Liverpool – Lhasa

In 2006 during my hike of the Pacific Crest Trail I met a young American guy. We hiked together for a couple of weeks and during that time discussed future adventures. I’d always relished the idea of doing a bike tour, it’s a cheap simple way of exploring the world, it’s not too fast or too slow and it’s pretty healthy. Besides being nice to share experiences with your cycling partner the other advantage is that you can safely look after each other bicycle when you have to re-supply in a store. 

When I finished the hiking trail I immediately went to work on a sail boat in the south of France. Planning a trip across Central Asia took a fair bit of time and so I was understandably concerned that my cycling partner Jarrett would bail out at the last minute. We were in regular contact during that time and would often send each other messages to voice our concerns that one or the other would pull out. It was during my planning that I began to question the idea. Visa planning was draining and route planning threw up numerous problems. When the captain asked me to stay with the boat and sail across the Pacific to New Zealand I had to make a decision. Naturally enough I chose the bike trip because I couldn’t go back on my promise. 

Step forward a few months and I’m meeting Jarrett at Manchester Airport with his bicycle. We set off cycling through the English countryside and he confides to me that all the time we were sending messages back and forth he was hoping I would back out. There was nothing else to do but laugh, we hadn’t even crossed the English Channel and we were both admitting to each other that deep down we didn’t want to be doing this!

 



I couldn’t resist a photo op’ at the Greenwich Royal Observatory in London. Here we are stood on either side of the Greenwich Meridian. I’m stood to the west and Jarrett is on the east. From here on we’d head 91ºeast



This is roughly our route across Europe, it’s not entirely accurate because we followed much of the Danube and Google Maps is not capable of detailing that section

A crisp sunny morning cycling along the Danube

It took us just three days to escape the British Isles, but even before we made it to London I managed to strain my achilles. I distinctly remember riding too hard up a hill on the edge of Henley-on-Thames. This injury would go on to plague for over a month. In fact I questioned wether it was wise to even continue. 

Romania was a big eye opener, so close to the opulence of west Europe yet the poverty was evident wherever you looked

It took us less than a month to reach Istanbul, but from here we were held up while applying for visas. Our route took us onto Ankara, Turkey’s capital. Again here we successfully applied for more visas but it was not without troubles. I remember struggling to find embassies in Ankara. Frequently we found their addresses had changed and nobody seemed to know where they’d gone. There was an obvious language barrier and knowing who to trust was always an issue. It was in Ankara that we had our first experience of genuine public kindness.  We were lucky enough to find a carpet salesman who closed down his shop and drove us to several embassies. 

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul. We got this view from the rooftop terrace of a a cheap backpacker hostel

Moving on from Ankara we head off towards the north eastern border with Turkey and Georgia. We’d end up discovering that Turkey was one of the easiest countries in Asia. It was assumed we were on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca. We were treated like guests in Turkey and sometimes found it impossible to pay for our shopping. This was great, if not a little embarrassing. 

Finding food and water was easy in Turkey

Our route across Turkey

We found a water pump in the middle of a village
This was the main ‘highway’ between Bayburt Turkey and the Black Sea coast
I slip off the road!

We were very fortunate to begin our trip in 2007, the following year Georgia was invaded by Russia and China banned all independent travel within Tibet

It was disappointing to see a dump truck offloading garbage directly into a ravine. A stream below flowed directly to the Black Sea


A mild pothole, road conditions would get much worse

We came to an abrupt halt at Baku, it was impossible to cycle into Russia and all our attempts to get a boat across the Caspian Sea proved unsuccessful. There was nothing for it but to fly across the Caspian. 


Our route across Central Asia. Google Maps won’t allow me to continue the route but we went directly from Sary Tash to Kashgar

Once we arrived in Kazakhstan we were immediately forced out into the desert. The heat was intense and we found ourselves forced to shelter from the sun during the heat of the day.

Six bottles visible, but I had a further two in the panniers
Sheltering from the heat of the sun during the day
Khiva Uzbekistan

Crossing the deserts on the west coast of Uzbekistan was quite a challenge, so it was a relief to reach the tourist town of Khiva.

The Ark Citadel of Burkhara
The Uzbeki So’m I got all this for $50

One of the most amazing things happened to me whilst crossing over from Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan. There was nowhere on the border where we could get Uzbek’ currency and with a long ride of 320 miles (520km) to the next town we had to try to exchange U.S dollars for Uzbek’ So’m at a fruit market on the border. I mistakenly read the rate on the internet, so I got myself into the situation where I was offering $50 and asking for about a tenth of the rate for Uzbek’ currency. Needless to say it didn’t take long to find someone willing to help me make that exchange! 

I took a small bundle of particularly small notes, the kind that actually look worthless. I got a bad feeling that I was being ripped off but what could I do, I was being given exactly what I’d asked for. What I didn’t realise was that the little old man in the fruit market was actually telling me to wait right there and he’d be back with more. I of course walked off only to find Jarrett had exchanged his money and got several times the amount I had. I was gutted with my stupidity and was just leaving the market when the old man came running up behind me and thrust a huge wad of money into my hands. I was quite honestly amazed at his honesty, here was a man who was clearly extremely poor yet he was prepared to run around looking for a stupid westerner. 

While on the subject of money we have here a bar of chocolate not a €50 note. I don’t know why but chocolate was always wrapped to look like western bills
Passing into Tajikistan we came across relics from the Soviet – Afghan’ war.
Camping at night was always a concern. Never was placing a tent peg more of a concern
Tajikistan was without doubt the highlight of the trip for me. It’s one of the poorest counties in the world yet it hides a lot of incredible mountains
Afghani civilians take a treacherous route cut into a cliff
Thankfully we acclimatised very quickly, I don’t think either of us noticed the altitude.
I noticed with shock that my rim was cracked at every spoke
I’d actually been carrying some epoxy with me which proved ideal as a quick fix

I discovered my wheel was cracked at every spoke. Thankfully this happened barely three days from Kashgar where I was able to get the rim replaced. I was able to get a good quality rim fully rebuilt for the equivalent of $10, that same rim is still going strong now

The leg down to Lhasa

We both lost a lot of weight and suffered from gastro’ issues from the moment we left Turkey. The sight of this junk food is making me ill even now. This might have to last 4 or 5 days

Finding food was by far the biggest problem we faced. Somehow or other we found out that the Chinese military would sell their rations. You just know the foods going to be bad when the Chinese military won’t eat it! We got hold of several batches of their emergency tablet cake. I’ve since found out that it’s almost identical to the cake that you’d find inside a lifeboat, with the one difference being that the Chinese version is even more tasteless. The ‘cake’ would come in blocks about half the size of a house brick. You’d take one bite and it would crumble in your mouth with the consistency of dry flour. 

 

While riding through part of China I discretely took this photograph from the edge of a military base

Photographing any Chinese military installations is strictly prohibited, so it was a risk even to photograph this. Later the following day we attempted to barter for Chinese rations. The ration cake came in a metal foil packet and so I was waving one of these about trying to get the attention of a group of Chinese soldiers. It was a stupid thing to do because they mistook the packet for a camera. The next moment I was surrounded and hands were quickly reaching into my bags for inspection. When my camera popped out I was immediately on edge. Of course the only word of English I could recognise was the one word you never want to hear ‘Spy’. Yes I was briefly accused of being a spy. I’ll never know if it was all just a bit of fun to those guys but it certainly had me worried. 

I said the potholes would get bigger
I really couldn’t have asked for a better cycling partner
We weren’t sure but I think this was the official point where we entered Tibet
We may have been riding at 5000m here but on the Tibetan Plateau it’s more like rolling hills
One of the high points on the road, you can see that for cycle tourists we were travelling quite light. Notice also the regular dirt piles at the side of the road. The Chinese were building the roads in 2007. We were very fortunate that they weren’t sealed as it would have made it far too easy
We meet another cyclist heading in the opposite direction

It’s worth pointing out here that neither of use had a single puncture the entire way. We had heavy duty tires that were protected with Kevlar. I still have the same tires to this day. Other than my broken rim Jarrett had a minor problem with his cranks. All in all we were extremely lucky.

This was some really nice road, clearly it has just been graded and is ready for a coat of tarmac
A typical Tibetan home
The Tibetans were by far the happiest of people
The Tibetans always seemed to be happy
Happy people at a roadside camp
This photo reminds me of the vast open spaces of Tibet
One of the last stretches into Lhasa
The famous Potala Palace

We probably looked like concentration camp victims when we arrived in Lhasa. Both of us had lost a considerable amount of weight. I lost so much weight on my legs that when touching both thumbs and middle fingers together I could encircle my thigh.

We’d each had our share of sickness which to varying degrees affected us worse some days than others but never truly left. Jarrett made the decision to call it quits and fly home. At first I was adamant that I would continue and to this day I wish I had. Independent travel is no longer allowed in Tibet and so I’ll never be able to return. I would dearly love to have ridden at least as far as Hong Kong.

Our plan was never to ride beyond China so we fully accomplished everything we set out to do. I just wish we’d taken a week to recuperate before continuing. Cycling to China was like running a marathon; pretty shitty when you’re in the thick of it but extremely rewarding afterwards. 

 

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