Singapore to Hallbankgate, Cumbria. – Home
20th March 2019 to 5th May 2019
All I could think about as we crossed the causeway taking us from Malaysia to Singapore was Murghab. This was the town in Tajikistan that we had longed to reach so that we could stock up on food and have a wash and a rest while travelling the Pamir Highway. It was a dusty, dry, brown place on the high altitude desert of the Pamirs but as I looked at the Singapore skyline I felt an intense nostalgia for it and crazily wished I was there rather than here. ” I love Murghab” I mumbled to Pete but I don’t think he heard me over the roar of the traffic and the sounds of us both coughing and spluttering on the fumes.
Singapore summed up the well worn description of a concrete jungle as all we could see were huge buildings squeezed together looking as if they were jostling for space in a queue for the bus. We were on a six lane highway busy with commuters many of whom apparently live in Malaysia but work in Singapore and cross backwards and forwards everyday. We joined the lane for the motorbikes as we waited for our passports to be checked.
‘Welcome to Singapore’ the sign said.
‘Penalty for Drugs is Death’.
I had a quick panic wondering where I had stored our paracetamol before I realised they were looking for something stronger and we happily burst through the melee onto another very busy road that we thought would take us to where we wanted to be.
Our friends Alison and Tony had once lived and worked in Singapore and very kindly contacted their friends there and the wonderful Jamie and Val offered to take us in for the full week . This was incredibly kind of them to accept two perfect (or not very perfect) strangers into their home and for us it was a privilege to stay with people who had lived there for thirty years and could tell us so much of what life in Singapore is like.
We had a wonderful week. We visited the Colbar a cafe once used by the British army when the British administered Singapore. We had a very moving visit to the Old Ford Factory museum telling of the Japanese invasion and occupation of Singapore during the second world war. We wandered downtown and marvelled at the strange artificial trees in the Gardens by the Bay.
We visited the Marina Bay hotel with the ‘boat’ and infinity pool on its roof.
We were taken as guests to Jamie and Val’s club, swam in the pool and felt very colonial. We went with them on a bike ride seeing a quieter side of Singapore life following a canal where we saw 6 otters and many monitor lizards. We also visited a nature reserve where we saw crocodiles! Just metres away from us but looking very languid and disinterested. On the same visit we saw an eagle and a hornbill which flew underneath us as we had climbed up a watchtower. It was heartening to see these areas being preserved in a place where space is becoming ever more expensive and precious. We learned what was happening when whole complexes were being bought ‘en block’ knocked down and then rebuilt but with many more flats being squeezed into the same area. Val and Jamie’s lovely condominium was a case in point. They moved there in the 80’s when it was fairly new and there are about 160 flats. It has now been bought and will be knocked down at the end of this year and replaced with about 500 flats. 80% of the people living there have to agree to this happening and if they do the other 20% have to put up with it and watch as the whole place complete with beautiful swimming pool, gym and gardens is destroyed.
Singapore was busy, smart, modern, fast and to be honest a bit of a culture shock for us both and we felt like 2 country bumpkins wandering around in our by now, very worn out clothes probably looking rather bewildered. We once went into a cafe and wondered why we weren’t being served until we discovered that you had to order your coffee on a small computer hidden under the table. Once we worked out how to switch it on and use it, which took about 10 minutes, our coffee magically appeared thankfully brought to us by a human being.
By the end of our week however we felt quite at home and were merrily jumping on and off the incredibly efficient and easy to use MRT metro system. We prepared ourselves for our three week boat trip and I bought wool and needles and Pete rather strangely bought a keyboard which he has always wanted and felt that in 3 weeks of intense practice he might make some progress. Quite how we are going to get this home to Hallbankgate has yet to be worked out.
Jamie had a contact at The Straits Times, Singapore’s daily paper and told them of our trip and we met Joy the trainee journalist in a cafe one day. We haven’t really talked about our trip at length to anyone so far so for us it was a bit like a counselling session and we talked and she listened and she wrote a very nice article with only a few mistakes like the length of time our trip had taken, the number of kilometres we’d cycled and Pete’s name being changed to Paul. We didn’t care but were rather disappointed when no one seemed to recognise us in the following days and there was no need for us to go out wearing dark glasses for fear of being mobbed by excited autograph hunters.
The date for embarkation drew near. We were informed of where and when we should board and to our relief were told that both ourselves and our bikes would be picked up and taken direct to the ship.
Hugs and goodbyes to Jamie and Val and many thanks for the unique experience and hospitality they had given us.
When we were buying our tickets for the boat there had been a bit of a hoo hah about our bikes being put onto the ship and it seemed as if it might have been a new situation for the company to deal with. Eventually we had it in writing that they could be carried as long as we kept them with us in our cabin and as long as we were prepared to haul them onto the ship ourselves. We accepted these conditions as the only way we could get our ticket. However I guess these were just the rules and rules can often be flexible and when we were met at the side of the ship by two smiling crew members we felt all would be well.
We gazed up at what really didn’t look like a ship at all. Perhaps we were just too close to get any sense of perspective or size but it was massive. It was more like standing by a huge building and I admit to a little heartsink when I saw the stairway going up the flank of this monster and thought I had to somehow get Ruby and myself up there. However our smiley crewmen had different ideas and just happened to be standing next to a very large hook which if you strained your neck hard enough and looked up was attached to a crane miles above us. Our panniers were all thrown into a large canvas bag and the bikes strapped somehow to the sides of the bag and off they went disappearing up into the stratosphere.
I know it’s ridiculous to talk about a bike as if it’s a human but I have become very attached to Ruby over these last 18 months and I’ve often felt anxiety as she has been man handled and thrown around as if she didn’t matter. I thought that flying through the air was a new experience even for her and wondered, again ridiculously whether she might actually be enjoying it. We were reunited sometime later and both bikes were unscathed and the good news was that there appeared to be no expectation for them to spend the voyage in our cabin. In fact they have resided in three different places and we have never moved them so someone is looking after them. They started off in the gym, then they moved to the ‘Suez room’ which is where the Egyptian staff who would be guiding us through the Suez canal stay while they are on board and they are now in the swimming pool. Well they are not actually in the pool which has no water in it but leaning against the side and they look as happy as a bike can ever look. We’ve spent a day taking them to bits and cleaning them and were provided with buckets and rags, soap and WD40 and they are now shining and beautiful and ready for the last stretch of our journey.
As we write we are on the last 3 days of our journey by ship from Singapore to Southampton and it has been fantastic and we have no regrets at all about choosing this as a way to get home. Pete feels fully qualified to drive this thing and I think I could be his second mate.
We are quite proficient at looking through the binoculars whilst on the bridge and shouting “ship ahoy” while the crew give us withering glances and tell us that the radar is doing a perfectly good job and we don’t need to let them know when we see another ship thank you. We know all about wind speed and knots and rock on our heels with our hands behind our backs saying “full steam ahead Mr Bosun”.
We’ve developed a routine which involves going up to the bridge every morning and staring at the sea for long periods of time. There isn’t a lot to look at other than an awful lot of water but it is surprisingly relaxing.
One amazing event which took our breath away was to see a whale. Oliver the second officer was very excited as I don’t think they see them very often and shouted “whale!!”. We all looked to where he was pointing and saw the tell tale spout of water and then magnificently the body of the whale appearing above the water and then disappearing again just as quickly. It was over in a matter of moments but left us all breathless and amazed. We have seen schools of dolphins looking quite small from our perch high above them but lots of them and hundreds of flying fish which scoot and skim across the water at speed before plopping back under and disappearing. It’s all rather wonderful and a new and exciting world for us even though for the crew it’s just their everyday work and routine.
A few facts that we learned about Kerguelen while we have been on board are:
We are carrying g 15,600 containers. The ship has capacity for 16000.
It is unknown what is in them other than the ones that contain hazardous chemicals. We also know there are fireworks and some frozen food.
The average weight of a container is 32,500 kgs
We are travelling at an average speed of 19 knots. A knot is nearly 2 km per hour.
The shipping lane is like a road although you can overtake on either side.
Since Brexit the company that owned Kerguelen and 40 other ships have switched their flag from London to Malta.
The Kerguelen has a constant 84 day round trip from China to Europe.
The size of the rudder is 95 square metres.
The engine has a horsepower of 100,000 and has 11 cylinders
The engine uses 90 litres of oil per minute. It uses 3 different types of oil depending on where it is and the regulations in that area.
The propeller turns at 65 rpm.
The propeller is 10 metres in diameter.
There are 27 crew on board and the nationalities are Croatian, Chinese and Filipino.
The ship can take 8 passengers but we were the only ones until our first stop in Spain where 4 more passengers came on board.
All the above was written a few weeks ago when we were still on the ship and we are now home in Hallbankgate, it’s very windy, cold and wet but we are very happy to be here and have had a wonderful welcome back.
We loved our journey home on the Kerguelen. It gave us time to think about our trip, relax, sort our photos, read, eat (too much). Pete is at least at concert pianist level and I knitted a jumper for Joseph our grandson in the three weeks which is a personal record as the last one took me three years.
We were sad to say goodbye to some of the friends we had made on board especially Oliver, Ralph and Shu who had made our visits to the Bridge such fun. They awarded Pete honorary captain status but decided that they didn’t want to serve under him until he had a bit more practice.
We arrived at Southampton in boiling sunshine and were met by Annie, Pete’s sister. We had got her a special pass to come on board and we enjoyed showing her around ‘our ship’.
It was time to go and the bikes were unloaded in the same way as they were loaded and we could almost hear them whooping as they circled slowly down to the dockside.
Even though it was Easter Sunday we managed to deposit the keyboard with a courier and then we set off into the beautiful English countryside.
We haven’t been away for that long but probably long enough to come back and see our country through fresh eyes. We crossed the South Downs and the Chilterns, went through Winchester and Oxford and were even impressed by Milton Keynes with its amazing network of cycleways.
We went on through Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire and on into the beautiful Peak District travelling along disused railway lines and canal tow paths. We passed through the industrial heartland of Greater Manchester and on up north to our beloved lake district where we stayed with our friends Les and Molly near Coniston. In Oxford we had a surprise visit from our children hiding behind a settee in Annie’s house. We re-met Lisa and Dave who we had last seen on a boat crossing the Caspian Sea and were re-united with some dear friends of Pete’s from his school days. We visited my brother and had an emotional visit with my soon to be 98 year old dad in Bury.
Along the way we talked about what we thought was quintessentially English , discussions that gave us many a happy hour of disagreements and arguments.
Pete: Swans are everywhere.
Chris: When did you last see a Swan?
Pete: mmmm ok. When we were last in England
Chris : Cattle grids
Pete: I’m sure I remember a cattle grid in Uzbekistan.
Chris: I need photographic evidence. And anyway even if it did exist it would be a camel grid and not a cattle grid.
And so it went on but we did agree on :
Swans. Bluebell woods. Pubs. Sky Larks. Gambolling lambs. Sunday lunch. Yorkshire pudding. Charity shops. Healthy dogs. Greetings like ” Ay up ” and ” y’alright?”. Oh and cattle grids.
As we neared Carlisle we had our first convoy with Jon, Cat, Naomi and Asher and stayed overnight in their house before striking out towards Hallbankgate the next morning.
Our second convoy occurred when our family who had been hiding behind some bushes leapt out to surprise us and then joined us on the last mile home.
We were then met outside our bunting festooned house by friends and people from the village which was a wonderful surprise. We were even given champagne which we refused to squirt all over our bicycles.
They all became part of our journey as has everyone that we have cycled with, stayed with , shared food with, laughed and tried to communicate with. We feel such nostalgia and affection for the places we have been through and for the people who have probably long forgotten us. It’s been an amazing experience and a very positive one. On our way up the country someone asked us if we had ever been ‘jumped’. I think that means had we ever been attacked by bandits or robbed at knife point. We hadn’t. Though we had been sort of jumped by people wanting to give us tea and food!
We have seen and experienced some bad things and a lot of environmental degradation so it’s not all rosy in the garden but we have always felt that most people are good and many are kind and just want the best for their families and communities.
Our family gave us a list of questions for us to think about while we were on the boat. We answered them separately and without any consultation and here they are.
• Best & worst meal
PETE : Best – Indian curry restaurant in Dushanbe. Our first curry since leaving home and it was good!
Worst – Noodle soup in Laos with bouncy balls of grey sausage floating in it.
CHRIS: Best – baked beans eaten straight from the tin with a spoon. Kalai KhumTajikistan
Worst – roadside cafe in Laos- thin greasy soup with noodles and grey balls of something that bounced when it hit the ground on its way to a dog’s mouth
• Most memorable weather event
PETE: Wind, on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. A fierce unrelenting headwind which combined with altitude and a steep climb made progress very difficult.
CHRIS: Near Turpan in northwest China wind gusting up 70 kph and struggling against it trying to reach a service station feeling we might not make it and be blown away across the desert never to be seen again
• Kindest stranger you met
PETE: garage owner in Turkey who gave us tea and pide (a sort of thin pizza) which was possibly his lunch.
CHRIS: The Iman’s wife in Turkey who we asked if there was a shop in their village. When she told us there wasn’t a shop for 20 or 30 kilometres she invited us in for tea, yoghurt and bread and then gave us more bread to take away.
• strangest night accommodation
PETE: Camping in a farmyard in Italy. We asked for a little somewhere to pitch our tent hoping for the corner of an orchard or a tucked away glade but the yard was concrete and we shared it with about a dozen cats and dogs various piles of muddy farming paraphernalia and a JCB.
CHRIS: On a bridge in Italy where a protest had been held for the last 9 months about the state of the bridge and the surrounding roads. The bridge had been occupied and we camped next to a large marquee and stood and joined the protest around the brazier in the evening.
• Best & worst cycling location
PETE: Best – cycle lanes in Thailand. Beautiful smooth car free tracks that followed the shoreline.
Worst – north of Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The road was busy and not really wide enough for a bike and two vehicles to pass especially if one was a truck.
CHRIS: Best – The wild and wide steppe of Kazakhstan before we went into China. Long, straight, smooth roads disappearing into the distance with only galloping horses sharing the space.
Worst – The Black Sea coast to the Georgian border. Busy, sometimes six lane highways. When we went through towns we were at high risk from taxis swerving in front of us to drop off or collect passengers. Added to this were the ‘Turkish tunnels of terror’ which definitely provided some of the most frightening cycling of the trip
• Highlight of whole trip
PETE: Arriving at The Great Wall of China, not the touristy bit but the unrenovated bit that we came across first.
CHRIS: Arriving at The Great Wall of China.
• Lowpoint of the whole trip
PETE: I cant think of any time where I thought “I’m tired of this , I want to go home”. Of course there were times when I felt a bit fed up but they always passed and made the good times even better.
CHRIS: Khorgas. We had finally made it into China so maybe it was a bit of a sense of anticlimax but Khorgas was grim and I wondered if it had been worth all the bother! Grey, cold, unfriendly, over protected, full of razor wire and baton and gun festooned policemen.
• Top tip to someone planning the same sort of trip
PETE: Always try to say yes.
CHRIS: Go slow and keep smiling
• Hardest hill & the best descent
PETE: Hardest – up to Kyrgyzstan border as we were leaving Tajikistan. There was a fierce head wind.
Best descent – after ‘toll booth’ campsite – only about 20km of down, not really very steep but we had a following wind and we just seemed to fly.
CHRIS: Hardest – The 4600 metre pass in Tajikistan where we had to walk the last 3 kilometres and couldn’t make more than 50 metres without stopping and gasping for breath.
Best descent – gliding around gentle curves in northern Corsica seeing the sun glistening in the distance and feeling some warmth from the December sun on our backs.
• The most useful item of kit you took with you
PETE: Yoga mats for under the tent. Folded in half lengthways (hinge made from duck tape) they were stored in our rear panniers and laid under the tent prevented damage from stones, thorns, sticks and pinecones and added a layer of insulation.
CHRIS: A clothes peg – useful for holding the tent flap back when I had to throw my stuff into the tent quickly before it got dark or the mosquitoes got busy. It could also be used occasionally for its original purpose.
• what food did you eat most of – e.g bananas!
PETE: Oats. With muesli if we could find it. With oats, powdered milk and a water filter on board we always had something to eat.
CHRIS: Dried apricots
• How many times did you fall off your bikes!
PETE – 1
CHRIS – 5 Italy, Turkey, France, Malaysia and Singapore
• what did you miss most on your travels
PETE: Our grandchildren
CHRIS: Our grandchildren
• What food did you miss the most
PETE: Rhubarb crumble. Can I say cheese as well…
CHRIS: Homemade, wholemeal bread.
• Where to next.
PETE: God laughs at those who make plans…
CHRIS: Cold Fell, Hallbankgate
We thought they might make a good conclusion to our blog which we have enjoyed writing but it is a bit of a relief that this is the last one! Thank you for reading it and the amazing support and encouragement we have received along the way. If you are passing through Hallbankgate (or even if you are not and need to make a 200 mile detour to get here) please call in. We can promise you lots of tea and unless you suffer from insomnia and need a cure we promise not to show you our 5,800 photographs.
Bye bye. Pete and Chris