Sandstorms and scorpions

*I’m now more than halfway to my destination, and still trying to reach my target of raising £5,000 for CLIC Sargent and Hope and Homes for Children. If you like what you read, please donate*

[This post should have been released two weeks ago but after contact with a professional journalist, who gave me the advice that under no circumstances should what I’ve written about Kashgar be posted while I’m still in China, it’s now been heavily edited…

Here is the now butchered post, I’m actually in Jiayuguan, 1000km east from where this was written but I’ll add that microjourney to another post otherwise this one will end up being vast]

I’m now in Turpan, another ancient Silk Road city and the second lowest place on the planet. It’s been 23 days and 2000km since I set off from Kashgar. Through the middle of a desert and its sandstorms, over mountains with their vultures and along roads swarming with police checkpoints cluelessly checking your passport for anywhere up to two hours.

Kashgar was interesting to say the least, I’m sure a shadow of its former self, a hollow husk, the last dying breaths of a culture, turned into a zoo for Chinese tourists. At least that’s the impression I got and I think that’s all I can say, as I said at the end of my last post, I felt many parallels could be drawn with Orwell’s 1984.

All I’ll say is that there’s a very heavy police presence, yet it’s a relatively calm, quiet and safe city, although totally neutered. I suppose the really interesting thing about the city is, not only its current situation, but also its more than 2000-year-old history and culture. The Id Kah mosque that stands centre stage in the now mostly fake old town was built in 1442. Knowing how old the city is, it has a certain aura to it that ignites your imagination and leaves you imaging what it would have been like 50, 100, 500, 1000 years ago. Marco Polo even mentioned the city in his memoirs.

Something that gains a foothold in everyone’s memory when they travel is food. In Kashgar and Xinjiang in general it isn’t Chinese, but more central Asian, with lamb kebabs, lagman noodles – the same as in Kyrgyzstan – and the Plov, or Polo as it’s called in Kashgar, is the best I’ve had in Central Asia, less oily in some restaurants, with very tender slow cooked meat often still on the bone. There’s also dumplings which are also the same as in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and even Russia, they’re called Mante and often filled meat, pumpkin, or a green grass-like herb in spring.

Although now I know about the artificiality of many parts of the old town, it’s still beautiful and there is still life and character there, children are constantly playing in the streets while vendors can be seen cooking the local lamb kebabs and the artisan metal workers create copper-ware right on the street front with a small furnace. The old town was mostly demolished and rebuilt with streets now comfortably wide enough to fit riot vans down. There is only one small portion of the old town that remains but it’s now no longer open to foreigners and after two repeated attempts to sneak in, being caught both times, me and a few other travellers gave up trying to see it.

When you walk around the streets of the ‘old’ town of Kashgar you will notice a lot of shops that are shut and get a sense that this place should be alive with people, buzzing with activity, especially in the evenings such as at the ‘night market’ which used to be open until the early hours of the morning, sometimes until 5am with people sitting around the Kazan eating food, drinking tea and talking, but it’s now shut at 9pm with a curfew dissolving another of these activities which must have acted as a social glue of the community.

There is a 100-year-old tea house in the ‘old’ town of Kashgar, so I went in to drink some tea with all the old men. There I watched a man sit for Chinese tourists, cross-legged against a patterned wall in his traditional clothing with his drum, and listened to him sing what I assumed to be a traditional song. It wasn’t very good, but it made me want to cry, I felt I was witnessing the death of a culture. As I watched I could see the discomfort crossed with passion and anger in this man’s face as he sat there for the Chinese tourists to photograph him. I looked around the room and saw all the other middle-aged and elderly men sitting cross legged drinking their tea with their bread, watching in what appeared to be disgust, everyone looked downcast and ashamed. Overall, I’m glad I spent enough time in Kashgar to get a feel for the place, I enjoyed my time there but for obvious reasons I’m not desperate to return.

I set off from Kashgar with a slight sense of anxiety about the problems I knew I would face with police checkpoints, trying to make my way 1800km east and north to Turpan, taking the more exciting circuitous route through the desert, adding 400km to my journey. They became a formality, a frustration I became used to and accepted. The experience developed my patience, taught me a healthy disregard for authority and a lot about people, such as how to behave to speed up the laborious process of passport checks. They’re done by men and women dressed in riot gear who have shotguns or metal spike poles but are wearing Nike trainers, their shirts are untucked and they’re standing there picking their nose reading your passport upside down. After fifteen minutes you realise they think you’re from Germany. As a foreigner there’s nothing to be feared from the police here apart from lost time, they’re actually friendly and kind, asking if you want water and even if you’re hungry, which I’ve taken advantage of and been taken into the police station kitchen for something to eat.

Crossing the vast Taklamakan was a challenge I enjoyed hugely and nowhere near as ‘bad’ as I imagined. ‘Taklamakan’, translated from the Turkic Uyghur language, means ‘you can get into it but you can never get out’. It is the largest desert in China and the second largest moving desert in the world, known by other names such as The Desert of No Return and The Sea of Death.

With nearly 600km of desert road to contend with, I often imagined seeing myself from space, looking at the desert, and then zooming in to see a tiny dot make the seemingly slowest of progress, like a snail trying to traverse a hot tennis court. You know it will never make it and I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for the regular 100km petrol stations and small shops. Despite the trepidation, it was relatively easy to be honest, apart from dragging my fully loaded touring bike with its 10+ litres of water up and over sand dunes every evening out of sight of the road and then back in the morning, it definitely makes you stronger.

My bike, laden with 10 litres of water

Looking out away from the ribbon of tarmac the dunes stretch endlessly into the distance reminding me of why this desert has the name that it does, the desert of no return seems fitting for this place, I imagined the bravery/stupidity it must have taken to attempt to cross this vast space with little knowledge of what lay in between you and the other side, which happens to be nothing or so I thought… There have been archaeological finds within the desert of villages presumably surviving around desert oasis. Mummies have been found at these sites, interestingly not of Asian descent but more European looking with red hair, documented to have had blue or green eyes, but they weren’t European, rather they belonged to this region as the original Kyrgyz people before the rise of the Mongol empire.
With wind on most days the heat was never overwhelming, especially when it picked up even more and entirely blocked out the sun, creating the new problem of a violent sandstorm that lasted all day and made me wonder if they ever get any worse. All day I cycled with a powerful crosswind, in a yellow orange glow created by the dust and sand filling the air and every crevice of me, my bike and luggage. The worst was the sand that made it into my nose, as I tried to breath with my mouth closed, I started to worry that if it continued for a few days I could get silicosis. Somehow, I enjoyed this day immensely, I think partly because it was so surreal: visibility down to 40m, high winds, the orange glow and the sand… everywhere, swirling across the road in snake-like filaments. I felt like I was in Frank Herbert’s Dune or a Star Wars/Mad Max movie.

I wasn’t alone for the entire desert journey, people stopped to give me water and food, took photos with me and on my fifth day, two Chinese guys Zhang and Guangzao (I’ve spelt that wrong) stopped on motorbikes to chat. It was already late in the day, maybe 6pm. We rode the motorbikes into the dunes out of sight of the road, dragged the bike over as well, started a fire and got some rice cooking in a pressure cooker one of them was carrying. Zhang then rode to the next inhabited place and bought a fried duck, peanuts and beer. After he arrived back we sat and tried to communicate while consuming all of the food and beer, listening to music and watching the fire. The next morning Zhang wanted me to ride his motorbike 50m out of the dunes which I was more than happy to do, I was elated to be riding something with an engine again.

The next day I took off as a ‘rest day’ in the desert on my own, in the dunes, trying to relax but mostly sweating and reading in my tent. I’m not sure how much rest I got but I enjoyed it. I check the inside of my shoes every morning and that day it paid off. Peering back at me from the inside of my shoe was a scorpion which I think might have ruined my week or maybe even my month. Three days after my scorpion-infested day off in the desert and I was out, the dunes shifting to irrigated farmland.

It seemed bizarre to me that I had done it, I remember back in England looking at the map talking to a friend over messenger who laughed after pointing out the huge desert, googling it, and telling me it was known as the desert of no return, asking me what I was going to do about it. I remember the little hit of adrenaline I got imagining cycling through it, then telling him I would do it, I would cycle 600km through the desert.

As has been the case so many times on this trip, the imaginings of my mind are far more painful and scary than reality, which you take one hour or day at a time and end up enjoying immensely. They become the best bits.

Another common theme on this journey has been the kindness of strangers, which I experienced more of on my passage to Turpan. Although they won’t be able to read this, I want to thank the Chinese lady who filled my cooking pot with an enormous stir fry and gave me bags of crisps, water and boiled eggs, I tried repeatedly to give her money but failed. Also Osman and Rinah who gave me tea with my lunch and a huge bag of nuts and dried fruit to take with me. Again I valiantly tried to pay, but they weren’t having any of it.

So 23 days after leaving Kashgar and 1800km later, through desert and another mountain range, I arrived at the youth hostel in Turpan and had my first shower – more a kind of three showers in one until I was fully clean – and washed my biohazard clothes twice.

I’ll now continue heading east on a mostly unplanned route, the road and people have been treating me well and I’m excited about what the rest of China will bring, hopefully I can avoid some of the smog and most of the 100 cities with over 1 million people in this vast country. I’m now over the 10000km mark! Another 4 or 5 to go! Not that I’m counting them, it’s the journey, not the destination.

*I’m now more than halfway to my destination, and still trying to reach my target of raising £5,000 for CLIC Sargent and Hope and Homes for Children. If you like what you read, please donate*

China Cycle touring

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