Zharkent, Kazakhstan to Jiayuguan, China.
October 13th – November 22nd 2018
Warning: this is a two-cup-of-tea blog…
Pete and I felt sad to leave Kazakhstan. It was a warm, sunny afternoon as we headed for the Chinese border at Khorgas. We had lots of merry hoots from passing cars, gifts of bananas and one family stopped on the other side of the dual carriageway, ran to the central barrier and handed us 2 large bags of rosy red apples. It was as if they were all saying , “Please don’t go, China won’t be half as nice”.
Coupled with the paranoia we were already feeling about entering Xinjiang, of which we had heard nothing good, as the border drew near I could feel tears pricking my eyes. The central Asian countries will always hold a place in our hearts for their welcoming kindness, their beauty and drama and the excitement and privilege we have felt just being there.
But now we were here, almost exactly a year since leaving home. There was China where over a billion people live and a place that is increasingly making an impact on all our lives.
As we got to within 4 km of the crossing, trucks lined the roads with the drivers smoking, chatting, sleeping, all looking prepared for a long wait. We passed them by and sailed on nervously.
We had heard such a lot about this crossing and the procedures we would have to go through. Facial recognition, fingerprinting, body scan, spy ware inserted into our tablets, tools, scissors, knives, confiscated. We were ready for anything and had spent time preparing and making sure that everything was either hidden, disposed of or would be of no interest. We were first stopped to have our bikes disinfected and I quickly removed the banana which was held by a bungee on my back rack. The border guard pointed to it and indicated that I couldn’t take it through. “What can I do with it?” I asked as there were no bins and offered it to him to eat. He refused and said that I must eat it. It’s incredibly hard to eat a banana for which you have no appetite and with a man in a uniform with a gun watching you, but I did, but then had the problem of what to do with the skin. I slipped it quietly back under the bungee which didn’t seem to cause any consternation so I can only assume that a banana skin with no banana in it is much less dangerous than one with. As we moved on to the next stage I was focusing all my fears on that banana skin and knew I had to get rid of it. We cycled for about 5 minutes and I did consider throwing it under a pathside bush but there were so many cameras around that I thought I might be accused of planting some kind of banana shaped bomb. At last I saw a bin and veered off the trajectory we were taking which caused consternation and shouts went up so I could almost feel the rifles being pointed at me and hear the safety catches being released. I waved the banana skin around like a flag of surrender and flung it at the bin from a distance not caring now where it went and felt like shouting ” I’m British. I’m innocent. It’s only a banana skin”.
After that debacle everything went well and we underwent all of the checks with great efficiency. In fact we were the only people going through and wondered why the lorry drivers were being left outside to wait. One dodgy moment arrived when I had to suppress hysterical laughter as Pete floated by on a conveyor belt on his way to the body scanner. I began to wonder if they would be able to tell what we’d had for lunch. Sadly we had to hand over our lovely red apples along with an onion and two tomatoes but a pair of scissors in my bag went undetected and Pete’s pen knife remained in his possession.
It took just 40 minutes and the door was almost opened into China except for a policeman on the gate who was asleep with his head on the table. We had to wake him up and he looked at us groggily with the imprint of the table on his cheek before opening the gate and letting us through.
We were in China . After all the bureaucratic nightmare we had to go through to get here it felt a bit unreal and of course it immediately looked very different -and big. It also felt cold. The temperature had dropped about 10 degrees and the sky had turned a leaden grey. Was this an omen? We both shivered, took some quick photos and cycled silently into Khorgas.
The province of Xinjiang is huge, the size of Britain, France, Germany and Spain added together. If it were a country it would be the sixteenth largest in the world. In reality it cannot be called a province as its official title is the Xinjiang Uigher Autonomous Region. The Uighers ( pronounced wee-gurs ) are the largest ethnic group here and the ones subject to intense suppression of their way of life and their religion which is Islam. Human rights organisation describe Xinjiang as the world’s largest open prison where Uighers are taken into detention to be re-educated and assimilated into the Chinese way of life. They are not allowed to practice their religion, have beards, wear the hijab, eat halal food or attend the mosque. We have read that Uighers are removed to detention centres for re-education and families are divided and the children of parents who are taken away are put into orphanages.
There has been violence and protest from the Uighers and the governments reaction has been to systematically destroy their way of life and ethnicity and impose an unprecedented amount of security and restrictions on movement for all of the people living here.
We knew that this wasn’t the best place to enter China and not one that would necessarily be typical of the rest of the country, but we had no choice. We had heard lots of stories from other travellers, so in a way were well prepared. One person had quite strongly advised us to skip it and get a train or bus through. “Too much mindless bureaucracy “. “Too much police interference “. “Depressing”. But we didn’t want to do that and having cycled all the way here, we did want to complete our journey to the wall by bike. There was also an element of wanting to see for ourselves and make our own opinion. We would keep an open mind, maintain our sense of humour and be ready for anything.
Khorgas wasn’t a place we wanted to linger in but we needed to stay the night and found a heavily guarded hotel with two guards at the entrance complete with riot shields, hard hats and batons. The whole town is festooned in razor wire and every building is guarded with huge yellow and black concrete blocks blocking entrances. It was a town under siege and had a quiet, eerie, depressing air. People looked at us suspiciously and the only friendly encounter we had was from a group of teenage boys who wanted to take selfies with us. This came as a relief and we happily smiled into the camera with them and enjoyed their laughter.
One strange man approached us and asked to see our passports and said he was an off duty policeman. We refused and nervously wondered what would happen but he slunk away looking a bit guilty.
This was the final leg of our journey and we had nearly 2000 kms to go before we reached the Great Wall. Initially we were heading for Urumqi which is the capital of Xinjiang 660 kms away. We had two uneventful police checks before we hit the open road and felt we were able to relax a little. Cameras flashed incessantly at us from above the road and after a while we decided to wave and smile at them just in case there was someone actually looking at us and in the hope that it might brighten their day just a little.
We stopped for a snack by the side of the road and sat on the steps of a bridge. We were soon joined by a gang of 10 year olds eager to have a look at us and our bikes and twirl the pedals and ping the bells. They disappeared for 10 minutes and came back with armfuls of small grapes which we think they possibly “scrumped ” from a nearby vineyard and gave to us as presents. They then ran back over the bridge laughing and waving goodbye and I did find myself wondering what they felt, if anything about all the security that surrounded them. Was it all as normal to them as traffic lights would be to a European child? Do they notice it at all?
As dusk approached that first day we had to confront the problem of where to spend the night. We knew that camping was not allowed because we were meant to stay in a place that was officially allowed to accommodate foreigners. We knew that there were no hotels anyway for the next 250kms and thought that we would be able to get off the road into woods and just hide. As darkness approached we saw a police check ahead and our hearts sank as we knew that they would not let us through at that time knowing full well that there was nowhere we could stay, officially, beyond the check point. The likely scenario would be that they would send us back to Khorgas now 70 km away . As we were standing wondering what to do a man on horse back herding 2 cows along the road towards us gesticulated to us to follow him back down the road. We looked at one another and shrugged and thought we would follow and see what happened. We were a little wary as we had been warned against accepting hospitality from Uighers in particular as it could get both us and them into trouble. We decided that if we were at all worried when we got to his house we would just leave. It was however very relaxed and we were invited into a lovely warm and comfortable house and offered supper and a bed by the shepherd and his wife. They were Kazakhs and later on their son turned up and it turned out that he was a policeman in Khorgas so it was then that it was ok for us to be there.
Over the next few days we cycled further into this strange place through bleak but dramatic mountain scenery. It was cold and we anticipated snow . The wind was icy and made it difficult to stop and rest. We were cycling on motorway which we were allowed to do as there was no alternative. The road was quiet, deliciously smooth, with a wide and reassuring hard shoulder.
The road resembled a tubular prison as we couldn’t get off it. A very substantial crash barrier to our right and beyond that a sturdy, tall and well maintained fence. For a few days our only option was to sleep under the road in culverts. Other people had told us that this was a good way of being invisible and having a good sheltered nights sleep and so It was. We got to like the culverts and even started a
There were service stations about every 50 kms and we began to really appreciate their shelter and warmth and to be able to stock up on tea and snacks and also have a meal. People were always very friendly and we were well photographed. On one occasion a coach pulled up at the same time as us and a group of women spilled out, some of whom came over to say hello. They flocked around Pete like bees around the honeypot and when he spoke they dissolved into girlish giggles. I was completely sidelined while they were photographed with him and I can only assume that they were rather smitten with his film star good looks.
Police checks became more frequent as we got nearer to Urumqi but were friendly and we never felt intimidated but they could be frustratingly time consuming. Our passports caused great consternation and were studied very intently, even the blank pages. After about 20 minutes they would then turn to us and ask ” where are you from?” We were directed to certain hotels that would accept foreigners which were usually the most expensive but after sleeping in culverts for a few nights we weren’t going to complain about luxurious surroundings. We arrived at one hotel at 10pm and the receptionist said she thought we looked tired and would we like a footbath? Half an hour later two ladies arrived at our room with wooden buckets full of rose petals that they then filled up with hot water. They also brought us milk and yoghurt and fruit and left us happily steaming, munching and slurping and we slept very well that night.
Occasionally the police insisted on accompanying us through towns because we weren’t allowed to stop there. This involved us being closely followed by a police van, holding up most of the traffic. We didn’t know whether we would look like celebrities or criminals but chose the former and waved at passers by until we realised that no one was waving back or even looking at us so we became criminals and just looked embarrassed. We did however enjoy stopping at pedestrian crossings as nobody does that here. The pedestrians looked at us in amazement and wouldn’t cross and pointed to the van behind us. We folded our arms and waited till they crossed and wished we could have said to them that we had plenty of time and it seems like your police force does as well.
It was on this stretch of road that we met Karl Bushby from Hull who hopes to become the first person to walk around the world. He has been walking since 1998 and hopes to be in the UK in a few years time. What an amazing man and we were lucky enough to be able to talk to him by the side of the road for half an hour while a police car cruised backwards and forwards watching us. Karl has written a book called Giant Steps which I have now read and his description of crossing the Bering Straits on foot across the ice is incredible. We felt privileged to have met him.
One rather memorable encounter with the police came one evening when we arrived at a check point and were told there was nowhere nearby where we could stay. We asked if we could sleep in our tent behind the police station or even curl up in their sitting room for the night. No, no, no. Horror struck expressions. Well what can we do then? They then offered to accompany us to the next check point which was 40 km away. We refused. It was dark, we were hungry and tired and couldn’t have made it that far that night. Stalemate. We were left in a room, I got out my knitting and Pete went to sleep. I was hoping he would start dribbling and they would feel sorry for us.
Eventually someone came and told us that they would transport us to the next check point. We would go in a police car and they had commandeered a passing van to take our bikes. What happened next became a little surreal. We handed over our bikes to a complete stranger who then sped off into the darkness. We got into the police car, sirens wailing, blue lights flashing. I was in the back with no seat belt, Pete was in the front and when he went to put his on the policeman said “nah, you don’t need that”. We then sped along the highway at 100km with of all things Carmina Burana played at high volume on the radio. The moon then started to rise ahead of us, a huge, orange ball, definitely laughing. We had to stop for petrol and as petrol stations in Xinjiang are the most highly protected and barricaded of any other installation we had to get out of the car and wait for its return. As it sped off down a side lane and we were left shivering in the dark I realised that we were now in a situation where other people who we weren’t totally sure we could trust were in possession of both our passports and our bikes. Gulp.
We needn’t have worried. Our car returned full of petrol and within the hour we were reunited with our bikes. I felt like a parent with separation anxiety.
We were greeted at the next check point by another policeman who I shall call Lee as we got to know him rather well. He looked about 16, was thin and bespectacled and was drowned by his bullet proof vest and rifle. He looked as if he would have been far more comfortable in jeans and a t shirt with Make Love not War emblazoned across the front. He was very nice, softly spoken and made us feel looked after.
We still however had to go through the rigmarole of our passport inspection by the end of which I thought that Lee could have written a dissertation on them.
It was now getting late. Lee brought us some crisps and pop which helped a bit but after about an hour of not really knowing what was happening Pete put his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. I patted him on the back and said “there, there, it’ll all work out don’t worry “, at which point his shoulders started to shake. I think there was a bit of amateur dramatics going on here but it had an amazing effect and the whole room of about 10 policemen was galvanised into action. Papers were scurried around the desk, our passports were shut and put to one side and Lee dashed from the room as if there was a fire. He came back 10 minutes later saying he had found a hospital and we should go. Oh no! They thought Pete was ill but never mind it would get us back on the road we would make up some imaginary illness when we got to the hospital. Perhaps Pete could admit to a rather numb bottom after cycling 14,500 kms.
We went outside to find a van and driver waiting for us and it looked like one of those vans that collect prisoners from court and they come out with a blanket over their head and all the photographers rush at the windows as the van pulls away. There was no blanket and no photographers but we piled our bikes in the back, got in ourselves and were happy to be en famille once again. Lee was coming with us and began to explain that the hospital would charge between 100 and 200 yuan (between £10 and £20) per night to stay there ,was that OK? Yes that was fine but we thought it rather odd and I tentatively asked him if we could possibly go to a hotel rather than a hospital. He looked back at the translator on his phone and then seemed a bit embarrassed and told us he meant hostel not hospital at which point we all laughed uproariously and relaxed into the journey. Lee even gave us his phone to choose some music and we chose Simon and Garfunkel and sang along happily to Homeward Bound. He also told us that he had arranged to meet his ‘leader’ at the hotel so that the hotel management could be persuaded to let us stay there. Things were looking good. We hummed along to Mrs Robinson.
I’ve just realised that this story is getting rather long so do skip to the end if you’re dropping off.
We stopped at the hotel in a town called Changji, optimistically took the bikes out of the van and headed for the lobby. Our leader who we were now calling Mr Big, wasn’t there yet so we waited in silence with two elderly Uigher men who were waiting for their id’s to be checked at the police station next door. We eyed one another suspiciously thinking that we were sort of in the same boat but not.
Finally Mr Big arrived and strutted into the lobby completely ignoring us but demanding that all the staff stand to attention and recite some sort of drill. All were standing and looking nervous except the Uigher men and us. We now decided to call Mr Big , Mr Obnoxious as he was taking great delight in humiliating everyone especially the guard on the door who couldn’t remember the words. Ironically that guard was the only person to discover my scissors in my bag which all the other scanners and searchers had missed so I thought he was rather good at his job. Mr B/O then disappeared to talk to the hotel receptionist and there was a lot of mutterring before he came to us and started rifling through our bags paying particular attention to my diary and Pete’s wallet.
It was then that the receptionist appeared – we shall call her Ms Feisty Receptionist- who, though we have found that when Chinese people speak to one another they can sometimes sound angry even though they are not, it was obvious that she was incandescent with rage. Even though I can’t understand Chinese I think her speech went something like this:
“You make these ridiculous rules that say foreigners can’t stay in our lovely hotel and then you come waltzing in here expecting us to break those rules just like that. We’ll it’s not big and it’s not funny and I can’t and I won’t so put that in your pipe and smoke it”, at which point Mr B/O started to quiver with rage , spun on his heel and left, leaving behind him a collective sigh of relief. I wanted to punch the air and shout “Right on sister” but just gave her a big smile instead to show there were no hard feelings. Lee cocked his head and said let’s go and we all tramped back out to the van. This scenario was repeated at the next hotel where, I think coincidentally, there was another Mr Big, equally Obnoxious humiliating the staff who smiled at us and shrugged apologetically. Fortunately we hadn’t taken the bikes out of the van that time and Lee then declared that we would have to go to the plushest and most expensive hotel in town where he knew we could stay. We didn’t care, it was gone midnight and I think we would have re-mortgaged our house for a bed.
Lee was really taking the lead on all this and I think he has a good future ahead of him. When we got to the plush hotel, he bargained for the best price for the room which we got cheap because it had no windows. We also found out later that it smelt of bad drains but by this point we didn’t care.
Lee and his colleague took all our bags to the room and at one point I thought they were going to put us to bed and tuck us in but no, because when we got into the room a strange thing happened. Lee started to search the room even to looking behind mirrors and under the telephone. I thought that he might be looking for bugs and on finding none he would declare to us what a time wasting load of old rubbish this was. But no, he seemed happy and wished us goodnight and he and his equally lovely colleague disappeared from our lives forever.
The next day we made it to Urumqi which is apparently the most remote city from any sea in the world. This felt like a big step. It was our first Chinese city, with skyscrapers, 6 lane roads through the town, flyovers and flyunders, modern wide roads and busy streets. A consumer paradise, or hell depending on which way you look at it, and our eyes were wide with the variety and extent of what we could buy if we wanted to. We had an enjoyable few days there which was extended due to bad weather -gales and heavy rain which made staying in our warm and cosy hostel very appealing.
We visited the excellent municipal museum which amazed us with an exhibition celebrating the multi ethnic nature of Xinjiang with words telling us that there were 47 different ethnic groups all living happily and peacefully together.
This particular exhibit which looked scarily real maybe says a lot, that yes, the Uighers have beautiful clothes and traditions but soon, if not now it will just be something to photograph in specially designated places and not actually happening in reality.
We visited the bazaar which is usually the place where you can experience a bit of local colour and life. The food, the clothes, the little eateries and street food – they are always buzzing, busy places which we enjoy wandering through. Not so here. The original bazaar must have been cleared away because here we saw a sanitised version of what a bazaar should be. We had to go through heavy security to get in and then found it to be a soulless, quiet place with identical stalls selling tourist trinkets.
Uigher dancing had been put on specially for tourists , most of whom are Han Chinese and we did enjoy watching it but there was a sadness in the realisation that it too is just a showpiece and a pretence that all is well in Xinjiang.
Of all the towns that we have now passed through on our journey through this part of China we have really enjoyed the parks. They have all been beautiful, green places with weeping willows and large open spaces for people to gather. There is a lot of communal gathering and our first experience was in Urumqi where, once we had found the way in through the guarded entrance we watched people dancing, singing, playing table tennis, card games, playing GO (or Wéiqí which is a bit like chess) and exercising. It was all very relaxed but we found it strange that there were no children in this particular park just people definitely over 40.
Where we are now in Jiayuguan there is a lovely park opposite our hotel which is open to all and there are different groups dancing there all day. I love the fact that there is no self consciousness in what people are doing at all and this chap was dancing on his own with great abandonment. It all seems very joyful.
It was time to leave Urumqi which despite us not usually enjoying cities we were enjoying the comfort of the place we were staying in, the warmth, the food and just not having to cycle. We knew that our next stretch of the journey was across part of the Gobi Desert and might be challenging in terms of the weather, length of daily journeys, places to find food and shelter. We divided it up into bite sized pieces which were the remainder of the elephant, probably his tail and decided we would stop for rests at Turpan, Hami and Guazhou all about 200-400kms apart.
I must admit to feeling a little stressed at this point. It was becoming very cold and I wondered how we would cope with camping. The heavy traffic on the roads always bothered me, particularly the noise which is inescapable even during the night. The heavy security certainly had an effect on us, even inducing paranoia. At our hotel in Hami I looked out of the window one evening and saw a police car directly underneath in the car park. I fell back into the room and said to Pete” don’t speak, they’re listening in”. “But I was only going to ask you what we should have for supper “he wailed !! Everywhere we looked in every town there were policemen, local guards, police stations every 500metres. Flashing lights everywhere, even, at night on the policemen’s uniforms. And yet the prevailing atmosphere seemed to be boredom. We would often see guards asleep at their post and once saw a policeman asleep in his car.
I suppose when somewhere is so heavily guarded it induces a sense of security and lack of danger that life does become rather boring and predictable. I remember two guards sitting at the door of a service station we went to. They looked almost catatonic and hardly reacted when we went through. I needed to go out to the bikes twice and each time smiled and tried to get a reaction. There was music on the loudspeaker and I did a little skip and a dance as I went past. Nothing. I wondered if when it was time for them to go to home if someone came and clicked their fingers in front of their eyes to wake them up.
Our paranoia led us to believe that we were being communicated
with by MI5 as we kept seeing the numbers 007 everywhere.
On our second day out of Urumqi we stopped at a Uigher village for lunch and chose one of many cafes along the street but the one which looked the busiest which is usually a good sign. As we entered, the place went quiet, people looked at us, then looked away and didn’t respond to our greetings. We knew we were now travelling through the area that had recently been on the news at home for supposedly having a large detention centre somewhere in its midst and knew we needed to be sensitive to this and keep our heads down. We were tucking into our lunch when the police arrived, obviously alerted by someone to our presence there. This policeman was not nice and he puffed smoke from his cigarette all over our food as he looked at our passports. He then asked us to go outside and open all our panniers. Meanwhile our smoke covered food was getting cold. He asked me for my phone and looked totally disgusted when I handed him my little Nokia mobile. “No, phone, phone”. “It is my phone”. He didn’t believe me but eventually he stormed off, convinced, we hoped, that we weren’t well disguised journalists.
We thought that was that but it wasn’t because for the rest of that day we were followed by a police car not very surreptitiously but creepily, as it would be behind us and then overtake and wait until we had gone past and then leapfrog us again. We then started waving as it went past so that they knew that we knew that they were keeping an eye on us. It was disconcerting particularly as we knew we couldn’t disappear and camp somewhere as they would come and look for us. It all worked out OK though as we eventually reached a police check where they arranged for us to stay in a hotel. It was at this police check that they asked to see any photographs we had on our tablets so we showed them pictures of our grandchildren and the environs around Hallbankgate. “This is Iona on her first day at school. This is Isabel playing with her (toy) chainsaw. This is Joseph on a beach on Mull. This a big smile from Juniper. Oh and this is our house and this is Hallbankgate Hub”. They looked at them politely before their eyes started to glaze over and then asked for “tourist photos” to which we replied “no,we don’t have any” which was honest as they never asked to see our camera. The police were waiting for us the next morning to accompany us out of town but we insisted on having breakfast first and they waited outside our cafe while we tucked into steamed buns and tea with all the workers.
This last bit of our journey towards the western end of the Great Wall has been tough but we have survived and looking back we definitely know we wouldn’t have wanted to have missed it for anything. We have experienced a bit of China that many tourists don’t see and despite the real handicap of not being able to speak to people we felt in a small way we have got to know what the people here are like. Despite all the rules, regulation, organisation and security overload they are warm, friendly and smiling. The main reaction to us has mainly been laughter which sometimes we could have felt hurt about but in the main we thought it better that people laughed than cried when they saw us.
We managed to avoid camping after just one night when the temperature in the desert plummeted to – 11c and may have been lower during the night. We didn’t sleep well and shivered despite our sleeping bags telling us that we should be comfortable down to -25c. After that we stayed at some interesting places and the only thing they had in common was the fact that they had 4 walls and a roof. Some were clean, some were extremely dirty. Some were warm, one was colder than our tent. One was a store room full of beer but with a bed and the owners brought in a pot bellied stove, opened a hole in the ceiling for a chimney, provided us with hot water and a bowl for washing. Such kindness. One had no lock on the door and an electric plug in the shower.
The weather on the whole has been good.
Most days the sun has shone brightly and the sky has been a deep blue. It has been dry. One day it snowed briefly. Except for one memorable occasion the wind has been light or behind us. On that occasion the wind was so strong that it became dangerous. We began to realise why this area had one of the biggest wind farms in the world having an “ installed capacity reaching 2 million kilowatts of electricity “.
The wind speeds we think hit about 70 kph. We knew that once we passed the next service station there would be nowhere for us to stay as we would be way out in the desert with no shelter . I think it would have been impossible to pitch the tent. We decided to go back the 1 kilometre to the service station and it took us an hour with the wind now against us to get there. Frightening. There was no accommodation for us at the service area and we found out that the wind was due to last for 2 more days. Panic. A very nice man who ran the shop and spoke some English asked us if we would like him to call the police. Yes please, it seemed drastic but a good solution as they wouldn’t want us hanging about there for 2 days. Sure enough half an hour later two very nice policemen turned up with a van and transported us and the bikes all the way to Turpan 60kms away.
We enjoyed Turpan, an oasis town and the second lowest point on the earth after the Dead Sea at 150m below sea level.
While there we had a days sightseeing when we shared a taxi with a very nice Chinese couple from Shanghai. The sights we saw had a rather run down, theme park feel to them and I was particular disappointed with the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. This was the one place I very much wanted to see after reading Peter Hopkirk’s book, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. This told the story of how in the early 1900’s, archaeologists, mainly from Europe, explored this part if the world looking for Buddhist art treasures many of which were remarkably well preserved because of the dry desert conditions. Wall paintings, manuscripts and sculptures were carried away by the ton and are now to be found in various museums around Europe. Some of the murals are still there but have been defaced, quite literally and there was little to see. We were only allowed into 4 of the Caves and the visit was soon over. I did however enjoy the surroundings which were beautiful deep red mountains and valleys and it was easy to imagine the camel trains bringing the explorers all of whom suffered severely in the conditions they were working in. They were very tough people and dedicated to what they were doing and not there for any financial reward but to learn and study. Yet it is hard with the luxury of hindsight to think kindly of them and what they did has caused an everlasting resentment from the Chinese themselves.
I have never worn a corset but I can imagine that the feeling we got when we left Xinjiang was a bit like taking one off when you have been wearing it for too long. Everything flopped and we immediately felt more relaxed and comfortable. Our first shock was seeing an unguarded petrol station. There was still the odd police check but we were waved through cheerily. Gone was all the razor wire and our bags haven’t been scanned for ages. China already felt a better place to be.
We’re well aware that passing through Xinjiang for us was an experience and has given us some good tales to tell but that underlying all of that is a desperate situation that impacts on all of those countries that wish to trade and be friendly with China. Let’s hope that with international pressure the situation for the Uigher changes soon.
We were now in Gansu province and the wall was in sight. We knew we were still on the Silk Road when we saw a parked up lorry with its load of camels sitting in the back. Not the sort of load you would see on the M6.
Many people here travel around the towns on electric scooters which are ideal and you see all sorts of things being transported on them. I noticed in the cold weather that they had large mittens covering the handle bars that you put your hands into and I felt rather envious of these but they were always attached to a sort of canopy that came down the front of the bike to act as a sort of wind break.
I didn’t need a canopy but thought the mittens would be great as my hands were often stiff with cold. Imagine my delight when we saw the mitts being sold separately on a market stall the only problem being that I had a choice of mitts covered with purple mushrooms or alternatively bespectacled teddy bears. I chose the teddy bears in bright yellow but did worry that Ruby, my bike, might find them a little undignified. But when I put it to her she said that she liked the juxtaposition of the rather alluring black lace with the star covered yellow bow and teddy bear. She thought that it gave her an air of light-hearted sophistication that suited her personality. Her only disappointment was that they didn’t suit her colour scheme.
I myself feel a bit of a twit in them but at least I now have constantly warm hands.
I still don’t know how I feel about China. I think it might be easier to think objectively about it once we have left. There is so much that is irritating and goes against our terribly polite and well behaved British grain. Spitting and hawking, being terribly noisy, allowing doors to slam in someone’s face, not knowing how to queue, invading body space and privacy. Most of the time we really don’t know what’s going on and life seems confusing. Yesterday we got very excited when we saw a coffee shop as we haven’t seen one for months. We went in and asked for two lattés which were advertised on the menu on the wall. Coffee? No, no coffee here. What do you think we are, a coffee shop? Food is always an endless delight of not quite knowing what we are going to get and then when we get it not quite knowing even then what it is. But that is fun and it usually tastes very good.
There is obvious poverty here but also great wealth. It’s a country onthe move always. It feels materialistic, fast, busy and noisy. We both read an excellent book called China Road by Rob Gifford who because he was leaving China after working as a journalist here for 10 years took a road trip along the G312 from Shanghai to the Kazakhstan border. He talks to ordinary people along the way, truckers, teachers, farmers, nurses, people on buses and gives a real insight into the lives of ordinary people in China and also filled us in on its history. It seems strange to me that we see pictures and busts of Chairman Mao making him seem like a very revered figure.
And yet, during his Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution he was reponsible for the deaths of up to 70 million people. Confusing.
At the end of Rob’s book he says ” As a journalist I am supposed not to care. I’m supposed just to observe. But how can I not care when a fifth of humanity is being convulsed before my eyes, and thousands are making millions, and millions are being crushed? And if I seem a little confused about China, it’s because I am. And if you’re not confused, then you simply haven’t been paying attention”.
One thing is for sure China is endlessly fascinating and I could imagine getting hooked.
And so we reached The Wall. It was a bright sunny day. We arrived at a junction on the brand new road which wasn’t on our map and asked some policemen which road to take to the Great Wall of China. There were three of them and it caused endless discussion. I wanted to shout “but 1 million people visit this wall every year, you must know where it is”. But what was the point of getting impatient at this stage and eventually there was unanimous agreement as to which road we should take and off we went.
On our way down the road we looked to our left and saw what looked suspiciously like a wall. There was a track leading down and nothing to stop us so down we went. Here it was. Not the official bit for photographing but an old unrenovated heap of wall. All was quiet and we looked and enjoyed before going to buy our ticket.
We had made it.
Eating cauliflower with chopsticks is easy.
Language. Chris didn’t understand what the hotel receptionist was trying to say so she wrote it down. We said we still didn’t understand so she wrote it down again. When we still didn’t get it she wrote something down a third time and this time put a box around it and underlined it. Unfortunately underlining didn’t seem to help.
Noodles. We were spending the night with a family. This was our second night in China. There were just two rooms and in one there was a boxy stove that doubled as a cooking range. It was in this room that we watched our supper being prepared. While we watched we were given sort of hors d’oeuvres – bread, sweets, dried horsemeat and jam. The top circular hotplates were removed and a large wok shaped pan set into the hole. In went tomatoes, chillies, peppers, potatoes and a good glug of soy sauce. Our host then made a dough of flour and water, she kneaded it a little and then formed it into long thin sausages. Lots of water, some precooked meat and a good dollop of tomato paste were added to the soup. The ‘sausage’ pieces were then flattened into ribbons which she then ripped into about 20mm pieces with amazing dexterity and speed fired them into the bubbling pot. When the last noodles were in, the soup was ready! The bread was Kazakhstan – flat, stale and hard. The soup was Kazakhstan too I think but with definitely a strong hint of China.
Our first noodles – but by no means our last.
The great game. We had spoken to many cyclists and read huge amounts of blogs and whatsapp postings on the difficulties of cycling in Xinjiang. We were prepared, anxious and trepidatious. Should we have been so worried? I’m not sure. Would it have been better to come with an open mind having read nothing? I’m not sure.
We devised a game:
50 points every time we’re stopped by the police.
1 point per minute we are questioned.
5 points per kilometre we’re taken by vehicle in the right direction.
20 points per kilometre we’re driven in the wrong direction.
2 points per kilometre escorted.
We had a good few days where the score was zero and then there were some days where we lost count completely – so the game was abandoned…
Eating a fried egg with chopsticks is not easy.
Hard beds. We checked into a fancy hotel. The bed was like an ironing board, but a bit wider.
Breakfast. Shredded green vegetables, bean sprouts, fried mushrooms with pork, egg fried rice, meat filled steamed buns, cauliflower with chilli and meat, hard boiled eggs, biscuits and Swiss roll – for breakfast.
The cuisine is improving by every mile we travel east. But I’m dreaming of rhubarb crumble… with cream.
Eating rice with chopsticks is a skill.
Bread. It’s virtually non-existent in this part of China. There are steamed rolls for breakfast. Similar to bread rolls in Europe but steamed which means they look exactly the same as they did before they were cooked – like dough. Any other bread we’ve found has been dry to the point of being inedible. Noodles, however are omnipresent. More often than not they are ‘hand pulled’. Which means that they are made to order and often you can watch them being made. We photographed the whole process in the breakfast restaurant of a hotel.
The process starts with dough which I suspect has been well kneaded.
It’s then stretched and halved in length.
Then with a deft flick of the wrists the whole thing is twisted and at the same time banged violently down onto the work surface. I get the feeling that the louder the bang the better. l think the Chinese like loud noises…
It is stretched again and the whole process repeated. Bang! Stretch, Twist.
Suddenly instead of two strands it has become twenty! And they’re all the same thickness – think spaghetti. That’s when the magic happens.
The long strands are popped into a huge cauldron and 50 seconds (yes, I timed it) later the cooked noodles are fished out, a bouillon is added, you add your own chopped greenery and chilli sauce – and there’s breakfast! or lunch, or dinner…
This is not confined to hotels. From the smallest smoke filled stove warmed trucker’s cafe to the poshest hotels the soundtrack on our journey in this part of China has been punctuated by the banging of noodles.
Peanuts are easy to eat with chopsticks – but take time.
The silk road. The silk road is not just a thing of history. It’s twenty-first century. In 2013 President Xi launched the ‘Belt and Road initiative which in very simple terms is a 90 billion dollar infrastructure project which links China to the rest of the world. It’s sea routes, rail networks and roads criss-crossing the ancient silk roads, heading for Europe and North America. Roads which we’ve cycled along. Brand new roads with silk smooth asphalt surfaces which run alongside brand new motorways with cloverleaf intersections that as yet don’t go anywhere but they soon will. Flyovers spanning huge dry riverbeds. High speed railway lines marching on stilts across rocky desert. Slow, lumbering trains, two locomotives dragging half a mile of containers towards Europe.
Some predict that the number of containers being transported by train each year will rise from 7,500 in 2012 to 7.5 million in 2020. Hewlett Packard has moved production from Shanghai to Chongqing in the south west where it now produces 20 million laptops and 15 million printers a year. Millions of which are shipped by rail. Sobering statistics.
Eating slippery noodles with chopsticks is a crime against table manners.
Tea. We needed to stop and rest. We were just a couple of days into China and really didn’t have a clue. We were Chinese virgins. We thought we’d stop at a wayside cafe and have a nice cup of tea. The cafe was rough and ready, a good few people slurping their noodles. Garlic skin and cigarette butts on the floor. A roaring coal fired stove, banging woks, swirling vegetables and thumping noodle dough. Everybody looking at us. Could we have tea? We mimed. We got some even more strange looks. Didn’t we want noodles? Actually we didn’t. But we had them anyway. With tea. We’ve since realized that tea is automatic. Tea comes with everything. Sometimes green tea, sometimes black. Sometimes with sugar, sometimes not. But there’s always tea. You order food, and along comes tea, then food.
Have I mentioned breakfast? – at a good hotel. With rice and noodles and pork with mushrooms… You can’t get tea though… you can have hot water, hot milk but no tea…
We’ve now bought a vacuum flask. It replaces our lost stove. Motorway service areas, cafes and truck stops will all happily fill your flask with hot water. We just add tea…
The international dialling code for Russia is…. 007
Speaking of garlic… Often on cafe tables there is a bulb or two of garlic. Sometimes a whole dishful. For you to munch on in between mouthfuls of noodles.
Supermarkets. Occasionally we’re followed around in a supermarket by staff anxious to help but for the most part we’re left to get on with it. Which I prefer. We often have to go into a shop and scan the shelves for something we recognise or think we can eat. While the staff look at us. But in supermarkets we’re free to browse. And marvel at the packaging . Biscuits in a box with a plastic insert and all individually wrapped.
Tiny cakes individually wrapped. Crisp packets that need opening with scissors – the alternative is risking the crisps flying out of the packet as you struggle to open it with your teeth… and oats in tough re-sealable bags or sturdy plastic tubs that come in a gift wrapped three pack. We eat a lot of oats. Mixed with raisins and dried milk – great cycling food. We were a little puzzled though once. Should we be buying the old people’s oats?
I wonder if all the garlic means there are fewer vampires…
Table manners. Sit up straight. Keep your elbows off the table. Masticate silently. Don’t slurp. Bring the food to your mouth, not your mouth to the food. All things we were taught at a tender age.
I’ve seen noodles being sucked up off a plate and all these rules being broken at once. It’s quite liberating. I must just remember to revert back to European style when we get home…
Eating a steamed roll with chopsticks is unnecessary.
We passed through the main grape growing area in China and while we certainly did see grapes for sale and we did sample the local wine – it was good! – almost all the grapes went to raisins. On the edge of the Gobi desert we cycled past mile after mile of ‘drying rooms’ . The grapes were hung in rough brick built chambers where the dry warm air flowed through and gradually dried the grapes. There were raisins for sale everywhere. Delicious.
Eating a piece of toast with chopsticks is ridiculous.
We’ve reached the wall. So now what? As you can imagine, that question has been occupying our thoughts quite a lot recently. In some ways the journey is over so we should get on a plane and go home. But I’ve never been to Thailand, and it’s a good time of year to visit Laos. And we’ve hardly seen anything of China. Vietnam is not far either… We do miss our children and grandchildren though and just recently we have been a little homesick.There are practicalities. We’ve let our house and our tenants are moving out in January so there’s no point in coming home before January.
And into that mix – we really don’t want to fly. Flying is too fast. It’s not very good for the environment and somehow, having cycled all this way, to jump on an aeroplane and fly home – it just doesn’t feel right. We considered cycling home, we considered the Trans Siberian train. We considered flying some of the way – to Europe perhaps… We looked into cargo ships and cruise liners.We’ve narrowed the options down and reached a decision. We’ve put up a ‘to let’ sign outside the house and we’ve bought train tickets for Kunming which is way down in the South of China – a 42 hour train ride…
If we get a tenant we will cycle south from Kunming and head for Singapore where we’ve learnt it’s possible to get a container ship for a three week voyage back to the UK. Then the last leg – cycling up to Cumbria.If we don’t get a tenant we will take a train south to Bangkok and then another train onto Singapore, container ship to Southampton, then cycle through the UK home to Cumbria.
Or, at least, that’s what we’re thinking right now – tomorrow – who knows…..So, it’s in the lap of the gods…and the letting agent…
This has been a bit of a marathon blog!
To all of you who have been reading our blogs and following our journey – thank you for staying with us. And to all of you who have sent us congratulatory messages – thank you for your support.
I know there’s no logical reason why somebody’s support and good wishes a half a world away should make a scrap of difference when we’re cycling across a stony desert into the teeth of a bitter wind – but it does. And we really appreciate it.
I’m fairly sure we don’t deserve all the accolades that have been sent our way. But, thank you.
We will continue with our blog. This is the start of our journey home.