Posts Tagged ‘kindness’


Krakow to Auschwitz

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

This blog contains details and pictures related to Auschwitz, it might not be suitable for some people or children.  If you are under 14 please get your parent, guardian or teacher to read this first to make sure they are happy for you to read and watch.

Having had a good rest over new year I was ready to get going again.  Leaving Krakow I made the silly mistake of not mapping a good route out of town.  I find that cities tend to act as a giant maze and without a detailed map, ending up on the wrong road is easy.  My large scale map was next to useless and the road signs were not helping either.  I stopped by a junction and leaned the bike against a post to try and get my bearings.  A women came up to me and started talking, feeling rather sheepish, at my lack of comprehension, I managed to explain that i did not speak any Ukrainian, she did not speak any English.  Still, I managed to ask her if this road was the way I wanted to go.  She conveyed that she did not know but pointed to a small fast food stand.  She said that she would mind my bike, I trusted her.  The girl at the fast food stand spoke great English and assured me that this was the right way keep going turn right at the next crossroads, then keep going,  great. I returned to the smiling woman who was looking after my bike.  She delved into one of her shopping bags and brought out a large piece of flat bread with a crushed apple topping, sort of like an apple pie pizza.  I thanked her for the wonderful gift and she smiled and waved me goodbye.  A few hours later and it was getting dark, I was on the right road now for sure, the road signs were matching up things were good.  The hard part was over, leaving the warm cosy hostel and the maze of city streets.  I found a small woodland and set up camp.

The next day was spent wondering why all the shops were closed, it turned out the 6th is Epiphany and a public holiday, it is a continues to amaze me how little I know.  Fortunately I had plenty of food so all I had to do was get to the town of Oswiecim for a visit to Auschwitz. Here are the remains of one of the Nazi death camps from the second world war.  There are plenty of intact buildings now serving as Museums, as well as the remains of other buildings that were destroyed.

The death camps had one purpose: to kill people, mainly Jews.  It is hard to describe a visit to a place like this, it’s not like going to a Museum where you can come out and say ‘wow that was great, I really enjoyed that’.  The mood of the group that I toured with was sombre throughout and I left with a strange feeling.  Despite this, it is worth visiting, just to know that this happened,  the museum severs to educate people as to what happened so that we will never forget. Over 1.3 million people were killed here whilst the death camp was operational.

My words will not do this any justice but I hope that these pictures try to.

More information can be found with the links below, there is a camping site 700m from Auschwitz, follow the signs from the Auschwitz Museum car park.  It is only open during the summer, i found a free camping spot nearby.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auschwitz_concentration_camp

http://en.auschwitz.org/m/

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L’viv Ukraine to Krakow Poland – Rambling thought from solo Cycling

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

I gave my last wave to Liz as she passed through the small airports security check point.  Outside it was still dark and cold, the taxi driver was still waiting thankfully, he flashed the cars headlights and I got in for the short journey back to the hostel.  The street lights flashed passed me and my memory drifted back to last winter.  Whilst a winter ride back through Europe would be a whole lot easier than cycling over snowed covered mountain passes in China,  I still needed to prepare myself for being alone.  Last winter I had not really registered just how accustomed to living with another person 24/7 I had become and was surprised when I struggled more with the mental challenges of self-motivation and isolation than the physical challenges of cycling over 4000m peaks.

I spent a few days at the hostel in L’viv sorting out some equipment problems, I waved goodbye to a friend and set off for another adventure.  There has been a lot of discussion this year in my internet world about adventure.  What is it, why do we do it?  I hope that in one of the next blog posts I will be able to summarise some of my thoughts on this.  There is a box below this blog post where you can sign up for email updates or an RSS feed of the blog if you don’t want to miss anything.

Cycling out of L’viv was quite easy, there was one main road to follow, however I stopped to check the map a lot just to make sure.  Liz usually does most of the navigation so I was adjusting to trusting my own skills again, to get me home.  The further away from the city I got, the easier it became and I was soon following road signs to the border town that would lead me to Poland.  Despite the grey day and constant light snow I felt good about things,I was looking forward to following weeks, and kept reminding myself that this feeling of loneliness was temporary. In a week or so I would be used to being on my own again.

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I set up camp in a snow covered forest just before last night.  I contemplated what Liz would make of this and whether she would be enjoying it.  She would like the enchanting forest but not the cold, which I seem to have a higher tolerance of, allowing me to continue to enjoying travelling in the winter.

The next morning it was dry and crisp, my thoughts drifted from topic to topic, and my mind slowly started to  adjust to being alone.  I stopped at a roadside rest stop to have lunch, my daydreaming was interrupted by the phone.  Liz was calling, it was a welcomed interruption, just to hear everyday news from friends and family.  After lunch I cycle the last few kms to the border, changed the last of my Ukrainian money into Polish money and started the process of crossing the line that divided one country from the next.  I was directed to the non-vehical crossing, the grumpy man in the small box flicked through the passport looking for the relevant stamp and then handed back the passport.  I tried to appeal to any sense of empathy he might have by trying to push my heavily loaded bike thought the turnpike.  Hoping that there was a side door that could be opened.  Instead he motioned for me to lift the bike over.  I gave a half smile, half shrug and got the same response.  I started the laborious task of unloading the bike and transporting each bag across.  Reloaded and pushing to the next hurdle I mentally kicked myself, don’t get grumpy, smile and be patient. Luckily the Polish side was slightly more convenient with a large door for wheelchairs and bikes.  After a slow 5 minutes I realised the buzzer to open the door really did not work and that I would have to knock on the door. Loud enough so they could hear, but not so loud so as to give reason for the rather stern looking customs officer to make my life difficult.   Eventually I handed my passport to the last person, a friendly looking Polish lady that welcomed me to her country.  Free again, I navigated my way to the main road and started to pedal.

If I was being honest to myself I would have recognised Ii was on an emotional roller coaster dealing with a new country, the challenge of communicating, finding maps, food and water as well as adjusting to being alone and the fact that the trip was coming to an end. I also was trying to make sense of all of the experiences from the last two years and work out what I was going to do when Ii got home.

As the day drew to a close I was energised by the smiles from the petrol station attendants and that I was living my dream.  I pulled of the main road and lay down my sleeping mat and bivi bag down.  Tonight I would sleep under the stars.

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I woke the next morning happy that I had slept, thankful that I had not been disturbed in the night and most of all that Ii had been warm.  In the light of day, the road was much more enjoyable and I slowly got into the cycling zone.  Sometime after lunch it occurred to me that the next day was Christmas and I really ought to get some food for the next few days as the shops would probably be closed.  I poked my head into a building that looked like a supermarket and was greeted by sight of a colourful array of fruit and vegetables.  I wrapped the lock around the rear wheal and trailer, took off the two bags that contained my most valuable items and trusted the world not to steal the rest. I entered a new world, a small Polish supermarket.  I drifted up and down the isles looking at new and familiar items, and left with an rather exciting stash of food that would easily see me through the next three days.

I peddled on, back in my own world and as the daylight started to fade I knew that at the top of the next hill I would need to start looking for a place to camp. As I crested the summit, a car with hazard lights on and a man beside it were waiting for me.  He flagged me down and with a big smile he told me in broken English that his house was 1km away and I would be a welcomed guest.  I accepted his offer and was soon taking off layers of clothes and being introduced to Adam’s wife and three children.  Two of whom were at university and one had recently graduated and started working.  One of them spoke excellent English and were were soon chatting away.

It was Christmas Eve and my understanding was that in Poland the meal this evening was just as important as an English Christmas day dinner. It is tradition that one extra place is always laid at the table for the unexpected guest or passing traveller.  Today I was that person.  It took me a while to adjust to being sociable again.  I had hardly spoken to anyone over the last few days, but I was made to feel very welcome and soon started to relax.

Before dinner, prayers were said and then we tucked into my first Polish meal.  It was completely different to England, except that there was lots of food.  We started with fish and moved on to soup with some type of dumplings, potatoes and a dish that literally translated means pigeon, although it was a rice based dish wrapped in what I think was a flour tortilla.  Everything was delicious and all homemade from scratch with pride.  After dessert came presents and singing. Adam handed out presents to each member of his family, including the two grandmothers that were also at the table and  had entertained me with their smattering of English words and stories that had to be translated.  I was handed a large box of very posh chocolates.  I don’t think anybody but Liz will realise how amazing this was, I love chocolate!

I was asked if I was religious and if I would like to attend midnight mass.  Despite not partaking any form of religio,n I am very interested in it and welcomed the opportunity to experience a Polish mass.  After dinner I was left to rest.  It was about 7pm and I did not realise how tired I was, within minutes I was asleep and I awoke briefly as the family were about to depart for mass.  I felt rather guilty but decided I was rather tired and sleep would be much more preferable.  Adam seemed to understand and smiled again as he left me to sleep.

I woke up on Christmas day feeling refreshed, I was keen to cycle.  I was more than welcome to stay for Christmas day but I had a very strong urge to know what it would feel like to cycle on this day.  I had said that I would only like to stay one night when I arrived.  I was also keen to try to get to Germany for New Year to meet some friends and my goddaughter for the first time.  As I packed my things Adam and his wife woke and breakfast was prepared for me.  Adam used the computer to help us translate each others languages as Ii filled up on bread, meat and coffee.  Half way through breakfast I was hit by a wave of emotion as I grasped the magnitude of this situation.  I, a stranger had been invited into this family and treated as one of them. I fought back the tears.  I was given a huge chocolate cake and made my way downstairs to the garage.  I packed the bike and was given water and some cola for the journey.  Adam even tried to give me one his bicycle seats to replace mine which is falling apart.  I tried to explain that while it was falling apart it was quite well moulded to my bottom and Ii was quite happy.

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I took a picture with Adam and waved goodbye and said thank you for the last time before setting off without looking back.  I had read another cyclist’s book before this trip, he described a similar breakfast scene where he was unable to fight back the tears until he was alone on the bike.  At the time I though he was a bit of a woose, men don’t cry, but now I get it.  For me it was not this one breakfast that made me cry.  It was as if the kindness shown to me by every person that I had met on this trip had been wrapped up into a small package placed inside me and suddenly exploded.

Christmas day, I mused as I cycled on.  What was the significance to me and why did I want to cycle rather than be with people.  The day continued as many other days do, cycling, eating cycling, eating and so on. Perhaps it was the rain perhaps I missed my family or the company of others. Either way it was not my best day cycling but I am still glad I did it, just to know what it felt like.

After a detour though a small town due to the main road not allowing bikes I found a small woodland that would serve as a home for the night.  I sent an email to my family had my dinner and went to bed.

I convinced myself that i was hidden enough to risk having a lie in. Last nights consultation of the map told me that i would have to cycle about 110km a day for seven days to reach Germany in time to see my friends, unlikely.  I had breakfast, gave the bike a clean and found the main road i had left the day before.  After only 10km i stopped to use the loo at the petrol station and found the golden arches were next door with free wifi and tempting cheeseburgers.  I indulged in both and managed to have a brief chat on Skype with my Mum and Liz, by the time i was done it was dark again.  I cycle through the nearby town looking for a cheap motel.  I passed a sign for an expensive looking hotel but the thought of lugging wet muddy bags up stairs and worrying about getting cream coloured carpets dirty was far less appealing than the plot of land by the petrol station that would conceal a tent for the night.

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Cycling into a town at lunch time the next day to find some gas for the stove i reflected on the last few days.  I was tired, mentally and physically but also tired of travelling.  I have always seen myself as a traveller, a nomad not attached to one house or country. At 25 I could not imagine ever not wanting to travel but here I was 5 years later wanting something different.  I had changed and it was scary.  I also realised i was being a little hard on myself, wanting to have a shower or a hot meal in a restaurant, setting myself unrealistic daily targets on the distance i should cover.  There was no doubt in my mind that i wanted to cycle the last weeks back to England, it would feel strange to finish this journey any other way. But i needed to relax, go with the flow and enjoy it.

One the way out of town i met a local girl on her bike, she invited me back to her house for a cup of tea and cake.  She was so excited to meet another cyclist and she had plans to do some touring in the future.  She has lots of energy and i left her house with a smile her energy and kindness having rubbed off on me.  A short way out of town i found a great place to camp by a river and set up home for the night again.

I was slowly starting to feel normal or balanced again.  The freedom to camp by a river near a big town, the time i would spend on my own, the acceptance that this adventure was coming to an end and there were other types of adventures waiting for me.

The next day i took my time packing up, enjoyed my coffee, savoured the bread and honey and decided that the van that had driven past me did not care i had camped by the river. The weather was clear and the road was smooth.  I entered the zone and cycled until lunch with only a few stops for snacks.  I sat in a nice bus stop for lunch, i felt energised, strong happy.  I smiled at the people in the slow moving cars as they past me.  Some stared in confusion, others waved some smiled, but the majority of people seemed pleased to have seen me.

I drew closer to the Polish city of Krakow, my goal for the day.  I had decided to spend New Year here, have some fun, make some friends go dancing. There was still a few days till new Year and the woodland to my left looked like a good home for the night.  Why push on into the night. Wait until tomorrow, you will get to see the city it will be a lot easier.  I pulled off into the forest and cycled around the trails until i found a suitable spot for the tent, my home home for the night.

It had been a good day, and the stars shone brightly though the trees that night.

By mid morning the next day i was cycling the last few kms into town.  I arrived at the hostel, ready for a break, a bed and a shower.  It had been an interesting week a small journey of self discovery with big highs and lows.  This phase of my life, this journey, was drawing to a close and i needed to appreciate all that has happened, learn from my experiences, look forward to the future and not to forget to enjoy the last weeks of this incredible adventure.

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China Khorgas to Kazakhstan

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

We checked out of the reasonably priced hotel in Qinguancun that we had found the day before and pointed our bikes towards Kazakhstan. It was only 30km but it was cold and raining, we had our waterproofs on for the first time in ages. As we rode I contemplated our last day in China, a country that had surprised both of us from the start. We had quickly fallen in love with the country and the people, and the cycling and travelling potential here is almost endless. For me, China is one of my favourite countries that I have cycled and travelled in and I look forward to having more adventures here in the future.

We arrived at the border a little after lunch and once we found the right gate to go through and fended off the rather keen money changers we said our last goodbye to China. The process was quite straight forward and we were soon cycling into Kazakhstan. We were met by our first Kazakh official who after a few seconds broke a smile and pointed us in the right direction. We took our bikes into the main passenger area, filled out our entry cards, got the passports stamped and managed to wheel the bikes through without unloading them and having everything scanned by the x-ray machine.

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A new country, a new language and everything was unfamiliar once again. It still amazes me that you can travel only a few kms and feel totally different. It leaves me feeling a little lost and and excited at the same time. I try and remind myself that a little effort, learning the language now from the start will go a long way in the future.

The town we had arrived into was a little sparse to say the least, compared the Chinese side. We were hoping for somewhere to stay but there was one small shop, a cash machine and a small kiosk to by mobile sim cards. We got some cash and cycled on debating about what to do. It was a little late into the day to get to Zharkent, the next major town 30km but perhaps there was more further on. We kept cycling, Liz was cold from all the stopping and starting in the rain so we kept moving. There were plenty of camping opportunities and we had pretty much decided that we were going to camp when we rounded a bend and got to another check point. We passed through without incident, just beyond was a petrol station and a large square building that we hoped might have somewhere to sleep or eat at least.

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An hour later having made friends with a few people who could speak English and help translate, my Chinese was no good here, we were sat in front of two plates of hot chicken and big hunks of bread. As we ate we debated about what to do next, camp in the cold and the wet, or stay in the ridiculously expensive hotel above the restaurant. The lure of a dry warm place was to much for Liz so we checked into the hotel stripped of the wet clothes and enjoyed a hot shower.

The next day the sun was shining and things were looking a lot nicer, we had eggs and bread for breakfast and cycled the 30kms to Zarkhent were there would be internet, shops, people and we could get sorted for the 300km ride to Almaty.

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The ride was pretty easy we passed through a few small villages on the way there and were thankful for our mirrors as old ashfelt road was a little bumpy at the edges so cycling Mongolian style in the middle of the road was much more preferable when the cars and trucks allowed.

Zharkent is a small town but it had everything we needed. A friendly English student helped us find a cheap hotel and we sat down to make a plan for the rest of the day. Firstly we needed more money, things were a lot more expensive compared to China. We found the ATM, internet cafe and market and celebrated with a kebab and a few shots of vodka courtesy of the guys that were at the same kebab stand as us.

The next day we got up early and hoped to get a good start, a puncture on my bike and then a problem with the hub dashed our plans. We also remembered that on the back of our arrival cards it said that we had to register within 5 days of arrival. By the time the bike was fixed up we were hungry again so opted for some food before checking the internet to see if the 5 days were more of a guide line than a rule. We cycled to the centre of the town and struggled to find a place to eat. It seemed that every place was closed for a wedding or private party. We were just about to give up but the last restaurant we tried happened to have an English speaking employee who pointed us in the direction of a good restaurant that he assured us would be open. Just as we were about to set off we were asked to wait a moment. The young guy came back and presented us with two large bottles of coke. A gift from our village he said. We thanked him a lot and waved goodbye. We arrived at the other restaurant that we were amazed we had missed and were greeted by a guy who spoke good English. We have been expecting you he said, please come and sit down and we can help you order some food. The guy that had just given us the coke had phoned ahead to the other restaurant.

We made friends with the restaurant owner and had a good meal, as we were leaving we asked if they knew if we could register in this town. It turned out the restaurant owner was not from Kazakhstan but Uzbekistan, he said that we really had to register in 5 days and that the nearest place was in Almaty. We were already on day two in the country and it would take us at least 5 days to cycle to Almaty. We pondered the dilema, cycle and hope that they don’t really care but risk a fine or some other problems, or work out a way to get to Almaty. The latter was not really an appealing option as this was going to be our only cycling in Kazakhstan. We had decide to take a plane to Kiev after Almaty as it was the cheapest way to make up some distance. Not travelling by bike was something I always wanted to avoid but we have to be back in England at the end of January latest. We decided to spend more time in Mongolia but the trade off for this was having to take a train or plane for some of the next part of the journey. I was also keen to get to know the country a little bit better as after only two days, the friendly people were making me feel relaxed and keen to explore.

The owner of the restaurant then told us he was going to Almaty later that day as he was flying home for his brothers wedding, he reckoned that there might be room for us and our bikes in his car, if we would be interested. With the fear of a big fine and no other information we gratefully accepted his offer and a few hours later we were on the way to Almaty.

It got dark quickly, mid way we stop at the small mountain pass that was covered in snow and apparently not far from a beautiful canyon. I wished I had done a little more research about this route and country before had so that we might have had enough time to cycle.

We arrived in Almaty at 11pm and our new friends found us a place to stay. Hotels are really expensive here and renting an 1 bed apartment is actually a cheaper option. We paid up for two nights and hoped that our warm showers host would be able to accommodate us a few day earlier.  We said goodbye to our new friends and settled in for the night

The next day we walked out of the apartment block on to a main road, we had no idea where we were. This didn’t seem to bother us at all, and it was easy enough to find a shop selling a map and then navigate our way to the immigration office to complete our registration. We found the immigration office and started to fill in the forms until we got to address. We had no idea of the full address of where we were staying, we tried just putting the street address down but they did not like it. We opted to go home and come back the next day.

That evening we got in touch with our warms showers host, he was happy to host us from tomorrow and gave us his address for our forms. The next day we submitted our forms in the morning and by lunch time we were cycling to the other side of town to find Taz our warm showers host.

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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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Cycling the QuerPass, Maniganga and Kanga

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

The next morning I woke up and I still had my arms and legs, and the food was still in the tent porch. I had not slept well but I had slept warm despite the sub zero temperatures and the frozen water I was melting to make breakfast with. The weather outside the tent did not look that nice, There was a storm at the top of the valley and it was coming my way. I opted to stay in the tent and see what would happen.

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When I left Dege I was told that this mountain pass called QueEr was covered in snow and I would not be able cycle over it. Fortunately there was no snow and despite the higher altitude it seemed easier going, as the climbs were gentle and the road pretty good. The snow passed over and left a light dusting on the ground so I packed up and set off. I was feeling remarkably good about things, despite the bad night. I think knowing that I was going to make it to the top was a good feeling. It only looked like there were three more bends to go but the driver who had offered me a lift the day before had said that the road bent around and that what I could see was not the summit.

Near the top cycling QueEr pass

The first few hours went really well and I made it to the last visible bend from the road below and started to disappear around the back of the peak I had camped under. I stopped for short break and had a brief encounter with a couple on a bike and a police man in his car. I continued round the corner and saw that there was two or three very long bends to go. I got to the end of the first one and had a quick lunch, the weather was too good to stop, if I took a long lunch I might end up getting caught out in the snow and having to push to the top again. Fortunately the weather held out and I got to the last bend, negotiated a pack of dogs that seemed to be protecting an abandoned building and rode up the last bend.

The summit QueEr pass

I was ecstatic, 5050m the QueEr Pass, the highest point so far on the trip and all by bike this time, no pushing.

The cyclist on the summit of QueEr pass Sichuan, China

The top was a little narrow and there seemed to be a reasonable amount of traffic. I managed to get some summit photos and then pointed the bike downhill. As I started to descend I saw a line of traffic coming up the hill, only it was stationary.

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There was patches of snow and ice on this side of the mountain so I was having to take things slowly. Eventually I reached the vehicles that were stuck. A few of the trucks were struggling to get past a particularly icy section. I weaved my way in and out the trucks and cars, turned another bend and found myself on an ice free bumpy road. I let the brakes go and zoomed down the hill as fast as I dared. Half way down I spotted a tent in the valley.

Like minded travellers

I paused to see who it was. Rather than another cyclist is was some Chinese or Tibetans people who were camping out. They had a small cart with them, so were probably walking to Lhasa, a pilgrimage some hardy Tibetans will make from their home town. I continued to bounce down the hill until I met an old lady who was rounding up her cattle.

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I was due another break so stopped and offered to share some food with her. She seemed reluctant at first but then took an orange from the pile of food I had put between us. She did not say much and it was a strange interaction, but I felt nice to be in a position to be able to share. I was certain I would make it to Maniganga today and I would be able to resupply on food there. I waved goodbye to the lady and carried on, I passed a couple who were walking to Lhasa but praying all the way there.

On a pilgrimage

This involves walking three paces kneeling down putting hour hands on the floor so you’ree sliding your hands forward until you are lying down. Then you bring your knees to your hands, stand up, walk three paces then do it all over again. Most people wear a leather aprons and have blocks of wood attached to their hand. I thought cycling was hard, but this is extreme. Next I passed a very young couple who asked for a lift into town, I tried to explain the bike was heavy enough as it was, but they seemed disappointed. I wished them well pointed the bike down hill again. An hour later I arrived into a small town. Maniganga.

Maniganga was small, with one main street and not much else, but the people were friendly enough. I checked into what seemed to be the only hotel hoping for a shower. Unfortunately the water was all off due to frozen pipes, so no toilet or shower. The toilets were across the road behind another building, but you had to go before 10pm otherwise the dogs would get you. Despite all this I had a nice room and there was a restaurant attached to the hotel, I was very hungry and surprised the staff by polishing of four bowls of rice as well as my meat dish. I chatted with the owner of the hotel for a while who had a great money collection of international currency. I donated some English coins I still had and then retired to bed. It was Tibetan New Years Eve, but for me it was time to sleep.

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The next day I had a relaxing morning and was invited to the hotel owners family house for tea and meat. They had a nice house a short ride from the hostel and I did my best to communicate with his parents whilst chopping bits of meat from the hunk and sipping tea.

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By midday it was time to start moving again, so I loaded up the bike once more, pointed the bike north and started cycling. The road although unsealed was pretty good and progress went well, I found a great camp spot by a river and had a peaceful night. The family I had had meat and tea with had assured me that there were no bears in this area and I would be perfectly safe.

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I woke up to a light dusting of snow and slowly started to pack up, the day progressed with good roads and a mixture of snow, sleet and ice. It was quite cold but as long as I kept cycling I was happy. The good road climbed short hills and made for good progress. I was certain of making it to Ganze, a big town were there was sure to be water and comfy bed to sleep in.

Snow bike imprint

Early afternoon I was cycling along in my own world, as light snow fell from the sky and melted on my waterproof jacket, when a motorbike pulled up along side me. The woman on the back started speaking fluent English but with an Indian accent. We continued moving and cycling, well they were motoring and chatting. It turned out her village was a few kms away, she lived in India now but was back visiting family. We stopped at the village shop for tea and I was invited to the village. The woman reckoned she could find me a place to stay for the night and asked if I was free tomorrow, she and others in the village were walking up the local holy mountain for Tibetan New Year and then there was horse racing in the afternoon. It is a travellers dream to be invited to do all this, so I followed her up the side road that lead to a large cluster of houses, that was her village.

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