Friday, March 14, 2014

Motorbike for sale

This is for the motorbike advertised in the CCCC newsletter. Posting it on my old blog was just the easiest way to post a picture. 100 cc Honda Dream for sale! 14,000 THB. Reasonable offers will be considered. I want to sell it soon! Semi-manual transmission (must switch gears with foot pedal), blue color, foot-lever ignition. Starts reliably, brand new back tire, front tire still in good condition, new brake lever, fresh oil change, no holes in the seat cover... The exhaust filter was changed about 9 months ago, and I replaced the piston about a year and a half ago. There is some minor cosmetic damage, but nothing serious, and nothing affecting functionality. The bike is only 100 cc, so it is not ideal for long road trips up big mountains, but works great for going around the city and to nearby attractions (Huay Teung Tao, Buatong waterfall, Lamphun/Lampang, etc). I've had the bike for 2 years, and since I replaced the piston, I've had no problems with it. Basically, this is a cheap bike that's great for getting around Chiang Mai. I have the green book, and can help with the transfer process. You will need to register it in your name and purchase your own insurance pretty soon... I believe it has insurance until May. Helmet included if you want it. Contact me by email at wesleywilliswon@yahoo.com, or by phone at 08-8502-6526. -Jacob Roesch

Sunday, March 4, 2012

For Alladem Who Care

This is Nate, I've started a blog in Australia, there are three posts. It's not quite as epic, but I'm doing my best nonetheless.

The address is minicontinental.blogspot.com.

Check it out!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Pushing on Through

Definitely. Check it out: two weeks ago I was riding through rural, extra-superrural Guangxi Province in SE China. Two days ago, I was suspended in midair in an airplane. And now, here I am in Australia. I got a job that pays more than twice the Oregon minimum wage, I got a phone and soon I will have an address. Life moves fast, this is just a simple example. It moves so fast that:

The last time there was any post on this website, we were in Xizhou, in Yunnan Province. Xizhou is the capital of Baba and BBQ which means tasty food for Nate and Jaco. We left this capital in pursuit of roast duck, but we were held up in Dali, because of a curse on Jaco's knee. He tried everything from accupuncture to stretching to red flower oil given to him by a guyu named Sea Dragon. So while Jaco waited to find out what in the heck was wrong with his knee, I sorrowfully continued riding through Yunnan, in the hopes that Jaco would join me again in Bamei, a LEGENDARY village at the end of Yunnan in Guangnan County.

The first time I heard of Bamei I rolled my eyes. Jaco informed me over a year ago of Bamei's existence. He said, "Hey Nate, are you down to go to this village in SE Yunnan that's only accessible by a boat that goes through this cave?"

I said, "Yeah Jaco, whatever," not really believing him. A village in super-populated SE China that is only accessible by boat through a cave? Yeah right. China has a way of exploiting tourist sites that will make the most positive optimist look down at strolling feet and feel the weight of this quickly developing world. So I didn't really believe him when he told me about this place, nor did I believe Head Royce Jayhawk Rochelle when she confirmed his story. I was prepared for disappointment. A disappointment that quickly vaporized upon entry to the cave. A man pushes you with his bamboo pole through the obscurity of the darkened cave. You can't see a thing, but finally a slam of light hits you hard.

And this is Bamei. Staggering with maladjusted eyes, I made my way through the village. It was exactly as advertised. Karst. Karst. Karst is rocks that extend purposefully from the ground, and sometimes trees grow on them. It is column, or kolumn, after kolumn through valley after valley of incredible rock formations and misty mountain tops. There was sugar cane and palm everywhere. Jaco and I stayed 2 nights in Bamei, soaking in the absolute paradise, and pessimistically and realistically imagining what the town would look like in 10 years. After all, they only got electricity 3 years ago and now everyone watches terrible music videos from Germany in the mid 90s. And it was being developed.

This is where we split. Jaco's knee kept him off the bike, and I was left to do the homestretch solo. The karst turned into rolling hills, which are incredibly frustrating. You just can't find any rhythm. But I continued to cruise and cruise, and before I knew it I was below 500m and making my way straight to the coast: I would hit water in 2 days!

The riding was rural, and the locals were thoroughly entertained at seeing a foreigner in their town. The dumplings were unnamable and rich, and the roast duck was unavoidable. It was good. And finally I was in Beihai. North Sea, that is to say.

Beihai is projected to be the fastest growing city in the world. Upon arrival, one is struck by the construction. It is everywhere. There is a hotel that they're building that has an ad saying, "like the dragon, world domination". Definitely. I rode as fast as I could past that hotel until I hit the sea, into which I walked then ran. I jumped in and screamed. I looked back at all that land to the West, and "I crossed every pass, rode through every long valley, and got hit by all the snow that came at me!" I was ecstatic, and swam and swam and swam. Then I feasted on roast duck and pomelo, a combination which comes with my highest recommendation. And I missed Jaco enormously. It didn't feel right. This wasn't a solo mission, this was very much a joint effort, and to finish alone on account of a bum knee just didn't feel right. Encouragingly, Jaco was having a great time elsewhere, but I was lonely there on the coast.

But I would soon rejoin Jaco upon reentry into the developed world. I took a bus from Beihai to Guangzhou, a city of 10,000,000 outside of Hong Kong. I had my last roast duck in China, then split to Hong Kong on day 90 of my 90 day visa in China. I made it! Soon I was on my first metro system since Uzbekistan, hurtling at post-bicycle speeds towards Jaco, at a place called Sunny Bay. At Sunny Bay I got turned around. "Can't ride bikes on this road, sir". This was my first experience with the closedness of Hong Kong. Can't sit there, can't spit there, but you can shit at one of the 100s of public toilets in the city. Hong Kong is not China. In China you can spit anywhere even indoors; you can sit wherever you like; and there is nowhere to shit. OK, maybe there's a hillside somewhere in town.

Hong Kong seemed like the land of restrictions compared to the anything goes atmosphere in China. However, by a huge stroke of luck we were invited into the home of Siu Ming, on Lantau Island. She had banana trees growing. This was very nice. She also had a massive garden, of whose fruits she was so generous to share. We stayed two nights here, then headed into Central Hong Kong to Occupy Central Hong Kong. This was a disappointing experience, due to the lack of communication and structure at the camp. But we met some cool people, and bided our time there until Jaco's parents arrived in Hong Kong. Then everything was excellent.

We ate dim sum every day, and had some roast duck in between. For me, this was the last bit of unexpected hospitality shown my way. It was an appropriate, Berkeley bookend to a great trip. After so much time staying with total strangers with whom it was almost impossible to communicate, it was great to have a strong dose of familiarity to end it. It made it quite comfortable, and I hope that someday I will be able to treat my child's friend to such hospitality.

And then I got on a plane to Australia. Here I am, in Fremantle, a suburb of Perth on the West Coast. Two weeks ago I was riding through rural China, two days ago I was on a transcontinental plane, and two hours ago I was hired to work in a cafe. Here I begin my way home, via sailing vessel, to the Americas.

So far so good. I may start another blog, I may not, but if I do I'll give the address to this one. Jaco continues to travel in SE Asia, and hopefully will make it down to Australia in time for me to knee him in the knee.

I sorrowfully and nostalgically end this last blog post,

Nate

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Charity Update

For anyone who attended the charity lamb roast back in December, you can now rest easy with the knowledge that every dollar ($1346 in total) was donated to the SOS Children's Village organization when we were in Uzbekistan. We tried to get an address for one of the "villages" in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan so we could visit, but didn't get a response until a couple weeks ago when it was too late. The organization operates in China, but nowhere near our route. Hopefully, I'll get to visit one in Southeast Asia at some point and take some pictures, but as my plans are very poorly defined, I can make no promises. Inshallah. Thank you again to everyone who contributed!!

Up Periscope! A Breach in the Wall!

Friends, strangers, censors alike, welcome!

After nearly two months' absence, corresponding to nearly two months
in China, a breach has been found and exploited in the so called
“Great Firewall of China”.

Until now, for reasons of national security, our blog was blocked and
we couldn’t access it and couldn’t update it. Thanks to some
cybersappers in Manassas, we are now able to log in once again, and
spread our seditious news to the world outside China, and maybe a few
other countries, I don’t know.

Two months without updating this blog leaves a big, high altitude
blank spot in this internet version of our trip. While the football
scores load in the other window I’ll try not to be too distracted, and
do this incredible section of our trip-from Dushanbe to
Xizhou-justice.

And why not do it backwards!

I’m writing from Xizhou, where Jaco and I are staying. We’re camped
out on a kingsize bed in the Linden Centre, the number 1 hotel in
China no joke. Jaco’s friend Rochelle works here, and as part of her
new contract she was able to swing in two free nights for some
weirdoes on bikes. There is one of China’s best antique collections
here, and as I write I’m flanked by two Taoist statues, an epic
painting of some dudes in clouds, a big vase and a bas-relief of some
dude sitting on a rock. I’m holding a steel string guitar in my lap to
pass the time as the pages load, as the connection here as slow as the
waters passing through Erhai Lake.

Rochelle and Jaco met when they were the youngest of teenagers, at
Head Royce Middle School, home of the Jayhawks. The commute from her
home in Alameda to the lofty mountaintop campus of Head Royce must
have inspired Rochelle to greater cycling goals, and she met us in
Shangri La, and rode with us for 10 days through Yunnan Province back
to her home in Xizhou. This ride was incredible, but it was only the
last spur of an even greater ride, perhaps the greatest on the entire
supercontinent: From Budongquan to Xizhou.

In early September, all the talk in the Western China bike touring
circles was about Qinghaii and Western Sichuan, and whether the roads
were closed to foreigners because of unrest in Tibet. We had heard
that this region, which is ethnically Tibetan, was closed, and more
than that, all roads heading into Tibet were also off limits. This
left us with two options: Take the low road through Qinghai Province
and Sichuan, which is heavily populated and passes through massive
Chinese metropoles; or risk fines and expulsion, and take the high
road through the Tibetan plateau. We asked ourselves, “how would the
mightiest of eagles soar?” and decided to take the high road. To cross
the checkpoints, we disguised ourselves as Chinese cyclists and shaved
and covered ourselves completely. We thus joined the hordes of Chinese
cyclists riding into Tibet, which for them is allowed. At dusk, we
passed the checkpoint in our fine disguises, and, either because the
road wasn’t closed to foreigners (more likely) or because our
disguises were so convincing, we soared on eagles’ wings through the
checkpoint and got ready to climb climb climb our highest pass yet.

We spent two days on the pass to acclimate to the Tibetan plateau,
which sits at an immodest 4000-5000 meters (multiply by 3.3 for feet)
above the salty domain of fish. We finally hit the pass in the
afternoon, and were introduced to the inclement pattern of giant T
storms meeting us on every single pass we hit in Tibet. The wind the
rain and the thunder roared as if mighty lions were perched on the
bolts of lightning that zigged their horrible zag directly at our
tempered steel frames. When there was no roaring, it was silent as
there was nothing to make noise at this altitude. The only sounds are
of yaks grunting and the music that Tibetans play at great volumes as
they ride their motorcycles across the plateau. They all have sub
woofers mounted on the backs of their bikes, and blast traditional
Tibetan music, which is pretty cool. We didn’t look nearly as cool,
but they still welcomed us into their houses and tents, usually for
tea, sometimes for tubs of yakmeat, both of which we found warming and
delicious. And it was important to stay warm here, as everything at
this extreme altitude is difficult. From my journal:

“Yesterday was clearly the most difficult 70km day we’ve had so far.
The road was muddy, often inches deep, and full of rocks and potholes.
I can’t believe that nothing broke on either of our bikes. There was
of course a big, steep pass in the middle of the day. That means that
since our last rest in Serxu, 3 days, 4 passes, all over 4200m, with
snow on the top of all of the passes.”

Every time I thought of the altitude, I would think of the summits of
the familiar mountains back in California and Oregon, and that we were
well above all those summits. The idea of being warm again was
inconceivable. I even used my only pair of shorts as rags to clean my
bike, assuming I would never wear shorts again (not true, I’m wearing
shorts now, and bananas are growing). The people who live in these
regions are hardy folk, and yaks are legit beasts. If anyone is
looking for a difficult, beautiful road through western China, this
road was the best that I could ever dream of. The craziest thing is
that thanks to plate tectonics and an aggressive Indian sub-continent,
the Himalayas and the Plateau are getting higher every second, as fast
as your thumbnail grows.

Before that, we were in the Pamir Range, on the Western spur of the
Himalaya in Tajikistan. We had been thinking about the Pamir Highway
since we started thinking about this trip. The Soviets called it a
“trakt”, and it appears to be the second highest international highway
in the world. Indeed, it was high, dry, and bad. The highest pass was
at 4655m, and Len Collingwood, a 60 year-old Scottish bicycle tourer
who was riding from Mongolia to Scotland who we met at the summit
declared this pass and the whole Pamirskiy Trakt to be “a scalp that
must be taken”. Ride on, Len. There are hardly any motorized
vehicles on this road, and many days would pass where we saw more
cyclists than cars, and more marmots than cyclists. In the afternoons
the winds would scream up from the valley and we would stop, because
they were too heavy to ride into. We preferred to make the most of
our campsites here, and ride in the mornings and early afternoons,
when the wind wasn’t blasting at cosmic speeds. From my journal:

“We decided to cut today short on account of a huge headwind on a bad,
washboarded road climbing up to 4300m on the Kyrgyz border. We didn’t
want to get stuck in no-man’s land, and the riding was simply
miserable. Trying to draft on such a road was the hardest drafting
I’ve ever had to do. So we’re camped here in a gully providing good
shelter from the wind raging down from the North.”

The first part of the highway traces the Panj River, which forms the
border with Afghanistan. We skirted this border for 300km or so,
never climbing too much, never descending enough, but always in view
of the steep, barren mountains that make Afghanistan. We met a few
Afghans on the Tajik side of the border, who were happy about the
American military presence in Afghanistan, and said it made the
country much safer. Most of our interaction with Afghanistan though
was from across the terracotta Panj, staring in awe at the sheep paths
switchbacking impossibly up the cliffs, and at the villages built
wherever they could find flat enough land. This was usually where a
stream would scamper down from the mountains and join the Panj, which
instantly absorbed the clear mountain water into its muddy chaotic
flow.

Before the Panj we had a few days of basically normal riding.
Highlights were drinking Belgian ales from some Flemish folks driving
an old military jeep to Indonesia or something; riding in a
bulldozer’s shovel through a flooded section (Jaco tried to cross and
got all muddy and wet to his knees!); and climbing the dreaded Kalai
Kum pass, 3600m of nasty nasty road and dust, eagles, and perspectives
of distant peaks.

Whoof, that was hard to write. This section has been, for me, the
most interesting and challenging part of the trip. The scenery and
wildlife have been superb, and the food has gotten at least 900x
better since entering China. The road conditions and oblivious
drivers sometimes make being on these roads maddening, and I don’t
even want to mention the honking, which I think has traumatized me
forever. I’m getting nervous simply writing about it. Most special,
and most memorable though are the people we’ve met, foreigners and
locals alike. The people traveling in this part of the world all have
incredible trips, outlooks on life, and good travel advice. The
locals continue their humbling hospitality, a refreshing pattern that
we have enjoyed since Portugal. Just yesterday for breakfast, in a
tiny tiny village called Meidi in Yunnan, the 70 year-old couple who
had invited us to stay the night with them made us deep fried pork fat
with chillies and Sichuan pepper, a melon salad, and leafy greens.
They loaded us down with 8 of their massive pears that they insisted
on giving us, and invited us back at any time. All this because Mr.
Wong, the husband, saw us riding down the road looking for campsites
around dusk. And to think that this has become normal.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Baseball and Microbrews in Azerbaijan Part III: Baku, Crusher of Souls

Riding through the desert to Baku was like riding through a wind tunnel that passed through the sun itself before hitting your skin at 1000 degrees. It was hot and windy. So windy, that although we were actually descending to the Caspian Sea, we were going as slowly as if we were climbing great mountains. That's 7 km/h, which is a brisk walk. Downhill. Plodding along the desert we were. Shrubs would have provided us shade, had we been bugs. Yet had we been bugs we would not have seen the Caspian Sea, finally, stretching before us hazy and blue! When we hit the sea we turned North, and Borealis, the great Northern Wind himself redoubled his strength and blew even harder, slowing us down to 6, even 5 km/h. At least we were on the sea, right? Wrong! The Caspian south of Baku totally sucks! It's full of oil derricks and refineries and pipelines and gas stations and cars cars cars who don't give a damn about you. All this is hard to think about though when you're riding into a 4000 lightyear headwind. We did think about getting off our bikes and getting onto a bus, and we turned those electrical impulses in our head into electrical impulses in our muscles, and were soon standing in the aisle of a bus bound for Baku. What wind?

Our first day in Baku we went to the Embassy of Turkmenistan, to get our onward visa from Azerbaijan.

"The consul is on vacation, so there will be no visas issued until he returns."

"When does he return from vacation?"

"Two weeks, maybe three? I don't know."

I would at this point like to congratulate the Turkmen Ambassador to Azerbaijan on his excellent communication skills. He gets a Blue Ribbon at my Communications Faire, definitely.

On our second day in Baku we went to a travel agent who had been recommended to us by the very nice, efficient travel agency we had worked with in Tbilisi. We found him in a back alley, his office was marked with Olde English style writing stenciled in spray paint on the wall of adjacent buildings with arrows pointing to it. We entered his office which had two or three women sitting at desks on the ground floor, then a loft level above. One of the women called him on the phone. A male's voice from the upper level responded, and they continued talking on the phone even though they were in normal conversational range. Awkwardly, we were sent up to Anar, the agent. Anar had shifty eyes, and seemed worried all the time. He woefully asked us what we wanted from him. We told him that had had been recommended by a travel agent in Tbilisi, and that we were told that he could help us with our visas to China. He said, "hmm, yes", then spent the next hour making phone calls to "people at the embassy" and increasing the prices for various reasons. We debated over whether we could trust him, and if it seemed like he was telling the truth or just plain ripping us off. In the end, because we absolutely needed our visas to China, we gave him our passports and a lot of money. He told us that in 8 days we could come pick up our passports, and the visas would be there. Fine. The corruption was evident, and we did not feel good about what we were doing, but damn, we needed those visas and we saw no other way. Now we had to fill up 8 days in Baku. So we called up Clarissa's Peace Corps colleague, Tim McNaught.

We met Tim at "The Brewery". This is a microbrewery. Apparently some Austrians thought opening a microbrewery in Baku would be a good idea, the British oil workers would flock to it. They imported an entire brewery to Baku and trained an old Soviet engineer how to brew beer. Well, he brews fine beer, three kinds as well (Dark, Medium, Light). Even if the oil workers aren't quite flocking to it, the beer is hecka good. We took a tour, and drink fresh beer straight from the vat. That was cool. Also cool was Tim.

Tim is posted in Masazir, which is a suburb of Baku. His official Peace Corps job is working at an eye clinic, but because this doesn't entail too much work, he also spends time working with an economic think tank in Baku, and being a TV actor. I exaggerate. Tim was on TV a few times, and the Azeris apparently loved it. The first time, he played a few traditional songs on the saaz, not the tasty hop variety from the Czech Republic, but the stringed instrument from this part of the world. Tim said that for a few weeks after the show people recognized him on the street, and would dangle their right hand at their belly and hold their left hand out straight, as if playing a saaz. He laughed as he told us this, and his stories warmed our minds as the "Medium" warmed our bellies. We said goodbye for the night as he had to catch his bus back to Masazir, and made plans to meet again the next night.

We woke up, and had to change our living situation. We had been staying with a couchsurfer, but we had to leave there because he hadn't communicated at all with his roommates about anything, and it was becoming very annoying. So we made our way to Baku's only hostel. When we got there, a man in front jumped to his feet and said it was full, but lead us to his house, where we would pay the same rate. It later became clear that he was simply poaching this hostel's clientele, and taking their prospective guests to his house.

Dishonesty and lack of communication were big themes of our time in Baku. From Anar, the snakey travel agent to our couchsurfing host, it seemed like people would rather give you false information than no information. It's as if people are embarrassed to say, "I don't know," or "No, I can't help you". It quickly became very frustrating. And we still had a week left to kill in this place.

After 2 nights in this guy's house, Tim invited us to stay with his family in Masazir for 2 nights. We rode the 30 disgusting kilometers on the freeway to Masazir. Once we got there it was a paradise of relaxation. Tim's family was incredibly hospitable for letting us into their home in the first place. Tim gave us his room and the whole family slept in another room. We were again, like so many times before on this trip, completely humbled by the hospitality and warmth of others. The second evening there Tim, Jaco and I took a bus out to another microbrewery and then the Caspian, where I bathed, and marveled at the sensation of floating in water. After two mellow, relaxing days there, it was back to Baku, where we stayed with a friend of Tim's, Mohsen.

Mohsen is an architecture student from Tehran, who wanted to study abroad in Europe but couldn't get the visa, so he picked Azerbaijan instead. This made me feel silly for getting so frustrated at my own visa hassles, as I am just a tourist who wants to go visit these places. Nothing in my life really hangs on whether or not I get my China visa. It put things in perspective. Nonetheless, it was really frustrating not getting visas! Hopefully, we told ourselves, this time we'd get it. It was getting to about time to call up old Anar and see if he had our visas ready.

"Tomorrow," he said "and you have to come to the embassy. The consul wants to see you to make sure it's your passport." OK, that was fine, but it was frustrating that we'd have to wait another day. Just more contradicting information.

Our plan for leaving Baku was to take a boat to the other side of the Caspian Sea, to Kazakhstan now because we couldn't get a Turkmenistan visa. There is a ferry, but looking online and reading other travelers' accounts of taking it is very discouraging. This was one of the parts of the trip to which I was looking forward most, and missing it would be crushing. Finding the boat and when it leaves though, would be difficult, plus we couldn't even begin the process of a Kazakhstan visa because we didn't have our passports. Luckily, when Jaco was buying a kebab one day, a man bounced down with a baby on his back. He turned out to be Phil Cruz, Baku cycling extraordinaire, and extreme help to Nate and Jaco. We met him the next day and he rode with us literally all afternoon in the nasty heat looking for information on this ferry. The most progress we made was that the place to buy tickets was 10km or so away from the port. Phil's help was crucial, as he spoke fluent Azeri and knew the town well after 7 years living there. So we planned on going the next day to the ticket office, after meeting in the morning with Anar the rat to get our visas.

We walked into Anar's office at 9am, with plans on getting to the embassy at 10am. He said that the consul only wanted to see us, and everything would be fine. He picked us up in his black Benz, with expensive custom plates, and drove us to an office that said, "Chinese visas" and made up some story about some friend that I don't even remember. We continued to the embassy and parked, and waited for 30 minutes. We were waiting for his friend, and he wouldn't explain, and kept saying he'd be there in three minutes. Lies lies lies spewing from his mouth. We walked finally into the embassy, where his friend was cutting people in line and saying he had American passports. It was embarrassing. In his hand were our passports, and two unprocessed visa applications, the kind we had already filled out so many times in our previous attempts to get this visa. It was clear that they had not done any work with the embassy yet. They were simply hoping the money would work. Finally the consul came to our guy, and he refused to accept the application, because we were not residents of Azerbaijan, which was the whole reason we were paying Anar in the first place. He said he could get around that requirement. Liar.

To the least of Anar's credit, we got our money back, he is not a thief, unless you count the time wasted in Baku because of his inability and dishonesty as stolen time. I was livid. He drove us back to his office, but I couldn't stand to be in the car with him. I asked to be let out, and went to the hideous beach promenade they have recently built in Baku with new concrete and benches you aren't allowed to sit on. I paced angrily for a while, and contemplated the remaining options. I think my favorite one was riding back to Portugal. Jaco and I met back up again, I was calme, and we decided to buy plane tickets to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where we were able to get the remaining visas for our trip, including the China one in one day for the normal price. But I'm jumping ahead.

Baku was a city where we met liars, like Anar, and cheats, like the guy whose house we stayed in when we were looking for the hostel. The downtown shopping area is new, and it is difficult to find food. It is full of high-end clothing stores. The beachfront is ruined by the pollution of the oil industry, and the view is ruined by a tacky statue and oil derricks. It is hot, and the police poke you with their sticks when they see you lying in a bench in the shade. Sitting on the grass in the shade is out of the question, although Jaco managed to drink a whole beer on the grass without any problem. Nobody is reading any books in any of the parks. There's no chess anywhere. Even backgammon is hard to find. In the rush to develop, quantity has been achieved-there is a lot of new nice looking stuff-but there is a total lack of quality. I explained this to an Azeri youth, as I was writing about this in my journal. He came up to me in the park and asked, "Can you say happy birthday in Italian?" I said no, and he said, "Well, here it is," and showed me the word cached somewhere in his phone. "We're finding foreigners to say happy birthday in as many different languages as we can for our friend's birthday." I told him I would say it, but he would be better off finding someone who could actually speak Italian to say these words. I explained to him the difference between quality and quantity, using a continuum I had drawn in my journal to illustrate this. He laughed, opened his fancy camera phone and said, "OK, can you say it now?".

I could end there, but this post would be unfair to Baku if I didn't point out the tremendous people we met. Tim McNaught. When I worked in France, I only worked 12 hours a week, and my biggest problem was that I had too much free time. I struggled to fill up this free time, became bored, and slept a lot. I admire Tim immensely for how he has managed to use the free time that his Peace Corps schedule allows him, and for taking advantage of the many resources that he has. I hope to share an IPA with him in his hometown, the glittering, shimmering city on two rivers, the City of Roses, Tualatin, Oregon.

Mohsen Moghadam is Tim's friend who we stayed with for many nights, 5 or so in Baku. We met him for one night at a cafe with Tim, and we got along well. He offered to host us, and held true to his word, even though his studio was small and he was hard at work finishing a project for school. His help was so crucial, and I hope someday it will be easier for Iranians to get visas to the US and vice versa, and I can host him in my small studio somewhere.

Phil Cruz took an entire afternoon in the heat with us cruising all around Baku dealing with unfriendly ticket agents and dock workers. He rides like a man inspired. He has a full suspension free ride bike, and drops huge curbs and stairs and stops cars in their tracks, even in bicycle insensitive Baku. He had us over for drinks and hors d'oeuvres, and made phone calls for us to frantically try to extend our Azeri visas. May his baby daughter grow strong and healthy.

The one episode I forgot to mention in this post is the Green Bikers Club of Azerbaijan. They are a bicycle advocacy group who have got a lot of hard work ahead of them. Jeff, another Peace Corps Volunteer we met through Tim, invited us to their conference where we talked about our trip, and answered questions. It was a blast, and I wish them luck in their long battle to bring bicycles to Azerbaijan. Oil runs deep there.

And finally, none of this would have ever happened without Clarissa Chan's vast network of Azerbaijan Peace Corps friends. We were lucky enough to catch her for a couple nights in Baku, and tell her of our time between Balakan and Baku. She's working on the GRE now or something, which is way scarier than riding a bike over the Himalayas. Without these people in Baku, our time would have been absolutely MISERABLE. No visas, 11 days in a terrible city, and not even a single good time to show for it.

So we left. We put our bikes in boxes and flew away to Tashkent. I'm sitting in a brand new hotel lobby in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, watching a Russian play "El Condor Pasa" on a recorder with a bunch of puppets around him on TV.

We collected 3 visas in 6 days in Tashkent, and powered through Uzbekistan. It was hot. We took a side trip to Bukhara, where they have beautiful tilework on big buildlings. We stayed at a guesthouse in Samarkand through which passed 14 transcontinental cyclists. Suddenly we outnumbered the non-cyclists. Who's crazy now!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Baseball and Microbrews in Azerbaijan Part II: The Valley of the Heat and the Doom

We left Balakan in the morning after filling our bellies and water bottles with food and water. The map on Stephanie's wall indicated about 150km to Agdash, where we had a connection in Becca, Clarissa's Peace Corps colleague who teaches English there. We said goodbye to Clarisa and set off in the heat, which was dampened by the plane trees lining the country road descending from the Caucacus into the great valley that cuts through Azerbaijan. Some have named this valley, "The Valley of the Heat and the Doom". Heat and Doom, however, are no match for plane trees, and Jaco and I did well in the shade. The shade ended at about kilometer 100, at about 3pm, when the road crossed the river, then made a 90 degree turn southeast. We ate a whole watermelon, and asked a man at a bus stop in Russo-Turkic how far it was to Agdash.

"120km," he replied with confidence.

We chuckled, and asked someone else.

"120km," someone else replied with confidence.

We did not chuckle this time, and called Becca and told her we would not be arriving in Agdash that night, but made plans to meet up for lunch.

We camped a few kilometers later, and asked a mounted shepherd if we could sleep on his land. He had no problem with it, but told us to move our sleeping bags away from certain bushes where there were snakes. We moved our sleeping bags and started cooking dinner. The shepherd and his brother rode away unconcerned on their horses. We cooked, then ate. At about bedtime thirty, the shepherd's brother came charging down the hills with a flashlight, and began shouting at us in Azeri and shining the flashlights in our eyes. For some reason, he was worried about us sleeping there. Our tired minds were in no mood to move our stuff again, but he seemed really concerned. We had a hard time understanding why we had to move. His efforts to communicate were poor and were not working. He didn't use any gestures, and to make his point stronger, he used the ancient technique of raising the volume of his voice and the more modern technique of shining his flashlight in our eyes. This was frustrating and grated on the senses, but in the end we packed up our stuff and walked with him to his house, where we understood we could sleep. Once we got there there were tea and bonbons waiting for us, as well as fresh honey and fresh warmed milk. The shepherd was there too, and told us that they were so worried about 2 meter long cobras as big as your arm that they had to come get us. An unlikely occurence, but it would have been very nice if they had told us this before, so we wouldn't have had to pack and unpack and trudge our bikes through the tall snake infested grass to their home. In the end we slept in a spare room of theirs. We were woken up two hours before they had told us they would wake us up for no apparent reason in a flurry of the same shouting in Azeri and lack of gestures that had happened the night before. In total confusion, we left, and continued on the road to Agdash, mystified at why we had been woken up so early, but glad to be riding in the early morning cool instead of the mid-afternoon inferno.

A tailwind picked us up, and we soared as if on eagles' wings the 100km to Agdash. We were there by noon, and were greeted by a crowd of 20 or so Azeri dudes. We asked if there was a pay telephone nearby, and suddenly there were 20 or so cell phones being taken out of pockets. We called Becca, and Jaco serenaded them with a fine rendition of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" while we waited for her. When she hopped out of the taxi, they couldn't believe that 3 Americans had congregated in Agdash, and were playing guitar and drinking tea with them. We left after a tea, and had lunch a ways down the road. In a side note, I had to leave lunch early, because I took my first solid poos since Tbilisi! About 3 in 30 minutes! It was quite a sensation.

In Agdash I was also mistaken for first a Pakistani, then a Saudi. This is what beards mean in Azerbaijan. While eating lunch some Azeris told me I needed a haircut, so I got my first professional haircut since 2005. It came with a shave! It was very nice, and made the Heat and Doom in the Valley a bit more manageable.

By the time my haircut was over, the earth had turned sufficiently to ease suffering caused by the Heat and Doom, and Becca mentioned that she thought there was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Ucar, city of dreams in the hottest region of the whole country. The heart of the Valley of the Heat and the Doom. She hadn't met him though, as he had arrived a year after she had. Being so well connected though, she made a few phone calls, and soon had his number, and called him up. She introduced herself and us. Dan, the volunteer, said he would be happy to put us up for the night. Ucar was 25km away, and off we went in the early evening blaze.

"Ucar is a ghost town where the people haven't left yet," quoted Dan from the guide book he had bought before arriving in Azerbaijan. Dan has the unenviable position of being posted in the hottest region in the country. He is the only volunteer living in Ucar, and said he spends most of the day trying to avoid the sun. While he is avoiding the sun he works on his project, which is setting up and maintaining a network of bike clubs for kids in Azerbaijan. He coordinates and leads rides throughout the region and the country, and is promoting bicycles as a means of recreation and transportation in a country that is swimming in gasoline. He has a big house with a pomegranate tree in the garden, and a cool, Old West style porch. He has a french press, and coffee from Seattle, his home town. We drank beers from the standard plastic bottles they come in here, and had a fine dinner in Ucar with Dan, and slept well. He had a full size guitar, and songs about cows walking in trash heaps. We had a fine time, and were humbled by the hospitality shown us. Dan had accepted us with only a few hours' notice, by a phone call from someone he hadn't ever met. The Peace Corps network is alive and well and in Azerbaijan.

In the morning I reawakened my coffee habit, and we left at around noon in the heart of the Valle of the Heat and the Doom. Baku, visas, and the Caspian Sea were only 2 days away.