Episode XXIII – Malaysia: a surprisingly long interlude, 3 Feb – 2 Jun 2016


By the time we got to the south border of Thailand, and our tent had been eaten by vicious tropical ants (see Episode XXI), we were feeling ill-inclined to continue our free-style wild camping lifestyle. It was hot, hot, hot – an El Nino year – so riding through the sweltering day then sleeping in a sweaty, ant-savaged tent was becoming less and less appealing.

Furthermore, we were still proofreading a massive three-volume text on South African decapods, and our application to study at the Institute of Indonesian Arts (ISI) in Solo had barely begun. We needed to hole up for a bit longer.

So, we hopped on a boat from Samsun, on the south border of Thailand, to our first stop in Malaysia: Langkawi. Our convivial Airbnb hosts were Sammy and Liz, who had a sprawling house in a picturesque village a mile or so inland.

As well as a small pool and a grumpy cat, they kept a well-equipped outdoor kitchen and poolside hangout for guests, perfect for parties, barbecues and, of course, with us around, the odd curry night. As a duty free island, imported food and booze was dirt cheap and the local Chinese supermarket had a climate-controlled wine room with contents to rival our beloved York Beer and Cheese Shop (minus the cheese). Fine wines and single malts aside, I nearly OD’d on my one true and unbeatable addiction – pickled gherkins.


Jammin’ with Sammy


Grumpy cat sez: yuz bum 2 bony


By the pool

Culturally speaking, Langkawi’s offerings were a tad limited. We did find one museum, consisting of cheesy historical tableaux, arid displays of shadow puppets, and a ‘live gamelan’ – yes we were now in the land of gamelan! – which consisted of three or four bored-looking museum staff who’d start bashing out some dire arrangement of a pop song as soon as anyone walked into the room, and immediately put their beaters down and go back to poking their smartphones as the guests approached the far door.




There was also the Sky Bridge, stretching vertiginously between two peaks and a big favourite with honeymooning Indian couples and Chinese tour groups. Of course, to get there you had to traverse an annoying little theme park, including a compulsory show at the 6D cinema (in which the dimensions involved seemed to be length, breadth, depth, time (wasting), pointlessness and scientific illiteracy). But the views from the bridge were cool.


We encountered the first of many Malaysian night markets, a gourmet’s dream of local culinary delights (the green fruit are durian – as stinky as they are spiky):




Well away from the tourist ruckus of the coast, Sammy and Liz’s village made a welcome escape. Surprisingly similar to Laotian villages, though more solidly built, there were many traditional wooden stilt houses, spread out a comfortable distance from each other with little in the way of fences or walls, and plenty of space for village scallies to tromp around making gentle mischief.


The wildlife was incredible – even in the village. There was the giant monitor lizard (perhaps 2 meters from snout to tail) that lived by the river at the bottom of the garden – more often heard than seen, crashing around in the bamboo. Dozens of different birds came by daily, including bright green parrots, a pair of loquacious myna birds who would hop through every morning chatting to each other and imitating the sounds of cars, washing machines and anything else that took their fancy, and my personal favourite, the ‘reality birds’, as I called them: unassuming and rather shy brown birds who’s distinctive whistle served as a daily reminder that life is truly “for real, for real.” Their daily exhortations to pay attention the present moment became a psychological lifeline for me as frustrations about our Indonesian visa process began to build.

We’d been in Langkawi a month, and our process for applying for student visas had ground to a halt. The Immigration department had just switched to a so-called “online” system which a) no one knew how to use yet, b) only allowed a limited number of applications per day, counting from midnight, c) seemed to involve a lot of offline posting of signed and stamped letters in triplicate etc. etc., and d) required an actual human being still needed to physically go to an office in Jakarta to pay the fee in cash. At this point (1 month in), the delay was with a letter from the Education Ministry being “lost in the post” – (i.e., probably never sent in the first place because the minister had dropped the application form down the back of the sofa or something) – the first of many disheartening delays that would drag our stay out for another three months to come.

Wanting to edge a bit closer to Indonesia, and ready for a change of scene, we caught another boat to George Town on Penang island, a cosmopolitan, multicultural city with big Chinese and South Indian populations, and famed around the world for its incredible food. I was delighted to discover branches of Chennai’s best-loved South Indian veggie restaurants, like the Ananda Bhavan and Woodlands, and wasted no time in ordering a thali (mixed South Indian curries with rice, papadams and exquisite chutneys served on a banana leaf).

We found a new Airbnb bolthole in a Chinese suburb of George Town, owned by a nice lad called Mike. A pleasant, clean, comfy, air-conditioned flat (we tried to resist the AC, but at the peak of an El Nino year the humidity and heat were incredible – a 5 minute walk to the shop would leave you literally dripping with sweat and struggling to breathe).

Our student visa applications were going nowhere fast. Days lengthened into weeks lengthened into months. No one seemed to know how the new system worked. Frustrated, and unable to take on any major proofreading projects, I spent a lot of time roaming George Town, soaking up the colonial architecture, gorgeous Chinese temples and professional graffiti.







Malaysia, as it turns out, is one of the best places to see traditional Chinese religious architecture, since most temples were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution within China itself, and the replacements done on the cheap in concrete and gaudy modern paints. A particular highlight was the superb Pinang Peranakan Mansion – a lovingly restored Chinese clan house, filled with antiques from the period (provided by its owner, an avid collector).


In complete contrast, apart from its splendid bronze cannon, Fort Cornwallis’ sorry exhibits of bits of crap (nails, barbed wire, broken bricks, etc.) found on site, forlornly displayed in mouldering arches under the walls, give it the dubious honour of being the single worst museum either of us had ever visited, anywhere:



The one redeeming feature

And utterly unforgettable was Kang Lok Si Temple, up on Penang Hill: the very definition of kitsch, as expressed through the medium of Chinese Buddhism.

Enter, leave and pass through the many, many gift shops…

Thirsty for a little nature, we went for a hike around the north of the island to the isolated Monkey Beach. Having passed the small beginnings of a forest fire on our way, we returned to find it blazing. With no sign of any official firefighters showing up (we’d called the fire service several hours previously) we rallied some workers from a nearby science research station and all got to play at being firemen:


Despite these distractions, and the comfortable conviviality of Mike’s flat (where I got a lesson in real carbonara making from a real Sicilian – apparently you should use onion OR garlic but not both, and 2 yolks to one white), the wait for visas was becoming tortuous: each week starting in hope and ending in disappointment and anxiety.

Anxiety seemed to be in the air. Despite Malaysia’s long-standing reputation as one of the more stable and democratic countries in the region, the rising tide of authoritarianism was being felt here too. One of our Malaysian friends was, when we met him, a prolific satire writer. As we arrived in the country, the 1MDB scandal was just breaking: Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, had been pretty much caught red-handed syphoning off a billion dollars from the country’s sovereign wealth fund – some of which, possibly in an act of deliberate irony, went on to fund the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. (For those interested, this scandal is now in the papers again: having been ousted at the polls, Najib is finally facing prosecution for his many alleged crimes.)

Our friend told us hair-raising tales of lawyers trying to serve papers on Najib and being arrested under the Security Offences Act; a key witness turning up head-down in an oil drum full of concrete; the murder of the finance minister’s pregnant Mongolian ex-lover who had been threatening to give evidence to the FBI, etc. In this tense situation, our friend kept his satire style to pseudo-hagiographic admiration of Najib, for example, praising his honesty for returning millions of dollars ‘accidentally’ lent to him by the Saudis (some kind of money laundering scheme, from what I could make out).

Careful though our friend was, the atmosphere was rapidly souring. Within 2 weeks of our arrival, every magazine and website he published in was either closed down by the government, went bust after their advertisers were warned off, or informed him that sadly they could no longer risk publishing his articles. By the end of the month, no one in Malaysia was printing satire – on paper or online.

After the upheavals and stillborn rebellion against the Troika in Greece; the rising authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism in Turkey; the tightening screws in Xi Jinping’s China (especially against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province); the military junta in Thailand; and the business-as-usual tinpot dictatorships of Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, I’d rather been looking forward to a stint in Malaysia – a country with a long history of relatively healthy, unfettered democracy. But the wave of insanity engulfing the democratic world, characterised by strong-man would-be dictators, divisive identity politics, populism and racio-nationalism was hard on our tails.

(And this was still a year before Brexit and Trump! Oh for those halcyon days when these still seemed like they were mainly other peoples’ problems…)

Anyway, after nearly four months of confusion and mistakes and waiting and waiting, it turned out the visas had been ready for several weeks but no one had told us.  So finally we were all set to continue the very last leg of our journey to Indonesia.

We followed the coast road down to Johor Baru – mainly through vast palm plantations. There were still some nice spots, especially where we managed to get away from the plantation roads. And lots of friendly warung (cafes) each with their own associated dogs or cats – not so much pets as animal neighbours with overlapping territories and self-assigned begging rights – such as this crazy-eyed individual.


Malacca was fun, in a similar way to George Town, with good food and nice architecture, not to mention Doraemon rickshaws…


…but frankly, like this blog post, too long had been spent in Malaysia and it was time to get to Solo and make some music!


I’ll stop now, before I put my foot in my mouth.



Episode XXIb – Koh Jum, Thailand, 26 Dec 2015-27 Jan 2016

As Indonesia drew closer, it seemed wise to spend some time saving up money before arriving, so that we could focus entirely on music once we were in Solo. And what better place to do so than a little island paradise in laidback Thailand? At random (well, with a little help from the Lonely Planet) we chose Koh Jum, off the west coast of Thailand, quieter and less developed than the nearby dive destination Koh Lanta, and not far from the luscious islet of Koh Phi Phi Ley, the only true superstar (despite Leonardo di Caprio’s presence) in the irritating movie of the irritating book The Beach.

And so, after a night camped out in the local police station (see previous post), we hopped on a little skiff, squeezing our bikes in between sacks of ice and boxes of bottled water (already a testimony to the impact of tourism on these islands), and set sail for our little idyll.

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Perhaps because after our long road into the centre of the Eurasian continent and out again, the sea was still a refreshing novelty, or perhaps because I hadn’t been on an actual beach holiday since mum and dad loaded us into the VW Combie for our annual 3 weeks in rainy Wales, I found myself quite excited by the prospect of lounging around on white sand beaches and snorkeling with the little fishies. After all, this is the dream, isn’t it? You know, the usual one. Not the one where you slog up mountains with 40kg of luggage strapped to a bike, or the one where you spend hundreds of kilometers cowering along the edge of  motorways trying not to scream as trucks hurtle past your ear. Just sun, sea and sand.

We’d booked into a resort just back from the beach, run by a young German guy and his “island-law” wife, a local girl from the village, whose tempestuous relationship provided more drama than the entire population of Albert Square over the month we were there. They were also hosting volunteers, mostly from Europe, Australia and Latin America, who were busy painting, building, gardening and beach scavenging for whimsical bits of flotsam to transform the place from a bland, concrete budget resort into a bohemian beachside dream.

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We arrived on a volunteer’s birthday, so were treated to the first of many beach barbecues on our first night.

IMAG3677And towards the end of our stay, as various dramas unfolded with the management,  local staff deserted, the German guy disappeared off to the mainland with no word of when he’d be back, and his wife abandoned the hotel and went back to her parents’ house, volunteers and guests alike were left to fend for themselves, so we took the opportunity to get in the kitchen and – yep, you guessed it – cook curry for our friends!


This was peak tourist season, but it never felt too crowded, and there was a healthy music community, with local musicians supplemented by longer-term visitors, many of whom had been taking refuge on Koh Jum from northern winters and Chrismas hells for years. On New Year’s Eve we went roaming with our instruments, winding up at one of the posher resorts where a local reggae band was playing, with guest flautist, Annie, from the UK. Having never been able to figure out any worthwhile contribution a violin can make to reggae, I left the stage and the appreciative crowds to John.


And plenty of other jam sessions, informal gigs, and even one off-island invitation for John made a nice change after a year on the move.

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Annie enjoying the view on the way to a gig in Koh Lanta with John

Generally, though, we were pretty content just staying on our little island, rather appropriately working our way proofreading through a massive 3-volume tome on South African decapods (crabs, shrimp and lobsters), and encountering many such critters every day and night on the beach – especially crabs, whose antics were a constant source of puzzlement and amusement, and hermit crabs, which it turns out are less like crabs and more like air-breathing soft-shelled shrimp that live in scavenged shells. Daily swims up and down the coast with a snorkel revealed a rich underwater life, despite the obvious effects of coral bleaching. Night swims set off clouds of phosphorescent green glitter and, when the moon was full, specks of  bright diode-blue plankton dotted the sand. I was amazed to discover a freshwater well in the sea on a wide, shallow bay in the north of the island. A little cylinder of concrete embedded in the sand marked the spot, and once the tide dropped below the edge of the rim you could stand knee deep in seawater, supping sweet fresh water from the well.

But the strangest moment of our stay arose from my spontaneous decision to do my PADI diving certificate whist there. I met the diving instructor, Graham, a couple of times first to discuss the programme, and had even bumped into him at a jam session where John and I were playing (though I hadn’t introduced them), but it wasn’t until I turned up on my bicycle, with a pannier, for my first lesson, that the penny dropped – for him. “I know you…” he said.

I looked hard at him – forty-something, ponytail, seemed conceivable we might have met back in the day at some squat party or festival, but nothing rang a bell. “You’re riding a bike to Indonesia, you’re a musician, you’re travelling with your boyfriend, John. I know who you are.”


“I used to have an outdoor activities business with Simon Buttars [see Episode__]. I’ve actually known your boyfriend, John, for years…”

And so we spent plenty of time the rest of the month hanging out with Graham and his partner Gemma, also a dive master, who regaled us with tales of her incredible talent for attracting dangerous animals – nearly dying after stepping on a jellyfish, finding herself in a bathroom full of snakes after going to the loo at night with the light off, and frequently attracting the attention of poisonous lionfish on dives.

The PADI course was fantastic – and as a “friend of the family”, I got to go on the odd extra dive. The seascape is dominated by dramatic karst limestone scenery, and despite heavy coral bleaching, there was a wondrous diversity of sealife to be enjoyed in the national park waters. Not having a waterproof camera, I’ve had to steal all these pictures from the interweb, but they are of the places I dived and a couple of the fish I saw:

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Having rather insulted the literary quality of The Beach above, I have to say that on reflection, it does capture something quite true about this part of Thailand. At the same time as enjoying the sun and the white sand from our gently and lovingly hippyfied surroundings, the sense of something a bit rotten under the surface couldn’t be completely thrown off. The news story about two Burmese workers being framed for the rape and murder of a female tourist was grinding on (they were eventually sentenced to death), and more locally, Graham told us about how he’d fished an unconscious Burmese worker from the sea on the way to a dive. The guy had been working on a resort in neighbouring Koh Lanta, and had the temerity to demand the pay he was owed, for which he was knocked over the head and dumped at sea.

The military junta were continuing to extend their powers as the king neared death (he died last year), protests in Bangkok were being crushed, citizens were being prosecuted for private Facebook posts (see previous episode). A “Tiger Temple” we’d passed (and avoided) in Kanchiburi, advertising the dubious-sounding experience of petting docile tigers, was now in the news for its role in the illegal wildlife trade with China; freezers  had been found stuffed with baby tigers and parts of other protected species. Tales of exploitation, dishonesty and corruption swirled around beneath the picture-perfect surface being presented to its touristic visitors.

Koh Jum tourists seemed to be a chilled bunch: no all night raves, no in-your-face drug use, no alcohol-fueled rowdiness, lots of families. But with more tourists than islanders at this time of year, you could feel the strain on resources, especially on water, sewage, rubbish management and infrastructure, as well as the recent shift in culture as everyone’s main concern became trying to work out how to carve out their own little slice of the pie, while most of the big  bucks were going to high-end resorts owned by outside investors.

But as a little island paradise, Koh Jum measured up pretty well, and we were of course sad to leave, especially to part, yet again, with new and old friends. But now, merely a hop, skip and jump from Indonesia, it was time to begin the last stage, to Malaysia.


An update…

Hello, after ever such a long break, for which we offer unreserved apologies to our friends and families. We are now, of course, well behind on news, having completed our journey to Java, spent a year and a half in Solo immersed in the musical culture and life of the city, and are now back in Malaysia, waiting for springtime in Japan, to continue our journey.

Excuses are boring, but suffice to say the internet in Indonesia was slow and expensive, making the idea of uploading photos daunting, and in any case, days filled with music-making and learning left little creative energy for catching up with the blog (especially when the draft of the next post was lost in a hard-drive failure).

Please allow me to resume where we left off…

Ginevra, 11 December 2017

Episode XXI – Thailand, 7 Nov-3 Feb


And so into Thailand, with its plentiful monkeys and striking temples …


… but more of them later – first, first impressions.

Happily, as we reach the front of the fairly chaotic queues to leave Laos, it turns out we can ignore the numerous no bicycle signs to cross the bridge to Thai customs. Phew, we won’t have to transfer all the baggage and bikes to a crowded bus, or ride several kilometres back to the railway station as feared. Across a criss-cross road layout we go and, for the first time in some 13,000 kilometres we’re back on the right (left) side of the road! So over the Mekong and, as with every new country, feelers out to gauge how it’ll be cycling here: Is the tarmac good? Will the ATMs give us some dosh? Do the motor vehicle driver’s harbour some deep grudge against cyclists?

And who’s this Dad bloke that everyone’s being implored (in English) to bike for? Well, it turns out he’s the king, a pretty popular figure in Thailand, and there were to be bike rides around towns across the country to celebrate his 80th birthday. This all seemed fairly cheering – even to us anti-monarchists, and despite the blatantly and patronisingly patriarchal language – until we started coming across Guardian stories about the military junta’s increasing use of lese majeste rules to quell political dissent (one man was facing a possible 7 year sentence for posting online a slightly sarcastic comment about the king’s favourite dog). A bit of fun for all the family on the pretext of a powerless monarch’s birthday, fine, but the carefully considered attempts of the unelected generals in power to generate a sense of national unity, no ta!

For us, though, it was nice to be riding in a place where everyone was certain that everyone was really into cycling – manifest in the donation of free bottles of water, energy drinks, bananas, and the like – even if we saw little evidence of this passion for biking actually out on two wheels IMAG3530(though this cafe owner turned out to have toured all over south-east Asia, let Ginevra do her laundry, and showed us his rather nice collection of bikes out the back). So drivers gave us lots of space and plenty of friendly waves, the tarmac was fantastic, even medium sized roads tended to have wide hard-shoulders, and no ATM problems. Indeed, electronic communications were similarly good to home, and at least we could access Western news outlets (unlike in China). Of course we’d expected good internet in this part of the world – it’s something of a cliche that Britain’s telecoms-infrastructure lags behind those of the “Asian tigers”. So how do these still poorer nations do it? Well, as you may have noticed already, it’s pretty difficult to photograph a road trip round here without tangles of cables criss-crossing every shot.

Perhaps in future I’ll wait more patiently for buried fibre-optics to finally reach our street. So, what else stood out? Well, more boring new white pickup trucks than in Laos, but balanced by some pretty stunning coach-work too:


There are quite a lot of those trucks about in the country-side, all with bespoke metal/paint-work. To my inexpert ear, as they struggle up hills overladen with farm produce they sound like they’ve got under-powered, single-cylinder, two-stroke engines. Whatever they in fact are, don’t sound as nice as they look. To those of our readers who like a nice bit of farm machinery (really – that’s not all of you?), sorry not to have got any pics of the rather cool multi-coloured combine-maize-harvesters.

We did record some fantastically colourful drinks though, for the first of which payment was refused …

… (artificial colourants really don’t get the positive press they deserve in my view), along with some other yummy things – fresh coconuts (which this family, whose monkeys are also in the coconut harvesting business, also wouldn’t accept anything for), and fresh coconut ice-cream with nuts and things, served in a fresh coconut-shell bowl.

Oh yes, and some really not very pleasant (or “throat clenchingly vile” as Ginevra put it), somehow jellified eggs. Its common names, “hundred-year eggs” or even “thousand-year eggs”, seem suggestive of something appropriately challenging, though for this blog post perhaps we should go with the translation of the Thai name: “horse urine eggs” – YUM!


And so neatly returning to matters of trepidation, there is the ongoing question of what unfamiliar beasties might be out to get us, especially when camping.

These rather endearing little guys, at one of the many temples in historic Lopburi, weren’t much trouble, maybe because they get regularly fed by the municipality but pushed away from tour groups by their wooden-stick-wielding guides. Indeed, as in Laos, the creatures depicted on the temples looked rather scarier:




As for the actual serpents, the closest we’ve come to living ones so far remains the tiddler we nearly put a tent peg through in France.The frequent road-kill evidence for what must be lurking in the long grasses continues to get bigger though. Happily, we have seen a few big monitor lizards assuredly alive and wandering about, running, and even swimming in the sea.

Then there are the smaller creatures: we came across a spider as big as your face when taking a wee break in the undergrowth (sorry, no photo), had another encounter with leeches after bathing in a fresh-water lake (larger than the Laos ones, and found clinging on very close to the worst of all places possible – again, no photo you may be pleased to hear), and also some perhaps lovelier things. While setting up camp in one bit of woodland we were transfixed for some time as a humming bird flitted from flower to flower. And some of the insects are lovely too.

But the only trouble makers – everything big, from the boar of Italy and Azerbaijan to the wolves of Kazakhstan, let alone Laos’s elephants and tigers, having kept well away from us scary humans – were a hoard of leaf cutter ants that wanted to colonise our tent and so decided to make extra entrances straight through the porch’s groundsheet.

Not a great night’s sleep that, but our sincere thanks nonetheless to these church-folk who fed us in addition to letting us camp on what had really looked like a perfect patch of grass. (Ginevra had for ages fancied staying at a temple, which we’d been told by locals one can generally do for just a small donation towards services, but a church was what we happened upon as the sun approached the horizon that day. At night the cross was illuminated in bright neon, so not entirely unexotic.)

Of the larger creatures, we were particularly taken by the big floppy-eared cows …

… and by the thought, at least, of whoever once inhabited this extraordinary shell (now in a museum at a palace, again in Lotburi):

It perhaps seems strange not to have visited Bangkok, but it can be everso nasty getting through the outskirts of very big cities unless you really know the back-streets, so we headed further west (something of a novelty for us, riding towards the sunset) to Kanchanaburi, and had a look at the bridge over the River Kwai, and read in a museum about the building of the infamous “death railway”, horrific though nothing much like in the novel the film is based on.


And then it was south-east, every day battling to get Colonel Bogey out of our brains, until finally we hit the coast again, for the first time since the Caspian – several months, thousands of kilometres, a couple of wide deserts and some pretty high mountain passes ago.


Hurrah! Cycling and camping on coastlines is not always as stunning as inland-, especially upland travel. But, there’s something a bit special about reaching the end of a great land mass, even though travel restrictions had stopped us climbing over the Himalayas and crossing the Tibetan plateau. We found a cheap guest-house above a restaurant, and the lovely lady running it (a former French-embassy employee with broad language and culinary skills) didn’t just let us use the kitchen to cook the octopus we’d bought in readiness for camping: she cooked it for us in two contrasting dishes, then the following morning insisted on giving a pad thai (Thai-style stir-fry noodles) cooking lesson in preparing breakfast.

From there it was down the east coast then off towards Krabi on the west coast, enjoying great scenery, campsites and sunsets …

… and some nice rock formations, along with the odd oddity, such as a Cowboy themed noodle-bar cum ladies hair salon:

We spent Christmas Eve with a Russian Warm Showers host Andrey and his daughter. Although substantially better than a cowshed and a manger, our plan to stay  another night was scrapped over the course of the next day, as a seemingly endless stream of Couchsurfers showed up to shelter in our generous host’s little bungalow – totalling 8 by the time we decided to leave. Squeezing that many people onto the modest living-room kitchenette floor would have been a stretch, even without us having 10 bulky bags and a violin between the two of us.


Andrey, his daughter, and the first of many other guests to show up on Christmas Day

From Krabi we were to catch a ferry to Koh Jum, the small quiet island where we’d booked a place to stop for a month and do a bit of proofreading. It turned out, though, that the boats from town would stop out in open water for a transfer to smaller boats that would then drop us on the beach. This all sounded like it might be quite a fun adventure – for anyone without two heavily laden bikes. We instead headed 50 km round the coast from where the boats actually go jetty to jetty, arriving after dark and, on this occasion too, thinking we might camp in a temple: no temple, no guesthouse, but a guy in a cafe said “oh, you can camp in the police station: come”. And so we did, enjoying access to their water-cooler, flat grass, bathroom facilities and profound feeling of safety, he turning out to be an off-duty cop, and his mates turning out to be very interested in and keen to assist with erecting the tent. They even checked ferry times and the price of taking on the bikes for us. (What is it with these oppressive regimes and their amazingly friendly police?)


Curious cops

And the next morning, an early start for the boat to our island paradise, Koh Jum.

For now, we’ll skip our stay on Koh Jum, with new friends and an unlikely reunion with an old friend, as Ginevra’s keen to put it in a separate post (coming soon). So, jumping forward a month, and back to the mainland, it’s south for a few days to Satun in blazing hot sunshine, apart from one very welcome afternoon downpour.

And from there it’s a fond farewell to Thailand, and a short ferry trip to the Malaysian duty-free island of Langkawi, full of optimism that finally I’ll be able to use some Indonesian (which overlaps massively with Malay), and that we’ll be in Java in just a few weeks time. That was over three months ago, but more about our prolonged Malaysia stay another time.


Episode XX – Laos, languid and lovely, 8 Oct-7 Nov


Laos – the land so laid-back even the cats and dogs can’t be bothered to fight, preferring to survey the world in languorous lassitude, lounging together in the lazy shade of a banyan tree.

Somehow, when we crossed the border, breathing felt a little easier. While we were far from tense in China – especially in Yunnan province, which is very chilled out compared to the densely populated east or the politically troubled north-west – something in the air was different. Could simply knowing that we could access gmail, read the BBC and Guardian websites unhindered, or log into Facebook (itself an exquisitely-crafted tool of oppression, censorship and invasion of privacy) be the cause? Laos is hardly a paragon of political freedom, but at least our interactions with the wider world weren’t officially outlawed. But we didn’t even have a local SIM card yet, so life beyond the Great Firewall was still academic. And there were plenty of reasons rooted in the world, immediate and real, around us. The reversion to jungly chaos after the mono-scenery of rubber trees marching in unrelenting diagonals across entire mountain ranges. The relaxed and friendly faces and the enthusiastic greetings of “Sabaideeeeeee!” and “Goodbyeeeee!” from everyone we passed (Laos being one of those curious countries where people tend to call out “goodbye” instead of “hello”). The groups of laughing children running around barefoot, playing games and singing songs. The well-kempt villages of cool, shady stilt houses built of wood, raffia and thatch, clustered in communal spaces with grass and dirt footpaths between them, no fences or walls to separate one family’s property from the next.


Traditional building

(Sadly, we didn’t get any satisfactory pictures of northern Laos villages, but fellow cycle-tourist bloggers Esther and Warren have kindly allowed us to use a couple of theirs):

A Laos Village, II.

Village life.

Having made it through the curious border town of Boten – a former duty free gambling haven that briefly boomed when Laos relaxed gambling laws to attract Chinese tourists, and then bust when the government changed its mind – we entered Laos proper…


…where we were greeted by a couple of elephants

Rather than plot a straight route south to the capital Vientiane via the fabled old capital, Luang Prabang, we took the advice of an old acquaintance of mine in Japan called Chris Twemlow, whose lyrical article ‘Take the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang’ had left me longing to do just that for the last 15 years. So, we struck out southwest towards Huay Xai (a town whose name I’m still not sure how to pronounce even having been there) to rejoin the mighty Mekong. We first encountered this great regional jugular back in Yunnan Province, since when we and the river had been meandering in our own circuitous ways southwards towards the Gulf of Thailand, crossing paths from time to time as we went.

As it turned out, this was a lucky detour: we found out from other cyclists we met en route that the road to Luang Prabang was being upgraded, and we would have faced many dusty, bumpy miles of temporary surface. Weaving instead through the immaculately tarmaced mountains of northern Laos, we soon settled into the chilled pace of life.


Roadside shrine

Our first camp was by a stream running through the paddy fields. As night fell, the peace of the place crept over us: the only sounds – apart from a very occasional passing car – were insects and frogs and the burbling stream, the only light was starlight. There are so few places left on the planet where the sky glow of some settlement or the rumble of a motorway doesn’t intrude – this little valley was one of them.


As with every other night camping at height since we entered the tropics back in Yunnan, it was a damp start. Every evening would start out clear, then around midnight dense fog banks would roll in, drenching everything, until the sun finally burned them off around 9 or 10 am. Along with an escalation of wee beastie activity – in this case little leeches in the grass thence ‘tween the tootsies – camping was gradually becoming more and more of a challenge.


Rice paddies and siesta shelters nestled in the hills

There was a growing sense of having finally entered the cultural region – Southeast Asia – of our destination, Indonesia. Sarongs were now commonplace for women (if not men); lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and tamarind were appearing in the cuisine; evening ablutions were a universal ritual. I came to love the late afternoons, as the sun softened and villagers would make their way to the communal spring, pool or river bathing spot bearing shampoo and soap. Men and women bathed together, wearing sarongs (women) or underwear (men) for modesty. Children splashed around in the water, everyone would be happy and relaxed, the busi-ness of the day now for the most part done. Smiles and greetings flowed freely.

Handmade waterworks helpfully channelling passing streams along split bamboo gutters made it easy for us to cool off in the daytime, get clean in the evenings, and even do a bit of roadside laundry:


Cheap roadside shacks offered simple but tasty food with an impressive selection of sauces…



Steaming sticky rice

…and sugar addicts were well catered for: purveyors of pops and powders such as this flourished outside schools, leaving one pondering the absence of a Laotian obesity epidemic and how come everyone still seems to have their teeth.



Within a few days we reached Huay Xai. The Mekong, of course, had gotten there first.


We stayed in a wooden stilt hut in Daauw Homestay, a women’s refuge, which was idyllic apart from the lack of pegs to hang towels over the earnest and perplexingly punctuated inspirational messages…


Yes, yes, very noble, but what the hell is that comma doing there?

Meanwhile, the frescoes on a local temple depicting scenes from hell offered a rather different exhortation to be good (or else):

The slow boat takes two days to reach Luang Prabang, with an overnight stopover in the town of Pak Beng. Although it was once a major local transportation route around the country, most locals now go by road, so the boat was mainly packed with tourists, with just a small group of locals who passed the time playing poker (for cash), drinking whiskey and generally having a laugh. The foreigners were more subdued, perhaps due to the eye-watering price of beer on board, or, more likely, because everyone had the personal distraction of their mobile phone (I confess to spending a fair bit of the journey reading the Lonely Planet Laos book on my phone. [“I most certainly didn’t!” adds John]).

The Mekong proved a turbulent and treacherous mistress, with many rapids and whirlpools; we were glad the crew seemed to know the ins and outs of their patch very well. The slow boat was, in fact, pretty fast – forested banks, rocky outcrops, the occasional village flew past, while we put our feet up and enjoyed the experience of covering so many miles without cycling.


The stopover in Pak Beng was a bit of a disaster. Having heard the town was full of places to stay, we didn’t book in advance. As it turned out, the town was pretty close to full. The landing was chaotic, faced as we were with the not insignificant challenge of manhandling our bikes and 12 pieces of luggage off the boat, along a crowded narrow jetty past nearly a hundred other tourists each trying to extract their own backpack from a precarious mountain of luggage) and up a very steep slippery bank populated by hotel hustlers waving pictures of the rooms they had to offer. We were also worried about getting a room, and were trying to negotiate a space whilst extracting and guarding luggage and bikes and also dealing with the bleatings of some girl who’d lost her backpack and seemed to think we could help. This final distraction proved too much: we lost track of a carrier bag containing our 10 litre water tub, most of our bike bottles and, most traumatically, our very long bike lock. Whether it was stolen or just mistakenly loaded into a taxi with someone else’s luggage remained a mystery – we were never to see it again: someone’s now the lucky owner of an expensive lock with no key. Meanwhile, bored of waiting for us to finish searching for our lost bag, the hotel rep we’d struck a deal with jumped on her scooter and rode away without telling us the name of her hotel.

After a fruitless attempt to find a room near the jetty, a local guy offered to take us to his friend’s new hotel, which wasn’t officially open yet, but was pretty luxurious, with AC and a big telly. It was, however, right over the other side of town, making for an early start the next morning to get back for the second boat.


The Mekong from Luang Prabang

The stress of the stopover soon melted away when we reached Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos and a spiritual centre for the Theravada Buddhism common throughout Laos. Thanks to both tourism and local vehicle ownership having burgeoned, the city was perhaps not quite the laidback haven described by Chris and fabled among backpackers in the nineties,  but for sheer visual lavishness, this UNESCO World Heritage site was unsurpassed, and has retained its genteel atmosphere despite the many thousands of foreigners passing through every day. And it gets a big thumbs up for banning motor traffic in the historic centre – something that would benefit our home town of York immensely.





What’s scarier than a dragon with seven heads?


A dragon with seven heads coming out of his mouth!


Though personally I found this freaky cat scarier

In the evenings, the hilltop temple is a popular spot for sunset viewing:


Vietnam war-era gun (despite its support for the US, over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos making it the most bombed per capita country in the world)


Sunset views…


…and sunset viewers.

And as dusk deepens, the night market springs into life…

…while early risers can watch – or participate in – the monks’ morning rice-collecting rounds, receiving offerings from the faithful.

Food and drink were another highlight – although the riverfront tourist traps were mindbogglingly overpriced compared to the roadside noodle shacks we’d become accustomed to, there was no shortage of street vendors and pavement cafes serving quick-cooked dishes at local prices. Sticky rice came in little wicker pots, and the ubiquitous Beer Lao was thankfully much better than the 2% beer-flavoured gassy water China had to offer.  A combination of local rum and the long-awaited appearance of green coconuts (the second reason, after music, I keep coming back to Asia) made for some great DIY cocktail opportunities – this one also includes freshly squeezed pineapple juice:



Noodles with duck blood jelly (black pudding for the tropics), raw baby aubergine (never really did get the taste for those), deep-fried battered garlic, and some kind of super-sour relation of the mango.


Luang Prabang’s most famous speciality dish – baguettes being one of the more innocuous colonial legacies

Finding ourselves stuck, however pleasantly, in Luang Prabang, waiting for some delayed but urgent work from a client to come in, we decided to take a day trip, flying off on unencumbered bikes to Kuang Si waterfalls. Although they had the cheek to charge us to park our bikes, the park was fantastic, with a spacious jungle refuge for rescued bears, butterflies galore, a spectacular 60 meter cascade with bathing pools below, and a Buddha cave with a very cold chalky blue spring that was deep enough to swim in further up the mountain.







But eventually, it was time to move on. Up into the mountains again…

IMAG3394…where a shy mum with a very inquisitive kid let us camp on the only flat grassy bit of land in a 20km radius…IMAG3379


…we awoke to find ourselves above a sea of clouds:




The march of progress: just a generation ago, chillies and bats(!) would have been dried in a wickerwork basket

Freshwater crabs, rat-on-a-stick and dried grubs (no photo of these I’m afraid) were just some of the tempting offerings to be found at market…

…whilst local hunters used slingshots to catch lizards for dinner:


We came across a natural hot spring – in fact, we almost missed it. About 20km north of a town called Kasi, we stopped at a truck wash to get some tap water prior to finding a camp spot. A girl came over from the restaurant to chat, and when she heard we wanted the water for bathing, she diverted us across the road to a pool catching the warm waters springing from the hillside a dozen or so meters up; no tickets, no fuss, locals and tourists alike making free use of nature’s bounty. They had a few little bungalows for rent, and, although we were only a few days out from Luang Prabang, the riding had been tough, so we decided to stop for a couple of nights and enjoy the free spa.


Local kids take a bath


But in school hours we had it to ourselves


View from the restaurant

But there were still many miles and mountains between us and Vientiane, and we needed to allow time to sort out an extended Thai visa so on we rode.


As we gradually dropped down from the mountains – and by gradually I mean we were descending overall, but there were still an awful lot of ups to go with the downs – things got hotter, siesta-time lengthened, and we made grateful use of the beautifully-constructed roadside shelters:

We were heartened to see the bicycle still a central aspect of Laotian life, especially for the school run. Running the gauntlet of enthusiastic waves and greetings from our young fellow cyclists every afternoon when school let out became a familiar feature of the day, and the parpy horn on my bike continued to generate hilarity.

Cycling by the scenic route
to Java going rather slow,
Ginevra and her two-tone hooter
raise a smile where e’er they blow.


The last stop before Vientiane was Vang Vieng – a once-elegant town situated in the midst of spectacular karst limestone scenery on the Nam Song river.


Nam Song north of Vang Vieng

Until recently, Vang Vieng had a pretty dirty reputation as an all-night party town where ‘farang’ (foreigners) went to get drunk, take drugs and float downriver in inflated inner tubes, a practice known as ‘tubing’: a combination of indulgences that had proved lethal for more than a few fun-seekers over the last decade. A recent crackdown has seen bars closing before midnight and a much less tolerant attitude towards drugs; however, we opted to steer clear of the town, staying instead in the delightful Mulberry Organic Farm just outside.

Some more work had come in, and it was John’s turn to do it, so I went off alone, hunting for the Blue Lagoon cave, which apparently had a swimmable lake fed from the spring outside. I knew it was a popular place on the Vang Vieng itinerary, but I was surprised by the racket as I rolled up. There were about a hundred tourists there, including at least one coachload of atypically noisy, life-jacketed Korean holiday-makers who were cheering each other on as they took it in turns to jump from a tree into the lake. Zip-wires and a helter-skelter waterslide provided further entertainment options. But as I clambered up to the cave entrance, the sounds soon dropped away, and the cave itself was still and peaceful enough for a Buddha to doze in (cave photos courtesy of Marius Lewicki):


Though most visitors didn’t make it far past the Buddha, the intrepid, armed with sensible footwear and torches, could scramble on and explore a couple of hundred meters further in. The cave formed a natural cathedral. High ‘windows’ in the roof admitted faint shafts of diffuse blue light that were lost to the vast space long before they illuminated the ground below.  Water droplets, as if recreating a dim and distant collective dream of a fan-vaulted church once seen, dribbled convoluted columns of limestone from ceiling to floor, while in the black depths a still pool glinted and the turbulent rock coyly flashed its quartzite bling.

Fan vault

Fan vault


Vaulting fans

Emerging from the silent depths of the cave, the rumpus at the lake asserted its presence once again, but it was all good-natured fun, and a cool dip in the fresh milky water was just the thing to finish off with.

And then that was it for the mountains. Hurtling down the sudden and decisive end of the highlands, with some fairly heavy local traffic to spoil our fun, we were now in the plains surrounding Vientiane, though even this much more intensively farmed and inhabited area had pretty scenery to offer.

As we approached the city, the government – which we had been barely conscious of beyond the traces of state support for the sustainable development of northern villages – was asserting its ideology more strongly:


The state is your friend.

As capital cities go, Vientiane has to be one of the least capital-like in the world. The size of a backwater provincial town in China, and considerably more laid-back, it nevertheless had all the amenities we needed, most especially a fantastic array of convincing Italian, French and Japanese restaurants (among others). As everyone who knows us knows well, we’re keen consumers of all kinds of Asian dishes – rat-on-a-stick excepted – and are more likely to be found cooking curry or fried rice than meat ‘n’ two veg. But there comes a time in any traveller’s journey when you’ve been on the road so long that suddenly the thought of a well-constructed carbonara brings tears of longing to your eyes. Since my birthday was coming up, and John’s 40th  had been spent enjoyably but unceremoniously squatting a derelict house in southern China,  I proposed an 8-course dinner cooked by Alfredo Russo, a visiting Michelin starred chef, at the posh Italian restaurant across the road from our hostel. As well as selected wines to match every course, it came with trendy presentation, such as this dry-ice cooled sashimi tower:


Smokin’! (Well, sublimatin’ actually.)

And while we were in Vientiane, our ever-dedicated friend Rich Lane got in touch with another present. Thanks to the lack of GPS metadata on our Chinese photos  (I’m afraid we’ve been switching GPS off to preserve our aging phone battery – sorry folks) robbing him of the mammoth task of uploading all our pictures onto the Google Map mashup, he had instead dedicated himself to multi-tracking John’s Frere Jacques reboot – composed on the saddle in Xinjiang (Episode XVIII) – into its intended 16-part format. As Richard puts it, “it works, but it’s a bit mental!”:

In such delightful ways we whiled away our time whilst wrangling 60 day visas from the Thai Embassy, until finally, having spent every last one of the 30 days permitted us in Laos, it was time for the next border.


Goofy-toothed guardian


Episode XIX – Yunnan Province, China, 18 Oct-7 Nov

I must open with an apology for the long delay. Perhaps after our relatively internet-free existence in China it was hard to regain momentum, or the languid pace and steamy heat of the tropics has undermined our will to sit down and blog. Maybe we were just blogged out for a bit. In any case, here we come, finally emerging from the oncoming chill of winter in northwest China, and hurtling down towards tropical climes.

Before reading this post, however, you might want to go back and take another look at the previous one, which has just been revised and reinvigorated, with exciting additions such as my collection of colourful Central Asian Ladas (I nearly got run over for at least two of those photos so I hope you appreciate them), some insights into the unexpected consequences of racial profiling in Xinjiang, and at least one more terrible pun.

Our departure from Urumqi was as remarkable, in terms of the unexpected kindness  of strangers, as our arrival. Having had to consign our bikes as luggage a couple of days prior to our own train journey, we caught a taxi to the station. As so often happens in China – perhaps because people tend to be quite outgoing and communicative – the complete absence of mutual language failed to hamper conversation, and on discovering we had ridden from England, our Uyghur taxi driver was so stunned that he refused to take any money for the ride. In all my life and all my travels, I have never known a taxi driver to refuse money (let alone express enthusiasm about cyclists), making this one of the most remarkable moments of our trip thus far. And here is the gentleman himself:


And then it was time to get on the train. As great train journeys of the world go, Urumqi to Kunming should surely be on every locomotive-lover’s bucket list: 4220km over 3 days, from the great deserts in the northern rain shadow of the Tibetan plateau to the jungles of China’s tropical south. Despite the excitement of such a phenomenal journey, there were more than a few twinges of regret. No more slow passing of seasons, no more watching the landscape, the food, the faces, the dialects change little by little, at a rate of about 80km a day. Instead we would be sitting passively whilst mountain crags and hidden valleys hurtled past the window, stuck behind glass as desert gave way to pasture and pasture gave way to fields, until one morning we awoke to rice paddies and a decidedly humid tint to the air.


One way to pass a 3 day train journey

And then we were in the tropics. Hard to imagine we’d been waking up 2 weeks earlier to ice rime on the tent. The feeling of riding away out from Kunming Station into the perfectly warm, gentle morning sun will stay with me as one of my favourite ever climatic experiences. Not too hot, not too cold, just a safe, enveloping warmth that promises it’s there for the duration, that even if you’re caught out in the evening without a cardie you’ll be just fine.

We’d booked into the splendid Cloudlands Youth Hostel – the manager is a keen cyclist, and was recommended by a bike shop owner we’d been emailing about building a new wheel .


No clouds at Cloudlands…


…and good times can be had at the flick of a switch


We were also touched by other locally available services


Our major task in Kunming was to stop off at cycle tourist heaven, Pegasus Cycling. As well as a building me a nice, shiny new wheel (see below), the owner Hui Li – a keen cycle tourist himself – gave us two free crossbar bags (again, see photo) and a partly-used gas canister left by a customer who hadn’t been allowed to take it on the train, where such items are banned. This was particularly handy, as our own gas canisters had similarly been confiscated at the train station in Urumqi (though happily we got away with carrying our superb Japanese kitchen knife, a present from dad that would have been devastating to have to leave behind).


The manager of Cloudlands helped us plan a nice route out of Kunming, directing us to a wetland park on the shores of Lake Dian, just south of the city, for our first night camping. As we arrived after dark, finding a spot was a bit tricky, but we were well satisfied with our choice when we awoke the next morning:


Dawn’s rosy fingers prod us awake


Lake Dian

After this brief, flat warm-up stint, it was back to the hills. Unlike the western wilds of Xinjiang, the no-bike rules are strictly enforced on the Kunming-Laos motorway, which is a shame because it cuts out an awful lot of crinkles – both vertical and horizontal. On the other hand, it leaves the old road, which winds up and up and along and around endless mountain ridges, pretty much empty apart from local traffic, leaving us to enjoy the scenery and sights of Yunnan without having to dodge trucks around every corner.




Neatest wood pile since Switzerland

Our next night was spent at a “Bamboo Park”, apparently a place Chinese urbanites come to discover just how much fun bamboo can be, through activities such as walking in it, eating it, and punting around on metal-framed rafts with decorative bamboo cladding. Although we had to pay both to enter the park and again to camp, it was a convenient, flat spot with a toilet nearby, all countable blessings. The experience provided a timely reminder of a fact that I discovered some years ago in Japan but had annoyingly forgotten: bamboo is mozzie heaven! Whenever bamboo is cut, it leaves a vertical tube which collects water and makes a dream breeding ground for the little buzzers. A swift deployment of mosquito coils soon had things under control, however, and the evening passed pleasantly. We provided much entertainment for early bird tourists punting on the lake the following morning, as we packed up and loaded our bikes.

Meanwhile the local beasties were making their own entertainment (giving each other piggy backs):


The spectacular rice paddies for which Yunnan Province is famous soon started to appear, climbing up and and up over entire mountains. Sadly, a mix of poor weather, the limitations of our phone camera, and it not really being the right time of year meant we couldn’t capture just how stunning these are, but I recommend running a quick google image search on ‘Yunnan rice terraces’ to see one of the most amazing traditional forms of land-scuplting on the planet.

To balance out Yunnan’s beautiful scenery were reminders of humans’ uglier impacts on the environment: a lake of polytunnels to dwarf those of southern Crete…


… and the destruction of entire valleys, their villages and farmland sacrificed to new sections of motorway hacking its way between the hills:


En route, we bumped into Enikő and Baláz, the Hungarian couple we mentioned in the last post, who we in first met at Cloudlands. We decided to ride together, though we didn’t get very far – within an hour of our lunch break, heavy rain had set in and we dived for shelter in an abandoned house (they camped inside but our tunnel tent needing pegging out, so we opted for the soggy overgrown garden). However, it being John’s 40th (!), our spirits were not to be damped – indeed, we preferred to drink them straight, as we’d managed to locate some half-decent brandy (a blessed relief from the puky-tasting herbal distillations that seem to be popular in China). Our new friends, meanwhile, had managed to slip off and buy cake, and for some reason had some birthday candles in their luggage. Add into the mix trumpet, violin, and Baláz’s ukelele and we had everything needed for the perfect birthday party. Which we proceeded to have.


However, despite the ongoing rain,  we did not have enough time left on our 1-month visa to dilly dally,  and we sadly parted company the following afternoon, setting out in what proved to be only a temporary hiatus. About eight tough, wet, steep, miserable kilometres later, a blissful sight hove into view: a hot spring hotel, surrounded by a gently steaming swimming pool! Although it still seemed to be under construction,  a quick conversation shouted across a river to a staff member at a window established we could sleep there.

Indeed, to offset the inconvenience of the ongoing construction, rooms were super-cheap – for $12 we got a luxury 4-star room, with lush gold fixtures and fittings, a massive bed, a beautifully-finished bathroom big enough to hang the tent up in, and a balcony to cook on, not to mention the full attention of the entire staff, who had nothing better to do than carry our bags, bring us beer and generally make us feel welcome.

But the days were ticking past and we needed to get to the border. Just as we were trying to figure out whether we could do the last stint on a section of motorway marked ‘no motorbikes or bikes’ but which was clearly used by locals on scooters,  a Chinese cycle tourist also heading for Laos adopted us. (He’d been on the road for a full year without even leaving China up to that point!) Despite our mutual lack of Chinese/English language skills, he assured us it was ok to go on the motorway, halving the length and difficulty of our final dive for the border.  With nothing but our phone translation apps to communicate through, we travelled together for the next few days, clearly all having forgotten each others’ names (not me and John, obviously) but being mutually too embarrassed to ask.

Temperatures rose, humidity thickened the air, and rice paddies gave way to rubber plantations, a monoculture forest that would march us all the way down the Laotian border, providing handy but bug-ridden camping options. The little latex-collection pots (see below) happen to make perfect mozzie breeding grounds, and there was some other kind of bitey bug that liked to take little chunks of flesh, like horseflies. Combined with the thick mists enveloping us every night from around midnight to a few hours after dawn, camping in the tropics was beginning to prove less than comfortable.


Local collecting grasshoppers for lunch

Having crossed the Tropic of Cancer some days back, things were starting to look more jungly, and as we neared the border, hints of decidedly Laotian constructions, such as stilt houses on ponds, started to appear.




Nearly there…

Finally, we reached Mohan, a chilled out tropical-feel border town with an elephant obsession and some keen street badminton players:




Thanks to our anonymous friend’s good road advice, we got to chill out an extra day before crossing the border into our next country, Laos.

Episode XVIII – Northwest China, 9 to 23 October

Not wanting to blow our own trumpet…


…but reaching the edge of China, with the Odyssey-meter on 11,000km, was pretty damn awesome, and felt like a significant waypoint of our journey. After a third of a year, we were leaving the vast expanse of Turkic/ex-Soviet lands that stretched from Azerbaijan to the eastern edge of Kazakhstan, and setting foot in what to me at least, felt like the more familiar ground of East Asia. And so, farewell to Ladas in every colour of the rainbow –

– and hello to segregated bicycle/motorbike lanes, populated by a remarkable proportion of silent, smoke-free electric scooters, showing that China is not completely indifferent to air pollution issues (although, of course, the smog is only outsourced to the coal-powered power stations outside the cities). And, with no great regret, it was bye-bye plov (the greasy fried rice central Asians celebrate with inexplicable enthusiasm as their national dish) and hello, er, plov by a different name – cha fan, the thankfully much less oily Chinese fried rice. Plus, of course, a dizzying array of tasty, spicy dishes to tempt us after 3 months of choosing between plov, noodles (in a soup or fried), and variously-sized dumplings with an a occasional treat of borscht if we were somewhere big enough to host a Russian population.


Some dim sum


Jelly ear (thankfully a mushroom, not an actual ear)


Man vs fish stew


Purple crisps


Candied satsuma kebab



Pear milk cola, apparently


However, with the BBC and Guardian websites blocked – along with any Google-related offerings or WordPress sites (including this one!) – we found ourselves on a strict  news starvation diet, subsisting on China  State TV’s English propaganda channel (75%  on Chinese industry successes, 24% on how evil Japan is, and 1% carefully selected world news,  plus a bonus 150% on how much the Queen loves Xi Jinping and how she drove him around London in a gold carriage before giving him a banquet and selling him our nuclear power stations).


Chairman Mao is watching you

Our entry to China, through the labyrinthine joint border with Kazakhstan – kind of like two airports with no airplanes, separated by about 2km of no-man’s land traversable only by a tortuously circuitous 8km road – was jollified by the Kazakh border officials. The same team who’d stamped our passports on the snowy Kyrgyz border were doing a shift down here and poured out of their booths to shake hands, pat us on the back, and ask how we’d enjoyed Kazakhstan. On the hyper-modern Chinese side, more like an airport than a border, things also went smoothly: the only hassle was having to unload the bikes and put all the bags through x-ray machines – a common kerfuffle in public spaces in the troubled northerly province of Xinjiang, where disputes with Uyghur separatists have led to (and/or been used to generate) a general paranoia over terrorism.

And then we were in China. Orange and green tiled roofs with up-swept dragon eaves, dense clusters of rainbow-hued neon signs in enticingly incomprehensible Chinese characters, restaurants festooned with lucky red and gold to attract weekend diners, and buildings panelled with LED screens scrolling starbursts and supernovas . Market stalls displayed mysterious wares – dried bracket mushrooms, scraps of bark, stones and bones and dried rodents and chunky semi-precious rosaries. Road safety and etiquette posters were populated with cute cartoon characters falling asleep at the wheel or tossing rubbish out of their car windows, and roadside kilometer markers started counting down from a dizzying 4800km to some distant capital  – Beijing perhaps – a quarter of a world away.


I think it does a lot for the feng shui of the town…



Urumqi Punk dog sez: “Cummon den if u fink ur ard inuf”



Neon dream


The roads were fantastic – passing trucks gave us all the room they could, and in towns the traffic was chaotic but benign – a bit of give, a bit of take, everyone weaving around each other in a generally tolerant manner, with ‘right of way’ more a matter of negotiation with a smattering of chutzpa. Alarmingly, no one ever seemed to look behind, even when pulling out, but as long as you know it’s up to you to respond to everything happening in front of you and let people behind take care of themselves, it kind of works.

Despite the sense of being in a surveillance state (a feature of Xinjiang province rather than the whole country, at least for the time being), with cameras snapping every passing vehicle – including us – at every junction, we found officialdom to be efficient and the police downright lovely: always friendly and willing to go out of their way to help. In one town, they drove our Russian companion (who you’ll meet just below) to a camp shop to buy an unusual type of gas canister, and called the owner up at home when the shop proved to be shut.  A Hungarian cyclist couple we met in the south of China, Enikő and Balázs, had had less positive experiences in the north: he had a beard, tanned skin and dark eyes and hair – suspiciously similar to suspect characters depicted on Chinese ‘How to spot a Muslim terrorist’ posters (clue: look out for beards!), and so they were hassled by nervous cops from one end of Xinjiang province to the other.

Chinese terrorism poster

Watch out for men with beards, especially if they are running. If you see a bearded man running, call the police immediately.

cycle tourorists

Cycle tourorists (to be fair, those eyebrows are quite scary)


Our first stop was the border town of Korgas, which seemed pleasant enough. The next day we set off for the hills. The new motorway had a generous local road running alongside, though in many places half of it was taken up by the local harvest:




No, John, you can’t put them all in tonight’s curry!








As the valley narrowed and the road began to climb, the local road disappeared and it seemed we’d have to go on the new motorway, which up until then had been adorned with ‘no cycling’ signs. Whilst trying to sidle innocuously up to the toll booths (an ill-fated endeavour for two foreigners riding bikes with bright orange and yellow panniers) we were spotted by the transport police, who beckoned us over. Dreading the worst  – namely, being sent back 30 km to take a much longer alternate route – we pulled up. One officer ordered us to wait and disappeared into his hut, reappearing with… 4 cans of Red Bull, which they insisted we’d need to sustain us for the big climb ahead, which we were most certainly allowed to do on the motorway. Numerous grinning selfies and group shots were duly taken on various officers’ phones, and we were waved on our way.

A little further on, we encountered Dima, a lone Russian cyclist, with whom we rode for the next 10 days to the provincial capital Urumqi. We made camp in a beautiful but windy side valley, necessitating the construction of a dry stone kitchen wall to stop dinner blowing away.



We shared the valley with a small herd of camels, a decidedly shaggier breed than Uzbek beasts, which might be why this friendly individual liked having his neck scratched so much:

We couldn’t quite figure out what the road ahead held in store for us. Our online map, intriguingly, said it would look like this:

spiral road


The reality became apparent as we approached:


Aha, what’s this then?


…you mean we’ve got to get up there?!

An hour and a long tunnel later…



Not for the vertiginous!


Grand design

After that, the day’s work was done: with the climb behind (well, below) us, we were soon at Lake Sayram, which was so pretty we had to stay for the night, in a little nook just below the snowline.


Dima’s school of camping: let’s burn a tree!


But this was the end of scenic Xinjiang for us (though there are many beautiful places further to the east). The rest of the road to Urumqi was through black rubble desert, scourged and scarred by industrial machinery, so ugly I could barely be bothered to photograph it…


The sights of west Xinjiang

… though dull scenery did at least encourage John’s daydreaming up of an intricate reworking of Frère Jaques for 16 part canon on the motorway (see next installment for the 16-part version):


Despite the barrenness of this stretch of China, the government was busy building new roads and enormous housing estates, attracting mainland Han Chinese to the province (presumably to outnumber the Uyghurs and other troublesome minorities) with the promise of being allowed two children instead of one. Quite what they envisage everyone doing in such a grim place other than raise their extra child, was unclear.


China is under construction

On the other hand, the topiary was spectacular …


… farmers were happy for us to camp on their land…


… and the occasional copse brought some relief from the desert…



But the nights were increasingly cold, and the drear October rains were settling in for the long-haul. We spent the last night before Urumqi camping in an ill-advised spot in a muddy field, which deteriorated to a quagmire with overnight rains, and the next day being splattered with road muck by passing trucks, so by the time we rolled up in the city we were a right mess.

Things weren’t helped by the discovery that the hotel we’d booked into online didn’t in fact accept foreigners, and nor did any others nearby. Eventually, the staff of a bigger chain hotel took pity on us, and directed us to their sister hotel which could take us. Getting there involved me riding in someone’s car, while the husband  of one of the hotel employees jumped onto my fully-laden bike, suit and all, and wobbled off gleefully with John in tow. Trying not to be too nervous for my bike, for him, or for any pedestrians unfortunate enough to be between him and the destination, we simply had to let go any attempt to control the situation and leave fate in the hands of the Great Spaghetti Monster. The bike turned up at the hotel intact – apparently the guy only ran into three pedestrians on the way – and the only remaining embarrassment was the trail of black water we and the bikes left across the hotel’s pristine foyer (though no one seemed to mind).

As it turned out, luck was with us: the hotel was relatively cheap (they gave us a VIP discount despite our muddiness making us feel like very unimportant people) and for around £15/ night we got a spotless, clean room, reminiscent of a British Travelodge but with a bigger telly – all the better to watch Chinese non-news on. And, rather than catering to suicidal guests’ afterlife with a bible, the room instead demonstrated the hotel’s desire to preserve their customers in this one, by providing emergency gas masks:



Urumqi was huge for a provincial capital, and although lacking in touristic charm, had a great energy and buzz. It happens to be the most land-locked city in the world, being about 2,500km from the nearest coastline – quite possibly the Caspian coastline from which we’d cycled. Although not every street had segregated cycle paths, it did have some fabulous features like the underground roundabouts for two-wheelers, reminiscent of a bumper-car circuit:


It had buildings which do this:


There were even street musicians playing local music – a rarity on our travels through a world now dominated by mass-produced global shit-pop pumping out of car stereos and shops:

But with only 30 days on our visa to cross over 5000 km of China, there was no time to linger and explore the more interesting sights of northern China – the Great Wall, the Buddhist caves in Dunhuang and the Teracotta Army in Xian. Instead, we hopped on the first available sleeper train for a 3-day ride to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province in the south.


Episode XVII – Kazakhstan again, 1 to 9 October

Now, where were we? Thanks to our blog apparently being banned in China (and tempting though it is to imagine this was a deliberate decision by the Censors who Guard the Great Firewall due to our subversive but insightful political commentary, in fact all foreign travellers’ blogs seemed to be banned, along with Facebook, Google, BBC news and, in some provinces, the Guardian) it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to post an update.

I believe you last saw us descending from a snowy plateau on the Kyrgyz border to the sunny grasslands of Kazakhstan:


Steppe up to the challenge

Having rushed to the Kyrgyz border on a rumour, which turned out to be false, that it might close for winter on 1st October, we were then stuck meandering around the northeast corner of Kazakhstan for a week. This is because the Chinese see fit to close the border – yes close the ruddy border – for an entire eight days over Golden Week, a succession of public holidays. Bad luck for any Chinese fancying spending Golden Week in Kazakhstan.

Our time was spent pleasantly, sampling the local biscuit offerings…

…exploring mysterious tombs…


…pondering desert artworks…


… and camping out in the Sharyn Canyon National Park for a few days. Imagine a vast stretch of rather dull desert (see above), then cut an enormous gash in it that’s completely invisible from the perfectly flat plateau, run a glistening blue river down it, fill it with trees, add a dash of autumn reds and golds, and there you are:


Morning coffee cooked on our new stove

Having pleasantly squandered the best part of the required week, we rolled onto Zarkent, the last town before the Chinese border and managed to identify a hotel.


If you’re ever in Zarkent, don’t stay here

Or so we thought. In fact this one, we came to suspect, doubled up as a brothel. Combined with a tiny room (complete with empty condom packet under the bed), rude staff and the wifi not working – contrary to the owner’s assurances before we took the room –  this made for a less-than-pleasant stay. Of course, when we rolled up mid-afternoon, it just looked like a hotel. But come evening, the gaudy neon sign outside started to flash and more male ‘guests’ turned up than there were rooms for  (3, of which we had one – rooms, that is).

On our first night, the girl left in charge seemed anxious to hide us away from these men when we tried to emerge and ask for more toilet roll (highly-guarded items still only handed out one at a time and grudgingly in ex-Soviet countries). Great consternation was caused when John tried to cook baked potatoes in the microwave in their tiny kitchen, possibly because the girl couldn’t conceive of a man attempting to cook or knowing how to operate a food-making device. Or maybe she didn’t like us using the ‘kitchen’ (a kettle and microwave and a small table and chairs) – when I tried to sit in there to work the following day, I was driven out with gestures indicating the kitchen was for the staff to sit around drinking tea in, not for guests who needed a table to work at.

So, lingering long enough only to batter the previous blog post into shape at a nearby restaurant with wifi and passable pizza, we soon set off with some relief and a fair measure of excitement for the Chinese border, through a landscape blazing with autumn golds.


One last golden campsite


Amaizing! (Sorry, is that a bit corny?)


Episode XVI – Kyrgyzstan, 27 August to 30 September 2015: Switzerland of the East…

… as it is apparently known to some, though not previously to us: like most Brits we knew next to nowt about the place. So, Switzerland’s secret twin, famed for high quality chocolate, precision watches or immaculate tidiness? No, none of the above. Nor can it boast the invariably super-smooth tarmac we’ve enjoyed on our Swiss jaunts (though the Osh–Bishkek road was really pretty good). But what Kyrgyzstan has is beautiful mountains, with beautiful streams and lakes, and snowy peaks even in late summer.


Switzerland of the East

Actually, we’d already an inkling, as Kyrgyzstan’s high valleys had been especially recommended to us by Karen and Louis-Phillipe, another couple of cyclists who stopped with us in York a while back, having crossed Central Asia and the Caucuses – with an accordion in a trailer, no less (putting our mere violin, pocket trumpet and melodica to shame). And yet still we couldn’t have expected: it’s utterly, awesomely, stunningly, gobsmackingly beautiful; brings-you-to-the-verge-of-tears-as-you-ride-along-ly beautiful [“or perhaps that’s just riding up stupidly enormous hills with ridiculously laden bikes” thinks Ginevra, but no, not those sort of tears, honestly]; a never-going-to-be-captured-by-our-phone-camera kind of beautiful, so you’ll just have to come yourselves! (Please try not to fly. Just cycle or something. It’s only a year-or-so away, and well worth it).


And yes, by the by, we’ve been gone a year, an anniversary we celebrated/commiserated – let’s just say marked – not in the glorious mountains but in Bishkek, a city thoughtfully built and maintained such as to ensure that Kyrgyz natives and foreign tourists alike have a way to avoid beauty-overload. And in case lack of architectural flair doesn’t combine effectively enough with straitened public and private economic situations, there’s the funk and haze of the automotive smog. Wondered where middle-aged cars disappear to these days? Prematurely scrapped? No, they reach the point where they splutter and cough and pump out too much horrid black stuff for developed-world regulations/sensibilities then find their way to Central Asia. Right-hand drive Honda Step Wagns from Japan and left-hand drive Audi 80s, 90s and 100s from Europe particularly abound here. We can presume the legacy of VW’s recently-uncovered crimes will still be being breathed by Bishkek’s toddlers in 20-, 30-years time.

Anyhow, back to the Uzbek–Kyrgyz border, back to the narrative, back to us on our bikes, rolling along the narrow, ever-so-quiet country lane of the little-used Shamaldy-Say crossing point. Thank goodness, no further rigmarole regarding missing Uzbek hotel-registration slips, through the gate out of Uzbekistan, a brief, friendly interaction at the two green sheds that constitute the Kyrgyz border and customs controls, stamps, and welcome to Kyrgyzstan for up to 60 days, visa free.  Could it really not be that welcoming for any country, for Asian friends visiting the UK, for example?

And out we pop, from this little lane, onto the main road between Osh and Bishkek (the country’s second and first cities respectively). Blessed relief, its not crazily busy, the tarmac’s fair, there’s a decent 80cms or so of hard shoulder, the drivers don’t seem to object to our using it, and the toots appear to be of friendly welcome [rather than the now-familiar prolonged “GET OUT OF MY WAY ‘COS I’M ABOUT TO OVERTAKE LIKE A TW[insert offensive vowel of your choice]T” hoot – GH].

Then, with sunset approaching, we head down a lane towards the hope of riverside camping. The lane gets narrower and narrower and, after drifting past a fair few quizzical looks from local residents, we wind up on a ridge with a good river view, but alas, in somebody’s backyard. Then the owner appears: “Welcome, welcome” and all is good. Just as it starts to rain we get our stuff into the tent and dive into his home for tea with the family.

First taste of Kyrgyz hospitality

First taste of Kyrgyz hospitality

“Some tourists came before”, this engineering teacher with a little English tells us, and gets out the photo album. It seems some Aussies in a camper van happened down the same lane – in the mid-eighties, judging by the fashions in the photos. It adds to the feeling that we’re a bit of an event.


Stewed goat's head for breakfast - and John is now the proud owner of a traditional Kyrgyz hat

Stewed goat’s head for breakfast – the eyelids were suprisingly good – and John is now the proud owner of a traditional Kyrgyz hat

Next day we’re back on the road, climbing, and the farmland gives way to something increasingly wild and spectacular as the mountains edge closer to meet the watercourse we’ll be following for the next few days. We camp one night in a hidden spot by a tributary stream…


…then wind our way along a reservoir through the starkly beautiful Fergana Range (thankfully not one of the valleys suffering from radioactive pollution from a Soviet-era uranium mine) …


… making a new friend along the way …


… and find ourselves on the shores of Lake Toktogul – or rather, perched high above them, on a scenic but surprisingly arid campsite.

After following a surprisingly tough road through the hills around the lake, we turn into Toktogul town, expecting to find pleasant waterfront cafes, especially since there had been numerous restaurants along the road. But whereas money travels up and down the main road in nice cars, little seems to make it into the settlements off to the sides.


Hey, Wayne, it's harvest time incidentally

Hey, Wayne, it’s harvest time incidentally

Back on the highway we climb again, away from the lake, alongside white water gushing through the narrow gorge. Who cares if you’re camped close to the road when hidden under trees with this torrent drowning out traffic noise?

Living fence (look closely)

Living fence (look closely)

Woz Gaudi ere too? (Remember Borges?)

Woz Gaudi ere too? (Remember Borges?)

Here comes the crinkly stuff!

Here comes the crinkly stuff!

Cyclists coming down – one evening a Swiss guy who’d been on the road for four years, next morning a German, that afternoon three Americans – all looked very cold and reported storms up ahead. Indeed, we’d been enjoying the lightning over the mountains for days, but hadn’t been drenched ourselves.

And luck held. The gorge finally opened out into wide green valleys, complete with yurts and the horses and cows and sheep their occupants herded high up the hillsides.

Trying to find a campsite, but instead manhandled onto a donkey

Trying to ask a passing herder if it’s ok to camp here, Ginevra somehow ends up being manhandled onto a donkey and taken for a little ride.

As we got our tent up, in just a few spots of rain, our new neighbour came by and, once again, we went off for tea, this time in a yurt, about half a km away. And never again will a tourist-yurt–camp experience suffice (see Uzbekistan entry). And nor will Devon clotted cream, let alone supermarket Pasteurised butter. As the solar-charged battery on the family’s electric light failed we ate by oil lamp with a wood stove burning for heat up there at around 3000m. Two bowls contained, we think: 1) butter so creamy we weren’t sure it wasn’t cream; and 2) cream so thick we weren’t sure it wasn’t more creamy butter. The father and elder son popped out, returning half an hour later with full buckets and we drank of the contents. After exchanging various animal noises, we established which variety of beast’s milk it was: the guy’s horse whinny was the best we’d ever heard, more convincing than most horses’ I’d wager. And while we supped, the mother and younger son churned the next day’s butter – a nightly, hour-long ritual.


Popping round for tea with the neighbours

Horses tethered for milking

Horses tethered for milking

Mum helps baby churn the milk

Mum helps baby churn the milk

Morning view

Morning view

In the morning our teeny-tiny first chain rings continue to be the only option as we complete this most glorious 75 km climb to the Ala-Bel Pass.



Highlands, an apple break, then up on the pass


And then clunk-clunk, it’s up onto the big rings and down into a broad high plateau, where every other yurt is pitched close to the road and serves as a cafe selling the city-dwellers their authentic slice of traditional Kyrgyz cultural heritage dunked, of course, in tea and the very richest dairy products.

Horseman and horsemen

Horseman and horsemen

Squiggly climb

Squiggly climb

We and the road climb hard but duck several hundred meters under the Töö-Arbuu Pass through a horribly ill-ventilated tunnel. Emerging, our lives having surely been measurably shortened by the fumes, we’re hit by yet another spectacular vista. This time it’s bleak, steep, jagged crags of dark purply-brown rock for several hours of descent that leave us very happy to have traveled the road south to north – slowly-slowly up through the generous lush greens, hurtling down the more stark and barren side.

Sorry, we really didn't capture the drama. Maybe if you zoom in to where the road disappears?

Sorry, we really didn’t capture the landscape’s drama. Maybe if you zoom in to where the road disappears?

And then a night in a little hotel, and a minibus to avoid a day-long drenching that never did hit us up on the heights, and we arrive in Bishkek for a couple of weeks waiting for Chinese visas, squeezing in a bit of proofreading work and giving our brains some time to process all that spectacularness.

Noodles are taking on a decidedly spicy, Chinese flavour

Noodles are taking on a decidedly spicy, Chinese flavour

To our great relief we also find our brand new MSR stove has successfully run the gauntlet of international post. Many thanks to Helen and her folks at Ellis Brigham for sending that out! Very pleased though we are with it, it’s also sad to say farewell to the Coleman petrol stove that’s served so well for many years. It may well serve for many more, but was beyond us to adequately service on the road, so is now in the hands of the kind of handy tinkerer that deserves such prolonged service – Alex, who with partner Ksenia runs the hostel we were stopping in.

Bye-bye stove

Bye-bye stove

Then visas arrive and, after a last blast of kitchen cooking (thanks to our new Belgian friends for the photos below and some genuine Belgian chocolate for the road)…


Curry with Brecht, Naomi, Ksenia and Alex, then it's bye-bye Bishkek

Curry with Brecht, Naomi, Ksenia and Alex, then it’s bye-bye Bishkek

… it’s time for our legs to remember their raison d’être and propel us east. East to Ysyk-Köl, the world’s second-largest alpine lake, then to Kazakhstan which is so wide it arches right over from the Caspian and’ll bookend the whole phase from that ferry crossing to China.

In Kyrgyzstan, as in so many other countries, we’ve seen curious attempts to cement – sometimes literally make concrete – a national identity. Happily the most extreme example we happened upon was defunct: some sort of nationalist holiday camp on the lakeside, complete with concrete yurts and high mural-covered walls, and overlooking its colossal gold-painted ironwork gates a huge painting of some national progress myth depicting a traditional caravansarai on one side and the national airport, with some heavily symbolic Kyrgyz hat-wearers in the middle, bloodied and struggling in the coils of a giant golden dragon. Make of that what you will.

But, of course, transnational traits are at least as strongly evident. Tiles gave way to tin rooves, often ornately trimmed, as soon as we crossed into former Soviet territories back in Georgia. But we’ve only just seen such metalwork appear to merge so completely with another common factor, the mosques of Turkic cultures that’ve been in nearly every town since landing in Thrace (North-Eastern Greece), Georgia excepted.


Pineapple dome

And also just appearing, rather lovely ornate wooden gable-balconies.


Then, for symmetry either side of Bishkek, there’s nature’s beauty and good eating. Our first woodland camp since the middle of Azerbaijan proved to be a forager’s delight…





Not sure what this one is, but it certainly smells very pungent

Not quite sure what this one is, but it certainly smells very pungent…

..while the next evening provided spectacular camping under looming sandstone cliffs:


Looming cliffs

Looming cliffs

And finally, to the lake shores:


Overlooking Issyk-Kul

Overlooking Issyk-Kul


Beach spot

Beach spot

Duck with 5-spice and local homemade red wine sauce on a bed of bulgar wheat – another humble camping dish from

Duck with 5-spice and local homemade red wine sauce on a bed of bulgar wheat – another humble camping dish from “John and Gin’s Simple Cycle Touring Recipes” (not forthcoming in all good bookstores)

For Amber and other biscuit-lovers

For Amber and other biscuit-lovers

And some other Kyrgyz culinary delights... fancy some tripe and goat's head? (We plumped for a boring but delicious rib roast)

And some other Kyrgyz culinary delights… fancy some tripe and goat’s head? (We plumped for a boring but delicious rib roast)

And for asymmetry, there were some roads so eyeball-joltingly bumpy it was hard to admire the scenery until stopped. But also these:

First proper bike racks in Central Asia, but worth waiting for, what?

First proper bike racks in Central Asia, but worth waiting for, what?

For a final pause in Kyrgyzstan we stop in Karakol, having already slowed our progress knowing that the Chinese border will be closed from 1 to 7 October for Golden Week – a succession of national holidays. But then we hear the Kazakh border might close on 1 October for winter. Aaargh!

Change of plan – dash for Kazakhstan and then slow down again.

Heading for the border, the snowline draws closer:


A chilly camp just below the snowline…


…calls for brandy coffee with chocolate for breakfast!

Mmm, that's worth getting up for

Worth getting up for

And on up to the snowline:




So, as we entered Kyrgyzstan, we leave – on a tiny country lane …

Last view of Kyrgyzstan (back from border control)

Last view of Kyrgyzstan (looking back from border control)

… and as with Switzerland–Italy a year ago, with one swift descent winter turns back to autumn again.

Down on the Kazakh steppe, on an ocean of golden grass

Down on the Kazakh steppe, on an ocean of golden grass


Episode XV – Uzbekistan, realm of dreams and reams of bureaucratic nightmares


Uzbekistan – land of vast deserts and emerald oases; of exquisite architecture from the height of the Islamic enlightenment; home to the legendary Persian poet, philosopher, astronomer and mathematician Omar Khayyam; the birthplace of modern algebra – al-jibr; source of the Mughal Empire which swept all the way to India bringing Islam and naan bread in its wake.

And, Uzbekistan – a paranoid and corrupt totalitarian state with a fake democracy, bloated military, endless police check points, citizen spies, restrictions on the movements of foreigners, a dysfunctional banking system and some serious plumbing issues (which could be instantly solved by retraining half the police force as water engineers and redirecting a fraction of the budget spent on tracking people’s movements into providing running water and sewage systems).

Why not invest in some Uzbek dental work: a safer option than an Uzbek savings account?

Savings: safer in your mouth than in an Uzbek bank account

But on balance, the inconvenience and frustrations of the latter points were all rendered tolerable by the delights of the former – most of which we had not an inkling of before we crossed the border – and, of course, the great kindness and generosity of the people, particularly in the melon department. Indeed, it was often hard to get through a day without free melon, even if we were trying to buy one.

We tried to buy this melon. Nope.

Tried to pay for a melon from this man. Nope.

The contrast between the intimidating heavy-handedness of the state and the fun to be had the rest of the time was eloquently illustrated even before we’d disembarked from the train. If you recall, we opted to skip 300km of bog all…

300km of bog all

Bog all

… and travel from Beyneu to Kungrad by rail. The midnight train was very jolly and our fellow-passengers (mostly Karakalpaks, a local ethnic minority whose families seem to span the border) were very kind, as was the train guard who took us under his wing, got the bikes on (he had a trick for standing them up on their front wheels in the vestibule) and made sure we had berths to ourselves, chasing off any other poor souls who tried to crowd our patch, even though we had no reservations.

Despite being the wee small hours, the first part of the journey was spent filling out reams of documentation for the Uzbek border, including a declaration of all our foreign currency (hefty fines for taking more foreign currency out of Uzbekistan than you bring in, for reasons which would soon become clear). This took a while, since we were carrying smatterings of eight different currencies. The train guards gathered up everyone’s passports and forms, and we drifted finally to sleep.

The atmosphere changed dramatically a couple of hours later, just before dawn, when the guards marched through the carriage banging on the walls to rouse everyone. Passengers sprang instantly and solemnly to life, folded up their sleeping berths and sat stiffly, like nervous children sent to the headmaster for punishment. Before long, the train filled with Uzbek soldiers, marching up and down, asking questions, performing spot searches, taking passengers (including mothers with weeping children) off for interrogation. They demanded to see all our medicines (codeine is illegal) and any photos we had on our laptop. I dissembled, opening my official Windows ‘Photos’ folder which has about 20 random jpegs in it, so luckily we didn’t have to go through the  thousands of pics from our trip thus far (including the one featuring John’s bum from Italy) which would have probably delayed the train by a day. The many photos, that is, not John’s bum (well, who knows…?)

Finally they stomped off (apart from the one female guard, who wore black sequined ballet shoes with her camouflage fatigues instead of boots and was thus unable to stomp). The train guards smiled once again and the party atmosphere returned, along with a tidal wave of hawkers who burst past the departing soldiers and traipsed up and down the carriages for the rest of the journey advertising their wares – drinks, hot pies, flatbreads, cigarettes, smoked fish, perfume, kids’ toys and t-shirts – in singsong voices.

Fancy a fish?

Fancy a fish?

I got a lesson in Uzbek (another Turkic language) from a friendly primary-school teacher, who told me that she and all the family and friends in the surrounding seats, and the people in other seats in the carriage, and the hawkers buzzing up and down the train, were Karakalpak. The Karakalpak people were once mostly nomads and fishermen, but traditional livelihoods were devastated by the draining of the Aral Sea – one of the greatest environmental disasters in human history – when the Soviet state decided that the Uzbek desert was a fantastic place to grow cotton and diverted the rivers that fed the sea to irrigate the fields. Many joined collective farms or moved to the cities, but we found a fierce pride in Karakalpak identity across the wild, westernmost desert state of Karakalpakistan.

My Uzbek teacher

My Uzbek teacher

We’d heard that there were money-changing hawkers on the train, and having researched the Kazakh-Uzbek exchange rate on Google and carefully memorised the Uzbek for “Too expensive – cut me a deal!”, thought ourselves fully prepared to haggle for the best rate. But when the first money changer who came along offered almost twice what we were expecting, it was all I could do to pick my jaw up off the ground and agree, feeling slightly worried that we were somehow ripping her off.

In fact, the government’s official exchange rate – about 2,500 Som to the dollar – is a fiction, while the black market rate of 4,500 Som accurately reflects the cost of living. Hence you can’t take foreign currency out of the country, lest you walk in with $100, exchange it for 450,000 Som on the black market, then change your Som back to dollars at the official rate, walking away with $180.

Why the government perpetuates this situation proved a little hard to fathom. A holidaying British diplomat we met in a yurt (see below) thought it was probably a kind of propaganda, to make the economy look better than it was as the Som steadily plummeted in value. A sharp young Uzbek economics graduate we met in a restaurant hinted, in very hushed tones, that it allowed corrupt officials to siphon off a cut of any aid money granted based on the official rate.

Whatever the reason, it means banks won’t exchange money or issue it to foreign cardholders through ATMs. As we would discover, the only way to withdraw cash was to visit a large city, find a branch of Aksaka Bank (the only Uzbek bank that accepts MasterCard), put on a long pair of trousers or skirt (no shorts allowed), turn up between 10 and 4pm – but not during the siesta from 1 to 3pm, or on the first day of the month because the internet for the ENTIRE COUNTRY will be switched off, or after 3:30pm on the last day of the month because the bank system will go down in preparation for the first of the month, or on a day when there are university exams BECAUSE THE INTERNET FOR THE ENTIRE COUNTRY WILL BE SWITCHED OFF (to prevent cheating?) as well as any roads which have universities on them being closed to traffic (deep breath) – figure out how to get into the bank (probably around the back, not the front which may be sealed with a big iron gate), show your passport to security and submit to a body search, locate the unmarked office that deals with foreign currency, wait while an apologetic official digs through a pile of card machines to find the MasterCard one, wait some more while he figures out how to use it, make the payment, take the receipt to the busy cashier’s window, work out where the amorphous queue ends, fight to keep your place in it, and finally fill in another form before being issued a maximum of $500.

THEN, you take your dollars to the central bazaar and find the black market dealers – in some cities men swinging carrier bags stuffed with cash will accost you as soon as you approach; in other less touristy spots with more heavy-handed police, locals are very cagey about where you might find a dealer, and you may have to rely on your hotel or a taxi driver to ‘call a friend’. Oh, and don’t forget to bring a big bag – your money will come in notes worth about $0.2 if you’re lucky (I usually managed to avoid being palmed off with a wadge of 10 cent notes).

Combined with the bulky Uzbek toilet role – similar in appearance, texture and thickness to tree bark – this made for a tightly packed handlebar bag.

Loo roll and about $30 in cash

Loo roll and about $30 in cash

On the other hand, you get to go around with gangster-sized fistfuls of cash.

Loadsa dosh!

Loadsa dosh!

Anyway, on arriving in Kungrad, we were directed to a friendly little tea/guest house, where we met two stranded foreign motorbikers. Ricardo from Spain had been in a crash and damaged his ribs, so was holed up while he recovered. But providing a more worrying reminder of the dangers of travelling in Uzbekistan, Paul from St Petersburg was under house arrest, having failed at the border to present the requisite number of ‘registration slips’, which every foreign tourist must present to prove that you’ve stayed at a hotel every three nights. An attempt to smooth things over with the offer of an unofficial “fine” went down badly: the soldiers at the border sent him back to Kungrad and ordered the police to imprison him while his documents were sent to Tashkent for an official decision. Since Kungrad police station had no cells, and he refused to sleep on the ground outside the station, the cops let him stay at the local hotel as long as he registered with them every morning.

A fruity welcome!

A fruity welcome!

Anxious to retain any new companionship, Paul bought copious quantities of fruit from the market and begged us to stay a few more days and help him eat it. But with only a month to get from one side of the country to the other, even this gentle form of blackmail (who wants to waste fruit?) couldn’t persuade us to linger. Leaving our stranded friends with a selection of films to keep them entertained we set off, on a deliciously rainy morning, back into the desert.

Desert rainbow

IMAG1939 Desert rainbow

The tea house in Kungrad was not licensed to issue these stupid registration slips, and we spent the next night with a lovely family who owned a farm in the middle of a park where we were trying to camp:

Funky shades

Funky shades

Trumpet lesson - blow a raspberry

Trumpet lesson – blow a raspberry

So on the third night, we had to stop in the provincial capital, Nukus, to pick up our essential first hotel slip. Though frustrating – our travels through Uzbekistan proved extremely expensive thanks to the need to stay in a $30+ hotel every three or so nights – we did get to visit Nukus’s amazing museum, which houses a collection of works by dissident Soviet artists.

Yevgeny Lysenko's

Yevgeny Lysenko’s “Bull”

An attempt to skip a few day’s desert riding and purchase train tickets to Bukhara failed, on account of it being the university entrance exam day, therefore the internet – including the rail booking system – was down. So after a wasted and frustrating morning at the train station, we hit the road once again. Wherever it touched the waters of the Amudarya Delta (which once fed the Aral Sea) the desert gave way to lush greens – a narrow strip of oasis that stretched over a thousand miles. The sight of trees and rivers was a delight for dusty eyes, but a combination of the intense humidity (scalding in the desert heat) and difficulty in finding camp spots in such a densely farmed region made for a sense of relief when the road headed back into the Kizilkum Desert.



Uzbek farmhouse

Uzbek farmhouse


At the well

At the well

Since we were being forced to spend money on hotels anyway, we decided to make the most of it and take a more touristy approach to Uzbekistan. First on the itinerary was the Fifty Fortresses of Khorezem. We stumbled across our first fort while looking for a campsite – unfortunately it was on the wrong side of a canal.

First fort

First fort

A diversion north to stay at a yurt camp by Ayaz Kala fort proved well worth the effort. But an effort it was – the yurt camp was up a steep hill, and somewhere in the deep desert to the north, a dragon was breathing fire in our faces, blasting us with a headwind that would have had the demons of hell reach for the air conditioning controls. We hauled ourselves up to the camp and were duly assigned a yurt, which offered shade but little respite from the heat, which blew in on the wind, heating every surface it touched.

Yurt camp

Yurt camp Yurt camp

Ayaz Kala was stupendous – and amazing that you can just scramble about on the ruins. Made of mud bricks, a lot of it seemed to have simply dissolved, though some architectural features such as arches and windows had miraculously remained intact.

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Ayaz Kala

Ayaz Kala

We also made a new friend:


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Next stop was Khiva, which one legend suggests was founded by Noah’s son Shem. It does have an Ark (the Khan’s palace), not that that proves anything. The brutality of the Khivan Khanate is cheerfully recounted by the lady who keeps a stall in the dungeons, and who insists on giving you a guided tour of various torture instruments before trying to sell you a silk scarf or a pair of knitted socks. This was another pattern to be repeated throughout Uzbekistan – fantastic UNESCO world heritage sites, beautifully restored, with stall holders – whose wares fill every cell of every madrassa, crowd the bottom of every minaret, and adorn the walls of every former dungeon – filling in the role of curators.

City walls

The Khan left this minaret unfinished when he realised the muezzin would be able to peer into his harem from the top of it.

The Khan left this minaret unfinished when he realised the muezzin would be able to peer into his harem from the top of it.

This minaret was finished

But he finished this one

Tilework details from the Ark

IMAG2180 Tilework details from the Ark



Shady mosque with every column carved differently

In the peaceful shade of a mosque, with over 200 individually-carved columns

In the peaceful shade of a mosque, with over 200 individually-carved columns

Hairy hats

Hairy hats

Then a bit more desert…

Recycled bottle wall - makes a change from slinging them out the back into the desert

Recycled bottle wall – a nice change from slinging them out the back into the desert

Coming round after a siesta

Coming round after a siesta

Orphaned kitten seeks - any - parent figure. This male dog looked as non-plussed as we were

Orphaned kitten seeks parent figure. This male dog looked as non-plussed as we were

At our final teahouse before hitting Bukhara, the petrol pump attendant next door came over to chat – in fluent English – and insisted we accept the services of his fiancée, Adiba, a trainee English teacher, as our personal guide to the city. In fact, he was also a trainee teacher, pumping petrol to save up to buy a house and marry his girl. This is what 21-year-old Uzbeks do instead of going on gap years. Parental expectations are strong in this part of the world.

Our first day in Bukhara was a day off to rest tired legs and, especially, John’s back, which was suffering from hauling our bikes on and off various stretches of roadworks, where we got to ride on brand new car-free tarmac, at the price of having to drag our bikes through rubble where it faltered. We met up with Adiba in the evening. Although we felt concerned we might be taking advantage (and indeed some local tourist industry workers seemed miffed that we were getting a freebee) she seemed genuinely keen to practice her English, and having a local guide was a fantastic boon.

Adiba and her student Islom

Adiba and her student Islom

We saw lots of madrasas and caravansarais and stuff (I’d make a great guidebook writer, huh?). To be fair, at least one of the madrasas was originally built as a caravansarai, but the official making the formal dedication called it a ‘madrasa’ by mistake, so the poor (well actually very rich) bloke who built it had to donate it to the imams and build ANOTHER caravansarai opposite. Oops.

Caravansarai or madrasa?

IMAG2238 Caravansarai or madrasa?

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Venetian lions guard the Khan's Summer Palace

Venetian lions guard the Khan’s Summer Palace

Shelf (for turbans maybe?)

You can’t get shelving like this in IKEA


Or wallpaper like this

Or wallpaper like this

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Exquisite tapestries from the Summer Palace harem

Exquisite tapestries from the Summer Palace harem

Next on the itinerary was Samarkand. We took an indirect route from Bukhara to camp by a beautiful, but fly-ridden lake – the buzz of the night swarm that seemed fixated on the airspace directly above our tent was of an industrial scale.


The next day was slow progress, thanks to John’s bad back and a headwind. Luckily, we found a shady spot under a bridge, occupied by friendly fishermen who plied us with watermelon, to siesta.

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A welcome rest

A welcome rest

The catch!

The catch!

But by the following day, we’d both succumbed to Bukhara belly. John had been a little unwell for a couple of days, but it hit me suddenly and hard that morning. A dose of Imodium got us on the road but worsened the cramps until I was nearly falling off my bike with each wave. We limped to the nearest town – the provincial capital Navoi. Mightly miffed that we had to spend our sparse reserves staying in a hotel in a dump like Navoi – home to endless industrial chemical plants and police checkpoints – we nevertheless appreciated the clean cotton sheets, air conditioning, satellite TV (it was a Grand Prix weekend) and functioning bathroom with limitless hot water. The pond in the foyer was also diverting.



Indeed, it was in the foyer that I came across a coffee table book describing (to my initial incredulity) the delights of Navoi. It turned out that among other things, we were a mere 25km away from Sarmish-say, a gorge engraved with over 10,000 Neolithic petroglyphs from 4000–6000 BC. Upset stomachs or not, this was not a sight to miss.

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Behind schedule and with John’s back and my stomach still in spasms, we took a taxi on to Samarkand. Despite physical and touristic burnout, we still managed to snap a few more photos.

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And then, a day or so’s ride from Samarkand, we realised the landscape had changed. Though we’d encountered abundant greenery around the Amudarya delta, the desert bloomed reluctantly, desperately dependent on irrigation – as soon as the canals stopped, the sand began. This was, at long last, a broader, stabler, deeper green. The air was cooler and the trees taller and grass and wildflowers volunteered their delights freely by the sides of the road. We had crossed the desert.

Skipping Tashkent, we headed for the Fergana Valley, which runs into Kyrgyzstan. Just as I was thinking wistfully of autumn back home and how I was going to miss biting into juicy, tart European apples, we discovered:

Apples galore

Apple season is here!

And so is onion season

And so is onion season.

Having had my desire for apples unexpectedly and abundantly met (people were actually flagging us down and forcing bags of free apples into our hands) I had to find something else to be wistfully nostalgic about. How I miss, I thought, lying in the green grass under a shady tree, on a gently warm, late summer’s day with a gentle breeze playing in the leaves. Lo and behold, that very lunchtime:

Teahouse picnic under the trees, on a breezy warm late summer's day

Teahouse picnic under the trees, on a warm but breezy late summer’s day

Our fourth day out from Samarkand, despite covering an incredible 153km (annoyingly, just 7km short of 100 miles), didn’t quite bring us to a city with a hotel where we could register. We stopped in a tiny hamlet to look for a shop to buy water and were directed – as we’d now come to expect in Central Asia – to an unmarked compound behind a high wall. As it turned out, it was also an unmarked restaurant and guest house.

Best guesthouse ever!

Best guesthouse ever!

After a quick negotiation ($8 to stay the night) we were led to a splendid function room with funky lighting and a low table with cushions. The lady of the house whipped off the lace cloth that covered the already-set table, to reveal bowls full of fruits and nuts and a 3-tier cake stand full of chocolates! Tea and watermelon were soon forthcoming.

Heavens above...

Heavens above…

... and below

… and below

The neighbours who’d directed us to the place popped round with meat pies for a natter (well, lots of gesturing and pointing at the map and looking at photos and a bit of fiddle-playing), and left in a timely manner as conversation topics (and we) were exhausted. We made a bed of long cushions – more comfy than any hotel mattress – and slept like babies.

Meet the neighbours

Meet the neighbours

The Fergana Valley lay on the far side of a tough mountain pass. My initial excitement at having made it through the desert, and at heading once more for the mountains…


Lovely way to decorate a mountain

Just what the view needed



… evaporated as the nature of the pass became apparent. There were three hair-pin-ridden peaks in quick succession, with the road dropping hundreds of meters in-between. To rub salt in the wound, there was a truck route that we weren’t allowed to take which maintained its height all the way across. Cursing loudly with frustration at the pointless descents, I must have looked distressed, because a truck of Tajik road workers stopped to offer me a lift to the final peak. John, of course, looked scandalized – he’s never quite believed I really mean it when I say I HATE hill climbs – and rode on to the top under his own steam. Me, I couldn’t have been happier.

Camp sites on the narrow descent were not obvious, and we ended up back in farmland at dusk. A nice family let us camp on the edge of their field, and insisted on feeding us the following morning.

Breakfast at the farm

Breakfast at the farm…

And lunch by a waterwheel

…and lunch by a waterwheel

Our final stop, the city of Namangan, was almost a disaster, as none of the hotels would accept us because we were (dun, dun DAAAAAAH!) missing a registration slip. In other words, because we hadn’t stayed in a hotel for 6 nights, we weren’t allowed to, erm, stay in a hotel. “How do we know where you’ve been for the last six days?” asked one horrified receptionist. One hotel called the local Minister of the Interior at home (it was gone 6pm) and was instructed not to allow us to stay. The next hotel probably called the same guy, who must have been getting sick of hearing about us by this point, because they said we could stay. However, as well as filling out reams of paper, the staff had to call out the police, who politely interrogated us about where we’d been and demanded to see our maps and photos. What a bloody faff!

And so, after a final day’s rest, we headed to the border, pausing only to try (unsuccessfuly) to get rid of our final wodge of Som.

Sadly not enough som to buy this fabulous wedding coat

Sadly not enough som to buy this fabulous wedding coat

Luckily, the officers at the tiny, little-used Shamaldy-say border crossing were more concerned about whether we had any dollars than how many registration slips we’d amassed, and let us pass with relatively little fuss. And so, with some fantastic memories – and a strong sense of relief – we entered Kyrgyzstan.