Part 1 / Kashgar to Lanzhou (cheating by train)
The police presence was on every entry point to the old town. Patrol vehicles crawled along at a snails pace with their lights and sirens filling the air. Every 2-5 minutes walk in any part of the city you came to several police stations. Many men and women wearing red arm bands congregated at 11am and 2pm for drills. Each armed with either a wooden baton, metal pole (some with barbs on) would act out a combat. We stayed 6 days in this city and never getting used to the control. At times we became frustrated that you could not walk freely or cross roads without going through checkpoints. There was no malice or tension involved in fact it seemed that residents were used to this and carried on normally. Tourist/travellers were seen as no threat so we never had to show documents just the odd scanner and body check. This being our first Chinese city we began to believe this was the norm but we have been informed this is due to several factors; previous political and ethnic issues which have created unrest and riots from several years ago and the current Communist party congress. Kashgar has almost come to a stand still, many shops closed due to the Congress (which is in Beijing).
In the day the old town had a rhythm to it, children go to school and fill the streets at lunch and home time. Shops are open selling food, the odd tourist offering and Chinese tourists point their oversized cameras at the Uyghur residents. At night we walked the streets and got the sense that we were in a film set. The facades are made to look real but behind them we felt their was little there. Kashgar has been a interesting place to rest and recharge, we have slept so well (old town youth hostel) and are ready for the next chapter.
The process of buying train tickets and getting our bikes to the same destination has taken a few visits and time. Thankfully the lady at the ticket counter in Kashgar spoke some English and with our trusty piece of paper with Chinese instructions we had brought x2 soft sleeper tickets on the K Train (soft sleeper is a 4 bedded compartment with door and bedding, 3,000km journey each ticket was approx £100.). However, the bikes could not go with us as trains in china do not allow bikes! The next day we booked a pickup service from the Hostel but this never turned up, so the following day we returned to the station (7km away) with bikes and some bags. Lucky the attendant spoke some english and between our phone translations we checked in x2 bikes and x4 small panniers. All the bags and any bike attachments has to be taken off the bike and packed and weighed separately. The panniers went through scanners and a few things alarmed them. The full gas canister for cooking was not allowed and they were bemused by the shape and use of the Steripen! After payment of approx £50 and waiting to see all things labelled and photographed (by us) we tentatively left. The attendant said the bikes would now arrive sometime after us!!
Several days later our departure day came after 6 days in the police controlled city. We tried our luck with the gas canister packed in the carry on bags, but as soon as we saw further scanners we knew it would be pulled up. We sat down in the waiting area and smiled at each other now knowing the gas was coming with us and we could cook for a few weeks again, as the scanner or controller didn’t see it.
The 40hrs in the soft sleeper was great, each time we looked out the window at the desert landscape we were happy we made the decision to skip it and spend time in more interesting areas. It was a slice of luxury and we only had 1 other gentle person in the compartment. When we arrived at our destination the bikes were already sitting in baggage reclaim (thankfully).
No police overload, no checkpoints we were back in ‘normal’ land in the city of Lanzhou, where modern city life took hold. We ate very well, from hot pot cook your own food to a taste overload street night market. After a treat in a nice hotel we were back on the bikes and navigating a big city, with flyovers and road restrictions. After 15km I heard and felt a sudden bang and knew something major broke. The screw/bolt holding the seat to the post snapped in half, leaving the post exposed. We were close to garage showrooms and all the staff took care of us and the bike. After half an hour I had a new screw and several bolts holding everything together. We were lucky this happened then rather than half way up a hill in the middle of the country.
The first night back on the road we spent in a Chinese families garage room, where the lady brought us baked potatoes and later we spent the evening in their small store around the fire watching them play cards. It was a blessing as the rain had begun as we approached late afternoon and the prospect of wet camping is not our favourite.
The scenery became more hilly and the autumn colours took over the hillside. The grey cloud was taken over by deep blue and the next few days of cycling were a pleasure as we took bypasses (as cyclists not permitted through some tunnels) that diverted us through small villages and next to our first set of prayer wheels and monasteries. We were now in a new land of Tibetan people, language and customs. On one night we pitched the tent in a small village on a terrace, perfect for camping. The locals seemed intrigued but didn’t mind we were there in fact one women (who spoke good English) invited us to a sleep at her parents and eat with them, but we were already set up. She returned later with a large dictionary (English-Chinese) as a gift but it must have weighted 1-2kilos and we managed to not offend her with our refusal of it.
Another day on the road we finally reached Xiahe / Labrang Monastery at 3000 metres we were back at altitude and with this we woke the first morning to fresh snow. Thankfully we were in a warm room in the YHA. Labrang has been our first immersion of Buddhist, Tibetan spirituality and it has blown us away. Pilgrims flood the temples, walk the inner kora, spinning every pray wheel and chatting their mantras. 1000 claret/cardinal robed monks are called to 11.30am pray. Boots are left outside and many monks adorn the yellow head dress. We were allowed to observe pray and admire the devotion.
Labrang monastery is said to be one of the world’s largest Tibetology institutes in the world with 6 different colleges of teaching. To our delight we visited the printing temple! A low-fi printing technique was demonstrated by inking the wood block (hand craved inscriptions using Sanskrit) and using relief printing with tissue paper as the medium. The highlight was the 2 story archive library of over 20,000 word blocks and each block measured approx 40cmx8cm (landscape).
All photographs by Jack Blake & Barabara Salvadori 2017©