China Part 4: Leaving China
Urumqi to Liangzhouhu
We arrived midday at the brand new, shiny Urumqi train station after a night on the sleeper train. On the train, we were given the top bunk of a 6-berth open cabin, but it was a good experience of Chinese travel, and everyone was very friendly, sharing fruit and tasty treats along the way. After a little confusion around the collection of our bikes (which were dropped off at the old Urumqi train station), they were brought to us a couple of hours later. Keen to start pedalling, we only had 1 night in Urumqi, though after being turned away from about 80 billion hotels, with the familiar “no foreign guests allowed”, we felt like we had been there for days already.
The cycle route was fairly dull and straight, which is great as you don’t ever need to look at the map, but unfortunately the scenery was uninteresting and industrial. We entertained ourselves with talks of China, the weird and the wonderful, and the excitement of our final stretch towards the Stans.
There was, however, the excitement of the security checks – the first of many. We sailed through the first airport-style security check, where all other cars were being scanned and all passengers had to go through a mini airport security room.
We noticed a bench with great people-watching opportunity, and decided a cuppa was in order. Will looked around to see if there were any friendly and helpful-looking policemen who perhaps could give us some hot water – ah, the guy with the semi-automatic shotgun – Will went straight to him. In an instant, the whole SWAT team were organising the boiling of a kettle to fill our camping mugs.
40km later, there was another airport-style security check. This time we were stopped, and they looked bemused, not really sure what to do with us with all our bags strapped to bicycles. We were sent to see someone else with a big shotgun. He didn’t really know what to do with us, so we gave him our passports. He took them inside, where we assume he stood out of sight for a few seconds, then turned around and gave them back to us.
With a watermelon and in need of a shower, we found a cheap hotel that apparently allowed us ‘aliens’ to stay. We weren’t convinced. It seems that over time, we’ve developed a paranoia where, unless we’ve made it through the night, we just can’t seem to relax, thinking we could get chucked out at any moment. Even at this hotel, security was tight. We first had to pass through security gates to enter, and they confiscated our knife, which we could collect when we left the next morning.
We relaxed as best we could, until I heard footsteps…and a knock at the door. Oh no. I had just finished having a shower and hadn’t even got changed yet, so Will opened the door to 4 SWAT police, all with guns hanging across their chests.
It reminded Will of another time when he opened the door to be greeted by policeman, addressing him by his full name, and informing him that his mate had been shot. By his flatmate. In the arse.
Anyway, back to China: they asked to see me, so I poked by head around the bathroom door, “Hello!” They gave me a couple of minutes to get dressed and then asked us to step outside of the room. Here, we stood, 6 of us in a dim hallway, where 2 SWAT guys proceeded to take multiple photos of us. Should we look at them? Smile for the camera? It was all wonderfully awkward as they passed our passports around for each to inspect. We were finally able to fully relax when they declared all was fine and we were okay to stay. Hurrah! We stuffed our faces with watermelon in celebration.
Liangzhouhu to Kuitun
What was going on around here? There were just so many police around – some carrying shotguns, others machine guns, and a few younger looking chaps armed with spear like weapons, who presumably weren’t allowed the grown up toys yet. I guess this should make us feel safer? But it made us feel like we were missing a story. We knew that to try to ask around or investigate further was not on, especially while we were still in China. Here’s a country that not only has great control over its physical borders, but also its virtual borders. Even the sending of messages and photos to family in the UK was being delayed.
Kuitun to Hatubuhu
We cycled out to a nearby lake and were greeted with some awesome mountain views in the distance.
It was a nice straightforward cycle to the town of Hatubuhu but was made incredibly painful when all the hotels said we were not allowed to stay there, but had to go back to the previous town instead. Feeling frustrated, Will popped across to a guesthouse directly opposite a police station. It was a bit grim but served as a good place to hide for the night. We took our bikes quickly around the back and felt paranoid for the rest of the evening.
Hatubuhu to Mangding
The cycle was fast and smooth and we were happy to cover a big distance – closer to home! Again, there were heavy police checks, and before we were able to enter the town, we had to answer some questions, confirming our names, where we are from, where we have been in China, where we are going, etc. It was all pretty friendly, and the police guys were happy to practice their English.
Before we mentally prepared for the hotel rejection game, we stocked up on some cheap drugs (antibiotics) at the Chinese pharmacy and stocked up on some tasty snacks – the dumplings that were the common street food in the Sichuan province had gone, but there was lots of yummy samosas and round seedy flat breads on offer in the Xinjiang province. The style of clothes and hats and types of faces had also changed; in a way it seemed like a different country, belonging to the native Uighur people.
Mangding to a bridge
It was a dull cycle along the G30, where if you look down for 10 minutes and then look back up, nothing has changed and you feel like you haven’t moved anywhere. By 6pm, we were ready to call it a day. I was ready to hitch a lift and give up on the G30 altogether, especially when realising a camp spot under a bridge was tonight’s cosy night in. For a few minutes, I just stood with my bike in a fatigue-induced stare. Then I felt drops of rain, and I was suddenly alive: let’s get under this bridge quick before the storm comes! And within about 10 minutes, we had moved 20-feet from standing on top of the bridge to sheltering under it. The thunder and lightning began and all we could do was laugh at the fact that we had gone from a fancy grand 7-floor hotel – complete with a chaise lounge – to camping in a dirt hole with a concrete roof. Still, least we had a roof.
From under a bridge to Lucaogou
After our glamorous night of camping, it was a very slow, tedious start. We had become very bored of this road and of the scenery that surrounded us. We climbed very slowly uphill until we reached the lake. At the lake was a brand new city – no doubt it would become another weird tourist town. But at least it had a small shop for supplies – at this pace we would be camping again so we stocked up.
Around the lake were snow capped mountains and the scenery had become much better, the lake was a beautiful blue with many of the striking Hoopoe birds; their orange bodies and zebra striped wings flying around.
At the end of the lake was a tunnel to take us through to the other side of the mountains we had slowly pedalled our way up. We were stunned at what was waiting on the other side – awesome scenery, with yet another one of China’s feat of engineering, a bridge and road hanging from the mountains, spiralling down taking in all of the stunning landscape.
The day just got good. The scenery plays a big part in the enjoyment of spending hours each day in the saddle, and most of China has been amazing. This last section from Urumqi has been uninspiring, but for our final descent in China and towards ‘The Stans’ it excelled, and gave us an excellent parting gift.
We whizzed all downhill until the town of Lucaogou where we would spend our last night in China.
Lucaogou (China) to Zharkent (Kazakhstan)
It was an easy ride to the border, with only dodgy money changers to swerve in and out of. Through the Chinese border guards, with their flashy new weapons on display, we were stamped out, and easily stamped into our next country – Kazakhstan.
We have never had our passports checked so many times – I’m not sure the Kazakh guards really needed to, or if they were just curious. But each and every one of them were so friendly, lots of smiles, shaking of the hands and worryingly wishing us “good luck!”
There was a stark difference. No more shiny new weapons, instead old soviet rifles. The road to Zharkent was much worse than China, smooth roads instantly replaced with very bumpy stretches of tarmac. We were happy to have left China though, the game of finding a hotel that will accept you is a rather boring one. The experiences of our adventure are not just of where we are, but the appreciation of what we had and will have at home. Our own home. Somewhere we don’t have the stresses of finding somewhere we can sleep, and having to ask permission.
Within our first few miles, we were being frantically waved down by a young lady. She loaded up a bag full of peaches, and accepted no money. This was to be our first free gift of many. Welcome to Central Asia.