Journey’s End

Irkutsk, 10th October

Bike tour is over! I’ve arrived in Irkutsk after quite a tough ride from Murun. I had a great time enjoying another week-long mountainbiking adventure through Mongolia, riding dirt tracks along some beautiful valleys, through forests and across the steppe. For the first time in Mongolia there were lots of rivers, but that didn’t mean there were lots of bridges! So I got wet a lot, fortunately without ever giving my bike a serious soaking.

After an autumn (or at least what I call autumn) which lasted about two weeks, winter arrived at about the same time as I arrived at the Russian border. Fortunately the roads in Russia are much better than in Mongolia! The colder temperatures, though, meant that I didn’t camp or go exploring as much as I would have liked to whilst cycling along the Trans-Siberian Highway around the southern tip of Lake Baikal to Irkutsk. It was really beautiful, though, and at times simply fabulous cycling. Not a bad way for bike tour to end!

I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about bike tour coming to an end, but, frankly, it hasn’t really sunk in yet. So here’s a list of some of the things I’m going to miss, and not miss, about bike tour. You’ll notice that a few things appear on both lists in different guises!

Things I’m not going to miss:

  • Going days (and sometimes weeks) at a time without having a fluent conversation.
  • Worrying constantly about whether I have enough water, where I can get more water, and whether it will be clean.
  • Being permanently hungry.
  • Looking for somewhere to sleep whilst tired, hungry, wet, cold…..
  • Being watched all the time by curious locals.
  • Bureaucracy, border crossings and policemen.

Things I’m going to miss:

  • The unsolicited, and all too often unrequited, kindness and generosity that I’ve experienced throughout my journey, often from complete strangers.
  • Doing what I want, all day, every day.
  • Homemade dairy produce.
  • Being ridiculously fit.
  • Being able to eat whatever I like and not care about it in the slightest (though I do wonder what my dentist is going to say).
  • Camping in all manner of beautiful places.
  • The sunset.

There are an awful lot of people who have contributed to making this trip a success. I’m not going to start naming names, because many of them don’t read this blog, and because I would almost certainly forget to mention several people if I did. But I want to say a big thankyou to everybody who has helped me, with accomodation, advice, equipment, company, and encouragement. It wouldn’t have happened without you!

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it! It’s been a fabulous, memorable adventure and I’ve really enjoyed sharing it. Thankyou for reading – it’s been one hell of a ride.

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A Mongolian river ferry in dock, 10 metres of thigh-deep water from the shore. Once we’d pulled the truck (the engine had stopped) out of the water, it was time to embark. I carried my bike to the ferry, whilst a man carried his wife in the other direction.
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As I rode East and to lower altitudes, the landscape became much more hospitable.
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These guys invited me in for tea and some sort of cheese-biscuit. Homemade of course!
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A balance-beam river crossing. Kinda tricky with a bike!
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Sometimes in Mongolia I felt like I was on a David Attenborough programme. There were often large herds of animals and, occasionally, dead ones in the road.
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An Irish guy walking around the world. He left Dublin in February – now at Lake Baikal. Impressive going!
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Siberia is beautiful, when the trees aren’t obscuring the view.
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Dogs are stupid.
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The best day’s riding in Siberia – because the sun came out and the wind dropped!
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The world’s biggest freshwater lake and the world’s longest railway.
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Check out those icicles!
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Journey’s end in Magadan Irkutsk!

Outer Mongolia

Murun, 22nd September

I’m in Murun having a break after a 10 day cycling adventure. After a couple of days on a tarmac road crossing a stretch of desert, I spent a week riding dirt tracks across the grassy steppe before arriving in Murun, the biggest town I’ve visited so far in Mongolia.

Once I’d got my head round some of the peculiarities of Mongolian navigation (the map is an indication only, and sometimes plain wrong; trust your compass; ask a local, if you can find one; and all roads lead to Rome, some are just more direct than others) I really enjoyed riding the dirt tracks. It was often like very easy mountainbiking and at times I had an absolute blast!

I’m going to have a couple of days off in Murun. As usual my bike and stove need some TLC, and to be honest, so do I. I’ve done a lot of cycling in the last 5 weeks! On Sunday or Monday I’ll be heading off again, aiming to reach the border crossing at Sukhbataar in about a week or so.

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Mongolia is big.
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Camping 200 metres from one of Mongolia’s busiest highways. It’s in the background of this picture, and, as usual, empty…..
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On a dried up lake bed.
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Dromedaries!
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Mongolian men have fantastic greatcoats. I wonder whether I could pull one off?
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Lots of fun, especially with a fully loaded touring bike underneath you!
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Trees and a river! Two things I haven’t seen much of in Mongolia.

An Eventful Journey!

Ulaangom, 12th September

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks since my last post. After a wonderful bike ride through the Altai mountains in Russia, and a rather exciting few days in Mongolia, I’ve reached Ulaangom, a Mongolian provincial capital.

The week or so that I spent riding through the Altai mountains was just fabulous. The road climbed gradually along a series of beautiful valleys, with fast-flowing rivers, autumnal forests, and a backdrop of snow-capped peaks. Possibly the most beautiful place I’ve ever been!

Although the ride through Kazakhstan and Russia was a lot of fun, it wasn’t particularly adventurous or exciting. That all changed, however, as soon as I arrived in Mongolia. Within 24 hours of crossing the border I had been robbed twice, fortunately losing only minor things in the process – though I am rather annoyed that my speedometer has gone! A few days later, I’ve pushed my bike through a marsh and crossed an uninhabited stretch of desert and mountains, all on dirt tracks, with no tarmac, bridges, or road signs.

I’ve also drunk plenty of tea and vodka with the locals who, pickpockets aside, are incredibly friendly. At one yurt where I stopped to ask for water I was even invited to take part in a ceremony celebrating a child’s first haircut. All the adults, myself included, anointed the child with milk, gave a present (cash placed on the child’s shoulder), and then cut a lock of the child’s hair, which was placed into a bag. All very fun, though due to the language barrier (which is pretty much ever-present, for the first time since Turkey) I didn’t really understand what was going on.

The ride from the border to Ulaangom has been one of the toughest stretches of my entire trip, and I am very glad to be having a day off today! Tomorrow, though, I’ll be leaving and heading for Mörön. Thankfully, I believe the first couple of days will be on a tarmac road – I need a couple of easy days after my recent adventures!

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The Katun river.
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Leaving the main road (which in Russia was in great condition) to go exploring had its usual disadvantage – I pushed my bike up this “road”, to cross a pass and rejoin the main road.
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In Russia they still think the Second World War ended last week. There are enormous and immaculately kept memorials everywhere. Unlike Western war memorials, which focus on remembering the dead, Russian ones tend to lionise the defenders of the Soviet Union.
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Best campsite ever. The water was cold though!
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I got pretty snap-happy in the Altai mountains – it was just so beautiful!
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A typical Mongolian road junction. I generally used my compass to choose which road to take.
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Take a close look at some of these stepping stones!
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The marsh. It took me about 3 hours to travel 6km.
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Drying out my stuff after crossing the marsh. It had been in the waist pocket of my trousers.
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The first haircut, aged three.
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The first of only three road signs which I passed during 250km of Mongolian cycling.
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Some things are funny in any language!
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Mongolia is often other-worldly, and really beautiful.
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I passed lots of stone cairns and circles scattered along the road. This one at the top of a mountain pass.

Russia!

Gorno-Altaisk, 29th August

After finally getting my hands on a Russian visa I headed back to Ayagoz and started cycling North again, through Kazakhstan and into Russia. I’ve wanted to visit Russia for a long time, and I wasn’t disappointed, the seemingly endless steppe of Kazakhstan finally giving way to a pretty countryside of rolling hills and enormous corn fields criss-crossed with gently flowing rivers.

After a difficult month or so my enthusiasm for bike touring returned as I hit the road again, and I have done some touristy stuff for the first time in a long while. I visited the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, where, surreally, the local bus fleet consisted mostly of retired buses from Stockholm….complete with SL logo and, sometimes, Stockholm place names on the electronic sign! I also visited Kurya, the village where the Mr Kalashnikov was born, and a museum in his honour.

Now I’ve made it to Gorno-Altaisk, where I’m busy repairing my stuff (a recurring theme nowadays, it’s probably a good thing I’m not going to be on bike tour much longer!) and enjoying a couple of days off before I begin the ride through the Altai mountains to Mongolia.

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I wasn’t the only person stuck in Bishkek…Christian was forced to spend two months there repairing his Soviet-era motorbike and sidecar before heading back towards Austria. Take a close look at his passenger!
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Ever wondered what happens to SL’s busses once Stockholm is done with them?
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Welcome to Russia!
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Altaisky Krai
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Cycling in Russia has been lovely so far, except for the enormous dust clouds thrown up by passing trucks on the occasional gravel roads!

Caught in the Web

Bishkek / Ayagoz, 10th August

I’ve had a frustrating few weeks since my last blog post. After arriving in Almaty I spent 10 days trying to negotiate my way through the spider’s web of bureaucracy surrounding Russian and Chinese visas, which are much harder to obtain on the road than they are in your home country. After 10 days and 5 fruitless embassy visits, I almost gave up, but decided instead to spend a week or so cycling North across the Kazakh steppe before returning to Bishkek to make one final attempt to get a Russian visa.

The steppe is unbelievably vast, sparsely populated, and rather monotonous, but it does make for lovely camping and easy cycling. I met lots of friendly people, but also spent even more time than usual alone with my thoughts in the middle of nowhere. After a little over a week on the road I made it to the military town of Ayagoz, before getting a bus back to Almaty and then Bishkek.

In Bishkek my luck finally seems to have turned. It looks as though I’m going to be able to get a visa, although it’s not clear how long it’s going to take – it could be another 2 weeks if things don’t go my way. The wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly in these parts! Once I’ve  finally got my hands on the visa, I’ll be headed back to Ayagoz before heading North and then East, into Russia and what feels like the last leg of my adventure.

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A day hiking in the mountains near Almaty
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Typical steppe camping
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The steppe feels endless…..
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When I got to Ayagoz, I still didn’t know whether it was going to be the end of my trip. So I took the obligatory pictures just in case, much to the amusement of some passing truck drivers!
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Daulet, the station policeman in Ayagoz, helped me out a lot when I wasn’t allowed onto the train with my bike.

Crossing Kyrgyzstan

Almaty, 15th July

I’ve reached Almaty, the old capital of Kazakhstan, after a tough but fun time riding across the Kyrgyzstan mountains. The ride across Kyrgyzstan was fantastic (although, for once, pretty much anecdote-free!), with peaceful dirt roads, stunning scenery, great camping, and friendly locals. And yurts! Kyrgyzstan, unfortunately, sees enough tourists that I only got to visit one “real” yurt….but it was pretty cool!

I was, however, kind of relieved to reach Bishkek and, a couple of days later, Almaty, because a lot of my gear is falling apart – it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a decent outdoors or cycling shop. In fact a major part of my ride across Kyrgyzstan consisted of finding ways to keep my bike, tent, and waterproof jacket functioning! With a bit of luck I made it, though, and I’m planning on spending the next few days getting the all-important visas for onward travel, and repairing my stuff whilst I have the chance.

I’m not totally sure where I’m headed next, it depends on whether I can get my hands on a Russian or Chinese visa (which is much harder in Central Asia than it would be at home….). Most likely is that I’ll be headed North, across the vastness of Kazakhstan, towards Siberia.

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One of my many scenic campsites in Kyrgyzstan!
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The roads were pretty dramatic at times!
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This road may look innocuous….it was awful. Truly awful.
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Another campsite with a tolerably good view…..
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These very friendly guys invited me into their yurt for kymys.
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It rained a lot in Kyrgyzstan, often heavily and with little notice. Sometimes I found myself riding through thunderstorms (literally through, and not underneath them!).
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At Song-Kul lake, 3000m above sea level, and surrounded by pastures, yurts and grazing animals.
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I rode for a couple of days with George from Switzerland. Our campsite by this river was one of the best I’ve had on bike tour!

 

The Pamir Highway – Part 2

Osh, 23rd June

After two weeks of cycling that was demanding and rewarding in equal measure, I’ve crossed the Pamir mountains and arrived in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

The challenges included poor roads, high altitude, strong headwinds, and isolation – often all four at once! I crossed several passes over 4000m, and once went over 24 hours without seeing another human being! I was also party to a strange incident which started when I was frantically waved down by the occupants of a minibus, who had seen a wolf attacking a calf by the side of the road, badly injuring it. One of the minibus passengers proceeded to take my pocket knife and put down the calf by cutting its throat. The guy clearly knew what he was doing and the operation seemed pretty humane considering the circumstances, but it was a while before I stopped imagining that I was seeing wolves round every corner!

The rewards for all this effort were some stunning scenery, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. In particular, the high altitude desert on the Pamir plateau, with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains rising up to 7000m, was a strange, beautiful and hostile place, best described by the photographs below! I couldn’t resist adding a few more than usual…

After crossing the Pamir range, arriving in Kyrgyzstan was a real delight. The scenery was still beautiful, with high mountains, fast=flowing rivers and alpine pastures, but the roads were better and travelling easier. It was a welcome change to meet people and pass through villages (with well-stocked shops!) again after two weeks in the sparsely populated Eastern Pamirs.

Now I’m going to enjoy a much-needed rest in Osh for a couple of days, before heading off across Kyrgyzstan towards the capital, Bishkek.

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Riding up the Shakhdara valley.
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The river formed an oasis in the desert.
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The pass above the Shakhdara valley, at 4200m.
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Turumtaikal Lake.
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Leaving the main Pamir Highway to ride up the Shakhdara valley had some serious downsides!
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I spent a day pushing my bike through snow and scree, with no path in sight, in order to get back to the main road.
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Some cracked welds in my forks resulted in a 5 minute rewelding job, carried out by a man in balaklava and sunglasses.
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I camped in this abandoned Caravanserai to avoid the strong winds.
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The Pamir Highway is a popular cycling and motorbiking route, so I had plenty of company. I rode with Dravis (an American cycling around the world) for six days from Murgab to Osh.
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The highest I’ve ever been, and the highest I plan to go on this trip.
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The views were constantly breathtaking.
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Yaks!
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Long straights with mountain backdrops were the order of the day.
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Kyrgyz men have fantastic hats!
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One of several yurt villages I passed in Kyrgyzstan.