. Far hotter, far rougher, far slower than I had expected.
The first day I smashed my Personal Best on water bottles. I drank 10 (total 7.5 litres). Yet come dinner at our campsite that night I was still dehydrated; my stomach was bloated from all that water, which coupled with onset of diarrhoea, meant I could barely eat. I slept like a log, though.
The second day was even hotter – around 40C when I stopped for lunch, which I could barely face, about 11am after covering 70km in four hours of riding. As one of my fellow riders said a couple of days later, “I could tell from your 100m stare you were done for the day.” Indeed, I was cooked, and hauled myself aboard our passenger van for the last 47 km of the day.
The third day I was drinking a lot better, and eating a bit more. But diarrhoea was still diverting me to the bushes from time to time. Tricky, given bushes are few and far between on the arid plains of central Asia. My body was doing its own thing. It couldn’t care less about waiting for the next bush to come along.
Still, that day I rode after lunch…at least until I had a puncture at the 82km mark on another blazing hot afternoon. I decided the van was the best option for the last 52km of the day.
Thankfully the fourth day was a rest day. I took it literally and never left the hotel to explore the (out of season) ski town of Karakol only some 80km from the border with China.
Over the next three days of riding I began to get my hydration, nutrition and digestion back under control…and hence rebuild my stamina. Then, phew, another day off, this time in Naryn.
After that came four glorious days in the high mountains, with three passes over 3,000m high. I rode up the first, which was paved, But I took the van up the second and third, which were unpaved, so I could savour the long runs down the valleys to our next campground.
Then over this past week, our third on the road, I’ve felt well in the groove. Still tired at the end of the day, as we all are after eight or nine hours on the road with the latter third in the high 30sC. But I’m recovering well each night thanks to nine hours of deep sleep, regardless of whether I’m on my air mattress in my tent or in a plush hotel bed.
Through these challenges, though, my fellow riders and crew from 10 countries are a constant source of fun, advice, encouragement and stimulating conversation. It’s a long time since I last felt such an esprit de corps, a common cause…and I’m loving every minute of it….well, most of them.
Meanwhile, though, I’ve had to give up on one big goal I had for this trip. I was greatly looking forward to interviewing people on my days off so I could keep up my weekly Newsroom columns with some serious stuff on climate, economies, society and the like.
But a daily routine of eight or nine hours of riding, plus nine hours of sleep, plus several hours of camp setting, packing, body and bike maintenance and the like mean I don’t have the time or energy to write even a short blog post each day – you’ll have noticed I batch write on my rest days.
So up in the high mountains in week two I came to me senses. Very reluctantly, I told my Newsroom colleagues I just couldn’t deliver a weekly column. Even if I had a bit more time and energy, I was failing to find people to interview, even with the help of my researcher, Frank, back in Auckland. Making that decision was a huge relief. My days suddenly seemed manageable…and thus more enjoyable.
Plenty of new challenges lie ahead, tho. We riders are already obsessing a bit, for example, about Days 29 and 30 – August 27 and 28 (riding days 21 and 22). We have 326km of desert road over two days to get to Khiva, another famous old Silk Road town. The cue sheet for the first day raises a dark laugh any time somebody mentions it:
A glance at the map suggests there’s a single, slight curve in the road about half-way along those159km. Temperatures will likely be over 40C by late morning. We can already hear the beguiling whisper “come chill with me” from our van’s aircon.