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*

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!

Human kindness (again), and the meditative joys of cycling

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!

So, I’m in Kursk in Russia enjoying a day off, well organising/uploading photos and writing this post. Five days ago I was in Kiev, rushing around trying to see as much as possible, but then decided to take it more slowly and absorb more and leave bits for another time. I can’t believe how quickly that milestone has come and gone, soon I’ll be in Kazakhstan!

Kursk

Eleven days ago I was at the border between Poland and Ukraine with a Ukrainian lorry driver called Alexander whom I had persuaded to take me across after asking about six other drivers because you aren’t allowed to cross on a bicycle. Nine hours later and we were through, Gary the snail from Spongebob would have won in a race with me. I should have been in a really really bad mood considering I cycled in the rain all the way to the border but spirits were high rather than sodden.

Into the distance: Ukraine

I’ve been on the road for over five weeks now! It’s gone by in a flash yet it feels like I’ve been gone forever. I’ve seen so much! The easy part of the trip is gone I think, summer is coming to a close and autumn is falling. The trees have started their September and October shift to different hues of oranges, browns and reds. Over the past two weeks the mornings have gotten colder, which oddly I’ve been enjoying, although that might change… In the cosy warmth of my hosts’ home here in Kursk, they informed me that at 8am this morning it was 3°C… which will be perfect for my -18 sleeping bag as I’ve been waaaay too hot.

I have a feeling that the trip over the next month will transition to a point where the highs are much higher and the lows are much lower than they have been. The further east I go, the friendlier and warmer the people seem to become but obviously winter is coming and with it bitter cold and brutal, yet mindblowingly beautiful, landscapes. Over the past month I’ve been in the pleasant comfortable middle ground of Europe where everything is relatively familiar and neither overly exciting or overly boring, unlike the thousands of miles of Kazakh steppe ahead of me, which also oddly, I’m looking forward to. Now I’ve begun to boldly wander into the much wilder lands of the adventure, full of scary Russian people and bears and wolves… Before I do that and have almost no internet access I should probably let you all know how everything has gone up to this point.

First of all, as I was cycling through Europe, I was constantly reminding myself of how incredibly lucky I am to not have been born two or three generations ago. I’ve been acutely aware of the history I may have been cycling past, or maybe I should say I’ve been acutely aware of my huge ignorance of the history I’ve probably been cycling past, to the point of disgust that I don’t know more about the huge sacrifice that millions of people made within living memory. I intend to educate myself more on it after this journey.

Artwork in Ukraine

The adventure so far, plain and simple, has been brilliant. Getting out of your normal life and surroundings seems to bring such clarity of thought to your mind, much more often than you would in the humdrum of daily life and routine. Cycling almost seems to be meditative at times and I get these tendrils of creative thought rapidly weaving their way through my mind: ideas; ideas for the present, short, medium and long term future, I have a hard time keeping track of them and sometimes if they seem important enough I have to stop and write them down. As I mentioned before, I’ve also become aware of how important it is to be in the present, which can be difficult at times when you’re hungry and tired and worried about making up the miles to get through Russia before your visa expires!

Since my last post I’ve traversed two countries. As you’ve seen, peoples’ kindness is just incredible and continues to be so. They’re all routing for me and I’ve felt such a strong sense of support from so many strangers.
I want to thank Henrik and Elisa in Meiningen, Germany who I spent two nights and a day with. Even though Elisa was eight months pregnant they still warmly welcomed me into their home and since that time Elisa has given birth to a beautiful baby girl called Linnea! They cooked traditional German food and I was given an evening tour of the town. The next day they then cycled on their tandem 20km with me to say farewell and good luck. I can’t thank them enough.

Henrik and Elisa

Wild camping is illegal in Germany but I was never stopped, either because people are kind or because I’m too sneaky. Germany is beautiful, it seems to have it all and there isn’t enough space here to describe it.

Germany

Poland was very different to Germany, almost an instant change on crossing the border which I didn’t notice I had crossed until, about 2km in, I thought, ‘this doesn’t feel very German’. It is obviously a much poorer country and that’s not surprising considering how much it’s been beaten down throughout history, it hasn’t really had a chance to stand up. I had only my second day off after stopping in Wroclaw with Mateusz, whom I also found on the Warmshowers app. After a last minute request to stay he amazingly accepted and that evening took me on a tour around Wroclaw, he was a fantastic host, thank you Mateusz! I particularly enjoyed the vodka and beef tartare in the vodka bar and the shop-bought Bigos we both enjoyed.

Mateusz

The next day I had my broken spoke incident with my lack of tools which you can read about here. This taught me the wonderful lesson that apparent problems can lead you to the greatest tear-jerking experiences of human kindness.

After a few more days of wild camping I then stayed for a night in Lublin with Poweł, an acquaintance of someone I had also contacted on warmshowers. Talk about networking! Poweł is a vegan and cooked me a delicious homemade pizza for dinner from scratch, dough and all! And then a huge breakfast of coconut butter on bread with peanut butter, nuts, raisins and two bananas!

(CLICK the images to enlarge them!)

After Lublin I slept in my last wild camping spot in Poland, a fond farewell in utterly stunning surroundings.

My last camping spot in Poland

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

Part two of this post is coming soon!

Reality bubbles, mouldy chocolate cake and a fusion reactor: the things I’m enjoying the most

So an update on my progress… with an extra four days of preparation at home after cycling from London to my house in Kent I finally set off for Folkestone to spend the night there with Jane and Chris, the operators of an airfield and some friends of friends.

I can’t thank them enough, they fed me dinner and were excellent company, especially Jane’s 95-year-old father Henry, who recounted his experiences as a Lancaster bomber pilot and his four successful flights in the Pathfinders unit. Henry recounted his fifth flight where he was shot down above Berlin, I listened with mouth agape, in awe, I felt so lucky to hear this.I think it’s so rare to come across someone with those experiences, let alone one who is willing to share them with you. That night I slept under the wing of one of their planes that they fly.

My first night in a tent, near Dover

The next morning was a mad dash to Dover, catch the ferry to Dunkirk and then spend the whole day cycling and wondering what the hell I’m doing trying to cycle to Japan. I really didn’t enjoy that first day on the continent, but I think like most things in life that are challenging and worthwhile, the first time you start out probably won’t be much fun, you just have to persevere and you’ll be rewarded.

The next day I cycled through Bruges. Just as I expected, it was very charming, and I’ll have to go there again after I have this trip under my belt. That night I found a great wild camping spot 10km west of Gent, sat down for my stove cooked dinner of chickpeas, sardines and tabasco sauce, (not as bad as it sounds), and contemplated what I was doing and how to make the most of it.

I realised I had been worrying a lot, first about the unknown, what was to come in the next six months and secondly about the day to day problems like how to buy food without getting your bike nicked. I decided to just accept that there will be bad days, when I’m hungry and thirsty and cold and tired and lonely but that they will all be worth it for the people I’m going to meet, the stunning landscapes and night skies I’m going to see and what I will learn about myself while I experience all of this.

Brussels was my next stop but I needed some water and didn’t want to buy any. Instead, I turned around and cycled 100m back to a hotel I had seen, you never know…

Norbert’s delicious food

The man who owned the hotel – his name was Norbert – seemed shocked and amazed by the scale of the challenge ahead of me, but told me that of course I could have some water. When he came back he had two bananas and an orange with him. This act of kindness put a massive smile on my face and confirmed in me why I was doing this. I sat down, was about to start eating when Norbert came out again with a full plate of food, something that looked like a chicken casserole, I was elated, I couldn’t believe the random kindness I was experiencing, my day went from a good day to an amazing day. I sat and enjoyed my meal and spoke to Norbert who told me he used to be the chef for the Belgian cycling team. Again I felt so lucky to meet such great people.

Onto Brussels, where I spent my first night behind solid brick walls rather than a layer of fabric. I stayed with Benoît, the brother of my best friend’s girlfriend, and his wife Anne-Lynne. They were both incredibly supportive of my project and took me out to dinner, gave me breakfast and lunch to take with me the following day, and donated to my two charities!

Again, I was amazed by peoples’ hospitality, I can’t thank them enough. The next night I camped within 30 metres of a motorway in a small clump of trees completely invisible to anyone, and slept like a baby. The night after that it was another farmer’s field, and now here I am in Germany, another night wild camping enjoying eating dinner in the dusk, under a pink star-spotted sky, with nature’s evening chorus in full swing.

So what am I enjoying about the trip so far? The wildlife. People watching. The exercise. The unfounded fears being dissolved. I’m enjoying the sunsets, seeing that giant fusion reactor that hangs in the sky get redder and redder as it slowly dips below the horizon. I’m enjoying cycling through people’s bubbles of reality, for me I get to see the roads, landscapes and the people change, and even the smells from the various restaurants, urging me to go in. Yet, the people I go past know each of these places as their homes where everything is more or less permanent and they except that that’s the way it is. I already miss the silky smooth cycle lanes of the Dutch parts of Belgium, now I’m mostly confined to the edge of the white line.

The bike seems to be holding up well with its 40kg of luggage attached to it like some sort of giant parasite.

What am I eating on my travels, you might ask? Mainly rice, for breakfast lunch and dinner.

Breakfast: Rice with cinnamon, allspice, mixed nuts and honey, and a cup of coffee.

Lunch: Rice with a tin of fish and some chopped vegetables. Dinner: Rice with tinned tomatoes some spices and whatever I’ve bought, maybe some sausage or fish. Plus some ketchup because I’m immature.

Snacks: A piece of fruit and some nuts, the flapjacks my grandmother made me disappeared three days ago and are sorely missed. The last mouldy piece of chocolate cake that my mum baked for me I ate two days ago, mould scraped off. It was still delicious and I feel fine.

Also, I smell. Bad. But, I’m having a terrific time, so it’s all okay.

More photos to come!

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Please head to my Virgin Money giving page to donate. Over the course of my trip, I’m hoping to raise at least £5,000 for CLIC Sargent and Hope and Homes for Children.

Beginning of a 9000 mile journey

On Tuesday 14th August I officially began my solo cycle tour from London to Tokyo. The boiling cauldron of emotions mainly consists of pure excitement, fear, curiosity, trepidation and relief to finally be setting off after having the idea seven months ago back in frosty January.

Knowing that I had been planning to travel ‘to I didn’t know where’ the idea instantly took root in my mind and I knew I wouldn’t be able to brush it off, deep down I already knew I was going to do it but most of me wanted to resist such a seemingly mammoth undertaking and the planning required to make it happen… But here I am, writing this post after cycling from London to my home in Kent, 50 miles down, 8950 to go. Most essential trip items purchased, including a Russian and Chinese visa, I’m anxious that I’ve forgotten something crucial to the trip or dilemmas such as how many pairs of pants should I take, two maybe? I remember my old geography teacher reminiscing about a mountaineering trip, he proudly recounted to the class how many days he could wear one pair of pants, here is the method for anyone that’s interested:

Day one: wear your pants

Day two: wear the pants back to front

Day three: turn the pants inside out

Day four: wear the pants inside out and back to front

Day five: Burn the pants with fire/send them in the post to someone you don’t like, or wash them if you’re on a long expedition.

I’m sure the details will work themselves out along the way. Right now I have some last minute packing and organising to do…