Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Amazing China - Welcome to Uyghur!

Our visit to China was a brief one. We basically went from Kyrgyzstan through China towards Pakistan. The part of China we have been travelling through is officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, but is in fact land which belongs to the Uyghur people but is occupied by the Chinese. The Chinese are totally paranoid that something like a rebellion might happen here as the Uyghur people obviously want their land back. To prevent this the Chinese have decided to put very harsh restrictions on the Uyghur and continuously show their superiority and use propaganda. The reason China has occupied the Uyghur land is because it has abundant oil reserves and is China's largest natural gas-producing region...

The restrictions also apply to foreigners visiting the area. I've already written about the ridiculous restrictions on filling up motorcycles at petrol stations, or the provocative display at the people's square in Kashgar for instance. On our ride south we found unfortunately more of the same. We were continuously checked by cameras for instance. Of course it only affected us minimally, after all we were here only for a short time, but for the people living here it's seriously not funny.

Another way we were confronted with the paranoid control-ism was through the internet. Google maps, Google Translate, YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, Gmail and even our own site are blocked in this part of the world. On the road there are very low and strictly controlled speed limits and motorcyclists are very much seen as second rate citizens. 

Don't let this stop you visiting the area though! It's natural beauty is outstanding. Leaving Kashgar, heading south, we were in for a couple of days of unbelievable landscapes. The famous Stelvio pass in northern Italy at 2,757 mtr high is pretty amazing, now try to imagine being at 4,550 mtr high and still being only at the base of a glacier...! We were surrounded by mountains who's peaks reached an incredible 6,000 mtr and more! 

The winds here are, as you can imagine, pretty strong. Our guide therefore advised not to camp here but stay in a Yurt. The Yurt originates from Turkey and has been around for at least 3,000 years. To find them here is not surprising as the Uyghur people are from Turkish descent. Somewhat surprising for us was that the area and Yurts were lived in by Kyrgyz people. The area around the Yurts was one of those which keeps you taking photos. Incredible snow covered mountains, a beautiful lake, Jaks roaming around... it just took our breath away.

Being this high up also meant seriously cold. The Yurt provides shelter from the elements but waking to snow is not uncommon here. All we had was ice as the temperature had plummeted below zero, but no snow. We used our own sleeping bags and Thermarest on top of the blankets provided and had no problems with the cold. The bikes showed a slight reluctance to start in the morning though, being at 3,600 mtr and below freezing might have had something to do with that.

Our guide had advised us to buy our own food for evening and breakfast meals, because of the poor quality offered at the Yurt, which not all members of the group did... and resulted in one of them being seriously ill the next day. As our stomachs were still in recovery mode we had taken his advise and were fine! 

The ride of the day was again stunning. It was only 120 km or so, which meant we had plenty of time for photo stops. Just as well as this was glacier galore! One after another revealed itself as we travelled through. Our guide alerted us to an option of a 20 km detour to the base of a glacier, which we all gladly accepted and which took us to 4,550 mtr! The highest point we had been to so far on our journey around the world.

During the day I felt my clutch lever suddenly developing more and more free play... hmmm. One look at the clutch cable showed me why... instead of it slowly starting to fray as cables tend to do, this one decided to simply pop its strands one by one. In a matter of 30 km I had literally two strands left... and had found a new one at a local bike shop which resembled more of a wreckers yard :-) The owner couldn't have been less helpful, its mechanic was though and we found one from a Chinese bike which fitted with some small alterations. The costs for a complete new inner and outer cable was a whopping US$ 2.38! I couldn't help but laugh, the first part I needed on this Triumph in 130,000 km was a clutch cable which decided to give up the ghost almost in front of the first bikeshop I saw in China!

I quickly fitted the new cable before we went for a very good last evening meal in China with the group, a kind of goodbye meal if you like. Later that evening the guide told us we would have been in serious problems had I not been able to replace it. Not because of the clutch cable itself, I mean worst case scenario I would have to order one from somewhere. The problem would have been the ridiculous Chinese restrictions for travellers. Our temporary Chinese drivers' licenses were only valid until the day we had planned to leave. The bikes were only allowed in China until the planned departure date too... not a day longer! We asked the tour guide about this, who confirmed that we simply had to leave, or at least the bikes had to. Had any of us been ill for instance and couldn't ride his or her bike... then there was no extension option for the license, bike insurance or temporary import.

Pretty much gobsmacked by this, we were confronted with more Chinese officials misbehaviour. About 100 km before the actual border, our passports had to be checked... luggage x-rayed and questions were asked about our trip to Pakistan...? Seriously, the Chinese border guard wanted to know the purpose of our visit to Pakistan! 'What's it to you? I wondered. We had to stand in line in front of the passport office and Chinese officials were reprimanding people who didn't stand neatly in line... talking to each-other wasn't allowed either... All sorts of non-logical procedures followed and we were then required to ride to the actual border under a military escort...! 

Our fellow travellers' thoughts on Chinese bureaucracy 
Group photo at the base of the glacier at 4,550 mtr high!
You might think we were in a dangerous area and needed protection, but you would be wrong. The reason for the escort was to prevent us from stopping at villages and taking photos. The paranoia of these people has no bounds. It is seriously depressing. Seeing how they treat people, the total disrespect, the unfriendliness of it all was just downright disgusting. This is an area of outstanding beauty, it should be open for everyone and would be a prospering tourist area if only the Chinese would allow it.

The photos, despite our best efforts, don't do it justice. The high snow capped mountains, the ruggedness and incredible views, the magical feel of isolation and a seriously harsh climate were all very awe inspiring. On top of that we were about to cross the highest international border in the world and did so in style... It was seriously cold and started snowing. Our jackets, pants and boots did miracles. We were in our gear wearing nothing but underwear, no thermal liners or anything and yet were perfectly ok. Our hands were cold though as we were the only ones in our group without heated grips!

Reaching the gates which would take us to Pakistan, we finally received our passports back. When the gates opened and we could leave China we all suddenly felt this strange sensation of freedom. We made photos at the arch and rode to the first Pakistan check point. The reception couldn't have been friendlier. Where the Chinese officials were very authoritarian and downright rude, the Pakistanis were friendly, helpful and... dare I say it: human? What a welcome change. In the next post we show unbelievable northern Pakistan, start packing your bags because you want to be here! It is one of the most spectacular areas we have ever been through.