A New Horizon

Karakol Mountains

Karakol is a small town in the east of Kyrgyzstan, most famous for the largest saline lake in the world after the Caspian Sea, Lake Issyk-Kul. However, it was not the lake that drew us to Karakol, but the mountains, and in particular the skiing.

After we concluded that our cycle tour had come to a premature end, we spent little time deliberating and headed straight to the hills for something different. What an amazing decision! 

After what felt like a succession of obstacles and difficulties to overcome whilst cycling, skiing today was pure, unadulterated fun! 

There is nothing quite like it; flying down a powdery slope, kicking up snowdust on every turn, the snow dazzling in the sunshine. Although I’ll confess it took me a bit of time to get my ski legs and at first I resembled something more like Bambi on ice than a legitimate skier! Thankfully my muscles soon remembered and I was able to enjoy it once more.

It may be Kyrgyzstan’s biggest and best resort, but it still remains small compared to European standards. Only 3 chairlifts to service the entire area, and a handful of pisted runs. As a result off piste is almost more common here than piste, and we found ourselves weaving through trees, in knee-deep powder and in steep gullies, as well as whizzing down the pistes on offer. It may be small, but it is so much fun, and I cannot stop smiling! 

The chairlifts were once bright yellow, now faded and chipped to reveal the burnished metal underneath. Some have cushions to sit on, others just wooden slats. When we crouched a little to let it pick us up, it does not slow down one bit, and instead crashed into our calves and knees as it hoisted us into the air. I have bruises all over – not from skiing buy from the old French lifts given new life here!

I have only ever skiied in the Alps before, and it is amazing to be skiing somewhere so different.

The ski resort is on the edge of the mountains, not in the heart of them. As a result, the views are different to anything I have seen on skis before. Look one way and mountains, some over 5,000m above sea level, stretch as far as the eye can see. Look the other and there is Lake Issyk-Kul, still liquid blue thanks to its salty water, with another mountain range deep in the distance. A huge expanse of empty brown plains between us seem like a clash of worlds, mountains, desert and a huge body of water. It is quite extraordinary.

It may not have been in our plan, but in light of the unsuccessful attempt at cycling, it couldn’t get much better right now!!! 🙂

More Mountains! 🙂

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Learning to Fail

Last week, I started listening to a book about learning to fail well. I confess I didn’t expect to be implementing what I had read quite so quickly.

It never really crossed my mind that I would not manage to cycle back to the UK but it seems I won’t be doing that this time. 

It was not the weather that prevented us, or the slow pace or even the lack of fuel. 

It is a single bolt. 

Probably the only bolt does not inflict damage on the bicycle, only the tour. It is the bolt that holds my pannier rack onto my bicycle. It has sheared off and half of it remains wedged in my frame. 

We took it to a bicycle shop today and tried to drill out the bolt that was stuck. Two snapped drill bits later and a few hefty scars in my frame where the drill had slipped and the bolt still remained stuck. After attempting to file a groove in the other end of the bolt that sticks out of the frame and screwing it out, also with no luck, the man in the bicycle shop asked what we wanted to do. We could continue trying to remove the bolt but risk irreversibly damaging the frame, or we could stop now, save the frame but leave the bolt stuck inside it. 

I chose the latter. At least this way I salvage a great bicycle from this trip, even if we can’t continue. If the frame gets damaged not only do I sacrifice the trip, but also the bicycle.

I was, and still am, gutted. Leaving the bolt in the frame means there is no secure way to attach the pannier rack… Earlier today I would have been tempted to see how far cable ties got me, but they didn’t even last the short 12km  ride into town today. 

Without a secure pannier rack, I cannot carry all of my gear for surviving in winter. Without my gear I cannot cycle tour.

So, it is with sadness and disappointment that I decided to give up on our cycle tour today.

I could risk drilling out the bolt, or even buy a new bike, but the truth is our funds are already dwindling rapidly with the unexpected changes in plans and the plan is already not going to plan! All things considered, I would rather accept failure, learn from it and reattempt this, or possibly another, journey in the future, than continue to try to force something that just doesn’t seem to be working.

It is hard to accept, but in the same breath I feel liberated. The decision has been made. I’m a strong believer that things work out in the end, and though it might not have turned out how I expected, it has already been an adventure. Arron and I have become great friends, we have learnt so much about camping in cold weather and we have laughed so much. 

If there is anything travelling has taught me, it is that things don’t always go to plan. However, there are always alternatives and more adventures to be had. 

Talking of which, we are already planning the next one…!! 🙂

Cycling Up the Hill

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Dealing with Disappointment

​I woke up inside our icy cavern as the sun rose and turned our tent from darkness to an orange glow. I shuffled up into seated position, poured hot coffee from the flask I had stashed inside my sleeping bag overnight and replaced it with the now frozen bread and chocolate spread, which was to be our breakfast when it defrosted.

We had camped in the most beautiful location yet. Perched above the road on a flat ledge in the hillside, we had panoramic views of the stunning mountains all around us. A few small villages clustered in the valleys in between, rooftops laden heavy with snow like model houses on a Christmas cake, dusted with too much icing sugar.

It should have been a perfect way to wake up, in such a phenomenal place with coffee and delicious bread. Instead, I was left with a haunting feeling of disappointment, that I just was not able to shake. 

My vision of this trip had been a journey, from East to West by bicycle. I had been dreaming about it for some time and suddenly I was overwhelmed by how different the reality was. 

So far we have cycled only a little over 200km since we left Hong Kong three weeks ago. This is what I would expect to cover in three or four days usually. Instead of a journey by bicycle, it has felt more like a journey with bicycles, which is a whole lot more hassle and less fun than cycling. The cycling we have done has been fantastic, despite a few sketchy roads and the bad weather, there just hasn’t been enough of it!!

Most of this still comes down to the inability to refuel in Xinjiang. After all, we had never planned to enter Kazakhstan until the end of this week. According to our original plan, we should still be cycling in China. Instead, we have spent a week hanging around a hotel in Urumqi followed by a 26 hour bus journey across the border to Almaty. 

Now, we are in Kazakhstan and it would be great if we could resume our journey. Unfortunately we cannot. Our visa for Russia is date specific, which means that we cannot enter Russia before 9th March. Because we have entered Kazakhstan earlier than planned, we must now do a visa run to Kyrgyzstan so that we do not overstay our free 30 days here in Kazakhstan, waiting for our Russian visa to begin. Making sense so far?! 

This in turn means we have had to come much further south in Kazakhstan, which then means we will need to take (yet) another train or bus journey further north, near to where we would have entered from China had we been able to cycle. All this has cost us significantly more than our budget allows which will implicate the later stages of our journey in Europe although we are both avoiding thinking about this too much at the moment!

Not willing to miss an opportunity, and aware we will blow our budget whatever we do, we decided that we would embrace this change of plan with a spontaneous short cycle tour around Almaty followed by an unplanned ski trip in Kyrgyzstan, so it’s not all bad!! 🙂

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. 

After staying with a lovely family on our first night here (through couch surfing) we set off late on our first day. Unsure of an exact route, but desperate to get back outside and on our bikes we set off toward the mountains. We barely made it 15km before we had to stop for the night as the light was fading fast. 

It felt great to be back in the tent, despite the freezing weather and heaps of snow piled up around us. The following morning we set off, but this time had barely made it 2km before we noticed my pannier rack had come loose. On closer inspection it was apparent that the bolt had completely sheared. Despite our best efforts to get it out, half of it remains inside the bolt hole on my bike and my pannier rack is now cable tied to the frame. Suffice to say this is not a long term solution!

We decided to sacrifice our planned cycle route yesterday and stay in the mountains for another night before heading back to the city to fix my bike today. 

And that is where I woke up this morning. On the edge of beautiful Kazakh mountains with a bicycle that needs a bolt drilling out of it and an overwhelming sense of disappointment. 

Though we have had a lot of fun, learnt a lot and had an amazing adventure so far it is simply not the trip I have been dreaming about, and it doesn’t look likely to become that trip in the near future. 

For now though, we must try to fix my bicycle then find a place to camp tonight. Then we can make yet another plan for the future…

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Entering Kazakhstan 

The excitement entering a new country still thrills me each time I do it. Though we had not entered Kazakhstan quite the way we had planned, it was still an adventure.

Crossing the border with our packaged up bicycles was a mission in itself, first checking ourselves through various checkpoints and then ferrying our many bags through over multiple journeys afterwards. 

Much to our joy, we met a fellow cycle tourer as we crossed, who was on his way home to France from Thailand. 

He looked much better prepared than us, set up with a proper touring bicycle and about twice as much gear as us to cope with the cold weather. I was, however, quite glad we weren’t so laden down – it was bad enough carrying this much through customs!

News of another couple cycling in Kazakhstan at the moment reached our ears this week. It seems we are not the only ones who decided to take on winter by bike. 🙂 It is both encouraging and inspiring to hear of other, bolder, journeys than ours. 

We were however intrigued to find out how he had got round the fuel issue. He told us that it had been difficult, at times he had even stolen! He had once managed to buy some after negotiating with some senior officials who issued him a temporary ticket that allowed him to do so. Either way, in the unforgiving cold weather I was glad Arron and I had not had to resort to theft in order to survive.

After bidding the cycle tourer farewell, we continued hauling our bikes and everything else through customs. On the Kazakh side the guards asked Arron not once, not twice but three times if he was sure didn’t have any drugs…unlike in China where this would make you feel unsettled and uneasy, on this side of the border, they asked with big smiles and light in their eyes. We were left laughing with them and felt strangely welcomed in this new country. 

Our first glimpse of Kazakhstan from the window of our bus was three multicolored yurts, brown, black and white with elegantly decorated doors and smoking chimneys. I was filled with excitement for what our journey through Kazakhstan holds. 

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The Little House in the Wilderness

We had enjoyed a slight tailwind on the latter part of Monday’s cycle ride, but when we woke up bright and early at 5.30am on Tuesday, all was calm. Perhaps, if we were more familiar with the local weather patterns, we would have guessed what was coming, but as it was, we had no idea. 

Barely an hour after setting off we were beginning to struggle against a ferocious headwind. It seemed to be continually building, and we were left struggling to make even 8km per hour. 

Around midday we were just a little over ten kilometres from our previous night’s camp, despite two hard hours of cycling. We decided that, instead of trying to make our target campsite for the night, another 35km away, we would stop at the only other water source on route in just 8km. It would mean an early finish to the day’s riding, but would reduce the risk of ending up stranded on route with limited water. 

By the time the lake appeared in view, we were tired both of the ever increasing headwind and trucks that kept hurtling past us, throwing us off balance each time they passed us. The road was narrow, and we had little room for manouvre. I was forced to a standstill on more than one occasion, as this was preferable to wobbling into the road on one side of me or the steep, concrete ditch on the other. 

We cycled off the road and began to look for a suitable spot to camp. There were a couple of lines of trees, possibly planted as windbreaks in view, and we considered camping behind these. As we cycled, or tried to, along that sandy track on the side of the road, we came across our best bit of luck yet. 

There, in front of us, was a small, abandoned building, just big enough for us to pitch our tent inside, store our bikes, and have a little extra space. It was as close to perfect as we could have hoped for. 

The Small House

While I set up the tent and made some lunch, Arron kindly braved the gusting wind once more to fetch a large supply of ice from the nearby lake – a 25 litre dry bag full to be exact! We definitely weren’t going to go thirsty.

By late afternoon, the wind was still getting stronger, and, suspecting a storm later in the day, we decided we needed to make few home improvements before it hit us in full force. We spent the next hour collecting stones to fill in the various holes gaping in the walls and Arron found a large piece of plywood to block up half of the open doorway. By the time we had finished, we could barely feel the wind inside the little house.

That night, and the following morning, we woke up to the sounds of a howling wind outside. Until about 6am we feebly hoped the wind might die down when we finally accepted that it probably wasn’t, and we were going to have to wait the day out inside our little shelter. This was confirmed when Arron unzipped the tent to start making breakfast, and was greeted by a flurry of snow falling from the tent. 

This brought another problem into the spotlight that we had discovered earlier in the week and had yet to find a solution for. 


Our entire trip relies heavily on our stoves, and the fuel to heat them. They are what we use to not only heat our food, but also melt our ice into water, and then boil it to purify it. 

We were already running low on gas, with each canister lasting for about a day. As you can probably imagine, camping in these conditions uses far more fuel than a lovely summer’s day in the UK. 

What’s more, Xinjiang, the province of China we are currently in, is heavily controlled. Armed police roam every street, security personnel guard almost every building and it is not uncommon to see enormous tanks parked up on the sides of the road. 

Petrol stations are also heavily guarded and in order to be sold fuel, you need special card, which I assume is issued by the local government, that then allows you into the fuel station to purchase fuel for your vehicle. We of course don’t have this special card, and despite our best efforts of persuasion, we have not yet been successful in acquiring any fuel. In fact, with the amount of security checks we have been through, it is amazing we have managed to keep hold of the fuel we do have. 

With all this in mind, we decided that the best solution while we waited out the storm, was to build a fire. There are much worse things to do in a cold environment, and it gave us some purpose for the day. We collected wood and coal from outside (there is a lot of coal overspill on the sides of the road) and, with a flint and steel, in true Bear-Grylls style, Arron lit our fire. 

We spent the rest of the day refilling our now empty flasks of slightly muddy, gritty water, infused with the acrid taste of coal. Thankfully(?), we were also infused with that same acrid smell and, until the following day, couldn’t taste just how bad our water was!  I was also grateful that I couldn’t see the true colour of the water we were drinking until we no longer had to drink it…

Boiling up our Water

What I have discovered is that the simplest of things become the greatest of pleasures in this extreme environment. Simply having an unlimited supply of hot water for the day and a fire on which to warm our fingers and toes was enough to keep us happy while we waited out the storm. Our life became very small for the 40 hours we were inside that hut, but somehow still enjoyable. 

Having said that, when we woke up on our second morning to find the wind had died down and we could set off cycling again, we were both excited. 

Perhaps we were a little overexcited…as Arron rigged up a light inside the hut so that we could cook our breakfast in the light (it is after all still pitch black at 6am), he stumbled and fell into the uncovered well in the middle of the room, inadvertently throwing the light onto the fire as he did so. I looked on in horror from the otherside of the room, utterly helpless and terrified he might fall too far down. But no, he scrambled up and out of it as fast as he had fell into it, more concerned about the burning plastic light in the fire than the fact he had almost fallen into the depths below. I was so relieved, I couldn’t help but laugh, after checking he was OK of course!

We took that as our signal to leave and, in record time, we were out of there by 9am! 

We didn’t get very far however, before we were invited into a shopkeeper’s home just 5km from our starting point. Too tempted by the warmth of some time inside, and with fingers and toes already suffering in the cold, we gratefully accepted his offer. We were plied with tea and biscuits and bread and each time we tried to leave, he insisted we stayed for more. He spoke no English, and we could barely communicate, but he and his wife are, I believe, the reason we made it to Urumqi later that same day. 

The cycling, however, got progressively harder the closer we got to the city. About 20km outside of it, the roads became small mountain passes, covered in snow…and it wasn’t long before I went flying sideways across the ground. It was now Arron’s turn to laugh at me, as I struggled to get my boot free of the pile of luggage that had landed on top of it. Thankfully I was OK, just a little shaken, but it wasn’t long until the wind, unable to decide which direction it wanted to blow, became unbearbly cold and we had to stop to layer up. Balaclavas and goggles were pulled out and put on, so you know how serious it was!!

Staying warm has been by far the biggest challenge for me this first week. The cycling, though hard work with so mych extra weight, is bearable even in the worst moments; but the cold. The cold creeps into you and won’t let go once it does. I pedal harder and faster in an attempt to stave of the cold but still my toes and fingers feel numb. 

By the time we arrived in Urumqi, after six days cycling and camping, I was ready for a the lovely warm hotel room that awaited us. It may not be in our budget, but with the issue of fuel (or lack of) and our dependence on it, the budget might not be the only thing to change on this journey.

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    The First Few Days

    Well, we successfully collected our bikes from Turpan station on Saturday afternoon and spent the next few hours sorting out our gear and attempting to repack it all into our panniers. This proved somewhat difficult, as with only two rear panniers, a handlebar bag and an additional rucksack strapped on top of the pannier rack each, space for all our winter essentials is minimal. 

    Eventually we set off; I, with my assortment of extra bags strapped and tied onto my pannier rack in a somewhat chaotic, but fully functional manner; Arron on the other hand, with everything neatly in its place as he had carefully planned out in the weeks before. My packing, though much improved now from that first day, still torments Arron; he describes it as like “one of those crazy Asian motorbikes crammed with everything they need to move house!” He has a point…after all, I am carrying everything I need to survive for the next few months, bar food and water. 

    Truth be told, we both have more stuff than space, and Arron’s panniers have been left open to the elements for the day, as, reluctant to give into my bag-lady approach, he has been stuffing his panniers too full to close!

    Ready to go

    Little did we know when we finally set off, fully packed, on that first day that our estimated 3 or 4 day journey to Urumqi would actually take us six…
    Instead, we left Turpan station in high spirits, anticipating the adventure to come. At last, we were on our way, and it felt great to be cycling along the dirt road that ran beside the highway. After a few kilometres we were told by a random man on a motorbike that we were not allowed to continue, and would have to make our way back onto the highway. It was at the precise moment that we joined the main road that my pedal decided to spin off and fly across it. Thankfully it didn’t get run over by the oncoming trucks, and neither did we, and soon we were back on our way. 

    Water sources are reasonably infrequent along our planned route, once every 20-40km, so, after an hour of cycling, and with only an hour or so of light left (yes, we had set off rather late in the day…) we decided to camp when we came across our first water source; a frozen river. 

    Our first camp

    It was our first night, and we proceeded to do almost everything wrong, though we did not realise this at the time. We stripped off down to our baselayers to let the sweat dry. Then we both went to collect ice. we set up just one stove, with no protection, on which to boil the ice. Then we both set up our own tents. Then we cooked our food, outside, in the beautiful new landscape, all the while getting a little colder, though by this point fully layered up again. Then we ate outside. Then we retreated into my tent for a cup of tea. Then, quickly realising how cold a night alone in a spacious 2-man tent in -15 degrees Celsius would be, I moved out of my tent and into Arron’s. By the time I went to sleep I was already freezing cold and so was the tent. Despite my lovely warm sleeping bag, I continued to feel the cold all night, and into the morning. 

    Luckily, the next day started better. We cooked breakfast inside the porch of the tent, on a stove with a newly built stone wall around it to keep the heat in. We ate a two course meal of egg and tomato broth with flatbread followed by mashed hot bananas with peanut butter, all served with a side of coffee. After that breakfast, I was ready for anything.

    We packed everything down, boiled up enough ice to fill all of our flasks and at 10am, four hours after waking up, we were ready to go. I would like to say we have got faster at this, but I’m not sure we have….

    Our first full day of cycling was a mixed bag. For a while it was glorious; the sun was out, the road quiet and the landscape phenomenal. The landscape here is almost desert-like, vast, dry and empty plains, brown and dusty and flat. It’s quite unlike anywhere I have ever cycled before. For the first hour, it’s interesting. Then it is just really boring. 

    Then I started to notice just how busy the road had gotten, with large trucks hurtling past us with inches to spare. It was unpleasantly similar to some of the roads I had cycled on in Europe, and by mid-afternoon, I was getting tired of it. We pulled over, and I told Arron in no uncertain terms that, if this was it for the next few weeks, I was out! 

    It turns out I was just feeling a little hangry!

    We had decided that, with the cold, it would make sense to have a good breakfast and dinner, and skip lunch in favour of snacks of dates and peanuts on route. I did this on my last cycle trip and it worked, but it has been a long time since my body has had to cope without proper food throughout the day, and I was really feeling it! Since then we have included bread in our snacks throughout the day, and these extra calories have ensured I have had no more low points…. 

    By the tiime we arrived at our second camp we had a plan, and were immediately more efficient. While Arron set up one tent, I prepared our food. Then, when everything was ready inside the tent, we built another little stone fortress around our stove inside one of the porches, and cooked, then ate, inside the tent. Unlike my frst night, I forced myself to change into a completely new set of thermals, before replacing all my warm outer layers. Thankfully, my second night’s sleep was much better than my first. I was warm all night, despite temperatures outside of around -20. 

    Our second full day of cycling, though cold, was stunning. We followed a wide, meandering river, still flowing even in these temperatures, as it weaved it’s way through the mountains. The mountains were enormous, snow covered and, in the clear blue of the day, beautiful. We had long since left the main road that had frustrated me the day before, and were now following an old road that was practically deserted. It could not have been better! 

    Little did I know…it was all about to change!

    The Edge of the Mountain Pass

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    And so it begins…or does it?

    Our first week on the road has been less road-like, and more hotel-room-and-train-cabin-like. 

    We knew there would be some waiting around before we began our journey, it was always inevitable. We had to get visas for China and Russia before we set of. For the latter, this meant hanging around in Hong Kong until 9th January just to submit our visa application, as Russian Christmas holidays extend far into the first month of the year. 

    In the end this actually worked to our favour, as we were unable to book train tickets from Guangzhou to Turpan until 18th January anyway, unless of course we wanted to spend the 48hours on board standing… Safe to say we opted for the slightly more expensive, but infinitely more comfortable option of a bed for the journey.  

    This week has been a week of logistics; get our bikes to the border of Hong Kong, get them across the border, get them to Guangzhou, store them inside the hotel, book them onto the train, get ourselves onto the train, get off at the right stop (Turpan), collect our bikes, get to Turpan (40km from the station…) and then set ourselves up to leave from there. 

    Everything went unbelievably smoothly, perhaps too smoothly, until stage 8: collect our bikes. We managed to get off the train at 6am in Turpan, but it seems our bikes did not. Instead, they continued their journey, complete with 1,500 other bits of luggage checked onto the train, to Urumqi, 300km away. 

    Xinjiang, the province we are now in, is a strange place. It is more than 3,000km west of Beijing, and yet, it has the same time zone. Years ago, in an effort to unite China, Beijing enforced a single, national timezone. Of course, this makes sense in many ways, except that now, in the heart of winter, the sun does not appear until here around 9.30am! 

    So we turned up at 6am in Turpan station, except it felt more like 4am and it was -11degrees Celsius. We wandered around looking for the correct office to collect our luggage, and bicycles, from until the cold got too much for us and we crept into the brightly lit, and toasty warm ticket office. 

    It being China, we were of course frisked on entry by the security guard and our butter knife (that Arron accidentally brought along for the ride), was confiscated. It was surprsingly then later returned when we explained that we were not taking a train but looking for our luggage. 

    We were told that we would have to wait a couple more hours (no-one knew exactly how long) for the luggage office to open. In the meantime we were offered a lovely, warm corner to wait in! We were grateful for the kindness, and I, having experienced some very strict Chinese officials in the past, was somewhat surprised by it. We brewed coffee and noodles and ate our breakfast while we waited. 

    After a time, the same lady who had frisked us, confiscated the knife and returned it, came over with a big smile, “It’s open, it’s open, you can go now,” she said pointing to Arron, and pointing to me, she said, “You stay.” 

    Arron returned just a few moments later looking completely bemused, so we set off to the office together.

    I cannot speak Mandarin, but have managed to pick up a few useful phrases along the way. Now it seemed was my opportunity to practice them. 

    I managed to deduce that our bicycles were not here, but somewhere else, but they would be here later today. But there was a lot in between all that I couldn’t work out, so in the end, he called for help. 

    A smartly dressed official (in shirt and tie in these temperatures!!) turned up and managed to translate for us. This was the moment we discovered our bicycles had begun their journey home without us, and were 300km further west in Urumqi.

    So now we wait. 
    And hope!

    In the meantime, we are in Turpan, which is a beautiful. Understandably, given the chill in the air, it is off season here, and as such, every hostel and cheap hotel we turned up at is closed. Thankfully, we found somewhere at 3.30pm, and didn’t have to suffer a night in the cold with no sleeping bag or tent! 

    We have eaten delicious flat bread baked inside conical fire ovens, crsipy dumplings and baked sweet potato, and are left to contemplate the wisdom of sending over two grands (GBP) worth of stuff across China for a measly 87 quai (about a tenner). 🙂 

    Luckily we still have faith, and a big smile on our face, so let’s hope they turn up today, and we can, finally, begin!

    Emin Minaret, Turpan, in the afternoon

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    Have a Little Faith

    Travelling of all descriptions requires a little faith, but none as much as cycle touring, or rather, I should say, travelling with a bicycle as we try to navigate buses, trains and pedestrian only areas in foreign countries. I had forgotten just how ridiculous travelling with a bicycle becomes, until yesterday…

    We set off from Pak Kok, our home in Lamma Island, Hong Kong, at 7.35am, only five minutes behind our target time of 7.30. Our bikes were fully loaded, and we wobbled out of the gate and on our way. It wasn’t long, perhaps 300m, before we were both off our bikes again and pushing our bikes up the ridiculously steep hill between us and the ferry to Central. We mounted our steeds at the the top of he hill and wiggled our way down the other side, doing our best not to crash into any walls, pushchairs or people on the way. 

    We arrived in Central having manouvred our bikes onto and off the ferry and turned up to our bs stop an hour and a half before the bus was due. We had planned this, so that we had time to dismantle our bikes and pack them away into boxes if needed, but apparently this is not a common event, and we seemed to cause some confusion. 

    Instead, the ticket lady took our tickets, scribbled out the original time and rewrote a new one, for in 5 minutes time! We were left frantically unpacking our panniers and removing wheels in order to get our bicycles into the luggage compartment while the bus, which had simply pulled up on the side of the busy road, announced his frustration with loud blares of the horn. 

    Luckily he didn’t drive off without us, and soon we were on our way! It was exciting and suddnely felt like all this time planning and preparing was coming to life. 

    We made it to the border, where we reassembled our bicycles and reloaded them with all twelve of our bags laden with gear (some necessary…some definitely less so). We then cycled off to the queues of cars, fully expecing that, as we were on our own kind of vehicle, that this would be the best place for us tto cross. 

    It turns out that bicycles count as pedestrians at this border crossing, and we were redirected by a friendly policemand to the narrow lines designed to filter people in a snakelike fashion through the border control. Each corner seemed to get tighter, and progressivly more awkward, until finally another kind official spotted us and opened the barrier to a special, wide lane… well, wide until it got to the Customs Counter, where suddenly it was narrower than ever and we were left pulling and pushing our bikes through while the border control looked on in some bemusement. Once through, we were waved past the x-ray machine without so much as a glance at what we might be carrying on our bikes (thank goodness) and were suddenly in mainland China! It felt great, and we exchanged a happy high-five as we left the gates. 

    We were continuing our journey to Guangzhou by bus, and it wasn’t long until we found the CTS ladies, and were given places on the next bus…

    Once again, the bus was due in five minutes, but this time we were competing for luggage space with an entire busload of people in front of us. Arron watched with horror as the bus pulled up and hundreds of suitcases were thrown in with no regard for how. With only minutes left before the bus was due to leave, and with both the smiling CTS ladies and the bus driver looking over our shoulders, thoroughly entertained by our antics,  we set about trying to squeeze everything in. I rushed back and forth carrying and then squashing in our hundreds of bags while Arron cleared a space for the bikes and stacked them on top of one another. There were many clunks and rattles as we wrestled our bikes in and finaly, after hurriedly unscrewing various extra bits and pieces, we manged to get them in, and the door closed. 

    Just before the bus pulled away, one of the CTS ladies jumped on and said something to us, which we couldn’t understand and pointed out of the windo…sure enough, we had left two big cardboard boxes one the footpath. Our best laid plans to carefully pack away our bikes in these protective boxes were gone. Instead they were crammed in amongst every other piece of luggage, half dismantled and with no protection whatsoever. Luckily I am not yet attached enough to my bike to worry too much, and instead took the attitude of, ‘Well…if they can’t survive a bus journey, they might not survive what we have in store for them anyway…’

    Thankfully they did survive and they are now in the care of the China Railway Goods Services. With surprising ease, we managed to collect our train tickets yesterday (although I did almost accidentally cancel them first…wrong counter!) and today, when we took the bicycles, along with our tickets to the Goods Services counter next to the station itself, we were helped by various people to wrap up all our luggage and leave our bicycles with them, in the faith and hope that they will arrive in Turpan at the same time as us on Friday morning…

    Because we are starting our cycle journey from the west of China, in Turpan, there have been so many things this week that have been out of our control, so many people and places and transport services that we have had to rely on. It could still all go wrong, after all, anything can happen in China, but so far, even though so much of it makes no sense, somehow, everything has worked out better than expected. Let’s just hope we see our bikes again on Friday!!!

    Posted in China to UK by Bicycle | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

    Feeding the Rat

    “the need to get out, to test yourself, to flush out the system, and, above all, to have some fun…”

    So Al Alvarez writes in his book “Feeding the Rat” about climber and adventurer Mo Antoine.

    A friend of mine lent this book to me years ago, when I first started to rock climb. It inspired me  with tales of adventures and dedication and daring, all of which still seemed far beyond my grasp at that point in my life.

    A few years (and many of my own adventures) later, this book continues to speak to my heart. Alvarez describes a rat inside of each of us, and every time we have an adventure, or challenge ourselves a little bit, we feed it. The more adventures we have, the more we feed it and the fatter it becomes. The fatter it is, the more it needs to be fed, and so the greedier we become for adventures.

    I am lucky to lead an amazing life, one in which I have been living, working and traveling abroad for the past few years. But the time has come to challenge myself that little bit further, to test the limits of my physical capabilities and mental strength.

    And so, with Arron, my friend and colleague from APA in Hong Kong, we will attempt to cycle from Turpan, in the north-west of China, to the UK.

    In winter.

    On a budget of ÂŁ3.50 each per day. 

    ‘Why?’ You might ask. Well, I will leave you with Alvarez’s words, as he puts it better than I ever could:

    “Every year you need to flush out your system and do a bit of suffering. It does you a power of good. I think it’s because there’s always a question mark about how you would perform. You have an idea of yourself and it can be quite a shock when you don’t come up to your own expectations. If you just tootle along you can think you’re a pretty slick bloke until things go wrong and you find you’re nothing like what you imagined yourself to be. But if you deliberately put yourself in difficult situations, then you get a pretty good idea of how you are going. That’s why I like feeding the rat. It’s a sort of annual check-up on myself. The rat is you, really. It’s the other you, and it’s being fed by the you that you think you are. And they are often very different people. But when they come close to each other, that’s smashing, that is. Then the rat’s had a good meal and you come away feeling terrific. It’s a fairly rare thing, but you have to keep feeding the brute, just for your own peace of mind. And even if you did blow it, at least there wouldn’t be that great unknown. But to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of, I can’t think of anything sadder than that.”


    Nervous Excitement!

    Posted in China to UK by Bicycle, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

    Christmas 2016


    The View from Treasure Cave

    The landscape that surrounds Yangshuo is as extraordinary as its reputation suggests. It would be completely flat, except for the hundreds of limestone karsts scattered across the area: huge mounds of white and orange rock protruding from the ground. There are no gentle rolling hills here nor mountain ridge lines. Instead the hills are small, separate and steep; sheer rock faces erupting from the ground creating nature’s own towers.

    Yangshuo is known as a paradise for rock climbers, and it was this that initially drew me here. The town itself is advertised as a small town, and I suppose by Chinese standards, it is. But that first day when I turned up and walked down one of the main roads, with traffic roaring past, construction everywhere and music blaring from all the shops selling clothes, shoes, electricals and everything else you can imagine, it didn’t feel like a small town to me.

    On top of that, this area tends to get a lot of rain, and often feels colder than the actual temperature because it is so damp. I had just come from Xiamen, a beautiful city on the sea that had been drenched in sunshine for my entire visit. In those first moments in Yangshuo, I was left wondering what on earth I was doing in such a place.

    A year later, and it was the same, “small” Chinese town with its horrible neon lights and garish colours that I chose to return to for Christmas. Though the town itself might not be that special, the surrounding countryside, and the local ex-pat community somehow transform the town into a magical place.


    A view across the Yulong

    My favourite places here are usually beside one of the rivers, either the Yulong or the Li, where the karsts are reflected in stunning beauty in the water below. In the summer, swimming in these rivers is almost a necessity because it gets so hot, but even in the winter the water, freezing though it is, calls me in and I swim.


    Swimming in the Yulong River

    As well as the rivers that meander through the wide open valleys, there are huge caves carved out of some of the karsts. These huge caverns sometimes hollow entire hills, and it was in one of these that we decided to spend Christmas.

    In fact, Treasure Cave, our destination for Christmas, is in fact two caves, side by side in the hillside. Both are enormous, huge caverns adorned with stalactites that feel more like entering a king’s castle than a cave when you walk inside.

    We set up a highline across the entrance to the first cave. Though short, it was a stunning location for a highline, surrounded by the grandeur of the cave and looking out on the rural valley below, it felt surreal to be perched on the a tiny piece of webbing between my legs. It was not my first attempt on a highline, but it was the most successful, and for the first time I managed to stand and even to take a step. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people in the world would experience standing in that space in the air, with that unique perspective on the world. So far, only a few, and I was lucky enough to be one of them.


    Falling off the Highline

    Christmas Eve celebrations continued with a campfire in entrance to the second cave. We sat around, a dozen or so of us, from all over the world, Chinese, British, Spanish, Ecuadorian, American, Mexican and Polish, and passed around food and drinks to share together. The evening continued with presents, drinking and lots of laughter until, at about 1am, everyone else had either left or gone to bed, and I was left, sitting beside the fire, staring into the valley below. The shadows of the Karst Mountains were still visible in the darkness and the only sound came from the rustle of sleeping bags behind me in the cave, or the gentle crackle of the fire. I was overwhelmed by how lucky I was to spend the night, bivouacking in a random cave in the middle of China, with beautiful people and a beautiful view.


    Campfires in Treasure Cave

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