”Now, however, China happens to be 3 125 miles through as well desert, mountains and jungle.”
This is more or less how I ended my last post.
Now we happened to cycle through that desert, over most of those mountains, and beginning to experience more and more green scenery that will soon turn into jungle. We have now finished 2 500 out of 3 125 miles, miles that one and a half month ago were untouched by two Swedish cyclists.
Me and Emil crossed into China through a rather unexplored border from Tajikistan. A transition surrounded by rumors. Rumors saying for example that it was not possible to cross this border unless you are a Chinese or Tajikistan citizen.
I was born in a small town called Köping in September 1987 and Emil on the Swedish west coast a few years later, so we couldn’t show a Chinese or Tadjik passport, for sure.
At the same time we had heard these rumors circulating among cyclists and other traveling people, rumors who said that nowadays you could cross this mythical border without a problem, even as a Swede!
Let’s try! What is there to lose, apart from half a day cycling and climbing to 4 500 meters above sea level, we thought. Filled with self-esteem and a good overall feeling we left our friends and the village of Murghab in Tajikistan to go for the border. The good feeling inside was, however, virtually wasted since the last thing we hear from a local girl before leaving is that she is VERY unsure if we as foreigners could cross this border.
– “But you can try”, was her last words to us.
Thanks for that…
On top of this incredibly beautiful mountain pass, which also serves as a border crossing, we were pretty sure she was right. The guards showed us the ”cross – sign” as we showed up. The ”cross-sign” doesn’t mean you can make a border cross, it’s a sign you do not want to see because 100 times out of 100 it means something negative, for example that the border is closed. So in this case.
We looked at the clock. It felt a bit too early to just be closed for the day. Had the Chinese border guards really already gone home to chill with their families?
Fortunately, that was the case and we are asked to come back in the morning the following day. Our nerves and pulse instantly calmed down a bit.
So after camping at a height of 4 500 meters, eating a snickers for dinner, put on all the clothes I could find, I crawled into my sleeping bag, which is really suitable the summer months and after getting some really bad hours of sleep we went back to the rusty gate that were holding us in Central Asia (add a five border guards with automatic weapons). Finally one of the guards ”unlocked” the gate, which means he released a wire from the gate and suddenly we were on our way into China.
Getting out of Tajikistan took about 3 minutes.
Getting into China took more than 3 hours.
However, we were probably the first Swedes to pass this border (at least if you believe the legend and all the rumors…)!
First time in China turned out to be a bit strange and weird. The first and biggest province we enter was Xinjiang. A province, or autonomous region, which has been officially dominated by the minority population of Uyghur for a long time while a number of other ethnic groups are inhabited in the area. This region is by the way about four times the size of Sweden.
This is a sensitive area in China and surrounded by a lot of problems over the years and this is something I learned three years ago during our journey from Sweden to Thailand. We then had the privilege of meeting the ”legend” of Mr Lee who, like us, were doing a trip on bicycle. He, as a Chinese, had a lot of knowledge about the area as well as the country and could therefore tell a lot about the situation. From his own point of view of course but the fact that everything was not perfect in this province was quite obvious.
One of the problem is the conflict between the Uyghur people and the regime of China where the Uyghur people have been under severe oppression for a long time.
In short; The Uyghur – the people now want to separate from China to become independent. This is not a great pleasure for China. You can guess that one of the reasons is the huge supply of natural gas and oil Xinjiang province possesses. This conflict has, among other things, led to a number of attacks taken place as well in Xinjiang as other provinces where they identified groups within the Uyghur people as the guilty ones.
Three years ago, you did not notice much of this. Now the situation is different. At least said.
In the larger cities, “policemen” march everywhere. Police officers mostly consist of older teenagers who seemed to received a black t-shirt with the text “police” on the arm and, in some cases, armed with some kind of stick to defend themselves in the event of a conflict. Some even have a helmet to wear and some even wear clothes with the text SWAT stamped on the shirts. I’m not really so sure if they know what the letters stands for.
Everywhere there are surveillance cameras.
Road blocks are installed everywhere.
Everywhere cars are photographed with the associated registration plate.
Everywhere different types of checkpoints are set up where the population has to identify them self.
As a tourist, this can almost be perceived as a big spectacle in front of your nose, but you also become part of it as the police stops you on certain roads where you are apparently not allowed to travel, your passport is checked at least ten times a day, you can only stay in certain hotels and you will be stopped at the checkpoints for an indefinite period when the “extremely well-educated” officers try to check you up.
This can be a bit irritating after a while but when you think about what the locals have to go through every day, maybe it wasn’t too bad for us. But I am still the first to admit that my patience was almost running out after being stopped for the fifth time in one hour. Fortunately Emil was by my side most of the time with the some wise words;
– ”Sometimes you just have to chill a bit, Calle …”
I think the word ”censorship” was founded in China. There is a lot of it in the extremely state-controlled media and it’s therefore difficult to know what has or has not actually happened in this area but my overall view is that the security now being applied is a bit overdoing it and It feels like they are trying to kill a mosquito with a bazooka.
The more me and Emil traveled in the eastern direction, the more the issue disappeared. We spent a lot of time in the Taklaman – desert where we were able to move on without being bothered by any police.
Here we instead had the luck of encountering a friendly population who gave us food and water when we were running out. We early decided to cycle as many miles as possible in this desert area so we could build up a small buffert of time to use from as we eventually were leaving the flat area to instead head up in the mountains.
A few weeks later we were suddenly standing there with Xinjiang behind us. One out of four provinces completed.
Qinghai – province was next and now we were going uphill. For 106 miles more exactly. It felt strange that recently being in a flat and rather boring desert area and just a few days later cycling on the Tibetan high plateau with huge snowy mountains as neighbors. A very beautiful contrast for sure.
We came from an empty and sandy landscape to change it for an amazingly beautiful scenery filled with wildlife such as deer, sores, birds and foxes.
Dogs (big dogs) also told us about their presence. Dogs who had a as job to protect different cattle as well as scare the life out of cyclists.
So far this hasn’t really being a problem for me during this trip. The best, easiest and most effective thing to do when a dog is start to chase you is simply to stop. Chasing a cyclist that doesn’t move is no fun at all.
Instinctively, therefore, I stopped when this what is best described as a crossing between Stephen King’s “Cujo” and Beethoven comes flying towards me. Unfortunately, this creature did not have any desire to stop. Before I had the chance to react, the animal had jumped straight into the left side of the bike, biting and barking for all it’s worth. Fortunately, the left leg had react on it’s own and I am now on the right side of the bike with only the frame between me and the bloodthirsty dog.
For the first time in my thirty years of life I’m now practicing violence against an animal, as I put in a straight foot (a really nice kick I have to say) in the face of the monster. However, the dog now realize that it can actually just take a few steps forward and walk around the bike to now face my each other without the bicycle in between. A quick and hard kick over the skull of the dog will now prove to be enough. He/she/it walks away barking and, what I suspect, a bit surprised about the outcome. Just like myself.
My years at the soccer player had finally paid off. Unfortunately, not in the form of millions of dollars on my bank account but with a body that was still healthy enough to keep going.
Take that Cujo!
Towns and cities are now beginning to show up more frequently where most of the population consists of Tibetans and the Lamaism religion is widespread, even though we haven’t found ourselves within the borders of Tibet. There seems to be no upper limit for how many temples are considered necessary and everywhere you can see the typical Tibetan flags where the prayers printed on it’s fabric are spread with the wind. That’s the way it’s told anyway.
And, as you know, wind is something you as a cyclist almost can get obsessed about. Sometimes with a great feeling inside as you have it in your back. Sometimes the opposite when it acts as a wall and try pushing you back.
And then there is the the weather. From having experienced a rather comfortable temperature as well during the day as the night during our first weeks in China the weather now changes within minutes. A blue sky with a lovely sunshine can suddenly turn into a hail storm that soon poured into snowfall while storm winds threw us to every possible and impossible places.
Next to us, drivers were sitting in a safe place in heated vehicles with the tea in their hand. They probably wondered what we were actually doing. At least we did.
But when it came to the worst it was quite nice to have the world’s most positive Emil Jansson on my side. We just looked at each other, said something stupid to then laugh at the whole situation.
Considering this, the last few weeks have been fantastic in many ways.
We have traveled through a landscape we will never forget. We have climbed mountains day in and day out and we have been seen from locals as if we were aliens on two wheels.
Despite frozen bodies, tired legs and two stomachs that have been strangling lately, yet a nice feeling has begun to appear for each passing day. A nice feeling that keeps telling me that we are almost home. And home for me means Thailand. It has now been over a year since we took off from the orphanage in Muang Mai in southern Thailand. A year where every day has been filled with new impressions, meetings, challenges and lessons.
One year I would never like to have undone but at the same time it will be very nice to finish.
At the border a bunch of gentlemen are waiting from our sponsor Thai Airways and you never know what they will come up with during the three weeks we will cycle together. However, there is no doubt that it will be a good and fun time.
Before this will take place another meeting is expected. You may remember the Chinese legend, Mr Lee, who was mentioned in the beginning of this post…?
The fact that I met with Mr Lee was going to be one of the most amazing events that occurred during 2014’s adventure. We met the second day in China and he then asked if there was a chance for him to join me, Fredrik, Christofer and Tomi on our way east, towards Thailand. Of course he could and from that moment on he was part of the team who cycled the last 500 miles to the orphanage in Muang Mai.
Lee came to be a friend for life which I unfortunately haven’t seen since then. Now, however, he is only a few days away as we decided to meet in the city of Dali, about 125 miles from where I and Emil are now. Mr. Lee – see you soon…
Soon China will lay behind us and become history.
How did that actually happened?
To be continued…