We are not alone!
Our illusions of being rather special and unique have been well and truly shattered. Bishkek is a fairly reliable place for getting visas to all sorts of other places, and is also at a bit of a pinch-point between mountain ranges and less easily traveled places like Afghanistan, and so it seems every other cyclist and backpacker filters through here at some point in their central Asian travels. So, here we are, along with about 20 other travellers, all waiting for various visas, in a guesthouse with a garage packed full of bikes (no other Pinos though). It’s lovely in many respects, but also a little deflating.
We left Almaty at rush hour (which is pretty much like any other hour of the day in that car-crowded city) and made our way in fits and starts through the choking smog, avoiding as best we could the more erratic and impatient of the many erratic and impatient drivers who have made Almaty the city where we’ve had the most near-misses in over 18,000km of cycling (2011 & 2012 trips). Eventually though, we cleared the city with only one car having nudged into our trailer, and headed west on a reasonably civilised main road. We only managed 30km before dusk fell, and camped up in a field next to an old land-fill site. Not ideal, but not as bad as we’d feared.
The next morning we had barely got going when we saw a touring bike parked up at a cafe and so we excitedly stopped to say hello. Juergen (near the end of his 5 week Central Asian holiday) was enjoying a pot of chai and a large plate of plov (rice with meat) so we ordered the same and joined him. 20 minutes later another loaded bike rolled into view and in came Charlie (in the middle of his 4 year cycling odyssey). Since we were all heading in the same direction we decided it would be pleasant to share the journey, and so our merry band of adventurers was formed.
It felt strange riding in a convoy, and was a bit of a blow to our egos to discover that solo bikes receive just as many toots and waves of encouragement as we do (we’d so enjoyed feeling special). But it was really nice to have company and fresh conversation at our wild camp that night. We camped out on the steppe with sun-dappled mountains behind us and in the morning entertained the first guests in our gigantic tent as Juergen and Charlie joined us to avoid the rain that suddenly blew in partway through breakfast.
The next day we met four other cyclists heading in the opposite direction and swapped travel tales and visa tips with them. They were on their way to stay with our Almay host, Tas. It’s a small world round here.
We had a bit of a climb to get over the line of hills that separate Almaty and Bishkek, and Juergen and Charlie soon pulled away from us. We caught up with them on the descent though (although we suspect they’d sat up and coasted a little) and all rolled up to the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border together. First through was Juergen, who was travelling without a Kazakh visa and relying on a reciprocity agreement between the countries to allow him to travel for 5 days in Kazakhstan on his Kyrgyz visa. He’d printed out a piece of paper with the relevant rules written out in Russian and this had previously got him from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan, and he was hoping would see him pass smoothly back in the other direction. To our astonishment and relief he passed through with no problems.
Next up was Charlie, who hadn’t realised he needed to register his visa whilst staying in Kazakhstan. Once he’d been made aware of his mistake (long after the five day registration deadline was up) he’d gone to a provincial police station in a last-gasp attempt to register, but, for reasons we can only guess at, they hadn’t actually stamped his migration card. To no-one’s surprise the border guards were most displeased by this infringement and Charlie was led off, slouching for our benefit like a naughty school-boy, to be interrogated in some hidden room. Keith and I, with documents and stamps all in order, passed through with no problems, but didn’t know what to do about Charlie’s bike, which was lying forlornly on its side amidst the ebbing and flowing tide of people trying to push their passports to the front of the queue. We waited for half an hour or so, until one of the guards started to get rather brusque with us at which point we reluctantly left Charlie and his bike to their fate and moved through to the Kyrgyz side of the process where we had to go into a little room to get a stamp and then show our passports and the stamp to a guard who refused to let us walk through and insisted we mount up and ride so he could see the Pino in action. At this point Charlie caught up with us, having worn down his interrogators with his pleasant insistence that he had no money with which to pay a fine and a complete lack of concern at the threat of being held overnight.
Juergen was waiting for us in Kyrgyzstan and the four of us rode into Bishkek together. The other two had been told of a good hostel in Bishkek so we followed them straight to the Sakura Guesthouse and booked in, then Keith and I hot-footed it to the BaiMa visa agency recommended by Mary and Peter who we’d met on the road the day before to apply for our Chinese visas. Annoyingly, it was 5.45pm, their office closed at 6 and their English speaker wasn’t in the office, so they told us to come back the following morning, which was a Friday.
We returned bright and early on the Friday morning, anxious to get the process started as we knew that the Chinese embassy only processed visa applications on Wednesday and Friday mornings. The English speaker still hadn’t arrived so we sat and waited, and then Keith realised that of the four passport-size photos he possessed, no two were alike and indeed only one showed him with a beard and long hair, so we shot off to get some new photos taken. When we returned the English speaker was in and took our passports and photos, but said it would be too late to take them to the embassy that morning – she could only hand them in the following Wednesday and then it would take a week to get the visa. This was very bad news for our schedule so Keith pleaded and cajoled and she eventually said if we paid $20 extra each we could have a fast-track service which would mean the visas would be ready five days sooner on the Friday. She then phoned the embassy and said it was still OK to get the application in today if she hurried and so we could have our visas the following Friday without paying the $20 supplement….all she needed from us was $150 each, in US dollars. Aaaargh. Luckily, ATMs in Bishkek dispense cash in either Kyrgyz Som or US dollars, so we took out the required amount and flew back down the hill to the agency….but sadly the delay meant it was too late to get the application in that morning and we ended up having to pay the $20 supplement for a fast-track after all. Still, that was one job done and we could now relax and enjoy our week in Bishkek.
We toyed with the idea of going trekking for a few days, but have decided to save our knees for the arduous ascents that lie ahead of us and so have spent a lot of our time lounging in the pleasant little courtyard at Sakura Guesthouse, chatting to other travellers and sharing maps, travel plans and bike maintenance tips. The only downside to this otherwise lovely little hostel is its proximity to a mosque, which means the tranquility of the little courtyard is shattered at regular intervals by the amplified calling of the imam…particularly irksome for us infidels at 5.30am.
Bishkek’s a nice city to spend time in. Compact enough to walk round easily and without too much traffic, it’s got plenty of cheap cafes and bars, decent enough shops, lots of parks and a few museums and theatres.
We expanded our cultural horizons one evening with a trip to the Philharmonia to hear some traditional Kyrgyz music. The programme ranged from a sublimely talented solo performance on the komuz (a small 3-stringed lute-like instrument with a sound not dissimilar to a muffled banjo) to some traditional singing which was something of an acquired taste and sounded to our ears like very nasal shouting rather than singing. It was clearly a crowd-pleaser for the rest of the audience though so we clapped along with the best of them. In front of us were two elderly ladies who were having the time of their lives, clapping enthusiastically and completely out of time with the music and the rest of the audience. The performance was being filmed and when the cameraman panned round to show the audience he had the temerity to pass over these ladies, so one of them grabbed him by the sleeve and dragged him back to take their picture properly. I suspect we will be seen giggling helplessly in the background at that point.
Keith has bought a rather nice felt hat to keep his head warm on the high mountain passes, I’ve bought some extravagant down booties to keep my tootsies warm and we managed to find a map of Xinjiang province (northwest China) that helpfully has both English and Chinese place names marked on it. For anyone else travelling this way, the map was from a travel agency called Novi Nomad.
We should be receiving our Chinese visas on Friday 21 September and will then be setting off through the mountains to cross the Irkeshtam pass into China. In our initial route-planning we anticipated reaching the pass on the 4th of October, but we’ve just discovered (from some other cyclists here in the guesthouse and confirmed on the interweb) that the frontier is closed for a Chinese holiday from 30 September to 7 October, so we now have a good excuse to take things easy on the climbs with a view to crossing into China on the 8th.