Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas in Kunming


















I arrived in Kunming and discovered something called a "backpackers hostel". For the first time since Istanbul I met English speakers, travellers and tourists and had a conversation beyond, "how much?", "how many kilometres?" and for the first time on this whole trip I met some other long distance cyclists, no fewer than five on my first day here! Apparently there are tourists all over this country but my route across China has managed to bypass them all. The staff put on a Christmas spread, there was no Turkey but they did manage to make decent Christmas pudding and custard served with sliced carrots and cucumber. Then we celebrated with that most traditional of Christmas games, an arm wrestling competition.






























Roar like a tiger.



Enter the local champion.

What about the cycling I hear you ask. Well, I sit in the saddle, turn the pedals, which turns the wheels and moves the bike forward. Sometimes I move fast, sometimes I move slow and sometimes, when the road has descended into a muddy pit, I don't move at all.
Good Chinese road atlases are available everywhere but they never (ever, ever) show topographical info. I got my first look at a topographical map of the country here in the hostel and it confirmed to me what I have been suspecting for a while now. China is very mountainous. It has been fun travelling without really knowing what lies 100km ahead, to start the day not knowing whether the road will take me through an industrialised river plain or over a roadless, snowy mountain. It has led to some memorable experiences.




The roads have been horrendous in this part of China. Main roads linking big cities will just descend into roadblock without warning. After the advice of local police I embarked on a big detour to find smooth asphalt but in the end the road failed me, it was total road block. What did I do? Well first I cried and then I back tracked to the last town I had past. There was no traffic going south (because there was no road) so I got a train ride to the next town, arriving in some skanky suburb in the middle of the night. Some rat/feret like kid took me to a 1 dollar hotel. It was so rough that before I could sleep I had to hurl out of the window. Actually it wasn't a window, it was a hole cut in a piece of plywood that served for the wall of my 7th floor hovel. At first light I escaped and got a police escort out of town (me following a police car, flashing lights and all).


The G213 "national highway", China.



It's all worth it in the end though.

I was planning on a short trip through Vietnam but the visa takes 4 working days to issue and I can't be arsed to wait. It's tempting to stay here watching DVDs and eating pie until new year but I have an appointment to make in Bangkok so it's the Jungles of Northern Laos for me.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Lanzhou to Chengdu
















Seasons greetings from Chengdu, China. I wasn't planning on stopping here but my bike needed some major repairs so here I am. Here's a piece of advice for anyone planning a trip like this one. Buy a kickstand. I can't begin to describe how annoying it is balancing a loaded bike up against your bum whilst trying to fiddle something out of the panniers only to have the whole thing come crashing down onto the road. Way back in Georgia the bike took a bad tumble whilst I was messing about in the panniers and it bent the rear drop out. Result: The bike went from 21 gears to 9 gears and those 9 do not include the lowest "climbing" gears. That's right, I've cycled the length of Central Asia and more with only 9 gears. It hasn't been too much of a problem until now but China has proved to be relentlessly mountainous and covering the distances with only nine gears has been slow and has taken it's toll on my legs. It even put me in bed ill for a few days.

I was always too gutless to try and straighten the drop out myself, if I got it wrong the bike frame would be a write off. So I find myself in the Chinese mega city of Chengdu, a city which seems entirely devoted to selling mobile phones. I found a decent bike shop and with the entire staff, all the customers and a good few people that came in from the road to watch, the mechanic straightened my drop out by bashing it with a big hammer. It feels good to have a full 21 gears at my disposal again.
I've had to resort to Mcdonalds for food here in Chengdu. Is my impression of Chinese food, as an unnourishing, watery slop, a unique one?
















It's getting worse. The kids don't run screaming anymore, they just burst out crying.
















The China I imagined, a flat, industrialised place criss crossed by big expressways has so far failed to materialise. Instead this is the China I will remember. Very rural and very beautiful.

Route info Lanzhou to Chengdu: The G212 is recommended. It is quiet, very remote and stunningly beautiful. There are three fairly big passes to Minxian. The road then descends to Dangchang and follows a river cutting through steep mountains (a gorge?). The scenery is amazing and it follows said river for a few days until finally leaving the river to go up a massive climb over a series of switchbacks to Wenxian (try counting them, I lost count after 30) .
After that the river is dammed and you follow the resultant reservoir. The road here is in horrendous condition, is mercilessly up and down and the views are jaw dropping. Don't expect more than mud hut villages and some agricultural traffic in between towns.
The G212 eventually runs out and it's the G108 to Chengdu. More developed and not as stunning as the G212 but still nice. The road "rolls" it's way through a few valleys before finally flattening out at Zitong.

Next stage: I can't stay here too long or the winter will catch me up again. I'm heading arrow straight south to the tropics.



Switchbacks to Wenxian.



Every cyclists dream.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

First Taste of China


Looking at the map it seemed the G212 "national highway" going south would be a flat, busy road running through a developed part of the country. It's turning out to be a quiet road snaking it's way over some not unsubstantial, remote mountains. In some of the places i've passed through even the adults are too shy to speak with me but once they realise that I won't eat them everything is fine. Spent most of last night autographing school children's homework and having my photo taken with an endless stream of visitors to my "hotel" room.
The last 4 days have been the hardest, coldest and most fun in months, i've only managed 260km, which speaks for itself. I don't know how cold it's been, cold enough to freeze a freshly boiled bottle of water in a couple of hours. Hasn't been too much of a problem but I can't believe that this time last week I was considering cycling across Xinkiang, I would have died.

The Chinese are a very shy lot. They never shout or whistle or even say anything unless I speak first. They just stare....silently. I'm back below the snowline tonight but what lies south of here is anyone's guess.

(A few peolpe have asked for more photos of me....fools, here they are.)














Climbing the pass. When it's not winter all those steps cut into the side of the mountain must be farmed. Impressive no.
















Making the pass.
















Going down the other side.
















Children running at the sight of me.





















Not suprising when I look like this.
















The cheapest 'hotel' yet, 3 Yuan.


Entertaining guests.



















The rural Chinese are a tough lot. Could you imagne your granny doing this?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Map Gazing, Lanzhou

Ni Hao!

A good thing: I cycled into Xinkiang, China last week. Xinkiang, the north west plain of China, is dominated by the second biggest desert in the world, the Taklamakan which translated means: what goes in doesn't come out.
My dad points out that Taklamakan is an Arabic word. Makan means place and Takla means eaten out i.e. the place eats everything and nothing comes out.

A not so good thing: I spent a few days in Urumqi, capital of Xinkiang, to see if there would be a break in the weather/a miracle. It didn't stop snowing, the temperature kept falling and the wind started to blow..........so.........I took the gentlemans option of the train east, out of Xinkiang to Lanzhou.
I always knew the winter would bugger me eventually, a few trips on the bike around Urumqi convinced me that I am completley unprepared for an extreme winter ride across an empty desert. Any other time of year and I would have blazed a trail all the way to Japan but it wasn't to be. "Xinkiang the revenge 2007" is already in the planning.

China, a land of plenty. In Central Asia I wasted entire days searching for maps only to be told "nyeto" and tssked away buy a grumpy book store owners. Here in China it's possible to buy maps for every country in the world, including Iraq! Seem to have lost a few days somewhere on the way here. I thought it was the weekend but according to this blog it's Tuesday?!?

Been toying with the idea of continuing east, to Korea and Japan, but I think i'll lose too much focus going meandering off like that so i'm pointing the tyres south to S.E. Asia.
Since leaving Turkey, planning a route has been easy. In Central Asia there's only ever one road going to your destination. Here in China the route possibilities are mind blowing. I've been staring at maps the last few days trying to plan a route and been getting nowhere, now I realise why. This trip has been completley unplanned since the begining so why start now. I'll leave here soon enough and just see where the road takes me.

Until next time

Ham

And to all the people I know in Australia (all 4 of them), maybe see you next year sometime.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Kidderminster to China ^__^

If you want to do a transcontinental bike ride like this one you could spend months in the planning, carefully examining maps, considering routes and climates. Pre arrange all the visas. Research and source all the best equipment. Build a fancy website. Try to find contacts along your route, maybe try to get sponsorship etc etc.

Or you could suddenly decide it's time to leave and you can't wait another week. Let your house, resign from work and tie up all the loose ends that come with modern life and being a homeowner in just six weeks. Throw together whatever gear is to hand and make your way with no real plans at all, just a load of ideas and a desire to see some of the world.

I did the latter and 108 days ago I cycled out of my parents house, on a second hand bike I bought for 40 pounds. I threw together this blog enroute and called it Kidderminster to the Caspian just because it sounded nice (it was nearly Pensnett to the Punjab). I only decided against turning right for the Middle East at the last minute.

And so.....today I find myself in Khorgos, China. It's snowing, a fresh -8 degress outside, I have no phrasebook or dictionary and no map.

I've been pedalling my socks off trying to stay ahead of the winter and with perfect timing, the first snow storm of the season blew in from the west yesterday. It only took a day of riding in the snow to realise that I lack the gear (like waterproof shoes, decent gloves) for winter cycling. More has been accomplished with less but I have to admit defeat for now. I just don't have the guts to venture across Xinkiang completely unprepared. I'll be taking a bus to Urumqi (600km east from here) where I will consider what to do next. I will definatley be buying a sleeping mat. Sleeping with no mat on frozen ground is not recommended.

And finally...
"Would you give up everything you want to keep what you have or would you give up everything you have to get what you want"
Andrew WK (Wolf)



A beautiful way to cycle into China.


Signs here in Arabic aswell as Mandarin.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Tashkent to Almaty

The suburbs of Tashkent run all the way to the border and then after an hour of shoving through customs I was back in Kazakhstan. The officials on the Uzbek side had me for not having a declaration form from my entry into the country but while they all argued about the best way to screw over a velo tourist I dissappeared into the crowds and was out of the country before they could do anything. A very different Kazakhstan to the far west, for a start there are roads here. Green meadows, perfect blue skies and excellent views of the Tien Shen mountains (which stay safely off to the right) all the way. Nice to cycle the first real climbs since Georgia and the climate has rapidally eased into winter. You can actually feel the sun getting weaker as you go north.

The road to Almaty cuts through Kyrgyzstan for a few hundred metres but common sense prevails and there is no border control, the army however are abit jumpy around these border areas. They waved at me from a lookout tower, I waved back and carried on. Then a Lada came screaming past and stopped infront of me..oh look they've come to say hello right..wrong. Three soldiers got out, surrounded me, cocked their rifles and held me at gun point. Not alot you can do in an situation like that. I checked to make sure they were Kazakh not Kyrgz soldiers, held my hands above my head and repeated the words "Tourist" and "Anglia".

After all the routine checks the captain apologised for the over reaction of his halfwit soldiers and muttered something about two diplomats, Geoff Brown and Peter somebody, Dushanbe and narca. If you have any idea what he was going on about and why it resulted in having three rifles pointed at me then please let me know. Gripping stuff eh.

Kazakhstan...what more is there to say. Amazing people, amazing generosiry. I could watch Kazakh horsemen, rounding up their flocks against a backdrop of snowy mountains, all day. What more could a man ask for?

Short days and late starts waiting for the day to warm up meant that the 900km took longer than it would normally. Upto 16 hours in the tent at a time, a figure that will probably increase. Looking like crap but feeling a million dollars I arrive in Almaty where for the first time since Tiblisi, I do my laundry.









Perfect blue skies.













More perfect blue skies.



Hmm..more pasta?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Stolen Bike and a Central Asian Heatwave

My bike was stolen on the road out of Samarkand. Woke up in the morning, crawled out of the tent and it was gone. Exactly 90 days of being wed to the saddle and it was all over.
I made it to the police station but wasn't looking very good. All they wanted to do was slowly flick through my passport, a right monkey operation. Then the captain appeared, got angry with me and everyone else and then we were back at my campsite. More police than I could count, thirty or forty, being led by the grumpy captain screaming orders. They found some tyre marks and dissappeared into the scrub tracking them.

After a horrible 14 hours scratching around the police station and considering continuing my bike ride on a one speed gentlemans racer, my bike was found.
It wasn't quite as dramatic as the great mongolian horse robbery, it turned out to be two boys riding a donkey and cart that came past my campsite after i'd gone to bed. The police were very proud of their crime solving skills. They filmed me cycling around and paying tribute to the efficiency of the Uzbekistan police force, they wanted to use the video for the national police day celebration in November.




Got back on the road and discovered that the old silk road here is now a four lane motorway, don't know what else I was expecting. I'm in Tashkent now, a not unpleasant place, kissing ass in a couple of embassies (yes sir, of course sir, three bags full sir) trying to secure some more visas. Lots of pretty girls in Tashkent...note to self: Must buy some decent clothes. From here i'll head back into Kazakhstan, to Almaty and then onto China. I'm detouring around Kyrgyzstan and Kashgar to try and stay ahead of the winter.

It's been getting hotter and hotter as i've travelled through Uzbekistan. I finish everyday cycling covered in a fine layer of salt from sweating. I was expecting Uzbekistan to be in the grip of winter right now but it's roasting. I'm not complaining but it's abit unsettling, feel like i'm being setup for a sucker punch by mother nature.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Karakalpakstan and Uzbekistan













Into Karakalpakstan. Karakalpakstan is to Uzbekistan as Scotland is to Britain and people here will tell you they’re Karakalpak first, Uzbek second. I instantly like it here. Again the language is similar to Turkish so learning some Turkish pays off again. It is soooo chilled out here. As I cycle past I get a polite nod and wave from the locals, a refreshing change to the screams and shouts that you get in say, Azerbaijan, where they treat you like a freak show on wheels. It's alot cleaner than some other places i've been through and they ride bikes out here, big old one speed clunkers. I've had loads of races with the locals and lost most of them, most embrassingly to a little kid who flew past me casually throwing nuts into his mouth, he was so small he couldn't reach the pedals from the saddle and was sitting on the rack over the rear wheel.

It’s also incredibly unwesternised here. Visit Nukus, the capital of Karakalpakstan. All commerce is done out of three massive markets. The “shops” that exist don’t even have signs outside. You won’t find one western brand anywhere, no Cola, no Pepsi.

It's a long, flat and fairly decent road to central Uzbekistan from here. Cycling through the fertile plains reminds me oddly of Isaan, Thailand but with cotton instead of rice. There is one large swathe of desert to cross from Khiva to Bukara, where I am now. One afternoon a car pulled up in front of me, all the men got out, gave me a small amount of money each and sent me on my way. Days spent in the desert must have left me looking rough!

I'm about to set off to Tashkent via Samarkand on a tourist trail of sorts, the Silk road. You don't need me to tell you about the wonders of the Silk road. It was bitterly cold up in Kazakhstan but it’s warmed up nicely as I’ve gone south. It’s 1st Nov today and about 26 degrees outside. So much for those severe Central Asian winters then.













The cheapest (500 som = 20 pence including unlimited tea) and most chilled out hotel i've ever stayed in. Karakalpakstan.













My bike, rescued from the bike shed at work for 40 pounds. Not bad eh.














Serious public transport for the Uzbek desert.















Bukura.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Kazakhstan

Cycling Baku to Uzbekistan via Kazakhstan and Karakalpakstan.

















I didn’t have to wait long for a boat to Kazakhstan. The boat ride was an experience. It is meant to take 18hrs but mine took 55. There was a lot of vodka drunk and a lot of fighting. The first fight broke out before we even left Baku port. (A lot of people have asked so I’ve put all the info on boats, visas in a post at the start of this blog, here.

Leaving Aktau and heading for a far flung border between two far flung countries I was at best feeling nervous and at worst scared shittless. Much like I felt back in England then. The first day was glorious, perfect asphalt and blue skies. The asphalt soon ran out and an icey headwind picked up. I made most of the 500km to Beyneu rattling through the steppe at about 8kmh, teeth bared and muttering curses that would make Chubby Brown listen with interest. It doesn't matter though. I now realise that headwind builds character! The sheer scale and emptiness of the place is awesome and the memory of that headwind fades against the memory of camping out on the steppe, miles away from anything under a million stars with only a few camels skulking aroung for company. An experience I will never forget and something you have to do for yourself to fully appreciate.

The asphalt runs out 200km out of Aktau and it's pretty bad ruts all the way, 300km to Beyneu. Be prepared to make all distances between villages on your own. There are meant to be truckstops/cafes but you can't garuntee they'll be open. For the last 190km to Beyneu there was nothing, absolutley zero save a dilapadated building that was meant to be a cafe, a few camels and about 1 or 2 cars an hour. I think most of the roads in west Kazakhstan are unsealed. The long haul north across the entire country must be one hell of a ride.

Made it to Beyneu, a ramshackle mad max jumble of a place that looks like it's just been dropped onto the steppe. Kazakhstan was meant to be the easy part, there was 300km or so of even worse roads through even more empty land to get to Uzbekistan proper. The thought of dissappering alone, into complete isolation onto the Eurasian steppe for 5 more days didn't appeal and I ended up on the train for 350km to Kunghirot, the first sizeable town in north Uzbekistan. The conductor led me onto the train, announced to everyone that I was a tourist, an Arab from England and then, with all eyes on me, sat me down and gestured for me to lead the cabin in pray.

Will I regret not cycling that leg, or not even attemting to cycle it....maybe. I know it's possible because i've heard of other people doing it but at I was wasted after the Kazakh leg and the sight of the train sitting at the platform was too big a lure. I went into auto pilot and before I knew it was buying a ticket. I was told there was a "road" of some description within sight of the rail tracks but all could see from the train was a couple of tyre tracks through the sand running parallel to the train tracks and zero traffic.

Kazakh kids.

It's not as flat as you think out here, climbing onto the Ustyurt plateau.

Beyneu: A long way from Kidderminster.

A view from the train, I think thats the road down there.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Causcusus
















I'm in Baku and the Caspian sea. 10 weeks and 6500km on my bike ride to somewhere. I'm waiting on a boat to cross the Caspain to Aktau, Kazakstan. From there I'll try to cross into Uzbekistan from the North West for the long haul to Tashkent.

Interesting Fact: My great great grandparents were Azeri.

Georgia: A quick look at the map shows there are some pretty extreme routes through the Causcusus mountains but I don't have time to make any diversions. The best thing about this country has to be the people. I wonder what it is about the sight of me riding a bike that makes a man who has been dozing away in the sun all day suddenly leap up and start waving and shouting passionatly. A love of sport maybe? It would be fun to stop and talk with everyone but I dare not. Just simple things like stopping for water almost always results downing wine (they are very proud of the wine they make here), exchanging phone numbers and having photos taken with every random with nothing better to do. Made it to Tbilisi, a chaotic little city, for a short break before setting out across Azerbaijan.















For the love of sport.






















Riders, past and present.

Azerbaijan: The fisrt thing I like about this country is the language is similar to Turkish so I can communicate (very basically) with people again.
The first thing I don't like about this country is the currency. There are currently two currencys in use in Azerbaijan. Both have the same name and both have completely different values..confusing! When I first exchanged money at the border I thought I had been ripped off, then when tried to spend my money I got even more confused. It took days for me to figure out the system.[1 new Manat = 100 Oebik = 5000 old Manat = 1.2 USD]
Azerbaijan is a flat, featureless place but the over the top hospitality of the people and all the crazy encounters (lunch in a roadside brothel with some very drunk and worked up boxers) more than makes up for that. Long days in the saddle stroking out the kms. The final leg to Baku was fairly horrendous. Another strong headwind reduced me to pushing the bike, it was so strong it had blown a few trucks off the road. At the end of the day (Fri 13th) I thought "oh well it couldnt get any worse, right?"..WRONG. I noticed the rear sprockets were loose on the hub, I took the wheel off and the whole assembly fell apart in my hands. Result: I bodged it back together and cycled the last 100km to Baku stopping every hour to sure up the fix I had made. By the time I reached Baku the sound of metal gouging on metal was deafening and I eventually rode the entire rear hub and sprockets to destruction, made it though.
I thought I would be stuck here waiting here for replacemet parts to be shipped over, but earlier today in a primitive bike workshop in a crappy market in a crappy part of the city the mechanic reached into a box and pulled out some top of line Shimano replacments for me..I could have kissed him.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Turkey

I finally got out of Istanbul and started along the Black Sea coast. That was tough cycling. Short, steep climbs followed by short, steep descents all the way. Loads of 'welcome to turkey' shouts and handshakes through car windows. Lots of fun passing through the villages. I have to admit feeling abit of shame rolling through these villages. All the young men my age are fashionably dressed whilst I, maybe the first stranger they have ever met, look like primitive man on a bad day. Even the shepards seem to all sport a pair of imaculatley polished winkle pickers. I got ill soon after that and spent a three days flat out in bed.

When I got back on the bike I started to get sick of the coast, it is very busy and for every nice coast view you come across plenty more industrial waste sites. I headed inland. Hundreds of kilometres of quiet road flanked all the way by mountains. No villages along the way, so no dogs to chase me. Just nice mountain towns Toysa, Amaysa.... and the constant mountains.
















The Turkish mountain highway.

Peolpe have asked me, whats the cycling like? Turning the pedals is not the hard part. I am lucky that I can cycle 130km a day, day after day and not ever feel (too) tired. The hard part is making yourself do it, being alone in the saddle for hours everyday with only your own thoughts for company. When everything is going good the legs and lungs work in perfect sync, I put my head down and almost forget I am cycling. But when I can't get into a rythm and I can't find my legs it can turn a simple ride into a real beasting.

After all the climbing I started to get abit obsessive about weight. I got ruthless with the contents of my panniers, then with the bike, removing the reflectors from the wheels and pedals, trimming the brake and gear cables, cutting away the storage pockets from inside the tent etc. I saved a couple of kilos and I could have dumped even more stuff but luxuries like books and a walkman I need.

















Excess luggage.

It has been Ramadam throughout my whole ride through Turkey. I have not been fasting. Normally pulling into a town for something to eat is a welcome way to break up the day and to meet people but with all the restaurants closed during the day I rarely left the road, pretty much stayed out of towns altogether and cooked almost everything I ate. Of course all the restaurants were packed for Iftar at dusk but I was normally tucked up in bed by then. The days of sipping chay and stuffing my face with kebabs were over.
Late one day I was looking for a camp spot when the local Jandarma, army, stopped me. They told me it was impossible to cycle to the next city (80km away) and too cold to camp (about 15 degrees). I thought being in the army was supposed to make you hard?!? Who were this bunch of sissys? Before I knew it the bike was being hauled into the van and I was driven to a hotel. I left early the next day because I thought the sergeant would come and put me on a bus to the next city.
For the last stage through the east I left the main highway and tried out some back roads. They definatley save the best for last out here. I have to recommend the strech from Serin Karahishar to Artvin via Bayburt (especially Ipsir to Yusefeli). It had everything, moonscape mounatins, tough tough climbs, 20k downhills, valleys, gorges, cliffs, rapids, waterfalls, fording rivers, on road, off road and even a plain to ride across! (yes a flat plain in Turkey), and it was all stuffed into a 500km naturefest with only a handful of cars everyday. They are sitting on a tourist goldmine out here, I noticed the odd Hotel had appeared offering trekking and fishing, 'Trout' their signs proudly dispalyed.
Turkey is a tough place to cycle, no doubt about that, but the rewards are so worth it. I nearly crashed the bike quite a few times because I was too busy gaping at the scenery or staring over my shoulder at something.

















First sign of autumn.

















These monster storms stalked me almost the entire length of Turkey, always appearing just before dusk. Made me glad I upgraded my tent to a more waterproof model in Istanbul.

















Worth getting out of bed for?

















The climb up to Artvin.