Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Crazy Kazakhstan!

Location: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Counter: 3634 kms

I was not already entered in Kazakhstan, I knew that it would be crazy!

First contact with three Kazakhs truckers when I arrived in Korgas, last station in China before the border. It was midday, and they energically invited me around their table, and offered me an avalanche of Kazakh food, irrigated with beer. It was a tornado of swat in the shoulters, fat laughs with gold teeth, dances, 'repeat-after-me' russian rude words...

The first 50 kilometers after the border, car and truck drivers, driving suicidally fast, welcomed me with half of their body outside of the window, shouting louder than hell: 'welcome in Kazakhstan, my friend!' What a change after China!

I rode a really small part of Kazakhstan, but it was more than 650 kms: this land is huge! I cruised through beautiful landscapes, knowing that Philippe would arrived in Bishkek 5 days after my entry in Kazakhstan, and with the idea to spend one day off in Almati.

The road went through crazy landscapes, changing everyday from flat desert, to 5000 m peaks, canyons, gorges, lakes... I wasn't expecting to see so many beauties. Putting the tent was easy and the places were grandiose. A taste of Mongolia.

I enjoyed Kazakhstan a lot!

On the road, I met Andrew, a 23 year old american, who started walking one year ago from Napoli, and made his way to Kazakhstan across Europe and central Asia. Incredible! When he walks, it is from dawn to dusk, and then he put the tent. If he needs money, he plays violin in the street. Apparently he just has one rule: doing all his way by foot. He is heading to China, Mongolia... We had a really nice moment together. I'm still feeling really impressed, Andrew, and wish you all the best for this insightfull trip! If you come to France and Germany to close the loop, I'd like to walk some days with you!

Kazakh people were all a bit crazy, even the police. At a speed limit control, the two policemen in charge ran after me, pushed me, encouraged me like the people at the Tour de France, calling me 'Vino' - I assume the diminutive of Vinokourov, a Kazakh cycling champion. A few minutes later, I stopped at a bar-restaurant, and the two came inside. I asked for a Kwas, this delicious honey based beverage. It looks a bit like a beer, so I joked, asking if the barman put some alcohol inside, wondering if the two policemen will control me after lunch. They just exploded in laugh, and I didn't understand why at the moment. The barman said: 'look, police!' And the policemen drank each half a liter beer to down, celebrating it with a loud burp... And they took another one. I followed them, and knew after a few minutes that the ride in the afternoon would be creative and not long.

People were so nice, and never hesitate to invite me for a vodka shot or some food. In a failed attempt to join Bishkek from Almati in a day, I had to find a shelter before being swallowed by a huge storm. I ended in front of a small house, and was quickly invited inside by a old couple. I had kebab, an invitation to sleep, a shower and a washing machine: the first in two months! I spent the whole evening going around with a towel around the waist, all my clothes having definitely deserved a wash.

I'm now in Bishkek, enjoying the presence of other cyclists coming from everywhere. It is really great to hear from others. Most of the people here spent years on the road, and have a bunch of advices and ideas for the following.

Now begin a new part of the trip. I won't be alone and will spend the next two months in beautiful mountainous sceneries. Central asia is a paradise for cyclists and outdoor fans: here we go!

Life is just so great...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A nice climb, bad mobs and a forgettable ride in Ili valley

Location: Qingshuihezhen
Counter: 2906 kms

Note written on July 6th in China, waiting for the border to open. Posted from Almaty.

This note is long, but I can write 3 like this one: riding in Xinjiang was very intense, and I met really great persons. Time in China was not as good as expected, due to massive police and army control of the whole Ili valley. I really love China, but I got to really hate it also, and sometimes within the same minute. It poarised me strongly. I'm quite happy to be in the 'Stans' now, and to enjoy FREEDOM! I'm feeling really sorry for all those people in Xinjiang, who can't know what it means...

I left Ürümqi with a bad headache and a strange feeling in the stomach. It started three days before. I thought that cycling and being in the mountains would be good.

The road started to climb in the city, and kept going up the following 130 kms. The first day, I rode quietly, happy to root out my lazy body from the city and its never-ending suburb. At this point, the mountains were visible: true ones, building a massive rock wall above 4000 m, with glaciers and snow on top. What a nice feeling! I managed to eat something at midday, enjoying a kind of 'team-motivation' of the police, where about one hundred of them, one after the other, had to sing something in front of the others. It was 95% terrible or ridiculous, as you want, and of course way too loud like too often here in China. I can tell you that I really had fun.

Shepherd family starting the transhumance

The afternoon saw a beautiful ride in a steep gorge, followed by nice grasslands. I climbed this day from 800 to 2000 meters, a third of the contract. I was always feeling bad and couldn't eat in the evening.

A truck traffic-jam on the dirt at a gorge entry.

The second day started with a biscuit with water and a long and beautiful ride through another steep gorge. At this point, I quit the civilization, and saw only shepherds with their animals. At about 2300m, the road started to climb steep and constantly, following the river through grasslands, cliffs and boulders. It was really extatic. Every turn showed new peaks, and I knew that soon or later, the road would be higher than them. I tried to imagine when I would reach that point...

At about 3300m, the final wall was in view, and a strong storm was coming. I put the tent between boulders, and just had the time to hide inside before it went on. I cooked after, but ended eating two biscuits with water, the menu of the day. I was sure of one thing: if I eat the rice, I throw up. The night was bad. The headache went always stronger, the sleep was hard to find, and the only dreams I could remember were absolutely horrible, involving people killing and dismembering elephants and horses. And people looking for me to do the same with me...

View somewhere during the climb

On the third morning, I climbed the last steep wall with an empty stomach. He refused categorically any kind of food! The ride was cold, mineral, and snowy. At this point, the road turned to a rocky and wet dirt-road. It was surrounded with glaciers, but also with a lot of clouds, so the pass was not visible. I could only drink a bit of water, and had to stop every kilometer to deal with my stomach and tell him to keep quiet, one more kilometer...

I first saw the pass a few minutes before riding through it. I must have stayed only five minutes there, and could not remember any feeling of joy or reward. I was busy dealing with the stomach, and took just the time to put warm clothes, before starting the (loooong) downhill. At midday, at about 3000m, I tried to eat the rice from the day before, but no, Mister Stomach was still in a bad mood. So I laid one hour on a boulder, and was happy to be in the sun for the first time this day.

Now, it's going down...

Going down on a dirt-road with a heavy-loaded bike is not funny. You have to focus on the rocks, holes, humps and bumps: enjoying the landscape is not recommended. And this downhill was a never ending story.

At 4 P.M., I stopped at the first small village, to ask for water. When the mother saw my face, she grabed my arm and forced me to go inside. I was welcomed with tea and a noodle soup with mutton and vegetables. I ate it whole, it was so great. The whole village came and they taught me a few words of arab. At 6, I left and put the tent at the riverside a few kilometers further. I slept 12 hours like a stone.

Quiet place to recover
On the next morning, I was lazy like never before. Even letting the gravity do the job was boring. A strange feeling. It was the first time that I lost motivation and asked myself why I was here, on a bike, in the mountains, somewhere in Asia. Why not in a comfortable place somewhere in Europe with Alina? A hot bath, a warm coffee, a fridge full of food, a grill with friends... I learnt that without motivation, every kilometer, even downhill, is a torture! I stopped one hundred time this morning. Maybe a reaction of the body after those days of fighting.

I was in this state of mind when I reached Balguntay and the paved road, that I wanted to follow to the west. I was welcomed by a hectic army demonstration. Helmets, machine guns, barricades, tanks... But didn't realize. I was focused on finding a good restaurant. The appetite was back, and once again without any limits.

The second plate came with a visit from the police.
Policeman: 'Ni hao! Where are you from? Where are you going?'
Me: 'Fã guó rén (French). I'm heading to Kazakhstan.'
Policeman: 'No, you go to Ürümqi now.'
Me: 'Why? I'm coming from Ürümqi, I won't go back!'
Policeman: 'You eat and you follow us.'

Dirt roads were sometimes really bad.

30 minutes later I was in a room of the local police station. They told me that it would be too dangerous for me to ride further west because of 'terrorists', that the police will put me in a bus, and that I had no choice! I begged them fifty times not to Ürümqi. They checked my camera and erased quite a lot of pictures. After two hours alone, two of them came in a rush, told me to go outside, where I saw my bike in an overcrowded minibus. They pushed me inside and was dropped two hours later at the police station of Hejing.

They were nice there, and explained me a bit more. Two days ago (Wednesday 26th), 35 people lost their life near Turpan in what happens to be the worst mobs between Uighurs and Hans since 2009's riots. On 28th, in Hotan, it went on with 'hundreds of assaillants', but a black out on information was carefully put on by the gouvernment. They were facing troubles between Balguntay und Narati, and the road was controlled by the army. That's why I will be put in a bus to Xinyuan the day after. 'No Photos, or you'll be send back to Germany, and pay for the flight', they added. For the rest of my trip to Yining, I'll have to register every evening to the police with a hotel receipe. If not? 'Same as for taking photos!'

In Yining. They rode the whole night in the city.

When I was young, I spent many years learning Judo. I was never good at it, but I learnt one important thing for the life: use the force of your adversary, don't fight against it. I applied this with the police, and let them bargain for me for hotels: you force me to sleep in those expensive hotels, it's not fair, I have no money, so bargain for me or you'll have to find a place at the police station. I was put this night in a huge hotel room, where I paid 8€, instead of 80. When I entered the room with my bike, policemen were a bit stressed that I break or scratch something. In a really funny scene, the chef explained me that I have to behave good with the sheets, or they will have to pay. I'll never forget his imploring eyes, a sheet in one hand, when he explained it. One second after, we all exploded in laugh, everybody having imagined a variation about how a decadent french cyclist could maculate a luxuous hotel room paid by the chinese police.

The next day was spent in the bus. Sad, because landscapes were crazy: two passes over 3200m, mountains everywhere, grasslands, rivers, forests, magic places to put the tent... Exactly what I was looking for. But also too many police and militar controls, too many guns... Beijing decided to show its muscles to Uighurs. At every checkpoints, welcome with tanks, machine guns, and the same story: pass control, loss of time, neurotic questions...

At an army checkpoint with two Uighur civilians. The Hans thought quite often that I was Uighur. Do you see any resemblance?

Apparently, there was another cyclist in the region, who slept one night outside. In Kalabulak, I was woken up at 1 A.M. by light, three policemen and the english teacher of the village: all of them around my bed. They checked pass and camera, and asked insistently where 'the other' was. I told them that I was riding alone, but they didn't believe me and kept asking, one hour long. Of course, I had no idea, but I would have been glad to meet you, 'the other', and make a ride with you!

I saw The Death. He is also gone for a ride on his horse, somewhere in Asia! He told me that it was not for now, so I could keep riding happily...

Now that I'm reading this note before sending it, I don't feel proud. I read a reaction of a lucky boy, who grown up and has been living in true democracies, who can work and move nearly everywhere in the world, who can live his dreams, who have the choice to lead his life...

I had the chance to meet Ibrahim in Tokkuztara. We spent two great days talking and walking in the city. He is 29, Uighur, and living these silliness everyday, without any possibilities to escape it. This boy is brilliant: he speaks 7 languages (excellent english!), all learnt by his own, but obtained only a basic job in a bank. He wants to travel, but doesn't obtain a pass, despite all his demands. If you're Uighur, your life will be complicated.

He escapes in books, dreaming of this day when he would be allowed to move from China. And from his 'boring' job, where he already knows he will never go up, because hierarchy is closed for people of its minority.

It was a great lesson of life with him!

People's square of Yining. But this time without civilians...