Gone Bikin' 10: Xinjiang to Gansu

15th October 2017
So we’ve made it into China. A huge relief and feels so great to finally be in our final country after so much anticipation, anxiety, stress and waiting around!

Getting over the border was quite a lot of fun, we woke up at 6am to leave Sary Tash, a village not far from the border in Kyrgyzstan. It was super cold, and took about an hour for someone to stop and pick us up (even though only about 2 other cars/trucks passed). We were treated to an absolutely amazing view of the snow-covered Pamirs as the sun rose opposite them. A great send off from Central Asia - a truly astounding part of the world.

We spent our remaining Kyrgyz Com on our favourite Central Asian meal of Plov. All the customs and immigration points of Kyrgyzstan and China our spread over about 150km so you have to jump in and out of trucks or get a taxi at some points. Annoyingly I very stupidly left my camera in the confusion of getting out of a lorry and into chinese immigration never to be seen again. Kind of dampened my day a bit, but hey ho what can you do. I managed to buy a very nice new one here, and my old one needed replacing anyway.

We’ve been staying in Kashgar the last few days. Its a relatively small city as far as China goes apparently at 800,000 people. Its definitely quite a culture shock for us. There is a much faster and more energetic pace to life here that what we’ve grown used to in the ‘Stans. You’re constantly at risk of being run over by electric scooters which you sometimes share a pavement with. They’re stealthy little buggers and I reckon its only a matter of time before Dave causes a big accident.

We’ve been enjoying walking around the older parts of this ancient city, which was a very prominent trade stop on the silk road. The food here is amazing, you can pick up a lovely bowl of noodles or rice at most street corners for about a quid - definitely something we can get used to!

Our main objective since entering China has been to purchase two motorbikes. But we’ve been frustrated at every step. We’ve been in and out of taxis going between markets using Dave’s (limited) new Chinese vocab and a translate app (not so accurate and pulls out some seriously odd phrases!) to try and explain to dealers what we’re looking for. At one point we were convinced we were going to be able to get two brand new bikes for about $500 until we were told that it wasn’t possible for a foreigner to do this. We were then pointed towards the second-hand market (our original plan) that only happens every Sunday, but when we arrived we discovered it was shut due to the current Communist Party Conference which is happening this week, and therefore a lot of the country is on high alert.

Xinjiang province has a history of Islamic extremism and public uprisings. So its fair to say this is a province on seriously high alert right now. I’ve never seen so many police and checkpoints in my life. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a war zone. All the shops have barred and locked doors. There is an extensive civil guard, who are quite ridiculous looking. It's just your average joe and jane bloggs wearing their standard clothes, with oversized stab vests and silly cheap helmets on, carrying big wooden sticks. You sometimes spot them training on the streets in groups, doing Kung Fu type noises whilst thrusting/hitting the air with their sticks.

This high-level of security and struggle to find bikes, has left us with little choice but to continue travelling onwards. Our aim is to hitchhike/bus out of this province (which is not small - about the size of western Europe!) and purchase bikes as soon as we find an easier situation.

We’re thrilled to be here though, whether on bikes or not for the time being, China is going to be a fascinating place to explore.


26th October 2017

After 32 days we finally returned to riding motorbikes! Admittedly there has been a significant downgrade, we have swapped two 600cc bikes for 125cc bikes so we no longer have quite as much power but we hope the adventures will be just as exciting. We are also putting a lot of faith in two second hand, Chinese made bikes.

We acquired the bikes much later than planned, however the relentless security and police presence in the Xingjian province left us with no choice but to wait until Gansu. This did give us the opportunity to experience local Chinese buses and trains, making us feel like celebrities with endless photos and attention. However, having used our motorbikes to get from A to B up until recently, we quickly realised our complete inability at tackling the public transport system with buses and trains missed and the responsibility of locating a hostel/hotel before we arrive somewhere forgotten.

We left kashgar heading south with intentions to be able to hitchhike back north across the infamous Taklamakan Desert. However in Niya, the final stop before the cross desert highway, our taxi driver who we asked to take us to the highway snaked us and took us to the police station (you can't travel unaccompanied in this province as a tourist). This led to a compulsory 24hr bus journey depriving us of claiming to have crossed the desert by our own accord. At this point we realised there wasn't much point in staying in the province as the police presence restricted us doing anything, so much so that one time as we entered a small shop we were soon after asked to come outside where there were 6 armed police officers waiting for us. After the usual passport checks and phone calls we were good to go again.

Taking the train to Hotan from Kashgar

Taking the train to Hotan from Kashgar

Xinjiang was not all bad. After our long bus journey, we arrived at Turpan, home to some impressive ancient sites on the old Silk Road and it is also the third lowest point in the world, standing at 150m below sea level. This forced myself and Fred to partake in a day long tour visiting a few sights, including the Yar City ruins, a UNESCO world heritage sight. The food and people (those who haven't been too afraid to talk to us) of Xinjiang have been amazing as well.

From Turpan we took the train east out of the region and into Gansu, where the lack of police was quickly noticed. After a day of walking the whole of Dunhuang we eventually found some promising potential purchases, and finally settled on two almost identical bikes. Now we wait and see if mine proves more reliable than my Suzuki and if Fred's can repeat the heroics of his Kawasaki.

Dunhuang also has the 3rd tallest sand dunes in the world on its doorstep. Less than a kilometre from our hostel we ambitiously set off for an afternoon hike, hoping to find somewhere peaceful enough to appreciate the sunset. After an hour of trekking through deep sand we were blessed with incredible views of the surrounding dunes.

As we left Dunhuang by motorbike, our bubble of excitement was popped within 70km of riding. Fred's bike lost almost all power and there appeared to be a problem with the carburettor. We had no option but to set up camp at a motorway lay by. After just 25km the following morning we found a mechanic who quickly dismantled and cleaned out the carb and we were good to go again, clearly a common problem with these bikes.

The cold did provide an unwelcome shock to our now softer selves after a month not riding so we also acquired some new handlebar mits which have proved to be a life saver. With the cold weather closing in we needed to make up time so rode on as long as we could through endless cotton fields in an otherwise barren landscape, then the rain hit us, something we didn't expect in a desert environment. With too much time spent off the bikes my concentration was lagging and I may have rear ended a braking car, but let's not talk about that.

The following day the weather had cleared but the cold was just as piercing. Feeling confidence in our ability to handle any weather I made the decision to camp again, not realising quite how high we were about to climb. Late in the afternoon a snowy pass lay ahead of us so we put the 125cc bikes to their max and climbed up to 3680m in a light blizzard. A temporary moment of optimism occurred as the views on the other side showed a large plain similar to those in Kyrgyzstan, and without snow at the bottom. With nightfall approaching we had no choice but to descend quickly and camp next to some yaks. As soon as the sun disappeared, temperatures plummeted. By 8pm our water bottles were freezing, a bad sign of what was to come. We endured our coldest night yet with neither of us able to sleep more than 5hrs and everything inside and outside the tent covered in frost. Cold and exhausted we set off again this morning with our new bikes putting up no fuss and starting on the first attempts. Luckily there was not a cloud in sight so despite being frozen to the core we could appreciate some incredible views.

A 3740m pass was reluctantly tackled and after that it was all downhill for the next 7hrs. By the time we warmed up the scenery had dramatically changed, from freezing pamir-esq plains, to warmer valleys with the road winding through autumnal tree avenues, then to a more Canadian Rockies style canyon to finish off the day. The traffic was almost none existent so we were able to get a good feel of our new bikes, which surprised me with their ability to carry us and our luggage but doesn't quite have the overtaking abilities of our old bikes.

In desperate need to wash our clothes and ourselves we have settled into a hotel in Haishiwan. Next we head south for Sichuan province, hoping the cold weather won't limit us to the more urbanised lowlands.