When I lost my airline ticket I decided to ride back home from China.
By Claudio Piani
After living a year in China I decided to buy a 200 dollars bike and do my first bicycle trip! My route took me from China though Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, around the Caspian Sea, though Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, on around the Black Sea, across Turkey and then up through Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and to my home in Italy.
The lowest temperature at which I cycled was -4 degrees C(25 degrees Fahrenheit). I suffered no flat tires since I put the new tires on in Urumqi (5 euros each), which is in the far northwestern corner of China, situated between Mongolia and Kazakhstan. With those tires I rode 7000km on the worst streets I’ve ever encountered. One person hit me with his car, while I had to escape five dicey situations (shepherd dogs, wild camels, Chinese policemen, mints and a Kazakh boy). I spent six hours in Chinese jail, broke seven spokes during the entire trip and managed to hold an 18 km/h average daily speed, though my pace rose to 25 km/h when I listen to AC/DC. The highest temperature I had to ride in was 42 degrees C (107 degrees Fahrenheit).
I rode for 139 days, and averaged 140km for eight consecutive days to leave the Karakalpakstan desert and the Kazakh steppe as soon as possible. The maximum number of kilometers I rode in one day was 169. The highest elevation I reached by bike was 3699m (12,136 ft).
To reach my home in Milan from my point of departure in Tibet I rode 8295km (5154 mi.).
The following are some of the things I learned on the road; they are taken from my book Vagabondiary.
On the train to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, you begin to understand that you have exceeded 3000 metres altitude when you start to have a slight headache and all the children around you start vomiting.
When climbing mountains above 3000m with the bicycle, because of the change in air pressure all of my sealed food bags swelled up almost to the point of explosion and my bicycle wheels were as hard as marble.
While I was cycling in the desert in the Xinjiang province, I heard two little explosions in my bicycle bag, but I didn’t understand where they came from. Once I opened my pannier, I learned that the air was so hot that the lighters I used to start my alcohol oven had exploded. The loss forced me to have a dinner of raw spaghetti in the evening.
The Potala Palace in Lhasa, the former residence of the Dalai Lama, is sensational. The complexity and richness of the details make it one of the best buildings I have ever seen in my life. It contains hundreds of rooms connected by narrow tunnels, lavish corridors or small hidden courtyards. Thousands of Buddha statues and its reincarnations are presented.
Road traffic in China is ruled by the law of the biggest. I forgot about that on the first day of my cycling adventure and paid for my mistake. Despite the green light at the traffic light, A three-wheeled motorbike crossed the road on a red light, entering the intersection on what was a green light for me, and destroyed my rear wheel.
In the steppe in Kazakhstan I found an abandoned tank not far from the road. The sun was almost setting, and I decided to take my last break before pitching my tent a few kilometres later. A hunter emerged from the old tank with rifle. When he saw me with my bike, he offered me two apples, water and some sweets. I told him that I was going to sleep in my tent during the night and he smiled at me and said, “Watch out for wolves, snakes and scorpions.” I’ve definitely spent quieter nights.
In Urumqi I took a day off after weeks of cycling in the desert. I decided to go to a swimming pool to relax a little. The admission fee was 20 yuan plus 5 yuan for a mandatory medical examination with a “doctor” who checked me to see if I had any skin diseases.
While I was in Urumqi I experienced an unexpected emergency; I had two broken spokes on my bike. When I stopped at the first bike shop I found to repair them, I learned the mechanic was deaf and could not speak. I found no difference communicating with him compared to almost any other Chinese person.
Many people ask me where I wash myself when I cycle in remote areas. Well honestly, I do not wash myself. If I have enough water I refresh my armpits and my face. Yes, entering into my tent is not always pleasant, but fortunately the feet are the part of the body that is farthest from the nose.
At the first village I reached in Kazakhstan an old man, sitting on the roadside and seeing me pass, made me the gesture of drinking from a bottle. I believed he wanted to offer me some water, so I stopped in front of him, but from his jacket he took out a bottle of vodka, insisting that I drink it. The next twenty kilometers I talked to wild horses and eagles as I pedaled.
A hundred kilometers before reaching Samarkand, the most famous city on the silk road, a farmer saw me pitching my tent, and invited me to sleep in his little house. The conversation began with the classic question “Atkuda?” It means, “Where are you from?” As soon as I answered “Italy,” the man exclaimed “Ah Italy … London!” During dinner, as an Italian, I was asked to sing with the old farmer, who quoted all the Italian singers he knows: Adriano Celentano, Toto Cutugno and Michael Jackson! Even his wife looked at him weirdly and tried to convince him that Michael Jackson is not Italian, but he remained set on his idea. So, when I was called into the discussion to avoid disappointing him, I lied shamelessly: “Michael Jackson? Oh yes, he is from Rome!”
Piani, my surname, in Kazakh means “drunk” and this was my passport to enter the sympathies of many people. But it was also the condemnation of my liver.
I have always wondered why all the sports clubs of the Soviet area have the same names: Cska, Lokomotiv, Dynamo. This is because during communism there was no private property. As a result, the teams could not be owned by one person or by a private company, as in Europe, so they were owned by state organizations. So Lokomotiv is the team of railwaymen, Dynamo is the police team and army’s team is Cska.
One day while I was pedaling over a hill, and felt pretty tired. Two guys approached me on horseback. They looked at my bike and asked me “Skolka?” That meant, “How much?” I told them it was a cheap Chinese bike, just 300 US dollars. They looked at each other and started laughing, then one pointed at his horse and said, “Two hundred dollars!”
On the way to Samarkand I stopped to sleep in a forest. The next morning at a crossroad I could not remember the way to the main road. An old man passed by on a donkey cart and I asked him, “Samarkand?” He pointed to the right direction, and a thrill of emotion paralyzed me on the pedals. What’s more magical for a traveller, than asking for directions to Samarkand while you’re going there with your own two legs?
Scorpions of the desert in Uzbekistan seem to like Colgate toothpaste. Every morning, when I got out of my tent, I always found two or three of them around my spit from the previous evening.
If I stopped every time someone offered me a sip of vodka, I would have arrived in Italy in 2024 … Or maybe I would never have arrived.
In Kazakhstan, domesticated camels are distinguished from the wild ones by a cross or a letter on their neck or belly the farmers brand to recognise them. Just outside the city of Beyneu I came across a camel that had “CK” on its belly, with the same characters used for the Calvin Klein logo.
The Georgian alphabet, in Georgian “ქართული დამწერლობა,” is officially, among all the world alphabets, the most similar to the one engraved on the ring in “The Lord of the Rings” film.
Since the governament legalised marijuana in Georgia, the three-day trip crossing the Black Sea is much more enjoyable for Georgian and Bulgarian sailors. If there is also an Armenian truck driver with a load of Armenian brandy, a real party can start.
Follow Claudio Pian in Instagram at: claudiopiani.
You can find the English version of his book Vagabondiary on Amazon.