Eastcapades

The Story

Kathmandu, Nepal - New Delhi, India Dec 31 - Feb 16
eastcapades-graphics-4.jpg

challenge

+7775m/-10195m

ROUTE

1414km

    TIME

48 days

off road

176km

A journey into our journey 

The route we’ve biked from Kathmandu to New Delhi has been full of wonderful encounters and breathtaking views. This time, our story will be told by our friends, Mary, Lang and Alexa, who joined us for the last 6 weeks of our trip. You will discover their experiences and how it felt to travel as a team. We will write a final story about our entire trip very soon. But first enjoy this update...

LANG



You can change a bicycle tire but can a bicycle change you?

The start in Kathmandu

  • Uncertain and anxious

  • Can I keep up?

  • Am I too fat and too tired ?

  • Those questions are answered now and my old confidence renewed

Along the way

People

  • We are 'Selfie celebrities'; Parking lots, curb side, even drive-by highway selfies!

  • Choruses of school kids waving in response to our ride by waves (Neither of these ever happens at home)

  • Humbled by how often we are met with friendship  hospitality and generosity.

  • Our new found friends: Candace, Madhev  and Tikendre watch over us

  • Frank Sylvia and Alexa;  Fast friends become faster friends, gaps close.  So does our riding peloton

  • Mary,  my best friend is better still.

Eyes are opened

  • I looked upon natural wonders I'll never forget

  • I witnessed man made horrors I want to forget

  • Social media posts are happy and true but filtered. upsetting and ugly things are left out. those things are very real and still here.

Riding

  • Thick brown dust, gravel,  rocks,  splattering wet clay  and blissful asphalt

  • My bike falls  here are  definitely preferred to  last fall at home.

  • At first it's about the daily destination: When? Where? How far? How much climbing?

  • Gradually it's about the journey; 'don't worry we will figure it out'.

  • Don't think ahead'. However it's good to look back and  reflect on the day, (sometimes around an evening campfire)

 Food as fuel

  • When you burn more than you eat all food, any food is good.

  • Coke, cookies, candy bars; At home, rarely. Here, daily.

  • Yet with all the junk eating, my pants are still a little looser.

Traveler’s Dilemma: 
The draw of home vs the call of the road.

  • Passing by a parent with their child reminds me of home

  • Family videos make me want to fly right back.

  • When I'm here I sometimes want to be there.

  • These feelings make difficult things harder and the journey seem too long

  • Still, I don't want this trip to end. Back at home I will want to be here.

  • Riding with friends, seeing new things. Life washing over you like wind on a bike.

  • These feelings ease the difficulties and make me fear the journey ends too soon.

  • I'm so lucky to have both a home that I love combined with the chance to travel.

  • I can't be in two places at once. So I must learn to fully enjoy where I am.

Closing thoughts

  • Can a bicycle change me? Yes I think so.  I return home 

  • Different than I arrived. Less fat, less tired. Definitely more fat-tired.

  • Frank and Sylvia this made this trip possible. I needed this more than I realized. I'm deeply grateful to my friends for this wonderful gift.


ALEXA



Decisions made and tickets booked.   Mary, Lang and I will meet Sylvia and Frank in Kathmandu, Nepal on December 30th, 2018! 

  • Excitement to be doing this after a false start earlier in April

  • Packing, repacking and rethinking what gears to take over and over for weeks 

  • Some nervous questions going through my mind: will joining Frank and Sylvia upset their rhythm after their already being on the road for 6 months? Will it be too physically challenging? Will being the 5th wheel be awkward?

1400 kms and a multitude of incredible experiences later, the nervous questions were more than calmed. The trip was to take us generally westward from Kathmandu to Delhi though we made a number of excursions in different directions.  

  • Eastern circuit into the Kathmandu Valley to test gears and acclimatize in the altitude 

  • Northern spur into the Annapurna Conservation Area to get up close and personal with the Himalayas 

  • South to Chitwan in search of rhinos, tigers and elephants

  • Then, continuing West to experience the Terai with its untouristed villages before finally crossing the border into India. 

We made new friends and experienced  extraordinary hospitality every where along the way.   With so much given to us in so many ways, I can only hope we gave something back as well.  Whether it be the chance for a school child to practice English or for someone to take a selfie with us or to give a 15 year old girl exposure to possibilities that she could aspire to for her own life. 

Amongst the beauty of the environments and people there were also challenges like dust, air pollution, tough pushes and climbs (Frank might argue this one) and crazy traffic - getting into and around Delhi by bike is an adrenaline rush!.  Some of the conditions people live in are also difficult to comprehend coming from a world where the basics and more are (mostly) a given. 

There is no question that both Nepal (35 million) and India (one of the largest and certainly the densest population in the world) have infrastructure issues and long held beliefs/practices that are proving  difficult to change.  From discussions with locals, one of the questions is whether governments are truly helping their people or are they simply helping themselves?  While this is a typical political issue, the stakes somehow seem higher for these populations than ours.   Also fascinating is that Nepal, always an independent nation, holds a strategic position between China and India putting the country in a place where the world is paying attention.   

Through the trip and all of our adventures our friendships deepened and we became stronger as a unit and physically - at packing up camp, at riding in peloton formation and in figuring out our way.  

We all brought different attitudes and temperaments to the team:  

Frank: experienced bike world traveller, extraordinary planning, orienteering and map interpreting, knowledgeable and confident leader

Sylvia: taking care of us, checking in, noticing when someone is flagging, encouraging and drafting the weary, my soul-sister 

Mary: available and encouraging, tuk-tuk controller and fabulous peloton signaller, life saver (particularly during the plastic bag incident) and now soul-sister as well

Lang: wit and wisdom, a wordsmith and deep thinker, able to articulate an experience with depth and vulnerability, incredibly inspiring after going through more than a year of his own hell, fellow hill climber 

Thank you all so so so much!!  These souvenirs will last a life time.  

What are we doing next?!? 






MARY

I have found it difficult to find words big enough to express the impact of our adventure. Let me try and paint a picture or two, maybe this will give a glimpse into the magic.

My favourite time of our cycle day was the morning. Not because my sit bones hadn’t yet started to yell at me but because our departures coincided with the village children’s walk to school. Blue, green, maroon uniforms, shirts with ties and tunics lined both sides of the road. Kids arm in arm. Hands held. Sisters helping younger brothers and friends laughing with friends.

When we rode by faces would stare in amazement.  Was it the fat bike? The white skin? Middle-aged women in board shorts? Bald guys? All of the above. The stares dissolved as we called out ”hello”, “Namaste”.  Hands waved and giggles followed us.  Responses in all manner of English were offered.   There did seem to be a universal understanding of two particular English words: Justin Bieber.  Those giggles stay with me and I have downloaded some Bieber.

There was one boy, maybe 6 or 7 wearing a green toque, he stopped dead in his tracks leaving his siblings to continue walking.  His jaw literally dropped and his head followed our progression.  I wonder what story he told at home that night? I know I will always tell the story of seeing him.

The people we met along the way were special.  They opened their hearts and literally, their homes to us.  It was a gift to be hugged by the country of Nepal.  We often would ask “would this happen at home”; “would people do this for strangers”?   Our answer would be “not likely”. There is such importance to the kindness for strangers.  We can’t forget that.

We constantly were amazed at how when we were mud splattered from head to toe, the brilliantly coloured sari’s of women riding side saddle on motor bikes were immaculate. What? How does that happen?  Not a speck of mud. One school uniform included white pants; white pants are you kidding me? And they were white!

We experienced sights of squalor and misery but we also marvelled at homes that were immaculate and kept with bursting pride.  Dirt floors swept until they glowed. In India, we saw so much trash. Vancouver is a paradise, pristine mountains, waters and clean air.  We take these for granted. We need to stop and appreciate how fragile our environment is and do all we can to protect it.

I hope this paints a bit of a picture of our experience.  It is indescribable on so many levels.  I can’t thank you enough you Fabulous Five. You are in my heart forever.  

India, NepalZenija Esmits
Darjeeling, India - Kathmandu, Nepal Dec 1st - Dec 26th
eastcapades-graphics-4.jpg

challenge

+22018m/-20768m

ROUTE

867km

    TIME

24 days

off road

342km

SYLVIA

The wonderful things in life are the things you do, not the things you have.

Reinhold Messner

It’s with mixed feelings that I leave Bangladesh. After such an intense and crowded experience, I’m somewhat relieved to have some me/us time, but I fear the feeling of emptiness lingering around the corner. The first three days in India, tears come to my eyes on multiple occasions. I think of the wonderful people we met and of the hardship they live in. What will it take to change the life conditions for future generations? The next four weeks on my bike do not answer my question but they do help me to digest my emotions. Today, I feel privileged and wiser to have traveled in Bangladesh. Observing such a different society and having the privilege to be part of it for a few days makes me more complete.

It is good that India requires my instant and full attention because the traffic is insane. The new situation helps me to distance myself from my Bangladesh feelings. 

Two truck and one bus accidents within the first three hours create a huge traffic jam. Fortunately, our fatbikes allow us to slip along all the cars and trucks, even though the side road is sandy and rocky. On our way to Siliguri, a bigger town at the foothills of Darjeerling, we meet the first cyclo tourists in a long time. Molly and Haydn are biking from England to New Zealand. In case you want to learn more about their travels: http://www.cycleforlove.com . They cycle the globe for refugees.

Our first stop in India is in Siliguri. It is a 1 million people city in West Bengal, and even though the city has nothing outstanding to offer other than its location at the foothills of the Himalayas, we enjoy staying here, resting, discovering new food and enjoying the colourful happiness of Indian people.

Frank in the traffic looking for the perfect picture

We book a jeep to travel to Darjeerling because neither Frank nor I are ready to climb to the tea plantations after more than 1,000 km of flatness cycling in Bangladesh. 

Bike on the jeep

When we discover the grades of the itinerary, both of us are relieved at the sight of not having to cycle these roads. Darjeerling is a town known for its tea industry and is located at 2,040 m altitude. From here, you can see the third highest mountain (8,580 m), Kangchenjunga. We visit the Happy Valley tea plantation and museum. One of the best teas in the world is coming from here. Almost 90% of their production is shipped to London (Harrods), Germany and France (Mariage Frère). We learned that tea from high altitude is better quality than from the plains as the leaves get less water and grow slowly. Furthermore, the tea plant for white, green and black tea is the same, the difference is in the processing.

 Like Frank told you in an Instagram posting, we still don’t appreciate a good tea to its right value and prefer a good beer, but we are better educated now.

For the first time in a long time, we can also enjoy Western food like Shepherds pie, Mac & Cheese and lemon pie with a glass of wine that is far too sweet. These little tastes from home feel good.

Well maintained Indian Old Timer ‘Ambassador’

Darjeerling, home of semi-wild horses

my first and only Indian admirer

Famous DHR, Darjeerling Himalayan Railway, completed in 1881 to transport rice at a more competitive price to the, at this time, remote area

Michel

Olga

Before we leave India, Laxmi, a very smart local young woman we meet along the road invites us for a cup of tea and some noodles. She explains to us how her mother did everything to have her three daughters educated so they can be independent. The societal pressure and caste system still prevents millions of women and men to live the life of their choice, and it’s refreshing to see she’s doing everything she can to choose her own life path with the help of her mother.

Laxmi and her mother

Laxmi and her mother

Getting our Nepal visa and crossing the border is smooth and easy. We stay one night in Kakarbhitta and work on our itinerary to Kathmandu. Frank gives me three options: easy, not so easy and impossible according to Google. We choose the impossible option. After the easy riding in Bangladesh, we’re looking forward to the unexpected adventurous road. I still don’t know how Frank manipulates my reasonable thinking to say yes to this itinerary. The first 100 km are steep and paved. All good until we hit dirt road in Bedhetar. The downhill of 25 km takes us three hours to the valley and it is so dusty and rocky that we look grey when we arrive at the bottom of the hill. Even tractors and big trucks have difficulties to ride the road in either direction. I start to doubt my...Frank’s! decision and wonder what is ahead. Still 420 km to cycle. Local intel is conflicting. Going from “it is paved after the village” or “don’t cycle there” to “road work in progress”...but I really don’t want to push my bike back up the hill to Bedhetar. After a party with the road workers and a good night of sleep, I feel confident that it can’t be worse than the last stretch. Good surprise, after 10 km of more dust, mud and big rocks , the road is beautifully paved. My smile is back for the next 30 km with one or two tears of exhaustion at the top of the mountain. However, the view on the Himalayas chases them away in no time.

 I will not explain the next 250+ km. The fact that I already cry of exhaustion and despair in the early morning instead of the late afternoon is self-explanatory. 

The impossible road

Me pretty much exhausted and Frank not knowing how to comfort and get me up the hill.

We push our bikes, no cycling is possible, and it’s never ending. The breath-taking views and the kindness of the villagers make it a bit easier, but I can’t explain how relieved I am when we hit some pavement after Diktel where we spent the night in a ‘hotel’ a local recommended us. It was the worst place we ever stayed.

Nepali festivity we have the privilege to attend

Elderly couple who allows us to camp on their property and invites us for dinner

The 500 RS (CAN $5) we pay for the room are used to buy the flooring the son is placing just before we move in. The mattress is a wooden plank and the blankets so dirty that we take out our sleeping bags. The room has a hole where a window could be placed in the future, and Frank has a hard time to pee standing in what could be called a washroom as the toilet is under a staircase. He has to lean back, and I am not sure how it all landed in the right place. It would have been funny if I had not been so tired.

Starting now the road is still steep and tiring, but it’s almost a pleasure to be back on the bike even though my legs are protesting each time it’s climbing.

After three weeks of camping, we decide to take a hotel room in Halesi for three nights. It is a nice small town with holy caves shared by Hindus and Buddhists. We stay in a nice Tibetan hotel where Dawa and his wife take good care of their eclectic guests.

Dawa cooking for his guests

Buddhist monks, NY life style Buddhist coaches, Ian Daniel, producer of the US tv show  ‘Gaycation’ and us, make it an interesting crowd with good debates. Frank and I will definitely not convert to Buddhism like many Chinese or Westerners do but we are open to listen to their stories and experiences. Around a good vegetarian meal and hot tea, the monks explain us how they became Buddhist monks, either by choice or because the parents want their child to become a monk or nun. The education they have to complete in the monastery is quite similar to University studies. Once adults, they do something similar to a Bachelor, Masters and eventually a PhD degree. Most of them have a good sense of humour and are just happy, and we have good laughs. Ian and his friends are different kind of animals. Ian, the critical out stander of the group of five, questions his friends about the path they choose, the meditation and life style, the money they make and want to make out of it in the future. But he is also open to new things and feels it could help him and others to live a happy live. We have a bit more critical view on the whole Buddhist thing, the money made by the monks and the life style coaches. Having said that, the money and power is part of each religion, so nothing new here.

 Our Christmas treat is a real bean coffee, and eventually, the rest of the road becomes smooth and nice most of the way to Kathmandu. 

Christmas treat

While waiting for our Vancouver friends, Alexa, Mary and Lang to arrive, we stay at the Kathmandu Guest House. After a few weeks of hardship, we welcome our first heated room, warm shower and amazing breakfast buffet. The cherry on the cake is that Reinhold Messner, very famous Italian climber, is in the same hotel. Even Frank gets emotional when he shakes our hands with an iron grip. We feel the year ends really well and are happy to share the next six weeks with our friends.

 Likes

  • stunning Himalaya views

  • generosity and kindness of Nepali

  • Dal Bhat and MoMos

  • KGH aka Kathmandu Guest House

  • real bean coffee

  • eclairs from ‘Flat Iron’ coffee shop Kathmandu - can you tell that we are hungry :)))

  • laundry service

Dislikes

  • mud, rocks and dust on the road from Dharan to Diktel

  • cold weather in the evening when we’re camping

Favourite gear

  • long johns

  • T2 and T3 from MEC

  • my Sony camera - RJ, thank you for recommending it

FRANK

Stuck!

We have just crossed the Indian border, with the benediction of our Bengali police escort, too happy to get rid of us safe and sound.

Not even 30 minutes on a dusty wide Indian paved road and we are already.... stuck!

Not even a bike can find a way to sneak out or through a huge traffic jam caused by, what we will discover much later, a couple of accidents. 

Things get worse as the road giving access to a narrow bridge forms a real bottle neck. It is a long bridge crossing a very wide river. The river is totally dry creating in us some frustration to be stuck on a too narrow bridge that is actually at the moment not necessary. Of course a stupid frustration that was not shared by anyone around us maintaining classic British stoicism ... probably an English heritage from a time now gone.

Buses, trucks, cars, motorcyclists and the 2 of us trying to find a way to gain few meters. Any gap, any space is quickly filled up. Who cares about the lane reserved for the oncoming traffic, if there is an open space it needs to be filled up.

It feels like we are part of a giant Rubik’s Cube, someone needs to solve the problem by shifting  the tiles in the right direction. If there is a God somewhere we will need his assistance. From above, he should have a clear vision of who should move to create some motion.

We zigzagged between and over what ever was in our way to slowly progress forward.

The sun was hot, the air dusty and yellow, but everyone was calm, no road rage, no stress. Some even joked with us saying we were the cause as everyone came to welcome us.

 Lonely!

Actually, aside of a few jokes and a few smiles, compared with Bangladesh, we felt like we did not exist anymore. Bangladesh was constant and overwhelming but friendly attention. Only few meters across the border and we are not VIP anymore, just 2 cyclists added to an already packed road. 

We can almost still see the last trees in Bangladesh and already are feeling so far away from it. 

We are in India, hoping to reach Siliguri, only 70Km further, before the sunset.

We did it, right at sunset. 3 major accidents involving buses and trucks, ambulances unable to reach the accident scene, stuck like everyone, were good reminders of our vulnerability.  Feeling too comfortable in the traffic, being involved in an accident and we should not count on much medical assistance. Honking is useless but people are honking. Not irritating anymore, it has been part of our sound environment for many weeks now.

Siliguri is a big city, busy with a certain charm. Charm supported by the presence of many women on scooters, bicycles and liberated from the Muslim doctrines and dress codes. 

Cheap hotels but with hot water and plenty of choices of types of food and tasty meals.

I need a new saddle. Found the exact same saddle for the equivalent of US$7.

One day off to regroup, wash our clothes and work on the maps.

Drawing an itinerary, then have a look on the route profile. Smartphones now offer plenty of  solutions through Applications to clearly and quickly plan the almost perfect itinerary. Accurate road maps, topo maps and live localization make things fun to organize. Though, there is a little bit of nostalgia for the time where in some Asian and Central Asian countries I had only an aviation map to figure out my position and a vague bearing to follow with my compass.

Old I may sound after that statement but it was not that long ago in reality.... what is 30 years when you are 60 :)

Darjeeling as the next destination was an evidence and a very nice discovery 

Sikkim could be a bonus if we had the time and could have the access permit quickly enough. It is early December and friends from Vancouver are meeting us in Kathmandu for new year with their bikes to share the road for a few weeks. So we need to make a choice, give priorities to our bucket list according with the time needed to cycle to Kathmandu.

I have been in Nepal more than once but have never really explored the East Terai.  A mountainous area with barely no, if any, road access. The topo maps show dirt roads along endless mountain ridges, offering in my imagination, grandiose view points to some of the  most famous 8000m peaks. On my updated digital maps, there is now a yellow line going from East to West through that area. I am already excited by the idea of being able to pedal the area. Western Terai -West of Kathmandu- is hilly, Eastern Terai reaching Darjeeling on the West Bengal district of India is definitely more a mountainous landscape. 

The bad news is, there is no border open for foreigners between Darjeeling and Nepal. So choosing Darjeeling and its tea plantations at 2100m as the next destination means we will have to get back down to almost sea level in order to cross the only international border to Nepal.

After 4 weeks of flat Bangladesh “we” (?) crave for some hills, cool air, cold nights and fun downhills. Not much searching for the best route to follow needed, there is only one from Siliguri to Darjeeling and another..... to go down ....to reach the Nepali border. The only headache comes from the vision of the road profile. ...

62km to cover with the last 35 at grades of 10+% to gain the 2000m.

Riding our bikes over  bridges in Bangladesh were the toughest recent climbs .... and there were not that many bridges to go over. 

Jeeps with the sign Darjeeling are parked right in front of the hotel, drivers yelling their destinations to catch the attention of the rare tourists around.

US2$ / person for the ride... watching one jeep taking off, I estimated 10 people were squeezed in the jeep for the journey.....

No need to negotiate much, a driver/jeep owner and I agreed to a US20 ride for both of us and the bikes. No need to wait for enough potential clients to pack his jeep. Not too proud of that solution but very tempting.  For that price, we avoided a long and probably painful climb because of the recent lack of climbs in our legs and also because we were no longer acclimatized to altitude. 

Bikes tightened on the roof and comfortably seated in a vehicle where usually 10 people find their place, we left around 8 am the next morning. 62km and 3hours later we discovered the town of Darjeeling. Pleased we picked that option as the road was very busy and very narrow. Grades up to 15% were confirmed, .... so everything considered, we took the right decision. If not, we would have found other good reasons. Those were easy to claim and very obvious.

 Darjeeling is like a nest of people living on a very sharp, narrow, ridge. 

Steep streets forming a maze between houses and buildings we are still wondering how they stand straight. 

As usual in many Asian countries, houses and places in general are not heated. Shorts and T-shirt’s found their place back in our panniers, fleeces and down jackets after many weeks of warm conditions, lost at the bottom of our bags, can finally get some fresh air. Sleeping bags added to thin blankets provided by our host, helped us to stay warm during our nights in the guesthouse.

Darjeeling is a tourist mountain station destination. Mainly Indians from the lower valleys are looking, during the hot summers, to get some cool conditions, experience the historical 80Km journey up to the city with the famous Darjeeling Himalayan railway and its steam locomotives - still in duty despite almost 140 years of loyal services, an English heritage - and enjoying views of the white peaks of the Khangchendzonga (8598m, the third highest mountain). 

We are in December, off season, there are not many West Bengal tourists and for sure not many Caucasians around. Sikkim was still tempting but applying for a permit and not much time to really explore it, the idea was quickly abandoned. Rather we spend 2 more nights in Darjeeling,  an area offering some interesting hikes.

90km to reach the Nepali border check point from 2100m to 100m did not require a brainstorm meeting. Obviously it will be for sure a fun long downhill surrounded by big pine and eucalyptus forests and tea plantations. Confident, we straddled our bikes in an early morning and took off by a dirt road discovered while hiking. The road let us avoid the busy stretch going out of town.

Why are we going up while we should go down? After the few flat kilometers expected, the road showed some tendency to take us higher, re-assuring us briefly that it will eventually go down. The first 35Km turned out to be a roller coaster with sometimes short but such steep sections that we had to hike the bikes. We rode and pushed our bikes in a superb forest made of tall pine trees. The road winding further down between tea farms. 

We followed the Nepali line of demarcation and passed the unique border check post open only to Indians or Nepali people. For us, foreigners,  it will be another 40km, mainly downhill to the customs and the immigration check point.

We camped in a huge field hidden behind the tea bushes on the Indian side of the border, sharing a great evening and night chatting with a couple of German cyclists, who by pure chance, crossed the border from Nepal as we arrived. Nice to meet them after many months following them on Instagram.

Nepal.

Just pronouncing the word creates in me a warm feeling. I have been traveling the country many times, on foot, on bike and of course along many of the most famous or infamous hiking trails. Never get tired of it and will probably never be.

I spent a lot of time in the Himalayan mountains, my preferred environment, but also enjoyed the lower valleys. The Western side of Nepal is sometimes on my way from or to North India, Spiti, Manali, Ladhak or Zanskar. The Eastern side of Nepal remained unknown to me. So when I vaguely heard about a new road crossing the midlands hills, I jumped on the idea...and so did Sylvia. I should maybe say that her enthusiasm needed to be built up a little bit when I showed her the route on Google Earth. A good tool to visualize terrain but that can also reduce the effect of surprise. So we usually use that tool later to remember a journey done.

A chat with a “knowledgeable” person at the Nepali custom while waiting for our visas sounded like the road was “existing”. So we looked at the profile and distance of the route with a Black Top (paved) road in mind. Even more.... with a smooth, level, freshly done “Black Top”. He said NEW ROAD after all.

One thing we learn when cycletouring or bikepacking is never ask locals about what is waiting for us further ahead (distances, route profiles, conditions and... how difficult it will be). They just don’t know. They often know less than us. This is true in all continents, rich or poor countries.

Why we persist to ask and to refer to locals for intel stays a mystery to me. I think the feeling is shared by most cycle tourists.

The beginning of the climb was similar to what we have done in Darjeeling, on the Indian side of the Nepali border. 

The south face of the Himalayas, more exposed to heavy rains, monsoon, is more eroded, torturous, aggravated by the hit and motion of the Indian plate raising against the Asian plate. 

It is steep slopes, luxuriant vegetation, deep ravines and more of an agricultural landscape. As we gained in elevation, the slopes are literally carved in multiple terraces, sometimes so narrow that they would not be a camp spot option. Vegetables and cereal fields are vanishing while rice fields are remaining as high as 2500m.

Confident by the pavement we try to consider and embrace the steep climbs as a friendly difficulty as it could have been worse IF it was not paved....we thought....at the beginning. These self talks and personal motivation thoughts suddenly became a “once upon a time”.

Like Google Earth, Google Maps is sometimes a source of information to confirm either a route choice or a distance or .... a feasibility. We did check what Google map suggested from our point A to our point B. The result was perceived then as a glitch in the system as from A to B, Google map would have forced us to go to C, D, E, F, .... and Z. Meaning a detour of over 350km at least in their “faster choice”. How stupid, unreliable that tool can be. My digital map shows clearly that new road. Not even a dotted line or a thin white pale line,  it was right there, shown as a dark thick yellow line.

We (I) felt so good to be smarter than Google maps and to work with the right tools that have helped us so much and without any flaws for the last few months.

The 300km route was SUPERB, remote country, typical adobe Nepali houses linked to each other by walking trails and for few.... by the now new road.

Dust, dry mud, wet mud, landslides, gravel, rocks, sand, sometime barely a trail, that is how we  found the dreamed of BlackTop road. Construction is definitely in progress in some sections. The huge project and distance in a very rugged terrain requires dividing the distance into many sections and between many different contractors. It does not seem a lot of coordination is happening between them. A few sections were “acceptable” - everything here is relative - others were just miserable to ride. We hiked the bikes sometimes for few hours to end the day exhausted and covered by the dust our own feet and tires created. One day, a long climb was done with the incentive and the encouragement of a 25km downhill waiting for us behind the pass.

The providential 25km can be summarized by a 5 hours long effort. Above ankle deep powdered sand hiding big rocks, trenches and dusty air irritating the eyes and filling our lungs make that dreamed of downhill worse than the uphill. A funny thought came to my mind. This is like being in one of these fatbike winter races or expeditions we have done. Riding the bikes in those conditions required the same type of ride. Looking for the right line, compact snow/compact mud, crusty snow surfaces hiding air holes/light flour type sand hiding rocks. 

All the streams, creeks were dry. Water is detoured by hoses to irrigate rice fields and provide water to families via 1000 litre black plastic barrels sitting along houses. So, at the end of the day, we were looking for houses surrounded by rice fields to pitch the tent and get some water to somewhat clean ourselves and cook. 

We have always been welcomed and very often the invitation included a Dhal Bat meal. The cold temperatures at this time of the year are never a real problem for us as we have a good winter tent and good sleeping bags. The tent becomes a cozy place where we like to rest in early evening. It is getting dark around 5PM and temperatures drop down very quickly when the sun is gone. Accepting an invitation for a meal forces us to stay “up” in the cold longer than we want. Cooking in Nepal is a long process. It is done inside of the house in a room that we can call Kitchen. In a corner of the room, a clay oven or pit is a designated wood fire place. Quickly the smoke invades the room as no chimney is built. Nepalis want to keep the heat of the fire in the room and so the smoke is associated with heat. 

So we stay out and try to be as interactive as possible with the entire family with the few words of Nepali we learned in each of our previous encounters. Nepalis have a very social life style. Especially in the country side where cell phone coverage is weak or even non existent. No cell phone coverage, no internet access. This reality preserves the family and social aspects of a culture that will eventually disappear sooner than later.

Kids are always a source of amusement, too happy to play new games with us after the first few minutes of shyness. 

Despite the difficulties, the itinerary was superb. The encounters amazing. The hospitality and kindness beyond anything we could describe. So many opportunities to learn more and more about Nepal and Nepalis. So, absolutely no regrets. 

It took us about 14 days to cover roughly 350km and now that we are In Kathmandu, in a heated room, showered with hot water and waiting for our laundry to be done, we feel it was one of the best parts of our journey so far in Nepal. 

After all the bike trip was meant to be an adventure, we planned it and we are living it that way.

We are now about to start a new Nepali journey, this time shared with friends from Vancouver arriving with their bikes just in time to celebrate the new year.

To be continued....

India, NepalZenija Esmits
DHAKA - BURIMARI BANGLADESH NOV 4 - NOV 30
eastcapades-graphics-4.jpg

challenge

+3692m/-3587m

ROUTE

1174km

    TIME

25 days

off road

27km

SYLVIA

Overwhelmed - buried or drowned by a huge mass of something, especially water; strong emotional effect

This is my third attempt to write the Bangladesh story. I have no idea why it is so hard to put my thoughts in writing and I might not be successful this time either. The country has touched my soul like no other place I have visited on this trip. Maybe because the people we met on the road have the ability to be happy in the moment even if their live is a struggle to survive for most of them. 

First some information about the country. Bangladesh, to the east of India on the Bay of Bengal, is a South Asian country marked by lush greenery and many waterways. Its Padma (Ganges), Meghna and Jamuna rivers create fertile plains, and travel by boat is common. On the southern coast, the Sundarbans, an enormous mangrove forest shared with Eastern India, is home to the royal Bengal tiger. Bangladesh is the eight most populated country in the world and approximately 1200 people are living per square metre, which basically means you are never alone. Dhaka is the capital with a population of 18,2 Million people, and quickly growing as the population moves to the capital looking for work. The politically dominant Bengali Muslims (90% of the population) make the nation the world's third largest Muslim-majority countryIslam is the official religion of Bangladesh. It is a country deeply corrupted at all levels where you only get a well paying job in industry or for the government if you pay for it. Government officials are also company owners which means they vote new laws only if they are to their advantage.

 Let’s get now to my story. After a short flight from Kunming, China, we arrive in Dhaka mid afternoon. It is chaos! Heat, noise and a huge mass of people welcomes us with big smiles on the new grounds of our cycling trip. 

rickshaw traffic jam

Like in China, we are a rare species. The only foreigners we have seen are a few tourists at the harbour in Dhaka and a journalist in a small town called Jamalpur working for Unicef about the impact of global warming on rural population.

 Our first day in Dhaka, we try to figure out our Indian visa not expecting that it would take 48 hours to complete the application form due to issues with the Indian application system. I recommend anyone crossing over land to India to charge one of the many agencies in Dhaka to complete the visa application form for you. It will save you a lot of energy and time, particularly if you have an Apple device. Once the application is submitted, it takes another 5 days to get our passports back with the Indian visa.

Our waiting time in Dhaka has also good sides. It allows us to explore all the corners of the city and start to love the rickshaw traffic jams, the colourful people always ready to smile and get a selfie taken. 

Photo credit: Siyam

There are so many places to visit in Dhaka. My favourites are the harbour with its small boats, the railway tracks with its people living alongside, or the very busy markets and streets in the old city. 

Bangladesh is a developing country however still very poor. The poorest people in Dhaka live alongside the rail tracks but in comparison to homeless in our countries, they are not alone. Most of them live with their families, have a roof over their head and can make some money by selling food or services.

Getting our visa takes 7 days and we realize we can’t cycle all areas in Bangladesh with the 21 days left on the Bengali Visa. We decide to save Cox Bazaar and the Sundarban Mangrove for our next visit to Bangladesh. Our plan is to head first North-East to Sylhet Division. Then we will cycle West across the Brahmaputra river to eventually cross the border to India in Burimari, north of Bangladesh. 

We leave our nice Airbnb early morning but not without saying goodbye to our fantastic host, Shahid. The traffic is not too bad as people start their working day later than we do. It takes us 30 minutes to get out of the city onto smaller roads on the country side. At this point, half of Bangladesh is waving and smiling at us, and I am sure that by the end of our stay, we will have met half of the country’s male population. Even though Bangladesh is a moderate Muslim country, women still live in the background so it’s always a treat for me when I have some interaction with girls and women. As soon as we stop for a picture or some food, there are 10-20 men and boys staring curiously at us.

The first few days on the road, I need to adjust to the traffic. It takes me a little while not to be scared when speeding buses honk from far away to let everyone know that they are coming and...to get out of the way. All the buses, trucks and cars have scratches and bumps everywhere. By now, I can say with confidence biking is the safest way to travel in Bangladesh because you can avoid crazy drivers by jumping off the bike. 

 On the way to Sylhet, Moulvy Bazaar Cycling Community meets us on the road for a nice chat and breakfast. Bangladesh has a large active Cycling Community. Many people of different backgrounds join the community to save their country from asphyxiation. Since we’re in Bangladesh, Frank coughs his lungs up every day because of the air pollution. Our clothes and skin are black at the end of each biking day. Their biking cause becomes self defence. Without it, they may disappear and not only because of the yearly flooding.

When we get closer to Sylhet, SCC, Sylhet Cycling Community, welcomes us on the road showing us the way into the city. Arif hosts us for five days where we get to discover the area. He lived for 30 years in Germany but came recently back to Sylhet for personal reasons. Looking for physical activity, he joined the cycling community of Sylhet and became the ‘big brother ‘ of all the young members. It is hard to explain how he empowers the young people of the community. He allows them to become their better selves. 

Arif

This cycling community is more than a cycling club. It is a social association. Some of its achievements are, helping young women to acquire freedom, improve health of a population with a 60-70% diabetes rate, decrease pollution, help families in need and much more... Arif is a key member of this community, he makes a difference, not by telling them what and how to do it, but by letting them find the solutions and delegating responsibilities. We have been very lucky to meet many members of this community. I have rarely seen so much positive energy that actually move things. The biggest concerns of the young generation we met, is the corruption in their country. Nevertheless, they don’t give up and believe in a better future. 

we wrote some SCC names on our hands so we would not forget them

we wrote some SCC names on our hands so we would not forget them

During our stay, we visited tea plantations and learned tea workers have some of the lowest incomes in Bangladesh. While the tea companies make millions of dollars, their workers die of starvation. A tea worker makes 85 Tk/day which is CAD $1/day. They are unable to feed their families and are held like slaves by the tea companies within the plantations. Sometimes, they are even not paid in Taka but only in a local currency that is worth nothing. Only designated workers are allowed to leave the plantation and children are unable to attend school. Everyone is born and die in the same place without having the opportunity of a better future. And still, they are kind and welcome you with a smile. I feel like I (we) don’t deserve so much kindness. If you want to read more about their conditions click on the following link: https://libcom.org/news/tea-workers-poorest-poor-bangladesh-21052018

 After a five day visit and many parties, we leave Sylhet with a group of SCC cyclists. They accompany us to our next destination, Sunamganj 65 km away from Sylhet. One of the girls in the group bikes for the first time such a long distance, a total of 130km as they return the same day to Sylhet. The longest distance she ever biked was 50 km. When we talk about the distance before we leave Sylhet, she looks at me and says: I will try my best to complete the entire distance...Inshallah, and she did it! There are many more fond stories I would like to share but it will wait until we’re back. The most important message I bring back home is their slogan: Impossible becomes I’m possible.

Us in traditional clothes and some of the SCC women members

For our next destination, we take a night ferry/wreck along a river. The boat looks like it is from another time, rusty and old  but not dirty. On the boat, we meet more of the poorest people of Bangladesh. And still, there is this overwhelming kindness and generosity. They offer us tea, better seats and their beautiful smiles. Our captain sails in the dark on a very narrow river without radar or light. I still don’t know how he gets us safely to the destination. 

Our next goal is Bogra. Before we get there, we have to cross another river by boat if we don’t want to bike all the way to Dhaka as there is no other bridge close by. Crossing the river is another experience and we are lucky there are no buffalos on the boat unlike other boats we have seen on the river.

our ferry

On both sides of the river, we have a police escort waiting for us. Our host in Bogra, Dollar, also part of the Cycling Community, alerted the District police to offer us protection. 

our first but not last police escort

He is concerned that a few weeks before the national election something could happen to us. Unfortunately, having a constant police escort changes the dynamics of our trip and the interaction with locals. 

The Highlight of our stay is the open air play Dollar invites us to attend on the country side of Bogra. It is a huge event narrating the history of the subcontinent with 8 stages and more than 350 actors and dancers. Absolutely stunning! Thank you Dollar.

open air play

Another enthusiastic biker, Siyam, joins us in Bogra to bike with us to Rangpur. He is my best friend in Bangladesh. 19 years old, always smiling and wickedly smart, he becomes our police escort organizer for the next 6 days. A job he did not sign up for. Nevertheless, he stays zen and the personification of happiness. 

Siyam

At some point, Frank is losing it when the police doesn’t allow us to stay in the resort Dollar booked for us. We are ready to leave the country immediately if they don’t let us stay in the initially booked place. Our unhappiness went up all the way to the minister of transportation and tourism. Siyam is scared that if we don’t go to the hotel the police asks us to book, it could have negative repercussions for him. Eventually they let us stay, for free. Well, all of you know how it is when Frank is not happy. Four police officers with rifles and bulletproof vests stay for our protection. I also start to get annoyed by the police surveillance because the only thing I want to be protected from are mosquitoes, but nobody cares.

In Rangpur, we stay with Siyam’s cousin’s family. His family welcomes us in their home. Both of us are spoiled rotten with delicious food China, Siyam’s cousin ‘s wife, cooks for us. She starts the cooking at 5:30 am in the morning preparing the first meal of the day and keeps going until our appetite is completely satisfied at 10 pm in the evening. The last evening, Kamrul, Siyam’s cousin, teaches Frank how to wear a Lungi and the ‘Lungi Dance’. After a two day visit and a goodbye party with the neighbors, we leave with teary eyes.

Siyam’s family in Rangpur

The Police escort keeps following us until Burimari, border crossing to India, where they obviously wait for a thank you tip. This is not the first time and we play ‘stupid’. Eventually they leave. While Frank goes out again to take pictures of the ‘stone’ workers (young men cutting stones into smaller ones), I hide in our really crappy hotel room from the dust and noise. Looking forward to our next adventure, the following morning, we cross the border to India. I am happy to be the ‘white VIP’ because it takes us only an hour to cross the border. The process is much longer for the locals.

As usual I finish with a few likes and dislikes:

Likes:

  • Bengali people and their smiles 

  • Colourful clothes 

  • Lush green colours on the country side

  • Rickshaws traffic jams - it is really beautiful, although it is inhuman not to allow Dhaka rickshaw drivers to switch to electrical motors to keep it authentic. Sometimes, they have more than 4 people on their rickshaw. 

  • Scary rides in CNG (Bengali TuckTuck) - it is fast and fun

  • Paratha - flat bread, the name is an amalgamation of the words para and atta which literally means layers of cooked dough

  • Hope of young people for a better future 

  • Biking communities in Bangladesh

Dislikes:

  • crazy traffic and aggressive bus drivers

  • Corruption at all levels

  • Pollution and the effects of climate change on the environment in Bangladesh 

  • Us being complacent about the workers conditions in Bangladesh 

  • Women not being as free as men

  • Good schooling is not free

  • Some parents can’t send their children to school because they need the extra income

 In conclusion, Bangladesh is more than I ever expected. There is an energy and positivism in the younger generation that wants me to believe the future is brighter. Young men support young women in their desire to do the same things as men, f.eg. biking. The young generation faces many challenges in Bangladesh but I am confident that the new generation will create a better life for all. It is fascinating to observe how Impossible becomes “I’m possible”!

Very happy (photo credit: Siyam)


 

FRANK

Bangladesh is not a tourist destination. You can tell by the lack of information available on the internet and the out of date travel books, even among the most famous travel guides.

The only time we hear about Bangladesh is during the monsoon season through flooding documentaries, headline news or when a clothing factory producing clothes for expensive western brands collapses killing hundreds of people paid few cents/hour.

 When we arrived in Dhaka we had no expectation, just the excitement to discover a country we do not know much about. 

Within a few minutes, despite a typical Asian process to get our VOA ( visa on arrival), we were surrounded by people welcoming us with smiles and willing to help us to go through the process quickly and smoothly. China was already behind us....far behind.

Our first “mission” in Dhaka was to get an Indian Visa as we will cross the border biking. E-visa or VOA (visa on arrival) are available only if people fly into India. According to some traveler forums, applying for an Indian visa in Dhaka is a bureaucratic nightmare and many give up after multiple rejections, rather flying than crossing overland. 

Expecting to be stuck for a few days in the Bangladesh capital we decided to rent an Airbnb instead of a hotel room. Good call and good choice made. Shahid, our host welcomes us in a very nice, quiet and cozy studio in a gated residential neighborhood. 

Two full days and one sleepless night to go through the online forms on a government website full of bugs and do the line up with hundreds of other people. 99% of them from Bangladesh willing to cross the border for medical attentions or on a quest of better paid jobs.

5 more days to wait for the magic stamp in our passport gave us plenty time to visit the city and figure out an itinerary through Bangladesh.

Dhaka, very polluted city, horrendous traffic, very noisy....that is mainly what you get from reviews and comments. Well, we can confirm these facts, just add 32c and a lot of humidity. Traffic is so crazy that driving and traffic rules are not applicable. 10km requires over one hour to be covered....if you go by Tuck-Tuck or by moto taxi,... and if you are lucky. 

You can see the pollution, the air is thick, yellow and our faces are dusty after only a few minutes out. A non stop honking concert reaches levels of decibels that could challenge sounds in a night club. 

However, we liked to wander and get lost in old Dhaka narrow streets and wide boulevards of the upper scale areas of Dhaka. 

Wandering to discover amazing areas, and street life in such environmental conditions is exhausting and at night we feel we have just run an ultra event. The present story could be few pages long, just on Dhaka....photos and videos may tell better. 

We were surprised by the kindness of the people met, the numerous encounters made under the excuse of selfies and the smile on each face despite the poverty and precarious life existence of some. 

With or without smiles, people of Bangladesh are beautiful, charming, friendly and always there to help you if you ask for something or.... not.

How refreshing after China!

We left Dhaka with our Indian visas but without any clear idea of an itinerary. Heading North for about a first stretch of 320km to meet Arif, “spiritual” leader of  the Sylhet Cycling community. Desperate by the lack of information and source of information, I discovered the existence of cycling communities. Almost right away 2 replies popped up in my inbox. Siyam, who we will meet later, and Arif were excited to hear about us and willing to provide tips and meet us. 

By a smoggy early morning we hit the road heading to our first destination with a detour to an area known for tea plantation.  

On the way we have been cheered by few cyclists informed by the cycling community social network. They were waiting for us at different parts of our route, happy to share few pedal strokes with us. A lunch, few more km and few selfies before a goodbye till the next unexpected encounter. Great feelings each time even if our average pace drastically dropped down. 

Popular is probably not the right word to qualify Selfies. Bengalis can easily claim the title of Selfie experts. At first we thought selfies have been done in our honor, quickly we discovered it has nothing to do with us. We have maybe contributed to force Bengalis to explore new form of exposures because of our white skin contrasting with theirs and the light reflection on my bald head also new framing angles as we are taller than most of them but that is about it. After a while we came to a conclusion that when we want to leave a party we must count how many friends are around, then multiply that number by 4 ( the average selfies taken by each person) and finally multiplied by 30 seconds needed. For a good selfie. It is all about anticipation.

Keep in mind that selfies happen at any time, not only when a party is over. 

If you are on Facebook expect a sudden increase of your number of friends within few minutes after you met people. Mark Zuckerberg does not own Facebook, Bangladesh does.

Moulvybazar, Sylhet and Bogura cycling community have been particularly special in welcoming us. And we could not thank them enough for their time and enthusiasm shown to make our experience unforgettable. 

Overwhelmed by the hospitality, we even stayed 4 days in Sylhet learning about their different athletic and social projects, sharing morning and evening rides in the country side and tea farms. 

Our last evening turned out as a big party, Sylvia being dressed with a Red Sari and myself with a Panjabi and a Pijama. A lot of fun and generosity as our new outfits were given to us as a gift.

The Sylhet Cycling Community plans a big event for 2020... we will be there. 

I could keep writing in details about all the time spent with these young adults and their bicycles but I will only summarize by saying that the bicycles are not just a toy. They are a tool for environmental concerns and education, a link between people and gender to socialize, a way to stay healthy and fit and a friendly form of transportation to explore the country side to collect informations about various needs that the cycling community could support by organizing auctions or collecting money.

They like to see each other as brothers and sisters and that is definitely the impression we keep after watching them together.

Long life to all of them

The Jamuna River runs from North to South and splits the country in 2 parts. Only a couple of bridges allow to cross the river. Leaving Sylhet, we need to cross the river to reach the Western side of the country. The problem is that the bridge is too far South and we are not keen to ride 350km just for it. We heard about “ferries” crossing the river, we aimed for that option and were excited about it. As said earlier, waterways have always been the best way to move around in Bangladesh. However, “modernity and progress” have brought projects for new roads and enhancements for those already built. Definitely improving transport time but jeopardizing river transport businesses. River boats will eventually disappear and we want to experience that form of transport while it still exist. 

We are off season so only one river boat per day for the segment of river that will avoid us a longer journey on the road. Departure at 11pm...US$12 for both of us and our bikes.

Arif, big brother and spiritual leader of the Sylhet cycling community introduced us to another cyclist living in the little town where the launch will start. We stayed for some rest at his place after our 70km ride from Sylhet. By chance our host for a few hours is a friend of the river boat owner. The crew will take good care of us and help us to load the bikes on the launch. At this time of the year, rivers are very low. The lack of depth forces boats to stop far before their usual destinations offering business to Tuck-Tuck or other forms of transport to convoy people further.

At 11pm with our headlamps on we cycled to the river and the departure dock. A drop of easily 10meters transformed the boarding process in a perilous balance exercise in a steep muddy slope. The launch has 2 levels. What we could call the second class at water level furnished with metallic chairs and a little above, the first class with seats more comfy but probably dating from the 50’s if not even before that. 

River transportations are the cheapest way to travel, so for many people who could not afford a bus ticket the second class option at less than 1$ is popular. The launch left right on time and the crew right away make us feeling VIP, as much it can be in this kind of situation. No many people on the first class deck and Sylvia can have 4 seats to lay down and sleep for a few hours. 

I was so excited by the experience that I stayed up all night wandering around the boat and in the second class deck also occupied by the noisy big Detroit Diesel engine. The noise of the engine does not allow any clear conversation. Although, the mechanic is sitting, eating and sleeping right next to the engine ready to act at any moment under the order of the captain. A string and a big bell make the connection between them. 

Here also, Bengalis like Selfies and been taken in portrait. They get used of crappy cameras, declassified smartphone or very cheap Chinese brands. Selfies are usually blurry or foggy. So when I take a photo of them with my camera, I like to let them see the result. It definitely makes their day and they ask for more portraits. The difficulty is to surprise them to have other poses than those of an army caporal.

I made a lot of friends during the 7 hours, spent time with the captain navigating only by routine. No technology, no light, just the big steering wheel and his eyes to make sure the boat stays in the middle of the river in a dark night. 

Few very quick stops on the way to pick up people and freight in the middle of the night with the almost full moon to barely see some silhouettes waiting in the muddy river banks. Unbelievable experience. At sunrise the spectacle is stunning with a pale light and foggy air. The river is by then barely wider than the boat itself. Winding between rice fields and little settlements where we can see people busy by their early morning ablution in the green brownish water. The sun quickly rising red behind few trees. The moment is magic and we realize again that we are among the last people to be able to document such moments. 

Suddenly a big net blocked the river. Terminus. Everyone disembarked, walking on wood planks to avoid the mud. A crew member confirmed we had plenty time so we let everyone going out and the freight to be loaded on the back of porters first then on carts to a few little trucks waiting few hundred meters away.

We thanked the captain and the crew while they were already cleaning and preparing the rusty launch for its return with its new cargo of people and freight. 

Another couple of hundreds kilometers and we were getting closer to the next water experience.

However, as we were getting closer the info regarding the “ferry” that would allow us to cross that wide river were more confusing.

It went from: “ferry? , no ferry” to “ yes, boat but no possible with bicycle”

Trusting there is at least some sort of a boat it was hard to imagine we could not go with our bikes. Counting on our good angel we kept going toward the river. 

People we asked along the road let us believe we could have hopes to be able to cross that river one way or another. But the road they showed us looked more like a bicycle path than a road so we were quiet concerned we were taking the right direction especially when my compass showed we were heading North while we should go West.

A motor cycle coming from behind slowed down at our level. 2 policemen asked us if we were lost. Basic English but enough to explain : “ river, crossing and Bogura ( the name of the city we tried to reach on the other side)”

Under their escort we progressed to what looked like “nowhere” , confident we were going somewhere as they kept encouraging to ride on in response to our interrogative faces.

So much white sand now covering the narrow pavement that we were happy to have our fat tires. The green surrounding totally vanished and only bright white sand gave us the feeling we were reaching the coast of the ocean. 

A little wood booth covered with a metal sheet colored with potatoes chips bags hanging and swinging in light breeze. A guy sitting there is selling snacks and cups of tea to the few people around. The light was very bright, the sun was hot, the air was humid. This place was unreal. 

The river bank gave access to the water in a gentle slope. If this is the place to embark it will be much easier than our previous river experience. 

The policemen were pampering us...not sure why at that point but they paid us a tea and let us know where to buy tickets making sure the ticket guy did not charge us more than the regular price.

No clear information about a time frame but more people were showing up so it should not be too long.

A wooden long pirogue eventually beached. Passengers jumped out of it making room for all of us waiting on the beach. Probably about hundred human being and ... 2 bicycles.

We understood we should go down quickly now...pushing our loaded bikes in deep sand and with the help of passengers already packed in the pirogue, we managed to embark our bikes. Feeling sorry for the people, women, kids, babies and other men of all ages who had to squeeze to give us room. 

The bikes were longer than the width of the pirogue, not easy to fit them properly. The boat was so packed it reminded us these photos of immigrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Not enough space to sit anywhere in or on the edges of the vessel, I stood up for the time of the crossing. Easier to take pictures. 

Zig-zagging between sandbanks, we made our way to the other side in about one hour. Another long white beach to cross toward a wall of green trees contrasting nicely in the landscape. Straw and hay covering the sand marked the way and made the ride definitely easier. Not enough, though, for the few rickshaws carrying people rushing to be on time for the boat. Feeling sorry for the rickshaw riders forced to hike and push their load of passengers not willing to help by walking. Surreal. 

Coming toward us, a group of 10 cyclists. They were from the cycling community of Bogura. Dollar was leading the group of young cyclists. Dollar is the Arif for the Bogura cycling community. About the same age, the same wisdom, both are guiding the community, educate and create harmony between all the members. We rode together the 25km remaining to the city, escorted by another police patrol. Excited by this new warm welcome, we did not wonder why we had that escort and just enjoyed the ride chatting with our new friends.

Dollar booked an hotel for us and gave us 2 hours to refresh and eat something before meeting again in the lobby. We vaguely understood that there was a play telling the story of the Indian Sub continent and Bangladesh. Only 2 nights, we were lucky we were invited for the premiere.

Showered, clean clothes and some food in the stomach we were just in time for the meeting. First surprise, Dollar and a few other cyclists showed up with their bicycles, we were invited to take ours. Oooops, we were not really dressed for biking.... we trusted it would be only a few minutes ride. It is 4:30pm......It must be a late afternoon play......At 5:15pm we were still biking, now in the country side. I risked the question.

“ soooo, how far is that play?”.... “23km, only 10 more km” 

!!!!!!

Ok, so it will be 46km return to add to the 95km already biked today. It also means a return in the dark and we have not brought our headlamps. The road was narrow and the traffic increased. No doubt a lot of people were going to the play. More investigation and we learned it was an open air play in a historical area. Sponsored by the government, at only few weeks from the election an opportunity for the minister of transport and tourism to show up and do their speech in front of an estimated 35000 spectators. It is almost dark when we arrived on site and clearly this is a big event. Laser show, big spotlights and a huge crowd pressing to the site. We are foreigners, the only one for sure, so our new friends were playing the VIP card. We were guided through a dense crowd all the way up to the front, invited to sit down on the grass right in front of the government seats.

350 actors and dancers, 8 stages and 3 hours of an amazing show...totally unexpected.

At midnight we were back to the hotel after another 23km with the only light of a full moon to light the road and to avoid all the potholes.

What a day!

Siyam is a 20 years old man, passionate by photography, cyclist and excited by the idea to spend a few days with us cycling up north. We had contact with him through a forum where I posted a note asking for info about cycling in Bangladesh. That was a few weeks ago and we promised to make it happen. Arrived by bus from his hometown, he showed up sweating in the hotel lobby around 9:30 am. We were all ready to go, time to say goodbye to more new cyclists faces, the lobby became a photo studio with numerous selfies shooting.

A police jeep with 4 policemen was waiting in front of the hotel. Dollar, anxious for our security - !?!?- requested a police escort for us and gave to Siyam a list of phone numbers to call in order to organize the escort all the way to our common destination.

That was not the plan and I can see the face of Siyam changing as, like us, he was taken totally off guard.

Siyam is not only a very nice guy with a great sense of humor, a good photographer and a good team mate he is also a perfect negotiator and communicator. The original idea was to cycle with us for about 300km to visit his cousin family in Rangpur, the last big city on our itinerary before the Indian border. 

The poor guy was in charge by the police to call every police department on our way to give them an ETA so that every 15km a new police escort was waiting for us.

A situation that totally changed the dynamic of our journey. At each stop for rest, for food or for a drink the usual friendly curious crowd was kept in distance from us. We had escorts with bulletproof vests, big guns and crossing each village was done with sirens.

I lost my temper when the police refused us to stay in a guesthouse we choose to force us to go to another governmental hotel much more expensive. A thick odor of corruption and search of privilege.

Far too much for my anarchist genes. Big arguments with the police agent destabilized Siyam trying nicely to calm down everyone. Numerous phone calls to higher grade police agent, forcing Siyam to play a new role as translator. I could see Siyam worry for himself as it sounded like he received some sort of threats. 

After a couple of hours of verbal fight and promises that I will make some big waves about that situation, everything changes and we were suddenly allowed to stay in the guesthouse....for free.

Some of the police agents definitely concerned about a detailed report I promised to do after I asked for their names and grade spent the next few hours trying to explain us they were sorry and things will be very different now. I never got their name, though.

Siyam received numerous phone calls all night about the incident. Apparently the info went all the way up to the minister of tourism.

We will now be escorted all the way to the border with police staying in each of our accommodation for another 5 days. The election only few weeks later, the government did not want to take any risk with tourists. We never felt unsecured before so for us it remains a useless initiative that soon been triggered could not be stopped. Even more, instead of feeling protected we felt more like a perfect target for anyone who may have the idea to screw up the image of the government by committing something against 2 Canadian cyclists.

We spend 2 refreshing days in Siyam’s family, though. It helped to cool down our anger for that situation. Very nice family who took really nicely care of us and everything ended up with a fun evening dancing in their apartment with neighbors. Bangladesh as we like it and as we will keep it in mind.

The good thing about the police escorting us to the border is that they were so happy to get rid of us, they eased the custom formalities and within one hour we were able to say goodbye to the last escort and unfortunately, to a country that really kick our emotions more than once.

We will be back.....

 







BangladeshZenija Esmits
Chengdu - Kunming China Oct 12-Nov 4 2018
eastcapades-graphics-4.jpg

challenge

+25032/-23662

ROUTE

875km

    TIME

16 days

off road

0km

SYLVIA

Human contact - interaction with people 

We’re back in Chengdu and ready for the last part of our Chinese journey. Our bikes are with Larry, an American who came to Chengdu as a Teacher, and never left because he loves China. 

He has a bike mechanic shop in the outskirts of the city where he builds custom made Bamboo bikes, organizes Tibetan biking tours and sometimes helps lost touring bikers who need bike repairs and tune-ups. Larry is our ‘bike’ savior.  Without him we would still be cycling around Chengdu trying to find a bike mechanic. Isn’t it hard to believe that there are no bike shops in a 14 mil people city? This is probably due to the fact that the city has a very easy bike rental system in place and the rentals are available everywhere, so there is no need to own a bike.

On our way to Leshan, we bike through small villages and discover a new side of China. Mining and Agricultural industries are omnipresent, each cm of land is used for something. The Chinese are amazing gardeners & farmers.  It's even more impressive because the terrain we bike through is difficult to work - almost all is done by hand and not machines. Altogether, there are 300 mil farmers, and China holds the #1 rank in farm output in the world even though only 15% of the land is farmland. The farmed land can be confiscated at any time by the government for new roads, train tracks, bridges and industry. If a farmer's land is seized, they are displaced and have to work on construction sites or in other industries like a handy man. I encourage you to read more information about the agriculture industry in China, and the challenges farmers face by clicking on the following link: 

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agriculture_in_China

As usual, we are being photographed by many people, including being the main attraction at a "stag/stagette party" which they do the same just like we do in Europe or America. 

On that same day, we have to wait behind a big concrete truck that drove into a big hole on a small village road and we get rained on. Eventually, we make it to Leashan. 

We are really happy when we arrive and the hotel staff gives us a room even though we look dirty and drenched.  The city is mostly known for the Giant Buddha - biggest in the world. The tall stone statue, carved out of a cliff of red sandstone faces Leshan and the Dadu and Min river. It’s under renovation at the moment, and unfortunately we’re not able to see the 71m high statue from the bottom. It’s hair has been carved so the rain water can run all the way down to the ground to prevent the erosion of the statue. 

This technique clearly works as the statue was completed in 803 and still stands even though it does need some repair. After a couple of rest days, we try to continue our trip, but Frank breaks his chain. Luckily, we are not too far from the city and once Frank has replaced the chain and identified the issue, we return to the hotel. Another rest day in a nice hotel for me :) Sometimes, I get a bit restless when we’re not biking and hang around in a nice place, but my legs are very thankful and say ‘merci’. We have the replacement pieces within 24 hours thanks to Larry and off we go again. It’s raining again and we arrive in Emei Shan fully soaked. We’re happy when we see the McDonald sign. We can order food, have wifi and dry our clothes a bit. McDonalds have become our savior in desperate moments. Coffee, fries and burgers bring back our smiles. We hope to visit Mount Emei the next day, but in the morning we realize that this will not happen. It is still pouring down, and we decide to take the train and miss 300 km (and the rain) of our biking road. Getting our bikes on the train was another adventure, but thanks to an efficient young train agent, the problem is resolved very quickly. On the train, Frank speaks with two young women who speak English very well. One of them is a teacher in Computer Science. The school she is working for has an exchange program with a High school in...White Rock, BC. And the other woman works as admin staff for Chevron. She has an interesting work schedule. She works 28 days non stop (12 hrs/day, except for Sunday 6 hrs/day), and then she has 28 days off. Her schedule overlaps with her colleague for one day so they can brief each other about the ongoing work. My guess is North American or European unions would not allow this kind of schedule, although it sounds somehow appealing.

The rest of the road to Kunming has lot of mileage and elevation plus big temperature differences. We’re back drinking a lot of sodas for refreshment, and we feel our stomachs are not always happy with the bubbles and sugar intake. The two bigger cities we visit (Xichan and Panzhihua), are pleasant and are a manageable size population wise (1 mil vs 10 mil). Nevertheless, we’re still a rare species, we meet no other Caucasians and we are by now used to the staring, which is not always friendly. That said, we also have a wonderful experience in Yongren, when two young Chinese men invite us to stay overnight at their place. 

relieved smiles when our Chinese friends invite us to stay overnight

our hotel room in Yongren

We’re invited for dinner, breakfast and a sightseeing tour, and a big party dinner with more friends. They even get fries, steak and a pizza for us. We finish the second evening in a Karaoke bar with a group of 15 people where we sing very badly, drink too much beer and cry when we leave. They are the most hospitable people we met on our trip, and it was the nicest evening in China. 

our hospitable new friends

The time we’ve spent together will definitely be one my fondest Chinese memories. 

The road into Kunming is very dirty and the air quality is probably the worst we had so far. When we cross through a tunnel (we’re not allowed to use), we come out the other end wet and totally covered in mud due to riding behind a truck cleaning the street with water. The truck is so slow which allowed us to safely cross the tunnel. On the other side of the mountain, the climate is completely different, it’s cold and rainy, and we’re happy to eventually see the Ibis hotel sign. The hotel staff is very friendly and helpful, we’re even allowed to take the bikes into our hotel room. 

The hotel also has a laundry service so I don’t have to wash our clothes in the sink while Frank is packing our bikes before flying out to Bangladesh. Everyone and everything has been cleaned and tuned-up as necessary before the next part of our journey begins. Our bikes have been reviewed by Bruce, a Chinese bike mechanic. 

IMG_0054.jpg

Both of us had some issues that needed to be addressed, and to our surprise, our bikes are literally like new. He is very meticulous and organized, I guess both go well together :) Frank has shaved, which is very challenging because razor blades are of very poor quality in China and there are no barbershops in Kunming, or at least we didn’t find one. 

Our Chinese journey comes to an end tomorrow, and I am still fascinated by China. It’s huge,  beautiful and contains a lot of contradictions. The majority of people in the country side are fatigued with their lives in general. In some villages and smaller towns, propaganda music wakes them in the morning and puts them to sleep in the evening. The differences between the urban wealth and rural poverty are big. Historical tourism is weird as almost all the temples and artifacts were destroyed during the cultural revolution and rebuilt in the last 20 years. The revolution has deprived them of their past, good or bad. Freedom of speech and circulation is not for everyone. The government censorship has deprived them of the fundamental right of information and thoughts. The pro government media tells people what to think but if you scratch hard enough, you find scared but rebellious minds. It’s frightening what the Chinese government does to their own people, you wonder what they would do if they take over the world by being successful with the world road belt they are building. And even though I admire their capacity to move mountains, which they literally do, I would not like to live under their scrutiny. Hundreds of years of government oppression has created a sad nation, where everyone is supposed to think and believe alike.

My only regret of our time in China is that I didn’t spend enough time with people to discuss my observations because of the language barrier. As a result, my thoughts about China are single sided, maybe even narrow minded. Most of all, I really missed the human contact with Chinese.

Below a few more notes about my likes and dislikes:

Likes:

  • I never felt unsafe on my bike or elsewhere 

  • No road rage in China. While drivers, bikers and pedestrians follow their own rules, moving the wrong way or crossing red lights, everyone keeps moving in the traffic chaos without being upset.

  • families eat their meals together, either along the street, in restaurants or in the stores/shops they own

  • Kunming is my favourite city in China. The blue sky and air remind me Vancouver.  It is unbelievably quiet due to the electric motorbikes and the amazing pavement

  • Mapo tofu - a specialty in Sichuan

  • Weird food, like bee larvae’s and pig feet 

  • Delicious fruit and vegetables 

  • Kunming Underground transit staff - they helped us finding a minivan to the airport. Thanks to them we did not miss our flight to Dhaka

  • Ibis hotel staff in Kunming

  • People dancing everywhere in the evening 

Frank in 15 years...

Dislikes:

  • real estate speculation - there are thousands if not hundred of thousands of unoccupied high rises

  • life conditions of people living on the country side is miserable 

  • almost impossible to find a camping spot but in a cemetery 

  • additional entrance fees within a tourist attraction. In Xichang, the city is asking an entrance fee to see the lake

  • water and air pollution in Sichuan and Yunnan

 And as a good finishing note, a huge thank you to Zenija who uploads our stories and pictures. Without her, no blog! Thank you to Alexa who reviews our stories, Eric for reviewing and inspiring me to write better and shorter stories, and a big smile on Frank’s face.


 

FRANK

A taxi ride with all our panniers from the hotel in Chengdu took us to the South East side of the city to meet Larry from Natooke Chengdu  at his bicycle workshop. Larry is from the US, found his happiness in Chengdu and settled down making his passion for bikes his main source of income. Occasionally he guides bike tours in Sichuan and Yunnan with “Bike China Adventure” for clients from all around the world. Larry is not only a bike technician and a bike adventure guide he also builds Bamboo Bikes and ship them anywhere you want :) . It's a passion that became almost a lifestyle. As we re-pack our tuned up bikes we chat about bikes, gears, bike parts, guiding and we left his bike cave with good tips for the rest of our journey to Kunming.

Kunming is about 650Km South of Chengdu “as a crow flies”. Crows don’t care about mountains and deep valleys....they don't care about temples and other interesting places to visit or to ride through. It is a big dilemma to pick one road that will satisfy our hunger to see everything and be in the mountains. The problem with the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces is the lack of connection between one valley and another...you pick one and you stick with it...what ever the direction the valley is bearing. Better to double check before you head into one of them as the way out can be very far from where you want to eventually go.

Based on Larry's recommendations and our ....guts (Sylvia’s and mine :) ) we drew a sort of a draft plan on the map that gives us some kind of flexibility to change plans. A 1200Km itinerary, we definitely have nothing in common with a crow. 

First goal, reach Emeishan. A good warm up after few days off the bikes. Riding bikes in China can be problematic and not only because of the language. During and since the cultural revolution many cities and locations have been re-baptized with new names. From one map to another, from one generation to another the same place has been named differently. With the Mega project to make China more progressive and up to date with the occidental countries, little villages are turning into towns, towns into cities and cities into megalopolises. 

Even with updated digital maps we stay confused when we cross a town that is not even shown on our map, we get frustrated when a road we have been following for many km becomes deactivated or transformed into a unexpected muddy road forcing us to choose between turning back to another option that would mean many km detour or taking the risk to persist on the same path hoping that it won't be muddy for too long and more importantly that it will take us somewhere. The good side of this is we cross amazing country side and can document a farming lifestyle in villages that for most part are turning in ghost places. All the young generation, in a quest for jobs and attracted by shining new cities growing or expanding like weeds, leave their villages and older generations behind.

We crossed many villages with no life, all stores closed, a few old souls getting together in what used to be a shop to play cards or dominos. Few are still working really hard in numerous small fields leased for free from the government knowing that any time it can be seized to build a huge Hwy, a fast train track or a new city.

We have the feeling that human beings and nature have no consideration from the decisions of leaders. What has to be done will be done, no matter what. There is a cost for everything and collateral damages are part of the cost.

We cannot avoid seeing major speculations in many aspects and the fundamental fragility of such speculations that can have huge implications at every level. But we are just modest wanderers, seeing and translating with our senses what is around us. In 2 generations China may show us that it was the way to go but for now what we have seen along the road was deprivation in the quality of lives for many people. And that has been true during the 2 months cycling through the Chinese country sides.

Weather did not add any bright light on our route. Mainly overcast, with drizzly conditions that progressively will become constant torrential rain. We arrived in Leshan after a long 130km ride. Longer than we thought because of the unexpected detours and road conditions. A very awful end of the day. With our headlamps, on a very misty late afternoon, rainy early evening and through endless road construction creating a huge traffic jams we cycled.  Fighting for our space on the now muddy, very muddy road (or what remains from the original one) there is no way we can stop. Soon we have a place among the trucks and other motorized vehicles honking to signal their presence we better keep at it. Screaming over my shoulder but keeping an eye on the potholes I make sure Sylvia is still behind me and alive. Between nervous honking I can vaguely hear something like “WTF are we doing here?” that I translate into “all is ok, I am handling it, how fun is this!". If I decide to stop for more info on her condition we would lose our place in the moving train and not be able to jump in again. She is alive and knows we are getting close to shelter.

The shelter is a nice IBIS hotel we decided to stay at, using information from an out-of-date offline application we find while resting curb side when the road finally got wider and allowed us to regroup. Reasonable rates, close to the side of the city we came in on. Within a few more minutes we are in a warm shower, bikes out of the rain. High five. Tonight we are celebrating with fried rice and eggs!

A couple of days off the bikes to visit the biggest Buddha in the world. 70 meters tall, carved in a red sandstone cliff where 3 major rivers merged.

The giant Buddha project started under the Tang Dynasty. It took about 100 years from 703AD to 803AD to finish the project that a Monk started by himself with the hope that in the future the Buddha will reduce flooding problems and calm the turbulent water threatening vessels. Actually, sediment and rock waste accumulations from the carving during the 100 years helped immensely but the success is still today attributed to the Giant Buddha... And another tourist attraction is born. I must say a very interesting one and impressive. But like in many other touristic places you are constantly being asked to contribute not only once at the main entrance but very often more times when you are inside the site. The general admittance is not always full admittance.

Buddha has been nice with us and offered us few hours of sunny warm conditions...just for the time of the visit. 

Back under heavy rain we biked to Emeishan. We know we will be soaked but it is only 30km to reach another high tourist destination. High in elevation and high in tourist interest the “attraction” is a gold temple perched at 4000m. Accessed only by buses from the little Emi town after a 2h drive one way. That by itself multiplies the opportunities to charge more tourists.

Totally drenched we ended up in one of the first hotels on the street. The Main Street of Emi is a juxtaposition of hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants. The first pick is basic but good enough. The hotel is dark, room smells of moisture and an AC on the ceiling tries to hide its age with a lot of duct tape. We gained some elevation since Chengdu but are definitely still in a humid subtropical climate. We asked the AC device to change its attitude for a brief moment. We are cold enough, a little bit of heat would be appreciated and would allow us to dry our gears.

A quick look at the weather forecast and satellite photo, it is going to rain for few days. Webcams of the peak attraction show nothing but clouds with no hope of a change anytime soon.

A quick check with a very casual internet connection and the decision is taken to jump on a train to the very next and closest destination showing sun on the weather forecast.

Xichang or Liangshan, according to your generation, arrival time scheduled for 11:30PM, departing at 3pm...We left the hotel, trying to bike between the rain drops to go for what we thought was a train station. Classic useless explanation of our goal to a counter agent to be told it was not a train station but a high speed bus station. The rail track can be seen from outside the building, though. Back on the bikes we headed back on the road we came  in on the day before to go to another train station.... the good one. We gave up the stupid idea of trying to stay as dry as possible. The rain is torrential. Back to scratch with explanations. 

“We-Want-To-Buy-Tickets-For-2persons-And-2bikes”

The translator app tries to help us but does not seem to do a good job. Short sentences, easy wording,... in response we have only long silences, laughs and definitely incomprehension. There is always ONE person somewhere who is keen to help us either with few words in English, better skill at using the translator app, or by using a little bit of common sense. When you find one person with one of these specifications, you grab him/her and you don’t let it go. The hunt for that rare pearl was on.

Took us about another 2 hours to finalize the project “train to the sun”, a lot of sweat and self control but 2 hours later the bikes were registered for another train 2 days later (ah, yes why would we still expect anything easier?) and we just had to wait a couple more hours in the waiting room. Stress and pressure fading out, we could then enjoy outside a now cleared up sky (no kidding!). The train station doors are only opened 2hours prior the train schedule. Well at least that gave us time and chance to finish drying our still wet clothes.

Xichang where we get off the train, Panzhihua, Yongren are “classic” Chinese cities of different sizes, different interests, differently pleasant (or not) on our itinerary. A route that will constantly be re-evaluated on the way to Kunming. A few sections have been very fun to ride, a few climbs have been challenging with very nice rewards at the top but to summarize we did not enjoy it that much. 

The scenery offers some really nice spots but separated by long dusty polluted and busy section that have undermined the enjoyment to be back in the mountains. Camping is very difficult if not impossible (a couple of times we pitched the tent in old mountain graveyards), 

industrialization of the valleys producing dust and heavy traffic, agriculture on any square meter of soil reducing access to more quiet areas or camping options, in some  places the feelings of not being welcomed to say the least, have not contributed to making that section as pleasant as we were expecting. Not pleasant but very educating and that is what a bike trip is about as well. 

We have not seen more than maybe 20 Caucasians since Lanzhou, about 2300km to the North in the Gansu province. We can document about how fast China is changing and at what cost. Human cost and financial cost. The feeling that such fast development makes everything fragile, precarious. Maintenance of infrastructures is not a priority and when they are falling apart they are demolished and rebuilt ...bigger. 

In Kunming, one of the most pleasant cities along with Panzhihua and Xichang on our route, we witnessed activities in parks that could be seen as fun moments for the locals but we can not avoid perceiving some sort of sadness hidden behind. 

Chinese people have been through a lot for generations and you can feel it.

We met people on the road, we spent time with few of them, different generations, same comments shyly or prudently expressed. Fatigue and desire for more from life. 

It is hard to answer questions when you know the answers may hurt their own life reality. Those questions are legitimate. Sometimes the answers are only confirming what they know. They are followed by a silence of deep thought. You can feel it, you can see it in their eyes. Those kinds of conversations never last long either out of fear to be heard by someone or because they won’t change their daily lives anyway. Internet is used by the young generation with VPN to go through banned info and websites. They find there all answers to their questions. Our answers, when we can not avoid the subject, are only confirming what they found on the web. Quickly, the desire of enjoying the moment is leading our new friends and hosts of the day to the Karaoke club where cigarettes and beers help to end the day with an insouciant mood.

We can confirm our singing skills are no where near as good compared to theirs.

Wrapping now our bikes to fly out of Kunming and for the first time heading West. 

Bangladesh next stop.

ChinaZenija Esmits
Hanoi & Ha Long Bay, Vietnam Oct 5 -12
eastcapades-graphics-4.jpg

challenge

OFF BIKES

ROUTE

IN THE SKY

    TIME

      7 DAYS

off road

ON THE WATER

SYLVIA

Unexpected destination 

In order to extend our Chinese visa, we plan a short trip to Vietnam. When we arrive in HaNoi it’s love at first sight. The city is hot, dirty, loud and charming. Imagine 8 million people living in tiny old colonial style houses and 6 million motorbikes crowding the roads. They eat, live and move right in front of you. 

You become part of the incessant motion as soon as you set foot on the ground, unless you sit in one of the thousands coffee shop observing it. On weekends, kids all ages talk to foreigners to improve their English, street vendors try to rip off tourists and we become millionaires when we withdraw Vietnamese Dong at the ATM (VND 2,000,000 equals CAD $112). 

In the evening, we watch the passenger train to Sapa traversing the city while sipping a rice wine cocktail. Visiting Vietnam is a wonderful break from our bike touring in China. History is present everywhere, buildings and temples tell stories even though old and decrepit.

After visiting Hanoi, we book a cruise, yes, you hear well, for three days to Ha Long Bay. It’s a tiny ship with only 14 guests, and both of us enjoy being spoiled by eating delicious food and drinking cocktails. We kayak, visit grottoes and bike a bit too. The bay and its 300 limestone islands are enchanting, and the other guests on the ship are lovely. Going back to China will be hard.

I finish the story sipping a Vietnamese cold coffee with condensed milk with my now habitual observations and favourite gear.

 What I like in Vietnam:

  • People 

  • Street food 

  • Police flirting with young women in streets 

  • Military museum’s art

  • Offerings to the gods include beer

  • Beautiful places & nature 

  • Binh, our guide at Vega Travel

  • Kayaking & swimming in the warm South Chinese Sea

  • Pringles, Oreo and Ritz crackers can be found everywhere 

My favourite gear:

  • my Keen sandals - I even kept them on swimming 

  • my Arc’teryx shorts and Salawe t-shirt - washed in the evening they were dry in the morning

  • my black Icebreaker underwear - I wore them as bikini for swimming 

I missed not having a nice dress for the evening, and I’m a bit tired of wearing always the same clothes.

 In conclusion, we have to come back. Six days in Vietnam is way too short. I feel the country and it’s people are ‘vrai’ like my son would say, and there is much more to explore. I also learned a new lesson: I will not cut my hair myself anymore, it was a disaster before and worse after.

FRANK

Surrounded by a full laundry load drying on whatever could be used to hang it, our chengdu hotel room looks like a luxury refugee camp. The 14 million people city has not shown that much of appealing that we are already working on figure out the itinerary on our way South.

Google earth is a great tool to have an idea of the scenery and photos posted by visitors help, sometimes, when they actually show something at the right location. We want to be and go everywhere. Obviously choices need to be done. One sure is clear the remaining days allowed on our 2 month visa won’t be enough. In order to extend it for another 2 months we need to cross the border and come back. 

2 fingers used to zoom out on the google earth screen and we need to pick a destination. Close, no time difference, cheap and with some interest. Good weather would be a bonus.

Quickly, Hanoi and the famous Ha Long Bay appear to be an evident choice. 

Larry from Natooke, a bike company based in Beijing and Chengdu, contacted few days before will tune up our bikes while we will take some “ vacations” in an exotic destination. 

With only a very light backpack we jumped in a plane for a 2 hours flight. Right away we felt somewhere else. Not only because of the 32c and 100%humidity but because we are surrounded by huge smiles and by people not surprised to see Caucasian’s. Feel strange to be “incognito”.

The Chinese driving is .... “Interesting”....the Hanoi driving is...”very interesting”. 

We made it alive to the Paradise Boutique hotel, right in the old quarter of Hanoi. We try to stay on the cheap mode. It is cheap and clean. After all, we use the room only to sleep, life is outside. But when we step out of the bus and walk down the street to the hotel we become concerned about how quiet the hotel room will be. Streets are narrow, yet,  Vietnamese are experts in the art to pack a maximum of pedestrians, scooters, cars, rickshaws, on ...the street. It can not be on the sidewalks as the sidewalks are used to park the 6 million scooters and if spaces are available, little plastic chairs are welcoming people to get together, share a home made coffee, a dinner or just to socialize. 

Moving in the street in Hanoi is like breaking a trail through a mass of many things and people. No rules, no traffic lights, no traffic rage....it works. We just need to move with the flow...if we hesitate or show some doubt about our chance to survive the junction, our action has implications hundreds meters away from us. Everything become chaos just because we do not trust the action.

Hanoi is charming....sexy. We love it.

Among the endless list of travel companies, we pick the one who offers tours for small groups. Vietnam is Asia and often in Asia the reality is very different than what has been detailed in the travel agency leaflet. Always excellent reasons given for any modification to the program but annoying as it is never an upgrade.

This time we have been really lucky. Vega Travel Hanoi has small boats with all comfort for maximum 16 people. 

Ha Long Bay is big but welcome 7millions visitors each year. We are off season and we managed to sign for a 2nights/3days trip leaving the very next morning. Perfect!

In the bus that will bring our group of 14 people ( 7 couples) we have a nice and fun introduction done by Binh, our excellent and funny guide. One night on the boat, one night in Cat Ba island, visits of caves, hikes, kayak, swim in the very warm Chinese sea. 

Average age around 35-40, sorry we screwed up that average by being definitely the oldest. Most of our companions are avid travellers, some on the road for few weeks, few months so all of us on the same travel mode.

After 2 hours we embarked on the wood boat. It feels like we are in the Agatha Christie novel. Murder on the Nile. The boat can not be better described.

The experience has been far above the best expectations. Sometimes documentaries, books, promotional and marketing propaganda give a false idea and the reality can be disappointing. The 3 days discovery have been the opposite. 

Photo 6 With the help of a great guide, a perfect organization that managed to keep us away from the crowd at all time, to be at the right place at the right time for sunset, sunrise, .... and the presence of really nice 12 other people it has been a real treat.

Ha Long Bay and Hanoi now behind, these 7 days gave us a taste of too little even the city of Hanoi. Which means a lot as I am not a fan of cities. There will be , for sure, another time in Vietnam. Photo 7

For now, with our new 2 month visa for China, and rejuvenated bikes, it is time to leave sea level and move on further south before heading West. Our Himalayan circumnavigation is back in action.

 

VietnamZenija Esmits
Kashgar - Chengdu Sept 4 - Sept 30
eastcapades-graphics-4.jpg

challenge

+11570m/-12606m

ROUTE

1184km

    TIME

      95:01

off road

0km

SYLVIA

New skill learned: being comfortable in the uncomfortable.  

Sept 4 - we’re up early in the morning to catch our flight to Lanzhou (capital and largest city of the northwest Gansu Province). It has been difficult to buy a flight ticket, and we’re a bit worried that the bikes might cause an issue at the airport of Kashgar.

When we leave the Sultan Hotel at 6 in the morning on our bikes, downtown is still closed to traffic with roadblocks and heavy police presence. It feels like being in a city under siege. No surprise I’m happy to leave Kashgar. This city doesn’t feel tourist friendly to me at all.

At the airport we pack our backpacks, Frank takes off the pedals, turns the handle-bars inwards, and let some air out of our tube-less tires. “Ready for check-in!” we naively think, whereas the real adventure is about to start.

When purchasing our tickets, China Southern Airlines confirmed that packaging service would be available at the airport. The check-in is easy until they see our bikes. From that moment on until arriving at the gate it took us 4 hours. Packaging means wrapping a cardboard around the frame and attaching the tires to the bike. Then, we must carry our bikes to the loading zone. Once there, we worry how the company will store bikes on the plane (I guess we will never know) and that our tires will be deflate completely. By now, in normal life, I would have been stressed. Here, on the road, I feel that if it doesn’t work out, we will find a solution at the end.

When we wait for our luggage at the carousel at Lanzhou airport and search for the oversized luggage pickup, our bikes show up on the carousel like regular luggage, with completely deflated tires. Frank and I look a bit worried at each other because it’s really difficult to inflate tubeless tires with a hand-pump. But Frank, my hero, is able to get enough air into the tires to get us to a hotel. Altogether, it took us no less than 14 hours from Kashgar to our hotel room. We arrive exhausted and hungry.

Hotel staff is very friendly, and the Hui Muslims in the small restaurant even nicer. I start feeling welcomed in China, and it’s a really good feeling.

We have no idea what kind of food we ordered, but when the plates are finally in front of us, we love it. Very spicy, both of us try to figure out what kind of meat we’re eating until Frank discovers the head of a chicken in the plate. Nevertheless, we finish the whole thing and the business owners look happy that we appreciate their cuisine.

Next morning, we bike from Lanzhou airport to Lanzhou city (65 km apart). It is slightly rainy and grey, but it feels good not overheating for once, and we arrive early afternoon in Lanzhou. A 3,6 million people industrial city with very bad air quality. Frank is struggling to keep his nose clear from the dust, and because I’m always behind him on the bike, at multiple times, I get sprayed with some of his mucus residue. Ah, life is always surprising with him.

Finding the home-stay we’ve booked, is another challenge. Luckily two very nice University students walk us to the place and call our host. The location of the homestay is off by 2 km on the app Frank is using. Without the help of the friendly students, we would still be wandering in Lanzhou to find a place to stay because we could not call them.

For your good information: it’s almost impossible for foreigners to get a SIM card in China, unless you have a Chinese friend or stay a few months in the same place.

The retired couple who rents one of their rooms to tourists is very welcoming. They even invite us for lunch and dinner, and every evening we share a white melon, specialty fruit from the area.

The prefecture-level city, located on the banks of the Yellow River, is a key regional transportation hub, connecting areas further west by rail to the eastern half of the country. Historically, it has been a major link on the Northern Silk Road. The city is also a centre for heavy industry and petrochemical industry. Lanzhou was previously ranked as one of the cities with the worst air quality in the world, due to industrial pollution and its situation in a narrow river valley. Since 2014, the government recommends not to drink the tap water due to high levels of benzene. Government measures to reduce pollution levels have been effective, and in 2015 the city was awarded China ‘s climate progress title.

Lanzhou is a vibrant city with many busy bazaars, and a wonderful Museum (Gansu Provincial Museum) displaying artifacts from the area’s Silk Road past. My absolute favourite place in the city. One plaque at the beginning of the Silk Road exhibit shows the information below.

The romantic idea that in the past it was possible to live in peace together appeals to me. Today however it is very clear that minorities are oppressed by the Chinese government.

In general, Hui Muslims are a bit reserved, but you can feel a real kindness when they look or talk to you. Specialty food is the Lanzhou Spicy Beef Noodles. It’s so spicy that both of us have to deal with frequent washroom stops. After our visit in Lanzhou, we bike to Linxia.

 Before leaving the city, we try to buy gas for our stove at the gas station. An impossible mission it appears. Frank is ready to call all the gas station employees ‘stupid’ (with the help of Google translate). When he realizes that nobody will sell us gas, he starts to bike in full speed Frank mode, and I have a hard time to keep up. Eventually, the misty green landscapes and a few photos further calms his nerves. 

 Later, we try to replace the gas with a dissolvent but it doesn’t work either. So, no cooking or hot tea while camping. Only bread with some honey, a carrot and some fruit. I did not sign up for this, but I guess this is also part of our trip. The uncomfortable becomes acceptable.

On the way to Linxia, we even meet a fellow Chinese biker, coming from Chengdu biking to Kashgar. At many occasions, people look at us, and clearly, we are the first Caucasian they see in the flesh. Our bare legs fascinate them. I think Frank has even more success than me, because his legs are full of hair. I work hard with my tweezers every week to keep control over the looks of my legs, and even though I love Frank’s legs, I don’t want mine to look like his.

On our way to Linxia, we encounter big construction projects, either new highways, train tracks, or at the entrance of cities and towns, new housings. Lots of them are still empty, or abandoned for a few years already. Is the Chinese economy doing well or is it just another (extremely) big speculative bubble? I would like to ask people living in China for their opinion but my Mandarin is too poor.

I’m quite disappointed with Linxia even though people and food are nice. The mosques are mostly new buildings and the old Hui quarters of the city have been destroyed, rebuild and now look like another Chinese Disney World. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can have a glimpse behind the scenes and see the old Linxia. Or when you take a picture and the locals rediscover their home town.

I am excited to leave Linxia and go to Eastern Tibet. Our next town is Xiahe. After 100km biking, we see our first Stupa on the way. Tibet land starts.

When we avoid biking through a tunnel, we discover for the first time a Tibetan village with a small monastery and children monks playing in the streets. We were happy to spend some time with them, and they seem to share our pleasure. 

The road to Xiahe is pleasant, even if it goes up and it’s raining occasionally. Camping is definitely a challenge since we’re in China. It is hard to find a spot away from the road, with a clean water source and a bit hidden. One evening, we’re happy when we can sleep in a Tibetan cabin/restaurant for one night, heat some water for a tea and rest. 

In Xiahe, we stay in a nice hotel owned by a Dutch Tibetan couple. The place feels a bit like home, with its beautiful Tibetan decoration and Western & Chinese food. I can recharge my batteries for a few days, have our clothes washed, connect with my kids and grandkids, friends and family. Without rest days, I feel overwhelmed, unable to digest what I have seen and would feel disconnected from the people I love. 

Xiahe is a nice little town, with a majority of Tibetans and Hui Muslims, although with no political or administrative power, like all minority’s in China. Han Chinese hold power in all regions of China, even if they are a minority in some localities.

One of the biggest Tibetan Monasteries outside of the Tibetan Autonomy Region is in Xiahe. Like ninety seven percent of all the monasteries, Labrang Monastery has also been destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Today, almost the entire place has been rebuilt, renovated, and even improved with running water and electricity. It still holds six different schools, with a famous Tibetan Buddhism Medicine school. Before the revolution, it housed 4000 monks, but today the Chinese government allows no more than 1500 monks. Labrang is a famous pilgrim place for many Tibetan Buddhists who come from far. I have not felt spirituality in the many monasteries we visited, however watching their devotion to Buddhism, makes them look serene. The payed guided tour of the monastery is rather disappointing. The snobby Tibetan monk has no pleasure sharing the place and information with the small group of tourists we are.

For more informative about the Cultural Revolution and how it affected the Tibetans, please click on link below:

http://tibet.net/2016/10/revisiting-the-cultural-revolution-in-tibet/

From Xiahe we bike to Langmusi, a lovely small town in a breath taking location surrounded by alpine mountains located at 3300 m. On the way to the little town, we enjoy the beautiful surrounding sights. It is colder and we see the first snow. Unfortunately, our mountain high has been a bit spoiled when both of us were attacked and bitten by a big dog. A very scary experience, hopefully the dog didn’t have rabies. From now on, we always carry a wooden stick with us, and we already have to use it on several occasions. These wild dogs are lingering along the road in the Grasslands waiting to attack for food or to defend their territory. Even the Tibetans fear them. They’re a mix of Tibetan Mastiffs and street dogs, and they are absolutely frightening.

Fortunately, Langmusi makes up for our bad experiences. It is separated in two. The biggest part of the town belongs to the Gansu province, and the smaller part to the Sichuan province.  It is administered by two different provinces, because of the two rivalling monasteries. The Sichuan Monastery looks older and more authentic. Even the monks seem to come from another time. Prior to their evening prayers, they run in the streets, pee without any shyness in front of the Tibetans and tourists, and continue their way to the temple. I like Langmusi better than Xiahe. There’s a really good vibe, and not only because of a small Hui restaurant serving the best apple pie in China. 

After three rest days, our legs are still a bit tired when we get back on our bikes on another misty morning. Next longer stop is Songpan. It takes us three days to bike through more Grassland, Wetlands and tunnels. I love the first two parts, but not so much the tunnels. For one of them, a lovely Chinese stayed behind us with his car to keep us safe. It’s a scary experience to bike through these dark tunnels with only a small front and rear light, trucks and cars honking. I rather take the headwind, rain and crazy dogs if I could choose. But in the end, the exciting views and experiences let me forget the negatives. On the way to Songpan, we stop in a small town, Wanzhou, eat more spicy food, see again fellow Chinese travellers we’ve met in Langmusi, and in the evening, we watch men and women dancing on a public square. Dancing seems to be the favourite occupation in China, either in bigger groups or the classic tango. The secret to a long healthy life?

 In Songpan, we look for the ‘lonely planet’ recommended hotel ‘Emma’s guesthouse’ and leave disappointed. The rooms are not very welcoming, it is humid and the showers run very slowly. It’s not the first time we are disappointed with the travel guide recommendations. Most of the time, the guides have not been updated, and other travellers we talked to have the same feeling. When we look around, we find better and cheaper options to stay overnight. However, Emma was very helpful adding us ‘last minute’ to a sightseeing tour to Huanglong Scenic Valley (Unesco World Heritage site). The area is known for its colourful pools. Absolutely breath taking.

The stay in Songpan was even better because we met new friends, Murielle and Bertrand. Two lovely French with a caustic humour, like Frank’s. Bertrand was even able to fluster Frank and make him speechless. Can you imagine this? 

From Songpan we bike for two days to Dujiangyan. We bike through the area where the 2008 ‘Great Sichuan Earthquake’ and the 2017 big landslide destroyed many places and killed thousands of people.

The earthquake caused the largest number of aftershocks ever recorded, including 200,000 landslides. Over 69,000 lost their lives, 375,000 reported injured. The earthquake left more than 4.8 Mio people homeless. The entire corridor we biked from Songpan to Dujiangyan was very depressing. Narrow valleys, misty weather and dead villages did not help our morale. Even after so many years and all the efforts of the Chinese governments to rebuild roads and villages, it feels morose and sad. I can’t imagine how hard it has been for the population to rebuild their lives and livelihood. The tunnels we cross to get to Dujiangyan don’t help me to feel safe in the area. One of the tunnels we cross is more than 10 km long, and I am happy when we arrive in town and don’t have to cross further dark tunnels. Not so comfortable being uncomfortable! But then the Giant Panda bears make up for everything. I usually don’t like watching animals in captivity, but I must admit that they are absolutely adorable. They are quite a lazy bunch of animals, and we are happy to be the first in line (we’re at the research centre 45 min before opening) to observe them. Eating, playing, sleeping. All this takes about 45 minutes. And when the next visitors arrive at 10 am, the Panda bears are just slouching on the trees.

The same day we visit the Panda research facility, we walk up the mountains (500 m elevation gain - from 660 m to 1250 m) to a big Taoist temple on the Qingcheng Shan mountain. The site is beautiful but very busy two days before the Chinese National Day (October 1). On our way up and down, we meet this amazing man (94 years) with his son. We say hi, and he almost makes us cry. No teeth but the happiest face we have seen in a long time. By the way, Frank and I did feel our legs for two days after the hike. That’s why we’re so impressed by this old fellow.

The next morning, we bike another 65 km to Chengdu. The administrative capital of Sichuan. Huge city of 14,5 Mio people. The city in itself doesn’t have any particular attraction other than the Panda bears and the nature surrounding the city. On our way into the city, we observe big tree ‘replanting operation’ over a 15 km stretch. We don’t quite understand why and where the trees are coming from but it is really impressive. Otherwise, we enjoy our stay in the Holiday Inn Express at a horrendous price because booking.com screwed up our hotel reservation twice during a week long national holiday. The good thing is that we can rest in a luxurious hotel room, do our laundry, and prepare the next segment of our trip. It is also very exciting to know that my son and his family might join us for a short time of our trip, as well as very good friends.

I am now comfortable being uncomfortable, but it’s exciting to share the beautiful moments with my people.

And now my favourite gear since Kashgar:

  • my wooden stick

  • my shoes (they kept my feet warm at 4000m in the mountains)

  • my new tuque - you might remember, I send my blue tuque home to have less weight on my bike

  • my Thermarest mattress - I put it on the mattress in the hotels (mattresses feel like concrete in China)

What do I love about China so far:

  • no more diarrhea 

  • fruit and vegetables

  • Yak yoghurt and Tibetan butter tea

  • Chinese speaking English - I appreciate even more now how difficult it must be to learn it

  • the amazing paved roads

  • beautiful nature and Hui Muslims

What I don’t like about China on this part of our trip:

  • long tunnels you can’t avoid

  • menus without pictures - it becomes very challenging to order food 

  • camping spots are difficult to find

  • ferocious dogs

 

FRANK

It is a dark early morning, a couple of hours before sunrise, that we left our Kashgar hotel, heading to the airport.

After few rest, laundry, and bike maintenance days we did not really leave the city, I would say we escaped a city that has nothing to do anymore with the city I discovered in '95. What used to be a nice but already changing Uighurs town, full of good vibes, is now a big Chinese city where fake decorum remains in what was a charming original town.

Most of the Uighurs have “vanished”, only few from the old generation wander sadly around town surrounded by a now wide majority of Chinese Hans. Even the Animal Market, once known as the biggest and the most colorful on the Silk Road has lost its soul.

The all consuming state of surveillance, check points, and police presence everywhere has had a toll on the serenity that this place had before.

So yes, it was more an escape from something more enjoyable, especially after our border crossing experience  ( read the previous Story).

We have about 15Km to ride to the airport. It will be done with our headlamps on our foreheads, riding wide and empty boulevards. Some parts seem to be closed by a sort of curfew as access is blocked by police cars. As a result, it took no time to reach the airport.

Our naive dreams to find a way to travel western Tibet quickly faded away. It is a “no Zone” for foreigners. I biked across the Taklamakan desert in the past and there is no way I repeat that experience and there is definitely no reason to impose it on Sylvia.

So we booked a flight to get over that segment. Destination Lanzhou in the Gansu Province. From there we will be able to navigate our bikes through the Eastern side of Tibet. Less spectacular maybe than the Western wild section but richer in Tibetan culture as many Tibetans found refuge there.

Playing Dumb

Biking to the airport means no cardboard for the bikes. Bikes must be in boxes in order to be loaded in the plane. 

Knowing that it will be a “chaotic” process we arrived at the departure terminal about 4hours before the flight time.

Emptying our panniers and stocking everything in our 2 backpacks, panniers packed into each other to make one that will be our carry on. All fine except the bike with no box.

Pedals removed, handlebar turned at 90 degrees, chain off the chain ring and tires slightly deflated, it is with our best dumb smiles that we showed up at the check-in.

The bikes still on the floor, the backpacks are checked in first. 17kg each. No problem - we are good passengers traveling light-. The 2 backpacks tagged, they disappeared on the rolling mat. We now have one foot in the door, it will be hard to reject us.

Not sure what the lady at the check-in really said but the bikes that I think she tried to ignore at first, suddenly became a sure thing. 


“Those 2 Caucasians are not speaking mandarin, they are only smiling pointing the bikes on the floor and I've never been in that situation before”

The difficulty for us is to keep smiling and pretend that we have no clue why it may be a problem. Using the Translator App on her cell phone, we are told: “bike with box”.

A booth in a corner of the check-in area offers to wrap packages. I mean small packages. 

We are like hot potatoes that no one wants to keep in hands and so are thrown to someone else.

Still smiling but adding a sort of “I am sorry, so so sorry” grin on our faces, we pushed our bikes to the booth. Transforming in a second the still early eventless day of the poor guy into a real nightmare. No other option for him to get rid of the 2 hot potatoes. The airport at 7am is still empty.

Smartly, we bought some duct tape at the market the day before. So we can show our willingness to help him despite the deep distress (!?) we are in.

We found 2 small boxes that I cut to make them look like a one cardboard panel. Straddled the bike at its middle frame with the panel and duct tapped it. The guy did help, making me think that we were on a good path to a final solution. But then he decided that the wheels should be wrapped with or by something. String, rope, industrial straps,....the bikes look like a mummy. 

Back to the counter, dragging the bike on the floor since the wheels are now locked. 

Here are the “bikes with boxes”.

We are devoted passengers.

A manager is asked to rescue the overwhelmed employee and a manager always solves problems. Clearly annoyed by the situation, or by our idiotic smiles, constantly talking loudly to her radio device we followed her to the back building carrying and dragging our bikes almost inside the airplane. Mission accomplished.

Back on the road

Lanzhou, capital of the Gansu province,  is reached right before dark. So by the time we re-assembled and gears, entertaining in the same time hundreds of passengers rushing to either a taxi or a bus, it was with our headlamps again that we left the airport in a quest of the first hotel. The bikes surprisingly are fine, no damage. The lack of protection probably was the best protection.

We are 70km from Lanzhou city. We covered the distance the following day after a night in a crappy hotel.

A couple of days in Lanzhou hosted by an elderly couple renting a guest room in their apartment for few Yuans. The second part of our journey being decided we left a busy, polluted and noisy city like most of the Chinese cities behind us to get back into the mountains and their peaceful environment.

Surrounded by green sceneries contrasting with the dry and mineral landscapes we crossed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan we progressed gradually uphill to get back far above the 3000m marks.

The Eastern slopes of the Himalayas known as the Kham and Amdo regions being under the effect of the coastal climate means our camp spots are definitely not as dusty but it does mean the are more wet. Day after day the Tibetan culture became omnipresent. Temples, monasteries, prayer flags everywhere hanging on poles and trees but also marking the top of each pass. We stopped in many little villages as the veracity of their temples and monasteries make them more interesting to discover than what is now more a touristic attraction in other main tourist destinations.

Chinese do not maintain. They build, they use and when the time has passed by, they demolish to rebuild bigger. It is true for any infrastructure like roads but also for what could be seen as a part of their historical heritage. Many times we had the impression of visiting a Disneyland. Cheap copies of what used to be old but now supporting multiple souvenir stores or restaurants. That includes the Tibetan culture that in some well known cities has become a real economic support for the area. We are still wondering if Tibetans have their fair part in that sort of economic development. 

A lot of money has been invested to give a reason for local tourists or foreigners to make a stop.

Money is also invested in huge proportions into what can probably been qualified as pure speculation. High rise apartment buildings, entirely new cities annexed to older towns that maybe one day will be knocked down for newer dwellings.

Villages turned in towns, towns turned in little cities, little cities turned in metropolises.

Feelings that the country side in its entirety must move in only a few places.

Vast but locked

Within few hours of riding we realized that camping will be challenging. We do not mind a bed and white sheets but we feel cozier in our tent. Camping means cooking on our stove. It is a multifuel stove. One of those we always have with us. It works in any type of weather, any altitude, any temperature and as a multifuel item works anywhere..... except in China.

The easiest way to get fuel when we don’t know what is available is to go to a gas station and fill up our fuel bottle with gas for car. It works everywhere in the world....except in China.

For some reason we are not allowed to fill up the 1 liter canister at any gas station. Figure out why!? We tried few times and were rejected each time. I lost my temper more than once. I explain, they can see it is for our stove and by the way, the canister smells gas...so this is not the first time. I know a close friend who would have just whispered and said “idiots” leaving the discussion there. Not me. Stupidly I persisted and insisted until my “attitude” was not helping anymore...obviously.

Cooking was just not possible for the moment despite an unsuccessful test done with paint dissolvent. Not much more luck with wild camping either. Along each road we see only fences, sometimes a gate but locked. Not sure why these fences are everywhere. No clear justification.

We are far from the abundant and gorgeous camp spots in Central Asia. However sometimes we were lucky and either hidden or isolated enough we had some good nights in our 3 square meter tent after a cold evening meal.

So many smiles

Less ethnic Chinese, more Tibetan smiles and good moods. On the 1200Km between Lanzhou and Chengdu we probably have seen less than 10 Caucasians. Just our presence always brings a reaction. It felt like they had never seen anyone like us before. Hard to believe but it happens all the time. We become a curiosity, a subject for tons of new selfies, politely requested or not.

When we come across some Tibetans dressed with clothes showing their origin we may have had some scruples to ask to take a picture. These scruples quickly faded away. Our portraits have been taken more often than we took theirs. Tibetans asked shyly, chinese have a more direct approach. Our legs showed because of our Mountain bike shorts (not the Lycra cyclist shorts !! ) are a mystery for them when they think it is already winter. Our fat tires (and I am here talking about the inflated rubber band around the rims) added to catch the attention and provoke what are still mysterious comments for us. Even though we  have a vague idea of their contents.

When we see stupor on faces, usually a big smile is the master key to unlock and can be sometimes followed by a big surprising “hello Baby”. Not sure where that comes from.

We have visited nice cities like Xiahe (watch the short video on our gallery page) and its huge Labrang monastery (one of the 6th biggest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries). We have experienced even nicer small villages sometimes away from main roads, like Langmusi, nested into Rocky Mountain slopes. These villages have special vibes and in a couple of them we stayed more than one night, captivated by the atmosphere.

Accommodations in small villages are very cheap, if you look for them. Sometimes less than US$10. Although very rustic and sometimes....smelly, their main quality remains their price. But they also offered good shelter on rainy nights and if by chance we were camping out on one of these stormy nights, the room can be transformed in a drying space for our tent and gears...until the next rainy night camping.

Not everything went that smoothly.

We have to attest that nothing is too big, too impossible for chinese. They do not do things half way. They go for it and they go fast. We crossed brand new cities or towns that are not even existing on google maps, huge 6 lane boulevards that when showing on a map are still represented as simple streets. Confusing at the beginning when you try to orientate. Huge cranes everywhere but sometimes a new town is totally empty, no soul except the poor few guys trying to run a business (restaurant, grocery, ...) in an empty city. Looking closely at the construction, the quality is not what it may look like at a first glance. You can count on a reconstruction within the next 10 years or so. Same for the roads and bridges. Can be scary sometimes but if you are lucky enough to be among the firsts to ride or drive the new asphalt then you don't care what may happen in 10 years. The G213 is a long road of 2500km, crossing Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. From deep valleys, mountain passes to high grassland plateaus. We have cycled the road for over 1000km. At least 2/3 of it was freshly re-paved with the smoothest asphalt you can imagine. Making our few steep climbs to high passes “almost” a fun experience. Sylvia does not like the word “almost” but would agree on that. The only problem is that they never take off the previous layer of asphalt. They cover it. And layers after layers we end up sometimes at about 30cm above the side of the road. Tricky when a truck or a car can not give you enough room because the road is narrow and traffic  is coming at you from the opposite direction.

Sometimes a such “easy” progress makes me feel nostalgic for the gravel roads we had in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The challenge defines the pride that comes soon after the pass has been reached.

....“Almost.....”

Crossing the grasslands and wetlands were one of the highlights of the Gansu and Sichuan traverse. Summer season was over but many shepherds and nomads were still present with their livestock. Mainly yaks but sometimes some sheeps or goats. Rain at nights with the drop in temperatures turned it to snow. Melting during the day but offering superb contrasted landscapes in the morning.

The EasternTibetan plateau, the grasslands, is not the habitat of Yaks only, it is also the property of wild dogs. We have friends back in Vancouver owning a very cute Tibetan terrier. We were expecting to see many of them. None, we have not seen one. Do they really exist somewhere in Tibet? Instead, they have the famous Tibetan Mastiff. A huge monster that looks so friendly on the Internet forum. 

Sylvia made the first encounter. In a long downhill, the switchbacks after the pass with the green background and dark clouds were perfect for a video. I stayed at the pass filming and photographing her descent. She was flying on the smooth pavement. I stopped a few times during my ride down. The light was magic and prayer flags everywhere added nice touches of colors. When I finally caught up with her, she was standing on the side of the road in tears. At first, I thought she fell, seeing the big tear in her pants. 

She urged me to take out the safety kit, showing me her bleeding ankle and mentioning a dog attacked her by surprise.

As cyclists in Asia, like in South America or Africa, we get used to dogs chasing us and barking at us. Most of the time, just slowing down and facing them is enough to make them think twice. I had a few problems in the past while cycling through the Mongolian steppes where roads did not exist, barely some tracks not even a dirt roads. But nothing really serious.

I gave Sylvia the first aid kit and decided to teach some lesson to that dog hidden behind the concrete wall that was limiting the edge of the pavement in that tight curve. I could hear Sylvia behind me screaming that the dog was aggressive and I should stay put. Holding a rope in my hand I was sure of myself, this guy was going to remember that day....big time!

Not sure what exactly happened or how it did happen but in a fraction of second I was facing a much bigger sized dog than expected and the bastard decided to jump on me, not one moment concerned by my determination to show who was the chief. Everything went really fast, the not so proud Frank anymore managed to get back on his 2 feet, with a bleeding knee and a big hole in the wind proof pants we put on for the cold downhill.

I could not believe what was just happening.

We both calmed down, disinfected the wounds and lucky us we found a dirt path that allowed us to loop around that section of the road and its ferocious guardian.

After that episode, we both carried a long wood stick. Many times we had to thread the dogs, sometimes in gangs of 4-5, pushing the bike so that they can be used as shields. Tapping the stick on the handlebar or on the pavement and clearly showing it, was enough to back them off but sometimes they ambushed us and we were not ready for them.  A few more scary moments happened but nothing turned really ugly.

Our wild camping spots in the grasslands were also dog stories. We could hear them in groups wandering around nomads camps, their livestock and our tent, barking all night long. Not our best nights.

Chengdu, end of the second chapter

The last 300km, roughly, were downhill. From 4000m, the last pass, we dropped down to 500m. The elevation of Chengdu. A great but oppressive section. Surrounded by steep slopes the valleys are narrow, dark, and the mountains are totally unstable. Never have I seen mountains falling apart from everywhere on such a long distance. Landslides, rocks and dirt on the road. Still the Chinese government is investing in big projects. A fast train railway is under construction, the 2 lane road will probably be very soon a 3 lane road. New tunnels are built. Nothing seems to stop the development not even the nature of the terrain nor the geology. 

The area is known to be a very high risk earthquake zone. In 2008, a 7.5 on the Richter scale, earthquake devastated the region, killing more than 50000 people, among them many kids at school. 10 years after you can still see the scars of the catastrophe. It took about 4 years to re-open access to the entire valley. By then, many of the survivors had left the area. Transforming some of the few villages remaining intact into ghost towns. In 2017 a huge landslide washed out a big chunk of the road, the only access to the high plateau and the grassland. It was an ultimate stress to the entire local tourism industry and life in the valleys and plateau in general.

Along the road we have seen abandoned villages for about 3 days. The few towns on the other end of the road, despite their touristic assets, could not been reached as the valley and the road are the only overland access. Very sad.

Not sure what the train and road constructions will bring back. Most of the population, mainly the young generation, has moved away in a quest of work. Most of the villages that in some aspect could offer a cultural support (mainly Tibetan ), are in full rejuvenation. Few locals are working hard to restore a form of heritage that may attract some tourists soon. But I can not avoid seeing the fragile environment and despite the huge investment done how a simple landslide or worse, another earthquake can bring back to post 2008 the entire region. Everything seems so ephemeral and uncertain.

Having no clue of the road sign significance we are just happy to ride and enjoy our surroundings. The last 150km are in a very narrow valley. Really impressive and as said very unstable. We get used to the endless honking. All motorized vehicles are honking to let you know they are there. The driving code is fairly simple. If you are bigger than the others sharing the road with you, you have the right to impose yourself. Just let them know you are there. Honk!

In that concept, cyclists are just before pedestrians...at the bottom of the ladder. That being said we never felt unsafe and eventually the honking stopped bothering us....”almost”

So when suddenly you realize that everything is quiet around you, you begin to worry. Something is not right.
As usual if/when you see police agents, they are around 18 years old and rather too busy with their cell phones to be ....efficient. 

We have seen, a few times in a row, police along the road where workers were working at road construction. We vaguely “heard” about a new landslide that washed out a bridge and indeed we have been deviated to another road that took us higher and higher up above the valley before going down back to the main road. We went through some tunnels. No lights inside so always a bit stressful with just our headlamps and traffic that does not really slow down because the loud honking is enough to let you know you are not alone.

More and more worker crews on the road and inside tunnels less and less to none traffic forced some questioning. Workers nor police stopped us, they even waved us with a big smile. We have ridden many kilometers on a road officially closed, crossed more than 12 tunnels, the longest one was 10km long with just our headlamp. It has been our private driveway and our private tunnels on a very smooth chinese asphalt.

In Chengdu, with 13 million people, most of the sightseeing and tourist attractions are located outside of the city and we passed them on our way or they will be on our way South later. The panda research centers and reserves, the monasteries, the Taoist temples, the earthquake memorial have been visited and explored on our way to the city. The city is a metropolis with no real interest. A mix of different social classes with quarters for the wealthiest and quarters for the less fortunate.

Showers and laundry done, it won’t be too long before we heading back into the mountains for the third chapter of our journey. To be continued.

ChinaZenija Esmits
Osh, Kyrgyzstan - Kashgar, China  Aug 11 - Sept 4
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challenge

+8293m/-8011m

ROUTE

767.6km

    TIME

      79:23

off road

312km

SYLVIA

Man sieht nur, was man weiss (Goethe)

Aug 11 - Frank and I are alone again. Our friends from Belgium have departed for Bishkek and it leaves me with a bit of homesickness. We’re on the road for 1 month now, and I realize how spoiled my life in general is, and that I miss it. Family, friends, good health (with some hiccups), financial security, fun things to do, and Frank, of course, are my happiness. I realize that all these good things in my life make me also lethargic, scared to move out of my comfort zone. Being on the road in Central Asia has definitely moved me out of this zone, and I try to prove Goethe’s saying at the beginning of my story wrong - we only see, what we know. I want to see.

On the first day going to Sary Tash, we bike through the food supply of Kyrgystan. The first 50 km are full of fruit and vegetable fields. It is very hot and we try to leave very early in the morning to avoid the peak of the heat and we rest during lunch time. Finding a quiet spot for a short nap or a camping spot becomes almost impossible, kids spot us from far away and they must have a communication system to inform all kids in the next village that we’re on our way. One night, Frank had to chase them away, to discover an hour later they were hanging around our tents and bikes when we wanted to fall asleep. 

We stay one night in a guesthouse in Gulcha, a little town, with a busy bazaar and an active community. People stay their whole life where they are born, and young women & men come back to their home town once they have completed their degree.

And we’re again surprised by the kindness of everyone.  While we’re waiting in front of a guesthouse for the owner, a young woman helps us to find the phone number and calls her. Five minutes later, the owner shows up. After Gulcha, the environment changes dramatically and becomes more mountainous and desert like. The mountains have different shades of yellow brown and orange. When the sun goes down, it looks like they are on fire.We keep our routine to leave early in the morning and try to get close to the next pass. You might think the biking is getting easier since we started but it doesn’t seem to be that way. Although, I think I get more resistant to the effort, and the changing beautiful landscape helps me to overcome the fatigue. On the road, we meet again fellow travellers, Thomas and Judith from Switzerland, and chat a bit. It feels like meeting old friends on the road, even though we met only once before.

Shy little girl on the way to Sary Tash

After the pass, we arrive in Sary Tash, where we stay one night in a very bad guesthouse, most likely the worst so far. The old owner talks me into staying, my bad. Next day we move to Muras guesthouse, where Ainura und Gulzat, two sisters, run the business. It is a great place with a real shower & toilet, and great food. Gulzat is the chef of the place, and Ainura runs the business and is cleaning everything multiple times a day. Sheets are clean, and blankets are aired in the sun. 

The same evening, I catch a very bad stomach bug that leaves me completely dehydrated. My stomach can’t keep anything down, and I’m in agony the entire night. Next day, Ainura drives us to the hospital for an IV and to bring my 40 C fever down. Thanks to the good care of Frank, who was a bit scared to see me that sick, Vera and Teresa, my preferred Doctors, and both sisters, I am feeling better after 48 hours. We stay another 2 days to recover and start the way to the boarder of Tajikistan. One thing that should be noted, we had nice paved road from Osh to Sary Tash. Being remote on dirt roads is really nice, but a good paved road feels really good to our butts.

Before moving forward to Tajikistan, there are a few things that marked me in Kyrgystan:

  • Kyrgyz people love their family time. Tea, bread and Kaymak (creamy dairy product similar to butter) are shared almost every two hours in the day. Apparently, eating and drinking small quantities helps with altitude sickness. When they prepare their table, bread is abundant everywhere on the table, candies, sugar. A table has to look full.

  • A lot of Kyrgyz people have golden teeth. White ceramic teeth replacement must be difficult to find or more expensive.

  • Farmers and herders rarely have a tractor. Somehow, old Audi 100's (25-30 years old) do the trick.

  • Osh is a more beautiful city than Bishkek. There are more flowers, laughing children in the streets and parks, and even though the city is old everything is very clean and buildings nicely painted.

  • The Mal Bazaar (Animal-bazaar for sheep, goat, horses, cows and steers) is fascinating. Dusty, smelly and loud. It is a lot of fun to observe the negotiations between the herder and the buyer with the final handshake and money exchange.

  • Most important business in Kyrgyzstan? Organizing weddings or washing cars.

  • Women love to dress up and like vibrant colours. Men wear blue suits at weddings.

  • The Lenin Square in Osh is still blocked for traffic since the revolution in 2010. Chinese do and pay for street markings on the Lenin Square for an upcoming event. What do they want in return?

  • It is refreshing to see that youth is like everywhere in the world, their heads down and focused on their cellphones, on their horses and donkeys, and even when moving the cattle to the field in the morning.

  • There are still 1300 Kyrgyz nomads living in Afghanistan with no Identity and abandoned by the Afghan and Kyrgyz government. If you are interested, watch the short movie for more info: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=eQ48kW3yMbU

In short, we loved Kyrgystan. 

Aug 22 - we leave Sary Tash for Tajikistan. For the first time, we’re bothered by quite aggressive children on donkeys asking for candies and chocolate. When we say we don’t have any, they try to take items of our bikes, like water bottles. Frank has to yell a bit before they let us go. Crossing the Kyrgyz boarder is very quick and we’re in no man’s land for 20 km. We meet Kyrgyz soldiers on foot and in cars along the road. Apparently, the Kyrgyz government increased military presence along the boarder since the attack in Tajikistan. We’re now biking at much higher altitude, and the next pass we climb is ‘Kyzyl Art Pass’ 4280 m. Strong head wind, air is getting rare and we are very slow. It takes us longer to cross the Tajik boarder than the Kyrgyz boarder, first checkpoint it takes about 45 minutes before it is our turn to show our Passport and VBAO visa (special Visa allowing us to be in the boarder areas of Tajikistan). The next checkpoint is 50 m further down the road, we have to wait another 1H30 just to show our papers again. Some cash hidden in the Passport would most likely speed up the process. While waiting, we chat with a Polish person who organizes motorbike trips in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He is now also operating in BC, so we might reconnect next year. When we tell him we want to camp right after the Tajik boarder, he tells it is impossible because it is too windy and there is no water. He gives us three litres of water and recommends for us to push to Karakul.

Once we’re in the valley, we understand what he meant. I put on my long pants, gloves and warm jacket to feel slightly comfortable. Luckily, we have tailwind and we fly on the paved road. The area has a very unfriendly climate, but the views are stunning. It is a moon-like landscape with the Chinese boarder on our left. There are hundreds of kilometres of uninterrupted barbed wired fences in wide open areas with the mountains behind. Even though, there is no conflict between both countries now, you can imagine how it was while Tajikistan was still part of the Soviet Union. Eventually, we decide to camp 20 km before Karakul which we can see in the far distance. Prior, I am so tired tears are running down my cheeks (remember, it is the first day back on my bike after my gastrointestinal issue). Frank can see I’m tired but we can not stop because there is no shelter from the wind. It is almost like in Alaska, just less cold. The wind is blowing so hard, that I have to lay on the tent so Frank can pitch the pegs. We are both freezing and take refuge very quickly in the tent. We are so tired that we decide just to have some leftover Samsy (little pockets of mutton, onions in dough, baked in a tandoori) from Ainura’s mother and some dried food for dinner before falling asleep with the wind howling around us. Next morning, it is like the wind storm never existed, and we have a nice breakfast in the warmth of the sun. Karakul - Karakul, Qarokul is a 25 km diameter lake within a 52 km impact crater, located in the Tajik National Park in the Pamir Mountains - is glittering in different blues from afar. There is one village at the lake also called Karakul. There are already many differences between the Kyrgyz and Tajik villages to be observed, even though the population is also Kyrgyz. Roofs are flat, and houses are white, mostly with blue doors. Children are a bit more shy and they are not waiting for you on the road. People in general are kind and more reserved. After a bottle of Fanta, some bread and cheese in Karakul, we hit the road again to bike along the lake. We’re pretty much alone on the road with maybe some Chinese in the far observing us from the other side of the barbed wire. We bike another 20 km of paved road and we decide to camp before we hit the dirt road a bit further down the next morning. 

The area we bike now is even more bare than before. Almost nobody lives here, except a few nomads every 10 km. Headwinds are already blowing which doesn’t make the climb to Ak Baitat Pass (4753 m) easier. Surprisingly, we can almost bike the last 4 km of the pass. Are my legs getting stronger, at last?!

And then 70 km downhill to Murghab on a paved road. Heaven!

Murghab is the capital of Murghob District in the Pamir Mountains of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, Tajikistan. With a population of 4,000, Murghab is about the only significant town the eastern half of Gorno-Badakhshan. The little town is without electricity since the Russians left in 1991. Inhabitants who are a bit more wealthy have small solar panels on their roof, but the population is in general poor. While we bike through downtown, we discover that administration buildings are being renovated and painted, and wonder why.

We stay in a nice guesthouse called Sarykul Lodge. The owner, Nurzat speaks English and welcomes us with a nice cup of tea and light lunch. I guess we think people are nice and welcoming when they serve us drinks and food as we are always hungry. Nurzat explains us that Rhamon, President of Tajikistan, will visit Murghab to inaugurate a small new power plant around September 5 that will provide electricity to the whole town. Everyone seems to be very happy to have power in their homes.

With Nurzat’s help, we book her brother Kanat, a tourist guide, for two days and drive to Zorkul. It is a lake in the Pamir Mountains that runs along the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It extends east to west for about 25 km. On the way to Zorkul, we drive off-road through wild and remote areas. He doesn’t speak a lot of English but he masters driving his old Russian SUV through rivers and mountains.

On the way out to Zorkul, we visited his wife’s family, ate Marco Polo liver and fresh bread. Delicious. At Zorkul, we slept in a nomad yurte and next day we returned to Murghab. The more time I spend with people in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the closer I feel and the more I want to help.  Nurzat’s son f.eg. had to go the hospital because he was in terrible pain. It turns out that his front teeth are rotten and the dentist is unable to pull them out. The only treatment are painkillers. Many young children in both countries have rotten teeth at a very young age. I am not sure if it is due to the lack of calcium or too many candies.

What I liked about Tajikistan:

  • Tajik people. A little bit more reserved than in Kyrgyzstan, but same strong hospitality.

  • Wide open spaces and some solitude.

  • Marco Polo liver. It almost tastes like chocolate.

  • Being invited to a wedding without knowing anybody. We were just passing by, and the father of the bride invited us to share food and tea with the party.

 After our two day excursion, Kanat drove us from Murghab to Kulma Pass to cross the boarder to China. Crossing the Tajik boarder was easy, but once arrived on the Chinese side, we had to unpack all our bags, all our belongings got screened three times, us included. And Frank’s phone got hacked by the Chinese boarder agents. China is definitely a different world, and I promise never to complain again about US boarder control. We even have to put our bikes in a Tajik truck to drive through a 20 km highly secured area before being checked for the third time. However, the Muztgagh Ata mountain view makes up for all the bad feelings I can have about Chinese boarder control. It is the second highest of the mountains which form the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. It is sometimes regarded as being part of the Kunlun Shan, although physically it is more closely connected to the Pamirs.

The road connecting Kashgar to Pakistan is in a wonderful smooth pavement. For security, or better said oppression, reasons there are cameras everywhere. Military and police are omnipresent. When we want to pitch our tent, we are interrupted within 10 minutes and have to bike another 15 km with a military pick-up truck following us to make sure we don’t stop before. The rule is to report to a police office and they then force you to go to a guesthouse. Obviously, we didn’t do that. There is surveillance everywhere on the road to Kashgar and they are cameras every 100 m, and cameras point even into small dirt roads. 

For more information about what is going on in Xinjiang Province , read the following article: https://www.businessinsider.com/xianjiang-province-china-police-state-surveillance-2018-7

Frank doesn’t recognize Kashi (Kashgar) anymore. Almost all the adobe houses have been destroyed and rebuilt new. It now looks like a Disneyland Chinese Tourist attraction. The Uyghur population has to carry an ID card, and depending on their status, they can enter an area or not. As Westerners, we never had to show our ID or bags. It must be terrible for them to be considered as a second class citizen. Even the malbazaar (animal bazaar) feels sad compared to Osh’s bazaar. There is no ‘joie de vivre’ in Kashgar and we decide to move on and fly to Lanzhou.

So even though I try to see, I might not be able to understand the political situation in Xinjiang with my spoiled white nose mentality. For now, the well established mentality to pay bribes in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan seems so much more acceptable to me than the police state in Xinjiang. 

A few more short notes before I go:

  • as you can read, I did not get rid of my diarrhea.

  • I don’t take the picture if I have to get off my bike. It is too tiring. Frank, however, can be found on many photographs, standing, kneeling or laying on the ground. Search for Waldo :)

  • We saw many cars participating in the Mongul rally. 400 vehicles start in Prague and drive 10,000 km all the way to Mongolia without support in small cars. Young people from all over Europe participate and try to collect 1000 Euro for a good cause of their choice. Just before Karakul, we also met a Belgian team with 4 young people squeezed in a small car, looking tired but having fun.

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  • In Kashgar, we saw people walking around in orange safety vests and wooden sticks. You will find out why in the above article.

  • The declination of the roads are precisely indicated.

  • As soon as we leave Xinjiang province for Gansu District, people are lovely even though we don’t understand a word.

  • I love my bike mechanic!

FRANK

OSH

Fred, Jean Phil and Matthieu, our Belgian friends left us. It was pure chance we were able to meet with them in Osh as they were ending their cycle Tajikistan trip. It was a real Belgian couple of days. Sharing stories from the road, making fun of our weight loss and of course talking about the terrorist attack that happened a few days before on their itinerary. The attack has shocked all the cycletouring community - 4 cyclists randomly targeted, among them a couple who had been on the road already for 4 years. That episode has to be added to the 2 Germans cyclists killed and robbed only few weeks earlier in Mexico. Quickly claimed by Daesh, the Tajik attack, is more a concern for us at the moment. Cyclists are easy prey. Slow, wild camping most of the time, there is not much chance of a quick escape.

The M41, also known as the Pamir Hwy, links Dushanbe in Tajikistan to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Recently open to foreigners, the road quickly became a must for many cycle tourists and motorcyclists looking for adventure and remote Himalaya valleys. A challenging itinerary with many passes above 4000m and unpaved roads.

Rumors of another possible attack is spreading out quickly. Cyclists are perfect targets. We are like pearls on a string...a roughly 1000km unique string through deep valleys in a mineral environment with no real exit.

The general feeling expressed by cyclists met on our way in Kyrgyzstan is positive. Most of the inhabitants are Ismai’li, it was a unique tragic incident. A message sent to Rahmon, the Tajik president, shaking the country with new laws and rules. Obviously not appreciated by some of the inhabitants. The attack occurred in his hometown. Point has been made. Period.

Decision taken

We are leaving Osh with the sun on our face. South instead of West as initially thought. Compromise found and done between us. Team decision. It will be the western side of Tajikistan. Anyway,  we were less keen to cycle along the Uzbekistan border as initially planned. Still 34c in Osh and the itinerary to Dushanbe would have been in that heat for few more days. A couple of cyclists met were not too enthusiast by that road cycled either.

By heading straight to Murghab, we may miss the Wakhan corridor but still discover a very nice section of the Pamir. The original idea to cross the Kulma pass that gives access to still China remains, though. The pass has been open to foreigner since September 2017, linking the Pamir with the Karakoram. When I was cycling the Karakoram on the way to Pakistan 25 years ago I promised myself to come back for the Pamir one day, when the pass would be accessible.  

200km of mountains from Osh to Sary Tash, last village before the Tajik border but also an unbelievable lookout to the entire Pamir massif and the Lenin peak, a 7100m summit. We easily managed the heavy traffic out of Osh. Never had any real problem with Kyrgyz drivers. Trucks and cars show respect to the cyclists. Slowly but surely we climbed the first “pass leaving the 1000m elevation of Osh to the 2450m of the Chyrchyk Pass. The road crossed fields and ends up in a green alpine environment. We are surprised to discover many yurts at the pass, places to eat and to re-hydrate. A very  

enjoyable 20km of downhill brought us back to a much lower elevation in Gulcha. From green landscapes we are back to dry and hot mineral scenery. Gulcha is the gateway to a fantastic Alay region. We may have missed the info but it seems that the area deserves much more attention and probably requires, by itself, a lot of time to be explored. It has been a real “coup de cœur”. Arriving around noon, we thought we could find some food for a lunch. We’ve finally spent the night in a guesthouse and wandered in that little town full of life with a nice bazar. We knew the next pass would be more of a challenge. Known to be a “ double head” pass we left Gulcha right before sunrise. Beating the heat for few hours. A light headwind forced us to stay  steady, saving the energy for later.

The 3615m Taldyk Pass could have been a piece of cake with the strong tailwind that finally showed up around noon when the deep valley heats up and creates that airflow from hot to cold. Captivated by so many varieties in the scenery and all the little villages we went through we multiplied the stops for rest or for pictures. As usual, snacking or camping in a village or too close to it brings a lot of attention. Especially from the kids. From curiosity at first, to source a of entertainment. To be honest, it is fun for us too....for a while. 

Sometimes surrounded by 15 kids staring at you. Commenting the big fat tires, begging to have some kind of souvenirs from the bike....insisting to have that red carabiners that has its purpose with our gear on the bike. After a while they lose their interest for about everything, us included. Yet, they stick  around. Our camp spot becomes their playground. So we watch them playing, running around our bikes, our tent, ....we wait, .....we watch. We know that soon we will  take the stove out and start cooking we will be that magnet again and go back to scratch. So we hold on with the fragile hope that eventually they will go. It is getting late, we are hungry. Are the parents not concerned their kids have been gone for sooooooo long?

Yes! ...Here they are. 

Hi! ... we are from Canada

You have nice beautiful kids. We trust it is time for them to go back home and have dinner, right ?!

Ah, ok, first they want to know who we are, how much the bikes cost, if we are married, how many kids we have - please Sylvia, do not take your iPad to show the pictures of the kids and grand kids, please ....don’t ....NO!

She did it !

When they have answers to most of their questions they - the parents- leave back home. Satisfied and happy to know that their kids can stay playing around our camp spot safely...we  are nice polite Canadians.

Maybe the darkness after the sunset will be our last chance.
It is  .... sometimes.

The real climb to the double head pass can not be missed. We switched from our soft 3% grade to a good 10%. We switched from spinning the legs type of effort to a hike the bike on that bloody uphill. Why are we complaining? We have been through this more than once and this time the road is paved the wind is helping. Well 10% is ok for a while but here it seems endless. The road switchbacks can be seen far above our heads. Sylvia starts to count in German (you must have read the previous story to understand ), I can hear her drop from 25 double steps down to 20....a quick look at my gps Garmin watch, another 6km to the pass, another 300m of elevation gain. Sounds totally doable. We have done much harder. There is a kind of exercise happening in your brain. You try to figure out what 6km is like back home. Ok, it is like 15 laps on the track. Well, when I am on the track, it is at sea level, I am not pushing a heavily loaded bike and I try to avoid being there at the warmest time of the day. Does not help.

We were not over our surprises. Soon we dropped to the other side, a

I quick look over my shoulder, Sylvia is still there not far behind, moving.... stopping....bending over her handlebar to get a short rest...sometimes only for few seconds then back in motion. Leading in a switchback I can discreetly observe her as she progresses to the turn. Checking and counting her step #’s.  Huh! I need to double check that. I counted only 15 double steps. Yup, confirmed. I need to find something quickly to avoid trouble. Not that she ever complained in the past. Really,  she always shows a positive attitude even when it was really tough. I guess her past long distance race experiences helps.

Another 5km, I need to find some kind of reward or mental support/ distraction/ diversion other than naively claim “almost there”. She has a problem with the word “ almost”.

In a cloud of dark smoke a little pickup truck overtook Sylvia and slowed down at my level. No clue what the passenger says but it sounds like he asks if we want a ride..... to the top. I can not see Sylvia hidden by the road switchback but this could be “my” reward.

When she showed up she can see me loading the bike on the pick up truck. Will she be endlessly appeciative to understand that I dropped my body in the middle of the road to stop the truck? Not sure of her reaction, quickly I know it will be fine. From 15 double steps she went to a full “jog the bike” pace and joined us out of breath with a big smile on her face. I am such a good guy.

Sary Tash and survive

A quick snack at the pass and we have only few km downhill to Sary Tash. Once again unbelievable scenery. So different from the other side. We can see the village, the huge wide valley and the white peaks of the Pamir. Really intimidating barriers of some 7000m summits. We ended up in a nice, very nice, guesthouse. Muras guesthouse is owned by a family from Osh. Our thoughts were to have a rest day before heading to Tajikistan and some very high passes to cross. A sitting toilet and real hot shower.... real luxuries for us after many days of cold river water and squats.

Wandering in the village, a very picturesque place, clouds are almost all gone. The Pamir mountains are majestic.

We rarely stay in a guesthouse. If we do it is to break the camp routine, wash our clothes, hopefully have a WiFi. It is also an opportunity to meet other cyclists/motor-bikers - both very present in what seems to be a trendy loop now. We trade between us the local currency, everyone emptying pockets to get rid of their last notes or coins to exchange them with those traveling to the opposite direction.

As always these are friendly moments with people from all around the world sharing the same passion.

Bug

Sylvia has been dealing, almost from day one, with some stomach issue.

We followed the rules but hard to not sometimes eat and drink in a nomad yurt. Altitude, drought climate, and the  effort force us to drink a lot...and often. The rivers, creeks, streams are not always running. Many are dry this time of the year. Local rain storms turn the clear rivers into muddy brown sources of water and damaging our water filter. As soon as we find some water to filter we try to stock up at least 4liters each. Still, that does not cover the needs. 

We lose weight - food is not the best thing we find in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan- probably around 8kgs each since the beginning and we are always on the edge of being dehydrated.

Literally, within few minutes Sylvia shifted from upbeat to really, really sick.

All night she will have deep spasms and vomit every 20 minutes. No fluid can stay in the stomach. She is vomiting on a totally empty stomach. In the morning she has 40c fever. Not a good place to deal with this.

Lucky us, Ainura and her sister who own the guesthouse were a good support. They helped us by feeding Sylvia with appropriate food and introduced us to the local nurse/doctor. The clinic is a regular building not much different than any other house in the village. 

After a face time with Belgium and Sylvia’s sister-in-law and niece, both in the medical field, it has been decided to find the possibility of an IV. Easy to decide...not that easy to find in this remote area.

The nurse we meet says it is ok to make one from scratch. Many needles, thinner and thinner will be needed as she could not find a good vein.  Dehydrated and at 3200m, the veins are not very easy to find and to reach. 

A shot in the butt to calm the abdomen spasms and only 250ml from the 500ml will be injected. We stopped the bloody mess then. Returning to the guesthouse, I will force Sylvia to drink one sip of electrolyte every 15-20’ for 36 hours.  

3 days later we hit the gravel roads to the Tajik border, still a little bit weak but in the mood to move. We will do an easy first day bike to monitor her and assess how well she is.

90km and 2 passes above 4000m

The first 25km are on a sort of pavement. Crossing the wide bottom flat valley. We left early as usual. Light breeze, great light, the mountains get closer. We discover slowly the narrow valley given access between these colossal mountains. Gravel replaced asphalt and we reach the Kyrgyz border. Quick formalities done we are now in a 20km stretch of nomansland. Few army patrols met reminded us the fragile politic situation of such places. A little short of breath and obviously not in a great condition, Sylvia is moving well. The beauty of the place keeps us  distracted and entertained. Then become the first pass reality. We did it slowly but in a good

time. We keep in mind that another one follows just after ....the highest one, 4650m, is planned  to be done in 2 days, so we did not put any pressure and expectation on our aims.

A little drop and we reach the Tajik border. Not as fast and smooth than the Kyrgyz. A group of motocyclistes from Poland passed us on the climb. We caught them up and get stuck with  them. They need to register one by one their motorcycles. We will waste over 2h there but made new friends. The leaders and guides for the groups are from Poland and Australia. They have been organizing trips in the regions for years , they know every little corner of it. 

Big black clouds are coming up....wind is picking up, temperatures is dropping...not good signs at 4000m.

The owner of the adventure company tells us - no chance to bivy beyond the pass as we planned, no water either between the 2 passes. 

All formalities done we shake hands, even hug each other, if I remember well and they took off leaving us with another 3liters of their water supply. 

We flew downhill, tricky as the gravel road is full of gravel traps. First sights of the Chinese advance security barbed wire fence that marks the entire border in Tajikistan. An amazing work done for an illusion of security. But I guess the point has to be made.

Very unwelcoming area, blowing wind, clouds of dust, landscape looks like those pictures of planet Mars.  Fantastic but really not a place to pitch a tent.

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We will half circumnavigate the lake by its East side, and end our day in So momentum and wind helping we decided to cross over the next pass. Did it. Getting dark  and now really cold. Noless wind on the other side. Still tailwind. We can barely hear talking to each other. So we keep moving. Headlamps ready in case it is getting too dark. We can vaguely see Karakul lake...maybe another 20km to the village. It was supposed to be an easy first day after Sylvia’s stomach problems. We ended up in a gravel ravine on the edge of the now paved road, covered by with dust, shivering, trying to pitch a tent willing to play with the wind instead of helping us to build up our shelter for the night.

It will be a cold snack for dinner, as we warm up in our solid bombproof Hilleberg tent. The short day concluded with over 80km, 2 passes above 4200m. We are tired but well. At midnight the wind calmed down.

Closer to the sky

We stopped in karakul for a lunch, we left later than usual. Superb scenery, superb morning light. Glaciers, the salty Karakul lake created in a meteorite crater, sand dunes (yes, sand dunes at 3500m) and the peaceful village houses made with Adobe and with their white walls and blue doors. A taste of Greece, in Tajikistan. Another night in a dusty ravine and we hit the highlight of the Pamir circuit. The 4650m Ak-Baital Pass is the second highest road pass in the world - that is what they claim ....definitely the highest in the Pamir.

Again no words to describe the scenery, the ambiance, the loneliness. We have not seen anyone. All is just for us. We are pushing hard but feeling strong. Right before the real pass, a little plateau with a creek and a tiny stretch of grass along the creek. The rest is only minerals and rock. From faddish yellow to dark brown. So beautiful that we do not care too much about the washboard gravel road that makes any effort at that elevation a pain in the .... 

Photos at the pass. We did it ...instant of joy and emotion. Sylvia has recovered miraculously very well. Big smile on her face.

Stressed on the breaks, the downhill is even more spectacular. We need to stay focused on the road surface, though. Full of loose gravel, sand or big holes. Tricky.

And the wind is back in our favor. We have a quick sorry feeling for those who have done the pass northbound. 

45km before Murghab we found a paradise camp spot. All the needs, green thick grass (no dust), a creek (with clear water), and great surroundings. We keep the last 45km for tomorrow. It is all downhill anyway.

Murghab and the Sary Kol guesthouse

We avoid the classic Pamir lodge stop. Full of adventurers of all kinds. Rather we prefer a quiet family guesthouse at the end of the village. Nurzat and Kanak her brother are our host. Probably one of the best place we stayed with Muras lodge in Sary tash. Both extremely clean, with a good atmosphere and hosting by super friendly people. Nothing better than a family business. The Pamir lodge is running down and has no more to offer than our accommodation choice. There is no electricity anywhere in the village and water comes from the pumps and wells in the streets.

By chance we see a Swiss cyclist couple met already many times in different places. 

We feel like almost family. Hugging each other like we have been known for years.

Only few days in Tajikistan and we feel in love already. We want more. Kyrgyzstan has been so green, so magic in many aspects, we thought we could not be more surprised anymore. Tajikistan is so different, that we feel we are really in another country. Dry, dusty, minerals...tortured.

Ainura from the Muras guesthouse in Sary Tash is working for an organization that painfully tries to bring back isolated Kyrgyz stuck with no more identity above 4500m in a little corner of the Pamir near the Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, China unstable border. Pushed there by the war, the fear, different circumstances, they have been forgotten by the world. They are dying there not able to go anywhere.

The story of these 1200 souls is really heartbreaking. No real hope for them.

We made a deal with Kanak. He and his old Russian jeep will take us for a couple of days off the grid in some secret places to be discovered. He knows the area, sometimes totally off road, the jeep took us through places that can not be described properly. We went to some wrecked places, left behind by the Russians. Trucks, buildings falling apart, even an old observatory on a summit of a mountain. The Russian jeep took us everywhere beyond imagination. Kanak not only knows very well that little corner squeezed between 4 countries disputing their borders he is also a very skilled off road driver with a great sense of humor. We stopped and visited some nomad friends, spent nights with them in their yurt camp in a magic area. From all the trips done biking, hitchiking, or backpacking in the world I have never seen so much diversity, so much beauty in these both countries.

Back in Murghab, we repacked everything and Kanak insisted to give some ride towards the Chinese border to ease our day.

Kulma pass 4300m. I dreamed about it many time since ‘95 when I was cycling with a friend the Karakoram on my bike trip from Siberia through Mongolia, China, Pakistan, India, Nepal.

As expected the view when you approach the pass is stunning. Slowly as you climb the pass you discover the summit of Muztagh Ataon the Chinese side. A colossal mountain covered by a huge glaciers at 7500m. It is so big, so close that it seems we can almost touch it. Impressive.

Welcome to China

The process to cross the newly open border is...let’s say....very strict. The border has always been open to trucks exporting goods from China. But not to foreigners. Everything is new, security infrastructure at a level of a secret base. Cameras everywhere, army, police, multiple check points, building to go through. Empty our panniers, searching our cameras, iPads, devices, scrolling down all our photo libraries and folders.

When we thought it was over, it is starting again with other police or army guys. Then, we have been “asked” politely but firmly to load our bikes in the trailer of one of these trucks on their way back to China. Empty. China exports....doesn’t import. The truck driver has no choice but to accept to drop us at the bottom of the 14km downhill to ...the next check point. 

A final full inspection and we are free to hit the Karakorum highway with its very smooth asphalt. Leaving Pakistan (Tajikistan?) and the Kunjerab pass behind us we are heading North for the first time in our trip. No need of face sunscreen today. 

You enter in Xinjiang and you change your watch. Not to the official time zone, though. Even at 4000km from Beijing everything is at Beijing time. We feel a little bit of bearing when we realize we are still cycling while our watch shows 7:30pm and the sun is still high in the sky. It is dark until 7:30am but sunny till 10pm. Disturbing. Even our Garmin watches showing the time based on our gps position are lost. Strangely our Gps positions are not accurate anymore. Our tracker is not working properly. We are in a different world, in a different dimension. 

Could have been confirmed  by the unexpected sight of camels along the road at 4000m. 

Maybe just the time to pitch the tent and recover from all the events of the day.

Rules...

Fences everywhere, it was not like that the last time I was here. We understand. Sensitive area. Too many borders around. Sometimes many rows of fences. We finally find a breach. We sneak in and hide behind a sort of a gravel dam. No one around, perfect and discreet. We have not even finished pitching the last peg than an army jeep showed up. 

Clearly, we are not welcome for the night here.

Repacking everything and being forced to move further for another 15km. The jeep will escort us 13km and disappears.

It is almost dark when we found a spot behind a sort of a tourist building made by a set of little booths. Based on the front doors they are stores selling food and tourist stuff.

The spot is definitely ugly but we need to sleep.

The next 2 days will be take us through canyons, deep gorges, surrounded by glaciers and very unstable terrain. Multiple landslide. The road has been greatly improved since 95. 

It is pay back time for us now. All the tailwind we had in Tajik while heading South is now headwind as we are heading North. So strong that we have to push hard on the pedals on downhill 6% grade. Oooops sorry, the sign says 5.9%. 

We really feeling we are leaving the mountains and heading to the desert and the flat part of Xinjiang.

The 245km from the border to Kashgar has been a smooth ride despite the headwind. We pushed to cover the last 120km in one stretch. We had no local money and been told by the police in a small town that we were not allowed to go in a bank before Kashgar to exchange 

some currency. So unfortunately no reason to stop anywhere on the way. Too bad. 

The entire 245km were also a good way to be educated to the local rules. Every km and when crossing some villages every 100m, an arch “straddles” the road with many cameras. A flash light confirms a picture has been taken of anything or anyone moving under the arch on the road. There must be plenty of us, more than 245, I hope they have at least one not blurry.

The Chinese are consistent. All Kashgar is under siege. Multiple check points, in the streets, for each hotel or store/mall entrance. Mainly for locals. The security is everywhere. An obsession. Tensions between the government, its interior politic, and the Uyghurs claiming their independence is sweating from everywhere. Everyone is suspicious but tourists are preserved from any check points. Their pictures taken everywhere and stored in, probably, gigantic computer hard drives seems to be enough. We stayed in one of those hotels allowed to take foreigners as clients. Kashgar is not the Kashgar I saw in the past. It is a huge big city now. High rises, traffic, not the desert sort of oasis from the past. Still touristically claims to be the capital of the Silk Road. All the old city made with mud brick houses is now 99% gone. A reproduction of some quarters is now a main tourist attraction and an opportunity for some Chinese entrepreneur from other provinces to run businesses. The Uyghurs are definitely now a minority, the famous Sunday animal market is sad compared with what it used to be and definitely not as animated as other Central Asia animal Markets. 

Kashgar being a milepost in our trip, it is time to wrap up the first segment of our route and to work on part 2. All will start again soon we find a way to move more East since Tibet remains closed for us. Rumors say the Chinese government may be ready to open the autonomous Tibet region to foreigners next year....

Balykchy ( Issyk Kul) to Osh July 21-Aug 7
eastcapades-graphics-4.jpg

challenge

+12868m/-13686m

ROUTE

737km

    TIME

      83:10

off road

571km

SYLVIA

Red - colour of fire and blood, also associated with energy, power, war and danger

July 21 - we leave Balykchy and our comfortable hotel room. We make our way along the south side of Issyk Kul Lake. My first tourista of the trip starts the same morning. Pepto Bismol seems to do the trick for now. The two days we bike along the lake are very different from the more popular North side of the lake. The south side has less traffic and more ecological diversity. Very dry, hot and windy, we bike our way up the lake to Tossor village passing small villages where people live mostly from farming. Camp spots with water sources and shade are rare but we manage somehow to find something nice each time, except for the one morning where we wake up in a small pool of water. We did not see the manually made small irrigation canal the night before that got filled with water during the night. Luckily, our tent, heavy but strong...and waterproof, did not leak. Thank you Hilleberg! 

Cooling off

Rhythm of life is quite different hereand even though we are not the first tourists on a bike crossing their villages, people look at us like we are a curiosity...and we do the same with them. It feels like we are sitting in a bus with no windows absorbing all the colours and smells of Kyrgystan. They think we are bizarre...definitely. Akuda? Is one of the most common questions: where do you come from. Canada?! Ah....

We meet Swiss and French bikers on the road. Lots. And there is always time for a chat to get some intel or just a welcomed break. After two days of biking, we are at the road taking us to Tossor pass: 3,950 m high. We climb the mountain in two days, with a lot of bike pushing. Friendly nomads offer us tea, food and a camping spot. We feel very privileged when we can share family time with our new hosts, Gulmira and her three children. 

Daniel, Gulmira’s youngest son

On the way up, we meet ‘bike tourists’, they get dropped off at the top of the mountain and just need to bike downhill. Big smiles on their faces when they cross us on the dirt road. No luggage, just some water and a snack. It seems to be a very enjoyable way to discover Kyrgystan: enjoying the mountains but it’s not too tiring. Do I sound envious now? One thing is for sure, I won’t forget how difficult the last 2 km of the pass were. At the end, the slope is so steep that my bike and me are at times moving backwards... My trick to keep moving forward, when walking and pushing my bike, is to count 25 double steps before pausing. When it becomes steeper I would lower the count to 10, or even 5. The reward of the climb is amazing, the valley in front of us is gorgeous and we have not enough eyes to take it all in. On our way down into the valley, we meet again the same group of Russian bikers we met on our first day biking. It feels good to see people enjoying the same passion for biking and nature. 

We cross many Vs (water-crossings). Frank often bikes through them, but I chicken out and walk most of them. One big V has washed out  the road. Careful, I decide to cross further down where the river seems less strong. Frank, instead, tries to bike through the river closer to the previous road and falls into the water. He is completely drenched, and we have to quickly find a camping spot to dry all his stuff. “Ouf”, all the electronics stayed dry. It is so windy and sunny that everything dries in no time, 2 hours tops. On the way to Saji Bulak, my legs are tired, we face serious headwind and I’m hangry. Luckily, on our way to the next stop, we have lunch in a yurt and I have Kemis (mare milk) for the first time. Brrr...not my favourite. I think it doesn’t help my tourista either! 

Lunch time with nomad family

On one of the nights, we run out of water, We are rescued by a Canadian from Toronto who shipped his SUV to Hamburg and drove all the way to Kyrgyzstan. Long live Canada! After a two nights of reasonable rest in a small village, Saji Bukal, we start our way to Song Kul Lake. On the way up, we meet three French people. One couple on a tandem, plus one solo biker guy. Would it be the first tandem going up to the Lake? 

Lunch break with another familiar encounter: Instagram friends from Switzerland, Ivo & Brigitte and Gerry from Boulder, Colorado. The climb to Song Kul seems ok until we hit the last km. I’m totally out of energy and sit down on the edge of the dirt road. Even a Snickers doesn’t help me to get back on my feet. Tears come only when Frank starts to set-up the tent. After a good Chinese Noodle soup with sausage and a cookie for dessert, I am ready for bed. There’s a big thunderstorm during the night and we have frost on our tent the next morning. To our surprise, we are surrounded by yaks, horses and cows. Magical! And we haven’t even seen Song Kul Lake.

The area after the pass reminds Frank of Mongolia. Wide open, the lake is shimmering in the far and there are lots of nomads. The area is more touristy but it doesn’t spoil it for us. Around one corner on the trail, we meet Baja again, one of the Kyrgyz mountain bike tourist guides we’ve met on Tossor pass who invites us for lunch together with his Italian customers. Hard-boiled eggs, coffee :)) and grapes. We love you Baja. We spend the night at a yurt camp,  invited by a German couple, Ingrid and Hartmut, for a glass of wine, the first since we left Belgium. At the end of the evening, we’re a total of 8 bikers. A good crowd to share dinner and chat about the trail, but also about the terrorist attack in Tajikistan which made everyone feel uncomfortable and sad. However, we all bounce back quickly after the conversation. Eventually guests and our Kyrgyz hosts play volleyball together with Song Kul lake shimmering just a few meters from the playing field. Surreal. 

Volleyball game at Song Kul Lake

How to build a yurt

The downhill after Song Kul is breath-taking, scary and provides us with huge adrenalin kicks. The beauty of the landscape blows us away. 

We stay for one night at Nomad’s valley yurt, cappuccino, homemade dinner and a good night of sleep restore our energy. Kazarman is our next goal. This part is a bit less glorious...4km before the pass, we catch a ride on a utilitarian Pick-up. When we arrive at the top, everyone gets out of the car and we have vodka, kemis, apricots and chocolat. Typical Kyrgyz picnic. When we want to take off our bikes, they insist to take us down to the valley. Luckily, we listened, 45 km headwind and no water on the trail would have killed us. Before they drop us off in a small village 50km before Kazarman, more vodka, although we would have preferred water. The area starts to be really dry, and we can’t find a stream to filter water. With the help of the kids of the village, we find the store where we can only buy sparkling water for cooking. Grocery stores are not always clearly marked, sometimes it’s just a window, or a garage behind a house. The store owner lets us sleep on her property but it’s not a restful night. By now, I am really sick and start to take antibiotics. It rains the whole night, and the youngsters of the village check out our tent, talking loud and listening to music. We are the curiosity of the village.

Nomad’s valley guest house

When we arrive in Kazarman, we find a nice guest house and spend two nights to recover. Highlights of the stay: a cold beer and chatting with the other guests. My favourite guests are two Korean brothers and their Kazakh guide. They are visiting  the area to see the Petroglyphs. The area is renowned for its Petroglyphs on Samailuu Tash. There have been found more than 10,000 Petroglyphs. More info on Wikipedia:  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saimaluu_Tash

The next destination is Jalal Abad, but first we have to climb another pass: Kugart Pass. Because the area is really dry and hot, we go to bed early and get up at 5 am and bike for about 6 hours until the sun is too strong. Less and less yurts and farmers, we barely meet people. Some farmers picking up hay in their fields and a few beekeepers. A creepy thing happened to us while camping on the way. One morning, we wake up with at least 20 spiders in our tent...brrrrr. Obviously we did not close the zipper of our tent properly. 

We arrive in Jalal-Abad around 10 am after 25 km of beautiful paved road. There, we decide to take a Taksy (taxi) to Osh (Cost: 1,500 som for 110 km, or the equivalent of CAD $27) to meet our friend Fred, and his two buddies, Jean-Philippe and Matthieu. They rode their bikes through Tajikistan and had a great time despite the terrorist attack. We spend two days with them in a four star Spa hotel. We have a lot of food, laughters and a private harmonica concert. Thank you Fred. 

Pizza with friends in Osh

Favourite Gear
Foldable chair, Kindle and mini iPad - a nice treat to sit comfortably at the end of the day and read a book, even if it weighs together 1kg.
MSX biking shorts, Salawe t-shirt, Iceberg bra and Columbia shirt. I try to rinse them everyday in a creek, they dry quickly and don’t smell too badly.
My glasses
Of course, my Thermarest full length and Mec pillow
MSR water filter
Frame bags of my bike - thank you George!
Keen sandals for the Vs and when we’re in a hotel or guesthouse
Bracelet (feels like my kids are always a little bit with me) and watch (to see how far we have biked, and still have to go)
Sony camera - compact and easy to use

What I could (doesn’t mean I will) get rid off:
Hairbrush - my hair is an incredible mess anyway
Hammock - we have used it once
Body cream - even though it should be under the essentials, I barely used it
My bike - a car would be nice
My diarrhea

What I miss:
My favourite blue toque I’ve sent home from Balykchy
A big thermos
Legging and a light shirt with long sleeves for hot areas (for conservative Muslim areas)
And my people

 

 

 

 

FRANK

An ocean at 1600m

The North shore of the 170Km long Issyk Kul salty lake is the Russians and locals favourite side. A couple of towns along the road circling the lake offer enough resorts and tourist attractions to be a summer destination for wealthy Russian and Kazakstan families. The Bishkek crowd drives the 200km to find cooler air at 1600m and enjoy the pleasure of lake beaches.

Influenced by some chatter and readings, we just want to have a look before heading to the south side. We take a local “bus”. More like a van where 12 passengers squeeze in, sharing sweat in the 34c.

We spent the day at Cholpon-Ata. Walking on the beach, through private beaches and public beaches, using our tourist ignorance and Russian/Kyrgyz sterile vocabulary to explain our presence among wealthier tanning bodies. These have paid a fee not be harassed by the smoke fish sellers or young guys carrying big eagles for a classic local picture, all who wander the busy coastline to make some Kyrgyz Som, the local money.

Nothing fancy in any structures or tourist developments, more old Russian style. Still, jet-skis, hang gliders being towed by power boats are present, adding some interesting contrast between the different social classes. The atmosphere is relax, families are on vacation. The white peaks surrounding the lake offer a very nice background for some women posing for pictures that are definitely not taken to end up in any family album but more on some Online dating website. Fun to observe and be part of it but happy we will get back to our accommodation by the end of the day and tomorrow ride our bikes on the South side- more quiet and more scenic.

Dry, hot, the end of our warm up phase

The South road is definitely less busy, sometimes no cars for a while. The heat starts to have a toll on us so we decide to be packed up and leave around 7am. On the way, we cross our first Muslim cemetery.  So picturesque, they add history to a dry, sandy and hilly landscape.

The road is rarely right on the shore of the lake but when it is, it gives easy access to the water. Not many trees to create shade which is annoying for us in a quest to get some rest away from that sun. The sun does not stop people from pitching umbrellas and having fun feet in the lake.

The best spots for us to pitch the tent are those far enough from the road. No broken bottles of Vodka, no garbage. Not much shade either so it is always in late afternoon that we scout promising places before pushing our bikes through bushes and sand.

We explored the south coast for about 3 days, passing villages of different sizes and importance. Most of them not showing any warm welcome explaining the lack of visitors not interested in a non touristy developed area.

We are leaving the fairly rolling lakeshore road roughly mid way to the far eastern side of the lake. Right before a little village called TOSOR, the same name of the 4000m pass waiting for us. Enjoying the relatively smooth tarmac of the main road we almost miss the turn off. No sign and an insignificant narrow gravel road is our “trailhead” to go deeper South and into the TIAN SHAN area. Our first ascensions, our first gravel, our first surprise. 

Soaking in the reality of our trip

With food for 5 days bought in the last decent sized village offering a variety in terms of...noodles, onions, garlic, carrots, smoked cheese ( our daily main meal); oatmeal, dry fruit and nuts ( our daily breakfast) and the classic Snickers and Cookies (our treats for the spirit and to add some calories during the day).

It starts hard right away. Really rough gravel road, loose rocks, some sections very sandy, and a real rollercoaster. We desperately try to find a place in the shade to rest and maybe snooze with the intention of moving on later when the heat won’t be as bad.

Unfortunately, the river we were counting on to refill our containers is lower in the gorge and not accessible most of the way. Lucky we have some little streams coming  higher up that cross the dirt road. Hats and T-shirts dipped in the cold water work as an AC on our boiling bodies and allow us to keep moving up.

An isolated little farm and some big trees finally offer us a perfect spot to open the tarp and nap for about 2h. We are both wondering what to expect from the rest of the road to the pass. Both probably slightly concerned but nothing said.

Another couple hours later we emerge out of a narrow canyon to a wide open green alpine scenery. The last few days were in a kind of very dry, almost desert, and sandy rock formation type of landscape. We got used to it, thinking that it may stay like that for a while. So the surprise was actually a boost for the spirit and we did not even care about the big black clouds gently but surely hiding the blue sky.

The tent pitched, we “jumped” ( actually more “carefully immersed” ) in the freezing cold stream to erase all trace of dust and sweat from our bodies. It always gives you a big kick and it is with a lot of energy that we prepared our noodles and peeled our onion and carrot.

Less than one hour later we collapsed in our sleeping bags not even bothered by the big storm and thunderstorm that lasted most of the night.

We camped at 2000m. Only 400m of elevation gain since Issyk Kul Lake. The pass is another 1900m higher and the topo map showing numerous switch backs is not encouraging. 

It is in a very green valley where some rare white dots ( Yurts) offered hope to find some tea and treats that we progressed through for the next 2 days. Short days distance wise but big days riding and hiking the bikes to gain, step by step, some altitude.

One night we camp next to a welcoming yurt of a herder family and we hit the final section to the pass. The last 3km were really steep and the gravel road was transformed to a rocky boulder road. Hard pushing motivated only by the close end of the climb and the superb view of all the valley we have ridden.

Sliding our way between 2 summit glaciers with the noise of rocks falling from higher up the pass, we meet a few French cyclists coming from the other side. WTF?! Empty bikes, big smiles contrasted with our heavy donkeys and tired faces. The TOSOR pass is one of the highlights for Adventure tour operators offering transport, meals and logistics on a 10 day bike tour where only downhills and rolling stretches are cycled.

Freshly dumped from their van at the pass they could not even confirm for us the presence of water on the other side. Nice chat with them though and quickly they flew down for their 2hour ride when it took us 2.5 days. Good for our ego.

No pain, no gain...time to gain

We were not over our surprises. Soon we dropped to the other side, a huge wide green valley bordered by mountain chains and glaciers will stay our scenery for the next 2 days. Light tailwind, good downhill grade (that we could not really enjoy at 100% because of the tricky surface of the dirt road), a few yurts pearling the landscape, horses, sheeps, cows and a comfy silence. The feeling is like watching a documentary without the sound.  Few stops to take the time to savor the scenery, trying to increase our normal human sight angle to a wide angle. We do not talk, we just smile and our eye contacts mean more than words. Any comments would have been banalities in comparison to what was around us. The pain, the doubts and the fatigue of the last couple of days have vanished.

The next few days are just as stunning, it is like the regular ups and downs have become details in our progress ( well, Sylvia and I may not exactly share the same feeling ... but you know what I mean). We passed some hot springs, too hot to dip in it. We meet other cyclists going to the pass or another valleys annex. Opportunities to exchange info, tips. We learn about the weather pattern in this new micro climate. Every afternoon the wind is picking up hard mainly from West (great, we heading West!), cloud cover increases and early evenings are stormy.

A bridge too far

One night we made the mistake of aiming to have a bridge shown on the map as a goal. Bridge meaning water, water meaning tea and noodles for the end of the day. We pushed towards it while we should have stopped earlier in a so-so spot for camping. The hope for better was dominant. A last tiring climb before a downhill to the bridge. Head wind, dust, a plateau to cross and the bridge shows up. Not what we were expecting. The water is loaded with sediment, coming from the glaciers around, the wind is strong and the area is fairly exposed. We debated but the fatigue won and we spend some more energy trying to find a place somewhat out of the wind. Tent pitched, we tried to figure out how we were gonna cook our noodles with 2l, drink and have porridge in the morning.

It is late and at 3000m the evening starts to be coolish. We have not seen anyone for a few hours now. Far away we can spot a couple of buildings. Even if the landscape is not very encouraging I take my bike ( unloaded) and give it a try. No luck, abandoned houses that could be a good shelter if the weather keeps deteriorating but no water. Back to the tent, we even try to play survival science by filtering the water from the creek through our tea filter and Sylvia’s Bandanna. Not working. Then, just like someone above started to feel sorry for us, a 4WD Toyota showed up on the gravel road. I run to stop it and beg for one liter of water. A couple from Ontario on a trip through Central Asia. They left us with 2 more liters of sparkling water. Oh Canada !

The wind calms down, the night is chilly, the tent has frost in the morning. We discover later in an almost similar situation that by boiling the water rich in sediment and let it rest after, all the sediment quickly covers the bottom of the pot. We then just need to filter the clear water.

Deep into it

The following days go by with meeting a few more cyclists on the road, a few more encounters with herders, many more stops to take photos, and plenty of “how lucky we are to be here and experience this” feelings.  Emotions of past bike touring experiences in different part of the world and certainly in Central Asia are re-born in exactly the same way. That mix of efforts+encounters+nature are the ingredients of a perfect status of freedom. You add silence and superb lights that highlight perfect scenery and you just wonder what could be missing.

At first, frankly, I was a little bit skeptical about SONG KUL. Described in every document about Kyrgyzstan, the high altitude lake is known to be a stop for some tour operators to offer Yurt experiences to their clients. There are 3 gravel roads given access to the lake perched above 3000m. Each access involves a high pass. The last few days brought us back to an altitude of roughly 2000m. It is another 3400m pass on our way to the lake. No surprise, the afternoon headwind and even a little hail will make the climb....more...let’s say...interesting. Sylvia develops a new technique. According to the grade she counts 10-15-25 double steps while pushing her bike. I can hear her counting if by chance I am behind her. If she is counting in French, all is fine. She is just working to maintain a steady pace. Counting in English and the situation get more difficult to manage. Counting in German and I should not be around, things become explosive. We camped less than 1km before the pass as the place was out of the wind and a creek provided water for all our needs.

When the sun and emotion rise

In those early hours of the next morning we discovered what will stay for us as one of the nicest views of the trip so far. Perfect early morning light. Just magic. Nothing is missing. Even the gravel road is now a smooth dirt road. The short drop to the lake is exhilarating.

We will half circumnavigate the lake by its East side, and end our day in the mid afternoon in a yurt camp close to the lake shore, sharing the evening with a few more cyclists and a couple of tourists traveling in a rented 4WD. Everyone sharing their adventure and sometimes misfortunes in funny ways.

In the morning, the tent dismantled and repacking is now part of a well trained drill. We have become efficient, we have our tasks. Everything rolls smoothly. In less than 2 hours after we wake up, breakfast taken, we are back on our saddles. A small 300m of elevation gain to get out of the lake “cuvette” and we discover our major downhill. Feeling almost sorry for those who choose to climb it while we thought it would be peace of cake for us to fly down. It was indeed, despite sections full of traps that force us to stay focused on our riding and braking. The numerous switchbacks can be seen in many pictures posted by other travelers. They are scary.

Once again the scenery has changed in only a few km. We are now descending far in elevation. Kilometer after kilometer we are leaving one climate zone for another to eventually getting back to dry and hot surroundings. So dry, so hot that the next couple of passes will be hard work. Rivers and creeks dry, wind, 35c, frustrating up and down while we should only go up in order to reach the main pass. This is what is hard in Kyrgyzstan, we do not go as high as we go in Tajikistan but we in the Kyrgyz Republic we never stay in a constant elevation. What has been gained one day is gone the next day and everything has to be re-gained again.

6Km from one of the passes (that day we had 3 passes in the program, not a choice but a need, as the area has no water and we can carry only so much water ( usually 5L each) on top of a few days of food.). So as I said, 6Km from the pass, a pick up truck double cab carrying an entire herder family offered a lift to the pass. I clearly remember the smile on Sylvia’s face...I probably had the same actually :)  Few minutes later we were at the pass. They wanted to celebrate it. Probably also because their truck made it. Vodka, Kumis (fermented mare milk), apricots, cookies....a party at 3200m in the wind, in the dust, in the cold but who cares...we all made it.

No discussion, we passed on the vodka and fermented milk test with all the honors so we could stay with our bikes on the pick up truck eating dust, fighting cold and getting wet by some sparse hail showers for another 40km to a more friendly area.

We spent the night in a really poor village a little bit knocked out by the couple of hours struggling outside on the pick-up truck. Barely able to swipe off all the dust on us as no water other than sparking water in 2 bottles found by chance in a private house that is also the village store. More a rustic, basic convenience store with the ultra minimum if you like chips and cookies.

Smoother and faster, Chinese treat

A bad night tenting in a sort of house back yard with rain all night. At 11am the rain stopped and we take off to Kazarman. Another depressing little town that used to be a prosperous mine town once. One rest day in a guesthouse to recover before another big big climb to get back above 3000m right before more gently rolling country that will bring us to Jalalabad with a surprising 30Km of smooth pavement ( thank you Chinese government for investing like you do in many other countries surrounding yours, whatever the real purpose of it is) and a tailwind. First pavement after more than 700km of gravel and dirt.

We get back to our lower elevation hot weather routine. Up at 5am, leaving at 6am to cover some distance before the heat. By 11am we are in Jalalabad, 3rd biggest city, a local snack and a pot of tea and we are heading to the bus terminal to negotiate a ride to Osh distant of 105Km. A long non interesting road with heavy traffic between the 2nd and 3rd city in Kyrgyzstan. Good advice from other cyclists.

We are now in Osh by chance right in time to meet friends from Belgium who are finishing 4 weeks of biking in Tajikistan. Celebrating their accomplishment and the beginning of a few rest days for us in what at first glance looks like a nice place to chill. We are now back under 1000m. We are gonna try to keep our red blood cell count high enough for what is waiting for us later. But first we need to talk about the plans.

The terrorist attack in Tajikistan that killed 4 cyclists few days ago has raised some concerns. But for now let’s enjoy the moment with our friends and share our stories.

 

KyrgyzstanZenija Esmits
Kyrgyzstan Bishkek - Issyk Kul Lake
eastcapades-graphics-4.jpg

challenge

+ 1758m/-734m

ROUTE

201km

    TIME

    18:24

off road

52km

SYLVIA

Blue - colour of the sea and sky.

July 7th, 2018. Second attempt..our trip starts with a few hiccups. On our way to Belgium, our plane was delayed in London and my luggage took a trip alone, arriving in Brussels one day later. After reconnecting briefly with family, we left for Kyrgystan, Byshkek on July 12. Flights and transfer are smooth, and a driver picked us up in Byshkek. Our Airbnb is great. Helena, the mother of our host Alena, welcomes us in her absence and we already feel the kindness and hospitality of the Kyrgyz people. The annex of the main house is ideal for us. It even has AC, which we appreciate with temperatures of 35C. We set-up our bikes and buy the last few things we need. Everything you want/need can be purchased in Byshkek. There is even a great outdoor store selling technical gear called ‘Sport Expert’...and is even cheaper than Canada. A monthly rechargeable sim card with 35 GB DATA and 75 min calling is available for CAD $12. It feels like we get ripped off by the phone companies in Canada when we hear the price! Getting around in the city is easy, streets are in a grid system, and you can either walk from our Airbnb to downtown Byshkek within 10 min or take a taxi/minibus. Kyrgystan is known to have the cheapest taxis and bus system in the world.  Byshkek - Issyk Kul lake can be done in a mini bus for 270 som (170 km for CAD $5). Getting used to the language is the most challenging for both of us. A few words are already memorized: da, nyet, spasiba (yes, no, thank you) ...and tualet. 

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We leave a few days later. Frank had worked out a ‘bucolic’ first day ride. Bucolic definitely had an evil connotation (Lisa, you must be smiling when you read this) when we hit a washed out dirt road and the bushwhacking started. We should have listened to a local who told us not to go this way...lesson learned: always listen to local intel! Boiling hot, I am not a happy camper. For the next two hours, I am thinking I won’t be able to do this for 8 months. Eventually, we arrive at an abandoned village where we are able to cross the river safely and are back on a decent dirt road. First stop after pushing our bikes through many ‘V’s (V = water crossings), we find a small store by asking where we can buy Limonad. Without help, we would not have found the store, no sign, just a blue door. Both of us drink a bottle of coke and get our first food offered. Apricots not bigger than a walnut and cucumbers.. We must have looked very tired. The Russian bikers, also in front of the store, did not receive anything. We continue along the water canal and set camp along the water irrigation system, not far from a herd of cows and Kyrgyz cowboys. Heaven! All the fields we biked along, are crossed with an exceptional irrigation system. No field or farm is without water.

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Next day, we get up at 5:30 am to beat the heat. First tears for me. Disappointed with myself and how hard each pedal on my bike feels. I think Frank is a bit scared that I am already emotional knowing that the hardest part is still ahead. We stop in a small village where gas is sold in 1 or 2 liter water bottles at the grocery’s store. More coke and a cake/cookie...by the way, we eat tons of crap food. A villager invites us for a cup of tea and some ‘airan’ (freshly made yoghurt). Delicious! Satisfied, we continue our route to Burana tower. A nicely restored minaret from around 1000 AC, where we buy some postcards and a hat for our living room from the director of the site. She is originally from Kemin and studied History in Moscow. We push our trip further with multiple coca cola stops, and another invite for food. Abdullah, a father of 5 children, invites us to his home, where we eat delicious naan, airan, samsy and drink choy (tea in Kyrgyz). We share food and tea with all of them. Abdullah’s son speaks already a great English, and we have our first real conversation since we started biking. He wants to be a dentist in Switzerland or US and study in Moscow. Arrived in Kemin, we eat and get invited by a man to stay at his house. His mother and sister are a bit overwhelmed when we arrive, but warm up after a few minutes. It turns out, that the director of the the Burana tower is their aunt...even here the world is small. 

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After a night of no sleep for me, we hit the road at 7:15 am. Not feeling great...I had to force myself to eat. After a few minutes, I feel better and we bike part of the old and new highway to Issyk Kul. Many police officers on the road are writing speeding tickets. The speeding drivers are definitely not stressed when they talk to the police, some drivers even don’t stop when asked. This is also very different from Canada. Mini bus drivers get stopped at the entrance of the Balykchy and pay some cash money to the police. Taxes for the government or cash for the police? We arrive at Balykchy around 4pm and decide to stay at the hotel Azymut. We now have to learn Kyrgyz mostly spoken around Issyk Kul. Next day is a rest day. I have decided to send home some items: my beloved blue hat (daughter’s gift), a pair of underwear and bra, which leaves me with three underwear and two bras, one CoolLite long sleeve Icebreaker, a thermos, gaiters, one facial cream - I hope I won’t look like a crepe in eight months, liquid for the tubeless tires (Frank has some), and some other small items. 2 kg in total. Not sure it will really make a difference but it makes room for water and food. Finding a post office is the challenge of the day. It takes us two hours. The post office clerks are not very happy when they see us just before closing time but warmed up after a few minutes. Frank used his unique Belgian charm to make them smile.  2946 som poorer, and two kilo lighter, we go for dinner to Mycas cafe. Excellent local food. We try for the first time the famous fermented Nomad drink Maksym Sohro sort of weird salty and sparkly drink. 

  • Recipe for 10 liters:
  • 200g animal fat, 200g of wheat flour
  • 0.5 kg of talkan (splintered barley)
  • Salt
  • 10 liters of water
  • 20g yeast

The flour is cooked in animal fat until it goes light brown. After that cover with water. When it starts boiling, add talkan to the water and boil for 30 minutes on low heat.

Cool to 30C. Mix 100 g of flour and yeast, and melt in salt water. Mix together mixture.

The mixture should stand for 12 hours in a covered dish. Keep in fridge for 12 hours, stir well before drinking cold.

Second night in Balykchy, we meet a Canadian couple, Andrea and Clayton, on their bike ride honey moon. We talk briefly and relate quite well to their tiredness. Looking for a camp spot, they decided eventually for a hotel room instead. They were still asleep when we left at 9am for Cholpon Ata. We take a taksy/minibus to the touristy coast town 82 km from Balykchy for 2x 200 som (55 som is 1$). Our driver broke all the speed limits, and I swear he could have won all car rally’s in Europe... I was scared to hell. 

At the moment both of us are sitting on the beach and enjoy the moment with Kyrgyz and Russian tourists. The sky is blue with just enough clouds to make it look interesting and not too hot. Life is good, and I can’t wait to get back on my bike and enjoy the challenges of the trail. Kyrgystan is a beautiful country, great people and easy to travel. If you are looking for a place off the grid, not expensive with awesome people, than Kyrgystan should be on top of the list. Even though still poor, it challenges the so called first world countries by being clean, friendly and beautiful.

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FRANK

I’ve had mainly, if not only, bad experiences in the past with Aeroflot, one of the main airline companies offering plenty of connections between Europe and Asia /Central Asia. 

Our red eye flight from Brussels to Bishkek with a 4h connection stop over in Moscow was actually the smoothest process possible. All flights took off on time, arrived earlier than scheduled and landed right behind the custom gate.  After we got our 60 days visa stamp at the Bishkek airport customs, our 2 cardboard bike boxes were standing in the middle of the hall. A few minutes later our 2 backpacks appeared on the carrousel and we were leading the passenger crowd to step out on the Kyrgyz Republic ground and the 6 million Kyrgyz . Well, at least few of them.

No time to kiss the floor before Jaidar our driver waved us. I guess the 2 big boxes were a hint. 

Alena, our Airbnb host, kindly organized a pick up at the airport so in no time we landed in our Bishkek “pied a terre”.

Located in a quiet residential area but within walking distances of all the needs ( coffee place, restaurants, shopping mall) the guest house is a jewel in a green backyard. The bonus is a huge porch where we were able to build up our bikes under the 34c temps. 

A few errands to complete our preparation, some wandering to discover the city and the 2 days spent there passed by really fast.

Bishkek, one million people, capital of the independent (1991)  Kyrgyz Republic, is one of these former Soviet Union cities, full of contrast. Lack of maintenance in general but everything is clean, very clean. Wealthy people, luxurious shopping malls with high brand flag stores and a lower social class finding solutions to make a living.

Alarm set up: 5 AM

To beat the heat, we took off around 6AM. The plan is to reach Issuk Kul Lake off the big Hwy and its summer tourist flow. Issyk Kul is a huge salty lake at an elevation of 1600m. A major summer destination for all the inhabitants of Bishkek keen to find some cooler air.

At 6 in the morning,  the traffic is sparse. We navigated through the huge wide boulevards, a stop at a gas station to fill up our multi fuel stove canister and quickly we left the city behind us. 

Off the Hwy, a delightful itinerary

At the foothills and between the huge and already impressive Kyrgyz Ala-too range in the South and the Zailiysky Ala-too range that forms the boarder with Kazakstan in the North, the vast plain is mainly agricultural. A complex network of irrigation channels provide the valley with water coming from the numerous glaciers. 

It is by following the gravel roads along those channels that we will stay away from the traffic and discover the country side. Winding between fields, these gravel roads are in a good shape and, unlike the paved Hwy, they  force us to pace ourselves and move at a leisurely speed.

Kyrgyz cowboys, farmers waving us on our way and forcing some interactions that always become some sort of intuitive body language adding some more heart beats and sweat that we do  not really need under a strong sun. Talking, assuming we can hold a conversation in Kyrgyz, would have not been much easier. With 34c and 15% of humidity our mouths are so dry that talking is painful. Few trees along our path offered good spots to take a break from the sun and break the pedal routine.

Short cut

These long straight channels make the orientation relatively easy. Easy enough to fall into a sort of blind confidence. So when a glance at the map showed that we should actually be on the other side of the channel, my role is to explain to Sylvia that it is not a bearing mistake but a sort of short cut. The particularity of those channels is that for kilometers there is no way to cross them. If you are on the wrong side....you will stay there for a long way. Interesting to notice that it is only on the wrong side that the gravel road curves out and takes you in a totally different direction.

Let’s stick to the argument that it will be a short cut because the general direction is ...still...ok. 

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The Kyrgyz gods are not with me. Our “wrong side of the channel, heading the wrong direction road” ends up in a huge wash out. No more gravel. Just rocks in a river bed. But some tracks encouraged us to pursue. 

It is a - personal- good feeling to see how much trust Sylvia has in me.

Many times we try to get out of the river bed to merge on a possible path vaguely marked on my digital map. A progression that would have pleased our “Icelandic team members” ( inside joke). It always ended up in a sort of Bush-wacking with our heavy donkeys and more fords to cross. And for those who knows Sylvia, you know the high appreciation she has to bush-wacking. She usually allows a couple each year when we hike with compass in our home mountains. I think for 2018 we reached the quota.

Hikebiking

I think Sylvia, despite her smily face, realized that the 3h spent in the the river bed helped us to cover barely 10Km and...took us somewhat off our planned route.

Everything ended well

Around 4pm  our relationship and accessories (my life) were saved by a gorgeous camp spot. Huge tresses providing plenty of shade, a narrow irrigation channel and a grassy level surface. We can get rid of the sweat and dust, relax and have a good night sleep in our tent.

Next day same scenario....

Except that, lesson learned, we carefully remained on the good sides of each channels. Eventually paved country side roads brought us through little villages in a quest for drinkable sources of fluids. Typically in all the Eastern countries, you can always find someone selling something. We just need to find the location. 

It helps when you have a sign...sometimes. Some of these “convenient stores” are also some sort of gas stations. Soda bottles are recycled filled up with gas. Not sure how far a driver expects to be able to go with the equivalent of 1.5l of what used to be the content of a Coca-Cola bottle.

Probably enough to the next village. Anyway, take a bottle, empty it in your tank, bring back the bottle for a future new use and leave the 45 Kyrgyz Som (70c US) in the cart

Hospitality

We do not need excuses to justify a break, a pause. Overwhelmed by the kind and friendly hospitality. Past visits in Central Asia always left me with that feeling of a degree of hospitality rarely reached in our country despite the abundance of everything. However, it is difficult to maintain a reasonable pace and keep our bikes light enough to ride when apples, bread, vegetables,  cookies....find their places in our already really too full paniers.

A cultural visit to an old minaret ( Burana Tower)  and a last encounter with a family on the road will give us the opportunity of a night in a bed.

First real climbs

Leaving the valley we have no other choice than to hop on the Hwy. It is the only access to Issuk Kul through the narrow Boom valley. Roughly every 10km we find stands providing food, hot teas, and cold drinks. Again liters of fluids and still no real Pee stops.

Leaving Bishkek 200Km behind us, the canyon widens and the scenery opens to Issyk Kul Lake well deserved after that long climb with headwind. We are at 1600m and feel like on the shore of an ocean. Wind, cooler air ( but still hot). Let us have a look around for some time and blend into the summer tourists visiting the North shore of the lake. The popular side. The South side with our first high elevation passes can wait for us a couple more days.

Vancouver-Vancouver
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challenge

0km

ROUTE

0KM

    TIME

    76 days

off road

0KM

sylvia

Grey - the colour of a cloud-covered sky

I had been awaiting this trip for a long time, dreaming of vast steps, high mountains, and stories full of colours and adventure.   Then, the start of our journey was very different than planned. During our visit in Belgium, I was diagnosed with pre-cancer. It was a shock, for all of us...us, like Frank and me, but also family and friends, and people on the trail Frank had been in contact with. Our decision was to return home to Vancouver instead of commencing our trip in Bishkek so I could undergo further testing and treatment.

Vulnerable

I had felt there was something slightly off with me before the trip and I did not pay further attention to it. Wrong decision! Next time, I will listen to my intuition...like my friend and sister-in-law Vera would say ‘the patient always knows better’.

It was both scary and comforting that family and friends were ‘sick’ with me. Just like me, they didn’t sleep and they were worried.  Then they became caring energy and support, they were my village. Help arrived from the most unexpected sides, including admin staff who scheduled quick surgeries and health care providers who understood my distress about discrepancies in test results and the lack of certainty around the evolution of my condition in the future. Waiting for test results was difficult, made me feel dull.   Once I felt my questions had been answered as best as they could, I was able to live with the unexpected.

Healing time in Lasqueti Island

Healing time in Lasqueti Island

In short, I am now a better educated patient who understands that the colour grey is everywhere in medicine. I know that worrying for tomorrow is part of me but most of all that if the worst comes worst I have the best people around me to overcome future challenges. And now it’s time for the colour blue.

Blue Sky

frank

Not everything is in planning

Planning

Planning

2 years of preparation, imagining the perfect route looking at maps, reading and reviewing of my 1995 diary when I biked sections of the same territory. It was another time before the internet & social networks, ….before GPS devices! Good logistics can drastically reduce bad surprises. While we do expect surprises we try to avoid bad ones.  However, bad surprises can make good stories…later.

Why are you doing this?

Curiously sceptical

Remind me....how old are you?

These questions echo from many directions. Mainly from people who do not really know us. Our close friends stopped asking - likely satisfied by our vague philosophical answers and past experiences. Or maybe they just gave up trying to understand. Some, though, do not need to be convinced and already plan to join us at some point during the journey.

We do it because we can still do it. We go far because soon, “far” could be just walking around the block. Life has its own surprises. We both have been lucky so far and age damages have been under control.

We are under control…chin up, chest out yeah!

April 4 2018. 

A one year bike project deserves Hugs and Kisses Goodbye to all our close Vancouver friends.

A stop over in our native Brussels to visit families for a couple of weeks will be a nice transition between our professional life and our future leisure life. All is good in the best world.

Icelandair takes you for less. Not really

Part of a good planification is to book flights early. That way you can expect cheaper tickets and you cannot change your mind. What has been said must and will happen.

We had only big smiles approaching the Iceland air check in counter. Until we were told that the 90’ stop over in Reykjavik on our way to Brussels means we have a 2 leg flight journey. 

Not that we asked for it, this is how they promote their intercontinental flights. Enjoy the Icelandic hospitality with a stop that could be extended from 90’ to a couple of days.

Packing

Packing

If you have been caught by numerous attractive promo’s claiming cheap flights, think twice!

New rules became applicable only a few days ago even though we bought the ticket long before “the new rules”.

A 2 leg journey requires the customer to pay his/her luggage fees twice (we have 2 backpacks of 14 kg each and our 2 bikes boxed in cardboard -flat fees). Welcome summer season. $800 later we try to put the news in perspective though we definitely feel very sorry for the families of 4 with multiple luggages…Lucky us, we have a one way trip. A deep breath and let’s move on, what else could happen? After all our 3 weeks fatbike packing trip done 2 years ago in Iceland remains one of our best experiences on bikes. Still, you lost few brownie points Iceland!

What the heck!?

Sylvia, in order to approach the “new stage of her life” in the best possible condition, was in quest of a second medical opinion. All the pertinent advice received by her trustful Vancouver GP just needed to be confirmed for her peace of mind as we are biking many months in remote and high elevation Himalayas.

A classic examination reveals some “anomalies”. The word is camouflaged behind “abnormal cells”. Right away the Icelandair scam seems so immaterial that we almost regret we did not leave a tip or some donations for the Icelandair employee Xmas party.

Belgians have a great and particular sense of humour, a touch of auto derision spiced with sarcasm. I guess we lost it. The News hit us hard. Bad scenario. Poor intro for a trip that is supposed to bring good feelings and surprises but probably a good first episode for a new Netflix original series. It is important to hit hard in the first episode to catch the viewers attention. The gynaecologist is not Icelandic, we checked, so this is not a deliberate plot against us organized by some jealous relatives.

And now what?

Episode 2

Annoying 

Decision taken, now that our home is Canada let’s hope Canada will fix this.

We left our bikes in their boxes in Brussels as a sign of good karma and our Eastcapades becomes a Westescape.

A diligent and thorough follow up after the first Belgian treatment, more tests, a surgery and now 2.5 months after missing our start we received the green light to resume our trip…..if we are keen to.

Are you kidding ? 

A little bump in our life? Not really, but a big learning process for sure.

Feeling smarter than before at least on some topics, serenity replacing worries, hunger exacerbating desire to enjoy every moment of our trip to come. We may need to do some adjustments to the original plan according to new climate conditions we will encounter but in term of “adjustments” we are now highly qualified.

Thank you to all of you who by one word, one attitude, one intention have helped us immensely. 

We have regained our particular/peculiar Belgian sense of humour and are ready to share it abundantly.

Flying out to Brussels on July 7….British airways…then Bishkek on July 12.

It is going to be good this time.

CanadaZenija Esmits