Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Kyrgyzstan...biking in November?

You may ask yourself what cycling in Kyrgyzstan is like, what type of food is served, where you sleep at night and how to properly cross international borders.

Well, you could sleep in one of the abandoned rail cars along the beautiful shoreline of Lake Issyk Kul, run into an amazingly generous family in the sleepy town of Kara Talaa, have an evening in a fascinating home stay in Song Kol then ride horses over a 3000m pass to the mountainous lake Song Kol.

Continuing on, make sure you pick up plenty of food for the road ahead as it is long, rough and leads over several passes. Within a days ride of Kochkor you won't find many place and tenting may be necessary especially when the night brings freezing rain which turns to snow, -10 temps and icy roads in the morning. With another steep, icy pass ahead you will be glad that your bike weighs as much as a horse because you will no doubt be able to eat like one.

After a long, tedious day you will finally reach the city of Naryn. While there, make sure you pick up more supplies, eat dinner and get out of town as there is yet another pass and cycling it in the dark can take over two hours while temperatures plummet to below freezing. With a canyon like feel there is very little opportunity to find a flat place to sleep but if you are lucky you might be able to locate an abandoned sheep stable with your dimming headlamps.

Farther on down the road, beyond the town of At Bashy, the road becomes dirt, the views become expansive and there is no water to be found. With some luck you might be able to find another sheep stable to sleep in or better yet another family will take you in and feed you such delicacies as roasted sheep fat, fermented mares milk which is slightly alcoholic, fermented cheese balls made from sheep milk, honey, butter, jam and an unidentifiable liquid which is good for your strained digestive system.

With a stomach full of calories you will be ready to make the move to cycle over the Torugart Pass. Don't take this lightly as over 100km stands between you and the pass with challenging road conditions, temperatures below zero and no one around. In case you don't make it to the pass in one day, a road workers run down building can provide a warm evening and basic food for dinner and breakfast. From here, you will make the last push toward the pass with morning temperatures in November hovering at -20 degrees.

After only a few short hours of cycling next to old barbed wire fences at heights of 3 meters, that used to be electrified you will arrive to Kyrgyzstan border. Hopefully you have correctly calculated the last of your Kyrgyz money as the border is closed on weekends and the only place to stay is a deteriorating state run hotel. In case you have no money and some luck, there are some friendly Kyrgyz KGB border guards that may help you find a place to sleep and keep out of the teeth chattering temperatures.

Patience is needed while going through customs and in case the border guards have lost the key to the border gate again, don't worry, the numerous truck drivers around will be more than willing to take a crow bar and hammer to the old lock. Congratulations, you are on your way to the Torguart Pass, finally.

Don't underestimate the challenges of entering China from this border crossing. In case you have not done your homework, foreigners are not allowed to cross without a tour group escort. The Chinese border guards will be more than happy to show you the way back to Kyrgyzstan even if your panniers are empty of food and you have no more Kyrgyz money left. If you happen to be the lucky sort, a tour guide might just show up, escorting tourist to Kyrgyzstan, relieving you of the nightmare of heading all the way back to Naryn, over the many snow covered passes. Of course the service this tour guide will offer wont come cheap, expect to pay $100 each for the privilege to be driven 160km to Kashgar. In case you are the adventurous type and think that riding through the check post is possible, there are three more military check posts, a whole lot of military and police controlling the Kyrgyz minority areas around the pass.

Well, these are all things that could certainly fact they all happened to be the way we made it through the freezing temperatures of the high altitude areas on Kyrgyzstan making our passage back to China on route to the warmer temperatures on the Karakorum Highway in Pakistan.

Kazakhstan, the land of contrasts.

Within two days of entering Kazakhstan we had received no less than two offers of invitation to have dinner and sleep at homes of complete strangers. The kindness of the Kazakh people was evident from sharing a wonderful lunch with a man who owned a casino of sorts to being served chai and sweets by a woman who made beautiful floral arrangements. During a random stop on the side of the road, a son with his proud parents offered us a bag of treats and beautifully made prayer hats. The Kazakhstan we saw showed us kindness and hospitality.

And yet, when we talked with other travelers or Kazakh people themselves they would regale us with tales of corruption, greed and danger. During an evening dinner one mother, who had spent a decade in the States, insisted we take her mobile number and call us if we needed anything, insisting that the Kazakhstan we had seen did not exist or would not as we proceeded further west.

Cycling into Almaty could not have offered more of a stark contrast to the little we had seen of the enormous country. Almaty is a metropolis that is in the top 50 most expensive cities to live in, in the world. Designer clothing, accessories and expensive cars from Italy, Spain, France, Germany and London were on display on almost every street. Hotels that offered prices that would rival those of New York City were the norm.

Yet, outside of the second largest city in the country, the desert-like landscape offered little in vegetation but provided stunning backdrops. Small towns sold their wares in street markets where clothing, bread, vegetables and apples were amazingly inexpensive. Bread routinely sold for $.50 - $1, apples went for $.75 per kilo and several kilos of vegetables were priced to sell at $.50.

Kazakhstan, with all that we had heard about the country treated us with more respect than we gave it. Even the border guards who usually keep a stiff upper lip, smiled, waved and simply wanted to shake our hands.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Green Valley

After leaving the main highway, both of us were interested in cycling the G 315, another one of those green lines on our Chinese map. We knew there was a mountain pass that would be standing between us and our intended route but that is all we knew. We had passed a curious blue sign just after leaving the main road that stated “Foreigners Are Prohibited From Entering Non-Open Areas”. There was nothing on our map that suggested a “non-open” area, so we decided to continue, caulking it up to possibility for more adventures.

Climbing to the pass took two full days with the first seeing us ascend over 2700 vertical meters. The second day began to appear as if someone was trying to play a cruel trick on us. We were led to believe, at each set of switchbacks that pass was just ahead. It took us five hours to finally reach the 3500 meter pass, although we have plans to ride higher passes, it seemed to be lots of up, given that we started out at 500 meters and rode over another pass along the way. For much of the last two days we had the road to ourselves except for the occasional construction vehicle slowly passing us by. At the pass we finally understood why, the last kilometer of the pass was having a formidable looking avalanche barrier installed and just after that, behind a think veil of dirty tarps, lay a dark tunnel. Despite the fact that the road was open the tunnel itself was not. We, being on bikes, were lucky enough to be able to walk through the tunnel. Armed with our headlamps, we pushed our bikes under the arm of a working excavator and out to the other side, where again Kevin had another flat.

The ride down the other side of the pass was exhilarating. Unlike the side of the pass we slowly climbed up, which was marked by steep slopes, rock and little vegetation, the side we were now coasting down had beautiful green slopes that were at much gentler angles and numerous yurts could be seen in the distance with horses grazing.

We finally reached the small town of Chorma, nestled between two mountain ranges and a beautiful green valley running east to west. That night we decided to stay in a hotel room while a large Chinese family of four generations was enjoying a tremendous feast and plenty of karaoke.
In the morning, after talking with a bus driver we decided to take the G315, a road that was said to be paved. Shortly outside of town we were immediately stuck be the beauty of the valley and continued to be in awe for most the day. With yurts scattered about and huge flocks of sheep guided by their owners riding beautiful chestnut colored horses. The sheep took over the road, so thick that it appeared to be a sea of fur where not even a bicycle could pass.

We experienced the fall movement of animals and people to lower wintering grounds throughout the day as we slowly descended down the valley. Whole yurts were being dismantled and carefully packed into the back of trucks, while several thousand sheep and hundreds of cows were making the slow march down the valley. Each herd of animals caused cars and busses to slow to a halt, with horns blaring until the animals gave way. It was very rewarding to see the occasional traditional herder, who had their yurts packed on the backs of their camels, that were slowly plodded along behind the flocks of sheep.

Later that evening we entered a small town that both of us immediately felt uneasy about. The roads were riddled with huge potholes while the town itself had a distinctive air of being dilapidated giving it the feel of a border town or something out of the wild-west.

After a delicious dinner at a restaurant we left in search of accommodations for the night, finding something just across the street. As Kevin finalized the price for the hotel room with two beds a young man wearing a blue collared shirt with an embroidered insignia that poked through his jacket began asking questions about the police. We ignored him and continued to move our mountains of bags up to the second floor.

After a long day and many nights of camping we were just settling into our new home for the night, looking forward to our first shower in a week, when a young policeman barged in without warning followed closely by the same young man who now also looks to be a policeman. There seems to be a problem and passports are required as well as a visit to the local police station.

Thinking this will be over soon enough we follow the pair back to the station to see what needs to be addressed. After much deliberation, very little English and Kevin’s broken Chinese we discover we are now in a restricted area were foreigners are not allowed. Perhaps that sign we saw days ago meant something after all.

The one policeman disappears, then upon returning, presents a page of hand written English questions and information. We are starting to see that this is not going anywhere fast as there is now a fine to pay and we must be escorted out of town or more to the point out of the whole district! Shit! Looking blankly at each other we make a deal to come back in the morning to pay the fine and for a car to leave the county. Walking home the wheels are madly turning in our heads as we contemplate the best plan with the dwindling money we have left to make it to the Kazakh border.

Morning comes all to quickly. We set about doing what we think is necessary to be searched which includes moving all pictures and video onto the computer and hiding all unneeded money. Leaving the hotel at 9am, knowing we must be at the police station at 11am we ride through empty streets with closed shops. We make our way toward the police check point that we learned is just outside town and sits just beyond the gates of the police station. Thinking that we will see our escape route blocked, we find it unattended on a quiet road! Blood courses through our veins as we consider the consequences of running, of not paying any money for a fine or for a car and driver. There is just something holding us there for minutes that pass like hours. In a vain attempt we try a side road that proves to be a dead end.

Coming back out to the main road, we see a bus and ask where it is going. The bus happens to be going 60kms to the west which is exactly where we intend to escape to. In seconds bags are unloaded and thrown in the back with bikes hauled to the roof to be tied down for the journey. This was it, the desired escape!

We hide ourselves at the back of the bus as it makes one more pass through town and hit the road to our destination.

Upon arrival, we get out before the bus station to avoid too many viewing eyes and quickly throw our bikes together to continue our escape. The next 4 hours were spent pretty much riding as through we were a Tour de France time trial team, as we sped down the flat road toward the city of Yining where we knew we are allowed to be. This would get us to within 150kms of the Kazakh border.

Cotton and Chilies

Heading further west on the 101, the landscape continued to present a stunning backdrop to wind our way over and through. Massive red rock cliffs made the valleys we were cycling through all the more pronounced. There were several small homesteads situated along the roads, most of them seem to be the homes of herders, made out of mud bricks giving them an adobe-type look.

In the afternoon of the second day we came upon the X-247, a paved side road that would take us out to the main road. After having watched Kevin patiently fix his third puncture in two days, we decided that perhaps continuing on this unimproved road may cause more problems than it worth as we had now passed through much of the sandstone valley ways.

Once out of the mountains and into the valley, it became clear why this area was known for its cotton, corn and red chili production. We passed whole roads taken over for the sole purpose of drying ears of corn, seeing migrant workers begin picking cotton just as the sun began to rise and continue after the sun set. Huge swaths of land became red with the drying of red chilies. Riding through the flat brown landscape was at time challenging as it was long, flat and straight.

Although, at times, looking to the south we could see the brown shrubby earth slowly rise toward huge snow capped peaks in the distance. Yet the foreground would come alive with the bright red color of drying chilies, the white of nomadic yurts dotting brown land and the movement of people working to spread, flip and move the drying harvest. We passed expansive cotton processing plants with tall walls that only revealed the tops of mountainous piles of cotton.

The Bad Road

Leaving Urumqi was not as straight forward as we were hoping, with a flat tire to fix and cycling in the wrong direction, it took us a bit of time to get out of the city. The day started off with a bewildering array of breakfast items as we pushed out bikes through one of the many morning markets, sampling the stuffed dumplings and fried breads seasoned to perfection.

As we rode away from the city we were looking for the G101. A couple of days earlier we had decided that the thin green line on our map would offer more adventure than the busy red lines denoting the main roads. When we finally found the 101, a shopkeeper implored us not to take the road as she called it “a bad road”. On hearing this news we both knew we would be riding the road west. As we travelled along perfect black top road the landscape quickly changed from flat brown desert like earth with low shrubs to brightly colored sandstone peaks and water etched river valleys. It seemed we could not make if far before pulling out our cameras to get another picture. As we ascended out of each river valley to gain the elevation of another highpoint or pass the landscape and sandstone seemed to add another hue of red, yellow, green or brown.

Finding suitable camp sites on the 101 was not a problem as much of the road was uninhabited but this did bring the unintended consequence of finding food or packing enough for several days. The road that started out paved quickly turned into a dirt road, at times black from the dust that would fall from the numerous passing trucks carrying coal. At times trucks would be descending upon us with huge billowing clouds of dust that we would soon be navigating through. As the one approached and entered this plume of dust only a faint outline of the rider in front could be seen as the brown and black haze enveloped us. After a day of riding we would look as though we had just stepped out of one of the many coal mines that dotted the surrounding brown landscape.

As the sun was beginning to set on the first day, we cycled up a steep hill to what we had thought was a village only to find a coal processing plant. Workers, some filling big bags full of coal chunks while others secured tarps over long trucks. When we asked about finding food the answer was a predictable “no, not here”. As we began heading back down the hill we stopped off at a ram-shackled brick building that made up several small rooms with two cows grazing in the blackened earth of coal dust.

We asked once again about food and this time the young workers, most of whom were already heating a bowl of laghman (hand stretched wheat noodles with vegetable and meat topping) invited us in, insisting that that they would not accept our money. Instead the young workers, with blackened faces and hands from a day spent working around coal, were interested in talking to us, finding out where we had come from and if we were married. Sometimes one can find the nicest people on the worst roads.

We went to bed that night, listening to the coal trucks slowly make their way around the tight corners of the mountain road.

Arriving to Urumqi

Kevin and I feel the need to get to Urumqi and begin cycling. Shorting our stay in Beijing and Urumqi means we will be on the road, almost a week ahead of schedule. Weighing our options between training from Beijing to Xi’an then on to Urumqi or flying directly we find a flight priced with an irresistible price.

Arriving to Urumqi, we again take the cheap route, getting a ride on the city bus that drops us off at a traffic circle in the city, leaving us standing on the side of the road, with boxes, once again. This time we favor out bodies, flag down a truck and spend the next two hours driving around with the jolly and patient driver, looking for a hostel that seems not to exist. With a since of utter deflation, we unloaded our still boxed bikes on a street corner. While Kevin heads off in search of the elusive hostel or any hotel for that matter, Chris stays with the bikes and watches the street sellers push their carts of dried apricots, dates, raisins and nuts along the road side.

What we finally learn is that the hostel we had been searching for, for the past 3 hours was just across the street.

We send the early afternoon hours at the hostel, assembling out bikes and packing out bags, amazed at how, what seemed to be a small assortment of gear barely fits into our five bags. Occasionally we have an audience of hostel goers, old men and finally a man who lives in Urumqi and is an English teacher.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Great Wall

We apologize in advance for some of the technical issues that we are experiencing with several of these blog posts. Both China and Kazakhstan have not been as internet accessible countries as we were hoping.

It just would not be right visiting Beijing without seeing the Great Wall of China, an amazing sight looking across the horizon to see the wall snaking its way along and over sharp mountain ridges.

We are now also amazed to encounter the Great Firewall of China. Where we have been blocked from accessing our blog, Facebook and Picasa to post photos. Like all great cycling expeditions, we have finally found a way through.

Pushing our boxed bicycles out of the Beijing Airport and into the unfamiliar warmth and smogged skyline that has become part of the city’s signature. Our first attempt at finding transportation resulted in a cab driver who offered to take us the hostel for 480 Yuan (about $80). We finally found the public bus that would take us most of the way for 16 Yuan. What we didn’t realize was that the bus would drop us off on a median, in the middle of a busy express-way and we would spend the next hour laboriously carrying our boxed bikes on our shoulders, through a maze of side streets. Quickly out shoulders and forearms began to ache, and our heads pounded from the dehydration caused from flying. We only found out later that each box weighed a staggering 35 kilos. Being cheap has its price and we paid it with physical labor.

We made it most of the way to the hostel before giving up. I waited, as Kevin went ahead to find us a bicycle we could use to move out gear the last few minutes.

Exploring the hutongs (small village streets) is certainly nothing new for Kevin after having lived here for three years. His knowledge of the language and ability to navigate the bewildering maze that makes up Beijing’s city streets is invaluable.

Over the next few days in the city we rent bikes (complete with front baskets) and cruise the streets trying to not eat the same thing twice. On the day before our departure to Urumqi, we decide to visit the Great Wall which proves, once again, to be ripe with adventure.