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Lanzhou to Guanzhou – The End

l am now back in the UK, having abandoned the trip in lieu of disappearing funds. After some long thought and much staring at my bank account figures, I deduced that continuing to North America for the end of my trip would be pretty untenable (the right choice, I regret to say).

It has been a long time since I last uploaded a blog post – shoddy internet, and the pending return to the UK being a drain on enthusiasm.

Following on from my last blog, I went from Lanzhou to Xi’an, cheating the last couple of hundred kilometres by train due to a few mechanical problems on the bike. The riding was pretty good, though I had some grizzly weather. From Lanzhou a dull 70km of urban sprawl took me east into a series of Mudstone mountains, terraced to the extreme by fervent Chinese farmers – I guess the malleability of the geology lends itself to bring terraced. Squeezed along the narrow gorge-like valleys were small settlements of traditional single storey bungalows, with typically flaring gable roofs ornamented with oriental designs.  Throughout the landscape hilltop forts of mudstone embankments (essentially hillforts), known locally as Buzi forts, proliferate. The forts primarily date to the tone of the Qin Dynasty (or c.200 BC). At one point roadworks blocked the way I was following, which had largely disintegrated into mud by this point at any rate, so I snuck up an embankment and onto the ‘highway’; a normal seeming two-lane road. Surface water and runoff mud from beside the road, combined with big trucks and no mud guards, soon had me soaked and extremely muddy, but I made good time, descending a couple of days later into Tianshui. There I had hoped for a hotel and shower, but as Lonely Planet’s cheap suggestion turned into a no go, I continued on to camp in a not so great spot opposite some roadworks on the road up to Maijishan.

Maijishan is a cliff-side cave complex containing thousands of Buddhist sculptures and murals created over several centuries, beginning in the 5th century AD (or Later Qin era – not to be confused with the earlier Qin Dynasty).  In order to render the caves visitable for modern-day tourists a series of concrete walkways were affixed to the cliff front – prior to that access would have been a far more enervating experience.

With the bike complaining bitterly about the change in weather, and needing to reach Xi’an in time to meet a friend, I opted to hop on the train from Maijishan to Xi’an. Some kind police officers assisted me with the slightly mindboggling experience, and helped me ship my bike (as they’re not allowed on normal trains). Stupidly, not realising that the bike would arrive the following day, I left all my clothing on the bike.

The train ride was otherwise painless – once the airport-like security to the platform had confiscated my alcohol fuel and water bottles (luckily my knife was with the bike). I arrived into Xi’an around 7pm, and headed for a hostel where I planned to meet my old friend Bridget and her boyfriend Vincent. Bridget is an Australian with whom I worked after one of my earliest bike tours when, aged nineteen, I cycled to Rome, ran out of money, and got a job on the ‘Roma City Pub-crawl’ along with a motley international crowd.

I had a few days off in Xi’an, fixing the bike, sorting gear, crunching numbers, and making an obligatory visit to the Terracotta Warriors. The warriors amount a part of an amassed clay-based army of thousands, constructed to fight for the First Emperor Qin over 2000 years ago. The mausoleum, tomb, and terracotta brigade began construction when the Emperor was only 13 – and likely involved stone 700,000 labourers. Nearer to the actual tomb (an unexcavated hillside a few kilometres to the west) acrobats, court officials, and servants, also of ceramic, were discovered. The scale of the place and its sheer audacity is incredible, though the museum is unfortunately overpriced, and doesn’t quite convey the literal city that was made for the dead emperor.

That done, and having seen Bridget and Vincent off on their way north to Beijing, I set out once more eastwards towards my next stop – Wudangshan.

 I had no expectations of the road I would follow, though it turned out to be an incredibly beautiful mountain road, wending between sheer white-grey limestone cliffs beset with brightly coloured autumnal trees, and curious goats. After a long climb a long tunnel took me downwards, and into a differing geological landscape – still mountainous, though of a finer sedimentary rock. Here, amongst autumnal wooded valleys, were dotted old cottages and hamlets, porches and balconies adorned with drying corn, and trees festooned with bright and ripe orange persimmon. Fire crackers and fire works were being intermittently set off as I rode along.

The next couple of days were of a similar fair, though with the road running along a widening river beneath some steep cave-riddled cliffs at times, eventually opening out to a large reservoir before reading Wudangshan City where I checked into a hostel. I had some fun with my mapping, which clearly can’t keep up with Chinese road development, reaching Wudangshan and had to do a fair amount of guesstimating. It all worked out fine though.

The next day was far from restful, and, five days later, I was still feeling its impact. Getting up moderately early I headed for Wudangshan – a series of stunning Taoist temples amidst the sheer mountains a few kilometres south of the city. An expensive (£28) ticket, not including the two most impressive temples within the complex, gets you onto the compulsory bus up the mountain, stopping at a few of the lower temples along the way. At the 12th-century Purple Cloud Monastery – a large elaborate series of structures, complete with taichi practitioners in action – I alighted, visiting the complex, before mounting the first of several thousand stairs, first to the base of the main staging area, then on up to the golden summit. The 14th-century Golden Hall (a temple of beaten bronze within a circuitously walled fortification of impressive construction) sits atop the summit. The final ascent climbed via the older Ming Dynasty route through the three ‘heavenly’ gates – a route that I am convinced was fabricated purely to punish the curious, with viciously steep ascents, followed by mean descents, zigzagging up and around the mountain. From the top I returned to the upper bus stop via the far easier and newer path, saving my legs a whole load of further grief.

South from Wudangshan a beautiful and tough mountain road took me steadily back above 2000mASL, with richly wooded slopes, narrow gorges and ravines, and perfectly clear streams. At times the road I followed cut through the mountainsides via long echoing tunnels (thankfully with little traffic). Here my mapping failed me once more, being unaware the main road even existed. Within this twisting and beautiful landscape, the Wildman of Shennongjia, a local legend, is rumoured to roam.

I descended into warmer climbs down to the Yangtze River, and into the city of Yichang – an unremarkable typical Chinese metropolis of 4 million, and home to the Three Gorges Dam.

Following a rest day, I rode on, first east-south-east along the Yangtze – a not so pleasant experience through a heavily polluted industrial landscape. The air had such a caustic flavour that I opted to wear a facemask. Not nice. In later removing the mask I lost my Tin Pot cap. I was not the happiest bunny.

From there I crossed the river and headed south along some busy roads towards the Wulingyuan Scenic Area (more commonly known as Zhangjiajie, or Zhangjiajie National Forestry Park) in Hunan Province. The national park was first protected in 1982, and designated by UNESCO in 1992, later becoming a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2004. The park is comprised of monumental sandstone towers, as epitomised in traditional Chinese paintings, and bought to fame in much of the west by the Avatar films (2010). Indeed, one of the many kilometre high towers was renamed as ‘Avatar Hallelujah Mountain’, pertaining to the movie. The park is most definitely one of the most inspiring and outright jaw-dropping landscapes I encountered on the trip, despite the crowds and amassed tourist infrastructure. As with Wudangshan, the Chinese fetish for stairs abounded (though lifts and cable car alternatives did exist), and I got my sweat on, weaving through the incredible environs, and avoiding overly ambitious quasi-wild monkeys.

After leaving the park and descending to Zhangjiajie City, situated beneath the inspiring edifice of Tianman Shan, I met three Dutch cyclists – Everhard, Albert, and Elma. Everhard, or Eeb, has cycled through from Holland, while the other two had flown out for six weeks to join him. Both Eeb and Elma are fellow archaeologists. The three were also headed south to Guilin, before continuing to Hanoi, Vietnam. Keen for some company after the last few weeks cycling solo, I latched myself to the group for the next few days. The ride south took us through some extremely scenic and pleasant historic towns (Furong, Jishou, and Hongjiang) rolling countryside, and saw me staying several nights in cheap hotels with the others (luxury).

A little over 100km before we reached Guilin we were stopped by police, having unwittingly rolled into a massive military zone, with restricted access along all road in the region (excepting the highway). After being stopped the first time, we convinced the officers to let us continue. The second time we were stopped, by a big black unmarked pickup, continuing was not an option. The police took us to a police station, questioned us, and told us in no uncertain terms that we must go back the way we had come. In order to cycle to Guilin we would have to take a detour, back north, then 200km east, then back south – a total detour amounting to almost 600km. We didn’t fancy that, so we got the police to give us a lift back to where we had started the day, 60km north at Hongjiang. There we took a coach further back on our trail to Huaihua (a big ugly city, and the home to one of China’s fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles), stayed a night, and took a further coach back south again, and on to Guilin.

In Guilin I parted with the Dutch, and once again met up with Frank and Patrick – the Germans I had cycled with in northern Turkey. I wasted no time in Guilin, and pushed on to Yangshuo where I would spend the following ten days exploring and climbing (I hoped).

Yangshuo and Guilin were amongst the first areas in China to be opened up to foreign visitors, and the landscape in the area, comprising a forest of Karst peaks, rice fields, and winding waterways, is considered amongst the most beautiful in China (the karst peaks appear on the back of twenty yuan notes). Reaching Yangshuo I lucked out in a big way, meeting two Australian climbers (Matylda and Dan) in my hostel room. Not only were they a friendly duo, but, by luck, Matylda had bought her husband’s shoes and harness (the self-same husband would be arriving after I had left) with her – they kindly lent me the gear (which fit perfectly) and allowed me to join them. Through the climbing we managed to explore much of the surrounding area, including some beautiful and otherworldly cave complexes, forested karst hillsides, and many small tucked-away hamlets and villages. The climbing also gave me a chance to improve on my sport climbing (as I typically boulder – that is climb at low height without a rope), improving my mental game and confidence climbing on lead.

At the end of my time in Yangshuo, a truly torrential two and a half days of rain, mud, and pedalling bought me towards the end of my trip in Guangzhou. Unfortunately, with little over a day left to go, my rear tyre split from its beading, bursting dramatically a few seconds later. Continuing wasn’t viable, and fortunately I was only a few kilometres past the fair-sized town of Huaiji, so a pushed my bike to the coach station, and rode the rest of my way to Guangzhou in a warm dry bus. Reaching Guangzhou I felt a somewhat sad sense of anti-climax – riding a coach to the finishing line, and finding myself alone in a quiet hostel, in a big city, with no one to celebrate with was, I guess, rather undramatic and underwhelming, particularly following the wonderful, exciting, and adventurous months preceding the moment. I guess my finale epitomised that much spewed quote “it’s the journey, not the destination that matters”.

Now back in the UK, and attempting to return to normality, and looking to the next challenge, I am still in the act of processing the last few months. In all I cycled some 14,000 – 16,000 kilometres (or around 10,000 miles). My bike and I are tired, and enthused. Lessons were learnt, languages gabbled, cultures absorbed, and friends made. In all I took over 7,000 photographs, listened to several weeks’ worth of audiobooks, and ate enough sugar to give half the world diabetes.

Thank you to everyone who has helped me, supported me, fed me, or just generally put up with me, before, during, and now after this trip. And thanks to the world for being there.

Seth

青海 to 甘肃

I arrived in Lanzhou, Gansu province, having crossed the entire breadth of Qinghai province to Xining, then rolled on downhill along a highway to the Gansu’s capital.

From Ruoqiang the way climbed steadily to above 3000 metres (Stan and I cruising the last 700m clinging to the back of a 22-wheeler), through a winding valley of interesting geological formations – banded geology of varying tones. From there we continued across the north end of the arid Tibetan Plateau, with varying and inspiring scenery, though with a common sand-based theme, crossing the hyper arid (excepting two large salt lakes) Qaidam Basin, then climbing again through icy mountains, over two passes of 3800+ metres, to Qinghai Lake (the second largest salt lake in the world), and on to Xining.

My birthday transpired early on during the leg, amongst the stunning yardangs to the west of the Qaidam Basin. The day before we had a few beers and the crew bought me a new yoga mat and rubix cube, one for the cold and one for the brain.

The day after my birthday also saw us drinking, huddled away from the cold and a ferocious wind in a shed alongside a workers mess, with a terrible bottle of Red Star rice wine courtesy of some of the construction workers therein. It helped some with the cold. The morning of that self-same day saw us scoring well with the passing Chinese tourists driving a circuit of the Basin, as they stopped to photograph us and provision us with iced coffees, fruit, water, and varients there-of (thanks China).

The climb out from the Basin a couple of days later aptly demonstrated why, on occasion, grabbing onto the back of a truck might not be a good idea – I hitched a truck, then shifted over to make room for Stan, in doing so my front wheel tangled in a dangling cable from the back of the vehicle, and swiftly liberated my bicycle of its human load. Luckily the bike untangled after only being dragged a few metres. Stan, the driver, and the rest of the world remained oblivious to my blunder. Shaken I pootled on.

With the climb from the Basin, the already sub-0 temperatures got their plunge on. I’m very glad I was bequeathed the yoga mat (thanks Kim, Karin, and Stan). My earlier padding purchase, a typical plaid-patterned picnic rug with a plastic foil backing, became the frontier of my nightly cold defences. My sleeping ‘system’ is as follows: picnic rug wrapped around my sleeping bag, which I lined with a cheap blanket and sleeping bag liner, then myself, wrapped in a down jacket, shell, fleece, t-shirt, shorts, thermal leggings, cycling shorts, wool socks, and ankle socks – The simple lightweight and cost effective way to turn your light summer sleeping bag in to a hardy three season system.

I only got cold every night.

On the twelth day we reached Delingha, where we hoped for a hotel (and a shower!). Turns out foreigners aren’t allowed to stay. With Kim’s rear wheel verging on collapse, and our body odours becoming very apparent, Stan managed to convince the police to let us stay a night. The hotel staff seemed particularly worried about us – going so far as to buy us dinner, and bottled water before we left in the morning. Foreigners aren’t allowed to stay as the city is purportedly a military zone, with several missile launch sites nearby, and historic nuclear test sites away to the northeast. Oh well. I had been ready to continue on alone then; the others planning for a rest day. However the police gave their idea a decided no, and so we continued on together.

Over the last few days of riding, on the approach to Xining, Tibetan culture became increasingly more in evidence, with brightly coloured prayer flags adorning the roadside, and temples and ornate gateways on abundance. That, mixed in with a continuation of the Islamic nomadic culture seen through Xinjiang, made for a fascinating, and culinarily divine, cultural melting pot.

The beautiful shores of sea-like Qinghai Lake are characterised by Buddhist temples, colourful bouquets of flags, golden fields of wheat, herds of shaggy shuffling stumpy-legged yaks, and bus-loads of tourists. Though the bus loads were much reduced by the late, and cold, season.

From there it was a short up-and-over manoeuvre to hit a drawn out 1500m descent to Xining, passing countless mosques clustered within the modern high-rise urban spread which so typifies Chinese settlement to the east, with temples and monasteries in-between, or clinging to the mountainsides above. The change from the quiet and simplicity of desert cycling and small towns to the chaos of a thriving Chinese city of some 2.2 million people was quite a shock to the senses. Xining is small by Chinese standards.

As common with many cycle-tourists, especially those who have subsisted on a very sand and noodle-sided diet for weeks, we did not do much in the way of sight-seeing while in Xining, but rather sought out sources of western food, and bike and outdoor gear shops. I’m holding out for Decathlon in Xi’an.

Leaving Xining, and parting from the wonderful Kim (thanks for the socks) and Karin, Stan and I put our blinkers on, ignoring the no bike signs, and snuck back onto the highway (which was all well and kosher when it was the only road available, but is not quite so now). The road continued to trend downwards. Camping had become a little harder now, owing to the never ending urban sprawl. Stan found a charming spot above the Huangshui River (proto-Yellow River), just into Gansu Province, neatly tucked behind an abandoned substation and adjacent to a scrap yard. Stray dogs only woke us twice.

And there I was. Lanzhou is bigger than Xining, with some 4 million people. That afternoon Stan and I explored a fantastic sprawling open air market, stuffing ourselves with some form of greasy and gently spiced bing (flat bread). From there I pootled on by myself, continuing east towards Xi’an -the end of the silk road… but that’s another story.

 

 

再见

Seth

 

Taklamakan Desert

Once more the internet has conspired against me uploading all, or even my preferred, photos. Some more are available to view on my Instagram (below).

Deserts are good for thinking. Rather like Steppe. What I think about is hard to pinpoint. Sometimes its a meditative blank, sometimes erratic daydreams verging on delerium, sometimes the most profound and life changing thoughts which, like dreams, I forget the moment I recognise that I’m thinking them. I also think about what’s around me. At one point I thought I’d ground myself in the present, within the experience that is the landscape liminality of the Southern Silk Road (sandwiched between the mountains to the south and desert-proper to the north), by pondering:

What does the desert look like?

Sandy. A fine silty sand. A light brown fine silty oft-airbourne sand. An old beige cloth, rippling up in places, with stains, damp patches and mouldy growths where rivers, irrigation and tree plantations mark it, and an occasional human-louse infestation, which doesn’t much bother it. Big. And sandy again. Sometimes it looks like dry eyes, grit, and an off-beige-grey. We call that a sandstorm. It is often grey even when not storming – so much sand is kicking about.

What does the desert smell like?

Like nothing much really. Sand doesn’t have much odor. Van exhaust.

What does the desert sound like?

Windy. Or silent. Or like passing cars and trucks. Animal life is minimal in the Taklamakan.

What does the desert feel like?

Like a fine silty sand. Or hard-packed grittier sand and spikey scrubby growths. The fine sand is quite luxuriously soft. It gets in everywhere.

What does the desert taste like?

A dry gritty mouth for the most part. My teeth are likely well exfoliated.

But I digress.

I last posted from Kashgar. Kashgar is the best preserved Uyghur city left within the Xinjiang Province (the Chinese have a prerogative for the demolition of historic neighbourhoods and the imposition of Han culture and language within traditionally Uyghur regions). Uyghur culture is akin to that of the Central Asian countries, a Steppe culture, and uses a Turkic language. This means I often speak a bastardised and inaccurate mix of limited Turkish and Chinese. It works.

Interestingly much of the culture, in terms of dress and architecture, appears better preserved in China than in those countries formerly under the dictates of the Soviet Union. Traditional women’s outfits are luridly vibrant, and cosmetic stylings favour the application of a thick white foundation, a with painted features. Architecture makes use of carved timber pillars and ornate friezes. More modern buildings opt for characterful geometrically-patterned plaster panels.

Unrest is uncomfortably apparent. A formidable and oppressive police presence within Kashgar, and most other cities within the province, hammers down any attempt at protest or separatist movement. Historically the area, pivotal to the former Silk trade (and for even longer the trade of jade), has been under the power of numerous and varying states and kingdoms, from Tibetan, Han, and Islamic empires. The oppression extends to limiting the availability of passports to Uyghur populations, frequent police checkpoints (where non-Han Chinese are routinely scanned for weaponry, explosives or prohibited items), and the governmental control of fuel sales and the sale of any other flammable good (including pure alcohol we needed for running a camp stove). Petrol stations resemble fortifications, with armed guards, razor-wire, and ram-proof fencing. Permits are required for access. Likewise it seems to be a requirement for all shops and restaurants to have riot shields and weaponry to hand. Weaponry is often as crude and welded spears, with nails hammered point out below the point, to create a guard, and increase the apparent functionality of the device. Police drill shopkeepers regularly – an enforced militia service it seems.

People are nice and welcoming however, becoming increasingly so as we moved on towards the east of the county, away from the more contentious regions surrounding Kashgar.

Through to Hotan the Swedes (Kim and Karin) and I rode a magnificent tail-wind, culminating in an entertaining, though problematic sandstorm the night before reaching the city. My tent is not sandstorm proof; more sand appeared to have joined me inside than out come morning. I wouldn’t recommend moving metal objects (bikes) in a sandstorm – some serious static gets generated by all that whirling silica. Dinner was problematic too.

Hotan is an unremarkable modern Chinese city, though historically it formed the heart of the Jade industry and trade in China – with the stones formerly littering the nearby river beds. The city also has a small archaeology museum – with some disturbingly well preserved 2000 year old Han-dynasty mummies, and equally well preserved wood and leather artefacts. A bitter message at the entrance to the museum notes that much of the region’s archaeology now lies in Western museums, having been pilfered during the early 20th century. We had a rest day in Hotan – staying in the cheapest available accommodation… A Hilton. Hotels and hostels need permission to host foreign guests in China, so choice is limited. We shared a room for ¥100 each per night.

From Hotan we continued on through a fairly repetitive landscape of quasi-desert, typically modern Chinese towns (often with older Uyghur homes clustered towards there outskirts and set back behind painted mudbrick walls), and tree plantations. The plantations, of poplar, coupled with extensive irrigation, help to hold back the desert, and to claim land for agriculture. Presumably the trees reduce soil movement and increase water retention, while sheltering crops of walnuts, melons, and corn from the worst of the desert winds. At times the rippling sand-dunes which characterise the interior of the desert reach to the roadside – though more often they are seen in the distance; the road following the course of natural wetlands and oases. As we proceed scattered sections of Savannah-like grassland dotted with wonderfully mishapen and gnarled forms of wild Turanga polar provide respite for the eyes and mind, and some great camp spots. The wood is useful too, as by this point we are out of alcohol to burn for fuel, and so cook on campfires. Once we burnt dried camel poo for fuel. It worked well.

For nearly four days while riding the three of us were sick – stinking colds for Kim and I, and a stomach bug for Karin. Coupled with headwinds swirling in from the east progress slowed somewhat. On the plus side, David, a Northern Irish mechanical engineer commonly known amongst the many Pamir Highway cyclists as ‘Solo Stan’ (referring to his Instagram name), caught us up and joined the group.

Together we continued to Ruoqiang, where we had a rest day, and where I am presently sat. From here we will continue east, up through the mountains and on, through the cold, to Xining.

 

Forty-clan Stan

From Shymkent, whim took me detouring off into Kyrgyzstan. I had found out that I wouldn’t need a visa to visit, and was ready for an abrupt change in landscape. In the words of Bilbo Baggins, ‘I want to see mountains againGandalfmountains‘. Kyrgyzstan purportedly derives its name from Turkic ‘We are 40’  – referring to a confederations of 40 regional clans united in the 9th Century AD against the Uyghurs.

Heading east, finally without a headwind, I made rapid time to Taraz – travelling 90 miles the first day depsite a late start, and crossing into Kyrgyzstan the following morning. The border crossing was thankfully easy and fast – as a Russian-style blini I had eaten for lunch was attempting a re-visit in full force. Having passed over I sped into a nearby squat-job, not caring in the slightest that I was over charged, and regained my dignity.

Climbing from the border the road soon begins to climb – passing the imposing concrete edifice of the Soviet-era Kirov Dam. The Dam is apparently used for water supply for agriculture in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Another larger dam which I would later pass-by, the Toktogul Dam, was constructed in the 1980s and provides for the majority of Kyrgyzstan’s power supply, as well as water supply for agriculture. Both dam’s were pivotal in the demise of the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan.

From there, views over an admittedly stunning reservoir basin open out; with banded geology showing the variable water levels, and lush green growth, juxtaposed starkly with arid rockland and dusty mountain slopes, running along river and stream courses, following the main road away east towards Talas.

Passing Talas, rolling through largely unremarkable farmland constituting a wide river valley, I reached the start of the real climbing – a 1600m ascent over 28km, summiting the Otmok Pass at 3326m. The climb wends upwards, fairly unrelenting due to a seeming dislike for switchbacks, through a timeless landscape of pastures dotted with yurts, horses, cattle, and goats.

In hindsight, such a climb is best not saved for the end of another 90 mile day, but the chill air and exhilaration of topping out as the sun set behind me soon reinvigorated me. As did an elating fast descent on the opposing side, sweeping beneath snow-capped peaks, to camp amongst yurts beside a burbling stream.

From there I climbed over southward toward the Toktogul reservoir, cheating slightly towards the end of the climb by clasping onto the rear of a slow-moving lorry.

At the top of the pass I was called over to a yurt, and treated to bread, a thick cream, and tea. Apparently bread is very important within Kyrgyz hospitality, being always offered to a guest, no matter how passing a visit. Alec, the man who had invited me in, encouraged me to follow him as he milked his horses, and assisted a neighbour to preserve a recently butchered calf – involving the splitting of bones and salting of the flesh and marrow.

Leaving Alec and his wife to handle a knife salesman who appeared towards the end of the meat-curing process, I descended some 1000m through a steep wooded valley. Slowly changing geology and increasing temperature saw the woodland giving way to an arid red-rock landscape akin to the setting of a Spaghetti Western, and eventually an other worldly terrain of dune-like hills, ravines, and shark-toothed mountains, abstractly coloured in tones of golds, yellows, reds, and browns, offset by the aquamarine-blue of the reservoir beyond. I camped and swam, and watched an army of ants erode one of my chocolate biscuits with a voracious patience.

I was then presented with a choice, a 280km route following the main road along a river valley, or what my mapping indicated to be a direct road up and over a mountain range, to Jalal-Abad. Feeling adventurous, I figured I may as well attempt the up and over – two steep unpaved climbs of 1000m, before a long downhill to the city. 300m short of the first peak I thought better of the plan – the roughness of the track, large gravel metalling and rockfall, necessitating a good amount of old-fashioned bike pushing, had already cost me nearly 5 hours, and I was running low on water in the intense heat. The foray wasn’t a waste of time however, the views were fantastic, the riding amusing, and the copious wild marijuana growing along the track explained the relaxed nature of some of the locals.

I turned back, popped my helmet on, and hurtled back down the mountain track. Returning to the open hillside below I quickly approached a cheerful old man in one of the fantastic tall traditional Kyrgyz hats (Kalpaks). The man requested a ride down the mountain on my panier rack, to which I could only acquiesce. A kilometre on my already damaged rear tyre, with its much patched inner tube, decided the extra weight was quite enough, thank you very much, and popped. The old man continued on while I set about repairing the puncture. Passing the old man again he gave some kind words (I presume), and suggested the main road might be better than the route I had been attempting. A short while later a similar experience occured, albeit with a youth, who needed a lift home further down the hillside. On he hopped, and on we rolled. Dropping him home I continued my descent, soon popping the rear inner tube again. I swapped the tube out for another slightly-less patched one, and continued on. Again I got a puncture. The high heat, it seems, was softening the patches, which were then being plaster free when the bike impacted rocks on the track. I pushed the bike the last few kilometres to the road and then hitched a few further, in an onion filled van, to Kara-Kul.

I hoped to stay in a hotel there and do some fixing, but the hotel was closed. Instead I sat in the shade and sewed my true together, covering the seam with a patch, and removing the rubber ‘boot’ I had previously fitted. I then used my last patches resealing the inner tube. I simultaneously managed to politely deter the local drunk who was attempting to threated me and demand money… Following which a group of local kids came to hang out and watch me work – in return I sent them to fill my water bottles.

I leapt back on my bike, riding past to Toktogul dam, and into a stunning rugged river gorge, navigated by and undulating road, and cutting through some of the most scarily pitch-black tunnels imaginable (fortunately short ones). In the gorge the heat ramped up again, as I descended into a general area of flatter farmland which runs along the border of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan all the way to Osh. A couple of long days riding through less inspiring landscape bought me to Osh. The only real excitement being that I had another puncture, and was forced to use my pliers to ‘drill’ a larger opening into my rims to accommodate a too-wide inner tube I’d acquired in Shymkent, and had kept (just incase). The butchery worked. I also tried one of the Kyrgyz national drinks – Jarma; a fermented drink, served chilled, of flour, yeast, salt, animal fat, and bits of barley. It is better than it sounds, though reminiscent of sour pancake batter with chewy lumps.

In Osh I visited the bazaar – a sprawling maze of shops forming the largest market in Central Asia – purchasing some questionable Chinese-made inner tubes. The bazaar has historic precedent owing the it’s situation at the mid-point of the former Silk Road. I then visited the pictographs and caves of the Sulayman Mountain (a series of four rock pinnacles).

Two and a half days of hard riding and my two highest passes (3615m and 3712m) bought me, via Saray-Tash to the Chinese border at Irkeshtam. The route was stunning, very cold, and well traveled by cyclists heading in the opposite direction having completed the Pamir Highway. The Highway runs through Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

A long and tedious, though otherwise painless, border crossing followed, including a compulsory taxi ride from the Kyrgyz border to the ‘official’ Chinese customs some 140km further east at Uluquat. While waiting for the taxi I met other cyclists and travelers who had also been forced to endure the long tedium of the border crossing – including two Swedish cyclists (Kim and Karin) whom I joined that evening, when finally across, for a first Chinese feast, and a night-time hunt for a camp spot; the highway, along the entirety of its length into Kashgar is lined with barbed-wire fencing and steep embankments. Eventually we found a slightly flattened section sandwiched between highway and fence, kipping a few hours, before rolling along a gloriously paved downhill all the way to Kashgar; where I presently reside (and battle it out with internet censorship and access issues – uploading photos was a chore, hence an odd mix of photos, not particularly the best or most appropriate, but the ones that actually managed to overcome the internet hurdles and make it to cyberspace).

再见!

One Steppe Beyond

 

I find myself, quite unplanned, in Shymkent today. It wasn’t my intention to come here, nor was it my intention to get a train a couple of hundred miles, bypassing Kyzlorda, to Turkestan. Not for that matter did I intend to grab a train from Shalkar to Aralsk. But plans change, and that is a part of the fun that makes a good adventure.

Kazakhstan is enormous; primarily comprising rolling Steppe. In August that, for the most part, means arid grassland, dust, and sand; open to a vast horizon as far as your can see. For want of typically Western dichotomy, it is beautiful and relentless, exhilarating yet monotonous, challenging, mindumbing (honestly – my mind wondered to weird places) and seemingly unending. It is a peaceful calm, quiet and engulfing, a place of soring eagles where you can wrap the silence around yourself as you breathe deep and watch a blazing sun descend towards the horizon… At the same time it can produce angry swirls of dust, intense heat, and furious unabated oven-door gusts of wind, that whip your bike back-and-forth-and-off-the-side, slowing you down and cutting your progress to a crawl.

The roads are of a similar nature, some, honestly most once you reach Aralsk, are good (shiny new and smoothly paved), and some are bad. Or rather they are a comical and chaotic mix of old and weathered-away paving, rough gravel metalling, potholes evoking bomb sites, packed dirt, loose sand, and anything in-between. Most local drivers refuse to use such roads, opting to drive parallel to the road along worn dirt tracks through the Steppe. The same tracks were often better for me too, when firmly packed enough; when loose, the bike’s skinny tyres would sink in, and jolt to a stop.

On arrival in Atyrau, Day 1, I packed my bike together, pumped the tyres, and headed straight for the main station; there I stood around like the lost tourist I am, until a lady took pity on me and showed me how to get a number for the ticket booths. I was too late however, the tickets being sold out, and my number never came up; rather the booths all simultaneously shut, leaving me stumped and a little confused.

Again my befuddled appearance paid off, and I was approached and offered a chance to bribe my way into the postal carriage at the end of the train. I did so, unsubtly ‘sneaking’ my bike through the bay doors in the wagon side (set a good metre above platform level), grabbing some snacks, and boarding myself. I shared the day long ride with a postal worker and two others, chatting, and sharing food atop a makeshift table of other people’s packages.

I alighted in the less than remarkable Kandiygash, bought water and food, before setting up camp a short ways on. From there down to Shalkar I made decent progress, despite bum numbingly poor road conditions. Along the way I was treated to gifts of cold water, encouragements, and an invitation to tea and lunch with a family in the village of Mugodzhary. Tea in Kazakhstan is an exotic and tasteful affair, prepared in a teapot, with a splash of fresh milk (and maybe biscuits and a piece of toffee or rock on the side). I also, much to my delight, saw several eagles, soring low over the road.

At Shalkar I decided, despite reservations, to give my original plan a shot; to head south, then east, via the small village of Aqbasty amidst the remnants of the Aral Sea. To do so would require me to carry at least three days worth of water, and to follow a series of increasingly less travelled dirt roads. Ambitious and a bit stupid with road tyres. I made it 10 miles before the relatively untraveled road became too sandy (and simply annoying in its bumpiness; there is a phenomenon of dirt-road erosion which results is ripples, or ‘washboarding’, of the surface… it pummels the derriere of poor cyclists). I camped out, used my excess water for a wash, before returning to Shalkar the following morning to catch a train.

As no train would be available until nearly 9pm, I had a lot of waiting to look forward too. I was rapidly adopted by the station’s cadre of mechanics, headed up by a man named Bouran: being fed; given space to snooze; and being taken on a photographic tour of the station, to the top of a rickety old lookout tower, and to the local bazaar to buy melons. The train ride was hot, but painless, arriving at 1am in Aralsk for a slightly scary night-time ride to find a camp spot outside of the town.

Aralsk was formerly a busy fishing town, before the recession and salinisation of the Aral Sea due to extensive and damaging irrigation and fertilising practices by the Soviets. Between 1960 and 1997 the sea had shrunk to just 10% of its former size. It was formerly one of the four largest lakes in the world.

From Aralsk the road became good, and I hoped for good progress – instead a steady and strong east-southeasterly wind sprung up and reduced me to pushing around 50 miles a day.

The first night from Aralksk I slept by a lake, a leftover from the retreating sea, swimming and having my first quasi-wash of a the trip (excepting wet-wipe showers). On the third day I tried in vain to visit Baikonur Cosmodrome, understanding that on occasion it is possible to visit the town and museum, but the Russian border guard turned me away, arms crossed over chest.

Baikonur, the worlds largest cosmodrome, is the site from which Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, launched, and from which all International Space Station missions launch today. It is also something of a wasteland, devastated by toxic fuel emissions from decades of rocket launchers and experimentation.

A day in from Baikonur I rode past the strange spectacle of the Korkyt Ata Memorial Complex; a post-modern monument erected in the 80s to Korkyt Ata – a bard of folk legend amongst Turkic peoples. The monument channels the wind across a series of pipes, producing a haunting and almost unnerving sound. It was working very efficiently when I stopped to visit.

Alongside the monument, a somewhat tacky ethnographic museum of yurts and inflatable props (Ethnoaul) seeks to educate Kazakhstan nationals of their nomadic heritage. I intended not to visit, but, as I battled across the eager evening wind and back towards the main road, I was stopped and told that I should visit, and could stay as a guest (for free). Thoroughly convinced I swerved into the museum, toured the yurts, dressed convincingly as Ghengis Khan, and ate a fantastic Beshbarmak prepared by the site staff (a fun and welcoming mix of family, friends, and students working a summer job; they all live on site in yurts). Beshbarmak is the Kazakh national dish; a pasta soup with horse meat. Breakfast the next day was a typical hot rice pudding, with a delicious pasta and meat course at lunch, before I battled on, in the wind that never stopped, to Zhosaly, the nearby town, to try for a train (I had by this point got rather behind schedule, and was reasonably, and rightly, envisioning no end to the wind). The train left at 10am the following day, taking me south to Turkestan, where I finally checked into a hotel and had a real shower.

As the sun set, I explored the inspiring environs of the never-to-be-finished Khoja Ahmed Yasawi Mausoleum (entombing the self-same 12th-century Sufi mystic); a forbidding maw of 14th century brown brick (or ganch) rising to a pointed grand arched portal, 37.5 metres high, ornamented by jagged timber corbels and spiralled architraves, with colourful glazed brick and tile work, including central-asia’s largest brick dome, to the rear of the edifice. The spectacle is completed by a chorus of thousands of singing birds, which nest upon the corbels of the portal.

This morning I swung by the Mausoleum once more, taking a look inside at the museum displays and tomb therein, before heading out.

Before I got more than a mile out of town I got a puncture. Then another (other tyre). Then another; which turned out to be two punctures in one. Apparently a number of caltrop-like thorns had attacked my bike. I think the heat of the road softens my purportedly hardy tyres, leaving them soft and susceptible to perforation.

With my rear inner tube so dotted with red adhesive patches it resembled a case of chicken pocks, I continued. A few miles on, into the same old southeasterly headwind, two car loads of cyclists from Shymkent (members of the South Kazakhstan cycle club, or some such) stopped me for a selfy (a surprisingly common occurrence) and offered a lift to Shymkent. I’d been planning on bypassing the city, but figured I’d might as well go with the flow, so accepted; avoiding possibly quite a dull bit of riding, and being dropped at a bike shop in town. There I purchased new inner tubes, and had the bearings in my front wheel changed (rather long overdue).

Tomorrow I plan to finally do some cycling, and am praying that the wind decides to come from anywhere but the East… Onwards to Almaty!

Moscow Airport, Leg 2, Day 0

I have sat in more enjoyable locales to blog, that is certain. Not that it is all that terrible – just hot, damned expensive, and tedious. A 1.5l bottle of water costs £7.50 in Moscow’s international airport, which doesn’t bode well for the purse strings on this 20.5 hour layover I find myself on. And tap water isn’t potable apparently (EDIT: I eventually found a single water fountain, and a long queue).

For four weeks now I have been back in the UK, and busy busy busy – I got my Chinese visa, adapted my bike kit slightly – jettisoning a load of obsolete or weighty gear to meet Aeroflot’s 23kg  baggage weight limit (including the bike itself) – attending weddings, helping support a team of friends in a 100km Trailwalker challenge walk along the South Downs, working for Suffolk Archaeology CIC as a site assistant (on two excavations – the latter of which, a nice little Roman site, was operated by none other than my girlfriend Catherine, just the two of us; work place nepotism in action), and generally flapping about my route across Kazakhstan and the massive distances I’ll have to cover there with less than 30 days to do it.

I must thank Suffolk Archaeology for taking me on for such a short term – I wouldn’t have been able to afford to continue without their help.

The current toss-up is whether or not to jump the gun and try for a train from Atyrau to Shalkar (all trains showing as sold out online) tomorrow, and skip the potentially more boring part of the trip, or to battle on and try to maintain 70-or-more miles per day in 35°+ heat… Possibly having to take public transport if I get behind later! I think it’s likely I’ll try the station, and let fate decide – if the train isn’t booked-up then I’ll jump on, if not, then at least I’ll know.

One thing is certain, this leg will be a whole lot harder than what came before, a new level of challenge for me. At present I’m determined to take a route which will take me through the middle of the (former) Aral Sea – via steadily worsening roads, from tarmac, to dirt, to trackways, and single track footpaths, before emerging again a little north of Baikonur (where I hope to visit the cosmodrome’s  museum, or even book onto a tour!).

I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to blog, but I’ll do my best.

Until then,

пока!

Trabzon to Baku

So, I have made it back to the UK for my interim break – for a couple of friend’s weddings and to get my China visa sorted. I will be flying out to Atyrau in Kazakhstan on the 14th August to continue the journey.

From Trabzon, a short day’s ride east, with beach-side relaxation and a poorly stomach, was followed by easy cycling, through a series of long tunnels, to the Georgian border crossing. From there, following a last swim and fine dining of a biscuit and crisp luncheon, I rolled towards Batumi, dirty busy roads, cow-dotted and eucalyptus-lined, and then east up into the mountains, headed for Akhaltsikhe.

The mountain riding was steady work, slowly climbing above 2000 metres. At around 600 metres above sea level tarmac said goodbye, and at 800 metres Georgian hospitality said hello – presenting itself as a father and son duo inviting me along to their home for a beer, coffee, water melon and treats. There I met the extended family, and a number of passing friends, myself sitting in bemused contentment as people nattered, joked, and argued around me in incomprehensible Georgian. Later in the afternoon I pushed my bike back out, onto the rutted begravelled road, climbing through green-swathes of winter ski resorts, through a series of zigzagging switchbacks, and up to the Goderdzi Pass. I collected a pot of honey from a vendor at one of the many beehives dotted along the roadside, and later some fresh mountain cheese and a sort of fruit jerky (like a quince paste rolled out; tasty and chewy) from some kids manning a stand before the Pass. I camped that night on the east side of the pass, with views across pine-clad hillsides out towards the east.

Masses of cows being herded to pasture woke me in the morning, bells jangling and herdsman calling, and I continued on, eventually being reunited with paved roads (oh glory!), and reaching the city of Akhaltsike. There I visited the heavily restored, yet well presented and wholly interesting, Rabati Fortress, then rode on, following the murky banks of the river Mtkvari, its hips swaying doelfully through rocky lengths of gorge and arid hillside. On my way southeast towards the historic cave settlement of Vardzia a pair of canines accosted me, leading to their owner inviting me to join him, and his friends, for a veritable bucket of wine, and assorted fish, meat, bread, and kachapuri (the ubiquitous Georgian cheese-riddled pastry). No doubt beyond the limit for safe cycling conduct I swerved onwards towards Vardzia, camping with gorgeous gorge and valley views, a few miles before the caves.

Vardzia is an intricate series of cave dwellings, defences, services, mess halls, church complexes, and some twenty-five wine cellars, all centred upon the Church of the Assumption, bored like a giant hive into the west side of the valley above the river. The site has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, though the principal development of the city began in the 12th Century – firstly with simple dwellings being carved out of the soft rock, later with the Church of the Assumption being formed, followed by further housing, defences, and an intricate series of rock channels for water supply and irrigation. Vardzia was occupied until the 16th Century when, during Ottoman rule, it was eventually abandoned. By that time it had been heavily damaged by earthquakes and invasions. In 1985 the site was designated as a museum reserve, and recently monks have returned to occupy the intact Church of the Assumption at the heart of the complex. Unfortunately my camera had card reading problems again, so I have few photos of Vadzia (it continued having problems, on and off, for the rest of the trip).

A steady climb up a dirt road opposite the complex took me from the valley to a rolling plateau of grasslands and wildflowers, intersected by strips of pine plantation, and dotted with small hamlets. From there I turned east, then northeast, headed for Tbilisi. That evening I encountered a Slovenian cyclist named Benjamin, whom I joined for the evening, camping amongst rolling hills and endless meadow. Benjamin, in his 50’s and with years of touring experience, works with (and helped found) the Slovenian ‘.si’ internet domain. He also has an interest in wild flowers, casually reeling off names of the bounty of flowers surrounding us, from the occasional lonely gladiolus, scarlet and ornate, to wild thyme, petite with small shy purple flowers.

Having camped a little to the north of Gamdzani, we woke early and continued on, with heavy low-lying cloud shrouding and stifling the surrounding mountains and hill-land, passing along the eat side of Paravani Lake, before a long elegant downhill,  herdsmen on horse back chaperoning cows to and from fresh pastures, to the town of Tsalka and its reservoir. At Tsalka we hunted down a traditional bakery to pick up kachapuri, before parting ways; Benjamin headed southeast, encountering some apparently terrible roads and a fair amount of hill climbing, while I pushed on for Tbilisi. I reached the city by late afternoon.

The next day, Saturday 1st July, I applied for my Azerbaijan E-visa and took a rest day. Unfortunately my plan to head for Azerbaijan on the Sunday was scuppered by my ignorance of the Azerbaijan E-visa process, which I had assumed to be as fast as the Turkish system (near instantaneous); rather I required a minimum of three working days leeway, meaning the earliest I could get the visa was Thursday the 6th! Which left me four days to cross Azerbaijan and catch my flight.

Faced with four extra days to kill in Georgia I opted to cycle up into the mountains following the Georgian Military Road (something I had always hoped to do, but hadn’t expected to have the time). A hundred miles of easy steady riding, split over two half days, took me up into the mountains to the foot of Mount Kazbek near the Russian border. There I foolishly decided to ride up the 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church; following a steep dirt road, only frequented by four-by-fours or riders on horseback. Most people walk or take one of the four-by-four taxis. My worn tyres spun and skidded on the dusty track at its steepest, or thumped over large loose rocks used to plug ruts in the road, but I made it. Views eastward see the church framed against a backdrop of sheer rock walls of the mountains across the valley, back westward the snow-capped peak of Mount Kazbek, at 5047 metres above sea level, dominates the skyline. I intended to stay up near the church until evening, to take advantage of better lighting and to simply relax, however I had the fortune to meet an English couple, Alex and Alice, who are driving through from Cornwall to Nepal climbing and exploring as they go. Having just descended from Mount Kazbek, the couple were keen to grab some food and a few beers in the town of Stepantsminda, and I, starved for conversation with fluent English speakers, and game for a drink, opted to join them. We camped within a copse of woods near the town that evening, all crashing out shortly after dark.

My visa had been approved by the next morning. I pushed back to Tbilisi, not a hard endeavour considering the majority of the riding was downhill, though temperatures did soar to 40ºc later in the day. A rest day in Tbilisi followed, which I use to pick up a new bike pump, repair a slow puncture, give the bike a little TLC, and to swap my tyres around, putting the worn rear tyre to the front and vice versa.

Thursday morning dawned overcast with a good tailwind, shunting me easily into Azerbaijan. Due to my shortage of time I opted for the closest border crossing, and most direct route through to Baku – crossing at Sadiqli, a small unremarkable town. The good conditions were soon squandered, as what would become one of many gestures of often overbearing, but incredibly generous, Azerbaijani hospitality, came to greet me. Not 10km into Azerbaijan a man named Iman invited me for tea, a tea which became lunch, a game of dominos (I still don’t understand the scoring), and then vodka, and then tea at his home with his family, before I finally got on my way again around four in the afternoon. By then rain was threatening. As the storm broke I was waved into a window workshop, owned by a man named Samir, sheltering for nearly two hours with a group, drinking tea, eating cake, and chatting. I had intended to cycle at least 100 miles that day, but made only 60 by the end of the day. The following three days saw the wind cruelly switch to a persistent easterly with frequent downpours and drizzle, and a continuation of the incredible welcome that Azerbaijan’s denizens offer – frequent gifts of fresh fruit, tea, biscuits, conversation, and encouragement. It got so that I had to plug my headphones in and avoid eye contact just to make progress! I reached Baku early afternoon on the Sunday – getting my last puncture just as I entered the bay of Baku, with no repair kit of spares left. I hitched a taxi the last 10 minutes to the old town.

Baku proved an interesting city, a mix of medieval city walls and fortifications, elegant oil-funded grandiose 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, and sleek modern high-rises – including some very interesting structures, such as the flowing form of the Heydar Aliyev Centre. I celebrated my arrival with a fest of Azerbaijani food, a beer, and an early night.

Monday morning I sought out a bike box to pack my bike for transit, looked around the old town, then took my taxi (arranged with the driver and his son the day before) to the airport. I checked in, passed through security, and finally noticed I had done a classic Seth and left my phone in the taxi. Fortunately my kindle has a crude web-browser, so I logged in to Facebook hoping to find the taxi driver’s son (Javid), to find that he had already found me and let me know they had my phone! I have arranged to send them money so that they can mail it back.

A relatively painless flight back, via Doha, Qatar, saw me arrive back in the UK on Tuesday, being picked up by Cat from Heathrow.

That’s all for now, I will try to do a couple of posts about gear, distances, and the like, while I’m back.