I'm comming off the longest haitius from the trip thus far. It's been 10 days since I last rode. I quickly noticed that I had fallen out of shape a bit today. Funny how quickly that can happen. A quick 15 kilometers and I was back in Kazakhstan. It feels like I never left.
Up over a decent sized hill and then down into the flatlands. A couple of small rest stops, but not much else out here. Tonight I was lucky enough to find a cluster of trees in the otherwise open landscape. They were spaced just perfect to park my tent right in the middle, one of my favorite camping spot of the entire trip so far. Even found a little water nearby to wash my hands and face, although it was in the form of a discarded, half drunken water bottle. Living in luxory...
I found myself destroyed by the ride today. Not really sure why. It was hot and there were some hills, but I really was much more tired today then I felt I should have been. Guess I'm still recovering from all that time off of the bike.
Today into the city of Almaty, the largest metropolis in Kazahkstan. It was the capital of the country, until the president decided to basically build a new city from scratch and make that the capital. Almaty is a city unlike I've seen anywhere else in the country (or even in all of Central Asia). It has freeways, skyscrapers, a subway, and even KFC and Carl's Jr. It's the biggest place I've been since Istanbul. Feels nice.
My hostel here in Almaty is interesting. It is in an apartment building, and it is quite obvious that someone just took a 3 bedroom apartment, added some bunkbeds and decided to open a hostel. Apparently they did this without telling the government, or any of their neighbors, becuase I was told they are being shut down next week. Anway, nice enough place, cool people, and it just so happens that this is the same place Blake stayed a few nights ago. Some of the guests that he met are still here. One guy even exclaimed, "Oh! So you're the guy that Blake 'helped over the mountains.'" Alright Blake, interesting way to phrase it hahahaha.
For the third time, I'm off again to the migration police station to register my stay in the country. This is really starting to piss me off. I've tried pretty hard, but I honestly can't think of a single reason for the government to mandate foreign registration like this. It wastes time for both me and the police, it costs the government money, and doesn't really provide the police with any information about me or my travels. Anyway, got to do what you've got to do. So I put aside the entirety of today to take care of this, and what would you know, it only took about an hour. Wow, awesome, what a pleasant surprise.
Today I saw the second tallest free standing wooden structure in the world. It was about as interesting as it sounds...
On the road, finally heading towards China. The road out of Almaty started as a 6 lane highway, and then slowly narrowed as I passed through the periurban areas, through the suburbs, and out into the hinterland. As I was about to pull into a town for the night, a car stopped in front of me on the road. Of course this was becomming a regular occurance, happening at least once a day. The curious driver would motion for me to pull over, ask me where I was from, where I was going, maybe ask for a picture, and then smile, wave and drive off. So ok, here we go again. This car, however, would change this fairly average day into one of the most memorable experiences of the trip.
The driver's name was Patrick, a California native who had been living in Kazahstan for 15 years. Along with his wife and three children, he was heading to a small village a bit down the road. He asked if I wanted a place to stay for the night and then gave me instructions for where to meet him. I biked the 20 or so kilometers to the village of Baiceit and, sure enough, there they were. The family had lived here for 7 years and worked with the local farm center to train farmers for the region. They had since moved to a bigger town about 50 kilometers away, but were returing tonight to attend the wedding of one of their good friend's daughters. They were kind enough to let me sleep in a spare room of their apartment. Then they even invited me to the wedding they were about to attend. No way I was going to say no to that haha. Patrick hooked me up with some spare clothes, and off we went.
I was a bit worried when we walked into the wedding hall. I had been invited by Patrick and his family, but I wasn't sure if the other people would be happy to see me effectivly "crashing" their wedding. Well... not only did everyone welcome me in, the father of the bride insisted that Patrick's family and I sit with him at the table of honor in the front of the banquet hall. Overwhelmed doesn't even start to describe the feeling I had sitting next to the parents of the bride and groom. I had never met these people before, and we didn't speak a common language, but they were so kind and welcoming. I was completly blown away by how nice these people were. Patrick turned to me and said, "You can see why we stayed here for 7 years." I could indeed.
This being a Uyger wedding, the bride and groom arrived to fireworks as they festivly walked around a fire with everyone clapping. Then we went inside where offical vows were exchanged and then dancers provided entertainment while people started eating. The food was awesome and plentiful. Toasts were given, which Patrick, who speaks fluent Uyger, was nice enough to translate for me. Then the party really started as everyone got up and started dancing. It took me a while to figure out the Uyger dancing style haha... Wow, really awesome night.
Last night's awesomeness seemingly carried over to the start of today's ride. Nice views, strong tail winds, and the forecasted rain never showed up. Everything was going great until I hit this construction zone. You see, here in Kazakhstan the way they repave the roads is by dumping a whole bunch of tar and rocks on the highway, going over it once with a steam roller, and then immediately opening the road back up to traffic. It seems to me like a terrible idea, because the highway gets rutted by the passing trucks not more then a minute after they just paved it. As you may imagine, it is a really terrible experience biking over it. The wet tar and loose gravel get all over your tires and they also jam your chain. Every 30 seconds or so, a rock would get stuck in my derailleur and almost snap my chain or cables. I kept having to stop to get all the tar out of the sensitive parts of my bike. That wasn't fun.
What happened next was even less fun. In fact, it was probably the worse thing that has ever happened to me on a bike. EVER. A car going the opposite way decided to pass someone by using my lane, forcing me to swerve to the right to get out of their way. This happens all the time, and usually its annoying, but not that big of a deal. This time was different though. Its really hard to swerve when you're on loose, sticky gravel, especially when you're going decently fast becase of a tail wind. As you may have guessed, I crashed. Now, this isn't the first time I've crashed on this trip, but usually I fall off the bike when I'm going slowly through sand. Sand, as it turns out, is actually a really great thing to fall into. Wet tar and rocks, not so much. This crash was bad. I slid several yards on the unfinished road and got cuts on my face, hands, stomach, legs and feet. When I got up, I realized that several spots on my body were covered in blood. It would probably be a stretch to say that my helmet saved my life, but it certainly saved me a trip to the hospital. Getting cut up is bad enough, but what really made this terrible was the fact that the wet asphalt got all over me. Huge gobs of tar were sticking to my clothes, helmet, skin, and bike. Of course all the cars stopped to look at me, which was pretty embarassing as well haha.
I finally gained my composure and walked out into the desert towards what looked like some sort of construction camp. Sure enough, the kind construction workers got me some soap and water and helped me try to clean myself up. This being my first time covered in tar, I did not fully appreciate how redicuosly difficult it is to remove it from your skin and clothes. I couldn't get any of it off me... So I hobbled down the road, looking like a freak, and just wanting to put all this behind me. When I got to town, I was a bit worried that no one would let me stay at their hotel because I looked like such a mess. The first place said no. The second place gave me a concerned look, but then after I used Google Translator to explain what happened, we all started laughing. That's when I started to realize the humor behind what happened to me haha. Anyway, no problem staying there. Thankfully this place had a shower with good pressure, really hot water, and a really stiff lufa. After about a 45 minute shower, I was free of tar. My clothes, not so much...
Going to bed last night, I wasn't sure if my accident might force me to take today off to try to recover. When I woke up though, I felt a bit better. A bunch of Neosporin and some band-aids, and I was ready to go. Luckily no more wet tar today haha. Nice ride today, tail wind all day, made good time into Zharkent.
When I was staying with Patrick's family, they hooked me up with a contact for tonight, Rustam, who worked at the farm center here. We met up in town and then he headed home to his village by taxi as I went by bike. Rustam got his bike from home and joined me for the last stretch to his house. Turns out he and Patrick are not only friends, but also biking buddies, who have gone together on a couple different bike tours around the region. Couldn't find better people to stay with haha.
Rustam and his family were amazing. Incredibly hospitable, almost to the point where I felt guilty. His wife brought out a plate stacked a foot and a half high with Mantai, dumplings filled with meat, and I sat with Rustam and his family eating, drinking tea, and talking. Rustam said to me, "A friend of Patrick is a friend of me" and I felt he meant that sincerly. He and his family was incredibly kind and filled with excitment and happiness. I'm starting to notice that about Uygers, they seem to always be happy, more so than any other group of people I have ever met. Perhaps the rest of us have something to learn from them.
|Rustam and his family|
Today was the big day. Today was the day I finally attempted to enter China. I could feel the border's proximity yesterday, as Rustam's house received only Chinese channels. As I started out on the ride today, I was only an hour or so away from finally getting there. I was nervous this morning, more so than I have ever been for any other border crossing. I had lied on my visa and told them I wasn't biking into the country. I wasn't sure if that would cause problems. I had also been getting mixed reports whether or not I could ride my bike through the no-mans land between Kazakhstan and China. I had come so far. It would be a tragedy if I had rerouted my trip and went through all that trouble of getting a Kazakhstan visa just to be disappointed at this border. I was hell bent on getting through, on my bicycle.
On the way to the border, I prepared a speech I was going to give to plead my case to be allowed to bike through the border. I rehearsed it over and over again in my head, trying to think of all the possible scenarios which might come up and what I would do. I took all of the money out of my wallet in case they wanted me to pay to get on a bus. Sorry, no money, guess I have to bike... I got my schedule up on my phone, so I could show them where I was coming from and how important it was for me to bike every inch.
I got to the first checkpoint. Friendly Kazakhstan guards waved me right through. Second check point, had to unpack everything and put it through the x-ray machine, but still, all was good. Then I stamped out of Kazakhstan and I knew this was where I might have some problems. My plan was to just start riding as fast as I could and not give the guards enough time to tell me otherwise. Unfortunately though, there was a big gate, which the guard had to come over and open for me. Then the dreaded cross of the hands as the guard told me I needed to get on a bus. Shit. I started pleading with him, giving him my speech and showing him my map. I was only talking for about 5 seconds when he cut me off, and told me to wait a minute. He went over to his boss, and asked if I could bike through, and the boss very causally was like, well ya, sure, why not. Yes! Success! 7.2 kilometers later and I reached the Chinese side of the border. My worries about getting through immigration quickly vanished as the border guards were all very nice and greeted me with a smile and a "Welcome to China."
I MADE IT TO CHINA!!
I MADE IT TO CHINA!!
I MADE IT TO CHINA!!
One of the happiest moments of my life. All of the struggles of getting through the passes in Kyrgyzstan, and the uncertainty surrounding the border situations, all of the bureaucracy, it was all over. I had biked from the western most point in Europe to China. I was now in my last country. Pure excitement!
Stopped for the night in what looked like just a rest stop on my map, but what turned out to be a decent sized city. I went in to get a sim card for my phone, and befriended the girl there who was able to speak English. We ended up getting dinner and talking for the better part of the night. Ate some great fish.
Its funny how much things changed after crossing the border. I had officially left the former USSR countries and entered China; I had crossed between two very different spheres of influence. The old communist style of the soviet union, was replaced by the new, capitalistic communist style of the Peoples' Republic of China. Except for the Uyger population who lived on both sides of the border, the languages were different, the cultures were different, the food was different, everything seemed quite different. Very exciting.
The roads here are in substantialy better shape then in Kazakhstan, or any other country in the region. The expressway for today was well paved, had a big shoulder, proper signage, and was free of grazing livestock. The route today was amazing, up through a rocky valley and then through a series of tunnels which carved their way up to one of the tallest bridges on the planet. The views were awesome. Then the road passes a pristine alpine lake, before heading down into the desert on a 30+ kilometer descent.
I've been told it can be a little tricky camping in China, as its not as legal to camp on the side of the road as it is in other coutries. I'm not really sure exactly what the law is, but I didn't want to take any chances. For that reason I'm camping tonight in the only place I could find where I could hide in thick trees and vegetation - inside the center of a looping off-ramp on the freeway.
Day 170Very carefully snuck out of my hidden camping spot in the middle of the off-ramp, hit the road. East bound, what else is new. Out here in the middle of nowhere, there's a lot of nothingness, but that seems to be changing quick. For the first time ever in my life, I passed through a city completely off of the map. Large residential apartment buildings, commercial centers, it must have had about 30,000 people, and it didn't exist on either of my two maps. Where the hell was I? I guess I'll never know... And it wasn't just that place, there were several other towns, roads, railroad crossings, all sorts of stuff which didn't make the maps. Was this a product of rapid development, or China's lack of transparency with the outside? Probably both. Either way, it coupled with my complete lack of being able to speak, write, or read anything to make me feel pretty lost around here.
Into the city of JingHe. As with my first night in China, I looked up how to write "hotel" and then tried to piece together the characters I read on the buildings. That took some time, but after a bit of looking around it inevitably got a bit easier. Unlike most of the ex-Soviet countries, there is seemingly a huge surplus of hotels here. It is almost impossible to find a block in town which doesn't have a hotel on it. It was great, huge selection, all very cheap. Only problem was that I wasn't allowed to stay at almost all of them. The rumors I had heard from other travelers seem to be true; the Chinese government will only let foreigners stay at a very specific list of hotels. Unfortunately the ones I could stay at here are all the expensive ones... That sucks. Spent several hours finally finding a place that could take me for a decent price. Wow that sucked, I really hope I don't have to do this bullshit in every city.