CHINA, 2nd February 2018
We feel like it is ages ago since we endulged in the long longed for pizza at Pizza Hut, but it was only last Saturday. It’s been a week since we parked the bikes in the lobby of the hotel, and tomorrow it is time to bring them and ourselves back out into the real China after our refuge in this cosy hotel. It is time to set out on the last leg of our Mission To Mori. While we are getting ready, here is a little account of what has happened here.
29th January to 2nd February 2018: Day 23 to 28 – 0 kilometres
We had only booked two nights at the hotel, but after one day of resting we both still felt completely knackered, and my knee was stiff and sore and certainly needed more time to recover, so with no hesitation we booked a further three nights. And the hotel was a brilliant place to relax and recover, as we soon found out that there was a restaurant on the same floor as our room. Here we could have a cheap breakfast buffet and meals in the evening for small prices, so we literally didn’t have to leave the building to have anything we needed. If we swayed a little from side to side when we walked down the hall between our room and the restaurant it was easy to imagine that we were on a cruise ship with only two main tasks for the days: eating and resting.
We quickly found our preferred food and developed our routines at the buffet, where I especially enjoyed the little electrical hot plates where you were to fry your own egg, and the sweet, hot coffee drink, and we made sure to eat as much as we possibly could every day to build up our bodies’ energy reserves for the more winter cycling that was waiting ahead. However, in the restaurant (and all other common rooms in the hotel) they played three hollow and featureless tunes on repeat, and it soon drove us mad. Outside our window the sunshine glittered in the tall, modern buildings’ countless windows, all together urging us to go outside and take part in the world of China.
Our first expedition outside, since our brief trip across the street to Pizza Hut, was aimed at finding a supermarket. It brought us on a walk around the block, not finding any of the supermarkets marked on Google Maps, but instead an enormous book store in four floors. These days where books gradually become digitalised and book stores shrink or transform to cafes or office shops, I found it marvellous to walk the stairs from one floor to the next all full of books. I had asked one of the shop workers for English books and she had directed me to the top floor, and Chris followed me however sceptical that there would be a single word in a language we could understand in just one of the thousands of books around us. It was like finding a treasure when we finally eyed a few shelves with classical literature in English. Suddenly there was something we could understand, something from our part of the world, something familiar, something that could give us a break from the constant bombardement of a world we didn’t understand. As we also found the prices were ridiculously cheap, we soon gathered a good pile of books that would see us all the way through Asia and the cruise ship, we hoped.
”Would you like one of those?” a young girl asked us, as we fumbled with the pile of books we had just purchased at the counter, for once not automatically being given a plastic bag. She pointed at the plastic bags behind the woman at the counter, paid for it and handed it to us. Excited to have found a Chinese English speaker I tried to enhance the conversation with the girl and as she was absolutely adorable, helpful and eager to speak English herself, we soon walked out of the shop and down the street arm in arm, with Chris at a little distance.
”Is he your boyfriend?” she asked, and I confirmed, and she giggled, ”he is so handsome.”
I agreed and smiled at having found this little friend. My handsome, and practical thinking, boyfriend had asked the girl, who called herself Linda, where there was a supermarket and she was now showing us there, taking us back to a big mall we had passed a little earlier. As it had also been the case in Jinghe, the supermarket was located below the ground floor and the official way to get there was by escalators. So my handsome, practical thinking and supermarket-loving boyfriend, who doesn’t use escalators because he is travelling around the world only by means of his bicycle and boat, was left at the seats above the escalators, which my new friend and I let transport us down under ground, while she asked me: ”why is your boyfriend not coming with us?”
As I said, my handsome boyfriend is also practical thinking, and soon found a staircase and joined us in the supermarket, where we found another familiarly pleasing object to ease our feeling of estrangement in China: baked beans.
”Does it taste good?” Linda, who had asked me many questions regarding my likes of Chinese food, asked me, and avoiding a direct answer, because I had my doubts that she would find baked beans tasty and even if I myself would describe baked beans as ‘tasting good’, I explained to her how this was traditional English food that we were happy to find here amongst row after row of dried mushrooms, noodles, soy sauce, vacum-packed chilli-meat chunks, black eggs and undefinable pickles.
I left the girls to finish up the shopping and pay, and I headed back to the stairs. There had been one or two other people using these stairs to get into the supermarket, but they had brought us in at the back of the store where a couple of security guards sat. They’d stopped me on the way in to check my bag of books, but on the way out it was for a more worrying reason that they called me to a halt. They stopped me and told me that I was not allowed to exit the store by the stairs and I would have to leave via the escalators like everybody else. ‘Dammit. Why did I take such a stupid risk like this?’ I wondered, as my continuous journey without using any form of motorised propulsion was in jeopardy once again. Well, there was no way I was getting on any escalators now, not this close to the end, so it was either I take the stairs or I stay forever in this supermarket. I decided on the former and very rashly came up with a plan. The security guards were both sitting behind a desk, and didn’t look very much like they wanted to stand up, so I just bolted for the stairs. Once again I was on the run from the law, although my getaway was almost cut short when I got to the stairs and I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to go up or down. Luckily I guessed correctly and ran back up into the mall. I hurried over to the top of the escalators, looking back over my shoulder nervously all the way, in case I was being persued. Dea and Linda appeared. “Let’s get out of here!” I said.
On the way back to the hotel Linda squeezed my arm and said: ”I like you very much” and my heart was completely soft for this sweet teenage girl. We made dinner plans with her, but unfortunately she had to cancel them since her parents were busy and she had to help them. Or maybe they were just not so keen on having their young daughter hanging out with two strange tramps of foreigners.
Apart from recovering my knee our time in Urumqi was also meant to be spent planning the last stretch of cycling to Mori. Based on our experiences with the Xinjang police up until this point, it was essential for us to make sure that there were hotels accepting foreigners along the way within cycling distance of each other. If the intense police control should continue on the other side of Urumqi and we once again were asked to go to the next hotel for the night, we had to be sure we could argue that we would cycle there and so reject the request of going by car. The thought of a situation where Chris was forced into a car on the last 300 kilometre stretch to Mori was and is completely unbearable…
But it was not the easiest task to find out whether such hotels exist or not. Mori is located on the northern road running east from Urumqi, but since the southern road is more directly going towards central China, most cyclists seem to take that one. We tried to gain information about hotels from the cyclist network in cyberspace without much luck. Only one hotel in the first town of Fukang 65 kilometres out of Urumqi was confirmed.
On booking.com all the hotels we could find were not accepting foreigners and on the other booking site, ctrip.cn, there was no information about this and no phone numbers to call and ask, and anyway we would need a Chinese speaker to make these calls for us.
So our next step was to ask the staff in the reception to call a list of hotels Chris had found on Google. With some Google Translate communication we got a girl to help out, but one by one she dialed the numbers only to receive a message that the number was wrong. And she didn’t show any determination to try and help us any other way, but then it was lucky we had a true friend who would.
Jia, the Chinese girl we knew from Denmark and who had created those Chinese magic letters that had already been so helpful when we dealt with the police, was never far away, as I could contact her via the Chinese communication app WeChat and would always get an immediate, helpful response. Working in the tourism sector she understood our issue and was skilled in researching hotels in China. She also tried calling our list of hotels found on Google Maps with only one positive result, but then she took action herself. While we just sat back in our comfy beds, she called more hotels and one by one came up with places along the road to Mori, where we could stay. It was such an incredible help and effort she provided, and we could not thank her enough.
When hearing about my knee problems Jia also had a suggestion: acupunture. Apparently this is a very common and popular treatment here, so it should not be hard to find a clinic, and sure enough there was one in the same company and building as the hotel. And so a little later, I was examined by a bald doctor whose questions and prognosis were translated to me by a young girl called Claire. The doctor seemed confident he could help me out of the pain, however he said I must still be careful when I started cycling again. He suggested I got five treatments over the next five days each one of them costing 2-300 yuan which in total is approximately 150 pounds. As I was not completely convinced of the effectiveness of acupuncture on injured knees, I thought that was too much to pay, but the doctor quickly sensed my hesitation and offered me the first treatment for free, then I could see how I felt afterwards. I could see no harm in accepting this, however I was wrong as ten minutes later, changed into a pink pyjamas and lying on the massage bed, I found myself twisting and grunting in agony. The doctor was not just going to pinch me with needles, which I have tried before and know is not so bad. First he was giving me a kind of massage, kneading my muscles and pressing certain spots (acupuncture points I reckon) which caused absolute pain. And it seemed the pain was intended, as he kept going for them although I did (and could) not hide how uncomfortable it was. ”He doesn’t want you to feel pain on the road, that is why he is doing this” Claire explained. Well, then I better be tough, I thought – and whined some more. Later the real acupuncture took place which was rather peaceful compared to the massage, and after resting half an hour, it was over. I did not feel much different in my knee, but I was extremely tired in the evening and had a sound sleep of 11 hours.
The next day the knee did not feel much better, and so I did not plan to come back for more treatments. However, at the breakfast buffet I ran into the doctor himself and signalled ”Thanks, but no thanks” to his signals about whether I would come to the clinic later. A little later I received a text message from Claire, saying that the doctor was sad to hear I was not coming back, because my knee needed more treatment and that he would do it all for free, because he wanted me and Chris to be able to continue our journey. It was a very generous offer, but I still wasn’t sure if it really was the right thing for my recovering knee. Maybe plain relaxation was the only real cure? On the other hand, I thought it was rather harmless treatment (somehow having forgotten all the pain I went through the previous day) and at least it would then feel like I was doing something. Just waiting with only very little progress the previous four days was beginning to drive me mad.
So in the afternoon I was lying there again, sweating in my pink pyjamas, as the massage went on. Luckily, Claire distracted me by asking questions about our journey, so I explained more details about our way of travelling, Chris’s project about travelling without cars, trains or planes and what the purpose of getting to Mori, a significant little town they both knew, was. Their excitment and interest seemed geniuine, but maybe it was also to cover the fact that was revealed in little sentences in between my story. ”The doctor wants to perform fire acupuncture” and ”This is acutally not needles, but thin knives, but he wont use them now.” Information that had me ask: ”What is it exactly?” but I was not any wiser when the doctor suddenly held a burning piece of cotton over my knee into which he held one of the thin knives that became red and glowing.
”What are you doing?”
”It is fire puncture, he will use the hot needle!”
And so he did, a second later, fortunately only for a tenth of a second, pitching my skin as rapid as a snake bite. It all went so fast, but after four hits I’d had enough and raised my hands: ”Okay, okay!” The doctor said something, Claire translated: ”The last one” and he hit me one last time. It was over. Relief, disbelief and adrenalin rushed through me. I could not believe what had just happened, but now that it was over I appreciated it as a very unique experience.
”Now we can go out for lunch” Claire said, ”go and get Chris”, and so Chris and I followed the doctor, Claire and another English speaking girl called Nancy to a nearby restaurant that was busy with locals. Here one plate after the other of traditional Xinjang and Chinese food was brought to the round, spinning table that we were seated around. Most significant were the black, preserved eggs which I surprisingly found rather delicious while Chris didn’t manage to even swallow the one bite he took, but also some sweet, caramelised chunks of potatoes made for new and tasty experience. The girls were cheerful and outspoken, so it was easy and fun to exchange cultural differences.
I don’t know if it was the fire acupuncture, the preserved eggs or all the laughter, but when I stood up from the table and we walked back to the hotel my knee felt so normal as it hadn’t done the last three weeks. It was a little miracle, and I dared not believe it could be true, but I again began to dream about the long, demanding roads of China disappearing under my wheels.
Although I felt hardly any pain in my knee anymore, only a slight pain in the skin over the kneecap, I went for the treatment again the next day. I was a little anxious that the fire acupuncture would be brought in again, but oh how I would have preferred it for the massage. That day he found a particularly painful spot on my calf and kept coming back to it again and again, almost as if he enjoyed my suffering.
”The doctor says, this is more painful than giving birth” Claire explained, and well, if that was true I could consider myself being pretty damn tough, I thought – and whined some more.
While I’d been to the clinic, my handsome, practical thinking and supermarket-loving boyfriend had been on an expedition to the French supermarket Carrefour two kilometres away, where he eagerly hoped to find more baked beans, peanut butter and other European goods to supplement our daily intake of noodles, eggs and fluffy white bread and cakes. I was very surprised to find him returning emptyhanded, but I guess you can all guess what had happened? Yes, also this supermarket was located underground and the only way to get to this one was by the escalators, which my handsome, practical thinking and supermarket-loving boyfriend had only discovered after having searched for the big supermarket everywhere on ground and first floor in the big bazar that it was a part of. I began to think it was high time for us to get to Mori to finally get over this issue.
That Chris didn’t have any luck getting into Carrefour meant that I undertook the expedition myself, and I was overly happy to do so, as it was a warm (-12C), sunny day and I went through the rather different Muslim quarter full of icons like naan, skullcaps and atlas silk and the bazars, that reminded me so of our journey from Turkey and through Central Asia, however here mixed in amongst Chinese skyscrapers, big 4×4’s, red flags and paper lamps, the ceaseless Chine writing, guards in long green coats and road workers warming up by little metal ovens in the streets. What a great place to be!
And so our time in Urumqi is drawing to a close. One more night in this hotel and tomorrow morning we will begin on the final stretch towards Mori. With all the tourist-approved hotels Jia’s found for us along the way we should hopefully be online to update you with our progress often, at least if my bike holds up. Today I tried to replace my drivetrain. It has begun to skip very badly and is almost becoming unusable. I’ve got all the replacement parts with me, but today as I tried to screw in the crank-removal tool I managed to destroy the thread on the crank, making it impossible to use the tool to remove it. Not the first time this has happened to me. The last time I just bashed the crank off with a hammer. So today I tried to do that again, but all I had was a wrench, and the crank wouldn’t budge no matter how hard I hit it. So I’ll just have to continue with my skipping drivetrain, with chainrings now all misshapen from being bashed very hard with a wrench. Will it make it? Let’s hope so.
It’s now been 1,220 days since I cycled out of Mori. With enough luck we’ll be back there in just five more…
Kilometres to Mori: 290