We stayed at three places in Bishkek - now very cold and threatening to snow; Nomad’s Home Hostel, now deserted; Sakura Guesthouse (full of Japanese travellers sipping vodka in bed, waiting on visas); and Pierre’s flat.
In Sakura I noticed a touring bicycle with drop handle bars painted British racing green. It was immaculate, the tyres were pumped as hard as iron. I was creating a mental image of the owner when I met the owner, Neil from Windsor.
Neil wanted to head to China from the south, I said I had been on that road too many times and was heading to China through Kazakhstan. Possibly against his better judgment he decided to tag along.
We went out drinking with Dan an English journalist working in Bishkek who introduced us to Pierre, an intern with the European Union. Pierre instantly offered up his flat to us.
We would have left Sakura the next day but Neil and myself had massive hangovers.
Pierre’s flat was in a Soviet era apartment bloc with a centrally controlled thermostat jammed at 40C. While he worked, Callie, Neil and me stocked up on warm weather gear. I bought a great pair of hiking boots at half price to replace the pair purchased in England now falling to pieces.
If I hadn’t gone to Afghanistan I would have avoided the worst of the winter, but I knew this when I went, so whatever: no one ever died of cold.
Callie loves to ski, and Pierre had invited her to the the Toktogul piste a few hours drive from Bishkek. If she went there was a chance she could miss her flight to Delhi where she would cycle to Kashmir for the winter. We left Callie agonising over whether to go or not.
Look at a map of the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia and you will notice all her capitals are near the border of a neighbouring ‘stan. The exception is Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, but Almaty (the recent old capital) is only 240 kilometres from Bishkek.
The snow had stopped falling and we took a punt at cycling.
Twenty kilometres out of Bishkek we reached the border and shortly after changed our Som for Tenge.
It was minus ten when we stopped to camp and the bar kept falling as we climbed into our sleeping and the cold dark set in. We guessed a night-time temperature of –15.
In the morning Kazakh shepherds stopped by, curious at two tourists camping on their turf.
My breath had formed a layer of ice on the inside of the tent whilst I slept.
It wasn’t as if we were crossing the artic, but camping on the snow was new for both of us.
We set off in freezing fog, determined to get to Almaty as quickly as possible. Neil is a lot quicker than me, and that second day, I shot off trying to gain as much ground between us. Neil’s jibes about my pace had hit a nerve.
The road was covered in treacherous. A Mercedes overtook me at speed, and hitting ice in the middle of the road span out of control. It took the driver 50 metres of fish-tailing to regain control of the car. Jumping out and screaming at me in Russian with a raised fist, he slapped me round the jaw as his old lady stood back, hurling abuse at me. Neil pulled up:
“What’s going on?”
“This guy lost control of his car and just slapped me.”
“I wouldn’t stand for that. I would have knocked him out.”
Kazakh hostility was matched with Kazakh hospitality next day when we were given several kilos of cooked rice and meet. I let Neil carry it, hoping it might slow him down.
We stayed at a roadside hotel, where a drunk Russian insisted I take her number. We gave her Neil’s.
And then Almaty, which we got to at sunset, during rush hour; the roads slick with black ice. My back wheel hit a patch of ice and I lost control for what felt like the longest part of a second.
An English teacher from Bristol had agreed to put us up for a few nights. I Can’t speak highly enough of Dan and his generosity. Every night entertainment was organised; we saw the new James Bond film; went to a night club; ate Sushi; and played in the snow – now falling fast. It was up to my knees by the time it stopped.
We pushed our bikes out of Almaty. The main roads which we hoped would be clear were covered by compacted snow.
We stopped at a small village after 17 kilometres of pushing. Camping in a foot and a half of snow was daunting. In bad Russian I explained to a Babushka where we were planning to stay the night, and much to our relief she invited us in for the night. Her two teenage grandchildren spoke to us in English between fits of giggles.
They showed us to a spare room and gave us bread, coffee and soup. I magnanimously let her husband beat me at chess in under 15 moves. And then his middle aged son appeared and told us the snow on the road ahead was thigh deep in the direction we were going.
Neil pulled out a beautifully detailed map of Central Asia to help us asses the situation. With the Caspian to the west, China to the east and Pakistan and Afghanistan to the south, seeing all the places I had, recalling those exciting days, I realised how much I loved this part of the world. I traced the Karakoram Range south into Pakistan, and there was Kashmir and Srinagar, where Callie was headed. My eyes rested on Afghanistan. Neil, following my gaze, and shook his head.
Our Chinese Visas stated we had to be in China before the 9th December and it was now the 2nd. If the roads were covered with snow we would have to push our bicycles for over forty kilometres a day if we were to make it to the border.
We didn’t think we would; and talked over the idea of taking up tutoring jobs in Almaty until the weather improved. It also meant I would have to go back to Bishkek and apply for my third Chinese visa. Would they even give me a third visa?
So we decided to hitch, and got a mini-bus to take us as far as the Shelek, a 100 kilometres down the road, where we stayed the night in a dingy guesthouse. The owner’s passed the time buy shouting at each other in the corridor outside our room.
The following morning we pushed our bikes back onto the main road and began hitching again. We watched a dog eat a carcass. We couldn’t decide what animal exactly the dog was devouring, but it definitely had hooves.
A mini bus agreed to take us to the next big town a further 100 kilometres down the road. A passenger asked us where we were going and when we told her we were going to the Chinese border she passed this information onto the driver who said he would take us to the border. Our excitement at reaching the border was boundless: Neil and I shook hands.
At a hotel on the border a Kazakh coach driver offered to pick us up on the Chinese side and take us to Urumqi. While we waited near a construction site in the first Chinese town of Korgas, I must have seen over a hundred brand new lorries carrying materials to the site. The pace of development is striking compared to Central Asia.
We waited until nightfall, but with no sign of the coach we checked into a hotel and went to eat at the restaurant next door.
Neil asked if they had any sweet and sour chicken. Another diner offered to help us with the menu and suggested I tried ‘dove’, which turned out to be tofu. I usually hate tofu - mainly for not being meat - but this was delicious.
The roads were clear of ice on the Chinese side so we decided to cycle to Urumqi over 800 kilometres to the east. We cycled on the motorway – not technically legal in China, but it had a great hard shoulder to cycle on.
Between us and Urumqi was an outcropping range of the Tian Shan mountains. Cycling through tunnels several kilometres long and crossing a massive suspension bridge, it was dark before we reached the top. I was impressed by the engineering required to cross such extreme natural barriers.
That night we stayed at a police station next to the bridge. They gave us rice and beef for dinner, and our own bunk beds – not before a half hour of picture taking – my first taste of feeling like a celebrity in China, and not the last.
A decent of forty kilometres left my extremities numb and my face in agony. It was so painful I felt like crying.
We repeated the previous nights trick of staying with the police, although reluctant at first, Neil’s performance of a frozen cycle tourist was worthy of the Academy’s attention and secured us two beds in a dingy, but warm, garage.
The Urumqi side of the mountains it was noticeably colder, both of us had noticed a cold front hitting us the moment we got onto the north slope of the mountains.
So we decided to hitch, again. We waited for a ride in a petrol station eating noodles and gorping at the vacuum packed chicken feet snacks.
After a couple of hours the petrol station staff were keen to get rid of us and began seeking transport. Three lorries from Kazakhstan pulled in and agreed to take us. We loaded our bikes into their empty backs and were on our way, Neil in one truck, me in another.
Pasha, my driver, explained how much poorer he was since the fall of the Soviet Union. They were lovely, and treated us to lunch, not accepting any money when they dropped us off in the centre of Urumqi.
Urumqi, and Xinjiang province is home to the Uighur people, a Muslim minority more central Asian in ethnicity than Han Chinese - who are slowly displacing them, with the Chinese government offering financial and business incentives for people to relocate to this province, along way from the heartland of the Chinese Empire.
I was expecting a Silk Road backwater, but Urumqi is a modern city, with skyscrapers, raised freeways and streets bathed in neon advertising. The Uighur street vendors selling nan bread and kebab seem out of place.
We stayed at Dave’s from Blackpool, teaching English at an evening school. I had found him through Warmshowers; he sent me an email saying he’d love to meet anyone mad enough or stupid enough to cycle Xinjiang in the winter.
He took to us to a run down restaurant with a broken window with plastic tables and stools. The food was excellent. Dap pan Ji – literally ‘big plate chicken’ - being one highlight. We ate their several times, attempting and failing to try every dish on the menu. The food was incredibly cheap, free to be precise, as Dave would not take a single Yuan from us.
Dave took us to ‘English’ Corner’ a weekly meeting at a nearby restaurant where the locals practice their English on the expats. Chinese people with a good handle of the English language take English names. Andrew and Tony’s English was probably better than mine (“candy is dandy”/”but liquor is quicker”).
They sang me happy birthday and I stood up and slurred something about not wanting to be anywhere else for my thirtieth.
Urumqi was too cold for us so we tried to book train tickets to Xian, our bicycles would go on a separate cargo train. Dave told us this would be no problem, but when we tried to book sleeper tickets for the 34 hour train ride they were sold out for the next two weeks. They didn’t even have any tickets for seats, but they did have tickets for standing. We couldn’t stay in Urumqi for another two weeks, but neither did we think it was physically possible to stand for 34 hours on a moving train.
We booked the standing tickets, the ticket office helpfully writing out in Chinese a request for seats to show the conductor once we boarded the train.
Carrying 6 large bags each plus food for the journey on to the train through the bustle of a Chinese city train station was incredibly taxing, my shoulders ached for days after.
We found seats and stored our luggage, but a couple of stops down the line we were displaced by an extended family, sprawled across several benches.
To pass the time I took notes:
‘Uniformed attendants sweeping the floor every two hours in a vain attempt to curb the tide of discarded noodle boxes, bottles of ice tea and sunflower seed shells.
‘Smoking restricted to in-between the carriages, but a veil of smoke hangs in every compartment.
‘Plastic bags full of pot noodles swinging from the overhead storage racks.
‘Passengers sitting hunched over on little collapsable stools blocking the passageway.
‘Female attendants in blue uniforms joke with the passengers but retain a professional distance.
‘A very Russian looking conductor calling out the next station in a high and steady pitch.
‘Three boys in their late teens slept on one bench, entangled like a litter of pups.’
They play fought – two would hold the other down and jab him in the throat or put a tissue over his mouth until his eyes watered.
Tired, and feeling emotional about the experience so far, I wrote: ‘Perhaps you could learn as much about China after a 34 hour train journey than if you visited the Great Wall of China.’
I read a copy of Paul Theroux’s ‘Riding the Iron Rooster: by train through China’ Dave had kindly given to me. Theroux writes: ‘I had seen plenty of wimps in China, but the predominating characteristic of the Chinese was stoicism.’
I had noted a similar observation earlier in the journey: ‘Every available space taken up by standing, squatting, sitting, impressively stoic passengers.’
As the passengers settled into the journey, cracking sunflower seeds, drinking green tea, chatting, and jockeying children on knees, night descended and the compartment took on the warm and reassuring feel of a close knit community – or a family - on the move.
It was impossible to sleep for any duration in the passageway; people passing every five minutes; attendants pushing food trolleys down the width of the train what felt like every five minutes, nudging people sleeping on collapsible stools with the front of the trolley in order to pass.
The pups and their family kindly let us sit down at 9am. Both Neil and I slept hunched forward. I woke around 4pm, to a middle aged lady sitting opposite me stroking my hair.
I felt like a zombie when we finally arrived into Xian at around 10pm. The pups and their extended family offered to put us up – Neil had bought them beers by way of thanking them for giving up their seats for much needed sleep – but we both desired the refuge of a hostel Dave had recommended.
At the hostel, Neil and I argued over who should go first in the only toilet we could find, but a Chinese girl pushed past us and locked the door. We were incensed with each other - a Chinese backpacker had to tell us to both calm down.
The temperature was noticeably higher; Xian was free of ice and snow. It was time to cycle again.