From cycle touring to politics…

Hello from Bishkek!

We have successfully applied for three visas, jubilantly watched both Ireland and Wales football teams reach the next stage in Euro 2016 while despairingly following the political proceedings which have followed the UK referendum Brexit vote.

This last event has shaken me to my core, not only the result, but the tone of the campaigning on both sides before voting day, the shocking murder of Jo Cox a week before and the inevitable political vacuum which will now be created with the resignation of our prime minister. 

This last worry is the one playing most on my mind… For the past five months I have spent my time cycling across countries who’s governments largely rule through mistrust of outsiders, repression in the name of nationalism, and a total disregard for the value in regulation, diversity and the free movement of its people. 

Having learnt about the history of these extreme governments, they have all risen to power during a period of civil war and economic volatility where a sudden political vaccum has allowed extremist groups to take hold.

Now I see the same thing happening in the UK.

It’s hard to understand how the referendum turned out the way it did when both my Twitter and Facebook feed were flooded with people who were making the same arguments as me. Isn’t it a great feeling to be able to surround yourself with people and opinions who exactly match your own. What a united, cosy and warm world we live in…

But instead of filling me with a disbelieving, angry and snobbish backlash against all the people who voted leave, Friday’s result instead reflected my own, narrow minded cocoon which I have engineered for myself over the past 28 years. 

It would be easy to say: 

‘who ARE all these people who think and voted differently to me? I don’t know any of them. They have been duped, they are racist, or they are too stupid to make an informed decision and so we shouldn’t have been asked to vote in the first place. Let’s declare an Independant London!’

The above are all things I have seen my friends write on social media over the past few days, and this even more than the result, has made me feel very, very sad.

With Facebook and Twitter it’s so easy to like, follow and share links with people who think the same as you. We’re all creating a fake world for ourselves all the time. I’m sad to say my London friends are the worst for this… With so many people to choose from, it’s easy to befriend people who are just like you. 

I always knew I was a champagne  socialist and there was once a time that I gave myself this label with a self-satisfying smugness. I’ve now come to realise that it’s this way of thinking that is just as much a part of the problem as Nigel Farage…

Scotland, who a short time ago voted to remain united, now ironically find themselves part of a desperately divided ‘United Kingdom’. They will inevitably jump ship, but wouldn’t it have been nice to think that they would hang around, stand by their nation, and help build a new uniting political voice? 

Nicola Sturgeon wowed us all with her charisma, rhetoric and steady arguments in the last election. I, like many of my friends wished that I could have voted for her… We need her, now more than ever, to remember her country decided to stay married to the rest of the UK. She’s shown little backbone however, announcing her wish to divorce her dirty, messed up husband as soon as she can.

You can’t ignore a referendum vote, there is no first past the post system or tactical voting to hide behind. We luckily live in one of the best educated societies on the planet (this article ranks UK as number 1) so don’t blame the result on ‘stupidity’ or people’s lack of intelligence to understand what they want. Blame the low tone of both political campaigns. I can blame Jeremy’s personal lacklustre all I like too, but I was away enjoying the beautiful Chinese and Kyrgyz countryside and didn’t do any campaigning either…

I gave my vote whole-heartedly to Remain and I’m just as scared and upset by Friday’s result as most of my friends but instead of pointing the finger and telling all the leave voters to take a good hard look at themselves, I tried pointing the finger at myself instead, and I’m sorry to say I’ve been a little ashamed with what I’ve seen… 

Stronger together, divided we fall.  Hope not hate, unity not division, understanding not blame. We may have turned our backs on the EU but let’s not turn our backs on our fellow countrymen.

Pannier Brands – Are Ortlieb the best?

Every cycle tourer needs a decent set of panniers, buy crap ones and you will suffer for the whole of your trip – it’s the one thing you do not want to scrimp on.

The majority of cycle tourers across the globe will opt to buy Ortlieb bags. They are known in the market and on countless cycle forums as the most reliable, durable and, most importantly, waterproof. Pretty much every cycle tourer we have seen on the road has had a set of matching colourful ortlieb panniers. Are they the best though? We’re not convinced…

Because we are on a tandem without a trailer we were forced to make some alternative decisions regarding our panniers. 

We needed as much as space as possible in our bags and Ortlieb are limited in this respect (the largest back panniers we could find are 40L). Consequently we ended up buying a mixture of four brands of bag for our bike – Altura Orkney, Ortlieb, Alpkit and Arkel.

After five months on the road and having experienced a range of climates and weather conditions we’re in a good position to compare them side by side.

10L Arkel Handlebar Bag *****

The Canadian Arkel company have a good reputation online for making a high quality product but they are notorious for being one of the most expensive. 

We opted for Arkel because their large handlebar bag is the biggest volume waterproof product we could find and at over £120 it was pricey.

It hasn’t disappointed though and you certainly can fit a huge amount of stuff in it. It has a lot of nice small features which we really like too.

There is a large front pocket which although isn’t completely waterproof is great for keeping small things you need to access quickly. There are also two mesh pockets on the side which are super useful for stuffing everything from rubbish packets to keeping gaffer tape.

The bag has zips which we think are far superior to the Ortlieb clip fastening – mainly because it allows the bag to be padlocked shut. This is incredibly useful for when you need to leave the bag containing all your valuable stuff in a shared dorm, sleeper train or left baggage department.

The mounting system for the bag is very effective and strong and it’s easy to clip the bag on and off. The bag comes with a waterproof map case which we never really used and the inside bag is removable so you can wash it. 

The bag is roomy! It’s actually crazy how much stuff you can fit in there with plenty of room to spare. See our Fully Loaded page to see what we keep in ours. The top of the bag is domed which means you can stuff it full with your gloves, snood and snacks on top of all your valuables if you need during the day.

It’s 100% waterproof, has kept its shape well and we would buy it again in a second.

Altura Orkney back 56 L panniers ****

We were slightly weary about buying this brand as we hadn’t read much stuff about them online. However, we found these panniers online and their super size (56 L) won us over into buying them. 

They are beasts and we can carry a wonderful amount of gear in them but they have impressed us in every other way since too. We are so glad we bought these rather than another set of backroller Ortliebs. 

First things first – they are completely watertight. The inside waterproof insert also comes away which is great when you want to clean or empty the inside of your food bag. 

They have front pockets (these are not watertight) which have useful mesh and Velcro compartments – something Ortlieb panniers, in our opinion, really lack. 

The mounting system is really strong and far superior to the flimsy Ortlieb clips – more complaining about these to come… The bags can tend to slide up and down a bit on our rack if we’re on a bumpy road but they have never broken or come off.

Unlike the triangular shaped Ortlieb panniers these bags are more square which means they are far more effective for storing bulkier items such as your cooking gear and the flip clipped top is adjustable to allow you to really stuff the bags with extra food or clothes if you need. 

The bags are incredibly durable and have had a fare number of knocks, scrapes and falls. The only time they have failed us over the Ortlieb was when ants got inside and pincered holes in the inside bag to get to our food. Our Ortliebs have always remained insect free due to their roll down, dry-bag fastenings and thick plastic material. 

Overall they have been a great buy for us and if you are in need of a larger set of panniers we would highly recommend them.

Ortlieb 40L Backroller Panniers and 32L rack bag ***

Our Ortlieb panniers are saved to carry our clothes but we use their largest back rollers on our front rack instead of the back.

The Ortlieb panniers are great (completely waterproof, easy to clean and durable) but they fall down on one feature which makes them incredibly frustrating to use. 

The mounting system just isn’t up to the job of coping with a heavily weighted pannier on bumpy roads. This problem is probably over emphasised with us because we carry large panniers on our front rack but we’re not the only tourer who has complained about this problem.

Once under enough force the bolts which are made of plastic simply pop out of the plastic bar mounts at the back of the bag. In doing so they ruin the threads which means you can’t easily screw them back in. 

We have heard of tourers obsessively checking and screwing back up their bolts after every night to ensure they don’t pop out. 

This major cost cutting design flaw has meant two things for us:

  1. We have to reinforce our bags to the rack with rope to minimise them bumping around on the rack. This is time consuming and means we can’t easily clip and un-clip our panniers taking advantage of the ‘user friendly’ Ortlieb mounting system. Even after this both bags have broken. 
  2. We met a tourer in China who had simply replaced all her plastic bolts, nuts and washers with metal ones. We ended up doing the same. Here is Paddy in a local garage searching for the right width bolts and super large washers for the insides of the bags.

I wrote to complain to Ortlieb and I was very impressed with their customer service. They got back to us within 24 hours and without question offered to send spare parts to us in China. The package arrived 7 days later but we haven’t used the parts because they sent us the same crappy plastic ones.

The fact is, Ortlieb panniers are fine for those cyclists who are taking short tours on nice smooth roads or commuting to and from work but in our experience they don’t hold up well on long bumpy tours unless you make some of your own adjustments.

If you have bought Ortlieb panniers just make sure you replace all the bolts and nuts with metal ones and buy extra large washers for the insides. 

I can’t fault the rack bag. It does everything we need it to.

Alpkit Fule Pod Frame Bags ****

Alpkit are known as a good outdoor gear supplier. They make some good stuff and we’re always happy with the gear we get from them. 

Our two frame bags are durable and are great for keeping all those small items that you need to access quickly. 

They are showerproof not waterproof. 

It’s all in the flag

Kyrgyzstan has a cool flag. It’s my favourite out of all the countries we have and will visit.

A country’s flag often tells you something about the political history of a country, but the Kyrgyzstan has more symbolism integrated into it than most. Perhaps an outcome of the country’s desperate cultural soul searching after independence from the USSR….

The red field background represents valour and bravery while the golden sun in the centre is said to symbolise peace. The sun has 40 uniformed rays which are said to represent the 40 Kyrgyz tribes who were united against the Mongols by the Kyrgyz hero Manas.

The Epic of Manas is the traditional epic trilogy poem of the Kyrgyz people. It is composed and performed orally by traditional singer-storytellers called Manasachi. This tradition is still very much alive.

The poem is unique it is length being twenty times longer than the combined texts of both Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey.

He is a very important national figure and every major towns has at least one statue of him.

Decorating the centre of the sun are three crossed lines which are said to represent the tunduk, the traditional crown of the Kyrgyz yurt. You can see lots of yurts decorated with this criss-cross pattern on the their tents.

We have also been told the centre represent the crossing of two roads symbolising the unity of the people and that the three red lines can also represent the the komuz, the three-stringed national instrument.

It’s amazing how much a piece of cloth can tell you…

Following the M41 north to Bishkek

We had a couple of days rest in Osh where there isn’t much to see. It was very hot and we mainly spent our time hanging out in the hostel researching all the visa requirements and planning our route. 

We also treated ourselves to some meals out and found a bar/restaurant we both liked. 

It has to be said, the food in Kyrgyzstan isn’t what you would call michelin star! Unlike China, where almost everything we ordered was mouth-wateringly delicious despite the menu being almost incomprehensible, all the dishes we have tried here have tasted and looked more or less identical. 

Firstly, dill features heavily in EVERY dish. You can’t avoid it, whether you’re after a quick pastry snack or a horse kebab, it’s mixed, sprinkled and garnished on everything!image

It’s not uncommon for your plate to include four types of carbohydrates – although this is great for us cyclists – and it’s very hard to find a dish that doesn’t contain meat. In one restaurant, we noticed that the vegetarian pizza was considered vegetarian because it only had one type of meat on it – sausage! 

Rice, potatos, bread, pasta and buckwheat – a cyclists dream!
Three things Kyrgyzstan does well are meat, bread and beer. It’s the first time pretty much we have been able to buy fresh milk and butter too, something we both missed in lactose intolerant Asia.

Naans fresh out of a road side clay oven are delicious and whatever meat you order it’s always juicy and tender. Draft beer is common but you have to watch for the alcoholic content, we absentmindedly drank 4 pints of 11% one evening. My beer always comes with a straw…


We’ve naturally eaten a lot of horse which is very rich but delicious! 

Food ranges from very cheap to average. Kyrgyzstan currency is the com (som) and it’s the first currency where we have used a 3 piece coin! 

After our rest days in Osh we pushed onwards north to Bishkek. 

We would be following the main highway the M41, all the way. 
Despite its name, the Kyrgyzstan M41 bares no relation to the M41 motorway in the UK. It’s more like a potted A road where you often have to navigate your way through large herds of sheep, horses and cattle. 

It can get fairly busy with traffic but we were avoiding a lot of this by waking up very early, siestering in the afternoon and cycling late into the evening. Kyrgyzstan drivers are some of the worst we have encountered – they get very close and they drive fast but a lot of the time the road was pretty quiet. 

Again we did a lot of wild camping.

battling heat rash by washing our cycling gear ready for the next days ride

Some of the cycle was very beautiful, particularly the stretch following the river which is dammed the whole way along ending in the huge Toktogul reservoir. 

Whatever you think about hydroelectric dams and their affect on the local environment, they can create some pretty spectacular lake views further up stream!!

I find  Paddy busy cooking dinner after I get back from the best lake swim I’ve ever had.

We cycle through a lot of towns and villages on our way. One in three people here drive a retro Lada car and this along with the shabby soviet buildings and shop fronts makes rural Kyrgyzstan feel a little bit like a 1970s film set. I even saw a small scruffy dog trotting down a street with a string of sausages clamped it its mouth.image

It reminds me a lot of a family holiday in Bulgaria I had in my teens.

We continued to experience the warm hospitality of the Kyrgyz people on our journey north. 

One evening we stayed with a family who were teaching some visiting kids from Osh how to ride. We both got a go too. In my excitement I slightly ‘overdid’ my mount and nearly completed a full somersault over the poor creature! 

Once on, all was ok! 

Another evening we pitch our tent near some yurts and are presented with a pot of fresh hand-churned clotted cream. After our horse meat chilli (a dish we cook a lot) we had it with biscuits and our honey glazed peanuts. 

It’s the best meal we’ve had so far!


Paddy also treated himself to a bottle of honey which was extracted fresh from the hive in front of him. 

We are also taking advantage of the abundance of seasonal fruits available to have with our porridge in the morning.

So, despite the poor food in restaurants we’re certainly not going hungry!

The hot weather disappeared on the last day and we found ourselves sheltering under a lot of trees to escape the heavy rainstorms. 

On one such stop we were invited in for ‘chai’ by an elderly man.

He plied us with his homemade brandy, bread and his own freshly prepared apricot jam.

While we ate he told us (all through eloquent gestures and sign language) that he was 76 years old, his wife had passed away 10 years ago, that he had 4 children and 8 grandchildren  and that he had a bad heart for which he was taking 8 different kinds of medication.

He then got out his world map to see where we had cycled from.

After hearing about our trip Paddy showed him his taped together shoe to give him a laugh. 

He didn’t find the broken shoe very amusing. Instead he disappeared for a few minutes. He came back with his cobblers kit…

And proceeded to first tack paddy’s soles back in place and then sow the holes in the fraying fabric. 

This is the kind of kindness you experience in Kyrgystan.

An Introduction to Kyrgyzstan!

So it’s just under 2 weeks since we crossed the border into country number 6, Kyrgyzstan. 

Updating the blog has been tricky as we’ve been doing a lot of cycling and camping.

Neither of us knew much about this country before we arrived. Sandwiched between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China it has a population of just 6 million; a dwarf in comparison to its neighbours. 

Our plan was to head up to the capital Bishkek where we would spend a good stretch organising our visas for the next stage and then loop back down towards Tajikistan. All in all, taking around 5 weeks.

Formerly part of the Soviet Union until independance in 1991, little Kyrgyzstan is a relatively new country. 

Naturally, almost everyone speaks Russian but the Kyrgyz language remains very strong, particularly in the southern part of the country where the people are more Persian looking and Islam is practiced more widely. 

We crossed the border without knowing much of this at the time. We knew no Russian or Kyrgyz words and we even forgot to exchange our Chinese currency for Kyrgysz Som at the border… We were woefully underprepared for our venture into a new country… 

It’s 4pm before we reach the first border town. There’s a strong headwind and just passed the town we see our road snaking up a very stiff gradient – neither of us fancy doing much climbing today. 

We stop just outside the town and contemplate where we can pitch up. A girl of around 14 rushes out of the first house shakes our hands and beckons us inside. We are fed bread, jam and tea and told we can pitch our tent in the garden. We spend the rest of the afternoon playing with the many local kids who like climbing the bike and using our tent as a den. 

Before bed a dinner of fried liver, dill risotto and a kind of homemade fudge is presented to us. This is our first taste of  Kyrgyz hospitality and we feel very humbled.

The next morning we rise early and say our goodbyes to our hosts. The daughter requests we pay something towards the food. The small sum of 400 is suggested but we remind ourselves we don’t have any local currency. We readily hand over 5 USD instead which is accepted with thanks.

This first experience of Kyrgyz hospitality was tainted slightly after we reached the next town where we discovered that someone had stolen money from our bag during our stay in the house. It wasn’t a lot (the equivalent of around £40) but we felt sad it had happened after having had such a nice evening. 

Something like this was bound to happen at least once and there was no point obsessing over who we thought might have taken it…. It was a good lesson that we should never leave our handlebar bag somewhere, even for 10 minutes in the living room of a friendly local family…

Our next destination was the town of Sary-tash roughly 75km away. From there we would cycle the remaining 175km East to the southern city of Osh where we would enjoy a well deserved rest day. 

There would be some big climbs involved and we soon discover the blissfully easy gradients of Chinese roads are a thing of the past. 

Russian/Kyrgyz road builders love a good gradient. There are often signs telling you how steep the next section will be, but as Paddy and I soon discovered, these hold little relation to the true gradient. The signs almost always read either 12% or 8% and we’ve now learnt that their purpose is to simply let you know a climb is coming… a REALLY steep climb!

I was convinced that we wouldn’t find scenery and countryside nicer than we saw in China but that was before I cycled in Kyrgyzstan. 

The cycle between the border and Osh was spectacular, and for me personally, its some of the most rewarding and nourishing countryside we’ve camped in.

Stunning snowy mountain ranges which give way to the greenest, richest rolling hills you have ever seen. As we lose height, these, in turn, give way to sweeping meadows of long grass and hundreds of species of wild flowers. 

Some fields are literally stained bright red with wild poppies while others are home to a thick tapestry of yellow, pink and blue. 

We have also seen some stunning bird life including bright blue rollers (thanks D&P!), hunting kestrals, huge eagles, nesting storks, swathes of swallows 

and this little lark who sat close, serenading us one evening. 

The vast lakes and clear streams have meant we’ve rarely had to buy water and we’ve enjoyed a shower and a sunbathe in the warm evening weather. One morning I wake to find these two toady subjects making their own camp in my shoe! I contemplate keeping them as bicycle pets while one of them permits me to hold him for a while before hopping away.

All in all its perfect camping weather!

Onto this bucolic backdrop you pass collections of traditional yurts and caravans, momentous herds of cattle, groups of men harvesting hay by hand and children racing around on their pet donkeys. 

Having travelled to find new pastures for their herds, nomad families sit on large rugs in the shade of trees next to their open backed trucks which they will later unload. 

While stopping for our afternoon siesta (it’s too hot to cycle between 2-4.30) this travelling family of three generations invite us over for lentil soup and tea. 

Their old-school truck complete with sleeping grandmother in the back, excitable kids and practical mother figure reminded me of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath – the difference here of course is that they choose their travelling lifestyle.

The most important lifeline for these people are of course their horses. The Kyrgyz people are reportedly the best horesemen in the world and they have been breeding and domesticating horses here for well over 4000 years. 

Kyrgyz horses are known for their speed and endurance and are also raised for their meat. They are big beasts averaging between 13.2-14.2 hands. 

It’s pretty magical seeing a huge herd of these beautiful creatures cantering across a field in front of you as you sit eating your breakfast. 

This happend so often, our cycle between the border and Osh began to feel like we were on some fantastical journey across the lands of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings

Being here in June has meant witnessing the start of the foaling season. Not only is it nice to see these bandy legged arrivals jumping about in the sunshine, it has also meant we have been able to witness the skilful talent that is mare milking. 

The people of Kyrgyzstan love drinking mare milk which they ferment to create a tangy, slightly alcoholic drink called Kumis. They also dry it into hard, Bon-Bon like sour snacks called kurut. Makeshift stalls are set up all along the road to sell both throughout the summer. 

We were given a 2L bottle of kumis by a friendly lady who was waiting for a bus. Put it this way, it is an acquired taste and I’m not a fan!!


Paddy drank quite a bit that evening but this was after the bottle had been sitting in the sun all day and he had a dodgy tummy the next morning.

So our first week in Kyrgysztan has been a pastoral paradise really!

The people in Kyrgyzstan are amazingly friendly and hospitable but they also respect your personal space and privacy. They are naturally interested in you but after coming to say hello, shaking your hand and asking where you are from they leave you to get sorted, calling their children away too so you are not gawped at while trying to change out of your sweaty cycling shorts or set up camp. 

This was a nice change from China, where the people are undoubtedly friendly and generous, but at times, a bit brazen! There was often a lot of staring, fiddling with the bike and routing through our bags without permission in China! You also get photographed A LOT in China (this really started to irritate Paddy after a while) but people here generally ask permission before they snap you which is a nice change. 

Many men still wear the traditional Kolpok tall woollen hat which is often decorated with black or brown embroidery. Even this builder was wearing one while laying a wall in the beating sun! 

The women here are beautiful and (in the South in any case) wear tied head scarfs and love wearing elaborately embroidered clothes. It’s very common to see both sexes sporting a few gold teeth.

It took us 4 days to cycle to Osh. Here we will have a rest day before cycling north to Bishkek.

China in Stats

Total number of days: 58

Number of days spent cycling: 37 / 68%

Number of nights spent wild camping: 19 / 33%

Total kilometres cycled: 2831.3km – almost the exact equivalent of cycling from John o’Groats to Lands End and back.

Longest Day: On the road between Shaxi to Lijiang -115km 

Shortest Day: Afternoon cycle out of Ganzi towards Dege – 39.2km

Highest Peak: Chola Pass, Sichuan at 5050m (there were many others! I wish we had the total number of metres climbed!)

Total spend: 15,909Y (£1,690.44)

Average Daily Spend (excluding big costs such as other travel, visas extensions, bike gear, dentists etc):  167Y (£17.76) 

Total spent on Guesthouses and Hotels: 1735Y (£184.57) 

Total spent on trains, busses and shared taxi: 2086Y (£221.91) 

Total spent on new bike gear including clothes: 2900Y (£308.51)

Meeting Paddy’s doppelgänger, a visit to the tallest natural arch in the world and a race across the desert – our final days in China!

Our visa extension for China ended on the 5th June so we planned to leave Kashgar on the 1st giving ourselves a very leisurely cycle to the border with a day or two to spare if we needed it for any reason.

Unfortunately, we had both failed to notice that the 5th was actually a Sunday, and the Irkeshtam border is closed on weekends. Luckily we realised on the eve of leaving following a conversation with Michaelangelo, our Spanish friend. Unlike some other countries, there are heavy fines for overstaying in China so this was not an option. 

We were also told that we probably wouldn’t be able to cycle the full distance to the border as China (for some random, unknown reason) built their checkpoint 180km from the actual border line, and they make all travellers take a taxi to the Kyrgyzstan checkpoint. 

All this meant that instead of having five days to reach the border we now only had two, leaving a day to get through customs, find a taxi who would carry the tandem, and cross the border before the weekend. All still doable but it wouldn’t be as leisurely as we’d hoped.

We were well stocked up for our cycle through the desert and we still hoped we’d have time to make an afternoon detour up to Shipton’s Arch – reportedly the highest natural arch in the world according to National Geographic who rediscovered its whereabouts in 2007.

So we set off through the hot barren landscape and on the afternoon of the first day we meet Stephen cycling the other way. Stephen is also from Dublin and I could tell that both him and Paddy we’re delighted at meeting a fellow countryman. 

Stephen is the first Irish cyclist we have met and him and Paddy looked pretty identical. Weirdly identical actually….

Having met Paddy’s doppelgänger we keep going and set up camp in a village off the road. A nice family lets us camp in their garden.

The strangest thing about this part of the world is the time zone. All of China officially sets its clocks to Beijing time, but as you might have gathered already, China is a big country and Kashgar is actually 2 hours behind Beijing in real time. 

Paddy and I were still on Beijing time when we disembarked the train in Kashgar and it was rather weird experiencing a sunset at 10:30pm.! 

Kashgar and the surrounding area works on two time zones – government buildings such as banks and the post office work on Beijing time, but local businesses tend to keep to local time. All this can be rather confusing and its important for travellers to clarify which time they mean when booking stuff! 

During our ride through the desert Paddy and I kept our body clocks working on Beijing time – this worked well for our final few days cycle as it meant we were packing up the tent and jumping on the bike at 9am but in terms of daylight it was really 7am. This was perfect for the desert conditions as it meant we could afford a siesta during the hottest part of the day and carry on cycling until late into the evening.

The desert has a kind of beauty to it, nothing like the sweeping sand dunes of the Sahara we have both visited in Morocco, but there were still camels… We are on the famous old Silk Road after all! 

This landscape is much rockier with some impressive mountain ranges and the odd green oasis every 20 kilometres.

Despite the heat we make good progress and do have time to take a detour up towards Shipton’s Arch. It’s a pretty tough 3 hour cycle in the heat with no shade but we’ve filled up on lots of water from a tap in the last town which Paddy sterilises using his new toy – our new UV pen. This, along with our gravity water filter, should mean we shouldn’t need to buy bottled water ever again!

The arch is another 35 minute walk from the road and involves a pretty spectacular trek through this dry gorge and up some rickety metal steps. 

When you first catch sight of it you find yourself slightly disappointed because it doesn’t look as tall as you’d expect. 

Once up the final set of steps though you realise it arches over a very deep valley which drops directly down on the other side. We spend a fun 10 minutes dropping large stones into the gorge and listening to the echo as they tumble down to the bottom. It’s pretty cool and we contemplate how on earth it’s been formed…. Lindsay Sheen might be able to offer some insights here… 

Pictures really don’t do it justice…

Here is Paddy scoffing his face on a refreshing watermelon at the top. Kashgar is famous for its delicious harvest of melons at this time of year.

The ride back down to the road is very quick and great fun. 

We camp with the sun setting behind some impressive mountains with a view across this eerie barren landscape. 

The next day we completed the 30km to the border town of Ulugqat where we spend an age trying to find the market so we can stock up on food before crossing the border. (For future reference it’s located in an underground car park a few blocks down from the main Central Park.)

It’s 12:30 by the time we reach the border control building which is really poorly signposted. We try our luck with the guards regarding cycling the remainder of the way to the border but they insist that we have to take a taxi. We ask why we can’t cycle but all they can tell us is that it’s the rules. 

We’re shocked when the taxi driver tells us it’ll be 400Y to take us and the bike (drivers always try to charge more when they see the tandem!). We plead with the border guard, explaining that this is a real expense for us and he manages to negotiate a 100Y ‘discount’ for us.

Without any other option we load the bike on top of a big stack of suitcases. When I ask what’s in the suitcases the driver tells me they are Gucci hats!

As we sit in the truck on our way to the border the only pragmatic reasoning I can put to this strange border set up is the 2 hour time zone difference. Naturally the border authorities want you to enter and exit the country the same day and near the same time you receive your exit/entry stamp. There is a two hour time difference between the two borders and it’s about a two hour drive… So if you exit China at 2pm and then drive to the Kyrgyz side, by the time you get there you will be stamped in at 2pm. 

I suspect that this is just me trying to assign some logic to something that just isn’t logical however… There’s a lot of stuff about China that isn’t logical and we’ve learnt to accept (and to an extent love) the randomness of this crazy country. 

The Kyrgyzstan side couldn’t be more different to the Chinese side. We’re greeted by a VERY friendly guard sitting in a tiny wooden hut next to the roadside. 

‘Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!’ He cries.

‘Please cycle down the road and report to the border control to receive your stamps.’ 

At the border control the guards make a joke at our different nationalities and our two country’s history. 

‘A girl from United Kingdom and a boy from Ireland, together, on a bicycle?! How can this be!?’ He says, while winking at us. 

We receive our stamps with no trouble and we cycle on down to start a new journey in country number 6. We have a pretty good feeling about this one already! 

Time to explore the land of the great horsemen. Our Central Asian adventure awaits!


Kashgar was a nice place to relax before heading towards the Kyrgyzstan border. 

Much of the historic old town (where many of the buildings were over 500 years old) has been torn down and replaced by new ‘replica’ buildings which although smart feel a bit empty of any character.

All signs are bi-lingual here
Kashgar was a central hub for the famous Silk Road and consequently has a very famous bazaar which we visited and had lunch at – a egg noodle and chickpea spicy salad with fresh bagel and homemade spicy chicken drumsticks.

Despite it being a Tuesday it was still bustling and I even witnessed a raucous fist fight develop between two of the stall owners. 

We also cycled out to the Abakh Hoja 17th century Mausoleum which is an interesting place to wonder about and is considered to be one of the holiest Islamic sites in the province. 

The complex consists of the domed mausoleum which, is decorated with mismatched blue and green tiles, and a number of mosques all built in the typical Uighur pairing, used for summer and winter respectively. 

The whole place is surrounded by nice gardens planted with heavily scented roses, complete with an enormous shaggy camel…

We also took a walk through the graveyard next to the complex.

Our hostel was a great big building with a large courtyard full of other travellers. There were a number of cycle tourers passing through, most of them Chinese, but Henry the Durham cathedral choral boy and music student at Edinburgh University rolled in one evening having just arrived from Kyrgyzstan. It was good to swap stories with him.

There was Connar the Irish man and his wife (both in their late 40s) from Australia who were enjoying a years career break travelling across Asia and finally Michelangelo from Barcelona, who liked to wear a very long black turban just for fun (he’s actually a Christian) and who makes his living by travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan for 3 months of the year to export the blue gem stone Lapis lazuli. 

We spent the rest of the day cleaning the bike and stocking up for our cycle through the desert up towards the Irkeshtam Pass which will see us cross the border into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and eventually see us arrive in Osh.   

Swapping the bike for the train – our hard sleeper adventure north to Kashgar

So we had successfully shipped the bike as cargo two days ahead of us (or so we hoped!!) and it was time for us to begin our four day journey to the Uighur town of Kashgar situated in the western tip of this huge country. 

The journey would see us cover an epic distant – about the equivalent of travelling across Bhutan, Nepal and Northern India. I really didn’t appreciate just how huge China really was until I came here.

Split into two parts, the first section of the journey would see us reach Urumqi, a 48 hour trek, arriving at 12 noon. We would have a 9 hour stop over here where we hoped to have a break from the trains to explore the city and enjoy our first taste of Central Asian culture. From there on it would be another 18 hours overnight skirting the Taklamakan desert to Kashgar. 

For both journeys we had booked ourselves a ‘hard sleeper’ seat which is much better than it sounds. It’s certainly cosey with the six bunks squeezed in but the beds were pretty comfy and we both slept well all three nights. 

The food on the trains is notoriously terrible and as we wouldn’t be able to use the stove on board we got creative with what meals we could cook with just boiling water which is supplied free in every carriage. Like everyone else, instant noodles featured heavily on the menu but we bulked ours up with boiled eggs and veg and we still managed to have our porridge in the mornings. 

The worse thing about the journey by far was the music which they insisted on playing on the train tannoy system RIDICULOUSLY LOUDLY. This soundtrack was a terrible mix of Chinese and American pop including Every Breath You Take by Sting (shiver)… There was only a limited number of these soundtracks which meant they were on repeat all day. 

My least favourite compilation was an album of ‘live on stage’ Chinese pop songs in which many of the singers found it difficult to stay in tune. There’s just something incredibly frustrating about hearing a singer clinging desperately to a bum note while they are cheered on by adoring fans… 

Right music snob rant over… the second thing which was also mildly irritating was the constant smell of cigarette smoke. EVERYBODY smokes in China, and I mean everyone. You weren’t allowed to smoke in the cars but the door was kept open at all times and all smokers simply went into the connecting corridors to light up instead. 

Despite these tiny annoyances, we both enjoyed our rest away from the bike. Paddy finished two whole books and I dedicate some time to my cross stitch which I had almost entirely neglected since being in China. 

Having journeyed across nearly half of Xinjiang province – China’s Uiguar homeland – we arrive into Urumqi and stash our 6 panniers in left luggage. 

We were then free to explore the city and get our first taste of Uighur culture. Back in the deliciously warm sunshine, we found a bus heading into the city centre with a plan to find our first kebab and nan and then take a look around the free museum which turned out to be well worth the visit despite the humorous wax models introducing you to the different ethnic groups who make up the Xinjiang social melting pot. 

Many of the artefacts displayed there were amazingly preserved due to the specially dry climate. There were wooden bowls and leather clothes displayed dating from 2000 years ago and some eerie mummies laid out in glass boxes who dated as far back as 800BC.


There were even preserved ‘barley cakes’ in one cabinet! 

Miles an miles of desert as we sweep west

24 hours later we’ve crossed the vast Taklamakan desert and arrived in the old Silk Road hub of Kashgar or Kashi. The town is closer to Tehran than it is to Beijing and arriving there felt like we had already crossed the border to begin our Central Asia tour. Stacks of nan breads, tiled mosques, the smell of kebabs and bustling bazaars; we were a million miles away from the Tibetan plains we had been cycling across a week before. 
The heightened security at both Urumqi and Kashgar stations however were a gentle reminder that we were still very much in China and the ethnic tensions which have dominated the province’s politics for the past 60 years still exist here. It seems Beijing’s crack down on ‘Uighur terrorism’ continues. 

Much to our delight and relief tandem was waiting for us in tact at Kashgar station. It was very good to be reunited with our bike, and we happily cycled towards the famous old town where we hoped to get a decent bed somewhere central.

A 24hour Chengdu Root Canal

I’m not one of those people who has great teeth. The summer before this trip I had a filling fall out while eating some Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut which the dentist on Seven Sisters road put back in, but he advised it might need more treatment. I had this tooth on a long list to get this sorted out before our trip, but unfortunately that item never got ticked off. I thought it might last a year, I was wrong.

The tooth started hurting, A LOT, coming down from one of our Tibetan peaks to Litang. Luckily we had some penicillin which I took based on some sound internet advice and a vague memory that penicillin could treat a toothache. Amazingly it did the trick for a few weeks but by the time we got to Chengdu I really needed to see a dentist.image

It started with Luis, our excellent Catalan warm showers host, sending a group message to his local expat network. Within an hour I had multiple recommendations, within two hours I was whatsapp-ing with the dentist about the problem, the price and making an appointment for the next day.

I turned up at the address the following afternoon extremely nervous and not knowing what to expect. However I ended up having brilliant treatment and service.

The practice was spotless and I first got a tour of all the shiny new international equipment the have. The dentist trained in Germany and has a PhD – this pleased me greatly as those who know me know my faith in German technology! Perfect English was spoken and my fear of having to run from a backstreet chop shop was put to rest.

After an X-ray she took time to explain what was going wrong and that I was going to need a root canal and I’d have to come back in a week for the second part. “But I’ll be in Kyrgyzstan”. After a long chat about outcomes and risks she agreed to do it all in one day and give me more penicillin in case it all flared up even worse.

Just before she started I was told she forgot to include in the price the optional anesthesia (150Y). “Yes! Give me the goddam drugs!” Apparently a lot of Chinese clients don’t like anesthetic, even for a root canal!

If it all went to plan I was told I would have an international tooth: Chinese handiwork, American filling material, Japanese equipment, original bad British filling and weak Irish teeth. It was a real challenge for the young dentist, after coming back from one X-ray I found her being encouraged by the practice manager. “You have very long teeth!” she said. I had total faith in her at this stage though!

Just to add a touch of the surreal, the practice manager informed me of her love of Ireland and Celtic mysticism, Enya in particular. She proceeded to put on some of her favourite tracks to accompany us during the second half of the treatment. Listening to Enya while getting a route canal wasn’t ideal, but in some strange way it did actually calm me down.

In the end all went well, it took about 3 hours for the consultation and treatment.  Total cost was less than £100 equivalent, much less than in London. I’m going to floss regularly from now on…