The Crazy Adventures of Crazy Max


‘Ahhh you from England!’ said the man behind the counter of the snug photocopy shop in downtown Bishkek ‘you like zero zero seven?’

I had to think for a minute

‘Double-O-seven? James Bond?’

‘Yes. But…’ he eyed my bike, anxiously. ‘Your bike look like some-sing from that film… Crrrazy Max’

I took another moment

‘Mad Max?’ I tried

‘Yes Yes. Mad Max. Crrrrrazy Max’

Six years ago I had christened my bike Belinda. But Belinda was too precious and pristine a name for what my machine had become. ‘Crazy Max’ did more for the rust, cable ties, dents in the frame and air of looming catastrophe.

The first thing I saw on pushing open the door to the AT house ( a home away from home for passing cyclists) was a tall, determined, hairy man in Spandex: a ready spoon in one hand, he scoured the depths of a pot of Nutella looking for hidden sweetness. He held the pot up to the light, a look of profound disappointment in his eyes. Like he’d lost a son. This devastating realisation (‘I’ve eaten all the Nutella’) was to be a familiar ritual, repeated by men and women from various nations passing through this part of Central Asia by bicycle.

Usually when I arrive to a city I’ve taken weeks to get to, I’m not looking my best: lavishly bearded, bedraggled, desperate-looking. Like I might abduct your grandmother and ransom her for extra strong cider. People look at me, and then cast fearful glances in the direction I came from, perhaps wondering whatever debased me so thoroughly might be coming for them.

Not so in Bishkek. I sailed in on a tailwind, the sky was empty of clouds, the blueness felt unfleeting. My sweaty mullet fluttered out behind me, gleaming like the mane of a galloping wild stallion. Girls swooned.

It was hot, and the air so still that even the poplar fluff drifted downwards instead of dancing on the air. Kids played around the fountains off Chuy street, screeching their way around the errant sprays of cool water, high above the national flag of Kyrgyzstan was draped limply like a discarded dress on a hook.

Throughout the world there are biker-bottlenecks and Bishkek, as the capital of the country with the friendliest visa policy of the central-Asian bunch, is a popular place for riders to stack up, chill out, score onward visas, fix bikes and eat copious Nutella.

Angie and Nathan at the AT house opened up their garden for bikers a year ago and since then bikers had arrived in numbers to pitch their tents, potter in the attached workshop and share their stories. For a gratuitous 18 days I dipped in and out of conversations. I read books in a hammock. I built a wheel with Nathan, gave talks at the university and a local bar, looked in on an anti-gay protest (to subtly deride the participants whilst trying not to get beaten up), wrote, and mused. Yeah, there was a lot of musing. Punctuated by languorous beard strokes.

The stories I mentioned? They were good ones.

Oliver a Frenchman who had travelled for eight years with a paraglider on his bike and had a tendency to leap from mountains he’d pedalled up. His beard was so bold and unruly, if you’d inspected him upside down, the Jackson Five came to mind.

My friend and yogi master Sam who I’d met in Urumqi turned up too, with Rosalind who he’d previously met at a border in west Africa. Rosalind is a 70-odd year old lady who’d lived and worked in Antarctica for three years. There were two cheery Italians on a tandem they called ‘the big red gate’ with stories galore from Iran. Adam who had worked as a weapons collector in Afghanistan. Grum – pedalling around the world and entertaining kids in schools back home. A Korean couple with scary memories of the Nepali earthquake. A young German climber who videoed the avalanche at Everest basecamp, three Brits who’d lost their bank cards whilst drunk and ended up begging for food on the streets of Kazakhstan, an Aussie and French guy with videos of epic sandstorms in Mongolia.

With Alessandro and Stefania

With Nathan and Oliver
So cyclists came and went. Empty pots of Nutella accumulated. And I went to get a visa… 

The Uzbek embassy had collected a grim cloud of applicants drifting about its metal fence waiting to be let in. I waited with two young German guys on bikes, and Stephanie, a German girl. There were twitterings about the creature inside, someone so foul-tempered she had gained something of a reputation online and was causing international problems by virtue of her personality and position. She enjoyed screaming at applicants who broke some unspoken rule, and hung up if you phoned her. She was high on power, and possibly injectable testosterone.

Outside we christened her ‘The Beast of Bishkek’. People talked of trying to appease her with gifts of chocolate, but by the look of those leaving the embassy, I was fairly sure she ate fetid goat meat and orphans. I was rechecking my documents for the 15th time when I heard a voice to my left. ‘How long do we need to wait for the Kazakh visa?’

It was an American girl, looking lost.

‘Umm, this is the Uzbek embassy. You’ll need to go to the Kazakh embassy’

She thought about this.

‘I’ll just wait anyway. See what they say’

I persisted: ‘This is the Uzbek embassy. They don’t issue Kazakh visas’

‘Do we need like, a form and stuff?’ she asked

Oh God

‘Yeah. And a photo. And dollars. And photocopies. Do you have anything?’

‘I got my passport. Hey, where are we again?’

‘The Uzbek embassy’

‘No no I mean… Bis… Bisss…Bisssss’

She doesn’t know what city she’s in?

‘Bishkek?’ I tried, cringing inside

‘Yeah yeah Bishkek’

Suddenly I was feeling better about my chances. The Beast of Bishkek would eat her alive.

When I gained entry alongside Stephanie, the beast looked sullenly at us, with eyes of dull ice. We’d applied for visas on the same day, and received them on the same day, but I had been charged 120 dollars, and her 65. And as crazy as this sounds, I wanted to know why.

‘You ticked urgent. She didn’t’

‘But you said there is no urgent service!’ I appealed

‘That is right.’

I awaited something vaguely logical

‘But you ticked the box’ she said after a time

‘But, but… you’re gonna charge me 55 dollars for ticking a box that shouldn’t even be on the form?’

‘DO YOU WANT VISA OR NOT?! WE CANCEL IT!’

I choked back the urge to say something that would result in a lifetime ban to Uzbekistan, nodded glumly and paid up.

If you are reading this as a citizen of Mali or Chad or Nepal or any of the countries in which obtaining a UK visa is about as likely as being granted citizenship to North Korea – then I apologise. You probably think I’m an entitled twat. I realise how lucky I am, with freedom to roam more or less wherever I choose, but I hope you’ll allow me this little moan. The following might make you feel better…

One day as we sat around the table in AT House the door opened and a cyclist staggered in, blood soaked his t-shirt, his chin was covered in plasters and was now of superhero proportions. ‘The embassy…’ he trailed off and collapsed onto one of the chairs looking dazed, and possibly dying.

Jesus I thought. The Beast of Bishkek has really done it this time.

It turned out he was talking of the Chinese embassy. As he’d cycled around he’d noticed the gate was open and brazenly cycled through. Someone had decided he was a possible suicide bomber, which given the spandex, go-faster stripes and absence of anything in which to store a bomb, would have to be said to be unlikely in hindsight, but you have to presume someone was acting on impulse. That person activated a spiked metal fence which resides beneath the ground. It shot up at the exact moment he was cycling over it. He doesn’t remember the rest, only coming around to a ring of faces, lots of blood, a world of pain and then being bundled into a soviet era ambulance.

The car crashes I saw in Bishkek were almost funny in their implausibility. I’d cycle past an aftermath of a head on collision which was at the exact spot of a no-entry sign. The sign towered over the wreckage, glinting ironically. I know I moan a lot about drivers on this blog, but things really are getting worse! Kyrgyzstan is a deathzone!

For sixty kilometres as I cycled out of Bishkek I was driven off the road. Tailgating is particularly in vogue here, and so when one car veers away from my rear pannier at the last moment, the one behind doesn’t have the time to react and skims past me. To make matters worse, cars are a mix of right and left hand drives, and drivers are of mixed opinion about which is the correct side of the road to use. They only concur about an acceptable velocity – which is ‘Neck-Snapping’.

I like the advice of an Aussie biker I met lately: if the car that almost killed him stops at traffic lights up ahead, he cycles up, opens their back door, politely explains they have generously proportioned male genitalia on their heads (translate as you will), and leisurely rides off, leaving them stuck in traffic with an open back door. This is Genius.

But no matter how irate I get with drivers, the people I meet regularly in Kyrgyzstan always cheer me up. On the way to Osh policemen stop me for mass selfies, which is unprofessional in only the most wonderful way. Women gently goad me into drinking fermented mare’s milk, and when they flash gold teeth flash under their bandanna style headscarves, they look more than vaguely piratical. I sit with men wearing Kolpoks – the traditional hats, which is slightly evocative of the papal mitre, and therefore quite funny because Kirghiz men in Kolpocs like to sit around and drink beer. Children scream ‘Whatisyourname’ pronouncing it as one word and perhaps unsure what it means. Some mischievous somebody had taught the kids of one particular town to shout ‘fuck you’ and give tourists the middle finger. Trust me – it’s adorable. I was a little worried once when I cycled past a car which contained a youth leaning out of the window with a rifle aimed at the road. Once I’d passed he fired – it turned out to be a pellet gun, and the target was a tin can in the grass.

After turning off the busy road, I climbed up from 800 to 3100 metres above sea level over the course of a day – a lot of altitude on a heavy bike, but it felt good to be back in the mountains – I hadn’t reached these heights since Nepal. I began in a steeply sided valley, the verdant slopes broken by patches of maroon slate, and eventually hit some switchbacks which led up to a tunnel in which a few years before a car had broken down and left the engine running. Several drivers behind died from the fumes. I needed no encouragement to get a lift through it.

On the other side was an area of high steppeland where nomadic herders, here for the summer months, were gathered outside their yurts and rusted caravans selling delicious honey, fermented mare’s milk and balls of strong cheese (which if after being offered one by a proud local and asked what you think, you wipe tears from your eyes and reply: ‘interesting’)

The next day a storm dissolved into a blue sky. There were growls of distant thunder, and then fork lightning began to strike the steppe close by. I camped early and awoke to a scene of near perfection: aside the road land fell away in a series of grassy natural platforms, each sprinkled with pink, yellow and purple wild flowers, and boulders of pink granite patched with orange lichen. Small coniferous trees of the sort you find in English gardens were dotted about and scented the air. Beneath the lowest platform white water thrashed over boulders and cascaded down the valley. Beyond the stream mountains ruled the view – massive, green and tiger-striped with snow and the silvery flash of hidden streams. 



I dropped to lowlands covered in tawny grassland and circumnavigated a reservoir. A gang of women and one man waved me down shouting ‘Photo! Photo!’ They were all cheerfully drunk and I was soon wrapped up in a large lady who had taken a shine to me. ‘I’m not married!’ she shouted in Russian. ‘mmmph, mmphhh’ I replied, my voice muffled by what I think must have been a mixture of arm and breast.

I climbed away from the reservoir and dropped down through a valley, the rustle of sugar cane competed with the churn of roiling water. The drabness of the town of Karakol was not entirely due to the Soviet style apartment blocks (glumness cementified) but probably had to do with the roving alcoholics, and the kids playground: a crumbling jungle of concrete which seemed to promise great fun until Tetanus. Luckily the town’s teenagers were not in glum mood – it was graduation day. In the steamy afternoon they leaned out of car windows shrieking wildly, the girls in dinner dresses and boys suited and booted. 






I cycled along the green-blue Naryn river, an unearthly artery which looked painted on. On the shore I found a big bunch of families who’d come to splash about in the water and eat kebabs. I joined them. The braver teenagers asked me questions: did I love Kyrgyzstan? Are Kirghiz women beautiful? (they really, really are).

A young couple asked my name. ‘Stephen’ I said.

‘Like Stephen Seagal!’ they cried. In Kyrgyzstan this was becoming a familiar refrain.

Later I was eating some trout and salad when an old man came over and asked my name as well.

‘Stephen’ I said, but he frowned, so I added: ‘Like Stephen Seagal!’ He didn’t seem to have heard of the celebrated actor, star of Under Seige and… um… what was that other one?

But now he thought my name was actually Steven Seagal. For the next hour he introduced me to people: ‘Meet Steven Seagal’ he said gravely. It was too late to correct him, even when he introduced me to people who did know of the actor and raised eyebrows ‘your name is Steven Seagal?’ they asked. ‘Yes’ I said. What could I do?

As I cycled to the town of Massi, devouring watermelons en route (50 pence pop), a young man in a Muslim prayer hat cycled up. ‘Will you come and stay in my house?’ was his second question.

‘OK’ I said

It was another example of exceptional Kirghiz hospitality: that evening I ate plov with his family, and slept in the garden on a bed surrounded by roving livestock, and of course they dressed me up like people are wont to… 


Naryn River
I cycled up to the hill town of Arslanbob where I found a brilliant Swiss couple – Anais and Gilles – on bikes heading east (like most trans-Asian bikers). The next day I struck out on foot for a nearby waterfall and planned to walk a circuit through the surrounding forest, which is the largest walnut forest on earth. When the rain arrived, it was with punch. In minutes the path atop the ridges was a mud slide. I fell a few times, covering myself almost entirely in thick mud, and staggered wide-eyed back to camp whilst inviting the gleeful glances of the townspeople. It made me a touch nostalgic: this is how every walk in the English countryside ends.

After a lovely couple of evenings with Anais and Gilles and their other Swiss friend David, I pedalled the final kilometres to Osh where a noticeably Uzbek and more Islamic culture prevails and men greet one another by touching heads.

Anais and Gilles and David
Thank yous – Nathan and Angie and Isabelle at the fantastic AT House. My three Quebec friends from Karakol. All the bikers.

Next up: A kit review piece is well overdue so I’ll be posting one soonish. But next I’ll be cycling through the Pamirs, one of the most celebrated and highest cycling touring routes on Earth. I will post again from Dushanbe.

The piece I wrote about crossing the frozen Lake Khovsgol in Mongolia has been published on BBC Travel: http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20150528-sleeping-in-mongolia-while-ice-cracks-below

(Bizarrely this may not be viewable from the UK. If so a workaround is to plug the URL into google translate, translate into any language and click on ‘original’)


The resurrection of Green


The Tian Shan mountains arrived four days after leaving Urumqi, green and misty-peaked. My left knee, which had been a generous font of pain for the last month, felt obligingly strong. Before I crossed into Kazakhstan I decided on a day off, and my plan for the shores of Sayram Lake in Xinjiang was unimpeachable. I was going to pitch my tent overlooking the expansive turquoise waters, framed by abundant sproutings of wild orchids. I would sip red wine in the evening, read Nabokov’s short stories and perhaps take breaks to admire elk lapping at the shore or hoopoes jinking through the hazy summer air. Fact.

The lake shore was a marsh, the sky leaden and fuzzed by three building thunder storms, the rain slanting, the lake unswimmably freezing and the troublingly labelled ‘dry red wine’ was none of those things: A watery pink question mark. But the next day sunshine arrived, at first in a few angled stems through the storm clouds, and then on masse as the clouds blustered beyond the wind turbines to the east. I gorged on the snack food the young attendant at the park gate had given me for free – it had been my third gift in as many days in Xinjiang, a region so full of hospitality I’d given up arguing payment for my meals – when someone insisted on paying, they meant it, and they meant it quite often.

Sayram Lake is edged by whopping pines and snowy mountains, and I cycled three sides of it, halting to admire spreads of early tulips and purple wild flowers. The mileu of ethnic Kazakh and Mongol nomadic herders who take up home here come the summer had yet to arrive from their winter hide outs in the lee of rocky outcrops to the east.

Despite all my failings at Chinese I was going to miss the endearing Chinglish and mistranslations, the poetry too. On the brochure for Sayram Lake for instance they described the lake in various seasons: Spring is ‘when the earth takes off the shyness of first love’, summer ‘presents unlimited glamour with a warm posture’ autumn is ‘always sincere’ and winter is ‘when the earth is in a sweet dream’.


Spot my tent…

Rested, I set off to Kazakhstan. The rough road leaving the lake took me to a series of crumbly switchbacks which fell to the brand new highway suspended loftily over a green valley and disappearing on two sides into tunnels. I squeezed onto it by a break in the crash barrier and zoomed down the very Chinese affair: a spiraling overpass which plunged me into more tunnels and sent me rushing over suspension bridges.

The Chinese border town was actually nice, relatively speaking, though perhaps only in the same way that Milton Keynes is nice compared with Mordor. Border towns are scrappy, deshevelled places on the whole, but this one wasn’t all bad – it had a convivial evening food market, Uighur eating houses touting tasty polo, prancing toy dogs and gangs of playful children. I cycled to the border, past a ‘tourist toilet’ – which could have been a toilet for tourists or somewhere for exhibitionists to defecate, I wasn’t sure. The only other foreigners at the border were a foursome of Aussies on motorbikes whose vehicles held stickers advertising the name of their blog: ‘Bikes and beers’. Obviously every Australian I’ve ever met travelling by motorbike is irrevocably entrenched in alcoholism, but rarely are they so forthcoming about it.

Crossing some borders feels more significant than others, and this one was more than a switch of nations – it was entry point to my first ‘stan, gateway to Central Asia, and goodbye to the east. 

The incredible Chinese highway through the Tian Shan mountains

A poster in Urumqi, China. Burqas are banned, as are beards for young men and other items of clothing. As I took a series of photos of these posters I noticed a CCTV camera was positioned to film everything I was doing, so I did a runner – as a man in Beijing glared into a monitor?!
The Highway towards Kazakhstan
Despite a host of other dialects, Russian can be a considered the lingua franca for much of Central Asia, and especially eastern Kazakhstan – 30% of the population of Almaty are ethnic Russian. I’d failed monumentally at Chinese: it had gotten so bad I’d avoided asking for essential items like sun cream because it was easier to wait until I was scarlet and peeling and then point painfully to my skin in the chemist, that way I didn’t need to bother about using the correct homophene or tone. But for Russian, I had a head start. I’d studied it in school, even scoring an A at GCSE. It was time to unpack it, blow off 18 years of dust and stumble through my first conversations. 

I stopped to buy apples because I’d recently read that apples originated from Kazakhstan, in the wild apple forests of the Tian Shan – a fact discovered after sequencing the fruit’s genome. I pointed to some small green ones ‘NYET NYET!’ voiced the vendor, switching to English. ‘These Jackie Chan apples. You want Steven Seagal apples’ he said holding aloft weighty red ones. Seagal retains a legendary status here, as do the 80s and 90s in general. Tiffany and Tina Turner are regulars on the radio and denim jackets never left vogue. Later, as I introduced myself as Stephen to Kazakhs, it was always Seagal that people then yelled at me fervently, never Speilberg, or even Gerrard. Seagal is the most famous Steven in the old soviet world by a mile.

I didn’t think it possible to pine for a colour, to envy green. A wintery China had been a place of brown tilled fields, naked trees and snow. Mongolia’s steppe and Gobi desert were similarly beige sprawls, until the spring snow arrived and my world was bleached again. As Kazakhstan neared there was a resurgence of green – life-affirming, vivid, sigh-bringing colour flushed the hills.


I arrived in Kazakhstan on National Public Drag Racing Day. Unless… wait a minute… they don’t drive like this all the time do they? Fuck!

Busted up Ladas, recalling every horse power they had left, raged over waves of fractured tarmac, and more welcomes were shouted from car windows in one hour than in three months of China. As bizarre as the thought seemed – I actually missed those honking Chinese drivers, at least they paid fleeting attention to my mortality.

The Kazakh steppe was a far cry from the Mongolian version – here was greened by shrubs and dotted with yellow flowers, candle wax coloured rock intersected red ridges, everything smelt of chamomile and sage. It was a Sunday when I arrived, families had left Almaty to explore these frontier highlands and they stopped to gift me bundles of leftover salads and meat. Kazakh people are as proud of their hospitality as perhaps any other national quirk. I was happy to be here.

The next day a pugilistic wind whipped in from a bruised sky hanging about the mountains. By the afternoon it was up to around 70 km/hr, and impossible to ride. What I took for a fuzz of rain I realised with a groan was in fact dust – a gusting and gathering universe of it, blotting out the mountains. Trees, sheltering the odd farmhouse, were savaged backwards, their tops nearing ground level; a bottle flew off my bike for a tour of the stratosphere. Eventually I pushed by bike to a town three kilometres off a side road. A car of young boys drove up to me, beeping and shouting from windows. Drunk. ‘HITLER!’ one was shouting and pounding his fist into his hand. Of all the things to hear a drunk man in charge of a vehicle scream, this was perhaps the least idyllic. I pedalled away fast. Then I saw two old men in suits, a great array of military medals pinned to their lapels. It was impressive that anyone could be so recognisably and unmistakably drunk from one hundred metres, but it was so. When I reached them they kept grabbing my hand and pulling me off my bike, in a fun sort of way, and I escaped laughing at the old codgers and realised that the Hitler remark was probably because it was the 9th of May: Victory Day. Alcohol, patriotism and a dust storm had conspired to make the town people a little mad, and shouty.

A guesthouse let me camp in their orchard for free, the owner was dressed in military camouflage and I had the sudden impression on meeting him that this was what he wore for fun every day, rather than anything to do with the celebrations, or his job. He seemed like that kind of guy. Over dinner, prepared dutifully by two kindly, buxom ladies, he plied me with seven cups of tea and quizzed me without let up.

‘Wife? Children?’

‘Nyet’

‘Which do did you prefer – China or India?’

‘I like them both’

He sneered. This was not sufficient.

‘But which better?’

‘Neither is better. Just different’

‘OK OK. This one is India’ he said pointing to one of the fat ladies sitting at the table. ‘And this one is China’ pointing to the other, and grinning heavily. ‘Now, which one is more beautiful?’

‘They are both very beautiful’ I said in Russian, the ladies smiled at me and I was off the hook.

There is a certain breed of Soviet man. Meaty, thick armed creatures who wade into rooms. I met another selling kebabs from a roadside stall – a door-filler, with gold teeth. We got talking about where I’d been when he said:

‘So you don’t have to fight people on your journey? Punch people?’

‘Errr no. Its been very peaceful so far. Do you?’

‘Yeah. You know, sometimes the Russians. They bit crazy’ He did the screwy sign with his finger to his temple ‘They don’t want to pay for kebabs so I punch them’ he made a boxing pose and threw a few air-hooks. He didn’t laugh. It was then that two Siberians arrived on touring bikes and told me of how they’d just been waist-deep in snow on the Kazakh mountains. I was proud of my winter traverse of Mongolia until I arrived in Kazakhstan where evidently I’m a cupcake compared to men who drag their bikes over glaciers and brawl over the price of lunch.



I passed epic poppy fields en route to Almaty and in the city gave a couple of school talks, couchsurfed and then set off in search of a Tajik visa, but first I needed a photo.

There is something Soviet about my barnet of late – I have cultivated a vast mullet which rivals the one I was sporting in 1992. I’m balding you see, and so the mullet is one last throw of the dice. Only now can I get away with it – mullets don’t sit so well on doctors. Or professionals. Or anyone not on parole.

For the photo I removed my cap, and deciding it would be a bit vain to ask for a mirror, gave the signal to shoot, whilst wondering what was happening north of my eyebrows and looking consequently uncomfortable. The camera man did as he was told – snap, snap. When I received the images I was startled. There was shame, defeat and a deep melancholy all sculpted onto a sunburnt face beneath a stretching steppeland of forehead. Eventually my eyes arrived at a halo of crazy hair, and then noticed the rat tails of the mullet showing from behind my neck. I looked like a balding clown who had presented to an emergency department with something embarrassing up his arse. Perhaps a root vegetable. There was no way I was getting a visa with this photo. I wouldn’t give me a library book.

In the end I was overcharged considerably for my visa at the Tajik consulate, perhaps because the official I got was corrupt (but do you argue the price and risk no visa?) or perhaps because there are two prices – one for normal people and one for redundant clowns and their concealed marrows.

I left Almaty the day after a great dust storm ravaged the city, boughs of trees had been sheared off by violent gales and were tossed into the city streets. The roads were… hectic.

There is, I have noticed, an inverse relationship between the hospitality of a nation and the ability of its people to drive. I’ve noticed this all over the world. There is something adulterating about the warm glow you receive when a stranger stops and provides you a gift, when afterwards they murderously run you into a ditch. So you have to deploy psychology – the ‘safety shuffle’ is a little wiggle of the handlebars when you hear a car approaching too fast and too close, inspiring the driver to believe you’re a ham-fisted imbecile who can’t ride a bicycle and will damage their fendors. Or there’s the lightning fast backwards glance I save for approaching cars I can hear travelling too fast. There is nothing plaintive in my expression, rather a look that says ‘If you come too close there will be consequences, ie. the painful death of you, your loved ones, and a bonfire of your inconsiderate corpses’. Unfortunately this is all necessary because drivers throughout Central Asia are reckless, wreck-prone hot-heads. Really, I’m not exaggerating.

If I had unlimited funds to come up with an invention, this would be it: I would design a button to go on bicycle handlebars. If a car came too fast and close, the rider could press the button, and on doing so a compartment would open inside the car dashboard (I would make this compulsory in all new cars) and from this a robotic terminator-like arm would extend clutching a stinking eight day old haddock. The arm would then thrash the driver around the jowls with said fish until they repented or collided with something hard and devastating. It’s not a very practical invention I grant you, but it makes me happy just thinking about it.

On the way to the lengthier and more remote crossing point between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but one that promised to be more scenic, I camped in meadows and pedalled through gorges lively with the sparkle of yellow and lilac wild flowers. The mountains too were colourful – baize-green and rustily creviced.

Soon I reached the Sharyn River Canyon and cycled down through an eye-pulling corridor of pink rock under a sky where domed clouds dawdled like jellyfish. That night I slept under the stars alongside two German motorcyclists who had taken just 6 weeks to ride from their home country. The bastards.

I’m always a little envious of motorcyclists for what they can carry, kilograms might matter to them, but grams don’t. ‘Pass the honey’ one of them said as the other arranged deckchairs by the river ‘shall we have more filter coffee?’ said the other, filling up a metal coffee-making kettle. Yesterday I had decided against an extra onion on the grounds of weight.




The Sharyn River Canyon, south-east Kazakhstan

The next day I cycled back up through the canyon, the waterforged pink towers of rock looking over me. Back on the steppe, the mountains to my east had been almost entirely deleted by a vicious looking murk and in half an hour a cold wind had kicked up and my distance to the storm had halved. Thunder resounded every second, fork lightning travelled horizontally through the sky, which was now cinder-black. As rain drops smacked me with the force of colliding bees, I saw a village around three kilometres off the main road, reared up on my bike and drove my legs up and down in a race against the weather, elevating my person slightly, and probably inviting a lightning strike. 

The village had a small shop with a metal roofed porch area where I cowered aside my bike, drank tea, ate toffee popcorn and watched the dramatic scene above as litter was thrown into lively swirls by the gale. Vodka-scented men ambled over every so often to inspect me, one asking whether I had lots of money. No, I said. Do you have a gun? He wanted to know. Yes, I said, but he didn’t receive it as a joke and just nodded gravely and stumbled off with new found respect.

The owners of the shop and attached eating house were a kindly couple with three tearaway kids for whom the storm was as celebrated as a birthday. They gave me borsch and more tea. ‘You should stay with us!’ said the lady ‘too cold outside’. Her father grabbed my phrasebook and found the Russian for ‘Guest’ and pointing out the word, he said ‘In Kazakhstan, we love you!’

I was led to a room at the back of the house which had a double bed and, separated by a two foot strip of floor space, a sofa. Contented, I stretched out on the bed and began to read, snug in my sleeping bag as thunder boomed on.

And then the door opened.

In the doorframe stood the owner, smiling meekly, and with him a man and a woman. The man was clutching a bottle of vodka, three quarters empty. They looked like the kind of haggard duo that Interpol might be searching for in relation to a kitten-torturing ring. The way they smelt, and the way they reeled into the room, suggested that for them, vodka was something of a lifeblood.

The owner motioned for me to vacate the bed and move to the couch – I was to have roomies.

I didn’t catch their names, but I can be reasonably confident they were named whatever the Russian is for Donna and Bazza. Donna and Bazza collapsed boozily onto the bed and so I turned off the lights fast to signal my intention of sleep but for the next hour they smoked and drank vodka and didn’t even bother with that husky pseudo-whisper that sloshed people consider the pinnacle of subtlety and tact but is in actual fact just shouting. Instead, they just shouted. Then came the snoring. Not your usual snoring, Vodka-snoring. Loud, much much faster than you think is possible for sustaining sleep, and only yielding when they awoke to drink more vodka, which was almost every hour. Finally, just as I was reaching some kind of breaking point, I heard a liquid splashing onto the floor in a way that left no doubt that someone’s bladder was shrinking. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘no’ so many times in the space of two seconds. I turned on my headtorch, not knowing until I did so whether I would be looking at a man with his cock in his hand, or a woman, squatting. It was a man with his cock in his hand, of course. He hadn’t even stood up, just turned over on his side and fountained piss off the bed. I appraised the flood damage. Thankfully most of my kit had been spared and he’d done a gratifyingly thorough job of pissing over his own shoes, which I’m sure could be a good metaphor for his life up to this point.

Afterwards the snoring became even more lip-flapping and sonorous so I put my buff over my eyes, headphones in my ears and tried to ignore the smell of piss. I slept for maybe an hour all night.

The next morning they were all laughter and cigarettes, and still quite drunk. I was particularly glad to watch Bazza groggily reach for his shoes, yank them on, and make a puzzled face. Donna just began shouting merry questions at me, most of which I struggled with, and she kept turning to Bazza to shout ‘You see, he doesn’t understand ANYTHING!’

She was only partly right. My Russian might be rusty, but I do understand one thing: to avoid damp shoes, use a toilet.

I was tired all the next day, but the steppe was sunnied and storm-fresh and fragrant, which made me feel better. I climbed through the Kokpek gorge, absorbantly slow, and began to think about all the reasons I love bicycle travel, of how the languid pace of it allows for detail to sink in and seduce. They might have crossed Europe and a sizable chunk of Asia in better time than it will take for me to reach the next country, but could the motorbikers remember all the different hues of the wild flowers as they careered by? Could they recall the butterflies or realise the rust colour of the rocks was lichen?

I was about 2000 metres up when fields sheeted with yellow flowers came into view. In spaces between far mountains there was no end to be seen – yellow met the sky – it was wonderful. 




That night I camped close to the small border post, which had opened for the year just a few days before. The unbroken sprawl of flowers had retreated, leaving just sprays of purple and gold. The still-snowy Tian Shen mountains leered over the Alpine-beauty splayed beneath.

I crossed the border and my British passport met the usual quiz about the merits of various premiership football teams. The best way to avoid a delay at customs is to know something of Liverpool’s midfield.

In Kyrgyzstan I immediately met plump green hills scattered with conifers. I’d planned on a much lengthier route up four thousand metre passes, seduced by the absence of tour reports online and the promise of a rare experience in the hills. But I had a change of heart.

The first hills were agonising, my bike too heavy, my knee too newly recovered, my knowledge of the passes too scant. Snow sat in patches at just 2500 metres. In effect, I wimped out. Only later did I read a section in the guidebook which explained my proposed route would have been impossible since the bridges maintained in Soviet times had collapsed since independence – it was a good call.

As I meandered slowly up a 20% grade, cobbled in jagged stones, two men arrived on horses. Seeing my sweat-beaded face peering up at them inspired the younger (and drunker) one to help. He took a rope, one end of which was attached to the bridal of his horse, and began tying it around the stem of my bike. I was getting towed, whether I wanted it or not.

I managed a few more ‘no’s than my previous record breaking fusillade. It was so evidently an appalling plan, but he’d already tightened the knot. I thought then the horse would bolt, provoked into full gallop by my wailings of ‘NYET! NYET!’ and his competitively loud ‘DA! DA!’. It would be a calamitous chariot: a runaway horse dashing up a steep mountain dragging behind it a toppled loaded bicycle, panniers tearing, metal scuffing, a racing shrapnel of bolts and nuts filling the air.

Some other nice Kyrgyz guys
The world became ever-lovelier, if that were possible. Herders rode towards me and I chatted a little in Russian, recovering irregular verbs from storage, dusty and stuttered. They flashed me their gold teeth, a popular status symbol, and the women stared at a distance, smiling and piratical in their headscarves worn like bandanas. 

I arrived into the town of Karakol in the rain, and saw a sign for pizza. I don’t recall the next ten minutes of my life, all I know is that at some point in the very near future I was cheesey face to cheesey face with a 30 cm diametered circle of heaven.

I camped for a few days in Karakol, hanging out with a trio from Quebec, visiting museums and animal markets and the town church.

Thank yous: Alina and Kristin in Almaty, Sam – master Yogi, KIS and Haileybury Schools, The Quebec posse, and all the generous Chinese and Kazakhs and Kyrgyz souls.

Next up: Lake Issyk Kul, then a rest in Bishkek where I’ll score onward visas. I’ll publish a new kit review piece too, and in mid-June I’ll set off for a 2-3 week stint of Kyrgyzstan to the Tajik border. And then there’s a few hills to climb, called the Pamirs.

Mongolia’s Wild West


It was hard to leave Khatgal, hard to forsake my gur into which a young girl would tiptoe each morning and fire up the wood-burning stove which in minutes improved the temperature from minus 15 to 20 above, propelling me towards a greasefest of a breakfast. And it was hard to leave because my knee had gone disturbingly geriatric, and just before I hit one and half thousand kilometres of remote sand-entrenched roads joining desolate towns where a padlocked shop that sold out of date chewing gum would be considered extravagant.

I did leave though, into a headwind that tossed dust around with a taunting howl, and when I passed the signpost for a town named Moron, on a washboard road, I recognised the double entendre and pronounced it accurate if the jarring journey continued to the border. But that first night camping I looked out over the horse-dotted steppe, over which cloud shadows streamed and churned and petered into bright yellow light, gilding the feather grass – I allowed myself to step outside my worries of knees and roads and winds – Mongolia will do that.

There is not much spring-like about spring in Mongolia. It’s not all daffodils and hope and children skipping in parks. OK there are lambs and baby goats but these are plucked from the snow by herders and nurtured inside the gurs until weather more worthy of the season appears, by which time it’s summer. Spring is the least favoured season, even winter is better, because April and May bring violent dust storms that rage over desert and steppe; the prevailing attack is from the west – which meant tent-wrecking, wheel-stilling winds were headed my way.

But which way was my way? Being lost had gone from being something of a hobby for me in Mongolia to a full blown profession. Within a day I was back to scrutinizing compass bearings and contemplating whether to ration my noodles whilst being thrashed by a headwind. Could I use a cow as a wind-break? There was no other shelter here – no trees, no rocky outcrops. I finally collected my thoughts behind a rare fence and waited for that other rare beast – a vehicle. A motorbike arrived after a while and I launched myself from behind the fence and into his path, which in hindsight, given the emptiness of the steppe, was probably the reason he looked like he was having a coronary event.

I was praying he was one of those Mongolians who could fathom my attempts at the language, or interpret my mime routine, or just have the common sense to guess what I was asking and then deliver directions. I pointed to a track and said the name of the town I was heading to, but his eyes didn’t follow my finger, ‘yes, yes’ came the dread refrain. I tried my best ‘which one?’ look, which I should know by now is uninterpretable. ‘yes, yes’ he said. I got out a pen and paper and made a dot (us) and a line (this track) hoping he’d embellish. ‘yes, yes’. Then a breakthrough – the nebulous flap of the hand Mongolians use to spell out a route – but he was indicating a roadless chunk of mountain.

Feeling defeated I headed back to Burentoctoh – adding 20km of rough road to my day – a windblasted and virtually unpeopled place where rusted signs were set into shrilling dances by intruding dust devils. In the supermarket (three brands of biscuits and a rotten onion) I got directions.

Afterwards I pushed up the hills when my knee grew too sore to ride. At the summit of one I claimed a magic view of the reaching steppe before dropping to a river where water gushed through a narrow channel forged in winter’s ice. I came to an adjoining stream when at that exact moment water ran in from the main river, and as I paced alongside the flood of brackish water melting the old ice the seasons changed in real time: winter became spring.



Next morning I woke to… to… birds chirping? What? A sound the wind hadn’t wrested away? I unzipped my tent to discover the morning sunny and sedate, the taut nylon of my tent as still as the sky. There is something haunting about the steppe when the wind dies down, and I shuddered as I looked over the tiny town of Tsagaan Uul two hours later – my approach was like that of a medieval knight towards a fortress – the town was fenced off against the winds and for miles I must have been visible to the townspeople – a loner battling through the sand. Shaggy dogs shambled about the edges, and two horses fought viciously in the dusty main street, biting and kicking, whilst the odd vulture hobbled away like a hunchback before spreading itself blackly against the blue sky. I was eyed from doorways.

The day grew windless but ball-numbingly cold again, as if winter had barged back through the slips for another scene. By evening though 60 km per hour winds rushed the steppe and I needed natural shelter if I didn’t want to spend the night wearing my tent. My campsite could safely be described as shit, but functional…


I trundled along the next day and all traffic had deserted me. There were some rusted kilometre posts though which meant I would reach a place, after a distance, and that was enough to inspire me on. And then I hit a concrete bridge and almost did a somersault. The hint of civilisation! Over a muddy rise I saw a house – the black block marked on my map. Only in Mongolia could a tiny solitary house, on a map of scale one in 2 million, earn a black square.

Things were looking up – my knee had improved, the road had too. I camped on a kind of platform of flat steppe just big enough for my tent, ahead snow-smeared grassland declined to a scribble of tracks and streams and then pitched up to triangles of larch forest striped by lanes of shadow as the sun was slowly banished to the mountains behind me. Under a half-moon I listened for wolves that I hoped padded through the forest, but no howl hit the silence. There were squeaks instead. I’d marvelled over these small pale rodents all day, and now I watched as one poked its head up from the ground and sniffed the air. In short order another popped up from the same hole and then two more of their curious mates appeared from a hole behind them. I couldn’t tell if they were voles, hamsters, gerbils, dormice or lemmings. The steppe is rodent central.

The next day a fragile wind tickled the grass, and snow was falling, but in dainty puffs. Sunlight lit and oozed through the clouds like a lava lamp, throwing a feeble light onto the tracts of forest.

Snow-sloped mountains pierced the once grassy horizon as I made it to the junction of the ‘main’ road to Uliastay. There was of course no tarmac, or road, but for the first time a wind gathered behind me and I shot off on jolly bounce aside tribes of Bactrian camels which I took as a sign of progress towards the Gobi.



As I wheeled my bike off the road to camp that night a white hatchback turned violently from the road and the three young men inside were soon leaning out of their windows. ‘Passport!’ one cried as they arrived and showed me some shoddy makeshift card that said ‘police’ on it. ‘Fuck you’ I almost replied, but held my tongue and shook my head. Real police would have insisted, and so when they didn’t I knew I’d made a good call and just hoped they didn’t come searching for me later.

A day later another car pulled up and a man fired off questions in English. I almost inserted myself through his car window and babbled like a crackhead. It was my first conversation in a while. The driver, a friendly ex-guide, new to Uliastay, offered to buy me a beer when I got there and was off.

I climbed over ‘Fish pass’ and camped on the other side. A gale raged through the night and the view the next morning was awash with thick snow.



There is something quite uniquely depressing about Mongolian provincial towns and Uliastay ticked the usual boxes – a good spread of rudderless alcoholics. World Vision. Wind. Empty vodka bottles, which I think may be the national plant. But the setting was impressive – the Altai mountains almost surrounded the town, the eastern fringes of a range that would accompany me as I rode through Central Asia.

I checked into the best hotel in town because I wanted a shower, paying a whole 10 dollars, but even so when I boiled the kettle the lights would dim and then blink – the mood lighting was befitting the sounds of furious sex coming through the wall, which came in five minute bouts. Her frustration was palpable.

I got set to leave the next day but checked the forecast first and found that the Mongolian weather had decided to ignore the calendar – the sky was planning to jettison an unspring like stack of 15cm of snow, and the temperature had returned to minus 15 at night. All this was compounded by the fact that between me and the next town, Altay, there were some effing big mountains where cold and snow would be multiplied. So I waited for an extra day.

I rode up into the Altai mountains through the snow, though the sky was now an unsullied dome of blue which held a massive vulture gliding on thermals near the first pass marked by another welcome ovoo. The next pass was higher though and the snow was a foot deep reducing me from cyclist to huffing pedestrian. In the distance I saw a herder who I could hear singing. He approached as they always do, and reached within his bulging deel (robe) – like a magician he pulled out a baby goat and grinned.




I stayed on the pass for a cup of tea from my thermos and descended but the snow and ice sent me into dangerous skids and I fell hard twice. Eventually the road flattened out, the wind stilled and in the evening light the two colours did their usual flip: yellow turned to gold, white to blue. An eagle flew low overhead, within spitting distance because from the eastern sky I was half-hidden by a rise, and I watched it float up to perch regally on a tree.

The next day I came to a signpost, such a novelty it deserved a photograph. Unfortunately of the three places advertised, none were of Altay, the biggest town in the region. Also, the junction it foretold wasn’t obvious, though there was a sliver of a track to the right – could that be it?

I followed it, and decided soon that it was not the right trail – there was only one motorbike tyre mark in the snow and in 100 metres I’d already breached three frozen streams. I returned to the questionmark of a junction and waited. Eventually one of the Soviet era grey vans appeared and the driver offered to take me to the right road. Inside the men stayed silent, and the back was padded with off-white material like that of an outmoded mental asylum, which turned out to be fitting décor considering how they drove. I was convinced he was going to flip the thing or perhaps, amid the miles and miles of empty steppe, drive directly into a telegraph pole.

They dropped me off and pointed to a string of pylons – ‘follow those to Altay’ seemed to be the message, so I set off glad of the impossible-to-lose way posts, but my knee ached and the snow was still about a foot thick. I pushed up through the mountains again, and hours later reached a pass and a gut-wrenching view – mountains stretched away, snow-thick and endless. The track remained flooded with snow and I wondered with an explosion of anxiety whether it could be the same story for the next 130 km to Altay – if so I’d be pushing, and soon exhausted of food and gas for my stove and days on my visa. And there was no way out now, no chance of retreat, no vehicles at all.

An hour later I pushed up another ridge and found relief at last – a broad plain, with obvious tracks and much less snow.


Early the next morning, on hardened snow, I freewheeled down a spine of mountains, as land peeled away on both sides. But by Altay I was limping, the pain in my knee much worse, and I was resigned to at least one day off.

The hotel in Altay was more obviously a brothel than the other definite brothels I’d inadvertently stayed in. There was the constant sounding of fucking, and the expended condom I was dismayed to find under my bed, and the clincher: two policemen strolled in and collected an envelope from the owner and left again.

I’d pushed too hard with the injury – I knew it. I’d acted against the advice I would have given my own patients, but my visa was almost expired and I wanted to ride so much I’d struggled on. The result was that my knee was approaching buttock proportions so I rested for a day necking brufen and with an ice pack on it (actually it may have been ice cream. Yes, ice cream).

At Darvi I stopped in an eating house and they offered me a bed, but the husband of the owner was drunk on vodka and insisted on helping me by wrestling by loaded bike inside. I was steering it and shouting for him to stop lifting the front wheel, but he managed to get himself in front of it whilst we were manoeuvring though a doorway and he couldn’t fathom why it wouldn’t go. ‘Get out of the way!’ I yelled, but he’d got his feet tangled in the cranks and was trying to lift the stem. ‘Please you’re making this more difficult!’ He tried to grab a pannier and lifted it into the frame so I dropped the bike, walked over to him and man handled him into the hall where he looked bashful and shuffled off. This might be a good time to report that Mongolia has been one of my favourite countries, choker with wilderness and rural hospitality, but vodka is a real scourge, and the drunks are always testing my patience.

From Darvi I had directions from another biker to a coal mine and a new paved road which reputedly travelled 300 km to the border. When I arrived at a small salt flat I did as instructed and made my way southwest on vague trails towards a dip in the mountains where I found a pretty valley and a river to wade. (cyclists reading this who want directions through the west of Mongolia – here’s my How To Guide)




When I reached the Chinese coal mine I was welcomed in by the finance manager – a young and pretty Mongolian woman who spoke good English. She brought me into the dining room for a breakfast of eggs and bacon, and I ate as if it might be a cruel joke and someone was going to snatch it away. She asked if I wanted a hot shower – it took me a minute to manage ‘What!’ and some time later ‘Yes please’.

I left to a battery of photos with the staff and then hit the paved road and cruised downhill as many-toned mountains rich in mineral ores drifted by in the distance, with the white flecks of gurs beneath.



It had been several hours since I’d seen a car when I heard one behind me. He pulled past and then swerved, cutting me up so fast I almost slammed into his side door. I skidded off the road, through sand and dirt, whilst he bumped off on a sandy trail to the right I’d barely noticed.

I made the rudest gestures I could manage, and screamed my frustration. I could have been under the wheels. He stopped, and seizing my opportunity I dumped by bike and ran over to the car – his wife walked back to me, but it was obvious they’d only stopped because I’d waved – they didn’t even realise they’d run me off the road. I let rip, cursing and gesticulating – she looked alarmed and apologised. When I calmed down I had to laugh about it – I was cut up on an arrow straight road, by the only car in several hundreds of kilometres, at the only junction I’d pass all day. There’s probably some truth in the popular saying that Genghis Khan’s DNA reasserts itself when Mongolians get behind the wheel.

I climbed to Ar Bulag Davaa, a 2790 metre pass, my knee was coping a little better on the paved surface. A motorbike stopped ahead and a man and a boy waited for me in the road. The man wore a purple deel, his right eye was red and infected. The boy was nine or ten, and pondered me as bleakly as his father.

The man looked me over, made a slitting action to his neck and then pointed at me. Its not the first time I’ve received idle death threats and it’s best to smile and pretend you don’t understand, do the action back to them, grin and shake their hand, keep moving. But he blocked me and made the action of a gun, shot me with an imaginary bullet. Then he put his hand inside his deel, slowly, and my heart pounded in my chest, but no gun was drawn. He made the move twice more and I knew by then he was bluffing, and then he took out vodka and took a long neat glug from the bottle. I looked at the boy, full of sympathy. The man then pointed at a few gurs in the distance and made the gun sign again.

I cycled off wondering if he’d make a phone call, if they’d be an ambush. At the first gur I saw just a gnarled dog noisily warning me away but no people. Then to my left two riders on horses in full gallop, throwing up dust. I pedalled hard but there was nowhere to go, no way to outrun horses. I decided to act aggressive and as they hit the road I turned hard squaring up to them, but realised with relief one was just a boy, and smiling ear to ear. He was eight years old maybe, and judging by his horsemanship, galloping about the steppe for half his years. I talked to his father about my plan to reach the border but he made a cross out of his forearms which could only mean one thing – the border was closed.

I thought about this: if they’d shut the border, which considering I would enter into Xinjiang province in China, a sensitive area, was definitely possible – I was fucked. Fucked to the key of five thousand kilometres by jeep, bus and train, back across Mongolia, back into northern China and then west until I reached Xinjiang, hundreds of dollars poorer. I had no Russian visa and this was the only international border leading to China in western Mongolia.

Fortunately mine workers on the road to the border cleared up the confusion – the border was only closed for the weekend. Phew! The workers manned decontamination stations on the road and fed me up with rice and meat and sachets of coffee which claimed to be ‘American flavour’ whatever that is. Stars and stripes surrounded a ginger man with a crown on his head on the packet. ‘Who’s that?’ I asked one of the workers. ‘The king of America’ he said appalled at my ignorance. Oh yeah sorry, didn’t recognise him.

For my last night in Mongolia I camped high on slim ridge it was stupidly unhidden and wind blasted spot but it was my last night under a Mongolian sky and I wanted the Gobi spread out on both sides of me. Days ago I was mired in thick snow, now I could sleep outside my tent and star gaze.



Spot the tent
At the border Chinese immigration made a thorough search of all my electronic devices and then I was allowed through and cycled into Takisheken. Mongolian customer service in towns and cities is a little muted (to be understatedly kind), and my hopes that China might prove better were dashed when the hotel owner, who was actually a very friendly, smiling man, showed me into a room and awaited my approval. When I nodded he hacked up a huge greeny, strolled over to my new bathroom, sent it into the toilet and without flushing it returned to the room and asked for my passport and money. There was something reassuring in this though – it looked like my world might stay rough around the edges.

I knew the sensible thing to do was take a bus to Urumqi now that I had time on my side because my knee needed the rest – so with a heavy heart, that’s what I did.

Thank yous – Torge and Sylvia again thank you, Tudevee – thank you for a nice meal in Uliastay and my only conversation in several weeks, the workers of the coal mine, Chris Pountney for directions, Sam Lovell – master yogi and my host in Urumqi.

I’m chuffed that my first article for the BBC will be published next month – I will add a link on my journalism page when it’s up.

I’ve rested my knee for over a week now, but it’s not 100% and the next stage to Kazakhstan is an important test – if it’s painful on this stretch then coping over the Pamirs will be very tough. It’s a worry. My next update will come from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.

Goodbye Mongolia

Ice lakes and frozen worlds


To the lake…

I was just a few kilometres from Ulaanbaator, but there was no hint a world capital lurked close by. The sky reached to wider horizons, plucked of the reaching soviet tower blocks, city traffic surrendered to silent space. Concrete was traded for yellowed steppe, salt and pepper peaks and the odd gur clinging limpet-like to the leeside of hills.

Cold eyeballs in the Gobi



‘Ganbei!’

Again?

I heaved myself to my feet and raised my glass of ‘wine’, it swayed in front of me, vague, like a ship’s lantern. ‘Ganbei!’ (‘Cheers!’) and I brought the glass to my lips. A pungence stormed my sinuses, my stomach replied with a mutinous rumble.

I’d lost count of the times ‘Ganbei!’ had been bawled across the table; but the once-barren spread of mahogany spoke of a great many. Dribbling beer cans lay toppled like drunks in ragged alleys of plates mounded with tofu, shrimps and sweet and sour fish. A scattering of small jugs impounded a portentously clear spirit – Baijiu is not wine in the traditional sense, it’s made from sorghum, this one was home-made and ‘only 50%!’ – a fact I discovered was deserving of an emphatic ‘Ganbei!’ in itself.

I sat among sixteen Chinese men and women, in various stages of life, and consciousness; the progressively less wholesome members of an Outdoors Club, and it was hard, amid the wreckage of our booze-ageddon – presided over by bloodshot eyes and twisted grins – to imagine any of them as hale hikers and bikers, though they were clearly determined. Each ‘Ganbei!’ was becoming more dogged and garbled than the last, less an act of celebration now than a savage spur to depravity.

I sat down again and an arm trailed my shoulder – I turned to find a bristled fume-breathing creature on the end of it, lurching. He locked his dewy eyes on mine, or tried to, and ripped into song – some low, wavering Chinese lament that made sudden rapt faces of my comrades until another man leapt to his feet and blundered out to howls of laughter – he had eaten one of the ‘special’ dumplings spiked with red chili and was in hot pursuit of liquid less than 50% alcohol.

The meal was a fusillade of gestures and roars and orders and offerings. I didn’t need Chinese to catch the drift. Cigarette? No thanks. Give him food! A chunk of meat arrived. Photo, I posed. Ganbei! I drank. Have this keyring. Thank you. More meat! Thank you. Refill his beer! Thank you. Photo – OK. Stand up and say something! I heaved myself up on legs which had apparently turned to rope. ‘Ganbei!’ was all that came to mind and mouth. Cheers exploded, guzzling ensued.

It’s the travellers delusion that every experience in a foreign land is characteristic – and as I escaped to the bathroom I wondered if this wasn’t a particularly Chinese affair at all, maybe I was simply hanging out with a tribe of frenzied alcoholics? But no, that wasn’t it. The China I had come to know, the surface version anyway, was an unyielding racehorse of a nation, everyone I’d met so far ate furiously, drank even faster, and spoke at indecipherable speed.

Between the group-calls to drink there were numerous one to one challenges; you could nominate anyone, any time. Drinking Baijiu may be brave, but it repays the courage it once obliged: I grabbed my glass and offered a ‘Ganbei!’ to the prettiest girl, and to a clamour of wicked hoots she blushed to something approaching beetroot and our faces cracked into scrambled smiles.

‘This is for Volunteer’s day!’ rang a voice from my left. I turned to the young hair-gelled cigarette-toting man beside me, who may have been nodding, though not all of him was content to stay in focus.

‘Two girls are no married!’ he yelled, and two pretty faces, one from my left and one from my right, framed in furry hoods, laughed by squeaks into manicured hands. Ahhh, Valentine’s Day, my drunk-slow brain churned out. ‘This is Flower, and this is Meow, like a cat’.

‘How old you?’ asked Flower. The man to my right replied for me and I recognised the Chinese for my correct age, 34, a sibilant chaos that, to my ears, sounded like a drunk failing to order samosas.

‘What kind of women do you like?’ asked Meow. I answered rashly ‘All kinds!’ maybe because I was drunk, or wanted to be judged open-minded or was feeling honest, I can’t remember. Her eyes narrowed – it was the wrong answer.

Kevin, the host, introduced food to me by way of the translating app on his iPhone. ‘Home-smoked elbow’ said the screen and he pointed to a meaty mountain. Then: ‘we are kinsmen’, arm around my shoulder. Then, pointing, ‘Beggar’s Chicken’. Gulp.

The food was sensational, better even than his iPhone boasted, but as I readied chopsticks and prepared for an expedition in dining, ‘Ganbei!’ assaulted my ears and set me downing another long pour of beer.

It couldn’t last of course, and gradually we climbed down off this profligate peak – the hugs grew less gripping, the selfies dwindled, even the ‘Ganbei!’s became less charged with violence. As I looked about me the once smiling eyes were sinking into groggy retreat, but it was a happy scene, the end of a vigorous battle. It had been either a resounding victory or a patent defeat, it was impossible to tell which, but we’d fought audaciously together.

Soft daylight glittered the battlefield of beer cans, spilling through the jugs of half-glugged Baijiu, refracting over the cows tendons with coriander (‘Kevin, easy on the tendons, OK?’). It was 11.30 am, I’d been drinking hard for less than one hour, and I wasn’t sure how to spend the meat of another Chinese day. Probably though I would sleep off the liquor and go out for dinner, somewhere with a picture menu, I thought. My stomach might protest any more elbows.

Gobi-time

In Datong I discovered that the border would be closed for four days over the Chinese new year, and I’d have to take a short bus ride. To wait meant overstaying my visa and I wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter in the west of the country.

The road north passed through sere grassland, with gatherings of stout conifers here and there. We stopped briefly in a town to disgorge passengers onto a pavement where seven newly decapitated sheep languished, preparation for the festivities, a delta of bloody trickles spanning the road.

Soon we reached the southern Gobi – a derelict world, massacred into raw plains by extremes of climate and foisting poverty on those who dwelled in clutches of tumbledown brick houses – places apparently untouched by any trickle of wealth from the steel and coal industries that reign over inner Mongolia. One time steppe had been violated by the desert, grass reduced to occasional stubble, though sheep still roamed – the colour of their fleeces somewhere between the dun desert and the dove grey snow which gathered in the dips and gutters of land. The herders were like Tolkienian wraiths, faceless, wooly-hooded, they turned invisible eyes to our bus as we bumped by. We gained some altitude and the snow and ice became more sprawling, reaching from the hollows to bleach whole slopes and wreath the trunks of trees, above us the sky was cloud-smeared; as lifeless and hostile as the land. Mileposts lost meaning here amid the long, wan, snow-dappled spaces.

The sky above cleared as I expected it to as we approached the border – Mongolia is famously ‘the land of blue skies’ with around 250 sunny days a year. I’m a glass half full man, but I had to wonder about those 115 other ones, a blizzard here would be brutal as even sunny days in February come with daytime highs of minus 10 or minus 15 °C.

We pulled into a windy Erlian, the Chinese border town whose raison d’etre seemed to be to sate Mongolian shoppers. Signs in the town, on shops, came in up to four different scripts – Latin, Chinese, Mongolian Cyrillic and Traditional Mongolian (which looks like Arabic, but is written vertically). I wondered if anywhere else on earth could boast the same quirk (suggestions welcome!). I’d studied Russian for three years at school, and though the language itself had ebbed away to leave some rusty nuts and bolts, I was glad I could still read the Cyrillic script having not used it for 18 years.

I was assembling my gear on my bike when a felt a figure approach, turning I saw an old man ambling over, smile shining. We exchanged a few words about my journey before he gave me a friendly pat on my arm, then my back, then my stomach and then, in a lightning quick, indefensible lunge he grabbed a handful of the crown jewels! I shook him off and he acted like this kind of thing was normal manly play, and asked, still smiling, if I needed a hotel. It turned out to be China’s parting gift – getting felt up by a depraved geriatric.

I knew the temperature in the Mongolian Gobi in winter could fall to minus 30 or below at night, and for that I was ready: three sleeping bags, three sleeping mats, a down jacket and a frankly farcical ratio of gloves to hands. But how cold it would be and how cold it would feel were two different things: wind and snow would make the difference.

I cycled towards a manmade rainbow constructed over the road marking the border, snow had fallen overnight, so I used the soles of my trainers to brake. Bikes are not allowed to cross so I loaded my gear into a vehicle stocked with a bunch of booze-reeking strangers and we chugged into Mongolia.

Zamyn Uud, on the Mongolian side, was a smaller town than I’d hoped but after China it was a welcome change: shops actually stocked recognisible produce! And no chicken feet! There were 17 brands of vodka – a hangover from Soviet era socialism, and alcoholism is an epidemic here.

With several days of food, and eight litres of water I wobbled off onto a sandy track that snaked and branched and within minutes I was lost. I dumped by bike in the sand and ran to the train line to see if there was a better track, but there was nothing, and a dog deterred me from roaming any further. Mongolian dogs outsize their Chinese toy counterparts by 20 fold. They are monstrous, wolf-beating things, and when you approach a Gur (a traditional Mongolian nomad’s tent) Mongolians will call ‘Nokhoi Khori!’ – literally: ‘hold your dogs!’ It is the single most useful phrase in Mongolian because ‘thank you’, ‘please’ and ‘you’re welcome’ might not be necessary, or possible, after a mauling.


At last I found a paved road but a headwind kicked up so that night I camped behind an icy bluff which lent some shelter. The sun set, deflections of tangerine light seeped from remote ridges, settling to a royal blue overhead. It was too cold to admire the stars for long, but for a minute I gawked at Venus, a brilliant mote in the east. Silence. I thought then that whatever it is that makes me appreciate wild spaces is nothing learnt or acquired, it’s innate, it’s soul-deep, and it’s unshakable.

Sunrise was a sudden illumination of my tent, light switch fast. Beforehand, in the dark, the choice between my sleeping bag and minus 20 had been an easy one. But as a white sun lit the frosty desert – sun beams glancing off pools of snow, sparkling the rocks – I began to stir. I had stored water, the gas for my stove and anything sweaty enough to freeze solid overnight inside my sleeping bag. The low humidity had made it easier, so far, than Europe when wet nights of minus 20 turned my trainers to clogs and my gloves to stone. Any moisture in my tent had mostly emanated from me – a mix of my sweat and breathes, which froze overnight, glittering the roof of my tent.

The snow patched the desert like land over a globe, throwing off peninsulas and archipelagoes of hoar frost and ice. One car an hour dashed past in a scratch of sound. A crow flew overhead, making an unearthly ‘eh-aw’ sound I’d never heard, or perhaps had never been given the silence profound enough to appreciate before. I set off with a luxurious tailwind which sent footballs of tumbleweed raging along the road with me, like a wave of rioters speeding toward police lines. Always in the wind and space of deserts I recall the others far behind me: the Sahara, the Namib, the Atacama, the Sonoran. The sky over the Gobi was as wide and vast as any desert sky, and the jet trails didn’t diminish the wildness, they lent perspective, flaunting its vaulting sprawl. Several could often be seen at once, lower to the horizon they stood up straight like rockets taking off, though I knew they ranged through another spread of unblemished sky, over a similar swathe of rock, sand and silence. Directly above, the planes inched over the blueness, proving the sky massive in their lazy trespass.


I passed tribes of brown goats, camel herds ridden by wild looking men, and groups of wild horses. I stopped to investigate any glitch in the monotony, a dead Bactrian camel, a pack of vultures, a rustless and long-ago plundered car. The animal carcasses, like the car, decayed slowly in this freezing, arid place – they looked dissected and plasticized, like a prop from an 80’s horror film.

The highlight of my days in the Gobi were the Bactrian Camels which would halt their grazing and watch me as I got close – tight zigzags peaking at heads, humps and tails. Often I would get within ten metres from a pack and watch them for a while as the males swished and slapped their urinated-on tails in that most obscene of mating rituals, familiar from BBC nature documentaries. They were in rut, it was mating season, and I was advised not to get too close, apparently the males can get a bit crazy – biting and spitting and even sitting on other males. I wasn’t sure exactly what this could mean for me, but potentially a male Bactrian with a glint in his camel eye could be a lot worse than a groping Chinese granddad.




I came across a small house and a Gur and stopped to refill my water. The only human I’d met in 200 km, the owner, was a miserable man, with a dog that helped itself to the bread in my front pannier. His wife gave me a fair price for some water but he looked me over and doubled it, smirking. It wasn’t clear if his isolation was the cause or effect of his douchebaggery.

After a few days the desert lost grip of its beauty, becoming featureless, and it was hard to think of anywhere I’d been so barren. From time to time a train forged a lonely rumble across the desert, reviving the desolation as it passed on. The road gave an occasional impression of mounting to a precipice, but when I arrived it was just the crown of a low hill and the land apathetically rolled on to the next horizon.

My eyeballs grew cold, I had not planned for this. The air leaked around them, oozing into my head. And I was now unable to wiggle my toes. I considered stopping and jumping around, but although my medical knowledge asserted otherwise, I worried they may be too brittle to bear it and I might hear a shattering sound followed by the fateful tinkling of toe fragments from within my frozen trainers. It hadn’t got above minus 15 today and at night the temperature slumped to minus 30.

I stopped again by a few houses on the railway line to restock on water as mine was frozen. A tall, vigorous man greeted me as I arrived; a mouth overflowing with yellow teeth cut a big smile. I was hurried inside his home and sat down in front of a feast – a tower of biscuits, part of a dead beast centre-table, not so much a steak as a slab of meat and gristle. As I pondered it the man put his hands to his head indicating the horns of a cow. They cut off strips of the cold fatty beef for me to scarf and poured me some fermented horse milk. Children sat on the floor watching the TV which showed Mongolian music videos – men dressed in traditional deels in the mountains or aside icy lakes crooning bassy and heartfelt songs. A visitor arrived, a young lady, and she bent down and gave money to an old woman sitting near the door, then greeting her by placing her outstretched arms underneath, and holding her elbows – a gesture known as Zolgokh. ‘Vodka!’ the man announced. I drank a shot and he shouted ‘da da!’ in approval, perhaps assuming me Russian. With replenished water, and after two more shots of vodka, and various presents (a bottle of Fanta, a pack of cards, some colourful fabric) I was ushered out. Unwittingly I had stumbled into a Mongolian home during Tsagaan Sar, the lunar new year.

After I set off on the back of this hospitality, the tail wind, and perhaps the vodka, lent an invincible feeling – it’s a sensation I’ve grown to associate with everything going wrong, immediately and cataclysmically.

And then wind changed, by 180 degrees.

The next day the clichés used to cajole people into adventures had no relevance. ‘Live without regrets!’ ‘Carpe Diem!’ they sing. Yet today, I thought, I have cycled into the wind, spoke to nobody, saw nothing but plains of fine rock, became dulled by my own rotating thoughts, and then pitched my tent and slept. How, exactly, is that taking life by the scruff of the neck? I’m one day older, a little more wind-blown and much more pissed off. ‘You’re living the dream!’ a Canadian man told me in Pingyao. Only if you dream about Maggie noodles, numb toes and weekly changes of underwear. The next days scrolled by, unseized. Each morning I threw sand into the air to assess the wind direction, but it was grabbed and tossed back across the unfurled parchment of desert, lickety-split, to China.



Why am I doing this to myself? To prove I can? Patagonia was windier. I’ve been colder, lonelier, more tired, more bored. It’s unreasonable! It’s masochism!

I could hitch a ride

Give up? I’d open Pandora’s Box, I’d find increasingly pathetic excuses to take lifts all over Asia.

I’ll never get these three days back, they will zip away like tumbleweed. Give up. It doesn’t matter.

Its only three days to Ulaanbaatar, if I persevere…

My knee hurts

Not enough

I need more food

I’ll find some

OK. I’ll get a lift. The next car.

Maybe one more hour, then see…

Get a lift!

But I said I’d do this…

That’s not a good reason!

OK. But maybe I should ride to prove I don’t have to listen to my doubts, to show I control my demons. If that takes three days, that’s three days well spent, right?

Silence

I’d out-thought my demons! I’m unbreakable! Nothing can stop me!

Two hours later I was sitting in the back of a people carrier heading towards UB.

The wind had picked up, sand-filled gusts of 50 mph pummeled me for hours. I’d covered 20 km all day. I was cold. I needed to register in the capital within 7 days to avoid a 100 dollar fine and the possibility of being denied a visa extension. Plus I had no food, and about as much will to live.

‘No regrets!’ they say. Well, I have none.

The car carried an incalculable number of children who were stuffed between, on top of and probably underneath the adults. The radio played Mongolian hip hop, which sounded like the CIA were waterboarding a Klingon.

Pollution was the first sign of the city, it sagged over Ulaanbaator, the world’s coldest capital, generated mostly from the coal burning stoves and traffic. The outskirts of the city were taken by the Gur district – a great spread of fenced off nomad’s tents and shacks – many residents, once true nomads, had been lured into the city from afar, 40,000 newbies every year. Some had lost their land to the expanding desert, the steppe is overgrazed and the climate is changing. Some lost their animals in the dzuds – punishingly cold winters, the last in 2010, when it became impossible to reach animals and they perished in the snow. 

9.30 am in Ulaanbaator
A lot has happened during my two weeks in UB – I met four other around the world bikers (Twisting Spokes, World Bicyclist and Around 7 Continents), I visited hospitals and children’s shelters, I fitted a new Rohloff Hub (number four!), I presented at the International School, explored temples and scored visas.

But the highlight was undoubtedly meeting Susanne and Martin who have cycled from Holland – great dudes who I really bonded with. And of course Froit – the charismatic Dutchman who hosted me on my first night.

I thought about getting a Russian visa, but things were complicated by the fact that the UK wasn’t on the list of approved nations at the embassy. Plus a Russian working there was reputedly to be, and I quote from an internet source: ‘A mild Sociopath.’ Someone so implacably rude he was causing problems internationally.

So my hope is to ride up to 150 km across the (hopefully) frozen surface of Mongolia’s deepest Lake – Khovsgol, and through the very remote northwest of the country, the realm of reindeer herders. For five weeks I will explore the remote reaches of this country, which promises to be some of the toughest and coldest riding yet, and then hopefully I’ll cross into China – into the autonomous region of Xinjiang – before hitting Kazakhstan.

My itinerary is taking shape: Central Asia for the summer, caucuses in the autumn, and then a possibility of rowing/kayaking/pedal-boating the Black Sea coast, TBC, before Europe at long last and for a second time.

Thanks yous – Froit, Kevin, Susanne and Martin, the three soon to be trans-asian riders: Ben, Ian and Jon, Chris and Betsy and everyone at the International School, Shari and Richard.

Finally here’s some TV news footage from Myanmar – http://youtu.be/0VZzitQMzls