China

Chapter Two

In those peaceful years of marriage before deciding to start a family we would often observe those distressed looking parents attempting to negotiate a gaggle of toddlers at an airport, or a restaurant, or a beach, or wherever. What idiots, we would smugly think to ourselves; what are they doing? 

And it was this superior wisdom that we applied when deciding to once again throw most of our belongings into storage and take our three young daughters on a camping trip around South Africa for the next few months.

Previous followers of this blog may recall that we rolled into Cape Town Waterfront a little over five years ago on a couple of well-used bicycles. These next few months are intended to provide another slight detour for us, and so we thought it might warrant reigniting this account. The next chapter though, is likely to deliver somewhat contrasting content from our first installment. Indeed, if it is tales of cross-continental cycle exploits that you’re after, then this is no longer the place for you. If however, you’re keen to know the results of a pressure test between a volatile two-year-old and an overpacked family car, then stay tuned.

To ease ourselves into this, we couldn’t have selected a more appropriate first stop. Dwarsberg Trout Hideaway is held in high regard by the family circles of Cape Town and for immediately apparent reasons – it’s a magnificent spot. However, given that two from our party of five had never spent a night under canvas our first evening was approached with a healthy dose of trepidation, as this was going to provide the litmus test for our next few months. 

It was moderately worrying then, when we all emerged at daybreak and the regular morning offer of ‘tea or coffee Dear?’, prompted a request to make this morning’s coffee Irish. In our almost ten years of union, never had such a request been made. More worryingly though, this was 7:30am of the first morning; we haven’t packed nearly enough whisky for all this. Reassuringly, the next few nights passed without incident and the single malt remains in stock.

After passing through the implausibly big and quite breathtaking Karoo, we are resupplying – while being hammered by some unrelenting wind – in the very pleasant town of Prince Albert, before heading south.

Evidently, we won’t be travelling particularly light on this occasion
Testing out the new kit
Our new alternative to Peppa Pig
Stretching the legs

To Kyrgyzstan

IMG_7883We set off from Kashgar in high spirits and full of the joys of a Chinese Thursday. But that didn’t last long at all. Our unnecessarily heavy loads,
uncomfortable saddles, absolute absence of any fitness whatsoever, our lead-in diet of beer and fried food, the unrelenting incline, headwinds, and the hot dry weather soon dampened any joy of the day. And so we turned back to Kashgar and flew out to southern France, for a year of patisseries and sunshine (at least that was a suggestion floated on Day 1).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Navigation in the first week was not as straight forward as anticipated. Even between our road map and Garmin Global GPS, the current road layout remained woefully represented. The extraordinary growth and  development in China over the last 20 years has made its way to Western China and as a result, new roads, mine sites, construction projects, and towns are cropping up like daisies in springtime. Unless a bitumen road can be witnessed with your own eyes, it’s existence should be questioned.

The western fringes of China are a fairly barren and inhospitable place. It is a landscape which at no time would have been particularly welcoming, although the ribbon of new tarmac certainly makes life a little easier than it once was.

Through the stunning foothills of the Pamirs, we slowly made our way to the border and after a day layover to attend the customs checkpoint followed by a long cold wait at the Irkeshtam pass, we finally left China toward the former Soviet states. The thorough Kyrgyzstan officials would check our passports on eight separate occasions within a 2km border crossing episode under the guise of official duty, although it appeared that the process was simply to see what we looked like without the assortment of head and face wear protecting us from the elements, and to have a good laugh about the situation. We clearly entertained sufficiently, and were considered suitable for entry.

Touchdown in China. Apparently.

In order to make it to the point where we were able to begin pedalling, we gave up our jobs in Perth, sold our possessions – bar for a small container – and enjoyed a final scenic road trip up the west coast of Australia to Darwin. We enjoyed an interesting 2 weeks holidaying in India; ‘interesting’ due to it being the absolute dichotomy of the conservative Australia we had left behind. A flight across the Himalayas landed us at our starting point: Kashgar, in the Western Chinese Province of Xinjiang.

Cheerio India

Kashgar lies at a natural intersection of pathways between East and West and is therefore a melting pot of cultures, faces, languages and dwellings, and not at all the China we were expecting. Arab, Persian and Turkic influences are seen throughout the city; all under the watchful eye of a towering statue of Mao Zedong, one of the few left in the country.

Liang: Taiwanese & proud of it.

The first notable challenge upon arrival into Kashgar is to determine what the time is. China operates on a single time zone, which is odd for a country roughly the size of Australia. As a result, the good people of Kashgar refer to ‘Beijing time’ – which is the actual time – and ‘local time’ being two hours later– which is the time everyone wishes it was (and the time it probably should be). The two terms are frequently interchanged, with no apparent consensus on which time everyone should operate under. The single time zone was a former brainchild of Emperor Mao to create unity within the county, and it would be safe to say that a significant by-product of this unifying initiative has been some pretty tardy meetings and a few missed dentist appointments.

With the help of a Taiwanese chap who’d just ridden solo across from Taiwan, we were able to locate a Merida bike shop shop through a dust storm, from where we bought our touring bikes. Liang proved invaluable as our translator in the bike shops, but more importantly for introducing us to the finest dumpling restaurant in the city (and probably China). The remainder of our time in Kashgar was spent setting up our bikes with the saddles and extras we had brought with us, and ruthlessly reducing our equipment and clothing piles.

If you decided to take a holiday to Kashgar without the intention of tying it in to a cross-continental overland journey, I can only imagine you would be quite disappointed. This is a sprawling, highly populated operational Chinese City, and even the Sunday markets – which are sold as the centrepiece of this town, were certainly u underwhelming. Notwithstanding this, Kashgar served us well. The people at the Pamir Hostel (http://www.pamirhostel.com/en/) were nothing short of excellent and come highly recommended. The food market near the hostel is a worthwhile evening experience, particularly when craving sheep intestines, brains and hooves.