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CHINA: EPISODE I - ON A COLD DESERT HIGHWAY

November 26th, 2016 in Chengdu, China

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China so distinctly marks a new chapter on this trip. It's new, different and overwhelming in every way. Everything from the roads, the people and the food (ahh the food) to the noises, the language(s) and the police. It's also by far the country on this trip that we've approached with the most preconceptions and prejudices. And it's all been a bit of a shock as some of these have come true… 

So, China, we are finally here! We've been both anticipating and dreading this for so long. Fear for the elements has been our main concern and it has only grown stronger as we've now entered the country much later in the season then we had originally planned. But it's not only the cold that worries us, it's also the sheer magnitude of it. Because honestly, China is a beast! It's just enormous and we only have 3 months (2+1) to cross it. So we've been anxious. Can we make it? Will we be able to cross the desert without being bored out of our minds? Will we survive as winter hits the east part of the Tibetan plateau? Can we climb all those hills and mountains in Sichuan and Yunnan and enter Vietnam before our visas expire? 

As you can tell, that's a lot of doubt for one country. But let's see if we can take this somewhat chronologically. Much like Hollywood, we're turning our time in China into a trilogy. Partly to make it more manageable to write about but also to help ourselves psychologically on the road. This first blog post will cover our time in the desert, episode two will deal with the Tibetan plateau and the concluding chapter will take us through the south of China, down to Vietnam. So let's get cracking! 

We entered China on the 10th October and the countdown on our 60-days-visa began. The difference in appearance from Kazakhstan was stark and obvious. Here, in the middle of nowhere, there were suddenly skyscrapers, wide roads and loads and loads of people. And not a single sign that made any sense to us at all… 

Our first week in China were to take us from the border town of Khorgas to Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang province. We were super excited about pretty much everything as it was finally something different from the sameness of the countries in Central Asia. But one thing excited us more than anything else; the food! Once again, the food came with veggies. Once again, the food had spices (and probably more than we bargained for). We even stopped early our first day in China so we could go out at try even more food. 

So far the food has been one of the highpoints of China. But with that said, there has also been a lot of low points. Like when we've accidentally ordered chili with chili. Or just ordered chicken skin. Or that time when we got served rabbit head… And Robin has definitely been the braver out of the two of us and tried chicken feet. And we still don't understand why so much stuff taste like fish. Things like bread and biscuits... And how when we ordered a “bacon burger” we had to add the paddy as we only received bread and bacon. 

The road to Urumqi was perfect and a splendid example of Chinese infrastructure, cutting straight through anything in it's way. The (big) roads in China are for the most part perfectly smooth and instead of forming the road after the landscape they just build bloody enormous bridges and drill themselves through mountains. This makes cycling much faster and easier but also makes it a little bit more boring. Another issue is the camping situation. The highway is flanked by two fences, one just along the road and then a second some meters further out. We assume these are to keep animals off the road though we didn't really see any animals in the desert… The first fence you can simply step over, even though lifting the bicycle over it is a bit of a pain. The second fence, however, is barb wire and not really possible to climb even without the bike… So even though finding a camp spot is not particularly hard, getting to it from the highway is. 

Cycling on the highway isn't allowed but as there is no other (viable) option in this part of China the police and the toll-workers mostly look the other way. Not always though. Just a couple of days before Urumqi the police did throw us off just before dusk. They escorted us for a couple of kilometers until they found an opening in the fence close to a road running parallel to the highway. They helped us carry the bikes, all the while explaining that we weren't safe on the highway with its shoulder wide enough for three cyclist to cycle abreast. So in instead they forced us to ride along a smaller road congested with heavy traffic and without any shoulder at all. Yep… definitely safer… 

Xinjiang, our first and the most northwestern province in China is… well, a bit of a problem province for China. There's been a lot of protests, riots and some terror attacks in this province. Simply put, partly due to China’s actions but also as some want to create a East Turkestan. As always, we didn't notice any unrest except a higher proportion of police and security guards. For us, this was especially interesting when it came to the petrol stations as they were all fenced in with a guard at the entrance who decided if you could enter or not. We were mostly let through but every now and then they would not let us pass as they couldn't be bothered searching our bags… 

From the border we enjoyed a couple of days of beautiful scenery in the shape of mountains, lakes and forests. But all too soon it was replaced by the endless boring vistas of desert, only interrupted by the occasional building or village. The road through the desert would end up being almost 2 300 km and last for 19 days of cycling. The fastest we cycled any such distance on this trip. 

Urumqi, our first pit stop, was a monster of a city (as we would later realise that so many cities in China are) and we didn't really enjoy it at all. We only took one day off and most of it was spent being lost in the city and not finding what we were looking for. It left us in a bitter mood and when we left we were just glad to be on our way again. We did have some good experiences in Urumqi though; one of these was the biggest buffé we've ever been to. The employees seemed determined to ensure we tried everything and soon our table was so full of food we could barely move. As we said, food in China is a wonderful experience! 

On the morning we left Urumqi, a terrible wind had picked up. It tumbled us from side to side but mostly, of course, hit us straight in our faces reducing our speed to a near standstill. Finally making it to the outskirts of the city, we stopped for a late lunch, some shelter and quick prayer to the wind gods. And for once they listened! By the time we had finished our noodles the wind had turned! With the wind in our back, we were flying! For quite some time we were doing 30 km/h in a slight uphill without even pedaling. 

After Urumqi the desert continued but thanks to the wind we could afford a half day break in Turpan, the lowest point of this trip at 153 m below sea level and home to a tiny little kitten. 

While in Turpan, we tried to set up some mobile internet. It ended up being an excellent waste of time as it took us about an hour to get a SIM card which we then immediately had to cancel as it was only valid in Turpan. 50 yen is what we paid for the pleasure of the staffs good company with nothing more than a canceled contract to show for it. After this, we decided not to waste any more time trying to get a hold of mobile internet. Hotel and café WiFi would have to do for the next three months... 

The next day, just as we finished having lunch at a fabulous road restaurant, we ran into Bob, a 39 year old cyclist from Scotland. We had first met Bob in Bishkek, three weeks earlier, when he stayed two days at the same place as us. He'd been in a hurry to get to the Chinese border before the 1st of October when they close for a couple of days due to the Chinese national days. So, you can imagine our surprise to see him again; he should have been way ahead of us. Turns out that he had tried to cycle a more of-the-beaten-track route from the Kazakhstan border but had been turned back by the Chinese police. So here he was! Bob would become our companion for almost a month, crossing both the desert and the Tibetan plateau in our company. 

After Turpan we first had a stretch of 400 km to the next city (Hami) and there after a stretch of more than 600 km to the next proper pit stop, J-city (actually named Jiayuguan but we could never remember it). The entire length of it was basically just desert, desert and desert. Sometimes the landscape would be dotted with wind turbines, a petrol station or the occasional tiny village, usually too far away to motivate a detour off the highway. But most of the time there was nothing to rest your eyes on. So the days became a blur, the next day pretty much the same as the day before. The company of Bob, audiobooks, podcasts and music helped but it was still just barely more exciting than watching paint dry. It didn't help that Ida got ill and couldn't eat for almost four days either. Luckily, due to the good road conditions and mostly flat landscape, we could still cover more than 100 km per day. 

Somewhere we also left the province of Xinjiang and entered the province of Gansu. There even the road signs, now in English, told us we were in an extremely barren dry desert… 

Desert Sign
A lot of road signs made little sense at all, despite being in English...or rather Google-translate-English… And the spoken English hasn't been any better (read, non-existing) But thankfully the Chinese have a solution! They simply write down what they're trying to say in Chinese signs. Problem solved! 

But we should not bash the Chinese completely. Before entering China we'd heard from several other cyclists that the Chinese wouldn't understand any body language at all. So far however, even though it has definitely been worse than before, the locals have been able to understand most of our charades, such as eating, drinking and sleeping. 

In J-city we took two days off to see the sights, give our bikes some love and drink some beer. And one of the sights was the something you might have heard of; the alright wall of China! This section of the wall definitely isn't as big or fancy as the parts by Beijing. At places, you could probably climb it with the help of nothing more than a kitchen chair. Even so, we teamed up with a couple of Brits from the hostel and had a proper tourist day. 

While in J-city we also found a place that served decent coffee. We went there early on our second day to get some work done. At first we were the only ones there. It was nice and quiet with soft music but after a while more and more people arrived and started to do what the Chinese seem to love way too much - make noise. The Chinese willingness to produce loud noises and their acceptance of loud noises never stops to amaze us. Almost all the stores blast loud music out onto the street. Fruit sellers have megaphones to make sure everyone can hear there offers. People in restaurants watch movies or listening to music on their cell phones without headphones. The list goes on… but worst it the honking. There must be a Chinese law, requiring you to honk in every corner and every intersection. And most importantly, you have to honk at least three times every time you see a cyclist, preferably one of those honks should be right when you're passing the cyclist to maximise the chance of tinnitus. It is slowly driving us crazy...well, actually, there is nothing slow about it.

Leaving J-city we only had another three days left of desert. Things had gone a lot easier than we'd expected, we were making great time and we had started to feel quite confident in ourselves. So we let our guard down… and that's when we had our first crash. 

We were going down the motorway at good speed, cycling behind each other in a single file; Ida was up front, Robin in the middle and Bob in the back. We were cycling a bit tighter than usual which isn't good for two reasons. Firstly, it's hard to see what's on the road in front of you if there is another cyclist blocking your view. Secondly, if the person in front of you stops or has an accident, you're not going to have enough time to stop or avoid him/her. 

And that is just what happened. When a big piece of metal showed up in the middle of the shoulder, Ida had no problem avoiding it but Robin didn't see it until it was too late and flew straight up in the air and off his bike. Bob followed, running his bike straight over Robin (now on the ground), projecting him head first over his handlebar. 

Luckily, it was quite a cold morning and we were all wearing a lot of layers to keep warm. Bob's chain ring had cut through Robin's jacket, bending in the process. One of Robin's, and two of Bob's, panniers broke in the usual places (see blog post 3) but all in all, they both walked away with nothing more than some bruises and scratches. 

Ouch
Finally, outside Zhangye we turned south towards the Qilian mountains and the Tibetan Plateau. Even though we were now heading south again it would be quite some time before it would start getting warmer. Instead we were heading for winter and high altitudes... 

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