Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Indonesia: Sumatran lows and highs - part 1

He lay still, face down on the tarmac, his helmet split in two. I stared as a pool of blood grew around him and his life ebbed away. Someone went over and turned off his moped engine that lay across his legs. I wanted to reach over to him, to touch his hand and reassure him it would all be okay, instead I turned my head away and, overwhelmed with the emotion of the morning spent with a wonderful group of school children, followed by the harsh reality and fragility of life and a painful tugging of my heart to see my family again, wept silently.

"Hello Mister!" I looked towards the greeting and 2 men on a moped swerving to avoid the body in the road grinned and waved at me. "Where you from?". "Inggeris" I choked, wiping my eyes and forcing a smile. More waves, more smiles, more hello's as mopeds and vehicles passed me, weaving their way around the obstruction and the crowd that had gathered to view the deceased and the tourist on a bicycle. His body was dragged from the road. With a last glance and a bow of respect I left the accident scene and continued on my journey across Sumatra.

My border entry into Sumatra, the largest of the islands that makes up Indonesia, was thankfully smoother than the journey crossing the Malacca Strait by boat. A few times I stumbled through the tangle of bags and passengers on to the deck to check my bike was actually still onboard as the ocean spume gave it an impromptu dousing. After the first visit I returned with toilet paper offering it to the dribbling seasick passengers sprawled out on deck. A visa was secured on arrival and with only 5cm of map to guide me I left the port asking the immigration crew to point me in the direction of Bukittingi some 400km away. Within 2 minutes of leaving the port I was faced with the dilemma of which side of the road to cycle on. Of course elsewhere in the world it is simple: follow the traffic. I did this but then oil tankers, pickup trucks, mopeds, buses, cars, minivans were speeding towards me head on, throwing up a cloud of dust and choking me with their fumes. I stopped at the side of the road to regain composure recalling how I'd scoffed in disbelief at tales of cyclists in Sumatra having to throw themselves off their bikes into a ditch to avoid a head on collision..

After 20km I got myself into a rhythm and the fear of being crushed eased as - despite the terrible roads with tennis court sized craters, the bizarre stretch of bedsheets, the dust, the smoke, the fumes, the constant thundering noise of trucks and horns that would sound from behind to say they were going to overtake me, then another loud blast when overtaking, then again when they realised I was a tourist and this was usually accompanied by the driver and passengers becoming contortionists and leaning out of the windows with irrepressible grins and of course a final blow of the horn when they had safely passed me - I realised there was a hint of courtesy in their overtaking of me that I did not experience on the only other road to have created such fear in me of imminent demise that being the A2 to Dover.

Approximately 250,000 hornblows later and after being stalked for the last 5 km by the tallest ladyboy I'd ever seen I spotted a house on the opposite side of the road that screamed out at me "stay here. There is a kind of instinct you get after so long on the road as to where is safe to stay and I was drawn to this place and after a 10 minute battle with traffic I performed a u-turn, asked the man on the verandah through a variety of sign language if I could pitch my tent next to them. He nodded. The father came to say hello as I pitched my tent- down a slope yet still in full earful of the roar of traffic - then the mother, the daughter, the daughters of someone else, the brother and another sister followed by the neighbours popped by to say hello. With camp finally set up I was then informed that where I was camped would put me at risk of transgenders. "I'm sorry.. risk of what?!" I shouted back recalling the strange encounter with the ladyboy earlier who though twice the height of me did not seem to pose too much of a threat. After a few more attempts of communication above the din and reassured that I was only at risk of 'danger' and not my misheard 'transgenders' I convinced them I was okay and would knock on their door if any form of danger came to my tent in the night. They agreed with this arrangement and the air raid siren sounded to indicate that sun had set, the soulful voice of the muzzein rose from every mosque in the vicinity and the family rushed off for the fast-breaking meal on this first day of Ramadan.

I smiled to myself as I heated up some water on my stove to break my unintentional fast (can't get street/restaurant food in the daytime during Ramadan!) with a tasteless bowl of instant noodles: in just 4 hours Sumatra had kickstarted the sense of adventure within me again, I felt I was back in the spirit of central asia, knocking on doors for a bed, being greeted at every turn and welcomed with warmth and curiosity.

Bleary eyed at 0630 the next day I unzipped my tent. "Ah, good morning" I said to the lady of the house next door who was peering in at me. She saw me reach for my jar of nescafe and MSR stove and scuttled off returning with a beaker of hot water, a teaspoon.. and another 5 people. Big smiles loomed over me as I sipped at my coffee. I was given gifts of a beautiful headscarf, a teaspoon and invited in to the house for a bucket shower. After a brief photo session with this delightful family, swapping facebook details with Anja, the daughter, and presenting the mother with the Thai elephant candle holder that I'd strapped to my mudguard some months earlier I said my farewells.

Busy traffic haunted me for the first 40km until I took a back road from Kandis which meant I would avoid the busy city of Pekanbaru. Some teenage girls on mopeds followed me and I stopped for another photo shoot. My aim was to get to the town of Bankinang Barat (160km from that day's start point on the edge of Duri) yet 12km short and after ridiculously steep up and downs I was flagged down by 2 young girls in hijabs on a moped and this encounter resulted in such a precious moment for me in Sumatra.

Having excitedly called their teacher to say they had seen a tourist on a bicycle pass through their village the 4 of them (Sri, the teacher, brought her nephew with her) on 2 mopeds caught up with me. These two thirteen year old girls yearned to speak to tourists, to learn from them and practice the English language that they studied not only in school but also after hours in a language centre Sri had set up in the village. Only a handful of tourists on bikes pass by but they never stop. I was so touched by their enthusiasm that when Sri invited me to return to the village to spend the night I jumped at the chance. Our entourage returned and I sat on a bench under the tree as a gaggle of school children gathered to ask me questions and take photographs.

At sunset they returned to their homes to break their fast. I was invited in to Sri's mother's shop where I had a bucket shower before tucking into a fine feast they'd prepared for me. No cutlery is needed here in Indonesia, steamed rice and gado-gado, bitter papaya flower buds, quail eggs and chillis are scooped up into your mouth using the fingers of your right hand. I was put to bed in the language school while the village sprung to life, men donning 'peci' -muslim caps, women adjusting hijabs as they sped off on mopeds to the mosque for evening prayer.

I slept fitfully and Sri woke me the next morning to join her for breakfast of fried noodles and rice in her mother's shop. The girls came to say hello, dressed immaculately in white, telling me of their dreams to become doctors and pilots and performed a Justin Bieber song for me while I downed my second cup of coffee. I'd agreed to give a talk to their class that morning and one hour later having met every member of staff of the school SB1, including the headmaster and deputy head I gave a talk after morning prayer to.. 400 school children!!

What a privilege and what a pleasure. Thank you to all the staff and pupils for making me so welcome. To any cyclist who is intending to pass through Sumatra please contact me. I've agreed with the school and Sri that a place to sleep will be offered to you in return for an hour of your time to share your experiences with a delightful group of children eager to listen, learn and practice their English. It doesn't get much better than this..

Monday, 30 July 2012

Malaysia: the honey seller's bed

"Hello Miss." I wake startled. Where am I? I'm in prison. No it's a hospital. Hold on I'm being tortured, iron snow stakes are being hammered into my skull. I try to sit up to look for a body belonging to the voice but I'm tied down by an army of Lilliputians and I'm drowning in a pool of water, I gasp for air and look around me yet see nothing. oh god I'm blind. "Hello" says the disembodied voice again. I break free from the ropes, sit up, force open my eyes and my dream disperses as I wake to a black face with a gentle smile and bright concerned eyes. "Hello" he repeats "would you like a bed sheet?" and offers me a colourless heap of nylon "erm, yes, please, thank you ..and sorry.".

I lay back down, the room is airless and drenched in sweat I study my surroundings. There is no window pane just iron bars, opposite me a metal bunk bed with the same floral mattress on which I'm lying, blooms faded with grime and distorted by stains and next to it a large tattered holdall with clothes and jars erupting from it. A fluorescent light sizzles in the centre of the room and my eyes follow the ancient wire that feeds it to a bakelite lightswitch on the concrete grey wall. I stumble from my bunk across the room to turn it off. The switch jams, hisses and sparks at me so I retreat defeated to my bed and try to recall my day.

A weariness had engulfed me after a long descent from the Cameron highlands, followed by unrelenting undulating terrain for the next 80km. The intense heat battered my head, a crudely-built bamboo shack just off the road offered brief respite and shade and I rested there, dazed, dizzy and nauseous while the screeches of monkeys in the trees seemed to taunt me. I feared heatstroke as my thoughts were becoming erratic, despite the stunning cobalt sky fringed with dense jungle a lonely darkness infiltrated me, my breathing laboured and I felt I was sucking air through a straw. You need to get to the next town said the lucid part of my brain as I reluctantly mounted my bike cursing the heat and my heavy load. 

After a 160km day I arrived and went in search of a bed ignoring the curious stares of the locals. I saw an open door with the words guesthouse and hotel above its frame yet no doorbell. I climbed the dank stairwell to the first floor and called out.. no reply. I looked around me, a half eaten plate of noodles lay in their grease on the table, flies hummed around open bags of rubbish against the wall, bedroom doors which I tried were locked yet to my right I saw an open door which led me into the prison cell with 2 bunkbeds. I went back to the street, detached my panniers and brought them and the bike up to the first floor, locked my bike to a wooden chair and with the insolence of Goldilocks unashamedly lay my head down on the bed and fell asleep.

Yet my choice of bed had been a big mistake.. while debating whether the grubby nylon sheet was a better option than the soiled mattress a man appeared in my room sucking on a cigarette, threw me a disapproving glance then huffing and puffing and in a flurry of mites and dust dragged the mattress from the bunk opposite me, reclaimed his holdall of clothes and jars and moved them to his new location which was .. at the base of my bed!  The accommodating owner - who on his return had found me unconscious on the bunk and gave me the bedsheet - explained to me later when he came back to my bunk asking for payment for my stealth check-in
 "You're in the honey-seller's bed" he whispered.
"It's his bed?" I questioned.
"Yes, it's the honey-seller's bed" he reiterated.
"Should I move?"
"No no, it's ok, you need rest."

To be honest I couldn't have moved even if the honey-seller had tried to reclaim his side of the grime as I ached and sweated and the Lilliputians returned to pull me deeper into the mattress. Yet he got his revenge... The temperamental lightswitch that spat out sparks at those who desired darkness meant that each time I awoke during that feverish night I was treated to the full moon of the honey-seller's bottom bathing under a fluorescent glow.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Turkmenistan: Watermelons and Dictators

Watermelon. I was hallucinating watermelons, no mirages of ancient Silk Road cities for me. Simply watermelon. It never changed size, it never got any closer - it was always there some 50 metres in front of me sitting proud and plump on the opposite side of the never-ending road in the barren landscape of the Karakum desert. I stopped and leant over my handlebars, parched, exhausted then reached for my waterbottle. My mind was addled. I'd recited my times tables, counted backwards from 1000, recited poetry, sang musicals and practised my square roots, everything and anything to stop me from falling asleep or off my bike.  I looked behind me, where was Lee*? I looked down at my map, and sighed, yep it was just one long straight road. 550km- in searing heat with a buffeting head wind- to cover in 5 days.

A beige landcruiser drew alongside me, window wound down,
"Hello!!" an excited male face. "Where are you going?"
"That way" I replied pointing ahead of me stifling the urge to say which way do you think I'm going. I'm facing this way. It's one road, I'm in the middle of one of the world's hottest deserts on a highway that is melting. I mean just look at it, this road looks like it has been furrowed! I've had 2 days of headwind, I have to get out of this country in 3 days due to stupid visa restrictions, I'd never even heard of Turkmenistan until I planned my route.  I'm tired, I'm thirsty..
Yet I remembered my manners..
"Hello! Where are you from?" I beamed back. 
"Ashgabat!" he replied proudly. "We need to give you something "
With that he jumped out of the car, his wife removed two pug dogs from her knee and joined him. They opened the boot. Here take some water - I clutched the bottle. It was cold. I went to open it to pour into my water bottle,' no no take take' as I was given another two 1.5 litre bottles. "We need to give you more" and with that my arms were laden with tins of condensed milk, bread, apples and a tin of beef stew. A moan and I looked behind: Lee: face flushed and expressionless. You ok? I mouthed. He nodded and leant over his handlebars. I said goodbye to my food suppliers " Welcome to Turkmenistan" he shouted as his face slowly disappeared behind a polarised window to the sanctuary of airconditioning.

I shook my head bewildered and dazed by this hospitality then turned to Lee
"You ok?" I repeated.
Lee nodded. 
"What happened to you? I wondered where you'd gone"
"I fell off"
I was just so bored.  I fell off. I just want the road to bend.
I chuckled.

Turkmenistan. The obscure oil-rich 80% desert country of Turkmenistan. the president was the former president's dentist. The former president had called himself "President for Life" named the days of the week and months of the year after his family (I was born on an Uncle Hugh in the month of Great Aunt Mildred), and amongst other bizarre rulings banned gold crowns on teeth though this seems to have been nullified by dictator no.2 - being a dentist and all that. It was a country of Mad Max meets the Truman Show, vodka was cheaper than water, soul destroying stretches of desert were interspersed with sitcom sounding towns of Mary and Merv where perfect streets housed vast glitzy equestrian centres due to the current president's obsession with horses - holding presidential beauty competitions for horses -, immense gold statues of  former Him had been replaced by current Him and stood to attention outside palatial buildings due to the president's obsession with himself. His head was photo-shopped onto the svelter bodies of sportsmen in calendars. Children whose school years had now been reinstated from 9 to 10 with the death of dictator no.1 were picture perfect: school girls in long green gowns matching the national flag, plaited hair adorned with bows of white netting. young boys in colourful skull caps and jackets of nationalistic rule. Yet even the plaits were mandatory.

The first day in Turkmenistan we'd covered 120km including a farcical and Yossarian border crossing  (I didn't have the $12 in change for the entry tax so they told me to go to the bank. The bank however was across the border and I got stopped and sent back as I hadn't paid the $12 entry tax..) and a relentless head wind. We found a 'bed' or tapchan outside a truck stop which was simply a raised platform where you sat crossed legged and ate your dinner. I'd awoken in the night unable to stretch out only to find the restaurant owner curled up in the crook of my knee. The following night 3 bank security guards had invited us off another tapchan and into a yurt where food and vodka lay before us. They'd mimed their jobs to us and patted their pockets with a wink and a knowing nod.. so now we have money for Vodka. Vodka. Central Asia. Vodka. In addition to declaring your belongings on a customs form before entering the country it is worth noting down how many brain cells you had when entering and how few you have on exit. We toasted our mothers, our fathers, their narcissistic despot leaders both current and former, we toasted our cycling, our health, our demise and their fortunate jobs. Another bottle appeared, emitting a mysterious green glow, more toasting, I believe there was a third. Lee began to dribble, I had no legs. 

By day 3 and with the worst hangover in history we were both obsessed by watermelons: me still hallucinating and Lee confused as he'd read there were 300 different types of watermelon in Turkmenistan and we had yet to see one. There were to be no towns just desert and camels for 124km

Yet as the landscape no longer resembled my attempt at looking after potplants and became more storybook desert it was time to take some photos

our abode for the night (the patch of concrete to the left)
With only 4 km of camels to go we could physically go no further and saw a police checkpoint. I mimed the usual "sleep" and pointed to the concrete patch outside their hut. The policeman nodded. Lee and I got out our sleeping bags while fighting a battle with the flies that thirstily swarmed towards our eyeballs trying to suck out the only source of moisture left on us. It was then we spied the watermelon by the policeman.. Go on.. I urged. Lee walked over and I watched the mime. He came back shaking his head. Nah costs too much. I looked up and saw the policeman walking towards us with my hallucination in his hands. Entranced I watched as he laid it before us, smiled and went back to his checkpoint.

The final push to Turkmenabat and we struggled to keep awake on the excruciating straight road. A gold toothed Uzbek truck driver in a string vest offered us water which we gratefully accepted, coca cola which we nearly kissed him for and then asked us to join him in a vodka session. With 60km to go to the border town we graciously declined. We stopped for samsas in a desolate town. Young boys gathered round me as I showed them a map of their country. They were chased away by an elder yet not before two of the boys insisted I take a photo of them and their bikes.

We reached the town at dusk and went in search of somewhere to stay. An encounter with an english speaking man in his 20's led us to a small shop where we purchased water. Freshly baked dumplings of sweetcorn were popped into our mouths by the gaggle of old ladies who worked there. Before long we had an offer of a bed and wheeled our bikes into a huge garage where we were told we could spend the night. A young boy brought us steaming bowls of plov. His father appeared, staggering and gaunt, grey skinned and in his pyjamas. He ordered the young boy out. He looked at us and flicked his neck with his thumb and forefinger. Ouch I thought. He flicked it again 'vodka' he said as the young boy returned clutching bottles of the white spirit. So the last night in possibly the strangest, one of the most bizarrely enjoyable countries of my trip to date with hospitable people in an inhospitable landscape ended with the neighbour being ill in the garden, me being ill in the garden, the father being ill in the garden, the son being sent back to the shop for more and more of this vicious spirit. At midnight when Lee and I were picking up the father who had fallen asleep wearing just his underpants in an oil puddle in the garage Lee looked at me and said "for goodness sake, I don't get paid for this you know" and we laughed as we put him into the recovery position

The 9 year old son got up and cooked us chicken legs for breakfast and we said our farewells to him (his father was still unconscious where we'd dragged him to) and set off on our route to the incredibly hard to find border crossing which involved the help of a bus driver cutting short his break to jump into his bus and beckon us to follow him. He was replaced by 2 men on motorbikes who stood in the road and waved and pointed to the right (Turkmenistan incidentally has no road signs apart from one saying camels 124 km and another saying "5km" - to where I have no idea). It was then I looked down at the road and wondered if maybe, just maybe these road markings had been made after a neck-flicking cheaper than water vodka session

*Lee of The Ephemeral Project. We'd met in Iran and had been cycling together just 2 days before we entered Turkmenistan. A person who made me laugh (and that's important on a trip like this!) and I wish him and Liz all the very best for their new life in New Zealand.

This is a belated post! I am now in Thailand, one day away from the Malaysian border..

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Barricades and kindness

"Go A-WAY" I screamed at the door separating me and some drunken Chinese men who had evidently heard that a 'laowai' was staying in the same bed-bug ridden guest house as them. Giggles from the other side then a rattling of the door handle. Fearing the construction of the door was as weak as the balsa wood scene set of a kung fu movie I grabbed the 1990's box television set. God, it's heavy. I ruminated over my pathetic budget; more money and I'm sure I could have had a room with a lighter-weight flat screen. Ahh but lighterweight flat screens aren't good for a barricade so stop complaining. Damn it's plugged in. Trying to balance the 10kg of tv set between my thigh and chin I fumbled behind the chipped dressing table. More giggles, more rattling then a "we make love" comment. I saw red. With that I yanked the tv set - wincing as the cable parted ways from the plug- and threw it against the door. What else can I use as a barricade I mulled then grabbed the end of the bed to pull it towards the door. The wood splintered and I was left standing with the end of the bed base in my hands. hmm.. glad I haven't paid a deposit for this room..

Oh for goodness sake what is the word for police. I dug out my iphone from the carnage of splintered wood, bits of tv set and duvet. Mandarin phrase book iphone app. hmm. "call the police". No no I need "I'll call the police". Foolishly I pressed the selection and my phone spoke to the men on the other side of the door. They laughed. I'm quite a placid person but when the adrenaline kicks in it, well, it kicks in. I hollered, I banged interspersed with random mandarin iphone generated phrases. Eventually the rice wine kicked in (or fear of mad woman on other side of door) and these men retreated to their rooms. Their fun over for the night while I slept restlessly with leatherman knife in hand.

Despite this mishap on my penultimate night  in China the ride through Yunnan province to the Laos border had been a delight. I'd had a tough time through China and I'm still reflecting on it.

The days in the desert in fierce cold had left their mark. Numb toes and damaged nerves to my feet still remain and I'm hoping it will pass. I'd met the kindest people and the most uncaring people.

I will never forget the gentleman that rescued me from the desert after I'd been trying to fix a puncture in -30'C. The water in my food bowl froze as I helplessly dipped in my inner tube trying to find the hole. My fingers froze to the rims of my wheel when trying to reinsert the poorly mended puncture (note. glue don't stick in those temperatures). I'd pitched my tent under a mobile phone mast and in the morning I woke and saw my tyre was flat again. Knowing I was still 2 days away from my destination I looked out onto the desert road. The day before I had tried to hitch to no avail. Noone would stop for me and fearing I was hypothermic with uncontrollable shaking, irrational thoughts, weakness ( the latter actually being not realising I'd been trying to cycle in a head wind with a flat tyre) I'd pitched my tent and tried to sort myself out.

I spotted a truck nearing me through the desert haze and I stood in the road and flagged it down. The most gentile Chinese man hopped out. I pointed to my bike and showed him the flat tyre. He shook his head in dismay. I could see his confusion and through sign language (not usually understood in China ) he learnt that yes I was alone in the desert and yes I had just slept under a mobile phone mast and yes I had cycled from the UK and yes I was bloody cold. We loaded my bike onto his truck and I climbed into the cab. He turned up the heating and watched me with concern until I began to thaw out, . He called everyone he knew and by the 6th phonecall with my limited Chinese and his gesticulations I understood: crazy, a woman, in desert, in winter, bike broken, on own, cycled from England. He drove me to a roadside cafe in a small village and there treated me to a meal of fried fish, dumplings. vegetables, fried beef, potatoes and rice and then ordered me seconds. He took me to the nearest town where he swapped his large truck for a small pick-up one and carefully transferred my bags and bikes from one to the other. He dropped me off on the corner of a street where men in peaked hats sat amongst an array of tubes, tyres and tools on the roadside. He signed 'no money', jumped back into the van and with a wave and a smile drove off.

 He reminded me of Horst, a gentleman in Switzerland who had helped me some 8 months earlier. The same quirkiness, the same concern and disbelief, the same horror looking at the state of me and my bicycle and the same kindness: wanting to help and wanting nothing in return.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Flight VN850: a tale of a hijacking

"Sorry for the lack of communication folks, but we have a hijacker on board"

I stop my gaze out the window at Saigon's spiderweb of lights beneath me and turn my head abruptly to the right.

"What did he say?" I whisper to my then boyfriend.
"I think he said hijacker" he replies staring intently ahead picking with one hand at a puckering of thread on the seat in front. He clasps my hand with the other.

We sit in silence, absorbed with our own thoughts and fear and wait for the next announcement.

Sometime later the intercom splutters to life again mirrored shortly after by the captain clearing his throat

"We are going to open the door of the plane. Please fasten your seatbelts tightly and please do not panic"

Hahahaha. Surely god.. someone.. please tell me this is a joke. Hijacker? Open the door of the plane? We'll die. We'll get sucked out. The plane will crash. Oh god I am actually going to die. Why am I feeling so calm? Blimey I hope I don't lose my front teeth when we crash land. Bizarre thoughts and airplane disaster films race through my mind and I turn towards Dan and grin "erm, now what do couples usually do at this point". He gives me a wry smile "Jill for goodness sa.." Fvutttphp!" WTF? and then another "Fvuttphp" and another and we watch in astonishment as our fellow passengers jerk in their seats and grow large yellow torsos. Aah lifejackets. What are you doing? Stop inflating them you idiots!  You inflate your life jacket when you're outside the plane about to go onto the slippery dip into the sea. Hold on.. we're circling over the land not the sea! Oh god I'm an extra in "Airplane"!

They must know something we don't: we lean forward and reach under the seat. Nothing. I laugh again.
You see Lonely Planet had advised all those years ago "whatever you do, do NOT fly with Vietnam air, even the people who service the Tupolevs refuse to fly on them. They've lost half their fleet etc" but the flight was cheap and Vietnam had just opened its doors again to independent travellers and I.. well.. I was on a budget.

The hijacker appears with the head steward tied on a rope and my stomach sinks with the plane as the door is opened..

He stands there at the door and I watch mesmorised as the green curtain separating first from second class twists and swirls, slaps and whips. The plane lurches forward, back, sideways and more life jackets are inflated. The green cape dances and lifts again. He's gone! Where is he? An elderly Vietnamese man gets out of his seat and bumbles towards the door, an air hostess grabs him by the waist and he sits there perched on her knee like a child on the naughty stair.

What is going on?

Time passes. I don't know how long. We hit the ground. Smooth.


 "Get off the plane". The calm voice of our captain is no longer "Get off the plane as quickly as possible". A bomb? Two giant Russians with two large metal suitcases apiece block my way. "Please. GET OFF the plane. Now!" I turn to the air hostess shaking behind me. "Open the back door" I say. She's in shock. Gently then.. "Come on let's go and open the back door". Gently, gently does it... "NOW FOR CHRIST'S SAKE!" and finally there is a spark of acknowledgement and weeping she does. I don't know how I left the plane. I find Dan on the runway, in shock, at the tail. Staring up at the plane. I grab him and we jump on an airport bus that throws us off our feet as it accelerates towards the terminal.

Before I was placed under house arrest for being a suspect in the hijacking and after I had been given my sandal back which I had lost when climbing over the shoulders of the 2 giants with the metal suitcases I spoke to the captain. The hijacker was an overseas Vietnamese who had fought against the Viet Cong with the Americans. He had earlier in the day attempted to take a Thai military plane. As that failed he booked on to our flight and walked through Thai customs with a parachute on his back. He had taken a hostess hostage in first class with, I believe, a cheese wire to the throat. His mission: to distribute anti-communist propaganda leaflets over the city of Saigon. 

I learnt we survived our ordeal due to being on a borrowed Airbus 310 and not the ill- fated Tuploev. He had ended up being sucked out of the cockpit window (before which he'd informed the crew that there were 3 other hijackers onboard - hence my subsequent arrest for being a fellow non-communist..thanks mate! - and a bomb) which is where he'd disappeared to when I lost sight of him at the door. He survived, landed in a swamp, got beaten up by fishermen who thought he was stealing their nets, the military rescued him and then realised who he was so also beat him up. Got sentenced to 20 years. Released on an amnesty then went on to hijack a flight in Cuba. I believe he's now doing public speaking in the US and has his own Facebook page. I have since read reports that we were about to be shot out of the sky by the Vietnamese airforce but we all survived and lived happily ever after.

My house arrest along with 8 other westerners was okay as house arrests go. In the days before mobile phones, twitter, emails there is not much you can do apart from demand your passport back every hour and try and annoy the armed guard at your door as much as possible.

Some 18 hours later my passport was handed to me with an Indochinese smile "Welcome to Vietnam and have a nice trip". As I snatched it from the hand all I could think about was that I had to fly out of Vietnam from Hanoi to Vientiane using Vietnam Air and the notorious Tupolev some 6 weeks later as no overland travel was allowed to Laos in those days. I did it and, despite my fear that there was a fire onboard due to the pea soup airconditioning that reduced visibility in the cabin to two foot, we landed unharmed in a paddy field.

So it is with great delight that in 3 days time I will have finished my cycle ride through China and will be arriving in Laos on an unhijackable bicycle.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

SherlockTales and the Hounds of Asia

"Helloogaarghhhgrrr" ... "Raaargh" ... and then rather elegantly "FFS!": my vocal entry to each village of Yunnan province as yet another rabid hound leaps from guarding the pigs, the child, the woodstore, the grandma and in a flurry of dust and fleas and snapping ivories tries to sample what the beast on the Uzbekistan border had found so attractive about my derriรจre.

The Uzbek border incident - resulting in the most punctures I'd received in one day, albeit to my left buttock - was not actually the guard dog's fault. After tackling and succeeding in the 5 day desert dash across the Karakum Desert of Turkmenistan it seemed only fitting that a beer was had to celebrate and rather conveniently there was a cafe 1 metre from the border and even better the proprietor said yes you may sleep outside on the concrete. Before said beer was consumed I noticed that there were 2 rather unique looking sheep on the other side of the wall. Wanting to get a better look I climbed over the wall and admired these fine sheep with their chocolate curls then noticed there was actually a gate I could have entered by. And this was the route I took for my return..

Approaching a guard dog is a stupid thing to do. Standing on one is very the left buttock. Fortunately Shylock's pound of flesh only transpired to Sherlock's four puncture wounds, ripped shorts and a sheepish smile as 3 old ladies with grubby hands whisked me into a cess pit of a toilet and helped bandage my bottom. I tried to re-enter Turkmenistan as there had been a doctor on the border (who'd I thought was about to shoot me in the head but was actually taking my temperature) but was pushed back by the guard despite me miming that a dog had just eaten my behind.

It was 24 hours later that I reached the silk road town of Bukhara after a lopsided cycle.
"Where's the dog? You need to bring it with you if you want to get treatment"
"I'm sorry, f.. I.. what?!
"The dog, the doctor needs to see it"
"I need to go and collect the dog that bit me that is now 100km away?"

I limped off, redressed my wound, said a prayer and took a handful of antibiotics...

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Battle with the Taklamakan

I stared at the floor of the police van wincing at the sight of damp spots of blood accompanied by some fleshy bits and the ubiquitous phlegm branding found on every inhabited surface in Xinjiang Province."First time I've been in a police van" I mused glancing across at James, a fellow cyclist, who had one hand grasped firmly on the door handle ready to activate and evacuate should the policemen in the front seats decide to take us to the police station after all. I peered closer at one of the fleshy bits and reassured myself I could see the fluff of sheepskin. A car braked to a halt alongside us and four more policeman stepped out. "Balls" I muttered reaching for the handle on my side. With 6 policeman now surrounding us we tried to explain that all we wanted to do was lay our mats down and sleep outside the building and that we would leave early to reach the next town of Hotan. They shook their heads, took our passports and made phonecalls. Within 10 minutes the doors of the government building were unlocked, we were ushered in and the wood burning stove was lit, 2 local Uyghur men in their tall fur hats brought me bread and walnuts then content that I was warm and fed left the building. I lay down under the portrait of Chairman Mao and drifted off to the sounds of rats gnawing at the wires of the television in the corner of the room.

Four weeks later I stood alone and desolate on the S305 in the Taklamakan Desert, over 200 km from anywhere and over 3km above sea level. Two tears of frustration fell and froze. Clumsily I tried with numb fingers to undo the straps of my panniers to reach for biscuits to no avail. I reached for my water bottle wrapped in 2 pairs of merino wool socks and a trickle of water meandered its way through the ice and reached my lips. The wind and isolation whipped my face and taunted me: it had been -24'C when I'd set off that morning and that was out of the wind. I can't do this any longer, I can't. I can. F*ck. I can't.  For weeks my feet had been frozen solid for 10 hours a day, each stretch of the desert was 3-5 days between towns, bed was under a mobile phone mast or in a low tunnel under the road, or behind a sand dune. Get a grip, damn it. I could no longer see the beauty of the desert. It was now just colourless wasteland. My body shook uncontrollably. I'd ascended too quickly and the altitude had taken hold, I just wasn't acclimatising and the cold had kidnapped my core. Wait, what's that? I could hear a vehicle and leapt out of my despair. Over the crest of the hill a police van appeared. I stepped into the road and waved it down. Down. Wave. Please stop.Stop. Please. With my hand still aloft I watched it pass me and watched it still until it disappeared over the curve of the earth. The silence and the solitude returned. Nothing. Nothingness. Not a thing. Not. Can Not. I was startled by a inhuman roaring cry that echoed the fear, frustration and failure I felt. I looked helplessly around me and then realised it had come from me. 

I sat down in the dust and continued a lengthy battle with my thoughts. Finally a smile crept to my lips: I'm a celebrity, get me out of here! But I'm not and I can't. I stood up, picked up my bike, rearranged my frozen balaclava and continued pedalling east.

The wind eased and the wasteland transformed into ancient cities of sand, wind shaped pyramids and sweeping dunes. 60km later I spied a mobile phone mast. I removed the bricks in front of the door and wheeled my bike into the walled enclosure. "Aah..home at last." I thought..