So we had successfully shipped the bike as cargo two days ahead of us (or so we hoped!!) and it was time for us to begin our four day journey to the Uighur town of Kashgar situated in the western tip of this huge country.
The journey would see us cover an epic distant – about the equivalent of travelling across Bhutan, Nepal and Northern India. I really didn’t appreciate just how huge China really was until I came here.
Split into two parts, the first section of the journey would see us reach Urumqi, a 48 hour trek, arriving at 12 noon. We would have a 9 hour stop over here where we hoped to have a break from the trains to explore the city and enjoy our first taste of Central Asian culture. From there on it would be another 18 hours overnight skirting the Taklamakan desert to Kashgar.
For both journeys we had booked ourselves a ‘hard sleeper’ seat which is much better than it sounds. It’s certainly cosey with the six bunks squeezed in but the beds were pretty comfy and we both slept well all three nights.
The food on the trains is notoriously terrible and as we wouldn’t be able to use the stove on board we got creative with what meals we could cook with just boiling water which is supplied free in every carriage. Like everyone else, instant noodles featured heavily on the menu but we bulked ours up with boiled eggs and veg and we still managed to have our porridge in the mornings.
The worse thing about the journey by far was the music which they insisted on playing on the train tannoy system RIDICULOUSLY LOUDLY. This soundtrack was a terrible mix of Chinese and American pop including Every Breath You Take by Sting (shiver)… There was only a limited number of these soundtracks which meant they were on repeat all day.
My least favourite compilation was an album of ‘live on stage’ Chinese pop songs in which many of the singers found it difficult to stay in tune. There’s just something incredibly frustrating about hearing a singer clinging desperately to a bum note while they are cheered on by adoring fans…
Right music snob rant over… the second thing which was also mildly irritating was the constant smell of cigarette smoke. EVERYBODY smokes in China, and I mean everyone. You weren’t allowed to smoke in the cars but the door was kept open at all times and all smokers simply went into the connecting corridors to light up instead.
Despite these tiny annoyances, we both enjoyed our rest away from the bike. Paddy finished two whole books and I dedicate some time to my cross stitch which I had almost entirely neglected since being in China.
Having journeyed across nearly half of Xinjiang province – China’s Uiguar homeland – we arrive into Urumqi and stash our 6 panniers in left luggage.
We were then free to explore the city and get our first taste of Uighur culture. Back in the deliciously warm sunshine, we found a bus heading into the city centre with a plan to find our first kebab and nan and then take a look around the free museum which turned out to be well worth the visit despite the humorous wax models introducing you to the different ethnic groups who make up the Xinjiang social melting pot.
Many of the artefacts displayed there were amazingly preserved due to the specially dry climate. There were wooden bowls and leather clothes displayed dating from 2000 years ago and some eerie mummies laid out in glass boxes who dated as far back as 800BC.
There were even preserved ‘barley cakes’ in one cabinet!
24 hours later we’ve crossed the vast Taklamakan desert and arrived in the old Silk Road hub of Kashgar or Kashi. The town is closer to Tehran than it is to Beijing and arriving there felt like we had already crossed the border to begin our Central Asia tour. Stacks of nan breads, tiled mosques, the smell of kebabs and bustling bazaars; we were a million miles away from the Tibetan plains we had been cycling across a week before.
The heightened security at both Urumqi and Kashgar stations however were a gentle reminder that we were still very much in China and the ethnic tensions which have dominated the province’s politics for the past 60 years still exist here. It seems Beijing’s crack down on ‘Uighur terrorism’ continues.
Much to our delight and relief tandem was waiting for us in tact at Kashgar station. It was very good to be reunited with our bike, and we happily cycled towards the famous old town where we hoped to get a decent bed somewhere central.