Leaving Bishkek was much harder than we had expected, not because the cycling was difficult (in fact the cycling was quite pleasant for a city), but because we had made such good friends in our time there. It is one of the rubbish things about travelling, the saying goodbye with the very real possibility that you will never see each other again. Thankfully we knew we had to deal with a border and a 1200m pass, both of which have the ability to focus the mind on the job at hand and allow feelings of nostalgia to seep away into the sub-conscious.
The border was passed with relative ease; being on bicycles and having picked up a few tricks at the last few Central Asian border crossings (i.e. being well mannered towards anyone other than the actual guards doesn’t get you anywhere) we chose the vehicle lane (as the pedestrian lane was chaos), sneakily crept in front of the waiting cars, waved and smiled at the tooting aggression and proceeded to charm the border guards with the age old conversation about Manchester United and Wayne Rooney. With that behind us, and Kazakhstan again stretching out in front of us (being the largest land-locked country it tends to stretch out quite a way) it was time to turn our attention to the 1,200m pass that we had to get over before dusk if we wanted to have a reasonably warm night. Unlike the border, the pass was not relatively easy! I would go as far to say that it was incredibly difficult.
With almost four weeks off the bike, including a rather indulgent trip to Hong Kong, our bodies were not at all used to the punishment and it took a mighty effort to reach the plateau before beginning the decent down towards a warmer evening. At one point near the plateau, with our blood sugar crashing quicker than our motivation and our minds digging at our sub-conscious to find remnants of our beloved Bishkek home from home, we came across two ladies posing for ridiculous photos in front of giant wind turbines. This lifted our spirits no end. What on earth were they doing that for… were they mad? As we came closer they moved aside and then started giving us giant “WOOP WOOP”s, fist pumping, and yelling “good luck!” ABSOLUTLEY AMAZING! There we were thinking how ridiculous they looked, and there they were giving us all sorts of encouragement. We felt a little bad for our initial thoughts, but there is no doubt that their encouragement lit the fire and we cycled on stronger than we had been all day.
Still buzzing, we crested the edge of the plateau and began plummeting down the other side at dizzying speeds. This caused toes, fingers, nose and ears to freeze; but for that moment in our space-time continuum we didn’t care. We were back on the bikes and we were happy beyond words!
Finding a campsite in Kazakhstan could not be easier. Having descended for what seemed like an age, we pulled off the road, followed a cross country track for a short while and found ourselves completely isolated on a beautiful moor with majestic mountains playing the role of the perfect backdrop. Moments earlier, when flying down the hill in a state of euphoria we definitely felt as if we were back; well it took just five minutes of trying to put the tent up on the blustery moor to realise that although we were back on the bike, we had a long way to go to be back to where we were before we got off the bike. Eventually the tent went up and we were able to cook up a “meal” and sit with the doors open to enjoy the epic scenery, which improved dramatically as the darkness enveloped the land and the stars began to twinkle in this vast landscape devoid of light pollution. Truly epic memories!
When the sun broke over the top of the mountains and beamed down on us in the morning it was a wonderful feeling; wonderful to be back on track with the chance of completing our journey, wonderful to be out in the wild enjoying life, but most of all it was wonderful (and astonishing) to realise how incredibly resilient the body is. After weeks off the bike and quite an abusive day in the saddle the previous day the bodies did not ache one bit (save for a sore tooth that I had). We felt strong for the challenge of cycling across Kazakhstan and meeting our self imposed deadline with the Chinese border.
The next day and a half into Almaty flew by as we enjoyed the mountain scenery, the random camels on the side of the road and yet another breathtakingly beautiful camping location. What we did not enjoy was the pain that was emanating from a sore tooth in my mouth. I did not enjoy the pain. Katie did not enjoy the complaining! The original plan was to cycle straight through Almaty and head out onto the endless steppe, but the pain put a halt to that. We checked ourselves into the same hotel (not wanting to burden anyone with a grumpy, sick patient) that we had visited on our bicycle repair dash in January and waited for the time when we could go to the dentist. It was not a complete waste of time as we got to watch Guptill tear into the once proud Windies bowling attack and plunder 237 glorious runs to put New Zealand in the semi-final of the Cricket World Cup.
I would be lying if I said I did not enjoy the trip to the dentist, but all good things must come to an end and with the sun still shining on our travels we breezed out of Almaty early on a Sunday morning when the traffic was thin. The traffic did not stay thin for long as our departure coincided with the Nauryz celebrations, which was not a good thing. The driving in Central Asia (although nothing on Georgia) has been pretty bad, made worse by the state of the roads. It is in stark contrast to the people. Sane, generous, kind people become monsters on the road here… suffice to say, the day was long and slow as we spent a lot of time bailing off onto the non-existent hard shoulder to let the maniacs have their way. Thankfully, as has always been the case on our third stay in Kazakhstan the camping was easy and stunning.
The following day took us off the steppe we had been cycling on, through the Kokpek gorge and up onto a desert plateau; I know it is getting a bit repetitive, but… once again the scenery in Kazakhstan was genuinely breath taking. I think that this small corner of Kazakhstan is the most picturesque area we have been in; possibly on the entire journey. Unfortunately the mad drivers were still out in force, presumably returning from their Nauryz celebrations. It is strange, because the thing I remember the most of this particular day is not the scenery, or the drivers but how the gorge played tricks on our minds and our perception; so much so it makes me feel slightly nauseous just thinking of it now. To be honest, the same thing happened on our first day out in the Uzbekistan desert, but I didn’t want to write about it because I actually thought I had lost my mind. However, having read other cycling blogs since those dark days in the cold desert I have come to accept that this is just a phenomenon, perhaps only associated with the turtle like progress of a cycle tourist on a slightly inclining gradient.
As we entered the Kokpek gorge we were expecting to start a long slow descent off the peak we had been caressed up all morning by a mighty tail wind. But our speed dropped to a painstakingly slow 7km/h and for the life of us we could not work it out. All our perceptions were telling us that we were indeed heading down hill, our memory of Google maps had told us we should expect a downhill, yet we were still doing 7km/h. To make matters worse the wind had died away completely and we were now being slow cooked by the midday sun. At one point I actually got off the bike and checked the metal studs of our winter tyres to make sure they weren’t getting bogged down in melting tar. Finally, after the best part of two hours struggling with the slowness of cycling, and struggling with our brains perception of what was going on Katie pointed out that a stream that had joined us next to the road was indeed flowing (quite aggressively) in the opposite direction to our travel. This prompted me to check the GPS and we had in fact climbed a ludicrous amount through the gorge. At least it was comforting to know that we weren’t heading down hill at 7km/h (and the tyres weren’t sticking in the tar). To this day we still don’t know why our brains were processing the uphill as a downhill, but at least we are not alone in this madness.
The day ended with yet another ridiculously epic campsite; stars, silhouetted mountains, not a person within 30km, and shooting stars… it can be a tough life this cycle touring.
Waking in a desert usually occurs when the sun hits the tent, but on this occasion I was jolted awake by the side of the tent being thrust into my head. How strange I thought. Not so strange when I peered outside to be blasted by a howling gale. Thankfully, it was from the correct direction for cycling, so up we got and off we went, knowing that if we were lucky it would push us the final 140km to Zharkent and a hotel for the evening, before heading on towards China, and the real unknown. Zharkent appeared on the horizon in record time thanks to our good friend the tail wind and after turning our nose up at one establishment we settled on a nice hotel for our penultimate night in Central Asia. We arrived just in time to see the Hairy Javelin throw his bat at a good length delivery, choking off the South African Cricket World Cup dream and keeping the Kiwi dream alive (albeit for only a few days). I think it would be safe to say that I consumed exactly one too many celebratory beers that evening and thanked my lucky stars that the last cycling day in Central Asia did not have to start until the late afternoon and was only 40km.
Our final night in Central Asia was spent in our beloved tent, opposite a petrol station, consuming Kit Kat ice creams, chatting to the many truck drivers waiting patiently at the border, replacing worn drive-chains, gazing out at super imposing mountains, and wondering if the flight to Hong Kong had been a waste of time. It was completely possible that the border would be “closed to cyclists” and that China was not “open for business”. A restless night calculating many permutations ensued and when the sun finally arrived we were ready at the border (with what seemed like the rest of Kazakhstan).
The border on the Kazakhstan side was a complete and utter shambles and highlighted all of the good and bad things we now associate with Central Asia.
On the bad side… queues do not exist in this part of the world, it is more of an unordered scrum of burly, overly aggressive loud men (and very, very grumpy women) pushing, shoving and fighting for position. We have learnt the hard way that the loudest, most aggressive always wins the scrum battle. We very rarely lose this battle anymore. The final border of Central Asia is testament to what we have learnt. We were let through the first three sets of gates first, much to the displeasure of all concerned (except us). They couldn’t really fathom how someone as small as Katie could keep winning the fight, which I found incredibly amusing.
On the good side… everyone, once the scrum battle had been decided could not have been more helpful; often offering to push or lift Katie’s bike, pointing us in the right direction, and when it came to the fourth and final gate (two hours after entering the first gate) they moved aside letting the strange foreigners through… possibly in recognition of our undefeated record at the previous three gates.
Being stamped out of Kazakhstan was a relief; finally we had made it across Central Asia. We were still none the wiser if we would be let into China, but we were out of Kazakhstan and had the infamous 7km loop in “no mans land” to traverse before (hopefully) starting The China Challenge*.
* The China Challenge…
When we first planned our journey we were expecting to get a 90-day visa for China. This however has changed in the past couple of years and getting a 90 day visa from anywhere outside of your own country is basically impossible. What you do get is a 30-day tourist visa, which you can renew once for another 30 days. The renewing of this visa can take up to four days, so in essence you get a 26-day visa and a 30-day visa to cross what is an absolutely massive country.
We have set the following priorities:
- Cycle the entire way with no public transport;
- See the Great Wall;
- See the Pandas;
- Avoid the cold (we now hate cycling in the cold with an unabated passion), which basically means we need to try to avoid the Tibetan plateau;
- Everything else is a bonus.
With the above priorities in mind, our plan of attack is to cycle (on average) 100km every day we cycle. We want to take a day off to see the Great Wall and a day off to see the Pandas. The Great Wall is in the first stretch, which we are hoping will be from Khorgas (border with Kazakhstan) to Lanzhou; the Pandas will probably be in Chengdu in the second stretch from Lanzhou to Laos. Every day we do over 100km we can bank the kms and earn extra days off, and obviously every day we don’t reach our target means we use banked kms. We think the first stretch is further in terms of kms but the second stretch will be far more mountainous so this is likely to be the tougher of the two sections.
We know of a small number of people who have managed the feat of cycling the whole way on two 30-day tourist visas and we are hoping to join this elite group of cycling heroes (in our minds anyway!).