Sunday, September 30, 2012

Down and up

Today was made up of two distinct halves. This morning, we completed our 300km descent from the Tibetan plateau. The road was fast and smooth, but the weather was wet and cold and by the end, the holiday traffic (especially the honking!) was fraying our nerves.

This afternoon, we turned onto a much more minor road to climb back into the mountains. The road conditions were sometimes terrible, particularly in the wake of the 2008 earthquake, but it was peaceful and picturesque throughout.

Having had so many vehicles zoom past us this morning, it was fun to do some passing ourselves, as the cars and trucks struggled with the poor conditions and steep gradients!

Friday, September 28, 2012


Today was a tough one. It started out with a ferocious dog attacking Steph's leg, but missing and tearing a hole in a pannier. Then we cycled 95km uphill into a headwind. In the cold at the top (3840m!) we got rained on. Finally, on the way down into town, we got caught in a torrential downpour and hailstorm.

Spirits however were raised by a delicious feast for £7.10 this evening!

Thursday, September 27, 2012


Today's landscapes were even more impressive than yesterday's, with huge expanses of prairie, big skies and tall mountains in the distance. It felt remote, but not deserted, as every so often we passed clusters of herders' tents, with fluttering prayer flags.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Today we rode through the beautiful grasslands of the Tibetan plateau, in glorious sunshine. We climbed above 3600m, hard work in the thin, cold air.

The place has a slightly wild-west feel to it, with open pastures and frontier towns, but here the cowboys ride Chinese imitations of Japanese motorbikes.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


We woke up today to a surprise. After sweltering under the desert sun only a few days previously, this morning we were faced with freezing temperatures and snow on the ground. It warmed up a little during the day, but not much!

Monday, September 24, 2012


Today we took a day off from riding to visit Labrang monastery in Xiahe, one of the six primary monasteries of the 'Yellow Hat' sect of Tibetan Buddhism. We were shown around by a smily young monk just started on a 25 year course on Buddhist philosophy there.

We found the monastery a rather contradictory place. On one hand, it's a working monastery for 1200 monks, but on the other, it's a destination for hordes of camera-wielding (mostly Chinese) tourists and throngs of Tibetan pilgrims. The monks themselves seemed contradictory too, wandering around the town's shops and catching buses in their flowing red robes. Plus it seems that modern monks' robes are fitted with internal cell phone pockets, something they made use of continually.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Today is all about climbing, as we start our ascent onto the Tibetan plateau. The gradient is very gentle, but it's uphill all day through increasingly alpine scenery, as the mosques give way to Buddhist prayer flags.

Just before the top, we break 3000m, a new record for the tandem!


Our interactions with people, especially in the countryside, has been one of the highlights of the trip so far. Passers by often stare nervously, but a smile is usually all it takes to gain an enthusiastic expression of approval. A stop in a small village will almost always gather a crowd and curiosity about the bike can be intense. Our Chinese road atlas, on view on the top of the bar bag, is a great means of conversation when our Chinese fails us.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Today we climbed up into exactly the the kind of countryside that is stereotypical rural China: terraced hillsides, clay built villages and winding roads. The industrial landscapes of the north felt far behind us.

Living like kings

On the bike, we really enjoy sampling a little of the local life of the towns and villages we pass through. We eat at the budget noodle place, buy snacks in dingy village stores, and sit in dirty town squares with the old men playing mahjong.

But come evening, after a long, dirty day riding, we have no qualms about taking advantage of our privileged economic position, and we check into the nicest hotel in town and seek out an expensive looking restaurant. The fact that many staff are so excited to serve Westerners, and that we often have several of them tripping over each other to help us, only adds to the sense of celebrity.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Into the hills

After successfully negotiating the sprawling Provincial capital city of Lanzhou, today we finally passed from the desert into the hills.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


It seems that drivers here are required to use their horn in a wide variety of situations. Not just to mean "look out", but also "I'm here", "I'm turning", "I'm not turning", "I'm going slowly", "I'm going quickly", "I'm stopping", "I'm not stopping", "I'm overtaking", "I want to overtake", "I'm undertaking", "I'm driving on the wrong side of road", "I'm about to do a U-turn" and "I'm about to do something particularly dangerous". Given the huge variety of odd vehicles on the road, and the frequency of crazy manoeuvres, it's a pretty much continuous symphony.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

More of the same

We're starting to feel silly saying that every day is hot, dry and dusty, but it continues to get hotter, drier and dustier. Today's desert scenery, however, was spectacular.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Today's landscape was back to hot, dry and barren, as we inched our way south through Ningxia Province. The only people out and about were troops on a desert tank range, and the only shade for lunch was the base of a cell phone antenna.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Changing scenery

Today saw a wide variety of scenery. We started in the middle of an enormous chemical plant complex, with billowing chimneys and strange smells. We passed through coal pits, with streams of trucks, potholed roads and endless coal dust. By the end of the day we were in open grassland and corn fields and the sun had finally broken through the haze.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Trucks and factories

Today we continued south today through Inner Mongolia. The flat open landscapes are dry and windy, but we catch a break from the headwind by slipstreaming a slow-moving pile of corn for 20km.

Outside the towns there are almost no cars, but a steady stream of standard-issue trucks. Within the towns, the rate of migration from the countryside is clear, with row after row of tower blocks under construction.

On arrival in Wusutu Sumu there's some confusion when trying to check into a hotel, and unbeknown to us, the police are called. We end up with our own police escort to the foreigners' hotel, which adds to our feeling of celebrity. The town is a pretty dirty, polluted place, and our third-floor hotel room offers commanding views of the chemical factories that surround the town.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

On the bike

At 3:30am this morning we stepped off the train in Linhe, Inner Mongolia, where our bike ride begins. From here we plan to head south for the next 6 weeks towards Vietnam.

Today's ride is straightforward, though with the Gobi desert just to the north, it's hot, dry and very dusty. The road is busy with vehicles of all shapes and sizes, including lots of motorbike-based contraptions which struggle to exceed even our leisurely pace. We think that the tandem fits rather well into the chaos, but we attract endless stares, several photos, and draw a crowd whenever we stop.

Friday, September 14, 2012


From the moment we stepped off the train, Beijing was unlike anything we'd seen since Moscow: Eastern, but modern and affluent in parts. The plan was to do some some sightseeing, as well as getting ready for phase two on the bike, but this proved tricky and we seemed to spend a lot of time walking and on the metro.

We continued our world tour of preserved communists at Mao's mausoleum and were watched by the guards for the obligatory photo in Tiananmen Square. Everywhere we went was teeming with tourists, though remarkably few of the Western variety.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Great Wall

Today we joined the masses on an excursion to the Great Wall. We walked 7km of the Simatai section to avoid the worst of the crowds and weren't disappointed. The wall was stunning and we managed to get ahead of the pack and briefly get the place to ourselves.

We only fell victim to one of the many local sellers, a wiry 74 year old who walks three hours each day to his favourite spot high on the wall.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Phase 1 complete

We've made it to Beijing!

So far we've ...

  • Passed through 9 countries
  • Encountered 8 languages and 5 currencies
  • Taken 9 trains and a boat
  • Spent 10 nights on trains, 2 on boats, 7 in hostels and 2 in a ger
  • Had our passports checked about 900 times
  • Thrown up twice
  • Missed zero connections

Barren landscapes

Between Ulaan Baatar and the Chinese border, the train passes through 700km of desert. There are occasional glimpses of a road, a few isolated gers, and the odd camel.

The Chinese train seems a little less well cared for than the Russian ones, but the attendants are much more laid back, so at least you get to stick your head out the window.

Great Walls

It seems we crossed through two great walls last night. Standby for updates ...

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The biggest Ghengis Khan statue in the world!

Ulaan Baatar

We visit the palace of Bogd Khan, Mongolia's last king before the revolution. It's an oasis of calm amidst the dirt, noise, congestion and ubiquitous construction projects.

There are signs everywhere that the city is changing at breakneck speed. If only the city's traffic could keep up.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Local Flavours

Part of the fun of travelling is experiencing local customs and trying local delicacies.

Experience shows, however, that it's unwise to get involved when the custom in question is a drinking game, you don't understand the rules, your opponent is a Mongolian horesman and the delicacy is fermented mare's milk.

Steve's insides took 36 hours to recover.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

First Haircut

Sara mentioned that a nearby family was hosting a 'coming of age' party for their son, and that we were invited. It wasn't until we arrived that we realised how important an occasion this was.

The ger was crammed with the extended family plus guests, with the family head in traditional dress commanding over the proceedings. They had prepared an enormous feast, with a complete roast sheep (still looking very much like a sheep), an enormous pile of dried yogurt (looking like a far more appetising pile of biscuits), 'khorkhog' (mutton cooked in an urn with hot stones), plus some token pickles.

The main event was each person in turn cutting a lock of the very timid-looking child's hair. Throughout the proceedings, there was much toasting, accompanied by boisterous singing, no doubt fuelled by the many shots of Russian vodka that were served up.

Most remarkable of all was the hospitality shown to us outsiders.

Ger Camp

We'd worried that our stay at a 'traditional' ger camp would turn out to be touristy and cheesy, but that couldn't have been further from the truth. Sara and Baggy live in a handful of ger tents, where they keep horses and cattle, and for the two days we stayed with them, we joined in with their daily lives.

We'd read that Mongolian cuisine consists almost solely of meat and dairy products, with no vegetables, and that proved to be right. We helped Sara make cream, yogurt and dried yogurt biscuits, as well as 'buuz', the national dish of mutton dumplings.

By the second day, Steve was worried that the camp's very rugged Mongolia horsemen were starting to look at him strangely for joining in the women's work. Fortunately he was able to redeem himself in their eyes by helping to chop firewood and erect an additional ger. We were also proud of ourselves for demonstrating sufficient horsemanship that Baggy allowed us to head off into the plains on our own.


We'd arranged to spend our first couple of nights in Mongolia in a traditional Ger camp some 50km outside Ulaan Baatar. Our car journey there took us through the centre of the city, where the deeply potholed roads often brought traffic down to walking pace and had drivers swerving across the road to avoid the worst craters. Our driver Bolt, perhaps the most joyful man on the planet, just laughed each time the underside of his Camry received another beating.

By the time we had escaped the suburbs, the surface of the main highway was so poor that drivers preferred to follow the dirt tracks on either side of the asphalt, each vehicle choosing its own path across the grass.