China is a very difficult country to tour by bicycle. A combination of vast distances, visa limits, government control and the need for registered accommodation meant that any hope we may have had of exploring this mystical country and its epic history were dashed on our first day.
We were lucky to be there. Very few foreigners are able to apply for Chinese tourist visas from anywhere other than their home country. When we first discovered this we feared that we would have to fly from our new home, Uzbekistan, back to the UK and Ireland for a week. That would have been expensive and would not have gone down well with the school. As it happened, we enlisted the help of a small travel agency just before we set off towards China. I heard reports of european tourists being refused a visa that same week, by the same consulate, but the agency assured us that it could still be done. We were very excited on the evening when after waiting and hoping in our empty house for a week, our passports arrived back with the visas. Ok we were a good few hundred dollars lighter, but it was a like a ticket to leave our life of four years, a permit to hit the road east. It would be possible to continue the line from Scandinavia, to Australia. China was a huge land mass right in the way, and we knew that was no feasible alternative, so it was necessary. I regularly told myself this when something baffling happened, such as being escorted to an approved foreigners hotel at night by police with flashing lights, having to wait 10 days in the same place for a visa extension, being told that some towns are off-limits to foreigners, watching Han Chinese beauty therapists enthusiastically wield batons at local Uighur Muslims on a Friday etc etc.
I remember one night very clearly. In a town somewhere between Urumqi and Turpan, we had followed standard procedures upon arrival; visit the police station and wait for their reaction. This time there was simply a shrug of the shoulders and a shake of the head. Even though their was a roadside hotel a few metres away, we were not allowed to stay. We later found out that a government delegation were due to visit the following week, so there was some serious paranoid window-dressing going on meaning bad timing for us.
Camping is not allowed in China. It is not technically illegal, but it is illegal to be unregistered each day, so wild camping was never a consideration for us. We tried the transit station, maybe we could get a lift somewhere, as it was getting late. No - bicycles are not allowed on most forms of public transport. I tried my best to chat to as many people as possible, in the daft hope that one would offer a solution. No one did. One thought they had as sound idea, suggesting we just moved on to the next town ok for tourists. She said it was just down the road. We checked, it was nearly 100 kms away.
With no other option, we rode out of town, had a minor crash, bled, passed the many police checkpoints, and then hid in the brush next to a field. Night closed in and we put up the shell of the tent, which has a dull colour, all the while fearing that a policeman could wander the 100 metres or so from their checkpoint and stumble across us. If they did, would we have been arrested and held overnight? Would that have been a bad alternative?As it was, I did get a few hours of sleep in between the noise of the bullet train across the field to our south, the motorway to the west, the road a few yards to our east and a local trainline a few yards behind us. Niamh did not sleep, and it was a struggle to make the 100kms the next day. Thankfully though, it was down to the second lowest place on earth.
I have written about some of the things other that we experienced during our 2 months in China, travelling from the North Western province on Xinjiang (border with Kazakhstan) to the southern province of Yunnan (border with Laos). Many of these things I cannot explain, suffice to say, there is some real dodgy stuff going on, ethnic cleansing being one of them. The ironic thing is that much of the reason efforts are made to prevent foreigners from experiencing the real China are counter-productive. I'm writing about them now, and hopefully bringing your attention to the fact that what we see on TV has been approved by government controllers, what we hear of the economy's success is the one-sided view of the wealthy, what lies around a corner of a shiny city street is likely something that you really were not expecting.
We also found it tough going aside from the restrictions on movement. We found some of the Han Chinese people difficult to get on with. I know this is a blunt statement and one which is effectively referring to 19% of the worlds population, but we did. Maybe this was in part due to the way they were treating their Uighur countrymen, maybe it was the vulgar behaviour at the dinner table, maybe it was the abrasiveness of responses when we tried to communicate. I'm not sure, but it really tested us. We were travelling to learn and accept differences, but we were often put in a bad mood by someone, and spent the rest of the day pedalling to get out.
China is nuts, but if we had been able to extend our visas more than once, we probably would have seen more of it. We don't like skipping bits, but 45 days to cover 5500 kms was not enough. Two 30 days visas sounds like plenty of time, but when one has to arrive in town with a visa office well in advance of expiration, and wait for processing, it didn't feel like a lot of time. In hindsight, I think we gave it a good go. Were were able to see a range of landscapes and could feel subtle differences between some towns. We experienced pretty much all the weather conditions a cyclist can get, we felt the desert, and snow-capped peaks, tasted some wonderful grub and pedalled like two young-ones on a mission to get out of the country in time.