Colours, Desert and People: China’s Far West
***We did it. We rose to the challenge and made a dream a reality. As of yesterday we reached the fundraising goal of $10,000 to help build a classroom and complete the school in Guang Ming, Sichuan, China. It is an amazing feeling and I would like to thank everyone for their kind support and generous contributions to make this dream come true. From my family & relatives, friends near & far, the communities of Smiths Falls & Perth, Ontario, acquaintances and some kind people unknown. It is not the size of the donation that matters, but the involvement in a worthy cause. To be apart of something that counts so much in the lives of the children. In just a few short months 78 donors contributed to reach the goal for the school in Guang Ming, just two days before I finish my ride through China. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. Amazing! Pictures and updates on the school as classes get underway to come soon. Can’t wait, thank you once again! Click “HERE” to see the charity page.***
“This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought.” ~ T. E. Lawrence, Writer/Colonel
(See below for all new travel pictures)
The road lay ahead, beckoning me onward like a whipped donkey. The sun scorched the dry Earth and my tight skin. The wind scratched my face rough and raw as sandpaper. My beard tangled with dust and fingers brown with the daily grind. The parts left open to the elements showing their human weakness in their coarseness. At night it was cold and the wind flapped my tent throughout the evening. In the morning a peaceful calm would emerge. The coldest part of the day poking it’s head to welcome me into it’s misleading opportunistic glow. Towards a polished blue sky and dusty brown Earth I rode.
During this time I struggled through a mental and physical slog. On my right side long stretches of empty scrub with towering snowcapped monsters blowing their cool winds. Empty. Endless emptiness to my left. If you walked either direction from the road, there surely was no hope of emerging on the other-side, if one was foolish enough to enter unprepared. The stops between cities are long and few. In the desert things are simple. Survival is the key, there are few other distractions. Sandwiched in-between the Takalamakan and Gobi desert sections of the Chinese Silk Road I powered on at a minimum 130km a day. If I didn’t push myself each day I felt like I would never make it. Through legendary cities with histories more complex than I have had time to fully wrap my mind around. To dirty truck stops with a predictable grime and gritty feel. I was but a rolling speck amidst all the vastness. (See all pictures below)
As I left Zhangye I watched the landscape change by the day. From a region inundated with trees and water in southern Gansu province to the empty desert scrub of the far western area. I went through towns that reeked of onions to road stops selling dried dates and nuts. I ate delicious noodles and was welcomed by Muslim hospitality. Here and throughout most of (rural) China life takes place outside. A man sips his tea after a day of hard work. A women wrangles a young child running around with their bums out the open flapped pants. A bearded man plays his favourite tunes on a small wooden whistle. Garbage burns listlessly in a ditch. I watch and stare in wonder, the favour returned three times over.
I came to the ‘end’ of the Great Wall in Jiayuguan. Complete with a fantastic fort that safeguarded the Hexi Corridor from invaders and processed the weary merchant traders that came from the far reaches of the known world. At 8,800km the wall stretches across the Northern reaches in all it’s majesty. I climbed the reconstructed end of the wall and took pictures of the smoking power station below. A dichotomous trend of old and new, rich and poor I have seen throughout China during my time here. As I left Jiayuguan, I was please to see the wall stretch much further onwards in a crumbling state. The wall, now only a relic of a glorious past, is still representative of China’s protective nature.
After more wind whipping and questionable camping spots I came to the famed Xinjiang Province. Known in recent news for Uyghur dissatisfaction and terrorist acts throughout China. Propaganda or truth? Hard to say. The control noticeably stricter, the Han Chinese large and in charge of regulating the population while locals struggle to make a living in the arid region. The beauty and simplicity of the Xinjiang region rivalled the rest of the country as my favourite part. Maybe because it is just so different from the rest of China. So ancient in many ways. A living history can be gleamed from the faces of the people. For thousands of years they remained right there doing the same things. The Uyghur people are strong, proud and largely misunderstood.
I zoomed into Hami, where I ate deliciously roasted naan bread and lamb kebabs. Hami melon, was one of the naturally sweetest things I have ever eaten, due to the cold conditions at night and scorching daytime heat. As I stopped drinking water a man simply walked up and gave a Hami melon to me and said “Thank you come Xinjiang.” It is not the mountain views or ancient vistas, but moments like this that make it all worthwhile. Kindness without any expectation of return. Some of the most touching and humbling experiences on this trip have come from the little gestures that make us human.
“Nothing is black or white, nothing’s ‘us or them.’ But then there are magical, beautiful things in the world. There’s incredible acts of kindness and bravery, and in the most unlikely places, and it gives you hope.” ~ Dave Matthews, Musician/Songwriter
On my journey I have been recording each act of ‘Kindness’ and ‘Unkindness’. In China alone there have been 24 specific acts of kindness towards me. These range from giving me a place to sleep for the night, to free bicycle parts and acts like the Melon Man’s. This does not include all the people that let me fill up my water bottles on a daily basis, the free meals, friendly ‘Hellos’ and directions given. In over 5,500km cycled through China there was only one unkind moment, when someone stole my travel towel in a hostel. I didn’t let it bother me in the least, as I know that it is not indicative of the population. The hostel feeling so bad gave me my 3 nights free of charge as a result.
From there I struggled onwards, past Bactrian camels quietly staring in the midst of mountains. The road always seemingly uphill and into the wind. Onwards to the desert oasis of Turpan. One of the pinnacles on the route of the Silk Road. At last I came to the downhill to Turpan. And what a downhill it was. Turpan being the second lowest point on Earth, next to the Dead Sea region. I sped down through massive canyons, by impressive sand dunes and past vineyards. Famous for grapes, Turpan smells of an endless variety of raisins, roasted bread and availability of cheap wine. I visited the ancient city of Jiaohe and wondered at the weary travellers who once traded and rested here before moving onwards.
At this point I needed to make a choice. My Chinese Travel visa was fast expiring. I needed to get out of China. From my location I could either head to Urumqi and wait a week for a Kazakstan Visa; or take a bus to the amazing historical Chinese Turkestan city of Kashgar and from there travel visa free to Kyrgyzstan. I’ve always wanted to go to Kashgar for years. I chose the later. The reality of long distance cycling in countries that are dauntingly big and have visa restrictions, is accepting that you cannot do it all yourself. Hopping upon a sleeper bus we departed late and broke down soon after. I was awoken in the night by a man shining a flashlight in my face asking me if I had the tools in my bicycle bags to fix the bus. Sure I’ll get out my Allan key and change that tire right away for you. They were unprepared to say the least. 28 hours later we arrived in the sensory explosion that is Kashgar. This was not China. I explored the fantastic Sunday markets where you can buy everything from camels and rugs to spices and antiques. I navigated small alleys. Ate delicious bagels, Marco Polo noodles, kebabs and spiced yoghurt. The old town is a picture into the past. My favourite ‘Chinese’ city by far.
China saved the best for last though. I took a ride up the Karakoram highway to the China/Pakistan border with two other Canadians. The road took us out of the dust storm surrounding Kashgar and up between beautiful mountain peaks, lush green valleys and endless horizons. The mountains of the Himalayas in plain sight, towering at 7,500 metres. Camels, goats and yaks grazing on the picturesque plains below. It was one of the most visually stunning places I have ever been in the world. We then returned to Kashgar down the beautiful mountain road from the Pakistani border and I prepared for my final assault on western China. I made the necessary preparations to cross the barely cycled Torugart border pass in Kyrgyzstan to begin my next adventure.
With country number two on the horizon I am more than excited. As I look back through my journal on my trip across China, I am amazed I made it at all. Starting out in China was a struggle and terrifyingly large task. Everyday was a new learning experience as I settled into my haphazard routine. I struggled some days more than others. But each was a new adventure, a new town, a new camping spot and a new friend. Everyday is new. Everyday is a problem solving situation. I loved all of it.
“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” ~ Dalai Lama
It is hard to accurately describe the experience of cycling across one of the biggest countries in the word using but a few words. I have called China my home for the last two years and have experienced a world over. There is still so much left to discover in such a beautiful, complex and ancient civilization. It will always be apart of me and I will always come back. I’m not done with China, it still has many secrets to tell me. To the next chapter.
Posted on September 21, 2014, in Adventure, Around the World, Charity, China, Cycling, Motivation, Travel and tagged Animals, Around the World, Bicycle, Camels, Charity, China, Cycling, Explore, fear, Free the Children, Freedom, Markets, motivation, Mountains, People, Travel, Travelpics, Xinjiang. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.