We entered China on a hot 14th June’s day. 你好! 4100km from home.
China’s apparently the country where people get an unsurpassable desire to burn their passports. There was a Latvian couple on a long term travel to China, and they got involved with doing that; and, as we all know, the infamous Pozharnik from Ukraine burned his passport and lived in China as an illegal immigrant for a while as well. Dainis and Laura made an agreement – if I burn my passport, they are not gonna help me and will carry on.
Border crossing point was quite impressive. The first fence on Kazakh side, along with military-looking border guards stopped us as far as 5km before the actual border. More checks after the remaining stretch of the road and then we were ready to cross into China. Oh, not that fast – there’s a 7,5km long ‘no man’s land’ corridor we needed to cycle first. The funny thing is that the actual straight line distance from the starting point to the finish is only 500m. The corridor is made as a big loop, I guess, for the cases when it needs to accommodate a long line of trucks. Chinese did a couple of passport checks, scanned our bags and then let us in, straight in the hands of an excited crowd of Chinese moneychangers. For a moment we were Hollywood stars, moving along the red carpet, smiling at yet trying to avoid all the fans who scream and shout, and try to reach out and touch us. We let our fans down and went straight through and away from them, we had no cash to exchange anyway.
Dainis’ and Laura’s cycles needed fixing – Laura was still on a single gear and Dainis riding with a sad-sounding bottom bracket. But now we were in the perfect country for finding parts! China! There’s everything here, right!? And cheap!
Khorgas looked like a decent-sized town (on the map, at least) but we didn’t find a single place where to get bicycle parts or fix them. So we started to look for a train instead. It wasn’t really clear though, if there is a passenger rail service here, the map showed the railway line but we could not find any information about possible trains. We tried to inquire a local policeman but the conversation wasn’t any fruitful. He said something about a bus station and pointed us in some direction. We started cycling but soon found ourselves on the outer bounds of the town and on the motorway. We turned around and found the bus station eventually, in the opposite direction where the policeman pointed us to.
First impressions about China were stunningly similar to the impressions about Iran:
- Hot – same as in Iran;
- All the information and signs in an undecipherable scripture – same as in Iran;
- Locals want to make selfies with you – same as in Iran;
- People desperately want to talk to you but they don’t speak English, so they just end up talking in their local language hoping you will understand although you are trying to make it clear that you do not – same as in Iran;
- The traffic – everyone’s driving by their own jungle rules – same as in Iran;
- Policemen doesn’t know their own towns – same as in Iran;
- I cannot get money from ATM’s for some reason – same as in Iran (I eventually found an ATM that talked to my Mastercard only in Urumqi after persistent trial and error).
Khorgas—Urumqi – 666km/12h in a sleeper bus and the miraculous meeting with Eric the ‘Clock Seller’.
The sleeper bus to Urumqi cost us 160 yuan (~23 Eur) per person. The driver was very reluctant to accept our cycles in the cargo compartment and tried to get additional 100 yuan for his own expenses from us. After a hearty dispute where we tried to show him that we only have one hundred-yuan bill and a bunch of smaller ones he cursed, gave us a big frown and took from our handful of money only the bills which were ten-yuan or larger, amounting to the total of approx. 130 yuan.
But this wasn’t the only quarrel we found ourselves on that particular bus. Next dispute was about the seat numbers. In this case the issue is a bit more crucial than in a normal bus – it is not just a matter about your seat; it is about where will you sleep! It wasn’t really clear from the tickets where we need to reside and to make it worse, the numbering on the bunks was not very understandable either. We switched over a few times, disputed with others, then the angry driver came to join the conversation but eventually everyone was seated and more or less (some less) happy about where they were.
“Rūnaju latvješū vāloda!” (Me speek Latviyan!) These words suddenly came from the man who ended up in the bunk next to me. “Mans vards ir Erīks.” (My name Eric.) Word by word I found out that he doesn’t actually speak Latvian but he remembered some words, and a lot of stories about the time he spent in Latvia selling alarm clocks. Kazakh by ethnicity, he was living in Latvia from ’89 to ’94, mostly traveling around the country with a simple push cart full of clocks that he imported from Moscow, and sold them all over Latvia.
He remembered towns in Latvia, remembered in which ones he had encounters with gypsies and in which ones he made friends. Then, why is he now on a sleeper bus in China, why didn’t he stay and live in Latvia? He said that he was quite well-off selling the clocks. He was still in Latvia after the collapse of the Soviet Union but had to go back to Kazakhstan in ’94 when the country introduced their own money – the Tenge, not to lose ownership of his property there. Initially planning to do all the formalities and return to Latvia, he lingered in his fatherland some more and, well, he’s still living in Kazakhstan today. And nowadays, it wouldn’t be easy to move anymore – EU, visas… But why sleeper bus in China – times have changed, people don’t want to buy alarm clocks anymore, people want to buy printer toners! Now he is regularly making trips to China to buy printer toners there and importing them to Kazakhstan and selling them for higher price there. And he claims that it is still faster and cheaper to do it this way – personally going there, buying a few boxes and going back with them, just loading them on trains, busses, rather than just ordering them and having them sent over.
Some of Eric’s stories started repeating whereas I started to fall asleep as it was already around midnight. Maybe at that moment it seemed to me that he’s talking too much already and I just wanted to say goodnight but overall, this was yet another of those cases when the Soviet heritage – ability to converse in Russian proved to be very useful. If I couldn’t understand Russian, I would have never known that this man on the bunk next to me in a bus in China was spending years in Latvia, selling alarm clocks.
Xinjiang – have we really reached China?
In the next morning we had reached Urumqi. Having traveled more than 660km from the border one could think that we were surely in the heart of China by now. But where we were was actually Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It even is the largest Chinese administrative division! Sure, it is part of the People’s Republic of China but that does not mean that it is China. The whole feel and surroundings is like in another Central Asian country. I’m giving Xinjiang a new name – Uyghuristan. The biggest ethnic group here are Uyghurs – 46% of the population, whereas Han Chinese account only to 40% of the population of Uyghuristan. The major religion is Islam, you can see mosques and Arabic script all around.
A lot of faces don’t look Chinese and people have these weird hats on… And if you are still insisting that this is China after all, I’ll throw this on top – officially, Xinjiang is on the same time zone as the rest of China, Beijing Time (UTC+8), as all China has only one time zone. However, things here run on the unofficial Xinjiang Time (UTC+6). Again, can draw some parallels to Iran – they have the rial/toman issue, Xinjiang has the time zone issue. And it makes things confusing, of course. When talking about time, you always have to make sure, which time are we talking about. Train timetables and government-run institutions will be Beijing Time, shops and local businesses Xinjiang Time.
Quite surprisingly, I managed to get us a couchsurfing place – a whole apartment only for the three of us. It belonged to a private language school and was allocated for an English teacher from abroad. To our luck, currently there was no foreign teacher working for them, so we had the chance to move in the flat almost for a week. Our actual host – Kasim was the head of the school and too busy to hang out but he assigned Semetjan – one of the teachers and some students to meet with us and to help with what we might need. And we really needed their help. If there’s one thing in Uyghuristan that is common with China it is the fact that in both of them hardly anyone speaks English. The ability to communicate in Russian had to be left on the other side of the border. We needed to fix the cycles, buy train tickets, and these seemingly simple tasks would be so much harder if not for our new friends who were studying/teaching English in the school. As an our due for staying at an apartment meant for English teacher we took a part in the class one time as well which was interesting for both parties – we got to know something about Uyghur traditions and they – about our journey.
In certain corners of the apartment we could even catch the school’s wi-fi signal – what more could one wish for? Well, maybe one could wish that half of the Internet wasn’t blocked by the government and that the speed of the connection wouldn’t take us back to the memories of the dial-up. All hail to The Great Firewall of China! Similar to Iran, the Big Brother here is trying to prevent people from using the evil social networks and reading stuff that could harm the system, like our blog, maybe. But, of course, people (including us) are successfully finding ways how to surpass the blocking.
It eventually occurred to us – we will not cycle across China, we’ll only cycle a small part of it. We’ll have to do the most distance here with trains and busses – too little time on our visas and too few yuan in our wallets.
Probably some people would be skeptical about us traveling on our own in Xinjiang. They might even say that we are slightly crazy and careless and that this region is dangerous – there’s history of conflict, riots here; there’s the tension between the ethnic groups and so on, and so on… Like always, you can find reasons not to go somewhere, if you look for them. We felt as safe here as in any other country we had been to. We had already been to Muslim countries, so we knew what to do or not to do, and we knew that Muslims are very hospitable and warm people. Uyghurs are no exception.
There is some military presence on the streets – checkpoints on street corners, some armored vehicles. There are elevated security measures in public places where a lot of people hang out. Buy if anything, that just makes things safer, right?
And if we hadn’t traveled through Xinjiang, we had never went to a Uyghur wedding! Some friend of Kasim’s (the head of the language school) had his wedding feast one evening and somehow we ended up sitting around one of the tables. Plates of different traditional foods, stacked one on top of another, bottles of ‘Chinese vodka’ – baijiu (Allah is probably looking away this evening). And in the middle of the big hall was a big crowd of people, with the newlyweds in the center. This big, live mass was dancing, jumping, watching performances of some other dancers and just letting loose. To describe it, I could just say that it was a packed discotheque with a lot of food.
“Two Days in the Hard Seat” or train ride Urumqi—Chengdu
So, you get up in the morning, have a spontaneous idea: “Let’s go for a train trip!” You check the timetable, catch a bus down to the train station, buy the ticket, grab a meat pastry at a food stall in the station and jump in the train in the last second.
Well, you can do this in Latvia, at least. Spontaneous train trip does not apply in China, and not because there are no meat pastries in the station. Most likely you just couldn’t get on the train on the same day you got the idea to do so. First of all – not so easy to get in the station itself. There was a line of people outside the perimeter fence around the station area. The line had to go through a body-check and scan their bags just to get near the station. Then, a big queue lined up before the entrance to the ticket hall, and after enduring that, there was yet another body-check and bag-scan just after entering the building. And what unveils before your eyes after this are another big queue to the ticket counter. Wait, no, it’s not just one line – 18 long lines of people, all across the massive station hall. To sum this all up, to get the tickets, you queue up in a line that leads to a queue that leads to 18 queues to the counters. Yeah, there’s a lot of people in China. Took us about two hours to get the tickets.
Well, two hours is not that much, so you could still go on the same day as the spontaneous idea!? Not that simple. As there are so many people who are after the tickets, the trains are packed by default and all the tickets for the current and even the next day are usually sold out. Sure, you can save yourself the additional trip to the station and buy tickets online, if you have a Chinese bank account and card. Well, you can buy them online via an agency as well and pay additional fees. But guess what, if purchasing online, you will still need to acquire the tickets in the station’s counter meaning that you will have to stand in the big queue. Well, unless the station has a designated counter for ticket collection. But that will have a big queue in front of it anyway, I guess.
So you will still need to arrive to the station very early to collect the tickets and go through all the lines and checks. Like in an airport – the station buildings are huge, and if you find the way to your platform in the last minute, they might even not let you through anymore, like when an airport gate is closed. And, by the way, tickets can only be purchased with a passport and they have your name on them, so you can’t give your ticket to someone else – they check the passport when boarding the train as well. Is this really a train station or did we accidentally end up in an airport? Laura had a lemonade bottle in her hands upon entering the station, and they asked her to have a sip before entering – probably to check if she’s not secretly trying to bring in a flammable liquid or tears of Jesus.
All is well that ends well and we got our tickets eventually, each ticket was 313.5 yuan (~45Eur). If that sounds kinda expensive, take note that this train ride was 3000km long – more than half of all our distance made in China, and it took 49 hours. Well, if it sounds kinda cheap then, take note that this time it was a hard seat, not a bunk like in Kazakhstan.
Day of departure finally came and we managed to get on the train, together with our bags. We feared that they might be a bit too big and that train conductors will start arguing about them but they were actually not as big as some of other passengers’ sacks and suitcases. We did not bring the bicycles and half of out bags on the train, by the way. Those we had to sign off to the China railways shipping company the previous day, so they could send them separately in the cargo car. All for an additional charge, of course.
In the train now, we just needed to claim our seats back from someone who had already taken them – yeah, people can even get standing tickets for a two-day train ride, so they just float around hunting for a spot that’s free or just ending up sitting on the floor between the train cars.
Life in the train seat mostly consisted of eating instant noodles or watching others eat instant noodles. I’m quite fond of instant noodles myself and the slurping sounds from others were not really bothering me. Can’t say that about Dainis though. Still, the noodles were lesser of the evils, worse were the disgusting looking chicken feet and brown-ish stinking eggs. The best way of consuming the chicken feet, of course is chewing on them, as loud as possible and then spitting the nails back in a plastic bag.
When the night falls, Laura and I try to sleep on the seats but what happens is mostly only trying to sleep. Dainis had enough of that and just went to sleep in the walking isle on the dirty floor. Despite the dangers of everyone who could accidentally step on his face, he managed to get a better night’s sleep than us. In the morning, the sleep has to be ended when the food cart comes (around 6AM). Chinese seem to be able to have a good sleep anywhere – let it be the hard floor, uncomfortable seat or confined place full of cigarette smoke.
I tried to be smart the next night – I spread down my sleeping bag on the ground, but instead of the aisle side of the seats, I did it right under the middle of the seats. I’m not sure if it was any better in the end… The seats were low enough from the floor that I couldn’t normally turn around for sleeping on my side. I had to remain in this weird position on my back with very limited movement options.
OK, it sounds like this train ride was a real disaster but it was not. Sure, it was not a comfortable journey but that is how all of this little trip of ours is and is meant to be. And, when recalling the ride now, I don’t think “That was shit!”, I think “That was something!”.
And when the train entered Sichuan province, the desertiness of Xinijang changed into mountains and valleys, rivers and lush forests. We were closing in to Chengdu.
Summer solstice and ‘Panda-lifestyle’ in the Panda Capital of the World – Chengdu
Chengdu is the provincial capital of Sichuan province and the fifth-most populous agglomeration in China. Although it is big, it is said that the whole flow of life here is more relaxed and slower than in the other big cities. One of it’s most recognizable symbols is the Giant Panda, and one of the most popular tourist attractions – Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. There’s also more teahouses and bars in Chengdu than Shanghai despite having less than half the population.
Of course, city’s filled with skyscrapers, enormous apartment buildings and all the usual big city uproar. But at the same time Chengdu seemed relatively quiet for its dimensions. When I left the very center of city, the huge, wide streets seemed to appear half-empty, same as the apartment buildings, a lot of them only being built now. It feels that the city is being made ready for more and more people, cars, bikes, offices to come during the upcoming years. The main thing is to make as much tea houses as possible, while there’s still some space left!
I have to say that I didn’t go in a single teahouse and I did not enter the Panda Research Centre. But I did pay a visit to it from the outside at least. Going in was just too expensive. Well, for the few days we spent around here, we were mostly living the ‘Panda-lifestyle’ of true Chengdu inhabitants – eating and sleeping. And celebrating Jāņi – Latvian summer solstice festival! Just to be clear, it is not at all similar to Lychee and Dog Meat Festival which is held at summer solstice in China.
The actual summer solstice we spent on the train but we arrived on evening 23rd which is the Līgo evening for Latvians. Our host Brian is living in Longquanyi District, on a green hillside, good 25km from city center and the concrete jungle. It was too late to get meat for grilling on the evening because there’s no meat in the normal shops apparently (sausages that can be kept out of fridge forever and taste like plastic, and the notorious chicken feed do not count as meat). We settled for a fire and some beer on this evening and got some meat and veggies to cook on the fire the next day. Beer, grilled meat, potatoes roasted in the glowing coal, and a bonfire, we managed to do this quire right. We just had to do without the traditional Jāņi cheese. The only cheese Chinese had here was tofu. Which is not really a cheese in my book. Soy cheese? Not.
26th of June we were well rested from the celebrations and ready to travel on. We set out on our way but something somewhere did not quite go as we had planned and we ended up sleeping on the street in the center of the city.