The development of technology is crazy. The humanity now came to the level that it doesn't matter what to do in which season. It is even more crazy that we probably do not even realize that actually there is something called "winter" and we might die without being properly prepared for that. I could appreciate for the first time in my life, that the winter might be very dangerous for a plain human being. Nevertheless, it's over. The winter 2013 is definitely over. I can clearly expect the weather to get warmer and warmer and the sunlight to be stronger. I think at the same time something biological in me has been switched on: I feel much more energy for the second half of the travel. You will see in this page what it may look like in this month.
It was a bit strange night at Sapar's place. In the middle of the night, I got up once to go to the toilet, whereas Sapar woke up as well. When I came back though, for some reason he turne on the TV and slept in, leaving me suffering with the noise monochromatic USSR TV programs never stopped creating. One hour later, I turned it off, though Sapar woke up in this moment again. Thirty minutes later, he turned on the TV again and fell asleep. I turned it off one hour later. Again thirty minutes later, he turned it on and slept in. An hour later, I could see the sky beginning to bright. Then I thanked him and left the place.
I was planning with five days in total for Bishkek. There are two peaks between Osh and Bishkek which will certainly be pretty hard for a lof of cyclists. The first one is something like 3200m and the second one 3600m above sea level. There is a very long plateau between them with 2100m above sea level so at least one night must be spent in very harsh conditions.
Before I started to cycle again, it was very cold in Osh, with a lot of snow covering the roads which made me think about the feasibility of the whole way. This day after Sapar's place though, it was suddenly very warm. I first just thought it was pretty nice?
On the way, however, I got a phone call from Umar, saying that the road might be closed for not-well-equipped vehicles because of the danger of avalanche until 4th of March. A few hours later, when I wanted to ask a police man for the way, he said pretty much the same thing to me though without precising the date this time. It would mean that I would have to wait three days without doing anything. Is it still a good idea? The problem is, there's no big city where I would stay for several days. Besides I have to be in Urumqi on 31st of March which is not quite far away though Urumqi itself is still far away.
I decided to cycle up to the moment where I'm definitely stopped by the police, when I saw a car which pulled up in front of me. It was a taxi. He offered me a ride to Bishkek for 1000 soms which is a bit more than 20 dollars. I said no, though I also said I would pay 500 soms for the ride. He disappeared.
Around one hour later, he pulled up again. This time with a passenger inside the taxi. He accepted it for 500 soms. Actually, I didn't really expect him to accept it first of all, because simply 10 dollars for 400km is way too cheap with the bicycle and all my stuff. But anyway he accepted it so I took it.
To be true, it disappointed me a bit. Firstly it made me seriously think that this trip is forever incomplete. And secondly I missed a great experience of cycling through the high plateau of 2100m and two peaks that belong to it. At the same time, I was anyway not so well equipped for winter. And I saw what it looks like there. It might have been seriously dangerous in my case. As for the closure it was not clear whether it was true or not.
I arrived in Bishkek around midnight. The road was not that bad but the driver apparently decided to go under 60km/h for the whole way. Being an exemplary couch surfer, I just went to the place of my host, Irène who actually comes from Lyon and lives with another French guy from Lyon, Simon. Simon was sleeping when I arrived and Irène was visibly too tired to do anything but she nevertheless picked me up near their apartment.
So, it's again another capital, which has only 835,000 people, which means it is around 2% of Tokyo or 8% of Paris. In short: it's small. What to do? There are several things to do in this city. The most important thing is to get the visa for Kazakhstan, which is straightforward but might be a bit hinky for whatever reasons (Actually as far as I know Bishkek is not the best place to get any kind of visa. Especially you will be messed up if you want to get one for China which is often essential for most European tourists.) The second thing is to buy new trousers. My trousers got two large holes. How miserable... Then I learn as much Russian as possible. Yeah!!
It was Saturday so the Kazakh embassy is closed. I just went shopping then. I don't know why there's no photo but the USSR style of the city itself might be already quite interesting.
And literally I spent the whole rest of the day in front of my computer, just in order to update my website.
In the evening, Irène, Simon and I went to a bar to see an old friend of them. Well, I could not really participate in the conversation but I just want to say that in Bishkek you can find a lof of western style bars, that I never appreciated when I was in Europe. I said I didn't miss alcohol so much when I was in Tehran (and yes, I cannot talk about alcohol without thinking about Tehran) but you feel also much better when you have a glass of beer in front of you. Hehe.
Following day, I did almost nothing. I just wanted to go to the bazaar, which turned out to be too far away to go on foot. I dropped it off and just went to a supermarket. Then I checked the way to Tokyo. I really didn't know that the distance between Shimonoseki, which will be my first city in Japan and Tokyo is more than 1000km and it's only half of Japan. Japan is huge... Just as in Germany and France though, it has a lot of highways that are not accessible by bicycle. However, one of the biggest problems in Japan is that the streets are nameless... I don't know how the people are living there without being able to properly describe the way. (Plz click on the photo to see further details) If ever there's someone interested in any form, like cycling with me or arranging a meeting or so, I think I'm going to arrive in Shimonoseki late June, though to be confirmed.
In the afternoon, there was one local couch surfer, Alima, who contacted me. She lived in Japan two years ago for one year, which means actually she is more up to date than I. She told me that it was not very easy to talk to people in Japan. First she was like "maybe because I didn't speak Japanese so well?" No my dear. I find it also difficult. After this travel, I will for sure write an article on this issue, because I think it's a structural problem of the Japanese society and not about the people.
It was raining outside. Rain, something that didn't happen for quite a long time. Waiting for it to stop, I could have dinner at their place. The mother of Alima was so friendly that she didn't stop talking to me. Nice lol. At least I could have a nice occasion to talk in Russian a little bit.
Have you ever heard of JICA? I hadn't, though I knew the Japanese name. What is it? It stands for "Japan Is Charmingly Advertising" and in short, it seasons the niceness of Japan. There are therefore some Japanese living in Bishkek. I didn't see any of them but Japan seems to be more or less popular in this country because of this, though by far Korea is the most popular far-east country in Kyrgyzstan.
Following day, on Monday, I went to the Kazakh embassy. I didn't make any photo because I didn't want to be harassed by the police there, but at the door you can see the conditions for the visa: no fee for Japanese citizens. Again, something that makes me wonder what I did in my life for this. It took maybe ten minutes and it will be ready in three days, though you have to hand in your passport so don't forget to take a photocopy of the ID page if you happen to do the same thing there.
I am almost exactly in the middle between Europe and Japan. It's not a wonder that "Imperia Pizza" and "Imperia Sushi" are one restaurant.
I am Japanese. Japan is a country where everything is well defined and especially, everyone works. There is nothing like vacation. When they call something "vacation" and go to an unknown city, they know three months beforehand exactly at what time they would visit which monument of the city and what kind of reaction they would have in front of this monument. In the evening, they may enjoy the dinner and after that they open their laptops to start to work. Fortunately I went to Germany where the people work less when I was small. And later on, I went to France where everyone demonstrates and strikes, anyway they do whatever they can in order not to work. And now, even this country of non-working is over for me. Why should I do more than one thing on one day? I applied for the visa for Kazakhstan, I don't do anything anymore!! I said to myself. And really I didn't do anything anymore on this day. It's almost a wonder that I can write so much nonsense about doing nothing.
At least I learned a bit Russian for the rest of the day. It will be the main activity for the coming days.
In the evening, my hosts, Irène and Simon, had a lesson in Russian. I sat in the living room and was updating my website. There arrived another couch surfer, Guillaume, from Brittany, France. He is actually also a cyclist, though he will go to Tibet after Bishkek. Why are there so many French in this world?
Later in the evening, Alima invited me to a pub with another Japanese exchange student, Asako (?). We talked about the life in Kyrgyzstan. Obviously, Kyrgyzstan is a country that you can enjoy. I knew that!!
Following day, nothing to do. At the same time, I have the feeling that since the beginning of Bishkek the photos I make are horribly uninteresting, but anyway I went to a bicycle shop with Guillaume.
"Winnie the Pooh" is also quite popular in this country. I think they find it also nice but I heard that they are also proud of the fact that there is no Mac Donalds' here in Kyrgyzstan. I don't know how they can be proud of the absense of something that they don't know...
The weather is getting better. And clearly I became too lazy in Bishkek. I didn't do anything anymore on this day. I had the same problem for a little while in France: if you don't do anything at all, you are even not motivated to do what you actually wanted to do when you were busy. Here, in Bishkek, I previously thought I would learn Russian. It's not going to be very efficient anyway.
Kyrgyzstan is a country which is far in the south compared with Germany. It is approximately at the same height as Italy, USA and Japan. However, since it is located in Central Asia, the winter in this region is pretty harsh. It starts to be warm in February but March is still supposed to be cold.
This day though, it was different. It went probably almost up to 20 degrees. I went to the market in T-shirt and I felt so comfortable. Nice.
The main market in Bishkek, Osh bazaar, is a very famous place among tourists, because of the presence of the police. What usually happens is that you are spoken to by one of the police officers, that are allegedly abundant there and you have to show your passport. Here it is very important that you show only the copy of your passport because otherwise they can to whatever they want with your passport. Then they will ask you to hand over your passport, saying there are fake bills circulating and if you give your wallet, they will pick some bills. If ever this happens to you, you just have to say that you are going to call the embassy. Well, this was a very famous story that I had heard everywhere, also even before coming to Kyrgyzstan. Actually I was quite excited about this so I took my camera and was behaving like a very usual tourist... though there was no police officer when I went to the market. What a shame...
Anyway it's a nice thing to have a little bit of good weather. The spring is maybe coming? I could see this Soviet trolley bus when I was in Poland. I think it's not that bad as an idea. I'm sorry to put it like this but every time I'm so excited when I can see remainings from the Soviet time. It's only pity that the people here don't find it so nice.
... and a little bit of Germany. Germany is at least quite popular in recent years around the world. But it's usually due to its blooming economy so whenever they try to bring the culture, it just looks so weird... Here, "Bratwurst"... Of course it's German but Germans would probably say they could have brought something else... :)
By the way, can you see the Nissan behind? If you click on the photo you can probably also see that the driver's seat is on the right side...
It was the first time to walk around Bishkek. It is written on the placard in the garden "don't pick the flowers." Where are the flowers?
A crazy thing in Bishkek is, even if you have 20 degrees on one day, it doesn't mean that you can have a nice weather the next day, too. It may drop under zero degrees sometimes. This is what happened on the day I wanted to go to the embassy of Kazakhstan. I get up in the morning and open the window: it was snowing. Fortunately I didn't need to go out in the morning. I just stayed at home with Guillaume almost the whole day. Later, I wanted to go out to buy a pair of shoes and took my bicycle: it was WAY too cold to drive on bicycle without gloves but I didn't want to go up to the ninth floor of Irène's apartment (btw. there IS an elevator but I never use it)
And HA! I could make a photo in front of the Kazakh embassy. Why? Actually, they said I should come back at 6.30pm. With the hope they would open the door even if I get there too early, I arrived at 5.30. They didn't. I just waited and waited, almost knowing in this case, they wouldn't open the door even at 6.30.
At 7pm. I was freezing, with a lot of people assembling in front of the door. When they opened the door, I was like crashing inside to get the warmth, though it was not as warm as I wished it to be. I stayed there for a few minutes, pretending to check the visa.
The distance between Irène's place and the embassy was maybe 7km. Under the freezing temperature, I just biked as fast as I could. I could even feel that my hands were so hot as if they were burning. I went to the super market which happened to be there twice to get my hands warm and went back home. Yes, the spring is almost there, but never underestimate the capriccio of the weather in Central Asia.
Is the "International Women's Day" important in your country? As far as I know, not in Japan. In Germany neither. Actually I would almost say in France neither but Irène told me there's something going on there. Ah bon? Anyway it was a day that women are officially allowed to abuse men and everywhere around the city there were a lot of families to see. I walked around to visit the city.
Actually Guillaume is traveling with a Spanish guy, Felix, who could successfully find a place to stay during the winter as a teacher in Spanish (while Guillaume had to rent an apartment) He left the family and joined us at Irène's place. As we all wanted to be nice couch surfers, we cooked at their place.
We are cyclists and nothing more than that. It's comprehensible that what we cook is not the most sophisticated thing ever. (And maybe you noticed that this is the first photo of my hosts, Irène and Simon. There are Felix, Irène, Simon and Guillaume from right)
In the evening, there was a small couch surfer meeting since there were other cyclists (though all of them from Spain and as usual Spaniards love to speak Spanish). Actually, there is no regular couch surfer meeting in Bishkek and we were talking with the owner of the place where we were, Dom 163, if they can start a meeting in Bishkek. And of course, I'm not in Iran anymore, nor in Turkmenistan, nor in Uzbekistan, either. I am in a free country, Kyrgyzstan, which means I can use the high speed internet (which is actually way slower than in Japan or Europe, though still gives you the impression that you would never be able to expect anything better than this). Hence, I don't need to be afraid of not being able to upload a video. Without thinking too much, I made a very small one and put it on my server. I don't know if it really works at the moment but if you are really lucky, you may click on the photo on the right side and after some moment, you may see the video popping out of the darkened window.
It's always good to know that I'm actually not the only person crossing Eurasia. The couple here on the photo was in Tibet six years ago. At that time Tibet was not as tightly closed as now and they could almost get inside, though eventually they didn't do it. Apparently it was also very difficult to get inside. Even if you get inside, you cannot talk to the local people and there are several check points that you must pass without delay. Now, it's almost impossible to go to Tibet and it's "officially" only allowed if you are a group of more than 5 persons from the same country. The problem is, if you cannot go to Tibet, there is no way to go to India by road. It's probably hard for those who have never thought about it to realize that this huge country cannot be reached by road.
There are surprisingly many vegetarians among cyclists. I don't know how they are surviving but Irène, who used to be a vegetarian, changed her mind in Kyrgyzstan. Actually there are two words for "to eat" in Kyrgyz. They distinguish between meals with and without meat. To be more precise, they don't say "to eat" if there is no meat in the dish (I just heard it from Irène. Its veracity is to be verified.) According to Simon, by the way, Irène doesn't count sausage as meat anyway, because sausage is too good to be meat. Ah ok... makes sense...
I did not intend to stay in Bishkek more but Irène and Simon proposed us to go to Ysyk-Ata on this week end. It's a remote place in the mountains just for people who like the wild life. We just spontaneously decided to go there together, leaving the bicycles for two more days. Vacation! Yahoo!!!
It was a very cold week end. When we left Irène's place it was under 0 I suppose. Felix, from Spain, took probably several sweaters and a thick coat with supplementary jackets which can be put in a small bag. I, on the other hand, had one t-shirt and a jacket.
For the journey to Ysyk-Ata we took a traditional USSR marshrutka which took one hour and a half. And of course: no seat (this picture was taken in the first marshrutka which took us only to the main bus terminal)
The strength of the former USSR is that you can go pretty much everywhere using a public transportation, like in this case you can actually directly go to Russia or China (though not USSR) using a bus which departs from this deserted bus terminal. In the Ukraine I had the same situation. I just don't know how disturbing the border control would be with all the Western passangers...
When I was a child, I was a bit shocked by the under-development of Osaka, having always lived in Tokyo in my childhood. In reality though, Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world and Osaka the second most expensive (with the effort of the Swiss government to weaken the Franc). And voilà the small village, Ysyk-Ata, where the people eat bread and tea three times a day and nothing else. What a nice experience. And again if you are lucky enough you can watch a small movie by clicking on the photo here.
We rented an apartment in the village. This kind of stuff must be arranged by oneself. What a fortune that Irène spoke fluent Russian.
After the lunch, we decided to go hiking to the mountain. 2000m above sea level, it was freezingly cold, though I didn't feel it so much as it was so hard to step further that I even started sweating. The locals, on the other hand, don't need any special equipments. They simply hop around and disappear. What a technic...
But the highlight of this village is not the mountain: there is a hot spring nearby which directly comes from the mountains which therefore had the smell of sulfer (which later resulted in deterioration of metallic objects)
It was extremely agonizing to take off the clothes in the freezing temperature. After the torturing 20m between the cabin and the bath, it revives you. Some of the guys in the bath were completely drunk and we could see them drinking vodka outside the bath (which sounds almost like a cliché...)
Guillaume had a water proof camera with fish eye lenses. You can see the talk between Simon and Irène though probably there is no tone available :) (and I was almost asleep in this moment, if you can find me in the far background of the video)
Felix is a typical Spanish guy who cannot be punctual but he makes up for it by being able to cook pretty well (and he's pretty funny anyway, as many Spaniards.)
There were by the way in total one German, one Spaniard, one Ukrainian, one Japanese and four French. It was somewhat a European evening in a very small village in the middle of Central Asia.
Following day, we went to the mountain again. Sorry there are so many photos and not much to tell. We walked around maybe five hours? Simon and Irène were so well equipped that they could progress pretty quickly.
Again there were locals hopping around. The problem is, whenever they see us, they think I'm at least someone who understands them. No, boys. Unfortunately I am exactly the one you cannot really speak to. But it's not so bad to be regarded as local. Probably the life will be easier from here.
This photo was taken in front of a frozen waterfall. Three cyclists enjoying the life in Central Asia :)
It was fortunately a very sunny day and the temperature was exploding.
In the afternoon, some of us went to the bath again and I went back to the apartment with some other guys. We didn't have so much time until the last marshrutka, which turned out to be more than full. Again, two hours standing... Well, it cost only one euro on the other hand. I cannot really complain about it. :)
So were the days in Bishkek, and at the same time in Kyrgyzstan, since Kazakhstan starts just after Bishkek. When I was in Iran, I was sure that I feel relaxed when I arrive in Kyrgyzstan. This sense of expectation became stronger and stronger passing through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. My despair in Uzbekistan especially was formidable. I even thought I might not have nice days again which I was having until the end of Iran. Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, entirely saved my soul again: it was exactly the country which I wished it to be. It was almost like a repetition of Georgia which had been the last free country so far.
Yes, Kyrgyzstan is a country which helped the States bombard Afghanistan. I still strongly remember the days in 2001, looking at the map of the world and wondered, why USA must fly so far to attack Afghanistan. Later, it turned into a strong detestation of Kyrgyzstan. For me, Kyrgyzstan was a country which handed over its pride for the capitalism I despised.
Yet, there was much more reality in it. After having seen Iran, which entirely razed my dignity to the ground: it is an unjustifiable guilt to stay "neutral". Of course I am still the one who is incredibly proud of the constitution of his own country, which bans any kind of military intervention, or even more, I'm more proud of it after having seen all these facts going on. However, can I ever condemn Kyrgyzstan for having supported the USA? I don't know. There is at least one thing that I understood during my stay there: Kyrgyzstan took its own way and did not blindly accept the request of the United States, because this country is clearly heading for a future which has more freedom. It's not a wonder that there are so many foreigners coming to this country now. And I think it will make it even more difficult for Kyrgyzstan to be more aggressive against other countries.
There are still a lot of negative legacies in Kyrgyzstan but I'm very positive on the future of this country.
So, as the weather forecast had predicted, it was a very ni ce weather after the week end. Irène and Simon had to leave the apartment quite early in the morning but of course we could not be ready on time.
Guillaume and Félix were heading for Osh, so we went in different directions. Pity that again I must cycle all alone... But at least the Tian Shan mountains are over. I just slowly cycle up to Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan.
It is generally forbidden to take a photo of the border. And I decided before the beginning of this trip not to take photos if it is officially prescribed. But I found the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan quite interesting: it was directly a big bazaar... Behind the trees on the left side you can see the roof of the border control. Here you cannot see so many people but it was actually much larger and I could find pretty much everything there. I liberated all the small coins by buying apples. More than 3kg? Well, everything will be very expensive when I enter Kazakhstan so it's still reasonable to buy stuff in Kyrgyzstan...
So, welcome to Kazakhstan! I am not a person who wants to state all facts in the blog but some significant characteristics: Kazakhstan is a country which is still very close to Russia as there is still a crucial Russian population, especially in the North. For this reason (?) Russian is still an official language and the majority of people should be able to speak Russian. And a small comparison of GDP PPP per capita in USD:
So, at this point we can know what kind of country it is. It is by the way at the same level as Turkey. (data cf. wikipedia)
Maybe I haven't mentioned so far but this part of the world was also inhabited by a lot of Germans. For further discussions please visit the corresponding wikipedia article. So far this fact was not very important BUT here Kazakhstan was actually the home country of King Eduard of Northeim (and especially the former capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty is the home town of his parents). I don't think he can still remember anything but since he is looking forward to photos I'll put exceptionally many photos for Kazakhstan.
The people in this country still use horses for transportation. They were nomads before so it's just their tradition (which was also common in Kyrgyzstan)
Something that I didn't see in other Central Asian countries was this type of graveyard. It's actually not only grave stones, but you can see small houses. In Okinawa, south of Japan, you can see something similar to it but I had never seen anything like this before otherwise.
The distance between Bishkek and Almaty is around 240km, i.e. I need a place to sleep for one night. The problem is, the population density of Kazakhstan is about 6/km^2. If I compare it with Japan, which is 337/km^2, it's incredibly empty. Even Russia is more crowded than Kazakhstan, according to wikipedia. Actually it was the emptiest country so far I've visited, which means, it's not very easy to find a place to sleep...
Exactly at the halfway point to Almaty, I could find a café like this. This photo looks ordinary but from far away it looked as if it is about to collapse. The owner did not seem to be quite happy to have a traveller like me and told me that I was the fourth cyclist. Well, there are not many ways leading to China and since there is no hotel and nothing, I can imagine well that there were other cyclists who dropped by here. Anyway, he let me in (which was rather a surprise for me) and allowed me to put my sleeping bag on the floor.
I slept ten hours, like a log, as I could not sleep very long the previous day because of my computer at Irène's place. I sleep less while couchsurfing and more in my tent. Exactly other way round than it is supposed to be.
In the morning, he wanted to take 500 Tenge (=2€50) but when I said I didn't have money, he pulled back pretty quickly. Hm, ok I don't know how serious it was meant to be.
Actually now, it is significantly different concerning the time: until I was in Tehran, I was in a hurry because I wanted to be in India before the arrival of winter. And I stayed at Shadi's place as long as I could before the expiration of the visa and then in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan I was simply not motivated to stay for a long period of time. Since the beginning of Kyrgyzstan, it is not important for me to advance rapidly. The weather is getting warmer so it is even better for me to go slowlier. With this in mind, I cycled very slowly, taking photos everywhere on the way. (And especially I don't need to eat so much anymore since the winter is almost over)
This was an object standing in the middle of nowhere. I don't know what they wanted to create here. As nice Japanese tourist I just took one photo and went away.
It was an incredibly welcoming fine day! Can you see, however, that after this gate, which is by the way about 10 km away from the city center, the sky is not as clear as it is there? Almaty is a quite expensive city, maybe not as expensive as Tokyo but still if I compare it with cities of surrounding countries, it is very expensive. At the same time the smog is a serious problem there.
Cycling in Almaty on the other hand was much easier than in other big cities. The people will tell you that cycling in Almaty is pretty dangerous but I think Paris is not a safer place to cycle.
I don't know whether it's due to the pollution of air or the laziness of inhabitants but the cars are often quite dirty. There are only Japanese or German cars (and a little bit of Korean cars) but clearly not in the best state. Whenever I see Toyota Land Cruiser it reminds me of Iran where it was one of the most expensive cars and by possessing this car you can flirt around... I don't know if it still works even if it is so dirty as this one...
It is still Korea which is the most popular among the Far East Asian countries here in Kazakhstan but there were still several Japanese restaurants. I found one of them on the way, with the name of "Daikon" which means white raddish. Ok, the image of "Japanese high quality" obviously does not exist in this country. At least "Daikon" would not be the first choice for me...
Almaty is a city where couch surfing works pretty well, as even indicated in Lonely Planet. I could also find a nice host, Yerlan (Ерлан) who just started using couch surfing. He sent me an invitation just a day after the registration and his profile page is almost completely blank. I still decided to trust him and he turned out to be a very nice local guy. What a fortune... He is just a year older than me and started to work just months ago. Especially, he likes cycling. His apartment was a nice Soviet apartment and he shares with three Russian guys and his sister. One of them was traveling in India so I could use his place. A nice thing was also it was the first time for him to speak English with a foreigner. Nice.
I was fairly tired when I arrived at Yerlan's place so I took three cups of coffee in order not to sleep in at 6pm. I mean, it's not just the "Japanese" politeness (which I am often accused of having lost) but also it is better to maintain a natural biological cycle. In the end, I was struggling at 2am in front of my computer with insomnia.
Let's just start off with a relatively Sovietic corner of Almaty. Otherwise you can find only graceful European shops of poise.
It's very important for those who are planning to travel to Kazakhstan by road to know that every foreigner must be registered within five days in one of the main police stations which can be found in each state capital. So I went to the police station in the morning.
Surprisingly painless administration. I know that Kazakhstan still is a Central Asian country and the state control is getting a bit more severe these years. But here at the police station the officer at the reception (?) helped me fill the form (or rather, he did it even completely alone) and it took only twenty minutes, besides for free. Aha. The strategy of Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan to embezzle from foreigners which I'm now quite used to seems to be absent in this country.
For the first time I had Lonely Planet for Kazakhstan. Not only I didn't have time to explore the cities but also I refrained from it because I thought I'm not so much interested in dull touristic spots, without really knowing what it looks like to travel with it. I found out that it was actually a not bad idea to do it like this. Well, in the end, even if I have Lonely Planet, I can also do whatever I want.
Unfortunately Yerlan had some work to do so I walked around alone. So, if you want to see someone known in the photos, you can fly over all the following photos here of the day.
This blue kitschy building is a Christian cathedral in the south west of the city. Kazakhstan is supposed to be an islamic country but in reality the people are not that religious. Probably it's like in Europe. Something that makes me feel more secured :)
Do you know what this sign means? You can find it everywhere in the city, so it's probably not "Where's Wally". They actually wanted to create Abbey roads everywhere but since due to the Sovietic style the didn't succeed in creating the good atmosphere, at least they wanted to indicate their effort, by depicting the glasses of John Lennon.
... the true story is that all the crossings with this sign have an alarm for blind people. I don't know how important it is but according to replies on Facebook this sign exists everywhere in the post-USSR countries. Why haven't I noticed so far?
A tramway storehouse. Being former capital, Almaty is very expensive. Probably you will not feel any difference between Almaty and Europe but still the transportation system is pretty cheap as is actually the case in every USSR country, even though they don't renew it very often. As for local transport it is not very important for me to have the newest technology but maybe it's better to have a bit faster trains connecting remote cities since the distance can go up to 1000km in this region (btw. "fast" trains drive with around 80km/h in average)
Very nice Soviet Aerovakzal, which translates to "Aero station". Is this an aeroport? The strange thing is just it was in the middle of the city jutting out of more or less modern area. Probably the parents of Eduard can recognize the building because I'm sure that it's standing more than thirty or forty years here.
There are touristic attractions in this city as well, not only shopping malls, but solely for the parents of Eduard I really wanted to go to the main railway station which must have existed in their childhood. Following my experiences in Central Asia, I was very cautious about the police, as they don't want the train stations to be photographed, whatever the reason is. There was one ultra hard core Soviet-style Russian guy who told me it is forbidden to take photos in the city. ha! lol tell me a joke dude.
Like every other USSR train station it was lavish inside. This photo was taken from the corridor upstairs as you can see on the other side of the hall. I could even hear my foot steps echoing. Actually there were police but in total they didn't tell me anything. Everyone told me that Kazakhstan is also a police-controled country but maybe it's closer to Kyrgyzstan concerning the security, or maybe Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were a bit peculiar.
When Yerlan and I were talking at home, he told me there's no Mac Donalds in Almaty. And as in Kyrgyzstan, they are very proud of this fact. However, his sister or niece or cousin (I don't know exactly their relation because everyone tells me different stories) loves KFC. Aha, for me there's no difference between KFC and Mc Donalds, though the coffee at Mc Donalds is now much better than before, probably since the beginning of Mc Café. Anyway I was a little bit puzzled.
However, there's even Burger King in Almaty and the people are apparently pretty happy with that. So, it means they don't want to have Mc Donalds but Burger King? Whatever the logic is...
There was by the way again one guy who told me it's forbidden to take photos though at the same time if I pay him it's okay. I'm sorry for bursting out laughing in the middle of the conversation XD
If you turn on the TV in Uzbekistan, you can find at least one channel showing a Russian TV programme that demonstrates what a dramatic story they made during the world war II against Nazi Germany. And in the post Sovietic countries, you can find an uncountable number of monuments for war heros. These muscular guys are protecting Moscow from Nazi Germany.
The last object of the day, The Ascension Cathedral. It doesn't look so but it is entirely made of wood. The rest of the buildings in this city were destoyed at the earthquake in 1911 but this remained. Maybe because of the material. Around this building you can see a lot of kitschy stuff. You'll get a bit of wry feeling there :)
So was the first day in Almaty. I don't know how many kilometers I walked but when I got back home I could sleep very quickly.
Yerlan is actually a designer? or something like that. So when he gets an order he has to go to the office but otherwise he has time. The following day, since he did not have anything to do, we decided to go to the state museum of Kazakh history. As I believe that the video works on my website now, too, I decided to make a very dull short movie explaining some stuff. If you are not particularly interested, you don't really need to open it since it is not very small and I'm a kind of person who does not care whether it is uncomplicated to download the file or not :)
There were the former presidential palace and the governor's palace in the south. Yerlan explained to me that it's the equivalent to the White House. It is also easy to see that they tried to make something extraordinarily sumptuous.
The state museum has several sections and if you want to see the exposition of modern art you have to pay additionally but I think the historical sections which are free of charge are already quite interesting. Unfortunately it was forbidden to take photos inside but in short, the history of Kazakhstan is simultaneously history of nomads. I'm certainly not the only one person in the world who is interested in this kind of "self-sustainable" life by carrying around all the necessary stuff, which is actually almost what I have been doing more than half a year :)
The hilarious part of the museum is the exposition of "modern history of Kazakhstan" which I would say would be dubbed "the exposition of political propaganda" in Europe, though I would say there is no lie in the exposition, but you can see much more how proud of their own history Kazakh people are than the information they are giving. Therefore, if I say "propaganda", the negative connotation would be very strong but it's much more like "Look, what a nice country Kazakhstan is". Anyway I liked it :)
There is a geographical border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, namely there are mountains between them. So the south of Almaty is very mountaneous. The Kazakhs were apparently so crazy that they wanted to construct a skate rink in the middle of mountains. If you go to Almaty and say "Modeo" everyone would understand what you are talking about. It's also a very touristic spot apparently. Behind Modeo there are hiking roads going on and eventually you'll reach a very expensive ski resort. Anyway, we decided to hike some hundred meters from Modeo.
This is a very nice nature isn't it? The only one thing which disturbed me a little was that actually you should be able to see Almaty behind the mountains in the back, however due to the smog completely covering the city there's nothing. What a pity.
There was still a lot of snow there but as you can see I could not even carry a sweater. It was so warm on this day. I don't know how snow could still be there. It's spring boy?
On the way back home, we took the subway, which consists of one line. So at the moment it's not very practical but this line just started last year and they are expanding it little by little. Actually they started the construction in 1988 but because of the collapse of the USSR, it could not be continued. They restarted the construction a few years ago, carried out by Hyundai.
And to be honest, I have never experienced such a silent subway in my life. You can actually feel that the train is moving only because of the acceleration but otherwise there's almost no noise no vibration and no quaking. I don't know whether it's the similarities of the Korean and Japanese culture but whenever I hear that the Korean products are doing really well, I am incredibly proud of it. And it makes me feel that it is not very far to realize a kind of free transit system between Korea and Japan or so. I mean, it's more than stupid to say Koreans and Japanese cannot understand each other because they are different or anything like that because the only one difference is maybe the culture but nothing more than that. AND here in the underground of Almaty you can see the best proof speaking so much for my argument.
There are in total seven stations and each of them has its own design. I hope there'll be one day they do the same thing in Tokyo.
Yerlan told me that mobile phones do not work in the subway for security reasons. Since 1995 there have been so many security measures everywhere around the world. I think it was an incident that Tokyo changed the history of subway.
As always in every post USSR country it takes several minutes to get out of the subway.
I don't know anymore what kind of building this was but I think it was also a governor's palace or so.
In the evening, I could talk a little bit with the flat mates of Yerlan who didn't really speak English. The only one problem was, we were talking about Uzbekistan and if you are someone who is following my blog continuously, you know what I felt about Uzbekistan, especially Tashkent. Well, of course it turned out in the middle of the conversation after I'd said all my opinions that one of the flat mates comes from Tashkent. Fortunately, he didn't like Tashkent either. That was actually also the reason for him to leave the country and he told me he likes Almaty. Okay, I should be a bit more careful next time :)
Guillaume had a very small camera stand. Actually it would be very practical to have something like this, especially because I'm traveling alone (it's almost stupid that I didn't think about that) So we went to a shop to buy it the following day. It was pretty straightforward and I think I can put it into the front bag over the handle of my bicycle. Hence, there will be a video while I'm cycling the next time. Please look forward to the next update YAHOO!
Here it's not as obvious as other buildings but often they simply put a shop in a Sovietic building and the first floor stays the same. In the end, the ground floor is so gaudy and the first floor is so drab.
There was a couch surfer meeting organized for the week end, which was the day after this, so I decided to stay until the week end though there was nothing anymore to do in the city. Since however Yerlan was interested in going to bicycle shops, we decided to walk around the city. I hate walking. I really love to do everything by bicycle, but I hate much more to use something that needs an external resource which mess up the environment.
Sushi restaurant "manga". Well, regarding the fact that it srated with "Daikon = (Radish)" I guess the next restaurant we will find will be at least "Kamikaze".
A very bright residence in the south of Almaty with a huge ribbon over the entrance. I wouldn't be very happy to be the person having a room just behind the ribbon. You can find this kind of house everywhere in the south of Almaty.
The entrance of metro. Actually there was exactly the same thing in Ukraine and Uzbekistan. In Ukraine I didn't have a good occasion to take a photo of the entrance and in Uzbekistan it was too complicated to do it. But FINALLY I could make a photo of the Super Mario entrance of the USSR metro!
By the way, speaking of metro, there were also police officers down there, but they never prohibited me from taking photos. It's maybe the composure of the richest country of Central Asia.
Yerlan wanted to buy a new mountain bike, which I think would be very nice to have here in Almaty where the distance to the mountains is even less than 10km. And Almaty is a very bicycle-friendly city (that's maybe also the reason that the metro hasn't been developed so much). Unfortunately he couldn't find the one he wanted. It's by the way a German bicycle. I have the feeling that everyone in the world wants to have a German bicycle. Well, since for me it's almost the same I cannot really complain about that (though my bike is Austrian)
In the evening, I wanted to cook something for all of us and as usual, I made a pizza with Yerlan. Before starting to cook, he asked me "Can you ever cook anything Japanese?" No.
I think the flour they have here is not very suitable for pizza. It tasted okay but was like as if I had put milk instead of water.
Following day, Yerlan had some work to do and since I didn't have a key and I also wanted to update my website, I stayed at home almost the whole day. Can you see the sticker on my computer? Guess who gave it to me.
In the evening, as I've announced, there was a couch surfer meeting. There is unfortunately no regular couch surfer meeting in Almaty and in winter anyway there are not many tourists. So in total just four locals and two tourists, one from Turkey and I. It's very nice that couch surfers are very open minded, but it lead to the point that we started talking about raunchy stuff in the middle of the restaurant, with a very neat nice family just behind me. Hopefully nobody understood what was going on there. :)
The girl from Turkey here in the middle on the photo wanted to make me believe that actually I need someone to share my experiences, like by saying "You are writing your blog because you need people you share your experiences with!" In the end, I got her e-mail address because allegedly I need her to share my experiences. I don't know whether I can contact her so often but I'll try to :)
The girl on the right is by the way a local Korean. She doesn't speak Korean anymore herself but her grandparents. The multiethnical color of Kazakhstan is really nice :)
We went to another bar to watch a football match, whereas I stayed there maybe until midnight, after two liters of beer, because I wanted to leave Almaty the next day, feeling really sorry for the fact that it was the first time for Yerlan to host somebody and I had been staying for more than four or five days.
Following day, hangover. I knew it would be like this because I didn't even drink water properly. My head was breaking like hell. So, eventually, of course I stayed one more day.
At noon, which means thirty minutes after I got up, Yerlan proposed to go to a mountain near the city. It's also a very touristic spot, called "Kuk Tebe" or something like this. Cool, my head is dead but I'm coming with you. It was also a very warm day so there's no reason to stay at home yeah.
Alma by the way means "Apple" in almost all Turkic languages. Obviously, every tourist takes a photo in front of this apple. Nice to be one of them :)
So, I've already mentioned the smog in Almaty. I make it even more visible by putting this photo. It was supposed to be a sunny day today, but it's almost impossible to recognize anything in the city. Smoggy smoggy. I also made a panoramic photo but it didn't make so much sense in the end :) There are actually a lot of cyclists climbing this mountain but it's probably like smoking while cycling.
Indeed, I am in Kazakhstan. However, the German power is apparently strong enough to penetrate with "Glühwein", though it does not really look like Glühwein...
It's a pity that I cannot bring the atmosphere of this place onto my website, as there is "very nice" Kazakh music running uninterrupted. I think I would become crazy if I'd work there the whole day...
There was a small zoo belonging to the place. This monochromatic peacock was at least two-meter wide. It probably depends on you if you find it funny or tragic to see this beast almost unable to turn around in this small cage...
The stand I bought two days before hadn't shown its effect so far so I just wanted to try it out here on this occasion. I think I have to practice a bit more to be able to exploit in a very effective way...
I don't know exactly what they wanted to do but they dared to install The Beatles in this park, though I could recognize only Ringo Starr and George Harrison. And only in this section there are songs of The Beatles running all the time. Is it also a tourist attraction?
Later on the same day we went to the Green Market again. I bought some Korean salad for the way. It's very important to stay healthy on the way but I still haven't figured out how to come to vegetables effectively. Well, it's always good to buy some Korean stuff here in this country. The local Koreans are pretty nice :)
In front of the entrance of the bazaar, you can buy "organic dogs".
So were the days in Almaty. Actually I'm sitting in front of my computer at the end of this day, but I don't think anything very serious would happen again here in this country. Hence, this will be my closing words for not only Almaty, but also Kazakhstan and even Central Asia. In two or three days I'll most probably arrive in China then there'll be a very different culture I suppose.
There's actually not much to say about Central Asia. It was the place I was expecting it to be, though Kazakhstan was actually much nicer than I thought with much more freedom and development. At least Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan will probably develop like this further on. And I really cannot complain that a veritable friendly relationship beteen western countries and this region has to take a bit more time.
However, there is one thing I have never mentioned but I had all the time in mind: the local Koreans. During my stay here in Central Asia, there was not only nobody who complained personally, but also there's apparently no one who wants to make Japan responsible for this artefact. And surprisingly, as far as I know nowhere in the rest of the world it is a problem to be discussed or be solved, however, clearly they are victims of the Japanese Imperialism. I can hardly imagine how bitter and difficult it was for them to leave their home country to live here in Central Asia where nothing resembles their native place.
However, now the local Koreans can call Central Asia their home place. It's not only my personal issue but we can all be more than grateful that the people here in Central Asia did not discriminate the immigrants flowing in all the sudden and the Soviet regime of bringing all the nationalities together. The locals at the couchsurfer meeting told me that they are very happy to live together with all of them. The politics in Central Asia is still far from perfect, but this is probably the reason I can still feel very positive in this huge region of the world and I'm quite looking forward to coming back here again in the near future :)
I had never seen Yerlan getting up earlier than 11am. On the day of my departure though, he got up at 8. I was impressed. At the same time I was not quite prepared for that...
One very nice thing about Kazakhstan is that it is incredibly flat. During whole day, I didn't feel any kind of need to speed up a lot. At the same time the wind was blowing exactly in the direction I was heading for. I thought I had no luck in Turkic countries but Kazakhstan seems to be an exception for me :)
There were several newly built mosques on the way. I cannot really explain why they were built instead of the absense of interest among the population here.
After a whole day of cycling, which turned out to be more than 160km, I could find a restaurant. Next day I found out that there's nothing after this restaurant for tens of kilometers. Anyway, I just asked the owners, two young ladies, if I can put a tent in front of the restaurant. Then they started to say "Палатка не надо! (= you don't need your tent)". I was a bit confused because of course I need a tent to sleep!
Well, actually they wanted to invite me into the restaurant to offer me a place to sleep. Hui, this was something I was not expecting. Apparently, the people here are pretty hospitable. I ordered a lagman, which looks like ramen (which most of Europeans probably do not know in the first place). It's almost impossible to stay awake after lying down once, after a whole day of cycling.
Maybe the break in Almaty was too long and my body was not well prepared anymore for cycling? Anyway, I slept for twelve hours in that restaurant. What a shame.
I just wanted to use the stand somewhere on the way. While having a small break in the middle of a desert, I decided to make a photo with the stand. Obviously I could not correctly set the timer of the camera. Well, a bit more practice and it'll be fine :)
I was again just cycling the whole day. What does this sign mean?
In the evening, I had no water anymore. And there was no city no village, nothing. When I left Almaty, I thought it's not very difficult to find a village everywhere. But actually it's only around Almaty. If you go more than 100km, you will notice that there's actually almost nothing. I slipped into the stream of a farming car, cycling with 25km/h for around two hours or so? I don't know exactly anymore but I could really feel the lack of water in my body.
In the end, there was one hotel just before the village I wanted to be in in the end of the day. I was simply too tired to arrive in this village and took a room in this hotel, paying more than 15 €, which I thought to be 7€50 (I hate to convert currencies)... If you ever come to this region, go further than Koktal, which is a very important village after which there are a lot more villages with hotels or at least small shops.
The distance to the border is only 40km or so? It was again a bit windy but I cycled very slowly, knowing that I cannot really go far away from the border since there'll be a mountain on the Chinese side which will be quite empty.
Just after noon I arrived at the border. How is the border control? The Kazakh side was pretty easy. So far everyone has said that Kazakhstan is a typical Central Asian country but I really cannot confirm it. The only thing was that they wanted me to open the bags but when I opened them they didn't want to check the content. I don't know what was going on
However, there was one well known fact that was I was a bit consternated by: it's forbidden to cross this particular border by bicycle. On some websites it was written that they charge me 1000 Tenge (around 7 dollars?) So, I kept one bill of 1000 Tenge. So, what is the problem? It is namely, the border controls of both countries are incredibly far away from each other with the real distance being not that enormous. So I was instructed to take a bus, for which I had to wait for around two hours. Hm, ok it's not really a problem.
While I was waiting, the police officers there wanted me to play the guitar. Aha, the border control always appears a kind of most formally ceremonial place to me but they want me to play the guitar? Hm, ok. I can also play some Russian music so they may be happy. Indeed, they were apparently more than happy that they let me go in the end without escort. My 1000 Tenge bill successfully stayed in my wallet in the end.
Chinese side though, it was a little bit more complicated. They first wanted me to open all the bags, checking all the contents and especially my computer. Behind the fence, I could hear the enthusiastic voice of "Pinguo pinguo", which is by the way the official name of "Apple (=Macintosh)" in Chinese. Obviously, Apple is something very prestigious in China. Well, I could also see through this sheer fence that they were checking the photos, emails etc. Anyway, I don't have a problem since anyway it's impossible to find anything negative for China on my computer as I am quite a China lover.
A little snag here was, I was questioned there for a small while because allegedly I tried to flirt with one of the young soldiers there. well... which one?
By the way, it is also known that Japanese don't need a visa for China for 15 days (probably I've already mentioned it). However, they clearly didn't know this rule at first and seemed to be surprised to learn it. So it was like "oh really? you don't need a visa? ok! bong!" and there was a stamp in my passport. Wait! What would have happened if I was a Croatian and said "I don't need a visa" or something like that???
Before I could leave the border, I had to put all my stuff to the scanner. It's not easy to enter China...
Kazakhstan was almost like incredibly empty. I was expecting the same situation in China. Well, what a surprise, it suddenly looked like a modern enormous city. Is it possible that one border can change everything so enormously? Actually there's a program of the Chinese government going on in this part of China and there are a lot of people coming from the east as well, I heard. At the same time, there are supposedly several problems with local muslims who of course do not speak Chinese and do not have the same culture.
I tried to get a Chinese SIM card on the way but the people poorly spoke English and my Chinese is unfortunately not as good as I would be able to buy a SIM card where I would have a lot of questions. Pity.
The road conditions were simply excellent. If you talk with Chinese from the eastern part, they all say that the region around Urumqi is simply a desert. Well, it's partially true, but the infrastructure is a little bit better than they discribe.
This region was a long historical conflict are between muslims, Chinese, Mongolians and Hui people. Now it's got taken over by Chinese but I suppose this kind of construction on the photo is not very historical.
In the evening, I arrived in the last village before the mountain. I was planning to put a tent somewhere but actually there have been a lot of people who told me that it's not a very good idea to tent in China. I don't know what is exactly the problem but at the same time, I could find a small hotel on the way. And the owner was incredibly nice to me. Wow, I was rather prepared for a bit of discrimination. Besides, it was just for less than 5 €. Nice, isn't it?
They helped me to put the bicycle inside. And I went out to have a dinner. Even if you speak Chinese, it's probably hard for you to order something if it's the first time to be there. In my case, I could read the menu, but I didn't know what kind of stuff locals usually order. So, I just ordered a dish randomly: 5€50. Hm, probably not the right one. But the owner told me that the local dish is something called "banmian". Aha. And this one was for less than 2€ so it must be the right one. I got a monster sized dish with a lot of vegetables and meat on it. Wow. And the taste was simply amazing :) Well, we shouldn't forget that this is China, the birthplace of a great civilization.
There are two hours difference between Kazakhstan and China. When I got up it was already 9am or so. Nice thing.
So, a mountain. There's actually only a highway going to Urumqi so I had to take it (otherwise you have to make a very very long curve to the south which includes thousands of mountains)
With this in mind, I started the day. At the toll there was nobody who stopped me. Maybe they know that there's only this highway and people like me are forced to take it. Anyway it's very nice that they had this comprehension.
The air was clean and the sky was clear. With the angle getting more and more, it was almost too hot to cycle.
On the way though, as on the photo, I could see that there was a mysterious traffic jam in front of me, about 500m away? I didn't understand why the cars are stopping there.
Just a little while later, I figured out the cause: it was a huge herd of sheep, horses and dogs, going in the wrong direction on the highway. I was more than shocked to see the complete occupation of the road by these beasts. Is anything like this ever possible in other countries? Well, I'm in Western China so it's maybe more important that the agricultural stuff works correctly.
It was more than 1300m that I have to do in this morning, but to be honest, it was the first time that such an enormous difference of altitude was so easy because there's no place where the angle was too big or too small. Always just between 2 to 3 degrees.
And at 3pm finally I arrived at the lake which is on the top of the mountain. The lake was completely covered with ice and there were even people walking on it. Of course it was not very warm but it was almost like comfortable to cycle there without sweater.
There was just on village there. Probably there are tourists in summer (there was one panel indicating that it's a touristic place).
After the lake, of course it went down all the time. It was actually pretty much the same structure as before the lake: no big inclination but still only going down all the time. For an hour or so I cycled only down all the time. Even though it was not very cold on the mountain, I was freezing in the end being unable to pedal while going down.
I was convinced that it's not difficult to find a hotel like the previous day: and it turned out to be true. This time I paid around 3 €. Perfect! The owners were also very kind to me, offering me also a dinner though it was not supposed to be included.
Well, just before they offered me the dinner, I went to a restaurant in front of the hotel. There, I just wanted to see the reaction of the people and I told them that I was raised up in France: Bingo. France is probably the key word in this country. I know that the relation now between Germany and China is not bad either but France seems to be the country of dream for a lot of Chinese (I had this impression at the border control)
Later in the evening, the owner came to my room to talk with me. It was the very first time for me to talk to someone only in Chinese. Actually it's really not so difficult for Japanese to understand Chinese if we can recognize the characters they are pronouncing. This guy spoke a slightly dialectic Chinese so it was a bit difficult for me to understand him but in the end (with the help of iPad as well) we understood each other pretty well. Diving into the life in China huh?
China is vast. It has 7% of the whole land of the world. Consequently, it's not very easy to go from one city to another. The distance I had to cover, something like 700km from the border to the first city Urumqi, was pretty strenuous. Partly due to the landscape that does not really change and absense of real culture, as the main road does not really go through villages.
In the evening, again I arrived in a small village, where again I took a small hotel for 2 € 50 or so. Nice thing anyway :)
Well, let's put it straightforward and stop beating around the bush: when I opened my computer, it had wifi signal. I was speechless. In this village where I wouldn't be surprised to know that there's no electricity they have the Internet? The development of the world is crazy (or that of China)
Hm, so far so good. What about the password? Well, okay maybe it's the end of the story, but at least I try to put some words randomly: it worked. You can try to guess what I put in but it was exactly the first password I put that worked :)
Tap water in this region (or maybe whole China) cannot be drunk, told me the owner of this hotel. So I filtered it with the purification machine I bought I France (made in Switzerland) and fortunately I didn't have any problem. Nice stuff :)
There was a kind of equilibrium in my route there: I get up early in the morning, I cycle until noon, I go to a local restaurant, I cycle again, I look for a small hotel and I go to a restaurant nearby again. It's not expensive and not too tough. The only thing is that whenever I go to a restaurant I can order only "Banmian", not because I cannot ask for something else, but more like I don't want them to know that I don't speak standard Mandarin, because I know that in China, in contrast to Japan for example, it's not really a good thing that you speak a dialect since it supposedly indicates that your education level is low. And it's not like in Japan or in Europe that a low education level does not change your social status, it's something you must be confronted with in China.
However, it became more and more obvious, that I can solve this problem by making them realize that I'm Japanese, an effect that I hadn't expected to be useful in China.
The thing is, if you stay in a hotel in China, you must hand in your ID card. In my case it's of course a passport. And there are actually not so many people who have ever seen a passport in their lives. In the evening of the day before I arrived in Urumqi, again I stayed in a hotel. It was run by a small family. They seemed to be surprised to get a passport from me, without knowing what to do with that and they gave it back to me very politely. Yes, I cycled through a very undeveloped region for several days and each and every one of them was so polite after knowing I'm a stranger. Even the police officers there. I just don't know if it's because it's Xinjiang, which is historically not very Chinese, or everywhere like this in China. I'm anyway quite looking forward to finding out what might happen in the east.
I did something like 160km in average, with something like 380km in two days until the day before the day I arrived in Urumqi. It's nice that the day is much longer now. So, the last day was rather comfortable. I had a long lunch in this restaurant and I could also talk with the people there. In this stage, China, there are really not so many people coming from Europe by bicycle. It's not difficult to find people willing to talk with a foreigner who speaks only (quite) broken Mandarin.
So, welcome to the first big city, Urumqi. It has the total population of more than 3 million people. So, the same size as Berlin? Don't worry: it's merely the 36th largest city in China.
There is a city called Changji just before Urumqi. You will see that this city is already large. So many skyscrapers and people with urban appearance. Probably I looked like a farmer there.
Urumqi is HUGE. On the margin of the city I could see sky-high buildings narrowly positioned. It's supposed to be one of the most polluted cities in the world but it rained in the night so I could clearly see all of them.
One VERY big problem in China is that you don't have priority if you are pedestrian and crossing a street. It means, even if you go straight, you have to wait for the car cutting in. Probably a car was the symbol of power before and this tradition is still living or so? I suppose. Anyway it's not very easy to move around in China if you are a pedestrian. For bicycles it's the same thing.
Actually I was heading for one of the youth hostels here but just when I entered the city, the only one couch host, Steve, who had invited me around two weeks or three weeks ago wrote me an SMS asking me where I was. Nice!! In fact, until this moment I sent him several messages and he didn't answer (later I found out that he did reply but I couldn't connect to the internet) so I had decided to take a hostel. And just in time he repled me. NICE!
Steve picked me up near his apartment. I felt so much better when I arrived at his place. Several days of no shower, without so much communication with people. Both could be fulfilled at Steven's place. It's gonna be hard when I go to Xi'an, but for a while it'll be fine. I can simply wait for warmer days here.
Well, as I had announced, I'm going to stay here in Urumqi until March 31st and then I'll fly to Hong Kong to get a visa for China. I am going to come back here on April 10th and after maybe a few days I'll restart to cycle. If I can get a visa for three months, I think I'll go very very slowly. Anyway, let's just say good bye to cold days while staying in Urumqi :)
Exactly on the day I arrived, Steve offered me a shot of Chinese spirits of 56 % (?), which knocked me off completely (though the whiff of this devil reminded me so much of Japan). On the other hand, Steve could not get up early enough either to go to work. Instead, we decided to walk around the city together.
Obviously, the school system works the same way as in Japan, looking at this school uniform. Meanwhile probably it's almost senseless to have a school uniform but I suppose not many of the people wonder why they introduced this futile stuff first of all. At least their uniform doesn't look so uncomfortable.
A street called "democracy street". Sounds a bit ridiculous but the names of streets are usually very political in China, not related to the places themselves.
By the way, I haven't mentioned it so far but as Japanese citizen I can read almost all of Chinese characters (which Chinese people even didn't know exactly). And I had Chinese for a year and a half in Europe, which was of course not very practical since with all the European students it goes very slowly but at least I have a basic understanding of Chinese. Until China, I reported the stuff from a very European point of view but from here, it'll be a little bit different. Especially the road signs etc. are all Greek to most of the Europeans.
Again, in this city there is no McDonalds' but of course KFC. I cannot figure out where the difference is coming from but McDonalds' seems to exist in a very concentrated way.
A big problem with KFC or all of this stuff in China is that, they all have different names. So, you can come to China and try to say "KFC", but there's no guarantee that the people understand it. I spent several minutes to say "Volkswagen" there. At least I can write it down and then the people will understand. I have no idea how the western expats solve this problem.
And here's a little bit politics going on: please look at this Honda. You can clearly see the symbol covered with a Chinese flag. You may think that this person loves China and is ashamed of having a Japanese car. The correct answer is actually no. What happens is that, over the course of conflicts between Japan and China, there were many Japanese cars destroyed by demonstrators. The owners of Japanese cars then started to put a sticker, saying like "the disputed islands belong to China" or "we love our own country" etc. in order to avoid vandalism on their cars.
As far as I know it is reported in Japan that this vandalism is performed by so many people here but if there is ONE single person who does it, there will be cars that are going to be destroyed. So, I personally don't take it too seriously.
A problem that is more serious in Urumqi is the fact, that this region is not as Chinese as it is internationally recognized. It is a radical mixture of different ethnic groups. Well, "radical mixture" is actually a not very accurate description because they are in reality not quite mixed together. At least it's not working as well as in Central Asia. In the south of the city, you can see a lot of Muslims. Due to programs of the Chinese government there are now a lot of Han people in this region now and therefore it's quite safe for them but before it was reportedly pretty dangerous. The problem is, each side wants to get rid of the other side. Of course it's almost impossible to say which ethnic group this region should belong to.
In fact, there was an occasion around five years ago where I was criticized for criticizing the Chinese politics on this issue without knowing the exact situation there. And it was not particularly wrong. Since then I stopped saying anything about Xinjiang and still I'm not as well informed as I could establish my own opinions so there's no comment from my side. I just wish both sides to create some kind of harmony and not stride towards hegemony...
Among these Islamic buildings you can find Carrefour, Toyota and KFC... I hope they sell at least carpets, camels and Kebab respectively...
Here comes again something that I learned in this trip for the first time: A car without number plate. It was the greatest surprise to me at first. Now, it's too normal to see anything like this. It's almost like a wonder that I had never seen anything like this in Japan and Europe.
There was something that I had never realized before: do you know what the name "Mitsubishi" means? It actually means "three diamonds". There are probably a lot of Japanese who have never thought about the meaning. For us, it just "mitsubishi" and it doesn't have anything to do with diamonds. Why am I suddenly talking about it? Well, there was something that made me think about it, namely one car maker in China, which is called "Wuling", which means, appropriately enough, "five diamonds" (by the way, Mitsubishi is called Sanling, with San stands for three and Ling diamond"). And nicely enough, almost same thing happens to Mercedes Benz, where it doesn't have three angles, but five instead. They must have been very creative, the founders of these companies :)
Steve and I talked a lot about different countries, like Germany, Japan and of course China. It is always amazing to talk to couch surfers because they are always open to any social back ground.
I showed here stores like Carrefour, but here in China, VISA card in general does not work, even if it's Carrefour. There is a Chinese VISA card, which is called Union Pay and this is the only credit card that works reasonably in China. There was a dispute between China and WTO recently on this issue but it hasn't got its way, as it looks. At least withdrawal works.
I wanted to cook something French in the evening and we tried to find spaghetti at Carrefour, in vain. Yes, there is no spaghetti at Carrefour. I'm just wondering if it was a real Carrefour... It's also difficult to get butter in China, which rather makes sense to me. Also in the morning of this day, I went to a supermarket to buy something for the breakfast. I didn't know what they eat but I thought at least there must be cornflakes. However I found out later that they don't even know what it is. Interesting.
The dinner was not really a success. I didn't find it bad but apparently it was not Steve's taste. Hm, Chinese cuisine is a bit more complicated than I thought.
After the dinner we went out to buy a SIM card for my phone. It's something again a little bit complicated in China: if you buy a SIM card in one region, you can use it by default only in the region where you bought it. So it means, I cannot use it in Shanghai or so. They told me that if I open the line for whole China I can use it in every region but I still don't know exactly whether I should buy a different SIM card in every region...
Later in the evening, there was a friend of Steve who unfortunately didn't speak English but we drank beer together. To be honest, I hadn't fully recovered from the exhaustion of cycling for a week so I could not drink as much as they did. Also we played cards with drinking as punishment. LOL
It was a funny evening but in the end I was completely drunk. I don't even know what time I went to bed or how I got asleep. Nice action :)
Following day, I didn't have anything like headache but I got up pretty late. Also I wanted to prepare for the next trip, though still a bit far, and started to download maps on my phone. So I could not move for the whole day. Only in the afternoon, when Steve came back, I went outside to walk around a little bit. Steve was too tired from work and actually there's nothing to see in this city so there was no reason for him to come with me.
There was a big park near Steve's apartment. I sat there to learn Chinese there for a little while. Actually I was looking for a café in the city, something like starbucks where I can sit and read for a few hours, but there is nothing like this in this city (or maybe everywhere in China). It's maybe against the mentality of Chinese people. But it also makes sense, because the culture of café of course comes from Europe and the culture of tea (house) in Japan is also a very unique culture of Japan which was developed maybe in the last 500 years.
In the evening, there was pretty much the same configuration as the previous day. We ate together and drank at home. I have the feeling that I'm just simply drinking every day.
I knew that there's not much stuff in Urumqi to see. So I posted a thread on couch surfing, looking for someone to hang around. There was one local girl Rockey who contacted me. She is a student at I don't know which university but she didn't have a course on the following day, so we decided to see each other.
She was just 19 but she spoke moderately good English. I think it's pretty hard to find anyone who speaks so much English at the age of 19 in Japan. Still there were some misunderstandings between us at the rendezvous point, Hongshan park, which is by the way in the middle of the city. Meanwhile, I could walk around in this park. There are still many people there, but way less than in any part of the city. There is maybe no notion of passing leisure time in a park among the inhabitants here.
We went to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Museum (admission free!) where you can learn a lot about the culture of the people there. There are two floors but in two hours and a half we could do only one floor, which was already pretty interesting.
You certainly know that I'm following the ancient Silk Road at the moment, but I didn't know the whole shape exactly. In this museum though, I could find out that it ends in the city of Xi'an which I will visit, too. It means, I will complete the whole Silk Road in the end. But for me the nice thing is that I have the complete map of Silk Road in the end, which in reality consists of several different ways. I think those who are following my trajectory have also a very precise view of Eurasia meanwhile :)
I have no idea what these docments are representing but the culture here in this region is quite far from anything. Indeed, it was also Buddhistic and Islamic but it's not like they are simply mixed up or so. Maybe it's the result of this mixture but I cannot say it's a region of transition from Islam to Chinese culture or so. Anyway I can clearly say that this region has also a very strong impact from the Mongolian culture, something a lot of people around the world do not know so much about.
After the museum we decided to get something to eat, whereas we just simply walked around (probably for an hour? I don't know if it was really okay for her because more or less I forced her to walk...)
She told me that there's a project here to invest in electric cars. She had never seen it directly but this is supposed to be a station for them. Wow, I know that there's a similar project in France, though it has just started in Paris recently. I wouldn't have thought that it was already so far in China. Not bad.
I could also sneak into a Chinese high school. I must admit that it looks exactly like in Japan, with the uniform. Personally I find that it was the negative side of Japanese education system that they probably took over... I am not particularly sorry for that but I have the feeling that whole Asia is going in a weird direction because of Japan...
The same thing happens also in university admission exams. For those who live in Europe (especially Germany): In Japan (and probably in many places of Asia), it does not matter which grades you get at school. You will take exams at the universities where you want to study. And this is the only thing that counts. Problematic is though, there is a ranking of universities and it's VERY important which university you enter. And this ranking is not like in Europe, where it exists for researches. It literally affects the reputation of the students of individual universities. So don't be surprised if an Asian person says "I studied at XXX university" proudly. He or she has a reason to be proud of it :)
We were sitting on the edge of a bis square. While getting dark there, there were more and more people gathering in the middle of it. Then they put music and started dancing. The general view reminded me of the film Always: Sunset on Third street here in China.
I was waiting for Steve to come back home since he had the keys. So we went to a fast food restaurant nearby. I took this photo in the rest room. How poetic.
Following day, there was practically nothing to do. Fortunately, there was one girl, Echo who contacted me on CS. So we met each other at Hongshan park again. There were two other girls with her, but unfortunately only Echo spoke English and it was still a bit difficult to communicate for us (though I'm still grateful to her for trying to speak English first of all). We went to the muslim square together. They are also tourists but they are going to Tibet by hitch hiking. They told me it works quite well in China for girls, though it might be a little bit more complicated for foreigners. I felt so sorry for refusing all the proposals they made, like going to Kanas lake, which is in the North of China just at Russia, or to the south, near Tibet where they'll be in a few months, that I didn't want to turn down the offer to spend the evening together in a youth hostel where there are a lot of foreigners are staying. I thought they were staying there as well and so I was planning to go there late in the evening but later it turned out that they were using couchsurfing (though I had asked them and they said no... a little misunderstanding) In the end, we didn't talk so much and it was over. What a productive meeting.
The thing was just, when I got back home, there were Steve and two of his friends. And we started a drinking session. Steve's apartment is on the 7th floor. Question: what is Steve here doing? Answer: there was a stand outside which sold Kebab: He paid money by dropping it off and pulling up Kebab up to the 7th floor. Too nice XD
We played cards and just drank all the time, until late in the evening. I cannot remember when I drank so much last time. Maybe when I was in Greece? Anyway, I have the feeling (and not only the feeling...) that I'm just drinking everyday. (It was a hilarious night)
I could not get up early in the morning following day, as always. I was staying at home to update the website, when there was suddenly a fairly strong earthquake. Wait! I'm in the 7th floor! When I was in Japan I didn't really care about earthquakes but here in China, I just don't know how serious it can be... I was so scared that I was still trembling long after the earthquake was over, thinking that it was still continuing (I could realize that it was over looking at one of the beer bottles which survived from the previous night)
At least it didn't cause a deadly damage to the building. How nice that I didn't get out of the building in pyjama (though apparently nobody really cares in China)
Steve came back from work very early because his work finished earlier because of the earthquake. For lunch, we went to a local restaurant, where I learned that actually in Urumqi, you can have as many helpings as you want, though in case of Banmian, you can get only the noodles. Plov, which we took, cannot be separated from rice, so you can get the whole meal again. This is actually valid for whole Xinjiang. I should have known it before the arrival in Urumqi.
Following day, just before the departure to Hong Kong, there was another local who wanted to show me around the city, Adil, who comes from the other side of Urumqi, namely the muslim side. I was extremely interested in talking to the people there as well so it was very nice for me to walk around with him. With the "go west program" of the central government, or I don't know how it's exactly called, there are now many Han Chinese in this region. They obtain 2000 Chinese Yuan per month (=320 USD) for two years. This is by the way a very traditional style of restaurant of Muslims. It looks exactly like in Central Asia :)
And the southern part of the city looks actually like this, which is by the way the muslim part of the city. There are quite a lot of people there, whereas the border between a house and outside is really not so clear over there. Maybe they don't really care since apparently the people stay outside during most of the day.
In the evening, I went to a quasi-couchsurfer meeting at Hongshan park, though there was actually only one couch surfer, Rockey, whom I had seen a few days before, with her friends fortunately. One of them was native of Hong Kong, where I'm supposed to go the following day.
A small problem here was that, though I had set the meeting there, I arrived two hours later, and especially I went back home again to have dinner with Steve and in total I went to the meeting at 10pm in the evening. GMT stands for "German Must-be Time" or "German Maybe Time", depending on the person. I think I know which one is appropriate for me.
In the restaurant where we had dinner, there was a TV programme running, which was about the WWII. When we arrived there, it was almost finishing. Then, another programme started: again about the WWII. lol. As in Russia, they show apparently pretty often how they threw out the enemies, though I think for China it's not really "glory of yesterday" since China is doubtlessly flourishing at the moment.
Maybe some of you have already forgotten the plan or maybe there are new comers here so here's the summary of what was my plan: with my Japanese passport, it is allowed for me to stay in China for 15 days without visa. Of course though, it is impossible to get through China in 15 days and it is at the moment pretty much impossible to extend this pseudo-visa due to the tension between China and Japan. The solution I came up with was to fly to Hong Kong, where I can supposedly obtain a visa without much stress. So I took a flight ticket for the last day of March, leaving my bicycle at Steve's place.
The day before the departure, of course it turned out that it's not that easy: the plane company cancelled the flight, saying I should confirm the new flight schedule if I agree. I did, with not much success. Aha? Anyway I had to go the airport, without knowing what might happen, though I told Steve he need not come with me, since I strongly believed, they must speak English at the airport, which turned out to be immensely wrong. I could not explain the situation, but the lady who processed it, appearing pretty rude at first, was in fact very kind and I had much less complication than I had assumed.
With this airline, China Eastern, it was actually the first time for me to use a non-European/Japanese airline (because I prefer direct flights between Europe and Japan, which already takes 11 hours...) I was anyway positively surprised by its good service.
There is no direct flight between Urumqi and Hong Kong. I had to take another plane in Shanghai. As in Tokyo, Shanghai has two airports, located far away from each other. Initially, both planes should be at the same airport, but because of the cancellation, I had to take a bus to go to the other airport (30 RMB = 4.84 USD).
Shanghai seems to be a very nice place now. At least the landscape between the two airports was nice. Well, anyway I'm coming back here again in the near future :)
At both Shanghai airports, there was no internet. I went to a café to get connected, to tell Steve and my host in Hong Kong, Osman that I could successfully leave Urumqi.
An interesting feature in China is that hosts, waiters, staff, servants, they sometimes appear very rude, but if you stay calm and polite, they eventually become very polite as well. Probably they are not as rude in nature as they may sometimes seem to be.
I had more than four hours in Shanghai and the city center was simply too far away to get to. Well, there's only one thing I'm busy with: the language. I have the feeling that wherever I go I'm learning the local language, with or without success so far. Anyway I hate people who don't want to learn the local language when they settle down in a certain place (I was called "language nazi" in Germany for a while because I sternly refused to speak English with people living there. Later I changed my mind after having realized that not everyone can acquire a language as quickly as expected according to their effort. But still I cannot stand up for those who don't have the intention at all) I'm just a tourist but at least I'll do as much as I can to be more consistent. But anyway it's interesting to communicate with hard-core locals.
At 11:30pm, the plane was to arrive. In reality, it was after midnight that I could get out of the plane. The immigration itself did not take so much time but the queue was long and there were only two immigration officers available.
As a matter of fact, this was not even a problem compared with what happened to me next: I noticed that I had lost my credit card and my ATM card. They were in my passport holder but I had my passport in my pocket separately exactly because I didn't want to lose the holder by taking the passport out of it several times during the immigration controls. I didn't even know where I lost it, since it was in Shanghai that I used it the last time. What to do.
Osman was waiting for me at the airport, very nice guy, but I was way too upset at the moment, that the fact that there was no transport possibility anymore that would have brought us back home didn't catch up to me at all. All I had was just a bit of cash. Anyway, we went to "Lost and found" and reported the case, hoping they would find it on the spot, in vain. We left the telephone number of Osman there and took a taxi, fairly expensive one since the apartment of Osman was far away from the airport.
At home, I was not inclined to speak but at the same time I didn't want to brood over it over and over again. With a bit of beer and exhaustion from the trip, I could fall asleep quickly enough. Tomorrow, I'll rethink about that.
Probably the first thing I should have done in this moment was to call the credit card company to block my card. But to be honest, I had a very high expectation of Hong Kong, which made me wait for one more day.
And so was the last day of March. It had a very strange ending but in general I'm so delighted to be finally in China. It's almost like a wonder that I could come so far by bicycle. Yes, indeed it'll be possible to go back to Tokyo by bicycle.
I looked at weather forecasts and I found out that actually this year was one of the warmest years and cold nights I was afraid of were completely absent. Probably I didn't mention at all but from the point where I decided to go through Central Asia, I simply continued to eat as much as I could, in order to not lose fat. Sometimes it almost made me sick but now I don't need to think about that anymore. If ever I succeed in getting a visa for China in Hong Kong, I'll cycle through a vast desert so I must be well prepared for that but after that there'll be a huge area of great civilization. The issue with the credit card is to be solved but I'm anyway looking forward to what may be waiting for me. :)