On day three in rainy Germany two mountain bikers start riding next to me. Seemingly surprised they look at my packed bicycle. ”Where are you going!?” ”We are cycling to China”, I say. Both men start laughing. They shake their heads and they don’t seem to believe me. About 200 days later I see the skyline of the border town of Horgos in a distance, the far west of China. What a difference with the typical village in Kazakhstan, where time seemed to stand still.
A week in Xinjiang
A country the size of Europe is too big for us to cross by bicycle, mainly because our visa is only valid for three months. Also, the Gobi desert and current situation in Xinjiang province let us decide to travel by hitchhiking, bus and train. Xinjiang is traditionally populated by Turkish-speaking Muslims, the Uyghurs. China is currently increasing its supervision on the Uyghur minority. According to the United Nations, a million Uighurs have been detained in labor camps. China says it’s preventing terrorist attacks, but the locals themselves experience it as a police state
We are very happy when we enter ”the gates” of China. And when we look around us, it is exactly how we expected China to be. Chinese tourists taking pictures of the border crossing. A brand new city with huge skyscrapers and four-lane highways. What is immediately striking is the great superiority of the police. We see more police than locals on the streets. It looks like an occupied war zone. We too cannot escape checkpoints. Before entering and leaving a city, a village, the bus station and even the shopping mall. What also impresses us is the number of cameras and police stations. In all major cities, you will find a police station every 500 meters.
From Horgos we take the night bus to Urumqi, the capital of the province. At some checkpoints, all passengers have to leave the bus for an ID check. Everyone walks rather quickly through the detection gates with their Chinese ID card. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t recognize passports and the Chinese police
The next day is more successful, after one hour waiting along the road, a big car stops that is able to take us for about 500 kilometers. At checkpoints, it takes us sometimes a long time to go through. We feel guilty for letting the driver wait. But he doesn’t seem to be bothered. At one of the checkpoints, we are told that we have to wait for one hour in the parking lot. And we are not the only ones, all cars have to wait! When we ask around, no one seems to be surprised. This is normal, we are told. Every ten minutes a police car arrives to tell which cars may continue. In the evening our friendly driver drops us off at a hotel. When I am taking a shower, someone knocks on the door. A perfectly English speaking lady (for Chinese standards) tells us, “Sorry, you have to move to another hotel.” We couldn’t discuss anything and two of the staff take us to the other hotel. Once there, I ask where it’s possible to have dinner somewhere. The woman says that we are not allowed to leave the hotel until the police have checked us. After checking and taking some more photos, we are free to go. But even in the evening, when we leave the hotel, I notice that someone is watching us. Even though the police and security guards are friendly towards us, we do not feel at ease. We cannot imagine how this must feel for the local people, who are literally watched everywhere.
The next morning we are optimistic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out and we are waiting for hours. The owner of a local restaurant is happy to help us and even invites us
The Tibetan Plateau
We are very happy when we can finally continue cycling and the first few days we are super motivated. We cover big distances. The roads are perfectly paved and fairly quiet. The roads are quiet because most of the time a new highway is built right next to it. Often supported by many bridges and tunnels, so the road runs straight through the landscape. As a result, our view is often obstructed by concrete pillars. Every now and then a newly built city pops up, which on our map is still indicated as a village. It is unbelievable to see how fast this country is being built. Everything has to move for economic growth.
We cycle up to the Tibetan plateau, other than the province of Tibet, where foreigners can’t enter without a ‘permit’. The plateau is located at an altitude of about 3,000 to 5,000 meters and mainly consists of grasslands and yaks. A lot of yaks. In Central Asia, we were glad when we saw a few, but here we see hundreds of them at once! The locals mostly live in nomadic tents. What we also like to see is that all generations still wear traditional clothing. When we cycle past some locals they literally open their mouths. They may have never seen a tourist before. Every mountain top is decorated with thousands of Tibetan flags. They also buy a box full of small paper cards. They throw them all at once, into the air, so the whole mountain is full this stuff. Even 50 kilometers from the mountain top we still see them… In this part of China, we also visit quite a few Tibetan temples and monasteries with miles of walls with prayer wheels.
While we are still cycling on the plateau, we see on the weather forecast that winter is approaching. The last morning, before we descend to the metropolis of Chengdu, we wake up in our tent covered with a layer of snow. The last kilometers before the city we see the landscape and climate change slowly. From grasslands to pine forests, to increasingly tropical vegetation and warmer temperatures.
Cycling in China
Good roads, beautiful landscapes, and delicious food make cycling in China fun and comfortable. However, particularly difficult is communicating with the Chinese. Simple things like ordering food often
There is a big difference between cities and villages. In the
The natural beauty of China
For us, the highlight of China were the beautiful landscapes and National Parks. Chinese also love to travel, and of course, they take many pictures. Anything just a bit
During route planning across the plateau, we see a small nature reserve on the map called ”Zecha Stone Forest”. With little further information, we toke the risk and make a small detour. It turns out to be a very beautiful bit of nature with a few Buddhist sacrifices. It seems that it was a tourist attraction, or will be because the place was rather deserted.
We have our first real holiday around Chengdu when two friends of Lynn visit us. Together we visit Songpan, a village on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, Huanglong National Park and Leshan.
Just before Tiger Leaping Gorge, we cycle into Yunnan province. The ride to one of the deepest gorges in the world is very beautiful. We cycle along the Yangtze, the longest river in China and over high mountain passes again.
In the Tiger Leaping
The province of Yunnan is a country in itself. We see many differences compared to the rest of China. Visibly less police on the streets. Also, in the rest of China, it’s difficult to get petrol for our stove, because they are not allowed to fill anything other than a car or motorcycle. Here we see large barrels being filled so also our bottle isn’t a problem. The hotels are super cheap and we can stay anywhere, no special ”foreigner-hotels” anymore. The cities are less developed. We see more local life, as in the rest of Southeast Asia. It seems the government isn’t too interested in this province yet. For us only positive!
The last three weeks we cycle from the city of Kunming to the border of Laos. Along the way, we meet Quentin and Florine from Switzerland, with whom we continue together all the way to the border. We visit the beautiful rice fields of Yuan Yang, tea plantations and we start to descend to the tropical south. After three months in China, we cross the border to Laos, from where we will explore the rest of Southeast Asia.