Posts Tagged ‘Travel stories’

Mongolia’s Wild West

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and half thousand kilometres of remote sand-entrenched roads joining desolate towns where a padlocked shop that sold out of date chewing gum would be considered extravagant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye Mongolia

Ice lakes and frozen worlds

To the lake…

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

Cold eyeballs in the Gobi



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then wind changed, by 180 degrees.

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

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

I could hitch a ride

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

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

Its only three days to Ulaanbaatar, if I persevere…

My knee hurts

Not enough

I need more food

I’ll find some

OK. I’ll get a lift. The next car.

Maybe one more hour, then see…

Get a lift!

But I said I’d do this…

That’s not a good reason!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally here’s some TV news footage from Myanmar –

The Chinese Burn

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

I flagged him down.

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

‘You sleep in bushes?’

‘Uh huh’

‘Here? In these… bushes?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

He translated.

‘What did she say’ I asked.

‘She said yes’



We all sat for minute, pondering nose sizes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese public messages of road safety

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

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

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

‘Very nice!’ I shouted.

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

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

Chinese meat markets lend a certain reality to dining

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

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

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

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

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

‘I worried about you’ said Liyan

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

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

‘Liyan, tell them the wifi is broken!’

‘Liyan ask what time is check out!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What would you recommend?’

‘Well we have some sensational cows tendons today Sir’

‘Well, I dunno…’

‘They come with coriander’

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

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

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

Espionage is easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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