After a fleeting passage trough Kazajistan, we say goodbye to Almaty, a luxurious city where the money seems to have wings. From our window of Tass’s apartment, our WarmShowers, seeing a beautiful sunset… at morning we’ll be going towards China.
Our fisrt contact… bus “made in China”. Due to long distances in this part of the world, there are buses with beds instead of seats, and Zigor can assure you that “size does matter”.
All cyclists we had meet who had travelled in China, agreed in one thing… Chinese are the best build highways… I point out, that they are maybe the best in terms of security, comfort, grade and I guess some more other things… but I think they just ignored the environmental impact.
After 24 hours we were already in Urumqi, at half-way of the stage. Our first impression had nothing to do with the romantic idea we had in mind… high buildings full of lights, clean streets, everything so similar… though hubbub of people talking or rather shouting, and toilets looking in a way that prevented you for crossing the door.
It’s what it looks like… the first time we saw it we couldn’t believe that they sold vacuum packaged chicken feet and all kind of meat but nothing in fridge… it was the first sign that food here wasn’t so reliable, except if you don’t care eating food full of preservatives, emulsifier, stabilizer and all this kind of things.
Lolita, here young people named themselves with an English name to make it easier to foreigners (or aliens like Chinese government call us) so, Lolita tried to teach us some words… the thing began well… with just “Hello”, “Thank you”, “How much”… but then, the sentences became more and more complicated and she kept up writing all what she wanted to teach us, first in English, then in Chinese and finally the pronunciation… in this way she filled up the whole sheet taking advantage of any little space for teaching us… as a result… an illegible hieroglyphic.
Finally, we arrived to Xining where we had a rest and enjoyed our first Chinese meal in China, just before knowing how happily they use monosodium glutamate (E621) which is a flavour enhancer that, at first, could seem inoffensive because it’s one of the most common non essential amino acids in the nature but it’s very harmful for our organisms. You might have heard about Chinese restaurant syndrome, well, this syndrome is caused by glutamate.
There we met our friends Laura and Aitor and Ibon, Aitor’s friend coming from Spain. We were ready for our next stage… two months in the east part of Tibet and one more through Yunnan up to Laos border… we had in front of us two visa extensions, mountains, rivers, monasteries… and some surprises.
At first we thought about naming this chapter “China: in construction”. They create cities and neighbourhoods from scratch, high and modern buildings, most of them empty, there are 63 millions of housings without occupants… as for the highways, they don’t care about landscape or how is the building city, and in many cases they even destroy ancient places to create a new one without any root… yet little by little I’m understanding where is the romantic picture that I had from China.
We didn’t find any of these Chinese who some other travellers talked us about, these Chinese that neither paid attention to you, nor looked at you, nor tried to talk to you… from the first day we found always a smile on their faces, and always someone coming from the crowd (because really, they are a lots everywhere) talking English, at least, a bit of English, to helping us.
They like some much a picture!! Especially with a big eyes and hairy arms foreigner…
The rain… never leave us. It makes us to look for a shelter…
… and make us to sleep two following nights at the same place, without barely go out of the tent. The first time in the whole trip.
The Hui are a Muslim ethnic, they mostly live in the north-east of China, although we found them all along the route toward the east of Tibet. We don’t know if they have been scattered by government or if they have just moved by themselves. Physically and culturally they are very similar to the Han (92% of Chinese population). At first sight they can be distinguished by the white hat worn by men.
Other Muslim ethnic are the Uigur. Their culture, language, writing and physic are different to Han and the area where they live, Xinjang, which its capital is Urumqi… is considered “sensitive zone”, as the Tibet… we still didn’t know up to what point that will affect us as well.
The landscape filled us with emotion… we were approaching the Tibet world, the one they allowed us to see. After Tibet invasion by the People’s Liberation Army in 1950, this area didn’t offer any resistance; that’ s why nowadays the police control here is not as strong as in Lhasa, where you just can visit it in organized groups and after paying an important amount of money.
From here we came into towns that still preserved their Tibetan quarter, big school monastries, temples, monks…
Nice meetings that led us from one festivity to another… it looked like Tibetans were waiting for us to share with them these nice moments.
They have been days of relax, like being on Holiday. Long breakfast, long after-lunch conversations with siesta included, stops because the rain, stops due to someone’s tummy little problems… We have enjoyed friends, green nature of this season, peace coming from the monasteries… it’s so easy to travel with the ones who make life simple!
It is work period… the wheat we saw planting in Iran and growing in Uzbequistan, now, here, makes the landscape yellow. It’s time for harvest and many, to separate the wheat, they put it on the roads to be helped by cars, motorbikes o bicycles in this task.
Black Tibetan yurts, yaks, horses and pasture.
On the road we found these Buddhist pilgrims, they were going to the monastery we came from, by doing prostrations. Because an image worth a thousands words, in this video you can see what a prostration means postrations video. In this way some of them do more than 1000 thousand km.
Almost without realizing it, the days went away but not the kilometres… That is what happens when travelling feeling in family… we took it so easy that in Zoige, 500 kilometres before our real destination, we looked for a little hotel where to leave our bicycles, and from the peace of the plateau we went to Chengdu, the 5th biggest city in China..
The big surprise came this same night while looking how to reach the visa office to do the extension… at first we thought that he was joking or just wrong, when Aitor read us what he had found in internet… from the 1st July there was a new law about Chinese visa… so, we couldn’t do more than one visa extension… all our planes were up in the air…
What to do, what not to do… at first we accept the situation and next morning we went to the visa office and gave them the paperwork for the visa extension. They didn’t put us any problem, they just let us know that we had to wait 7 working days, which with the weekend they would be 9 days, and we couldn’t get out of the city up to having our passports. That meant that we had to cut short our time cycling in Tibet…
We were not happy with the new situation so, when Aitor told us his new idea immediately everything was ready to go… this same night we had the tickets for the sleeper train to Hong Kong and a little backpack ready. Next morning we picked up our passports from the visa office and we ran towards the station… 42 hours trip and we would be in the border. Many people go there because is easier to have a 3 months visa, which in other countries is impossible, and besides, all the paperwork can be done in just one day… The option sounded good because, even if they didn’t extend the 3 months visa anymore, at least we could have the one month visa and in this way we would have time to reach Laos by bicycle…
Our WarmShower, Tony and his familly, help us a lots all the days we had to be in Hong Kong.
But sometimes life surprises you and what you expected doesn’t happen as expected, instead something completely different happens. In this occasion we got surprised… because when Laura and Aitor passed from Kirguistan to Mongolia, through Chine, they had to do their visa extension in Urumqi… as I said you before, this was a “sensitive zone”… anyway, in China embassy they thought that this fact were so suspicious, we don’t know why, so they didn’t give them the visas…
Although it seemed the opposite, we were lucky… just imagine if any of us would have had the visa… upsss!! So, finally, after assessing different options we found one option that allowed us to take off from Chine 4 bicycles and 16 saddlebags (around 200 Kg over all) between two persons.
While preparing for the big jump, we met Joana and Nuno (www.globonautas.net), two bicycle-tourists from Portugal. We felt very comfortable talking and walking with them, we would’ve like to share more time with them… we will certainly meet them again somewhere in the world.
And now, here we are, in Malaysia, where we’ll soon start again our cycling with Aitor and Laura… South-East Asia is waiting for us… or not.