Northern China and the Chexit challenge
And so it had finally happened … The time had come and I was free to get back on the bike and leave China. Months of anticipation, looking at maps and discussing routes with fellow cyclists who were passing through were at an end. The final hurdles were the small matters of 1500km to the Mongolian border, an exit visa for China, the necessary visas for Mongolia and Russia and a fool proof exit strategy … easy!! Oh and the weather … don’t forget the weather! An important consideration for me because I was regularly checking the temperature in Northern China and Mongolia and (naively) holding me breath in the hope that there would still see snow, at least in some places. Having experienced a year of predominantly hot and humid weather in Chengdu I was yearning for some cold, fresh weather and the (relative) normality of seasons the way I understood them. Over the next couple of months I was to fully experience the adage “be careful what you wish for ‘lest it come true” … but more on that in future posts!!
My first Herculean task was to speed up to Beijing, (sparing no expense) on the fast train. Sitting in a reclining seat, my own mini table to hand and the ability to sleep against the window or drink coffee in relative peace for 14hours is not to be taken for granted. Looking out of the window at the landscape flashing past I gradually become aware of the change in temperature and the fact that the world around me is going from green to brown to grey to white … and that it has visibly started to show settled snow. Of course … Beijing is north east of Chengdu and has much lower winter temperatures. When I consider things for a moment they make sense but being me has typically involved a hastily purchased ticket the night before the train departure and no thought of checking whether I might need clothes in addition to the cotton 3/4 length trousers I am wearing and my thin shirt and jacket!! Luckily I have a merino t-shirt and leggings for sleeping in, which has instantly become my day and night attire for the duration of the stay!
Getting into Beijing Station at night I am immediately hit but the blast of freezing air and the knowledge that there is a lot more snow than I had expected. The metro has stopped running since the train had experienced delays (‘snow on the line” … sound familiar?!) and all the taxi drivers were gleefully shouting out ridiculous prices ‘because of the snow!’. I refuse to be held to ransom and yell back in my limited mandarin, attempting to make a point about not fleecing people because they are tourists, but it falls flat because they just don’t care. Welcome to the Big City!!
Eventually I find a tuktuk and driver and manage to barter down his original price, mainly because he is trying to hold 4 different conversations and I can surreptitiously squeeze into the back seat with the other 2 occupants when he is otherwise engaged. Therein begins one of the most terrifying, but mercifully short, journeys of my life. I say short. In terms of distance it was short but jammed in the backseat it felt like a lifetime. Imagine if you will 3 small wheels, large, flimsy metal box ‘welded’ onto chassie, freezing cold night, crazy chain-smoking driver AND enough ice and snow on the roads to make an impromptu skating rink. In addition to all this the driver is simultaneously responding to wechat messages on his phone, reading directions from Baidu maps and conversing with the other tuktuk occupants.
Throughout my time in China I have mentally made lots of comments, not all of them appropriate, to drivers as they speed past me or cut in front of my bike but this night gave me ample opportunity to shout ‘go slow’ and ‘be careful’ in laughable mandarin. His insistence on running red lights, driving on the wrong side of the road and completely ignoring the weld wrecking rattle that ensued when skidding around the icy corners at speed meant losing long, stomach churning, out of control minutes to fear.
On reaching my destination I breathed a sigh of relief and settled into the reliable rhythms of hostel life. The next few days passed in a daze of visa application form filling, embassy emails and passport delivery by Mobike, the new bike sharing scheme/craze that has gripped China. I missed having Tilly with me but being able to zip around Beijing on the Mobike was a better than nothing! The various bike sharing companies in China have been at all out war, flooding neighbourhoods in different cities with their brightly coloured single speed bikes. In both Chengdu and Beijing large groups of newly fledged, wobbly wheeled cyclists had been creating the sort of havoc in the traffic that Critical Mass gatherings would have been proud of … ironic I say!
After an initial panic at the Mongolian Embassy when I am informed that it is shutting for the next 10 days Tsagaan Sa (New Year) holiday, I manage to secure an assurance that I can collect my visa the following day and for no extra charge! This leaves me a morning and afternoon to write the Russian visa application, sort out fake flights/itinerary and arrange for a letter of invitation to be emailed to me. I also get to spend some time with lovely hostel folk, cycling out to the art district and checking out the galleries. Its not often I get to nearly feel like a hipster and this was an opportunity not to be missed!! During my time in Beijing I barely scratched the surface – an afternoon in the Temple of the Sun, Art District 798 and Tiananmen Square. I didn’t even visit the Forbidden City or any of the Great Wall … but I can guide you to the Mongolian and Russian embassies or give recommendations for coffee shops which have wifi and where application form errors and missing information can be amended before the next round of printing and delivery occurs.
So … Mongolian visa … Check! I spend a couple of nights with a Warm Showers host, Theo, on the outskirts of Beijing, experiencing the bone crushing suffocation of the overcrowded commuter train when I head back into the city. After an initial stall in the visa process when I have ‘forgotten’ to provide flight information I am granted my Russian visa … Check!! Hurrah!!!!
I leave the nation’s capital, a week later than I had hoped, but clutching the Mongolia/Russia visa duo in my sweaty mitts … Even the prospect of a 30hr train journey in hard seats does not initially dampen my excitement!! After dropping my bag on a fellow passenger and exploding a bottle of soda water over 4 of us (all before the train pulls out of Beijing West Station), I am more subdued & spend the first hour looking at Maps.me .. calculating and noting route distances. Looking up I realise that I have 10 pairs of (bored already!!) eyes watching what I am doing. After a year of being part of a communal/collective society I would have expected this to be ok … but it still unnerves me!! Train travel in China gives me the opportunity to be part of the massive ebb and flow of a huge population. This is most evident during Spring Festival when the ‘largest human migration’ occurs and people cross this enormous country to be reunited with their families, friends and traditional roots.
I confess .. the train ‘noise’ : the pushing, shoving, lack of care/awareness of others needles me, the sounds of people dragging phlem up from the recesses of their lungs still turns my stomach, the lack of privacy is unnerving (I feel like an exhibit!!) the incessant smoking is frustrating and makes my eyes water and the yelled mobile phone conversations are difficult to block out when trying to sleep … But my level of understanding of what ‘socially constructed norm’ means has deepened in my time in China. I still have the visceral reactions but I am able to observe them and not see them as ‘real’ indicators of ‘correct’ behaviour. After a time I am also able to realise just how socially close people have become … The atmosphere (and noise level) has warmed up to the festive and people are laughing loudly and calling up and down the carriage, looks and jokes about the officious young conductor are shared … I’m included in these and this quickly becomes an opening for mercifully brief questions about me. My still limited Mandarin halts any meaningful verbal conversation but just this brief sharing has smoothed the way for a more relaxed journey together!!! The train journey is not comfortable and I get very little sleep but it is an aspect of China that will remain in my memory for a long time.
The elation about the visa’s is unfortunately short lived as I spend time looking at routes and distances and realise that in my haste to get the visas done as quickly as possible I have miss calculated the dates for the Russian visa (based on a realistic assessment of how long it will take me to cross Northern China, get my Chinese exit visa back and then cross Mongolia). The issue is entirely about dates because unfortunately the Russian visa is date specific (I can enter after the start date requested but must leave before the end date requested) whilst the Mongolia visa is duration specific and I have a moveable 30 calendar days in the next 3 months in which to visit the country. I’m devastated, I feel like a cycle touring newbie rather than an old hand and the fact that I can remember how well I managed other similar situations and how much pressure I have just heaped on myself adds to my frustration.
Back in Chengdu I apply for my Pakistan visa in the embassy there and get the exit visa process underway. I am immediately refused the Pakistan visa based on the fact that I do not have residence for the dates requested and thus increase the speed at which I depart the city. Or I try to. It is just my luck that the annual Communist Party Conference is being held that week and all major services are on heightened security alert, meaning that when I try to book Tilly and all my kit onto the train my gas canisters, penknife and even lighters are refused. Where there is a will there is a way … so after assessing the situation in the nearby bus station I back the next day and am able to avoid putting the aforementioned terrifyingly hazardous articles through the scanners by some devious sleight of hand and misdirection techniques!!! There are times when appearing to be a hapless fool can be quite useful!
Finally Tilly and I are on the bus bound for the north of China and leaving the city that has been our base for the previous year. There are elements of sadness and loss but the overwhelming feeling is of joy to be fully mobile again. The plan is to cycle from Yulin to Hohhot before returning to Chengdu for my passport and then catch another bus from Hohhot to Erlianhot and the Mongolian border.
Amazingly everything goes to plan and I am able to spend the next 5 days covering nearly 600km through amazingly open landscape which is definitely in the midst of Spring and warming up nicely. Zhenbeitai boasts an almost unknown part of the original Great Wall which I was happy to visit. The Great Wall of China is often compared to a giant dragon, with the head at Laolongtou and the end at Jiayuguan Pass. The heart lies at Zhenbeitai Great Wall on the top of Hongshan Mountain in Yulin, Shaanxi Province. It is the largest watchtower along the Great Wall. Owing to its strategic location and military significance, Zhenbeitai is known as the “First Tower of the Great Wall.”This section has the largest watchtower along the Great Wall. It was constructed in 1607 during the Ming Dynasty. The tower consists of four levels, and is about 100 feet (30 meters). It was an amazing experience to be on this little visited area of the wall in part because it was almost deserted but mainly because it has not been renovated in the way that there sections of the Wall have been and therefore has a very authentically ancient albeit run down feel to it.
From Yulin to Hohhot I caused a sensation in the local villages with my ethnicity, dreadful mandarin, gender, bike and the Extrawheel trailer … not necessarily in that order. I would suggest that international tourism is not big in these parts and cycle touring even less so. Cars cruising alongside, videoing my progress and smartphones being thrust in my face for the obligatory selfie were quickly adjusted to .. they had to be. The people I met were curious and most often of the head shaking variety, unhappy that I was alone, but as always very welcoming. One night I camped in a farmers field and was greeted in the morning by said farmer, smiling and with a packet off Jujube berries in hand for me to munch on en route. He also told me off for not going up to his house and asking to stay there!!! The worry that I might be cold seemed ridiculous to me but to the people living here day in day out the realities of cold and illness are so familiar, having only just come out of full winter, that they were naturally concerned for a foreigner.
The route wound up and down back roads with ash and silver birch catching the light and creating shadows in the most iconic and stunning ways. They were so uniformly planted in places that the play of sunshine on my face as moved from light to shade to light to shade became quite mesmerising at times. Spring had yet to fully take hold and fields were alternately filled with the dried corpses of last years crops or their cut off remains. Brown, yellow and grey were the colours of Northern China, each colour bleeding into the next and giving the landscape a Turner-esque wash. The villages have dwellings and storage rooms set back into hillside terraces which makes me think of an ancient Chinese Hobbiton with myself as Bilbo Baggins, heading there and back again (maybe!).
The roads were the Chinese standard of smooth asphalt, until the last day when I made a painful arsed, determined and long trek of 180km, cycling from 9am to 2am the next morning and finally arriving in Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia region. The last 180km was a depressing, filthy, coal dusty schlep and not especially enjoyable since I was under pressure to return to Chengdu to collect my passport (with exit visa) and leave the country. The industrial face of China finally showed itself and I was cowed by its domineering power plants and gigantic chimney stacks, belching noxious smokes and gases into the surroundings. It is terrifying to see and feel and breath the price of industrial progress here.
It felt strange to be back in a large Chinese city after the peace and quiet of the backroads but I was made to feel at home immediately by the care of the young men running the local hostel in Hohhot. Despite it being nearly 3am by the time I reached the centre (following a drop into a large bike sized pothole, numerous wrong turns and a loss of the will to continue) he came out on his bike to guide me in. No time to relax as the following morning I catch the train back to Chengdu, run into the Chengdu PSB, grab my passport, run back to the metro, run back to the PSB to collect a forgotten bag and eventually reach Chengdu East Station for the return leg to Hohhot after the ridiculous sum of 2hrs in the city and a 3 day train trip. Understandably the train crew, who are the same on both journeys are confused and amused by my antics and take it in turns to come and chat to me when they pass.
On my return to Hohhot I have a very quick turn around, buy some additional bike parts and leave Hohhot by bus the following day, heading for the Mongolian border. There are checkpoints along the route and and after cresting the first pass I get the first inkling of the new style of terrain that i will be facing in Mongolia. The land opens out and becomes a gently undulating expanse of low grasslands, a surprising amount of fences and the occasional canvas dwelling. Huge flocks of sheep become the norm, presided over by a single horseman. I reach Erlianhot, the border town on the Chinese side, and am immediately struck by the amount of Russian and Mongolian characters I am seeing in the signage. Its all baffling to me and I am reminded of just how small and vulnerable I feel when crossing into new countries, with no idea of the language or culture and the sensation of the safety net of familiarity being ripped out from under me. As ever the sensation makes my head spin but this is what i have chosen and I am nonetheless grateful for the experience.
The following day Tilly is loaded into the back of a people carrier for the last stretch across the border. It is not permitted to cross the border on foot or by bike and there is money to be made from cross border transportation. My last impressions of China are strangely non Chinese. Whilst waiting for other passengers to fill the people carrier I walk around the local market. Far from this being your local Chinese market filled with the obligatory chilli’s and Sichuan pepper it appears that Russia and Mongolia have silently stretched out, far from the watchful eyes of Beijing, and filled the market with brass kettles, colourful enamel plates, bright fabrics in every hue and traditional boots and clothing, fit for multi season life on the plains. Its exciting to see and as I finally depart from China under a surprisingly beautiful rainbow arched crossing I wonder what all these new images hold in store for me.
- Bus from Chengdu to Xi’an.
- Bus from Xi’an to Yulin.
- Cycle the back roads parallel to the S204
- Following the Tianqiao Reservoir
- Following the X619
- Following S103 into Hohhot, ignoring the toll booths, coal dust and potholes along this road.
Info, ‘tips’ and miscellany
- Get the WeChat app for any time in China!! It will translate conversations for you and is essential for all interactions with Chinese people!!! Giving your WeChat details is the equivalent of giving a business card!!!
- Russian visa – I am not certain but it might be easier getting a visa via the Russian Embassy rather than the Visa application centre, simply by being one of 10s rather than 100s of applications at that time. As a foreign national it appears that you can do either but be sure to choose the embassy option on the booking system and on the application form. If you put the wrong one on the form you will have to resend and print it again (http://beijing.kdmid.ru/queue-en/)
- Speak to RealRussia (http://realrussia.co.uk/Visas/Russian/Applying). They provided me with a Letter of Invitation and support documents rather than a visa as I was applying in China with the support of my work permit. The Russian visa application asks for the original signed and stamped copy but I had asked for an emailed pdf scan and had no problem with a high quality colour copy of the documents. Very efficient service via email.
- Russian embassy (blue marker) is easy to find on maps.me and is not far from the Lama Temple. Just walk down the street and stop when you see a high wall and guards with guns! There is a high quality print and photograph shop on the junction of Min’an Street, opposite the Haiyun Hotel (red marker).
- Mongolian Visa – Some blogs mention getting photographs and copies done on the same street as the embassy. I did not find this to be the case and could not see anywhere in the vicinity to get this done so ensure all paperwork and passport photos are done in advance. The embassy will provide the form but perhaps not pens and glue at busy times (?!). I had taken a screenshot of an Ulaan Batar guesthouse with address before going and put this on the form. A booking did not appear to be necessary, just the address.
- Mobike/Offobike – not sure how easy it would be to set up an account and pay the online deposit without a Chinese bank card but if you can get it sorted or ask a Chinese friend or hostel xbudyto help you will not regret it. You will also need to provide photos of your passport. Deposits returned with no issues. Life was so much better, cheaper and easier whizzing around Beijing, picking up bikes when necessary and dropping them off when not.
- Bus from Chengdu to Xi’an – 250¥ ticket then 100¥ for the bike (price knocked down, paying driver!)
- Bus from Xi’an to Yulin – aprox. 150¥ ticket then 75¥ for the bike (bike given ticket in station).
- Time Hostel, Hohhot – Its on booking.com (yellow marker). Cheap, friendly, helpful people. Recommended.
- Hohhot bus station is next to the main central railway station. A ticket from there to Erlianhot cost aprox. 100¥ and then another 100¥ for the bike (bike money paid to driver!).
- People carrier from Erlianhot to Zamiin Uud (Mongolia) – caught from opposite Dinosaur Square. As the name suggests look for the dinosaur statues and you will soon be approached to see if you want transportation!!! 75¥ including bike. Get there early during high season as I am sure it will be busy!! (blue marker)
- Covered market is also opposite dinosaur square, go through faded, padded curtains into a world of souvenirs, fabrics, clothing, footwear and anything else you could possible want (or not want!!) There is a small outdoor clothing and equipment shop at the top of the market. Limited stock. (blue marker)
- General transport issues – As mentioned before it is easier to get around the security systems in the bus stations if you are carrying camping gas or ‘dangerous/hazardous’ kit. Journeys will just take longer and be less comfortable but you won’t lose equipment!!