As you read this post more than 11 million people are travelling the trains of China. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Greece all rumbling along the rails at any given moment. The sheer and immense scale of the place. Not just vast expanses of territory but so many people, people, people everywhere.
So this is China. Next port of call on our way eastwards. To be precise, the tumultuous “Autonomous” Province of Xinjiang, home to the rebellious Muslim Uighurs who have agitated and riled against Northern Chinese rule since, well, whenever it was that this most westerly extreme of China got swept up into the empire. This is a region with comparable aspirations to Tibet, namely greater (if not) total self-determination, yet with far less international attention. No gentle-talking dulcet Dalai Lama here.
Xinjiang is periodically and invariably frequented by Chinese Army troops that line the streets in over-the-top displays of State force, whenever ethnic violence convulses through one of its two big cities, Kashgar and Urumqi. In fact, so periodic have the “terror attacks / military responses” become that access to this region appears to operate now on a traffic light basis, and we were lucky to catch Xinjiang in an amber moment. Beijing is keen to demonstrate that all is under control in this turbulent realm yet can’t have tourists being blown up, hacked to death or, more importantly, observing the State’s “response”. It all just looks bad. Beijing points the finger at Islamic extremists in the area targeting the ever-burgeoning Han population but can provide no sensible answers for why Muslim Chinese have also been victims alongside the Han Chinese in the same attacks. And nor can we, but the situation is certainly more complicated than that reported in the China dailies.
And the backdrop to these difficult times, where Human Rights lawyers, activists and journalists occasionally disappear, never to be heard of again, is the quite curiously charming (albeit the now uber Han-ified) Silk Road city of Kashgar, where many a trader and traveler from times-gone-by has embraced the warmer (considerably lower and flatter) desert climes that is the first port of call to offer such clemency after months in the unforgiving high peaks of Central Asia.
Having crossed the border there was still the small matter of almost 300km of riding through dusty roads, all under construction, that link the border-post to Kashgar. It is no understatement to declare the Chinese as prodigious road-builders. We saw more people working on the road into Kashgar in the first 10km than we had done in the entirety of Central Asia. And they were a friendly and hospitable bunch too. Along with Tanya and Rafael, our soon-to-be-departed Portuguese, we camped one night with the road-workers who stared on in bemused fashion yet still brought us tea.
After a night in the curious Han-ified town of Wuqia, where we gorged on vegetarian food until our faces hurt, and the police bizarrely paid for us to upgrade our hotel, we were soon rolling past our 10,000th kilometer and down and into Kashgar.
The mish-mash of the Ye Olde Islamic “Old Town”, that probably has looked much the same way for centuries (save for the occasional touring bicycle) strangely nestles in surprisingly comfortably just a street away from the glitzy neon of Han China and its brash and brutal capitalist zeal, with shopping malls, supermarkets and MSG-riddled restaurants on every street corner. Not that we were complaining. Far from it. Our distended tummies were in search of nourishment, and the junk food variety on offer was simply too great a temptation not to dive into.
All manner of sweets, biscuits, cakes and drinks cocooned in quite literally layer upon layer of high-grade thick plastic, all shiny, glitzy and new. The novelty factor was intense and we plunged right in to cans of Wong Lo Kat, and crates of Yappy (or Woof Woof) Rice Biscuits (they sound grim but are actually fantastic). Once sated, we would look down at the spuming mound of plastic waste that lay before us, that had been the vehicle for all that lovely sugar and salt, and the guilt would begin. If this is how much two little bicycling souls generate, then what about the amount produced by the other 1,339,724,852 Chinese?
As with any self-respecting Silk Road town, there has to be a decent market. And for those of a non-vegetarian bent (which we half-heartedly tried not to be) the famous Sunday Livestock Market is a treat. We got there early, convinced that this would be the best time to feel the true rhythm and vibe of the place and the place was empty. Not a lamb, goat or yak in sight. We felt a little silly waiting in full view of the ever-climbing sun. And then the dust began gently to unsettle as truck after car after mini-scooter after wheelbarrow arrived with all manner of creatures tethered this way and that, such that it would have brought tears to a vegan’s eye. It was actually more humane than it sounds, save perhaps for the Yak shackled one inch from its post by its nose-ring.
The dust clouds blossomed as the market ebbed and flowed and sheep and goats and Chinese Yuan all swapped places in a procession that has gone on almost unchanged for centuries. And then it was time go. Time to leave the market, time to leave Kashgar after its regenerative days of tofu, fresh fruit and veg, and of course the plastic goodies. And time to leave Xinjiang.
We had considered a visit to Urumqi, the furthest city in the world from any sea or ocean, and big brother to Kashgar, but a decision had been forged between us after the months of attritional cycling through Central Asian deserts and steppes, that our odycycle was to receive a sling-shot. Not for us 2-3 months of churning out more than 3,000km to cross the monotonous Taklamakan Desert (the ancient translation of which means, “Go in by bicycle, Don’t come out”). No, a pact had happily formed between Sam and Francesca to do what has ungenerously been described by certain family members as “cheat”, and join that heaving mass of 11 million Chinese travelers on their railway and take the train (2 days!) to Lanzhou in Gansu province. Having cycled over 10,000km and through 20 countries, such insults don’t even get past our mud-guards!
And so our final days in Kashgar revolved around buying train tickets (despite our best efforts to get Hard Sleeper we only managed to lay our hands on Hard Seat tickets due to the popularity of the railways!) and packaging up the bikes and the bags to be sent ahead of us by cargo train. Unfortunately, the bikes fared less well than us, but more about bent forks and stolen bike-parts in our next post.
We boarded the 58-hour train and were pressed up close in a packed carriage to sweaty incessantly chattering Chinese grannies and as the train slowly chugged past hour number 3, talk turned to our deep regret for abandoning the bikes so callously. The Taklamakan Desert took on an appeal we never thought it would have. Just as we were thinking we could not possibly survive (there wasn’t even room to sleep on the floor) the gods re-emerged from their hide-out and offered us a life-line. Hard Sleeper tickets!!!! Bingo. For an additional tenner, a train guard whisked us down the train to clean sheets and horizontal beds and bubbling groups of kids, who were easily blocked out with suitably high volume mp3 players. The sense of abandonment on the faces of the grannies made us feel guilty. The guilt just about lasted the time it took to walk down 4 carriages and onto our lovely beds.
Xinjiang has been a fascinating introduction to China, a massive contrast for us to the desolate wilds of the Pamirs. But having been bolted eastwards, it certainly does not seem like the ‘real’ China now. As with many of the other countries we have rolled through, the politics of the place is volatile and we will be doing our best to follow events in this region. It will definitely not remain static. The central authorities may wish to bear in mind the words of one of China’s famous philosopher-story-tellers, Luo Guanzhong from the 14th century who said this,
“They say the momentum of history was ever thus: the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide.”
As ever we have tried out best to get as many photos uploaded as possible so click here to see the very latest from China – Xinjiang. Given the size of China and the amount of time we are likely to be here, we hope to follow this post up with tales of Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan in the days to come.