Finally getting into China at long last

Simon and Isa in China at last (by Yodod)
We have spent the last 3 months worrying about how to get into China. It felt as though we were cursed. In April with our HK ID card, we could have got a one year multiple entry visa, then the Tibet protests stopped that. Until recently it was possible to get a visa in Almaty, but the Chinese embassy there has now become like Fort Knox – no-one can get in, let alone apply for a visa. We have spent so many sleepless nights worrying about how to get into China, we've heard reports of people being refused entry on bicycles, about cyclists being thrown out of hotels once they do get in, of other cyclists being told that the border was closed to foreigners.......it has been hell. Last night I woke up several times and as we cycled the last 20km to the border my heart was racing with apprehension, I was nearly sick.

This has now all changed – we are now in China – and it's ovely.YEAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Once through customs we couldn't stop grinning – our cycle ride to Nepal is still on. We got across the border with absolutely no trouble and the officials were super friendly. They didn't mind that we had had to fly all the way to Hong Kong to get our visa, I think they were just surprised to see any foreigners entering China from Kazakhstan seeing as how they've made it so hard this year. The English speaking border guards were desperate to help, we were moved to the front of queues, and customs was straightforward. Once in Korgas it was easy to get a room in a hotel and compared to Kazkahstan the quality and price is astonishing.

I was reading in a newspaper in Almaty, that this year China has had less tourists than for many years, despite the Olympics. The Tibet protests caused such panic about press exposure that all the visa restrictions were imposed. It's a shame that the government of China isn't more confident. It seems to be doing a good job leading a country that only a few years ago was considered part of the developing world. My electronic key card hotel room, with ensuite bathroom and aircon seems to tell a different story.


Kazakhstan - Contents

Culture Kazakhstan - 11
Graveyard Domes
Roadside Companions
President Nazarbaev
Travelling by Train

Roadside Views in Northern Kazakhstan
The amazing Charyn Canyon
Our Hidden Campsite
Why we love Central Asia Kazakhstan - 28

Registration and Visas
Registering your visa
Trying to get a Chinese Visa in Almaty
Getting a Visa and onward travel

Border Crossing
Russia to Kazakhstan

Frank Van Rijn - a Dutch cycling legend
Vincent our Taiwanese friend 

Getting a Visa and onward travel

Kazakhstan Landscapes

IMG_4363 (by Yodod)
IMG_4367 (by Yodod)
IMG_4377 (by Yodod)


We get ourselves a cycling translator - Vincent

We get ourselves a cycling Translator - Vincent 25th September 2008 On the final day in Kazakhstan we set off early, hoping to get somewhere near the Chinese border. About 2km down the road we saw another cyclist infront of us. We chased him down and met Vincent – a Taiwanese man cycling from California to Beijing. He started in May and always does at least 100km every day and has now done about 12,000km in total. We camped together just before the border and he has now become our lucky charm....we think that without him and his perfect Mandarin we would have struggled to get across the border into China. Vincent left his job as an engineer because it was driving him mad and told his wife that he wanted to cycle across the world. After not speaking to him for a few days she finally realised that maybe she should support his idea and she 's now an avid reader of his regular posts on his blog. (unfortunately in Mandarin) His Taiwanese Passport (Republic of China) is an unusual document as it isn't recognised by China. He has to use a special passport here because China still sees Taiwan as being Chinese. Even the Kazakhs refused to give him a Kazakhstan visa in his Taiwanese passport because they don't want China to think they recognise Taiwan, so they gave it him on a separate piece of paper which caused him loads of problems at the Kazakh border. Vincent speaks good English and takes photos of everything. He refers to himself as 'That crazy Taiwanese guy' and is going to cycle with us until we head South for Pakistan. He feels as though he is now home because for the first time since he left Taiwan he can now understand everything that everyone says and he loves the food (as do we!)



Charyn Canyon - One of the best sights in Kazakhstan

About 200km from Almaty is an amazing natural wonder called Charyn Canyon.
Here's how it's described by the Kazakhs:

It's spectacular and well worth the visit. So many people seem to just drive there from Almaty, look over the side for an hour and then head back. They are making a great mistake. The canyon has loads of great viewpoints at the top and it is possible to scramble around exploring for hours. We eventually found the dirt road down into the canyon and were rewarded with spectacular views as we cycled down through the side canyon called the 'Valley of the Castles'. The initial descent into the canyon was very steep but when we finally reached the river we had the whole place to ourselves. Why there aren't more people there is hard to understand, this was definitely the highlight of our time in Kazakhstan. For Frank – our cycling companion - it was heaven because he could finally get warm. Guide books say that it is too hot here in summer but with all the glacial melt water flowing down from the mountains, this is hard to imagine. We would have liked to have spent a day exploring but we needed to push on to China to cross the high mountains before winter sets in. We left Frank basking in the sun.



Graveyard Domes in Kazakhstan

As we cycled through Kazakhstan we often saw some amazing graveyards. This one was the best:

Frank Van Rijn - A cycling legend

On the road out of Almaty we met Frank van Rijn – a Dutch cycling legend. He hasn't quite reached the half million km mark yet but he's getting close. He's now in his 60s and still going strong although we think some of his clothing needs updating as he spent most of our 3 days with him complaining about the terrible cold.

Frank van Rijn (by Yodod)Frank van Rijn (by Yodod)

His website: frankvanrijn.nl details his many trips, which basically cover the whole world. He is sponsored by Gazelle (a dutch cycle maker who pay for all his flights and provide his bike), Vaude (panniers and clothes), Schwalbe (tyres) and cycles for between 6 and 9 months a year before returning to Holland to write books and present slideshows. The only thing he has that isn't sponsored, is his brown leather shoes which he insists on wearing whenever cycling.

It was great to spend time with him debating how normal he is, the likelihood of aliens, the merits of clip on cycling shoes, dogs or cats? and Buddha not needing water for 60 days, although some of his views are slightly affected by the large amount of time he spends on his bike. He hates dogs because they always chase him (he carries an ultrasonic device called a Dog Dazer) and because they bark at night when he camps near villages and they once ripped his tent apart. (We think he left food inside!)

We went with him from Almaty to Charyn gorge and it was sad to have to leave him to head for China. We hope the cold in the mountains of Kazakhstan doesn't make his life too miserable.



How to get a Chinese Visa in Almaty?

We finally arrived in Almaty on the 2nd September only to discover that the Chinese embassy in Kazakhstan is the hardest place to enter on earth. They should keep nuclear weapons there. People spend days queuing only to be told that they are now at the back of the queue, or that they are at the wrong door, or that they forgot to pick up a ticket and have no place in the queue. Some Australians who spoke perfect Mandarin were just told to go away. We tried a travel agent that had been recommended but he said that it was now impossible for him to get visas. We eventually found another travel agent who said that US$500 should be able to get one, but when he rang up his contact they said that this 'superb' deal had stopped in mid August. We investigated sending our passports by DHL to friends in HK who would try and get the visa for us, but all the travel agents said that they needed to see our HK entry stamps in our passport or pass our ID card information to the Chinese embassy. Even this inspired idea was doomed to failure and we also risked waiting 10 days and failing anyway. We also didn't want to do anything that would get us into trouble in China.

By now it was the 6th September and we were left with a horrible dilemna; either carry on back to Europe or fly over China to either Pakistan or India, neither option being ideal. We cursed the Olympics, we cursed the Tibetan protesters, we cursed the Chinese government, we even tried blaming each other but when we enquired about air tickets to India another outrageous idea popped into our heads...........

The following morning we were on an Air Astana flight to Bangok, followed by an Air Asia flight to Macau and a Hydrofoil to Hong Kong. Two days later we had a proper Chinese visa and then 3 days after that another Kazakh visa so that we could re-enter Kazakhstan. After a surreal 10 days in HK visiting friends and scaring them to death by just turning up at their houses with no warning, we landed back in Almaty on the 18th September and on the 20th we were back on our bikes. This has to be one of the most expensive 'visa-runs' ever!!!!!!!



President Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan

Here's some nice pictures of the President of Kazakhstan. He used to be the leader of the Communist party when the USSR was around and really didn't want to split from the Russians until Gorbachov forced his hand. He's now led Kazakhstan ever since 'independence' and thanks to the enormous amount of gas and oil here has managed to create an extremely rich elite and a growing upper middle class (as well as somehow making himself very comfortable).

IMG_4314 (by Yodod)

His picture is everywhere, with children, with gas pipelines, with outrageous city developments. This is all despite the fact that up to 20% of the population live below the poverty line and are really subsistence farmers. His daughter is being groomed to be the new president in a dynastic line reminiscent of Bush or the Kennedy's and has combined her own political party with that of her father.

IMG_4315 (by Yodod)

Elections here are corrupt and denounced by international election observers, and Nazarbaev's political opponents are found shot, or end up locked up in prison during election years and with Nazarbaev controlling the media they don't have much chance to start with. For the moment Kazakh's are quite pragmatic about him, while the country is developing they seem prepared to put up with him. He does have some good ideas, but why doesn't he just give back all the money he's 'stolen' and step down from government? Does he think he's the only Kazakh who could run the country? Maybe he is?


Russia - The Altai - Photo Gallery


Mongolia - On the Road - Photo Gallery


Mongolia - Landscapes - Photo Gallery



Route through Pakistan - The Karakorum Highway

Here is our route from Kashgar in Xinjiang province (China) all the way to Lahore. We cycled South into Pakistan until Gilgit and then took a dirt road West over the Shandur pass to Chitral in the far North-West of Pakistan. From there we headed South and East to Islamabad and then on towards Lahore using the Grand Trunk Road through Gujranwala: You can zoom in and move around this map which is one of the great maps available from John the Map, who sells some beautiful maps ideal for the whole Karakorum Highway:

Click to Zoom; SHIFT click to Zoom Out; Click and hold to move
You will need Silverlight on your computer to view the above map. routemappakistan routemapchina


How to register your visa in Kazakhstan (With map for registration in Semey)

When you enter Kazakhstan you are meant to register your visa within 5 days....this isn't the easiest thing to do, although it depends where and how you enter the country. You are looking to get 2 stamps on the Migration card that you have to complete before going through immigration control. Do not lose this card!
  1. Aeroplane - it should be done at immigration. Unless it's a small airport it will probably be automatic.
  2. Train - can get it done but difficult and involves nagging and begging
  3. Road - no one knows how to do it or seems to want to try. We kept asking but 'Nyet, Nyet, Nyet!'

If it doesn't get registered on entry then your best option is to go to a hotel who will register it for you for a fee. This can range between $10 and $20. If your hotel (like ours) won't do it then you will have to find the OVIR office or Immigration office yourself. We started with the police station and eventually got to the right place. In Semey all the instructions for the registration form were in Russian and no-one was prepared to help us in the office. We were just a problem rather than people who needed help. Eventually a really nice security guard came and started filling it in for us in Cyrillic with our passports etc. and we then wrote an explanation sheet which we gave to the registration people to stick on the wall. They looked mildly pleased so it might still be there and of some use.


Christ Almaty

Almaty is a posh place...a really nice city with lots of trees and wide streets with some cool buildings and lots of parks. The whole city slopes downhill from about 900m to 600m above sea level so cycling is really easy one way. Life is quite expensive here - there's so much money from oil that you can still see Hummers and ridiculous gaz guzzling 4 wheel drive monsters everywhere. Kids go to the private schools with bodyguards and anyone with money seems scared they're going to be robbed, with fences surrounding their properties and security guards. You get the feeling that the wealth needs to be distributed a little more fairly before they can all get on with living more relaxed lives.

This is a fantastic church in the centre of Paniflov Park:
Church in centre of Almaty's Panfilov park (by Yodod)
The British Kazakhstan UniversityBritish Kazakhstan University in Almaty (by Yodod)
Another cool church:
Cool domed roof in Panfilov Park (by Yodod)



Russian Registration documents in the Altai region

The only document we got was one that had our names on one side in cyrillic - copied off our visas and on the other side we got a stamp and a date from the hotel. We kept the photocopy. This was the only document we had and there was no trouble on exit. We got it 2 days after entry into Russia via Tashanta.


Maps for Altai Region of Russia

For those of you who can't get hold of the Russian maps before you arrive, here's all the pages needed to cross the Altai. Please buy the map book when you're there. My scans don't have all the pages but will get you through.



Our train journey across Kazakhstan

From Semey in Northern Kazakhstan we decided to get down to Almaty in a hurry because we're really struggling with our Chinese visa and want to give ourselves time to sort it out, whether to fly somewhere to get a Chinese visa, go West back to Europe instead, or fly to India and miss out the Karakorum Highway.

The Chinese visa situation is an absolute nightmare for so many people, there are people stranded all over Central Asia trying to get to India and the visa situation doesn't go back to normal until October 17th...too late for us to cross the Karakorum.


We managed to pay a bribe to get our bikes on the train, only $15 each bike which we felt was reasonable.
 We then had a 20 hour train journey which we shared with some very friendly Uzbek and Kyrgyz people heading home after working in Vladivostok in Russia. All flushed with dollars and looking forward to seeing their families. Some of them had been travelling for 7 days and had 3 more to go. That's one hell of a commute.
We arrived in Almaty at 5am and then cycled the 12km from the train station through an empty city to the house of the registrar of the new HaileyBury International School in Almaty who we'd been put in touch with by Jerry - Rosie's dad from Lamma who edited the Kazakhstan guide book for Odyssey. The registrar - Jack Helmsley worked on some of the translations and maps for the guide and has been a superb host for the last 3 days.


Kazakh roadside views

As we entered Kazakhstan we could see lots of relics of the soviet past:

Kazakhstan itself seems fairly prosperous and people are all flocking across the border from Russia to come shopping here. All the old communes seem to be falling apart but people seem much happier and friendlier than on the Russian side of the border.


Hidden Campsite

It was too far from the border to Semey - the first big town in Kazakhstan so we camped by the road in some trees.

Cycling from Russia to Kazakhstan - Border crossing route information - Rubstovsk to Semey - Cycling guide

km 0 8 28 34 40 Russia to Kazakhstan Border – Beseloyarsk to Semey Main square – Rubshovsk (Руьшовск) Edge of town – best to follow the road near the train station (one road further West than the main road from the Hotel and the square with Lenin) Веселоярск - village begins – shop on right (this is the name of the border) Village finishes and road heads out into the country Border starts near the forest – pick up the Time/Transit ticket from the first kiosk behind the barrier – show them your passport. When they let a few of you through go to the immigration block 100m further on (nearest door) Show them your registration and card in your passport. Very simple if the documents are right Kazakh customs – bit of a drag if a bus arrives – they all get put to the front of the queue and you wait forever. Kazakhstan!!! Restaurant and petrol station Lake with water – plenty of places to camp Dmitrievka -shops and shashlik stall Forest close to road – camping spots if you have water Forest stops being close to road (deep sand prevents you heading off to it when it is further away) Rows of trees – places to camp if you have water Truckstop cafe – possible rooms- - at junction Beginning of Semey (signs etc) Follow road for 3km, after 3rd train tracks turn right and you will reach the station. The mainish road is Shakarima and this heads into town (turn left when you can see the train station). From here it is a further 2km to the central area Hotel Semey – several other choices but most more expensive 40.5 41 59 70 94 104 106 115 128 156 162 This is an easy cycle but a bit far for one day so camping is kind of inevitable


Cycling in Russia - Road Guide and Route Information for Trans Altai - Part 1of 2 - Kosh Agach to Biysk

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km 0 Russia - TransAltai - 1of2 – Kosh Agach to Biysk Kosh Agach (Кош Агач) Bread (Transit) Hotel (1745m) from here the road leaves town and climbs about 100m above the river, cuts a corner and then descends back to the river. The first 300km is roughly all down hill so this is easy riding...ALL TAR. The big river has a lot of sediment so side streams are mentioned below. The main river can also be filtered OK. Small village - shops Bridge as road finally reaches the river again – great places to camp or swim – could be popular at weekends Road leaves river – no chance to camp Bridge with clear water stream, just before the bridge a track leaves to the right – good campsites here with great views of mountains – hidden from road (1580m) Kurai (Курай)– part of it joins the road, the rest is further away. Shops 11% climb – not too long Road drops and there are good campsites Good campsites where road rejoins the river down a long straight fast descent. From here the road joins a canyon and follows it for several km Road leaves canyon and turns North away from the river until after Aktash (Aкташ) Aktash (Aкташ) shops and cafes up first tar road to right – nice centre, hotel. After Aktash the road drops a lot and eventually rejoins the main river valley (1280m) Small stream with clear water Chibit (Чибит) small village not much there. Road rejoins main river Good campsites (1175m) Stream with clear water from right Good campsites for next 15km Small village with cafe and shop and water fountain Iodro (Иодро) – shop with basic supplies Truck stop cafe and outside A frame rooms to stay in – no real village Dirt road off to left drops down to bridge over main river. Camping spot by bridge and on opposite side. Very little traffic. (805m) Inya (Иня) – Road crosses big bridge over main river – largish village/town Bridge over nice stream – clear water and from here the road hugs the left side of a rocky valley Great campsite on right – track off where you can see the huge grassy bend below you near the bus stop Official campsites L & R of main road as new valley joins the main river Track off to right takes you down to the river below the road for camping Good camping spot – difficult to get bikes down but impossible for cars!! Trees and grass Right turn to Kordon (Кoрдoн) (770m) this is the lowest point for a while now and the road leaves the main river and climbs up a side valley. There are loads of places to camp along this valley. Kulchigeni (Кулчегенъ) – (935m) shop opposite bus stop Road leaves river and starts to climb more seriously towards a pass that you can just see high above you through the mountains to the right Top of the pass (1330m) – stalls selling drinks and shashlik – from here there is a very fast descent for the next 10km Rejoins new river (830m) and road goes off to right and a few houses in the bottom of the valley. Track down to secluded camping spot right next to the river. Invisible and superb (1km down) Village off to left followed by a cafe/shop/truckstop in 300m 12 23 50 63 65 66 69 73 91 104 105 109 118 128 133 136 156 163 172 185 189 197 200 201 203 208 213 219 227 231.5 241 243 250 255 256 257 282 311 342 366 381 387 389 393 399 440 476 478 508 545 547 Turn off the main road to Onguday (Oнгудай) – town with hotel, supermarkets, bank etc. Centre of town Back on main road Turn off to Uchta-Can (Усть Кан) – two cafes at the junction – from here the road climbs slowly Top of climb (1715m) - Souvenir stalls and cafe – commercial campsite on left of pass and then very fast descent with great gradient for about 80km Shevalino (Шебалино) – shops off to left on parallel road Campsite on left – small restaurant. Up to this point there have been many small villages with shops along the road every 5-10km Good campsite to right by river Good campsite to right by river (440m) Good campsite to right by river (400m) Village with hotel Bridge over big river – many places to stay along this stretch Cafe on right Road crosses big river again – camping spots in forest on bank and track to get down Small village and river is visible again – along this last stretch there have been a few places to camp whenever the river and road are close. The rest of the time the road is too far away from the river and there are resorts along it. Souvenir stalls – birthplace of soviet writer/actor Shushkin – big hill. A road goes to the top where there is a great view and a cool statue. Nice food at the back of the souvenir stalls. Biysk starts – just before the big bridge is the left turn that cuts across to Rubsovtsk (Рубцовск) Bridge over big river – we headed over the bridge and then found the opposite bank through a park (to the left 500m after you cross the bridge) and then headed along the banks down a trail until we found somewhere to camp 5 minutes from the centre of Biysk (Бийск)


Cycling in Russia - Road Guide and Route Information for Trans Altai - Part 2of 2 - Biysk to Rubsovsk

Read this document on Scribd: TransAltai - 2of2 - Biysk to Rubsovtsk

km 0 2 19 24 33 38 49 51 69 74 75 87 90 102 113 115 116 127 129 130.5 142 144 148 153 159 170 176 177 190 192 199 200 207 215 220 226 227 228 229 231 235 236 238 Russia - TransAltai - 2of2 – Biysk to Rubsovtsk Hotel Centrale – Biysk (Бийск) Go over bridge and turn right down signposted road Bridge over main river Roundabout – go right Town: Смоменское. Turn right towards Ануйское. Follow this road which bypasses the main village Bridge over river (campsites around) Town: Ануйское Bridge but no moving water in late August Beginning of town: Хлеборобное – off to right Big red bridge over river Верх-Ануйское – shop on right Left turn just after village of Новолокровка, road cuts back on itself and winds back past the village. Small shop Village of: Лаутово – long and spread out Town: Николокровка – shop in centre Road climbs to plateau At this point there is a great left turn track down to the river under the telegraph poles. Very secluded (about 1km to river) Road splits – keep on main track (bare right) other one signposted to Aлексеевка Road bends right – straight on is Петропавловское and the town centre – shops, cafe etc. The bypass stays right but the road through town is fine...go to end, turn right and follow most obvious road to the right of Lenin and back onto the main bypass road. Rejoins bypass road – two shops by the hospital Antonievka – shop near the road Road becomes gravel as you leave the village Top of hill Михайловка starts on right – best road is the dirt road next to the main road. To find shops leave the road Tractor track and village finish Top of pass and left turn to Слюдянка. Go straight on Огни Shop on main road – good selection of stuff Village of Новокалманка starts (so does the tar) Turn left at junction (Tar) Top of pass (1km long flat and then small rise) Turn right signposted Краcнощеково Descent to small village of Ермачиха After long descent arrive at beginning of Верх Камышенка – road bends left and then there is a 2km gap before the main village Climb to right and road bends NW as it leaves the village Top of climb (500m) At crest of hill there is a row of poplars on the right and a track to the left of them. We turned off to camp We camped between the rows of poplars – ground quite good after brief clearing session Back on main road Bridge at bottom of valley – no running water in river Березовка starts – bits of tar Straight on signposted Kyрья (road bends left) follow sign. Road continues through village – friendly people and shops on left As you climb out of the village good tar starts 250 256 Top of climb Харлово – cafe on right serving hot food in a canteen. Shops. The road leaves the village and follows the right side of the river. Just as it looks like the road is climbing away from the river..... Left turn signposted Краcнощеково, the road crosses a bridge and eventually reaches the town. Town starts, shops etc Road goes through town and then follows a great row of trees – good for camping if you have water. Highest point after several climbs and false summits Kyрья starts – follow road Bridge Hotel (large cream new looking building) opposite corner on crossroad to friendly shop Bare right to Ивановка, there is a sign but it faces the other way for traffic entering from the border (if you head south from here you will be going to the other border post – also open for tourists) Top of hill (360m) road bends left and descends. There is about half tar, half dirt on this road Ивановка starts Bridge – road bends South and Tar stops. Road is OK – often the side tracks are better Таловка starts Tar road – messy in parts, but a lot better than the dirt Meets dirt road – turn right. It then climbs slowly. This could be tar soon as they are building a new road from Руьшовск (Rubshovsk) Варшава + bridge over river Building road – some bits OK Perfect tar road starts Руьшовск sign says that town has started Still no town but a bridge – turn right and follow the road and then it bends left. The first big road that you cross with a central reservation – is the main road. Turn right. Big square with Lenin statue. Hotel is on the square – large building. They wouldn't let us stay there (“Your registration is incorrect” - which it wasn't – no hassle at border) Maybe they will sack the old witch that sent us away. There are loads of small ads in the local papers with flats to rent by the night for about 400R – find someone nice to help. OR camp just before town OR 13km past town towards the border there is a truckstop / hotel – find the road near the railway station and follow it south. It is parallel with the other main road only further West 261 268 295 301 304 305 306 318 323 324 341 343 349 355 360 373 393 397 399 You will need the Altaiski Krai (АЛТАЙCKИЙ КРАЙ) area mapbook – available in Biysk)