Mechanical nomad: across Central Asia by bike

Mechanical nomad: across Central Asia by bike

Angus Young was one of the winners of the 2016 Wallace Watson Award. He shares his experience of cycling across Asia.

After attending the previous year’s Wallace Watson Award lecture, I felt inspired to take up a challenge myself and plan my own expedition. I knew that I wanted to cycle, but I did not yet know where as it is such large world with so many places to see. Eventually I decided on Central Asia, as it was a place that had always interested me, yet knew very little about it. After countless hours studying maps I planned my route and, on 19 July, I left Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and started my 4,500km journey to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

Before landing in Bishkek I really had no idea what to expect. What I found was a bizarre blend of rural housing,  a ‘Western’ style city, and what one could only describe as a Soviet relic. I spent two days in the city and tried to soak up as much culture as possible, however the open road was beckoning. From Bishkek I headed north across the border into Kazakhstan. Five minutes over the border I was pulled over by a couple of Kazakhs, and though they spoke no English they were still very clear that they thought (quite rightly so) I was a mad Englishman on a bike. I was given a few tomatoes and a bottle of coke; this became a regular occurrence over the next few weeks.

The following day I arrived in Almaty, a diverse city dominated by looming mountains. From here I headed east across the dessert into China. I decided to enter China earlier than I originally planned as I’d spotted a road on the map that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to follow. Crossing into China took four hours in total at the border with countless checks. I headed south east to Yili, which turned out to be quite a large city, and then carried on until I could finally turn north and head on the road through the mountains. The next few days were some of the most mind-blowing of my life! The road and the scenery were amazing – it turned effortlessly from dessert, to forest, to mountain passes. The highest pass was 3,500m which meant I had a day of climbing over 3,000m before a long descent back into the valley. I spent the evenings with local farmers who had all offered me a warm bed in which to sleep.

I was now bound for Mongolia. As soon as I entered, there was a dramatic change in the road quality and my pace dropped considerably. I entered from the south east and headed north towards Ulaangom, Mongolia’s second city. Here I spent two nights with Tulkas, a hairdresser, while I sorted my life out. I had lost two days and was rather behind, so I had some motoring to do! The road would be pleased with itself if it got marked as a bridleway on a UK OS map! This meant that I had the six longest days of my trip, cycling from dawn to dusk, however it was simply the most amazing road that I have ever seen.
As I travelled closer to the capital more and more people were on the road and they improved in quality. On my last day I was able to cover 246km and arrive in my hostel before dinner.

And there I was, after 40 days on the road my journey was complete. It was a surreal experience ending, and if I would have had the time I would have gone straight through Ulaanbaatar and out the other side. I was taken aback by the overwhelming generosity of the local people wherever I went which, coupled with the awe inspiring landscape, will remain with me always.

I would like to say a massive thanks to Teddy and Ruthie Watson for enabling me do this, and every person that cheered me up a mountain, or gave me some food and a place to sleep.