Controversy in a name: FYROM, to the Republic of Macedonia and now North Macedonia…

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Happy to have arrived!

The naming of the country north of Greece has a long history of controversy, which dates back to World War II, although it wasn’t until the break up of Yugoslavia that it really became an issue. Greece claims the only Macedonia is that of its northern region, and that (North) Macedonia is attempting to appropriate Greek Culture and symbols (Alexander the Great for one). The most hard line Greek nationalists feel that if (North) Macedonia is allowed to keep its name, it will eventually lead to armed conflict and taking of their land. The majority of people living in North Macedonia are an ethnic south Slavic people, speaking a slavic language. However, North Macedonians see themselves as direct descendants of Alexander the Great, also claimed by Greece…

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Love this flag, it is so very bright!

You can see where this gets complicated. In fact, Skopje has a whole plethora of neo classical statues (built in 2014), which aims to reclaim its history back from the Greeks. It’s complicated, and we certainly felt the hostility later on our journey when we accidentally referred to Macedonia (then its actual name) as Macedonia, not FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). In Greece, that’s what you call it, otherwise you get a death stare.

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Lake Ohrid

By the time we were pedalling through this country with a controversial name, a referendum had been held to change the name, thus making way for the country’s entry into the EU and NATO, which until then had been blocked by Greece. And as of early 2019 The Republic of Macedonia official became North Macedonia. Apologies if any of my facts are wrong, this is a complicated issue and I’ve done my best to try and break it down a bit.

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So happy to be here

We reached (North) Macedonia after climbing for an hour on the Albanian side. After being stamped in, we free wheeled down towards Lake Ohrid. At one point I hit a pot hole so fast, my rear pannier came off. First time on this trip. After a lovely descent we were soon riding along the shores of the incredibly beautiful lake. There had been no rest days since Mostar, three countries ago, so we were looking forward immensely to some time off the bike. As it was my birthday the following day, we’d treated ourselves to our own flat, overlooking the lake. Now we just had to get there.

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Pedalling into Ohrid

It had been a long, gruelling morning of climbing through Albania, but now we were so close. The sunset over the lake and mountains was spectacular; a hint of what was to come. I had been keen on Lake Ohrid ever since I’d heard about how beautiful the town and lake were supposed to be, back in 2015 when we were first cycling through the region. It did not disappoint.

 

As we pedalled into the town of Lake Ohrid, the call to prayer was being sung, and I could see many churches. While I am not religious, I deeply appreciate these places – were religions exist side by side. It shows us the better side of humanity. Ohrid once had a church for each day of the year. That seems a little over the top!

 

To reach our flat, we needed to negotiate the narrow and steep medieval town of Ohrid. That meant full on standing up in first gear, pumping the pedals, after having already been on the road for 10 hours. Mildly exhausting! Our phone GPS was freaking out, and a few times we came up against narrow and steep stairs and had to turn back. Finally, after bumping our bikes down some steps we made it. Our hosts let us in and then it was just us and our own little space for a few days. Bliss.

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Tea in the sun happiness

After a shower and overloading the washing machine with our filthy clothes, we headed out in what clothes we had left. Ohrid is simply a magical little town, full of steep winding steps, paths, churches, cobbles stones and beautiful views of the lake.

 

I woke on the morning of my 35th birthday with a view of the lake from my bed. Amazing. I had a wonderful day of phone conversations with friends and family, messages, amazing food made by Astrid and relaxing in the sun. An explore of the town, sunset wines, more amazing food and a sneaky whiskey on our balcony to finish off the day. Perfect.

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Birthday breakfast

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I don’t think I would ever get sick of this view!

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Exploring

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Waiting for the sunset

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Sunset drinks

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So crazy beautiful

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We spent the next few days relaxing and exploring Ohrid. Our almost 6 months on the road was beginning to be felt; we were tired and extended our stay by one night. Finally though, we needed to leave. Greece was calling and Astrid’s 40th was now only 10 days away.

 

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Leaving Ohrid, next stop Athens!

A little reluctantly we packed up and bumped our bikes out of the old town and headed towards the Greek border. We followed the road out of town and then up a valley, beside a river. It was a beautiful late autumn day and felt good to be pedalling again. There was a gorgeous, empty secondary road we found in the afternoon, climbing amongst the pines. Our camp for the night was absolutely perfect, on soft grass, surrounded by trees and plenty of firewood for a warming us (it was cold!).

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Break time!

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Empty roads are the best

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Looking for a camp spot

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Found a perfect one!

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It’s definitely getting cold out here

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Bikes covered in frost

The following morning we pedalled into the town of Bitola, consumed a huge amount of Burek, poked around an archaeological site and then left for the Greek border.

North Macedonia, it’s been a pleasure. We will be back one day.

 

Hiking in the Alps on a shoestring

IMG_20170723_140924.jpgIt had been a long held dream of mine to hike in the European alps. Perhaps having spent a lot of my childhood listening to Heidi (a story about a girl who goes and lives in the Swiss alps with her grandfather) on cassette tape (yeah i am that old), or just my inherent love of mountains, but I have had a long held fascination with hiking the alps. In my 20’s I’d bought books and read about several long distance hikes, and even once did a short hike in the German alps with my sister and some friends. Now that we lived in London it seemed time to fulfil another long held dream of a long distance walk through the alps.

IMG_20170714_212711.jpgIt wasn’t exactly hard to convince Astrid that a walking holiday surrounded by mountains and wilderness would be a good thing. Our friends Chris and Pete have done many hiking holidays and it was with their help that we finally decided on the Vanoise National Park in France.IMG_20170715_133633.jpgI wanted to write this blog partly to share the amazing photos and inspire anyone thinking of a hike in the alps, but also because we did it on the cheap. Weirdly enough, hiking in the alps could, if you let it, cost you a lot of money. If we had done it how many of the French do it, I am not sure we could have afforded it. The good news is that you can actually do it on quite a small budget. To save money there are three things you need to do; camp wherever possible, carry all your own food and not drink alcohol. We did the first two but decided a cheeky wine at the end of the day would be our treat. Not exactly unpredictable for us!

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We could’t resist the French wine!

In a lot of European National Parks you can only camp in allocated areas, or not at all. In the Vanoise National Park you can only camp at huts that allow camping. Luckily most huts on the tour of the Vanoise do allow camping. A lot of people will stay in the huts which cost around 45 euros per night –  this usually includes breakfast (but not dinner which will set you back around a further 25 Euros). Some even have a vegetarian surcharge! Being vegan I imagine would be near impossible. I know many huts helicopter in their food, or walk it in (although some huts are near roads and still charge the same as the more remote ones). I can’t help feeling that at least some of the prices are charged just because they can.  By eliminating the hut sleeping fees and meal costs we spent significantly less. Most huts have kitchens which you can use for around 2 euros and for those that don’t, we just carried our trusty stove anyway. On a tour of the Vanoise self catering is totally possible. You do have to carry enough food for the first 6 days, but after that resupply is much easier. We paid to sleep in the hut on only two occasions. The cost to camp at the huts is around 5 euros per person and includes use of the toilets and showers. It is probably possible to wild camp (although inside the park it’s illegal), especially outside the park, but on this occasion we opted not to.

In the beginning there was a night bus. Luckily, this time we had both packed sober and were well prepared. We reached St Pancras with enough time to easily get through security and partake in our usual pre train beer. Never mind that it was ludicrously early. The first Eurostar of the day was soon speeding through the green English countryside before popping under the channel and into northern France where it was raining. An hour or so later were were in Paris.

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Boarding the Eurostar

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Pre train drinks

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Our train in France

From Gard De Nord we took the RER 3 stops to Gare De Lyon, pushed our way through the crowds and found our train heading south. The dreary plains of northern France with their grey skies and depressing monocultures gradually gave way to vineyards, mountains and blue skies. Several hours later when we reached Modane at the trail head, it was hot and sunny. I was shattered from the early morning but the excitement of arriving livened me up. We were now in the Maurienne valley and mountains surrounded us.

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Modane train station

davAlthough we had been super organised and already bought all our food for the first 6 days (not actually necessary as Modane has a big supermarket), we did not have fuel. Unfortunately even the Eurostar does not allow petrol on board. I had googled the french equivalent of white gas and kerosene and had come up with a few options. However, none of these had been available in the supermarkets I had quickly checked. I was a little anxious. We did not yet know that most huts would allow us to use their kitchens and I was imagining two weeks worth of cold meals and more importantly, no cups of tea. The thought was depressing and alarming. Luckily Modane has an unmanned petrol station which allowed us to fill our 1 litre fuel bottle (it can sometimes be tricky due to it being so small and petrol station attendants getting angry).

Now we were ready to hike.

We followed the signs pointing out of the town and into the promising wilderness. Soon the path became unforgivingly steep and we sweated and puffed in the warm evening air. Higher and higher we climbed, through pine forest with the occasional glimpses into the valley below and the mountains towering above. Eventually we broke out into an alpine meadow and were finally granted the stunning vistas the trees had been obscuring. I had one of those perfect moments were everything comes together. The views were just beautiful, I felt amazing, I was with Astrid and we were finally in the alps, hiking.

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This is what I have been dreaming of

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davNot long after that, just as the light was starting to fade we reached the first hut, Refuge de l’Aiguille Doran. Everyone else was inside eating already and we could see the relief on the Guardien’s face when we only wanted a beer and a place to put our tent. We cooked our pasta and drank a cold beer over looking the mountains. It was crazy to think that morning we had woken up in London and now we were here, surrounded by all this beauty.

The morning dawned misty and the previous day’s epic travel had taken it’s toll. It took me an hour to pull myself out of the tent. Finally, we ate breakfast, packed up and headed back into the forest. As we hiked upwards, the clouds swirled around and it was quite cold. However, I felt it was only a matter of time before the high summer sun would triumph. Mornings in the mountains we would learn would often start misty and cold, until the sun burnt away the clouds. On reaching an alpine meadow, dotted with huts we were afforded views of rocky crags and even the refuge we were heading to. We snacked and headed up the valley, passed clear creeks and over rocks. It was so beautiful. At one point there were two shining blue dams below us and like predicted the sun came out and our layers came off.  It wasn’t long before we reached refuge Plan de Sec. The guardien showed us somewhere to put our tent and we settled in for an afternoon of yoga, writing and reading. It was nice to get somewhere early. More and more people arrived and we realised that it was in fact a French public holiday. Even though we were surrounded by others, Astrid and I were clearly the only foreigners and as our french was minimal at best we didn’t really get to chat to anyone.

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Huge dams

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From refuge Plan de Sec we were headed to refuge L’Arpont, along with many french families and groups. It was the only time things became a little crowded in the park. We didn’t really care, it was still nothing like walking the Camino. The first part of the day took us through alpine meadows, some which had temporary fencing for cows. We were learning that even here, in the high alps, people eked out a living from agriculture. It was often a topic of conversation as it was clear how destructive the cows were on the environment. Yet, at the same time it was such a tradition, people had been using the high summer pastures of the alps for centuries. However, tradition doesn’t necessarily make something inherently good. Then again, perhaps there is room for small scale, sustainable agriculture? Is agriculture ever sustainable though? And while the cows looked peaceful (and are no doubt better off than many) we don’t get to see when their babies get torn away from them so that humans can drink their milk and turn it into cheese. While there may be times in the future when out of necessity I’ll eat cheese or drink milk, I can’t really get along with the exploitation of animals for human consumption, no matter how picturesque. While our topic of conversation may at times have been heavy, our mood was light. We soon left the meadows behind and walked into a much wilder valley with craggy snow capped peaks, steep drops, pine forests and sweeping views. It was everything I’d hoped hiking in the alps would be. We spotted wild flowers, marmots and even an ibex! After dumping our packs by refuge L’Arpont we walked up to the glacial lake and sat in the afternoon sun, enjoying the beauty that surrounded us.

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So misty in the mornings

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Route signage

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Mist beginning to clear

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Mid morning

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Beautiful view across the valley

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Our first ibex!

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More ibex awesomeness

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Half ruined alpine buildings were quite common

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Refuge L’Arpont

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camping

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Loving the lake

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Lake happiness

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And more

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On the way down

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We woke to clear blue skies and bright sunshine. I managed to buy a coffee from the cafe at the hut and savoured the views and the sun while drinking it. A perfect start to the day. Our walk took us further into the valley again and we were surrounded by high peaks and glaciers. Every vista was more amazing than the next.

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In the late morning we came to a spot where our book said you could climb up to a tarn fed by waterfalls. We had time and were feeling adventurous and strong and decided we needed to explore further. There was no visible path so we just walked towards some imposing rocks where we thought the path should be. After quite a bit of searching, we spotted something that might have been a track and began our climb upwards. It was tough going and took us around an hour, scrambling over large boulders and jumping over small creeks. When we eventually made it up to the tarn it was well worth the effort. No one else was up there and we surrounded by the epic beauty of rocks, ice water and the brilliant blue of the sky. It was so peaceful. We got undressed and dipped into the icy water, then lay naked on the rocks in the sun. Life was perfect.

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Heading upwards to mind the tarn

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So happy to have found this spot

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Totally worth the hike

IMG_20170716_124933.jpgOnce we hiked back down we at lunch by a small tarn and then hiked the rest of the way to refuge plan de lac in the hot afternoon sun. Unfortunately this was one of the only huts that didn’t allow camping, so we checked into a dorm and then went and sat on the balcony enjoying a cold beer as the heat faded out of the day. A wonderful end to a spectacular day in the mountains.

I slept badly in the hut but luckily we had made a friend the night before – a French Canadian lady called Francoise who provided me with instant coffee to keep going. We set off fairly early but it wasn’t long before the heat of the day was upon us. Our day took us through more alpine meadows and then an ascent with views of the ever present high peaks. Later we descended into a beautiful pine forest, which reminded me of my childhood Christmas fantasies. We had lunch at an unmanned refuge before heading along a very exposed track before finally descending into a valley, dotted with cows and refuge Vallobrun. The guardien at this refuge treated us very kindly and gifted us left over blueberry tart.

We rose early like normal, cooked a simple breakfast of porridge, washed down with tea and headed off. Our morning took us towards the valley floor, through pine forest, the air growing warmer the lower we got. The first village we reached was Bessants where we restocked at the supermarket and then ate a lunch of baguette in the village square.

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Alpine cows chilling

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Random church

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The track downwards

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Happy with our restock

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Bessants

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Baguette happiness

Our afternoons walk took us along the river, it was hot and no one was around. After a short discussion we dumped our packs, stripped off and jumped into the cool clear water. It was wonderful. Everything was so lush, green and alive. Insects buzzed continuously, the sky was this immense blue and I felt physically strong and the happiest I’d been in a while. I’m not unhappy in London by any stretch of the imagination, but coming out here and being in nature reminds me of where my soul really belongs.

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Hiking into Bessants

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The river we swam in

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Hiking along the river

We managed to pull our clothes on just before a French family came walking along the path. Swim completed, we continued along the valley, the walking was easy and so very pleasant. In the afternoon we reached the medieval village of Bonneval Sur Arc which was a cluster of beautiful houses made of stone and wood, with small doorways and narrow staircases. There are very fews signs of the modern world in this village – no cars, cables or tv antennas. We had reserved the cheapest, tiniest room in Aubergue d’ Oul which was a bit like stepping back in time. I suspect our tiny room was once a cupboard though! Not that we cared in the slightest. After a bit of a rest we explored the village before an evening thunderstorm rolled in. While it rained we rebelliously cooked our pasta on the balcony and drank a cheap bottle of wine.

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The tiny door into our accommodation

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Outside the Albergue in Bonneval sur Arc

Armed with baguette’s we spent the next morning reclaiming the height we had lost. The track out of the village was incredibly steep and I took a wrong turn at one point, resulting in a crazy scramble up a very steep slope. Once the initial mad ascent was over we steadily gained height all morning. Walking through meadows, passed streams and huts, meeting other hikers as we went. A few times we took breaks to munch on baguette, it was hot and sunny and sweat dripped off both us. I felt so wonderful and  full of energy, despite the steep going. The mountains got closer and closer and after some hours of walking up the valley we were back amongst them.

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Heading up the valley

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Ever upwards

Taking a turn after several hours we found ourselves walking through a rocky, glacial landscape. The weather changed and we were briefly blasted by wind and rain. I love the crazy unpredictability of mountain weather; Soon the sun was out again, although on the horizon we could see dark and heavy clouds.

It was the afternoon now, and after climbing all morning we had gained quite some altitude. The landscape was dramatic, sheer rocks and icy lakes;  only the toughest of alpine flowers and vegetation surviving. It was a stark contrast to the lush and green valley, literally buzzing with life that we had walked through earlier in the day. After some more steady walking we reached the  Col – pass. The views were spectacular.

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The stark beauty of altitude

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The weather rolling in..

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Definitely almost upon us

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More alpine flowers

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View from the top

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Sheltered by rock

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We reached the pass

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The pass

High up on the pass the weather looked like it was turning and we quickly began descending. Soon it appeared that the storm was chasing us. We began to run, hoping to make it to the hut before the summer thunderstorm hit. Lighting began to strike across the valley and thunder cracked right above us. It was amazing to feel the power of nature in such dramatic surroundings. Descending off the col we had a good view of everything below us and could see we were not the only hikers making a dash for refuge Fond des Fours. We reached shelter just before it began to pour and gratefully spent the afternoon reading and drinking beer as the storm raged outside. When it cleared we put up our tent in an alpine meadow which was home to many marmotte friends.

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running from the storm!

We had decided to have a kind of rest day at Fond des Fours and woke late the following day, had a leisurely breakfast (and many cups of tea), read our books and then headed up the valley to explore. It was lovely traveling so light  and without packs. Our walk took us nearly to another pass and we were again surrounded by stunning beauty. There was a particularly high snow covered mountain range to our left and we thought we could just make out mount blanc.

It stormed during the night, lightening lit up the whole valley and momentarily I was a little scared. The morning however bought blue skies and the night’s rough weather was soon forgotten. We headed down the steep valley, towards the ski resort town of Valdisere. Gradually civilisation encroached on the wild mountains we had been walking through; chair lifts, chalets, horses and then finally the town itself. Trudging through the very slick and shiny streets we felt decidedly out of place. In winter Valdisere is a fancy ski village, and even in summer it appeared to be full of people clad in brand name hiking clothes, looking very fashionable. We did treat ourselves to a vegan lunch in a cafe – not something that is particularly easy to find in this part of France! Just out of town we found a campsite where Astrid’s few words of French seemed to charm the manager. He gave us a super spot to put up our tent and couldn’t have been more helpful. The afternoon brought rain, so we rested, read and tried to study more french.

The following morning we basically had baguettes delivered to our campsite – how very French and awesome. We accidentally bought four (have I said Astrid can get a bit over excited?) After a big breakfast it was time to gain the height we had lost once more. Once we left the village it was a steep trek upwards through more pine forest. From forest the landscape changed to open meadows where the winter ski runs had been turned into mountain bike trails. It was impressive to see some of the skills of the riders. Sadly in the afternoon we were introduced to the not so great side of people seeking an escape to the mountains as we came face to face with a hideous ski resort town. Ugly high rises scarred what would have been an idyllic valley. Why do humans seeking nature simultaneously destroy it? How are these mass corporate developments permitted? Why do people need to pollute nature with all their creature comforts?

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Baguette delivery, only in France!

We stayed only to eat lunch by a lake and fill our water bottles. It was a relief to escape and reminded me how when you spend time surrounded by nature and beauty, these kind of places wear on your soul more heavily. We hiked up passed ski lifts and day walkers until we reached the col del la leisse. Surrounded by rocks, ice, tiny wild flowers, lakes and peaks my heart once again filled with happiness. It was a long day and we reached refuge de la Leisse quite late. There was a lovely spot to put our tent and some very cute chickens.

Again it had been rough over night weather wise but we woke to only clouds, no rain. The descent to the valley floor was so peaceful. Not many hikers around, just the sheer power of the mountains and a few ibex. I spent some time just sitting on a rock while I waited for Astrid, taking it all in. Life makes sense out here. There is something incredible about being surrounded by such wild beauty. I probably could have sat there all day.

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Eventually we came to a 16th century bridge where we had to make a decision about our route. Either head into a valley to explore it, or towards a glacier. We opted for the glacier. From the bridge we climbed another pass and were rewarded with a school group at the top. Fortunately also a lot of ibex. Once the school group had left Astrid and I stayed and watched the Ibex for a long time. We really love them and even came across some very adorable baby ibex.

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After passing through a rocky valley and by a beautiful alpine lake we reached the very popular refuge col del a vanoise. It does afford some fabulous views but we didn’t fancy the crowds, or the lack of camping. The descent was superb and I spent a lot of time looking back at the amazing views. I reached refuge Barnette a little before Astrid – it was right at the top of the ski lift and had a wonderful balcony and superb views. Views that were better enjoyed with an ice cold beer. It was hot and sunny and the beers went down a treat. Later we put up our tent and cooked our simple meal while the more fancy hikers (waiting to be served their meal) looked on. I feel like we must have looked very weird to them.

We enjoyed a lovely sunset and went to bed with clear skies above. I would never have guessed that a ferocious storm would hit in the early hours of the morning. A reminder about the unpredictability of  mountain weather. Luckily we only had to repitch the sides which were ripped out by the wind. Our trusty tent held fast and we stayed dry and cosy until it had eased enough to get up and pack up. Another hiker David had not fared as well, having to re pitch his tent in the storm. David was from NZ and the first native english speaker that we had met so it was quite exciting to talk to him!

Once the rain had eased a little, we packed up, revived the stove (which we had accidentally left out), made some breakfast and tea and headed down towards Pralognan, the village at the foot of the ski lift. Although it intermittently rained, the walk down was lovely and we were often sheltered by the trees. Pralognan is thankfully hemmed in by forest and mountains, making ludicrous development more difficult. Predictably we headed strait to the supermarket and to our joy even found peanut butter, which is not always common in France and a vegan’s best friend. Even the hummus here has been hijacked by sneaky cheese.

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Baguette baby. Trying to keep the fresh baguette warm!

The rain had really set it so we decided to call it a day and headed to the municipal campsite on the edge of town. In the afternoon David arrived and we spent a lovely evening chatting in the small shelter while Astrid and I polished off a bottle of wine.

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We found local liqueur!

Rain delayed our start again but we were determined to get out of town and back into the mountains. By 9.30am we were walking through pine forest and along a fast flowing river. The rain came and went, I even put on my waterproof trousers at one point! After an hour or so we were back in the park, our path leading gently upwards, passed the odd alpine farm. As the mountains neared we began to see that the peaks had a dusting of snow. A final steep push and we reached the lovely hut of Peclet Polcet. It was one of the few huts we couldn’t camp at and we had taken a gamble by not booking. Luckily some beds were still available (they will never actually turn hikers away, you just might have to sleep in a room on the floor). We cooked some lunch and settled in for an afternoon of writing.

I had the worst night sleep of the entire trip in the dorm at Peclet Polcet. A room full of snoring middle aged French people combined with the rising heat of 25 bodies and the almost constant slamming of doors. Over the years I’ve slept in loads of dorms and it’s usually fine. Perhaps I was just having a bad night, but I can’t believe people would choose dorms over camping!

After breakfast we headed up towards the pass. It wasn’t long till we were walking amongst snow covered rocks. The wind chill was epic – sub zero and the clouds moved constantly above us. The going at first was easy, along a path defined by cairns. However, as we climbed higher it became mildly terrifying. Being early in the day, there were barley any foot prints to guide us and the track was covered in snow and ice and quite slippery. Not to mention being blasted by an icy wind. Soon I was using my hands to stop myself from falling, trying not to look down. Finally we reached the pass but it was so cold and windy we had to descend almost straight away. The brief view we had into the next valley was spectacular, as was the blue sky ahead.

The decent was also marred by ice and snow and freezing winds, but not as scary. We literally couldn’t stop due to the cold until we were well beyond the snow line and able to shelter behind some rocks. Even then it was freezing and we piled on more clothes and snacked quickly on a trek bar. We continued down, layered to the max, while the people coming up in t shirts gave us weird looks. Soon the smell of pine was upon us and the sun began to have some warmth to it. We were out of the desert like landscape of the high mountains and back into the summer. All around us was green and blue and the sound of insects buzzing. We hiked into forest and through lush meadows passing by tiny alpine hamlets. Soon we could see Modane down in the valley below. The temperature steadily rose and by the time we reached the town, it was over 20 degrees. Hard to believe we’d been freezing on top of a pass only hours before.

Back in Modane we headed to the supermarket, then a camp ground on the edge of town. We relaxed in the afternnoon sun and drank some cold beers, a perfect way to finish our 14 day hike. The Vanoise had been exactly what I had hoped for – a stunning and varied alpine environment that had fulfilled all my childhood fantasies about the alps. For anyone wanting an adventurous hiking holiday, surrounded by amazing mountains that doesn’t break the bank, I would definitely recommend jumping on a train to the alps with a tent, some supplies and a sense of wonder.

The Deserts Continue.

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Shiraz to Esfahan via Ghalat and Persepolis

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By the time we were leaving Shiraz, Iran was becoming more familiar. A few days after leaving Yazd we began to receive a lot less police harassment and our daily existence became less infuriating. I got somewhat used to wearing a hijab, although with Martha (dreadlocks) wanting to burst out, it was never going to be very comfortable. My attitude towards men who weren’t our hosts became quite wary and I tried to stick to the Islamic norms of not shaking hands with men or really looking at them directly. Whenever we needed help, I was extra sure to ask a woman (this is usually better anyway as they are less likely to pretend they know, when they don’t). Mostly people were extremely kind, stopping only to say “Welcome to Iran’, offer us a place to stay or give us food. After a rather intense beginning things settled and I certainly began to enjoy our time in the Islamic republic even more.

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Cycling through the streets of Ghalat

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Ghalat

The next leg of our Iran journey saw us head towards the small village of Ghalat. This wasn’t exactly on our route but we had met a guy called Ali in the market the previous day who had invited us to stay at his home. He was a Qasqai, (pronounced cashguy) a traditionally nomadic people from this part of Iran. While he was no longer a nomad, members of his family were and he seemed like an interesting guy to talk to and spend some time with.

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The subtle beauty of autumn in Iran

We cycled the short distance (around 50km) from Shiraz to Ghalat and saw some truly stunning examples of ‘muppet driving’. The Iranians just take bad driving to another level. Worse than the Chinese even.  Once we reached Ghalat, we had entered somewhat of a paradise. We found ourselves in a small traditional village build into a hillside, all mud brick, stone and small alleyways with mountains all around. We climbed up on a hillside for a better view and enjoyed the last of the afternoon sun and the soft hues of the autumn colours around us.

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Exploring Ghalat

Later Ali came and met us in Ghalat and we stored our bikes at his friend’s place in the village and he drove us the 12kms to his home. He lived in a typical Iranian village house, consisting of a large comfortable room with a gas heater and a few small rooms off the side. The toilet was outside, but what we couldn’t figure out was that there was also one inside, which we were allowed to use at night but not in the day. Also, the random steps to nowhere, another strange thing about some Iranian houses. We spent the afternoon drinking tea and chatting with Ali. He had taught himself English and was well read with a love of old books. It was interesting learning about his culture, although we found some of his reasoning grating. He justified a lot of things by saying “it’s in our culture”, usually when referring to women and their roles (cooking, cleaning, having children, not riding a bicycle). I respect culture and believe certain parts of culture should be protected and taught to the next generation, but just because it’s cultural and traditional, doesn’t make it inherently good. Basically he was using the excuse of culture to justify his patriarchal behavior and we found this extremely annoying. While he was fascinated by our adventure, I almost felt he didn’t approve of us at all. Like he was trying to be all liberal and open minded but really wasn’t. It was a strange but not a bad encounter.

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Ali and his family in traditional hats

The following day we had lunch at the house where our bikes had been left (possibly the best lunch ever) and then set off towards Persepolis. It’s lovely staying with families but it’s always nice to be on our own again as well. I feel like I need my personal freedom more in this country than any other. In a way camping in the desert just us three women is a big fuck you to the patriarchy of this country, in my mind at least. Women camping without men is almost unheard of. We have gotten really good at hiding, and that night was no exception. Just as it was getting dark we found a rather creepy group of sheds which appeared to be abandoned dove coops. We made the end room our home for the night, including building a lovely campfire.

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Possibly the best lunch ever

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Our shelter for the night in the creepy dove coop

Morning saw us cut back to the main highway and reach Persepolis by lunch time. These impressive ruins were once the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire and date back to 515 BCE. It was a fitting place for a picnic. After our usual bread, cheese, tomatoes and dates it was time to explore. Persepolis was impressive. By now I have seen quite a few bas reliefs but the ones at Persepolis are truly extraordinary in the way they have remained so well preserved. I will let the pictures do the talking.

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Persepolis

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By the time we had finished exploring the afternoon was turning chilly. As we were packing our bikes and preparing to leave, the security guard came over and offered us the use of one of those portable shed things. After some price negotiations we happily agreed. We were even brought a heater and a gas cooker to make dinner on. Plus we had access to toilets, electricity and water! Dinner followed by a film. Luxury.

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Being a bas relief

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Barbara and I being bas reliefs

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The amazingly preserved bas reliefs

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Outside the ‘luxury’ hut

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Inside the luxury hut

The next day we rolled onto the highway to thumb a ride as we had already cycled most of this section coming down to Shiraz. It took 20 mins before a truckie pulled over. Bikes were heaved onto the back and secured. We took our place in the cabin with the driver and enjoyed the different view. This is Iran so everytime we went to through a police check Astrid and I hid and Barbara pretended to be Iranian, pulling her headscarf tightly around her face. Our driver ended up being one of those true Iranian gentlemen, stopping so we could buy bread and dropping us at a perfect picnic area. Later he came back with his wife because I had left my gloves in his truck. They both invited us to stay but we needed to keep heading north.

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The last fire of the women’s cyclo gang

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Our gang began and ended it’s camping with a train tunnel

That night we went back to our old favourite of camping under a rail tunnel in the dessert. I remarked that this might be our last night camping together. Funny that it should start and end with a tunnel. Our woman desert cyclo gang has been awesome.

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Barbara and Lola in the tunnel

We pushed hard the following day along the shoulder of an increasingly busy highway and slept in room next to a mosque. No creeper here luckily. Probably lucky for the creeper. There would be no hesitation to defend myself again.

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Snack time

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Making dinner outside another portable next to a Mosque.

By early afternoon of the following day we had reached the outskirts of Esfahan, one of Iran’s largest cities. Astrid, being the champion navigator that she is, took us on the ring road around to the Zoroastrian ruins of a fire temple high up on a hill. We explored the beautiful ruins and gazed on the mass expanse of Esfahan before pedalling to our host’s place.

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Fire Temple ruins, Esfahan

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Esfahan from the fire temple

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On top of the Fire Temple

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Astro looking suave

DSC_0504 Hamid, our host was an absolutely gorgeous guy, full of life and the most amazing laugh. Over the next few days he cooked us wonderful Iranian dishes and showed us around his city. Although dissatisfied with the status quo, Hamid truly loved his culture and it was wonderful to learn more about Iran. We also made him a selection of our favourite dishes and we rarely made it to bed before midnight, preferring to stay up talking and laughing.

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The famous bridges of Esfahan

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More bridge love

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Iranians love to picnic so much they will do it t 10pm in winter

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Outside the summer place of the Shah in Esfahan

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Esfahan

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Jameh Mosque, Esfahan

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So much great food at Hamid’s

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Jameh Mosque, Esfahan

DSC_0609 DSC_0617 Sadly things must come to an end sometimes and eventually we needed to leave. Esfahan was where the cyclo gang was also going to separate. Barbara was going to continue north towards Tehran on her trusty bike Lola and we were taking the bus to Tehran, to fly home.

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Spices in the Bazaar, Esfahan

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In the bazaar, Esfahan

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Back in Central Asia Astrid and I had began to discuss the possibility of going home for a visit. It was a difficult decision to make but a few things had begun to fall into place to make it feel like the right choice. We eventually bit the bullet and decided to do it, booking flights in and out of Tehran.

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Islamic architecture to blow your mind

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And some more

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Winter Prayer room, Jameh Mosque, Esfahan

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More amazingness, Jameh Mosque, Esfahan

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After hugging Hamid farewell (in his home, it would be totally forbidden to do this on the street) we cycled with Barbara to the bus station and then sent our awesome cyclo sister on her way. I am sure our paths will cross again one day soon.

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Thanks Hamid, we had a blast!

It is always a little stressful trying to put a bicycle on a bus and is something I loath. The Iranians however are quite calm about this. And their buses are lovely! We were only charged around $3 for the bikes and served tea and snacks on our 5 hour bus ride into Tehran.

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In the park, Esfahan

The Iranian capital is a concrete jungle. Traffic is a nightmare and infrastructure is poor. They finally have a metro but it’s not nearly enough. I feel like Tehran, in terms of infrastructure and aesthetics is one of those cities that just didn’t get it right. The people however are probably the least conservative in the country (in some parts of Tehran anyway) and we saw many barely on hijabs and were especially fond of the casual my hijab slipped off and I will leave it a few seconds before putting it back on that we saw. Men and women also seemed to associate more normally, which is something we had witnessed in all the big cities. For us, this was a flying visit to Tehran. We would be back in a few weeks to see more of the capital.

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Traffic in Tehran. There are not rules.

At the bus station we put our bikes back together and then began the arduous task of navigating to our host’s house. This was made extremely difficult by my i phone which has basically decided almost 2 years of hard living was not for it and it randomly turns off right when you need it most. We found somewhere to charge it, only to have it happen a second time and then refuse to turn on. Luckily we had Roozbah’s number and were able to call him from a toy shop (where they served us tea while we waited).

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Only in Iran would you be served tea in a toy shop while you wait for a host

Roozbah is a quietly spoken guy who has been a friend to many a touring cyclist. He welcomed us to his families large, warm apartment where we spent the next day packing and trying to prepare ourselves for going home.

With our bikes safely stored at Roozbah’s we left at midnight to begin the 24 hour or so journey home that had taken us 20 months to cycle. Like most people that cycle rather than take a plane to the other side of the world, I am uncomfortable with the idea of flying and have become more so over the last year or so. However I do think planes are quite amazing and that it is  a privilege that we can go home like this to visit our loved ones. I am trying not to see planes as a normal mode of transport, but rather an extraordinary one.

It was exciting to be going home and interesting to watch the Iranians on the plane. We hadn’t even taxied down the runway before women began to take off their hijab (we were not flying with an Iranian airline) and soon after take off the men were ordering alcohol. We happily took part in both these activities as well!

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In transit in Dubai

 HOME

 I won’t write much about our time at home. It did end up being the right decision for quite a few reasons and we are both glad we went. Seeing our friends and family was wonderful, although being home was unsetting in some ways. It was almost as if I slipped back into my old life. Everything was familiar. The same people, the same cafes, the same bars, but at the end of the day I couldn’t go back to Lewis street. Someone else lived in our room now, even though the house even smelt the same. This more than anything disturbed me. After a hectic few weeks it was time to say goodbye and head back to Tehran. We had managed to get another Iranian visa using Caravanistan for the code. As we didn’t have enough time to get a visa from Canberra we opted for an Airport Visa. This worked out fine. So, that’s the end of our first Iran adventure through the deserts. I will let Astrid continue with our route through northwest Iran towards Turkey.

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Breathing the thin air

 

Lijiang to Lugu Lake

The high road to Lugu Lake

The high road to Lugu Lake

 This part of the journey took us from ancient Lijiang through forest and mountains up to the high altitude lake of Lugu on the remote Yunnan/Sichuan border. It remains imprinted on my memory as a time of solitude, surrounded by high peaks, firs and Spanish moss. Of icy thin air, breathlessness, and seemingly endless sweeping views of mountains and blue sky.

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It started like most of our days start, with delicious steam buns and noodle soup. This was followed up by shopping at the market for supplies, before heading off towards Lugu Lake, about 200km away according to the signs. We are however in China, a country that is constructing roads at an alarming rate, and where change is a way of life. It was not surprising then, that our road simply ended with a boom gate and we were directed onto a secondary road. Later we would learn that this route added at least 100km to our journey, and was in use while the main road was being resurfaced. At first we weren’t even sure we were on the correct road, but after asking a man herding cows, we were assured that yes, this was the road to Lugu. We climbed steadily through pine forest and then descended forever to a tributary of the Yangtze. This was followed by an epic winding climb, past villages, rice paddies but alas, no shops. We really wanted a snack! Finally around 5pm we found a small store selling biscuits and drinks, and gorged ourselves and collected some more water to filter. The lady who ran the shop was incredibly fascinated by my hair. This would become a theme in China (people are often more interested in my hair than in Astrid or myself) and it was not long before we decided to give the dreads their own identity. They are now called ‘Martha’. Anyway, after she had admired and photographed Martha, we bid her farewell and continued to ascend. Soon the villages and traffic petered out, and just before dark we made our camp in amongst the pines. It felt so good to be camping again.

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Leaving Lijiang

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Best and cheapest place to shop, the local market.

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The long and winding road

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Biscuit with hole in it is a winner

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Ever upward

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First night’s camp

Continuous climbing through forest greeted us the following morning. And it was cold! Soon we were afforded views of snow capped peaks, and lucky for us, also a small restaurant selling soup. The uphill was making us hungry! It was also where the Chinese tourist buses stopped, transporting the New China. Urban middle class Chinese, toting Cannon’s and wearing Northface, on a whirl wind tour of a chosen province. Something unimaginable a generation ago. Some spoke a few words of English and soon their curiosity overcame their shyness and we were asked what we were doing, and for the obligatory photo shoot. Everyone was so positive and friendly, we really can’t say enough about how wonderful the Chinese are.

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Through the forests

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Loving every minute

Uphill 'rage'

With occasional uphill ‘rage’

In the late morning we passed through a town, where we bought supplies and then, yes, continued climbing. It really was unrelenting, but so beautiful. We began to see firs, some Spanish moss and even rhododendrons. As the afternoon wore on, what was already a lightly trafficked road, became even quieter. We would hear the tingle of cow bells, or spot a herder with his goats. This was the other China, the one forgotten by the 21st Century. As the day wore on we began to feel like we couldn’t get any higher, as we appeared to be level with almost all the peaks around us. The view was incredible. Finally we reached a sign that told us we were indeed high, at 3660m! Both of us were really excited. Until we saw Yaks. Then the Yaks were more exciting. Yaks. Wow. So adorable. I will let the picture’s tell of their cuteness.

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Rhododendron’s with goat.

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Getting colder and colder as we climb higher

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Officially at altitude!

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It feels like we are on top of the world.

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Mountains make me happy

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Yak of awesome

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More yak’s. They are surprisingly agile and were high above the road.

After losing our cool over the yaks it was time to find somewhere to camp. We were so high now, that it was freezing. All the spots we could see were way too exposed. Then Astrid had a brilliant idea. I am the one who has often been accused of being a cave troll, but it was Astrid who came up with the idea of camping in a tunnel under the road. Not only did it have a great view, offered protection, but it also had a place to build a small fire. Not since our days in the Australian outback have we enjoyed a cup of tea in front of an open fire. Perfect.

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The ‘troll cave’

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Enjoying our first fire since Australia

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End of the day ‘cup o’ soup’ from the front of our ‘troll cave’.

Watching the sun come over the mountains from our ‘troll cave’ we both felt that Lugu was within our grasp that day (at this stage we did not know how much longer the road we were on was). A few kilometres further on and a ripping descent began. After almost two full days of climbing it felt amazing (except for my brakes, which are on their last legs and complained bitterly). The views of the Yangtze were incredible and I ignored the fact that we were descending into a basin, surrounded by nothing but mountains. At the bottom, it was hot! We pealed off our layers of clothes and set about finding some food. After soup, ice cream and chocolate we felt like we could almost face the climb out.

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A fine view to start the day

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Is that downhill I spy?

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Yep! Down to the Yangtze.

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Looking like an utter tool, dressed for the chilly descent

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Happiness!

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Mountains all around..

It looked very steep. The road ascended as far as the eye could see. We climbed at first through dry and cultivated land, passed small villages, crops and herds of goats. As the afternoon wore on, the road deteriorated, slowing our progress. Soon, the air became thin and cold again and we were climbing through the most beautiful forest of Spanish moss and firs. It was perfect camping terrain but we both felt we could still make Lugu that day. The light began fading (which meant it was close to 7pm) and our progress was down to 5km per hour due to the incline. Still, we were nearly at the top. The summit was reached as the last rays of the sun were fading from the sky. It was freezing. We piled on clothes and switched on our lights, anticipating around 25km of downhill to go. Unfortunately (or fortunately in this case) Astrid’s dynamo was broken, meaning that her lights were not amazing. Descending down a winding, steep mountain road in the pitch dark, you really want amazing lights for that. So after inching our way down painfully slowly for about 8km Astrid called it quits. It was simply too dangerous without two working dynamo’s, and too cold to continue on so slowly. Although we usually like to hide ourselves well, at this stage we were way too tired and cold to care, and instead pulled over at the first half sheltered place we found, right next to the road. The wind was incredibly cold and the tent was put up in record speed, more layers were added and we scrambled into our sleeping bags. Too exhausted (and cold) to cook, we ate a left over apple with peanut butter for dinner and then promptly fell asleep.

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Down on the valley floor. It’s time to face the climb out..

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And climb we did. All afternoon and well into the evening

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A break from the climbing to filter water and eat a second lunch.

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It just kept going!

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But it was beautiful

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The light fades as we try and make it to Lugu

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Our camp beside the road

The decision not to push on was a smart one. Although we thought Lugu was only another 17km down the road, we were mistaken. Signs on Chinese roads should never be trusted! In the morning we set off on what we believed would be a short 17km descent. This was not to be. Instead we found ourselves in a muddy town, where pigs and rubbish covered the streets in almost equal measure. To this day it’s the only really dirty Chinese town we have come across. We cycled around, looking for the lake and feeling perplexed and relieved that we had not arrived here at 10pm the previous night. Eventually we decided to have some breakfast and ask some locals where we were. Up until then no one had been able to tell us, but after a bit of pointing at the i phone (which wasn’t working properly) and hand directions we figured out we were 10km from Lugu. To two exhausted cyclists, this seemed insurmountable for about 5 mins. After some rage and quiet swearing, I gathered myself together and we both cycled the remaining kilometres to Lugu. Luckily, this was primarily through a flat valley. It was with relief and joy that we finally reached Lugu Lake. We took some time, just sitting in the sun and enjoying the view, which was spectacular.

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Town of giant pig

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Our first glimpse of Lugu Lake. It was worth it.

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Tired but happy to have made it

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Yep, it really is beautiful!

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Lige. Pretty typical Chinese tourist town.

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View of the island across the lake. You can get there via a bridge.

From the initial view of Lugu, in was a short descent to the tourist town of Lige. Here we secured some accommodation and set about dealing with the necessities of living on the road. Which included an immense amount of washing, drying the tent, cleaning our cooking pots, contacting our families and showering. This was interspersed with cups of tea and snacks. Finally in the late afternoon we wandered around the town and sipped some well earned beers while watching the colours changed over the lake.

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Well deserved beer on the lake front

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Some more view of the lake

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And more

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And even more

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Tibetan prayer flags above the lake

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Till next time!