CHINA, 9th to 16th February 2018
Our savouring of the victorious moment in Mori with our friend Sunny was unfortunately ended by the police (surprise!). They phoned Sunny to say that we were not allowed to stay in her parents’ hotel, but had to go to the new, big hotel at the edge of the town. We did however not obey orders immediately, but first went to a small restaurant to have some lunch together with Sunny. It was nice to be able to talk more with this sweet girl and hear about her life as a young woman in Mori. We’d now met a handful of these young Chinese women (Jia, Linda, Claire and Sunny) who, due to their ability to speak English and mostly an extraordinary determination to help, had made our time in China easier and given us a chance to get behind the otherwise impenetrable barrier of cultural difference between us and the Chinese. I felt so grateful to them. Before saying goodbye to Sunny we went to the family owned supermarket to do our usual shopping there well-guided through it all by Sunny. Our every move was being followed closely by several workers and other shoppers who just couldn’t hide their curiosity about us. According to Sunny, there never came any foreigners here (and with the trouble we had had getting into Mori I was not surprised) and the attention we received was even more intense than usual, but friendly and amusing. Sunny’s mother and brother were also in the supermarket and immediately remembered Chris and were so happy to see him again. There was such a genuine warmth in these people in Mori despite the brutal winter and rigid control systems that structured their lives, and for that I would have loved to stay longer. But we couldn’t shake of a nervousness regarding the police and the narrow gap in the system we had been let through coming into Mori.
Checked in at the other hotel (the Sunshine Seaview Hotel located approximately as far from any sea as could be) we constantly expected knocks on the door from police officers and feared they would have changed their minds wanting us to leave Mori again, most likely by taking us by car back to Qitai or Urumqi. Although they said it was all for our own safety, it only made us feel unsure about what was to come next. Ahead of us lay a 400 kilometre stretch through remote desert and mountains to the next town Hami, and we felt it would be nearly impossible for us to actually make it all that way by bicycle. Surely there would be more checkpoints ahead, but now there would be no other town with a hotel ahead we could insist we would cycle to. And even though Mission To Mori was officially over, we still really didn’t like the idea of being taking anywhere by the police. It was not just because it would involve a car (at least not for me, Chris still seems very, very reluctant to enter a car again), deeper down inside I felt a real distress about this constant uncertainty regarding my feeling of freedom and ability to decide for myself. A feeling of being assaulted grew in me and I’d had enough. I really just wanted to get out of Xinjiang province. Chris felt the same, and the sincerity of this feeling was proved when we, without any longer conversation, agreed that had there been a train station in Mori, we would have considered getting on the next train out of Xinjiang. But there were no trains in Mori and so we didn’t really have to jeopardise our principle of cycling the whole way, which we still both wanted to stick with even with Chris’s circumnavigation being completed. To keep cycling east was the only way out of Xinjiang province for us and so we did.
Discarding any desire to relax and rejoice the previous day’s final success we were back on the bikes already the next day. Cautiously we pedalled as fast as we could uphill out of Mori, every second waiting to be stopped by the police cars that slowly drove around the streets with their lights flashing or at least at a checkpoint on the way out of the town. But none of that happened, to our disbelief we could cycle out of Mori unnoticed. We soon found ourselves pedalling along a fairly quiet road that went across the vast, empty plains to the east of Mori. The landscape was glistering white in the sharp winter sunlight so you almost couldn’t look at it and the sky so blue that there seemed to be no end to it. A slight tailwind pushed us along as we rolled up and down gentle, little hills. It was one of those days where it made complete sense to be cycling, to be travelling, just to be there like that. I felt so lucky, so happy and so relieved. I realised how stressful and tough the last month had been with the cold, the knee pain, the constant preparedness for what the police came up with and the threat of being forced to use other transport that seemed bigger and more crucial to avoid than ever. Mission To Mori had been really tough, but now the pressure was lifted from our journey, the sun was shining, my knees felt good and strong and for the first time this year the sunshine touched my back like a big, warm hand silently promising that spring was somewhere within reach ahead of me. We had reached Mori and our goal, it was a big achievement, but the real reward was to ride here in the sunshine. That it didn’t change a thing. We would still be cycling and living like this, the way we loved it. Still somehow this moment felt like a new start.
This wonderful state of mind stayed with me until the sun fell low in the sky and withdrew its warmth from the then frozen world. Quickly it became urgent to find a place to make camp and get warm in the sleeping bags. Carrying all our gear and the bikes down a snowy slope we once again found a hidden shelter at the mouth of an under road passage and performed the many necessary rituals of winter camping: redressing in warm, dry clothes, pitching the tent in the snow fixing it to the bikes (as pegs were not really any use in the snow), rubbing cold feet, quickly cooking some beans and warming our hands again and again down our trousers whenever they got numb from working out in the cold. Perhaps, our many nights in hotels had made me soft, again and again I fantasised about the day when camping again would be one of the pleasures of the day. I dreamed about the forests of Canada and the heat of Mexico. But, as Chris wisely said, dreaming away only makes the now harder to accept, this was where we were now and we had to deal with it and try and appreciate it.
Maybe these true words stuck with me into the next day as we reached a low mountain range at the same time as a strong headwind hit us. We escaped momentarily and re-energised ourselves in a little roadside restaurant where a friendly, curious couple served us and many trucks drivers that came in. When we gathered ourselved to get out into it again, Chris found he had a flat tyre which delayed us further.
It was already mid-afternoon when we doggedly began making our way up through the snow-covered mountains on a road that partly disappeared under the snow that drifted swift and magically in the whipping winds. I had my head in the challenge now and found a strange satisfaction in being exposed to these rough conditions with all its brutal beauty. We had hoped to make it to the top and descend out of the wind before camping, but we didn’t and instead stopped to camp a few kilometres from the junction where our descent would begin, fearing there might be a police checkpoint there. We were pretty sure no police officer (or any other sensible, caring person) would let us through to go and camp out on top of this cold and windy mountain, but that was exactly what we wanted to do. We found a sheltered spot and dug a flat, soft bed in the snow and to my surprise I found myself quite cosy and happy. It seemed we were getting more used to the outdoor winter life again. Watching the red, cold sunrise over the snowy peaks the next morning while assembling the bikes again proved why this way of living was just right.
Reaching the junction there was no police station only a few barking dogs and we soon whizzed down a wonderful long descent. And to my delight and surprise, the snow gradually disappeared and the temperatures rose fast as we lost altitude. I could not believe it was really true, but what I felt here was… spring. The first, subtle notions of spring and joy filled me. It was however a barren desert we reached down below the mountains and so not time for blossoming trees and flowers yet, but that was okay, I could easily wait for that as long as these temperatures were true. It was at least -5C, maybe even 0C, and it felt wonderful!
Once again we had lunch in a tiny, filthy little place, and this may not sound very appealing, but it was exactly what I loved about life on the road. All these little places that exist, so unknown of, so overseen, that I got to see, smell, hear – and taste. And not just that, these little roadside restaurants gave me comfort and shelter, filled my stomach with plain, simple food that I needed so much to restore the energy in my muscles before the road called me back. I was so grateful to be able to experience just a fraction of the innumerable different parts of everywhere, real and pure as they are with the warmth from the sun that shone through the grimy window and the sight of the cook fallen asleep over the table next to us.
Down from the mountains we had reached another junction where we could now rejoin our old friend, the G30 expressway with the endless turqiouse crash barrier and the wide, smooth shoulder. But before doing so Chris suggested we took a parallel country road for the first 30 kilometres. He knew this road from the last time he had cycled this way from Mori, and knew it would provide us not only with some peaceful traffic-free cycling but also good opportunities for undisturbed camping without having to force any highway fences. So this we did, and it was a glorious ride. At the top of a long hill a vast desert landscape with various cliff formations spanned out as long as I could see to all sides and I couldn’t help letting out a scream of joy as I flew down the hill towards this magnificent landscape. It was spring and it was as if the world had opened itself to me again.
We found a perfectly sheltered camp spot and appreciated that we could again sit outside the tent and enjoy the evening while cooking and watching the darkness creep out of the corners between the rocks and spread across the sky from east to west while one little light after the other was lit up at that dark, blue dome of the sky.
Due to the slow conquering of the snowy mountains out of Mori we still had a lot of distance to cover to make it to Hami in two days as was our plan. But being back on the G30 (after a 1.5 hour long climb up the 10 kilometres hill into a headwind that was the price for the glorious downhill the previous day) we had every chance of making it. After ascending for another 20 kilometres at a much higher pace on the G30 it was now a 150 kilometre long downhill to Hami and as if that wasn’t enough the wind turned to our favour and we literally flew along.
Until we reached a police checkpoint.
We were cycling on the G30, which we very well knew was not allowed, but out here in the desert there were no other roads and usually the rule was then excepted. But we did not have much more optimism and belief in our luck with the police left, and feared the worst. We could not go through with the cars, but were pointed into the station building as usual and here handed over our passports for one more check by police staff who did not know how to read a foreign passport. They flicked randomly through it, glancing at the strange looking item, seemingly more curious than serious, and asking: ”Where are you from?” and ”What is your name?” We answered these questions once again, it must have been at least the 50th time now, and to our great relief we were let through without any complication.
After lunch in the nearby service station, we were back on our glorious ride to Hami. Nothing could stop us now, and nothing did stop until just an hour before darkfall when I got a puncture. Chris was well ahead of me, so I just began the work as fast as I could, but at my first attempt to get the tyre off I broke one of my levers (it was a cheap thing made in China of course). With only one lever I didn’t know how to get the tyre off, I tried to use my scissors and a screwdriver instead, but I only made some big scratches in the rim while the rigid winter tire stubbornly stayed where it was. I knew Chris by now would begin to worry about where I was and also that he didn’t have a chance to cycle back to me going the wrong way on the expressway, so I simply just pumped up the wheel again hoping it would last at least until I reached him. It did last the five kilometres he was up ahead where I found him walking back along the road through the rough terrain on the other side of the fence. Together we fixed the puncture in a hurry and made some more distance before camping out in the desert some hundred metres from the road.
The next day was a repetition of the previous: fast progress downhill with a gentle tailwind, another puncture, another broken tyre lever (me getting rather annoyed about this happening again), and even another police encounter. But this time it took place outside our door at the Hehe Business Hotel in Hami where we had booked in for two nights to give ourselves the rest day we hadn’t had in Mori. We were surprised about the lack of police checkpoints along the road from Mori and the police by our door now were also rather easy to cooperate with, especially as our lack of common language made it easy for us to avoid explaining how we had camped the previous four nights since leaving Mori and not stayed in hotels.
We had been longing for a relaxed day in Hami, but we both ended up doing some long, pointless walks through the town. Chris to see a dentist who in the end didn’t do anything about his loose tooth and me trying to find a Carrefour supermarket that was marked on Google Maps to stock up on peanut butter and beaked beans, however the supermarket did not exist. But it was the 14th of February and we had something to celebrate, so a strange Valentine’s Dinner consisting of: rice, spicy tofu, caramelised potatoes and sweet corn and bean stew in a little restaurant made it all great in the end.
The next morning crackers were exploding around the city and red banners decorated every entrance door. It was Chinese New Year, which is the most extensive holiday in China with people travelling around the country to gather with their families for parties and dinners, firing loud fireworks to scare away evil spirits and most shops being closed for a few days or more. We observed it from a distance as we cycled out of Hami and through several little villages. People seemed to be out doing their last shopping and there was a festive atmosphere in the air. Sitting outside one little shop taking a break an older woman came to us and indicated we should come and eat and sleep at her place, and when I hesitated she grabbed my elbow and pulled me to the next street to point out her house for me. It was right there and we were so welcome, it was a great opportunity for us to experience this special Chinese tradition, but unfortunately we had to decline the offer. We knew from other cyclists, that the local people must register foreign guest with police, but the local people often don’t know this themselves. The police would most likely show up and make sure we spent the night in a hotel whereas the host would risk receiving a fine. It was such a shame, but we didn’t want to take that risk.
We were not in a hurry that day and a few hours later we were once again stopped for a break. The sun was still shining, temperatures were warm (just above zero) and we still could not really believe it, remembering how we had made it through the cold and snow outside of Mori just a few days previous. But believing it or not, it was so wonderfully warm.
A bus stopped and man and his kids came over, handing us a bottle of red wine and a big bag of dried fruits. It seemed to be on occasion of New Year and it was very kind of the man, we could not decline this offer. The truth was though, that a bottle of red wine is so misplaced in our daily life. We don’t have a bottle opener, nor a decent glass to drink it from and because we so rarely drink alcohol we can only drink a few sips before we feel tipsy and leave the rest of the bottle, as neither of us like to feel hungover. In addition to that Chris were taking antibiotics for his tooth and could not drink any alcohol anyway. So in reality that bottle of wine would most likely stay in our panniers for a long time. It really was way too much then when the kind man insisted to give us a second bottle of red wine.
Camping peacefully in the desert that evening we wished each other Happy Chinese New Year and appreciated to be at a distance from the fireworks in the villages we could see along the road. But the celebration of a new year felt appropriate to me as our journey since Mori had reached a point of a new beginning with winter coming to an end and promises of so many more places to see, people to meet and kilometres to cycle.
After our relaxed cycle out of Hami we hit a rather tough day as the wind coming from north east grew quite strong at the same time as we gradually climbed a gentle pass. Long kilometres of battling the head and side wind while glaring at either the endless road ahead or the empty desert next to it put my new year-optimism to a test. But really, we had been lucky with more tailwind than headwind this winter, and all there was to do was to put our heads down and keep pedalling. Listening to podcasts eased the struggle and when I was stopped to put on a new one I suddenly saw a police car had pulled up next to me. We were still cycling on the G30 as this was the only road through the desert, but technically we were not allowed, and these policemen were in their right to tell us to get off the road by letting them take us with them in their car. My heart beat fast, but I tried to stay calm and oblivious to the problem that I was cycling on the expressway. ”Are you okay?” the policeman asked, and after having assured him I was, and letting him flip through my passport, he smiled and asked me to be careful and wished me good luck. Genuinely he just cared for us. Puzzled and relieved we continued the slow ride into the wind.
Our progress up the 100 kilometre long pass continued the next day, but much easier this day as the wind had died down. This made the hundreds of wind turbines that are located wisely here stand completely still which was quite a sight. Sat by the road for a break Chris and I were enjoying ourselves and the day, but suddenly we froze. A police car had pulled up on the shoulder next to our bikes. Oh no, we both thought, now what?
”Passports!?” the officer demanded, and after a brief check, ”wait here” as he went to the car. Coming back he brought soft drinks, ice coffee and tin of sweet beans, and after handing it to us he went back to get another two drinks for us. ”Be careful” he wished and was off, leaving us struck with surprise and wonder. Since there was no other alternative for cyclists that the expressway on this stretch through the desert it seemed like the police’s task was to make sure we made it through safely.
We made sure to look well after ourselves that day by stopping two times at little restaurants to eat and stopped early to camp near the top of the pass. It was a bit chilly up here, but once again we didn’t want to reach a police checkpoint just before camping time, and we expected there’d be one there as it was the border between Xinjiang and Gansu province. After one last night in Xinjiang the next morning we went over the top and straight for the station building at the big checkpoint, by now having learned that we would not just slip through together with the cars. Several young officers took part in checking our passports in the friendliest way while practising their few English phrases. ”Welcome to Gansu province” one said without knowing what a great relief those words gave me. Our time in Xinjiang province and our experiences with the friendly police and the strict system was something we would always remember.
Mori – Hami – Gansu province
557 kilometres cycled