We entered China, and everything changed. Suddenly, we weren’t allowed to cycle by ourselves, dubious software was installed on our phones, and pictures were taken of us holding our passports in front of us like prisoners. Other travelers had warned us about the precarious situation in the province of Xinjiang. Still, what we saw took us by surprise.
After hours of driving we arrived at the actual immigration point in Ulugqat some 150km after the official border. Our driver refused to bring us to Kashgar (our goal for the day). Luckily, we found another one. Boy, if this guy had known what was coming he probably wouldn’t have driven us…
Just outside of Ulugqat we hit the first security checkpoint. The police officers there had never seen a foreign passport. They tried to match Gratsi’s face with their Chinese face database from where they pulled up pictures of girls that looked like Gratsi, but in Asian style. After one hour of waiting and arguing, they finally let us go. The second checkpoint was quicker but even more sincere than the first one: the officers could not believe that some random local was driving us foreigners. So, our driver had to get out of the car and pose with his ID in front of him while the police took pictures of him with a smartphone.
At the edge of Kashgar, our driver stopped and told us he was not allowed to drive us to the center. So, we simply cycled into Kashgar while the heat of the Taklamakan desert slowly faded. The first hostel we stopped at was booked out, but the second one still had a room for us. Everytime we approached the reception desk, we had to step through a metal detector similar to those at the airport. It also beeped as annoyingly as those at the airport. Jan thought that this was all too hilarious, and everytime when he walked through the scanner and caused it to beep he shouted out “Terrorist!”.
Some impressions of Kashgar and Uigur culture
We made one attempt to cycle from Kashgar to the east to reach the next province as fast as possible. We had already cycled 60km when we suddenly hit another checkpoint – “the usual procedure”, we thought. But surprisingly, we weren’t allowed to pass. The head officer, using a translator on his phone, explained to us that we had to go back to Kashgar. “No way! We just cycled 60km to get here!” Still, he insisted on sending us back, telling us that we were allowed to go anywhere but the county lying beyond the checkpoint. He was very sorry for this and went on to organize a ride for us to Kashgar. While we were waiting, the other officers shared their lunch with us: plov and watermelon. They were very generous and kind, just not so kind to let us pass. The next suitable car on the way to Kashgar got stopped and the drivers were asked to take us back to Kashgar.
The extreme heat and the insane security measures led us to the decision to leave Xinjiang as soon as possible. We took a night bus to Urumqi – the region’s capital – and a train to Jiayuguan in the province of Gansu.
As predicted, no more checkpoints, no more controls. We finally got in touch with “real” Chinese life which turned out to be totally different from how we had imagined it: our heads were full of elegant Chinese temples, green hills, wise men with beards, delicate food, tai chi, and bamboo flute music. Reality hit us hard: people spitting everywhere in the streets, spicy food (mostly noodles), poverty, concrete buildings, and bad roads. On top of that, everyone stared at us like they had never seen a white person before. Some even held their smartphones into our faces to photograph us. In short, it wasn’t the China we had come for.
Once on the bike, things didn’t get much better. Bikes are forbidden on Chinese expressways, and the alternative was always to take the Old National Highway which another cyclist had described as “basically unrideable in some parts”. He was right. Either we would have to sneak through the toll gate entrance of the expressway or we would have to find a hole in the fence guarding it. Neither option was in our interest.
Danxia Geopark near Zhangye
On the old highway, we were constantly passed by huge, loud, stinking trucks whose drivers had chosen this bad road in order to avoid paying the toll for new road. The trucks were so heavy that the ground was shaking whenever they passed us. Besides steppe and plastic trash there wasn’t anything exciting to see.
Endless desert/ steppes
One of very little temples we saw
After we had reached Wuwei, we were done with China and its traffic madness, and we decided to call it a trip. The cheapest way to get out of China and into South Korea was a train to Lanzhou and a plane to Qingdao from where we caught a ferry to Incheon.
Jan & Gratsi
P.S.: Check our route map to see where we are!