Operation Desert Storm: Xinjiang Part 2

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Stormy skies on the long haul to Kashgar

On a long cycling trip, sometimes you get those days where you are just “going through the motions.” When the scenery around you is uninspring, the traffic steady you are merely pedalling to cover distance. On the long haul to Kashgar, I had several days like this. Sometimes it was difficult to stay off of the main highway and I grew tired of the monotonous Taklamakan desert scenery.

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zzzzzz…are we there yet?

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Of course, not all of it was dull.


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I tried to stay on the smaller roads that paralled the highway. These little poplar lined streets were like portals into the past. Leaving the modern highway, I was soon pedalling beside little old men riding donkey carts. These two worlds existed parallel to one another and couldn’t be more different. If was on these backroads, resisting the modern world that one could see traditional Uyghur life unfold.

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special parking

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Leaving Korla I took the old road 317 until it eventually turned into a dirt track, which led me backtracking to the main highway. On the way I stopped for a lunch of laghman, my new favourite noodle dish. The lady serving me insisted that I sit at the back in front of a large air conditioning unit to stay cool. Soon she and few other kitchen staff sat around me and asked me a few questions. Unable to understand I took out my “Magic letter” written in Mandarin:

您好,亲爱的中国朋友,

我叫黛拉,是一个来自加拿大的女孩。骑自行车周游世界是我自儿时以来就有的梦想。我计划分别横穿亚洲和非洲大陆。具体路线是从蒙古到乌兹别克斯坦,然后经开罗骑行到开普敦。这次旅行预计持续18个月,行程2万5千公里。很开心中国将是我这次旅行中的一站。我会特意放慢我的脚步,细细欣赏这东方国度神秘而美丽的景色。

我会向我远在加拿大的朋友及家人讲述我旅途中见闻,讲述我所领略到中国风俗文化, 进述我所遇到的热情友好的中国朋友。

我已随身携带了旅行所需的全部物品,包括一顶帐篷和厨具,因此这次旅行花销都在我的预算范围内。

能够在这次漫长的旅行中遇到你,我的内心倍感激动。但是很遗憾,我无法用中文和您交流。

衷心希望您能帮我,使我的旅程更加安全和愉快。

谢谢,祝好!

黛拉

(Thank you to my friend Ye Huang for the translation)

and in English..

Dear Friend

I am a Canadian cycling around the world. My route is taking me across Asia from Mongolia to Uzbekistan and then into Africa from Cairo to Capetown. The journey will take approximately 18 months and will cover around 25,000 km. I am travelling slowly by bicycle as it gives me time to enjoy your beautiful country.

I am writing to my friends and family in Canada about my trip and will enjoy telling them about your culture and meeting local people. I am able to travel cheaply as I have everything I need on my bike including a tent and cooking equipment.

I am excited to be riding across your country and I apologize for not being able to speak your language.

I hope that you can help my journey to continue safely and happily.

Thank you.

With warmest regards, Tara

After that I was given many more smiles and thumbs up. They asked if I needed more noodles and a second heaping plate came my way. This was follow by a whole watermelon, and another plate of rice and mutton. Even for a starving cyclist, it was too much and I could barely finish it! At the end they refused to accept any payment and gave me another big bag of rice and meat to take with me. I was truly humbled by their kindness and I left that restaurant almost too full to ride, but very happy.

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I think I needed a shower just as much as I needed food…

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The kind people at the restaurant that fed me heaps of food at no charge

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Remote off-roading? No, this is my attempt at avoiding the main highway 80m away.

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dirt track beside the highway – very scenic.

Late in the evening I managed to escape the highway again and ended up passing through a picturesque Uyghur village. Small rectangular homes surrounded by groves of apricot trees lined the road. I asked a local woman if there was somewhere that I could pitch my tent. I was taking a risk doing this as foreigners are technically supposed to stay in hotels every night. She offered me a place in her home to sleep that night. I followed her back to a very cosy little house. There, I met her husband and children. They gave me a bowl of fresh apricots from their garden and a vase of water to wash off. She made fresh laghman for dinner which was absolutely delicious. The language barrier was challenging as I only knew about three Uyghur phrases (and maybe five in Mandarin). The husband knew the word “yes” very well which he used many times. Many Uyghur people can speak Mandarin but cannot read it, so my Mandarin phrasebook was not as useful. Still, we got by well enough through the universal language of smiling and gestures. Later in the evening, I was visited by the Uyghur police. I was afraid that they would make me leave the village but they took photos of me and my passport and went on their way. I had a wonderful experience that night staying with the family.

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My Uyghur home for the night

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Children of the family I stayed with

_DSF2287  Down the road, the hospitality was never ending. One morning I stopped by some fruit sellers to buy apricots. When I said that I wanted five, they motioned for me to sit down and then handed me the whole box to munch on. As I said thank you and stood up to leave, they dumped another full box into some bags for me to take. It was ridiculously heavy to cycle, but I crammed them into my panniers anyway – eating apricots all day.

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I was given a full box to take with me for free!

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I also had many great encounters with the local police. The passport checks were frequent – at least 1-2 times per day. The police were just as keen on examining my passport as they were handing me over giant watermelons and cold drinks. One man came over to talk to me while I was having lunch and insisted on paying my bill. Another invited me into the station and insisted that I have dinner with them. I only had one unwanted encounter with police and even then it was with a pretty relaxed demeanour.

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This kind officer bought me lunch just outside of the city of Aksu

There is certainly a bit of paranoia in Xinjiang. This is felt by the heavy police presence. I also noticed right away that most gas stations were blocked off with barbed wire fences. When I wanted to buy gasoline for my camp stove, I found out that it was illegal for foreigners to buy gas. Even for Chinese citizens, only the driver was allowed inside and the passengers had to exit the vehicle and wait outside the fence. Foreigners were also not allowed to stay with locals in Uyghur villages, because it was deemed “unsafe”. After my first successful night of staying in a village I decided to make a second attempt. This time it didn’t work out so well.

35 km West of the city of Luntai I stopped in a small village in the late afternoon. After eating melons given to me by a shopkeeper and nan (bread) I decided to carry on.  The lady said that I should take the highway because the road surface ahead wasn’t very good. I had no desire to go back to the highway so I said that I would try to continue straight. Sure enough, the road disappeared altogether and I ended up backtracking to the village. At this point, menacing clouds roared over head and thunder crashed. I knew that if I returned to the highway I would be stuck on it for a while. I asked the shop keeper if there was any guesthouse in the town that I could stay in. She said there wasn’t and offered me the use of a dirty old apartment by the store. I was grateful to have shelter from the storm that began to rage, but it was far from relaxing. Some annoying kids gathered around the window, yelling out “hello! hello! hello” and kept banging on the glass. I was worried about drawing too much attention. Right away, I wish that I hadn’t decided to stay. Sure enough, around 9pm, there was a loud bang on my door. Not surprisingly, a policeman stood outside. He told me to bring my passport and camera to the station. I felt very guilty for imposing on the locals. The man took me into the station and sat me down with about six other officers. I gave my innocent naive foreigner look again while they pondered what to do with me. One man spoke very little English and said that I could not stay in the village, but had to move to a hotel. The only hotel was 80km away in Kuqa or 35km back in the wrong direction to Luntai. I was definitely not keen on going backwards, so I lied and said that I would cycle all the way to Kuqa. They insisted that this was too dangerous and would arrange a taxi to Luntai for me. Eventually I had to accept that I would have to cycle the 35km again the next day. The officers were very polite and helpful and wanted to make sure that I would get to a hotel safely. I couldn’t really get upset since I was the one technically breaking the rules. So that night I paid more than I wanted to for a hotel, but it was luxury. I felt like I was paying $30 for a $250/night value back home in Canada.

Despite my run-in with the police, I still camped most of the way to Kashgar, but I had to be discreet. From the ugly city of Kuqa I was cycling very long days – covering around 160km and stopping around 9:30pm to camp. I had some of the most “interesting” campsites to date. One night I found a gap in the barbed wire fenced along the road and ran with my bike towards some hills near hydro towers. It was about 500m of pushing frantically out in the open until I could get out of sight. That night a crazy thunderstorm raged in the distance and I was certainly glad it didn’t come any closer. On my ride across to Kashgar, I definitely experienced some extreme weather. At least once a day there was a short, but powerful thunderstorm. Then, mixed with a sandstorm, created another beast altogether.

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This was actually one of my better campsites.

I experienced several sandstorms on my ride across. Normally riding was possible, covering my nose and mouth with a buff and wearing sunglasses. There was one such storm, however that was too dangerous to attempt to cycle through. Visibility was reduced significantly and the sand became mixed with rain – whipping a sludge mixture through the air at breakneck speed. So I hid under a tunnel for 30 minutes and let the storm pass. After riding through dull scenery all day, it provided me with some much needed entertainment.

After the storm had passed I was able to ride an amazing tailwind for the rest of the day. The wind throughout the ride was very unpredictable, but I was lucky enough to have tailwinds most of the time. I was eager to get to Kashgar, pushing hard through heat and terrible saddle sores that were only relieved by a double daily dose of ibuprofen. The kind people along the way and the delicious food helped to  carry me through. One man gave me a cold green melon that was perhaps the most delicious piece of fruit I have ever had in my life. The sweetness, dripping juice was like medicine in the heat. In my state of fatigue it was hard to describe how good this melon tasted. Even now, its taste lingers.

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Kashgar’s old town

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nan

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I was thrilled to finally be in Kashgar, staying at the Old Town Youth hostel, where my bicycle joined several others. I met many interesting travellers including one from Russia who was also headed to Pakistan (not by bike). I didn’t think I would find anyone else! With the oppressive heat I spent several lazy days hanging around the hostel, chatting to other travellers. At night I visited the lively night market, sampling various types of Uyghur cuisine. I tried many types of kebabs including some kind of testicle, which was surprisingly tasty. I also tried a delicious mixture of yogourt, ice shavings and honey, which my stomach paid for later. More exotic dishes such as goat’s head soup were also available.

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unknown animal parts at the market


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In Kashgar, the Uyghur culture is thriving. Chaotic streets in the old town were crowded with vendors selling fruit, sweets, bread, clothing and other miscellaneous goods. A chorus of men shouting to advertise their various products on offer joined the constant roar of motorbikes whizzing through the narrow streets. I also witnessed the skinning of a goat that had just been slaughtered. Smells of grilled meat wafted through the air. Kashgar was a thriving and fascinating place, if a bit exhausting at times. Unfortunately a lot of the old town has been destroyed in attempt to modernize the city for “economic progress.” Kashgar is also famous for its Sunday livestock market which I was unfortunately unable to attend due to an expiring visa. Kashgar is the official start of the Karakoram highway into Pakistan.

I had a lot of climbing out of Kashgar to get to the mountains again. The first day was extremely hot and after 80km I hit road construction. The road was quite broken in parts and I was eating dust from passing trucks. It looked like a freeway was being built beside the old highway, with some significant bridge construction.

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New super highway?

The mountains grew higher and higher and I finally hit smooth paved road near a beautiful aquamarine lake.

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This continued all the way to stunning Karakul Lake at over 3000m, surrounded by Kyrgyz yurts. The locals were friendly if a bit pushy, with many boys approaching me on motorbikes trying to get me to stay in their yurts. Eventually I agreed to pay for dinner and breakfast in a yurt and pitched my tent near the shore of the lake. The cool temperature was a relief after the scorching heat of Kashgar. I slept very well that night.

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Karakul Lake

The next morning I cycled the final 100km to Tashkurgan over the Ulugh Rabat pass at 3955m. While it was supposed to be downhill most of the way to Tashkurgan, strong headwinds made it a very unpleasant ride. I passed many small Tajik settlements on the way. The border town of Tashkurgan is also mainly Tajik. I met several people from my hostel in Kashgar, including my new Russian friend Semen that would take the mandatory bus to Sost in Pakistan with me the next day. Since 2001, the Chinese have banned cyclists from riding the 200km stretch of no man’s land between China and Pakistan. Because of the Muslim Eid holidays, many Pakistanis were taking the bus and we worried that we wouldn’t be able to get a seat. I had to, as my Chinese visa would expire in two days.

The next morning we got up unnecessarily early to get our tickets, only to find out that Chinese customs would open almost four hours later. I talked to several Pakistanis waiting in the crowd and was already given several numbers to call in case I needed any help at all while in the country. The Pakistani hospitality had already begun. I was relieved when I finally got my ticket. I had butterflies in my stomach as I boarded the bus to Pakistan. One of my long-time dreams would soon be a reality – I was about to cycle the Pakistani Karakoram highway, a truly legendary road.

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The Fruits of My Labour: Into Xinjiang, China

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Xinjiang is famous for its melons in the summer months. Many truckloads lined my route.

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Uyghur village near Mongolian border

At the Chinese border town of Takeshiken, I had the sweetest melon I ever tasted. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous province of China is famous for its fruits in summer. Being deprived of fresh fruit in Mongolia, the site of a truckload of watermelons sent me into a frenzy. I tried a watermelon and a large yellow melon, similar to a cantaloupe. One bite sent sugary sweet juices gushing down my chin – I was in heaven. I also had several bowls of laghman at a friendly restaurant.

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Laghman, a delicious staple of Uyghur cuisine

Laghman are hand pulled noodles, served in several varieties. Typical laghman is usually cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with vegetable and mutton. It was absolutely delicious and flavour rich compared to the simplicity of Mongolian food. After a day of rest in Takeshiken, I turned West and then South into the desert towards Urumqi.

Emerging from the vast emptiness Mongolia, I knew that developed China would come as a bit of a  shock. Rows upon rows of power lines stretched across the landscape and real traffic appeared. The ride from the border to Urumqi was quite dull and fairly busy. I had decided to take the main road so that I could get to Urumqi as quickly as possible. But in between the long stretches of dull desert scenery were short bursts of brilliant colour to break the monotony.

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A small sign of life 

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Shades of the desert

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The long, dull road

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In Mongolia, I spent the majority of my time wild camping. In China, foreigners aren’t technically allowed to camp, as they are supposed to be registered in a hotel every night. Since there is no real way of keeping track of your whereabouts, camping is possible if you keep out of sight. Thus, I learned to master the art of stealth camping. Tunnels under the main road became my site of choice.

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Stealth camping at its finest

Sometimes there would also be a break in the barbed wire fence lining the road and I could sneak behind a sand dune. I emerged from my sandy campsite early one morning to find a large convoy of trucks parked. This line of trucks turned out to be 10km long and were stopped due to an accident (a truck’s load had tipped). In this situation, it was clear that I had the vehicle of choice. I enjoyed a rare traffic-free 30km of riding. Then, disaster struck.

Suddenly, my brakes started to jump sideways as I was pedalling. After making several adjustments, it took about 20 minutes for me to realize that my rear rim was severely cracked. Luckily I was only 130km from a large city, Urumqi, where I could get a new rim I consider myself lucky that this didn’t happen in Mongolia as I would probably have had to take transport across the entire country.

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cracked rim

Soon a police car drove by and I waved them down. The kind officers took me back to their station, fed me nan (bread) sweets and drinks. After, they found a passenger van that would take me and my bike to Urumqi at no charge. This was only the beginning of the incredible hospitality and kindness that I would experience throughout Xinjiang.

The Xinjiang province of China is home to the Uyghur minority, whose language and cultural traditions draw similarities to those in Central Asia. Many Uyghurs are Muslim. Once, the Uyghur population made up the majority of the province, but with Han Chinese immigration it is now less than 50%. As the Uyghurs fight to preserve their culture, there is constant tension in the region.

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Making samsas in Urumqi -pockets of dough stuffed with mutton and spices

In the large, chaotic, city of Urumqi the traditional Uyghur way of life could only be experienced in small pockets. Tucked in between the flashy shopping malls and intense traffic were small stalls cooking up laghman and grilling kebabs (skewers of meat or vegetables). You could have just about anything cooked on a stick from potatoes to tofu to goat intestines.  Delicious food was to be had everywhere and I spent a lot of my time gorging on Uyghur street cuisine. Fruit was also abundant – cartloads of the juiciest peaches, apricots and melons. I was also able to get a new rear rim and had my wheel rebuilt within 30 minutes. At my hostel, Maitan, I met three other French cyclists. Lucy and Pierre were a couple that were cycling for a year from France to Ulaanbatar. Christophe was solo cyclist who had already zig-zagged 28,000km from France to Urumqi. Together, the three of them were headed in the direction I had just come from. My first day in the city I met Jay from Colorado, USA who was headed West from Urumqi to Central Asia via train, bus and folding bike. I also met two very passionate birdwatchers from the UK, one of whom had identified over 8500 species in his lifetime! I enjoyed my days and nights in Urumqi, gorging on food and wandering around the city. I had a wonderful time with some great people and it was very difficult for me to part ways. I knew that I had a very challenging few days ahead of me. Over the next 130km I would be ascending 3000m to cross the Tian Shan range, the “Heavenly Mountains”.

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Out of the desert and into the hills

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The first day I climbed steadily out of the chaos of Urumqi. On the way I stopped by a woman selling watermelons. It made the perfect snack to provide relief from the oppressive heat. As I climbed higher and higher, the traffic became lighter, the air cooled and large green hills emerged. I passed the ugly industrial town of Houxia and found a place to camp by the river. The next morning I continued to climb and the scenery grew increasingly spectacular.

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The road zigzagged higher and higher and I struggled to find the energy to carry on. The weather had turned foul and a cold rain beat down on me for several hours. The altitude was also starting to get to me and I only managed 30km that day. Finding place to camp was difficult as the road hugged the edges of cliffs that plunged steeply to the river below. The second I spotted one small patch of flat land I decided to stop, not knowing when the next opportunity to camp would arise. I had another 15km to the Shengli Danba pass at 4280km, which I would tackle the next day.

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Just below the start of the steep switchbacks to the pass, I stopped for a simple lunch of bread, onions and tomatoes in a Kazakh yurt.

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lunch in a Kazakh yurt

After lunch, I pedalled to the start of the switchbacks. Then, a van stopped and a group of wonderfully energetic Chinese tourists jumped out. They took many photos of me, shouting out phrases like “Superman!” and “you’re my hero!” They gave also gave me some delicious snacks that really saved me afterwards. I felt like a celebrity and it gave me great motivation to start the climb.

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“You’re my hero!” 🙂 I loved these guys.

The switchbacks took me several hours to climb and I finally reached the top of the pass.

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View down to the yurts where I stopped for lunch

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Scenery along the climb

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Getting close..

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A view of the switchbacks I had just climbed. This is about 100m from the Shengli Danba pass at 4280m

The descent was slow and rough. I passed lush green hills and meadows with wildflowers – a scene that was reminiscent of Mongolia.

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The condition of the road, however, went from bad to deplorable and would stay this way for the next 50km. This was surprising to me as the majority of my cycling in China has taken place on pristine paved roads. The truck traffic began to increase and I grew very tired of the endless potholes rattling my bike. Finding a place to camp once again proved to be very tricky. I eventually pulled off the road and camped behind a tree next to the river. It was a little too close to the road for my liking, but I was exhausted and didn’t have the energy to continue. I slept poorly that night, disturbed by the constant truck traffic.

The next morning I thankfully had only 30km left of the terrible pot-holed road. When I reached the small town of Balguntay, I was stopped at a police checkpoint. The police tried to tell me that the road to Korla was closed to foreigners. I knew that this was nonsense as I had heard of several cyclists that had passed that way quite recently. They kept pointing to a picture of a Chinese passport and I responded by saying, “no, I have a Canadian passport” – playing the clueless, naive foreigner. By the fourth “wo bu mingbai” (“I don’t understand”) they let me through. I finally hit a first class sealed road – the type that China is known for. I freewheeled at high speed for the next 40km and eventually shot out into open desert.

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Desert camping

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landscape on the road to Korla

Soon, more green started to appear and the road became lined with poplar trees. Several stops by roadside melon trucks brought me relief in the heat. Eventually I reached Korla – a  green and chaotic oasis city. From here I would head west 1000km to Kashgar, one of the most famous Silk Route cities. Long stretches of empty desert beckoned. To the North lay the Tian Shan foothills and the vast expanse of the Taklamakan desert to the South.

Beijing and Ulaanbaatar

It has taken me a bit of time to get back into the travelling mindset. Remembering just how foreign everything suddenly feels again. The language barrier was of course the biggest challenge – especially in China. Even the smallest of tasks, like ordering a meal, takes more mental energy than usual. The best way to confront your new world is to have a sense of humour about it while making every effort to communicate. My Warm Showers host, Ray, helped make my transition so much easier.

I originally had planned to stay only 2 days in Beijing and to take the Trans Mongolian train to Ulaanbaatar. In order to bring a bicycle on the train, it has to be checked into customs the day before departure.  Ray took me and my bike to Beijing Central and helped me navigate through the chaos. If I was on my own it would have taken me hours to get an answer, due to my lack of Mandarin.  He told me to wait with my bike and he disappeared into the swarms of people. He came back with bad news. My bike could not be checked in because it was a Chinese holiday and customs was closed. Also, it was impossible to take it on the train with me the same day. I was frustrated to say the least.

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Beijing Central Station

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That bike wasn’t going anywhere…

The next train wasn’t leaving until Wednesday. The only other option was to fly. So I took it. I may have missed an interesting trip, but I didn’t come out here to ride trains. So this meant an extra day to explore Beijing.

When I am travelling, I generally try to spend as little time as possible in the cities. Though they offer many comforts for the touring cyclist, I find them overwhelming. Beijing has lots to offer as a city, but it is a place I couldn’t spend too much time in. Overall I found it a bit too chaotic. Also, the air pollution is a real problem. But, tucked away from the insane traffic and incessant honking are little hidden communities called hutongs.  These are the old neighbourhoods of Beijing. When you walk down the narrow alleyways past tiny produce shops, clotheslines and old men sitting on tiny stools,  the noise disappears and time stands still.

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For me, strolling through the hutongs was the highlight of Beijing. The city also has excellent cycling infrastructure with super wide lanes – some almost big enough for 2 cars side by side.

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Super wide cycling lanes

I am a pretty lazy tourist, so I didn’t do much in the way of sightseeing. I did cycle by Tiananmen Square and Mao Zedong’s  mausoleum.

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People lining up for hours to see Mao

I spent a good amount of my time in Beijing relaxing and recovering from jet lag. I really enjoyed hanging out in Ray’s apartment, which was in a very nice neighbourhood called Sanlitun in Beijing. He took me out for baoize (steamed buns) and delicious handmade noodles – 2 foods I enjoyed many times during my first bicycle tour in China. Ray had also cycled a few of my planned routes – Pamir Highway and Karakoram highway and had lots of good tips to share. He told me that he also had a Polish guest that had cycled Mongolia. Apparently he had to push his bike through 200km of sand. I am hoping with my research that I will avoid that kind of insanity. I was getting pretty excited about cycling the country. After 3 days in Beijing, I I boarded the plan for Ulaanbaatar, where I was meeting my next host, Froit from Holland and his Mongolian wife Bolora.

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The edge of Ulaanbaatar

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Crazy traffic everywhere

Ulaanbaatar is another crazy city, with equally insane traffic. The exterior is less modern than Beijing and the infrastructure is bursting at the seams. There are 3 million people living in Mongolia, with 1.5 million in Ulaanbaatar. According to Froit, itis a city designed for half the population that it currently sustains. Cycling in the city was quite the experience and sometimes there was barely enough room for my bike to squeeze through the gridlock. Ulaanbaatar, like all cities is also not without its social problems.

Mongolia is a nomadic country, with its traditional peoples living in gers (yurt-like structures) dotted across the immense, unforgiving landscape. With factors like climate change and desertification of the steppe, their way of life is becoming much harder to sustain. As a result, these people are being forced into the city. Thrown into a alien world, alcohol abuse unfortunately becomes the coping mechanism and it is a country-wide problem. Despite the chaos, Ulaanbaatar has some interesting character. I really like the area where Froit and Bolero lived – in one of the many ger districts around the city.

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Traditional structure (ger) in a modern landscape

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Ger district

On my last day in Ulaanbaatar, I got up early to see the morning prayers at Gandan Monastery.It was a hypnotic experience to listen to the monks chanting for over an hour. It brought me back to my travels in Tibet 4 years ago.

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A few photos from the exterior of Gandan Monastery (they were not allowed inside during prayer)

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When I wasn’t running around getting a visa extension or supplies for my tour, I was well taken care of by Froit and Bolora  – I will miss them a lot when I leave! After a week of travel in the cities, I am looking forward to cycling into the emptiness of Mongolia. This is what I came to this country for – the remoteness and the silence. The next update will be a cycling one and I will probably have a lot more photos (I don’t usually take a lot in the cities)  I leave tomorrow. I am nervous and excited about what lies ahead.