Posts Tagged ‘desert’

The human cost of conflict, northern Afghanistan

Home is an exciting, alarming, and chilly two months away. The homecoming is set, come down if you’re free: Friday 19th February at lunch time. Warning – there may be any or all of the following: gratuitous fist pumping, tears, mute confusion, complete psychological breakdown. Or I might just ponder the amassed friends and family from the perspective of Westminster Bridge and do an about-turn. I’ve never been to Chad.

I’m in Belgrade now and delighted to be back in Europe again – though there is much to lament about leaving Asia, I’m relishing the quiet roads and the voluptuous curves motorists make around me. It is a strange, unfamiliar world, without the constant threat of death.

I’m not publishing my usual update because this month has involved very little cycling – I’ve been busy instead visiting projects associated with the health of marginalised people in the Caucasus. I usually don’t blog about these topics – the aim is to write a book with the running theme of ‘edges’ which will combine a travelogue (crossing Asia by bicycle) with reporting on marginalised people and their helpers that I met along the way – remote, physically marginalized communities, and the figurative edges of the human world too, those isolated for social, economic or cultural reasons.

 

So far I have visited fourteen projects around the subject of marginalised people in Asia – the focus has ranged from patients with communicable disease (TB, HIV, Hepatitis), deforming disease such as leprosy, mental illness, children with disability, economic migrants, the homeless, sex workers, victims of domestic violence, terrorist attacks and natural disasters, refugees, nomadic tribes, drug users, remote communities, slum dwellers, ex-prisoners and members of the LGBT community.

With home virtually around the corner, my thoughts have veered to plans for The New Life. In the short term I will be starting a new blog with practical advice and articles relevant to cycle touring, and I will be rejoining my profession (part-time). I’ll also get cracking on that book, though realistically it’s about three years from publication.

 

The concept of Slow Journalism is an interesting one, though perhaps just a rebranding of what’s been performed for decades, and the bicycle with its unprotected view proved a great way to immerse myself in the landscape and context of people’s lives. “You can’t write about people unless you know what’s on their mantlepiece.” Journalist and mental health campaigner Marjorie Wallace said recently on Radio Four. Over the last six years I’ve slept in the homes of people in more than fifty countries, as well as countless churches, mosques, hospitals, schools, police stations and army barracks. I have shared the fusty air and mosquitoes of a barn with a snortsome, cheesed-off buffalo. Along the way I didn’t see many mantelpieces, but I do see Marjorie’s point.

 

This is a piece from Afghanistan

The human cost of conflict, northern Afghanistan

 

The frail, garbled song of a city waking up drifts through my hotel window. As the emerging sun restores colour to the domes of the Blue Mosque in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-sharif, a man splays a piece of cardboard onto the pavement below, a makeshift mat, and begins to pray. Next to him a tough gang of street kids fight over the fruits of begging, and a scattering of women wander about on early errands, most draped in blue burqas; rippled and shaped by the desert wind.

It’s the trucks though which hold my gaze, as they drag their long shadows up and down the square of road that encloses the Blue Mosque. Gangs of men sit in the open-topped backs, slung with silvery-worn assault rifles, legs draped casually over the side, their shemaghs wrapped around their heads and faces, leaving just a slit for the eyes. One of these wraith-like men per car attends to a mounted machine gun that makes my heart race. Some may be police, and some paid militias loyal to the provincial governor, at least I hope so. When the Taliban attack, they have done so in a similar disguise.

Mazar-e-sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, has long been considered a place of relative safety, attested by 14 years of calm following the driving out of the Taliban by the Northern Alliance in 2001, but this summer two attacks rocked such confidences, and darkened headlines. There was the murder of nine workers from a Czech NGO in their beds on the outskirts of the city, and the attack in April on the Secretary General’s office in daylight leaving scores dead, though the numbers are disputed. Witness accounts of fatalities are often at odds with numbers revealed on Afghan news, the government keen to promote a picture of stability in a country struggling to prevent Taliban inroads in the North, now that international military support has largely pulled out.

The population of Mazar-e-sharif is on the up as those affected by the spreading violence are drawn from villages to these safer streets controlled by a famously wealthy, ethnically-Tajik governor, Atta Muhammad Nur, known as ‘the teacher’, a former commander in the Mujahidin, a man skilled in the art of war. Though he has the monopoly on violence, he is widely respected for keeping order, and the Taliban at bay.

Sitting in an eating house scoffing the city’s famous ice cream, fluffy-moustached students practice their English with me; assuming that I’m a soldier. I exchange facebook pages with one who goes on a liking frenzy of my posts on his smartphone. Above us a TV set hums and throws out images from battlegrounds in some distant or perhaps not-so-faraway province.

I seek out the regional hospital, part funded by Germany, Sweden and Japan, which hides behind a tumult of fruit vendors. There is the usual collection of labs and wards, with the addition of a centre for the treatment of opium addicts, signal of yet another problem lumbering beneath Afghanistan’s turbid surface. Burqa-clad women sit in clumps on the steps by the entrance, be-turbaned men stand apart by the doors. Mazar-e-sharif homes a great variety of peoples, and the city’s roots are inscribed in the multiplicity of hats, skin tones and faces, in the emerald and café-au-lait and blackish eyes.

Dr Rallimullah is a bushy-browed kind-eyed orthopaedic surgeon, Indian and Afghan-trained, who I meet in one of the hospital’s offices.

‘Medical schools here can be a joke’ he says, mirthlessly. ‘Doctors come out with virtually no clinical experience, under-skilled, trained inadequately in one specialty by teachers of another. The difference between a teacher and a student is one night’s reading, I’m serious! Information is passed on like water is passed between hands, and after enough hands, there’s no water left.’

Dr Rallimullah believes the healthcare system is not much better than it was 50 years ago, when he boasts of how specialists indulged in open heart and even brain surgery. These days, he says, a so-called Chest Surgeon is someone who can insert a chest tube, which most junior doctors can manage in the West. In today’s Afghanistan, the doctors themselves are often the blood donors.

Dr Rullimullah has been invited for training in the UK, in Newcastle and Belfast, but even with references, his medical license and referral letters in abundance, a UK visa is far from a given when you hold an Afghan passport, and he seems reticent about discussing his chances. Go online here, I’m told, and the Afghan IP address will trigger a barrage of advertisements from the Australian government instructing Afghans not to make the journey, with the phrase ‘No Way. Do not make Australia home’. Who then, I wonder, will train the next generation of doctors if in-country education is scant and Afghans are ordered against venturing abroad to learn?

I push open a door stickered with a no guns sign and join the swinging tail of a ward round which sweeps volubly through the orthopaedic department. On any given day around 70% of the patients here are victims of road traffic accidents, but the peril of the region’s hectic highways is old news. It’s the 20% here by actions of an insurgent Taliban which is the fraction growing the fastest. But it’s not just targeted attacks I’m told: violence is infectious. Family feuds can be settled using guns, and Dr Rallimullah recounts stories of wedding party massacres, insisting this was never the case before, even five years ago.

We stop by the bed of an 11 year old boy. As we crowd round his face distorts into a mask of unchildlike fear; his mother, a small lady in a white veil, reaches for his hand. I sense some deep psychological trauma, and wait to hear a story I’m already guessing at.

Marjan had been at the bazaar in the northern town of Maimana with his mother to buy new sandals when a woman in a burqa detonated a bomb in a pressure cooker. The blast wave threw him into a nearby canal, where he was found with a head injury and broken femur. He was rushed to a private clinic with no expert orthopedic surgeon, but where external fixators were poorly applied in order to adjoin the ends of fractured bone. Dr Rallimullah holds up an x-ray film for me to examine ‘totally unnecessary’ he grumbles, pointing to the misaligned pins. When the bones failed to unite he was taken by his mother to a mullah who proclaimed the boy to be cursed, and responsible for his own pain and disability. Months later Marjan arrived in Mazar-e-sharif, via the Red Crescent, where he awaits further surgery and psychiatric evaluation. At night he wakes, screaming and tearing at his bedclothes.

I offer his mother a seat, but she refuses, opting instead to crouch on her hams on the floor, gazing up at me past the vacant seat and speaking through a white veil drawn half over her face. Before the bomb blast, she says, her husband had become addicted to opium and left her to look after their six children alone. Now, after her son’s injury, her other children go to school for only half the time, the other half they are forced to work, stitching together clothes to raise two dollars a day for food. I see then the ripple effect of violence, of how in time, deprived of education, these ripples may create ripples of their own.

But for now, her main concern is her son. ‘He’s not normal’ she tells me, in hushed tones, sending her words to the hospital floor. ‘He screams and talks to himself. I pray his leg will heal, but I worry most about his mind.’

On the way out Dr Rallimullah turns to a female doctor in the corridor: ‘Be orange!’ he says to her in passing, and she smiles back. I ask him why. ‘Last week two of our specialists argued about whose responsibility a patient should be.’ He says. I nod, thinking of how often a similar debate plays out in hospitals across the UK. He goes on: ‘I said to them: it is the patient that matters, do not let the patient get stuck in the middle of your arguments. If one of us is white and the other is red, then we must both become orange’ adding wistfully ‘I hope for this attitude too, for the people of Afghanistan’.

 

Sand and caravans


North of Termiz the land turned to semi-desert: knuckles of sandstone, punched by the green plumes of weed. After the pale, deathly world of Afghanistan I was coming into the hunk of Uzbekistan that can be farmed, though irrigation costs the Aral Sea, which shrinks towards extinction. But a blankness lived ahead too – I was inching toward the Kyzyl Kum, a desert too large to traverse by bike before my visa expired. After the cities of the fabled Silk Road, I would have to take a train.

There were a few police check points as I edged north where the officers would order me to a halt and demand to know how much a ticket costs to watch Manchester United, or to examine an old Indian visa in my passport and ask ‘How is the Maharaja?’ At the bazaar in the village of Sayrab I was enclosed by a band of wispy beards ancients who draped arms over my shoulder and cackled benevolently. Conversations flowed towards an inevitable question:

‘How old are you?’

‘35’

‘Where is your wife and children?’

‘I don’t have any’

Much muttering, a gasp, wide eyes, ‘Get on with it!’, ‘What do you live for?!’

The next day was ending well: a lively wind coaxed me down to Karashina. But with the sun low in the sky my pedal fell off, oily bearings scattering into the dust. With no spare I had to make do with the thread, my foot slipping off on almost every turn. I found a plane of hilltop and set my tent up. An hour after sundown I noticed the dance of a torch a hundred metres or so below me, and so I slunk back into my tent, hoping the search wasn’t for me.

I poked my tent out into a sunny morning and saw the source of the torchlight – another cyclist had chosen almost exactly the same spot to camp. I waved him over – Charlie was a twenty something biker from Virginia. He had a hammock that was proving unsuitable for desert-living, so he just stretched it out on the earth and used it as a bivy bag. Yesterday, he mentioned, had been a long one. 230 km, and he’d started at 12. But that’s late, I thought, until I realized he meant midnight. He’d scored a puncture and pushed his bike off the road, my bike problems had moved me to do the same, at almost exactly the same spot of reaching Uzbek scrub, and only minutes before.

We were heading the same way, so we filtered coffee into mugs and pedaled off together, camping the next night in a tilled field, a fat and painted moon bleeding over the horizon. We climbed the pass south of Samarkand, threw ourselves into a frenzy of fruit eating at the top amid traders of trinkets and cheese, and then dropped into the clamour of city, where the enrapturing and long-venerated blue domes seemed dimmed amid the less alluring traffic and tourist tat. In Samarkand we met up with Kay, an American biker and friend of Charlie.

Tamerlane was not Uzbek, but that didn’t stop him achieving hero status in a region reaching for its misty history and sense of self after the Soviets pulled out, leaving Central Asia a strange commotion of borders with dislocated peoples pocketed away, adrift from their ethnic groups. It was deliberate: Stalin discouraged unity in permanent fear of an Islamic uprising. Tamerlane, a fierce dictator whose empire once sprawled over half of Asia, his sacked villages marked by pyramids of skulls, is buried in Samarkand. We stalked his mausoleum, hoping the guard would let us enter the real crypt beneath the show one, as travel writer Colin Thubron had done, but Colin was probably not looking quite as deviant as us, in ragged cycling clothes and Russian as halting as London’s traffic.



Kay’s plan was to come with us to Bukhara, 300 km to the west, but she’d left her bike in Tashkent from where she would fly home. ‘If I buy some rollerblades…’ she tentatively asked me in the hostel ‘will you guys tow me there?’

Charlie had agreed to try, and Stuart, a student from St Andrews was on board too.

‘Sure, why not?’ I said. It’s testament to the personalities present that no one offered any of the hundred obvious answers: because it was 300 km away, or that roads in Uzbekistan were piteous, or that any available rollerblades would likely be worse. Instead a pact was made and Kay went hunting for wheels.

When she returned I found her in a corner of the hostel, clutching fearfully to a chair, her legs involved in some kind of mad Irish dance routine. She managed after a time to let go of the chair and barrel across the courtyard, her windmilling arms madly hunting for more furniture before her new skates could set her violently on her head, or ass. ‘I think…’ she told me after another panicked expedition between a potted plant and desk ‘I’m gonna need some elbow pads.’

So we met Kay an hour later outside the store she’d bought her blades (for 40 dollars), now wearing as much protective gear as they sold. We used Stuart’s hammock stings to make a kind of reigns for Kay, she was supposed to cruise fluently behind, like a water skier, but Samarkand’s sketchy paving and bolshy drivers meant it was easier at first for Kay to drape herself over Charlie’s rear rack with legs straight and blades rolling. He towed her out of the city, me and Stuart alongside. Imperfections sent her into wild, helpless wobbles, a slight incline was nightmarish.

Gradually though Kay grew skillful, soon she was on the reigns, hopping over obstacles and she got to the end of the day one without emergency surgery. The Silk Road has flowed for ages with merchants and their curious caravans, and Uzbeks marveled again at three laden bikers and a girl on rollerblades carving out their own Silk Road odyssey. It must have been knackering for Kay though, hard on the ankles and back, hostage to constant concentration, and when we stopped to rest she would throw herself extravagantly into the nearest dust (‘the Kay-dive’) arms and legs starred like a depleted sky diver after a crash landing.

The next evening we camped by some ruins, boiling up pasta and then gorging like animals, when a boy arrived and stood about watching us. After a while he loped off into the dark, it wasn’t until the next morning we realized Kay’s skates were gone. With Charlie’s two rear panniers redistributed to me and Stuart, Kay sat on his rear rack and for the last 100 km Charlie lent low over his handlebars, Kay rested her chin on his back, music poured from speakers and they raved and weaved their way into Bukhara.



In all three of Uzbekistan’s ruined and reconstructed Silk Road cities, I felt that familiar depression that comes with being commoditized. It was unthinkable in the Uzbekistan I had relished in the south and east that anyone would invent a five-fold price hike because I was an outsider, in fact if I didn’t leave a town with five times the amount of free fruit I could eat, I would have felt unappreciated, such was my soring expectations of central Asian generosity. But in touristville I bartered for bottles of Fanta, argued with the plague of unofficial cashiers who popped up around monuments in well-rehearsed scams to pluck the tourist dollar, or with unscrupulously tricky taxi drivers and hoteliers. I don’t begrudge a two tiered price system, I am after all from a country that spends money on putting large ferris wheels in every major city, and a guest in one that has uses forced labour to pick cotton, it’s almost singular industry, in hardening times. But its hard not to get antsy when the cost of everything gets quadrupled.

My birthday came so we went out on the town in Khiva, it was a spectacular extravaganza of vodka and shisha that was spent in the company of a large group of well-middled, middle-aged men, who danced with racing legs, their arms drooped out in front, like a bunch of sweaty tyrannosauruses. Charlie ended up backflipping into a flower bed, ‘its so poetic’ he told me, breathing vodka fumes.

Khiva was my favourite of these ancient trading posts, from the minaret it was easier to imagine the ragtag caravans that would lumber into what must have been paradise after a long troop through the sere wastelands which fill the flats to a far horizon.

I said goodbye to Charlie and Kay, and set off with Stuart. The hotel in Nukus had the floating fragrance of toilet, but I’d been in worse, even considering the five minute on-off cycle for the running water and the belligerent alcoholic parked in the restaurant. There were three bored women sitting in the currency exchange office who offered the official exchange rate of 2600 somme for a dollar. But the blackmarket is booming. In any shop outside I could get 4500. Still, they sat. Maybe some travelers are dumb enough every month or so, and it becomes worth it.

Cotton plantations grew to consume everything outside the road and only the few purple bushes on the edge of the crops spiced the world with colour. I ran into Tim and Fin, two bright eyed Brits on bikes, I’d even been on a bike repair course way back when with Fin’s uncle Ray. Back then I might have exclaimed ‘small world!’, perhaps not now.


On the road I was wind-splashed by great trains of buses, holding the cotton pickers of Uzbekistan. There has been international pressure and boycotts of Uzbek cotton because of this forced labour, especially when it concerns children. In 2012 the president issued a decree banning children from working in the cotton fields, though the buses I saw were full of kids, faces planted on the glass, but how many ended up picking cotton is impossible to say.

In Kungrad I shuffled into a murky half-light of jumbled shrubs on the town’s outskirts. I’ve spent so many nights sequestered in this type of edgeland now, stalking civilization like a stray, and it can feel more adventurous than camping in the wilderness. There’s something seductive and outsiderish about the fringe of towns, here I listened to the clank and grumble of a strange city, sounds particular to the embers of the day. I woke in the fledgling moments of the next, the factory still beeping, the pylons above hissing like vipers, the journeying lights of the first cars on the horizon, the harangue of farm dogs that had fixed my scent. And then above me a team of red objects were tearing though the sky, something breaking up in the atmosphere, not the quick dash of a typical shooting star but the careering burn of something bigger and closer, appearing much slower in the sky.

I boarded the train the next day, almost all the passengers were economic migrants, bent on laboring in the building sites of a more prosperous Kazakhstan. I’d never before encountered so many vendors on a train, their number competed with that of the passengers, it was a mad melee of money changers who can count notes with bewitching speed, others carrying dried fish like a stack of newspapers, and spreading them for selection like a deck of oversized cards. Two silver bearded men gave blessings in exchange for money, which looked easier than the women’s harried task.

I sat with my journal open, waiting for an apt metaphor to hang onto this window view, but this was cliché desert, remarkable only in its unabating sameness, the train shadow stealing and releasing a thin strip of desert scrub for mile upon sandy mile. Gradually local people gathered around me, one old women was particularly brave. ‘Do you have an old grandmother in England? No? You can have me! Come on, let’s go!’ the women around me shrieked in delight as this old eccentric took centre stage.

On the next train there was no seat for me because I got on last with my bike, and passengers outnumber seats as a few bribe the conductor and board without a ticket. It didn’t matter, as I spread myself out in the cramped smoking section between carriages, a stocky man waded in, set his head to one side and made a meditative face which cracked into a grin. ‘Come on tourist, we’ll make room’. His son hopped out of his bed and I watched aghast as he squeezed into the luggage rack, high up above the other berths, to make space for me. They say a Kazakh has three faces: a smile for the guest, neutrality for the friend and a scowl for the stranger.

I arrived 20km kilometres from Aktau, a port town on the Caspian, now a fading tourist industry trying to fill the void after uranium mining retreated and died. I stepped out of the station and looked around. A sign on a shop blinked redly: ‘paradise’. The sky was baubled with grey cloud. I made my way in those delicious minutes before sunrise, past single story homes, the cheap gaud of restaurants, but alongside expensive SUVs, rushing testimony to the providence of oil. The sun rose at last, switching on the baubles of cloud, they burned a lingerie-pink.

In the end I flew to Baku just over the Caspian, it was cheaper and faster than the boat and I had the deadline for a school talk to make. Pedaling away from the airport, an intimation of blue coloured the horizon, venus still glittered bright. The sun rose, cold and orange. The highway of this new country, Azerbaijan, was perfect. Trees were trimmed into spirals like shells, petrol stations had video screens, there were street sweepers even before the first sunbeams rouged the highway, the first I’d seen since China. There was order and money everywhere, I embodied neither of those things and received some stares. I passed the Expo centre, the great stadium for the European games, the dreamlike grace of the Heydar Aliyev Center, the flame tower skyscrapers, not red, but blue with reflected sky. In the city the Azeri girls were beautiful, dark and sultry and sunglassed from the world. One in a group flicks their hair, and the others do the same, a Mexican wave of hair tossing. Their kids are accessorized to the max.


For years Azerbaijan has been quietly getting rich, though the cynics, and there are silent stacks of them, would argue that all that money barely drips from the elites. I cycled out of Baku under the previous president’s gaze, his mouth a straight line, like a hyphen, promising more to come. And it did, when he died in 2003 his son dropped into his seat as top dog, commanding the oil barrens and tycoons, the silencers of the press, the mobsters and cronies, from the tip of a very broad pyramid. Azerbaijan can put on a show, but behind the gleam there are faultlines and the pong of impermanence. The street cleaners don’t do the backroads, just the route from the airport to city. Journalists are regularly imprisoned, more in just the few days I was there. I wondered what will become of Baku in fifty years when the oil has run dry, whether only then discontent will better reach the surface, and boil over into rebellion.

But that, of course, is politics; as ever the people were entirely welcoming, from my great host Araz in Baku to all the rural folk that I met en route to Georgia. My first days in Azerbaijan took me through a tawny grassland, the land folded away in a wind made of dust. Men sat playing Nard (a form of backgammon). I stopped at a fruit stall and the vendors all charged towards me to begin a quiz. I answered what I could in Russian, and then the gifts arrived: apples first, by the arm full, then grapes, then men lunged in bearing tomatoes ‘Present! Present!’ they crooned. The ladies behind the crowd decided that they couldn’t let these rival vendors become the epitome of Azeri hospitality, and they burrowed though the arms of others, popping up in front of me to thrust aubergines and cucumbers into my overladen arms.

The world smelt of loam and mushrooms and woodsmoke, and I’d missed the woods after so long journeying through mountains, desert and steppe. I topped 70 km/hr on the downhill, passing Ladas who probably couldn’t speed up and not risk breaking up like a rocket entering orbit at the wrong angle, making debris of wipers and bonnets and bumpers. The weather was perfect, 28 degrees by day and sunny, the forest canopy a shut door preventing all but a few cracks and misshapen keyholes of light to stipple the leaf litter. Eventually I was released from kind the hug of the Great Caucasus mountains to zip through a flat farmland where the smell of horses muscled through the woodsmoke and where tribes of turkeys cavorted around stacks of hay.

I spent a night in the caravanserai of Seki and left the following day, asking directions for Qax, which if you do so articulately, will leave your assistant wiping the phlegm from their eye. It must be hell for the residents of Qax at borders.

‘Home town?’

‘Qax’

‘Get out’

Georgia: no more running for visas, here I was instantly granted a year as an EU citizen. I pedaled up towards Sighnaghi, the old town walls looped over the forested hillsides, a different sprouting of mountains these, the bulk of the Caucasus still just visible across the valley, half eaten by shadow and distance.

It was harvest time for the grapelands of Signhangi, wine flowed as the town celebrated. I met Nina, a German girl, and with another friend Emma we visited the monasteries carved into mountains at David Gareja.

Nina and I then decided to try and buy two donkeys and ride together to Tbilisi, but Nina, being sensibly German (and also correct) decided the risk of a wayward, uninsured donkey causing a fatal road accident was too great, so we found her a bike and cycled together for three days around the wine country. It was ace.





I’m now in Tbilisi where it was an honour to meet Paul Salopek, a double Pulitzer prize winning journalist working with National Geographic and walking around the world for a planned seven years following the earliest human migration out of Africa.

Thank yous:

Aigerim and Bakhtiear, Araz, Paul, everyone at the International School of Azerbaijan, QSI in Aktau, Vladimir and Fabienne, Paul Salopek and Kevin Sullivan.

Next up: My good pal Ollie has just flown into Tbilisi. We will go lightweight bike-packing into the remote parts of the country for the next month, surviving on the bone marrow of the mountain lions we hunt. And then I’m off to Europe. Having already cycled once across the behemoth of Turkey, I’ve decided to eschew another crossing and will head, perhaps by boat, to Bulgaria. From there, three straight months and I’ll lumbar over the finishing line, and down a vat of Earl Grey.

An unlikely tourist: travels to Afghanistan


Part one: Tajikistan


The Tajik border patrols usually came in trotting formations of boyish men in camouflage gear but this troop were in the black get-up of special ops. My new friend James and I pedaled past, and soon after a shot rang out from a rifle, aimed not at us, the bullets sent somewhere into Afghanistan. I tucked in beside James anyway, keeping myself near the cliff face.

‘What are you doing?!’ he asked, somewhat hysterically. ‘I’m not a human shield!’

‘Jesus, calm down’ I said, as I took some rough measurements, shuffled further into his shadow and ducked.

James was, on first meeting, a soft outline that bloomed from the darkness of Khorog’s campsite. He arrived late on a loaded bicycle, smoking a cigarette which he immediately dropped, and then turned to the other bikers and announced, in a British accent: ‘Right make a grid everyone, let’s get to it. I have to find this fag before it burns a hole in a pannier!’ I liked James straight away; we decided to pedal on together for a week to Dushanbe.

Near Rushan the valley opened up, fields were dimmed by a thin mist which captured the evening, infusing a light the colour of olive oil over the valley floor. Cockrels sounded out over the pleasant-sounding gabble of children playing games. The hospitality of the Pamiri people continued as we were ushered into homes and plied with curds and tea and apricots and those reminders: ‘You’re a guest in Badakhshan! My house is your house!’ There’s nothing dutiful about the hospitality of the Pamiri people, they give naturally, as if it’s their own privilege.

Humpy rock formations loomed from our left, divided up by pie slices of scree. Outside a solitary house a man holding a newborn in a slightly reckless looking scrum-half style, beckoned us over for a chat. He was a 28 year old new father, but we didn’t discover much more because as we talked a great explosion sounded close by, echoed, and the air above the river pooled with dust. James and I turned wild-eyed to each other and then to the man who shouted ‘Afghanistan! Afghanistan!’ in what I now know was an attempt to reassure us, but which of course achieved the opposite. But as I looked across the river from a half-crouched position, I could see what he meant: thirty metres off, across the water, they were carving a new road through the cliff, using dynamite to break trail.



We passed a military base in the evening, the soldiers lolling in mosi nets, giant machine guns trained on Afghanistan which for Tajiks was a source of increasing anxiety, travelling west we were nearing the Taliban strongholds of Kunduz and Faisalabad. The hunt for river wading refugees is a constant one and I’d heard of two bikers who been detained by the army recently for rough camping near here. Heavy looking clouds moved in for evening, reigning in the hour of twilight, and with the river on one side and a virtual wall of rock on the other, camping with enough tact to evade sharp-eyed border patrols would be an achievement. But I glimpsed a steep trail which led to a flattish rocky area hidden from view, and so in the dying day we made a quick recce and then pushed one bike up and then the other. On top was a hideout for the military to inspect Afghanistan: a caravan-sized tilted boulder provided shelter, and we were shut off from view and wind on the other sides by a low wall of rocks. Perfect. We settled in.

Unfortunately we weren’t to be entirely incognito. The first problem was James tent, which was yellow and of the proper luminosity to attract the attention of remote helicopter pilots after an avalanche, not so good for ‘stealth-camping’. For my part I’d zipped myself into my inner tent, but about a foot of zip was broken, and I figured I could leave it open, it was warm and too dry for mosquitoes to be a nuisance. As I lay back, full of dinner and lassitude, something caught my eye: a shadow whipped across the net inner, and leaped, LEAPED!, inside my tent and landed on my sleeping bag.

I learnt that night what sound I would make in my final moments if I was ever to meet a violent untimely death: it’s an effeminate quivering trill, think front man of a failed glam rock band. I began a manic drum solo inside my tent, using my notebook to swat the intruder to death. It was a spider, big, desert-coloured, with unmissable fangs. Later I would learn this is in fact a Camel Spider, not really a spider at all, and one that has a particular fetish for leaping into shadowy spaces, and can bite a bit too.

We continued the next day downriver, which brought a feeling of momentum more than just the modest boost of gravity. The opposing track on the Afghan side was hewn into sheer cliff faces, the river a tantrum of wavelets and eddies and cascades as the water rioted past boulders long ago toppled by landslides. The sky lived now in just a gap between spires of rock, an incidental strip of blue, and as our track lunged down to the melt-water, a cool radiance lunged up. The next day we came to a beautiful tongue of green land extending into a bow of river, specked with mud brick homes below unarable looking tilts of land: it was Jumarj-e-bala. Massive dove-grey mountain loomed behind the village, the peaks fluffed by cloud. 



We stopped for food and I complained the only bread I had left was stale. James turned to me: ‘Here’s how to deal with stale bread: you dip it in some tea, and then in some sugar, and then… (he paused for drama) it’s not bread any more… (he was silent again, his eyes full moons of delight). ‘…It’s cake’. He settled back, staggered by his own genius. ‘Cake?’ I asked. ‘Cake’. He said, making little nods of self-satisfaction.

Ten kilometres from Kalaikhum we camped by a small military base, where two young soldiers thrashed us at pull ups. The next day was a 1500 metre climb over 25 km over rocky terrain to the Khaburabot pass. We snaked up to a green and open culmination covered at points in red tape explained by a sign: ‘Land mine clearance in progress’. They’d been left in the civil war and a joint Norwegian and US project was getting rid of them at last. I had a brief sentimental moment on the summit: there would be other mountains, but this would be the highest point I would ride to for the duration of my journey back home.

We dropped one thousand metres and hit a stream which slunk below massive forested sandstone cliffs, something of prehistory in the overhangs, the crab-coloured rock, rich green trees in the furrows, the nightmarish build of shadows in the valley. There were twenty thorny plants over the several acres of land aside the river, and James managed to set his tent on top of all of them, muttering something about the world’s plants being out to get him.

We were at last out of the Pamiri region, the men had longer beards, the mosques more elaborate, the lingua franca Tajik, but the hospitality was unchanged and the stops for tea and food continued. We were following a new river now: the Obikhingou, as still and grey as cement, Afghanistan was no longer in view.

That night I heard a familiar sound: it was a return of the frontman of the failed glam rock band, and it was coming from James’ tent. The crystal hum of night shattered under the words: ‘Fucking giant scorpion death spider!’ I found him leaping from foot to foot, the same generously fanged Camel Spider scuttling around him. I slapped it to a goo with my sandal.

We met a Swiss cyclist near Dushanbe who complained endlessly about the road which really wasn’t too bad. I had the sudden urge to lay a patronizing arm on his shoulder, look him in the eyes and say ‘its gets worse son. This is a fucking holiday. You’re gonna wish the road was this good in a few days’ time when you can’t walk without wincing and have to photograph your own ass to find out why.’ I didn’t of course, I just said ‘Yeah, I guess it’s a bit bumpy.’




Our last night on the road together we camped by a small stream, and when James made a lantern with his water bottle and torch we noticed a giant unlit blot on his tent outer. ‘It’s back!’ he wailed, and it was. The ‘Fucking giant scorpion death spider!’ had returned for the third time in four nights. This time James smacked his fabric from the inside, sending it on a six metre tour to the bush. We both then zipped up our tents until just a small section of door was open at the top, from where our eyes peeped out and our arms stretched through as we tried pathetically to cook.

The penultimate day to Dushanbe was an ugly one: a big mining area, the sky filled with pale dust making a haze nothing like the cathedral quality of light that we’d known in the evenings in the Pamirs. James disappeared somewhere behind me and reappeared ten minutes later wearing a kind of plastic visor.

‘What’s that?’ I asked.

‘Sunglasses. I lost mine, so I made these. I can’t see anything in this dust’

‘How did you…?’

‘Fanta bottle’ he said. I could see that now. He’d chopped up a Fanta bottle and attached it to his face, looking very much like his elderly cohabiting mother had fashioned an outfit for him for a star trek convention.

Coming into Dushanbe the president welcomed us from countless mawkish posters: he shook hands with the working class, hugged religious leaders, held grain and, my favourite, waded through a tide of poppies. (really? In a suit?).

I stayed in the Green House in Dushanbe, a spacious hostel with a mix of eastbound cyclists praying for mountains, mentally thrashed by the monotony of Iranian, Turkmen and Uzbek flats, and westbound wiry cyclists like me, Pamir-fresh, acting like Vietnam vets in front of the ones who had it all to come: ‘you weren’t there man. You don’t know what it feels like to climb 26,000 metres before breakfast and fight your way out of landslides with a flip-flop’. Everyone seemed to have diarrhea by now, and cyclists had taken to touching fists instead of shaking hands. Nick had christened the toilet ‘the porcelain express’.

I cycled away from Dushanbe, to my north the foothills of the Gissar range were a crowd of dome-shaped land, each hump a different size and depth, like an enormous beige explosion in freeze-frame. Starlings moved between trees, the surprising whirl of them spreading and contracting, rising and collapsing, a watery race of specs moving through the peach-toned dusk. The white Land Cruisers of NGOs zoomed past too close and I decided that if I was to meet my end in Tajiksitan, it would likely be under the wheels of a humanitarian. Or if not, then a wedding party, who drive just as madly, at handspan range, in pimped up beribboned SUVs, and who occasionally must spoil the bride’s special day by decorating the windshield in some poor soul’s spleen.



Part 2: Uzbekistan


The Uzbek border is well known for especially thorough searches for drugs and illegal currency. They also search your hard drives as pornography is illegal, and they suspect everyone of being a sort of James Bond level spy until proven otherwise. Also, they’re bored, and poking about in travelers bags is a better way of spending time than doing nothing. I was particularly worried when I could see there were few others crossing apart from me, and two officials were doing not very much.

And then it began: the most frustratingly thorough search of my five and a half years on the road. The younger officer spent half an hour on one of my two iPods alone, watching every music video I’d forgotten I had and listening with a puzzled expression to the sounds of Jungle at 140 bpm. There were some notable low points: the languorous palpation of the lining of my headbag, the ten minutes he spent peering into every individual section of every tent pole, the search of 4 memory cards, a USB stick, my computer, two cameras and hard drive. And how can I forget the moment when he broke open my bread with his fingers and inspected the inside? The implication being I suppose that I had gone to the trouble of borrowing, or perhaps taking by force, an entire Tajik bakery, and then on receiving some instruction from my hostages on how to bake bread, baking a batch with heroin inside.

The officials spent an age watching my movies and fast forwarding to the sex scene of the film version of 1984. It was a surreal moment when one border guard pressed pause and they all crowded around to ogle at a nude Suzanna Hamilton, tutting and not really meaning it. Luckily they saw the insanity of detaining me for a movie, even if it was a bit racy by Uzbek tastes, or perhaps they just couldn’t rise to the irony of locking me up for possessing a film about totalitarianism. I began to understand their dedication to the search: it was more than the pride of professionalism, it was more than boredom, this level of commitment is the territory only of the sex-starved. On the plus side they were so thorough that they discovered kit I didn’t even know I had. ‘Wow’ I found myself thinking ‘so Hilleberg tents come with a tent pole repair kit then. I needed one of those!’

Three hours later I was released into the darkening cicada-ringing flats of Uzbekistan, but this is a well cycled road and even my silhouette inspired shouts of ‘Otkuda?!’ (where are you from?) which punched through the walls of building night. I shouted ‘Anglia!’ in reply, and the word was swallowed for a moment by the gloom, and then returned with ‘welcome!’

I cycled for two and half days past luscious spreads of cotton plantations, cabbage fields and sugar cane, spending my now stacks of money on melon and round bread (in Uzbekistan fifty dollars equals a 5 cm high stack of notes and supermarkets come with note-counting machines). Shop signs were outlandishly optimistic, glossy seductions of apples and cheese, inside they did a not-so-roaring trade in chewing gum and out-of-date noodles. The days were relentlessly clear-skied and even at 6am there was a creeping heat and the promise of drenching sweats.

Part 3: Afghanistan



Whether to journey to Afghanistan has been one of the hardest decisions I’ve made, and not telling my family was another. I didn’t want to end up a cautionary tale, the Chris McCandless of Central Asia, and yet the country intrigued me more than anywhere, this wasn’t a move born of bravado or box ticking. There was though a sense I was putting myself at risk, but that it was in some way inevitable, as if I was watching myself make a ropey decision with the interest of an outside observer. I couldn’t bring myself to think of home until it was over, and my thoughts turned occasionally to the fearfully silent cancer of extremism, imported through Wahhabism, and nourished by poverty, miseducation and fear.

I drew a line at cycling away from Mazar-e-sharif. It’s been a bad year for the north of Afghanistan. Even the historically safe city has seen massacres and in the past months alone there was an attack on a legal building in daylight in the city centre with many dead, and weeks later the murder of eight ngo workers in their beds. These were targeted attacks as opposed to opportunistic, but they were still a cause to be concerned. Luckily I had company, my friend Sam was heading the same way, and we arranged to pedal together into Afghanistan from Termiz.

On the road to the border I pulled level with Sam and tucked myself between him and the roadside. ‘um, what are you doing?’ he said warily.

‘Nothing’ I said, scrutinizing Sam’s slightly larger outline.

‘Are you checking if I’m a good human shield?’

‘Ok I was, but you’re taller! You have more stuff! If the Taliban attack then it makes sense you should be the human shield, otherwise we both risk being killed. Take one for team, selfish bastard.’

‘You’ll get shot first anyway, you don’t look anywhere near as Muslim as me.’

It was true: Sam had grown a bushy beard for Afghanistan, and even shaved his moustache in the Islamic fashion. It was offset a little by his eye brow and ear piercings, and the tattoo of the Grateful Dead on his bare lower leg.

‘Well with those piercings, if we get into a point blank situation, I’m confident you’ll be executed first’ I told him.

We carried on like this for a while, not belittling the threat, but just to trying to quell the nervous energy building up inside. We were dressed in trousers and long sleeved shirts, but even so there was no evading the fact we were obviously westerners, and on a bicycle you are utterly exposed.

It took us a couple of hours to leave Uzbekistan, but we talked the officials out of another full search of all our panniers and electronic devices three days after my last one. The Afghan border was an easy one, the soldiers welcomed us with cheery surprise, and then Sam got a puncture on the bridge crossing the Amu Darya river, after which we entered a very different world.

On the streets of Hairatan the wandering women were all draped in blue burquas; rippled and tugged and shaped by the desert wind, it looked as if a substance was melting upon them. Police cars and armoured vehicles, dragging long shadows like capes, revved up and down the road. Gangs of men sat in the open topped backs, slung with silvery-worn AK 47 assault rifles, legs draped casually over the side, their turbans wrapped around their heads and faces, just a slit for the eyes. One of these wraith-like men per car attended to a massive mounted machine gun that made my heart race, pause, race again. The homes were low, crumbling mud brick about which goats sniffed in the crannies.

This was wild, soul-seizing country, an embattled nation, unkind to intruders. As I was thinking this a car pulled up. ‘Hey guys. I’m from Slough!’ cried the driver. Oh for Christ’s sake, I was drinking in the exoticism, and I didn’t need to be hearing the names of provincial towns in the English home counties. The speaker was Afghani of course, and lived in Mazar now, he couldn’t know he’d popped my bubble.

We left Hairatan fast, unsure about safety, into desert proper where unlike Uzbekistan, irrigation was mostly undeveloped. The desert dunes looked to claim the road with reaching arms and tentacles of sand, but we had a good, quick surface. The temperature rose to 40 in the fleeting shade, Sam was looking increasingly dismembered by the heat and I’d drunken eight litres of water with the day just half gone. Eventually we met the main road at a junction thick with parked lorries where drivers prayed beneath. Turn right here and we’d head to Mazar-e-sharif, Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, left towards Kunduz and in twenty kilometres or so the land would be under Taliban control. We went right.

My main anxiety now was that we’d be caught after sundown on the outskirts of Mazar, a place we’d been told contained pockets of Taliban supporters. But probably I had mixed up the value of the threats: as cars sped past at insane velocity I realized getting hit was more likely than getting shot or abducted. Later I’d visit the orthopaedic ward of the city hospital and discover this was true, 70% of the patients have been in road accidents. Police checkpoints were many, the officers delighted to see us, but wary too: ‘careful. Taliban near here’ said one, miming a beard with a drop of his hand below his chin, and a turban by turning circles above his head. ‘But we’ll protect you’ he told us by way of a pantomime of shots into the desert. We span through the industrial outskirts of Mazar, a chinook helicopter skimmed through the sky above carrying US special forces, the last of a retreating international mission. An airship floated to the south, used for surveillance. Afghanis waved and shouted and generally made us feel welcome amid the building picture of ‘war zone’.

Eventually we hit the city centre: a square around the blue mosque and a picture of the characteristic face of Massoud, the Afghan national hero, savior and bane of the Soviets, killed by an exploding TV camera in an assassination in 2001.

The next day I woke before sunrise and watched Mazar-e-shairf come to life: the sun broke the horizon behind me, twinkling the aquamarine domes of the mosque and turning the sky a barley-yellow. The vendors began their day, yet to become embattled by the rush of city-life, and men began to get stuck in those interminable handshakes of South Asia. A tough gang of street kids were fighting. Most, around three quarters of women, were clad in the blue burqua, but some in black niqab (eyes showing) and about 10% with a hijab pulled so far back behind a plume of dark hair that it looks almost defunct. Men wore the loose Khet Partug and every day I’d spot a new use for the Shemagh, the Afghan man’s scarf – to shield the head and face from the sun, to carry melons, to swat flies, as dental floss, to sit on and for the kids, to whip each other with. Mazar homes a great variety of peoples, the city’s history written into hats, skin tones and faces: from Hazara and Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen, to a whole bunch of lesser known ethnicities. And the population is growing fast as those affected by the spreading violence flock to the safer streets of Mazar which is under the control of an immensely wealthy Tajik governor Atta Muhammad Nur known previously as ‘the teacher’ for his time teaching the Mujahidin in the art of war. He has the monopoly on violence and is respected for keeping order, and the Taliban at bay.

Little things worried me, our hotel had no guard and was left open all night. On our little explorations of the city centre, I found that everyone knew who we were: word had spread, Mazar had tourists, we were the only ones. So much for blending in. But the reaction we got from those we met was one of warmth and even gratitude for coming. We ate a ton of Mazar’s famous ice cream, chatted with students who’d often assume we were soldiers, met Afghan translators for the US military, two American teachers, local doctors, and a lovely Hazara family. Too much happened off the bike in Afghanistan to relate here, so I’m afraid I’m going to save it for the book. Instead I’ll leave you some photos from the streets of Afghanistan:




A sign warning people that women police officers will check under burquas in case of suspecting a suicide bomb attacker.












Photos courtesy of Sam Lovell and myself.

Thank yous: Dr Ralimullah, Mattias, Wahed and Ru, Naser and friends, Ethan and Aaron, and the three cycling buddies I’ve had over the last month: Sam, James and Nick.

Next up: the meat of Uzbekistan, a sliver of Kazakhstan and the boat to Azerbaijan.

I was happy to win the We Said Go Inspiration Writing Contest this month as well as getting Highly Commended in the Bradt / Independent writing contest.

Cold eyeballs in the Gobi



‘Ganbei!’

Again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gobi-time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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




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

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

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

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

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

And then wind changed, by 180 degrees.

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



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

I could hitch a ride

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

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

Its only three days to Ulaanbaatar, if I persevere…

My knee hurts

Not enough

I need more food

I’ll find some

OK. I’ll get a lift. The next car.

Maybe one more hour, then see…

Get a lift!

But I said I’d do this…

That’s not a good reason!

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

Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stevey Gonzales

Admiring a salt lake on the Baja peninsula of Mexico

Contrary to popular belief football is not Mexico’s national sport. It’s sweeping. Mexico’s women are more intensely devoted to sweeping than a gap toothed, tattoo-branded, wailing Milwall fan is to football. Sweeping in Mexico begins before sunrise and continues well into the night. The same floors and spaces are swept more than a dozen times a day, I know, I’ve watched this happen. Every so often I am evicted from restaurants – ‘you’re closing?’ I ask, ‘Si Señor. For sweeping.’