Bishkek – Kyrgyzstan
I’ve just crossed over into Kyrgyzstan after a brief 2 week stint in Kazakhstan. After a mad dash across the Xinjiang province of China, I was looking forward to a day off in the small border town of Zharkent. I had checked into a tatty hotel and was preparing for a lazy day, but the beurocrats had other ideas in store for me. I was walking along the street when a policeman, in the typical rediculously wide brimmed Kazakh hat, which I figured must have some anti-gravity device installed; being perched right on the back of his head. In the usual cliché of countries from behind the Iron Curtain, he asked in a thick Kazakh accent “your papers po-lease”. I thought of the the KGB characters in James Bond films and tried not to laugh at his perfect reenactment of this stereotype.
Grim and straight faced, he flipped through my passport, twice, and then told me I needed to get my migration card stamped in a police station. Fine, where do I do that? He took me to a dark Soviet style police station and talked to the officer behind the recepton desk who just said “niet” and showed me to another police station. They didn’t have the stamp there either, so I was given directions to another, third police station. I walked up to the guard stationed inside the gate, he told me to wait outside then stood back at his post, and after what seemed to be an unnecessary wait, he led me in. Three more people flipped through my passport, took it away, gave it back, passed it around, and finally one said, “we cannot do here, you must go to Almaty”, “you can take a taxi”. Now, Almaty is 300km from where I was, and it seemed crazy to me that they thought it perfectly reasonable for someone to spend about $100 and over half a day, just to get a stamp on a piece of paper!
As I needed to head to Almaty anyway, I decided to decline on the taxi, and instead I hightailed it out of there, packed my stuff and headed off. The first part of the cycle was glorious, rolling through a green and auburn tunnel made by the old deciduous trees, their leaves turning golden in the crisp Autumn air. The low sun was sending thin rays through the leaves and lighting up the lovely white cottages by the roadside, their window frames painted in a patriotic, and pretty, Kazakh blue. I then turned off onto a minor road that took me past miles of wheat fields, then into a familiar territory, the parched rocky sandy desert.
I camped just off the road behind a large mound, where a huge swarm of mosquitoes were waiting in ambush. With Fearghal the insect attractor, my insect repellant, still in China, they attacked my arms, legs and face with vigour and so I hastily put up my tent and literally dived in, closing the door before any of the little vampires followed me.
The following morning, my odometer flipped up to 15,000km, half way around the World. I was delighted to be over the hump. Any distance remaining now, will be less than that already cycled, which is a huge morale boost. I was still in the desert though and hadn’t bought any celebratory refreshments, so I had to save the festivities for later in the evening when I had a beer and shashlick kebab in triumph. As I rolled away from my half way line that I made in the sand, I cried. I don’t know if it was happy tears or sad tears and I have no idea why I cried, I just couldn’t stop myself.
Unfortunately, the road didn’t celebrate with me, it was terribly bumpy with large pot holes and the occasional tarmac mole-hill waiting to catch the off guard cyclist. At one point I decided to cycle in the gravel runoff which was smoother than the road, but fell off when I hit some loose sand while drinking from my water bottle. With few towns on the route, I had to carry lots of water, about 10 litres, which made the uphills a slow effort. It was hot too, really hot, and on a steep 12% (1 in 8 ) climb out of a huge gorge, the sweat was dripping off the lenses of my glasses. I had big white salt stains on my shorts, gloves and top, and they became crispy as the salt solidified. I wondered how many days sweating it would take, before my jumper would stand up by itself!
After a long downhill through a beautiful grassy valley, and getting reacquainted with the tree lined avenues I made it to Almaty. It is a charming city, with parks everywhere you look, trendy cafe’s, classic Soviet architecture and generally feels cultured, very different to the homogeneous cities of China. Following visits to two more police stations, form filling, stamping, photocopying, waiting etc, I managed to get registered with the police, but not until the following day, and paying in that queue over there!
I spent the time in Almaty chilling out in parks, eating lots and went to the baths to relax my muscles. I made the mistake though of entering the ferociously hot sauna with no sandals. After a few steps on the searingly hot tiled floor, I lept onto a nearby bench. I was stranded, with burning feet, that would later blister and make me limp about town. The men and women have separate bathing areas and it’s de rigueur to go naked, and the starkers plunge into the cold pool quickly soothed my burned feet.
I also sorted out my Kyrgyz visa and with that in hand, I left town and aimed towards the border. It lashed rain the following morning and was really cold, I can feel winter coming. Following 2 days of cycling with the thick grey cloud blocking any warmth from the sun, the clouds suddenly parted in the strangest way. I could see the edge and tops of of them forming a straight line right into the distance. It was as if a huge glacier was floating in the sky. I decided to stop and enjoy the evening and camped on a grassy knoll surrounded by small pudding shaped hills, like in The Hobbit. The mountains of Kyrgyzstan were in the distance, silhouetted by the setting sun. I decided to sleep under the stars and got into my bag to watch the sunset. I heard a dull rumbling and looked around to see a huge herd of sheep and goats only 20 feet away, and coming for me!! I called out to the shepherd and he steered his batallion before they stampeded a dozing Irishman.
Once I sort my Uzbekistan visa here in Bishkek, I’ll be climbing up into the mountains, I can see them clearly now, with snow covered peaks and troughs. I’ll probably be cycling above the snow line where I reckon it will get mighty cold, which is what I was dreaming of when in the hot and humid climate in Shanghai.