Arriving foggy and wet

After hanging out in Vienna for more than a week and receiving the first “Welcome back!” from old friends, we started the last leg of our journey – back home. It was a short four days ride from Austria’s capital to the place where I grew up. I was looking forward to the beautiful Czech landscape with rolling hills, but for days everything was covered in fog and we did not see much besides gray mist and clouds. Only once in a while the sky opened up a bit and we could enjoy the golden colors of autumn.

We paused again at my parents place, saw family and more old friends and had a good hike in the foggy, but always amazing scenery of Saxon Switzerland. Another fantastic thing – a musical highlight in Dresden yesterday:

Now for me it’s time to move on North, Copenhagen is waiting. At least, I hope it’s still waiting for me. On the way is one more stop, Berlin tomorrow.

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From a graveyard and bike lanes: Welcome to Vienna

During the last days I was riding alone from Bosnia north to Austria and I was in a strange mood. I had no real pleasure in traveling and biking was more or less becoming a routine. The landscape flattened out and got a little boring and already 700 km before reaching Vienna, I felt so close to be at home, that I just wanted to get it over and finally arrive in Austria’s capital, where some of my old friends are living. Also temperature began to drop significantly and it were the first days during the bike journey where I had to wear long clothes all day. So there was no reason for me to slow down and for five days I did not do anything else than heavy pedaling. A bit exhausted I arrived in Vienna a week ago.

I am still a bit confused being in Vienna. Seeing my friends it suddenly feels as if I have never been away and still there was this long journey which I have not even finished yet. More and more I begin to think what might come afterwards. Besides that I found that I have troubles finding my ways through the narrow streets and get my bearings correctly. Apparently, not living in a dense city for a year gave me a good sense for orientation in nature and open space, but I got really confused while biking in Vienna. Partly this confusion might be due to highly non-intuitive bike lanes.

Vienna has built many kilometers of new bike lanes in the last years – a good thing – however, the roads are narrow and the available space needs to be shared with cars, tramways and pedestrians. Unfortunately, the traffic hierarchy in Vienna still puts bikers on a lower rank than cars, resulting in sometimes ill-conceived solutions: Bike lanes might end abruptly, or are suddenly moved to the sidewalk where conflicts with pedestrians are predictable.

One of the highlights of the last days was visiting the “Zentralfriedhof“, Vienna’s central cemetery where about twice as many people have been buried than currently living in the city. It is a huge space and especially the old jewish part of the cemetery I found amazing. Many of the old graves are overgrown and appear not to be looked after. However, the small jungle that has emerged gives this place a beautiful atmosphere. But have a look yourself.

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Autumn catches up in Yugoslavia

Before I start reporting from the Balkan, note there is an amendment to Turkey – a story that I just have finished writing now, but happened already 2 weeks ago. Read “Holy socks of the imam and DTMF prayers”.

Now the mornings are chilly and the tent is always covered in a thousand drops of dew. The forests are getting colored and it is just wonderful to ride through the magnificent nature of the Balkan countries. It is still warm during the day and I am praising the weather.

I have only traveled little in the countries of former Yugoslavia, so it is good to spend the last leg of our trip in unknown territory. Again, I am traveling alone for some days and I am struck by the breathtaking scenery I am experiencing here every day, especially what I have seen in Bosnia and Herzegovina is amazing and now I know why the makers of Winnetou (a German/Yogoslavian production and a classic when it comes to films about the wild West) decided to shoot their films here.

The roads were perfect for biking – little traffic, good surface, only many scary, dark tunnels were on the way.

 

I could see many destroyed and abandoned houses and I wondered if these are relics of the war about 2 decades ago. For sure the signs on many roadsides do remind everybody of these dark times: Mines! Still today Bosnia and Herzegovina has between 3 and 4% of its area contaminated with land mines and thus one of the most severe land mine problems in the world – a fact that makes finding camp sites absolutely not amusing.

I am heading straight to Vienna now. Expecting to be there in a couple of days.

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Farewell to Turkey and what is European?

I always have liked melancholic, sorrowful music but when I years ago for the first time discovered Turkish music I was deeply touched and became a great fan of an instrument called Bağlama, widely used in Turkish folk music. I do not know what appeals me so much about this music, but when I am listening to it I calm down and can almost see landscapes of hills and grasslands passing by my eyes as if I was looking out of the window of a train.


A more sweat goodbye from Turkey I could not have imagined. What is better than leaving and having made new friends? Friends that are, to make it even better, skillful musicians giving me the chance of listening to their music, and even playing  together with me. Never has Turkey made me so much wanted to go back.

With saying farewell to Turkey, Bulgaria was greeting us with grim, heavy autumn winds blowing in our faces the first day back in the European Union. However, the weather was soon getting more biking friendly again as we continued riding through lonesome villages in beautiful late summer atmosphere. I never thought that Bulgaria would give me the feeling of being almost home – still there are about 2000 kilometers to go – but I clearly could feel the difference of being back in Europe. Suddenly, there are graffiti and street art again, tramways and trolley coaches, but I started wondering if I could find good features that, one the one hand are unique enough to represent this continent and on the other are not too special to only represent a single European country (as for instance these Bulgarian style death notices posted on a tree).

Here a list of some things I came across, please correct me if you think they are not European features.

  1. Waste containers in different colors to indicate what sort of recyclable or non-recyclable material goes in. I was happy to see these often ugly shaped containers again after being in too many places where environment is drowning in waste.
  2. Cobble stone paved streets – not too nice to ride your bike on, but I like them.
  3. Retired people who offer to measure ones weight with scales for a small donation. This probably only holds for eastern Europe where many elderly cannot make a living of their little pensions and are thus forced to earn some extra money.
  4. Few people on the street, especially in smaller towns and villages. In comparison many settlements in Asia are bustling bazaars and it is almost impossible to go through unnoticed.

Tomorrow we leave for Serbia and Bosnia. I am looking forward to get to know some of the Balkan countries.

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Thumbs up for the Turkish truck drivers

From earlier visits to Turkey, especially when I was hitch-hiking here, I already have experienced the friendliness and helpfulness of the Turkish truck drivers and reliability when it comes to giving a lift. This time traveling by bike, I again can only praise them. Already on the ferry from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan we were in good company with a flock of Turkish lorry drivers and one of them even offered us a ride out of Baku in his empty truck. We gladly accepted this, since we only had transit visa for Azerbaijan, thus only five days time for biking and the first day was already lost, because we got the visa stamped at 9 pm.

The other day biking up yet another steep 2000m pass, a lorry is slowly approaching from behind. I got quite good in estimating the speed of a truck just from listening to their engines, so without turning around I can tell weather a truck gives the possibility of a free-ride. That is, if the lorry is slow enough that, when it overtakes, I can speed up and cling to its back. Of course holding onto the back is very much dependent on the availability of something good to grab hold of and also a matter of good timing. My acceleration has to come in the right moment, such that I have the same speed as the overtaking truck right when it is passing me. because keeping a speed of 20 km/hour on a loaded touring bike and a slope of 10% is not something that I can do a long time. If everything goes well, there is a hook, a chain or some loose straps I can hold to and get a lift for some minutes. If you think, this is an easy riding then, far wrong! Though my legs can relax my arms get strained now and full concentration is necessary, since pot-holes become almost invisible until they suddenly appear one meter in front of me – the distance I can see ahead under the lorry.

In China the trucks usually were very slow, just three or four km/hour faster, perfect for free-riding. However, the Chinese drivers often did not like me hanging on their back and started honking or even change maneuvers. Very different the other day here in Turkey: When the truck is just on my height and I start accelerating, I can see the driver in his cabin waving to me, signaling I should cling on. What an invitation! He passes and I grab his back and have another six, heavy kilometers more in my arms.

Another story just happened to me today. Again on a long ascent a truck driver stops and asks if I would like to have a lift. I am tired of biking uphill and so we haul up my bike on the trailer. After good 80 kilometers, my driver takes his exit, I get back on the road and wave him goodbye and realize that I have forgotten my sunglasses in the truck. Although these were just crappy Chinese quaility sunglasses, glued and repaired dozen times, they were a useful tool in the glaring sunlight and I was a bit sad that I had lost them. Frustrated I was, I had to start cycling again. But already after six kilometers my mood should change – a small truck was waiting on the roadside. When I passed it the driver started shouting “Dört, dört” to me and I wondered with my small Turkish knowledge what he could mean by “Four, four”. But he is very insistive and when he calls a third time I realize he calls “George, George” instead and I stop. He comes closer, smiles and hands me my sunglasses, with warm greetings from the other truck driver, who must just have flagged him down in order to give him the task of retrurning my sunglasses to me. I am amazed, bow slightly when I thank him and say “Güle, güle”, or “Goodbye!”

Now I am in a small town called “Gerede”. Reading this word in German it would mean “gossip” – what a splendid name for a small town. The roads to Istanbul are getting filled with more and more cars and I think of taking a bus to avoid some traffic.

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Damage control or, how to fix Chinese quality with Turkish superglue.

After more than 7000 biked kilometers some parts of our equipment start to show wear and in the worst case are falling apart. Luckily, the worst case is limited to a T-shirt and my shitty tires – no vital parts of the bike have failed so far. Unbelievable, I cannot report any broken spokes yet and the few technical problems we had so far were minor. Only flat tires we had plenty, not at least due to the bad tires. However, here comes a summary of the technical failures we were suffering so far. Note, the list is for two bikes.

  1. km 364: My left pedal starts making a ‘click’ sound. I assume a lack of grease in the ball bearing, but am astonished about two balls missing in the bearing. The problem is permanently fixed with plenty of grease.
  2. km 896: Flat tire.
  3. km 2240: Flat tire.
  4. km 2241: Adjustment screw of my v-brake has broken off the thread. Luckily, this has no effect on the brake.
  5. km 2649: Flat tire.
  6. km 2888: My back tire starts falling apart. I change the tire with the only replacement tire we have at km 2980.
  7. km 2888: Flat tire.
  8. km 3681: Flat tire.
  9. km 3900: Flat tire.
  10. km 4250: Flat tire.
  11. km 4490: Flat tire.
  12. km 4500: Flat tire.
  13. km 4507: My chain breaks the first time. I am taking out the totally smashed chain element.
  14. km 5550: Flat tire.
  15. km 5551: Flat tire.
  16. km 5551: My chain breaks the second time. I can bend the one element and put the chain together.
  17. km 5552: Flat tire.
  18. km 5688: The attachment that connects front rack to the fork breaks. The problem can be fixed quick and dirty with some thread we found.
  19. km 5688: Flat tire.
  20. km 5700: I can hear the suspicious sound, revealing me that my front tire also will dissolve soon.
  21. km 5760: My chain breaks the third time. I switch to the better replacement chain.
  22. km 5880: Flat tire.
  23. km 6109: Flat tire. The valve came off.
  24. km 6332: Flat tire.
  25. km 6352: Flat tire.
  26. km 6652: First attempt to glue my front tire. However, the centrifugal force at top-speeds of around 70 km/hour is way bigger than what the glue can hold and on every downhill I can watch parts of the tire flying off. I have to glue again at km 6720 and hope to find new tires in Ankara or Istanbul.

After speeding two days along the Turkish black sea-coast, we are now a bit more south in the Turkish mainland. September seems to be a perfect time for biking here. It is warm enough to ride in short clothing during the day and sun is not burning us anymore. The fields are just harvested and the yellow color of the stubble gives a great contrast to the dark color of the soil and the mountains. We ride a 2000 meter pass almost every day now and it is as easy as a short walk.

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Why would you ever want a mountain bike?

This time a post with little text and plenty of pictures: Our long detour through Georgia and the Svaneti mountains is completed and we have finally arrived in Batumi. The mountains were tough and the roads partially impossible to ride with our roadbikes. Deep puddles and potholes filled with water and plenty of rivers to cross. Further, extremely steep roads and big stones on the path made us suffer from two chain breaks and six or seven flat tyres. The landscape well, paid it off.

One creepy incident happened though to me. An unbelievable story that you can read and find out “Why some elderly grow hair out of their ears”

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Stop, stand still or I will shoot!

While traveling abroad the first question we are asked in most of the times is “Where are you from?”. Often, telling people we come from Germany, they start talking about places like Munich, Stuttgart or Köln, where they have relatives or friends, or in some cases even once have been visiting. Also German soccer clubs are often cited and explaining where in Germany we are coming from, it helps to name the soccer club of the closest city.  However, traveling in one of the former soviet union republics this is different. Nobody starts talking about these major German cities, instead we hear names like Magdeburg, Bernau or Riesa – places which even many Germans, especially in the Western part, had troubles to point out on a map. But here in Tbilisi some older people can even recall a soccer match between Dinamo Tbilisi and FC Carl Zeiss Jena in 1981, “two – one”, they say and I have to smile that they know an East German club that is playing in the 4th league nowadays.

It is not only because of soccer matches between former socialist states that people know of sleepy towns in Eastern Germany, but actually were as many as half a million soviet soldiers stationed in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) during the 1950’s, most of them draftees. This number had dropped to 338,000 in 1991 when the Soviets already had started to abandoning Germany. The standard of living of the soviets in Eastern Germany was reported to be very poor, but apparently nobody really knew or wanted to know and generally contact between the soviet soldiers and the German public was very limited. They lived isolated in their casern buildings and I remember the big grey ones in Dresden, where I sometimes drove by with my parents. They looked unfriendly and far from welcoming. As a child I was always astonished about most of the windows there being covered with newspapers and I had asked my parents why people would glue newspaper to their glass panes. I cannot recall what my parents were answering me, but I remember that I was somehow pitying the soldiers.

The other day in a small village in Azerbaijan close to the Georgian border we are small talking with our sufferable Russian to some locals. Again we are asked “Otkuda vuy?” (Where are you from?) and after we give answer one of the villagers is shouting at us: “Halt, stehenbleiben, oder ich schieße!” (Stop, stand still or I will shoot!). It turns out it is the only German sentence he knows – we both laugh about this relict from the time he was in Germany and move on.

In the last two weeks we have crossed Azerbaijan and started a longer detour through Georgia. Coming from the East, Georgia appears to be the first European outpost with Tbilisi as a charming Art Nouveau capital that attracts plenty of tourists.

Especially nature-wise this country has a lot to offer, justifying the 700 kilometer detour we are biking. We are planning on heading north to the Svaneti region next, an area said to be of magical beauty. Stay tuned.

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Ferry tales

A story from a boat that never leaves

The morning started promising and I had a good feeling about us catching the ferry. Nevertheless, some doubts remained deep inside me and I only would fully believe that we had made it, when we would finally be on the boat hearing its horns blowing to a ‘Goodbye’ to the sights of Aktau getting smaller and smaller on the horizon.
Together with a Japanese bicyclist we were up early this morning and were biking towards the seaport. It was already the fourth time for us we made this ride, however the first together with the Japanese and for the temperature still to be warm instead of breeding hot. The day before we had finally achieved, what we have been waiting for so long: Tickets for the ferry to Baku. A thing that seems trivial turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare, which forced us to wait for 10 days# until we were allowed buying tickets. And we were lucky with that – our Japanese fellow was already waiting a week before we even had arrived in the town and still he did not have his ticket yet.
For some reason we were lucky, or was it because we could speak, although badly, but at least some Russian, and were thus enabled to argue with the clerks at the different offices at the seaport? I have no idea – but it seems we had caught a good moment the day before, when we had tried for the third time obtaining tickets. Initially of course, we were sent away, again with the lousy excuse that there was no ship today and we as passengers without motorized vehicle should always refer to the travel agency in town for buying tickets. Sure, we had been at this dubious travel agency and they had promised us tickets as soon as a ferry would go – however, they relied on the information when the boats leave, which they get from the seaport, but apparently only two or three times a month somebody there feels obliged to call the travel agency and let them know, although there is a boat going almost every day. A tricky situation thus for travelers: There is a ferry going with plenty of space, but the place where one is supposed to buy tickets does not know about it and those who do know say, they do not sell tickets.

So our plan was to be stubborn. We were rejected with our matter – however we kept on and the first little success after tiring the lady clerk at the cash counter was that she asked us to wait for the boss. One hour waiting, another hour waiting and eventually the boss showed up. He is a friendly guy and even speaks some English. So we tried again with him and again got refused: “Go to the travel agency in town”. I could not hear this anymore and lied downright to him: “Well, the travel agency is not selling tickets and has told us to come here!”. He seemed to get confused and I continued, telling him that we had to get out of Aktau, because our Kazakh visa were close to expire and that we were getting bored of the town. Finally, also he gets tired of our mantra and decided that he has to consult with the cash lady if it was ok to sell us tickets. Interestingly, it was her who had to ask him for permission in the first place. So he takes his phone and calls the other office, although only five meters away. She picks up her phone and because we are in the middle of the two we can see him speaking behind the glass wall and turning around see her in her counter listening to him. They argue for two minutes and finally he nods to us with a dismissive gesture and points out to the cash lady again. From now it is just paperwork. She fills out some stuff, we get ready our money and passports and all is said: Two ferry tickets to Baku for the next day are now in our hands!

I had promised the Japanese that, as soon as we had figured out the ferry tickets, I would tell him. We then decided that when we would go to the ferry the next day he should join us and together we would sort out tickets for him as well. Now that we knew it was possible, I thought while riding to the seaport in the morning, how happy and relieved from his desperateness he soon would be, when we were fixing tickets for him. It felt wonderful that we would be able to help him and free him of yet another week waiting in Aktau. How difficult it must be for a shy Japanese to deal with this Central Asian world of inefficient bureaucracy and the fact that one is fully at the mercy of a booking clerk, his courtesy or distrust as he pleases. Likely the opposite of a well organized society, as I imagine the Japanese, where everybody functions precisely like a small cog in a machine. To make matters worse he did not speak a word of Russian, but worst of all he would give up and turn away if a clerk told him it was impossible. But that is exactly what people are doing here, saying ‘No’, at least in the first place.

We had arrived at the seaport at eight o’clock and although we were told to come at this time the whole thing was sleepy and no counters were open. I even started doubting whether there actually was a ferry today. And again we waited. After two hours the counters opened and this time we would speak for the Japanese. The same lady who had issued us tickets yesterday was at the cash counter, so I did not expect too many difficulties. However, I was also not too much surprised, when she came up with a ‘No’ and referred to the travel agency. Eventually, she got bored and we agreed again on waiting for the boss. After four hours – still our ferry was not ready – the guy came lingering into the office. Today, he was less friendly to us. Maybe we were testing his patience too much. However, it was an ‘absolutely impossible’ all the way through. I did not want to annoy him, because once he was annoyed I feared our last chance gone. In a very politely tone I questioned, why it was impossible today for the Japanese, what was possible for us yesterday. The answer striking simple and revealing in its bold stupidity: “Because, he is on the travel agency’s waiting list for tickets and we do not want to steal their customers.” Of course it was just another lame excuse, because we were also on that waiting list and it did not matter yesterday. But these things do not follow any logic or reason – it’s plain arbitrariness. However, his argument opened up for another maneuver and I was happy, I had an idea ready instantly. I told him I would call the travel agency and would have his name taken off the list – problem solved and he can buy a ticket. I took my phone and rang the agency. Unfortunately, the only English speaking staff member was not available so the result of that glorious miscommunication – the only thing they understood was ‘ferry’, ‘name’ and ‘list’ – was that they did not remove the Japanese’s name from the list, but put yet another name on the list. Anyway, that did not matter for now. I went back to our man in charge and told him that the Japanese’s name was no longer on the list, hoping he would not crosscheck. Of course, he did not bother checking and I felt close to victory. But instead he came up with another obstacle, saying he just had asked his supervisor and it was now impossible to give tickets to individuals who have once been on the travel agency’s waiting list. Bummer! He had said it in a way that I immediately knew there was no more room for negotiations today and we had to give up here.

I was angry, but much more I felt sorry for our companion who had to return to this ugly place condemned to wait. We could board our ferry three hours later and it was already dark when we were leaving the port, this time by boat. We were seeing the road to the seaport which we have been taking many times, but now from the other side. I pitied the Japanese and resented myself for not having been able to do more for him.

Writing this, I am sitting on the ferry to Baku, a vessel built in 1985 in Rostock, East Germany. The style of the facilities are familiar to me and I can recognize light-switches, boards and door handles that were often identical in all Eastern Germany. The crew and the only other passenger are extremely nice and welcoming to us. And there is certainly room for a Japanese bicyclist. My thoughts go to him now.

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Irgendwoher muss hier Nachschub kommen

Lots of time waiting for the ferry to Baku, I had the chance to write another story featuring our gostinica aka hotel in Aktau. Though in German only, it is now available here: Irgendwoher muss hier Nachschub kommen

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Shortcut to Mangishlack

Kazakhstan is a vast land. With an area bigger than Western Europe and only a 30-day, non-extendible visa in our pocket, it was clear we had to take the train for parts of the journey through Kazakhstan. However, travel plans are always subject to change and this time it were the trains westbound, fully booked for the next weeks that made our original plan impossible. We had wanted to bike about 1000 km through Kazakhstan to the city of Turkistan, from where we had planned to take a train to the Caspian Sea. When we found out that this was not possible for us, we had to look for alternatives. But since we already had spent more than a week in Almaty and further knew we have to wait another week for Azerbaijan visa, our time for cycling in Kazakhstan was suddenly limited very hard.  Eventually, with the help of some locals, we managed to get at least some train tickets with the drawback of fully dropping the biking part. On the good side: We had some more days in Almaty, with splendid hiking opportunities and a short detour to Astana, this crazy city built as a living monument for the president of Kazakhstan. Another advantage, we are early at the Caspian Sea, hopefully early enough to catch the ferry to Baku.

Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan is situated right next to branches of the Tian Shan. Being hosted by a passionate adventurer we had the wonderful opportunity to go hiking with him in the icy peaks of the mountain range. Having not expected to meet winter again, the view of the glaciers, cold winds and snow were a great change from the otherwise sweaty hot weather down in the lowlands.

From Almaty a train brought us to Astana, an artificial, pompous world just recently put into the Kazakh steppe. This city is probably one of the best playgrounds for architects and its modernity is stressed everywhere. Sure, there is no shortage of futuristic buildings in eclectic styles, but truly modern is this city not at all. I was missing new concepts for public transport and could only see wide roads instead – maybe inevitable in an oil-rich country, where gasoline costs around 50 cents per liter.  I could not sense how the city quarters belonged together, could not feel the continuity of the city, but instead the inhuman scale of scattered placed, bombastic buildings, with a palace ridiculously put in the center. I was missing coziness and trees as well and was asking myself, what the real groundbreaking ideas of a 21st century city should be.

From Astana another train took us on a long 44 hours journey through the vast nothingness of Kazakhstan with our final destination Mangishlack, 20 kilometers east of the Caspian Sea. Literally, our train was going through a landscape of nothing else but flat grasslands, semi-deserts and harsh winds. We had disassembled our bikes, put them in the stowage compartments of the old-fashioned cozy trains and sometimes, with a hot cup of tea in our hands, we even felt happy about not having to bike through so much of nothing.

From Mangishlack it was just a stone’s throw to Aktau a city which is home to the Caspian Sea port and the Azerbaijan consulate, which hopefully issues us visa in time, before the ferry leaves for Baku.

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A goodbye to China – or things that don’t exist in the Peoples Republic

I was looking forward to the change, but I did not anticipate it would be that distinct. However, going from communistic China to post-soviet Kazakhstan, I found myself experiencing an inverted culture shock – it was not exactly like coming home, but suddenly home felt much closer. Not that I was fed up with China, but after being here for 2 months it simply felt like, “this is enough for now” and so I was more and more excited during the days coming closer to the border.

The border itself  – a place surely worth mentioning, but since I loathe borders posts I won’t go into the details of the bureaucratic process including several hours waiting for the border to open and dozens of people loosing their good manners, elbowing their way through the crowd, bellowing others out-of-the-way in the spirit of who comes first serves first, degrading to animals that smell a piece of good food – but here it’s just the Chinese exit stamp.

From Urumqi towards the Kazakh-Chinese border we had about week of biking through Western China, starting with rather boring flat landscape, a bunch of provincial towns and many abandoned places.

The last 300 kilometer on the Chinese side were getting more mountainous and finally a true highlight was awaiting us just about 100 kilometers before the border to Kazakhstan: The magnificent Sailimuhu lake.

In these last days before crossing the border, I often wondered what exactly are the things that make China being China. How to put in words my experiences or how to express the archetypical image of China. I know that this is a tricky task and neither claim correctness or completeness nor do I want to create another Chinese stereotype. However, there must be something I can say.

One of the first things that came to my mind is the sheer mass of people in this country and being alone on the street seems nearly impossible. Truly educational for me was the way people are dealing with the consequences of being so many, the overcrowded trains, the queues and scramble. I often admired the stoical patience of the Chinese waiting in line and the rather civilized behavior in bigger crowds (with a clear exemption to what I experienced at the border). Maybe, I got these good impressions due to the fact that I was always clearly visible as a foreigner and people would not dare to be rude.

Another thing that I would call typical for China is the proximity of work and living. I do not know if this is a leftover from early communist ruling, but often I could see people having beds within workshops or a living area right next to their workplace. Even more it was often unclear if people were actually living in a place or just working or both.

Especially at the countryside the omnipresence of working people could be another typical fact. Not that I think people elsewhere work less, it is just that one seldom sees people relaxing or enjoying their leisure time, besides elderly people who can often be witnessed playing cards, flying kites or exercising a variety of weird physical activities.

What really surprised me about China was the absence of the old. Although China is one of the oldest civilizations, being outside the popular historical sites, the country gives no witness of its history. Rarely an old building that could impress with its patina, no old, gnarled trees along the roadsides, no hint that this country had a long-lasting culture before 1949. I know that the Cultural Revolution led to the destruction of much of China’s traditional cultural heritage in the 1960’s, but I was not aware of how uniform the country appears now, with Beijing as a model for city planners: Quickly rising concrete blocks, long and wide roads and poplars as the only type of tree everywhere. I enjoyed traveling in China and learned a lot. I am curious how China will develop in the future, which way the Chinese society will go and if sensitive historical and current issues will be opened up for discussion and digestion.

Crossing the border to Kazakhstan the apparent difference between these 2 countries could not have appeared more distinct. Suddenly, we were back in a world with wooden garden fences in front of small askew houses, hundreds of years old. Massive, old trees appeared again in the landscape, relieving us with shade from the summer heat.

From the border to Almaty we were already getting a foretaste of the big nothingness of the Kazakh steppe with no people around far and wide. Until tomorrow we will probably stay here and then head towards the Caspian Sea.

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Bicyclists responsible for climate change

Known and stereotyped for decades as the two-wheeled country, I remember images from China with roads completely filled with people and their bicycles. However, the current reality does not resemble these pictures at all. Far from that, being in a Chinese city one is very likely to get stuck in traffic jam – and here I do not mean a traffic jam created by comrades on two wheels. No, it is the same stupid misery we find on the freeways around Los Angeles or on the German Autobahn. With an average number of maybe 1.4 passengers per car, bumper next to bumper and nothing goes. Especially Chinese metropolises such as Beijing, but also smaller provincial capitals like Urumqi suffer strongly from a continuously increasing traffic problem. And Chinas answer to it is as simple as naive: To build more roads.

So, I wonder where all the bikes from the old images have gone? Based on the number of new cars that I can see around, it must be that in the last years many Chinese suddenly were able to afford cars. But of course I cannot tell how many former bicyclists are nowadays helping to create traffic jam with their new vehicles. However, the change towards more cars has apparently hit China all over a sudden and cities had barely a chance to react with measures for guiding and controlling the traffic. And since broadly available car mobility is still a status symbol, car drivers often tend to express their new wealth with a reckless driving style making clear who has the right of the stronger. So it comes that basic traffic rules and procedures seem to have collapsed: Due to the lack of parking space for the newly arrived mass of cars, drivers are forced to widely occupy side-walks and as a pedestrian one nowadays gets “honked out of the way” even on side-walk territory. Intersections are highly dangerous areas and a green traffic light for pedestrians is far from a guarantee that cars approaching will actually stop and crosswalks are merely a bad joke and I wonder if they not just indicate favourite spots for running over pedestrians.

Only slowly it seems the Chinese society is getting aware of these problems and improvements are at least tried. Beijing for instance introduced a quota system strongly limiting the number of cars that can be newly registered, or Urumqi is experimenting with separate lanes for buses and special hubs where passengers first buy their tickets in order to enter the hub and then can quickly leave and board the bus.

Another major difference to western European traffic is the high number of electrical powered scooters (e-sccoters) and bikes (pedelecs or e-bikes). While Europe is making its first experiences with these vehicles, there are third generation e-scooters around here everywhere. So, I guess that a good part of the people that used to bicycle is nowadays using electric pendants. However, whereas in western countries there is a hope that pedelecs might reduce the number of cars and animate more people to use two-wheeled transportation, it seems that in China an e-bike is not an alternative to a car and would be regarded as downgrade.

Today, I came across an article comparing the CO2 emissions created by muscle-powered and electric-powered biking. Interestingly, the result strongly favours pedelecs. What a bummer! With my racer bike I always pedalled so hard up the hill between Farum and Værløse in order to be able overtake the guys on pedelecs and always felt they are cheating. Worse now, that I even should admit I had higher CO2 emissions and thus be more guilty of contributing to climate change – I could not believe it! The article of course makes lots of assumptions about bike efficiency, CO2 emissions in the food production chain and the “food milage” as a bicyclist. Well, not bothering with all the numbers and assuming that everybody rides a heavy 18 kg touring bicycle, the authors have computed how much CO2 on average is emitted per kcal food in Germany, have applied some basic physical theory on biking in order to compare muscle power to an electric motor and are finally stating that a potato only fed bicyclist will loose the comparison to a 100% electric powered pedelec by 7g CO2/km to 0.3g CO2/km, given the battery is charged with energy from regenerative sources. More realistic, applying the average German energy mix for the battery charge of the pedelec and the average German diet for the bicyclist, the result would still be similar: 6g CO2/ km for the pedelec and about 6 times as much for the bicycle.

Well, did the Chinese then do the right thing by getting rid of their old bicycles? Shall we consider a heavy eco-taxation for biking in the future? I could sense something was missing in the author’s calculation, something that made the outcome so favourable for the pedelec, but I could not see it immediately. First, I was thinking about the author not having incorporated the higher use of energy in the production of a pedelec, the more of resources for battery and motor. But that was not it. It was a user’s comment on the article, that made me finally think: Do pedelec drivers stop eating?

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Uyghur Ürümqi

I was excited and happy to reach Urumqi. In comparison to the desert it is some degrees cooler here and especially at night temperatures go down to a comfortable level. But moreover I had read about the Uighurs and was anticipating new impressions. Finally, we are here and it is indeed different from an average Chinese city. With bustling bazaars in small side roads, street vendors selling deliciously sweet melon slices and Arabic influenced food and craftsmen chiselling on pots, cans and little barbecues the Uyghur quarters of the city are markedly different. I am especially happy for the new diversity that the Uyghur are bringing along. Ethnically belonging to a Turkic group their language’s rhythm sounds very much like Turkish and with thick black hair and moustaches they look far different from the Han-Chinese, not to mention that most of them are Muslim. However, also plenty of Han-Chinese are living in Ürümqi and being outside the Uyghur quarters only the signs and postings held in two languages are a reminder of the Uyghurs.

With the new diversity of people, diversity and variations of food has grown. Clearly Arabic influenced there is to mention a variant of Baklava which is much more cake like than its Turkish pendant, but as good. Everywhere one can find grilled lamb kebab spits and sesame seed topped naan bread freshly baked in coal-fired ovens.

Some more days we will spend here in or around Ürümqi, waiting for our Kazakh visa that we have applied for yesterday. Then we will head for Almaty and the Caspian Sea on the long run.

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Riding on the desert winds

The alarm is ringing at 4.30 and around 5 with the first glimpse of light we are dragging us out of the tent. We would like to sleep a bit longer, especially since the last days have been hard and we can feel our legs. However, in order to avoid the merciless heat of the desert, the mornings are the only time of the day where physical activity is actually possible. We have breakfast, pack our stuff and before 7 o’clock we are on the road. At this time the shadows are still long and the temperature is perfect. However, I know too well that sun will soon switch on the afterburner and from 8 o’clock I am sweating. Latest around 9.30 we have to make a stop in order to get dressed with our long clothes. The sunshine is simply too aggressive and every square centimeter of skin that is not covered would hopelessly burn. Until 12 o’clock bicycling is somewhat bearable, thereafter the heat is so overwhelming that it feels as if it was a physical substance. As if the air got heavier, more dense and dough-like, every movement is tough costs quite an effort. Bridges, the only source of shade in a treeless world can be seen from kilometers away and are highly desired spots for breaks although they do not provide protection from the winds that seem to come right out of a hair dryer. But we were lucky with the wind directions and on 2 of the last days we had strong tail winds blowing us to speeds we otherwise can only dream of: 140 km in as little as 5 hours.

Lucky we were also with the splendid road conditions since currently the new freeway connecting the provinces of  Qinghai and Xinjian is being built and we had an entire freeway side with fresh good rolling asphalt for us alone.

Now we have arrived in Hami aka Kumul. We are considering taking the train to Urumqi from here, I am not made for the heat.

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