For a large portion of my trip I didn’t know whether I would make it to China. I knew that I would make it to the border, that was never in question, but making it across the border was something else. No embassy in Central Asia, Europe or the Middle East would issue me a tourist visa unless I was a resident or a citizen (NB* short visas have since started being issued from Tehran).
Realising this only once in Tbilisi, my Australian passport was sent home with DHL for an extortionate fee so I could apply from Australia. I switched to my UK passport and the trip continued.
Thanks to my amazing parents who received and dealt with the often tricky Australian side of the process, months later my passport with processed Chinese visa was with DHL again, flying to meet me in Kyrgystan. $400 of postage and processing fees later, my ride east could continue. Thanks also to Phil in Sydney and Usha in Bishkek for being integral players in my plan!
After Jack, Nigel, Elliot and I said our farewells I left my bike and bags at my guest house in Sary Tash, Kyrgystan and caught two days of share taxis to Bishkek and back to retrieve my passport. A day’s riding over the Irkeshtam pass, half a day’s processing at the Chinese border and I found myself in China.
China can be hard. The number of people, the language barrier, the cluttered roads and construction sites all combined to make me feel completely out of my depth from the outset. ‘Ting bu dong’ means ‘I don’t understand’ and as I stumbled for my first few weeks from one incomprehensible interaction to the next it was by far my most used phrase. For the first time since Istanbul I was nervous and confused, and simple things like getting a litre of petrol for my stove were taking hours and requiring visits to local police stations. Nowhere so far has the the choice of the day’s road been so vital. Taking a left or a right turn could be the difference between ending the day snoozing happily in my tent or riding late through an industrial district in search of an inexpensive hotel, my body tense with stress from the trucks and buses sharing my route.
But slowly I am learning and enjoying the challenge of adapting to China. I am learning to correctly pronounce my tones, to select my roads, to recognise certain characters, ask directions and order specific foods. Slowly I am getting into the flow and pace of China and with each day enjoying it more.
Crossing the border from Kyrgstan to China I crossed from Central Asia to Asia, but you wouldn’t know it from looking around. China’s westernmost province, Xinjiang, is predominantly Muslim and the Islamic influence is clear everywhere you look. Where it differs though is the cuisine. Released from the culinary deprivation of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and rural Kyrgystan I basked in the spicy scents and flavours of Kashgar’s night market. With the help of spicy-sour jelly noodles, fresh lagman, spiced chicken legs and sticky rice balls with honey I was gaining back all the weight I had lost in Tajikistan.
Kashgar is heavily populated by the Uyghurs, a minority Muslim population of western China. A long history of tension exists between the ruling Communist party and the Uyghur people, and their systematic repression is clearly felt. One obvious example is the tearing down and reconstruction of traditional Uyghur neighbourhooods. In 2009 most of Kashgar’s Old Town was completely
destroyed and rebuilt renovated reducing what used to be a bustling hive of local activity to a neatly laid out tourist attraction with cafes and English translations on the signs.
The conflict has produced numerous historical clashes and terrorist attacks including stabbings in train stations and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgystan by Uyghur separatists. The result is a police presence in Kashgar unlike any I have seen in my life. These police had batons, poles, shields and bulletproof vests but they were not dispersing a riot they were closing the food market for the night, walking through ushering tourists to the exists and closing food stalls. Petrol stations and shopping malls here are protected by high walls with spikes, guards and barbed wire and it’s virtually impossible to walk down a street without passing a police patrol. It’s unnerving to say the least.
In addition to the police presence, to protect from the perceived terrorist threat workplaces have mobilised to train their staff to act as a kind of local militia in case of an attack. Local workers armed with spiked poles congregate on the street in a kind of ‘fire drill’, incongruously smiling and waving to me as I take my photo.
I was in Kashgar during the Qurban festival, a Uyghur holiday. Men and women met in front of the central mosque, celebrating by performing traditional dances surrounded by swarms of Han Chinese tourists.
As part of the festival each family purchases a sheep to be slaughtered. It’s a messy business, with sheep often killed and gutted on street corners. Their legs and head were sometimes removed and placed in these roadside kilns apparently to make some kind of ‘sheep bacon’. I can’t say how it tastes, but burning sheep head definitely doesn’t smell great.
Sheep skins rest in piles by the roadside, waiting to be donated to local mosques.
Some hostel chums and I escape the smell of sheep head…
and join the rest of the tourists downtown.
Not wanting to cycle the vast and empty desert separating Kashgar from Eastern China, I sent my bike ahead with a freight company and boarded a 42 hour train to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province.
For nearly two days I practiced my mandarin and got to know my eccentric Chinese roommates …
kicking back with my Kindle and iPod while we trundled past the anonymous hazy cities…
rural oil fields…
and sprawling wind farms of northern Xinjiang – a product of billions recently invested in clean energy in China.
Some Chinese passengers entertained themselves by playing a drawn out game of ‘Who touched my back?’
In Lanzhou, after three days apart I was reunited with an undamaged Suzie and my sheer elation at the sight of her surprised even me. Good work China Railways!
By Chinese standards, Lanzhou is a mid sized city.
Could have fooled me!
Like all Chinese cities (in my opinion) it is far more charismatic in the evenings, bathed in a neon glow.
And, as in all other cities I visit, I am drawn to people watching and food, which leads me to the night market.
People watching while being people watched. The Chinese are masters of staring at foreigners and my white skin and unruly blonde hair attract attention everywhere I walk.
I negotiate the adventure of Chinese street food with VV, a Chinese tour guide and friend from Kashgar.
Blown away by the flavours – still not accustomed to all this choice after so long in Central Asia!
I try everything I’m told. I had never tasted lung, kidney, liver or stomach before so it was quite something to suddenly have it all served to me at once in a soup! Went great with my entree of pig trotters and lamb feet.
‘Stinky tofu’: disliked by many, loved by me. Think of tofu crossed with blue cheese, with chilli and vinegar.
Fresh ingredients everywhere
Sometimes fresh enough to make a break for it.
In the afternoons Qinqiang street opera is performed on the banks of the Yellow River for crowds who pay a donation to watch. It’s funny how you can watch something and have absolutely no idea what is going on but be totally captivated regardless.
Many of the performers are ex-professional, now acting on the street in their retirement as a hobby.
In the three weeks since picking up my passport in Bishkek I had travelled thousands of kilometers but only cycled around 200. It was time to squeeze back into my lycra shorts, stretch my legs and hit the road towards Sichuan on a path that would lead over the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
My excitement to be back on the bike cooled slightly when I saw the road I’d chosen. Road surfaces in China are consistently fantastic – buttery smooth – but finding a peaceful picturesque stretch can be a challenge in a country undergoing such rapid economic growth.
The construction is prolific. Bridges, railways and tunnels in various stages of construction dot the countryside and make wild camping difficult.
Rural towns do exist, but they are rarely quaint, traditional and quiet.
More often than not they are built around some kind of industry or factory that sustains the town, the shops and restaurants existing only to feed the workers.
To escape the trucks and dust I divert to what looked on the map to be a minor road. Populated by trucks and unlit tunnels though it was nothing of the sort.
Tunnels are always an unnerving experience. The road’s shoulder merges into the wall and you are left with no option but to ride in the lane, hoping the vehicles behind are paying enough attention to notice your flashing bike light in the dark.
Venturing through one of the dimly lit, poorly ventilated tunnels there was a small hole in the road. As I eased right to ride around it my front pannier rubbed against the tunnel wall, caught on something and jerked my handlebars hard to the side. My bike crashed to the ground and I landed on my left side, tumbling into the centre of the lane in my first real accident of the tour. It was dark but I could hear cars behind me so moments after hitting the ground I was up on my feet frantically dragging my bike and pressing it up against the tunnel wall, my rear light still blinking away in the darkness.
The crash had bent my handlebars out of alignment so holding my bike light in my mouth to see I spent a few minutes loosening and readjusting my handlebars while traffic streamed past. I thought I was handling it all pretty well while it was happening but after pulling out the other side of the tunnel I realised I was shaking and stopped to sit down for a few minutes.
On the other side of the tunnel was this massive bridge. This was clearly not the minor road I was hoping for. I sat and ate a snack, bruises from the crash already surfacing on my legs.
Maybe these guys thought the road would be smaller too. On the far side of the bridge a newlywed couple balanced on roadside barriers taking wedding photos in between passing semi-trailer trucks honking enthusiastically in support.
The positive flipside to China’s sprawing infrastructure is that you are never far from a restaurant making fresh meals for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
I still carry my own food but now only for emergencies. When you can get a plate of noodles and unlimited tea for $3 – 6, why cook for yourself?
Always some good company in the local restaurant too.
Just don’t look too closely in the back.
The road wound higher and higher towards Xiahe and with it the surroundings began to change. People’s appearance became distinctly more Tibetan, with high cheek bones and rosy complexions.
Prayer flags wrapped around the bridges, dancing happily in the tailwind pushing me up the climb. There were fewer trucks and more green up here. Life was slowing down as the road wound higher.
Xiahe is home to the Labrang Monastery, founded in the early 1700s and one of the six great monasteries of the Galug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Non-Chinese citizens aren’t allowed to travel to Tibet without a (very expensive) guide, but Tibetan culture and practices extend far beyond the Tibetan autonomous region and into neighbouring provinces like Gansu and Sichuan.
The ‘kora’ route stretches for a few kilometers around the boundary of the monastery, and is populated by Buddhist pilgrims walking, spinning wheels and searching for enlightenment.
Each prayer wheel is marked with Buddhist mantras, the spinning of the wheel by a pilgrim having the same effect as if one had orally recited the prayer. There was nowhere along the kora where you couldn’t hear the sound of a squeaky wheel slowly spinning.
The fluid process of the prayer wheel is a beautiful thing to watch. An endless stream of monks in maroon robes glided peacefully in a clockwise circuit, eyes ahead, sometimes chanting privately to themselves, their beads jangling softly in their palms.
Even here people in the streets are glued to their iPhones. Apparently enlightenment isn’t impeded by Apple products.
Past Xiahe I diverted to a road so minor it was only partially mapped on my phone and was treated to a brilliantly sunny morning of no traffic and smooth tarmac.
A fast spaghetti descent led back to the main road towards Langmusi.
The bridges and tunnels of the lowlands were a world away and twisting rivers wound slowly to a distant empty horizon.
Up here I felt I could sit back and breath again.
A sky of flags heralded the summit of each climb.
Two of the most common sites on the plateau, fluttering prayer flags and yaks grazing in the distance.
Everything about a prayer flag, from the colour to its mantra and the order in which it has been placed on the banner carries a symbolic meaning. Buddhists believe that as air blows past the flag it picks up the mantras written on it and carries them on the wind, purifying and benefiting all the surrounding space. As the flags fade and become ragged over time it is a sign that the mantra is being pulled from the flag and sent out into the world.
Langmusi, a town straddling the border between Gansu and Sichuan, was clearly a town to serve tourists. There were cafes serving pancakes for breakfast, horse trekking shops with ‘Lonely Planet’ signs outside and a selection of hotels and hostels to choose from. Despite being early autumn though, here at elevation it was already touching zero or one degree in the evenings and aside from the daily bus ferrying in Han Chinese tourists for a few hours of pottering on the main street, the town was virtually deserted.
As winter approaches, life slows in Langmusi.
These friendly men invited me over for a game of cards. Nobody spoke English to explain the rules but I was dealt a hand and the game began. A series of random cards were placed down by the two men to my left. It was my turn, but I could do nothing but stare at my hand and frown. The man to my right leaned in, gazed at my cards, grabbed one and placed it on the table for me. The game continued smoothly until it was my turn again. They were all looking at me expectantly – thinking surely I would have figured out the rules by now. Moments passed until the same man leaned in, grabbed a card and put it on the table for me.
This continued. I lost the round, thanked them and excused myself.
Langmusi is home to Kirti Gompa, a monastery on the Sichuan side of town; distinctly more gritty than the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe but no less atmospheric.
Outside temples stood large fire places where pilgrims streamed past making offerings by placing in the fire a combination of flour, dairy, fruit and sweets to be burned to create fragrant smoke dispersing its scents out and over the monastery.
I aimlessly meandered up a path leading through a gorge to the hills behind the town. With only the sound of trickling water and bird calls for company I was a world away from Lanzhou.
On the Gansu side of Langmusi lay the Sertri Gompa monastery which still conducts traditional Tibetan sky-burials. After a member of the community dies, their body is transported to the burial site at the top of a hill behind the monastery where a burial master dissects and disperses it to be consumed by vultures and other birds of prey.
Their reasoning for this practice is part ideological and part practical. For large parts of the year the ground is too hard to dig graves and a scarcity of timber makes cremations difficult. Spiritually though, because of the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, death is understood as a transition as opposed to an ending and once the soul has left the body it becomes merely an empty vessel to be disposed of. By donating their body to the vultures, Buddhists also believe that by offering themselves as a meal to a predator they preserve the lives of smaller animals that would otherwise be hunted.
The burial site was marked by a sea of large prayer flags. Where elsewhere the flags had fluttered in the breeze here they hung eerily still casting a grave and solemn tone over the hill.
**One of the next few photos contains human remains – if you don’t want to see it skip the third photograph**
The burial site sat inconspicuously beside the sea of flags overlooking the valley below…
a box of tools resting off to the side.
Smaller knives were scattered around the site, accompanied by the strewn remains of four monks.
Rocks at the site bore the scars of the ceremonies they had witnessed.
Past Langmusi the road climbed to 3800m. My final morning on the plateau I woke in a cloud, my bike and tent drenched with condensation. Over the next 300km I would descend around 3000m into the urban density of Chengdu, so spent a long morning waiting for my gear to dry, listening to music, drinking tea and enjoying the wide open space. Probably my last moments of calm for a little while.
Road works heralded my exit from the Tibetan plateau and back towards lowland China.
Two Tibetan ladies waved me off the road for a drink in their home unlike any I had before. A large scoop of butter was placed atop a pile of mysterious brown powder before being doused and mixed together with milky tea and sugar. Small lumps rose slowly to the surface which looked suspiciously like chunks of ground meat. It tasted horrible and I took sips only when I wasn’t being watched in case I pulled a face while swallowing.
One of the ladies was fascinated by my camera and darted around her one room home taking photos of everything she could see. I snapped a portrait of her son to show her how to use the buttons….
but she never quite go the hang of it.
Songpan; a tourist town used mainly to access surrounding national parks but with back streets home to various Chinese, uh, delicacies…
… quirky nooks and crannies….
and by far the most unsanitary meat market I’ve ever experienced.
Looks different to the plateau, eh?
The expressway into Chengdu has a wide shoulder and was 40km shorter than the side roads so even though bikes aren’t strictly allowed I jumped the barriers and beelined for the city. 45km passed before some highway workers pulled me over and explained I wasn’t allowed to keep riding. Instead of sending me off though they took some selfies with me, stuck my bike in their car and gave me a 15km lift towards their next stop…
from where I rolled into hazy humid Chengdu; capital of Sichuan, home to 14 million people, very spicy food, and surprisingly good beer – from where we begin next time.