East Nepal

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Reading time: 21mins

Word Count: 4152

It’s with a heightened sense of excitement, expectation and fear that I finally leave Kathmandu.  Later than I had ‘planned’ has become the norm and I should therefore be adding on VAT (value added time) to any decisions I make.  Logistical issues surrounding finance and posting packages to the UK create tensions I don’t need and finally I’m away, heavily loaded and sure that bike and kit was never this wide or cumbersome before.

I initially follow the hectic main road out of the city complete with cars, buses, lorries and motorbikes all whizzing past, spewing fumes and (once past the city limits) chucking up clouds of yellow dust which finds its way into every pore.  I chew road grit, spit wet dust and am doubting my capacity to endure as the first climb rises up before me.  Its a baby climb but I’m out of shape and puffing and blowing all the way to the top.  

This becomes the norm for the duration of Nepal.  My previous, sickly, hazy memories of the country were of nausea, sweat, rain and humidity.  These are being overlayed with sensations of dust, fumes and an out of shape body and mind.  My worst fears of having become too used to the sedentary life are realised.  I have become lazy and want an easy life.  However cresting the hill at Dhulikhel and seeing the road wind down before me, through varying shades of green vegetation and yellow earth I remember the joys of cycling and am back in the moment, content to have the (not too smelly) local rubbish tip as the team reunion campsite.  I confess to internally wailing about the damage humanity is wreaking on the planet but I settle down to a good sleep only briefly disturbed by a truck pulling into my lay-by for their few hours sleep.

The initial route plan is swiftly reassessed as I realise I took a wrong turn the night before and am in no mind to cycle back up the hill I just started coming down.  So I press on, winding down past houses and through small villages of wood and corrugated iron homes.  Past tiny local stores selling a million different types of chewing tobacco but nothing that I might need, past the dhabas (local cafes) of varying size and apparent cleanliness.  Stopping at one I am treated to cups of tea first by a local who whoops with joy and laughter at me riding in on a bicycle and who I have no doubt will be regaling his friends and family with stories of a crazy woman who he bought tea for and second by a couple of Italian’s who have been out in the hills doing social work with one of the  specific ethnic groups located in the region.  We talk briefly about the social situation here in Nepal and they tell me about the issues particularly with alcohol abuse, domestic violence and human trafficking.  

Sitting, drinking tea, in the midst of this beautiful sunny scenery the content of the conversation seems even more harsh with the dichotomy of the moment.  Human trafficking was and still is a huge issue, specifically since the earthquake in April 2015 and the fuel blockade by India later in the same year .  Rural life for Nepali people is already tough.  Confronted with the aftermath of an environmental disaster and then the additional economic and social strain of massive fuel shortages, rural communities were preyed upon by opportunistic gangs of smugglers and human traffickers who have decimated vast numbers of communities.  People of all ages and genders sold into and enduring forced labour and/or sexual exploitation.  Families either complicit in the ‘transaction’ or ‘coerced’ into situations they don’t want to consider.  I am reminded that for all the beauty I see there is a raw edge and again I feel gratitude for the life I have.

The morning is spent on glorious down hill curves and the traffic on this more minor road has diminished from the roaring I experienced on the previous day.  Reaching the river at Dolalghat where the Indrawati and Sunkoshi rivers meet I am initially pointed across the bridge and fervent hands gesture that is the only direction go.  Checking the solar powered up map I spot the road (track) I want is before the bridge and have to make fake pack adjustments until my helpful friends have departed so I can got the way I want to go … oh why did I not listen!!

The road (track) I take is along side the river and is narrow, steep in places and deep in yellow dust.  Huge dumper trucks speed past, enveloping me in clouds of black fumes and dry dust, forcing me to keep a weather eye open and to hold my breath as they pass. The track eventually leads past several rock plants, processing the river bed for building materials and ends abruptly at a junction in the river which meanders off right and then rejoins the main flow.  The river is fast but not too much so.  The main issue is that I’m out of practise with getting the job done and a bit mentally weak.  So I set up camp, cook up some rice and veg, walk the goat track which everyone else is using to get past the evident landslide up to the village and wait for the morning.  Decision making can wait.

It’s a stunning place to camp.  River views, water rushing past, high cliff behind me and solitude.  As the light in the sky dims the apparently empty river valley spills its secret store of houses and villages.  Like watching the lights of a thousand fireflies, the terrain comes alive with lights going on and the number of people living on each side of the river staggers me.  In daylight it’s impossible to see anything, the houses blending seamlessly with the landscape. 

In the morning I walk the goat track again, walk the first part of the river crossing and assess the probable depth of the second from the waves at the crossing.  Decision made.  River crossing – Go.  Goat track – No.  Its far too steep and precarious to carry a bike over so I hike the bags up and start the river crossing with Tilly.  

I have wildly underestimated the second part of the journey and as I wade, knee deep, across slippery stones I realise carrying the bike will not be easy.  I have also been spotted by men working on the river bank.  As I get part way across the river and wobble one of them does the full body, evident at 50 paces, equivalent of rolling his eyes; drops the rock he is moving and splashes over, yanking the bike off me.  As we both reach the other side he hands it back,  laughs and runs off to get dry clothes (probably).  His crew are in fits of good natured laughter which follows me as I head up the track to collect the bags and head on towards Lubughat.  

The track bumps and winds alongside the river giving me lovely views of the water and the agriculture that it feeds.  It’s December and I can see grain being sifted in the fields, which frankly upsets my inner concepts of time and season.  After a night camping outside a shop and a dinner of delicious millet and greens being consumed I do ‘the comedy side swipe’, randomly and abruptly changing direction to face up hill.  Its a big hill!

The day is foggy and thankfully I cannot see the breadth of the mission I have just set out on.  As I make my way up the rocky, dusty ‘road’ I can hear women walking down a footpath not far from me.  Disembodied voices which laugh and chat, passing relatively close and then going down, beyond me.  Further up the mist starts to clear and what was a wall of grey nothing is revealed as a village, then a large school.  Bells start ringing, dogs bark and the ethos carry across the valley to the other side of the Sun Koshi.  When I set off in the morning I had not anticipated 2 days of pushing, sweating and swearing the bike up such steep tracks.  Lorries and scooters pass me occasionally and the passengers are always craning their necks to get a better view of the under powered idiot with the large baggage.  

The rocks get bigger and the track steeper so at Cauld Wel village I stop.  Meeting a giggling group of maybe 11year old girls who shout at me and tell me I’m lazy I temporarily loose my temper and tell them they are rude.  I hate this part of me.  Being called lazy or being laughed at are like red rags to the Taurean in me.  Ashamed, I push Tilly up the next bit and follow them to their school as requested and throw the place into chaos.  Children hanging out of windows, round door frames, teachers herding  students as if they were cats.  One of the teachers, very sweetly, tells me to go and camp by the shop (and potentially let them get on with their classes).  I do so, ending the day with dhal/rice thali and watch various villagers get wrecked on home made raksi, a situation I am to become very familiar with.

Alcoholism and the consumption of homemade raksi is an ever increasing problem in the rural areas of Nepal and India.  In local shops I have seen people start on their ‘daily dose’ at 8am, opening time, and continue from there.  I’m rarely in the same place long enough to see the aftermath but on occasion see what it potentially looks like.  Women with black eyes.  Truck rolled over in road.  All possibly raksi related.  I’m often offered, sometimes pressured and always decline.  It’s not something I want or can physically/mentally/socially cope with.  Its another of the coping strategies which the Italian’s I met previously are starting community dialogues about in their rural projects.

Night falls and the stars come out.  The Nepali night sky is vast and incredible.  No light pollution and I can see galaxies ranged around me.  Everyone in the village is worrying about the cold and I haven’t managed to convey that it’s closer to English autumn rather than winter for me and is therefore not a problem.

When I leave the village in the morning it’s to the sounds of Nepali pop/folk songs playing on a roof-top loud speaker across the valley and the local dogs are lending their voices in accompaniment.  The road continues to be difficult and I’m still pushing rather than riding up.  After passing a local Buddhist ceremony in one village and stopping for tea and biscuits in the next I finally reached the top of the hill.  Its a glorious sight (not just because I am convinced its down hill from now on) and I can see the river sinuously winding down through the valley from where I came and past me to where I am heading. 

I was wrong … it wasn’t the top of where I was going but for a moment it felt good!

For the next 30mins I actually manage to ride my bike.  Its bliss and I’m smiling broadly at nothing and no one before I reach the next village.  Its a hot day and the pushing was tough so I stop at one shop then another before I find the possibility of a yellow water container to fill my water bottles from.  A salty snack later and I’m back up the track searching for a spot to rest in the shade  My spot emerges in the form of an unoccupied house with shady porch just off the road.  As I sit eating the remainder of my snack I see a young boy of about 9 or 10 walking up the road and past me carrying the same yellow water canister, in the commonly used head/back rope/sling set up, as I have just emptied in the shop back down the road.  I’m totally mortified.  He passes me 2 more times before I meet him further down the road at the local spring.  His water trek is about 20mins walk each way and I have no idea how many times each day he does this multi trip chore.  A chore which I have just added to. It reminds me of the impact I have often unknowingly and unintentionally.

This nights stay was a generous hosting from a shop keeper in the town of Yangbel.  Initially asking if I can camp beside the school I am immediately pulled into the family, given chai from their abundant thermos (of course) and then mountains of rice, roti and dhal.  The food is delicious and after an evening of listening to Nepali music on their shop radio whilst numerous neighbours came over for raksi I am tucked up in a double bed, blankets smelling comfortingly of moth balls, and flicking through my photos with the young teen granddaughter of the shop keeper with whom I am sharing the nights sleep.  I’m not used to sharing a bed but sleep soundly inspite of her warming her cold feet on mine!

We are all woken before dawn with the sounds of grandfather doing his daily puja. The smell of candle grease, the sounds of the infamous Om Mani Padme Hum at high volume, grandfather padding around the corrugated structure which forms their home. It reverberates to every movement and bangs worryingly as you cross a patch in the floor.  This square iron box, divided into 4 rooms and housing at least 11 people sits directly above the grocery store, sewing establishment and barber/pharmacy/raksi seller.  The babies (Prince (20 months) and Princess (3)) are swaddled up in warm clothes and Princess runs around demanding sweets and attention from anyone staying still long enough.  Youtube videos have a lot to answer for as a song comes on the radio and she starts dancing and posing outrageously.

I often struggle internally with the adoption of seemingly ‘adult’ behaviours by young children as they mimic people they have seen or videos watched.  I also wonder if I’m just attributing a meaning and an anxious context to something which has no reality for the children themselves.  A dance is a dance.  Movement is just movement.  I can ascribe meaning to gesture as a person well developed in social context but the reality is that it’s not real not mandated.  The biggest driver for Princess’ dance is the clapping and laughing from the family which fuels her frantic dance and almost tips her over, to everyones amusement.  Just as the night before as we all huddle around a fire outside the shop everyone is smiling broadly at her antics and clapping in time with her fist pumping and hip swaying in almost time to the music!

I leave stuffed full of breakfast roti and dhal.  After a brief stop at a tiny monastery I have a morning of slow speed downhill on inches of dust over a surface of gravel.  Its hideous and not the sweeping curves on a solid surface I like.  It feels like riding unstably on ballbearings and at one point Tilly tips me off at slow speed in an embarrassing skid which thankfully no-one else witnesses.  The road is relatively busy with army personnel trucks, buses, cars and scooters kicking up the obligatory amount of dust and covering me as I make my slow way down.

I sometimes feel that cycling up is easier then down as I have greater control of the bike. My hands and wrists are quickly sore from the braking and once back down on the flat I am grateful to see the sinuous black tarmac ribbon stretch out in front of me!

The Tamil district hillside through which I have just ridden is stunningly beautiful for all its steepness.   Wildflowers everywhere.  Houses in startlingly bright yellows, acid pinks and electric blues.  At this time of year multitudes of people out on terraced areas, working the fields and stacking bundles of maize and straw or sything tall grass for their animals to feed on.  The work to feed the family is never done and people start at daybreak and don’t stop until dark. Children are included in this level of work and I saw little ones fetching and carrying for their elder siblings or the adults.  Watching these time honoured tasks in the midst of such sweeping dramatic landscapes it can be difficult not to romanticise the life but make no mistake, its tough and relentless.  Another reason why the escapism of alcohol has a draw.

The remainder of the day is following the main road alongside the Rosi Khola (Khola = river in Nepali) and I end up chatting with a man who’s impeccable English (and ability to swear in said tongue) is down to his job as a cook in the army bases in Iraq.  He sorted me out with a sensibly priced hotel and I cleaned all my kit and myself of the “too many dust” that had accumulated.  Next stop – more Sun Koshi!

After another day riding the tarmac ribbon I reach the next part of the Sun Koshi valley and find a stunning secluded campspot complete with ready made fire pit.  Its just as well because on starting up the primus stove I am treated to no fuel and no flame.  Taking it apart I notice that the tiny O ring on the connector has degraded and as I try to reseat whats left break it entirely.  Several minutes of cursing and pondering I have a plan. Problem 1 – no O ring in correct size.  Not an insurmountable problem thankfully but that has to wait for good light in the morning.  The fire pit is utilised for tea making and I’m grateful I have back up banana in the bag.  Always carry some ‘no cooking required’ food’!

Dawn breaks and I’m up watching the waders in the shallows.  Pretty but timid birds which disappear  every time I try to get a photo.  Back to stove problem.  Carefully cutting the only other O ring I have I remove a tiny portion and then seat it in the correct place.  After a couple of adjustments and a worrying amount of fuel spraying me and the tent I have working stove again.  Not perfect but working safely!

3 days of following the valley.  It’s as stunning as the hillsides which continue to be steep sided and very much in evidence. The road is wide, traffic not to hectic and I cycle along merrily, passing some villages where I stop for samosa wrapped in musty, old, school text book pages and camping in others before a puncture halts me late evening outside one such village and I camp on the equivalent of the village green opposite and well set back from a very excited dhaba owner and his young wife.  He is intent on speaking all the english he knows as fast, as frequently and as loudly as possible.  Its a common misconception that a lack of language implies a lack of hearing!  His wife takes charge of my phone as I set up my tent and repair the puncture.  This is not the first and won’t be the last time my phone disappears into the hands of one person without my permission and knowledge and returns to me with a memory card full of selfies and videos!  There is no ‘mine’, there is no privacy in Asia! Community is all!  Tent setting, cooking, bike fixing.  All done to an audience.  As usual people want to taste my food!  It’s sadly the same ingredients and a poor comparison to what they are used to.  I have the suspicion that they think I can magic a hamburger and fries from a bag of rice, dhal and veggies!

The following morning is mostly spent with young men zooming up and down the mostly empty road on Tilly and me with my hands to my face pleading “Bistari, Bistari” (slowly, slowly) to their amusement and dismissal.  Leaving the village I have several climbs ahead and these pass, as all do, slowly and with regular stops for photos.

Eventually I reach the town of Ghurmi where the road splits and rather than heading closer to Everest I opt for what turns out to be another hard and dusty but unexpectedly short climb.  Short comes about in the form of transport. After a few hours of chatting to goat-herding grannies and wincing every time another cloud of dust envelopes me, I spy a truck stopped on the opposite side of a large hill-hugging S bend.  It turns out to be waiting for me, so 20minutes later as I draw level with them and they offer me a lift it feels rude to say no!   From the high seat of the empty cargo lorry I see the sheer cliff descents more clearly and the lack of barrier to avert disaster feels more apparent.  On one occasion we stop and the driver does a quick bodge job on the gear and throttle cables which had apparently stopped functioning. I try not to squeak in fear but one rapid spin around the outside of the curve causes me to grab the drivers mate by the arm in an involuntary response. He laughs at my fear and I’m suitably embarrassed.  Images of mini vans halo’d by a beautifully back lit cloud of dust contribute to my wish I was still on terra firm, camera in hand and still cycling. 

Finally in the midst of one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen I decide that I really must camp and not be driven down the hill to Katari … in the dark … on those bends.  Best decision because after a quick goodbye and scouting out a place to camp I have a solid nights sleep and wake before dawn to a slightly cloudy but none the less stunning view back across to the Everest region.  Later in the morning as the clouds clear I finally get my view of the peak … and then it is gone!  I turn downhill again and have another day of battling my brakes before arriving in Katari town just in time for a couple of days of public marriage ceremonies to take place.

After a day of watching Nepali women float around the town in bright saris, see horse and carriage parade up and down the main street several times and listen to Nepali pop blaring out over a set of  speakers balanced on the back of a truck with men fist pumping and gyrating along side it rather than attempting to hold it down (all whilst eating far too many samosas and drinking chai) I move out on a less hilly and more jungle orientated road.  It’s fine for cycles I’m told!  Now if there is one thing that I should have learnt by now is not to assume that people understand what it means to cycle on a bicycle with loaded panniers.  The road is not fine!  It is an atrocious mess of gravel base with thick dust topping and filled with heavy, earth moving machinery to boot!

Mostly there is dust, sometimes there is a sudden fjord of liquid mud to wade through.  There are short bursts of steep and then more down as the road undulates through what was, until recently, pristine jungle complete with beautiful villages and homes utilising every type of natural and manufactured material at their disposal.  It’s sad to see the destruction of this place but when I consider the greater ease of movement and the increase in possibilities which might make peoples lives easier I cannot be too sentimental.  Balance is key in everything and here the road is very necessary.

The only certainty is change and as with all things this eventually happens.  After some lovely moments shared with 2 young men walking between villages (1/2 a day walk) who help me push Tilly up a steep section, a dinner audience and a near miss with having to ‘perform’ my approximation of Nepali dancing in one village I reach the final push out of Nepal, the Mahendra Highway.  

It heads over the Koshi river at Bhardaha and the accompanying dam where fishing rather than agriculture is the main focus.  I ,of course, stop to see the flat bottomed, wooden boats in the weed tangled inlets and the mist rising off the river in the early morning.  

From here its a straight run to Kakarbhitta town at the border and whilst there is much to see on every side the jungle does not hold my attention for long and my focus does not stay more than a moment on the houses, interesting graveyards, markets and people who dot the roadside.  Even the sudden sight of a tea plantation only briefly halts me. My eyes, like those of the Kakarbitta rickshaw drivers doing the bridge border run, are now firmly fixed on my re-entry into India.   

Views of Osh, Kyrgyzstan

My photographic impressions of Osh city, the largest residential area outside Bishkek (the capital) in Kyrgyzstan.

The city is situated in the south of Kyrgyzstan, in the Fergana Valley and close to borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.  It is home to various different ethnic groups including Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Russians, Turks, Tatars and other nationalities.  The size of these groups changed radically in 2010 as a result of ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic groups which was precipitated by disatisfaction with the government of the time and complex economic difficulties that continued from the time of the disolution of the USSR in 1991.  In turn a massive refugee crisis in the Fergana area of Uzbekistan occured when ethnic Uzbek’s fled their homes in Kyrgyzstan for safety.

Osh was a major feature on the Silk Road trading route for 100s of years and as such continues to have an enormous, outdoor bazaar, packed with areas for anything you can imagine! Osh is also famous for it’s ‘mountain’ in the centre of the city.  Suliaman Too (a UNESCO site) is an important sacred place within the Muslim community as well as being a popular tourist attraction.  The peaks, caves and tracks surrounding the sites are thought to cure all manner of illness (unfortunately not my stomach issues!) and children are encouraged to slide up and down grooves in rocks worn smooth with the beliefs of the faithful.

Osh appears very conservative compared with Bishkek, I would guess as a result of the closeness to Uzbekistan and conforming to more conservative Muslim values regarding appropriate attire.  It has felt much more (socially) comfortable to wear trousers, t-shirt and a loose scarf around my shoulders … solidly reminding me of places I visited in central Turkey … however women throughout the city can be seen wearing varying levels of clothing coverage/ethnic dress alongside the men wearing their traditional hats and swimming in the river.  The difference in attitude towards the genders is marked.

The daily summer temperature is scorching (35+) and the nights are not much lower, sitting as the city does on the valley floor (at about 600m) … this has been tough for me and I have had various health/stomach problems I think as a result of the change in weather, heat and also location/topography … not just because I am a grubby cyclist!

During an enforced period of resting/waiting for health to improve and visa’s to be completed I have remained in the garden of TES guest house, a fantasic place to recuperate not only because I can camp for 450com/night but because this includes a wonderful breakfast in the morning … and I have been in a position to meet a lot of other cyclists, overlanders and travellers all sharing hints and tips on this part of the world.  Its a very relaxed, communal guesthouse with great facilities that make resting up a positive experience … but I’m very much done with that and am furiously hoping that I will be back on the bike in the next few days!!  Fingers firmly crossed … we shall see …!

Summer in Kyrgystan … the land of milk and honey (part 1)

Imagine lush meadows of flowers stretching as far as the eye can see, hues as multiple as the stars in the clear night sky and fat honey bees lazily floating on the warm breezes, producing honey equally as varied in clarity, flavour and colour.  Snow topped mountains giving rise to clear streams then wider rivers.  Sunny days and blue skies. Add in herds of flighty wild horses often accompanied by their foals, wide-eyed cows with their calf’s and herds of sheep and goats which ebb and flow across the landscape in a tidal motion, strangely disconcerting if you find yourself cycling or camped in the midst of its single-minded focus as it passes.  It’s a bucolic vision and believe it or not its accurate!

But to continue where I left off in Almaty …. The initial travel from the city to the Kazakh/Kyrgyz border should have been uneventful, but as ever nothing goes as expected and during the day’s easy asphalt ride I somehow strain my right knee.  The strain gets progressively worse and at a distressing rate.  Despite stopping in the early evening and camping with a lovely family I continue with the same problem the next day.  The route becomes sections of gentle riding for 30 minutes then stopping for 10 minutes or walking and pushing the bike up the hills.  It appears that the pedal downstroke is the issue, my knee can no longer handle the pressure, but walking is no problem.  As ever my anxiety and distress about the injury dissolves into scenarios of entire trip curtailment and it takes me a lots of effort to breath through the pain in my knee, the stress i am creating and get myself to the border.  I know that the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, is only 20km from the border and there I can rest myself and fix Tilly following the Mongolian debacle!  Crossing the last part of the plains from Almaty and traversing the last Kazakh hills, complete with wind farm, I am grateful for a downhill to the border town of Korday.  Here I get my first taste of Kyrgyz bread, a flavour I had so enjoyed back in 2015 and then forgotten until now!!

Crossing the border i have the usual anxiety about paperwork and dates, however this is magnified in Kazakhstan as a result of the uncertainty about whether I should have registered my stay in the country or not.  Whilst staying in Almaty (European Backpackers Hostel) I visited the OVIR (the immigration police) and established that registration, which I had forgotten about on entry, wasn’t necessary and that the fact of only having 1 stamp on my migration card was not an issue … but as we all know the information coming from above can take a long time to filter down to the people on the ground … and it was them I was dealing with on the border.  I duly line up and present my passport and migration card to an unsmiling official in a booth, the sign saying ‘Kazakhstan Passport Control’ and ‘good luck’ above him does not give me confidence.

As ever I am asked if I speak Russian, to which I gave my best ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ rendition and apparently disgusted by this he hastily bangs an exit stamp in my passport and dismisses me with an abrupt wave of his hand and is looking for his next, perhaps more interesting, victim.  I breathe a sigh of relief as that was mercifully swift, collect Tilly and cycle the next 10 meters to the Kyrgyz checkpoint where I find the correct door to get my stamp and am admitted to the country for 60 days of visa free cycling fun!

I would normally be overjoyed at this prospect but my knee is so painful that all cycling does not seem to be on the cards and I slowly limp, push and coast the 20km into Bishkek, where I spend a recuperative 2 weeks in the city with an additional 1 week in Uzgen, a large town in the south.  Seeing Bishkek in the summer is a revelation and a taste of things to come.  I am shocked at the difference between seeing the city in winter (November 2015) with its cold, foggy, dreary ambience and the vibrant, colourful, alive city (as I experience it now) in the summer … it is incredible and reminds me that seeing people and places at specific times never gives one the whole story.

I am really lucky to have been able to stay AT house, Bishkek … the Warm Showers home of Angie, Liga, James and Nazim.  AT house has been a fixture on the cycle touring circuit for many seasons and Angie (a seasoned cycle tourer) and her house mates were incredibly welcoming, providing tent space in the garden, a wonderful outdoor shower and an ambience within which I was able to rest up, complete some blog writing (you have them to thank for the outpouring of words at the beginning of June!!) and generally get myself back together.  It was through Angie that I found the experience of volunteering in a school in Uzgen and I am eternally grateful to have had the opportunity to have some quite emotional conversations with Liga … It is often only when I sit still for a period of time that I become re-acquainted with my thoughts and feelings, which can provoke some explosive emotions. Discussing ‘travelling’ and the concept of ‘witnessing’ being a case in point … more on that another time!

After a couple of weeks in central Bishkek, during which time I did zero sightseeing, I cycle out of the city past the statue of Manas (who to my mind is the Kyrgyz equivalent of King Arthur) and into the open countryside … this was what I came to Kyrgyzstan for!! Kyrgyzstan is over 90% mountain but my initial route took me (over the course of a few days) from the capital city to the most famous Kyrgyz lake, Issy Kul.  After spending a night with a lovely family in Balikchy and having my first banya (russian sauna/bath/shower) I was joined by Angie and a couple of young Kyrgys students she knew from the city.  As often happens the reality of cycling with other people is vastly different from my imagination and I found it very difficult to cycle and camp with the 16-year-old guys based on Angie’s view that ‘they are only kids’ and therefore to be let off cooking, cleaning or tent pitching/packing duties. After a couple of days, and out of my desire to camp at Issy kul lake proper we parted company and I spent a glorious evening on the beach, listening to the sounds of the water on the shore, the fire crackling and watching the stars come out one by one in the sky, inky black save for the low sliver of a new moon which produced a sinuous path across the lake to the other side.   Out in the lake, all alone, watching the sky reflected in the water was an unforgetable experience.   The following day the horizontal asphalt became vertical sand, gravel and rock with unbelievable speed …

The Tosor Pass and the routes to and from it, were tough but evolved into major highlights of my time in Kyrgyzstan.  From Issy Kul the route goes up through a very rocky valley, impossible to ride for most of the time on a fully loaded Tilly, and therefore involved a lot of pushing and swearing on my part.  By about 5pm on the first day after camping at Issy Kul I was shattered and uncomfortably aware that the sunshine of the earlier part of the day had turned into large grey clouds, which were getting darker by the minute.  After checking out a nearby house, which was currently empty but obviously very recently inhabited, I decided to pitch the tent on the next flat piece of ground … it is at about the point of spying such a piece of ground that the thunder starts. To be clear, at this point I am at about 2400m.  The Tosor Pass is at about 3400m.  The thunder claps that I hear are not above me, they are all around me … at this height I am in the storm.

This is not the first time I have experienced this and as ever the desire to throw myself onto the ground and bury my head is as surprising as it is strong.  With the tent up just in time I settle in for a 2 hour battering of wind, rain and thunder.  I spend the time watching the rain bead up and slide down the newly recoated tent flysheet!  After the storm subsides I am no mood to head on and so remain there over night, drying a load of kit in the morning before continuing on my way.

After the morning’s brief sunshine and as I get higher, the day becomes foggy and drizzly and the rocky track meanders its way up to the pass, bike pushing being the most frequent option for me, weaving around small knots of yurts with groups of children on donkeys coming out to shout ‘hello’ through the gloom.  I pass one group on the bottom part of a switch back only to meet them again on the top stretch!! They had come back bearing a bottle of kefir (yogurt) and news that snow is on the way … I had heard this yesterday and so decided to push on, hearing the same news at the next cluster of yurts. The fog pushes in and then recedes for a time in a strangely sickening motion, I can’t see the edge of the track clearly and can’t work out my position on the mountain since visibility has dropped to less than 10 meters ahead of me.  As the afternoon progresses and becomes early evening I become more concerned that I really have to get over the pass before night but that I cannot see the route ahead of me to gauge where the Pass actually is.

The route has abruptly become very much rockier, steeper with insistent rain which as I continue to climb turns to snow.  To add insult to injury I can see nothing of the natural wonder of the rock amphitheatre that is up near the Pass and then cannot see the curling switchbacks on the descent down the other side.

The latter part of the journey passed in an emotional haze.  I was at the point of slowly putting one foot in front of the other, not always successfully as I had fallen over on the rocks a couple of times, and was wet through and cold and exhausted,  I started to doubt that I was on the correct route and was considering putting the tent up and getting into my sleeping bag to warm up … but just as this seemed like the most sensible option a Kyrgyz herder on horseback rode out of the driving snow and hail and fog to help me push Tilly up and over the last km of the Pass and then invited me to stay with his family in their yurt nearby.  The image of him coming out of the fog was a cinematic classic, bettered only by my voice squeaking out “Naryn?” with a very wobbly countenance! Together we climb over the pass alternately pushing Tilly and towing the horse along.

Visiting his yurt and family was wonderful, once I had pushed Tilly 3 kms out (and then back) across calf deep, marshy ground!  He lives with his brother, sister-in-law and their 3 children, the eldest girl appears to have some sort of physical difficulty (possibly cerebral palsey) and I am left wondering about her life and the support that the community offers. Communal sleeping in the yurt (I’m in with the children) and waking up to the sun making shadows from the poles of the roof, the red and green and blue felt motifs surrounding the half dome, the colourful children’s clothes hung all around and the sight of the bright morning mountain view streaming in through the door as it was opened and then hidden from my view again, is lovely and peaceful.  After a breakfast of bread, jam and lots of sweet tea I head back across the marsh ground and am able to see the mountains that I missed the previous night in the real and mental fog … it’s a glorious blue skied day. Birds singing, sun high, peaks rising majestically above me and the incessant whistling of a sentry marmot on patrol, panicking at my presence, follows me as I  The whistling will be a continual accompaniment of my journey through Kyrgyzstan and I cannot help but laugh at their noises as I approach and also, since its impossible not to camp in someones territory, as I unzip my tent in the morning.  I often feel a little bit like Gulliver in these moments … “the giant’s awake, run for your lives” yells sentry marmot!

The next few days are spent following the track along the rivers, Jil Suu and then Bolgart. It’s a totally stunning route and I love it in spite of the numerous river crossings (bridges are all washed away!), wet feet, occasional landslides to traverse and residual tiredness from the couple of days pushing over the pass.  In fact it’s so lovely I spend too much time each morning marvelling at the views and drinking coffee that I don’t manage the early starts I say I’m going to do.

One morning after a suitably relaxed coffee by the river I spot another cycle tourer powering up the hill behind me and make up my mind to catch up with him.  After an hour or so I do.  Brian is from Utah, USA and has toured on and off for many years.  We arrange to have lunch together later on and then cycle for the rest of the day and camp together. In the evening we are joined by a very drunk man in his late teens who is looking for a place to sleep.  After feeding him sausage and mash and coffee and being clear that he cannot use our tents he stumbles off into the night.  It’s nice to be able to offer something considering the amount of goodwill, food and tea I have received but I’m not about to give up my tent. Brian is very relaxed company and it’s really nice to have someone to ride and to admire natures wonders with.  The eagles nesting not far from our campspot being a case in point.  The following day we cycle through Echi-Naryn Gorge together, meet groups of people out picnicking together, I have a melt down and have to make food post-haste!  Buckwheat, mashed potato and fish … sounds awful, tasted amazing!!!  The track down the gorge is rough, rocky and steep and thankfully by the afternoon we are on the main road to Naryn … only things never work out the way you think they will and the skies open and threaten to utterly drench us until we are invited into the home of a kind man who spies us sheltering under his trees.

We spend a dry night being fed homemade bread, jam, the clearest most fragrant honey you can imagine and large bowls of lagman (mutton stew with homemade flat noodles in it) … along with the obligatory bowls and bowls of chai.  The man and his wife have their 3-year-old grand-daughter living with them, who provided no end of fun and amusement with the things that she brought to show me and her lovely self-assured manner.  In the morning after being asked for money for food and lodgings by the man and being given kefir as a parting gift, Brian and I cycled into the town of Naryn and parted our ways … him to a CBT (community based tourism) guesthouse and me to the crumbling old Soviet hotel, cheaper and so much more my style!!!!

After a couple of days in the hotel I finally drag myself back onto the bike and head for the next pass, which is to be found on smooth asphalt for a change!!! The ride to At-Bashi and the ruined fort site of Koshoy Korgan, dates unknown, is uneventful and beautiful. Mountains to my left and sandstone rocks to the right. In addition to the natural feature are the usual ‘cities of the dead’ on the outskirts of the towns and villages.  The brick and clay mausoleums and the short walled enclosures which I so love to look at providing me with endless opportunities for photos and to marvel at their structures in such beautiful settings. Across Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan these cities can be found in various states of decoration and repair but to me they are all beautiful .. there is something about the slow way in which they deteriorate that mirrors the gradual acceptance of their occupants into the earth and which feels to be a very natural process.

After camping near the ruined fort on one evening and then out on the plains the next I finally make the turn off to Tash Rabat, a 15th century caravanserai deep in the At-Bashin mountains, part of the Silk road and on the route to the Torogart Pass, which connects Kyrgyzstan to China.  Tradition has it that when passing through the caravanserai you will be unable to count the rooms .. I counted 29 and apparently there are 31!!  It’s a stunning track up to the caravanserai, initially dry, dusty and open but the high rock peaks quickly surround the route followed by mountain streams and green meadows .. but then it is summer.  In the winter it will be a different story but able to provide shelter from the bitter winds non-the-less.  I spend an afternoon chatting to groups of Kyrgyz families and picnicing with them – this meant drinking kymys, fermented mares milk, the national drink of Kyrgyzstan and eating several types of meat and borsoc, a type of small square doughnut!  After a predominantly alcohol-free 2 1/2 years I have found that 2 mugs of fermented mare’s milk sends me utterly sideways, realising as I did a little late in the proceedings, that fermented means ‘alcoholic’.   Putting the tent up in the evening after ascertaining that I could not get Tilly over the next pass to Chatyr kul (it’s a rocky river goat track suitable for wet footed scrambling not biking), I feel the sort of head swimmy drunk that I have been happy to avoid! Camping up as close as I could to the rock amphitheater entrance, full moon coming up over the mountains, I have another spectacular (if involuntarily hazy) evening to enjoy.

The following day the map is checked and plans are finalised for a route across the Arpa valley, over a 4000m pass and following the river to Osh.  I feel positive about this route, having looked at the map numerous times and yesterday having pored over it and discussed different options with the Kyrgyz family on their road trip.   I head off, back past Tash Rabat, buoyed up by their assurances of a stunning route to come.

However it was not to be … at least not the way I ‘planned’ it!

After rejoining the main highway following the Tash Rabat turning I cycle for the next 20kms on good asphalt before turning off onto dirt track which meanders its way across and up a very hot and dusty valley, past enormous herds of grazing sheep and goats, wild horses aplenty and crossing several wide, dried up, sections of river.  For some reason I feel on top of the world … I achieve previously unknown levels of touring skill, Tilly and I, fully loaded, and simply ‘flying’ up and across some of the sections of dry, rocky river bed. Maybe its a combination of reaching decisions on routes or a restful sleep, who knows but I feel strong and in control and its a great feeling.  The route continues to wind across and up this valley for a couple of hours, eventually reaching a river that is more than a trickle and I can refill my bottles.  I’m always slightly twitchy when supplies of food and/or water get low as I have been in the position of having neither in the past and they are not experiences I wish to replicate.

The route takes a turn to the left and I am quickly faced with a glorious view of the wide open Arpa Valley stretched out as far as the eye can see below me.  The next down hill section to meet the valley floor is joyful and over all too swiftly as I then find myself cycling parallel with the next rocky river, this one containing much more water than the last and explaining some of the fertility of the Arpa Valley.   There are 2 men doing something with spades at the next river crossing and they happily respond when I wave to them and then stop to watch me as I halt progress on the next rocky area to take some photos.  I often imagine people talking about the folly of tourists and having a good laugh at the things we all take photos of.  For them this area possibly doesn’t seem worthy of the level awe and amazement that I feel … familiarity breeds contempt … its something I think of as one of the gifts I give back, helping people see their world through my wide eyes.

Suddenly there are 2 children, one on a donkey, watching my progress across the river from a high bank on the other side and waving encouragement and directions.  I’ve taken my shoes off and am happily wading across in sandals so smile, wave and go my own way, checking the river regularly for the shallowest areas and merrily bumping Tilly across the rocks.  Once across I am joined by children and donkey and we make our way up the bank and I get my first full view of the Arpa Valley floor, complete with grazing herds, yurts, stormy skies, patches of rain and in the far distance the long, snow topped, peaks of the mountain range which signifies the start of the border area with China.  Its spectacular.

The children gesture for me to come to the small white hut which sits about 10meters from the river and my track and as ever I think ‘ok, let’s go and say hi to the parents’, however as I near the hut, external stove pipe and parked up estate car in evidence, I met one of the children’s father’s as he walks over complete with camouflage fatigues, gun, id/ blood type tabs and wearing socks and flip flops …

Shit … It would appear that I have inadvertently cycled into a military border zone and this man in particular is not happy to see me.

Its funny the things that make sense of a situation.  As I think about what I had seen up to that point I am aware that I had noticed that the men by the river and one of the children was wearing camouflage clothing but I have become so used to seeing this in general life (especially in Russia) that I had not attributed importance to it.  Seeing weaponry is the same … what made my stomach sink were the id/blood type tabs on his shirt!!

The next few hours pass haze as the second soldier, who is happily star fish shaped on his back on the bunk in the hut on my arrival, is unhappily woken up.  Messages are radioed across to the main Torogart Pass checkpoint. My map is scrutinised, my camera checked (thank goodness for the 40 odd shots of a bird I took earlier in the day, ‘proving’ to the boredom of the had-been-sleeping soldier that I was a tourist) and occasionally the original guard coming over to demand ‘you want Uzbekistan, you want China’ before looking disgustedly at me repeating ‘no, I want Osh!’   Eventually a decision is made, via the radio, and Tilly and I are dumped in the estate car.  The usual hilarity ensues as the stern soldier bumps himself on Tilly’s electric horn and then everyone wants a go.  I’m twitching again at this point as the stern guard’s son has the gun and no-one else seems concerned.

The route from the hut across the Arpa valley floor is strange.  Digging soldier (from the river) is in the back … under Tilly.  Stern guard is driving with a stern face, which occasionally softens when he lapses into singing some Kyrgyz pop music from the radio, or asks me questions but is generally making complaining noises about having to transport stupid tourists in his car.  It was beautiful but being figuratively and actually ‘captured’ really hampered my ability to access the beauty.

Once at the main checkpoint I am introduced to a Kyrgyz man who I initially think is the interpreter (he is wearing a grey sweater and running pants) turns out to be the boss, dragged out of home to meet me on a weekend.  He explains that there is a 200km exclusion zone all along the China border and into which the Arpa Valley snugly fits.  “But it’s not on the map” is my protest.  We continue to discuss my ‘new’ route to Osh as he says he does not want me to make any further mistakes.  His parting shot … “You dont see me, I dont see you, we are both in trouble” … is unfortunately followed by the universal sign for ‘give me money’.  Bribary and corruption are contentious issues when travelling.  Do I give him money or sit out any consequences that might follow as a result? To be honest, in this situation, I didn’t even think, I just gave him 500som.  The fear of consequences as a result of not having my passport (which was in the UK obtaining visa’s) were too much on my mind and I felt utterly vulnerable without that ‘magic’ protection.  It’s yet another way in which I have seen the level of privilige that I, as a UK citizen, have.  As I leave the checkpoint post, copy of passport safely in hand, I notice the stern soldier getting off Tilly in as nochalant a manner as possible.  I can’t help but give a wry smile that he has been having a go on her whilst I have been ‘interrogated’, he is not impressed.

Its well into the evening by this point and the rain clouds I had seen earlier in the day are coming this way, gathering ferocity, and so I speed away from the checkpoint, returning briefly to request the copy of my passport which I had already stowed in my panniers, anxiety and frustration at the sitution creating confusion, and then make every effort to outrun the storm.  I’m aided by the sense of indignation and wrongness that accompanies situations where I have gone against things I believe are right.  I’m not proud of myself for buying into (literally) the corruption and did this based on fear. Exposure and vulnerability show me that I am not always the person I hope I am and this gives me a miserable feeling.

From here on numerous instances of things going a bit wrong … low level theft, malaise, full on sickness … it seems to me that once one thing taints a situation, my perspective skews and lots of things ‘conspire’ so I feel like the travelling has ‘gone wrong’.  In this sense being a solo traveller is difficult and it takes a lot of energy to turn the ‘gloom’ around, to reverse/reroute the negative perspective.  At this point there is a need to view things with a fresh perspective, to see the ‘good’ and potentially to be around others who will help me revitalise my view both of myself and my trip.  It can be difficult not to dwell on the tough times and to leave them behind, not carry them as hair shirts to remind me of past mistakes.

But more on those things and the rest of Kyrgyzstan in the next post ….

Ship to Shore … I’m back on the bike!

“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” Andre Gide, French Novelist 1869 – 1951

Hello!?  If there is anyone still out there still interested in my random movements then ‘thank you’!! I am still out here and am back on the road travelling with Tilly after a surprise hiatus in China.

Much has occured since I last wrote on this site … And equally I sometimes feel that nothing has changed! I am still me .. but without the daily touchstones of UK friends and life I cannot be fully sure what is left of the person who left the UK 2 and a half years ago!!  Equally I sometimes worry about how much life has changed for said friends and for how long they will wish to remain a part, albeit distant, sporadic and random, of my life.

“Everytime I read about your adventures and dancing I get a little lump in my throat about how proud I am of you, and a little proud of my self for encouraging you. We rock!”

I realised very early on and have consistency felt it as I cycled from England to here … Kyrgystan (for the second time) that in spite to mostly travelling alone I know and feel that I have a lot of of people with me.  I was fortunate to have lovely people around me in the UK who encouraged this venture and have met great people whilst on the road, many of whom are now mentally travelling with me.  When I am out of internet reception, which often happens, I have been able to have conversations in my head with different people which has been strangely essential for my sanity!!!!

Since the last post in Turkey back in 2015 (eek!!) I have traversed Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea by container ship, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan again, Kyrgyzstan and then China … where I unexpectedly spent an amazing, stressful, challenging and personality provoking year.  I will attempt to add these places in at different times but for now there will be a selection of photos to at least partially document my time in these places.

So why the change in blog title and layout!! Well, a change is good to invigorate the little grey cells, encourage me to actually start writing on it again and I have been feeling very out of sorts with the previous blog title, especially since I no longer have a boat/home and am even more location independent now than when I did!!  I spend a lot of my time in wide eyed amazement at the world around me and am painfully aware of my inability to keep my thoughts and views to myself (a reflection of my egotism I’m afraid) … and so the new title … ta dah!!!!

I had hoped to make the recent posts more up to date, relevant and therefore shorter in a bid to do the other 2 but am slowly coming to terms that I am just not a snappy writer, no matter how much I wish I was! Equally I am not a funny or politically savy or lyrically descriptive writer … this is all ok!! It has to be!!  What you get here is the best account I can manage of days (some times with the benefit of more hindsight then others!!) that are filled with my thoughts, feelings, emotions, the physical process of cycling and the personal jumble of me that this lot all makes.

Comments are welcomed! Those of you who have been exhorting me to write morE, thank you for your patience! Please comment … your ideas and thoughts are so nice to hear! News from wherever you are in the world would help me put my life into some sort of context and perspective!!

And finally sorry (not sorry!) to those who have just found their inboxes jammed up with backdated posts … well you did ask for it!!!

Sending you all lots of love,

Rae xx

East Kazakhstan: Invisible Cities, Beautiful Bukhtarma and Kazakh hospitality

In the age of Google maps and the life documenting, all pervasive and instant social media it is strange to think that at one time a whole city could be made conceptually invisible but this was previously the case for Ust-Kamenogorst. 

During the time of the USSR U-K was not to be found on any maps and information relating to it was highly restricted as a result of its mineral and munitions industries.  Its hard to comprehend the emotional and social impact of this secrecy on the families living and working in this city and the people telling me about this situation and its now thankful resolution are Misha and Ira, 2 medical students born at the time of the collapse of the USSR and who have only known the time of the Russian Federation and a very different way of life. Continue reading East Kazakhstan: Invisible Cities, Beautiful Bukhtarma and Kazakh hospitality

The Chuysky Tract: Siberia’s Silk Road

As recently as January this year I had no thoughts, images or understanding of Siberia (or Russia for that matter) beyond frozen wastes and the vague concept that Siberia was a desolate place to which people with political and intellectual views contrary to the Russian powers of the time, were banished and forced to attempt to carve out an existence in a place so harsh that there was no time for them to think, to plot or cause the Russian authorities any sort of headache at all.  Imagine my surprise then when I started to look into a route that would take me West from the Mongolian border near Tsaaganuur to the border area at Tashanta and from there on an 1000+km route through the Altai Republic and Altai Region to the city of Barnaul before heading East again on route to Rubtsovsk and the Kazakhstan border … all on asphalt … and all in a place that reminded me more of Swiss or Austrian rural charm than of desolation.

When I first started planning this part of the route the notion of ‘all on asphalt’ had no especially positive ring to it.  It just so happened that there is a road, a famous road actually, called the Chuysky Tract (recently redesignated from the M52 to the P256) and it made sense to be on it.  On leaving Mongolia and some of the most consistently physically and therefore mentally challenging routes I have been on to date, the emotions that I felt upon reaching silky smooth asphalt winding on for kms into the distance (often deliciously downhill) are only likely to be full appreciated by others before and after me heading the same way, geographically and locomotively!! It should be sufficient to say that several weeks on and I still stare lovingly and appreciatively at that sinuous black ribbon as it stretches out in front of me.

The Altai Republic in the Russian Federation and the Altai Region, both within Siberia, have turned out to be utterly stunning places with incredibly warm, kind and generous people who are about as far from my view of the Russian/Siberian stereotype as you can possibly imagine.  There is no austere manner, no severity in baring.  The people I have met have welcomed me with open arms in a way that I find overwhelming, coming as it does with the elements of Western social norms that I feel so comfortable with but coupled with a Central Asian generousity that unfortunately is not often replicated in Western Europe.  Coming into the Altai Republic and Altai Region after spending the last year in China has been a total breath of fresh air and the change of location and social makeup have again affected (and in this case radically changed) my views on what I need socially in my life as a result.

I have always thought that the essential needs that we all, as common humanity, share were the most important things and that these shared essentials worked well as the glue that binds us together.  On ‘leaving Asia’ (China/Mongolia) and entering a more ‘western’, more ‘european style’ culture I have realised just how important the little nuances in life and in social discourse are.  I realised that for the past year I have not made the same jokes, utilised my body language in the same instinctive way, heard the same sounds (even when it’s in a language I don’t understand) or smelt the same fire/wood/earth/food/people smells that make up my complex, sensory, unconscious understanding of ‘home ground’.  The other ideas and needs, those big ones which we know we all share – food, water, freedom, love – they are all still there but without having the ‘little things’ in evidence I am able to understand to a greater degree (retrospect often does this) how my life recently has been overshadowed by a sense of ‘cultural fatigue’.

Anyway back to the journey from the Mongolian/Russian border to Barnaul … a packed 8 days of cycling which I would have loved to spend much longer on but as a result of messing up my visa dates when I applied in Beijing this is all the time I have had!

Cycling from the Mongolian border checkpoint to the counterpart Russian checkpoint entails crossing a 22 km stretch of road within with the physical border between the countries is located but which is effectively a ‘no-mans land’ of windy mountain tops and grazing yaks utterly unconcerned with their political location.  I had taken transport to the Mongolian checkpoint in order to get throught before they shut for the weekend and potentially any Easter holidays that might be vaild on the Russian side.  I was lucky, I got through the Mongolian side at 4pm and made good speed up the track past the yak herds towards the actual border with its shut iron gates, flagpoles minus flags, imposing asymmetrical concrete monolith and selection of guards huts which I hoped contain guards as there was no one out on gate duty on such a cold, wet, windy, day.

Approaching the gates I still don’t see anyone so head up alongside the fence, past the flapoles to the huts and wave at the window hoping there is someone in there!! My luck!! A young guard comes out and opens the gate letting me through, looks at my Mongolian visa stamps and waves me off on the next part of the road, down a steep mountain road (on amazing asphalt) to the Russia checkpoint …..

Only at this point a senior guard comes rushing out yelling (in Russian of course) and gesticulating wildly that the Russian border checkpoint is shut.  Had he been the first to come out of the guard Im pretty sure I would still be on the Mongolian side of the gate and spending a couple of days eating my noodles on my own, stuck in ‘no mans land’. He shoots back into the hut, evidently makes a call, and quickly returns grinning broadly, flashing his gold teeth and slapping his chest with both hands. “Ha!! Spasiba” he shouts and then flaps his hands at me to get on the downhill with all haste and speed … I dont need telling twice!! Waving to them both I hit the road at a pace suitable for guards being held at checkpoints past their work times and hope that the road is this good and downhill all the way.

About 3km on I am passed by an old 4×4 with trailer in tow … which screeches to a halt not far in front of me and out of which 2 older men jump and into which they proceed to haul me, Tilly and the bags.  They point back at the border and it is evident that they have been commandered by the Russian Border Agency to scoop up way ward cyclists and deposit them at the checkpoint post haste in order that they can all go home for tea in as timely a manner as possible considering that their usual exits home have been scuppered by said cyclist.

This being the case I am happily set up on the floor in the back of the 4×4, out of the cold, wind and rain/sleet/snow that is threatening to fall heavily out of the heavy clouds in front of us.  With a flash of a smile the passanger turns to me “Welcome to Russia” he says in that iconic, heavily accented way I am so familiar with from films (!!) and I am immediately handed stong black coffee, stronger homebrewed something alcoholic, a flask of meat, a loaf of bread, a bag of trailmix and a pen knife.  Amazing!! All of it!! Im all too quickly cocconed in a warm, alcohol indused haze.  I only have a couple of sips but I simply have no tolerence for alcohol!

“Beautiful?” he says waving at the road ahead and yes it is utterly stunning.  Imagine steep, desolate, partially snowcovered hillsides with spring browns and greens countering ominous dark skies seen from the back of an old 4×4 and imagine the retro filter that you would put on such an image but without the need for such a filter… tadah!!!

“British spy?!” comes the next heavily accented and more heavily humoured comment. By which time, to be honest, I’m beside myself with joy at the situation and can barely contain my all too explosive, ‘high as a kite’ mirth.  As sometimes happens I feel like I’m on a film set and that the things happening are too fantastic, too iconic, too incredible to be real.  Im sad when too soon we reach the checkpoint and start the process of visa and passport checks as I assume that this is where my journey with these good men will end … but as I start to get my kit out they indicate that they can take me to the nearest town, Kosh-Agash.  Wonderful!!!

But this is not to be …. Sadly Russian Border Control are not as intent on getting home for their borst in the speedy manner I had hoped and a young official, who informs me that he is a translator, comes out of the main building and over to me, smiling, and quickly assuring me that everything is fine but that they want to have a ‘quick chat to get to know other peoples a bit better’.  Concealled sigh … outward smile!

Initially there are 2 uniformed officers and me squeezed into a small room with a large desk in it.  Surprisingly this small room boasts a tea cupboard I would have been proud to have on the boat.  The room is quickly made to feel even smaller with the arrival of a big, ununiformed man who is given the seat opposite me and who takes copious notes of everything I say … 30minutes into the ‘chat’ the guys in the 4×4 have to leave so Tilly is deposited outside the main building … 90minutes, Ive had 2 cups of tea and it doesn’t look like they are anywhere near finished with me …. 150minutes later, 4 cups of tea and I am free to go … feeling like these men know more about some aspects of my recent life than my mother!!

To say it was an ordeal is not wholey accurate!! To be completely honest I spent quite a lot of the time laughing at the questions and the situation.  Not necessarily a good thing to do but considering that at times it appeared that the Russian officers were barely containing their amusement at what I was saying and what I had been doing, pretty appropriate really.  I cannot be certain but Im fairly sure that the initial exchange between uniformed and ununiformed officers went along the lines of  .. ‘what on earth are we questioning her for!!’ The indications towards me and barely concealed mirth were dead giveaways!!

Questions veered wildly from ‘how old are your brothers?’ (they were amazed, amused and disgusted that I couldnt remember their ages) to ‘what do you think about Islamic extreamism?’, which considering it was following on from a discussion about feminism, cycling and world travel  provided an interesting tangent to follow. Questions about global or UK political standpoints were (Im sorry to say) met with ‘Im really not that great on politics and current affairs’ pop quiz style but my absolute favourite was ‘do you know the names of the UK secret service departments?’ (!!).

Who could possibly pass up the opportunity to say ‘well thats MI5 and MI6 right? … like in James Bond!!’ … ‘and do you know the difference?’ … ‘No idea!! But M has been a woman in the past few films and I liked that!!’ (more barely concealed smiles) Finally, they look ready to let me go. ‘OK … Thank you for your time Miss Hadley, sign here and here … yes this is just the information you have given us during our chat, if you want it all translated we can do that quite quickly for you. No? OK then please sign …. One final thing (this time the big man is making no effort to conceal his humour) .. Do you have cats?’  It appears that this stereotype/joke about single and he said ‘independant’ women is part of Russian as well as British humour. He abruptly gets up, extreamly pleased with himself, ushers me out of the building, signes us all out with (finally) maxmium efficiency, Tilly, kit and I are deposited in the back of his 4×4 (he advises I need to be well away from the border area to camp) and he drives me to Kosh-Agash himself.

The M52 from Kosh-Agash to Gorno-Altaysky is utterly stunning.  When travelling East-West there is a lot of downhill as the road comes down from high Mongolia, through the Altay Mountains to the plains of Russia. This was a great relief as I spent most days battling simply horrific Spring headwinds. The road follows the Ob River and along the route I passed through numerous small towns and villages filled with log houses whose architect could have been the illustrator for the early pen and ink drawings of Grimms Fairy Tales.  Cycling along roads empty but for the thankfully occasional, palpitation inducing, exceeding loud, extreamly fast driven car or van was wonderful.  The weather was still cold in the mountains at night but felt positively temperate when compared with Mongolia. From Gorno-Altaysky through Biysk and into Barnaul the road becomes much busier, faster and generally feels more dangerous.  The headwinds and drafts from the trucks and cars played tug-of-war with Tilly unceasingly and despite continuing to be a downhill or flat run I cannot say that I really enjoyed it. It is a very monotonous open, agricultural area which in early spring is possibly not the most interesting however as is always the case the people I met throughtout this area made it all worthwhile.

As I cycled I could see similarities between some of the ethnic Altai people and their near neighbours in Mongolia, and actually some aspects of Tibetan culture as well.  Wild horses and herds of animals roam everywhere.  There are mounds created on passes and at important sites that are very similar to the Mongolian Ovoo and the Tibetan Lung Ta. There are numerous water springs along the route which have recieved offerings and a site of petroglyphs whose beautiful open valley location leaves the mind free to create all manner of 5,000 year old scenarios for the artists who made them. The change in season and rapidly melting snow meant that mountain ridgelines are thrown into sharp relief, light and color contrasts are strong and everywhere I look there are reflection of land and sky thrown back at me in the pools of snow melt that currently hug the lands contours.

The day after arriving in Russia I found the limit of the closeness betwen Altai and Mongolia. I was unable to change Mongolian Tughrik into Russian Rubles … anywhere in the Altai .. anywhere in Russia.   Economically and I would sumise politically then, there is no closeness.  Not great news. I had rushed across the border with single minded determination, not with sensible thought and consideration and I was stuck. Most of my dollars had been in one of the bags taken in Mongolia and what I could change had to be done in one of the bigger towns with a currency exchange.  I was glad I had picked up some food in Tsaaganuur but it wasnt a large amount.  3days later and I manage to change 40dollars and buy food, during which time a kind woman has invited me in for breakfast, little knowing that will be my main food for the day.  6 more days and gas, food and money is all gone and I am in Barnaul hoping that my ’emergency package’ of replacement ‘bits’ including my bank card has arrived at the post office.  It hasn’t.

As I stand outside the post office wondering what my next plan should be I am approached by an older woman, Sveta, who points at the bike, gives me the ‘thumbs up’ and presses a bar of chocolate into my hand before waving and heading off down the street. About 20minutes later I am on a different street not far from the post office, just about to tuck into the bar of choc when the same woman comes past, starts chatting in Russian, takes my arm and steers me towards a cafe where she proceded to buy me lunch and keep up a onesided steady stream of conversation in Russian interspersed with some occasional words in German.

Again I consider what my next plan should be … fuel in belly aids the thought process … so I return to the Post Office to check again for wayward package and am approaced by a young woman, Olga, who speaks fantastic English, speaks to the counter staff for me and then as I am also trying to get a Western Union transfer sorted out, takes me to the nearest bank she knows to check that they can do this before giving me money for the night at a hostel and food for the day and then returning to her workplace.

Its difficult to explain just how quickly the concept of money changes when it is inexcessible or unavailable.  The viseral process of giving meaning to pieces of paper becomes much more apparent when they mean something and have value in one place and are utterly worthless other than as their base constituent in another place. Especially when you need them. Likewise the concept of having no actual money inspite of having potential money … actual food being more filling than potential food.

The following day WU provides transfered money and Olga and I arrange to meet for a tour of the old houses of the city.  Barnaul is, to my mind, a beautiful small city with a lot to offer. Of the trio along the Ob river (Gorno-Altysky, Biysk and Barnaul) it is the by far my favouite. Founded in 1730, Barnaul has long been an important adminstrative site for the region and as such there are still many beautiful, old buildings, mainly from the early 19th century, to be seen.   Unfortunately here as everwhere else the price of land is leading to rows of old timber houses being demolished and new buildings springing up in their place.  Barnaul also has trams … how can anyone not love trams!? Trams in red and yellow, complete with lace curtains, glide up and down the hills of the main streets and around the city, dinging their bells and rattling their cables.  Luckily since I am with Olga I get to travel on one.  My lack of Russian is a severe disadvantage when it comes to transportation.

Olga has been uterly wonderful and has been my guide and friend in the city over the past few days, which we have been exploring together.  As she rightly said she doesn’t usually venture into these areas in her ‘normal’ daily life but she is seeing aspects of her city through the eyes of another.  Nothing quite like taking a tourist around your area for revitilising your perspective!!! She also took me to a concert of songs from WWII, attended by her friends and collegues.  To hear national music and see national images relating to the war bypasses any intellectual process of understanding and cuts right into emotions.  To hear music I recognise from ‘home’, played with their regional/national style just increases the emotion and hearing the balalika played gives me that surreal ‘film set’ feeling.  Its a strange and profound experience.

I’ve spent a really wonderful few days here and am sorry to be leaving Barnaul … the Altai … Russia.  My ’emergency package’ appears to have gone AWOL and is sadly untraceable by either the Russian or UK postal services and my visa is due to expire in 2 days time … so I have to cut my losses and make a dash for the Kazakhstan border on the train.  My time here has been all too short and the places I have seen and encounters with people I have had, all too brief but as usual I am incredibly grateful that my ideas and stereotypes have been challenged and new ideas produced.  This area of the world is not an easy place to live with its mountainous or steppe terrain, strong winds and its opposing summer and winter climate (think +35° to -40°) but the people in this region have been some of the funniest, warmest, most generous and caring I have had the pleasure to meet.

Route:

  • Tashanta/Tsaaganuur border crossing.  M52/P256 Chuysky Tract.
  • Cycled through Kosh Agash, Onguday, Gorno-Altaysky, Biysk, Barnaul..
  • Train from Barnaul to stop nearest to Russian Federation/Kazakhstan border crossing.

Info:

  • Tashanta to Gorno-Altaysky – limited traffic
  • Gorno Altaysky to Barnaul – heavy fast traffic.
  • Gas cannisters for MSR Omnifuel impossible to find until outdoor shop in Barnaul, (see photo).
  • Change Mongolian Tughrik in Mongolia at border, impossible to exchange in Russia.
  • Buy strong tick repellant or better still get tick-borne encephalitis vaccination – especially if wild camping.
  • Hostel Barneo in Barnaul is very good – helpful, central and 350 rubles for a dorm.

Mongolia

To date, I think I can say with complete authenticity, that Mongolia has been the hardest country I have cycled in!  The country broke my camera, broke Tilly and at times came near to breaking me … I lost kit, I lost money and at times I came near to completely losing perspective but as is often the case, the experiences I got from such a travails have been all the sweeter for the tough times, at least in hindsight!

On reaching Zamin Uud I did the sort of mental gymnastics that would have got me a decent score in the Olympics and made for the train station to purchase a ticket for the evening train to Ulan Batar.  No hardship for me, I love the old Soviet trains with their bunks, their fake, burgundy leather apholstery, metal fittings and their fierce carriage attendants who patrol the aisles admonishing pesky cycle tourists who are a little over excited and therefore causing havoc with their exuberant dashing from window to window so as not to miss any of the views of the desert she was missing out on crossing, dispensing packages of folded bed linen and providing the all important complimentary tea bags to pair with the ever boiling, coal fired Samova at the end of the carriage.  Whats not to love?!  They feel so much part of a bygone age that its impossible for me not to see myself and my carriage companions as an ensemble cast for the old propaganda films.  Almost too excited to sleep, I eventually climb up into my bunk, and fall asleep listening to the slow rumble and the mournful whistle of the train as it crosses the start of the now dark Gobi Desert.

Im up before sunrise peering out into the quickly receding darkness, wanting to get my first glimpse of Mongolia ‘proper’.  The train is still crossing the steppe and sunrise shows just how vast a space that is.  Vast but not unpopulated and we pass a town with concrete, wood and ger housing structures, the gers being the Mongolian equivalent of the Central Asian yurt.  The orange and blue of the materials used for the housing is striking against the white of the ger canvas and agains the backdrop of the snow-covered hills between which we wind our way in a slow, sinuous motion. Winter is currently on its way out of Mongolia but is refusing to go without a fight.  As i found out as i cycled through Mongolia, the difference in temperatures between neighbouring valleys can be enormous, t-shirt in one and then every item of clothing in the next. The haze from a multitude of heating sources hangs visibly over the town and is a reminder of the high pollution levels that are to come in UB.  Ger communities in all places

My train companions took having a tourist in their midst in good humour and asked the usual round of questions alongside pointing out that their country (Mongolia/Russia) had lovely, kind people and that I was in good hands here/there! 

My time in UB is extremely short.  I wait for a couple of hours before i can collect Tilly but once done we make a swift exit from the city, past PowerPlant 3 and its enormous, belching chimney, and head for the hills, well steppe. 

This is my first stint of touring outside China in a long time and I feel excited and nervous.  I don’t speak the language, my camping skills are rusty, Im unfit and i more feel like a touring newbie than the well organised, savie traveller that I had pictured myself as … but as I go through the familiar motions of buying supplies with a disproportionate percentage of NVC to language, consulting the maps and leaving the city I start to feel more relaxed. 

This initial calm is quickly shattered when a young Mongolian man in the next village, drunk, runs over to me, grabs the handlebars of the bike and refuses to let go during what started as a brief ‘hello’ and looks like it might progress into an unpleasant altercation.   He wants my bike and I am not prepared to give it over.  Thankfully at that moment a Mongolian woman drives past, sizes up the situation, stops and demands that the young man let me go.  Despite being drunk he has already let go of the bike, evidently knowing he was in the wrong.  The woman motions to me with her head ‘go’ … and I do, at speed, whilst she gives the young man an earful about not upsetting tourists.  I had read various articles about Mongolia prior to starting the trip and had felt out of my depth as a result of what other were saying about the problems of solo female travel in Mongolia and this incident fanned those flames (more is to be said about the absolute need for self assurance in a different place). 

Unfortunately It was not to be the last incident as later that evening sex is physically indicated when I stay with 2 herder brothers in their home.  There was nothing malicious about the incident. It appeared to me that the brother in question has a very hazy view about Western women and their ‘availability’ which is coupled with a very different cultural outlook relating to sex and different means of expression.  Even in the morning, after making my ‘No’ position abundantly clear, which was initially accepted with no further issues, the brother attempted persuasion by means of communicating just how athletic and amazing Mongolian men were when it came to sex.  I leave rapidly at this point because there are a limited number of times and ways in which I can communicate ‘No’ without losing my temper.

A recent discussion with another woman about this has given me the opportunity to fully reflect on my Western, socialised views of sex and this incident and to appreciate just how unthreatening and non-abusive/power dominant it was.  For this young man it appeared that sex with me might be fun/was an opportunity not to miss (western woman)/sates physical urges.  I didn’t feel threatened or coerced (I think my age and recent experience and confidence helps me with this as well) once over the initial shock and anxiety, and that the initial feelings are more of a collision of socialised ‘norms’ rather than actual ‘in the moment’ issues.  As ever it more about how I react and deal with my internal self as well as the external situation.

These instances were just the first indicators of the differences in the Mongolian views of people in general as well as of women in particular which I encountered in the country.  Mongolia seemed to me to be a place of high pragmatism bordering on a flattening of the idea of ‘humanity’ and paradoxically of generosity and warmth.  The people I met either treated me like family and were beyond generous or appeared to view me as less useful (see almost invisible) than their canine companion and therefore only worthwhile in what could be gained from me.  The differentiation of these roles I played came about very quickly in interactions depending on circumstances and location.  Mongolia is an extremely harsh landscape to survive in and it is not surprising that a pragmatic, non emotional code is in place.  As a result of this however there is also a very strong stand of equality that runs through the pragmatism … being female doesn’t matter as much as it does in other cultures as my value is in ‘what I can give’ rather than the more social and potentially gendered concepts of ‘what I am’.

Interactions with different people continued to vacillate between these polarities as I crossed the country.  In Numrug I encountered an amazing woman, Gilthma, who invited to me stay in her utterly beautiful Ger with her mother.  We spent an incredible day pantomiming our way through conversations about England, about her animals and about her job in the local museum, taking time to show me around the exhibits there and encouraging me to fire a pistol which was evidently of importance and I think shot someone political (!) but there are certain limits to the intricacies that pantomimed language can do.  She was part of the local dramatic society and made all their local costumes so she took me to the hall they use and on stage we danced together and laughed and I watched one of the local teenagers rehearse his speech.  On our return to the Ger we celebrate because her cow has safely given birth to a calf.  Its a full day of happy communication, mutual joy at the interaction, traditional food and traditional activities. 

On either side of this day are theft and an utter lack of care for me as an individual.  I have my Primus petrol bottle and pump stolen off my bike whilst camping in a petrol station before staying with Gilthma and then following the stay and on yet another dreadful, mud filled, icy track both trailer panniers (unnoticed initially) detach themselves from my Extrawheel trailer, fall to the ground and are picked up by the only vehicle for the next 4 hours.  The car passes me as I realise the situation, evidently knowing they are mine but out here is a conceptually level playing field … they are (unfortunately) available, I lose.

I lose … water filter, bike parts, replacement brake pads, bike pump, first aid kit, dollars, wallet with bank card and a food pannier, recently restocked.  In this situation the first loss (the Primus bits) has precipitated the second through me getting caught up and frustrated and angry (see overly emotional) … and then not ensuring that the carrabina clips on the panniers are attached to the frame.

The intertwining of tough and fun times, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is as complex and in flux as the changing weather.  The dynamic nature of cycle touring is always present but in Mongolia it became even more prominent in my mind and in how I was doing things.  Likewise the need to stabilise myself and level out my emotions became more important … however this is me talking in hindsight and was not a thing I effectively managed there!

Getting back into wild camping was a very different experience in Mongolia.  I very quickly stopped worrying about attempting to hide my tent since the local herders know their land and there was no way I could ‘out stealth’ them!  I would frequently look for a suitable spot, see no-one, start setting up the tent and out of nowhere a herder on a horse or motorbike would magically appear to see what I was doing and then once satisfied with the answers I was providing would disappear again!

The seasons and weather play a dominant role in Mongolia, extremely cold winters and hot summers, and since I was crossing in the Winter/Spring shoulder I was able to experience temperatures varying from -15℃ in one place to 10℃ in another (night and day). Likewise I was  using snow to melt for cooking etc in some places and then finding water from melting rivers and streams in others.  Food had to be carried for long distances as there was often nowhere I could stock up my supplies and so I became a bit of a food hoarder.  ’Just in case’ became a bit of a habit in Mongolia but then so did ‘I can’t do that I need to do something different’!!

After the loss of the panniers and the initial panic, shock, 2 minute tears (tears are pointless and a waste of energy when alone, useless unless communicating something to others!) and at least 3 ‘go back’, ’no go on’ changes of direction I decide to continue on … after all what is lost is lost right?! I pushed Tilly on for the next few hours, up and down sticky, muddy, icy tracks … manually removing clods of mud, grit, gravel and ice from her transmission and was utterly miserable.  The next truck that passes me stops and offers me a lift, which I gratefully jump at, Tilly is strapped on top of the wood plank cargo and we make it all of about 10km before the trucks wheels are stuck in the dreadful mud at the bottom of the next hill.  The driver, his wife and I dig the wheels out, jam wood under them and take a run at the incline.  We make it up the hill and continue for the next 40km before getting more heavily stuck, this time until the following day when our truck is pulled out by another.

The events of the previous days have left me feeling mentally exhausted so I opt to remain with the truck until it reaches the next stretch of asphalt and I make an agreement with the driver regarding this.  Fear of the next stretch of track being another bout of pushing and not riding its the main motivating factor as it will severely hamper my efforts enroute to the Russia/Mongolia border as in the back of my mind time is always ticking for the end of one visa and the start of the next. The hitch on the truck over the next 1/2 a day traverses some utterly beautiful plains, (sadly) improved tracks and drops me near Khygas Nuur.  The up side to missing out on cycling across these stunning spaces comes in the unexpected form of a Mongolian sing-along-session in the cab with the driver and his wife giving renditions of songs about camels and me joining in with hilariously dreadful but joyfully encouraged harmonies.  Interactions like these are great for reminding me what is important.

I cycle past the still frozen lake amazed that a sudden drop in temperature had managed to freeze the water into wave forms along the shore, then across desert areas complete with camels and stony outcrops. I meet friendly girls, families wanting selfies and the opportunity the ride on Tilly.  After a couple of nights in the large town of Ulaangom I follow the Northern Route and its quickly disappearing asphalt.  I am back on the mud tracks again but this time I am far from alone. 

It is quickly evident that my final few days in Mongolia are not just an important time from me but are also auspicious times for families to be moving from their Winter to their Summer positions in this area of the country.  In asphalted areas trucks have been manoeuvring people and possessions around for weeks but here they are just starting … and to my joy it is not just done by truck but by camel as well!  As I head up one pass I am met by wave after wave of animals making their way down.  Women and men moving their flocks and herds, children and gers.  On several occasions I am told that there are swollen rivers ahead but there is no choice for me but to continue.  Camels are tricky beasts, their nerves are not the most stable and I have to position myself and Tilly carefully so as not to spook, upset or halt their progress … as happened on one unfortunate occasion and resulted in an already stressed herder having to calm fractious camels whilst I backtracked and hid.

The river crossings were as unpleasant for me as they were amusing for the onlookers.  After the pass and several bumpy, muddy downhill sections I repeatedly had to take my socks and boots off, put my sandals on and wade across icy, snow melt river sections pushing Tilly as fast as was feasible before ripping the ice filled sandals off and dancing like a demon to restore feeling in the quickly numbed feet and toes.  The pain those icy torrents caused was far worse than the surfing ‘ice cream headaches’ cold water has given me in the past.  It truly took my breath and sense of humour away, at least temporarily.  Somehow, as when camping, at these times magical apparitions appeared on horses and motorbike, laughing at my dancing and cavorting, and no doubt exclaiming at the folly of ‘crazy women’ especially on bikes.  Then more than ever I wished I had a good command of the language simply so I could explain myself, my reasoning and convince them that I was not crazy but actually a ‘very smart, sensible woman’ (!!! no comments necessary!!!)

As I have already illustrated, I hope, with all the tough there is the flip side and not long after the crossing the rivers I find myself cycling slightly downhill across wide open Steppe complete with sheep, goats and a herder (Damba) on horseback who comes over to greet me, smiling broadly, and who then invites me to stay in their ger overnight.  His wife (Erde) comes over as we walk in that direction and then their son (Alaga).  They are also packed ready for moving and as they are using the smaller ger which they also use to the lambs, I put my tent up next to it, help them herd the sheep and goats back to the vicinity and settle in with them for the night’s conversation to be role played by a cast of 4.  Milk tea is served in bowls and my manners (learnt in the Stans) are corrected for Mongolian company.  Damba and Alaga head out of the get whilst Erde and I ‘chat’, returning 10 minutes later with a freshly killed sheep, which they skin and butcher with the most incredible efficiency on the floor of the ger.  Erde than cooks the offal and later that evening I am eating parts of a sheep that I would never have expected to ever eat.  After a while I head to the tent. The soft folds of the low hills close to the flat of the Steppe is the perfect place to keep out of the cold winds and keeps the flocks close which protects them from preditors … fear of wolves has been a favourite question and statement throughout Mongolia.  Its a dark and moonless night, the silhouette of the surrounding hills backdropped by a night sky it is easy to get lost in.  Moments looking at the stars bleed into each other and I eventually head into the tent and a dreamless sleep.

The evening is an amazing one for me. The sense of welcome into a world different from the one I am used to and the curiosity about mine was companionable and I gain some small knowledge about the aid programmes that the US has in place and which provide funds for struggling herders so the they can buy animals.  Damba has recently bought a camel.  It is easy for me to romanise this life but make no mistake it is a harsh and precarious one.

In the morning I wake, remembering the bike horn being activated in the night by a curious goat and the stampede of animals moving away from the bike and tent and then slowly settling back!  We herd the animals, feed the lambs and kids, Alaga is a wizard with the lasso and hooks then pairs them with their mothers and then we eat more mutton and drink more tea together.  I eventually leave after taking lots of photos of all of us, at their request.  Its a beautiful morning made all the more special by the activities together.

Over the next few days I continue through wide open spaces, past lakes, crossing sandy and grassy Steppe, desert areas and pushing for a day and a 1/2 across the forever dubbed Sea of Rocks before reaching the final pass before the Russian/Mongolian border.  The headwinds are awful, hamper progress considerably and mentally destroy me.  This last part of the journey across the country is the hardest for me.  The wind, sand, rocks and storms that I contend with are at a stressful counterpoint to my need to get to Russia because of the rapidly expiring Russian visa.  The physical challenges are made so much harder but the mental challenges which I create and which then hamper me in a closed destructive cycle.  At the time all I could feel was the frustration at pushing Tilly over endless rocks and that no matter how amazing this ancient ‘sea bed’ was I wanted to cycle and it was in my way!  Its a strange thing to be able to see this level of beauty and to then see the over layer of frustration and realise the interplay but to be caught up in the ‘moving’ and thus not able to do the mental processing necessary for on to get out of the way of the other!! 

I see a rainbow in the desert (The Little Prince) just before a distant storm. I set up camp out in the desert just before another storm reaches me.  I continue the following day.  I am out of water so push on as fast as I can.  In the afternoon I have to hide under a tarp by a river, boiling water (no filter or tablets remember!) as there is another storm.  These are all over quickly but furious in their energy.  The pass is uneventful in reality but filled with difficulty in my mind.  I am tired and everything feels like a battle ..

As my last challenge I realise that it is Easter Sunday the day after I push over the pass and into Tsaaganuur.  I simply have to get across the border because I don’t know if it will be shut for one or two days, being a holiday in lots of countries.  And so on reaching the town I do the only sensible thing … I pass through not talking to anyone and leave in the wrong direction with the clock ticking, my sense of direction scrambled and a total lack of sense.

Luckily I am stopped 10km outside the town by a herder who redirects me, takes me back to the town and then offered me a lift to the border, for a sensible price.  I gratefully accept and sit in his comfortable cob home, so different from the gers, and filled with Islamic art and culture.  This far west may still be politically Mongolia but is very Kazakh in its mood.  Tsaaganuur is the first town I see to have a blue domed, whitewashed mosque in its centre.  After drinking a lot of milk tea his friend arrives with the car, we load up and head for the border.  In conversation with the young herder I find out that he has just finished his university studies and speaks 5 languages including Arabic.  Im always amazed by others skills and shamed by my lack of linguistic prowess but this is the danger of coming from an island nation with a superiority complex (!).  Its a high speed, bumpy dash but we make it to the Mongolian passport control and I get through by 4pm … from here on Im going to be learning Russian!!!

Route

  • Train from Zamin Uud to Ulan Batar
  • Central Route then the Northern Route
      • A0301 to Lun, A0601 to Kharkhorin,
      • A0602 to Ikh-Tamir, A0603 to Numrug,
      • unnamed ‘road’ to Songul/Songino,
      • unnamed ‘road’ to Khyargas Nuur, Naranbulag and then Ulaangom,
      • A1702 to Turgen Sum,
      • A16 to Tsaganuur,
      • A0306 to Mongolia/Russia Border.

Info, ‘tips’ and miscellany

  • Dont cross the border out of Mongolia without exchanging your Mongolian TG!  You CANNOT exchange it anywhere outside the county.
  • Always have small notes – If you pay for food or accommodation or transport with a higher denomination note than needed the individual may not have money to change it and you may well lose your change!
  • Set terms for homestay etc before staying – or you may have demands made that are difficult to counter.
  • Take it as you find it!!! Many things have been written about Mongolia, everyones experience is vastly different so the only thing to do is be confident in your abilities, go with the flow and be flexible, adaptable and self assured.

Northern China and the Chexit challenge

And so it had finally happened … The time had come and I was free to get back on the bike and leave China.  Months of anticipation, looking at maps and discussing routes with fellow cyclists who were passing through were at an end.  The final hurdles were the small matters of 1500km to the Mongolian border, an exit visa for China, the necessary visas for Mongolia and Russia and a fool proof exit strategy … easy!!  Oh and the weather … don’t forget the weather! An important consideration for me because I was regularly checking the temperature in Northern China and Mongolia and (naively) holding me breath in the hope that there would still see snow, at least in some places.  Having experienced a year of predominantly hot and humid weather in Chengdu I was yearning for some cold, fresh weather and the (relative) normality of seasons the way I understood them.  Over the next couple of months I was to fully experience the adage “be careful what you wish for ‘lest it come true” … but more on that in future posts!!

My first Herculean task was to speed up to Beijing, (sparing no expense) on the fast train.  Sitting in a reclining seat, my own mini table to hand and the ability to sleep against the window or drink coffee in relative peace for 14hours is not to be taken for granted.  Looking out of the window at the  landscape flashing past I gradually become aware of the change in temperature and the fact that the world around me is going from green to brown to grey to white … and that it has visibly started to show settled snow.  Of course … Beijing is north east of Chengdu and has much lower winter temperatures.  When I consider things for a moment they make sense but being me has typically involved a hastily purchased ticket the night before the train departure and no thought of checking whether I might need clothes in addition to the cotton 3/4 length trousers I am wearing and my thin shirt and jacket!!  Luckily I have a merino t-shirt and leggings for sleeping in, which has instantly become my day and night attire for the duration of the stay!

Getting into Beijing Station at night I am immediately hit but the blast of freezing air and the knowledge that there is a lot more snow than I had expected.  The metro has stopped running since the train had experienced delays (‘snow on the line” … sound familiar?!) and all the taxi drivers were gleefully shouting out ridiculous prices ‘because of the snow!’.  I refuse to be held to ransom and yell back in my limited mandarin, attempting to make a point about not fleecing people because they are tourists, but it falls flat because they just don’t care.  Welcome to the Big City!!

Eventually I find a tuktuk and driver and manage to barter down his original price, mainly because he is trying to hold 4 different conversations and I can surreptitiously squeeze into the back seat with the other 2 occupants when he is otherwise engaged. Therein begins one of the most terrifying, but mercifully short, journeys of my life.  I say short.  In terms of distance it was short but jammed in the backseat it felt like a lifetime.  Imagine if you will 3 small wheels, large, flimsy metal box ‘welded’ onto chassie, freezing cold night, crazy chain-smoking driver AND enough ice and snow on the roads to make an impromptu skating rink.  In addition to all this the driver is simultaneously responding to wechat messages on his phone, reading directions from Baidu maps and conversing with the other tuktuk occupants.

Throughout my time in China I have mentally made lots of comments, not all of them appropriate, to drivers as they speed past me or cut in front of my bike but this night gave me ample opportunity to shout ‘go slow’ and ‘be careful’ in laughable mandarin. His insistence on running red lights, driving on the wrong side of the road and completely ignoring the weld wrecking rattle that ensued when skidding around the icy corners at speed meant losing long, stomach churning, out of control minutes to fear.

On reaching my destination I breathed a sigh of relief and settled into the reliable rhythms of hostel life.  The next few days passed in a daze of visa application form filling, embassy emails and passport delivery by Mobike, the new bike sharing scheme/craze that has gripped China.  I missed having Tilly with me but being able to zip around Beijing on the Mobike was a better than nothing!  The various bike sharing companies in China have been at all out war, flooding neighbourhoods in different cities with their brightly coloured single speed bikes.  In both Chengdu and Beijing large groups of newly fledged, wobbly wheeled cyclists had been creating the sort of havoc in the traffic that Critical Mass gatherings would have been proud of … ironic I say!

After an initial panic at the Mongolian Embassy when I am informed that it is shutting for the next 10 days Tsagaan Sa (New Year) holiday, I manage to secure an assurance that I can collect my visa the following day and for no extra charge! This leaves me a morning and afternoon to write the Russian visa application, sort out fake flights/itinerary and arrange for a letter of invitation to be emailed to me.  I also get to spend some time with lovely hostel folk, cycling out to the art district and checking out the galleries.  Its not often I get to nearly feel like a hipster and this was an opportunity not to be missed!!  During my time in Beijing I barely scratched the surface – an afternoon in the Temple of the Sun, Art District 798 and Tiananmen Square.  I didn’t even visit the Forbidden City or any of the Great Wall … but I can guide you to the Mongolian and Russian embassies or give recommendations for coffee shops which have wifi and where application form errors and missing information can be amended before the next round of printing and delivery occurs. 

So … Mongolian visa … Check! I spend a couple of nights with a Warm Showers host, Theo, on the outskirts of Beijing, experiencing the bone crushing suffocation of the overcrowded commuter train when I head back into the city.  After an initial stall in the visa process when I have ‘forgotten’ to provide flight information I am granted my Russian visa … Check!! Hurrah!!!!

I leave the nation’s capital, a week later than I had hoped, but clutching the Mongolia/Russia visa duo in my sweaty mitts … Even the prospect of a 30hr train journey in hard seats does not initially dampen my excitement!! After dropping my bag on a fellow passenger and exploding a bottle of soda water over 4 of us (all before the train pulls out of Beijing West Station), I am more subdued & spend the first hour looking at Maps.me .. calculating and noting route distances.  Looking up I realise that I have 10 pairs of (bored already!!) eyes watching what I am doing.  After a year of being part of a communal/collective society I would have expected this to be ok … but it still unnerves me!!  Train travel in China gives me the opportunity to be part of the massive ebb and flow of a huge population. This is most evident during Spring Festival when the ‘largest human migration’ occurs and people cross this enormous country to be reunited with their families, friends and traditional roots.

I confess .. the train ‘noise’ : the pushing, shoving, lack of care/awareness of others needles me, the sounds of people dragging phlem up from the recesses of their lungs still turns my stomach, the lack of privacy is unnerving (I feel like an exhibit!!) the incessant smoking is frustrating and makes my eyes water and the yelled mobile phone conversations are difficult to block out when trying to sleep … But my level of understanding of what ‘socially constructed norm’ means has deepened in my time in China.  I still have the visceral reactions but I am able to observe them and not see them as ‘real’ indicators of ‘correct’ behaviour.   After a time I am also able to realise just how socially close people have become … The atmosphere (and noise level) has warmed up to the festive and people are laughing loudly and calling up and down the carriage,  looks and jokes about the officious young conductor are shared … I’m included in these and this quickly becomes an opening for mercifully brief questions about me.  My still limited Mandarin halts any meaningful verbal conversation but just this brief sharing has smoothed the way for a more relaxed journey together!!!  The train journey is not comfortable and I get very little sleep but it is an aspect of China that will remain in my memory for a long time.

The elation about the visa’s is unfortunately short lived as I spend time looking at routes and distances and realise that in my haste to get the visas done as quickly as possible I have miss calculated the dates for the Russian visa (based on a realistic assessment of how long it will take me to cross Northern China, get my Chinese exit visa back and then cross Mongolia).  The issue is entirely about dates because unfortunately the Russian visa is date specific (I can enter after the start date requested but must leave before the end date requested) whilst the Mongolia visa is duration specific and I have a moveable 30 calendar days in the next 3 months in which to visit the country.  I’m devastated, I feel like a cycle touring newbie rather than an old hand and the fact that I can remember how well I managed other similar situations and how much pressure I have just heaped on myself adds to my frustration.

Back in Chengdu I apply for my Pakistan visa in the embassy there and get the exit visa process underway.  I am immediately refused the Pakistan visa based on the fact that I do not have residence for the dates requested and thus increase the speed at which I depart the city.  Or I try to.  It is just my luck that the annual Communist Party Conference is being held that week and all major services are on heightened security alert, meaning that when I try to book Tilly and all my kit onto the train my gas canisters, penknife and even lighters are refused.  Where there is a will there is a way … so after assessing the situation in the nearby bus station I back the next day and am able to avoid putting the aforementioned terrifyingly hazardous articles through the scanners by some devious sleight of hand and misdirection techniques!!!  There are times when appearing to be a hapless fool can be quite useful!

Finally Tilly and I are on the bus bound for the north of China and leaving the city that has been our base for the previous year.  There are elements of sadness and loss but the overwhelming feeling is of joy to be fully mobile again.  The plan is to cycle from Yulin to Hohhot before returning to Chengdu for my passport and then catch another bus from Hohhot to Erlianhot and the Mongolian border.

Amazingly everything goes to plan and I am able to spend the next 5 days covering nearly 600km through amazingly open landscape which is definitely in the midst of Spring and warming up nicely.  Zhenbeitai boasts an almost unknown part of the original Great Wall which I was happy to visit.  The Great Wall of China is often compared to a giant dragon, with the head at Laolongtou and the end at Jiayuguan Pass.  The heart lies at Zhenbeitai Great Wall on the top of Hongshan Mountain in Yulin, Shaanxi Province. It is the largest watchtower along the Great Wall. Owing to its strategic location and military significance, Zhenbeitai is known as the “First Tower of the Great Wall.”This section has the largest watchtower along the Great Wall. It was constructed in 1607 during the Ming Dynasty. The tower consists of four levels, and is about 100 feet (30 meters).  It was an amazing experience to be on this little visited area of the wall in part because it was almost deserted but mainly because it has not been renovated in the way that there sections of the Wall have been and therefore has a very authentically ancient albeit run down feel to it.

From Yulin to Hohhot I caused a sensation in the local villages with my ethnicity, dreadful mandarin, gender, bike and the Extrawheel trailer … not necessarily in that order.  I would suggest that international tourism is not big in these parts and cycle touring even less so.  Cars cruising alongside, videoing my progress and smartphones being thrust in my face for the obligatory selfie were quickly adjusted to .. they had to be.  The people I met were curious and most often of the head shaking variety, unhappy that I was alone, but as always very welcoming.  One night I camped in a farmers field and was greeted in the morning by said farmer, smiling and with a packet off Jujube berries in hand for me to munch on en route.  He also told me off for not going up to his house and asking to stay there!!!  The worry that I might be cold seemed ridiculous to me but to the people living here day in day out the realities of cold and illness are so familiar, having only just come out of full winter, that they were naturally concerned for a foreigner.

The route wound up and down back roads with ash and silver birch catching the light and creating shadows in the most iconic and stunning ways.  They were so uniformly planted in places that the play of sunshine on my face as moved from light to shade to light to shade became quite mesmerising at times.  Spring had yet to fully take hold and fields were alternately filled with the dried corpses of last years crops or their cut off remains.  Brown, yellow and grey were the colours of Northern China, each colour bleeding into the next and giving the landscape a Turner-esque wash. The villages have dwellings and storage rooms set back into hillside terraces which makes me think of an ancient Chinese Hobbiton with myself as Bilbo Baggins, heading there and back again (maybe!).

The roads were the Chinese standard of smooth asphalt, until the last day when I made a painful arsed, determined and long trek of 180km, cycling from 9am to 2am the next morning and finally arriving in Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia region.  The last 180km was a depressing, filthy, coal dusty schlep and not especially enjoyable since I was under pressure to return to Chengdu to collect my passport (with exit visa) and leave the country.  The industrial face of China finally showed itself and I was cowed by its domineering power plants and gigantic chimney stacks, belching noxious smokes and gases into the surroundings.   It is terrifying to see and feel and breath the price of industrial progress here.

It felt strange to be back in a large Chinese city after the peace and quiet of the backroads but I was made to feel at home immediately by the care of the young men running the local hostel in Hohhot.  Despite it being nearly 3am by the time I reached the centre (following a drop into a large bike sized pothole, numerous wrong turns and a loss of the will to continue) he came out on his bike to guide me in.  No time to relax as the following morning I catch the train back to Chengdu, run into the Chengdu PSB, grab my passport, run back to the metro, run back to the PSB to collect a forgotten bag and eventually reach Chengdu East Station for the return leg to Hohhot after the ridiculous sum of 2hrs in the city and a 3 day train trip.  Understandably the train crew, who are the same on both journeys are confused and amused by my antics and take it in turns to come and chat to me when they pass.

On my return to Hohhot I have a very quick turn around, buy some additional bike parts and leave Hohhot by bus the following day, heading for the Mongolian border.  There are checkpoints along the route and and after cresting the first pass I get the first inkling of the new style of terrain that i will be facing in Mongolia.  The land opens out and becomes a gently undulating expanse of low grasslands, a surprising amount of fences and the occasional canvas dwelling.  Huge flocks of sheep become the norm, presided over by a single horseman.  I reach Erlianhot, the border town on the Chinese side, and am immediately struck by the amount of Russian and Mongolian characters I am seeing in the signage.  Its all baffling to me and I am reminded of just how small and vulnerable I feel when crossing into new countries, with no idea of the language or culture and the  sensation of the safety net of familiarity being ripped out from under me.  As ever the sensation makes my head spin but this is what i have chosen and I am nonetheless grateful for the experience.

The following day Tilly is loaded into the back of a people carrier for the last stretch across the border.  It is not permitted to cross the border on foot or by bike and there is money to be made from cross border transportation.  My last impressions of China are strangely non Chinese.  Whilst waiting for other passengers to fill the people carrier I walk around the local market.  Far from this being your local Chinese market filled with the obligatory chilli’s and Sichuan pepper  it appears that Russia and Mongolia have silently stretched out, far from the watchful eyes of Beijing, and filled the market with brass kettles, colourful enamel plates, bright fabrics in every hue and traditional boots and clothing, fit for multi season life on the plains.  Its exciting to see and as I finally depart from China under a surprisingly beautiful rainbow arched crossing I wonder what all these new images hold in store for me.

Route

  • Bus from Chengdu to Xi’an.
  • Bus from Xi’an to Yulin.
  • Cycle the back roads parallel to the S204
  • Following the Tianqiao Reservoir
  • Following the X619
  • Following S103 into Hohhot, ignoring the toll booths, coal dust and potholes along this road.

Info, ‘tips’ and miscellany

  • Get the WeChat app for any time in China!! It will translate conversations for you and is essential for all interactions with Chinese people!!! Giving your WeChat details is the equivalent of giving a business card!!!
  • Russian visa – I am not certain but it might be easier getting a visa via the Russian Embassy rather than the Visa application centre, simply by being one of 10s rather than 100s of applications at that time. As a foreign national it appears that you can do either but be sure to choose the embassy option on the booking system and on the application form.  If you put the wrong one on the form you will have to resend and print it again (http://beijing.kdmid.ru/queue-en/)
  • Speak to RealRussia (http://realrussia.co.uk/Visas/Russian/Applying).  They provided me with a Letter of Invitation and support documents rather than a visa as I was applying in China with the support of my work permit.  The Russian visa application asks for the original signed and stamped copy but I had asked for an emailed pdf scan and had no problem with a high quality colour copy of the documents.  Very efficient service via email.
  • Russian embassy (blue marker) is easy to find on maps.me and is not far from the Lama Temple.  Just walk down the street and stop when you see a high wall and guards with guns! There is a high quality print and photograph shop on the junction of Min’an Street, opposite the Haiyun Hotel (red marker).

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  • Mongolian Visa – Some blogs mention getting photographs and copies done on the same street as the embassy.  I did not find this to be the case and could not see anywhere in the vicinity to get this done so ensure all paperwork and passport photos are done in advance.  The embassy will provide the form but perhaps not pens and glue at busy times (?!). I had taken a screenshot of an Ulaan Batar guesthouse with address before going and put this on the form.  A booking did not appear to be necessary, just the address.
  • Mobike/Offobike – not sure how easy it would be to set up an account and pay the online deposit without a Chinese bank card but if you can get it sorted or ask a Chinese friend or hostel xbudyto help you will not regret it.  You will also need to provide photos of your passport.  Deposits returned with no issues.  Life was so much better, cheaper and easier whizzing around Beijing, picking up bikes when necessary and dropping them off when not. 
  • Bus from Chengdu to Xi’an – 250¥ ticket then 100¥ for the bike (price knocked down, paying driver!)
  • Bus from Xi’an to Yulin – aprox. 150¥ ticket then 75¥ for the bike (bike given ticket in station).
  • Time Hostel, Hohhot – Its on booking.com (yellow marker).  Cheap, friendly, helpful people.  Recommended.


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  • Hohhot bus station is next to the main central railway station.  A ticket from there to Erlianhot cost aprox. 100¥ and then another 100¥ for the bike (bike money paid to driver!).
  • People carrier from Erlianhot to Zamiin Uud (Mongolia) – caught from opposite Dinosaur Square.  As the name suggests look for the dinosaur statues and you will soon be approached to see if you want transportation!!! 75¥ including bike. Get there early during high season as I am sure it will be busy!! (blue marker)
  • Covered market is also opposite dinosaur square, go through faded, padded curtains into a world of souvenirs, fabrics, clothing, footwear and anything else you could possible want (or not want!!) There is a small outdoor clothing and equipment shop at the top of the market. Limited stock. (blue marker)

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  • General transport issues – As mentioned before it is easier to get around the security systems in the bus stations if you are carrying camping gas or ‘dangerous/hazardous’ kit.  Journeys will just take longer and be less comfortable but you won’t lose equipment!!

The Essentials of Çay/ჩაი/çay/шай/choy/чай

Tea is everywhere but did you know ….. ?

»  All tea comes from the same plant, Camellia Sinensis

»  This tea plant is an evergreen which can reach a height of over 30 feet if left to grow in the wild.

»  There are four main types of tea: white, green, oolong, and black. But depending on the influence of culture, these four types can turn into thousands of varieties.

»  In one day, an experienced tea picker can collect around 70 pounds of tea! That’s enough tea to make 14 000 cups!

»  Tea can help regulate cholesterol.

»  Drinking tea is good for the heart.

»  A cup of tea may keep the dentist away because tea helps fight cavities.

»  Drinking tea helps boost the immune system due to its natural antibacterial properties.

»  One cup of white tea contains the same amount of antioxidants as 10 cups of apple juice!

»  And finally drinking tea and the associated rituals, ceremonies and traditions are important socially and culturally in most of the places I have been visiting recently …. good job I love a cup of tea!!!!!

»  Turkey was the start of using glasses for tea: drink it black, can add sugar … its made in a double boiler with the water underneath that you use for the tea and then the tea is kept hot on top of the water pot … tea can be made to exact preference by having both to hand!

»  Azerbaijan was more Persian in that sugar is not added to the tea, which is made in teapots for the table, but the drinker places the sugar cube in their mouth and drinks the tea through this … bad news for a sugar addict such as myself!!

»  In Kazakastan I started being given small bowls rather than cups or glasses

»  And in Uzbekistan there was a greater shift from black tea to green tea!

» China … well surprisingly enough China is not the largest consumer of tea .. and they produce great coffee in Yunnan!

 

Thoughts on (leaving) Turkey ….

Leaving Turkey was with a mixture of excitement to be moving on to another place, culturally and topographically, and sadness because Turkey is the country that I had spent the longest amount of time so far, learnt the greatest amount of the language, seen the most ‘sights’ and have met the most people … both those I had actually stayed with and those who just took an interest in my journey in passing.

My experiences with the majority of the people I encountered was positive and I was given more support and hospitality than I was ever expecting.

On learning the language … I was able to answer simple questions because these were mainly the same for each person …and utilise some of this vocabulary for other situations and circumstances ….!!

a) where are you from? England is nice!!

b) where are you going? your not sure? … oh yes the next town/city is nice!

c) are you with a friend? why not?

d) are you married? why not?!

e) do you have children? why not?!

f) how old are you? really!!

g) profession in England? oh, a teacher (!!) thats good!!

h) where do you sleep? you are sleeping in a tent? alone? outside campsites? aaargggg!!!!!

i) why alone … thats bad right?!

j) aren’t you afraid? …. its dangerous cycling alone, as a woman!!!

Some of these would apply to the male cyclists I have met but there was much more of a concern for my safety (as a woman) and my ability to achieve my goals and actually interest and confusion as to why I might want to do this and not be in a relationship, at home, caring for children.  The expectation (and confusion) were even more pronounced when people heard my age … especially as I look much younger than I am!!

The occasional difficult issues that I encountered with men were few and far between, did have some impact on the way that I felt about travelling alone as a woman in Turkey but did not stop me from meeting men, women and families as I travelled.

I found the cultural expectation in relation to keeping my body almost fully covered quite a difficult one to come to terms with and my sense of how to do this was not always compatible with the places I was visiting.  I found that in Central Turkey I needed to be more covered than anywhere else and my usual attire of skirt, leggings and cycling top was just not enough and so I reverted to wearing trousers sometimes with the skirt and a shawl over my cycle top … to mitigate any sense of body shape at all.

Its frustrating to feel the need to do this in order to manage others perceptions of me but since I was the one making the decision to cycle within that social and cultural environment it was up to me to conform to some of the social expectations and yes to discuss them when appropriate and challenge them from my personal perspective.

In addition to it’s wonderful, caring and generous people, Turkey is historically amazing and utterly beautiful in its diversity of surroundings.

Turkey …. I will return!!!!