A few weeks ago I had no real idea where Almaty even was but due to the invisible wall of Chinese politics
I studied Google maps and Almaty jumped out as a great location to finish my trip. In reality the city itself was inspiringly bland and modern, not helped by the cold snowy weather that hit me literally in the face, so it felt a bit like an anti climax.
In hindsight with China being the king of unpredictable politics I should have organised a visa in London, but even then it probably wouldn’t have been enough to get me across the border temporarily closed to foreigners!
So I was sat in my air plane window seat, especially selected to give a stunning view of the vast freshly snow covered Tian Shan mountains on a crisp blue autumunal day. Here is a pic taken on my tablet:
While waiting around and getting bored I added up how many airlines I have used in the last few years and of the 26 counted, I think Etihad might be the best. Here’s my Etihad review in short: good food, good films, 30kg of free baggage including bike and smooth new aircraft!
The mountains were still clearly visible over Tajikistan and then over Iran, it was one of the most scenic flights I have ever taken, I couldn’t pull myself away from the window.
I ruined my green credentials by having to connect in Abu Dhabi, but it was the only real option. I had 14 hours to kill in UAE so I walked over to the border control booths with no idea if I needed a visa or if I could leave the airport. It turned out I didn’t need a visa so I had 14 hours in the stifling hot desert evening, while my bike was hopefully in transit somewhere!
I found an ATM and got some random currency’s cash for the umpteenth time on this trip, then flagged down a local bus. That had pulled up in between the large SUVs driven by men in white thawbs, so iconic of the UAE and I was quickly into the centre, I was on my way!
I wandered about eating a random selection of food from egg pie to some weird cakes from a Filipino bakery! Finally I decided I should get a cheap hotel and sleep a bit, but being the UAE, cheap is not an easy option.
I found no cheap places on the web, then near the Le Meridian hotel, a group of scantily clad Filipino ladies called out “Jesus, Jesus” to me maybe because of my beard maybe I just have an aura, then I thought if anyone knows where a cheap hotel is they might! But I decided against any conversations and headed back towards the airport bus and after sitting watching the world go by I was heading back to the airport. On arriving back I put my ear plugs in and slept on a bench in the front foyer, classy times!
The flight into Kathmandu was equally smooth and stunning with wisps of snow decorating all the famous Himalayan peaks you would happily pay a fortune for sightseeing flight like this, but for some reason in an airliner you feel so detached it isn’t the same.
After a relaxing landing I waited inline with my blue tainted water stained passport photo (from when my tent blew away in Kazakhstan) and completed the form to get my Nepal visa on arrival. In the end the ruined photo didn’t matter it was just my $40 that counted.
Like a miracle my bike box had appeared on the baggage belt (another thumbs up review for Etihad!) so I was ready to go.
I found a quiet spot before the exit and the taxi driver melée to put the bike back together, it was the first time I had built a bike under the watchful eyes of machine gun wielding guards. They had taken a keen interest in how it all worked poking stuff and trying to help. I left the cardboard box with another kind guard and I was ready to hop on my bike again and ride into infamous Kathmandu traffic!
It was simply crazy, cars coming towards me in all directions, a policeman shouted at me but I carried on pretending I didn’t hear. It was just death defyingly ridiculous until I realised in Nepal they drive on the other side of the road, I should say the correct English side of the road but it just felt odd. After this revelation the roads made a bit more sense and it wasn’t too bad.
What hit me next wasn’t one of the million motorbikes, but the sudden change of culture. Just one beautiful aspect of my cycling trip was embracing the slowly and gradually changing culture, ethnicity and religion from country to country. Arriving in Nepal and Kathmandu by plane was a massive shock: the smell of spice and fragrance mingled with dust and pollution it was alien to the bland, empty aromas of central Asia. I was the excited by all the new food being sold on the road side, it was a chance to eat something new, exciting and different.
The sweets look fantastic, hygiene might be another issue!
The architecture was the other huge jump, this was unmistakably Asia, the Buddhist Stupas and temples between carved old wooden houses on narrow streets, drew far more parallels to my time spent in Cambodia and Laos than the mosques and yurts from the last few weeks.
It was just a wholesale change, which exhilarated and saddened me in equal measure, I was gutted to have lost that continuous transition that I had embraced for so long. But getting a Chinese visa wouldn’t have helped because I knew that only by riding through Tibet could have given me the complete picture and that is just not allowed independently under any circumstance!
The next issue was navigating without a map, I had been aimlessly riding and exploring the enchanting backstreets as the sun started to set. Contrary to the last 100 days I had to follow the setting sun and cycled west into the city, eventually after a few circles, I headed for the hotels of the Tourist district of Thamel. Immediately the quaint and magical city was lost, replaced by streets lined with fake cheap outdoor kit, bakeries, bars and restaurants. I embraced the bakeries with there half price cake in the evening, but was keen to get out on the bike and explore the real city.
I was excited to be meeting Marion and soon be trekking but also sad to now be just another tourist blending in, being hassled by touts, only being approached by people selling stuff, I was now just a dollar sign not the fascinating cycling guy that every one wanted to help or chat to.