Archive for October, 2011


Urumqi

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Having left Chris to cycle, I jumped into a minibus and took the 8 hr journey to the city. The driver wasn’t happy to take me and wanted more money – double the other passengers as I was a foreigner and then more for the bike. We agreed on a price eventually. A few hours later in the city and it was already dark. I was dropped in the south of the city near a hotel and I managed to check in and get sorted out. It’s funny arriving in a big city on your own at night, with limited language, but once in my hotel room I was very happy. I had a hot shower, the first in about 9 days, which was blissful – nothing like hot water to make you feel good.

However the hotel was expensive and I couldn’t stay there for long. I found a hostel in the north of the city and cycled 17km across town to get there. Having heard that Urumqi traffic was terrible, I was fired up and bracing myself for some aggressive cycling. However it wasn’t too bad and there was plenty of room on the roads for everyone. I checked into a dorm room in a light bright airy hostel and got started on work. My main reason for coming to town by bus was so that I could work for a week or so on a website, for an existing client called TellTale – www.telltale.co.uk.

I quickly got into a routine, working, popping out for lunch at a little place around the corner where they had lovely bowtsa -  little steamed buns filled with meat, where you got 10 for 5 Yuan (50p). For an extra Yuan you got soup too! There were also fruit stalls and bread stands, where men cooked fresh naan breads all day, alongside skewers of meat cooking over coals. Quite a mix of Kazakh and Chinese cuisine.I would work late and chat to some of my room mates, who all spoken rather impressive English. It turns out that this week was a national holiday and so many young people take the opportunity to travel. Most of the girls in my dorm were 20-25 and from Beijing or Shanghai, travelling for a few days. The staff at the hostel were really lovely and the women were interested to know what i was doing, especially as I stayed so long. I was hand washing all of my clothes one day, they were all dirty and covered in sand and dust from Mongolia, and two of them came to watch. I’m not sure why, but they ended up helping me and seemed to want to look after me, so sweet!

Work went well and Chris arrived at the end of the week, So we applied for our Kazakh visas and explored the city a little. Urumqi is a very modern city and big. We figured out the bus system and managed to find a western bar, run by a Japanese guy, called Fubar. We had cheeseburgers and chips. Chinese food is lovely, but it’s nice to have a burger now and again!

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Urumqi is in Xinjiang province and is a semi autonomous region, home to the Uyghur people. It is also the place in Asia that is farthest from the ocean, the most inland city, about 1600 miles from the sea. Historically Urumqi is a trade town and a major city along the northern Silk road and we wondered if that’s why people are so friendly – they are used to travellers passing through?? That said, we didn’t see many other foreigners at all.

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Along the road, Chris met with a guy called Simon and he arrived in Urumqi a few days later. We arranged to take him for dinner, but it ended up with him taking us to his friend’s small restaurant  where his friend cooked us a wonderful meal and we sat and drank beer, looking at photos till late.

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On a final day in Urumqi we went to the People’s park, which is a wonderful oasis in an otherwise busy city. As in other parts of China, people genuinely use these public spaces and parks in a way you don’t really see at home. We might wander round a park, sit on a bench for a few minutes and then walk back. But here people come together to socialise, to play cards, to play chequers or chess, in quite big groups. Others will gather just to watch.

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There were people fishing, children playing and as we walked further into the park we could hear music. In the middle of the park, on a normal Tuesday afternoon, a big group of people were dancing to music. Some dancing on their own, others with a partner. We watched with smiles and loved the freedom and lack of inhibition here, people were happy and enjoying being there dancing. Many people were also gathered around watching by the sidelines.

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As we continued, we saw another man playing his saxophone, amazingly, with no audience, just sat on the grass. Further down there was a small Chinese opera performance and so it goes on… The park was full of people enjoying themselves, using the park and having fun. On a week day, in the middle of the afternoon.

You may be thinking, why weren’t they at work, or how were they able to do that? We wondered too. Shops are open early and open till later at night, sometimes people work less in the daytime, so maybe that’s why. But whatever the explanation, it was great to see. For all that the west likes to criticise China and it’s government, the people are not the government and despite the restrictions and censorship in their lives, people are happy and enjoy life, they seem to have more leisure time and enjoy socializing immensely. Not only that but they are some of the kindest, welcoming, genuine people that we have met on our travels.

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We got our Kazakh visas and then packed up to leave Urumqi, ready to cycle to the border and go to Kazakhstan.

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Mongolia to China the Bulgan Gol – Tashiken

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

We packed up the tent and started pushing our last few kms in Mongolia, i was still happy to be free again and excited to be crossing this particular boarder.  I had wanted to cross this for over a year and now it was open and i was free to cross it.  I was excited and smiling to myself as we got closer.  We had probably done only about 5km when a white car pulled up in front of us and a familiar face got out.  It was our driver, he was a passenger in the car that was actually a taxi going to the border.  The driver of this car and our old driver explained that the border was closing in just under an hour and would be closed for a week because of the Chinese holiday.  This was a tricky and funny situation, on the one had he could be after more money, on the other had he could be telling the truth.  We know that China do have some long holidays and the government does shut down during this time.

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It was an easy decision really, although it would cost us £10, we could not risk being stuck here for a week.  We quickly packed the car up and i was fuming all the way there as i had lost my freedom again and was pretty sure that the border was not going to be shut, but we could not risk it.

We arrived at the border and spent 2 hours waiting for lunch to finish.  We had missed the morning entry and the border was not closing that day.  I put it down to experience, and Liz and I spent the time designing our house that we want to build when we get back.  The border guards were friendly and we chatted with them for a bit until eventually we were let through.

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We cycled the bikes to the main building and were directed to an office and asked to wait.  Eventually a guy turned up and looked all our paperwork over, he made a few calls and 30 minutes later we were on our way.  We crossed the line and were greeted by a friendly Chinese face.  We were now by the bag check point, we leant the bikes against the wall of the office and we had all our bags checked.  They were quite thorough but polite and nice throughout.  Once this was done we went to the passenger terminal and put all our bags through the scanner.  Our passports were scanned by a small machine and our entry cards were printed for us.  We moved to the next desk got our entry stamp and opened the door, we were back in China.

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We cycled a few kms down the lovely smooth road and had a light late lunch before heading to the town of Tashiken.  We cycled around the town looking for the bank, after a loop we ended up at a hotel.  We checked with the staff at the hotel, no bank in the town and it was not really clear where the next bank was.  The friendly staff told us there were buses and taxis going to Urumqi for reasonable costs.  We decided to cycle out of town to camp and work out what to do.

We had the equivalent of £30 on us,  it was just enough to get to Urumqi that was about 600km if we were careful.  Liz really wanted to have a wash and sleep in a bed and was worried about the time it would take to get to Urumqi, as she had to start work and we had no power on the laptops.  The other issue we had was my bike was down one spoke and my rear hub was moving from side to side.

I was super keen to get back on the bike but Liz was ready for a break so we discussed the option of me cycling to Urumqi alone and Liz getting a taxi.  We had some food and got some rest.  We were both excited to be back in China but kicking ourselves for not be a bit more prepared.  Tomorrow would be a new day and things would work out, as they tend to do.

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Cycling Tashiken to Urumqi and Chinese hospitality

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Having slept on our choices last night, we had decided that Liz would take a taxi to Urumqi and I would do my best to cycle, with my rather wobbly bike. We cycled the short distance back into town, to the hotel where we had met the friendly people the day before, and set about organising a taxi. Luckily there was a taxi driver there waiting for people, the only problem was that he was not keen on the bike going in his car. We negotiated a price but it was high, double the normal cost, as the bike would count as an extra person, but he was willing to take money at the other end. Liz took 5 of our 30 pounds and we hugged goodbye. It would be a week before we would see each other again, which is not all that long. We were both looking forward to some independent time but still, it’s hard to leave your partner in a foreign country, not really knowing when you might be able to speak again. Of our 4 Chinese sim cards one still seemed to be working so I put that into my phone and Liz took the number. We are so used to instant communication now, Skype, twitter, facebook, sms and mobile phones all allow us to check on our loved ones at almost any time, but here now we were stepping back in time. It was an uncomfortable feeling that probably would not have really existed in the same way 15 years ago.

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I free-wheeled down the road in search of some supplies for the road and a hot meal. I found all I wanted to, and was still a little taken back at the friendly faces that were greeting me, and the approval of the bike and my journey from people was amazing. On the way back out of town I filled the stove bottle with petrol and asked the pump attendant how much. He smiled and waved me on saying it was nothing. I had not forgotten the kindness I had experienced in China the first time, but I was still amazed at what was starting to unfold. I rejoined the main road and pointed my bike into the direction of the unknown. My 1:4000000 map only marked a few of the towns that people had talked about and I really had no idea what lay ahead. The road started to climb a little and I relished the smooth tarmac road, golden autumn leaves that lined the river the left of me and the dark greys and browns of the desert to my right. It occurred to me that I was still cycling through a desert really, but I did not feel isolated or vunerable in any way. It all seemed rather normal, but a little voice kept telling me not to get complacent and plan for the worst. I pulled over and filled up with extra water from the river, that according to my map would soon take a different course to the road leaving me reliant on what I could carry on my bike.

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As I approached the top of the hill a loud twang sound interrupted my thoughts. My initially reaction was a stone had got caught in the mud guard but as I continued up the hill a rattling sound continued. I pulled of the road to see what the problem was. Hanging limp from the edge of the rim was the longer end of the broken spoke. I started unloading the bike, this was one of the few things I hoped would never happen, I carried spare spokes and had a vague idea of what to do with them but the end result would never be pretty. Unfortunately the broken spoke was on the cassette side, I got the small cassette removal tool out of the repair kit and tired to get the cassette off. It would not budge. I sort of knew that this would be the case, I had tried to take the cassette of a week or so early to try and fix the hub but it was worth another try. I removed the broken spoke and reloaded the bike. What to do now I thought, I had barely done 10km. On the one hand I was feeling uneasy about my lack of money and the generally tired bike, and contemplated trying to hitch to Urumqi.  On the other hand, I could not help thinking back to the van ride and how much I wanted to be on my bike instead. As I was contemplating all this, a car pulled off the road and a guy handed me a bottle of water and went off again. I was a little stunned but I still managed to thank him before he vanished over the hill. I would go for it, I would get as far to Urumqi as I could with this bike and then give it some attention when I had access to spare parts and some bigger tools.

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I pushed down on the pedals and soon crested the hill and was surprised and happy that the bike felt pretty good. I small downhill led me into an open valley and that had a few settlements that had houses only, there seemed to be no shops or other amenities but in the distance it looked like there was a mine or other sort of industrial activity. I had a brief stop by an unmarked junction on my map before carrying on. The good road helped me along as I passed different styles of houses and people in slightly different clothes. I turned a sharp bend and rang my bike bell as I passing young children on bikes whoeither had a look of amazement and disbelief on their face or smiles that reached from ear to ear.

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At 5pm I decided to call it a day, 53km since midday, I cycled off to the side of the road for 500m and pitched camp. I was happy and pleased, things were going well and I was certain that tomorrow I would have a good day. As my rice was cooking a flock of sheep were heading towards me, a man on a scooter appeared behind them and stopped my the tent to investigate what this strange thing was doing in the middle of nowhere. He inspected my dinner and I pointed to the bike at the back of the tent, I managed to explain what I was doing in my limited Chinese. He smiled in a way that said it was a cool thing to be doing but a little crazy and strange at the same time. He got back on his scooter, waved goodbye and continued pushing his sheep home. I finished up my rice dinner and then got cosy in the sleeping bag to watch a movie on the iPod.

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The next day I woke up early, I was still confused as to what time zone I was in, but the sun had not risen over the mountains yet and it didn’t really matter, I didn’t need anything and my only real clock was my body and the sun. I had coffee and breakfast in my sleeping bag while the sun rose over the mountains. It was peaceful and I was enjoying the combination of semi-remoteness and good roads. I was cycling by 9am and loving every second of it. Averaging 17km/h was something I had not experienced for a long time, the sun was warming but not to hot and there was a light breeze that didn’t affect my cycling. I stopped by a river after 20km to fill up with water, then rounded a bend to a small town that seem to serve the three roads that fed into it from different directions. I checked that I was heading the right way, my map was all in English and the road signs in Chinese so I had no way of knowing which way to go other than the compass and the knowledge of the local people. My road climbed slowly up and up, cars passed me as I passed horses and I was soon looking over a magnificent vista and had a long gradual downhill ahead of me. I zoomed down the hill reaching speeds of 40km an hour smiling to myself all the way.

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At mid afternoon I hit the G216 the main road that would take me to Urumqi, I checked my direction again and braced myself for the increased traffic. I suddenly felt so vulnerable, I had not experienced this level of traffic for months, and to top it off there was a crazy side wind. I put on my bright yellow reflective jacket to make me feel better and hopefully give the cars and massive trucks a few more seconds to see me. It seemed like I was crawling a long compared to the morning but I was still making some progress and as the minutes turned into hours I relaxed and went onto autopilot where I can think and check the traffic around me at the same time. I called it a day after 100km and pulled off the road where I had seen some piles of dirt that would keep the tent concealed at night allowing me to have an uninterrupted sleep from curious people in the middle of the night. As I was unloading the bike a guy on his motorbike who was using the dirt track to my right instead of the main road came to visit. We drank tea and talked as much was we could with my limited Chinese, half an hour later he left me with three blocks of dried cheese and set off to his home town 30km away.

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The next morning I awoke to a strong wind that was making the tent fabric flap. As I packed up and had breakfast I was concerned about cycling on the road, the draft the trucks made as they whizzed passed me combined with the wind could be a recipe for disaster. I decided to try the road and see before going to plan B that was the dirt track to the left of the road. My concern with plan B was that the already weakened back wheel might give out completely. After only a few kms on the main road I switch to the dirt track, it was pretty smooth and I was careful to avoid the bumps and preserve the back wheel. Progress was slow only 10km/h but just as fast as the road as I did not have to stop when the big trucks came past me. I followed the dirt track for about 15km and then pulled back on to the main road to make the most of what seemed to be lighter winds and a gradual downhill.

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I slowly eased back into cycling amongst fast traffic and at lunch time I arrived at a large town that was bustling with trucks Chinese tour buses and locals selling everything from nan bread to colourful rocks. I stopped at a restaurant and managed to order some food, two massive dishes and a big bowl of rice appeared in front of me, I finished the lot and felt a lot better for it. After dinner I set about trying to get some more credit for my phone, three shops and a lot of picture taking with Chinese, Taiwanese and Chinese/Canadian tourists later I eventually got what I wanted and made contact with Liz. I felt so much better know that she had made it to Urumqi and was settle in a hotel tapping away on the computer to top up the bank balance. This, added to the smiles and encouragement from the people I was meeting, left me feeling amazing. I left the town with enough water and food for a few more days and the possibility of another town 80km away that might have a bank. I managed another 25km and was pleased to have done 50km by the end of the day despite have spent a few hours in town and had a slow morning for the wind. To the left of the road were some large quarry ditches remnants of the road being built. They made for a perfectly concealed camp site. I was still quite full from lunch so filled up on popcorn and other snacks and set about making a new playlist for the next day. I decided that I would rest in the morning to about 11am. The last few days the wind had been strongest in the morning and by midday the cycling had been perfect.

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The next morning I was not disappointed, the tent was flapping even in my sheltered ditch, I lazed about the camp site, cleaned the tent then got on the road for 11am. The new playlist helped me keep my pace and I was pleased with my progress. I started pushing my riding time between stops, using the laybay as a safe place to have a coffee and food.

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Each laybay I made friends with the truck drivers and cars that were generally full of people from Urumqi going somewhere for the holiday. I was bowled over by people smiles and generosity as I was handed bottles of water, fruit and snacks. Towards the end of the day the light was fading and I got a big nervous about cycling in the twilight, I had only done 75km due to the late start and spending time chatting with people at the rest stops. I debated about carrying on but decided it was safer to stop and there was a good camping nearby. I pulled of the road and got camp set up amongst some bushes.

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I got an early start the next day excited at the possibility that there would be a big town only 5 km away. 5km came and went and there was nothing put trucks and opens spaces. By 10am arrived at a small collection of houses that served as restaurants and shops that were mostly closed. A small bus that had been converted to a shop was the best the town had to offer. I filled up my Thermos, chatted with the few people that had gathered around the bike trying to work out where the next big town was. It seemed there was nothing for at least another 80km and this settlement was not even marked on my map. I brought some more snacks for the road and sett off again. As I continued round the bend a small village appeared and then a police check point. The police asked me where I was going and where I had come from. The policeman smiled and pointed to the police hut and told me I should go and drink tea. I was greeted with smiles and handed numerous bottles of ice tea. I sat down and a large melon was cut open and I was encouraged to eat. I chatted about the bike and my time in China and then I got invited to eat lunch. I said I had not eaten long ago so would be OK, I was keen to get going but torn as it was nice chatting to people. I was asked again to lunch, I could not refuse, so we crossed to road the restaurant opposite and I was treated to a massive lunch of noodles, meat and vegetables. Some of the truck drivers started offering me lifts to Urumqi, I thanked them but said that I preferred to cycle, they did not really understand why I wanted to cycle but eventually they accepted it and wished me well for my journey. After lunch I thanked everybody and said that I must get on, they gave more more ice tea and I left with 9 bottles strapped to the back of the bike!

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I was amazed again at the hospitality and kindness of the police, so many people have written or told me about bad experiences. But for me, all of my dealings with the police in China have been amazing. I have spent over six months travelling around China and during this time I have been showered with food for the road, taken out to dinner and generally been very well looked after by locals and the police. Now some of you may be thinking that this is just away to check up on me and find out more about me. Well this possibility has crossed my mind on more than one occasion. Sure there have been times when the police have check my passport and asked me a few questions about what I am doing but after they have smiled and left me to carry on. The other times though I have been treated like a honoured guest. My conclusion is that either this is a new interrogation style, I really don’t look like a spy, to young (I hope) and a bit scruffy looking; I am just a novelty as not many tourists go to the places I go, or and my favourite, people are just nice.

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The rest of the day went really smoothly, fuelled with lots of food I flew down the road. I stopped at a small turn of where I met more Chinese holiday makers heading off the main road to an interesting spot 22km away. The picture showed an interesting geological landscape, I was asked if I was going there by a family’s seven year old son who spoke excellent English. We chatted for a bit and the parents seemed pleased that I was able to communicate with their son in English. As I set of they handed me a bottle of water and wished me well for my journey.

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I was loving being back in China, the ability to communicate makes such a difference, I wish I had worked harder on my Mongolian. My very limited Chinese was far superior to my Mongolian but it was enough to hold a short conversation. The day started drawing to a close, I passed through and industrial down full of smoke and smog and watched the sun set in a haze of wither dust of smoke. I turned all the lights on and pushed on keen to get to the town that was only 15km away.

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Blessed with a downhill I soon arrived in to a busy town by night. I decided it should probably get some more food here then continue out of town to camp. I ordered the same dish as the police had brought me for lunch and was invited to sit at a table by another guy. We chatted about my journey and more noodles kept appearing, free of charge I was told. I could not finish all my food, despite it being amazing. I bid my dinner companion farewell and paid the £1.50 for my meal. I wheeled down the road to a small shop to pick up some extra supplies. As I came out the shop I posed for a few photos with some intrigued dinners from the restaurant next door and started answering the usual questions. Where are you from, where are you going where have you come from, are you alone, where are you going to sleep. I explained that I had a tent and was going to cycle a few kms out of town to camp. One of the guys that I presumed ran the shop said it was to dangerous to cycle now as it was dark and there were lots of trucks about. I assured them I would be alright, I had lights on the bike and my reflective jacket. They did not seem convinced and suggested I could sleep at the back of the shop. I said that I did not have any money to give them, which was really a way of asking if they wanted money for me to stay. Now I don’t mind paying for accommodation but I like to do it on my terms and when I have the money to do so. At this time I had limited funds until I found a bank so all the cash I had was for food, a night in a hotel would mean that I would have no money for food. As I said this one of the girls in the group that was now surrounding me, put her hand in her pocket and presented me with 300 Yuan about £30. I was amazed and humbled at the same time, I could tell from the clothes that she was wearing that she was probably one of Chinas middle class, but still it was an amazing gesture. I then explained that I had money, just not here, as there was no bank and what I had was enough for food to get me to Urumqi not to stay in a hotel as well. The girl said it did not matter and that she wanted me to have the money. I thanked her again but said I was really OK. I told the group that I was happy camping. The guy that offered me a spot to put the tent out the back offered again, I asked how much, and he said nothing. Perfect, it was late and dark and the people were friendly. I was lead round the back of the bulging and rather than a spot to put the tent I was shown into a guest house room that contained three beds. It seemed this was a stop over for the truck drivers as there were lots of trucks out the back as well. I left my bike in the room and followed my new friends back into the restaurant that was actually part of the shop. I sat down at the table and started talking. A few minutes later I was asked if I was hungry, I assured them I was full and had just eaten. They did not seem to believe me as they kept asking me. A few minutes later a big plate of noodles meat and veg appeared as well as a side dish of green beans. I was a little embarrassed as I was really full, I had just had a massive meal. Everybody seemed happy that I ate a little and were not offended that I could not eat it all.

As the restaurant started to empty the music was turned up and I was asked if I wanted to dance. The restaurant and shop seemed to be part Chinese part Kazakh owned and the music sounded much more Indian or Pakistani than Chinese as well as the dance moves that were going on. I joined in with my arms out to the side as people clapped and cheered. After dancing there was singing and more talking at about 1am I finally turned in to my bed and fell asleep.

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The next day I felt good, I had had a shower the night before and felt relaxed with my new family. I was invited for breakfast and chatted some more. The girl that part owned the restaurant with her sister said ‘I wish you could stay today so we can talk some more, can you stay?’ I thought for a while and could not come up with a reason not to. We settled on a day of chatting and improving my Chinese and their English. I spent the first half of the morning with the daughter of one of the girls that owned the shop, until a wave of tiredness came over me. It had been a busy morning in the restaurant and not opportunity to talked. I decided to go for a little rest. Later the afternoon I spent some time chatting with the staff and helped them prepare some of the dried mushrooms they used in the food. We shared some more food and when business was done for the day I spent a few hours chatting with Simon one of the waiter in the restaurant who spoke pretty good English.

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After another good sleep I filled up my Thermos and had some more food. Bid my new friends goodbye and set off for Urumqi. Simon was a due a few days off over the weekend which was a few days away and he said he would go to Urumqi so we agreed to meet up for dinner there in a few days. I was keen to get a big day in, but I was a little unsure on the exact route into town. My large scale map did not show the minor road that Liz had suggested I take to save going on the busy highway that was marked on my map. I made good progress through the day and by mid afternoon I had done about 80km. There had been a bit of traffic but I had spoken to Liz and found where the other road was that I should take. I approached the junction and realised that the traffic was being caused by a big road building project and that the new junctions were not finished so the police were holding back traffic at different intervals. I asked the police about my route and they said I should take the main road not the minor one. I was happy with this it had a big hard shoulder so even though there was a lot more traffic and it was going faster there were two lanes for them and one for me. It made for good cycling and I was soon flying along. My progress was slowed occasionally by debris in my newly appointed cycle lane and then a puncture. Night was approaching so I fixed up the bike in record time and carried on. By 9pm the batteries on my head torch were starting to fade so I decided to call it a day. I took the next exit of the highway and found a good bush to sleep by. The area was too small for a tent but perfect for a bivi. I had another hot drink and some more food and tucked up in my bivi bag for the night. I was happy 130km over 7 hours my longest day on this trip by 8km.

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I woke at first light but there seemed little point in rushing there was no sign of life so I dozed for while before making coffee fixing another puncture that I had got pushing the bike over some scrub land to get to my bush. As I packed up a few people passed me on scooter and stopped for a chat, they did not not seem to mind me camping and thought that my trip was good. With a fresh tube on the back of the bike and a full belly I hit the road again. I was pretty sure I was going to make it now, I had lost two spokes on the back wheel and the hub was moving from side to side but it was only 50km to Urumqi. I rejoined the highway and was soon cruising happily at 20km an hour.

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By 2pm I was on the outskirts of town and looking for the road that Liz said I should take to get to the hostel that she was staying in. Liz had been busy doing some web work the last week but was on her way to meet me. We met half way between the highway and the hostel and cycled the last few kms together. We celebrated my arrival with a big meal and caught up on each others adventures over the last week. We were both happy to be back in China and glad that we had come here in the first place.

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Driving to the Border

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

With money in hand we were in a much better position, we asked the hotel staff where we could get get a van from.  We were pointed to the end of the main road.  We had been here the day before but Monday morning meant is was busy with people and the loud speaker was voicing a constant stream of announcements.  There is only a small public transport system in Mongolia that serves the centre of UB and the trains to Russia and China.  The rest is privately owned minivans, Russian jeeps or hitching.  Larger towns will have a place, usually by the main market, where you can describe your journey to a person in a small booth, they will announce your requirements over a tannoy and then you have to hope that someone is going your way. So we got our message across using Liz’s pictures she had drawn the day before.  A small group had started to gather around us anyway and we were ushered to different cars and people, hoping each time that we might get a ride.  Eventually we were sat in one van and started negotiating a price.

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Our issue was we had four days left on our visa or 14 if the exit visa gave you 10 days to leave the country.  We could not be sure and did not want to risk a hefty fine or problems at the border that has also only just opened to tourists.  The driver said he could take us and get us there in four days but the price was astronomical.  We called our friend Dash in UB to double check that we had everything right.  We did and Dash had also checked with a friend of his who confirmed the price was reasonable. The driver want fuel money not only for the trip there, but also to cover his costs for the way back – 1600km round trip.

It was a lot of money, but we decided to go for it.  We did not know the exact date for the visa. Hitching rides could take a lot longer and Liz had some work to do in the coming weeks.  This work relied on a good and fast internet connection, something that we had not had since leaving UB, so we needed to get to China.

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We went back to the hotel and loaded up the van with all our stuff, then had some food.  You never know how long something is going to take in Mongolia so its always good to embark on any journey with a full stomach and plenty of food for the journey. After lunch we got back into the van and in true Mongolian style we spent another hour driving around the town picking up parcels from different houses before setting off.

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We drove across more wild country with nothing but grass and the occasional animal, stopping at a few small towns on the way.  We arrived late at night to the city of Ulaistai, we did not really know what the plan was now, we told the driver we had camping stuff and hotels were expensive.  They asked if we minded sleeping in a Ger, not at all but how much would it cost?  We drove up to an apartment bloc, not a ger and were made welcome into a families home with tea and a place to sleep.  Quite confused, we chatted with our new hosts who turned out to be the mother of our driver.  She was very nice, with kind smiley eyes and made us feel very welcome. We were given food and then offered a place to sleep for the night, but not before game of chess with one of the children and some group  photos. We rolled our sleeping mats out on the floor and settled in for the night.  It seemed quite normal for some reason to be sharing a small room with our drivers mother and sister while Liz and I took the floor with our Thermarests.  The next morning we were woken at 8.30 am and had a light breakfast before saying goodbye to the mother of the house.  She was a kind smiley old lady whom we had felt at ease with.

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It was 10 am before we set off, we didn’t know it yet, but it was going to be a long day.  We left the city and the houses became less and then the gers became less until we were out in the open, as the day progressed it got colder and colder and there was snow all around us. The road varied between good  tracks and really bumpy intothe evening where we were driving at night negotiating boggy tracks where getting stuck would have been all too easy.  Our driver did a good job and we made it out the other side of the mud and back on to firmer ground.  It was now almost 1am and we were not sure where we were sleeping.  Eventually we pulled up to a ger in the middle of nowhere.  An old lady welcomed us in.  We laid our beds out in the ger and quickly got to sleep.

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The next morning we had tea and soup and were back on the road in record time. It was a crisp fresh morning and i was missing the bike.  I had really missed the bike over the last two days, the freedom of stopping on your terms and being in control were a far cry away from the van ride that i was not really enjoying.  Partly because i wanted to be outside  and not inside a metal box and also our driver.  We had not really connected with him, and there was a certain amount of wariness on his and our parts.  Normally spending a few days with someone you will bond, but here there was nothing.  I don’t think i really trusted him and i was also resentful for paying all this money.  The latter was a bit unfair as i had agreed on the price but we were paying for him to go back home as well which i felt was unreasonable because he could have easily filled his van with local traffic moving between towns.  I think a few bad experiences in the week before the van ride had really made me wary of people.   Still this was the last day of the van and i would be back on the bike soon enough.

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A few hours into the first day and we joined the tarmac road that comes from China.  It was built by the Chinese mining companies to provide good access to the mines in Mongolia.  The riches in Mongolia are being exported to China helping fuel its industrial development.  We stopped for some tea by the side of the road, we used the last of the water in our thermos for the driver, his wife and friend and us before the final push to the town of Bulgan. 

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We arrived there about 3pm and were surprises to find a large town with quite a lot of people shops and buildings.  We unloaded the van paid the rest of the money and the driver gave a short wave before heading off.  There was no emotial goodbye or farewell this was a transaction that had now ended and i think we were both glad. We got some food and cycled out of town on the road to the border.  We found a quiet spot to check email and move some money into our current account so that we could get some cash out in China.  While we were doing this a large group of kids came by interested in what we were doing, they had been fruit picking and offered us some of the fruit.  They were excited and full of energy which was a pleasant change from how i had felt over the last few days.  We accepted their gift and they told us we could get some more not far from here. 

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We packed up the laptop and set off a few more kms up the road and towards China to find a place for our last nights camping in Mongolia.  We found a good spot off the main road, well hidden and Liz cooked up the last of our food.  We reflected on Mongolia and our time here in general.  I was a little sad but Liz reminded me to think of all the good things that had happened too. The time that we spent in UB, where we made some really good friends and met a lot of lovely people will stay with me forever and i hope that some of those friendships will continue to grow. Outside of UB though  I  had found interacting with people in the countryside to be hard.   They were either super friendly, excited to see you and welcoming;  drunk;  trying to steal something from you, or asking to have something of yours or your money; or indifferent to your presence.  On top of this our basic Mongolian was not enough.  I think that having a better grasp of the language or travelling with a person that spoke Mongolian and English would have made things more enjoyable and interesting 

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I also realise that i could have been just unlucky, we have met people that have hated countries that we have loved because they had bad or negative experiences there, a lot sometimes comes down to chance.  I still like Mongolia and i want to come back so don’t let me put you off, just be aware of some of the annoyances here as there are in any country in the world.  I have already thought of a short expedition here for the future.  It is quite a challenge and will probably be almost some of the hardest things i will ever do.

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So with the reflections over we switched off our headtorches and had our last night in Mongolia, fee again. 

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Broke in Mongolia

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

2011-09-22 003 (600x338)Having arrived at the ger camp in Jargalant, our luck began to change and the man running the place was really nice. We had a cosy ger for a cheap price and even better they had a hot pool, which would be great for our muscles.

The next day we were trying to decide what to do next, our Mongolian visa was running out in a few days and we were 800km from the border. Our plan was to cycle to Tosontsengel 90km away and arrange a van or jeep to take us the rest of he way to the border. However the man here seemed to be saying he could drive us to the next town Ik Uul for free to help us out. We asked him if he could take us to Tosontsengel (we’d pay). He didn’t want to do that but was happy to go to the next town. So we said yes. First though we needed to go to the bank in town and change our last few dollars into Tugrik as we had none left, and said we would meet him by the bank. Unfortunately the bank wouldn’t change dollars, maybe the next town…  We weren’t able to buy any food, but hoped that the next own might be better. We waited around for ages for the guy and eventually he turned up, but had a flat tyre that he needed to get fixed first. He told us to cycle on and he would catch us up. We went a few kms and then stopped to wait. And wait, and wait. It got to about 2pm and we both felt a little frustrated, we’d left the camp at 10am and gone nowhere, we would be half way there if we’d cycled. This is often the case in Mongolia – people offer to help you and then you wait around for an age, wishing that you’d just gone and done it on your own. So we sat there with no food, no money, waiting for a man or may or may not turn up!

A jeep pulled up and a Korean guy called Solomon got out, he was really nice and spoke great English. We explained that we were waiting and he sat with us a for a little bit chatting. We also asked him about ATMs and banks, explaining our predicament over having no cash. He very kindly offered to exchange our dollars, giving us some tugriks. This was a big relief as neither of us liked being in a situation where we had no money, especially when we didn’t know when we’d be able to get some.

Not long after our friend turned up in a different car, a shiny 4×4. WE quickly unloaded the bikes and got ready to out them in. The man was saying something and shaking his head… he seemed to be saying there wasn’t room for both bikes and one of us would have to cycle. We tried not to roll our eyes. Having waited all this time, the idea that one of us would now cycle was a bit ridiculous. Chris took charge and quickly convinced the guy that both bikes would fit. In the end they did and we set off. After about 25km of bumpy roads and river crossings we stopped and pulled up near a couple of gers. There were lots of people here and there seemed to be something going on. The man told us that we would get out here and cycle the rest of the way to the town, about 15km. Right. We didn’t want to be ungrateful for is help, but were a bit puzzled as to why he wasn’t going all the way – we could have cycled 25km?! But we didn’t have time to worry about it as we were soon surrounded by a large group of friendly children, and lots of photos were taken. Everyone was very nice and the man who brought us was very proud that he had brought us to meet everyone and was telling them about our trip.

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We hadn’t eaten anything and it was about 4.30pm, so we went over to one ger to see if we could buy a meal. We managed to ask for Tsiuvan and the lady agreed.

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Cooking this from scratch turned out to be yet another long wait for us, so we spent time playing with her little girl…

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watching the children practice on their horse fiddles…

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Then we got talking to the other people and we realised that there was a small wrestling festival going on, the kids were there to play.

Some of the men had a go on my bike…

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and we showed them the map with 20 people crowding round us. Mongolians really like seeing maps of their country, they are a bit of a novelty as most people navigate by the rivers, mountains and dirt tracks.

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Eventually our food was ready and we sat down to eat. Lots of people came into the ger for tea while we were eating and one family invited us to stay at their house/ger in Ik Uul. However it was late now and we planned to cycle a few km down the road and camp – it was a bit too far to the next town, and despite not having cycled anywhere that day we were both a bit exhausted, mentally after the day we’d had. So we said thank you but no and then left to waves and goodbyes.

We camped up the road, on a hill side and both agreed that we much prefer being master of our own destiny rather than at the mercy of others! Despite that the man had been very kind and helpful and we got to meet a whole group of lovely people that afternoon.

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The next day we cycled to the town, an easy ride along a lovely river with interesting rock formations and a good road. We would have a meal here and then carry on to Tosontsengel, 45km away. As we arrived into town, a scooter pulled up alongside us and we saw that it was a man and his wife from yesterday. They had been particularly friendly and were the ones who had offered us a place to stay. They now asked us if we wanted some food. We did, and not wanting to say no twice, we took them up on their offer. We then spent 3 hours with them having a lovely lunch, looking at family photos and we showed them photos on our laptop.

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They were extremely nice and it was a very genuine encounter with a Mongolian family. They made traditional dels and boots, so we tried on a couple of shirts when they asked. They lived next door to the temple and we understood that his father had been a llama /monk here. He took us to have a look around…

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Finally we said goodbye and got back on the road.

The road into town had been great, but it took a turn for the worse now and was sandy, rocky, bumpy and really hard to cycle on. It was hard going and after 10km we both decided to stop – we weren’t going to reach the next town today anyway. We found a great camp site by the river and sat down to relax.

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It wasn’t long before we were invaded by sheep and goats, who looked quite put out! Goats eat anything so we kept a close eye on them as the bolder ones got close to all our gear!

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In the morning, I poked my head out the tent door to a welcome sight, it’s not always you can wake up to such a nice view.

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Next day we reached Tosontsengel on a sandy road that made us feel like we were back in the desert.

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Reaching town was a relief and we headed straight towards the centre hoping to find a bank or ATM. The banks were closed but there was an ATM hurray! But, ‘computer says no’ the ATM didn’t want to give us any money, or anyone else either. It was either empty or broken. Great now what? We realised it was Saturday and that everything would be closed tomorrow, so we would need to wait until Monday. I was fighting back the tears. I don’t know why, but getting here was a milestone and I was hoping to get money out, stay in a hotel, charge our laptops, have a nice meal and then find a jeep. We had a little bit of money but not enough for a hotel. Chris suggested we cycle out of town and camp, then come back on Monday I wasn’t very impressed by that to be honest. We asked about getting a jeep or van to Ulaistai (200km south) and got a few shrugs and try the edge of town waves. This was not looking good.

I went into the hotel to see how much it was and then called our friend Dash in UB. I explained that we couldn’t get any money until Monday and asked if the hotel would let us stay and pay on Monday They agreed and said no problem. Phew. They were really nice at the hotel and helped us with our bags, made the beds nicely for us and brought us hot water. So long as we could get money on Monday we would be ok.

Immediately cheered up,we had a hot meal, which was really good and filling and with power for the laptops we kept busy all day Sunday. I managed to draw our route and a picture of a truck, plus us and two bikes so that we could find out about a jeep or van come Monday First though we went to the ATM. It was still not working!!!! So we went to the bank hoping we could withdraw money using our bank cards. After a tense 15 minutes and a lot of huffing from the queue of people behind us, we were finally handed some money!

All we had to do now was find a jeep and get to the border before our visas expired in 4 days time!!

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