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.

Almost ready to move again!

Quick post for some good news – my replacement barbag turned up yesterday, and my Kazakh visa was processed no problems. This means that I can get moving again! My Kazakh visa starts on the 14th, so the plan is to leave here on the 14th, hopefully get to Almaty in 2 days, and then get my Chinese visa sorted out the same week, and keep moving towards China. Will go for a 2-3 day easy loop ride for the next couple of days, try and get back into shape.

Must also make a special mention of the Pizza Party we had at Nomad’s last night. Emilie did the organisation, I just ate pizza. I don’t think I ever thought I would be having a pizza party in Bishkek, but there you go.

Pizza Party at Nomads

I’ve also uploaded a few photos of Kyrgzstan, will add a couple more from my loop to Ala-Archa in a little while.

Questions on my mind, and progress

Progress is being made! I now have a New Zealand passport, with a Kyrgyz visa valid until 2/9/07, so I am legal in this country. The Kazakh embassy accepted my application for a Kazakh tourist visa, starting 14/8/07. I should get that back on the 9th. I then only need to get a Chinese visa, and after talking to a Dutchman standing in line at the Kazakh embassy, it turns out I can get one quite quickly using a travel agency in Almaty. This means that if I have any problems getting a Chinese visa here, it should be no problem getting one in Kazakhstan. Almaty is expensive, but stopping just a few days to get the visa is OK.

The upshot of all this is that I can get moving again next week! Things will no doubt be a bit tough the first few days, after doing hardly any riding in the last few weeks. Since Tashkent there has been a lot of time hanging around, waiting for visas/parts/packages/whatever. I’m still waiting for my new barbag to get delivered here, I can only hope for the best. Although I am enjoying meeting lots of other travellers in Bishkek, I’m also looking forward to being back on the road, and heading to a new country.

For something different, here’s some of the random questions/thoughts that go through my head these days:

  • Can anybody explain to me the popularity of fishing vests, like these, that I seem to see people wearing everywhere – mainly not when fishing.
  • In a similar vein, camouflage clothing – I frequently see people dressed fully in camouflage clothing. For soldiers this is fine, but most of them don’t look like soldiers. My theory is that the Kyrgyz army kicked out a whole lot of Russians, but let them keep their clothes.
  • Why does a 500mL bottle of vodka cost only a little bit more than a 500mL bottle of beer? E.g. a beer might cost 30 som (~$0.75), while a bottle of vodka costs 40 som (~$1). No wonder they’re all drunk on vodka
  • Interestingly enough, Kyrgyz people seem relatively time-conscious (contrast with the Middle East, where time is irrelevant). But none of them wear watches. As a result, I am asked what the time is at least once per day. Yes, that’s right, I do still wear a watch. Handy to know what the date is in these countries, with visas to think about.
  • The National Museum in Bishkek is rather disturbing – a whole floor is devoted to Lenin. It’s just weird walking around, looking at every book Lenin ever wrote, in every languauge it was translated into. On the ground floor was a cordoned-off section where they had a large carpet with a portrait of Stalin. I think that they never took it all that seriously in the past, so they don’t take it too seriously now. I would have loved a picture, but they were charging an extra 2 euros to take photos.

I had also been wondering about why all of Bishkek seemed to being painted/renovated/re-paved/etc. I thought maybe the Bishkekis just liked doing maintenance in the summer – but it turns out that it’s for the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which is holding a summit here. There was talk of restrictions on movement, and more police and passport checks, but so far there doesn’t seem to be much difference. Hope it stays that way, I’ve had enough of passport checks by illiterate policemen in Uzbekistan.

Anyways, another week in this town, then on the road again! Maybe. We’ll see how it goes with visas, and at the Family Medical Clinic tomorrow (nothing major, just ongoing stomach problems).

Persona Grata

The physical entity known as Lindsay Hill is now a legal entity once more! Yesterday morning I collected my replacement passport from the British Consul here in Bishkek. I only held it in my hands for half an hour, as I then had to go and hand it in to the Kyrgyz Consular Service, to get a replacement Kyrgyz visa. That takes 1 week, or 3 days if you pay double ($72). They got me to write a letter explaining why I wanted a new visa – reasonably obvious with my blank passport, and police report, but form must be followed.

All going well, I will be able to pick that up on Friday morning, and race out to the Kazakh embassy, and try and hand my application in. It’s a bit of a mess there, and it took me over an hour yesterday just to get through the queue to get an application form. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t have my passport. Luckily some English/Russian speakers helped a bit, but the guard was still an idiot, and couldn’t really work it out. But now at least I can pay the money to the bank in the next few days, and get the form filled in, so that when I go there, it will just be a matter of fighting through the queue, and getting my application handed in.

I then need to try and get a Chinese visa too – no idea how long that will take. I think it will probably take me up to two weeks to get things sorted out, and then I can get back on the road, heading to Kazakhstan. At least one bright spot is that it seems that the Kazakhs will give me a full tourist visa here, unlike the short transit visa I got in Tashkent. Of course, nothing certain there until I actually have the sticker in my passport.

I spent 9 days riding from Bishkek up to Issyk-Kul, and doing a loop around the lake, before coming back to Bishkek. All very pleasant, except for the main road, at least as far as the Torugart turnoff – it’s very busy, especially on a Sunday, and the road quality is variable, sometimes quite narrow. You get pushed off the road into the gravel a few times. Kyrgyz drivers don’t really understand the power and danger of speeding vehicles. At least another two decades to get any sort of cultural education of good driving I think.

The southern side of the lake was nicer, with the road frequently near the water. Camped near the water a couple of times. One day I was riding along, seeking some shelter from a very nasty squall that was coming up, when a Land Rover came by, with a Swiss couple and baby on board. I ended up camping with them on the beach, and they cooked me a lovely dinner, and we sheltered inside the car from the cold wind. Food, warmth, good company, what else could I want. And then the wind dropped right around bedtime – perfect.

The early morning swim the next day was rather refreshing, but I guess not as cold as a lake at 1600m could be. A touch salty too – that combined with the small waves, and sandy beach, made it feel like I was by the sea – quite nice when you’re thousands of kilometres from the ocean.

I stayed in a homestay in Karakol run by an old Russian woman, in an old Soviet apartment block. Very nice indeed, made to feel very welcome. The second day, when I was eating my fantastic breakfast, she even put together a special package of pancakes for my lunch that day. More than made up for the fact that Karakol is a pretty dull sort of a place. Most roads in the town were just dirt tracks, and there was little in the city that stood out.

But the people could be good – I was having dinner by myself, and got dragged over to a group of Kyrgyz Telecom network engineers, who were having a leaving do for their boss. A couple more rounds of vodka than I would have liked, and I was trying to work out how to escape, but luckily they declared that 21:00 was late for them, and it was time to go to bed. I was happy about that, as it could have started getting messy. But nice guys, with a few speaking a bit of English, and they gave me translations of the toasts, which are taken fairly seriously here.

So more time to kill in Bishkek, but it’s OK – I’m quite happy here, the place I’m staying at is nice, and I can eat all the simit I like from the Turkish supermarket.