Perception versus Reality

After 10,000 kilometres, through hazy surroundings Tehran creeped into view. I remember glancing at Will as a knowing smile creeped onto our lips. ‘We had made it’, as long as we could advance through the gauntlet of tunnels, causeways, motorways, ring roads and noxious levels of pollution which fortify the city from cyclists. There was a certain joy to seeing Tehran not as an apparition as it had been for 114 days but as a real physical entity. The joy was tangible though not as overpowering as I believed it would have been before we set off. It confused me. Would this moment not define the triumphs and trials of the past four months? Would this not be the apotheosis of our trip?

It reminded me of the book - *The Art of Travel *- by the contemporary polymath and philosopher, Alain de Botton. I found his discussion of the perception versus the reality of travel insightful. Indeed, your holidays on Mediterranean beaches are rarely the image rendered by Thomas Cook or which you envisage before departing; the white sand beaches; the cooling breeze gently rustling the palm trees; the tranquility as you stroll down the beach with your feet squelching in the water gently percolating through the sand. The reality is usually a mouthful of detritus projected your way as a screaming child is pulled after his mother past your cemetery plot-sized piece of beach.

With a journey like Beijing to Tehran it is difficult to conjure up one coherent image to encapsulate the entire trip like a Mediterranean beach holiday. Whilst there were aspects I was not able to anticipate, there were facets that I remember envisaging. I imagined evenings in my tent reading a book as a breeze flew through. I imagined cold drinks as we stopped after a tough couple of hours of cycling. I pictured the satisfaction of completing a testing day and the elation of finishing after four months in the saddle. I envisaged the joy of being able to plaster my face with chocolate, trying to fulfill my average 6,000 calorie a day quota. I conjured up images of seclusion and serenity as we pedaled along smooth tarmac into the expanse of Central Asia, Bob Dylan ringing in my ear. I pictured drivers full of resentment or alcohol trying to run us off the road and an array of unique national delicacies served to us as we explored the culture. Others I have forgotten, but this was my speckled perception on the dusk of the 15th May as we lowered ourselves into our saddles with the same care as a climber would clip on his belay.

More often than not the reality was very different. Reading in my tent rarely took place as it was too cramped. The lack of ventilation also made it a sauna during daylight hours so one would constantly perspire. When we found cold drinks in shops, if some of these institutions could be called that, they certainly were not lager tap chilled, nor did they stay cold for long. In the hotter countries sipping your water bottle became a less than enjoyable experience as the water is heated to the temperature of a steamy bath. Smooth tarmac was as rare as finding a punnet of raspberries and some cultural delicacies had the same culinary appeal as prison food. Bob Dylan’s *Blowin' In The Wind *provided some distraction when I was being blown by the wind but rarely at other times; not knowing when you can next charge you iPod makes one reluctant to use it except when you really need to. Whilst a tough days did come with satisfaction it also came with the realisation that you had countless more. The days of sandstorms, headwinds, sub zero temperatures and 45 degree heat were tough. When a strong headwind is blowing at you through the monotony of flat, arid expanses I found few things more mentally challenging. There is nothing to distract your mind from the ache in your legs, the numbing of your buttock or the tightness in your back. Having to pedal just as hard but go at half, sometimes a quarter of your normal speed is at times mildly depressing, especially when you have ninety days still to go. I cannot complain though, as this duration is still shorter than pregnancy.

I did not foresee that I would stop nibbling my finger nails due to the need for high standards of hygiene and the stress of modern society vanishing. Nor would I have imagined my adolescent spots disappearing as refined carbohydrates and grease left my diet. The thought that my body would naturally wake up at 4:15am with the first palettes of light soaking up the stars was as much a dream as those I am usually having at this time. I could never have predicted the frequency and level of kindness that we experienced; my anthropological grasp on the customs and culture of Central Asia was too narrow. It is one of these ironies that the less one tends to have the more one gives. When people are subsisting or have little, financially speaking, the importance of caring for one another comes to the fore. Less often does financial value come into the calculation of giving or generosity as it sometimes does in the Western world. Here, it is more an act of human kindness. Perhaps this is a reason why not just to plan and perceive an adventure but to actually go on it. If not, you will never be able to weigh up yours and societies preconceptions and judgements against your experienced reality of it. Though the demands of cycling meant I saw less popular sites than I would have liked, I would never have known what these countries really looked, smelt, tasted and felt like without visiting.

The expedition was as much a physical challenge as a psychological one. It was as much a search for greater self awareness and understanding as a realisation of your priorities in life. I found being on a bike helped to distill this. You are stripped of societal comforts. You have time to look and see and a lot of time to think. You are in a position of physical vulnerability and low social status. In contemporary society travelling by bike is a sign of a low class and therefore of humility. If you are rich you travel by car. Especially as a Westerner being on a bike, you are both physically exposed and inadvertently humble yourself. People are more likely to engage with you, even fleetingly, because you are accessible and unique and as a result will have a more authentic experience.

Whilst there is much more that could be said, being back in the UK has been like stepping onto a escalator that is not moving. It is unsettling and having been back for little over a month it has at times been difficult to readjust back to conventional life and reflect with any real sense of hindsight. I think for both Will and I it will take a long time to digest: the experience was too substantial, visceral and vivid for the memories to dissolve. Indeed, the process of discussing the experience with friends and the media, creating photo albums and a short film pioneered by Will ‘Spielberg’ Hsu brings it blazing back into view. Time will be needed to reorientate, recover and settle into university life but it has all been worth it in order to make this trip possible and support the fantastic work of A Child Unheard.

The Xenia of the East

It was Iran that typified one of the most memorable aspects of the trip; that is the kindness and hospitality we have almost universally received. This is not to say there were not moments of serious concern along the way but on a human level, from one person to another, we were welcomed throughout. Quite simply I thought I might highlight a few instances of such kindness.

Nestled in the north-eastern corner of Kazakhstan is the city of Semey. During Soviet times it was renown for being situated close to a large nuclear testing site. Today, the effects of such testing still hang over a generation left deformed and cancer ridden by radiation poisoning. Sweaty and grumpy upon arrival at our hotel some students saw us, there names were Niyaz, Vika and Zhansulu. Before long we were swept up in their designs for our short time in their city. They showed us around during the evening, having a drink and ice cream with them. They banned us from paying for anything. The next day, they offered to be our personal chauffeurs, showing us anything we wanted to see. We were given a much more extensive tour of the city and the surrounding scenic areas as we chatted away in the back. Upon return many hours later and after much argument we just about managed to buy them tea. They wanted nothing more.

In Almaty, the largest city in Kazakstan as we attempted to hailed down an official taxi, a green 1990s E-Class pulled alongside us. A boy, slightly younger than ourselves sat in the back with his father at the wheel. They asked as where we wanted to go and after telling them we hopped into the back. We have been in many unmarked cars and neither car or driver were registered. This however did not concern us in the slightest. After minutes of general chatter, Nuro, the boy in the back said we would be there in twenty minutes, adding in casually that the trip would be free of charge. After half an hour of bad traffic they beamed, waving us off without regret of their decision.

A couple of weeks later, we found ourselves far from power lines or established roads at the top of a pass in the Tian Shan Mountains. Part of the postcard view was an array of grazing cattle and a lone wagon. As I cycled towards it three pairs of short legs jolted towards me, waving towards their home. Their mother or father were nowhere in site and they had as much grasp of English as I did of Kyrgyz. I was tired, still having over an hour to cycle but it was downhill so with a grateful sigh I joined some of the world’s most polite children for tea. The thirteen year old offered to wheel my bike whilst the ten and sixteen year olds scooped some water out of a bowl so I could rinse my hands before they gestured me into the warmth of their home. The wagon was bare, reminding me of a more homely portacabin. A worn pile of playing cards lay on a low table below a single exposed lightbulb: that was all their living room, if I can demarcate like this, contained. I felt I could have packed its contents into a pannier. However, they did not seem dissatisfied with their lack of worldly goods. Together we sat happily eating stale bread and swallowing fermented cows milk whilst trying to communicate with an array of elaborate gestures. After twenty minutes I had established that there were four children in their family and that one of them had a twin (one of the two halves was not there). With a struggle, I managed to communicate that I too was a twin and the cities I was heading for, as they pronounced them again for me - this time correctly. With clouds rolling in as fast as the morning mist lifts I decided to leave promptly, warmly shaking their hands. They seemed to understand my predicament. One of the twins rode on his horse to where the road dropped off. We smiled and waved at each other with a knowing grin.

Whilst there are dozens more instances of equal warmth, I will offer a final one from Iran. This country ended up being not just the friendliest of the trip but of anywhere I have ever travelled. Innumerable times shop keepers would refuse payment for the goods we brought; people would wave or clap out of their cars and those on the street would greet us with uplifting warmth. On one occasion it was pouring down and the wind was gusting as the road became spotted with leaves and branches. It was the sort of weather that would see a reporter gesticulating an amber warning on the morning weather report. As we tried to avoid this debris Will went over a sharp piece of glass creating a gash in his tire. Whilst we solved this by fitting a tire boot a car stopped, asking us if there was anything they could do. Wet and covered in black grease thrown up from the road our apparitions smiled and thanked them. However, they weren’t taking no for an answer as they revealed two warm seeded loaves of bread before waving goodbye.

The Royal Road

*Sorry for the lateness of this blog on the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Chronologically speaking it should be read in between ‘The Roof of the World’ and ‘The Gates of Hell’ – enjoy.*

It was said that Bukhara was so holy that here light shone upwards to radiate the heavens, rather than the skies illuminating the earth. For centuries, the fabled Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara were some of the most important cities in Muslim Central Asia. They acted as educational centres, religious focal-points, the resting places of the Emir’s and Khan’s, military strongholds and oases of trade burrowed into a barren landscape.

From the Tajik-Uzbek border it was a three day cycle in over forty degree heat to Samarkand. Whilst Will was clear of stomach issues from the Pamir’s, I was still riddled with diarrhoea. We have been eating around 6,000 calories a day and were still losing weight. This was only accelerated by a lack of appetite and before long belts became a necessity we did not have, as partially exposed buttocks gave a prisoner like appearance. Day by day I felt my energy levels decrease, which was exacerbated by the heat. The biggest battle was trying to drink enough as we guzzled down close to ten litres when on the road during some of the hottest days.

Battling onwards into Samarkand a sparkling oasis awaited. Here we explored the mosques, mausoleums and madrassa’s which adorn the city. At night the famous Registan, the old city centre, is lit up as mosaics of gilded tigers and deer’s leap forward with vivid animation.

It is a wonderful city and certainly worth a visit. Ribbed minarets dome the mausoleums of great conquers like the Amir Temur and the many roomed madrassa’s sit quite as they did when ingenuity burst from their doors. Now, all that signals the scale of the once great Ulug Bek’s Observatory is a stone foundation hollowed out by a later age of narrow minded rulers. The Tomb of the Old Testament Prophet Daniel points to common religious roots shared with the Judo-Christian world as piteous pilgrims come with offerings and prayer. Like the famous mosaic above the iwan entrance on the Sherdor Madrassa depicting a tiger chasing after a deer, in this city there is much you can seek.

On our self-powered caravan we headed from one caravanserai to the next along the ‘Royal Road’. It runs 250 kilometres from Samarkand to Bukhara and with such a heady title we had high expectations. Our hopes of a visual treat were dashed as a road of Roman linearity ran into horizontal surroundings following the oasis sprouting along the course of the Zervashan River. This roads main function was for rapid communications and trade rather than our more prominent aesthetic considerations and with the speed it allowed us and millennia of previous travellers; one can see how it has taken on regal undertones.

Unlike the coruscations of Samarkand, the cobbles of Bukhara transported one back to the time of the Emirs. Stalls nestled into the cracks and juts of madrassa’s and bazaars and a uniformity of domes pimpled the landscape rising like mole hills from a sandy basin. The famous Kalyan minaret pokes up like the stump of a cigar adorned with a sombrero shaped pinnacle, wrapped in a band of Islamic motives. Below is the Arc fortress, the old seat of the Emir of Bukhara. It is squinted by a sparkle of mosaic from the Mir Arab reflecting with a blinding intensity, like a maze of brightly shattered glass webbed into millions of pieces.

It is a city that captures your gaze and is much more authentic experience. Inside it feels like you are dwelling in a khanate rather than a country. However, with hundreds of sites to visit it is easy to take it for its parts rather the whole and like the Silk Road itself one must view it in its charming, multifaceted entirety.

The Dictator

When Human Rights Watch advertises Turkmenistan as ‘one of the world’s most repressive countries’, having the world’s lowest press freedoms after Eritrea and North Korea, one wonders if you should be going there. Indeed, the draconian restricotions that have been implemented since 1991 after the takeover by Saparmurat Niyazov, or popularly known as Turkmenbashy, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow after his death in 2006 has made our journey across the country and our time in the capital Ashgabat one of the more culturally unique experiences of the trip.

Our entry to Turkmenistan was just before the geographically remote but significant Amu Darya River, formerly known as the Oxus. The Great Game player, William Moorcroft was one of the first Europeans to cross this allusive river on his journey through Afghanistan to Bukhara, providing him with momentary relief from the heat of the area which hits you like that from a blacksmiths furnace. From here, the dominating aspect of our cycle across the country was the personality cult of these ‘President’s for Life’.

In one of Sacha Baron Cohen’s satires - The Dictator - the dictator himself is partly inspired by Niyazov himself. In the film the immaculate white army dress, disingenuous smile and partial wave of Admiral General Aladeen are based on features of the eccentric Niyazov. Indeed, posters throughout the country bear an uncanny resemblance to those in the film.

Even in the sparsely populated countryside, it was clear we were inside an authoritarian regime. Internet censorship, police checks and a ban on photos of officials, official buildings, barracks, bridges, and railway stations followed us where ever we went. However, these aspects weren’t all that different from some of the other Central Asian countries we have visited. It was only when we arrived in Ashgabat that the level of control really manifested itself.

The uniformity of the city was as such that it could have only have been the result of an enforced, centralised policy. For kilometres out of the city centre radiated layers of white marble buildings. They became compulsory after a degree by Turkmenbashy. Most of the cars are also white but this will soon become mandatory, presumably as part of the President’s pernickety policy making in preparation for the 2017 Asian Games in Ashgabat, although this is speculation as justification or information is rarely given. It took me over two days to realise that not one bark of a dog had filled the air or had I seen any men with long hair or beards. This was the result of policies introduced because the President neither liked the odour of dogs nor ‘Unturkmen’ appearances. Most enterprise and industry is state owned and signs of private ownership are as rare as sightings of the American flag. Over three days in the city I did not see one piece of litter, not one. Legions of cleaners and gardeners keep the city immaculate in a land surrounded by desert. Will spotted one cleaning the back of already clean stop sign. In this oppressive but wealthy regime, with some of the world’s largest deposits of natural gas, this is perhaps one of the benefits.

Berdimuhamedow, the current President, if that term is appropriate, appears to be a slightly more moderate and benign policy maker than his predecessor. He has even retracted some of the more extreme policies like: the renaming of the days and months of the year after Turkmenbashy, his family, his book and Turkmen heroes; the banning of the circus, ballet and opera for being ‘not Turkmen like’ and the arbitrary withdrawing of the pensions to over 100,000 elderly people due to a sudden budget shortfall. One of the less threatening but most astonishing of Turkmenbashy’s policies was the discouragement of gold teeth by encouraging the chewing on bones to help strength them and lessen the rate they rot as he had observed dogs do when he was a child. Despite Berdimuhamedow’s retraction of such policies his personality cult is still of equivalent potency to his predecessor’s.

Both these contemporary potentates have made their images and names ubiquitous with the country. Just as a start, Turkmenbashy has two airports, a city, a theatre, a type of tea and brand of vodka named after him. Both have their egos plastered across buildings, polished into statues and etched onto magazines, books and journals. Since Berdimuhamedow taking charge some monuments to Turkmenbashy, like a golden statue of him that rotates to always face the sun, have been moved in place of his own preferences. Like an unrestrained mildly psychotic Roman Emperor, statues of Berdimuhamedow are fast appearing.

There is much that could be improved in the country but there are hints of benevolence that radiate from the weeds of unrestricted authoritarianism. The country is clean and orderly. Ahead of many western countries, smoking was banned in public places and discouraged, although it was for the wrong reasons after the President had to quit for health concerns. Whilst, going around the spectacular archaeological site of Merv we were told by our cicerone that the Ministry one works for will supplement 50% of the cost of buying your first house and all citizens’ benefit from free gas, water, electricity and table salt. It seems that as long as you do not criticise the government there is a certain level of welfare in the country, though it is one that can be ripped from under your feet at any moment. I was also impressed with the safety people feel when walking around, particularly at night. Women walk around alone and seem comfortable doing so. Of course, as a tourist and with limited time here it is difficult to truly understand how safe people feel, but the country’s low crime rate provides certain credence.

Still, I get the sense of an undercurrent of frustration and discontent at the system. Whilst chatting with a local I gently asked about the political situation. One blunt response I got was, ‘no one can be more powerful than the President’. When I have asked people if they like the President everyone says ‘Yes!’ However, more often than not their body language tells a different story. When driving to see the Darvaza Gas Crater (see previous blog), we were stopped, not for the first time, at a police checkpoint. The driver had to go in and pay a bribe to continue. This resulted in a very angry driver cursing the system.

There have been more substantial efforts than close quartered articulations at push back against the minimal individual liberties, lack of political accountability and levels of corruption. There was an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Turkmenbashy, though this was rumoured to be a political ploy to eliminate his sole political opponent. A less disputed attack on the current system was a leaflet campaign which took place during the cover of night. It called for the President’s overthrow but it failed and the result was just further restrictions to prevent this from happening. Whilst ‘peace, bread, land’ is provided, the country prospers and the people see some return from this, I doubt any significant opposition will come to surface.

The Gates of Hell

The Gates of Hell

Gateways to Hell have a long history in western imagination. In Classical times, Homer believed it lay at the River Acheron in north-west Greece, where it meets the Styx and the Pyriphlegethon. Virgil thought it was the Crater Lake Avernus in Italy. In the middle ages the poem Voyage of St. Brendan locates it as Mount Hekla in Iceland which erupted in the twelfth century and again in the fourteenth. The latest epithet for the Darvaza Gas Crater in Turkmenistan is the ‘Gates to Hell’. With the idea of the underworld being one which originated in western imagination it is somewhat appropriate that its latest portal is one formed by humans.

The Roof of the World

Beneath the frozen mountains, plateaus of rolling meadows lie bear and lifeless. Life is unsustainable in this challenging environment. It is too high for anything to survive year round and it is no surprise that the landscape resembles more of a moonscape. Unlike other mountain ranges, the Pamir’s receive little rain and greenery is nearly as hard to come by as a sign of life. The Manichean colour scheme is only softened by the outline of deep blue curling above and over the mountains. Breathing here is like receiving moisture from a mouthful of cinnamon as drinking frequently is essential to stop parched lips bleeding and your mouth drying out completely against the wind and sun. Such is the price of visiting ‘The Roof of the World’.

The climb to the higher clutches of the range along the Gulcha River was at least one frequented with shade as trees clung to the river’s edge sapping up the dwindling snow melt running down the valley. With this fertility came small villages like the unpronounceable Uch-Dobe and Archalunn as children with their bikes, raced us up the slopes approaching the Taldyk Pass. As we edged above 3000 metres, the thirty kilometre wide plain at Sary-Tash did not end with the curvature of the horizon but with a panorama of 6,000 metre peaks, proudly wearing their white capes of snow.

The millennia old Silk Road settlement of Sary Tash, placed at the cross roads of China, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, survey’s the scene like a 19thcentury explorer. In the centre of the range is the over 7,000 metre Peak of Lenin, glaring down at his tripartite of failed socialist states.

Due to the altitude, which unlike me Will copes very well with, we stopped at this plain for the day to acclimatise. Neither did he need Diamox, nor heavy chested had to walk over the 4,000 metre plus passes where just fallen snow crystals vanished like fairy dust in the light of summer. It is recommended that above 3,500 metres, which is considered high altitude, for every 300 metres you go up you should stop for the day to acclimatise. This drill to combat AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) reminded me of the climbing expedition we met back in Osh. They were attempting to climb the Peak of Lenin. Though it has been successfully summited, many more have tried and many still lie on its slopes.

It was also in Osh, in return for a generous charitable donation, we both ‘hedgehoged’ our heads to take on the appearance of young monks travelling west on pilgrimage. It was a steep learning curve as the necessity for sun cream in the thinning air refashioned us with bright red streaks running through the prickly remains of our hair rounded like the fluff on a tennis ball. It gave us the appearance of Klingons, as the rest of my face turned red with the recognition of this new appearance.

After the plain came the endorheic Lake Karakul in Tajikistan sitting viscous like the running yoke of an egg surrounded by the whites of the mountains. It was formed twenty-five million years ago by a meteor impact. The debris from this impact were largely dispersed or vaporised but some remained in the form of an island in the lakes centre. This formation was just as uncompromising as the fates of German POWs who were kept prisoners on this island during WWII and remained there for years after the war ended detached from any semblance of hope.

This lake sits at 4000 metres as the drum beat of altitude in between my temples grew louder drawing me higher just as the drum beat from Jumanjipulls you in. Having been climbing with my father in the Himalayas and the Andes I knew my limitations at height. At a mountain, the name of which escapes me, near the Inca Trail, I was violently sick and passed out in the middle of the day due to ascending too fast. I was keen to avoid this experience and fortunately I did not suffer any major issues despite considerable concern that I would.

The Ak-Baital Pass was our highest at 4,655 metres; a height similar to ‘Dead Women’s Pass’, a name with less than gender neutral connotations on the Inca Trail. It is also a height just short of Europe’s highest peak, Mont Blanc. Whilst I rested the day before the final climb, Will went hunting for the rare Marco Polo sheep that sometimes can be found in the area. They live high and remote so he climbed upwards from camp into the speckle of the scree to just below the snow line at 5,000 metres to try and locate them. It is somewhat appropriate that he didn’t as it is thought that the Venetian traveller himself also didn’t despite it being named after him. Whilst he was doing this I was quite happy drinking ‘chai’ with the locals.

It was a tough heaving climb to the top of the pass as we started in the sub-zero prickle of the valley. At the top our victory was not marked by any sign or cairn. It is not touristy enough for anything to be marked and for some of the nomadic locals getting over this pass is another difficult fact of life which they endure. Thumbs up from some western motorcyclists however did produce both a degree of satisfaction and envy as they shot away. Psychologically, once over the highest point of a mountain range it is easy to presume it is all downhill. The following seven days came pre-packaged with close to 10,000 metres of ascent before we exited the Pamir’s.

Part of this ‘descent’ was through over 300 kilometres of rolling canyon which dropped roughly 400 metres for every 100 kilometres traversed. It was never more than a kilometre across as patchworks of fields filled all available space on the valley sides. It ran northwards of the Wakhan Corridor; the dividing zone between the Russian and British Empire’s during The Great Game. In the middle of this corridor as well as this canyon runs the Punj River, which acts as the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, we spent our days on the Tajik side a stone’s throw away from what Rory Stewart calls the ‘Place in Between’ – Afghanistan.

It is a country much discussed but little discovered in the western world and such proximity led to a longing to explore it. Our interaction through the telescope of distance was, though limited, very positive. Machine guns and the whistle of Stinger missiles did not echo across the valley but instead waving women and the shouting of greetings from unpaved roads and flat roofed mud houses. The only sound of violence we heard was that of an explosives team detonating a mine planted on the hills above the road on the Tajik side. After the Soviet-Afghan War the Russian mined the hill to cover their retreat as the surrounding beauty covered this sad truth.

Afghanistan is of course a country with significant dangers and it would be youthfully naïve to think differently. The recent attack on the tourist company in the country only helps to affirm this. However, political and religious conflicts do not preoccupy all peoples as human kindness was what emanated strongest from across the divide; as it does so often from more intimate interactions.

The border is not impermeable as visas allow visits and several ‘Friendship Bridges’ facilitate more impromptu economic interaction in the form of a Saturday market on the Tajik side. In Khorog, we visited such a market and had some enjoyable chats with kind and generous white robed Afghans.

However, with the 'Roof of the World' now behind us we can breathe a little easier, sleep a little deeper and watch the minarets and monuments of Samarkand and Bukhara grow steadily towards us.

 

The Eye of Kyrgyzstan

If you were observing Kyrgyzstan from space it would be difficult not to notice a big blue blob in the north eastern corner. This would be Lake Issyk-Kul, the 2nd largest alpine lake in the world after the equally spectacular Lake Titicaca straddling Peru and Bolivia. One would also notice that it is shaped like a giant eye with the eastern and western corner pulled tort and an iris shaped patch of 700 hundred metre deep blue in the centre. At 180 kilometres at its longest point and 60 kilometres at its widest it is staring at you like the eye of T.J. Eckleburg.

The lake itself is somewhat of a focal point in a country which is called ‘the jewel of central Asia’ for its outstanding natural beauty. Adding to its allure is the once believed but now entertaining rumour that a distant relative of the Loch Ness monster – the ‘Issyk-Kul Kraken’ - dwells in it depths. However, he stayed hidden whilst we were there.

Our approach to the lake came from the east down the Karkara Valley from Kazakhstan. In English ‘Karkara’ means ‘Black Crane’ as the bird uses the valley as a resting place between their arduous journey from South Africa to Siberia in June and September. This is an interesting parallel to the history of the Kyrgyz people. The acclaimed Chinghiz Aimatov in his *A Day Lasts Longer Than a Century* has them arriving at the valley from the Yenisey region of Siberia. At Karkara a beautifully broad plain houses herds of cattle which roam freely across the Kazak/Kyrgyz border which dissects it. Seven hundred years ago another is rumoured to have roamed here, Tamerlane, the founder of the Timurid Empire.

Many believe he used the lake as a summer base for his campaigns and had a palace here. Over the past centuries the lake has been increasing in total capacity, (although recently decreasing) swallowing potential archaeological evidence beneath its depths, as recently uncovered settlements suggest. Recent findings have even shown the remains of a 2,500 year old city belonging to a sophisticated civilisation which once sat on the lakes shores.

Rows of poplar’s and a slight incline in the topography marked the most eastern point of the lake, which is also allegedly the coldest point. Before arriving here we passed a seemingly unassuming village called San-Tash, which translates as ‘counting stones’. This indeed was the aesthetic anomaly as my eyes honed in on the peculiar sight of a large pile of stones in the middle of a flat field. They were heaped up in a way that suggested they were not geologically formed as they took on the form of a very large cairn. I was later to find out the importance of this mound.

The legend is that towards the end of the 15th century as Tamerlane led a campaign eastward, leaving from Issyk-Kul, he got each one of his troops to pick up a stone from the beach and drop it in the pile. On the return from the campaign, the weary soldiers were ordered to remove a stone from the pile. The remaining stones functioned as a way of assessing the level of troop casualties. It is hard not to notice when looking at it how unfortunately large the pile is. It is a grimly unintended, self-constructed monument to the fallen soldiers on that campaign in China.

As we passed by the Mikhaylovka Inlet, near the furthest eastern corner, we were passing the legacy of another; the famous Russian explorer and player in ‘The Great Game’, Nikolay Przhevalsky. At first sight, he was astonished by the beauty of the lake, seeing it as a superior to Lake Geneva. He decided to settle here and ended up passing away on its shores, after drinking water contaminated with typhoid during a hot days hunting. He was buried overlooking the Inlet now surrounded by the delicate shades of 80 year old Tian Shan spruce trees. Here we visited a museum dedicated to him as well as visiting his modest grave with the understating words ‘traveller’ on it.

Peering out through the iron railings of the sight, one could see rusting cranes and piers above the tops of trees by the lake. If this was not the sight of a decaying top secret Soviet testing facility one would be able to go down to the beach sprawling with abandoned summer houses (datcha’s) for Soviet holiday makers. This facility housed Soviet naval vessels, many of which are now decaying in bolted warehouses. Torpedoes would be sent jetting through the lake as part of military testing, although perhaps with the less surreptitious objective of killing the supposed Kraken. Unfortunately, the Kraken has not been maimed, let alone located, and instead many of the torpedoes lie unexploded on the lakes bottom.

Over the next two days we cycled around the less developed south side of the lake overlooking Aegean blue water and the panoramic Kungey mountain range on the north side. Orchards, now wild, sat untended since Soviet times and smashed aqueducts have been carted away for other purposes during the years of mass unemployment following the Soviet breakup.

As we reached the lakes widest point at 60 kilometres, we found a massive abandoned and elaborately gated compound with walls painted with scenes for the Kyrgyz epic poem Manas. On the hill top overlooking the spectacle was a 30 foot high figure, seated, with one hand raised in a sort of beckoning motion. With closer inspection of the highly coloured scenes on the walls this man was also present on a large segment of wall in front of the gate. Confused and amused by this large outside space with empty fountains and weeds growing, looking like the unfinished site of some cult gathering, we cycled off pondering its purpose. Twenty kilometres westward at the Tong Bay we discovered that it was an unfinished site to Sayak Bai Karalaev. He was a famous chanter who lived in the region and knew all of the 500,000 verses of Manas, the longest epic poem in the world, by heart.

As we left the lake, though disappointed not to the have found the mythical Kraken, we still certainly found more than we bargained for. Within ten kilometres the landscape went from one of fertility to parched earth not dissimilar to the colour of skin surrounding an eye as the soil dried up. This will be shorted lived as we beat on westward heading towards ‘The Roof of the World - the fabled Pamir Mountains.

A Bumpy Ride

As we continue to head westwards battling the dominant westerly’s it seems like a good time to reflect on both the fortunes and vagaries of the past 60 days through China, Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan.

The Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia, sitting within the governance of China, was the first real test of our tenacity. A three days long raging headwind turned 450 kilometres in the desert into an unpalatable psychological experiment. Daily, it was race against time as 5am starts helped to avoid the worst of this silent killer as the sun rose like a ticking time bomb. By the time it reached 8am our speed had been reduced to 10kmh as we admired the monotony of sandy plains as the wind blew like numbing static in our ears. For the remaining seven hours of these long day’s we looked onwards, with only the string of power lines as vantage points. Such windy days I find are the most psychologically taxing of obstacles when riding. They are so fickle and arbitrary, whilst having the capacity to reduce a perfectly pleasant day into an on-going torment. It does not even grant you the tangible satisfaction which you achieve when grafting up a 12% gradient hill.

The cherry on the cake in the Gobi came when we got caught in a sandstorm. The wind whipped across the road sandblasting our skin as we winced with bandanna's and glasses shielding our faces (we dared not take out the camera). Sand swept across the road as billboards were toppled and tyres tracks became our guide in the wavering visibility. With no shelter available we had no choice but to beat on as toppled cattle on the road side took on additional meaning. Of the 5,500 kilometres that we have covered these were some of the most demoralising and challenging days.

Of course, it has not all been hard graft. Despite 1000km of off road terrain in Mongolia on suspension-less road bikes, which had the effect of rattling us like a loose rear fender, we were rewarded with stark but stunning landscapes. Plains of grass rose up to wind swept hills and sparsely located yurts pimpled the landscape as the nomads of Mongolia reared their cattle as they have for millennia in this modern ‘Wild West’.

Some of the most pleasurable riding yet was in the Altai Mountains of Russia; a fitting prologue to the fast approaching days of climbing in the Pamir’s. Our three weeks in Mongolia was a tree-less affair and the avalanches of alpine green cascading down the valleys was a heart-warming sight. The newly tarmacked roads and windless conditions allowed us to speed along at upwards of 35kmh as the days off road had substantially improved our fitness. With the summer solstice looming so also came warmer weather as thermal layers were discarded for additional water bottles as our consumption topped seven litres whilst riding. Unlike in Mongolia where the cold and rain resulted in near hypothermic conditions and shifting gears became painful on numb fingers, here in the warmer Russia it was a more welcome interlude.

It was here amongst the glazed peaks of the Altai region in Siberia that we reached our highest latitude of 52° north before taking the third exit on the roundabout and heading south. Although this meant my compass arrow was pointing downwards it sadly did not mean it was all downhill for the next month. Kazakhstan was consistent with the other countries as it pulled strong headwinds out of the hat for example during a 188 kilometre ride as we reached camp severely dehydrated and ready to hibernate.

Now we enter the mountains and meadows of Kyrgyzstan and traverse the south side of Lake Issyk-Kul (the second largest alpine lake in the world). We are prepared and optimistic for the coming two months with both the challenges and joys it will present. It is all worth it to support the amazing work of the charity* A Child Unheard*.

Charles Stevens

The Centre of Central Asia

Compared to our stay in Mongolia our time in Russia was a mere skirmish. Indeed, the border crossing to Russia did not just mark an important ethnic and cultural change but also a considerable geographical shift. As we crossed over the mountainous pass at Tashkent the arid and semi-desert steppe of Mongolia blossomed into lush valleys as we rode towards the fabled Altai Mountains.

From the border town of Tashkent it was a weeklong cycle towards Gorno-Altaysk, the capital of the Altai Republic; a semi-autonomous region in Russia of a similar size to the state of Indiana. Like much of the central Asian melting pot the Altai region is an ethnic English breakfast of Russians, indigenous Altaians, Kazakhs and Elengits. To cross the Altai region we followed the Chukyt Tract, the only road from Mongolia to Russia, carved through the Altai Mountains like the veins on ones foot. The Tract follows the Katun River, a major tributary of the River Ob the 7th largest river in the world which frames Cotswold green grass and plump cattle. The alpine trees and ubiquitous road signs create a fairyland that could have passed as Switzerland in this lonely corner of the globe

It was very quiet as we rode through the mountains; they have a mystical sense to them. There is an air of detachment that even the breeze does not disturb, as if the mountains have folded away long lost secrets. These ‘Golden Mountains’ (‘Altai’ meaning golden) can be seen as sitting in the centre of Central Asia and are unusual in the unforgiving Central Asian landscape. They act as an intersection between the taiga in the Siberian north, the semi-arid deserts of Mongolia and the steppe to the south in Kazakhstan. As we cycled through the avalanches of green falling down the valley’s I remembered how pleased I was to be surrounded by trees after previously seeing nothing more substantial than shrubs since Beijing. The Altai landscape has inspired previous wanders like the Russian painter and philosopher Nicholas Roerich who visited the region at the start of the 20th century. He was attempting to locate the entrance to Shambala, the mythical enlightened land of Tibetan Buddhism and staring at the white capped furnaces above it is easy to see why.

Will and I discovered whilst speaking to a local Altaian woman along the way that the mountains are indeed sacred to the followers of Shamanism. When in their presence one should not shout, pick the grass, get drunk or defecate on their peaks. This sacrosanct belief has millennia old history which is enshrined in world renowned petroglyphs and kurgan stelae in the cracks between mohawk’s of rising rock. There is something surreal, almost transcended, about running your fingers over an etching of a reindeer made thousands of years ago as we scrambled up the cracks of the valley walls.

As we left the mountains and entered the adjoining province, the Altai Krai, the anticipated Russia returned. It was not the metros of Moscow or palaces of Saint Petersburg but the real rural Russia. Where babushka’s with shinning gold teeth beat their sticks at their cows and small vegetable patches point to self-sufficiency, food security and poverty. Where an elderly man drawing his horse and cart was less memorable than the sight of a vodka bottle of a man, sleeping on his cart as the attached horse trotted along next to cemeteries of wooden orthodox crosses, reminding us of the religion which Stalin once tried to crucify.

Old collective farms lay desolate as only their long grey concrete shells remained amongst the tangle of bushes and trees. Decade old tractors and machinery stood in their dozen in farm yards as the faint echoes of socialist collectivism still haunted the land. It is a highly fertile region and the Altai Krai is the biggest producer of maize, rye and oats in Siberia if not Russia. Here with the flat slightly rolling plains we could have been so many places; England, New Zealand and Canada as a new John Deere tractor ploughed a large field.

It was the war memorials which also united the land with so many other cultures. They stood in most villages as the toll of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (1941-45) rang thousands of kilometres from the nearest battlefields. I was shocked by their frequency and the number of names which lined their walls as high as the mass graves which many are tragically buried in just as deep. Most however were not the memorials of European sensibilities. Animated soldiers full of furor and passion called out from sculpted black rock with wide mouths and fiery eyes. Ablaze was the red Communist star as politics still crowned the most shocking of human truths.

And perhaps the memories of former military might have risen in the resurgent nationalism and even militarism which we witnessed. Dozens of cars had the ribbon of the Order of Saint George flying from them. It is the symbol of the ultra-nationalist sect in Russia, equivalent of the BNP in the UK. Some vehicles had the Dushanbe separatist flag flying from them like a stale breeze. We were presented with one from the windscreen of a car outside the war memorial in Gorno-Altaysk as a gift from soldiers who purported to have fought in Ukraine (with the implications that has). Outside the same ‘Great Patriotic War’ memorial in Gorno-Altaysk, dozens of children aged roughly four to fourteen were being marched up and down by men in army uniform as if they were being trained for the years to come. On numerous occasions we saw shirts with Putin glaring from their fronts. An unforgettable one was him riding a wolf through the conquered wilderness. It brought back memories of the Ork’s riding wolves in Tolkien’s’ *Lord of the Rings *as they tried to extend their territory. As Kazakhstan approaches we will see the lengths of past influence as well as that of the present.

The Threshold of Mongolia

If Ulaanbaatar helps to point towards Mongolia’s future it is the yurt which is ubiquitous with its past. As we skirt northwards towards the Altai Mountains passing those white clothed structures laced with horse hair as the smoke from dried dung rises through the roof, they take on a standing more than just as an abode occupied by the majority of Mongolia’s population. The yurt signifies a way of life, history and culture which is far older than the country herself and was first recorded by Herodotus - that of the nomad.

We were lucky enough to have crossed the threshold of several yurts into this world during our skirmish in Mongolia. The most memorable was in the town of Ulaangom, several days riding from the border with Russia.

Seven kilometres outside of town, down a horrifically bumpy headache inducing track, we visited a Mongolian family to go horse riding - Mongolian style. It was a terrific experience and though the horses did not really listen to either of us, munching on some grass when they felt like it, luckily it didn’t involve getting bucked off. As we approached, a two cylinder motorbike sat outside the yurt next to the lower horse powered horse. Throughout Mongolia, many of the younger generation prefer herding using a motorbike; the symbol of the 21st century cowboy in the new Wild West. A solar panel glints next to half a dozen newly born goats tied against the cloth as a small satellite dish powers the newly purchased television. Such is the modern fusion of technology with the structures over 3000 year old history.

To prevent overgrazing and based on precedent one will rarely see more than two or three yurts within several kilometres of each other as the family unit constitutes the modern clan. The families herd, of no more than 100 cows, sheep and goats sat idly on the marshy plain picking on the grass as blue paint on the horns marked their ownership.

It is rude to knock on the brightly coloured doors of yurts so in a shaming accent, reminiscent of some unidentified dialect, I call out ‘Nokhoi khor’ to the family which roughly translates as ‘Can I come in?’, but literally means ‘Hold your dog’. This is to avoid being eaten by a vicious and highly protective mongrel which stalks the property. Over the past weeks we had been chased by dozens of these less than puppy eyed security systems as we passed by their homes. Here, three generations lived in the two yurts within ten metres of each other. The parents lived in one, which we were invited into, and their children and grandchildren in the other.

As I circled around the outside of the yurt I could see the beautiful simplicity in its construction. It can be assembled in two hours and the Mongolian nomads can deconstruct, transport and reassemble them within a day. Daily we would pass a truck or mini-van laden with a family’s belongings that were moving. The bones of the structure are an expanding wooden circular frame which consists of several lattice wall sections, a door frame and bent roof poles which plug the walls to the central wooden crown to act as a roof. Felt acts as the meat of the structure and a cotton cover as the skin, waterproofing the building. This is then wrapped together in a cake shaped package by three tightly bound ropes of horse hair. Such ease of assembly is necessary as families will move around more times in a year than most Western families do in a lifetime. This is roughly six to find fresh pastures for their herd.

Every yurt in Mongolia has its gaudy door facing south, granting significance to the cardinal directions. As I duck through the 4 foot hobbit-high door frame placing my right foot first over the threshold as the ancient code demands I move around clockwise (women move around anticlockwise) not stepping between the two central pillars that represent the link between earth and sky. I am invited to sit on a small stool in the north west segment, next to the shrine or ‘Xiomore’ (the sacred area in the north), which is reserved for honoured guests.

As tradition demands I keep my feet pointed away from the sacred hearth and do not turn my back to the shrine where a Buddhist image, suitcases, a photo of the male head’s father in his sharply cut military uniform and other treasured objects rest. Since yurts have no walls it makes them very intimate and inclusive spaces, epitomising the importance of family which is central to nomadic life.

The man reaches with his leathered hands into deep pockets to produce a small jaded bottle of snuff. Will accepts it first with his right hand touching his inner arm with his left hand as a sign of respect breathing it in deeply as it tickles its way down his nostrils. Hospitality is traditionally so important and it is deeply insulting to decline anything, at least without trying it, as I gratefully accept the snuff of which many nomads cannot afford.

The inside of the yurt is pristine and is kept with the same pride as a Maharajah’s mausoleum. Everything has a place and purpose. The portable sink is stationed just left of the door. On the western side (male side) there are stacked saddles and leather milk bags. The east side (female side) contains cooking implements, water, buckets and the food preparation area where the wife silently prepared us tea with salted goat’s milk. A pair of reading glasses, wallet and tooth brushes were cozied in-between the orange painted wooden beams, which represent the colour of the sun, and felt above our heads. Underneath the cabinets lay the bare ground as there was no groundsheet (which is an indicator of the family’s wealth) as it followed the natural contours of the dried earth. In the centre of the yurt, or ‘ger’ in Mongolian, is the practically and symbolically significant hearth. Here the wife knelt down and began to heat up the milk tea as it bubbled up warming the space.

As we sat there with the man, his Chinese cigarette perched neatly in between his tanned fingers, looking through his photographs, his son, a boy a similar age to us entered wearing a vintage Adidas shirt and plonked himself on his mother’s bed. I was surprised as this area was traditionally reserved for women exclusively. We glanced at each other smiling as we viewed the photographs together. As we finished flicking through them the man noticed Will looking at his 2:2 bolt action rifle, which was probably Soviet era from WWI. He grinned and grabbed it. It looked similar to the Lee Enfield’s we used during the days of CCF training at school. Pressing the worn wood to his shoulder he cocked the bolt and took aim through the chipped metal cross in the direction of our heads as the cigarette now in between his lips glowed an ominous red. With a click of the trigger a puff of smoke emerged from his cigarette as he handed us the gun before replacing it next to his wife’s metallic single bed. This surprised me too as traditionally a weapon should have been next to the male bed. Later in the afternoon, as we sprinkled special flour on our endless cups of tea for added flavour and he briefly flicked on the TV, I started to understand the erosion of their traditions as several belly dancers entered the room through the screen.

Whilst traditions and customs are still very important to the nomadic people, particularly those who have chosen not to leave this way of life for the static existence of Ulaanbaatar, the influence of the outside world has creased their edges. Previously commonplace customs like men keeping their hats on indoors, picking things up with palms facing upwards and filling up any glass that is empty are increasingly becoming forgotten in the face of the inexorable pool of modernity as their lives are synthesised with a newer world. I am thrilled that western comforts have made the lives of many hundreds of thousands of nomads easier, particularly as I witness swathes of the country suffering from desertification, soil erosion and the evaporation of their water sources as Mongolia’s 60 million cattle compete for space in the face of climate change. I do hope, for the sake of their beautiful culture and country which I was privileged to share in however fleetingly, that both are not lost.

Letter of Support from HM Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire

Warwickshire Lieutenancy Office Shire Hall Warwick CV34 4RR

Dear William

I have read with great interest the recent article in the Leamington Courier about your amazing and exciting 10,000km cycling challenge from Beijing to Tehran.

As the Queen’s personal representative within Warwickshire can I wish you all the very best for this trip of a lifetime and with your fundraising efforts. I note that you are raising money for the ‘A Child Unheard’ charity which is fantastic.

Good luck with your trip and please pass my best wishes to your friend Charles Stevens.

I would be very interested to receive some information on your trip once you have returned.

Very best wishes

Timothy Cox

HM Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire

Letter from Dr. Grace Ayensu-Danquah MD MPH FACS

June 7th 2016

Dear William,

I have been closely tracking your journey. It is awe-inspiring to see a young man take up such a journey into the unknown in the interest of expanding his horizons and giving back to humanity. This is, indeed, what every parent wishes to teach their children. The amount of hard work involved, the thought of riding into the unknown, the courage, the sheer mental strength and ability it takes to plan and execute this journey is simply phenomenal.

This is indeed what great leaders are made off!

Well done William!!!

You have made us proud and you have inspired ALL of us to give back to humanity, to aim higher and to dream bigger. I only wish my daughter will grow up to be like you.

Thank you and stay safe.

Kudos!!!

Forever inspired,

Dr. Grace

The Lair of the Rising Wolf

On the side of the road lies a military base, dressed in a khaki green, as it curiously juxtaposed with a densely packed Buddhist graveyard and stupa draped in its richly coloured flags on the other. This official presence and suggestions of a concentrated population were some of the first indications of Ulaanbaatar. As we pedaled on harassed by the more assertive driving of Mongolia’s capital, the pullulations and vibrance of the capital drew us in. A symbol of the countries resurgent pride and growing confidence bore down on us. On the billboard were the iconic monuments of the world; The Eiffel Tower, The Leaning Tower of Pisa, The Statue of Liberty, Big Ben and, of course, the imposing Mongolian Horse of Genghis Khan a short drive outside the city. During the seventy years of Soviet rule the utterance of Genghis was wiped from the lips of its population. At the Empire’s zenith, Mongolia was fifteen times larger than it is today, despite it still being the fifteenth largest country in the world.

For hundreds of kilometres, including our entry into Ulaanbaatar, we avoided the debris from Soviet rule in the form of empty vodka bottles along the road. A 25% alcohol dependency rate is a sad consequence for a country trying to escape it historical past of Russian and Chinese subjugation. Even the name of the city is literally translated as ‘Red Hero. Yurts containing the recently migrated nomads of Mongolian history came to be part of its future in this sprawling city clamped by steep hills. It became obvious that in the past thirty years Ulaanbaatar has experienced a 3000% growth rate as the city’s infrastructure and roads cracked, buckled and jolted under the pressure of ever increasing numbers of Toyota Prius’ (which constitute the vast majority of Mongolian cars) and Land Cruisers.

As we crossed over the Tuul River, the lifeblood of Ulaanbaatar, I could see the city as two halves - a yin and a yang. Behind me, in the yurts and shacks lies the poverty which sees people huddling in manholes during the winter months and burning coal and even plastic bottles, contributing to the cities pollution. Partly for this reason it is the most polluted capital in the world. In front is the growing prosperity of Mongolia’s elite. Mercedes G-Wagon’s costing tens of millions of tugrik smugly rolled past. On a newly constructed golf course, the first international course in Mongolia, the countries great and good tees off as we can stare up at its raised banks*. *The luxurious 25 floors of polished glass of the Blue Sky Tower, a name recalling the central image of Mongolian spiritualism, the Eternal Blue Sky, leans upwards like an unfurling sail as cocktails floated around the polished decks of its upper floors. Even as the statue of Lenin in the central square was recently torn down (and in an ironic twist of his fate was auctioned off) this prosperity is confined to a small elite as the rest labour on.

The beep of a horn sent me back to the moment as the traffic ground to a halt. The car pooling system where only certain registration plates can drive on certain days seemed to have made little difference to the speed of the journey. Ulaanbaatar was a city which the Soviets designed to never accommodate more than 500,000 people, let alone over the 1,500,000 today. A newly constructed pavement saw tired labourers wave at us as Will rattled over a pain inducing speed bump. I felt a pull on the back of my bike, as if an air brake had been applied. A young Mongolian boy wearing hoody, jeans and sporting a pair of roller skates held onto my pannier. With my newly attached carriage I was employed to pull him through the city as amused traffic gave us space as they snapped their photos of the spectacle. On my right was the Black Market, the central shopping district for the local population. It used to sell stolen items but now it vended off a congealed mass of copies and replicas covered on iron railings, painted containers and creaky wooden tables. A suitably Western fist pump with the boy concluded the journey as he slingshot through the traffic using cars door handles. We rolled into the hotel for the night after over 150 kilometres of riding that day, as my lucky charm on the back of my bike - Vishnu - dangled helplessly after the strains of the journey.

The 7am chimes of the gong from the local monastery sent us flying downstairs for a breakfast of; 2 chocolate muffins, 1 omelette, two fried eggs, two yoghurts, a bowl of cereal, several cups of orange juice, milk, a litre of water, a plate of sausages, 4 dumplings and a few pieces of broccoli as my stomach welcomed its inflation.

After an enjoyable and insightful afternoon with Jim and Nomuunbat Dwyer, long-term expat residents of Ulaanbaatar, seeing the city and learning more about Mongolia’s place in the context of the New Silk Road and Asia’s future, we anticipated our visit to the North Korean National Restaurant. It comes equipped with its exported waitresses and apparently bountiful supplies of food. Mongolia is one of the few countries in the world boasting both a North and South Korean Embassy. It keeps up good relations with both parties having a visa free arrangement with North Korea and a high level of trade with South Korea.

Jim had suggested that we visit the North Korean National Restaurant and it was one of these rare experiences that we couldn’t miss as we waved down a car to head off to the EXE plaza’s fourth floor. Ulaanbaatar is a giant Uber system without Uber as most drivers stop and deliver you to your chosen location, even without a taxi license, in return for financial reimbursement. As we navigated to this hidden North Korean breadbasket, it was only when we sat down at the table - seeing the menus that we knew we were in the right place. Obsequious staff guided us to a table as gleams and patience persisted under the watchful eye of the party official at the back of the room (some waitresses had fled their little North Korea, although I do not know if their attempts were successful).

The interior was a chintzy mix of dangling fairy lights, tacky paintings of waterfalls and sunsets and fake flowers as the restaurants proceedings were coordinated to us in broken English. Steaming plates of food were offered before us as testament to the cornucopia of good things which flow out of North Korea. I received a generous portion of peppered beef on hot pebbles. As the aromas wafted up into my sinus’ I was sure they didn’t want me to recall the 104 cattle which Mongolia airlifted to them as humanitarian aid on 29 December 2014 as the mirage evaporated up with the smell.

As we dug into our meals, the beaming waitresses, dressed in uniforms like aircraft stewardesses lined the stage in front of us as they began a synchronised dance. We sniggered at the empty emotion. The production was in desperate need of elements of meta-theatricality (as was the restaurant itself). In an unpredicted extension of The Democratic Republic of North Korea's diplomatic mission towards the West the waitresses came around, and looking us in the eye, firmly shook our hands as the stage travelled further into the restaurant as I tried to hold a sense of decorum.

Having enjoyed the transformative experience, a small gift shop with glass counter sold small trinkets. Badges, patches, stickers and medals of the Glorious Leader shone with the brightness of a nuclear detonation. A collection of memorabilia demanded $120 (amusingly only dollars accepted) as North Korea welted under the sway of foreign purchasing power from its ‘greatest enemy’. A book on ‘Seventy Years of Excellency by the Supreme Leader’ sadly was neither signed by the Supreme Leader nor was it for sale as I was keen to read of his achievements.

As we returned to the hotel hailing another unsuspecting driver, recharged and ready for another week of pedaling heading North West, the booms and roars of fireworks concluded Mongolia’s Day of the Young Soldier as the hums of monks and bells were drowned out.

A Mongolian Dump

Written Thursday 26 May

Over a flat expanse, pebbled with dirt and the occasional brush stroke of struggling green lies a small hut. Beyond it, the Gobi Desert starts to give way to the fertility of the steppes. At first glance it could have been a small stable. It was not attractive; a black scratched exterior lies below bare wooden columns supporting an uneven black tiled roof. As I walk closer the streaking sun illuminated the unlit building between the gaping panels. Untreated wooden supports separate ten stable like slots - five on either side - as exposed nails staple the structure together.

As the wind subsides it becomes obvious what this structure is. It is a Mongolian lavatory - not one of the typical tourist attractions of Mongolia. The wretched odious smells fill my nostrils as I try not to breathe too deeply. With difficulty, I choose my slot. Two flimsy wooden beams separate a foot wide hole into a ten foot deep pit. Hovering my foot over the hole it becomes apparent that a wrong slip could see me wriggling 10 foot below amongst a collection of unpalatable debris. I imagined falling down, unable to escape the steep rocky walls cut by heavy machinery with only a spectrum of different coloured loo roll, plastic bags and a variety of different bottles for company as I try to scramble out. My screams would be unheard as bare buttocks blocked my sinking despair. I tighten my grasp on the loo roll as if it had become a stress ball. Instead I try to focus on the cloudless surroundings as I faced outwards. Another strong gust of wind helped to disperse the convulsive aromas as I thought about my plan of action for the most dangerous lavatory I have yet encountered. Taking out my phone I thought about it plunging down and landing with a squelch, half buried, only moving as it wiggled helplessly to the buzz of my morning alarm until the battery died or it was recovered by a sophisticated rescue operation.

As I tried to dispose of the spoiled goods the convection currents caused the loo roll to flutter upwards, unfurling outwards in a long strip as it wafted around me like a circling kite. In desperation, my fingers delicately plucked it, rewrapping, and this time I thrusted it downwards. Watching its progress, I was satisfied that it was all clear. After repeating this process I carefully straightened up, trying not to fall down in the same way you may fall down when bouncing onto your buttock when on a trampoline.

Relieved, I walked out with the fresh air cooling my humid brow. Just before my tent, I turned away from the sight of a local alleviating himself against the wall of a house. Disdain was my first reaction, as the shack stood, unforgettably, behind me. But then again if you cared for your safety what would you do?

Heartland to Hinterland - China to Mongolia

Monday 16 May - Sunday 22 May

As we entered the Gobi freshly laundered sheets and Western luxuries blew away with the prospect of a favourable wind and easy ride. The days before in China, though long, had not presented us with the challenges of 50kph winds, sandstorms, rain and freezing temperatures which reduced hourly progress to less than 10 miles an hour. Unlike, the abrupt borders which divide countries, the changes in landscape and climate where much more gradual as we approached the Mongolian boarder. Each day the temperature dropped a few degrees as we felt the icy prickle insidiously creeping into our extremities. With each day the landscape transformed from urban to rural, lush to barren, vibrate to desolate.

On Monday, our second day of riding we were surrounded by jasmine tree lined road which emitted an aroma similar to the courtyard of an upmarket hotel. A gentle light and green mountains provided an ideal backdrop for a photo opportunity. By Sunday the environment has degenerated into a monotonous plain of sand and dust as far as the eye could see. Trees and even grass gradually disappeared; houses vanished too as power lines became our sole points of reference. My Garmin, though working, could no longer provided data on the road we were on, as I looked down at the small arrow travelling into emptiness on our north-westerly heading.

A gentle breeze at the beginning of the week had turned into 50kph gusts by the weekend, resulting in us cycling tilted at 15 degrees into the wind like a halted pendulum. Sand blew from across the barren plateau of the Gobi Desert into our eyes and faces stinging like pinpricks as they refused to be stilled. The road increasingly gathered undulations of mounting sand as our tracks made temporary imprints. The force of the wind had toppled billboards as the sand limited visibility to several hundred metres as we tightened the wraps of our face masks. Disappearing fences on the sides of the road signaled our increasing solitude. Before carefully lined stakes marked property but now even the wiry and corrugated fences vanished as the extremes of weather evaporated human boundaries and desire for possession. Where in China rich pastures and thriving industry covered the sides of the road by the time we reached Mongolia this was replaced by the carcasses of famished animals with their young toppled like road kill. As Will and I attempted conversation during the long miles he wondered how many had died building the affectionately named G208 road that we rode as we were battered by wind and sand. After a thoughtless giggle it occurred to me that it was possible people did perish during its construction and a certain sobriety returned once again. We wouldn’t have survived the night in those conditions as the carcasses of those sheep took on additional meaning. This area had apparently suffered a four year long drought and the consequences at times were painfully clear. As we entered the border town of Erenhot on Saturday to a remarkably English drizzle some in the town thought that we had brought good luck as it was some of the first rain they had seen in years.

Faces and physiques changed as the slender and delicate features of the Han Chinese turned into the more robust builds of the Mongolian tribes. A guttural ‘Welcome to Mongolia’ greeted us at the border along with smiles and waves as they had in China. A women standing curiously by the door of her yurt, protected from the elements by rolled out 50 litre barrels of oil drums, waved as we passed. From when we were outside of Beijing to the border of Mongolia the friendliness and compassion was the guiding star that remained constant. On Friday as the heat clutched the roads, shimmering and glistering like reflective pools, I stopped to slowly sip the last remains of my tepid water, trying to make it last. A man in a white Honda stopped and in his open palm held out a bottle of water. Delighted, and touching my hand to heart in that symbol of appreciation which language does not obscure, I finished it in two second flat.

The trucks and lorries which streamed up and down the roads to ‘The Wolf Economy’ of Mongolia were one of our greatest fears. They have been no problem, almost always showing respect as they first give a courteous beep in recognition of us and then granted us plenty of space so as to put many of their equivalents in the UK to shame. As we continue up the road to Ulan Bator - the capital of Mongolia - over 500 kilometres in the distance, now we can only hope for more favourable weather.

The Silk Road Revived - The New Silk Road (Part 2)

The Silk Road Revived - The New Silk Road (Part 2)

Travelling ‘The Silk Road’ is, among many things, an excuse to buy a silk shirt. China had a monopoly on silk, and the secrets of its production were fiercely guarded, with often fatal consequences for would be thieves. As ridiculous and prohibitively expensive as it might sound, silk is the perfect material for travelling; it has a low enough density as to be lightweight and comfortable, while good insulation properties make it warm in winter and cool during Summer months, finally it is one of the strongest natural fibers – worn by many, including the Mongols, as a layer designed to trap an arrow and reduce the damage it dealt. In another life I might have exchanged that silk shirt for spices or a goat, but supply now tends to run ahead of demand, not to mention that the demand for my used shirts hovers around zero. 

The Silk Road Revived - The New Silk Road (Part 1)

The Silk Road Revived - The New Silk Road (Part 1)

On Tuesday 24 February last year, the world changed. T.S. Elliot talks about how the world ends: “Not with a bang but a whimper”, fortunately for us, the world changes in a similar way. When it finally happened, no one batted an eyelid as the wheels of progress slowly ground into gear. A train loaded with Christmas trinkets set off from Yiwu in China and crossed two continents to reach Madrid before returning with a cargo of Spanish merchandise. It travelled along the new Yixin’ou line connecting China and Europe via Kazakhstan, Moscow, Eastern Europe into Spain. This is the longest rail line in the world, 450 miles longer than the Trans-Siberian Railway and a 16,156 mile round trip. Two months ago on Monday 15 February the world changed again, another train travelled for the first time from Zhejiang province to Tehran. An important difference between this and the other train journey was that this one passed through Central Asia instead of the Russian federation. Both however usher in a new direction for policy that will prove definitive of the age, if not the epoch; China’s New Silk Road initiative and the resurrection of the Silk Road.

Ghana September 2015

Ghana September 2015

While the basis for this cycle was first conceived of in 2014, it was the subsequent
visit to Ghana in September 2015 that spurred us on. It followed from an initial visit
in July 2013, with a group of friends, to the O Africa orphanage and health clinic in
Ayenyah. In the classroom, the football field and dirt tracks we met many of the
children whom we would get to know very well in September 2015.

Maps, Caricatures, Trump - Because size does matter

Maps, Caricatures, Trump - Because size does matter

What do maps of the world, caricatures and Donald Trump all have in common? They all distort the truth; Trump achieves this with the careful use of language, while caricatures and maps succeed in their deception by visual means (although the same might apply to Trump’s toupee). As with caricatures, where the head is grossly enlarged, world maps also experience a distortion in their true dimensions.

Legends of the past

Legends of the past

As the news of the tragic death of Henry Worsley settles and his legacy begins to resonate through the worn tomes of great explorers, it seems fitting to ask what drove him and other British adventurers, to redefine the limits of human feasibility. At the end of January, when Worsley had perished from complete organ failure, while attempting to be the first man to cross the Antarctic alone, it occurred to me that Robert Scott also perished on the return from his polar expedition little more than 100 years earlier. It seems one of fate’s vicissitudes that both died so close to their goals, but their similarities stretch further than their formidable reputations, military background and tragic ends. Indeed they were both British..