Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Borders, Blizzards and Introduction to Kyrgyzstan

Left Kashgar and crossed out of China into Kyrgyzstan on Friday.
Border crossing was a bit of a quirky exercise in problem solving.
Our time in Kyrgyzstan so far has been a mix of wild weather, warm hospitality but also food for thought.
We are in Osh, and will ride north to Bishkek in a day or two.

As we left Kashgar, a friendly driver accompanied us for 10km as he taxied children home from school. He chatted and sang constantly, making the kms pass quickly!!

Preparing some dinner in our desert camp before the Chinese Border

We couldn’t find the border to exit China. We’d gotten up at 5am from our desert camp, all prepped to hit the border town of Uluqat right on opening time. But here we were at 11.30am, after riding an extra 34km backtracking when we realised we’d missed it, still riding around brand new labyrinths of roads trying to find this elusive border checkpoint! How can you have a border gate that is easier to miss than find?! This final riddle clanged around in our heads as we spent our last morning in China. Answer: Because you’ve just built a brand new road with the same name (the S309) and put your border checkpoint on that, before you’ve closed or directed people off the old S309.

Again, in a parallel experience to our arrival, the heavy sound of stamping on our open passports was echoed by a ringing satisfaction in our hearts! We had finally made it! We had enjoyed our fascinating time in China, but we were ready to move on! Kyrgyzstan here we come.
Our passports checked by upwards of ten officials, we were then hurriedly loaded with our bikes and bags onto a couple of lorries for the travel through the sensitive 150km of no-mans-land. Ollie trying desperately to tie the bikes upright in the huge lorry tray before being bundled into the front truck and me into another further down the convoy, not knowing quite where we were heading, as we pulled out onto the bumpiest road yet, with our drivers who spoke no English, we had to again surrender any kind of control. 

On top of one of the lorries that is taking us through no-mans-land. The other two trucks of the convoy are in the backround. (We rode inside the lorries, this was just a photo op when we were checking on the bikes!)
Rather surprisingly, we did end up together on the Kyrgyz border. And absolutely miraculously, the bikes proved undamaged by their 4 hours of bouncing. The Kyrgyz welcome was hearty. Happy “Hello”s, “Assalamu laikum”s, and charade jokes asking whether we had any bombs in our panniers, gave us some pretty happy feelings about our new country of abode. 

The Kyrgyz welcome continued 7km down the road. Young children spied us as we got within 100m of their village and came sprinting towards us with more bright “Hello”s! Inviting us in for chai, the family offered us dinner and a bed for a pretty reasonable cost. We are realizing that this is very common here, and having tourists to stay is a good extra income boost for some of them. We spent a happy evening wandering with the children around their village, visiting their school and meeting their teachers, before having dinner with the family.

Isslah and one of our host children, Sezimy, in front of their school. Nourra Village, Kyrgyzstan

Having a meal with our Kyrgyz hosts. Chai, bread, plov (rice dish), old cream and fermented yoghurt.
Arriving in a new place you are struck with some things that you immediately love, and other things that suprise you. In the little we have seen of Kyrgyzstan we have enjoyed much, but have many questions that will be in some part answered as we travel further. With the wonderful quick offers of hospitality we are learning to check how much it will cost, and wondering about the expectations around this. With the fun and friendly children and the busy family life, we have sometimes been suprised by a harsher side to some roles and relationships between children and parents. With the big spreads of food, we have been wondering how to politely accept but consume as little as possible of strange fermented dairy products, and how to manage the insistently “offered” vodka shots. There is lots that is new for us, and we will learn a lot more as we spend the next few weeks here.

Getting some help from Isamat to push my bike up to the road as we headed away from Nourra in the drizzle.
The next day was probably our toughest day on the bikes yet. Our still and lightly drizzling morning seemed to promise a clearing to a beautiful springtime Kyrgyz day. That was not to be, and as the sky darkened and our road climbed endlessly into snowy hill tops, we quickly downed some noodles before it all packed in. 

Feeling the lack of a map (we couldn’t buy a Kyrgyz map in Xinjiang), and with the cycle computer stopped working again, we were riding rather blind. We were definitely riding blind as the snowflakes turned to icy sleet, finding ways to pierce my pupils even when I tried to tuck my head far in under my peeked hood. As you would imagine, we got very snowily wet, very cold, and very tired. We knew we had about 80km to a town called Sari Tash, and as we started to meet tough herdsmen huddling with their flocks out in the white expanse, we gleened from them that we were 20km away, then 10km. We did make it, and again were quickly offered a bed, chai and plov. What a huge relief to huddle over the wire coil heater in a room lain with rugs, and drink endless chai! 

After an hour or two, the snow began to plaster onto our panniers, clothes and faces.

By the time we arrived in Sari Tash, we were well plastered!

Basically though, both our confidence and our bodies were pretty severely knocked. When it started to snow again as we headed out of town the next morning, we flagged down a passing truck for a 200km lift to a lowland and warm city Osh, in the Fergana Valley. Here we are still resting, enjoying the kebabs and the hospitality of our guesthouse. Five Muslim men run it, and they are just wonderful, a load of fun. It is a beautiful town, and a really ancient centre of civilization. Its population is 40% Uzbek, and from the small rocky promontory we wandered up yesterday, we could look out into Uzbekistan, only 8km away. In a day or two we will start to cycle north from here to the Kyryz capital, Bishkek.

A huge huge thanks for Andy who has been posting our blog while we’ve been in China! That’s been so valuable to us to still be able to share news and photos with you. Now we’re out in lands of internet freedom, we should be able to check and post ourselves. And thanks heaps to all of you who put some time into reading about our adventures!! Your interest is a huge support and encouragement to us!

Friday, 24 May 2013

Rich roads on the Karakoram

The variety of physical landscapes, climatic conditions, and ethnic groups on this four day cycle journey was simply phenomenal. Is their anywhere else on planet earth we could experience such rich diversity in such a short space of time spent on a bike?

Setting out from Kashgar we enjoyed a fairly leisurely afternoon, crossing a minuscule fragment of the far western corner of the Taklamakan Desert. Having trained across the rest of this desert over a total of 48 hours we were highly aware of how much we were merely dipping our toes on the edge of a vast desert ocean. The dry barren flatness was interspersed with leafy green fruit trees and villages of mud brick houses inhabited by the Uighur people.

Having stopped for a snack we were soon joined by a curious old lady. We offered her a handful of our raisins, but to our disappointment she took the whole bag! Any possible resentment was cut short however as she proceeded to invite us in to her dwelling with her husband and son, fed us yoghurt made from their own cow, and insisted that we stay the night and make ourselves at home. The loss of a bag of raisins somehow seemed like a small price to pay. Somewhere in this experience must lie some lessons for us to reflect on??!

The next morning we rose early and savoured the clear and crisp early morning light as we rolled over the remainder of the desert road towards high peaks and into a valley where we were wowed by inspiring rock strata, all shades of brown and rich reds imaginable.

As the valley narrowed and steepened we found ourselves quite suddenly rounding a corner and overwhelmed by towering snowy and heavily glaciated peaks, not long ago on the far horizon yet now brilliantly rising up overhead. One beauty of cycling over being in a car is that there is no roof blocking your view!

After a night camped beneath these beauties, and being generously fed by friendly Chinese road workers who easily discovered our “remote” campsite and showered us with edible gifts, we wound our way slowly through sheer walls of granite. This great rock uprising could literally not be a greater contrast from the sweeping desert plains for which they form a boundary.

Too soon we departed this gorge and entered more rounded and open hill country, some sweeping alpine sand hills and the green pasturelands of the Kyrgyz herdsmen. In just a mere few kilometres the population had largely changed from Uighur to Kyrgyz, another of China’s many ethnic minorities.

By this stage the road had raised us up to being well over 3000m above sea level and with that we were forced to endure increasingly wild weather and ever dropping temperatures. A roaring headwind slowed our progress, sometimes literally to a standstill, but in a dramatic change we were blown the final 10km uphill to Lake Karakol, engulfed in a storming brown haze of desert sand and sleety snowfall! To our delight we were welcomed into a Kyrgyz yurt, warmed beside a fire, and refueled with an amazing meal of noodles, veges and yak!

Waking the next morning we reluctantly left the warmth and good company inside the yurt to endure more raging winds from ahead. We ever-so-gradually ground our way across great expanses of pasturelands, beneath snowy massifs and glaciers creeping valley-ward. In more sleet and temperatures now barely above freezing we summited a desolate mountain pass at 3900m, and entered the Tajik county of Tashkurgan. With Tajikistan not more than 100km to the west, the sprawl that is China encompasses a population of Tajik people also.

Rugged up and fearing a long ride ahead we were ecstatic to be blessed with yet another wind change and finally a downhill. Reaching speeds up to 65km/h and usually rolling at around 35km/h without pealing, the next 60km had us whooping and hollering. We raced to our campsite just short of Tashkurgan, dropping 1000m in the process and enjoying the thawing of cold fingers and the swapping of storm clothes for shorts and shirts once again. We set up our tent among friendly Tajik herdsmen and their flocks of sheep and goats.

In a bizarre contrast to the warm hospitality we had received along this way, right on dusk we were paid a visit from the local Police who insisted we must move on from our idyllic campsite and find paying accommodation in Tashkurgan 5km away! We beat the impending darkness and were relieved to easily find a hostel whom to our delight offered a fluorescent-lit, white-tiled indoor camping space on ‘the terrace’. Every day in China offers something new, and often bizzarre!

This 300km section of the Karakoram Highway had come as highly recommended by my sister Mon and brother-in-law Dave. Sometimes with high expectations can come disappointment, these four days however have surpassed any hopes and left us buzzing and thankful to have been treated to such unbelievable diversity and goodness!



Turpan is an ancient city on the Taklamakan Desert Silk Road, famous for its fertile green gorges through the orange desert sands. It is one of the hottest places on Earth.

In Turpan we realized that we had entered a new cultural zone. Largely Islamic, a city of bustling bazaars, mosques, kebabs, its population 80% Uighyr, we felt like we were already in Central Asia, though with a slight Chinese flavor.


We spent some time in the desert. For both of us that was a totally new experience, and in that was very rich and precious! Before the day got too hot we walked up some sandy slopes of Flaming Mountain, looking up at the orange, cream and rusty brown strata of its sandstone bulk. Bare feet in the warm sands, under a hard blue sky, we wandered happily in this barren but rich place.

“The ruins are under construction”

Captured by the romance of this area’s ancient past, we paid the money to see some of the tourist sights, the Bezelklik Thousand Buddha Caves, the Jiaohe Ancient City Ruins, and an ancient Uighyr village. Two quotes start to paint the picture of what we actually found. From our friends’ Chinese guidebook of the area: “Regrettably the ruins are not in good condition.” And from the sign as we entered Jiaohe City, “To protect our cultural heritage the ruins are under construction.” The picture was filled out by the digger that rumbled, the sound of hammers banging as they nailed the brand new boardwalk straight into the ancient mud walls, the slapping of new mud that built new barriers to keep us on the paved road through. We found that the Thousand Buddha Caves now have nice new regular sized entrances that handily fit a locking door, and a tiled patio outside well dotted with rubbish bins. What we never really found was the space to grasp this area’s rich past. Still, as always, plenty of food for curiosity and thought!

Saturday, 11 May 2013

In Xining

The bullet points

  • We have taxied and bused to Xining in the Qinghai region of China.
  • Our week has been rubbish but is now fantastic!
  • Tomorrow we catch a train to Turpan in the Taklamakan Desert, then head for Kashi (Kashgar) two days later.

The fineprint

What a week it’s been! The predictably unpredictable weather as we cycled into higher
altitudes and increasingly remote areas eventually persuaded us to pack up the bikes
and opt for taxi and bus transport.

In the most unexpected remote town we stumbled across an English speaking Tibetan
named Yeshi Tsomo who just happened to have spent 2 months in Tauranga! Yeshi was
unbelievably generous to us, and as the snow continued to fall she organized a taxi to
get us out from SerQu to XiaWuZhen where we could link with a bus to the more major
city of Xining. Actually the taxi was supposed to take us to Yushu bus station but stopped
47km short, leaving us a bit baffled and stranded. Once again the locals came to the
rescue, sprinting out onto the main street to flag us down a bus.

From my parents’ time working in this area in 2005 I’d heard many a legend of the
sleeper bus journeys. Our experience was no exception…horrendously bad! Fortunately
my good health lasted the 18 trip before I fell victim to bad bugs on arrival in Xining.
Anna fared not so well. As the air in the bus filled thicker with nicotine smoke, the aisle
filled with cigarette buts, food scraps, spit and smelly shoes. I tried to remain calm
and accept the cultural differences, but 18 hours stuck on a small bus with a group of
chain smokers really stretched my positivity beyond breaking point. It also stretched
Anna’s stomach beyond breaking point. The exaggerated rolling and bouncing motion
of our upper level berths at the back of the bus, with occasional bigger bumps that sent
us flying to crash heads on the roof above, was not the ideal environment for a sick
gut. Luckily unlike NZ buses there are a few opening windows (that most passengers
insisted on closing!) on these Chinese sleeper buses. On reflection these are probably
more for the purpose of unloading stomach contents tidily than actually allowing fresh
air to enter. Whatever their purpose Anna made use of them several times. The dogs of
the Qinghai province will smell her scent on the left side bus wall for some time to come
as I suspect cleaning is not a regular activity in this bus industry! I cannot imagine how
bad this experience must have been for Anna, five days on she still avoids discussion or
looking at photos of the journey in order to avoid the gagging reflex it still brings up!

So, being the half of our team in semi-reasonable health on arrival in Xining, I swung
into full flight grabbing bags and bikes and checking through our belongings. But alas
my check system proved faulty. My gore-tex jacket, along with money, gloves, hat and
head-torch all remained warmly snuggled onboard, amongst the duvet that had been my
berth, as the bus rolled away and out of sight. So there we were, it was hard to feel any
warmth toward Xining, China, ourselves, or life in general at that moment.

To cut a long story short we got to a good hostel, we’ve stayed sick most of the week,
things were longing grim. BUT as the depths get deeper the highs must soon come,
and today we have had good things heaped upon us. Small things become such huge
victories. We have sent bikes to Kashi, with the legitimate China Railway Express this
time (fingers crossed they will arrive in one piece!). We have booked train tickets for the
next week to follow our bikes across the Taklamakan desert. We met Marc and Marion
Foggin, good friends from the organization Plateau Perspectives with whom my parents

worked. We have even enjoyed an unexpected holiday from foreign foods, eating chips
and burgers for lunch! Our health seems on the mend, for now at least, and we look
forward to tomorrow heading north on the train to experience the great deserts of the
Xinjiang region of China. Wooohoooo!


SerQu locals battle the snow falls.

Working hard through the storm to jam the bikes, ourselves, and theother passengers in to the taxi. The young fella on the right was such astar, our major helper!

A short break between storms and pot-holes.

More keen youngsters, enjoying our bikes in XiaWuZhen. This guys parents offered to buy our bikes for 500yuan each!


Smoke inhalation guard. Who knows what other germs are festering in the duvet!

As the journey rolls on the aisle fills.

With Marc and Marion Foggin, a wonderful time with special people.

Saturday, 4 May 2013


An uplifting moment in the middle of a tough day!

Racing the storm into QiWu.

Thankfully we won the race!

Our wonderful hosts who sheltered, entertained and fed us, QiWu.

Leaving QiWu amidst a newly whitened landscape.

Nearing SerXu. This time the storm won the race.

Once again we awoke to new snow all around.

Our English speaking Tibetan friend Yeshi Tsomo, giving more enthusiastic hospitality and care.