The Chinese Burn

I was scouting for a place to camp behind a thin disguise of bushes when I saw him approaching; the mounting dusk made a tapered silhouette of a bicycle and rider. In Hunan province what makes for a subtle wild camping spot is also a popular toilet, and I had been busy estimating if my tent would fit in a patch of grass scattered with strewn toilet paper.

I flagged him down.

‘You speak Chinese?’ came a disembodied voice from the gloom. I shook my head.

‘You sleep in bushes?’

‘Uh huh’

‘Here? In these… bushes?’

It was impossible not to notice the en suite amenities. ‘Well, maybe’.

‘I think…’ he began, with some precision, ‘you should come with me’.

Without another word we pedaled off together, car headlights sending him to life, a young bespectacled Chinese man on a mountain bike with two panniers. Liyan had cycled from the southern coast and was heading to Xian to spend the looming new year with his family, this journey for Spring Festival, Chunyun, is the largest annual migration of people on earth.

That night we found a guesthouse and sat eating bamboo shoots and tofu while the owner, a wrinkled gem-eyed woman, chattered away to Liyan and tossed me fast, exuberant glances as if my presence was the best thing to happen here all year. I asked Liyan to translate.

‘She says you have a big nose, but she likes you’.

‘Tell her: ‘I like her too. But her nose is too small’’.

He translated.

‘What did she say’ I asked.

‘She said yes’



We all sat for minute, pondering nose sizes.

Liyan and I were, in many respects, a consummate pair. Liyan could read road signs, navigate using his GPS, discuss the whereabouts of cheap hostels with strangers, order soup without chicken feet in it, barter, make phone calls, jokes and conversation. He could, in short, do most things expected of an adult human being. I, on the other hand, could issue goofy grins and shout ‘wo bu hui shuo Putonghua!’ (I don’t speak Chinese!) into the anguished face of anybody who wanted to know something basic about me, like my name or nationality. He must have thought himself very lucky to be part of this dream team.

You do enter a kind of uneasy deal when cycling with another, questions inevitably simmer up – will they be faster or slower than you? When will you split up? Will they indulge in gratuitous singing, or road rage? Will they seed the slipstream with farts? Will they pack up every morning and then ponder the whereabouts of their toothbrush before unpacking pots and pans, toothpicks, weather predicting instruments, ipads, assorted underwear, accumulated pamphlets, intravenous adrenaline, and harmonicas, and half an hour later declare ‘Well look at that! It was in my pocket all that time! Now then, where did I put that map?’

Luckily Liyan was a great companion and did none of those things, and I was glad when, after two days, he suggested we ride together for another five. We shared that gluttony that is particular to cyclists and I was able, finally, to eat at places without picture menus, and without guessing which item was not the disquieting ‘Manual Cat Ears’ I found once on a rare menu with translation. Evenings we spent in night markets, or bent over hotpots in eating houses, shoveling down fresh fish and vegetables. He ate faster than anyone I have ever met, faster even than me. I give him exaggerated looks of incredulity when he slurped his last noodle, and for two people with little language in common, this mimed punchline was an ongoing joke.

But Liyan is not unusual, China is racehorse of a nation – everyone eats fast, drinks fast, speaks fast. The country’s rise to riches has been famously speedy, skylines explode into being, fashions zip into life and die again. Watching Chinese arrive in buses is invigorating – after a coach journey most people take up to half minute to gather themselves, stretch, collect their belongings and depart the bus, but in China it’s like someone has threatened anyone remaining on the vehicle in 30 seconds with ice buckets and electrocution. After a 10 second charge, the entire thing is derelict, or else contains a solitary tourist, wondering what just happened. For a perpetually impatient soul like me, one who believes that anyone who walks too slowly in the street should be promptly removed from society, ideally by air-evacuation, and left on a remote island set in shark infested waters where other blundering somnambulates now live out their torpid days, China is bliss.

Liyan had a bandaged hand from a side-on altercation with a car, which I took as a reminder of the dangers of Chinese roads until daylight came and I saw him cycling. At crossings he would set into a dream-like drift, seemingly unfussed about the horns or fast approaching battalion of revving metal and glass. Glancelessly he would plough straight through red-lighted interchanges, other times he would weave about without any obvious desire to go anywhere, looking vaguely upwards as if suddenly struck by a fascinating fact, or pondering the location of his house keys or the name of second cousin.

We cycled northwards through wintered farmland, the road bound by a procession of leafless elm, flaunting bird’s nests in their naked upper reaches. Azure-winged magpies made dipping flights from tree to tree. Liyan rode ahead, his poncho wind-whipped and wizard-like. From remote villages there came an echo of fireworks, perhaps for a new baby, or a new business. Sometimes the white bullet trains to Beijing dissected the road and in towns and cities at sundown we cycled by women performing Guang chang wu – a kind of public square dance, popular with Chinese grandmothers.

Chinese public messages of road safety

A muddy-faced Liyan!
Falling off his bike was a recurrent problem for Liyan who was unbalanced and had only rear panniers, and even after a wobbly near-accident he’d flash me a ‘that was close smile’ and then promptly fall over sideways. The hand injury was beginning to look less like poor luck, and more like a lucky escape from something much worse. He hadn’t told his parents about his bike ride – ‘my mum would worry’ he told me. As I watched him crash into a curb and spill onto a group of scattering pedestrians, it was becoming easy to sympathise with her. It had been a sharp turnaround, perhaps we were destined to look after one another, even though I was still essentially a big baby that was his responsibility to feed and put to bed and lead around.

The cold was smiting now, burying into me with a wind from the north, a whispered warning from Mongolia. We crossed the Yangtze by boat, it took a whole ten minutes, but its massiveness was lost in a cold mist. A wind pinched the water into wavelets, seeped through my base layers, and made icicles of our fingers and toes. The banks of the Yangtze ran up to a high shelf: the previous height of the waters before the three gorges dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project, and a controversial one. Only China could relocate 1.2 million residents to accommodate it.

On the other side of the river we drifted off onto a slim road, the width of a bike path, which cuddled the northern bank of the Yangtze. Hoopoes sunk their beaks into the earth for worms. I’d last caught sight of one in Turkey, and seeing them again was like a call to home. At Jingzhou we cycled the walls of old city where allotments abutted the moat and a confusion of brickwork houses.

‘Very nice!’ I shouted.

‘No we go very east, not very north!’ Liyan scolded.

My Chinese wasn’t improving so we relied on English, and Liyan showed his curiosity and generosity in his three favourite expressions: ‘have a try’, ‘have a see’ and ‘my treat’. If he couldn’t find the English word we’d use an iphone app, which didn’t always come up with the right solution. Tent became ‘Praetorium’ which I didn’t bother to correct because I enjoyed that my tousled green Nylon bit of tat is now blessed with the epithet given a General’s tent within a Roman encampment.

Chinese meat markets lend a certain reality to dining

The road through Hubei and Henan took us through flat agricultural country, the towns stuck with tower blocks and ambiguous looking shops. The wind from the north picked up and brought thin snow to the sky which rushed and stung our eyes. I was suffering from it when we pulled into a town to find an eating house. We passed an olive green bin, the size of a small car, the contents were burning and in the wafts of smoke stood a man, rattily dressed beneath a thatch of matted hair. His face was entirely black from filth and soot, like some Dickensian chimney sweep, with only two thin white slits marking where his eyes were. He didn’t look at us as we passed by. We ate inside, shivering with every mouthful and rejoined the road, but as we passed the bin I stopped dead. The man had climbed inside, flames licked, his eyes had closed, smoke billowing from his clothes. I left my bike and ran towards him, sure he’d suffered to the point of burning himself alive, but as I got close those thin white slits cracked open and I realized that although it was a desperate act, he wasn’t being burnt to death, he just needed to be closer to the flames and could endure a singeing. We told a local shopkeeper who came over and hauled him out, but the tramp just stood there sheepishly, waiting until we were gone before he could clamber back in.

We found a guesthouse and Liyan explained that 20 cm of snow was forecast for next 48 hours and the night temperature would drop to minus 10. He convinced me to stay for one day, to wait out the blizzard in this one-street town because ‘too cold for praetorium!’ It was a good decision in hindsight, but at the time I was thinking of the worse weather in store further north, to hunker down here seemed lazy and gutless, though I’d seen Liyan fall off a stationary bike on ice-free roads too many times to argue. Plus he said ‘To chop a tree quickly, spend twice the time sharpening your axe’. It is impossible to argue with a Chinese person when they invoke proverbs, and there is one for every situation.

We only left the hotel once to find vendors battling the freeze, touting pigs heads dusted with snow. We bought ear muffs and retreated to the room where Liyan boiled coca cola and ginger in the kettle and I fitted ice tyres. We set off the next day onto a road slick with black ice into which my metal studs drove and stopped me sliding. After five days of falling over in almost every hotel lobby and at every traffic light, Liyan pedaled all day on ice without a tumble.

In Henan province hairpins delivered us past a ski resort and to a village in which the scores of hotels were closed for winter. ‘Too terrible! Too terrible!’ Liyan shouted, breathing into ice cold hands, but even so he wanted to continue into the night for 60 km on ice, and this time it was me that convinced him to stay, so we found a guesthouse at last and huddled about a coal burning stove in the kitchen. Liyan got back into the proverbs: ‘Keep feet warm at night and live a long life’. So we bathed our feet.

It was goodbye in Luoyang, Liyan was to ride west to his village near Xian where he wanted to surprise his father on his birthday and planned to stay for the Chinese new year. I needed more cold weather gear from Zhengzhou and then I’d head northwest into Shanxi and Inner Mongolia.

‘I worried about you’ said Liyan

‘Don’t be worried mate, I’ll be fine.’

He walked out, but I harassed him down the hall with questions. ‘Liyan, how do you say rice?’

‘Liyan, tell them the wifi is broken!’

‘Liyan ask what time is check out!’

Alone in China, again. I consoled myself with a newspaper I found in English. The Chinese Daily had the usual barrage of GREAT NEWS! Apparently China is nothing but a booming utopia, misunderstood by foreign devils. Headlines sparkled with news of a strong Yuan, new rail links, successful businesses. Anything negative was always accompanied by a subtext ‘But don’t worry – it’s under control’, be it air pollution or corruption. Japanese bashing always gets a place too, an old resentment the Chinese media like to inflame. I once heard the comic Jon Oliver say that CNN was the worst C word in the English language, perhaps he was not acquainted with CCTV, China’s state run TV news channel which is an endless promotion of corporations and a raging sluice of unthinking optimism.

But there is significant bias in western media too when it comes to reporting on China, a kind of counterpoint to Chinese media in its perpetual negativity, obsessing over China’s restrictive censorship laws, Tibet and human rights violations. I’m not suggesting these issues don’t deserve attention, but clearly a bias does exist, and if China’s media censorship is a factor in fostering anti-Western sentiment, maybe it also fosters anti-Chinese sentiment in the West.

In Zhengzhou I took a side trip by bus to Nanjiecun reputed to be the last bastion of Maoist collectivism. The main square has a statue of Mao, not the young wind-blown poet with a glint in his granite eyes I seen in Changsha, but an older, balding Mao, mid-salute, surrounding by the portraits of Lenin, Marx, Stalin and Engels. At the edges of the square speaker blared out communist slogans, which faded as I walked the streets out to fenceless fields stretching towards a lone power station and noodle factories. But capitalism had encroached too much to ignore; even these reactionary parts have escaped the undertow and drifted off with the current. It wasn’t clean, or all that quiet. The guards around Mao’s statue are gone, and the town gate, once a clean division from this world and the fast- paced capitalist one outside, was messy with a troupe of vendors and touts and tourists in electric buses. In the end it was less of a 1950s anachronism, or a celebration of China’s past, than a comment on how far China now is from those days.

I cycled across the Yellow River, China’s other great waterway, and into a strange world of caves and canyons bottomed by frozen rivers and farmed terraces. Wind turbines cut up the sunset. The land was arid, the colours waterless, though the cold seemed at odds with this vision of a parched and burnt land. I was looking out over the Loess plateau, part of the northern silk road, an expanse of silty soil left by ancient windstorms. Annually there are only 30 cm of rain here and in the porous yellow soil I could see the black spots of cave entrances, reinforced with brickwork. More than 30 million people are cave dwellers in China, most in Shaanxi province, and people have occupied these caves for at least 2000 years. 830,000 people were killed in Shaanxi earthquake of 1556 after caves collapsed on 60% of the regions populace, making it the deadliest earthquake on record. The caves are well insulated – ideal for a place cold in winter and hot in summer, but many are now abandoned as young Chinese set their sights on the city, offering me an array of easy bedrooms.
A young buddhist who was walking from Yunnan to a holy mountain

Traveling northward, dusky peaks rose patiently from the east, strung up over bristled beige crops, only to then sink again to a beige pimple, like an island spotted at sea. Sooty trucks rattled by, loaded with coal that fell onto the roadside and that China’s orange jacketed army of sweepers keep at bay with brushes made from trees. In a land made ugly by this industry, the blurry afterglow of sunset was beautiful – a stripe of misty indigo holding the silhouttes of factory chimneys. Phantoms of fine coal went with the wind, dancing over the road. That night I camped in a field, far enough from the coal trucks to settle into easy sleep, and that by morning was matted with frost. The morning was white with mist and fumes, taming the sun’s burn which leaked through rows of winter-bare trees.

I arrived by nightfall to the walls of the ancient city of Pingyao, a financial centre during the Qing dynasty. The next day I walked the town’s walls and padded it’s small streets of jinking electric scooters and yapping toy dogs, and explored Taoist and Confucian temples, but in this vision of Chinese antiquity someone had jacked up the house music on a sound system, and miles from the nearest ocean, surrounded by ancient tradition, I sulked briefly to the lyrics: ‘Sex on the beach, sex on the beach, yeah baby, let’s have sex on the beach’. But I was cheered up by the street signs, and marveled at the health shops advertising ‘Cupping’, and the overzealous sounding ‘Ear Mining’. Other signs said ‘beware of falling objects’, and were placed under clear sky, on top of the walls, which made me wonder whether this was in relation to a specific threat, or just general life advice. It seemed though there were dangers aplenty:

‘The senior, the children, the disabled and the pregnant women should have a guardian, to implement guardianship, in order to avoid some sharp-edged situations cause the damage’

Restaurant menus boasted ‘Pork Elbow’, ‘Lieng’s Oily Meat’ (easy on the oil, Lieng) and the seductive ‘Cow’s Tendon’s with coriander’.

‘What would you recommend?’

‘Well we have some sensational cows tendons today Sir’

‘Well, I dunno…’

‘They come with coriander’

‘Great! But hey, easy on the tendons, OK?’

Around the time of the Olympics great effort was made to correct menus Beijing-wide, to delete the likes of ‘Government-abused chicken’ and ‘Grilled Enema’. But Chinglish, and all mistranslations, are wonderful, not because it’s reason to laugh at someone’s mistake, but because of what it reveals of how staggeringly various, unwieldy and evasive language can be. Chinglish should not be a source of embarrassment, but one of pride.

I’m a bit behind on the blog, I’ve currently been braving the winter in Mongolia and have just crossed the Gobi. When I leave the capital Ulaanbaator I’ll be pedaling west through the rest of the country and back into China – into Xinjiang province, and then Kazakhstan.

Espionage is easy

I took my seat on the ferry and looked out at the high-rising dens of Hong Kong’s deal makers. The sun was low and amber – reflected in the windowed skyline, the effect was a city-wide inferno. The lighted screens atop the lofty financial centres were beginning to mark the dusk too. On the receding peer I spotted a collection of men in Santa outfits, late comers for the international event of Santa-con where participants dress up for a pub crawl. It begins in the afternoon, and is bound to raise questions from any six year olds near the action. ‘Mummy, why is Santa Claus being sick in his Santa hat?’

I planned to ride across China, to the pallid hinterland of Mongolia, a move that loomed like a leap into icy water.I’d spent ten days giving lectures around the city, at schools and the Royal Geographical Society, and I’d had the chance to visit the student protest site: a small city of tents and postered walls, with areas for the protesters to take study-breaks, and where gasmasks were tossed aside deckchaired young and old who read from 1984 and made chat with the procession of supporters, tourists and hacks. The mood was dark on the day the police had been granted permission to remove the last of the tents. ‘We’ll be back’ affirmed the signs in reproachful red paint.

‘Ready? Tha cwock iz ticking!’ said the zippy Lin Lin in my headphones, the irritating teacher of my one minute mandarin series of podcasts. I’d half-mastered the numbers and simple greetings but Lin Lin’s shrill incitements were now just rubbing in the fact that I’d failed at every other lesson. This wasn’t the matrix-style booting up I’d envisaged: Mandarin, it turns out, is quite hard. Pinyin is the form Chinese takes in the Latin script, only it’s not phonetic so you have to decipher this secret code first before you even start on Mandarin, and those piddly signs I’d overlooked hanging about the letters indicated tone, which in Chinese has something to do with that trifling matter of Meaning. And Chinese script? An educated Chinese person might know 6000 characters – don’t even bother. It wasn’t just the linguistic challenges ahead that worried me, it would be a bit nippy up north too, and Lin Lin hadn’t provided the Chinese for ‘please help, my hands are black and I seem to be missing a finger’.

On the boat I got chatting to the lady in the next seat, a sunny soul called Medina. After twenty minutes chewing the fat I’d been invited to stay in her capacious white house on a gated street of palms and close cut lawns in one of China’s many young towns. Medina and two friends took me out to dinner – a seafood hot pot, punctuated by the leap of the still-live shrimps and the Chinese compulsion to cheers before every gulp of beer. I spent a day pacing through that nameless town – counting the differences: toddlers adorned in panda and tiger outfits, mums in thigh-high leather boots watching over their infants with the same serene, wondering look someone might give the flames of a campfire. I thought ear muffs were a victim to the years beyond 1989, like mullets and roller-discos, not so in China. And for every high rise there were three in construction, their attendant cranes like giant insects, a shout to China’s rising star.

First I had to negotiate a route around Ghangzhou, a city of 14 million, itself in a conurbation of 44 million known as the Pearl River Delta – the most economically dynamic region in China for the last three decades. I muddled my way under high-flying expressways, through messy junctions and an industrial sprawl. In a tiny patch of edgeland I threw up my tent, Chinese motorists oblivious on the eight fly overs and elevated rail line I could see from my sleeping bag. Navigating mainly by compass I kept on northwards, energised by the new border at my back – pedalling deep into the Chinese night beside the spreading phosphorescence of metropolis. I crossed vast bridges under which container ships sailed and high speed trains shot, the night red-tinted by the scrawl of Chinese characters perched atop the tower blocks, Lexus showrooms, anonymous warehouses. I turned up the moody hiphop on my Ipod, an apposite soundtrack for powering through the urban bloom.

A fair chunk of my time in China is spent map reading, or more accurately squinting into maps and creating similes to help me memorize the first symbol in the name of the next town en route. ‘Man with box for head attacking giant spider’ I decide and then look up at a sign post, muttering ‘man with box for head, man with box for head…’ before giving up and choosing another town. ‘Dancing alien with scimitar, dancing alien… dancing alien…’ China is a country with roads and glyphs aplenty, and landing on the right road is cause to punch the air and sing the A team theme tune.

I kept to the minor roads on my map, still clamorous four lane affairs, dwarfed though by the expressways. Inside a roadside restaurant there was a break in the scoffing of chicken feet and liver soup as I approached – an adventure loomed. I shuffled to a table and scanned the menu – a scribble of Chinese script – and wondered briefly whether it was in fact something else entirely, a calendar maybe, and what the waitress would make of me if I pointed to April and gave her an expectant look. I looked about for inspiration, but there was more smoking going on than eating. The Chinese take cigarette breaks between courses, mouthfuls and cigarettes.

The language section in my 1055 page Lonely Planet was slimmer than I’d hoped, and was broken down into Cantonese, Mongolian, Tibetan and Mandarin. It is a ludicrous fact, and one befitting those dilettantes at Lonely Planet, that it contained no word in Mandarin for rice, and no word for noodles. It did happen to include ‘Where can I buy a padlock?’ and ‘how long can I park here?’ I’m not an accomplished mime artist, and after two beef impressions and a particularly ill-fated go at broccoli (a sort of static pirouette), I decided to follow the chef into the kitchen where I set to opening cupboards and fridges and pointing. It worked. I ate and paid up, leaving a train of stray noodles on the floor, victims to the treacherous wobble from bowl to mouth on a stick. Next, I needed the toilet, and the Lonely Planet had let me down again, which was particularly vexing because there is no way to mime this without resorting to a Borat-style pantomime and creating a roomful of disgusted diners. I stared glumly at the pages of my book. Where can a buy a padlock? The euphemism didn’t work.

Christmas Eve, and I was cold, cowering under a railway bridge aside a noisy highway having bungled my chance to find a quiet rough camping spot in the expiring dusk. The litter-strewn roadside was now disquietingly tempting. As I stood wondering whether to sneak over the crash barrier, a bright light turned on and found me in the centre of its glare. Did that camera move too? I imagined a man in Beijing looking into a monitor and then picking up a phone. ‘Sir we have an unregistered vagabond, sector 7G’.

I barely noticed Christmas pass, and any celebration, no matter how meagre, felt like it might ramp up my sense of loneliness; drinking cheap red wine in my tent, with a solitary mince pie, pulling my own cracker, would be worse than doing nothing at all. I couldn’t find the next town (‘Table with squid on top’) and China’s Great Firewall that has blocked google and facebook made it impossible for me to contact my family. I set my sights on Yangshou for New Year’s Eve where I knew they’d be foreigners celebrating.

I followed the Xi River under rain, days of it. A strata of steam-coloured hill appeared to my left and then a lake, green, with a mist performing over the surface. I stopped in villages scented with aniseed where worn-faced women with sticks balancing two loads off their shoulders scowled at me until I pulled the easy trick: a big smile, infecting everyone, and suddenly I was welcome around the games of cards, Mahjong and dominoes that command everyone’s attention and are played unendingly. The local laughter could have had many targets: my unconventional shorts and whiskery mug, my messy eating expeditions, my mandarinlish.

North of the Pearl River Delta the land gathered about me, spread with pine and the odd blotch of bamboo on the higher rises. Outside an eating house a Chinese biker with two panniers broke into a grin as I cycled up, and with no common language, we did some wild gesturing over a map before he gave me his Iphone and a voice from Beijing said ‘He want to cycle with you. OK? You go together now, you help each other’. He was heading for Tibet, the pilgrimage of many a Chinese biker – the only ones allowed to ride independently in the region.

We peddled off but soon paused by a rambling scene of sun-patched rocky prominences and pine forest. He sat on a stone wall, took a breath, and yelled out over the vista, an ‘into-the-wild’ torrent of jagged sound. I sat beside him and shouted too, as loud as I could, and for the next ten minutes we took it in turns, shouting in celebration of the wild space and laughing at our freedom to conjure echoes in it. Language proved overrated. In the afternoon we said goodbye at a junction. If we’d ended the day together I might have asked his name.

I pushed on, stopping only to shovel great hillocks of fried rice, broad beans, pig intestines and just-don’t-ask into my mouth. In China animals are frequently slaughtered roadside, cows with slit necks make their final moos, dead pigs are shaved and inflated with bicycle pumps and their faces sawn off for the most treasured cuts.

North of Mengshan I came to the world renowned karst formations – towering limestone prominences, once the walls of ancient caves whose roofs had long since collapsed: it’s the paradigm China, an apparition at once familiar thanks to images on the 20 Yuan note. The humps and towers of rock looked places to command ancient armies from. There were shark’s teeth, camel humps, great motionless waves, greened with foliage in place of the white of surf. A double peaked rock was like some leviathan eating its way through the earth, mouth to sky. They were staggering not just in form and scale, but in number too – stretching for miles, the road swiped at their bases and tunneled through clusters of them.

Yangshou is a place of cobbled streets, thronging with sightseers, beside Karst formations which are lit up with spotlights by night as the electronic flying machines and green laser beams of street vendors zip and dance around their lower reaches. I celebrated NYE with an international crew, beer pong and rice wine from a vat which contained a tangle of dead snakes. The hangover was reptilian.

A day after I left Yangshou I caught sight of something to my left which, after ten full seconds later, made me snatch at my brakes, halt in the road and consider a question: ‘Was that man using a blowtorch on a dog?’

The answer, I discovered on cycled back, was a lamentable yes. He was crouched down, in overalls, holding the blue flame of a blow torch to the paws of a dog in rigor mortis. As I watched he looked up at me – his expression was entirely befitting a man blowtorching a dog. A lightless and bleak scowl made me wonder who else he was ready to melt with fire. So many questions, so little desire to stay and ask them. Nobody near him said anything, or looked in any way perturbed. I’m not implying this is everyday stuff in China, this is the first time I have seen industrial tools being used on Labradors – so perhaps nobody could think of an opening gambit to use for a man burning the paws off Rover. ‘Hi Shen. So…., how’s the… how’s the family?’

I remained on small roads as I journeyed north through the state of Hunan: people smiled, the world was on my side. ‘Welcome to Joyful Dong Land!’ said a sign. The Dong people are a local minority group and their abode is a more traditional China: bamboo forest, visited by breathes of mist – the apt aesthetic for the realm of warriors and sharp-bearded sages. The fuzz of bamboo leaves was broken by rice terraces, and wide dark brown wooden houses about which men huddled, dressed in navy blue or black. The storied Wind and Rain bridges ranged over rivers and I cycled over them to explore small farming communities where I came to drum towers and bands of women singing – a rich tradition among the Dong. I camped that night by a stream; enjoying the fencelessness of communism, a boon to wild campers.

The next morning I sat around burning coals in an old car tyre inside an eating house, and then… police: three growling cars of them, disgorged officers, all jogging towards me. ‘You’re coming with us’ one seemed to be snapping, and an audience of Chinese watched them lead me away.

Inside the imposing white-tiled station a young officer explained in broken English – ‘restricted zone, no foreigners’. I had a hunch this was the case after leafing through my guidebook the night before. I decided to feign ignorance. Apparently this is an area where the Chinese keep their inter-continental ballistic missile system, a fact I’d noted with amusement in my diary in regrettably large letters.

I was told to explain my route and to show them my camera, which I give up in an instant – the shutter had broken near Yangshou and I hadn’t been able to use it since. I had to make a snap call about whether to reveal the new Go Pro Hero 4 Black video camera I’m using to film for the documentary series Exploration Challenge, and decided not to mention it: going through the video footage would be a drawn out job and they might delete it all on a whim, also it looked, unfortunately, a little like a device for espionage.

The tall officer who first approached me on the street began flicking through the images, I could see he had an X shaped scar beneath his left eye and it struck me as cartoonish and comically clichéd that he should also be the ‘bad cop’ of the bunch. A senior officer lifted up my Pynchon book and flipped through the pages like he was expecting a cut out and stashed recording device. It was when Scarface interrupted by bringing the camera over to the senior and pointing to an image in the viewfinder that I felt something inside me fall, fast, and settle in my guts. The Hong Kong protest site, the tents, the images of police brutality, the anti-Beijing slogans, fuck.

The young officer told me then that colleagues had been called and would be there in two hours. I must wait. Colleagues? Intelligence officers? Double fuck. I was glared at for the next half hour until the camera was returned: dilemma. I could format the card, but when these enigmatic ‘colleagues’ wanted to see the images it would look bad if I’ve deleted them, but not as bad as if they’re still there. I went for it but was relieved to discover I’d inserted a new memory card and posted the one with images from Hong Kong home. Two officers then arrived – a young woman who spoke English fluently enough to figure out my scribbled ‘ballistic missiles!’ in my journal, and her perpetually sour-faced senior. I was interviewed and my documents photographed in triplicate. ‘Now we take a look at your things’ she said with a half-smile. ‘Just looking, OK?’

My journal was not my only concern, there was the Go Pro I’d neglected to mention and my laptop which did have the Hong Kong protest site snaps and which would, at the very least, give altitude to some Chinese eyebrows. An officer went through every one of my possessions methodically on video camera, reminding me of the footage of drugs busts that grace the evening news. My Go Pro was found and removed with my laptop for investigation. I headed inside to find seven officers sitting around my computer. I was told to reveal where I had camped the night before and then driven to the spot, my car tailed by another of five more officers. At the stream I was filmed and, for some reason, the stony ground I’d laid my tent on was photographed.

It occurred to me during the search that they must know I’m an unlikely 007 considering they’ve retrieved a moldy muffin of indeterminate age from my front pannier, discovered I can’t keep pairs of socks together and that much of my stuff is a congealed damp-scented mess (it had been seven drizzly days without a break). I wasn’t expecting guests. And if they’d binned the theory that I’m involved in international espionage, then, I realised with frustration, they’re bored, and they’re snooping.

Eventually I asked to go and was told yes, I could, ‘but first you will join us for lunch’. Half an hour later I was eating some of the best Chinese cuisine I’ve ever tasted, and served before anyone else, whilst my mind worked on how I’d made the journey from criminal to honoured guest. ‘Where would you like to be dropped off?’ One officer enquired. I ate until I couldn’t manage another mouthful. I was still worried about the visa  extension I was relying on to cross China, but I was glad to be moving again without having a Taser come anywhere near my nipples.

The next night I stayed in a hotel which cost 10 full pounds, maybe the most I’ve ever spent on a night’s sleep. It was worth every penny. I spent at least an hour star-shaped on the double bed, shower-fresh, and clear-headed at last. The days after were spent following a river on small gravel roads before climbing up through mountains.

In the hostel in Changsha I met two dandified gents – Bruce had on a brimmed hat, scarf and waistcoat, and the other was wearing a beret and insisted in calling himself Cloud (‘not Claude?’ ‘No. Cloud, like the sky.’) We bonded quickly over tofu hot pot and a rice spirit in 128 ml black bottles that was 56% alcohol by volume and tasted like it was 80% at least. They both helped me score replacement kit and took me out for more Chinese adventures in dining and to ogle the massive head of Chairman Mao.

Thank yous – Medina, Rachel and Sheila, Rob and Christine, Simon and Liz, Bruce and Cloud, the members of the RGS and everyone in Hong Kong who helped me out whilst I was there.
Apologies for the paucity of photos this month, I have been doubly thwarted – first by China’s Great Firewall and second by my camera which has finally broken. Presuming I get another 30 days on my visa, next up will be the northern reaches of China, where it will be very, very cold. The fact that I’ve been shivering in base layers and a hulking down jacket since the tropic of cancer doesn’t bode well.

I did win the Pure Travel writing contest so thank you everyone for voting me into the final three. I have articles pending in various publications this month including a piece in Backpacker concerning the disaster on Annapurna so look out for that.

Finally there have been many Chinese signs that have won my chuckles, among them ‘Fuk Street’ (I’m 34 years old in case you’re wondering) and the label on a packet of bread (‘best enljoiyment in spite of your care. Tasting it still remains so exquisite, the fantastic feeling hovering above your head gives you colourful dream at that moment’) Wow, that’s some bread. But this curious one over a urinal is the most joyously befuddling:

Of calm and chaos

I spluttered out of Kathmandu, my lungs assaulted by the gritty air that lifted from fields of litter and their resident limping dogs. In the hills the smog abated and the light paled to silk. I dealt the city one last scrolling gaze. Terraced rice paddies met a dusty sprawl of corrugated roofs, white cumulus stacked on top like a novelty hat. In there somewhere were the small-street crushes of spice and soap vendors, the lean men plugging away on their cycle rickshaws loaded with zippy-eyed tourists. The goodbye though was an easy one – I’d been too long in the city, and it felt good to feel the hill breeze on my face and watch again the plodding theatre of country life from my saddle.

The road carried me out of that valley and into the next – at the beginning of the descent I met a long string of static cars, locked in place through the obstinacy of two bus drivers. They had rounded a corner, and in typical South Asian style neither had made the merest of concessions. Now the grunting faces of their machines were set millimetres apart and someone was going to have to reverse, but by the time that point was conceded, several dozen motorists had done what drivers here do with professional endeavour: closed all gaps.

I squeezed past the unfathomably chipper motorists and should have had the entire downhill to myself but cars and buses in the other lane, sensing an opportunity, were using mine. They veered out into my path and flashed their lights – the international symbol for: ‘I’m about to do something unthinkably stupid, you’re gonna have to cope with me’.

My speedo ticked past 70 km, but the anticipated edges of Pokhara were not yet in view. Not there at 72km or 75km. I asked a farm worker the whereabouts of the town and he pointed behind me. I was, apparently, heading back to Kathmandu. ‘No no. That’s impossible’ I informed him. ‘I’ve come from Kathmandu, and there’s only one road!’. He shrugged, but wasn’t put off. Pokhara, he assured me, was 42 km behind me.

If that were true, something unthinkable had occurred, 21 km ago. The only explanation was dizzying. 21 km ago I’d stopped for food. 21 km ago I’d got back on my bike and pedalled back the way I’d come and 21 km later I’d realised my mistake, but only when the expected town hadn’t appeared.

Let’s all take a minute to ponder the near impossible amount of dreaminess this requires. Let me help you: I failed to spot that the sun was now on the opposite side of the sky. I failed to notice the wind had shifted 180 degrees. I failed to notice the river had moved from my right to my left. I failed to recall any of the scenery I’d already cycled past, not a flicker of deja vu to make this any less excruciating. I failed to notice that sign posts for Pokhara had been replaced by ones for a city I was trying to leave. And finally, and this is a pearler, I failed to notice that the Himalayas, the earth’s grandest mountain range, had vanished from view. I know what you’re thinking. I am one special human being.

At the time I considered I may be developing a terrible and terminal brain disease, and began listing recent memory blanks: the evidence was stacking. But I fear the truth is a little more depressing: sometimes I’m just not very observant. I lose myself wondering why I have more freckles on my left arm than my right, or why I sneeze when the sun shines. This world ride has been wasted on me. I might as well have set off on laps of the M25, ogling again the same curiosities with fresh goldfish-like delight.

Weeks before I had taken the heart-rending decision to post my passport home in the hope of getting a Pakistani VISA. I wasn’t reassured by the name of the company to which the Pakistani embassy had outsourced the visa application process and who were to keep safe this essential document. ‘Gerry’s visa dropbox’ doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. It’s felt like dropping off a dead relative at a funeral parlour called ‘Fred’s bury-n-go!’

Due to problems too boring to recount here, my passport arrived back in Kathmandu, visa-less. Soon afterwards a bomb at Wagah, the only crossing point on the India / Pakistani border killed over 50 people, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility and the embassy were, to put it mildly, reticent to process visa applications.

So I’ve a hit a kind of cul-de-sac, which was always going to be a risk by coming south of the Himalayas. There is no direct passage across Asia to Europe because I have no permission to travel in Tibet or Pakistan, and I was denied a Bangladesh visa too. Flights, now essential, would cost money I hadn’t bargained on spending, so I decided to go to Hong Kong, give some lectures and do some fundraising. And then a thought: Mongolia. Why not?

There happened to a very good reason why not. Mongolia during the winter gets a bit nippy, to the tone of minus 40, on a good year. A bad one has a special epithet: dzud, or The White Death, like 2010 when the many of the country’s yaks ended the season a bit quieter and more solid than usual. By the spring thaw a fifth of all livestock had frozen to death in nights of minus 50.

The cold terrifies me. I succumb far quicker than others, the slightest chill renders my fingers and toes the hue of old bruises. So it was a perverse call to make, but ‘do one thing every day that scares you’, as the cliché goes. I have a lifetime of central heating and Earl Grey ahead of me so as long as I end the winter with enough fingers to hold a tea cup, it will be but a memory, and a story to boot.

My ride to Butwal in the twisting vales of the Himalayas was fuelled by samosas. The juvenile yak skull I had tied to my bike wore through my gear cable housing, so now I packed it away though it didn’t quite fit. It was probably a disturbing sight, those two bones protruding from my front pannier. But maybe not any worse than the spectacle of motorcyclists who’d tied live chickens to their bikes, half a dozen each side of the front wheel, upside down, so their heads spent their last attached hours three inches from whizzing tarmac. At last I was propelled off the hills, back into Terai – the giant indo-gangetic flatlands of southern Nepal which stretch out into northern India.

In Butwal a cafe owner quizzed me about my ride and then gave a dragging sigh.

‘Stop this travelling. Go home to your palace and give money to your mother’

‘My, my palace?…’

‘In Nepal tourists are God, you understand?’

I told him I did

‘If you see one of us Nepalis in England, will you help him? Will you love him?’

‘Yes of course’.

He smiled. ‘Good luck then Sir’.

When there are no guesthouses, or spots to rough camp, I sometimes ask in police stations, temples, churches, mosques, even hospitals or schools. It’s the privilege of a western tourist – in much of the world you are forever the recipient of trust. I laugh as I imagine picking a school in the UK and asking the principal, whilst scratching my gratuitous facial hair, if I could shove my bivvy bag on the sports field for the night. I’m not sure what the law is in the States, but I’d imagine just asking would mean confiscation of your hard drive and the compulsory insertion of a tracking device in your genitals.

One night in southern Nepal I ventured into a police station with a plan to ask the officers if I could sleep there as people were well spread over the farmed land and I don’t have a penchant for 37 strangers watching me sleep, it’s happened before. In minutes I was sitting among them, mopping up curry with chapattis and with the promise of a place to crash. The captain was in town, and I was his favoured guest.

‘You will give me selfie’ he asked. ‘Of course!’ I said.

‘Great. We are honoured you chose us. When my grandchildren see you on Discovery Channel I will say to them that man stayed with us! You are a legendary man.’ I protested, but he stopped me with a raised hand. ‘Legendary’ he assured me.

At Sunauli, the Border town, I didn’t feel very legendary. In the ten minutes I’d taken to get towards immigration I had become a kind of nefarious pied piper and had accumulated vendors, pimps, drug dealers, money changers and middle men, opportunists, officials, pseudo-officials and deviants – a vast serpent of them, the front-most ones re-positioning around me, hoping to be the first or second to rip me off. They cajoled me down the road, and to any of the tourists safely cocooned in their tour buses, it must have been a ludicrous and unenviable spectacle.

Ahhh, hello again India, you troublemaker. I’d been hanging out with Nepal, and had forgotten India was such an anarchist. A car zipped past, loosely associated with twenty or so bodies. The majority of the driver’s body couldn’t fit inside the vehicle either. He journeyed whilst bent into a letter C, only his arms holding the wheel and his legs remained inside, though I couldn’t be sure it was him or one of the other dozen in the front seat who was operating the pedals. Generously, considering his predicament, he took a hand off the wheel to give me a wave as they swerved past.

The horns were driving me mad, though I was starting to understand the pattern of it. There are certain situations that seem to merit a blast of the horn here: when you’re overtaking, when you’re being overtaken, if you haven’t seen a car in a while, if you haven’t used your horn in a while, if you have just used your horn, and in place of the words ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘what are you doing?’, ‘do you like my horn?’

My days in Northern India are now just a muddle of recollections – early morning cricket games in the dusty spaces about town, a man carrying a whole bed on his head, being overfed flavoursome food everywhere, the Indian sun – a perpetually tangerine orb, it’s glare blunted by the milky light of pollution, dunes of burning litter by the road and an acrid fog of melted plastic. Wanting directions, I remember once asking a man if he spoke English. He dropped his gaze. ‘I am not civilised’ he lamented, and slunk off, still staring at his feet.

I slept often in police stations guarded by smileless officers with bayonets who slept on the stone floor of their station and at intervals spiced the air with incense. I nearly died at least once per day under the wheels of ebullient rickshaw drivers and have had more near misses here than anywhere. I grew intimate again with India’s toilets – I wondered if perhaps there should be a specific visa for Indian toilets, and then I could have just got a transit visa for the country itself.

Waves of women in black niqabs swept through the streets of Azamgarth, always far from the Muslim men in their grave white thawbs and jaunty dyed-red beards. I thought about how even post-partition, India is home to 176 million Muslims. There is tension between religious groups, occasional violence and prejudice, but relative to other parts of the world, it surprises me that there isn’t more of it considering just how many devotees of different faiths live here, cheek by jowl.

India is not an assault on the senses as a lethargic guidebook writer might offer; an assault doesn’t exclude the possibility of recovery. India is more like a maiming of the senses – I have lost an entire range of hearing to the horns, I will always be able to smell Varanasi, even when I’m continents away, and after photographing Hindi women at the market and gulal powder in pots on the streets, my other photos are rendered anodyne in comparison. The rural roads in India though are a different game entirely though: easy, jovial places where roadside cricket games and the daily banter keep up my spirits. Boys on bikes hurtle past, some slow and ride aside me.

‘Please come to my school’


‘For children, for looking at you’

‘But the children are always looking at me’

‘Do you like me?’

‘I like you’

‘Then give me your bicycle’

Laughter. Some muttering in Hindi.

‘You know you’re in India right?

I tell him yes

He speaks again to his friends, maybe: ‘yeah, he knows’

I like the idea I could have accidentally got here. Shit, did I turn left at Nepal? I was wondering why that guy with India written across his shirt wanted to see my passport.

My mantra for biking in the world at large has been ‘expect the unexpected’. That car door will open, that man will turn without looking etc. In India the visiting cyclist needs to expect the impossible. Like a man driving a rickshaw with an entire cow inside it, the careering rump of which almost topples two motorbikes. Like a man with a trident who jumps into middle of road and starts making threatening sounds to the closest pedestrians before several people lead him away screaming. Like three old men in white robes on a motorbike who cut across a jumble of zipping rickshaws to offer me marijuana from a tin. I declined of course. Getting high wouldn’t help me dodge the flying cow’s arses or calmly assess the intentions of a wailing man armed with a trident.

Varanasi – I’d been here before, several years ago with a girlfriend. We were woolly-minded and stupefied the entire time. It was hard to forget, and we loved it.

I’d walked the ghats before, I watched the bodies being thrown onto the fires – the city is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and people believe it’s a great privilege to have your body cremated here. This occurs in public, like most things in India, on the ghats by the Ganges. The devoted come to Varanasi when they sense death, some to a few of the ‘hospices’ that line the ghats, there were more before the balance of power shifted and tourist guesthouses took their place. It’s a city of abundant sadhus, cows who’ve never known a field, and a great press of humanity. It’s chaotic, but in a truly enchanting way and taking a cycle rickshaw through the mayhem is magic.

I decided to try the south of India next, with just a month left on my visa. I managed to find a berth on a train to Mumbai. I went to the parcel office to hand over my bicycle as freight. The men in charge were crowded around a pornographic magazine, oohing and ahhing with each turn of the page. They invited me to join in and shrugged when I asked to register my bike instead. One man gave me a form and hovered over my shoulder instructing me what to write in each box:

‘Here, write: name, and here, write: UK. And here, write: bicycle, old and used.’

I wrote bicycle

‘Write old and used’ he reprimanded

I watched a train approach the station. The platform was crowded and as the head of the train swept past the passengers, men began hurling themselves at the moving body of it, desperately hoping their hands would alight on a door handle. Some managed to cling on, but others bounced off, returning in downcast heaps to the platform. By the time the train had come to a halt each closed door had upwards of ten men dangling on, and they were immediately joined by a rush of people so violent it brought to mind a race riot. When the door opened a tsunami of pushing propelled one person inside, the rest were too crammed together to get in. One man managed it but his bag wouldn’t follow, he couldn’t pull it past the press of bodies and he wouldn’t let it go. Thus he stayed there for five minutes, yanking, everyone shouting, and not one of the hundred pushers behind him gaining entrance. It reminded me of the traffic jam in Nepal, of the inefficiency of bullishness: everything done at a charge ends as self-defeating as it is frustrating to witness.

I had to carry four panniers, a tent, and a loaded dry bag on my own to the train, and struggled until an Indian man came to my aid. I was worried he would ask for money, but I decided I could afford to offer him some for his trouble if he asked. When we got to the train he got out a 100 rupee note and tried to hand it to me! I refused and he left, grinning away at my incessant thank yous.

The indo-gangetic plains of India passed by, the country sepia and old fashioned in the tint of my window. Kids flew kites over shacks. Unpeopled shrubland stretched away.

In Mumbai I stayed in hotel Delight. Either someone had a sense of irony, or the delight refers to checking out. It was a place of sour-faced patrons watching too-loud TV, bed bugs, shoe-prints on the toilet seats and for some reason an old crust of pastry found its way into one of my sandals. But Mumbai I enjoyed. Wide roads, quirky antique markets, trysts on the promenade – a rare and welcome sign of public affection between men and women in Asia. I went to a party with a bunch of Bollywood film makers, visited Mani Bhavan, the focal point of Ghandi’s activities and read his letter to Hitler in 1939 when war was imminent. He wrote something along the lines of ‘don’t be a dick’, but I could be paraphrasing.

Strolling through the streets of Colaba in Mumbai felt like waking from a coma: people flashed in front of my field of view, peering, speaking in words I couldn’t make out, but in a manner that implied a request. Beggars followed at point blank range, skimming my arms with their fingers. The instinct was to lift a kind of social shield, blot out the cajolers and the wheedlers, but then you miss the best bits, the small invitations to sit with men and drink tea, talk about cricket, or the news.

The size and population of India is hard to fathom – this state, Maharashtra, has an area greater than the UK and almost double the population. There are 36 states or territories in India and this is not the most populous. 10 cities in this state alone have populations greater than a million compared to just four in the entire UK.

I cycled south from Mumbai, staying to the small rambling roads that ended at estuaries and where I took boats where bridges had yet to find the need to exist. Mostly it was an uneventful but enjoyable ride, much calmer than the north. I slept on empty beaches and in mango orchards. I saw gangs of langur monkeys and cruised past mangrove-edged inlets and Portuguese colonial forts, now ailing in the ocean. I met a man who asked where I was from and when I answered England he yelled ‘Boris Becker!’ and mimed some tennis serves until I told him that no, Becker was German. He did one last despondent serve anyway. After a few days my front rim developed two cracks that quickly spread and bowed, making the wild grin of a madman from the steel. Before the wheel collapsed entirely, I bought a new one. It cost four pounds.

‘It’s so Goa!’ was the advertising slogan on a billboard as I entered one of India’s smallest states. And that, I soon discovered, was the problem. Goa has become an adjective, a parody of itself. The heady hippy days were almost gone and now its commercial heart beats to the drum of Russians on package tours. The clubs all close by 10 pm because – and I love this – of an Indian law on noise pollution.

It is a beautiful state though, and there were far more attractive corners of Goa to see but I had only two days on the beach and I chose the wrong one. I arrived in Anjuna where the calm of the coastal lanes behind me was immediately fractured by a fleet of bolshy touts. I was offered cocaine, weed, LSD. Did I want ketamine? No thanks, I don’t always trust the biryani.

But I ate in the local joints, eschewing ‘The Burger Factory’. I swam, and fussed about the flea market. I met a cool gang on the beach, had a few beers and then took a bus to Mumbai where I was able to spend two days interviewing patients at MANAV – a psychiatric rehab centre – part of my project on marginalised people in Asia which I hope to combine with the story of my ride in a forthcoming book.

I am currently in Hong Kong, house-sitting for the adventurer Rob Lilwall who cycled from Siberia back to the UK five years back and more recently walked from Mongolia to Hong Kong.

I’d like to say a massive thank you to Rob and Christine, now in London. Thank you as well to Kunal my exceedingly kind host in Mumbai. Also to the MANAV foundation, Rahul and all those who have helped me arrange speaking gigs in Hong Kong (Simon, Liz, Rupert and the RGS, Rachel, Rob and more)

I’m about to embark on a series of lectures in schools in Hong Kong and at an event on the 15th December at the British Consulate, run by the Royal Geographical Society. If you live in Hong Kong, or know someone who does, please spread the word or come down.

Forgive me for the lack of photos this month – my camera, one of the few bits of kit I started with, is playing up.

Next up: A month in China before I hit the wilds of Mongolia. My ice tyres have arrived by post, gulp. 

Bears and how to beat them

Thank you everyone for your online votes. This piece was shortlisted for the Pure Travel Writing Contest 2014 and was then judged the winner by a professional travel writer. I won 1000 pounds – which will buy me a lot of noodles! Here it is…

Bears and how to beat them

‘Stephen it’s inside! My God, it’s inside! INSIDE!’

Annapurna: Cycling a circuit in crisis

In this world, few things exist alone, unworried by and remote from the rest. When heavy rains and gusts ripped through India’s eastern seaboard and cyclone Hudhud was christened as such, the sun was shining over Nepal, hikers were pounding Himalayan trails in peak season and nobody rued the interconnections of this world. Not yet, anyway.

As Indian police began the evacuation of 400,000 people on the Bay of Bengal coast Mike and I were beginning to bike-pack the Annapurna Circuit: a trial most often the realm of hikers (over 20,000 of them yearly). The trail scoots round the Annapurna range, a 55 km long section of Nepali Himalaya including 14 peaks over 7000 metres and one, the eponymous peak of the range, over 8000 metres. It’s one of the earth’s most venerated hiking trails, and in the space of the next few days, it was about to bloom in renown, but for all the wrong reasons.

Mike Roy would be my companion. Mike was part of the six strong posse of riders who, two months ahead of me, crossed Myanmar. His blog The Three Rule Ride is an awesome account of a two year bicycle odyssey from Korea in which Mike has given genuine thought to the environment.

Other things to know about Mike: he is an American, he loves food (though limits his pace of consumption, cf me), he meditates, he can speak Korean, Chinese, Italian, more than a smattering of Thai and Spanish, and has blossoming Nepali. He has an uneasy relationship with geodesic domes. He has a tendency to look intermittently mystical.

‘Now, you guys will ride down, it’s easy, and then it’s flat’ reported the confident young girl, perched on the steps of the village police post.

‘Flat?’ We chorused, from the shadow of sky-tickling mountains.

‘Well, you know, ‘Nepali flat’: Up, down, up, down, up down.’

An hour later Mike and I were still lugging our bikes down the steps carved into rock, blaming the process on not just on one optimist but two: a boy had directed us onto this hikers’ path hours ago. We wanted to be on the road which lay now tauntingly on the other side of the river, golden in the sun, like a promised land, unmeant for people as used-up and ugly from toil as us.

It was a familiar trap: you strive for ages, bent on some irrational hope that things will improve, only to learn that they will not, but by that time doing an about turn would be too spirit sapping, and anyway, things might improve, right?

Day one on the famed Annapurna Circuit drew to a cruel end.

By nightfall, we came upon a house and were offered to share a room with a preternaturally fat pigeon with diarrhoea which was perched (wedged) in between rafters. The woman showing me the room caught me anxiously appraising the thin plywood floor boards with inch wide gaps, offering glimpses of a painful landing: the dining table on the floor beneath. To prove the robustness, she jumped savagely, landing with a thud, laughed in my face and was gone, leaving us to our rickety bedroom.

The next day a line of honeyed light caught the peaks, and then dropped, filling the valley with warmth and promise. It was a return to shouldering our bikes though, traversing rivers, mounting unending steps, blaming ourselves. The circuit had promised to be tough, but not at this meagre altitude. About us was a stadium of yellow-green rice paddies, the breeze shivered them: ‘shhhhh, shhhhhh, you idiots, shhhhh’.

Finally we got to a bridge and rejoined the road. Almost immediately two hale and burnished trekkers, Scandinavians probably, jogged past. ‘Hi guys!’ they chirped. Mike looked like he might attack them, but cheered up a minute later saying ‘I’m kinda glad the start was tough. Everything will be easier from here on’. Briefly, I wanted to attack Mike.

The next two days to Manang were spent mainly on a road that only fitted that definition because people referred to it as such, and because it joined places, not because it actually resembled one. It was the sight of man sized boulders which hikers had to round that clashed most with my vision of what a road should be. Bike touring had again become bike-lugging, but there were the other things to enjoy: grand rainbowed waterfalls, purple-tinged fields packed with the stalks of harvested buckwheat, the cheery trekkers: robotic-looking in their pole-assisted mission. The British announced themselves with awkward apologetic manoeuvres when confronted with another hiker ‘Oh God’ I heard one man say ‘this is embarrassing’ as he shuffled into someone’s elbow. There were porters too, their job two-fold: to carry three rucksacks a piece, and to force everyone else into judging themselves inadequate slouches.

From the outskirts of Chame an audience of Buddhist prayer flags strung across the river waved us off and as we passed trekkers their words lingered in the air long enough to catch ‘wow, hard work’ and ‘no suspension. Alright!’ Reading the prices of food on menus on the trail involved a light-headedness to rival that provided by the thinning air, especially if you’ve been tramping around rural Nepal for a while and living cheap. ‘Oxygen goes down, prices go up’ as the saying goes. Oxygen is at a premium not just for the altitude though, methane displaces it. The local dish of Dal Baht makes up the dinner for most, and is the most flatulence-provoking food known to mankind. The fact it appears high on menus on a trail in which people walk one behind one another makes me wonder if it’s all just one big Nepali joke on the visitors.

Food. I fight the urge to ask the question that I know is not becoming of a grown up. It’s not: ‘What would you recommend?’ Not even ‘What is the cheapest?’ I want to know what is the biggest feed on the list. Mass over flavour. I ask anyway, and receive the muted smile I expected, but get a mound of potato as big as my head, so I don’t care about the faux pas.

The most delicious feature of the circuit though is the changeability of the landscape, and on the approach to Menang it altered again: from the steep valley lush with deciduous forest and sparkling with banks of rust coloured fern, woven like scrap metal, to a flatter, pine forested place, presided over by bigger mountains and beige coloured rock faces eroded into surreal shapes. Each splash of pine forest was riven by the grey streaks of old landslides.

A helping hand from a porter

We were alone, the trekkers had taken to the other side of the river and the road this far wasn’t yet accessible to vehicles. Crows cawed. Wind quivered the yellowing pines. Donkeys stilled in the road, like for them, time had ceased to pass. This is a place of stories: witches are said to wander these parts.

We passed a row of tables by the empty wind-blown road. Amid the artifacts were yak bones and two great yak heads with light bulbs in their eye sockets, old pottery, goat horns, a black necklace fashioned from the vertebra of a snake. A man appeared, chanting, prayer beads in hand. ‘Three babas’ he said nodding to his stash meaning three generations had gathered the finds on sale.

Up until this point, I had been feeling a bit envious of Mike’s bike which sported Buddhist prayer flags, the face of a bearded man carved from bamboo root from Vietnam, and the best novelty horn imaginable, which sounded like a clown’s. From the table I immediately claimed a charred baby yak’s skull and cable tied it to the underside of my handlebars. People now approach my bike, take a sudden step backwards and cast me a worried look. Children cry. Old women bring forth prayers. It’s fantastic.

As a breather, unlike most humans, I am of a singularly noisy variety when I exercise, and especially at altitude. Mike didn’t know this. Momentarily he looked back, concern written in his eyes, as if he might find me grounded, woven in my bicycle, drowning in sputum. When he saw that wasn’t the case, his face reverted to one of pleasant surprise.

As my breathlessness abated, and serenity returned to the Himalayas, I looked up at the mountains, now snow-coated and appearing impossible to reach. I mentioned this to Mike. ‘Nothing’s impossible’ he returned, grim-faced and sounding like a Nike advert. A wimpier travel companion, I realised then, might be easier on my ego.

The culture around Manang is recognisably Tibetan. On the approach to the town the small children have the paradigm rosy cheeks, and are so muffled they can hardly flex their knees or elbows when they walk, making them hilarious for their being unchangingly star-shaped. By three and half thousand metres up signs advertising the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness arrived on the scene, which just rubs it in if you’ve been suffering from 3000 metres. Exertion is a major player in who succumbs and bikers are a lot more susceptible.

The first sight to greet us in Manang might have been used on the cover of a book entitled ‘Wilderness Medicine: a practical guide’. Two western doctors charged through the village, one squeezing an IV bag of fluid attached to the arm of a Nepali woman who was being piggy backed by a porter stampeding through town. Later I learnt that the medics had to rub off melted yak butter from her forearm, a local remedy, in order to insert an IV line.

As we wheeled our bikes through the town I looked back behind us: a fleet of clouds was driving up the valley. I didn’t think to mention it to Mike.

Manang was in full bloom at the peak of the tourist season and few guesthouses had rooms to accommodate two bikers and the skull of a juvenile yak. Trekkers shuffled about the one street taking days off from the trail to acclimatise, buying books which seemed to be entirely about death in the mountains and watch films in the two small movie houses which also seemed to be about perilous quests into the unknown. Deciding I needed something a little more escapist (or just not entitled: ‘The day I starved and had to eat my frozen friend’s face off’) we headed straight to a guesthouse, ending the day with a few beers with fellow bikers James and Logan. As I walked out into the moonless night, I shivered and saw the snow. It wasn’t a flurry, not even a dusting, just a few minute white specs floating out of the night sky: pioneers, I would discover.

I was wrestled from sleep by a white light, and discovered a broad white bar occluding the view out of the upper part of my guesthouse window. It fell. Gravity has beaten the abundant snow gathering on the roof and it had joined snow heaping up on the ground. A head-scarfed old lady shuffled through the white-out, shovel in hand. There had been no weather warnings, and everyone in town was as agog as we were: a blizzard had gripped Menang, in October: a month of unchallenged blue skies in the middle of the Himalayan dry season. And we still had the steady climb of 2000 metres to climb to Thorong La, a pass of 5416 m which claimed the blue bit of my map and where the contour lines crowded together like tree rings. And if it was snowing abundantly here…

But as the snow continued to pile up, people’s minds were not on the pass, and the snowfall forced everyone’s faces into silly grins of the type that grace seven year olds when school’s cancelled. With the power out, there was nothing to do but read or crowd about the wood-burning stove which was incited with dry yak dung, as the scent of garlic and butter swirled and a snowman in sunglasses took shape outside my window. As more hikers arrived and nobody could leave, Manang became a stoppered bottle of bewildered adventurers, aiming eyes at the still-white sky.

Manang under snow
It was here we met three New Zealanders: Emily, Claire and Tim, all in shorts. This was immediately satisfying. I’ve never been to New Zealand, but in my mind, all New Zealanders wear shorts, and only shorts. I am certain that if I would go there I would find people running about glaciers in vests and underwear. They don’t have homes, or jobs. They sleep in crevasses and spend their days playing water-rugby in grade five rapids.

Emily, Claire and Tim didn’t pack trousers in order to hike over a Himalayan pass of 5400 metres. And that’s how it should be. They are the only nationality allowed to do this and not be considered foolish or ill prepared. All three were as outdoorsy as every Kiwi I have met, and Emily was keen on something called Adventure Racing (if you’re not acquainted look up masochism in a dictionary, it’ll be there).

The following day the sky was a pacifying blue, and the Annapurnas looked to smoulder as snow was whipped from their upper reaches by sun and breeze. Manang was alive again: sunglassed, pack-laden trekkers pounded through two feet of packed snow which was yet to live as slush. Above, electric cables, the ones still up, bled snow in plummeting shafts. The rock faces of Annapurna 2 and 3 were unsullied panes of white. Mountain goats, driven down to town by the snowfall, began pestering shop keepers and munching on gardens.

Mike and I trekked up to a ridge above Manang where the snow was thigh deep and eye-aching, almost forcing us to break trail. Our feet slid deliciously into it. When we returned power had come back to the town. Inside a hostel a posse of Australians sat, their eyes trained intensely on a TV: the BBC were reporting deaths on the Annapurna Circuit. Nine bodies so far, at least 140 missing. The news channels knew more about the disaster than anyone in Manang itself, one of the biggest towns en route. Everyone began playing the ‘what if’ game, everyone had a reason why they could have been two days further ahead, at the pass, when the snow-storm hit. Manang was all chatter, but facts? They were as absent as colour in the peaks.

The drone of search and rescue helicopters became as familiar as the low of yaks. They zipped to and fro, like the rumours around town: two metres of snow at the pass, body count: 21. Scores were still stranded at Tilicho Lake and High Camp. The Israelis were being evacuated first as the Israeli government had fronted the money for evacuation of all its citizens. Later, this would be a topic of controversy and rumours spread of helicopters half full refusing to take anyone not Israeli, of bands of Israelis commandeering the available satellite phones and, more farcically, of two people who’d blagged their way onto a chopper because ‘we’re half Jewish!’

We stared wistfully at maps, pondering the future of our ride, knowing it may now be impossible to proceed – already many hikers were turning face and marching back to Besishar. We decided to linger, and then, realising bike travel was fantasy (since hiking may well be too), we left our bikes and gear at a guesthouse and set out to the pass on foot when everyone else was in retreat. We bought wooden sticks as trekking poles and stuffed plastic bags down our trainers. Thoughts of avalanches were edged out by the slim chance of making it up. The events on the pass felt remote. We met two hikers, a Lithuanian and Siberian, unfussed, who ran out of beer and cigarettes from high altitude near Tilicho lake. ‘It vas tragedy’ the Siberian pined. From where others were being air-evacuated, they had left on foot through deep snow drifts, motivated by the fear of remaining without the refuge of booze and fags.

The Nepali minister for tourism arrived into Manang by helicopter and promptly presented to the medical clinic with symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness – typical, I thought, of tourists not to heed the advice, especially amusing through if you yourself promote that advice. I was asked to check in at the clinic too in case they had a rush of patients who had been stranded on the trail and needed help, but having not been called into action, I set out on foot.

Snow: the great eraser. Filching not just colour and detail, but leaving the land bereft of smell, of movement too, with the exception of avalanches and as we tramped out over the hills northwest of Menang, a huge crunch caused us to swivel and watch snow barrel down the opposing side of the valley. Our gaze waited over the mountainside before we moved on, our thoughts murky, our plan still imprecise. We met a few trekkers heading back who had been stranded at High Camp, they bore news that the Nepali army had closed the pass to collect bodies.

The next night we spent with a French girl, Maryon and American guy, Elie. ‘Hey, do you guys blaze?’ asked Elie.

It wasn’t strong weed, but it doesn’t have to be at 4200 metres above sea level. I know this because an hour later I found Mike in his room sat upright and crosslegged, meditating. He was wrapped in a yak hair blanket inscribed with Tibetan runes. He looked, in almost every respect, like a wizard. The only inconsistency was the fact that he was wearing a pair of gloves on his feet, and instead of solemnity, his expression was one of lightly controlled mania.

‘That Yak looks demonic’ said Mike. Having considered that Mike was no longer high, I peered at the beast and had to agree. A long face, big horns and a bleak, nowhere stare. I was still vaguely spooked when we came to some other trekkers who paused by us. ‘Over there, you see?’ one pointed to the shape of a man over the river, lying down in the snow. ‘It’s a dead body’.

Until that point, the events on the pass had seemed remote and marginal, too extreme perhaps to process. We had been merely held up and I hadn’t considered the reality. The reality was brutally unsheathed now, in the shape of a dead man, and a red rucksack, laid out in the snow.

There’s an expression in medicine which, typical of many of doctor’s idioms, carries a certain brutality but is useful nonetheless. ‘You’re not dead’ they say ‘until you’re warm and dead’. Hypothermia can do strange things: brain function can be preserved, heart-rate slowed so much as to affect death. I had to check.

If he’d been out there all night, or for longer, then I couldn’t see him being alive, but nobody knew. We passed a German hiker, noticeably shaken by the sight, and then to the body. He was lying down, head on a red rucksack for a pillow, a blanket over his legs, one hand balled up to a fist. He had been dead for some time. It was shocking in the juxtaposition: dead bodies belong in hospital beds, in the morgue, not alone, skin still shining, growing hard in the snow.

He was a monk whom we later discovered had walked from Thorung Phedi against advice during the night. By his posture he looked resigned to death, not as though it had come suddenly and with a fight. Later I wondered whether his religion might have played into this. Perhaps, amid the cold, with a certain fatalism, he’d thought about his next life. But perhaps not.

An army helicopter above described a curve and as we hiked around the next corner, they must have winched up the body.

As we hiked our wooden sticks created tunnels of glacial blue in the snow which was lumped over unseen boulders and shrubs – the world had been bubblewrapped. Recent avalanches churned up the snow, twisting it up into ragged shapes, like a sea bed of coral. My heart was set to pounding as I took stock of a great crack in the snow, extending down into the earth, where rocks and snow were spilling in ceaselessly. It looked as though at any moment the mountainside would snap and tear off towards the river, plunging at 20 degrees to the vertical. Maybe my perspective had changed: Would I have been as afraid had I not just stared into the frozen features of a dead man? I don’t know, but as I paced through the snow my feet found other footprints coming the other way. The lingering echo, perhaps, of a man’s last strides.

Sunlight roused the valley, waking the colours and contours of rock exposed by the melt. The crags above us were blotted with the shapes of big birds of prey, Himalayan vultures perhaps, and as the snow melted rocks shifted, at times tumbling down to the trail from on high.

It was a scramble from Thorong Pedi up to High Camp, which was at almost 5000 metres and the snow was still waist deep. We were now the only foreigners this high aside from a Chinese hiker, the rest had returned, and a few had been airlifted out. My head ached. This was the place that porters had arrived at days before, clutching notes from hikers near the pass which stated that they were in immediate and life threatening danger. Send help. No help by then could be sent. Mike set off on a short recce but even now, days after the snowfall, the trail to the pass was judged too dangerous and, dissuaded to try because we still had to return to Manang to collect our bikes, we decided to return by foot, trudging through the melting snow which was exposing sweet smelling shrubs, in a steady, pleasing silence.

Manang was a ghost of its former bustling self when we returned, and much of the snow had evaporated with the tourists. Uncomfortably, because we were in the shadow of tragedy, the Himalayas south of Manang looked as beautiful as perhaps they would ever be: the high rock faces sheeted with snow, the blue October sky, the rust and ochre of autumn, the earthy colours of rocks and pine.

We met tour groups, one British, with members in National Geographic t-shirts but so obese that the logo was distorted, stretched over geographically significant bosoms and man-breasts. A teenager in the posse received a text from a friend and said ‘Hey, hey Jack check this out. My mate wants to know if I’ve seen any dead bodies! Ha Ha Ha Ha!’ His friends joined him in the hilarity. I exchanged a look with Mike.

We arrived back at Besishar which was in the midst of Tihar (Diwali) celebrations and ornate Hindu girls dazzled onlookers with their practised dance routines.

An avalanche on the way back to Manang
That Nepal struggled to deal with the unfolding tragedy is unquestionable, that it needn’t have is under debate. Nepal is, after all, one of the poorest countries in Asia. The Annapurna Circuit is not a jaunt through Yosemite and the Himalayas are a different breed to the Alps. But with over 20,000 hikers paying 40 dollars a pop annually questions will and should be raised. Here are mine:
  • The cyclone was being monitored. The snow was predicted. Why were no severe weather warnings telephoned to the villages and camps en route before the snow fell, especially the ones after Manang where there is no public Internet access? (and if these calls were made, why were the hikers not told?)
  • Why are communications between points on the hike so patently inadequate? There are is no radio communication or relay towers, and only one satellite phone. When power went out, there was no way to relay a message to high camp and tell them to instruct trekkers not to leave.
  • Why did nobody take charge of the disaster – the trail was only closed a full 4 days after the snowfall and misinformation was rife.
  • How does TIMS (the Trekkers Information Management System) spend the 20 dollars a trekker it receives? Is any of it used in crisis prevention?
Officials I spoke with were in the habit of reminding me that Nepal is far behind the west in matters of disaster preparedness. That may be so, but it can’t be used as an excuse for mismanaging was has been an epic calamity, and the loss of 39 lives. You can argue that the responsibility lies not just with authorities but with trekkers too. I agree, but trekkers can’t make reasoned decisions without the information. A dusting of snow is not uncommon at the pass, even in the dry season. It’s conceivable that the hikers set out thinking it would soon peter out, they could have had no idea that two metres would fall, obliterating the trail and leaving them to exposure and ultimately, death.

Some of the misinformation may have been born of a vested interest, locals and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) were in the habit of telling everyone the pass was open and easily reachable in the days after, when it clearly wasn’t. This is peak season, and bad weather is bad for business. I sympathise, but this relentless optimism just added to the confusion.

Whilst the trail is spectacular, I can’t recommend the Annapurna Circuit for touring bikers, though this has nothing to do with the disaster. For trekkers it’s fantastic, but too much of the road is still unridable (for surface, not gradient) and trudging behind hikers with a 20 kg bike and more gear over your shoulder is not as fun as the Himalayas should be. That said – with a fat tyred light weight mountain bike and no gear – perhaps it’s a better prospect.

A lot more has happened this month, but alas, no space. I visited a leprosy hospital near Kathmandu, and one of the mobile health clinics that serve the city’s street children. Perhaps these will appear in a later edition.

Thank yous: Lizzie and Sanju, My Mum, Anna, Fareed, Mike (a special thank you for Korean acquired toe warmers), Mango Tree for the tranquillity I needed when the trek was over, Cory, Benny and Carolyn.