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  • Jamie Shannon

Sary-Tash to China. Help! I need somebody. Help!

Becoming a little stuck in Sary-Tash, Kyrgyzstan. How on earth do I cycle to China?

I woke up the following morning to a village covered in a fresh, thick layer of snow and a road that seemed impassable. Both Brecht and the other guy wanted to leave straightaway and head to Bishkek, the capital some 800 km’s away but by the looks of it, they were in for a long wait too.

Snow covered Sary-Tash, kyrgyzstan
Snow covered Sary-Tash, kyrgyzstan

To their great credit, they got the bikes out of the shed and spent half an hour chipping away at huge chunks of ice that covered almost every inch of their steeds. By the time I had returned from the small shop down the road, they were moving their bikes about on the icy road to check to see if it was doable.

I waved them off and returned to the warmth of the guesthouse.

It wasn’t until around six pm that the owner’s daughter came in and told me that my friends had arrived. Earlier, when I was at the gas station, I had got talking to the only person in the village whom could speak English and it turned out that it was a team from a Russian cable company whom were laying lines from China through Kyrgyzstan and onwards to Russia. I told them the guesthouse I was staying at and they said that if they were still around come Monday they would give me a lift to the border. It was them whom I thought the daughter had meant when she said my friends were here. I walked outside and instead, saw the two Belgians.

Turns out they had got all of eight km’s out of town up a huge pass before the chains on the truck they had been on snapped. They had inched their way back to the village over the course of the afternoon and here they were now.

The road, it had turned out had been utterly impassable. The bikes wouldn’t stay upright for even a few seconds and so they endeavoured to try to catch a taxi in the morning instead.

It was now Saturday and with the Chinese border not open until Monday morning, I had another day to ponder my own situation. I wanted to cycle it, I really did. It was the final 80km push to China but if the road was just ice then it would be impossible. I could walk it I suppose and I reckoned on covering 30 km’s per day doing this. The road still lay above 3000 km’s though and climbed to almost 4000 before the border reared its head and so I was still in for some extremely cold nights if I walked. It was probably a mad thing even to contemplate but this trip is kind of mad in itself particularly at this time of year and so I dwelled on this for the remainder of the day.

The Belgians set off at nine the following morning and were to be found standing by the gas station three hours later, their taxi having not turned up, waiting for a passing truck to take them instead.

I suggested it might be easier to split up but when I walked back outside an hour later they were both gone. Gone into the snowy white world of Kyrgyzstan.

I saw a strange sight later in the day at the small shop. As I was waiting to be served, the customer threw down twenty som and the little girl of about ten, who could hardly see over the top of the counter, pulled out a bottle of vodka from the side counter. She then preceded to pour a very generous amount into a glass which the customer gladly took care of. It was a peculiar sight simply because of the age of the girl and the rough looking, hairy man she was kindly serving strong vodka to. Outside the western world, things are often so lob sided and topsy turvy

By evening, I walked outside to find what little sun there had been, had somehow managed to free up the road through the village of its icy cover. With this in front of me, I ran down the road to look east up into the mountains of China and was again surprised to find a lonely black line wandering off into the distance.

This made my mind up. I was to try and tackle the road on the bike. It was the only stupid thing to do and I kind of like doing stupid things from time to time.

I went back to the guesthouse and got a truly wretched night’s sleep thanks to my first bout of the s***s since Khorog. I have no idea what caused it as I filtered all the water I drank and disregarded most of the meat that was given to me at breakfast. It wasn’t a particularly fun night though. I must have visited that hole in the ground about five times. It’s no fun walking through a foot of snow in the pitch black in freezing temperatures with your guts threatening to explode at any time. I managed it though and by the time I woke up the next day, I was feeling a whole lot better - ready for a truly daunting day on the bike.

Upon embarking on my final trip into the void that was the pit toilet, I found the world had once again turned a snowy white and at that moment, knew that my leaving China the following morning would be in the hands of the gods or at the very least some Russian cables guys/Chinese truck drivers.

Come the morning, I had no option but to leave – what with the border now being open and all. With no sign of the Russians coming to my rescue, I began to tentatively push my bike along the road towards the turn off for the border.

Road from Kyrgyzstan to China
I wasn't impressed by the state of the road

Upon seeing its condition, I wasn’t impressed with what I saw. A complete white world with a road covered in ice that vanished into the haze.

True to my words the night before, I tried to cycle, and to be fair to myself, did get all of 300 metres by cycling on the snow by the side of the road before I slid on some ice and fell flat on my face. These were humble beginnings. I would have to learn to ride a bicycle all over again. I hadn’t seen any cars all morning but at that precise moment, one happened to pull up and indicated with a huge cross of his arms that the road was closed. I didn’t know if he meant the road was actually closed due to the conditions or whether he just meant it was impossible to cycle. I decided on the latter but not to be dissuaded, I set out henceforth on foot and happened to make a friend along the way – a lovely dog that decided to accompany me for the next ten kilometres.

Two kilometres later, and having turned a corner, the sun began to shine and I began to see cracks in the ice. I decided to push on using my feet as I didn’t want another fall. Pretty much everything in my possession was broken, scratched or damaged in some other way and I didn’t need any more of that.

Eventually, after about five kilometres, the road became somewhat ice free and so I lept on my bicycle with the excitement of a small child. It was a wonderful feeling and I began moving swiftly along the asphalt whilst taking all possible precautions to steer around any snow/ice that I saw heading my way.

Ice covered road Sary-Tash, kyrgyzstan
Spots of asphalt began to peak through the ice

The sun shone, there was zero traffic and the road was in a great condition and so I spent the morning making good progress to China. China! I was nearly there god damn it! It was a wonderful feeling.

As the day progressed, I climbed higher and higher and as I ascended, the snow began to reclaim the road, slowly at first and after a few hundred metres, the road began to vanish once more under ice. The mountains were indistinguishable from the sky and I began to lose sight of my road as it became lost once again in the white haze.

With it not being possible to cycle anymore, I began to push once again. It was hard work as I was still climbing. Then it began to snow lightly and I wondered what on earth I was doing. What was I trying to achieve? I thought for a moment and I realised I was just trying to make it to China, on a bicycle from England. Perhaps it wasn’t now possible but I must try for I didn’t want to give up so easily. Better to try than to not try at all. With this in mind, I pressed on once again.

Cycling from Kyrgyzstan to China

I crept on along the road but at this speed I wouldn’t reach the promised land until the next evening and I didn’t fancy a night in the snow. It looked to be almost a foot deep to my left and right and would be impossibly uncomfortable if I camped.

What to do. I was stuck. No doubt about it. I was stuck three and a half thousand metres up in the snow with no traffic to witness my situation and to aid me in my hour of need. I sat down again in the vain hope that a truck would pass by and rescue me from this madness.

Ten minutes went by

I ate some bread with frozen chocolate spread

Twenty minutes

I had a cigarette

Thirty minutes

I smoked another cigarette

Forty minutes

I began to push again

Ice covered road, Kyrgyzstan
This is about where it ended

Five minutes later, I heard the sound of an engine in the distance and so had a peek. It looked reasonably big. It was yellow and it was driving towards me. Wahoo! I was saved!

I stuck my arm out and looked as dishevelled as I could manage and the van pulled to a halt and the rest, as they say, is history.

We wound our way through the mountains towards the border through a right winter wonderland with five Chinese tourists and must have passed at least four upturned trucks along the side of the road.

Arriving at the Kyrgyz border, I took out my bike, and not for the first time, was asked by one of the officials if he could ride it round whilst I went to have my passport stamped. I agreed without hesitation.

I cycled the five kilometres of no mans land and along the beautifully smooth road I had for so long been promised upon entering China. Those s**t, pot holed and rocky roads of the past 2500 km’s were being me and I could not have been happier. My wheels were humming along in unison and it was all so effortless.

Arriving at the border, I had to go through the building where all my bags were put through an x ray machine after which I thought they would be searched like all the other Chinese but it was not to be. They simply took my passport and asked me to wait outside.

Entering China on my bicycle
On the Chinese side!

Now came the moment I was dreading.

Due to the Chinese simply preferring to do things a little differently, the actual place where you are stamped into the country is in fact 140 km’s east at a huge border control area. The problem was that since a couple of years ago, foot passengers and cyclists had to arrange an official taxi to ferry them the distance. You couldn’t just hitch a ride in a truck anymore, and although I was fully prepared for this, what I wasn’t prepared for was the hefty price the driver would demand to take me there.

There was only myself and another Chinese man waiting and the taxi that pulled up after an hour was an eight seat affair which meant we each had to pay twice as much as usual plus another 100 yuan for my bike. 300 yuan he wanted from me. I knew from reading other people’s reports that it should cost no more than 100 and so I told him it was simply not possible. He went down to 250. Still no way I was paying that but by now he wouldn’t budge.

I went back inside to ask the border guard whom spoke a little English if it was possible to hitch on a truck. No way he said. I then asked if it was possible to order a smaller taxi for myself. He said that it would but since the other border would be closed soon, no other taxi’s would come up this way. I said I had a tent and would wait around until the next day if it was possible. I couldn’t believe that he then proceeded to tell me I could pitch up somewhere in the distance and wait if I wanted. Excellent.

I went back outside and told the man of my intentions at which point he thought for a little and knocked it down to 225 and upon seeing my gloomy reaction to this, reduced it further to 200. Hmm, it was still a lot. The other guy looked at me. If I didn’t cough up, he would have to foot the bill for the entire ride and with no more people entering that could be one inflated bill. I reluctantly accepted this most generous offer and began to move my stuff in.

We drove for two hours down through the most glorious of landscapes from 3000 metres to around 1500. I sat there, my face glued to the window, remembering the hardship and toil of cycling up the mountains and exclaimed in disgust the manner of my descent. I felt a little harshly done by. I looked at the driver from time to time and in two hours didn’t once see him disengaged from his smartphone. I needed to be careful in China.

I was dropped off in a kind of truck stop come hotel right next to the border and handed the man the yuan equivalent in USD. It was a difficult moment and a dreadful introduction to the country.

Luckily, a bed cost only £4 for the night and so I quickly moved in, happy at the very least to have somewhere warm and cosy to call home for the evening. Dinner in the canteen furthered my expenditure to £5 and I suddenly began to warm to China after that.

A border official knocked on my door in the morning and indicated for me to follow him. As I did, I was finally handed back my passport and was able to cycle onwards to the border processing centre.

All told I waited there for two hours before anyone began to show any interest in processing the people waiting. It was a huge airport style terminal building which is something I have not really seen since entering Turkey. I stupidly declared I was carrying food and to my horror had all my vegetables and dairy products confiscated. I was taken aback with worry at the sight of my two slabs of butter being dropped in the bin. Who knows how long it would be until I find butter in China. After my bags were x rayed and my passport was finally stamped I left the building with the thought that I only had porridge to eat. More porridge. Luckily I had forgotten to tell the guy about my Nutella so at least I had that.

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