Not wanting to blow our own trumpet…
…but reaching the edge of China, with the Odyssey-meter on 11,000km, was pretty damn awesome, and felt like a significant waypoint of our journey. After a third of a year, we were leaving the vast expanse of Turkic/ex-Soviet lands that stretched from Azerbaijan to the eastern edge of Kazakhstan, and setting foot in what to me at least, felt like the more familiar ground of East Asia. And so, farewell to Ladas in every colour of the rainbow –
– and hello to segregated bicycle/motorbike lanes, populated by a remarkable proportion of silent, smoke-free electric scooters, showing that China is not completely indifferent to air pollution issues (although, of course, the smog is only outsourced to the coal-powered power stations outside the cities). And, with no great regret, it was bye-bye plov (the greasy fried rice central Asians celebrate with inexplicable enthusiasm as their national dish) and hello, er, plov by a different name – cha fan, the thankfully much less oily Chinese fried rice. Plus, of course, a dizzying array of tasty, spicy dishes to tempt us after 3 months of choosing between plov, noodles (in a soup or fried), and variously-sized dumplings with an a occasional treat of borscht if we were somewhere big enough to host a Russian population.
However, with the BBC and Guardian websites blocked – along with any Google-related offerings or WordPress sites (including this one!) – we found ourselves on a strict news starvation diet, subsisting on China State TV’s English propaganda channel (75% on Chinese industry successes, 24% on how evil Japan is, and 1% carefully selected world news, plus a bonus 150% on how much the Queen loves Xi Jinping and how she drove him around London in a gold carriage before giving him a banquet and selling him our nuclear power stations).
Our entry to China, through the labyrinthine joint border with Kazakhstan – kind of like two airports with no airplanes, separated by about 2km of no-man’s land traversable only by a tortuously circuitous 8km road – was jollified by the Kazakh border officials. The same team who’d stamped our passports on the snowy Kyrgyz border were doing a shift down here and poured out of their booths to shake hands, pat us on the back, and ask how we’d enjoyed Kazakhstan. On the hyper-modern Chinese side, more like an airport than a border, things also went smoothly: the only hassle was having to unload the bikes and put all the bags through x-ray machines – a common kerfuffle in public spaces in the troubled northerly province of Xinjiang, where disputes with Uyghur separatists have led to (and/or been used to generate) a general paranoia over terrorism.
And then we were in China. Orange and green tiled roofs with up-swept dragon eaves, dense clusters of rainbow-hued neon signs in enticingly incomprehensible Chinese characters, restaurants festooned with lucky red and gold to attract weekend diners, and buildings panelled with LED screens scrolling starbursts and supernovas . Market stalls displayed mysterious wares – dried bracket mushrooms, scraps of bark, stones and bones and dried rodents and chunky semi-precious rosaries. Road safety and etiquette posters were populated with cute cartoon characters falling asleep at the wheel or tossing rubbish out of their car windows, and roadside kilometer markers started counting down from a dizzying 4800km to some distant capital – Beijing perhaps – a quarter of a world away.
The roads were fantastic – passing trucks gave us all the room they could, and in towns the traffic was chaotic but benign – a bit of give, a bit of take, everyone weaving around each other in a generally tolerant manner, with ‘right of way’ more a matter of negotiation with a smattering of chutzpa. Alarmingly, no one ever seemed to look behind, even when pulling out, but as long as you know it’s up to you to respond to everything happening in front of you and let people behind take care of themselves, it kind of works.
Despite the sense of being in a surveillance state (a feature of Xinjiang province rather than the whole country, at least for the time being), with cameras snapping every passing vehicle – including us – at every junction, we found officialdom to be efficient and the police downright lovely: always friendly and willing to go out of their way to help. In one town, they drove our Russian companion (who you’ll meet just below) to a camp shop to buy an unusual type of gas canister, and called the owner up at home when the shop proved to be shut. A Hungarian cyclist couple we met in the south of China, Enikő and Balázs, had had less positive experiences in the north: he had a beard, tanned skin and dark eyes and hair – suspiciously similar to suspect characters depicted on Chinese ‘How to spot a Muslim terrorist’ posters (clue: look out for beards!), and so they were hassled by nervous cops from one end of Xinjiang province to the other.
Our first stop was the border town of Korgas, which seemed pleasant enough. The next day we set off for the hills. The new motorway had a generous local road running alongside, though in many places half of it was taken up by the local harvest:
As the valley narrowed and the road began to climb, the local road disappeared and it seemed we’d have to go on the new motorway, which up until then had been adorned with ‘no cycling’ signs. Whilst trying to sidle innocuously up to the toll booths (an ill-fated endeavour for two foreigners riding bikes with bright orange and yellow panniers) we were spotted by the transport police, who beckoned us over. Dreading the worst – namely, being sent back 30 km to take a much longer alternate route – we pulled up. One officer ordered us to wait and disappeared into his hut, reappearing with… 4 cans of Red Bull, which they insisted we’d need to sustain us for the big climb ahead, which we were most certainly allowed to do on the motorway. Numerous grinning selfies and group shots were duly taken on various officers’ phones, and we were waved on our way.
A little further on, we encountered Dima, a lone Russian cyclist, with whom we rode for the next 10 days to the provincial capital Urumqi. We made camp in a beautiful but windy side valley, necessitating the construction of a dry stone kitchen wall to stop dinner blowing away.
We shared the valley with a small herd of camels, a decidedly shaggier breed than Uzbek beasts, which might be why this friendly individual liked having his neck scratched so much:
We couldn’t quite figure out what the road ahead held in store for us. Our online map, intriguingly, said it would look like this:
The reality became apparent as we approached:
An hour and a long tunnel later…
After that, the day’s work was done: with the climb behind (well, below) us, we were soon at Lake Sayram, which was so pretty we had to stay for the night, in a little nook just below the snowline.
But this was the end of scenic Xinjiang for us (though there are many beautiful places further to the east). The rest of the road to Urumqi was through black rubble desert, scourged and scarred by industrial machinery, so ugly I could barely be bothered to photograph it…
… though dull scenery did at least encourage John’s daydreaming up of an intricate reworking of Frère Jaques for 16 part canon on the motorway (see next installment for the 16-part version):
Despite the barrenness of this stretch of China, the government was busy building new roads and enormous housing estates, attracting mainland Han Chinese to the province (presumably to outnumber the Uyghurs and other troublesome minorities) with the promise of being allowed two children instead of one. Quite what they envisage everyone doing in such a grim place other than raise their extra child, was unclear.
On the other hand, the topiary was spectacular …
… farmers were happy for us to camp on their land…
… and the occasional copse brought some relief from the desert…
But the nights were increasingly cold, and the drear October rains were settling in for the long-haul. We spent the last night before Urumqi camping in an ill-advised spot in a muddy field, which deteriorated to a quagmire with overnight rains, and the next day being splattered with road muck by passing trucks, so by the time we rolled up in the city we were a right mess.
Things weren’t helped by the discovery that the hotel we’d booked into online didn’t in fact accept foreigners, and nor did any others nearby. Eventually, the staff of a bigger chain hotel took pity on us, and directed us to their sister hotel which could take us. Getting there involved me riding in someone’s car, while the husband of one of the hotel employees jumped onto my fully-laden bike, suit and all, and wobbled off gleefully with John in tow. Trying not to be too nervous for my bike, for him, or for any pedestrians unfortunate enough to be between him and the destination, we simply had to let go any attempt to control the situation and leave fate in the hands of the Great Spaghetti Monster. The bike turned up at the hotel intact – apparently the guy only ran into three pedestrians on the way – and the only remaining embarrassment was the trail of black water we and the bikes left across the hotel’s pristine foyer (though no one seemed to mind).
As it turned out, luck was with us: the hotel was relatively cheap (they gave us a VIP discount despite our muddiness making us feel like very unimportant people) and for around £15/ night we got a spotless, clean room, reminiscent of a British Travelodge but with a bigger telly – all the better to watch Chinese non-news on. And, rather than catering to suicidal guests’ afterlife with a bible, the room instead demonstrated the hotel’s desire to preserve their customers in this one, by providing emergency gas masks:
Urumqi was huge for a provincial capital, and although lacking in touristic charm, had a great energy and buzz. It happens to be the most land-locked city in the world, being about 2,500km from the nearest coastline – quite possibly the Caspian coastline from which we’d cycled. Although not every street had segregated cycle paths, it did have some fabulous features like the underground roundabouts for two-wheelers, reminiscent of a bumper-car circuit:
It had buildings which do this:
There were even street musicians playing local music – a rarity on our travels through a world now dominated by mass-produced global shit-pop pumping out of car stereos and shops:
But with only 30 days on our visa to cross over 5000 km of China, there was no time to linger and explore the more interesting sights of northern China – the Great Wall, the Buddhist caves in Dunhuang and the Teracotta Army in Xian. Instead, we hopped on the first available sleeper train for a 3-day ride to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province in the south.