Wednesday 12 June 2013

I Cycled from England to India!

At 05:55 on the 7th of June 2013, 352 days after I started pedalling from England, I finally reached my destination; the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India.

Of course, I wasn't allowed to take my bicycle into the temple area or anywhere in sight of the temple even. This was a huge downer for me as the image of me holding my bike above my head in front of the Golden Temple had been my ultimate inspiration for months on end. Not wanting to let the temple rules ruin my big day, I whipped out a t-shirt I had made in Kathmandu and got the best photo I could (it's compulsory to cover one's head).

A hand-made shirt showing every country I cycled through with my bicycle. England, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Italy, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Tibet, Nepal and India.

Below is the final map of my entire journey. In the end I made quite a loop in Asia. I was only 200km from Pakistan's western border when I was in Kabul and then 5 months and 5 countries later I was standing at its eastern border, only 30km from Amritsar. Each bicycle represents where I started and finished one day of cycling.

View England to India in a larger map

In Amritsar I couchsurfed with an awesome guy from New Zealand, Gareth. I'd cycled over 1,000km in the last 9 days without taking a day off and every day in India was over 40 Celsius for at least 7 hours. Not only did Gareth give me a great place to unwind and with great company (beer and sport on TV included) but he, along with a surge of donations from my friends back home, smashed the £5,000 fundraising milestone.

It's changing every day, so have a look at the total raised now

My last blog post was this beastly read about Tajikistan - Do sit down and enjoy it if you haven't already.

After Tajikistan I spent almost a month in Kyrgyzstan doing things mostly off the bike. I had to fix a broken wheel, apply for a Chinese visa and I somehow ended up teaching English for 2 weeks. For that reason there wasn't much adventure going and I've kept the post below brief. The main reason for this is that the next post is going to be about Tibet.

The exciting news is that in Tibet I actually kept a journal for the first time and I will be copying that journal onto this blog. I'm really passionate to get this out there as, without blowing my own trumpet too much, it was a really tough month to survive due to being there illegally, the altitude, the cold, the winds and most of all, the isolation. Here is an example of one of the entries. Excuse the lack of pronouns, I just got fed up of writing "I" every other word. When I post all the entries within the coming week, I will of course include photos.

Memo #24 - 15/04/2013 
Slept with water bladder in sleeping bag to stop it freezing. -7c in tent. Woke many times as I was 10m from railway. Earplugs effective but painful after a while. Woke at 3am to pass town with lots of PSB (police). Huge mental struggle to get up. No choice ultimately. If I want to cycle in Tibet I have to do it properly. Got up after 10 minutes. Packed as much as possible while in tent. -12c outside; some wind.
On road by 04:15. Came across unexpected police checkpoint after only 2km. Assumed they were sleeping, was going to pass straight through (despite flood lights) but then a truck came. I observed from 150m. Not possible to pass on road. I jumped off the road when the truck passed so its lights wouldn't show me. Sound set off 4 or 5 dogs. Unsure what to do as there was a river to the left of the road and dogs to the right. Went to the right.
One dog followed me, barking constantly. I threw stones at it to deter it. If I'd hit it the yelp would have given me away. Certain I was caught when bright light shone on me from CP (checkpoint). Turned out to be stationary floodlight that I moved into the path of. Walked around buildings to the right/back of CP. Rejoined road only 75m beyond but hoped that the lights of trucks at CP would stop police seeing me.
Lots of dogs in town straight after. Was chased by 7 or 8 at one time; put my bike in top gear and hit 35KMH. Not fun when its dark and I'm not using lights. Saw 5 or 6 blue and red flashing police lights over next hour; not sure what they are; always stationary.
Convinced again that I was caught when police motorbike went pass me, stopped, turned around and shone its lights on me. I just kept going. Was wearing balaclava but my eyes gave me away. Was always relieved when oncoming vehicle turned out to be a truck and not police. I would turn head light on so oncoming vehicles could see me and maybe make it harder to see my eyes.

Temperature was -15c until sunrise around 08:00. Extremely painful to swallow as combination of high altitude (scarce oxgen) and balaclava meant I had to keep my mouth wide open to breath causing not just a dry mouth but dry throat. -15c didn't help either. I'd been rationing water since night before. Finally found a river t 07:30. Had previously tried snow covered river but my foot fell through ice and water tasted horrible.
Passed Toma, marked as large town on map, a little after sunrise. I wore goggles once it got brighter. There was a police station but no activity. Soon after, I climbed up and around hill onto new plateau and decided I was safe at 08:30. Had breakfast (raisins, dried apricots, 'mini french bread' and plastic sausages, which were frozen). Faced sun which was warm. Extremely tired but felt so great to have beaten the system.
Very gentle climb until lunch. Didn't wear disguise. Came across 100-200 backed-up trucks, Put on balaclava in case of temporary CP. Passed all and saw overturned truck. This meant the road was all mine for nearly an hour. Got more water. Couldn't stop peeing as I drank so much in AM to keep throat moist. Similar lunch as breakfast.
Small but decent tailwind. Steeper after 4,900m (16,000ft) above sea level. Was doing over 20KMH as I approached 5000m. Punched the air and cried out when I got there; first time ever. Saw a couple of police bikes who hooted but no problem. Probably off duty. Road to pass went up and down several times before reaching the top making it much harder and longer than expected. Met Chinese couple hitching to Lhasa and Nepal.
5252m (17,230ft) at top. Now in official province of Tibet (T.A.R). Really exhausted. Unsure how much further to go. Enjoyed downhill but struggled to pedal even on flat bits. I'd reached the top at 16:00, 13 hours after I got up. Knees ached when walking. Strong jarring pain in lower-right of back. Probably from the way I start, stop and cruise when on bicycle.
Found beautiful plateau to set up camp early on. Just needed water first. Found a spring, very happy. Erected tent in pit for wind shelter. Damaged pegs due to rock beneath sand. Greatly enjoyed sitting in sun with no wind and letting clothes get warm. Eyes stung a great deal. Peak cap broken. Tore sleeping bag liner badly. Slept at 19:00. Got warm clothes ready as I knew it would be cold later. Heart beating very fast when resting; explains difficulty getting to sleep previously.

Now, to continue chonologically from where my last blog left off... (feel free to hit the F11 key to go full screen)!

Kyrgyzstan and the start of China

My first task in Kyrgyzstan was to hitch with my broken bicycle from the border to the Kyrgyzstan's 2nd city, Osh. This video should give you a small flavour of the Kyrgyz people.

Once I arrived in Osh I couchsurfed with Umar, whose wife cooked amazing Korean food which is apparently increasingly popular in Kyrgyztsan.

There's a UNESCO World Heritage rock in the centre of Osh

Flag of Kyrgyzstan
I then hitch-hiked over 600km in one day to get to Bishkek, the capital, to try and fix my wheel. I made the journey in 4 separate cars over 12 hours.

My 2nd lift

Having not had access to good bicycle parts for so long, this shop was overwhelming.

Mia (the kitten) and Riff (the sausage dog). In Bishkek I couchsurfed with a couple whose families moved there from Russia in Soviet times. While there I took a week to get my Chinese visa and taught English for 2 week to cover for another Couchsurfing host that I met.

An hour's drive from Bishkek there is a single ski slope.

Here's a video of me going down the slope (including a wipe out)

A lion going skiing

Me, having a rest in the park

While in Bishkek I also had the opportunity to hike/climb up to a glacier with a group of other cyclists who were staying in Bishkek at the same time.

I couldn't decide if this was a frozen river or small glacier.

As the group neared the top we had to speed up to avoid being swallowed up by the approaching weather.

The glacier.

Finally the weather caught us.

Me, Andrey (my host) and Pablo, who has been cycling around the world with his girlfriend for a few years.

Andrey, who runs an outdoor adventure company, asked me to do an interview for their website about why I love Kyrgyzstan, why I chose to cycle around the world and a few other things.

These guys gave me a lift to get back to Osh and treated me to some local cuisine.

That night I didn't make it to Osh but instead stayed in the apartment of one of the guys in the car. Central Asian hospitality is always overwhelming; I hadn't know him more than one hour, he didn't speak English and yet he invited me into his home, let me shower, gave me clean clothes and fed me.

With my wheel fixed I left Osh and headed for the Chinese border a few hundred kilometres to the east. I wrote approximate altitudes and distances on my hand so I knew what lay ahead.

The road was extremely quiet but in good condition.

Field after field of white before the mountains started.

It was certainly an unforgiving landscape.

As I gained altitude the road condition worsened with a lot of snow and ice.

At 3,500m (11,500ft) I saw the first "building" I'd seen all day. I initially asked if I could sleep in the bus on the right but in the end he offered for me to sleep in his heated 'tank without wheels'.

About 500m from the road I would occasionally spot a caravan and couldn't help but wonder what it was doing there.

The last day before China.

The first truck I saw at the Chinese border.

In America they have the famous 18-wheelers. In China they have the humongous 22-wheelers.

My first sighting of a Chinese city, Kashgar. It was very strange coming from 3-4 months in Central Asia, with few buildings taller than a few storeys, to this sort of highly developed city.

They like their scooters in China

Here begins the strange things I saw in the bazaars and shops.

I couldn't help but wonder what they'd done to to this meat to make it require no refrigeration.

An easy bit of brand recognition.

Creepy for some, normal for others.

30 packets of instant noodles to see me across Tibet.

An elevation profile of the route to Kathmandu that I found online.

When I entered China from the border with Kyrgyzstan I knew they would search all of my bags. Maps of Tibet are strictly forbidden. Here's how I smuggled my contraband into China. This is my dry bag which holds all my camping gear and sits on my rear rack.

In Afghanistan I found this rice sack which I used as an extra layer to protect the dry bag.

Having taken the dry bag out, I put the map at the bottom of the rice sack. I also had 15 high resolution satellite image of the route through Tibet that I planned to take so that I could find ways around the military bases and police checkpoints. I did NOT want to be caught with these. I stuck them to the inside of the rice sack with duct tape before putting the dry bag back in.

Kashgar at night.

A classic Chinese restaurant worker with the drooping cigarette. He didn't seem to care about or even notice the smoke going straight in his eyes.

Kazu, an awesome Japanese traveller who I met in the free hostel.

Ready for a 30 day expedition across Tibet. The white bag on the front of my bike contained food for 15 days.

After 15km my front tyre had had enough. Thankfully, when I was leaving  Kashgar only 45 minutes earlier, I stopped to buy an extra tyre as I knew I'd be completely alone in every sense once I was on the Tibetan plateau.

With the tyre changed, 20 minutes later I heard a clicking noise coming from the back wheel. To my disbelief, my back rim had now split in the exact same way that my front had less than a month earlier. This probably occurred now as my two wheels were now carrying 20kg of bicycle, 70kg of me and 50kg of luggage. Due to the fact that my visa was going to expire in 28 days and the fact that I'd have been pushed to make the Nepal border in time, I reluctantly admitted that this Tibet crossing just wasn't going to be possible this time. I'd have to rethink my plans..

The Uyghur part of Kashgar. Uyghur people are an ethnic group living in their native land which is now part of North-West China. They are Muslims and, similar to the Tibetans, feel they are unfairly treated, persecuted and limited in their freedoms by the Chinese government. There have been many cases of violent clashes between Uyghurs and Chinese police.

More Chinese delicacies; starfish

Dried snakes.

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