After indulging in a slight geographical tangent over the last two weeks back in the UK, tomorrow afternoon I’m off back to Beijing for what might be the last time for quite a while. After 48 hours or so to turn around and bust out an emotional zai jian to China, I’ll be heading back west to continue my passage west to the lamb skewer capital of China, Urumqi. From then on, it’s a veritable Stan-fest.
It’ll be fantastic to get back on the road, and get my teeth into the Central Asian extravaganza I’ve had on the calendar for so long – get munching those kebabs, spouting dreadful Russian and making friends in unlikely places. However, attempts to get all preparations sorted in good time have been well and truly shot down:
* Still no word from the Iranian embassy. That’s two months with no reply. Will have to put my thinking cap and dream up a way of getting from Ashgabat to Azerbaijan, but it seems I’ll be able to re-route across the Caspian Sea from Turkmenbashi to Baku. Shame really – but then Iran’s a trip in itself… something for next year maybe.
* Radio silence from the folk coordinating my Turkmenistan trip also. Slightly worrying.. This is still a good month away – but would be nice to know that I have got a visa and my passage from Uzbekistan is secure
* Locking down some kind of decent-priced accommodation in Almaty is proving veeeery tricky. The Kazakhstan vs England world cup qualifier seems to have attracted something of a glut of budget-conscious tourists to the city, making my hostel options all but non-existent. USD200+ for a bare room in a grey soviet block? I might take a pass.
So, all these things to worry about on the long train journeys out to Xinjiang province in China. If it was too easy it wouldn’t worth it now, would it?
It’s been a busy couple of days. As I enter my last full week in Beijing it has occurred to me that I have approximately six years’ worth of detritus that needs to be packed/shipped/stored/chucked/flogged. That’s quite a pile of stuff. After the various purges of the wardrobe, there are hundreds of books, photos, knick-knacks, kitchen bits & pieces – all of which need attention.
To add a dash of pressure, I’ve decided to bring my start date forward… to tomorrow. Cue packing frenzy and stressful afternoon.
Not at all helped, of course, by news from my Iranian travel agent that it’s highly likely that I will be rejected for my Iranian visa. I must admit, i was starting to wonder how long it might take, given that I applied around 3 weeks ago.
Well, after a flying start in the way of preparations, things seem to have hit a sticky patch. I am now subject to the various whims of Central Asian and Middle Eastern consulate bureaucracy, which I had tried my hardest to avoid.
I did my homework, dammit, I worked out where all the embassies were located, when they were open, how much things cost, how long they’d take to do. I came armed with officious-looking headed letters with red chops and everything, several hundred passport photos in various poses (smiling, non-smiling, blue back ground, white background, straight-on, off-to-one-side eyebrow-slightly raised etc.) and wads of red 100 RMB notes.
I smiled. I oozed charm. I befriended the dudes on crowd control. I even made friends with others in the (interminable) queues.
But now, it appears, the Uzbeks have run off with my passport and the Iranians are still in two minds whether to let me in altogether. Could it be that they are not fans of the rhubarb, my friends??
The Sanlitun embassy district in Beijing is really quite an attractive place. Generally I only wander around these streets on the way to another night of ridiculousness on Sanlitun bar street, long after the sun has gone down, and only bump into the odd crocodile of soldiers guarding the embassies, or the lone Uighur selling slices of that strange nutty cake-like thing on the back of an ancient three-wheeler. It tastes fairly average but it’s always fun to have a natter with the guy and give my pitiful Uighur language skills an airing.
Anyhow, the embassies of many countries are located in this leafy world of diplomatic-ness, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, both on The Rhoute. Most keep fairly strict (and somewhat erratic) hours of business – but it is quite amusing how you can tell immediately whether a place is open for processing or not.
The first time I went to check on the Kyrgyz situation, I was pretty sure I’d got the address wrong – nobody was around, aside from the grumpy old woman upstairs. The next day, however, it’s a real bunfight with thousands of chaps vying position outside the frosted glass door. Madness.
I still have a couple of weeks before I kick off proceedings with a train ride out West to Sha’anxi province. Despite it being on most tourists’ shopping lists for their fortnight sprint around China, I’ve still not made it to the ancient capital Xi’an in the six years I’ve been in China.
I know, it’s mildly shameful. Whilst I have managed to see some of the more amazing corners of China during that time, Xi’an and its funny clay figures have never managed to push their way to the top of my China Travel Wishlist.
Anyhow, since it is generally regarded as the start of the great trade routes to the West, I suppose to ought to swing by meet a few of the Silk Road types, even though we won’t officially be picking up our fleshy-stalked friends until we get to the Hexi Corridor in Gansu.
So, this is the current thinking as to how June, July and August might pan out. You can click on the map, move it around, zoom in/out – just go nuts.
View The Rhoute in a larger map
[By means of some veritable technical coup, I’ve ALSO managed to stick this map in the sidebar of the home page, just to the right, so you can keep tabs on my progress. There’s also an individual PAGE with this map on. You can get to that at the top of this page. It’s everywhere. Really.]
I have no doubts whatsoever that the actual route taken will be very, very different indeed. Currently, I’m not even sure which crossing I’ll take to get out of China, let alone how the logistics will work in the Caucasus – particularly since the Georgians seems to be ready to oust their president any moment, no doubt ushering in a period of mild political anarchy.
The major question which i’ll need to resolve sooner rather than later is that of Turkmenistan. For the visa invitation letter I need to declare my route through the country – where I will be visiting, how long for etc. I’m in two minds whether to cross over from Khiva to Konye Urgench, or whether to double back on myself in Uzbekistan to cross the border west of Bukhara, coming in to Chardzhou, or the wonderfully-named Turkmenabat. The country being how it is, it’s expensive to stick around (over USD 150 a day as a single traveler) so I might opt for the southern route from Bukhara. We’ll see. Maybe I can convince some of my reprobate friends to join me in Tashkent for a trip across the desert.
Current indications (and my very own Excel spreadsheet planning) suggest that I will have approximately 72 hours to travel through Eastern Europe. Far from ideal. But of course, it does mean a perfect excuse for another trip in the future…
It’s very easy to get carried away when planning a trip like this. When are you going to kick off, where exactly are you going to go, what are you going to do, how are you going to get there, where will you stay, what will you eat, what will the loos be like, what language are they going to speak, am I going to be raped, mugged AND murdered?
One thing that I have been constantly burrowing way in the recesses of my mind, however, is the fact that whilst this trip is about to begin, another phase is coming to a close. I’ve lived in China since the middle of 2003, and in Beijing since August 2004. This is where I’ve ‘grown up’, dammit, this is what my twenties have all been about.
I am, of course, in absolute denial that my China days are coming to an end.
Well, over for now, shall we say. I can’t really foresee a future without China in it for me. You don’t spend years learning Chinese only to cruise back to the UK and develop a keen interest for selling insurance in Wrexham.
On a roll, boys and girls. Not only did I secure my Kyrgyz visa last night after waiting 90 minutes at the ridiculous embassy #1 (before a farewell Sichuan spicy frog meal with the lovely Lily and husband Xiao Cui) but I tipped up at the Kazakhstan consulate today to get things moving.
Obviously, I called before. It was a Thursday. Their website claims they are open Mon, Wed, Thurs and Fri. it also claims they are open Mon, Wed and Fri, and NOT Thursday. Intrigued, I pick up the batphone.
(Dragostea Din Tei runs through my head)
“Ni hao…” I continue in Chinese, explaining my predicament.
There is an uncomfortable silence on the line. She doesn’t speak Chinese. I sure as hell don’t speak Russian. Or Kazakh, since you asked.
“Liu..wu…san..er..liu..yao..qi..qi“. I am given another number to dial. I get the distinct impression I have mined the entirety of the poor girl’s Chinese ability.
Anyone who knows anything about Central Asia (which, admittedly, isn’t many) will know that the visas are hands down a complete and utter pain in the backside.
Clearly it was a prime feature of Communism back in the day to inconvenience any potential traveler to the region and keep out as many undesirables (and desirables as well, probably, just because they could) as feasibly possible. Indeed, China generally makes it impossible for people to come in at all (cf all the empty hotel rooms during the Olympics), and as I understand it, Russia asks for ridiculous information such as which hotels you’re going to stay at EVERY NIGHT, before they will even consider charging you an arm and a leg for their visa.
So, it was little surprise that the gloss of preparing to go to this part of the world quickly wore off when I began my visa trawl. I picked the most vowel-challenged country of the bunch – Kyrgyzstan, to begin with (incidentally, I am extremely proud my ability to spell the country without having to consult the oracle known as Wikipedia. I can also spell Kazakhstan, having finally learnt where that ‘h’ goes).
I’m not planning to go until early June, so getting things ready in early April should be no worries. I’m just not interested in picking up visas as I go along – I have better things to do in Tashkent than sit in a back rooms for hours at a time, being asked questions I don’t understand and encouraged to part with my dwindling dollars (however, quite what the plethora of activities that awaits me in Tashkent is, however, I’m not too certain). The organisational guru in me (which has, recently, remained somewhat dormant) kicked into overdrive.
So, I pick up the phone to check what the deal is.
…there was a plan, a plan which grew steadily and silently, but always out of sight, not too dissimilar to those long eyebrow hairs that hover just out of your line of sight until someone next to you in the lift calls you out on it and shames you into doing something about it.
It had always been ‘the plan’ to indulge myself in some prolonged traveling after busting out of Beijing for the last time. Finding the time was always going to be difficult – and then there’s the cash. Yet an invitation to graduate school this summer was all it took to start investigating the feasibility of pulling off a trawl around the Eurasian landmass, ending up in Fontainebleau, South of Paris after a few months on the road.
A quick whiff around the interweb will tell you that this is not quite the pioneering, groundbreaking, ne’er done before trek I thought it might have been when I was twelve years old. The blogosphere tells tales of Dutch cyclists with unfortunate teeth, a Swedish couple with an uncanny ability to take dreadful photos and several other adventurers who have headed along the Silk Road, East to West before now, and from what I can gather, they made it. Huzzah!