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12) September 5th, Xijiang, China - Under the weather in Urumqi

China, at last! And I can almost see Japan...

It's almost Autumn, the mornings are cooler, the sun a little harsher and when it rains it's cold. After a month in Kyrgyzstan I blasted through the bottom right corner of Kazakhstan in two days, just long enough to experience a ferocious windstorm, and entered China's Xijiang province. Unmistakably Chinese, but with a strong flavour of Uighur, Uzbek and Kazakh. And a definite culture shock.

At the border town of Korgas, a waitress refused to serve me because I couldn't speak Chinese, and I thought "oh no, 5500km of this...". But it has happily proved to be the exception - people have been surprizingly friendly and genuine, and I'm wishing I spent some time on Chinese lessons before I came here.

China's a big place, and I'm looking at the options for my route to Shanghai. Do I continue as planned, and cycle all the way down the Silk Road to Shanghai, passing through desert and a lot of arid scrubland, or do get a train at some point to Sichuan to fit in some green mountain scenery before heading to Shanghai ? Something to think about for the next thousand kilometres or two...

20 august, Sat: Destination Lake Issy Kul. First time on the road in ten days... getting more & more difficult to leave. Last night a group of cyclists turned up and it would have been nice to hang around a little longer to chat - they had even heard of me from some locals ("This is Steve's field") on the way from Osh to Bishkek..

Legs really feeling it today - there was a headwind all day and the road to Issy Kul is a long upkill. Pretty busy with traffic, lined with trees for the most part, but pretty boring. The only amusement to be had was at a railway crossing when four or five tourists lept from the waiting mini-bus to excitedly take pictures of the oncoming tired-looking locomotive. My first Central Asian trainspotter ??

With all the rests I took, quite a pleasant day. Camped in the grounds of a dilapidated factory where the kind old watchman there left me in peace to my BBC World Service.

Distance: 107km. Overnight near Kemin (Kyrgzstan).

21 august, Sun: Legs in some pain today but onward to... Shoestring Gorge. A narrow winding gorge winding upwards for 40km. There was a cool breeze, a clear blue sky and the river flowing violently downwards at the side of the road. I really quite enjoyed it, infact, despite a now painful knee, some of my favourite cycling for a while.
After lunch, trying to get up from the table, I realised my body was not of the same inclination. Stiff painful legs, a raw backside and a really painful knee. The last 25km to Balykchy was hard, cycling slowly to keep the pressure off my left knee. My original plan was to cycle some way past the town and camp somewhere. However, that was now impossible. Found a hotel - rooms from $30 to $100! - but one of the security guys there offered to let me stay at his house for 100 Som ($2.5) instead. Phew!

Distance: 70km. Overnight in Balykchy (Kyrgzstan).


22 august, Mon: Having failed to spot the turn-off for the south shore of Issy Kul - my intended route - and noticing only 20km later I decided, after all, I'd be doing the north shore. The lake could be seen tantilizingly on my right about a kilometre off, seperated by fields, frustratingly near. To the left, hot looking mountains raised up like an impenetrable wall, seperating Kyrgyzstan from her northern neighbour, Kazahkstan (I sure hope they get a little smaller, thought I, realizing that I'd be crossing this mountain range in a few days).

Each village had a street leading down to the beach - quite a nice beach actually, sand with a bit of grass and a few trees. BBQs. Even donkey rides. And full of Kyrgz and Kazahk holidaymakers. Couldn't find a Russian "Kiss me quick" hat though.
Stopped for lunch at a roadside "yurt" - a string of cheesy looking yurts serving "lagman" for lunch. While I was waiting for mine I heard quite a commotion from the yurt next door. I was still waiting for my lagman and the noises got louder with the sound of crashing furniture. I peaked my head round the corner just in time to see a bloke come rolling out from the door, "Saloon Bar style", into the dust. Well that explained the delay of my lunch - I believe he was the cook.

Approaching Cholpon Ata villages took a more "holiday look" with shops renting out rubber dingies, armbands, etc, etc and billboards for lakeside resorts and sailing. And more & more Russians. Cholton Ata was the apex of it all. I didn't make it down to the beach but judging by the main street I knew enough - this was the Blackpool of Kyrgyzstan. I swiftly moved on, resisting the temptation to look for a game of bingo.

After Cholton Ata the traffic thinned out markedly, the road started undulating up and down and the surroundings started to become greener. However, the villages also looked a lot poorer - no cafes, only basic shops, Kyrgyz men lolling around on their haunches by the roadside, waiting for nothing...
I've noticed that since I left the mountains people are a lot more "cooler" towards me - and I like it. However, one guy on a scooter wasn't - he had a crazy look about him and drove right next to me when he wasn't swerving all over the road or cutting me up. And all the while he was "giving the finger" to oncoming traffic and pedestrians. Very alarming. Eventually his crap scooter gave up on him and I could shake him off.

Continuing on, a little faster than normal, I came to the village Ananyevo. Up to this point the lake had been visable to the right most of the time, and for one very short stretch actually by the road! However, now I was well inland - no blue lake in the distance. I asked someone directions to a cafe. Him and his mate led to a place just around the corner. Nice of them, I thought. They came in with me and sat down. Pretty sociable, I thought. Then they ordered exactly the same as I did. Oh... hungry as well, I thought, as they wolfed down their food in silence. When the bill came it was, strangely, three times the normal price. Bastards! They tried to convince me that this was the normal price for one person in their shabby little village, even after I'd shown them the menu. Meanwhile, while arguing about this, two old boys who were also in the cafe helped themselves to my cigarettes.
I paid half of what they asked (still way too much), told them all to F*** Off and cycled as fast as possible to put as much distance between this abysmal place and myself as possible.

Maybe everyone in this area is pissed off that they have no lake view, I don't know, but it was not a comfortable feeling cycling through the villages around here. I didn't trust anyone, so instead of asking permission to camp I waited until sunset and slipped unnoticed into a field to set up my tent. Later in the night I heard a horse & rider galloping past in the pitch-black, about 30 metres from my tent. I didn't sleep very easy.
Distance: 141km. Overnight near Ananyevo (Kyrgzstan).

23 august, Tue: A beautiful morning and great cycling: tall trees on either side throwing a cool early morning shade over the road, fields of rippened corn, the lake glittering down to the right and the mountains - so near! - rearing up to the left. The villages seemed relatively well-kempt, with many of the cottages painted white with sky-blue trimmings for the doors and windows.

I wore my dark sunglasses, an increasingly useful technique to avoid eye-contact and stupid remarks, but out of glares I received there were also a few waves. One group of little girls were waving like mad as I approached and jumped & down up excitedly as I waved back!
Passing the eastern boundry of the lake, I arrived in Karakol for lunchtime. Staying in a pleasant little guesthouse with an amazing room to myself - overlooking a courtyard, whitewashed walls, comfy armchairs and a double-bed. Oh, the irony.

Distance: 80km. Overnight in Karakol (Kyrgzstan).

24 august, Wed: A needed rest for my legs, bum and knee. As always, nice chatting to the other tourists, a few hardened alpinists among them. If all goes well, I have less than a week left in Central Asia. Enjoying the last of the Russian service industry: halfway through my lunch, while chewing a chicken-leg, the waitress suddenly presented me with the bill, slamming it down on the page of the book I was reading at that moment. I'm going to miss all this...

25 august, Thu: An idyllic day of cycling. A cold & cloudy start (it had rained through the night) - yes, it's getting cooler at last! I followed the road back to the town of Tup and then headed off on the narrow backroad leading to Kazakhstan. The sun was out, the lane practically devoid of cars - the only traffic being horse and carts. Passing through fields of corn on my right, the mountains (nearer & nearer) on my left, I could feel that people were much more good natured around here. Even the dogs looked at me with a mild, friendly curiousity. The road got rougher as the miles progressed but the views opened up into large grasslands, then into a green valley with tall pines lining the lower slopes and a blue river running through. And I had it almost all to myself! Kyrgyz "cowboys" could be seen on the rises of the hills, directing their livestock, and the sheepdogs were well disciplined, barking a warning at me and then retreating to a position nearer their herd.

I was invited in for chay and a bite to eat by a local family whose farm I was passing. Chay is now served with milk, already a change nearing the Kazahk border. They showed me their herd of horses - giving me an embarassing ride on one - and the smart 13 year-old son "translated" questions from the rest of the family into a form I could understand. His two baby sisters sat on the opposite side of the table, frozen in motion staring wide-eyed at me, soup dribbling from their open mouths.

The vista opened out and the road - totally unpaved now - wound gently upwards through large expanses of grassland. Really nice. Met two German cyclists coming the other way. On this road of all places! Turning off onto the long road leading up to the border post, huge mountains (the Tian Shan?) swung round to my right and very little traffic dropped to zero traffic. The cheery Kyrgyz border guard let me use his kitchen to cook my dinner and we had a good laugh together. His colleage came in a little later and I immediately didn't like the look of him. Sure enough, he asked me for a "present". I jokingly gave him a handshake and said "there you are", which he didn't find funny. Throughout my meal he was insistant on his "present" so I told him he'd get something when I finished. After packing up I gave him his present - a handful of walnuts. As this guy's face reddened with anger the other cheery guard helped me get the hell out of there.

By the time I got through the Kazakh side it was almost dark and the road was atrocious. On a nearby hill I asked a Kazakh family if I could camp next to their cottage. They insisted that instead I stay in their "wagon" - like a shed on wheels - complete with springy bed! They also invited me for chay and dinner. After successfully avoiding horse's milk for one month in Kyrgyzstan I was now faced with a meal in which every dish contained that dreaded substance as the main ingredient....

The sunset shed a warm glow on the Tian Shan mountain range that was absolutely beautiful. And the stars - wow! - I never knew there were so many.
Distance: 110km. Overnight near border (KAZAKHSTAN!)

26 august, Fri: This really is a nice way into Kazakhstan. The day started out a bit dismal though - cloudy and some rain. After farewells, and another horseride I continued on. A cafe I stopped in for an early lunch had chopsticks on the table! I must be getting close to China. A long road through grazing lands tended by Kazakh cowboys, and then time to descend from this plateau (2000m) into the plains below - a long thrilling ride through a steep, windy valley, a long road through a flat plain stretching for miles in the distance, then an almost sudden descent into a dry canyon, the climb out of it, and then a long straight hypnotic road through the arid plains. A good road and no traffic - I didn't see a vehicle for the entire time. After Shozney, instead of dry sandy plains there was now scrubland and marsh. The first potential camping place resulted in two dozen mosquitos attached to my arm, the next was okay - a track leading to a derelick building.
Distance: 130km. Overnight near Shonzy (Kazakhstan)

27 august, Sat: It was a terrifying night.
Just as I got into my tent the sky turned black, white lightening flashed overhead and enormous gusts of wind started trying to flatten the tent (and me). Each time it was blown almost horizontal and I was inside pushing it back up. A few hours later it became suddenly calm and their was a fantastic clear sky above. I guess this was the "eye of the storm" because before long I was woken up by the howling wind again. The tent was violently blown this way & that but it held firm. I was impressed.

All in all, a very rough day today. Monotonous scrubland under a dark cloudy sky. Passing the usual dismal border towns, the horses thinned out and the road became lined with foilage and low trees. Stopping in one cafe, a grizzled old guy spoke in English to me, complaining of Chinese occupation of his mother country, Uighur.
It started raining. 15km from the border it was now chucking it down. I was soaked through and freezing cold - deciding to stay in a hotel on the Kazakh side I was told that the border would be closed for the next three days so if I was in a hurry I'd best continue on... Very reluctantly I got back out there - it was torrential by now - and headed towards customs. A long laborious border crossing, incredibly busy, very chaotic and all the while I'm getting colder and colder.

I was the last one through the border - it was already 7pm Kazakh time (9pm Beijing time) - and what a complete culture shock. A garish red bazaar selling cheap Chinese goods, three-wheeled taxis shuttling back & forth, an entirely new set of languages... Got a hotel and decided to take a day off to dry out and "acclimatise". In the restaurant that evening, had my best meal in months while listening to a group of locals heartily singing Uighur songs. In this far north-western province of China, Uighur are the main indiginous people, but rapidly set to be be outnumbered by the Han Chinese.
Distance: 104km. Overnight in Korgas (CHINA!)

28 august, Sun - drying-out day in Korgas: Not a lot to do in Korgas. Long wide clean streets, lined by identical-looking buildings with brightly coloured signs in Chinese, Arabic (Uighur) and some Russian. Chay is now jasmine tea - lovely! - and like the Kazakhs, people are "cool" towards foreigners, but friendly when approached. Just as I like it. I think the town is predominantly Uighur - there's a lot of skull-caps and central asian dresses around. The food is great of course, but it's going to take me a while to get the hang of ordering it. In central asia it was so much easier - you had no choice.

29 august, Mon: A beautiful sunny day. Agriculture all around - corn and other crops laid out in the sun to dry. A smooth road, quite a lot of traffic (and bicycle traffic at that!) and a gradient that rose steadily - nothing like those ridiculous slopes of Kyrgrzstan. Some people smiled, some people gave the thumbs up, most just looked at me in jaw-dropping bemusement. Still, it's nice to stop and not suddenly have half a village gathered around you expecting entertainment.

The road was straight and up for a very long way. Passed one stretch of roadside restaurants - there were about fifty, no kidding, lined up one after the other, all with colourful garish signs. Great! The road entered a narrow winding gorge, quite alpine in places, and surprizingly quite a few yurts. There were lots of roadside stalls selling honey. The young couple who ran one of them called me over to treat me to jasmine tea and some freshly baked bread & honey. Their friends popped over and we all mimed tolerably well. Really nice people. They showed me the calling card left by a German couple travelling by horse (!) who had stopped by a few months earlier.

The gorge was lovely - rocky and green, pine trees and a half-dry river - and the not-too-harsh gradient meant slow but steady progress. Coming over the pass, at 2100m, there was the huge vista of Lake Sayram below, surrounded by a ring of mountains. Nice.

And, after successfully avoiding it in Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan, I'm afraid I gave in to temptation and decided to stay in a (solar powered) Yurt. What a tourist.
Distance: 86km. Overnight at Lake Sayram (China, Xijiang Province)

30 august, Tue: The Chinese resort "shack" down by the lakeside and the sounds of crap karaoke love songs and crap singers kept me awake till late last night. Woke up to a miserable, miserable day. The spectacular dawn I was expecting was a dull grey, soon to become driving rain. I "sealed" myself as much as I could: rain-trousers, thermal jacket, gore-tex top, plastic-bags on my feet... but after an hour cycling past the lake, my feet & hands were soaked through and very cold. After another hour, descending from the 2000m plateau, they were frozen and my face stinging from hard drops of rain pelting me at 50kph. Arriving at a roadside stall there was no feeling in my fingers and I struggled to get my useless gloves off.

Feeling better after some hot food, and with the rain having stopped I continued on. The road ran parallel to the massive spine of the Tian Shan range on the right, very close, and a more distant range to the left. In between, scrubland. The villages I passed were depressing: a line of faceless single-story brick buildings, iron-grills on the windows and a padlocked steel door - could be a home, a shop or a garage... the only distinguishing mark might be a few Chinese characters painted on the wall or a faded sign. Again, reactions generally neither friendly nor unfriendly, and a smile or a nod on my part has no effect. But when someone does, out of the blue, smile or waves it makes it that much more special!

Found myself on an almost completed, practically deserted motorway for about 70km. There is some serious construction going on in this country. In this, the remotest province of China, they are building flyovers to service half-derelict villages. Just on the outskirts of Jinghe, my ambitious destination for the day, stopped in a friendly roadside restaurant for a bowl of that old central asian favoutite, "lagman", and watched a selection of Uzbek pop-videos. Ahhh.. nostalgia! Central asia is still very much a part of Xijiang province. And in the town itself, a cheerful Chinese family helped me to find a decent hotel and bargain down the price on my behalf.

In the evening there was some remarkable - remarkable - hawking and spitting going on in the corridor.
Distance: 151km. Overnight in Jinghe (China, Xijiang Province)

31 august, Wed: Back on the motorway again today - and a glorious sunny day it was. The monotony of the road got to me and I decided to take the next turn-off: a sign in Chinese pointed to a town down a bumpy paved road, so I took it. It went on and on and on. Not a single vehicle passed me, only some bedraggled forlorn looking Chinese guy walking to/from goodness-knows-where. Later, I passed one small compound of mud-brick houses - the town I presume - and a small factory of some kind. This was the only chance in miles I'd seen to get back on to the motorway but as I got near a vicious-looking guard-dog - unleased - got very excited and this one looked like he meant business. So, my tail between my legs, I returned to the bumpy road. Once in a while there would be a dirt road heading perpendicular off into the hazy desert. Where on earth do these lead, I wondered.

Eventually found a track back to the motorway and only left it again later to get lunch at Todok - half a chaotic street of decrepid buildings, restaurants and workshops, and half pastel coloured multistoried banks, appartment blocks and government offices, under construction.
I like the way how everyone politely leaves me alone when I'm eating, and then gather round in their dozens afterwards. When answering how far I've cycled, someone will invariably squeeze the tyres, prod my legs, and nod knowingly.

Back on the highway, the women are also doing the heavy roadwork, as well as the odd "chain gang" - prisoners doing hard labour watched over by machine-gun toting, mirrored-sunglass wearing prison guards. Everybody seems to be working on this highway!

Camped on a large dry plain, out of sight of the road (and the "Public Service Bureau"!)
Distance: 147km. Overnight nr Usu (China, Xijiang Province)

1 september, Thu: Almost a complete F*** of a day. In the morning a flash of hot water collapsed in my hands, scalding arm & leg, and then a soul-destroying headwind. Took a "village road" through fields which turned into a lane which turned into a mud track which turned into a gravel flood-plain, with tons & tons of chilli peppers laid out flat to dry. Then there was a river infront of me. Back the way I came, and onto the main road. Didn't make my goal for the day, but got to the town before. And a nice hotel room with a decent discount ("look, I cycled all the way from England!"). Had a great meal - "sagwa" - a spicy broth of thin noodles, veggies, eggs, etc, on the street watching people bustling around me and listening to karaoke from, well, everywhere. I kinda liked it. Oh - and I broke the 9000km barrier.
Distance: 116km. Overnight in Savan (China, Xijiang Province)


2 september, Fri: Today I started to hawk and spit.
You just can't help it - closer to Urumqi the pollution thickens and the cold I've been holding off for the last few days has finally started to hit me. However, a tailwind for most of the day carried me into Hutubi, coughing and spluttering. Dinner in a little Kazakh restaurant - I ordered in Russian.
Distance: 110km. Overnight in Hutubi (China, Xijiang Province)

3 september, Sat: Woke late with a heavy head - my cold was worse. Reluctantly headed off into the sunshine towards Urumqi. A lot of traffic, I somehow ended up on the motorway again, and I was spitting up so much flem while riding I think I caused even some of the locals consternation. The ride lasted an eternity - and there was also a headwind.

Urumqi - capital of Xijiang province and my first Chinese city. But because of all the roads, expressways, buildings, people, shops, etc it was difficult to know when I'd actually arrived. Infact after 2 hours spent on roads going in circles I was more than a little pissed off, deciding that I hated the place already (assuming I was in it..). Eventually got my bearings, picked up my parcel of maps from the post-office and was told of this pleasant youth hostel by an American cyclist. Feeling better now.
Distance: 90km. Overnight in Urumqi (China, Xijiang Province)

4 september, Sun - a couple days off: It's an affluent city - slick new buildings popping up everywhere, flashy stores, shopping-malls, department stores, nice cars, people in a hurry...but a withered old man, kneeling in the middle of the pavement, arms outstretched wide to the heavens, begging for a few yuan...
It's an interesting mix of old & new. Between the new People's Park and the luxury supermarket is the nightmarket, a dazzlingly array of stalls and food-stands, pedicabs, people, dodgy electrical cabling (a girl's shoe short-circuits a row of lights in a flurry of blue sparks)... still reassuringly chaotic.

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