The plan was simple: cycle the last 290km separating Bishkek from Almaty in three days, a relatively easy ride with just a low pass after the Kazakh border and flat roads the rest of the way. But as per usual with those kinds of plans, something always goes wrong.
20km past the border the wind picked up and started blowing quite strongly in our faces. We started the ascent of the pass but after a couple of minutes I noticed that Angela had stopped cycling and was holding her head between her hands, leaning over her handlebar… “I can’t go any further, my knees just hurt too much. We have to get a lift”. It was already late afternoon and all our attempts to stop traffic so far had gotten us no more than friendly waves or blank stares. We gave up for the time being and cycle on for another half an hour before trying our luck a second time.
Two cars suddenly stopped a few meters before where we were standing. Hadn’t raised my thumb so I wondered what they were stopping for. A door opened and a girl came out running towards me, sobbing and clearly distressed. She started talking to me in really fast Russian and I managed to understand that she wanted to borrow my mobile phone. I tried to explain that it wasn’t working in this part of the world, but she insisted, properly crying now. “These men have kidnapped me and I want to call home!” is what I think my limited Russian skills allowed me to understand. Meanwhile, a group of dodgy looking men had gathered outside the cars and one of them called the girl over. She walked back towards the car reluctantly and an argument broke out. I don’t know what they told her but at some point she got back into one of the cars and both vehicles drove off as abruptly as they had stopped, leaving Angela and I helpless by the side of the road. It all went very quickly and I am still not sure whether she was in trouble or not, but I hope that she is OK now, wherever those men took her…
That whole episode didn’t really get us any closer to Almaty. As a matter of fact I am pretty sure that I spotted at least half-a-dozen empty and comfortable-looking trucks passing us while the poor girl was talking to me. We put our thumbs up and tried our luck for another 45 minutes but again no-one bothered to stop. We were getting quite desperate, to the point that I was going to get Angela to take her top off and put some lipstick on, but eventually we managed to flag down and old Kamaz truck that was going all the way to Almaty. The driver opened the trailer and we loaded our bikes and all our panniers on top of a massive load of red tiles, before sitting down next to him in the front cabin. As the truck very slowly made its way up the hill we both decided to rest our tired eyes for a few minutes. When we opened them again it was dark outside and the truck was parked on a gravel road by the side of a motorway. The friendly driver told us that we were about 20km outside of Almaty and that it was as far as he was going. There was a hotel on the other side of the motorway but we didn’t have much Kazakh money on us so I set off in the surrounding fields in the search of a safe camping spot. When I came back the driver had opened the trailer again and suggested that we simply sleep on top of the pile of tiles. It looked a much safer option than the garbage-covered fields so we gladly accepted his offer.
After a surprisingly good sleep we thanked our driver and cycled the last few kilometres into the city. Communist capitals in Central Asia that we have cycled through have all had the same orderly and immaculate feeling about them, and Almaty (although not the official capital anymore) was no exception. Leaving the suburban morning traffic behind, we enjoyed a comfortable ride into the city centre, along the wide tree-lined streets and the large and quiet parks. Almaty was ridiculously expensive compared to the rest of Central Asia, so Ange and I were lucky to find a Warmshowers host kind enough to put a roof over our heads. Taz, an Australian pilot working for Air Astana, welcomed us warmly as we arrived but unfortunately had to leave us almost right away to fly a plane somewhere in the world. Once again I was amazed by the generosity and the trust some people display. Just one hour after meeting us, two total strangers, Taz was leaving us the keys to his apartment and instructing us to look after his cat… We spent a few days exploring the city and relaxing in Taz’s huge apartment until the time came to make our way to the airport and catch our flight to Beijing. But not before a last taste of the Central Asian “experience”!
In more than three months travelling around the “Stans” we had witnessed many cases of corruption and bribery, mainly involving the police stopping cars and buses randomly on the road, telling them they had done something wrong and making them pay an imaginary fine. Most locals didn’t even bother with the paperwork and just carried a stack of money in their vehicles, ready to hand over whenever they got stopped. It was common practice but had never affected us directly. As we arrived at the check-in counter that day at the airport, we were a bit nervous about how much we were going to have to pay to take the bikes on the plane. The airline’s policy was one of those useless ones where the price per kilo for excess baggage is 1,5% of the maximum cost of an economy ticket… We were first in the queue, checked our panniers in and then were asked to put our bikes on the scale. The man behind the counter seemed clueless about what to do with them and called his boss and the man in charge of baggage handling. They whispered to each other for a few minutes, until finally the boss turned around and told us that we had to pay 300 dollars for both bikes… Although if we didn’t need a receipt and discreetly handed over some green bills, he could give us a “discount” and reduce the price to 200 dollars… It’s frustrating and infuriating but what else can you do. After some pointless arguing about the official policies, we reluctantly paid the 200 dollars and left Central Asia with a rather bitter taste in our mouths.
Beijing! What a nice surprise that was. We spent ten days in the Chinese capital and enjoyed every bit of it. We stayed with Florence and Ray, two wonderful Warmshowers hosts living in a lovely apartment in the centre of the city. We were given a key to the flat and were told that we could stay as long as we wished. There we met Valeska and Phillip, two great Austrian cyclists who have been on the road for about five years now! We spent many hours together, visiting some of Beijing’s attractions and discussing our travels around some drinks and delicious food. Food! That was one of the highlights of our stay. There are millions of little restaurants and food-stalls filling the streets of Beijing, serving tasty and cheap local dishes and after the limited choice of Central Asia, Angela and I couldn’t get enough of it. We will never forget the sweet and sour chicken from one of the restaurants opposite the Workers’ Stadium or the crepes filled with eggs and vegetables from a friendly stall next to the Beijing West railway station. Other highlights included walking around the Olympic Park at night, visiting the Forbidden City and the Lama complex, strolling around the Houhai Lake, watching the sunset at the Clock and Drum towers and exploring the dense network of hutongs. We also met up with Karim and Hubert, two of Guillaume’s friends living in Beijing who cycled from the Chinese capital to Paris a few years ago. I remember regularly looking at the pictures of their trip while at work and dreaming about doing it myself one day!
We couldn’t leave China without seeing the Great Wall so on our last day we took a bus to the scenic but touristy section of the wall in Badaling. When we had arrived in Beijing the week before the air had been cool and clear, but by the end of our stay a dense and humid fog was covering the metropolis. We thought it would clear up the further out we went but by the time we got off the bus in Badaling it was still grey and foggy. We quickly climbed onto the Wall but as expected the visibility was poor and it was impossible to see it zigzagging away in the distance. This was what I had been looking forward to the most so I was very disappointed. The first section we explored was surprisingly quiet and by the time we had walked to the end of it we quickly discovered why. It seems that most Chinese tourists used that part of the Wall as a giant open-air toilet… There was an unbelievable amount of toilet paper lying around everywhere and the smell was terrible. On the way back we even spotted two freshly squeeze turds that hadn’t been there when we walked in the opposite direction!
The Badaling part of the Wall has been completely renovated and adapted to tourisms, giving the whole area a bit of a Disneyland feeling, with numerous gift shops at the entrance and even a bear park! Not really our cup of tea, but in the end, albeit the poor visibility and the hordes of tourists, both of us were still amazed by what we saw. Walking on the Great Wall of China is a unique experience and you really have to see it with your own eyes to truly appreciate its grandeur and its enormousness. Watching it disappear in the distance, rolling up and down the beautiful mountainous landscape, made me want to follow it and explore it even further. I must admit that I felt frustrated that only a limited part of the Wall was open to the public, so on the bus-ride back I promised myself that one day I would come back and hunt for more remote and authentic sections of it.
The flight to Hong Kong went smoothly this time (we didn’t get ripped off, Hong Kong Airlines charging a reasonable fixed price per bicycle) and we were allowed to take our bikes on the train from the airport to the city centre. But as soon as we stepped out of the station we realised that the city was going to be very different compared to Beijing. The Chinese metropolis had wide streets with massive side lanes reserved for bicycles and mopeds are broad pavements for pedestrians. None of this in Hong Kong! The narrow English-styled streets made cycling among the on-going traffic quite tricky, even in the middle of the night! On top of that bicycles were prohibited on some of the main roads and most of the bridges, which made riding from point A to point B a brain-teaser… Although less populated than Beijing (seven million people compared to twenty million), Hong Kong has a lot less space to play with than the Chinese capital and this fact was obvious when walking around the Island and Kowloon districts: crowded pavements, tiny parks and tall skyscrapers everywhere. No wonder it has some of the highest property prices in the world! Actually almost everything else was on the expensive side and we ended up spending in five days nearly as much as normally in a whole month!
That didn’t stop us from having a great time though. The waterfronts on both sides of the harbour offered amazing views of the expansive skyline, especially on the 1st of October for the Chinese’s National Day. After having spent the early evening strolling through the Temple Street night market we managed to squeeze our way through the thousands of people to the Kowloon waterfront and enjoyed a spectacular display of fireworks. Nothing beats the view of the harbour from the Peak at sunset though, and getting up there on the Tram was quite a ride, with slopes as steep as 48%! It definitely made those climbs in Central Asia look a bit wimpy… We even got to see the city shut down during a typhoon alert, which was the perfect excuse for a lazy day in bed! On our last day in Hong Kong we took a boat ride to Lamma Island, where I got my first opportunity to swim in the South China Sea. Cars and building higher than three storeys are not allowed on the island, making it peaceful and relaxed with very natural scenery. A perfect getaway from the city’s madness.
After five days it was however time to leave Hong Kong and get on yet another flight, this time to Hanoi, for the beginning of the South East Asian part of our journey!
See more photos here!