Astana at last!
It was another night in a grim and grimy Kazakh motel . The wind howled and the rain poured down all night. I’m the morning when ?I woke up after a night of disturbed sleep, the hailstones were rattling on the tin roof so I was in no hurry to leave. At about 10.00 there was a break on the heavy showers so I made a break for it and headed on towards Astana. On paper it looked like only 120k but in fact, in order to avoid motorways I ended up cycling about 135k. It took me only four and a half hours to cover this distance with the icy wind whipping up behind me. I find it quite amazing that autumn seems to have been skipped here. Last week the tar on the roads was melting in 35 degrees. Today there were icy patches on the road. It was tempting to take it easy with such a good tailwind but I had to pedal hard just to keep warm. I had a brief lunch boat a village called Tasty where there was no food to be found!!!!!!-and powered on to Astana at 35km per hour. When eventually I reached this modern and vibrant city, I had to find wifi to locate my hostel. The manager of the restaurant I went to had read about me in a Russian newspaper and insisted on giving me a huge meal with several vodkas free of charge. Consequently there was no possibility of visiting the Chinese embassy and I found it more difficult than usual to find the hostel. The Novhleg is another real gem of a hostel in central Astana. The most amazing thing is that the British cyclist who is attempting to become the youngest person to cycle around the world was here only a week ago. He also got caught in the visa trap and had to fly here from Almaty, where I hope to be soon, to get it. It looks like he’s only a week ahead of me now and I’m determined to catch him. How cool would that be, the youngest and oldest pretenders pedalling together across China????
Red tape and paperwork
There’s nothing in the world I hate more than red tape and paperwork. However I had no choice today and spent the day at the computer, making bookings, filling out applications and generally pushing sheets of paper around. After a very chilled night at the hotel where I met some fascinating people, I was up bright and early so that I’d be first in line at the Chinese Embassy. I had only sourced 2 of the 12 documents necessary to submit the application but thought it sensible to show up there to ensure that all was in order. I got that sinking feeling when I turned a corner and saw about 200 people, mostly students ahead of me. The wait time was 4 hours and I had a lot to do so I had a coffee to mull over the situation and returned to the hostel to get my documents in order.
The British cyclist Charlie Hannaford had been in just this situation a few weeks ago and had recorded his extensive in his blog. This information was really useful to me. I have to submit a long application form which of course is in Chinese and Russian but not English. Along with that I had to pay a significant sum for a Chinese Tour operator to forward an official letter of invitation . Then I had to book a flight to Shanghai and one from Shanghai to Australia and print the confirmations. And then to cap it all I had to book accommodation in China for the entire duration of my trip. Along with all that, I had to source bank statements, proof of residency in Kazakhstan and some other nonsensical items. It took me all day and I really appreciated the help I got from Dana and Karina at the hostel. In any case I have a very impressive portfolio of documents ready and will be at the embassy tomorrow morning at 7.00am so I don’t waste the day in a queue.
Tomorrow afternoon I’ve an appointment to meet the principal teacher of a big school here and I hope to make some presentation there on Friday. There’s a double shift arrangement in the schools here with some pupils starting school at 8.00am and some at 2.00pm. Some unfortunate teachers do both shifts. Now there’s something we could consider implementing in Ireland!
First of all I want to offer sincere apologies fot this morning’s outburst. It was the result of several hours in a hostile, degrading and downright dangerous situation. I had my, by now familiar rendez vous with the throngs of applicants at the Chinese Embassy early this morning. It was however far worse today as the security guards were late and there was no queue, in rugby parlance it was a scrum which, as the morning progressed turned into a maul and then into a melee. It was a case of ‘jungle law’ with the more aggressive guys and girls barging their way through to the front, Pregnant women, small children and eldery people were pushed around like cattle. Several people were injured and I saw a teenage girl trampled on in front of me after she fainted.
I was quite close to the front of the melee when the security guards began to admit people into the building with much barking of orders and unhelpful hostility. I was able to support a lovely Greek librarian called Paschellia who was being badly crushed and we squeezed through together. Once inside the building there was relative calm and we stood in long lines for ages. Paschellia was just ahead of me and was dismayed to be refused on the basis of not having a second copy of her migration card, (despite the fact that there was a photocopier behind the official who was on the other side of the window) But she was at least told to come back and run the gauntlet again tomorrow. My turn…… I nervously presented myself and all my documents. She examined them in detail and pretty quickly I knew I was in deep shit when she began to nod and called for the ‘boss’ to break the bad news. ‘No! This is tourist application. You must have letter of invitation stating that you have work in People’s Republic of China’ To say that I was dismayed would be a gigantic understatement. I was devastated and really, really angry. I protested with every bit of ammunition I’d got. I had been told by a Chinese official in the embassy that everything was in order, I had downloaded the application form for a tourist visa on their website. I had made numerous telephone calls and sent a mountain of e mails to them asking for clarification on the issue. I had cycled an additional 1,20km to get here. Charlie Hannaford, the British cyclist had been issued with a visa in identical circumstances and with the same documents only a week ago……… They couldn’t give a ………! I asked to see the Consul in person and after another hour waiting in line was barked at and humiliated in front of everyone by a bulldog of a n official who spoke hardly any English,-surely not the Consul. By this time my dignity and sense of pride had all but dissipated as my documents and passport were thrust back into my hands. ‘You have to return to Ireland if you want visa!’ By now, all I wanted to do was dig a hole and jump into it for good. I wasn’t even allowed that pleasure as the security guards couldn’t permit successful or unsuccessful applicants out because of the threat to law and order outside the door. ‘We are under siege!’ they declared. So I spent another miserable hour waiting for a break in the tension. Finally, I made a break for it and got outside. I headed immediately over to the Hilton, where I was consoled by one of the waiters with whom I’ve become friendly. There I composed my Facebook post and began contacting friends to see what alternatives could be implemented.
My plan is to post my application and passport home to Dublin, where a friend will make that application on my behalf. There are two risks with this plan. The process may take too long, -I have to be out of Kazakhstan by the end of the month. Also it’s illegal and dangerous to travel here without a passport. Before I take this rather drastic step, I have to get official written confirmation from the authorities that an electronic copy of my passport (which thankfully I have) will suffice. It just goes on and on……
On a happy note I had a marvellous weekend in Astana with friends. I’ll post photos and videos from my phone as I’m not allowed to connect my phone to the hostel PC.
Once again, many thanks to everyone who has supported me in any way to date. I know that with luck, determination and your support, we can get through this together!
Through the Arch of Sorrow
‘Gulag!’ The word itself conjures up images of unimaginable levels of desperation and misery for the many millions who found themselves incarcerated in these infamous concentration camps during the Soviet era. Until recently I thought that the gulags were all in Siberia but over the past few weeks I’ve learned that they were widely spread all over the Soviet Union and that there were many in Kazakhstan. So this morning with no progress on visas, I decided to visit Alzhir, 60k south of Astana, along with Louis and Rodrigo, two friends from the hostel.
Alzhir was unique in that it only ‘hosted’ women and children , those whose husbands and fathers were considered to be dissidents or ‘enemies of the people and traitors of the motherland ‘
Once again I found myself being profoundly moved by the visit. The terrible conditions and inhuman treatment suffered by the 100,000 women and especially the children was graphically portrayed and is too awful to describe. It was an intensely sad and disturbing experience. Just as Motherland is Calling in Volgagrad seemed to be a monument dedicated to the honour and glory of Russia, this place felt like a monument to its shame. I find it interesting that just as many young German people don’t like to talk about the Holocaust, the young Kazakhs I spoke to today had never visited Alzhir and quickly changed the topic of conversation when I came home from the trip full of questions about it. My time spent in Astana has given me an incredible insight into the history and culture of this part of the world. I’ve learned a lot en route but it’s definitely true that the weeks rest here has allowed me to really probe more deeply into the complex world of the people of these former Soviet states I’ve spent the past few days exploring blind alleys in relation to getting to China. Despite support from a very high level in the Chinese Embassy in Dublin, I’ve come to the conclusion that I won’t be able to travel through China. But there are always other options. My new plan should really be considered as my Plan A as it looks like I’m reverting to a variation of the original route I’d planned around this time last year. Watch this page for details. At this point, and after getting off the emotional roller coaster I’ve been on for the past few weeks, the idea of breaking a Guinness World Record has become a sideshow in relation to the idea of using the time I have to really discover what’s happened to the world and in these posts to try to convey a sense of the places I’m traveling through. Thank you for taking the time to be my companion on this journey.
So where do I go from here?
I’ve got itchy feet! -Really itchy feet! I’ve been in Astana now for more than a week, trying to find a way out of Kazakhstan. All of the possible options for pursuing the Chinese route proved to be too expensive, dangerous or time consuming. So after exhaustive research, much of it over the late night pivas, I’ve decided to abandon China completely. Of course I’m really disappointed about this but it feels like the right thing to do. So, tonight I’m taking the night train down to Almaty in the south of Kazakhstan and will stay with my Freebird host, Lyudmila for the weekend.
On Tuesday, I’ll fly from Almaty directly south to Mumbai, formerly Bombay, on the west coast of India. From there I’ll be back in the saddle again and will take a direct route all the way across India to Calcutta on the West coast. My route from there is undecided as I have to wait and see how the situation in Myanmar evolves over the next few weeks but I’ll almost certainly be flying over the danger zone on the Bengal/Burmese border. This is permitted under the Guinness rules. I’ll somehow find my way to Yangon, formerly Rangoon and proceed all the way from there to Thailand. I hope to spend November cycling through Thailand into Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, completing this leg of the tour in beautiful Bali.
This route provides me with about 6,500k of cycling, almost exactly what I would have done if I’d been able to cross China to Shanghai. Also by opting for the South East Asian route, I’m not skipping any lines of longitude, Almaty being directly south of Mumbai and Bali, Shanghai and also Perth in Australia being on the same parallel. My intention is to fly from Bali to Perth in late November, giving me all of December to cross Australia in time for Christmas in Melbourne. It’s all a long way off and in reality, who knows where this route is going to take me.
Winter has already arrived in Central Asia. Astana is the second coldest capital in the world and by taking the airlift to India, I’ll be experiencing the tail end of the monsoon there but avoiding the freezing conditions in central China. I’m also thrilled that by taking this route, I’m going to cross paths with my eldest son, Diarmuid who makes his living on the high seas. We hope to spend some time together somewhere in Thailand-Now that should be an interesting father / son bonding opportunity!
I’ve had a wonderful time in Astana. It’s easily the most spectacular city I’ve ever visited and while, at least in my opinion, it’s really a ‘fake’ capital city, the friends I met here will never be forgotten. I’ve become an ice hockey fan having been to two Barys, (pronounced ‘Borris’, -the local Astana team) and surprisingly enjoyed them. I was introduced to Barys by my good Indian friend Sundip, who’s a biology teacher in a prestigious school here. By a strange coincidence I’m cycling through his home town next week and will be hosted by his family.
I’m really sad to be leaving the wonderful Nochleg Hostel today. Spending a whole week in a hostel with the adventurous travelers of the world coming and going was fascinating. There’s an amazing spirit of community here.
A large family, complete with grumpy old baboushka own and live in the hostel, adding to the dynamic. Two beautiful Kazak girls, Karina and Dana work as ‘administrators ‘ and have been so obliging to me. Mike, the Mank a rounder version of ‘an Idiot Abroad ‘ had his wallet and passport stolen and while I wasn’t struggling with visas and still kept me entertained with his wry and self deprecating humour. Louis and Rodrigo my two young intelligent and articulate Spanish friends spent a lot of time talking about worldly issues while exploring Astana. Laura, the stereotypical sophisticated French lady, who found the only boulangerie in Astana and brought me to the Toulouse Lautrec touring exhibition, A truly international team of upbeat youngsters returning from the finish of the Mongol Car Rally, who made me wish I was 21 again, Gordon, the 83 year old adventurer, still managing to squeeze excitement from his extensive travels. Ted (aka Mr. Fuji,Kelly, Tim….) the enigmatic Japanese/ Korean??? who spent all night tapping away on the hostel computer and disappeared one morning in very suspicious circumstances…….Such diverse lives! Such a melting pot of life experience.
Farewell Astana! Hello Indiahhhhhhh!