Sunday, June 22, 2008

Kazakh border to Almaty

Getting over the Chinese-Kazakh only took two hours or so. The Chinese border guards were very concerned about the idea of me riding across no man’s land and said that the Kazakhs would definitely turn me back, that it was prohibited etc etc. So I had to wait around while they hassled unwilling bus drivers whose job it was to ferry people back and forth (all Kazakhs doing small time business). Eventually one driver reluctantly took me – about 500m for $3. At the other end the Kazakh guards were very relaxed and friendly and I can’t imagine they would have cared. They scanned one of my four bags as a token security gesture. All of a sudden I understood all of the curious questions they were asking, most likely the same ones everybody in Xinjiang was asking. It felt like a homecoming.

One granny was battling with at least 5 times her body weight (40kg or so) of boxes and crates with bananas etc. She must have completely depended on others to get it all onto and off the bus. I was helping her get it off and even then she wasn’t able to pull the little wheelie-thing up the ramp.

Outside customs all the locals got into their friends’ cars or minibuses, I rode off down the road, past a very modest little shop. No business activity on this side of the border. The cars disappeared and all of a sudden there was nothing much around. There was just a gentle breeze and cuckoos in the trees. Cuckoos seem to tolerate everything, even the worst possible conditions: roadworks, heavy traffic…

After a few sleepy, very Russian looking villages with main streets flanked by large poplar trees, Zharkent was the first bigger town. I stopped for some borsch, noodles and Alma-Ata draft beer ($7). Unlike in China, where lots of workers and normal people seem to drop into their local for a feed at any time of the day, going to a cafĂ© or restaurant here is a bit more of an event, with menus, background music, and meals cost about twice as much. There wasn’t much business so the waitress sat down and chatted.

Looking into a shop, half a litre of vodka goes for $3.50 and up, 0.5l beer for $1, and a loaf of bread for $0.50. The papers say KZ is banning the export of flour soon. Apart from these and local produce like milk, cheese, kefir, meat and fish, most stuff costs what you’d pay in the Western world or more.

I rolled a bit further down the road and slept in a birch forest, then headed south across a floodplain to Shonj. I crossed lots of fast flowing rivers and irrigation canals. There were also regular graves along the side of the road, all young people, often with the the words ‘died tragically’.

Shonj had a good collection of State placards all over town (with President Nazarbaev quotes on his plans for KZ), especially on a military academy. I had another feed and accidentally gatecrashed a 20 year high school reunion (mid afternoon). This was the third day that they had been celebrating - husbands, wives and kids. I was hauled onto the dance floor but got away with one shot of vodka and a touch of dirty dancing. Out of town a huge ash tree grove, several km long and maybe 1km wide, grew in the valley of the Sharin/Charyn River. After that the road tilted up a very broad plateau. The traffic became heavier and heavier- convoys of trucks, cars and even tractors. It seemed they’d all got through customs at the same time. There wasn’t much time to enjoy the plains. Neither was there anywhere to stop. At dusk I made my way 500m off the road and camped out. Beautiful spot.

The next day the road descended through a canyon and headed west for Almaty. The traffic worsened, with more hoon action. Preferred hoon cars are Audis and Mercedes. Although the road was 4 lanes wide and good in places, the road fringes were extremely variable. After several hairraising hours of ‘too fast, too little room, no indicating, honk/cut off/randomly pull over in front of the cyclist’ I got to Almaty – which was choked with traffic. My nerves were pretty shot. I’ve probably only ever felt this unsafe on Russian roads. Even China was much better.

I met some young Chechens (also sent into exile by Stalin in the 1930s) in Panfilov Park and rang Rustam, who I knew of through friends. Stas, a friend of Rustam’s, kindly put me up. The next day we headed up to Medeu and Chimbulak, the famous skating rink and ski resort just south of Almaty. The town itself is at 6-800m alt and the top of the Chimbulak chairlift at 3300m or so.

Almaty was a disappointment. It is absolutely crammed with traffic, most notably nouveau riche 4WDs: Land Cruisers, Range Rovers, Porsche Cayenne Turbos etc. It’s very dangerous for riding, with many bad, impatient, aggressive drivers. The air is shit, probably as bad as Moscow’s at times. It turns out that the predominant winds are southerlies, blocked by the mountains to the south, and northerlies are rare. That’s enough to wreck a city for me.

Here, it really struck me just how totally road traffic can dominate a city. Sure, there are some beautiful parks and even central city apartment blocks with pedestrian access, but when you go near the roads, there is nothing else. Cars are parked late ‘90s Moscow style- anywhere and everywhere.

Oil boom culture is everywhere. The forested southern slopes are being cleared for enormous palaces and upmarket apartment blocks. Top shelf prestige brands are advertised prominently. Plenty of supermarkets sell mostly Western European products. . The locals tell me that Kazakhs love showing off their wealth, if they have it. Though most of the population is Kazakh, with a small Russian minority, you only hear Russian on the streets.

Corruption is thriving in Kazakhstan. Everybody I got to know, city and country, described having to pay off bureaucrats in everyday life. It’s not just that you can buy a driver’s licence- even if you wanted to do it properly, you’d STILL have to pay someone off. It certainly shows on the roads. The GAI (road police) are sporadically active and generally it’s considered much easier to pay (cash of course, say $10-15) for a supposed infringement than argue. Everybody focuses on the ‘transaction’ so much that the infringement, if any, is irrelevant. (Funnily enough, when I put my seat belt on in a car, everybody tells me, ‘Don’t worry, they don’t fine you for that’. And I was thinking road safety.) I watched one hoon, having been pulled over for clearly speeding, arguing with the GAI that all his papers were in order, as if that made any difference. This culture fundamentally affects the way people think.

A big part of corruption is still ‘who you know’ or ‘blat’, a big part of Soviet life. When I said I might go to the border zone, where you need a permit, a friend said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll call the officer there, you’ll be fine.’

Students bribe doctors for medical certificates to get out of the army (say $3000 in Almaty, maybe less elsewhere). Many doctors (who might earn $300/month) do nothing without cash up front. The standard of medicine is poor – a few stories were enough for me – and there’s minimal trust. The inability to treat properly seems to result in attempts to instill fear of the inevitable: eg. ‘Your heart is in a pre-infarct state and you should avoid exercise, heavy lifting, stress, drinking and smoking.’ Not very useful advice, especially without appropriate follow up.

In both Kazakh- and Kyrgyzstan, many people are in a state of denial about this. They say, 'No, it's impossible that our doctors buy their degrees. How can you have doctors that pay for their degrees?' To which I say, 'My point exactly'.

To buy property you need to pay off a whole series of bureaucrats. My Azeri friends are now supposedly entitled to a variable amount of compensation from the Kazakh government for their forced resettlement in 1936 by the Soviets – up to $900-1000 – but the requirements are so complex that many don’t bother. If you do bother, you’re looking at a bribe of $100 or so, and the amount of compensation itself might depend on the size of the bribe. If a government official makes a mistake in the documentation, it’s always your problem, not theirs.

Hearing these stories makes me so angry. I find it very hard to just roll with it, as the locals have to. In terms of bribery, it sounds as if nothing has changed for the better over the past 15 years. Some people are outrageously wealthy now but I’m not sure about the ‘trickle down effect’.

In the papers there is a lot of talk about ‘the battle with corruption’ with show trials of various evil people but whatever is being done isn’t changing peoples’ lives. The culprits tend to be people like small time poachers in national parks. On TV the ministers have politically correct Western-style lingo down pat: 'We need more transparency and accountability...'

'Sobaka lait, veter unosit' - A dog barks, and the wind carries it away. I don’t see how a dictator notorious for nepotism could ever bring about real change.

On the contrary, the way Nazarbaev and other wealthy bureaucrats work is even admired by many - this is just how they expect the world to be. 'We were born like this'.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Reflections on China

As usual, communication was really difficult in China. On my last long trip across southern China in 2000 I pretty much gave up on spoken communication, as even the work for green tea ('tsa' / 'ocha' / '???') seemed to change every 50km.

This time I also found extremely few people who could understand ANY English - just a handful of students. Then there were a few border police who spoke a bit of Russian. On the long train trip one young businessman communicated with his digital dictionary: 'Chinese people hate Dalai Lama'. Hmmm. Of course I threw the word 'Tibet' around a bit, being naughty, but that was OK, because nobody understood it - not even most of the English speaking students! I guess if Tibet is China, it doesn't really exist.
I had an interesting exchange with a student who spoke very good English (up near the Tien Shan glacier). When I asked her about the violence in Tibet, she told me, 'Don't worry, they are not all like that.' I beg your pardon? She meant the TIBETANS!!! Those poor Han Chinese, being picked on all the time.
When Karsten told her about all the road blocks in Xinjiang and Tibet, and that local non-Chinese couldn't get through, she put on her Chinese Government Foreign Affairs press secretary hat and literally tried to make up reasons as to why this might be the case or (more likely) why we were mistaken.

Everybody was friendly and helpful, but somehow I got the impression that many wanted to be 'good ambassadors for China' and wanted to convey pride and admiration. Whenever I suggested some kind of criticism (eg. 'the air is bad here') people just got embarrassed, looked away, and shook their heads emphatically. I never had the feeling that there was a willingness to consider or tolerate various different points of view. I never experienced any kind of critical thinking. There seemed to be some kind of secular, universal truth which dominated life.

Despite the fact that virtually nobody can get into China right now (it seems) I was not approached/stopped by police once in China. I barely even saw police on the streets (in stark contrast to Central Asia).

The TV was running with two themes: earthquake and Olympics. There was almost nothing else on. It was strange to sight Edwin Maher from the ABC as occasional newsreader, with his wry smile but no spontaneous, off hand comments at all.

The earthquake coverage was crammed with facts and figures, and gave great weight to all the condolences from abroad, as well as the exact donations of each country, which were quite large. The Spanish contribution was '80 tents' - pretty modest, and funny they mentioned it - to shame them???
One dramatic scene on the English language channel showed a rescue team trying to get into some rubble, with the team leader reaching into a gap and yelling back (this in English subtitles):

'Pass me a cooking knife!' Very impressive improvisation.
Despite this the main point of the coverage was to thrash just how magnificently the government was dealing with the issue. There were press conferences at which Chinese journalists asked questions like, 'Will profits fall for such-and-such companies in Sichuan province?' The only critical question came from an English speaking Reuters journalist who asked about whether government building contractors who were found to have built substandard buildings which collapsed would be prosecuted. The brief silence after that one was deafening.
Premier Wen visited the victims and said at a school, 'Hardship makes a country stronger. I believe that after the earthquake you will study harder'. Cut to a boy saying, 'When I grow up I want to study and then return to help my town.' One little boy who was hurt particularly distinguished himself by saluting soldiers, despite his injuries.

As for the Olympic coverage, well, I could only think Berlin 1936, though my friend Karsten said, 'The Germans did it better.'
Apart from constant repeating news, the English language CCTV channel had mostly documentaries about China's glorious past.

Not only could I find no documentaries whatsoever about the outside world, non-Chinese are almost completely invisible and absent from all CCTV channels, from my short taste (not spending EVERY night in a hotel in front of crap telly!). These were my only two sightings:

-one of the 'scientists' in a 'Head and Shoulders' shampoo ad, in an underling research assistant role
-one of the 'engineers' or draftsmen in a great ad for a pseudo-German automotive marque called 'Roewe' (or a ripoff of 'Rover'?) full of Chinese couples going to glamorous functions. I can't remember but I bet he was consulting a Chinese colleague in suitably servile fashion on a design issue...

That was it.

In Xinjiang, though, there were some cute local Uyghur channels which had quite a lot of local Turkic content.

On my second last day I decided to give 'global warming' a whirl. The kids in the restaurant understood CO2 (in written form!) Then they seemed to get my diagrams of the world and its atmosphere, and all the power stations in China... but I left it at that.
I saw no evidence of recycling/reusing plastic bags anywhere. When I tried to reuse bags I got extremely confused looks - 'What the hell are you doing?' I don't think they had any idea at all. Devastating. Very occasionally I saw down-and-out characters collecting bottles. Not a very prestigious activity and one best undertaken after dark.

In the English language magazines global warming did rate a mention - exclusively due to its economic implications - but this is a society which seems to believe utterly in its ability to create a man made 'utopia'. Well - in Xian almost every apartment block did have solar hot water heaters on the roof....

Anybody who cares about global warming might as well start studying Mandarin right now and get over here (on bikes?) and start teaching English and proselytising. Xinjiang is pretty remote but even there I had moments of despair. Why bother riding a bike when anybody who can afford it is driving?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Leaving Urumqi - no. 2

I rested up with Karsten in Urumqi for a day before heading off across the plains towards Kazakhstan. Considering the rapidly rising pre Olympic anxiety levels amongst Chinese officials it seemed the only viable route. Tibet and much of Xinjiang were completely off limits. Travel for local Uyghurs and Tibetans was also very restricted, though not for Chinese, according to Karsten, who had come overland from Kashgar and tried to head into Tibet.

So we hung out in Urumqi, chewed the fat, and compared bike touring notes for a day. Urumqi comes across as a modern Chinese city, clean, pleasant and not very Central Asian at all. Bland.

At a bar we found some Pakistani boys and girls, and even two Sudanese girls, who were studying medicine in Urumqi - in English. Bizarre.

The next day after a big feed I got out of town fast on the freeway - plenty of room, minimal broken glass/crap, and despite all the 'no bikes' signs I had absolutely no problems from either trucks or police. I rode straight past toll stations. The country was soon pretty agicultural, and traffic minimal. I pushed on to Manas. It was dark when I arrived, but my dynamo lights work a treat, so that was fine. As I rolled down the freeway exit a huge hulk loomed up in the dark, completely unlit. It was a semi trailer fully laden with logs, obviously avoiding the toll station on the on ramp.

For the next few days I stayed in little hotels and rode about 130-150km/day. The country became more and more arid. Around Kuytun there was massive development, with at least 3 new (coal fired?) power stations being built, and several oil refineries. I didn't quite see a new power station being built every day I was there... but I was close at times.

On the outskirts there were about 5 massive petrol stations, amongst the biggest I've ever seen, which were rusting and dust covered. Perhaps because the Chinese have decided to scale back petroleum use?? I think not.

There were also occasional massive placards spread across this vast landscape depicting some kind of glorious future, mostly involving pictures of upmarket urban apartment blocks and freeways.

Beyond Kuytun I stayed in Usu, a prosperous Chinese mini city. Further up the road, settlements were few and far between. There were no roads visible apart from the freeway, at best dusty tracks. A new pipeline was being built - for oil? Or water? I headed into a huge headwind very gradually up a long pass to a beautiful lake, Sayram, at 2076m alt. At this point the freeway abruptly ended and all hell broke loose. The next 150km, right up to the Chinese border, were an almost uninterrupted building site. Around the lake, at least, there weren't any cities. But as I descended from the far shore of the lake the building activity was extraordinary. It seemed to me that a relatively unspoilt, extraordinarily beautiful valley was being shredded to build a 4 lane (or more?) freeway. The only vaguely funny thing about the whole spectacle were the herds of goats that periodically got in the way of activities.

The freeway that was finished (from Urumqi to Lake Sayran) was completely underutilised and must be aimed at projected massive growth in road traffic. Or maybe it's so that they can get the tanks into Kazakhstan more quickly.

The border town was a bustling mini-Shenzhen with huge shopping centres and stacks of building activity, hordes of Chinese and Uighur, and sparse gangs of Kazakhs meandering around. Funnily enough, I got here without being stopped by police once, not even friendly, inquisitive ones!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Leaving Urumqi - no. 1

In Urumqi I found a pretty decent map at an upmarket hotel, and simultaneously rediscovered the "NOBODY can read a map" principle. It was Sunday morning, so not much was open, including the only expat hangout I knew of (a bar). I found a 'Silk Road Travel Agency' which was open and when I showed them my planned route (southwest then northwest) they shook their heads 'no' emphatically, peering at my bike. Zero English. Who knows what that means - too hilly?

I was busting to leave town so I decided to operate on the principle that 'if they say you can't do it, it may well be the best way to go, with no traffic'.

Leaving Urumqi (900m alt) towards the southwest the road led gradually uphill across dry plains, lined with birch trees as wind breaks. Shashlik, noodles, bananas and green tea for lunch. Soon the first herds of goats started blocking the road - I love them, they are great for slowing trucks down.

Eventually rugged mountains came into view, with the lower slopes covered with Central Asian pines. I rode up this beautiful gorge only to find at the very top a power station, most likely black coal, at the very top (2000m or so). Immediately next to it were several factories (cement or otherwise) belching thick white or black smoke. I could not believe it.

By this time it was getting late so I had some food and on the outskirts of town some kids high on a hill next to a yurt waved me up. I thought about going on but then reconsidered. At first the plan was to camp outside but after dinner in the yurt (bread, meat, homemade wheat noodles, and green tea with a little spoonful of sour cream) they insisted that I stay in their yurt. My inevitable first consultation for lower back pain followed. The next day I headed on up the valley past another few extraordinary sights (more later) then away from hell further up the valley. The road kept climbing relentlessly and 20km seemed to take half a day. Eventually I caught up with a Chinese cyclist; apparently another foreigner was ahead. I kept going and soon found another Chinese cyclist together with a Western cyclist who proved to be Karsten, a German psychiatrist from Cologne. Karsten had come from Kashgar and told me that my planned route was straight through an army zone and not open to foreigners. He was planning to go to the top of the pass and then back down. That sounded like the best idea. So we kept plugging on, riding some sections and then pushing, up some treacherous switchbacks across a very steep rocky slope (just below a glacier) to a pass at 4280m altitude, overlooking 'Glacier No. 1' of the Tien Shan.

We got there at about 9.15pm (it was still light) and within 5 -10 minutes it began to snow, so we soon headed back down, dodging trucks crawling up, and camped at the base of the steepest slope. The next day we rolled back down through sporadic storms which came and went at real alpine speed, 120km back down to Urumqi.