When Joel and I started planning this trip, Kyrgyzstan was one of those countries we planned on passing through quickly. We were a bit ahead of schedule considering our train ride through central Kazakhstan, so we figured why not try and enjoy our time here. This turned out to be one of the best decisions we made.
Through some connections Joel had through TWU, we made contact with a Canadian family living in the capital city, Bishkek. He was a teacher at the local Western school and his wife was working with a local organization called Hands of Love. This non-profit provides shelter, food and other sorts of help to women and their children fleeing from abusive marriages and battered homes. We met with the husband our second night in Bishkek and they agreed to let Joel and I go and spend some time at the women’s facility. As we spent some time with the staff, we learned the shocking truth of what causes many of these women to seek the help of shelters such as this. Kyrgyzstan has a tradition widely known as bride-knapping. A man may chose any woman to be his wife, and with the help of his friends, they proceed to kidnap her. With the aid of his family and the submission of hers, she is subsequently forced to marry him and is subjected to a life of servitude under his control as a wife. Hands of Love works first hand with many women who come from this exact situation. This organization is working diligently to see women set free from their past and experience love and freedom, while learning practical work and parenting skills (if you want to hear more about these organizations and how you can get involved, please contact us directly).
Another aspect of Hands of Love is focused around the growing number of street youth in the capital. Many kids are abandoned or run away from home at a young age and are forced to provided for themselves on the streets. Hands of Love works with these kids year round by providing cloths, showers, food and a stable community for them. We got to hangout with a bunch of them and share a bit about our lives while we ate some good food and drank tea. It was amazing to see the resiliency in these boys after hearing what some of them have gone through. They have dreams and aspirations just like we both did at their age, except we get to go home to a nice bed and our families every night; they don’t. It was tough having to leave. You just want to stay and do what you can to help these boys. It was an incredibly heavy afternoon for both of us.
After three inspiring days in the capital, it was time we headed south towards China. We were recommended by a friend to take the adventurous route via the Kegety Pass on route to Kochkor. The pass is a Soviet built road used by herders to cut through the mountain range rather than going around. At a staggering 3800m above sea level, you climb through an entire mountain range, zig-zagging hairpin turns on a gravely path till you reach the peak. The air is thin and the wind is cold, but it was easily one of the most beautiful, surreal places either of us had been. We spent a cold night near the top before we descended into the pristine valley towards Kochkor. From there we rode alongside a beautiful babbling brook, passing through numerous small mountain towns until we reached our destination.
We decided that after the gruelling task of trekking through the Kegety Pass, we owed ourselves a rest day. We decided to visit Issyk Kul, the biggest lake in the country. We took a 40 minute taxi ride and a 2 hour marshrutka bus to a place called fairytale canyon. We had an awesome time exploring for the afternoon and then hitchhiked back to our hostel in the evening. When we got back, we realized we had left our only phone in the car. That was our only way to navigate our route. A good day gone sideways. Luckily, the next bit of our journey was a single road to the border, so we felt confident we could wait till China to get another phone. The next morning, we packed up and headed out.
Our next stop was Tash Rabat. An old Armenian church that was converted into a caravanserai used to house travellers along the Silk Road. Near there was a yurt camp we were excited to stay at. It was a 300km ride through the gorgeous mountains of Kyrgyzstan, so we were both looking forward to it. After ascending a massive hill just outside of Kochkor, we finally got the big downhill we’d been waiting for. Out of sheer excitement, we began singing loudly and moving close to one another to hold hands. Suddenly, Joel dipped into the ditch beside the road and blows his back tube. The tire was thankfully ok, but the rim was bent quite badly. With the help of a marshrutka driver, he took us to his town 70kms away. Unfortunately, no one was able to help, so Joel had to press on in hopes of finding help in China because the chances of finding a bike shop in south Kyrgyzstan is zero.
After a frustrating few days, we made it to Tash Rabat. We were welcomed by an awesome family who works at a yurt camp 6kms from the caravanserai. The time we spent there was so much fun. We got to visit the caravanserai, eat some great food, hike, relax, try a Russian sauna and sleep in a yurt. We knew that crossing into China was going to be a little tougher than most borders, so we made sure to truly enjoy our stay at Tash Rabat. After saying our goodbyes to the amazing family, we headed back on the highway towards the first of three Kyrgyz checkpoints.
The first checkpoint was relatively easy, they basically want to make sure you have your visa into China before entering the control zone. After passing, the weather began to turn and the headwind became very strong. We were working hard, but barely moving. Once you enter the control zone, you are expected to make it across in a day. We realized that at our current speed, we had no chance of making it through the remaining 70kms. So we flagged a guy down and he helped us pack our bikes into his SUV and we headed towards the Torugart Pass border. We made it to the final Kyrgyz checkpoint just as they were about to close down for the day, so they asked that we camp here and wait till the morning to cross. So we did.
We were the first ones through the border in the morning and we headed up towards the first Chinese border at Tourgart Pass, approximately 4000m above sea level. We were both excited because we had heard horror stories of people trying to get through these checkpoints and many being turned around. It seemed for a moment that we had some of positive momentum heading into this border and we were both stoked to get into China, get Joel’s wrecked rim fixed and get a new phone. Little did we know what we were about to get ourselves into.
We rolled up to the gated border and signalled for the guard to come check our visas and let us through. He looked at us and asked, “Where is your car?” Confused, we asked what he meant? Apparently, in order to cross this particular border, as a foreigner, you need a certified tour vehicle to pick you up and drive you to the nearest city, Kashgar. We were entering a restricted area. We had no idea. There was a Ukrainian couple who had been trying to hitch a ride with a bus to Kashgar, but were also stopped and were now in the same predicament as us. So now, the four of us are stuck between Kyrgyzstan and China, confused, pissed off, cold and with no where to go and very little help from either side.
Finally, a young man from a tour company in Kyrgyzstan approached us and said he might be able to call a company in Kashgar for us and have them send a vehicle up. After the cost of getting our permits, gas, insurance and other petty things, we had to settle at $350USD ($480CDN). We were told they would get there as soon as possible, so that could be anywhere from 3 hours or possibly the following day. We were left in the dark. As this was all getting sorted, it began blizzarding. We had no shelter on our side of the gate, and the Chinese were unwilling to let us in there side. Thankfully a nice trucker allowed us to stay warm in his cab as we waited for this van.
The storm passed and the Chinese guards finally felt some sort of pity for us, so they let us into there shelter until our ride arrived. Once the van finally came, we had to race to get our stuff loaded so we could make it to customs before it closed for the night. We frantically threw our stuff in and hopped on. A kilometre down the road was the first checkpoint on the Chinese side. We got out and allowed them to search our bags and ask us a few questions. Within 30 minutes we were through and headed south 100kms to the official customs checkpoint. Things were looking up for us.
Half a kilometre later, the van comes to a stop. The tour company representative looks back at the four of us and tells us they’re experiencing some engine difficulties. Great. Here we are, stuck at approximately 3700m, in a restricted zone in China, as the sun is going down, in a broken down van. We began to prepare ourselves, thinking we might spend the night up here. After working on the engine for an hour and a half, the driver finally calls a mechanic to help. At 1130pm the mechanic rolls up to work on the van. Within 20 minutes he had it running and again we begin our descent towards customs. After pulling a few strings, the tour company guide convinced the customs office to open specifically for us at 130am, something I assume never happens. But we were so thankful not to spend another night outside a border in the cold.
We expected customs to be super rigid and thorough with there searches, but I guess when you cross at 130am, they are just as tired and careless as anyone. So we got through relatively quickly. Now was the task of finding a bank to pay the tour guide. After my card declined, Joel was able to take out a decent sized portion, but still not enough. With the help of our Ukrainian friends, we scrounged up the owed $350USD by paying him in Chinese RMB, USD and our leftover Kyrgyz SOM. After agreeing to take his payment in 3 different currencies, he finally dropped us off at our hostel at 430am. There, we slept in the alley till 8am, which is when the hostel opens.
Needless to say, we did nothing but rest for that entire day. Our hostel was nice, we cleaned our cloths, showered and relaxed. Now that we finally made it into China, we had to start planning our route. We had met a cool guy in Georgia who worked in Beijing and had invited us to stay with him if we ever made it out that way. We need to get to Chengdu to catch our flight to Kathmandu by November 1, and Beijing was roughly 2000kms north of there, which works out perfectly for us. So we decided to train from Kashgar to Beijing and meet up with Jon.
We’ve spent a few days now in Beijing and are looking to get out of here tomorrow! Joel got his bike fixed, we got a cheap phone with a SIM card and we’re ready to bike the next 2000kms in 30 days! These last few weeks have really taught us a lot. We’ve endured some emotionally heavy days, some physically gruelling climbs, felt lost and unsure about things, and have had our patience tested numerous times. Despite our inconsistent behaviour and wavering obedience, we have continually seen Gods hand at work over and over again. Not only in protecting and guiding us, but also working through the amazing people we’ve had the privilege of meeting; reminding us that we are not alone. We feel the prayers over here, trust me. Thanks again for all the support!
Love you all,
Brad and Joel