China was an “interesting” challenge on our Altai bikepacking trip. All adventures need these sections; those challenging, tough days that question why exactly are we doing this?
Western China is facing issues that we don’t see much in the press over here. The strategic and mineral importance of this region has seen it receive vast investment in roads and police, but all I’ll say is that the Uighur and Kazakh populations aren’t super happy about it all.
In Jeminay, the border town, we stopped at the first hotel we saw, we were tired and exhausted after a couple of short rides and a very long and very hot border crossing. My Lezyne Super GPS measures temperature and had recorded 43c with an average of 40c!
All the hotels here have guards outside and metal detectors upon entry. I left Marion and Jack with the bikes and ventured inside. After a lot of passport viewing and discussions it seemed we could stay at a decent price. In the time it took to agree this, Jack and Marion had become surrounded by a police SWAT team. About 10+ armed officers were milling about and looking at passports etc. I rushed over to see what was going on – it was more than a bit intimidating! Another police team turned up and piled out of a minivan. Marion and Jack seemed bemused but calm, it was the most armed police officers I’d seen in one place.
One officer was now at reception talking to the receptionist. What was going on I ask?
It soon became clear, not much happens here in the desert town of Jeminay, we were a novelty. There were a lot of police all over the place, with a station on each corner and even Segway patrols; a desert police state. Thephones were out and selfies were being taken with us cyclists, guns in hand. A translation was made by phone to say “don’t worry we just want to chat with you!” We calmed down, they waved and eventually disappeared. By now we were even more exhausted.
The sheer number of phone pictures, questions and passport checks by the police and undercover police tested our patience over this China leg of the trip. It would spur us on to cross China quicker.
More good food that evening and we’re ready to cross the first desert stretch tomorrow. The flat sandy landscape is a challenge in its monotony and the wind turbines are here for a reason; it’s relentlessly windy and a struggle to reach the minimum 100km we need to get water.
The good thing is the wind takes the edge off the temperatures that still AVERAGE 40c On the way we stop at the only village in the desert, the police swarm us again. By now we were taking pictures of anyone taking pictures of us;
These guys stopped us for a selfie; they had guns so we didn’t argue;
We make it to Burqin in the Altay region of Xianjiang, we’re totally destroyed by wind and heat. Although just before the town a van stopped, I missed it but the guy flagged down Marion and Jack. He had seen us on the desert roads and felt sorry for us and he had a van full of pastries; you can’t make this stuff up! They both rode off loaded to their eyes in free cakes!
We collapse on some anti car barriers and drink lots of water, we’re soon surrounded by kids.These kids were on a massive sugar high and talking constantly to us in Chinese, with no idea why we couldn’t respond!
The town has a street food market and after many, many litres of water, we wander along starving. It’s a mix of breads and food from Kazakh cuisine along with traditional Han Chinese food.
The market is a fascinating place and well worth an evening stroll. It offers that stark contrast in culture that is modern day western China.
Riding here gives an insight into a region that you’d never normally visit. We met people who’d never seen foreigners here before. No one visits because there’s just very little between the standard modern Chinese towns.
The heat, wind and flatness drags motivation and energy but the bikes perform well with the drop bars being used a lot on my Tripster ATR. The riding is very much type 2 fun but I am in my element, relishing the challenge a lot more than the more sensible Marion and Jack!
The silver lining is that the food is always good and we certainly deserve a feast each day, here we stock up on dumplings;
As you might have got, the whole China experience had been stressful and we all question if it was worth it, when we reach towns the hotels turn us away, it’s so restricted no one knows if foreigners are allowed so they simply refuse us. Those that don’t refuse us charge a fortune, we traipse between hotels most nights.
Just as we’re ready to leave China we have the most remarkable evening that justifies the hardship. The road goes due west as the sun sets. The air is filled with rain and the result is this;
I’ve never seen light like it before; surreal and mesmerising and we’re buzzing like kids. We aren’t using hotels if we can avoid it, so we camp near an abandoned building that the rainbow pointed us towards;
If you like long, leading empty roads then the final road towards Mongolia was perfect;
China had been interesting and a true challenge but Mongolia was set to be to be amazing riding. The border was easier and soon we cover the first 20km without seeing a car or person on the road. We exchange US dollars for local currency and stock up with food in a town called Bulgan. We’ll need it for the days ahead. The only traffic we see are mining trucks on the horizon continuously driving tonnes of Ore to China on a dedicated highway in the far distance.
As I sit in the shade and eat a watermelon and inquisitive cow starts eating he left overs. “Can cows eat melon?” we all ponder, surely it destroys their stomachs, either way it’s not complaining. Much like this trip it’s destroying us but we can’t stop riding to see what will happen next.
As we turn north from Bulgan we lose these mining trucks and enter the wilderness, genuinely unsure if we’ll reappear.