About Bloody Time!

After much delay, hassle, and a total of six visits to the Chinese embassy, I finally got a Chinese visa! Only 30 days, but still, it’s enough for a start. Queued for four hours the first time, got within two feet of the window before they closed. The second time I got some assistance from the crowd, and only queued for 3.5 hours, before getting a visa.

As soon as I got the visa I started heading to the border, to find…the border is closed on Sunday. A major international border, between two large countries, and of course it’s closed on Sundays. Ok…back the next day, get processed through Kazakh customs. Takes a while, I’m in the Chinese queue – should have gone in the Kazakh line. Finally get through, get the stamp. No questions about lack of OVIR registration.

So finally I can enter China, right? Not quite…one last delay…it’s now 11:00, so of course customs is closed for two hours for lunch. Once it opens, can I ride across the 800m between customs posts? No, I have to wait another hour, and pay $3 for a bus. What a scam.

When I finally get to Chinese customs, it’s an absolute breeze. No hassles, very quick, no search for contraband – e.g. maps showing Taiwan in a different colour. Just a couple of forms, and I’m in China!

What a difference too – sometimes it takes a while to notice a new country, but not this time – wham! you’re in China. Total difference. Crappy small roads, with a few shepherds have gone – now I’m in a big city, cars/people everywhere, big city in the middle of nowhere.

I’ve now made it to Kuytun, around 250km west of Urumqi. Great smooth roads, although long ways between towns in this part of China. I’m quite enjoying China, everyone is very nice, and hotels are good and cheap. The first shop I stopped at, they told me to wait, after buying some supplies – and then the husband came out, with some fruit he’d gone and gotten for me. Later I stopped at a service station in the middle of nowhere, and they came up with a guestbook, which a cyclist had written in a few years back. I was asked to add something, and I had photos with the staff.

A bit of fun sometimes trying to work out exactly is in the various packages of snacks I’m buying, but no worries, it’s all an experience right? Long way to go though, the kilometre markers started at over 4800, counting down – I guess to Tiannamen Square? We’ll see, I think I’m following the same road for a very long way. Urumqi in a couple of days, time for a rest there.

Milestones, and more headaches

Just a few quick notes – I have finally gotten moving again, but only for a short while – I am thwarted in the hunt for a Chinese visa again. But more on that below.

There was a rumour going around Nomad’s that the Kyrgyz/Kazakh border would be closed for a few days, due to the SCO summit taking place. I decided to head for the border anyway, since it was only 20km away. Passed through there absolutely no problem at all, the only delay was stopping to talk to a young guy who wanted to practise some English. I didn’t fill in any customs form, hopefully that’s no problem when leaving. All foot passengers were going through a hall with lots of people and X-ray machines, but I just went to the booth that was processing cars and drivers. No hassles, no bribes, no problems. I have decided not to register with OVIR, as there is some indication I don’t have to – but I’ll have $20 on me for a bribe when I leave, just in case. Besides, the OVIR office was closed on Thursday (of course!).

I have now passed two milestones – today marks six months on the road, and on my first day out from Bishkek, I passed 10,000km. A very long way. So I stopped for a celebration of some peanut M&Ms, and a swig of water…but not too much, I was down to my last 200mL. Then back on the bike, and turning the cranks again. Not even halfway yet.

The land-use patterns changed dramatically just over the border. Gone were all the little villages, and fields full of people cultivating vegetables, etc. Instead there are almost no houses, and vast fields, with no fences or buildings – just the odd mechanical harvester. Very strange, and means I have to take more care with planning my water, as there were few options available.

Made it to Almaty, not much in the way of good, cheap places to stay here. But I’ve got somewhere that is acceptable (just, paying extra for the shower is a bit rough). The city feels very modern, probably the most modern city I’ve been in since Vienna. I even found a supermarket with a large selection of current English-language books and newspapers. There is a downside to all this modernity though, as I found out when I was wandering the streets at 9:30pm on Wednesday, trying to find a bottle of water. I’m used to places where there are always shops open, kiosks, etc, are everywhere. Any time, any place they think they might be able to sell something. I’ve forgotten how to survive in the modern urban jungle, how to deal with limited opening hours. I’m sure I’ll get back into it.

But the city seems nice enough, and it now looks like I may be here longer than I planned. My plan was to try and get a Chinese visa, using a travel agency if needed. The Chinese embassy was no longer at the address I had gotten online (and via the LP), so I tried a travel agency. They told me that very recently the Chinese embassy has started insisting on a letter of employment, proving I live/work in Almaty. Other travel agencies have told me the same thing. They told me to try and plead my case with the Chinese consul.

They did provide me with the new address of the Chinese embassy, so I went up there. They were closed Thursday (of course they were!), so I went back on Friday morning. Opening hours are 9:00-12:00, so I got there at 8:00. Hmmm, no-one here yet, cool, only wait an hour…wait what does this notice stuck on the door in Russian say? As I’m just getting the gist of it, someone with excellent English comes over to confirm what I’ve guessed – the embassy is closed all week. Grrrrrr….

So I can’t even find out if they will issue me a visa or not, until Monday. No doubt things will be a zoo on Monday, since they’ve been closed for a week. Have to go down there extra early. If they can’t/won’t issue me a visa, I’m not quite sure what to do. Potentially I could get a train or flight to Astana, the new capital, and try there. If I can’t get a visa issued anywhere in Kazakhstan, I’ll need to go somewhere else – back to Bishkek? Or fly to Uzbekistan…but then I have to wait two weeks to get a visa for there…or fly to Hong Kong, where all visas are simple? Not cheap to do that.

So now, staying an extra week in Bishkek and paying $100 doesn’t seem like quite such a bad option after all. I could go back to Bishkek, but then would need either a new visa to come back through here, or I could go direct to China. Don’t really want to do that though. I think I will stay here until Monday, go to the Chinese embassy very early, then make a decision based on what happens there.

One bright spot – Ramstor has copies of the new Harry Potter book, but it costs 5600KZT – about $45US. Not quite sure if I want to pay that or not, especially since I don’t have any other travellers here to swap books with. Don’t want to spend that much, then just leave it sitting in a dodgy hotel room, probably to be thrown away.

Go north, young man

This was how the conversation was going with Alex, a Hungarian I met in Bukhara. And so I am going north, via Kazakhstan to China, rather than via Tajikistan. I will miss out Kashgar, but I will see Urumqi.

“I’m 56 years old. I’m no longer scared of anything. I’ve seen enough. Death? No, I’m not scared of that. War, murder, hate, I’ve seen enough of it all. I look into your eyes and I don’t think you’re scared of anything either”

Now this is somewhat disturbing to me. It could be that I’m well on my way to developing the Thousand Yard Stare. If I can find an Internet Cafe that will let me upload some photos, I’ll try and upload the picture I took when I came out of the desert in Turkmenistan, after covering far too much distance without a break.

But different people seem to see different things in my eyes, or so they tell me. I’ve had people say they know I will make it home OK, they “can see it in my eyes.” I’ve also had women describe them as “magnetic.” Hmmm, all a bit much.

But enough of that, for Alex was a very interesting man. We had a long, wide-ranging geopolitical discussion, covering many topics. He currently lives in Almaty, and he strongly recommended that I visit Almaty (“Go north, young man”). I had been thinking for a while that I didn’t feel like going through Tajikistan, and I had recently met three other cyclists all going via Almaty. So I decided, why not? One of the nice things about what I’m doing is being able to change my plans, to take a 1,000km detour if I feel like it.

So I’m going to spend quite a bit more time in Kyrgyzstan, making my way from Osh to Bishkek, and then looping around Issyk-Kul. Hopefully the bit higher elevation will lower the temperatures a little, and from what I’ve seen, it should be all grass-covered valleys, washing in melted-glacier streams, and sleeping in felt yurts with nomad families. Or something like that. I hear there’s also some good bars in Bishkek too…

When I loop back to Bishkek, I’ll go up to Almaty, and then across to Korgas on the Chinese border. North of the Tien Shan range, and along to Urumqi, before coming south a little to rejoin my original planned route east. Of course, things could always change again, but probably not too much for the next month – visas are a pain.