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!

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.