Nick Kohn bike touring through Asia and writing stories for Kook Exchange as he goes. More stories can be found HERE
The contrast of security at the Chinese/Mongolian border was almost laughable. The Mongolian security, while present, is definitely more lax than most borders I’ve crossed. China, on the other hand looks as if they’re ready for invasion. Razor wire atop electric fences, cameras on swivels on every building, guards armed with riot shield and clubs. The crossing took about four hours which was actually faster than expected. On the fourth time unpacking my bags, the customs officer spoke English. After a good chat, I asked why it was necessary to go through the same bags four times? Why could it not be communicated that they had been checked and I just pass on through. The response – ‘Bro, you are in China now. Things here don’t make sense to most Chinese people so you’re going to be very confused a lot of the time.’ He wasn’t wrong.
As I passed through the border town, I noticed the maximum-security-prison-like precautions at each shop. Every single one had a guard (often an old man or middle aged woman) armed with a wooden bedpost (as a club), a metal detector wand and a riot shield… For a convenience or grocery store.
Next, is the checkpoints. I had heard and read that they were very regular and got quite annoying but I completely underestimated it. I go through one to four of these checks per day, each one asking the same questions. There is never anyone that speaks English so everything occurs through translation apps. Sometimes the experience will go for 20 minutes, other times it’ll be four hours, depending on how many officers interview me, who wants photos and whether my bags get searched.
On my third day in Xinjiang, I was sat outside a phone store using their internet. Suddenly, what sounded like a WWII air raid siren started screeching. All around me, doors slammed shut and everyone from little old ladies to burly young men came rushing out to the streets, yielding weapons of all sorts. Some lined the roads and others blocked junctions with vehicles. When they were ready, they stood at attention, like a platoon of soldiers, clubs, spears, metal rods and wooden shields by their sides. By this stage, the ever present police had set up. Leaders began barking commands, patriotically under the flapping Chinese flags on each and every shop front. In unison, they began to practice offensive movements, stabbing, slashing and swinging their tools in the air, like a military bayonet fighting training exercise. Meanwhile, I sat there, sipping on my tea on the front steps of the store, stunned. Over the coming weeks, this would prove to be almost a daily occurrence.
As for the riding itself, it was a bloody pleasant change to finally be on some tarmac. While I love the dirt and being off the beaten track, the road is much easier on the wrists and bum and means more kilometres can be cranked out in a day. The landscape was, as expected, very similar to Mongolia for the first few days. Extensive sandy plains with long hills. Foliage was minimal and the only animals were camels, goats and birds of prey soaring overhead. But the silky smooth tarmac kept my mind off the sore legs and brutal heat, by maintaining high stoke levels each time I checked the speedo. Just days earlier, I was managing a measly 25-40km er day through the desert sands, now I was smashing 80km as a minimum. With morale high and winds low, the k’s began to rise. A personal best on one day of 125.8km was beaten the next with 127.9km, both of which I was massively proud of, particularly with the bike weighing almost 60kg and not coming from a cycling background.
Due to the high security and intense police presence, I was left to sleep in some pretty dull spots. A patch of dirt between a pig-infested cornfield and a tip would rate as the least pleasant and worst smelling of the trip thus far, and a brand new drain under an unopened section of highway was the nicest. Like I said, pretty grim.
The riding got really interesting as I entered an unexpected geological research park, where some of the biggest dinosaurs fossils in the world have been found. This was especially cool as I’d just finished reading Jurassic Park and was full froth on stuff like this. A section of the area was called the ‘Sulphur Valley:’ Here, the mountains looked like they’d been shaded with watercolours. Colours varied from light red to maroon, tan to purple to green, depending on the mineral make up of that section. Unfortunately, as with so many things in China, high fences left me too far distant to be able to snap a good picture of this natural beauty.
I went to commence my ride from Urumqi (capital of Xinjiang Province) on the G216, a notoriously long, well-paved section of highway that goes through many beautiful spots of north-western China, to Kashgar, the last big city before Kyrgyzstan. G216 was a section I was really looking forward to, particularly after hearing reviews from a group of motorcyclists that I’d seen near the Mongolian border. I was 60km in within half a day, feeling pretty pleased with the distance covered, when the police pulled me over for a passport check. They didn’t speak a word of English so I got the solar panel out and started charging batteries, figuring I’d be waiting for a while. After 45 minutes, an English-speaking officer arrived and said ‘you cannot pass!’ in a very authoritarian voice. I couldn’t help but giggle – one word changed and he could have been Gandalf. I stopped laughing to myself when I realised what he said. His English seemed to disappear when he tried to explain, so he rubbed his arms as if he was cold, pointed to the road then broke a stick and shook his head to say no. It took another 30 minutes to communicate the the local glacier had broken apart and caused major damage to the road, only two days ago. There’s some global warming for you! He explained that the road will not be ready ‘for one to two years so maybe find a different path to travel.’ Still keen to ride this highway, I said I was going to try regardless. His response was to bring out his handcuffs and say ‘for safety, you no go.’ Suddenly, his advice seemed like the right choice to take.
Early the next morning, I was riding S101 – the heaps more gnarly mountain road that lead in a similar direction to G216. I also picked this option because a local told me 101 is pronounced ‘yo-lei-yo’ in Manderin and I thought it sounded cool. Judging by the map, there wasn’t a whole lot out that way so I stocked up on food, water and fuel for the stove. Due to being a ‘dangerous good’, fuel took three hours to fill my 800ml bottle and required a ‘SWAT’ officer to come down to the razor wire surrounded station, with tyre popping spikes, a barricade that could stop a B-Double and three armed guards out front (this is the norm in Xinjiang) to help out.
The road lead me back through the geological park, where landscapes were beautiful yet brutal and the climbs, while not too severe, were seemingly never ending. It was ruthlessly hot and the locals in their nice air conditioned cars must have felt sorry for me because they kept stopping to give me food and water. In the 50km from town, I gathered up a watermelon, rock melon, a loaf of bread and about half a kilo of tofu, along with some water. I almost felt silly for being surprised when David, the English speaking cop at the next checkpoint told me this road was not passable by bike. He said there were big hills and rough roads, to which I let him know I’d just ridden through Mongolia so neither of those would be a major problem. He got me nervous when he said ‘the wolves will rip your legs off’ – complete with gestures and some pretty hilarious snarling and teeth showing. I’m unsure if wolves are out there but he sure got me thinking – I quite like riding bikes and legs are necessary for that hobby so I best not go losing them.
He paired me up with a middle age cyclist that just happened to be passing through. Mr Chan, as I was advised to call him, was a chubby but jolly man who seemed like he was in a bit of trouble with the missus back home. Hence, he had jumped on his brand new Merida mountain bike to see how far he could ride. The poor bloke almost fell over when he got out of the saddle to meet me because his legs were so buggered. The old fella must have been in the dog house big tim. From my understanding, the cops had organised for Mr Chan to show me an alternate route tomorrow after I stayed the night at his place – apparently he felt sorry for me because I was so dirty and was eating raw tofu with cinnamon while riding (it’s really tasty, give it a go).
We got riding in the opposite direction to what I had intended, going very quickly downhill in the bucketing rain, after I’d just spent the last few days coming up. Happiness was restored when riding past a farm and my new friend pointed to a pig then twisted his hands as if to flip food on a BBQ and rubbed his tummy. Can’t be sad with pork for dinner! After 60km of super fun and winding downhill with almost no one else on the road (understandably, the rain was borderline ridiculous at this stage), we got to his home town, where instead of taking me to his house for this BBQ I could already taste, he took me to the police station, shook my hand and rode away. Sly dog.
… to be continued
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