China is a world of opposites. The culture, the landscapes, the people… everything. Even while I’m cycling through the desert, snow-capped mountains loom over me. The friendliest people are right next to the most unhelpful in the world. The Han-Chinese natter on their new smartphones while the local Uighur people drive rusty old carts past them.
China leaves me in opposite states too: one minute I’m loving everything and the next I’m hating it.
My morning in Turpan begins this chapter in the latter mood. My phone had stopped working on the way from Urumqi and I nipped into a phone shop to try and sort out the problem. The language barrier here is a total nightmare. I can manage the basics in Chinese but when it comes to engaging in anything more complicated than ‘what does that cost?’ communication becomes impossibly frustrating.
I needed my phone working. Mostly because I’d paid for it and I didn’t want that money to disappear but also because I really need the internet here. I’ve been using Open Source Maps (OSM) for my offline maps (using my phone as GPS) so far but they’re useless here. Foreign mapping surveillance is illegal in China so the OSM maps are very basic, to say the least. Being able to get online means that I can use a Chinese map app that’s actually up-to-date and work out where I am and where I’m going. More than ever it would also be nice to have the online translating facilities available too.
I spent a shambolic morning cycling between China Mobile offices pulling my hair out as more badly translated ‘I can’t help you’ messages were shown to me on phone screens. In Turpan’s main branch it was finally made clear that my phone had been blocked and that it was a police matter – if I wanted it to work I had to visit them. I didn’t have the energy to pursue it any further (especially not if it would involve the police) so I gave up and cycled into the desert in a foul mood. Nothing is easy in China. I don’t get why it all has to be so complicated.
Complicated. That one word sums up China for me.
I didn’t get that far before it was time to find a campsite. That’s never very hard in the desert. The only tricky part is finding a place to slip through the barbed-wire fence that is still accompanying me every meter along the road.
Deserts also have opposite effects on me. Sometimes when I look at the horizon and see nothing between me and the end of the world it makes me feel empowered beyond words – no one in the world knows where I am but that doesn’t matter. I can choose any one of 360 degrees and cycle as far as I wish.
Other times the desert only serves to remind me how alone I really am. Sometimes it feels like it’s just me against China.
When I got out my tent in my morning I was thrilled to find it frost-free. That was enough to put me in a brilliant mood once again.
The mountains closed in and the road became interesting again. There’s nothing going on in this part of the world. Just vast, vast desert.
The next night I stopped at a road junction and found a room in a cafe where I could sleep. Finally I’d found the kind of accommodation I’ve been searching for in China. Dingy back rooms where no-one cares about my passport and no police around to come checking up on me. Needless to say, it was far cheaper than anything else I’ve found in this country.
Unfortunately it wasn’t the best night sleep thanks to two of the Chinese’s favourite pastimes – shouting and spitting. Both confuse me. I’m not quite sure why they find it so hard to speak at a normal volume but clearly they struggle to get a point across unless they’re yelling. I never have a clue if someone is saying ‘nice weather today, isn’t it?’ or ‘I fucking hate the rain, don’t you?’
But it’s the spitting habit that really grinds my gears. If you’ve been to China you’ll understand how grim it is. If you haven’t, then please don’t think I’m exaggerating. It’s impossible to overstate how vile it is.
Everywhere you go (and I mean everywhere) there are people flemming around you. It doesn’t bother me that they gob anywhere they like, it’s the huge retching noise they make to heave that substance up from the back of their throat. It’s not just the men. In this cafe the old woman was walking around all night retching up spit so loudly I couldn’t believe it was real.
I’m not a squeeky clean type person who cares much about manners, but I remember how annoying I found this habit on my last visit to China and it’s the same feeling now. I remember guys having a spit bowel in the train, I’ve seen the small bins in cafes just being used as spit buckets and if you’re outside? Nowhere is safe. It’s a horrible habit and I don’t get it at all. It just wouldn’t be normal in the UK. A bit like building a toilet in your garden and not putting any doors on it. Oh wait… They do that too.
It was snowing the next day so put my tent up under the motorway again. Even with the cars rumbling over my head the soundtrack was still more pleasant than last night’s spit fest.
4 days later I’d finally reached the next town – Hami. The elements had given me a cold so I took the day off to get some rest.
Rest? No such thing as that in China. I really wanted to get my phone working so I walked over to the police station and thus began one of the strangest days of my trip so far…
I didn’t really think I’d get anywhere but I had nothing better to do so I waltzed in and mimed my problem to a bunch of policemen who looked at me with raised eyebrows. Some of them were in normal police uniform with small pistols at their hips, some had SWAT in capital letters on their big black jackets and a few of them were in full army gear with sinister bayonets pointing from the ends of their rifles. Each of them had a cigarette to their lips. The building was new and slick but inside it was covered in plastic cups full of fag butts and thick smoke.
Of all the countries I’ve cycled, I reckon the Chinese are the biggest smokers. They’re also one of the few countries left that don’t have warnings on their cigarette packs. It’s only the men that smoke though – I haven’t seen a single woman at it. It seems their favourite place for a smoke is the loo. All the grimey squatters are covered in half smoked cigs and in one place I popped into all the urinals had a empty can stuck next to them as an ashtray.
Sometimes it’s exhausting being the only white guy in a big city. The eyes boring into the back of your skull become tiring very quickly. But sometimes it pays. And now I had half a dozen cops helping me try and get my phone working.
After half an hour we finally understood each other but they told me they couldn’t help. I made a face as though I was about to cry and asked one of them for a cig (after rejecting the last million offers I’d had in there) so that I could give the full ‘look how in despair I am’. Next thing I know the SWAT boss had called up his sister (who spoke some English) and she tells me that he’ll drive me to the China Mobile offices himself!
I find myself hopping into his fancy car and we cruise around town for the rest of the afternoon. First we visit the China Mobile offices, then to some other police buildings and finally to a police/state building where we finally found the woman with the power to fix it.
Apparently it was blocked because I was doing something ‘wrong’. Perhaps the mobile sensors realised that my VPN was sending every signal abroad to bypass the censorship. The Chinese are a bit more clued up with their censorship than some of the recent countries I’ve been in.
I hadn’t met a single Chinese person who could speak English properly and suddenly one turned up. Couldn’t have been a more useful time! He reckoned it was because we were both using Whatsapp (not blocked) to send messages abroad, but no one was sure. The poor bloke had just gotten married yesterday and was sitting in this office with his new wife trying to get his phone fixed before they flew back to Pakistan (where he worked).
An even more superior policeman turned up and said something to be translated. The English speaker laughed: ‘He’s apologising for the censorship in China. Enjoy that – you have the police chief saying sorry for the silly rules!’
My phone would start working again in 5-10 days (I won’t hold my breath), but they all concluded that I should buy another SIM in the next province and gave a slightly coded reference to the ‘sensitive issues here’ (those being the ethnic troubles and anti-terrorism campaign in Xinjiang). One of them made a comment comparing it to what just happened in Paris…
I asked if he could get the policeman to drop me off at a book shop on the way back. If I couldn’t get the internet on my phone I needed to buy a good map. Not only did he drop me off at one, but he escorted me in, looked at maps with me and then bought me the one I selected. It was only about 30p – but the gesture was touching. What a gent!
From Hami I had another long and lonely stint in the desert. I believe I was now into the Gobi ‘proper’ which was exciting, but it looked like the same old to me. Usually I feel like I have so much to report when I write these blogs but in these sections it feels like days pass without anything noteworthy happening. My days in the desert look like this: wake up, start cycling, find a campsite, sleep. Guess what the next day involves? Yep – the same. And the next, and the next and the next…
One of the days was one of those where everything seems to be go wrong. The first mistake I made was miscalculating water supplies, leaving me very thirsty for a large part of the day. I think the cold temperatures lure me into a false sense of security about water. Gone are the summer days when it was all I could think about. I don’t actually need to drink that much now but by the time I’ve done my cooking I still need a few liters a day.
The lack of service stations is surprising. Sometimes more than 100km passes without there being any. In the two other countries that I did big stints on motorways (Turkey and Iran) there were loads of petrol stations around. In the Gobi it’s a different story.
Eventually I found something. You know that stupid barbed wire fence lining the road that I’ve been whinging about recently? Well, these cafe owners had some genius planks out so us motorists could escape the G30 and get some grub. Like everywhere in China, they have loads of free water. There’s just one problem: it’s hot. The Chinese are allergic to cold water.
Half of the time I’m in a cafe I’ll get weak green tea which is great. The other half it’s just hot water. Just what you want when you’ve unwittingly ordered the spiciest thing on the menu…
They have water boilers everywhere in China. Getting hot water is not an issue but that’s not ideal when you’re a cyclist. Because no one drinks cold water it can be really hard to find big bottles of water, especially in these small shops. They’ll sell the 500ml ones for 20p and so if I want to stock up 3 liters? No thanks… I’m now carrying half a dozen plastic bottles melted into strange shapes from the boiling water I keep filling them with.
My misfortune continued into the night. I woke up at about 4am needing a wee. Deciding that I can’t hold it in is a traumatic realisation these days. It’s way below zero and I have to wriggle out of my silk liner and the two sleeping bags zipped around me and the stuff that needs to stay warm with me (water bottles, gas canister and electrics) before embracing the cold outside. At this temperature the condensation inside my tent (from my breath, perhaps?) freezes and coats the inside roof in ice. If I sit up in my tent my head brushes the fabric above me but if the roof gets nudged all the ice falls down on me. The same happens when I try to leave my tent. I try to carefully slip out without brushing anything but on this occasion I lost my balance and fell backwards onto my tent.
I heard something snap. Crap. I flicked on my head-torch to find my tent looking pretty pathetic, crumpled on the floor. One of the poles had snapped. I propped it up as best I could and crawled back in with my tent hanging on top of me.
Considering what a disaster that could have been I got pretty lucky. In the morning I realised that with a little improvisation I could still get the tent standing good enough. Note to self: try not to fall on the tent again.
My adventure across Xinjiang had come to an end. I crossed a mini-mountain pass and suddenly a sign appeared welcoming me to Gansu province. That was something to be a little excited about. I wonder what would change in this new region?
A couple hundred meters ahead another sign answered that question. Nothing. Same old ‘extremely dry barren desert’. I couldn’t have described it better myself.
It occurred to me that those were pretty much the first two English signs I’d seen in China. So far everything had been in Chinese and the Arabic script of the Uighur language. Suddenly the Uighur text had disappeared and been replaced by English. Now I could read which towns were coming up instead of playing ‘Chinese picture match’ every time I try to decipher a sign.
The terrible English on the signs soon became a highlight of my day (I did say there was very little of interest going on). At times it seemed like they’d been deliberately trying to make errors. They were litered with spelling mistakes and barely any made much sense.
My first campsite in Gansu was a cold one. I’m struggling with the nights at the moment. Not so much because of the cold but because they’re so long. I’m in my tent for more than 13 hours – I can’t sleep that long!
My Chromebook laptop has a pathetic battery life – it can just about get through a movie, but I’d used that treat up already. I tried to do some blog writing (running behind as usual) but the last of the battery vanished – zapped from the cold. It’d dropping down to about -10, and my electric batteries struggle in the cold.
It was just as well, my fingers were too cold to type without gloves on. I turned to my book Into Thin Air but it’s such a page turner I have to limit myself to just a chapter or two.
These are the times I really wish I had some company. Just someone to talk to in the tent.
On the fourth day I passed two towns but both were a few kilometers from the motorway and I didn’t fancy the detour.
On the fifth I finally pulled into a small town called Shulehe. There was only one tourist-accepting hotel which was expensive but I didn’t care – I just wanted to be out my tent. It cost about £13 for the room. That’s way over my budget but then again a room like this in London would cost a fortune.
I hung my tent up in the bathroom so that the ice could finally dry and went for my usual evening quest: finding a cold beer. Just like water, the Chinese don’t drink beer cold. I find that really odd. The amount of times I’ve ordered a beer in a cafe and then made them put it in the freezer for 10 minutes before I’ll drink it. They give me a very weird look and I give them one back in return. Why would you want a beer at room temperature?
I gave up but it didn’t matter. The two I bought were ice cold by the time I’d walked back to the hotel.
Shulehe was a normal little Chinese town. In other words, not normal at all. There was a big group of women doing that slow-motion dancing they love on the street (all in face masks, of course) and a bunch of kids had started a fire on the pavement and were taking it in turns to wee on the flames.
Two more days riding and I made it Jiayuguan. One word – relief. It had been an exhausting month and a lot of cycling. I’d had three days off in the last 5 weeks and now it was a time for a much needed break.
My visa would expire in a few days so I headed to the town’s Public Security Bureau and applied for my extension. I started this blog describing everything in China as ‘complicated’ but for once everything was completely straight forward. A couple of ladies in the office spoke English and I could apply for my extension – no questions asked, no itineraries, no hotel bookings etc. needed. I nipped to the photo shop round the corner to get my Chinese-friendly ID picture, paid the PSB office £16 and was told to return in three days. The best part was this: usually extensions start the date of application meaning my extension would give me 27 days extra, rather than 30. But when I told them I had a flight booked for the 3rd (that was a lie) they said no problem, it can start the date of issue. Hurray! The whole proccess had been easy, simple and stress free. The first time those three things have occurred for me in China…
I had some days to relax and boy did I need them. It was time to be a tourist again and Jiayuguan was a good place for doing just that as it has a slightly famous wall running past it…
I visited a section of The Great Wall of China near Beijing on my previous visit to the country a few years ago. I thought that might spoil the ‘wow-factor’ slightly but it didn’t. The section here was’t presented quite as well (the renovations were incredibly glossy) but it was far quieter than my last visit.
Jiayuguan and The Wall are big landmarks in my China story and it’s a fitting place to wrap up my first month and this chapter. The fort where The Wall begins is a strategic gate into China’s heartland. I’ve finally escaped the ‘extremely dry barren desert’ and entered the Hexi Corridor through which the Silk Road leads into the center of China and away from the world of Central Asian.
This is always where I wanted to arrive after a month and with my extension being processed I was exactly where I wanted to be. I’ve made it across the desert before the worst of winter comes and I know the next section of cycling will present me with a whole new side of China as I ride up into the mountains towards the Tibetan plateau.
I think I’ll need some time before I can reflect upon this last month without bias. I’ve made no secret of how hard I’ve found it at times. It’s still been rewarding, but in a different sense to the rest of this tour. I’m just pleased that I’ve survived the loneliest section of cycling without loosing the plot completely.
Somehow it feels like something is missing. Considering I’ve been here a month I feel like I’ve barely scrapped the surface of what China is and I’ll need to do a lot more digging if I’m to get anywhere in this country.
Let’s just say I was excited about ‘moving on’. But there was one more curve-ball to deal with before I could continue…
On Friday morning I packed my bags and cycled to the PSB office on my way out of town. Bad news. They were undergoing a ‘system upgrade’ and hadn’t been able to print my extension. Brilliant. ‘So where does that leave me?’ I asked them but they couldn’t tell me anything.
I had to wait until the afternoon to see if I could get it so I cycled back to the hotel and resigned myself to a night in limbo. Either I’d be leaving the following morning with my extension or I’d be stuck over the weekend without my passport (or the paperwork to legally still be in the country) and all I could do was wait until I got the call…
I think I’ll leave things on that little cliff hanger.
What did I say about things being ‘complicated’?