World by Bike 22: Being Made in China
The airport in Shanghai was a good indicator of things to come. Everyone was scanning their Chinese ID cards or scanning their fingerprints before we got to the immigration desks, and I was already confused. I found an arrow on the floor pointing towards domestic transfers to my connecting flight to Xi'an, but the steward directing traffic barely glanced at my ticket and pointed me in the other direction, across the other side of the arrivals hall. I asked the next member of staff and she told me to go to the third floor. I went back to the first guy and he gestured again and said 'third floor', without looking at my ticket this time. I queued in the 24hr transfer queue for 20 minutes before an English speaking member of staff got into conversation with an American couple trying to transfer to Hong Kong. Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau flights have their own category, alongside international flights and domestic flights, in a not-quite-domestic flights section. This more senior looking steward pointed those needing a transfer within 8 hours to the transfer desk, as I had first suspected. Despite my connecting flight being domestic, I was told by two members of staff to queue for another 20 minutes in the international transfer line, before reaching the front of the queue to be immediately waved over to the queue-less domestic transfer desk. I lost an hour following pointless and avoidable pathway and lines.
However, after landing in Xi'an things did pick up. I'd managed to find someone on the Warmshowers / Couchsurfing website from the ancient capital who'd kindly agreed to pick me up at the airport. In hindsight, I was incredibly fortunate to have met him. He was able to help me get a Chinese SIM card, explain to me some of the customs, the political tensions and make sure I was pronouncing some key words in Mandarin correctly - 'no hot peppers!'
A few days later, rebuilding the bike, visiting the Terracotta Army and exploring the old city, it was time to depart. I headed out of the western gate of the city and embarked on the old Silk Road back to Europe. The outskirts of the city seemed to go on forever, with huge construction projects all around, new highways and new high-rise tower blocks. Following these new roads proved troublesome, as many of them weren't mapped yet, and without access to Google in China, navigation became difficult. I ended up in a new, deserted city that was under-development before I eventually found my way back to the main road.
Within a couple of hundred kilometres of Xi'an the road entered the mountains, and the scenery changed for the better. The grey, smoggy cities disappeared and quiet mountain roads aided by smooth roads and gradient-easing tunnels made for much better riding. From the mountains the route followed the Yellow River valley north-west towards Lanzhou, and then more northwards up towards Mongolia. The route was surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and strikingly coloured red rock, with the road itself climbing to frustratingly close to 10,000, and a the highest altitude I'd ever been on bike. It was gorgeous riding, except for the near constant stream of trucks supplying construction projects on future roads in the towns ahead.
The rural roads, and complications with having to find tourist-specific hotels made the idea of camping more attractive. I could often find decent, hidden places to pitch up on road-side farms after the workers had disappeared for the day. The issue was that they'd return at dawn the next morning, meaning I had to be awake and packed away painfully early. Early starts however, and progressively later evenings as I headed west (but the country is entirely on Beijing time), made for lots of potential hours in the saddle. The longer days felt necessary though to battle the strong winds over the many mountain passes. Although I found very few roads to be particularly steep, they were long, several-hour grinds at a shallow gradient with an accompanying wind. I found that the wind would suddenly switch direction at the top of each climb, and you'd either be rewarded with a gentle breeze back down to the valley floor, or be battered by a headwind as an additional treat after the climb.
However, I did have one day with an outstanding tailwind as we crossed the end of the Great Wall of China at Jiayuguan Pass in Gansu province. North of the wall is the southern borders of the Gobi desert, with just the one town within 250km. The day started off slowly after spending the morning distracted by my laptop, finally finding access to the final series of Game of Thrones at my homestay. We then had 15km of rough and sandy 'road' alongside the perfectly smooth highway, made all the more frustrating by the fact that bikes were banned on the highway, despite the presence of a beautiful shoulder, compared to the supposedly bike-friendly, partially-constructed side road which was littered with fast moving trucks trying to avoid the highway's tolls. However, once off the side road, and back onto some better tarmac, we picked up a ferocious tailwind the grew in strength until sunset. I decided to blast past the only town of the day towards a more distant city, and capitalise on the wind. I ended up ploughing through almost 170 miles at 20.5mph as an average speed. One section I averaged 25mph for two hours, and a 10 mile effort in just 22 minutes! It was a ridiculously fun ride, watching the miles tick over quickly. I hadn’t expected to go that far so had difficulty sourcing accommodation as there were only two tourist-specific hotels in the city, and both were expensive 4* places. Trying not to dwell on the (relatively) expensive room, I enjoyed it, finding time to use all the free tea, coffee, and toiletries, plus making much of my money back at the buffet breakfast the next morning.
The wind had changed the next day and made for a tough grind across the desert to the borders of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. People were encouraging though, seeing a lone bike rider in the middle of the desert, clearly being tossed about by the winds and the turbulence of passing trucks. One staff member at one truck stop gave me some free local snack - it was packaged chicken-feet, but I appreciated the gesture. The kind people were an encouraging lift as the vast landscape of the desert and the strong winds can wreak havoc in your headspace. Moving so slowly through an area so big can quite easily drive to think about how far from home you still are, and how many tough days lie ahead. It's all you can do to focus on the task at hand, the present day or the next hour. I think it's partly not knowing whether you're going to find enough food, water or not find somewhere to rest that can really trigger a loss of focus. Maybe you start to think about all the things there are to manage, rather than just focusing on what you're doing in the present…i.e. getting to the next crest, or riding for another thirty minutes. I just found it was a case of breaking it down, and letting tomorrow worry about itself. Asking what I could do today to get to make the day better.
Xinjiang province was another story though. I'd heard it was politically sensitive, but it was nothing like I'd experienced before. There were police checks every 30km, and on the way into and out of every town. There were cameras everywhere, like there had been in the rest of China, but here felt more intense. There were security checking documents at petrol stations, and I was refused entry despite just wanting to buy water from the shop. Perhaps the less said about Xinjiang the better, but it was tough. The police refused to let me ride on my first day, informing me the road I was riding (and had been riding for 2000km) was too dangerous, amongst a host on incoherent answers from different officers. They elected to drive me 180km that first day, check me into a hotel and then inform me that I couldn't leave the hotel. They even drove me to a restaurant and watched me eat when I told them I needed food. They did allow me to ride the next day, but there was a police car following 50m behind all day, which they had neglected to inform me of. It’s not like it wasn't obvious though.
The next few days passed with more desert, running alongside the start of the Tian Shan (Heavenly) Mountains. At every checkpoint I was met with the offer of a drive to the next hotel or the next town. Some understood the nature of a bike tour more than others, meaning it could take some time to clear the checkpoint, explaining why exactly I wanted to ride even if it was slower than the car. Generally though, most of the cops were friendly people, just following orders. One squad even gave me lunch!
However, I felt a little uneasy whenever they put my passport information into their system, and they'd get a phone call through and you could hear the list of my overnight stops being listed amongst the Mandarin I couldn't decipher. The only comfort I could take was in the fact that I knew I hadn't done anything wrong and that the police were actually a nice fall-back option if I couldn't find a place to stay. I legally had to stay in a tourist hotel, so the police could often find one for me and negotiate a good rate. They even gave one hotel without a tourist-specific license the permission to host me, much to my and the staff's surprise. I'm just glad I'm not one of the Uyghur minority Muslim group the heavy police presence is there to contain. You can't go anywhere without being tracked, facially identified by street cameras or having your documents checked. I felt safe, despite young teenage-looking cops with large rifles every 20 miles, but you do have to feel worried for anyone not particularly in agreement with the government. I won't say anymore, but you can Google the issues in the area if you're curious….except if you're Chinese, you don't get access to Google.
Xinjiang is beautiful though, with stunning mountains and interesting geography, like the Turpan Depression, sinking down to 150m below sea level, producing the driest and hottest area in China during the summer. The city of Urumqi as brilliant blend of the Far East and Central Asia, where the Chinese and Muslim cultures in the area intertwine. There are several grand mosques and a lively bazaar to peruse. Finding jade in the market was a cool moment, having seen lots of jade being traded in Mandalay, Myanmar having come from the jade mines in the north of Burma. Having shifted from Mandalay, where the population is 50% Chinese through mainland China and now into a more Muslim, Turkic area was a nice transition. I was worried that not crossing the southern Chinese land border would mean that culture would suddenly jump. Such a culture jump was why I didn't particularly want to ride across India because you'd then have to fly from a Hindu area to a Muslim area in either Tajikistan or Azerbaijan, as riding into Pakistan and Iran really aren't options presently.
Overall, I'm glad and grateful to have got my Chinese visa and had the option to go. It's a fascinating place, and completely different to home. There's no common language, or even common ways of miming what you want to communicate. I held up 10 fingers to check the price and the lady responded by crossing her first fingers in an 'X' shape. Apparent that means ten, and an extended thumb and pinky in 'rock on' type fashion is six. Who knew? I found it incredibly draining not being able to speak to anyone, and found it interesting to be in a country where their language is more widely-spoken than mine, and the onus is on me to learn Mandarin. In most other countries, I find that because their language maybe isn't widely spoken, you can flip you ignorance on other people, and sub-consciously expect them to know English, or at least excuse yourself from knowing their language. I didn’t get the same sense in China.
It's a beautiful, varied, intriguing place to explore, with political, historical and geographical points on interest on offer. Seeing the rate of expansion and construction in the even more incredible scenery does make for a great riding experience. Most people do tend to leave you to your business, but I found a nice number of people asked questions about what I was up to. A few too many wanted to add me on the Chinese version of What's App, which did end up getting me in trouble at the border, where they're very suspicious of anyone English without the correct visa.
As tough as it was, I'm glad I went. China is… an experience.