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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!

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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.

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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.”

“Er….”

“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.

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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 …

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… 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:

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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!

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?)

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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.

JEJ

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.

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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…

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…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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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

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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.

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

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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What’s scarier than a dragon with seven heads?

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A dragon with seven heads coming out of his mouth!

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Though personally I found this freaky cat scarier

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

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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)

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Sunset views…

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…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:

 

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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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:

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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.

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Local kids take a bath

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But in school hours we had it to ourselves

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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.

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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.

JEJ

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.

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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):

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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.

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Fan vault

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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:

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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:

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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.

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Goofy-toothed guardian

GH

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:

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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.

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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 .

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No clouds at Cloudlands…

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

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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).

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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:

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Dawn’s rosy fingers prod us awake

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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.

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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):

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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…

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Nearly there…

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

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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…

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…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.

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Some dim sum

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

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Man vs fish stew

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Purple crisps

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Candied satsuma kebab

 

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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).

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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.

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

 

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

 

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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.

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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:

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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.

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Porch-kitchen

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:

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Que?

The reality became apparent as we approached:

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Aha, what’s this then?

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…you mean we’ve got to get up there?!

An hour and a long tunnel later…

 

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Not for the vertiginous!

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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.

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

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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…

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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.

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China is under construction

On the other hand, the topiary was spectacular …

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

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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…

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… 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:

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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.

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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.

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One last golden campsite

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

GH