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? 😉

Kyrgyz Brussels

Here I am, in a city I don’t know and I have looked at Google maps for directions and even saved a few screen caps of what I should do to get where I want to be. And yet, the urge to improvise is strong and I take the bus in the opposite direction. That’s me, I do the opposite of what clear instructions tell me. Good one.

But what am I doing in Brussels? Well, this is part of the pre-trip paperwork and training. I decided to put all together in one trip to save time and lose money. One of the goals was intended, the other one was achieved by simply missing my train this morning and having to buy a new last-minute ticket or otherwise the whole planning would fall apart.

Today is the day I apply for my Kyrgyz visa, the last one before the Chinese visa for which I don’t yet have the necessary papers. So I arrived to Brussels quite early after arriving from Mexico yesterday and sleeping only 2 hours last night, thank you jet lag. Once I had properly fed my improvisation demon, I took the right bus and got to the consulate quite easily. Only to get sent to the bank where I was of course sent back to the consulate without achieving anything else than profuse sweating. No swearing though.

When I got back to the consulate, the Sikh that was on the same bus as me told me that I should pay at the post office but he didn’t know where there was one. Some other guy who was sitting there waiting just paid the guy behind the counter. And so did I.

Now I’m in London writing this post, with no passport and no receipt. I just hope that next Monday they will remember my face and give me back my passport…