I started to feel a little better after 30 minutes of laying on the ground by the side of the road, 5km past the border. The capital - Bishkek, is only about 15km from the border, so I didn't need to be feeling my best - we only had 10km to go.
The sun was setting and after an hour of slowly rolling into the city, we were there and it was almost dark. We were struggling to find the hostel we were after - it wasn't where it said it was on our map. Then came the thunder and lightning, followed minutes later by a huge downpour of rain - the first time we'd seen rain in a month. In less than a minute we were drenched to the skin.
We had the phone number for the hostel, but no local sim card to be able to call. We flagged down a taxi and the driver and his customer instantly got to work helping us. They phoned the hostel, got the real address and then we followed speedily behind them as they led us through the city in the dark and rain. Ten minutes later we were there, the hostel owner outside waiting for us. We were able to pitch the tent at the hostel - the cheapest option and much comfier than any hostel bed we've stayed in.
The next morning was planning and big decision time. Bishkek was where we had to get our visa for the next country - China. However we've been trying to work out a way around a very big problem for the last couple of months...how are we actually going to get to India?!
Our options have been limited on how we will get there for a long time. We could never have gone the obvious route - Iran to Pakistan to India, because rules have changed recently and to get a Pakistan visa you need to apply from your home country - and there is no way we could have known when we would be reaching that area before we set off from England. Which only left one other country that we can enter from - China. The problem with China is the whole south-west of the country which is where the border of India lies, is Tibet, and foreigners can't enter Tibet without an extra visa and a guide with you 24 hours a day at the cost of a couple hundred dollars a day.
We've always known this, but have heard of some cyclists trying to do it illegally and sneak past the many police checkpoints various ways, so our plan has always been to give this a go - Despite the fact that of all the people we read who attempted it, only one managed to sneak through the entire region and get into India - the rest were caught and deported out of Tibet and back into the rest of China.
Our odds of legally being able to get into India by bicycle have been around 1% since we set off, that was never going to stop us trying though, but recently things have changed in that region ... In the last couple of months we've spoken to other cyclists and read on the internet that the whole of Tibet is now stricter than ever before - Rather than just being put on a bus out of Tibet by the police if you got caught, you could now be deported out of the whole of China, by plane ... at your own expense. That is something we both couldn't risk - especially for a 1% chance of making it through successfully.
Which left us with a very tough decision between two options -
1. Fly from Kyrgyzstan or China to India
2. Pick a new final destination
What was more important to us? Getting to Mumbai by any means or keeping our feet on land until the end?
We'd come this far without having to get a flight, including taking a huge detour around Uzbekistan the previous month (when we had our visa application rejected) - & when we could've easily flown over it. If we took a flight it would also now mean that suddenly we'd be close to finishing.
We weren't ready to get on a plane yet, we weren't ready to fly our way out of trouble and we weren't ready for the trip to be cut short... so India was off the cards - We needed to pick a new final destination...
Our criteria for the new final destination was decided - We still had to be going East, Still had to pass through two more countries and we had to cycle roughly the same distance that we would've had to do to reach Mumbai, and that was all.
Below was our original route out of Kyrgyzstan...
The new plan was good except for one thing, the route was twice as far as the original one - China is gigantic. To cycle across the whole country to Laos would not only be much further than the whole route we'd taken through Europe (which took 10 weeks), but it would also be impossible - We could only get a one month visa for China. It meant we'd have to choose the most interesting part of China for cycling, leaving ourselves the same distance we would have had to cycle with the original route, and get a train or bus through the remaining part of China. Soon a new route had emerged...
You can't get a Chinese visa yourself in Bishkek for some reason, you have to go through a travel agency, and everyone seems to use the same one. The famous "Miss Liu" is the woman everyone on the internet recommends to use . So we set off on the bikes to find her.
30 minutes later, we arrive at the address for her travel agency – building number 142. We head inside and are immediately told that the rules have just that week changed and that we have to go to the Chinese Embassy ourselves to apply for a visa. We reluctantly go back outside and head in the direction of the Embassy – which is miles away. An hour later we are lost and fed up. Luckily another taxi driver shows us the way as we follow behind him and arrive at the Embassy just before it's due to close.
We are waiting in line outside, for about 10 minutes when a Chinese woman comes over to speak to us. She asks if we are applying for a visa and then tells us that she owns a travel company and she can do the whole process for us...brilliant. She suggests we cycle to her office and then hands us her business card .... Miss Liu?! Baffled, we tell her we've just been to her office and told they can't sort visas anymore. She's equally confused. We head back to her office and it turns out there are two travel agencies, sharing the same address and building number, sat right alongside each other...we'd gone to the wrong one of course.
After filling in lots of forms and getting new passport photos printed, we paid her the fee, including an extra $20 each for the express service so the visa would be processed quicker – we've spent enough time on this trip waiting around for visas. Unfortunately, even with the express service it was still a week's wait.
We went back to the hostel, via a supermarket and had a few much needed beers, outside on the hostel decking area...
When our visas were ready to pick up it was time to leave the luxuries of daily showers and wifi and get back on the road. The rest of Kyrgyzstan awaited.
Kyrgyzstan is known to have great roads, even the smaller less used ones are in perfect condition. The exception to this is Central Kyrgyzstan, which was the much longer, harder route through the country but the one that we decided we would take.
The first couple of days were pretty flat on main roads and with mountains all around us. We camped next to a railway track on the second night, the mountains in the distance that we'd have to pass over the next day.
There was a large deep hole on the other side of the road to us, only about 15 meters away, but we hadn't noticed it yet. From where we were sat in the bus shelter, it was just a normal gravel road. A drunk man then sees us and very slowly starts shuffling over to us from across the the other side.
We are both sat there watching him for about a minute - it is taking him ages to get to us in the pouring rain. Just as he is close, a car drives past and calls out to him, he waves and then decides he would prefer to turn around and go back the way he had came. Just as he is reaching the other side again, he trips forward over something, which makes him lose his balance and he slowly, starts falling to his left, the whole time trying to regain his balance. He fails...and we are waiting for the big 'thud' as he hits the ground, but instead, he just silently, completely disappears out of sight.
I was on the verge of hysterical laughter as it was happening but that got immediately replaced with confusion.
“Where did he go??!!” Dan asked, between frowning and slightly laughing.
We stood up and then noticed the big hole, 30 seconds later the man emerged, slowly trying to climb back out. When we realised he wasn't dead or anything the laughter started. Another drunk man comes over to us in the shelter to have a chat, he hadn't seen what just happened and was offering us tea in his house. We were trying not to be rude, but all I could do was laugh. Confused and probably insulted he walked off.
The other guy by this point was out of the hole, wet and muddy and continuing walking to wherever he was going. We were amazed he was ok, so when the rain stopped and we were leaving we had a look at the hole. It was huge, but luckily for him it was just mud and water at the bottom, else it could have been much worse. It took me a good hour to get the laughter out of my system.
We had a nice camping spot at the end of the day, for my birthday. Next to the river and the mountains and Dan gave me his presents of chocolate spread, a can of deodorant and a new pair of socks, all much needed.
We'd only done about 10km but the weather didn't look like changing. So we quickly got the tent up and I layered up as much as I could and got into my sleeping bag – all my cold weather clothes and extra sleeping bag I'd given away in Kazakhstan, as didn't think we'd be hitting proper cold weather again. We cooked some food in the tent doorway and then had an 8 hour, 8 episode, 'Game of Thrones' marathon.
Immediately it started snowing again. We carried on for about 4km and then it got really stormy. Thunder and lightning started getting closer and closer until it was deafening and directly above us. There was a herd of sheep taking shelter under a overhang next to the road. They all had a warmer coat than me so we scared them off and took shelter where they'd been.-
It only takes a few minutes to set up our home - my MSR tent (the same one I had with me through Africa). Complete with speedy, squeaky, fast-forwarded chat, here we are putting the tent up near Lake Song-Kol...
Only rarely have we had to say yes to the offer of food and this was one of those times. His name was Gabriel and he had two passengers with him - his German friend Britta, she was a professional photographer, and Pavle, a Serbian guy who they'd randomly picked up the day before who was also a photographer.
They opened up the back of their 4x4 and it was like a fully stocked shop. They poured a huge amount of nuts and dried fruit into a massive bag for us, filled Dan's water bottle back up, took a load of pictures of us and then wished us luck and drove off up the road towards the pass.
20 minutes later and we were at the mountain pass, and the guys were also still there taking photos. I'm not surprised they hadn't left in a hurry, the view from the top was spectacular. They took a photo for us next to the sign and then we went to enjoy the view. We could see some of our road winding down below us and although we were 3346m high up, the mountains far away on the horizon looked even bigger too. We both agreed that it was probably the best view either of us had ever seen. The photos may not do it justice, but it was incredible...
1km down the road was the shepherd and his family. They had a spare yurt for us so we negotiated a price - $20 for all 5 of us, including dinner! We had the dinner early, inside our yurt, as we were all hungry. Then we had a wander around - the family must have had a couple hundred sheep as well as many cows, horses, donkeys and a load of kids.
Gabriel had been all over the world, mainly Africa as he worked for UNICEF and was currently living in Bishkek working for the charity. Britta had come over to see him and spend a couple weeks travelling around Kyrgyzstan and she had also travelled the world, from Haiti to Afghanistan with her work as she is a very successful photographer. And Pavle was a really cool guy they'd recently picked up and also had a few weeks travelling round the country with his camera in hand.
It was nice to have great company and was a shame to have to say goodbye the following morning. Not before we had a huge breakfast cooked by Britta though and a bowl of real cereal and milk from Gabriel. They were pulling out all the stops as they knew we hadn't seen European food and snacks for a long time. Our final gift was a big bar of Milka and then Pavle said he would pay the $20 for all of us.
By the end of the day, the tarmac was gone and we were on a small track, with a surface that resembled a pebbled beach. On the flat it wasn't even cycle-able, so we were back to pushing again. We finished late, trying to do as much as we could, because we knew the next few days might be slow if the surface stayed the same.
Every camping spot so far in Kyrgyzstan seemed to be amazing, the entire country is full of mountains, rivers and lakes, a big difference from west Kazakhstan...
Then I had an idea – my blow up camping mat was faulty and doesn't blow up like it is supposed to. It is meant to be about 1 inch in thickness, but since I slept on a heated floor in a Mosque in Turkey, it now can go huge if you keep blowing into it. So I decided I would try and use it as a lilo to get across...
We were gutted, thinking that we'd have to go all the way back to the turning for the other road. However, 10km back the way we'd come , we noticed an even smaller track that was hugging another big river. On our map we could see that the road we wanted to get to had a bridge that went over this river – about 20km away. It was worth a shot. If we got lucky and this track led all the way to that road then it would mean the last 2 days wasn't a complete waste of time and we wouldn't have to go all the way back.
It was full of huge rocks that we weren't very good at avoiding, the bikes were having a hard time. Often the track would disappear, but we knew we just had to follow the river, so carried on in the same direction and it would soon reappear.
After a couple of hours we found signs of life again - The path had taken us to onto a remote farm. We joined a bigger track, almost like a gravel road, that lead out of the farm and in the direction of the road we were after.
As we were heading out of the farm, two guys climbed out of their tractors and came over to see us. They looked pretty confused as to how we were cycling through their farm from the direction we'd come, but they offered us a bit of gone-off horse milk (the drink that everybody seems to like in Kyrgyzstan for some reason), confirmed that we were close to the road and then went back to their tractors.
Somehow though, maybe because of the lack of cycling through Kazakhstan, he had gone back to his old self. Which meant I was “beeping” loudly at him up every hill instead.
On this occasion, it was late in the evening, we were both tired and it was a stupid road to be trying to cycle up. Nether the less, I got up real close behind him while we were cycling up it and shouted the biggest “BEEPPPP” I could. He jumped a mile, wobbled into the middle of the road where the gravel was thicker and then fell off his bike. It was his first fall on the whole trip...”beeped” off his bike by me – it was a very proud moment.
The sun was nearly down by the time we reached the top, so it was time to camp...
We got up to a high vantage point and then spotted it down in the distance. The track we were on definitely didn't lead to it, so after a bit of a debate it was decided we would just head in a straight line towards it down the mountain side. A little stupid maybe but it saved us wandering around for ages, trying to find the path that joined it.
The following few days saw us making slow progress. After another pass of 2950m we were in the town of Kazarman, which is where the two roads met up again. It had been two weeks since we had left Bishkek and internet access, and unfortunately our route was the worst place to be if you wanted to watch the World Cup – which had started about 10 days previous.
In the town we found a great little shop where we filled our bags with food again and then asked a girl who spoke better English than anyone else in the shop, if we could borrow her phone to use the internet. It was fine, so we immediately checked the England v Italy score. Not a great start we learnt. Then we did a quick Facebook status letting everyone know we were ok and headed off and out of town.
We had a long gradual ascent away from Kazarman the next day. We knew we had another big pass of 3100m to climb up soon, the last one of central Kyrgyzstan - before we would hit tarmac and proper civilization again. By the evening we had reached the bottom of the climb. We got about half way up before it was time to camp.
When we reached the bottom, we had only about 30km until we'd hit tarmac again. Central Kyrgyzstan had destroyed my tyres, so I put my last remaining one the rear wheel. Dan's rear tyre was in a much worse state, it was falling apart. He didn't want to ruin his last remaining one on the bad roads though, so was hoping the current one would last until we reached good roads again. About 10km away from tarmac a huge bang went off like a gunshot, and Dan's inner-tube exploded and was now bulging out of his tyre. Time to replace it, and time to camp.
“Dan, we're out. Fastest exit ever in our history!”
We were so excited about getting back to civilization so we could get involved in the World Cup, we hadn't seen a single minute of it so far and before we got chance, England were already out.
We left the town late in the day, both with a lot less to talk about now England were eliminated. Thankfully, a donkey by the side of the road cheered us up, or actually, maybe it just made us feel worse and more depressed...
Then we both got some great news upon checking our emails. Our friends from back home, all Cornish but living all over the place, said they'd come out to meet us at the end of the trip. Osh was only a week's ride to China, we only had 4 weeks in China on our visa and then when into Laos it looked like it would only be around 10 days cycle until we reached the capital, and the finish.
Which all meant that finally we knew quite an accurate date when we would finish. With that info, they all booked flights for Bangkok, Thailand for just after mid August. One would be coming from Australia, one from New Zealand and two from UK, all arriving different times. All we had to do was just get to our final destination when we expected to. Then a bus to Bangkok to meet up and hopefully be able to leave our bicycles somewhere in Bangkok – from where
we 'd fly home and then we could have a two week holiday with our mates – a perfect way to finish the trip.
Our diet for those days in Osh was virtually just fruit. It was really really cheap – 1kg of amazing, big cherries for $1 and the same for 1kg of apricots...which meant we were each eating 1kg of both every day.
With a bad internet connection most of the time and a lack of it all together, means when I get chance to write my blog it takes me a very long time. So we needed to stay in Osh a couple of days to sort everything for the next leg and write the blog. However by the 2nd night I still hadn't finished, we'd have to stay a 3rd night.
After 30 minutes of searching for the cheapest one I found one that was much cheaper than the rest, for some reason. We both had a look at it and were happy, we'd fly home on the 29th of August – the day after all of our friends were flying back. I wasted no time and booked it immediately.
Finally everything was sorted. Rather than leave straight away, I went back into the dorm room to my bed and had one last lie down, I was knackered. I then had a last little play on the internet and one last check of my emails. Ahhh brilliant, the confirmation email has come through, let's have a little look at it...
“What?” Dan asks.
“I might just've booked our flights for the wrong month”
It was true, I had. The 29th of July, instead of August – that's why it was a big difference in price from the other flights we'd found!
I felt ill, thinking I'd lose all the money it cost or at least some of it. I spent an hour or so in panic, Googling what I should try and do. I couldn't phone E-bookers, but “live chat” worked, so I got on it and pleaded with them for help. I was told that if I booked a completely new flight within the next hour, then they'd be able to fully refund me every penny afterwards. I'd have to borrow money from home to book the 2nd flight, but this would be a big let-off, so of course I accepted.
The actual price for the correct date turned out to be much more expensive, and more than any of the dates around it. The cheapest one was nearly a week later on the 4th of September. It meant Dan and I would have an extra few days after our friends went home. That sounded good. So I booked the new flight, this time with Dan checking my every move. All sorted, E-bookers would refund in full within the next 5 working days – a lucky escape.
The whole ordeal took hours and by this time we were in no mood to start cycling, so we booked another night in the hostel and promised ourselves we'd leave early next morning.
It wasn't quite an early start the next morning...we both were quite ill. A couple of skype conversations with different people confirmed it was the ridiculous amount of fruit we'd been eating...didn't know that could be a bad thing. By the evening we were still there, our stomachs in a bad way. We decided to leave though, else we may never get out of Osh.
The next few days were difficult. It was really hot, too hot to cycle in the middle of the day, our stomaches were still just as bad and each day was constantly gradually going up hill towards another mountain pass.
There were two in particular we were hoping to see though...Gayle & John have the aptly named blog - Sloths On Wheels, and they are doing a similar route but really taking their time, taking a few years to get to wherever they choose to finish. We'd randomly bumped into them in Istanbul, over 5 months ago, and chatted for about an hour. We'd kept in contact ever since. Our routes were very similar - we were in the same countries at the same time on a couple of occasions, but never close enough to meet up. We asked the cyclists if they'd seen them in Tajikistan. Luckily, one of them had actually cycled with them for a bit and he thought they were now a few days behind him.
We said goodbye, and headed off towards the start of the mountain pass we'd been getting towards. The next day we were up and over it, not a huge one at 2700m, but it was nice to have tarmac up the pass for a change, which meant we could actually cycle up all of it.
It turned out that my chain was actually too big anyway, so I could just remove the broken link and all was fine. We carried on up the mountain and reached the top by lunchtime and had a pic next to the sign – sporting two important things...
1. My Looe Pioneers running vest – from the running club that my Dad co-founded
2. The Cornish Flag – Proudly my home and still one of the most beautiful places I've seen in the world.
Just as we were reaching the top of the 2nd pass two cyclists came down the other way. It wasn't Gayle & John, but after a little chat we realise it's someone else I'd email contact with...While Dan and I were climbing loads of steps to visit a monastery in Turkey which was built into the side of a mountain, an American cyclist called Tyson and his girlfriend Hannah saw our bikes chained up and left us a little note with his email address on it, hoping we might be on the same route. I emailed him but it turned out our paths didn't look like crossing again. Here they were though randomly!
Then they told us that they'd just come from Tajikistan, where the border had been closed for a few days, which meant there was a bottle-neck of cyclists who'd all come through the border at the same time when it reopened. There were another 8 cyclists behind them they said, all riding together for a few days and Gayle and John were part of the group.
10 minutes later they all started coming around the corner, including 'The Sloths'. It was really nice to see both of them after keeping in contact for so long, hoping our paths may cross. We were there for a couple of hours I think in total and it was nice talking to all the other cyclists too.
We eventually said goodbye to everyone, gave Gayle and John a hug, wished each other good luck and then parted ways.
The new problem was a funny one. When I'd start to pedal for the first time, or start to pedal after I'd free-wheeled for a bit, nothing would happen. I would turn the pedals, the chain and cassette would go around but the wheel wouldn't. I had to do about 5 revolutions before it would kick in.
The first few times it happened was when I was just starting from standstill – I would climb over the saddle, sit down, start peddaling, not go anywhere and then just fall off to the side. I kept forgetting this so it happened a few times until I remembered I had to sort of 'bump-start' it like you do a car. So I would push lots with my foot until the bike was up to speed, then sit down and pedal lots until it kicked in, hopefully before I came to a stop again.
We camped in an abandoned building that evening and the following morning set off towards the border of China.
When they'd eventually done this we got the bad news...There were two border crossings into China from Kyrgyzstan and we'd gone the long way through the country to make sure we came to this particular one. The other border was known for being very difficult and the Chinese government didn't allow people to cycle on the road towards Kashgar - the first big city in west China. They also wouldn't allow cyclists to hitch lifts there either or use public transport. So taxis were the only option and had the upper hand, which meant they charged $200 each to take you away from the border. We obviously didn't want to do any of that so came to this border which we had been told was much simpler.
It was much simpler, however they had the same rules. We weren't allowed to cycle. The reason was, that we were at the actual border of the two countries but they had moved the immigration and customs buildings down from the cold mountains and 150km further into China. Which meant we were sort of not fully in China yet – which is why they wouldn't allow people to cycle it. Taxis were the only option, and there was only one guy to choose from. “This could be expensive” we both thought. Luckily it wasn't too bad - $35 each. Much cheaper than the other border.
We dismantled our bikes and squeezed everything and ourselves into the taxi. Then we drove along the most perfect roads we had seen the whole trip, all the time losing the altitude we had worked so hard to gain on the bikes. It would have been a great road to cycle down and a nice reward after the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, ah well.
They next morning we had breakfast of perfectly fried eggs on toast brought over to us on the veranda, at the cost of £1 each. Then it was time to sort our route for China. We booked our train tickets for Monday 7th of July. We have to do a strange route that involves us going past one particular station for a long way and then switching trains which then goes back past that same station – I don't understand it...Dan sorts all this stuff, I just write the blog.
I spent the 2nd day writing the first half of this blog and we also went to Kashgar's two biggest bike shops to see if we could get cardboard boxes to put the bikes in for the train journey and to see if they could fix my bike. The first one couldn't help, so I showed the 2nd and biggest shop the problem. The guy confidently got to work straight away...he pulled out a can of oil, put a load of it on the chain, span the wheels around lots and then looked up at me, as if to say “Don't mention it”. He had no idea what he was doing, so I thanked him and bought two big bicycle boxes off him for 50p each.
We then had the mission of getting these huge boxes back to the hostel 5 km away. We strapped them to the side of our bikes with one bungee cord each and that seemed to do the trick. It was a bit awkward riding through a busy city with the huge boxes pressed against one leg, which went up and down with every revolution of the pedals, but it was better than walking.
Kyrgyzstan was visually immense. The most beautiful country either of us have ever been to - and between us we've seen some good ones. The mountains, rivers and roads through the centre of the country made for a real challenge and the kids in the country are great. All of them are really polite and just want to shake your hand, even the toddlers offer out their little hands for a handshake when you go past.
China is sure to be interesting, no doubt, and then it's on into Laos for the new finish. It's a shame we can't finish in Mumbai, but politics & border issues are out of our hands. We are on the last leg of the trip now. If you've enjoyed it so far then don't forget - if you wish to sponsor us for the Cornish Charity – Ellie's Haven, then you can do it HERE.