We stayed in Urumqi for four or five days, pretending to be somewhat normal, relaxing, enjoying the city. One night we went to a club in the bottom of a mall. Again, I am not a club person, but Cody once more propelled us toward another of these loud, dark, youthful dens of debauchery, both real and hoped for. To our surprise there was no cover. We were led in by a waiter of sorts through a hallway and ushered through a door into a large room that immediately impressed me as one of the more unusual and remarkable scenes I have laid my eyes upon. Booths and tables are packed. Hip, sharply dressed Chinese youths are in, on, and around the booths, some dancing in their seats. Flamboyant folk are pumping their hands on a stage in front of a DJ while just below, a packed group is grooving on a bouncing dance floor. Cody and I are in our only rest-day clothes and stand out even further in a situation where being Western is more than enough to draw attention, and we are grinning from ear to ear, what a strange scene!
We are led through the crowd to a table right up front. We pass small tables crammed with beer, spirits and champagne. There is some sort of rack that resembles a tall decorative candle holder that is in fact full of shots of colorful liquor. I thought there must be some sort of private party, the alcohol was so abundant. Cody, who doesn’t drink, orders and energy drink and I order a beer. “12 beers?” No, one beer. I realize that each table simply orders mountains of booze and brewskies at a time, and- when our bill arrives- conclude that these kids must all be wealthy and upper class. This is not entirely true, but all the beer is Budweiser and they go for 6 dollars a pop, so I take it that for those who are not wealthy a night here is a very special occasion. The club did not disappoint.
The lights went down and a woman in a skin tight black suit covered in spikes appeared, gesturing menacingly at the crowd to a sci-fi backdrop before quickly disappearing. By this time I had noticed a number of girls wearing giant jackal heads like that of Anubis, with themed Egyptian costumes. It was some time before they began to dance in unison above the booths. After my beer I made my way onto the bouncing dance floor, where Cody and I would remain for the next couple of hours, dancing our hearts out to the slightly tacky and harmfully loud pop music. I really enjoy dancing, never having done much of it due to, well, a lack of self-confidence. These kids, decked out in carefully curated and themed outfits, were not very good dancers either, mostly waving their hands and trying to look like this was the time of their lives, so our moves were advanced to a high degree. On a bouncing floor, you don’t need many moves to have fun anyhow.
After hours of letting loose we took a reprieve in the backroom, and I was feeling tired. I was not about to pay for another beer, but I would need one to continue the night, so I began mentally to wind down. We returned to our seats, where I intended to broach the subject of my fatigue, when a fellow hands us two beers from a table behind us. Well! Don’t mind if I do, that will keep me rolling!
A young Kazakh kid who looked as if he came straight from Portland, Oregon, with a flannel shirt, tight jeans, sturdy boots and a stocking cap befriended me as I sipped one of my beers and dragged me back onto the dance floor. He wa a good dancer, and a goofball, so we immediately took to him. From this point I was shuffled into dance-offs in circles of hip young college students and migrated around the dance floor, being harangued and encouraged by a somewhat random array of friendly personages. I managed to duck down to the table to empty the beers, and returned to the dance floor, where the same fellow who had given us the first two hands us two more on the dance floor, which we tried to refuse, but he insisted. Alrighty, there’s 25 dollars worth of free beer. We were set.
Intermittently confetti, paper streamers, and what seem to be simply red napkins are blasted on the crowd, shot from the ceiling, or tossed about by onlookers until a pile a foot deep covers the floor. Girls appear intermittently in different costumes, accompanied by teddy bear and tiger mascots. It is a decidedly curious scene. We dance until the crowds dwindle, talk with our new Kazakhi friend, then head home, acutely devoid of hearing. My hearing did not return for another day. While this was not really in accord with my more conservative nature, it was one of the strangest scenes I have ever seen.
I wish I could meaningfully convey the way people were dressed, the way they moved, their demeanors. It is all so strange- this place is as foreign as it gets! We frequently misinterpret people’s intentions, as on the whole people are unmalicious, meek and friendly here. In the States, many of the same acts would be accompanied by an aggressive egotism that is conspicuously lacking here- that, or we have yet to pick up on the nuances. For the most part, China as a people seems like an introverted only-child. I am really not sure how I feel about it. I only know that the constant police presence annoys me greatly.
Urumqi is also the first chance we have had to get quality hiking gear since… Baku, Azerbaijan. Or maybe Tbilisi, Georgia. Then again, maybe since Istanbul. There really is no technical gear available in Central Asia. So, I loaded up: I bought a much needed sleeping pad, some larger cooking pots, also severely needed. We found a Decathlon, where I bought a pair of long johns, synthetic underwear, and some thermal sleeves for my arms. These were very important purchases.
We left Urumqi refreshed and eager to get back on the road. The first day after a good rest always feels a bit forced, but as we left the lasts signs of the city behind us, an incredible headwind assailed us. It will not do to understate the severity of this wind, which is of such strength as to knock you over, to numb the face, inciting headaches; it is a perpetual force that defies any meaningful forward progress. We were hoping to get to Turpan in two days, a 190k endeavor. Our expectations quickly changed.
As it happened, we were forced into making more headway than we expected, or rather far more than we desired, for we were trapped on the highway. A guardrail separated us from an impregnable stretch of barbwire fence. The wind was also too intense for us to set up our tents anyways, woth no cover, so we were forced to continue riding, for hours, in the dark. We made a hard-won 65k before braving a steep descent under a railway bridge into the only patch of trees for miles and miles around, alongside the train tracks. It was actually a pretty nice spot!
It was not too cold, and I greatly enjoyed my new sleeping pad. After 6 months of sleeping on the ground, the warmth and comfort was unfamiliar and most welcome! No longer do I have to set up my elaborate system of clothes and random layers to buffer me from the cold!
The next day our fortunes changed: the wind blew with us. We devoured the distance as we descended through a lovely, rocky valley. Here the only beauty is wrought in stone- one gets a reprieve from the monotonous, vast and empty landscape only by changes in the shapes of rocks. They are astounding, but I am tired of taking pictures of lunks of naked rock. Never have I experienced such expansive emptiness, and it is strange to see how much of the Earth is dominated by this, a world of minerals, without trees or even bushes.
And life persists even here. We see very little wildlife, but we have been fortunate to see a beautiful fox with a massive tail and some sort of Chinese antelope in the last few days.
On we flew, until our day was compromised when the road cut sharply Eastward. Cody was run off the road as we made the turn, and we were forced to acknowledge, once again, the profound power of the wind. This time it was more than just gaping at the raw power: we quickly realized that these were the most hazardous riding conditions of the trip so far. Though it did not obstruct our forward progress, we proceeded slowly along the narrow two-lane road, canted on our bicycles at a 30 degree angle. This would have been fine if we were the only ones on the road, but unfortunately we had to share it with a steady stream of lorries. Irregular gusts made it very difficult to keep a line, the lag and burst of the torrents of air kept us occupied trying to avoid falling into the road when the wind slackened, then attempting not to be driven off of it as it gusted. Everytime a big truck passed, the wind was blocked and suddenly we found ourselves falling towards their wheels. Every time a truck came I would steer off the road, all but blown over and unable to stop my Southerly progression, shooting into the loose rock and trying to keep my balance. When I did get stopped, it took work not to be knocked over. This all happened in a couple hundred meters and we quickly abandoned the road, relegated to a path alongside composed of large, round stones loosely packed. This was not going well. We were fantastically lucky, however: to the North of this busy road was a brand new six lane highway that was not open to traffic just yet. I set my bike down, passed through a tunnel beneath the road and discovered stairs and a gate on the other side. Perfect spot to hop onto brand new tarmac. When I returned to the other side to tell Cody, a police car was pulling up.
We approached it, but the officers just sat there. After staring blankly at them for a while we walked up and tapped on the window, which rolled it down. We had a short conversation in English that was being recorded by the driver. It turns out someone had called them concerning us and they now asked if we needed help, offering to call a car to pick us up. We declined, and insisted that the new highway was fine. Unsure of whether this was allowed, we tarried a moment, hoping they would drive off, but when they didn’t, we simply began the shuffle. We crossed under the road, removed all our panniers and tossed them over the guardrail, which was a dangerous affair with the wind asserting itself strongly and there was a bit of a drop-off where we crossed the guardrail (only place without fence). The bikes were even more difficult, but once you recovered from the initial blast the wind was pressing you against the railing and not away from it, so no complaints. As we finished up, one of the cops ran over, insisting something or other. We thought he was going to keep us from riding the road, but it turns out he was only informing us that we were in the wrong lane (didn’t really matter without any traffic on the road) and assisted us in crossing the center barrier to get to the correct side. This was a bit silly, but we obliged the officer, glad he was feeling helpful and not restrictive. We thanked him, loaded our bikes, and set off again. The wind was strong, but still coming from the Northeast, so that it did help propel us along a bit. Now that we had three lanes and a wide shoulder at our disposal we made good time, with plenty of room to weave. There is nothing like a freshly paved road all to yourself. We pushed all the way into Turpan on our own private bike lane, arriving late after a quiet, relaxing (though windy) latter half of the day.
We stopped at the first hotel we saw to use their wifi and, having redirected ourselves towards better priced lodging, we got our first taste of a Chinese hostel. It was a bit difficult to find- after passing through a gate that led into a massive courtyard, we rounded a large hotel and passed through a small archway set in the back of a square composed of what looked to be apartments. Deep in this courtyard, we discovered the unlikely sign of our hostel and passed through the ever-present metal detectors to get to what appeared to be the check-in desk. Beyond this desk was a group of people drinking beer- always a good sign, so we thought. It turns out that one of these gentlemen was the proprietor, and he was… sloshed. We can’t blame him too much, it was past 11 pm at this point, but it took him a long time to check us in. He asked if we drank beer in broken English, to which I replied “yes” and Cody replied “no.” He invited me to drink with him and his little entourage, but I was tired, hungry, and cold, and did not fancy starting to drink with people who were already in too deep- too much of a disparity.
There was something a bit megalomaniacal in his demeanor, which we could see immediately. He had a sort of tenuous self-confidence that required careful assuaging. He wore nice shoes, jeans, and a government issued police turtleneck under a maroon leather jacket, and carried himself with the air of a young entrepreneur. He had served in the police force in Xinjiang for eight years, we were told. Cody, quite ungracefully, asked if he thought the police were good or bad. He replied, a bit tersely, that he loved his culture and he loved his military. Whoops.
He showed us our room and we asked if there were any restaurants open this time of night, which there weren’t. We asked if there was a kitchen here, which he said there was, but he wanted three dollars for us to use it. We were not inclined to pay this, so we resigned ourselves to a cold dinner, but at seeing the disinterest in our faces, he conceded and let us use the kitchen for free, remarking that “if the food was really beautiful” we could use it. I did not catch the implication that we were supposed to feed him. Why he thought two raggedy cyclists were carrying enough provisions for a large meal is beyond us anyhow. We cooked, with our venerable host and a nice young Japanese student popping in every now and again to check on the progress. We really hadn’t caught that we were supposed to be preparing a group meal. There was, in fact, enough food for one of these sloshy blokes, but Cody filled our pots to overflowing and we forced ourselves through the excess as well, just like any good cycle tourist would do after a long 150k day.
We ate in our room, and our host accompanied us. The Japanese chap was bunked with us, and while we ate he and our host imbibed some Chinese wine, which was supposedly steeped for two years with scorpions and centipedes and is supposedly good for impotence. It also fetched quite a price, he assured us. Despite the “No Smoking” sign in our room, he lit a cigarette and eyed our food lustily. We finished and went to clean our dishes, our host declaring that if we cooked the next night we had to make some for him, and imploring me to drink with him the next night. Of course, we promised him whatever he wanted. When we returned, the Japanese chap had escorted our host to bed, and we passed the night peacefully.
I had been feeling a bit sick on the ride to Turpan and when I awoke in the morning I had a nasty little head cold. Our host, looking fatigued but levelheaded, accompanied us to lunch. He evidently found us helpless, as he seemed to intend to conduct us through all of our chores, but we informed him that we could manage ourselves, I again promising to drink some beer with him. Well, as we shopped, I realized that I was pretty sick. On the way home we picked up some medicine at a pharmacy and returned to the hostel for a quiet night. At one point I went out to indulge my host, but it seemed they were having a neighborhood barbeque, so I retired, having given up on keeping my promise. The next day we were off, quite eager to get on the road. He called me out as we left the next day, but still gave our full deposit back. Strange situation.
The day was easy and mild, and we passed a number of tourist attractions that would have taken us too far from the road: The Thousand Buddha caves, which required an incredible stair-climb up into the mountains, and the remains of an ancient city built into the wall of a canyon. The rock itself was arresting in that little canyon, like a landscape from Mars:
We exited the canyon and found an opening in the fence with some difficulty as the sun set. We had been passing through vineyards and innumerable drying houses- this is the raisin capital of asia- and set up camp in an empty patch of desert between farm settlements.
We ate dinner in a hurry, driven once more to swiftness by the pressure of plummeting temperature. I was somewhat dismayed as I did dishes- The water trapped in my sponge immediately froze and I mistook it for some strange food slush at first. The water I dumped out froze one second after it hit the ground. It was time to get in the tent. We tumbled into our sleeping bags and endured an incredibly cold night, neither of us sleeping a wink. I was fairly comfortable, though my sleeping bag felt wafer thin and the intensity of the cold seemed to keep my mind alert. Long after the sun had risen, we crawled out of our shelters determined not to have another night like that.
Since then, we have not slept outside once. We stopped in the next town with a hotel, Shanshan, where we stayed in a 5 star hotel for 16 dollars each. This seems like a lot of money to us after Central Asia, but at this point we don’t mind at all. I always say, what is money for if not to keep my belly full and evade the profound discomfort of intense cold?
The next day was cold, but we went for it hard- it was 314 kilometers to Hami without any hotels along the way and we wanted to camp as little as possible. Towards the end of the day, we came upon another madman, a fellow cycle tourist! I had assumed that we were closing in on a European, probably one who speaks English, but to ,y surprise I found myself looking a small Chinese fellow without a lick of English! After a few failed attempts at conversation, I rode on. We were hoping to do at least 100k in order to reach Hami in two days, but at 85k there was a rest stop/gas station and I stopped in to grab some dinner. Our strategy was to eat dinner inside so as to avoid sitting out in the cold and just dive straight into our tents after set up. Our new companion had tagged along, however, had other designs.
There are many of these rest stops in China. Almost every gas station (barricaded) is preceded by a large parking area to accommodate lorries and a building or two that always include toilets, a shop and a restaurant where one can get a meal of noodles with vegetables for two or three dollars. This one had a large anteroom with benches alongside the front wall, and our new friend obtained permission to sleep there! We were elated. He also proved to be very useful as a translator, of course. We ate dinner, and found our companion to be very relaxed, unconcerned by the language barrier, and altogether polite and congenial. His name is Moluo, currently living near Hong Kong, and he is riding across and around China. He has been gone 5 months and has covered 15,000 kilometers, zig-zagging all over the country, exploring all the mountains and lakes, exploring every crevice and corner. He seems to be almost immune from the temperature.
The night went well, we were all nice and warm, although I had some trouble sleeping due to the fluorescent lights and the shape of the bench, which kept pushing my sleeping pad out from under me, but I was happy to be inside.
The next day we hoped for a repeat. We saw a gas station on the map 95k away and went for it. The morning started off alright with a nice little descent, but soon turned into an uphill push into the wind. We stopped for lunch, where the frigid, howling wind sucked all the warmth out of our fingers and toes, in the middle of the day! My hands shrieked in complaint as we resumed, myself setting a furious pace in order to warm my body up again. From there the day was an incredible push.
Sometimes when you are riding uphill into a headwind you begin to suspect that you have a flat tire or that your drive-train is dead, as plausible reasons for such poor progress for so much effort. This was simply one of those days. We made it though.
The gas station was not quite as large as we were hoping for. There were two little restaurants and a shop though, and Moluo seemed unconcerned, so we ate dinner- served by a young man in a police jacket and bulletproof vest, he was both waiter and door guard- and tried to thaw out. Afterwards we raided the store for chocolate and then looked inquiringly to Moluo, who said simply, “I have found a place for us to live.” Excellent. I grew a bit suspicious when we began pushing our bikes toward an outbuilding, wondering where exactly he was taking us. I became a bit dismayed when I realized we were pushing our bikes through the door to the toilets. Yes, we were going to spend the night in the toilets of a truck stop, but it wasn’t as bad as it seemed: there was a side room only occupied by sinks, and it wasn’t too close to the urinals or toilets. We got some strange looks, the three of us with our bikes hanging out in the there, but it was warm. We even found the lightswitch, so once we got settled down, having put down our tarps, pads and bags, it was more comfortable than the night before. There were four sinks outside of this room as well, so we didn’t have any traffic. All was well until about 5 am, when a group of truckers came in and chainsmoked by the urinals, talking loudly over each other in such a chaotic fashion that I doubted whether anyone was getting a meaningful word in. After that, a series of men came in and sat at a sink for 15 minutes hocking loogies and generally clearing their throats, which was a bit too visceral for me to ignore. At 6, the cleaner- who was also a military guard- came in and turned our lights on, indicating that it was time to get up. Another success, a warm night.
We found the wind to be in our favor and flew down the road. Moluo expressed doubts about being able to make a 140k day, but we blew into town before the sun went down. We also blew right past a police checkpoint. I didn’t think much of it, and neither did Moluo, who I was following. Honestly, the checkpoint was so small we hardly noticed it. No one even yelled at us to stop… that is, no one yelled at Moluo and I. Cody, a bit behind, was flagged down, but he didn’t want to lose us, so he feigned ignorance and kept on. We got a few blocks before a blockade met us, consisting of a young man with a shield, an old man with a spear and an officer blocking our path. They escorted us to the police station and kept us there for a while. I will admit that while we sat there, with a police officer standing before us behind his shield, I thought we might be booked. We had arpused their suspicions, and I was well aware I jad tried to slip the rules, and the guilt always shows a bit on my face, but soon we were passing the time being weirdos, as usual. What an adventure that would have been! It all worked out in the end though, and we were released.
We cruised down to a cheap hotel Moluo found, and after checking the room and even stashing some stuff there, we were informed that we could not stay, we had to go to one of the approved hotels for tourists. It just so happened to be a block away, which was nice. Moluo walked us there and got us set-up before returning to the cheaper hotel. The next day he met us around noon, after our excellent complimentary breakfast (no coffee though) and we explored the town. I had no interest in doing this, I will admit- all I wanted to do was lay in bed.
It turned out to be fine day: We went grocery shopping, visited a chintzy Christian church that was closed for the season, went to the park, where we had to show our passports to gain access (the guard looked at my Russian visa, looked at me, and let me through). Moluo and Cody played basketball with a couple of kids and an old man for a while, I just basked in the sun. We watched a man practice Tai chi for a time. We exited the park and were drawn to a magnificent pagoda walled off and surrounded by old demolished buildings. One was still intact and I explored it. From there we saw a smaller park with a bunch of ping pong tables. There were six sets of people playing, and we were offered paddles and a ball and enjoyed a few rounds (the locals were really good). After this we decided to angle back into town to get some food.
We passed some sort of police convoy parked alongside the road, which I ignored. Cody, on the other hand, gave them a curious gaze. Not sure which one of us elicited it, but suddenly we were addressed and told to show our passports. Next thing we know we were told to get into a van, which we did not like at all. Moluo seemed nonplussed, but my American blood was boiling and all I could think was “Don’t Tread on Me.” We pulled in at one of the numerous police stations and were let through the gate. Inside was a hodgepodge of busy looking police officers. We stood there, I for my part trying not to look angry, while our guardians conversed in Chinese with one of the men behind the desk.
After some confusion, the fellow who brought us in was obviously reprimanded and hotly defended himself, as he was evidently being made a fool of. Our passports were returned and we were set free, now somewhat amused, though a bit riled.
Then we lounged. Today I slept in until breakfast, after an additional night in the hotel, and I have hardly stepped outside today. Took a nap. Did a lot of writing. I am a bit sick again, a recurrence of my headcold. Time for some more of this medicine, which sends my thoughts in strange directions, I have found. Tonight we rest, tomorrow we hit the road again, 360k to the next hotel. I am out of my mind to be riding in this weather, but Moluo doesn’t seem to mind, he claims that he “does not fear the cold.” Well good for you, you psycho. I hate being cold, it is one of the least pleasant sensations for me. My tolerance is high, but the temperature is low. Then there is Cody, who insists on riding the whole way, out of principle, which I think is a bit silly but am also so far unable to break this rule, so I guess I’ll tag along. Winter makes me homesick, especially with Thanksgiving coming up. A warm beach in Thailand will probably cure that. Only a few thousand kilometers away!
A few more observations about China: a lot of people smoke. Most places allow smoking inside. Yesterday was the first time I got into an elevator fumed by the cigarette of a fellow passenger. Many people can be seen smoking while they eat, and often your meals are accompanied by the aroma of tobacco. Every building has a metal detector and a guard, and every type of person seems to be one- men and women, young and old. That said, we have had less trouble in Xinjiang after we passed Urumqi. They no longer delay us for an hour while they methodically record our itinerary, they just take a picture of our passports with a phone and ask for a phone number.