Nick Kohn bike touring through Asia and writing stories for Kook Exchange as he goes. More stories can be found HERE
The contrast of security at the Chinese/Mongolian border was almost laughable. The Mongolian security, while present, is definitely more lax than most borders I’ve crossed. China, on the other hand looks as if they’re ready for invasion. Razor wire atop electric fences, cameras on swivels on every building, guards armed with riot shield and clubs. The crossing took about four hours which was actually faster than expected. On the fourth time unpacking my bags, the customs officer spoke English. After a good chat, I asked why it was necessary to go through the same bags four times? Why could it not be communicated that they had been checked and I just pass on through. The response – ‘Bro, you are in China now. Things here don’t make sense to most Chinese people so you’re going to be very confused a lot of the time.’ He wasn’t wrong.
As I passed through the border town, I noticed the maximum-security-prison-like precautions at each shop. Every single one had a guard (often an old man or middle aged woman) armed with a wooden bedpost (as a club), a metal detector wand and a riot shield… For a convenience or grocery store.
Next, is the checkpoints. I had heard and read that they were very regular and got quite annoying but I completely underestimated it. I go through one to four of these checks per day, each one asking the same questions. There is never anyone that speaks English so everything occurs through translation apps. Sometimes the experience will go for 20 minutes, other times it’ll be four hours, depending on how many officers interview me, who wants photos and whether my bags get searched.
On my third day in Xinjiang, I was sat outside a phone store using their internet. Suddenly, what sounded like a WWII air raid siren started screeching. All around me, doors slammed shut and everyone from little old ladies to burly young men came rushing out to the streets, yielding weapons of all sorts. Some lined the roads and others blocked junctions with vehicles. When they were ready, they stood at attention, like a platoon of soldiers, clubs, spears, metal rods and wooden shields by their sides. By this stage, the ever present police had set up. Leaders began barking commands, patriotically under the flapping Chinese flags on each and every shop front. In unison, they began to practice offensive movements, stabbing, slashing and swinging their tools in the air, like a military bayonet fighting training exercise. Meanwhile, I sat there, sipping on my tea on the front steps of the store, stunned. Over the coming weeks, this would prove to be almost a daily occurrence.
As for the riding itself, it was a bloody pleasant change to finally be on some tarmac. While I love the dirt and being off the beaten track, the road is much easier on the wrists and bum and means more kilometres can be cranked out in a day. The landscape was, as expected, very similar to Mongolia for the first few days. Extensive sandy plains with long hills. Foliage was minimal and the only animals were camels, goats and birds of prey soaring overhead. But the silky smooth tarmac kept my mind off the sore legs and brutal heat, by maintaining high stoke levels each time I checked the speedo. Just days earlier, I was managing a measly 25-40km er day through the desert sands, now I was smashing 80km as a minimum. With morale high and winds low, the k’s began to rise. A personal best on one day of 125.8km was beaten the next with 127.9km, both of which I was massively proud of, particularly with the bike weighing almost 60kg and not coming from a cycling background.
Due to the high security and intense police presence, I was left to sleep in some pretty dull spots. A patch of dirt between a pig-infested cornfield and a tip would rate as the least pleasant and worst smelling of the trip thus far, and a brand new drain under an unopened section of highway was the nicest. Like I said, pretty grim.
The riding got really interesting as I entered an unexpected geological research park, where some of the biggest dinosaurs fossils in the world have been found. This was especially cool as I’d just finished reading Jurassic Park and was full froth on stuff like this. A section of the area was called the ‘Sulphur Valley:’ Here, the mountains looked like they’d been shaded with watercolours. Colours varied from light red to maroon, tan to purple to green, depending on the mineral make up of that section. Unfortunately, as with so many things in China, high fences left me too far distant to be able to snap a good picture of this natural beauty.
I went to commence my ride from Urumqi (capital of Xinjiang Province) on the G216, a notoriously long, well-paved section of highway that goes through many beautiful spots of north-western China, to Kashgar, the last big city before Kyrgyzstan. G216 was a section I was really looking forward to, particularly after hearing reviews from a group of motorcyclists that I’d seen near the Mongolian border. I was 60km in within half a day, feeling pretty pleased with the distance covered, when the police pulled me over for a passport check. They didn’t speak a word of English so I got the solar panel out and started charging batteries, figuring I’d be waiting for a while. After 45 minutes, an English-speaking officer arrived and said ‘you cannot pass!’ in a very authoritarian voice. I couldn’t help but giggle – one word changed and he could have been Gandalf. I stopped laughing to myself when I realised what he said. His English seemed to disappear when he tried to explain, so he rubbed his arms as if he was cold, pointed to the road then broke a stick and shook his head to say no. It took another 30 minutes to communicate the the local glacier had broken apart and caused major damage to the road, only two days ago. There’s some global warming for you! He explained that the road will not be ready ‘for one to two years so maybe find a different path to travel.’ Still keen to ride this highway, I said I was going to try regardless. His response was to bring out his handcuffs and say ‘for safety, you no go.’ Suddenly, his advice seemed like the right choice to take.
Early the next morning, I was riding S101 – the heaps more gnarly mountain road that lead in a similar direction to G216. I also picked this option because a local told me 101 is pronounced ‘yo-lei-yo’ in Manderin and I thought it sounded cool. Judging by the map, there wasn’t a whole lot out that way so I stocked up on food, water and fuel for the stove. Due to being a ‘dangerous good’, fuel took three hours to fill my 800ml bottle and required a ‘SWAT’ officer to come down to the razor wire surrounded station, with tyre popping spikes, a barricade that could stop a B-Double and three armed guards out front (this is the norm in Xinjiang) to help out.
The road lead me back through the geological park, where landscapes were beautiful yet brutal and the climbs, while not too severe, were seemingly never ending. It was ruthlessly hot and the locals in their nice air conditioned cars must have felt sorry for me because they kept stopping to give me food and water. In the 50km from town, I gathered up a watermelon, rock melon, a loaf of bread and about half a kilo of tofu, along with some water. I almost felt silly for being surprised when David, the English speaking cop at the next checkpoint told me this road was not passable by bike. He said there were big hills and rough roads, to which I let him know I’d just ridden through Mongolia so neither of those would be a major problem. He got me nervous when he said ‘the wolves will rip your legs off’ – complete with gestures and some pretty hilarious snarling and teeth showing. I’m unsure if wolves are out there but he sure got me thinking – I quite like riding bikes and legs are necessary for that hobby so I best not go losing them.
He paired me up with a middle age cyclist that just happened to be passing through. Mr Chan, as I was advised to call him, was a chubby but jolly man who seemed like he was in a bit of trouble with the missus back home. Hence, he had jumped on his brand new Merida mountain bike to see how far he could ride. The poor bloke almost fell over when he got out of the saddle to meet me because his legs were so buggered. The old fella must have been in the dog house big tim. From my understanding, the cops had organised for Mr Chan to show me an alternate route tomorrow after I stayed the night at his place – apparently he felt sorry for me because I was so dirty and was eating raw tofu with cinnamon while riding (it’s really tasty, give it a go).
We got riding in the opposite direction to what I had intended, going very quickly downhill in the bucketing rain, after I’d just spent the last few days coming up. Happiness was restored when riding past a farm and my new friend pointed to a pig then twisted his hands as if to flip food on a BBQ and rubbed his tummy. Can’t be sad with pork for dinner! After 60km of super fun and winding downhill with almost no one else on the road (understandably, the rain was borderline ridiculous at this stage), we got to his home town, where instead of taking me to his house for this BBQ I could already taste, he took me to the police station, shook my hand and rode away. Sly dog.
… to be continued
Instagram – @strokeofstoke
Harry Major, a friend of Kook in NZ is also bag maker – Wizard Works and has made a drop of bags on our door (via courier). You can find them here – and we asked him some very in-depth product questions below.
SO you like sewing? Thats cool…what do you like so much about it?
It’s a creative outlet, something my mind can obsess about when I’m riding my bike, or tying my shoelaces. Sewing is an aesthetic thing, but it’s also problem solving and engineering. I like having an idea and then working out how to make it. Its not just that sewing involves making a 3D thing out of flat pieces of fabric, but also that the order you sew things is vital. Once you’ve sewn a seam it becomes impossible to sew certain others.
What is your most favourite thing to sew?
I make bags for bikes and sometimes bags for humans, and honestly my favourite things are the squarest. Squares are great.
Where do you get your colour inspiration from? Is fabric hard to find?
One of the big reasons I wanted to start making bike bags was how bland everything was. Colour and patterns are so much fun. We are seeing some really cool stock bikes coming out with great colours, things like the Electric Queen, and yet all the mainstream bags are black or camo or grey. I really wanted to get some faux 80s rave culture in my work. What I soon realised was sourcing out-there fabrics in the right kind of material is pretty tough. However being able to track down that splatter Cordura was sort of the beginning of everything.
Is it worth your time?
What does the future hold for your bags?
A website, and greater availability.
Are they any good?
Yes, absolutely. I’d never want to let something shoddy or flawed get into someones hands.
Can I have one?
Sure. Until the forthcoming site is up and running, you’ll have to make do with instagram; @wizard.works
What bags you most proud of?
The Basket Bag. I’ve been making a version of this since 2015, it was the first thing I wanted to make. The current finalised design does exactly what I want from a basket bag, easy on easy into. Its simple but full of features that make it unlike anything out there.
Whats the best trip you’ve been on?
Hmmm, they’ve all been great. The best riding is hands down The Old Ghost Road track in the south Island of New Zealand. The country I remember most fondly is Taiwan. The Best food was Malaysia. The time the field we were sleeping in was set on fire was Cambodia.
Send us pics of bags that didn’t quite work out?
I think everything starts out not working out, and through testing starts to work good. The panniers I made look cool, function pretty cool, but there a few killer design flaws in their construction that meant when I was testing them out on a three month tour in America I had to sew them back together every week or two.
Thanks for being siq
Right back at ya. #shredthepatriachy
It’s #kookismetal month on Kook Exchange to celebrate the launch of Metal range Spring/Summer 18 – We’ve got; Mug is metal, Kook is Metal t-shirt, Metal is Metal Rolling trays and matching mini Bic holder. Raise your metal hands all month long or forever more – metal is forever.
Kook in Mongolia – part two – Find Part one at Kook Adventure Stories!
I stayed at Achit Nuur for two and a bit days total. It was incredibly relaxing to be able to sit and do absolutely nothing, though, simultaneously I was losing my mind. I wasn’t going crazy because I had temporarily stopped riding, but rather that the bugs were insane and the wind wouldn’t cease for a moment. It got so gnarly that, even after setting up protected on two sides, the gust changed direction and completely flattened my previously pitched tent.
I spent time sitting, reading, watching nature and observing a very angry Kazakh man slam on the breaks to an abandoned, locked up house, break the lock off and repossess everything inside. As he was finishing up, the locals became to trot over on horseback. When trying to make for a quick escape, the Kazakh’s crank-start, Soviet era van/Ute combination wouldn’t turnover. I was glad to be distanced, in the comfort of my tent, under a goat barn – protected from the elements.
The day after, I woke to a windless morning. Stoked, I packed up and hit the road. Within the first two kilometres, I heard the sounds of very distressed animals coming from a ger. I assumed they were slaughtering an animal for food but then saw they were going through the painstaking process of removing the thick winter wool from the sheep – this would be a significant portion of their income for the coming months. I was invited over for tea, snacks and to watch the almost tortrous process of a hand-sized rake getting dragged through the dense wool, til it tore off the skin.
These people kept shaking their head, gesturing ‘no’ then pointing to my intended direction of travel. I laughed and gave them a thumbs up, confident in my ability to look after myself. My gosh, was I wrong. The next 48-72hrs were some of the hardest of my life.
Before long, I was exhausted, but knew there was a town where I could resupply my food stocks about 20km away so i kept plodding along. Out of nowhere in the middle of the desert a young boy appeared on a motorbike. He looked hardy, with red cheeks and eyes that squinted even when they were opened. He saw I was struggling so he showed me the direction of his ger. Within the next hour and a half i drank eight cups of tea and three bowls of noodles. They even bought their goat inside for me to pat while I ate and drank.
The village I had planned on resupplying at was a real ghost town. Of the many shops only two were opened, the servos all abandoned and even the police station had no one in there. With only about one day’s worth of fuel for the stove, and at least a two and half day ride to the next town, I got moving. I was less than excited to find the road to Bayannuur was ankle high sand.
By now my legs were exhausted from needing to push the 60 kg bike and I knew that pain wasn’t ending any time soon. After about an hour and a half, a construction truck came past and I double checked my directions with them. They informed me that the alternate route to what i chosen was easier despite double the climbing and 50 kilometres more distance. I understood they were going to a town about 80 kilometres up the road. Pretty good considering I only needed to go 180km. They offered me a lift, so in addition to the five guys on the two seats up front, four in the back and the giant excavator shovel that was barely strapped to the tray, I loaded Tania up and climbed onto the rickety and rusted Chinese truck. The ride was rough – everyone and everything – including the two ton shovel, was bouncing around with the corrugations of the road.
As we arrived to the bottom of a mountain range, the vehicle came to a halt. Tea time, I figured. They got out and we entered the tiny door for bread, tea and to play cards. I started getting worried as one man started to get changed and another fell asleep. Turns out this is where I get off – right at the bottom of the mountains. They offered for me to stay the night but there was still two hours of light left so I got moving. When I did so, they pointed to the setting sun and began howling like wolves – not overly comforting.
Tyre pressure right down, I made my way through the sand – making far more distance than expected. Soon, the notorious headwind picked up, so I headed to a mountain that looked like it’d keep me out of the brunt of it and headed over to set up camp.
The next morning was typical. A little riding, lots of walking up hills. Though I received a surprise reward for my efforts. After cresting some hills, I was greeted with the view of a giant lake, tucked into a valley of nothing but grass, goats, ducks and swans. After the ride the previous afternoon, I was low on water so this was perfect. I jumped right in, enjoying the chilly water on my sand encrusted skin. I read my book while my tea brewed. My stomach sank when I took my first sip – it was a saltwater lake – heartbreaker. This ruined my mood, so I packed up and began to ride on the waters edge rather than on the soft sand. Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of carcasses around – they must have also fallen for the same trick I did. It took four hours (and more stops than I could count) to get out of the valley. I could see the next town in the distance – I meer 30km away. Looking at my speedo, I saw that I’d managed only 26km thus far. I worryingly checked my water to see that I had just 1.5L remaining, meaning in the previous 36hrs, I had consumed 7.5L. The temperature was over 30 in the day and around 25 at night – that wasn’t going to last.
Understandably, I was scared. This was the first survival situation I’d ever been in and it seemed almost surreal. I had spent the afternoon trying to rest with as much of my body curled under the knee high shrubs, or if I was lucky, a waist high rock – just to try to reduce the intensity of the heat.
I barely slept due to the stress of the day ahead. Dinner took about 600ml of water – I knew I’d be useless without food so I made the sacrifice. I woke up several times throughout the night to my mouth feeling more dry than the desert I was stuck in. I awoke at 0430hrs to try to make some distance before the sun gained it’s strength. I ate a single raw carrot, the only food I had that didn’t require cooking, and began the ride.
Within the first few hundred metres, I noticed an eagle soaring overhead. I am fascinated by these animals so got fixated by its gracefulness. This was incredibly dumb as I was riding on soft sand and fist sized rocks – an area where full attention to the terrain is necessary. I tracked her to the right, hit a rock and almost came off – ‘serves me right’, I said to myself. But I’d noticed something from my peripherals. I thought I’d seen green. Surely not, I was in the desert with no water. I double checked. Tucked away between two small hills sat a few metres square of lush grass. Unbelievable! I sped over, suddenly full of energy. There was something in the middle. From afar it looked like a well! ‘No way in the world’, I said out loud. I got to the structure and almost threw my bike down to check if there was anything inside. It was a little manky with bugs and a strange reflective film on the surface of the water but other than that it looked clean. I can’t tell you what I said to myself at this moment, for fear this article won’t be published.
The next problem was that there was no bucket. There was a large pump for moving the water to troughs for animals and I made the (dumb) decision to climb in and use my knife to cut the old frayed rope. I attached my Nalgene to the rope via a Voile Strap and was able to scoop a litre out. I poured the icy water through my Buff in order to filter off the bugs and whatever other funky business was on the surface. The fact it was cold was a great sign – fresh spring water! The thought that this liquid may be undrinkable was still very present in my mind. I blasted the now clear water with the Steripen. That 90 seconds went forever. When I finally took a sip it was unbelievably refreshing. I could feel it trace down my throat, the cold instantly making me feel more alert. Another sip. Brain freeze. I wasn’t upset with that – beats the inescapable heat!
I had soon filled all nine litres, just in case I ran into some other unexpected troubles on the way to the town. My feet were on the pedals, ready to move when I got off, took my shoes off and lay in the grass. I still couldn’t believe it. It was like something out of a mad dream or crazy LSD trip.
The ride into town took most of the day. I was exhausted but a massive weight had been removed from my shoulders. I meandered through town, looking for a store where I could by my normal diet (purely due to lack of choice) of buckwheat, potato, carrot and onion. An old lady was sweeping the outside of her resturant – a never ending task when you live in a sandy desert with constant wind. She saw me and lit up with a beaming smile. She waved me over. By the time I got to her, she already had a bowl of tea waiting for me -steaming fresh from her floral thermos. I thanked her profusely and decided a nice cooked lunch was in order. I slumped onto the hard timber bench, rested my elbows on the plastic table cover depicting yaks and horses and drifted away to another world, awaiting my noodles.
… To be continued.
Instagram – @strokeofstoke
A commenter on YouTube says its the best album of all time. Deep Forest follows jambi-jambi on her Crust Shred Eagle through history dripped Wiseman’s Ferry.