Firstly, please have a look at a slideshow we made of our Himalaya trip on our Facebook page as we can't see to upload it to the blog:
At 8.30 am on a Thursday morning, a porter came into Ben's room and motioned him to get into a hospital trolley. I followed him round to the lift holding his hand and reassuring him as best I could. After 2 hours in the operating theatre and 3 hours in intensive care he was back in the ward. A nurse roused me from my heavy sleep on Ben's bed by prodding me on the arm and pointed out the door to tell me he was back.
I'd never seen anyone recently woken from a general anaesthetic and was surprised to see how happy he looked. The cocktail of drugs coarsing through his veins had put him in “a great mood" and “wanting to go for a jog”. He was pretty comical and I made a short film of him for comedy purposes. He'd woken up from the anaesthetic feeling itchy and restless and wanting to run around but a nice massage from one of the nurses settled him down.
Before long the inevitable hamster cheeks started to appear but the heavy painkillers stopped him suffering too much. His biggest problem was his left eyeball which on inspection seemed to have a cut on it. The nurses came to wash it out but we wanted to know what had happened to it as it was fine before surgery. His surgeon came down to explain that during the op, patches are put over the eyes to stop anything falling in them. However, when the left patch was removed the sticky surface had stuck on to the membrane of his eyeball and ripped a bit off! Ouch. At least they were honest but it was a bit of a nuisance as it was causing him more pain than the two gaping holes in his mouth and chiselled jaw bone.
|While Ben was recuperating, I went off to visit these guys at the Giant Panda research centre.|
|A red panda|
He spent another 2 days back in the ward. The hospital gave me and all the other relatives who wished to stay a fold up camp bed to sleep in beside their loved ones. I was touched to see how much people in China loved and cared for their sick relatives and most patients including the young boy Ben shared a room with had their families with them 24/7. I thought about hospitals in the UK where visiting hours span to a generous 2 hours a day. I now realise what a terrible system this is and how the UK is far less family orientated than Asia(despite what we'd like to think). In Chinese hospitals, it is the relatives who feed and help with dressing and washing the patient not the nurses. The nurses aren't lazy, it's just expected that the family take a pro-active role in the patients care. I think it's great. The hospital was very professional whilst still being relaxed enough to let visitors come and go as they pleased. The UK is so tied up with bureaucracy and unyielding rules and regulations.
At the end of the day, the hospital came good and we left feeling really happy with the whole experience. The doctors and nurses were so nice and really did their best for us in what must have been a difficult situation for them with the language barrier. Thanks so much to you all. Sadly though our insurance company is doing their best not to pay us back the 600 pounds the operation cost us, taking a massive chunk out of our dwindling budget.
|Another tip-top Chinese translation|
We spent my 32nd birthday back at the wonderful Lazybones Youth Hostel, near the hospital. On hearing it was my birthday, the staff brought me a free White Russian. It was very moreish so I had another 4.A good time was had by all. Well, by me, getting drunk alone. We went back to Dhane's, our couch surfing host and spent our last 3 days in Chengdu relaxing and getting packed up. We had only 1 more 30 day extension left on our Chinese visa and couldn't cycle all the way to Kyrgystan from Chengdu in that time. So we booked a train to Urumqi, Xinjiang province.
|Bored already? Not to worry only another 50 hours to go.|
Believe it or not we were lucky to have a hard seat on this train. Manon and Etienne had done the same trip the week before on a standing ticket. The tiring, uncomfortable journey was made more enjoyable by our fellow passengers. As usual, everyone was interested in us and before long we were having our photos taken with most of the train. Food was shared out, card games were played and our neighbours used our dictionary to try to talk to us in English. The highlight of the trip though was definetely these two little comedians who had us in stitches most of the way.
The beautiful thing about Asia is the togetherness of people. People get involved with strangers without needing to ask. The men get together and play cards, the women knit together and play with the little ones. We watched as people on the train picked up children of people they'd never met without the parents blinking an eye. Keeping yourself to yourself is a much more Western concept but I think togetherness is what humans are designed for.
We arrived in Urumqi at midnight. As soon as we disembarked, everyone was herded out of the train station by some stern looking men in uniform. Soon we were the only passengers left in the abandoned, freezing cold station. Our bikes were in bits and under great pressure from the disgruntled men, we built them up as fast as we could. As the train station doors were slammed behind us, we found ourselves out on the street at 1am. The cold was at a perishing minus 10 and we still had to make our way, freezing and sleep deprived to our Couch Surfing host. Urumqi was a grim looking place at that time of night in winter. We hoped it wouldn't look so bad in the morning.
|Ben impersonating the train conductor, maybe the grumpiest person alive.|
Kelly's house was a luxury penthouse apartment on the 16th floor. We said goodnight to her, apologised for arriving in the middle of the night, had a hot shower and fell into our huge double bed smiling away to ourselves. This was a bit more than just couch surfing that was for sure.
|Jane,Caroline, Dickson and Kelly at a giant Buddha|
Kelly and Zach are American's but Kelly has a contract with a Chinese company in Urumqi. Zach, an easy going, fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kinda guy goes wherever the urge takes him and came to live with Kelly when she moved to China. We were really sorry to miss Zach. As a keen cyclist and mountain bike champion back in the States, he'd be right up our street. However, we arrived as Zach's Couch Surfing guests and left as Kelly's friends so it wasn't so bad after all.
|Kazakh, Uzbek and Kyrgyz boys|
|Lovely Miki helps us at the PSB|
Urumqi is the main city of Xinjiang province, otherwise known as the Uighur Autonomous region. Uighur people are muslim and mainly speak their own language. They have however been subjected to treatment similar to that of the Tibetans and sadly there is much hostility towards this ethnic minority from the Han Chinese. The Chinese government are trying to assimilate rather than integrate them with the Chinese and are in the process of eradicating their culture, religion and language.
|Freeze your nuts off, come to Urumqi.|
|Jane and Eunice|
|Jane treated us to a day out at KTV Karaoke.|
Getting out of Urumqi wasn't easy. Not surprising as it's China's second largest city. We eventually made it on to a motorway slip road and then onto the road which we would take South to Turpan. It was unbearably cold and we were suffering with it much more than we had even up in the Himalayas. I kept having to stop every 100 metres or so to blow on my fingers which were becoming number and colder with every pedalstroke. We camped after only 30 kms. I was in a bad way and feeling almost hypothermic. Ben got the tent up quickly and I dived in, shivering and in pain. He handed me our stove which I lit for warmth. As Ben continued to erect the tent with me in it, one of the poles snapped. We made up a couple of hot water bottles and tried to forget that we were camped in full view of the road next to us. It would be dark soon anyway. As I warmed up, I started to feel much better, almost forgetting what I had been through only a couple of hours before. In the middle of the night, I woke up cold. I went out for a pee and checked the thermometer on Ben's bike. It was minus 17. We were both freezing and huddled together like two emperor penguins for warmth.
|Gaun, gies peace.|
Later that night we were back at Kelly's in Urumqi. We booked a train to Korla, a city at the start of the Northern Silk Road 450 kms away where the weather was above 0 degrees at all times. At the train station however, we were told in no uncertain terms that we couldn't take our bikes on the train. No alternative solution was offered to us though for getting the bikes to Korla. At one point, we were told to strip down the bikes to put them through an x-ray machine. At last, we're getting somewhere we thought. However, this was a pointless exercise as at the other side of the machine we found ourselves only in the ticket office. We were no closer to getting on the train. In the end, I grabbed a man operating the x-ray machine, the only person in the whole place who had been civil to us. I asked him what we were meant to do and he came to talk to the guards who wouldn't let us in the building with our bikes. They weren't budging and we had by this time missed our train anyway. I burst into tears of pure frustation, nestling into Ben's chest as a crowd of onlookers gathered round to watch the spectacle unfold. One guy in the crowd offered us 50 yuen(a fiver) for our bikes, At last, a solution. In the end, the nice man from the x-ray machine took us to a building beside the station where freight is taken on a separate train.
So it was back to Kelly's for a 3rd time! We boxed up the bikes, arrived early at the station the next day with our new tickets and sent our beloved steeds on a separate train, hoping we would be reunited in Korla. Not wanting a repeat of the previous day, we asked English speaking Eunice, a friend of Zach's to come with us as a translator. We got on the train at last and arrived in Korla the following morning.
Our bikes wouldn't arrive till the following day so we had one day in Korla to ourselves. It was strange having only a couple of small bags with us and no bikes.A young English student from the train got us onto a bus into town and took us to her friends house for tea. It was clear she was proud to show us and her English skills off to her pal. We went for lunch and then they took us to find a hotel. It was like Summer in Korla and we were so happy to have seen the back of the cold weather.
|Trying to find a new stem bolt|
We spent that night in Korla after spending many hours trying to find a stem bolt for my bike. The guys in the Merida bike shop came good, a friendly bunch who were so happy to meet us. One of the guys even arranged to cycle us through town the next day to get us onto the 314 Road. We stayed in a beautiful hotel that night and as we ate dinner across from the hotel, an excited man who'd seen us earlier rushed in and sat down beside us. He'd cycled the Northern Silk Road of the Taklimakan desert where we were headed and even had a certificate to prove it. He invited us back to his home and looked disappointed when we said we already had a hotel. However, he wished us luck and paid for our dinner.
At 10 o'clock the following morning we met our escort at the bike shop and he cycled us 10 kms or so through town to the start of the 314, the Northern Silk road of the Taklimakan desert. We would traverse this desert spanning 1000 kms reaching the city of Kashgar at the other side.
We cycled 65 kms on our first day, easing ourselves into it gently after several weeks out of the saddle. The scenery on this first days ride was ugly, industrial and extremely dusty. We spluttered our way along and camped in a little abandoned house by the roadside.
|Our abandoned desert village. Our house, last one on the right|
On day 2 we managed 100 kms. The scenery started to look more desert-like and we whizzed along on this smooth, well-maintained road. We ran out of water and had to ask several of the road workers we came across that day to top us up from their flasks. Everyone was of course happy to oblige, many giving us most or all of what they had, despite our protests. We camped that night under a bridge on our 314 road. It was a great camp spot and cars were few and far between. We looked out across the desert from our tent into miles of nothingness and now felt that we were truly in the desert. It was completely silent apart from the occasional car passing overhead and we slept soundly.
|The only food we had left was some instant noodles and I dropped half of mine on the ground.|
|Wahey, free water, weird vacuum packed meat and a boiled egg|
|This lot were delighted to see us in the middle of the desert and brought their kids round for photos|
|Don't worry it's not a road traffic accident just a guy having a nap............on the dual carriageway.|
I refused to give up though and got back on my bike on day 4. My throat was rasping and I found the cycling really tough. I should have been resting without a doubt but that wasn't an option. The people of the Taklimakan were amazing and more and more stopped to give us food and water. By the end of day 4 our panniers were bulging with the generous food donations we had been given. It was a great feeling. Everyone beeped us and gave us a thumbs up and of course, more people than ever before wanted their photo taken with us. For a barren desert, there was a lot of good will going around and we were loving it. One English speaking Uighur couple even stopped, filled our bags with food then asked us if we'd like to phone our families back home from their mobile! In a seemingly abandoned village we came across, Ben managed to fix his cycle computer by rewiring it with some wire he found in a junk yard. And in amongst the delapidated buildings we managed to find a cafe where we ate rice, tofu and vegetables. It was delicious, everyone wanted our photo and the men watched with admiration as Ben fixed his cycle computer. I was still ill as hell but I was having fun and enjoying the wonderful people. We did an 85 km day and camped near a garage in some sand dunes. During the night some guys got their car stuck in the sand on the other side of our dune. Ben went to help them get it unstuck and I would have loved to have seen the looks on their faces at the appearance of this random white man from behind a sand dune in the middle of the night! He helped them get it out and as they drove off we heard a loud “thankyou” in English. During the night my temperature went through the roof and I began to get a bit worried.
|Stylish country living. A new development by Barratt homes.|
|Dusty desert dog we called Dusty|
I was still alive though the next morning and actually felt better. We set off and arrived in our first big town since leaving Korla. As we sat eating fruit in Xinhe's town centre, crowds started to form round us. It was really funny and for the first time we found it hard to believe that we were still in China. Most people here were muslim and Uighur and the Han Chinese were definetely in the minority. It was a lovely little town and we set off with some Uighur bread(our staple diet in these parts) and a couple of fried eggs on sticks. We did another 110 km day cycling along the smooth flat road once again stopping regularly for a photo shoot. What an amazing road. Smooth tarmac is definetely what these bikes were made for. We camped that night in our best spot so far: a good way back from the road on some amazing fired earth which cracked underfoot making new patterns as we walked. It was a beautiful night with an amazing desert sunset. We slept soundly knowing we had the whole place to ourselves.
|Friendly locals gather round to see what the craic is in Xinhe.|
The following day we sailed along drafting as many slow moving vehicles as we could. For those of you unfamiliar with this energy-saving practice, drafting is when you sit behind a vehicle and the suction created by the vehicles movement pulls you along. The vehicle can also shelter you from ferocious headwinds. It can still be hard work and sometimes downright dangerous but is worth the extra effort as you cruise along at 30 or 35 km/h. Some drivers have no idea what the hell you're doing but most get it giving us a thumbs up from out of their window and plenty notice when they are stopping or turning off. If we see a slow moving tractor or trailer up ahead, we go hell for leather to catch it up. It's practically a free ride after all. The desert landscape changed considerably as we got closer to Aksu. It was much more populated and most land was being used for agriculture. We saw trees and crops for the first time in the desert. It was really hard to find a camp spot that night.
|Another freebie. My first and last cans of Red Bull.|
|More snacks and water from the old bill|
Arriving in Aksu, we were pleased to find it was a proper city with all amenities and loads of hotels to choose from. Before long we were checked in to a hotel and relaxing in bed. There was a knock at the door and the manageress started babbling away at us. We didn't know what she wanted and she eventually gave up. 5 minutes later she came back with a phone and her vaguely English speaking daughter on the other end of it. We were getting kicked out as foreigners weren't allowed in the hotel. Why didn't you say that in the first place before we dragged all our gear up 4 flights of stairs? Really annoying. She arranged for us to follow her in a car though to show us another hotel. After 5 minutes weaving through town behind the car, they pulled over and handed us the mobile again. Her daughter explained that the taxi fare would cost us a whopping 50 yuen! We said thanks but no thanks and said a curt goodbye finding it unbelievable that we were expected to cough up a seriously overpriced taxi fare after being kicked out of the hotel due to their mistake.
Our opinion of Aksu continued to go downhill as one hotel after another refused to let us stay. Our so-called day off turned into 4 hours cycling around the city becoming more frustrated as the day went on. In the end we found a shabby little guesthouse who reluctantly let us stay. They were clearly worried about the authorities finding out they had guests without a Chinese I.D card staying but we told them our passport number was the same as an I.D card number and eventually they conceeded. They probably needed the cash which was a good thing for us. We have no idea why certain towns and cities accept foreigners in hotels and others don't but Aksu was the worst we'd ever experienced. It was a shame as we were trying to celebrate Ben's 35th. Eventually, we got settled, cracked open a couple of 25p local lagers and laughed at the day we'd had. Aksu was a really friendly place despite the hotels fiasco and it's not the hoteliers decision not to take you in. We set off on part 2 of the desert road the following morning.
|Cycling into a headwind and a sandstorm|
The following day we got our first taste of the notorious Takilmakan winds and unfortunately they were not blowing in our favour. We took turns at drafting each other but progress was painfully slow often averaging 10 km/h on the flats. After 55 kms we couldn't take anymore and pulled in to the side of the road. We had also been in our first sandstorm that day. Walls of the stuff sandblasted our faces and at points it was hard to see 10 metres ahead. Without a doubt our worst day's cycling in the desert. We waited it out by the side of the road to see if the wind would settle down and set off again after a couple of hours. We managed another 15 kms and camped at 70 kms as night was falling. Our campsite was a beauty mind you, away off the road on the cracked earth again, not a soul in sight. During the night though the storm and consequent sandstorm continued to rage. We feared for our poor tent as it flailed around wildly in the wind. It was still standing next morning though and we awoke to an inch thick covering of sand on the tent floor, sleeping bags and us! I shudder to think how much we had breathed in.
Next day the wind was still blowing but this time in our favour. We had a great few hours riding till it turned against us again but not so strong this time. The scenery became more and more stunning with the beautiful Tian Shan mountain range on our right. It was unspoilt wilderness again and the cycling was great. We found an amazing campspot behind a wall of shingle hiding us from the road. We had a great view of the stunning green and purple mountains and the weather was lovely. We were pleased with our 110 km day and camped early enjoying a nice evening together in the tent. Ben cooked me cauliflower cheese and pasta while I wrote up the blog on the laptop. Nights like this are just the best.
Next day we did a 115 km day and the mountain scenery was beautiful. We had ridden into a little town around lunchtime the last 2 days in a row so stopped for a huge plate of Uighur noodles. The towns were friendly as usual but this day we were glad to get a quiet restaurant without too many spectators. People would rant away at us in Chinese and Uighur and we would answer “Women qu Kashgar”(We're going to Kashgar) regardless of what they'd asked. Our repertoire is very limited. They would then say “Meiguo ma?”(Are you American?). No mate, we're from “Sugelan”. Scotland is a great country to say you're from in China as in these politically sensitive times no-one has a clue where it is or that it's part of the UK. In China, most people don't seem to understand that if you didn't understand them the first time, talking louder probably won't help the second time. The funniest thing though which has happened to us several times is when we don't understand what someone is saying, they come back with a pen and paper and write it down in Mandarin! Well I mean I can hardly string two words together in Mandarin but can read and write it perfectly of course. Ben takes the paper off them and writes 'I don't understand” in English. The penny finally drops and much laughter ensues.
|We saw this guy collecting rubbish fro the side of the road on his bike with completely flat tyres. Ben tried to help but they were too old and perished.|
We awoke the next morning 80 kms away from Kashgar. The weather in the Taklimakan in April is just perfect. Hot but not too hot during the day and warm enough in the evenings to eat dinner with the tent open watching the sunset or stargazing. Our 11 days in a row through the desert had caught up with us and we seriously needed a rest. Thankfully the last 20 kms were downhill though meaning we sailed in to town in a fine mood.
We had heard great things about Kashgar and when we arrived, weren't disappointed. Our first thought was again “are we still in China? “. We had started our trip through the islamic world earlier than expected as burka-clad women, people in traditional Uighur dress and men in their muslim hats strutted down the street. We greeted everyone with an “Asalam Alekom”,(peace be with you) which goes down well in these parts. Kashgar people are super friendly and the town is bursting with life. Just walking around the streets of old Kashgar soaking up the atmosphere is an amazing experience.
|Not Martin and Torsten|
|Ben, Maurice, Martin, Sean and Michael|
We said goodbye to our new friends and Sean treated us to a goodbye breakfast. Then it was off to the Kyrgystan border, 230 kms away............and all uphill. The cycling was hard going to start off with as I had the same leg pain and numbness that I had in Australia. It was slowing me right down and I knew I needed a spinal adjustment at the chiropractors again. The first 20 kms we had to slog our way back up the downhill we had enjoyed on the way in. This took us to the junction at the start of the 309 road which would lead us right to the border. We continued climbing uphill, cycling through some friendly villages. Our group of 2 became 15 strong at one point as the schoolkids poured out on their bikes. We camped on a cliff top with a stunning view after 52 kms.
The next day we continued uphill with a 14 km downhill thrown in to give us a break. We lunched on noodle soup in Wuqia, topped up our water bottles and camped just after a 2530 metre pass and 72 kms. The scenery was just getting better and better.
On day 3 we had another pass of 2930 metres to tackle. The climb was made easier though by hanging on to the back of a slow moving HGV for several kms. This guy was great and didn't mind us grabbing a lift at all. He stopped for a break and gave us some Uighur bread. We let go eventually and climbed up to the 3103 metres of the Akto Mountain Saddle. From here we had a 20 km downhill to look forward to. After 65 kms we arrived at Ulugchat village where we had our passports checked at a random checkpoint. This was also the last chance to buy provisions before the border so we stocked up on water. We carried on, now just 50 kms from the border. However, we had to be out of China by the next day and wanted to cover most of that distance by the end of today leaving only 20 kms or so for check out day on these relentless uphill climbs. We managed to squeeze 86 kms out of our tired legs that day and our very last campspot in China was a good one in a secluded spot by a river. We stripped off and jumped in for a wash. It was painful but worth it to feel clean and fresh. We enjoyed a nice meal and cups of tea knowing we had just over 20 kms cycling to the border the following day.
We were up and off early and made it to the border crossing by lunchtime. After eating in a skanky restaurant, the owner said 'Change money?”, the only two words he knew in English. We swapped our 1300 yuen for almost 10,000 Kyrgyz som hoping that he hadn't diddled us. Border towns are undescribably weird and depressing and this one was no exception. We were keen to get out of there. On the Chinese side the officials were extremely helpful and polite. We had to strip off our panniers for the x-ray machine but afterwards the guards rallied round helping us to get them back on the bikes. This kind of intervention re: loading up the bikes is always more of hindrance than a help but it's the thought that counts . At the last passport check before leaving the Chinese side, there was an option to press a button to rate the service you had had there. We smiled at the lady at the desk and pressed “Greatly satisfied”, meaningful really as this summed up our whole experience of China and it's people.
We then had a 7 km ride through “No man's land” an area between the two checkpoints that belongs to neither side. We were too early to get in through the Kyrgyz side and chatted to the hoards of friendly Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek truck drivers waiting to get through. We then slept in the sun for a couple of hours and got up as the drivers started their engines to go through. The crossing into Kyrgystan was even easier. We simply handed our passports into a little booth and they were handed back stamped a minute later. Before we were even 200 metres out of the checkpoint, we had already been invited for tea, dinner and a truck driver had even offered us a lift to Osh. This was of course the sort of Kyrgyz hospitality we'd heard about. The Russian I had spent weeks learning was coming in handy and people actully understood me unlike in China. We set off for Osh, marvelling at the beauty of the lanscape around us.
And so after 5 months in China we have arrived in country number 10. Coming from a country as big as China to one as small as Kyrgystan is quite a shift and we'll be through here in no time. From Bishkek, Northern Kyrgystan, only 800 kms away, we will cycle through Kazakhstan on a 5 day transit visa into Tashkent, Uzbekistan. From Tashkent, we cycle South West through the ancient silk road cities of Samarqand and Bukhara to the Turkmenistan border where, on another 5 day transit visa, we will traverse the 450 km stretch to the Sarakhs Iranian border. Thanks to Ms Whitehead for sorting out our Iranian visa. 'It's in the book”.
All is well, summer is here and we have less than 10,000 kms left to cycle to reach Glasgow. Thinking of all our friends and family and wishing you a funfilled Summer(Winter for the Kiwis).