What makes bicycle travelling so special is that you see everything along the way and changes in landscape, culture and biosphere occur slowly and gradually. That's why Sera and I want to avoid taking public transportation as much as possible. Limited time visas are the greatest problem for bicycle touring and can force us to hop on a train or bus to make faster progress. In China, we were only granted a one month visa with only one possible extension of another month. When we arrived in Litang, we had two weeks left to get out of the country in time. Heavy-heartedly we mounted a bus, taking us down from the Tibetan plateau to Chengdu. From there we planned to take a train to Urumqi, a city in the far west of China, and only 550 km away from the Kazakh border. The train ride would take us from Sichuan province, a province greatly influenced by the Han Chinese culture, to the province of Xinjiang, the land of the originally Turkish Uighur.
The train ride was very long... we left Chengdu with a 6 hour delay, and crammed ourselves into the hard seats, hip to hip with the other 500 Chinese travelers. As its summer holiday season now, the train was completely booked and instead of traveling in the sleeper wagon, we were sitting upright on an uncomfortable bench. This first ride took 22 hours and took us to Lanzhou, a city known as the most polluted city in the world. As is so often in China, we were the center of attention and some English speaking travelers translated the curious questions of the others. Unlike in a train in Germany, the travelers speak with the unknown neighbors, share their food and have no problem sleeping half on top of each other. This made the time go by faster, but when we finally arrived my ankles had swollen and my knees were sore. I already missed my bicycle.
Due to the delay, we had to re-book our second train ride to Urumqi. This is when the circus began. We entered the large hall and stood in the long line for changing our ticket. When it was finally our turn, the lady told us that she could only cancel the ticket but not exchange it for a new one. As the ticket was bought with a card, the money would be transferred back to the account automatically. In theory not too bad, only we had bought the tickets through our hostel in Chengdu and not with our own credit card. To make matters worse, she told us to stand in line at another counter suitable for purchasing tickets. After some back and forth and pleading on our side, we reluctantly had to stand at the back of another line to buy our tickets. Two hours later we finally left the train station. Oh yea, and while in Europe the train company would now at least pay for the hotel, since it was their fault we missed the connecting train, here its too much to even ask for a refund. The train company is government owned, so even though its customer service is a disaster, there's no possibility to criticize it.
The second train to Urumqi was a high speed train, 200km/h through the Taklamakan desert. 10 hours later we disembarked into a very different China, the province of Xinjiang. Han Chinese, Uighurs and some Kazakhs mix. We see people with very light skin, blue eyes and almost blond hair. We hear different languages spoken, smell new foods such as bread and BBQ mutton, and experience a new temperature - hot but dry. However, all is overshadowed by an insanely high police presence, security checks, and typical Chinese government style nonsense rules. We are about to experience what it means to be in an oppressive, non-democratic country and how the Chinese government uses surveillance and force to prevent any kind of deviation from the system. For us it means that we are only allowed to stay at designated hotels with a special license for hosting foreigners. Police check points and security checks will become normal and tedious due to the language barrier and daily registration procedures. And getting petrol for our cooker will result impossible, as gas stations are heavily guarded and not even motorcycles are allowed to enter the premises of the station.
Photo: Istock - our photos of the gas station where deleted when we exited the country, we had forgotten to put them on the computer and the woman at the border tediously checked through Sera's camera
The first night in Urumqi we spent in a box. Not what you might think, in a cardboard box under a bridge, but in an apartment filled with plastic boxes just big enough to sleep in. The owner is friendly and excited to have foreigners stay at her place. There are two separate rooms for men and women, so it is the first time in 6 months that Sera and I don't sleep in the same room together.
The next morning we retrieve our bikes and most of our panniers from the train shipping station. To our big relief, the bicycles are in good condition and nothing has been broken during transport. When we are finally ready to get going, its almost 12 o'clock already, not the best time for cycling in a semi-desert climate. We head out, cycling along a highway. There's no other option but fortunately the Chinese highways have a broad hard shoulder with smooth tarmac.
After a couple of hours of cycling, our thirsty and slightly over heated bodies are pleading for a cold drink and a rest in the shade. But it is already late and we want to reach the next city to find a guesthouse. We are only 10 kilometers away, it should only be half an hour longer, or so we think. Just at that moment we drive into the first police check point. As we have chosen the route less traveled by bicycle tourists, the officers are very surprised to see two foreigners on bicycles and immediately invite us into the air conditioned room and offer us two bottles of refrigerated water. Nobody speaks English but the translation app once again comes in handy. As always we don't know at what hotel we will sleep, information that is essential for the officers however. After some back and forth, they decide to bring us to the only hotel in Hutubi with a license to accept foreigners. Our bikes wont fit into their vehicle, so two officers escort us while we cycle. With 30kmh we race after the police car, which has its lights flashing. I feel silly.
Midway the car stops and the officer asks us if the hotel for 320 yuan is ok for us. We respond that usually we don't pay more than 100 yuan, since we don't have jobs and we travel for such a long time. The officer makes some more calls, but there's no other hotel and his boss is quite clear about the rules. We see he is feeling troubled, and we cannot believe our ears when he makes an unusual preposition. He is willing to pay 200 yuan out of his own pocket so that we don't have to exceed our budget by too much. Eventually we accept and the officers bring us to a luxury hotel, where we park our bicycles next to luxury cars. What daily surprises are held in stock for a traveller, yesterday we spent the night in a box and tonight we will enjoy a luxury hotel - for almost the same price!
The next few days the temperature rose to a sweltering 40 degrees and cycling was tough. We tried to take long breaks during the hottest hours but as our visa was soon expiring we also had to push on. I still clearly remember a very fat Chinese man looking at us as we rolled into the shade where he was resting. His eyes turned almost round and he exclaimed with laughter and amusement: "it's 40 degrees here and you two are cycling!". Afterwards he gave us some watermelon, what a nice treat in the heat. Another day a truck driver stopped at the side of the road and jumped out of his cabin with water and cucumbers in hand. Unfortunately for Sera, watermelon and cucumber are the two foods he dislikes most.
On the fifth day of cycling the landscape changed. We left the agriculturally used plain behind us and cycled up into a small and very dry mountain range. Finally we found ourselves on a smaller road with less traffic. The previous days we had continuously cycled on the highway, a sheer death highway! At least for our little feathered friends. Every few kilometers we saw corpses of run over birds. It was a sad stretch of cycling. Now on the mountainous road the cars went slower and we saw wheatears, larks, black kites and see-see partridges, just to name a few.
What we didn't see where houses or towns, so at dawn we followed a small path leading away from the road to find a camp spot. Suddenly four Mongolian gazelles appeared in front of us. Startled by our presence they made a quick run for it, but fortunately we were able to take a snapshot of them. What beauties! - and unfortunately the idiotic Chinese border guards deleted these images as well!
During the night a strong wind picked up and we woke up with the tent halfway pushed on top of us. We had not expected the wind a pitched the tent unprotected in the middle of the desert. With haste we gathered our things and set off for an early start. But we realized we were in for a tough day when we descended into the next valley and had a gigantic wind park in front of us to pass through.
After hours of cycling with a brutal headwind, often not more than 7 or 8 kmh, the sky darkened and it started to drizzle. We had though about camping again, as we knew we wouldn't reach a village, but this weather was not very inviting. Exhausted we stopped at a small store at the roadside. A Kazakh man greeted us curiously but the communication was difficult as he couldn't read the Chinese symbols of my translate app. Exhausted we sat in the little room and relaxed a few moments. The man was busy cooking his dinner and we were discussing what to do next. When he came into the room to eat, he was not only carrying one plate but three. The meal was delicious! With gestures and our little picture book we then signaled that it was too windy to continue cycling and we would like to set up our tent to sleep next to his house. But the man had an even better idea. It turned out he worked for the road maintenance in winter, plowing through the snow with large trucks. The machines and an office where in a house on the other side of the road, to which he had a key. This night we slept well protected from the wind and rain inside the office building.
Over night the wind had calmed down and we started our last stretch in China towards the city Tacheng. Tacheng is located at the border to Kazakhstan and the police presence is ridiculously high. We found the one hotel allowed to take foreigners, had a small quarrel with the security lady who didn't want us to take our panniers inside, and went for our last dinner in China. To get into the pedestrian street with the restaurants we had to pass another security check and inside we saw teenagers "patrolling" with gigantic sticks in hand. In this forgotten corner of China, the government's oppressive system becomes most apparent. Their "security" system is meant to prevent any kind of deviation from their path while at the same time a large number of people earn their living as police officers, wards or security persons. Who would rebel against the hand that feeds them?
We had an amazing two months exploring three different Chinese provinces, each one being almost like a separate country. The Chinese people have greeted us warmly and met us with smiles and curiosity. It was a great time, but the constant police presence of the last week was also tiring. On the last day of our visa we headed towards to border with a laughing and a crying eye. Until next time, China!