October 7th, 2016 in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Robin’s bicycle had definitely seen better days and the cracks in his back rim was growing by the day. On top of that, we had yet to hear anything from the Chinese embassy who by now had been holding on to our passports for over a month's time...
It's probably high time that we explained what's going on with the Chinese visas. Getting a Chinese visa in Central Asia is notoriously hard-to-impossible. We knew this before starting this trip, so to make things easier we both got a second passport. The plan was to have a friend (thanks Emma!) apply for our Chinese visas on our behalf back in Sweden and then post us the passports/visas when we reached Osh. But as always, things refused to go as planned and on the same day that our passports reached the Chinese embassy in Stockholm, new rules was being implemented. All of the sudden, providing a current passport wasn't enough. If the passport in question was issued after 2014, they also required you to send them your previous passport. This was something we obviously couldn't do as we were using those passports to enter and exit countries all over Central Asia. Strangely (but luckily) the Chinese embassy also informed us that these rules were most likely temporary and would probably cease sometime around mid-September. Leaving us little choice, we decided to simply wait a month and hope for the best. In the meantime we had plenty of time to forge the flights and hotel reservations needed for the visas.
As we entered Kyrgyzstan just as August ended we had another two weeks of waiting before our visas would (hopefully) start to get processed (but not necessarily be approved). With Osh being only a couple of days away we decided to extend our route in order to see more of Kyrgyzstan while we waited. If we could have our passports sent to Bishkek we could enter China via Kazakhstan, bypassing one of the longer stretchers of desert road and saving us about a week in China.
But before we headed deeper into Kyrgyzstan, we needed to get to Osh. Even if the roads in Kyrgyzstan are 105 times better than in Tajikistan we were still quite high up in the mountains, facing both rain and wind. And just to properly test our patience, Ida set a new record, managing to get three punctures over the span of one pass. But once we'd climbed the second big pass it was all downhill. And for every meter (or at least every 100-meters) we descended the temperature increased just a little. By the time we were getting close to Osh, it felt like summer again.
Coming from the cold and isolated Pamirs in Tajikistan, the warm and “modern” city of Osh was a godsend. There we reunited both with Andrew and Daniel as well as many other fellow travellers we met on the road. Andrew had been more unfortunate than us as his body, bike and Tajik-visa all gave in within a few days, forcing him to take a taxi the last 500 kilometers to Osh. It felt both weird and wonderful being around so many people again.
We enjoyed several days of rest in good company. As always when approaching a bigger city, we had long in advance googled both coffee and burger places. After almost a month up in the mountains, civilization tasted great!
While in Osh, we also tried to find some much needed spare parts for Robin's bicycle but unfortunately came up empty handed. So, as we left for Bishkek, we decided to stick to the paved main road in order to minimise any further damage. We would come to stick with this decision for a whopping two days before we changed our minds.
As we had a lot of time to kill (thanks again China…) and we didn't enjoy all the traffic we decided to take “only a small detour”. Maybe we'd gotten cocky after Tajikistan or maybe we were just being stupid; either way, this might not have been the best decision…
Our detour were to take take us to Arslanbob; the home of the world's largest walnut forest. A couple of kilometers outside the village, we were invited by a semi-drunk man (the normal state of men in this part of the world) named Amir to stay at his place. When we got there, his wife didn't look all to happy with what her husband dragged home but she offered us to have plov (what else) with them nevertheless.
After spending the next day in and around Arslanbob it was time to make our way back to the main road. As we don't like backtracking, we turned onto a small road that, according to our map, would join the main road again after about 85 km. That was a mistake; a mistake that would cost us two tires and last for four (!) days. Good thing Ida accidentally bought way too much beans.
The road did start out as a good asphalted road which then turned into an easy-to-ride gravel road. But soon enough the road came and went, altogether disappearing in the river or turning to a tiny mud track. However, as the sun was shining and we were able to cycle, we were enjoying ourselves anyway, blissfully ignorant of what was to come…
On the second day a big mountain was looming over us and we were faced with Shaldırak Ashburn, a pass at 3 100 meters. We had more than 1 500 meters to climb on a road that was impossible to cycle on. So there was nothing else to do but push our bikes… so we pushed and pushed…and pushed. After several hours it was starting to get dark and we had only gotten about halfway up the mountain. As we hadn't seen a single car since early that morning, we set up camp just beside the road without being particularly concerned.
On the third day (and second day of pushing) we woke in the middle of a cloud. As Robin's hip was hurting from the day before and the road became even steeper we ended up going up with one bike at a time. During this, the weather got worse and worse. It started raining, then hailing and just to make sure we were absolutely loving it, the cold, hard wind whipped the wet hail in from the side, drenching us completely. It didn't help that the road kept on forking where our map did not, forcing us to simply guess and then double back when we guessed wrong. When we finally reached the top, the road forked once again. By now we were cold inside out and as we couldn't see more than maybe 10 meters in front of us we decide to pitch our tent to warm ourselves up, eat some lunch and wait out the storm. According to our bicycle computers we had covered little over five kilometers…
But the decision to stop had been the right one; the next day we woke up to a clear sky, albeit a frosty tent. The views were beautiful as we now could see the entire valley below us. More importantly, we could now see the way down, confirming we had indeed chosen the wrong path the day before in the fog.
But even if the weather had improved, we were not out of the woods yet. The rain had turned the road muddy and slippery making our decent almost as slow as our accent. We soon had mud all over ourselves and we continuously had to stop to clear our wheels from mud. But we clearly didn't stop often enough as Robin's back tire suddenly went BANG! Something stuck in the mud had been rubbing against its side, eating its way down to the inner tube. Luckily, we'd been carrying a foldable spare tire since Turkey so we could easily replace it. Or it would have been easy if both we and our bicycles hadn't been covered in mud and cow dung…
A couple of days later we arrived to Bishkek and At House, a Warmshowers place gone guesthouse in the summer. The place was run by two cats, Malas and Enzo but their humans, Nathan and Angie, handled most of the day-to-day chores. Here, the waiting game for our Chinese visas continued.
But the 15th of September had now arrived and things did, as promised, indeed move along a whole lot faster all of the sudden. After only a few days we got notified that our visas was finally being processed and another couple of days later, they were approved! We were overjoyed! Now they just had to get by post from Stockholm to Emma in Karlskrona, then from Karlskrona to us in Bishkek.
Meanwhile, At House turned out to be a great place for killing time. With a small workshop, lots of spare parts and Nathan's know-how we soon had equipped our bicycles with new tires, bottle holders, a new cassette, fresh chains and a new mud-guard. Robin even learned how to build a wheel while changing his cracked rim and soon our bicycles was as ready as us to take on China.
We stayed in Bishkek for a total of six days, until Emma (thanks again!) had handed over our package to DHL. Then we left for Karakol and some horse-trekking (aka kill some more time)!
We decided on a 3-days horse-trek. We know as much about horses as our guide knew English, that's to say none, but sign- and body language seemed to work fine with both our guide as well as our horses.
Our first day started off slow and easy (and somewhat boring) as we rode along a river to some hot springs where we spent the night in a yurt.
On our second day things got a bit more exciting as we (and with “we” we mean the horses) trekked up to the base of the Alakiel’ Sievernyi pass. As the pass got too steep for our four legged friends, we had to climb the last section on foot. It had snowed all through the night and we couldn't help but feel a little like the fellowship as we left our horses behind to reach the top. Any other day we would have been rewarded with a beautiful view of a crystal green Ala-köl lake but as it was both windy and overcast the lake looked like any other lake and we quickly turned back and climbed down through the snow again.
Our third and last day might not have been as adventurous as the previous day but instead took us back to Karakol through a forest dressed in autumn colors (yep autumn has caught up with us) and over some of the high pastures that Kyrgyzstan is famous for. It was a nice and peaceful end to our trek but our legs and asses was glad to see the end of it.
We returned to Bishkek after five days, desperately hoping that our passport would have already arrived. Unfortunately, we weren't that lucky. So the waiting game continued… We had coffee and constantly tracked our package online which by now had made it to Copenhagen (wrong direction…). We cooked dinner with everyone at At House and saw the package arrive at Heathrow, England (even more in the wrong direction…). And then the weekend arrived and the package didn't move at all. We drank more coffee and watched the rain pour down outside. People came and went at At House while we were still not going anywhere. But we continued our waiting, becoming more and more restless. We just wanted to be on our way. We didn't want to hang about in Bishkek while the road in front of us was getting colder and colder. But we didn't have a choice, so we drank more coffee, watched some movies and drank even more coffee… all while wondering why our package refused to leave London…
But then one morning, our package arrived! It would seem that Kyrgyzstan does not use the online tracking system, so even if we now had our package in our own hands, online, it said it was still in London...
And as soon as we had our passports, we packed our bags, got on our bikes and headed east. We were finally on our way to China! But before we got there we had to make a small but necessary detour through Kazakhstan...