Archive for the ‘China’ Category


China Khorgas to Kazakhstan

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

We checked out of the reasonably priced hotel in Qinguancun that we had found the day before and pointed our bikes towards Kazakhstan. It was only 30km but it was cold and raining, we had our waterproofs on for the first time in ages. As we rode I contemplated our last day in China, a country that had surprised both of us from the start. We had quickly fallen in love with the country and the people, and the cycling and travelling potential here is almost endless. For me, China is one of my favourite countries that I have cycled and travelled in and I look forward to having more adventures here in the future.

We arrived at the border a little after lunch and once we found the right gate to go through and fended off the rather keen money changers we said our last goodbye to China. The process was quite straight forward and we were soon cycling into Kazakhstan. We were met by our first Kazakh official who after a few seconds broke a smile and pointed us in the right direction. We took our bikes into the main passenger area, filled out our entry cards, got the passports stamped and managed to wheel the bikes through without unloading them and having everything scanned by the x-ray machine.

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A new country, a new language and everything was unfamiliar once again. It still amazes me that you can travel only a few kms and feel totally different. It leaves me feeling a little lost and and excited at the same time. I try and remind myself that a little effort, learning the language now from the start will go a long way in the future.

The town we had arrived into was a little sparse to say the least, compared the Chinese side. We were hoping for somewhere to stay but there was one small shop, a cash machine and a small kiosk to by mobile sim cards. We got some cash and cycled on debating about what to do. It was a little late into the day to get to Zharkent, the next major town 30km but perhaps there was more further on. We kept cycling, Liz was cold from all the stopping and starting in the rain so we kept moving. There were plenty of camping opportunities and we had pretty much decided that we were going to camp when we rounded a bend and got to another check point. We passed through without incident, just beyond was a petrol station and a large square building that we hoped might have somewhere to sleep or eat at least.

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An hour later having made friends with a few people who could speak English and help translate, my Chinese was no good here, we were sat in front of two plates of hot chicken and big hunks of bread. As we ate we debated about what to do next, camp in the cold and the wet, or stay in the ridiculously expensive hotel above the restaurant. The lure of a dry warm place was to much for Liz so we checked into the hotel stripped of the wet clothes and enjoyed a hot shower.

The next day the sun was shining and things were looking a lot nicer, we had eggs and bread for breakfast and cycled the 30kms to Zarkhent were there would be internet, shops, people and we could get sorted for the 300km ride to Almaty.

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The ride was pretty easy we passed through a few small villages on the way there and were thankful for our mirrors as old ashfelt road was a little bumpy at the edges so cycling Mongolian style in the middle of the road was much more preferable when the cars and trucks allowed.

Zharkent is a small town but it had everything we needed. A friendly English student helped us find a cheap hotel and we sat down to make a plan for the rest of the day. Firstly we needed more money, things were a lot more expensive compared to China. We found the ATM, internet cafe and market and celebrated with a kebab and a few shots of vodka courtesy of the guys that were at the same kebab stand as us.

The next day we got up early and hoped to get a good start, a puncture on my bike and then a problem with the hub dashed our plans. We also remembered that on the back of our arrival cards it said that we had to register within 5 days of arrival. By the time the bike was fixed up we were hungry again so opted for some food before checking the internet to see if the 5 days were more of a guide line than a rule. We cycled to the centre of the town and struggled to find a place to eat. It seemed that every place was closed for a wedding or private party. We were just about to give up but the last restaurant we tried happened to have an English speaking employee who pointed us in the direction of a good restaurant that he assured us would be open. Just as we were about to set off we were asked to wait a moment. The young guy came back and presented us with two large bottles of coke. A gift from our village he said. We thanked him a lot and waved goodbye. We arrived at the other restaurant that we were amazed we had missed and were greeted by a guy who spoke good English. We have been expecting you he said, please come and sit down and we can help you order some food. The guy that had just given us the coke had phoned ahead to the other restaurant.

We made friends with the restaurant owner and had a good meal, as we were leaving we asked if they knew if we could register in this town. It turned out the restaurant owner was not from Kazakhstan but Uzbekistan, he said that we really had to register in 5 days and that the nearest place was in Almaty. We were already on day two in the country and it would take us at least 5 days to cycle to Almaty. We pondered the dilema, cycle and hope that they don’t really care but risk a fine or some other problems, or work out a way to get to Almaty. The latter was not really an appealing option as this was going to be our only cycling in Kazakhstan. We had decide to take a plane to Kiev after Almaty as it was the cheapest way to make up some distance. Not travelling by bike was something I always wanted to avoid but we have to be back in England at the end of January latest. We decided to spend more time in Mongolia but the trade off for this was having to take a train or plane for some of the next part of the journey. I was also keen to get to know the country a little bit better as after only two days, the friendly people were making me feel relaxed and keen to explore.

The owner of the restaurant then told us he was going to Almaty later that day as he was flying home for his brothers wedding, he reckoned that there might be room for us and our bikes in his car, if we would be interested. With the fear of a big fine and no other information we gratefully accepted his offer and a few hours later we were on the way to Almaty.

It got dark quickly, mid way we stop at the small mountain pass that was covered in snow and apparently not far from a beautiful canyon. I wished I had done a little more research about this route and country before had so that we might have had enough time to cycle.

We arrived in Almaty at 11pm and our new friends found us a place to stay. Hotels are really expensive here and renting an 1 bed apartment is actually a cheaper option. We paid up for two nights and hoped that our warm showers host would be able to accommodate us a few day earlier.  We said goodbye to our new friends and settled in for the night

The next day we walked out of the apartment block on to a main road, we had no idea where we were. This didn’t seem to bother us at all, and it was easy enough to find a shop selling a map and then navigate our way to the immigration office to complete our registration. We found the immigration office and started to fill in the forms until we got to address. We had no idea of the full address of where we were staying, we tried just putting the street address down but they did not like it. We opted to go home and come back the next day.

That evening we got in touch with our warms showers host, he was happy to host us from tomorrow and gave us his address for our forms. The next day we submitted our forms in the morning and by lunch time we were cycling to the other side of town to find Taz our warm showers host.

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The Silk road or the Cotton road?

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Leaving Urumqi together we joined a big highway out of town, having been in Mongolia only a couple of weeks earlier where you see one car an hour, suddenly being on a 3 lane highway was quite an adrenalin rush to say the least. However the benefit of the highway is the hard shoulder which is a lane in itself, and the fact that it is a good, smooth, fast road. We whizzed along and managed to do 45km in a couple of hours or so. Unfortunately when i have longer periods of not cycling (a week or more) and sitting, my leg muscles seem to contract or tighten, and the first day back on the road usually means that my knees hurt after 30km. We know this happens and try to allow for it, but it is frustrating and having to stop when the rest of you is ready to carry on can be annoying! However continuing is painful and can also mean that they still hurt the next day. So we stopped, pulled off the highway and into some bushes to find a place to camp. Hidden amongst the trees was a small concrete building, empty apart from a pipe with a big hole going into the ground. The ground outside was lumpy and not flat enough for camping so we decided to camp inside the little building.

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Looks a bit grim, but with the tent up, it was perfect and we had a good nights sleep.

roadosignThe next day we continued for a while until we saw signs saying no bikes and we pulled off onto a side road that ran parallel. This was very quiet and we had the road to ourselves, which meant we could talk and cycle side by side.

This road is actually the old Silk Road, which has seen traders coming and going across Asia for centuries. Even now the road was full of produce, with people drying corn or spices and chillies along the road ready to sell.  We wove our way in and out of the lanes of food.

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We cycled into one town to have lunch and found a nice little restaurant run by a Kazakh or Uyghur family. The father spoke Chinese but couldn’t read it. We carry a little piece of paper with all the food we like written in Chinese, so we can ask them what they have by pointing. he called his daughter over and she was able to read it and tell him what we wanted. We love having rice at lunch as it fills us up and gives us lots of energy, so we always ask for this  – “yo, mae yo meefan?” which literally means “have, not have rice?”. They said yes so we drank tea while we waited. A plate of hot fried meat and onion arrived, which was delicious. But no rice. Eventually the girl called me into the kitchen and pointed to the fresh hand made noodles that her mother was making and asked if we would have these. They didn’t have rice after all but the noodles were delicious!

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We continued on after taking some photos with the family and headed to the next town Shihezi. Along the way we started to see lots of small tractors with a big trailer full of white stuff that looked like balls of cotton wool….

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There were hundreds of them and by the roadside were balls of white fluff everywhere, in 100 metres alone there were probably enough balls of cotton to keep me going for a lifetime!. We played a game of overtaking them, and then they would catch us up and overtake us. The drivers were all very friendly and intrigued by us on our bicycles.

As we reached Shihezi everything felt more industrial, dusty and dirty. We thought  we might stop in Shihezi and find a hotel, but we couldn’t see much. Then finally we found a place. It was a good price (60 yuan) and we wheeled the bikes in, unloaded and went to register. In China hotels have to be registered to take foreigners and many hotels are not allowed. I showed the lady our passport and said “Yinggor’, which means ‘English’.as well as handing her the money for one night. She made a phone call and then handed me back the passports and money, shaking her head. We couldn’t stay. This has happened before and it isn’t their fault, but i do find it frustrating that they don’t tell us before we unload the bikes and bring them inside, surely they can see we are foreign travellers!

However they were very nice and helped us find another place to stay. Another woman borrowed a bicycle, hopped on and led us 4km across town to the hotel that would accept us. It was very kind of her and she stayed to help us see the room and negotiate a price. Chinese hotels have a price board, but you never pay that price. That said, it was a very expensive business hotel, and they wanted 180 yuan a night. It was Chris’s 30th birthday the next day so we decided to stay and managed to get them down to 140 which is about 14 pounds, for a very nice room. Having cycled through the town we found that it was really nice, away from the highway.

The next morning I covered some little cakes in chocolate ( by melting some little chocolates that we had) and added birthday candles which we have been carrying for 2 years for our birthdays! When Chris got out of the shower he had mini birthday cakes and fresh coffee waiting for him, to celebrate his 30th birthday!

Feeling slightly old and with that beard he was certainly looking older (just needs the pipe and slippers now!) Chris decided that we should have the day off and relax.

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However we did need to cycle a long way still to get to the border before the 28th, so we left that day after and rejoined the highway following the G312 /G30, with a longer day in mind.

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The purple line is the Kazakh /Chinese border, 650km from Urumqi. We had 500km to go…and it was already the 23rd… We cycled with rows of trees lining the road, with the occasional blast of colour.

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As the landscape became more barren and empty, it felt as if we were cycling through no mans land, with the exception of power stations and people gathering cotton or chillies. As we cycled up a slow hill for a long time, we saw piles of red. At first I thought it was brick or some kind of stone, but as we got closer we saw it was mountains of red chillies. We cycle for mile seeing people bagging up chillies and loading them onto trucks. We nicknamed the hill, Chilli hill!

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We cycled until late and then pulled off to camp near an old mud sheep fold, in between our road and the big G30 highway in the distance. it was a great spot and we had a peaceful nights sleep.

Next day we continued and needed the help of our ipods to keep us going. The road was beginning to get monotonous and the landscape had little for us to see, so music can be a good from of escapism – thank goodness for Mumford and sons! At times we could see that there was a huge mountain range to our left and we knew it was there on our map, yet the air here is thick and foggy, hazy and seems to act like a layer of cloud. With all the coal burning power stations in this area I couldn’t decide if it was pollution or just wintery mist. Either way we couldn’t see the mountains until sunset, where the absence of light seemed to give a brief glimpse of them.

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We put in a long day and struggled to find anywhere to camp. The fields were covered in cotton plantations and every inch of land was in use. With darkness falling we pulled off anyway and had a mini argument about camping there. There was a small patch near the cotton plants, not brilliant but good enough to fit the tent. Chris loves finding great camping spots, where as I really dislike cycling in the dark and trying to find somewhere to sleep when the light and temperature is dropping away. We agreed to camp there albeit with Chris in a grumpy mood and I put up the tent whilst he cooked dinner.

Being on the road together day in day out does mean that now and again you disagree and fall out over pretty minor stuff, especially when you are tired, cold, hungry or all three! But we are pretty lucky, we rarely fall out or argue and both try hard to listen to each other and communicate – and not expect the other to be a mind reader. Of course there are days when you are feeling grumpy or fed up or impatient and we know each other pretty well, so can sense when the other person is unhappy or annoyed. Sometimes we just need a bit of space or time to ourselves, other times we need to talk, eat food or have a big hug. Most of all though, I think being kind to each other is the key.

In the morning it was cold and the sun was rising when we got up. In between the cotton plants there were large cabbages growing too

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Having arrived in the dark the night before, we now had the chance to see the cotton fields and plants up close. I have to say I haven’t really seen cotton growing before and didn’t really know much about it. This what the plants here look like…

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Having done a little research since, we found out that China is a largest producer of cotton in the world! Although most it is used domestically (in China), and the US is still the biggest exporter of cotton. We see the workers in the field picking cotton all day long starting at sunrise an finishing at dusk, it’s all done by hand and  it seems that China has an army of cotton workers!

The next day we cycled a long old day again, clocking up 90km.

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and we camped by the road again, but this time the land was sandy almost like desert – felt like the gobi again only we had a huge tarmac road nearby!  It was much colder too, the temperature was steadily dropping now as we reached the end of October.

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Getting back on the road we had a stop / start morning as Chris’s trailer was wobbling, nothing we tried seemed to fix it and it was slow going. After 75km we were losing the light again and reached a town where we found a hotel and lots of very friendly people. We had planned to do 100km and we were running out of time. Despite our efforts and long days, we still had 200km to do to reach the border and only 2 days left – including actually crossing the border. We had heard that the fines at the border could be as much as $500 so there was no way we could risk that. We decided to get up very early and try to do a really long day.

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However, after 4 days of hard cycling, our tiredness got the better of us and we slept through our various alarms, waking up at 9am!! So once again, we decided to look at hitching a ride or finding a taxi/bus to the border. It would be nice if there was a international cycle touring visa that allowed you to cycle in countries without time restrictions and cross borders without having to put your bike in a jeep or have all your bags checked twice – it feels as if we are always racing the visa deadlines!

We asked around town but the only people willing to take us wanted 1000 yuan! We cycled out for a few km and waited by the side of the road but no-one stopped. Eventually a police car came and chatted to Chris. They offered to take us to the nearest bus station where we could get a bus to the border. Another policeman met us at the station having been called by his colleagues. He spoke some English and was trying very hard to help us. He was very sweet and obviously nervous about being given this task – his hands were shaking!  He helped my buy tickets and then said goodbye. We weren’t really sure what time the bus was arriving and having asked we came back with 15 mins, 5pm or 10pm and didn’t really know which.

The first bus arrived after a few minutes and promptly told us that we couldn’t get on, no room for all the bikes and the driver was quite rude really. The second bus said no too and we were a little worried that this wouldn’t work out after all. It was 3.30pm and we just had to cross our fingers and toes. Finally another bus arrived and the driver already seemed to know about us and was friendly and helpful. We loaded the bikes and all our bags under the bus, with other passengers watching from the windows above. It all fit and we were ready. The driver asked us for more money for the bikes and luggage. It wasn’t unreasonable as we were taking up a lot of space and we had no other choice really. Once on the bus we explained what we were doing and where we were going. They agreed to drop us at the town nearest the border, about 30km east of khargos.

The bus journey went smoothly and we crossed a high mountain range with a huge lake by the side of the snowy mountains.

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and as we passed between the mountains we saw some amazing feats of engineering and architecture, with huge roads soaring over the valley below, feeling like  we were on a helter skelter, we wiggled our way through and passed through 3km tunnels before coming out a few hundred metres below.

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A few hours later we arrived at the town and unloaded our bikes, repacking them, with an ever growing crowd forming around us. Phew we made it. Travelling is funny really as you never quite know what is going to happen on any given day. One minute you are worried about how things will work out and think that it’s going to be too difficult, the next you are laughing and smiling, wondering why you had worried at all! Things generally do have a way of working themselves out you just have to keep smiling and being positive, and eventually the universe will provide :)

It was getting dark and we were too late for the border that day, but we would cross tomorrow on the last day of our visa and go to our 10th country – Kazakhstan.

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Urumqi

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Having left Chris to cycle, I jumped into a minibus and took the 8 hr journey to the city. The driver wasn’t happy to take me and wanted more money – double the other passengers as I was a foreigner and then more for the bike. We agreed on a price eventually. A few hours later in the city and it was already dark. I was dropped in the south of the city near a hotel and I managed to check in and get sorted out. It’s funny arriving in a big city on your own at night, with limited language, but once in my hotel room I was very happy. I had a hot shower, the first in about 9 days, which was blissful – nothing like hot water to make you feel good.

However the hotel was expensive and I couldn’t stay there for long. I found a hostel in the north of the city and cycled 17km across town to get there. Having heard that Urumqi traffic was terrible, I was fired up and bracing myself for some aggressive cycling. However it wasn’t too bad and there was plenty of room on the roads for everyone. I checked into a dorm room in a light bright airy hostel and got started on work. My main reason for coming to town by bus was so that I could work for a week or so on a website, for an existing client called TellTale – www.telltale.co.uk.

I quickly got into a routine, working, popping out for lunch at a little place around the corner where they had lovely bowtsa -  little steamed buns filled with meat, where you got 10 for 5 Yuan (50p). For an extra Yuan you got soup too! There were also fruit stalls and bread stands, where men cooked fresh naan breads all day, alongside skewers of meat cooking over coals. Quite a mix of Kazakh and Chinese cuisine.I would work late and chat to some of my room mates, who all spoken rather impressive English. It turns out that this week was a national holiday and so many young people take the opportunity to travel. Most of the girls in my dorm were 20-25 and from Beijing or Shanghai, travelling for a few days. The staff at the hostel were really lovely and the women were interested to know what i was doing, especially as I stayed so long. I was hand washing all of my clothes one day, they were all dirty and covered in sand and dust from Mongolia, and two of them came to watch. I’m not sure why, but they ended up helping me and seemed to want to look after me, so sweet!

Work went well and Chris arrived at the end of the week, So we applied for our Kazakh visas and explored the city a little. Urumqi is a very modern city and big. We figured out the bus system and managed to find a western bar, run by a Japanese guy, called Fubar. We had cheeseburgers and chips. Chinese food is lovely, but it’s nice to have a burger now and again!

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Urumqi is in Xinjiang province and is a semi autonomous region, home to the Uyghur people. It is also the place in Asia that is farthest from the ocean, the most inland city, about 1600 miles from the sea. Historically Urumqi is a trade town and a major city along the northern Silk road and we wondered if that’s why people are so friendly – they are used to travellers passing through?? That said, we didn’t see many other foreigners at all.

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Along the road, Chris met with a guy called Simon and he arrived in Urumqi a few days later. We arranged to take him for dinner, but it ended up with him taking us to his friend’s small restaurant  where his friend cooked us a wonderful meal and we sat and drank beer, looking at photos till late.

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On a final day in Urumqi we went to the People’s park, which is a wonderful oasis in an otherwise busy city. As in other parts of China, people genuinely use these public spaces and parks in a way you don’t really see at home. We might wander round a park, sit on a bench for a few minutes and then walk back. But here people come together to socialise, to play cards, to play chequers or chess, in quite big groups. Others will gather just to watch.

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There were people fishing, children playing and as we walked further into the park we could hear music. In the middle of the park, on a normal Tuesday afternoon, a big group of people were dancing to music. Some dancing on their own, others with a partner. We watched with smiles and loved the freedom and lack of inhibition here, people were happy and enjoying being there dancing. Many people were also gathered around watching by the sidelines.

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As we continued, we saw another man playing his saxophone, amazingly, with no audience, just sat on the grass. Further down there was a small Chinese opera performance and so it goes on… The park was full of people enjoying themselves, using the park and having fun. On a week day, in the middle of the afternoon.

You may be thinking, why weren’t they at work, or how were they able to do that? We wondered too. Shops are open early and open till later at night, sometimes people work less in the daytime, so maybe that’s why. But whatever the explanation, it was great to see. For all that the west likes to criticise China and it’s government, the people are not the government and despite the restrictions and censorship in their lives, people are happy and enjoy life, they seem to have more leisure time and enjoy socializing immensely. Not only that but they are some of the kindest, welcoming, genuine people that we have met on our travels.

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We got our Kazakh visas and then packed up to leave Urumqi, ready to cycle to the border and go to Kazakhstan.

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Mongolia to China the Bulgan Gol – Tashiken

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

We packed up the tent and started pushing our last few kms in Mongolia, i was still happy to be free again and excited to be crossing this particular boarder.  I had wanted to cross this for over a year and now it was open and i was free to cross it.  I was excited and smiling to myself as we got closer.  We had probably done only about 5km when a white car pulled up in front of us and a familiar face got out.  It was our driver, he was a passenger in the car that was actually a taxi going to the border.  The driver of this car and our old driver explained that the border was closing in just under an hour and would be closed for a week because of the Chinese holiday.  This was a tricky and funny situation, on the one had he could be after more money, on the other had he could be telling the truth.  We know that China do have some long holidays and the government does shut down during this time.

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It was an easy decision really, although it would cost us £10, we could not risk being stuck here for a week.  We quickly packed the car up and i was fuming all the way there as i had lost my freedom again and was pretty sure that the border was not going to be shut, but we could not risk it.

We arrived at the border and spent 2 hours waiting for lunch to finish.  We had missed the morning entry and the border was not closing that day.  I put it down to experience, and Liz and I spent the time designing our house that we want to build when we get back.  The border guards were friendly and we chatted with them for a bit until eventually we were let through.

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We cycled the bikes to the main building and were directed to an office and asked to wait.  Eventually a guy turned up and looked all our paperwork over, he made a few calls and 30 minutes later we were on our way.  We crossed the line and were greeted by a friendly Chinese face.  We were now by the bag check point, we leant the bikes against the wall of the office and we had all our bags checked.  They were quite thorough but polite and nice throughout.  Once this was done we went to the passenger terminal and put all our bags through the scanner.  Our passports were scanned by a small machine and our entry cards were printed for us.  We moved to the next desk got our entry stamp and opened the door, we were back in China.

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We cycled a few kms down the lovely smooth road and had a light late lunch before heading to the town of Tashiken.  We cycled around the town looking for the bank, after a loop we ended up at a hotel.  We checked with the staff at the hotel, no bank in the town and it was not really clear where the next bank was.  The friendly staff told us there were buses and taxis going to Urumqi for reasonable costs.  We decided to cycle out of town to camp and work out what to do.

We had the equivalent of £30 on us,  it was just enough to get to Urumqi that was about 600km if we were careful.  Liz really wanted to have a wash and sleep in a bed and was worried about the time it would take to get to Urumqi, as she had to start work and we had no power on the laptops.  The other issue we had was my bike was down one spoke and my rear hub was moving from side to side.

I was super keen to get back on the bike but Liz was ready for a break so we discussed the option of me cycling to Urumqi alone and Liz getting a taxi.  We had some food and got some rest.  We were both excited to be back in China but kicking ourselves for not be a bit more prepared.  Tomorrow would be a new day and things would work out, as they tend to do.

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Cycling Tashiken to Urumqi and Chinese hospitality

Saturday, October 22nd, 2011

Having slept on our choices last night, we had decided that Liz would take a taxi to Urumqi and I would do my best to cycle, with my rather wobbly bike. We cycled the short distance back into town, to the hotel where we had met the friendly people the day before, and set about organising a taxi. Luckily there was a taxi driver there waiting for people, the only problem was that he was not keen on the bike going in his car. We negotiated a price but it was high, double the normal cost, as the bike would count as an extra person, but he was willing to take money at the other end. Liz took 5 of our 30 pounds and we hugged goodbye. It would be a week before we would see each other again, which is not all that long. We were both looking forward to some independent time but still, it’s hard to leave your partner in a foreign country, not really knowing when you might be able to speak again. Of our 4 Chinese sim cards one still seemed to be working so I put that into my phone and Liz took the number. We are so used to instant communication now, Skype, twitter, facebook, sms and mobile phones all allow us to check on our loved ones at almost any time, but here now we were stepping back in time. It was an uncomfortable feeling that probably would not have really existed in the same way 15 years ago.

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I free-wheeled down the road in search of some supplies for the road and a hot meal. I found all I wanted to, and was still a little taken back at the friendly faces that were greeting me, and the approval of the bike and my journey from people was amazing. On the way back out of town I filled the stove bottle with petrol and asked the pump attendant how much. He smiled and waved me on saying it was nothing. I had not forgotten the kindness I had experienced in China the first time, but I was still amazed at what was starting to unfold. I rejoined the main road and pointed my bike into the direction of the unknown. My 1:4000000 map only marked a few of the towns that people had talked about and I really had no idea what lay ahead. The road started to climb a little and I relished the smooth tarmac road, golden autumn leaves that lined the river the left of me and the dark greys and browns of the desert to my right. It occurred to me that I was still cycling through a desert really, but I did not feel isolated or vunerable in any way. It all seemed rather normal, but a little voice kept telling me not to get complacent and plan for the worst. I pulled over and filled up with extra water from the river, that according to my map would soon take a different course to the road leaving me reliant on what I could carry on my bike.

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As I approached the top of the hill a loud twang sound interrupted my thoughts. My initially reaction was a stone had got caught in the mud guard but as I continued up the hill a rattling sound continued. I pulled of the road to see what the problem was. Hanging limp from the edge of the rim was the longer end of the broken spoke. I started unloading the bike, this was one of the few things I hoped would never happen, I carried spare spokes and had a vague idea of what to do with them but the end result would never be pretty. Unfortunately the broken spoke was on the cassette side, I got the small cassette removal tool out of the repair kit and tired to get the cassette off. It would not budge. I sort of knew that this would be the case, I had tried to take the cassette of a week or so early to try and fix the hub but it was worth another try. I removed the broken spoke and reloaded the bike. What to do now I thought, I had barely done 10km. On the one hand I was feeling uneasy about my lack of money and the generally tired bike, and contemplated trying to hitch to Urumqi.  On the other hand, I could not help thinking back to the van ride and how much I wanted to be on my bike instead. As I was contemplating all this, a car pulled off the road and a guy handed me a bottle of water and went off again. I was a little stunned but I still managed to thank him before he vanished over the hill. I would go for it, I would get as far to Urumqi as I could with this bike and then give it some attention when I had access to spare parts and some bigger tools.

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I pushed down on the pedals and soon crested the hill and was surprised and happy that the bike felt pretty good. I small downhill led me into an open valley and that had a few settlements that had houses only, there seemed to be no shops or other amenities but in the distance it looked like there was a mine or other sort of industrial activity. I had a brief stop by an unmarked junction on my map before carrying on. The good road helped me along as I passed different styles of houses and people in slightly different clothes. I turned a sharp bend and rang my bike bell as I passing young children on bikes whoeither had a look of amazement and disbelief on their face or smiles that reached from ear to ear.

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At 5pm I decided to call it a day, 53km since midday, I cycled off to the side of the road for 500m and pitched camp. I was happy and pleased, things were going well and I was certain that tomorrow I would have a good day. As my rice was cooking a flock of sheep were heading towards me, a man on a scooter appeared behind them and stopped my the tent to investigate what this strange thing was doing in the middle of nowhere. He inspected my dinner and I pointed to the bike at the back of the tent, I managed to explain what I was doing in my limited Chinese. He smiled in a way that said it was a cool thing to be doing but a little crazy and strange at the same time. He got back on his scooter, waved goodbye and continued pushing his sheep home. I finished up my rice dinner and then got cosy in the sleeping bag to watch a movie on the iPod.

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The next day I woke up early, I was still confused as to what time zone I was in, but the sun had not risen over the mountains yet and it didn’t really matter, I didn’t need anything and my only real clock was my body and the sun. I had coffee and breakfast in my sleeping bag while the sun rose over the mountains. It was peaceful and I was enjoying the combination of semi-remoteness and good roads. I was cycling by 9am and loving every second of it. Averaging 17km/h was something I had not experienced for a long time, the sun was warming but not to hot and there was a light breeze that didn’t affect my cycling. I stopped by a river after 20km to fill up with water, then rounded a bend to a small town that seem to serve the three roads that fed into it from different directions. I checked that I was heading the right way, my map was all in English and the road signs in Chinese so I had no way of knowing which way to go other than the compass and the knowledge of the local people. My road climbed slowly up and up, cars passed me as I passed horses and I was soon looking over a magnificent vista and had a long gradual downhill ahead of me. I zoomed down the hill reaching speeds of 40km an hour smiling to myself all the way.

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At mid afternoon I hit the G216 the main road that would take me to Urumqi, I checked my direction again and braced myself for the increased traffic. I suddenly felt so vulnerable, I had not experienced this level of traffic for months, and to top it off there was a crazy side wind. I put on my bright yellow reflective jacket to make me feel better and hopefully give the cars and massive trucks a few more seconds to see me. It seemed like I was crawling a long compared to the morning but I was still making some progress and as the minutes turned into hours I relaxed and went onto autopilot where I can think and check the traffic around me at the same time. I called it a day after 100km and pulled off the road where I had seen some piles of dirt that would keep the tent concealed at night allowing me to have an uninterrupted sleep from curious people in the middle of the night. As I was unloading the bike a guy on his motorbike who was using the dirt track to my right instead of the main road came to visit. We drank tea and talked as much was we could with my limited Chinese, half an hour later he left me with three blocks of dried cheese and set off to his home town 30km away.

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The next morning I awoke to a strong wind that was making the tent fabric flap. As I packed up and had breakfast I was concerned about cycling on the road, the draft the trucks made as they whizzed passed me combined with the wind could be a recipe for disaster. I decided to try the road and see before going to plan B that was the dirt track to the left of the road. My concern with plan B was that the already weakened back wheel might give out completely. After only a few kms on the main road I switch to the dirt track, it was pretty smooth and I was careful to avoid the bumps and preserve the back wheel. Progress was slow only 10km/h but just as fast as the road as I did not have to stop when the big trucks came past me. I followed the dirt track for about 15km and then pulled back on to the main road to make the most of what seemed to be lighter winds and a gradual downhill.

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I slowly eased back into cycling amongst fast traffic and at lunch time I arrived at a large town that was bustling with trucks Chinese tour buses and locals selling everything from nan bread to colourful rocks. I stopped at a restaurant and managed to order some food, two massive dishes and a big bowl of rice appeared in front of me, I finished the lot and felt a lot better for it. After dinner I set about trying to get some more credit for my phone, three shops and a lot of picture taking with Chinese, Taiwanese and Chinese/Canadian tourists later I eventually got what I wanted and made contact with Liz. I felt so much better know that she had made it to Urumqi and was settle in a hotel tapping away on the computer to top up the bank balance. This, added to the smiles and encouragement from the people I was meeting, left me feeling amazing. I left the town with enough water and food for a few more days and the possibility of another town 80km away that might have a bank. I managed another 25km and was pleased to have done 50km by the end of the day despite have spent a few hours in town and had a slow morning for the wind. To the left of the road were some large quarry ditches remnants of the road being built. They made for a perfectly concealed camp site. I was still quite full from lunch so filled up on popcorn and other snacks and set about making a new playlist for the next day. I decided that I would rest in the morning to about 11am. The last few days the wind had been strongest in the morning and by midday the cycling had been perfect.

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The next morning I was not disappointed, the tent was flapping even in my sheltered ditch, I lazed about the camp site, cleaned the tent then got on the road for 11am. The new playlist helped me keep my pace and I was pleased with my progress. I started pushing my riding time between stops, using the laybay as a safe place to have a coffee and food.

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Each laybay I made friends with the truck drivers and cars that were generally full of people from Urumqi going somewhere for the holiday. I was bowled over by people smiles and generosity as I was handed bottles of water, fruit and snacks. Towards the end of the day the light was fading and I got a big nervous about cycling in the twilight, I had only done 75km due to the late start and spending time chatting with people at the rest stops. I debated about carrying on but decided it was safer to stop and there was a good camping nearby. I pulled of the road and got camp set up amongst some bushes.

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I got an early start the next day excited at the possibility that there would be a big town only 5 km away. 5km came and went and there was nothing put trucks and opens spaces. By 10am arrived at a small collection of houses that served as restaurants and shops that were mostly closed. A small bus that had been converted to a shop was the best the town had to offer. I filled up my Thermos, chatted with the few people that had gathered around the bike trying to work out where the next big town was. It seemed there was nothing for at least another 80km and this settlement was not even marked on my map. I brought some more snacks for the road and sett off again. As I continued round the bend a small village appeared and then a police check point. The police asked me where I was going and where I had come from. The policeman smiled and pointed to the police hut and told me I should go and drink tea. I was greeted with smiles and handed numerous bottles of ice tea. I sat down and a large melon was cut open and I was encouraged to eat. I chatted about the bike and my time in China and then I got invited to eat lunch. I said I had not eaten long ago so would be OK, I was keen to get going but torn as it was nice chatting to people. I was asked again to lunch, I could not refuse, so we crossed to road the restaurant opposite and I was treated to a massive lunch of noodles, meat and vegetables. Some of the truck drivers started offering me lifts to Urumqi, I thanked them but said that I preferred to cycle, they did not really understand why I wanted to cycle but eventually they accepted it and wished me well for my journey. After lunch I thanked everybody and said that I must get on, they gave more more ice tea and I left with 9 bottles strapped to the back of the bike!

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I was amazed again at the hospitality and kindness of the police, so many people have written or told me about bad experiences. But for me, all of my dealings with the police in China have been amazing. I have spent over six months travelling around China and during this time I have been showered with food for the road, taken out to dinner and generally been very well looked after by locals and the police. Now some of you may be thinking that this is just away to check up on me and find out more about me. Well this possibility has crossed my mind on more than one occasion. Sure there have been times when the police have check my passport and asked me a few questions about what I am doing but after they have smiled and left me to carry on. The other times though I have been treated like a honoured guest. My conclusion is that either this is a new interrogation style, I really don’t look like a spy, to young (I hope) and a bit scruffy looking; I am just a novelty as not many tourists go to the places I go, or and my favourite, people are just nice.

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The rest of the day went really smoothly, fuelled with lots of food I flew down the road. I stopped at a small turn of where I met more Chinese holiday makers heading off the main road to an interesting spot 22km away. The picture showed an interesting geological landscape, I was asked if I was going there by a family’s seven year old son who spoke excellent English. We chatted for a bit and the parents seemed pleased that I was able to communicate with their son in English. As I set of they handed me a bottle of water and wished me well for my journey.

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I was loving being back in China, the ability to communicate makes such a difference, I wish I had worked harder on my Mongolian. My very limited Chinese was far superior to my Mongolian but it was enough to hold a short conversation. The day started drawing to a close, I passed through and industrial down full of smoke and smog and watched the sun set in a haze of wither dust of smoke. I turned all the lights on and pushed on keen to get to the town that was only 15km away.

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Blessed with a downhill I soon arrived in to a busy town by night. I decided it should probably get some more food here then continue out of town to camp. I ordered the same dish as the police had brought me for lunch and was invited to sit at a table by another guy. We chatted about my journey and more noodles kept appearing, free of charge I was told. I could not finish all my food, despite it being amazing. I bid my dinner companion farewell and paid the £1.50 for my meal. I wheeled down the road to a small shop to pick up some extra supplies. As I came out the shop I posed for a few photos with some intrigued dinners from the restaurant next door and started answering the usual questions. Where are you from, where are you going where have you come from, are you alone, where are you going to sleep. I explained that I had a tent and was going to cycle a few kms out of town to camp. One of the guys that I presumed ran the shop said it was to dangerous to cycle now as it was dark and there were lots of trucks about. I assured them I would be alright, I had lights on the bike and my reflective jacket. They did not seem convinced and suggested I could sleep at the back of the shop. I said that I did not have any money to give them, which was really a way of asking if they wanted money for me to stay. Now I don’t mind paying for accommodation but I like to do it on my terms and when I have the money to do so. At this time I had limited funds until I found a bank so all the cash I had was for food, a night in a hotel would mean that I would have no money for food. As I said this one of the girls in the group that was now surrounding me, put her hand in her pocket and presented me with 300 Yuan about £30. I was amazed and humbled at the same time, I could tell from the clothes that she was wearing that she was probably one of Chinas middle class, but still it was an amazing gesture. I then explained that I had money, just not here, as there was no bank and what I had was enough for food to get me to Urumqi not to stay in a hotel as well. The girl said it did not matter and that she wanted me to have the money. I thanked her again but said I was really OK. I told the group that I was happy camping. The guy that offered me a spot to put the tent out the back offered again, I asked how much, and he said nothing. Perfect, it was late and dark and the people were friendly. I was lead round the back of the bulging and rather than a spot to put the tent I was shown into a guest house room that contained three beds. It seemed this was a stop over for the truck drivers as there were lots of trucks out the back as well. I left my bike in the room and followed my new friends back into the restaurant that was actually part of the shop. I sat down at the table and started talking. A few minutes later I was asked if I was hungry, I assured them I was full and had just eaten. They did not seem to believe me as they kept asking me. A few minutes later a big plate of noodles meat and veg appeared as well as a side dish of green beans. I was a little embarrassed as I was really full, I had just had a massive meal. Everybody seemed happy that I ate a little and were not offended that I could not eat it all.

As the restaurant started to empty the music was turned up and I was asked if I wanted to dance. The restaurant and shop seemed to be part Chinese part Kazakh owned and the music sounded much more Indian or Pakistani than Chinese as well as the dance moves that were going on. I joined in with my arms out to the side as people clapped and cheered. After dancing there was singing and more talking at about 1am I finally turned in to my bed and fell asleep.

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The next day I felt good, I had had a shower the night before and felt relaxed with my new family. I was invited for breakfast and chatted some more. The girl that part owned the restaurant with her sister said ‘I wish you could stay today so we can talk some more, can you stay?’ I thought for a while and could not come up with a reason not to. We settled on a day of chatting and improving my Chinese and their English. I spent the first half of the morning with the daughter of one of the girls that owned the shop, until a wave of tiredness came over me. It had been a busy morning in the restaurant and not opportunity to talked. I decided to go for a little rest. Later the afternoon I spent some time chatting with the staff and helped them prepare some of the dried mushrooms they used in the food. We shared some more food and when business was done for the day I spent a few hours chatting with Simon one of the waiter in the restaurant who spoke pretty good English.

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After another good sleep I filled up my Thermos and had some more food. Bid my new friends goodbye and set off for Urumqi. Simon was a due a few days off over the weekend which was a few days away and he said he would go to Urumqi so we agreed to meet up for dinner there in a few days. I was keen to get a big day in, but I was a little unsure on the exact route into town. My large scale map did not show the minor road that Liz had suggested I take to save going on the busy highway that was marked on my map. I made good progress through the day and by mid afternoon I had done about 80km. There had been a bit of traffic but I had spoken to Liz and found where the other road was that I should take. I approached the junction and realised that the traffic was being caused by a big road building project and that the new junctions were not finished so the police were holding back traffic at different intervals. I asked the police about my route and they said I should take the main road not the minor one. I was happy with this it had a big hard shoulder so even though there was a lot more traffic and it was going faster there were two lanes for them and one for me. It made for good cycling and I was soon flying along. My progress was slowed occasionally by debris in my newly appointed cycle lane and then a puncture. Night was approaching so I fixed up the bike in record time and carried on. By 9pm the batteries on my head torch were starting to fade so I decided to call it a day. I took the next exit of the highway and found a good bush to sleep by. The area was too small for a tent but perfect for a bivi. I had another hot drink and some more food and tucked up in my bivi bag for the night. I was happy 130km over 7 hours my longest day on this trip by 8km.

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I woke at first light but there seemed little point in rushing there was no sign of life so I dozed for while before making coffee fixing another puncture that I had got pushing the bike over some scrub land to get to my bush. As I packed up a few people passed me on scooter and stopped for a chat, they did not not seem to mind me camping and thought that my trip was good. With a fresh tube on the back of the bike and a full belly I hit the road again. I was pretty sure I was going to make it now, I had lost two spokes on the back wheel and the hub was moving from side to side but it was only 50km to Urumqi. I rejoined the highway and was soon cruising happily at 20km an hour.

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By 2pm I was on the outskirts of town and looking for the road that Liz said I should take to get to the hostel that she was staying in. Liz had been busy doing some web work the last week but was on her way to meet me. We met half way between the highway and the hostel and cycled the last few kms together. We celebrated my arrival with a big meal and caught up on each others adventures over the last week. We were both happy to be back in China and glad that we had come here in the first place.

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