Oh hi Dad

Stationed high in the mountains of China’s Xinjang province, in the peculiar ‘border’ town of Tashkurgan, I’m doggedly writing away in an attempt to finally catch up the blog! It’s been a while. I’m going to try keep this one short and snappy but hopefully get across the strange sentiment that has occupied us the past two weeks.

Starting back in Kyrgyzstan’s Bishkek, Dad had flown half-way around the world with his bike to join me in cycling the world’s highest highway. Linking China to Pakistan over the infamous Karakoram mountain range, this was sure to be one hell of a challenge. Determined to ease him in gently, we settled ourselves in the city with a few days catch up and rest over Bishkek’s watering holes.

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The next leg required some more than tricky visa’s, which he’d valiantly acquired by jumping through every diplomatic hoop imaginable. To seal the deal and avoiding any potential issues in some seriously sensitive regions, we flew 30 minutes across the border to Almaty for a day trip and game of passport switch-a-roo. Safely back in Bishkek, we took a crazed 12-hour taxi ride over the mountains – back the 400 miles I’d cycled all the way to the city of Osh. It was great to see Dad get so readily stuck into the local delicacies; recoiling in horror at his first foul taste of fermented horse milk. Funny that eh?! Both agreeing it was the worst thing we’d ever tasted; we’d struck a benchmark from which all food could now be compared. ‘Go on and eat it, it can’t be worse than that horse milk…’

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A final taxi saw us right to the rural village of Sary-Tash, where I’d passed through now three weeks ago. No more faffing about now, it was time. Up early, we strapped the panniers to the bikes, pointed them towards China and rolled out of the hostel together. A cool mountain air made for a welcome change from the furnace of the lowlands. A backdrop of 7000+ meter snow-capped peaks wasn’t a bad introduction to the world of cycle touring I thought. I had to make do with Slough and Southall…

A few rolling hills came our way as we progressed. By Kyrgyzstan standards, a gentle hill involves a steady climb, eventually knocking up and over 3700m. Of course I failed to mention this to Dad when selling the ride those months ago – it’s little different to the Chilterns. After riding a few undulations, we’d reached the fringes of Kyrgyzstan and its border with China. A decrepit looking gate was all that separated us from essentially another world – I was excited. Despite hearing my fair share of cycle touring horror stories from those riding through China, it is no doubt a huge milestone on my trip.

We weaved around the queued trucks, settling for a scenic camp spot next to rusted heap scrap metal and some dumped plastic – such is the glamorous life of bike touring. Four-star hotel to scrap heap in two days, I had to laugh. Fortunately, the day’s ride had been more than enough for Dad to sleep easy that night without any concern for where he was or what was going on.

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Porridge and a cuppa out of our fancy new utensils was followed by a final wave goodbye to Kyrgyzstan and central Asia. We were now to embark on the infamous Chinese border crossing. Not just any crossing either, we were heading into Xinjang – now China’s most sensitive region. Recent uprisings from the local Uyghur people have meant the whole region is on serious lockdown. We’re talking an extra 32,000 police officers in the area, hundreds of checkpoints with facial scanners, security cameras stationed every 500m along the road, all public buildings barricaded and decorated with barbed wire whilst every shop keeper has been provided with a riot shield and bat. There’s no messing about here.

This goes alongside a further rigorous clamp-down on internet usage enforced last September, which will explain my writing in due course. Things have been ‘interesting’ for us the past two weeks in China, so you’ll have to read between the lines here because you certainly won’t be the only one reading.

We anticipated the border crossing to take a day, mostly in part due to a four-hour lunch break at the border due to the time difference between Kyrgyzstan and China – which runs entirely on Beijing time. Four separate checkpoints and subsequent checking of passports brought us to our first set of X-ray machines, scanning all bags, bottles and bike parts. Then phones and laptops must be handed over, complete with passwords, before being mysteriously returned an hour later. Our passports were also withheld for this time and all items can only be retrieved by coming to the desk accompanied by a special taxi driver, cleared to operate the 100-mile section of road that will take you to the official border. His car contains a CCTV camera and tracking device, presumably all linked to the border-guards’ network. All this and we weren’t even officially in China yet. Crazy.

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A couple hours of driving was followed by a couple of hours of waiting inside the taxi for the official border to open after lunch. Here we went through a further two passports checks, a fingerprint and facial scan before a further x-ray of our bags. Then, finally, a stamp into China. This was soon followed by two more passport checks as our details were taken again by the local police and army. It’s tiring just writing it all down. By the end of it all we both just wanted to crash out in a hotel, although, of course that would have to be a hotel with a permit for foreigners…

The Police were keen for us to now cycle 50-miles to Kashgar, which just wasn’t happening. Instead, we were left to negotiate the clean streets and signage of Urumqui with our expert Mandarin. Unfortunately, in a manner similar to that of Tibet, separatist government-Uyghur tension has led to a few terror attacks in recent years. Where we found ourselves across the border, Urumqui is the epicentre of it all. Uyghurs are ethnically Turkish people of Islamic faith who have inhabited the region for thousands of years. In their eyes the region should be theirs, the same region that accounts for the majority of China’s oil and gas – you can start to see the issue.

If you’re interested the economist published a recent article on the subject giving a full run-down of what is going on here. (https://www.economist.com/briefing/2018/05/31/china-has-turned-xinjiang-into-a-police-state-like-no-other)

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The city felt incredibly safe to us but there was a huge police presence. Groups of five officers would stand in circular groups, backs facing inwards and bats facing out. It made for a unique experience, I’d never seen anything like it. We struggled but eventually found a foreigner-friendly hotel complete with x-ray machine, metal detector and middle-aged woman brandishing a riot shield and three-foot bat. I have never seen anyone more out of place in my life. She looked as though she’d been working a till for 30-years before being tasked with this. Bless her, little Doris (whatever that is in Mandarin) couldn’t stop a sloth with a shotgun, let alone keep out any dangerous intruders. The whole day had been a serious eye-opener. If our devices had been at all operational, we would have been able to confirm that we’d just entered the most-controlled region on Earth.

We managed to find ourselves a great little restaurant that evening, gorging ourselves silly on some incredible Chinese food. It was such a welcome change from months spent in central Asia. Fresh vegetables, tender meat and great spices whet my appetite for the culinary wonders to come.

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We cycled out of Urumqui the following morning along a seriously smooth motorway. After 30 miles riding, we unfortunately found out this was forbidden as we became the centre of a debate between a group of police officers not quite sure what to do with us. Eventually we were ushered to follow the ‘rozzers’ in their car along some dirt tracks before joining a road we were allowed on. Then the fun began. Let’s just say we were never short of company for the next few hours riding into Kashgar. You want to eat in a café, no problem, we’ll just wait in there with you before we all carry on together down the road…

After a couple of days exploring the delights of the ancient silk road city, we rode to one of the main checkpoints for a fun dose of facial recognition and passport checking that comes with leaving the city limits. This quickly became ‘interesting’. A more light-hearted delight of this fiasco was the grand facial recognition machines futile attempts to adequately scan our faces. We apparently didn’t fit the Chinese ‘mould’, rendering this incredibly expensive system little better than a camera, of which there were already plenty trained on our faces. Afterwards a phone call came through to me asking how many hours it would take us to cycle to the Chinese border town of Tashkurgan? Tashkurgan is 180 miles away and 3000m up – so quite a few hours actually. It turns out after taking a second, then replying between 80-100 hours is the wrong answer. We were quickly informed that we were forbidden to camp anywhere and were to consult our map to locate the foreigner friendly hotels on route. If we were caught camping we’d be chucked in the back of a van and driven back to this checkpoint. I located the hotels alright, they were all in Tashkurgan…

So that was that, after some assurance we cycled off in the direction of Pakistan sticking to all the rules and arriving four days later in the border town…

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The mountain scenery was spectacular as we followed this incredible road winding up a tight rocky canyon between towering mountains. Some sections we were suspended hundreds of meters off the valley floor like some rollercoaster ride, on what is, the Chinese’ latest addition to the highway. Riding along you can spot the previous roads, most are now covered in rubble from landslides which frequently plague the area. One morning we cycled over one which had seriously battered some overnighting lorries and was being hastily removed. They would have been penned into their cabin, coming seriously close to being pushed off a cliff. The rugged nature of these high mountains means they would’ve been added to a lengthy list of people whose lives have already been claimed by this precarious road.

We enjoyed some great cycling past the high-altitude lakes surrounded by enormous snowy peaks. Large glaciers poured off them and the down the valleys like some oversized melted ice cream dripping down the cone. As we worked our way back up to 4000m, camels became strangely abundant, giving their usual vacant stares and being generally annoying by walking right in front of the bikes. They must take after the locals…

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Every car that came by would immediately drop all windows upon sighting us, huge camera lenses would be thrust through like guns to a battlement before firing off a frenzy of shots. Shots of a sweaty English bloke cycling up a hill, looking pissed off to be the focus of another bombardment of point blank fire. And then the tour buses would come…

It became clear that in Chinese culture, there are cultural norms that we consider to be rude, to which they are oblivious. That’s the way I have to look at it. All the same, even when repeatedly telling yourself that, having three blokes smoking cigarettes just staring at you from a couple of feet away – having not given any sort of acknowledgement after you wave and say ‘hello’ – becomes frustrating. It’s normal for them to spit next to your feet, not speak or wave but still want a selfie or to follow you around snapping pictures of the back of your head. These cultural ‘differences’, combined with the unbelievable Police presence and monitoring really jaded my view of China. Cycle touring is fun because it’s freeing, and that’s not welcome here.

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Aside from that we were able to enjoy Dad’s birthday, finishing the day perched on a hill overlooking lake Karakul (another one) with the 7500m Mui Shi Ta Ge Feng towering over us. We spent a few hours in the sun, just captivated by this incredible peak as we listened to some rhythm and blues and cooked some food. Now that’s a birthday to remember.

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All that was left was to take another mandatory bus over the highest international border in the world to Pakistan. We’d had less than two weeks in China but were more than ready for a change. After two days waiting in the hotel for the bus to leave, we were excited to embark – we were heading to supposedly the most beautiful place in the world. A place where ‘Shangri-La’ was conceived, a place where they drive on the left-hand side of the road and put milk in their tea. I had to just double-check that I wasn’t heading back home.

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