Western China to Yushu
The road to China was flat with a steady flow of traffic which eased off as the border neared. Leaving Kazakhstan was easy and the customs officer was an older chap who no longer needed a power trip. Instead he chatted to us about our journey for a while and as a token gesture scanned the front panniers before waving us on our way. The Chinese side was also quite easy and the no mans land this time consisted of a 6km long stretch of road that winded around before coming back to around 300m from where it started. The Chinese were efficient and in no time we entered the western side of the border town Horgos which was a concrete jungle with wide avenues, banks, shops and lots of high rise buildings. It was like arriving on a different planet. We certainly had not expected this from the small border town marked on the map.
Having got our first taste of chinese food, we set about finding a hotel. A very helpful man in a restaurant cycled down the busy main street with us and showed us the hotel. After requiring around 10 minutes to establish the price of a room, the owner suddenly made a total U-turn and told us that we could not stay there. Perhaps he did not like cyclists or we looked too dirty? Whatever the reason we had to continue our search. Having been turneed away by a further 2 hotels, we found someone who spoke good enough english to explain. A hotel has to have a special licence to accept foreigners. Most hotels do not have this and hence we could not stay. The only hotel in Horgos for foreigners was back near the border. Not wanting to backtrack we pushed on and camped on the edge of a vineyard. Many of our chosen roads were quiet and often had been taken over for the drying of corn.
The cycling in Western China was ideal with good roads and plentiful food. My now long term travelling companion Doctor Hush Bol and myself spent a few days in Urumqi to plan the rest of the China section and to learn chinese. We found many good teachers and soon were quite fluent in certain areas of the language. Teachers were to be found in coffee shops, restaurants or bars and all were very helpful in teaching us a few words, and those that had a better grasp of english could also explain some of the quite logical and simple grammar.
To get out of the city for a bit, we cycled up to Tien Shan National Park with the hope of a scenic overnight camp at the lake surrounded by mountains. It was mainly a pretty grim ride and it was astounding how much dirty industry and power stations were around. As we got around 15km from our destination, we were turned around by the police who explained in chinese and with hand gestures, that only guests in the official national park bus may continue. There was no possibility of a bribe or negotiation, so we had no choice but to turn back. After a nevertheless scenic camp in a meadow, we headed down to the official ticket office which was a monstrosity of a building with hundreds of national tourists bustling around. We enquired about tickets on the official bus, but learning that these cost nearly 40 euros, we declined and headed back to the city.
This it turns out is a typical chinese tourism scenario. People are packed into groups and made to take some official bus or tour. It was amazing that so many people were paying so much to go up to a lake for a few hours (It is also not possible to stay up there). Judging by how they were dressed to go up into the mountains, they also do not do much other than drink some tea and take some pictures with their 2 fingers in the air.
Fancy national park ticket office:
A friend was meant to arrive in Urumqi on Saturday, however I received the news shortly beforehand that he had been refused boarding in Heathrow as he had no Russian transit visa. Unfortunately, as he was connecting via an internal flight in Russia, a transit visa was necessary which he did not have. No visa = no fly.
As we had now seen enough of Urumqi, we battled with hundreds of Chinese and bought some tickets to Xining. This was quite a major project and only with the help of a couple of queuing english speakers was this possible. Urumqi is also full of security due to ongoing tensions between the Urgur population and the chinese. There are tanks in the streets, all shops have riot shields, batons and helmets at the door and to get to the ticket office requires x-rays of bags and multiple ID checks. Having got our tickets, we checked in our bikes hoping that we would see them again in Xining…..
Here a typical shop doorway:
Several hours later we were in the luxury of the soft sleeper down to Xining. This is an excellent railway experience and was a really comfortable way to travel. We had a private 4 berth compartment to ourselves and passed the time with food, sleep, music and the occasional walk to the toilet where we could further practice some chinese.
Waiting the bikes….luckily they arrived 🙂
Xining is a fairly non-descript town with a monastry and acts as quite a busy transport hub. It sits at over 2000m so was good acclimatisation before heading up to the Tibetan plateau.
From here we took the overnight bus to Yushu. This was a specially modified bus with 80% reclined beds, 3 abreast with 2 corridors and 2 levels. The bus was comfortable enough and we stowed the bikes safely underneath. We unexpectedly stopped around 2am for a 4 hour break whilst both drivers slept. This meant it took 16 hours to reach Yushu.
Yushu is a modern town as it was totally destroyed in an earthquake several years ago. There is still some construction ongoing, but it is now very welcoming with several hotels and restaurants. It lies at 3700m and is scenically surrounded by some low hills. After a day to recover from the bus journey and acclimatise, it was time to put the panniers back on the bike and start pedalling again.
Pretty town of Yushu with the monastry in the background: