Monday, 21 December 2015 11:30

Entering Laos was quite relaxed. I had forgotten to bring a passport photo for the visa, so popped into the emigration office where one of the police shot a picture, gave me 4 copies and charged just 2$. The pictures were pretty poor and certainly wouldn't have passed any European quality control. At the border we met a convoy of various European overlanders who had entered China from Mongolia and then whizzed through the country in order to keep down the number of days and their expensive guide fee. People cannot travel through China in their own vehicle without a guide.

Laos was warm and seemed even hotter and more humid than China had been. The only road from the border at Boten was quiet and had reasonable asphalt and soon I reached Nateuy which was a perfect lunch stop with a local restaurant overlooking the small river. 

The evening brings me to Oudomxay where I book a room at the only 4* hotel in the whole province. For only 31$ it was suitably nice and was a good change from the standard Chinese hotel.

Laos was notably poorer than China and it was rare to find a house that wasn't constructed from wood or bamboo. The people however were just as friendly and I soon got used to the shouts of 'Saibadee' from the children. There also seemed to be a local delicacy - dried rat which were visible on many roadside stalls:

 Houses were pretty basic:

Kids were friendly and fun:

The scenery was beautiful and up in the hills it was pleasantly cool - indeed sometimes even a light jacket was needed before sunset. Larger villages offered some kind of basic guesthouse and restaurant, so the basics were also taken care of allowing me to enjoy the riding. I got particularly lucky one morning when looking for a breakfast stop as I came across one of the most spectacular views in the crisp early morning light:

Laos is perhaps most famous for the UNESCO world heritage site of Luang Prabang. Entering the town, you are suddenly met with hundreds of tourists and a collection of refined western orientated restaurants lining the main street. Banana pancakes, pizza and other such goodies are the order of the day here. The town has retained its charm however and it was a treat to have a wide selection of different cuisines and to relax a little whilst watching the sun go down over the Mekong:

One of the most famous 'Wats' in Luang Prabang:


The road to Kasi is also quiet and offers more hills. Back in 1999 when I passed through here with my bike, this stretch was particularly dangerous with bus drivers carrying guns to defend themselves and their passengers against the bandits. 16 years on and the area was at least to my eyes very peaceful and I had no fear of trouble despite the relative isolation. Indeed this time around the only guns I saw were plastic ones.

Vang Vieng had spent time as a backpacker paradise with drugs and alcohol, but after a crackdown by the authorities was now transformed back again to a relatively peaceful riverside town - as it had been in 1999. It was clear many people were suffering from the drop in tourist numbers and rip offs and scams seemed to be the order of the day. This is a shame as the nature there is particularly attractive despite being out of the mountains:



From here Laos becomes flatter and any excursion outside brings the body to a sweat. At least cycling generates a half cooling wind. It was time for a last few races with the locals, before passing quickly through the capital Vientiane:

The non cyclists mostly had umbrellas:

Just an hour later I had reached the nearby Thai border at Nong khai. No visa was required to Thailand and I was granted a 30 day stay.

Monday, 21 December 2015 03:15

From the Tiger Leaping Gorge, an old boat takes people across the river from where we headed south and over a huge pass into Yulong Snow Mountain Scenic area a Chinese AAAAA classified scenic area. On the road passing through here, there was already the toll booth where they demanded a hefty fee for entering the park. As we just wanted to cycle through, we spent a long time negotiating and as it was almost dark and starting to rain, they agreed to waive the fee and allow us in. Fortunately we found an old and unused hotel of sorts which offered a dry camping spot and some great views:

 

Inside the park we passed by a pretty pool area from where the shuttle buses to the glacier park left from. The area was heaving with Chinese tourists following their flag wielding guides and wearing thick borrowed jackets so they would not freeze up at the glacier. It was as entertaining watching these people and their selfie taking as it was looking at the rock pools:

The next town on the Yunnan tourist trail is Lijiang which is on the UNESCO world heritage list and famous for its systems of waterways and bridges. More than anywhere else, Lijiang is heaving with chinese visitors and contains a large pedestrian area with 'old' buildings which I personally suspect are not so old. There are flowers growing everywhere and a network of small canals in which young children urinate. It is clear why this is a chinese favourite. The shops have a repeating nature and sell either drums, yak products, textiles, silver or some kind of food. I enjoyed strolling around, but Doctor and Pink Cheeks found the place way too cheesy and preferred to chill in the courtyard of our guesthouse.

 

Heading south the countryside remained attractive, the high mountains became more like hills and we descended to just over 2000m. The scenery is pretty and there is a lot of agriculture:

Erhai Lake is another visitor magnet and again the more sporty Chinese come here with their bikes and ride along the lakeside. It was really relaxing cycling with some constant nice views of the lake:

Dali is the last town on the Yunnan tourist trail and was something of a mix between Shangri-La and Lijiang. Similarly however it also had thousands of chinese tourists jostling down the narrow pedestrian streets.

I had no expectations for the rest of China, but the days cycling south of Dali towards Laos, were also a real treat. The climate became warmer and more humid.  Manjinglancun is one of the larger towns here and is a renowned destination for the migration of wealthy Chinese from the north. In their cold winter time they come here to seek the warmth and indeed in early November it was pleasant in the evening with just a t-shirt.

South of here is a further amazing piece of road construction. Through the rolling hills, a large highway has been built. Huge sections are on stilts or in tunnels. The old road still exists and of course as the spirit of the trip is to avoid large roads and travel the roads less used, this was the choice. It was narrow and went up and down every small hill. In parts it was being reconstructed for whatever reason and became like a mudbath in the rain. Nonetheless it provided several days of memorable riding. The main road would have been much easier....but what is the point in cycle touring if you are riding main roads???

Finally the border was in site and it was almost with reluctance that I passed through the smooth proceedings and crossed into Laos, but not of course before enjoying a final Chinese kebab ;-)

Monday, 26 October 2015 10:47

The following 2 weeks of cycling from Yushu was some of the best cycling we had done. We were blessed with sunny skies and despite climbing passes over 4500m, we could comfortably bike in shorts. The roads were quiet, food good, people friendly and the tibetan culture fascinating. This was certainly no longer China and we were greeted with waves and 'Tashi Deleg'. The first day from Yushu took us to Xiewu where we stayed in the only hotel in town. It occupied a large building in the centre of the small town and the rooms were on the first floor. It had no reception but a couple of guys who took some money off us and showed us to a room. We walked along the decrepit corridor and were shown a room with damp walls and basic beds. It was our only choice. We checked out our neighbours and this is what we found.........



The following day also presented us with blue skies and smooth roads. This evening could not have been more different though. We rolled into Serxu to find hundreds of cars and thousands of people. It was some kind of 4 day festival at the monastry here which is the largest outside of Tibet.

The surrounding meadows were full of tents and amazingly we managed to get a room at the hotel adjoining the monastry. It was a fascinating place and was a feast for the eyes and ears. As the only foreigners in town we were also quite an attraction and had many photos taken - some by more brave people who asked and others simply photos taken at any opportunity. Although not as bad as the Chinese, the Tibetans also offer little in the way of personal privacy.

We continued via Cacagoin and Zhuqin to Garze from where we then headed down the beautiful Yalong Canyon. The road was precariously built at the bottom of the cliff and although generally descending was a tough road with lots of ups and downs. On the other side of the river were various villages and every now and then a suspension bridge would lead across the river.

We camped on that side on a grassy ledge and on our second night in the canyon took advantge of some local hospitality. The people in the small village were very happy to put us up. We were invited into a grand house with typical local architecture where we were fed and given a huge room to sleep in in a seperate building. The whole house seemed set up for entertaining guests and along with us were several monks from the local monastry were also staying there. Sleeping was done on a mattress on the same bench as where guests sat to eat.


Cycling under blue skies and with some cute animals:

Nights were cold however and mornings frosty:

Litang was the next stop where my friend Pink Cheeks finally caught up with us. He had had to buy a new flight from London and this time chosen not to fly via Russia. Litang was a town under construction and nearly all the roads were being dug up. There were lots of cute and interesting shops though, all of which I found had very practical names and were very helpful to the tourist. Certainly the names were much helpful than something like 'Debenhams' or 'Migros'.


After another few days cycling with more mountains we were hit by some bad weather and had snow and rain to negotiate:

We weren't the only ones affected....these poor people had booked an outdoor wedding:

We also slowly came out of the tibetan influenced area and into a section of more mainstream tourism. Shangri-La is the start of this and is a small town being expanded with huge modern buildings. The wooden 'old town' was recently caught up in a fire and many of the buildings which were razed are now being reconstructed. From here we took a very scenic back road to the Tiger Leaping gorge whic now has a government controlled entry on the road demanding a totally unjustified 65 RMB (7 Euro). The gorge itself hwever is spectacular and has an impressive hiking trail partly cut into the wall.

It is a popular hike amongst the more active chinese people and the locals charge a small fee for the use of the trail which passes through their land. We stayed at Sean's guest house which is the oldest in the area and offers delicious food and amazing views of the gorge.

A tibetan face: 

 Tibetan architecture:

Saturday, 10 October 2015 10:30

The road to China was flat with a steady flow of traffic which eased off as the border neared. Leaving Kazakhstan was easy and the customs officer was an older chap who no longer needed a power trip. Instead he chatted to us about our journey for a while and as a token gesture scanned the front panniers before waving us on our way. The Chinese side was also quite easy and the no mans land this time consisted of a 6km long stretch of road that winded around before coming back to around 300m from where it started. The Chinese were efficient and in no time we entered the western side of the border town Horgos which was a concrete jungle with wide avenues, banks, shops and lots of high rise buildings. It was like arriving on a different planet. We certainly had not expected this from the small border town marked on the map.

Having got our first taste of chinese food, we set about finding a hotel. A very helpful man in a restaurant cycled down the busy main street with us and showed us the hotel. After requiring around 10 minutes to establish the price of a room, the owner suddenly made a total U-turn and told us that we could not stay there. Perhaps he did not like cyclists or we looked too dirty? Whatever the reason we had to continue our search. Having been turneed away by a further 2 hotels, we found someone who spoke good enough english to explain. A hotel has to have a special licence to accept foreigners. Most hotels do not have this and hence we could not stay. The only hotel in Horgos for foreigners was back near the border. Not wanting to backtrack we pushed on and camped on the edge of a vineyard. Many of our chosen roads were quiet and often had been taken over for the drying of corn.

The cycling in Western China was ideal with good roads and plentiful food. My now long term travelling companion Doctor Hush Bol and myself spent a few days in Urumqi to plan the rest of the China section and to learn chinese. We found many good teachers and soon were quite fluent in certain areas of the language. Teachers were to be found in coffee shops, restaurants or bars and all were very helpful in teaching us a few words, and those that had a better grasp of english could also explain some of the quite logical and simple grammar.

To get out of the city for a bit, we cycled up to Tien Shan National Park with the hope of a scenic overnight camp at the lake surrounded by mountains. It was mainly a pretty grim ride and it was astounding how much dirty industry and power stations were around. As we got around 15km from our destination, we were turned around by the police who explained in chinese and with hand gestures, that only guests in the official national park bus may continue. There was no possibility of a bribe or negotiation, so we had no choice but to turn back. After a nevertheless scenic camp in a meadow, we headed down to the official ticket office which was a monstrosity of a building with hundreds of national tourists bustling around. We enquired about tickets on the official bus, but learning that these cost nearly 40 euros, we declined and headed back to the city.

This it turns out is a typical chinese tourism scenario. People are packed into groups and made to take some official bus or tour. It was amazing that so many people were paying so much to go up to a lake for a few hours (It is also not possible to stay up there). Judging by how they were dressed to go up into the mountains, they also do not do much other than drink some tea and take some pictures with their 2 fingers in the air.

Fancy national park ticket office:

A friend was meant to arrive in Urumqi on Saturday, however I received the news shortly beforehand that he had been refused boarding in Heathrow as he had no Russian transit visa. Unfortunately, as he was connecting via an internal flight in Russia, a transit visa was necessary which he did not have. No visa = no fly. 

As we had now seen enough of Urumqi, we battled with hundreds of Chinese and bought some tickets to Xining. This was quite a major project and only with the help of a couple of queuing english speakers was this possible. Urumqi is also full of security due to ongoing tensions between the Urgur population and the chinese. There are tanks in the streets, all shops have riot shields, batons and helmets at the door and to get to the ticket office requires x-rays of bags and multiple ID checks. Having got our tickets, we checked in our bikes hoping that we would see them again in Xining..... 

Here a typical shop doorway:


Several hours later we were in the luxury of the soft sleeper down to Xining. This is an excellent railway experience and was a really comfortable way to travel. We had a private 4 berth compartment to ourselves and passed the time with food, sleep, music and the occasional walk to the toilet where we could further practice some chinese.

Waitin for the bikes....luckily they arrived :-)



Xining is a fairly non-descript town with a monastry and acts as quite a busy transport hub. It sits at over 2000m so was good acclimatisation before heading up to the Tibetan plateau.

Xining:

From here we took the overnight bus to Yushu. This was a specially modified bus with 80% reclined beds, 3 abreast with 2 corridors and 2 levels. The bus was comfortable enough and we stowed the bikes safely underneath. We unexpectedly stopped around 2am for a 4 hour break whilst both drivers slept. This meant it took 16 hours to reach Yushu.

Yushu is a modern town as it was totally destroyed in an earthquake several years ago. There is still some construction ongoing, but it is now very welcoming with several hotels and restaurants. It lies at 3700m and is scenically surrounded by some low hills. After a day to recover from the bus journey and acclimatise, it was time to put the panniers back on the bike and start pedalling again. 

Pretty town of Yushu with the monastry in the background:

Tuesday, 22 September 2015 15:12

The first day in Kazakhstan brought rain, cloud and mist and to head to the Kazakh 'Grand Canyon' in these conditions would have been a waste, so instead we took a ride to Almaty and sat out the low pressure front there for a few days. Almaty is a functional city and has hundreds of bars, cafes and restaurants. It is by far the most developed and cleanest of all the Stan cities so far and has a mix of Kazakhs and Russians along with a few expats mainly working in oil and gas. To the south is the Ile Alatau National Park where there is some limited hiking and skiing in winter.

We left Almaty and headed on some long flat roads back to the east of the country and descended down to Charyn Canyon. It is indeed just like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon but has far less tourists and a much less developed infrastructure. We camped at the bottom with some locals from Almaty and awoke to the glowing canyon walls in the morning sun.

 

After some porridge for breakfast, we climbed back up out of the canyon and headed north on a gravel road through the desert landscape. It was fairly empty other than some desert squirrels which would whistle in warning to each other on our approach and then scuttle off into their holes.

 

The rest of the day brought a mix of scenic nature north along the canyon and then a wicked headwind to test our mettel before dusk.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015 15:02

After 8 days and close to 2000km we gave back the beast in Bishkek. As it happened the following day was Kyrgyz national day, so we hung around to experience the celebrations. One of the main attractions of the day is the large competition of kok-boru which is a game where 2 teams on horseback try to get a headless goat into the opposing teams end zone. It is a high action game and the small stadium was packed for the event.

The evenings entertainment was less full of action and the singing from the large stage quickly became quite dull and the absence of any food or beer stands did not help. It seemed however at least to be popular amongst the locals.

After another relaxing day in Bishkek at a brand new hostel we got back on the bikes and headed the long way round to Almaty. The lake Issyk Kul to the east of Almaty is the major tourist draw in Kyrgyzstan particularly for Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and Russians. In the summer months it is apparantly so full that it is difficult to get a room. We arrived however stratgically after most had left and had for lunch the beach to ourselves and our pick of rooms in Chopon Ata the main town. The lake made a refreshing swim after a long day on the bike.

The next place we stayed was less glamorous. it was marked on the open street map as a hotel which maybe it was 20 years ago. We were met at the gate by a vicious dog, closely followed by an old man. We got a serious of 'niet' on our demands for a room and only after several minutes could we persuade him to let us in. The hotel itself had vast gardens leading directly to the lake but was in quite a state of disrepair. Only the threatening dark clouds persuaded us to take the room here rather than camp. The room had fake curtains in all the walls which had probably once been stylish, but now just served as hiding place for spiders and their cobwebs. Our host provided no food, so after rustling up another rice dish, we gingerly lay on top of the beds in our sleeping bags and enjoyed a surprisingly good sleep.

The following day turned into an epic as we pressed on to cross the border. The riding was some of the nicest though and after leaving the lake we had green pastures with farms, animals and little traffic as we headed up the broad valley to the border. The smooth asphalt turned into a more standard Kyrgyzstan rock road and a nasty headwind developed, but none of this detracted from our enjoyment. The border was relatively simply except for having a young power hungry customs guy. These types are always the most annoying as they like to exert their authority for no other reason than to annoy the traveller or in this case to seemingly impress his boss showing that he was disecting the contents of all our panniers. Eventually we repacked and headed the 20m to Kazakhstan where an older version of the Kyrgyz guy tried doing the same. He wasn't quite on the same power trip though and we could persuade him that everything had just been searched, it was cold and we still had over 20km into a headwind to ride!

As such we rolled into Kegen quite late, but managed to find the only hotel again thanks to it being located on Open Street Maps. On the outside it looked like a decrepit karaoke hall, but round the back was a small door leading to some quite acceptable hotel rooms.

We ate in the otherwise empty karaoke hall and were served a particularly greasy and cold plov. Despite being hungry we managed no more than a few spoonfulls of this revolting dish before heading back to the room and digging in to some snacks. It was not the best introduction to Kazakh cuisine.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015 14:44

Tajikistan had been a hard ride mainly due to the altitude, the bad food (and lack of it) and the tough roads. It had also taken much longer than expected and the word from other travellers was that Kyrgyzstan was not much better. I was also feeling quite exhausted and generally in need of a break by the time I arrived in Kyrgyzstan. Andreas was feeling the same way and so it was at this point we decided to trade our 2 wheels in for 4 :-) (and with an engine!).

Osh is the first big city after the Pamirs and was again another sanctuary of decent food, warm showers and supermarkets which we enjoyed for a couple of days whilst sorting our further travel plans. From Osh we took a short and scenic 40 minute fight to Bishkek where we had arranged to pick up a car. We were met at the airport and presented with a huge petrol guzzling 4wd Toyota which was to be our home for the next week. It was a real beast with a roaring V8 engine and actually due to its weight and size fairly unsuitable for the very rough and technical roads to come.

To be sat in air conditioned luxury and cruising over the passes out of Bishkek was a real luxury. We loaded up with food and ate like we hadn't been fed for years. We returned to Osh and collected our bags and bikes and then took the road through Kazarman which heads directly east through the center of the country. This road is really scenic and hilly and would have taken many days on the bikes rather than the one day we had to drive through. At Ak-Tal we found a perfect camping spot off the road, cooked some good food and admired the scenic tranquility. Unfortunately in the morning we realised that our car battery was dead so we were stuck here slightly longer than expected. We quickly found however a passing Lada who happily went out of his way to drive down to our campsite and help us. As we had no jump leads, we swapped the batteries to get ourselves going. It was quite amusing having our big high tech Japanese beast rescued by this old soviet lada :-)

Kyrgyzstan has few attractions as such and the main pull here is the nature and outdoor activities. It really is a beautiful country and the scenery ranges from glacier covered mountains to alpine meadows where nomads live with their yurts and animals. One of the tourist pulls is the old 15th century stone built caravanserei of Tash Rabat which now has a couple of yurt camps nearby to accomodate the visitors. It is situated at over 3000m and due to an impending storm we also headed to the yurt camp where we caught up with Chris again. Chris has riden his motorbike from Northern England and we had last met in Dushanbe. He was meeting a self organised group of motorbikers who had clubbed together for a guide to take them through China and on to the Karakorum Highway to pakistan.

The decision to stay in a yurt proved to be a good one. In the evening the fire was lit and the yurt became like an oven. It was too hot to sleep and we opened the door only to be waken a few hours later to an icy wind and freezing cold temperatures. The roof of the yurt blew in the gale and even one of the supporting struts became dislodged. Although it was still August, it showed what a harsh environment it is where these people live all year.

The next stop from the caravanserei was the lake of Song Kul. The road up there from Naryn is spectacular and reminded me of the road up the Alpe D'huez except the many hairpins were cut into a narrow gorge which opened up towards the top. Song Kul is a lake surrounded by mountains and despite several yurt camps, there didn't seem to be much food on offer so we cooked our own fine meal of rice and beans at the lake front. We had sheep, goats, donkeys and horses all begging for leftovers.

 

Thursday, 20 August 2015 06:22

In Khorog I met up with Andreas from Switzerland and we headed up the Wachan together for the next few days. The road is amazingly good (partly asphalt) and continues to follow the Afghan border and the River Panj. It was interesting to see life on the Afghan side and the small villages and people walking along the donkey tracks in seemingly totally out of the way places. The Wachan has a good network of homestays where for 10-15 USD you can stay with the family in their house. The tourism authorities here have given them a basic training in hygiene, food preparation and english so although very basic, you can be guaranteed something to eat and a floor to sleep on. All had some kind of shower ranging from cold water in a bucket to the more advanced double bucket system where one of the buckets had heated water from a wood fired stove.

The small town of Iskashim is the capital of the Wachan and hosts on Saturdays a cross border market with Afghanistan. Here wares can be exchanged between the countries on a neutral bit of land in the middle of the river. This market however has now been cancelled for several weeks and it was no differeent when we arrived. The reason why is probably more complicated than most people know and we only heard it was due to "issues on the Afghan side". Apparantly the Taliban is also now only 50km away from here.

From the Wachan the road climbs up to the main Pamir Highway M41 which has the luxury of being mainly asphalted. The first town is Alichur which sits at 3800m and is a random collection of single story homes on the plain. The elevation has the advantage of being able to buy snickers without them melting and indeed Alichur boasted the first shop since Khorog where the snickers were not horribly out of date!
Alichur is also the start of the Kyrgyz part of Tajikistan and the people were notably different looking and the land was dotted with yurts. Unofficially everything from here also runs on Kyrgyz time (an hour ahead). The hospitality was just the same and this partly made up for the struggles on the road with the altitude and headwinds. Yak meat and jogurt became a staple part of the menu here too.

 

The town of Murghab is the capital of the Eastern Pamir and has a proper hotel and a bazar which is run out of truck containers. As in all towns through C.Asia, this is the place to go to find anything you need from food and clothes to money changers.

From here the highway continues past a scneic lake to the Kyrgyzstan border which is a quiet collection of buildings near the top of the pass. Seemingly only a few overlanders come through here but the formalities were simple and to enter Kyrgyzstan we didn't even need a visa. On descending to Sary Tash, the first town in Kyrgyzstan, there are spectacular views of some 7000m mountains including the Lenon which is the tallest in Kyrgyzstan and attracts many climbers as it is a fairly non technical mountain to summit.

Thursday, 20 August 2015 06:10

From Denau it was a short ride of just under 40km to the Tajik border. I changed the remaining wad of som and headed all prepared to the customs house. I had expected the worst and hoped for the best and it was the latter which was the reality. In under an hour I had left Uzbekistan and was legally stamped into Tajikistan. Some cheesy smiles and lavish praise of their country had certainly helped.

The M41 road immediately became much smoother with even a proper verge to ride on. There were no longer the numerous Ladas which had been so present in Uzbekistan and there was marginally less shouting. The shops here also seemed to be better equipped and it was now possible to even find cold drinks.

Dushanbe is a fairly compact capital with some grand statues, greenery and a flagpole which was at one time the tallest in the world. This is where the interest ended however and a day later I was back on the road again.Leaving Dushanbe

At the Greenhouse hostel, I hooked up with Dan and Ritzo and we spent the next 5 days on the road together. From Dushanbe there is a good asphalt road out to a small mountain town towards Obigarm. It was good cycling and exciting to watch the mountains getting closer and closer. The children here are greeting the foreign passer by with a genuine ecitement and their vocabulary stretches to `hello' and `goodbye' which they have to shout very quickly depending on the speed you are cycling!

The next destination was Kalaikhum which is a town on the Aghanistan border where 2 roads meet. From Dushanbe there is what is known as the northern and southern routes to this town. The southern route is now the main road and although nearly 100km longer, has a better surface and is less hilly. We therefore took the northern route to challenge ourselves and mainly to enjoy the better scenery with the highlight being the 3252m pass.

On paper it was a 3 day ride to Kalaikhum but with cycle touring, km don't tell the whole story. After the first day we had only broken roads and stones to contend with and one day, we actually managed less than 40km. We also came across plenty of chewing gum roads as we called them. These are roads that have got some kind of cheap asphalt that actually seems to melt in the sun. When you ride on these roads it feels as though your bike is being sucked into the ground! Food was also a challenge, and it became clear that if we did not find any place to eat lunch we would have to cook ourselves. To cycle the whole day and live on snickers for lunch was not sustainable.


The rewards for the strain however were generous. We met lovely people, had quiet roads and enjoyed spectacular lush alpine like scenery.

Camping was fun and we always found a good spot where in some cases the local children would appear from nowhere and help us clear a space and set up camp. They would then sit around mesmerised by us cooking and just before dark politely bid farewell.

We made the 1600m descent of the pass and rolled into Kalaikhum an hour before dark. We were all tired and hungry. After sorting a homestay we went to eat with some other foreigners at the only place in town which seemed to be serving food. After a long wait we were presented with some chicken, greasy chips and some salad. Normally I would avoid meat and salad in such places. If you are to witnesss kitchens here you would know why! However tonight, I was so hungry, that I broke the rule - greasy chips alone were not going to do it for me and some protein was needed for recovery.

The next morning Dan and myself awoke feeling quite ill. It was the feeling that something was in my stomach that shouldn't be there and had to come out. And it did not want to come out the normal route. To cut the gory details, we spent a further 2 days in this small town, mainly sleeping and making regular visits to the toilet. It wasn't ideal and left our already tired bodies feeling even weaker.

From Kalaikhum it was another few days on the road to Khorog. It is unbelievable that this is the main road through the country, but it is undisputably attractive. Afghanistan was now just a stone throw away across the river and tensions were clear by the large military presence on the Tajik side.
Khorog is a medium side town with a pleasant park in the city, a university and the first people wearing western style clothes for some time. Seeing women walking around in jeans was quite a culture shock now. The town is spectacularly surrounded my mountains and although at over 2000m, daytime temperatures were still getting into the 30s.
From speaking to travellers coming the other way, we learnt that july had been a nasty month in the Pamirs. High temperatures combined with lots of rain had caused a lot of flooding. The most tragic had been just 20km from here where a lake had burst its banks and wiped away half a village. Fortunately due to an early warning system, the residents could escape in time, but around 200 were left homeless. We visited the site and an entire 2km stretch of the M41 Pamir highway had simply disappeared. In its place was now a lake. It will be months until this is repaired and for now all the heavy trucks from China are having to take the very technical route along the Wachan Valley which we would later be also travelling.

Pamir Highway has gone
Khorog was a great spot for meeting a host of interesting overlanders. There were cyclists, motorbikers and jeeps from all over the world meeting here to exchange route information and tales from the road. The Swiss motorbike group we had met in Khalaikum had also left their bikes here and we were later to learn one of the guys had crashed and been expatriated back on the road here.
After a few days of rest however it was time to continue and head up the Wachan Valley.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015 05:26

Samarkand is essentially a city and at least for me did not quite have the charm and small town feel of Bukhara. The historic part is well preserved and is partly still in the process of being renovated. It was good to relax at Bahodir and take evening strolls in the cooler evening air. The cyclists I had met in Bukhara, Dan and Ritzo left a couple of days before me as their Tajik visas were already valid. Then Patrick and Andreas from Berne and Disentis respectively turned up. Andreas had independently followed Patrick overland from Switzerland hearing various stories through Serbia, Turkey and Iran from other travellers about him, but this was actually the first time they met and my first time since leaving home to hear Schwiizerduutsch again. 

After several days break here and unashamed amounts of ice cream, beer and pizza, I headed back out to the real Uzbekistan. The following days were again hot and the daily rhythm was to leave early (around 5am), relax somewhere from 11am - 5pm and then cycle the second shift. The people here are amazingly kind and hospitable. I was put up in someones house where the wife was celebrating her birthday. It was approaching darkness and I had asked where I could pitch my tent when the invitation came. Not only did I get a bed (futon on the floor), but also copious amounts of food. On the road there are simply so many invites for grapes or melon that most simply have to be declined with a polite wave of the hand.

Other than for overlanders travelling between Europe and Asia, Uzbekistan will never make it as a major cycle touring destination. Even the main roads can be quite rough and after a solid section of asphalt, gravel and stones can appear for several km without notice. The landscape also becomes relatively monotonous with days of flat roads flanked by cotton fields and sporadic houses. The cyclist here is for many like some kind of zoo animal to be shouted at, hooted at and laughed at. The intention is in most cases good, but after a while it becomes tedious and any of these actions were simply ignored unless they were in my immediate field of vision, when they would get a 'hello' in return. Perhaps more annoying and certainly more dangerous are the small shared taxis (marshrutkas as they are called here) which, at the site of a potential passenger, can pull out or pull in at no notice. Other interesting highlights here were:

* Huge quantities of money and the black market. The official rate is 2500 Som / USD but on the black market you can get up to 4300. Changing 50 USD gives you a huge wad of notes as the highest note in common circulation is the 1000 Som.

50 USD in Uzbek Som

* Constant offers of handshakes as if you are a close long lost pal.

* Deep drop toilets.

 A classic and particularly clean 'long drop'

* Plov, lagman and somsas - the national dishes which have fueled me through the country.

* Many weddings and bridal clothing shops.

* Bed like eating areas at the tea houses where you can eat and then lie down for a siesta:

Time for a siesta

I covered the ground to the border quicker than exected and passed through a particularly scenic mountain area around Derbent:

Scenic sunset on the road to Derbent

I spent the extra days in Termiz and Denau, which according to a fellow cyclist has the best supermarket this side of Georgia!

Both towns offered a taste of normal urban Uzbek life and the sanctuary of my own hotel room away from any interrogations and prying eyes.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015 07:20

Bukhara is a fairly compact town with a maze of back streets for getting lost in and an ample supply of UNESCO acclaimed restored buildings. At night the main pedestrian street comes alive with kids driving small electric cars, locals walking up and down and old ladies selling various trinkets. It was a nice atmosphere and a perfect place to unwind for a few days in the company of some other Europeans. 

It also seems to be one of the meeting points of the cycling touring community. Dan from the UK grew up 20km from myself and has cycled here from Manchester. His ongoing route looks very similar to mine, so we will no doubt meet on the road again. (He left Bukhara a day before me) Ritzo from Holland is also heading to the Pamirs.

The days here were also relatively cool due to some whispy clouds covering the sky. Apparently the temperatures in Uzbekistan are regularly fudged in the summer as the government has to pay workers more when it hits 40C.  There are therefore many days where the mercury peaks at 39C!

From Bukhara it is around 270km on to Samarkand. The countryside is relatively monotonous and flat, but the cycling here is never dull. The locals shout repeatedly 'hello' and deeper conversations then go onto 'hat kuda' meaning 'where are you from'. Having got bored with the standard 'anglia', I researched a few other countries in my dictionary and then used these for variety. Bus stops here are a welcome retreat. They mostly offer good shade and a chance to cool down, relax and snack on whatever may be found in your panniers.

Vehicle maintenance Uzbekistan style:

Vehicle maintenance Uzbek style

After an overnight in Navoiy, I arrived early evening to Samarkand and Bahodir hostel to catch old friends and meet new friends. The staff in the hotel in Navoiy had served me a huge breakfast at 4:30 am which had set me up well for dealing with another day of headwinds. The shady courtyard of Bahodir was full of bikes and new guests are offered watermelon, wafers and tea - just what was needed after over 12 hours on the road.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015 07:01

Passing the border took just over an hour. There were many police, customs officers and other bored looking officials stood round waiting to pounce on an exotic tourist. Fortunately I crossed the border with some French guys so the officials had 2 other people who they could victimise by scrutinising every last item in their luggage. Some foreigners have even had all their photos (of Turkmenistan) deleted here, so I counted myself lucky that at least that didn't happen to me.

On the other side of the border area, the Uzbek customs demand that you write a list of all valuables which you bring into the country. If you have more than this when you exit, it may be confiscated. I noted all my electronics and only as an afterthought remembered the bike!

By the time I left the border the temperature was in the mid 40s and the sun beating down. The idea of spending the rest of the day here waiting for evening and cooler weather did not appeal. I was in need of some decent food and a good nights sleep. I therefore did not pass up the chance of a lift down to Bukhara.

Despite the suffering in the desert, Turkmenistan had been a great experience. For sure there is a certain 'show' given to the few tourists that venture here and there is no doubt that the Turkmen see a different side to life here and have many personal restrictions. Even exiting the country I was ushered to the front of the emigration line - nice for me but less so for the poor locals standing in the brutal heat. The people had been kind and inquisitive without being rude and were seemingly happy to see someone from the otherwise closed outside world in their country.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015 06:29

I left Mary soon after 5 and just before sunrise. The cycling was perfect with a quiet road and moderate temperatures. The UNESCO site of Merv was certainly worth visiting and as the buildings are somewhat spread out, it was ideal on a bike. At 7am there was also nobody around including ticket sellers!) and I had the place to myself. The road through the oasis is perfect asphalt and the lush greenery contrasts with the desert around it.

After a quick breakfast in Bayramly, It was time to continue. The main road is in reasonable condition and wide so the few passing cars and trucks were no issue.

The fun cycling experience however soon ended as I reached the desert again. A strong headwind kicked up which made the going really tough and by this time the sun was beating down intensely. I checked the Garmin and the temperature was reading 50.5C and it was still only 10:45. The wind could only be compared to a hot hair dryer and to make things more unpleasant, fine grains of sand were being blasted into me. My body was totally dry as any sweat was immediately being evaported. I had drunk over 2 liters of water in the last hour and still I was gulping continually more.

I took shelter with some watermelon sellers at the side of the road who offered me unlimited supplies of their wares. They told me the town I was aiming for was now just 5km away.

Being aware that it was not going to get any cooler, I headed off back into the wind. The next 7km (not the promised 5!) were some of the toughest I can remember and I needed 2 stops before I reached the sanctuary of an air conditioned truck stop. Above the restaurant were large rooms with mats and pillows on the floor where you could lie down. The air conditioners ran continuously which was typical here as people do not pay for their electricity. My hosts in Ashgabat had also continually left their lights on inside.

The break was perfect and the restaurant offered some decent soup, bread and melon. It was mid afternoon and I had 2 days left on my transit visa. The wind was still blowing and even to walk outside to the toilet was a painful experience. The family running the truck stop took me as a guest and we drank tea in their special super air conditioned room. Conversation was in russian thanks to my small travel dictionary. I assessed the options and realised that other than riding through the night, the remaining 250km were not going to be possible by bike in the remaining time in these conditions. The owner hooked me up with a truck and so my onward travel plans were now sorted.

I expected to the trip to Turkmenabat to be around 3 hours by truck, but the lift turned into an all night epic journey. I had the luxury of the bed behind the 2 drivers in the cab. Except for the lack of air conditioning and my sweaty body sticking to the mattress this was comfortable enough. We were fully loaded with bottles of coca cola which must have been too much for the truck. We drove at a maximum of 35km/hr and every few minutes the hazard warning lights were turned on and the co driver got out his torch to check the bulging sides to ensure no cargo was being lost. We then had a longer break due to collapsed suspension. "Machine broken" the Turmen driver told me. This was turning into quite a desert adventure but probably just daily business for these guys.

Finally after an hour or so of wrenching and a further few hours driving, we arrived in Turkmenabat just as the sun was rising. Turkmenabat is a fairly large (for Turkmenistan) city and spread out. After being refused to get a room at the hotel there, I jumped in a taxi (all Turkmen drivers are unofficial taxis) and headed to the border. The desert, wind and sand had really broken me. The sky was clear and it was setting up to be another baking hot day.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015 05:38

The trip to Turkmenistan was smooth, immigration fairly easily and the bike box turned up in perfect condition with only a few rips. The stories of being searched at the airport, asked for bribes and generally being given a hard time did not at least for me come true. As there seems to be no online booking system for hotels in Ashgabat, I stayed in a private room via airbnb.

My host met me at 4am after a short taxi ride from the airport and it was fun to talk to my first Turkmen person and learn about some of the crazy rules in the country. Ashgabat is known as the white city as practically every building is white. It is full of impressive architecture, statues and fountains, but outside of the immediate center it is like a ghost town - the huge boulevards are practically empty with just the occasional car passing. It is also one of the few cities in the world which makes Switzerland look dirty - everything in the city is immaculately clean and tidy and drivers can even be fined for having dirty cars.

As I only had a 5 day transit visa, I took the train to Mary which left punctually at 3pm. It turned out my ticket was for a 4 person compartment which I shared with 3 local guys. The bike was tucked up safely in the luggage wagon and my local travelling companions were fun, shared their food and passed hours flicking through pictures of Switzerland on my tablet. It was a pleasant way to travel and left a further good impression of Turkmenstan and its people.

In Mary I found some dump of a hotel near the station. It had a bed and wallpaper hanging of the walls. The lino flooring was ripped and curling up at the sides. It served its purpose though and within a few minutes of putting my sleeping bag on the bed I was probably snoring.

Wednesday, 08 July 2015 21:24

Buying an air ticket to Ashgabat took longer than expected. The favoured route was via Frankfurt with Turkmenistan Airlines. This had the advantage of being the cheapest option, the best times and also direct. Unfortunately however it was impossible even after months of trying to get a price for my luggage (bike box) or to even have the airline confirm that they would take this. So in the end the option via Istanbul worked out the best and taking the short train and bus journey to Malpensa saved nearly 1000 Euro over taking the equivalent flight from Zürich.

Tuesday, 02 June 2015 17:33

As I have already cycled extensively in Eastern Europe and parts of Turkey and due to weather / time restraints, I decided to start the trip in Asia. Normally travelling on a UK passport is beneficial and gets you places that many other passports won't - at least without a visa. However this time that was not the case.

My intended starting point of Iran is unfortunately now off track for independent travelers with British passports. So this meant shifting the starting point to Turkmenistan.

It is fairly well known that Turkmenistan also requires visitors to take a guide with the only way around this being to travel on a transit visa. There are various reports of people travelling through the country overland on transit visas but no details if this is possible when arriving by air to Ashgabat and leaving overland.

A quick call to the embassy cleared up this point. I sent off my application and within a week had the Visa attached to my passport. Very efficient service.

Following this I applied for the Uzbekistan Visa which was equally easy and then following that the Tajikistan visa and GBAO permit. From my experience, at least using the Swiss embassies, the process was fairly easy and quick.

The Chinese visa was more bureaucratic and required the presentation of return flights and a hotel booking. Despite obviously not needing these, I booked the cheapest possible flights I could find (HK-->Ningbo, Kunming-->Bangkok) and presented these at the embassy in Zürich along with my hotel booking which I would later cancel. Within 4 days I had a 6 month visa :-) .

Tuesday, 05 May 2015 05:41

The original aim was to carry under 20kg excluding the bike. This target proved slightly too ambitious and the final kit weighed in at 21.5kg. Each item was chosen on its functional merits and reliabilility. All items were tested and proven on previous trips or tested in the time up to departure. The main complexity was packing for the wide range of temperatures - from around 45C to below freezing.

Monday, 04 May 2015 21:08

Given that I will be spending many hours on the bike, it was important for me to have something comfortable and of course reliable. Finding something to my taste and exact specification in a shop was simply not possible, so the bike project started with a bare frame....

The Kona Titanium Rove is not cheap but is a well built and reasonably light frame from the USA. The frame is actually made by Lynskey. Having ridden a Merlin XLM for the last 15 years, I really appreciate the benefits of titanium.

After the frame came the wheels. I went for a SON Dynamo hub on the front and a DT Swiss on the rear, both with 32 spokes. The rims are the new SL25 from Placenti and are laced with Sapim CX Ray spokes. I had the wheels built by Just Riding Along Cycles in the UK. Jon builds the most awesome wheels and I have no doubt that these will be up to the job. In my opinion hand built wheels like these just cannot be beaten for strength or durability.

The remaining components were picked on the basis of their practical merits, durability and weight.  Worthwhile mentioning is:

* Microshift SL-10 Thumbshifters - These are super light, unbreakable and work perfectly with Shimano 10 speed. I am using a 9 speed mech however, as the 10 speed mechs have a different cable pull ratio.

* Avid Mechanical Brakes - I think discs are the way forward, but hydraulics out in the middle of nowhere is not ideal. The BB7 brakes are in this regard perfect.

* Bolt Replacement - All steel bolts have been replaced with titanium for weight saving and the T30 chainring bolts replaced with 5mm allen key versions to save carrying an extra Torx tool.

The full specification of the bike is below:

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