China – a refelction

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I wanted to write a piece about China because it is such an interesting country and I have met few people that aren’t fascinated by it in some way. China is well and truly on the western consciousness. Perhaps because many predict it will be the world’s next super power, if it isn’t already. I mean China own a lot of the world’s resources. The tales we get told in the Western media are often negative, human rights abuses, pollution, poisoned baby formula. Certainly the stories I had heard about China alienated me. The distance between the Chinese world and my own seemed immense. And well, there are more than a billion people there, so that’s a lot of people doing things differently. China ended up surprising me in more ways than one and in the end I really loved cycling there. We both did. Here are some of the things that made China great, weird, amusing and at times also frustrating.

The people. It’s such a traveller’s cliché, but the people really made China the experience it was, which was overwhelmingly positive. The Chinese are very hospitable, everyone wants to talk to you, even though most people can’t speak English. We were constantly given food, smiles, waves and were never aloud to pay if someone took us out to dinner. When we were stuck, people went out of their way to help us, often phoning someone who could speak English.

The photos. This gets tiring. Like many places we have visited, everyone wants a photo with the white people on bikes. We began calling this being photoknapped as people would literally pull over on the side of the highway for a photo shoot with us. Other times they would slow right down, an i pad would be hung out the window, a photo snapped and the car would speed off again.

Hot Water. The Chinese have a serious tea obsession. This is wonderful because it means boiling water is available absolutely everywhere. Petrol stations, train stations, trains, and most certainly it is unheard of having a hotel room without a kettle. You get free tea most of the time too.

Toilets. Ah, the toilets. For a country that is developing in leaps and bounds and managed to build the unbuildable railway to Lhasa, they are seriously lacking in sanitation infrastructure. Most of the time you get a wooden floor with a rectangle cut into it. Sometimes this is piled to the top with poo. Sometimes there is poo all over the floor. Sometimes you are literally peeing or pooing into the river below. Pretty gross, although being in Central Asia at the moment has totally desensitised me to even another level.

The food. Chinese food is nothing like the greasy takeaway I knew from home. It’s amazing and diverse and oh so cheap if bought from the street.

The drivers. The driving is terrible. People have very little concept of road rules. Signs and traffic lights appear to be more of a suggestion than anything else. Honking is endemic and it appears to give you the right to drive at people. Also, every single truck will honk at you while cycling. The only time people don’t honk is when they are on silent ninja (electric bikes) that creep up behind you. Ah the logic!

The infrastructure. China is set to have more high speed rail in the coming years than the rest of the world combined. Coming from country that hasn’t seriously updated it’s rail network since early last century, this is awesome. There are so many rail projects. The trains go almost everywhere and are cheap and efficient. It’s impressive how China moves it’s over a billion citizens. Public transport in the cities is also remarkable. Cheap and plentiful. Roads are mostly in great condition. There are often quieter secondary roads as well, especially in provinces like Yunnan.

The paranoia. Far out. It is not the Qing dynasty! Foreigners are not pillaging your land and taking what they want. China, you own the world. Relax. This paranoia refers mainly to the initial visa process (which requires a billion things) and the fact that in many provinces only some hotels allow foreigners to stay. The cheap ones are often only for locals and we sometimes spent hours in the rain looking for a hotel. Plus you are supposed to register within 72 hours of arrival in the country. In some provinces you get moved on when you camp, and have your passport obsessively checked and asked where you will be spending the night. To buy a mobile SIM card you can only go to the larger outlets as only they can register foreigners. Also, needing written police permission to buy fuel for our stove seemed rather over the top. It seems that rules are either ignored or followed obsessively, and as a foreigner it’s difficult to know when either will apply. After months of this it gets a little tiresome. Apparently China wants to become the tourist destination. I feel like a few things would have to change before this happens!

The Environment. Disclaimer: We only went to the least populated provinces of China – Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Xinjiang. China is beautiful and diverse. From the jungles of Yunnan, to high mountains, grasslands, desserts and lakes. China was a lot cleaner and less populated than we expected. The opportunities for cycle touring are almost endless.

The censorship: Facebook, WordPress, u tube and even American tv shows like The Big Bang Theory are considered subversive by the government and censored. Unfortunately a lot of Chinese didn’t know about VPN’s (vertical private networks), which can circumvent some blocks. Fundamentally I think censorship is wrong, however, I think in the west we are censored in a different way. In China it is more overt. Everyone knows the government blocks websites. In Australia (and many other western countries) we are led to believe we are consuming good media, when in actual fact a lot of our media outlets are owned by multinationals with a distinct agenda (Murdoch for instance) which is as bad, if not worse than blatant censorship.

Contrast. China is a land of contrasts. In one minute it is so familiar, so modern, it could be the west. The next it is so alien you feel slightly dizzy. One minute you are surrounded by Chinese tourists with two SLR Cannon’s wearing Northface. The next, you are watching an old man herding goats on a remote mountain pass. China is the future as much as it is the past.

Tourism. After SE Asia where almost all tourism is aimed at foreigners, China is refreshing. SE Asia has ‘white people/foreigner’ prices. China has ‘tourist’ prices. This means all tourists, foreign and Chinese get ripped off equally. Oh and ripped off you get. The entry fee for many attractions is insane. Also, by far the majority of tourists in China are domestic which means even in tourist towns not many people speak English or cater to western tastes (read western cafes and food, usual to most SE Asian tourist towns). This is kind of nice. You also cannot be a student unless you are under 24, despite having a student card. Go figure.

Politics. Due to the language barrier it is hard to get a sense of how people feel in regards to politics and human rights. In Xinjiang you definitely feel the tension after a while. I mean, we were constantly getting our passports scrutinised and the police were everywhere. Most of the time the Chinese and Uyghur don’t seem to mix. It was similar in the Tibetan region, but not as tense. It’s hard to talk to people about these things and you often get very one-dimensional answers.

The parks. Chinese people use their parks and public spaces to the fullest. They really embrace them. Walk through almost any Chinese park or public space and you will see all manner of things; old men in Mao hats drinking tea and playing Majong, groups of colourfully dressed middle aged ladies line dancing to Chinese pop music, ballroom dancing couples, people practicing their instruments or singing, or even a mock catwalk.

The spitting. Perhaps a Chinese cliche but the spitting is intense. For most of the older generation, as well as some of the younger its perfectly acceptable to spit anywhere, usually meaning the street, sometimes meaning the floors of restaurant. While the spitting itself is quite gross, the hacking up of the spit in the back of the throat is probably worse. We once stayed at a hostel where one of the staff would alternate between smoking and hacking/spitting, pretty much the whole day. I have been assured that spitting is seen as not cool by the most of the younger educated generation and that it is fading out slowly as being sociably acceptable.

Coffee. A true tragedy. The Chinese don’t get coffee at all. I sampled some truly heartbreaking attempts in my 3 months in China. And the supermarkets only ever stock Nestle. Sad, sad, sad. I’m sure this is different in the big cities.

The cyclists. China has a growing middle class and on any given weekend you will find groups of Chinese on cycle trips. They all ride Giant or Merida bikes and took great delight in chaperoning us. This inevitably  always ends in a photo shoot. Cycle touring is also growing in popularity. Chinese cycle tourists never have rear panniers and always appear to be wearing all their clothes, even in the desert.

The staring. The Chinese are a nation of starers. Well, at least that was our experience. Opened mouthed, wide eyed, unabashed staring at the foreigners on bikes, or just walking around. One lady stared so intensely she nearly fell of her bike. I don’t think they are meaning to be rude, it’s just part of what they do. It’s not creepy either, in the way we get stared at by some men in other countries. Chinese men haven’t been sleazy really at all, which is saying a lot because almost everywhere else they have. The women stare just as much as the men do.

Strangely, the Chinese reminded me of American’s in some ways. In the way that some American’s can be very inward looking and insular, consumed by their culture and perceived central location in the world with very little knowledge of what lies beyond their borders. The Chinese can be like this too and the similarity is obvious. They too live in a large, populous country, with a fierce cultural dogma and are insulated in a lot of ways from the rest of the world. An example of this was when a girl in the mobile phone shop couldn’t comprehend that my phone wasn’t in Chinese, or when it is assumed that if you can’t speak Chinese, you must be able to at least read Chinese characters!

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The shifting winds of Xinjiang

Dunhuang to Kashgar

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Xinjiang sits in the far west of China, a province dominated by desert, skirted by momentous mountains and filled with ancient tales of the silk road traders. Culturally it is barely China at all, populated mainly by the Uyghur minority, a Turkic people from Central Asia. They look different from the Han Chinese, speak a different language, their food is different and most follow Islam. There are tensions between the Uyghur’s and the Chinese government which have often spilled over into bloodshed in recent times. While I won’t go into the politic’s any great detail, I will say it is here that we began to feel the force of Chinese paranoia, insecurity and control. From being moved on by the police, seeing security camera’s in Uyghur towns, barred petrol stations, x ray machines in shopping centres and having our passports scrutinised on numerous occasions.

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The Northern Silk Road

We left the oasis town of Dunhuang with a heavy heart, at least I did. The break had been wonderful, almost too wonderful and it was hard to get going. I was having a rare blue day, where I missed my friends and family a lot. Cycling however, often makes things better. There is something about being on the move that clears the soul and lets the light back in. At first we pedalled passed lush vineyards, crops and the small mud dwellings typical of this part of China. This soon gave way to the starker, dry desert landscape full of bare brown hills. As the afternoon wore on the lovely tailwind suddenly turned and violently spun in our faces, dark clouds flying towards us. A sign of things to come. Quickly we pushed our heavy bikes behind some hills and made camp.

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The next day saw a rainy morning that had us sheltering in a petrol station. It was also the first time we had to give i.d. to buy petrol for our stove. Another sign of things to come. Once the rain had become less torrential we ventured out onto the G30, the main highway, as there were no more secondary roads. Luckily the road is smooth and the shoulder wide, and the trucks not too annoying. That afternoon we cycled over the border, out of Gansu and into Xinjiang, our last province in China. The landscape was desolate, marred by powerlines, and strangely, a never ending barbed wire fence. Why fence the desert? It was particularly annoying for us as we had to keep cycling until there was a break in the wire and awkwardly manoeuvre our bikes through to find a place to camp.

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Fencing the desert..

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Wind farms in the desert. They may offend Joe Hockey, but we love them.

We thought the previous morning had been wet, but now it poured. After Astrid fixed her flat we pushed our bikes up onto the highway, already wet and exhausted. Heavy fog descended and our visibility was at about 150m. Crazy desert cycling! Eventually it lifted and we slowly dried out. For lunch we stopped at a truck stop, these desolate outposts reminded us of a run down version of the Australian road houses we had seen during our outback leg. They serve immense plates of noodles for about $2, perfect for a ravenous cyclist. The food almost makes up for the human excrement found scattered on the road around these abodes, as it seems truck drivers do not like to bury their poo. Looking on the bright side, it did lead to the invention of the game ‘dodge the poo’. Due to the barbed wire it was difficult again to find a place to camp and we had to make do pitching our tent behind a dirt embankment, not far from the noisy road. Still, it was the first clear night we had had in ages and the sky was amazing.

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Is this the desert?!

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The rain approaches

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One of our camps

The following morning we pedalled into Hami after experiencing the most amazing bread, being gifted cucumbers and having two flats. It only took us 4 hotels to find somewhere affordable to stay and this became our home for the next three nights. It was only supposed to be two but Astrid was unwell and needed an extra day off. Aside from visiting the supermarket and one night out, we were mainly hermits. Long term travel is so different to short holidays, sometimes you just don’t feel like ‘seeing the sights’ but would rather recharge and watch Orange is the New Black in your underwear while eating yogurt.

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The G30

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Into the headwind

Once out of Hami we were a little perturbed to learn that Turpan was 100km further than we expected. The problem with not being able to read Chinese characters. From here on in it grew hot. Really hot. The sun beat down relentlessly, the wind was temperamental, often starting as a tailwind, only to spin around mid morning to become a sheering headwind. Plus we were climbing, often in 40 degree heat, wind in our face. Although the climbs were tough, they afforded views of the most dramatic and beautiful landscape. Petrol stations were our saviour, offering cool drinks and respite from the heat. At night we sheltered under road tunnels because the sun didn’t go down until 10pm (everything runs on Beijing time here) and it remained stiflingly hot until it sunk below the horizon. The day before we reached Turpan it was so hot we could literally cycle only a few kilometres without stopping to rest and guzzling water. Luckily we were on the edge of oasis’ towns and irrigation channels from the snow capped mountains in the distance offered much needed relief. It was remarkable how quickly our clothes dried after being saturated.

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Cycling into Turpan

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After 4 days of tough cycling and a hot, sleepless night in another road tunnel we rolled into Turpan, the second lowest and second hottest place on earth. The cycle in was absolutely stunning and the hostel we found a true refuge. One of the first things I saw when we arrived was another touring bike. A heavily laden one, suggesting a long adventure. The owner did not appear to be around though. Logging on to my email I found a private message from someone responding to a post I had put up on Caravanistan (the place for all things Central Asian). It was from a cyclist called Neil, he had seen my post and wondered whether our paths would cross. It was his bike that stood in the foyer of the White Camel Hostel as he was on a visa run in Urumqi and would be returning the next day. Beers were planned for the next afternoon. Although we were tired, we decided to tag along to see the Minaret in Turpan with two other travellers we got chatting to at the hostel. It was stunning and the first Mosque I have ever been in to. The rest of the evening was reserved for beers and Street food.

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End of prayer time, Turpan

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After visiting the museum in Turpan and learning more about the Silk Road we relaxed until the arrival of Neil the mystery cyclist, a South African living in Taiwan and cycling back to Cape Town (h2htrip.com). There was an instant connection (something about our Southern Hemisphere commonality Neil reckons) and we laughed and shared stories from the road. It turns out Neil (who speaks Chinese) had heard about us, and had even been shown our photo by a noodle lady who had taken our picture. He knew that we were two days ahead and had tried to catch up, but when we turned off to Dunhuang, he had given up. However, because we stayed there so long, we had ended up behind him and now our paths had finally crossed. Neil however was going to Kashgar, not Urumqi and Kazakhstan like we had planned. The more we talked, the more the idea of continuing on the Northern Silk Road with Neil and culminating our China trip in Kashgar, a town that embodies the Silk Road appealed. And for Australian’s Kyrgyzstan is visa free, meaning no lengthy waits for embassies to process our visa (we were looking at 7 days for Kazakhstan). This along with the fact that Kazakhstan is immense and we would not spend much time there anyway, changed our minds and we decided to join Neil. Having the freedom to do this was awesome.

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Outside the White Camel

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Breakfast

So it was the three of us that set off from the White Camel the next morning, both parties happy for the extra company. Astrid and I love cycling alone together, but having someone else along is a lot of fun too. Being the second lowest place on earth we inevitably had to climb. After a cruisey morning looking at the range coming closer, we began to climb. It was hard going in the heat, but drivers gifted us cold water and a massive watermelon. Nearing the top we pulled off and made camp in amongst some beautiful, stark brown hills. Taking encouragement from Neil, we ditched the tent and slept out under the stars.

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Amazing camping

 

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Sand dunes!

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The next few days saw us alternatively climb through beautiful rocky landscape and sailing along the G30. Well, not exactly sailing. More stopping and fixing flats. This part of the highway is notorious amongst cyclist for the staples from the truck tyres that puncture our inner tubes. Our situation wasn’t helped by the fact that our tyres had done over 15,000km and were looking rather worn. Plus, our elderly inner tubes had started to break at the valve, something we couldn’t easily fix. This was complicated further by the fact that our French valves (common on touring bikes) were not common in China and we had been unable to purchase any inner tubes in Turpan. There was some potential for disaster but luckily we were spared. However after having 5 flats in one day I finally conceded and replaced my aged rear tyre with a shiny new one. It was during this time we began referring to the G30 as the ‘dirty 30’ and we tried to avoid it as much as possible.

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Smashing some biscuits

There weren’t always back roads, but when there were we were dually rewarded. They passed through poplar lined oasis villages where we snacked on bread, samosas, cold noodle, and were gifted melons, and dried apricots. At night we camped in tree plantations, or at the edge of fields, the only thing people wanted, was ask us to dinner and to let us know that we could contact them if we needed anything. We slept under brilliant star lit skies, the mountains of the Tian Shan on our right, the immense Taklamakan desert on our left. The people who live on this thin strip of land between these two immense forces of nature, channel the snow melt from the mountains for irrigation, the same way it was done when the caravans passed through these regions a thousand years before. With all its modern infrastructure it is not always easy to get a sense of the past until you get off the main road and spend some time in these villages.

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Camping in amongst some young poplars

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Cooking delicious samosa

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Bread was our staple. So amazing when fresh.

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Curious locals check out Neil’s trailer and bike

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Apricot orchard camping

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Passing a donkey and cart

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So many second breakfast options..

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Perfect cycling

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Bosten Lake, a short cut that turned into more of a side trip

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And the road bloody ends!

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Unfortunately it was not all villages and open skies. This is still China, which means huge, ugly, soulless cities. Korla was one such city, where we stayed in a backpackers for a night. We kind of regretted it and left as quickly as possible. Kuqa was another such monstrosity, but we had decided to stay just outside of it so we could visit the Bazaar the next day. Unfortunately, the police had other ideas. We had been invited to camp behind a small Uyghur village and were just getting stuck into our second cup of tea when the police turned up. Even with Neil’s mandarin we were unable to talk ourselves out of being escorted back into town to a dingy hotel. Apparently it was Chinese law that we stay in a hotel and the village was dangerous. Yep, that 80 year old Uyghur grandpa certainly looked like a killer. The hotel was an absolute dump. I don’t think the toilet had ever been cleaned and ‘man shower’ had piles of dirt in it, and possibly the floor was going to collapse at any moment. And it wasn’t even that cheap. Massive fail.

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Washing time

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Rage. Being made to move

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Police escort into town

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Room of doom and fest

What was even more of a fail, was that the bazaar wasn’t happening till the afternoon. We did not want to wait around, Kuqa felt oppressive and unfriendly, the tension between the police and the Uyghur’s palpable. So we left and cycled into what we named ‘The valley of paranoia’. It was off the G30, a valley that ran behind a mountain range and the massive Tian Shan (pretty much parallel to the G30). We thought it might be nicer than staying on the ‘dirty 30’. Well, it was, except for the police harassment. It’s nothing compared to what the Tibetan’s and Uyghur’s face, but after going through checkpoint after checkpoint, being approached while having lunch, our passports scrutinised and questioned where we would be staying (Neil managed to convince the police we could cycle 200km in a day) all three of us felt uneasy and slightly anxious. We also began to run into problems with our fuel. All through Xinjiang the petrol stations are barred. Drivers must let all of their passengers out and only then can they get fuel. Motorbikes must collect it in a jerry can and walk out to their bikes, which are not aloud in the petrol station. Foreign cyclists are not allowed to park their bicycles inside, nor buy petrol for their stoves, unless they have written permission from the police. Something about petrol bombs. Far out. It would take till Kyrgyzstan for us to be able to buy fuel again. Luckily we had just enough. The ‘valley of paranoia’ was however beautiful. Mostly tree lined oasis villages and right at the end 7000m snow capped peaks of the Tian Shan and spectacular camping.

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No bikes in the petrol station!

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Cycling into the valley of paranoia

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The truck offers some protection from the headwind

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Tired and sick of checkpoints

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Beautiful

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The police find us everywhere we go

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Sunset Donkey

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Camping an amongst the beautiful rocks

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The 7000m peaks of the Tian Shan

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Once out of ‘the valley of paranoia’ Kashgar was within our reach, albeit a long reach. All three of us were tired and looking forward to some days off and we pushed hard to make it in a short amount of days. This meant cycling until nearly 10pm most days. Out in this part of China, we really began to feel the desolate and immense nature of the Taklamakan, as before we had been cycling mainly through Oasis’. In the headwind and heat, it seemed to stretch on forever to our left, inhospitable and threatening. One day we battled it out for 10 hours in the headwind, falling exhaustedly under a train tunnel after 113km. The next day we breezed 172km in 8 hours, a raging tailwind at our back. Xinjiang, wait five minutes and the wind will shift.

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Taklamakan desert in the heat and headwind

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At the edge of nothingness

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sheltering from the heat with Hami melon

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Holding the upside down rainbow. The desert is strange..

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Sheltering from a sand storm in a railway tunnel

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Tunnels offer much needed shelter

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The dry cracked earth..

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Locals pack two melons into Neil’s panniers

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Sometimes you cannot find level ground to camp on!

 On our final day into Kashgar we woke up early, anxiously wondering whether we would have a ferocious headwind to deal with. Luck was on our side as an uncommitted tail/cross wind blew unenergetically. We reached the lively old town of Kashgar in the late afternoon and were no longer in China. Culturally anyway. I have not been to the Middle East but it felt how I imagine the middle east to be. Venders pedalling their wares, sheep being slaughtered, spices, a thousand different aromas, old men in traditional Muslim dress watching the world go by from benches, motorbikes honking, carpets, women in beautiful Hadjib’s, the bustling and chaotic nature of the place was intoxicating. I loved it. We all did. In amongst this was Old Town Hostel, the place we would call home for the next 2 days. Travellers share conversation and beers around a courtyard, discussing routes in and out of China, long distance cyclist’s tinker with their bikes, and when the dorms are full people simply sleep outside on mats. It’s relaxed and wonderful and the three of us felt incredible happy to be there. We shared delicious dark beer, celebrating our epic 12 day 1400km journey along the Northern Silk Road.

We were really and truly on the edge of Central Asia now.

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Camels!!

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Made it!

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Lifting a cow into a ute at the Livestock market, Kashgar.

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Fat bottom sheep. They exists.

All my love

Jude