Creswick to London » The Silk Road

The Silk Road

Written by Jess Dan. Posted in China, Kazakhstan

Our brief stint in China ground to a halt at the Korgas border post with Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs over the other side were holding their annual celebrations for the end of the second world war which went on for five days. We found a cheapish spot to set up for four nights at 100Y and I caught the overnight sleeper bus back and forth to Urumqi to pick up our passports with our shiny new Kazakh visas. Too my surprise the visa we had been issued had already started ticking the day prior, and by the time we finally crossed the border we were on day 5 of our 30 day non-renewable visa.

The cycle across to Korgas from Urumqi was a spectacular 6 days. We bought some new workmen gloves for 50c in Urumqi as the temperature reached maximums of 13 and 14 degrees with an incredible windchill. The ride featured many snow capped mountains to the south – this is the first time Jess has been around snow and she is quite excited. After Usu we headed out into an incredibly remote stretch that began to remind us of our cycle through the middle of Australia. Big distances separating food, water and patches shade. We found ourselves sitting in drains under the road to get out of the sun and wind for a spell.

Alongside the road we were impressed to see many Bactrian (2-hump) camels with cowboys in hot pursuit. We also took in the new sight of large white yurt tents that the Kazakhs live in. The road quality was excellent and we had no trouble with traffic in China. Our only problems seemed to come at night when we were trying to find somewhere cheap to stay. Due to the law that requires foreigners to stay in 3 star accommodation each night, we had a little difficulty just finding a hotel like this let alone affording it! Night one out of Urumqi saw us looking for somewhere that we could pitch the tent out of sight. We cruised along and found a plantation and kept riding hoping we would see a dirt track in, as we neared the end of the plantation we made eye contact with the person we thought might be the owner of some of the property and we decided to ask. As soon as we did this, we realised the man was actually a police officer standing in front of the police station at the end of the plantation! Oops. Committed by this point he waved us over and we went to explain we would like to find somewhere safe to sleep. To our complete surprise and going against all we had been told of the policemen in China we were invited in to stay the night. We hauled the bikes inside and were shown beds for the night. A half hour later we had some washing drying in the room and bags unpacked when the chief policeman came storming in and scolded in Chinese that of course we could not stay here. On the phone, through the chief’s friend acting as translator we were told bluntly “the police station is not somewhere for people to sleep. You have two options, one, go back to where you came from. Two, ride 40km to the next town and find the hotel”. It was by this time 7:30pm, but with a late setting sun I guess they did deem that 40km was rideable for us. We were exhausted and annoyed more than anything else, we packed up and agreed to ride the 40km to the next town. They were some odd sorts and as we tried to leave they wanted to pose for heaps of photos with us. Eventually we got out of there, rode a couple kilometres away from the police station so as not to be spotted, and pitched the tent for the night. We managed to avoid paying for any accommodation along the way, jumping and finding a way through the fence on the highway and pitching up largely out of sight each night. We were not troubled by anyone as we came in late and left early the next morning.

The climb up out of Jinghe towards Lake Sayram was 50km at a gentle grade. However with the wind that day we decide to ride half of it and camp in the beautiful valley. The following morning we rose early, put 5km uphill on the board and then spotted up a couple of slow trucks that allowed us to hang on to the side for a spot of truck surfing that helped us along to the top. Now with both arms and legs sore we were at the top checking out the partially frozen Lake Sayram. We walked fifteen mins off the road to go and check out the ice, I decided to jump in for a dip. Although I lasted only a handful of seconds I still claimed it as a shower, my first in five days, leaving Jess as the smelly one. We ate some Laghman (Central Asia’s spag bog) then rode beside the lake for 25km. At the far side were many yurt tents and some overly pushy cowboys trying to get us to ride their horses up to the snow and indicating that our bikes would be stolen if we walked up rather than paying for a horse. Eventually the fella understood “Money no” and left us alone to walk up the hill to the snow for Jess to build her first snowman (and get pelted with her first snowball). Miraculously, like every other time, our bikes were still there when we returned and unlocked them. We passed through the market that had a couple of stuffed wolves and the fur of a snow leopard and bear. That’s right, we are out of tiger country and we’re now at the mercy of the snow leopards.

The descent was just incredible. Passing through five tunnels and over one just absolutely spectacular bridge we passed into the alpine forest on the other side of the lake. Travelling at 60kmh downhill was interrupted frequently to take photos of the yurts, shaggy haired horses, mountains and rivers. On a high we rode 140km that day to reach Korgas on the border. A rundown old town with an out of place, massive TV screen in the park.

After I had returned from Urumqi to retrieve our passports, the border was opened back up on the 11th of May. With five days of car and foot traffic trying to cross this chaotic border we were pushed to the back more than once. A common sight in all lines here is for the biggest men to elbow and push the women, children and other men to the back. If you line up you’re doing it wrong! Even the grannies get involved in an unspoken tussle of elbows.

We met two other cyclists at the border, Dirk who is riding from China home to Belgium and Hana from Japan who is cycling from China to London. We hatched a plan to get through the border crossing as we were having no luck forging our way through the lines with bikes. We showed the officials our foreign Australian passports and declared we were in a group of four, and sooner rather than later we were waved through a gate while others waited in the line. I’m not about to pretend we felt bad about skipping ahead – later grandma! Once we were stamped out of China and on the street in no mans land, we were expecting to be loaded onto the bus like we had heard every other bike tourist mention. You are not allowed to cross the no mans land by bike is the typical rule. Sticking to our plan we jumped on as a group of four and cycled away from the building and the bus, no one came to stop us and we rode the 10km around a fence and to the Kazakhstan immigration point. We were stamped into the country eventually and then had our passport checked no less than five times over the next 10km of cycling. According to the country’s rules, we were also to register our presence in Almaty within 5 days of arrival to Kazakhstan. We have so far found the visas much harder to obtain, much more expensive and the rules much stricter here in central asia as opposed to the tourist friendly SE Asian countries.

We rode as a group of four in high winds for 50km. This a great change up for us, we hadn’t ridden with anyone since Australia. Dirk decided it was too windy and found a hotel, Hana, a solo female cyclist was intrigued by the idea of camping in the middle of nowhere with us and so continued along at 7kmh into the brutal headwind. We made it about 15km further and then found a tiny bit of cover from the wind. Somehow we managed to get the stove working to make coffees to warm us up and a friendly Russian truckie got the memo, stopping on cue and delivering a marvelous bag of cookies and bread as a welcome into Kazakhstan. We thanked him and we exchanged stories with Hana until the wind was no longer bearable. I few years prior, Hana had flown to Cairo and bought a bike there, decked it out with her rucksack, and then hopped on for her first ride since her childhood. She carried on until she made it through to Cape Town. One day she had been hurried long from her lunch spot by park rangers saying “you must move, the lion is near”. Of course these stories have put a whole bunch of new ideas in our heads.

Delayed by the headwinds we bought a sim card for Jess’ phone (the first of the trip) and called ahead to our to be hosts John and Nina in Almaty. We rode as far as we could in the winds, 80km, and set up in camp in the relative shelter from the wind, the Charyn Canyon. Up at 5am we put down 140km the following day as the wind turned and blew at our backs for a welcome change. My rear wheel at this point was mighty buckled (the Kazakh roads leave a lot to be desired), but the wheel seemed to be holding up ok and I decided to loosen the brakes and have a bike shop repair it in Almaty. We rode in the following day to be met at the Almaty International School by teacher John. We stayed with John, Nina and their young daughter Sadie for three nights while we gave free frisbee clinics and gave presentations about our trip for two days. We were well received by staff and students, answering questions all day long – the youngest kids requiring great detail about where we went to the toilet in the desert. Some of the older kids were impressed enough to find us online and make donations to Ultimate Peace through our website.

Our time at the AIS ended with a staff vs students game on Friday afternoon after school. With Jess and I both switching to the students team after teachers went up 3-0, a wager of “loser buys pizza” was made, and the students clawed back the deficit, hitting the front for the first time on golden goal, taking the game 10-9 to the teachers’ dismay. We hope the students continue to be amazed at how the frisbee flies and stick at the game. Who knows? Maybe one day there will be a Kazakh national team.

Saturday was spent finding bike shops in town, we decided to ride in to have them assess my wheel and Jess’ broken seat. My wheel of course was a lot worse than we had anticipated…. the rim was broken in three places! Of course the bike shop didn’t stock a 28 inch wheel, so we rode around town visiting four shops until the Limpopo affiliated repair shop, Elite Sport, were able to help with a 28 inch wheel. A 32 spoke rather than my current 36 spoke wheel was all that was available so the entire wheel must be built and purchased from them. A cost of $100 was still less than we were anticipating. As expected, we didn’t have any luck with Jess’ seat, we have just adjusted it and may have a new seat sent out to us in Iran.

Saturday night the legendary John dropped us at the train station and we boarded the 21 hour train to Astana where we hope to secure our Iran visas rather quickly – to get us on our way before our Kazakh visa expires. We are staying with another frisbee player here, Teresa, and we will be teaching Ultimate at her international school here in Astana this week.

Our plan ahead includes Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran (and possibly Krygyzstan if we don’t have enough time left on our Kazakh visas). If you have contacts in any of those countries that might like to host us (barring Uzbek due to the accom rules there) or any frisbee or school contacts that might like a frisbee clinic or presentation – please get in touch with us!

As always, if you have a few spare dollars to contribute to the work of Ultimate Peace – you can donate here at our website.

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Comments (3)

  • Dirk


    Hi Jess and Dan,

    Great to read your stories and nice to had a (short) ride together.
    Just wanted to know if you took the shortcut Shonzhy-Kokpek as you planned?


  • Jess Dan


    Heya Dirk!
    Yeah, was great to have a bike gang for a while.
    We ended up going into Shonzhy and not taking the shortcut, needed to find some internet to let our hosts in Almaty know we were going to be a day late! How did your ride in Almaty go? Get some camping in? Where are you now?


  • Debbie


    My friend Cathy in Astana just passed your info along to me as my family and I live and work in Turkmenistan. Cathy said you need a place to stay in Ashgabat and you are welcome at our house, as long as we are still here while you are here. We leave for the US on 19 June. When do you plan to be in Ashgabat? Our school would also love to meet you and play some Ultimate.


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