THE flashing blue and red lights of the police car fill my groggy brain as I follow it through the neon-lit streets of a Chinese city.
I’m tired, cold and still in shock at what can only be described as one hell of a day – or one hell of a week – and I’ve got a nagging suspicion the fun isn’t over.
Here, in the depths of the far western Xinjiang provence, tourist movements are tightly controlled by the ever paranoid government making everything from hotel stays to wild camping a challenge. And we’ve just learned the hard way about what happens to those stupid enough to “cheat” the system.
Already Almaty, Kazakhstan, feels like a life time ago, but in reality it’s been nine days since we pedalled out of the cosmopolitan hub as a team of four. Having met Jonathan, a young British cyclist with a big personality, in Osh and then again in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) we decided to continue the journey east to the Chinese city of Urumqi together with our French companion Bertrand.
Fellow travellers had warned of the cold weather set to sweep the nation but we shoved our fears aside and pushed into the underwhelming and barren wilderness along the A351 to China via the optimistically touted “Grand Canyon of Kazakhstan”.
We’d clocked 75km out Almaty when we pitched our tents in a sheltered field and while we were a new group of four it didn’t take long to swing into a rhythm of pasta dinners, fart jokes and whinging about the weather.
The cold cranked up a notch the following day and as the small and frequent villages disappeared in lieu of wide, open plans framed by snow capped mountains the wind began to bite.
By late afternoon we found a hidden field to pitch and escape the looming grey storm clouds (as well as the cold) just beyond dark, while shivering in my sleeping bag, the rain began to pound with gusto. I remembered the bleak predictions of snow – but what we got was so much more.
The wind revved up into gale force through the night forcing the tent to buck and sway in the torrential rain. I wondered if our little “three season” house would make it or if we’d wake to water views but just after 4am it wasn’t water that came gushing in.
The deluge had long turned into a snow storm and huge white banks of the stuff had banked up against the tent and been swept in by the howling wind.
By morning it had found its way into the inner layer and I woke to misty icicles raining down on my face.
Outside the barren landscape had turned into a winter wonderland with almost a foot of snow surrounding our tents and more to come.
It was after 8am when the intense storm had died down enough for us to emerge (Jonathan’s poor little “one man” had fared the worse and looked a few flakes off caving in) and it was after 9am that we set off, cold wet and hungry. Our bikes had all but frozen (including the gear and brake cables) making cycling a dangerous venture and our tents were icy inside and out.
With the use of one spin gear I pedalled on grumpily behind the others and half an hour later a roadside cafe came into view. I could have kissed its snowy steps out of sheer relief but instead decided to bolt inside in my wet gear to the alarm of the waitress.
Just like every crumbling cafe in Central Asia the menu didn’t extend beyond gristly “lagman” and chai but today it might as well have been an Italian feast.
By 5pm we’d covered 40km along a cold, open plateau and so camped behind the only protection available, a snowy mound.
The temperature plummeted to around -10 and dinner was scoffed down in record time before we dove into our still frozen tents.
To ensure last night’s fiasco wasn’t repeated I brought my water inside while stuffing extra clothes into my sleeping bag but by 7am it was clear the elements had won.
My bottle was frozen and the tent resembled a rather feeble igloo. Outside our bikes (carefully placed under the tarp) were again frozen with long icicles hanging off the cables and cassette.
We had little choice but to melt the nearby snow for our morning coffees and porridge and later gaped in wonder as the dregs of our coffee froze within 30 minutes.
The foul weather had forced us to reconsider the canyon detour and we instead set our sites on China.
Just under 200km lay between us and what felt like the final far east country and after almost three tough months in Central Asia it couldn’t come quick enough.
We pumped the pedals for 60km until we reached the rustic town of Shonzhy and after stopping almost every person we met for directions we found ourselves outside of a run-down looking hotel.
We were expecting (and frankly didn’t care) a rat den but inside the warm and cosy establishment offered clean rooms and a hot shower for the bargain price of $5 each. We decorated our little room with our sopping clothes and tent and then ventured out for more of Central Asia’s finest cuisine – chewy mutton, rice and a suggestion of vegetables.
A warm bed inside is a hard thing to let go of and so in a desperate attempt to continue this luxurious trend we pumped out 90km to the next and last real city of Kazakhstan before the border.
It was near dusk when we rocked up to the first hotel (parked over a karaoke bar) and despite the enchanting decor of cheesy Central Asian disco and mouldy, peeling wallpaper we dove in (later falling asleep to the pitter patter of rats running inside the walls).
There was just 40km left to the border the next day but rumours of over vigilant Chinese police inspired us to pedal just a half day to within a stone’s throw and tackle the crossing the following. Fellow bikers had warned of having their luggage completely torn apart during searches (not to mention ruthless checks of all electronic devices) and so we used the extra time to delete all our porn (just kidding) and make sure we had no “China unfriendly” books or medication in our kit.
In the end we cycled just 20km until we’d reached a sandy camp spot behind an abandoned building which turned out to be a rather underwhelming final camp spot for Central Asia.
Our nerves and emotions were at an all time high the following morning and while we knew much of western China would be similar to what we were leaving it felt like a major milestone.
Just 16 months ago Scott and I had pedalled out of a northern Scottish town with the wide-eyed look of two naive travellers and had undergone some pretty bloody steep learning curves since. We’d come close to breaking point, been bowled over by the weird, the wonderful and the fabulous and learned what already felt like a life time of lessons.
The lesson we’d failed to remember however, was to always expect the unexpected.
China’s border crossing turned out to be a seamless and downright pleasant experience as we hauled our bikes through the empty yet highly efficient building. Smiles and greetings from the crisp and well trained employees followed us through a mere x-ray of our bags and soon we were out the other side into another world.
Central Asia had not just evaporated in the space of a few kilometres, it was a whole universe away.
Gleaming high rises and flashing, talking billboards lined the immaculate and wide highway into the border town of Khorgos while Chinese letters glittered from every wall. On the other side there’d been a few rusty shacks and some mangy dogs.
Smiling drivers in flashy four-wheel drives leaned out of their cars to take snaps of us on their smart phones while rumbling tuk-tuks belching grey smoke hurtled along the highway shoulder.
I was in complete culture shock while grinning from ear to ear and by early afternoon we’d found a posh restaurant to enjoy our first Chinese buffet.
The waitress brought out a new iPad on which we were to place our order and soon after we were tucking into steaming dishes of chicken, pork, tofu and fried dumplings accompanied by bottomless cups of tea. Words can’t describe the pleasure of eating such an array of flavours and vegetables after so much deprivation.
By the time we’d finished it was late afternoon (owing to the fact that we’d lost two hours converting to Beijing time) and I was reluctant to move. An enormous saddle sore in a place I’d rather not mention had me walking and cycling like John Wayne and I was determined to sleep indoors.
What we hadn’t counted on however, was the difficulty in doing just that.
China is paranoid at the best of times but since riots rocked the Xinjiang provence a couple of years ago the police had all but shut it down to foreigners.
Hotels had been stripped of their “tourist” license, meaning just a select couple of (generally five star places) retained the right to house foreigners.
We were told a firm no at the first couple of establishments we ventured into and afterwards gave it up for a lost cause and pedalled out of the city.
But the city came with us. High-rises gave way to run down shanties in a stark juxtaposition and by dusk we wondered if we’d find a free patch of dirt to pitch, let alone something hidden.
In the end we begged help off a few startled looking apple farmers who laughed and then pointed us to a nearby house.
We wheeled our bikes into the yard but a man and woman quickly followed us and gestured that it was cold and we should sleep inside.
They lit the furnace, gave me pride of place on the bed, and told the boys to sleep on the floor.
The road to Urumqi (which is 900km from Almaty and 650km from the border) is generally flat and with one teensy exemption – a small 2000 metre pass.
The following day we were due to hit it and after just 40km of pedalling we reached the the snow line.
Unlike its Central Asian neighbours the Chinese know how to build a road (relaxed gradients, nice asphalt – you name it) so we felt confident we’d fly up the pass and perhaps pitch near the top that evening.
Just two hours later the weather had again turned foul and to make matters worse our highway had become a prison.
Huge fences, hemmed in the road making it impossible for us to just duck off the side and camp while the snow thickened and the wind blew.
There was little to do but hope a house popped up on the horizon and an hour later the god of cycling answered our prayers.
We’d managed just over 50km when a cluster of official looking buildings popped up on the left and we quickly pedalled up the icy exit and plonked ourselves in front the largest of the buildings.
I decided to play the pathetic female again and hauled Bertrand inside with me while Scott and Jono guarded the bikes.
It was almost deserted and eventually we stumbled across an ambulance officer.
He spoke a fraction of English and with my best pet lip and exaggerated shiver I asked if we could stay.
“No please, No!” He said emphatically but I wasn’t going to be deterred.
“If we stay outside we die,” I whined.
“Please it’s so cold, you can’t let us die.”
In the end he didn’t and we were shown into a spotless six-bed dorm with a flat screen TV and wonderful heating for the night for the price of a smile.
Dinner, we were told, would be in an hour.
After a hearty meal of steamed buns, noodles, meat and tofu (followed by an equally awesome breakfast the next day) we farewelled our highway patrol heroes and pushed on up the pass amid a steady stream of snow.
We’d filled our bottles with boiling water before leaving and just two hours later (after a 15km bloody cold push to the tops) our bottles were frozen almost solid.
A series of tunnels and even an enormous bridge had negated the need for serious leg pumping but the cold weather made it brutal.
For 30km we pushed along the plateau and by time the gentle descent approached we were shaking.
The tough wind meant we had to pedal but even still it was the most bitterly cold downhill I’d experienced. Scott was even worse off. His gloves were thinner and he admitted he’d feared frostbite the whole way down.
To make matter worse this seemed to be the one part of China that was empty and for five long, cold hours we pedalled on seeing little but abandoned shepherd’s huts. By late afternoon, having cycled 100km, a petrol station and restaurant finally popped into view and we raced in and scoffed down steaming bowls of noodles and buns.
We reluctantly rolled out of the small hamlet down the prison-esque highway in the hope we’d find a camp spot but in the end we got one better – an abandoned crack house.
After rolling our bikes carefully over the guard rail and underneath the road tunnel we popped out on the other side to an abandoned cluster of shacks and set up in the least filthy (with the most windows).
The left over grog bottles and paraphernalia suggested it was once a big “party” place but it was out of the cold and after jamming the door shut with a wooden plank we felt safe.
It was late morning when we rolled out of our party house and the efforts of the past nine days crashed down on me. My thighs felt weak and sluggish and Scott’s backside was causing him grief. So far our maps had proved pretty fruitless in ever expanding China but we felt confident a decent city awaited in 65km and so pushed on with the promise of a hotel and perhaps even a day off.
One slow, boring ride later we’d reached a hotel with the help of some locals and while the disinterested receptionist didn’t speak a word of English we were offered a room for about $10 each.
Jono and Bertrand ducked back out in search of a sim card and Scott and I kicked back to finally relax.
Then came the knock on the door.
Our now unsmiling receptionist wanted us to leave.
Using Google translate she insisted we could not stay as their hotel did not accept foreigners. I was baffled. They’d let us in, waited over an hour until we’d got comfortable, and then come in to boot us out.
We argued, we ranted, we gestured wildly around us and in the end, after admitting defeat, said they couldn’t kick us out until our friends returned.
Unfortunately that wasn’t until 8pm.
They were shocked and angry and tried to reopen the argument with the pathetic receptionist but to no avail. By 9pm she threatened to call the police but Jono (who was afraid we’d be left stranded in a city with no hotels to take us in) called her “bluff” and said we were staying and she could do what she liked. Despite this I felt uneasy. I had looked forward to this rest for days and I knew we’d get anything but with the constant threat of eviction. Our useless receptionist had not bothered to help us find a suitable hotel and so I decided to march back out there and tell her we weren’t leaving until we were guaranteed somewhere to go.
I wrenched the door open and came face to face with two police officers who were just about to knock. I’m still not sure who was more surprised.
In the end the dirty snitch had called the police but thankfully they were everything she wasn’t – kind, helpful, patient and English speaking.
They apologetically said we couldn’t stay but that they would lead us to a suitable, cheap hotel and so at 10pm we trundled out into the cold, dark streets of Jinghe following the flashing blue and red lights.
And so here I am.
Already, after just five days in this enormous country, we’ve experienced the full gamut. Everything from technology, to attitudes and most importantly the cuisine (Central Asian is bloody awful) has blown us away and for the first time in months we’re lapping up so many new flavours it’s sometimes tough to process them all.
The enormous western city of Urumqi now lies just under 400km away and with the renewed spirits that only a day off can bring (spent largely in the luxury of our approved hotel) we’re again ready to hit the road.