Day 15. Sunday, August 13. Margilan to Kokand. 100km, with 263m of climbing.
Five is my number of the day. Yes, the countryside was sometimes green and pleasant; yes, the going was flat; and yes, the temperature was manageable.
But five became my obsession. #1 of the day was frustrating; #2 embarrassing; #3 annoying; and #4 infuriating. Only when I got to #5, after almost 100km with a mere 2.5km left to my hotel, did I finally achieve a Zen-like state of fixing flat tyres.
I’ll spare you the details and photos. Some purgatories are best endured privately.
Meanwhile out in the wider world, our continuing ride down the Fergana Valley was fascinating. A vast, triangular inter-mountain plain running from Kyrgyzstan, through Uzbekistan to Tajikistan it has been the crossroads of friendly and warring empires for millennia. Alexander the Great created the first major strategic settlement here around 2,300 years ago.
The Russians were the last imperialists to rule the valley, in what they called the Russian Turkestan Republic, from the late 1870s until the break-up of the USSR in 1991. In Tsarist times, out of some 1.2 million ha of cultivated land, two-thirds was under full time irrigation and the other third under partial in an otherwise arid place.
The USSR upped the ante considerably. Diversion of two Uzbek rivers, Amu Darya and Syr Darya, for even more intensive irrigation was one of the major, of many, factors that have led to the literal decimation of the Aral Sea. It is now only 1/10th its natural size. In the process, the Russians turned Uzbekistan into the eighth largest cotton producer in the world. But the intensive use of irrigation and pesticides has taken a fearsome toll on ecosystems.
None of that is obvious from the seat of a bike rolling through the landscape at 20-25k/h. Instead, I glimpsed today villages where long streets of people grow grapes to shade their porches, which complement the big acreages in the nearby countryside – grapes for eating not wine-making, in this Muslim country.
Back to early this morning when all was well with my world before my tyre travails sorely tested me, here were five of our support crew relaxing over breakfast on the steps of the gym of the school where we camped last night. Left to right: Nick, our American videographer; Carolina, our Brazilian tour leader; Malcolm, our American deputy leader; Ryan, our American mechanic; and Moniek, our Dutch doctor.
The latter three, plus a couple of other team members, also take turns doing double duty. One of them rides as the sweeper at the back of our group either before lunch or after every day. They have a sat-phone with them so unless a rider gets horrendously lost help from our tour vehicles is never far away.
Thankfully it’s very hard to get lost. We’re using Ride with GPS on our phones and / or bike computers with each day’s ride meticulously plotted, including turn-by-turn cue sheets.
All you have to do is ensure your device is in battery-save mode so it hibernates between turns. If you don’t and your device dies – and if you don’t have a printout of the day’s cue sheet with you, which is very strongly recommended – then you could indeed get lost. Thankfully no one has…yet.