We arrived in Bishkek with one goal in mind; Chinese visas in our passports. There were never any doubts in our mind that we would achieve this – Bishkek is noted on caravanistan.com (a font of all knowledge about Central Asia) as being the easiest place to get Chinese visas in the region. Little did we know that it was going to be the hardest visa to obtain for us yet!
The day after the week long holiday for Chinese New Year, we presented ourselves at one of the visa agencies bright and early, submitted our documents and were told to come to the Chinese embassy at 9am the next morning for an interview. Interview? We weren’t expecting this but weren’t too fazed. I washed my hair, Steven brushed his beard, we put on our least dirty clothes and off we went.
At the embassy there was a scrum of people outside. Whenever the security guard came out, the heaving mass surged towards the door expectantly and subsided as he went away again. Luckily we had a “fixer” who we stuck to like glue and when he was ushered inside we snuck in after him. We were directed to some seats and there we sat for over an hour watching the fixers, who knew everyone and bustled around with huge stacks of passports and visa application forms. We had no clue what was happening but assumed we would be told what to do and so waited patiently. Eventually our fixer came up to us with his mobile phone and motioned for Steven to take it. Our agency lady was on the other end. “You have had your interview, you may leave.” We were a little surprised as we hadn’t spoken to anyone but guessed that perhaps they had decided without an interview (i.e. taken one look at Steven’s bushy beard and decided that he was the type of person that should not be let anywhere near China!)
We waited, unconcernedly, for two days. Then we received a text from the agency. “Your visas have been refused. Come and see me as soon as possible.” WHAT??? This was not part of the plan. It was up there with our discovery that we could no longer travel through Iran and our bikes breaking in the Kazakh desert. Having hurried over to the agency office, we were told that no tourist visas were being issued currently in Bishkek, not even for Kyrgyz passport holders. There were no indications why or how long this situation would last. This was a potentially devastating blow for us.
Over the next week we considered our options over and over again. All the while, we hoped that the situation in Bishkek might resolve itself and we would be relieved from making a tough decision. Our thoughts swung wildly from flying to Seoul and cycling through South Korea and Japan or flying to India and trying to cycle across it and Myanmar before hitting South East Asia.
Luckily, Bishkek is the perfect place to be stranded when faced with such a dilemma. Well, the most perfect place we’ve come across in Central Asia anyway. First and foremost, we were fortunate enough to stay with Nathan and Angie; possibly the best hosts ever. Their house is a haven for weary cyclists and we loved the two and a half weeks we spent living there. Amir (cycletheline) and Antoine (wheelbeback); two French cyclists were also there in the same position as us. It was great to share stories about where we have been and future plans.
A huge highlight was the discovery of Sierra; a Kiwi owned and operated coffee shop in Bishkek of all places! Spending a couple of hours in there with a flat white and a cheese toastie became a daily ritual that we were reluctant to part with when we finally came to leave.
We also finally caught up with Carmen and Joe (londontomalaysia); a couple we have been chasing since we heard about them from a Warm Showers host in Turkey. They had taken a similar route to us but had stopped in Bishkek for the winter to teach English. We managed to share more than a few of the cheapest beers of our journey so far with them whilst reminiscing about the Caspian Sea voyage, the extreme weather in the desert and the Georgian wine… Good times!
Bishkek as a city is not that interesting. There are no must-see sights unless you are particularly fond of Soviet era statues. What it has got going for it is being surrounded by natural beauty in abundance within a stone’s throw from the city centre. We spent one sunny Sunday out hiking with the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan up through a snow-covered valley into the wilderness. I can only imagine how fantastic it would be to come here in the summer and be able to explore this beautiful country properly.
In spite of the great time we were having, still in the front of minds we knew we were stuck and no easy option was presenting itself. Having convinced ourselves that we would fly somewhere else and continue cycling we both woke up one morning really cross with the whole situation and how easily our whole plan could be thwarted. We resolved that we would get our visas and cycle to China – we weren’t going to give up without a fight!
Of our two options for a visa run, London or Hong Kong, we opted for Hong Kong based on the fact that we had never been and it sounded like fun, plus it seemed a visa was almost guaranteed there. Our minds made up, we booked a flight on the Internet for the next day heading to Hong Kong via Dubai. Later that afternoon as we were packing our stuff ready to leave, I noticed the status of our flights were showing as “cancelled by the airline” when I checked on the Internet. A few messages to my brother in the UK and he was on the case, speaking to the booking agent, Opodo and both airlines we were due to be flying with. Two hours later and incredibly frustrated, he Skyped us. It transpired that our flights had been cancelled due to the fact that someone (unnamed) thought we needed an Umrah visa to travel on the flight from Bishkek to Dubai (which it turned out we didn’t) and it was now too late to guarantee that we would get confirmation of flights before the first flight was due to leave!
We gave up on those flights and the next morning headed to a travel agent in town to book in person. It turned out nothing was straightforward in our quest for these visas as none of our three credit cards would work when we tried to pay for the tickets. I ended up being held as collateral by the travel agent while Steven rushed frantically from one end of the town to another with our debit cards attempting to withdraw enough US dollars to pay for the flights. I was quite happy – they fed me tea and cake while I waited. Steven turned up an hour later with the cash and the tickets were finally in our hands.
Leaving sub zero Bishkek and flying to the desert of Dubai followed by the jungle-clad hills of Hong Kong was a shock to the system in more ways than one. It was amazing to be able to wear just a t-shirt out rather than multiple layers of thermal clothing. Everywhere was bustling in a way we haven’t experienced since Istanbul. There were more Starbucks and McDonalds than I have ever seen in my life in such close proximity. We were awed by the sheer number and size of the skyscrapers huddled close together, surprised by the lush, verdant forest extending down from Victoria Peak into the concrete jungle, delighted by the simple pleasure of taking the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour and excited by the daily six hour happy hour that saw crowds of revellers spilling out onto the streets of Soho every evening.
And the visa? When it finally came down to it that part was simple. We filled out the form, paid the money and it was ready the next day. Keep reading to find out whether China was worth all the hassle!