Sunday, 26 July 2009

Police, Sacha Baron Cohen, Stuff....

Well... I'm going to attempt to blog in a slightly different fashion, because it always just comes out dull when I try and tell you what I've been doing and eaten for breakfast.

A quick narration of events. Kazakhstan remains great, were it not for the fact that Kazakhstan and Kazakhs remain great, I might well have thrown myself on a pitchfork a week ago. The place has been punishing, truly and beautifully punishing... A gzillion little upsets have occurred that, when put together, have formed quite a big upset, an upset that could well have got me upset. Spokes have broken, valves have broken, in order to make a lovely, new road the Kazakhs had to totally annihilate the old one, just as I was needing it... which left me with 250km to travel through the toughest cycling I've ever done, and with no money... the expiration of my funds, I'll add, was not entirely reckless on my part... I could have made it to the nearest cashpoint in a day... it was the death of the road that made for two days, and that was also why I took the unprecedented measure of asking a guy in a nice and newly buffed Toyota Land Cruiser for a loan... he obliged, and I'll repay my debts in Almaty... It wasn't a particularly proud moment, however, I wasn't going to be looking too dapper after two days of eating and drinking principles in the desert. As for the word 'desert' ... I always prefer to err on the understated side, I will generally call a mountain a hill, and I was wondering whether or not I was being dramatic using the D word... however... the number of camels, come the end of it, would definitely suggest a desert... the dead camel I spied was himself not holding-up so well, and I met a bunch of anglophone kazakhs at a roadside cafe, and they addressed me, outright, with the question.

'What are you doing in the middle of this desert?'

To which I could only reply, with my bicycle upside down once again, 'I don't know.' And I didn't.

Another entertaining, but at the time quite crummy, upset almost saw me in a fight with a security guard at a petrol station... Basically... I was at the counter, waiting to pay for my orange juice, but drinking said orange juice, much to the alarm of Mrs Cashier, who screamed for Mr Boulder to come barrelling out of his locker-room, Mr Boulder rolls with his knuckles facing forwards, he's one of those, and he had an audition for his shoving abilities before he was given the job... Anyway, he shoved me, good and proper, a good few times, until I was in the forecourt, almost thrown onto the bonnet of an arriving car, watching the air in front of me for the arrival of his fist, and then shouting, in Turkish, RAHAT ... which.. to be honest, kinda translates, in my head, as 'at ease' (in the 'be at ease' sense, not the militant sense) .. but, could equally be translated more literally as, comfortable. So yeah, either shouting COMFORTABLE!!! worked, a thought that continues to make me laugh, or he just got bored of shoving me... anyway. The next mirror I arrived at explained things a little... I'd cut holes in my vest a few days beforehand, to let out the heat... I've been having nosebleeds, pretty heavy ones, every day since Russia... My nose has always had a thing for bleeding, and heat has never been good for it, but, to be honest, I think it's more about the hours of dust and exhaust that accumulate up there... every morning I have to blow a load of shit out of there or I have to breathe through my mouth, anyway, that day's nosebleed was still a little on my snout, I'd also had a puncture that morning, and, with oil on my hands, must have removed some sleep from my eyes, leaving a nice black eye, and, with my tangled hair, I did probably look like more of a brawler than I actually am. Anyway, once it had been established that I was actually a rich westerner, and not an Uzbek, he came over all diplomatic and convivial. Either way, further confirmation that the BBC would have got a much better piece of drama from my rather ramshackle adventuring

But anyway... some rants..... Sacha Baron Cohen and his Borat film... Every passing day I hate that man more... Ok... So, his career has consisted of taking the piss out of black urban culture, and once he had truly done that to death, he moved on to taking the piss out of Kazakhs. Not in a particularly imaginative way, just incest jibes, and old women held before the camera with Cohen saying 'she's only 28' ... anyway, a riproaring success it amounted to, and Cohen is now a multimillionaire many times over. Hurrah. First thing that agitates me is the idea that it's fine and funny to take the piss out of poverty in the Caucasus... I don't know if it it's because Kazakhs are largely Muslim, or because it's a Turkic culture, but for some reason the entire media establishment seemed to think that what Cohen was doing was fine. In Africa (sorry, I know that Africa is many nations, but so is Europe, and I still call it Europe), the king of Swaziland has over 100 wives, 20 Lear jets, and one of the world's poorest countries, the former South African president thought that you could catch AIDS by chopping an onion vertically instead of horizontally, in Egypt there's a good chance that, as a girl, you'll have your labia sewn up with gorse, and if you're the unfortunate woman that gets raped in Nigeria then they might well call you a hussy, bury you up to your neck, and throw stones at your head.

Now, I'm not saying that any one of those beliefs/practices is, in itself, wrong, however, poverty in Africa seems to have some sacred sentimentality to it (one that is, generally, a bit demeaning to Westerners and Africans alike), which leaves me wondering what the poor folk in the Caucasus did wrong to deserve such ridicule. More than this, however, I get agitated by Cohen's whole anti-semitism inferences, suggesting that Kazakhs have nothing better to do than abuse and loathe Jews. The fact of the matter is that Kazakhs are really decent, warm, hard working people, who don't really seem to have the time of day to go around torching synagogues... Furthermore, if Cohen, as a Jew, had really wanted to do something intelligent concerning anti-semitic problems in the former USSR, rather than propogating some sort of *nobody likes us, everybody hates us* dirge, he should have gone there, with his funding, and his university education, and researched and criticised, as a Jew, the fact that the entire and considerable wealth of the Soviet Union was sold off to a band of oligarchs, many of whom happened to be Jewish. I know that the presence of Jews amongst the Soviet oligarchs is a non-straightforward thing, and that anti-semitism in this part of the world goes further back than 1990... but still, it's a two-way misfortune that such an injustice might, on the one-hand, reinforce old prejudices, and, on the other, be entirely overlooked by an apparently intelligent individual.

OK... well I'm sure that that was already more than enough to get me called an anti-semite, so I'll move on to talking about the police instead. The Kazakhs that asked what I was doing in the desert.... we got talking about the police, and they said, the 'kazakh police.... they.... are not the best' ... And it's so nice to hear people saying that the police are shit, because the Turkish dislike their police, the Italians dislike their police, the French dislike their police, the Kazakhs evidently dislike theirs... and in Britain everyone mills around saying 'they do a difficult job' ... well, so do brain surgeons, but nobody's going to start making excuses for Mr Brain Surgeon if s/he accidentally leaves peanut shells in the cranium.

I was in Serbia, on one of the country's major roads, which made it about 10 metres wide, with ten cars an hour... some farmers were going along the gravel at the side of the road, with their cart full of hay, and the police pulled them over and were telling them to leave the road. In Romania, I was leaving the city of Giurgiu, and the police were pulling over every cyclist that wasn't wearing a hi-vis jacket... which meant that they were pulling over every cyclist. OBLIGATION OBLIGATION the po-faced anus shouted at me, and it was a joyous moment when I was able to retrieve my own hi-vis jacket from the depths of my panniers and grin at him... but, be that as it may, this officer of the law was only doing his job - that is, inconveniencing perfectly decent people in the undertaking of their daily life, whilst the Romanian government continues to suffer from the greatest corruption anywhere in Europe...

Same story in Britain, where our leading banks lose hundreds of billions of quid through dealings that were, in reality, no better than mass fraud, and the police make their number one priorities the targeting of cyclists on pavements and the poor bastards that make twenty quid a day selling caramelised peanuts on Waterloo Bridge. Meanwhile, people mill about defending the force by invoking the example of their family friend, the police officer, who says nothing when people bring out the weed at the end of the party... or the one police officer that they know, who's a really nice guy... These people doubtless exist, but they don't justify an entire insitution of ineptitude.

I worked with a volunteer police officer once, an accountant by day, he loved the 'adrenaline' and the 'buzz' of his other job, then one night he got lumbered with a suicidal Romanian and Monday morning he was saying what a boring night it had been. Police... it's just another word for cunt in any language under the sun... the problem in Britain is that we feel obliged to defend anything that's ours, no matter how pathetic... it's the same mentality that led to a decade of Tim Henman being worshipped as a hero, and for not even managing to be a runner-up.

I will now stop that particular rant, because, believe it or not, I'm actually being very restrained on the subject. Actually... no... I can't quite bring myself to end the tirade without saying that the British police force spends 39,000,000 pounds, a year, on PR campaigns and media advisers.... that is, of course, 39million smackeroos of public money, and, needless to say that if it takes 39million quid to try and convince people you're doing a good job.... well... you're not doing a good job.

OK... enough.... Saw a sign for Almaty as just shy of 700km away, which means I want China in a week's time... I got hills to ride however, so we'll see how it goes. This part of Kazakhstan is cooler I hear, and with more shade and greenery and places to buy water... so we'll see how it goes.

The photos.... You have Besimgale in his yurt... it's a great thing to point to a Kazakh's yurt and say 'ah! Mongolian!' ... Besimgale half-rescued me from a desert, then I had lunch in his front room with his family, and then we all fell asleep on the floor, which seems quite a typical Kazakh thing... You should also have the horses... I'm a sucker for those horses, beautiful things... think I've put up some camels too, a little bit of landscape, the sand dune in which I camped a night, just beside where the Aral sea is/used to be... you also have Fatma, posing with her wallpaper, the same wallpaper that adorns the hallway of a flat in Dolapdere, Istanbul, for which I have a great deal of fondness.

Well comrades, until next time.... to thine own self be true.

OK... here, with any luck, will be the photos that didn't want to upload themselves last time round, I am now writing a blog update, and, with more luck, will put some photos in that one too. It's all about the photos here... travelling places would be so crummy without them.

You will see... me in my lovely, red desert attire ... me and the sea biscuit, the most ridiculously monotonous thing upon this earth, put a red tie on it and you could call it Gordon. Poor Gordon.

Monday, 13 July 2009

And to Kazakhstan

Well... I'm now in Kazakhstan, and feeling pretty happy with life too. Russians and Russia are both pretty cool, but even before the imbeciles at the border made me unpack all of my belongings prior to LEAVING the country, I was looking forward to getting here... Kazkhstan and northwest China are the two places I've been most looking forward to in this first part of the trip... the heat is madness... it is, by and large, a desert out here, and the towns, presently, are an average of about 60-70miles apart, with some much further.. so it's quite tough logisitically... I'll probably be starting to ride later and start earlier sometime soon, the wind also seems to drop at the day's extremities... I had wanted to try riding 200miles tomorrow, to mark Bastille Day, which is always a big day in the ongoing Tour de France... anyway, I'm going to shelve that plan for the moment, Kazkahstan would eat me alive if I tried it... there's just not enough water and too much heat to be had.

Anyway, the people are warm, it's amazing every time I get to communicate with an Azeri or a Tartar or a Kazakh using the (to an extent) mutually understandable language of Turkish... with better Turkish it would probably overlap a good amount more, but still.

Countryside definitely rules over anything resembling towns... I ride through miles and miles of nothing, and eventually come to some odd, ramshackle cafe, with rusting tankers and railway sleepers and sleeping dogs piled up outside... And I go in, eat some borsch, watch the road, do some writing..sit about with truckers... and there's just something very nice and straightforward about it all.... In towns, on the other hand, I have my bank card blocked, eat substandard pizza at inflated prices, and continue in my ever-failing quest to find an Irish person in an Irish Pub in some second-world city. That was the case in Russia at least, I have three weeks of Kazakh wilderness in front of me, so a little bit of the urban might not come off quite so bad now and then.

OK... my photographic offering for this update... I have, as I twittered a couple of days ago, taken to wearing long sleeves and a turban, which was an excellent idea that I should have embarked upon a while ago. Rather fortuitously, the turban I bought some years ago in Morrocco is a shade of red not entirely dissimilar to that of my merino wool top, and so I don't even have to trudge into Kazakh headwinds looking totally uncoordinated.... The other photo was one of my first sights in Kazakhstan this morning, some old fellow, in a baseball cap and a heavy jumper, riding over the hill with his herd of horses in front of him... amazing animals, they all looked so much healthier than Romanian horses... I'm not going to endeavour to do it justice in words in an internet cafe, with little streetkids shouting their English obscenities in my ear, but it was a pretty awesome sight...... Finally... I bring to you the Biscuit... I ate three kilos of these in three days in Russia.... and never before has something so mundane-looking come to appear so loathsome... at first it was ok, they weren't squelchy, had some sugar in them, once even some raisins, a little crust, and they gave me energy and sustenance... To emphasise the humility of this little biscuit, I even photographed it next to rocks on the roadside.... see how well it fits in? Anyway... somewhere round about the second kilo things fall apart, I got desperate for a little texture, some flavour, some succulence ... only to find shops full of fat with salami on it, grey cheese, and margerine that you can taste the vegetable oil in... Slavic lands have grim dinnertables.

Welll.... as usual, a week of blog writing in my head has materialised as something entirely different in the blog, which is fine... you'll all just have to buy whatever book comes out of this affair.

Not sure from where I'll next write... Almaty is about two and a bit weeks away, but there is also a possibility that the Kazakh youth, in the nation's smaller cities, have the internet amongst their favourite pastimes... Killing terrorists and exploding aliens, how quaint.

And the images didn't even work.... oh the irony.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

From Poltava...

I'm not even sure how long it's been since I last wrote anything here, perhaps around ten days, perhaps a little less... I am certain, however, that Romania came in between now and then, and Romania feels like a very long time all of its own... I think it must have been French nonchalance, British sarcasm and a German practical joke that got them into the EU, and now that they're in, it seems not much has changed since three years ago.

It's strange, because I actually really quite like Romania, and I certainly find the place fascinating, and I met quite alot of really nice people there, that said, I spent almost the whole time looking forward to leaving.. which will always slow things down... I think there are a lot of arts and social-science students who could benefit from a trip there; the poverty is just as good as India, you'll get some really good black-white photos of crumbling huts and kids in rags, save carbon by flying half the distance, and get chased by dogs... which is about as authentic and life-affirming as cultural experiences get. It's wrong of me to be so glib, but it's dark in the internet cafe, and sunny outside, so I'll save cultural appraisal for another time.

The last few days, since Romania, have been great. This has been, in part, because I was worried that my Romanian blues might have been just the beginning of what my deprivation was going to feel like, so it's great to be in the Ukraine, with even more deprivation, and a big smile. I don't know why I like it so much here... The place is beautiful... it's enormous, just wheat field after wheat field, no longer the bread basked of the Soviet Union, but still quite a bread basket nonetheless.. everything seems to grow so well, the trees are so damn green, sunflowers, wildflowers, fruits, etc. etc.... use your imaginations.

This morning, packing up my tent, some old Russian fellow came creeping towards me from beneath a tree... A little alarmed at first, he transpired to be Anatoly, and once he had moved aside, I saw a bicycle beside him. We talked for about fifteen minutes, him in Russian, me in English... he is riding a thousand mile trip around Russia and the Ukraine.. his bike is nothing flash, none of this Rohloff nonsense that I have going on, and he's riding it for a thousand miles around the countryside... And he's 72!!!! He recoiled in disbelief, hand clasped to forehead, pissing himself laughing, when he figured out that he's thrice my age... He then slapped his saddle, told me it was Italian... I slapped mine, told him it was English... and he said "DA!!! Brooks!" .. which were about the only two words we both understood in our whole exchange (I didn't trouble him with the fact that Brooks are now also Italian on account of a buyout by Selle Royal... not sure that the language barrier would have stretched so far.)

Either way, it was great to discover that this old, traditional English name in the saddle world had made it all the way to Russia... I have a particular affinity for Brooks because they started in my local town, Hinckley, in the nineteenth century, before moving to a bigger location in Stratford. It's funny, because Brooks are now turning-out really stylish, prestigious, world-reknowned saddles..... and Hinckley is not much more than a bit of a dump really... A friend went into officer training with the Navy a few years ago (he left after a month, incidentally) and in all England, Hinckley came 4th on a list of towns officers should steer clear of in order to avoid violent confrontations. There simply isn't anything in the town; homogenised highstreet, wetherspoons pubs, vomit in the streets on Friday night... Real England.... It's not glamourous deprivation, just deprivation... Jamie Oliver won't be starting a restaurant there to give opportunities to youngters, and Barack Obama's wife won't be visiting the primary schools... Still, at least Comic Relief had a good year.

OK... enough rancour... The bicycle.... Is feeling amazing... I raised my saddle by about an inch yesterday, which I had been reluctant to do for fear of overextending the ligaments/tendons (whichever part it is that sometimes hurts behind my knees)... Either way, I should have done it ages ago.. I'm not getting any pain, and I think I've increased the efficiency of my pedal stroke by a really noticable proportion... This whole world record malarky... I don't really look at it as a race... Is it possible to race for 6months? I don't know, basically, my mileage will be the greater, not from thrashing it, but from enjoying sitting on the bike... Raising my saddle is perhaps giving me a little bit more in speed, and it's giving me a lot more in enjoyment... so I'm feeling good, and feeling very in control of my speed

So much so that I'm even considering some madness... for Bastille Day... July 14... The French riders will all be going for a stage win in the Tour... I'll try and do something impressive, in homage to a little bit of Revolutionary ardour... I've always wanted to do a 200mile day... 170 is my current best.... The time would be right.

Photos... the Danube in Romania, by dusk and by sunset ... It really is a stunning place, whatever mood it leaves me with... I've also photographed one of Romania's many village-sized failed factories... Go and read up on Ceaucescu if you get bored moments online... a fascinating crackpot. Also pictured are the little filing cabinets that they fill full of bees that then fill the cabinets full of honey... Also pictured is me, with the Ukrainian border sign, and, just incase any of you were doubting the sex appeal of This Is Not For Charity, I am proudly displaying my not inconsiderable farmers tan for all to see. You also see me bundled up, in spite of hot, humid evening, with a healthy tick-fear that I have since gotten over... the statistics are in my favour.

Not sure when I'll next be blogging... I'm in Russia tomorrow, and there for about 10days before Kazakhstan, from whence I have no idea what the availability of internet will be like.

Today I found something in a little Ukrainian store, very much like a bad eccles cake, and whilst I'm no advocate of bad eccles cakes, a bad eccles cake is, surely, a far better predicament than no eccles cake at all, so i brought a kilo of the things, and will be dipping them in my Pooh-bear sized honeypot. I want all of you eating great food on my behalf tonight. With warmth

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