Applying for your Uzbekistan visa in Bishkek

June 2016

The Uzbekistan visa office in Bishkek is infamous for its scary totalitarian staff, ludicrous appointment system and administrative nightmares but it’s all very doable if you get organised. 

Most EU nationalities do not require a letter of invitation (Ireland does) which can be obtained through a number of Uzbek agencies. However, a lot of travellers applying in Bishkek end up paying for an LOI anyway ($30-60 depending on the agent) as it makes the visa appointment process a lot less arduous. 

Our LOIs were organised by Luxury Asia Travel in Tashkent who were really great to deal with and even filled out the online application forms for us and sent them as PDFs for us to simply print off. The LOIs took about 6 working days to get and only cost 20$ each but we also have to stay at one of the agencies associated hotels for a night during our stay in the country. 

Caravansistan quoted around 60$ just for the LOI… 

The Uzbek embassy has very recently (June 2016) changed address and it is now in a gated commune next to the right of the new Oxford International School on Manas Avenue. 


If you have an LOI we would advise calling the day before to ‘arrange’ an appointment. We just turned up and were told to call between 4-5pm to make an appointment.  

Everyone gets told to come at 10am and there was a fairly big group of travellers already waiting at the commune gate when we arrived at 9:50. So either arrive early and wait or don’t bother turning up until 11am. The guard on the gate speaks no English and operates an irregular 1 in 1 out system. 

You need to have 1 passport photo, a copy of your application form completed online and printed off, your LOI document and photocopies of your passport page and Kyrgyz entry stamp. 

The visa staff are not the friendliest but speak good English. After waiting for an hour and a half we were permitted into the embassy and handed over our paperwork. 

We were told we needed to make payment at the nearest KiCB bank situated here (a 10 min cycle or fair walk away):


Here is the address if you decide to take a taxi.


The bank closes for lunch between 12-1 and annoyingly the embassy closes 1-2pm. We turned up at 12:05 but Paddy managed to charm the ladies there into letting him in, they even let him off on the transaction commission fee!! 
It was all pretty straight forward after paying the bank fee and we walked away with out 30 day visa before lunch.

Three cyclists, three wheels

So we had finally completed all our visa admin and now it was time to get back on the bike. 

It felt strange, almost like we were starting a completely new trip. What with us being able to closely follow the political turmoil back home, catching up with lots of friends and family over Skype and not having to pack a pannier or sleep in a tent for two weeks it definitely felt weird to be getting back on the bike.  

We desperately needed to drag ourselves back to a travelling mentality again so we said our goodbyes to Andrey and set off. 

We were soon back in the cycle touring headspace thanks to our back tire which burst just as we were leaving the city. A very similar thing had happened in northern Myanmar – the tire just wears away at the wheel rim… Maybe not even the ‘bomb proof’ schwalbe tires can cope with our heavily loaded back wheel.

We were extremely fortunate that this happened just outside Bishkek because although we had a foldable spare with us it was now obvious that this was turning into a continuous problem for us.

Bishkek is probably one of the few places in the whole of Central Asia where we could easily get another schwalbe spare, in fact we knew of a guy called Nathan who runs a hostel especially for cycle tourers in the city and he keeps spare schwalbes for tourers in need! 

We debate for a long time about how many we should buy from Nathan. We decide it’s a good idea to stock up while we have the chance so we buy two. Nathan only has the Marathon Plus type so we fold away our spare Marathon Mondial, get a new one on the back wheel and manage to strap the second spare to the back. 

While fitting the new tire we ask Nathan if he knew of any easy way of helping the tyre ‘fit’ properly around the rim. Schwalbe tires have a useful reflective strip which acts as a parallel spacer and we think one reason for the first set of tyres failing was that the first time we fitted them they weren’t parallel ending up with the rim pinching the tyre in the wrong place.

After much stretching, pumping and deflating Nathan told us to lube the edge of the tire with washing up liquid while fitting it – it really works!

Back on the road out of Bishkek we still find it a little hard to get back into the cycling… It’s hot (very hot), our muscles have lost all their strength, and our bums have relapsed back to a ‘sitting watching football, drinking beer’ state.

From the side of the road a figure runs out from the shade of the trees and hails us down. We stop and shake hands with Ed, another cycle tourer from the UK who’s heading in the same direction as us. 

If you think we’re slightly cooky cycling on a tandem, our set up is nothing to Ed’s. He is 18 months into a round the world trip and he’s doing it all on a unicycle


At the age of 19 he set off from his home in Somerset to embark on this incredible journey. Having seen out the winter in Bishkek he is now back on the road heading towards China. He hopes to complete the journey in 3 years. 

What’s most impressive is his average speed and distance covered each day which, are not too far off our own and because he only has one gear he’s much faster than us up the hills. We sped past him on the downs though. 🙂 


Ed is a bit of a celebrity in the cycle touring world so it was great to meet him in person; plus watching him take off and speed down the road after a break never gets old. 


Ed is a very chilled and unassuming guy and it was great spending time with him. 


We made some good camps with him and naturally the three of us were a slightly farcical sight while riding along. There can’t be many times you see three people cycling passed with only three wheels between them.


It’s very funny watching people’s reactions when they spot Ed speeding along on his single wheeled machine!


The three of us worked our way east towards Issyk Kul lake. At Kok-Moynok Bir we parted ways, Paddy and I turning south towards Kochkor while Ed carried east to Karakol where he’ll stop before heading towards the Kazakh border.


The cycle to Kochkor was on a good road but involved a hard climb through some very changeable weather, first baking sunshine and then hailing thunder storms. Near the top, I suddenly come over really feverish. My whole body aches and I can’t stop shaking, it’s a bit weird but we manage to reach the summit and Paddy helps me into my thermals before we freewheel down towards a suitable lunch stop overlooking Orto-Tokoy reservoir.

I collapse into a chair with a terrible headache and wait for the paracetamol and ibuprofen to kick in. 

Once I’ve eaten and the drugs have worked some of their magic I feel a bit better and we manage to complete the last 20km to Kochkor where we check-in to the first hostel we find. I sleep for a good 13 hours and by morning feel ok again. Even so, we decide to take a rest day in Kochkor where normally there isn’t much to see, but by chance it was a Saturday which gave us the opportunity to wonder down to the weekly animal market.


It was well worth the visit and it was fun watching the women and men dragging their new purchases across the yard towards their cars.


We met the biggest sheep we’ve ever seen – a woolly grey beast weighing 36kg who towered over the other sheep and liked carrying seven year old children on its back.


On our way out we spotted a group of guys loading three grown, albeit normal sized, sheep into the boot of their Lada car… Here they are closing it up.


I managed to walk away carrying a little creature too, this one was unintentional and even more unwelcome however.


It’s never nice to find a tick clinging tightly onto your right earlobe… 

When we get back to the hostel Paddy expertly removes it with tweezers and I watch it crawl around on top of our lunchbox lid for a while before stabbing it. I spend a long time merticulously combing my hair – an activity I haven’t done in about 4 months – and checking my body for any more. 

Lucky we decided to have that tick borne encephalitis jab before we left!!

Bishkek!

We ended up staying in Bishkek for 12 days in total. 

Like the majority of other travellers who find themselves on an extended stay in the city we were there to apply for a number of visas. 

Unlike most of the other countries in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has a free 60 day visa which you can renew as many times as you like by simply crossing over into neighbouring Kazakhstan – an hours drive from Bishkek. So although the capital doesn’t have much to offer in terms of great sights, plenty of travellers end up here, often seeing out the bitter winter before carrying on their journeys east or west.

The only trouble with staying in a city for so long is that it can easily become expensive. Luckily we were able to organise an extended stay with a lovely guy called Andrey who lives in the southern suburbs of the city.

Andrey is a Warm Showers and Couch Surfing host who only asked for 300 som a night to contribute to electricity and wifi costs. As we were staying for so long we really didn’t mind contributing this and his spacious house with its wild garden of fruit trees and raspberry bushes made a great base. 

We often ended up cooking and eating together and by the end of our stay we were sad to be saying goodbye. 

Between our multiple visits to the Tajik, Uzbek and Iranian embassies we managed to take in a few tourist sites. 

Bishkek has a large concert hall home to the Bishkek Philharmonic so I was keen to see a concert while we were there. It proved incredibly difficult to find out what was going on however as the concert hall was closed the first day we tried to go and when we did manage to get in the building two days later there were no posters, flyers or programmes to tell us what might be happening. 

Knowing a bit about the ins and outs of concert halls came in handy at this point and so I wondered round to the stage door and found myself face to face with a small crowd of people smoking outside, all with instrument cases slung on their backs. Orchestras are the same wherever you are in the world!

I managed to have a garbled conversation with a friendly flautist who told me that a concert was taking place at 5pm in the Opera and Ballet Theatre down the street.

So after lazing around in the nearby park we locked the bike up and at 4:45pm found ourselves seated in the elegant Opera House ready to enjoy a free early evening concert of we didn’t know what!! 

It was very busy, although we were definitely some of the youngest there, and the audience were pretty dressed up for the occasion, many of them carrying huge bunches of flowers which slightly confused us. 

As the lights went down it soon became clear that this was a special celebratory concert for Kyrgyzstan’s great lyric soprano Kaiyrgul Sartbaeva.

After playing an introductory film documenting her life, the curtains went up and there she was, dressed in a glittering white gown sitting on a red and gold throne with the orchestra seated behind.


There were MANY speeches by presidents of various societies, fellow singers and politicians from various government departments. We could tell it was quite a big deal. There was much theatrical embracing and presenting of flowers which were placed ceremoniously around her. Her assistant had to keep running on stage to make a gap so she could disentangle herself from the stems to kiss and thank the next speaker. 

In between the speeches the orchestra and a guest singer would come out to perform something. The first couple of numbers were traditional Kyrgyz songs averagely sung with a microphone but as the evening progressed the singers got better and better and by the end Paddy and I had been treated to a fantastic rendition of L’amour est un oiseau from Carmen, a faultless performance of Una voce poca from The Barber of Saville (one of my favourite pieces of all time, especially when Cecilla Bartoli sings it), the love duet from Puccini’s Turandot and the mass finale from Verdi’s Aida.
All in all it was pretty special and we left feeling very lucky that we’d stumbled across it.


As well as the opera we also made time to visit Lenin… 


…and enjoyed watching the football in the many beer houses.

One night, a young guy approaches Paddy, offers the customary hand shake and asks if he wants a ‘Hookah’. Shocked, Paddy declines, pointing at me to explain he is here on holiday with his girlfriend. Confused and embarrassed the guy leaves but 10 minutes later we see him carrying a shisha pipe out to the group of girls next to us….

We later discover that Hookah is the word for a kind of shisha pipe here in Kyrgyzstan! 

After a week in the city Andy and Claire, another cycling couple (read their blog here) arrive into Bishkek. They have been following our blog and we theirs ever since China so it was great to meet up with them finally. 

Andy and Claire have been living in Japan for the past five years teaching English and decided to cycle home to the UK before deciding what to do next.

Along with them came our South Korean friend JK who we hadn’t seen since Lithang in China!


Saturday night saw us all hit the tiles together with our friend Will who we had met earlier that day while relaxing at one of Bishkek’s many outdoor pools. 


It ended up being a pretty late one and Paddy and I didn’t roll into bed until 10am!!! 

It was a great couple of weeks in Bishkek despite following the political turmoil happening back home! At least Ireland and Wales did/are doing pretty well in the football! 

We got all our visas and now it’s time to get back on the bike and head south east back down to Osh before heading into Tajikistan.

It’s all in the flag

Kyrgyzstan has a cool flag. It’s my favourite out of all the countries we have and will visit.

A country’s flag often tells you something about the political history of a country, but the Kyrgyzstan has more symbolism integrated into it than most. Perhaps an outcome of the country’s desperate cultural soul searching after independence from the USSR….

The red field background represents valour and bravery while the golden sun in the centre is said to symbolise peace. The sun has 40 uniformed rays which are said to represent the 40 Kyrgyz tribes who were united against the Mongols by the Kyrgyz hero Manas.

The Epic of Manas is the traditional epic trilogy poem of the Kyrgyz people. It is composed and performed orally by traditional singer-storytellers called Manasachi. This tradition is still very much alive.

The poem is unique it is length being twenty times longer than the combined texts of both Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey.

He is a very important national figure and every major towns has at least one statue of him.


Decorating the centre of the sun are three crossed lines which are said to represent the tunduk, the traditional crown of the Kyrgyz yurt. You can see lots of yurts decorated with this criss-cross pattern on the their tents.


We have also been told the centre represent the crossing of two roads symbolising the unity of the people and that the three red lines can also represent the the komuz, the three-stringed national instrument.

It’s amazing how much a piece of cloth can tell you…

Following the M41 north to Bishkek

We had a couple of days rest in Osh where there isn’t much to see. It was very hot and we mainly spent our time hanging out in the hostel researching all the visa requirements and planning our route. 
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We also treated ourselves to some meals out and found a bar/restaurant we both liked. 

It has to be said, the food in Kyrgyzstan isn’t what you would call michelin star! Unlike China, where almost everything we ordered was mouth-wateringly delicious despite the menu being almost incomprehensible, all the dishes we have tried here have tasted and looked more or less identical. 

Firstly, dill features heavily in EVERY dish. You can’t avoid it, whether you’re after a quick pastry snack or a horse kebab, it’s mixed, sprinkled and garnished on everything!image

It’s not uncommon for your plate to include four types of carbohydrates – although this is great for us cyclists – and it’s very hard to find a dish that doesn’t contain meat. In one restaurant, we noticed that the vegetarian pizza was considered vegetarian because it only had one type of meat on it – sausage! 

Rice, potatos, bread, pasta and buckwheat – a cyclists dream!
Three things Kyrgyzstan does well are meat, bread and beer. It’s the first time pretty much we have been able to buy fresh milk and butter too, something we both missed in lactose intolerant Asia.

Naans fresh out of a road side clay oven are delicious and whatever meat you order it’s always juicy and tender. Draft beer is common but you have to watch for the alcoholic content, we absentmindedly drank 4 pints of 11% one evening. My beer always comes with a straw…

 
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We’ve naturally eaten a lot of horse which is very rich but delicious! 

Food ranges from very cheap to average. Kyrgyzstan currency is the com (som) and it’s the first currency where we have used a 3 piece coin! 

After our rest days in Osh we pushed onwards north to Bishkek. 
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We would be following the main highway the M41, all the way. 
Despite its name, the Kyrgyzstan M41 bares no relation to the M41 motorway in the UK. It’s more like a potted A road where you often have to navigate your way through large herds of sheep, horses and cattle. 

It can get fairly busy with traffic but we were avoiding a lot of this by waking up very early, siestering in the afternoon and cycling late into the evening. Kyrgyzstan drivers are some of the worst we have encountered – they get very close and they drive fast but a lot of the time the road was pretty quiet. 

Again we did a lot of wild camping.

battling heat rash by washing our cycling gear ready for the next days ride

Some of the cycle was very beautiful, particularly the stretch following the river which is dammed the whole way along ending in the huge Toktogul reservoir. 

Whatever you think about hydroelectric dams and their affect on the local environment, they can create some pretty spectacular lake views further up stream!!

I find  Paddy busy cooking dinner after I get back from the best lake swim I’ve ever had.

We cycle through a lot of towns and villages on our way. One in three people here drive a retro Lada car and this along with the shabby soviet buildings and shop fronts makes rural Kyrgyzstan feel a little bit like a 1970s film set. I even saw a small scruffy dog trotting down a street with a string of sausages clamped it its mouth.image

It reminds me a lot of a family holiday in Bulgaria I had in my teens.

We continued to experience the warm hospitality of the Kyrgyz people on our journey north. 

One evening we stayed with a family who were teaching some visiting kids from Osh how to ride. We both got a go too. In my excitement I slightly ‘overdid’ my mount and nearly completed a full somersault over the poor creature! 
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Once on, all was ok! 

Another evening we pitch our tent near some yurts and are presented with a pot of fresh hand-churned clotted cream. After our horse meat chilli (a dish we cook a lot) we had it with biscuits and our honey glazed peanuts. 

It’s the best meal we’ve had so far!

 

Paddy also treated himself to a bottle of honey which was extracted fresh from the hive in front of him. 

We are also taking advantage of the abundance of seasonal fruits available to have with our porridge in the morning.

So, despite the poor food in restaurants we’re certainly not going hungry!

The hot weather disappeared on the last day and we found ourselves sheltering under a lot of trees to escape the heavy rainstorms. 

On one such stop we were invited in for ‘chai’ by an elderly man.

He plied us with his homemade brandy, bread and his own freshly prepared apricot jam.

While we ate he told us (all through eloquent gestures and sign language) that he was 76 years old, his wife had passed away 10 years ago, that he had 4 children and 8 grandchildren  and that he had a bad heart for which he was taking 8 different kinds of medication.

He then got out his world map to see where we had cycled from.

After hearing about our trip Paddy showed him his taped together shoe to give him a laugh. 

He didn’t find the broken shoe very amusing. Instead he disappeared for a few minutes. He came back with his cobblers kit…


And proceeded to first tack paddy’s soles back in place and then sow the holes in the fraying fabric. 


This is the kind of kindness you experience in Kyrgystan.

An Introduction to Kyrgyzstan!

So it’s just under 2 weeks since we crossed the border into country number 6, Kyrgyzstan. 

Updating the blog has been tricky as we’ve been doing a lot of cycling and camping.

Neither of us knew much about this country before we arrived. Sandwiched between Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China it has a population of just 6 million; a dwarf in comparison to its neighbours. 

Our plan was to head up to the capital Bishkek where we would spend a good stretch organising our visas for the next stage and then loop back down towards Tajikistan. All in all, taking around 5 weeks.

Formerly part of the Soviet Union until independance in 1991, little Kyrgyzstan is a relatively new country. 

Naturally, almost everyone speaks Russian but the Kyrgyz language remains very strong, particularly in the southern part of the country where the people are more Persian looking and Islam is practiced more widely. 

We crossed the border without knowing much of this at the time. We knew no Russian or Kyrgyz words and we even forgot to exchange our Chinese currency for Kyrgysz Som at the border… We were woefully underprepared for our venture into a new country… 

It’s 4pm before we reach the first border town. There’s a strong headwind and just passed the town we see our road snaking up a very stiff gradient – neither of us fancy doing much climbing today. 

We stop just outside the town and contemplate where we can pitch up. A girl of around 14 rushes out of the first house shakes our hands and beckons us inside. We are fed bread, jam and tea and told we can pitch our tent in the garden. We spend the rest of the afternoon playing with the many local kids who like climbing the bike and using our tent as a den. 

Before bed a dinner of fried liver, dill risotto and a kind of homemade fudge is presented to us. This is our first taste of  Kyrgyz hospitality and we feel very humbled.

The next morning we rise early and say our goodbyes to our hosts. The daughter requests we pay something towards the food. The small sum of 400 is suggested but we remind ourselves we don’t have any local currency. We readily hand over 5 USD instead which is accepted with thanks.

This first experience of Kyrgyz hospitality was tainted slightly after we reached the next town where we discovered that someone had stolen money from our bag during our stay in the house. It wasn’t a lot (the equivalent of around £40) but we felt sad it had happened after having had such a nice evening. 

Something like this was bound to happen at least once and there was no point obsessing over who we thought might have taken it…. It was a good lesson that we should never leave our handlebar bag somewhere, even for 10 minutes in the living room of a friendly local family…

Our next destination was the town of Sary-tash roughly 75km away. From there we would cycle the remaining 175km East to the southern city of Osh where we would enjoy a well deserved rest day. 

There would be some big climbs involved and we soon discover the blissfully easy gradients of Chinese roads are a thing of the past. 

Russian/Kyrgyz road builders love a good gradient. There are often signs telling you how steep the next section will be, but as Paddy and I soon discovered, these hold little relation to the true gradient. The signs almost always read either 12% or 8% and we’ve now learnt that their purpose is to simply let you know a climb is coming… a REALLY steep climb!

I was convinced that we wouldn’t find scenery and countryside nicer than we saw in China but that was before I cycled in Kyrgyzstan. 

The cycle between the border and Osh was spectacular, and for me personally, its some of the most rewarding and nourishing countryside we’ve camped in.

Stunning snowy mountain ranges which give way to the greenest, richest rolling hills you have ever seen. As we lose height, these, in turn, give way to sweeping meadows of long grass and hundreds of species of wild flowers. 

Some fields are literally stained bright red with wild poppies while others are home to a thick tapestry of yellow, pink and blue. 

We have also seen some stunning bird life including bright blue rollers (thanks D&P!), hunting kestrals, huge eagles, nesting storks, swathes of swallows 

and this little lark who sat close, serenading us one evening. 

The vast lakes and clear streams have meant we’ve rarely had to buy water and we’ve enjoyed a shower and a sunbathe in the warm evening weather. One morning I wake to find these two toady subjects making their own camp in my shoe! I contemplate keeping them as bicycle pets while one of them permits me to hold him for a while before hopping away.
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All in all its perfect camping weather!



Onto this bucolic backdrop you pass collections of traditional yurts and caravans, momentous herds of cattle, groups of men harvesting hay by hand and children racing around on their pet donkeys. 



Having travelled to find new pastures for their herds, nomad families sit on large rugs in the shade of trees next to their open backed trucks which they will later unload. 

While stopping for our afternoon siesta (it’s too hot to cycle between 2-4.30) this travelling family of three generations invite us over for lentil soup and tea. 
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Their old-school truck complete with sleeping grandmother in the back, excitable kids and practical mother figure reminded me of the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath – the difference here of course is that they choose their travelling lifestyle.

The most important lifeline for these people are of course their horses. The Kyrgyz people are reportedly the best horesemen in the world and they have been breeding and domesticating horses here for well over 4000 years. 

Kyrgyz horses are known for their speed and endurance and are also raised for their meat. They are big beasts averaging between 13.2-14.2 hands. 

It’s pretty magical seeing a huge herd of these beautiful creatures cantering across a field in front of you as you sit eating your breakfast. 

This happend so often, our cycle between the border and Osh began to feel like we were on some fantastical journey across the lands of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings

Being here in June has meant witnessing the start of the foaling season. Not only is it nice to see these bandy legged arrivals jumping about in the sunshine, it has also meant we have been able to witness the skilful talent that is mare milking. 
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The people of Kyrgyzstan love drinking mare milk which they ferment to create a tangy, slightly alcoholic drink called Kumis. They also dry it into hard, Bon-Bon like sour snacks called kurut. Makeshift stalls are set up all along the road to sell both throughout the summer. 

We were given a 2L bottle of kumis by a friendly lady who was waiting for a bus. Put it this way, it is an acquired taste and I’m not a fan!!

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Paddy drank quite a bit that evening but this was after the bottle had been sitting in the sun all day and he had a dodgy tummy the next morning.

So our first week in Kyrgysztan has been a pastoral paradise really!

The people in Kyrgyzstan are amazingly friendly and hospitable but they also respect your personal space and privacy. They are naturally interested in you but after coming to say hello, shaking your hand and asking where you are from they leave you to get sorted, calling their children away too so you are not gawped at while trying to change out of your sweaty cycling shorts or set up camp. 

This was a nice change from China, where the people are undoubtedly friendly and generous, but at times, a bit brazen! There was often a lot of staring, fiddling with the bike and routing through our bags without permission in China! You also get photographed A LOT in China (this really started to irritate Paddy after a while) but people here generally ask permission before they snap you which is a nice change. 

Many men still wear the traditional Kolpok tall woollen hat which is often decorated with black or brown embroidery. Even this builder was wearing one while laying a wall in the beating sun! 
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The women here are beautiful and (in the South in any case) wear tied head scarfs and love wearing elaborately embroidered clothes. It’s very common to see both sexes sporting a few gold teeth.
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It took us 4 days to cycle to Osh. Here we will have a rest day before cycling north to Bishkek.

Meeting Paddy’s doppelgänger, a visit to the tallest natural arch in the world and a race across the desert – our final days in China!

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….
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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!