Tian Shan

Things changed after Uzbekistan. Nightfall became something ugly, the darkness interminable. I couldn’t sleep. The sounds I’d always ignored now echoed through my tent, squeezing my throat tighter against a pounding heart. My nerves were shot.

Autumn bicycle tour over mountains of southern Kazakhstan.

Southern Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan didn’t help. I’d only been in the country a few days when a car skidded to a stop in front of me. The driver stumbled in my direction until his nose nearly touched mine. He was yelling.

I remember wondering why liquor never stinks until it hits someone’s mouth.

When I turned away the man grabbed my beard and nearly pulled me off my saddle. I pushed his hand back, but when I started pedaling he threw me into a guard rail, bike and all. I think he startled himself sober because he just stood there gaping at me sprawled on the road.

I dusted myself off and biked away. I never saw the guy again.

There was no sense to be made of it, no lesson to take away. The randomness hit me harder than he ever could. It’s tough knowing that careful isn’t good enough. Sometimes strength or smarts don’t count for much. The world spins on dumb luck – the only thing we control is whether we want to take a ride.

Children in Kazakhstan as seen on bicycle tour of central Asia.

Friendlier faces

I did when I left. Now I wasn’t so sure.

I thought about packing it in, boxing my bike and heading home to hide. I’d be secure in the road behind me, rolled into good days and bad, bound with all the faces in between. No one could take it away from me.

But that can’t work, at least not for me. I go crazy unless I have something to fight for. A chance to sit around and reminisce certainly isn’t it. I need the promise of what lies ahead, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to hand it over to some worthless thugs.

I made a choice that night. I will never go looking for trouble, but the next person to bring it will find all they can handle in me. I cut a branch from a tree and carved it into a billy club. It’s been strapped to my handle bars ever since.

I’ve only had to use it once, and perhaps that’s the strangest story of all. One night, after crossing the Chinese border, I heard a terrible crash in the woods. I squinted through the firelight until five figures emerged from the shadows.

At first I thought they were sheep late for the dinner bell. Then I saw manes and tusks and realized I was staring at wild boars. They sniffed and grunted, circling around me until the biggest one lowered its head and charged.

When I shone my flashlight in its eyes it stopped dead in its tracks. I grabbed my club and ran yelling through the trees, chasing it away. The others scattered in a squealing mess. For an hour I could hear them huffing around my camp. But they stayed away.

Freezing river in Tian Shan mountains as seen on bicycle tour of Xinjiang province in China.

Icy waters in northwest China

I wasn’t scared. I get animals – they play by rules, and even if they attack there is a certain fairness about them. That night made more sense than dozens that had come before it. I slept soundly. My nerves haven’t bothered me since.

Afterwards I made my way over the Tian Shan mountains, a range that began in eastern Kazakhstan and seemed to stretch on forever. It took me weeks to reach the top. Each day was colder than the last and the gaps between villages grew longer and longer.

The summit was a wasteland. At nearly 3,000 meters above sea level, I saw no trees, not a single hint of life. There was only a thick blanket of snow and a howling wind. The road was so icy that I had to walk my bike the last few kilometers to the top.

It took me all day to get there, and as daylight faded so too did my courage. The top of a mountain is a very bad place to spend the night. There is no shelter, no firewood and the temperature drops much too fast.

I was frantic at the peak. I bundled myself in all of my clothes and started the descent as fast as I could pedal. It didn’t do any good. My shirts were frozen solid with the day’s sweat. I couldn’t stop shivering, couldn’t feel my hands or feet.

But sometimes dumb luck swings the other way. As the last traces of purple disappeared from the snow I spotted a three-building village in the distance. Those on the other side of the mountain had all been shuttered for the winter, but I didn’t care. This one was going to keep me warm.

The first building was a crumbling auto garage. I poked my head inside, ready to beg for a corner to lay out my sleeping bag. Instead an old woman put her hand on my shoulder and led me down a hallway with numbered doors. The place doubled as an inn for truckers.

My room had a wooden bed, a faded velvet card table and an old coal stove. I have never been so thankful in my entire life. A star was shining over me somewhere that night.

Mike on Bike winter cycling the plateau of the Tian Shan mountains in Xinjiang province in China.

Biking the plateau

The next day I cycled 80 km over a plateau, never making it out of the snow or below the treeline.

But I’d been smarter about it. I was dry and wrapped in my warmest clothes – six shirts, two jackets, four pairs of pants and three sets of socks. I camped in a culvert to stay out of the wind. I had no reason to worry.

That changed in a hurry. By the middle of the night the wind became a gale and then a full-blown blizzard. Snow whipped into the culvert, covering my tent, pressing down on all sides. I woke up half buried, sure that my tent was going to collapse.

As I opened the door, all the powder that I was going to brush away poured into my tent, falling over my sleeping bag and blanket. I got out anyways, trying my best to push the weight off the tent poles. I was covered in snow by the time I zipped everything shut. I knew I was in big trouble.

There was nothing to do but wait until morning when I hoped the storm would ease. It only got worse. At dawn I found one end of the tunnel completely blocked by snow and the other closing quickly. I dug my way out to get my bearings but couldn’t see a thing. It was a total white out.

My water and cooking fuel were frozen. I had no food and no idea how long the storm would last. If I stayed put, I would be trapped. I needed to get down the mountain, and fast.

Dragging my bike and gear through waist-high snow was almost impossible, but after three trips and a lot of cursing I managed to get everything back on the road. Thankfully the wind was going my way, so all I had to do was get myself in the saddle and steer.

I biked 60 km through the storm, never able to see more than a few meters in front of me. I had to use my boots to stop because my brakes were iced over. My gloves froze around my handlebars.

In all my winters on the Prairies, I’ve never seen another blizzard like it.

Bicycle and camp in front of sunset over gravel desert in Xinjiang province, China.

Better days ahead

Halfway down the mountain I reached a town called Balguntay. The people there wore fall jackets. The earth was wonderfully brown. For the first time in days I saw trees and a river that flowed.

I didn’t have the energy to celebrate. There was no whoop, no fist pump. I just sat on a curb and buried my face in my hands.

Sometimes I don’t know if I’m doing everything right or making every mistake there is.


26 responses to “Tian Shan

  1. Keep the good times rolling Mike, but stay safe while you’re at it. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  2. Wow, your stories are absolutely captivating! I would have been scared shitless of those wild boars. It’s amazing reading about your adventures Mike! Keep safe, Merry Christmas!

  3. I imagine it’s not always easy to find means to communicate, Mike. I hope you know that your efforts to do so are much much appreciated. Amazing stories.

  4. Hey Mikey. Amazing stuff you’ve been experiencing and posting! I’ve been following you every pedal of the way. Not sure what your plans are for later in the winter, but Trina and I are off to Sri Lanka in late February to start an 18-month volunteer gig. Drop me a line if you’re going to be in the global neighbourhood. Likely not the best place to bike, but I’ve heard it’s a good place to rest. Take care of yourself pal and keep enjoying the ride.


    • Sri Lanka sounds amazing. I’m in southern China, a bit too far for that kind of detour now, but I wish you and Trina all the best.

      Eighteen months??? Good for you!

  5. Merry Chrissie Mike, Great to read about your adventures. I am home for a break – loving it. It’s 40 plus today (Chrissie Eve). Let me know when you make it to this amazing country!! Hope you have a good one.

    • Plus 40!?! Geez, I’m happy when it’s above zero these days! One more reason to keep going south, right? I hope to be in Australia by early summer if all goes well . . .

  6. Best of luck Mike. Heard your interview on cbc radio. Very well spoken. Hope you have a Happy New Year wherever you may be in this world. Keep save.

    • Season’s greetings AND a happy Chinese New Year to everyone in M.H. Miss you all lots and can’t wait to see you again. Soon, I hope!

  7. happy new year Mike! although I suppose it won’t be new year in China just yet 🙂 miss you lots. love you always. stay calm and carry on, and enjoy the hell out of life my friend!! xoxo

  8. I read your stories and am amazed and in awe of your determination and heroic efforts you make. Your desire to follow your dream is admirable and the only mistake you could make is to give up on that chance. Keep riding, my class and I are thinking of you and wishing you all the best!

  9. Mike, so glad you’re safe… now. It sounded like a fight for a while and I’m so glad you’re safe and sound. There were prayers for your safety this Christmas at my house!

  10. Eyes opened to a new and old world, keep exploring, you have relieved me of the daily-life-routine-stress-cycle that keeps hammering. You have inspired, and made quite a journey, I look forward to your survival, you will do it.

    • Thanks Zack. I’m in a warmer part of China now, so I think the score is officially Mike: 1 and Winter: 0. Yes!

  11. Hi again Mike, my class and I just finished reading your post about Tian Shan and Aimee told me to tell you that she was going to buy you a pair of heated socks and as a welcome home gift, we will get you some SKITTLES! Take CARE!

    • Heated socks and Skittles – now that’s a winning combo. I’ll be sure to collect when my feet hit the ground in Saskatchewan again. Until then, please wish your class all the best for me!

  12. I don’t know how you do it Mike. I cycled myself, but I could not make myself write it down and put it online.
    I know I had a star shining on me while i was riding. It is yours now!

  13. I really enjoy reading about you, and all your amazing experiences. I am curious where you plan to travel next, are there any countrys that you feel unsure about exploring?
    I wish you all the best Mike, take care and stay safe :).

    • Next I hope to visit Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Longer term, I would LOVE to be in New Zealand by the end of summer.

      There are a few places I’m still a bit nervous about touring, especially in South America. It just means I need to do some more planning beforehand.

      Should be a great year ahead!

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