Posts Tagged ‘China’

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?’


‘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.

Cold eyeballs in the Gobi



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.


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?


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 –

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: