Cycling Plus #22:
From Xinjiang to Kazakhstan...China to the former Soviet Union
"A motorbike without petrol is as useful as a dead donkey. On your bicycles, all you need is lagman and you can go anywhere," reflected the old woman, placing yet another bowl of freshly made noodles before us. Stretched and spun into shape, then laced with peppers and green beans, lagman is the staple diet of Xinjiang's Uyghur people. And to use her analogy, the food that will fuel us across Central Asia.
Capital of the Autonomous Region, at first glance Urumqi seemed no different from any other Chinese city. Like an oasis in the vast and cruel Taklomakan Desert, it brimmed with the new-found delights of Capitalism. Sharpened high rises echoed the distant Tian Shan Range as marbled malls tunnelled deep below. Yet tucked between tidy boulevards and nondescript hotels, we discovered a more appetising side of the city. Food markets stocked with sweet watermelon and dumpling baskets steaming in the early morning air...and hidden behind an unlikely looking doorway, a small but enthusiastic cycle club awakening to the world of mountain biking.
The concept of riding for fun, rather than transport, is emerging as more disposable wealth (for some) keeps export-quality bikes within China. It was here that I met a young Uyghur cyclist, permanently decked in yellow shades and rarely to be seen without his matching GT *. And it was with his aged and charismatic grandmother, at their family home in the sizzling grape valley of Turpan, that I caught a glimpse of the Uyghur way of life. As Han Chinese outnumber the settlers of the Silk Road, traditions are slowly eroding away, leaving the region autonomous only in name.
We escaped the city for the shores of Sayram Lake, set amid stunning Alpine scenery and just a days ride from Kazakhstan. Its flowing plains were dotted with yurts; plumes of smoke whispered into a cloudless sky. Kazaks galloped on muscular horses, sweeping across the border like a morning tide. Riding around its ninety km circumference, we paused in villages, sampling bread sprinkled with sesame seeds and replenishing our stomachs with lagman. The sun was setting, filling the air with a glow of warmth, as we returned to our own yurt for the night, amid a colourful caravan park of Chinese tourists. Exhausted and sunburnt, not even the Karoake from our neighbours could keep us from sleep.
And now, it's early morning. We've reached the border post with Kazakhstan. We've negotiated the mob of money changers, waving their wads of currencies like Monopoly money. As the gates open, a surge of beefy Kazak women, dyed hair permed into submission, qualmlessly barge their way through with crates of steam cookers and cutlery. I look at the pale eyes and fair hair within this scrum, and it dawns on me how close I am feeling to home. Hours later, Russian forms deciphered and acrylic stamps in our passports, we exit Kazakhstan customs. A soundtrack of Julio Inglesias and the sight of locals sipping vodka is our welcome to the former Soviet Union.
Then it's just us, the Ladas, and the open road...
* (A GT is the make of a mountain bike! It's quite famous in China!)