söndag 8 september 2013

Bye Bye Central Asia, Hello China!!

After a day of rest it was time to set out towards the Chinese border. I had about 370 km left and planned to do that in three days. It felt great getting back on the road and I was excited to get to China. It had always been one of the countries that I had been looking forward to the most. And after riding slalom through the traffic in Almaty I was on the country road heading east. The first day I did 130 km on a very warm day and set up my tent next to a little forest with a stream close by where I could take a refreshing bath.

The next day started off with a big uphill and when I thought I was at the top I was expecting a nice relaxing ride down. But instead the road continued on high ground and for the rest of the day I had to fight with a strong headwind in the open landscape. Eventually I arrived at a beautiful canyon with a river running down it. I decided this was the best place to stay for the night even if I hadn’t done as much as I hoped I would. But I was really tired after a long day. I now only had one more day to reach the border and set out early in the morning. I began with climbing out of the canyon and back on the flat windy desert floor.

After a while I saw two guys standing by the road that looked familiar. It was two German tourists that I had met at the hostel in Almaty who were traveling around Kazakhstan by car. I have to admit I was a little bit jealous with their air-conditioned car. They gave me a refill of water and I continued on the last bit through the desert. Because after lunch the landscape changed and there were more trees and vegetation witch was a nice change from before.

When looking at the map I had the border seemed to be after crossing a river. So I thought I would set up my tent somewhere close to the river and then cross first thing in the morning. But sooner than I thought there was a card station in the way and the guards told me the border was closed today and would be closed the next day as well. I really didn’t know what to do since a had spent my last Kazakh money during the day, but luckily I had some food in my bag. But after cycling back the road for about 100 meters a man waved me in and I told him about the border being closed and he understood my problem. So he offered me a place to set up my tent behind his restaurant and also gave me dinner later at night. So I had an involuntary day of rest at the border and met some nice people at the restaurant during the day. Among them an Uzbek guy who spoke a little English and was waiting for his brother to come back from China. I also met many friendly truck drivers who gave me food and a couple shots of vodka later in the evening.

Early on Saturday morning I was at the first gate waiting for it open. After that I cycled about 6 km to the next gate where one of the guards said there was a problem with my registration card. I was taken to a room with a guy who spoke some English and he made a couple of calls and explained that I should have registered with the police within the first five days, something I didn’t know about. But if had read the immigration card more careful it said very clearly on the back that I should. But after some waiting he told me that I didn’t have to pay the penalty fee and that I could continue to customs. That was in another building and once I tried to get through there I was stopped again and this time it wasn’t as easy. When I told the officer that I had talked to another guy before and he told me it was okay he just said that he was the boss and not the other guy. So after a while I realized I wasn’t going to get out of this without paying the fee. So began a very slow process sitting in a room with a guy who typed on the computer in slow-motion. Eventually after spending 3,5 hours at the border and paying 118 Dollars fee I could leave and cycle the 5 km through no man’s land to the Chinese border. And there is was much smoother and just took a couple of minutes. I even got some advice from one of the officers who also were a cyclist. First impression of China was a much more modern country than I had been in for a while. Especially in the cities where all the houses looked nice and everything seemed more organized that the sometimes chaotic central Asia. But once I got out of the first city I saw that the old China is still there and there is not much difference between how farmers and villagers live here compered to where I came from. Since I had lost a couple of hours at the Kazakh border I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the Sayram Hu lake up in the mountain that I had hoped to. But after acquiring a Chinese sim–card and getting some money from the ATM(witch felt like a luxury since the last time I did that was in Turkey and throughout central Asia I had to change dollars to local currency with some guy on the black market) I pushed on up into the hills. But the climb uphill was slow and all of a sudden it started to get dark. There weren’t many places to set up a tent in the narrow passage the road went through. I put on my lights and continued on for a while longer until I came across some houses and tents next to the road. I stopped and asked two women I met there if I could set up my tent next to the house. That was no problem at all and they helped me with a flashlight while I got all my things in order. When the husband came home I got invited for dinner in a tent that looked almost identical to the yurts in Kyrgyzstan. And having bread and tea for dinner also reminded me of my time in the Kyrgyz mountains.

My first night in China was a very cold one since I had cycled quite far up into the hills. And the next morning was also a cold one, so some warm tea for breakfast was great. After I helped the man crank his tractor into action I waved goodbye and continued up the mountain. After a while a came to a huge bridge that I cycle over after rounding a hill through a long tunnel. It was really massive and continued even further after the big section.

After that there was a couple of tunnels until I arrived at the lake where I planned to camp for the first night. It was a massive lake high up in the mountains with even bigger mountains surrounding it. It was still cold and after fighting against a headwind to reach the top the road started to lean downwards and I had to put on more clothes to keep warm. But going downhill is always a great feeling even though the wind kept me from breaking any speed records. The downhill went on for 55 km and it got warmer the further down I got. I started out with t-shirt, long-sleeve t-shirt, jacket, fleece jacket and gloves. And by the time I was all the way at the bottom of the hill I was only wearing shorts and t-shirt. I stopped at a small restaurant in a village for lunch and got a course in how to eat with chopsticks. It was tricky at first but I eventually got the hang of it. The owner first gave me a plastic fork but I thought it was better to learn right away since I’m going to be here for a while. And I can’t ask for a fork every time I’m at a restaurant.

I knew the ride to Urumqi wasn’t going to be the most exiting road. Usually there were two roads to choose from, the highway or the smaller on that many times ran alongside the highway. I choose the small one as much as possible but sometimes I had to get up on the big road when there were no other or when the small road was really bad. But the highway wasn’t that bad and always had a wide shoulder to cycle on. The only problem with that road was that it had fences by the side of the road almost everywhere and therefore difficult to get off for a break or when I saw a nice place to camp for the night. But I found an okay place every night and it was great setting up the tent in the dessert with no one around and just look up at night as the stars became clearer. The worst part about cycling desert isn’t the heat it’s the wind, and the first three days on the flat land I had to fight a head wind. It was less wind earlier in the day so I tried to push on as much as possible before lunch and take it a little slower in the afternoon when the wind picks up.

The last two days of cycling towards Urumqi there were more trees along the roads which is great for giving shade and also some more cities along the way. And even if they look like small towns on the map they are often quite big and growing fast. The negative about this part is that there were lots of industries and coal power plants. One afternoon I passed a place with lots of coal trucks passing by and by the end of the day I could scrape of a black layer from my skin.
Yesterday I cycled the last 120 km to Urumqi and getting in was a bit crazy. It’s a huge city with over 3 million people living here and it is the capital of Xinjiang. Luckily I have my GPS and was able to find my way through the city to Ren Min Square where I was meeting up with my warmshowers host later that night. So with about two hours to kill I just sat down with a book and watched the lively square. When it got darker they lit up the square and music started playing and people were dancing on groups all over the square.

I met my host Natasha who is from Britain and working as an English teacher here through EF. Over dinner I got to meet some other of the teachers also working here. Some from Britain and others from Mexico, South Africa and Russia. We had a great evening and it felt really good to be here and taking a break from cycling for a while. Even though the last days my butt had gotten more used to the saddle again and I wasn’t as sore as I was the first couple of days.

Yesterday I had a relaxing day strolling around town going to some parks one of the on a hill with a view of the city. Later in the evening I met up with another couchsurfer who was very nice to help me with tickets at the train station since no one there speaks English. The train station felt like a crazy place and I was sitting outside for a while waiting for Venessa and just watching thousands of people walking by. And there were no break in the stream of people, it just never seemed to end. When Venessa arrived we first went to the cargo place to send my bike. And even if I have a recite and that it will most likely be in Beijing when I get there it didn’t feel great leaving the bike. Now I just really hope it gets there in one piece. But I couldn’t book my train ticket since I had forgotten to bring my passport with me. And when we looked up tickets online we realized I had a bigger problem than that. Because tickets to Beijing was sold out for the next couple of days and the first available ticket was on the 13:th, and that was just a seat. If I wanted a bed I would have to wait until the 18:th. And since my time here in China is limited I don’t have the time to wait that long. Another option was to take a flight, but that’s a lot more expensive of course. So now I have decided to instead get on a train to Xi’an, see that city and then another train from there to Beijing.

After the madness at the train station I and Venessa met up with her friend for some food at an very interesting and busy street. All along the street there were different stands with all kinds of food laid out. We picked out a couple of dishes (too many) and sat down for a nice and tasty meal. I also hung out with Venessa yesterday since my host was working all day. EF teachers seem to be working a lot, yesterday she was at work from ten in the morning to ten at night.

We visited the grand bazaar which felt a little bit like going back to Turkey or Central Asia. The bazaar is in the Uighyr part of the city and felt very different. The Uighyr is a Turkic ethnic group living in Xinjiang and since there have been some tension here you can see a lot of military around in the city, especially in the Uighyr part of town.

I’m now as prepared as I can be for my train ride to Xi’an. Unfortunately they didn’t have any sleepers left until the end of this week, so I had to take a seat witch won’t be very comfortable on this 35 hour train ride. But at least I’ll get there.

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