Day 0. Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Greetings from Almaty, where tomorrow I’ll begin to harvest all my hours of training and dollars I spent preparing for my ride-of-a-lifetime (part one). Let’s hope the crop is bountiful enough to sustain me through the next 10 weeks and 5,200km of riding to Istanbul.
Almaty (the picture above is from my hotel), loosely translates as “full of apples”, hence my harvest thoughts. Apparently people around here began eating wild, sour crab apples some 50,000 years ago. About 8,000 years ago they began cultivating a rich variety of them; and thanks to trade those were carried far and wide.
By 1300BC, for example, the Egyptians were planting orchards along the Nile and about 200 BC the Romans were planting them in England. And they were the favourite fruit my Dad sold in Birmingham’s Smithfield wholesale market when I was a kid.
Michael Pollan writes evocatively of the history of apples in his book The Botany of Desire, a taste of which you can get in this interview on NPR
Even though my hotel lobby hosts a small branch of the Almaty Museum dedicated to apples, I must confess I haven’t eaten one yet in the three days I’ve been here. Unless there were innocuous pieces in some of my delicious salads. But I’m relishing the apples for other reasons. They are a perfect, very old, example of the way people for millennia have spread nature and knowledge along the Silk Roads from Asia to Europe and beyond – for good and ill.
The past, present and future of such human exchange is the theme I’m exploring on this journey. Can we learn enough, share enough, wise up enough to figure out how 10 billion of us can live in right relationship with the Living Earth by 2050? I’ve written more about that in my Newsroom column this weekend, my first on this journey,
Eighteen of us riders, from North America, Europe and Australia and me the sole New Zealander, have gathered here for our great adventure, along with a support crew of eight from TDA, a Canadian long-distance bike touring company. I’m sure I’ll enjoy their delightful company in the weeks ahead!
Carolina, our tour leader is from Brazil, Moniek, our medic, is from Holland (via a recent spell working in Wellington), and the others from North America and elsewhere. Normally a crew this size would look after twice as many riders. But some who signed up have dropped out; and some of the crew are trainees. Even though we’ll be well looked after, it’s still down to each of us riders, of course, to crank out the kilometres each day.
As for our first day’s ride tomorrow, I’ll let the photo below tell the story. It’s of a pair of whiteboards in our hotel lobby. Our start will be later than usual at around 8.15am. Our hotel can’t serve breakfast til 7am and we’re meeting for a “start of the tour” photo in front of a grand, old, wooden, highly decorated Orthodox cathedral nearby. Thereafter, we’ll likely be on the road by 6.30am or so each day to avoid temperatures in the high 30s by early afternoon.
I got a bit of a shock when I arrived at my Almaty hotel bleary eyed after two consecutive all-night flights – I thought Winston Peters had beaten me to it.
That was three days ago and I have had a quiet time since getting ready to ride. I haven’t done much because I picked up a head cold on my flights here, which I’ve been determined to shed before I ride. But I’ve done some last minute essential shopping. Lots of first aid, cold remedies and similar things from the local pharmacy. Thankfully Boris, the customer in front of me, spoke good English, so he translated for me.
Then today in the local supermarket two teenage shop assistants, keen English students, were very helpful . Best friends, they share the same first name, they told me – Ayaulim.
But I have taken a couple of short spins to test my bike and loosen up my body after hours on planes. The first yesterday was along the first 10km of our route tomorrow, just to check my two navigational devices were working fine. And tho it was 30C late this afternoon, I couldn’t resist a 15km ride roundtrip, with 300m of climbing up to Almaty’s TV tower for this vista over the city – quite the apple of my eye.