Follow the Mekong


 Getting a bus from Chengdu for some of the way was the only way to cover the over 2000km to the Laos border with more than 3,500 metres ascent in the 28 days left on my visa. The town of Litang is located at an altitude of 4,014 metres (13,169 ft) among open grasslands and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Its actual altitude is about 400 metres higher than Lhasa, making it one of the highest towns in the world.The thought of getting there by bus from Chengdu at only 500 metres of altitude was most attractive!

Litang in the Tibetan Grasslands one of the highest towns in the world

After three weeks off the bike in Chengdu and Hong Kong I knew I had lost all the acclimatisation I had gained during weeks and weeks of cycling above 3000 metres and with some mountain passes of over 4,600 metres ahead of me, I was glad there was no direct bus to Litang and I had to break the journey and stop at a town called Kangding (2,900 metres) where I could begin to re-acclimatise.

Something I have loved about China is the daily dancing in the square in the evening. Everyone, young and old take part. In Kangding they was dancing in two squares and I had the chance to put to good use my ballroom dancing skills by asking local women to waltz with me much to the amusement of the locals.

On the way to Litang the bus climbed and climbed going through Tibetan villages with their fortress like houses, once again the yaks made their appearance, older people with weathered faces sat by the road constantly spinning their hand held prayer wheels and women combed their long hair outside their homes, thin plumes of smoke coming out of their chimneys. I was back in the Tibetan world.

Tibetan village
Spinning the prayer wheel
Little Tibetan girl

Litang felt like a place in the middle of nowhere. This sleepy town was the birth place of the 7th and the 10th Dalai Lamas and very much at the centre of Tibetan resistance to the imposition of the communist rule in the region and as a consequence was heavily bombed but life now had no obvious reminders of those days.

Cleaning yak butter lamps in the house where the 7th Dalai Lama was born
Young Monk at Litang Market
Yak butcher

One of the rituals that was forbidden from the times of the Cultural Revolution of 1960s until the 80s was the Sky Burial practice.  Visiting one of the local sky burial sites was my lasting memory of Litang.  It was nearly dusk when I went there with three French cyclists lodging in the same hostel as me. We threaded our way through the narrow streets of the village to an area in the mountainside covered in prayer flags, our breathing laboured due to the altitude. Rubble, discarded plastic bottles, old shoes and other rubbish scattered around; I could feel myself reacting to these surroundings, surely this environment wasn’t respectful of the dead. We reached the prayer flags but could see no evidence of sky burials. It was getting darker and the lights in the village below were coming on as we headed to a pile of stones on a slope to the side of the flags. To start with we came across a knife here and a feather there and then we saw big piles of discarded knives, scissors, axes, rocks marked by sharp instruments and a big block of wood whose scars made clear what it had been used for. Hundred of small fragments of human bones and feathers were scattered in bold spots in the grass. I shuddered, imagining the macabre feast that took place in those spots and then I remembered the words of the Zoroastrian couple I stayed with in Yazd (Iran): “Sky burials are a beautiful act of generosity, giving the human body back to nature”. I realised that for the second time in less than one hour the deeply engrained Catholic belief system of my upbringing had got on the way and I made a conscious effort to look at the place and the whole ritual with different eyes but I just couldn’t. It was time to get back to the hostel.

Prayer Flags near the Sky Burial site
Sky Burial tools

Over the next few days I stayed above 4000 metres plodding up to high passes. On a particular day I was delighted to have crossed a pass that was nearly 4700 metres high without much difficulty, I was tackling the second one of the day when the headwind started and I realised how close I was to the limit of my physical capability, I couldn’t stay on the bike any longer and I had to push my way through the second pass. I still had more than 10 kilometres of ondulations between 4600 and 4700 metres to the nearest village and I couldn’t go on, I had to stop and camp but where? All there was around me where big boulders and lakes. Eventually I saw a tiny piece of grass by the side of the road and pitched my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag. It rained non stop all night, in the tent it was like being inside a drum and in spite of being exhausted I found it difficult to sleep.

Endless climbing
Rabbit Mountain
Nowhere to camp

The following day I got up ready to climb the highest pass of the trip, 4716 metres. Soon it became clear I would never reach the nominal targets had given myself. It was then that sitting by the side of the road I met Pablo from Zaragoza in Spain How nice to meet someone with shared language and culture! We sat together for a while sharing stories and soon enough we decided to hitch a lift to the pass and if not successful camp as soon as possible. After a couple of failed attempts a tractor stopped and took us both and our bikes 10 kilometres up the hill towards the pass. Switchback after switchback the tractor climbed impossible gradients. It would have taken me hours and hours of pushing and half heartedly cycling to have covered that distance. It was the most wonderful of feelings to be standing on the muddy tractor’s cart, breathing its petrol fumes, seeing the cooling water spluttering out of its noisy engine whilst holding onto the bikes for dear life and seeing the village at the bottom of the valley getting smaller and smaller in the mellow light of the evening. I was exhiliariated, thrilled, happy. The moment was just perfect, I didn’t need absolutely anything else.

Pablo on a fully loaded bike climbing after the rain

At the pass it started raining but as we got lower down it stopped. We followed the most beautiful valley and found a good camping spot. Scrambled eggs with Chinese sausage, a beer and great conversation finished off an excellent day on the road. As I was going to sleep I made the decision to take a bus to Shangri-la and miss out on the last really big climb in China. Rationally I knew it was the right decision but I couldn’t help feeling a pang of disappointment at having to make it.

Beautiful after the rain
Camping by the road – loved having company!
Shangri-la at night
And in the day

From Shangri-la I cycled to Tiger Leaping Gorge which was as spectacular as its name promised.  The gorge it’s one of the deepest and most spectacular canyons in the world. It gets its name from a legend that tells how a Tiger jumped from one side of the gorge to the other to scale from hunters. I had come down a steep hill when the gorge came upon me all of a sudden and it took my breath away. To see the Yagtse, the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world,  the mother River as the Chinese call it, squeezed into such a  channel only 25 metres at its narrowest point was awe inspiring.

Entrance to Tiger Leaping Gorge


Tiger Leaping Gorge
The Yangtse unfettered

I was at a much lower altitude now and able to cope with the ondulating terrain enjoying some beautiful old towns and wondering around their markets.

Marker seller
Market butcher


Noodle seller

Feeling more energetic, I now could cover  longer distances on the bike fuelled by the food from small stalls which looked pretty dirty but as the food came from huge cauldrons of boiling stock I wasn’t too concerned about the state of the places.

As the daily distances got longer I found myself entering a meditative space – thinking a lot and at the same time not thinking at all. I revisited moments and situations if my life from the safety of time and geographical distance,  occasionally getting ‘light bulb’ moments that helped me understand myself a bit better.  I remember one day when I was sitting in the courtyard of an old Chinese house in a town called Dali,  a quiet, peace space with pots of azaleas and fuschias around a gold fish pond.  In my mind I went to my London garden and I saw myself planting ivy underneath its huge fatsia shrub,  adding clumps of colour with big pots of bulbs and annuals. I realised that the love of and for my daughters,  for my family and friends; the knowledge that my house and garden are waiting for me give me the deep roots I need to feel safe enough to be a nomad for a while.

Light bulb moment in Dali

As a nomad it is my second harvest time.  I was in Romania this time last year,  thousands of kilometres away,  in China,  I’m witnessing the same frantic activity: peasants harvesting the crops,  ploughing and feeding the fields, lighting fires to burn the scrub,  bent over by the weight of the huge bags of grain they are carrying on their backs. Scenes that have been repeating them unchanged for centuries.




The time for my visa was get tight so I caught my very last Chinese was to bring me 300 kilometres from the Laos border to a town called Jinghong. Once again a new world opened up,  this one full of tropical vegetation,  golden peacocks decorating the roofs,  Buddhist temples and statues of elephants and gorgeous Botanical gardens but then each part of China has been very different –  the Kasbah like old town of Kashgar,  the mud Amdo Tibetan villages,  the tents of the nomads in the grasslands,  the ochre and yellow Muslim houses of Gansu,  the fortress like towers and curvy tiled roofs of Si han,  the wooden houses in the rice fields near Guilin,  the castle like Kham Tibetan houses,  the stone courtyards in Dali and Lijiang  and now the golden peacocks of  Xixuangbanna. Like everywhere I’ve been,  this is not a homogeneous country,  houses,  people,  food it all points to difference.  It is these difference that is making my trip so fascinating  and yet it is what we have in common as human beings that is making it possible,  the ability to connect with the hundreds of people I’ve met in the 2,340 kilometres I’ve cycled in this country.

Jinghong Botanical Gardens
A world of Golden roofs

I was leaving Jinghong and had stopped at a bike shop to fix the mudguards of my bike damaged in my last bus journey. I asked directions to my next destination from the shop owner and totally blasse he answered: “Follow the Mekong” so off I went to find the mighty river. For quite a few kilometres, silently and with excitement, I repeated the instructions in my head: “Follow the Mekong”, “Follow the Mekong” what incredible directions I’ve been given, I thought, for him they may be quite ordinary, the same as for someone in London to say “get on the M25” but they conjured up all sort of exotic images in my mind.

Crossing the Mekong in Jinghong

Laos is somewhere near following the Mekong…



In search of a Chinese Visa in Hong Kong


And it really did feel like I was in a different China!

As I started the descent into Chengdu changes started to happen, imperceptible at first – in the villages Chinese flags began to appear next to the Tibetan prayer flags until they eventually replaced them completely; the yaks disappeared from the mountainside and with them the delicious yak yogurt stalls by the side of the road also went; people’s faces changed as did the clothes they wore.

Different symbols old and new started to appear

I reached a place called Wenzou after cycling through fields of ripening tomatoes, orchards of plums and other fruits. After weeks of being deprived of fresh fruit, I kept on stopping at road side stalls and having a feast.

In Wenzou,  for the first time I had problems finding accommodation, the first 7 hotels I went to didn’t accept foreigners but eventually I found one that did. Apparently the reason for this has to do with their ability, or lack of, to scan your passport, Visa page and last entry stamp and report it to the police. In the end it was just a question of doing the rounds.

Wenzou still has bike taxis, the first ones I’ve seen and a lovely market full of plums. Markets are still my favourites places. I love their activity, their noise, the smells and they are the perfect place for people watching.

Bike taxi
Plumbs of all colours

The road followed the valley of a tumultuous river. The area had been badly hit by a huge earthquake in 2008 which killed over 69,000 people and destroyed homes and infrastructure. After the earthquake, a new expressway linking the area of its epicentre with Chengdu had been built but I followed the quieter old road which went through villages and towns that once must have been prosperous with the trade generated by the road. Now, they looked sad with rows of empty roadside restaurants looking at me through their locked, dirty glass doors. I thought about the months of dust and noise the villagers had to endure during the construction of the expressway after having suffered the horrors of the earthquake and whether they were aware that they were witnessing their own demise.

An image of tranquillity now, the stage of a massive earthquake in 2008

I was really happy in the small, traffic-less road when some building works funnelled me into the expressway. Before I realized I was crossing tunnel after tunnel, more than 25 Km in total, with several over 5 Km long. Tunnels are scary on a bike, they are narrower than the road, dark, dusty, with bad road surfaces and they are noisy. The noise is  the scariest part, I could hear the big lorries from a long way away, the loud noise of their engines echoing in the tunnel. Each time I  waited for the sound of their horns as they warned me about their presence. The sound, even though I leaned to expect it, had an instant effect in my body – I would tense up, grab my handlebars really tightly and forget to breathe. After a while, like Pavlov’s dog, my body reacted in that way as soon as I heard them coming and before they sounded their horns.

One of the many lorries that passed me in the tunnels

I was glad to see the end of the tunnels but what I didn’t expect was to see lush tropical vegetation – huge bamboos, enormous creepers with big yellow trumpeted flowers, butterflies the size of birds. In two days I had descended more than 3000 mt into a subtropical world.

Lush, tropical vegetation everywhere

My next town before Chengdu was Dujiangyan, famous for its 2000 year old irrigation system. The town has many bridges to cross it’s many water channels. The water runs at high speed and crowds of people sit on the bridges to cool down, taking advantage of the draft created by the water. I walked for hours before sitting in a small restaurant in a side street where I chose the food by the pictures in the dirty menu I was presented with. I didn’t have a clue  what I would be getting, it was beef and soon I felt the tingly feeling in my mouth one gets when the chemicals in the Sichuan peppercorns get to work: a mixture of heat, tingliness and numbness, not unpleasant but really strange.

The following morning I heard music and saw people dressed in white and pink gathering outside the local Confucius Temple, curious I went to see what they were doing. It was one of those magical moments – soft Chinese music, the gentle movements of the Tai Chi practitioners, their delicate hands, the concentration in their faces, the heat, the humidity, the noise of the cicadas in the trees, the backdrop of the temple. It felt I had indeed entered a different world, an ancient one with lots of history and tradition. I was relaxed and at peace and could’ve sat there the whole day listening to the soft music and watching the harmonious Tai Chi movements.


When I arrived at Rae’s house, my Warmshowers host in Chengdu, she was so welcoming, so generous that I felt instantly at home with an old friend. She introduced me to other cyclists that had stopped for a while in the town to fill up their coffers before continuing their journeys. Once more I was part of a small community in which conversation was easy and points of reference shared. It was only then that I realised how much effort I made to communicate on a day to day basis, even for the simplest of things.

I left my beloved Foxtrot with Rae an Tilly (Rae’s bike) to go to Hong Kong to get another Chinese visa. I always find it really hard to be separated from her but it had to be done!

I caught a train to Guilin, I wanted to see the river Li and the rice terraces, the stereotypical images of China. It was a long train journey but I enjoyed the spectacle from the window – the tiny villages surrounded by bamboo and eucalyptus forests, their wooden houses with tiles roofs, the peasants in straw hats collecting tea or carrying loads balanced at each end of a bamboo pole, the wooden boats floating in the rivers, the enormous banana trees, the ripening rice in the paddy fields…

Life inside a train compartment in China is busy with constant comings and goings to the boiling water tap to make tea and cook instant noodles, people glued to their smart phones watching films in their tiny screens,  others clipping their toe nails whilst children run around and make demands of the adults as the ‘little emperors’ the one child policy has made them into. All the while, the trolleys keep going up and down the train selling their fares which changed depending of the time of the day – rice soup and dumplings in the morning, hot meals at lunch and dinner time and fruit and snacks throughout the day. You can buy anything in the train, including toys and power banks!

Guilin was a lovely city built around the most dramatic limestone karst hills with two lakes at its heart, spectacular pagodas lit up at night representing the sun and the moon and a lively food night market.

Chinese Disneyland, the sun and the moon

I climbed one of the hills in the middle of the town, Old Man Mountain, to get a better view of the city. It was really hot and humid and on my way down I stripped to my underwear and joined the locals for a swim in one of the lakes. Being in the water made me think  of my friend Kath and how much she would have enjoyed this. At that moment I had an overwhelming desire to have a companion to share all these experiences with. It’s wasn’t that I felt lonely but…

Guilin built around karst hills

Guilin was a base to explore the ancient town of Daxu, over 2000 years old and founded during the Qing dynasty, Daxu was a commercial hub due to it’s proximity to the river Li. Very little is left of those busy days, old Daxu was quiet on the rainy day, no tourists and only a few locals going about their daily lives.

Daxu on a rainy day
Getting dinner ready in Daxu

Guilin was also the base from where to go to the river Li. I loved being an ordinary tourist for a couple of days. I even took an organised tour to the Longdi rice terraces!!!!

Beautiful river Li
Rice terraces

One more train and a ferry and I made it to Hong Kong. Arriving there was a bit of a culture shock, neon lights, people, shops, Marks and Spencer!!!! Friends, old and new, all from the 4 Deserts family, rallied around to help me. Four different families gave me a roof over my head, treated me to fish and chips, cheesecake,  curry and dim sum. With them I went to walks in the Peak and a Moon Festival party in a Hong Kong rooftop. With Free to Run I went for a hike with refugees around one of Hong Kong reservoirs and was able to see first hand the amazing work they do. I loved staying with them all and they made a stressful time waiting for my visa bearable.

Hong Kong – new
And old

After 10 days in Hong Kong I got my visa and I was thrilled. That very day, after saying goodbye to my friends, I took a flight to Chengdu, got back to Rae’s and got reunited with Foxtrot again.

Foxtrot saying goodbye to Tilly!

Part two of my Chinese journey could commence.

I can’t believe I’m in ‘China’!!



During my  11 days in Osh I hardly moved from the hostel. I  was so exhausted that, at the beginning, I seriously wondered whether it was time to go back home.  However, as days went by and I felt more rested, the urge to get back on the road returned and on the 8th of July, exactly a year after I had left London I was on my way to the Chinese border.

Say Tash from a nearby hill – from here to China!

One year!!!  How fast it seems to have gone. During that time I have experienced the pass of the seasons.  I have seen the crops ripen on the fields,  be harvested,  be sown.  I have felt the rain,  the wind,  the sun and the snow in my skin.  I have seen huge rivers,  high mountains,  and big deserts.  I have heard lots of different languages and seen the features in people’s faces change.  I have tasted lots of different foods and I have enjoyed the generosity of many people from many countries…These experiences are changing me – my body has changed,  I don’t know whether the lines in my face have increased with the exposure to the elements,  whether my skin has sagged but I know I’m the fittest I’ve ever been; I know that emotionally I feel more calm and at peace with myself. Of course I miss my loved ones,  fiercely sometimes,  but I wouldn’t want to be anybody else or be anywhere else. I feel the richest woman on earth and immensely grateful for the chance I have to explore this beautiful planet. 

Harvest time again


Saying goodbye to my lovely host

I cycled the remaining 70 Kyrgyz km that separated me from the Chinese border in brilliant sunshine,  amongst beautiful mountains dotted with nomads’ yurts and slept my last two nights in Kyrgyzstan in those yurts.

Crossing the border took the best part of a day. On the Kyrgyz side, heavily armed militarily personal checked my passport several times and on the Chinese side I had to cross  three checkpoints. In the first one they checked the visa.  After a three km ride on a road as smooth as silk with  barbed wire on one side and the river on the other I arrived at the second checkpoint where all the panniers were x-rayed and  their content examined by a zealous young official and I was packed into a taxi that would take me to the third and final checkpoint 150 km away where finally I got the stamp in my passport –  I’d  made it to China!

The road to China


Between checkpoint 1and 2

I was with Dietrich,  a Swiss cyclist I met in Sary Tash and together we cycled down a broad empty avenue into what felt like a ghost city – huge buildings,  huge roads and not a soul in site. After being refused in a hotel we found one that accepted foreigners and settled in.  After such a long time in the mountains it felt strange and exciting being in a town.  At the supermarket, I felt like a child in a toy shop!

Kashgar greeted us the next evening after a long ride through the desert. Kashgar,  such evocative place,  an important stop on the ancient Silk Road, its history stretches over 2,000 years. It’s a real shame that not much of its old town remains having been bulldozed down to the ground to make way to the big modern city.  What remains though is magical and I enjoyed getting lost in its narrow streets,  wondering in the huge Sunday bazaar and eating in its night market.


Through the desert towards Kashgar
Kashgar Old Town


I couldn’t leave Kashgar without visiting the Sunday animal market. When the crowded  local bus that was taking us there started  overtaking  dozens of small vehicles with sheep, I knew we were getting near the market.

The market was amazing. Noise,  dust,  people trading.  At the  entrance of the market  the food stalls were teeming with customers having soup served from huge cauldrons of boiling liquid. Groups of sheep were tied to wooden posts nearby waiting to be slaughtered, no hiding what you are eating in here!



Food in the night market

Rows and rows of animals were in display waiting to be sold,  people were trading noisily,  the buyers looking inside the animals’ mouths, the sellers carefully trimming the wool  in the bottom of the sheep to display their fat deposits. A truly fascinating place.

Trading is a serious business
Beautifully groomed – see my bottom fat!

Urumqi was my next stop.  A night bus took Foxtrot and me there and from there I took a train to Xining from where I started cycling to Chengdu. Sending the bike as cargo was really  easy but I felt quite anxious being separated  from it. Buying my ticket was another matter,  I queued for over one hour at the only counter with an English speaking member of staff. I was amazed at the patience displayed by everyone in the queue,  specially as these people had had to show their ID several times to police and military personal.  Urumqi has a very  visible police presence ready to crush any Uyghur insurgency,  armored vehicles and armed  military are everywhere. It reminded me of the streets  of the Basque country when I was  young.

I said goodbye to Dietrich and got into the bullet train that would take me to Xining were I got reunited with Foxtrot and started in earnest exploring China on a Bike.

First I went to Qinghai Lake, the largest in China,  located over 3000 meters high in the  Tibetan Plateau.  The lake and the sand dunes around it were beautiful but I found the Tibetan Disneyland with its flags,  archery,  camels,  horses,  quads,  karaoke noisy and invasive. Anything is a business opportunity here,  even the rapeseed flower fields have an entry fee and they are full of people having their picture taken amongst the flowers.

Qinghai Lake popular with cyclists
Qinghai Lake

From the lake I continued climbing,  crossing high passes of nearly 4000 mt covered in prayer flags.  This is so different from the Pamir, so much more welcoming –  grasslands and nomads with their herds of sheep and yaks everywhere.

High passes covered in flags

One day I camped next to some nomads’ tents I woke up to the sound of sheep insistently rubbing against my tent.  They just wouldn’t go away and smiling I wondered whether they thought the tent was a big mound of grass to munch on!   It was very peaceful outside,  the sun was coming from behind the mountains, yaks all around,  small little mice with big ears were everywhere coming out of their underground tunnels and small birds were hopping around.  With a hot mug of coffee and snuggled up in my warm sleeping bag I felt totally contented.

Camping with nomads

Miles away, physically and emotionally from my London home I thought about how different my life there was from that of the family of nomads next door and how much unnecessary stuff I’ve accumulated throughout the years.  Their tent was so simple,  a solid fuel stove took center stage in the tent,  it’s flue sticking out through a hole in the ceiling.  There were no floor coverings on the well trodden wet earth.  The furniture  was sparce,  a double bed and a single bed standing in  brissblocks,  two small cupboards,  one of them with what looked like a battery to power the single bulb hanging from the ceiling and a a sort of TV.

The night before I had sat in the small bed whilst the father of the family dozed on the big one. Unable to speak the language,  I  sat and watched the woman lighting the cooker with yak dung cakes,  using a piece of rubber as the ignition.  The cooker resisted being lit and she only  succeeded after several attempts. Then she busied herself tidying the tent.  The china went in one cupboard,  but only some of it,  the other remained in a plastic bucket with a lid. Vegetables were piled in one corner whilst in the opposite corner the bags of yak dung cakes sat; all the while the little mice were running around undisturbed. By now the tent was full of smoke from the failed attempts to light the fire. After a while I left for my tent and as I was going to sleep I could hear them chatting and I found the sound of their voices really comforting.

The Tibetan Plateau is always at its best bathed in the early morning light, its golden, misty quality making making everything look just beautiful. In the Amdo region, one of the three traditional regions of Tibet,  I rode through grasslands and high passes crowned with hundreds of prayer flags, some of then had big burners smouldering with the embers of juniper branches and in all of them I found little pieces of paper thrown out of the windows of cars as offerings.

Wonderful in the morning light
Burners with offerings

Motorbikes have replaced horses here and whole Tibetan families, in their traditional costumes, go from A to B on them. The sound of motorbikes can be heard everywhere, shepherds use them to guide their herds of yaks, people carry harvested crops, water, babies… they are everywhere.

The modern horse

I went through towns and villages and I encountered the Yellow river, the third longest in Asia and the sixth in the world, still close to its origin and  small but impressive.

My wheels were taking me to some of the holiest monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism. The path to the monasteries could not have been more beautiful, emerald green grasslands packed with flowers, honey sellers in their tents by the side of the road, yaks happily munching, women milking yaks, children playing…

Monks getting ready for the debate

Longwu Monastery in Rebkong is one of the major monasteries of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) Tibetan Buddhism, the sect of the Dalai Lama. It was founded in 1301, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and now has been rebuilt and is home to hundreds of monks that engage in lively philosophical debates. I loved witnessing one of the debates with the sound of thunder from a brewing storm in the background.

Monk studying
Detail of the Monastery’s roof

Labrang Monastery in Xiahe home to the largest number of monks outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region, it is Tibetan Buddhism’s most important monastery outside the Autonomous Region. The place was packed with Chinese tourists but at 5am when I went to listen to the early morning prayers of the monks I had it for myself.

Labrang Monastery
Figure made with yak butter

Langmusi was my final monastery stop in Amdo. It was in Langmusi where I became aware that something had shifted within me since I finished the Pamir Highway. In my mind, I had made it into such huge milestone in my trip that, right from the beginning, it was forever present. It was like if a part of me was constantly worrying about whether I would be able to cycle it, to meet the self imposed deadline of May/June and now that I had done it, I could relax and slow down. Suddenly I was no longer in a rush to get anywhere. So when the opportunity to stay an extra day in Langmusi and visit some local hot springs came up I grabbed it.

I arrived at the hot springs with Kfir, Eithan (two travellers I had met first in Xiahe) and Joanna a Polish woman travelling with her three young children. The building that housed the women’s pool was a big concrete square with columns inside.

The pool room

As I entered the pool room I was hit by a sulphurous smell coming from a big pipe filling the pool. About 60 women of all ages sat inside the water on the slimy and slippery wooden boards that made the bottom of the pool. Many of the women sat bare breasted, their turquoises and amber necklaces hanging from their necks as a sign of their wealth and status. Women were massaging one another, rivulets of dirt and dead skin falling in the water, others were drinking that same water with cut out plastic bottles, whilst at the same time, others were nursing their babies, chatting or helping the old and frail to get into the pool and yet others were praying. Children, like children anywhere in the world, splashed in the water and shrieked with delight the sound of their voices echoing in the space.

There were no changing rooms, just a concrete bench around the pool room where piles of Tibetan outfits and some wonderfully colourful trousers with matching tailored jackets and turban like head dresses sat in disarray. The water was too hot for me so after a little while, I came out to sat in the bench amongst the clothes and enjoyed watching the women and children.

My next stop was Song Pan. I had been there before with eldest daughter Emma in 2007 and I was expecting to find the quiet small village from where we went horse trekking. Nothing further from the truth – restaurants, yak meat sellers, neon signs, shops, hundreds of Chinese tourists. The sleepy little town had gone forever. It was, however, the perfect place from where to explore the spectacular Jiuzhai Valley located right on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The park receives over 36,000 visitors a day in high season and I was dreading being amongst so many people. I was lucky, Chinese tourists don’t like walking very much so I had big expanses of the park to myself and quietly enjoy its beauty.




Not having had enough with Jiuzhai, the following day I went to Huanglong Park, smaller, more intimate and less crowed, I found its travertine landscape exquisite.




The parks were my farewell to the Tibetan Plateau, they were like the grand finale of and spectacular firework display.

Back in Song Pan I started the long descent into Chengdu and Han China.



Solo in the Pamir Highway


I have a healthy respect for mountains and the Pamir Highway being the second-highest road in the world with several passes over 4,000 mt (13,000ft), the highest standing at a serious 4,655mt (15,272ft),  deserved all my respect.  I had never planned to cycle in the Pamir on my own but circumstances meant I ended up doing it solo,  something I wasn’t fully happy about. 

The Persians called the Pamir “the roof of the world”. The highest peaks in the world are in the Himalayas but the Pamirs are the main orographic crux in Asia from which the highest ranges in the world radiate: the Hindu Kush to the northwest, the Tien Shan system to lhe northeast, the Karakorum and Himalaya ranges to the southeast.

rps20160703_095538In its full length,  the Highway goes from Osh, Kyrgyzstan and traverses the whole of Tajikistan to end in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.  I cycled it from Dushanbe to Osh via the Northern route to Kala-i-Khumb and the Wakham Valley. 

I stayed in Dushanbe a few days.  I really needed a rest after Uzbekistan. Vero,  a Warmshowers member,  provided the oasis of peace I desperately needed and a community of cyclists to  share stories,  tips,  meals…  I found myself feeling delighted having a little family for a few days but missing my loved ones even more.

My Dushanbe family
My Dushanbe family

Vero is one of the organisers of the Dushanbe Critical Mass and it felt really fitting to attend the event and get back on the road after it finished. It felt good being back on the bike and being with Edmund,  one of the cyclists I met at Vero’s. We followed a beautiful fertile valley,  the road edged by herbs and wild flowers.  We had a taster of storms,  the powerful wind of the region,  sadly headwind,  and the huge landslides that regularly block the road.

The road surface was pretty bad.   Carved in the side of the mountain, it followed a narrow  canyon with a very noisy,  chocolate coloured river forever present.  Clusters of rhubarb sellers sat by the side of the road and children came running to my encounter in villages trying to sell me freshly picked mulberries. I overtook shepherds  taking their flocks to the higher pastures,  donkeys loaded with all their belongings.

Rhubarb sellers
Flocks moving to summer pastures

After a police checkpoint, in the golden light of the evening,  I crossed and iron bridge and the road got even worse and  narrower.  Excitement grew inside me,  a feeling I was entering a remote world. Me,  Blanca, was in the Pamir Highway!

Crossing this bridge I felt really excited

Over the next couple of days I had to ford rivers where the road had totally dissappeared; each time I had to take all the luggage of my bike and do several trips  until everything was on the other side.  Those times I wished I was bigger and stronger or with someone else,  life would have been easier then. I also had to stop regularly to rest,  each time I told myself it was a good thing as it gave me the opportunity to look around. With the bad state of the road,  it was too dangerous to cycle and look.

Several times the road just disappeared

In the Northern route to Kala-i-Khumb I encountered my first high pass 3,252 Mt,  the Saghirdasht pass. I was really nervous about it,  what would feel  like with my heavy bike? I camped in the last village before the pass to give myself a whole day to cross it.  The whole village knew I was there.  Soon I was surrounded by women and children,  someone brought me bread an creamy yoghurt and someone else invited me to go to their house. I declined the offer,  somehow I didn’t have the energy to be social.  I needed my all for the cycling.

Children loved my bike

The following day,  as I was leaving the village,  a really old man bent over his cane offered me tea, his generosity moved me.  As I joined the “main” road tears were prickling  my eyes.  Once more I felt immensely lucky.

After some serious pushing amidst thunder echoing in the adjoining valleys I reached my first high pass.  I had made it! The descent wasn’t easy but the landscape was stunning and by late afternoon I reached Kala-i-Khumb and rejoined the M41 that would take me to Khorog where I would leave it again to follow the WakhamValley.

Luckily the storm didn’t come my way
Happy to have reached the pass
The road down from the pass to Kala-i-Khumb
Saturday Shopping

Just after Kala-i-Khumb I had the chance to visit the Afghan Market. Tajiks and Afghans were busy trading,  I wandered around the market soaking up the atmosphere and I closed my eyes to listen to the hubbub of shoppers and sellers.  With my eyes closed I felt I could be back in one of the London markets on a Saturday morning.

The road went through villages and in each one of them hords of children came running to say hullo,  asking  my name,  demanding a high five and standing in front of my path as they did so.  I found myself getting really crossed with them in a totally irrational way and thinking:  “it’s the kids and not the lorries,  the landslides or the bad roads that were the real hazards!” I just wanted to be left alone with my cycling!!!

In this section of the road there were lots of big Chinese lorries  pulling big trailers.  They arrived in caravans of 3 or 4 and you heard them getting close enveloped in huge clouds of dust.  The road is so narrow that it’s necessary to stop and let them pass,  there is not enough room for them and a bike. For a moment the world dissappeared in dust,  only to appear again in its full glory,  mountains,  the river and Afghanistan just a few metres away on the other side.

Looking back at the road cycled. Afghanistan is on the left of the picture
Afghan houses across the river

In this section too I had some wonderful encounters: The lorry driver that gave me some apricots that were pure nectar; Lluis and Jenn walking from Bangkok to Barcelona with whom I shared precious exchanges by the side if the road; Sabir,  a Pamiri de-miner working to get rid of the landmines that litter the countryside in this part of the country who told me his dreams and hopes;  three little children that were my friends for the afternoon and Edmund whom I thought I wouldn’t see again.

Delighted to see my friend again!

The road was incredibly beautiful and continued next to the river with its ups and downs,  the sound of the water echoing of the walls of the canyon,  all the way to Khorog. I cycled and pushed and just before Khorog I faced some fierce headwind but I was determined to get to the village which held the promise of a shower and an Indian restaurant.


After 4 days in Khorog and 4 curries it was time to enjoy the Wakham Valley.  I remembered looking at the map at home in London thinking how close that was to Afghanistan and wondering how safe it would be and now here I was.

Wakham Valley

Afghanistan was closer than ever.  I followed the beautiful Valley, huge bushes of   pink and white dog roses everywhere. A football match in progress in a village in the Tajik side and a few hundred metres ahead another football match in the Afghan side reminded me that we are not that different after all.

When at a turn of the road I saw very big, snowy mountains I felt the excitement grow inside me.  Opening my eyes to them in the morning to them was pure joy.  I love mountains.

Serious WOW factor!


The views got more dramatic – mountains,  deep canyons and valleys,  Pamiri villages with their square houses and water running everywhere,  shrine like places full of horns of animals,  iron rich water springs dying the soil red.  I gloated on it all and eventually got to Langar from where I turned North to rejoin the M41.


A high pass was between me an the M41.  At 4,344 mt,  the Khargush pass was the highest I had climbed in this trip. The road was worse than ever,  washboards and sand mixed with gravel made me have to push quite a lot.  I camped just below the Khargush pass,  more awe inspiring views in a bleak kind of way.  The pass,  however,  was a bit of a non event.  I only realised I had gone through it when the road kept on going down.  It really felt very remote inside a deep,  very hot canyon like valley.  I went down and down,  having to get off my bike every now and again because of the sand and the washboards. Eventually I made it to the asphalt road and I thought I was flying when I reached the settlement of Alichur.

On the way to Khargush pass
Lunar landscape


Sunset from my tent
The road to Alichur


And in the middle of nowhere Alichur

From there to Murghab was a great ride in an asphalt road with tailwind.  It was such a relief to be able to get some sort of rhythm in the cycling and to met quite a few cyclists,  the highlight being a group of four women going in the opposite direction. They gave me a real burst of energy. Smiling,  I was more able to enjoy the astonishing landscape with incredible rock formations,  mountains,  side valleys.  I was in awe most of the day.

Wonderful road encounter!
Murghab here I come

In Murghab I had a lovely surprise,  not only I met with Marko, a cyclist from Slovenia that I had met a couple of times earlier but also saw Tina and Serban,  and Marc and Fabrece some Swiss cyclists that I had first met in Khorog.  It  was a great reunion. Beers were had and stories exchanged. Amazing how close one feels to people quickly in these far away lands. And the biggest surprise of all was meeting James whom I had met in the UK at the first Cycle Touring Festival, incredible to meet again in the middle of nowhere.  I was very moved by the meeting.

Murghab container bazaar

I then had a day off the bike being a tourist on a 4×4 with Marko. We stopped at salt lakes infested with mosquitos, at yurts where we were offered yak cream and yoghurt,  at remote villages in the border with China,  at the highest (in elevation) sand dunes in the world…

Off the bike and being driven – nice change!


Local herder


Chinese border
Highest dunes in the world

The next leg of the trip was to the Kyrgyzstan border via the lake Karakul and the highest pass of the Highway,  Akbaital pass at 4,655 mt. And slowly, very slowly I climbed to the pass enjoying the extraordinary colours in the mountains around me. The change of scenery the other side of the pass was amazing.  A truly lunar landscape greeted me as well as a ferocious headwind. I had  had headwind since Murghab but now it was so strong that I had to put my waterproof on because I felt really cold.

Feathering in the mountains
Sign to the pass
Stunning colours
Lunar landscape after the pass

Going down needed all my concentration,  again gravel and washboards.  I stopped regularly to look at this wide valley with nothing,  nothing but bare mountains and some abandoned buildings here and there. And then I saw lake Karakul,  impossibly blue.  A  note of bright colour in the middle of this monochrome world.  If I hadn’t seen it myself and someone had show me a photo I would have said that it was photoshopped.

Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate!
Beautiful Karakul

In Karakul I stayed in a nice and basic homestay.  A bucket of warm water provided a blissful shower and a steamy bowl of soup a welcome change from the instant noodles that had been my camping diet.

Suddenly,  Kyrgyzstan wasn’t far away.  Only two more mountain passes away.  Altogether I would have crossed 6 to get there from Dushanbe  (4 over 4000 mt).

Last pass before Kyrgyzstan

The Kyrgyz side was once more populated. Yurts dotted the land at the foot of huge 7000+mt peaks.

Lenin peak
Sary Moghul bazaar
Yurt village

In Sary Tash it was lovely to meet again with my 4 Swiss friends with whom I continued all the way to Osh always accompanied by headwind!  

Lovely Swiss friends at the pass
Lenin welcomes me to Osh

The Pamir Highway required all  my energy. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life.  At the end of it I felt exhausted physically and emotionally. I am sure that when I’m rested and I look back at the 1,374 km I rode between Dushanbe and Osh,  at the raw beauty of the landscapes I went through; when I think about the kindness of the Pamiri people and the smiles of their children,  I will know how much the experience has enriched me but right this second a siesta is what is called for!











The magic of Iran


Iran, a land that conjures up images of Arabian Nights (las Mil y una Noches), deserts, blue tiled mosques, narrow alleys, ancient history, Silk Road caravans and also images of war,  mullahs, death penalty, compulsory use of the hijab, women as second class citizens, censorship…I have been here for over a month and a half and have fallen in love with the place.

When I crossed the border from Armenia into Iran the landscape changed instantly.  From the dramatic mountains, I entered a desert where fruit trees flowered in a thin strip of cultivated land. I mused about how much man can change a landscape, here was a piece of desert transformed into an orchard.

An orchard in the desert

I thought I had left the cold behind but some unseasonable storms brought in a lot of snow and an enforced stop. It was a lucky stop as I met Jai Lun, a young man from Taiwan with whom I cycled for a few days. It was pretty wonderful to have company, someone to share food with, someone to decide where to pitch the tents at the end of the day and talk about the events on the road, the villages we had been to and the people we had met, and someone with whom to plan the next day. It gave me a glimpse of what must be like to cycle in company and I was sad to part ways with him.

It was an interesting experience being with a man in Iran though as I observed how suddenly I became invisible and people addressed themselves to him and not me.

Jai Lun feeling cold after crossing a 2000mt pass
Busy Tabriz bazaar

Tabriz was the first big city I visited. The town was busy getting ready for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year. The bazaar, one of the most important commercial centres of the  Silk Road was teeming with people busy buying gifts for friends and family. It was the first time that I saw large numbers of women wrapped up in chadors, the black cloaks some Iranian women wear in public. Chadors dont have any buttons so women need to hold them with their hands and a lot of them put a corner in their mouths to stop them from falling off. Looking at them I thought about how restricted their movement must be,  constantly having to worry about them staying in place. I must say that it wasn’t a sight I relished. 

Iranians love sugar in all its forms

Iranians roads were busy with families travelling  the width and length of the country visiting elders and other relatives as part of the Nowruz celebrations. When drivers got tired they just erected tents by the side of the road and in city parks (it is legal to camp in public parks in Iran), shoes in neat rows outside the tents.  Groups of people were having picnics everywhere. Seeing so many people camping out made me feel instantly safe.

Zanjan bazaar
Soltaniyeh Dome

Iran is full of wonders: Magic bazaars, Zanjan with its wonderful brick work, Shiraz a real maze with caravansarais, mosques and bath houses within it. The blue Soltaniyeh dome, one of the largest brick domes in the world, standing 49 mts tall. The beautiful city of Isfahan that captivated me with its beautiful mosques covered in ceramic tiles, its monumental bridges over the river, its decorated Armenian church and its palaces and gardens. And special Shiraz with shrines of saints and mausoleums of poets.

Breakfast time!

It has been wonderful being in this country, eating in small roadside cafes and spending time with people. People from all walks of life have open the door of their homes  to me.  A young photographer and a older Armenian couple in Tehran,  a carpet weaver  in  Gishi,  a shopkeeper/marathon runner in Marand, a mountaineer in Hasthguerd, an environmental activist in Qazvin, an artist in Zanjan, cyclists in Isfahan, a Zoroastrian couple in Yasd…To many to mention them all here although I carry each of them in my heart.

And each time I felt  utterly privileged to sit with them on the carpet around a spread of delicious food: yoghurt, breads, fruits, nuts,  pastries,  salad,  yoghurt drink and of course gorme sabzi,  a delicious home made lamb stew.

And in the morning,  after sleeping on the same carpet,  I  enjoyed flat bread covered in sesame seeds with cream and honey whilst having conversations about hopes for the future of Iran and of their children before saying goodbye with warm embraces.



Beautiful Isfahan

The ride across the desert between Isfahan and Yasd was memorable. It was after I left the carpet weaver in Gishi that I reached the small town of Varzaneh, an agricultural oasis in the middle of the desert. The need of fertiliser for the crops gave rise to the building of dove houses where thousands and thousands of pigeons lived, their droppings a precious source of food for the arid ground.

Varnazeh Dove house

From Varnazeh I reached the desert dunes, some of the highest of Iran where I camped for the night. After pushing the bike in the sand for what felt like hours, I chose a spot surrounded by high dunes. As I was setting camp a strong wind made it really difficult to pitch the tent but I eventually succeeded. Then as it by magic, the wind stop and the desert was silent and peaceful in the sunset. I climbed a nearby dune, the sand hot underfoot. A beautiful sight welcomed me: sand dunes as far as I could see, glowing golden in the evening light. Sitting up there, alone in the middle of the quiet desert I lost track of time and it was only when night fell and I felt a shiver that I made my way back to the tent and into my sleeping bag.

On my way to the dunes!

In the middle of the night, I felt the tent shake and heard a mighty noise around me and what seemed to be rain hitting the tent. I was glad that I had secured it with some heavy rocks. As I lay awake in the tent I realised that I was in the middle of a sandstorm. I thought of my bike getting sand everywhere and the harm that that would do to it, but there was nothing I could do about it, I just had to sit tight and wait for it to pass. Eventually it did and the desert felt silent again.

Calm after the storm

I got up before sunrise, the desert was beautiful without a drop of wind. My footprints from the day before had disappeared and had been replaced by perfect ripples in the sand. Sand had got everywhere in my bike and I spent hours cleaning it to avoid damage to its components.

In search of the caravansarai

I left the dunes to cycle across more desert in search of the abandoned caravanserai  were I was hoping to spend the night. For hours I cycled in an unpaved road with nothing but desert either side of me. As I was going along I was thinking about all those caravans that centuries before me had been on this very track, how they would look at hills and mountains as reference points to help them find the refuge of the caravanserai and how as a modern traveller I was also seeking its refuge. I went pass a hill in the middle of the desert, incongruous in this flat land, the space around it littered with black rocks from its decomposing slopes. It was hot and I cycled for hours with nothing but desert around me.  Every now and again I saw camels wondering around.

Around 4 o’clock a strong wind started making it impossible for me to cycle. I walked for a couple of hours but at one point I knew I couldn’t carry on, I was knackered. After a while I found a spot by the side of the road with some piles of gravel and decided to camp there as the gravel would afford some protection against the fierce wind. It was then that I saw a cloud of dust in the horizon, a truck, the first one for hours, was approaching. There and then I decided to hitch a lift to the caravansarai. The truck stopped and the drivers helped me to pile everything inside the cabin. It took me quite a few attempts to convince them that I would be OK in the caravansarai as they were really concerned about my safety. Finally they agreed to take me there. The first sight of it in the light of the evening was of pure happiness, the same one travellers for centuries before me must have felt: I had arrived at Khargushi Caravansarai!

Nothing but camels!

The caravansarai had everything I needed, water in a well in the centre of its courtyard and a maze of rooms all around it. In my mind I could hear the noise and bustle of the place full of camels, donkeys, people, goods…

Khargushi, my hotel for the night

I settled to sleep after admiring the stars that littered the night sky. I had just drifted to sleep when a car entered the precinct, I heard the noise of their doors closing and some men shouting something I couldn’t understand. I laid very still in my sleeping bag and after a while, when it was clear that they weren’t going, I decided to face the newcomers without really knowing what I would be facing. The light of a torch blinded me and a man crouched by the tent, got a paper out of this pocket and read from it in English. It was then that I saw another man and recognised him as one of the truck drivers. They had  brought me water, bread and cheese and wanted me to go with them to a nearby mine where they offered me a place to sleep. I managed to persuade them that I was OK and finally they went and left me to enjoy the silence and loneliness of my refuge.

Coffee at the caravanserai

In the morning I explored the nooks and crannies of the place. It must have been a magnificent castle in its heyday.

Khargushi from its roof
Exploring the inside

Eventually I left Khargushi and continued cycling in the desert for two more days before I reached Yazd, a city with more than 5000 years of history that was once visited by Marco Polo.

Leaving the caravanserai behind

The architecture of the town is really interesting and different from that of other cities in Iran. Yazd has the largest networks of qanats in the world, and to deal with the heat many old buildings in Yaz have windcatchers, and large underground areas.

Yazd old town
Yazd main square

Zoroastrianism is strong in Yazd.  The city has a Tower of Silence , and a Fire Temple which holds a fire that has been kept alight continuously since 470 AD.

And from Yazd it was Shiraz, the city of the poets and of course Persepolis. Words fail me to describe the beauty of the place, I hope the photos convey some of it!




Now back in Tehran I am trying to nurse my knees back to health. Priorities in my nomadic life are down to the real basics: what will I eat today? where will I sleep? will it rain? will it be cold/warm? So much of my day is spent seeking physical comfort. Health is obviously a big one.  I listen to the niggles of my body and worry when all is not as it should. Right now, I’m obsessing about my knee. Overall, I am feeling well and strong and it would be tragic if all had to stop because I haven’t been disciplined enough to stretched at the end of each day. I know I am my own worse enemy sometimes, I know it only takes 10 minutes to do the exercises but do I do them? Now I have started in earnest and I really hope I haven’t left it too late for the knee to sort itself out because Central Asia awaits.


Getting further away from home

 IMG_0446I got a real sense of thrill when I crossed the border into the Iran after cycling through Georgia and Armenia,  two countries that up until now felt very remote and unreachable.
The day I crossed from Turkey to Georgia through the Black Sea border town of Batumi it was sunny and the sea was sparkling. I sat and took time to look at the silhouette of a mosque and the mountainous coastline I was leaving behind. I thought about how I would miss the calls to prayer from the mosques.  They had been marquing the time of the day during my stay in Turkey. It’s sound often woke me up in the morning and I would lie in my sleeping bag listening to the beautiful sounds coming from different mosques talking to each other, echoing each other.
Batumi is a lively city with really interesting architecture and the most beautiful tropical gardens but after all these months it was time to say goodbye to the Black Sea.   I camped on the beach and the day regale me with a beautiful sunset. In the morning, I turned my back on the sea and followed the course of a river swelled by the melting slow of the mountains and the recent heavy rain. In the deep valley, along its course were villages with square squat grey houses, smoke coming out of their chimneys. Hanging bridges joined the two sides of those villages spanning across both sides of the river. There was hardly any people around,  just the odd person here and there.
Typical Georgian village
Typical Georgian village
Headwind was my companion for a lot of my time in Georgia. Headwind is the one thing that sucks all my energy and gets at my spirit. Pushing against it in the lowest gear on a flat road for hours on end and getting nowhere is frustrating and disheartening.  At one point I had had enough and I just couldn’t keep encouraging myself any longer. I stopped by the side of the road and had a good cry, the first one this trip. I sensed that I was probably crying about more than the headwind but I couldn’t really say what was all about. All I know is that I felt a million times better afterwards and was ready to continue battling the wind.
Traffic jam in the main road between Tbilisi and Yerevan
I didn’t spend a lot of time in Georgia before I got to Armenia. I was really apprehensive, even scared about cycling in such a mountainous country but also looking forward to the scenery.
Heading for the mountains
With Armenia it was love at first sight. Amazing mountains, extraordinary monasteries and really friendly people.
In Armenia I made peace with wildcamping. Wildcamping has been a real struggle for me from the start. You can camp pretty much everywhere and people are encouraging and reassuring. In Armenia I camped in monastery grounds, beaches, woodlands…getting better at relaxing and getting a good night sleep.
IMG_0201In Armenia I pushed my bike uphill more than in the previous 9 months put together. Gradients of 12% are common and the road surfaces appalling. It was just impossible to cycle up those hills even in my granny gear but the scenery was worth the effort. Enormous canyons, huge snowy mountains, mirror like lakes, monasteries perching in the top of cliffs, villages hanging for dear life in the slopes.
Armenia’s landscape is untamed and dramatic, it is wild and it takes over. In a way I was glad to have to stop often, it gave me the excuse to admire nature in all its splendor.
I arrived in Yerevan when the trees were about to explode into flower. A few weeks later and the city would have been a bloom.
I saw the city through the eyes of Serge, a kind person who opened his house to me and who I know consider my friend. It is always wonderful to see a city through the eyes of someone who loves it.
Thanks to Serge I experienced Yerevan and Armenia in a deeper way than any of the other countries I have visited until now. I learnt about its history, about the Armenian diaspora, about the unrecognised genocide of its people, about their pride in their country, about cafes, farming, pigs and apricots…
International Women’s day in Yerevan
With Serge, I marched the streets of the city on International Women’s day, visited an NGO hub where lots of different organisations are working to make a difference, went to visit ancient monasteries and monuments, listen to church choir,  contemplated Ararat the sun rising  light and eat ice cream at midnight
Ararat  from Serge’s house
I could have stayed in Yerevan for months but the road and Iran called me and I left with promises of coming back.
Some of the gentle slopes I climbed
IMG_0441I continued pushing my bike up impossible gradients, crossing high mountain passes, sleeping in beautiful woodlands until I got to the border with Iran when all of a sudden the mountains where changed by a deserts. I had arrived in Iran.

Winter cycling in Turkey



It was cold in Central Anatolia. At night temperatures dropped down to – 20°C and didn’t manage to go above freezing point during the day.

The cold and snow and the lack of trees made the world  look like an unending icy dessert. For days I cycled on the roller coaster road that would take me to Cappadocia from Ankara.  All my concentration focused on avoiding the ice patches littering the hard shoulder were I was riding. I  was doing really well until I lost  concentration after a particularly steep climb.  I slipped over on some ice,  lost control of the bike and came crushing down on the tarmac ending up in the middle of the road which luckily was empty at the time.  It’s amazing how fast  the human brain works when left to it’s own devices. In what felt like a fraction of a second I thought I had to get myself and the bike of the middle of the road, kicked the bike which slid easily on the ice, stood up,  mentally checked myself over and got back on Foxtrot to carry on to my destination.

Ice patches everywhere

It wasn’t until I was warm and settled in the hostel that I noticed the pain on my side.  Breathing was painful and coughing,  laughing and sneezing was excruciating.  I must’ve bruised my ribs on the fall.  I gave myself comfort on the fact that ribs heal by themselves. Patience,  arnica to speed the healing,  Ibuprofen and paracetamol to control the pain that’s all I could do in the meantime.

Sleeping at night was hard but cycling in the day was OK,  the cold  being a very effective anaesthetic.  And so, I  continued towards Cappadocia.

Cave houses

Cappadocia, what a magical,  otherworldly place! I had never seen a landscape like that in all my travels.  Extraordinary rock formations scattered all over the countryside,  evidence of cave living everywhere,  ancient churches and monasteries carved in the rocks.

Cappadocia is ancient, people in the Bronze Age already lived here. I love visiting places like this. When I am in ancient sites I feel some sort of connection with the people who lived here. What was life like for them?  How did they keep warm?  What did they feel when they gathered for worship?

I was so enchanted by the place that I wanted to see it from all angles and decided to give myself an early,  extravagant,  birthday present.  The balloon flight at dawn was an unforgettable experience.  The silence,  the sight of the other balloons,  the view of the fairy chimneys from above,  the sun coming out from behind the snowy peaks…

Birds eye view

I could have stayed in Cappadocia for months but Central Asia beckoned and in a dreamlike state I left it and cycled towards the Black Sea.

The Turkish Black Sea coast

Last time I saw the Black Sea was in Romania,  seeing it again was like meeting an old friend. It was much warmer too and I could feel my muscles begin to relax.  My neck that for days,  turtle like,  had been buried in my shoulders reappeared and I was able to take off some layers of clothing and even stop for leisurely breaks in the middle of the day. Life is so much easier when it is warm and the sun is shining!

Looking back to Turkey from the Georgian border

Fuelled by the sun and the continued kindness of strangers I slowly continued down the coast to Georgia.



The Kindness of Strangers


I have been in Turkey for nearly one month now.  My lovely daughter Amaya and her boyfriend John joined me in Istanbul for New Year.  It was a real treat! It was good to catch up properly and be an off-the-bike tourist for a  few days.  We treated ourselves to nice food,  sightseeing and on New Years day a visit to a posh hamam (Turkish Bath). Saying goodbye was very sad, even more so because it could be a long time before we see each other again. I miss my girls!

Foxtrot also had some treats. She visited the best bike hamam in Istanbul: Bisiklet Gezgini where she was lovingly pampered for two days.   She’s  now sporting a Son 28 dynamo and an Edelux II headlight.  No more worrying about lack of power for my gadgets or being petrified in tunnels.

Saying goodbye to my Bisiklet Gezgini friends
Saying goodbye to my Bisiklet Gezgini friends

And then it was back to being on the road again.  Every time I stop cycling for any length of time it’s a bit of a struggle to get back on the wheels.  My muscles seem to forget what is like to cycle for a whole day, the bike feels really heavy and I feel really unfit.  Luckily it’s no long before I get back into the swing of things.

Winter is really here
Winter is really here

Snow and low temperatures have followed me since arriving in Anatolia. Yesterday was a really hard  day.  A lot of climbing and strong cross wind,  heavy snow and rough road surface.  I was really chafed with myself when I arrived at my destination but my joy didn’t last long,  when I enquired for a place to stay I was told that there was nothing at all in town.  The nearest place with accomodation,  Nevşehir,  was 26 km away and there was no way I could make it.  I had come off my bike once already on the icy road and in the dark in the middle of a snow storm it would have been too cold and unsafe to continue.

Wind, snow, the theme of the day
Wind, snow, the theme of the day

The young man I’d enquired about accommodation took me to a café full of men,  not a single woman in sight and sat me by a roaring fire.  A big debate amongst the men followed.  Before I realised they had all chipped in to pay a taxi to take me and Foxtrot to Nevşehir.  I found it hard to hold back  tears I was so moved.  This generosity is not an isolated incident.

A few days ago,  I  was snailing up a mountain road.  I knew there would not be no towns were to find accommodation for the night.  It was getting late and the sky threatened snow.  I was looking for somewhere discreet to pitch my tent for the night when a car stopped.  A young man came out an asked me whether I was OK. After a short exchange he invited me to stay in his farm for the night in a nearby village called Dedeler.

The village was 16km away. The knowledge that I had somewhere warm to sleep gave me renewed energy. I pushed up hill but soon  began to doubt that I could make it.  Then, a tractor stopped and the driver on hearing I was going to Dedeler insisted on giving me a lift.  With Foxtrot installed in the back we continued uphill.  It began to snow really heavily and night fell.  I was lucky,  on my own I would have never made it to the village.

The tractor came to a stop in a dark farmyard. It was muddy and damp.  By now I was very cold.  I couldn’t feel my hands or feet and was shaking uncontrollably.  Ahmed,  the tractor’s driver,  invited me to go inside his house after calling my host who agreed to collect me from his farm.

I took off my shoes to go inside and Ahmed opened the door.  I walked in a small brightly lit room,  whitewashed walls and carpets covered the floors.  A wood burning stove was the centre piece in the room and its warmth filled the space.  It was heaven after the cold and the snow.

An older woman was sitting in a low couch.  She had the  gentlest of  faces and the brightest of blue eyes. Her whole persona exuded warmth and friendliness.  By signs she asked me to sit next to her and take off my damp socks.  What followed was wonderful,  it was the purest form of human comunication,  looks,  touch,  smiles,  intonation.  My words came out in English and Spanish hers in Turkish and yet I know that we absolutely understood each other.

Before long,  a younger woman breezed in from the adjacent room.  Like the older woman she was dressed in traditional Turkish clothes,  wide pantaloons of lovely checkered material and head scarf.  She gave me an open hug,  a big smile lit up her face and by signs told me that food was coming.

In no time a low table was brought in and food appeared. At the same time Feridun,  my host,  came in.  Greetings were exchanged and we sat on the floor to eat.  Different plates of food were placed on the table.  Somehow my plate was always full.  Then it was endless cups of çay,  the tea I’ve come to love.

Finally it was time to say goodbye and walk to Feridun’s farm. Dedeler is very small,  500 inhabitants and Feridun knew everyone. It took a while to cover the 200 mt that separated the two farms,  the walk punctuated by greetings and conversations.

Feridun and Foxtrot

Once in his farm we talked about his dreams and aspirations. He shared with me photos and stories of other travellers he has welcomed in his house and the postcards they have sent him, little treasures he keeps in a box.

Soon young men from the village started to arrive, amongst them was the Mukthar,  the head of the village.  Mukthar means chosen.  In spite of his youth the village had voted him as their leader. People go to him for arbitration and advice. Before the evening was over I had received an invitation for breakfast at the mukthar’s house.

Breakfast at the Mukthar’s house

Fresh snow welcomed the day.  By the time we arrived at the mukhtar’s home the table was laid full of delicious home made bread,  yougurt,  cheese, chips,  chicken,  eggs cooked in spinach,  honeycomb,  jams. My second feast on less than 12 hours!

There were no cars on the road.  I relished the silence and I thought about the people who have opened the doors of their houses for me,  a total stranger.  I also thought about the dozens of people who have showed kindness to me in a miriad of ways,  giving me fruit,  calling a brother in Spain to act as an interpreter,  inviting me to their home for tea or coffee, contacting friends to promote my trip,  sending me messages to check I’m OK, hooting their horns,  smiling and waiving as I pass by…

It is the messages from all of you,  the wonders of technology that allow me to be in contact with my closest ones and the kindness of strangers that keep me smiling whilst pedalling.

Two weeks in a Lesbos refugee camp

Moria Camp
Moria Camp

I am in a ferry to Turkey from Lesbos. I am crossing the same stretch of sea that thousands of refugees have crossed this year in the opposite direction. My ferry is safe,  with a bar selling hot and cold drinks and a working toilet.  The price of the ticket: 10 euros. I know that at this very moment on the other side,  men,  women and children are getting ready to board rubber dinghies with dodgy engines. They will be risking their lives and will have paid exorbitant amounts of money for the privilege (I’ve heard that the going rate right now is between 800 and 1200 euros per person).

The evening is beautiful,  the sun is setting giving an orange tinge to the sea and the lights of the houses in the shore remind me of the Christmas nativity scene we used to have in our house when I was little.  We used moss and pomice stones to make mountains that always had a wolf perched in the rocks, pieces of mirror for the pond full of ducks and cork houses with fairy lights inside, light shinning out of their little doors and windows.  My brother and I loved moving the three wise men closer to the manger each day until they reached it on the 5 January. It was hard to go to sleep that night as we knew that they would also come to our home and there would be presents waiting for us in the morning.


It was cold on deck.  I put my hands in my pockets and my fingers instinctively reached for the ‘hombre al agua’* that Ion, one of the lifeguards from Zarautz,  had taken from one of the boats that morning. His gift to me on my last shift on the Lesbos beaches. I squeezed it in my hand and the nativity scene disappeared and was replaced by the smell of the campfire that we lit to encourage the boats full of refugees to come to a safe landing spot.  I looked out at sea expecting to see the flashing light of phones that told us were the boat was and I was swept by anger at the in injustice of it all.

I spent 6 nights in Lesbos looking out at sea for those elusive phone lights,  watching the lifeguards who seemed to have a sixth sense and saw what we didn’t. I would see them look at one another and then it was all go.  We jumped in our cars and speeded down the coastal road to get to the spot before the boat.  Ibai,  Jaime,  Asier and Ion would jump in the water to position the boat for landing.  One of them would get in and stop the engine. With other volunteers,  I would line up to help refugees of the boat.  Children and babies were passed in a chain from volunteer to volunteer until they reached dry ground. We helped women and men,  many unsteady after hours at sea, to disembark. 

Photo : Jonathan Paige
Photo : Jonathan Paige

Each boat was different,  in some people were calm and collected and in others people would be extremely distressed and we could hear their screams before they arrived, their faces full of fear when they finally made it to the beach.

Most of them would be wet and very cold. Thermal blankets and blankets were handed out and, if we were in luck,  dry socks. Liz, my roommate,  a nurse,  tended to those who needed medical assistance. I helped and offered comfort to the most distressed.

Then,  imperceptibly,  the mood would change.  Some refugees would make phonecalls to their loved ones and a little girl would giggle bursting soap bubbles blown by one of the  volunteers. There would be hugs and smiles as they boarded the United Nation buses on their way to the camp for registration.

Making chai
Making chai

At the camp independent volunteers would be able to offer hot tea,  dry clothes,  a tent to sleep in,  a medical tent,  a children’s tent,  some food in the kitchen tent,  information and human warmth.

Liz and I would gather the life jackets for later collection and the wet clothes for washing and reusing and together with the lifeguards would go back to our vantage point by the fire to wait for the next boat.

Ibai, Asier and Ion drying out after being in the water
Ibai, Asier and Ion drying out after being in the water

I met many amazing people in Lesbos,  both volunteers and refugees.  I am humbled by their strength,  resilience and compassion and deeply moved by their personal stories.  I very much hope I can stay in touch with some.

Back in the ferry I remembered the tiny baby,  wrapped in a life jacket, that I held in my arms and I got a lump in my throat.  I haven’t cried yet,  the enormity of their experience is too overwhelming.  I know at some point the tears will come.




*the kill cord, or ‘engine safety cut-out switch’ is. used to stop the engine in the event of the helmsperson being thrown out of their seat.