It was 230 odd K to Kashgar from the border, partly on rocky Pamir-esque roads, partly on good roads. The Chinese were in the process of making a new road so there was loads of construction. When passing through small towns and villages it was difficult to tell which buildings were civilian and which military. The backlog of super-trucks didn’t cause as much of a problem as we anticipated but they still drove stupidly fast. Impressive looking camels made the landscape all the more exciting, although it was already fairly exciting in itself. One camel who was stood on his lonesome was looking a bit down in the dumps. To cheer him up a bit I tried feeding him some Haribo Teeth but he was having none of it [photo ].
The temperature was quite changeable – sometimes it felt like shorts and T-shirt weather, other times it was hat and gloves. The night before arriving in Kashgar we were getting excited about the prospect of being in a relatively happening city. We had about 110 or so K to go and if the map was to be believed then then it would all be asphalt in which case it would be doable. It helped that the road was mostly downhill. Our motivation to arrive in Kashgar gave us the necessary push to do the extra kilometres the next day. Most we’d done in one day in ages.
Arriving in Kashgar was a trip with some pretty entertaining sights like people going fours-up on a scooter. We positioned ourselves in the bike/scooter lane and battled our way through the hundreds of motorcyclists to the hostel in the Old Town. The first night we went to the night market in the Old Town to be dinner. It felt like something straight out of one my old Kung Fu movies. Lots of fun…. China so far (although by all accounts this is still most definitely Central Asia) is definitely every bit as bananas as I’d hoped it would be. Some things are super cheap (like getting my hair buzzed and cut throat shave for 10 ¥ (£1), bowl of delicious freshly made noodles 50p), while other things are more like the prices you would pay back home. I was really liking things in Kashgar and felt gutted that I had spent $160 to enter China but wouldn’t really get to see any of it.
Andi & Tim two Swiss/Danish cyclists I had originally met back in Tehran were still kicking about in the hostel, while their Belgian companions left for the Pakistani border the day before we arrived. After much delay Andi & Tim finally left with Nino to tackle the Taklamakan Desert. It was a fun 4 weeks spent with Nino with a lot laughs and I wish the Swiss/Danish Trio the very best for their onward journey. I planned to relax for another 2 days before heading South to the Pakistan border. I had also hoped that another cyclist would check in for at first I preferred the idea of cycling through Pakistan with a buddy. I had heard from Karine back in Sary Tash in Kyrgyzstan that apparently there was a Scottish cyclist who was 3 or 4 days behind us who wanted to head the same way as me.
All travellers(including Americans) I had met at the Old Town Hostel who had come from Pakistan had nothing but the highest of praise for their time spent there. ‘Amazing’, ‘Beautiful’, ‘Best country I have ever been to’ etc etc. I couldn’t wait to get there myself. Not least for the mountainous roads which had been described to me as everything the Pamirs weren’t i.e. a more lived gorge-like experience. The Scottish guy never showed up and I even tried calling some of the other places in town to see if he checked-in elsewhere. I had just warmed to the idea of cycling solo through Pakistan when a Malaysian guy turned up at the hostel with some news. Apparently Pakistan had stopped issuing visas on arrival at the border. You what? ‘Yeah No VOAs for the KKH anymore’. Piss off you have got to be kidding me. It wasn’t just me but a whole a bunch at least a dozen travellers each with their individual story who were put out by this. No one believed it at first and we thought there must be a way around it. I texted the Belgians and they said they got through but they already had their Pakistanis visas. They also confirmed what the Malaysian guy had said. More and more people then started turning up at the hostel who had been rejected from the border. At first we heard that it was the Chinese guards who were being difficult but then the Pakistanis were also implicated. We thought the Chinese might be open to a bribe in which case once we were at the Pakistani side it would be plain sailing (it takes around 3 hours on a bus from one side to the other and you are forced to take it). A Bangladeshi guy who had been rejected said that he was invited into the office because the guards were unsure on the status of Bangladeshi citizens. He was shown a copy of a letter which had come from Islamabad and it stated 24 countries which were still allowed to pick up their visas on arrival. Unsurprisingly perhaps Britain didn’t feature on this list. Apparently a similar list existed one year ago and at that point 78 countries were allowed VOAs. Given the recent political climate (this changed about 10days ago, this list was slashed to just 24.
We exhausted every option on how we could work our way around this. For a while a group visa looked as if it could provide a solution. Trouble was no travel agency wanted to take on the responsibility for us; if the Chinese let us through but the Pakistanis didn’t then it would be the agency which would have to deal with the ensuing single entry/no double entry visa quagmire. In the end a Pakistani guy working in the hostel (whose friend was the guy who stamps the passport on the Pakistani side – apparently) managed to find an agency who were willing to sort this biz. And how much would the biz cost to get sorted? 3500¥ each.,.. 350 squid. Youch! This would involve someone from the agency physically taking the passports to Beijing and getting everyone an individual visa sorted. He managed to get this cost down to 3000, but still no one could afford this price. I’m not convinced even if we had paid then it would have worked out and it could have been potentially disastrous if the passports went missing or any nonsense like that. I had paid 250€ to get into Iran but wasn’t about to spend more than this just to enter another country. I felt I could spend my money much more wisely. I had been making some really nice plans for India and onward travel from India. Because I don’t have an Indian visa it wouldn’t even be possible to fly there from somewhere like Urumchi. And so… Pakistan (definitely) and India (most probably) are now off. G.U.T.T.E.D…
…BUT!…I was left with the question what the hell to do next? I had no real idea what the geography of China was like except that it was big. Real big. After a few days frantically trying to cram into my brain as much info about China (where to go/what to check out) as possible I think I’ve come up with a quarter of a plan. Once again things are restricted by visas. I only got a 30 day visa from the consulate in Tashkent which means I am screwed if I wanna cycle it all. The nearest town where I can get my visa extended is Urumchi and that is 1500km away so about John ‘o Groats to Landsend or two weeks cycling if you prefer. By this time my first 30 days would be up and you can only extend your visa twice here (each time only up to 30days)….this wouldn’t leave me enough time to cycle out of the country. So with this in mind (plus the fact the desert sounds like a right barrel of laughs to cycle through) I’ve decided to put my bike on a train and head a few thousand kilometres East. You cannot take the bike on the same train as the one you travel on so earlier today I arranged that my bike be sent all the way to Chengdu (population: 10million). It will take one week to get there and it cost me 40 quid (it’s 4000km+ so not such a bad deal). In the meantime I’m going to check out a few spots in between and try to put together a master plan for the weeks/months ahead. On the one hand I’m sad I’m not going to see Pakistan/India, but on the other I’ve always wanted to see China so I’m very much looking forward to that. In these early days of planning there are two things right now which are on the to-do list. One is go trekking at the Tiger Leaping Gorge, and the other is to realise a childhood dream and enrol in some not-too-touristy Kung-Fu & Tai Chi classes somewhere in a mountain monastery…‘It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon…..DON’T concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!’…….
I was going to stop blogging when I got to end destination number 1 – India, but obviously that’s not happening now. Instead I’ll see this blog through to the New Year at which point I’m gonna wrap it up and spend more free time reading and interacting with locals and other travellers as opposed to writing about my experiences. It’s been over a quarter of a year since I was able to a proper photo update so I’ll endeavour to see that done before I wind things down…. But all that’s a little way off yet. Next update some time some place in South East-ish China.