Silk Road Crossing


I don’t normally play contact sports, but I did try to buy train tickets in Beijing once.

We arrived at the Beijing West station, very disoriented and determined that I should stand in a certain line to buy the tickets. I had read about Chinese queues degenerating into a mob at the counter and they really do. Toward the front, I was stepped on, punched in the stomach, and elbowed in the head. (None of it malicious mind you, but still…) No tickets. Next attempt, an information officer walked me to the front of the line (will the Chinese backlash against this preferential treatment of foreigners?), where an English speaker still had no tickets, but at least I didn’t get clobbered. Wrong station, we found out. At Beijing Central Station, we were prepared. I wore my backpack for ballast, my helmet for protection and served as tackle for my quarterback Lisa, a Chinese teacher we had met along the way. This was the meanest crowd yet and I watched helplessly as she was crushed against the counter. Anytime someone needed to escape, they exploded backward from the counter, creating a human tsunami all the way up the line. Lisa came away discouraged. Another line and this time it was actually civil. It seemed more like an information desk, no men were in the line and no one seemed to be pushing. Maybe Chinese men need an aggressive outlet since there is no space for something as extravagant as a football field. Lisa got the tickets, but now she would have to rush to catch her train. Thanks Lisa, I don’t know about you but I went home and slept for the rest of the afternoon.

“No one can tell you about all the ‘Chinese moments’ that amount to lots of confusion and stress.” Karen Ahnemann, our new friend in Beijing had put it so perfectly that I instantly felt better for sometimes feeling overwhelmed. Several things had left us rattled on our short tour from Beijing and now we were rethinking everything. Getting turned away from one town was just one of them. Trying to get a meal in one small town turned into a circus with the phrase book and occasionally aggressive jokesters wanted to ride Zippy themselves. We’ve learnt to be extremely cautions in not showing the slightest interest in anything for sale if we don’t want a parade down the street and we were bracing ourselves each time we heard “hallo”. Waiting each day for our due China moment was getting to be too much. We took the train back to Beijing and another to Jiayuguan in western Gansu province on the Hexi Corridor. We visited the end of the Great Wall and the Jia! yuguan Pass Fort from where exiles were sent west into the Gobi desert (photos will come with the next posting). We had another false start from Jiayuguan with fierce headwinds and no options for accommodation. This wasn’t a desert that I felt we could stealthily bush camp in and worse, we recently read in a guidebook here that bush camping could land visitors in jail. A claim we couldn’t confirm on our own, so we blew all the way back to Jiayuguan. The other information that was chafing was from Kamal Kumar Saha, a Bangladeshi cyclist on a World Peace Mission, who we met in Beijing and told us he’d been warned in Bishkek that independent foreign cyclists were not allowed outside of major cities in China. We don’t know if this is a new policy or what but we also read that a cyclist’s bike could be held for a fine if caught in a closed area. We’re used to two steps forward one step back, not one step forward one step back. Back on the train, this time to Urumqi. (One small l victory was that I managed to buy two express hard sleeper tickets all by myself.) Our confidence was in crisis mode and we felt like coyotes in a leg trap chewing off legs to preserve our core. As we watched the desert and the remote villages trundle by, we wondered how much more we’d have to give up. Maybe things would be different out west, maybe our luck would turn. And yet, taking stock, here we were in an exotic, ancient land among beautiful mountains and diverse cultures. We may not be riding every kilometer of it on Zippy but we’re still here, in Urumqi. So, now that things are looking up (we have Kazakhstan visas, we have some information on what’s ahead, we’re finding more English spoken here…) we have a new country to look forward to, new hope and we’re ready to try again.

Finally, this from Karen: “I think you’re wise to narrow the scope of this trip and concentrate on your goal…best of luck peng yo (friend).” Thanks Karen.

Coming into Far West China

Beginning of far west of China.

When touring on Zippy, it normally takes us a day to cover an hour’s distance by car, a week to cover an hour by plane and a month to cover a time zone. Except in China. We’d planned to take two to three months to ride our route across China, about the same distance across the U.S. Yet here we are in Western China still on Beijing time; China has one official time zone. Everyone seems to adjust their day to the daylight and daybreak is 6:30 while dusk is 9:30.

Farmer at market.Camel train.

Fresh baked street food. Morning exercise.Great smile! Where did she learn that?

Her steamed buns were great.               Where did she learn that hand sign?

After some white knuckle taxi rides through Urumqi, we reckoned we’d take our chances on the bus. Not too bad. We had to quickly abandon one bus when it stalled on a hill, the replacement had a gap in the floor with a bucket of water. I suppose in case of a transmission fire. Bob got to ride in the fireman’s seat.


There have been times on this trip that we have been just about as low as we have ever been as a couple. Only those months when we were caring for Claire’s mother DeLee as she died of lung cancer were harder on us. We are accustomed to discomforts, to a level of uncertainty and unease in our travels; but never have we felt so lost as in trying to navigate though a culture and language so alien as China is to us. It is little comfort that the ex patriots we met in Beijing know little Chinese after years of living and teaching here or that they carefully arrange their travel through travel agencies, and travel in groups. I take full responsibility for getting us in over our heads. Claire, who made a valiant attempt at learning some Mandarin through CD’s before leaving, kept telling me how much trouble we might have with the language, kept telling me how I would have to learn more patience than I have exhibited on some past trips. Sure, sure, I promise. I’ll be patient. Well, I have had to learn to be more patient, and I have succeeded in that, but the logistics are still taking up all of our energy and time, and Claire is bearing more than her fair share; I am hopeless with the language.

In China you have no choice but to be patient. This is China; things happen in the China method of getting things done, whether you like it or not. I have never seen so many pieces of paper, each with a lovely little red rubber stamp, used to accomplish the most minor task: picking Zippy up from the baggage claim area takes at least four pieces of paper, carefully stamped and handed to you in the correct order, payment of one yuan (12 cents) as a processing fee I assume, four people handing off responsibility, checking the paperwork each time, until finally Zippy is rolled out and handed over, after one more check of all the paperwork. All this is done in a professional manner and a great deal of patience at our lack of their language, however it takes forever.

And then there are the little misunderstandings that take time. When we filled out the paperwork for our visas at the Kazakhstan consulate, after the fourth widow was finished with us she said to Claire to be here at 1pm. It was only 11:30 but we decided to wait, just in case the visas would really be done in one day. At 1pm, “Why are you still here?” said the best English speaker of the consulate staff. Claire explained. He shook his head. “Thursday. Thursday 1pm.” Two days hence.

We now are legal for Kazakhstan, a few hundred (not sure) miles west of here, assuming authorities along the way don’t know that cyclists are enemies of the state.


Silk Road Crossing — 4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Tai Shan » Blog Archive » Now That’s How to Travel

  2. Pingback: Tai Shan » Blog Archive » The New Bohemians in Beijing

  3. Hi Bob, Hi Claire,

    I was just checking your web site and came across the photo taken in Nallihan-Turkey.(all three of us togather.) Good memories 🙂
    You are always welcome to visit me again in Nallihan

    All the best for you guys and have a happy new year

    Orkun Ates from Nallihan-Ankara/Turkey

  4. Hi Orkun! What a treat to see you found us again. As you can see we haven’t quit adventuring, back to Asia twice since the Silk Road and Australia again. Hope all is well with you. Yes we do remember well our time together in the Nallihan square. It was a highlight of Turkey since your English is so good. All the best.

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