Monday, 25 May 2015

The resurrection of Green


The Tian Shan mountains arrived four days after leaving Urumqi, green and misty-peaked. My left knee, which had been a generous font of pain for the last month, felt obligingly strong. And I felt good. But before I crossed into Kazakhstan I decided on a day off, and my plan for the shores of Sayram Lake was unimpeachable. I was going to pitch my tent overlooking the expansive turquoise waters, framed by abundant sproutings of wild orchids. I would sip red wine in the evening, a rare treat, read Nabokov's short stories and perhaps take breaks to admire elk lapping at the shore or hoopoes jinking through the hazy summer air. 

My plan turned out to be something of a colander. The lake shore was a marsh, the sky leaden and fuzzed by three building thunder storms, the rain slanting, the lake unswimmably freezing and the troublingly labelled ‘dry red wine’ was none of those things: A watery pink question mark. But the next day sunshine arrived, at first in a few angled stems through the storm clouds, and then on masse as the clouds blustered beyond the wind turbines to the east. I gorged on the snack food the young attendant at the park gate had given me for free – it had been my third gift in as many days in Xinjiang, a region so full of hospitality I’d given up arguing payment for my meals – when someone insisted on paying, they meant it, and they meant it quite often.

Sayram Lake is edged by whopping pines and snowy mountains, and I cycled three sides of it, halting to admire spreads of early tulips and purple wild flowers. The mileu of ethnic Kazakh and Mongol nomadic herders who take up home here come the summer had yet to arrive from their winter hide outs in the lee of rocky outcrops to the east.

Despite all my failings at Chinese I was going to miss the endearing Chinglish and mistranslations, the poetry too. On the brochure for Sayram Lake for instance they described the lake in various seasons: Spring is ‘when the earth takes off the shyness of first love’, summer ‘presents unlimited glamour with a warm posture’ autumn is ‘always sincere’ and winter is ‘when the earth is in a sweet dream’.


Spot my tent...

Rested, I set off to Kazakhstan. The rough road leaving the lake took me to a series of crumbly switchbacks which fell to the brand new highway suspended loftily over a green valley and disappearing on two sides into tunnels. I squeezed onto it by a break in the crash barrier and zoomed down the very Chinese affair: a spiraling overpass which plunged me into more tunnels and sent me rushing over suspension bridges.

The Chinese border town was actually nice, relatively speaking, though perhaps only in the same way that Milton Keynes is nice compared with Mordor. Border towns are scrappy, deshevelled places on the whole, but this one wasn’t all bad - it had a convivial evening food market, Uighur eating houses touting tasty polo, prancing toy dogs and gangs of playful children. I cycled to the border, past a ‘tourist toilet’ – which could have been a toilet for tourists or somewhere for exhibitionists to defecate, I wasn’t sure. The only other foreigners at the border were a foursome of Aussies on motorbikes whose vehicles held stickers advertising the name of their blog: ‘Bikes and beers’. Obviously every Australian I’ve ever met travelling by motorbike is irrevocably entrenched in alcoholism, but rarely are they so forthcoming about it.

Crossing some borders feels more significant than others, and this one was more than a switch of nations – it was entry point to my first ‘stan, gateway to Central Asia, and goodbye to the east. 

The incredible Chinese highway through the Tian Shan mountains

A poster in Urumqi, China. Burqas are banned, as are beards for young men and other items of clothing. As I took a series of photos of these posters I noticed a CCTV camera was positioned to film everything I was doing, so I did a runner - as a man in Beijing glared into a monitor?!
The Highway towards Kazakhstan
Despite a host of other dialects, Russian can be a considered the lingua franca for much of Central Asia, and especially eastern Kazakhstan – 30% of the population of Almaty are ethnic Russian. I’d failed monumentally at Chinese: it had gotten so bad I’d avoided asking for essential items like sun cream because it was easier to wait until I was scarlet and peeling and then point painfully to my skin in the chemist, that way I didn’t need to bother about using the correct homophene or tone. But for Russian, I had a head start. I’d studied it in school, even scoring an A at GCSE. It was time to unpack it, blow off 18 years of dust and stumble through my first conversations. 

I stopped to buy apples because I’d recently read that apples originated from Kazakhstan, in the wild apple forests of the Tian Shan - a fact discovered after sequencing the fruit's genome. I pointed to some small green ones ‘NYET NYET!’ voiced the vendor, switching to English. ‘These Jackie Chan apples. You want Steven Seagal apples’ he said holding aloft weighty red ones. Seagal retains a legendary status here, as do the 80s and 90s in general. Tiffany and Tina Turner are regulars on the radio and denim jackets never left vogue. Later, as I introduced myself as Stephen to Kazakhs, it was always Seagal that people then yelled at me fervently, never Speilberg, or even Gerrard. Seagal is the most famous Steven in the old soviet world by a mile.

I didn’t think it possible to pine for a colour, to envy green. A wintery China had been a place of brown tilled fields, naked trees and snow. Mongolia’s steppe and Gobi desert were similarly beige sprawls, until the spring snow arrived and my world was bleached again. As Kazakhstan neared there was a resurgence of green – life-affirming, vivid, sigh-bringing colour flushed the hills.


I arrived in Kazakhstan on National Public Drag Racing Day. Unless… wait a minute… they don’t drive like this all the time do they? Fuck!

Busted up Ladas, recalling every horse power they had left, raged over waves of fractured tarmac, and more welcomes were shouted from car windows in one hour than in three months of China. As bizarre as the thought seemed - I actually missed those honking Chinese drivers, at least they paid fleeting attention to my mortality.

The Kazakh steppe was a far cry from the Mongolian version – here was greened by shrubs and dotted with yellow flowers, candle wax coloured rock intersected red ridges, everything smelt of chamomile and sage. It was a Sunday when I arrived, families had left Almaty to explore these frontier highlands and they stopped to gift me bundles of leftover salads and meat. Kazakh people are as proud of their hospitality as perhaps any other national quirk. I was happy to be here.

The next day a pugilistic wind whipped in from a bruised sky hanging about the mountains. By the afternoon it was up to around 70 km/hr, and impossible to ride. What I took for a fuzz of rain I realised with a groan was in fact dust - a gusting and gathering universe of it, blotting out the mountains. Trees, sheltering the odd farmhouse, were savaged backwards, their tops nearing ground level; a bottle flew off my bike for a tour of the stratosphere. Eventually I pushed by bike to a town three kilometres off a side road. A car of young boys drove up to me, beeping and shouting from windows. Drunk. ‘HITLER!’ one was shouting and pounding his fist into his hand. Of all the things to hear a drunk man in charge of a vehicle scream, this was perhaps the least idyllic. I pedalled away fast. Then I saw two old men in suits, a great array of military medals pinned to their lapels. It was impressive that anyone could be so recognisably and unmistakably drunk from one hundred metres, but it was so. When I reached them they kept grabbing my hand and pulling me off my bike, in a fun sort of way, and I escaped laughing at the old codgers and realised that the Hitler remark was probably because it was the 9th of May: Victory Day. Alcohol, patriotism and a dust storm had conspired to make the town people a little mad, and shouty.

A guesthouse let me camp in their orchard for free, the owner was dressed in military camouflage and I had the sudden impression on meeting him that this was what he wore for fun every day, rather than anything to do with the celebrations, or his job. He seemed like that kind of guy. Over dinner, prepared dutifully by two kindly, buxom ladies, he plied me with seven cups of tea and quizzed me without let up.

‘Wife? Children?’

‘Nyet’

‘Which do did you prefer – China or India?’

‘I like them both’

He sneered. This was not sufficient.

‘But which better?’

‘Neither is better. Just different’

‘OK OK. This one is India’ he said pointing to one of the fat ladies sitting at the table. ‘And this one is China’ pointing to the other, and grinning heavily. ‘Now, which one is more beautiful?’

‘They are both very beautiful’ I said in Russian, the ladies smiled at me and I was off the hook.

There is a certain breed of Soviet man. Meaty, thick armed creatures who wade into rooms. I met another selling kebabs from a roadside stall – a door-filler, with gold teeth. We got talking about where I’d been when he said:

‘So you don’t have to fight people on your journey? Punch people?’

‘Errr no. Its been very peaceful so far. Do you?’

‘Yeah. You know, sometimes the Russians. They bit crazy’ He did the screwy sign with his finger to his temple ‘They don’t want to pay for kebabs so I punch them’ he made a boxing pose and threw a few air-hooks. He didn’t laugh. It was then that two Siberians arrived on touring bikes and told me of how they’d just been waist-deep in snow on the Kazakh mountains. I was proud of my winter traverse of Mongolia until I arrived in Kazakhstan where evidently I’m a cupcake compared to men who drag their bikes over glaciers and brawl over the price of lunch.



I passed epic poppy fields en route to Almaty and in the city gave a couple of school talks, couchsurfed and then set off in search of a Tajik visa, but first I needed a photo.

There is something Soviet about my barnet of late - I have cultivated a vast mullet which rivals the one I was sporting in 1992. I’m balding you see, and so the mullet is one last throw of the dice. Only now can I get away with it – mullets don’t sit so well on doctors. Or professionals. Or anyone not on parole.

For the photo I removed my cap, and deciding it would be a bit vain to ask for a mirror, gave the signal to shoot, whilst wondering what was happening north of my eyebrows and looking consequently uncomfortable. The camera man did as he was told – snap, snap. When I received the images I was startled. There was shame, defeat and a deep melancholy all sculpted onto a sunburnt face beneath a stretching steppeland of forehead. Eventually my eyes arrived at a halo of crazy hair, and then noticed the rat tails of the mullet showing from behind my neck. I looked like a balding clown who had presented to an emergency department with something embarrassing up his arse. Perhaps a root vegetable. There was no way I was getting a visa with this photo. I wouldn’t give me a library book.

In the end I was overcharged considerably for my visa at the Tajik consulate, perhaps because the official I got was corrupt (but do you argue the price and risk no visa?) or perhaps because there are two prices – one for normal people and one for redundant clowns and their concealed marrows.

I left Almaty the day after a great dust storm ravaged the city, boughs of trees had been sheared off by violent gales and were tossed into the city streets. The roads were… hectic.

There is, I have noticed, an inverse relationship between the hospitality of a nation and the ability of its people to drive. I’ve noticed this all over the world. There is something adulterating about the warm glow you receive when a stranger stops and provides you a gift, when afterwards they murderously run you into a ditch. So you have to deploy psychology – the ‘safety shuffle’ is a little wiggle of the handlebars when you hear a car approaching too fast and too close, inspiring the driver to believe you’re a ham-fisted imbecile who can’t ride a bicycle and will damage their fendors. Or there’s the lightning fast backwards glance I save for approaching cars I can hear travelling too fast. There is nothing plaintive in my expression, rather a look that says ‘If you come too close there will be consequences, ie. the painful death of you, your loved ones, and a bonfire of your inconsiderate corpses’. Unfortunately this is all necessary because drivers throughout Central Asia are reckless, wreck-prone hot-heads. Really, I’m not exaggerating.

If I had unlimited funds to come up with an invention, this would be it: I would design a button to go on bicycle handlebars. If a car came too fast and close, the rider could press the button, and on doing so a compartment would open inside the car dashboard (I would make this compulsory in all new cars) and from this a robotic terminator-like arm would extend clutching a stinking eight day old haddock. The arm would then thrash the driver around the jowls with said fish until they repented or collided with something hard and devastating. It’s not a very practical invention I grant you, but it makes me happy just thinking about it.

On the way to the lengthier and more remote crossing point between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but one that promised to be more scenic, I camped in meadows and pedalled through gorges lively with the sparkle of yellow and lilac wild flowers. The mountains too were colourful - baize-green and rustily creviced.

Soon I reached the Sharyn River Canyon and cycled down through an eye-pulling corridor of pink rock under a sky where domed clouds dawdled like jellyfish. That night I slept under the stars alongside two German motorcyclists who had taken just 6 weeks to ride from their home country. The bastards.

I’m always a little envious of motorcyclists for what they can carry, kilograms might matter to them, but grams don’t. ‘Pass the honey’ one of them said as the other arranged deckchairs by the river ‘shall we have more filter coffee?’ said the other, filling up a metal coffee-making kettle. Yesterday I had decided against an extra onion on the grounds of weight.




The Sharyn River Canyon, south-east Kazakhstan

The next day I cycled back up through the canyon, the waterforged pink towers of rock looking over me. Back on the steppe, the mountains to my east had been almost entirely deleted by a vicious looking murk and in half an hour a cold wind had kicked up and my distance to the storm had halved. Thunder resounded every second, fork lightning travelled horizontally through the sky, which was now cinder-black. As rain drops smacked me with the force of colliding bees, I saw a village around three kilometres off the main road, reared up on my bike and drove my legs up and down in a race against the weather, elevating my person slightly, and probably inviting a lightning strike. 

The village had a small shop with a metal roofed porch area where I cowered aside my bike, drank tea, ate toffee popcorn and watched the dramatic scene above as litter was thrown into lively swirls by the gale. Vodka-scented men ambled over every so often to inspect me, one asking whether I had lots of money. No, I said. Do you have a gun? He wanted to know. Yes, I said, but he didn’t receive it as a joke and just nodded gravely and stumbled off with new found respect.

The owners of the shop and attached eating house were a kindly couple with three tearaway kids for whom the storm was as celebrated as a birthday. They gave me borsch and more tea. ‘You should stay with us!’ said the lady ‘too cold outside’. Her father grabbed my phrasebook and found the Russian for ‘Guest’ and pointing out the word, he said ‘In Kazakhstan, we love you!’

I was led to a room at the back of the house which had a double bed and, separated by a two foot strip of floor space, a sofa. Contented, I stretched out on the bed and began to read, snug in my sleeping bag as thunder boomed on.

And then the door opened.

In the doorframe stood the owner, smiling meekly, and with him a man and a woman. The man was clutching a bottle of vodka, three quarters empty. They looked like the kind of haggard duo that Interpol might be searching for in relation to a kitten-torturing ring. The way they smelt, and the way they reeled into the room, suggested that for them, vodka was something of a lifeblood.

The owner motioned for me to vacate the bed and move to the couch – I was to have roomies.

I didn’t catch their names, but I can be reasonably confident they were named whatever the Russian is for Donna and Bazza. Donna and Bazza collapsed boozily onto the bed and so I turned off the lights fast to signal my intention of sleep but for the next hour they smoked and drank vodka and didn’t even bother with that husky pseudo-whisper that sloshed people consider the pinnacle of subtlety and tact but is in actual fact just shouting. Instead, they just shouted. Then came the snoring. Not your usual snoring, Vodka-snoring. Loud, much much faster than you think is possible for sustaining sleep, and only yielding when they awoke to drink more vodka, which was almost every hour. Finally, just as I was reaching some kind of breaking point, I heard a liquid splashing onto the floor in a way that left no doubt that someone’s bladder was shrinking. I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘no’ so many times in the space of two seconds. I turned on my headtorch, not knowing until I did so whether I would be looking at a man with his cock in his hand, or a woman, squatting. It was a man with his cock in his hand, of course. He hadn’t even stood up, just turned over on his side and fountained piss off the bed. I appraised the flood damage. Thankfully most of my kit had been spared and he’d done a gratifyingly thorough job of pissing over his own shoes, which I’m sure could be a good metaphor for his life up to this point.

Afterwards the snoring became even more lip-flapping and sonorous so I put my buff over my eyes, headphones in my ears and tried to ignore the smell of piss. I slept for maybe an hour all night.

The next morning they were all laughter and cigarettes, and still quite drunk. I was particularly glad to watch Bazza groggily reach for his shoes, yank them on, and make a puzzled face. Donna just began shouting merry questions at me, most of which I struggled with, and she kept turning to Bazza to shout ‘You see, he doesn’t understand ANYTHING!’

She was only partly right. My Russian might be rusty, but I do understand one thing: to avoid damp shoes, use a toilet.

I was tired all the next day, but the steppe was sunnied and storm-fresh and fragrant, which made me feel better. I climbed through the Kokpek gorge, absorbantly slow, and began to think about all the reasons I love bicycle travel, of how the languid pace of it allows for detail to sink in and seduce. They might have crossed Europe and a sizable chunk of Asia in better time than it will take for me to reach the next country, but could the motorbikers remember all the different hues of the wild flowers as they careered by? Could they recall the butterflies or realise the rust colour of the rocks was lichen?

I was about 2000 metres up when fields sheeted with yellow flowers came into view. In spaces between far mountains there was no end to be seen – yellow met the sky – it was wonderful. 




That night I camped close to the small border post, which had opened for the year just a few days before. The unbroken sprawl of flowers had retreated, leaving just sprays of purple and gold. The still-snowy Tian Shen mountains leered over the Alpine-beauty splayed beneath.

I crossed the border and my British passport met the usual quiz about the merits of various premiership football teams. The best way to avoid a delay at customs is to know something of Liverpool’s midfield.

In Kyrgyzstan I immediately met plump green hills scattered with conifers. I’d planned on a much lengthier route up four thousand metre passes, seduced by the absence of tour reports online and the promise of a rare experience in the hills. But I had a change of heart.

The first hills were agonising, my bike too heavy, my knee too newly recovered, my knowledge of the passes too scant. Snow sat in patches at just 2500 metres. In effect, I wimped out. Only later did I read a section in the guidebook which explained my proposed route would have been impossible since the bridges maintained in Soviet times had collapsed since independence – it was a good call.

As I meandered slowly up a 20% grade, cobbled in jagged stones, two men arrived on horses. Seeing my sweat-beaded face peering up at them inspired the younger (and drunker) one to help. He took a rope, one end of which was attached to the bridal of his horse, and began tying it around the stem of my bike. I was getting towed, whether I wanted it or not.

I managed a few more ‘no’s than my previous record breaking fusillade. It was so evidently an appalling plan, but he’d already tightened the knot. I thought then the horse would bolt, provoked into full gallop by my wailings of 'NYET! NYET!' and his competitively loud 'DA! DA!'. It would be a calamitous chariot: a runaway horse dashing up a steep mountain dragging behind it a toppled loaded bicycle, panniers tearing, metal scuffing, a racing shrapnel of bolts and nuts filling the air.

Some other nice Kyrgyz guys
The world became ever-lovelier, if that were possible. Herders rode towards me and I chatted a little in Russian, recovering irregular verbs from storage, dusty and stuttered. They flashed me their gold teeth, a popular status symbol, and the women stared at a distance, smiling and piratical in their headscarves worn like bandanas. 

I arrived into the town of Karakol in the rain, and saw a sign for pizza. I don’t recall the next ten minutes of my life, all I know is that at some point in the very near future I was cheesey face to cheesey face with a 30 cm diametered circle of heaven.

I camped for a few days in Karakol, hanging out with a trio from Quebec, visiting museums and animal markets and the town church.

Thank yous: Alina and Kristin in Almaty, Sam - master Yogi, KIS and Haileybury Schools, The Quebec posse, and all the generous Chinese and Kazakhs and Kyrgyz souls.

Next up: Lake Issyk Kul, then a rest in Bishkek where I’ll score onward visas. I’ll publish a new kit review piece too, and in mid-June I’ll set off for a 2-3 week stint of Kyrgyzstan to the Tajik border. And then there’s a few hills to climb, called the Pamirs.