This blog begins by closing the cliffhanger I left the last one on. I returned to the PSB office in Jiayuguan to find my visa extension ready to go. I was annoyed I’d lost another day waiting for it but thrilled to find it was indeed 30 days commencing from collection date.
Before giving it to me she asked: ‘do you have another passport?’
‘Er, yeah.’ I replied. She wanted to see it but it was back at the hotel. She nodded and handed me back my Danish passport.
‘How do you know I have another passport!?’ I didn’t get an answer…
As I walked back to my hotel I wondered how she knew I had dual citizenship. My plan had been to go to Hong Kong when my extension expires, switch passports and return to China with a new visa in my UK passport. That way it wouldn’t be obvious that I’d just been in China – something that could jeopardise my second visa application.
Now I felt incredibly naive. I’d been thinking I could slip past the system so easily – I’d forgotten that I was back in a country that loves registering everything on computers. A far cry from the Central Asian countries that scribbled my name down in a book at the border before stamping me in.
The hotel receptionist beckoned me over when I got back. She’d clearly been waiting for me and had a translated message on her phone to show me: ‘your passport is at the police office?’. That’s how they knew! With my Danish passport stuck with the police I’d just shown the new hotel my UK passport to save confusion over why I didn’t have any ID to register. It’s crazy to think that my name synced up on the system so quickly. I guess the authorities here can see exactly where and when I’ve been in China…
It used to be possible to get a second visa extension, but that hasn’t been the case for a couple of years. It’s almost impossible to obtain one and it’s a risk I can’t take. Now that I knew my latest possible exit date I could make a plan. I bought a plane ticket from Chengdu to Hong Kong on January 3rd. Chengdu is a realistic place to be in a month and Hong Kong is the cheapest place to get to: the flight was £55 (although an extra £20 once they’d added the cheeky taxes). In Hong Kong I’ll try and get another Chinese visa. If I don’t then… well, let’s not go there. Hopefully I’ll fly back with my new visa and then continue south, picking up one more extension on the way.
Paperwork over! Back to the cycling. Not much new to report I’m afraid. Back in my tent in the desert preparing for another bitterly cold night.
That’s the end of the camping. It’s just too cold. The nights are dropping below -10C and soon they’ll be getting down to -20C. I’ll have to bite the bullet and splash a little more cash on accommodation if I’m going to continue enjoying myself. Besides, the days are so short – I get so few hours in by the time I’ve packed up in the morning sun and found a pitch in the afternoon. If I can stay indoors then I’ll easily get 2-3 more hours of cycling in.
It took me a couple of days to reach Zhangye. There are three hostels in the city but all were closed for winter, leaving me with my least favourite daily chore: finding a cheap hotel.
After a few rejections (usual story – no foreigners allowed), I finally found a place that would accept me for under a tenner.
As I was making myself comfortable in the room I heard a knocking at the door. I opened it to find a distressed looking woman babbling away in Chinese. The only two words I could pick out were: ‘mei you’. Her body language was clear – I wasn’t allowed to stay. I guess the young guy who’d checked me in hadn’t realised and now she’d found out there was a tourist in the hotel. I played dumb and pretended not to understand. There wasn’t a chance I was leaving unless the police turned up. She hurried off but I suspected that wasn’t the end of it so I jumped in the shower and ignored the knocking when it returned a few minutes later.
Words can’t describe how much I hate this accommodation situation in China. I drives me crazy. I was paying to stay somewhere and I couldn’t even get to sleep because I was convinced the police would turn up any moment.
No one came in the end and the next day I pedaled off into the desert again. The Great Wall of China kept me company, running parallel to the road. It didn’t look particularly ‘Great’ without the renovations the touristy sections had benefited from.
It was a strange juxtaposition (like so much of China) with this ancient wall being intersected by a big motorway and rows of electricity pylons.
I had a small mountain pass to climb, so I stopped in a small village before the top where I stayed in the back room of an elderly couple’s house. They spent a good while trying to figure out how to register me but eventually gave up.
Once again I’d found the perfect type of accommodation. It was dirt cheap (£3) and interesting – I hung out with them in their house and actually absorbed something ‘Chinese’ rather than sitting in a lifeless hotel room. They even had an electric heated mattress for me which was very exciting.
The minor road next to the G30 was in awful condition so I had to sneak my bicycle back onto the motorway. I’ve done this so often now I feel I’m a master at it. I carefully ride up to the toll gate booth just in the line of sight where I can’t be spotted until the last minute and then I sprint for it. The guard spotted me and shouted something but I just yelled ‘morning!’ and pedaled as quick as I could around the barrier.
I was shattered when I reached Wuwei. I’d been putting in some big shifts – nearly 500km in four days. I stopped at the first affordable hotel I could find and crashed onto the bed. I was accompanied by a slightly seedy array of sex stuff for sale.
The collection made me laugh. One of the condoms read: ‘LET YOU ARE IN INTENSE EMOTION THE SAFETY SLIPS’. Next to the box was a pack of knickers. If you’ve come to a hotel for a romantic session surely you wouldn’t think: ‘damn, I forgot my much needed pants – good thing they have some extra here for me’.
Can’t say I’ve ever tried on a cock ring before but I figured tonight wasn’t the occasion.
The road started to climb from Wuwei. I stopped in the last village before the pass.
//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.jsIn the morning I made the last push up and over the top. It was first time I’d been higher than 3,000m in a long time.
That pass was a game changer for many reasons. The best was that it marked the end of the desert. It’s mountains from here on.
A small temple and a stack of prayer flags reminded me that the Buddhist Tibetan world was drawing nearer. Soon I’d be in a whole new side of China that isn’t actually China at all, really.
As I continued down the other side I reached the end of the Hexi Corridor, the strategic ‘gateway’ into China that I’d been following between two mountain ranges since Jiayuguan. I continued South, rather than following its natural opening – which meant that this was the end of the Silk Road for me.
I’ve been loosely following the Silk Road for most of this trip – across Turkey, through the Caucuses, over Iran and up Central Asia. I feel like I should have something profound to say about this historic trading route after cycling so much of it but I don’t, unfortunately! The world is a rapidly evolving place and there have been few reminders of the road’s history. That’s not to say there haven’t been some special ‘Silk Road moments’ – from the huge mosques in Turkey, the mystical bazaars in Iran, the market towns in Uzbekistan to The Great Wall of China.
Most of the time it’s required a lot of imagination to picture life as a trader along the route so many decades ago, but sharing the roads with those poor long distance truck drivers made me realise how much we rely on roads, relationships and technology to trade with each other. Whenever I felt like things were tough I imagined doing the same journey as a member of a caravan troop centuries ago and reminded myself that I have it pretty easy.
I arrived at a small crossroads town just before dark only to find the one hotel closed. Damn. I cycled on aimlessly in the dark hoping that one of the next places would have something. Luckily I found a perfect place not long after – a cheap room owned by a lovely family. Trying to register me took an eternity as usual. By the time he’d finished his wife had cooked dinner. I was invited to join them and we sat with their kids at the dinner table.
They laughed at my poor chopstick technique and handed me a spoon. I thought I’d gotten pretty good with the old chopsticks (it seems there is no real art to it in China – just stick your head close to the bowl and slurp everything up as loudly as you can) but apparently my fingers were in the wrong positions. Thanks to my spoon I finished my bowl twice as quick as they did. I couldn’t help but think: ‘go on, admit it. A spoon is far more practical and you know it!’ Everything was going great until the window flashed blue and red as a car pulled into the courtyard. Three policemen got out the car. Here we go again…
It was just formalities as usual. They asked me what I was up to, took a photo of my passport and the Iranian visa (not the Chinese one, God knows what that was all about) and then made themselves comfortable on the sofa. Packs of cigarettes were tossed onto the table and a bowl of warm sunflower seeds were served up. The police don’t seem very busy in this country.
The next day I reached The Yellow River. I cycled along a brand new road cut into the mountains side. The sun was shining and the weather was gorgeous.
The next day wasn’t so fun. It had been snowing in the night and was still falling. The road narrowed as it climbed into the mountains and I had to cycle in the middle of the lane to avoid the icy sides. On one bend I heard a crash as a car passed me coming the other way. He’d lost control on the ice and slipped into a drainage ditch, skidding ten meters before coming to a stop. I ran over to see if the driver was OK. He was – but his car wasn’t.
That put me on edge the rest of the day. I couldn’t enjoy cycling in these conditions. It kept snowing and remained comfortably below zero. I was extra cautious as I cycled, but the drivers sped along as usual. I’m not scared about myself falling. I’m scared about what will happen if one of these lunatics driving slip as they overtake on the outside lane. They’re asking for trouble. And I don’t want to be part of the outcome!
Higher up I saw another crashed car squashed between some trees. It looked like it had been there a while.
I’m sure the views across the river’s reservoir would have been beautiful but I couldn’t see a thing. Visibility was terrible and my eyes were being blinded by the increasingly heavy snow. I passed another car crash. One of the cars had been smashed so badly that the bonnet had broken clean off and the van had knocked a tree over. I cycled through the town Linxia which is apparently known as the ‘Little Mecca of China’ and I could see why. It was Muslim central. The Hui Muslims who live here are (I think) ethnically Han-Chinese unlike the Uighur Muslims. Almost all the guys were wearing white hats and the women were back in head scarves.
I reached the next town on my map just before dark. It was a bad place to stop. There were only two hotels there and both cost £14. The town was new and purpose built. No dingy back roads where I’d find a crummy hotel, but it was dark and I was frozen. It was still snowing and my bike was stuck in one gear thanks to all the ice so I accepted defeat and made myself comfortable.
I went for a walk around town, just as I do most evenings. I could see the snow reflecting against the buildings’ black windows. Nobody lived inside any of them. If they’d been populated it would have been like anywhere else in China – noisy. People would have been selling stuff on the streets and blasting music from shop windows but instead all I could hear were my footsteps crunching in the virgin snow. It was beautiful. I realised how rare it is that I get any peace and quiet in this country.
On my way back to the hotel I saw yet another car crashed in the middle of the road. Unbelievable. I’m not making this up – I’d seen 7 crashed cars today.
The next morning it was still snowing. Brilliant. The ground was covered in three inches of snow and I had to push until I reached the main road. The road was covered in snow but it was compact from the first cars of the day. I saw another collision before I’d even left the town. I figured I’d probably fall at some point today, but I’d be cycling at about 10km/h so it was unlikely I’d do much damage. It was the cars I was worried about. A few had winter chains on but plenty were racing along as if it were any usual day.
The morning was hard work, but slowly the skies cleared and the snow finally stopped. It was beautiful and I knew that heading into the mountains was the right decision. As I climbed everything began to change. The mountains closed in and snow began to melt, the first yak returned to the surroundings and horses grazed at the side of the road. Buddhist temples appeared at the side of the road but right next to them Mosque minarets poked out from the villages. The people began to change too. The Hui’s Islamic hats began to fade and red-cheeked Tibetan faces emerged.
It was melting pot like I’ve never seen before. Religions and ethnicities right on top of each other. Kids were running out shouting hello again and people were waving at me. My cables kept freezing up so I had to stop in villages to find hot water to melt the ice in order to get my gears & brakes working and everywhere I stopped I met helpful people who made me feel welcome.
I was being reminded why I’m cycling around the world. I’d lost sight of a lot in China – counting the kilometers until the next big target. Now I was absorbed in the present once again. Amazing people, beautiful roads and something new to look forward to at every corner.
I almost made it to Xiahe without a crash. As I was cycling through the town a car pulled out without seeing me. He didn’t hit me, but came close enough that I had to swerve to avoid contact. The road was covered in ice and the sudden handlebar movement caused my bike to slide to the floor. The driver got out to see if I was OK but by the time he was out of the car I was up on my feet, high on adrenaline with my finger a couple of centimeters from his nose. I’d finally snapped. After two days of nervous cycling this twat had ruined what had been a perfect day. The weeks of pent-up frustration at the idiots I have to share the road with finally exploded. I yelled every profanity I could think of into his face during a good 30 second monologue until I calmed down. Suddenly I felt really embarrassed. I don’t think the Chinese are a confrontational bunch and this guy looked terrified. I caused quite a scene and there were a bunch of monks standing around watching us. My hip was hurting more than I’d realised, so I picked up my bike and hobbled the rest of the way.
I found a bed in a dorm for £2 so decided to stay for three nights. The guesthouse was mostly full of Tibetan pilgrims here to visit Labrang Monastery but there were a couple of backpackers around too (they’d been stuck for a couple of days waiting for the bus to leave – there’d been too much snow). I was happy to speaking English again!
I’d arrived in another world. There were still Han-Chinese and Hui Muslims but Xiahe was most definitely a Tibetan town. I loved it. Tibetan guys walking around in baggy cloaks, women with long hair in neat braids hanging over massive necklaces and monks strolling along the streets in their red gowns.
I’d had lunch in a Muslim cafe further down the mountain and now I was eating yak for dinner surrounded by monks. This is why I love travelling. Not to spend days in the freezing desert but to be chucked into the deep end of new cultures.
Labrang Monastery was amazing. I walked the kora route around the site alongside pilgrims spinning miles and miles of prayer wheels. There was never a moment I couldn’t hear a squeaky wheel slowly turning.
The guesthouse owner spoke English and so I had my first proper conversation in nearly a month. We spoke about the Tibetan plight and I quickly realised how little I knew about the politics regarding the Chinese/Tibetan relationship. All I knew is that as a foreigner it’s impossible to visit Central Tibet without a (very expensive) guide, so the best I’ll get is the Tibetan regions around here.
He told me that if he wants to visit Central Tibet he has to fill in 7 pages of paperwork. A Chinese person can just walk in. (It says on his Chinese ID that he’s Tibetan!). He also said that Tibetans can’t get a passport (I think that was a slight exaggeration based on further conversations I’ve had – but it’s certainly not as straightforward as it would be for a Chinese person). There was real pain in his voice as we spoke. One thing he said struck me deeply – something along the lines of ‘you guys [us tourists] come here and say ‘it’s so beautiful, so peaceful’ but in reality there’s so much you don’t know’. That was exactly what I’d been saying and now how I felt.
People were speaking English again. Some kids tried to teach me how to count to ten in Tibetan but I gave up very quickly – Chinese seemed easy in comparison! I also hung out with another guy who told me the craziest stories. When he was 8 his parents smuggled him to India to live and study in a Tibetan village. Apparently he’d be more free to have an un-censored Tibetan upbringing there – were the Tibetans weren’t oppressed. With his group they’d walked for 7 days over the mountains into Nepal (the Chinese patrolled the border) and then into India (there the border was easy to pass). In 2007 he returned to China and took part in the demonstrations in Lhasa (Tibet’s capital) the year later. He was put in prison for eight months (apparently all he did was hold up a Tibetan flag – I find that hard to believe but the Chinese don’t exactly have a reputation for being friendly towards protesters, do they…). He’s now banned from ever visiting Central Tibet. The worst part is that his ex-wife has his 5 year old son living in Lhasa – but he can’t visit. But that was his second wife! The first one moved to the States with his now 12-year old son – and obviously he can’t get there either. He was a really nice bloke – but I felt like I must have been missing something if he’d had two wives run away with his kids and spent time in jail…
I left Xiahe in the coldest cycling weather I’ve ever experienced. It was around this mark that I crossed into the furthest point south on my tour (dropping below where I was in Iran last August) but it didn’t feel like it. Within minutes my beard had frozen solid – I’d never experienced anything like that before. As I stopped to pick off the icicles I felt like an idiot for not buying the two things I really needed to get in Xiahe – winter boots and a thermos flask. My toes were burning in the cold and my 4 liters of water were frozen solid.
I followed a minor road towards the mountains. For the first time in this country I had the road to myself. The moments of silence were magical – I’ve been desperate for some peace and quiet.
The Chinese drivers’ constant honking has been driving me crazy recently. I think it’s the worst country for it, although I might just have finally ‘had enough’ of it. When I did my driving theory the correct answers as to ‘when it’s appropriate/necessary to beep’ were very different to what they are in China. It’s taken a while to figure out the rules here, but I think I’ve finally sussed it. Let me share my findings:
- Whenever you see another vehicle on the road, you must beep. Be aware that in urban areas there will be lots of other vehicles around – as a result you must keep one hand permanently on ‘the button’.
- If someone is patiently waiting to cross the road in front of you, you must beep. Even if they have clearly seen you and are waiting until you’ve passed.
- If you see a traffic light turn green, then honk as quick as you can. It doesn’t matter if you are ten cars back in the queue, if anything – beep extra the further back you are.
- If you hear someone else beep, join in for the hell of it. It’s probably an emergency and so extra noise will surely save the day.
- If you are bored and there’s nothing of interest happening on the road then do some repetitive honking – it will help pass the time.
- If you are overtaking a cyclist make sure you beep a good few times. Even if there’s no one else on the road, he’s miles into the hard-shoulder and there’s not a chance he hasn’t heard you. Even better – wait until you’re right next to him. Especially if you’re driving a truck with an extra loud horn. Especially if you’re in a tunnel. He probably hates having two working ears and would love for you to temporarily deafen his left one.
As I was heading up the first pass a local chap pulled over on his motorbike and invited me to his place to stay and have some food. I didn’t fancy stopping for the day so early but I didn’t want to be rude and so accepted his invitation for tea. Turns out his place/tent was miles into a tight valley along a bumpy trail covered in snow. I had to push most of the way and when I arrived I accepted his offer to sleep there – I couldn’t be bothered to go back across that path and besides, I was interested to see how his family lived.
I was given a bowl of tsampa something (roasted flour that the Tibetans love) mixed in with sugar and something else to make a strange kind of porridge. While I ate he smoked a foot long pipe made from an eagle wing and his wife built a raised platform in the tent out of yak manure and dirt.
He took me up the mountain side to show me his yak. As we were walking he said he wanted money for me to sleep there – and came up with a ridiculous number, like £12. I laughed and said ‘no way – I’ll head to the next town to stay’. But we continued up the mountain anyway – I’d come this far and I wanted to see the view.
I was surprised he’d asked me for money – I hadn’t seen it coming at all. They were a poor family and I would have been happy to give them a few quid but there were two things that insulted me: the first was that he’d waited a couple of hours to tell me (jeopardising my chances of reaching the next town) and secondly that he’d asked for such a stupid amount of money. I could stay in a fancy hotel for that – not in a tent. Do I look like I was born yesterday?
I was glad I’d made the stop though and the view up on the mountain was stunning. He decided that I could stay for free – miming that the wolves come out after dark and it wouldn’t be safe for me. I reluctantly agreed. I didn’t really want to stay but they were right in assuming I couldn’t reach the town Luqu before dark.
We returned to the tent and he told his wife that he’d said I could stay for free. She clearly didn’t like the sound of that and suddenly I was being asked for money again. I was pissed. I’ve been invited to so many people’s homes over the last 11 months and no one has ever tried to pull a move like this on me.
I’d only come over to be polite! They’d seemed like such a nice family and I felt a little betrayed. Now what could I do? There were 3 hours of light left but I still had a mountain to climb and there was no chance I’d reach Luqu. But I’d rather camp in the cold than stay with this lot so I headed off.
I’m not into confrontation (despite my ‘little’ outburst at that driver the other day), so I courteously thanked them and packed my bike up. When the bloke came to see me off he looked pretty apologetic. I pointed to my watch and then map before giving him a ‘you’ve really fucked me here mate’. I repeated the ‘wolf bite’ mime from earlier and headed off without looking back.
I’d enjoyed my afternoon on the mountain but now I was stressed about finding somewhere to sleep. I don’t fancy camping in this weather – the nights are between -15C and -20C at the moment.
I wanted to race down the other side but that was impossible. Less sunlight reached the road on the far side of the pass and most of the road was covered in a layer of ice. I was getting brain freeze so pulled over to put my hat on. I thought I’d slowed down enough to cut across the ice, but my wheels gave way under me and I crashed again. Nothing major – but this time I suffered a couple of cuts on my left leg and lost some time fixing my bike.
Darkness was approaching and I was moving at snail’s pace down the mountain. It wasn’t looking promising. The new road didn’t exist on my map so I couldn’t work out where it rejoined the main road but by some miracle it rejoined at the edge of a tiny town where, (surprise, surprise) I found a nice room for far cheaper than my ‘mates’ had kindly offered me earlier.
I felt like I was back in Central Asia – the town was pitch black and the main drag was just a dirt road. In the morning I overtook a pig with her piglets walking down the road outside the hotel.
I had a short day to Luqu where I finally picked up my thermos flask and winter boots. Two superb investments. Now I can carry hot water to melt the ice that blocks my gears and I won’t have my days spoiled by stinging toes.
My strange meeting with the Tibetans the other day was an anomaly. I felt welcome in all the Tibetan villages I passed. Kids came running out to see me, people waved and shouted ‘hello!’.
There were smiles everywhere I stopped. I was were I wanted to be, despite the conditions. It was beautiful.
The roads were a pleasure to cycle. Not easy. Dangerous even. But a world that was completely new to me in every sense.
I rolled into the village Langmusi which marks the border between Gansu and Sichuan. It was time for a new province.
I’ll tell that story next time…