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During the month of May and after several consecutive weeks of arduous work, not even taking a day or a week-end off and a little tired of so many critical deadlines. As it is usual with me, I decided to use my well-deserved resting period to do exactly the opposite of that, that is, using 10 days to carry out an ambitious and extreme cycling journey along some of the most remote and isolated regions of China. Far away from everything, far from technology, far from a desk, far from a computer, far from an ocean of people and above all, far from the frenzied maelstrom of development of Chinese cities, that never ever stops.
The challenge: to fly to the city of Urumqi 乌鲁木齐 capital of Xinjiang autonomous region and cycle for a period of 10 days, as many kilometers as possible along the 2045km (1270miles) leading to the city of Xining 新宁 capital of the province of Qinghai 青海省 (originally Tibet) on the Tibetan Plateau, cutting across the eastern Tian Shan mountain range, the south of the Gobi desert to later cycle up the northeastern part of the Tibetan Plateau. Always choosing alternative roads, off-the-beaten track away from the only busy highway that links the wild west with China's bustling east.
First stage. Xinjiang autonomous region 新疆
Unfairly defined by many as the "wild west", Xinjiang 新疆 is the land of the Uighurs, a central Asian ethnic group who along with their peers who inhabit the neighboring ex-Soviet republics, have inhabited the region for centuries, long before the Han (the ethnic group the world knows simply as Chinese) have invaded them to steal their independence. Formerly an independent country, today Xinjiang 新疆 is what the government likes to call "Autonomous Region", a way, political cynicism has to call the regions that have been invaded and subjugated to a foreign power.
It was neither my first time in Xinjiang nor my first encounter with the Uighurs. In 2006 during my cycling trip from Iran to China I had to cross the south of the land of the Uighurs, that beautiful south where roads make their way from the vast and dry desert of Taklamakan to the unspoilt roof of the world along the supreme Karakoram Highway.
But this time it was time to visit the north, starting from Urumqi 乌鲁木齐, capital of the province and, as I think I once read somewhere, the biggest city furthest away from the ocean.
I suppose this fact has no relevance at all other than its effect on climate. I landed in Urumqi at 10.50pm in the second week of May, already way into the spring, on a starry night at -5C (23F).
First I thought it would be best to assemble the bicycle, get it ready and try to sleep right there at the airport which could serve as a good refuge, to be able to leave first thing in the morning. In such a cold night, without maps, not knowing the city and without the slightest information on how to find accommodation I thought it'd be wise to stay there.
As one might expect, a white guy with western eyes assembling a bicycle at night in the airport of the furthest away city of China, attracts immediate attention, while the only thing I was looking for was some peace and a quiet spot to be able to sleep as soon as possible so I could feel strong the morning after. What I got instead was the curiosity of some 30 captivated Uighur taxi drivers standing around me staring and making all kinds of commentaries in their own language.
Unfortunately that night at 1 am, and already having fallen asleep on some quiet and unlit piece of floor of the airpot, I learned that China's provincial airports fully close their doors after the last flight, when three guards came to kick me out to the street.
I used all the persuasion methods I know but to no avail and by 1.05am I found myself wandering around with my bicycle wearing shorts, at -5C (23F) along dark and empty streets in search of any place where I could sleep. It seems China's development didn't make it here to properly light this city during the night. After riding aimlessly for awhile, asking the odd poor sleepwalker who was walking around in complete darkness, where there would be some cheap hotel to sleep I found the right road but I was refused accommodation despite my begging, in the first five crummy shitholes I tried to stayed at, for being a foreigner. Hotels that do not allow foreigners are not uncommon in second to third-tier Chinese cities. Apparently and especially in the so-called "autonomous regions" it can be a pain in the ass for the hotel owner. I am yet to know the reasons for this and nobody seems to be able to explain them to me, but that's just the way it is. I finally landed in Hotel number 6, which for a predictable yet tolerable, overpriced rate gave me a room, there was no time and I was in no mood for haggling. At 3am I finally got to sleep.
With such a challenge ahead I could not afford to catch up with sleep and at 7am I was already up and riding out the door of that very forgettable hotel. It was dead cold and overcast. As I was finding my way out of the city of Urumqi I realized about something very similar to what I found in Kashgar back in 2006. A divided city. On the one hand there were the Han Chinese, living in a place that they took for themselves by force, on the other, the Uighur, now an ethnic minority within their own land. As in Kashgar, the division is clear, Uighur on one side, Han on the other and if they have to interact let it be as little and minimal as possible. There were places though where there was some mix. The city is big and its architecture tacky like in all Chinese cities. It is industrialized and grey and its sky is veiled by the typical and almost permanent thick layer of pollution, which is characteristic of every densely populated city in China.
Cycling out of big cities, and especially Chinese cities is usually a long and boring process. The traffic, the polluted air, the noise and the confusion are usually unpleasant and stressful. However, I had the luck to spend some time in the suburbs which are mainly Uighur, strolling around the dirty and bustling markets filled with life, talking to people. While I was there I bought the typical local bread which is brought to you right out of the oven. It is a disc-shaped bread, puffy and fluffy edges with a thin and crispy center often with chopped onions and a few grains of salt. Delicious. I was obviously surrounded by very curious Uighurs, all of them very kind and curious. While I was eating my bread I chit-chatted with one of them who spoke Chinese pretty well, we was telling me how he didn't like to live there and as I couple Han Chinese went by before us he made a gesture and shortly after he would whisper in my ear "those people do not like us". It was a strong comment, not that I wouldn't expect it but because of the emotions involved in someone to say something like that being in his own land. Pretty tough.
I finally got out of the city and the day was still grey and bleak, I rode the first 30 km along a horrible highway but it had little traffic which is always good. There were some industries along the way with their big chimneys spitting dirt contaminating the planet. The sun would still refuse to come out and the temperature wouldn't pick up and remained at about 3C (37F). After a while I finally reached the turn east to the alternative road I was looking for where the "other" world begins. A vast steppe lies in front of me, coming down all the way down from Mongolia, lying only about 80km (50mi) to the north. Infinite horizons, stormy skies and an empty seemingly endless road. To the south, rises the eastern end of the Tian Shan mountain range.
A harsh road. There was sleet on and off and it was windy, sometimes tail sometimes head wind which was painful. The whole place just seemed so immense that the wind would just simply play around at free will. Every so often, in this absolute solitude in the middle of nowhere a man on horseback or on foot would show up as if right out of nowhere, herding his sheep. Sometimes I would come across small settlements of adobe houses built on crackled dried mud. They seem to be ghost towns but they are not. The harsh conditions of the region force people to stay indoors, warm by their fireplace. In them, Uighur families happily take me in to give me shelter when the sleet turns into snow.
At about 5pm, right past kilometer 160 (100 mi) I was looking forward taking a break when I came across two houses that looked abandoned. Of course they weren't. I stopped, and as I was taking a couple of shots a Uighur kid wearing shorts and a T-shirt comes out of the house running excitedly. I think a mix between the fascination he had for the strange visitor on a bicycle and how used to this conditions he was is what made him forget how bitterly cold it was. Soon after, his mother comes out smiling and this merry little boy with stretched eyes but deep green in color grabs my hand to take me to his home. They treated me like their own family, they gave me homemade bread and tea with warm goat's milk. I had a strong need to drink something warm and this was all I needed to get my energies back. I spent a wonderful time with them. The daughter, though shy, spoke Chinese so i could communicate with them. The father was out herding sheep, the mother would stay in taking care of the house matters. We watched TV together, which was of course Chinese national television and I couldn't help but feel sad that they had to swallow the TV shows of a foreign land in a foreign language, at least for the older ones. They wanted me to stay over and I certainly wanted to but I just couldn't, I had to stick to my itinerary.
I said goodbye to them I took off for the final pull of a long day. The days seem endless here in the west and that's great because it allows me to keep moving forward. I had started at 7 am and by 9pm I was still pedaling during the last minutes of twilight. By nightfall I was reaching the next small town with some infrastructure but I would deliberately stay before it. I decided to stop at a service station, it was already dark and very cold. The personnel invited me for dinner at the back of house and would let me pitch my tent in the backyard behind. First bad news, one of the tent poles breaks and I had no other choice than sleeping on the icy floor of a room tucked in my sleeping bag at the same time that I was wondering how I would deal with a broken tent for the next 8 days.
End of the day. 13+ hours of cycling and 217km completed (more than twice as normal) with only 4 hours of sleep the night after.
After about 9 hours of resting and deep sleep I got up at 6am. I felt very strong and mentally determined to keep going. I had breakfast with the service station staff who had just woken up as well and fixed me a robust noodle soup of which I had to full bowls. I later thought they must've regretted the invitation since I devoured probably 2/3 of their weekly quota in only two meals. The weather didn't get any better and everything indicated that it would be yet another grey and freezing day.
Shortly after leaving I reached the first town with solid houses and some real infrastructure, a town mostly Kazakh ( ethnic minority from neighboring Kazakhstan that inhabits Xinjiang), with its busy street markets and its curious people, who of course crammed around that hooded head character riding a loaded bicycle that had just arrived. I stopped and bought EVERYTHING there was to eat in the market. I was able to chit-chat with those that spoke Chinese. I told them about my journey and their eyes would just simply roll back. The funny thing about these situations is that one is surrounded by dozens of people but you can only speak to the ones right next to you, but as soon as they get an answer to a question or after a comment that one makes, you can see live how it becomes like a ripple effect that through mouth to mouth take that every single comment from my mouth, until it disappears from my sight and reaches as far as the other end of the town. By the time it gets there, those people are already running towards the epicenter which is, me! The people look merry and joyful, they are robust and have very unusual features. The have Chinese eyes but their hair color is very light, almost blond in some cases. Others are dark-skinned and their Chinese eyes are emerald green. This place was certainly a real mix of races and ethnicities.
After leaving town I was once again in the infinite steppe and far beyond to the south east the mountains were starting to show little by little. After several kilometers of vast stepped, empty and infinite, where you least expect it, I found a crowd of people. Men who got there by motorcycle or horse to run horse races. They were Mengs (Mongolian ethnic minority living on the Chinese side of the steppe) and they were spending their week-end enjoying these improvised races in the middle of nowhere. Warm with thick fur coats and wearing their traditional bell-shaped Mongolian hats with the fur coming out of a brightly colored textile wrap they seem to be completely immune to the cold, after all this is truly a spring day for them. The excitement about the race was such that I went around almost unnoticed which is needless to say, something very rare.
I spent some time there to enjoy these races on the steppe. They were very intense, the horses with all their sturdiness definitely live up to their fame. But it wasn't long until a harsh snowstorm swept the land and within a few minutes the whole crowd completely vanished.
So these guys simply vanished by I had to keep cycling in the storm until I reached some seedy bar, isolated, where some of the spectators had taken refuge as well. Some of them were completely drunk and loud. Some were good but some were quite annoying. The weather in this region fluctuates rapidly and in the blink of an eye it stopped snowing and I was able to keep going. It was a very chilly day, even more than the day before and even more windy. And to make the whole experience no less intense, I had a puncture by the end of the afternoon. I had already cycled about 170km(105mi) and I wasn't planing to cycle for too much longer, after all, fatigue accumulates. After repairing the puncture while trying to prevent everything from flying away with the wind I was able to move on until the end of the day when I reached a small villages of no more than 10 very simple houses set on a real swamp. Most of these houses were also canteen, bar, mechanical shop and accommodation as it is primarily a stop for truck drivers. I got into one of these, it was freezing outside. Finally by 8.30 pm the clouds opened up giving way to a magnificent sunset and a colorful sky. In the canteen, heated with a small fireplace fueled with firewood, the owners, a beautiful Uighur couple in their 60's, prepared me a delicious local dish and put a pile of thick blankets on one of the beds in the room where I slept with three other noisy truck drivers.
End of the day: 198km (123mi) and about 12 hours of cycling.
Two days total: 415km (258mi)
Finally I woke up to a terrific sunrise, not even a cloud, though still very cold. I had a huge bowl of spicy noodle soup with big chunks of meat for breakfast. Pure energy to start a long day. Just a few kilometers after I left I started pedaling uphill the last bit of the eastern Tian Shan mountain range, which I had to cross to reach the desert on the other side. The road was absolute solitude. I climbed up about a thousand meters and found myself in an endless landscape of small peaks and thousands of patches of snow that hadn't melted yet. These frozen lands are inhabited by a very exotic species of camels. They are long haired, huge and have two big humps. They seem to be wild as I keep coming across random groups of them and see some of them in the distance without any human presence around.
One tends to imagine camels only in desert landscapes walking slowly under the blazing sun, however here you can find them in these small groups all over, wandering aimlessly in nature. I tried to get close to them but they would run away pretty quickly.
As it had already happened, what always strikes me about these lonely roads is to find people who seem to come out of nowhere as though they have been magically put right there on the way. Early in the morning I found this man walking alone on the side of the road, who knows where he was going. He was dressed in thick clothes made of animal skin, had a hood and used a cane to help himself walk around with the bunch of things he carried on his back. His features were quite unique and they were for sure a mix from that region. I tried to communicate with him but he didn't seem very keen to talk, he would just mumble a few words in some incomprehensible dialect and kept walking. He shortly detoured towards the mountains where far in the distance I could spot a small mud hut on the hillside, which was probably his home.
I cycled up and down for a while, it was truly enjoyable, the sun was high and strong and I could barely feel the cold. Around noon I finally reached the detour that would apparently lead me through the mountains to the desert but there was not even a single sign and the road, well could barely be called a road. I was right at the turn and there was another small little mud house, I was already hungry so instead of venturing into unknown land I thought it'd be best to eat first. That's when I saw a Uighur woman dragging some stuff out of the little house, so I went to ask her if she had some water for my instant noodles and there wasn't only water, there was hospitality, that hospitality that shakes the soul and embraces your heart and make you believe that this world is actually mostly inhabited by wonderful people. She happily took me to her house which consisted of a single room around a fireplace, that very same room is the kitchen, the bedroom and the living room for herself, her son and her husband. Its walls and sitting/sleeping area wrapped with beautiful rugs carefully embroidered. It was cozy, warme and silent, so silent that you could feel the texture of the slightest sound.
The kettle sits almost permanently on top of the fireplace keeping the milk and the water always warm and ready for the tea. The light beams filtered through the windows and came alive with the soot in the air. Being there, in silence, while she did her chores, I couldn't stop imagine the unimaginable, spending winter in this little house in the middle of nowhere, alone without neighbors without traffic. Winters in this region are extremely harsh and temperatures easily drop down to -40C (-40F) when cold combines with the unforgiving Siberian winds coming from the north. While I sat there, she would knead the dough for the bread while her little son would play around bringing over and over his pets to me.
After a while two men arrived, her husband and maybe a friend or family with his little daughter. The men smiled curiously and were obviously surprised, maybe confused about my presence. Both had dark weathered skin, deep grooves and the most amazing emerald green eyes, only imaginable in northern European people. We had lunch together, homemade bread and goat's milk tea while exchanging smiles and communicating through sign language and sometimes very little Chinese. As I was leaving, they confirmed that the direction i was thinking of going was the right way, but my concern was that that way didn't actually have any real road so I feared they might be misunderstanding me. There was no road but rather some kind of poorly defined dirt path that vanished in the brown mountains. I asked them once again, and again, pointing at my map and pointing at the destination: "is that the way?" sure? it's just that I simply see no road and I start wondering where I'm gonna get to and how I'm gonna find the way out.
It was still quite early so I decided to to venture into the unknown and it truly paid off. It was magnificent, it must be a place filled with mineral resources since the earth split into tens of different colors and they mixed rendering a magical blend of colorful sands. For the next 40km (25miles) there wasn't even a soul and not even a real road, the only uproar being my own breathing and the sounds of the tires biting the gravel and It would only take a full stop to find myself in the most absolute silence only intermittently disturbed by the hissing of a mild wind.
The road was becoming more arid and dry the closer I got to the desert. It became more rocky and the mountains where dressed in several shades of brown, the whole set was turning into an almost extraterrestrial space, the temperature began to rise and the rocky ground would burn under the now unforgiving sun. In the meanwhile, I had no idea where I was going and was only guided by the blind faith I had put in the confident instructions the wonderful family I had left behind had given me. I finally reached something like a huge platform of made of black rocks in a very open and arid valley. I still had no idea where to go but far ahead I was able to see something like two chimneys surrounded by some sort of settlement with trees.
After a long while I reached that place and it actually was a small village probably dependent on the extraction of minerals. A place with life in a desert valley, where I showed up as a ghost appearing from nowhere leaving everybody in awe. Nobody could figure what a western guy on a bicycle would be doing there and I could see their confusion in the locals' faces. Fortunately the were Han Chinese and I was able to communicate and share the funny story of what I was doing, I had myself of ball with them. I drank 3l (almost 1 gallon) of water in less than 10 minutes and they stood around me in total awe. Once rehydrated I left the settlement and starting cycling across a massive natural reservoir of green and blue water with reeds, surrounded by mounds of white earth, a blinding clay under the sun. A unique ecosystem with millions of fluttering birds. The road was still very bad but eventually I reached the main road, a real road, the only road that links east and west. There was traffic, not heavy though, mainly trucks transporting huge turbines to the new scenario that I would find the day after. The road, a straight line with slopes up and down that would later vanish in the horizon of an intimidating desert, the Gobi desert. I kept cycling as much as I could until the end of the day, the environment was harsh, the heat had only grown worse and above all monotonous. One of those places that won't allow the mind to stay at ease.
I still hadn't found a solution for my broken tent and that road seemed to lead to an unreachable place. No villages, no settlements, no towns and not even a service station to stop and hydrate. After quite a lot of leg grinding kilometers and almost into the night I hitched a ride with a truck driver that must've felt some sympathy for my state. He took me to the next small settlement where we spent the night at a truck stop.
End of the day and 194km (121miles) completed.