Silk Road Crossing

Lucky Friday-The-13th leaving Urumchi


Friday the 13th of May, we began our ride out of Urumchi toward Kazakhstan. We’re not superstitious, and it’s a good thing: A taxi flashed into my peripheral vision at right angles and fast; I grabbed the brakes full on and prepared for the inevitable, but: a second taxi, sped past on our left; BANG: sheet metal bent into rose petal shapes, steam and antifreeze spew on the street. The second taxi had neatly intercepted the taxi about to hit us, and took the full brunt; we stopped 10 feet short of the carnage. We looked at each other, “Did you see that?” I said to Claire. “No, did you,” she said. “Nope.” We rode off leaving two angry taxi drivers and one dazed passenger to sort things out. We had a bike tour to get on with.

A few blocks later we were joined by a young Uyghur who wanted to show us the finer points of city bike riding. He proceeded to run stop lights, terrorize pedestrians, challenge taxis and generally show off. A few blocks later he indicated he was having trouble breathing keeping up with us; it could have been the cigarette he was smoking. About that time a mini van swerved in front of us; we swerved left, our new friend went straight: THUD. We looked around for a Muslim holy man to say the Rosary, or whatever they do; we were surprised to see him pick himself up, straighten his handlebars and wave off the mini van driver who had stopped to check for dents in his van. Our friend rode up with a pained look on his face, and declared he was just fine; he left us the next block; decided we were too dangerous to ride with. So some people did have an unlucky Friday the thirteenth; not us.

Western China road. Roads in western China vary in difficulty. Nothing like a little limestone dust to help a lung infection.

A couple of days later, I began a concerted attempt to cough up both lungs. Despite several thousand such attempts during the day, I failed. I was convinced this was just the cut-it-with-a-knife air of Beijing finally working its way out of me. Before coming we had heard that everyone in China spits on the street. We thought this just one more incomprehensible part of the nature of Chinese; until we were there about three minutes, and began coughing and spitting. So this new violent phenomenon didn’t bother me until I awoke that night whistling like a freight train from my wheezing lungs, drowning in green phlegm and the sweat pooled in my bed. Of course I could not be sick. I never get sick. The riding went well the next day, if traveling at banana slug speed, Zippy swerving violently with each gut wrenching cough, is traveling. By mid afternoon I was having another good sweat, coughing and gagging, having periods of gray-out and shaking violently about my shoulders. Well, okay, I might be a little sick. Claire got out the medical kit (thoughtfully prepared with the help of Dr. Pam Traina) and determined that I was supposed to take the special antibiotics after ten days of green phlegm. Okay, day one down, nine to go. With the captain (me) putting out about half power, our pace slowed and our odds of a fast trip to Kazakhstan were about as good as Michael Jackson swearing off plastic surgery, and small boys. Each day I felt just a tad bit worse than a roadkill cat being pecked by a mob of crows. Things were looking up. Then we hit a huge construction zone; two days worth.

In China a construction zone looks nothing like a construction zone in America. In America you are more likely to be hit by a water truck than a dump truck, or get a ticket for driving two miles per hour over the construction zone limit. In China they don’t waste precious resources on dust suppression or law enforcement. The whole idea is a Capitalist plot to waste Communist zeal on something as silly as a common health benefit, or individual safety. Collective suffering is the will of the proud worker under the Communist system. You think I am kidding! Hah! You will find no silly soft Capitalist inventions like flaggers, or safety cones, or dividing barriers. And of course, signs directing motorists through the zone, or delineating detours are another weak Capitalist trait. Chinese motorists need no such coddling! They are uncomplaining collective workers, willing to always put the state before personal safety or comfort. Only a person coddled under a so-called democracy would think of demanding a standard of health and safety be applied to public works. “We will bury you!” No wait a minute; somebody already said that didn’t they? Hmmmm.

Lost again. Compass time. Compass time again!Two rock bike repair.

Two rock bike repair

A few days out of Urumchi, a headwind so strong it blew my frown into a permanent grin and pinned my ears back; the better for aerodynamics. Had we known there would be a few hundred more such days in the next two weeks, we would have blown back to Urumchi and taken a three-donkey cart west. But, stupid optimist that I am, I assumed that it would change. And it did; a few days later: a 3,000 foot uphill day with a tail wind going exactly the same speed as our five miles-per-hour forward progress; the temperature was 34C (93F). This was a good thing; it was so hot I couldn’t tell if I was having a fever or not. The effect of tailwind and heat was amazingly like being in one of those little Uyghur bread ovens we see; by day’s end, we were a lovely golden brown, and had a perfect crunchy crust; half sunburn, half dirt.

Of course, that very day, when we were tired enough to fluff a rock and curl up in the middle of the only road in far west China, we discovered there were no binguans (hotels) in the nameless village where we landed. Not only were there no hotels, but the town was filled with hundreds of Uyghur men there to beg the Han Chinese road building masters for a job breaking and hauling rocks. A toasted bread colored white couple, on a tandem bicycle worth a couple of years’ wages for them, pulling into town was an interesting diversion. We sized up the situation, and with our few remaining brain cells still firing intermittently, pedaled furiously toward the closest Uyghur restaurant, mob of tired, bored, disenfranchised and generally angry-at-a-world-that-ignores-them, men in tow.

We were beckoned to by a man with an with obvious presence and local respect, of indeterminate racial mix, who welcomed us and began peppering us with questions; the crowd of men hovered nearby, alternately frowning and grinning at our apparently incomprehensible answers. With his help, we ordered what would become one of our favorite Uyghur dishes, bamian (hand made noodles, lamb, tomatoes and hot peppers).

As we inhaled our meal, Claire asked about the nearest binguan. A hundred kilometers back, where we had come from, or more than that forward, and up a few hundred thousand feet. The landscape was just perfect for hiding a tent, for Micky and Minnie Mouse, one itty bitty bush every hundred meters over a tilted pancake of desert bajada. Hmmm. Having aleardy attracted the attention of the Federales (our code word for Police), we knew it would mean jail if we were caught bush camping.

I tried drawing a picture of a tent, and indicating that we had such a little house on our bike. After a period of disbelief, our new friend offered for us to stay with him, in his own house. Finally the Uyghur men wandered away, some of them still scowling, and we followed him to his house: a small lean-to that would fit nicely in the empty space of most American’s living room; “Just move that marble coffee table over a little and I’ll put my house here.” We decided it would be better if Zippy slept with him, and we put up our tent outside on the concrete. Naturally a two kilo tent going up in about a minute, was quite a fascination to a people who’s yurt takes a big strong camel to carry and takes hours to erect. Another crowd drew in close, and we thought we’d never sleep. The rain only slightly dampened their enthusiasm for spectating passed-out cyclists.


I gave him his first reading glasses, he gave me priceless friendship

Our friend is apparently an entrepreneur of the highest order. He offered us free use of his shower trailer, source of much of his income. There are two rooms in this old trailer, each with two showers. The heated water comes from a stationary diesel engine that both heats and pumps the water from a large reservoir to make a quite passable shower. The water is trucked in from a stream somewhere, and has to be filtered: he has a wire basket suspended over the intake to the engine radiator; it is stuffed with cotton rags and bits of wool. Observing this bit of Rube Goldberg genius, I could not help but grin widely and the sheer joy that must have gone into such a successful, simple and cheap contraption. My grin was like a million dollars to him; he was very very proud.

Later while he and Claire pondered the Mandarin phrase book, I noticed him squinting, unable to read the miniscule type (nobody over 40 need try). I offered him my 3x reading glasses and it was comical to see his reaction to the only such glasses he had ever seen. Only when Claire pushed the phrase book close did he understand and smile broadly. It took several tries to get him to accept the glasses; having been somewhere on the dark side of 40 for a very long time, I carry spares! The next morning breakfast buns and tea magically appeared, and he refused to accept any kwai. Good generous people are a joy, wherever you find them.


Communist Paranoia Still Rules: Not So Funny

May 20. At an internet cafe in Jinghe: a sharp call from the back of the room straightens every back; fingers fly over keyboards, screens change in concert. The manager scurries down the isle glancing at certain screens. It becomes very quiet. Two men, in uniform, walk slowly down the aisle looking at screens, then slowly back to the front where one of them sits down at a computer. The quiet is deafening. This is China.

It wouldn’t be the first time our very presence has gotten Chinese in hot water. Some towns are scary. Here, the hotel asked for, and took away, our passports for the second time. We began packing up, just in case; we have been evicted from a village before; we know the routine. This could be it again. There have been other manifestations: for several nights, a 2200 hour call to our room, with no one on the line; the man in dark glasses watching us in a restaurant, until I stared back; police cars that double back to look at us, others who act friendly and ask innocent questions. Perhaps we are paranoid; I don’t think so. People of a certain age, the Tiannanmen massacre age, have asked me not to take their pictures. Just because China has entered the open market economy doesn’t mean China is open; open for business yes, open for a free exchange of ideas, no.

At a hotel nearing the Kazakhstan border, we were having a phrase-book-pass-around, where Chinese enjoy looking at the contents of our Mandarin phrase-book. It can be fun. This night they landed on the social conversation section. There were questions about human rights and democracy. Eyebrows went up, and we wished we had torn that section out of the book. I gestured wildly, “Mayo. Mayo!” indicating we did not wish to discuss such subjects. Then I put my wrists together, as if in handcuffs, and said Police, one of the few English words they understand. There were nods of understanding all around; they live with certain subjects being forbidden.

All of us must protect with our very lives our First Amendment. Without pure and unfettered speech, the American experiment will fail. Free expression is more important than safety.

Go to China. Begin expressing yourself, try to get the Chinese to talk, and feel what it is like to lose that precious right. By writing some of our honest criticism of Communism, we break Chinese law. All we have to lose now is our next Chinese visa, if they find this page, but the Chinese people lose so much more. They need to find the will to change that; I hope they do. Peacefully.

Moslem cemetery. A Moslem cemetery in China.

Jampar: Chinese or Uyghur?


He is a large Uyghur man of 47. He says he was a boxer and basketball player. He is fat now, in a successful businessman sort of way; proof of prosperity. He orders the Han staff around like the stereotypical Ugly American, though he is a Chinese citizen. However he is not Han, he is Uyghur, and thus not really Chinese. Being Uyghur is his identity; he knows the bounds of his ethnic identity and chafes at the loss of autonomy at the hands of the Chinese and Russians.

“Peejo. peejo!” He waves his arm ordering more beer, and another Uyghur dish, both of which he pushes on us. “America good!” he says, and smiles broadly, setting broadside on his chair, legs spread to make room for his belly. He says something else, raises both hands high into the air, lifting up an imaginary something to great heights. “America,” he sighs. “America.” Then his beatific smiles turns to a snarl, “China!” He turns up a little finger and spits on it, ultimate insult. “China bad.” Spit. “America!,” his voice softens again, and he lays his hand on his heart. “America.” The he brightens, “George Bush! Good! America. Good!” He frowns again, “Saddam. Bad!” He is showing his solidarity with another small ethnic minority, the Kurdish in northern Iraq.

We listen. He of course assumes we agree with him completely. There is no use trying to communicate that these questions are more complicated than perhaps he sees from his perspective. We smile. I try to drink just enough beer to please him, without getting drunk. I feel sorry for the poor man. He really thinks (he is not alone among Uyghurs) that America will someday restore the Uyghur homeland of western China to them. He really thinks America will attack China, just like we attacked Iraq. Poor man. Even an ego as big as George W. Bush would not consider attacking China. The commercial dragon is awakening, and that is generally good for the world economy; the sleeping dragon of the Chinese military might is not something to be awakened; not for a few million Uyghurs; sheepherders, horse and camel wanderers of the steppes and deserts of China. No, the Uyghurs will be free when they free themselves, and the Han will probably never allow that. They will dominate and eventually overwhelm with sheer population numbers, as they have done to the Tibetans. The dragon sleeps, but is still a dragon none-the-less.

Jiayuguan, at end of Great Wall. Fort near the end of the Great Wall.

A very long 6% grade. A very long six percent grade into the Tien Shan mountains of far western China.

Island temple in the shadow of Tian Shan. Buddhist monastery on Sarim Lake near Horgos (Korgos) pass in far west China.

Uyghur boy and his fast pony. This Uyghur boy wanted to trade, but we can carry more on Zippy.

Heading for high pasture.

Camels carry yurts as Uyghur cowboys move cattle to high summer pasture.


We mistakenly thought all the land west of Urumchi would all be remote, open country. What we found was regular villages, more intense agricultural use and crowds again gathering around Zippy at many stops, crowds sometimes so thick that we couldn’t see the bike as we sat down for lunch. We’d been hoping for some breathing space and finally found some in the high country around Sarim Lake above the Fruit Valley and Horgos Pass. The colder climate kept all but the shepherds and empty resort keepers away. This pass was a route opened by Genghis Khan and now buses, trucks and two bicycle tourists traverse the dramatic route. From the East, the road climbs steadily, then on crossing the high point, drops precipitously, with views over entire sections of old highway that slumped down the mountainside. The soil here may be loess (wind-blown silt) as the texture seems so fine. Unfortunately for us, the weather was typical mountain weather, cold, windy and rainy.

Looks interesting. Horgos Pass downhill in freezing rain.

Yurt. Yurt

We put everything on and it rained just long enough to get everything wet. In the narrow valley corridor, Uyghurs set up large roadside displays for selling honey. At the first stand we stopped at a woman had to tell us the bottles were fake, they didn’t contain honey, that was for display purposes only. Down the road, we found a woman willing to sell us honey, but we had to bring our own bottle. Luckily, we had a spare. After many smiles, nods, and gestures, we continued down the road a bit warmer and drier.

Junior police see us off. The junior police were waiting outside our hotel to make sure we left China our final day. They obviously don’t take seriously the extreme political danger we represent.

No one is allowed to cross the no man’s land between China and Kazakhstan on foot or by bicycle. This territory is evidently the last of the wild frontier and bandits run the taxi service. The van driver was put out by our long bike and fussed over grease on the vinyl seat. Then he charged us 40 yuan ($4.80) for the trip. This was before the 500 meter ride. Problem was, we paid his cohort and didn’t ask for a receipt. You guessed it: as I was cleaning off the grease at the other end, he hassled us, in Russian, for another 40 yuan. All our body language was wasted and when I started to throw a fit, Bob reminded me that we were currently between countries and if the guards saw me acting up, they might not let us in. That sobered me up. I should have been thrilled that we’d just survived the trip, pitching, screeching and careening the whole way. Ten dollars for a Disney ride.


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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