It was fair to say that we were both excited about entering China. We had applied for the visa months ago, when we were in Tehran, but now it was actually happening. As we kept excitedly exclaiming to one another as we cycled towards the border: “we’re going to China!!”.
China felt far away from “home” (where home is defined by family and friends rather than bicycles). During our time in Central Asia we had learnt the cyrillic alphabet and could generally pronounce words and places, even if we didn’t know what they meant. Chinese was going to be a different matter. Кафе or магазин were farely easily translatable, but signs in China? We weren’t going to have a clue.
What’s more, the time would jump forward 2 more hours, putting us a whopping 7 hours ahead of Portugal and the UK & Ireland… 8 once daylight savings kicked in. That made us feel like we had travelled a long way under our own steam, far more than the kilometres on our odometer did.
We would be crossing into China into the Xinjiang province. A notorious police state, where the Chinese government are persecuting the Uighur people and other ethnic minorities, subjecting them to intense surveillance and forcing them into reeducation camps. In these camps, the ethnically Turkic Muslim Uighurs are made to learn Mandarin and renounce or criticise their faith. Forced labour camps also exist to convert villagers into cheap labour loyal to the communist party.
As a foreigner travelling through this region, your wheareabouts are also heavily monitored, with police checks at the entrance to every town and some stretches of inforced police escorts, making wild camping impossible and overpriced tourist hotels the only option. Needless to say, given that we only had a visa for 60 days, and that winter was fast approaching, we planned to catch a train through the Xinjiang province to Lanzhou. Basically half way across China.
The single train journey would take 28 hours. When we got off in Lanzhou, the train would continue to Shanghai… Arriving another 24 hours later.
The security at both the border and train stations within the province was infamous among cyclists. We had heard tale of knives, multitools and fuel bottles being confiscated, couples being interviewed separately as well as spyware being installed on foreigners phones at the border.
We took some time before the border hiding knives in our frames, giving our leftover fuel back to the closest petrol station and making sure we had no films or books disliked by the Chinese government on our phones. Thankfully my phone was fill to the brim with podcasts and Harry Potter audio books, so even if they did try to inspect my phone, there would be no storage space for any spyware they might want to install anyway.
The border guards soon got bored flicking through the photos on Pedro’s phone and given their lack of English they most definitely didn’t understand any of the WhatsApp conversations they were scrolling through. So preoccupied with hiding knives and phone security we completely overlooked the bananas and diosperos that we had bought with our leftover Kazak Tenge. In the end the border security was mostly uneventful, except for the sad loss of our lunch.
Overcoming the loss of our fruity snacks, we rolled through the heavily barbed fence and entered China. The border crossing had recently been moved and so the town we were spat out in wasn’t really a town at all. It was as though they were modifying an older town and after having flattened the original one to the ground, they were now in the process of slowly rebuilding it.
It took us a good hour to find our way onto the road which would take us out of town. Our snaking through the maze of half rebuilt roads, countless dead-ends and general going round in circles had added an extra 10-15km to our day. Not the best on an increasingly empty stomach.
Nevertheless, eventually we got going on to a highway which we didn’t really want to be on, but which seemed to be our only option if we ever wanted to leave. Thankfully there was a wide shoulder and given that there was nothing but Kazakhstan behind us, the three lane highway was mostly empty.
Soon we were able to wiggle our way onto smaller roads and joined the mess of cars, mopeds and cargo scooters and occasional donkey drawn cart or bicycle trundling their way East. The car drivers were so used to sharing the road with such a carcophony of vehicles that they generally gave us a wide berth. Or wider than we had ever received on similar roads in central Asia anyways.
Given the region we were in, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we would have to stay in a hotel. We probably could find a place to camp, but didn’t fancy being woken by the police at 2am to move us on.
But staying in a hotel came with its own complications. First we had pass the police check at the entrance to town. Passports and Google translate out and ready to answer the same set of questions we would have to answer too many times over the next few days. Generally they went along the lines of : Where are you from, where are you staying, when are you leaving? They’d photograph us and our passports and send us on our way. They were always friendly about it though, and generally just curious to meet a foreigner, but we couldn’t understand why so many police had to ask us the same questions over and over again. I thought the Chinese were hi-tech?!
Second we had to find a hotel to stay which would accept foreigners. We knew there was one in town, and we knew the general area it was in, but we were not sure exactly where it was. Finding it wasn’t helped by the fact that another bunch of policeman, who ran over the road to question us, didn’t seem to know which hotel would accept foreigners and which wouldn’t, and they sent us on a wild goose chase to find a bed for the night in a string of hotels that were for Chinese citizens only.
Hotel finally located, the third hurdle was passing the security at the front of the hotel. Every shop, office, or hotel had a metal detector and baggage scanner at the entrance. So despite the handy ramp to the entrance, all bags had to come off before we could even come in.
After countless passport checks, we could finally relax. I don’t know if we had ever stayed anywhere so fancy on our entire trip. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the novelty of fluffy white towels and crisp bedsheets over our increasingly smelly travel towels and sleeping bag liners!
The difference between this city, 30km from the border and the last town we had been through in Kazakhstan was vast. Qingshuihe was full of perfectly tarmaced three lane highways and shops selling electronics, whereas Zharkhent’s highlight had been the dusty bazaar made of shipping containers.
The following day we rolled on towards Yining, where we would stop for a few days before catching our train. We followed the same security rigmarole as before and found ourselves a dorm in a hostel. They said we would get to 8 bed dorm to ourselves because we were a couple, but I think the real reason was because we weren’t Chinese. Nevertheless, we weren’t going to complain, especially since the hostel came with a free puppy.
After the culinary desert of central Asia, where most people seem to subsist on onions, buckwheat, bread and all of the yak products, we were very much looking forward to the food in China. For the first time in a very long time, we found our noses enticed by the smells coming from all directions in the street – spices, fresh herbs and mounds of fruit. We found ourselves fresh fried greens, spicy tofu (when was the last time we are tofu?!), and street baked sweet potatoes. Obviously there was the less enticing offerings too: chicken feet, sheep’s heads, intestines belonging to an unknown animal… And maggots in tea… We tried our best to avoid those.
Wandering through the streets, it seemed here atleast, that the famed large number of bicycles in China had mostly been replaced by electric two seater mopeds and space-aged electric cars modelled on Postman Pat’s van.
There wasn’t much in particular that we wanted to see in Yining. We were just happy walking through the streets, peering into the shops and markets enjoying the new sights and smells and being completely and utterly lost in translation, but I did want to visit the Uighur neighborhood.
Unlike any other region of Yining, the Uighur neighborhood was full of winding alleyways and traditional bright blue and purple houses rather than grey apartment blocks. The houses were more like those we had seen in Tajikistan, with a gate leading to a fruit tree filled courtyard lined with multiple buildings around the edges. Unfortunately the police weren’t so happy with our curiosity and our walk through the neighborhood was curtailed with an unwanted 90 minute visit to the local police station and a questioning (through Google translate) about our intentions for visiting the area.
During our three days in Yining we saw no other tourists. Whereas people in the east of China are quite used to seeing foreigners, here it was a different matter. It seemed that particularly small children and the older generation were less able to contain their amazement, resulting in eyes popping out of their heads, craning necks and full on pointing. It was quite hilarious.
Our bikes weren’t allowed in the train with us and had to be shipped separately, which meant that we could get on the train with just a backpack and a bag of food for our 28 hour, 2500ishkm journey east. Catching a train here is like catching an aeroplane : more security scanners, more bag emptying, proving your bottle of water is a bottle of water and police passport checks. Needless to say, we arrived at the train station early.
As in any country the train journey was an experience in itself. It didn’t take long for us to make friends with our compartment companions and to settle into a routine of tea making and noodle eating thanks to the boiling water on tap at the end of each carriage. We instinctively played games of musical chairs with our neighbours, hopping between window seats, lower bunks and our own beds for eating, tea drinking and napping respectively.
Extra entertainment was found through people-watching, the most memorable being a kid held up over a bin to empty his bladder. We were also bemused to see one passenger handcuffed to his bed, clearly being chaperoned by a small army of police officers. An interesting insight into life on public transport in China.
26 hours later we were somewhat surprised that we weren’t bored of being on the train, and what have happily stayed aboard for another 26 hours. There were still so many books to read, blog posts to write and people to watch!
Reunited with our bicycles and bags, we ventured out into Lanzhou to again try to find a hotel which would accept two smelly foreigners for the night.