All right everybody, since it is taking us too much time to translate the blog in English, and since Sylvie writes a novel every time :op we have decided that I w*ould write a shorter version in English. I know, I know poor you! But don’t worry, I promise not to talk only about food and bicycles
For those of you who want more details, I am afraid you are going to need to start understanding French or use the magics of Google translate.
So where were we? Ah yes, entering China and getting to Kashgar, one of the main cities on the Silk Road with its famous bazaar and animal market.
The road from the border to Kashgar is really nice, mountainous first and then full of oasis or small Ouighour villages. We manage to cover more than a 140km the first day in China in order to reach the city of Wuqia. We find a beautiful hotel for a couple of euros in the centre. What a treat, especially after such a hard day. We can also finally enjoy some Chinese food that is much more diversified than the Central Asian cuisine. The only problem is to order! There are many different types of dishes on the menu and we don’t understand a word of it. We are going to need a phrasebook at some point in this country!
The next day we ride all the way to Kashgar and find a hotel, it is a bit expensive for what it is and we decide to move to the much more comfortable Qini Bagh hotel the next day.
Kashgar is a relaxing city but the Chinese have invaded the city and done a scary job at destroying the beautiful old city to replace it by their big and ugly buildings with walls that look like toilet walls. (see pictures)
Because of the recent events in Xinjiang (North West region of China that used to be pretty much a Muslim “country” populated mainly by Ouighours), all communications are cut out: no internet, no international phone calls! Nice government isn’t it!
Everybody is going to be worried if we don’t give any news! But thanks to the French Embassy staff, to whom we say a big thank you, we manage to send messages to our families every two weeks.
So what were those events that led to the Chinese military, and civilians to a certain extend, to kill a couple of hundreds Ouighours especially in the main city of Urumqi? Well of course several versions: the Chinese one, the Ouighour one, the international one.
What we heard was that some Ouighour men who were working in a factory outside Xinjiang were killed by their Chinese counterparts because the Chinese workers did not like the Ouighours “taking their work”. The official version is more like “oh no no no, they started, they raped a Chinese girl working in the factory and the men took revenge”. After that, everything went pear shaped, the Ouighour went out and protested in the street, especially in Urumqi, and as always the Chinese in all their finesse used “a tank to kill a fly” as we say in French. They sent huge military troops to Xinjiang and hit hard on the Ouighours killing several hundred of them. The information getting out of the country very fast and the international community reacting to this harsh repression the government decided to cut all types of communication with the outside world in Xinjiang. This is not only to prevent the information getting out of the country to us in Europe and America but also to prevent the Chinese themselves from getting informed by something else than the official media or propaganda! They also did what could be called today a George Bush, they declared the Ouighours terrorists which gave them the safeguard to do anything they wanted. In order to recover from the bad press, the Chinese made huge efforts to show the world that they were in their right and that the Ouighours were the bad guys. They even invited some ambassadors to an exhibition in Urumqi to show what “really happened” and show that they were the one being abused by the Ouighours. But don’t worry, none of the big ambassadors came, they did not fall for it :o)
Hours after hours on TV we could see them explaining their version of the story, showing their pictures etc. even CCTV 9, the English speaking Chinese TV was showing it. What was extremely funny was those kind of programs that look like Hard Talk on BBC but where the people that are invited are all from the same side and agreeing that China was right, and they get very excited and angry at the world for not understanding that they are right!
They even found a Westerner who agreed with them, he had just done a movie on Tibet to show the true story of Tibet (a Chinese version of the facts of course). This person was saying the most absurd things I have ever heard, like nobody should intervene in another country internal affairs and that China should be free to do whatever they want in their country. Sure and we should have done nothing against the Holocaust then? Unbelievable to hear this kind of things on national TV!
Anyway today the situation is still not great for the Ouighours, the tension is still there, their rights is quite limited and their chances of getting work very very slim. The Chinese are trying some propaganda but for whom? the Chinese themselves? We see military trucks in the street displaying banners saying: “Harmony and peace between ethnic groups” but the best we saw, was a big road sign showing the imam of Kashgar’s mosque offering a watermelon to the Chinese soldiers and a nice slogan like “the Chinese are our friends”. What the poster did not say was that the imam was forced to do this or his mosque would be closed! The Chinese government is using these events to further undermine the Ouighours and turning Xinjiang into a proper Chinese province. Do not think that Xinjiang is just a big desert with a couple of ancient silk road cities, it actually holds 30% of China’s oil, 35% of its gas, some coal and Uranium. Worth fighting for, isn’t it?
And do you think the Ouighours get any of this? Of course not, they “can’t” even work for the companies who extract the resources (officially they can but even the Chinese people we met working for the big oil companies never saw a Ouighour working there). Those resources are highly valuable and they are very well protected.
Anyway I am getting distracted and I can see you getting bored of this, this is a travel blog not a socio-political one and even less an anti-China one. On the contrary, and that is where we have a dilemma and we are probably not the only ones! Most people we met, Hans, Ouighours or whatever, were extremely nice people, always offering us food and help and with whom we had a great time. China also offers some beautiful destinations to travel to but it is difficult to enjoy plainly a country when you know what is happening on the side with the government especially in Xinjiang, Tibet or even during the Olympics.
So let’s get back to our subject. We stayed a couple of days in Kashgar and then went for the big crossing as we call it. We bordered the Taklamakan desert all the way to the famous city of Turfan trying to avoid the big highway as much as possible and go through small oasis.
Coming from Central Asia we thought it would be a good idea to try and stay with the locals, well that wasn’t the case in China! The first night after leaving Kashgar we stop near a ouighour house and ask if we can sleep in their garden. They of course say yes and even offer us to stay in one of the rooms after giving us some juicy melon. But around 01:00am the police comes around and wake us up, they somehow have been informed that we were staying there. (denouncement is frequent in China and we cannot stand it! It is like it is their duty to do it. Like one of our friend said ‘everybody is a policeman in China!’). They start checking the passport and the visa and then request to see all our pictures to make sure we don’t have anything incriminating. They ask us what we are doing here staying with Ouighours, what is the purpose of our trip etc. etc. After an hour we are allowed to stay there for the night (or what is left of it) but we need to leave in the morning (like if we wanted to stay!). All of this is done nicely, there is no agressiveness at all, they are very courteous and apologize several times saying this is for our own good and safety. Ouighour people are dangerous ouhhhh (You just want to tell them: “please keep this kind of lies for your own people”).
Several times in a day we were checked by the police and fed the same lies over and over again but every time in a very nice way. I remember one day we were arriving in the small city of Shaya where they had never seen a foreigner before. The policemen at the checkpoint did not know what to do: what are two foreigners doing here? After making them understand that we are just crossing Xinjiang and going to Turfan and that we just need to sleep in a hotel for the night, they relax a little but are still very worried. They make us wait on the side but give us some bottled water and call another policeman who speaks a little bit of English. He explains that we need to follow them to the hotel. So here we are crossing the city, with our own escort and everybody looking at us! They direct us to the main hotel where they offer us some tea while we wait for a proper translator. A little lady finally arrives, she speaks better English and we can finally settle down in our room. We say goodbye to our police escort who at the end was very nice to us and go to the restaurant with our own translator. Once again it is very difficult to judge and be angry at them, they definitely try to control and make sure you see what they want you to see but at the same time it really looks like they are trying to help.
After our terrible experience the first night we decided to only stay in hotels while crossing Xinjiang. The only problem is the distance between them. But Xinjiang is just a big relatively flat desert with not much to see. You can therefore cycle long distances. Which we did practically every day, for the first time in our trip we did distances like 150, 180, 190 km! something we never thought we would be capable of, but we did it. The first few times I remember we had to stay the next day at the hotel just to recover from the ride :o) But at the same time we felt great at the end of the day when we looked at our speedometer and saw 190km!!!
We stayed in some of the “big” cities of Xijiang like Aksu or Kuqa but they did not have much appeal. Actually most of what we saw in Xinjiang was not extremely beautiful, just a big rocky desert with a couple of Chinese cities. I didn’t say we didn’t like it but we didn’t love it either. The people were very nice, the food excellent but we wouldn’t spend more time than we did there.
We did like the city of Korla where we spent a whole week, but for other reasons. We met several foreigners living there that made our stay very enjoyable. We met Lincoln, Bruce, Tom, Tom and Robin. We went for drinks and dinner every night. We could finally enjoy something else that the dishes we usually ordered. I have to say the food was fantastic, it is a pity that Sylvie is allergic to MSG and that she could not enjoy it as much as I did. Lincoln even did a great hachis parmentier (shepherd’s pie) and Bruce, some lovely Scottish eggs :o) But the best part of the day was when we met in the evening along the river around a beer and had long discussions about China. Thanks to all of them for making our stay such a good one, especially Robin thanks to whom we met everybody else!
By the time we reached Turfan, we had enough of China and we had decided a couple of weeks earlier that Japan was a great alternative especially since there was a cheap ferry from Shanghai to Osaka. Japan has always been a country Sylvie wanted to visit but the cost had somehow made it difficult. But as we looked closer into it, cycling in Japan can be done at a reasonable cost. Japan is very safe and you can basically camp anywhere for free (parks, under a bridge etc.). Food is expensive but if you cook pasta or rice every day you can do it! And the more we thought about it, the more we thought: “Actually cycling is the only way to visit Japan on a tight budget!”
So here we are, changing our plans in the middle of the Taklamakan desert but we don’t have Internet access and we don’t have a lonely planet for outside Xinjiang. Basically we cannot plan anything so we have to get quickly to a place where we have access to information (yes this is the 21st century but this is China or to be more accurate this is Xinjiang).
We decide to go to Xian, the Terra-Cotta Army city. We have been there during our last trip and it is quite a relaxing city. We pack our bicycles and put them on the train to Xian. This is very convenient and easy, it is a normal service offered by the Chinese railway and I have to say it works well (they are a bit rough on the bikes though so pack them well!). When we get to Xian we rediscover the joys of Internet, it is amazing how much we rely on it these days and it is only when you are deprived from it for such a long time that you actually realize that.
We don’t visit much of the city since we did it last time but enough to realize that the city has changed dramatically. It is now a very modern city with all the western food and fashion brands. And of course as you would expect in this case, the prices have soared up to the roof, which doesn’t make our life easier.
We do get time to change a couple of parts on our bikes (cassette and chain) at a very good bike shop (Best Cycling Club) and meet Sam another cyclist from England with whom we spend some good time and have a couple of beers (a good Englishman wouldn’t have it any other way, even if he comes from Cornwall, no I’m joking Sam:o) )
It takes us a few days to organize ourselves to go to Japan and we decide to leave straight away for Shanghai where Marc a friend of Sylvie lives. (Friend as in the last time they saw each other they were 8 years old!).
A day and a train later we arrive in the booming city of Shanghai. We cycle to Marc’s office. and meet him and his friends, Guillaume, Alois and Yann. Very quickly we can feel there is a bound between all of us and we really enjoy spending time with them. I am very happy to celebrate my 33rd birthday in their company. We cook some French food and drink some French wine, we can’t go wrong on this one! (Actually Sylvie has a couple of Rhums as well but we did not write this in the French version since her parents are reading it! She is only 32 you know).
We also have the opportunity to see our friends Aline and Julien who hosted us last time in Shanghai, they have moved back to England and are just spending a few days in Shanghai. We spend a great evening listening to their stories about working in China. They have tons of them which are just unbelievable, Aline is even thinking of writing a book, which I hope she will!
They tell us what happened to the French expats last year before and during the Olympics because of the “riots” in France against China having the games:
_ Police coming into your home late at night for passport check and asking questions like: “Are you against China having the games? Are you for the independence of Tibet?” etc. etc.
_ They especially visited houses when the men were not there and the wifes were home with the children!
_ Problem with visas not being renewed or taking much longer
_ Keeping people in Police stations for nothing.
But what I thought was a bit scarier was the story of one of Aline’s friend. Her, her husband and a couple of other people did a pacific protest (as in just seating in front of the building) against having a power plant built next to their apartment block. Nothing happened during the protest, but at night all protesters disappeared, no news from them for 2 days. When finally the wife gets out, she says the military came in all the houses and took them to a place and kept them there for 2 days. Her husband had still not been released and she had no news of him at the time of our dinner a few days after the arrest. And this is in Shanghai, one of the biggest and more international cities in China where the 2010 Universal Exhibition will take place! Can you think of what may be happening in smaller and more remote places in China?
Anyway the week passes in a flash and it’s time to go to the ferry for Japan. We say goodbye to our friends and cycle to the port.
But what a surprise when we get there, we can’t believe it, Alice and Cedric, who we met in Turkey and cycled with in Iran, are also there waiting for the same ferry!