After passing the most stringent border control I know on Khunjerab Pass, I got to Tashkurgan, the Chinese border city. There, I had to pass the passport control. Unfortunately, the photo in my passport was 9 years old so Chinese border guards were debating for 15minutes whether it is me or not me 😉 Finally, I was free to go.
It took the whole day to pass the border. In the NatCo bus going through the border, I met two Japanese tourists – an old woman and a middle aged man. I liked they travelling style. The man, 37 has a family but he travelled Pakistan on his own. In the bus, they did not feel forced to talk, we had few exchanges and that’s it. Introverts like me. In the evening, we went together to the restaurant in Tashkurgan. I was lucky to have them with me. Everything in menu was in Chinese, so I would be completely lost on my own. During the dinner, they asked me how old they seemed to be. I guessed – 45 and 27. They were 65 and 37 😀 Japanese are very proud to look young. Having a Chinese dinner was also a big relief – Pakistan is awesome, but their kitchen is not good for me.
The next day, I started cycling to Kashgar. The city is ca. 300km from Tashkurgan, so it was two days of cycling. Karakorum Highway in China is very different to the one on Pakistani side. For 265km from the border, incl. 120km in the bus to the border city, tt goes through the wide valley or completely open areas ca. 3-4000masl.
After few hours of cycling, I passed the turn to Qulma Pass. There is a border with Tadjikistan there. It was closed for international travellers for a long time, but has been recently opened. Few travellers had already passed there. I decided to not take this border crossing. It would make my route 1000km shorter and would save me 8d, but at the same time I would skip the best part of Pamir Highway and the Chinese part of Karakoram Highway. I enjoyed cycling in mountains too much to make such a trade-off.
At the end of the first day, I passed Kara-Kul Lake (many lakes in central Asia are called like this). It got pretty cold when I saw few yurts. When I stopped nearby, few Chinese workers saw me and invited me to the yurt. Before going to sleep, they took me to the bar for a dinner and did not allow to pay for myself. We could not communicate in one language, but it was great to experience such human kindness in this remote area.
The next morning, I was shocked by the change in weather. The temperature dropped to -10 and the fog covered the lake – the bank was 30m behind the yurt and I could not see it. Fortunately, there was a long downhill ahead. I cycled 190km that day and, after the first 40km, I went down almost all time. There were moments when I easily reached over 70kmh. It was awesome. Few times I passed through long tunnels. In narrow valleys on Chinese side, the road is not built on the slope of mountains, instead it goes through long tunnels on both sides of valley and viaducts connecting them.
Somewhere on the way, I met a German cycling couple. As retired people, they had plenty of time for travelling and were going the same direction overall – from East Asia to Europe but by mainland China, sometimes using train. This time they were doing on a side trip to Tashkurgan to cycle a bit of Karakoram Highway so I met them going in opposite direction.
Kashgar seems to be a big city in the middle of nowhere. There are deserts Taklamakan) to the East, mountains to the North, West and South (Karakorum, Tien Shan) and close borders with Pakistan, Tadjikistan, Kirgizstan. It is a very old city from Silk Route times. Around the historic centre, the Chinese government built big soviet flats and some palaces. The centre is beautiful, but it is completely lost in this chaos of ugly modern buildings.
I stayed there in a small backpackers hostel where I met many travellers, not only Chinese. Motorcyclists, cyclists, backpackers all gather in this place to plan their sightseeing tours around Xinjiang.
Situation in Xinjiang
When travelling Chinese Xinjang provice, you could feel the tension. Along the road, there is a fence on both sides. There are cameras over the road set in both directions. All villages are few hundred meters far from the road. The buildings are low with the local town hall being the only visible. It magnifies the feeling of loneliness in this place. The province is a military state, like Burma. People’ freedom is limited. After getting back to Poland, I learned that there are concentration camps for minorities there. People have even limitations on contacting the foreigners. Few times during cycling, a car with Chinese tourists stopped to give me water. People were happy to se me in their country. But it never happened with locals, only tourists from mainland China.
The other aspect are police controls. Like in Pakistan, I had to stay on police checks at least 3 times per day. I spent there a lot of time there as Chinese do not know English and had hard time reading information from my passport. They did not allow me to help. It was my fault to not print another copies of my passport bio page.
Chinese border crossing again
Chinese borders are closed on weekend, so I had to stay in Kashgar for a weekend. Finally, at 5a.m. on Monday morning I could cycle to the border. I had ca. 120km to cover to the border city, which is 200km from the actual border. The landscape in this place is amazing. Moon landscape. It was very different to what I had seen earlier. Unfortunately, police controls intensified. What’s more, Chinese borders are closed in the middle of the day for a lunch break. I wanted to be on the border before the lunch break, but the controls were so long it was impossible.
On one control, I spent so much time that I got nervous. And I did a very stupid thing. I wrote on a paper “learn English” and put it in front of police officers. In a military state. As a result, I had to wait another 30min as they called their boss. He came, we had a short argument, after 2 minutes he released me a bit embarrassed. Just 30s. later, my crank set broke. He saw it, drove to me, packed my bike and gave me a lift halfway back to Kashgar. The last 20km I had to cycle using one leg. At the end, the most stupid act on the whole Vietnam-Poland route situation ended well.
The next day after repairing my bike, I could cycle to the border. I had a police escort for maybe 40km and the policemen took plenty of photos of me cycling. Anyway, I did not make it on time and spent over 3 hours waiting until the border guards would come from their lunch break. The buildings on the border are huge. They employ 10 people to work there but there were only 3 people passing the border control. All official buildinsg in China are big and employ way to much people for no reason. Maybe there are preparing for exodus.
At the border control they were debating for 10 minutes whether the guy on the passport photo is me. As on the border in Tashkurgan, where I entered the country. Taking 9 years old passport on such a trip is not a very wise idea.
After the border control, they packed me into taxi and transported 200km to the border. I had to argue for another 20 minutes with the taxi driver because he wanted 20 more yuan than I had. A little awkward situation: I cannot go back, I cannot payout cash in the border city, I cannot stay in the border city. I cannot cross the border on my own, I had to take a taxi which I cannot afford. Hmmm Finally he agreed on 20 yuans less. If not, they would probably transport me back to Kashgar for a night.
On the way to the actual border we were again stopped 4 times on police controls. It was funny as they picked randomly one piece of luggage for scanning. No idea why as we passed a very stringent control in the border city previously and were driving the highway with fenced and cameras. Probably they have an obligation to do it, but are to lazy to check all the bags (and good that they are).
China was very different compared to other countries (captain obvious). The landscape was very distinctive to what I saw in Pakistan or later in Tadjikistan. I really felt like on another planet. But most importantly, I could feel the distance to local people. I felt much more that I am in a military state than in Burma. I am sorry for them, most of these people have to obey stringent rules imposed on each aspect of their live if they do not want to go to prison. The state has the complete power over them. Xinjiang belongs to China for a long time, but given its demography, it should probably be an independent state. It is also worth to note that US website do not work in China. Google, G-mail, Facebook and whatever else we know. Set up a VPN before you go to not have problem with communication.