On July 4 we finally arrived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. So over the past few days I have had some time to collect my thoughts, edit some photos, and write my first blog post from the road on our bicycle journey from China to Italy. This post covers our trip from Kashgar, China to At-Bashy, Kyrgyzstan. More updates coming soon!
After leaving Kunming, our first stop on the road to Italy was Kashgar, the cultural capital of the Xinjiang Province in China. Kashgar is a multi-ethnic place but Uyghur people are the majority ethnic group. To us, the Uyghurs more closely resembled Eastern European people than their Chinese neighbors. They also have their own language and use Arabic script. Taking all this in while wandering the streets of Kashgar's old town, surrounded by mud brick houses with ornate arabesque arches, Erica and I felt like we had already traveled a long way from China.
Like many tourist destinations around China whose principal attraction is the culture of a non-Han Chinese ethnic group, the older and interesting parts of Kashgar have been razed and rebuilt by the powers-that-be to either better facilitate tourism and/or control the local population. In places like Dali, Lijiang, Shangri-la, and even parts of Beijing, the rebuilding of the old towns was done quite recklessly and resulted in a theme-park-like atmosphere with endless rows of souvenir shops selling identical ethnically generic trinkets. In many of these places, wealthy out-of-towners bought up all the real estate and displaced the locals in order to cash in on the tourist industry. So all the tourist money that flows into these places flows right back out.
Kashgar's old town, for now, is different. Local people still live there and most businesses cater to them and their needs rather than those of the tourists. There are butchers, bakers, barbers, and small neighborhood mosques on nearly every corner and the winding alleyways are full of playing children.
We also noticed an unusually large number of small dentist shops on every street. This seemed strange until we discovered Uyghur people's love of sweets.
While we waited for our bikes to arrive from Kunming, we visited the famous Kashgar animal market.
Shortly afterwards our bikes arrived and, with the help of a local bike shop (Giant Bikes, #37 Jiankang St./健康路, phone: 150-2630-0793), we reassembled them. Back at the Kashgar Old Town Youth Hostel (#233 Wusitangboyi St./吾斯塘博依路, phone: 998-282-3262) we met Yannick, a Canadian guy who also wanted to travel to Kyrgyzstan via the Torugart Pass. He had already found a tour operator willing to provide a car, driver, and guide from Kashgar to Tash Rabat for $150/person (www.uighurtour.com). Since the Chinese and Kyrgyz governments do not permit people to bicycle across the Torugart Pass, sharing the car with Yannick seemed like our best option.
The border crossing was fairly straightforward. At the first checkpoint we unloaded our bags from the car, ran them through an x-ray scanner, and got our exit stamps just like at the airport. We then reloaded the car and proceeded through 100 km no-mans-land and several military checkpoints between China and Kyrgyzstan. At the last Chinese checkpoint, we waited for two hours while the guards took their lunch break. Our Kyrgyz driver met us on the other side and whisked us away as soon as we had transferred our bags and bikes to his car.
The guards at the Kyrgyz border checkpoint were friendly and helpful. They helped us fill out our immigration forms and one guard, after returning our passports to us, heartily bellowed, "Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!"
We then piled back into our car and rounded the starkly beautiful Chatyr Kol lake on our way to the Tash Rabat Caranvanserai. A caravanserai is a fortress-like inn where caravans traveling along the Silk Road could rest and recover. The caravanserai at Tash Rabat dates back to at least the 15th century.
After wandering around the ancient fortress for a while, we walked back to Sabyrbek's yurt camp (www.tashrabatyurt.com) where we would spend the night. We were greeted by a ridiculously cute little girl playing with her baby sheep.
After a cozy night in the yurt, we loaded up our bikes and set out for our first real day of cycling.
Once out of the Tash Rabat valley, we got onto highway A365, the main road from the Torugart Pass to Bishkek. A365 slices down the middle of a broad flat plain with jagged, snow-capped mountains to the east and softer, rolling hills to the west.
After about 65 km of mostly cruising downhill, we decided to hunt for a campsite outside the town of At-Bashy. From a distance we spotted a line of green trees in the arid landscape and pedaled in that direction in hopes of finding a river. We found a secluded spot next to a tributary of the At-Bashy river but as we began setting up camp we heard voices coming from the stream. I walked over to investigate and found a man, a woman, and two children collecting water. I waved "hello" and with hand gestures asked if it was OK to sleep there. The man said "OK!" so I went back to help Erica with the tent. The two children, a boy and his big sister, came around to see what we were doing. We shared some Chinese candies with them and the girl gave Erica some wild flowers.
Just as we began to cook dinner it started to rain and we scrambled to cover our camp kitchen with a tarp. Erica made a delicious risotto and we fell asleep to the sound of rain tapping our tent. The next morning I woke up to someone calling out "Ho!" "Santa?" I wondered as I blinked my eyes open. It was still raining. I unzipped the tent and looked out to see the man from yesterday waving me over. He gestured that it was very cold and that we should go to his house for tea. Erica and I happily agreed and enjoyed some fried eggs, fresh bread and butter, and tea with our first Kyrgyz neighbors. Through no shared language we somehow managed to explain that were bicycling from China to Italy. The father looked incredulous and the mother looked exhausted by the prospect. The kids just giggled. We all lingered over breakfast but the rain never abated. So we decided to pack up and search for a hotel in At-Bashy where we could dry out.
Distance pedaled to date: 73.4 km (45.61 mi)