Sandstorms and scorpions

*I’m now more than halfway to my destination, and still trying to reach my target of raising £5,000 for CLIC Sargent and Hope and Homes for Children. If you like what you read, please donate*

[This post should have been released two weeks ago but after contact with a professional journalist, who gave me the advice that under no circumstances should what I’ve written about Kashgar be posted while I’m still in China, it’s now been heavily edited…

Here is the now butchered post, I’m actually in Jiayuguan, 1000km east from where this was written but I’ll add that microjourney to another post otherwise this one will end up being vast]

I’m now in Turpan, another ancient Silk Road city and the second lowest place on the planet. It’s been 23 days and 2000km since I set off from Kashgar. Through the middle of a desert and its sandstorms, over mountains with their vultures and along roads swarming with police checkpoints cluelessly checking your passport for anywhere up to two hours.

Kashgar was interesting to say the least, I’m sure a shadow of its former self, a hollow husk, the last dying breaths of a culture, turned into a zoo for Chinese tourists. At least that’s the impression I got and I think that’s all I can say, as I said at the end of my last post, I felt many parallels could be drawn with Orwell’s 1984.

All I’ll say is that there’s a very heavy police presence, yet it’s a relatively calm, quiet and safe city, although totally neutered. I suppose the really interesting thing about the city is, not only its current situation, but also its more than 2000-year-old history and culture. The Id Kah mosque that stands centre stage in the now mostly fake old town was built in 1442. Knowing how old the city is, it has a certain aura to it that ignites your imagination and leaves you imaging what it would have been like 50, 100, 500, 1000 years ago. Marco Polo even mentioned the city in his memoirs.

Something that gains a foothold in everyone’s memory when they travel is food. In Kashgar and Xinjiang in general it isn’t Chinese, but more central Asian, with lamb kebabs, lagman noodles – the same as in Kyrgyzstan – and the Plov, or Polo as it’s called in Kashgar, is the best I’ve had in Central Asia, less oily in some restaurants, with very tender slow cooked meat often still on the bone. There’s also dumplings which are also the same as in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and even Russia, they’re called Mante and often filled meat, pumpkin, or a green grass-like herb in spring.

Although now I know about the artificiality of many parts of the old town, it’s still beautiful and there is still life and character there, children are constantly playing in the streets while vendors can be seen cooking the local lamb kebabs and the artisan metal workers create copper-ware right on the street front with a small furnace. The old town was mostly demolished and rebuilt with streets now comfortably wide enough to fit riot vans down. There is only one small portion of the old town that remains but it’s now no longer open to foreigners and after two repeated attempts to sneak in, being caught both times, me and a few other travellers gave up trying to see it.

When you walk around the streets of the ‘old’ town of Kashgar you will notice a lot of shops that are shut and get a sense that this place should be alive with people, buzzing with activity, especially in the evenings such as at the ‘night market’ which used to be open until the early hours of the morning, sometimes until 5am with people sitting around the Kazan eating food, drinking tea and talking, but it’s now shut at 9pm with a curfew dissolving another of these activities which must have acted as a social glue of the community.

There is a 100-year-old tea house in the ‘old’ town of Kashgar, so I went in to drink some tea with all the old men. There I watched a man sit for Chinese tourists, cross-legged against a patterned wall in his traditional clothing with his drum, and listened to him sing what I assumed to be a traditional song. It wasn’t very good, but it made me want to cry, I felt I was witnessing the death of a culture. As I watched I could see the discomfort crossed with passion and anger in this man’s face as he sat there for the Chinese tourists to photograph him. I looked around the room and saw all the other middle-aged and elderly men sitting cross legged drinking their tea with their bread, watching in what appeared to be disgust, everyone looked downcast and ashamed. Overall, I’m glad I spent enough time in Kashgar to get a feel for the place, I enjoyed my time there but for obvious reasons I’m not desperate to return.

I set off from Kashgar with a slight sense of anxiety about the problems I knew I would face with police checkpoints, trying to make my way 1800km east and north to Turpan, taking the more exciting circuitous route through the desert, adding 400km to my journey. They became a formality, a frustration I became used to and accepted. The experience developed my patience, taught me a healthy disregard for authority and a lot about people, such as how to behave to speed up the laborious process of passport checks. They’re done by men and women dressed in riot gear who have shotguns or metal spike poles but are wearing Nike trainers, their shirts are untucked and they’re standing there picking their nose reading your passport upside down. After fifteen minutes you realise they think you’re from Germany. As a foreigner there’s nothing to be feared from the police here apart from lost time, they’re actually friendly and kind, asking if you want water and even if you’re hungry, which I’ve taken advantage of and been taken into the police station kitchen for something to eat.

Crossing the vast Taklamakan was a challenge I enjoyed hugely and nowhere near as ‘bad’ as I imagined. ‘Taklamakan’, translated from the Turkic Uyghur language, means ‘you can get into it but you can never get out’. It is the largest desert in China and the second largest moving desert in the world, known by other names such as The Desert of No Return and The Sea of Death.

With nearly 600km of desert road to contend with, I often imagined seeing myself from space, looking at the desert, and then zooming in to see a tiny dot make the seemingly slowest of progress, like a snail trying to traverse a hot tennis court. You know it will never make it and I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for the regular 100km petrol stations and small shops. Despite the trepidation, it was relatively easy to be honest, apart from dragging my fully loaded touring bike with its 10+ litres of water up and over sand dunes every evening out of sight of the road and then back in the morning, it definitely makes you stronger.

My bike, laden with 10 litres of water

Looking out away from the ribbon of tarmac the dunes stretch endlessly into the distance reminding me of why this desert has the name that it does, the desert of no return seems fitting for this place, I imagined the bravery/stupidity it must have taken to attempt to cross this vast space with little knowledge of what lay in between you and the other side, which happens to be nothing or so I thought… There have been archaeological finds within the desert of villages presumably surviving around desert oasis. Mummies have been found at these sites, interestingly not of Asian descent but more European looking with red hair, documented to have had blue or green eyes, but they weren’t European, rather they belonged to this region as the original Kyrgyz people before the rise of the Mongol empire.
With wind on most days the heat was never overwhelming, especially when it picked up even more and entirely blocked out the sun, creating the new problem of a violent sandstorm that lasted all day and made me wonder if they ever get any worse. All day I cycled with a powerful crosswind, in a yellow orange glow created by the dust and sand filling the air and every crevice of me, my bike and luggage. The worst was the sand that made it into my nose, as I tried to breath with my mouth closed, I started to worry that if it continued for a few days I could get silicosis. Somehow, I enjoyed this day immensely, I think partly because it was so surreal: visibility down to 40m, high winds, the orange glow and the sand… everywhere, swirling across the road in snake-like filaments. I felt like I was in Frank Herbert’s Dune or a Star Wars/Mad Max movie.

I wasn’t alone for the entire desert journey, people stopped to give me water and food, took photos with me and on my fifth day, two Chinese guys Zhang and Guangzao (I’ve spelt that wrong) stopped on motorbikes to chat. It was already late in the day, maybe 6pm. We rode the motorbikes into the dunes out of sight of the road, dragged the bike over as well, started a fire and got some rice cooking in a pressure cooker one of them was carrying. Zhang then rode to the next inhabited place and bought a fried duck, peanuts and beer. After he arrived back we sat and tried to communicate while consuming all of the food and beer, listening to music and watching the fire. The next morning Zhang wanted me to ride his motorbike 50m out of the dunes which I was more than happy to do, I was elated to be riding something with an engine again.

The next day I took off as a ‘rest day’ in the desert on my own, in the dunes, trying to relax but mostly sweating and reading in my tent. I’m not sure how much rest I got but I enjoyed it. I check the inside of my shoes every morning and that day it paid off. Peering back at me from the inside of my shoe was a scorpion which I think might have ruined my week or maybe even my month. Three days after my scorpion-infested day off in the desert and I was out, the dunes shifting to irrigated farmland.

It seemed bizarre to me that I had done it, I remember back in England looking at the map talking to a friend over messenger who laughed after pointing out the huge desert, googling it, and telling me it was known as the desert of no return, asking me what I was going to do about it. I remember the little hit of adrenaline I got imagining cycling through it, then telling him I would do it, I would cycle 600km through the desert.

As has been the case so many times on this trip, the imaginings of my mind are far more painful and scary than reality, which you take one hour or day at a time and end up enjoying immensely. They become the best bits.

Another common theme on this journey has been the kindness of strangers, which I experienced more of on my passage to Turpan. Although they won’t be able to read this, I want to thank the Chinese lady who filled my cooking pot with an enormous stir fry and gave me bags of crisps, water and boiled eggs, I tried repeatedly to give her money but failed. Also Osman and Rinah who gave me tea with my lunch and a huge bag of nuts and dried fruit to take with me. Again I valiantly tried to pay, but they weren’t having any of it.

So 23 days after leaving Kashgar and 1800km later, through desert and another mountain range, I arrived at the youth hostel in Turpan and had my first shower – more a kind of three showers in one until I was fully clean – and washed my biohazard clothes twice.

I’ll now continue heading east on a mostly unplanned route, the road and people have been treating me well and I’m excited about what the rest of China will bring, hopefully I can avoid some of the smog and most of the 100 cities with over 1 million people in this vast country. I’m now over the 10000km mark! Another 4 or 5 to go! Not that I’m counting them, it’s the journey, not the destination.

*I’m now more than halfway to my destination, and still trying to reach my target of raising £5,000 for CLIC Sargent and Hope and Homes for Children. If you like what you read, please donate*

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.

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!