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