We first heard of the journey of intrepid explorer Augustin Warner in our July issue of Gallery when he was just 90 days into his epic journey traveling from France to China on a bike. He has now returned home from his Eurasian challenge, one that saw him pass through a multitude of countries and three continents in order to get to his final destination. Here he talks us through the latter part of his incredible journey which stopped just short of his final destination.
When I set out on my journey from across the great Eurasian landmass by bicycle I told myself that I would be upset and disappointed in myself if I did not achieve two things. The first, I was determined that the journey would be continuous and unbroken, that I would never move forward on any mode of transport other than my bicycle. The second, that at the very least I would reach Xinjiang Province, the most western part of China. I failed on both accounts.
What’s interesting in looking back and writing this retrospective is that although my journey was not continuous, although I did not reach China, although I did not achieve my initial goals, I don’t consider the journey a bust. In fact, I’m happier than ever.
From Yerevan you ride south down a great valley towards the mountains. The Turkish border runs alongside on your right and as you glance over Mount Ararat, the legendary resting place of Noah’s Ark, casts early morning shadows into Armenia. Moving back up into the Caucasus mountains I spent the next couple of weeks navigating the passes, camping amongst the pine trees or sleeping in tumbledown farmsteads. Almost every day on the road an ancient shepherd will wave you over to offer a shot of homemade vodka.
Meghri Pass leads you up and through the last Armenian mountains towards Iran. As you crest the final climb the view changes almost instantly. Behind you, lush, green flora cascades down the mountain sides, streaked with lines of blinding white snow and jagged grey stone. To your front the peaks are arid, brown and orange, dotted with scraggy bushes, scarred with bone dry runoffs.
I spend the night in the small village at the bottom of the valley. Here I meet a Dutch guy, Tom, also cycle touring, and we decide to cross the border together in the morning.
We hit a steep climb straight after the border in 40 degrees plus heat. For what little was left of the morning and into the early afternoon we traverse scorched hills with not a soul in sight. Slowly more vegetation and grass began to appear in the late afternoon / early morning. We had entered Iran about five days into Ramadan, but were lucky enough to find a dusty café still serving. We ate a late lunch of stringy goat and beans, with raw onion and orange soda.
We made our camp on a ridge line which separated two small villages. As the night sky turned from bright blues and vanilla, to dark blues and purples to black and black, lighting and thunder began to rip its way across the mountains.
I left Tom in Tabriz and set off on my own towards Tehran. There were lots of friendly and generous people breaking up the repetitiveness of riding on a route with hardly a single turning. From street vendors to security personnel, anyone can show extreme hospitality in Iran.
That’s not to say that you can’t get into trouble. On the dusty highway just outside of Tehran, I am pinned against a wall and half of my cash is stolen. Which presents a unique problem in a country under international sanctions, where your credit cards don’t work and wire transfers are impossible.
I’m taking road 44 Imam Reza all the way from Tehran to Mashhad. East of the capital the distances between a town or a service station start to lengthen. The further you go, the further the distances between some shade and water. Judging travel time, factoring wind and heat, becomes increasingly difficult. The temperature flirts with 50 degrees. That moment you pull into that long-awaited service station, limp up to the freezer, pull out a water bottle frozen solid, is one of unbridled joy.
The desert broken by the bushelling provincial towns. Hundreds of motorbikes and scooters cut through the market stalls. The road then curves up gaining elevation. The towns are tucked right into the base of the Zagros Mountains. Clouds form atop the jagged peaks, taunting you, the shade they cast tantalising out of reach.
I swear everyone says that the desert gets cold at night. But in Abbasabad, camped behind a tiny mosque the temperature never drops below 27 degrees. The sand and dust from the desert clings to your sweat. You pray for the wind to blow all night to keep you cool. You pray for the wind to stop at 6am on the dot so you can fly along the road.
I have a few days to kill in Mashhad. It’s another public holiday and the Turkmenistan Embassy is closed. The city authority recently banned the smoking of shisha in most public areas. So a friend and I drive downtown to a huge concrete park strewn with auto repair shops. Next to one garage is a solitary door, a CCTV camera pointed directly down. We ring, stare into the camera and the door is opened. It swings on its hinges onto a flight of stairs, smoke and dust mix in the static air. Another door, a peephole scratches open and a pair of eyes rake over us. Once inside the atmosphere is more than friendly. Everyone seems to know each other and the fact that a foreigner has joined them for a smoke sends some patrons into almost hysterical laughter. I sit there smoking, thinking that such high security and secrecy would warrant an opium den or a crack house…
Sitting on Air Astana flight KC252 sipping on a punchy G&T, as the Iranian landscape falls away beneath me so many different emotions are flooding through my head. I realise that after six weeks this is the longest I have ever spent in a single foreign country. My views on Iran have gone back and forth so much during this time. Now all that’s left is a confusing mess of contradictions. In many ways I’m really glad to leave. I want to get back on my bike, start moving again. Also certain things about Iran have come to deeply frustrate me.
On the other hand, I have made so many close friends here. I’ve seen so much. I’ve heard so many incredible stories. I glance back out of the window. We are flying directly over the road that took me from Tehran to Mashhad. In one hour we cover the route that took me nine days by bicycle. At first this is a bit demoralising. But as I continue to stare out of the window the vastness of the terrain becomes apparent. The mountains roll off to the north until they are lost in cloud. To the south the desert horizon disappears into a haze of dust and sand. I’m so glad I rode all the way across this awesome country.
We’re now over Turkmenistan. When I was first rejected my visa I was so angry, like a little child. But a conversion with an Afghan family on the train back to Tehran brought into sharp relief the difference between my petty selfish visa problems and their life changing ones.
I manage to get back on my bike in Samarkand, that ancient and wondrous city. A key trading post on the Silk Road Samarkand still gleams like a jewel in the sand, the scorching desert sun washes across the turquoise rooves of its historic buildings. Riding out into the desert towards the Tajik border I link up with two other Brits in the town of Garsum. We ride together to Dushanbe. The last patch of civilisation before the Pamir mountains, the roof of the world.
As the road snakes its way into the foothills of the Pamir it quickly deteriorates from gleaming tarmac to a single dirt track. I was looking for a place to spend the night, the road curved around the mountainside to reveal a rundown soviet era summer camp. Clustered around a large pond were several dilapidated cabins and a cracked concrete courtyard. Next to the far cabin were two dusty motorcycles. The Russian bikers turn out to have an endless supply of coffee and smiles. We spend the night happily trading stories as the moon rose high above us, its light dancing across the water.
After eating some bad food, I awoke with the infamous Tajik tummy. I couldn’t eat anything. Even a sip of water would cause me to wretch and gag. But with no people, clean water or food where I’d slept I had to move on. It took six hours to ride only 40km. I still couldn’t hold any water down. By midday I was in a total state. Luckily for me whilst I stumbled around their village a Pamir family invited me into their home. I slept on and off for around 20hrs. I was kept hydrated with herbal tea and water with honey. After two nights I was ready to get back on the road. It was time to negotiate the highest passes of the trip.
This region of Tajikistan can be truly desolate. With the highest pass at 4600m and the road never going below 3500m people struggle to scratch out a living on the mountainside. The occasional white yurt or a herd of animals can be seen between the ghostly villages up here. The awe-inspiring mountains loom all around you. Food is hard to get hold of and for days I rely on bread, Mars bars, yak meat and some pasta I bought in Kourog. Salty runoff can make river water undrinkable with fresh horse milk the only substitute available. The vastness, the stillness, the altitude washes over you, it can often feel like you’re dreaming.
I cross the border to Kyrgyzstan next to the immense Mount Lenin and make my way down to Sary-Tash. I am two days’ ride from China. But following the advice of other travellers, who warn against the boring scenery and paranoid security services I decide to continue north across Kyrgyzstan and take the Kazak crossing into Xinjiang province.
We are well into September and the weather begins to turn. I am wearing almost as many layers as I did in the European snows almost seven months ago. But Kyrgyzstan is far more developed than Tajikistan and dealing with the cold is a lot easier on a full belly. The road continues to curve through the mountains, weaving around stunning aquamarine lakes and searching out passes. But after what seems like a lifetime of climbing I turn a corner and the vastness of the steppe rolls out before me.
For the last time I pitch my tent. I am out on the steppe and the wind is causing the great grass sea to tremble. I have decided to finish my trip. Despite being only two days from China again I have made up my mind. I drift off knowing that tomorrow I will reach Almaty and start my journey home.