Jul 28 2008

The Great Administrative Wall of China

Published by at 7:58 am under World Tour 2008

It takes us just over a week to cover the busy 700km between Shimkent and Almaty (Show on Google Maps) . There is a lot of traffic but the road surface gradually becomes excellent, the last 200km being as smooth as a French motorway.

A more varied scenery
A more varied scenery

The scenery is also much more varied than in the middle of the country: the road slowly climbs to 1200m and follows the Kyrgyz border delimited by a mountain range made of 4000m high peaks. Unfortunately I can’t enjoy the views as much as my two companions because of a stomach bug. For five days I don’t eat anything and I have to buy a lot of “bumaga” (toilet paper in Russian). I blame a dodgy burger I ate in Shimkent’s posh shopping centre, expensive food doesn’t rhyme with quality here. Eventually Olivier ‘recumbent’ finds something in his first aid kit which fixes the problem in a single day. Next time I’ll remember to take some French ‘Nifuroxide’ with me!

Many French imported lorries in the South of Kazakhstan
Many French imported lorries in the South of Kazakhstan

On the road we see many French and German imported lorries and coaches. They don’t bother to remove their logos and ads, and sometimes we have the feeling we’re back in Europe.

Arnaud 'frogonabike', Olivier 'rouk/recumbent' & Olivier 'petit Jedi/trailer' at Valentina's Guesthouse
Arnaud ‘frogonabike’, Olivier ‘rouk/recumbent’ & Olivier ‘petit Jedi/trailer’ at Valentina’s Guesthouse

Arriving near Almaty we head towards Valentina’s Guesthouse, a place recommended in the Lonely Planet’s online forums. This was a mistake as the guesthouse is located in a dodgy area 15km from the centre and only offers a few bunk beds for 25 euros per person. We stayed there only one night and found a much cheaper accomodation in the city centre the next day (“Third Dormitory” for 5 euros/person, as listed in the Lonely Planet guide). The city is built on a grid pattern with ultra-wide Soviet-style streets filled with 4x4s; cyclists and pedestrians are clearly at the bottom of the food chain here.

Paris? No, Almaty
Paris? No, Almaty

Almaty is the end of our Eastward journey. The Chinese consulate here doesn’t issue visas for non-residents. We visited the French consulate for some advice and the consul told us that even his wife who holds a diplomatic passport had her request for a Chinese visa denied. The easiest option for us now is to go to Kyrgyzstan, the smallest and most mountainous country of Central Asia, and then head back slowly Westwards.

Proudly showing our Kyrgyz visas front of the embassy
Proudly showing our Kyrgyz visas front of the embassy

We apply for a one month Kyrgyz visa and get it on the same day after paying $90 each. Olivier ‘recumbent’ and myself also apply for a one month Uzbek visa here because we read that it’s much harder to get one in Kyrgyzstan. I still have some hopes of obtaining a Chinese visa in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, after the Olympic Games in September. Unfortunately we need to wait a week for the Uzbek visa, this is not great news for us as Almaty is a very expensive city. Prices are on a par with those found in Western Europe and each day we spend twice as much here than in Shimkent.
To spend the time we do a bit of shopping: new tyres at last for Olivier’s recumbent bike, some nice Soviet topographic maps of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan dating from the seventies, a can opener for me (had enough of my Swiss Army knife), some bike cleaning, ….

Nice day out to Big Almaty Lake
Nice day out to Big Almaty Lake

We meet Sandrine at the dormitory, a French girl who teaches English in China and confusingly dreams to live in Bresil, and the four of us spend a day hiking to Big Almaty Lake at 2500m, on the edge of the city.

I left France only three months ago but it feels like a year already. Cycling has become a routine and each day I am quite happy with a leisury ride of 70 to 100km. The mountains of Kyrgyzstan will certainly be harder work and mark the beginning of a dramatic change of scenery. So far the highest “pass” I climbed was barely 1300m high (in Slovakia) and the 4000km since Odessa have been virtually flat as a pancake.

The same food since Ukraine - Guliash
The same food since Ukraine – Guliash

One thing that won’t change in Kyrgyzstan will be food and I am a bit fed up with the same meals since Ukraine, always served in tiny plates: Shashlik (kebab), simple salads, guliash (pasta and meat), plov (rice and meat), Manti (sort of big raviolis stuffed with meat) or Pelmeni (same but smaller raviolis). At least we’ve been told that food is cheaper there!

Olivier setting off alone to Kyrgyzstan
Olivier setting off alone to Kyrgyzstan

Olivier ‘trailer’ will end his trip in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and doesn’t need to wait for an Uzbek visa. He decides to leave a few days before us to enjoy the Kyrgyz mountains as much as possible. After two months cycling and camping together we are sad to split but we all knew that this would have happened in a few weeks anyway. Maybe we’ll meet again in Kyrgyzstan as he’s chosen a challenging road over some high passes whereas Olivier ‘recumbent’ and myself will probably stick on the main road South of the big Issyk-Kul Lake, the second largest mountain lake in the world after Lake Titicaca.

I’ve added some pictures of Shimkent to Almaty in the Kazakhstan album.

One response so far

One Response to “The Great Administrative Wall of China”

  1. Dave Myttonon 28 Jul 2008 at 8:52 pm

    Hi Arnaud – we’re constantly ‘watching’ you from Cheltenham ! In early July your website seemed to be down for a while, but all seems fine again now. Glad to hear there’s still a vague possibility of getting to China. It all sounds really amazing: I’m very envious of you ! Dave Mytton

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