Vietnam – Friend or Phở?

Hand a crayon to a small child and ask them politely to draw some mountains. Most likely your little artist’s method of choice will be to clutch the implement dagger-like and repeatedly stab score marks, lie-detector style, onto the page, leaving behind a faultless hack-saw teeth range of perfect peaks. These may or may not be the mountains of your dreams but they are certainly those that intermittently appeared before us between the blooming (yes, in the sense of mild expletive too) clouds that hung lethargically, and consistently, over the Tonkinese Alps around the much-loved little hill-station of Sapa, our first real port of call in Vietnam. But more about this and coffee-grinder head-gear in a moment.

Keep crayons out of children's hands

Keep crayons out of children's hands

We were wary upon entry into this first South East Asian country, the slow turning of our cranks demonstrated as much, because you see we had been warned off Vietnam. Numerous travellers (usually irritably fatigued cycle-tourers) grumbled about the hassly, annoying, always-trying-to-rip-you-off experiences that would surely follow for us too. We, however, in our cycling days through the north-west of the country found little, if any, of this. We may not have made life-long buddies here but the only phở (sic) that confronted us was of an altogether different sort.

Sam's soul sister

Sam's soul sister

Our aspirations for Vietnam were deliberately limited. We wanted only a taste. To confirm that the sublime cuisine that encircled our old flat in east London, in the form of a zillion Vietnamese restaurants, had its true origins here. And maybe to see a little of the countryside too. So, our plan was to cut the corner. The north-west corner of the country. Through the hills and hill-tribe lands before finally exiting stage-left into Laos where we would once again steer south. Unfortunately in some senses, this route through Vietnam passed no big towns. Critically, no bike shops. So, in an attempt to search out new bottom-brackets, to eat Vietnamese noodle soup (Phở) better than the stuff we gulped down on a weekly basis back in Hackney and to visit one of the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World, we wistfully decided to abandon the bikes in soggy SaPa while we flew the sleeper train into Hanoi.

Hanoi hustle

Hanoi hustle

We arrived off the train from Hanoi in the half-light. In fact it was not even half light. Maybe only slightly light. Or even pitch black. To be honest, at 4.14 am we were so bleary-eyed that we hardly registered much, but we were confused by shadows floating in the periphery of our vision as we ambled along the ghostly streets in search of somewhere, anywhere, to await midday when we could seek out our crash-mat in the nest of our kind Couch-Surfing host, Caro.

We had no idea about street safety in the wee hours in Hanoi and were a little cautious, being on foot rather than on our twinkle-toed two-wheeled friends. We’d found a park bench in what seemed to us to be a pretty fancy end of town with embassies in old French colonial buildings dotted about in wide European-feeling boulevards.

The shapes and shadows grew more and more numerous. Hoodies, we think? Despite the plush environs of nesting embassies we started fearing the worst. Who wouldn’t in a strange capital city at 4am? One specter ran past us. Another jumped up and across our line of sight, and another onto and then off a bench. And as it dawned, it dawned on us, that these menacing silhouettes tormenting our primal emotions were in fact hundreds upon hundreds of ludicrously early-morning fitness freaks. Mostly over the age of 50 and all out and about taking their rigorous matinal constitutionals. As we strolled (now playing it ever so cool) past Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the light had well and truly outmuscled the dark. Uncle Ho was presently in Russia visiting his mate Lenin, and being ‘repaired’, so all we could do was gawp at these hordes of Hanoi inhabitants diligently adhering to their daily regimes. We felt vaguely silly about having been even vaguely concerned for our safety, and boldly celebrated with gritty snail phở at 5:30am.

Hanoi social club

Frankie goes to Hanoi

Our days in Hanoi dripped by deliciously as we gorged on croissant, summer rolls and all sorts of fearsome phở that kept us tanked up on our marches around the city. By contrast to Sapa, where the furthest we could see through the thick fog was to the croissant on our plates (if we were lucky), the 19th floor of Caro’s luxury apartment afforded unrivalled views out of this heaving metropolis and an entirely different perspective from our habitual saddle-height observation decks. The energetic buzz that we rubbed up against each day on the streets and alleyways below, however, took on no lesser immensity from such a height, as scooters surged and every other form of traffic imaginable rumbled on through.

Ay Ay Capitan......

Ay Ay Capitan......

Our infidelity to the bikes, with strolling smoothly replacing pedalling, encouraged us even further afield with reports that Ha Long Bay was a mere 3 hours away by bus to the coast. A chance to savour one of the newly crowned Seven Natural Wonders of the World. And for our two pennies-worth, it was worth every penny. Sleeping out on a bobbing junk boat in the South China Sea enclosed by sheer, brooding karst rocks rising out of the sea’s greyey-green at 90 degrees; and we were awe-struck. On a bike you don’t see these things, but the maritime equivalent of our bikes, namely a 2-man kayak, took Sam and Francesca under sea-arches and into stunning, isolated, tropical lagoons with only masturbating monkeys for company. Ah, the joys of nature.

Anyone seen my bike?

Anyone seen my bike?

Hanging out in Hanoi and soaking in salty seas had once more re-kindled our energies and desire for the road. We were eager to get out of over-rated Sapa, destroyed by demanding western tourists the vast numbers of which we had not seen probably since leaving London. Within a handful of kilometres we were creaking up the highest pass in the country and past the highest mountain in SE Asia, Fansipans (you can only imagine the fun we had with this name). Creaking, because our mini-tour of Hanoi’s bike shops had been fruitless. Creaking past wonderfully cheery Montagnard tribal folk with an immaculate sense of dress. Traditional outfits remain the norm here and are utterly elegant. As with Yunnan, there are numerous tribes, some of which spread over such a limited area that the sartorial charm can vary markedly from one village to the next.

Our favourite winning outfit entailed a lady from the Black Dao tribe sporting what can best be described as an art-deco coffee-grinder headpiece interwoven into her shiny black hair. No photo sadly, so we will have to leave it to your imagination instead.

As our north-westward road began its curve southwestward and finally westward towards a newly opened border-crossing with Laos, we dropped out of the mountains and into rolling hills that provided our final micro-adventure: an intimate face-to-face encounter with one of the locals, a South Asian Cobra. It slithered out 6 feet in front of our wheels and turned to face us. A raised head and a fanned hood was enough to persuade us to stop. Maybe upon catching a whiff of two unwashed cyclists, we know not why, the hood swiftly retracted and it turned tail and slid off. It was time to leave. We happily did not end up as one of the 30,000 souls (overwhelmingly rice farmers) who are the victims of snake bites each year in Vietnam.

The legendary snakey fan dancers of north vietnam

The legendary snakey fan-dancers of north vietnam

Resting briefly in Dien Bien Phu, a site of great importance for the Vietnamese in their ultimately successful battle to rid themselves of the French colonial yolk in 1954, we readied our limbs once more for the bumpy, less developed roads of Laos that would lie ahead. And, of course, dived into one final steaming bowl of Phở before getting stamped out of the country.

Being escorted out of Vietnam a la Flight of the Valkyries

Being escorted out of Vietnam a la Ride of the Valkyries

As ever there should be our updated photos here and our route has been updated (here) to some point somewhere in Laos. Irritatingly, Googlemaps only allows 200 markers (very inconsiderate) so we will try to figure a way round having exhausted our quota for next time.

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Yunnan – Leaping Tiger, Crouching Rice Grain

“I’d rather cry in a BMW car, than laugh on the backseat of a bicycle”. These, of course, are not the words of Francesca, offered in return to Sam’s courting gesture that the two of us cycle across the world. But they are words that now grip the burgeoning Chinese middle classes in their soul-searching identity crisis, as super-fuelled capitalism seeps into every nook and cranny of modern life. They are words that have come to epitomize the seemingly unquenchable materialism of the post 1980’s generation that prizes celebrity and wealth over the more traditional Chinese values of honour, integrity and respect for one’s elders.

Population control

Attempts to control the Next Generation

These words are those of Ma Nuo, a young and eager contestant on China’s biggest TV dating show, If You Are The One. Words uttered with no sense of shame to her bewildered, naïve suitor. Fortunately for Sam, Francesca was never deterred by her co-adventurer’s proposed impecunious pedalling plans. And away we went. Ma Nuo may not be the most profound commentator you will find on the state of modern Chinese society but her words, and desires for the future, do encapsulate much of what we saw and experienced throughout our 2½ months rumbling through present-day China.

Naxi Networking

Naxi Networking

This former colossus of communism has embraced the Western urge for personal enrichment and commercialism to the max. The verbs “to buy” and “to sell” in Mandarin probably tumble from a babe’s lips not long after “Mama” and “Baba” have been learnt. But, boy, are they a hard working nation, not limiting themselves to daylight hours, whether it be flogging imitation tat in the towns and cities or grinding away at the soil in the rural areas, where every square inch is put to some use. (This made searching for camping spots a long and sometimes hopeless task).

Hmmm, Bole: Knock-off bananas

Hmmm, Bole: Knock-off bananas

Shops invariably opened early and remained so until late into the evenings and we were struck by the apparent equality in the workplace. We cannot comment on the upper echelons of society; the board rooms, committee meetings, or political hierarchy etc; but road construction sites were heavily populated by women toiling at the earth and rock; the wheels of city buses were firmly in the hands of hardy Chinese ladies; and the markets and shops were predominantly tended by women. While we frequently slid past roadside diners full of gorging, puffing Chinese men, no such downtime appeared to be afforded to women.

Hi Ho, Hi Ho.....It's off to work we go

Hi Ho, Hi Ho.....It's off to work we go

But as TVs, computers, new cars and those other trappings of modern life have found their way into the mitts of many of the industrious people of the People’s Republic, the pace of development has left some, particularly the rural ethnic groups (Dai, Bai, Yi, Hani, Naxi, Miao, Lisu, Hui, Lahu, Va, Yao, Tibetan, Jingpo, Blang, Pumi, Nu, etc. etc. etc. – in fact nearly 50% of the province is non-Han) that we came across in Yunnan, to blink bleary-eyed into the harsh, white light of the latest super super-market to open in their nearby booming town. Wandering around in traditional garb, as pumpingly crap dance music reverberates, these bewildered folk fondled one shiny product after another as if the magic, that must surely come with paying double or triple the local market price, might rub off on to their hands. They exited through the pearly sliding doors, proudly clasping the one small item (in logoed carrier-bag) that they had paid way over the odds for, feeling as though something important had just taken place.

Our super-market experience took place within a few hundred kilometres of China’s most southerly frontier, where Yunnan Province drops from the vertiginous Tibetan plateau and slides into the preposterously muggy and suffocating jungles of the borderlands cupped by Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. Banana trees jostling along our roadsides now, where once we were cheered onwards, Tour-de-France style, by beautiful pine trees.

Blazin' Fields

Blazin' Fields

As soon as our weary limbs were rested up, we jetted out of depressing old Shangri-La (Ha! What a shit-hole to build in such a glorious setting with its surrounding fields afire with crimson shrubbery) and began our trail southeastwardly. This final Tibetan outpost (or gateway, depending on your direction of travel) did not, however, signal the end of the high hills for us. We – no exaggeration – plummeted almost 2km vertically through the implacable rains to reach the mouth of the one of the world’s deepest gorges – Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Sam preventing imminent collapse of gorge

Sam preventing imminent collapse of gorge

Legend has it….. you can probably guess the rest. Whether an agile cat could have made it across is dubious, but what is certain is that that tiger certainly did not suffer from vertigo, like most foolhardy tourists who periodically tip-toe along the slippery, old tea-horse trail that is scratched high up into the gorge-side. All joking aside, it is rumoured that a handful of careless visitors disappear over the edge each year, a fact not widely publicised by the Chinese government. Dangers aside, we loved this place, and were able to share the experience with Francesca’s dad, Laurence, who had generously come to deliver much-needed slabs of English Cheddar Cheese and Italian Gorgonzola. The locals gazed on bemused at the frenzied consumption of such prodigious quantities of unpasteurised dairy but we didn’t care. It was what we had been missing the most.

Laurence learning  a thing or two about Yunnan yak tails

Laurence learning a thing or two about Yunnan yak tails

The bikes caught a breather as we plunged headlong into the chaos of a 7-day national holiday in the absurdly touristy (yet undeniably pretty) UNESCO protected, Lijiang. One of China’s old Ming towns, sprinkled with lovely Naxi locals in the kind of get-up that makes tourists want to spend their money. And they do. While the town did grate a little with its rampant commercialism (and 6 hour traffic jams), it became more alluring as the tide of Han tourists ebbed back to the east coast and we readied our neglected bikes once more for the roads southward. We waved good-bye to Laurence and thanked him once more for his cheese emissary duties, and soon we were bobbling into the charmingly cobbled old town of Shaxi.

Horse-pen horse play

Horse-pen horse play

Shaxi is everything that Lijiang and Dali (the equally popular tourist hotspot) should aspire to be, and aren’t. Tranquilly set among gentle rice paddies and forgiving hills, we could easily have stayed longer in our converted horse-pen of a hostel, but an itch was surfacing. An itch to leave China and sample new roads. We had periodically crossed the paths of other cyclists (mostly in Central Asia) who had spoken of this same itch. An itch that, while appreciating the joys of China, nonetheless tires of the inability to communicate (i.e. asking for a bowl of rice and being presented with a tooth-pick), and baulks at the incessantly nauseating boom of drunken Karaoke that belched out from each hotel we appeared to select, and itches to conquer the kilometres rather than be conquered by them. This itch was coupled with excitement too, at the prospect of Vietnam and our transition into South East Asia.

Stairway to Rice Heaven

Stairway to Rice Heaven

Our final days in China took us onto the laser-straight south-easterly diagonal Red River road that eventually flushed us out through reams of tumbling centuries-old rice terraces, the Tropic of Cancer, all those banana plantations and increasingly poorer valleys to Hekou: our ultimate port of call in this vast and complex nation. A painless border official and a wheeling of bikes across a bridge and we were in Vietnam.

Our snaps from Yunnan can be found here, along with a super updated route map here.

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Spiky Sichuan and its flying phlegm

We wake up in those grotty hours between 6am and 7:30am when the most cacophonously feral activity to ever grace this earth is in full swing. A pursuit that appears to form the very quintessence of what is to be Chinese. Men (most definitely), women (of all ages), and even young boys and girls (“Errrrrrrrr shinn!” …Disgusting!) on a daily basis will summon immense snorting strength to draw from the very darkest, deepest depths of their inner core (possibly even from their very souls) the foul yellowing mucus that Chinese lungs produce by the Sinotrukload. And with a symphony of gravelly, grating, honking hacks they will expectorate literally everywhere (in restaurants (a favourite), shops, living rooms, hotels, lifts etc etc). Our days in China have often taken on the feel of a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.

Making a citizen's arrest at the OK Corral

Making a citizen's arrest at the O.K. Corral

One attempt by local government to combat spitting, in the build-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, was to introduce a 5-Yuan (~$1) fine. When one soul was caught in the act and attempted to pay her fine with a 10-Yuan note, for which the policeman did not have change, the lass in question found a simple solution to the problem, gobbing contentedly for a second time in front of the officer, and calling it quits.

We apologise for beginning this blog with such grotesque detail of quotidian life here but we just felt we really needed to get it off our chests. Sorry. It’s also somewhat unfair on Sichuan that such a grumble appears here, given how much we have loved being in this particularly stunning province of China. Be under no illusion that this phlegming phenomena is unique to Sichuan. The Gobbers of Gansu and Yakkers of Yunnan are right up on the pantheon too.

Just like a prayer (flag), you know I'll take you there

Just like a prayer (flag), you know I'll take you there

But amid this grim cascade of flying phlegm we have made our way most joyfully through a truly beautiful part of the world. And a big part too, fully justifying a weighty blog entry given that we spent more than 3 weeks pedalling up and down (and up and down) seriously steep and very high peaks.

And while we are in repentant mood, we must apologise too for what now seems like somewhat breathless and over-enthusiastic hyperbole regarding our pedalling feats in the Pamirs. (see here for modestly over-the-top commentary). Let’s not belittle what was undoubtedly hard cycling there but Sichuan trumps those Central Asian highways with a topography like the spiky spine of an enormous dragon. Add to the equation the fact that the aforementioned beast arcs its back, stands high on its toes, and does all this while on top of the roof of the world, otherwise known as the Tibetan plateau, (which encompasses most of western Sichuan) and you get the picture.

Sky scraper

Sky scraper

Through much of Sichuan we really did scrape around for oxygen molecules at numerous mountain passes that regularly elbowed 5,000m. When we now look back at our commentary on “gulping for air” in the Pamirs we feel a little like the children that cried “Wolf” or “Dragon”.

But it hasn’t all been super high peaks. There have been super high grasslands too. With their mega-colonies of stalking honey-bees that can sniff Sam out from 40km away and head straight for his ever-expanding “hair-hive”. But we should start with JiuZhaiGou (Nine Villages Valley), the poster pin-up of Chinese nature tourism. If Great Walls, Terracotta Armies or Forbidden Cities are all a little too man-made for you, then you go here. Along with the largest scrum of Chinese tourists you ever did see……………(at least since you went to the Great Wall, we imagine).

Walking in a Willy Wonka Wonderland

His and Hers walking in a Willy Wonka Wonderland

And we see why more than 2 million Chinese head to this gem in the north-eastern corner of Sichuan each year. It’s just so damn beautiful, just how Willy Wonka would have designed a Nature Park if given the chance. Crazy colours, absurdly wonderful lakes, waterfalls, mountains and trees and all spread over 50km of tumbling ravines. We swear we have not photo-shopped any of the images.

And this paradise would have been hell if we had not been able to escape the teeming trillions who arrived in the fog and left in the embracing early autumn sunshine. But we managed it. The thing is, we are not very good at reading “No Entry” signs in Chinese, and both Sam’s and Francesca’s cycling limbs hop over “No Entry” barriers ever so easily. And a little bit of heaven unfolded itself to us. For four glorious hours we ambled along old hiking trails, (probably deemed a little unsafe for the massing masses), down cascading streams, until finally we re-emerged into the crowds and were swallowed up by all the obscene surrounding Han commercialism, rubbing its Giant Panda memorabilia paws greedily, just beyond the visitors centre.

Playground Bullies

Playground Bullies

Back on the bikes, the roads swept us south-westward through the wet grasslands of the north, their vast plateaus of jade with happy yaks everywhere grazing like it was going out of fashion, unfazed by us whirring past, and of course the ever-testy bees angrily chasing Sam. As the kilometres came and went beneath us the distant hills began to rise and close in above us like playground bullies, until we were finally racing alongside plummeting rivers and dwarfed by those infamous turreted karst peaks that loomed overhead through the hunching mists. Have another look at the images on the sides of your faux (or not!) Ming vases, that hold your old brollies and walking sticks, and you can understand what an inspiration Sichuan has been throughout the ages for Chinese painters and poets alike.

Jiu-Zhai-Flow

Jiu-Zhai-Flow

And the people. Little mention yet of the folk who populate this province of the Four Rivers (“Si Chuan”), all of which drip mightily off the Tibetan Plateau and water (and feed) much of eastern China. For any path through the western half of this province (the biggest in China if you discount the “Autonomous Regions”), will swamp you with all things Tibetan. For days on end we rolled on through their villages and towns in the sunshine, and then through the incessant rains (so much of it, we again understand the envy hue of this region).

Every Tibetan has an opinion on just how lost we are

Every Tibetan has an opinion on just how lost we are

Unlike Tibet itself, where a £500 per tourist permit fee is required to enter and be guided around by a Chinese official tour operator, journeying through the Tibetan parts of western Sichuan incur no such constraints. But numerous police checkpoints on the roads often blocked our path. Particularly, when we strayed too close to the Tibetan border and to towns, such as Aba, where monks are increasingly self-immolating in protest at Chinese rule.

From what we were able to see from our saddles, however, the repression and ill treatment that Tibetans suffer at the hands of the Chinese central government within Tibet itself, appears to be toned down for the majority of western Sichuanese Tibetans. Prosperous communities filled with mini-castles and healthy-wealthy contented locals tending unmolested to bumper crops of barley and corn. We would be keen to hear evidence to the contrary, but we reckon that Chinese authorities are striving (and have been for some time) to integrate (through subsidy or otherwise) these communities into the greater Chinese family and dilute feelings of antipathy to Beijing rule and any strong sense of solidarity to brothers and sisters still residing within Tibet.

This Charming Man

This Charming Man

Beijing rule is engaged in a bizarre balancing exercise with, on the one hand, a strong urge to homogenise this behemoth nation pitted against, on the other hand, the desire to preserve regional particularities to maximise tourism revenues. We suspect that the pockets of depressingly disneyfied Tibet that we have also passed through, and which tally with the tales we have heard of how grimly commercialised Lhasa has become, is one of the disheartening consequences.

Between the Tibetan communities themselves, however, we have been transfixed by the ever-changing clothing and architecture that we have observed as we have hopped from one valley over to the next. Nature’s natural barriers have so effectively separated villages and towns that even language can vary significantly within the space of a few dozen kilometres. Yet the beaming smiles and multiple thumbs-ups, as we have toiled up their hills and zoomed down their dales, always remained constant.

People say we're monkeying around......

People say we're monkeying around......

One town in particular, Danba, deserves a mention not least for its fabulously pretty surrounding villages that recently earned themselves the title of “China’s most beautiful village”, according to China’s National Geographic. This is some accomplishment if you begin to tot up just how many villages there are in China. And National Geographic may well be right too. Set in an impossibly steep-sided confluence of three valleys, Tibetan homes speckle the hillsides where the laws of physics allow, and are interspersed with curious and aged watch-towers that sprout heavenward, ostensibly as a mediaeval form of protection but ‘latterly’ as symbols of wealth and prestige. Whatever their raison d’être, they look pretty cool against a backdrop of imposing peaks.

All along the watch towers....

All along the watch towers....

Despite all its treats, Sichuan saved its real cycling pleasures until the very end of our time there. Our last 6 days of exertion took us from the no-nonsense crossroads valley town of Litang, (on the massively-under-construction (G318) Sichuan-Tibet Highway), which houses Tibetan gompas and the odd Momo (steamed dumpling) bar, to Zhongdian in Yunnan Province (now cynically renamed “Shangri-La” – Tibetan Paradise – to bring in the tourists).

The route lifted us, slowly and dustily at times, over gloriously isolated and desolate mountain passes with only flapping Tibetan prayer flags for company and with distant white peaks hinting at the even greater heights of Tibet itself. Despite warm days, night-time temperatures brought a veil of ice to our tent when we camped atop one high pass. This lovely and lonely route out of the mountains of Sichuan and into the mountains of Yunnan also gifted us with one final mighty 40km downhill stretch, on smooth-as-a-baby’s-bum-asphalt, and we smiled and laughed all the way down, gleefully cocktailing levity with gravity.

Falling off our bikes again

Falling off our bikes again

Before we leave the subject of Sichuan we cannot sign off without doffing of our cycle helmets to the eponymous hero of this blog: Spiky, or really, Spicy Sichuan. For to get up all these mountains an odycyclist needs rocket fuel by the barrel-load. And we found it in the form of those riotously rocket-red chillies that are as synonymous with Sichuan, as say, Four Rivers. At first we feared. But it wasn’t long before we were querying their absence, even at breakfast time.

Little Rockets

Little Rockets

It has been some time since we last posted and we place the blame squarely on having incurred the wrath of all 70,000 Chinese censors by taunting them about their failure to block us. Well, they won. They obviously read our minds and knew that we would write about the recently proposed 6 months detention by police of any suspect without the requirement of informing families or legal representatives, those self-immolating monks in Aba, and all the Tibetans that we met who extolled the virtues of the Dalai Lama. Apparently, all is well if you tow the line.

As ever we have tried, when possible, to upload our latest snaps from life on the road. They can be found here. We have also updated our route map, which is here.

The final piece of business is to announce the grand winner of the All-Star Caption Contest and it goes to Mr Phil Barber. But in an unprecedented move by our panel of illustrious judges Mr Barber, of the United States of America, is to be stripped of his prize and it is to be awarded to his four daughters, Inez, Alice, Simone and Nora, as we suspect they were the real source of the caption. Shame on you, Phil.

He’s strong to the finish cause he eats his barley and rancid butter, he’s Po Pai the sailor man (toot, toot).

He’s strong to the finish cause he eats his barley and rancid butter, he’s Po Pai the sailor man (toot, toot).

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Passing Pigs in a Gansu Gompa

Our mini pink rubber ‘dice’ finally came bouncing to their resting positions both prone on their backs, tiny trotters pointed skyward. Tse Jam Tso beamed at us with swelling satisfaction. But what had he achieved? His querying grin was in search of answers. He wanted to know how much he had scored. He knew it was big. Under normal circumstances a single sentence explanation would have sufficed, but our knowledge of Tibetan stretched little further than “Tashadelik” and our phrasebook did not appear to have the rules to “Pass the Pigs” anywhere, no matter how many times we thumbed it through.

Samba for Sam
Samba for Sam

With enough time and creative charades energy anything is possible, even when little more than a word or three is shared. And so it proved.  Tse Jam Tso, Chung Le and “Jimmy” (we never quite got hold of how to pronounce his name properly) repeatedly thrashed us at a game that we had only minutes before “taught” them the rules. And they loved it. These monks appeared to be able to invoke the assistance of Buddha at will, rolling and rolling those little pigs until we were soon scampering away from the table with our curly tails between our legs.

Some of you will no doubt be familiar with “Pass the Pigs”, an extraordinarily wonderful and ancient game from our home shores that transcends age, race and certainly cultural norms. But if you are still at sea, all is made clear here.

Stacking dumplings Gansu style

Stacking dumplings Gansu style

Our last blog ended with our “Odybed-on-a-train” which had deposited us in Lanzhou in Gansu province, one of these mightily heaving Chinese cities, more or less in the middle of China. Yet within a 100km ride, much of which was merely leaving the city limits, the countryside was awash with Tibetan communities, replete with beautiful hillside Gompas (monasteries) that dot much of the surrounding provinces to Tibet itself, of which Gansu is one.

Clockwise stroller

Clockwise stroller

And our bicycling plan was simple. To abandon eastwardly intentions and pedal now almost due south for about 5,000km from central Gansu into Sichuan (of the spicy food fame), and onto Yunnan province which borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. South East Asia is now in our sights.

But back to Gansu and a modicum of chronological austerity, for tales of pigs and monks comes from the very borderlands of Gansu and Sichuan. It is Lanzhou with its curiosity-filled night markets, goopy Yellow River, wicked food, deeply serious kite-fliers and evil railway baggage-handlers that deserves a mention.

Captain Kite on the Yellow River

While we had arrived mostly refreshed in the big smoke (Lanzhou is notorious for being known as the most polluted city in China, which is no mean achievement), our bikes had endured a harrowing ordeal. We greeted them at the cargo terminal, like doting parents awaiting their offspring at the school gates, only to have this idyllic scenario well and truly smashed by the sight of Francesca’s bike being wheeled wonkily through the warehouse. The front forks were mangled, the lights and water bottles pilfered, and Sam’s compass, that had guided us so honestly for months, making a non-appearance too.

Virtually no English is spoken in China, certainly in our experience so far anyway, and our Mandarin phrasebook wilted in the face of, well, 20 railway faces that gazed on with zero sympathy. In most countries we have visited, we have either been able to garble a word or so of the local lingo or English has found its way into our communications, but not here. The frustrations mounted and we wonkily wheeled the bikes away, deflated (like Sam’s punctured rear tyre) and in search of help.

Treats on the streets

Treats on the streets

But Lanzhou came up trumps just when we were yearning for more peaceful rural climes. Between visits to the plethora of smile-inducing eateries, where you can (and we did) fill-up for less than a quid on spicy madness, checking out the well presented but hilariously propagandistic Gansu State Museum, and chilling with the ever-so professional kite-fliers of Lanzhou, the metropolis grew on us. We idled away many an hour on the banks of the Yellow River gazing at the feats of the latter fellas, as they tussled and sought to outdo each other with bigger kites, longer tails and laughably large wheels on which to reign in their lofty dragons.  Some of the tails were so lengthy (and weighty) that even the Yellow River gusts could not get them airborne.

Lanzhou also found us a charming bike mechanic, who tweaked and measured and twiddled some more (as if performing an ancient Chinese martial art) until once more Francesca’s bike resembled what it once did in happier days gone by. Despite the ease with which we had found this delightful man, we were perturbed (if not somewhat disoriented) by the strange absence of fellow cycles and cyclists, something we had also noted in Kashgar. This is China after all, where any self-respecting tourist publication must daub images of meandering Chinese on bikes on its front pages. Where bicycles queue up in their hundreds at traffic lights. Surely, the bicycle is the icon of China?

The pace of development, however, appears now to be far outstripping that of education and social advance. And with it comes petrol guzzling 4WDs, belching buses, SinoTruks and humming electro-scooters that have left bicycles to gather dust and dirt in the alleyways of China’s towns and cities.

An increasingly rare enlightened soul

Increasingly rare enlightened souls

While bikes were mended and spicy Hui Muslim Chinese noodle soup digested, we searched out a ‘Wangba’ (Internet Café) to tend to Odycycle and learn of life in the outside world. Bank upon banks of computer terminals, jam-packed with engrossed locals chuffing away on cigarettes, greeted us as we entered the darkness of one of Lanzhou’s such salubrious establishments. Initial thoughts may have been how impressive – such voracious consumption of information from the web. As the clouds of cheap fag smoke cleared (a little), the truth revealed itself.  Far from educational nourishment, mindlessly tedious gaming was taking place. Plinky plonky sounds providing endless delight for the rows of boys as web browsers lay dormant. And not a girl to be seen.

And what of Odycycle itself? So concerned were we that WordPress would be blocked that we went to great lengths in Central Asia to set up our own odycycle.com webpage. That approach appears to have truly bamboozled every one the 70,000 censors, which it is reported the Chinese government employs just to patrol internet content, as WordPress remains alive and kicking (although paradoxically odycycle.com is blocked).

And it was now time to set off. The tumbling green hills of southern Gansu owed much to the ever present rains that now greeted us nigh-on each day and reminded us how fortunate we had been for so much of this trip. Tibetan villages and gompas came and went through the bubbling cool clouds as we began to climb slowly towards the Tibetan plateau, which would provide days of thin-air cycling to come.

Monk-y-ing about

Monk-y-ing around

And it was after leaving Xiahe, home to Labrang Monastery, the most important Monastery for Tibetan Buddhists after the Potala Palace in Lhasa, that we came across the soon-to-be-pig-rolling Tse Jam Tso. On a dank and unfriendly evening in odd little Luqo, he cajoled and convinced us to take a 100km pedal detour the next day up to the dead-end of ‘his’ lush emerald valley and onto the slopes that housed Mo’re’se Gompa, where he has been a monk since the age of ten. For two days we revelled in his company and that of his fellow monks, nursed our bikes back to health with his bewilderingly unhelpful input, ate mounds of samba (barley, rancid butter, corn, hot water and a smidge of sugar), passed pigs and “listened” with immense admiration to tales of his recent 3250km (4 month) stroll to Lhasa.

The Laughing Ladies of Labrang

The Laughing Ladies of Labrang

Our journey southwards has begun and the province of the four great rivers (Sichuan) is our next stop. Photos of our days in Gansu can be found here.

But we end this blog with a plea for help, a request for creative input. We really enjoy receiving comments on the blog and have been plotting how to generate more responses. So, a caption competition. Just provide a caption for the photo below and the winning entry will have some fine goody posted all the way from Yunnan Province in China. What more could you want?

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MADE (it) IN (to) CHINA – Xinjiang

As you read this post more than 11 million people are travelling the trains of China. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Greece all rumbling along the rails at any given moment. The sheer and immense scale of the place. Not just vast expanses of territory but so many people, people, people everywhere.

Ni Hao Know How

"Ni Hao" Know How

So this is China. Next port of call on our way eastwards. To be precise, the tumultuous “Autonomous” Province of Xinjiang, home to the rebellious Muslim Uighurs who have agitated and riled against Northern Chinese rule since, well, whenever it was that this most westerly extreme of China got swept up into the empire. This is a region with comparable aspirations to Tibet, namely greater (if not) total self-determination, yet with far less international attention. No gentle-talking dulcet Dalai Lama here.

Xinjiang is periodically and invariably frequented by Chinese Army troops that line the streets in over-the-top displays of State force, whenever ethnic violence convulses through one of its two big cities, Kashgar and Urumqi. In fact, so periodic have the “terror attacks / military responses” become that access to this region appears to operate now on a traffic light basis, and we were lucky to catch Xinjiang in an amber moment. Beijing is keen to demonstrate that all is under control in this turbulent realm yet can’t have tourists being blown up, hacked to death or, more importantly, observing the State’s “response”. It all just looks bad. Beijing points the finger at Islamic extremists in the area targeting the ever-burgeoning Han population but can provide no sensible answers for why Muslim Chinese have also been victims alongside the Han Chinese in the same attacks. And nor can we, but the situation is certainly more complicated than that reported in the China dailies.

Mighty Mao's friends

Mighty Mao's friends

And the backdrop to these difficult times, where Human Rights lawyers, activists and journalists occasionally disappear, never to be heard of again, is the quite curiously charming (albeit the now uber Han-ified) Silk Road city of Kashgar, where many a trader and traveler from times-gone-by has embraced the warmer (considerably lower and flatter) desert climes that is the first port of call to offer such clemency after months in the unforgiving high peaks of Central Asia.

Da boyz basking in the Kashgar sun

Da boyz basking in the Kashgar sun

Having crossed the border there was still the small matter of almost 300km of riding through dusty roads, all under construction, that link the border-post to Kashgar. It is no understatement to declare the Chinese as prodigious road-builders. We saw more people working on the road into Kashgar in the first 10km than we had done in the entirety of Central Asia. And they were a friendly and hospitable bunch too. Along with Tanya and Rafael, our soon-to-be-departed Portuguese, we camped one night with the road-workers who stared on in bemused fashion yet still brought us tea.

No visa troubles for these guys

No visa troubles for these guys

After a night in the curious Han-ified town of Wuqia, where we gorged on vegetarian food until our faces hurt, and the police bizarrely paid for us to upgrade our hotel, we were soon rolling past our 10,000th kilometer and down and into Kashgar.

The mish-mash of the Ye Olde Islamic “Old Town”, that probably has looked much the same way for centuries (save for the occasional touring bicycle) strangely nestles in surprisingly comfortably just a street away from the glitzy neon of Han China and its brash and brutal capitalist zeal, with shopping malls, supermarkets and MSG-riddled restaurants on every street corner. Not that we were complaining. Far from it. Our distended tummies were in search of nourishment, and the junk food variety on offer was simply too great a temptation not to dive into.

Ever get the feeling you're being watched?

Ever get the feeling you're being watched?

All manner of sweets, biscuits, cakes and drinks cocooned in quite literally layer upon layer of high-grade thick plastic, all shiny, glitzy and new. The novelty factor was intense and we plunged right in to cans of Wong Lo Kat, and crates of Yappy (or Woof Woof) Rice Biscuits (they sound grim but are actually fantastic). Once sated, we would look down at the spuming mound of plastic waste that lay before us, that had been the vehicle for all that lovely sugar and salt, and the guilt would begin. If this is how much two little bicycling souls generate, then what about the amount produced by the other 1,339,724,852 Chinese?

As with any self-respecting Silk Road town, there has to be a decent market. And for those of a non-vegetarian bent (which we half-heartedly tried not to be) the famous Sunday Livestock Market is a treat. We got there early, convinced that this would be the best time to feel the true rhythm and vibe of the place and the place was empty. Not a lamb, goat or yak in sight. We felt a little silly waiting in full view of the ever-climbing sun. And then the dust began gently to unsettle as truck after car after mini-scooter after wheelbarrow arrived with all manner of creatures tethered this way and that, such that it would have brought tears to a vegan’s eye. It was actually more humane than it sounds, save perhaps for the Yak shackled one inch from its post by its nose-ring.

Kashgar International Fringe Festival

Kashgar International Fringe Festival

The dust clouds blossomed as the market ebbed and flowed and sheep and goats and Chinese Yuan all swapped places in a procession that has gone on almost unchanged for centuries. And then it was time go. Time to leave the market, time to leave Kashgar after its regenerative days of tofu, fresh fruit and veg, and of course the plastic goodies. And time to leave Xinjiang.

We had considered a visit to Urumqi, the furthest city in the world from any sea or ocean, and big brother to Kashgar, but a decision had been forged between us after the months of attritional cycling through Central Asian deserts and steppes, that our odycycle was to receive a sling-shot. Not for us 2-3 months of churning out more than 3,000km to cross the monotonous Taklamakan Desert (the ancient translation of which means, “Go in by bicycle, Don’t come out”). No, a pact had happily formed between Sam and Francesca to do what has ungenerously been described by certain family members as “cheat”, and join that heaving mass of 11 million Chinese travelers on their railway and take the train (2 days!) to Lanzhou in Gansu province. Having cycled over 10,000km and through 20 countries, such insults don’t even get past our mud-guards!

And so our final days in Kashgar revolved around buying train tickets (despite our best efforts to get Hard Sleeper we only managed to lay our hands on Hard Seat tickets due to the popularity of the railways!) and packaging up the bikes and the bags to be sent ahead of us by cargo train. Unfortunately, the bikes fared less well than us, but more about bent forks and stolen bike-parts in our next post.

Play nice and look at the camera. And remember, Smile

Play nice and look at the camera. And remember, Smile

We boarded the 58-hour train and were pressed up close in a packed carriage to sweaty incessantly chattering Chinese grannies and as the train slowly chugged past hour number 3, talk turned to our deep regret for abandoning the bikes so callously. The Taklamakan Desert took on an appeal we never thought it would have. Just as we were thinking we could not possibly survive (there wasn’t even room to sleep on the floor) the gods re-emerged from their hide-out and offered us a life-line. Hard Sleeper tickets!!!! Bingo. For an additional tenner, a train guard whisked us down the train to clean sheets and horizontal beds and bubbling groups of kids, who were easily blocked out with suitably high volume mp3 players. The sense of abandonment on the faces of the grannies made us feel guilty. The guilt just about lasted the time it took to walk down 4 carriages and onto our lovely beds.

Xinjiang has been a fascinating introduction to China, a massive contrast for us to the desolate wilds of the Pamirs. But having been bolted eastwards, it certainly does not seem like the ‘real’ China now. As with many of the other countries we have rolled through, the politics of the place is volatile and we will be doing our best to follow events in this region. It will definitely not remain static. The central authorities may wish to bear in mind the words of one of China’s famous philosopher-story-tellers, Luo Guanzhong from the 14th century who said this,

They say the momentum of history was ever thus: the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.”

As ever we have tried out best to get as many photos uploaded as possible so click here to see the very latest from China – Xinjiang. Given the size of China and the amount of time we are likely to be here, we hope to follow this post up with tales of Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan in the days to come.

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Kyrgyzstan – Yurt to go

Better than a flat in Hackney
Better than a flat in Hackney

The land of the Kyrgyz begins, as is so often the case in these Central Asian nomadic lands, not at the swirling Kyrgyz border (drawn up by Stalin, on Acid, chanting maniacally the ubiquitous Divide and Rule Mantra) but in the ‘Tajik’ Pamirs. Alichur, to be precise. A tiny village, famous for its fish, where the road along the Wakhan Corridor rejoins the Pamir Highway, as it begins to veer north towards Osh.

Kyrgyz yurt before Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz yurt before Kyrgyzstan

Here the hats and the faces lurking beneath them change. The colourful scull caps give way to tall, white, felty Kyrgyz hats  – the taller the hat, the higher their local mountains. And the yurts begin to spring up too. Sleeping in a yurt is a truly magical experience. Surrounded by warm, colourful felty felt and whispering women and children. Aromatic herbs in the stove, delicious yak butter on the table (we had fallen into culinary delusions by this point) and gawping up at the stars through the rooftop before drifting off peacefully.

What better to add to this nomadic fairytale, than Ernest. Our very own Swiss moped rokenrollrevolutionary. Having set out from Khorog at around the same time, we had continued to pass each other on the roads and Ernest (a cyclist at heart rather than a motorbiker!) had saved our lives by giving us his spare swiss army knife when we desperately needed to get into a can of tuna.

Rokenrollers of the 112cc variety

Rokenrollers of the 112cc variety

Although we had been rumbling through Kyrgyz inhabited terrain for the last few hundred kilometres of Tajikistan, it was only after we crossed the border that the landscape changed. And suddenly too. On the other side of the mountain, immediately after the border post at the pass (4282m), we were greeted with green everywhere.  Rolling meadows, beautiful white peaks and gushing brooks. No more filthy browns and sandy yellows of the dusty southern Pamiri Gorno-Badakhshan.

Oi, that's my spot!

Oi, that's my spot!

We were only flitting through the south-eastern tip of Kyrgyzstan to reach the Irkestam pass. Our gateway to Xinjiang Province in China and the East. The pretty alpine scenery of northern Kyrgystan was not for this trip.

Just a year ago, not far north of the corner that we cut, Osh was awash with brutal ethnic violence.  But we, in soporific Sary-Tash, remained blissfully unaware of what legacy or repercussions there may have been. Our focus was on getting clean. We were finally able to have a five-star hot shower after days and days (and days) of wild camping and inadequate icy river washing. Now was also our chance to relax, after our mad dash to get out of Tajikistan before our visa ran out, to rest our limbs before heading to China and to be entertained by Ernest and stories of his rock and roll days.

I'm clean at last!

I'm clean at last!

Sary Tash is the consummate cross-roads town with its only highways ( with freshly minted Chinese asphalt) fanning out to each point of the compass, and each shop replete with “fake” Coca-Cola (Can you believe they even forge the stuff?!!!) and mounds of Snickers bars. And it was among this warehousing of bicycle calories that we noticed two familiar three-wheeled bicycles propped up lazily by the road-side. Happy days! After 2 weeks of separation in the windy Pamirs, fate had re-united us with our dear Portuguese and their broad clowning smiles. It was quickly agreed we would hit the trail again together this time to Kashgar in western China, for one final “stage” before our planned routes truly parted company, they to Pakistan and the Karakoram Highway to the South and us onwards and Eastwards.

Let's go to China

Let's go to China

Once again we found perfect spots to pitch our tents and idle away the evenings with the growing expectation for our next country to come. On our final night in Kyrgyzstan, a mere 15km from the frontier we resolved, “Let’s go to China tomorrow”. And we did. We swung down dipping bends at exhilarating speeds and dropped from 3800m to the Immigration controls at Irkestam through earth-quake affected little Nura with its post-Katrina-esque pre-fab homes.

Beware the Kyrgyz Highwaymen. Particularly the one in the pink hat.

Beware the Kyrgyz Highwaymen. Particularly the one in the pink hat.

As we neared the border crossing the density of SinoTruks became intense and the air was filled with expectant petrol fumes as eager truckers waited impatiently for the border to open, after its weekend repose, and to leave behind crumby roads and crappy cuisine. The four of us bubbled with excitement for what lay ahead.

Having now found a slightly better internet connection, there should be here the latest snaps from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

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Tajikistan – Touring the Extremities

Maria’s fingers curled once more into a perfect circle, with forefinger and thumb kissing lightly and the remaining digits fanning out delicately. She repeated with even greater Castilian clarity this time her response to our duplicated question.

She mouthed the words precisely and even more deliberately as if we were somewhat slow-witted:

“B-u-e-n-a C-a-r-r-e-t-e-r-a.” (“Good Road”)

Bless Maria. With hindsight we assume that she must simply have been trying to calm our fears about the state of the road along the Wakhan Corridor. One of the most curiously thin geographical strips of land (at times a mere 20km in width) that juts out for approximately 400km north-east within Afghanistan, with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south and a tiny border with China at its most easterly end. But it seems that Maria may also have been suffering from what can only be described as the sheer blissful ignorance that 4×4 passengers have in respect to what may constitute a decent, or even passable road for us poor old two-wheeled non-automotive voyagers.

B-u-e-n-a C-a-r-r-e-t-e-r-a

B-u-e-n-a C-a-r-r-e-t-e-r-a

Maria was heading in the other direction to us and her mendacious words of encouragement certainly propelled us onwards, even if it was into the valley of shifting sands (6” deep) and miles of unpedalable paths. The way, however, was glorious. And having completed what was undoubtedly the most arduous leg of our trip so far, we are so grateful that we did “plough” (oh, what an fitting word to use) onwards and upwards towards the heavens and the upper reaches of the Hindu Kush.

But again, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning and leave diminutive Spanish ladies and frantically waving Afghans until later. Given that we spent more than a month in the high altitudes of this beauteous mountain state this blog entry will not be a short one but bear with us. At least for the photos.

Cheesey photo in the lovely Hindu Kush

Cheesey photo in the lovely Hindu Kush

Four exhausted cyclists eventually rolled into and through Dushanbe’s late night revelries. The Portuguese were still in tow (or really vice-versa) and together we recharged our energy reserves, sussed out more visas and the ways of the currency in the local markets, and generally recovered from the multiple stomach baddies that had hounded us doggedly for days on end. Dushanbe remained unassuming, functional and perfectly perfunctory throughout our time there. A place to visit, but not more.

Our thoughts had already turned to a word that had long been legend in our preparatory days when on cold winter nights in our bathroom on Haberdasher Street in London we would trace out with one index finger (the other hand always occupied with the brushing of teeth) a possible route on our laminated world map through the….PAMIRS.

The stuff of yore not just for modern day cycle tourists but the upper most reaches and battle ground for dastardly secret agents during the ‘Good Ol’ Great Game’. It was here in the oft-impassable Pamirs that posh Brits and suave Ruskis got fancy-dressed in the local garb, learnt the bizillion dialects of the region (that vary entirely from one small valley to the next), and generally spied on the activities of their imperial opponents.

Oh those lovely Pamirs. Hours before exit stage right.

Oh those lovely Pamirs. Hours before exit stage left.

This is a part of the globe that is virtually shut off from the rest of the world for 8 months of the year as temperatures nose-dive to well under -30°C with the numerous mountain passes usually comfortably higher than any inhabited area in Europe. Along the notorious Pamir Highway itself, a marvel of Russian road-building, we even climbed to over 4655m, literally just inches (well, almost) lower than the very highest peak in Europe.

Rolling on through the Wakhan

Rolling on through the Wakhan

Our route from Dushanbe to the high peaks began by swishing this way and that through softly rising valleys until the green and brown of the grasses faded to nought and bare, gnarly rock was left in its place. The first 525km of “road” took us to Khorog and within 75km of leaving the capital, we gave the rolling-wrist-regal-wave to the tarmac as it disappeared and greeted the rock, gravel and sand that became our travel companions.

Francesca and Sam, not merely content to take up the challenge of ascending the one fabulous and grizzly pass on route (1500m up in one day!), decided that chronic tummy trouble and multiple-bee-sting-induced-fever should be added to their travails. And so it was that lessons were learnt. Sam promised not to run screaming around a bee-hive hut in an attempt to buy local honey and Francesca resolved not to eat again in Central Asia.

Just another "Hard-On-The-Eyes" vista

Just another "Hard-On-The-Eyes" vista

What had been due to be a 6-day gentle introduction to the mountains turned into what felt like an epic 9-day adventure. All the more so for our erst-while pedalling Portuguese whose bikes simply crumpled in the face of the unforgiving roads. (They have fortunately been sponsored and they presently await new bikes in China).

Despite our leviathan efforts, and our daily saluting at the grand (6000m+) peaks we were somewhat deflated to see a sign just a few kilometres before Khorog that read, “Welcome to the Pamir Mountains”. So what had we just done then? Well, quite a lot actually. Having climbed Bee-Sting-Tummy-Trouble mountain we dropped down almost the same height to reach the southern border of Tajikistan where it greets its troubled neighbour, Afghanistan. And it was close, truly a stone’s throw away. We know because Sam chucked one.

And so it was for the next 500km and 2 weeks that we cycled along the cloudy Panj river that separates former Soviet Union from old time Mujahedeen hang-out. An area of modern-day clashed civilisations and one still peppered with unexploded land-mines. Be sure that we camped very carefully each evening.

Watch your step please

Watch your step please

From Khorog, the “real” Pamir Highway is said to begin and we could have taken the soft option of starting there, but that would have been too, well, soft, and in any event we were repulsed by the idea all that sweet asphalt, so instead of cutting directly eastward we continued further south into the fabled Wakhan Corridor and to its market border-village, Ishkashim, where each week the good folk of Tajikistan (and the odd bemused western tourist) are permitted to exit through Tajik immigration and cross on to an island in the river and do their Saturday morning shopping in no-man’s land (just like Sainsbury’s). This was a special experience, to finally transact up close and personal with Afghan traders and shoppers alike who for days on end had waved energetically at us as we zoomed along the opposing shore of their Panj River.

The would-be King of Peckham Market

The would-be Afghan King of Peckham Market

As ever a visa-clock was ticking and we cajoled each other onwards over stunning scenery with side valleys along the now Wakhan River Valley revealing titillating peep-shows of the super high-peaks of the Afghan/Pakistan Hindu Kush, as the “B-u-e-n-a C-a-r-r-e-t-e-r-a” turned once more from cracked tarmac to rubble, then gravel, then sand and finally mulch. But we pressed onwards. Poor Sam, all the while, labouring under the weight that he had valiantly volunteered to shoulder to help us across yet another 4000m+ pass.

And then there it was, the glistening black tarmac of the Pamir Highway snaking off to the east and China. We got down, prayed and fully repented for our disobedience. And we resolved to praise our new “Black Stuff” at every turn. Days of trudging through sand with 45kg bicycles were over, just sweet rolling from here on. Almost.

The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake

The days on the Highway that followed were delicious. 25°C (and dry) and we basked, particularly after the infernos of Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The nights, however, were cold and we finally found use for the long-redundant kilograms of winter clothing that we had hauled all the way from our time back on the Rhine Valley in February, when foot warmth was in some ways an issue. We were not fazed by frost on the tent in the mornings, as we Europeans seem to operate best when the mercury is resting on its haunches.

Skirting now northwards and skimming within metres of the Chinese Border fence, the Pamir Highway was carrying us fast. Fast towards mobile phone coverage. Fast towards internet. Fast towards the delights of scrumptious Chinese food. And fast towards the Tajik border crossing with Kyrgyzstan (we made it out with 2 hours of our visa remaining!), which would be our final Central Asian country before entering the Beast of the East, our “initial” final country: China.

The Western Edge of China

The Western Edge of China

Yes, we have been thinking that this adventure-cycle-touring is really quite fun and we might like to head on a bit further than we initially planned. But more about that later.

This has been an overly-lengthy blog entry but there was much we wanted to say. No insightful commentary, however, on regional customs and politics and barely a note on the friendly, hospitable Tajiks themselves (somewhat tourist fatigued on the Highway despite the relatively paltry numbers that pass through. On average we saw 15 vehicles per day (usually Chinese trucks) on the Highway itself and around 4-a-day in the Wakhan) who laughed heartily while listening to our Farsi, a sister language to Tajik.

Ready for Take-Off

Ready for Take-Off

Finally, please click here for a look at all the most recent photos we have lovingly uploaded onto our blog. Truly, we have learnt the zen art of patience getting these things up and available. And click here to see (drum roll please, or a slow clap) our finally updated “route so far”, after numerous requests.

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