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Kiwi Bikers

Beijing to Paris - April to October 2007

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Arnold and Marieke Arnold and Marieke Arnold and Marieke Arnold and Marieke Arnold and Marieke Arnold and Marieke Arnold and Marieke Arnold and Marieke Arnold and Marieke Arnold and Marieke Arnold and Marieke Arnold and Marieke Arnold and Marieke

Cobbled together from their E mail's and articles in Endurance Magazine, this is the story of our two blogless adventurers Arnold and Marieke, from New Zealand.

The Expedition of Arnold & Marieke Von Zon

Will anyone agree to travel without automobile, in the summer of 2007, from Beijing to Paris?

When Marieka Van Zon put the idea to husband Arnold last year, he had to think about it for a while. But those who know this energetic and enthusiastic biking couple in their early 60’s, it came as no surprise that he decided to go for it.

‘You know if we’re going to do that, we should think in terms of measurements in distances – get out the Atlas and work out what we need.’

Cycling long distances is not something new to retired mechanical engineer Arnold and registered nurse Marieke. In each of the last 9 years they have cycled somewhere in the world for 3-4 months. They have crossed the States from Oregon to Virginia, circumnavigated Australia, a ride from Netherlands through Germany, Poland and the Baltic states, and, most recently, a ride from Anchorage to San Francisco in 2006.

The Route

Arnold and Marieka planned to follow a route that covers, in part, the Silk Road.

Departing Beijing and going through major Chinese cities of Zhen Zhou, Xian and Lang Zhou, they planned to ride through Xinjiang, crossing into Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia and through Ukraine, Poland, Germany and France to reach the final goal of Paris. They planned a daunting 100km a day, a trip and anitcipated it would take between 140 to 150 days.


April – June: China and Mongolia
June - August: Kyrgzstan, Kazakhstan
August: Russia, Ukraine
September: Poland, Germany, France
September 30: Paris

The most difficult part for the couple was obtaining visas, as a Kyrgyzstan visa only allows them one month and similarly, the visa for Kazakhstan was issued in the UK and complications were experienced for the Russian visa’s.

Arnold is an engineer by profession and consequently plans, thinks, and is prepared for most contingencies! Arnold’s bike is a hand-built, steel frame, 26” wheel touring bike; Marieka rides an alloy frame Trek mountain bike. Packing light takes on a new meaning as everything they need has to fit into the front and rear panniers on their bikes. Prior to leaving NZ they changed the wheels for hand-built 36 spoke downhill rims to cope with the extreme road conditions they expect to meet.

Additional equipment they are carrying includes 2 spare Rohloff chains, extra Schwalbe Marathon XR tyres, spokes, derailleur hangers and other basic parts and tools to meet any emergency repairs that may be necessary in some of the more remote places en-route.

The Journey: Part 1

Arnold and Marieka arrived in Beijing end March; Marieka describes their first few days before leaving for Xian:

“After a good flight we arrived in Beijing in the evening. We were met by John who drove us to our lodgings and just as well it was dark because John was weaving all the 3 lanes on the motorway, passing on all sides and hooting when required, a somewhat hair-raising introduction.

The second day we walked for miles through the streets to visit the Forbidden City, a walled in place, full of palaces for Emperess’s, concubines, children and servants built by Emperors over the ages, a busy place full of Chinese and other tourists. It was bitterly cold and it rained at times, needless to say we were pleased to wear our warm polyprops and raincoats and even the gloves came out.

Day 3: we went in a minibus to the Great Wall of China, driven there by John, again he was doing slaloms as if there was no tomorrow. This city is enormous and the high-rise apartments are endless, the motorways and roads very good and smooth, the country site was flat initially with collective farms dotted around. People were tilling the land to ready for the spring sowing and planting, slowly the road got windier and we could see hills appearing from the haze

After 3 hours in the bus we finally were at the parking lot along the famous Wall, we had to walk for a while on a small road getting steeper and steeper and changing into steps and climbing onto the wall itself. The wall stretches over the hills and mountains for 5000km with it's10.000 towers and was built between 1200 and 1600 by successive Emperors to keep the warring Mongols out of China.

We walked up and down on the now and then crumbly Wall and through the towers, we had to watch our steps carefully as we were very doubtful a rescue helicopter would appear should anything go wrong. A fierce wind was blowing, it was cool but sunny, we felt that this mighty place of history gave us an indication of the enormity of the work which has been done by people without modern tools .

Tomorrow we will begin our long ride west.”

Beijing – Xian

“A chilly but sunny morning greeted us on the 1st of April when we started our long journey at zero kilometre on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Arnold navigated us safely and with great skill out of this city, the shoulders of the roads choked with Pekinese on their bikes. It took most of the day to reach the outskirts of town. Once in the more open spaces we found there were small fields full of greenhouses. Initially the ride was flat, the shoulder wide but don't think for one moment that we could just pedal and dream, oh no!! Roaring next to us was the main flow of traffic, trucks, more trucks mostly overloaded with coal, buses overloaded with people and lots of other 3 wheeled vehicles, many of them belching out enormous clouds of exhaust fumes.

There was glass, stones, rocks and bricks to manoeuvre around and then there were the bicycles the 3 wheelers the cars and people on foot in both directions to avoid. Thank goodness for the heavy duty Schwalbe tyres. Into the mountains we thought we'd have a nice country ride. Alas this was not the case, a massive 20 km coal truck jam took that romantic idea clean away, the trucks in both directions overloaded with coal just stood there , the drivers lounging, eating noodles, laughing ,calling out to us when we tried to scramble past them through the narrow gaps on the utterly ruined roads. Nothing had prepared us for the pollution and the destruction of the environment.

Everything in this mountain range is covered in coal dust, heavy industry everywhere rivers are mostly dry and if there is evidence of water it's mostly a rivulet of an evil looking brew. The villages are no different but joy oh joy, the people always smile, we have met nothing else but generosity, helpfulness and kindness of the Chinese! Some sights were sooo unexpected, like in the middle of one of those squalid places you would see perfectly lovely dressed women tootling on their bikes, dressed in cloths glittering with sequins and high heeled winkle pickers pedalling downhill.

As we rolled towards Xian the temperatures became higher, we rode through a gently undulating landscape with orchards in bloom every where around us, alternating with deep gulches, even the valleys of those are having crops growing in them. The roads are lined with Tong Shu trees, these trees have the most beautiful mauve or white bell shaped flowers with a sweet perfume.

We have arrived in Xian after a nearly 1200 km ride full of amazing experiences but the biggest wonder of all has been experienced today - we visited the Terracotta Warriors.

Part 2

Our intrepid travellers have now covered 4000 kms and other than changing bike chains after 3000 kms, have had no trouble whatsoever with their bikes. The same cannot be said about the trip as they rode towards the outer reaches of China and into Xin Jiang province.

Since leaving Xian, their trip has taken them on to the fables Silk Road. Passing through such major cities as Lanzhou and Xining, our last contact with them was from Turpan.

Highlights to date include crossing a pass at 3767 m and the Turpan depression which is 150 m below sea level! Conditions have been trying – gale force winds and somewhat basic conditions as the ride progresses. Other than experiencing stomach problems, Arnold and Marieke have been in good health and Marieke – a trained nurse – even administered a temporary clinic at one of their stops.

More details of the trip since Xian are best related by Marieke in her journal:

”We left Langzhou weaving through the traffic and rattling over 4 km of rough road, through a valley with the secondary road we were on, a fabulous motorway on high pillars here and there and a smooth looking railway, all along the brown somewhat sluggish flowing river. Then through the farming villages where we bought some bread, tomatoes and cucumber for lunch. We ate in some field on a side road so that we would have some peace otherwise the whole village would be around us.

Climbing steadily to 3000 metres towards Quinghai Hu (Lake). Still climbing we passed spectacular scenery, great snow clad mountains, dry and arid hills, on the high plateaus we passed frozen tarns and workers canalizing those with their skilful masonry. At 3500 metre elevation we began to feel the altitude, some shortness of breath and biking becoming a little harder.

After a few more days of ferocious headwinds in absolute desert environment, wind howling around sand moguls, salt lakes at our left and camels in the distance we neared Delingha seeing 4 smoke stacks belching pollution. This in the middle of the desert, amazing!

While trying to find accommodation we got stopped by police, one of them did some cell phoning and then offered to find a hotel for us, we were impressed! Once in the hotel there was a knock on the door- and we were confronted with ‘Alien Police’ who informed us we were in a closed city where no foreigners were allowed. Next morning we were personally escorted to the bus and backtracked the whole distance of 5000km to Xining. It was a great to sit for a day and let the desert pass through the window.’

From Xining we took the road to Zhangye, through the most spectacular mountain range we have seen yet, this ride however also looked as though it was doomed as we were told there was a landslide further on. However, when we got to the site there were road works going on and thank goodness for a bike we were able to pass, with the help of the road crew whom carried our bikes and bags past the obstacles.

Another 2 passes and 2 days we descended this mountain range through an awesome gorge with a raging terracotta coloured silt laden river the last blocks of frozen snow still melting. We suddenly were in the widest of valleys where hundreds of farmers were busily working in the fields; spring had not even arrived here as the trees were only just in bud.

From there we just rolled down the hill for another 100 km along a fast flowing irrigation channel to Zhangye where we joined the Silk Road again. Looking back we are not sorry we were forced to detour as we have experienced the most beautiful scenery and met the most delightful people. With a tail wind we rolled out of Zhangye at a nice speed, dodging bricks all the time which had fallen off trucks. Fortune did not last, the wind came up and we went on a steady climb of 350 metres.

Further West we got into the real hinterland of China, desert as far as the eye could see, dry hills and high snow topped mountains. Here and there a line of trees and a village with a few fields around.

Villages are only there if there is an irrigation channel from the faraway mountains. Then all of a sudden there is a big city in the desert (Jiuguan) and once you are in the middle of all the traffic you could swear there is NO desert out there. Fearlessly we ride on but nature is ferocious, the wind again was making our ride very laborious, we toiled into the sand, dust and dirt laden storm with a speed of 8 to 10 KM per hour, visibility no more than 1 km.

Onwards out of town where we saw the beginning of the Great Wall (restored) and further along the remains in the form of rammed earth. On the Western edge of the Goby Desert and the Eastern edge of the Taklamagan desert lies the road we travel on to Hami, with a tailwind we think the desert with it's own beautiful scenery is glorious but oh god with a head wind she is torturous.

The sand and dust eddies in the distance are suddenly upon you and the fierce wind associated with them is breathtaking it almost pushes you off the road, bike and all. Since Hami we have made little progress as we met with some testing times!! We got on the road next morning despite a howling gale from the north. We rode into it but just out of town our speed was not even 8 km /hr and we were barely able to stay on our side of the road. Finding this too dangerous we found a truck stop and decided to wait for a while - which became the whole day, the wind howled, sand and dust every where, the sparse trees bent almost double, signs clattering and general mayhem. On westwards we went after all that, a 7 degrees C morning, again a howling wind greeted us with scattered showers which felt like hail.

A storm front came over the mountains and blew us onto the middle of the road, we were hanging into the wind at a 15 degree angle. Determined to carry on we struggled further, trucks hooting constantly.

One of those wind gusts blew me right across two lanes off the highway and on the concrete edge, I fell just short of plunging down a couple of metres onto the stony desert floor. Picking myself up and just a little worse for wear we walked for a while. Somehow we got through the day and had some downhill towards Shanshan. A sunny and tail wind ride to Turpan through some spectacular sand hill country made up for it all. Here we cycled 86 meters below sea level!

"Spending a day in Turpan with its grape vine covered avenues and tree lined roads is close to heaven.”

Part 3

Marieke & Arnold’s epic ride continues as they make their way through Russia. Having pedalled over 9500 km from Beijing and still going strong, they are pleased to report, that their bikes are also in fine fettle. Thanks to Arnold’s professional eye for detail, they have only had six flat tyres so far.

From Turpan, the Van Zon’s travelled westwards from Korla to Alsu before leaving China, across the border into Kyrgyzstan up through the formidable Irkeshtan Pass and down into Sari Tass. Onwards and upwards through further mountain passes before reaching the towns of Osh and Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. A couple of days were spent on Lake Ysyk Kol waiting for the date on their visas to allow them to cross into Shymkent, Kazakhstan and then northwest towards Aral, Aktobe and finally into Russia.

Unfortunately for our intrepid pair, it hasn’t been without incident or anxious moments. Since our last update, there have been continuous encounters with unfriendly and unhelpful officials, a nasty episode with vodka-fuelled Kyrgyz youths and at one stage, with the trying conditions, a slightly despondent Marieke writes: ‘On we battled with only the wonderful thought of getting nearer to Paris every km.’ But they are unlikely to let this get them down for long.

Some excerpts from Marieke’s journal as they left Turpan:

‘We have now changed our daily routine a little. Since the wind is really making life hard, we get up at 5 am and we roll the bike on the road as soon as we can see the surface a little. With the red taillight blinking we get some kilometres under our belt before the wind gets up. A tailwind is a miracle; we mostly get side/head winds, hot and dry.

Westwards from Korla, starting in the cool of the early morning, on the right, the Saryin Shan mountains and to our left, the Taklemagan desert, the Sea of Death. By 11 am the wind gets up and temperatures the same, 35 – 45 degrees C. But because we have ridden 60 to 70 km by then we are not too worried. Every 10 km we make ourselves stop and drink. From Aksu, we peddled through the desert landscape for another 500km and because of the slight changes in colour, weather, light and haze it is never boring. There is very little animal life visible, the odd beetle would cross the road, a raven or two might squawk and some small birds flitted about at times.

We are nearing the end of our ride in the Peoples Republic of China, the contrasts have been staggering. People have been friendly, hospitable, generous, helpful and ever inquisitive and delightful. Utterly challenging it may have been to ride the 5500km in this country, but a delight nevertheless. We will farewell them all with a fond Zai-Jyen.

Border procedures were a series of serious faces and uniforms, Chinese and Kyrgyzstan alike, a total of 14 sightings of the passports were needed. The road over the Irkeshtan Pass will be forever entrenched in our minds, not only unsealed but also utterly destroyed by overloaded trucks. Full of large boulders, potholes, rutted muddy and slippery, unrideable steep grades up to 12 degrees. Thank god, we are trampers. Heaving and pushing the bikes up and up, then a few metres biking again in the lowest gear, we finally got to the top at 3536 metres. Down the Pass is no swooshing fun, but slowly slaloming around the potholes, rocks, sloshy mud pools, hands and wrists crying out as we rattled around. Even though it was pure endurance, there is always a reward. THE VIEW – high snowy peaks under a bright blue sky, grassy slopes with yurts and people tending their animals. Bliss does not last! Dark thunder clouds gathered yet again, the wind shot up and we got drenched with teeth shattering showers. Traffic increased in the valley, Kyrgyz drivers go fast. They also dodge the potholes and sometimes they miss us by a whisker. We arrived safely in Osh, a leafy, lively town full of colourful people, a great mix of east and west.

Leaving Osh, temperatures soared to 38 degrees C, the metal of the bikes too hot to touch. Along the dammed Naryn River, a roller coaster of a road 50 to 100 metres up and down, forever changing gears. Oh soo hot, the river far, far down looking so inviting, but utterly inaccessible.

We rode over some stunningly beautiful mountain passes at more than 3000 metres high and mostly at 12 degrees gradient. This needed lots of grunt for about 10 hours to get to the top. The last pass before the town of Kara Balta had a 3 km tunnel full of exhaust fumes, roaring noise from vehicles and a very nasty uneven surface. This in the gloom of very dim lights took every bit of navigational skill we possessed. There is always a reward - the downhill was exhilarating. Dropping 1000 metres in a distance of 9 km is sure worth the grind.

Our last night in Kyrgyzstan will be in our memories for a long time. To have a quiet time for once, we pitched our tent along a sandy little path, well away from the main road. Suddenly we were woken by sounds. Arnold grabbed his led light, got out of the tent and found two young men brandishing sticks and rocks. They were clearly after our gear and bikes. We staved these guys off by shining our led lights in their faces, which frustrated them endlessly. Finally after about one hour under attack we got help from a man who persuaded the youths to stop and go home and after a while they finally dawdled off. Kind man he was who took us to his home where he woke the whole family of five. His wife got herself busy cleaning Arnold up, the daughter rinsed blood out of his shirt, the son got told to beat the young men up the next day and his brother and partner made a pot full of pasta. All this at 0100 hours and outdoors under a lean-to. Ach vodka is such a curse we were told!

We have continued our ride from Shymkent heading NW towards Aral and Aktobe. The road has been of various quality, no shoulder, never ever smooth, just like driving over cobblestones and worse. The wind howling over the steppes with a ferocity, which slowed us down most of the time to a speed from 7 to 14 km/hr. The endless sun and heat with shade nowhere to be had, has been a test of our resources.

But even though this is as tough as it gets, there are joys! A truck came past and sticking out of the window, two burly arms with a huge melon. The truck screeches to a halt, out jumps the melon bearer and insists that we take this 5 kg monster, on the back of the bike! No way were they accepting a ‘no’, so off we went with the melon. Needless to say, we gorged ourselves.

From Aktobe in Kazakhstan we continued NW to Uralsk and then on towards the Russian border. On the windswept steppe border post we farewelled the Kazakh’s and entered Mother Russia, land of the great composers and poets. In Russia the steppes continued just for a day or so and then there were seas of grain. A sunflower field here and there gave brilliant yellow for variety in colour.

And YES! We finally had a tail wind that day and rode and rode over the variable bumpy road for 180km at speeds between 20 –26 km/hr. What bliss! We reached the town of Engels (associate of Karl Marx so many years ago) then over the much loved and sung about River Volga to Saratov. We are spending a day here in Saratov to recharge, having the joy of being a stone’s throw away from a church with a golden dome and a carillon, the bells singing a beautiful song. A mini view of the bridge and the river completes the scene. Being in Russia is as though a switch has been turned. The people are spontaneous, helpful and they laugh. The ice does not need to be broken!

Part 4

“And yes, there we were, after some serious searching of directions and riding on the pavement, on the Place d'Etoille, circling around the Arc de Triomph amongst the many cars. Down the Champs 'd Elysee and we rolled under the Eiffel tower to a final stop! Our ride from Beijing to Paris ended on the 14th of September at 2 pm 136 days on the bike and 13,932 km later.”

In Marieke’s own words, she and Arnold had completed an amazing journey across 2 continents, arriving in Paris 2 weeks ahead of schedule, and averaging over 100 kms per day.

After the trials of Central Asia, the last sections of the ride were more comfortable and predictable! The days became cooler, the roads hillier, the food more like they are used to and the smell of croissants closer! From our last report they had entered the Czech Republic and were then making their way through the Ukraine towards Poland.

When asked what they missed most – Marieke, after some thought, replied that they regret not bringing the bear spray. This was something they had for their trip in Canada and would have helped to stop the dogs attacking. ‘There are lots of them, never very well behaved and the owners never controlling them.’

Also, at the end of the day, a hot shower would be welcome. Sometimes it’s been a wash in a collapsible dog bowl with a few litres of water. ‘It’s just a question of moving sweat from one place to the other,’ said Marieke.

Of course, it’s the discipline of getting up every morning at 5 a.m., packing all the gear, having a quick meal and getting back on the road. It’s been important to eat a well balanced diet to stay healthy and avoid infection and, with dehydration a risk on the long rides, essential to drink enough. ‘At the end of the day, a sense of humour and the ability to stay positive has been a must – even though it requires lots of energy and patience,’ adds Marieke.

From Trutnov in the Czech Republic they cycled over steep hills and deep valleys in this delightful country, glorious views and good roads. From Marieke: “In the town of Decin we found the river Elbe and followed it to the German border. Border procedures amounting to a mere glance at the passport and a friendly nod.

Then suddenly there was this fine, smooth bike path with picnic tables, covered with a roof ( just as well )as this day was grey and showery. A little error in the navigation due to road works we lost the scenic Elbe and ended up in the Sachsiche Schweiss, well talk about steep hills! 12% plus, stairs would have been easier.”

“We have now been rained upon several times; the days are cold, between 7 and 14 degrees C, the nights damp and misty. Drying out is not easy when the sun hides behind the clouds all day.

Navigating through towns is challenging as frequently the signs lead to the Autobahn, the bike paths are often on the side of the roads but disappear into a forest or altogether.

Bike paths also lead you to very scenic places much further away and lets face it who would like to detour on a 14000 km ride?” “We are loving the kaffee und kuchen while biking in Germany.”

With the end of their journey in sight Arnold and Marieke rode on, braving the elements - a far cry from the sun, heat and dryness at the start of their ride. They crossed the Rhein by ferry, into France. “In the lovely old town of Metz we had our first croissant what a treat !”

“Through the historic town of Verdun where WW1 raged for years, westwards we were reminded of more wars by impressive monuments on the side of the road. In shining sun we rode into Epernay the champagne town of the great Moet et Chandon. The challenging hills never let up but finally we got into the town of Meaux 60 km east of Paris, we then followed the canal l'Ourcq in the early morning mist on the unsealed towpath towards Paris. Down the Champs 'd Elysee and we rolled under the Eiffel tower to a final stop!”

What an amazing and unforgettable ride! An incredible 14,000 kms through spectacular scenery and amongst a remarkable variety of people and ethnic groups. Their bikes held up well – tyres rotated, brake blocks changed and a gear cable replaced – in itself a remarkable testimony to the quality of modern bikes. And other than the usual colds and tummy problems, Arnold and Marieke had no health issues.

After a ride like this, what further challenge can they possibly find?

Kiwi Bikers