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Published: April 21st 2014
Sunburned, tired, dirty... but so free!
I still can’t believe it’s over. It’s actually been a while now. After cycling from Gansu Province to Xinjiang, then on to the Stans , Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, I am back with Becky in Beijing, China. I have a good job (back to teaching) and surprisingly often enough the sky is amazingly blue over the city. Of course there isn’t a single day when I don’t day-dream of being back on the saddle, with the wind in my hair, the sun baking my forearms. I miss the road and everything that came with it: the spectacular mountains, the never-ending deserts, the silent nights of camping behind a dune or by a blue river at high altitude, the elements I faced alone in my poncho (ha!), the flabbergasted looks on people’s faces when they saw me arrive from nowhere on my heavy-loaded bike, the invitations for tea, vodka or kumis (mare’s milk)… I’m smiling.
It has been the experience of a lifetime. I knew before I left that I was about to engage in an amazing adventure but it really turned out to be incredible. And I mean incredible in the sense that I can’t
believe the things I did, and the life I led on the road.
I am back to wearing slacks, formal shoes and collar-shirts. This is the version of me most people know: clean-cut, clean-shaven, tucked-in, organized Jeremy. I can understand why my new colleagues found it hard to believe that the pictures they were looking at of a dirty bearded man on the bike was me… But it was, or it IS
me!! I rode my bike for thousands of kilometers (I didn’t have a bike-computer so how many thousands?), I slept under a tent, i slept in yurts; I rinsed in rivers when there was a river, sometimes didn’t shower for a week… I drank water from streams, rode up 4000m-high mountains, hiked through sand dunes, walked on the Great Wall in Gansu Province, spent a few days with a Tibetan family, danced at a Kyrgyz wedding, sang with Uzbek kids, joined a horse festival in the Pamir Mountains, went to the opera in Kazakhstan, met an eagle hunter, taught an English lesson in a school in Uzbekistan, met cyclists from all around the world, got to experience nude… male hot springs at the border with Afghanistan, and
best place to camp!
in the Tian Shan, Xinjiang Province
I’ve made friends in countries I couldn’t even clearly place on a map not that long ago…
The best thing about bicycle touring is the freedom you get. I could start my day whenever I wanted; I could linger in the most beautiful places as long as I wanted (I could even camp there!). I didn’t have to wait for the bus. I didn’t have to negotiate with taxi drivers or deal with any tour guide. I got to travel at my own pace and really see the sights in-between the tourist attractions.
I loved camping! Yes, I had to cook my own food; I often didn’t have running water (rivers), and on a few nights it got very cold (my water bottles froze inside my tent on many occasions) but I didn’t owe anything to anyone. It was just me and the stars, the birds and I, the dunes and I, and the sound of water or the ice-cracking at night. I remember cooking noodles outside my tent in the Uzbek desert while admiring the pink and purple sky at dusk. One of the best feelings was to unzip my tent in the morning (usually early) and
finding myself all alone in pristine scenery. Perfect stillness of the sand desert, gorgeous quietness of the peaks, slow awakening of a valley, ideal tranquility of the steppe: good morning to insect-me
! And the scenery would change so often too. You’d really be amazed at how much distance you can cover on a bike and how fast the landscape can change. I think that Kyrgyzstan is the best example here as the scenery changes every 30km: from red sand stone to blue gorges, from green fields to stony mountain tops, from modern cities to ancient mud-walled villages.
And naturally this trip wouldn’t be as memorable without meeting the locals. The people of Central Asia are renowned for their hospitality and they highly deserve this reputation. I remember drinking Kumis (fermented mare’s milk) with a Kyrgyz army officer right at the border. In Tajikistan the immigration police invited me and 2 other cyclists over for vodka and preserved rabbit meat-spread after we helped them put up their newly-acquired tent… I remember getting crepes for breakfast in a yurt in the middle of nowhere in Kyrgyzstan! In Xinjiang many Uyghur truck drivers stopped ahead of me to offer me water and
cantaloupe… in Kazakhstan young guys waved me over and filled my panniers with apples, pomegranates and bread. In Xinjiang an elder man guarding a factory I was camping by woke me up one morning to tell me that breakfast was served in his hut… I could go on and on with memories of drivers offering me kabobs at the bottom of a mountain pass… or a Red Bull at the top! Many Uzbek families, Uyghur and Kazakh farmers offered to put a roof over my head. I will never forget these people’s generosity and the smiles. The hundreds of smiles. And how could I forget the young Uzbek herdsman who surprised me by my tent one evening in the Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains) of Xinjiang? He made me translate into Mandarin the American hip-hop songs he had on his cell-phone. It didn’t take him long to show me his dance moves on the grass floor! Haha! Lifelong memories, I’m telling you!
As you can guess riding from Lanzhou (China) to Uzbekistan wasn’t duck soup and cherry pie every day. On Day 1 of this adventure I clearly remember getting lost in the suburbs on Lanzhou City, Gansu, and ending
it wasn't easy every day
altitude, the heat, the cold, the wind (argh the wind!), the rain, the dust, the pot holes, the sand, the gravel, the snow, more wind... It wasn't easy.
up riding an extra 40km. Good start, Jeremy! And then I hadn’t studied the map nor the topography and how shocked I was to realize that from Lanzhou to Xiahe, it would be uphill for 3 consecutive days! My bike and panniers felt so heavy! I remember eating dust in China, going through some very dark industrialized areas, with the sky looking so grey and threatening. It seriously looked like I was heading to hell on several occasions. And then the wind through the great Taklamakan Desert… Non-stop head-wind for more than 10 days. And at night the insatiable wind would shake my tent up and I was afraid of flash storms that would sweep my tent and I away… And I got flat tires and broken spokes in the middle of nowhere (so many flat tires in the Wakhan Corridor!). Usually you just put your inner-tube in water and you can see where the hole is and patch it right away. But in the middle of the desert, I didn’t want to waste any water, so I would inflate the tube and bring it to my face so that I could feel the air going out but there was
so much wind, I couldn’t feel anything! So I did inflate it and ride 3 km… and inflate again and again... until the hole got bigger! (Yes, you're gonna wonder why I didn't simply use a spare inner-tube... because I was stupid and I had bought 26 inch-tubes when my wheels were 28''!! Live and learn my friend, live and learn!) And then outside Urumqi, the road went uphill for 2 consecutive days to reach 4280m. I remember going up these sharp switchbacks on gravel road and sand, under the scorching sun. And then a car passes by and the passenger tells me to hurry up because snow is coming… I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and I was sweating like crazy. “What is he talking about?! Snow? No way!
” 10 minutes later it was snowing on me and all of my winter clothes were naturally at the very bottom of my panniers! Imagine your Frenchman on top of the pass in the snow, taking off all of his clothes before putting on more layers! Unbelievable! And then the suffocating ride through no-man’s land between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, going up from 3100m to 4280m (again!) in 20km. Steeeeeeep! I
couldn’t seem to catch my breath. I was cold but my chest was burning. My panniers felt so damn heavy. And then the landslides had completely covered parts of the Pamir Highway and the road was under water. I had to take off my shoes and carry my bike over my head several times on the same day, knee-deep in freezing water. But these challenging moments are definitely what made this trip so memorable. It was great to mix traveling with sport, sightseeing with a physical challenge. I all the more appreciated the rewards. That one day in Xinjiang after suffering (and crying) in the switchbacks of the mountain pass with the snow coming down on me, I went downhill (and froze my butt!) but a few km down the road, I was greeted by a rainbow and the most beautiful valley to set up camp… and meet my Uzbek-Chinese hip-hop herder!
Do I have any regrets? I should have studied some Russian before going on this trip. It would have been nice to have proper conversations in Central Asia. I learned quite a few key words in Russian and I used body language like crazy all the time
but it was tiring and I didn’t always get to understand the answers to my questions… In terms of itinerary I think I chose well. I got to explore 2 of the biggest Chinese provinces, places that I didn’t know anything about, and areas that are still not catered for tourists. That was a good choice. I could have cycled longer westwards in the Tian Shan of Xinjiang instead of heading south (desert) to Kuerle. The Tian Shan (Celestial Mountains) were one of the most splendid places I got to cycle through and I sincerely hope to make it back there in the next few years. One drawback in China, Gansu, was the price of hotel rooms. Gansu is not touristy yet, there were very few hotels that had the license to host foreigners, so my options were limited and prices often high. I could/should have camped more at the beginning of my trip, but in China, there are people everywhere and it’s hard to find quiet places (although it was much easier in Xinjiang Province – it did feel like I had left China already after I entered Urumqi…). And on 2 occasions in China, when I either found
I received countless invitations. I felt so fortunate!
Here in Uzbekistan with guys who play in a band. Cheers!
a cheap hotel or a nice place to camp, the police paid me a visit and politely (but firmly) asked me to move to a “safer location” (=expensive hotel) in town.
What’s next? I am going to be in Beijing for a year or 2, teaching English to kids in a training center. I do have a couple of book projects (IELTS / TOEFL textbooks + one about my traveling maybe, but still aimed at students of English) and then Becky and I will be saving money for another adventure on the road. Yes, Becky wants to experience life on a bike by my side! Where will we start? For how long? We do have plenty of time to think about it. Maybe we’ll pick up where I stopped… Iran, Turkey and then Europe? That would be wonderful to discover Europe on a bike! I am incorrigible! I am already day-dreaming… I hope that next time before we go traveling, I can get in touch with language teachers in the countries we’ll pass through and maybe Becky and I can teach some English, French or Mandarin in local schools. It would be great to meet local teachers and students,
My trip started in Lanzhou in May 2013
where I met Mr Pu who invited me for dinner and drinks. I went back to my hotel very late and left Lanzhou with a serious headache the next day! No wonder I got lost in the suburbs on my way out of Lanzhou...
and exchange our experience as teachers, travelers, world citizens… Food for thought.
May the wind be in your back! Keep dreaming because dreams can come true.
Best from Jeremy
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