12 Jan Merry Christmas Wedding and a Forbidden New Year
On recovering from an illness that left me bed ridden for 4 days, I managed to resource visas for 3 different countries (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China) all within 3 days, this shocked many people including myself and I was able to move on just a day after my nurse left! Due to political issues (an ongoing on/off war in Osh, the border between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) I was forced to go south and take tiny borders into Tajikistan and then into Kyrgyzstan. Sometimes things work out in our favour though and as I got lost looking for the Kyrgyz border I was shown to the local English teachers house. After asking about my journey she said I couldn’t sleep outside in this cold (by now the nights constantly froze my water) and that I should stay at theirs. As odd opportunities often seem to snowball, I was herded into a car and found myself in a back room of a restaurant with the teachers son, 3 other lads and a bottle of vodka It turned out that the son was getting married on Christmas day and I was asked if I would like to stay for it! And so it was, I had a very unique family (180 members of my new family) Christmas. I saw the preceding 3 days of preparations, attended ritual meals and then became guest of honour at the wedding, being thrown into the middle of every circle that formed for the dances in honour of the couple. I was thrown into the friends dance, his families dance, her families dance, and of course the competition dances, luckily my flailing limbs didn’t make it onto camera, well, not mine anyway! And then I had to make a speech…
It was strange to leave my new family after my Christmas week, but I was directed to the border, where I passed into Kyrgyzstan. I found a great camping spot under large mountains glowing orange in the sunset, managed to break my stove, so couldn’t cook or keep liquid water and so fell asleep. I woke the next day and began packing my tent, put it in its bag and looked up to find myself surrounded by Tajik soldiers pointing machine guns at me. “Problem?” I asked in an annoyed tone as figures of authority had been my burden all through Central Asia, constantly wanting to check passports and visas etc… “Military position” was the reply I got. Crap. If they were the countries finest though, we have no problems, it took them all night to find me! I got a few stern words and my details noted down, a little like a sketch in Dad’s Army, and was pointed on my way.
I thought I could cut across a small section of Uzbekistan from there, which the road went through for about 10km, but after cycling 30km to the point where it became Uzbekistan, I was told I had no visa and had to ride all the way back. Thankfully the scenery was incredible with snow capped mountains all around, so I savoured seeing the other side of them on my way back. My only option from there was 3 days of gravel and dust tracks. My lungs caked and the road disappeared with every truck that went passed and the cloud that followed it. They were some of the longest days, I remember writing something about ‘every penile capillary being pummelled into impotency’ in my journal… Although as seems to be the pattern, with horrible conditions the kindness of humans shines. I was invited into another language teachers house, which I turned down but they wouldn’t let me go without giving me money for a meal in the next town. Sometimes I have to refuse such opportunities, it is sad, but if I accepted every one, I would get nowhere!
I arrived in Osh on the 30th of December, the only tourist they had had there in 6 weeks. It looked like it was going to be an exciting New Years Eve! To add to that, the government had decided that celebration of the New Year was forbidden in Osh due to the war. I took a walk around Osh, a town built around trade but where the central market that ran along the river had been bombed, destroyed. It looked like an elephants skeleton with new stands growing in between the steel frames that once held the body of the town. It was good to meet people and see that their spirit had not been dampened. I half expected the locals to be disappointed or ashamed of the state of their home, but I was greeted by men tidying up the rubble remains of minimarkets, invited into homes and everyone wanted to chat. On New Years Eve, a French guy called Erwann and his Russian friend Nastia joined me in the hostel. Erwann, a French actor travelling to Laos in order to return to France by foot, animated the atmosphere in the desolate hostel and we quickly became good friends. Although regularly meeting people who can speak English, to share the European dry sense of humour and to talk at length and in depth about philosophy and our reasons for travelling was a breath of fresh air. We saw in the New Year overlooking the adjacent council flat from the stairwell of our hostel and decided to have our own New Year celebrations in the mountain pass that we would both be crossing between Kyrgyz and China.
I spent the first day of 2011 the way I wished it could go on. A crisp, fresh and clear day as I began my 3 day climb to 3600m, the formidable Irkeshtam Pass. On the first day I stopped to play with some kids at the road side who were sledging on those traditional wooden sledges with metal runners. We laughed and screamed down the 50 meters of solid ice that had formed in the shadow of the mountain. At the bottom of the hill, locals rummaged through my bags, something that I am growing to hate and always fear the disappearance of a camera or wallet. I got to the bottom and was gestured whether I would like to go on someone’s horse? Why not?! I had no problem getting on the horse, the problem came when I realised the horse didn’t want to move. And the horse was standing on the same ice that we had been sledging on. The owner saw the horses reluctance and slapped its ass. The horse bolted. I s**t myself. I have never been on a galloping horse, I have never been on a horse on ice and I have never ridden rodeo, but at that moment I simultaneously did all three! As the horse and I slid our fast messy dance back to solid ground, one hand on the reins, one on the saddle, I calmed the horse and a young boy of about 10 came to my rescue and pulled us both back to safety. Back at the bike I was asked, “you’re an Englishman, right?”, I didn’t know whether this question was rhetoric, humorous or honest, I just nodded. That night I shared the home of a deaf couple and their family of which I have never seen such kindness and support for one another. With no language barrier, it was remarkable how we could communicate with gestures. As language has evolved to such detail, it is surprising how little we use international gestures now, sometimes I have been amazed as people stand with their hands in their pockets and reel off chapters of their life with no idea about communicating to a foreigner, to speak with the deaf was a gift, my whole new years day was a gift.
I continued to climb for the next 2 days, a long slow gradient which I thought was coming to an end around a blind corner on the last day but turned out to become switchback after switchback up a wall of a mountain. I was exhausted, I had barely slept in the cold and the air was thin. I struggled on iced roads, stopping every 3-400 meters to look back and catch my breath. All was forgiven at the top. As the pass was still closed for the New Year holiday, I had had the road to myself and I stood overlooking nothing but white mountains, snowy plateaus, hearing the wind whistling through the peaks and listening in awe as the sawing of a crow’s wings built to a crescendo as it flew over my head. I was at one with nature as I descended into Sary-Tash, an ugly frontier town beautiful in its frozen veil. Here I again met with Erwann and we spent a warm night in an excessively heated hostel room.
I had completed what the people of Osh had called impossible and made it to Sary-Tash up the snow covered road, but now the real difficulty came, the final 80km to the Chinese border. A section of road that had always been on my mind as a test and a landmark to cross. Again it was all to myself, I had been warned of the conditions and that camping was not an option with the wolves out there. I had to make it. The beginning was not only easy but beautiful, I rode along flat asphalt with the snow capped Pamir mountains to my right. I stopped a lot to take photos. There was snow and ice on the road but it was possible to find a clear line. I began to ascend gradually and on a corner the front wheel slipped on the ice. I fell but it was slow. Everything was ok. I leant Dolly up on a signpost and ate some frozen bread. I looked back, where there had been mountains there was just white. I looked at the thermometer (which bottoms out at -10), it read -10. I carried on slowly as a blizzard blew in. I was riding in almost total white-out. I could see about 10 meters of road in front of me which was gradually succumbing to snow coverage. I carried on climbing. My beard began to freeze. It hurt to move my face and my fingers were frozen. The pass had begun to live up to its name and it was no longer fun. The asphalt road then turned to rubble, rocks the size of melons, I have cycled easier mountain bike races and I had to negotiate this with a 50kg touring bike. I could barely squeeze the brake levers. An increase in the wind blew away the thick cloud into bone chilling snow and at the top I saw the snow covered mountains in their wintery coats of grey, green and brown. I got out the camera and half the contents of my bag blew down a verge. Using an SLR in such cold conditions frustrated me and collecting the scattered gear from the verge heightened this. I was freezing. I decided to descend as fast as possible to shelter between the mountains. My pace increased, I dodged the rubble, I was amazing! Flying down the mountain with the promise of warmth for my poor hands. I swerved right, found a safe rut on the left, missed ice here and there, I was an Olympic toboggan driver, until, SMASH! At 30km/h my front wheel hit deep, slippery ice. Dolly went right, I went left, finding the ground on my wrists and hips. I knew I was bruised, but I couldn’t stop to check in the cold. I meandered slowly down the remaining off-road road, my tail between my legs. And at the bottom I found just the treat that I earlier explained I had begun to despise, a military checkpoint. At least this time I was welcomed into a small trailer to warm my hands. So, again, I stand with my passport out, waiting for approval to continue, watching the blatant bribes as drivers come in, hand over a small amount of cash and leave, no sign of paperwork. It is strange that this corruption has become normal for me to see now.
I leave the trailer and head for the border town of Irkeshtam where I am to meet Erwann the following day. As before, my infallible navigation screwed with me and I only realised that I had crossed the Kyrgystan side of the border as soldiers chased after me. Not knowing what to do with me, they stamped me out of Kyrgyzstan. I got to the Chinese side, it was as if nobody had been there for a week, probably because nobody had been there for a week, it was the New Year shut down. So I was stuck, an idiot in no mans land. I rode back to Kyrgyzstan and explained. They held my passport and told me to stay in Irkeshtam until 9am the following morning, when I must leave. I wandered about the truck yards looking for somewhere to sleep until a short grubby man approached me and showed me into his trailer. I spent the night in his hospitality, eating with him and his family and watching Castaway, the perfect film to cross language barriers. So we laughed together shouting “Wilsooooon” and comparing my neglected look to that of Tom Hanks’ after being on a deserted island for 4 years, thanks…
Luckily everything went to plan and after a hearty breakfast I rolled to the border at 10am, got my passport and went to China. A moment of elation. To have cycled from England to China. WOW! Erwann contacted me through some kind of military grapevine and a man came over to me with a phone, asked if I had a friend from France and handed it over to me, we agreed to meet there for a night of camping. It was the first time Erwann had camped on his trip and it couldn’t have been a worse night to start. We set up both tents, threw the gear into my smaller one and camped in his in order to combine body heat. It was well below -10 degrees outside as I began to cook inside the tent and Erwann was freezing in all his clothes and his sleeping bag. I knew I was ill equipped but I think the conditions really surprised him. As we lay down to sleep, the temperature in the tent read -7 degrees.
I woke up the next morning, Erwann didn’t need to, he hadn’t slept. I boiled the little bit of water that was still liquid and offered to make coffee, I could drink from my cup and he could use the pan. I made about a litre of coffee and offered him the pan. Poor Erwann. He didn’t drink coffee! So he sat and froze as I warmed my insides with more coffee than I could drink! We decided not to camp again.
I walked with Erwann as he tried to flag down a car to hitch hike in and after an hour I was left to cycle to Kashgar. The map looked all downhill to the city and I was optimistic that I could make the 200km in one day. The road was not downhill. I would descend for 2km then climb for one, this continued forever. I set off hard and by 110km I was exhausted. I stopped and bought bread, cakes and frozen coke to refuel next to a fire in the street before heading on. After another 20km it was getting dark and I was at least another 4-5 hours from Kashgar. I was at a point in my trip where I realised that cycling every painstaking and dangerous km of the journey is not as important as enjoying it. Erwann had found a nice place in the city with a hot shower. Warmth and friendship were all I wanted and shortly after his text I had Dolly in the back of a truck, we were hitch hiking the last 70km. The change of transport brought its own virtues. The driver described himself as ‘extreme driver’ stating that the Paris-Dakar was nothing compared to his Pamir crossings in a conventional truck. He told stories of scaring American tourists that had hitched with him and played me his favourite Tajik music on the CD player. We cruised with the stereo at full volume, passing through small villages and compared lifestyles and families in a blend of broken Turkish, Russian and English. Erwann’s journey had turned out to be not so enjoyable, having been ordered to pay a fortune, stopped half way and told to hand over money, being bullied by 10 men and being asked for more money for the return of his bag.
Riding the last 5km from the depot to the hotel, I had entered a new world. Electric scooters zoomed past in silence, actual legitimate taxis passed me with their neon signs atop their roofs. There were now modern, multi story buildings lit up like Skegness gone crazy with lights all over them, department stores, TVs on the sides of buildings. I was in China.
With having to organise warm clothes and equipment for my impending high altitude winter, Erwann and I had plenty of time to share in Kashgar. We wandered the streets, photographing and meeting people interested in the crazy tourists in winter. After the months of simple living in Central Asia, I treated myself to a Snickers, the most delicious Snickers! We walked through malls and department stores, all but forgotten for a long time. To be on a floor dedicated to perfumes and accessories, and then up to electronics, up again to mans fashion and then womens’, wow! It is crazy how you become accustomed to a type of life and only notice its characteristics once you enter a new place.
Erwann and I enjoyed our time together, our discussions over problems of the ego, questioning why in calling ourselves ‘free’ through our travelling, we actually enforce greater restrictions in order to accomplish our goals, and whose goals they actually are, our own or are we trying to appease others? As he had to head East due to his restricted visa, I agreed to join him for a few days and we went to Urumqi, the world’s most inland city.