High altitude dirt road, four hour descents and stunning mountain scenery – my little mini-expedition from Urumqi through China’s Tien Shan mountains had all been going so well… Until I got arrested by the Chinese police for being in an off-limits military zone. I eventually got away with bike intact and wallet significantly lightened. In retrospect I think that shouting, “Give me back my f*ckin’ bike, you little f*ckmonkeys!” at the Narat police perhaps wasn’t the best way to handle matters.
Things hadn’t actually started so well either, with heavy rain following me across the desert into the Urumqi He gorge that climbs south into the mountains. The uncharacteristic rainfall (hey, this is the Taklamakan Desert, remember) set loose volleys of stone fall from the crumbling gorge walls. After cowering my way through one particularly close call, when a head sized boulder bounced across the road a wheel length in front of me, I decided to call it a day at 88km and pitched up when the gorge widened out a bit.
I fell asleep in my tent to the sound of rain and shifting rubble, but dawn broke clear. Sheet ice slid down the flysheet as I brewed up coffee and noodles, scooped up with the remnants of the previous day’s naan bread. A quick pack and I was off, soaked clothing draped over my panniers to dry while I cycled.
I soon broke out of the gorge into a high basin ringed with white peaks and populated by whistling marmots, cute dog-sized rodents who like sunbathing and also happen to be plague vectors. A series of false summits brought me to within sight of the real pass, an insane series of hairpins looping up to a notch cut through the SW ridge of Shengli Daban.
Cycling at 4,200m is never easy. Lack of acclimatisation (and, currently, fitness) had me off the bike and walking by the time I passed through the notch. I paused to contemplate the dirt road downhill waiting for me on the other side, put on the warm clothing and started freewheeling to Balguntay, four hours away…
The next few days saw me pedalling my way along dirt tracks, up barren valleys and over high passes onto yak pasture strikingly reminiscent of the Tibetan landscape (but without the slavering, man-eating dogs). I camped out each night, waking to find frost on the flysheet and my water bottles frozen solid.
This is the aspect of cycle touring I love so much, the uncertainty of it all – never knowing where you’ll be that night, the sense of isolation (however illusory), watching the sun go down over distant mountains stained red. Food was sparse but adequate; coffee and noodles brewed up on my gas stove, or lamian and bread scored at the occasional (inexplicable) truckstop-cum-brothels. You adapt. It’s what you do, and your legs just keep on turning the pedals.
Yep, I had achieved the zen state (and in record time, too).
There was little traffic to contend with. The road was so minced by the spring snowmelt flooding that the only vehicles I saw tended to be mired in great jams at river crossings. Broken axles, overturned trucks, collapsed suspension – you just know it makes sense to go by bike when the ‘roads’ are this bad. Or good, depending on your point of view.
It had to end. A final spin past the prayer flags on the last pass and I was carving downhill round the hairpins into the Ili Valley. Rushing water and dense pine forest carried me forward against a strong headwind, and spat me out onto tarmac and a broad, agricultural plain. This is the local breadbasket, fields of grain and poplar lined roads leading up to the Kazakh border at Korgas.
Bad weather was moving in, the headwind whipping itself into a frenzy by this point. I decided to treat myself to a hotel room in Narat, the first real town I’d passed through on the trip. Bad call. Within half an hour, I was summoned to the lobby to be greeted by four policemen eager to examine my papers. Grinning like the big-nosed foreign buffoon I am, I assured them I was a friend of China, and in any case I’d be away in the morning – may gwanchi, just let me go and save yourselves all that paperwork, lads…
This is an approach that has worked for me in the past. I even thought it’d worked this time. They spoke no English, I speak hardly any Chinese… Disgruntled, they sloped off, leaving me to get quietly pissed in a karaoke bar. I had to revise my opinion at midnight when someone started hammering on my door – another copper, plus the local high school teacher who spoke enough English to translate. I was in it. Narat was an off-limits military zone where foreigners shouldn’t be without the appropriate ‘guides’.
This isn’t really a reflection on Chinese paranoia about foreign spies (which is real enough), more their concern about the ethnic tensions in this part of the country. The indigenous population of Kazakh and Uighur Muslims is being slowly swamped by Han Chinese immigration from the east – and they ain’t happy about it. The Ili valley was the scene of a significant uprising in the mid-1990s, crushed by the ironically-titled People’s Liberation Army with heavy loss of life. The authorities, I later discovered, don’t want foreigners there because a) they’re worried we might get caught up in any trouble, and b) they definitely don’t want us to see the subsequent crackdown.
So the bike and passport were confiscated, and I traipsed down the police station the next day to determine my fate. To my surprise they returned the bike but, with a typical twist of Chinese logic, not the passport. That was being forwarded to the main PSB (Public Security Bureau) office at the county town of Xinyuan, 80 km to the west. A glorious big ring spin with a strong tailwind carried me there in just over two hours, where I then spent another couple of hours negotiating the return of my passport in exchange for an apology, a chunk of cash and a promise to get out of town on next day’s bus.
In the event, my ignominious exit was delayed by a day after I fell in with a bunch of Chinese doctors doing a medical survey in the area. Invited to their nightly piss-up, I got caught in one of the dreaded baijiu sessions, sinking shot glasses of cheap rice spirit as they took it in turns to toast the iron quads of the crazy foreigner who’d cycled Route 218 across the mountains. It turned out be an interesting couple of days in Xinyuan before I finally lashed my bike onto the bus roof-rack and scuttled back to Urumqi – but that’s another story…