KAZAKHSTAN, 11th January 2018
We have made it to Zharkent, 35 kilometres from the Chinese border. Here’s how we got here:
9th January 2018: Day Four – 0 kilometres
Dea’s knee was giving her some pain in the morning and we were both feeling very tired, not only from cycling but also from staying up late to get this blog updated, so in the morning we decided to take a rest day in Shelek. This decision was made easier by the weather forecast, which showed two days of big headwind followed by one of tailwind. Two days of big headwind was a lot in our fatigued state, so we came up with a plan to rest out the first one, then do a little distance the next day, before hopefully taking full adantage of the tailwind the day after that.
It was a bit silly that we’d worked so hard to get the blog up-to-date the night before, when we could have spent this rest day doing it, but it did at least mean that we now had the whole day free to do what we wanted. Shelek is a small town, but there was one local sight listed on google, a museum which we thought worth checking out, at least if the google reviews were anything to go by. The first review, translated from Russian, began:
‘The museum is absolutely small.’
And this of course had us intrigued at once, yet the reviewer had not finished:
‘But there is something to see. And stuffed animals, and the form of a soldier of the times of the Great Patriotic War, and coins of different years. In a word, you can visit.’
Yes, in a word, we could, and we would, we decided. So we left our room and walked a block to where google said the museum should be. There was no sign of any museum. Maybe it was too small, but in a word, we never found it. So we went to the park instead, which was closed, but we climbed over a fence and trespassed on a bench. Then we went to a shop and bought a thermos flask to try and stop our water from freezing, and all-in-all it had been a great day out.
Distance cycled: 146 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 1354 kilometres.
10th January 2018: Day Five – 47 kilometres
The rest day turned out to be a great idea, for the next morning we both felt revitalised and raring to go again. We left at about ten, although it took us a little while to get out of Shelek trying to find a supermarket, and failing miserably. In the end we left town without enough food, for we were heading out across a long stretch of empty steppe. There was only one village along the way, Nurly, and we gambled we’d find something to eat there.
We didn’t know much about our route. I’d tried to research it by looking at other cyclists’ blogs the day before, but every single one of them took the longer, more southern route to visit some canyons. We didn’t care much for canyons, especially as they’d be buried by snow, and wanted the quickest, most direct way. All we’d heard about it was from the owner of our Shelek guesthouse who we had no common language with, but we think he told us it was a new highway built by Italians. Well, we couldn’t say who built it, but it certainly was a new highway, and a very good one at that, for it was a dual carriageway with a shoulder, and best of all almost no traffic. It was ideal for us. The only problem was that we did have, as promised, a fierce headwind. We battled into it.
It took more than two hours to cover the twenty kilometres to Nurly, which we detoured to across the snow-covered steppe. I was not optimistic. It was not a big place, and most of the houses looked abandoned. But there were a few people around, and they pointed us further along each time that we asked about a shop, until, sure enough, we found one. It was locked. We knocked on the door, and were relieved when it was opened up by a sprightly young man. He gave us a big smile, the first of many, and invited us inside. We bought bread and eggs and chocolate from him, and everything we said was met with enthusiasm and laughs. He told us that his name was Zangar and that he was twenty years old, and he gave us an extra bar of chocolate as a present, or a “surprise” as he called it.
We went outside to sit and eat something. Zangar soon came out with two packets of crisps and gave them to us. “Surprise!” he beamed. Then he went back inside, and came out with two little choclate bars, which he handed to us. “Surprise!” Off he went again, returning this time with two little pens. “Surprise!” But these pens really did have a surprise, for they wrote in invisible ink. The other end of the pen was a blue torch, which when shone on the invisible writing made it visible. This was a very, very cool surprise.
But that wasn’t the end of this wonderful meeting, for Zangar’s grandmother next came out and invited us into the family home behind the shop for chai. We didn’t need much persuading. It was great to get out of the cold wind and sit in the simple home, with Zangar and his large family. The tea was as welcome and delicious as any I’ve ever had, and before we knew it we were being served fried eggs as well. It was a really special sort of surprise.
Beyond Nurly we managed another twenty kilometres into the wind before calling it a night. All around us was bare steppe, but we found a big area that had been partly excavated and cycled down into that to make camp. It offered no protection from the wind whatsoever. But it wasn’t the wind I was most concerned about. A few people had warned us about wolves and I’d taken the time to do a little research the day before about them. I’d been willing to dismiss the warnings, but it turned out that actually Kazakhstan is the country with the most wolves in all of the world, and in winter they come down from the hills to the steppe, and they are hungry and do sometimes attack humans, especially now most of their natural prey has been hunted to low numbers. It was enough to make me nervous, and I put a pile of rocks at the entrance to the tent, just in case. But I need not have worried, for Dea had also come up with her own defence:
Distance cycled: 193 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 1307 kilometres.
11th January 2018: Day Six – 124 kilometres
The wind on our tent caused both of us a little difficulty sleeping, but it was not a particularly cold night (minus six counts as not cold these days) and the wolves were kept at bay by Dea’s message. Climbing out of the tent I was delighted to feel the wind coming from the opposite direction. We had our tailwind!
We got on our bikes and barely needed to pedal. Yesterday we’d been doing less than ten kilometres per hour, now we were more than doubling that. The wind was phenomenal. I put on some music and just enjoyed the ride. The wide highway just went on and on, with barely any traffic on it, and we flew along. Powdered snow was drifting over the road surface sometimes, being blown along as fast as we were, and it was an immensely cool experience to fly along with it.
By early afternoon we realised that it was going to be possible for us to reach Zharkent, the town that we’d intended to stay in tomorrow, such was our rate of progress, and we made it our target. We had to leave the new highway (which looked set to continue straight to the border) and ride the last thirty kilometres on a smaller road with more traffic, but there was a shoulder and nothing was going to stop us now. We rode into Zharkent in the last of the daylight after a scarcely believable 124 kilometres, and found our way to the Sutti Hotel, a lovely relaxing accommodation in which we are currently relaxing.
It has been ten months since we stood on a doorstep in Edinburgh and told a woman we didn’t know that we were cycling to China. Now we are thirty-five kilometres from the Chinese border. It barely feels real. I still don’t think I quite understand it. Tomorrow morning we will leave this hotel and cycle to the border. It is a border that I have thought about many, many times over the last ten months, and actually for a couple of years before that. It is the last border before Mori. It is the last chance for someone to hold their hand up in front of me and say, “Sorry, this is a car-only border,” and completely ruin everything. I know China well enough to know that this really could happen. To be honest, I think deep, deep down, I have always been expecting that it will happen. Tomorrow we will find out.
Actually this border used to not allow people to walk or cycle across it, but for a while now cyclists have been allowed through. The most recent that we know of is our friend Leo, who crossed two months ago. But three and a half years ago my research told me that it was possible to cycle across a border between Siberia and Mongolia, and that turned out to be untrue. I’m now 97% of the way around the world by bicycle and boats, and this is the last border in my way. Is China going to f*ck EVERYTHING up? Probably. We find out tomorrow…
Distance cycled: 317 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 1183 kilometres.
p.s. The internet in China can be a fickle thing. Not 100% sure if we will be able to update this blog from within China. Hopefully we will, but it you don’t hear from us, you shouldn’t fear the worst. Keep an eye on our Facebook page, and if you’re subscribed to our blog we’ll send you an email update.