I was finally given my Kazakhstan exit stamp and I cycled over to China along with Bertrand the Frenchman and the Aussies Sarah & Scott (who I’d cycled across Kazakhstan with). The no-man’s-land was a pointless 7km that snaked around in a strange loop before dropping us back just a stone’s throw from where we’d started. On the Kazakh side of the border we’d cycled across a muddy road that was a total mess from the recent snow. This road (I think we can guess which country built it) was a perfect track of neat asphalt with millions of CCTV cameras pointing down on you as you arrived.
The Chinese customs building was something else. It looked like an airport. Everything was glossy and state-of-the-art. We were stamped in and rolled into a whole new world. The border town was a tiny dot on the map and yet suddenly I felt dwarfed under huge tower blocks and cranes decorating the skyline. Welcome to the Middle Kingdom.
China. Well, well, well. To be writing a blog about China is a strange feeling. It feels like a lifetime ago that I left London for my first ever ‘bicycle experiment’ and now I’m in bloody China. This little bike ride isn’t so little anymore!
I had real goosebumps about this next chapter. China will be my home for the next few months – I’m massively excited but also nervous about it. Winter is looming and it’s not getting any warmer…
I’ve actually been in China before. About 5 years years ago I backpacked overland from Mongolia to Vietnam, spending a month hitting a bunch of the main tourist sights on the way down. Everything started coming back to me – the strange vacuum packed snacks in the shops, the talking signs, those deadly silent scooters zooming around all over the place, the weird toddler trousers with holes cut out around their bum, the horrible spitting habit and the tea flasks dangling around everywhere you look.
We were back in the developed world. Things I hadn’t seen for a long time appeared: a cycle path ran parallel to the road, there were recycling bins and the shops sold normal loo paper again (not that cardboard sandpaper that the Central Asian’s abuse their arses with).
In the first restaurant we stopped in we were given an iPad with the menu on! Did I step back into the developed world or forward into the future?
I loved Central Asia but I was sick of the food. I’d exited a part of the world famous for crap food and entered a part of the world famous for their culinary skills. Our food was brought over and it was incredible. So much range, so many greens and so many herbs & spices (three things that don’t exist in Central Asia).
By the time we’d finished stuffing our faces it was late in the afternoon and we decided to look for a hotel. Scott popped in to the one next door to see how much it was but he returned with bad news: “we’ve had our first ‘mei you!'”.
Let me explain. Many hotels in China aren’t allowed to accept foreigners. It’s not a major problem in the other parts of the country (I hope) but in this province, Xinjiang, it’s a real issue.
Xinjiang is China’s Wild West. Home to the Uighur people – Central Asian Muslims who have their own language, culture etc. It’s a sensitive area for the Han Chinese. Violence has troubled the region for years as the local ethnicity is ‘diluted’ and tensions stir.
I read that Uighurs used to make up 90% of the population in Xinjiang, but now they form less than 50%. As a result of all this fighting (many lives were lost last just year) the government clamped down with a massive anti-terrorism campaign and that has affected loads of stuff, including hotels (I guess they just don’t tourists being nosey around here so they want you registered in ‘proper’ places).
Hardly any are allowed to accept tourists and guess what? They’re almost always the most expensive ones (how convenient).
We tried the hotel a couple of doors down. Again, rejection. Rather than waste the afternoon trying every hotel in town we cycled out of the city. All the land was being farmed on and there was nowhere to wild camp so we cut into a small village. We asked a group of farmers loading bags of apples onto a truck it we could camp somewhere and the owner of the house let us crash in his storage room. We squeezed in among bags of corn and made ourselves at home.
We had our first pass to conquer the next day. It didn’t take long before we began to climb and found ourselves above the snowline. The higher we climbed the more icy the air became. Just before we were about to resign ourselves to a freezing night camping on the snow we passed a highway patrol building and cycled over to see if we might be able to stay there.
At first the staff said no but Sarah put on her best ‘damsel in distress’ act and told the bloke inside that we’d die if we had to sleep outside in the cold, leaving him no option but to accept us.
We were given a shiny room all to ourselves. “I’ll whistle when dinner”.
We’re getting dinner? Wow – we really hit the jackpot this time. The whistle did indeed sound an hour later and we joined the staff for a feast. Normal staff canteen food to them but totally incredible in our eyes. I’m falling in love with Chinese food (although I wish it was a little less spicy).
The next morning it was snowing heavily and we felt very lucky to have found a place inside. We slowly continued climbing until we reached the giant ‘loop-the-loop’ I’d been excited about seeing ever since I first noticed it on Google maps.
It was crazy. After months of cycling some of the worst roads in the world I was suddenly riding across a giant flyover to take me over the top of the mountain.
Those Chinese engineers are just showing off now…
It wasn’t much fun on the top. We were exposed to all the wind and increasingly heavy snowfall. We cycled as quick as possible (stopping only in the tunnels to escape the snow) across the plateau and down the other side.
It had been a long and cold day and we didn’t fancy sleeping outside again. As the first signs of dark arrived we slipped through a gap in the barbed-wire fence that lines the road and found an abandoned building to sleep in.
It was a slightly suspect place – full of empty beer bottles, playing cards and some suspicious looking chemical bottles but it looked like no one had been in there for a long time.
After three hectic days in the country we all fancied a hotel night and so stopped in the next town Jinghe to get some proper rest. Luckily there was a hotel at the edge of town where we were accepted no problem.
Bertrand and myself went hunting for a Chinese SIM. Easier said than done. It seems that no-one in this country speaks English at all. In most other places I’ve been it’s not too hard to find teenager who has a decent grip on English but not in China.
Getting a SIM was a real hassle. I’ve bought plenty of local SIMs in countries where no mutual language exists but it’s never that complicated to write some signs and prices etc. Nothing is that simple in China but eventually we found someone who’d sell them to us with our foreign passports.
Phone numbers with 8s in them are more expensive here as they’re the luckiest number whereas 5s have the opposite effect on price. (I’ve been in a few places now where the WIFI code is eight ‘8’s – they really love that number). But that would have been way too complicated to explain so we took what we got and finally left with working phones (although it turns out foreign phones can’t connect to 3G in China – argh!).
We arrived back at the hotel to bad news. The receptionist had realised that they couldn’t accept foreigners and had told us we had to leave. Unbelievable.
It was now dark and I had no desire to re-pack all my bags, carry the bikes down the stairs and aimlessly cycle into the town looking for somewhere else affordable to sleep. I went out guns blazing to let her know we weren’t leaving. She was impressively unhelpful, showing me the same message on her translator app over and over without making any effort to communicate with body language. The body language she did let slip was ‘I couldn’t give less of a fuck. Not my problem’.
We told her that if she found us a place to stay and showed us exactly where it was then we would leave. All we received in return was a message on the phone screen: “You can not stay. Uighur riot now police come everyday.” I grabbed her phone off her and decided to call her bluff on it, writting: “We are staying here. We leave first thing in the morning. Call the police if that’s a problem” and marched back to the room. I figured that it would look worse on her part than ours if the police had to come and that she’d just not enter our stay in the books and let us leave in the morning. If they come then at least someone would have to offer us some help.
But it was her that called my bluff and guess who knocked on our door half an hour later? Yep – the police. They were as helpful as I’d hoped but it was made clear we had to leave. We carried our stuff back down and followed the police car’s flashing lights into town. My second escort of the trip. As we rolled through town (clearly a very odd sight) the cameras above the street flashed us every time we passed.
There are cameras above the roads in the cities here that photo every passing car. Big Brother is watching you…
We were surrounded my cotton fields the following day. It was clearly harvest time and even those not invited to the farms where out harvesting cotton – walking along the side of the motorway with big bags collecting the balls of cotton that had blown away from the fields.
But the farmland soon faded and once again we were back in the desert…
I’d hit 15,000km! Another huge milestone. I remember how chuffed I was with the first 1,000km so you can only imagine what these marks feel like now.
I pitched the idea of a hotel to celebrate and the others didn’t take much persuading. We stopped at the first fancy one (that would almost certainly accept foreigners) and asked how much it would cost. About £15 for a double of the swankiest rooms ever and a huge Chinese buffet breakfast! I’m in heaven.
Chinese is the first tonal language on my tour and these tones confuse everything. Take the word ‘tent’ as an example (I’m sat in tent typing this now). You can sound the ‘e’ with four different types of intonation, each creating a completely new word.
English is obviously not a tonal language. You can place whatever intonation you like on the ‘e’ but as long as you get the vowels and consonants the right way around you (should) be understood.
I’ll practice a phrase all day, proudly deliver it to a Chinese person and they’ll just look at me with a blank face.
I remember a story from my last trip to China where this problem was demonstrated:
I was in a small town transferring buses and trying to by a ticket to the city Nanning. At the counter I said very clearly ‘Nanning’ but she looked like she’d never heard of it before. She called someone over to help and I said ‘Nanning’ as I had before. Again, I was met with blank faces. Fast forward 5 minutes and now there’s a gaggle of Chinese all around me trying to help discover this strange place. Eventually someone pulls out a map of China and I’d point to the city (in Chinese characters) that I’m trying to get to.
“Ah – Nanning!” they all exclaimed in unison, giving me a ‘why didn’t you say so?’ look. I literally couldn’t hear any difference between the city they’d just named and the one I’d been repeating for the last 10 minutes…
Back in the present day it was time to depart from my friends. I’ve loved cycling with them but I needed to start accelerating if I want to reach Jiayuguan in time to get my first visa extension.
I woke up to a newsflash from my phone’s BBC News app – it was the morning after the attacks in Paris and so I had plenty to think about as I cycled for more than 8 hours to make the 150km to Urumqi.
I’ve spent most of this year cycling around the Muslim part of the world (I’m very obviously still in it). It’s been a total pleasure and I’ve loved every minute of it. On the whole, I think I’ve been given the warmest welcomes of my tour in the Islamic countries I’ve cycled. Muslims believe a guest is a friend of God and being treated like a friend of God is pretty nice, believe me.
Many of those that I’ve met who’ve made me feel at home in their country have told me that it is their religion that teaches them to welcome people and be generous to strangers. Through their own benevolence they’ve shown me how important God is to them.
I wish everyone could have the opportunity to see the world as I have had. Not because I’m any wiser than the rest but just because it wold be impossible to have done this trip and have any animosity left. No doubt we’d surprised that our neighbours would give us a cup of tea rather than throw a bomb at us. If you’re reading this blog then by default it’s unlikely that you bear any unreasonable prejudice. But there are too many people in the world who do.
Ignorance is the greatest fuel for prejudice. Someone who’s spent their whole life in a little white village will read their newsflash and notice the unifying factor, relgion, and think ‘those bloody Muslims are at it again!’
I spoke in my Iranian blogs about how uncomfortable I felt when people would come up to me and proudly say “me Muslim” and then “no terrorist”. What’s gone wrong in th world if anyone has to say that.
It happened again in Kyrgyzstan just recently: I was sitting on the side of the road reading my book in a foul mood due to the horrendous traffic and obnoxious local drivers. A car pulled over next to me. I didn’t look up from my book. ‘Why do they always do this?’ I thought. They could have stopped anywhere but they chose a spot right next to just so they could be nosey and stare.
The guy inside stared rummaging in his boot. Instead of satisfying his annoying curiosity I finished my page and got up to leave. He came running over “mister mister, wait” and handed me over two bags of food. That’s what he’d been rummaging for – food to give me. In broken English he explained that he was a Muslim “no terrorist” and that this was a gift for me. “Good Muslim” he said, before wishing me luck and driving off. I’d been in the worst mood and suddenly I had a huge smile on my face. I’ve used this line many times before in this blog, but: when you need them the most, the good people turn up.
Why don’t we hear about these Muslims in the news? In the BBC article I read the Pope was offering his sympathies. Why are the Pope’s words relevant? Of course he’s offering his sympathies. Last time I read a news piece about the Catholic Church they weren’t exactly placed particularly high on the moral ladder…
The journalists keep talking about us showing signs of unity against IS, but the unity they show is between Western nations. What about all the prominent Muslim figures speaking out against IS? Surely they’re statements are more important than the Pope’s?
I’m lucky I grew up next to a strong Muslim community, that I have Muslim friends, that I’ve been able to spend so much time in Muslim countries. The many people who aren’t like me don’t need all this irresponsible journalism that fuels nothing but trouble on the other side of the issue.
I rambled, sorry. I arrived in Urumqi in the dark soaking wet from the heavy rain. The first hostel I’ve found in China and a much needed day off.
I dripped into my assigned room where there was a Chinese girl playing on here phone. (What else would a Chinese girl be doing?) She didn’t speak much English but gave me an unimpressed look and managed: “Can you go other place? You are man. I afraid”.
Bloody hell – do I look that bad these? I checked myself in the mirror on the way downstairs to get the receptionist to tell here I was safe. Yeah – I looked pretty haggered. Perhaps it’s time to get rid of the beard.
The receptionist came up, told her that I’d cycled over from the UK and suddenly I was the most exciting thing ever: “wow! you come from England on bicycle!?”
In the morning the receptionist showed me some strange frozen ham in the freezer before handing me a huge bag of mushrooms, tomatoes and eggs and asked me to cook an English breakfast for his ‘English corner’. I obliged and delivered a terrible fry up.
Can I tell you a secret? I’d still take it over a Chinese breakfast anyday.
Bertrand, Sarah and Scott arrived the next afternoon and told me about their previous night. They’d gotten caught in the same rain as me and stopped in a small town to find a hotel. They were accepted in the first place they asked, paid the money and got comfortable in their nice warm room when suddenly there was knocking at the door.
Can you guess who? Yep – the police! Another escort to the approved and expensive hotel down the road. It’s a joke.
Urumqi was a monster city and I didn’t like it particularly. I still love being in this new country but the small towns are big enough for me. Urumqi was a nightmare to navigate, loud, noisy, polluted and I was happy to be back in the desert again when I left.
It was snowing and I fancied a roof over my head so I slipped through a gap in the barbed wire fence lining the road and took cover under the motorway. Not the best sleep ever but beggars can’t be choosers sometimes.
The next day I rolled down to Turpan, a city who’s claim to fame is that it’s the world’s second lowest point at 154 meters below sea level.
I got a puncture on the way in. Unbelievable – that’s my second in China. After month of cycling such awful roads I’ve now picked up two on the slickest asphalt ever.
As I quick put on all my layers on to deal with the cold I remembered getting my first puncture in Armenia. It was so hot I’d had to carry my bike up the hill into a spot of shade before getting to work. Now the shade couldn’t help me – just lots of layers and a quick fix.
And I’ll wrap up my chapter there. Until next time!
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