Murphy Comes to Call

Murphy’s Law: Anything that CAN go wrong, WILL go wrong – and likely do so at the WORST possible time.

2009/05/21: River Camp 87 km
As we packed to leave Karakol, we realized we were missing our roll-up bag containing some tools and a myriad of carefully selected spare parts. We had spent countless hours discussing what spares and tools to bring, and the assemblage of bits was a source of security. “We are well-equipped” we thought. Now we were stunned at our stupidity. This would be no way to set out on the Pamir Highway, and we had doubts about starting along the shore of Issyk Kul.. The basic glue and patches were gone, and a standard patch kit is unobtainable in Karakol. No rubber cement anywhere, except a partial tube closely guarded by the lady in the bike section of the large department store. For in-store use only, she gestured firmly when I offered to buy it from her. We did manage to buy a new inner tube.

We set off along the South side of Issyk Kul, piecing together a growing list of our losses and discussing options for their replacement. Our preoccupation with the loss meant we hadn’t even bought bread for lunch as we left Karakol, so we stopped at a cafe. Two young boys who spoke better-than-average English chatted with us. After lunch, we met Jonathan, a Peace Corps TEFL volunteer who was there to teach both kids and teachers. Jonathan and Chris chatted while I showed the kids pictures of family and home. One boy wanted to invite us to his house. We understand there is a strong Kyrgyz tradition of hospitality, but our heads were still swimming with recent losses, and we had started late, so we declined his kind offer. Jonathan, who has a degree in international development, told us that one of the Peace Corps’ tasks in Kyrgyzstan was to support it’s weak education system, and that local school authorities could take the initiative to request a TEFL volunteer. He remarked that his Russian language skills were probably stronger after six months than the  Russian of the local Russian teachers, whose first language is Kyrgyz.

We headed on. Our statistics to date for flats had been roughly six in 8,000 km, so one per 1,500 km on average. Now, with no patches and only two good spare inner tubes, we had a flat. Well, of course. Now we had only one spare inner tube. In the evening we scrambled to find a campsite as we raced a thunderstorm and ducked hailstones. We found a good spot by a river, and luckily the storm abated.

2009/05/22: Irrigation Channel Camp 100 km
On the second day, the lake views were stunning. Issyk Kul is a somewhat salty lake, having no outflows. It’s a stunning blue and surrounded strange desert hills with snow-capped mountains behind. From behind, I noticed a problem with Chris’s rear hub. It was oozing a bit of grease … and when we checked it was a bit looser than it should have been. This was our first hub problem. Did we have cone wrenches? No … they were gone with the lost gear, of course. Chris cranked his quick release skewer quite tight to make things temporarily better. We guessed we could always hitch hike if anything else went wrong. We called Vancouver friends with hopes of care packages if parts and tools were unobtainable in Bishkek. Waiting for a courier parcel of replacements isn’t as simple as it sounds with fixed visa dates for this country and the next two.

These three pictures do not do justice to this lake, but the water was too cold for swimming.

As we paused to make phone calls, Chris inspected his chain. One link appeared to be drifting apart and had a bent pin. We wondered if the chain would last to the end of the lake, and it was certainly not in any condition to set out into the Pamirs. We still had a chain tool, but our spare links and chain pins were gone. This new brewing disaster confirmed that we really needed to go to Bishkek rather than head south to Naryn as planned. We felt the failing link might have been due to the mechanic in Lanzhou re-using an old chain pin rather than installing a new one. We had been learning that, while we could easily buy a new bicycle here, certain basics such as inner tube patches and chain pins are worryingly scarce.

House building with mud and straw

It was a rare moment that the phone was on, and Chris’s sister called from England. Excellent timing Carolyn! Your familiar voice was needed and welcome. Thank you. We stopped to buy camping food and a litre of gas in a plastic bottle for our stove, which is how it’s sold in smaller villages. We found a camp site which involved passing first bags and then bikes over a raised irrigation channel.

2009/05/23: Balykchy 57 km (West end of Issyk Kul) and bus to Bishkek
The next morning we rode to Balykchy, and got an official licensed mini-van (i.e. not an extortionist) to take us and our bikes the 200 km to Bishkek, where we had the best chance of sorting out our gear problems. We bought a city map and found the guest house that Carsten had stayed at. As we stood near the local internet cafe we noticed a Giant Bike Shop sign, and stopped to record the telephone number. A man who spoke excellent English asked if we needed help, so I inquired about bike mechanics, who are an item separate from bike shops in these parts. Bike shops here sell bikes, but cannot repair or adjust anything. Not only did the gentleman know of TWO recommended mechanics, but he could also pinpoint their exact locations on our map, and provide precise instructions to get there. Things were looking up!

Cute – yes – but this hides a reality. Nearly every village gets its water this way. In Kazakhstan I (C) saw expensive Mercedes filling cans at these pumps; I wonder what John Kenneth Galbraith would have to say about that?


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