Joining the Silk Road to the Orient

I can’t quite believe it but I’m now in Kashgar, China, the 2000-year-old Silk Road oasis town.

Getting here has given me time to pause and reflect on my time in Kyrgyzstan: my 700km ride from Bishkek to Osh, known as Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital. I stayed there for two weeks, and every morning, before breakfast, walked up the sacred mountain of Suleiman-Too.

I’ve had time to reflect on my journey crossing the mountains from Osh to China at 3600m on the frozen Taldyk pass. And I’ve had time to reflect on Kyrgyzstan, with its customs and traditions, amazing hospitality, foods such as Plov, Kurdak, and Kurut, the incredibly salty-sour yoghurt cheese balls.

Their traditional games such as Kok Buru, which is essentially dead goat polo/rugby on horses (you can watch a game here ), and their now-outlawed custom of bride stealing. Impossible to forget is the tradition of eagle hunting, which is thought to be 6000 years old; a pairing between man and eagle. Originally this partnership would have helped both to survive the harsh winters, through hunting foxes, hares and even wolves, all of which are easier to spot in a snow-covered landscape. Birds are traditionally trained and used to hunt for a number of years before being released back into the wild.

The eagle hunter

Regularly on my mind was the country’s possibly precarious position as a young democratic state, aspiring to western ways of life but struggling with deeply ingrained corruption, recovering from being a part of the Soviet Union, and stuck between the massive powers of Russia, China and their dictatorial neighbours Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

With a certain amount of trepidation that surprised me considering how far I had already come, I set off from Bishkek, leaving behind the friends and memories I had made there. Something you have to do when you’re travelling if you don’t want to get stuck somewhere.

I left on a grey and rainy Thursday, cycling for 80km in the rain all day, after which I was drenched and very aware of the 2°C temperature. During that ride a car stopped in front of me, a man got out and shouted my name. Peering through the drizzle, I realised with great elation that it was Kuban from Chaldover, the man who had taken me into his home on my first night in Kyrgyzstan. I laughed out loud at this coincidence and I couldn’t forget that genuinely kind face. I felt a pang of emotion as he invited me back to his house again to have dinner with his family. I also remembered all the great experiences I had had in those three months since I was last there. Sadly I couldn’t take Kuban up on his offer as his home was 50km in the wrong direction, but I feel I’ll see him again one day.

So after being drenched I found an incredibly kind family to stay with who helped me get my clothes dry, gave me dinner, breakfast the next morning, and lunch to take with me on my way into the mountains. Thank you, Misha.

It was two days ride all uphill to the famed (unventilated) 1km long Bishkek-Osh tunnel, then a very cold icy 20km downhill to an enormous high mountain plain like a lunar landscape, barren and blanketed with snow, surrounded by mountains on every side. A day’s ride through a blizzard and I arrived at a slightly problematic traffic jam, in my ski goggles and balaclava among what appeared to be a mob of angry Kyrgyz men, baiting against the group of five policemen blocking the road with their cars, all of whom were completely distracted by my appearance standing among the crowd straddling my bike. The policemen told me I couldn’t go any further due to a large avalanche further down the road with a risk of more at any point. So I was stuck for two days in a hotel without sinks or showers but I felt very grateful to be there and not stuck in a car in the -15°C conditions (some people had been there for 5 days). This was one of the few times I felt uncomfortable on this journey with rowdy lorry drivers short on money and fuel asking me exactly where my bicycle was and inviting me into the cafe to eat but then expecting me to pay. Once I could finally leave it was a two-hour cycle uphill in the freezing cold where I started sweating yet was able to grow an ice-beard.

Then a fantastic 50km downhill ride where I crossed the avalanche that bulldozers had cut through, uncovering the road between precarious looking 15m high ice walls. As I descended, it became incredibly warm, I finished the day at a stunning wild camping spot next to lake Toktogul. After another day’s ride, I was on the other side of the lake, where I was able to go for a very chilly evening swim and cook my dinner on a campfire made from driftwood.

The next morning, I met two guys from Tajikistan by the side of the road trying to fix their lorry, it makes me cringe even now just thinking about it… they had been there for eighteen days.

The lorry guys

In the course of trying to deliver electrical goods from Russia to Tajikistan, they had rolled their lorry in Kazakhstan, bending the whole lorry to an odd shape, gouging huge chunks of metal from its side and smashing the windscreen, which they had replaced with a piece of plastic.

To fix the lorry here by the side of the road they had had parts flown in from China which turned out to be the wrong parts. Never again will I complain about a problem by the side of the road, because I won’t be able to forget about these two. Even in such a desperate situation they still insisted on giving me food and water which I tried to refuse but realised I had to accept.

Following the winding undulating smooth road along the Naryn river, past cherry blossom trees populating small pastures, and before I knew it I was in Osh taking a much-needed shower after 10 days on the road. It was a good initiation back into cycling after a three-month break. I was tired and immensely hungry and feel as if I’ve done irreparable damage to the size of my stomach on this journey, because I just don’t seem to get full anymore. Maybe I have a future career in eating competitions.

After a longer than intended break in Osh, which now seems to be a habit of mine, I began my seemingly portentous ride from Osh to Kashgar. Travelling directly through the meeting point between the Pamir and Tian-Shan mountains, over the 3600m Taldyk pass and similarly high Irkeshtam pass. Crossing in early April meant it wasn’t anywhere near as difficult or dangerous as it could have been crossing in February or March, which has slightly bruised my ego missing out on that. Now the brutal cold would only hit me towards the top of the passes, and the rest of the ride was pretty plain sailing, apart from the unusually aggressive and terrifying Kyrgyz dogs. Many of them were scarred from fights and missing ears and were incredibly athletic and powerful. They were easily capable of keeping up with me and snapping at my ankles, with me shouting furiously at them, raising my hand into the air in a mock stone throwing action to try and scare them away.

The night before my ascent of the Taldyk pass, the wind and rain began before I stopped to pitch my tent. There aren’t many things that are worse than unpacking your bike in the dark and pitching your tent in the cold wind and rain for twenty minutes, battling against a tent that had a life of its own. I was surprisingly upbeat for such a miserable situation.

The next day I began my ascent of the brutal and punishing pass, endless switchbacks broken up by long steep straights. Yet I enjoyed it, you get into a rhythm, you accept that this is your job for the next 2-5 hours, after which you’re rewarded with the most incredible view. A view you feel you’ve truly earned. That’s why I’ve learnt to love travelling by bike, you feel you deserve every view and experience.

A short two hour ride from the top of the pass later and I arrived in Sary-Tash, a small village of a few thousand people living at 3000m. Its a major crossroads on the Pamir highway, with routes to Tajikistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

With brutal winters to contend with, it was a bleak place to arrive at, where people must be struggling at the end of the season. Despite its bleakness, I was incredibly grateful to be able to spend the night at a guesthouse and rest after such a long day and when the clouds partially cleared above the flanks of the distant mountains they appeared to be on fire, radiating a bright orange light onto the rest of the snowy landscape.

On the morning I left, while cooking my lunch, I was able to witness the grandma of the guesthouse separating cream from fresh milk, an incredibly normal practice here but something I had never witnessed. Back in the UK we buy it in plastic cartons and never see the thousands of cows that contribute to each homogenised pasteurised drop we put in our tea.

From Sary-Tash it was a lonely but beautiful ride over the Irkeshtam pass where you really feel like you’re on the roof of the world with the icy road running along what seemed like a ridge with other high peaks just visible through the light snowfall coupled with strong winds. It was icy up there, cold enough to freeze my water, and made taking a photo painful.

I stopped 15km from the Chinese border where I pitched my tent in an evening snowstorm after discovering a fortuitously timed puncture, which meant taking the rear wheel off of my bike and bringing into my tent to repair after cooking my dinner. Food first.

The next day I awoke to azure blue skies, a short ride to the border and I had my last plate of Kurdak at a cheap cafe before crossing into western China… an experience and a place I think I shall never forget. Feeling a little like a fly on the wall in Orwell’s 1984, I feel I can say no more, a topic for another post or even another blog.

After spending some time in the initially beautiful city of Kashgar, but now a kind of dystopian theme park, I will attempt to make my way east and then north, directly through the Taklamakan desert, otherwise known as the desert of no return. I’ll travel up the new desert highway, a geo-engineering project designed to stop the second largest moving desert in the world from engulfing the blacktop by irrigating a screen of trees running up the length of the 650km road.

The Seven Bulls, a Martian landscape and a golden eagle

Before leaving Bishkek I decided that there were a few places around the lake of Issyk-Kul I really had to see.

The Jeti-Ögüz gorge with the seven bulls red rock formation, the fairy tale canyon and Bokonbayevo eagle village. I managed to tick them all off the list.

 

Climbing Uchitel, The Teacher

On New Year’s Eve, with some trepidation and copious amounts of excitement, I set off with my Spanish hiking partner, Mikel, to climb Uchitel peak in Ala-Archa National Park, 40km outside of Bishkek. The name Uchitel means teacher in Russian. It’s a 4500m peak, and the easiest out of the flock of other jagged high peaks.

This would be by far the highest I had ever been and speaking to people who had climbed it in summer recounting the dizziness, nausea and tiredness it was a challenge that needed to be taken seriously, especially in its now freezing and icy condition; even if the professional mountaineers just sniff at it, with all their professional mountaineering equipment…

So we set off from Osh Bazaar, Bishkek, on the 265 Marshrutka (minibus) with our soviet-era crampons, tent, sleeping bags and matts, food, camping stoves, and spare warm clothing. We were prepared for a possibly -30 night up on the mountain.

We knew from a previous hike that it was a day’s distance to the Ratsek cabin at 3350m altitude, but had been told the cabin was full that weekend, hence the tent.

We arrived in the national park at 11am, but with another 15km to the beginning of the climb, we hitchhiked on a water truck that was driving up the mountain to collect fresh water for the Tian Shan bottled water company that fills most shops in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia.

There aren’t many things as soul-restoring as being in the mountains, you realise the brutal power of nature required to create such structures, you know they’re older than humanity and will be there long after we’ve gone. They’re always a magical place to be and you know you can only stay there for a limited time; making you all the more grateful for being there, ready to absorb every glimmering flank, ridge and peak.

In powdery, paper white snow, we began the climb; following the path of other hikers. Weighed down by our packs, we were continuously taking off layers as the physical effort warmed us up. It’s a delicate balance between being warm and sweating; your clothes get wet, which makes you dangerously cold when you stop. Layering is a must.

We reached the Ratsek cabin just after 5pm with the sun dropping down below the razored peaks that surrounded us, cocooning us in the Ak-Sai canyon with the Ak-Sai glacier stretching before us up to another majestic peak named Korona, a harder peak requiring ropes, ice axes and crampons.

The cabin was busy with a gaggle of 20 or so Russians paying for their mountaineering experience with guides, prepared food and beds. We managed to get two beds in the unheated cabin for the equivalent of £6 and a large bowl of hot soup. When contrasted to the freezer-like conditions surrounding us, it might have been the best bowl of soup I’d ever had. Finger-crippling cold crept through the cabin, every breath filling the air with crystallised vapour. Our painfully cold feet made us so grateful for a bed in what was an upmarket freezer.

At 6am, we woke to frozen water, frozen bananas, frozen oranges and worst of all, frozen boots. I left the beautiful warmth of my sleeping bag and forced my feet into my concrete clogs. We had our breakfast, waited for a little bit of light, and set off at 8am. The peaks surrounding us were blocking the warmth of the early-morning sun, and we had 1300m of climbing to do in approximately 2km to make it to the peak.

A steep, steady climb for two hours and we were already towering above the cabin, rewarded with the awe-inspiring view of the glacier below us, it’s cracks and crevasses laying perpendicular to the direction of its slowly-creeping and unstoppable movement downwards.

We passed people on the way up who had slept on the peak at 4500m in the wind and -30°C temperatures to help them acclimatise for larger, more difficult peaks, making us feel like utter schoolboys with our basic cold weather gear and walking boots. Encouragingly, these other mountaineers informed us we wouldn’t need our crampons to get to the peak.

The higher we got the more the altitude started to affect me, a pit in my stomach and the feeling of empty lungs slowed the pace of the ascent, a headache, slower thoughts and a tinge of dizziness continued to make me aware that, although a non-technical climb, this required my full attention. A a slip at certain points would prove to be more than painful.

The view, the view, the view is what you think when you get to a peak. It sugar coats that sense of achievement you have of climbing pointlessly up a colossal slab of rock, only to then walk back down. Yet it isn’t pointless; what does it mean to be human if you never push yourself? A mountain is a perfect way to carefully push yourself step by step, to make you realise life isn’t fluffy and you’re responsible for your own safety. Every step is an important decision on the mountain.

After some photos, congratulations and the sharing of some food with a group of Russian climbers who had just made it to the top, we began our descent, slippery and hard on the knees.

We made it back to the cabin at 3pm, had an hour for lunch and then began our 3-hour dusk hike back down to a place we could possibly get a taxi from… on New Year’s Eve at 7pm. We finally arrived back in Bishkek at 11pm, just in time for some celebrations and beers into the early morning.

An update from Bishkek

If you’d been wondering whether I had turned into a human icicle in my tent since my last post, there’s no need to worry. I’ve been living in Bishkek; the rough, relaxed, simple, and charming capital of Kyrgyzstan for the past two months. I plan to be here for three more weeks until the last week of February.

I had a few reasons for staying here for so long. Firstly my rear wheel had a crack in it which I discovered the night before my birthday in Kazakhstan so I had to get a new wheel sent out! Secondly, I decided to stay here for a chunk of the winter so that once I get into China it will be early spring and the weather will gradually warm up as I make my way across that utterly vast country. With more daylight each day I will be able to cycle for longer, explore more and maybe relax outside my tent rather than being huddled in my sleeping bag reading my kindle. Thirdly I realised I had maybe gone too fast for the first chapter of my travels from London to Bishkek (although thankfully I did as it was -30 in Kazakhstan two weeks ago). My journey isn’t a world record breaking trip and I want to absorb more of the places I go through. My fourth but not final reason is that I’ve met some truly fantastic people here in Bishkek and so I wanted to stay to get to know them better, I think I’ve made some potentially lifelong friends here that I can visit at any time in the future.

The mountains rising up to meet me

After leaving Shymkent in Kazakhstan I made my way towards Bishkek, having already found someone special to stay with from the Warmshowers app. The mountains rose up to meet me in spectacular style as I approached the border with Kyrgyzstan and things got very cold. On the morning of the day I crossed the border, the snow began, lightly at first but soon the road was covered and my bike, including the sprockets, wheels and their spokes, steadily gained a thick coating of ice. I never thought I would intentionally urinate on my bike but it’s a very effective de-icer!

After crossing the border, a shopkeeper took me into his home, and gave me dinner and a bed in a small outhouse with a clay oven inside for heat. After two breakfasts I set off for the 90km ride to Bishkek.

I can’t describe to you the joy of arriving and being able to have a truly in-depth conversation with someone after three months of travelling through countries where you can’t speak the language and the admirable people who can speak English aren’t quite proficient enough to understand everything you say. There’s a small but thriving kaleidoscopic expat community here with people from Germany, Switzerland, America, Afghanistan, Spain, France, Georgia, Korea, India, Scotland, Morocco and many others. A real melting pot of incredibly unusual, interesting, strange, hilarious, kind, open, warm, inspiring people. Everyone here has an interesting story to tell you, all you have to do is ask a few questions and listen.

Bishkek is a strange place, a safe and slightly ugly city, but speckled with beauty and charisma that seems to trap the people who come here like insects in honey. Everyone who arrives seems to stay longer than intended, me included, first it was two weeks, then six weeks, now three months. It’s surrounded by hundreds of square kilometres of high mountains and stunning scenery to explore, lakes pockmark the country, the wildlife is abundant and I can only imagine what it must be like to hike here in summer with just a tent and a camp stove. I’m already making rough plans to return one summer and head off into the mountains with their green and luscious river cut valleys, soaring peaks and high open plains infested with flowers and feeding bees that make officially the best honey in the world.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve spent one week being ill, a weekend skiing and riding horses near a town called Karakol, 400km from Bishkek at the northern end of lake Issyk-Kul, and two more weekends hiking in Ala-Arche National Park which lies 40km from Bishkek. On one of those weekends, I managed to reach a 4500m peak called Uchitel, which means teacher in Russian.

I managed to get a job as an English teacher, thanks to a Spanish cyclist who arrived here before me and found a busy but relaxed English language school with 7:40am to 8:20pm days. I then went to a week-long winter activity camp for 80 kids from the school, next to the shores of lake Issyk-Kul. I was the only English teacher there, teaching two lessons a day. If I’m honest It was a hectic and not entirely enjoyable – but incredibly valuable -experience. Working out how to entertain a group of 30 kids aged 7-16 with English levels from beginner to advanced for an hour with no resources, was, to put it mildly, a challenging experience.

Kyrgyzstan is a very easy country to travel in if you have an internet connection, a little bit of knowledge about marshrutkas (the mini buses that transport people around like sardines in a tin), a reasonable amount of patience, and some tolerance for discomfort. None of that’s any different to any worthwhile travel experience. I’m looking forward to sharing some of my experiences with you in more detail over the next few weeks.

The land of rockets, the endless steppe, and 16 days without a shower

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I’m now in Shymkent. It’s been a long time since my last post. Over 3000km! So I will have to summarise some of my experiences for you and you can embellish them in your own imagination with the aid of some photos. There’s a lot to say even if I have been looking at almost the same view for weeks on end, the Kazakh steppe, boring, beautiful, exciting, cold, hot, dry, icy, lonely, kind, solitary, inspiring… I could go on.

My last post left you in Kursk in Russia which I wrote the day before an unusual experience of going to a Russian steam bath and being beaten with oak branches while starkers, surrounded by similarly naked scary Russian men. Despite it being totally normal in Russia, it was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, and a massive culture shock. Yet I was soon telling them – whilst still stark-bollock naked, bar the ridiculous smurf-style hat that’s worn in all steam baths to protect your head from the heat – all about my journey and debating how I could deal with the cold.

(Above: some of Saratov’s incredible artwork)

So onto Saratov, where I spent a day and two nights with my host Max, his girlfriend and sister Marya. They gave me a tour of the city and led me to the beautiful wall art on the shores of the Volga river. Russia, despite all the talk of oligarchs and oil, seems to be a very poor country. No prizes for guessing where all the money is going. People in some villages get their water from a pump outside, shops are missing many of the products we take for granted. Most people seem to live in small apartments in tower blocks and kids don’t have their own bedrooms. The people are very kind as you already know, and I never had any problems with the kind of ‘scary Russian people’ that many people back home were fearful I would come across. Someone went as far as to say “but what are you going to do if you come across a group of Russian soldiers and they decide to toy with you…?” Well, my only contact with Russian soldiers was at the border, and they went as far as making sure I had water before I crossed into Kazakhstan. They also translated between me and two Kazakh guys, whose car was being searched, when they asked if I would like some food!

Max and his family

My first night in Kazakhstan was stunning, I stopped early that day as it was the first time on my journey that I didn’t have a schedule to keep. I crossed the Russian border on the day my visa expired and so could now relax. I pitched my tent at 3pm and basked in the warm afternoon sunshine. As night fell the stars began to poke through the velvet shroud of dusk and soon the Milky Way was unveiled, in full view, brighter than I had ever seen it before. I lay in my sleeping bag with my head poking out of my tent. Feeling like I was perched on a celestial platform created for the greatest show on earth, there among the stars rather than trapped on our little fragile sphere. After staring at this view for sometime I got that feeling one often gets when looking at the night sky for long enough in the dead silence of the night. That beautiful feeling where you disappear, that feeling of our incredibly small place in the universe, like a notch in the fibre of a piece of thread making up a patchwork quilt of the most terrifying and peaceful vastness. Within that notch, on that spec of dust, we live out our unbelievably short lives. In a thousand short years, who will remember us? That is what I wondered as I drifted off to sleep in my first night on the Kazakh steppe.

The setting for the stars that were to come

 

Next stop was Uralsk where I stayed with Azamat, whom I found on the Couchsurfing app. I had a great time there with him and his cousin’s family, trying traditional Kazakh food such as Beshbarmak, which was utterly delicious. Yet because it was made from horse, an animal I seem to have an innate respect for, it left me feeling a bit guilty. Unlike beef, pork, or chicken. Slightly irrational I suppose but then you can’t ride any of those animals into battle…

The next leg of the journey was the longest I’ve ever gone without a shower. Uralsk to Baikonur, sixteen nights in my tent, some of them snowy, most of them icy, it was brilliant. I was ill for the first five days of that journey, but kept going. I cried and crapped myself on the same day although not at the same time. I think I cried first. One pair of pants down, one left. Before you all ridicule me in your minds, I know the truth. At some point in your adult life, you’ve all made the same terrible error of judgement on a fart while ill, even all the really hot girls reading this… if you weren’t ill, you really should be ashamed of yourself. Also I can confirm that wet wipes are one of the most underrated products of the 21st century.

My tent, blanketed with snow

Waking up to snow was fantastic, that silence created by a blanket of air and ice surrounding you is amazing. That same day I was stopped by another Kazakh guy called Azamat, he gave me a short 10km lift to a cafe where he bought me a huge meal which I tried repeatedly to pay for but he wasn’t having any of it. At one point after the Karabutak crossroads while still very cold a group of road workers laying new tarmac stopped me and gave me tea, some food, and a high vis jacket while simultaneously tarmacking the road. I felt like I was with a group of mates again, walking alongside the smokey leviathan laying the new trade route between China and the West.

As I headed south from the Karabutak crossroads to Baikonur it steadily got warmer and I could shed layers of clothes. Camels started to appear, which I began shouting at out of boredom. They don’t seem to react at all to any kind of verbal abuse or compliments.

Getting the hump: a camel stands proudly

I arrived outside Baikonur feeling pretty elated, in my mind it had always been a big checkpoint and goal on my trip, especially with a package being sent there from England containing snow tires, second hand Antarctic survey boots and a second, warmer sleeping bag, for my jaunt over the Pamir mountains into China. Also dark chocolate, birthday cards, a small birthday present for me, and thank you gifts for my hosts.

Baikonur is actually part of Russia and closed to foreigners unless you can get a very difficult to obtain pass, which I couldn’t. So, I had to slip through a gap in the perimeter wall… that done, I stayed with my host Rishad and his family for some time and honestly can’t thank them enough!

After Baikonur I made my way to Kyzylorda. During that journey I was camped one night next to a dried up lake bed with small hillocks surrounding me, obstructing my view to no more than 20 metres in most directions, making me feel very safe and cocooned. Until I heard howling. First it was one animal, then two, three, four, five, six. After this the noise blended together but I could hear more animals joining in. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end, and everywhere else on my body, a slight shiver going down my spine. I wouldn’t say I felt scared but I did feel a mixture of exhilaration and a kind of deep primal intimidation, I knew I was experiencing something quite special. These animals can’t have been more than 60 metres away and I knew they must have been aware of me, I had just opened a can of fish. People had told me there were wolves in this area of Kazakhstan and to be careful but, until that moment, it really wasn’t something I worried about. But then I reminded myself that wolves rarely attack people for no reason and they’re probably quite scared of humans. That night went by peacefully, I slept well apart from a loud noise outside the tent in the middle of the night, I sat up, shouted to scare away whatever it was and then went back to sleep.

Your imagination can run away with you on this one…

So here I am in Shymkent, I left a lot out of this post because if I wrote everything down we would start to have a book on our hands. I experienced more extreme kindness travelling from Baikonur, such as being invited into peoples homes for tea, for dinner and a bed, for meals in motels and then a free bed in the motel. I’ve been given money which I tried hard not to accept, but the man shouted at me so I took it. I had the first night of my hostel here in Shymkent paid for by an amazing man called Daulet from the Couchsurfing app who wasn’t available to host me in his own house.

Travel has already taught me so much and I think it’s something everyone should strive to do, it really doesn’t have to be expensive and after only three months I feel it’s changed me for the better, this is something I plan to expand on in a later post.

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Dust, skidding paws, and a brawl of fur and teeth

If you enjoy reading this post, please find the time to donate to my fundraising page. I’m trying to raise £5,000 for CLIC Sargent and Hope and Homes for Children!


This post continues from my previous post, which you can read here


The next morning, I cycled in the rain to the border. My lorry driver friend Alexander dropped me off in Kovel in Ukraine about 50km from the border, I hope that little cheat doesn’t upset too many of you. Thank you Alexander!

The following  day I began my four day cycle along the M-07, one road which goes all the way to Kiev, two days of which I had wonderful tailwinds, and the rest, soul-destroying headwinds. Ukraine seemed to be as poor again as Poland compared to Germany, the road was lined with people supplementing their income by selling mushrooms they had collected in the forest in the early morning. Sometimes in the dawn while cooking my breakfast I would see them walking quiet as ghosts with a bag or bucket and a knife, they never disturbed me or spoke to me. I took very few pictures in Ukraine due to cycling so much which I feel a little regretful of. They’re of course all in my head, I just can’t show you! What I saw of Ukraine is beautiful with the peaceful pine forests, and wetlands with open plains. There were so many peacock butterflies fluttering along the road, although sadly many succumbing to car windscreens, reminding me to be careful if I didn’t want to meet a similar but messier end.

Soon I was in Kiev taking a day off staying with some more amazing warmshowers hosts. Anton and his wife Sveta and their very cute four year old son Vanya, took care of me and welcomed me into their small flat with my bike and it’s parasitic luggage. They treated me to proper Ukrainian food which was delicious, the last night of which included dried fish with a beer, or two. They sent me away with five fish wrapped up in paper which I really enjoyed with another couple of Ukrainian beers, in the dark, in my tent.

Anton and Sveta and their lovely food

The journey from Kiev to Kursk was headwinds all the way which upset me massively at first but I learnt to deal with them, and learnt that shouting profanities into the wind has the opposite effect you would want, what with the microgram of thrust produced by your own breath slowing you down even more. So I decided that the extra force required to overcome the headwind would make me stronger and the rest of the journey easier, a philosophy which could possibly be applied to many aspects of life?

Kiev

Just before the Ukrainian Russian border in the ancient town of Hlukhiv I was taken by surprise. I was at a shop about to buy some food when a guy called Roman stopped on his bike and started talking to me. He asked where I was going and where I had come from and as is usual was shocked when I told him my intended destination! He then invited me to his home for food and said that he and his Father would cycle with me to the border.

Me with Roman and his family

The Ukraine-Russia border was… totally fine, they were very friendly but ever so slightly intimidating, which I think is no different than any other border crossing. They did a little search of my stuff, thankfully no rubber gloves were needed.

Roman’s Mother and Father

It was pitch black by the time I got into Russia, so I cycled about 2km and put up my tent in some woods in the dark, cooked my dinner, had a dried fish for pudding, and went to sleep. In the morning in my tent while packing up I heard a Jeep pull up next to the woods, cracking twigs and quite voices alerted me to the fact I had been discovered. I came out of my tent with an unthreatening friendly face and was greeted by two young border guards with Kalashnikovs. They weren’t at all intimidating, apart from said Kalashnikovs.  They asked for my documents, looked at them and then smiled and left. I then cooked my breakfast and packed up.

So my first day in Russia began slightly eventfully and continued that way with yet again, wait for it… (is this getting boring?) more human kindness!! I went into a small village shop to see if they would accept Ukrainian money, as it was so close to the border. They didn’t accept it but asked in very broken English and hand gestures what I was going to buy, I told them just some water and some crisps because I wasn’t really sure but I couldn’t say I wasn’t going to buy anything. They took them from the shelves and put them on the counter. I told them I have no money, they laughed at me and said “it present, for you!” I tried to say no but then quickly accepted as I didn’t want to offend them.

So yesterday I arrived in Kursk and just before that wonderful moment which I will get to, I was chased by a pack of dogs. There I was, cycling along happily, quite tired, when I heard barking. Looking about, I couldn’t see a dog anywhere, so I continued my cycling, but the barking wasn’t going away, confusingly it was getting louder. I turned around and, holy shit! Running out of the entrance of a large mechanic’s garage was a pack of about five dogs, paws skidding, throwing up dust in a brawl of spit and fur and teeth. You’ve all seen Jurassic park, you remember that scene with the T-Rex and the jeep, the T-Rex is gaining on the jeep and Jeff Goldblum is screaming at the driver to go faster. Imagine five T-Rex’s. So I started peddling, screaming mentally at my legs to peddle as hard as I could. One of the dogs impressively ended up alongside me, I could hear its panting and guttural growling, teeth bared, legs at full stretch, obviously enjoying the chase. I’ve never peddled so fast, i didn’t think with all of the weight on the front of my bike it would be possible to wheelie it, but out of fear I pushed so hard the front wheel came off the ground and luckily I didn’t poo myself. There was also a woman at a bus stop laughing at me, I was also laughing manically out of fear. After this intense burst of physical activity combined with fear I felt superb. Note: I’ve heard the dogs in Kyrgyzstan really are quite terrifying, I’ll look forward to them.

So, the wonderful moment of arriving in Kursk. I let my Warmshowers host know where I was and then sat down in the local park to eat my lunch. You already know what I’m going to say. A woman came up to me and asked in Russian where I was going, I told her and then she took me to her house and gave me coffee and biscuits and chocolate bars.

The kind Russian lady and I

I need to remind you of my state at this point, unshaven, probably stinking of a mixture of BO and fish because of my late night snacks in my tent, filthy hands and stained trouser. This woman invited me, a complete stranger who doesn’t speak her language, into her lovely warm house for coffee.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this update, I know it’s been a long time coming! I’ll do my best to get some more posts out.