The day started off with a pleasant ride through pretty scenery. As I found yesterday, it seems that the closer I get to the border, the friendlier people become. Kids shouted hello, truck drivers waved and walkers smiled broadly. In Ulugqat, I stopped to have a cold lemonade and to stock up on water, as I wasn’t sure when the next chance would be. Once I reached the immigration office, my passport was immediately taken for inspection while I was told to wait. The passport was returned after five minutes, then I had to wait another ten minutes before the processing booth opened up. There was foreign couple (Australian) and some Kyrgyz people to be processed as well. My passport was assessed and I was able to proceed out the other side of the building from where you can get a taxi to the border. It is only once you have organised a taxi that your passport gets stamped and you are officially allowed to leave. I faced an immediate problem. The one taxi waiting completely filled up with the others and there was no room for me and my bicycle. The immigration officers told me I would have to wait for four hours until the office opened again in the afternoon, when there should be more people needing taxis. This settled in my mind for a few minutes before I decided there was no way I was going to wait four hours for the place to reopen, then another hour for people to be processed, all without knowing for sure that I would be able to share a taxi at the end of it. I also realised that my bike and gear would take up so much room in a taxi that there might not even be room for another person with whom I could share the taxi fare. I told the immigration officers that waiting four hours isn’t good enough – there is surely a taxi available in town and I would be prepared to pay the full cost. Nope, they said, there won’t be any taxis again until later in the afternoon. Again, this information settled in my mind for a few minutes before I decided I was prepared to be a pain about it. I bugged the immigration officers again, suggesting that I could just ride my bike instead and complaining that surely there is a taxi in town that can take me now. While one officer mocked me for being angry, another took enough pity to make a phone call. He told me a taxi driver would be coming in 15 minutes and that I would have to bargain for the price, which is likely going to be at least 400y. I already knew that this was the standard price for a whole taxi, so I had made sure I had 460y cash within me. I put 360 of this together and stashed the other 100 (emergency money should something go wrong). The taxi driver came and asked for 500y. I showed my 360y to him and explained this was all I had. He asked for 400y. I again said I only had 360y to pay. The taxi driver spoke briefly to the immigration officers before sitting down and making a call, presumably to his boss. I sat down and waited too. Fifteen minutes passed and it became 1.30pm, the time when the immigration office closes for three hours. As the officers were switching off lights and shutting down monitors, they noticed me waiting and commenced a discussion about what to do with me. The taxi driver and a senior officer chatted and it seemed they came to a decision that yes, I could take the taxi for 360y. Success. My passport was processed for the last time and I was given my exit stamp. The taxi driver and I loaded my bicycle and gear into his car and then we were off. I began to relax as we passed through beautiful scenery with the windows down and music blasting through the stereo. At one point, in between pleasant-sounding local music, Hotel California came on. I turned up the volume and relished the moment. My driver turned out to be a nice guy and we shared some snacks during the journey, even pulling over at a nice spot to have a little picnic of bread and melon. I even had time for a doze before we reached the Irkeshtam Pass, which was 140km from the immigration office. The taxi driver insisted on dropping me off just before the checkpoint at the Pass. I was a little hesitant to get out without knowing exactly where I was and unfortunately the GPS on my phone wasn’t getting signal. In the end I trusted the guy so I got out and unloaded my gear. This turned out to be a great decision as it helped my border crossing to pass smoother than I could ever have hoped for.
Once I packed up my bike, I rode down the road and came across a line of cars and taxis at the checkpoint. It became clear my taxi driver just didn’t want to get caught up in the queue. Being on the bike meant I could ride to the front of the line. As I did so, I received my first bit of great news: I had caught up with all the tourists and others who had travelled up to the pass earlier in the morning. Who knows how long they had been waiting, but knowing the Chinese it could have been hours. At the front of the line I was stopped and asked for my passport. I was also asked where my taxi was, so explained that he had dropped me off a little further back. This didn’t seem to be a problem at all. I received my second bit of great news after a ten minute wait: my arrival was just in time to join the convoy through the checkpoint and along the road towards customs. As I rode through what was a surprisingly long distance, I faced a strong head wind and it began to rain. Eventually, I caught up with the cars and taxis about 100m from the turnoff to the customs office. The poor people had to get out in the rain and walk their luggage this final distance, I think the vehicles would then pick up their passengers once they’d passed through customs. I reached the turnoff to customs at the same time as a pair of Australians who had managed to hitch a ride instead of taking a taxi. For some reason the Chinese officer at the turnoff took no interest in inviting us into customs. I think he had eyes instead on the tourists who were travelling in the taxis. Whatever the case, as soon as I realised he wasn’t paying me any special attention, I decided to just ride on. Thus, skipping Chinese customs was the third bit of great news. This was especially welcome as by all accounts this Chinese customs post is ruthless in their scrutiny, going as far as to look through every photo stored on any electronic device, be it phones or laptops.
The rain picked up as I rode through no-man’s land and by the time I reached Kyrgyz immigration I was soaked to the skin. Passing through immigration and customs was a breeze. I wasn’t asked any questions as my passport was looked over and stamped. Back outside, I spent some time changing into dry clothes and covering myself in my wet weather gear. Of course the rain began to ease up as I did this. I had started riding away from the compound when I was called back by a custom’s officer. Because I’d left my loaded bike outside the office, I hadn’t actually passed through any customs checks. The guy asked me where I was from, before having a quick look at my passport and saying I could go. In doing so he gave me my fourth bit of great news: no customs checks whatsoever! Suddenly I was free to explore yet another country. I rode on for about five kilometres before stopping by the side of the road to satisfy my starving stomach. I only rode on about another five kilometres before looking for a place to camp. I found a suitable spot down a grassy hill, right before it dropped down steeply to a river, on the other side of which were more steep green hills leading to snow-covered mountains. It turned out I’d decided to stop a bit early, as it didn’t get dark until well after I’d settled into bed. The good thing about stopping early, though, was that as soon as I was ready to enclose myself in my home, it began to rain. It was still raining when I fell asleep.
|Distance ridden today||56.14km|
|Average cycling speed||13.8kph|
|Total distance ridden||19,584km|