KYRGYZSTAN, KAZAKHSTAN and DENMARK, 21st November 2017 – 2nd January 2018
”Team 3” I pronounced as Liz, Leo and I posed for our departure picture outside Friend’s Guesthouse in Bishkek. ”Because we are three people, with names consisting of three letters, aiming to cycle from Bishkek to Almaty in three days.”
Chris was not in the picture but taking it, because his name does not consist of three letters and because he was not aiming to cycle from Bishkek to Almaty in three days. It was time for us to split our two-man-team for a little while. In Friend’s Guesthouse he had a comfortable room with bed, a desk and wifi, there was a furry cat and a kitchen, an older British woman and a loud Kazakh man were the only other guests this time of the year, but there was also a table tennis table and some very table tennis skilled staff members, so I was not too worried he would die of boredom waiting here for me while I went to Denmark to apply for my Chinese visa.
I was not flying home from Bishkek, but from Almaty, because the flights were cheaper from there and it would give us less distance to the Chinese border once we, hopefully, would begin our China Mission Ride at New Years. I had been excited to cycle the 240 kilometres from Bishkek to Almaty by myself as a little solo adventure, but Liz, whom we had already cycled from Osh to Bishkek with, also was heading that way so we decided to make it a team effort. Leo, a fellow cyclist who Chris and I had met in The Pamir Lodge back in Khorog, Tajikistan, had stayed in Friend’s Guesthouse for several weeks waiting for his passport to return by post from France with a Chinese visa in it, and as he happily received it he also decided to join forces with Liz and me.
Team 3 was settled and ready to go.
Chris and I kissed goodbye, hugged and kissed some more. We were growing so close undertaking this journey together, spending every minute in each other’s company, sharing the good and the bad, supporting each other when times were tough and finding fun and joy wherever we could. Now we were to be apart for more than a month, and even though it was strange and I already was looking forward to be with him again, I also knew it was a good thing that we would have some time for ourselves to keep some sort of balance in things. So we kissed one last time and then I cycled off down the footpath along the busy main road with my new team following close behind me.
Getting through the centre of the city and out on the other side was easier than I had feared and soon we found ourselves on some quiet country lanes lined with slim, tall trees so that I very oddly was reminded of cycling in Holland. That was only until I turned my head though, and once again was stunned by the mountains that rose white and mighty behind the city, again seeming to grow bigger the further away we got from them. It was the last goodbye to the hardships and beauty I had experienced in the Central Asian mountains and I was fond of the memories.
Getting through the border control and customs on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border a little later was relatively easy and I once again felt the thrill of excitement being in another country. I had liked Kazakhstan when we had cycled from Aktau to Beyneu back in August, the vast steppe with the camels and horses, and the Kazakh people friendly and generous. I was glad to be able to visit the country once again.
Because I had a warmshower host awaiting me in Almaty three days later I hoped we could cycle 80 kilometres per day, and my team was happy to go on those terms. So we pushed through into Kazakhstan, happily wondering why it felt like we were cycling downhill when we were expecting a smaller pass to arise on this first stretch of Kazakh road. It seemed more like it would be the wind that was going to cause us trouble when it began to pick up demanding all our efforts to keep up our pace. Then the hills began to rise and then a short, winding climb came into sight just as the wind grew furious and nearly forced us off the bikes. Leo was strong and struggled ahead of me, Liz struggled behind me and when I stopped a minute she caught me up, saying: ”If I get too far behind I might take a lift, it is too hard, I don’t think I can do it.” But she was not the only one forced to her knees, soon we were all off the bikes pushing them into the wind that had made it impossible to cycle. It was the worst headwind I had ever experienced.
Slowly we made it to the top of the climb and realised that we were now up on a plateau where the wind hauled against us with still another 20 kilometres to the descent. We managed to cycle into the wind, but not much more than that and after 10 kilometres of slow progress the sun set and we desperately searched the landscape for something that could provide some shelter for our camp. There wasn’t much to see, but further up a row of trees lined the road, and it proved to be our only option, and a surprisingly good one. We got off the road, pitched the tents and Liz made me our usual, but favorite camping dinner: pasta with beans that we ate sheltered and warm inside my tent. I was tired and a little concerned about this wind and the prospect of making it to Almaty. We had only cycled 70 kilometres and if the wind kept on like this it would take a week, but my flight was in four days. With such thoughts at my mind I was happy not being all by myself.
The next morning we continued into the wind that hadn’t eased much over the night. We all hoped that getting down from the plateau would help and slowly I counted down the 10 kilometres. But before we reached it, Leo and Liz had stopped behind me, and I went back to them (blown along by the wonderful tailwind) to find out that his rear derailleur had snapped off the frame. He had been wearing socks on top of his gloves to keep his fingers warm, but had taken them off to take a picture. The sock seemed to have disappeared and he got back on the bike, only to feel some resistance in his pedals and then the whole drivetrain snap when he pushed hard, because the sock had been stuck in the derailleur. Now the bike looked unridable. Leo considered trying to shorten the chain and ride without the derailleur but given the hard weather conditions he gave up on the idea and instead flagged down a truck. Team 3 was down to two…
Liz and I made it to the descent and were relieved to feel the wind ease off as we whizzed down getting freezing cold. At the bottom we reached the main road going to Almaty and after recharging our depots and body temperatures with coffee, chocolate, crisps and pirogs (fried bread stuffed with potato) inside a warm little shop, we took a great challenge upon us. It was midday and we had cycled 20 kilometres, but we wanted to make it a 100 kilometre day. The road was straight and flat and had a smooth gravel shoulder for me to cycle on, safely distanced from the traffic while watching Liz fearlessly being passed closely by trucks, busses and cars up on the tarmac while she listened to a Twin Peaks audio book. We split the day into blocks of 30 kilometres, took some short breaks and as the light began to soften and the shadows grew long I began to shout out our gained kilometres to Liz in front of me. ”89”, ”90”, ”91” and so on until we reached 100. We whooped and threw our fists in the air and then immediately rolled off the road to camp in the trees next to it. As we did so I discovered I had a flat tyre, but it was timed perfectly, now I could fix it while Liz again cooked us dinner not losing any riding time.
It was the last night of camping for me for a long time. Although we were close to the road it was a nice place with a little stream, the flat steppe and a mountain range on the horizon. I loved this way of living so much and only felt happiness when I put on all my warm clothes for the evening and performed my routines when getting to bed (after a tremendous ‘movie night’ with Liz watching the episode of The Long Way Round where Ewan and Charlie ride through Kazakhstan). I slept soundly without ever feeling cold although there was a beautiful layer of frost on our tents the next morning and Liz’s phone told us it had been down to -17 degrees. I had learned so much during our early winter cycling through the mountains of Central Asia and it made me confident that I was ready to step up the challenges and take on some deep winter cycling in China in January.
It was such a lovely morning with the frost on the tents and bikes and the grass and the trees. The sun was rising and Liz made us coffee and after our long day, we needed not to hurry, but rejoiced our outdoor life once more.
Finally we got going, but not more than 300 metres, then Liz realised she had a flat tyre. ”You don’t need to wait for me” she said, but there was no way I could let down Team 3 and let it dissolve completely, so I stood by with my best guidance as she fixed only her second puncture since she left England in the summer.
The road to Almaty naturally grew more and more busy, so that even Liz, the fearless London cyclist, retreated to the gravel shoulder, and bumping up and down manouvering through parked cars and driveways we entered the edge of Almaty. Here I turned off to find my host Nurseit’s house, while Liz went on to her hostel in the city centre. Nurseit’s wife let me in and guided me straight to the bathroom, and when I had finished there Nurseit came home. Besides being a doctor in social science, he was one big smile and a flow of talking, questions about me and my life mixed with his interesting analysis of the cultural and political differences between Central Asia and Europe. His heart also beated for adventures and him and his wife were planning several motorbike trips in the future. I was treated with a lovely everyday meal together with the family and was helped with anything I needed, before I exhausted fell asleep with my first mission completed.
The next morning I repacked my stuff so that I could travel to Denmark with a backpack and leave the rest with my bike in Nurseit’s basement. What a strange feeling to leave my normal life behind like that and now head for the city centre on foot with a backpack on my back. I thought walking was a great idea, but after 5 kilometres I was so happy I was cycling and not walking around the world, what a struggle that would be!
On the way I visited some bike shops that Nurseit had guided me to that might have studded winter tires for sale. It was one of the many additions to our eqiupment that Chris and I thought we would need for our winter expedition. In the last shop I had luck, but I didn’t realise it. The bike mechanic showed me some tires with studs, they looked quite thin and cheap to me, and I didn’t know the brand, Nokian. It said: ”Handmade in Finland” on them and I thought that at least was much better than ”Made in China”. The mechanic spoke only Russian, but I’m sure he told me these were the best tires not only in Almaty but in the world, and that he got a little annoyed when I didn’t immediately believe him,
I went to my hostel, relived to have finished my long hike, only to go back to the shop to buy the tires, as Chris and I had researched the internet to find the Nokian tires really were some of the best winter tires. But now it was another model the mechanic would sell me and the price was higher. So I retreated again to the hostel to confer with Chris. Meanwhile Liz had come to my hostel, where Leo also stayed, and Team 3 decided to go to a Georgian restaurant to celebrate the reunion and that we all made it to Almaty. On the way to the restaurant I went back to the shop for the third time, it was closing time and the mechanic was in his civil clothes now, ready to go home. Surprised, still slightly annoyed, but also satisfied that I finally believed him, he now sold me the four best winter tires in Almaty. And another mission was completed.
Liz, Leo and I shared memories and experiences from Georgia (and many other places we’d been to on our journeys) over khachapuri, bean pot, wine and cha-cha. Then it was time to say goodbye to Liz, and it was a little sad, as we had now travelled together for quite a while and had a great time. But her journey was to continue in South East Asia and I was heading for Denmark. Leo I waved off the next morning as he began his ride towards China and boy, I envied him that he was already on his way.
Later in the afternoon I felt a lump in my stomach and burning in my eyes when the airplane roared down the airstrip and then suddenly left the ground to soar higher and higher up and away from Almaty and the mountains. After having cycled all the way here it felt wrong to go back to where I’d started so fast. But that was how it had to be, and when I was received in the airport in Copenhagen by my little brother I could only feel happy that I was so lucky to have both a good life out on the road and a loving base back home.
My next big mission was to get a Chinese visa and I expected it to be a hard one, especially because I had understood that the Chinese are extra suspicious to people who have been in Turkey for more than a sunny holiday, and I have both been studying in Istanbul and cycled there for a month during this trip. So I expected to go through a lot, and surely more and more documentation was requested during the first week when I revealed my past travel history. Finally I was called in for an interview at the embassy the next week, something that made me quite nervous although I had nothing to hide. In reality the interview was an informal chat with a girl behind a glass window who got very impressed by my cycling habits and wanted me to tell about the mountains in Switzerland, Turkey and Tajikistan. So I thought, I had made it through and could expect to have a visa in my passport within the next few days. But China had more in store for me. As I called the application centre by the end of the week I was told that the embassy could not make a decision on whether to grant the visa or not, so my case had been sent to China. And it would take a month before the case would be over. To apply for the visa I had needed to book a flight ticket to China and I had booked it for the 2nd January, but my real flight back to Almaty was on the 27th of December. I was told everyone would try and have my visa ready for the 2nd, but no sooner than that. I had been looking forward to go back to Chris for New Years to begin our ride, but this was not going to be and I rebooked my flight to the same 2nd of January, hoping that things would at least fall into place by then.
I could not do more than be patient now and try not to fear the worst, something I tend to find pretty difficult. So it was good I had so many people to distract me from impatience and alternative plans if I could not cycle through China, things that reminded me that my life was not all about cycling and Chinese bureacracy. Not only did I have my family and long line of friends that I wanted to spend as much time with as possible. The Danish women handball team was playing fairly good in the European Championship which made for some classic evenings of cheering, biting fingernails and discussing tactics as they made it to the quarter finals. New babies had come to the world in my friend’s lives, more were on their way, and best of all was to spend a lot of time with my own little nephew Laurids. Christmas was also under way which meant that Christmas decorations and Christmas present were to be made, Christmas concerts were to be heard and The Smurf’s Christmas songs were to be repeated, glögg was to be drunken and ‘æbleskiver’ (a little ball of dough with an apple piece inside being baked in butter) to be baked. And deep inside I was hungry for all this, not having been in Denmark for Christmas the last two years, and spending Christmas with my parents and siblings was something that would warm me onwards on the long ride through China – that I hoped to begin soon.
Finally on the 29th I received a call that made me scream and jump in the air (after I hung up with the Chinese woman) as I was told that my visa would be ready to pick up in the very last minute on the 2nd of January (that I now had to pay extra for the express process made no sense at all, but I was too happy to complain). With this knowledge and my final mission almost completed (I still didn’t have the passport with the visa in my hand) I celebrated New Years Eve with a group of my good, old girl friends and partied like I hadn’t done in many years. The night ended like this:
And on the 2nd of January I smiled to the blue sky as I walked out of the visa centre with a Chinese visa in my hand. My mission was completed and our ride together to Mori and beyond was going to be real. Just one more flight and I would be back where I had left my life six weeks before, and I had a feeling that 2018 had a lot of adventure, challenges and beautiful moments in store for me.
Bishkek – Almaty – Copenhagen – Almaty
240 kilometres cycled
12,000 kilometres by airplane in 20 hours (return flight from Almaty to Copenhagen). Just for your thoughts it is the same distance we have cycled over eight months since we left Edinburgh