CHINA, 12th January 2018
So we have made it to China, but did we make it across the border without using motor vehicles? Read on and you’ll find out:
12th January 2018: Day Seven – 47 kilometres
Dea made the mistake last night of saying out loud that she thought that today would be an easy short day. Just 35 kilometres to the border and we’d stop in the town of Khorgas right on the other side. No problem, right?
Hopes of such an easy day were dashed by a heavy overnight snowfall. The streets of Zharkent were pure white as we cycled through them. It all looked very pretty, but it was the effect the snow had had on the main road that was going to prove our biggest challenge.
But before we’d got out of Zharkent we had one last happy memory of Central Asia to take with us. It happened when I went into a shop to spend the last of our tenge, mostly on cheese. The woman owner was really nice and gave me two hot potato pastries. I took them outside and sat there to share them with Dea, but then the woman invited us back inside and sat us down and gave us coffee as well. Her daughter was also there, a 19-year-old medical student, and they were both really lovely people. We were sure going to miss the people of Kazakhstan, they had been so wonderful to us these last days.
Then our troubles really began. The road was busy with traffic and there was nowhere decent for us to cycle, as the shoulder was buried under half a foot of snow. It was just about possible to ride in this snow, but it was really hard work, and occasionally the bike would skid and slide around as well. Whenever there was a gap in traffic we would get into the road where the wheels of the vehicles had cleared a track, but we could never stay there long before the next vehicle came along. It made for very slow going. Worse still was that many of the vehicles thought it a good idea to beep their horn at us, most likely in a supportive way, but it soon grew incredibly tedious and I had to put my music in just to stop it driving me mad.
We passed several villages, where lots of kids waved at us and to their credit resisted throwing snowballs our way. We stopped for a break next to a mosque that was wailing out the Friday call to prayer. A Lada drove up next to it and the owner got out and headed inside the mosque. It was funny to think that such varied cultural icons, which have become so familiar to us over the last months, were coming towards an end as we approached the end of Central Asia. China was going to be a different world entirely, we already knew.
As the day went on it started to snow on us as we cycled, and the road conditions got worse. Thankfully the road got less busy traffic-wise and so we could spend more time in it, but it remained a serious test of our endurance, especially after yesterday’s 124 kilometres.
Eventually we reached the border, exhausted but very happy to have made it. Now was the moment of truth. Would we be allowed to cycle? Well, the Kazakh side of the border was a lot of work, with a total of seven people checking our passport at various times, and all of our bags having to come off the bikes and through an x-ray machine, but there was no hint of needing to get in a motor vehicle. We did, however, slightly sneek onto the infamous seven kilometre loop in no-man’s land hidden behind a truck, and I remained worried. This loop exists for no reasonable explanation. It essentially goes around in a circle for seven kilometres to get to the Chinese border building a few hundred metres away. Fenced in on a snow-covered road I cycled fast, fearful that at any moment a car was going to come along with someone jumping out and telling us we were not supposed to cycle here. Thankfully the road was good, it was the fastest we cycled all day, and nobody came to stop us.
We made it to the Chinese side of the border, but there was still the challenge of getting into China to overcome. First all of the bags had to come off again and go through an x-ray machine at the entrance to the building. ‘I really hope they aren’t going to ask us to do that again’ I thought as I reloaded everything onto the bike.
Next we went to passport control. The stern woman looked at my passport photo, then at me, then at my passport photo, then at me. “Why does this not look like you?” she asked, seriously. I knew I should have shaved for this! Or, actually, I should never have shaved before I’d had my passport photo taken. “Because we’re cycling,” I said, as if that explained everything about my flushed, weather-beaten, heavily-bearded face. The woman wasn’t convinced, and asked for my signature to see if it matched my passport, then consulted the woman next to her for her opinion on my face.
Her over-the-top scrutiny was interesting, because in front of me on the outside face of her desk were four buttons that I could press, below a question asking me my opinion of her service. The options were Greatly Satisfied, Satisfied, Checking Time Too Long, and Poor Customer Service. I felt like pressing the last option based on her not recognising me, or perhaps the penultimate one, given how long things were taking. It took her ages to decide whether or not to let me into China. “Evaluate my service!!” came a sudden electronic voice and the buttons in front of me lit up. I didn’t know what to do, she still hadn’t given me my entry stamp. Was this a test? I couldn’t very well press Greatly Satisfied, could I? Would hovering my hand over the Checking Time Too Long button help me get the stamp?! I wasn’t sure, so I just stood there and did nothing. The lights went out, then some time later, and with some reluctance, the woman stamped my passport. Hurrah!
Dea had been in another line and had had a similar experience, but she too had now been allowed in, yet this was not the end of our Chinese border experience. Next a man demanded our phones. What he wanted with them we were not sure, but we gave them to him all the same. He then plugged them into a machine that seemed to be pulling all the photos and files off it for them to analyse, but I’m not sure because we were not allowed to watch. We were both a bit put out by this invasion of privacy, especially being so tired as we were, but there wasn’t much we could do. “Well, it is China,” I said. Normal boundaries of privacy and consideration were going to be tested in this country, that was for sure. Eventually we got our phones back, my background changed somehow, and were allowed to continue through the building. We were filed through to another area, where we were greeted by another x-ray machine, where we had to take all our bags off yet again. “Breathe Dea, just breathe.”
All of this was worth it, of course, when we finally got out of the building and cycled out of the gate. It was dark by now, and the snow-covered wide boulevard in front of us was lined with ridiculous neon lights. It was China. We had done it,we had cycled to China! “We’re in China!” we said to one another, and hugged in celebration. This hug didn’t last long however, before being interrupted by a couple of money-changers. We didn’t want to change money, but I think we did show tremendous patience by agreeing to their requests for photos with us, especially as they were rather like the Chinese Chuckle Brothers. One of them gave his phone to the other, then stood and posed with us. But his friend couldn’t work the camera function, which caused him to get a bit annoyed with his friend. Then they swapped places and phones, and now the tables were turned, and ironically this fellow couldn’t work his friends phone either. Finally they had their photos and we asked if he wouldn’t mind taking one of us with our camera (which was not a phone), and you would not believe the trouble he had with that!
We rode on into a very weird town. Neon lights everywhere and a police car circling slowly. People walking aimlessly and a female Chinese voice coming eerily from tannoy systems. We looked around for a hotel, and rejected the first one ostensibly because of the price, but really because of the fact that it had an x-ray machine. The second one was better and we stayed. It also has an x-ray machine and lots of security, but we didn’t have to put all our bags through it, so it’s okay. Now we are in our hotel room and resting. Dea is already asleep because she is exhausted. Today was really, really hard work. We’d like to take a rest day tomorrow, but probably we won’t, because snow is forecast here on Sunday and we want to get away from it tomorrow if we can to avoid a repeat of today. Trouble is that ahead of us now is a 2100 metre mountain pass, with temperatures getting as low as -22 C at the summit plateau. We have made it to China, and that feels amazing, but it is still a long way to Mori, and the challenges just keep coming…
Distance cycled: 364 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 1136 kilometres.