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”

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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!

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.

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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?!

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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.

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

Kyrgyzstan, Part 1

(This post is over two months late because, well…we’ve been busy)!

Even Joe managed to smile through his horrific vodka-induced hangover as we cleared the Uzbek border fortress to find the Kyrgyz customs officer sitting in his tiny unassuming hut on the other side. We had finally arrived in the country we’d been pushing towards for months, where we plan to sit out the harsh winter and teach English until the snow melts. This was the final leg of part one of our adventure! We could have taken the easy option and headed north after Tashkent, back into Kazakhstan and along the flat plains straight to Bishkek, but we had been romanticising about the mountains of Kyrgyzstan for far too long to miss them because winter had come early. We decided to take the scenic route and deal with the consequences if and when they came, knowing that if things got too difficult, we could always hitch a ride.

Our route through the Jalalabad region would be the most mountainous stretch of the trip so far, with our three highest passes to date towering between us and Bishkek. Thankfully (for Joe’s delicate head), the first afternoon was a relaxing introduction to the country through rolling farmland with the mountains keeping a safe distance in the backdrop. Immediately we noticed how much calmer everybody seemed here in contrast to the previous few weeks. Still friendly and saying hello, but without the constant barrage of loudly shouted questions. At least for today it was a welcome relief to get a bit of peace!

image We spent a really memorable first night in the home of one of the sweetest families I’ve ever encountered. We’d asked whether it would be ok to put the tent up in one of their fields as we couldn’t find any land that wasn’t farmed, and were instantly told that it was far too cold to be camping, so we must come inside and be their guests. Five minutes later we were sitting on floor mats around a table filled with hot tea, borsch, sweets and an assortment of things grown on their farm. (I decided to nobly take on the role of vodka-accepting guest as Joe had suddenly become “allergic”). They had a great sense of humour, and we spent the evening talking and laughing (and being entertained by their chubby toddler) until it was time to curl up under warm heavy blankets on the floor and sleep. Houses in this part of the country are basic but beautiful. Most have a central courtyard around which the house is divided into separate buildings. Ok there may be no bathroom in sight, just a jug from the well and a hole in the ground outside, but there’s definitely charm to be found in their richly patterned wall hangings, floor mats and curtains concealing every door. Sleeping amongst all this decoration feels almost palacial, yet so refreshingly simple at the same time.

Dressing up

Dressing up

Our favourite Kyrgyz family

Our favourite Kyrgyz family

In the morning, it was difficult to turn down their tempting offer of “please stay here for ten days and relax”, but we knew we had to try to get over the mountains before it started to snow again, so after a very long breakfast we forced ourselves to pedal away. It seemed winter had temporarily forgotten about us, so we needed to sieze the opportunity! We left the village and began our first of many days of climbing. The first word that came into my head as we wound our way into the mountainy wilderness was “spiky”- I don’t think I’ve ever seen a landscape with so many jagged ridges, and our road zig- zagged amongst them all day, following the river. This is the part of cycle touring that I love most- finding yourself in a wild landscape completely unspoiled by humans, and so quiet that it feels like a secret. It’s hard to beat the feeling of putting your tent up next to a river, with mountains all around you, and watching the stars. That’s actually possible without freezing now thanks to our new found obsession with campfires. We decided to pull out all the stops for the fire that night, making toast from our stale bread, and even melting chocolate in a makeshift bain-marie for dipping. (We awarded ourselves an extra adventure point for managing to actually cook something on our fire)! image When we eventually found civilisation again the next day, it was slightly ominous. On the rock face at the entrance to the town of Karaköl, some cheerful soul had scratched a greeting in huge foreboding letters, “Welcome to Hell”. We decided to take the warning lightly and imagined that whoever wrote it was probably just having a bad day. A few hours later, we weren’t so sure. By this point we were quite high up and it was going to be a very cold night, so we decided to treat ourselves to a guest house before tackling the first pass in the morning. After asking for directions, we found ourselves in front of what looked like the bleakest of grey council estate blocks ever built, surrounded by smashed windows and graffiti, thinking,’this can’t possibly be it…’. It was indeed our new home for the evening, and we had to get used to it fast as it was the only place to stay in the town and it was already getting dark. The giggling pair of teenage boys who let us in told us that our room wouldn’t be ready for an hour, so we left our stuff and went out for some food.

Two hours later, we got back and asked to be let into the room, which led to more hysterical giggling from the boys, who appeared to be in charge. It still wasn’t ready, which was odd as they didn’t seem to be making any moves to clean it. Eventually I asked to see it, because I didn’t fancy sleeping on the smelly sofas in the hallway all night, which led to a very worried look between the boys, who reluctantly went to knock on the door. Half an hour later, a hooded man came skulking out without a glance at anybody, followed five minutes later by a very dolled up lady in a mini skirt. Oh lovely, we were staying in a brothel. I don’t know what was more worrying, the fact that our imagined peaceful warm haven for the night had just been playing host to god knows what kind of scenes, or the fact that it took the hysterical duo only five minutes of cleaning afterwards to declare it ‘ready’ for us to move in! Needless to say we slept in our sleeping bags that night. Well, it was only a fiver I suppose…

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The local bread maker on the streets of “Hell”

Two things were beginning to stand out about Kyrgyzstan in the days that followed: horses and fat soup. (The first being considerably more pleasant than the second). Horses seem to be to this country as bicycles are to the UK- if you’re not driving a car, you’ll be on a horse instead. Outside every village shop there would be at least three people sitting on horseback with their freshly bought groceries and all along the streets there would be men stopping to chat from their saddles. In a country whose history is based on millennia of nomadic herders, it was nice to see that the modern world hasn’t managed to erase this deeply routed tradition completely. It felt like a snapshot from centuries ago, cycling over rolling pastures and seeing people galloping around freely in the background.

I was less delighted every time we found ourselves confronted with a bowl of fat soup. This is a staple meal here- especially in the winter when people need to eat the fat to stay warm. Often when we’d stop at a chaikhana in hope of getting warm and having something to eat, it would be the only thing on the menu. Well, that and pickled cabbage of course. Even if we were lucky enough to find other dishes like plov or laghman, they were often drizzled in a fat sauce to give them that signature fatty flavour. I ate a lot of crackers and bread…

Anyway, after a few days off to gather our strength in Toktogul (I was feeling ill for some reason- I blame the fat), the time had come for us to tackle the monster pass of 3500m.    By this time, we were right at the foot of the Tien Shan mountains, and could see that snow was only about three kilometres away. This was the one that would really test us- we’d done snow cycling before, but at a much lower altitude, so we had no idea what the road would be like or how cold it would get up there. One thing we agreed upon was that we didn’t want to be camping anywhere near the top.

The first day of climbing was fairytale-like, following a winding river through a narrow gorge of jagged rocks, with the icy peaks towering in all directions. The climb was gradual, and the road was good, so we were beginning to think the whole thing would be easy. With about two hours of light left, it started to snow heavily, so we decided to look out for a building that could keep us warm for the night. It was too remote a place for villages, but there were occasional chaikhanas for people travelling through the mountains. We stopped at one just as our hands were beginning to go numb and the dusk was setting in, and asked whether we could stay if we bought some food. The inquisitive group of people outside seemed to think this would be a problem, and told us that we’d have to turn back. Apparently carrying on wasn’t an option as there was “nothing that way for 100km”. Normally when people give us advise like this (which is almost every day), we take it with a pinch of salt, as every time so far has been absolutely fine. With the heavy snow though, we didn’t want to take the risk, as camping would have been extremely unpleasant in those kind of temperatures. image Eventually, the owner of the cafe realised that we really didn’t have any options, and suddenly became extremely helpful. He led us around the side of the building, to a tiny caravan. Apparently, this was where the staff slept, and we were welcome to stay there to keep warm! I could have hugged him. We’d been seeing these little caravans a lot in the mountains, rather than actual houses, and were curious to go inside one. Inside we found that it was completely filled with bunkbeds, a little tv and a woodburning stove. We couldn’t believe that ten people slept in this tiny space every night. We spent the evening in the cozy warmth, chatting to our host in bad Russian (mainly answering the usual questions: “Why don’t you have children? You’re 25- you should have three children by now! Manchester United or Arsenal?” etc.) and then went to sleep in our springy bunk beds.

Our cosy caravan for the night

Our cosy caravan for the night

One of the more peculiar caravan-dwellers

One of the more peculiar caravan-dwellers, keen to impress us with his tongue trick

The day of reckoning had arrived. We had to make it to the top of the pass with enough time to descend to a warmer altitude and/or find somewhere warm to stay once it got dark. Our speedometer battery was flat, so we had no idea how far we’d come or how high up we were. For all we knew it could take us a few hours or all day to get to the top. I started to get nervous the minute we stepped outside and felt the stabbing cold. Getting going is the hardest part as it takes so long to warm up your hands and feet. Ever the master of good timing, Joe discovered (to our mutual horror) that he had a puncture just as we were about to start, so he had to get the tyre off and change his inner tube without any feeling in his fingers. (I can’t even manage it on a sunny day so I thought it was pretty impressive). An ominous beginning perhaps?

Because of the narrow-ness of the gorge we were following, the sun didn’t reach us for hours, so our hands and feet stayed numb pretty much all morning. We didn’t bother to have lunch as the bread we’d bought fresh that morning was frozen, as was all our water, so drinking wasn’t really an option either. Our plan was just to get to the top and over as soon as possible, then we could worry about things like eating and drinking. The higher we climbed, the more intense the cold became, until it reached a stage where we could no longer feel our faces. That was scary- that had never happened before. Eventually, even though we were both cycling in our down jackets (which is mental considering how hot they are to climb in), the cold felt like it had consumed our entire bodies. I couldn’t even tell whether I was holding on to the handlebars anymore. Surely we were near the top now? We could see the peaks all around us, everything completely covered in snow so thick it would have come up higher than the tent if we’d tried to put it up. Luckily the road had been clear, but even that changed the higher we climbed. Before long it was covered in a lethal sheet of ice and crunchy snow, and at that point, cycling became almost impossible. We had to get off and push for a while as is was faster than slipping off all the time.

Cold...

Cold…

It reached a new level of scary when we rounded a bend and saw a recently abandoned lorry overturned on the side of the road. It must have lost control on the ice. It was the first of many. By this point, we worked out we only had an hour of daylight left and we had no idea how close we were to the top of the pass, or whether there would even be anywhere to shelter from the cold on the other side. Even if there was, how on earth were we going to descend a steep mountain pass on a road that had turned to thick ice? Putting the tent up was absolutely not an option in such deep snow, and if we were scarily cold now, how much colder would we be once the sun disapperared? I’m not over exaggerating when I say that now panic began to set in.

Colder...

Colder…

Joe lost it first, which meant that he was the one who was allowed to panic. We seem to have a system for coping with stressful situations whereby whoever outwardly panics first is allowed the luxury of a meltdown, and the other person automatically adopts the role of the calm and rational one. Normally I beat him to it on the meltdown front, but this time I heard myself saying, “I promise you we will be warm tonight. We will sleep inside and laugh about this.” I didn’t believe it for a second.

We agreed the time had come to think about hitching a ride, and as though our thoughts had been read, around the next bend we found a transit van waiting with its doors open, and two concerned-looking brothers beckoning us in. Well that was easy. I’m against taking any other form of transport unless absolutely essential, but this time definitely counted as essential. We decided to ride with them until we saw that it would be possible to cycle again, i.e. when the road was no longer a sheet of ice and we could find somewhere indoors to stay. I was the lucky one who got to ride in the front and see what we were missing; poor Joe was assigned to the back of the van in the cold and dark. It turns out we weren’t far at all from the top, but in the ice it would have taken us until dark to reach it, and on the other side, I have never seen so much snow. A huge plateau as far as the eye could see, and absolutely no signs of life. It’s pretty impossible to describe how beautiful this was just after sunset with the pink sky reflecting on the white snow, and mountain streams as bright blue as sapphires, but I didn’t regret hitching a ride one bit. Sometimes you just have to accept that nature has defeated you. (Unfotrunately, our hands were too frozen to unzip the camera case).

To cut a long story short, the ice sheet on the road carried on throughout the mountain plateau and over the next pass, with overturned vehicles strewn all over the place. There was no way we were going to force ourselves to cycle at less that 5km/hr, falling off every five minutes and with the risk of being ploughed into by an out-of-control lorry, so we stayed with the brothers in their van until Bishkek, which was on the other side of the mountains. It was just too dangerous. And too cold. We had tried to beat the winter to Bishkek but it was laughing in our faces. Winter always wins! Anyway, the small part of us that felt disappointed at not having managed to cycle the whole way was quickly drowned out by the euphoria of a hot shower (it had been almost two weeks!) and a warm snugly hostel bed. The next morning we wandered around the city in amazement at the fact that you could actually buy things here, and eat food that wasn’t fat soup! We had been living so basically for so long and all of a sudden we had access to pretty much everything we needed. We had arrived at our winter bunker, and it was time to meet our new Russian family and start teaching English! Life was about to change dramatically for a while.

Narnia

Narnia

Wild-camping paradise

Wild-camping, fire-making paradise

Kazakhstan

(This post has been back-dated due to the lack of internet for uploading over the past month).

Our first morning on dry land again after our Caspian Sea voyage, and we found ourselves standing in the middle of Aktau bazaar, bikes at the ready, wondering what on earth we should take with us into the desert. Our not-too-detailed map showed us stretches of over 100km at a time in between towns or villages, and we had no idea whether we’d be able to even buy supplies when we came to them, or whether they’d just be a cluster of houses that had made it onto the map. Nervously, we filled up Joe’s 10l water bag, packed my bags up with extra bottles of water, filled up the remaining space in the pannier bags with pasta, oats and dried fruit and decided, “Right, we’re as prepared as we’ll ever be…let’s go.”

We were eased in fairly gently, with a few villages hugging the coast and a surprisingly warm sunny day. As the road turned away to the east, we got our first glimpse of the desert proper, stretching out to all horizons and shimmering in the sunlight. It seemed like we were in a dreamworld as a herd of camels sauntered past, smiling a casual greeting. We cruised along through the warm afternoon, before pitching our tent on the sand and sitting out to watch the sunset. At this rate, the 550km to the Uzbekistan border was going to be easy!

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Hmm can you see anywhere to camp?

Hmm can you see anywhere to camp?

The next morning, the desert had different ideas. It seemed the welcome period was over and it sent a ferocious headwind our way, which we battled against all day long at less than 5km/h. In the afternoon the road changed direction slightly and it became an even more aggressive side wind, blowing us off the road several times! At around 3pm, having done only 20km but having used up more energy than a normal 70km day, and by this point pushing our bikes because it was actually easier to balance, we decided that it was pointless to keep going and set up the tent to get some shelter. Maybe it would be easier the next morning…

Nope, the desert wasn’t letting us off that easily. I woke up in my sleeping bag feeling unusually cold, to the sound of rain pattering on the tent. Boring. We tried to snuggle further into our bags and have a snooze until the rain stopped, but eventually I gave up and unzipped the tent to venture outside to investigate. I wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted me- everything was white! It wasn’t rain, but in fact snow that was falling! This was a big shock. We weren’t expecting snow for another month at least (in fact the plan was to make it all the way to Bishkek before the winter properly starts). It was still October! Two days before we’d been cycling along in the sun in our T-shirts! What on earth was going on?

Packing the tent up in horror

Packing the tent up in horror

We decided to bite the bullet and pack up as quickly as possible before our hands froze, and get moving to warm up. The wind was still ferocious, so it was pretty much a snowstorm. Wearing every piece of warm clothing we had, we set off for our first snowy ride, stopping every ten minutes to beat the ice out of our mudguards and snap the icicles off my derailleur. Our water bottles froze, and our sunglasses (which we were wearing to keep the snowflakes from blowing directly into our eyes) kept steaming up due the scarves covering our frozen faces! Does this count as ‘extreme conditions’ yet? We cycled past more camels, now looking a little out of place as they trotted along with their new white snow-coats.

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After a couple of hours, we saw to the junction we’d expected to arrive at the morning before, and right beside it, the glowing windows and steaming chimney of a chaikhana! We whooped with relief and rushed inside, to be greeted by a steaming pot of tea and plates of delicious plov (a rice and meat dish that tastes much better than it sounds). It was pretty surreal watching the blizzard through the window, trying to come to terms with the fact that it had caught up with us before we managed to beat it to Bishkek. We’d never dealt with anything this intense before on the trip and had no idea whether it would even be possible. Before we left, we’d read books and blogs of other cyclists who have done crazy things like cycle through Siberia in winter etc, but they fall into the category of ‘hardcore cycle tourers’, which we definitely do not. One thing was certain though- we only had a 15 day visa for Kazakhstan, so we couldn’t hide out in the warm forever. It was time to get back out there.

Brrrrr

Brrrrr

A few more hours of ice-cold pedalling (still against that headwind) and we started to feel anxious about where we were going to sleep. Was it even possible to get the tent up in such a ferocious snowstorm? Our map showed a little dot of a village maybe ten kilometres away, so we decided to aim for that and all would be well. Luckily a cluster of houses eventually materialised out of the whiteness, and we headed towards them looking a little more needy than usual. Before long we found ourselves sitting around a table in a warm house, drinking tea and being fed dumplings by a lovely Kazakh lady named Karina and her husband. They told us it was far too cold to be camping outside (some truth there) and laid out a couple of floor mats for us in a spare room. She even ordered me to sit at her feet and started giving me a head massage before bed! A warming end to a very scary cold day.

Houses here are huge, with three generations of families living together, and when a woman gets married, she is expected to move into her husband’s parents’ house. No more indoor toilets anymore though, so in the night you might find yourself trudging through the snow with your head torch on to the communal village hole in the ground. We learnt from the family that many villagers around this area own camels as domestic animals, and use them for milk and meat. Apparently they let them out in the morning and the camels go for a little trot around the desert, before coming back obediently in the evening to their huts. For some reason this tickled me.

We were saved from putting the tent up the next night as well. As soon as we arrived in the town of Shetpe in the early afternoon, we met a very friendly man who spoke pretty good English, and took us for a cup of tea to escape the snow. Three cups of tea later, he’d convinced us that 40km really was enough for such a bleak day, and we should stay at his family’s house. First though, he took us in his car up to the mountains to see the view from the top.

Is that a flying saucer?

Is that a flying saucer?

Monuments in the mountains

Monuments in the mountains

Luckily for us, after another bitterly cold day of riding, the sun came out and it stopped snowing. All of a sudden we could feel our fingers and toes again and enjoy riding through the stunning landscape. It was still cold enough to wake up with ice inside the tent and frozen water bottles, but as soon as the sun came up we could manage just fine. (Just as well really, as Joe had chosen this extremely cold snap as the optimum time to lose his winter gloves and so was cycling with thin wooly ones and a pair of socks over his hands. Let’s just say he didn’t take that realisation too well, quite understandably)!

For a desert, it was more hilly than we expected to begin with, with plateaus and craters like the surface of the moon, which was great as the scenery would change from time to time when we emerged from one crater and descended into the next. I found myself thinking in ‘horizons’ as units of measurement. “Shall we stop after that next horizon for a rest?” Two days out of Shetpye though and the landscape changed to the flat nothingness we were expecting from the start. It felt a bit like Groundhog Day, cycling along with nothing but the railway parallel in the distance, thinking, “This looks suspiciously like the part we were in yesterday…I’m sure I’ve seen that bit of old piping before…have we been here already?” The only thing to entertain us were the chaikhanas that seemed to pop up conveniently out of the sand around once a day. These little oasises of warmth became our lifeline, as we had already decided it was far too cold to sit outside cooking unless we absolutely had to, and we looked forward to warming our hands around a pot of tea and a hot plate of rice or bowl of borsch (cabbage soup, mmm). It was a bit hit and miss with these places though, and sometimes the only thing on the menu would be a plate full of meat…

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Amazingly, the desert decided it had maybe been a bit hard on us at first, and treated us to a powerful tailwind that had us soaring the last 50km into Beyneu, the last town before the Uzbekistan border. It felt good to be finally getting some distance done. By this point, we’d realised that at this rate there was no way we were going to be able to get across the whole length of Uzbekistan on the bikes, as we were already five days late for our 30 day visa (thanks to the wind) and it’s absolutely huge. Most people heading this way on bikes take the route through Iran and Turkmenistan, before cycling a short stretch of Uzbekistan which is possible on the visa time, but as we weren’t able to get Iranian visas, the only way we could approach Uzbekistan was from the furthest western point, and unless we planned to cycle into the night every day without stopping to talk to anyone or see anything, we wouldn’t have enough time. That hardly sounded like fun. There was planning to be done, so we needed the internet. After finding the sad-looking, ex-soviet town to be pretty much devoid of anything useful (including supplies), we decided our only option was to check into a hotel for a night. Surprisingly expensive considering it was in the middle of nowhere (they even tried to charge us extra for breakfast the next day!) but my god, it was worth it for the indoor shower. After nine days of washing in the cold with a bottle of water that is partially composed of ice crystals (a routine accompanied by lots of loud shrieking) I couldn’t help but laugh like a maniac as I stood under the hot water, thinking at the time that nothing could make me happier!

We learned that it was possible to get a train to Samarkand, but after a very stressful ten minutes in the Kazakh ‘queuing system’ at the train station, we were told that we couldn’t buy a ticket from Kazakhstan, we’d have to go to Uzbekistan. At least I think that’s what she said-it’s difficult to blunder through these exchanges in Russian at the best of times; even harder when you’ve got men on all sides, pushing you out of the way and trying to shove their passports through the window and shouting their own demands as you’re trying to translate your own dose of bad news.

The road to the border and onwards until the first town in Uzbekistan was a 400 km stretch of apparently terrible road surface, and headwinds. Weighing up our options, we decided we’d get more enjoyment cycling the eastern part of Uzbekistan in the time that we have available to us, so decided that our mission was to get that train ticket as fast as possible. It makes me sad that we don’t have time to cycle every single kilometre, but when short visas and big countries are involved, you really can’t be dealing with headwinds and short daylight hours if you’re going to make it the whole way by bicycle. I’m so impressed with the people who never have to fall back on public transport. We decided to hitch the 80km to the border and not waste our time on the bad road. Within twenty minutes, a friendly old man driving an empty minibus had stopped to give us a ride. It seemed to easy- we’d be at the border in a matter of hours- too good to be true. Of course it was. He drove 15km and stopped outside a railway engineering station. It turns out he was the driver for the engineers there.

At that point, a very bizarre stoke of fate happened. As we lugged our bikes and bags out of the bus in front of a crowd of curious engineers, a man stepped forward to greet us. He was the same man we had met over a week ago on our first day in Aktau when we got off the boat and were looking for somewhere to stay! He remembered us, and excitedly told us that we must come into their station for lunch and a cup of tea, and then he was going to arrange a pickup truck to take us to the border after we’d had a rest! It turns out he was some sort of boss man there, and had been in Aktau on business, where he bumped into us the first time. What a small world.

That afternoon, we found ourselves driving along in our newly aquired pickup truck with Albert and one of his employees, listening to russian rock music and getting to know each other. About 10k away from the border, he pulled into a little village shop and emerged with a large bottle of vodka and chocolate bars. “Now, before you go, we have Russian tradition,” he winked. Hours later, we were still 10k away from the border, by now feeling very warm and fuzzy. By this point we were all best friends, and making toast after to toast to our chance second meeting. We eventually got there just as the sun was setting (gone was the hope of putting up the tent in the daylight on the other side). After making some mysterious calls, Albert drove us straight to the front of the queue and had the border guards (in their impressive black furry hats) shaking our hands. We said an emotional goodbye, and our new friend shed a vodka-laced tear before the two of them drove off, back to work.

Albert

Albert

The border crossing was fun. Lots of different queues for stamping passports, scanning your baggage, being interrogated and filling in declaration forms. I was discreetly told by a guard to rip up my first form and start again- they were so obscurely translated and confusing that it seemed I had ticked boxes to imply that yes, I was a drug smuggler and yes, I was carrying spy-equipment into the country. He pulled me aside and instructed me to basically tick all the ‘No’ boxes, no matter what the wording said. Two hours later, passports stamped, baggage scanned, questions answered, and we were through. Out into the pitch black Uzbekistan desert.

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Our new daily travel companions

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...after stopping for a quiet lunch

…after stopping for a quiet lunch

Just an average day for the railway engineers...

Just an average day for the railway engineers…

Turkey

Leaving Istanbul was difficult- after almost two weeks there we’d gotten very comfortable in our friendly ‘Magic Bus’ hostel with all it’s interesting characters coming and going. There were so many winding back streets to get lost in, full of exciting music shops, art, cafés etc that I was secretly pleased we had to wait around for our Uzbek visa from the consulate there (although, of course, we still don’t have it so the waiting was just an illusion that provided us with a guilt-free long rest in this vibrant city). I don’t think I’ve ever been inside a building as breathtaking as the Haiga Sofia. If it were considered socially acceptable I would lie on my back in the middle of the floor and stare up at the ornate walls and ceiling all day long, daydreaming about Byzantine and Ottoman empires and the fall of Constantinople.

Our lazy legs were definitely not prepared for the steep hills of the Black Sea coast road that awaited us from Şile onwards, and we crawled along in the heat for two days before being easily convinced by our Warm Showers host, Ethem, to have yet another day off! We spent a memorable day exploring the secret coves and cliffs around his village, daring each other to swim in the raging stormy sea (I managed as far as sitting at the edge of the water and shrieking as the waves crashed over me) and making videos with his drone camera (a remote control helicopter with a camera attached, that sent the boys into a frenzy of excitement). It was Joe’s birthday, so we had a birthday picnic for him in a cave to sit out the storm.

Stormy Seyrek cliffs

Stormy Seyrek cliffs

imageAfter only half a day back on the road, we were stopped by the police…oh dear. We timidly pulled over trying to think what we could have possibly done wrong. I wasn’t wearing my helmet in the heat, but surely that was allowed? Our anguish was all for nothing though as their window wound down and two beaming smiles appeared, followed by two bottles of ice cold water which they handed over to us and drove off! Thanks police! Later on that afternoon we bumped into Lander, who is cycling from his home in the Basque Country in Spain all the way to Tokyo. We realised that we were heading along the same route for a few weeks, so decided to cycle together. Actually, it was beginning to look like he was a bad omen as since we met him, in the short space of a week, we had a series of unfortunate events: Joe got stung by a jellyfish and his body became covered in a plague of itchy red circles; we both fell off our bikes (don’t worry- we were each going at about 5km/ hr at the time so no lasting injuries); Joe got two punctures; our stove pump broke and as if that’s not unfortunate enough, we managed to break the porch pole for our tent as well! Definitely failing at adventure school right now.

Oh dear...

Oh dear…

Despite this freakish string of bad luck that he seems to bring, it’s been great having Lander with us. He taught us how to slip stream so we’ve been pushing ourselves trying to keep up with him and getting fit as a result. Wild camping is always more relaxing when there are more of you as well, and he has so much energy that usually by the time we’ve dragged ourselves panting to the top of the mountain as the sun is setting, he’s already assessed the area and found us a perfect camping spot (what a fatherly figure)!

Camping above the clouds

Camping above the clouds

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At Ereğli, we decided to turn inland for a while- partly for some variation and partly because thenext section of the coastline would be incredibly steep, and now that we’re racing against winter, we can’t really afford to go that slowly unfortunately. I don’t regret it though, as our inland route took us through stunning forests, valleys, quiet villages and later on in the week the landscape morphed into desert-like stretches with rocky mountains all around us. We also escaped the rainy season of the coast this way, and were treated so some of the most scorching days so far.

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Without fail, whenever we stopped in a village, within minutes we would be presented with steaming glasses of çay by the locals, who refused to accept any money. I’m even permitted to sit in their çay salons despite being female. These type of cafés are everywhere in Turkey, and are exclusively for men. We have started referring to them as the ‘busy men’s clubs’ as they are always filled with men enjoying long afternoons drinking tea, solving the world’s problems and playing board games, while the women are at home (actually working hard). We’ve been surprised at how conservative the villages actually are here- sometimes we like to play ‘spot the woman’, as very often you will only see men in the streets and shops. Although things are a lot more relaxed in the cities, we were still surprised whilst in Trabzon last night to walk into a bar (for a well earned celebratory drink) and find that half of the bar was segregated for men exclusively, and the other half mixed. (It was tempting to ask where the womens’ section was but I thought better of it).

The infamous Turkish hospitality has definitely lived up to it’s reputation. Whenever we couldn’t find a place to camp in time for sunset (which is now so early that we’re finding ourselves asleep by half past eight each night in the tent) we have been welcomed into the homes of people in villages (and even once in a city). We spent a really memorable evening with a huge family, after getting desperate and asking if we could pitch our tent in their field. Minutes later, we found ourselves sitting around their table being presented with a feast, laughing and joking with the cheeky little boys who knew a bit of english. Half the village turned up to have a look at the strange arrival of three foreign cyclists, and when it came to pitching the tents, everybody wanted to help. I can’t say I’ve ever blown up a sleeping mat with the help of three enthusiastic children holding each corner and staring at me intently before. Another family who invited us in in a similar way entertained us after dinner (fish on the BBQ that they’d caught earlier that day) by performing the traditional dance of the Black Sea coast, which involved a combination of delicate foot steps, stomping and hand holding. I can’t say that Joe and Lander were much good at it!

Our new Turkish family

Our new Turkish family

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A musical performance in our honour

A musical performance in our honour

Unfortunately, the coastal road from Samsun eastwards is hideous. We rejoined it here as we missed the sea and had heard it was flat, which was true, and we were able to get some really long days in of 120km (a record distance for us), but psychologically it has been a draining few days with nothing very inspiring to motivate us. The road is basically the equivalent of a motorway that runs more or less directly on the coast, leaving no room for any sort of beach or forest for camping. The towns are pretty sad looking also, with huge landfill areas right on the shoreline, smelly and polluting the water. If anybody else is planning to cycle this way I would strongly recommend going inland rather than take this road, unless you need a direct and speedy route. I suppose it can’t all be a dream come true…

Turkish people will nearly always try to help if you need it (and often if you don’t). In fact, if there’s something specific you need, they won’t rest until you have found it. For example, this morning Joe went on a mission here in Trabzon to find a laundrette. (As he needed to wash basically everything he owned, he was wearing an unusual combination of swimming shorts, a thermal long sleeved top and a pair of waking boots). He found one but it was closed, so asked a couple of policemen whether they knew if there were any others. The policemen then insisted on escorting him in his silly outfit around the city centre, from one closed laundrette to he next, all the time carrying their machine guns, until they found one open half an hour later. All with curious onlookers of course.

We have now said farewell to Lander here in Trabzon as he needs to wait for visas, but have left him in the capable hands of two other cyclists who are heading in his direction. Very sad to see him go. For us it’s back onto the monster coastal highway for three more days until the Georgian border, where we can celebrate with a glass of this famous Georgian red wine everybody keeps telling us about.

Some nice scenery for you...

Some nice scenery for you…

Creepy mist sunrise

Creepy mist sunrise

Mama making tea

Mama making tea

Happy cyclists

Happy cyclists