Posts Tagged ‘China’

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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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.

2011-10-06 001

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.

2011-10-07 001

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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BaiYu to Dege

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

It would have been easy to stay in the cosy hotel room and hibernate for the rest of the winter, but I had put off leaving twice to do washing and visit the local monastery. It was time to pack up and go again. By midday I had the punctures fixed and the bike loaded, all that was left was to get more petrol for the stove. I has seen a petrol station on the way into town and figured it was the only one so would have to go back 1km to fill up. I left the petrol station about three hours later. I was waiting for the tanker to arrive and fill up the petrol station tanks. I made friends with the girls at the petrol station while I waited. During a lull, of people waiting, they grabbed my bottle and filled it up for me from the dregs of the tanks and I was able to carry on my way, this time to Dege. I had no idea of the road or route ahead. Just that it could take anything between two and five days depending on the road and mountains or lack of.

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It felt good to be back on the bike, the afternoon sun was warm and the road was only mildly bumpy. The winding road, dictated by the river to my left, was mostly in a gorge, progress was good and the small breaks I had were spent basking in the sun with my feet dangling over the edge of the rocks, looking down to the steep river banks below. The rest of the day progressed well with only one police check point, where the police did not seem to care about me. A few detours took me up the rivers that flowed into the one that I was following, to bridges that would allow me to continue on my northerly route.

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I started looking for a camp site an hour before last light, as I crested a small hill the valley opened up below me, as well as plenty of potential camp sites. I eased off on the breaks and started to bounce down the rocky road. A few seconds later a massive bang and pop camp from the back of the bike. I stopped as soon as I could and saw the back tyre was flat. Closer inspection revealed that there was a massive hole in the tyre. I still had my original tyres strapped to the back of the bike, so I set about unloading the bike and changing the tyre and tube. It was so frustrating to be about 500m from a camp site but not be able to wheel the bike there for fear of damaging the back wheel. Eventually I set off again and was soon clearing a good camp spot of stones and sticks ready to put up the tent.  However as I tried to put the last pole in the tent, it seemed like it was too long and would not fit. I fought and swore at the tent for half an hour before I gave up and resigned to only having two poles. It would be OK for one night, it was really cold now and I wanted to get into my sleeping bag. A big case of ‘I am going to get eaten by bears if I cook here’ came over me, so I stuffed some dry food in my mouth and went to bed.

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It was cold overnight but I stayed warm enough. As I started to prepare breakfast I was shocked to find that all the water had frozen overnight and I had not put any in the pans. I managed to melt just enough water to have a coffee then packed up to carry on. I was grazing all morning on dried food to keep my energy levels up but by lunch time I was getting really hungry, and knew I needed to stop and cook a decent meal. I had passed through some small settlements and most people had been friendly. As I cycled pass a clearing a group of men beckoned me over to their picnic spot. They made me sit down and I soon had a drink by my side, a knife in one had and a massive chunk of meat in the other. They made me eat lots, I relished the meat and there were plenty of other bit to go with it. I tried to share some of the food that I had but they refused. The group parted on the motor bikes and left me with a stash of food, we took pictures and said our goodbyes. I finished up the rest of my food and started to pack up the bike. As I was doing this another guy came over to talk with me. He lived in the house on the other side of the road and said I could sleep the night if I wanted. I thanked him but said it was early in the day and I wanted to try and get some more cycling done. His daughter came over and we chatted for a bit. Once my Chinese had dried up he got his phone out and handed it to me. It was his other daughter that worked at a hostel in Lhasa, she spoke fluent English. The phone credit died to quickly to get a conversation going but the thought and interaction was what mattered to me. Simple gestures and smiles make such a difference, I cycled off with a warm glow in my heart.

Kind local guys i had lunch with

I was still unsure how long it would take me to get to the road that would take me east and into Dege, I put a long play list on the ipod and made some fantastic progress. The road was rocky and bumpy but I was used to this now and it was a lot better than snow and ice and cycling at the lower altitude was like being a 10 year old and have endless energy to run everywhere. I got to the turn off and was amazed to find a sealed road with no bumps, I had done 40km, it was about 5pm and there was another 40km to Dege. I decided to keep going until 6pm then stop and have some food. Then make a final decision about whether to cycle into the night or not.

Local family

At 7pm the bike was packed up and my belly was full, the lights were set up on the bike and I was ready. I had set myself a target of doing three lots of 10km with only short breaks in-between for water. It was going to be hard as I was not used to this discipline any more. As the first 10km were approaching I was desperate to stop and rest but kept telling myself to carry on. I negotiated a pack of dogs that chased me down the road barking, their eyes lit up by my bike lights every time I turned to check their progress to me. Then the road changed to a bumpy dirt track and climbed up a short steep hill. At the bottom I finally had reached my 10km goal and stopped for chocolate and water. The rest of the ride was less eventful but I had to push hard to reach my targets fighting the urge to stop and rest.

About two thirds of the last 10km, I went passed a street light, I was shocked and excited at the same time. As I got further more and more houses appeared and round the next corner a bright neon light saying Dege Hotel greeted me from the top of one of the tall buildings. I took my bright yellow jacket off and turned off some of the bike lights. It was strange enough for a guy on a bike with bags attached to it to turn up in town but one turning up at 10pm looking like a Christmas tree was just weird. I eventually found the entrance to the Hotel. It was late and I was tired so my negotiating was not as good as it should have been. £12 a night again but I had hot water and a huge room just for me. I was getting soft but deep down I knew that having the luxury in-between the harshness of the riding would help me to continue. I got settled into the hotel and even found a place to get some food late at night. That night I slept soundly I had done nearly 80km the longest day in a month. I felt good but exhausted physically and mentally.

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Day 5 Batang to BaiYu – Morning tea and a warning about bears

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

By 10am I was bouncing down the track towards what I thought would be a reasonable size village where I could pick up a few supplies.  Then I was going to try and get to the top of the second summit.  The issue I had was that I was not really sure how far I had gone as my bike speedo that gives me my daily distance was broken or had been malfunctioning at least.  So quite how far it was to the top I don’t know.

   Thumb_0003the road1  Batang BaiYu road after first pass after Shama

The English forest track in China  

The track was lovely, pretty smooth and I passed through the occasional wooded archway and felt instantly at home, like I was in an English forest.  I passed a couple of local women walking, they were shy and did not say or respond much.  I offered them some tea and nuts and raisins as it was now time for my morning break but they declined and carried on.  After my morning tea I carried on down the path, it was mostly flat with the occasional ascent or descent,  I was not sure how fast I was going but it felt supersonic compared with days on the other side of the hill.  I came upon a house, the first for a while and a family was working on an extension or something similar,  I was invited in and given some hot tea.  It was the same women that I had seen on the road a while earlier.  I was now upstairs in a Tibetan style house watching TV with the kids.  My attempt at any kind of conversation was met the shy smiles, despite my best attempt with Chinese.  I think perhaps the men that were working downstairs would have been more open to conversation, it was the father of the family that invited me in the first place.  Still it was lovely tea and the old mother of the house grabbed one of my empty water bottles before I left and filled it up with more tea for the road.

  Thumb_0002pray flags Batang BaiYu road after first pass after Shama7

Prayer flags by the side of the road

I arrived into a big village early about 1pm.  I was keen to stock up on a few snacks, I was pretty sorted for food as I did not bank on finding the town or there being much here.  To my surprise it was much bigger than I expected and buying a few packs of biscuits turned into a spectator sport.  I had over 50 people crowding around me and my bike, mostly staring but the brave few were talking.  One guy in particular was keen to know if I needed a women, I said I was married and that I would be quite all right thank you.  Feeling a little overwhelmed at the crowd I cycle out of town about 500m and the locals went back to chatting and playing pool.  I was followed by two young guys who sat on the bikes and watched me have some food by the side of the road.  They were actually really nice and I think just genuinely shocked and amazed to see I guy with white skin and a beard on a bicycle in their town.

Thumb_0004a third of the people croud village  between first and second pass Batang to BaiYu road

A few of the crowd from the village

I pushed on eager to get some more kms done before sunset and make the most of dry and good roads.  The road started to climb steadily and by 3pm I was exhausted.  I realised that I had not had any lunch in the excitement of getting to the town and being a bit overwhelmed by my reception there.  I stopped to have some more tea and nuts and raisins as I pondered what to do.  As this rate was unlikely to make it to the top and I was out of energy really, so I decided I would carry on for another hour or so, camp, eat lots and go for the summit fresh the next day.  Another 4000m peak was probably not best attempted on an empty stomach.  Just as I was packing up to set of a couple of cars stopped and the guys got out to chat with me.  I explained what I was doing and asked about the road ahead.  They seemed amused at my journey but impressed at the same time.  Then they said ‘what about the bears, do you have a gun.’  ‘Err, no’ I said.  ‘But in the tent the bears will come and get you.’ was the summary of their reply.  Just so you know my Chinese is not that good and by this point sign language was very much in play, not that that helped matters.

  Thumb_0005local kids  between first and second pass Batang to BaiYu road

Cheeky kids on the way out of town

The guy said I could come and sleep at this house and the head on tomorrow.  Where was his house I asked.  In the village I had jut come from, that was over 5km away and it had been a bit of a slog to get up to here.  I politely declined his offer said I would be OK and the bears would not get me.  My new friends left and wished me luck.  I set off back up the hill, in my head I was going through all my options.  As the road progressed the road got narrower and narrower and I soon found myself in a gorge flanked with trees on one side and rocks on the other.  There was also a stiff breeze building up and storm clouds approaching.  Great I thought to myself.  I was either going to die in my tent from a falling tree or rock; be hit bit a drunk driver who did not expect a guy to be sleeping literally next to the road or be eaten by a bear!

 Thumb_0006rock art 2  between first and second pass Batang to BaiYu road

Rock art where i got my bear warning

I decided my best option was to carry on, about an hour later I was finding everything very hard, I checked the bike over and discovered that the back tyre was slowly going down.  There was only an hour and a half of light left but not to far ahead there was a small clearing that was probably just safe enough from falling trees or rocks.  By the time I got to the clearing the tyre was almost flat.  It was time to admit defeat and camp.  As I sat be the side of the road taking stock of the situation the wind started to pick up and the trees so the side of my started to sway more and more until a few of them started falling down.  My little clearing was still looking safe enough though.

As I assessed the best route over the rocky ground to the clearing I heard some noises ahead in the distance. I froze and listen carefully, I had no idea what it was and did not really want to find out.  A sort of high pitched yelping sound that I could not identify, man or beast I though to myself.  The noises did not get any better and my not so great camp site was now looking rather, unpleasant.  I lay the bike on the ground, pumped up the tyre with the bike fully loaded and started up the hill to see what all the fuss was about.

I turned a small corner and was delighted to see a group of locals with two big trucks heaving some massive logs off the side of the gorge.  They were using smaller trees as leavers and expertly dropping logs the size of a small bus on to a truck just below them.  I cycled passed and waved, they waved back and carried on with their heaving and yelping in unison as another log fell onto the truck.  The tyre seemed to be holding out but the wind getting stronger.  The thought of camping now was not appealing, it could not be that far to the summit I thought.  A few kms later I had a new plan, cycle till 7pm, have a quick dinner until 7.30pm, last light then cycle to the top. 

At 7.15 I was down a small embankment sheltering from the wind eating a bowl of noodles, not the most energy giving food but I thought two packets and a coffee would be enough to make it to the top.  At 7.45 I was back on the road with my bike lights and reflective jacket on slowly going up.  The road did not seem that steep but cycling was becoming harder, the altitude, my lack of energy and the general uncertainty of what lay ahead had taken its toll and I was tired.  I continued up the hill, alternating between cycling and pushing. looking out for the occasional bear that might be looking for a cyclist to snack on.  Not long after dinner I had decided that singing was good, it would keep up my moral and hopefully scare the bears away until I could get to the top and then fly down the hill and find safe spot to camp. 

Just after 10pm I was laughing in my head as I sang and pushed my way up the hill thinking how ridiculous the situation was.  I had passed a large clearing a few kms back with lots of prayer flags and was now confident the summit was just around the next corner, things were looking up.

At 10.30pm the noticed the bike was feeling particularly sluggish again a quick look at the back tyre told me all I needed to know.  At almost the same time the wind picked up and with it white fluff was starting to fall to the ground.   At 10.35 the bike and I were covered in snow.  I laughed again only louder this time but still in my head.  It was time to call it a day, a slowly started walking back down the hill to the clearing that I had passed a few kms back.  The wheel would just about hold out I thought and things would look a lot better in the morning.

Thumb_0001after two mintues of snow  between first and second pass Batang to BaiYu road

After 5 minutes of snow

At midnight I was finally tucked up in both sleeping bags, warm dry and cosy.  I had munched a few chocolate bars for good measure.  I was so tired I knew that the thought of marauding bears would not keep me awake and was also comforted that any self respecting bears would not be out in the snow and the wind anyway.  With that final thought I put my head on my pillow of clothes and fell straight asleep.

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