China part #1 – the first thousand miles

Leaving Almaty after our last blog was very tough – we’d got way too comfy during our week relaxing there, enjoying an amazing house, proper food, and a western-style city. The prospect of dusting off the bikes and tents for a 3 month stint across China was not too appealing, to say the least. We did eventually manage it (I promise we’re not secretly blogging from Almaty), and knocked off the 250 miles that remained before the Chinese border.

Sometimes border crossings mean an instant change of landscape and culture, sometimes the change is more gradual. The crossing to China from Kazakhstan felt like the former and the two border towns prove the point. ‘Khorgos’, on the Kazakh side, seemed a typical Kazak village. Potholed roads, bare-shelved village shops, surrounded by open green land for sheep and cows to graze. Getting into Kazakh customs control was a pushing and shoving match with about 50 other people. On the Chinese side, ‘Khorgas’ had high-rise buildings, a perfectly smooth highway, shops bursting with weird and wonderful food and drink (shrink-wrapped hardboiled egg anyone?) and was surrounded by intensively cultivated fields. Before entering Chinese customs control we were made to stand in a line by a uniformed officer, like school children.

We’re currently about 1,000 miles into China and the landscape has changed dramatically already within the country – we’ve cycled up/through/past mountains, deserts, switchback climbs, frozen lakes and sweltering oasis towns. We’d expected West China to be the emptiest stretch of our journey so far, but the first 600 miles were reasonable busy: a mixture of large developed cities (with hotels, supermarkets and department stores) and small truck-stop villages (full of dirty roadside cafes and no running water). Toddlers run free in the road with clever/insane trousers that have a massive split around the arse. No need for nappies – if they need the loo they just squat on the street, the split magically opens and away they go. I’m considering getting Bex a pair to help speed things along.

China has been completely different to anywhere else we’ve been. Food, mannerisms, language – it’s all very bizarre to us. Sign posts are written in Chinese characters, as expected, but helpfully they’ve also included Farsi for those that can’t read Chinese. The most common food appears to be noodles from little cafes, and unless you request otherwise, is served with 4 to 5 whole chillies chopped up and mixed in. The other day in a cafe we saw someone munching on a raw onion as if it were an apple, whilst chatting to his mate who was popping garlic cloves into his mouth as if they were sweets.

General western manners are irrelevant in the truck-stop cafes of rural China. Spitting is the norm, whether it’s on the streets or on the floor inside cafes and restaurants. Chopsticks are used to eat every meal, and I’d assumed that the locals would have some seriously slick chopstick skills. However the standard technique is to lower mouth to within an inch of bowl, stab chopsticks into noodles, lever one end of a massive bundle of noodles into mouth, then suck & slurp the remainder of the bundle up into your mouth as loudly as possible. It has to be seen to be believed!

Urumqi is the largest city in Xinjiang, and is the most remote city from any sea in the world. It felt huge as we cycled in, neon lights and people everywhere, much like I’d imagined a large Chinese city to be like. Urumqi lies at 800 metres above sea level and our next stop was Turpan, just 120 miles away but 150 metres below sea level. We anticipated a glorious day of freewheeling but unfortunately the wind had other ideas and blew strongly in our faces for the full two days that it took to get there. Devastating.

When we did eventually descend into the Turpan basin the heat rose noticeably – Turpan is officially the hottest place in China with a face-melting record temperature of 49 degrees Celsius. Fortunately it was only a balmy 36 degrees when we were there, although that’s still much too hot for me. We spent a day in this old town on the Silk Road’s northern route eating fruit and nuts (the region is famous for grapes and raisins). The old bazar was suitably smelly complete with the usual horrors of the meat section.

After leaving Turpan the farmland and towns gave way to desert. There’s only one road to take if you want to travel to the east and it’s extremely bleak: to the north lies emptiness and the southern edge of the Gobi desert, whilst to the south lies more emptiness and the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert. This is the first time that we’ve really had to be careful how much water we’re carrying. It’s usually about 200 miles (3 or 4 days by bike, depending on the wind) between towns, and although there is the occasional petrol station plonked out in the middle of nowhere, it’s impossible to find out for sure exactly where these are. As team sherpa, I’ve been carrying the water and food required for wild camping throughout the trip, but for Princess Bex the weight of an additional 10kg waterbag on her bike must’ve been a real shock to the system.

During one of these empty sections between Turpan and Hami we passed through an area notorious for strong winds – apparently a train had been blown off the tracks recently. We loaded up with water and food and set off. On day one, the heat was unbearable – even the wind was hot and we found ourselves leapfrogging from tunnel to tunnel to escape from the heat of the sun for a while. Despite all the extra water we carried, it’s impossible to quench our thirst when the temperatures rise in the desert. The heat seems to radiate up from the ground as well as down from the sun, and our water turns luke warm in minutes and loses all appeal. I keep day dreaming about ice-cold drinks from fridges, which is torture when you know there’s no chance of getting one for the next few days.

On day two we set the alarm for sunrise in an attempt to beat the increasing wind, so after evicting a scorpion from our tent (who’d crawled in whilst we were outside having breakfast!) we began what was to be one of the worst days of our journey to date. A savage cross-headwind was blowing, getting stronger by the minute, and before long we couldn’t ride our bikes as the gusts blew us sideways off the road. Bex looked terrified as she leaned into the wind (and traffic!) trying to keep her bike upright. Each time a lorry goes past it creates a wind shadow, sucking us in towards the wheels and then spitting us furiously back out the other way. The gusts pick up any loose surface sand and grit and fires it sideways into our faces. It didn’t feel like we had anywhere to escape to, the barren landscape offered no shelter and the angle of the wind meant our trusty tunnels under the road just acted as funnels, so we just had to keep going.

After battling the elements for a miserable 15 miles, a truckers’ cafe appeared from nowhere, so we ditched the bikes and dived inside. We huddled inside that cafe all day, feeling sorry for ourselves as the wind buffeted the corrugated iron building. The walls shook and the roof creaked as a nearby weather station recorded wind speeds of up to 97kph! We got worried as the cafe owner kept glancing nervously at his roof, which started to come away from the walls. The wind sent gusts of grit and dust past the window at incredible speed – I’ve never seen or felt anything like it before. Tables and chairs were pushed against the walls to stop them collapsing and all we could do was sit and wait. Cycling onwards or camping outdoors was obviously a recipe for doom, few trucks were still driving in the wind, and the forecast for the following day was for more strong winds. We considered our options over another plate of greasy noodles:

A) Find a lorry still willing to travel in the winds, hitch a lift back to the previous town 80 miles back down the road, wait out the storm for a few days, before hitching a lift back and trying again.

B) Persuade the cafe owner to let us pitch the tent inside the cafe, hope that the wind drops overnight and try to battle on the following day.

Neither sounded particularly appealing. We both agreed that whatever happened we had to cycle this section, even if we had to hitch a lift back to safety and attempt it again in a few days – but the thought of going back on ourselves after so much misery was awful.

We sat around helplessly for hours, trapped in the tiny tin box and not really sure what to do. What if the wind is strong tomorrow? But if we go back now it will mean lots of extra money spent and what if we could’ve cycled?! Each day we lose is precious as our visa ticks by regardless, and China doesn’t get any smaller. Eventually we’d been messing around for so long  that it became too late to get back to the previous town: my motto held true once again (ignore a problem, and it will go away) and our decision was made. The cafe owner kindly said we could pitch our tent on the floor after his customers had finished drinking beer, slurping and spitting on the floor at approximately 2am.

After propping my eyes open in a corner of the cafe, finally the last of the boozers retired to their trucks for the night and we whipped the tent up for a 6 hour kip, earplugs essential to drown out the sodding wind. We woke feeling ‘refreshed’ at 8am to find a strong but hopefully not lethal wind, and so jumped on the bikes. We battled a ‘steady’ 50kph crosshead wind for 5 hours, whilst going up endless hills. We were over one hundred miles from the nearest town and camping out in these conditions would be a challenge. Morale was off the scale. Fortunately, everything changed extremely quickly.

We reached the top of the mountains as the road bent 45 degrees to the right, transforming the crosshead wind into a once-in-a-lifetime tailwind! YEEEEHAAAA! After a terrible morning we now cycled at warp speed, smashed out 196km for the day (a record that will not be broken!) and arrived in Hami days earlier than expected. It hammered home how gutting the wind can be – we pedaled at maximum effort all morning and covered 50 kilometres, and then free-wheeled for most of the afternoon but covered 140 kilometres!

The desert after Hami has been nearly as unforgiving as the part before and the wind has been relentless. It seems like we spend every day at the moment flogging ourselves across a barren landscape, battling headwinds, sandstorms and trucks. Our options for camping are determined by the wind – either in a tunnel under the road (noisy, but sheltered) or a few hundred metres off to the side of the road out in the desert (quiet, but exposed to the elements).

On the first day after leaving Hami the wind forced us to camp in a tunnel under the road, but unfortunately the wind shifted direction just after we went to bed and our sheltered underpass was quickly transformed into a very sandy wind tunnel. We lay there, sticky and dirty from a day’s cycling, trucks racing past 6 feet above our heads, tent flapping manically in the wind. Sand quickly began leaking through the mesh door and filling up my side of the tent. We soon had sand in every orifice and unfortunately we were still four days of cycling and camping from the nearest town. It was definitely one of those moments when you wonder how the hell you’ve ended up here – and we’ve had a few of those recently!

This was easily the dirtiest I’d ever been, and when we finally reached the next town the highly anticipated shower was world class – the build up of road grime turned the water black and blocked the plug!

We’re now in a tiny town called Liuyuan, getting ready for what is hopefully the last desert stretch. Any romantic notions of cycling across huge empty landscapes have been completely lost on me now, and I can’t wait to see the back of them. Although China has been pretty tough at times, I’m definitely still enjoying being here overall – some of the scenery has been spectacular, the change in culture is interesting and fun, and the food is generally tasty (if you remember to shout ‘no chilli’ when ordering). I’m looking forward to seeing the country change as we move east and south over the next few weeks.

If you would like slightly more regular updates than these blogs, you can check our current location over on the route page (updated every week or so), or take a look at our micro-updates on Twitter (you don’t need to be a member to view the page).

A race across the desert in Turkmenistan

After the luxury of having two whole months to cross Iran our next country was a slightly more time pressured affair as we only had a five-day transit visa to cycle the 500km across Turkmenistan. Plenty of cyclists have managed this in the past but we aren’t exactly the fastest pair of cyclists in the world so we ordered a nice tailwind to help us along.

Day one started badly – I got a puncture whilst still in Iran and then snapped the crucial spanner that removes our wheels. We dashed madly around the border town looking for a replacement while the time was ticking on our five day visa. Not a single shop sold spanners, but after a stressful hour a welder gave me his as a gift and refused to accept any money. We thanked our lucky stars at this final piece of Iranian generosity and legged it to the border.

Iranian passport control was an absolute shambles – getting an exit stamp involved putting our passports into a pile with about 50 others and then competing with crowds of truck drivers trying to persuade the guard to process their passport next. My Del-boy Farsi left us at a bit of a disadvantage here. I’m not the most patient person at the best of times, but knowing that every hour wasted in here was making our task more difficult meant I was pulling my hair out.

With a precious half day wasted at the border we were finally able to start cycling, but ominously the weather was cold and a stiff wind was blowing directly into our faces. For the first day and a half we took a shortcut away from the transit route used by the lorries. The road was little more than a bumpy gravel track at times and cuts through empty sandy desert. No cars passed us for two hours before we camped in a large ditch hidden from the road. It was spectacular being so alone in such a landscape, but the poor roads and strong headwind had taken their toll on our speed and we’d only managed a paltry 50km before dark.

We woke the next morning to a manically flapping tent which instantly told us the wind was still around. Which direction was it going? I stuck my head outside – ah yes, a headwind, obviously. We started cycling but a quick bit of maths told us that we were in serious danger of not being able to reach the border in time.

Days two, three and four were much the same. The headwind persisted and we set ourselves a brutal regime in order to give it our best shot. Each day we set the alarm for 5:30am, packed the tent in the dark, cycled all day with a constant headwind through sandy desert, then pitched the tent in the dark. After the tent was up and dinner eaten it was nine hours until we had to start cycling again so it was straight into the sleeping bags; our books and diaries stayed untouched in Turkmenistan.

My morale was at an all-time low on the morning of day three; we began cycling in the dark, we were miles behind schedule and the sodding headwind was blowing sleet into my face. The thought of having to cycle all day and into the night was appalling.

We stopped at a shop as we cycled through a town. Bottles of water were spaced out to fill the the shelves along one wall and we were offered meat from a plastic carrier bag sitting on the counter. After politely refusing, Bex bought 1.1kg of cookies before we got back on the bikes. The cookies were fully consumed within 48 hours and I don’t remember getting a look in.

I had no idea what to expect from the people in Turkmenistan but they seemed every bit as friendly as the Iranians we’d just left behind. Nearly everyone we passed gave us a wave and a big friendly smile, but tragically we had to blast straight past the many offers of tea and meals as our regime didn’t allow for that… We were already stretching our days into the dark at either end, a risky business on these abysmal potholed roads, and any extra stops would’ve meant more night cycling and less sleep.

We’d been automatically turning down regular offers of lifts from kind truck drivers for months, but now their big empty trailers just invited us to throw our bikes in. Suddenly it was torture as they drove away leaving us standing in the road with a sore arse, stiff legs and a long way to go. We realised we could be in Turkmenabat by evening, sipping a beer in a hotel with a day off tomorrow. Instead, we signed up for a few more days of nothing but cycling, eating and sleeping.

We set out to cycle from England to New Zealand without using other forms of transport. Obviously we have to take a boat or plane when we reach water, but from the start we’ve had the aim of an unbroken line of cycling from France to Singapore, one of the longest landmasses on Earth.

During those tough days in Turkmenistan I often thought about why we were insisting on making ourselves suffer. After all, what difference would it make if we hitched a lift for 300km of a 25,000km journey? We’d still see exactly the same roads but we could stop this horrible toil and use our spare time to meet some more Turkmen people and explore one of the cities. Plenty of people travel by bike but without worrying about hopping to different countries by train or plane, and I’m sure they have just as much fun as us (well, considerably more fun at the moment as they’d be sipping a beer in Turkmenabat!)

Unfortunately the actual physical challenge of cycling across the world is as important to me (and Bex, I think!) as exploring all the different countries along the way. I kept trying to remind myself that the hardest bits will be the most memorable and make the nice bits seem even better, but it all seemed like a futile waste of time as we flogged ourselves on those bumpy roads.

We found out later that two German cyclists that we met in Iran and again afterwards in Uzbekistan had crossed Turkmenistan the week before us. They’d had hot sun and a nice tailwind and gleefully told us how they’d made it across with 6 hour cycling days and got a decent suntan too. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time!

It was make or break on day four – we had to get within striking distance of the border by night or we’d have to hitch a lift the following morning. We finally broke the back of the challenge with a colossal day and a crucial speedy two hours of night riding – the headwind died with the daylight and fuelled by adrenaline (and a bumper bottle of coke) we galloped into the dark.

We rolled to a stop at a roadside cafe, delighted with our day’s work, and asked if we could camp behind the building. Our luck was in as they had a spare room with a gas stove on full whack which they let us use for free, and then a Turkish lorry driver bought us a couple of kebabs. For the first time in Turkmenistan we could relax – barring major disasters we would make it across the border the following day.

We arrived at the border at 1pm, exactly 4 days after starting, and counted our leftover Turkmen currency ready to change. We laughed as we realised we’d spent less than £10 between us to cross Turkmenistan, the benefit of having nowhere and no time to spend money!

The border guards then decided it was time for a two hour lunch break before we could pass into Uzbekistan. I didn’t mind though as we could sit in a chair and relax…for the first time in a week we were no longer in a constant rush. I felt knackered but I also had a nice warm glow of satisfaction. We’d overcome the challenge, despite nature doing her best to make it tough for us, and we were about to start the next country and next adventure. Maybe it was worth the effort after all…

Also, thank you very much for the donations to Guide Dogs in response to our last post, our fundraising total is now steadily moving in the right direction. Our aim is to raise £1 for each mile we cycle, although that target may be harder than the actual cycling! The Turkmenistan desert was about 300 miles – if you enjoyed reading about our struggles how about donating 1p per mile for this section of the journey?

Iran part two (Tehran to Mashhad)

Arriving in Tehran and parking the bikes for three weeks felt amazing – after two months of winter cycling in plunging temperatures luxuries like a warm flat, hot shower and a coffee machine were appreciated like never before!

We made some great new friends during our time in Tehran and while we waited for visas to be issued we also took a week-long round trip to visit three famous cities by bus in central and southern Iran. It was surreal watching hundreds of kilometres of desert flash past the window whilst Bex happily shovelled chocolate into her face – the 2000km round trip would’ve meant four weeks of hard graft on the bikes! There were impressive mosques and bridges in Esfahan and ancient sites in Shiraz, but Yazd was our highlight. Sitting in the middle of a vast desert Yazd has an awesome old city, still lived in but made from clay. I had one of my more memorable birthdays as we sat on the roof of a clay building and watched the sun set over the city.

We really enjoyed our week but it reminded me that although sometimes it can be a grind, I’m pleased that we’re travelling by bike and seeing the bits in between cities as well. I felt really disconnected when we arrived in each city, and whilst looking at the map had to convince myself that, yes, we really had just hopped across half of a massive country whilst I’d been sleeping.


Once back in the capital, Tehran definitely lived up to its reputation as the most liberal city in Iran. Young women walk the streets in figure-hugging clothes with headscarves precariously perched on the back of their head, stretching the rules as far as they dare. Seemingly everyone has a way round the government’s internet filter, and house parties with alcohol and dancing seem to be commonplace, if you know the right people!

It was difficult to drag ourselves back out on the road after such a comfy rest but finally we managed it, reacquainting arse with saddle and beginning to tackle the 1,100km remaining before the border.

Less than an hour from Tehran a car pulled over and a man got out, flashed some ID at us and said ‘Police, passports please.’ His ID, written in Farsi, was probably a library card for all we knew, and it was pretty obvious this was a random guy trying his luck. We told him as much and refused to get out our passports. He seemed nervous and didn’t look that tough, but then again he had 3 mates waiting in the car whilst I had Bex… In fairness, I haven’t seen Bex in action so she might turn out to be the female Jack Bauer (officially the world’s hardest human) but I wasn’t too keen to find out. I raised my arm and flagged down a passing motorbike, and as soon as the motorbike began to pull over our imposter rather swiftly got back in his car and sped away.

Less than one minute later in typical Iranian style we were invited in for a tea stop. That evening we stayed with a young English teacher who just 5 minutes after meeting us let us into her flat to relax whilst she went back to work. We slept well that night with the earlier incident long forgotten after the later acts of kindness that have been typical of our time in Iran.

The sprawl of factories surrounding Tehran finally gave way to desert on our second day of cycling. The road split the monotonous flat land for as far as the eye could see. If we had a headwind it was demoralising knowing that it would be hours until you reached the horizon. The landscape was so different to anything I’d seen before but grinding our way slowly across the flat yellow land grew repetitive after a few days, although the occasional sighting of a herd of camels never failed to please!

Villages were few and far between so we had to be careful to carry enough food and water. There seemed to be a truck stop or something at least once a day, but as these weren’t marked on our map it was hard to judge. Bex gets tetchy if she doesn’t have regular snacks so we erred on the side of caution. We slept wherever we could at the end of each day, including the prayer room of a mosque, a friendly villager’s clay house, with the Red Crescent, and with a couchsurfer in a bigger town near the end. We tell locals we usually sleep in our tent, but in the last 1,000km we hadn’t pitched the tent once!

The Red Crescent stays were fun – they’re the roadside rescue and recovery service and teams of four are on standby for 48 hours at a time, living in stations stuck in the desert about 100km apart. For the vast majority of their time they have nothing to do, so they drink tea, play table football (they were bloody good!) and watch TV – so I guess we were a welcome distraction. Two nights in a row different stations welcomed us in, gave us tea, dinner, a warm room and breakfast. The following day we were packed off with bread, tuna, beans and water. This was during a 300km section of desert in which we were told there was ‘nothing’. We’d stocked up with supplies beforehand, but finished the section with more food & water than we started with!

The couchsurfer we stayed with turned out to be Masoud, an awesome guy who owns an English language institute for children. Unbeknown to us, Masoud had arranged an open day at his institute, and about 80 kids on bikes met us for a ride down the street. They had even printed and framed a load of our photos for everyone to see! Parents plonked shy kids next to us for photos and a chat, and we felt like celebrities for an hour.

In Mashhad, the last big city in the north-east of Iran, we visited the Holy Shrine, the holiest site in Iran. The tomb of Imam Reza is the highlight, and tourists aren’t allowed in – Muslims only. Our host, Hamed, assured us we might get lucky if we didn’t say anything when walking past the guards, so Bex borrowed a chador (a sheet covering everything but the face, common in Mashhad and rare in Tehran, but compulsory in the shrine) and I combed my beard (knew it would come in use!) and we went for it. Success – we were in!

We walked through huge busy courtyards covered in hundreds of praying mats to the room containing the shrine. Going inside was quite amazing – hundreds of people were crowded round the rectangular metal box (men and women separated by glass), pushing and shoving trying to touch the shrine, many crying. Back in the courtyards, it’s common for funeral processions to walk around the shrine. In the 15 minutes we sat in the sunny courtyard, 4 or 5 dead bodies, wrapped in a rug in open caskets, were carried past. 20 or so men followed each one, chanting. Once outside in the streets, Bex whipped off her chador within 10 metres of the exit, which got a few funny looks from the guards on the gate!

The driving has continued to amuse us through Iran, no gap is too small for an Iranian to push his car through and traffic coming on to roundabouts appears to have right-of-way. Mopeds, battered old cars and pick-up trucks are the vehicles of choice in Iran, usually with outrageous loads. After an extensive two month survey, here are my top five loads seen on the back of a standard issue Iranian moped:

1) a family of four
2) a cage full of pigeons
3) a 5 foot high stack of cheesy wotsits
4) a dead sheep
5) an 18-inch sword, being sat on by a bandana-wearing boy

In Iran there is a concept of ‘tarof’, a kind of etiquette which involves refusing an offer from your host a number of times before performing a politician-esq u-turn and finally accepting. In Mashhad I saw Hamed refuse a banana twice before accepting it at the third offer! This was obviously very confusing for foreigners, usually if I’m hungry and someone offers me some food I’d accept it first time with thanks. The aim of tarof is to enable the host to save face if in fact they cannot afford to give what they offered. I think lots of Iranians know that foreigners are generally confused by tarof, but hopefully we didn’t cause too much offence as we munched our way across Iran!

After an awesome two months in Iran, sadly it was finally time to leave. We’ve had countless amazing experiences whilst cycling across this interesting country and I’m never going to forget the incredible generosity shown to us by complete strangers and new friends alike.

When planning this adventure we decided to use the opportunity to raise awareness and funds for charity. Those of you who know me probably also know that Ella, my youngest sister, has a guide dog, so it was an easy choice to support the charity Guide Dogs (we also chose AMOS Trust).

In 2009 Ella received Wendy, her first Guide Dog, and after seeing the subsequent improvement in Ella’s life I want to help Guide Dogs provide dogs for more people in need. All related costs of owning the dog (training, food, vet bills etc) are covered by the charity, and there is a waiting list for dogs.

At the start it didn’t feel right to ask for donations before we’d even turned a pedal and the trip was just talk, but now we’ve cycled about 9,000km I feel that we’re slightly more deserving of a few small donations. So the fund-raising drive starts here! If everyone who managed to finish reading this blog (or scrolled down looking at the photos!) donated just a couple of pounds it would help to get the fundraising total heading in the right direction.

Please click here if you’d like to donate. Thank you so much to those that have already donated!

Here’s a message from Ella:

I had been dreaming about having a guide dog for many years and a few months after my 20th birthday my long-awaited dream came true.

Having guide dog, Wendy, has opened up a whole new world of independence for me and also helped me to see my future in a different light.

It has really changed me as an individual person because I no longer have to worry about any obstacles that may have an effect on independently reaching specific destinations such as shops and restaurants.

I feel that I have also become more sociable now because people stop and chat to me because they are interested about Wendy.

Having and caring for a guide dog is a huge responsibility and not everyone would enjoy this – but for me it’s fantastic!

The link once more: http://www.justgiving.com/worldcyclingtour-guidedogs

Thank you for any donations!