We arrived in Kangding in the cold and the dark. The town appeared suddenly as we rounded a switchback, multicoloured streetlights snaking in to the distance.
We are high in the mountains now, and the temperature is telling.
We found our way to the hostel recommended in the guidebook and balked at the price for a private room. After trying a few more we found one, chilly but cheap.
The following day, determined to be a day off by our inability to get out of bed, an oasis of warmth in a chilly room, we finally packed up and got ourselves ready to try and find somewhere a little nicer.
The snow was falling thick and fast as we left – really beautiful. I rode along admiring the gentle flakes. A kilometer later I was over it, cursing my decision not to put on my full finger gloves as my fingers fought numbness. No hood either meant I was squinting into the snow as flakes got past my furrowed unplucked brow.
The hostel we were recommended appeared completely shut and attempting to call the numbers outside got me “no, no English. No, no hostel.” Anxiety set in, trying to find other reasonably priced places as the snow fell and hunger rocketed.
Ok, food first.
Remembering Jamie’s struggle yesterday, I discovered how frustrating it is to have a pile of hot, delicious food in front of you and your fingers are too cold to coordinate your chopsticks. The slippery strips of meat or tricky vegetables wriggle out of your grasp as the sticks slide past eachother over and over again.
With sustenance giving us more resilience to the cold we ventured out again. Eventually we gave in and took another ok, but cheap enough room.
Several hours later, having warmed our feet under the electric blanket we set out to explore.
The snow had stopped, but knowing that the next section of road began with a 2000m climb (Kangding is already 2500m) and that the forecast for the next major town enroute was -12°c overnight, we debated whether we really wanted to ride it.
In a reverse of our desert drama, I was more optimistic, but Jamie is not a fan of the cold.
A visit to the bus station was surprisingly and unusually uncomplicated so we decided to catch a bus the following day to Xiangcheng, a town about 300km further on.
*** 8th November
The first trauma of the bus ride, foreseen, was the 5am rise, required to get there in time to negotiate our bikes on to the bus for a 6am departure. Top tip, arrive early and be willing to take control of the situation. Open up the hold doors and be confident that you’ll get everything in.
We got everything in and boarded the bus with a few moments left. The bus turned on its engine, exited the car park, drove out of town and promptly pulled over.
We sat there for two and a half hours.
Eventually the engine came on again and we set off. I assume the road was too treacherous so early in the dark.
The journey was long, uncomfortable and utterly nauseating. More than one passenger was sick as we went over the highest passes and came down bumpy switchback after bumpy switchback.
I’m just glad we didn’t invest in higher quality snacks for the journey.
We disembarked 12 hours later in Xiangcheng, completely exhausted and a bit broken.
Stomachs turned, heads hammering, suffering travel and altitude sickness for the first time on the whole journey.
I pulled over and rearranged the clothing causing concurrent overheating and freezing, and waited.
Just as I was beginning to think about rolling down the hill again he came grinding up.
It was a tedious hill, with more traffic and less space than we’d prefer. But as usual in China, just when you are about to get utterly fed up it gives you a stunning section of road that makes you forget your weariness for a while.
Today is not Jamie’s day though.
I’d overdone it on our day off, running up and down up a few thousand steps and had spent the last two days fairly miserable. Today I felt not better exactly, but not wincing every time I put my foot down.
Jamie, on the other hand, looks like he’s about to fall over.
We like to take these things in turns.
Yesterday we’d ridden long and late and hadn’t been able to find anywhere to eat in the tiny village we’d stopped in. We’d made do with some instant noodles which isn’t enough for weary cyclists, especially when they come in Jamie-size.
So today we’re running fairly empty and it’s not til we’re nearly at the top of the first huge climb that we stop to eat our second breakfast. It’s welcome, but the freezing mist we’ve been admiring on the way up has descended to meet us.
We’re not on top of things today. We put on extra clothes too late, we’ve got chilled and are about to descend. Novice mistake.
The tunnel we have to go through is freezing cold and we didn’t think to get the full finger gloves out. I’m attempting the reckless trick of folding my fingers into my palms instead of covering the brakes, just to keep them above freezing. Luckily it’s quiet.
The temperature rises a few degrees as we approach the other end of the tunnel and we immediately pull over again to put on the rest of our clothes. Overshoes, gloves, wooly hats.
By the bottom of the descent we’ve burnt through second breakfast and are ready to refuel. Jamie recovers over lunch, I can see him visibly rouse, despite fumbling with his chopsticks, hands frozen. He manages to feed himself without resorting to anything that might embarrass us. We get back on the bike and he looks like he’s back to normal… powering on ahead.
But I find soon I’m in front and he’s sitting – a little irritably – on my back wheel.
Ok, sometimes it’s like this.
Emei Shan is one of the Four Sacred Buddhist mountains in China, treated by many as a pilgrimage. At its summit, 3099m, is an impressive temple and spectacular views. There are many other smaller temples and pagodas dotted round the mountainside. It would take several days to explore fully.
It’s a major tourist attraction of course, with a steep entrance price. All the major paths up the mountain are paved and for a pretty penny you can get a bus ride to near the top, and a cable car even closer.
You climb hundreds of stairs up a mountain in tottering heels and a tight crocheted skirt to be ready for the inevitable photo-op at the summit. I admire your dedication.
You reach the top. Time to look holy.
Standing on the temple steps, arms raised to the sky. The photograph will appear to have caught you in a moment of joyous adulation.
Or hands together palm to plam in front of the magnificent Buddha. Did you think to offer a prayer as you posed?
It’s make believe.
When you look back on the photo, if you ever do, will you see yourself praying or posing?
And yet I do admire the frivolity, the silliness. You know it’s just an act and maybe you know not to take yourself too seriously.
I stand with my back to the crowds and look out over the view I’ve spent my morning climbing towards. The view is mostly clouds, from above. A rare experience to admire the cloud from the other side.
The repetition makes me turn around. A man is shooing me off. He wants a photo of his friend alone against the skyline, as if the hundreds of other tourists are not really there.
I turn back around to admire the view again, but my peace in shattered now so I leave them to their suspended disbelief.
On the way back down the stairs we dodge round dawdellers who are attempting to video chat as they walk.
The sections of path between the bus stop off points, the cable car and the major accessible sights are rammed with people. There are countless stalls renting coats to those who didn’t anticipate a cooler climate at +3000m.
Away from the main sections the paths are almost deserted. We pass barely a dozen people over the course of a few hours.
Where did the other people go?
Is it true they just collect selfies in front of major landmarks and then scarper?
What happens when you collect the full set?
All your photos exclaim – look world, I was here!
But I’m not sure you were.
And was I?
Or was I too busy judging you all?
After spending a few weeks at altitude Jamie and I discovered the joy of bounding up the steps leading up and down the mountain with significantly more oxygen at our disposal.
Legs feeling strong, lungs healthy, we took the little steps two at a time overtaking all the other tourists. On the way down we practised what we termed stair spinning – almost tipping ourselves down the stairs, feet pitter-pattering as we stay on tiptoes. It’s fast, and it’s quite fun.
Now, two days on I can barely walk. I can cycle fine, but when I have to put my foot down, to stop for example, I almost topple over with the pain.
I feel foolish. I thought I was fit, but it turns out I can just ride my bike.
We looked out across the river. We could barely see the other side, let alone the 71 m Buddha we’d made a significant detour to come and see. The day is still, no breeze, and the pollution hangs like a semi translucent mist across the city.
I can taste it as I cycle.
I can feel it on my skin.
It oppresses me.
We cycled 175km yesterday, on a slight detour to see the giant Buddha in Leshan. We got up late. We weren’t sure whether to go to the Buddha park and see the big man up close for the price of 80¥ each or ride twice the distance round to the other side of the river and see him for free.
We flipped a coin and free won.
As we rode across the bridge I began to see the flaw in our plan.
I don’t understand how people live like this? You literally cannot help but see the filth we’ve created and spewing in to the atmosphere.
We know it’s not just a problem in China, though the solution of fashion face masks does feel stereotypically Chinese.
The reports are pouring out in the media at home now about the illegal levels of pollution in most of our cities. I can’t imagine that we’d succumb so quietly if we couldn’t see the end of the road because of the pollution.
Surely there would be riots.
Ps. We do go back and visit the giant Buddha up close, he’s very nice. The path leads you up to his head height, so you have an excellent view of the plants growing in his ears.
The following was written before this journey by bicycle began, as part of a funding application. Despite my ambivalence about applying for funding I wanted to try and articulate why the journey felt so necessary. I have thought about posting this before, but have put it off because I’m embarrassed or scared of saying what I think without apology. Today I read about the Declaration of Rebellion happening in London tomorrow, and wished I could be there to participate. I asked myself whether I, like some of those protesters, would be willing to be arrested in order for real change to happen? I don’t know, I hope so, but being safely thousands of miles away I dont have to find that out.
But the least I can do is stop being scared to say what I really think. So here it is, without apology.
What is the driving motivation for this adventure?
The world is going to shit. The climate is changing, and it is changing fast. We’re seeing the catastrophic effects daily, if we choose to look. We, as a species, have caused devastating harm to this planet.
This isn’t news.
The future looks bleak.
We have to make decisions about how we are going to behave. We have a choice, many choices, to make.
We can choose to carry on regardless, and why not? Everyone else seems to be doing so.
Or we can choose to make changes.
We can protest.
We can act.
I’ve made some choices. Some are good things. Like choosing to ride a bike instead of owning a car. Like cutting down on meat. They make me feel better about myself, they are healthy and just. They are the right thing to do.
Some choices are not choices that make me happy. I’m not proud of them. I can’t even get a kick from the height of my moral horse. They make me sad and angry. Hard decisions, like the decision not to have children.
This journey is my peace-making with these decisions.
I know that this journey is an opportunity to change the atomic structure of my life.
I have the health, fitness, circumstances to do this, and the feeling that if I don’t I will regret it for the rest of my life. I love my job, I value my colleagues, I believe we do good work. But I can’t spend the rest of my ‘youth’ sitting in front of a computer screen.
I want to get out and see the world while it still is possible. I want to experience it powered by my own two legs. I want to come back fit and healthy with my mind blown open.
I want to make peace with myself.
Today I might say it this way instead.
I want to return home armed for the inevitable and difficult decisions that await us there, and prepared to join the uprising that surely is about to catch fire, even if it is decades too late.
I cannot see a single thing more important in this world than tackling the crisis that is climate change. Every other concern depends on there being a functioning, healthy ecosystem within which society can operate.
I hope that there is a solution, but I believe that it involves such a hearty revolution of our systems that maybe we could address a multitude of the world’s inequalities as we rebuild it. Maybe there is a version of this story that builds a better, more fair and just world than this catastrophe that we are currently inhabiting.
We’ve been in China for 30 days, half the allowance of our visa. We’ve just crossed into Sichuan and are making a dash across the high plateau and down to the capital of the province, Chengdu.
Apart from a few days early on we’ve managed to keep to back roads, often up and over the mountains.
We’ve been back and forth through autumn countless times as we rise and fall in altitude. The snow capped peaks have crept closer with each mountain pass till snow drifts brush our tyres at the sides of the road. Winter has edged closer, mountain tops disappearing in to the heavy clouds. Closer still, we got caught in a snowstorm, horizontal hail and snow battering us as we crossed the plains.
We’ve been kidding ourselves for some time that we’ll beat the winter by heading south…
It’s been interesting seeing the different peoples living in the provinces we travel through. Cycling through Gansu then the Qinghai province, then Gansu again we’ve moved between the Hui, the Tu and the Tibetan strongholds.
Although almost in the middle of China we’re also in the borderlands, skirting around the ‘difficult’ territories of Xinjiang and Tibet.
The most obvious religion now is Tibetan Buddhism, with monestaries, stupas, prayer flags in every town. The flags flutter atop every mountain pass, sometimes with a recorded prayer chanting to the mountains. There are Muslims of different flavours too, women in headscarfs, men with their white caps. It seems that out here the Han Chinese are more prevalent in the cities. In Xining we wandered through the Tibetan market and were pleasantly surprised by the sheer variety of faces – face structures and skin tones so different from one another. But we’re the ones who stand out.
Everyone stares at us, unashamedly. As we ride by, walk down the street or attempt to eat a bowl of slippery noodles with chopsticks.
They covertly or obviously take photos of us. They’ll stop us in the supermarket and ask for selfies. Sometimes they don’t even ask.
It’s disconcerting, the kind of behaviour that at home would be regarded as borderline racist, certainly rude.
But I take the opportunity to stare right back, with as genuine a smile as I can muster. The reactions to that are varied -a surprising number of people just keep staring blankly. Sometimes I think I see wariness or suspicion in the eyes of the locals, particularly the Tibetan men.
As we move south it seems people are cheerier, the monks wave and call hello, or chuckle to their neighbour at the absurd foreign cyclists. The locals seem more amused and cheerful to see us. I’ll get a wry smile from a bent backed woman, a wave from a child crossing the road, the workers on the road will laugh and shout hello as we pass. Before this change it seemed to be only the Han Chinese who approached us, waved or smiled. I suppose they have nothing to loose whereas for the minorities the distrust runs too deep.
We have some occasional conversations or meaningful interactions with people. A Muslim restauranteur one day, a Tibetan shepard who came and looked over all our equipment as we set up camp – I think to determine whether we’d be warm enough. He peered in the tent, in our bags and only appeared appeared when we brought out our down sleeping bags.
Most conversations are reduced to mime. For one read on or another Google translate doesn’t help much. It’s rare to get much of a chance to talk to people, the language the last of many hurdles to overcome.
At one monestary town we visit we are required to join a tour to see in the main buildings. The English speaking monk seems cheery enough, informative and pleased to chat. Seguewaying smoothly from the Buddhist principle of compassion for all humankind, he launches into an anti-Muslim rant. Not exactly what I was expecting. Otherwise it’s great to get a few answers to the ever increasing number of questions I have when I visit these places.
The food remains a delight, and eating out is the highlight of an often gruelling – if beautiful – day.
Mounds of spicy, oily tofu, piles of stir-friend pakchoi, green beans or spinach – fiery hot or laced with garlic. Egg fried rice with minutely cut vegetables, meats deep-fried and smothered with sticky sweet and sour sauce. Noodles in countless variations – flat, round, short, long, glassy – in soups or stir-fried with vegetables and meats. The Tibetan restaurants give us momos, steamed or fried, yak meat, yak milk yoghurt and butter.
We eat out fairly often, but we’re still not always sure what we’re walking into. Some places have menus with pictures, but more often than not we pick something from the menu which includes the one or two characters we know (noodles and meat) or point to something someone else is eating.
It seems to work ok.
We’re camping two nights out of three. The temperatures have dropped below freezing every night for the last week or so. It makes everything harder, struggling to keep warm and not seizing up overnight. I’m even more glad I brought Jamie along, it’s much easier to stay warm with two in the tent.
The last few places we’ve stayed – even the grottiest which had no running water or working lightbulb – has had electric blankets, something that makes it just as hard to get going in the morning as it is fighting to leave the hard-won warmth of the tent.
Up here in the mountains you can see people are used to living through long and cold winters.
The days are short now too, darkness reigns from 7pm – 7am, which means there’s not so many hours for cycling.
We are snaking our way across and down China, trying to keep ahead of winter and our visa expiration.
A few calculations on the remaining distance suggest that we need to up our daily mileage if we want to make it all by bike before our visa runs out. We like a challenge it seems.
It keeps us warm if nothing else.
Probably unsurprisingly by now, we’ve planned a fairly optimistic route for the rest of our journey through China, involving some pandas, lakes and one or two fairly sizable mountains…
But we love the mountains.
There are yaks and feral dogs and eagles (maybe vultures?) and small squeeky rodents.
The scenery is stunning.
What’s not to love?
I wonder if we’re getting addicted to the low-oxygen lifestyle.
China seems to be growing on me. It remains utterly impenetrable. I have at least one moment of total bafflement every day. But the longer I spend here the more that seems ok.
Walking through the alleyways, courtyards, temples and backstreets in and around the monestary at Rebkong. The monestary and the surrounding town merging seamlessly in to eachother. We’re a little bewildered at first, not sure where to go, some doorways open to the riffraff, some closed.
We turn a corner from a bustling street of shops and hawkers. An endless lines of prayer wheels, spun by passersby.
Further on a couple of enormous prayer wheels housed in special buildings, the wheels kept turning by a few pilgrims treading round and round, their path worn into the floor. I catch the eye of a small, elderly woman with waist-long greying plaits hanging down her traditional felt coat. She eyes me uncertainty at first but with each circumambulation her eyes get a little warmer, a little more amused.
Continuing up the hill, the sun comes out and we are dazzled by the brilliant golden roofs, eaves flying in the iconic style. The rooftops of the numerous temples, one for each of the major deities.
A variety of devout circle the temples, clockwise, I don’t know how many times. Some walk alone, serious, thumbing prayer beads, others clutching shopping bags as if they stopped by on their way home. Others walk together companionably occasionally chatting. A few do their prostrations outside the front door.
We dodge them to peer inside.
Vast statues, maybe 40 feet high. Their golden faces loom down from the darkened heights, surrounded by more statues, paintings, embroideries, candles and fruit.
I know some of their names, vague memories from another time. I scold myself for not knowing more, not understanding what I’m seeing. For not knowing the appropriate form for visiting, neither wanting to be unintentionally disrespectful nor blindly ape the movements of the devoted.
Here no barriers to stop the tourists, no-one checking tickets. A shaven-headed monk sometimes appears and loiters nearby, but never scolds, sometimes smiles.
The paintings here are incredible, often vast scenes of the deities but with extraordinary detail in the background. Animals, plants, landscapes like miniature paintings of India. There are other panels in a more traditional Chinese style, without obvious Buddhist connitations, depicting flowers or birds.
Walking quietly down through the complex suddenly there’s shouting and cheering. A square full of maroon robed monks, leaping up from the floor and making a ruckus. It takes a while to understand what’s going on.
They are in pairs, one sitting crosslegged on a cushion on the ground, the other shouting, clapping and thrusting his prayer beads at his opponent.
We’re in the Square for Debating Buddhism, and I assume this is what they are practising. All of them, at once. They are mostly young men, a few boys and one or two older. As they deliver their point they raise one foot and bring it down with a similtanious theatrical clap. Some do it so often I suspect they are practising the move more than their argument. Others stand long in monologue or conversation, clearly engrossed in the matter. They seem to be having a ball.
We watch transfixed for a while, and finally move away more than a little joyfully re-educated. The idea that the Buddhists are only ever silent and tranquil is replaced with the much more interesting idea of fun and lively debate. I remember a piece I’ve read recently about the Tibetan monks, they are the ones most active and vocal in the resistance to the situation in Tibet . It makes a lot more sense.
Our walk takes us round to the other side of the square, now the debate is over and the boys are sitting in lines on the floor. They are disorderly, chatting to eachother across their lines, smiling, laughing. They see us watching and start giggling and waving. The ones closest to us lean backwards to peer at us and then fall about laughing. Kids will be kids.
Another wander through the streets back to our digs. The shops around the complex brimming with the spiritual and the ordinary, crammed in next to eachother. Rolls of prayer flags, candles, cellophane-wrapped Buddhas, monk’s robes and fur lined cloaks. Sweets, yak butter, fruit and veg, coal, Tupperware. The makers are there too, pressing oil, beating metal, frying crispy noodles. And the passers by: old bent-backed women wearing traditional Tibetan jackets, one sleeve hanging off their shoulder, modern young men strutting in leather jackets and jeans, tall weathered guys with cowboy hats and distrustful looks, young mothers clutching babies or hauling young children wrapped up onesies with bums bare, monks moving about their business while staring at their smartphones – a sight that shouldn’t but does always make us smile.
Both the monestary and the surrounding town are vibrant and dirty and loud and brilliant and alive and completely intertwined. The sacred is pressed up to the mundane, they seem to rub off on eachother, elevating rather than sullying it all.
There’s always a learning curve in a new country. There’s always a bit of a culture shock.
China has taken that culture shock, run it backwards through Google translate and garbled it back at us wearing a look of incredulity.
We’ve been travelling in Xinjiang, China’s most western province.
You want to stay in a hotel? Don’t be ridiculous.
You want to buy some petrol? You must be joking.
Get a train? The local train station is 50km away.
Oh and can I see your passport?
Usually when things get tough we just get on our bikes and life is quite simple. But this week we’ve found ourselves turned back by police due to “snow/roadworks/rain”. So adament were they that we did not continue on the road they couldn’t decide on the reason. We duely turned round and cycled the 30km back to the town they suggested only to be told by a different set of police that there was no international hotel.
Because, “for your safety” foreigners are required to stay at approved hotels. When they spaced these out across the province they did not have cyclists in mind. They tend to be in big touristy places, several hundreds of kilometres away from eachother.
Also, “for your safety” you are required to register with the police whenever they desire. At checkpoints on the road, in villages when you stop for a snack. It is not illegal to camp in China, but you are required to register each night. In this province, however, the police do not want you camping.
For your own safety of course.
So, on this occasion the police gave us no option but to go back to where we started that morning, the closet place with an international hotel. We couldn’t ride, it was too late. There were no buses. We thought a taxi too expensive. They gave us a lift, in two cars, with our bikes. And they took us out for dinner first. The service is incredible, if unwanted.
We gave in and took the bus to Urumqi the next day. We ended up negotiating directly with the driver, and got on the coach with no idea what would happen. That night we were piled on to another bus, a sleeper this time, with bunk beds. We arrived, dishevelled, the following morning – we’d thought the bus would take 10 hours or so, it took 20.
Leaving Urumqi we thought we’d planned better. We planned to break our journey in a town with a business hotel marked on the map, available on booking.com. However when we arrived there we were told that they can’t accept foreigners. We didn’t hang around for negotiations, not wanting to be sent back, we announced we’d go to Turpan, 100km away. Happy to be not their problem they let us go.
We almost made it too.
We were riding on the highway, but for some reason both streams of traffic were sharing the same lanes.
Jamie’s dynamo had been making weird noises all day, and as night fell decided to give in and stop working. No lights. We got out headtorches, but it didn’t feel great.
In the deepening darkness we spotted an empty road on our left. A brand new, smooth, empty six-lane highway parallel to the one we were on. We ducked under the road and scrambled up on to the new one. We cruised another 40km or so in the dark expecting to be stopped by the police at any point.
The road began to veer away from the old one and we got a touch anxious that it wasn’t going where we wanted. It wasn’t on the map. We reasoned that this is part of the new silk road network we hear about, and where else would it go?
Around 10:30, Beijing time (Xinjiang unofficially runs 2 hours behind as a form of protest), we decided to give in and find somewhere to camp. Still 20km away from town at least, with no hostel booked. We jumped the barrier again and made our way under a road bridge and set up camp overnight. We’d done 175km. My first century.
The following morning we worked out what we’d say when we arrived in town and saw the police. We hoped they wouldn’t notice that we couldn’t have cycled 200km in one morning. But to our surprise we rejoined the highway after the checkpoint and for the first time since we arrived didn’t need to hand over our passports once.
The police presence is unbelievable. In town there is a “convenient” police station on almost every corner. You are scanned going in to shopping centres, shops, hotels, train stations and parks. At most you need to present your id. There is so much razor wire you start not to see it at all.
When requested we accompany the police to their shed and they record our details. Sometimes they can decipher our passports, sometimes they need to ask colleague after colleague to assist. If we’re lucky someone will speak a smattering of English, otherwise if they look baffled we try to show them answers to frequently asked questions we’ve pre-programmed in Google translate.
Where are you from?
When did you enter china?
What is your phone number?
Where are you going?
Unfortunately sometimes they appear to struggle with their own technology. I think there’s an app some of them try to use. On the journey to Urumqi we were held up for an hour, with a bus load of people waiting for us, while two young men tried to work it out. Finally one phoned a friend, and someone more technically savvy turned up. We eventually got out, got on the bus to cheers, only to be stopped half a kilometre further down the road again.
For us this is an annoyance, that we respond to with as much goodwill as we can muster. We are treated very well, sometimes given tea as we wait and water to take away. But we know the background to why there is such an extraordinary police presence here and know that in places we can’t see there are people suffering .
I asked one policeman why we couldn’t stay overnight in the town. “It’s government policy, for your own safety”. “Why is that?”, I pressed, innocently. “It’s not a safe neighbourhood”, he said, apologetically. I inferred that he meant that it’s full of the indigenous locals.
We are kept away from them, on the whole.
We are very aware of the situation here, reported with more and more frequency in the media back home. It makes for an uncomfortable journey. We see little, and from the little we do see we interpret much.
At the same time I’ve become increasingly suspicious of the western world’s sudden interest in the woes of a people who have suffered for decades, if not longer. That this interest coincides with the rapid development of China’s new silk road seems significant. In the meantime the situation is reportedly getting worse and worse for the indigenous people here…
We’ve now left Xinjiang, deciding to forgo the joys of the desert, and have taken a train 1000km to Jiayuguan in the Gansu province.
Negotiating the train, in the Chinese holiday, was an experience I don’t want to repeat. We spent a couple of hours trying to hunt down the ticket office in town, only to be told it was probably shut anyway. We tried the bus station. No bus we’re told. None, whatsoever, going east. No explanations. We cycled go the closet train station – there are two, one 14km from town, the other 50km. They can’t deal with our bikes, they say, we’ll have to go to the other. We can buy tickets though.
With an impatient queue forming behind us we end up buying tickets for a train at 1030 before realising we’d need to leave around 4am to cycle there and negotiate our bikes.
Back at the hostel one of the staff comes to our rescue and finds us a taxi that will fit the bikes. When we arrive they the station they tell us they can’t deal with our bikes after all.
“But they told us to come here” a phrase we seem to use quite often. I remember to smile.
After trying to convince us to put the bikes in a bag, or take them apart and put them in our panniers, they finally let us on with the bikes as they are. The guards are lovely and help us with our bags, we dont even get any of the hassle we’d foreseen about the gas canister.
While we’re waiting we gather quite a crowd. One woman speaks a little English and acts as translator, eventually leaving us out the conversation altogether telling a growing crowd all about us. People are fascinated by the bikes, they come and poke and prod them. Surreptitiously they’ll squeeze the saddle and finger the chain.
Language is certainly the biggest issue, unsurprisingly. Nothing is familiar. We can’t read signposts, menus, instructions, shop names…
Walking in to restaurants we often have no clue where to start and if I’ve got too hungry it becomes a huge source of anxiety. We often choose restaurants based on the number of pictures they have on the wall.
As time goes on we’re getting more familiar with them. We know the kind of questions to ask, or where to start pointing our translate apps. We know what sort of thing we might want to eat.
I think I can now recognise the character for noodles, in the right context.
I remind myself, as my frustrations rise again and again, the privilege we experience most of the time being English speakers.
The occasional conversation with someone who speaks English is fascinating. An American who’s lived in China for years talks openly to us about Chinese culture and politics. We discuss the situation in Xinjiang and acknowledge again or privilege in being able to do so. He also shows us how to negotiate a hot-pot restaurant.
A doctor we meet on the train talks about the healthcare system and wants to know our views on China’s politics. This last question we gracefully dodge, he’s waving his phone around for one which makes us a little suspicious and secondly I can’t claim to coherent opinions – the more I learn the more I understand I just don’t know enough.
Another more prosaic concern is the rate that we seem to be leaking money at the moment. We’re told things are easier after Xinjiang. Hopefully we’ll find more places to camp, we’ll find a way to get fuel for the stove and we won’t need to take – or negotiate – public transport so often, fascinating as all these things are.
I realised how rarely I get seriously frustrated, especially since we’ve been travelling. Unfortunately I realised this by acknowledging how frustrating I’ve found our first week in China. Eye opening and baffling, but sometimes utterly, utterly, bewilderingly frustrating.
I’m sorry to leave Xinjiang without getting a deeper understanding of what makes this province unique, but perhaps now is just not the time. There are too many barriers in our way, so on this occasion it feels better to just move on. We don’t have long and this is a gigantic country.
It’s time to get back on our bikes where everything is simple.
The two border guards stand looking completely unamused by our increasingly frantic gesticulations.
One of them smirks, he points to the road and then to his chest.
“That may be so, ” he seems to say “but this is my road. Now you are in my country.”
I can’t blame him. We aren’t really supposed to be there. We’d surprised him, I’m sure he’s been told that there would be no-one crossing today. I bet no-one thought to tell the guys on the tarmac that three bedraggled tourists had been given special permission to pedal through the closed border today.
Rewind 24 hours and we are standing before another set of camouflaged border guards, Kazakh ones this time, giving us similarly belligerent looks.
We are on the tarmac, in front of the brand new border crossing at Khorgos, between Kazakhstan and China. We are there on the last day of the four day Chinese holiday which had closed the border and know we can’t get through till the following day. But because the border crossing had changed location over the holiday we are here to scope it out.
We’d cycled from Zharkent with a friend, Tine. Tine had gone on a recce to the old place the day before and been instructed to come here.
The border guards we are now talking to are waving us off. Tomorrow is the opening ceremony, they explain, but the border is closed for crossing until the 7th October – 10 days away.
The thing is, we have till midnight tomorrow to enter China, before our visa expires.
We look around at the queue of lorries waiting to enter China and decide to come back the next day anyway.
So early the next morning we turn up again. More lorries and a bus full of tourists have arrived overnight.
The same guard blocks our path – he’s standing by some freshly installed barriers, still incased in bubble wrap.
No, no, no. It’s closed til the 7th.
Go to the other border, 250km away. He points in out on the map.
We talk to some of the kids from the tour bus. They’ve been told the same, but they haven’t moved. The driver isn’t convinced that they won’t get through later.
We decide to wait for a while.
One by one each guard, and a few randoms, come over and try to explain the situation to us. We understand the situation, but we are not convinced by their words.
The border they want us to use is only for Chinese and Kazakh nationals, the internet tells us.
As the day advances more and more cars roll up. Some are ushered through, I guess they are here for the opening ceremony. Others are sent away.
Some join our growing band of loiterers.
We notice raised voices at the tour bus. We’ve been chatting to one of the young women on the bus, she’s Russian and heading to Urumqi for a flight tomorrow. We wander over to see what’s happening
There are two well dressed men in suits. One of them repeats to us that this border is closed and to go to the other border. I start to talk to his friend, who’s English is excellent. He explains they work for border control, his friend is quite important I gather.
I ask whether they can be sure that they will let us through, as non-nationals. He says they will.
I explain that I read on the internet that this border is only for Kazakh and Chinese nationals. He finally understands. He interrupts his colleague who is talking heatedly with Tine and explains… “ah… actually we don’t know”. They look a little sheepish.
I grasp the opportunity and tell him that today our visa expires. We must go through today.
They’ve come for the opening ceremony. They promise to see what they can do. “I am very important, but even I could not cross today” one of them says, but promises to ask anyway. One takes my number and assures me he will message me shortly, when they get to the actual customs building.
Our waiting has purpose now.
Occasionally the guards come and explain again that we have to go, they really believe that they are trying to help and I try to explain the situation. They just repeat what they’ve been told.
A get a message from my new friend.
“Don’t worry”, he says, “trying to figure it out”
In the meantime, a new guard comes and, politely, asks us to move further back down beside the parked bus. He’s pleasant so we do, though I suspect it is so as not to disturb the dignitaries who are about to arrive.
In time they do, speeding past us. The uniformed guards standing at attention, saluting, bubble-wrapped barriers open.
During this time my friends Sue and Julia have been travelling towards us on a bus from Almaty, booked to go to Urumqi. We had originally intended to take this bus too but when I showed the lady at the bus station in Almaty our visa date she had refused to sell us a ticket believing we wouldn’t get in, I suppose.
I get occasional updates on their location, from which we try to work out if their driver has better information than us. He doesn’t. They arrive eventually and the bus waits too.
For a moment it looks like it is going to turn around and leave, we have a momentary panic, should we go with them?
I send a message to my friend.
We decide to go.
We manage to pack the three bikes and panniers in to the bus with a bit of jiggery-pokery. We board the bus and are directed to the back.
The bus is amazing. Each side is flanked with bunk beds.
The back is a 8 person bunk bed, four on top, four on the bottom.
We get the bottom bunk, it’s a little claustrophobic.
I finally get a response from my man inside.
“You’d better stay here”, he says. “They all know you are coming. The ceremony is almost over.”
Off we get again, unpacking the bikes and the bags.
It turns out the bus is in no hurry, and some of the other passengers disembark too.
Time ticks by.
My man calls.
He says that in half an hour someone will come out and invite us through. Just us, he says.
Eventually there’s a bit of commotion round the guards. People are crowding and shouting. He is there, with his very important colleague. He’s trying to explain and placate the crowd, who look a little like they might riot.
He comes over and tells us we can go. Just us, he says apologetically. He’s seen Sue and Julia.
“What will you do?” He asks. Julia shrugs, “go to the other border I guess”.
“I don’t think they will let you through”, he concedes.
We leave them discussing, and roll towards the border before someone changes their mind. The border guard who had adamantly shooed us away earlier gives me a smile which is part impressed and part baffled. I suspect, if I could have understood him, he may have implied something I don’t think I would have liked to hear.
The new border is glossy and spotless. When we get in the building we are surrounded by staff, keen to be involved in ushering the first tourists through the border. Once we’re through men in large hats want to pose in pictures with us, we’ve made history, they tell us proudly.
They send us out, waving and smiling, towards China.
We can’t believe it’s actually worked.
But as we roll across the tarmac we surprise two border guards as we appeared from nowhere.
After some bravado, and forcing us to back up to a line we couldn’t see, one of them races off to find out what is going on. We see him jump on a bike and whizz away. Shortly he returns and confers with his mate. They shake their heads.
I check my phone.
My guy has texted. “Everything ok?”
I update him.
“Everything good with the Kazakh side?” He asks.
“Yes”, I reply a little irritated, “but do the Chinese side know we are coming?”
“We told them”, he says, “but things can change quickly”.
I get the impression there’s no more he can do.
A car drives up, from the Chinese side. A man in a suit talks to the guards. He seems too outrank the guards and they let us go on.
We’re stopped more times on the way to the customs building. We explain ourselves again. Clearly the police in China don’t ever assume that this is someone else’s problem. Once more the guy in the car comes to our aid.
Once inside everything is ok, though the building is silent. Apart from a few staff we seem to be the only ones inside.
Our bodies, bikes and bags are scanned, fingerprints and photographs taken, bags scanned again and then we are free.
Suddenly, surprisingly at liberty in China, with only a few hours left before our visa expires.
We’re utterly shell shocked.
It’s always an adventure.
We hear a few days later that everyone else waiting at the border that day were also allowed through, but that they closed the border again immediately afterwards. The alternative border we were being diverted to does not allow foreigners through.
We’re utterly grateful to the officials who arranged for us to use the new border crossing.