700 kilometres in a week from the Kazakh border to Urumqi, the capital of the Xingyiang Uyghur Autonomous region.
Link to interactive route map for China here.
Bikes and police - sums up this section of the journey pretty well
A disclaimer first : This blog post is subjective. It is purely one westerners view of another land. My norms are not other people's norms. This is simply an observation - not a judgement.
I have never been to a place that made me feel so uncomfortable.
It certainly made the previous weeks ride in the relative freedom and calm of south eastern Kazakhstan via the impressive Charyn Canyon feel more than a border checkpoint away.
Our first hotel in China
Crossing the border from Kazakhstan
At first glance, Hourgos seemed like a buzzing modern metropolis in the middle of nowhere. However, things quickly became extremely bizarre. Once the relatively orderly custom formalities had been completed, we rolled out on to an 8 lane dead-end street full of Chinese tourists taking photos of a border they would likely never cross. Then they spotted us. We immediately felt like Mickey & Minney mouse in a Disneyland and have done to some extent ever since. This place really made me wonder if my water bottle had been spiked. It is difficult to describe and explain just how flashey and shiney-disco-balley this new city is. A recent agreement between the two countries has enabled Kazakhs to cross in their droves on buses into a duty-free no man's land. The wealth generated from this was plain to see at least on this side if the border. Sadly, the city didn't really have a pulse. It all felt a bit hollow and after a rest we headed out into the unknown- the first few kilometers of 5000 in China.
First meal in China. A nice lady at our hotel wrote down her favourite dishes in Chinese for us to help us in restaurants.
Low alcohol content but tastes good ice cold.
For years now there has been tension in this region between the very much central asian looking and sounding, mainly Muslim Uyghur people and the Han Chinese.
There have been lots of skirmishes and explosions over the last decade in this region. Perhaps partly in protest of the government's attempts to dilute Uyghur culture and traditions, including the restriction of language learning in schools.
This tension filtered into our experience via a huge military and police presence, who were surveilling and controlling movements on roads, fuelling stations and every building including shops and hotels.
Nice police in Wusu who gave us watermelon (while confining us to the police station before escorting us to a "foreigner" hotel to prevent us wandering around unsupervised).
Even buying a bag of crisps required airport like security checks, much to Niamh's dismay. I am not sure what all this was for, nor do I want to think about it much, but it certainly tainted our view of what would otherwise have been a very hospitable part of the world.
A note on accommodation in this part of China- It's good, a little bit expensive and rather fancy for our needs, but comfortable. The annoying thing is that we had no choice. Wild camping is not illegal in Xingyiang, technically, but a foreigner not registering in a hotel each night is. Most of the time we found police checkpoints entering towns entertaining, but police escorts to hotels in the middle of the night were a bit ridiculous. I think all this rigmarole is so that authorities can keep tabs on where foreigners are, but surely us announcing our presence at highway checkpoints would suffice? Uh..no. In fact, one day we were told there were no hotels for foreigners so we could not stay in the town at all. So, whilst many of the people we met were friendly and hospitable, many had their welcoming hands tied by red tape. I guess that I've never experienced division and deep routed differences amoungst people of the some nationality, albeit only politically.
After our enforced escort to the hotel.
China Part 2 video
The riding itself was fast and smooth. We followed the G30 highway (from kilometre 1 of its 4800) up to Sayram lake. On occasions we had to come off and follow a secondary or service road as bicycles are not allowed on certain parts. This never presented us with too much of a problem or a detour in the 1000 kilometres we were to cycle, as the police who stopped us helped us get off of the highway anyway. We had the feeling that they couldn't really be bothered to remove us at various other points when we were noticed. It seems that some understood that a nice wide shoulder for us to ride on was less likely to result in an accident than a windy thin road with lots more traffic.
Friendly chef on our lunch stop before Sayram lake
Almost got stranded in the dark without anywhere to stay til we found this house. Overcharged us a bit but don't really blame them - doubt there's much passing tourist traffic with the fenced-in motorway.
There would be days ahead where the minor road, probably just the old road before the highway, snaked away from the highway, but for the majority of the time they ran parallel. So we made an effort to stick to the minor road when we could. There were benefits of this- no paranoia about being pulled by the rozzers, shade, exits, fewer puncture-making lorry tyre wire entrails, protection from headwinds and a more immersive rural experience. The cons were that it was much slower, with many more hazards, sudden inclines and it was a bit less direct.
The reason why I am writing a lot about this is because it was just about the only thing to think about or look at for over a week. I guess our brains needed some dilemma to contemplate, so pretty much my entire brain power was spent on this each day. Thankfully podcasts came to our rescue.
One of many motorway rest stops which eased the boredom a bit.
We also frequently passed, or were passed by another touring cyclist. Still the only other foreign cyclist we have seen in China, and at the time of writing this we are 2500km in. She was a nice Canadian lady who had toured in southeast Asia in past years and was this year coming from Georgia. It was nice to chat, share views and learn about each other.
As the 3 of us approached the city limits of Urumqi I remember feeling rather proud of our focus and perseverance through what could have been a rather bleak full week of riding.
Big city lights in Urumqi
Arriving in the city after a long week of riding
It was a tricky urban ride with our cumbersome loads weaving through traffic but we made it to a hotel we had booked for 3 nights. Our bodies needed a rest but our minds didn't so we busied ourselves, as those who know me would expect.
Temple in Hongshan park
Drying a LOT of laundry in a fancy hotel room. The divider proved useful for hanging underwear.
Sightseeing and stretching the legs
A few days later it began to dawn on me that not only is China rather large, but the 30 day validity of our visas would be rather restrictive. From then on much of our route would have to be planned with a place to get a 30 day extension in mind. A new rule limiting foreigners to one extension on an L-Visa would mean that sacrifices both in terms of sites to visit and means of transport would have to be made.
Thus, I write this wordy blog from Xining where we are having to wait 7 days for a visa extension!
Link to interactive route map for China here.