CHINA, 24th Januray 2018
While in Kutyun we made a plan for the rest of the way to Urumqi to avoid more police escorts and the freezing temperatures that these days drop down to -20C in the day and -30C at night. Basically the plan is to stay in foreigner approved hotels every night. Yesterday first step of it was executed, as we are now cosy in another hotel in Shihezi taking another rest day. And while this one does not have a complimentary breakfast buffet nor a name, only a horse logo and the word ‘hotel’, it has a TV with a good selection of old, familiar American movies in English. And while Chris watches Mrs Doubtfire I will try (and it is not so easy to ignore Robin Williams at his finest) to focus on writing you another blogpost about the last two days.
22nd January 2018: Day 17 – 0 kilometres
Obviously, there was no way we would be able to cycle on and out of Kuytun the next morning after our late evening dash the previous night. In fact we were only just able to get out of bed in time to make it to the breakfast buffet that was included at this rather fancy hotel. We had only had weird Chinese snacks and cookies (and that pot of instant noodles) all day yesterday and our bodies really needed some nutritional, wholemeal food to rebuild our energy reserves. So we were very pleased to find a buffet with lots of different, vegetarian salads and dishes full of fresh vegetables, tofu, eggs and bread. We sat down with 2-3 layers of food piled up on our plates and big smiles on our faces. They soon turned into red cheeks and wet eyes as we realised several of the dishes (that were now all mixed together) had quite a lot of chilli in them, and neither Chris nor I deal very well with this. It ended up being a bit of a struggle to get through our piles of food, but nevertheless we felt a bit energised in the end. They say chilli is good for you, right?
The three days spent recovering my knees in Jinghe was all lost after our crazy night ride to Kuytun. They were now more stiff and aching than ever and I could not help getting frustrated and sad, thinking that cycling all the way across China within the limits of our visas was going to be impossible for me, or at least for my knees. It seemed to be due to overuse after our long break, probably in combination with the cold, and what I needed was proper rest and a good period of building up again, I thought. But with so much of China still laying ahead and the days of our visa ticking I couldn’t see any time for that and I didn’t really know what to do. Chris was great to me, trying to take my mind of it and assure me it was going to be okay one way or the other and he let me rest all day in the hotel, while he went all around town to get me some anti-inflammatory tablets and a lot of fruit and vegetables. The latter is something we could not bring with us on the road as it would freeze, so it was greatly appreciated now. And the tablets had a good effect, at least they would see me through to Urumqi.
Chris was back again, when there was a knock on the door. We had a clear suspicion who that would be and inevitably, two police officers stood outside. In an all friendly way they asked for our passports to photograph and for our further plans, and besides from that only asked us to be careful and have a safe journey. All this checking seemed to come out of a serious concern about our safety although we didn’t feel unsafe at all. With a bit of patience with the repeated passport checks and the communication difficulties (which were usually overcome by using Google translate) these police encounters were both bearable and interesting meetings with the Chinese and their system.
But it sure was a test of our patience when at 10.30pm, when we were already in bed, there was a knock on the door again (and a bell ring and a phone call, all very eagerly within maybe 20 seconds) and two other police officers asked to take pictures of our passports again, as well as some of our faces. Patience and cooperation seemed to be the fastest way back to bed.
We hoped that there would be no more uniformed visitors that night and looked forward to leave the town early the next day, hopefully with no more police encounters.
23rd January 2018: Day 18 – 100 kilometres
Woken up by the alarm at 7am, what an unpleasant feeling – and I realised how lucky I was to live a way where I didn’t have to this everyday, but could wake up naturally when daylight came and my sleep for the night was over. But this morning I was reminded what ‘normal’ life felt like.
After leaving the room and packing our bikes we were at the breakfast buffet as it opened to fuel ourselves for the big day we had planned. It was 100 kilometres to the next hotel in Shihezi and we were going to be there before nightfall. No big tailwind, long descents or police escorts (hopefully) were going to help us reach such distance that day, just the two of us and the thought of another warm bed ahead.
It was only just getting light as we made our way out of Kuytun sharing the roads and wide, cleared cycle (and other slow going traffic) paths with the Chinese morning people. The many colourful lights of the city were on on the buildings and in the streets and I found it was quite nice to see these Chinese towns in the dark, so much more colourful than in daytime, by staying there overnight. If we had been camping every night we would not see the towns at night (or early morning) time.
I tried not to look at anyone near the police checkpoint for the incoming traffic across the road as we passed and without any notice we could continue out of the centre. It was a long, gradual uphill that soon had me warmed up although it was another cold, cold morning.
Once out of the town we reached the service road that ran parallel with the for-us-forbidden expressway and this would be our road all the way to Urumqi. It was relatively quiet, but with the shoulder covered in snow we still had to share it with the trucks and cars on it and we could only hope for their consideration. I surely felt safer and less in the way of the traffic on the expressway, but that is a cyclist’s perspective, I guess. The drivers were fairly considerate though, mush less aggressive than what I had experienced in Central Asia, and so far the horrendous beeping that Chris and others associate with China didn’t seem to count for this part of the country.
The new experience of the smaller road, the sunshine and a crisp, white landscape made the first half of the day very enjoyable. We cycled blocks of 20 kilometres between each short break (too cold to hang around very long) and without much effort we reached 60 kilometres and the next town, Shawan. Here was, of course, another police checkpoint where our passports were scanned before we could continue.
I found it a great experience cycling through the town. All the way we could use the wide cycle lane where just a few other people walked or drove their scooters and tricycles. This part of China (at this time of year) seemed a lot less hectic than what I had expected from this country, and so I could look up and around to see it. The lampposts everywhere decorated with red Chinese symbols and icons. A big, traditional Chinese gate leading into a neighbourhood. The neat and organised streets, foot-crossings and traffic lights and the rows of similar looking concrete buildings, some worn, some brand new, but all with colourful facades of numerous shops showing their identity in those Chinese characters that revealed nothing to me. Thick steam rising from a kitchen pipe. A little, long-haired dog running merrily along the street. The Chinese eyes peeking out from gaps between hats, scarfs and warm coats. In return we received more than a few stares as we rolled passed with our loaded bikes and balaclavas and stopped at a red light some men quite obviously stared and talked about us and what we were doing, but no one ever approached us. Not that we could have exchanged much with our lack of common language, but it seemed that the solid and strange surface of China was almost impenetrable for us travelling like we do, but I thought that was okay, another experience as it was.
So was the moment, when we were stopped at the police checkpoint on the far side of the town to once again have our passports registered. It made no sense now, because this checkpoint was for the traffic going into the town in the opposite lane while all the other traffic in our lane going out of town just went straight through. But not us. Our attempt to explain that our passports had already been scanned in this town went un-understood and all we could do was to take a deep breath, and use the extra stop to eat the Snickers I had kept warm in my pocket. A few minutes later we were let through.
Past the town centre the narrow road with a snowed-over shoulder returned, however now it was busy with endless rows of trucks and cars in both directions. We had to switch between cycling a few hundred metres in the traffic lane before veering out onto the rough shoulder to pedal through the snow there in safety. It also began to snow quite heavily which didn’t make the cycling nor the visibility any better, but we were warm and determined to keep up the good progress of the day and just went through it.
And a few hours later we were rewarded as we reached our destination, the town Shihezi and here, once again cycling on the wide cycle lanes safely away from the traffic, we found our hotel by spotting the logo of a white horse amongst all the Chinese writing. My cycle computer showed exactly ‘100’ and we both felt pleased with the relative ease we had cycled this distance with. It was a good sign of our further progress through China and took us a good, long step closer to Mori.
However, we were tired. The challenges of China and especially the cold was taking their toll on us, our legs were worn, my left knee still aching and our minds were using most of their energy to just get through. Another rest day was in need, and luckily that was exactly what we had planned.
Distance cycled: 902 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 598 kilometres