I tore into Zarkhent, eager for company again after a strangely quiet night of camping. As I neared town, now on a pristine 4 lane highway, I came upon an item of note: a horse was tprn in half in the road, quite cleanly. Someone seems to have moved the other half off the road so traffic could pass, but the front half was spilling its innards into the lane and blood and gore were smeared across both lanes for a good ten meters. I cringed as I skirted the corpse and dodged the unidentifiable lumps of flesh, thankful that the blood had dried and I didn’t soil my wheels.
I was sure Cody was ahead of me, but when I arrived at our predetermined meeting place he was not there. It was far too expensive anyways, so I found some wifi and a sound burger at a restaurant, sent him a message and then began a tour of all the hotels in Zarkhent. This sent me zig-zagging all about town, but at last I found a swanky hotel with incredibly low rates. Cody arrived that evening and cut the cost in half, they didn’t mind him bunking with me, so we paid 3 dollars a person that night and, after some deliberation, the next as well. We were both feeling worn down and also wanted to gather our wits before braving the ominous Chinese border and the oppressive province of Xinjiang. Horror stories from the internet, blogs, and other travelers provided our imaginations with a lot of material for worry. Will they confiscate our knives? Is it possible to get fuel for our stoves? Will we have to stay in hotels every night? Will there be sections we are not allowed to ride? All of these doubts were founded on the now legendary yarns we had been fed about how things are currently done in this part of the world. We heard one could be detained while trying to buy groceries, so we loaded up in Kazakhstan and hit the border.
A few things we had heard about the border:
Mandatory rides to the nearest town
Confiscation of knives
Dumping of petrol
An hours long process.
Well, the town of Korghas is right on the border, so we knew we would be able to ride across, but we were nervous about everything else. We got through the Kazak side and were directed to a large building that looked like an airport. We went through an x-ray, grabbed our bikes, filled out registration cards and went up to a guard in a booth. They took our passports, scanned them, asked us where we were going, scanned our faces and took our fingerprints, then ushered us on. At the next point we removed our bags and put them through an x-ray machine. At this point I was feeling pretty well at ease. The process seemed streamlined and the guards were friendly. Apparently they saw nothing of concern on the x-ray and allowed us to reload and exit. One last check of our passports and we found ourselves in China after twenty minutes! We’re in China!!!
Our initial impressions were colored by uncontainable excitement. For most of us entering into the Xinjiang province the most prominent point of interest is the sheer number of police and police stations, razor wire, heavy gates, and riot gear. It really does not detract from the cities much save for the gas stations, which are enfortressed and assiduously guarded. I have heard it is impossible for westerners to buy fuel at all. This all added to the strangeness of our new surroundings, and we knew what we were walking into, so we took it in stride.
For those of you who are not aware, Western China is populated by an indigenous Muslim people called the Uyghurs. They are normal Central Asians. The Communist party does not take too kindly to any gods aside from the Communist party in the first place, but between the early 90’s and early 2000’s there were bombings in Kashgar and Urumqi, as well as other attacks in 2010, 2011 and 2014. The People’s Republic slammed down their iron fist in this region and are tearing down mosques, oppressing the Uyghur populations, and sending people to “re-education camps. If you haven’t heard much about it, I implore you to reflect on what the international response would be if it were not Muslims, but Buddhists, Christians or Jews being oppressed… would it make a difference? We kind of get the impression that they are Muslim, so no one cares… something similar to the response to the genocide in Azerbaijan after the fall of the Soviet Union.
This is not a totally unfounded sentiment these days, unfortunately. The spread of extremist Islam is familiar to all of us and China is doing its part to suppress this. In the 1980’s they relaxed their cultural whitewashing of the Uyghurs enough to allow them to make pilgrimages to Mecca. Unfortunately, some of them made contact and were trained by Islamic extremists as a result.
The problem is that the way they are doing this is unethical and has begun to stink of ethnic cleansing. I have not seen much so far, which is the idea, from China’s point of view: everything is hidden. We are riding through Uyghur villages and encountering Uyghur people though, and they seem to be living normal, Central Asian lives from what I can see. What these radicals do not seem to acknowledge is that the attempts of a few to violently eliminate the oppressive non-islamic influences from their historical homelands (frequently by murdering civilians who have nothing to do with their oppression beyond paying taxes) elicits the suppression and, ill-treatment and death of thousands of innocent, peaceful Muslim men, women and children. Those who claim to be liberating their people through violence bring death and destruction upon muslim populations, cultivate fear and hatred against them, and ultimately damage their own more than they were able to damage their oppressors. This is a nightmare. If you care to understand where this insanity, violence, and chaos stems from, you will find that the Western World is entirely at fault.
The history of this region is particularly significant in this region of the world: not only does it involve all the world powers in very recent history, but is acutely significant to every single one of us. If you look, you will find that Uyghurs were trained by the Chinese government to fight in Afghanistan against the Russians, but now they are causing problems for China… sound familiar?
We have been listening to a book called “The Silk Roads” by Peter Frankopan. If you want to understand why the Western powers have bungled relations, waged war within, and destabilized the Middle East in an embarrassing, shameful, and idiotic series of poorly thought out attempts to secure the area’s natural resources, this is a great one.
(Some spoilers: the U.S. funded and strengthened the Taliban, China gave Uyghurs military training and sent them to Afghanistan to push out the Russians, almost all of the weaponry and nuclear technology these countries have was happily sold to them by the Western world- the U.S., the U.K. and France particularly involved, and the U.S. was heavily encouraging the development of nuclear in this part of the world (Atoms for Peace). We are also currently happily bending over and taking it from the Saudis because we want the oil despite their being the master-minds and financiers of extremist madrassas in Pakistan and around the world, essentially waging war by acts of terrorism against us while we smile and lick their assholes for a good price on barrels of crude. Forgive my imagery, but this particular fact disgusts me and is only another shining example of our complete idolatry of material wealth quite untethered from any moral or ethical compass. I know, what else can you expect of politicians, but if you think we are a world power, consider that our government would do almost anything to maintain good relations with a group that has been and still is responsible for actively targeting and murdering its citizens… don’t believe me? Read/listen the book. Makes me want to live somewhere else…)
…Anyways, let me continue from my potentially audience alienating digression (it’s all unpleasant, but it’s true, historical fact, so if it unnerves you, please do your own research).
So! We are sampling delicious cuisine, trying to guess what items are in grocery stores, buying exciting Chinese candy, enjoying these lovely new cities popping up all over Western China, picking up some Chinese language and having a blast confounding these mild-mannered people with our outrageous demeanors and general silliness all against the backdrop of a near-perfected police state. It’s like 1984 baby! It seems like two-thirds of the population is militia or police. There are checkpoints everywhere. You not allowed to camp and the police come to double check that you are at your hotel and take copies of your registration. Long queues back-up at gas stations where people are fingerprinted and searched before they buy petrol behind fences topped with razor wire. The highways are fenced in, there are fences around everything, even in the middle of nowhere, guarding abandoned orchards. Within this, there are beautiful, wasteful lights that transform cities into Christmas wonderlands, fanciful, imaginative design entwined with every aspect of Han-chinese culture. Billboards, public signs, packaging, all rife with fun, happy, interesting characters. In the cities everything is clean and we see recycling bins again at long last. People are polite, deferential, helpful, courteous, patient, devoid of ire. The cities are islands of industry, colorful lights, modern architecture, and Han culture between vast tracts of desert, bridged by pristine highways that pass modest Uyghur villages where people live in mud-brick houses and tend flocks of sheep and cattle. Bloody interesting place, and Cody and I have had the run of it so far.
The rooms are well equipped.
We were told a few things about travelling in China, including:
Camping is not allowed and people suspect you of being a spy if they find you and will report you to the police in an instant
Horror stories about passport checks at convenience stores
Police barring us from riding
Police escorting us to tourist hotels
Police enforcing a forced car ride through certain areas
Police demanding that we report when we get through an area we are not allowed to stop in
That if police have a direct order, they will not budge an inch but can be reasoned with if there is uncertainty
Yeah, tired of the word police. But they are everywhere. On almost every corner there is a police station whose red and blue lights flash 24 hours a day. Riot helmets, shields, lasso’s, and spears are stocked in hotel lobbies, where armored guards pass you through an x-ray and go over you with a metal detector. There are soldiers with guns, but most of these guys are armored with helmets and vests and carry SHIELDS and SPEARS! It’s crazy!
Here I have provided a very, very crude drawing of a spear, they are interesting. They have blunt, cruciform blades, almost more for prodding than stabbing, but certainly capable of a dull, blunt impaling if necessary. They have two sets of nobby grip and a stout bludgeoning end for general clubbing. They are maybe a meter and a half long and look worn from a lot of carrying around without any use, thankfully. All the cops at the checkpoints have serious guns too though. One pleasant side-effect of travelling in a police state is that we have absolutely no fear of our bicycles or any of our gear being stolen. I bet I could leave the bike outside overnight and find it again in the morning, untouched.
Well, Cody and I were pleasantly surprised by our easy entry into the country, and set off in high spirits into the countryside. Of course, we intended to camp. One problem we run into in China is that they build new towns and alter roads faster than our maps can apparently keep up with them. We had a pleasant and uneventful day of riding and as the sun began to set we started to look for camping spots. We were in farmland, and the prospects were in the realm of possibility, but not ideal. We were intent to avoid detection, and for this we had to be selective. By this time we had gotten used to Central Asia, where inevitably numerous shepherds or fisherman would invade our campsites, ecumenically disinterested, confirming our assumption that you can camp almost anywhere and nobody will care.
Well, as the sun sets we find ourselves in a bustling Chinese town outside of Lucaogou where we thought there was a quiet road along the river. We figured all we could do was keep going but ah! A police checkpoint! We turn around. What do we do now? We can’t camp anywhere here and we can’t pass the checkpoint without them asking where we are going at such a late hour. Afraid that we will be escorted 13 kilometers back to an expensive hotel, we frantically look for a place to hide for the night. We cross under the highway and find ourselves in a bustling Uyghur village full of inquisitive people reinforcing our sense of being severely, flagrantly out of place. We ignore them and head up a frontage road to some trees I had spotted as we backtracked. A few scooters pass by before we frantically dive into the trees, hopping a ditch clumsily in doing so. We push into a little orchard. The village edge is twenty or thirty meters to the West, a house thirty or forty meters northwest that we can sort of see through the trees, a wall separates us from a set of houses that may or may not be in occupied, and the highway forty meters to the south. Not ideal, but we feel pretty tucked away. The sun is not set yet, and our nerves are on edge. We are fairly sure of being noticed and addressed and we assume that will get police involved. My heart sinks as I see two boys covertly looking at us from the road. I talk this over with Cody and we decide to sit tight and wait for someone to approach us. In the meantime we left the bikes packed and listened to a podcast about the last 80 years of the history of the Silk Roads. Surely those kids will tell someone that there are two strange white men with funny bicycles hiding in the orchard. We sit there, alone, for a good while. We elect to set up our tents with the last remaining light to avoid the use of headlamps, cautiously wondering whether we hadn’t a stroke of luck. We eat a cold dinner and go to bed.
We woke up in the morning feeling triumphant. I am anxious to get out of there, but our tents are wet. While they dry we make coffee and begin to relax- we camped almost in a town in Xinjiang successfully! Our tents dry and as we pack up a herd of sheep enter the orchard, with a shepherd in tow. He greeted us warmly and enthusiastically approved of our bicycles, totally unconcerned that we had camped there. Feeling the elation one feels after having gotten away with something, we energetically approached the checkpoint. Past this checkpoint was 200 kilometers of sparsely populated road which guaranteed us safe and comfortable camping.
We rolled up to the checkpoint and hand over our passports along with a Chinese translation of our information we acquired from the first hotel in Khorgas. There is some muttering, a few “Ying guo’s” and “May guo’s” tossed about (“British” and “American” in Mandarin) before another guard came over who seemed to be of a higher rank. Via Google Translate, a long conversation ensued:
“You cannot take bicycle on this road. You must take a car.”
“We cannot build road through mountains. Car only.”
(We exchange confused glances)
“We have to ride.”
“You cannot ride, I will find a bus for you.”
“Only bicycles. We do not take cars.”
“You cannot take this road. For your safety you must follow the rules.”
At this point I am trying to convince Cody to acquiesce and then try to sneak around the checkpoint, but it meant sneaking along some backroads and then hauling our bikes over multiple barriers. We were worried that we might be detained anyway if police saw us, assuming the conditions were actually dangerous. We had by now inferred that the officer meant there was construction on the road. We had been riding on a perfectly smooth hard shoulder so wide we could ride two abreast and felt safer than we had in months, and unless there was extreme construction we could not understand why we couldn’t ride. The officer admitted we could ride from Sayram Lake onwards, which meant there was only a 50 kilometer stretch we weren’t supposed to be on, which redoubled our efforts to ride it. Cody kept pushing them to escort us, which was not improving the situation, and I could see his mounting frustration in the face of this impassive policeman. This seemed like a situation where the man had direct orders and we would have to take another road or get creative. Cody’s tone was getting on towards inflammatory, so I told him to calm down and stepped in. I typed into the translator:
“We have been on the road for 8 months. We have ridden all the way, only on bicycle, from Europe, over 15,000 kilometers. We cannot take a car.”
After a moment, he replied:
“Okay. You can ride. But we are not responsible if you get into an accident.”
We quickly agreed. He took a picture of us and let us pass. We were terribly surprised that this worked and talked about the effectiveness of “good cyclist bad cyclist.” We had just managed to overturn a rule and were now cycling, smugly and with much mirth, on a road that cyclists were not currently allowed on, by simply saying, “No. We cannot do what you ask.”
We could feel our power growing.
We climbed up through a lovely fir forest to an incredible bridge and up to the lake. Our plan was to make this climb and descend as soon a possible in order to evade the bitter cold. We made the top and cycled past some sort of strange resort and stopped in at the first of what where to be many rest stops where they have a gas station, toilet, restaurant and shop. Very convenient places, with parking for lorries, good markets and food, clean bathrooms and receptacles for trash and recycling. We are quite fond of these. We loaded up on chocolate, excitedly browsing the mysterious contents of the shelves, and set off as dusk quickened into night. It got cold. Double gloves cold. We were trying to make good distance as we had a reservation for a hotel in Jingzhe the following evening, but after 85 kilometers and a good climb, what with the cold- which abated as we descended- and our concern about the scarcity of gaps in the metal shoulder as well as the barbed wire fence lining the highway on either side, we picked the first opening we came to. We typically cross the barbed wire where a declivity or wash provides enough clearance to get under the fence, and that was the case here.
Crazy road, but absolutely no road work being done.
We stumble over the large stones and setup in an open rocky plain. We cook up some dinner, where I discover that Cody has somehow smuggled a full bottle of petrol into China, but otherwise have an uneventful evening before retreating for a good rest.
I woke up in the middle of the night in a tent shuddering and straining under the burden of a howling, hellish wind. I immediately had flashbacks to the night on the beach in Portugal, where my tent took heavy damage but miraculously survived a magnificent storm. This wind forced one to respectfully consider the elemental forces of nature, with its vast, pure force. I was humbled as I huddled, now wide awake, savoring every moment that my tent was not collapsed on top of me. It is impossible for my mind to witness such force with anything but awe. The sheer, violent power of it as it screamed across the naked plain, was inconceivable. How did such power accumulate in a space that seems so wide to my mind? Where does it come from and how does it persist at such an intensity for so long? I was bumped down, once again, to the concern only for one of my basic needs: shelter. I do not know when the wind slackened, nor how I managed to fall asleep again, but I do recall three thoughts I had before I went to bed: the first involved worry about my tent poles snapping, which I just fixed in Murghab, and the foolishness of bringing a three season ultralight tent on a long-term, four season trip and specific envy for Cody’s much sturdier, better designed four season tent. The second was a serious consideration of what I had out that could be blown miles away by such a force, and decided that an empty water bottle was the only thing at risk. The third was the observation that this Wind God was currently at our backs, accompanied by the dark suspicion of experience that the wind would be coming from another direction come midday.
I woke up with a tent still above my head. Incredible. I cannot believe how tough this tent is. I open my hatches and this is the first thing is see:
I laughed, remembering that Cody never stakes his tent, as it is technically free standing. He does not recall this, but way back in Kazakhstan- the first time, outside of Beynu, we admonished him for not staking out his tent. It gives one more space, sheds dew better, and keeps the tent from blowing away. As you can see his tent had collapsed and somehow his rainfly had blown off. The comicality of the image was accentuated by a layer of frost that had gathered on top of him as he contentedly slept. I was up early, thanks to an adjustment of the bowels to strange food- yippee- and stayed up. I gathered a tarp, some tent bags, a foam pad and some shoe covers of Cody’s that had blown into the few bushes downwind of us. My water bottle was still there, but my sponge was gone! Ah well. I took a lot of pictures of Cody, because it was hilarious. Cody arose and we assessed the damage. What I thought was a peaceful sagging of his tent turned out to be the result of not one, but two poles snapping clean in twain. We discussed the merits of staking tents and logistically moved forward with plans to repair and replace. “Not to worry,” we thought, “we are staying in a hotel tonight.”
We gathered our things and discovered that Cody was down a canvas bag, a strawberry umbrella with a missing handle, his large ground tarp, and a hot pink plastic bucket he bought in Khorgas.
Last picture ever taken of the pink bucket
The loss of this bucket was particularly devastating. Cody, balking at the price we were quoted for washing our clothes, bought a little pink plastic tub for fifty cents and hand washed his clothes at the hotel. As for me, I chose the path of affluence and paid the admittedly very expensive price of 7 dollars to have most of my clothes washed and dried. Expensive, I know. In fact, that is a whole day’s budget in Central Asia, but I simply did not want to wash them myself and splashed out. (I was still new to yen and sort of thought I was paying between 5 and 6 dollars, but oh well.) I was relaxing while Cody spent the better part of an hour washing his clothes and in order to assuage my guilt at such lavish expenditure by reminding myself that I made seven dollars in twenty minutes when I was back Stateside. The point is, Cody elected to keep this bucket but was fretting about the color. His set up is sleek and black (Berlin style, as he says) and the bucket just didn’t jive for him. We talked about the plastic expenditure, discussed which colors would go better, for they were all bright colors, and I pointed out that he had already used it and waterlogged the sticker on the inside, which he was unable to completely remove, and that it was not fair to try to swap it. At long last I convinced him to keep it by appealing to his sense of looking travel-worn and mismatched as every earnest vagrant should. Not sure how interesting this peripheral tale is, but you can imagine his dismay, after so much emotional investment, conversation, and eventual acceptance to lose his now beloved bucket so soon. While we were looking for it I found my sponge though, and I was well excited!
We had before us 111 kilometers to cover. The day started out well, we had some descending yet to do and in two hours we gobbled up 40k. We stopped at another lovely rest stop and ate some noodles. As we ate, the wind had been rising. From the East. Well. That gruesomely powerful wind was now in our faces. We were in trouble and we knew it. This was worse than Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. We were stopped dead by stronger gusts and creeping along at walking speed on a flat road. I did not have much hope of making it to Jingzhe that night. What else could we do though? We just took shifts drafting and crept along. For hours. How the wind was able to blow for so long at such an intensity is impossible to wrap my head around, and the sheer strength is not something most of us are accustomed to. It was an elemental entity of great power and I have a newfound respect for nature. Zephyrus and Eurus, the Greek gods of the West and East winds, had come to say hello.
They wrecked us. We limped into Jingzhe at 9 pm drained and on the point of hallucination. Our eyes were heavy and bloodshot and we almost fell asleep in the chairs at the police checkpoint while they hit us with questions we were indifferent to. It had also been extremely cold all day. Normally even on cold days I have to ride in a windbreaker because I overheat. I rode all day in two pairs of socks, leather boots, tights, shorts, tee-shirt-long sleeve-midlayer-rain jacket, two pairs of gloves, a buff around my neck, a hat, and hood all day while pushing hard into the wind.
We stayed two nights there, understandably, in a very nice hotel for 14 dollars a night. China seems awfully expensive after Central Asia. This is natural, we are now in a “first world” country after spending three months in “third world” countries. I had one tent splint, but we needed two to fix Cody’s poles. We hit a supermarket and then wandered about looking for a likely place to get what we needed, to no avail, we thought, but on the way back to the hotel I spotted a little hardware store nestled in a building and we popped in. After poking around, we found a length of pipe that would serve as a tent splint. We sawed it down to length with a borrowed hacksaw, bought some bungee cords for kicks and returned, successful, to the hotel where I, now an expert in pole repair (not complicated, but can be done in a range of artful, stable, and efficient ways of which I am not unmindful, if I may be permitted to say so), fixed up almost as good as new with plenty of duct tape.