Sunday, 23 October 2016

Middle Empire part 2: Sichuan, Red hot chili. Pepper. And mountains

Saturday, 2016, September 24th

Finally, after two relaxing weeks in Chengdu (instead of "a few days" planned) we were ready to mount our steel horses. Last kisses, last hugs, we bid farewell to Gökben and Nico, our lovely hosts, and Seb, the French seducer and wished to see them all again soon on the road.
I also had the chance to try Gökben's recommend bike. Hm, it was quite an experience, an uneasy feeling: the beast seemed very comfy but felt not like a "normal" bike.... I screamed a bit, almost fell over a few times... All in all, I'm happy with my Pegasus :-) !!!

(if you think you know how to cycle, think again!!!)


For the night, we set the tent, for the first time in China! Voila, we didn't bring the big tent along for nothing :-) :-)

The next day could be baptized "the tunnel day". We had an uncountable numbers of them, with every length possible. Or not possible! Such as this one of 4977m!!! Yes, almost 5km of total darkness. The only light came from our pale headlight. Or from cars. It was stressful rolling only with  the dim light from our bikes. It was dreadful when trucks and cars past us. And our hearts made a whole turn in our chest before stopping for one second when a car took over a truck and brushed against us. Yes, they did it. In a tunnel!

Or, this one. Of 5656 m length!!! At first, I thought it was 566m and didn't understand the weird expression on Alessio's face. "OK, it's a third tunnel in a round, probably the tenth of the day. And so what?"

In total, we had not far from 20km of tunnels that costed us probably a few days of our lives but also saved us some horrible mountain passes.
At the end of the day, we stopped, completely exhausted, after what we expected to be the last tunnel.
And it was. But then, the road was drastically uphill. And the weather was misty. Heavily misty. Then the rain came, more and more rain. We decided to stop around a bend. A truck driver made a sign for us to continue a bit further. Which we did. And found a better spot. An another truck driver made a sign that we should go further but the tent was set and we were too tired. Unfortunately because the next morning, just 500m ahead lied the perfect spot, with water, even food and some Tibetan tents where we could have asked for shelter.

 Tuesday, 2016 September 26th

What a pity that the weather was so bad: cold strong wind and rain and fog that prevented us from enjoying the must be beautiful scenery. Yeah, the view could only be wonderful to compensate the road, so stiff, so hard. Minute after minute, hour after hour, bending down on our bikes, we fought our way to the top.
While I was struggling, completely out of breath, some beautifully made up and dressed up girls, comfortably seated in their fancy cars, stared curiously at me, snapping at their precious phones for some pictures.
How I hated them :-) :-)

Shortly before 4PM, after 3h49 of peddling for Alessio, probably 5h and something of turtle-ing for me to cover 25km and 1300m of height, we got to the top, 4509m.

As a reward, the sun, timid at first, ended up by chasing the clouds away and shined over the valley, offering us a marvelous scenery. I am sure that Mamie heard my prayers and sorted it our for us.



Happily, we rolled down the valley. Some bikers past us, thumb up. Yes! We deserved all this encouragement :-) :-)



We started to see more signs of life with hamlet, villages, crops and animals. It was quite a thing to see people skinned and chopped some yaks just by the road. Meat was divided then hang on at some stalls, always with the typical fluffy black tail as an evidence....



Thursday, 2016 September 29th

It was a feeble day. We didn't feel like cycling that much, and the rain didn't help neither. Although the valley was beautiful with trees changing the colors from green to yellow with some sparse red dots.
After 50km, we both fell relieved to say " OK, we can stop for the night now" :-) We wandered through the "YAK Tibeban village" to find to dry place to set the tent. A strong woman got out of her house, observed us and made a sign. As we explained, she smiled and showed us a big warm room with plenty of comfy couches. I tried to be clear "we have no money, we could not pay for the room, we just need a dry place for the tent" but she just shocked her head "kē yi - you can stay".
And when we took out our poor reserves, bought earlier that day for dinner ( some eggs and potatoes) , the whole family (her husband and daughter had joined) just bursted out laughing and gave us a delicious meal.

The same thing happened the next morning when we tried to tell her not to prepare breakfast for us. Deeply touched, we presented our little gifts in exchange: an instant photo for the grand-children, and  some French perfume for the daughter, as we always did in such a situation.

But then, the lady changed swapped her sweet smiling face to something much less nice and friendly. And ask for money. 140 Yuan (around 20 euros) she thundered. I was so shocked that I almost stammered when I tried to remind her of what we said, of what she said. Unperturbed, she "priced down" to 120 Yuan and angrily rejected the 62 Yuan that we found in the pocket and handed to her (a decent price for a night or for a dinner and breakfast). We put the money on the table and tempted to leave. Alessio made it through the gate but she blocked my way: 100 Yuan or you won't pass!!!!

I was so angry that I just went back to the kitchen where we stayed for breakfast and took back the instant photo: I don't want any mark of us in this house.... The woman became a real monster: anger and greed distorted her features. I suppose anger and disappointment also distorted ours...
Finally, her son (who came home late at night and who was with us at breakfast) intervened "give back the photo and we'll let you go".

We got out and crossed a bunch of people on their way to work who stared blankly at us. It was not the first time but this time was particularly hard for us!!! Our morning was kind of ruined and we had to make some serious efforts to cheer us up. It was for the first time ever that we got trapped in such a way. Maybe we were too naive, maybe our soft point to those people mislead us  but Tibetan inhospitality was so unexpected and rude that we felt completely disoriented.

Fortunately, the weather was nice, the landscape beautiful and the road super hard.... all that made us concentrated on rather than stay angry.

14:30, we reached 3900m, then past Bamei, the Eight Wonder, and determined to "conquer" the second pass at more than 4000m before the end of the day.
Outside Bamei, for some reason, the police just stopped all the cars (but let us through), so we had the road almost for ourselves for an hour or so, before the cars furiously caught up.

The road is simply amazingly beautiful: valleys, mountains, rivers, green trees, painted Buda on the rocks, Tibetan flags, yaks, horses running freely, the stones forest.... we were constantly filled with wonder.








But I started feeling tired. Then very tired. Then the wind rose and made everything harder. I simply couldn't handle anymore. At 2km from the top, I just stopped, bursted into tears. Then clenched the teeth and went on.
Our efforts were pay-off when finally we reached the top around  18:00. The view was breathtaking. And we knew that a long downhill was waiting :-)
We set the tent next to a Tibetan tent and made acquaintance with a lovely Tibetan couple. Timbo is 40 and his wife 42, they had a little 4 month old who slept tight when we visited them.
The next morning, joy filled our heart to see the magnificent and peaceful landscape, to hear Timbo's wife singing while collecting some yak's dung. Life is simple and beautiful!
We crossed them again on the road, they past us like the wind on their moto, fully wrapped in clothes and scarfs, waving at us. Small things that warmed us up.

It was the Chinese National Day, the beginning of the Golden Week, so dreaded by foreigner tourists and travelers. So the number of people who took pictures and videos of us was multiplied by I don't know how many (but quite alot :-))



Tuesday, October 3rd

An another great camping spot, somewhere among the famous "18 bends Sky Road" (!) An another beautiful starry night with the black but clear sky.
In the morning, we successively met up with Olly and Tim, two Kiwis and a bunch of Chinese cyclists. More or less altogether, we formed a happy cycling band. It was the first day when the landscape was something close to a "plateau" definition: we stayed a bit at 4000m and something instead of constant alternative between highs peak and deep valleys.

One by one, everybody surpassed me. Without the pictures pauses or rest pauses, I would have been left behind since long. Well, it's easy to be fast when one is young and fit and light weighted - that's how I consoled myself :-) :-)

Before I arrived at the beginning of the everlasting pass, the last and hardest of the day, all the others had gone. Those 4 km were hard. Because of stiffness, because of tiredness, because of the strong icy headwind. Unable to keep up with Alessio and to take refuge behind him, I fought painfully with the elements but made it somehow to the top, entirely exhausted.

The next day was an easy day: we wanted to stop at Litang, so only some 35km of beautiful downhill most of the time. If only cycling could be so comfortable everyday!!!!!
Thanks to Max (who speaks perfect English) and other Chinese cyclists, we could have delicious meals : I could make my way out to have some simple dishes but could never ever order such wonderful things as they did.
Sichuanese food is known to be a delight but hot. Very hot. At first, we tried to have "just a little bit spicy please" but soon, we realized that "a little bit" is something they don't understand and had to act in an radical way "no spicy - bu la - please". That was for the "red hot chili" part. But we could never escape the famous Sichuan pepper. They simply put it everywhere, in all dishes, in even cookies. We love pepper but Sichuan pepper anesthetizes the tongue in such a way that, completely numb, we could hardly feel anything else....

Litang is a place to be if you want to see Sky Burial - the Tibetan burial ritual where they, to be short, give the death body to be eaten by vultures. We didn't want to see that so just chilled out around.

For the first time in almost two weeks, we decided to take a day off because Alessio had some pain and couldn't sleep at night. Tim informed us later that it's very likely a side effect of the anti-imflammatory medicine that Alessio took for the knee pain.

After Litang, the Chinese group took an another way to Lhasa (lucky people) we continued with the G317 and went up to the plateau. Such a wonderful feeling to roll on the "top of the world", there were only us and the bright blue sky, the clouds seemed so close, we were exhausted by the altitude but felt so powerful. The landscape sometimes reminded us of Pamir plateau in Tadjikistan.
We went higher and higher again. 4300m, 4500m, 4650m...





Friday, October 8th, it took us (well me) 5 hours of painful labour to cover the 20km from 4200m to reach the highest point of our trip at 4708m. Fortunately, the road was easier after. Anyway, it took me 7h30 of peddling to cover the 86km till Xiangchiang, where Olly, alias The Machine (never tired,  he rolled uphill at over 4000m as easily as I roll on a flat road) and Tim had waited for us.

Here, we started to notice the change: there were less Tibetan but more people from other ethnies.

The last part of our journey in Sichuan was on a old section of G317 - the road was not only stiff but moreover, was horribly bad with no asphalt but gravel all along. Every time a car past us, it was a tornado of dust. At the end of the day, we were not only physically worn out but also mentally exhausted.

(all we are is dust in the wind...)


But "every season has an end". October 12th, the three of us (Tim had joined the Potatoes since Olly the Machine, who couldn't imagine that we would be so slow, waited for us at a point much further than where we stopped then had to continue alone) past the last Sichuan pass and entered Yunnan province, the promising land of green tea and citrus. And valleys instead of big mountains....

It was good to breath normally again, to be able to talk while cycling, to hold a breath without feeling exhausted.... all the little things that we couldn't do at 4000m and more....

Thursday, October 13th, we arrived at Shangri La. We will tell you more about our stay in the next entry :-) Stay tuned!!!



For more pictures, please visit our facebook page at www.facebook.com/2rollingpotatoes

Monday, 12 September 2016

Potatoes in the Middle Empire (part 1)

We decided at the very last moment to change our program. Instead of 3 months in Japan, we'd go to China.

Asking for the Chinese visa in Seoul was finally quite easy: we had to show only our onward flight tickets (a boat ticket would also do), as we will get out of China by land border, we just needed to explain it on the formula. The hotel bookings were simple too: we made several ones on www.booking.com then cancelled them once we got the visa (please, make sure, if you are a couple like us, that both of your names appear on the booking).

The most annoying part (that we didn't realize at first) was the daily schedule during our stay. And as we asked for a 90 days visa, it was quite a job to write down a 89 days schedule. We had to open tripadvisor and fill the form with everything we found. An exemple, for our stay in Xi'an, we "planned" one day to visit the Bell Tower, one for the Drum Tower, which is 1km away, one for the market, just behind the Drum Tower, without forgetting some "resting days" from time to time, and so on...

Two days later, we got our visa on our pockets. 2016 August 14th, exactly one year after the previous planned trip, we entered China, not through the quiet, deserted, mountainous Xinjiang but directly to the over crowded and hypnotic Shanghai.



We had to see Frank, my friend since 20 years, and also to renew Alessio's passport which had only 3 pages left - a bit short for all the countries we still plan to cycle through.
Our life in this boiling city of 23 millions of inhabitants changed from luxurious compounds, fine dining restaurants, free flow champagne... when we were with Frank, and savorous street foods when we were by ourselves :-)

While waiting for the appointment at the Consulate of Italy, we had time for a short escape to Suzhou. We loved this small city (well, with 1,3 millions of inhabitants, it's just small at the Chinese scale....) with its charming canal around the old city and its beautiful gardens.



We also loved to take that 'dance' at night, trying to find a way among all those walkers along the river, on the Pingjiang street, in the old town, to feel surrounded by thousands of sounds, colors and flavors....







Well, everything is not always rose in the middle empire.

Chinese seem to fancy eating giblets.  The strong smell of it was all over the places, they didn't seem to be bothered. We did.
Besides the national sport of spitting, they also like noises. Every shop had a loud crackling speaker to advertise their products, everyone shouts, it was painful when our visit coincided with a Chinese group - the tour guides keep screaming from the top of their lung during the whole time....

Our stay in Hangzhou, the famous silk capital with the romantic West Lake, was less successful. We didn't expect so many troubles with G20.

(Happiness and civilization.... well )

(For sure, it would be a perfect G20 without any incident, everything was under control....)


At first, usual guesthouses could not host foreigners anymore, we had to go to a fancy one which cost several days of our budget. Then we had to deal with omnipresent police controls, checkpoints, streets were cleared, buses we needed were cancelled....



Seemed like every parameter worked against us, so we quickly got back to Shanghai, where more pleasant life was waiting for us :-) :-)

One thing one may not miss in Shanghai is the "couples market" at the People's Park, next to the People's square, every Sunday morning.
Apparently, Chinese youngsters have so many troubles to find their other halves that the parents feel the need to handle the issue themselves: they organise this market where the parents arrive with full information about their beloved child (birth, height, weight, education, job and expectation for a husband/wife...). If the expectations meet, the parents would exchange the numbers and organise an appointment for the future couple to meet.... We wondered how many got married through this, somehow traditional, canal.




August 31st, after more than two weeks waiting for an answer from Italy, we finally had the appointment at the Consulate. And got out 20mn later with a brand new passport. Yupiiii! We could start cycling finally!

Well. Not really. Because we had to take a train first to Xi'an.

The train was more comfy than what we expected and the 24h journey past amazingly fast (some episodes of the oldie but goodie "24h" did also help). A little girl on the train was completely fascinated by Alessio and spent her time "spying" him. At our inviting sign, she just jumped to our place and started talking for hours. My Chinese is slightly better than her English but not enough anyway to have a decent conversation. However, she managed to explain lots of thing, how she was puzzled by the European appearance (there were also two blond tourists on the train - you could imagine her excitement), she made a recite about her favorite serial, was happy that I knew Angela Baby (her wedding was even an event in Vietnam....). A very lively and smart little girl!




2016 September 3rd, we arrived to Xi'an - the Peace of the West.

We loved Xi'an with its beautiful, green and small streets, its animated night market (food, food, food!!!) the Muslim's quarter, the mosque...


and of course, we could not resist the call of the Terra Cotta Army



Monday, September 5th, we took the G108, heading to Chengdu. The road was in very good condition with beautiful sceneries. After a month, we felt so good to continue our cyclist life


Cycling in China is so comfortable. We don't need to cook: good and cheap foods are everywhere, in any remote area, we could find a cheap place to stay. People are very friendly (no English though). Alessio, as cook and logistic man, was happy to see his two important jobs taken away. At some point, we would need to bivouac just to show that we didn't bring along our tent and equipment for nothing :-) :-).

We've covered some 250 km after 3 days when Alessio started to feel some growing pains on his right knee. We stopped at Yangxin, a tiny town of around 200 000 inhabitants to see a doctor. At the hospital, we paid 2 Yuan (a bit more than 25 euros cents) for a consultation and were received right away by a doctor. The administration team, curious about this "lao wai" case, came giggling into the consultation room and tried to explain, in Chinese, to us, what the doctor said, in Chinese of course.
Finally, it was not a serious thing, he just has to rest for a week before getting onto the bike again.

So here we are in Chengdu, after a not so direct bus journey :-) at Gokben and Nico - a French-Turkish cyclists couple (www.frogsonwheels.net)- place, waiting for Alessio's knee to heal and for Sebastien (www.sebaroudeur.com) to arrive from Beijing after his trip in Mongolia.

Please, stay tuned for the next of Potatoes' rolling in China

PS: my VPN, that gives me access to Google and Facebook, expires today, it means that I'll have to wait two more months to be able to give some updates. Please, be patient :-) :-) 

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Back to the saddle: Potatoes in South Korea

Last summer, right before entering China, some sad events happened and we had to interrupt our trip.
After almost a year in Italy for Alessio, Italy, France, Poland and Tanzania for me, Potatoes finally got back on the road. 2016 July 2d, we landed to Bishkek, where Angie and Nathan from the very famous ATHouse, kindly stored our bikes and stuff during this "gap" year.  They were not there but we were happy enough to meet up with some other cyclists.

July 7th, we landed in Seoul, South Korea. The AREX train was not crowded, so we could put our two loaded bikes and had a pleasant ride to town.  Jieun, our Warm Shower host, had given us all the needed instruction to get to her apartment. On the spot, we found her welcome note with post-it around to guide us: food is here, to take a shower, push this button first :-) :-) Such a caring host!

For the evening, she invited us to a cyclists meeting at Bikely shop where we met a Swiss couple on their way home and Fallou family - a French family - also at the end of their one year trip. Two men from the group had offered 5 bottles of wine for cyclists guests (us) and we "won", after a tight match of "Rock-Paper-Scissors", 2 bottles of Chilean wine that we were happy to drink with Jieun.


(I won't tell you who was playing the game for the first time....)

We stayed a few days in Seoul, playing tourists, visiting palaces and temples, feeling lost in this megalopolis of 23 millions.

In the subway, we bumped into Sebastien, http://www.sebaroudeur.com, a French guy on the road for 2 years already. After a while, we realized that he had cycled with Gilles and Anaïs, our fellows from http://hop-hop-hop.ch/. The cycling world is really small :-) :-)
Gilles and Anaïs left Seoul one week before our arrival and it was pity, it would have been so fun to catch up again after one year....

July 12th, we left Jieun and her comfortable apartment, in direction of Paju: I absolutely wanted to visit the famous DMZ - Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.

The cycling path along Han river is very comfy with regular resting places with toilet, water... We crossed lots of Korean cyclists, always with their super expensive bike, dressed with the latest technical stuff, for a daily ride.


 (Not a Korean cyclist but a Potato)


 (In a small town, outside Seoul)

(I love those "sausage" plants

July 13th, arriving to Jangpari, a small town near Paju, we stopped to look at the map. A beautiful woman past by, gave us her shining smile and a little wave. We smiled back, waved back. And she made a sign to invite us for a tea. That's how we came to "Last Chance", her house where she and oncle Youn, her husband, decorated with care and style.




With them, we had two wonderful days visiting around, meeting with interesting people, tasting traditional Korean food, learning how to make "maek so", the famous Korean mix of beer (maekju) and alcohol (soju)...

 (At the Joined Security Area, normally not very open for tourists, but uncle Youn is a famous personality in the region...)

 (On the other side of the river, lies the forbidden land of North Korea. Unlike Afghanistan, we don't dream to go there)

July 15th, we got up at 4:45, sat silently in the dark in the big saloon, waiting for aunty Soum who'd leave at 5AM to work. But we realized that she uses an another way out just only too late :-( We were so sad not to say goodbye to her.

After we left for Sokcho, for 4 days, it kept raining non stop.

Korean roads can be very stiff. And after some months of "rest" because of a ski accident, I was not in perfect shape and had some trouble to keep up with Alessio.

Around Palbongsan park, we took the small routes and discovered a beautiful area full of nice pensions, hotels... For the night, we stayed by the river where we could almost swim in the clear water. Such a great relaxing moment. We were happy to be able to wash ourselves everyday. Afterwards, we would know that it's super easy to find perfect bivouac's spots in Korea with toilet, access to water...

(we craved for some sun to dry our stuff)


July 19th, hesitating between 2 routes, we chose the one leading to "mountain" and "waterfall". We didn't know that road with 20% could ever exist.


(I smiled just for the picture....)

I couldn't even push my bike. And of course, when the rain stops, the heat and the humidity took over, we were constantly sweating like hell.


(Take this road ONLY if you want to know what a 20% is like. Pains guaranteed...

 It took us 2h to cover 4,5km (!) with a 15mn of downhill. At the end, the road split into 2 small roads. At our question, the only man there made a "dead end" sign to the left, an another to the right! This is it! No mountain, no waterfall but a "cul-de-sac". I didn't feel to go uphill again under this heat. We decided to stay there for a night


(Not a bad place to stay if you don't think about the stiff road waiting ahead)

Very poetic, Alessio claimed "you know what, we are really in the arsehole of South Korea".

And you know what, we had free wifi!!!!

The next day, we enjoyed so much those 6% and 8% (a piece of cake now compared to 20% or "finger in the nose" as we say in France) that we decided to pull "one shot" to Sokcho. 95 km and 1150km of difference in altitude, not a bad score for a "come back".

Sokcho is famous for Pokemon players (please, don't ask us what it is, we don't really know). Even in the rain, we saw people so concentrated on their phone, trying to catch "Pikachu". It is something really out of our understanding


But we are here for Seoraksan, one of the most beautiful Korean national park. And it's really nice. We had a 12h trek, 1600m of difference in altitude, to (almost) reach the top of 1707m. After that, we had to rest for two days at the camp site.



Camping is the new trend in Korea. And when it comes to trend, Koreans never do things by halves. We were surrounded by tents from huge to mega huge, with super comfy roof, tripod lamps, poles to hang everything, big bbq, complete set of (camping) kitchen, even film projector. We felt so "out of place" among them :-) :-)

After Sokcho, we continued cycling but the road, full of trucks, became quite annoying and dangerous. At Saemchok, we decided to take a bus directly to Busan, saving up two days of stress and pains. It's not fun cycling under 45C and 98% of humidity. And even much less when trucks past by at 20cm of you.....

At Saemchok bus station, for the first time ever of our trip, we met a Vietnamese. Kien had been working in Korea for a few years. He offered us some money "just a little help for you to fulfill your dream". We declined but was deeply touched.

In Busan, we had no answer from our Warm Shower requests. It was a bit disappointing because we were sure to have met Sehee last year, between Tadjik and Kyrgyz border, while she and her husband were on their cycling honey moon.
An another disappointment was not to be able to meet up with Charlotte and Eric, a French couple with whom we stayed (sporadically) in touch over 1.5 year - they stayed quite far from Busan and it was complicated to organize without a proper internet.

Talking about internet, you can get free wifi very easily here. But not always. And after we finished the 1GB on our korean simcard, it was impossible to buy a new one, every mobil shop gave a different explanation but the same answer: no new simcard, no recharge possible. Finally, the verdict came: tourists can have a simcard only at the airport!!!! So first thing after we left Busan was to go to the airport to buy a new one. Another (almost) 35 euros for 100mn calls and 1GB.

Talking about money, we find South Korea not at all low-budget-cyclists friendly. It gave us headache trying to survive. Food is extremely expensive, I had almost a heart attack to see a kg of rice in supermarket at almost 4 euros! Fruits, veggies were out of reach and we don't talk about meat. The weird thing is that, if you have a 50 euros daily budget, then you can go to restaurant twice a day and have great food.

With 15 euros, we could barely have some biscuits, instant noodles, one can of mackerel and a bottle of Coca as bonus.


In Kyrgyzstan, with almost the same amount, we had a big dinner with mountains of veggies and tons of lamb chop for 8 cyclists.



From Busan, we decided to take the famous 4 rivers cycling path to go back to Seoul. Without taking the "passport" because we were too lazy to get stamps :-) Anyway, we won't go till Incheon to get the medal...
The country had invested enormous money into this cycling path. The route was perfect, smooth, all is well indicated but only in Korean.


(We would have loved to understand....


(But sometimes translation can let us perplexed...)

We crossed lots and lots of Korean cyclists, the route is really popular.  Most of them greeted us back, sometimes even with a big wave and a "Helloooo" that warmed us up. It's just a saying huh, because we were already grilled by the burning sun. We had known hotter temperature before, in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, but the humidity made everything much more worse, especially to sleep at night. It was like a turkish bath inside the tent, and there were so many mosquitoes outside that we could not let the tent open. So we suffered! Every night! Day after day we wished, we prayed for some rain at night. Once, the wind started to blow, some lightnings brought back our hope. 1AM, we crawled out of the suffocating tent, almost naked, waited and waited for the rain. In vain.

So, the night just before our detour toward Andong to visit Hahoe, the very famous traditional village, that became even more famous since Queen Elizabeth had visited it, how surprised we were to find, in an empty parking lot, a kind of out of service toilet (there was no water on the women side) with working aircon. We dreamed about a cool night: it was very dry and clean inside and during 3 hours, we saw absolutely no one but just a couple of guys making bbq next to their car.

(warning!! Explicit content next....)

So, after dinner, we quietly moved in, closed the door from the inside, put the big plastic "mattress" that we used as tent's protection, inflated our sleeping bags, ready to sleep. At some point, the aircon became quite noisy so Alessio got up to look for earplugs. That's when a car came, stopped steadily in front of the toilet, a woman hurried out, grabbed the door. But it was locked. But she, probably in emergency, pulled so hard at the door finally swung open. And she found herself face to Alessio, bare-chested. Screamed. Ran away. Her man wanted to get in but we had to block the door again because I was naked!!!!
Total panic from both side. The car left quickly. We moved out in a hurry, completely bewildered. We stayed in the shadow of a detached resting house nearby to get ourselves together and to think about the next move: we could not stay, it was 10 PM, too late to move, there was no wind, lots of mosquitoes. An another bad night in perspective demoralized us.

We were there, hitting rock bottom when the car came back like a hurricane. Three men got out, jumped into the women's toilet with huge torches, searching and shouting. And we held our breath.

After that, we had no choice but to move. We had to cycle for maybe 10km with some uphill before arriving to a cyclists-only-bridge. Yes, they have plenty of those big bridges where no motorized vehicle is allowed! So great!!!
So we spent the night there, on the bridge. There was no sign of mosquitoes so we didn't set the sent but slept directly on the floor, with a little mattress and two pillows. And had a fresh and calm night. Wouah!

The next evening, after visiting Hahoe, in Munkyeong, following Stephane and Benedicte (Fallou family) advices, we went to a church and asked for a shelter. And got politely rejected. From the house of God. Just before the Sunday mass.

So, a bit put out, we went to a park and gloomily ate some instant noodles for dinner. At some point, I heard some people speaking Vietnamese nearby. It was such a pleasure to meet up with some of my compatriots and to speak Vietnamese in a faraway land. Bay, Hau, Hoa got married with Korean men and Tai had been working here for more than 10 years. After some good talk and laughter, Tai kindly invited us home and offered us lunch for the next day. He also let us use his bedroom and slept instead, in the friends' room.

(At half of the lunch. We didn't need much time to finish all that. And more...

His simplicity  and generosity touched us so much. We were so happy to have met him and wish very much to see him again soon in Vietnam.

We left him late in the evening, just to cycle some 20km to find a place to sleep.

August 2d. We were quite in shape after a good night, to conquer the highest point of the cycling path at some 500m. It was in fact quite smooth. We were surprised to see lots of very light weighted cyclists pushing their bikes. Maybe they are not regular cyclists, so a 8% could be too much for them. But then, we were stunned to see them all with super expensive bikes and materials. At some point, we thought maybe they just rent them all for a "sport and adventure" holidays along the cycling path. But, according to Mr Lee, 70% of bicycles in Korea are just "to show off" - again, the Korean obsession about being trendy!

(You have to believe in yourself, that's the secret of success)

As usual, we stopped for a nap. At our waking up, how big was our surprise and pleasure to hear "oh, here you are finally". It was Eric.
We talked and talked and talked for almost two hours. Just to ride to the next "Certification zone" to have Eric's passport stamped. And to talk and talk again.

We stayed there for the night: it was in a big park with a big resting house and comfortable toilet. After dinner, finally our wish came true and it started raining. Some late walkers got trapped and ran to "our" place. They were timid to "bother" us at first but the rain was so hard that they finally accepted our insistant invitation to get into the "house", some ladies got rather wet so we gave them towels to dry and jacket to warm them up. At least we could do something to pay back the kindness that people showed us.

We cycled merrily for the next two days. Eric is a nice, fun and very interesting person, which made our journey with him really enjoyable.




August 4th, we were all relieved to finally arrive to Seoul, to have a real shower, proper internet but a bit sad to see Eric go: he returned the next day to Busan to find Charlotte, his other half.

We spent more than one week in Seoul to chill out. It was great to stay away from the heat, meet up with friends, have good food.... We were happy to arrive to Seoul on time to spend a little bit of time with Jieun before she left for holidays. We feel very lucky not only because she let us stay in her apartment while she is away but above all,  because Jieun is such a sweet, intelligent, generous person with a remarkable philosophy of life, we were delighted each time we could have a heart to heart conversation with her.

And after Jieun, oncle Youn, Mr Lee......once again, Sandy, Sook, Jae-Won, Mate, Young... showed us the Korean hospitality and kindness. We were so happy to have met them!

(Playing UNO and drinking chilean wine with Jieun :-) )

Goodbye South Korea!




And you, our dear friends, stay tuned for new updates from Potatoes from China!


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Kyrgyzstan



Thursday, July 9th

At around 1:30 PM, together with Brigitte and Fred (www.polops.blogspot.com)  and Pierre, we got out of Tajikistan. The landscape changed radically: it was a relaxing pleasure for the eyes to finally see some green. After 20km of no man's land, a stiff dangerous descent in quite bad shape, we officially set foot into  Kyrgyzstan. It had been a while that we didn't have such easy custom service. Kyrgyzstan is visa free for most of citizenships, no luggage check, no formula, and when it came to financial proof, we just drew our credit card and it was OK.

After weeks of beautiful but dried and bare mountains and fields of the Pamir, we were enthusiastic to find green grass, green trees again. Then we noticed big black loaded clouds behind us: the rain was pouring hard at Tajik side and was coming toward us. Oh oh!!!!


We put the turbo on and peddled with all our strength. The road was flat and comfortable but as usual, the wind blow fiercely against us. Brigitte and I took refuge behind Fred and Alessio and we arrived to Sary Tash completely exhausted while Pierre preferred to stop on the way. Mirbeak, the guesthouse recommended was full so we just stopped at the one next door - the owner seemed to be surprised to see us, as there was no sign anywhere!!!! 10 dollar/pers for a bed, dinner and breakfast, it seemed quite reasonable. Moreover, we had two big connecting rooms for us!!!! On the other hand, there was no shower but a bucket of hot water in the yurt in the garden. Well, we were not too demanding to complain about that but were happy enough to have a dry, warm place when finally the pouring rain caught up with us.

Our first impression about Kyrgyz people was that they were not very warm. It was almost mission impossible to turn on a smile. Shopkeepers were rude, people on the streets seemed cold and mistrustful. Our Polish friends, staying in other guesthouse even reported a weird ambience "we were her guests but she treated us like enemies" (!!!!)
The nicest person we know in Sary Tash was Aigul, our host, even though she stayed very distant for the first day. The next day, she was a bit more open and smiling, maybe because we helped her to carry the water from the river home.... She was astonished to see Fred and Alessio doing the laundry and I added an another layer, saying that they also cook (What perfect men we have, Brigitte and me :-) :-) )

(Aigul's little son, so proud of wearing his father's cap)


Saturday, July 11th

The way out of Sary Tash started with 2 passes, stiff and incredibly long! I, as usual on uphill roads, turned into turtle while the other speeded up like rabbits. They would have quite a time chatting on the top, waiting for me!!!!
We tasted the horse milk for the first time, offered by a young girl speaking quite good English. In fact, she was a Mathematics/Programation student in Bishkek, back home during summer vacation. Taking care of horses seemed slightly different from working for Bill Gates and we wished her to fulfill her dream soon.

After the efforts, came the comfort: we had a downhill of 600m of difference in height. From 3500m to 2900m in one short! Wouahhh!!!!



The scenery varied a lot: from mountains with green grass and free horses running around to red cliffs, so rich of mineral.


In some places, without the yurts and the kids waving and shouting "goodbye" (instead of "hello" in other countries) at us , with all those pines forest, we could have thought to be in Austria....


We were also surrounded by the nature's perfume: the grass, the herbs, the flowers... all offered us their best scent with which we gladly  filled up our lungs.


We crossed, on the opposite direction, a Korean guy who intended to be the first Korean cyclist over the Pamir with a Bromton (you know, this little folding bike!!!!). We don't really know what pleasure he could feel out of this but are sure that he would struggle a great deal. He seemed to be animated by some weird sens of competition: as we talked, two other cyclists appeared, the closer they got, the more nervous he became - he didn't want to be caught up by this couple of Slovenian who, on the other side, willingly spent some time chatting with us. We asked them to send our greetings and warm thoughts to Jeff and Xaviere, our friends from www.yeuxdenfants.com, as we knew they were somewhere behind.

Shortly before 3PM, Fred and Brigitte decided to stop, after 65km - the wind, faithful to our faces, was too exasperating to continue. But we wanted to be in Osh as soon as possible, so we said goodbye and continued confronting Eole for another 30 km. We had to peddle hard even on downhill!

In a random village along the road, a young boy gave us a middle finger (!!!) It was simply too much. Alessio braked sharp and made a U turn: what's your problem? The boy, as brave as smart, ran away and continue giggling as he found the (not a) joke funny. It put Alessio of course in not a nice mood and in an even less nicer mood when two boys came to our camp spot, wandered around without a word then left...

The next day, it was an another everlasting pass. The turtle that I was kept on going slowly, patiently but I had to admit that it became annoying at some point. It reminded me of those never-ending passes of Armenia: I got so bored and decided that the top should be at the next bend, then I looked up and realized that this next bend would be only in one hour or so...

But, even a turtle could climb a mountain, we finally arrived to the top around 1PM and met up there with the Polish/Slovak group who, despite all the efforts, stayed so joyful and punchy. The next 60 km to Osh would be downhill and flat, we decided to wait for Fred and Brigitte who finally caught up with us shortly before 3PM, after a long tea pause 500m away.

After having a big watermelon, we decided to give the peel to a cow nearby. She was so fond of it, followed Alessio like a big dog and even ate it from his hands. Fred tried to experiment a cow feeding and they both seemed to enjoy it



Monday, July 13th

We arrived to Osh around 9 AM. Suddenly, there were too many cars, too much noise, too many people.... For the first time, we enjoyed arriving to a city. In fact, after Pamir where we hardly crossed 5 cars a day, we'd been even craving for some noise!!!! We decided to go to Baiana, recommended by some other cyclists. The receptionist greeted us with a broad smile, which made us feel comfortable right away. She hardly spoke English so I, once more, had to use my broken Russian.
My Russian is more than basic but did help a lot. I sometimes wonder how I could be perceived and treated in Europe, let's say, in France with a level of French as low as my Russian. Is there any chance that people might think I am a bloody ignorant immigrant or, at best, a rude ignorant tourist???? Here, as everywhere in Central Asia and in Caucasus, people are very much tolerant and rather excuse themselves from not speaking French or English than to look down on me and my poor Russian.

So, in Baiana, we had a super deluxe room with perfect shower, huge bed, enormous living room (!!!) where we could store all our luggage, and jumbo breakfast for 1500 Som (around 24$, a fortune but worth every cent of it). Almost all guests were cyclists and we were happy to find Pierre and Maxime (www.maxlecyclochard.org). Jeff and Xaviere on the other side, stayed at an another guesthouse not far.

At the bazaar, we found the famous "Master of bicycles" who fortunately, had the piece we needed for my bike. He could be a master but definitely not a tender man: the way he hammered my fork made me almost cry of pain. Alessio had to stop him and found himself a smoother way to open it.

We also took advantage of bazaar to have fresh food. We had tremendous salads - our bodies were craved for veggies and fruits after almost a month of "starvation". What a pleasure to engorge all those fresh, delicious vitamins :-) :-). We also enjoyed real meat: 2,5kg of veal for 6 were just enough, not talking about puree, cheese.... :-) :-)

Thursday, July 16th, we finally left the hostel at 7:30 PM, just to roll a few km to set the tent in a harvested field.
Goodbye Osh, here are Potatoes on the road again!!!!

As we both were not in perfect shape, even though the road was smooth, we stopped after 68km, by a lake, under a big tree. It was the last day of Ramadan so people were quite over excited and we crossed some drunken since morning.
After a long nap, we opened the eyes at 4:23PM, just to have a glimpse of an yellow helmet disappearing behind the trees on the street: we knew one cyclist with this armor: Xaviere. Alessio immediately took my bike, ran after the helmet :-) and got back later, indeed, with Xaviere and  Jeff. We spent the evening together before splitting again the next morning, as we took two different ways to Bishkek.

But then, we caught up again with Fred and Brigitte. They saw us on top of a pass when they started from the bottom and stopped a car to send us a message. The car's driver was very much happy when he delivered the missive, with big gesture and big smile "two cyclists friends of you are behind!!!!".

That day, we stopped around 3PM, in a site that looked like an abandoned school.


It was not abandoned in fact but it was simply not very well maintained and closed during summer vacation. A young boy came, strutting a bit because it was his turn to keep the school's keys. Later in the evening, he came back with a gift from his parents: bread, kefir and cream. Kyrgyz could be colder and more distant than other Central Asian people, the mythical hospitality is still there somehow.

Sunday, July 19th, the suffering began!!!! We knew it: 100 km before Kazarman are shit, permanent bad roads with no asphalt but only gravels, rocks, bumps, uphill.... everything that make cycling painfully annoying or annoyingly painful.



Monday, July 20th. Fortunately, the weather was not too hot and Eole was elsewhere, otherwise, our battle against the road would have been even more difficult. Laboriously we gained meter by meter of those 1400m of difference in height, silently cursed the road, and some stupid guys who threw stones at us - I personally was too tired to show any reaction and just ignored their whistling and stones throwing....


3 PM, exhausted, I started being VERY grumpy. Fortunately, we arrived to the top, after 30km of uphill. Well, the downhill was not a piece of cake but a tough moment for our bikes, our arms and bums.... Then the wind rose, blew like crazy. We spent around 1h30 to find a place to set our tent.
After some unsuccessful attempts, we asked some nomads to set our tents near to them, their position and tents would protect us a bit from the wind.
The first family was very kind and showed us a small parcel behind their tents, between two families.


The woman from the second family didn't seem happy to see us there and almost asked us to leave "there is a good place to camp over there! If you are afraid of the wind, here you got the wind too". So I looked right into her eyes and said " We stay for only one night, tomorrow morning, we will go. The wind is so strong that our tents alone won't stand. But of course, if we bother you, we will leave. So, please, tell me, do we bother you? Do you want us to leave?". Then the two families argue for 10 mn before the woman, somehow despite herself, let us stay!


The wind was terribly strong and changing all the time, which made the tent setting a big proof of organization and coordination!!! Our "host" kindly offered us some cream, cheese and fresh kirmiz - the famous fermented horse milk, the national Kyrgyz beverage!

By the time we went to bed, the wind also stopped, we had almost a quiet night!!!!


The next day, we finally arrived to Kazarman around 12:30 and gave ourselves a long rest at a restaurant. We wanted to buy some fruits, while Alessio was choosing the apricots, the seller composed a big bag of different fruits, gave it to Alessio but pointing at me "this is for her" (!!!!!) In fact, we didn't realize right away but we already met him two days ago on the road. He offered us one big water melon, then another big melon but refused categorically our money - I had to "corrupt" his little son "give it to papa, OK?!"


The next 200km seem to be as bad, if not even worse, as what we had with relevant passes. Fred and Brigitte decided then to take a bus to cross the first pass.
Despite being food poisoned (Alessio) and having a horrible back pain (me) we decided to ride. It didn't last long. After 2h and several stops, Alessio, as white as he'd never seen the sun, asked for a pause and lied down, like a veggie, on the road's side while I watched out for a car big enough for the four of us (Alessio, me and our two bikes).

The first van didn't stop so I decided to stand in the middle of the road for the next time. The second one went only to the next village. After almost 1h30, we finally found someone willing to take us all with them. From the car's windows, we stared at the road (the driver drove like crazy, like all Kyrgyz drivers...) and knew that it was not worth cycling. In our state, we would have suffered too much!!!! The driver, very kind, was ready to bring us as far as he could but after 100km or so, we got off.

After 30 min, we arrived to a village and decided to we had rolled enough for the day (!!!!). When we asked a family with a "grassful" garden to set the tent, they simply declined with this unbeatable argument "Why do you want to sleep in the tent when you can sleep inside? We have a big room for you" (!!!) Indeed, the room was big enough for at least 8 cyclists :-) :-)

Aitolkun  normally lived in Bishkek but was back to her village for holidays. Very sweet, she offered us dinner, we declined several times - we could not bother her that much - but it was an error because it was delicious. To our thanks and compliments, she responded "and you didn't want it at first...." hahaha.

Friday, July 24th

We got ready to attack a new pass when Marko arrived - we already met up in Osh with this charming Slovenian lonely cowboy.


He kindly waited for us, well, rather for me because as you know, when it comes to stiff bad road, I am not a cyclist anymore but a turtle.... It took us more than 3 hours to arrive to the top, including chatting time with some mountain bikers, going downhill, followed by two 4x4 carrying tents, luggage, cooks, what a luxury (!!!!).


Around 3PM, we arrived to the famous Song Kul lake but it was so foggy that we didn't see anything. "It doesn't look at all like what I saw from internet" was our common statement :-) :-)

We set the tent quite far from the road and from any yurt. Anyway, a young boy, probably intrigued by our presence, came and observed calmly our bikes, our tents, our bags, us having diner.... We offered him a dish, which he accepted and gave back after two spoons: even a Michelin star's chef could not satisfy this exigent customer :-) :-). And he kept staring at us, almost absorbed, fascinated. We have to confess that we felt rather uneasy.

He kept asking how much our tent costed and when Alessio returned the question about this donkey, his eyes brightened like to say "What? Are you going to buy my donkey????". Poor little donkey, so cute, was beaten to blood. A moment later, his little brother came, on an another donkey. He answered to our greetings by a blank, cold gaze. When they finally left, with a defiant look, the little boy hit his donkey, right on his blooding head, the brother giggled. It drove Alessio out of him: he tok the bike, followed the boys, took their sticks and threw them away. Decidedly, we have very mix feelings about Kyrgyz!

The next day was an another exhausting one. Needless to say how bad was the road, how tired were we, how Alessio had to push my bike.... Moreover, it rained like cats and dogs, and all the kids we met were rude.... Fortunately, at the end of the day, we had a perfect spot with wonderful view of the sun getting out of the dark clouds, of the double rainbow


everything looked so fresh, no renewed after the rain that our tiredness and disappointment seemed to be washed away.



After a good night, our suffering also ended: we finally got to the paved road!!!! What a paradise :-)
:-)

(we cyclists, worship the God of Asphalt!!!!)


We caught up with Fred and Brigitte for lunch: they were staying in Kochkor. It would be our last encounter before long: maybe we would meet up again somewhere in Taiwan or Japan in winter...

Saturday, July 25th
We took the train to make the last 200km to Bishkek: the road is known to be boring and dangerous (for cyclists). It was very comfortable and cheap (2$ each, bike included).


We arrived to Bishkek at 10PM - too late to look for a guesthouse. The "Chief" of the station didn't want us to put the tent but kindly let us sleep in the waiting room. We were a bit scared of mosquitoes but finally had a good quiet night.


The next morning,  6AM, we enjoyed an unique moment when Bishkek was empty and noiseless :-). We decided to have a long rest here: our bodies, our bikes all need some maintenance :-) :-)

See you later!!!!