Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Off the 3 'Stans' I visited, (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) Kyrgyzstan would definitely be my favourite. If you love mountains, come to Kyrgyzstan. The people are wonderful without that 'over the top in your face' kinda friendly. And the Kyrgyz visa is the least complicated of all the 'Stans'. Its a shame therefore that it ended on a bit of sour note. As I approached the Irkeshtam border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China, I came upon a 'STOP-POLICE CHECK' sign. I could see a police man sitting on a nearby bench. He looked like I couldn't care less if I stopped or otherwise. But a police car pulled up and an officer got out and signalled for me to come over. First thing he did was grab the hat from my head and put in on his own head. The smell of drink off him was over powering. He could barely stand. He was complaining about something or other, but I explained how I didn't understand Kyrgyz and only knew very basic Russian. He then grabbed the bike from me and made an attempt to cycle it. But he was too drunk to get his leg over the cross bar. The then dropped the bike, causing the mirror to break. I was furious. He then asked for my passport. In broken Russian and sign language I told him,'He was too drunk and to go sleep it off'. He didn't take kindly to being told what to do, but I walked past him to the other officer who witnessed all what happened. As I showed the other officer my passport, (using broken Russian and sign language), I said to him, with enough volume so that the drunk officer could hear me; ' I loved Kyrgyzstan. All the people have been great. Surly he's not from Kyrgyzstan. Is he from Uzbekistan?' It had the desired effect. The drunk was furious but I was pedalling down towards customs control before he knew it. Incidentally, all the customs control officer wanted to know was if I had a spare cigarette? I was stamped out of Kyrgyzstan and pedalling across no-mans-land to China. Everything here was handled with a lot more military precision. The first thing that struck me was that everyone was huge. I don't think I've ever seen a tall Chinese man and now I was surrounded by them. It was about 5.15pm and the border was closing in 15 minutes. I had deliberately left it late in getting across this border in the hope that the search of my bags would not be too thorough. I was carrying two guidebooks on Tibet and a detailed map of Tibet. I'd ripped the covers off my books. Even Lonely Planet China can be confiscated at the border,as it shows Taiwan in a different colour to mainland China. At one stage a border official had Kym McConnell's 'Route and planning guide for mountain bikers across Tibet' in his hand. This book contains exact locations of police checkpoints across Tibet. (In fact I just noticed the forward is from the Dalai Lama). I had answers prepared if I was caught with these books, but thankfully I got my entry stamp into China and the border closed on time. It took 5 solid days of cycling from sunrise to sunset to make it from Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar, China. It was a particularly difficult ride. Dust was my main enemy. Convoys of trucks brought Chinese goods across this rocky dirt track and each rig showered me in dust. The mountains in this region are pretty much the tail end of the Himalayas. The highest pass we crossed was 3615M which makes it the second highest of the trip to date. A boy travelling on horseback offered to swap a ride on his horse for a ride on my bike. It was a 12% incline. I was happy to oblige. It got cold up here but the scenery was just extraordinary. Sunset was a particular treat as it cast shadows across the mountains. I've always been pretty handy at budgeting on long trips but in the last 3 days in China I've only spent €0.40. But this is not due to careful financial planning. Its due to the fact that north western China is predominantly Muslim (I think) and its presently Ramada. This means restaurants close from sunrise to sunset. I had completely overlooked this fact but I knew this part of the trip would be particularly desolate so thankfully I was carrying many days food. I'm after getting another big surprise since arriving in Kashgar. Its well publicised that the People's Republic of China is a very restrictive regime on its people. I expected my blog to be blocked. But since the riots in Urumqi in which the police killed 158 people according to BBC reports, all internet communication has been blocked, including hotmail. International calls are banned. My overriding impression of Kashgar is not the multitude of tower cranes spread across the city sky line. Its not the 50ft high statute of Mao or even the wonderful old town with all its chaotic trading. The over riding impression of Kashgar is the convoys of trucks that go round and round the city centre with approximately 45 riot police clearly visible on each convoy. I've never seen anything like it. They cruise at about 10mph while the traffic buzzes around them. The army trucks are pretty much the same as home, but where the soldiers would be seated in the back, here they are standing behind a presumably bullet proof glass. The only time I've ever seen someone paraded around in a glass boxed vehicle, it was the Pope in the Phoenix park in 1979. But these guys have a whole different objective. Its pure intimidation. You see school children playing on their way home from school, loved up couples-holding hands and strolling by the lake and round and round these convoys go. Soldiers march the streets in full riot gear as if the public parks were a military training ground. I saw this consisteny during my 2 days in Kashgar, but I did not take a photo. I didn't dare take a photo.
Make no mistake about it - This is the desert of all deserts. Its one massive, beautiful, scary place. It seems one endless horizon of rolling sand dunes. 80KMs south of my lookout tower/Hovel Hotel balcony, I found a very fancy restaurant. The friendly staff fed me great food and close to a gallon of tea as I sat back the afternoon, waiting for the midday sun to ease. Using sign language and a lot of map pointing, I was reassured all round, that my main concern of there being no restaurants along my chosen route, was not going to be a problem. I felt I had over-packed with my 10 litres of water and 4 days food supply. BUT the next restaurant I passed was 250KMs down the road. That was 250KMs of no restaurant, no shop, no house, no camel, no goat herder, one bridge, one crossroad, one long straight road through and infinity of sand dunes. Two camp spots with another infinity of bright stars in the sky. Sunrise and sunset was Mother Nature in glorious form as she toyed with shade and shadow across the dunes. But she wasn't in such glorious form when my tailwind became a headwind. Sand gets into everything. It sticks to your sun cream. It tears up your nostrils causing nose bleeds. Its in your sleeping bag, your bicycle chain and don't drink that last mouthful of your morning mug of tea. Its a mouthful of sand.This is desert number 3 on Global cycle ride;1.Karakum - Turkmenistan2.Kyzulkum - Uzbekistan3.Taklamakan - ChinaThe Karakum was tough. The heat was unreal at the time that I was crossing it. The Kyzulkum was almost friendly in comparison. Although the road was relativity poor, a truck stop every 25 KMs and a powerful tailwind made it all very achievable. But the Taklamakan is an extraordinary place. Just endless sand dunes and not much else. Its truly an amazing achievement for the Chinese to build a road through such terrain. And while sleeper buses tear by leaving behind a trail of dust, fumes and ZZZzzzs, I'm holding my brake levers, to soak in the all my surroundings. Its a beautiful place,but its a not place where you want things to go wrong.When I finally made it to that restaurant 250KMs down the road (where I now am), I entered the town cautiously and quietly just after sunset. The only people of this town are directly or indirectly involved in oil and gas projects. It seemed no place for a foreign tourist to be. I had managed to get this far without any police interference and the plan was to get loads of hot food and tea and venture back out into the dunes to camp up for the night. But instead my arrival was greeted with the frantic horn blowing of some over excited motorist. I pulled over to the road side and looked over my shoulder expecting police. Instead three beaming Chinese faces smiled up and handed me a note. It read, 'You are 1 day ahead of me, Please wait.' It wasn't signed, but I presume its Markus and he has heard I'm down the road from him. There's a basic hotel in town, so my plan for tomorrow is to sit by the window and drink tea. And see who passes by.