July 17th: Over the border, Horgas, Western China, to Khorgas, Kazakhstan
Our Urumqi cycling companion Guang Wei, or John Wayne as I call him, joins us for a last Chinese breakfast of soy milk and doughnut sticks. Over at the border post, a mob of money changers descend, brandishing fat wads of currencies like monopoly money. But we've researched the exchange rate, and after the ritualistic swapping of calculators, our 'yuan' are all but gone and our pockets filled with Kazak 'tenge'.
The clock strikes 10 (Beijing time), cue for a surge forward by our fellow border-crossers. Beefy Kazak women, dyed hair permed into submission, qualmlessly barge their way ahead, lugging great crates of steam cookers and cutlery. 'Why do large women love leggings so much?' voices tiny Rosal, lost in a stampede of elbows and encouraging shouts.
Gridlocked, the hours roll by, punctuated by forms to fill and bags to check. Emerging once more into open air, it's time to bid farewell to China...but not by bike! Refused permission to leave by peddle power, lest we lose ourselves between here and Kazakhstan, we pile into a van along with a homeward bound Majorcan and two wiry Czecks. Our journey takes us a whole kilometre across no man's land, and past a concrete slab announcing our arrival in Kazakhstan.
My first impression of this post Soviet state is formed in a decaying marble building, plastered in crylic script, where Dolph Lundren minions and officers in military caps, wide as generous pancakes, watch us tussle with the bikes. Faces portray a blend of pale eyes, European blond hair and longer Asiatic Kazak features. Another stamp in the passport, a ream of Russian forms, a pidgin chat with the friendly officers at immigration, and we've waved to the door. Kazakhstan at last!
Outside, nomadic men on horseback are thin on the ground. Rather, a soundtrack of Julio Inglesias and a few Kazaks sipping vodka in a tree house form the welcoming committee as a convoy of transport trucks trundle past. Then it's just us, the Ladas, the Audis, and the open road. Peaceful and empty, apple trees line the way. Submersed in a water channel, a young boy in his swimming trunks is cooling off, a gas mask strapped to his face. Well, they say the former Soviet states are renowned for the surreal...
It's not long before we reach the suburbs of Zharkent, the first Kazak town on this road to Almaty. Cheerful Uyghur people breath life into a collection of gloomy, crumbling buildings and a mouldy amusement park. A bustling shop brims with watermelon and apricots, chunks of meat, fresh ice cream and loaves of bread stacked like brickwork. Next door, a towering mosque is embellished with intricate carvings and topped with Chinese pagoda add-ons. Ducking into a bunker-style restaurant, we devour a bowl of 'lagman' noodles, dunked with fat fingers of brown bread and downed with tea. All around, larger-than-life families noisily tuck into bowls of potato and meat. 'Remember, there's a reason why these people are so big,' hints Rosal, anxiously eyeing our own empty bowls and the solid Kazaks around us. But for every thick-ankled Uygur, there's a waif-like Russian, clad in a scanty dress, daintily strutting through the crowd. Young Russian girls amble the streets in their shockingly provocative clothes, incongruous in this supposedly conservative (vodka aside) Muslim state.
Pausing over our noodles, we're approached by an internet businessman, graduated from Siberia, who tracks us down a cheap hotel. And here I am. It's the end of the day, and a sunset fills the sky with a glow of warmth. The hotel's ok, but nothing great. Our hotelier (again dyed red hair, stocky build) is abrupt but friendly. Our water supply dried up a while ago and I wallow in the softness of my bed. The radio's playing Aqua...in Russian. Downstairs, the karaoke's abysmal, but its a new and unfamiliar language so I console myself with fascination instead. Time now to sleep.
Another hotel room, another country. A little closer to home...