Sunday, 29 May 2016

Kazakhstan - A Breath of Fresh Air

It felt great to get back in the saddle after our time off in Urumqi, although my body wasn't quite as excited as my mind was, if truth be told.  The 500km or so from Urumqi to Jinghe were fairly uneventful but then the mountains reappeared on our left, and all was right in the world.  The highlight of that stretch was without doubt Sayram lake, despite the fairly brutal climb up to it at 2100m. Making brekkie the morning before we arrived at the lake we were sitting in our camp chairs in shorts and t-shirts. Three hours later we were piling back on the layers and hoping that the ominous looking clouds that had rolled in weren't going to dump on us, and they'd roll back out again as quickly as they'd rolled in.  Still later in the day, while we were tucking into a nice big bowl of noodles in a little shed of a place that appeared on the roadside just as we'd run out of water, it started to sleet. The variation of temperature in just one day was hard to believe, and in hindsight, even harder to remember if it really happened that way.  From shorts and t-shirts to thermals and waterproofs in a matter of hours.  We waited the sleet and hail out and made a dash for it when it stopped. The people in the restaurant told us we were mad to be considering camping at the lake saying that it would be very cold and the forecast was bad but, we were determined.  We'd camped in the cold before and were pretty sure our gear was up to it so we thanked them and headed off anyway.  Ten minutes down the road the sleet started again but the lake had just come into view and we knew we'd made the right decision. The view was immense.  The lake is huge and surrounded on all sides by massive mountains.  The tallest peaks of which were snow-capped and the lower slopes were covered in grass so green it looked like someone had painted it, as well as a dense smattering of buttercups.  The moody grey sky, the almost turquoise-coloured water, the green grass, the yellow buttercups and the brilliantly white snow, made for some view.  Each time we camp we think we've hit campspot nirvana and this time was no different. We cycled around the lake to the side closest to the direction we'd be going the next day.  It was all action.  Nomads, their yurts, horses and camels were everywhere.  It seemed to be moving time.  We think lots of families were on the move for the summer months, coming from lower down where they'd spent the winter, to set up camp by the lake.

The mountains on our climb up to Sayram lake

Lunch, sheltering from the hail and sleet outside.

Monday, 9 May 2016

China: between X'ian and Urumqi

Just Tourists Now, Not Cycle Tourists!

Saturday was spent in somewhat of a delicate state after indulging in one or two (too many) cocktails the night before.  We found the most unlikely of little bars, run by two guys who studied cocktail making (mixology?!) in Shanghai for 5 years before coming back home to Urumqi and opening this little gem of a place.  I’ve never really been one for cocktails before, not really seeing the appeal of overly sweet, artificially fruity, expensive drinks in small glasses but after being in this bar, I’m a convert. I think I just hadn’t ever had a good one before! These guys were artists and took their trade very seriously.  We sat at the bar and I watched them, fascinated, for the evening.  I think the reason it was such a great place was because the boys clearly loved what they do, and it showed.

Anyway, as I was saying, Saturday was spent mostly on the couch watching TV.  The dad of the house, who’s name we can’t pronounce and who we call ‘Pops’, came home about 7pm with fresh bread and a bag of green chilli peppers and proceeded to whip up a meal for us.  Charred peppers, pieces of marinated pork that we’d had the night before and big chunks of fresh bread. So simple, but so tasty.  Then out came the tea.  He told us that Chinese people love tea, but he especially loves tea.  He took out a huge big tin that was full of all kinds of different teas; black tea, red tea, green tea and who knows what else.  Loose leaves, but vacuum packed to preserve freshness and all in one-cup size portions.  We tasted about 6 different ones.  Our favorites were called ‘Golden Eyebrow’ and ‘Big Red Cloak’!

Sunday, 8 May 2016

We're in Urumqi!

We’re in Urumqi. The capital city of Xinjiang Province, the most western province in China, and also the city furthest from the sea of any in the world.  We’re currently taking a compulsory week off the bikes while we wait for our Kazak visas and are staying with a Chinese family that we found on Airbnb.  There are three people in the family, the parents and their adult daughter.  The also have a kitten, called Chitah.  The apartment is big, spacious & modern and the family live in much the same way that we, or any other western people, do.  When we say that we are staying with a Chinese family I can only imagine the images that people will conjure up in their minds – eating meals on the floor, wearing conical straw hats, living in dimly lit, squalid rooms, bathrooms with poor sanitation etc etc etc – but none of these images hold, at least not for this family. They are part of the ever-growing Chinese middle class and with that comes a certain striping of culture, a leveling of the playing field so to speak.

Urumqi, and Xinjiang Province in general, is very different from the other areas of China we’ve been in.  The people fall mostly into two ethnic groups, Han Chinese and Uyghur.   Both Mandarin and Uyghur are official languages here and as a result English has been replaced by Arabic on the road signs, leaving us in a bit of a pickle!  The Uyghur people are a predominately Muslim people who look much more Central Asian/ Middle Eastern than they do Chinese, giving the place a much more diverse feel to it than other areas.  However, there appears to be considerable tension between the two groups of people, and as a result there is a scarily heavy police and military presence on the streets at all times.   Not so long ago, the two groups coexisted quite peacefully but now everyday life is pretty segregated with kids attending different schools and the people living in separate neighborhoods.  It’s an odd situation and one that we’d like to know more about but the lack of English spoken locally and our obvious failings in Uyghur and Mandarin make asking questions pretty difficult.  If you were to believe everything you read in the media then the Uyghur people are a bunch of violent, bomb detonating lunatics but we’ve been here long enough now to know that the truth, and what the Chinese media would have you believe is the truth, aren’t exactly well aligned.  From what we can see, the Uyghur people, who it would seem have been in this region a lot longer than Han people, are being persecuted.  They seem to be discriminated against much like ethnic minorities in many countries or regions worldwide, only they aren’t a minority and they were very much the majority until the government started to relocate Han people to this region not too long ago.  They seem to occupy the lower echelons in society, living in poorer neighbourhoods and working at the more menial jobs.  Anyway, like I said, it’s an interesting place, and one that we’d really like to understand a bit better.  I suppose we have a week now to try and delve a little deeper!

Tanks, Guns, Bayonets...

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

A Very Successful Coffee Morning

Mum and Dad, aka Ann & Charlie Russell, put on a coffee morning of epic proportions in their home in Dalkey, a little under two weeks ago. They put a huge amount of work and effort into organising the day, and along with a few helpers and an unbelievable turnout of people on the day, they raised a whopping €2,925! 
So from Nick and I, a huge thank you to you both, as well as everyone who came along and donated on the day. We are constantly amazed at the level of interest, generosity and support shown to us on our ‪#BikeBackHome adventure.
I've put a few photos from the day up on Facebook but for any of you that don't have it, here's a link to them...