Trans Asia – By Bicycle from Leipzig to Bombay
In June 1998, I started with Stephan Löw on our cycling trip halfway around the world. The route led via the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Nepal to India.
Four and a half months and over 13,000 km through endless steppes, merciless deserts, the highest mountains on earth and tropically hot jungles.
Day 1 | 19.6.98 | Leipzig
“So over there on the left is the way to China…!”. That was the last sentence of the friends who were saying goodbye to us in Leipzig. Like every year, it is a bit difficult to leave. And like every year, we can hardly wait to get on the bike. Our tyres greedily devour the first kilometres. Do they know what they are in for?
It’s 1000 km to the Ukrainian border, but we are so excited and tense that we don’t even notice the first few days. What awaits us in the “wild east”?
Day 9 | 30.6.98 | Ukraine (1520 Km)
Despite all the worries and fears we had, we did not expect such a great country and nice people as here in the Ukraine. We are constantly invited ! Even at the police checkpoints we can’t get past without talking and a glass of vodka. The hospitality culminates in a telephone number: if we are robbed or attacked, we should call and we will get everything back. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian’s offer from the “business” is only valid for the next 400 km.
Day 17 | 8.7.98 | Russia (2770 Km)
As we were warned: Watch out for gangs ! Watch out for the police too ! Don’t ride in the dark ! But nobody warned us about the real danger: Vodka!
Unsuspecting, we are sitting by a lake when suddenly four cars with drunken Russians approach. A man jumps out of one of them, waving a pistol and shouting: “Don’t be afraid – I’m a policeman!” . After some back and forth, we are invited to the nearby village. The men of the village are gathered there and there is vodka, dry fish and bacon. Some of them were stationed as soldiers in the former GDR and so there is a lot to talk about. And always vodka. The last thing I remember is Stephan drinking the village policeman under the table.
The next morning I wake up alone in some bed. Where is Stephan? Outside, I follow a trail of vomit that ends in front of a truck cabin, from which Stephan looks at me glassily. We quickly pack our stuff and leave the village. Significantly, only the women are awake and grin pitifully as we ride laboriously along the road. As I vomit over my bike bags, we decide to end the day early. And still days later we are approached by strangers about this orgy. They have heard about the cycling ” Vodka Germans” and don’t want to believe that we only want to buy milk.
Day 24 | 15.7.98 | On the Volga/Samara/Russia (3570 Km)
Finally we have reached our first stage destination: a small island on the Volga River. Here we are invited by the parents of a Russian friend. After all the efforts so far, we enjoy the rest and repair the damage done so far.
Most of the time we fish and enjoy the Russian cuisine. But after one week we have to leave again. Somehow the Russian visas are not in order. With a lot of luck we manage to register at the authorities. But it only works because the official in charge has a birthday and has already had some champagne. But even the most beautiful celebration comes to an end at some point, so we leave the country as soon as possible to avoid further investigations. So we say goodbye to Russia and Europe and “flee” to Kazakhstan, to Asia.
36.day | 27.7.98 | In the middle of the Kazakh steppe (4580 Km)
The road leads straight ahead. For hours, for days. At curves we almost celebrate small festivals. Add to this the heat and the dust of the steppe. And in the middle of this loneliness it happens: One of Stephan’s rims breaks.
What to do? The next village is 200 km away, the next railway station is at the Aral Sea, 500 km away. And you can only get a new rim in Alma-Ata. But that is over 2000 km away. So we decide to hitchhike. After 1 ½ days of waiting, Caucasian truckers arrive with a lorry. They take us on a 3-day and 2-night trip to the former capital of Kazakhstan. On the roads here in the steppe they only manage 40 km per hour. We are quite happy not to have to cycle this distance, because policemen warned us of the plague that must have broken out south of the Aral Sea. This is also the site of the former Russian atomic bomb test site and the Baikonur spaceport.
In Alma-Ata we get what is probably the only rim in Kazakhstan and there are not even enough spokes for it. After eight hours of repairs, we can continue. From here it is only 500 km to China, and we haven’t seen much of Kazakhstan yet. Besides, the visa cost 180 DM (approx 90 Euro) and we want something for that. So we take the train part of the way back and enjoy the loneliness and endlessness of the Kazakh steppe once more. And where else can you travel 1600 km in a sleeping car for 65 DM (approx 33 Euro)?
Day 54 | 14.8.98 | China-Province Xingjiang (5990 km)
Against all expectations, there are no entry problems into China. While in Kazakhstan the condition for leaving the country was to let the border guards ride our bikes, on the Chinese side our belongings are closely examined and even x-rayed. When asked, we always say we want to go to Beijing. But the officials are very friendly and so we have to leave a souvenir photo and sign a few autographs. Then we can enter China.
The Kazakh rim did not last long. We had to have it welded four times. But here in China, the land of bicycles, we want to buy a new one. Unfortunately, they are not available separately. So we buy a complete bike and dismantle what we need and can sell the rest again.
The next kilometres take us over the Tian-Shan mountains and we enter the merciless Takli-Makan desert. Here we struggle with temperatures around 50 degrees Celsius and several sandstorms.
But we have a goal: the longest of the highest roads on earth!
Day 67 | 27.8.98 | Golmud /China (7550 Km)
This road begins here in Golmud, in the Transhimalaya. It leads over 1600 km, constantly at altitudes of around 4600 m to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. But unfortunately there is a problem: in front of us is a Chinese army checkpoint. You can only get further into Tibet with a special permit. But there is no such permit for cyclists.
It took us more than two months to get here and now we have to give up? There must be a way to get further! The men in the cinema always sneak past the posts at night. But the men in the cinema are also regularly shot.
However, the Chinese are forcing us to become criminals! What if it goes wrong? In the twilight we rode close to the police post. The bikes are parked under a bridge in a dried-up stream and we wait. About ten men stand at the checkpoint and check everyone. To the right of the watchtower is a canyon, but to the left is a boulder slope about 150 m wide between the post and the rock face. Here we want to try it at dawn.
4.49 am. Damn, overslept ! In half an hour it will be dawn. Quickly pack up and put on black clothes. It is cold, 5 degrees C. We sneak away from the road towards the rock formations. A little later we are at the level of the barracks. Now it’s every man for himself. Just don’t make any noise. Again and again I stumble into a sandy stream bed. I pause, I can hear the soldiers’ voices. Keep going. I’ve made it through the narrowest part, now it’s just a matter of pushing on and holding on. I made it! Exhausted, I let myself fall into a hollow. Slowly it gets light. The sun rises and we return to the road, continue as if nothing had happened.
Day 71 | 31.8.98 | Tangula Pass 5231m/Tibet (8092 Km)
The climb to the pass is longer than expected. It starts to storm. Rain comes down. The road winds up and up. I can already see the pass flags. But slowly it gets dark. At the top of the pass we have just enough light to look down into the valley. It starts to snow. We leave quickly in order to get below 5000m. But an hour later the storm and snow have increased and we are forced to pitch the tent at 5112m. The weather rages all night, but the sleeping bags are warm. The next morning the snowstorm is over, but the drinking water in the water bottles remains frozen all day.
So we arrived in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. The most impressive is the Potalla Palace. It actually serves as the seat of the Dalai Lama, but he has been living in exile in India since 1959. Unfortunately, the palace is no longer the centre of the city. Many new buildings in Chinese style rob it of its grandeur and size.
If we still had some asphalt on the roads until Lhasa, everything stopped after that. On indescribable tracks, over landslides, debris avalanches and mud, we fought our way over 5000m passes into Nepal. In between, we saw the Mt Everest, Cho Oyo, Lhotse and Xixabagma F. from afar!
Day 84 | 13.9.98 | Old Tingri/Tibet (9300 Km)
A week ago we left Lhasa and are now in the Himalayas. Our goal is to get a glimpse of Mt. Everest. Our first attempt failed. In the direction of Everest base camp, we slogged 18 km up a scree valley to a 5200m high pass. From there, however, we only had a cloudy view.
We waited a day and then decided to go to Old Tingri. This place is situated in a river valley with an unobstructed view of the highest mountains on earth. In the evening we get a cloudless view of Mt.Everest and Cho Oyo. For ages we watch the fascinating play of light of the setting sun on the snow-laden slopes of the 8000-metre peaks. Now I can understand what drives people to climb these mountains.
Day 88 | 17.9.98 | Kathmandu/Nepal (9630 Km)
After the grey of the mountains, we dive into the jungle and the colourfulness of Nepal. After such a long time, finally trees and grass, flowers and waterfalls again. The temperatures rise, soon it is unbearably hot. We feel as if we have arrived in paradise.
And then the noise, the hustle and bustle and the smog of Kathmandu. Nevertheless, we stay and enjoy this city, the different cultures and relax. Especially the numerous temples inspire me. Kathmandu is not called the “City of a Thousand Temples” for nothing. Especially the Swajabunath Temple, one of the oldest in Asia, impresses with its large painted Buddha eyes.
Two weeks we stay, but then we want to move on. It is hard to say goodbye, even though the smog causes irritating coughs.
Day 97 | 26.9.98 | Nepalganj/Nepal (10120 Km)
I am completely stunned ! I have never experienced this before! 500 km behind Kathmandu my crank arm breaks. We have no choice but to take the bus back to Kathmandu, because only there is a replacement. There is also a herd of goats on the roof of the bus. They have the habit of peeing occasionally and the window where I sit has the habit of opening constantly due to the shaking of the ride. So the shower is the first thing in Kathmandu. Afterwards I can buy a good old Shimano crank and everything is fine again.
Day 111 | 9.10.98 | Varanasi on the Ganges/India (10960 Km)
So this is it, the legendary “City of Death”. Varanasi, one of the oldest settlements in India, lies on the holy river of the Indians – the Ganges. This is where the old people come to die and be cremated. Then their ashes are scattered in the Ganges.
In the early morning hours we take a boat to get a better view of the ritual washing and the burnings from the river. Suddenly a bundle smelling strongly of rotting comes floating towards us. The smell is unbearable. While we try to get away, we are told that this is a sadduh, a holy man who, after his death, is not burnt but wrapped in a cloth and floats down the Ganges to the ocean. When I think that the people here also drink the water from the Ganges, I feel sick. In the evening, I am offered “fish and chips”, but I gratefully decline, because who knows where the fish comes from ….?
Inspired by these impressions and experiences, we continue our journey through India and arrive in Agra.
Here stands the most impressive and beautiful building in the world, the Taj Mahal. A magic of white and black marble, originally decorated with emeralds. It is probably the most famous and most photographed building in the world.
Day 133 | 1.11.98 | Bombay/Mumbai/Airport (13.500 Km)
Finally at our destination – Bombay/Mumbai. This megalopolis begins 60 km before the actual city centre. We pass through slums for hours. It stinks of sewage. Where is the airport?
A little later I’m on the plane and can’t believe that in a few hours I’ll be in cold Europe. I think about the last few days:
On the last 1500 km to Bombay, my saddle and the low-rider broke!
To see the sea, we cycled to Daman, a former Portuguese colony on the Indian Ocean. Here the beer is cheaper and we have the beach and the sea. So we experienced another fantastic sunset, the whole sky seemed blood-red before the sun sank into the sea. But maybe it was just the beer… ?