Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Borders, Blizzards and Introduction to Kyrgyzstan

Left Kashgar and crossed out of China into Kyrgyzstan on Friday.
Border crossing was a bit of a quirky exercise in problem solving.
Our time in Kyrgyzstan so far has been a mix of wild weather, warm hospitality but also food for thought.
We are in Osh, and will ride north to Bishkek in a day or two.

As we left Kashgar, a friendly driver accompanied us for 10km as he taxied children home from school. He chatted and sang constantly, making the kms pass quickly!!

Preparing some dinner in our desert camp before the Chinese Border

We couldn’t find the border to exit China. We’d gotten up at 5am from our desert camp, all prepped to hit the border town of Uluqat right on opening time. But here we were at 11.30am, after riding an extra 34km backtracking when we realised we’d missed it, still riding around brand new labyrinths of roads trying to find this elusive border checkpoint! How can you have a border gate that is easier to miss than find?! This final riddle clanged around in our heads as we spent our last morning in China. Answer: Because you’ve just built a brand new road with the same name (the S309) and put your border checkpoint on that, before you’ve closed or directed people off the old S309.

Again, in a parallel experience to our arrival, the heavy sound of stamping on our open passports was echoed by a ringing satisfaction in our hearts! We had finally made it! We had enjoyed our fascinating time in China, but we were ready to move on! Kyrgyzstan here we come.
Our passports checked by upwards of ten officials, we were then hurriedly loaded with our bikes and bags onto a couple of lorries for the travel through the sensitive 150km of no-mans-land. Ollie trying desperately to tie the bikes upright in the huge lorry tray before being bundled into the front truck and me into another further down the convoy, not knowing quite where we were heading, as we pulled out onto the bumpiest road yet, with our drivers who spoke no English, we had to again surrender any kind of control. 

On top of one of the lorries that is taking us through no-mans-land. The other two trucks of the convoy are in the backround. (We rode inside the lorries, this was just a photo op when we were checking on the bikes!)
Rather surprisingly, we did end up together on the Kyrgyz border. And absolutely miraculously, the bikes proved undamaged by their 4 hours of bouncing. The Kyrgyz welcome was hearty. Happy “Hello”s, “Assalamu laikum”s, and charade jokes asking whether we had any bombs in our panniers, gave us some pretty happy feelings about our new country of abode. 

The Kyrgyz welcome continued 7km down the road. Young children spied us as we got within 100m of their village and came sprinting towards us with more bright “Hello”s! Inviting us in for chai, the family offered us dinner and a bed for a pretty reasonable cost. We are realizing that this is very common here, and having tourists to stay is a good extra income boost for some of them. We spent a happy evening wandering with the children around their village, visiting their school and meeting their teachers, before having dinner with the family.

Isslah and one of our host children, Sezimy, in front of their school. Nourra Village, Kyrgyzstan

Having a meal with our Kyrgyz hosts. Chai, bread, plov (rice dish), old cream and fermented yoghurt.
Arriving in a new place you are struck with some things that you immediately love, and other things that suprise you. In the little we have seen of Kyrgyzstan we have enjoyed much, but have many questions that will be in some part answered as we travel further. With the wonderful quick offers of hospitality we are learning to check how much it will cost, and wondering about the expectations around this. With the fun and friendly children and the busy family life, we have sometimes been suprised by a harsher side to some roles and relationships between children and parents. With the big spreads of food, we have been wondering how to politely accept but consume as little as possible of strange fermented dairy products, and how to manage the insistently “offered” vodka shots. There is lots that is new for us, and we will learn a lot more as we spend the next few weeks here.

Getting some help from Isamat to push my bike up to the road as we headed away from Nourra in the drizzle.
The next day was probably our toughest day on the bikes yet. Our still and lightly drizzling morning seemed to promise a clearing to a beautiful springtime Kyrgyz day. That was not to be, and as the sky darkened and our road climbed endlessly into snowy hill tops, we quickly downed some noodles before it all packed in. 

Feeling the lack of a map (we couldn’t buy a Kyrgyz map in Xinjiang), and with the cycle computer stopped working again, we were riding rather blind. We were definitely riding blind as the snowflakes turned to icy sleet, finding ways to pierce my pupils even when I tried to tuck my head far in under my peeked hood. As you would imagine, we got very snowily wet, very cold, and very tired. We knew we had about 80km to a town called Sari Tash, and as we started to meet tough herdsmen huddling with their flocks out in the white expanse, we gleened from them that we were 20km away, then 10km. We did make it, and again were quickly offered a bed, chai and plov. What a huge relief to huddle over the wire coil heater in a room lain with rugs, and drink endless chai! 

After an hour or two, the snow began to plaster onto our panniers, clothes and faces.

By the time we arrived in Sari Tash, we were well plastered!

Basically though, both our confidence and our bodies were pretty severely knocked. When it started to snow again as we headed out of town the next morning, we flagged down a passing truck for a 200km lift to a lowland and warm city Osh, in the Fergana Valley. Here we are still resting, enjoying the kebabs and the hospitality of our guesthouse. Five Muslim men run it, and they are just wonderful, a load of fun. It is a beautiful town, and a really ancient centre of civilization. Its population is 40% Uzbek, and from the small rocky promontory we wandered up yesterday, we could look out into Uzbekistan, only 8km away. In a day or two we will start to cycle north from here to the Kyryz capital, Bishkek.

A huge huge thanks for Andy who has been posting our blog while we’ve been in China! That’s been so valuable to us to still be able to share news and photos with you. Now we’re out in lands of internet freedom, we should be able to check and post ourselves. And thanks heaps to all of you who put some time into reading about our adventures!! Your interest is a huge support and encouragement to us!

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