Just 250km of cycling to cover in this update but since I spent so long in Bishkek (2.5 weeks!) I figured I should at least write something about the past few weeks.
So Bishkek was a fairly dull affair of parting with $200 in exchange for two visas ( Kazakhstan and China) and sitting around the guesthouse. A local travel agent named “Ms Liu” was necessary for the Chinese visa and arranges bogus itineraries, flights, hotels and letters of invitation. All quite handy really, but for $160 she doesn’t come cheap!
Beyond the visas Bishkek mainly consisted of sitting around Sakura Guesthouse killing time reading, watching movies and chatting with the many many backpackers and cyclists who pass through. Many are long-termers such as myself. Bishkek, although a dull enough city seems to hang on to foreigners easily enough as it’s a hub for visa applications and a good spot for going on several hikes in the mountains.
I met a good crowd of American, Canadian, Kiwi, Czech, Dutch and a host of other nationalities during my time there and spent many evenings drinking “Baltika” beer and going for burgers in an expat bar called “Metro”, or eating pancakes in a Western styled cafe called “Sierra”. After a couple of months in Central Asia, the allure of Western food was quite strong so the burgers became a daily excursion! At $7 a go they weren’t cheap, but absolutely worth it!
One evening on the way to the supermarket to re-stock on Baltika, five of us were accosted by some police. The encounter was hilarious! Without prior agreement, in unison we played out like the dumbest feckers in Kyrgyzstan while they tried to communicate with us. Despite two of the lads speaking reasonable Russian, and my own is decent enough that I understood perfectly everything the cops were saying, we just stared back with mighty poker faces. Through sheer ignorance and dumb acting we frustrated the cops to let us go after some hilarious charades on their part. This was my third encounter with the bent cops in Kyrgyzstan and as we all walked away, knowing what had happened James and I in Osh, we couldn’t stop grinning! The frustration on the cops’ faces was priceless – we reduced them to doing “me…Kyrgyz…..you?” gestures, and still no responses from us. They were fuming. Hehehe!
So aside from visas, beer, burgers and corrupt coppers, what kept me in Bishkek? Well, those following my Facebook page (www.Facebook.com/Dublin2Beijing2014), will know that my cycling chum, James Finnerty (121degrees.Wordpress.com) had to return to the UK after straining his groin while cycling from Osh to Bishkek. Despite attending the top clinic in Bishkek he wasn’t happy with the treatment and wasn’t sure of what was wrong and causing him pain, so he decided to fly home leaving his equipment in Bishkek. I agreed to hang around a few days for him to see what the story was. After a few days I went hiking in the mountains to give him a couple more days. The hike involved getting soaked, drinking a lot, and sleeping in my new “Bivi Bag”, which replaces my tent for camping. Getting hammered is not a good way to test such a device. Imagine waking up really hung over in a body bag in a thunderstorm. Not a great idea!
After the hike I received word from James that he’d be back in four more days, bringing my total time in Bishkek to 2.5 weeks. Ouch. A long time off the bike. Regardless, I was happy to spend the time waiting instead of pressing on to blitz across China solo. It’ll be difficult enough with the big miles without doing it alone. James turned up Monday morning at 5am and we hit the road on Tuesday.
The Kazakh border was just 20km from Bishkek and we crossed with little issue. While getting money from an ATM in Kazakhstan a guy got talking to James and invited us for lunch in his house. Sure why not?! “Baghdad” (I didn’t ask him how to spell his name) brought us back to his absolutely stunning house where his extended family were gathering for his mother’s 40 day anniversary. An unbelievable spread was put out including the head of a goat! The head was clearly seen as a delicacy as we were offered only small pieces of it, which we had to eat (it wasn’t great!) and the head was passed around for everyone to cut off a bit. Mad stuff! We were sent off with three big bags of food and a hearty goodbye. What hospitality!
The road quickly turned to semi-desert and we had a mighty headwind as we cycled north and over a 500m climb that rose kind of gradually, but on overly-rested legs it was tough going. We barely made our 80km goal and set up “camp” next to a new road. Our camp now just consists of the two bivi bags instead of tents. Neither of us enjoy setting up tents and since we’re cycling in mainly desert until 1000km or so before the end, we’re unlikely to see rain so the bivi bags seem a wise choice. Then it started raining! A feckin’ thunderstorm in the desert! Lightning was flashing all night and we were in our body bags hiding from the rain for hours! What a start to the final leg of the trip! We saw the light side of it though and were dry in the morning as the sun came up.
From our camp we plodded on heading East towards Almaty and the day was uneventful. After 100km we started looking for somewhere to camp again, but decent spots were few as the road got busier the nearer we got to Almaty. There was a lot of stagnant water and that means mosquitos. They seem to love my feet and I already had a load of bites healing up so wanted to avoid any more if possible. We found a massive tunnel/pipe under the road where animals pass under the road and camped there. It was a great spot and kept the bugs to a minimum, although I still picked up a load of bites. I’ve become a lot more chilled when it comes to camping wild and sleep pretty well at this point. I barely camped in Europe or Turkey, and when I had to I was always freaked about it. Now I don’t bat an eyelid at the thought of throwing my sleeping bag down anywhere and sleeping the night once I’m relatively well out of sight. Even when random people show up it doesn’t bother me. The previous night a lad was out for a jog and stopped for a chat at our camp. He was just curious about the two nutters sleeping in the desert with no tent!
So yesterday we had just 60km to get to Almaty. Again, not really eventful. A well serviced road with lots of people asking us where we’re from (ATKUDA!!!!??!!!!! shouted from all angles as usual). This stretch has been completely different to the first bit I did here 6 weeks ago. Not only because it’s not desert but much more prosperous and modern. There’s tarmac for a start! Almaty seems like a fairly decent city although we’re just here to register our visas, a process that’s a hangover from the Soviet Union. You have to register within five days of arriving in the country, but the office is closed on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Great!
So we’ll hit the road tomorrow, with just 400km to the Chinese border, we’re taking it easy and stopping in Charyn Canyon for a day before the race across China commences. I’m trying to keep Facebook as up to date as possible, but once I enter China it’s blocked so who knows if my updates will be regular or not!
Next time I update the blog I’ll be in China. I’ll have cycled from Ireland to China. Holy sh*t!