Statistics

[Posting this a year late!]

We have spent the past month retrospectively counting, remembering and plotting our trip in order to provide a sort of summary of everything.  My accounting skills are crap so all costs are ball park figures.

But our ability to pretty much remember every day since 8th May 2014 has impressed us and we’re chuffed to only have one or two holes of memory in regards to where we slept.

Contents

  1. Time
  2. Costs
  3. Accommodation
  4. Distance
  5. Various

1. Time

Trip total – 1 year 6 months 30 days (577 days), of which:

  • 130 days living and/or working in Kyrgyzstan
  • 447 days getting from London, UK to George Town, Malaysia of which:
    • 12 days sick
    • 119 days holiday (no, it isn’t all just a holiday)
    • 271 cycling days
    • 26 visa waiting days
    • 19 transit days

2. Costs

Unless stated all costs are for two people. The total will be higher because we started purchasing gear a year before the trip began.

2.1 Breakdown

Trip grand total – £27,298, of which:

  • £12,991 living costs for 468 days which includes about six weeks of holiday-equivalent indulgences such as horse trekking, boat trips, skiing, and generally an upgraded lifestyle from dirty hotels and eating pasta
  • £9,570 setup inc bikes, specialist clothing/equipment, DSLR, iPad etc.
  • £586 gear purchased along the way
  • £774 flights Kuala Lumpur to Manchester
  • £353 Caxton Visa charges + £35 Thai bank charges
  • £724 entry visas for Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, Vietnam, Lao, Cambodia, Thailand
  • approx. £1000 on vaccinations
  • £1300 insurance

These are definitely ball park figures.

2.2 Territories

£964 West Europe [UK to +inc Austria]

£1,947 Balkans [Slovenia to +inc Greece]

£2,559 West Asia [Turkey to +inc Azerbaijan]

£2,564 Central Asia [Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan]

£1,896 China

£4,173 South east Asia [Vietnam to +inc Malaysia]

 

3. Accommodation

The best way to visualise this is by looking at our map which includes every single sleeping location.  We have colour-coded each one to show the kind of lodging. Click here to open the map. Colour keys are shown below.

Total sleeping locations: 334

Total countries cycled through: 27

153 hotels [RED]

92 wild camps [GREEN]

36 paid camping [BLUE]

22 hospitality [YELLOW]

11 WarmShowers.org / Couchsurfing.org [YELLOW]

12 camp spots with permission (people’s gardens, terraces, restaurant gardens) [PINK]

9 transit [BROWN]

It’s worth noting that in south east Asian countries, it’s possible to either camp or be put up by the monks in temples.  We have met a few cyclists that regularly do this, which slashed their budget considerably when you take into account the fact that they also get fed in the evening and morning.  One English cyclist was spending about £3 a day in Thailand.  We found night temperatures to be unbearable when camping in the tropics.

4. Distance

Now, this is a tricky one.  My speedometer battery died in Macedonia.  “Not a problem, I’ll write the distances down until I can find a new battery”. A few countries later, the transmitter battery’s turn. And so on until a vendor forced the battery case making future battery changes not possible. So I gave up, and we were doing weird loops and I lost track on paper.

So over to Google mapping.  The crude lines you see drawn on our route are…well, crude and thus inaccurate. About half way through painstakingly tracing the route accurately (in reverse from Malaysia) Maps prevented me from adding any more route points on that big blue line you see.  So from UK to Kazakhstan, the line is less resolute than the remainder of the trip.  The other great source of inaccuracy is that whenever there is a twisty windy road, in other words, mountain passes or gorges, it’s impossible to accurately plot every one of these turns. And given that we went through and over many many many dozen mountains and gorges, the distances shown here will probably be a few hundred kilometres less.

But who gives a bike fork. Here are some approximate distances.

  • 21,000km travelled. Not to be confused with 21,000km cycled.
  • 967km not physically cyclable (ferries and restricted travel in China), of which:
    • 847km ferries
    • 120km taxi
  • 4624km not cycled where cycling would have been possible, of which:
    • 935km coaches due to laziness = boredom
    • 372km hitching due to 1.sickness (15k) 2.moderate to high danger (282km) and 3. meeting visa deadline (75k)
    • 358km taxi (mostly visa deadline combined with sickness)
    • 3,079 train due to 1. Chinese desert and not enough visa time (1,905km) 2. visa deadlines = sickness = bad planning (1,054km)
  • 15,409km cycled, which is 1,709km more than the annual average distance travelled in a four wheeled vehicle in the UK in 2013.
  • 57km average per day [total cycled 15,409km / cycling days 271]
  • 4% cycled in equivalent distance to the moon
  • 38% cycled in equivalent distance of the circumference of Earth (40,074km)

So we cycled 73% of the way to Malaysia.

londontomalaysiaWITHbike.com ?

73pcOfTheWayFromLondonToMalaysiaByBike.com ?

5. Various

Top 3 countries …
  • food: China, Thailand, Malaysia
  • camping: Kyrgyzstan, Bosnia
  • getting punctures: China
  • girls: China, Turkey, Germany
  • beaches: Thailand, Vietnam, Croatia
  • population: [highest] China, Vietnam, Germany. [lowest] Luxembourg, Montenegro, Kosovo (July 2015)
  • population density: [highest] Belgium, Vietnam, UK. [lowest] Kazakhstan, Laos, Kyrgyzstan
  • democratic: Luxembourg, Germany, Austria (Economist, 2014)
  • autocratic: Laos, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan (Economist, 2014)
  • wild poos: Kyrgyzstan
Carbon footprint

17.8 tonnes of CO2e trip total (two people) which is equivalent to 11.04 tonnes per year.

Not as good as I had imagined. When confronted with questions such as “how often do you recycle”, “how often do you buy packaged goods” answers are not positive when travelling through developing countries.

 

Number of other long distance (trans-continental) cycle tourers met en route: 39

 

Crossing the Finish Line: Thailand to George Town

“Oh, cycle touring is such a hard life,” we complained to each other whilst wading into the warm turquoise sea at sunset, anticipating a seafood dinner and a glass of chilled white wine for good measure.
“Yeah, I know what you mean- every day’s a struggle here isn’t it”?

 

After only a day and a half of riding, we’d reached our first stop in Thailand- the island of Koh Chang. Last sighted in Tajikistan, our friend Jonas had also made it to Thailand on his bike and had lured us to the island for a week of relaxation and catching up. He was much hairier and much smellier than the last time we saw him, due to his strict cycle touring regime of camping every night despite the suffocating tropical heat, and he spent most of the week berating us for becoming slack in South East Asia. Looking at (and smelling) the alternative, we both felt pretty pleased with our way of doing things!
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Jonas (left)- as stinky as a Swiss cheese

 Sometimes you find yourself unexpectedly attached to a place, and this was definitely the case with Lonely Beach on Koh Chang. Nine days of socialising, swimming, kayaking, snorkeling, barbecuing, partying and relaxing later we managed to drag ourselves away, but before that we’d already made two failed attempts to leave. Each time we decided we’d better get riding again, we’d make some new friends and forget to go to bed early. The small town seems to be a magnet for quirky characters from all over the world, and we spent a happy few afternoons thinking up lines for the script of our imaginary comedy series “Expats”, based on all of our hilarious interactions there. It’s just begging to be written.
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They even have mermaids on Koh Chang- who knew?

Riding west towards Bangkok took us through some of the more ‘sexpat’ coastal areas, which we weren’t particularly enthralled by. Lots of grey haired European men looking pleased with themselves, accompanied by young Thai women. High rise development sprawling along the coastline. We made it as far as Chonburi and then decided to take a bus into the heart of the city to avoid the monstrously busy roads, pollution and what would have been a very uninspiring day of cycling.

 

We’d originally planned to avoid Bangkok, but ended up being glad we popped in, just to witness the craziness. The city is strangled by huge roads, making it unappealing to leave the small area we were staying in, but there was enough there to keep us occupied for a few days- namely the street stalls selling delicious Thai curries and fruit shakes, and the VW vans converted into rock’n’roll bars. We did pay the customary visit to the famous Khao San Road for a sensory overload. It wins the award for the loudest street on our entire trip, with each bar blasting out club music at full volume, resulting in a screaming clash of rhythms, bass lines and synth. Sat down for a beer to take in the surroundings, and realised we were surrounded by vest-wearing, gym-busting Brits shouting their travel stories to each other over the racket. One beer was quite enough.
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Sensory overload on the Khao San Road

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Makeshift rock n roll bars are much more appealing!

Whilst walking down this road, we were pretty shocked to witness an enormous, bright blue fireball streak across the sky, really close to Earth. Joe was convinced it was just some extravagant laser show put on for the tourists, but the next morning, the Internet confirmed it was in fact a meteor exploding over Bangkok! We felt pretty lucky to have been out on the street and facing the right way at that exact moment.

 

 

Now it was time to turn south for the final push to the Malaysian border. Well, I say ‘push’, but we weren’t about to ride down the peninsular surrounded by the most paradise-like islands of our entire trip without paying a visit to a few along the way. That would be mental.

 

We did start by making a concerted effort though and cycled for nine days in a row, and what delightful cycling it was! Once we’d cleared the tourist towns just south of Bangkok, our ride down the east coast took us through quiet villages, past deserted beaches and karst rock formations (one of my favourite things about South East Asia), and through national parks with monkeys playing in the trees and limestone caves.

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“I think there might be a storm coming…”

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Cycling through the Khao Sam Roi Yot national park

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Careful to avoid other road users

We’d stop for the night in quiet towns and enjoy getting a feel for the ‘real’ Thailand (away from the vests and selfie sticks). Our favourite places to be in the evenings were the night markets, found in pretty much every town and serving all sorts of spicy noodle and rice dishes, (and an inventive selection of coconut-based desserts, to Joe’s delight). Looking around at the astonishingly high obesity levels of fellow diners, it was clear the Thais enjoy their own food just as much as we do!
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Always something new to try at the night markets

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“Baby chicks for sale: natural colour or rainbow chick, as you prefer…”

Cycling in Thailand is pretty stress-free compared to many other countries in this region. The roads are great, there are cycle paths everywhere, the drivers are quiet and respectful (i.e. no honking frenzies here) and cycling itself seems to be a popular sport, so we were constantly passing groups of friendly lycra-clad riders. Everybody was in training for the big cycling event of the year in December- “Bike for Dad”. ‘Dad’, in this case, referring to the King of Thailand (who else?).  Most of the riders, and in fact, a large portion of the general population, were proudly wearing their bright yellow “Bike for Dad” T-shirts a whole month in advance of the big event that will celebrate His Royal Highness’s 88th birthday. Even the more XXL kind of moped riders were dressed in their “Bike for Dad” gear, although I’m concerned they may have missed the point slightly.

 

At Chumpon, we left the familiar Gulf of Thailand and crossed over to the Andaman Sea side of the peninsular (it’s so narrow on this part that it only took a few hours to get across). A memorable evening was spent at the the riverside in the small town of Kraburi, watching the rowing boats on the narrow stretch of river separating Thailand from Myanmar. On the day we were there, the votes for Aung San Suu Kyi’s election victory were being counted, and we spent hours imagining different possible outcomes whilst gazing across to the jungle-covered hills of this country that was until recently such a closed and secretive place. The cycle tourers we’ve met along the way who’ve ridden through Myanmar have told stories of being forced to stay on main roads, and being reported and intercepted every time they tried to stray onto a more interesting, quiet village road to get a real look around. Perhaps that will all change now as the power changes hands.
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Sunset over Myanmar

Our route down the west coast showed a gradual transition from Buddhism to Islam, which meant a nostalgic reunion with the call to prayer, headscarves and mosques in every village. It was also marked with hundreds of tsunami warning signs and evacuation routes, as we were now passing through an area that was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami. You wouldn’t have been able to tell were it not for the signs; for most people, life carries on more or less as normal here now. One guest house owner on the coast recounted to us how his family were given three minutes warning and told to get to higher ground. As they piled into their car and sped inland, they could see the surge of water following them in the rearview mirror. Terrifying.

 

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After our nine day push, the pace relaxed considerably, and we interspersed cycling with relaxed beach days on the mainland and island hopping. We knew our days of freedom were numbered and intended to enjoy the paradise-style setting as fully as possible before returning to rainy England. Soft sand, clear turquoise water, karst rock formations towering out of the sea and killer sunsets every evening followed almost nightly by a dramatic lightening storm…you can’t really go wrong with that combination! Oh, and reggae bars of course. Lots of reggae bars.
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Koh Yao Noi: Joe getting excited about the karsts in the distance

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Koh Rok: the closest we came to an island paradise

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Our bamboo bungalow ‘resort’ on Koh Lanta- creatively designed using washed up debris from the sea, coconuts and old tyres

We spent a lot of time snorkeling and appreciating the beautiful coral and rainbow-coloured fish. As somebody who’s never swam in tropical waters before, this was a completely amazing experience for me. Unfortunately we don’t have an underwater camera (unlike many tourists we saw with their underwater selfie stick set-ups…) so as a special treat, I’ll share my artist’s impressions with you, taken from my diary. I think you’ll agree this paints a fairly accurate picture?

 

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Cycle touring throws up lots of bizarre coincidences, and for a while, earlier on in the trip, we seemed to be cosmically linked to a couple called Veronika and Fernando, also on a long bike trip. We spontaneously bumped into them three times in three different countries, always in the most unlikely of places (round the back of a Turkish petrol station was the last example…), and if it wasn’t us bumping into them, other cyclists we met would reveal that they’d also crossed paths with them unexpectedly! After heading in completely different directions after Turkey however, we didn’t expect to see them again, and for fourteen months that was the end of it. Until the owner of the guesthouse in Kraburi asked us to write in her guestbook. One guess as to who the last entry had been written by? It was happening all over again. We didn’t even know they were in Thailand, and now it seemed they were mere days ahead of us heading south!

 

There was a nice sense of rounding off the trip full circle when we caught up with them on the island of Koh Lanta and shared stories of the past year. Watching their videos of riding in the mountainous north of India made us realise that we are definitely not over travelling by bicycle, and still have so many places that we want to explore (but calm down Mum, we like the idea of short mini-trips for the foreseeable future). Oh, and Fernando fixed my bottom bracket, which meant the bikes could definitely limp to the finish line of the Malaysian border. Thanks Fernando!

 

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Thailand had been good to us. In addition to the beautiful scenery, food and company, the local people we met and rode past along the way were crazily friendly, and we always felt welcome wherever we went, both in the touristy areas and in the regular villages and towns. The time had come though to make our final border crossing, and on Friday 4th December, one year, six months and 26 days after leaving London, we pedalled up to the Malaysian border and out the other side. We’d finally made it!

 

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You can’t see it from this angle but there was of course a big band and champagne reception waiting for us at this point

With a pair of big silly grins, we climbed the small pass through the national park on the Malaysian side of the border and then bumped into a cycle tourer from Sydney going the other way. As soon as we told him we’d just crossed our finish line, he produced a can of beer from his battered pannier bag and we had a mini celebration on the side of the road. (Of course it goes without saying that he’d spontaneously met Fernando and Veronika two days earlier…).

 

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Celebrating, cycle-tourer-style

Now we’re celebrating George Town-an old British colonial town on the island of Penang, surrounded by a labyrinth of colonial architecture, street art and a fusion of Malay, Indian and Chinese cultures. Our bikes are resting like tired horses while we take some time to reflect on everything we’ve experienced along the way before coming home in time for Christmas. Stay tuned for some final posts (don’t worry, we promise they’ll be short ones)!
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Goodbye Buddha

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Our route often took us through rubber tree plantations. Each tree has a pot to collect the latex as it drips from the incisions in the bark.

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Typical coastal fishing village scene

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The Zahir mosque in Alor Setar, Malaysia

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Being pulled over by the Thai military for cold water refills and coffee

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“What are you looking at?”

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“Bone Voyage”

Coffee, clothes, sex and genocide: cycling through south east Asian poverty

An extended photo gallery is located at the bottom of this post

Sabaideeeeee! Sabaideeeee!, the cute Laotian kids would yell in unison, whenever we whizzed through a village. Their distinctively high pitched voices, when chorused together sounded more like a pack of (goat) kids rather than (human) kids. We were rarely able to spot where the voices came from because the bright sunny exterior contrasted against the darkness beneath the stilted homes- under which the families lounge around- means it’s hard for your eyes to adjust to spot your welcomers. So we often just waived back blindly.

And what a relief to have such a welcome after such a relentless Vietnamese experience!


Laos

Nothing much happened really until a few hundred kilometres into the country. Scenically it was beautiful- the stilted houses alone can be masterpieces of art; in the same way that you might cycle around Queensland and enjoy their distinctive bungalows. I found it hard to break the photographer’s wall though because every time I stopped to take a photo, my eyes would eventually notice the families underneath staring back at me.

The food we were getting was pants. It struck us then that whenever we go through such poor countries as this, you often only find meat, meat and meat. Surely meat is more expensive to farm than vegetables? It’s like the central Asian conundrum where every bazaar had spices and veg on offer yet every household and every restaurant would only serve up the same three dishes: meat, meat and meat with no sign of any of these spices (bar two or three) ever being used. We saw vegetables in Laos but we couldn’t see much evidence of them being used.

So it was with euphoria and ecstasy that a week after entering the country, we arrived into our first touristy town called Pakse. In case you missed the link: touristy = food choices.

Lunch

chickpea curry, aubergine curry, daal, naan bread, lassi

Dinner

chickpea curry, fish curry, daal, naan bread, chapati, beer.

Breakfast

fruit, muesli with yogurt and local fresh coffee.

We stayed another day and repeated the culinary cycle with little variation.

The south of Laos is probably best enjoyed in the hilly jungles so rather than bicycle in such tremendous heat, we took off on a 120cc Harley Davidson and spent four days looking intimidating and riding around the spectacular Bolaven plateau. Spectacular because it was jungle roads, waterfalls every dozen kilometres and the first time I’d ever seen coffee plantations.

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Laotian Lattes

I was surprised when I first learnt (in China) that bananas grow on trees, but I mean who knew that coffee does too ?? And did you know that coffee beans are translucent in colour and each bean has its own green pod? Our supermarkets back home have done a great job covering all these facts up! Next they’ll be telling me that chicken breasts have legs!

We came across a lot of sustainable projects in Laos. To the point where we wondered, in our ever sceptical mindsets, if the word was just banded around to attract the well-to-do organic-environmental-hippy-pot-smoking-middle-class-western tourists. It took a long time for us to get served in one such cafe-cum-school-cum-sustainable community project establishment we visited. Had the three French owners not all been so busy dealing with one single problem in between drags on their spliffs, I might have afforded the “sustainable” tag, ubiquitous throughout the country’s beauty spots, with less scepticism.

We learnt that Laos is the world’s second biggest producer of coffee but the reason you are most likely unaware of this, or indeed of any Laos-coffee relationship, is because it produces mostly the robusta type.

Coffee 101

Robusta beans have a sharp bitter quality and thus considered inferior so is used by freeze-dried coffee manufacturers such as Nescafé.

Whereas the coffee used in a London hipster’s frappaflapperfuckerccino- like most coffee in the west- is known as arabica.

Funnily enough, you can stop in any village shop in Laos including on the Bolaven plateau and choose between a sachet of re-imported Nescafé or the equivalent local instant brand.

But seeing where the coffee came from first-hand did plant a seed of well-to-do organic-environmental-middle-classness in our heads. The existence of local think tank cafes claiming to pay their farmers a fair living wage made us realise first-hand that this is indeed an exploited industry. The very fact that these places existed suggested that it wasn’t normal to pay coffee farmers a living wage.

I mean we knew that already of course, but we all know a lot of facts from passive newspaper absorption; the difference here of course was that we were travelling through it all, meaning that we were really getting to know this fact.  Anyway, here we were being charged about £1 for a cup of (arabica) coffee that comes with a sustainable tag. In the UK, I began wondering how much of your £3+ per cup is split between overheads, retail, transit and producer or indeed the £3.50 per 250g Columbian arabica in Tesco (from memory).

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oh look! Some kittens!!

Continuing our bicycling down and along the Mekong we took a few days off to visit the area known as the four thousand island delta near the Cambodian border. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit all four thousand islands but we did narrow it down to three, spending a few days on Don Det which was home to yet more curry houses as well as nice relaxed riverside shack bars selling cheap draft beer and offering “magic” variations of anything you order- from pizzas to smoothies to brownies (I had to explain this one to Carmen).

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Cambodia

Then we crossed into Cambodia and experienced our first bit of corruption. But we had been forewarned by the travel community so we were already prepared.

First up, “overtime fee” for outgoing Laos guards.

“Why would I pay for your overtime? Surely you should talk to your boss about this?” was my response. I pointed my finger at him, said “corruption?” and he stamped us out and let us through.

And then incoming Cambodian customs.
“Health check $4 please”
“erm when and where do we do the health check?”
“Sir I did the health check just now, your temperature reading.”
“$4 to read our temperature? Ok, what’s my temperature then, you made a note of it right?”
Starts to point laser at me again but I stop him and say “Corruption?”
“Sir no corruption! It’s compulsory.”
“It’s not compolsary and we are not paying”
“Ok you can’t come into Cambodia then”
(Grinning) “Fine, we will camp here in no-mans land just behind you on that grass. We have a tent.”
(Grinning) “Yes sir you can camp there, I keep your passport”
(Grinning) “No problem, we have lots of time, there’s no bus waiting for us you see! Do you have food in your office there?”
(Grinning) “no food no”
(Grinning) “no problem, we have cooker and food, we will cook”
(Pissed off) “Yes yes no problem” stamps and hands us back passports.

Seems that if you nail the problem on the head, corruption is fun.

Holiday

Whose ever idea it was to cycle from London to Malaysia by bike was a stupid one. After spending every single 24 hours and 7 days a week around each other since leaving Bishkek in March, we needed a break. Not just from cycling but also from each other. It was probably around this time that we started to feel deflated about cycling- possibly due to the heat- a feeling which would stay with us a further few weeks. We were tiring ourselves out and therefore winding each other up so the natural thing to do was to suspend all cycling operations and spend a week apart, doing our own thing and in our own space and time. And without the same financial frontiers we were used to.

Carmen, amazingly, decided to start with a two day bike ride. /whatever/

I hopped on a coach and headed for the capital, Phnom Penh. Sod biking! I spent the first day with a bakery hit list cycling around the capital in search of a chocolate tart. My hit list comprised screen shots of alleged tarts and google map locations. I spent about four hours doing this; I didn’t notice the temples, the riverside or any of the city’s quirks. All I saw were potential places that might house chocolate tarts. I was unsuccessful but that didn’t matter. It was about fulfilling my own drive. I like chocolate tarts you see. In the same way that Carmen felt like she just had to…..cycle.

I got an email from Carmen to say that cycling along the quiet Mekong and through its temple-laden villages was stunning. She had stopped in a temple and got well fed by the monks. No photos to show though because she was cameraless (it’s MY camera).

More interestingly though, on her first day and within the first hour, she’d seen three different locals bashing their own Buddhas in the street, in broad daylight.

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Not the chocolate tart I was after but any of these’ll do

Killing Fields

It’s odd reality that the main tourist attraction in Phnom Penh is the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, a title I think makes it sound like you are going there for services rather than for the museum that it is. Yes it does sound somber but god, what an experience. It’s the audio guide [click] that is the most arresting aspect and really defines the museum.

The museum was once the country’s biggest killing field where the Khmer Rouge wiped out 8985 people. They don’t really know the exact number of total deaths around the country’s 20,000 mass graves but it’s somewhere between 1.7-2.5 million people- about a quarter of the population. The field itself is now a quiet meadow and its humped terrain testament to the mass graves that once were.

You are given the audio guide as you enter and are immediately immersed into overwhelming emotion as the gentle warm voice introduces himself in English as a victim of this field (but who managed to evade execution). Most voices are first-hand, a fact that reminds you how very recent it all is.

You are free to wander around the meadow; the only rule being to remain quiet and avoid stepping on any bones or clothes you might come across- of which there were plenty. Whenever it rains, bones, teeth and cloth are collected and added to the piles; we were there during the rainy season.

It takes about 90 mins to listen to all of the accounts. Like me, other tourists are strolling around in slow motion, head down, concentrating on what’s being said. Some people are just sat down by the small lake thinking. If I take the earphones off, all I hear are birds tweeting. You can’t really tell who is crying because the sunlight is blinding, so everyone’s wearing sunglasses. You have a distinctive feeling that everyone else probably also has the same lump in the throat.

Towards the end whilst I am standing in front of the Killing Tree – against which babies were thrown to their deaths- I hear the recorded testimony of number 2, Comrade Duch. Here is the script, taken from the audio production company:

NARRATOR:
In February, 2008 the man known as Duch was also brought here as a prisoner. The official tribunal – the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia — later sentenced him to 35 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity.[…]

For a long time, Duch had denied knowing what happened at Choeung Ek. But here, at the Killing Tree, he fell to his knees and wept. In this excerpt from the tribunal, we hear him, in a calm moment, admitting his guilt for the deaths at Toul Sleng:

DUCH:
As an emissary, I do not evade responsibility. I am mentally responsible for the souls of those who died. Particularly, I am legally responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 people and bow low to the ECCC as an individual who does not implicate any of my subordinates. This is my total admission. And I constantly pray for the souls of those who have died. I never forget that….

Critics have quite rightly questioned his sincerity whenever it came to such remorse.  What I didn’t realise until I later read about him was that he himself had been imprisoned and tortured during communist crackdowns prior to his regime’s rule.

In the torture cells back in town (which were once school classrooms), some of the walls are lined with hundreds of large black and white portraits of the victims. The authorities photographed every one of their victims, some of whom are smiling because they were told that they were brought here for safety. In the courtyard- once the playground- I saw a couple of old fellows signing their books in which they tell their account of the torture they endured.

You leave and finish the day not quite knowing what to do with yourself.

Whenever I interacted and met with locals thereafter, I wondered what part they may have played. You could be talking to an executioner or to a victim, or both. Or you might be talking to someone who managed to keep a low profile and stay out of either side of the torture.

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Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre. The skulls had fractures indicating violent deaths; guns were not used in order to save money

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Tuol Sleng aka S-21 torture prison showing drowning pots

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S-21 victim and survivor

Angkor Wat

After a week apart, we decided to have another holiday before getting back on the bikes. So we hopped on a luxury bus (massage chairs and personal TV sets showing David Attenborough docs) to Siem Reap. We checked into a peaceful and fancy boutique hotel set on a pond which included things like massages, smoothies, wine and fruit baskets. Siem Reap is home to the Angkor Archeological Park, once the capital of the Khmer Empire, built between the 9-15th centuries. We got chauffeured around the dozens of temples in our private tuk tuk over two days. Many of the constructions occupy the same space as large trees- they literally grow in and around the bricks like alien tentacles leeching on houses. The photos I’ll let speak for themselves; apart from selfies of me, this is the most amount of photos I have taken of anything- 235 shots. More photos at the end of this post.

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The theme on this week-long holiday was no expense spared. Cambodia offers excellent value for money; if you want to splash out, as we did, it’s heaven. We indulged in great food, wine, hotels with swimming pools and in one afternoon I even sampled two different massage places. At $8 an hour, you can’t complain. Actually you can complain, as we almost did when we decided to go visit one particular place. Although I had had some good hour-long foot massages before, this one really was a case of get-what-you-pay-for. While Carmen signed up to an hour foot massage, I opted for a full body massage upstairs in the private rooms. Yes, that did turn out to be as dodgy as it sounds. I was offered two girls to tend to my body and after about 20mins the young teenage ‘masseuse’ offered me an upgrade to the FULL full body massage. I refused the offer and the remainder of the massage was spent filling time rather than actually massaging me. After I emerged I noticed that all the masseuses downstairs were all young and wearing skimpy clothes. Carmen’s feet had endured an hour of being randomly touched, at times painfully. But I felt happy because finally, after months of Carmen getting all the attention, my dream came true and it was my turn to get the share of sexual harassment.

Joe 1 – 37 Carmen.

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awwwww looooook! Some more kittens!

Cambodian clothes

Unlike many cities we’ve been through, Phnom Penh has a dozen of independent cinemas showing English language movies. This is always exciting for us because on this trip we watch on average about 0.3 films a year. I saw The Marsian in 4DX format, which requires a specially equipped cinema providing an immersive experience in the form of water spray, wind and hydraulic chairs. (There’s only one of these cinemas in the UK and it’s in Milton Keynes.) Luckily the movie had none of those people Carmen saw bashing their Buddhas in it!

As well as the 1989 movie Killing Fields, we also watched True Cost, an in-depth documentary about the fashion and textile industry’s effect on humans and the environment. The story is set across many countries and features exploited Cambodian factory workers who, working for big labels such as Nike and H&M, when silently protested about their disgusting conditions (mass fainting, deaths etc.), were fired upon by riot police.

By coincidence, the route we had chosen to leave Cambodia took us past dozens of such garment factories in small villages. We later read that a few of these factories had made it to international news last year when things turned violent. The battle is on-going.

It’s one thing reading about these things and watching the documentaries but another when the woman serving your food has her entire family at ransom by H&M et al. and ultimately the western consumer, who believes he is aware how much a T-shirt or a pair of jeans costs and won’t expect to pay more. Ditto for coffee.

Now I think I understand why abolishing slavery took so long- opposition must have been panicking at the idea of economic redesign and how to keep things cheap.

We left the warmth of Cambodia via the coastal border with Thailand. Our penultimate night was spent in a wooden hut resort with some locals who had invited us to their prawn barbecue with endless bottles of cold beer in their coolbox. After a few hours into the night they decided it was time to dance and within two minutes all ten of us were dancing for the next hour or two.

It’s a wonder how every Cambodian you interact with is usually so calm, polite, smiley and humorous. It’s definitely a pattern we’ve been seeing in poor countries.

Cheers for reading.


Photo update

Hello.  I have finally trawled through thousands of photos and uploaded a load to my Flickr stream here.  I haven’t uploaded any since February in Bishkek. 

Included in the update are photos from south Kyrgyzstan, the Pamir Highway (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), China, Vietnam and Laos.
The purpose of the Flickr stream is to show our best photos. There’s just not enough space in the blogs to post all of them! 

In this day and age where everyone is a Photoshopper or an Instagramer, I feel it worthwhile to mention that none of the photos you see have been processed, manipulated or tweaked in any way. I mention this because travel blogs gloss up their pics to make their vistas more striking and dramatic. It therefore becomes hard to tell and appreciate what things really look like. On this trip we are often struck by how colourful and dramatic things look and I don’t want to discredit nature for doing an amazing job.

Click here to access the Flickr stream.

Vietnam: from travellers to tourists?

Ok, we have a confession to make (hardcore cyclist friends look away now). We’ve just spent almost a month in Vietnam and during that time only 9 of those days were spent riding our bicycles! Oh, the shame! We did plan to, honest! It just didn’t really pan out that way in the end…

First stop: Sapa. From the border with China, this well known trekking destination is only a day’s ride away, at the top of a very steep hill. We can proudly say we did actually ride there, accompanied by our new friend William (a very hairy cyclist from the UK who we’d acquired a few days earlier on the road). It was only 35km, but in the sweltering heat and humidity, the only way to do it safely was to set the alarm and be on the road by 6am, and even then we became so drenched in sweat that we could wring out our t-shirts to make puddles on the road. Gross.

 

Getting into the town was exciting- after two months of pushing ourselves to get through China without much of a break, always staying in uninspiring towns with nothing to do but eat, sleep and move on, here we were presented with a picturesque, bustling place full of inviting cafes, bars, restaurants, shops and a stunning backdrop of the rice terrace valleys. It was also full of western tourists, which felt pretty weird after being pointed and stared at like aliens for so many months. Here, we decided, we were going to relax at last.

 

But first, we were going to go trekking. The whole area around Sapa is home to the Black Hmong ‘minority culture’ (the tourism buzz phrase of the decade), who live amongst the rice terraces and earn a living as trekking guides and through home stay programmes. We were approached by a woman who charmed us into going with her the following day, and when we agreed on the price, she gave us cloth bracelets “as a present,” which I thought was very sweet. Later, walking around the town, we noticed other Hmong women start to approach us, spot the bracelets on our wrists, and quickly back off. I questioned our guide about it when she came to collect us:

 

“So, this lovely present you gave me- does it mean something?”
(Smiling sweetly) “Yes, it means I own you.”

 

It seemed we’d just unknowingly sold our souls to a hill tribe guide. The Hmong women were everywhere in the town, trying to sell their wares. Whenever you politely refused, they would ask, “Maybe later?”, and if you made the mistake of nodding or smiling, a bracelet would be quickly tied around your wrist to seal the ‘promise’. Also, if you actually did fall for their charms and end up buying something, within moments you’d find yourself surrounded by women all looking sulky and grumpy, moaning at you in unison, “But why did you buy from her when you didn’t buy from meeeee? Now you bought from her you have to buy something from me too to make it fair ok?” It was pretty annoying, but it seemed to work on William, who must have bought a whole pannier bag full of hand crafts!

 

“Buy from meeee”. Even the kids were at it. Some parents in the villages here choose to send their children out to sell bracelets and bags rather than to school…

The trek was beautiful though, and very peaceful. Our guide led us along quiet pathways in the hills, with fantastic views of the rice terrace valleys below. As we walked she explained to me how she makes her own clothes by twisting hemp into strands for weaving, and even makes her own indigo dye from the leaves that grow in the forest. She also built her house of course, and gets her rice from the paddy fields surrounding it. To go and visit her mum, whose village is in the next valley, she has to walk for a whole day over trails leading over the mountains. I couldn’t imagine a life further removed from what we consider ‘normal’.

 

Rice terraces around Sapa

Rice terraces around Sapa

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Shu- our guide

Shu- our guide

After a few more days of basically lounging around, drinking delicious coffee and comparing the chocolate tarts at the various bakeries dotted around the town, we decided it was time force ourselves to leave and see more of Vietnam before we ate ourselves bankrupt. (Joe and William had decided the meals were ‘too small’ in Vietnam, and had started encouraging each other to have double dinners…)

 

Coffee in Vietnam really is fun. I'm surprised this hasn't caught on in Soho yet...

Coffee in Vietnam really is fun. I’m surprised this hasn’t caught on in Soho yet…

Next stop: Ha Giang province, in the far north. We’d read that this was considered the most beautiful province in the country, but the least visited due to the fact it’s pretty underdeveloped and you need your own transport to get around. What a perfect combination!

 

The ride from Sapa to Bac Ha however made us rethink our plan. Once again, we were up at sunrise, but this route was 100km with a crazily steep mountain right at the end, which we hit at the hottest part of the day. It was virtually impossible to get up there in the sun. We had to hide out for hours in the shade until gone 4pm, and then attempt the climb when it was getting marginally cooler. Even so, my head felt like it was going to explode as we pushed ourselves in our lowest gears- the gradient unforgiving for almost 20 kilometers, getting more and more dehydrated. We arrived after dark and as soon as we found a guest house, the owner realised I was close to fainting and quickly presented me with a chair and a glass of cold water. I was so exhausted I could hardly speak. Even having a shower was an effort.

 

Cycling such steep mountains (I’d say they were the steepest of the entire trip) in such intense, unforgiving heat didn’t seem like such a healthy idea anymore. I realised that despite the beauty of the scenery that day, I hadn’t appreciated it at all due to the fact that I felt so physically destroyed. But we still really wanted to see the northern mountains. So we hatched a new plan…

 

...and it went something like this

…and it went something like this

Leaving our tired bicycles to have a nice rest in Bac Ha, we nervously mounted this beast. Joe quickly learnt the basics; I quickly learnt how to hold on and pray for my life, and together we sped off into the sunset towards Dong Van. It was completely thrilling. Anybody who has ridden a real motorbike would laugh and call us dweebs, but we felt like rock stars. It must be up there as one of the best feelings in the world- speeding along a mountain road with the wind in your face (incidentally, we’d found a way to keep cool!), with jaw-dropping vistas on one side, and waterfalls on the other, knowing that you can spend all day exploring and taking as many detours as you like, because you’re not on a slow bicycle, killing yourself with exhaustion! Each time we got to the top of a pass of menacing switchbacks we’d laugh in disbelief at the fact it took us hardly any time or effort to get up there.

 

Our new temporary mode of transport allowed us to fully appreciate this astounding area of towering karst mountains, and we stopped all the time to take photos, swim in waterfalls, relax in hilltop forests, but mostly just to stare in amazement at the impressive work of nature around us. It was, for both of us, one of the highlights of the entire trip.

 

Joe's rock star alter-ego took over for the week

Joe’s rock star alter-ego took over for the week

Well wouldn't that take a long time on a bicycle!

Well wouldn’t that take a long time on a bicycle!

Watching the sunset over Dong Van

Watching the sunset over Dong Van

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Stopping for a cool down

Stopping for a cool down

Reunited again with our slow bikes, we decided it was time to get to Hanoi and then the coast. Now that we’re on the last leg of our trip, we’re suddenly very conscious about money and aware of how much time we can afford to spend in each country. We don’t want to waste time riding parts that aren’t so interesting, just to say that we’ve ridden all the way, because now we’re zig-zagging all over the place anyway, often going in the ‘wrong’ direction. We’d rather be able to make the most of our time in this part of the world where there is so much to see. With that in mind, we threw the bikes onto a sleeper bus to Hanoi (a bus with actual beds inside- I didn’t know they existed!).

 

There’s not much I can really say about Hanoi other than that it has a lot of traffic (mostly motorbikes) and a lot of people. The old quarter has some nice architecture but you have to make sure you’re standing in a safe place before you can risk taking your eyes off the street to have a look. Lots of oversized, vest-wearing tourists squatting on miniature plastic chairs on the streets drinking the local ‘Bia Hoi’, loving the fact that it costs 15p a glass and trying to pretend it doesn’t taste like dishwater. We did stay with a really interesting Warm Showers host though, who told us stories about being in the city in its communist heyday in the 70’s, and the way that the rules have gradually been diluted over the decades to make way for the savage form of capitalism in place today (although it’s still officially a ‘socialist republic’ of course).

 

Messy cables in Hanoi's backstreets

Messy cables in Hanoi’s backstreets


Portable market stalls

Portable market stalls


A never-ending stream of scooters

A never-ending stream of scooters

Our host told us the ride to get to the coast wasn’t particularly pleasant, so once again we decided to cheat. We took a train for a few hours to Haiphong, and then it was a two day ride up to the ferry port in Bai Tu Long Bay, where we could catch a boat to Quan Lan island. It was during this time that the strangeness began. Both evenings when we tried to find a guesthouse, we were met with cold blank stares from most of the owners, who quoted us prices way higher than usual (despite not being in the tourist areas) and refused to be haggled with even a little, preferring to make no money at all from us. Our smiles went noticeably unreturned and it felt awkward. Going out to get something to eat was even weirder, with more blank expressions- the owner of one cafe refused to acknowledge us whatsoever, preferring to call somebody else to come and serve us even when we were trying to put money in his hand to pay him. He didn’t once make eye contact. Were these coastal people all zombies? Or did they just hate us? Walking through the town after that freaky experience, I was kicked hard in the leg by a boy around ten years old. (Yes, physically assaulted as I walked down the street minding my own business)!  I spun around and gave him a viscous telling off as his nasty little friends laughed and sneered as though it were normal behavior to kick people who look different to you. A lot of this took place in Halong city, just across the bridge from the touristy area at Ha Long Bay- probably Vietnam’s biggest tourist attraction!

 

It was the same on the island (minus the kicking, thank god- that was a one off at least). Normally when we ride our bikes through quiet villages where they don’t see many foreigners, people wave and smile and shout hello to us all the time. Not here. All we got in response to our smiles were hostile scowls or blank, faraway looks. Add all this to the fact that we felt like people were constantly trying to rip us off and squeeze every penny out of us due to our western-ness and you can understand why we didn’t stay long there. (Even as Joe wobbled his way along the narrow, slippery gangplank of the ferry boat with his bike threatening to fall into the sea as he carried it, nobody offered to help him as they most certainly would have done in every other country we’ve been through so far. Instead, one man quoted him a small fee for a helping hand).

 

At least the boat ride was scenic

At least the boat ride was scenic

We felt so unwelcome in this part of Vietnam that we decided to try our luck further down the coast. Was it because of the war? We were in an area that had been heavily bombed in the early 70’s, and many people will still undoubtedly have horrific memories from that time. Politics aside, if you lived in a village in Vietnam and ‘the West’ had dropped a bomb that killed a member of your family, your instincts towards western tourists only a few decades later wouldn’t instinctively be to welcome them with open arms.

 

Another sleeping bus took us to the coastal town of Dong Hoi, and we hoped we weren’t offending anybody with our presence as we cautiously made our way through the streets. This was a more touristy area, so the hostel we found was friendly, and we celebrated Joe’s birthday with a huge breakfast of pancakes, fruit and milkshakes, followed by a swim in the sea. You could even say this hostel was too friendly- the girl in charge (a skinny goddess around eighteen in hot pants and a crop top) enjoyed spending her days lounging seductively on the sofa, tossing her long silky hair and pouting, draping her arms around all the male guests and telling anyone who’d listen that she wanted to find a British husband. Joe got a cheeky slap on the bum when I wasn’t around (and he was, naturally, disgusted by this…).

 

It was even hotter here, and the only acceptable place to be was submerged in the sea. We reckoned the only way we’d be getting any cycling done would be if we hugged the coast heading south, throwing ourselves into the water every few hours to cool down. It sounded like a good plan, but first we had a quick detour to make.

 

The Phong Na Ke Bang national park is only an hour inland (cough…on the bus that is…) from Dong Hoi, and had been recommended to me by a friend with almost fanatic praise, so we went to investigate. Here, Vietnam revealed another of her natural wonders. A dense forest and craggy mountains hide a number of gigantic limestone caves, some only discovered in the past decade, and includes the biggest known cave in the world, Son Doong. Our budget didn’t stretch to the $3,000 each needed to go on an excursion to the mother cave (which is so enormous that you could apparently fit a city inside it, complete with sky scrapers and jumbo jets flying overhead), or even to the popular touristy “Dark Cave”, which has to be accessed by zip line on a guided tour. Instead, we rented a wooden boat from the village to take us to the Phong Na and Tien Son caves.

 

Considering the fact that the experience itself left us completely lost for words, I think this part is better expressed through Joe’s photographs:

 

Did dinosaurs ever sleep in here?

Did dinosaurs ever sleep in here?

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One of the most astounding things either of us have ever seen. I think I’ve found my new religion- cave worshiping. You can laugh when I say this, but it was actually quite an emotional experience. It’s weeks later as I write this and I’m still in shock. Living our whole lives surrounded by human constructions, concrete, traffic and pollution, how humbling to walk in such an ancient place, intricately and beautifully designed by nature, and imagine its slow formation over millions of years.

 

With our spirits high, we began our coastal riding along quiet tracks that led through sleepy fishing villages. We were determined to do some successful cycling in Vietnam, to make up for all our indulgence in touristy places and get a feel for the ‘real’ country and people. Having the time off the bikes was wonderful, and we managed to see so many more places than would have been possible had we just been riding, but we hadn’t forgotten why we chose to do this trip on bikes in the first place. For a few days, we had access to our own stretch of paradise-like white sandy beach, dotted with fishing boats, continuing for as far as the eye could see.

 

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We tried sleeping in the inner part of the tent on the beach one night, but even that was disgustingly hot, so the next night we were ready to try out our hammocks. We didn’t get that far though, as we came across a group of young locals drinking beer on the beach when we were looking for the optimum clump of trees for a good hammock-pitch. They were extremely friendly, and invited us to sit with them and share their beer. Well this was a first for Vietnam. When we motioned that we planned to camp, one man  told us to come and stay in his house and have something to eat. All of a sudden it felt just like old times in Central Asia again! We were quite excited, after having had so many negative experiences with the locals so far.

 

‘Go and have a swim’, he mimed, ‘and then we’ll go to my house’. So we went for a quick sunset swim, and came back to find that he’d disappeared! Instead there was a young woman beckoning us to follow her on her scooter. Ok, so it looked as though we were invited to her house instead. We followed her home, and she was all smiles, showing us where to take a shower etc. (God knows what happened to the man- maybe he was drunk and forgot about us as soon as we left his line of sight)! We were really looking forward to staying in a Vietnamese home.

 

Then I began to notice that nobody else in the nice woman’s house seemed pleased to see us there. Rather than being amused and interested to discover two foreign strangers sitting in their home, as has always been the case before, the rest of her family stopped dead when they saw us, frowning. When I smiled and said hello, they looked away and spoke tersely with the woman. Ok, this experience had just swiftly gone from being welcoming to incredibly uncomfortable.

 

Next thing we knew, the woman who’d invited us jumped on her scooter and drove off into the night, leaving us with a bunch of people who obviously didn’t want us in their house. An old lady appeared at this point and started rapping me on the shoulder to get up and come outside. She was pulling my bike out of the yard and trying to tell me something. ‘Oh, she wants to have a go on my bike?’ I thought. Well, this would break the ice. No, of course she didn’t want to have a go on my bike; she was evicting us. She briskly led us out into the darkness and down the track leading away from the house, where she then pointed into the night and shooed us away.

 

We tried to explain that we’d been invited in by the young woman, but that didn’t seem to matter anymore. We asked where we should sleep, as now it was pitch dark and we were miles away from the nearest town, on sandy tracks in the forest. We had no idea how to get out. Without any form of smile or apology, she just pointed to the side of the track and motioned, ‘sleep there’. It was as though we were pigs. She wouldn’t even let Joe go back to the house to collect his latest ridiculous hat, blocking the way with her arms! It’s fair to say we made a scene at this point, around the same time the police appeared (they’d called the police?!) to show us the way to the town. We’d heard that it was illegal in Vietnam to host foreigners in your home, but we assumed it was one of those silly rules that nobody pays any attention to. Actually, it seems people are still in the habit of informing on their neighbors here and the mistrust of foreign devils is still high.

 

The realisation that the local villagers would prefer to send us out into the dark at night rather than let us stay in a home we’d been invited to was deeply upsetting, and to be honest, it was the final straw. In Vietnam, we’d seen some of the most beautiful and memorable places of our whole trip- nature at its finest; but we’d also experienced the coldest, most unwelcoming and rude people.  Of course, there were often lovely exchanges as well, but the frequency of our hostile experiences with locals was just so high that we couldn’t tolerate the idea of spending another day in such a confusing country where we didn’t feel welcome at all. Why should we continue to spend money in a country which treats its visitors with such little respect? We changed course the next morning and headed for the Laos border.

 

Despite our mixed experiences, I’d still recommend Vietnam as a place to visit if you want to be amazed by nature. Maybe it’s safer to stay in touristy areas though, where people are paid to be nice to you! We’ve also heard that the south of the country is more friendly- I wouldn’t know.

 

I can proudly say that we cycled all the way to the Laos border with no cheating, and have rediscovered our love for our bicycles. We promise to never neglect them in such a way again.

 

One of the locals who was actually friendly

One of the locals who was actually friendly


Buffalo everywhere, always looking for a pond or a nice muddy puddle to cool down in

Buffalo everywhere, always looking for a pond or a nice muddy puddle to cool down in

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Anything can be put on top of a bus in Vietnam, even a motorbike with a man still riding it!

Anything can be put on top of a bus in Vietnam, even a motorbike with a man still riding it!

Peace of China

After a month of bombing it through north China there was still one thing itching us. (I mean apart from the endless honking, the difficulty in finding hotels, Chinese Internet and the expensive water- there was one thing itching us). We hadn’t really seen the China we came to see. You know the one I’m talking about. The rice terraces, the canyons, the space, the farmers wearing nice hats etc.

Now you’d think cycling 2890km would offer that.

…Wouldn’t you?…


Previously, whenever presented with a brown-sign opportunity to see something potentially beautiful, we pedalled on, knowing that our 1740km in three weeks weren’t going to cycle themselves. With the visa extension in hand, we now had a month to afford us more time to see the Real China.

Longjin rice fields, China. Not taken by me using my Canon D3300 DSLR (with polariser filter)

Longji rice fields, China. Not taken by me using my Canon D3300 DSLR (with polariser filter).

 

Chinese tourism.

Chinese tourism: “Hey kids, where do you want to go today, the first phase of the sunshine homestead, the second phase of the sunshine homestead or Alton Towers?

Off road

So we changed tack and decided to get away from the noisy beeping roads for small periods of time and hop on a bus, train, walk- whatever it took to find The Real China, which had to be buried somewhere between these busy roads. We ruled out the much recommended Tiger Leaping Gorge because to get there from our present location involved going via some other stunning gorges, which much to our annoyance the police are insistent they don’t want foreigners going to, for some completely unknown reason.

We googled nearby Emei mountain range. It looked well good and so decided this would be our target for some well earned peace. Just look at all those temples! Apparently you can even stay in them! We left our bikes at the hostel and made for the hills.

Photosss

Photo not (yet) taken by me using my Canon D3300 DSLR (with polariser filter)

Photo not (yet) taken by me using my Canon D3300 DSLR (with polariser filter)

Photo not (yet) taken by me using my Canon D3300 DSLR (with polariser filter)

After a couple of hours we found some great steep off-track tracks which took us away from the more crowded official paths. We got lost wandering through hills and farms. It was beautiful. This was it. Finally some peace. And finally a chance to take some of our own photos!

Climbing Emei

Climbing Emei

Then we had to rejoin the main track which included sections of road. We walked alBEEEP. We walked along thBEEEEEP. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP. It became hard to enjoy this scenery BEEEEEEP with all this going BEEEEEP on.

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

I need to explain a little more the difference with Chinese honking compared with the rest of the world we’ve seen, because Carmen’s last post doesn’t explain the nuance. From east Europe onwards, the horn is more regularly used than in west Europe. It’s used pretty much by every passing car as either a salute or as a subtle, “hey I’m here”. And that’s ok.

Chinese bus drivers have louder horns fitted. They are so loud it’s insane. It must be illegal. Most buses (and some lorries) beep their way aggressively through the narrowest villages at 40kmph+ with pedestrians’ ears (old, infirm, young etc) a metre away from the source. They beep aggressively because they don’t want to have to brake at all or slow down. They believe they are the most important thing on the road at that moment. Rather than a short bip to alert of presence, a Chinese honk can last many seconds. Followed by the same perpetrator immediately honking for a further few seconds as it passes your ears. The offender will honk several times like this. Then it’s the next bus’ turn. Then the next. There are a lot of buses in China. They even do this in tunnels. Why they bother on an empty road when 1/it’s empty and 2/we can hear them honking a kilometre behind us, I don’t know. That’s just the buses. It becomes very hard to concentrate and starts to eat away your senses.

It’s the literary BEEEEEEEP equivalent of BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP it’s the literary equivalent of beep littering ones book BEEEEEEEEEEP with beeep a BEEEEP bogus beeeeep word. BEEEEEEEP BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

No really, it really is awful. Really. It’s confusing, distracting and makes you want to simply close the book. Read: Piss off China!

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

Anyway, back to our pleasant stroll. We thought we had dodged the entrance fee because we started late and were wandering around into the evening. But the security guard kindly opened up his office for us and issued us two £18 tickets, which felt more like a bloody fine as he logged us into his system with barcode and SNAP, photo ID for their records. Ticket valid for two days only: you can hike, but hurry up.

Oh well, we thought, if this is the price one has to pay to get some peace and nature, I’m sure it’ll be wor…

Hold on, did I just see a load of litter?

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

We found a temple away from the roads in which to sleep. It was beautiful. And quite peaceful.

(Apart from the monks watching TV.)

(And the monks coughing up their phlegm.)

(And everyone talking loudly in the resonant courtyard.)

Sunset.

Sunset

 

Temple where we slept

Temple where we slept

We had a brisk wakeup at sunrise as everyone began talking loudly again in the resonant courtyard so we resumed our walk. This was the day where we had a fully emmersive experience with another one of China’s biggest ethnic minority (the first being Chinese Drivers): the Chinese Tourist.

Walking up stunning gorge and mountain paths, we shared this endless steep staircase with herds of Chinese Tourists. The Chinese Tourist migrates throughout the year (using their cars and their horns on their roads) across all provinces of China. Today several herds had come to Mount Emei. But also present, our common cousin the macaque monkey. Experts aren’t sure who descended from who vis-à-vis the Chinese Tourist and the monkey.

The Chinese Tourist knows no peace at all: shouting because there’s a monkey to look at, shouting because there’s a couple of white tourists, shouting because there’s a cable car over there, shouting because a member of family 200m behind wants some biscuits, shouting for fun presumably because when one shouts really loud, the sound waves travel and reflect off the surrounding mountainous surfaces, leading to the original shout taking on extra reverberant qualities as well as a prolonged lifespan, much to the delight of the Chinese Tourist.

The Chinese Tourist carries photographic apparatus which he uses to capture striking images of surrounding nature, our cousins, us and- with help from the world’s most offensive invention, a selfie f*** stick- themselves. All material is instantly uploaded to the digital ether of newsfeed wasteland, for bored people to see, appreciate and provide commentary.

Macaque monkey (left), Chinese Tourists (right)

Macaque monkey (left), Chinese Tourists (right)

Small stalls in the middle of otherwise peaceful nowhere offered up food and overpriced titchy water bottles, which we downed in one. No big bottles to be seen. Actually, this was common in Chinese townships: well-stocked supermarkets with various grades and sizes of vinegar, soy, vodka but with no sign of anything bigger than titchy water. This was more infuriating when dehydration was a genuine danger here and you were being ripped off for it.

Two of the stalls we walked through- platforms the size of a small bedroom – had chefs wearing microphone headsets connected to a megaphone-tannoy and addressing, seated right before them, tiny audiences of half a dozen. In the middle of a stunning mystical hike, these knobs were further adding to the noise pollution.

Other stalls offered up sling shots. Now, I saw no correlation myself with these and the presence of monkeys, but I did come across a blog that suggested so. Hmm, assaulting monkeys with sling shots?  Even though they may not be gifted with the evolutionary dexterity to spell it, this was clearly GBH.

Now can you see why I’m coming down hard on the Chinese Tourist?

Even when we checked into the next temple to sleep, people still had to shout. There was always a reason to shout: shouting because they were washing their feet, because they were about to go to sleep, because everyone in the dorm was asleep, because they were praying and then because they were about to wake up and go hiking before sunrise, and because the sunrise looks beautiful and because look, there’s a foreigner also watching the sunrise too BLA DI BLA DI BLA BLA BLA RAH RAAAH RAAH

even though this looks good, the experience was immediately spoilt by a herd of Chinese Tourists rushing over to shout because of something.

Even though this looks amazing, the experience was immediately spoilt by a herd of Chinese Tourists rushing over to shout because of something.

 

Even though this looks amazing, the experience was immediately spoilt by a herd of Chinese Tourists rushing over to shout because of something.

Even though this looks amazing, the experience was immediately spoilt by a herd of Chinese Tourists rushing over to shout because of something. I’m not lying.

 

Even though this looks amazing, the experience was immediately spoilt by a herd of Chinese Tourists rushing over to shout because of something.

Even though this looks amazing, the experience was immediately spoilt by a herd of Chinese Tourists rushing over to shout because of something. Really, this isn’t just repetition for comic effect, that really DID happen.

This was becoming an awful experience.
“Shout if you’re a twat!” instructed Carmen to everyone in earshot on one section of path.

“I don’t think they understand English, Carmen” was what I was just about to say before one herd of Chinese Tourists started shouting.

We were surrounded by twats, it seemed. Shouting because they were twats.

(If you’re wondering whether we played “Honk if you’re a twat” on the roads, I tried but failed, it’s just not possible. The only word to describe Chinese honkers begins with a C)

This was clearly how not to do tourism. Take a stunning backdrop, make it accessible for everyone, spoil it with every kind of pollution possible, charge people a fortune for the privilege, assault the local wildlife and call it a “hike”.

The Golden Summit, Emei mountain

The Golden Summit, Emei mountain

I didn’t take the above picture of the summit using my Nikon DSLR D3300 (with polariser), because on day three, ready to embark on the final climb towards said summit, we were confronted with this:

Chinese Tourists.

Chinese Tourists. Err guys, could you keep it down a bit?

We took this photo, gave up, turned back and took an overpriced bus back to the hostel. It was 9am.
The driver, with his extra loud horn fitted, beeped his way down and coughed up phlegm about a hundred times. Sometimes he hocked and beeped in unison. BEEEEEP BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP XGHHHHGEUPHHHHT BEEEEEEEEP BEEEEEEEEEP XKKKKKRRRRRFFFFGHHHHHHHT

Noise, noise, noise and bloody noise.
Our attempt to see China’s beauty spots was a pathetic failure and it put us off risking another farce at another tourist spot with another hefty price tag.

Two-day hike to China's stunning pilgrim path. Visit and stay in local temples, get above the clouds and dodge your way past beautiful selfie takers to enjoy spectacular scenery including the Thousand Waterbottle Waterfall. Enjoy the Macaque monkeys from close-up and try your hand at sling shotting the stupid innocent furry thieving idiots. Join in the fun with nightly games including the shout if you're a nighttwat contest. Finally, spit your way back down the mountain, and enjoy the laughter as other guests spit down onto you from above. Two nights from £990,000pp

I’ve rewritten the brochure blurb for Mt Emei: Two-day hike to China’s stunning Emeishan pilgrim path. Visit and stay in local temples, get above the clouds and dodge your way past beautiful selfie takers to enjoy spectacular scenery including the Thousand Waterbottle Waterfall. Enjoy the Macaque monkeys from close-up and try your hand at sling shooting the stupid innocent furry thieving reprobates. Join in the fun with nightly games including the shout if you’re a nighttwat contest. Finally, spit your way back down the mountain, and enjoy the laughter as other guests spit down onto you from above. Two nights from £990,000pp

 

Hello

Mrs Bubbles: “My knees hurt…”

 

Mr Bubbles:

Mr Bubbles: “…Nearly done.”

 

rare photographic evidence that it's the women walking away WITH responsibility and not him walking away from responsibility

Rare photographic evidence that it’s the woman walking away WITH responsibility and not him walking away from responsibility.

Back on the road

So we changed tack again and realised that actually, we had more peace on the busy roads. Roads that were partially closed due to environmental disasters proved to be winners. So we reacquainted ourselves again with the REAL Real China.

So, did we find the peace we were looking for? Yes, we did actually. The further south we travelled, the better things got. Yunnanians don’t have the same love affair with their horns (PNI) and so we were spared honk abuse for the final two weeks. This meant that my middle finger got some well needed rest too. Indeed, I don’t think I had ever used it so much in my life as in China. (And I work in TV!)

After a much needed rest in Kunming, we made for our final 300k leg towards Vietnam via the beautiful and relatively peaceful Fuxian lake. It was the best part of China that we had seen so far. Authentic traditional villages untouched by tour**t development and very very idyllic. (We of course got grumpy again as some Chinese Tourists turned up in the evening and completely invaded the aforementioned peaceful and idyllic atmosphere by shouting over our romantic lakeside dinner and then over a game of mahjong in the echoey hotel corridor until 1am, causing us to once again lose faith in China.)

The country won back some points though in our final two days as we descended a stunning pass into the Tropic of Cancer. We had spent weeks above 1000m so we weren’t really noticing any kind of sub-tropical conditions. In one day we went from cool cities to intense tropical heat. Descending into this felt like a hair dryer blowing into your face. This descent was sickeningly beautiful and we were lucky to have the entire 40k of it exclusively to ourselves because the road was actually closed. Of the several dozen descents we’ve done to date, this was the astoundingest.  Cycling couldn’t get better than this.

Even more astounding, my Apple iPad decided to DELETE rather than IMPORT some 150 photos of the final two weeks spent in China, including the aforementioned descent. You know, the photos of the descent that I just described as “sickeningly beautiful” and the most astounding. Gone. Most of the other photos were of dodgy English found in silly menus and signage. Also gone. Oh, there was also two of some Chinese Tourists in the act of taking photos of themselves using their selfie f**ksticks. Also gone.

The astounding descent

The astounding descent. Photo not taken by me using my Canon D3300 DSLR (with polariser filter)

 

 

This temple in Kunming city centre was more peaceful than Mt Emei

This temple in Kunming city centre was more peaceful than Mt Emei

Some good honest English there

Some good honest English there.

Our favourite thing about China was the food. You might well be imagining greasy shiny things in sugary sauces, or perhaps a load of strange meat. Whilst we saw plenty of the latter (and none of the former), we ate vegetarian food every day, twice a day. Only the Chinese can make simple things like cabbage taste and look exciting. The meat we did eat on a handful of occasions included some excellent yak in Tibetan homes, splendid fish broths and the odd bit of pork here and there. The food was consistently good and is by far the best we’ve cycled through so far. Not only would we recommend it but we’d recommend it to vegetarians. Chinese food abroad doesn’t do Chinese food justice.

And did you know that China makes wine? I mean real, proper wine. I happened to pick up a bottle of Changyu which happens to be the country’s oldest producer, starting out in 1892. China now forms part of the world’s top ten producers and is second after Spain in terms of land given over to wine. But it’s hardly a surprise that they can make such good wines because the grapes we ate were also astounding.

Our second favouritest aspect of China were the people. So long as they weren’t sleeping in your hotel, driving buses or being tourists, the every day Chinese people we met were cute, shy and polite, so naturally we loved them.

Are you going to grow up to be a Chinese Driver?

Are you going to grow up to be a Chinese Driver?

 

What about you? A Chinese Tourist??

…What about you? A Chinese Tourist?

Overall

China’s young and immature tourist industry didn’t offer us the necessary contrast we needed to counter the hefty cycling. We had some good times here but we wouldn’t recommend cycling it. Obviously I am extrapolating from our experiences and I would love to see China again but with the help of an expat-in-the-know of the places to see.

Cycling in Yunnan was far more rewarding than any of the rest of our route further north. If you aspire to peace and scenery, we found it hard to get a healthy blend of either. Oddly enough, we found comfort in the big modern Chinese cities: they have everything you need including great cycle paths to navigate your way safely around otherwise dauntingly heeyauwdge cities.

The development everywhere is astounding. I would love to know how many kilometres of tunnels alone are being built at any one time across the country but the traffic police I asked met my inquisition with a blank expression. Between 2008-2014, the motorways alone had almost doubled to 112,000KM. And China seems to be doing wonders to please the hypocritical western countries (who already have the benefit of hundreds of years of industrialisation- probably built on slavery) busy pointing fingers towards China over carbon emissions. Cycling in any city’s two-wheel lane is a silent affair: everybody drives electric scooters, which can be bought for £150! You have to see it.

Ohhhhhh Europe/UK/London has a lot to learn.


 

What’s for dinner?… I’m glad you asked:

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Macaque monkey

Macaque monkeys

 

Whilst useful, the authorities did forget to issue guidance on dealing with the terrible Chinese Tourists

Whilst useful, the authorities did forget to issue guidance on dealing with the terrible Chinese Tourists

 

Mt Emei

 

Temple in Mt Emei

Temple in Mt Emei

 

Further south offered more peace

Further south offered more peace

 

Breakfasts

Breakfasts

 

Mt Emei

Mt Emei

 

North China- a love/hate relationship

I’m sorry, it’s a long one, but there’s just no other way…

After being so tantalisingly close to the border of this mysterious country for so many months, but unable to enter, it was with a nervous excitement that we crossed the border and turned our backs on beloved green Kyrgyzstan for the last time. Finally, we were out of Central Asia and ready to be hit with a completely new culture shock. That is, once we’d cleared the world’s most long-winded customs office.

When we were told to wheel our heavily laden bikes through to a back room and saw two officials waiting behind a long table, we suspected it could take a while. This was a long way from the casual borders of Kyrgyzstan where the general mood to approaching foreigners on bicycles is “Oh, hi…that’s weird, you’re on bikes…come in, come in…where are you from then? England? Ooooh! Steven Gerrard.” These officials grimly ordered us to remove every single bag from both bikes and present them for a thorough ransacking, taking out absolutely everything and putting it all in a big disorganised mess on the table (all of our careful weight-balanced packing in ruins). This wasn’t thorough enough however, so they preceded to inspect every single item for signs of suspicious activity, even my underwear wasn’t spared from the scrutiny. Everything that could be opened was opened, including things we didn’t even know could open. I was just beginning to get huffy and exasperated when the foraging abruptly stopped.

“What’s this?” demanded one of the officials. He was holding up an incriminating-looking bag of extremely suspicious-looking powder. I won’t lie, it looked exactly like a bulging bag of smuggled drugs. We looked at each other in complete horror. We had no idea what it was or where it had come from.

Time froze and my body went numb as my mind frantically tried to replay the events of the past few days. Had we left our bikes anywhere unattended? Who could it have been? Was it the Krygyz shepherd who had come to sit and stare at us outside our tent at breakfast time that morning? Maybe the sweet 70yr old French man we’d met a bit later on, cycling the same way or the smiling women who’d watched me get water from their village well? Was one of these people the secret player in a drug-smuggling operation? The seconds dragged on painstakingly slowly as the officials continued to hold up the bag and stare at us, and I began to imagine us rotting away for years in a Chinese prison, when suddenly Joe looked like he could cry with relief as he shouted,
“I know what it is!!!” In the chaos of the inspection, we hadn’t noticed them open up his camera bag and take out the beanbag he uses (for stabilising his more ambitious shots). We didn’t even know this could be opened, but they’d managed to pull out the innards, hence the incriminating bag. We were off the hook.

Inspection passed, we went to take our passports back. The conversation went a bit like this:
Officials: “You can’t have your passports back today, it’s too late, you have to sleep here.”
Us: “It’s 4pm, what are you talking about?”
Officials: “There’s not enough time to get to the next border before it closes- it’s 120km away. We work on Beijing time, despite the fact that Beijing is 4000km east of here. That makes it 6pm.”
Us: “Well we’re cycling anyway so we’ll just get there tomorrow.”
Officials: “No, you can’t cycle, you have to take a taxi.”
Us: “Why can’t we cycle? We don’t want to take a taxi.”
Officials: “Because it is not allowed.”
Us: “Ok, is the taxi free then seeing as we don’t want to take it and you are forcing us?”
Officials: “No, you must pay for the taxi. But first you must also pay for the guesthouse which we are forcing you to stay in tonight before taking the taxi in the morning.”

Welcome to China.

When we were eventually released, we were faced with the next hurdle. Luckily there were some English signs a bit further along.

When we were eventually released, we were faced with the next hurdle. Luckily there were some English signs a bit further along.

Long gone are the days when you can actually get hold of the long visa you need for cycling the whole length of China so, armed only with our 30 day visa, the plan was to take a train from Kashgar through the desert section in Xinjing province, and start cycling properly from Jiayuguan south to Leshan, where we could renew the visas.

Apparently the local Uighur population in Kashgar are rebellious and need to be kept in line by a strong police presence. They look harmless enough to me though...

Apparently the local Uighur population in Kashgar are rebellious and need to be kept in line by a strong police presence. They look harmless enough to me though…

Getting the train was easy enough, although you can’t buy a ticket online unless you have a Chinese identity card, so we had to pay a company to buy it for us. Also, we had to pay a small fortune for the bikes. Unlike our previous train-with-bikes experiences in Central Asia, where you just turn up and hope somebody will help you to squeeze the bikes into the carriage by the toilets (but don’t pay anything for them), this was an extremely organised system, with your bikes travelling on a separate train and meeting you a few days later at your destination. I think I prefer the earlier shambolic method, stressful though it was at the time-no expensive fee and bikes with you as soon as you get off the train. Here you can add the cost of waiting it out in a hotel for your bikes to arrive to the price of your ticket. Plus we had another security confrontation upon trying to enter the station. Of course everything has to be scanned and they came across our cooking knife and swiftly confiscated it.
Us: “But it’s for camping! We’re travelling by bicycle! We promise not to stab anybody on the train, honest!”
Stern faced official: “It is not allowed.”
It took all our efforts to persuade them to let us keep the bike multi-tool. Add the cost of a new knife to the ‘Being fleeced by China’ accounts list. Fast forward to the train and all the Chinese passengers are happily tucking into their watermelons with the huge knives they brought onboard with them.

Ok China, come on, we’re waiting for you to redeem yourself…

Tired and exasperated, we arrived in Jiayuguan early in the morning, after two nights spent sleeping on trains. Time to find a hotel and rest while we wait for our bikes. We didn’t fancy just aimlessly wandering the streets, so went into an Internet cafe to track one down. The boy at the counter immediately looked awkward and crossed his arms in a “no you can’t come in here” kind of way. The place was full of Chinese people happily using the Internet. “Er…why can’t we come in here? It’s clearly open and I can see a free computer right there…” The answer was perfectly rational and normal- you have to be a Chinese national with an identity card to be allowed to use Internet cafes. “Ah, ok then, that makes sense, yes of course, silly me, we’ll just go back to wandering the streets aimlessly then, see you.”

We eventually found a hotel the traditional way, and after a conversation with the receptionist’s iPhone translator app which began, “Would you like to rent a house?”, we were able to catch up on sleep and explore the city. The first thing we noticed were the crowds of middle aged and older women dancing in the streets. This wasn’t some carefree expression of freedom; it was a very organised, choreographed, serious affair. Visors on, standing in orderly lines, following the leader. The dances weren’t particularly energetic- a foot shuffle here, an arm lift there, but apparently it’s good for the health to engage in a little street dancing every morning and evening.

Very quickly, we discovered the thing that would become one of the main themes of our time in China- food! Entering China from Central Asia was like being released from food prison where you are forced to eat your rations of fat soup and unappetising meat every day, to be suddenly faced with an unimaginable amount of delicious possibilities. To say we developed an obsession with Chinese food would be an understatement. Whatever you want, you can have it. Noodle soup full of fragrant herbs and spices; sticky rice; dumplings; more vegetables than you could ever imagine; meat; fish; eggs, a huge variety of fresh fruit…it’s limitless. All rich in flavours and all so cheap! Every mealtime was suddenly an exciting prospect, and every time we try something new we decide it’s our favourite thing. Eating out here also has the added amusement that either before, during or after our meal, the cafe owners, chefs or other customers will approach us giggling and ask to have their photo taken with us. Practically every time. We are a tourist attraction. And that’s usually even without the bikes. I’m thinking about trying it out in London when we get back, finding a Chinese person and asking if I can take their photo because they look different from me. Wonder how that would go down.

Trying 'hotpot' for the first time. You get the added fun of cooking your own food.

Trying ‘hotpot’ for the first time. You get the added fun of cooking your own food.

Eager to maximise the potential for deliciousness whilst in the country, we equipped ourselves with the very useful ‘Waygo’ app, which involves pointing the iPad camera at a Chinese menu and reading the translations line by line. Although it sometimes takes us a painstakingly long time to order (and attracts a lot of attention from staff and other customers, who enjoy crowding around us to watch the magic, shouting so loudly to each other despite standing inches apart-they really do love noise), this wonderful invention has saved us from helplessly pointing at random things and ending up with various animal innards for dinner; instead we can enjoy a healthy vegetable feast every day. We’ve yet to try ordering some of it’s more obscure suggestions though.

imageimageimage

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The first section of cycling from Jiayuguan to Lanzhou wasn’t particularly inspiring scenically, although we were riding alongside the remains of the Great Wall for a few days, which was interesting, especially when you see how much of it has actually survived this long. Much more impressive than paying to see a reconstructed section. Another interesting thing we noticed in this deserty northern wasteland were the huge solar power plants. People are quick to criticise China for it’s levels of pollution, but little is said about it’s huge efforts to embrace clean energy sources. Last year they spent more money on renewable energy than the EU and the USA put together! Also, we noted that pollution levels in the cities were significantly lower than most of the other countries we’ve ridden through, with a huge number of people riding electric scooters, bikes and even three-wheeled market carts (in the generous cycle lanes that make city cycling an almost relaxing experience here).

Camping next to the Great Wall

Camping next to the Great Wall

We didn't take photos of the solar power plants, but have you ever seen a more energy efficient way of heating a kettle?

We didn’t take photos of the solar power plants, but have you ever seen a more energy efficient way of heating a kettle?

On the other hand, their obsession with packaging and waste is really quite repulsive to witness. Open a packet of biscuits and you’ll find that every biscuit is individually packaged within the packet. The apples in the supermarkets are not only individually wrapped in plastic, but they also have an extra polystyrene net around them for cushioning. Every time I see it I can’t help but groan in despair. People in restaurants and cafes will order huge amounts of food, only to leave most of it and each time we watch as it’s all scraped into the bin. (We’ve taken to discreetly swiping leftovers before they’re confiscated as we just can’t bear to witness it).

We were still able to camp quite a lot (which was great, as our budget is definitely shrinking these days), although we’ve had to become a bit more imaginative when finding spots in the more built up areas. Sometimes however, we’d find ourselves in an unexpectedly enormous town just at the wrong time, and realise we needed to find a hotel. Normally, this would be easy. Find the cheapest looking hotel and check in. And indeed, these big towns are full of hotels, many of them cheap and perfect for what we need. Only, there’s one problem. Can you guess? That’s right, you need to be Chinese national with a Chinese identity card to be allowed to stay in a cheap hotel in a big town or city in China. After learning this, we try to avoid staying in big places, but sometimes find ourselves trapped there at the wrong time and being directed from hotel to hotel, in search of one that will take foreigners, and of course ending up at the most expensive, luxury hotel which of course welcomes us in. Sometimes the hotels don’t even know whether they can take us or not, but don’t seem in any rush to find out. In one town, we were passed around a few times before being allowed into a relatively cheap place and, feeling smug, carried our heavy bags up many flights of stairs to have a long awaited shower, food and sleep. It was late and we were exhausted after a really big day of cycling. Ten minutes later, there’s a knock at the door and we’re being kicked out because they just checked with the police and actually, they can’t take us, sorry. Government rules. Back out on to the street with you, foreigner.

Luckily, in all but one of these extremely infuriating situations, we’ve been rescued by the locals. Upon seeing our helplessness, sitting on the street with our bikes, wondering what the hell we’re going to do, people always seem to approach us and want to help, inviting us to stay in their homes or directing us to a super-cheap unofficial hostel in somebody’s flat, even taking us out for dinner! The warmth we get from people everyday in China is hard to describe, and completely tears you into pieces when you’re already an emotional wreck from all the beurocracy you have to deal with on a daily basis. Anybody who speaks a bit of English is desperate to talk to us, and help us in whatever way they can. Everywhere we go we seem to meet some amazingly sweet people who really lift our spirits, so much so that it’s really difficult to stay mad at China. It’s just too confusing. One minute we could be on the street cursing this frustrating country and threatening to jump on a bus and just get the hell out, when somebody will approach us and completely transform our evening, and the next morning we’re proclaiming our undying love for China, and saying how great it would be to live here.

After Lanzhou, we climbed up to the Tibetan Plateau, and spent a relaxing week riding through the green plains and rolling hills at high altitude, surrounded by hairy yaks, eagles and various giant rodent creatures. It was here that we encountered the bizarre industry that is Chinese tourism. So there’s a lot of grassland up here, and it’s nice I suppose, and spacious, but there’s no way to distinguish one part from the next. So when we saw signs for “Scenic Spot” next to the side of the road and saw the tourists spilling out from coaches lined up next to each other, all queuing up to take photographs next to the “Scenic Spot” sign and then go to the gift shop, it was a little bizarre. Why not just go to a more peaceful part a kilometre away to actually enjoy the tranquility rather than cluster together and defeat the whole point of visiting a remote place in the first place? Also lining the roads were opportunities for a “Tibetan nomad experience”. You pay to sit in a tent for a bit next to some prayer flags and eat a very expensive meal of yak meat, pay again to have a very expensive pony ride along the side of the road, while traditional music blares out of the speakers, drowning out the peaceful sounds of the plateau. We rode past a lot of girls heavily dressed up, riding ponies next the the road whilst taking photos of themselves with selfie-sticks. It’s ironic to pay such a fortune for an experience of nomadic culture, when the defining feature of this culture is the hospitality of the people. After Kyrgyzstan, it felt a little odd to witness.

Although this wasn't an official 'Scenic Spot', it still looks quite nice.

Although this wasn’t an official ‘Scenic Spot’, it still looks quite nice.

Prayer wheels on the streets of Gannan- lots of temples up here

Prayer wheels on the streets of Gannan- lots of temples up here

Despite the fact that this area was completely overrun by tourism, riding on across the plateau, we found that people were just as willing as usual to invite us to stay or have a meal with them and refused to take any money, so the welcoming culture of hospitality still exists, it hasn’t been completely killed by the coach loads of tourists with selfie-sticks yet.

This friendly chap invited us to stay the night and cooked us his yak-meat speciality.

This friendly chap invited us to stay the night and cooked us his yak-meat speciality.

The top of a 3840m pass-very festive

The top of a 3840m pass-very festive

Our new Tibetan mates who invited us in for lunch. Spot the Tibetan John Lennon...

Our new Tibetan mates who invited us in for lunch. Spot the Tibetan John Lennon…

The real natural beauty began on our descent from the plateau as we headed down towards Dujiangyan, following a river gorge with towering mountains in all directions, through villages full of beautiful wooden houses with ornate rooves. It really was lovely. We’re very sceptical of taking anything at face value though, as many of the ‘old town’ areas in China have been obviously completely rebuilt in a way that’s initially convincing but as soon as you look closely it’s all just a little too modern and shiny. I suppose it’s better that they’re trying to recreate the beautiful old architecture rather than just building something boring and new in its place though.

Well isn't that just lovely?

Well isn’t that just lovely?

One of our better camping spots.

One of our better camping spots.

Anyone for a yak ride? (The only time we saw pretty white yaks were the ones tied up for the tourists to ride. Poor things. The ordinary yaks were scruffy and black).

Anyone for a yak ride? (The only time we saw pretty white yaks were the ones tied up for the tourists to ride. Poor things. The ordinary yaks were scruffy and black).

A big tourist sign outside this building declared it was an "Ancient Temple". Hmmmmm

A big tourist sign outside this building declared it to be an “Ancient Temple”. Hmmmmm

Our route took us through the epicentre of the 2008 earthquake, which killed over 87,000 people, and it was sobering to see the destruction that is still apparent. Many of the towns have been completely rebuilt and are shiny and new (with their tourist attractions and signs to ‘ancient temples’ etc. already in place), but are still ghosts towns due to the fact that the road leading to them is still partially destroyed (we had to jump onto the expressway to get around the numerous broken bridges and tunnels).

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It was here that we came to the most bizarre tourist attraction yet. The town of Yingxiu marks the actual epicentre of the quake, and was completely destroyed. Again, this has been rebuilt, but they’ve left the horrifying remains of the school which collapsed as a respectful monument to the victims. At least, I think that’s what the original thinking was behind the idea. Surrounding this building are a few uncomfortable extras which put that into question, including:

1. A gift shop directly opposite.
2. A place to rent ridiculous novelty tourist bikes just around the corner, about 50m away.
3. A popcorn stand.

We stopped in a state of double horror. Horror One being the sight of the collapsed school and imagining what the scenes in 2008 must have been like, and Horror Two observing the hoards of Chinese tourists, having a great time on their novelty bikes, eating their buckets of popcorn whilst taking their photos of the tourist attraction before going into the gift shop to buy a souvenir. The authorities had obviously tried to regain some of the intended respect for the monument by putting a very serious sign next to it saying, “No Laughing Noise”, but how can you not laugh when you have novelty bikes, popcorn and a gift shop- all the ingredients for a great time? Our state of horror didn’t last long actually, as the tourists soon spotted us there-FOREIGNERS!- and started taking photos of us instead so we had to flee. Apparently we were much more interesting than the collapsed school.

There’s just one more defining factor of cycling through China that I have to mention, and then I’m done. Honestly, I don’t know how anybody manages to write about China and not mention it- the traffic. Even just writing that word makes my heart beat faster and I have to take deep breaths. There are no words to describe it. Ok, there’s more of it than in other countries, and a lot of it is directed onto the narrow roads we’re cycling on because of the mountainous landscape and the fact that road building (although working fast to catch up with the demand) hasn’t quite reached the necessary level yet. That’s all fine, we could all deal with that and get along nicely if everybody were to behave like adults. We knew it would be busy. But the honking…it really is enough to make you lose your mind.

Chinese horns appear to be a few decibels louder than horns anywhere else in the world, and the drivers seem to be extremely excited by this. Honking is a sport and everybody is a player. Trucks driving through a deserted village will honk their way through incessantly, just in case somebody didn’t realise they were there. Trucks overtaking us will honk not only once before they make their move, but again as they get closer, then another prize honk right in our ears as they’re level with us, just in case we can’t see them, despite the fact that we’re now visibly flinching, and then one more for good measure as they’re driving off, just to say goodbye. It is an assault. Imagine this, every minute of every day spent riding on narrow roads through this country, and you begin to understand why we are in such a delicate emotional state, ready to snap at any given moment. It could easily be used as a form of torture.

At first we just quietly got on with it. Then we got bothered by it. Then we started shouting back in protest, but this didn’t seem to have any effect, so we needed a new strategy. We decided to form the CDREP- the Chinese Driver Re-Education Program. The three aims of this program are:

1. Teaching Chinese drivers that honking is not very nice.
2. Getting our own back.
3. Making ourselves feel a lot better.

Each time we get a honking that is louder/closer/more frequent than necessary, that driver is given a free taster lesson from the CDREP. We each have our own tactics. Mine is to stop before they reach me, turn around with an icy glare and point at them, shaking my head slowly like an angry headmistress. This freaks them out and they stop honking to look confused instead. I like it. Joe’s tactic is to mentally clock the main offender, somebody whose honking behaviour has been particularly bad, and then catch them up when they stop at a light or a traffic jam (of which there are far too many here). He then pulls up in front of them and hurls a fireball of rage and abuse, making it clear with sign language featuring honking and ears splitting. I’ve never seen him look so insane. It’s extra funny when he turns to grin at me immediately afterwards- proud of a job well done. On a few priceless occasions, these incidents have happened next to a crowd of tourists, for maximum embarrassment of the driver. It sounds pathetic, but put yourself in this situation day after day and you’d do the same. I’ve fantasised about violence more than once whilst on these roads, so we have to do something to keep sane.

A patient collection of Chinese drivers wait quietly in a traffic jam...oh if only that were true

A patient collection of Chinese drivers wait quietly in a traffic jam…oh if only that were true

So here we are in Leshan, having our second day off in three weeks, waiting to pick up our renewed visas. It’s a clear indication of our mixed up feelings about China that if our application gets refused and we have to leave immediately we would be delighted; but if it is accepted and we get another month (which is the more likely option) we would be delighted. Oh China, what are you trying to do to us?!

image

Er...ok.

Er…ok.

I tried to take a photo of Joe by an impressive bridge and all these tourists jumped in. We'd never even spoken to them before. Just...go away!

I tried to take a photo of Joe by an impressive bridge and all these tourists jumped in. We’d never even spoken to them before. Just…go away!

One of the many impressive bridges en-route.

One of the many impressive bridges en-route.

Temporary cycling friend. Fag in hand, of course.

Temporary cycling friend. Fag in hand, of course.

Tajikistan: plenty of passes and where central Asia meets middle east

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS LOTS OF METRES

We decided to take a leisurely detour via Tajikistan in order to avoid an early monsoon-ridden entry into South East Asia. But before being able to cycle along the spectacular narrow valleys that border with Afghanistan and take up the numerous warm offers to stay with locals, we first had to tackle the extra-terrestrial-like Pamir mountain range and its famous high altitude “highway”, the second highest in the world in a country where 50% of land is above 3000m.


Looking at the map I noted that we were about to tackle seven passes. 2408m, 3615m, 4336m, 4232m, 4655m, 4314m and 4272m (1000m=3280ft). Surely if we failed last week’s 3062m pass that had a 10m high corridor of ice carved by JCBs at the top, how on earth would we make it to 4655m, let alone camp in the numerous 3000m+ townships?

And then there was our failed -20C attempt last winter in Kyrgyzstan which saw us having to hitch a ride at the 3000m mark, just 184m short from the summit. The cold there was unbearable and we found it hard to imagine what any life above 3000m would feel like or even look like, particularly from the comfort of lowland temperatures in excess of 30C.

There was even snow at the top of Austria’s 1788m Solkpass when we climed last JUNE! 1788! SNOW! JUNE!

Highlands

Approaching the Sary Tash pass in Kyrgyzstan, it already began to feel cold around the 3000m mark. But with the sun out, we felt warmed and camped up for the night, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. To our delight, we woke up in the morning surrounded by snow, making for a beautiful photo and further confirming my thoughts that indeed anything above this level was going to be another world.

Waking up to snow at 3000m

Waking up to snow at 3000m

Somehow ascending to the border-crossing pass at 4336m revealed no snow and all seemed relatively normal as the several days of sun had warmed the area. Passing over the switchbacks and into Tajikistan was an instant change of scenery. Desert-like and alien-looking with impressive rock formations; beautiful in its own respect. The sensation of whizzing with a tail wind at 40kmph on a flat and 72kmph downhill towards frozen lake Karakol was exhilarating. Here we caught up with friends who had got ahead in a brewing storm over the previous day’s pass, so now we were seven cyclists. From a high vantage point we observed the spectacular display of mini tornadoes forming around the plain below us where the lake sat. The weather around us was micro-climatic so whilst on one side you could see interesting and localised cloud formations, a clear day was being rendered on the other. This place really did feel like another planet.

That evening we camped up by the stunning frozen lake, joined in numbers by a further two Breton cyclists going the opposite direction; our camp was now nine big!

Breakfasting in front of the altitudes to come with Rude Jonas from the Swiz Taliban

Breakfasting at 3200m with a view of the altitudes to come. Accompanied by a very rude Jonas from the Swiss Taliban

Looking down at mini tornadoes

Looking down at mini tornadoes, approx. 3900m

Multicultural m8s: Hitesh, Jonas, Carmen, Vivek, Vienne

Frozen lake Karakol

 

We found any altitude above 3000m quite hard at times. Doing anything such as walking a short distance or blowing up the mattress would put us out of breath and lethargy overcame us at times. Head, neck and back aches were to become daily occurrences for me. One night we were constantly waking up unable to breathe. Hardly surprising considering that our respiratory system has to compensate for such altitude changes as those shown visually in my mini-science experiment pictured below.  It shows a squeezed bottle at 1300m, after having previously sealed – unsqueezed- some days earlier at 4650m.

Descending from 4650m to 1300m caused the bottle to squeeze

Descending from 4650m to 1300m caused the bottle to squeeze

Carmen got sick from exhaustion on our first day in the country so we sat-out the following day in a guesthouse. I spent the day slowly ticking off a list of chores.

Chores by high altitude standards: find some vegetables, find some cola, find some bread and clean the dishes. It took me most of the day to achieve them, crossing the village numerous times to find which house sold what, all with recovery rests in between. It’s amazing that despite finding no fresh produce nor electricity, you can still easily find an old guy in his mud house selling SIM cards, who then is able to advise on the best internet-tariff plans and then connect you up to the services via SMS codes and service phone calls. I spent the rest of the day surfing the web. Internet? Da. Apples? Niet.

The combination of freezing winds and constant sun meant that head gear and down jackets were required. Heavy wind and sunburn could be seen in the faces of locals. The wise ones wore black terrorist-like balaclavas, leading to a somewhat strange and confusing signal as they greeted us warmly into their guesthouses and cafes.

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It was a slight concern I suppose that only on day one of Tajikistan, Carmen had fallen victim to exhaustion with our highest pass yet to come the following day.
This pass ended up not being so bad actually. We paced ourselves down to about 40km a day and took the pass slowly. We didn’t have much choice in that matter though seeing as the track was awfully corrugated with huge rocks everywhere, resulting in our brains rattling inside their skulls. After the very slow snowy switchbacks to the top, we had a nice kip, all the while feeling out of breath. The scenery changed on the downhill- reds and yellows began to appear in the soil, with white snow peaks and blue skies contributing to a formidable palette of colours. An impressive storm hit us in the middle of an open plane with lighting bolts just above us, leaving us feeling particularly vulnerable and exposed.

It was the first time we’d had rain for a while, which reminded us that we were traveling south and therefore to warmer climates, where altitudes had different meanings. It was strange arriving into Murgab that evening and feeling like we were out of the alien and moody high altitude lands, despite the fact that the town lays at 3650m.

The next pass at 4314m to face us two days later pissed us off too much so we decided to hitch. Head winds the afternoon prior as well as all day up the pass made us impatient. We had made it over the pass, yet the gradual slope down still saw us travelling at a lame three. kilomeres. an. hour. For us, it was pointless. For others that enjoy the challenge aspect of cycling the Pamirs just to be able to say that they cycled the Pamirs, I guess less so. We hitched downhill and over the next pass in a couple of articulated lorries.

Kipping at Akbaytal pass, 4655m

Kipping at Akbaytal pass, 4655m

Enjoying the colours

Enjoying the colours

Lowerlands

We were dropped off by our friendly truckers late at night in a spa village down at 3200m. We had dinner together and they bought us beer before we went off to relax in boiling natural pools and checking into the trucker’s guesthouse for the equivalent £2.50 each- a welcome contrast to the high altitude rates of $15 each. In the morning we put our clothes in a luxurious and natural 60C wash and made for the rest of Tajikistan- pleased to have no more passes to conquer, and in theory only downhills.

Experiencing this part of the country was a big contrast; ditching the terrorist look for hot summer attire, plenty of villages with shops and vegetation everywhere and, Tajik hospitality. Our first lazy day into this new country saw us stop early and take up one of the numerous (free) offers of food and bed. Until we met the truckers, we were travelling through Kyrgyz part of Tajkistan. So it was here that we experienced the spirit of Tajik people: friendly, smiley, genuine, warm and hospitable. It’s exactly how Iran is described which is probably no coincidence as Tajiks are Persian in both ethnicity and language.

A Tajik house

A Tajik house


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Heading further south east we entered Khorog: the liveliness, the Indian-like women’s dresses and the fact that there was a curry house made the place distinct from any other central Asian town. We were very excited to see such changes after having spent seven months eating the same food and seeing the samey Soviet towns. The vegetable curry we had was supreme so we visited twice! We stayed in mountain lodgings for three nights, catching up with many friends we’d made along the way, drinking beer and celebrating birthdays. The place was made more relaxing by the fact that every evening the local Ismaeli Muslim prayer house would sing beautifully into our garden. Everyone seemed to speak excellent English in Khorog and we temporarily ditched Russian.

Chilling out at the Pamir Lodge, Khorog

Chilling out at the Pamir Lodge, Khorog. Jonas, Hitesh, Vivek, Karl, Nico, Joe, Carmen, Vienne

This town definitely felt like where central Asia meets the middle east. With Afghanistan now across the narrow river from us, these very parts of the world played stage to a long lasting battle between two great spheres of influence: the British and Russian empires.
Following this river border over the next 250km of gorge was exciting. Always within wave-able distance to the friendly Afghans, we admired their beautiful villages stretching up vertically into steep mountains, with high waterfalls and covered in green. These villages would show up every few kilometers, with nothing but a simple track carved out through daunting vertical mountain drops. Completely inaccessible and cut off from the rest of their country. How they managed to build these paths I don’t know.

Washing up

Washing up

Ubiquitous plov but now served with herbs and chickpeas

Ubiquitous plov but now served with herbs and chickpeas

Locals

Locals

The whole area from the start of the low lands onward lies within areas susceptible to natural disasters. Every few kilometers we would see a sign informing of a foreign aid agency reinforcing, rebuilding or improving various elements. GEOHAZARDS RELIEF PROJECT II read the UKAID signs, while Japan and a handful of other countries were rebuilding bridges, roofs, improving water supplies etc. Not that water was ever in shortage, quite to the contrary- water is a major feature of the area and with the channelled improvements from aid agencies, beautiful waterfalls and water features lie all around you, all naturally perfectly clean and drinkable.

Our side of the border was equally spectacular but it occurred to me that the village folk in their respective countries have probably never seen their own village from the opposite vantage point. The region we were in, Badakhshon was historically once included in the current Afghan side Badakhshon region that we looked at across the river. To this day inhabitants of both sides speak one language- Pamiri which is a variant of the Persian Tajiki. It was the British and Russians in the late 19th century who carved up the region into its current delineation.

Although the Taliban are still present in Afghanistan (only 25k away while we were there, according to one knowledgable guide), they are always circulating and being chased off. So it came as a surprise one evening whilst cycling in the gorge that my senses became violently arrested by six consecutive explosions fifty metres away from me on the other side of the river. I stood in disbelief for a few minutes and watched as the dust clouds from the cliff fizzled away as I contemplated my next move, searching for explanations. It was with mixed horror and delight that I saw high up in the cliff some men pushing broken stone off the edge into the rapids below. Luckily, they weren’t the Taliban about to enforce Shari’a law upon me but path builders. No sign of health and safety, just lots of courage and I guess skill.

Cliff track

Cliff track

Carving a track using dynamite and by pushing rocks off

Carving a track using dynamite and by pushing rocks off

 

Goodbye central Asia

The most desirable exit route was surrounded by rumour and lack of any official information regarding its opening to tourists. Travelling west when our destination was east was psychologically difficult so whenever the road got bad (often) we would quickly lose patience (often). We had been in central Asia too long and hearing of Chinese and south east Asian food and culture from our friends whet our appetites too much. We just wanted to be in China. Our quickest bet to achieve this was sadly to return the exact same way we came back in- via the seven passes, which sounds crazy but really was the best option.

So off we went 400km back on ourselves, but in order to make this bearable we hitched in trucks. Although at times hideously bumpy, it was a pleasant way of seeing the Pamirs and its magnificent scenery in reverse angle and from the comfort of the bed in the cab.

Of course we stopped off for a curry and a hot spring on the way back, as well as the final free ride back down into Kyrgyzstan and then to the international border with China (though not without another day of climbing), where we exited from seven months of central Asia, with a bloody great big diploma in CYLING PASSES in hand.

 

Getting the truck outta here

Getting the truck outta here


 

Click anywhere below to load the extended picture gallery. A Flikr image gallery of our trip so far is also available by clicking on the photos menu on this blog.

 

Kyrgyzstan Part 3- Bishkek to Osh

We’re back on the road again, hurrah! After waiting and waiting in Bishkek for our Chinese visas, we realised that whatever the ‘problem’ was, it wasn’t getting sorted out any time soon and so decided to go on a trip across the border to Almaty to try our luck there instead. It turns out the problem is confined to Kyrgyzstan and after ten more days of waiting in Kazakhstan we were staring at the visas pasted into our passports in disbelief, checking they were real. It was a pretty enjoyable wait as well- we stayed with a couple of different couch surfing and warm showers hosts, one of whom took us hiking/scrambling up the mountains around the city.

Climbing to 3000m

Climbing to 3000m

Panorama Peak

Panorama Peak

With the elusive Chinese visas firmly in hand, we went back to Bishkek for a few days to get ready for the next leg of our trip. This isn’t actually directly to China, as if we entered straight away we’d hit South East Asia at the height of the monsoon season, which doesn’t sound fun on a bike. First, we decided to have an adventure in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, and then on to the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan (the second highest road in the world)! We persuaded two French cyclists, Nico and Vienne, who we met in Almaty to come with us, along with our friend Jonas, a hardcore solo Swiss cyclist who was also sitting out the winter with us in Bishkek. After a stress-free day getting the Tajik visa (thank you Tajik embassy), we found ourselves gathered in the rain the next morning in the middle of the city, waiting to leave it for the very last time…ever. It was a good feeling.

We lost Jonas on the first day. He wanted to try an ingenious ‘shortcut’ over the mountains on a dirt track through the snow over 3000m high (I mentionned he was hardcore) so we agreed to meet up with him again at lake Song Köl, if he made it to the other side alive. For the time being at least, we’d be taking the main road towards Naryn.  The first few days were repetition for me and Joe, as we’d already ridden to lake Issy Kul the previous month, so it was exciting to turn off to the south on day three into new territory, with the whole of the previously inaccessible (due to snow) south of the country laid out ahead of us. It felt like summer had finally arrived as we got into the relaxing rhythm of camping again, and in a group every evening was more of an occasion- campfires, radio, cooling off in lakes and rivers after hot days of riding, congnac (I blame the French)… On Nico’s birthday, Vienne even baked a pretty decent birthday cake on the fire! I didn’t know that was possible. Wild camping is so easy in Kyrgyzstan- nobody seems surprised to find you, and often the local shepherds will join you for a chat in the morning.

One of many camping paradises

One of many camping paradises

Vienne proudly displaying her cake

Vienne proudly displaying her cake

Some guests to our camp one evening

Some guests to our camp one evening

We never actually made it to lake Song Köl. After struggling with the rocky track leading up to it for a few hours and making slow progress, Jonas called to tell us the road was closed further up due to a huge blockage of ice. He’d had to turn back from his crazy path for the same reason and had checked with the CBT about getting to the lake. It was hard to believe it was still winter up there when we’d spent the past few days baking and trying not to burn in the sun. So that was a demoralising day, especially as the call came just after we’d enjoyed a steep downhill section, which we then had to crawl our way back up. The day continued with rain, headwind and a puncture for Nico, so by early afternoon we were sheltered under a roof doing bike repairs and drinking tea and biscuits, without much enthusiasm for getting back out there.  Luckily for us, that’s when we were found by a local old man who addressed us all as ‘sportsmen’ (I like this term) and instructed us to spend the rest of the day and night with him and his wife in their house. We didn’t need to think twice about it. A few hours later we were almost delirious with the luxury of being able to use their ‘banya’- basically a stone room with a scalding hot water tap on one side and an ice cold one on the other, with buckets to throw it over your head. On a rainy day and after washing in rivers and lakes all week, it was heaven.

Our home for the evening

Our home for the evening

Friendly hosts

Friendly hosts

Our experience of warm local hospitality continued the next afternoon after climbing the 3000m mountain pass leading towards Naryn (no snow at the top of this one). Halfway through the stunning descent, we stopped for a second on the outskirts of a small village to debate having some lunch, when a boy appeared and, in really impressive English, invited us to come and be guests at his village picnic to celebrate Victory Day. We turned to see a long table laid out on the grass, with about forty people sat around it, beckoning us over.  The next few hours were spent feasting on homemade bread and salads, drinking tea that magically refilled the second you put down your cup, and talking with the villagers through our young interpreter. This was followed by a scary adaptation of volleyball, where some unfortunate soul has to crouch down in the middle of the circle and try to avoid being knocked out by the ball. As soon as Joe got the camera out, it was a mad rush as everybody wanted to have their picture taken. One of the most enjoyable lunchtimes of the whole trip.

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The 95 year old village elder sitting proudly at the head of the table

The 95 year old village elder sitting proudly at the head of the table

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This kid liked the camera…a lot.

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To get to Osh, which is where the Pamir Highway starts, we’d already decided to avoid the main route from Bishkek, as we’d already cycled a lot of that road when we arrived in the country in November and wanted to see a different area of Kyrgyzstan. This meant that we’d be spending the next week on what our map described as a minor road, taking us across from Naryn. The asphalt disappeared on the second day, and we immediately realised it was going to be very slow progress. Nobody minded however, as it was clear as soon as we turned onto this route that we were now travelling through a part of the country where very few people venture. I could count the number of cars that passed us each day on one hand; there were more people on horseback than in vehicles.  The landscape amazed us every day, from the deep crevices in the land around the river Naryn (which looked completely insane from our viewpoint as we climbed switchback after switchback to get over the mountains) to the rich green valleys in between snowy mountains.

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This bumpy road was also where we saw our first genuine yurts, which was exciting. We were invited inside one for a cup of kumus- possibly the most stomach-churning drink in existence, made from fermented horse milk. Even the smell is enough to make you turn green. I politely feigned an allergy. As the road continued, the yurts become more frequent than houses, and it was really interesting seeing whole nomad families driving in wagons with their dissembled yurts to new spots, ready to build them all over again.

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Inside a yurt, confronted with the horse milk

Inside a yurt, confronted with the horse milk

The one worrying aspect to this amazing road was the fact that it ends in another 3000m pass to get from Kazarman to Jalalabad, but being a minor road, just like the one to Song Köl, we were beginning to have our nagging suspicions that it would be closed due to snow. People in villages further back had told us it would be no problem to cross, but as we got closer, the locals became less and less enthusiastic about our chances. Many people enforced their point with arms dramatically crossed in an ‘X’ sign across their chests, heads shaking furiously. Not too encouraging. We decided that we’d come this far, we might as well get to Kazarman and find out there, hitching a van back the long way round if it was closed (but we really, really hoped it wasn’t). Turning back would mean that in order to get to Jalalabad, which was only about 100km away, we would have to backtrack and then take a huge spiralling route for almost 1000km just to be able to get through the mountains!  Luckily, our worries were ended when we met a man on a motorbike who gave us two pieces of good news: firstly, the pass was open as of a few days ago, and secondly, he’d ridden past Jonas earlier that morning- confirmation that he was still alive and well and not too far from catching us up!

With our route now definitely open, we battled our way towards the pass on a road that seemed to deteriorate with each new kilometre. It took all of our concentration just to stay on the bikes. By this point, it was just me and Joe again, as Nico had got sick so they decided to meet us in Osh. The road was so demoralising that (now that nobody was watching us) we contemplated just hitching over the pass, but we were given a fresh morale boost by a German couple who passed us in their 4WD having just driven that way. “Oh don’t worry at all, the road gets much better and it’s only 20k to the top. It’s not steep at all and yes maybe a bit muddy but on bikes it would be easy”.

They lied. (But they did give us a Snickers bar, so we forgive them). If I was making a new map of this area, I would mark this pass with a skull and crossbones. Due to crazy storms, we only reached the switchbacks by the following afternoon but, based on their positive assessment, assumed that we’d be at the top in no time. Two hours later, we found ourselves doing pushing relays with the bikes against the wind and the rain, on a road that now consisted of sticky mud and rivers running off the mountain. Every bend we turned revealed even more switchbacks, and the top of the pass seemed to get further and further away. There was absolutely nowhere to camp as the road was literally carved into the side of the mountain, and so by 4pm we were beginning to wonder whether we’d still be pushing into the night. It was pretty bleak. Even the arrival of an old man on horseback offering us schnapps through grinning gold teeth wasn’t much comfort.

Doesn't look too bad from here...

Doesn’t look too bad from here…

OK, now it looks pretty bad

OK, now it looks pretty bad

Anybody for schnapps?

Anybody for schnapps?

As always happens in these situations, somebody arrived to save the day. As soon as we saw the big blue truck trundling its way up the snaking track towards us, we whooped with manic relief (we hadn’t seen a single vehicle all day) and were already waiting with our biggest pleading eyes by the side of the road when the friendly driver drew level with us. Moments later, we were warm and cosy in the front cabin, experiencing the Pass of Doom from behind a reassuring glass window.  To be honest, it was still a pretty nail-biting experience doing it in the truck. The clouds were all around us so visibility was terrible, and in the slushiest parts, it took three of four attempts to get past certain sections of road. With the sharp bends and sheer drop on one side, we really hoped the driver had done this sort of thing before. The top was incredible, with a ten metre high wall of ice on each side of the road, and other parts that looked like they could avalanche at any moment. Whoever declared this pass ‘open’ seemed to have been using a very loose interpretation of the word.

Welcome to the Pass of Doom

Welcome to the Pass of Doom

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Luckily the driver knew what he was doing and we made it to the other side in one piece, taking advantage of our warm ride through what was now torrential rain to get all the way to Jalalabad city and a relaxing guesthouse for the evening. From there it was a day’s ride to Osh, back on the main road through lively towns and green lowlands. We needed to fix our tent (yet again) as the zip had broken inside so I’d had to partially sew us in to avoid sleeping with the beatles. It was a good excuse to spend a day and a half in this lively city, with its sprawling bazar on either side of the river. In this bazar, it seems, anything can be fixed, and often using equipment that looks like it’s come straight out of the museum.  After completing our fixing to-do list of: a tent, a bike wheel and a shoe, we indulged in Osh’s lively and inviting atmosphere for a couple of evenings. (After all, we were about to go into the ‘wild’ and spend the next month pushing ourselves at dizzying altitudes, so I think we were entitled to our little party wekend…). There are a lot of Uzbek people in this part of the country, and in Osh their liveliness is immediately striking in comparison with the much calmer, quieter nature of the Kyrgyz areas.

Now we have been reunited with the French and Jonas, and are ready to start our long ascent onto the Pamir Highway. I wonder who’ll be the first to get altitude sickness…

Team Kyrgyzstan

Team Kyrgyzstan

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Our new friends outside their home

Our new friends outside their home

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Nico- very proud after his 2km

Nico- very proud after his 2km

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Happy cyclists

Happy cyclists

Living in Kyrgyzstan

For the past five months we’ve been sitting out the winter teaching English in Kyrgyzstan- as part of the wider trip of traversing part of the world by bicycle.

This little-heard-of country has plenty to offer but don’t be put off by its seemingly unpronounceable name. Although  Kyrgyzstan  looks like an inelegant splurge of consonants you’d find dished up to you in a serving of Scrabble, it’s actually pretty easy to say it. KUR-GISS-STAN.  Now everyone repeat.


We chose Kyrgyzstan as the place to sit out the winter for two principle reasons. First, the visa-free regime makes it an instantly attractive offer. Secondly, Google told us that it has some of the best countryside in Central Asia. Central Asia being the geographical location where we would start to hit the cold snap. It’s also worth noting that compared with other Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan is considered the most democratic (not to be confused with democratic.) The country has two official languages: Kyrgyz and Russian, the former being reinstated in the 1990s as an official language.

The objective of our stay (aside from avoiding freezing our ball bearings off that is) was to earn money; enough money for the stay there to pay for itself. We didn’t waste too much time enjoying the comforts of cooked breakfasts, running water, indoor toilets and pubs that our new-found-city-life offered so we set about looking for teaching work straight away. We had no idea how easy this would be. We had already sent out speculative e-mails to language centres back in July but this didn’t produce any worthwhile results. Our stay here relied on being able to earn.

Turns out it wasn’t too difficult. On day two, we realised we were a honeypot in Beeland; we simply had to be heard speaking English in order to generate interest from locals. While we were buying sim cards, we bagged our first student from the saleswoman herself. One day a kid even followed us off the bus to beg us to teach him. Then it was a case of putting up adverts on the local Internet forums. Our phone never stopped ringing. We did some work for an English centre but the quality was horrific and they insisted we had to follow their awful methods so we left after a few lessons. That put us off working for anyone but ourselves. We weren’t qualified teachers, but we could do a better job than some of the courses around town, that was for sure.

We did do some work for one reputable language school where foreign businessmen and diplomats sent their offspring. We were pretty much given a blank slate to teach whatever we wanted for the school’s extra curricular activity programme so Carmen fulfilled one of her ambitions of teaching a choir. I did arty crafty things with kids ranging from 6 to 12. The enthusiasm and outstanding behaviour in the kids run throughout the school and we looked forward to going there each time. The kids were brilliant. One seven year-old even broke the teacher’s wall and began questioning our teaching methods.

Teaching crafts

Teaching crafts

2.4 children. Our host family with whom we were lucky to lodge with during our stay

So we quickly became part of the Bishkek daily grind. Wikitravel sums up the country’s capital with fair words:

It is a relatively new city and has limited historical sites. It is however, an interesting example of a czarist planned city; laid on a grid with wide boulevards flanked by irrigation canals and large trees, buildings with marble façades, and Soviet apartment complexes.  It is more or less a museum relic of the former Soviet Union Bloc. (It) has its own kind of charm, which often arouses nostalgia in people who knew the old Soviet Union.

Our favourite activity in the city was attending the Ballet and Opera house. The whole evening was like stepping in to the 50s. The evening stood frozen in time with the building’s great marble architecture, attendants wearing their Soviet costumes, elegantly dressed spectators, bars with cheap beer and snacks as well as slightly out-of-sync dancers. All for £2.50. There are plenty of the usual bars and cafes you’d get in any city around the world. One amusing aspect was the city’s disregard for anything copyright. TGI Friday’s lawyer visited one of the branches here when we first arrived. He was so impressed with the replica branding that he apparently congratulated their efforts before issuing a cease and decist notice. German bars seems to be a theme here, as well as German supermarkets. Which was great because we got to taste microbrewery beer at a fraction of the price of the real Euro thing. One bar we used to go to would inform us that beer was free all evening. Quite how their business model plugs into British drinking culture, I’m not sure.

Victory Square, Bishkek

Victory Square, Bishkek

Abandonned disco, downtown

Abandonned disco, downtown

 

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Bishkek Opera House

 

One of the greatest things about living in Bishkek, was the ability to get out of Bishkek. Although the city is nicely lined with green spaces, every other weekend we’d go off with the local Trekking Union group, often only a short drive away into the mountains which encircle the city itself. For next to nothing, you’d get transported to a gorge, guided around and brought back the same day after picnicking surrounded by spectacular scenery. The country boasts possibly the best countryside we’ve seen on our trip. It’s undeveloped so you can get out there and see no safety railings, shops nor people. You can be spoilt to your own private canyon, as we once were when we cycled through a gorge, left our gear with a farmer and then hiked up to Bom canyon and slept two nights in our tent. Indeed, any western notion of Health and Safety is irrelevant as we found ourselves, guided and alone alike, scrambling up steep hillsides, some with fatal drops a mere shoe-slip away.

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Konorchek Canyon

Hiking Konorchek Canyon

 

This is where Carmen realised her fear of "heights"

Kegety gorge: this is where Carmen realised her fear of “heights”

Camping for two nights at Bom Canyon

Camping for two nights at Bom Canyon

Ask any Kyrgyzstan citizen where to visit and they will proudly declare Issy-Kul as the must-see. We remained sceptical; expecting the resort and development that lakes often attract but we found we could avoid these eyesores entirely by visiting the south shore of the lake, which was stunning. Again, spoilt for choice with plenty of quiet beaches on which to camp. It helped of course that we’d chosen to cycle around the lake off-season (when it was still as low as -12 celcius one night in March). The lake itself is at 1600m altitude, 180km long and sits perfectly nested within sharp mountains whose white tops contrasted perfectly with the water’s outstandingly saturated blue colour.

Issy Kul

Issy Kul

Issy Kul south shore

Issy Kul south shore

At the eastern point of the lake lies Karakol, the friendly base town from where people flock to go either skiing or horse trekking. We decided to hire a horse each for two days with a guide to take us up into the remote Altyn Arashan at 2400 metres. After a six-hour ride up into breathtaking white wilderness we arrived, me with an exhausted backside, and relaxed in the natural hot springs before cooking on a fire in a cabin and sleeping the night there. Carmen got to play her beloved game of chess all evening with the cabin owner, though I have no reason to believe that she wasn’t hoping to play with something else of his that night as she declared him to be “very sexy”.  The two days horse trekking set us back about £60 each.

Horse trekking to Altyn Arashan

Horse trekking to Altyn Arashan

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Trekking Union also organised single and multi-day ski trips. Carmen was able to try her legs at it for the first time and over four weekends she gained the confidence to come down some rather steep slopes with me. The best resort for advanced skiiers is near Karakol, only 150km from the Chinese border; the USSR would send their Olympians for training there. Of course by Alpine standards, it doesn’t compare in terms of expanse but it was big enough for me to go off piste for the first time and it felt like I had the slopes to myself many times. At the highest point, the white slopes before and below you blended with the white skies leading to blind-skiing down very steep parts. There was no one else up there the two occasions I went up and all I could hear was the whistling of the wind. Quite scary but excellent fun.

Skiing at Orlovka

Skiing at Orlovka

Skiing near Karakol

Skiing near Karakol

View from ski piste

View from ski piste

We cherished our weekends greatly. In retrospect, there was always something cheap to do. In total we attended six hikes and four ski trips. The two biggest irritations of living there were the congealed slippery pavements during the freezing months and the cramped transit vans used as public transport.

So did we fulfill our objective ? Well yes and no. We managed to do more than break-even and actually by the time we finished working we had about £400 of savings. But we blew most of that on seeing more of the country itself. So we left the country with a little less money than we had entered with but with the added bonus of having plenty of fun, and we also met some great people along the way.


Click on a thumbnail below to load the extended picture gallery. A Flikr image gallery of our trip so far is also available by clicking on the photos menu on this blog.