The minor inconveniences of long term travel, a sacred mountain and the end of my time in China

*I’m 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*

I left you at the Maijishan grottoes, in the south of Gansu province at a temple in the mist. From there, I continued my journey, drifting into Shanxxi province towards its capital, Xi’an ( also the old capital of China), and the end of my adventure along the Silk Road. The beauty of the landscape and scenery continued, as did people’s kindness.

Cycling through three days of solid rain, I arrived at my German host Bernd’s apartment in the centre of the city, totally drenched and incredibly relieved to have a roof over my head, a warm shower, good company, a chair to sit down on, a soft bed to sleep in and a kitchen I could use to cook without juggling one gas burner and two small pots. I’m so grateful to all of the people I’ve stayed with and their incredible generosity. Every person you stay with on a journey teaches you so much, they’re all so different with so many stories and so much life experience to share with you.

Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China and was the capital during many of the most important dynasties in Chinese history. One of the rare cities where some of the old, culturally valuable, buildings managed to survive Mao’s destruction of anything that could remind anyone of the ‘decadent’ past, In reality, this means much of ‘China’ as you would imagine it is just missing. There aren’t the really old buildings in the old parts of town, nor the temples that you would expect to find. In Xi’an, two magnificent buildings that did escape the Cultural Revolution are the stunning bell and drum towers, along with the high wall that surrounds the whole of the inner part of the city.

The day I arrived in the city, I told Bernd about a slight problem I had: a visa dilemma.    I have a multiple-entry, 90 day visa for China, which I’m incredibly grateful for, again another example of how privileged and lucky us Brits are.

Travelling for this long through China wouldn’t have been possible otherwise… yet, 90 days wasn’t quite enough, I had to do a border run to take advantage of the multiple entry part of it, but Xi’an is towards the north of China… and the closest border was unfortunately Hong Kong, 2000km South…

So I asked Bernd if it was ok to leave my bike at his apartment while I took a train down to Shenzhen, a city of 12 million people bordering Hong Kong, where I could cross over, get a stamp in my passport and then come back for the return train. We checked ticket availability the next day, which revealed very few left and none with seats. The only other option was a standing ticket… on a 24 hour train journey. Bernd looked across at me and asked me if I really wanted to do it. “Yes,” I said, “it’ll be interesting”… Two days later, I was on that train and yes, a standing ticket really does mean standing, shattering my hopes of some sort of perch, the train was absolutely packed, full of families with miserable crying infants and children. I unintentionally found a spot next to the toilet and prepared myself for hell. My perception of time warping along with my perception of what discomfort was, I existed in a state of purgatory for what felt like an eternity, but the journey went better than I expected. A very kind Chinese guy told me he didn’t need his seat at about 2am, which meant I ended up with a seat for five hours, making the journey much more bearable. I took the time to sleep for two hours, and to continue reading the Japanese epic of Musashi, in preparation for my arrival to the Land of the Rising Sun.

After what felt like a lifetime, I arrived in Shenzhen, walked over the border to Hong Kong and although feeling a strong attraction to it, I decided to leave it for another time to save money. Within an hour I was back in Shenzhen at midnight. I searched for some hostels and finding none I wondered the city eating a bag of garlic flavoured monkey nuts until 2am when fatigue finally forced sleep upon me on the concrete outside the train station I had just come from, so I slept cuddling my backpack for four hours waking up with the sun, feeling much more spritely than I expected. To McDonald’s I went for the free WiFi, and proudly managed to resist the coffee and the bacon and egg McMuffin. There I booked a return train ticket for the next morning, this one was 30 hours, but… I had a seat. I then hunted for a hostel again, not tough enough for another night on the concrete outside the train station. I soon found one and could finally relax. After 30 sleepless hours, I was back in Xi’an, where I stayed with Bernd for a couple more days and then continued on towards the coast and the end of China! I felt excited to start a new chapter in the journey in South Korea but I had another 1200km of hot humid weather and busy, dusty, smoggy roads to contend with. Although, there was also beautiful scenery and a special mountain, Hua Shān. Sitting just a day’s ride from Xi’an, Hua Shān is a 2200m high sacred misty mountain, consisting of four main peaks. With Hua Shān village starting at 400m, it’s nearly 2km of height gain up a steep, sometimes almost vertical, 12km trail.

On the way, I met a young 20-year-old Chinese cyclist going in the same direction as me, so we cycled together and luckily he had found an incredibly cheap hostel, costing less than £4 a night, right at the foot of the mountain. Both of us were complaining of saddle sores. Once we arrived at the hostel, we went straight out for dinner and found a cheap restaurant down an alleyway run by a man and his wife and their five-year-old son, who seemed to enjoy helping out by moving vegetables around the shop. My Chinese friend helped me decipher the Chinese menu and I ordered an enormous plate of pork fried rice for the equivalent of £1. Halfway through the meal, my friend went to the shop and came back with a box of sanitary towels. I instantly understood why: because of my saddle sores. Making the connection, I burst out laughing, though I already had a much more direct plan of my own involving a sewing needle. Back at the hostel, with said needle sterilised, I lanced the grape-sized blood blister, in search of relief from the pain caused by the intense humidity and knowing that I wouldn’t be cycling for another two days felt confident in my intervention.

The next day I prepared to climb Hua Shān, packing my bag with waterproofs, notebook, camera, tent, sleeping matt and 5l of water, as I knew the water being sold on the mountain would be incredibly expensive. Going back to the restaurant from the night before and filling my cooking pot with some more of the £1 fried rice, I decided I would save it until dinner. At 2pm I began the six-hour climb; everything was drenched with sweat because of the heat and humidity, but soon relief came two hours into the climb in the form of enormous black clouds and an epic thunderstorm. As I hiked up it, thunder and lightning reverberated and reflected through the steep, now shadowy valley. The rain matched the thunder and lightning in intensity, turning the steep almost ladder-like stairs into waterfalls, causing me to chuckle in delight at the novel experience and take even more care of my footing and handholds. There was no point in using my waterproofs.

The coolness of the rain allowed me to hike faster than if it had been hot, and within three hours I was at the northern peak, the southern peak lying another two hours further up the trail. Hua Shān has been heavily touristified, the trail up the mountain is fully lit so people can climb it at night, the stairs are well cut and maintained. There are regular rest stops, two cable cars if you’re not feeling tough enough to tackle the climb up or back down, and there are information boards at every interesting temple, cave or other area of interest along the path, creating a kind of story as you go up which surprisingly I actually enjoyed.

I continued on, stopping at the many interesting restored small temples along the path, the rain now just a light drizzle, the mountain was busy with crowded steep paths. Soon I arrived at a temple, where I was stopped by an official who said I could go no further because it was too dangerous. Having planned to sleep on the top of the mountain, I snuck past him and continued on, looking for the perilously dangerous part, which I never found. Before long, finally starting to feel tired, I was at the top of the 2200m southern peak with the wind howling all around me, the prayer flags straining at their knots to escape off the mountain into the void. The view was awe inspiring, and made me excited about the sunrise the next morning, so just below the peak I pitched my tent and donned my waterproofs to try and keep some heat in, it wasn’t cold enough to be dangerous, but cold enough to be uncomfortable. Everything in my bag was drenched and after dinner and some notes written in my soggy, travel-worn journal, I lay down for a terrible night’s sleep.

I awoke at 5:30 and quickly packed everything up to enjoy the sunrise and the views. It was almost other-worldly up there during this time, thick cloud blanketed the earth below, creating an almost heavenly scene. The mountains appearing like islands rising up out of a white ocean, the crimson red prayer flags fluttering in the light breeze, magnificent vertical rock faces pockmarked and populated by pine trees, the sun reflecting from their deep brown weathered trunks and blue skies as far as the eye could see – the contrast of colours a feast for the eyes and the soul.

 

‘Chess platform’

 

Of all the peaks I hiked that morning, the most memorable was the Eastern peak, with a view out onto Chess Platform, a peninsular of rock jutting out from the main body of the peak with vertical sides. You can walk with a rope and harness across the knife edge of the peninsula, to a small stone pagoda with a stone chessboard in the centre, where Wie Shuqing a (blablabla) would play chess with others on the cloud-shrouded peninsula.The way down was harder than the way up, due to tired trembling legs, but it was still much more enjoyable than the cable car.

After Hua Shān I continued my journey to Qingdao with immensely sore legs from climbing the mountain. While cycling through the intensely humid Chinese summer, disgusted with the amount I was sweating during the day and at night, the only slight relief came from the occasional watermelon or the breeze while cycling in the evenings. Or more kindness.

While stopping at a roadside restaurant to wash my vegetables using the outside tap, two Chinese guys stopped to look at me and my bike. First you get that initial split second eye contact to judge what the person is like, then a smile, an attempt at some communication and then they invited me to eat with them, I tried to say no but they repeated the offer and I agreed. They were so friendly, they had many questions about my journey and said they respected me a lot, I guess, like so many people I’ve met, they wished they could do something similar but, being in their mid-thirties, they had families and wouldn’t have the time, which was another reason I’d decided to travel now. So I told them my story using Google translate. Soon a big bowl of soup arrived, like a Chinese version of Russian Borsch, except this contained large slices of tender pork belly. We continued trying to communicate between big mouthfuls of food. Halfway through the meal my companions ordered more pork belly for the soup and used a fresh pair of chopsticks to pile it all into my bowl, which made me laugh as I thanked them. When it was finally time to leave, they bought me two beers which were still cold when I found a place to pitch my tent half an hour later.

Two days later and I was invited to lunch again! I had turned off the road to find a market and buy some food supplies, after buying my onions, sweet potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, broccoli, cucumber and pork, I stopped at a shop to buy a couple of sachets of coffee. The lady behind the counter was really friendly and knew a couple of words of English, she called her daughter in, who knew a little more English, and we chatted for a minute, trying to tell them where I had come from and where I was going, soon they had invited me to eat lunch with them which I agreed to as I knew it would be another great experience. So we sat on tiny stools around a tiny table – imagine the table in a child’s playroom – sitting with my hairy knees up at chest height. I sat talking to my host’s daughter, and then she brought out some food she had just finished cooking, consisting of rice, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, Pak Choi with bean sprouts, chicken, peanuts, liver and potato. As always, it was delicious and the company was great. Again, I told them my story and how I cooked my food, where I slept, I told them about my family. I asked them about China and where they had travelled, the girl was about to start studying Chinese history at university. The language barrier makes it hard to have detailed conversations but there’s almost always laughter, little jokes and a hundred smiles to compliment the food. They asked me to stay at their home but I was already three days behind schedule to arrive at my next stop so sadly I had to decline.

Cycling on through the humid, dusty air 300km from my next stop I had the night from hell that absorbed every ounce of my patience so rapidly that I went rocketing past anger all the way to acceptance of the miserable situation. I feel I should recount it to show the reality of cycle touring, it’s not all roses, but it’s the contrast between the good times and the bad that make the good times great.

The scooter mechanic

I’ll set the scene: it was dark and raining, I was in a random Chinese city. It was one of these pop-up cities that probably wasn’t there five years ago, so kind of a bit devoid of anything interesting; just enormous apartment buildings and big wide roads. Cycling in the rain I was pretty desperate to find a place to camp, hoping to find a spot a couple of kilometres outside the city, and then bang, my tyre explodes… so that’s it, I’m camping in the city, I walked around for 20 minutes with a flat rear tyre and finally found a piece of grass that looked acceptable. So, wheel off, lots of mosquitoes, tyre levers out, mosquitoes, tyre off, mosquitoes, hit the side of tent to kill mosquitoes, tent pole snaps, grit teeth and clench fists in anger, fix tent pole, mosquitoes, patch on inner tube, mosquitoes, eat dinner, tyre back on, pump up the tyre, the lever on my expensive pump snaps clean off. I shout in pure anguish, spare pump out, pump up the tyre, inner tube pokes out of split in the side wall I created by wheeling my bike around on the old perished tyre, inner tube explodes like a gunshot. I give up and go to sleep. I wake up in the morning, try to repair the now huge hole in the inner tube, pull out all of the studs from my winter ice tyre that I kept as a spare, fit the tyre and ‘repaired tube’, fully load up the bike, the repair is holding. Pick up the last piece of luggage to put on the bike and the tyre is flat again. Try one more time. It works, I cycle around looking for a bike shop and two guys lead me to a small scooter mechanic who repairs my split inner tubes. He then gives me a huge box of 48 patches and glue for free. Every cloud has a silver lining. Problems are almost always opportunities for good experiences.

After what felt like the longest couple of weeks of the entire journey, I finally made it to the coast to stay with some more Warmshowers hosts, this time from England. A short cycle from their home to the port city of Qingdao, enormous and actually quite beautiful. I stayed with an American Couchsurfing host who had been to over 100 countries and hosted 100 couch surfers!!! The next day I was on the ferry to Incheon, South Korea… it felt strange to be getting so much closer to my destination, leaving China behind and starting a new chapter in the journey; one of the final chapters but maybe one of the best.

The distant Mars

The journey on the ferry was comfortable and smooth from 17:30 to 9am the next day. At midnight I went out on deck, with only the sound of the massive diesel engines and the ocean for company. Looking up at the night sky it was clear, the brightest star in the sky was glowing red, making me wonder if it could be mars so I went to grab my camera on the off-chance I could see anything using the zoom. Staring back at me when I looked through the viewfinder was Mars, like a red marble in the inky blackness, floating, a barren planet calling out to us in the void of space, the ultimate test for our species, beckoning to the most adventurous of us and the spirit of our early ancestors that’s allowed us to spread out across the planet, over freezing mountains, scolding deserts and the abyss of the oceans.

The ferry journey

One last abyss remains… I wonder which of us will be the first to take that next great step for humanity. In a decade the first humans may put a footprint into the poisonous perchlorate dust of the red planet. This may sound totally nuts to the uninformed but one company is making solid headway towards this goal having already done what many engineers all around the world said was impossible: landing a rocket back down the same way it took off. Why am I telling you this in my blog that’s about cycling to Tokyo? Because it’s among one of the many things that inspired me, it made what I’m doing pale in comparison to what Elon Musk is trying to achieve, which made it easier for me to take the leap into the unknown of cycling solo halfway around the world. It’s actually much easier than you would expect; you ride a bike every day for a certain amount of time. Like any big thing it’s just a series of small steps cobbled together. You cut and lay a stone each day and eventually you have a cathedral.

Anyway, back to reality, in the next post.

*I’m 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*

Cycling companions, an abandoned Silk Road settlement, the end of the Great Wall, the infectious serenity of monks and a temple shrouded in mist

*I’m now just a boat ride away from Japan, 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*

Where do I start? It’s been over two months and well over 2000km since my last update. I’m in Qingdao on the east coast of China as I write this account of the last 4000+ kilometres.

China was hard work, I’ve been in this enormous country for nearly four months and 6000km, yet it’s gone by in a flash. It feels more like a month, the deserts, mountains, farmland, rainforest and highways all blending into one vast conflicted memory, but as with most memories, it’s as if they do the opposite of rusting. With time the tarnished surface, the memories of the discomfort and difficulties dissolve away, becoming polished and embellished within the room of your mind to reveal a glimmering surface that you look upon with great enjoyment, laughing proudly at the difficulties you overcame, cherishing the beauty and awe inspiring scenery you’ve been lucky enough to experience and remembering fondly the people you’ve met. That is the beauty of travel, like a good cheese, a fine wine or Korean Kimchi, it ages well.

China is everything you’ve heard about and so much more. After travelling 6000km across it I don’t find the population of 1.4billion human beings to be that surprising anymore, it seems almost obvious that such a large landmass with such fertile areas of land and vast resources would have an enormous population. Dare I say it, I’m almost surprised it’s not larger. What has surprised me is the efficiency of how the land is used, you might see an orchard that appears to have grass between the trees like an orchard in Europe but it’s actually another crop that’s growing. The amount of irrigation is mind blowing, lines of poplar trees can often be seen protecting fields from high wind, these are all irrigated by large pipes that protrude from the ground and are turned on at a set time each day by a man with a key. Many of the fruit trees are covered in what look like little brown paper bags to help each individual fruit ripen.

Much more land is made use of than you see in Europe, hence the terraced fields blanketing steep hillsides, turning them into a patchwork of production as far as the eye can see. The amount of development in the form of buildings, roads, bridges, railways and wind farms is terrifying and awe inspiring, the rate of growth is unbelievable and sad when you travel through what you know used to be a beautiful village nestled in the mountains, but now it has a large noisy road scything right through the middle of it. If something needs to be built to aid the rate of growth then it appears that it will be built, no matter what or who is in the way.
The people are generally very friendly. It’s a very safe country, they work hard, they’re inventive and busy with their lives but almost always happy to see you. Some of the norms here take a bit of getting used to, the spitting is one of them, I’m still not sure I’m used to it, you have to be careful when overtaking someone on a motorbike or walking past them on a pavement. Even restaurants aren’t off limits to the less inhibited.

Kindness again has been a common thread. I’ve often been handed bottles of water and food out of car windows, even while still cycling like a Tour de France rider and even the occasional ice cream. I’ve been invited into people’s homes for lunch and had a meal bought for me in a restaurant. It’s also an incredibly safe country in terms of crime, it’s highly unlikely anything bad will happen to you anywhere here. I think you’re probably in much greater danger back home in your local town or London.
So I left Turpan – all the way back in western China’s very un-Chinese Xinjian province – feeling as weak as an eighty-year-old man (uncle Laurie, you’re exempt from this category), because I’d eaten some dodgy homemade yoghurt which made me ill for five days.

The day I left, I met a Chinese couple called Chenhao and Sunwenjing both about the same age as me. I ended up cycling with them for ten days, which was a totally new experience for me, having previously cycled alone. To have company on the road was nourishing, even with the language barrier. Being with two Chinese people meant the police checks went much quicker, as did my first experience of a Chinese hospital… That first night we slept in an abandoned bazaar in a village in the hills, close to the Tuyoq Thousand Buddha caves. For the first couple of days, they were worried about me as I was so slow after being ill, and my bike was substantially heavier than theirs because it was still carrying my winter gear. After a couple of days, I was back to full strength and laughing as I overtook them. Soon their loud bickering in Chinese started to grate on me and I would cycle far enough ahead that I couldn’t hear them. As with many Chinese people I’ve come across it’s hard to tell sometimes if they’re really arguing or just aggressively debating, they sound rather angry while they do it, verging on the point of physical violence, but less than a minute later they’ll be laughing with each-other.

They were both cycling to Xining in Qinghai province in the same direction I was going, so we continued east together across the hot, incredibly windy barren plains of the Gobi Desert, which turned out to be a bit underwhelming at the southern extent of the desert, just wind turbines and motorway. I felt we weren’t quite in the Gobi Desert proper but having said that it was still brutally hot, often a sizzling 45°C. Copious amounts of watermelon were consumed in this time as they’re so cheap in China and delicious and excellent for rehydration. It was easier to find water here than in the Taklamakan, but the wind was the big problem, and with there being only motorway for certain sections of the journey it wasn’t always an enjoyable or safe experience, and sometimes not physically possible. On one of the nights that we slept under the motorway, the wind really picked up, howling through the small 4ft high ‘tunnel’ leaving us huddling in our sleeping bags to try and hide from the wind. We were then woken in the night by yelping and howling, Sunwenjing asked in a terrified voice if it was a wolf, but alas, it was just a dog that probably wanted to shelter in the same tunnel as us but was too scared to come near.

Towards the end of our time together I managed to injure myself and experience what a Chinese hospital is like. While trying to lift my bike up a small verge and now wearing sandals I slipped backwards and caught the top of my foot on the chainwheel going right through the skin to the tendons, luckily they all stayed intact. You suddenly feel very helpless when you’re in a foreign country on your own and you can’t fix something yourself. So, leaving the bikes with Sunwenjing Chen and I hitchhiked 5km to the hospital. We arrived and Chen explained everything, an although they were busy, within half an hour I was seen, ten minutes later I was on a bed having the wound cleaned and a stitch put in. Then to the injection room to have a tetanus shot, one large dose split into four shots, two in each arse cheek, each one fifteen minutes apart, all of this was done with no privacy, crying children, old, young and middle aged, coming in for all sorts of jabs. So I had the first shot sitting on a stall, shorts pulled part way down, a family across the room watching me. With the jab done, I had to sit back down for 15 minutes and wait for the next one. This continued for the next hour, which meant I could continue reading my book about the intelligence of octopi. All done, I paid my £20 and we hitchhiked back to the bikes. Efficient and incredibly cheap, I was impressed.

A couple of days later, out of Xinjiang province and free of police checks in Gansu province, we split up as ten days together had been enough. Them being a couple, I think they wanted some privacy, and I wanted the road to myself again, where you can cycle for as long as you want, or stop for as long as you want. You don’t have to wait for anyone and they don’t have to wait for you. We decided to meet a few hundred kilometres away in the ancient Silk Road town of Jiayuguan, the westernmost point of the great wall. Battling brutal character-building headwinds and slowing my pace to 10kmh, I made my way to that town relieved to be in my own company again. The night before I arrived I slept in possibly one of my favourite, most thought provoking campsites of the entire journey. Late in the day, cycling along, I was enjoying the cooler temperatures and orange hues cast out onto the landscape. The road was quiet, the scenery beautiful, I looked across the evening vista and saw a large earthen structure, like an old fort maybe 400m away from the road. Deciding it could make a good place to stop, I started cycling/dragging my bike towards it. Made up of a ditch, followed by a shorter eroded outer wall, then a much taller 3-4m high inner wall, it appeared to be an ancient Silk Road settlement. I went inside to check it out and it was perfect, three large walls and then a cliff which probably made this a superb defensive position, when there was water here… at the bottom of the cliff was a large dried up river bed. The floor of the settlement was covered in broken bits of patterned pottery, piles of stones against the walls showed that maybe structures with roofs had existed at some point. A few holes had been excavated, presumably by archaeologists or thieves with metal detectors and there was a metre-wide, maybe 10m deep well, which would have been incredibly easy to fall into had I not been looking at the ground. Cue the 127 Hours experience…

So I set up my tent and enjoyed the sunset, thinking about the lives that must have been lived out behind these walls, hundreds possibly thousands of years before, the only thing separating them from me being time. I could see them in my mind’s eye, living out their lives here walking where I was laying, making food, sitting together around fires, having children, mourning the dead, the trials and tragedies of life lived in those times long ago, much shorter and more brutal than today but maybe with a stronger sense of community than many places back home, maybe even more laughter and joy. Yet I thought about how lucky I am to have been born in this time and not in theirs, and to have been born in England, not western China. I could go on further, but the lottery of life has been incredibly good to me I think, just the fact that I am able to indulge myself in adventure is not lost on me and that’s why I find it so sad that many people are too afraid to travel or don’t believe that they could do something similar. Maybe they don’t realise that every one of their direct ancestors has survived long enough to produce progeny, making them the product of some incredibly tough and resilient individuals. We’re built to overcome struggle and discomfort, to strive. I doubt we are built to have a comfortable life, walking a little and sitting on a sofa for multiple hours a day. As I was thinking this the stars had come out, I was transported again to that different mental plain one can reside within when taking the time to look up at the Milky Way, that state of awe, when everything else slips away, there’s nothing left for it to cling to as you’re knocked onto your arse again, totally humbled, again seeing our amoeba-like position in the vast connected universe.
The next day I was in Jiayaguan where I rested for three days and saw the Great Wall for the first time. Although heavily restored, it still excites the imagination, it feels a little surreal, having heard about the Great Wall of China for most of your life, and there you are, standing on it. Jiayuguan marks the western end of the Great Wall built by the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century. The Jiayuguan fortress marks the end of the old empire where enemies of the emperor would be exiled to wander into the harsh wilderness of the Gobi.

From Jiayuguan I made my way to Zhangye where I organised a place to stay with a warm showers host in Xian, 1300km away. From Zhangye I left Gansu province for a little sliver of Qinghai province, the majority of which is upon the Tibetan plateau. This was the longer route, but it had mountains and mountains are always good, the scenery and people changed rapidly, yaks started to appear and people’s faces changed. I even bumped into a group of orange-robed monks at the top of a 3700m high pass, wondering why I was so tired and out of breath. I then saw the sign that displayed the altitude! Maybe it’s just my perception drawn from the stereotype of monks, but they seemed so relaxed, they gave off an aura of serenity and warmth which was infectious and almost palpable in the chilly mountain air. They took photos with me using their smartphones, gave me some food and water and then drove away, leaving me smiling at the experience.

Downhill I travelled where trees started to reappear and stunning rolling forest lined roads, rickety rope bridges, mountains and a river slowly gave way to villages and terraced fields, the reactions of villagers to my western face and odd house on wheels were sometimes amusing and often made me feel guilty for scaring them so much with my alien presence. Sometimes they would physically recoil in shock at the sight of me. Old ladies sitting on chairs against the front of their homes would squash themselves back against the wall in an attempt to get further away from my sweaty form, others would smile and coo in delight at the sight of me, the largest smile you’ve ever seen coupled with the kind of sound a grandmother would make when she sees a new born baby, the memory of which still makes me laugh out loud and grin ear to ear even now.

I had to remind myself how far removed these people were to the life I have experienced, just like everybody else but to an even greater extent these people had an utterly different version of reality within their heads than mine. I thought about the older people, all of whom had survived Mao’s brutal Great Leap Forward. Without regurgitating too much from Wikipedia, it started in 1957 and aimed to transform China’s economy from mostly agrarian to industrial but led to the deadliest famine in history, causing the deaths of more than 45 million people between the years of 1958-1962. Many of these older people I saw bore the physical trauma of growing up without enough food, their bow legs paying testament to the suffering they had endured.

Things have now changed and although some people in certain villages I’ve passed through obviously don’t have enough, the majority of people I’ve seen seem to have plenty of food, which can be excellent and a novel experience if you’re the only westerner in the whole restaurant. I remember one particular occasion in Gansu province, which is famous for its spicy beef noodles. I was in a small town, I had skipped breakfast that morning and was ravenous. Very rarely eating in restaurants, my willpower broke. In the middle of a small town, almost a village, I went into a restaurant to find some sustenance. It was busy, as it was lunch, full of people who worked at the market or at the farms. All eyes turned to me as I walked in, something I’m now used to, but still an odd feeling. Having 20 sets of eyes in a crowded room all piercing into your back as you look a menu you can’t read, all you can do is smile and say hello. People want to take photos with you and you kindly oblige. So I ordered a small plate of sliced pork belly and some spicy beef noodles, and sat down with a group of Chinese guys who looked like they either worked in the fields or as mechanics, all slurping their noodles and eating chunks of raw garlic along with it. With each mouthful of noodles, one of them would take bites out of an enormous spring onion. I felt comfortable but also like a fly on the wall in real Chinese life, not the life of the big city but the village, where everyone knows everybody, a normal experience that I’ll never forget.

From here I made my way towards the Maijishan grottos near the town of Tianshui in the south of Gansu province. A protrusion of rock with cliffs on all sides and a plateau on top surrounded by lush, almost rainforest-like vegetation. The cliffs are pockmarked with caves, 194 in total, and a large statue of the Bodhisattva on one side, created by Buddhist monks in the years of 384-417.

I spent a whole evening there and then in the last of the daylight went to look for a place to clean the days of sweat and road filth from my body, pushing my bike up a dirt path for 40 minutes following a stream until I could find a place to wash. Finally, I found a tiny waterfall after leaving my bike and pushing my way through thorn bushes and vegetation, desperate to get clean. The water felt ice cold compared to the humid air of the forest and with only the sound of insects and th water for company, I stood under the water until the cold forced me leave. That night I cooked a delicious dinner of rice with fried pork belly, aubergine, garlic, onion, soy sauce and honey… I woke up early the next morning with mist shrouding the wooded peaks that surrounded me. I decided to ride up into the cool cleansing fog through the pine forests echoing with birdsong to try and find a temple I had seen on the map at the top of one of the peaks. The road was utterly silent except for the sound of dew dripping from the trees and the beginnings of the morning chorus. When I arrived at the top there was a whole village up there, living what must be an incredibly peaceful existence. I’m sure you’re imagining a rustic Chinese village where everyone still uses horses and donkeys to get around, but no, there were cars in the driveways and probably a tv in every house. After walking up an incredibly slippery steep path through the woods, the temple revealed itself through the trees at the top of this peak, looking out over the forest.

This is where I shall leave you until my next post, which should be coming very soon.

*I’m now just a boat ride away from Japan, 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*

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.