Pedalling out of the border area into China felt like entering a different world. On the Kazakh side there was a small dusty village and a dirt road. On the Chinese side there were modern high rises and a six-lane motorway through the centre of town (complete with cycle lane). Not far out of town however, rural China didn’t look too different to rural Central Asia. Small single storey dwellings made of mud, sun burnt shepherds sitting by the roadside as their flock grazed, wirey men making bread in clay ovens. One huge difference we noticed immediately was the sheer number of people we saw out in the fields working hard from dawn til dusk, almost entirely without machinery.
We successfully extracted money from one of the few ATMs that would let us and ate our first huge, tasty meal of steaming noodles for the equivalent of £1.50 each in preparation for the daunting mission ahead. Then a fair few minutes were spent gazing in wonderment at the shrink-wrapped chicken’s feet and other unidentified animal parts in the corner shop before we were on our way on the smooth, wide hard shoulder of the G30 expressway at a speed that would have been unthinkable on the potholed roads of Central Asia.
The road signs were exclusively in Chinese and Uighur (the local language), both of which are completely incomprehensible to us. Luckily there is only one road and we were quickly able to memorise the Chinese characters for the towns along our route. I’ve been doing this by making the characters into pictures, so for example, Urumqi is a mermaid sitting on a ledge, a robot, a Christmas tree and a man who needs the toilet.
Our first big hurdle that appeared very quickly on the horizon was a 2,200m climb up and over a mountain range. As we only really started cycling after lunch following the long border crossing, we weren’t sure how far we would get. We powered on up the hill quite easily in the late afternoon sun and were quietly confident of making the top – from our map it didn’t look very far at all. As the sun retreated and the valley that we were cycling up fell into shadows, the temperature started to drop quickly. Rounding a bend in the road, we were confronted by an enormous bridge high above where we were, stretching from one side of the mountain peaks to the other and snaking off out of sight into another valley. We quickly realised that firstly it was going to take a significant amount of effort to get up there and second, that camping anywhere on this viaduct type road would almost certainly be impossible. There were a few empty buildings nearby, presumably occupied by herdsmen in the summer months, so we put our tent up in the shelter of one of these and devoured a dinner of petrol station snacks before falling into a deep sleep.
It was a freezing night and we were very glad with hindsight that we had only camped at 1,700m in the shelter of the valley rather than at 2,200m out in the open. The cycle up the next morning continued to be spectacular. We were astonished by the tunnel, which wound its way up inside the mountain gently, spitting us out onto the high bridge with surprisingly minimal effort on our part. Finally we reached the very top and a huge frozen lake loomed out of the mist, stretching far out of view. This was no place to linger and although we had on every layer of clothing possible we still felt freezing. On the long winding descent we came across two hitchhikers from Siberia in nothing more than light jackets. Presumably it felt like summer to them! We had almost reached the bottom of the mountain when we came across a couple of British cyclists heading in the other direction. One of them had started in Australia and was heading back to the UK so it was great to share some tips about our respective routes.
Day three in China started well when we headed into a town just off the main road in search of breakfast and found what was to become our favourite staple morning meal from then on; steamed dumplings. The Chinese seem to eat about three of these for their breakfast whereas we have been known to devour ten each (although we could hardly move afterwards)!
The day quickly got better when we realised that we had a fantastic tail wind back out on the main road. We decided to take full advantage of it and push on to the next big city almost 200km from our starting point. It was a huge effort, especially late in the afternoon when the wind turned against us and I was tucked in close behind Steven, both of us with our heads down. Our minds were firmly fixed on our reward for making the distance though – a bed for the night – there was no way we were giving up now. 196km later (having smashed our previous PB by more than 50km), elated with our achievement but utterly exhausted by almost 11 hours in the saddle, we rolled into the first hotel in Kuytun that we could find. It was clear that foreigners are rare in this city as it took well over an hour to confirm that we could stay (there are funny rules about registering with the police). There were many questions about what our jobs were (unemployed doesn’t really cut it) and where we had stayed the previous night, which we answered vaguely. I’m not sure what they would have thought if we’d explained that we had clambered over the expressway barrier, crawled under some barbed wire and camped in a grove of trees by the roadside! Eventually, after posing for multiple photos with the excited staff we were finally allowed into our room. After quickly changing out of our cycling clothes we headed down to the restaurant for dinner. As it was late, the large room was deserted. The hotel manager, who could speak a little English, followed us in and sat down at a table with us. We conversed awkwardly as we waited for our food and then ate even more awkwardly as he sat and watched us fumbling with our chopsticks. Or rather I was fumbling. He declared Steven to be “expert” but continually encouraged me to use the fork he had found. I would not be put off however and am determined to also be an expert chopstick user by the end of our time here.
A few days later we were heading into the main city in Xinjiang province; Urumqi. Our original plan had been to bypass the city entirely but when we got close we realised we were very tired and it had suddenly become very cold. A rest day was in order. In the centre of town we found a cozy, warm hostel for around £10 a night and were immediately pleased with our decision. The next morning, when we awoke from our slumber, the snow was falling. It continued to fall all day and by the evening we were resigned to the fact that we wouldn’t be going anywhere the next morning as the city had been transformed into a frozen winter wonderland. The really frustrating thing was that we knew that less than 200km down the road in Turpan (the second lowest point on earth behind the Dead Sea) it was 20 degrees Celsius and sunny. We were also worried that this unforeseen delay would derail our China Challenge and our chances of cycling all the way to Lanzhou in order to apply for our visa extension within 26 days.
One highlight of being trapped in the city was that we were able to witness the almost superhuman efforts to clear the snow by the people of Urumqi. Fleets of huge snow ploughs worked in teams of six racing up and down the icy streets in formation sending huge plumes of snow cascading over the pavement. Primary school children trudged into school dragging their bright orange snow shovels behind them and proceeded to spend most of their break times clearing the playground, heaping the snow into huge piles around the edge. Everywhere we looked there was an army of workers beavering away to keep the city running smoothly regardless of the weather – I highly doubt there would be any “snow days” here as we have in London when there is only a fraction of the snowfall.
Travelling through the province of Xinjiang was a gentle transition from Central Asia into China. The Uighur inhabitants are Muslim, speak a Turkic language similar to that of the Central Asian countries we have travelled through and eat food that we are familiar with – plenty of freshly baked bread, lamb kebabs and lagman noodles. However, the region has been flooded with Han Chinese in the past 50 years creating significant ethnic tension as the Uighur struggle to maintain their cultural identity. We met many Uighur people who told us immediately, “I am Uighur, not Chinese”. We also met a Chinese man who whispered to us in the lobby of a hotel, “Be careful, Xinjiang is like Iraq and Afghanistan”, a sentiment we heard repeated by an English lady in Urumqi. We know the history of various bombings and unrest over recent years and there is plenty of evidence that the threat of terrorism is considered to be high by the authorities, with riot police and armoured vehicles on full alert mode outside shopping centres and bus stations. But Afghanistan or Iraq? We saw nothing to convince us of this and experienced nothing but the usual overwhelming kindness and hospitality from the local people.
One thing that we have had to get used to very quickly is that we are an oddity in this country, especially out West where non-Chinese tourists are few and far between. Parents lift up their toddlers and point us out to them so they can get a better look, school children dare each other to come closer to us and then run away squealing, young men and women take subtle and not so subtle photos on their phones while we are eating, older men just stand and stare. No one bats an eyelid at the things we think are odd, such as a woman riding pillion on a motorbike with a tiny baby tucked precariously under one arm, elderly gentlemen whose morning exercise routines include walking backwards and clapping, or a large crowd of middle aged men and women doing a synchronised dance routine to Gagnam Style in the street. It’s like a totally different world and we’re loving every minute of it so far.