A new day a new country! The end of an era and........ Hello Kazakhstan.
I spent the previous day busying myself in Korgos preparing all I needed for my trip into Kazakhstan. In many respects I didn’t have time to actually think about leaving China. I’ve been travelling across this huge expanse of land for over 2 months now and the China that I left behind way back in March on the East coast seems a world away. Since then I’ve crossed different provinces and gone through different cities all of which while still being China have been vastly different. Again I really don’t know what to think now it has come time to leave.
I know I’ve learned a lot about China and its people especially in these last few years but of course as a foreigner I shall never truly understand it. There are numerous things I will miss about it, far too many to list here and I’m sure there are one or two things I won’t miss but isn’t that always the way. All I will say is that it’s been a fantastic experience and one that I certainly wouldn’t change for the world. I’ve formed so many friendships here and I hope these will continue to flourish once I’m back in England.
Any sadness I might have felt on leaving China was to a certain extent replacement by that childlike excitement one gets on Christmas Eve. I was so eager to get on my way that I found it hard to sleep the night before.
I’d been to the border the day before just to get a general idea of what’s what and had spoken to a couple of people who had as usual given me conflicting information as the best time to get there in the morning. I decided that it would be best to get there as early as possible thus beating any potential crowds. So there was me at 8 o’clock in the morning patiently waiting at the entrance gate with not another soul in sight, it was totally deserted. In fact the only company I had was a rather docile looking guard dog. It was a full hour before and equally sleepy guard woke and informed me that the border didn’t open till 10:30
By around 10 there were about 40 to 50 of us all milling around waiting now rather impatiently outside the gate. I got talking to a Chinese guy who’d ridden across China on horseback and was now off to Kazakhstan to negotiate the sale of one of his horses to a man in Almaty.
When the gates finally opened it was the usual every man for himself rush to the customs building some 100 metres away. I wasn’t the only person transporting a bulky item as it appears many Kazaks come across to buy electrical equipment at a discount which they can then resell in Kazakhstan for a profit. You can imagine the scene 50 people trying to push their way through a gate no wider than a door way, TV’s, microwaves and me with my bike.
It was pretty much the same inside the building. I can, it seems no longer expect preferential treatment as was often the case in China where I stood out quite clearly as a foreigner. As I looked around me it’s quite possible that I might be able to pass off for someone of Soviet origin.
I eventually managed to get the bike through and thankfully wasn’t made to take each pannier off to pass through the x-ray machine and instead was simply waived through, security I hear you say….what security?
Once through the passport check it was outside into a sort of car park where numerous buses waited to take people to their various destinations. I did think about just playing the ‘dumb foreigner’ card and starting to ride my bike towards the heavily armed guards in the distance but though did think about just playing the ‘dumb foreigner’ card and starting to ride my bike towards the heavily armed guards in the distance but thought better of this.
For the first time on the trip it was necessary to put the old bike on a bus to travel the short distance across no mans land between China and Kazakhstan. I did ask one of the soldiers who spoke decent English if it would be at all possible for me to ride across to which I received a very definite no. We loaded the bike up into the back of a very aging bus and I got on board for the short crossing. The distance between the two customs buildings is very short but the bus takes a rather windy route of around 2km.
With all these things one needs extreme patience. There was waiting on the Chinese side, waiting on the bus which had no air conditioning and then more waiting on the Kazak side, I was itching to get back on the bike and start riding in my new country.
The first impression I had of Kazakhstan as I peered from the inside of the bus was of the officials who were wearing those oversized peaked caps, a real throw back to the old Soviet days. Once off the bus, like the Chinese everyone was intrigued by the foreigner pushing a bike and handshakes were offered all around.
Even after such a short meeting it’s very clear to me that Kazak guys like football and once they’d found out I was from England it was once again a case of them listing their favourite teams; it seems Chelsea and Manchester United unsurprisingly are favored among the locals.
I passed through immigration without any problems and was once again amazed that I was just allowed to freely enter the country without any kind of checking of my bags etc. not that I’m carrying anything illegal or hazardous, mind you some of my unwashed underwear may well now fall into that category.
On the other side of customs there were some police guards who obviously belonged to some elite security task force. They were dressed from head to toe in black including balaclavas and were quite possibly one of the most intimidating sights I’ve ever come across. It seems that one of the prerequisites for being part of this team is being over 6 foot 5 and built like a heavy weight boxer. I gave them a nod and moved on nervously and just like that I was in Kazakhstan.
I purchased a new SIM card for my phone and immediately realized that language is going to become a problem now. Those who know me well will probably say I never got to grips totally with the Chinese language but at least I could hold a conversation and get my message across. Here I must have come across as something of a stumbling, stuttering buffoon, but the lady who served me was friendly enough as were the young boys who’d gathered outside to look over the bike.
My second impression of Kazaks and once again with reference to men is that they are big hand shakers. Even the small boys had no qualms about approaching a foreigner and casually offering up their hand.
When you cross over a border it’s often the case that very little changes except for the language however on this occasion I was very aware immediately that I was in a different country. I’ve noticed that since being in Urumqi how the Russian Cyrillic alphabet is more common place and certainly in Korgos there was a mixture of both Chinese and Kazak; now I was in pure Kazakhstan and despite China only being a couple of kilometres away it already felt so different.
Like I said in my previous blog I blend in more and with my short cropped hair and especially now it has been lightened by the sun I could well pass for a Russian. I’d taken the decision to wear my ‘Astana’ cycling team racing top in order to perhaps curry favour with my new ‘hosts’ It seemed to do the trick.
My first destination was Zharkent then Koktal before making it to Shonji about 130km from the Chinese border. I’d be forewarned about the state of Kazak roads and they certainly weren’t up to the standard of the G30 Expressway that has been home to the bike for the last month or so. There are plenty of pot holes in the road and while parts of it are sealed the best way to describe is perhaps ‘patchwork’ It’s a lot harder on the arms and instead of rolling smoothly the bike tends to judder as it hits a crack in the road. That said I rode some pretty bad roads at the beginning of my trip on the G312 in China so we’ve been through this already, it will take more than a few cracks, bumps and loose stones to stop us.
Whereas in China most of the land is farmed I could immediately see on the Kazak side that it is less agriculturally developed and more natural, it certainly seems much greener.
As I rode through the small villages another thing I noticed was how colourful it was and how people live in small cottages, even the bus stops are decorated.
This is a pretty popular route with cyclists so I think the locals here are quite used to seeing touring bikes passing through and each time I stopped someone wanted to come over and have a chat and, yes, shake hands.
I met one particularly friendly group who’d stopped off at one of the rest stops. They weren’t from Kazakhstan and instead came from neighboring Uzbekistan, they were friendliness personified and introduced me to my first piece of local food, a kind of friend bread with mashed potato inside. I’ve since found out that it originates from Russia.
I’d only started riding from the border at 11 in the morning so I’d made good time in reaching Shonji by early evening. The next problem was finding a hotel. In China it was pretty easy and even if you couldn’t read Chinese the clocks behind the counter were always a dead give away. Here it wasn’t so easy and I soon found myself at an intersection scratching my head and trying to consult my Russian dictionary for help. It was at this point that Roma and an older man came up to help. Once again as soon as it was established I was from England they both introduced themselves as Manchester United fans. Roma, a youngish guy spoke good English so he pointed out a hotel just down the road and told me approximately how much I should expect to pay. He also said that he’d drop by later as he wanted to practice his English.
The old man at the hotel was rather portly and had no interest in exchanging pleasantries; he seemed slightly annoyed that I’d gotten him off his sofa where he’d been lying watching TV. I was shown to a small room with 4 beds in thankfully all of which were empty. It was comfortable and for about 7 pounds seemed like an okay deal. This is another thing that I shall quickly have to adapt to, how much do things cost?
Roma was true to his word and popped by the hotel later that evening where he gave me a quick run down on all things Kazak and more importantly on being streetwise here. He did warn me to be wary of some people and despite the fact that I’d stopped and talked to him he did suggest that it’s not always a good idea to do so especially in more rural areas. Once again I guess this is something I should be aware of. I’ve no reason to think that I’ll ever be in danger here, in China I always felt very safe regardless of where I was. This however is a different country and until I have worked out the locals it might be best to exercise a little bit of caution. I’m a very trusting person but there are always those wishing to take advantage of such people.
All in all it was a fantastic first day in Kazakhstan the country and the people have certainly made an excellent first impression on me and I’m really looking forward to the next 60 days exploring this vast new land.