Miles on the clock: 19,910
I clambered onto my nearly-nine-months vacant saddle and began a mad race westwards across Mongolia with my visa close to expiry. Old Geoff (my rusty, long-suffering bicycle) had been neglected while I worked in Beijing, walked to Mongolia and then horse-trekked. The muscles required to drive him had suffered neglect too.
The scenery continued to showcase Mongolia’s priceless oracular wealth but I kept my eyes largely focused on the rutted road to spare my increasingly-tender trouser twins. There were many forks and it was sometimes hard to navigate the correct route over the low hills and across the dry plains. Occasional rainfall spat from the sky as I toiled on towards a border post with China that I was not even certain was crossable but was rumoured to be recently opened to foreigners. My once-huge appetite soon returned and I found myself eating twice as much as when hiking or horse trekking. Unavoidably, I closed my mind and adopted tunnel vision with the hopefully-open border at the tunnel’s end and the fast-approaching date of visa expiry mockingly plastering its walls.
After a few days a shimmering turquoise band of deceptively-tropical appearance rose on the northern horizon. Uvs Nuur is a vast salt lake that freezes over for 7 months a year but I didn’t have time to appoach. Keeping it to my north and watching the Altai mountains sprout out of the southern horizon and grow to snow-dusted peaks, I pedalled determinately towards the dowdy city of Ulaangom. When I arrived my parched chain was grinding and groaning for oil while my parched throat was pleading for beer. I met Tim and Cyrille who were nearing the end of their cycle from France and the three of us shared a room for two and a bottle for four.
Some calculations that morning persuaded me of the need to catch a lift for some distance to get to the border in time. I rode south out of the city on a gravel road which plunged through ten or twelve knee-deep rivers, each of which I staggered across carrying my loaded bike. The afternoon brought the approach of a truck (the only vehicle on the road in 6 hours) which I waved down and was soon bourne away in. The 120 mile road to Khovd climbed into the mountains and I was deposited early the next morning with more hard roads to contend with. On the second last day of my visa I reached a new, Chinese-built tarmac road that I didn’t know existed. I rode until long after sunset and then slumped into my sleeping bag for 4 hours.
Late in the morning I woke in a stifling tent with a strong sun playing upon it. A cock was crowing nearby. During three months of travel in Mongolia I hadn’t heard or seen a single chicken. I looked out and saw everywhere the signs of Chinese industriousness. The slim trickle of a river I had followed on the dry, uninhabited Mongolian side had been turned into an extensive series of irrigation channels. A fecund mandarin grove nearby evidenced the triumph of the Chinese over the aridity of the desert. I was happy to be back in China and resume my fickle love-hate relationship with the country. The rush was over and I could now pick my pace, allowing myself a little enjoyment. Greedily-squelching juicy mandarin segments in my mouth for breakfast, I heaved a soul-easing sigh. The previously-unrealised tension drained from me and I told myself that my real journey began again here. Mongolia had been a paradise with its problems but it was behind me and a country with its “communists” spread before me.
After a couple of days the hub on my rear wheel gave out. It had served me well for over two years but had come to the end of its natural life. I found myself stranded on the roadside in the desert with an unridable bike and a 30-mile backtrack to the nearest town. The road was busy enough with a vehicle every minute or. I stood, unsheltered, in 30°C heat with my broken wheel detached and prominently displayed to exhibit my helplessness for two hours without a single person stopping to see what was wrong. Many waved and smiled or even slowed down to get a better look as they passed but none had the heart to help. Eventually a policeman pulled over to check my passport. This done, he got into his car to leave before I managed to persuade him that he must give me a lift. He made a call and I was finally conveyed to Fuyun police station in a convoy of five police vehicles.
I left the town with my rear wheel wobbling wildly and my chain slipping frequently. It held for 50 of the 60 miles to Beitun but had to push for the last 10 as the fatally worn hub was grinding and clacking loudly and the wheel turning only grudgingly. I walked jaded Geoff to the city centre and found a man who said he could build me a new wheel. While I waited for him to patch an old man’s puncture I watched an attractive young woman a few yards away casually roasting a pig’s head with a blowtorch.
The next 60 miles were a miserable ride. I had three working gears and an inch-high bump for every wheel revolution. With sore nethers I entered Burqin and quickly sought refuge in a fancy mountain bike shop with charming staff. They welcomed me and we communicated via google translate. I explained that “my egg-shaped wheel hurt my eggs” which made them laugh and seemed to win them over. They offered to replace my wheel and cassette (rear gear cogs) with good quality parts at factory cost and service my bike for free. After the last couple of days tough riding I was slightly overcome with gratitude.
I began to absorb Kazakhstan while I rode. The mixture of European, Central Asian and East Asian faces; the posters of the apparently-popular 21-year president Nursultan Nazarbayev inspecting crops or visiting schools; the dowdy, Eastern European style villages; the ugly, haphazardly organised towns bursting with character and life (a refreshing change from China’s identakit towns).
A couple of days fighting a fierce headwind were followed by a gravel road short cut over a low mountain ridge. During this excursion my chain (cheap and Chinese) began to break repeatedly with the strain during the steeper inclines. Each time it broke I removed the damaged link until it was so short that I was riding a single gear bike. I struggled through the final section of short cut, reached a town, replaced the chain and started crossing some of the featureless Kazakh steppe that covers most of the country. It is part of the largest steppe on earth and covers over 300,000 square miles.
Outside the city of Taldykurgan I met Nurli who invited me to stay at his home. I stayed for three nights and made several good friends. Nurli was humblingly hospitable and fussed over me paternally. In the evenings we drank beer and ate shashlik (barbecued shish kebab meat) while I practised my Russian. He introduced me to his friend’s son-in-law Igor who runs an English language school. I went for lunch with Igor who told me the fascinating story of how his family (ethnic Koreans), along with their whole Korean community of almost 200,000, were moved by the Soviets in the 1930s from Russia’s far east seaboard to uninhabited areas of eastern Kazakhstan. The Russians used fear of Japanese espionage and the claim that Koreans and Japanese were ethnically indistinct as their justification. The transportation conditions were cramped and many died en route. Igor’s grandfather (with many others whimsically suspected of disloyalty) was sent to a gulag. Incredibly he survived 8 years of forced labour before making his own way west where he found his family.
Nurli: “How long can you f**k for?”
Me: (evasively) “With or without beer?”
(more evasively) “I don’t know. I don’t own a watch.”
“Me. One time – one hour. Bang bang bang” (pounding his open palm on the top of his closed fist with a mischievous grin)
“You” pointing first at my crotch and then at the baby pink colour of his towel, “ooooooh” wincing with a mock melodrama of over-sensitivity. “Me” standing up and pulling out his penis and flicking its brown end hard several times, “nothing. Ha ha ha!”
(embarrassed) “Good for you.”
(optimistically) “I can circumcise you now?”
(defensively) “No thank you Nurli.”
(whispering) “Our secret. No problem. Five minutes.”
“No thanks. But if I change my mind I promise to call you.”
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