CHINA, 28th January 2018
So we are finally in Urumqi, enjoying another warm hotel room and not eating the soup, but were we able to cycle here without more troubles with the Chinese police? Well, no.
25th January 2018 – 75 kilometres
We woke up early and left our hotel in Shihezi at first light. It was with some reluctance. Shihezi was a nice place, and we’d enjoyed a really good rest day there. The hotel was a good one, even playing English movies on the TV, and the town was much more relaxed than others we’d been to. We ate mountains of cheap, excellent food in a local restaurant and walked in the park, where people came out and danced to music despite the cold. But the best thing was that there were fewer police, no checkpoints, and we dared to believe that the worst was over now that we were past Kuytun.
It was a very cold morning, the coldest we’d cycled in, with temperatures around -25 C as we rode through the town, watching valiant locals sweeping the roads and cycle paths clean of snow with broomsticks. By now we were getting used to the cold, though, and found it quite bearable. With many layers of clothes and balaclavas covering us we were warm enough cycling and have found techniques to warm our extremities when we lose heat in them during our breaks. One of my favourites is to stick my hands down my pants and rub furiously (on my thighs, obviously) to get the circulation going again.
We were following the secondary road now and it was tough going. The shoulder was covered in a layer of snow that it was possible to cycle on but not easy. It felt to me like we were going uphill all of the time, though I knew that we were not. It was infuriating to know that the road was flat, that my sensation of climbing was an illusion, and that no downhill would be forthcoming. ‘Why is this so hard?!’ I wondered, growing frustrated.
Not long after Shihezi we came to a police checkpoint on our side of the road, but we simply cycled through it, nodding at the police, who thankfully didn’t try to stop us. Halfway through the day, however, another one appeared on the opposite side of the road. Even though they were only supposed to be checking traffic going the other way, we were this time made to stop and cross the road to get to the checkpoint building. Waiting for us there was a young policeman cradling a large assault rifle. He spoke to us in Chinese as we approached. He seemed a little jumpy and I was nervous as he seemed to grip his gun tighter. He had no doubt received little training, yet we would probably fit the description of what he’d been told to look out for, approaching him as we were in balaclavas and bulging jackets, ignoring his instructions only because we could not understand them. I ripped off my headgear as fast as I could and showed him my passport. He relaxed his trigger-finger, and pointed us into the building.
Inside a few more young police officers tried to make phone calls and work out what they were supposed to do with us, before eventually taking photos of us and our passports, and then letting us continue our ride. Pleased to have got that out of the way, we cycled about a kilometre up the road and came to, would you believe it, yet another police checkpoint, this one checking traffic going our way. We tried to cycle past this one, but we were spotted, and made to go over to the building once again.
Inside we were ushered through to a waiting room, where we were told to sit while our passports were checked. Dea was beginning to lose her good cheer, but I tried to remain positive. At least we were being given the chance to sit down somewhere warm for once. We were making pretty good progress towards Hutubi, our destination for the day, and we could afford a little rest. The police were very young, all of them under the age of thirty, and it was probably only their uncertainty about how they were supposed to do their job that caused all these delays. We had a tourist-approved hotel booked in Hutubi and we were no longer on the expressway, so I was confident we would soon be allowed to continue on our way.
A girl in glasses who could speak a few words of English came and asked us where we were from, where we’d come from, and where we would be staying that night. We showed them the hotel booking, and were told to wait for a while. We were then left in the waiting room. Time passed and I began to worry about how long it was taking. Hutubi was still thirty kilometres away, and it was after four o’clock by the time the girl returned with our passports. She gave them to us, but told us to sit back down, and shut us in again. Once again we had to sit and wait. The clock was ticking and we wondered what it was that was taking so long.
Eventually several police officers, including the girl and a tall man we’d not seen before, entered the room. The man asked for our passports. “I had a feeling this might happen,” I said, as we handed them over.
“He is here to drive you to Hutubi,” the girl told us.
“I had a feeling that might happen,” Dea said under her breath, before adding in a very stern tone of voice, “NO! We will cycle!”
I was fumbling with my phone for the magic letter, the one in Chinese explaining why I couldn’t use motor vehicles, but it turned out not to be necessary, for Dea’s forcefulness was very convincing. Before long the police had consented to allow us to cycle, but there was a caveat. The tall man still had to accompany us to the tourist-approved hotel but, not wanting to drive at the speed of cyclists, he’d simply take our passports and meet us at the hotel. It was far from an ideal solution, we certainly didn’t like entrusting our passports to this man who seemed a little uncertain, but so long as it meant we didn’t have to get in a car, it was what we were to do.
For the next three hours we cycled to Hutubi, worried that we would come to another police checkpoint or be stopped by a police car and be unable to explain why we were without passports. It was turning into a very long and stressful day. We both felt utterly exhausted, and it was with a great deal of relief that we finally arrived at the hotel without any more hassles. It was not our usual digs. The requirement to stay at the only tourist-approved lodgings in town meant we were paying a lot of money and staying in a massive, sprawling hotel. We looked just a teensy bit out of place as we staggered across the massive lobby, trails of dirty slush dripping behind us. Of course the policeman was nowhere to be seen, and we could not check in without our passports.
We had his phone number, and called to ask where he was. He seemed to have no idea who we were, which was worrying. This was turning into a very long day indeed. He did eventually show up though, and walked us over to the reception desk where a helpful lady translated things for us with her smartphone: “You must first go to the community centre to register, then we can check you in.”
With this new development I feared that Dea’s head might explode, and my own was starting to throb a bit when she added, “You’ll go in his car.”
That obviously wasn’t going to happen, so I quickly whipped out the magic letter and showed it to the policeman and the receptionist. To their great credit they looked at it and suggested that we could walk instead.
So Dea, myself and our policeman friend went out for a walk in the frigid night. I was grateful to him for his patience – he’d spent his whole afternoon on making sure we got checked into this hotel, which we could have checked into hours ago had we just been left alone. After a ten minute walk we came to a large building protected by a gate and a security guard. Inside we found a building that looked like some sort of police headquarters. The policeman sat us down and began filling in some forms that looked like a labourious process for him, and we wondered why he couldn’t have done this during the previous few hours he’d spent waiting for us with our passports.
At some point a chirpy woman named Julia, dressed in plain clothes, yet probably quite important, came and spoke to us in broken English. She was nice, but our patience was really at breaking point now, and when she told us that they would need to keep our passports overnight I rather lost my temper a little. There wasn’t much to do about it though, she insisted that it was the rules, and they needed to keep them. She suggested we not leave our hotel, not take any photos, and told us we would have to come back here in the morning to collect our passports.
Our policeman walked us back to the hotel where we were finally allowed to check in. We’d first arrived at the hotel at 7 p.m. but it was 9:30 before we made it to our room, completely and utterly exhausted. There was nothing left to do but sleep.
26th January 2018 – 85 kilometres
We woke up early in the morning. All we wanted to do was get out of Hutubi and ride our bikes to Urumqi, now only 80 kilometres away. We weren’t able to collect our passports before nine, though, so we took advantage of the hotel’s breakfast buffet, eaten almost all alone in a large restaurant, feeling like we were part of a documentary on North Korea.
Checking out of the hotel went smoothly and we made our way by bike to the ‘community centre’ where we had to work very hard to persuade the security guard to let us in. For a while he was trying to shoo us away with a broom, but eventually he relented and let us in. We went into the building, where there was of course no sign of Julia, and no one else had any idea what it was that we wanted. Exasperated, we took a seat, and waited some more.
“I’m worried they’ll want to drive us to Urumqi,” Dea said, as we sat there. It may sound strange, but this thought hadn’t really occurred to my tired brain, which had optimistically thought we might just be given our passports back and allowed to leave. But as soon as Dea said it I knew it was true. Of course they weren’t going to let us cycle. They’d kept our passports overnight, told us not to take photos, they didn’t want us wandering around here on our own. Of course they were going to want to escort us out of town. I put my head in my hands. I was running out of energy to keep fighting. This was just too hard.
Julia appeared, but there was no sign of our passports. Instead she disappeared into a room and we waited some more, growing every more convinced that the delay was to give them time to organise our transportation. It was so frustrating, to be so close to the end, so close to Mori, and yet feel like it was so hopelessly out of reach. All I wanted was the chance, the freedom to keep my passport in my pocket, and to ride my bike to the finish line.
Suddenly Julia was in front of us, holding out our passports. I couldn’t believe it. Was she really going to let us go? We took them from her before she could change her mind.
“How are you getting to Urumqi?” she asked.
“Bicycle,” we said, making the universal pedal motion with our arms to emphasize the point.
“Bicycle!” Julia repeated, her eyes wide in shock. “It’s so cold.”
“No problem,” we said, desperately hoping it wasn’t going to be a problem. Another policeman appeared, and fell into a serious conversation with Julia. I was certain they were going to tell us that we were not allowed to cycle. There’d been a mistake. They would need our passports back. Julia turned back to us again, and I feared the worst.
“Do you know the way to Urumqi?” she said.
“Yes, yes,” we reassured her.
“Okay. Good luck.”
We were free to go. We were really free to go! We weren’t going to be made to get in a car! It was a miracle! We hurried towards the door, as another policeman started talking with Julia. “Let’s get out of here!” I whispered to Dea as we hurried towards the exit. We were almost there, Dea had her hand reaching for the door, when Julia’s voice called out again. “Wait a moment!” she cried. We froze. I bowed my head. So near, so very, very near, and yet so far.
“Can we take a photo with you?”
It felt so good to be outside again, to be cycling, to be out of Hutubi and heading for Urumqi. Except, that it didn’t. I was absolutely spent, completely exhausted. The feeling of riding continuously uphill went on. I couldn’t work out why it was so difficult. Sure, it was freezing cold and my muscles were tired, I was stressed and hadn’t slept enough, but it shouldn’t be this hard, surely? After twenty kilometres we stopped to take a break and I put some air in my tyres, hoping that might help at least a little. As I was doing this I noticed that one of the spring-levers on my front brakes had come out. One half of my front brakes had been permanently pressing down on my front rim. “Oh! That explains a lot!” I said.
Things were a bit easier after that, though there were other obstacles for us to overcome as we neared Xinjiang’s biggest city. We passed through one more police checkpoint, where we were thankfully allowed straight through despite our balaclavas, and just navigated around another on small country roads. But our road became an expressway and most of the time our only option was to cycle on the single service road next to it, which became an absurd mess whenever there was an expressway exit, with the traffic signs suggesting we thread our way in the middle of three lanes of oncoming traffic. Only in China.
The hours passed and somehow we made it to Urumqi. Unfortunately the only tourist hotel we knew of was right on the other side of it, so we spent a couple of hours cycling across the city in the dark. Luckily China has good footpaths and it was not so bad for cycling, but my gears were skipping badly (I plan to replace the drivetrain here) and one of my front panniers kept falling off. The ride across the city seemed to take forever, and I remained nervous that with police on every corner, something might still go wrong. But it didn’t. At nine o’clock, twelve hours after we set out, we finally arrived at our hotel in Urumqi. The previous two days had taken it out of us in a way I’ve rarely experienced before. Dea’s knees were hurting a lot, both our bodies were aching, we were totally and utterly shattered, completely exhausted. There was nothing to do but sleep.
Only 270 kilometres remain from Urumqi to Mori, but with the police checkpoints and uncertainty about whether there are any tourist-approved hotels along the way, it feels like our hopes of making it by bicycle still remain in the balance. A week off in Urumqi will hopefully give us the chance to research the route (if you know anyone who has cycled that way recently, please let us know) and the hotels, and give our bodies and bikes some much needed time to recover.
I’m 99% of the way around the world by bicycle and boats, but it feels like anything could still happen…