Special K

Special K


Things changed when we crossed the border from China to Kazakhstan. It wasn’t just different, it was night and day different. Actually more like parallel universe different. We left China’s high tech, brand new surveillance society, and arrived in 1970. To illustrate; In China, the maximum age  allowed by law for a car is eight years. In K-Stan, the minimum seemed to be mid-nineties. Ancient Ladas and Audi 100’s predominate.


Donkeys pull carts. We never saw one pulling a Lada, but they probably do. The west of China is all paranoid impersonal efficiency. Everyone is polite, but no one is friendly. Because there be MUSLIMS, everyone is suspicious of everything. Han Chinese parents are enrolled as a militia and wait outside schools for their children wearing military helmets, stab vests and carrying wooden batons. The lollipop ladies wear it too. Really. Barbed wire covers everything and scanners are everywhere; at the entrance to any public building, every shop and restaurant. All parks, and especially the mosques. Shop assistants are also issued with the militia gear, and any potential terrorists will be chased down and clubbed to death by a mixed mob of beauticians and waiters before they can finish saying god is great. Progressing across the state of Xinjiang, we were passed from police checkpoint to checkpoint with the same mind numbing laborious checks each time and eventually processed out of the country. K-Stan, by contrast, seemed strangely normal. It’s shabby and in need of a lick of paint, but it’s populated by open, friendly people who approached us, shook us by the hand, looked us in the eye and were genuinely curious about what we were doing there and where we were going. But I still couldn’t read the bloody writing.

China had been my day to day normality for nearly five years. I was familiar with it, but it was never normal. People did stuff that was unfathomable to my western mind, especially from my street level cyclist’s perspective. Example; You’re riding your electric moped (aka “silent death”) at night. Why would you ride on the wrong side of the road, not switch on your lights and certainly never wear anything bright or reflective? If you’re pulling out into traffic from a side road, why would you absolutely, under no circumstances, never ever look to see if anything was coming? Actually I know why, but I still can’t comprehend it. It’s because the “flow like water” mentality pervades. More than that, it’s hard coded at genetic level. If there’s an obstacle, you don’t confront it, you go around it. This is good and bad. It means that there’s no road rage and no aggression. Develop a radar that allows you to predict which pedestrian WILL cross the road without looking, and I think that it’s actually safer than the confrontation, anger and punishment-pass driven Anglo style. Evolution again.

Kazakhstan is huge vistas, endless skies and long straight roads. No place for agrophobics. A car horn sounded doesn’t mean “get out of my way, it means “welcome to my country” You CAN tell the difference. Eagles and buzzards circle overhead, and even they look pleased to see us, perhaps for a different reason. I never knew what a shrike was, but they’re here by the thousand. Out on the highway, there’s a trick that perspective plays, amplified in a head wind, that when you can see a horizon 30km away, it also seems like it’s always uphill. May the road rise up to meet you is not a benediction. Look far enough up the road and you can see where the two edges converge. The vanishing point. It’s literal; if you travel fast enough, you can reach the point where the two lines meet and you disappear in a flash of light. I’ve seen Star Trek. You reappear in a different place and time, a place that’s simultaneously familiar but strange. Or you could cross the border from China.

…and we’re back


Things are rarely as good or as bad as you think they might be. The result of the trip back to Shanghai to see the dentist resulted in the promised inlay adjustment, and some reassurance that the infection “might” not reoccur. So the thrilling news is that I’ve got a potential bacterial timebomb in my mouth which may or may not be ticking. But we did discover that it was possible to buy antibiotics in a pharmacy without a prescription, and I’ve even got a photo of the packet to show them. In fact, pharmacies in China are many, and extremely well stocked. We decided that we were far from done with China, so decided to fast forward the missed week’s worth of riding that we left at Lanzhou and fly back to the more westerly desert city of Dunhuang. Before setting out, we took a day to visit the Mogao caves, famous for 10th century paintings and clay statues.


  1. Then back on the road to cross the desert. After two day’s hard riding we reached the last outpost of the Great Wall, the border between Gansu and the Muslim state of Xinjiang and the start of some serious security checks. They were so discombobulated by our arrival that we missed our chance to ride on for the day and had to stay the night in the highway service station. We had arrived at the junction of the Gobi and Taklaman deserts with some big expanses of nothing between places to stay the night.


  1. We’ve got emergency bivvy kit with us, but had no plans to camp; we’re too old for that shit. We can ride between 100-150km a day, so for a couple of sections we needed a bus or car ride. As we went further west, the security got tighter and the towns of Hami and Shanshan both had a similar feel to NI back in the day, with checkpoints, ID checks and police patrolling in armoured cars. It isn’t a coincidence that the locals looked less Chinese and more central Asian and even in some cases, middle eastern. A bonus along the way was to cross a spectacular desert mountain pass and find that we were at Flaming Mountain where our trip sponsor, the Monkey King was held prisoner for 500 years. From here followed several long hot days in the saddle until we finally reached the end of the desert and the last major city in China before the Kazakh border, Urumqi. Heading west from there, we were stopped by the police and told that our destination for the day, the town of Hutubi, was off limits to foreigners. Having just ridden for four hours in continuous rain at 12 degrees, this was not good news. But the police couldn’t have been more helpful; they put us and our bikes into a van and took us to the next town of Shihezi (stone river). So here we are, waiting for the rain to clear before we get on our way. Kazakhstan is a mere 400km, one mountain range and one desert away…

and we were doing so well

JttW blog 3: Every day is different. But it’s also the same. We get up, we pack our bags, we ride our bikes.


The joy of repetition really is in us. Then, on the road, we see the landscape changing before our eyes. Different every day. At intervals I check the map and try glean from it what’s out there, up ahead. The extra oxygen in my brain tells me that it’s like trying to see into the future, to forsee when and where we’ll arrive at our destination for the day. And beyond that, the next and the next. China in 100km chunks, a day at a time. But it’s not all predicable; roads that aren’t on the map, roads that are but are closed, mechanical issues, bodily misfunctions (more on that later) and a considerable variety of random weirdnesses. But we’re (or were) getting there. Lanzhou, the geographical centre of China and capital of noodles  is on the horizon. 

So then, courtesy of my last visit to the dentist in Shanghai to fix a broken tooth immediately before departure, I start to feel a slight tenderness in the gum above. An infection sets in quickly, and a full on jaw paralysing, head throbbing faceache goes with it. We arrive in Lanzhou, and find the University hospital of stomatology. Not stomachs, dentists. I didn’t know that. English speaking too, a bonus. I’m duly inducted and x-rayed, and the verdict is that they want to pull the bugger out. I’m reluctant, not least because I paid 800 quid for a gold inlay in the bloody thing only 3 weeks ago. So they provide a thorough (and painful) gum scrub which works wonders and provide antibiotics. Total bill of less than 20 quid. The considerably more expensive Shanghai dentist is adamant that the tooth can stay, but with the proviso that I return to Shanghai to have it stuff done to it. (Now, I’m not a racist but…) I REALLY want to avoid a flare-up in the ‘Stans and have a dodgy dentist having at it with a pair of mole grips. So here we sit in Lanzhou airport, bikes in boxes, ready to board. Expectations are being reset, and our options are being considered, favourite of which at the moment is dodging the ‘stans by flying from Shanghai to Tbilisi and continuing from there. A cop out, maybe, but c’est la bloody vie. 


Lose 2” of belly fat in 2 weeks!

The great gates of Xi’an

Two and a half weeks into our ride, here we are in Xi’an, the terracotta warrior town, enjoying two days of much needed R&R before heading out for the more “interesting” part of China. 1,896 km ridden.

The first view of hills

To get here, we’ve crossed a good chunk of China’s old industrial heartland. We’ve had days when it seemed that we breathed nothing but brick dust, and others when we’ve been covered in coal slurry. We’ve been baked at 31 degrees, and been wet and frozen at 3 degrees. Road surfaces have been variable. From completely empty, brand new 6 lane highways, to being slowed to walking speed on old country roads pounded into rubble by overloaded trucks. Yet here we are. Life is simple. Distilled to an essence of eat, sleep, ride, repeat. Hot showers and cold beer. Of course we’ve faced challenges; and every day has thrown an infinite number of ways at us to prove that the journey will be more difficult than we imagined. Translation, navigation, confusion, frustration. Of course, the issue is with my imagination, or the lack of it, rather than the journey. But there’s satisfaction, determination and exhilaration. We’re adapting, and possibly evolving, physically and mentally. Being old, we need our rest, and so I’m already looking forward to our next day off, 600km westward in Lanzhou “the gateway to nothing”