It was great to get that Kazakhstan visa in our passport – our ticket out of Chinaland. It was also really frustrating that we didn’t get it a few days earlier. We had come so close. I thought it was stupid to try and get to Kazakhstan in the five days we had left on our Chinese visa, especially since any problems on that last day could cause us to miss the border before it closed for the evening and land us in bags of trouble. While I thought an arrest at the border would be great for the blog, the fines would devastate our budget. Besides, as I said to Kat, ‘What have we got to prove?’
Pondering this we were glad that we had now got to the point in our trip where we didn’t feel we had to do anything to prove anything to ourselves or anyone else. While we had always told ourselves that we were on our own journey with the world at our feet to explore, there had always been a certain vanity, pride or insecurity somewhere below the surface. In the darker moments of our adventures Kat would say, ‘We can’t just fly home. We have told everyone we are going to cycle around the world…’ I would sometimes fall into the trap of judging how good days were by how many kilometres we had cycled – the more distance you cover, the better you are doing. But now we felt liberated from that baggage. We would take the bus, because that was the wise thing to do. There was a slim chance we could make the border, our cycling journey unbroken but there was much more probability that we would fall short and the risk was not worth it.
As we walked through a park close to the embassy Kat stopped me. ‘Did you just say there is a slim chance we could could cycle all the way to Kazakhstan? I thought it was impossible now?’
‘It is still possible in theory. The bike might stop breaking, we might get a tailwind, if we cycled from dawn until night – sure, there is a chance.’ I replied with hesitance.
With a little glint Kat said ‘Let’s find out. Besides I know how to cycle. Getting the bus sounds stressful.’
Over 700 kms in five days, the mission was on but not because of vanity, pride or insecurity but because, well I guess we were just curious. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to convince Kat that the mantra ‘He who dares wins’ was coined by the SAS, not Del-Boy from Only Fools and Horses.
Day 1 – 195 kms
We left at dawn from our crappy hostel. The first day had to be big. We took great satisfaction in waking up the miserable receptionist who was sleeping on a sofa by the front door. In an action a little out of character for me, I ‘accidentally’ rammed the tandem into the said sofa a few times to make sure she let us out quickly. We were completely focused on our goal.
After the usual mistakes trying to get out of a big city, we were finally flying down the road. Kat cranked up the tunes and we were unashamedly just thrashing out the kilometres. At 40 kms, a quick puncture fix on the trailer. At 150 kms, a broken spoke replaced during a drink stop. With day light left at our planned stop, we just kept going. A massive 195 kms and we made it to a hotel.
Day 2 – 128 kms
After a cheeky extra hour in bed, we were back on the road. Our flag had snapped off in the night. Curiosity gone too far or a message? Probably the former. The people in Shawan were as always in China, friendly but as we were reaching the fringes of the Chinese ’empire’, we knew there was tension below the surface but not with two grubby cyclists from the UK… The main road was being worked on and we had many hours of terrible service roads shared with poorly driven trucks.
Back on the good road we cycled late to get the miles in. The tent was put up quickly close to the road. We have realised that using the tandem at one end and a trailer at the other to tie our guy ropes to, we can pop the tent up without having to use tent pegs on bad ground.
Day 3 – 143 kms
After throwing up the tent in the dark the previous night, we were up again with the first sign of light.
A little sore from the day before but the road was good and there was no headwind. We had two slow punctures but regular pumps kept us going – a couple more spokes broke. But we were in ‘the zone’.
We found a nice hotel on the road and stuffed our hungry little faces. The bemused staff all wanted photos in the morning and gave us a big pot of local honey to see us up the hill…
Day 4 – 99 kms
The hill. They weren’t joking. We knew there was a big pass after the days of relative flat. We also knew we had to get to the top on day 4 to have a chance of reaching Kazakhstan in time. We could almost taste victory, mixed with the sweet honey.
We felt a few mixed feelings on our penultimate day, passing through small tired villages on the slow ascent.
We were exhausted and the incline of the road was punishing. To top it off repairs to the main road forced us on to dusty service roads again. The cruel road after three hard days sent our average down to a walking pace. The top never seemed to come.
We rode well into the night. We managed to sneak on to the main road in the dark, only to cycle into soft, newly laid tarmac. The work men were very friendly and waved us on. A few more times we were confronted with scary machines with huge headlights laying road, pulling our bike over to let these monsters pass. There was nowhere to camp by the road, besides we had to push on. We were near delirious when we finally noticed the bike was moving without us having to pedal – the top. We found a piece of grass and finally camped at around midnight. It had been over 14 hours on the road and a climb of almost 2 kms probably our longest single ascent of the trip.
Final Day – 156 kms – A beautiful end to China.
We woke before the sun and started packing up. Like robots, we didn’t really talk, we were battered. I told Kat there should be a lake outside the tent. We couldn’t see anything when we arrived in the dark. We both shrugged. We had another long day ahead and, big deal, a lake.
We were soon in awe. While we are normally rewarded after a long climb, we weren’t expecting this. Our bodies cried out in pain, which gave us the chance to have a plenty of stops to breathe in the fresh mountain air and suck up the peace of this little Eden. To our surprise, not a mine or power station in sight. It was beautiful.
To top it off we spotted some yurts and waved to some men on horseback grazing their sheep. Our sore bits were soon forgotten.
What must it be like to live in a yurt up here?
We were having a great start but it was a slow start. I was worried that we couldn’t make the border and we were running on empty. We decided that if we were still far from the border at lunchtime we would try and get a lift on a truck.
We needn’t have worried. Upon entering a tunnel at the other end of the lake, we were reminded that hills go down as well as up. Hooch screamed through the tunnel and we entered a wonderful helter-skelter of tunnels and bridges that guided us down about 75 kilometres through a labyrinth of mountain slopes and valleys to the border.
As the road flattened out, huge bushes of cannabis by the roadside wafted fragrantly in the late morning heat. A weight began to lift off our shoulders. We were finally leaving China. Our minds and bodies knew it. Even the flora seemed to know it.
We made the border with just over an hour to spare. We had dared and won. Then it dawned on us, as we entered the outlandish, gold teethed, free-for-all chaos of the Kazakh side of border control, we were now in our first Central Asian country – our only term of reference a man called Borat…