As soon as your arrive in Korla it feels like a place under occupation. Which of course it is. The Chinese marched in in 1789 – massacring over a million people in the neighbouring Kingdom of Zunghar in the process – and haven’t left since. The two kingdoms were thrust together and are now administered as the autonomous Uyghur province of Xinjiang. They are autonomous in the sense they can do what they want as long it’s what Beijing tells them.
The station feels like a fortress the entrance is surrounded by fences and barriers and gates all topped off with rolls of barbed wire. All the men have to have their ID cards scanned to leave the station. There are heavily armed police everywhere. Some with batons, some with pistols, some with machine guns, some with shotguns. Some even had what looked like spears. Long metal sticks with sharp points. And all treating the local Uyghur population with disdain. I was reminded of other places under occupation that I have visited. Belfast in the early 1990s, Turkish Kurdistan, Tibet. The same sense of tension and the same sense of a people being oppressed.
Like other colonial regimes, for example Britain in Ireland, China has shipped in large numbers of Chinese migrants in an effort to dilute the native Uyghur population. And just like in Ireland most of the better jobs and money have been directed to the new arrivals creating a great deal of resentment with the local population. Add in systematic repression of the culture and customs. The Uyghur are predominantly Muslim yet the authorities have banned the burka. Just last year a man was killed by the police after he objected too forcefully when the police tried to remove his wife’s headscarf when they were conducting house to house searches. Guidelines on acceptable attire are posted in every shop and restaurant. No face coverings for women no t-shirts with a star and crescent moon and no excessive beards. I think that only applies to Uighurs because we’ve seen a few long distance cyclists with long flowing beards and they don’t seem to have been arrested yet. Shops have even been forced to sell alcohol and cigarettes despite that being against their owners beliefs. All of which creates a simmering tension which isn’t helped by the level of segregation between the two communities. There hardly seems to be any contact. They live in different areas, shop in different shops, eat in different restaurants, work in different jobs. We haven’t seen a mixed group of Uyghur and Chinese out socialising the whole time we have been there, even among school children. They only time we saw Uighurs and Chinese together was the police and it was very clear who was in charge. Even in tiny little communities in the middle of the desert the Chinese truck drivers will go to Chinese restaurants and the Uighurs to Uyghur ones. Then add in the racism of many Chinese towards the Uyghur. I asked the guy behind the counter if he liked living in Kashgar he replied “no I don’t like Muslims” So it’s little surprise that the simmering resentment caused by this explodes from time to time.
There had been a long running independence movement but it is hasn’t received the same recognition as other similar struggles such as that in Tibet. In the last few years there has been a big upswing in protests and attacks on the security services and Chinese civilians. Last year was particularly bloody with hundreds of protesters being killed by the security services.
The train journey from Lanzhou was a pleasant 28 hours. Shorter than many of the trains I had taken in the past few years and this time I had company. Kim of course and the other 3 passengers who shared our set of six beds. They were Chinese and were all travelling to Korla too. They were very impressed when they heard about our trip but full of concern when we explained we were riding to Kashgar. “It’s desert and there’s nothing there” “it’s too dangerous to camp”. We assured then we’d be careful but they weren’t convinced.
The landscape was impressive. Dry mountain ranges and plains filled with herds of camels. But I was glad we were on the train. It was interesting enough for the first couple of hours but then got a little tedious. And that was whilst travelling at 100kmph. What it would have been like over the course of 2 weeks with it drifting past at 15kmph I’m not sure.
After exiting the station then came the task of finding somewhere to stay. A task made that much harder by the fact we didn’t have our bicycles. You can’t take bikes onto the train with you but have to send them as baggage and we were told they may take two or three days longer that us to arrive. None of the hotels next to the station would take foreigners. Not even the fancy looking one that we had originally discounted because it was too expensive. Clearly Xinjiang was going to be even more challenging to find rooms than the rest of china.
We were just about to give up and head into town to try our luck when Kim spotted a place we hadn’t tried tucked away in the far corner and miraculously they said yes. It certainly wasn’t the best place we had stayed in and the dude must have had a very good relationship with the police to enable us to stay there. Not exactly overjoyed at the prospect of being stuck there for three days while we waited for our bikes I went to the supermarket to stock up on provisions. While I was there the phone rang. It was the station. Our bikes had arrived. I must say I’m pretty impressed with the service. The bikes arrived the same day we did and no dismantling or messing around was required. They even managed to find someone who spoke rudimentary English to call and say they had arrived. The only slightly disconcerting aspect was that both bikes were spattered with blood when we picked them up. No doubt a consignment of meat had been left next to them at some stage of the journey. But I fantasised that someone had been gruesomely murdered in the baggage carriage and then our bikes had been delivered super quick to dispose of the evidence.
Next day we were glad to get out of town. Korla is in no way attractive and the area around the station felt oppressive with the heavy police presence. In fact they even delayed our departure. We rounded the corner from the guest house straight into two police one of whom was pointing a revolver and shouting at everyone to clear the Street. After shouting a bit more and manhandling onto the pavement an old woman who was ignoring his orders some more cops arrived and went into the station. He bowed said thank you and followed them in. And we were free to get out of dodge.
The day started pleasantly enough. We followed the road out of town with a light tailwind helping us along for 15km and then joined the expressway. In Xinjiang cyclists are allowed on the motorway as for large sections of the desert there is no alternative road. The surface was good and there was a large shoulder to ride in but I can’t say it was pleasant riding with a steady flow of trucks thundering past. Visibly was poor. A layer of dust hung in the air obscuring the far off vistas, but what could be seen was impressive. To the north lay a desiccated range of hills deeply scared by erosion and looking completely lifeless. Not a tree, nor bush could be discerned. The land bordering the road had been deeply scared by human activity. A railway line ran parallel and in between the gravel and rock and been dug to create the foundations for road and rail. Then high banks of sand and gravel had been shaped into wide Vs to focus the rainwater through the drainage channels built under the road. The road was on a gentle slope rising up to the mountains, to the south was a dry dusty flatness fading into the dust. The Taklimakan desert, which is actually the second largest shifting sand desert in the world although we didn’t see much of that, just dusty flatness.
After lunch the wind had shifted direction and strengthened and we were now battling a brisk headwind during the hottest part of the day. A situation that we would find repeated for much of the rest of the trip. The surroundings were pretty desolate and shade was in short supply. Every few hours we would pause and seek some relief from the burning sun in one of the small bridges under the road. Xinjiang still runs on Beijing time (one more example of their lack of cultural awareness) so it stays hot late into the evening. At around 8:30 hot and sweaty we decided to find a camp spot for the evening. No mean task as it turned out. A barbed wire fence runs the length of the road, but we found a small gap at one of the bridges and managed to pass the bikes through after removing all our bags. We pitched the tent in a large hole dug into the gravel so it was practically invisible from the road.
By mid-morning the next day we reached one of the oasis that punctuate the route across the dessert. It was wonderful to reach the lush green fields and ride in the shade of the plentiful trees. The oases are watered by rain that falls on the nearby range. And reaching one was well exactly like reaching an oasis after sweating across a dusty and bleak looking desert for a couple of hundred kilometres. It was lush and green, and a huge number of birds were singing and flitting around across the road. The agriculture is incredibly productive with a huge range of crops being grown. The fields are laid out almost in permaculture style in narrow strips with fruit trees around the perimeter providing shade and reducing evaporation whilst in the centre field crops such as wheat or beans were planted.
Somewhat surprisingly being a desert Xianjiang has actually benefited from climatic changes over the past 20 years or so. Rainfall during the traditionally dry winter has increased significantly so that last winter water levels in Bosten Lake were only 1m lower than the summer record. This has provided a boon for agriculture and attempts to green the desert. However all that rain has at times also brought severe flooding to the region. It remains to be seen if this is a permanent shift in climate or something more temporary. Further changes in climate are unlikely to be so beneficial. The area already has an extreme climate scorching in summer and freezing in winter. Whilst increases in temperatures may moderate that winter chill temperatures in summer could rise so high that agriculture becomes impossible no matter how much water is available – evaporation and transpiration rates just become too high, salinisation becomes a problem and yields fall off dramatically.
That evening we found the nicest and easiest hotel of our time in Xinjiang and possibly even China. The first hotel we went to. They took foreigners. The room was nice. It was cheap. Kim liked it so much we stayed for two nights. Sadly our luck with hotels didn’t last the next night we spent an age trying to find a place and we ended up with the worst room of our entire trip it was small and cramped there were skid marks in the toilet the cups were dirty, the walls were stained and it was double the price we had paid the night before. The next night we had to stay in the most expensive hotel in the whole town. Even the mid-range places weren’t permitted to take foreigners. It seems like the hotel owners must have a very good relationship with the chief of police or perhaps the hotels are owned by the police chief. Another consequence of this ridiculous policy is that you are forced to stay in Chinese owned establishments. We were only permitted to stay in one Uyghur owned hotel the entire time we stayed in Xinjiang. Whether or not this is a deliberate policy it is a further example of wealth being funnelled away from the Uyghur population.
And so we continued westwards we’d spend a night camping in the desert with around 200km of nothingness to traverse with a place to stock up on water and supplies every 100 km or so. Then we’d reach an oasis and spend a day or two recharging our batteries and enjoying the greenery before heading back out into the desert. You kind of have a romantic vision of this region of camel trains and sand dunes and oasis towns of mud brick, but like most fantasies it was on the whole a fantasy. There were no dunes and the only camels we saw were statues. By and large the towns were ugly and looked like all the other Chinese towns we’d passed through. The one exception being Kuqa. The Chinese part of the town was as usual sterile and new but the old Uyghur town had survived the bulldozers and was easily the most attractive town we’d seen since leaving Hanoi. Parts of the old city wall were intact as were a few streets of old wooden houses. Painted brightly with a riot of colour and many enhanced by beautiful flowers. It was a wonderful change from the desert – and the utilitarian concrete and glass across the river.
The other stereotypical desert feature we did experience was desert hospitality. Everywhere we went people would shout hello and on numerous occasions people stopped to give us drinks. One police officer gave us a can of red bull apiece and 7 bottles of water. I think he saw our empty water container not realising that we had another full one inside the panniers. Another time a farmer stopped reached into the back of his truck and pulled out the biggest watermelon you have ever seen and handed it to us. I don’t even like watermelon but this one was sweet and juicy and tasted like nectar from the gods in the scorching sun. It was so big that we had to leave a huge piece behind when we left though we managed to eat around a quarter and still took a big piece to eat later. Delicious.
We were on the last stretch of desert before Kashgar. It had been a terrible days cycling. The previous day we’d had a fantastic tailwind helping us along but the wind gods seemed to want to even things up and we’d been battling a strong headwind all day. The road had even turned 90 degrees but the wind turned too. We had been riding most of the day but had only managed 50 km. We were 200km short of Kashgar when disaster struck. We’d pulled off the road for lunch taking shelter under a bridge on the railway nearby. There must have been a bush with some serious thorns in it because a few kilometres down the road I felt the unmistakeably signs of a flat tyre. It was stinking hot and not a scrap of shade to be had. The previous day I had destroyed two inner tubes. I rode over something very sharp which went straight through my Schwalbe tyre, which is no mean feat. Then when I replaced the gashed tube I didn’t realise how badly damaged the tyre was. When inflated the tube must have expanded out of the hole and exploded with a loud bang. So I was down to my last tube. It was so hot and the tyre so flexible I barely needed levers to remove it. I patched the hole and then I heard a cry of “oh no” from Kim. She had a puncture too. She obviously wanted to get into the action as well. After the usual messing around taking everything off the bikes fixing them putting all the stuff back on… we were ready to go. An hour or so later we stopped for a breather and when we set off again the same tyre was flat again. I mustn’t have fixed the puncture correctly. So we went through the whole rigmarole again and got a couple of hundred metres down the road when there was a loud bang from my rear wheel. The tyre had been blown off the rim by the force of the explosion and I could see a huge tear in my last remaining inner tube. I mustn’t have fitted the tube correctly in my haste to get back on the road. Perhaps the heat had made the tyre more pliable. Either way there was no way it could be fixed. We would have to hitch a lift. Kim was overjoyed. She wasn’t looking forward to another couple of stinking hot days riding through the desert and another night in a smelly tent. But I was really frustrated with myself. We’d already taken more trains and buses than I wanted and this felt so unnecessary.
It did however mean we got to spend some more time in Kashgar and could spend some time recuperating to prepare for the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. So I stuck out my hand and within minutes we had a ride. Unfortunately it was a bus that stopped for us which meant we had to pay but it wasn’t too much and we didn’t have to wait long. Of course I found another 2 tubes at the bottom of my bag when I unpacked!!! Which was lucky as none of the bike shops in Kashgar had the right size.
I like Kashgar. There is still enough of the old town remaining to give it an exotic feel. We stayed in the Pamir hostel (one of the passengers on the bus was staying there and he offered to show us the way). It has a lovely outdoor seating area which looks over the Aitiga’er Mosque. Kim found the call to prayer annoying especially at 4 in the morning but I like it. It’s such an evocative sound. A reminder that you are very far from home. Unless you live in Birmingham. There are a number of old parts of town. Some have been prettified for the tourists and some which have not. Many of the later seem to be about to go under the bulldozer to complete their transformation into soulless Chinese city.
While we were there we met another cyclist. Olivier was nearing the end of an epic 7 year zero carbon world tour. He’d crossed the ocean by yacht and traversed the rest by bicycle and was now on his final leg back to France. You can read more about his amazing trip at www.flynroll.com
Xinjiang was the first place we had met other foreign cyclists in China. I guess it’s a big place and most cyclists tend to stick to routes in other provinces. A couple of days earlier we met a Spanish guy finishing off his world tour in Tashkent. Every year he would ride 3000 km and the next year resume where he had left off. He was fairly moving too intending to ride more than 200 km that day. Then the next day we met a Scotsman and an Englishman who were retracing the route of Marco Polo heading for Xian.
And so it was time to bid farewell to China. I was leaving with mixed feelings. On the whole I love China. For starters it’s beautiful. We have seen so many special places. The people are great too. Slightly reserved, but inquisitive and we were met with a lot of kindness. And the food is amazing. However it’s also a very frustrating place to travel independently primarily because of all the bureaucratic hurdles you have to jump through. I also find China rather depressing its hard to witness the rape of the natural world all in the name of progress and not feel like that. And also witnessing a society rushing to embrace so wholeheartedly the western model of consumer capitalism that is destroying the planet. It makes you realise just how big a task we have if we want to switch course and create a society that values, respects and nurtures the planet we call home rather than destroying it Yet there are glimmers of hope too. As we crossed Xinjiang we witnessed a revolution in progress. Mile after mile of wind turbines and solar panels springing up across the desert as China seeks to change the way it gets its energy. The success of this endeavour will determine the future not just for China itself but for all of us.