We left Kashgar on 5th January, having spent a very enjoyable few days back in civilisation. This had mostly involved eating, as well as exploring China’s troubled corner of empire, revealing some fascinating and very real tensions between Han and Uighur ethnic groups (as Lobby’s blog points out). The route ahead was a marathon of daily sprints across China’s largest province, Xinjiang – the size of France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. We hoped to cover all 2,000km in 12 days’ riding, to give us more time to battle the winds and altitude on the Tibetan plateau in February. A 90-day visa seems like a long time, but China is a vast country – and we were going to cycle 7,000km across it. Leaving Kashgar knowing what lay ahead was tough.
Our daily routine over the first half of January consisted of getting up one or two hours before dawn, leaving the oasis truck stop town which we had overnighted in and pedalling fast towards the next one, hoping to reach it before sunset. The mornings were cold enough that both our beards would freeze (a fond memory of the Pamirs), and if we were still pedalling after dusk the temperature in the desert would rapidly drop below zero too. We had reached proper tarmac, so we sprinted along it gleefully like two dogs let off their leashes after three months of staying at heel. However the initial thrill of being able to exceed 10km/h consistently quickly faded once we got our heads around the daily mileage we had to take on. We needed to average 165km per day, which was the equivalent of 10 to 12 hours on bikes with pedals moving, every day. The cycling distance for an Ironman is 180km – we were effectively taking on 11 cycling Ironmans in the space of 12 days, with just two rest days in between. A very daunting prospect! Early on we worked out that every minute spent off the bikes during the day meant an extra minute of night riding at the end of it to stay on target: knowing this we kept rest stops short, about 5 minutes per hour.
Sometimes the mileage we had to cover was physically impossible to cycle in daylight hours. The relentlessness of the challenge ahead presented us with a mental block which was sometimes very significant, a polite way of saying that we were frequently caught screaming obscenities at the empty desert around us. We quickly found out that positivity was the only way forward, so instead whooped and cheered at every major daily milestone. Lobby introduced the idea of a 50km-to-go bell, at which point we agreed that “the miles would cycle themselves”, something we kept repeating but never actually seemed to happen. Our second daily bell announcing 10km-to-go was built up like a velodrome’s cowbell announcing the final lap, and was usually accompanied by a mad sprint into the darkness with cowboy-like yells. Saddle soreness, which we had been spared in Tajikistan due to our low speeds and shorter riding distances, shot upward and ripped through our undercarriages once more. We definitely had our work cut out for us!
During the day we were flanked by towering red cliffs to our left and an expansive nothingness to our right, dirty gravel which gradually turned into sand as we left Kashgar behind. The moonscape went on and on, and on – we acquired a new sense of scale in Xinjiang which is quite hard to describe. We zoomed along flat empty road for hours yet felt like we weren’t moving at all: after all, the mountains around us didn’t change. Only the regular walled enclosures housing mobile telephone masts (in China there is full signal even in the desert) reminded us that we were going anywhere at all! We shared the road with long-haul trucks, which pushed the limits of just how high, how wide and how long a vehicle could be and still stay upright. These metal monsters had 32 wheels each, were about 35m long and weighed in at 55 tonnes. I’ve never seen anything like it. They drove practically the entire length of China in 3-4 days, transporting cotton (which only Xinjiang produces) to the eastern coastal regions to be made into clothing. It was wise to give these guys a wide berth, as we quickly found out their tight schedules meant they had to drive 19 hour days: the growing piles of empty Red Bull cans discarded on the side of the road – next to pee bottles, no time to stop for that! – evidenced some desperately drowsy drivers. It was not too uncommon to see an oncoming truck slip into our lane and weave its way slowly back, which initially provided us with welcome jolts of adrenalin. On our way we saw many cotton factories, long piles of drying chillies spread out onto the dust and huge solar panel fields, the panels constantly being turned towards the sun (surely one of the worse jobs in the desert). We measured these fields to be roughly 25km² and they looked small compared to their surroundings. We felt even smaller!
The villages we passed through were nearly all Uighur, so Arabic script preceded Chinese on each building and road sign. Many buildings were squat and made of earth, and were it not for the Chinese propaganda on their sides (and the tarmac beneath our wheels) we could still have been in Central Asia. Large cemeteries stretched for miles out of town. Our evening stops were in bigger places, which were split between Han and Uighur ethnicities: one half of the town was Uighur, with big halal eateries, meat sellers with dodgy pieces of cow dangling from hooks, and rundown shops; the other half was Han, where faded red neon announced a guesthouse or a brothel (or both, they were usually multifunctional). The equivalent of $10 would get us a room round the back, the type of place where you used your own sleeping bag over what the management claimed were sheets and firmly padlocked the door at night. It did the job – by the end of the day we were often too tired to care. The Han restaurants catered almost exclusively to truckers, the restaurant owners having relocated thousands of miles from their hometowns to find a niche market opportunity on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. They were generally odd characters, unsurprisingly even more fixated on cash than ordinary Chinese, so were very pleased with the amount of food we wolfed down at the end of our long days.
China is famous for the way it will paper its cities with propaganda with an overtness which no government would get away with in the West. However even by Chinese standards, government slogans took on a whole new level in Xinjiang. Han Chinese were reminded about personal safety wherever they looked, and as a result very few ventured outside after dark. There were certainly no Han seen in the Uighur part of town – the physical split was striking. Han taxi drivers refused to drive through or drop us off in the Uighur districts.
Slogans condemned separatist cowards, extremists, those wishing ill on the great nation that was the People’s Republic. Propaganda was everywhere, and frankly impossible to get away from. Banners hung from street lamps, Chinese flags flew from every reluctant Uighur shopfront. We tried to think of the best way to translate some of these, and settled on, “Watch out! There’s a Uighur about!” It really was that obviously hostile at times.
We had entered one of the more sensitive regions in China (along with Tibet, which would come later!) and like in Kashgar, military presence was striking. The Han had boots on the ground in every small town we passed through. Long distance bus stations were barricaded with masked government gunmen as if expecting trench warfare to erupt at any moment. Police vans crawled along every single street in town, lights flashing, passing more metal barricades with gun emplacements. Petrol stations had their exits blocked off with nasty looking spikes (creating traffic chaos), drivers had passengers ejected, the underside of their vehicles inspected with handheld mirrors and their boots opened. In the bigger towns each hotel had a metal detector at the entrance, with riot shield, helmet and taser behind the front desk. This was serious. Along the road between towns there were also frequent police checkpoints where all road users were forced out of their cars and had their ID cards scanned: the movement of people was carefully controlled. The Uighurs undergoing these George Orwellian checks did so glumly muttering something about it all being “for our safety”. As yet there are no laws restricting foreigner access to Xinjiang, as there are in Tibet. However some people reckon restrictions may come into play imminently. So police didn’t really know what to do with us! Their cars would follow us for some sections of the road, eventually stopping us for yet another passport check. Once it was established that we were not spies nor journalists they reluctantly let us through. Our beards, and Afghan stamps, did not go down well.
We laughed off these police checks at the time, but the situation was probably more serious than we realised. There is strong discontent with Chinese rule in Xinjiang, a region which has never really considered itself part of China. People are beginning to vent their frustration in bolder ways than ever before. Last year’s bomb attack in Tiananmen Square just in terms of sheer daring could be compared to the 9/11 attacks in New York: the plot was aimed at the iconic centre of the Chinese universe. Uighur separatists then butchered many Han Chinese in Kunming’s central train station that same year, to be gunned down very publicly by police. In the beginning of January we cycled through a village which saw six Uighurs shot dead by police just a few days later – they were allegedly carrying homemade explosives. On 6th March last week, there was another series of stabbings in Guangzhou’s central train station with one man shot dead on the scene. The full story has not yet emerged but many Han would point fingers at the Uighur community. And this is just what’s reported! As always in China, a lot of the more sinister stories remain under the radar. The government is very concerned about Uighurs getting hold of fake passports and travelling to neighbouring Afghanistan or further west to Turkey to be trained as jihadist fighters. One month ago a load of fake travel documents were confiscated from separatist Uighurs heading to Turkey. So the paranoia we encountered may not be as ridiculous as it would first appear.
We rolled into Luntai at the northern edge of the desert after an 800km warm-up from Kashgar, ready to take a sharp right the following morning. We were about to embark on our two longest ever days on a bicycle: the void stretched out tauntingly before us.