Our visa extension for China ended on the 5th June so we planned to leave Kashgar on the 1st giving ourselves a very leisurely cycle to the border with a day or two to spare if we needed it for any reason.
Unfortunately, we had both failed to notice that the 5th was actually a Sunday, and the Irkeshtam border is closed on weekends. Luckily we realised on the eve of leaving following a conversation with Michaelangelo, our Spanish friend. Unlike some other countries, there are heavy fines for overstaying in China so this was not an option.
We were also told that we probably wouldn’t be able to cycle the full distance to the border as China (for some random, unknown reason) built their checkpoint 180km from the actual border line, and they make all travellers take a taxi to the Kyrgyzstan checkpoint.
All this meant that instead of having five days to reach the border we now only had two, leaving a day to get through customs, find a taxi who would carry the tandem, and cross the border before the weekend. All still doable but it wouldn’t be as leisurely as we’d hoped.
We were well stocked up for our cycle through the desert and we still hoped we’d have time to make an afternoon detour up to Shipton’s Arch – reportedly the highest natural arch in the world according to National Geographic who rediscovered its whereabouts in 2007.
So we set off through the hot barren landscape and on the afternoon of the first day we meet Stephen cycling the other way. Stephen is also from Dublin and I could tell that both him and Paddy we’re delighted at meeting a fellow countryman.
Stephen is the first Irish cyclist we have met and him and Paddy looked pretty identical. Weirdly identical actually….
Having met Paddy’s doppelgänger we keep going and set up camp in a village off the road. A nice family lets us camp in their garden.
The strangest thing about this part of the world is the time zone. All of China officially sets its clocks to Beijing time, but as you might have gathered already, China is a big country and Kashgar is actually 2 hours behind Beijing in real time.
Paddy and I were still on Beijing time when we disembarked the train in Kashgar and it was rather weird experiencing a sunset at 10:30pm.!
Kashgar and the surrounding area works on two time zones – government buildings such as banks and the post office work on Beijing time, but local businesses tend to keep to local time. All this can be rather confusing and its important for travellers to clarify which time they mean when booking stuff!
During our ride through the desert Paddy and I kept our body clocks working on Beijing time – this worked well for our final few days cycle as it meant we were packing up the tent and jumping on the bike at 9am but in terms of daylight it was really 7am. This was perfect for the desert conditions as it meant we could afford a siesta during the hottest part of the day and carry on cycling until late into the evening.
The desert has a kind of beauty to it, nothing like the sweeping sand dunes of the Sahara we have both visited in Morocco, but there were still camels… We are on the famous old Silk Road after all!
This landscape is much rockier with some impressive mountain ranges and the odd green oasis every 20 kilometres.
Despite the heat we make good progress and do have time to take a detour up towards Shipton’s Arch. It’s a pretty tough 3 hour cycle in the heat with no shade but we’ve filled up on lots of water from a tap in the last town which Paddy sterilises using his new toy – our new UV pen. This, along with our gravity water filter, should mean we shouldn’t need to buy bottled water ever again!
The arch is another 35 minute walk from the road and involves a pretty spectacular trek through this dry gorge and up some rickety metal steps.
When you first catch sight of it you find yourself slightly disappointed because it doesn’t look as tall as you’d expect.
Once up the final set of steps though you realise it arches over a very deep valley which drops directly down on the other side. We spend a fun 10 minutes dropping large stones into the gorge and listening to the echo as they tumble down to the bottom. It’s pretty cool and we contemplate how on earth it’s been formed…. Lindsay Sheen might be able to offer some insights here…
Pictures really don’t do it justice…
Here is Paddy scoffing his face on a refreshing watermelon at the top. Kashgar is famous for its delicious harvest of melons at this time of year.
The ride back down to the road is very quick and great fun.
We camp with the sun setting behind some impressive mountains with a view across this eerie barren landscape.
The next day we completed the 30km to the border town of Ulugqat where we spend an age trying to find the market so we can stock up on food before crossing the border. (For future reference it’s located in an underground car park a few blocks down from the main Central Park.)
It’s 12:30 by the time we reach the border control building which is really poorly signposted. We try our luck with the guards regarding cycling the remainder of the way to the border but they insist that we have to take a taxi. We ask why we can’t cycle but all they can tell us is that it’s the rules.
We’re shocked when the taxi driver tells us it’ll be 400Y to take us and the bike (drivers always try to charge more when they see the tandem!). We plead with the border guard, explaining that this is a real expense for us and he manages to negotiate a 100Y ‘discount’ for us.
Without any other option we load the bike on top of a big stack of suitcases. When I ask what’s in the suitcases the driver tells me they are Gucci hats!
As we sit in the truck on our way to the border the only pragmatic reasoning I can put to this strange border set up is the 2 hour time zone difference. Naturally the border authorities want you to enter and exit the country the same day and near the same time you receive your exit/entry stamp. There is a two hour time difference between the two borders and it’s about a two hour drive… So if you exit China at 2pm and then drive to the Kyrgyz side, by the time you get there you will be stamped in at 2pm.
I suspect that this is just me trying to assign some logic to something that just isn’t logical however… There’s a lot of stuff about China that isn’t logical and we’ve learnt to accept (and to an extent love) the randomness of this crazy country.
The Kyrgyzstan side couldn’t be more different to the Chinese side. We’re greeted by a VERY friendly guard sitting in a tiny wooden hut next to the roadside.
‘Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!’ He cries.
‘Please cycle down the road and report to the border control to receive your stamps.’
At the border control the guards make a joke at our different nationalities and our two country’s history.
‘A girl from United Kingdom and a boy from Ireland, together, on a bicycle?! How can this be!?’ He says, while winking at us.
We receive our stamps with no trouble and we cycle on down to start a new journey in country number 6. We have a pretty good feeling about this one already!
Time to explore the land of the great horsemen. Our Central Asian adventure awaits!