Big Brother is watching

I’ve been holding back on the posts from China and they’ve been holding me back. While riding, I often think about how to put in writing all the strong emotions that China provokes on the traveller. On bike or on foot, open-minded or not, China doesn’t leave you indifferent. China travel companions also bring up strong emotions. Here’s the first post.

As the date of our entrance to China approached, there was one thing that turned in my mind. How would it be to travel with 9 other people? I had shared the road with some of the others a couple of times already and it went ok. Uzbekistan with Neil and then also with Chris, Charyn canyon with Iain, that crazy Kyrgyz mountain trail with Richard, Iain, Chris and Neil, all turned out to be cool experiences but 40 or more days with the same 9 people, that had to be different.

I wasn’t the only one thinking about that. One evening, as we were about to go to sleep in one of those ghastly rooms I shared with Chris (sorry, can’t remember if it was the one in Almaty or the one in Naryn, they were both equally disgusting). It wasn’t Osh, I remember, although the room was almost as dirty), the subject came up and we sort of concluded that it would be an experience close to those Big Brother reality shows. Ten people locked up together in a small apartment. Only our small apartment was actually China, slightly bigger but just as crowded and no one was to be nominated or ejected. Or so we thought.

Once the analogy was established, we didn’t want to dig much deeper into who would be the troublesome character and other disagreeable details. We did conclude though that, easy-going as we both were, it would be a pain for the group if we just kept saying: “I’m alright with whatever the group decides”. We left it at that.

We didn’t have to wait long to know who the troublesome character would be but I’m getting ahead of myself. On a brighter note, let’s take it where I last left this chronicle. I was crossing the Chinese border or more precisely, the Kyrgyz border with China. Once you cross that border, you are almost in China, the no man’s land starts. And what a no man’s land!

Now, you will have to take my word on this because I didn’t take any picture. Ever since that border in Georgia with the “delayte picture” guy, I’ve been keeping the camera safely tucked in its bag.

It is simply breathtaking. After getting the passport stamped out by the Kyrgyz customs, you have to go up to the actual border line where a lone Chinese soldier waves you through. No he doesn’t, says the Lonely Planet but in our case he did. At this moment, I don’t know if it was the cold, the fatigue, the breathtaking scenery, or the simple fact that I was finally entering China with my bike but I cried. Of joy. Most people don’t know but this trip started not as a Round the World trip but as a trip to China so you can imagine how important a milestone this border crossing was.

Up we went, waved we were and down we went, only to find ourselves face to face with a small barking Yorkshire Terrier. Wait, no, it was a Chinese soldier but by the way fidgety way in which he was barking at us, I couldn’t see a difference. The fact that he was quite short didn’t help. “What are you doing here?”, “Where is your guide?”, “Go back up to the pass!”.

See, the Torugart border is only open to locals and groups with a guide and even when you have a guide, you are supposed to wait for confirmation that he’s down there at the top of the pass. We didn’t know this and obviously the guy that waved us through didn’t know it either. And to top it all, our guide wasn’t there. Finally, Neil started exercising his Chinese skills and convinced him that there was no need for us to go back up and that we could wait for our guide down here. But where was he anyway?

More than one hour we waited for Big Brother’s agent until he finally deigned to arrive. Benny, our guide for the ten days to follow. The fact that he is our guide doesn’t mean that he will explain anything to us about our surroundings. He’s just there to make sure we take the roads the government wants us to take and that we stay in the cities and hotels that the government wants us to stay in. Big Brother is not only watching us but he’s sent one of his minions to make sure we do his bidding. And we are paying of course!

Once Benny is with us, the border crossing goes smoothly. We get through the military checkpoint with minimal searching and start on the 110km to the civilian border crossing, where all travellers entering via either Torugart or Irkeshtam are checked. On the way we see some more of the good old breathtaking valleys and mountains (it is really very beautiful), pass through some Uighur (they look Kyrgyz to me) towns with Uighur people (still looking Kyrgyz). At the civilian border crossing we are fumigated, searched and stamped. The duty free only takes Chinese RMB and doesn’t take credit cards, pretty smart move considering that we’ve just entered the country. I wonder if they know why their sales are so low… Worth noting are also the electronic passport reading kiosks. I inserted my French passport, it started speaking French to me and finally printed an immigration slip with all the data read from my passport, no need to fill any forms. So this electronic passport thingies are actually useful sometimes, huh? 😉

Russian plains

3 hours the Russian border took me. My two passports make a lot of things easier but they also make some other things take more time. Usually it’s not a problem. At the Georgian border I explained that I had two of them, one Argentine and one French and that the blue one didn’t need a visa for Russia. I wasn’t even asked to show it. But the Russian border is special, everyone needs a visa. Except the ones who don’t but no one knows exactly who those people are and by the way, where is your Georgian stamp? I have none, I have just parachuted into your border crossing, you ape! No, really, I never understood why border officials care so much about the other country’s decision to stamp you or not. That part actually went smoothly once they called up the guy who knows.
Come the bike declaration part. See, this is Russia, we speak Russian and all our forms are only in Russian, mind you it is a beautiful language so why should we stain our forms with ugly little gibberish in English? There was this (sort of) nice guy in a military uniform who could parrot some English to help foreigners fill the form. The only problems is that he had stubby fingers and every time he pointed at a yes/no question, I got the wrong answer and he would scrap my form and yell “Answer my question” (can you guess what his job would have been were he in the KGB?). I filled it 5 times until I got it right and then had to make a duplicate. He did say sorry when he was making a golf ball with my 4th form and made a face as if to say “it needs to be flawless, sorry”. I managed to hide from him the small mistake I had made on the duplicate and was off to the counter were the lady fill the computer version of the form and stamps the paper version without even looking at it. The truckers were a happy bunch and one of them was trying to sort us out in Russian while allocated order numbers to us in Turkish. I was lucky, he gave me the only number I actually know in Turkish: beş (5).
Once I had crossed the border the landscape started changing fast, from mountains to plains and very soon I was in Vladikavkaz where it took me some time to find a hotel. Didn’t feel like camping in a militarized area :S.
The next day I set off on my way to Astrakhan where my new tyres would be waiting for me while trying to avoid riding into Chechnya so instead of going East, I had to go West through Pyatigorsk. It was around Pyatigorsk that it became completely flat and a vicious crosswind started blowing. I stopped for the night in Budyonnovsk, feeling it had been enough for the day with the wind and the many hours I had been riding.

Russian road in the plain
The trees didn’t really stop the vicious sidewind

The next day I left from Buddyonnovsk at my usual “early” hour, 11AM and took the road that Google Maps had suggested as the shortest one to Astrakhan while asking the locals for confirmation. At some point, Google’s road made a sharp right and so did I, into a dirt road. No problems, I kept asking locals for confirmation and it seemed to be the right road and besides, it was a good dirt road, I could almost ride it at 100kph. Until it wasn’t. Potholes, deep ruts and sandy patches started to appear but it wasn’t so bad. At a small bridge (over a dry stream?), I noticed the landscape was becoming more and more bleak and I started thinking I was riding into a desert. I stopped by a Lada whose occupants were waiting for the engine to cool and chatted with the guys in it. One of them was from Astrakhan and they confirmed that it was the right road and that it would become a lot better in 30km, that there was an oasis and a shop and that the road became tarmac. So I rode on but after what seemed like an eternity of sand, I decided to turn back.

Russian dirt road
The road while it was still good

While turning back I realized there was a bit of a harder trail and decided to go on but when it became pure sand again, I just had to turn back. I didn’t have actually, but I did. That was a road mistake, there will be others but this was the first big one. It cost me two days and big dent in my pride. When I finally turned back, I dropped the bike. Twice. In the desert that means that you have just “lost” four liters of your water reserve because, I tell you, you are going to sweat them. That said, the rest of the ride out to the little bridge was alright and I didn’t drop the bike again. At the little bridge I ran into the guys in the Lada who couldn’t understand that I was turning back without getting to the beautiful tarmac road or the oasis. I said I was too tired and didn’t care. Later on the road a couple on a Mitsubishi almost insulted me because I was turning back but I repeated that I was too tired and would like to ride on asphalt. They couldn’t understand and so I continued all the way to the tarmac and tried to reach Elista, the road Neil had taken the day before. Everyone was saying that I should go back to Budyonnovsk to get to that road but at a gas station they told me that there was another way and that they would show me, through Arzgir, and we set off. It turned out that the guy guiding me had something else in mind, another road. A dirt road! He was really nice and really wanted to show me the shortest road and so left me on another dirt track and told me to ride by the canal until I saw a farm (I understood silo) and then ask but the tarmac would be really close.

Whilst on the way there, I hit a pothole so hard that my top case flew off the bike. I went back to pick it up and realized why it had flown off, it weighed like 20 kilos. Not only that but the attachments were all broken and I couldn’t put it back in place so I tied it to the bike the best I could and went on my way. The farm was there, the asphalt road was there… but it was barred. There was a farm and I asked the people about and they confirmed that I couldn’t ride it.

Sunset at the dam
The sunset view from the farm was amazing

After some hesitation (including going back 1km to try to take the other road), I asked them if I could rest there, camp somewhere and sleep. Luckily they said yes and they showed me a room at the back of their house with a mattress and a quilt. They also gave me melon, watermelon and tomato. Yummy! Later, they shared dinner with me and we talked what we could about my trip and their lives. They were a Muslim family from Daguestan who had moved to this farm by a dam 12 years ago. Dinner was pasta with fresh tomato sauce and more watermelon, melon and tomato. While we were finishing dinner they sent me to bed on account of how tired I looked. I didn’t have such a great night because it was very hot but I won’t complain. The next day I woke up with the sun and rode off very early after having some breakfast. Coffee and melon that Ruslan, one of the kids had shared with me.

Ruslan with the bike
In the morning, I left very early

I doubt they will ever read this but thanks Maria and husband, Ruslan, Jamal and Aya, you were great!

After 20 or so km I finally arrived to the tarmac road, police check on the way by a guy wearing khakis, a knife and a police t-shirt. My road just changed from dirt to tarmac in the middle of (almost) nowhere. From there it was a breeze, albeit a very long one, to get to Astrakhan. I got there around 2 or 3pm and I was just about to relax in my hotel room when I discovered that I should to the tyre change that day or I would have to stay 2 nights in Astrakhan. On the bike again to the bike shop where they were very nice and changed my tyres but took like 3 hours to do it, especially since they were missing the tool to remove my front wheel (and me too btw).

Finally, around 7 or 8 I was free and went to look for some dinner. Two very special days that had left me with very mixed feelings about Russia had just ended happily.

Dirt to tarmac
The dirt is behind me, but not forever

Wake up in Slovakia, have breakfast in Hungary…

…then buy some food in Hungary and picnic in Slovakia, only to finish the day 30km from Budapest.

That was pretty much the summary of our day yesterday. We woke up where we had camped, in the nice camping by the lake in the north of Bratislava. I woke up after a night in the hammock, there was no mosquitoes and I took the chance. It was pretty nice.

Bike and hammock in Prague
I didn’t sleep on it in Prague

Without further ado (save a shower of course, with boiling water though) we set off on the road to Budapest by the highway. Yes, the highway, but not for long. We stopped for breakfast at a gas station just past the border of Hungary where I bought the most useful piece of kit so far and instantly realized why I had been taking so many highways: because I didn’t know were the other roads were!!

From then on, the day was completely different to the previous days, we took the national roads following the Danube along the Slovakian-Hungarian border. Stopped at a supermarket on the road to buy some food for lunch that we would eat later on the road. When we arrived to Komárom, we wanted to have lunch and decided to cross the river into Slovakia again and set up our picnic in a nice park in Komárno, Slovakia. I enjoy crossing borders with the bike, it gives me a feeling of the distance I’ve travelled.

A long way from home
So far from home…

I especially enjoy these European borders, which are just lines on the ground with no one to stamp your passport even if you wanted to. Although here in Hungary you are supposed to buy a vignette for your vehicle to pay for road use. I’m not so sure if I had to buy it if I’m not using the highways but I bought it anyway, just to be on the safe side. By the end of the day, we had stopped for a couple of pictures in Ezstergom, visited Kisoroszi where we wanted to camp but decided against it, mainly because we didn’t have cash and it looked like a party camping. Back to the mainland and with some cash in my pocket, I was so tired of riding that we stopped at the first camping sign we saw just across the river in Tahitótfalu. It turned out to be a nice camping managed by a  very nice Hungarian guy who had hung a French flag in his house as decoration. So we offloaded the bike and went for a pizza in the surroundings.

Although the hammock was there too, it slept on its own that night because it was full of mosquitoes and I didn’t want to wake up itching everywhere. Today, I am writing this from a hotel room in Budapest (I needed to sleep on a bed) as I am about to leave for Debrecen or maybe further. Alice has just left to take her bus back to Prague. She’s such a great friend has helped me so much with all the preparations that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to repay her. Thank you again, Alice!

Alice and a new friend
Alice and her new friend

Now, off to the bike before it’s too hot to ride again!