Crawling into the Abyss

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Bicycle street Urumqi, getting ready for the long desolate road south

I didn’t know it at the time. But I was lucky. I left Urumqi and confidently pedaled south into the mountains. In the distance I could see a storm gathering and the once snow capped mountains were no longer visible. My cadence was sporadic, my chain just didn’t seem to stay in gear. When I got to the lower foothills I took a closer look and decided to turn back, as there was no way I could ride 350 km at my current pace. That night a snow storm covered the foothills, road and mountains and somewhere a landslide closed the main road in both directions.

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A dry summit, after pedaling to the Turpan Depression, 500 ft below sea level, there little to do but go up! A long 50 km climb to the top of this pass.

After following a few Chinese cyclists dressed in Lycra, I returned  to Urumqi and found the bicycle shop area. It was A long alley filled with all sorts of bikes; fat, cruisers, mountain, fixies even unicycles. By that time I knew I needed more than just a chain, so I started asking around. First shop, “no” second shop “no” third “no”. One shop owner told me that most people just buy a new bike when they need to replace a part! And asked me if I wanted to buy a new bike! Finally I came across a small roadside shop and convinced the owner to take the parts off of a bike he was selling. It took a few hours but I got what I needed and installed everything curbside.

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Osh or Pilaf. The Rice a roni’s great ancestor, and large wok cooked in lamb fat, carrots, onion and garlic. 15 yen for a plate with meat, 5 yen without.

Finding a place to stay is so difficult that I contemplated pedaled back out of the city to camp. In some ways there is almost no point in asking how much a room costs as most hotels can not accept foreign guests! I ended up at another 3-4 star hotel and spent 5 days worth of food money on one night! (Couchsurfing is also a problem as most police in Xinjiang do not allow foreigners to stay with individuals). Anyhow, I spent a nice day in the Muslim district and as it was Friday, I pushed my way back into the hub of the Muslin quarter to see what prayer time was like.

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Naan. Central Asian bread. A good piece of Naan is cracker like in the inside, (crispy and crunchy), and bread like (doughy and soft) on the crust. I like the thin large pieces with seseame seeds best. However sometimes I will settle for the bagel looking like ones in the middle because they are sweet! Usually around 2-4 yen a piece. Made fresh daily in a large circular oven.

Traffic was backed up for miles but I weaved in and out, and suddenly I found myself at the largest mosque in the city. The side walks were filled with men sitting, knees down on top of small, colorful, hand woven-carpets, all sitting in silence, waiting for the call to prayer. The road emptied. I watched, listened and prayed, surrounded by devotees and Chinese riot police.

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Deep fried street eats. (Jie tou Xiao chi)

I don’t think anyone could say China or rather Xinjiang was dangerous There are literally police everywhere. All the bus stops, subway tunnels, intersections and gas stations have check points, and the banks, supermarkets, and hotels have guards operating x-ray machines and metal detectors. The presence is extremely noticeable in the Muslim districts and during prayer time there were fully armed riot police waiting for unrest. From what I have heard there were several Uighur riots during the Xinjiang Conflict of 2009 and 2014. Many Uighur openly feel and have expressed that Xinjiang is an independent country and that the Peoples Republic of China is occupying their land. The PRC has responded with a strong police presence and many discriminatory policies.

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Uighur man chops meat for Lagh Mian

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I no longer eat street meat, as I have been sick countless times. However I will still eat the meat pastries.

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Somsa pastries

After Friday prayer most people return to their places of business and rest, but many go to eat! This is the norm for Muslims on Friday, as it is considered the Sabbath. Leaving the Mosque I looked for the most local “hole in the wall” Muslim restaurant I could find and quickly found myself surrounded by Uighur’s sitting at small shared tables.
Considering the situation, and how much I must have stuck out wearing a baseball hat and sunglasses, I surprisingly did not draw much attention. Ordering the norm, a bowl of Lagh Mian I had a conversation with my table mates in Veyu and Mandarin. They told me all about the riots and that the Uighur historic city of Kashgar has almost completely been rebuilt with large Chinese hotels and businesses. I was happy to tell them that I was American and wished them well, I hope that it may lead to a better reputation in the Muslim world. I get a very mixed response from the locals, they are either super grumpy like “Ramadan a full day of fasting and no water” grumpy or they are exceptionally kind. I just wish I could get an idea which is which before I connect.

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Camping among the reeds. I was swarmed by mosquitoes minutes after propping up Esperanza.

Leaving the city once more I crossed paths with a few Chinese cyclists who had recently returned from Lhasa. (Another ethnic minority suppressed by the PRC). They wanted to join me on my route south but I repeatedly declined the invitation and proceeded alone. No matter how lonely the road gets I still enjoy the challenge of doing everything myself.
My new route south took me down to the lowest point in Central Asia The Turpan Depression, 505 ft below sea level. Within a 100 km from Urumqi few hours the weather became hot and dry. I camped in a small oasis areas but found the ticks and mosquitoes almost unbearable.

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Turpan Depression, in some areas there is literally a large hole in the ground

As many times as I have visited China I still find myself completely amazed by the size, traffic and population of the cities. On some days I come across cities tucked away behind step mountains in the far remote corners of the province, completely surrounded by desert. The cities are usually more like “towns” as it is not uncommon to hear someone say “You know… this is not really a city its more of a town…. the population is small maybe about about 700,000 to 1 million people”. These “towns” are being developed at an extremely rapid rate, with large apartment buildings, hotels and universities. From a far I can almost always spot a few cranes and soon to be future apartment buildings. I sometimes wonder, with still so much development how can the economy be doing so bad?

China intersection

King of the road. Just another day at a Chinese intersection. There is no country other than maybe the Philippines that is like this. The traffic lights are considered a “suggestion”.

China mapp

I am currently in the city of Korla (just below the Tian Shan mtns) headed south east to Chengdu, Sichuan. There is very little in terms of services between here and there.

I leave tomorrow for a long trip through the desert. The Qinghai city of Golmud is 1,100 km from here and I hope to be there in less than 2 weeks.

Korea: Wealth of East Asia

Meditation hall I Korea's Oldest Monastery Seoraksan.

Meditation hall I Korea’s Oldest Monastery Seoraksan.

The transition from Central to East Asia was not easy. Like a plant that had grown roots from Norway across Europe and into the far east of Central Asia, I was plucked and transplanted to a completely different environment. No longer would there be a struggle to survive or a constant undertone of adrenalin as I pedaled through distant villages ravaged with wild dogs, there was suddenly so much wealth in front of me. I had only taken a few steps off the plane before a runway escalator transported me to immigration, following a quick electronic finger printing and thermal scan for Ebola symptoms, an elevator took me down to the luggage carousel, where friendly airport staff carried my boxed bicycle and panniers through customs. In the bathroom a Mozart piano concerto covered up the sound of flushing toilets and urinals. I quickly realized that the adventurous world which had been so prevalent through the last few months of my life had changed, after traveling thousands of kilometers, I was in more than just a new country.

Dried fish stink up the sidewalks in Seoul, no one guards the fish as I take it stinky fish theft is very uncommon

Dried fish stink up the sidewalks in Seoul, no one guards the fish as I take it stinky fish theft is very uncommon

The Incheon International Airport is located on an island off the north-western coast of the country, about 60 kilometers from the North Korean border. Directly to the west are the two islands of Baengnyeongdo and Daecheongdo, who’s ownership have been the subject of constant conflict between the two countries, not to mention the continuous shelling from both sides across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), since the end of the Korean war in the 1950’s. I would quickly observe that the wealth, future and economy of South Korea though currently so stable could quickly fall to the North’s largest standing army, creating constant fear in the government and the minds of many of its citizens.

Old Village district Seoul

Old Village district Seoul

I boarded the airport railroad and headed towards the capital city of Seoul. Each stop was called in 4 different languages, and I looked out the window and marveled at what looked (after so many months in Central Asia) like a city from the future. Bridges, tunnels and highways intertwined in the shadows of skyscrapers half lost in the clouds of the afternoon overcast sky. Everything was silent. The trail glided effortlessly across the tracks and the passengers sat still and gazed at the screens of their cellphones. A little girl sitting opposite me jumped off her distracted fathers lap and pummeled into my knee, the father taken by surprise quickly put down his cellphone and profusely apologized for his daughter’s misbehavior. No sooner did she return to the parental figures lap did he return to his cellphone.

Domestic tourists march in matching vests

Domestic tourists march in matching vests

“Last stop Seoul station” blasted over the intercom in Mandarin, I awoke to find the street car empty and I slid the 28 kilogram bicycle box and 3 over stuffed panniers off the train and into the elevator. “Main floor” the elevator called out, and without pushing a button I was shuttled up 5 stories to the ground level of the city. The doors opened to a long corridor that connected the elevator shaft to the rest of first floor of the train station, pushing and walking slowly I was passed by busy Koreans carrying shopping bags and briefcases, and I looked out the window and noticed that I was walking in a glass tunnel above a large fountain. I since arriving in Korea I had traveled so far but had yet to breathe the outside air. There was small waiting room at the end corridor, “It’s time to put Gabriella back together, and explore a new country” I thought. “Welcome to Korea”.

Fall is in full swing here and the mountains and hills are covered in color

Fall is in full swing here and the mountains and hills are covered in color

The first Korean word that I learned was “Chi Naga Yo” which means “Please (politely) watch out”. After close to an hour of assembling and repacking Gaby I pedaled through the busy streets trying to navigate my way to the “Old Village” district in town. Cars no longer honked as I took up the entire slow lane, and passed with caution utilizing their yielding lights, showing no sign of road rage. The sidewalks however were a spectacle, a craze of mopeds, cyclists and pedestrians dominating for space. I held my breath as “kamikaze” like Koreans pedaled head-on at full speed on flashy BMX bikes. There was so much commotion between everyone that is seemed like it was all choreographed and that if one person stopped everything would fall apart. A taxi cab pulled up beside me and offered to lead me to my destination. Pedaling on I passed store fronts selling dried fish, pharmacies advertising miracle skin creams and restaurants venting the smell of kimchi into the streets. The traffic signal turned from green to yellow and all cars seemed to stop at the same time letting the mob on the sidewalk pass. Ten minutes later I arrived in the old village district only to be shocked as I watched a large camouflaged truck unload a group of soldiers carrying automatic weapons. “What is this….Israel” I thought. An official directing traffic asked me where I was going and before I answered, I asked him what was going on with all the military troops. “North Korea” he said to me in a heavy accent, and waved me through.

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I spent two days in Seoul, half the time wandering through busy streets converted into open shopping malls and the other half try to rest after the long red-eye flight. I was back to the world of Capitalism. Name brand clothing shops dominating the late night shopping scene, and McDonald’s and fast food restaurant chains served hungry customers into the early morning hours in Mypeoeng district. It seemed like every other shop was a 7-11 or CVS convenience store, selling everything from seaweed rice wraps to shampoo and skin cream. I contemplating camping in the forests outlying the city, but decided on a cheap guest house. I worked hard for what little rest I would get struggling for close to an hour at getting Gaby and all my panniers up to the third floor and into a room the size of a closet. Though small it still had all the amenities; TV, refrigerator, shower, toilet, sink and an air conditioner. I was literally in a tiny house that even had an ironing border and a clothes line. The staff was a bit confused when I asked about how much it would cost for me to do laundry, “Its free” they said, “There is also plenty of detergent for you to use as well”. Free laundry! I remembered countless occasions of bargaining with landowners over how much laundry would cost. In Bukhara and Samarkand, the owner wanted $10 for a single load, those times were over.

Very common site, instant noodle debris in the bathroom sink

Very common site, instant noodle debris in the bathroom sink

The next morning I asked for a late checkout and the man at the desk told me I would need to write him a “Thank You” note, and then I could do as I pleased. After writing “Thank You” on a yellow sticky note, he stuck it to his desk with the rest of the thank you notes written in Korean and smiled, I checked out 3 hours later with no hassle.

Seoul sits at the meeting point of 4 large rivers, and I followed a beautiful bike path east towards the more remote part of the country. The path was separate from the main road and traveled over streams, flooded rice patties and on wooded decks through fertile fields. My loaded bicycle drew constant attention and I was repeatedly asked to pose for photographs, eventually leading to a lunch invitation. I made friends with fellow cyclists and at a large bowl with sweet noodles and ice “King’s Noodles”. It is not uncommon for most large cities to have a Teddy Bear Museum and I contemplated visiting until I found out that the entry fee was $15 to see a bunch of Teddy Bears.

Large Buddha statue Seoraksan

Large Buddha statue Seoraksan

My first night of camping was a bit challenging, as after 4 hours of pedaling I still hadn’t escaped the suburbs of Seoul. After an hour of looking I give up and just put my tent somewhere. Sleeping on a dirt mound between two large tract like houses I awoke the following morning to see both house owners washing their Black Hyundai sports cars. Packing up I pedaled to the nearest 7-11 for breakfast. These stores are seriously the convenience store of the future, free boiling water, use of microwave, WIFI, toilets and tables. Instant noodles are by far the most common food consumed in country. Throughout the streets gutters are usually filled with dried vegetable and noodle remains and sinks in most public restrooms are usually clogged with noodle debris. Large grocery stores, blasting Korean Pop songs sometime on distorted speakers often dedicate a full aisle to all the different flavors of instant noodle. Individual packs are also sold at the cashier beside packs of gum, cigarettes and condoms.

The bike path followed this river all the way to the Sea of Japan

The bike path followed this river all the way to the Sea of Japan

By the third day, I had finally escaped the suburbs of the capital and arrived in a small village. Farmers cleaned and dried fish, hanging them on wooden racks and old women washed cabbage in large plastic buckets preparing to make kimchi. Occasionally I see remnants of older times mixed with the present like a well-used bamboo wheeled barrow with shiny new wheels, or a lien two shack street vendor selling cellphones. There is not much left to be seen of the old, the new is in full force over here, and the youth quickly adapt and forget. This is where China and eventually the rest of South East Asia will be, and it seems like all roads in Asia eventually lead to the same place; development and the adaptation of the western life style.

My new favorite snack, dried fish jerky with cheddar cheese, these packets sell out quickly at most stores!

My new favorite snack, dried fish jerky with cheddar cheese, these packets sell out quickly at most stores!

I am in search of the untouched and forgotten lands of South Korea, they must exist somewhere! I will pedal and search the mountainous interior for the remote. Almost as if foreshadowing my first week in the country, no one in Seoul understood the meaning of the word “countryside”. -Julian

Current campsite, Jumunjin city

Current campsite, Jumunjin city

Kazakhstani Desert Nomads

It is 45C. A dry hot dusty wind dries your mouth, nose and eyes. You try to swallow and clear your throat but your saliva has long since evaporated. Your teeth crack as there is sand and dust between then, and your body radiates the immense heat absorbed from the sun. It is over a hundred and fifty miles in each direction to the nearest source of water, food or shelter. Your bike is extremely heavy with several days of food and over 15 liters of water. These thoughts are at first comforting but after a few kilometers of pedaling know that in this environment the water will only last you at most 32 hours. You can not over exert yourself, because if you get too hot these is no shade to cool you off, but you must keep pedaling to survive. (An average day in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan)

A long desert road

A long desert road

My journey through Kazakhstan was quite challenging. In the 5 days it took me to pedal to the Uzbekistan border I pedaled through the most difficult terrain I have ever encountered. Immediately upon waking on my first day, I was engulfed with dry hot desert winds, and a sun so strong you feel like you are an ant in a child’s sandbox, seconds away from being torched with a magnifying glass. I have never been so thirsty in all my life, and I have really come to respect water as by far our most precious natural resource. The distance between towns and villages is daunting and can be as much as 200 miles on a dusty potholed road covered in a foot of powdered sand. The average daily temperature is close to 45 C, and there is little more than a concrete pipe to give you respite from the sun. I carry between 15-20 litters of water daily, but I can’t seem to consume enough water, I haven’t pee’d in days. I am haunted by the memory of my brother and I’s pet frog Samson, who we left outside in a small cage with little water during a summer weekend. We returned to find nothing more than a dried carcass.

Yes...These is a lot of water strapped on to that bike! A hidden 10 liters under the white bag

Yes…These is a lot of water strapped on to that bike! A hidden 10 liters under the white bag

Chaihana, local tea house that sells water 3x the price of gasoline

Chaihana, local tea house that sells water 3x the price of gasoline

After arriving at Aktau, the port city in Kazakhstan, I suddenly started having diarrhea, at first I figured it was my body, too scared to attempt cycling through Central Asia, trying to get me to give up, but it continued for close to a week. After a few days I debated taking antibiotics, I have a whole arsenal of intestinal chemotherapy, but every time I consume them they make me so weak that I can barely cycle for several days after a normal dose. Between being weak and having diarrhea I chose the latter and frequented all sorts of absolutely disgusting outhouses! However as foul and disgusting as they are, it sure beats digging a hole squatting in the hot desert sun!

The cleanest toilet in Kazakhstan

The cleanest toilet in Kazakhstan

There is something very unique about the Central Asia environment, the land between the Caspian sea and Central Uzbekistan (my current location) is completely devoid of life. In the evening, when the sun finally goes away for a few hours, it is absolutely silent. Scorpions prowl the evening sands and eat the moths that are attracted to my cooking stove and headlamp. I have never know such affectionate creatures as they like to cuddle and sleep next to me under my tent. Each morning I pack my tent only to find several underneath. In the morning lizards and geckos come to eat the flies that have gathered to drink my toothpaste water, and ants carry away my littered bread crumbs. In 2008 I visited the Chinese Central Asian province of Xinjiang during August, and I clearly remember the difficultly in handling the dry heat even when traveling around in an air-conditioned automobile! It is easy to get in a bad mood, and keeping a positive attitude is the key to survival here. You can not freak out about the heat or not having enough water! Otherwise you might as well hitch hike or take a bus because you will never make it! You can’t change your surroundings but you can always can change the way you look and relate to them.

The best time of day!

The best time of day!

House in remote desert village

House in remote desert village

I have never been so happy to see fruits and vegetables! The only produce market in 500 miles. Beyneu

I have never been so happy to see fruits and vegetables! The only produce market in 500 miles. Beyneu

Occasionally I encounter wild camels (who can survive for a minimum of 15 days without water). They wander about the desert in the hot in sun, and often wake me at dawn trying to eat my tent or panniers. The word for tree in Russian “Derev’ya” is almost as useless in Kazakhstan as the word for snow in Arabic, “Thalj” they don’t exist! Shade can be found when you are passed on the dusty road by a large semi truck, or inside a cement drain pipe, other than that there is no choice but to handle the heat. Pedaling at night is always an option but the roads are very busy as soon as the sun goes down. It seems that most vehicles out here are not equipped with air conditioning making the day time too hot for a commute.

True desert nomad, I offered him a bottle of water but he told I would need it more than him! He had holsters on his saddle one for water one for vodka

True desert nomad, I offered him a bottle of water but he told I would need it more than him! He had holsters on his saddle one for water one for vodka

Kazakhstani’s are extremely friendly and seem to be very curious of my travels. There are few that venture out into the desert herding sheep with nothing more than a bottle of water and vodka. These are known as theKochevnik poustynyaDesert Nomads. These nomads make me feel like baby as I pedal past with a bike loaded with 15 liters water. Life is definitely possible out here, but very difficult. I talked with a domestic tourist in the city of Beyneu and he told me that the USSR used to send criminals to these parts of Kazakhstan as the temperatures can be as hot as 50C in the summer and -50 C in the winter. Locals don their own form of the Arab kefiye, and often make masks out of old tee shirts to protect their faces from the sun. At first it was a bit scary coming across these locals in masks because they also often wear sunglasses making them look a lot like the scarecrow in Batman, but they are usually yelling hello and jumping up and down trying to grab your attention.

Local with sunmask

Local with sun mask

Local Kazakhs these guys do not speak Chinese

Local Kazakhs these guys do not speak Chinese

I know that the heat will eventually die down, but right now life if really difficult on the road. On one occasion a trucker gave me a half-drunken bottle of Fanta, rather than discarding this precious sugary liquid I boiled it and cooked oatmeal in it. Pretty disgusting but it’s food. I entered Uzbekistan 2 days ago and have only passed 2 villages, a part of me wants to take it easy and rest all the time, the other part wants to haul ass and get out of this desert hell. Days are torn between the two. My mind is strong and I continue on….

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