Camels do have tails...

Jiayuguan Travel Blog

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Heading of into the sunset

Xinjiang province, inspite of being mostly a dessert province, has a proud and long history. There are a vast amount of stoneage sites and the dry climate has left tombs almost intact, whilst old silk route cities stand like the ruins of last century not last millenia. It has been ruled by tribes, it has been Turkestan, China, Mongolia and again China and it has been Buddhist, atheist, animist and Muslim. Bits of everything remain and it's history although proud, is not a peacefull one. It's location as the gateway between the east and the west as melting point of cultures and its richness in natural resources has, teamed with the powerfull empires around it, caused continous struggles and bloodshed.

The chinese propaganda machine praises the diversity of people in the 'motherland' and presents xinjiang as a culturally rich and harmoniuos province.

Our private brike track
However when we arrived the province had no acces to the internet and text messaging and international phonecalls had been banned for a while after killings in 2009 were blamed on, according to the chinese, exaggerated, roumours of fights beween the han chinese and the Uigur people in central China. We knew about the killings but as we heard Chinas message of harmony, the isolation surprised us. On the 14th of May this year the internet was reopened after 10 month but it is said to be heavily policed and I am unable to open many official Uighur sites. Unable to research and to write freely I originally decided not to write anymore at all in Xinjiang.
Daren in the cat

As we walk in the streets inn the more chinese areas old men still take their singing birds to the park, people gather to play board games and gamble or to play music and sing. Families run noodle shops, live in cramped appaertment blocks and by small dogs and sing karaokee. They are the same chinese we have travelled amongst the past 3 month, just as curious and eager to make us feel welcome. China has a history of powerfull leaders, not one of choice and democracy. Its people have for centuries been moved around like plastic pieces in a big game of risk either with force or with financial incentives and promises of better lives. The people that we meet, no matter ethnicity are generally all merely bricks in the big chinese game. They are not officials and they do no more represent the chinese government that the Han chinese else where.

Camels with hidden tails
And as this blog is about the people on the ground and not governments, about our ride and the experiences we have with people I decided to carry on the blog with what I see in xinjiang and with our encounters.

Through many years what lay behind Jiayuguan fortress was the wild west; vast stretches of emptiness, dessert people and foreign kingdoms. And as the Killien Shan drops away in the south an almost opressing emptiness imposses itself on us. We wanted to hurry but every time we do that either China's climate or infrastructure proves to us that we are completely at it's mercy. We know this and have bought 'the cat' -a fleece blanket printet like a leoppard, which amused us, so we could at least combat the sudden bursts of freezing coldness.

More sunset
But the winds and roads are out of our hands. Maybe because we wanted to hurry, most of our first day's ride we spent hiding behind a wall, wrapped up in the cat,  waiting for gale force winds to drop. Only at 6 pm, as the air cooled down and calmed the winds we could continue.

Three and a half hours of riding later it was dark and we desperately needed a campspot. The expected emptiness had given way to Chinas efforts of cultivating the west and in the end we stumbled over a rocky field until we came to something that in the darkness looked like a steep drop into nothing. The motorway, a trainline and two lines of pylons around us created an illusive cage of civilisation which we didn't want and with the 'abyss' like thing we felt positively trapped in a rubbish camp spot. But so it is sometimes... 

With dawn the illusive cage disappeared, the abyss turned out to be a riverbed  no deeper than a meter and finally  tailwinds blew us right into the dessert. A village for stock ups had not apeared and another one was a road workers shanti town, a true nothing with no shops, so we had no choice but to carry on. 180 km we rode that day... It served as a warning to us, With villages on the map that don't exist we can easily run out of water and we have since stocked up well. But, it being china we were never really alone.

99% of the traffic out here consists of huge trucks. I have never seen an Australian road train but the term seems appropriate when a caravan of about 10 of these enormous and heavy loaded trucks thunder past us. They honk their horns, their loads ratle, the trucks rumble and the ground trembles. They are this big and violent because of the harsh climate and the long distances they do and out here I like them because the are a testemony to where we are. I like the rush of tailwind they give us, no matter how strong the headwinds are and at night time, when it's dark and we are far away from any settlements, watching their passing lights on the road and hearing their distant rumble becomes a reassuranceto me. 

The villages out here are nothing more than a couple of dirty restaurants and mechanics shops, most of them built to cater for the truck traffic. Infront of every restaurant there are bowls next to big oil drums of water. There will be soap in a cut of cola bottle and a towel that makes you filthier than before you even started washing. But its good for us and its good for the truckers, because like us, they practically live on the road and are like us, always dusty. In the restaurants, these dusty sturdy men surprised me by getting out litlle pink tubs of moisturizer but it makes sense because the air is so dry and your skin will look like fish skin if you don't moisturize. So even daren overcame a fear of being taken for a girl and now used my moisturiser in public. 

I like being amongst them. It is comfortable; They are a silent folk and they do not scrutinize our shoes. However with our maps being so unreliable they are our only source of knowledge as to what lies ahead of us and we need to talk to them. It can be hard breaking through their resolve of not taking any particular notice of us and at some point Daren tried to draw a camel to thaw up some hardy looking men. The project drew many people over and they scrutinized the camel silently and very critically for a while. Eventually one broke the silence in order to point out that camels don't have tails. But it all worked. We didn't know weather they had tails or not but it got every body talking about what lay ahead of us. Apparently nothing again!  

Out here in one of the longest stretches of remoteness another long distance cyclist caught up with us. He was a college kid from Beijing and as he didn't speak much english we named him 'silent John'.  Only when we reached the official border to Xinjiang, after 90 slightly awkward km, he finally spoke:

"No peple" he said whilst looking very nervous. "No shui...." (water) As he watched for our reaction I felt nervousness rise within me. 

"Big fung" He eventually elaborated. Fung meaning wind, could be anything. Maybee another sandstorm... As my eyes were big with fear his dramatic finale came "DANGER!!" Then no more.

Ahead of us were indeed 130 km of empty dessert with no people, no water and possible wind. It was 6 pm. Silent John was to stay in this litlle gathering of restaurents as he had no tent, and we would carry on into the emptiness that same night.

"You should stay here" his final plea came, voicing his own fears of the desserty uighur region. Then he reverted to just sayin "yes ok" again to the many things i asked.

We didn't stay. The Uighur man at the border barked various loud orders to us. We knew we shouldn't pay but due to his brutish manners we expected a need to bribe. Grinning, this big man dived into his cabin with our passports and returned with water for us. No bribes. I asked about the 'big fung'. I desperately wanted him to say it would be fine, to cancel out silent Johns dark predictions. But he laughed a roaring laughter and then he looked at me to see if i was sane. He pointed round at the empty hills, at the rocks and the sand: "Always big fung" he said. And with that his patience and good humour was over and he, very irritably, waved us into the dessert, like we were two litlle annoying flies. Daren thought it was funny and I got upset....

As it happened there were 4 wild camels in this emptiness and actually they do have tails...

The landscape arund us was stunning. Long hills and a wide sky turning turquise and pink as dusk came. Dark clouds dispersed, as they often do in the evenings, and we rode in a gentle sidewind. But i searched this beautifull sky for signs of storm. A distant thunder cloud passd but other than silet lightening dancing on the horizon it was quiet. The stars were out when we set up camp and the stars in the dark dessert are the most amazing stars in the world. That evening I made a resolution with myself to be currageaus. My fears were rational but often exaggerated by the effect the desolation has on me.

My favorite story from old times is, about how fear in her cape and with her hollow face tormented a woman for so long she left everything she loved behind. She tried to hide but fear always found her and lauged at her. When fear even finds her in death the woman returns. She lights a candle and goes to her house, which fear has left grey and cold.  Here fear first laughs at her, but then seing her strenght and resolution fear eventually retreats to a corner and then, finally leaves.

And early the next day we rode on. We were on a motorway all alone and had been so since xinjiang. It is blocked by rocks and sand piles and the motor traffic is left to navigate the bumpy 312. We expected the road wasn't finished and that it would stop at any time but for now it was fantastic. We had good winds and plenty of water. Silet John caught up with us and overtook us. He needed to reach hami city that day and had to do about 200 km. In the mean time we stopped to cook porridge, sweetened with honey,on the roadside, happy with our independence. Then when we, much later than expected,finally arrived at a lonesome looking tree we stopped and rested under it. We knew we had made it to hami oasis so we sat and starred back over this vast empty stretch, enjoying the shade, the green and the distant sound of voices. 15 km later we shopped for another night of camping. A brilliant one as well as we, hidden amongst the lushest grape vines shared a bottle of local wine whilst we cooked a meaty pot on our MSR stove.

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Heading of into the sunset
Heading of into the sunset
Our private brike track
Our private brike track
Daren in the cat
Daren in the cat
Camels with hidden tails
Camels with hidden tails
More sunset
More sunset
Jiayuguan
photo by: portia