Kashgar was a nice place to relax before heading towards the Kyrgyzstan border.
Much of the historic old town (where many of the buildings were over 500 years old) has been torn down and replaced by new ‘replica’ buildings which although smart feel a bit empty of any character.
Kashgar was a central hub for the famous Silk Road and consequently has a very famous bazaar which we visited and had lunch at – a egg noodle and chickpea spicy salad with fresh bagel and homemade spicy chicken drumsticks.
Despite it being a Tuesday it was still bustling and I even witnessed a raucous fist fight develop between two of the stall owners.
We also cycled out to the Abakh Hoja 17th century Mausoleum which is an interesting place to wonder about and is considered to be one of the holiest Islamic sites in the province.
The complex consists of the domed mausoleum which, is decorated with mismatched blue and green tiles, and a number of mosques all built in the typical Uighur pairing, used for summer and winter respectively.
The whole place is surrounded by nice gardens planted with heavily scented roses, complete with an enormous shaggy camel…
We also took a walk through the graveyard next to the complex.
Our hostel was a great big building with a large courtyard full of other travellers. There were a number of cycle tourers passing through, most of them Chinese, but Henry the Durham cathedral choral boy and music student at Edinburgh University rolled in one evening having just arrived from Kyrgyzstan. It was good to swap stories with him.
There was Connar the Irish man and his wife (both in their late 40s) from Australia who were enjoying a years career break travelling across Asia and finally Michelangelo from Barcelona, who liked to wear a very long black turban just for fun (he’s actually a Christian) and who makes his living by travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan for 3 months of the year to export the blue gem stone Lapis lazuli.
We spent the rest of the day cleaning the bike and stocking up for our cycle through the desert up towards the Irkeshtam Pass which will see us cross the border into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and eventually see us arrive in Osh.
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.
I’m not one of those people who has great teeth. The summer before this trip I had a filling fall out while eating some Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut which the dentist on Seven Sisters road put back in, but he advised it might need more treatment. I had this tooth on a long list to get this sorted out before our trip, but unfortunately that item never got ticked off. I thought it might last a year, I was wrong.
The tooth started hurting, A LOT, coming down from one of our Tibetan peaks to Litang. Luckily we had some penicillin which I took based on some sound internet advice and a vague memory that penicillin could treat a toothache. Amazingly it did the trick for a few weeks but by the time we got to Chengdu I really needed to see a dentist.
It started with Luis, our excellent Catalan warm showers host, sending a group message to his local expat network. Within an hour I had multiple recommendations, within two hours I was whatsapp-ing with the dentist about the problem, the price and making an appointment for the next day.
I turned up at the address the following afternoon extremely nervous and not knowing what to expect. However I ended up having brilliant treatment and service.
The practice was spotless and I first got a tour of all the shiny new international equipment the have. The dentist trained in Germany and has a PhD – this pleased me greatly as those who know me know my faith in German technology! Perfect English was spoken and my fear of having to run from a backstreet chop shop was put to rest.
After an X-ray she took time to explain what was going wrong and that I was going to need a root canal and I’d have to come back in a week for the second part. “But I’ll be in Kyrgyzstan”. After a long chat about outcomes and risks she agreed to do it all in one day and give me more penicillin in case it all flared up even worse.
Just before she started I was told she forgot to include in the price the optional anesthesia (150Y). “Yes! Give me the goddam drugs!” Apparently a lot of Chinese clients don’t like anesthetic, even for a root canal!
If it all went to plan I was told I would have an international tooth: Chinese handiwork, American filling material, Japanese equipment, original bad British filling and weak Irish teeth. It was a real challenge for the young dentist, after coming back from one X-ray I found her being encouraged by the practice manager. “You have very long teeth!” she said. I had total faith in her at this stage though!
Just to add a touch of the surreal, the practice manager informed me of her love of Ireland and Celtic mysticism, Enya in particular. She proceeded to put on some of her favourite tracks to accompany us during the second half of the treatment. Listening to Enya while getting a route canal wasn’t ideal, but in some strange way it did actually calm me down.
In the end all went well, it took about 3 hours for the consultation and treatment. Total cost was less than £100 equivalent, much less than in London. I’m going to floss regularly from now on…
We woke to a lovely sunny morning in Chengdu and we set the bike up and spent an enjoyable afternoon getting our bearings and cycling around the city as we started to tick off our very long to do list.
Chengdu seems like a very pleasant city and we both really enjoyed cycling around its streets. We were lucky with the weather on the first couple of days but the last 2 were characterised by Chengdu’s standard weather – drizzle, smog and a hazy white sky.
We managed to find a big digital department store which took care of our need for a new camera lens cap and headphone splitter. We also cycled south to visit the big decathlon store and managed to easily spend 350Y buying various bits and pieces.
In the evening of the first day we headed over to meet Lluis our very generous warm showers host. Lluis has lived in Chengdu for six years but is about to leave the city for good to start a PHD in linguistics at Pheonix University.
His lovely roof top flat would be our home for the next four days. It was such a treat to be in a proper home rather than a hotel room and Lluis couldn’t have been more welcoming or helpful. He also had some very interesting books, a piano and a great coffee machine. All luxury items for us!
Unfortunately he had a really busy week at work so we didn’t spend as much time with him as we’d have liked.
Lluis had very kindly accepted two parcels for us from home which contained a range of stuff from a sterilisation UV pen, a new spare tyre, Paddy’s new bank card and a Goretex jacket and new Helly Hanson thermals for me. We spent an enjoyable evening playing with these new additions to our gear.
The next four days were spent sorting a lot of stuff out. We rooted out the best bike shop in the city -Natooke – which is run by two American guys who were super friendly and really knew their stuff. They look after pretty much every tourer who passes through the city.
Tandem was left over night at Natooke and got a couple of small upgrades including a couple of spacers placed on the bottom bracket so the chain will no longer rub in the lowest gear, new bar tape for Paddy’s handlebars, two new seat clamps and most importantly a super duper Hercules-like bike stand which says it will hold up to 75kg.
Lluis helped us find a good dentist and hairdressers for Paddy as well as replenish our dollar stash by hooking us up with his ‘money dealer’, a middle aged Chinese woman who rides around Chengdu on her moped carrying a sports bag filled with at least £25,000 in various currencies.
The third day was dedicated to taking the bike to the train station and sorting out having it shipped on a cargo train – we wanted to get this process started a couple of days before we embarked on the epic four day journey to Kashgar ourselves.
The whole thing was surprisingly easy and cheap to do. After completing a simple form and handing over 130Y the bike was casually rolled away by a guard – we just hope it will arrive safe and sound. We were told it would take between 5-6 days which means it might even reach Kashgar ahead of us.
For those who need to go through the same process with their bike at the northern train station make your way to the cargo building which can be found to the right of the main train station entrance. Here is a picture of what you’re looking for:
We also spent a lot of time on the wifi planning our next month which will see us leave China and cycle to Osh and then on to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.
Amongst the shopping, travel planning, posting, bike fixing and dentist appointments we did manage to find time to do a few touristy things.
We took the metro south to visit The New Century Global Centre which is essentially a huge entertainment space complete with hotels, department stores, cinemas, a huge, ice rink and most bizarrely it’s very own ‘beach’ which enjoys artificial sunlight 24/7 surrounded by a blue chloride pool which simulates the tide…
It wouldn’t normally be our kind of place at all but after the remote weeks away we were both craving a little capitalist indulgence and I have to admit, the garish idea of seeing an indoor beach was slightly attractive, especially as it was teeming with rain outside. The centre also boasts the pretty cool title of ‘largest building (in terms of floor area) in the world’.
We didn’t stay long… A couple of hours were more than enough to take in the golden escalators, marble floors, big LCD screens and fast food joints (we had a McDonalds!) and unremarkably, the whole place was rather a disappointment (apart from the Maccy Ds!).
We instead retired to a bar called The Bookworm which Lluis recommended. Here we had a sublime time consuming red wine and a French cheeseboard (the first taste of both we have had in 5 months) while browsing a number of good books.
Afterwards we took the metro to Jin Jiang bar street which straddles the river next to a picturesque bridge surrounded on every side by lit up sky scrapers.
Drinks were expensive but by chance we ended up sitting at a table next to the manager of the bar who plied us with free fruit platters and cans of Weiss beer.
Consequently we stayed until late and ended up chatting to her lovely English speaking Tibetan friends about the current situation there. It was an interesting evening and we didn’t get home until 3pm.
We also had time to make a visit to Tianfu Square where there is the customary tribute statue of Mao – I still can’t get over how weird it is that there are statues of him everywhere –
and wonder around People’s Park where the trees are all on drips…
It’s a fantastic place to people watch. Here is a man practising his calligraphy using just water on the stone slabs.
We spent a nice hour sitting by the rowing pond in a traditional tea house where I partook in the ultimate Chinese relaxation treatment – having your ears cleaned.
Many Chinese people find having theirs ears cleaned intensely pleasurable but I found it rather uncomfortable, slightly nerve racking and, at points, a bit painful!! Maybe my ears were very, very dirty! I did comment to Paddy that I felt I could hear better after though.
Our last night was spent in a small French cafe with Lluis and his friends drinking more red wine and eating even more cheese.
So we’ve nearly completed our two months in China and it is time to sweep our way north west to Kashgar from where we can cross into Kyrgyzstan. The journey will take the best part of four days and three nights and will see us cover a momentous distance.
We have booked ourselves a hard sleeper seat so will have bunks where we can sleep but nevertheless we expect it to be a cramped few days.
We naturally needed a rest in Ganzi to recover after the past week. The plan then was to cycle south to Kanding where we would sort some public transport to get us to Chengdu.
Taking this rest day however meant we had to cover the 330km to Kanding in four days. Normally 80km average a day wouldn’t be too much of a problem for us, but there were some big climbs involved, and to tell you the truth, even after a day’s rest, we were both still pretty exhausted from our northern expedition across the western Tibetan mountains.
It ended up being a hard couple of days, mainly due to the fact we were both just so tired.
Here I am making a bridge across an open sewar so we can reach the town after we found our road closed and traffic being directed around a long diversion.
On the morning of the second day I realised that we had only given ourselves two days out of 12 off the bike – no wonder our legs were giving up on us – and we were both a bit sick of the relentless cycling/camping drill.
Half way through struggling up a climb on the third day we stopped for a drink and a horrible little kid threw rocks at us.
Later in the afternoon we were chased by a couple of really vicious dogs. Luckily the large stick which we had been using as a temporary bike stand was strapped to the back. I’ve never hit an animal before, but these dogs were really going for my ankles and I gave them both a good whollop on the head before they were finally chased away by a passing motorcyclist who stopped to help us.
Later again, the rain rolled in and we agreed to give ourselves a break and get to the next major town, Bamei, find a hotel and organise transport for the last 110km to Kanding.
This turned out to be a very good decision as we managed to organise a shared taxi to take us and the bike to Kangding for 200Y and the foul weather got worse overnight and continued all throughout the next day.
Despite our driver’s slightly erratic overtaking and the countless crashes we passed on our journey to Kanding we were glad to be in a vehicle rather than battling up hill through the rain, fog and wind.
On the way down to the town we passed a huge group of Sunday cyclists climbing the long switchback road up towards Kanding airport. Many of them looked soaked through and miserable and we were very happy to be in the car!
We reached Kanding at around 1:30 and booked ourselves on to the 4:30pm local bus which would carry us and the bike to Chengdu.
Before it got dark we were able to look out and appreciate the vastness of the Dadu river which is repeatedly damned the whole way to Chengdu. At one particular section, it was like we were driving around the edges of a huge lake rather than along a river. We enter a long straight tunnel and on reaching the other side find ourselves suddenly driving along a deep, empty valley instead.
Looking back over my shoulder, I gaze open mouthed at the imposing concrete wall stretching across the full length of the gorge. It must be nearly a kilometre high, the biggest hydroelectric dam we have seen by far.
The journey took nine hours and we sleepily disembarked in the centre of Chengdu at 1:30 in the morning.
We had had to take both wheels, seat posts and handlebars off the tandem and we were not looking forward to putting it together in the dark and rain before finding a hotel.
Luckily a family approached us and said they owned a cheap guesthouse just around the corner. We settled on a 50Y price and were able to carry the bike frame and luggage between us. At least we wouldn’t need to worry about setting up the bike until tomorrow morning and, dog tired, we fall easily asleep despite the very loud snores coming from our neighbour in the room next door.