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Matt Bridgestock
Matt Bridgestock
"Cross China Bike Tour - Summer 2003"
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Copyright © Matt Bridgestock, 2003.

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Its been three months on the road, after crossing Europe and Russia, I was in Almaty for a break and then on into China. July was a month in the heart of Central Asia, on the braided roads that make up the Silk route and in some of the most challenging environments.

Addtional pictures, discussions and thoughts whilst on the road are available at

I had planned two weeks in and around Almaty, Clare flew out, complete with spare parts for the bike, British tea and a bottle of Scotch single malt. We had a very loose plan to visit the mountains and the Charyn Canyon. Almaty is very laid back and whist not the most beautiful city, the abundance of trees and the snowcapped peaks in the background made it a pleasant place to relax and recharge the batteries. Sorting documents took a few days along with another fine for not being properly registered.

A visit to the British Embassy ascertained that the Kazak to China border was only just about to be reopened after the SARS outbreak. Luckily, I was unaware that it was closed in the first place and relieved that I would be able to cross. After this bureaucracy, we set off for the mountains on a baking-hot local bus. A lack of permits and a military checkpoint prevented us getting more than a tantalizing glimpse of the snowcapped peaks. Extraordinary amounts of waffling and questioning by men bristling with weapons got us nowhere and we were sent back towards Almaty by truck. Our truckie let us out at Charyn Canyon even though he was expressly told not to by the military. The canyon is a deep ravine in the steppe, full of strange a colourful rock formations. In the evening, the light brought out the red and pinkish tones of the weathered rock. We spent a pleasant few days camped in a secluded spot next to the river, just eating and drinking.

A hitched ride back to Almaty with a couple of venetian blind salesmen was so much more comfortable than the bus. And after a brief visit to Mad Murphys for pizza and stout, we headed up to Big Almaty Lake in a battered, hired Lada. More lounging around and strolls in the snowcapped mountains, then it was back to Almaty in time for another visit to Mad Murphys and Clare's flight home

From Almaty the plan was to head north then east around a lake and then through a small range of hills. Poor directions and a missed sign found me floundering on the southern edge of Lake Balkhash with no idea how to get around or across it, I was in the middle of nowhere and it was getting dark, so I camped. In the morning I was woken early by what sounded like a jet plane taking off next to the tent, perplexed I got up to find that there was a fighter jet taking off over the top of the tent. I had camped at the end of an airforce base with salvos of jets lining up to skim the top of my tent. I didn't hang about over breakfast.

The directions I got that day were very confusing, everyone pointed me north, however this road ran straight into the lake, those that didn't point north pointed west and here I found the most surreal beach, land locked Kazakstan, packed with people and peddlers, on a murky lake at the end of a fighter jet runway. It was not until the afternoon that I found myself on the right road heading north round the lake.

A couple of days very pleasant cycling and camping through the hills took me though surprisingly wild landscapes. Villages and food supplies were infrequent, leaving me to enjoy more of the Kazak wilderness and solitude. Downhills through the hills were real adrenaline rushes; steep, twisty, long and mostly gravel, the scenery rushed by in a blur. As the border approached, towns became more frequent, and on the advice of locals I found a hotel in Garkent. I shared a room with a computer engineer working on the immigration computers on the Kazak border; he too had got a lot of permit hassles from the military even though he worked for them. Rastam, Israel and Vania helped me find a hotel, curious teenagers who took me to a bar for dinner and went through my minidisc collection with the eyes of connoisseurs, eager to find something more contemporary than the cheap pop music the DJ had in his record box.

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Next day I headed for China. The border crossing took seven hours for no particular reason; I was not permitted to cycle across the 500m no-mans land, the Chinese wanted to put my bike through the metal detector, the head honcho insisted that I be bused to Yinning for a full medical before I could enter the country. Luckily they didn't tell the guy at the gate to detain me and I cycled off before they could load me onto a bus.

So it was evening as I rode out into the densely populated lowlands of Northwest China. In the morning, I had been in the rough towns and villages of Kazakstan. In contrast, China was bright, clean, developed and most importantly, had silky smooth tarmac roads. It seemed like paradise. I found a restaurant, owned by Ma Ha Jong. He spoke a little English, and between him and his friends we spent the evening introducing me to a bit of Chinese, perfecting chopstick technique and eating piles of delicious food. I had been really looking forward to China for the food alone; mountains of vegetables and different meats all cooked differently in spices, garlic and chili. After the fairly bland food of Kazakstan it was a real delight. I stayed the night amd breakfast was just as good.

China is a comparable size to Europe, its provinces divide the country much like the countries in Europe, each province has its own character, food traditions, their own dialect, many having different language altogether. For the traveller this gives rise to unique problems. Mandarin is the official state language, however in many parts of China it is similar to saying that English is the language of Europe, even if people do speak Mandarin, the pronunciation variances make it difficult to pick up more than a few basic words.

Han people are what most people would identify as Chinese and traditionally inhabit the lowlands of the East of the country; China also encompasses about fifty official ethnic minorities. I entered China into Xinjiang Province. This is the largest, most remote province in the country; it is inhabited by a mixture of Central Asian ethnic groups, mainly Urghur, with Kazak, Mongol and Tibetan herders populating the highlands.

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After my first full day in China, I sat to have a drink of Future Kola, and was invited to stay with the stall owner Hai-Li. Hai-Li is Urghur and spoke not a word of Mandarin. However his niece, Ellenor, spoke some English and I was dispatched to her house for evening meal and to entertain the huge posse of teenagers that gathered as news of my presence spread around the village.

The houses in this area are built in one style, built from baked mud, each plot had a high perimeter wall, forming a central courtyard, The kitchen was usually in the centre of the courtyard under a small roof. On (usually) the East and Northern sides of this square would be a set of single story rooms with a covered, elevated walkway or veranda between them. This would form the main living space. There often was a leanto, or simple shed on the other walls for animals and machinery. These units were butted up to each other, with narrow lanes and alleyways between them. Each had a large gateway, usually closed with big solid, wooden doors. They are very introspective, hardly any windows out on to the street.

The lowlands were fantastic, packed with people, working in the fields, or in busy market towns and villages. It was difficult to envisage being alone here. The abundance of cheap, delicious food continued and I eat well as I pedalled slowly east into yet more mountains.

I travelled through diverse landscapes, packed lowlands, a small desert then on to open plains hemmed in between soaring mountains. The information that I had was that camping in sight of habitation would more than likely result in a visit from the PSB (Public Security Bureau). Keen to avoid such a run in, I took to finding alternative accommodation in the valleys. One night I stayed in what can only really be described as a series of concrete cells. The experience was made really enjoyable by being invited to eat with the other residents, military folk undertaking building work in the village. Copious amounts of Chinese vodka were devoured and as guest of honour I was invited to toast each round. The alcohol did at least numb the surprise of not only being offered the roosters' feet to eat but also when presented with its head and invited to suck and chew various parts of it. I admit I didn't suck too hard.

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