Our entrance in China was monumental; having climbed the Kulma Pass, it was way too cold outside to just stand around waiting for the Chinese border workers to come back from their lunch break, so we asked permission to have lunch inside the small guards’ post on the Tajik side and, of course, permission was granted.
In front of us stood a several floors high watchtower which had a seriously tacky Imperial style roof on it and, behind it, the highest mountain we had ever seen in our lives. At 7509 metres, Muztagh Ata is actually the 42nd highest peak in the world. The most impressive thing about this mountain, however, is not its sheer size but rather the two huge glaciers which have carved enormous gashes in its western face leaving it looking like an earthquake just cracked it open!
The actual crossing the border part of this border crossing was actually a very confusing mix of amusing and annoying, both in the right amount.
Up at the top of the pass there’s a first checkpoint. Here, your body and bags are scanned. Interestingly, they scanned neither Aurelie’s body (Marco says it’s because it’s so hot it might break the X-ray machine) nor Marco’s bike’s frame bag… They also checked our documents, of course, and our electronic devices, especially the cameras and external hard drive.
We experienced a very funny and cartoonesque scene when, while going through our food, one of the guards came across two small plastic bags; one full of oregano and another full of flour. We couldn’t communicate with them very well but it was obvious that they were suspicious about the legality of these two materials.
After more than an hour all was good so we were escorted out of the building and, just as we were about to climb on our steeds, the guard who could stick a few English words together told us to put our bikes on a truck.
“It’s dangerous so it’s not allowed to cycle down!” We had just climbed to 4365 metres and now they expected us to ride down in a truck? It goes without saying that we tried for about half an hour to convince them that we had just cycled about a quarter of the way around the world and that it’s not dangerous, but that’s what really distinguishes China from Burger King; you can’t have it your way! The truck driver was even less happy about the whole ordeal than we were!
At the bottom, a second checkpoint, this time with a really friendly English speaking Customs officer, and exactly the same process as at the top. The only difference is that they didn’t mind our drugs-looking ingredients so much but rather concentrated on 5 boiled eggs. Long story short; we couldn’t bring them into China but we could eat them before entering. Luckily it was 5 minutes before closing time. We started peeling one of them very slowly and after a few seconds we were told to “just go”!
We were in China! For over 5 months its Visa had been waiting inside our passports and finally, there we were!
Forget any images you may have in your head about China. The place where we had landed was barren, desolated and solitary.
We knew there was a hotel in this place. “This place”, by the way, consisted of about 4 buildings; the Customs building, the Police Station, something about highway maintenance and… the hotel? We went there. It wasn’t. The hotel was next door, in the highway maintenance building. The ground floor had been emptied and offices filled with beds. It was OK actually, apart from the toilets, those were horrific, they went directly into our “Worst toilets of the trip” chart!
Just like almost anywhere else in the world, China is building new infrastructure at home too. This particular highway was being improved so as to increase the road traffic with its only neighbour with access to the Arabian Sea; Pakistan. From Islamabad to Kashgar, hills are being flattened and tunnels are being drilled for the sake of all that merchandise which needs to reach not only the Indus Subcontinent, but also the Pamir Plateau since most of the trucks actually made the strenuous trip from Dushanbe (Tajikistan) to fill-up at Chinese factories and then head back.
Going to bed was also rather quirky. China only has one time zone (Beijing time, of course) for the whole country so, when we crossed over from Tajikistan, we had to move our clocks forward 3 hours! This, combined with the fact that it was towards the end of May and that we were at almost 4000 metres of altitude, meant that, although we went to sleep quite late, the sun was still shining! On top of that, we had had a rather eventful day and we still hadn’t received any news from the Pakistani Visa people… sleep was hard to find…
The next day was awesome though; it was, in fact, our first and only cycling day in China, but it was a great one! The road is brand new, the scenery is amazing and it’s mostly downhill. The unthinkable also happened, we were invited for lunch at someone’s house!
This seems trivial at first though but it’s actually of crucial importance; in Xinjiang, years of government “education” programs have left it clear to the local population that it’s better not to mingle with foreigners. In fact, there’s so much sh*t going on there that families just stick together and nothing leaves or enters the household. It’s all incredibly sad. If you’re not familiar with what’s going on there, please take some time to Google it. So, apart from a very friendly staff member at a hotel where we stayed (who just happened to be a cyclist too!), we have actually never had a conversation with anyone during our 2 weeks spent there.
Hence the title of this entry; anyone we met and with whom we tried to engage in conversation automatically answered by shaking their head, and at least one hand, and just saying “no”. No matter if we were in a shop or asking for directions, our stay in China was symbolized by this two letter word. Believe me when I say that it can be nerve wrecking!
But the guys who invited us in weren’t local; they were young road construction workers who had moved from somewhere near Shanghai and so are cut a lot of slacks when it comes to interaction with strangers and all of that.
Anyway, amazing lunch; fifteen days we spent in China and that was by far the best we consumed there. After almost two months of the very plain Pamir diet and even though we had many amazing meals while in China, we will carry the souvenir of those noodles forever in our stomachs.
Although the road to Tashkurgan is stunning and doubles up as a conveyor belt for metric tonnes of Chinese merchandise, it also serves to display some covert political propaganda or, as they call it in these parts, tourism.
Funnily enough, while Beijing would like everyone to stay out of Xinjiang for a number of appalling reasons, this very small district has actually received a huge grant for promoting tourism (both national and international) and in Tashkurgan resorts, hotels and jade mongers sprout like mushroom.
We were stuck there for a few days due to our Pakistani Visa situation (another long story to which we have dedicated another blog entry) and although this area is truly spectacular, we got bored very quickly so, we decided to leave for Kashgar, a big city further north.
As soon as we left the Tashkurgan district though, we realised how privileged it actually is compared to the rest of the region of Xinjiang; on the road, Police checkpoints are more frequent than petrol stations and in Kashgar there are more Police Stations than supermarkets and every freestanding pole has more cameras than you can count attached to it. Foreigners and Han Chinese are free to roam around at will but locals of other ethnicities must undergo bag and body checks at almost every turn.
We had a lot of free time while there (seriously, our post about the Pakistani Visa, a great read!) and so we could do some research and wow, sometimes the world really is a disappointing place!
Although our fortnight in China was filled with desperation (blog about Pakistani Visa) and too many “downs”, one huge “up” was bumping into our two Swedish cycling companions! We had said our farewells in Murghab about 10 days before and had lost track of them due to non-existent Internet connection in The Pamir.
We didn’t know their whereabouts or what had happened to them, so you can imagine the tears we shed when we accidentally crashed into them while strolling the streets of Kashgar! We started shouting, hugging and kissing in the middle of the street and little kids started imitating us!
We spent several days there just hanging out, talking, laughing and there was even an improvised drunken karaoke night in our hotel room…
Going back to Tashkurgan was such a challenging ordeal that it would deserve another blog entry entirely… You see, once you leave this “special” area, it’s very difficult to go back. If anyone had warned us about this we would probably have stayed there. When we decided to leave for a few days to visit Kashgar we left almost all our belongings behind including our bikes.
At the Police checkpoint where you sign-in into Tashkurgan we were told that we couldn’t go back in without propped authorisation (which is impossible to get for foreigners by the way). With a quick glance at each other, we decided that this was the last piece of bull whiz we were going to take and, anyway, we couldn’t just leave all our belongings behind! So we took a very deep breath and went all-in!
The only way to go back, as a foreigner, was to have the Pakistan Visa which we didn’t yet have. We did, however, have a “Confirmation of payment” e-mail from the Visa people and Chinese Police people speak zero English… It was definitely worth a try and it 100% worked.
We literally ran back to the minivan which had brought us so far, slammed the door shut and crossed our fingers that that was the last Police checkpoint. Of course it wasn’t, but the rest went a lot more smoothly.
So, we still had nowhere to go because we still didn’t have a Visa for Pakistan but at least we were united with our babies once again. For a few minutes back then, we honestly thought that we wouldn’t see them again! Such is the atmosphere over there that after only a few days, we were already beginning to fear the authorities…
Almost two weeks had passed. The situation was getting more than desperate because we were only left with two choices; cycle almost 2000 kilometres in 10 days to get to Almaty to get a flight to either India or Nepal where our RDV with the orphanage was almost due or cycle illegally into Tibet. If all we have said about Xinjiang sounds terrible, you should also read some about Tibet!
It was decision time when we miraculously chanced upon Oliver. We had last seen him the other time we casually met him months before in Samarkand and we thought we would never see him again (while on the road).
So imagine seeing him there!
We had a couple of beers and a bite to eat and related our stories to each other. What we couldn’t believe was how we managed to meet again after all the hardships and adventures we experienced and the different paths we took.
He was heading our same way but had all his papers in order (goes to show a huge difference between British and Mediterranean cultures 😉) and convinced us to go along with him to the border the next day and that we had nothing to lose.
And so we did! Technically he was right. Worst case scenario either the Chinese realized that we don’t have a Pakistani Visa and send us back or the Pakistani officials did. Best case scenario; we reach Sost in Pakistan and someone actually decides to pay attention to our case and lends us a hand.
Funny thing is; even with all the controls along the road, we actually managed to accidentally ride past the Customs Office and had to turn back; that’s the place where you get the “OUT” stamp without which it’s impossible to leave. That small mistake gave us and extra 28 kilometres of cycling in China.
Once at the Customs, we were checked and scanned and charged dearly to get on a bus we didn’t want to get on and up we went, towards the highest landborder in the world; the Khunjerab Pass.
From the bus window we could see the same lonely and rough landscape as the one around the Kulma Pass and some small farms scattered around. But what really catches the eye is the 100 and odd kilometres of continuous fencing which wraps around the highway on both sides… the government here really looks after its lawn!
At the last Police checkpoint we were all made to get off the bus, put in a line, counted one last time and were let back on.
We were about to illegally enter Pakistan, and that’s where the adventure really began…
Enjoyed this post and would like to see some great footage of our time in China? Check out our video; https://youtu.be/9O8mFs1hcns