China: Chengdu and Kashgar

29/05/19 - 10/06/19
Total distance travelled: 10,600km

Be more panda.  Chengdu.

Our time in China suddenly came to an end. We had not used the full 90-day allocation on our visas and I tentatively suggested to Olly that we throw caution to the wind and fly to Beijing or Shanghai and continue to explore China, a country that had wooed us and exceeded our expectations for cycle touring. However, our time in the mega-city of Chengdu formed such a stark contrast to the towns up in the air of the Tibetan Plateau that we had so enjoyed, towns where life was slower-paced and observed on all sides by incredible mountains. We experienced an even harsher contrast when we stepped off the two-day train that transported us 2000km from Chengdu to Kashgar, a former oasis town along the old Silk Road, in the Xinjiang Province, one of the most sensitive, fraught, tense, confusing, misleading and unhappy places on planet earth at the moment, I'm sure, because of the detainment of the Uighur people; the separating of their families and the 'cultural genocide' that is taking place - see an article that appeared on the BBC website on 4 July here.

Of course, I can only write this now that I am outside of China, though the app that was installed on my phone - that I have since deleted - as we exited the country is likely reporting back everything I am typing... Writing this may effect my ability to obtain a Chinese visa in the future, and I would like to return one day: there is, quite obviously, so much more to see. The truth of what is happening in Xinjiang is far from clear and it is a subject that we did not readily broach whilst in China, but which is a hot topic on the lips of most travellers we have met. As it should be! Kashgar, like the areas that had once been Tibet, felt like an entirely different country to "mainstream China". It was an interesting place to visit and we tried to conjure images from days gone by when this was a trading hub, melting pot and resting place before the caravans of camels and donkeys continued on.

The old town, what remains of it for it is known that many buildings have been torn down, was nice and we enjoyed seeing locals huddle around popular stalls, thrusting money forward in exchange for hot samsa. We didn't enjoy seeing armed police on every street corner or having to pass through security scanners in order to enter the supermarket. We didn't enjoy knowing that so much was going unsaid. It was interesting, but not comfortable spending time there. For more reasons than one, then, after four nights in Kashgar we were keen to head to the Irkeshtam Pass and cross into Kyrgyzstan in order to start our Central Asian adventure.

We arrived in Chengdu in the early evening just as the light was fading and it was starting to rain. In order to get our bikes on the bus we had removed the front wheels and loosened the handlebars, and so we stood at the side of the road reassembling the bikes surrounded by panniers as people, incredulous, walked by. That evening, weary after spending fourteen hours on a bus, we thanked the travel gods for arranging it so that the bus station we arrived at was just around the corner from the hostel we had booked into. I'm really not convinced that we would have made it across the capital of the Sichuan Province, which has an urban population of some ten and a half million inhabitants making it the third most populous city in western China. "Just around the corner" was about as far as we could manage. We lugged our bags up to our room and collapsed.

We had six nights in Chengdu, which was the longest stint we had off the bikes in a good while. We had a fairly conclusive 'to-do' list to get through, though, and so the days were filled with what we call 'trip-min'. Bike bits were bought and thread-bare cycling shorts replaced. I said 'goodbye' to my white shirt which, over the course of nine months, had become an unpleasant shade of grey; a new sand-coloured number has joined my limited ensemble of clothing. We sourced Walmart supermarkets, carrying our bikes up the steps of overpasses in order to do so, and from the top watched as countless lanes of traffic zoomed by beneath us, and we stopped for milk tea at least once a day. It was a happy day for Olly when we ventured in a different direction and found a Carrefour supermarket and were able to replenish the dwindling coffee supply.

Fortunately, Mrs Panda Hostel where we were staying was tucked away off any main road and there was enough space to find a spot to sit quietly. We didn't venture far for food whilst we were in Chengdu, preferring to order a plate of broccoli and garlic and fried noodles with vegetables from the hostel kitchen for a fair price. There was even Beer Lao in their fridge which Olly was pleased to see again.

Upon returning from a walk around Chengdu, we spied lots of people in a queue for a tiny window restaurant.  We had no idea what we were about to buy, but we also joined the queue.  A delicious, hot bread stuffed with glass noodles and vegetables was delivered to us for about £1.

The highlight of our stay in Chengdu was definitely our visit to the world-famous panda sanctuary. When I inquired about how to get there, I was told we should take the pink metro line to 'Panda Avenue' - how brilliant! We did just that on our penultimate full day in Chengdu. We had been told that it is best to arrive at the sanctuary early, when the pandas are having breakfast and are full of energy. As soon as breakfast is done, the pandas retreat indoors to sleep and as cute as sleeping pandas are, we were keen to see them wombling about and falling off things as the hundreds of YouTube videos imply that they do. (They did!)

I was absolutely convinced that I had seen a real-life panda before, but upon reflection I must not have done. Olly was sure he hadn't seen one either. We think, at present, there is just one panda in the UK and she lives at Edinburgh zoo. Interestingly, many of the pandas we saw at the sanctuary - and we maybe saw twenty in total - were female. In the wild, adult pandas are solitary creatures and so each female panda had her own enclosure, but could see other pandas nearby. Occasionally there were two adult pandas in the same enclosure and often they would be sisters. Younger pandas seem to cohabit more happily, and it was evident from the information panels outside each enclosure that pandas have unique, individual characteristics and many, it seems, are quite stubborn! I enjoyed reading about one panda who absolutely despises honey and will no go near it. All of the pandas made short work of the bamboo they were greedily munching on. Seeing their sharp teeth snapping at the strong bamboo branches made you briefly question their cuddly cuteness.

The ride out to Panda Avenue was incredibly straightforward and one-way metro tickets in Chengdu cost very little, about 40p. At Panda Avenue we had to transfer onto a panda bus which took us to the sanctuary itself. Again, this was very easy as people wearing panda ears pointed us in the right direction, shepherding us along.

The pink line to Panda Avenue

I realised I definitely hadn't seen a panda before when I caught my first glimpse of one and my eyes immediately filled with tears. Like the hundreds of others in the sanctuary, we laughed with glee upon seeing the black and white beasts and ran towards the enclosure boundary. We were absolutely transfixed, watching three pandas eating their breakfast. The pandas did not give a flying whatsit about our being there, especially the one who kept her back to us the entire time. Having strategically positioned herself in the middle of the bamboo stick pile, she had only to reach to her side to pick up her next snack.

The pandas were adorable! They were silly and dopey and delightful. They seemed very human too in the way that they used their evolved paws to eat their bamboo, and Olly remains unconvinced that there weren't a few humans in costumes hidden amongst them. We watched as two young pandas had a bit of a fight and a third ran along behind them, clearly desperate to be involved. We watched as one flopped down onto a ramp and them proceeded to flop all the way off the ramp and into a heap on the floor. The two fighting cubs roly polyed around and over each other and then raced to climb up trees.

We gazed in wonder at the pandas lolling on branches asleep, precariously shifting their weight and stumbling paw over paw in order to get comfortable. We laughed with the rest of them as pandas scratched their bums high up in trees, wiggling around until they hit the spot (indeed, they were actually marking their territory). I learned that pandas prefer the mountains and, in the wild, usually live above 2500m. The warm flat lands of Chengdu that are barely above sea level thus do not make the ideal home for these colder-clime loving creatures. As such, all of the pandas at the Chengdu sanctuary, which is the most important sanctuary of its kind in the world, have an indoor, air-conditioned enclosure too. It wasn't long before the pandas finished their breakfasts and starting to retreat indoors.

In addition to the cute black and white bears, of which there are only believed to be 1000 or so left in the wild, we saw red pandas too and they bore a striking resemblance to Olly! Red pandas seemed shier than their giant bear friends - these creatures are, in fact, in no way related. Red pandas seemed much more cat-like than bear-like, but they still enjoy eating bamboo.

As the pandas moved indoors, we headed back to the hostel and started to prepare for the two-day train journey that would transport us west to Kashgar. We had read and been told that taking a train in China with a bicycle is an event and so the day before we took the train, we headed to the station to send off our bikes. On the way to the station I got a puncture and so I am now leagues ahead of Olly in terms of how many flats we've each suffered on the trip. Our bikes had just been for a service and I had also had my front wheel rebuilt due to my dynamo-hub dying some time in Thailand, and they were not performing quite as well as we would have liked considering how much we had just spent on having them tweaked and tuned.

A visit to the Wenshu Monastery

En route to the train station, we stopped at the Bank of China to withdraw some US dollars which it is essential to carry when travelling through Central Asia (indeed, when travelling anywhere they have come in quite useful). We hadn't anticipated spending over an hour obtaining the Benjamin though... As I hovered around outside the bank keeping an eye on the bikes, I enjoyed watching the world go by before tentatively closing my eyes for a quick nap. Throughout our time in China, it was shocking to see how many men smoke. Sat waiting that afternoon, I am sure I did not see a single man without a cigarette in his mouth. Apparently in the bigger cities, women are taking up the habit too. It will be interesting to learn how China deals with the consequences of this addiction in the years to come.

Photos from Wenshu Monastery

We finally made it to the train station and it was boiling hot. The white-tiled, open square in front of the station was reflecting the heat in all directions and warmed us further. We made it through the narrow queue and security scanner only to be started at bewilderingly by the train station workers. We had read that you need to check the bikes in as freight luggage, but there was no way we were getting passed the ticket inspectors and towards the trains. Fair enough, really, as we hadn't yet been to the huge ticket office building opposite the main terminal building we were trying to get into to collect our tickets!

Once the tickets were collected, and it was a relief to have them in our hands, we were directed over to a separate building behind the main terminal building called China Railway Express where we had to pay a stonking 385 RMB to put our bikes on the train. Suddenly the 100 RMB we had had to press into the drivers' hands to travel by coach seemed like very little. We sent some of our panniers as freight luggage too and were gutted to learn we had to pay 7 RMB per kilo! We had intentionally only kept the bear minimum with us to take onto the train and have advised others after us to perhaps take the opposite approach! Still, it was good to feel like things were moving forwards. Once all of our panniers had been emptied and scrutinized (explaining what chamois cream was via charades was fun...), they were loaded into a big, white sack and heaved away. It was slightly nerve-wracking watching the contents of our bags be so closely examined. We had heeded warnings and hidden our knives within other metal objects and had rinsed our fuel bottles out with coke to remove the petrol smell. Having any of our kit confiscated en route to Central Asia where outdoor shops do not abound would have been gutting. We are at a point now where very little of what we carry is surplus to requirement and so everything has a home, a place, a use.

Our train the following day departed at 1555 and we were preparing to spend two nights on board in a four-person, soft-sleeper cabin. Following our experience on the night train in Thailand, we did a 180 and decided to buy the most expensive tickets vs. the cheapest as we had done then. The train journey from Chengdu to Kashgar was fifty hours long and so we are both glad that we spent the extra money on a bed each. The cabin was a fair size and Olly and I both had top bunks which we were able to sit up on without problem (me more so than Olly who still managed fine). We were lucky to have nice cabin buddies who mostly just left us to our own devices (I read three books!). Finally, having paid a pretty price we also benefitted from frequently cleaned bathroom facilities, which was worth every dime. A food trolley went up and down the train at various points during the day, though there were no chocolate frogs or pumpkin pasties available to buy. I did source an incredibly sweet milk tea having spied my bunk buddy with one.

There were police officers on the train who seemed as intrigued by us as every other Chinese passenger who went past our cabin. Many did a double-take and stared in at us. We smiled and waved which delighted the crowds! The police officers carefully considered our passports and asked us about our stay in Kashgar: how long we planned to be there and why we were going. This is all seemed fairly reasonable and so we answered their questions happily. Then, at 10.30 on the first night, when lights in our cabin had long been out, a SWAT team of two accompanied by one of the friendly police officers entered loudly into our room and demanded our passports. Blinking groggily we, of course, handed them over without hesitation. This incident didn't unsettle us overly - we had nothing to hide - but it did make us realise that our presence on the train had been well and truly noted and that causing any disruption to us was of no concern to the authorities.

The landscapes glimpsed through the train window were mountainous, lunar and sandy at various intervals. Quite suddenly, despite being on board for two full days, it seemed we were preparing to leave the train. We gathered our belongings and stepped off the train into the bright sunshine, squinting and blinking rapidly as we rediscovered the natural light. We gulped at the fresh air too, but found it to be hot and dry. We joined the throng leaving the station, but after just a few steps were called out of the crowd and to made to stand to one side by two armed, SWAT officers wearing bulletproof vests. A man from Pakistan had been separated from the crowds too, and the three of us stood there with our passports in hands, waiting for the officers to ask for them. One of the officers asked repeatedly for something in Chinese and we didn't understand what. The Pakistani man translated for us: "tickets". "No speak Chinese?", the officer asked us. "No", we replied. He tutted and shook his head. He didn't speak English either. Maybe he also spoke Greek and I speak French. An online app became our lingua franca. For the third time, we were quizzed on our stay in Kashgar and had to point on a map to the hostel we were staying at: Old Town Youth Hostel. Once satisfied, the officers let us continue towards the exit. They then turned to the Pakistani man and treated him with more impatience than they had us.

Under a baking sun, we waddled over to the China Railway Express hub in the hope of finding our bikes and luggage there. A man whom we got to know over the next couple of days as we repeated the journey from the centre of Kashgar to the station three more times before our bikes arrived, gestured to us that no bikes had arrived and that we were to return tomorrow at 8 o'clock. Fortunately, the bus fare from the centre of Kashgar out to the station, a distance of some 20km, was only 1 Yuan and so we didn't break the bank over the next couple of days as we undertook this journey. Riding the bus wearing a helmet attracted a fair amount of attention and I smiled to myself then, as I am doing now, imagining the lasting impression of westerners that we must have left on some of the people of Kashgar.

The people of Kashgar, who are predominantly Uighur, do not look like Han Chinese people do. The Uighur are a Turkic people with their own language and who are mostly of the Muslim faith, returning to and reconnecting with Islam after the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s. The Id Kah Mosque, a beautiful pastel yellow building decorated with pastel blue and green tiles, is reportedly the largest mosque in China. In Kashgar, the mosque presides quietly over the central square where you can also find camels and horses for novel photo shoots and short rides, a reminder that this town was an important stop along the Old Silk Road. News of mosques being pulled down in China is disturbing. It is reported that 200 of 800 mosques were torn down in 2017 with some 500 more scheduled for destruction in 2018. We heard from other travellers, talking in hushed tones in the hostel courtyard, that businesses in Kashgar had not been allowed to close to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the celebration at the end of Ramadan.

The Uighur ladies were almost all fabulously dressed in sparkling dresses with matching pjyama trousers and costume jewellery that glittered in the sunlight. The men wore hats that appeared to be square or diamond-shaped which were almost always green with beautifully intricate, white embroidery. Olly had been desperate to try one on.  The young children had their hair cropped close to their heads so that it was difficult to distinguish between the sexes.

As we walked from the bus stop to our hostel along the main cobbled street of the old town, we gazed in wonder at the shops selling bronze jugs and teapots; at the stalls selling hot tandoor-cooked bread; and at exotic-sounding musical instruments made from gourds. Kashgar was a different world and our first real taste of Silk Road magic and charm.

Our reverie was dashed somewhat when we had to pass through a security scanner to enter into the hostel. Putting bags on conveyor belts and stepping through scanners became common practice over the next few days. We had such a bizarre experience the first time we went to the supermarket: at 10 o'clock in the morning the supermarket complex opened and we trotted down the steps to see what we could buy. Once we had passed through the security scanner, which always beeps disconcertingly, though no one takes any action when it does so, we noticed the complex was empty bar a number of staff who were all stood at the entrance to their shops. All eyes were blank and staring straight ahead. No one looked in our direction as we chatted and pointed to an outdoor shop in the corner opposite to the one we had entered. After a minute or so, all of the workers relaxed and music started playing. We realised there must have been an announcement taking place which required them to stand to attention.

During our time in Kashgar, in addition to making a daily bus trip out to the station in the hope of being reunited with our bikes, we went to the Sunday Livestock Market which is much talked about. We were a merry band of travellers, escorted by a young, Chinese student who had pounced on me, Olly and a friend we made, Dom from Scotland, in a restaurant the night before, and we boarded a local, hot and crowded bus after walking a few kilometres from the heart of the city and through the old gate, which would take us most of the way to the market. From the bus stop, we just had to walk along a dual-carriageway for a few hundred metres to finish our long and sweaty journey.

Olly says that he enjoyed the livestock market for it was in no way a tourist attraction, despite the large numbers of tourists there. (It is a Lonely Planet recommended excursion.) We saw sheep carcasses thrown on the floor underneath a barbecue; we saw sheep with fluffy bums; and big bulls paying no attention to the men who were attempting to drag them along. Now, at home, I would not choose to spend my Sunday morning visiting a livestock market and so I am unsure why I thought it would be any different attending a livestock market in western China. I didn't enjoy my Sunday morning market experience. Animals panted under the blisteringly hot sun and there was no shade or water in sight. I panted too. The smell of barbecued meat hung in the air and although partial to a barbie, it is mushrooms, halloumi and skewered vegetables I choose to throw on the grill. I did enjoy catching our first glimpse of the mountains on the border with Central Asia, and as ever, I marvelled at how scorchingly hot it was where I was stood and yet on the horizon, a blanket of snow contrasted with the bright blue of the sky.

Cold noodles: delicious, vegetarian fare at the livestock market

We had four nights in Kashgar due to the Irkeshtam Pass, the border crossing we were using to enter Kyrgyzstan, being closed at the weekend. We had an interesting stay. It was hard to feel completely at ease or comfortable when there were teams of three policemen, one with a gun, one with a shield and one with a spear, stood on every street corner. It was hard to accept that we couldn't freely talk about what is happening to the Uighurs; couldn't open certain articles on our phones; shouldn't even be able to access the articles in the first place because, strictly speaking, VPNs are banned in Xinjiang. Olly is sure that at some point it is very likely we were followed by non-uniformed police officers. However, in Kashgar, we visited one of the liveliest street-food markets we've been to so far on our trip and sat on tiny stools to eat noodles and chickpeas with chopsticks. Goats were roasting on spits and dates stuffed with a walnut and raisin paste tempted us at every turn. It was in Kashgar that we had our most delicious cups of tea in China: a cup of red chai with breakfast on our first morning accompanied by hot steamed buns and a spicy soup, a delectable combination of Chinese and Moroccan flavours.

The tastiest tea

Our time spent cycling in China was quite unexpectedly brilliant. Our blog was recently added to a cycle-touring blog hub (called Best bicycle touring destinations and blogs, link here), and the curator, Grace, asked us to send a brief description of our three favourite cycling destinations to date. Without hesitation, Olly picked the Yunnan Province. However, upon arriving in Kashgar, on the western edge of the Xinjiang Province (which is almost seven times bigger than the United Kingdom), we feel a need to add a caveat our recommendation of China. It is a tremendous shame.

On Sunday evening, we tried to get an early night in preparation for our border crossing the next day. Having read plenty about crossing the Irkeshtam Pass, we were anticipating it being an eventful day. Events that followed made Monday 10 June one of the most memorable days of our adventure. We were lucky that Dom, a half-Irish, half-German, Russian-speaking Scotsman who was travelling around the former Soviet Union countries, had walked into our dorm a few days before and was heading in our direction. We got to share the fun with him!