We are again in a vehicle with our bicycles. Just as when we entered China from the south, there is a rather large area near the northern border with Kyrgyzstan through which independent travel is not permitted. Our driver has clearly been here before, carefully navigating around the invisible potholes, then recovering time on the good stretches of road.
The road through this 'no mans land' is rather desolate, following a wide, and very dry valley. Gerry is enjoying a little snooze and I'm staring out the window thinking that it would have been a tough ride to get through here. It reminds me of some lonely stretches that I rode along the Dempster a few years back and...RrrrrrrrRrrrrrrrcccchhh!
The driver slams on the brakes.
BAAAMMM! The van hits a bump and takes air. All of us are launched from our seats. This moment of weightlessness lasts an eternity as it's not clear how and when we are going to touch down.
Will the van flip land on its side? Will we hit the ditch? Will we slam into the truck parked less than 100m ahead? This is not how this trip is supposed to end.
The front of the vehicle hits the ground.
The back of the vehicle hits the ground. The van rocks and bounces a few more times (we are knocked out of our seats and into the air each time). Finally, the vehicle comes to a stop. We didn't flip. We didn't end up in the ditch. We didn't slam into the truck ahead. Everything seems ok. (Though it is not clear whether the vehicle will move again).
The driver begins to moan. He is sweating and breathing heavily. After a few minutes of this, he leans his chair back and carefully roles himself on to the flat space between the drivers seat and the passengers seat. Moaning. Panting. Sweating. No signs of improvement.
This is one of those moments in life when I must humbly acknowledge that my experience and education are of absolutely no practical use. I'm at a complete loss as to how to end this man's agony. And, if the van is broken, I don't even know how to fix it so that I can get the driver to a doctor.
There is no cell reception. And, as this is not a typical highway, there is little opportunity to flag down help from passing vehicles.
So, we wait, staring at the man, as though our sympathy might somehow transform itself into a miracle. Time, and a bit of luck, it turns out, are sufficient to resolve the situation. The driver eventually peels himself, slowly, painfully, from the space where he has been laying. He hobbles out of the vehicle to stretch. He checks the vehicle; it is in one piece. He starts the engine and we are moving again. Another 80km to the end of the chinese border. This time, moving slowly and softly through the damaged road.
We crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan around 3pm, with no map, no money and no food**. There were about 4 hours of daylight remaining and we had a vague idea that there might be a community of yurts somewhere between 95km and 125km away.
The road ahead was hard. A strong headwind, combined with washboarded gravel and clouds of dust that blasted us with every passing truck meant that progress was slow. Chinese road construction crews were busy moving huge loads of supplies in either direction. Adding to the difficulty, Gerry was fighting some intestinal demons that he'd picked up a few days ago. This dusty, bumpy road was not helping.
We pitched an emergency camp on a field beside the road, just as the sun was setting. We'd made it just 60km in the four hours since we crossed the border. There was a part of me that was happy that we were finally using the tent; I was beginning to think that I was hauling it around for nothing. There was another part of me worried about how we would manage the uncertain distance ahead without fueling our bodies. The good news was that we had water and we could not really get lost (there is just one road leading to civilization in these parts).
Our alarm clock was a combination of road traffic, blazing sun, and hunger. We expected that we would need to ride either 35km or 65km on empty stomachs to the next town of interest. In the end, it was 90km, over a pass and into a headwind. But the dusty, bumpy road quickly turned to buttery smooth pavement and we had a lot of daylight.
We searched around in At-Bashi for a bank to exchange money so that we could buy some food and figure out our next move. While the banks posted exchange rates outside their doors, the first three would not actually do money exchange of any sort. The language barrier prevented us from understanding why. And some electricity complications meant that the single ATM that we found was nothing more than a pretty little grey box.
Desperate and down, a helpful local pointed us in the direction of a 4th bank. And it had a functional ATM! Finally, we were set. It took less than 5 minutes from when we had local cash in hand to when we had coca cola in hand. It tasted sooooo good.
Blood sugar levels back in check, we located a restaurant and, ultimately, a place to lay our heads for the night (it didn't matter that there was no shower). We are still in need of a good map, but we are happy to have full bellies and a quiet place to sleep tonight!
**We had emergency nuts and a sleeve of butter cookies hidden away in our packs, but it was really only enough to get through a few hours of riding. We also had US dollars, Chinese Yuan, and Euros, but that won't get you very far in rural Kyrgyzstan. And, technically, we had a map; however, as it was 1 : 2 000 000, it was not particularly informative.