It was getting cold, snow on the ground came down as far as the roadside on the mountain passes. Evenings were frosty. In Dushanbe I’d bought a cheap but warm synthetic parka jacket as the temperature was changing. There had been little point in carrying unnecessary baggage through the months of hot desert. But I realised I’d made a miscalculation by deciding to wait until Kashgar – over the border in China – before buying warm clothes for crossing the Himalayas. It was now I needed them! There was one last chance, a settlement at the high altitude crossroads of the Pamir Highway and the road to China where I knew there was a small shop. But did it stock what I was desperate for?
Rewind a week, and I was entering Kyrgyzstan. Already here the season was changing. Summer had disappeared and winter was edging in. Ahead of me was the Tien Shen, or Heavenly Mountains range, marking the edge of the Steppes of central Asia and of the thousands of kilometres I’d cycled across. Over them was China. I was leaving Tajikistan and entering Kyrgyzstan. In the distance to my right was the snow topped Pamir range with its five thousand metre peaks.
I had already discovered that frontiers to the central Asian countries I’d cycled through appeared quite jerrymandered. On Google maps the road from the Kyrgyz border town of Batken to my destination of the country’s second city Osh, traverses long fingers of encroaching Uzbekistan territory – some actual enclaves, isolated pieces of Uzbek territory surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. The Soviet Union when drawing up the borders for the various republics – in this part of the empire anyway – had made sure political borders split up ethnic groups thus preventing any cohesive opposition to the centralised control of Moscow. In their planning too, interdependence between the countries was part of the design, each economy specialising in for example cotton, electricity production or growing wheat, none to be self reliant. Devised to divide and rule.
And I had been for a while operating without a map. Which, in this day and age, is not as dramatic as it sounds. I had an app on my iPod – MapsWithMe – which was of some help (though nothing in my experience can replace a paper map). There appeared no road that kept within the country’s boundaries. And my Uzbek visa having been used was now invalid. But despite its absence on Google maps there is in fact a brand new (mostly) sealed road that stayed within the Kyrgyzstan border. It stretches across the barren plains north of the Pamir foothills to Kadamzai and on to Kyzyl-Kiya occasionally dropping into bright green irrigated valleys.
After long stretches – some thirty to forty kilometres without water – and a busy and very unpleasant dirt stretch into the city, this road enters the second city of Kyrgyzstan. Built along the Ak Bura river at one end of the fertile Fergana valley, the city of Osh has a long history on the Silk Route, the first major market town over the mountains from China. But today it has lost its significance. Much of its hinterland is now in Uzbekistan, just three miles away, indeed half of the city’s population are Uzbeks.
How distinct I wondered were the ethnic groups in this part of Central Asia, how different their identities and cultures? Did they get along or historically was there conflict? As can be predicted when nations and political borders are drawn up far away by a central power as opposed to evolving over the centuries, different agendas, interests and loyalties give rise to prejudice, preferential treatment and discrimination (the ‘Scramble For Africa’ being an obvious example where the European powers divided up the continent between them in the late 1800’s. With tragic consequences since). Which is what has been developing here. I learned Kyrgyz and Tajiks have lived for centuries without friction, but relations between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are not so harmonious.
Uzbeks were traders and farmers, the Kyrgyz from a nomadic tradition. Under Soviet control traditional forms of community were disrupted as Moscow placed Kyrgyz into positions of power in the civil service leading to Uzbek feelings of exclusion from political life. Then as Soviet authority in the region declined, Human Rights Watch explains, “grievances over land and water distribution increasingly took on an ethnic dimension during the perestroika and glasnost era in the mid-to-late 1980s, as ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identities became stronger.” There were calls for a separate Uzbek autonomous region and eventually injustices felt by the Uzbeks and resentment by Kyrgyz over the economic success of the Uzbek community gave rise to riots in Osh in 1990 leaving over three hundred dead.
But it is argued, simply explaining the troubles away as ‘ethnic tensions’ is misguided. Rather, the ultimate causes of the conflict included “serious economic, political, and social insecurity combined with competition”. With a new but weak national administration and an economy in trouble without the former Soviet protectionism, feelings of economic and personal uncertainty increased. Nearly half the population lived under the poverty line, many families responded by sending their sons to work in Kazakhstan, Russia and even China. The overseas remittances were obviously a temporary relief for many but family structures had now been destabilised, and together with the breakdown of the authority of the state, this gave rise to a climate where criminal groups thrived. Osh became a regional hub for narco-trafficking. Extortion, demands for protection money and land seizure meant further vulnerability and perceived injustices. These circumstances all contributed to tensions which boiled over again in riots in 2010 with over four hundred people killed, mainly Uzbeks.
So I arrived into a city in recovery. At the new, very friendly and comfortable Biy Ordo hostel I was surprised to see another touring bike. Which on closer scrutiny I recognised. It was Will’s, the young American with whom I had cycled across the desert in Kazakhstan (along with the Frenchman Fred). Of course I couldn’t resist surprising him, approaching him from behind and covering his eyes. I was sure he’d have no idea who would know him here but my voice gave me away. It was great to catch up and swap stories about our different routes. He had noticeably lost weight since I’d last seen him though he reassured me it wasn’t stress over his long distance relationship, just the toll of long distance cycling – he’d more or less come the same direction as me and had just arrived from cycling the Pamir Highway. On the cycle across the desert poor Will had been preoccupied with his inability to get in contact with la Columbiana, the girl with whom he’d developed an intense and hot-blooded relationship on Skype. To myself and Fred’s bemusement his prime ambition it seemed in making it across the desert had been to get to the town of Beyneu – six hundred kilometres across the sand – in the hope of an internet connection. And now things were still apparently very passionate between them. Will was making for the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek where his journey would finish before flying to Columbia. I marvelled once again at how the world has been changed through telecommunications.
The company at the guesthouse included a Swedish helicopter pilot, a Turkish engineer, and a French Canadian project manager. All working for a Turkish engineering company. Which had a contract from a Chinese organisation to survey the territory across the Chinese Kyrgyzstan border to lay a gas pipeline through the mountains. Extraordinary how international these projects are. And English is the lingua franca.
The sprawling, labyrinthine market in Osh, older than Rome and one of the oldest in Central Asia, was fascinating to wander through. It was divided into different areas – fresh produce, meat, cheap plastic Chinese household goods in primary colours, tradesmen working… At one stall a man repaired Singer sewing machines, his neighbor made saddles – first fashioning the wooden frames before upholstering them with studded leather. We both found useful purchases. In my case some high tensile Korean bolts (“Sovietski” no good, “Chitai” – Chinese – even softer), and a wide selection of dried fruit and nuts for snack food on the road.
Will continued north on his journey and I east, on a climb up the Pamir Highway on the road towards the Chinese border. Leaving the small town of Gulcha after dossing down in an abandoned Soviet era hotel – no running water but it was dry and sheltered – I came across a group of four Spanish cyclists just finishing their breakfast who gave me a nice welcome and we joined forces. Riding light racing bikes as they were just over for a few weeks cycling, they would pedal on ahead up the steeper climbs, waiting for me when coming across a chaihana for a break.
My solo cycle was all very well – with of course a satisfying sense of achievement getting this far on my own – but I missed company and really enjoyed the snack and lunch breaks I shared with Emiliano and his compadres. The following day we parted as they were attempting to get to Tajikistan along the Kyzul Su river valley that would bring them back around to Dushanbe which I’d left a week previously. I had been intent on taking that route myself (the opposite direction, from Dushanbe) but as much as I could learn that Tajik-Kyrgyz border was closed. The lads’ host the previous night had been in the Kyrgyz military and was pretty sure if they turned up at the border it would be fine to cross. I subsequently learned they couldn’t.
And it was now in these frosty nights I realised my big oversight in not kitting up with warm clothes in Osh. I was depending on the high altitude, tiny settlement of Sary-Tash as my last chance. Would they have what I needed?
The small general store in Sary-Tash was crammed to the roof with everything from cooking utensils to tinned goods and bags of flour to farm tools. Surely warm clothes would be on the list of needs for anyone living up here. I mimed gloves and the woman pulled a box down, reached in and took out a woollen pair, Chinese. The same for socks, then hat and most pleasing of all, long johns. I was a relieved and happy boy when I walked out into the cool air.
I was now well dressed for the altitude. At 3,500 metres it was a treeless, lunar landscape with just the very odd yurt indicating any sign of human life in the bleak, barren terrain. The road took me past a couple of nomads stripping the covers off their yurts leaving just the frame to be dismantled and loaded onto the back of a truck. That was it until next Spring. An hour later a trace of smoke drifted up from a yurt a hundred metres off the road. A lone woman in a red coat and headscarf walked from the yurt the fifty metres to her hobbled horse a bucket in hand. I watched, guessing what she might be up to. Dropping onto one knee she began milking the horse.
It was an otherworldly experience cycling up the gently rising Alay valley, across the desolate, high altitude plane, made the more powerful by the absence of human life. I was on my own. On the iPod Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde kept me company. Visions of Johanna.
The incline got steeper as the road approached a 4,000 metre pass. The wind was picking up and with it snow flurries, until I was cycling in a blizzard, the snow beginning to settle on the tundra around. A growing feeling of unease began to take hold. This was exposed, uninhabited and cold. No truck had passed in the previous number of hours. I was totally alone. The weather was closing in. What if the road became impassable, if something went wrong, with me, or the bike? I was wearing all my warm gear. This wouldn’t be a good place to be stuck. I now felt most definitely outside of my comfort zone and my mind was feeding on anxieties. You keep going – what else would you do – but it was with growing unease.
As I’ve found with cycling, no matter how slowly, as time passes so do kilometres. Eventually the slope eased and this seemed to be the top of the pass. There was no great sense of achievement, just the intent to proceed in a downwardly direction! The conditions moderated, the wind eased and snow disappeared. I have a photo of my bike on the descent, with a dramatic and beautiful mountainside backdrop, sun streaming down and remember a smile of relief on my face. Only half an hour before a forlorn, abandoned feeling was hanging over me. With a change in circumstances – descending with the sun on my back – its opposite, elation, was given free reign. Not for the first time I smiled at the fickleness of my mind.
The road dropped steeply over the following few kilometres to a river crossing and a lonely Kyrgyz customs post. The lads appeared happy with the distraction of a lone cyclist. By this time I’d stripped off most of my layers. Winding its way along the base of the sandstone mountains the river had gouged its path through this elemental landscape, the curves thrown into strong relief by the late afternoon sunlight. Eight kilometres short of the Irkeshtam border post was the first settlement since leaving Sary Tash. What strikes the passing traveller as odd about Nura is its appearance – uniform prefabricated houses. ‘What is that about’ I pondered cycling past with little inclination to stop. A Soviet style forced settlement of nomads? In fact an earthquake had hit Nura in 2008 leaving the town “fully destroyed, 100%, there are many injured” according to a news report at the time. Seventy five lives were lost. The two buildings remaining were the recently built school and health clinic, the clay and straw houses not strong enough to withstand the quake. The Kyrgyz press service announced the injured would receive the equivalent of €100 each plus three tons of coal, and the families of the dead 50 kilogrammes of flour. And a new dwelling. The Lonely Planet guide book, written before the earthquake, disgracefully dismisses the place as “the hamlet of Nur-a, a village that has built up a reputation for drunkenness and theft. You’re better off heading straight to the border.”
By late afternoon I was at the end of the road in Kyrgyzstan, at the frontier. Beyond was China. Stacked haphazardly on the slope next to the road shipping containers converted into small dwellings or the odd shop selling cheap Chinese goods, beer and spirits constituted the border settlement of Irkeshtam. An outcome I subsequently realised of the earthquake too, probably. Rubbish and empty bottles lay strewn between them. I was a little sad not to be able to share a vague sense of achievement with anyone. This moment felt significant in a way, a major stage on the journey. I’d cycled across Europe and central Asia as far as China.
In the small ‘guesthouse’, the only building, I rolled out my bag on a wide, raised cot. During the night a few drivers turned up and unrolled their mats on the platform too. Sleep tends be fairly light at altitude. In Osh my lack of Russian had made it a frustrating and unsuccessful exercise tracking down some Diamox tablets, which help relieve symptoms of altitude sickness. I had found them very handy in a former life having driven vehicles at altitude and over passes in the Himalayas and Andes. Light headedness, headaches, and loss of energy and appetite are typical symptoms. One pharmacist seemed to understand my miming recommending the Russian alternative acetazolamide. With no internet, a text home to my girlfriend who googled it, reassured me. But interestingly, apart from the lighter sleeping, I was experiencing no effects from the altitude. That was the difference cycling, it was the gradual ascent and acclimatisation.
I was up early. To discover a dramatically altered landscape – it had been snowing much of the night and the mountainous landscape was covered in white. I cycled past the line of Chinese registered trucks which had materialised overnight, waiting for the border to open. And was stamped out of Kyrgyzstan by the friendly officials. Now can I get into China? Even though a visa had been stamped into my passport by the Chinese embassy in Dublin (thanks Catherine) I was a tiny bit apprehensive. Maybe it wasn’t going to be straightforward. Always a little difficult to obtain, for the previous two months the Chinese embassies in the central Asian capitals had been refusing to grant tourist visas in an attempt to frustrate foreigners travelling overland from the west witnessing the current civil unrest in the Uyghur Autonomous Region, Xinjiang province in the western part of China.
A kilometre across no-man’s-land and I was at the Chinese border. Two young soldiers flicked through my passport before waiving me on good naturedly. Following the river, the road weaved through this low point of the snow covered mountain range – I was now cycling in Chinese territory. The ‘official’ entry post was ten kilometres further. At first functional, cube shaped barracks came into view, followed by low administrative buildings which had Chinese text writ large in red across their fronts. This now most definitely felt like another country. And there was no friendly ‘waving me through’ here.
The impassive Mr Lee, who had no English, was the officer in charge. My passport was in his possession. “Camera!” He commanded before skimming through the pictures with a practiced hand. Presumably to check if there was anything to threaten the security of the Chinese state or corrupt morals. Handing me back the camera Mr Lee then disappeared. Another guard passing by, affable enough, had a few words of English. I asked him what was the procedure and when could I proceed. He told me to “please wait”. Which I obediently did. After a few hours I approached the same guard. How long would I have to wait? He paused, searching for his desired word before revealing it with a smile. “Patience”. Well, that was obviously a useful – and used – addition to his limited English vocabulary.
Eventually I learned that a new Immigration Control centre was over a hundred kilometres distant in Ulugqat. They would summon a taxi – at my expense – from the town to bring me there. No, there was no way I would be permitted to cycle it. The dismissive manner in which this was said didn’t leave me with much cause for optimism. I wandered outside where lines of trucks were waiting to clear customs and arranged a lift from a Kyrgyz truck driver. Trying to persuade Mr Lee it would solve both our problems – I didn’t want to pay for a taxi and he didn’t want me to cycle the distance unaccompanied – was to no avail. “Not possible” he brushed me off, his face without expression.
But what was this, a bus pulling into the border post? An hour later I had my passport back and both my bicycle and me were on the weekly Osh to Kashgar bus. A stroke of luck. I negotiated a fare of €25 for myself and the bicycle saving myself I dread to think was the taxi fare. A few hours lying on the comfortable seats that served as three quarter length beds as well, and we arrived at the brand spanking new ‘official’ border control in Ulugqat.
The bus pulled in to a very large installation along newly tarmacadamed lanes like an airport runway. I expected to see a signaller with table tennis bats marshalling us to the parking spot. After all the passengers disembarked – me with my luggage and bicycle – we were ushered into the building, a large airport-like hangar. There was some confusion and delay as we waited for attention, until uniformed officials appeared from nowhere with a photographer in tow and one by one presented each of us with a small red and gold box tied with a ribbon, a gift. Chinese moon cake for good luck. Apparently we were the first arrivals to be processed through the new facility and of course it had to be recorded for publicity purposes. After this little ritual and much beaming we filed through one by one, desk by desk – there were four of them, immigration, customs, health and agricultural imports – to complete the procedure. An ordered line was earnestly enforced by one of the young officers taking his role very seriously strutting up and down the queue, ensuring a uniform distance between us, no straying sideways from the line, no talking, and bizarrely reminding a Kyrgyz couple ahead of me no smiling! After my bicycle and bags passed through the baggage screening machine successfully I was officially stamped into China, exited the building, and bid farewell to my fellow passengers as they continued to Kashgar while I cycled the few kilometres into town in search of a cheap hotel.
So this was China. The people on the street looked no different than across the border. They were Uighur, not Han Chinese. In the centre of town it was more mixed. After being turned away impatiently from cheaper looking dives – unlicenced I discovered to accept foreigners – I found one for $16 and enjoyed my first wash in four days before wandering out in search of a beer and food. This was the part I always enjoyed after arriving in a new country – eating! In a small cafe – one of many identical ones – the students inside welcomed me with curiosity, and helped translate the menu with much giggling. It seemed to be hugely entertaining to them. Although English was taught in school and college, it was apparent they hadn’t much experience actually trying it out. A tasty bowl of noodles with greens and a beer was $2.
The following morning a couple of Kyrgyz businessmen paid for my breakfast of dumplings and tea before changing $50 for me at a fair rate. And off I cycled in an easterly direction through the grid system of streets. And found the main road, black tarmac snaking around the mountain ridge and desert into the distance. The bright blue of the morning sky and intense green lines of poplars which follow the irrigation channels provided a vivid contrast against the sandy coloured landscape. The road surface was excellent. A partly built highway was being constructed in preparation – along with the new Customs and Immigration facility in Ulugqat – for a trade corridor for the anticipated growth in commerce with central Asia. A gateway for what has been called the future Silk Road Economic Belt, with Kashgar as the hub between China, central and south Asia.
On my approach to Kashgar I was amazed to come across two cycle travellers approaching. The first I’d come across on the road since… well since not so long ago leaving Osh. But it still took me aback. But Nunu and Joana were the first Portuguese cyclists I’d met. It was great to stop and chat, paused on the side of the road. That kind of encounter tends to be very focussed – we tend to learn a lot about each other, more so than perhaps meeting in a bar or hostel. The primary desire to pick up information on the road ahead is usually blended with a natural curiosity and friendliness towards a fellow cyclist. Both sides had useful information coming from where the other was heading to. And Nunu and Joana were a lovely couple, he pony tailed, lean and fit in his late forties with Latin good looks, she quite a bit younger and pretty. Cyclists I had met (with respect to any reading this!) tended to the grungy. With a light floral scarf covering her head, sunglasses and lipstick she looked like she’d stepped out of a stylish Italian film set from the sixties. I had to remark on her being the most glamorous cyclist I’d met. “Oh no!” She exclaimed. “It’s just an old fabric I picked up in Indonesia to cover up from the sun. And lip gloss for protection!”
Kashgar, with a desert climate of temperatures as low as -20 degs in January up to 40 degs in July, is an extremely fertile oasis irrigated by waters from the surrounding mountains and has always been known for its abundant stone fruit. But more significantly as the westernmost city in China, isolated from the rest of the country by thousands of miles of inhospitable desert – it’s closer to Baghdad than Beijing – it has been a strategic crossroads on the Silk Road for two thousand years. In my former life in the travel business arriving from the desert as an overland truck driver I had been enthralled by the atmosphere of this legendary near mythical oasis town with its ancient bazaar, reputedly the biggest in the world – the Uyghur characters doing business, striking deals, galloping horses to test them. Fifteen years later I was rolling into town on my bicycle.