Now, where were we? Thanks to our blog apparently being banned in China (and tempting though it is to imagine this was a deliberate decision by the Censors who Guard the Great Firewall due to our subversive but insightful political commentary, in fact all foreign travellers’ blogs seemed to be banned, along with Facebook, Google, BBC news and, in some provinces, the Guardian) it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to post an update.
I believe you last saw us descending from a snowy plateau on the Kyrgyz border to the sunny grasslands of Kazakhstan:
Having rushed to the Kyrgyz border on a rumour, which turned out to be false, that it might close for winter on 1st October, we were then stuck meandering around the northeast corner of Kazakhstan for a week. This is because the Chinese see fit to close the border – yes close the ruddy border – for an entire eight days over Golden Week, a succession of public holidays. Bad luck for any Chinese fancying spending Golden Week in Kazakhstan.
Our time was spent pleasantly, sampling the local biscuit offerings…
…exploring mysterious tombs…
…pondering desert artworks…
… and camping out in the Sharyn Canyon National Park for a few days. Imagine a vast stretch of rather dull desert (see above), then cut an enormous gash in it that’s completely invisible from the perfectly flat plateau, run a glistening blue river down it, fill it with trees, add a dash of autumn reds and golds, and there you are:
Having pleasantly squandered the best part of the required week, we rolled onto Zarkent, the last town before the Chinese border and managed to identify a hotel.
Or so we thought. In fact this one, we came to suspect, doubled up as a brothel. Combined with a tiny room (complete with empty condom packet under the bed), rude staff and the wifi not working – contrary to the owner’s assurances before we took the room – this made for a less-than-pleasant stay. Of course, when we rolled up mid-afternoon, it just looked like a hotel. But come evening, the gaudy neon sign outside started to flash and more male ‘guests’ turned up than there were rooms for (3, of which we had one – rooms, that is).
On our first night, the girl left in charge seemed anxious to hide us away from these men when we tried to emerge and ask for more toilet roll (highly-guarded items still only handed out one at a time and grudgingly in ex-Soviet countries). Great consternation was caused when John tried to cook baked potatoes in the microwave in their tiny kitchen, possibly because the girl couldn’t conceive of a man attempting to cook or knowing how to operate a food-making device. Or maybe she didn’t like us using the ‘kitchen’ (a kettle and microwave and a small table and chairs) – when I tried to sit in there to work the following day, I was driven out with gestures indicating the kitchen was for the staff to sit around drinking tea in, not for guests who needed a table to work at.
So, lingering long enough only to batter the previous blog post into shape at a nearby restaurant with wifi and passable pizza, we soon set off with some relief and a fair measure of excitement for the Chinese border, through a landscape blazing with autumn golds.