Biking from Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan
Around The World In 80 Breakdowns
Dave’s bike was now smoking badly and burning about a litre of oil every 100 miles. It was a bit of a worry but we held out hope of reaching Almaty and a bike shop. We were just 2 days away and with luck I thought we could get there with 3 days in hand compared to our master schedule.
Apart from stopping every half hour to check and refill the struggling XT’s oil, it was an uneventful ride as the landscape flattened out. It was great to be back on tarmac, though. 50mph feels so fast when you’ve spent a couple of days doing 30 max on gravel, sand and mud.
The evening meal was accompanied by Jessica Alba wine, and our camp site was a very quiet spot with a view of Lake Issyk Kol, the mountains to the south from where we’d just come, and the mountains to the north beyond which lay Kazakhstan, the last of the ‘Stans.
Kyrgyzstan had been brilliant. Stunning landscapes, friendly people, thrilling dirt roads over mountain passes, plentiful wild camping opportunities, and comfortable weather bar a few evening storms. The number of European cyclists and GS riders we had seen showed how popular the place was, and it was easy to see why. But now I was eager to get to Kazakhstan and one step closer to Russia and the big one – Mongolia.
We’d crossed 16 borders so far but I still found myself getting anxious as we approached the Kyrgyzstan exit. I tried to tell myself to relax, and we entered the office.
“Passport”, said the official, holding out his hand and snapping his fingers in a “haven’t got all day” motion.
All right, calm down. Geez…
Confident our papers were in order we stretched aching backs, fiddled with keys and mobile phones, and waited while the irritable little man painstakingly copied details into his log book.
“Deklaratsiya”, snapped the jobsworth in an even more irritated tone.
“What? Sorry?” I had no idea what he’d just said.
“De-kla-rat-zi-ya”, he repeated, slowly, though his tone just said “Are you stupid?”
“Cuz-tohm”, this time attempting English.
“Customs declaration”, Dave realised. “Shit, we didn’t get a customs declaration when we came in. Remember, that place when there was no-one there?”
“Shit”, was all I could say, as our nemesis shook his head and disappeared into the back office, muttering like Dick Dastardly.
When we entered Kyrgyzstan the border post had been practically deserted. After the passport check we rode past an unmanned cabin and through a wide open exit barrier. We’d stopped, and checked with each other. Is that it? There’s usually more paperwork. Well, there’s nobody here, nobody stopping us. I guess we’re done.
A moment later the official returned from the back office and motioned for us to enter. “Go.”
The Fat Man
The fat customs officer stubbed out a cigarette in the overflowing ashtray.
The old leather swivel chair groaned as he leaned back, clasping his hands behind his head. Sweat rolled down his pudgy neck to the stained collar of a shirt that was losing the battle to contain his belly. Exhaling a cloud of smoke, he grinned with yellow teeth. Behind him, the plains of Kazakhstan were visible through a dust-covered blind, dead flies accumulating on the windowsill.
The room looked like the 1970s and smelled that way too.
The anxiety I usually felt at borders had turned to irritation.
Fat Man had become our nemesis, with the power to destroy our adventure. Somehow we’d failed to get a customs declaration when we entered the country and Fat Man was not going to let us off.
He had one answer for whatever we said: “No customs, no Kazakhstan. Go back.”
Fat Man had apparently made his decision and gone back to pushing his paperwork around, no longer interested in us.
Back? Back to the point of entry. Three days rough riding, and another three to get here again. Six days! It just wasn’t an option. Visas for the rest of trip would expire and we’d be stuck. I wasn’t going back, no way.
“We have to go Kazakhstan”, I said, desperately. “Visa, see? Kazakhstan.” I pointed out of the window for emphasis.
Fat Man looked up with mock surprise at seeing people still in his office, as if to say the matter had long since been concluded.
Fat Man shrugged. “No customs, no Kazakhstan. Go back.”
We’d offered money, but it hadn’t worked with Fat Man. No, Fat man was out to get us, to ruin our trip, and we’d been in stalemate for an hour.
Dave and I looked at each other in dismay. This was a disaster. Fat Man didn’t care. Fat Man nearly collapsed his chair as he shifted all his weight onto one cheek to let out a little fart.
“This is absurd.” I’d said it out loud without meaning to, but the time for politeness had passed.
Fat Man suddenly rose from his chair, which seemed to sigh in relief as air rushed back into the foam padding. The ashtray which had been resting on a stack of papers slid off and spilled a good three packs worth of fag ends onto his desk, a little cloud of ash rising up to hang in the sunbeams coming through the window blinds.
“You have knife?” said Fat Man.
Fat Man walked over to a bookshelf and pointed. “You have knife?”
With his left hand he pointed at the shelf, which was full of knives. It was the only part of the office not covered in a layer of dust or old papers.
His right hand, pudgy, yellow from nicotine, black dirt all around his nails, was held out towards us, palm up, fingers beckoning. Gimme.
What the…? I could feel my frown creasing my forehead and starting to give me a headache. Now he wants to confiscate our knives? Fat Man was really pissing me off now.
Dave caught on quicker.
“He wants a knife” Dave whispered. “We give him a knife and we might get out of here.”
I presented my very expensive multi-tool with a sharp 3 inch blade and 16 other functions. Over a thousand five star reviews on Amazon…
Dave held out a small key-ring penknife. It looked like something that fell out of a Christmas cracker.
Fat Man shoved past me and eagerly snatched up Dave’s penknife, excited like a child. Turning it over in his hand he was examining it like a precious gem. Without looking up he sent us on our way with a dismissive wave.
We almost ran back to the bikes and rode into Kazakhstan with grins on our faces, still laughing in our camp site that evening at the thought of Fat Man’s flabby fingers playing with the tiny penknife.
You might think that bikes or tools or money make the difference between success and failure, but not so. Our dream of riding around the world, our plan that had consumed us for years, was still alive thanks to a toy from a cracker.
And a Fat Man with a knife fetish.