Posts Tagged ‘mountains’



Georgia is a country of curves – from its meeting with the Black Sea, a bitemark of coast, to the probing tongue that composes the border with Azerbaijan. From its looping script, to the roads that circulate packs of mountains, succeeding in switchbacks like the restive rivers they chaperon. But before my friend Oli and I take on these roads by bicycle, I encounter another sinuosity: that of the Georgian toast.

Blood, sweat and Pamirs

‘Oh hey, do you have a map of the Pamirs?’

I shook my head as the Irishman, one of four cyclists I ran into on the climb up from Osh, rummaged in his head bag and handed me a shred of dark-spotted paper.

‘Oh yeah, my blood got all over it’ he added, mysteriously.

I didn’t ask. The less I knew about snow leopards, or gangs of rampaging marmots, or roving warlords the better. Climbing to 4655 metres in three days invited trepidation enough.

After Osh the land was green and open, studded with yurts and clusters of shambling livestock. The temperature soared to 40 degrees. I asked for clean water but people would always point to the river ‘our river is very clean, drink! drink!’ I didn’t chip into local pride by mentioning the donkeys pissing and shitting and sometimes inconveniently dying on the banks upstream.

The scruffiness of the children grew with distance from the town, until they were a ragtag bunch with wet coughs and perennial grins, calling ‘bye bye!’ as a welcome because they liked the sound of the words more than they cared about the meaning. I climbed from 1600 to 3100 metres in a day, and spent the evening next to the scrappy caravan a herding family called home. After showing one of the boys how to click tent poles together and use the clips, he set to helping me put it up and then crouched down in the entrance and marveled at my gadgets – the inflatable sleeping mat and stove – with little ahhs and ohhhs, disappearing briefly with each shriek from his mother to help rounding up goats into the pen or collect dung to burn.

The next day I completed the switchbacks and dropped into Sary Tash while looking past the town at the more captivating backdrop: the Pamirs were a white belt chopped by peaks, taking up a great swathe of horizon, reaching high over the grassland ahead.

I crossed the Kirgiz immigration and began climbing up through the extensive No-Mans Land in a valley alive with marmots – I caught russet dashes in my peripheral vision, like shooting stars. Then I’d see one tall and still, paws-front. Or is it a rock, tinted with lichen? I’d stare until it flashed into a nearby hole, or remained where it was and 30 seconds of my life had been taken up with rock spectating.

At the pass near the border a Marco Polo sheep, in statue form for live ones are scarce, looked out indomitably over the wavy land. For the next days skulls and horns and sometimes attached vertebra would lie over the rocky ground, the gruesome echoes of a dying breed, hunted to near extinction. Just beyond the statue was the Tajik immigration, and after getting my entry stamp I was ushered into a hut where a man told me I needed a disinfection certificate, adding with a practiced nonchalance ‘400 Somme please’.

This was, I was sure, a scam: officials at this border post are notoriously corrupt. When I refused he made a cross with his forearms: no money, no passage. I stood up and strode over to an immigration official I’d noticed to be the centre of an orbit of other officers – and demanded to know why I was being taxed. I was hoping the corrupt man was working secretly and alone but the booming laugh from the boss told me they were all in this together. I realised I’d been using the wrong tack, I needed to offer him a way out, and give him the chance to look generous. It was time to bring Clive into the mix, my cap.

‘Look’ I began, using my most pathetic tone of voice, ‘I’ve been traveling for five years. I have no money. I eat stale bread.’ I showed him some from my pannier. ‘Look at me! Look at my hat!’ I showed him the tears and holes, the flailing fabric. I shrunk into the chair, covered my face in a hand and coughed a long spluttering cough. There was a moment of silent contemplation, and then ‘OK. You go’ he said, handing my passport back, and I was soon rallying through Tajikistan, my 60th nation, the dusky red ridges of Kirgizstan at my back.

I was up on the Pamir plateau now, firing along with the swift wind on my tail. Some so-called ‘washboard’ road followed, which is being generous to the world’s washboards. More like back to back speedbumps. For a couple of days I’d noticed two tyres marks in the dust, I knelt down now to inspect them and could see the direction of tread meant they were heading my way. I felt like I was tracking a wild beast. I took a couple of sniffs, mmm, Nutella, must be a cyclist. They can’t be far.

Soon I was back to tarmac which had a habit of melting under tyres and feet if you loitered for more than a few seconds on it. The azure sheen of Lake Karakol arrived earlier than I expected, and it was in the nearby village I met Nick and Romain – an Australian and a French biker I’d met before in Bishkek, who immediately invited me down to the icy lake for a swim before Romain got targeted, in what was to be a familiar scene, by the majority of the world’s mosquito population. ‘Putin! Putin!’ rang through the Pamirs as Nick and I watched on, wondering how on earth one man can be deemed so delicious to insects. ‘They love ‘im.’ said Nick. ‘He tastes like Camembert’.

The home stay in Karakol was copiously rugged – at least four rugs hung per wall, they overlapped on the floor in a literal rug-fest, typical, I would learn, of many a Central Asian home. I wondered if homeowners here had black outs and woke up in alleyways behind rug shops, slumped over a pile of new rugs with no money left for food or their children’s clothes. I half expected to find the lumpy shapes of people under rugs, making muffled cries, pinned to walls.

The next day I discovered the pounding headache of the altitude sickness I thought I’d escaped, the telltale ripple in my vision with each heartbeat, the post-night-on-tequila sense of doom.

We set out anyway, climbed through striking steel hued mountains and stopped just before the steepest climb with a Kyrgyz woman who filled us with cream and yoghurt and tea in her cosy home by the road which had a TV in the corner showing Days of Our Lives. ‘But Troy, the baby’s not yours. What will I do?’ At over 4000 metres up in the remote Pamirs, the woman’s daughter avidly pondered Maria’s predicament by Russian subtitles.

With the altitude and steep ascent on dirt, my head span and I became woozy. I was heading to the highest point on the Pamir Highway, a road whose name derives from altitude and not the volume of traffic. I’d calculated there were 4 km left to the pass, and at once I had a brilliant idea: if I weaved left and right, the climb wouldn’t be as steep and I’d ride those four kilometres in better time. For some oxygen-deprived moment I knew I could cheat physics, trick the laws of nature, and not that by weaving my way up I would just make the pass further away.

The rocks grew pink and orange in the dying daylight, an eagle roved the blue sky far above. The summit was a round of high fives, and a quick lie down before we whizzed downwards into a desert amid a starlit dusk.The next day we spotted Murgab, the not-really-beating heart of the eastern Pamiri region and one of only two towns en route. ‘We’ll get the Big Macs in first and then hit some clubs later’ offered Nick.

The Pamir Hotel is the place to be in Murgab, and alongside a Japanese tour group, an assortment of bikers, motorbikers and hitchhikers, were balding, bearded and exclusively male geologists who leaned over strange maps and chatted excitedly of ‘checking out that Jurassic section’. Nick, Romain and I looked like our room soon smelt.

Solidream’s room probably smelt of roses. These three clean-cut Frenchmen who a couple of years back had completed a three year bike ride around the world, and were now accomplished film makers, speakers, authors and professional dreamers, were making a living through the fruit of their adventures. They were in the Pamirs on bamboo fatbikes, of which there are vanishingly few in the world. Frank Denman and a host of other bikers passed through too. Some arrived with worrying regularity on bikes broken by the bad roads of the Wakan corridor, cable ties everywhere, holes in tyres.

I stocked up on supplies from the bazaar, a jostling alley between old shipping containers turned shops. I’d decided on heading on a tougher and more remote route through a different valley and then across high mountain plains and two 4400 m passes into Zorkul National Park, after which I’d join the road which runs through the Wakan corridor and borders Afghanistan.

I cycled over a dreary plain first, screwy tendrils of black cloud brought cold rain, but the next day was blue-lit and still. The din of rain and wind was replaced by the tepid gurgle of water flowing in the nearby river, and the occasional trill of passing bees. In between, the silence hummed.

Tokthamish had a real outpost feel: a desolate ensemble of mud brick and stucco homes separated by desert, where an EU funded school and a couple of water pumps and a lumbering donkey figured in the main street. The shop sold sweets and cheap packet noodles of the type that often have to be recalled for having toxic levels of lead (I bought some anyway).

I headed off to Shaimak, the last village for days at the end of the valley which sat under 5265 metre Attash, a humpy snow-dashed mountain rising out of the heat shimmer, it was hard to imagine it could be this hot at 4000 metres above sea level. The mountain collected light long after the valley fell into shade and loomed over at least a quarter of the sky. Insects were on my tail, and I aimed for the winging dust devils in hopes of losing my congregation.

It was here I thought of how fucked I would be if my bike broke, there were no cars at all now, and with this thought came the memory of Nathan building my rear wheel in Bishkek, and the beer I now recall he’d been chugging at the time, and the words ‘Fuck the Rohloff manual, I’ll just do it my way’ and later ‘tell me if I get anything wrong, OK?’ Luckily, through luck, or Nathan’s practiced skill at building wheels whilst inebriated, the wheel held strong.

In Shaimak, population 60, I quickly gained a twittering string of children, the older ones wearing traditional Kalpak hats which pointed to their Kirgiz roots. Women stood in fenced off meadows and made cheese. The shop was predictably bare, but a young round-faced student, home from studies in Dushanbe, gave me bread and cheese. The gift meant a lot in this poor village, where there was no power, a fog of mosquitoes in the summer dusks and long, brutally cold winters. As is usual, I tried to pay, I failed. ‘We have so little here’ she said. ‘Well Shaimack is a very beautiful village’ I managed, pathetically, quickly realising this was like saying to a patient ‘Mr Jones you have end-stage pancreatic cancer. But on the up side… nice knees!’


Admiring Attash

Shaimak village

After reaching a ring of snow topped peaks at the valley’s end I crossed the river, no longer the grubby snake of the lower valley but an appealing grey-blue gush bordered by banks of smooth pebbles spotted with tussocks. I rounded a reddish fist of rock, the colour of an old bruise, to my left the land became spiked with a type of high altitude grass and the earth grew salt stained, stretching away to the mountains until the white of salt met and blended with the white of perennial snow.

The junction I came to didn’t exist on my map because the road straight ahead led close to the Afghan border the authorities didn’t need advertised. I turned right to climb a pass, leaving a note under a rock for Solidream if they were to follow to show which direction I had travelled, marked by an arrow I made in stones.

The meat of the climb was on a smooth trail cutting through a sandscape studded with low shrubs, but the last kilometres were grueling, steep and rocky ones. At each false summit, another loomed, each more disastrous to my mettle. Up ahead I could see the silhouettes of people standing stock still, and then falling to their bellies and scampering off and chirruping as they went… marmots. By dusk the track crested the hill and I received the vista of a nameless lake and its silvered tributaries, where I set up camp. The pass almost killed me. I left another note for Solidream: ‘Je Suis Desole’.

My map suggested it would take five days, probably, until I reached another village and so I began to ration my food and devour the stale bread knocking around my panniers. There were no vehicles at all, the road ranged through green valleys where even herders were out of sight. I had that gorgeous, delectable way-in-over-my-head feeling. There was no one for miles.

I arrived at a spot intriguingly marked Jarty Gumbez on my map, where I found a small cluster of buildings around the river. I dropped down, expecting to find a deserted hunting camp, but there were builders milling about, preparing camp for the season which begins in October. The boss, a short bearded man in a camouflage cap, the epitome of a hunter, who’s used to escorting rich Americans on hunting trips to shoot Oryx or Marco Polo sheep for around 30,000 dollars a pop, ordered a lady to fill me with rice and meat and melon and tea, and I left with calories to burn.

I cut through a narrow valley and found a few yurts near the entrance to Zorkul National Park where I stayed for free with a kind family content to feed me and show their hospitality. They lassoed yaks to cut the wool of the adults and tag the young, a frenzied exercise of horn and leg grabbing. I slept in my own yurt bedecked in stitching of wing-spread birds and insulated with sheep wool. The daughter showed me her phone ‘This is I!’ she whispered and showed me a selfie, but one in which she was wearing lipstick and jeans, and not the headscarf she had on now, and then snatched it away, suddenly embarrassed.

The next day the father cried ‘Marco Polo! On the hills!’ Knowing this was unlikely to be the reincarnation of the Venetian explorer, I ran over, borrowed his binoculars and made out the shapes of the famous sheep grazing on the higher slopes. The sad fact is that in Marco Polo’s time, there would have been no need of binoculars – the sheep now number less than 10,000.

I lugged by bike over the grassland between the mountains and the lake, bridging streams and maneuvering around the 4×4 trail when it became flooded with river water. The track faded and finally disappeared. I stood on boulders and used my camera’s zoom to check for trails but found none. I left my bike and hiked from the lake backdropped by Afghanistan’s Great Pamir range, to the peaks of the southern Alchur range, but seeing no track I began riding off-road. For forty kilometres I walked with my bike, dragging it over rocks and tall grass, following the line of broken telegraph poles that led west. Streams became harder to cross, deeper in gullies and churning with melt water. I worried constantly about rain, for if it came the entire area would be whipped into thick mud.

At the western end of the lake a vast swarm of black flies found me. They coated every pannier, swarmed around my head, disappeared into my ears and nose. My suncream was a sticky variety and this turned my exposed arms into something resembling fly paper, a mausoleum for insects, hundreds died on my forearms alone, I didn’t want to know what was occurring on my shoulders. The monstrous storm of flies stayed with me for a couple of hours, and it was worse when I moved.

The telegraph masts went over a ridge, and knowing that eventually the road was depicted on my map aside the river, I walked my bike down to the shore of the Panj just after it left Lake Zorkul and pushed along. By the end of the day I hit a net of thrashing tributaries too large to hoist my bike over, and the bridges of soviet times were two rusted piles of long ago collapsed scrap metal languishing in the white water, like much infrastructure post-independence, they hadn’t been replaced. Two herding boys arrived and together we carried my bike over each river. I ate pasta and sauce in my tent for the thousandth time, but the first in which the view was of Afghanistan, a mere 20 metres away across the clear waters of the upper Panj. It was an unpeopled place of grassy slopes and peeping snowy peaks, but an exotic vision nonetheless.

Khargush is a Tajik military base of strategic importance on the Afghan border, and border patrols wander to and fro, scouting Afghanistan with binoculars. I’d arrived on the Wakan corridor at a point most cyclists dread for the road is in a bad state – but for me, fresh from a roadless hunk of fly-infested land and uncountable river crossings, it was brilliant. Glorious washboard!

Cyclists brought news of Nick and Romain. ‘Australian guy? Yeah, he’s good. Drinking beer in Iskashim’ ‘How about the French guy with a trailer?’ ‘Oh Him. Shit. That guy looked terrible’. Soon after Romain would fly to Malaysia to be with his fiancé.

The valley was a desert – the parched, dun-coloured shoulders tall over a river trimmed by green. From somewhere a voice rang out and looking up I saw a military watchtower, ahead the road was gated. Two soldiers made their way towards me.

‘You! Where did you come from?’

‘From Zorkul’ I said.

The captain, ethnically Russian, in wrap-around sunglasses, a cap and army fatigues, got close and stuck a finger in my face.

‘Border area. Terrorists’ he said slow and loud, as a parent might a disobedient child. ‘You’ve been to Afghanistan’

‘No no!’ I appealed. ‘Just Tajikistan’.

‘Documents!’ My bad feeling was growing.

I gave him my passport, the letter I’d received from the hotel in Murgab and the permit I’d bought from the father of the family in the yurts. He seized on this immediately ‘Conterfeit!’ he yelled. Actually I’d guessed that much, but I bought it anyway. The family were kind and had fed me, and the fake permit only cost 5 dollars. ‘Search him’ he ordered a junior soldier, scowling.

I’d been robbed by police in Mexico on the pretense of a search, and so I was resistant now. In a foreign city I’d sometimes ask police for ID if they demanded to search me or tried to get a bribe, mainly to put them on the back foot, to hint I wouldn’t be a pushover. Out of habit I did this now, and instantly realised my mistake. This was a military post, not a police stop, plus I was in the middle of nowhere. The captain came up close again. ‘You want my ID – here’s my fucking ID’ he pulled a gun from his belt and there was a moment where I wondered if he’d aim it at me, but he lost courage, returned it to his belt and then made a gun with his index finger and thumb and put it to my temple. Had I been a Tajik, no doubt he’d have used the real gun.

During the search the younger soldier distributed my gear in the dust and I scrabbled to collect it all and return it to my panniers. Did they think I was stupid enough to smuggle Afghan hash or opium in a pannier? (I would have stashed it in the frame – much safer). I watched closely when he came to an envelope of money in my computer case, but didn’t open it. Finally the younger soldier took my passport and disappeared with it, leaving me with the captain who started at me through his sunglasses in silence. After a minute or two he began idly kicking the back wheel of my bike, over and over, whistling as he did so.

Eventually I was told I could go and the younger soldier returned with my passport and some freshly baked bread. This was becoming a recurring theme of my journey: being detained, threatened, interrogated, searched, fed great food and released with a smile.

The landscape remained arid and bare save a few lolloping camels and whistling goat herds on the far bank – it was the Afghanistan of my imagination: mountainous, wild and dry. Small hardy narrow leaved shrubs reluctant to take root higher up the mountains scattered the lower valley. The blue sky and gush of water were constants, the river now mucky and thrashing. Snow appeared on the spines of the Hindu Kush, which spoke of their epic reach, as it was 33 degrees here, at almost 4000 metres above sea level.

The road climbed from the river to scar the mountainsides, gracefully swerving through smaller valleys, and the river’s voice fell to a whisper. The road fell at last to Langar – the first village I’d come to in five days. It was a comforting rug of green sitting in the now wide and flat valley base. Trees followed streams making verdant veins of the land, and I descended through a blizzard of dancing poplar fluff.

I stayed in a homestay in the most garish room I’d ever seen, and the sign of an entirely new culture. These were Pamiri people, who speak a language similar to Farsi, and the same as the Afghans on other side of the river. The women wore colourful gowns, the men topped Argentina football team tracksuits with traditional hats.

The road in the Wakan was of the type that threatens all hope of future paternity. In a break from the bumps of the corregated surface, I only hit one traffic jam. A donkey carrying a huge cooking pot and a load of firewood trotted into me and pushed me into the side of a bridge whilst his embarrassed owner, a small boy, jabbed at him with a stick.

I met Claude, a giant of the cycling world, literally and figuratively. A Swiss man who’d previously toured the world for seven years and published seven books about his adventures, translated into 3 languages. I’d drawn a map of my route through Zorkul and he was heading that way, but I realised it was something Tolkien might of created – marked places included: Ruins of fghisn, swarm of black flies, treacherous river crossing number 8. I decided not to give it to him, but described the route instead.

Violent gales wracked the Wakan, and I had to stop by 4 pm. On a nearby road near Khorog the high temperature and wind had led to a massive landslide which decimated 77 homes and left a mass of displaced people, more were evacuated. Nine died on another landslide when a bridge collapse on main road to Dushanbe.

In Hanis guesthouse in Iskashim, I met Nick again and we pedaled off together to Khorog, marveling at green segments of Afghanistan. It was ace.

A grandfather and his grand daughter, who smiled constantly, until I readied my camera

The green of Afghanistan

Next up: I’ve spent the last few days visiting the cross border health service, the camp for displaced people and the medical facilities in this part of Tajikistan. When I leave I’ll ride to Dushanbe, the capital, from where I’ll post a new kit review piece. And then I’ll cross into a steamy Uzbekistan, and stop by the Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva.

Thank yous – Romain for some of the photography included in this post, Dr Umed, Nizoroma, Dr Mahbut from The Aga Khan Foundation, Vero for the introductions.

The Crazy Adventures of Crazy Max

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

I had to think for a minute

‘Double-O-seven? James Bond?’

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

I took another moment

‘Mad Max?’ I tried

‘Yes Yes. Mad Max. Crrrrrazy Max’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stories I mentioned? They were good ones.

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

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

With Alessandro and Stefania

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

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

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

It was an American girl, looking lost.

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

She thought about this.

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

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

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

Oh God

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

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

‘The Uzbek embassy’

‘No no I mean… Bis… Bisss…Bisssss’

She doesn’t know what city she’s in?

‘Bishkek?’ I tried, cringing inside

‘Yeah yeah Bishkek’

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

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

‘You ticked urgent. She didn’t’

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

‘That is right.’

I awaited something vaguely logical

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘OK’ I said

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

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

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

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

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

The piece I wrote about crossing the frozen Lake Khovsgol in Mongolia has been published on BBC Travel:

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

Annapurna: Cycling a circuit in crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A helping hand from a porter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A land of hope and stories

Yangon retreated, streets bled slowly of traffic and people, as I pedaled north with my friend Al, a TV camera crew and a thundering headache from a cheap and pesticide-scented red wine I’d knocked back the night before, or so I thought. When Al and the camera crew peeled off a fever kicked in, chased by diarrhoea of a Hiroshima quality and my hangover theory faded with the urban clutter. The murdered chicken made into Yangon street food was wreaking revenge, and its target was my intestines and Burma’s roadside foliage.

By dusk I was a tremulous train wreck of a man, but I found the owner of a guesthouse, all would be OK if my imminent coma was near a toilet.

‘I have a room but I’m afraid you cannot stay. No foreigners.’

‘Please!’ I beseeched him ‘I’m sick and there’s nowhere else to sleep’ adding some operatics: a belly clutch, a wobble, a loose-mouthed nod that foretold some medical disaster on his doorstep.

‘I’m sorry. The soldiers will punish me’

Great, I thought, and cursed the military junta, adding my woes to their various sins. Forced land confiscations, torturing advocates of democracy, recruiting child soldiers, and now this.

That night, as my fever clambered to ever greater altitudes, I sneaked off the road into a fruit tree plantation to rough camp (which is flouting the law in Burma). I scrambled urgently out of my tent every few minutes, in the style of an army recruit, to squat in the ant-filled dankness, and besieged by mosquitoes, I hoped vaguely that the sonorities of bowel gas didn’t alert the Burmese army to my whereabouts.

The next day I rode until I found a hotel in a town in which the entire street became a stadium: pop-eyed people stalled, slack jawed, as I pedaled by. Travellers, and their dramatic pantaloons, are coming to Burma but few reach these backwaters and I swaggered about in search of dinner, enjoying my new-fangled VIP status. Tourism is not the only change, technology too has proliferated: two years ago Internet was virtually non-existent outside Yangon and mobile phone sim cards cost 200 dollars. Now Yangon has a beguiling clothing store called Facebook Fashion, complete with the logo, a ‘Epson’ sign has been laid over one of the giant Buddha effigies inside the Shwedagon pagoda (which is either product placement or people are now praying to Epson) and there is even an ‘Apple Store’, though it is an un-ironic rundown shack with a jumble of fractured circuit boards and dusty radios that, charmingly, has borrowed the name.

Drivers in Burma are afflicted with that particular Asian compulsion to use car horns so loud they must have been borrowed from oil tankers. Outside Asia, and New York, if anyone sounded their horn for that much time you would expect them to have sustained a gunshot wound to the head and be slumped lifelessly over the steering wheel. Here cars barrel past in a frenzy of clamor and dust and then a flapping hand flies from a window, the right hand window of a right hand drive car which drives on the right hand side of the road, and three letters, tall and robust, pitch up in behind your eye lids – W T F. The explanation: Cars come from Japan, Thailand or India (all of which drive on the left) but in Burma they changed the driving side of the road to the right, to snub old colonial associations probably, (though it is also rumoured one of the General’s wives was told by her astrologer that it would be better this way) and now overtaking means placing the least flappable of the posse in the passenger seat and is as perilous as donning an Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirt and striding into a military base with pamphlets and a megaphone.

North of Pyay the country turned a vivid green scattered with oxon and carts, devoid of modern farm machinery. Women in rice hats set about their crooked work in the paddies, all for the accomplishments of subsistence and lordosis. Its women who build the roads too, and women who work the shops, and women who care for the children. Many men in Burma have the more sweatless tasks of loafing in shadow, whiskey bottle in hand, or approaching me by way of a self-important march and announcing their position in the army or police so I can acknowledge their status and pay due respect. It’s unsurprising though in the context of an authoritarian military regime or government (insert whopping inverted commas) – it’s the minority groups, the women and the poor who always pay the biggest price.

Cycling through Burma I get the impression, however self-aggrandising this may sound, that my being here will find its way into stories: my stories, of a Burma then unsmeared by mass tourism, and those of children I meet who may one day recount stories of the old Burma to the next generation: the military state before Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, and their memories of the flagship tourist they saw as a child – a hirsute, odorous man on a bicycle, tired enough to wear an air of disaster.

Various rules for tourists are enforced in Burma: I am not allowed to be hosted by locals, to camp or to stay in guesthouses. My only option then is the more expensive hotels, of which there are few. So, petulantly, I got into the habit of pitching up to the local police station at dusk, bouncing my shoulders and declaring that I had nowhere to sleep thereby saying, in roundabout fashion, I am your problem. There were myriad phone calls, notes scrawled and debates made until eventually I would be delivered to a monastery or police station where I could spend the night. If I surreptitiously wild camped and had to explain where I’d slept at roadblocks the following day, I would tell them the town with the nearest hotel, and when that town was 80 km away and it was 10 am, I was relying on them thinking me some sort of super-human which I played up to by broad arm stretches and furious moppage of sweat and ‘yep, tough morning’.

In villages I saw young men and boys, their lungis rolled up into Sumo-esque pants, launching their bodies into martial art style flying kicks, aiming to connect with a rattan ball : a sport called Sepak takraw. I often sat to watch these games of incredible dexterity and skill: imagine volley ball but you use your feet and the aim is to go for the smash. Even these photos don’t do it justice.

In eating houses it often felt like a pit stop: a whole team of people, unasked, would busy themselves around me: a lady would fan me to keep me cool, a guy would apply oil to my bike chain, another might put a waterproof sheet over my bike if it was raining, someone would draw me a map and bring me water. Paying was denied me even after pained guilt-wracked pleas. Everyone would smile copiously and it would make me ponder the enamel dissolving betel nut and another of life’s ironies: the Burmese are a people with the easiest smiles, and the worst teeth.

In one village a girl shot to my side, armed with a phrase book entitled ‘English for Ladies and Gentlemen of Business’ a pamphlet from antiquity compiled by the Burmese regime. ‘Do you have any rubies or gems to trade?’ she asked. I shook my head and borrowed her book to find the appropriate response ‘I’m afraid Madam the matter is quite one-sided’. I also noticed the delightful advice if the esteemed business visitor wants to travel the country: ‘These days the hill tribe people are far-seeing, they come down to the plains to visit the spreading markets, like us’.

The girl, who was in her early 20s, struck me as unusually forthright for a Burmese lady, but her intentions soon became clear.

‘Are you married?’
‘Do you have fiancé or lover?’
‘Um, no’
‘I don’t believe you! Give me your passport’

I handed it over

‘Beautiful’ she cooed as she appraised my photo, which was odd since I had always considered my passport photo to smack of someone with a long history of freeganism and paedophilia.

‘I want to travel so much’ she continued. ‘But I have no sponsor for my passport’ Then she looked me dead in the eye, her stare more suffused with determination than desire.

‘My name is Maiah, you will remember me. This is where I work. You can come back here any time’

By the state of me, I surmised that she must really, really want out of Myanmar.

In the tropical wet season there’s futility in scoping the sky for signs of rain, you make slit-eyes at the horizon instead, where a mist sweeps in with the fervor and bite of a Saharan sandstorm. After some torrential bursts in the south though the rains eased and then ended, the fields bieged and were split by rocky gullies. The rivers dried to nothing, vast bridges ranged over sand and succulents. The change of landscape brought with it a powerful feeling of progress: I was moving fast. In this scrubby semi-desert I wild camped, a nameless wild herb perfumed the air and for the first time, possibly since somewhere in Mexico, I left the fly open: there were no mosquitoes in the gloom. In the still dusk I watched hummingbirds zip in and dunk their long beaks into flowers overhanging my tent, and in the bliss of the alfresco and star-lit night, I flopped into sleep.

Bagan: A vast array of ancient temples spots the land for miles. In town the ubiquitous rubble and ladders attest to the explosion of construction for the coming tourists. It’s one of the bigger attractions in Burma and I watched tribes of travelers take to scooters and motorbikes, sitting rigid, upright and uneasy, to explore the surrounds.

For my planned detour to Burma’s mountainous Chin state I didn’t have much to go on. No tour reports, altitude maps or the like, just a patch of orange on my map, as blank as a desert, with the dim names of a few diminutive settlements joined by roads that, with their million sharp wiggles, bore the semblance of electrocuted cartoon worms. My main worry, among a shed load, was that it wouldn’t be possible to ride 900 km over 11 days, usually this would be a cinch, but I had to factor in all the unsealed dirt roads, the 20% grades, the climbs to 3000 metres above sea level, the monsoon turning earth to mud: July was the worst month of the year to be there. I wasn’t even confident I’d be allowed into the state by officials. As far as I knew, no foreign cycle tourer had cycled any of the roads I planned to ride for years or decades. On the road towards the mountains I was offered an alternative: a rod straight temptress of a throughfare, flat probably, soothing my passage to India. I deliberated. It was wet and cold already, it would be worse up in the mountains. But regrets, I remembered, never chase adventures such as this. So I gulped hard, and launching into a game of one-up-man-ship with myself, I paid a wistful glance at the easy road, but instead turned my handlebars hard to the left and set off towards Chin State.

I decided not to worry about miles or kilometres or speeds; instead I’d concentrate on hours. If I got up early, and was on the road for 6 am and ended at sunset with just a few short breaks for food, then maybe I’d make it before my VISA expired. Early one morning I came across two beshawled women, crooked and witch-like, shuffling down the misty road, grinning at me, and I knew I must have arrived: one of the women bore the facial tattoos that mark some of the older women of Chin State, and have garnered them so much renown. The history of the practice is a little cloudy, perhaps the practice arose to make the women less attractive so they wouldn’t be kidnapped by neighbouring tribes. Which to me unnervingly resonated with the practice of cattle branding.

The road twisted into the clouds: on one side of me was a cliff face, lost at times to landslides which I edged around, on the other side a white oblivion, sometimes bright white and heavenly with sun, other times leaden and threatening, but always thick and masking. Near Bagan I had invoked the scarlet smiles and waves from Burma’s betel nut addicts, further out I was met by stone-faced astonishment and I left behind me an array of people statuesque and blank in awe. But as I went up and up, on dirt roads, I found muffled mountain people, an almost Andean evocation, who exploded into half-mocking laughter as I hammered down on my pedals and was chased out of town by snakes of voluble children. In the shabbiest indigent mountain communities leery women would quicken their shuffles, children would scatter, men would shrink into doorways. But always when I approached they would shed their edge and invite me in for tea.

There were only two towns on my route in Chin State, and the villages had no fresh produce, just stale biscuits and noodles and the suggestion of future scurvy, but even in the most desolate of settings I would see the wooden boards declaring ‘National League for Democracy’. Children and chickens would dissolve out of puffs of cloud that drifted through the streets along with men shouldering ancient rifles with enormous barrels, and women puffing pipes, cloth wrapped around their heads. These women led me inside where we all sat around a sputtering fire, the steam rising off my damp clothes blending with the wood smoke, and as the wind rattled the tin roof, and we crouched on our hams, sipping tea in silence, we all wondered what I was doing here.

The cloud obscured the vista from the roads cut into mountainsides but as the wind plowed into me, and drizzle steeped my beard and made glistening morning cobwebs of my arm hair, I felt hardy and alive. It was cold at 2700 metres high though, I warmed my hands on my brake-heated rims after the downhills. When the wind gusted enough to clear the cloud a vast scene launched from the murk: forested peaks dressed in cloud and menace, proving me minuscule. Up here the lowland tropics were a faded photo in my memory, now it was mossy, windy and wet: Wales on steroids. Up two vertical kilometres, down one, up two, down two, up one.

The villages were draped over ridges instead of cut into mountainsides, perhaps because of a particular peril of the season: Landslides. I saw their aftermath every five or ten kilometres, sometimes huge ones blocking the road and only motorbikes could get past so that now no cars or trucks could follow me and if there was a mechanical problem with my bike, I’d be walking out, and that could take a week or more. On cue my right pedal began to click ominously and I realised the bearings were shot. There was nothing for it but denial.

On one precipice-edged mountain road I paused as fist-sized rocks cascaded down the mountain ahead of me. I chose my moment, switched on my Go Pro and pedaled madly past the raining earth and slate. I turned to watch the ongoing tumble when a huge section of soil flowed off the rock face like water. I didn’t feel in danger though until the entire slope suddenly subsided, three trees came crashing down the mountain submerging the entire road, and then the landslide moved horizontally in my direction: I jumped on my bike and pedaled hard shouting, as was later revealed in the video footage, a very bad curse word and the name of a certain deity.

I came out of the clouds and cycled through rolling primary forest, the road was furnished with mud and dozing buffalos, and I had to stop and haul my bike. By night I rough camped, and one morning I woke to find a bloody patch on the wall of my tent – a leach had attached itself to me and feasted, and then I’d turned and squished it. Sometimes I slept in villages, often the local pastor or teacher could speak some English, and sometimes the village prodigal son was home from the States, a refugee on leave. In their stilted wooden homes the walls owned a picture of a blue eyed, lightly bearded Jesus as well as Avril Lavine (her image in remote villages around the world is one of life’s conundrums) and then in the households of the more prosperous, photos of their kids, their faces pasted eerily onto the bodies of other children in suits, on boats or at the seaside. Many times I was told that I was the only foreigner to have stayed in the village, people assumed I worked for an NGO. ‘Where is your interpreter?’ they asked. Once, I was told, a Frenchman had come. ‘On a bicycle?’ I asked ‘No no! A motorbike. Nobody comes here on a bicycle. Except you, Englishman.’

Flat. F-L-A-T. That is what the pastor had said about the road out of Chin State. He’d even demonstrated, with a horizontal swish of his flat hand, and so there has been no semantic mistake, ‘flat’ is not Burmese for ‘vertical’. At every bend I glanced up from the jagged rocks that ‘paved’ the road to find my eyes settling in dismay on something that looked more suitable for base jumping than mountain biking. Deity-decrying terrain. Eventually I made it up and significantly closer to deep space, through my habit of piecemeal optimism: I trick myself time and again into believing that the next uphill bend (or mile, or day) will be the last. If I were more intelligent or cynical doubt would rob me of the mental ability to ride up big mountains. A week or so afterwards, in India, another man described the road as flat. Are you sure? I asked. ‘Yes yes’ he replied. ‘Flat. But it does get a little cold. Especially when you get up into the clouds’.

I made it to Kale, closing in on the border and found a bike shop to get new brake pads. The zesty and sweaty mechanic in charge was wearing a singlet that depicted a swastika (you may think this to be a symbol of Hinduism, but I have my doubts). He motioned frantically for me to sit and then tried to remove my brakes with a cone spanner, before I could tell him he needed an allen key he began bashing my new shimano xt brakes with it! ‘Stop Stop!’ I yelled, ‘what are you doing?’ He pointed to a little mud on the rim which he had decided to remove with ultimate force. Then he gabbled something incomprehensible, jumped onto my bike and cycled off. ‘what the fuck!’ I think I yelled and another mechanic explained he had gone to the workshop ‘but I can replace brake pads!’ I said exasperated. Now a smack-happy nazi was joy-riding my bicycle around a strange Burmese city and I was haunted by the vision of bike verses truck, a scenario I had avoided for 65,000 km. He returned in 20 minutes, both wheels were paralysed through rubbing pads. I adjusted them as he grinned on, and I regretted my funk – he was only trying to help.

Eventually I got to Tamu and checked out of Burma – a country that has worked its way into the answer of that much posed question: ‘And where is your favourite place?’ Not all Burmese people share my sentiment, and why would they? Many are locked up for political reasons and various groups are still persecuted, especially Muslims in Rakhine. Land is still being confiscated. The army consumes around 40% of the country’s money, about 2% is spent on healthcare – a fact I was reminded of as I looked out over rice paddies, at the bent women toiling, as two cutting edge Burmese fighter jets split the blue Burmese sky.

I leave you with the words of a wooden plaque in the immigration station in Tamu which I had to commit to memory, reasoning a photo may not go down too well.

The Myanmar Spirit

The simple-minded Myanmar has no envy for persons of a fair complexion. Nor hatred for the brownishs. Nor differentiates with the blackishs. Nor judges those of different faith. Myanmars have a brethren respect and affection for all.

But if the affairs of our nation, country, land, history, religion or culture are interfered with by foxy-trick, the persons will be dealt with severely, with all our might, whether big or small, black or white, until the last word at the very end, even if we have many injuries and are lying in a pool of blood.

Thank you this month to Al and Jess and Horizons school for having me do a presentation for the students. 

Next up: India.