CHINA, 22nd January 2018
So, we arrived in Kuytun last night, 24 hours earlier than planned, thanks to the intervention of the police. Now we’re resting and trying to figure out what we’re going to do next. Here’s how it all went down:
20th & 21st January 2018: 189 kilometres
‘The most difficult part is from Jinghe to Kuytun’
These were the words that troubled me as we set out from Jinghe, in the direction of Kuytun. They were written by another cyclist, the one who passed by here a month ago. He said he’d been ‘arrested’ four times in Xinjiang, and had to get into police cars. I’m not sure if he really was arrested, but the being forced into police cars was enough to worry me. He also said his friend who cycled this way earlier than him had trouble around Kuytun too. It was a scary thought, that my journey might be ruined, so close to the end, by overeager Chinese police. As such Dea and I only planned to follow the G30 expressway for 150 more kilometres, until an alternative road became available, which we would cycle on, and in fact bypass Kuytun completely on, so as to try and avoid having any encounters with Kuytun police.
All of these concerns seemed unnecessary on our first day out from Jinghe, when we were passed by a grand total of one police car the whole day. In fact it was a completely uneventful day altogether, and there’s not much to say about it other than that we plodded along on the shoulder of the expressway all day long, and it was awfully cold. At the end of the day we found some steps leading down the embankment off the road. I went down them to look for a good camping place, walked off around a field, through some trees, up a steep snow slope, down a steep snow slope, across a frozen river, back across another field and then found the perfect place to camp right under the road, just next to the steps where I’d started.
It was a cold night and a freezing morning. Packing away the tent and getting things ready is probably the worst part of such days. Once we got on the bikes and cycled we could generate enough body heat to feel comfortable, although my right hand was getting colder now, after one of my pogies fell off without me noticing the day before. But the day was much the same, we just cycled all day on the G30, with only one or two police vehicles passing and paying us no attention. Everything was going fine.
Then a smaller road appeared next to the G30. This was the one we were going to follow from now on. But we didn’t take the first exit onto it, for I knew there would be a toll booth and perhaps a police checkpoint, so I’d planned for us to take another exit ten kilometres later. I’d done my research using satellite views on Google, and this exit looked like it wasn’t in use any more, so there’d be no need for us to interact with any police, and there would be a place for us to camp in some trees there too.
It also meant that we could stop at a service station just past the first exit. It was the first one we’d seen all day, and we needed to top up our hot water. We walked inside through the security scanner they all have and were met by three old security men in camouflage uniforms. They made us write our names in a book, then followed us over to the water machine, perhaps suspicious, perhaps just curious. One of them even followed me into the toilets, while another followed Dea around the shop. They were a bit annoying, but seemed harmless enough. We had enough time left in the day for Dea to buy a Chinese pot noodle and we sat and ate (I had a packet of cookies and a strawberry milk) while the three security men watched from nearby. We were both exhausted. Cycling in winter really takes it out of you. We were both pleased to have only a few kilometres to go before we could make camp and sleep.
Then it was time for us to leave the services and do those last few kilometres of the G30. We would not ride on it again before Mori. But when we stepped outside we looked up to see a police car, its lights flashing, parked up next to our bikes. This was a worrying development. In it were two young officers, probably in their early twenties, one of whom stepped out and sort of walked over to us in a not particularly authoritative or confident way. He didn’t really say anything, so we decided to just smile at him and then cycle off. Maybe they weren’t there for us. Maybe it was just a coincidence.
We rode across the large parking area and up the slip road to the expressway, at which point I looked in my mirror and saw the police car behind me. It had its hazard lights on and it was driving slowly. ‘Please just go past, just leave us alone,’ I pleaded, but it did not. It continued to follow slowly behind us up the slip road. I decided to stop and see what was going on.
The two young officers got out and tried to talk to us. Of course there was no common language, but we understood that we were not allowed to cycle on the expressway. “Can we cycle on the small road?” we asked. They nodded. It was parallel to the G30, but as luck would have it, it was on the opposite side, so we couldn’t easily access it. But there was a way. Way back at the start of the service station, some 500 metres or more, there had been a bridge over the G30 which I was sure we could access on foot. So we asked the policemen if we could go back, and get on the small road that way. “No, no,” they said. Which of course left us in rather a difficult spot. We couldn’t cycle forwards and we couldn’t cycle back. This was really happening. Sh!t this was really happening.
The young guys seemed fairly clueless and were trying to get in touch with someone more superior to find out what they should do. It was obvious enough that the response they would get would be to put us in their car and drive us somewhere. So I decided to act before that could happen. Some might call what happened next reckless, but I was a desperate man. I’d come too far to lose it all now. So I began to cycle. Back down the sliproad towards the services. Dea followed.
My hope was that the policemen would shrug their shoulders and just drive off on the G30, leaving us free to climb up onto the bridge and continue on the smaller road. I really did dare to believe that this might happen. Right up until the siren started wailing loudly behind us. The car had spun around and was pursuing us down the slip road. Oh God. We were in a police chase.
The funny thing about this police chase was that the policemen tried to anticipate where we were going, and they overtook us and drove back over to the service station to wait for us there. A sensible course of action now might have been for us to follow them, given that we now understood they were being quite serious about the whole thing. But, as I said, I was a desperate man. So rather than following them over to the service station, I stuck to the other side of the car park, and rode away from them, heading for the bridge. It seemed like our best hope for freedom. To her credit, Dea continued to follow me, although I think she might have been shouting at me to stop by this stage.
One of the policemen had got out of the car and began to pursue us on foot, but fortunately he wasn’t much of a runner. Unfortunately, however, the other policemen was still in the car, which was still faster than us. The sirens wailed again, and the police chase continued the wrong way across the service station car park. At this point I began to think that, given the only way I was ever going to get in a car now was if I was actually arrested, it might have been a bit foolish to give these policemen such a very good reason to arrest us. But my objective was almost complete; we were close enough now to see that there were indeed a set of steps leading up to the bridge. It would be easy for us to get up onto the other road. Now all we had to do was convince our pursuers not to drag us off to jail.
The inexperienced officers still did not quite know what to do with us, but one of them must have remembered some of his basic training, and took our passports off us to prevent any further attempts at escape. They did, however, seem like nice guys, and they had little apparent interest in arresting us. But they could not see any logic in allowing us to go up the steps to the smaller road. No matter what I said, they flatly denied we could do that. Our conversation, now taking place by smartphone translation, continued, with them saying they were waiting to hear from their superiors and would we mind all going over to the services to sit inside in the warm. For a while we refused. I felt like leaving the proximity of the steps would mean losing all hope of being allowed off that way. But everyone was getting cold, and eventually we relented.
Back in the services I could barely look at the old security men, quite convinced that they must have called the police on us. We were so close. Ten kilometres from leaving the expressway for good. Now the worst had happened. It was almost dark now, and it was impossible to see how we were going to be allowed to continue to cycle. I showed the policemen a message I had saved on my phone. It was a Chinese translation, done by our friend Jia, explaining my trip, how close it was to completion, and how important it was that I not get in a motor vehicle under any circumstances. They nodded, and seemed to understand, but that didn’t stop them from telling me that we needed to get in their car and go with them to Kuytun.
For some time I exchanged messages with the police, not sure how this was going to end, but sure it wasn’t going to end well. “I’ve cycled 98 percent of the way around the world. Please help me,” I tried. And to be fair the policemen did seem to want to help, explaining that they were just concerned for our safety and thus wanted to drive us. “But I cannot get in a car,” I wrote, “so we must find another solution.”
Another solution was not easy to find. We knew we had to get to Kuytun, for that was where the nearest tourist hotel was, and it felt obvious now the police were not going to leave us alone in any other place, but Kuytun was over fifty kilometres away, and the sun was disappearing over the horizon. I knew there was no chance. It was Siberia all over again. My continuous journey was at an end, surely. Then the policeman handed me his phone with a new message. “We go to Kuytun together. We drive, you cycle.”
I laughed. It was so far away and it was so late. It was absurd. But Dea said, “Okay, if that’s the solution, that’s what we’ll do.” And she was right, it was a solution, and we had hope again.
We went outside and started to cycle back onto the expressway, which the cops had decided we could now take. They drove their car next to us, in the slow lane, with all their lights flashing. We had a police escort and it was pretty cool, but I remained worried. Surely this wasn’t going to continue for fifty kilometres? They’d get bored, tell us it was taking too long, tell us it wasn’t safe after dark. I tried to pedal hard, prove that we could cycle there quickly, but my legs were so tired. We’d just done a whole day of riding, a day that had left us both exhausted. How were we supposed to find the reserves of energy for this now?
After only a few minutes the police car pulled ahead of us and stopped, causing me to fear the worst. One of them got out and showed me a message. “You are tired,” it began, “stop and take a rest in the car for a few minutes.” I laughed, and said we’d probably better just keep pedalling.
A few minutes later, and the car stopped once more, making me nervous all over again. But this time the officer came over to me, pulling off his highly visible police jacket and handing it to me. He wanted me to wear it. I assumed at the time it was to make me more visible, although I think maybe he was just worried about me getting cold. I put it on, not because I was cold, but because wearing an official police jacket with POLICE written on the back made this whole experience even more fun.
Dea refused the other policeman’s jacket, and she was also wearing her balaclava, so we must have made for an amusing sight for passing traffic who I could only imagine were making comments like, “she really should have picked a faster getaway vehicle!”
Before long it got dark, but the police lighted our way. We continued to try and go fast, still so fearful that they might change their mind, or get a message from their superiors telling them to stop being so utterly stupid and just arrest us. Annoyingly the road was going uphill a lot, and there was more snow in the shoulder to make cycling harder, and the policeman’s jacket was incredibly warming. I hadn’t taken my own jacket off, and I became almost unbearably hot. It was minus twenty and I was sweating buckets. Yet I dared not stop, dared not give them any opportunity to rethink things. Well, they had plenty of time to do that, I suppose, crawling along the road at twelve kilometres per hour. But I’d come up with a plan. If they did stop and say we were going too slowly, we could respond saying that if they took our bags for us we could cycle much faster. I figured this would buy us some more time.
It was too dark to see my cycle computer, but the kilometre markers at the side of the road counted our progress. It seemed to take an age for each one to come around. I was so unbelievably tired. After twenty-five kilometres I could take it no longer, and stopped briefly to drink some water. “You know,” I said to Dea, “if we gave them our bags we could cycle faster.”
I think I’d come around to quite liking the idea myself.
“No, that would feel like cheating,” she replied.
On and on we went, into the night, and as the kilometres dragged on I began to feel like we might make it, like we might just pull this one off. The bright lights of Kuytun finally appeared out of the darkness. But every kilometre felt like agony for our aching bodies, and we were not home and dry yet. At the Kuytun exit another police car sat waiting for us. This was where our escort vehicle would switch. Two new officers got out and seemed friendly and understood we wanted to cycle. Our original pursuing officers, after all we’d been through and having spent four hours driving next to us along the expressway, now felt like friends, and we all posed for photos together before I shook their hands and thanked them. I really meant it too. They could easily have arrested us, and they would have been within their rights to, but instead they’d gone out of their way to help, and thanks to their patience my quest was still, just, alive.
Another thing that was only just still alive was my girlfriend, who was on the verge of collapse by this point. She’d just cycled fifty kilometres on nothing more than a pot noodle (had she had the cookies and strawberry milk I suspect she would have been fine). Luckily these policemen were just as understanding, and they let her sit for a while in their car to warm up, eat something, and prepare for the last few kilometres. While I was waiting out in the cold (no, I won’t even sit in a car, what if it moved?) one of the policemen showed me a message: “We go to police station first, then hotel.”
Once Dea was revived we exited the expressway and followed the police into Kuytun. There was a sense of triumph in arriving on its wide boulevards and looking up at its brightly lit skyscrapers. It had felt impossible, but here we were. The only problem was that we were now freezing. I’d given the policeman his jacket back and my own was frozen with sweat, while my right hand felt like it was made of ice. Kuytun is not really a small place, and it took a while to reach our destination. Once there we were invited to come inside the police station, Dea, with no sense of irony, still wearing her balaclava.
The police at the station were as nice as all the others, and really just wanted to check our passports and to know what the hell we were doing cycling at this time of year. There was no really good way to answer that. But it was nice to warm up inside, and try to piece together the evening’s events. Dea asked the time. It was now after midnight.
We had one final escort, from the police station to the tourist-approved hotel where we could stay. It led us further into the town, to more bright lights. Our hotel was a fancy one, more expensive than we were used to, but by this stage it didn’t matter so long as it had somewhere for us to collapse and sleep. The police took us into reception and made sure we were checked in okay, then we were finally left alone. We went up to our room on the 12th floor, exhausted beyond measure. It had been a surreal experience, but somehow we had made it through. We hugged with disbelief and relief. Mission To Mori continues…
Distance cycled: 802 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 698 kilometres.