Statistics

[Posting this a year late!]

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

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

Contents

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

1. Time

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

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

2. Costs

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

2.1 Breakdown

Trip grand total – £27,298, of which:

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

These are definitely ball park figures.

2.2 Territories

£964 West Europe [UK to +inc Austria]

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

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

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

£1,896 China

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

 

3. Accommodation

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

Total sleeping locations: 334

Total countries cycled through: 27

153 hotels [RED]

92 wild camps [GREEN]

36 paid camping [BLUE]

22 hospitality [YELLOW]

11 WarmShowers.org / Couchsurfing.org [YELLOW]

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

9 transit [BROWN]

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

4. Distance

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

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

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

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

So we cycled 73% of the way to Malaysia.

londontomalaysiaWITHbike.com ?

73pcOfTheWayFromLondonToMalaysiaByBike.com ?

5. Various

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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


Laos

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

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

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

Lunch

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

Dinner

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

Breakfast

fruit, muesli with yogurt and local fresh coffee.

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

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

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Laotian Lattes

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

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

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

Coffee 101

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

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

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

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

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

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oh look! Some kittens!!

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

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Cambodia

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

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

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

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

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

Holiday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killing Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuol Sleng aka S-21 torture prison showing drowning pots

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S-21 victim and survivor

Angkor Wat

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

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

Joe 1 – 37 Carmen.

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awwwww looooook! Some more kittens!

Cambodian clothes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers for reading.


Photo update

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

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

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

Click here to access the Flickr stream.

Peace of China

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

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

…Wouldn’t you?…


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

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

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

 

Chinese tourism.

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

Off road

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

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

Photosss

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

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

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

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

Climbing Emei

Climbing Emei

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

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

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

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

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

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

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

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

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

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

BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.

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

(Apart from the monks watching TV.)

(And the monks coughing up their phlegm.)

(And everyone talking loudly in the resonant courtyard.)

Sunset.

Sunset

 

Temple where we slept

Temple where we slept

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

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

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

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

Macaque monkey (left), Chinese Tourists (right)

Macaque monkey (left), Chinese Tourists (right)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Golden Summit, Emei mountain

The Golden Summit, Emei mountain

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

Chinese Tourists.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hello

Mrs Bubbles: “My knees hurt…”

 

Mr Bubbles:

Mr Bubbles: “…Nearly done.”

 

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

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

Back on the road

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

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

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

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

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

The astounding descent

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

 

 

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

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

Some good honest English there

Some good honest English there.

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

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

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

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

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

 

What about you? A Chinese Tourist??

…What about you? A Chinese Tourist?

Overall

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

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

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

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


 

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

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Macaque monkey

Macaque monkeys

 

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

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

 

Mt Emei

 

Temple in Mt Emei

Temple in Mt Emei

 

Further south offered more peace

Further south offered more peace

 

Breakfasts

Breakfasts

 

Mt Emei

Mt Emei

 

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

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS LOTS OF METRES

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


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

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

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

Highlands

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

Waking up to snow at 3000m

Waking up to snow at 3000m

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

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

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

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

Looking down at mini tornadoes

Looking down at mini tornadoes, approx. 3900m

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

Frozen lake Karakol

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kipping at Akbaytal pass, 4655m

Kipping at Akbaytal pass, 4655m

Enjoying the colours

Enjoying the colours

Lowerlands

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

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

A Tajik house

A Tajik house


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

Chilling out at the Pamir Lodge, Khorog

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

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

Washing up

Washing up

Ubiquitous plov but now served with herbs and chickpeas

Ubiquitous plov but now served with herbs and chickpeas

Locals

Locals

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

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

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

Cliff track

Cliff track

Carving a track using dynamite and by pushing rocks off

Carving a track using dynamite and by pushing rocks off

 

Goodbye central Asia

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

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

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

 

Getting the truck outta here

Getting the truck outta here


 

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

 

Living in Kyrgyzstan

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

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


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

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

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

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

Teaching crafts

Teaching crafts

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

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

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

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

Victory Square, Bishkek

Victory Square, Bishkek

Abandonned disco, downtown

Abandonned disco, downtown

 

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Bishkek Opera House

 

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

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Konorchek Canyon

Hiking Konorchek Canyon

 

This is where Carmen realised her fear of "heights"

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

Camping for two nights at Bom Canyon

Camping for two nights at Bom Canyon

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

Issy Kul

Issy Kul

Issy Kul south shore

Issy Kul south shore

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

Horse trekking to Altyn Arashan

Horse trekking to Altyn Arashan

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

Skiing at Orlovka

Skiing at Orlovka

Skiing near Karakol

Skiing near Karakol

View from ski piste

View from ski piste

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

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


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

Uzbekistan

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

Uzbekistan is an immense hassle for tourists (ie. us) wishing to get money out.  Not simply because the country is 80% desert, but also because ATMs are scarse. Scarily scarse. Even in the cities.

So just how did we manage to traverse 1800km and end up on our final night making speeches through a PA in front of an audience of a hundred, the same amount of mobile phones cameras and a professional TV camcorder ?


We rely somewhat on a grapevine of information passed onto us by other tourers for such matters of nuance as the money sitation. With everyone else travelling through Iran (at time of writing, British people have been unable to move freely since April) we missed out hearing the crucial advice of entering the country with as many US dollars as possible to serve as your bank.

The €50 note and $100 note I had been carrying for such emergency measures dug us out of the north west part of the country (which was pure desert). As we crossed the border and cycled into the pitch black desert at night (where we subsequently managed to pitch up in the dark!), we were able to find traders who happily swapped the notes for local Som.  Despite the seemingly wealthy wads of cash this produced, we quickly realised that Uzbekistan isn’t the cheapest of countries; it just about bought us our train fares for the next day, food and the only “hotel” (floor in a cafe and absurdly expensive) in town.  Camping wasn’t an option here: the previous morning, we’d got stranded in the worst mud that saw us break a speed record of 200metres in three hours. 0.05km/hr.

On the eve of Carmen’s birthday we were counting our last few wads of cash and rationing every minute purchase. Tea and bread had to be justified.

Amazingly, upon opening her cards the following morning (I had been carrying them with me since Bulgaria) a €20 note greeted Carmen, all the way from Nan San and GDT on the Wirral. This would help us on the train journey but we still needed a lot more.

We knew we could probably rely on the goodwill of our fellow train passengers to feed and entertain us. A fantastic Soviet train with beds facing each other and people feasting on all sorts of produce served up by the dozens of traders hustling up and down the carriages. Fresh bread, cakes, biscuits, samosas, chocolate, drinks, the lot. They even have chefs hop on with giant vats of cooked food to dish out in plates which they collect after use.

And it wasn’t just food on the go: Barbie dolls, huge toy cars and trucks and electric appliances. All carried awkwardly through the narrow aisle in giant tall bulky plastic bags. This train had started it’s journey in St Petersbourg and I saw several Russian men alighting the train carrying their toy trucks and dolls. Subjects of Putin sporting Barbie dolls. It really didn’t conform to the stereotype. Was this the homosexual propaganda that Putin is so afraid of?

I informed the passengers in our vicinity of Carmen’s quarter-century milestone. It didn’t take long for them to share up their vodka, meat, bread, tomatoes and tea. Sadly no Barbie doll. We switched the €20 birthday note for local currency and bought ourselves some delicious plov and salad from one of the passing chefs. We kept the change and hoped we’d find ATMs once we reached Samarkand.

3rd class travel to Samarkand

3rd class travel to Samarkand.

We arrived the next morning at 5am, still pitch black, 20 hours after departure onto a chaotic platform in heavy falling snow. We carried our possessions over the railtracks and slowly rode towards the city centre 10k away, with iPad offline maps at hand to find the cheapest hotel. We rode into the sunrise with snow falling into our eyes. It was quite a beautiful scene.
More beautiful was arriving into the warm cosy hostel-like hotel and sharing an early morning breakfast with three other cycle tourers, a duo from Australia and a Thaiwanese chap. Long gone were the warm sunny days of joyfully bumping into other cycle tourers. So this came as a surprise to us as we had assumed that we were the only ones to be cycling in these colder climates. It felt reassuring to know that we weren’t alone and that others could soon be enduring such hardships as our Kazakh winter experience.

Samarkand Registan

 

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Samarkand Registan

 

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Meeting Chi from Taiwan at the hostel in Samarkand

 

We spent three hours going from bank to bank to ask if our Visa Caxton card can be used in their ATMs. Each “nyet” thrown at us added to the immense frustration of being gridlocked from doing anything. Power outages common, we’d walk into banks operating a reduced service.  After protesting some, we used crying and venting psychological manipulation to turn an unhelpful cold receptionist into an obliging and caring soul who sat us down with coffee while she phoned around to find us an ATM.  We were put in a taxi, dumped somewhere and we asked around “znayete gde Kapitalbank bankomat?”  Another hour later, our four day search was finally over.  We waited for the day’s 3rd power cut to cease and spent 20 minutes withdrawing $400 from a reluctant cash machine. Even the computer wanted to say “niet”.

Panic over. We found a lovely blues bar, sat by candleight (6 powercuts) and stayed up till 3am (9 hours after our usual bedtime) getting pissed.


We didn’t feel that we had missed much by catching the train, it all looked bleak and boring out the window.  The parts that we did cycle (from Samarkand onwards) were scenic and prosperous; roads lined with trees and with plenty of fresh fruit sellers. On a mountain pass of 2100m we asked to pitch up our tent but were given a hut to sleep in with a beautiful view.

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Over a 2200 metre pass

 

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View from our mountain hut. Approximately 1500 metres altitude.

 

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Our new Australian friends from back in the hostel had brought with them some new concepts. Among these:

Dumpster diving, cooking on the coals of fires every night, washing up gloves used as rainproof glove layers, cycling 100k a day and using a candle to dehumidify the tent for 30mins before use.

These were strange ideas to us that we assumed to be part of ordinary daily austral culture and language. And although it did baffle us a bit, we set about trying to implement some of it. (We instantly ruled out the 100k regime though). XL washing up gloves fitted perfectly over my new cheap cotton gloves and together acted as an effective pair of waterproof gloves. Genius. The candle trick may also be working, it’s hard to tell, but we have woken up to a completely dry tent on two occasions.

The rapidly reducing daylight hours and temperatures now brought about a new evening routine of gathering firewood and lighting fires every night. Not only did this toast us up tremendously but it gave us something to do other than simply fall asleep at six o’clock every day. But one step at a time; ‘cooking on the coals’ requires a little more expertise in fire management. Basic steps first eh?

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The enthusiasm we received from the locals was tremendous: constant attention and every other car honking us. It was as if we were famous. Any form of privacy whatsoever, including a simple conversation, stopped for us the minute we crawled out of our tent. Stopping for any reason such as lunch, buying a Snickers, map-check or just a quick pause would quickly force us back onto the bikes as a crowd would gather round and stare at us.

We would repeat about a hundred times a day the same well-rehearsed Russian dialogue with the locals:

-Where are you from?

England (curiously, the Russian word for this is that of our former kingdom ‘Anglia’)

-Where are you going?

Kyrgyzstan then China then south east Asia.

-Did you fly here?

No, England to here with bicycle. In Malaysia finish and aeroplane to England.

-How many days?

6 months

-How many km?

We don’t know. 6000 or 7000.

-Are you husband and wife?

Yes. (Spares Carmen the immense constant bore of men assuming they’re in for a chance)

-Where do you sleep?

Tent

-Do you have children?

Niet

-Why don’t you have children?

I don’t know.

-You are 33 and you don’t have children?

Yes.

-Are you not cold?

Niet

Just at the point of closing a conversation and taking our first pedal, we would be stopped and this entire script could be repeated. After three weeks of being deprived from having our own conversations, it did become exhausting. Sometimes the only way to get things done or even to concentrate was to shut everyone off around us for a minute, as if they were disposable avatars in The Matrix.

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Routine questionning. This one from The Melon Men, a mafia known to pull us over and offer us their goods free of charge

 

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Crowds gathering around the camera is common

We left Uzbekistan in style. As we were looking for a spot to camp we got waved in to a wedding party in someone’s garden. One minute we were exhausted from a 90k day, the next I was feasting on a flow of food and vodka surrounded by about fifty faces watching me, each person tapping my shoulder and each face shouting their questions through their golden teeth at me as I calmly ate. It was hilarious. It was chaos. Nobody would let me answer a single question before the next question would be fired. Two or three of these faces were an inch away from mine.

-Zhosef, vodka vkusno?

Da, ya lub..

-Zhosef? How years when are you?

I am thirty th

-(Tap on the shoulder) chai, chai pozhalsta, eta vkusno!

-Zhosef, my name is Abdullah and my name is (pointing to another person) Maruf

Pleased to meet you, ochen priatno, gde vi…

-Zhosef? Chai vkusno?

Da, da ochen vkusno, spaseeba

-Dance ? Eat after dance, ok?

Yes ok

-Zhosef, you dance now

Yes. Chai ee borsch patom dance, harasho?

-Zhosef,… (ad infinitum)

I was forced fed tea and vodka from all directions, everyone competing to put something in my mouth, with my mouth already full of either cakes, soup, vodka, tea, bread or meat. I was crying with laughter whilst eating. There was a professional video tape camera pointing at me. It was hospitatlitic chaos on another level and total sensory overload. Teaching groups of sugared-up 4 year old Korean kids required less management.  Here are a few photos showing my point of view.

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Nutters.

I had no idea where Carmen had been ushered to. I escaped and found her in a peaceful room by candlelight (blackout) sitting down and eating with the girls. All questioning from her audience was channeled in an orderly manner via an old lady, who conducted the interview in German and in Russian.

And then we were dancing and people were giving us money.

And then we were made to a produce a speech in English, camera phones pointing at us. I can’t remember exactly but I think I said something like:

Hello and welcome to this wedding party. Thank you for making today so special. Had a great time.

Sod the happy couple. We were the centrepiece, surrounded by dozens of faces at all times. Then, just like that, less than an hour after arriving, a couple of dozen people presented us with our belongings, ushered us to our bikes which were being steered to the exit and we were further ushered to bugger off into the night, 4000 som richer. But we think everyone may have been leaving because a minute later a van laden with golden teeth overtook us. With an arm waving from the passenger seat we heard a final “Zhosef!” disappear into the silent night.

High and merry, we cycled on for another hour or so and approached a garage to ask if we could pitch up. Naturally our bikes were put on the back of the customer’s pickup truck which was being serviced from the pit below. We waited for them to finish fixing it, and we were then taken into his peaceful family home. Two nights in one! For hours we were fed, vodka’d and tea’d by candlelight (blackouts) and put into the extremely warm and cosy floor beds that are found in every Central Asian home.

Today had been travel at its finest.

I was so vodka’d up that night that bad things happened to me. So bad that I am too ashamed to write about them. It wasn’t pretty.

The next morning we rode the last peaceful ten kilometers and proceeded through to the world’s quietest border crossing that we eventually found off the beaten track. Sunglasses on, a backstage door out of this insanely friendly country was exactly what my delicate head and stomach needed. No interviews or nothing.

Behind the backdoor was our final home-straight to Bishkek. But did we decide to take the easy route or the difficult and even potentially extreme route?
I guess you read that as a rhetorical question with only one clear answer?


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Carmen, operating a bicycle

 

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The numerous food bazaars kept us well stocked up

 

The Australian tourers also heading east at the speed of 100km/day

The two Australian tourers (right) also heading east at the speed of 100km/day

Cyclists Chi, Zig, and erm... J.

Cyclists: Chi, Zig, and erm… J.

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More aircraft marshalling

 

thjing, Samarkand

Registan, Samarkand