I was loving the sounds of flowing water, the smell of vegetation and the shade of trees. Two weeks battling the desert is enough for anyone to see things in a new light. I had made it to Urumqi – a place that claims to be both at the geographic centre of the Asian Continent and the world’s farthest city from the sea. It feels like the middle of nowhere, but it’s far from that.
This land, this part of the world; it tortures people. For hundred of kilometres I could see snow capped peaks in the distance yet, in the vast expanse of desert, it was hot and miserably dry. The wind was so strong at times it was almost impossible to cycle. Towards Urumqi huge wind farms flood the surrounding area and power most of the province. I wasn’t surprised at all when I found out it’s one of the windiest places on earth. The oasis in the desert provided probably as much welcome for me as it did for those who travelled part of the ancient silk road a thousand years ago. There is something special about being isolated for such a long time. Among the green trees and the sounds of flowing water, I felt that special connection with the earth that was so real, so dependent and so easily under appreciated.
For centuries this land has been a gateway, a hub of trade linking the east and the west. Now it’s a frontier town that’s sadly being turned into just another Chinese city. The way the Chinese move into these areas and maintain order is by flooding these towns with Han Chinese. Lured by tax breaks, huge cash payments and the desire for better lives, they end up pouring in, quite literally in their millions. Just like in Tibet, the existing minorities (who were once not long ago the majority) are swept aside, their culture relegated to the sidelines to become cheap labour and another tourist attraction.
As much as I hate to admit it, I found comfort in the city, fellow travellers in the guest house and a wide selection of just about everything I wanted at the local giant Carrefour (a French version of Walmart). I had a welcome rest in Urumqi waiting for the Kazakhstan visa.
Getting the visa was an interesting affair. Crowds of people lined the street outside the Kazakh Embassy. Iron gates manned by two guards prevented them getting in. I was told that all I had to do was show my foreign passport and I’d be let in. Sure enough, I pushed through and the guard let me slip through the gate. I felt guilty as soon as I stepped through the crowd. Something didn’t sit well. I came back a week later and the crowd was still there. I was actually a day early to pick up my visa but I didn’t want to wait another weekend in Urumqi. I decided to try my luck and walked in all confident like asking for my visa. It worked and I had my Kazakh visa by the afternoon!
Refreshed and energised, I set out from Urumqi, turning south into the Tian Shan Mountains. It was a small detour to Kazakhstan but one that would take me out of the desert and into the high plateau of the local ethnic Uighur people. It was a long climb along a valley to the river’s source. At 4000 meters it appeared there was no way out. I was surrounded by snow capped peaks and massive sheer escarpments. But, sure enough, along a winding road full of switchbacks, the Chinese had built a road on fallen rubble. It climbed about 500 vertical meters to a huge cutting in the rock at the top of the pass. It felt like the glacier nearby was in spitting distance most of the time. The huge wall of ice sat beside the road, ever present and ever massive. At the top of the pass I helped some stranded locals. It seemed that they’d forgotten to maintain pressure in their spare tyre and, having put it on the car, they discovered it was flat. I lent them my tiny bicycle pump and waited half an hour for them to pump up the car tyre; each man taking it in shifts. There was nobody else around for miles and I wondered what they would have done if I hadn’t come along.
On the other side of the pass I found a lush green valley, crystal clear flowing water and amazingly fresh mountain air. I cycled along the river on the other side following a high plateau full of yak herds, mountain sheep and yurts. I discovered local cuisine, found fresh bread for the first time since leaving Nepal and tasted fermented mare’s milk, salty/bitter balls of mare’s cheese and this delicious dish of rice and carrot stewed in mutton. It was a welcome change from noodles and dumplings. At the end of the plateau I cycled up another pass, camping in the grassy hills when the wind picked up in the afternoon. A local shepherd came by on his horse and sat with me for most of the afternoon. He tied a rope around the front of the horse’s legs so that it wouldn’t run off. Unable to speak a word together, we watched this amazing bank of storm clouds roll over the mountains from the other valley.
Over the second pass I found my oasis. Lush green pine forest covered the hills. I cycled along a smooth road following a raging river. I’d missed the forest and delighted in being among wild trees and rivers again. I took shelter with locals in yurts and enjoyed the many invitations for tea and lunch. It was now 300 kilometres to Kazakhstan and the riding was good. I was looking forward to getting to Kazakhstan. It was a part of the world I’d always wanted to visit. It intrigued me like China did while I was in South East Asia because I knew so little … and in the middle of the route west were the famous Pamir mountains, a frontier between worlds, countries and peoples. Not on the silk road, it’s a mecca for long distance cyclists. Wedged between the Tian Shan mountains of Central Asia, the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan and Karakhoram and Kunlun mountains in China, the area is as harsh as it is beautiful, as diverse as it is unique and as intriguing and as remote as Tibet.
It felt of adventure!
View the photos of Far West China here: https://picasaweb.google.com/CycleStrongman/FarWestChina?authuser=0&feat=directlink