Cycling Tashiken to Urumqi and Chinese hospitality

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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2 Responses to “Cycling Tashiken to Urumqi and Chinese hospitality”

  1. Catherine says:

    I love your picture of the driver falling asleep – have you any idea what it says on the sign? On the subject of people being nice to you… do you think behaviour breeds behaviour? If you are open, friendly, and smiley with others, it’s hard to resist being the same in return, isn’t it? We always say to the children in school ‘what goes around, comes around’ – if we’re kind to others, they will be kind in return. In your photos you’re always grinning… Do you feel you are treated differently when you are on your own to when you are a couple? We can put another pin in our map when we get back from half term holidays – hurrah! Thanks for the posts!

  2. Chris Leakey says:

    Sorry I have no idea what the sign says but I imagine that it is similar to what we have back home.

    I do think that behaviour breeds behaviour, we have been treated so well by so many people on this trip and we do believe that it is because we go in with a positive attitude. One example is dealing with officials such as the police and boarder guards. We have never had any problem, even after others have reported to have had bad or negative experiences. Firstly we understand that these people have a job to do, check your passport or register your presence in their town. Getting angry about this does not help. It can be annoying and time consuming but the process goes a lot smoother and faster if you are civil.

    I was so surprised by the police in China that were really helpful and friendly to me. I was led to believe that I would have a lot of hassle from them as I was so close to Tibet, a closed area without a permit. What I actually experienced were nice people who often invited me in for a chat or a cup of tea and sometimes brought me dinner. I did make an effort to be especially friendly with these people. I also think having some basic Chinese made a big difference.

    I think being on your own does change things and we are treated differently. In some places travelling alone is not usual, people prefer to travel in groups. If you add this to travelling alone to remote places like mountains and deserts I think people are generally surprised to see you. Partly perhaps because sat in a 4×4 car or on a motorbike a bicycle looks like hard work and they either did not think it possible or could not imagine themselves doing the same thing. This I think creates a kind of respect or admiration that often results in kindness. This can be as simple as a smile or a thumbs up, which also makes us feel great or super generosity such as a place to sleep in their house and a hot meal.

    Smiling while you are doing all this of course helps.

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