The next day we left Jingzhe feeling quite refreshed and enjoying the weather, which had warmed up significantly. We had a relaxed day, expended almost no effort, and made good progress. On a nice, flat road, with no violent wind, life was a breeze and after a casual 70k we clumsily slid our bikes down an embankment, crossed the desert onto a side road, crossed that, untied a piece of fence that walled in some sort of orchard and camped in there, which was a pretty flagrant go at finding a campsite, what with the trucks and scooters driving past all the while. But it was getting on in the evening and we tried our luck. It was a good spot. We discovered that Cody’s rainfly is also torn in two places, but ol’ Gunnar has the materials and the know-how to fix that too. We had another 112k day to the city of Kuitun where we had a hotel in mind that we found in our research to be a good, cheap hotel that accepts foreigners (many don’t). Without the wind, we made good time and easily covered the distance, filling the day with interesting and diverse conversation as we cruised side-by-side.
Around 7 o’clock we pulled up to the checkpoint at the entrance to Kuitun. As usual we park our bikes and go inside to show our passports. Another Google translate conversation asks us where our newspapers from Urumqi are. We explain that we have not yet been to Urumqi. He asks us where we are staying and we point to town. He says no. We show him the hotel, which two other groups we had read about stayed that same year. It took some time to get this across and he kept insisting we stay near the nuclear power plants, far away from the bright lights of downtown. We say no and insist we can stay in town. The guards are claiming the hotel doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t accept foreigners. We tell him people stayed there this year, in January, to which he replied, “It is November.” We ask if the rules have changed, and apparently they have. At this point an officer shows up who speaks English. He say we have to register in Urumqi before entering the Xinjiang province. We blithely ask him how we are supposed to do that from here. He says a bit critically that we need to know the rules before we come here, to which we reply that no one informed us at the border, nor had we read anywhere about it online.
They keep telling us we can’t stay there, but it turns out it is only me who is not allowed: apparently Germans, Swedes, Americans and Japanese citizens are currently not allowed in Kuitun, apparently, though Brits are, and we are suppose to register with the tourism office in Urumqi before entering Xinjiang. Again we mention that we were let through easily at the border and have had no trouble in any other cities. The man says they have special rules that we are supposed to know and I tell him that I did not choose to be American. I almost said something rash along the lines of, “in the States we have freedom” or “don’t worry, we all know what you are doing to the Uyghurs,” but I held my tongue. This time Cody could see I was getting pretty heated. As we are talking, man gets a message and changes his tune, saying: “Our leader says you can stay here one night.” Great! “Can we stay two nights? We are very tired.” I glare at Cody, who is once again trying his luck. They guards smile at this. They tell us which hotel to go to and we make sure it is reasonably priced. No one was sure how much it was, but we were told we had to stay there and that we would be in big trouble if we did not, and they would come by to make sure we were there. They tell us we can stay two nights as well! We ask, “if the hotel is too expensive, you’ll help us out, yeah? The officer laughs and jokingly says, “Yeah, call 110 if you need to!” Turns out that was what we had to do.
We were positively tickled by our bullying of the police and buzzed with glee at having wrested our way into a “forbidden city.” We figured we had the run of Xinjiang by now and that other cyclists were simply too mild mannered to put a little pressure on young officers who seemed to be easily confused and mild mannered enough to accommodate our insistences. Twice now we had overturned direct orders and we gloated about it.
We arrived at the hotel and proceeded with check-in. We hit a little hitch when it came to the price: 410 cny. “How much of that is deposit?” I asked. “None of it.” Ooh. Problem. That amounts to almost 30 dollars a piece. This inspired me to study the lobby more closely: What in the hell was different about this hotel and the one in Khorgas that warranted such a fantastic price? My assessment was: Not much and nothing I care about.
We explained that we were poor travellers and could not spend more than 200 cny after confirming that this was their cheapest room. It really had us studying the people in the hotel and wondering how much money they made. We were- and are yet, for that matter- still shell shocked by the relative affluence of China. They wouldn’t budge on price, but they said there was a hotel for 160 down the street that would take us. We informed them that we had to call the police first and though they tried to tell us it was no problem we called the police, summoning four officers with shield and spear within 2 minutes. We explained the situation and escorted us to the KUITUN TOURIST HOTEL, which no one seemed to be aware of, a much more reasonably priced establishment much better suited to us. We had a lovely rest day there. We explored the city freely, really only dining and visiting the grocery store. I really enjoyed the desk in the room (I am sitting at another as I write) and realize that I miss a work space. I also miss my books. I am generally ready to sit still for a moment, as I repeatedly say, though this is not a fit place to tarry. I also repaired Cody’s rainfly for him, like a good mother hen. The man cannot sew. I am actually quite proud of the results:
I also got a pic of our pole repairs:
Funny fact about Kuitun: there are two nuclear power plants right outside the city, each with 2 reactors. There are at least four others, each with a twin pair of reactors, between there and Changji, for a total of 6 that I saw, could have been more. There are also lots of other smokestacks, and the air quality has taken a downturn already, which surprised me. Really the ride from Kuitun has been quite ugly, largely due to the haze. We decided to try to cover the 244 kilometers to Urumqi in two days, perhaps to justify our soft and expensive lifestyle thus far in China. We got up early and headed out of town. Without any terrible wind we were able to make some fair distance, though road work forced us into the slow lane. We intermittently hopped onto fresh road yet closed to traffic, but there was a lot of weaving in the day. We turned into a town in order to grab some lunch and were a bit annoyed to have the police escort us to lunch and then out of town, holding our passports all the while. It was very difficult to resist the temptation to annoy our escort, as a natural, nubile and immature reaction to authority. But doggonit, we aren’t used to this kind of Big Brother treatment, if our governments are not less suspicious, repressive and controlling (debatable, but not very), they are at least subtler at their craft. These policemen and women have almost no egotism and no ill will though. It says something about Western culture that Cody and I constantly expect and anticipate cruelty, power abuse, and bad-tempered officers. These guys are just dutifully and innocently performing their duties. Most of them are very young, We see kids that appear to be sixteen kindly manning their posts toting semi-autos.
We asked a few times if we could have our passports back as we left downtown behind us, but we were not obliged and the escort persisted. At last we arrived at another checkpoint a few kilometers outside of town and the man cheerfully handed us our passports and miraculously set us free. We were a bit afraid we would be passed from hand to hand until they saw us into a hotel. We rode on, passing a few traffic police who waved at us to get off the way and onto the side road that passes through all of the villages, each with their own police checkpoint. I nodded confidently as we blithely passed the indicated turn offs and continued down the highway. We continued until dark without trouble and camped in a field. We awoke with shepherds roaming all around us, apparently unconcerned by our presence (probably Uyghurs). We only made 106k though, so we figured we would abandon our rush to Urumqi and take it easy: 65k to a hotel in Hutubi, then 85k the next day into Urumqi. Plans, especially in cycle touring, are silly and absurd attempts to predict the future in a wildly uncertain world, and ours soon went the way of the dodo.
We kicked off the G-30 and headed in to take the shorter route to Hutubi. We have since learned that any route that involves a police checkpoint is to be avoided at almost any cost: you may be delayed two hours, you may be delayed a day, don’t risk it. We pull up to a tiny checkpoint that resembled a country post office. We immediately notice a diminutive young man in big tinted designer glasses carrying what appears to be a handheld grenade launcher taking a picture of officers holding papers in front of the building. We are ushered past the group into the building and hand over our passports. The front room is packed with a motley crew of police. There is one kid almost seven feet tall. Another a massive, athletic looking super-soldier of a man. One is thin and looks half Russian, with green eyes. Yet another has a lazy eye. There is an old Uyghur-looking man and a few fairly normal, capable looking fellows. Who, of all people is the leader of this hodge-podge den of uniformed creatures? Why, the little man with the grenade launcher, of course. He is wearing a knock-off pair of New Balances and smoking Chinese cigarettes, of which he repeatedly offers us. We decline. He is young, with a frail frame, a high voice, and a twitchy demeanor, as if his self-confidence is constantly teetering just on the edge, threatening to give way to a maniacal outburst. He looked for all the world like a petty, unhinged Southeast Asian dictator. For some reason he asked us if we had any American dollars to trade for yen, and I said “no.” We just sat there impatiently, waiting for the process to end. It didn’t. When we expressed our intention to stay in Hutubi, we were asked to wait.
We did so, with a fish bowl between ourselves and the police, all involved curiously observant. The officers joked and asked us childish questions with obvious glee, and a constant stream of uniforms shuffled in and out of the office. We got to be pretty impatient and eager to leave the presence of this young little psychopath with the grenade launcher. He really gave off the air of an educated young officer who aside from a good education was otherwise totally unqualified for his post. At one point he left off joking and called his strange assortment of underlings to attention, and they all lined up in front of the desk. We were right there in the middle, feeling a bit uncomfortable by this strange display of obedience. We are not the type of people who take to conformity, you see. We like our freedom, and realize this more every day. After some order or another and, duties delegated, dispersed.
At last we are told that there are “special activities” going on in town and we are not able to stay there and the only place we can stay is in Changji, 50 kilometers away. Cody is not keen on this and tries for a good half hour to bull his way through the rule, but I can sense a different tune to this order. After admirable resistance we acknowledge the futility of our attempts, but we are caught now. They will escort us to dinner and then out of town. Of course, we have to insist on cycling.
Night Odyssey II
By now it is dark outside. We are pretty miffed that a short 65k has been totally derailed and now we can’t even camp. I informed our guardians that such treatment is considered extremely offensive and a violation of basic human rights in the West. They are quite understanding and profess their personal wishes that we were able to stay, but there is nothing to be done. We keep trying to get them to call their leaders again, fruitlessly. We eat and buy some water and snacks at a shop. We can tell these guys are anxious to go, they have a good hour and a half of driving behind two human powered vehicles ahead of them, which must be boring as all hell. To this I can only repeat what has now become a catchphrase: It is their problem, not ours.
We hit the pit toilet and are about to be off, when Cody looks down and exclaims, “Ooohhh nooooo!!!” Peace Bear is gone. For those of you who are not acquainted, Peace Bear is a TY beanie baby bear, tie dyed, with a large peace emblem stitched on his chest. He has ridden on Cody’s handlebars all the way from the UK, keeping Cody company and DJ-ing as well, before Cody’s speaker was stolen, so you can understand our dismay. We had seen some kids running around and thought perhaps they had run off with him. He is securely fastened to the bike, so surely someone must have kidnapped him. The cops, who are anxious to go, are now informed of this and ask if it is valuable. “Of course it is valuable!” we cry, and we double back to the restaurant, sirens on, in order to investigate the case of a missing teddy bear. After numerous inquiries and some interrogation of a few children, we despair and say our prayers for the little lad.
From here we ride in the dark for another twenty kilometers. We are hoping that they see us out of town, where we can camp for the night. They led us out of town all right, smack into another police checkpoint with about 10,000 red and blue lights which, like so many other displays in China, guarantee the extinction of epileptics in this part of the world.
We waltz in to this much larger, newer station. We hand in our passports and they ask us, naturally, what we are doing at 11 pm in between towns. We explain that we were shunted from Hutubi and that our plans have been derailed. As often happens, we are taken into the back room and given seats. A variety of guards cycle through the room, taking us in in all our glory (two are young women, one of whom is very beautiful). We sit there contentedly, quite accustomed to this rigmarole by now. We inform them that we obviously need a hotel and this will of course require a lot of phone calls. After a while a young man arrives who speaks a little English and tells us that they will give us a ride to Changji. We explain that this is not an option, which does not go over well. He says with menace: “You have two options: take a ride or go back.” “No problem,” I think. I saw a lot of camping back the way we came, but Cody is not having it. We explain yet again how far we have come and the nature of our journey, which spurs a new round of activity. He asks how long it will take to ride and I tell him it will take two hours, which he balks at, but gets busy.
We are offered tea, and we ask to make some coffee, as we anticipate riding another 30k tonight. I go outside and grab our food bags and when I return Cody has a map out and is showing them our world route. We fascinate the guards as we make coffee and eat chips wrapped in tortillas. By now we have completely charmed the lot of them. We are, after all, only victims of the situation, now exposed to designs that are not our own. We are informed that there are only three hotels in Changji that accept foreigners, and the cheapest of these costs 289 yen. This is too expensive and Cody is about to protest, but I stop him. We just need to get there without being forced to take a car, we can haggle once we get there just as we did in Kuitun. We consent. They stir into action and it seems as if they are drawing straws to see who has to go; as I said, it must be very dull to ride behind to laden bicycles.
More time passes, and we are at last ready to go, they are going to let us ride. We get set and pull through the station where a pickup truck is waiting for us. Absurdly, no less than four officers, two of which are still wearing all their gear- bulletproof vests, utility belts- pile into the little truck and we are off, instructed to “go fast.” Ha. We do boogie on down the road, it is fairly flat. We begin to run red lights too, which is amusing to us, but the police urge us to do so. It is very late by now and the roads are empty anyways. At one point there is a slight incline and the window of the truck rolls down. “Hurry up!” we are told. We grumble good-naturedly about this. They suggest we put our luggage in the bed of the truck, but we decline. Our bikes are actually faster on flats and descents due to the law of momentum. What’s more, our bikes are not fast or well balanced without weight. We don’t bother explaining this and simply decline, at the least it would feel like cheating. We get into town at last, pretty exhausted by now, driven like cattle for 60k today. It turns out the hotel was not 30, but 40 kilometers from the checkpoint. We are here though, and ready to haggle. The police escort us into the lobby, and the process begins.
First we have to go to the nearest police station and get permission to stay. I tell Cody that we will have to do this again when we inevitably switch hotels, but he brushes it off. We blindside our escort a bit, but we are not about to pay 40 dollars for a room. We try to negotiate a price without breakfast, but the young woman behind the desk turns out to be a very nasty person. It is unfortunate, because she is lovely, but we can tell she will make some man very miserable someday and die a cranky, unhappy old woman. What a shame. We only need her to come down ten dollars, but she will not budge. We ask to sleep on the ground, in a closet, outside in tents. Nothing. I try to appeal to her emotions, but she is, frankly, the subject of a few very nasty nouns and seems to have the spirit of a demon in her. I ask her not to take advantage of us, that we are here against our will, but it is no use. Our English speaking officer battles heroically to try to get the price down, getting quite frustrated with her. We, of course, will not budge and he begins to get a bit frustrated with us as well. By this time it is 2:30 am. I feel sympathy for the police, but they are getting paid. Not my problem.
The situation is harmed and exacerbated by our amused indifference to the whole thing. We are hard pressed not to smile as we type into the translator, and it is difficult to evoke pity when you are clearly unperturbed and openly enjoying yourself. We don’t care, we have nothing to lose. We have tents, we have time, we have nowhere to be. After another half hour of staring at this ugly-souled wench our escort, exasperated, gives up. “Screw it.” he says, “ we’re going home. You guys can do whatever you want. We try to stay and haggle more, hoping to stay in the lobby, but we have to leave too. I look up the chinese word for “greedy” and accuse the lady loudly a couple times as we exit the darkened lobby after I point out to her that she is driving us out into the cold. Difficult not to describe her with a most uncivil tongue. Ah well, she is her own punishment and we don’t care a lick. After being supervised for almost 11 continuous hours, we are now free to roam around and cause havoc as we please. We sit in front of the building, remarking that it is in fact pretty cold and wonder about where we should put our tents, laughing about the whole situation. There are parks around, but we are now only 40k from Urumqi… screw it, let’s do it! We set off through the empty streets of Changji, totally unsupervised.
Our energy levels are not so bad, as we have had long stints of arguing and resting in between short stretches of cycling, and the coffee is still kicking in our bloodstreams. We pass cops as we go through the city, who, devoid of critical thought, never meddle, it seems. That is one great characteristic of the Chinese, they mind their own business. We haven’t been harassed by inquisitive locals at all so far, which is a constant aspect of travel in Central asia. So, we ride on, taking a huge highway out of the city, actually relieved that we are riding on such a road without traffic. We see another police checkpoint ahead and blow past without stopping, hiding behind a few lorries that are backed up. Hehe. We thought we were licked today, but once again, we have simply annoyed our way out of following the rules and have reasserted ourselves as the princes of Xinjiang, feeling powerful. Really, all these other cyclists must be a bunch of squares and pushovers. I admit that we are elatedly drunk with our own experience in contrast to the horrors we heard about and anticipated, and, frankly, attribute our success to our badassery, which is clearly of the highest degree.
We did get pretty tired as we rolled into Urumqi, having ridden somewhere around 150k, a bit further than we intended. We got hold of some wifi and found a cheap hotel that accepts foreigners and, though it said they were booked solid, we tried our luck, arriving there at 6 am. We inquired about available rooms, and booked the last room available for a fair price. What’s more, she discounted the price for us and allowed us in the room within 40 minutes, it only needed to be cleaned. We grabbed some street food in the meantime and then happily found our way to a couple of warm beds. Essentially, we got a night for free, and we slept until about 3 in the afternoon.
So… we are in Urumqi! We will spend a few days here. It is a proper city, and I think we have earned a rest. We are averaging about 100k a day, and have been here for nine days, but our 800k of progress is not impressive on the map:
We are going to be here a while.
Observations about China: Gender equality is way, way way better than in the United States. Women running hardware stores, stocking heavy plumbing pipe, working alongside men on roadwork, and a lot of female police officers. Putting us to shame. They also love packaging. Just about every package you open contains a bunch of individually packaged items. Food is heavily noodle based and milk tea is popular, and delicious.