After we passed the Tajikistan border post and into Kyrgyzsytan we descended slowly down the Kizil Art pass, which was in a terrible state – muddy, rocky and steep. We had 20km or so of no-mans land before the Kyrgyzstan border post and, seeing as our Kyrgyzstan visas did not start until the next day, we planned to camp about 15km after the pass. It was fairly early – around 4pm – so when we saw a chaikana (tea house) at the bottom of the pass we decided to stop, in the hope that they might have something other than bread, butter and tea on offer. Not only were we disappointed in this – we got a miserly amount of tea and some rock hard bread to enjoy – the woman running the tea house took it upon herself to try and completely rip us off, asking for payment of 30 somoni (around $10). Not likely!! We were really irritated by this, especially as they had seemed very kind when we first arrived, so kind that in fact we had already given them a gift of some colouring pens. We felt like snatching the pens back! After an argument we ended up paying 20 somoni as that was all the change we had, still way way too much but we were sufficiently tired and fed up that we just wanted to get out of there. To be fair this was probably the first time in Central Asia – or indeed for a long time – that somebody had tried to so brazenly rip us off, but it was not a good welcome to Kyrgyzstan!
Anyway we got over it and cycled on down the valley, negotiating some boulder fields and having to push our bikes through at least one stream in the process – slow going. After a while we discovered Dean camped by the side of the road (he has a bright orange tent so is always easy to spot!) so stopped and camped with him. After an early, insufficiently satisfying (although it was all the food we had left) dinner of noodles and tomato sauce we had an early night, in anticipation of a long ride the next day to get to the chinese border.
Dean was even keener than we were to get going, and left really early while we were still sleeping. Despite having lost almost 1000m of height since the pass it was still a really cold night – Dean later said it was -7c when he got up. We were camped in a valley and were in the shade when we got up and got going, and so had a very very cold ride down to the Kyrgyzstan border, particularly when we had to get wet feet crossing a river running across the road, brrr! Entering into Kyrgyzstan proved to be fairly quick and straightforward, and we were soon on our way towards the first town, Sari Tash. We knew that this small town had at least a couple of guesthouses and cafes, as well as shops that would no doubt be much better supplied than those in Tajikistan due to the proximity of this area to the Chinese border, and so were excited about the prospect of getting a meal and some decent supplies in. Therefore it felt like a long 25km, especially as we could see the town in the distance the whole way, but it took a long time before it seemed to get any bigger.
Eventually we got there and with delight headed straight into a cafe. Here we ran into a problem – there had been no-one at the border to change money, so we blithely assumed it would be easy to do in Sari Tash, seeing as this is the closest town to the border. That’s how money exchange around borders usually works anyway. Not here – there was no official exchange place and we were told in the cafe that they would take Tajikistan money, but only at half the official exchange rate. “You have to go to Osh to get a better rate” they gleefully told us, knowing we had no alternative. Osh was 250km out of our way so we were hardly going to do that. Grudgingly we gave in and had an absolutely wonderful meal of 4 fried eggs, bread and tea each. We also bought some supplies such as decent pasta, apple juice, and more chocolate bars. Despite the rip-off exchange rate, it was thankfully still pretty cheap. We drank the apple juice almost straight away and it tasted wonderful after a month of bland flavoured food and drink.
By this time it was almost 11am, and we still had 80km to cycle on unknown terrain, so we headed off as soon as we could. We had previously heard that the road to the Irkeshtam pass (which marks the border with China) was in an absolutely terrible condition, so we were a little apprehensive about how long it would take us. It was Thursday, and we were well aware that the border closes at 3pm Chinese time – that’s 1pm Kyrgyzstan time – every day, and was liable to close early on a Friday before being shut for the entire weekend. The last thing we wanted was to get there too late on the Friday and to have to either wait there until Monday, or even worse return to Sari Tash, should there be no facilities at the border. So we were in a rush.
Thankfully it turns out that Chinese road crews have recently been upgrading the road, and the first 40km were racing track smooth tarmac, with very little traffic. Combined with stunning views of the mountains in Tajikistan that we had just left (including a view of nearby Pik Lenin, which stands at over 7100m), this made for unexpectedly good riding. The main downside was that the road gradually ascended, not steeply, but continuously, which doesn’t help when you are trying to go quickly. After around 40km we came to a junction where the new road could be seen to continue uphill, and the old unpaved continued straight on. We weren’t sure which way to go so asked a nearby Chinese worker. He insisted that to get to China we should continue on the new road, so much to our discontent we continued uphill, ascending another 300m or so. Much to our annoyance we realised near the top that we had been led on a bit – most traffic was sticking to the lower, flatter road, because the road we were on was still being constructed and it was not long before the tarmac ended and we had a bumpy, dusty downhill before we rejoined the old road. The next 20km of road was still to be upgraded and was in a terrible condition, making for some very slow going. The road was also very hilly, climbing the sides of ravines then descending again to cross rivers, then going back up again. However we persevered and were rewarded when by 5pm we found ourselves back on good tarmac, at the small village that we knew was just a few kilometres before the border. We passed the village and camped a couple of kilometres further on, in a nice meadow by the river. Although we had only spent a day in Kyrgyzstan (a very expensive day at that, seeing as we still had to get a visa at a cost of $110 each) we were really excited to be on the edge of China, which really seemed like a long way to have come on a bicycle!
The next morning were up early and at the border by a rather enthusiastic 8.15am; we had heard that it didn’t open till 9am but were rather hoping that was wrong (especially as we were starving and couldn’t wait to tuck into a good plate of noodles!); it wasn’t, but were able to clear customs and get right up to the gate with China just as it opened. There was a huge number of trucks queuing to cross the border, goodness knows how long they have to wait with the restricted opening hours of this border. Once in China some of the differences between it and Central Asia were immediately apparent; all the buildings were shiny, new and official, there were signposts telling us where to go and what to do, friendly officials to help us through the immigration process (which was very straightforward), and most importantly shops with all sorts of goodies in them and restaurants with decent food – civilization! We changed our remaining Tajikistan money with no difficulty, and immediately bought a load of food from the shop, including some tasty looking pot noodles. We sat and ate, then set off, again mindful of the time – we had lost 2 hours crossing the border so it was already nearly midday, and if we wanted to have any chance of covering the 230km to Kashgar by the following evening we had to get going.
We knew that we had over 2500m of height to lose between the border and Kashgar, so were looking forward to some giant downhills. However the road started off remarkably hilly, with as many ups as downs. The weather was also all of a sudden looking rather inclement – big steel grey clouds hung menacingly over us, keeping the temperature down and threatening rain. Unfortunately it wasn’t an idle threat, and after we had been riding for just a couple of hours a downpour started. We knew we would be camping that night as it was a long way to the first town, and really did not want to have to set up camp in the rain, while already wet. So although it was early we decided to set up camp, and spent the afternoon eating pot noodles (which are much better than the ones back home – absolutely delicious after our Central Asian diet!) and playing cards (the batteries on our normal forms of entertainment such as the laptop and Kindle had been dead for days). We couldn’t really complain as this was the first serious rain that we had had in months, but it wasn’t quite the glorious entry into China that we had envisaged. Because of the time change (which wasn’t really warranted, as we discuss later) it didn’t get dark until really late so we went to bed while it was still light. It was still raining and we were really worried we would have to pack up and cycle off in the wet – the remaining 200km that we had to Kashgar suddenly seemed a long way!
Thankfully by the morning the rain had stopped, although the air was still very damp, and the clouds were right above our heads threatening more rain. We cycled off feeling rather cold and damp, but by mid-morning the clouds had pulled back a bit and we were able to enjoy the stunning mountain scenery that we had been unable to see before. The ride was certainly hillier than we had anticipated, with one pass near the middle that entailed some 15km of climbing to get over, and lots of smaller ups and downs along the way. The area felt more remote than we had expected – indeed in the first couple of hours we didn’t see a single vehicle and only passed through one small town. It was also difficult for us to establish exactly where we were on the map, because all the roadsigns were in Chinese with no English whatsoever. But eventually the road started to descend and we were treated to a couple of long downhills before the road flattened out and we reached the town of Wuqia.
We had hoped to cycle all the way to Kashgar that day, but from Wuqia – which we reached at around 4pm – it was another 100km, and we were already feeling tired. So when we saw a sign advertising a hotel, with pictures of comfortable looking beds and clean bathrooms, we somehow found our bikes veering off the main road and into the town. It wasn’t as straightforward as we thought to find a hotel – it turned out there was only one in town that would take foreigners – but we found it in the end and for the princely sum of $15 got a nice room with, most importantly, a hot shower – our first actual shower in almost a month! Quite amusingly we ran into Dean at this point – it turned out he had done exactly the same as us, seeing the sign and deciding to stop rather than carry on. The power of advertising! After a well-earned long hot shower and a welcome change of clothes the three of us headed off for a celebratory meal. Wuqia is a small provincial town so there were no restaurants with menus in English, or even pinyin (Chinese written using our alphabet), or anybody that spoke English. So we opted to choose a restaurant then just let the staff decide what we should have. This proved to be a good tactic as we had a wonderful fondue-type meal(where you cook your own meat and noodles in different stocks in the middle of the table) – very tasty and filling, just what we needed. And all for around $6 each, including beer – China is one of the cheapest countries we have been to so far, which is great.
We then had an early night and a long sleep, just what we needed. The next morning we were quite revitalised and headed off in good spirits for Kashgar. We still had around 1000m of height to lose, but first we had a few kilometres of gentle uphill. After that though it was, quite literally, downhill all the way to Kashgar – this is what we had been looking forward to! As we descended the weather improved and the temperature increased so we were actually quite hot by the time we got to Kashgar. On reaching the city the first thing we did was stop at a cafe that we passed that was advertising treats such as an English breakfast, and treated ourselves to scrambled eggs on toast with decent coffe and a banana muffin – wonderful! After all the excitement of getting to Kashgar, we suddenly felt absolutely exhausted and it was hard work finding a hotel. We ended up at a hotel called the Hotel Eden which was shiny and new, and very reasonably priced. The rooms were big and comfortable so it was great to be able to empty out all our panniers, sort everything out, and get some long-overdue laundry done, and generally relax.
Kashgar is a nice city with an attractive old town, and a vibrant and buzzing new town. There is a strong tourist scene, so there are plenty of western comforts such as western food, nice bars etc – good for a treat or two after the trials of Central Asia. One of the main goals of our time here was to organize our onward travel, which I should just explain. Our original plan from Kashgar was to cycle down the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan, then across India and into SE Asia that way (although we would have to fly over Myanmar as it is not possible to go through it and very difficult to go round it). However, what with the flooding in Pakistan (combined with a large flood earlier in the year on the KKH itself, which had pretty much closed the highway itself and meant that travelling down the KKH meant somehow getting over the lake by boat or over it by helicopter, which could prove to be difficult with bicycles) it was looking like an increasingly bad option to go this way. The UK foreign office was advising against all but essential travel, or against all travel full stop, to everywhere that we would be going in Pakistan (which included the notorious Swat valley in the contested North-West Frontier, areas that we were worried about going through anyway). This level of advice from the FO would essentially invalidate our travel insurance if anything did happen, and all in all Pakistan was not sounding like a fun place to visit at this time.
So we came up with Plan B, which was to continue on across China, and cross overland into Vietnam. That was great as there is absolutely loads to see and do in China, but presented some practical difficulties. China is huge, and we only had a one month visa; apparently it is straightforward enough to get this extended once, but twice could be very difficult. Plus western China is notoriuosly challenging for cyclists – to the south there are large areas such as Tibet that you cannot cycle through without a guide (which is expensive), and to the north there is the large Taklamakan desert to cycle around, with entails at least a couple of thousand kilometres of riding essentially in the middle of nowhere. Plus there are several cities that foreigners are not allowed in (those that are close to the nuclear testing facilities in the desert), and where being caught could result in at best a heavy fine, at worst deportation back to the UK. Because of this, we decided that the time we had available would best be spent in Eastern China, where we would get to visit cities such as Beijing, Xi’an (for the Terracotta army), Chengdu (giant pandas) and Kunming, as well as cycling through amazing mountainous scenery in western Sichuan, on the edge of Tibet – overall the distance we will cycle will remain very similar but we will lose the continuous line on the map.
So we decided to get ourselves first to Beijing, which we were very keen to see, and then down to Xi’an, from where we would cycle to Vietnam (cycling all the way from Beijing to Vietnam is over 5000km, too long for the time availabe; from Xi’an it is 3000km which is do-able). We wanted to take the train all the way, and so we went to the train booking office in Kashgar to try and book a train to Beijing. This proved to be more difficult than expected. Trains in China cover just about the whole country, are cheap and fast, and are therefore very popular – according to Lonely Planet, at any one time there are 10 million people on Chinese trains – crazy! So buying a ticket is not always easy, especially as we were approaching the 1 October holiday, when the whole country has a week-long holiday. We queued for almost two hours to buy a ticket, only for the ticket office to close for a 2 hour lunch break! Fed up, we headed to John’s cafe, which is run by a knowledgeable Chinese guy (John) and offers travel information. He told us it would take 4 days to go by train, and that our bikes would probably have to go on a different train, arriving several days after us. We didn’t like the sound of being separated from our bikes on such a long journey, so we looked into flying; this turned out to cost the same as the train (but only takes 4 hours), and surprisingly to be much easier to book (one phonecall by John was all it took, we didn’t have to do anything). As much as we wanted to go overland the whole way, in this case it just didn’t make sense to do that.
So we booked our flight for two days later, and in the meantime ran around sorting some things out. Our much loved netbook sadly died during our time in Kashgar – probably not that surprising considering that it was second hand to start with, and had endured much rough treatment – and so Pete took it to a computer shop to get it fixed. This involved reloading Windows, which is now all in Chinese! Thankfully it was cheap and quick to fix, and as we keep everything backed up on an external hard drive, so it wasn’t not too much of a problem. Christine spent some time on very expensive phone calls to our bank – despite having told them already that we are visiting China they blocked our cards. Even more annoyingly, internet banking and Verified by Visa (used for online shopping) do not work over here – apparently Alliance and Leicester’s internet banking team do not consider the internet anywhere in China to be secure! Very helpful, considering this is one of the world’s biggest countries.
We also dropped off our laundry at a laundrette, which resulted in an interesting time-zone-confusion situation, which is quite common in this part of the world. For some reason China insists on only using one time zone, although it’s size means it merits at least 3. The whole country officially uses Beijing time, but over in Kashgar in far western China, this is two hours out of whack with the sun. So locals use both Beijing time (for official purposes such as bank opening hours) and local time (for everything else). This makes it difficult for anybody that works say, for a bank or a government office, as they have to start work at 9am Beijing time, even though that is 7am local time and it is pitch black outside. It is doubly confusing for tourists who have to establish what time is used for say the timing of the hotel breakfast (which is local time), or the time of their train (Beijing time). When we dropped off our laundry they told us to come back at 9am the next morning; they couldn’t do it any faster. Dean was due to leave for the airport to fly to Xi’an at 10am so this was cutting it fine, but we figured it would be fine. It was only later on in the day though that we suddenly realized that the laundretter operated on local time, but the flight was Beijing time, so picking up the laundry at 11am Beijing time would be too late for Dean. We went back and managed to get them to get it done by that evening, which was a good thing otherwise Dean would have had to head off minus his clothes!
Finally we were also able to catch up with Ian, who was in a conundrum over whether to try and cycle through China, to attempt the KKH, or to do what we were doing and get ourselves over to eastern China before cycling again. In the end he decided to cycle around the south of the Taklamakan desert, although from what he says in his emails he is not having that good a time of it (very long way, very boring, poor weather) so we are glad we made the decision we did to head to Beijing, which turned out to be a wonderful place to visit – see our next post for our update on that!