Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Crossing into Real Stan #1

After waiting for a week in Kashgar for my Kyrgyz visa to begin (central asian visa's require you to nominate an entry and exit date in advance... something i did with terrible inaccuracy), I left and cycled the 250 kms to the border.

Those who know me know that I have at certain times in the past had trouble with travel related dates - arriving 24hrs late for my Bangkok-Singapore flight, more recently arriving 7 days early for my Broome-Perth flight.

This time i managed to arrive a day before my Kyrgyz visa began, a fact which was politely pointed out to my be the Chinese immigration officer before they whisked my passport away and told me to sit in the corner. As i was sitting contemplating spending the night at the tiny little border 'town', (about 4 buildings and 400 truck drivers... not good odds), they called me to see the senior officer, who was a very nice man, and told me i could either try my chances on the Kyrgyz side, or wait 3 days till Monday, (the border was closed on the weekends, something i hadn't realised) when the border reopened and cross then.

One day of communal truck driver good times I could handle, but three was definately pushing it! I decided to try my luck on the other side.

As I crossed the 7kms of no-mans land to the kyrgyz side, the beautiful chinese asphalt deteriorated into dirt and gravel and the solid Chinese immigration complex was instead matched by a shed and tin roof combo that would be better placed on an outback road in the Northern Territory.

As I got to the front gate trying to work out in my head which of three possible tacticts to take:
1- Idiot tourist "oh, i didn't realise it wasn't valid yet"
2- Tough guy "come on buddy, just stamp it, its no biggie"
3- Friendly but firm "you won't believe what happened... hahaha... no, but i REALLY need to get through."

I saw the first border security guards, a big soviet looking dude in camouflage gear, and decided that tactic 2 was out.

Luckily, guard #1 was just excited to see a bicycle, and after letting him ride it down to the immigration shed, i figured i had positioned myself well for a combo of tactics 1 and 3. Another guard took my passport and went into the office, i was told to stay out, where i underwent a 'customs check'

'Customs' involved a bigger, angrier looking ex-soviet camouflage guard pointing casually at my bags and then poking around with more curiosity than purposefulness at the contents. (There was an awkward moment as i tried to explain in sign language what the flashing yellow yellow plastic thing was, evidently "GPS" doesn't translate directly to russian). After 10 minutes of this (So far i hadn't used any of my super tactics...) they brought out my passport, stamped and ready for action, and politely told me to bugger off, which i was more than happy to do!!!

So began Kyrgyzstan.

The next two days were spent riding very slowly over huge stones and dusty roads along the worst road i've had so far, into the worst headwind i've had so far, to arrive at Sary Tash. A village with two streets (one paved), a small guesthouse, and about 17 shops selling biscuits and Vodka. I spent the afternoon trying to wash myself in a plastic dish with the radius of a small hoola hoop, with a small bucket of luke warm water, but the experience was made much better by meeting two german motorbikers on vintage east German motorbikes, and we had a great dinner together.

Kyrgyzstan is one of those countries where there's not much around, but its bloody beautiful. Outside the city, there's beautiful rolling green hills and amazing mountains. Streams and rivers flowing with crystal clear water, and sheep, cows and horses roaming freely. As you ride along, sheppherds ride up on their horses every now and again and plod along beside you, and i'm sure if I could speak any russian, they'd be up for a nice chat too!

Another two days has gotten me to Osh, the second biggest city in Kyrgyzstan, with 300,000 people. The town has a very ex soviet vibe to it, lots of 'cafes' (no coffee) selling kebabs and Plovv (rice with carrots and meat soaked in oil), and a great bazaar. Also a great place to meet travellers, a great crew was here when i arrived, and I even finally met a couple Aussies on bikes.

The internet is mighty slow, so no pictures yet, but will keep on trying.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

An Ode to China

So Western China is a bit like the N0rthwest of Western Australia. Desert, a whole lot of space, plenty of sunshine, not much water and an interesting mix of people. Kashgar is one of those places where there is just enough happenening to keep things interesting, but not too much to stress you out. Where the towns big enough that you don't have to eat at the same place every night, but small enough that you know where to go to grab a good feed.

After a week of chilling out in K-town, waiting for my Kyrgyzstani visa to begin, its finally time to head off. This part of the country is so different from my preconceptions of China that its hard to believe its the same country. The fusion of East and Far East that occurs here is nothing short of fantastic.

The most memorable moments of Kashgar:
1- Fresh figs, fresh grapes, fresh pomegranates and peaches. all in season!
2- Uyghur people looking very Tajiki, and speaking great Mandarin
3- Han people looking very Chinese, speaking graet Uyghur
4- Watching people savour the oddest parts of the animal (ie. feet, cheeks, ears and intestines) as if they were caviar
5- Walking through the small streets of the old town, trying to no avail to see through closed doors with my non-existent x-ray vision to find out what the houses look like!
6- Kebabs and fresh bread in the street.

Finally I'll be pedalling into Central Asia proper, in a way crossing into Kyrgyzstan feels like the journey is starting now for real!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Across the border at last!

So F.Y. and I finally made it to China. After depositing a friendly German, an old polo shirt and two metres of tarpaulin in Sost, Pakistan's dusty little border town, I climbed into an old landcruiser with 6 Pakistani "business men" and a balding Japanese dude for the trip over the pass and on to Tashkurgan, China's not-so-dusty, and somewhat larger border town.

Before I left Pakistan, I took a few days to see some of the top end. Tom ze German and I had one final Hoorah trip up to the top of the Khunjerab pass, which is the official border between Pakistan and China. You're allowed to cycle up to it, and the Pakistani officials are pretty relaxed about the whole affair, (we even camped out on their front lawn on the way up). But with iron-fisted Chinese regularity, you are forbidden from cycling down the other side into China, but we decided to take the two day trip to the top (4700m) anyway, and despite Tom coughing up chunks of bloody lung the whole way, it was a pretty good little trip.

After that, we went our separate ways, Tom to conquer K2 (or at least get to base camp), and I for a couple more days up the Chapursan valley, a small valley in Pakistans North West that heads towards Afghanistan and Tajikistan (perfectly safe. really.) Although the weather was not the best, the people and the scenery really made it a great little side trip. The road was poretty rough, but along the way were lots of tiny villages harvesting wheat and offering completely selfless hospitality. Apparently the trekking in the surrounding mountains is absolutely amazing, but that'll have to wait till the next trip.

The difference between China and Pakistan is evident the moment you cross the border. Mainly because the bone jarring potholes on the pakistan side are replaced by smooth chinese asphalt! The Pakistani mentality of our driver did not stop at the border however, as he attempted to cruise down the 146km to Tashkurgan in neutral to save petrol...

After three customs checks, luggage x-rays, an x-ray of my abdomen, and much interest in the price of my bicycle, we were finally in china!

Tashkurgan the border town is a bizarre mix of Han chinese, Tajik and Kyrgyz people, with chinese supermarkets, kebab and fresh naan cooked in the street, and shops selling everything from rakes to kettles and pots the size of a 4man jacuzzi.

From there the 300km ride to Kashgar was mainly downhill, with a night in a Yurt with a Tajik family by Lake Kara kul under the mighty Muztagh Ata ("Ice Mountain"). Kashgar again is a strange mix of 'typical' chinese and central asian, with an old city full of Tajik Muslims, and a new city of big imposing chinese communist looking buildings, and of course a "peoples park" with a suitable large and imposing statue of the chairman.

It does also boast however, coffee (very overpriced, and very underquality...), 2 camera stores (neither of which have a circular polarising lens for my camera) huge internet cafes (thank you Warcraft...), and great kebabs (only after sunset, its still Ramadan). On top of all these goodies, Kashgar is said to boast the largest animal market this side of the Pamirs, every Sunday. I'll fill you in on the action as soon as i've seen it.