Translated by: Pál Capewell
When we crossed the border from Kazakhstan, China literally hit us right in the face. Looking back, we saw nothing but a very bumpy road in the poorest condition and a Kazakh flatland. No city or village in sight. Over the border though, this all changed and we were heading forward gaping at what was ahead. China welcomed us with ten, twenty storey high apartment buildings, mirror-flat, multiple lane highways, food stalls, restaurants and shops everywhere, with people noisily commuting all over the place. A lot of them stopped and stared at us, got out their touch-screen phones to snap pictures of us. After almost three months in the different “...istan” countries, it was all a big shock.
The first couple of days we were really excited that we got this far. Helpful, curious locals were smiling at, and assisting us everywhere we turned. They were checking out our bikes, staring at our faces, taking it all in - many of them with not-so-furtive giggles. Oftentimes, innocent activities such as buying vegetables turned into a temporary attraction for them, when asking for directions, ten or fifteen people gathered around to observe, “being part of it all”. When we got out our maps, even more “experts” arrived, getting louder and louder, trying to show us the right way. Needless to say, however loud they were, we didn’t understand a word from what they were saying. This is when our Chinese pocket dictionary showed its presence, but that was again of little use with Uyghur locals... Interestingly enough though, many words sounded very similar to their Turkish equivalents, or even to Uzbek, and Kirghiz words. (Of course when the suspicion grew that they are related, with looked it up right away, and low and behold! They are indeed of the same language family!) Balazs and I turned very happy, as beside “Salem, aleykom!” and “Rahmet”, we could also count and remember a few useful expressions. We thought that should be enough to get us through.
Besides the Uyghur minority, a lot of Kazakh, Uzbek, and - of course - Chinese people live there too. The local delicacies are diverse as well, naturally. A lot of the locals eat “naan” for breakfast (a flat bread) with salty, milky tea; others enjoy boiled hot water with raw eggs inside (I am going to be honest with you, I couldn’t manage the latter one). One morning we had the fortune of dining in an Uyghur restaurant, where we had tea and beef broth, pancake filled with green spices and cooked bums filled with meat. This was a bit a thicker than the tea dipped “naan” we often encountered. For dinner and lunch, locals mostly eat sheep dominated meals with vegetables and/or pasta. We often saw “samsa” and “saslik” vendors as well on the streets (mostly in Uzbek neighborhoods), next to which, often Chinese noodle places offered pasta.
Riding from Khorgas border to Yili town was like going through a huge agriculture settlement. On both sides of the road, locals were growing corn and different wheat types. These lands were carefully fenced off, which made looking for accommodation rather challenging at night. We read in blogs and heard from bikers that XinJiang Province has enormous police presence, so we didn’t want to be in their faces about hitting up a tent in the middle of it all. Naturally, next to bigger towns, we’d preferred to stay in paid accommodation, but we had to face issues all the time. Why? Because in China there are two different kinds of hotels and guest houses: the one where only Chinese people can stay, and the other, where they have the license for being suitable enough to cater for expats. As you might have guessed, hotels approved for foreigners are way pricier than what we counted on. We tried to bargain, but to no avail. Yet somehow, someone always showed up to help. This is how we ended up sleeping on makeshift beds at farms, in an out-of-service room of a restaurant, and a Uyghur-Uzbek family’s home.
Without exception, all of our hosts treated us well and fed us generously, sometimes too generously, making us self-conscious. We often wondered whether dirty, worn-out expats would get the same treatment back home?
From the town of Yili, we rode to Korla through Nalatin. On our way, we became prisoners of our tents twice, as severe rainstorm prevented us from going forward. We crossed a 3270m high pass, there were times we were awaken by yuk groans, often walked past groups of herding dogs, had our meals under plastic covers, and at night, we slid into our sleeping bags, shivering.
Originally, we were supposed to turn north from route G218, so we could drop by Urumqi, but life, and a few friendly tips overwrote our plans. Route G216, heading to the Uyghur capital, is in poor quality and numerous wolves are circling nearby according to local police. We discussed pros and cons, then decided to head south instead.
In a tiny village in the mountains, we bought rain ponchos, and had a chance to rest a bit in a guest house. Somewhat recharged, we continued our journey towards Korla.
As we passed Tian San’s ranges, we felt the weather warming up a bit. Gloves, thermo undergarments and knee warmers went back into the backpack. Drunk on sunshine, we were driving joyously when a huge, dark van pulled up next to us. I didn’t dare to look. Four men were inside, looking us up and down, then reached out and gave us a plastic bag with naan (remember the local delicacy I wrote about earlier?). Then they pulled over in front of us. The men got out, smiled, and kept observing us. As luck would have it, the driver is a Korla local, and invited us to stay at his place upon arrival. We didn’t need to be asked twice, happily agreed and promised to check in with him once we arrived.
We would have never thought what was about to ensue. After 50km biking and 30 minutes waiting, Arken arrived to pick us up and took us downtown. Unbelievable two days followed, since Arken didn’t only have a smashing van, but also seemed to be quite wealthy. We spent the following days in a downtown hotel, were treated for all meals, entertainment and Arken even took us to a bike store where he didn’t even let us pay for the refurbishments.
We are quite certain his schedule was super tight, and yet, he managed to fit us in his schedule and take us around town. Only once did we end up “participating” in a weird (well, for us that is) business meeting. Other than that, we could not express our gratitude enough to Arken and his family.
Leaving Korla behind, we started preparing for QingHai mentally. We knew it’d be quite different from XinJiang. Because of our 90 days visa, though saying this it sounds more than enough, we decided to hitchhike a bit to save time. We wanted to see as much as possible from this enormous country! Besides, these parts are desert-like, windy, and unwelcoming with significant temperature changes, so we don’t miss much by hopping in a car and speeding through it all. Water barely, people only live at every 100 or 130km, no trees or shrubs, just sand and stone where the eye can see. Not that we are proud of it, but we did set a new record: only “cat-bath” for seven days...
Once we managed to get a reasonable deal with a scheduled bus service’s driver, and second we got on board a hoist-transporting truck.
Ever so slowly we were making our way towards the province’s border, but the end of the deserts was far far ahead.