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


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.