In Barbarian Lands
And there it was: China! After roughly 7700 kilometers on our bikes, we are finally about to cross the border! A great moment for us, even though we are well aware that we are not quite in Beijing yet... Only to get to the parts that have been called the Middle Kingdom once, we have to cross the biggest province of China, Xinjiang, literally 'New Land'. We find that name suitable: although very similar to the stan-countries in many ways, it's not like them at all, and even though we have been in China before, it holds some surprises for us.

The most obvious one is the landscape: coming down from the green - and higher up white - mountains and valleys of the Pamir in Kyrgyzstan, the pastures give way to a bone-dry, but also colorful and very hilly, stone desert as soon as the Chinese border post is in sight. This continues a while until the oasis of Kashgar is near, where all of a sudden everything turns into juicy green again.

The second surprise, impossible to miss especially for cyclists, are the roads. For the past couple of hundred kilometers we experienced jaw-rattling dirtroads, and nothing we would call pavement with a clear conscious, from shortly after Osh onwards. Then, coming down the Kyrgyz heights, there is a first (Kyrgyz) borderpost where our passports are checked. The borderpost is also the finish line of the rough road and the beginning of a fantastic, perfect, chinese built, paved highway! The dry comment of the Kyrgyz soldier upon asking if the road stays like this from now on: "from here to Beijing, only pavement". Thats a brave prediction, keeping in mind that he is talking about a distance of over 5000 kilometers!

Then, thirdly and just as impossible to miss is the Chinese Style formalism, professionalism and the trained kindness: Before the actual border, there is a (luggage) checkpoint where, of course, the soldiers have the great idea to check all our bags. Thats roughly ten carefully packed bags! However, we quickly notice that their only interest aims at 'books and maps'. Swiftly and with a disturbing routine, the scan through our Lonely Planet guide book and our East China map. Immediately we are unveiled as potential criminals: Taiwan seems to be an independet country in these items! We can't pass like this, we would have to leave them there or we can't enter China. What to do? Christian pulls out his Swiss Army Knife and is about to cut the faulty areas off the map. We don't intend to go to Taiwan anyway. Not an acceptable solution for the soldiers, only the commander can decide what to do with such stubborn cyclists! So we continue to the actual border where we shall meet him.
However, there the first interest is our body temperature. With several different methods we are being checked, luckily no signs of H1N1, the swine disease. In the meantime, a guy with a vacuum-cleaner-like backpack showers - unmotivated to say the least - our bikes with some fluid that probalby is supposed to desinfect them. Then, finally the commander shows up and - with wrinkles of sorrow over his forehead - inspects our maps and the book again. No, no passing, or would we think that he would be allowed to enter Switzerland with wrong maps? We tell him that no one there would give a damn about which map he would bring, but not surprisingly that argument doesn't change the facts here at the Chinese border... Eventually, he shows his generousity by letting us cut Taiwan off our map and out of our guide book: if it's not there, it cant't be wrong. We do it, more amused than upset, it saves us some weight after all! Finally they let us go with a cheerful "Thank you for your cooperation!".

The next and last surprise depicted here are the Chinese themselves: there aren't too many in this part of China, there are mainly Uighurs. The Uighurs are a Turk people that settled here ages ago (thus also the name 'East-Turkestan'), and that today struggle with the heavy and increasing Chinese influence on their culture and everyday life. The Chinese move into this really dry region mainly to relief the overcrowded east and to make use of the rich natural ressources here, among them gas, oil, coal, copper, iron, nickel and more.
The Uighurs are muslims and speak Uighur, a Turk language written in an adapted Arabic alphabet. For us a major advantage, as we can for yet another few thousands of kilometers read signs, most items on the menu in restaurants and whether a building houses a hotel, a hospital or a trade organisation. And not only reading, also speaking still works, sort of. Apparently enough similarities between Persian and Uighur. Who would have thought that Farsi will get us so far?

The Muslim majority destroys our hopes that the 3 ever present, and obviously only important, questions since somewhere in Turkey whether a) we are Muslims, b) we are married and c) whether we have children, are over soon. Also, we realize that we will have to hold out a bit longer, or search harder, until we get the real, beloved Chinese food. The food of Turkestan is great, the pulled noodles, the samsas, the mantis, the soups. But its lacking diversity after a while, and its definitely not lacking fat!

A difficult topic to address, especially when not being able to communicate properly with either the Chinese nor the Uighurs is the relation between the two people. The current events in Urumqi (in July 2009) show how bad it really must be, these extremes are not visible to us though. For us its mostly obvious that there is as little interaction as possible. Only few people seem to speak the other groups language. The lifestyle seems to be from different worlds, in very short: Uighurs seem to live mainly the very traditional farmers lifes, are rather strict muslims with all the (subjective) pros and cons, and seem to have all the time in the world to stare at us (and ask the above mentioned questions over and over).
Chinese on the other hand seem to be attracted to all that is modern and western, have not problems with girls dressing as they like, have a much more detailed interest in e.g. our bikes (the brakes, the gears, the tires, the saddle etc), and seem to be much more busy at all times. However, in the details we recognise lots of commonalities too: both love noodles and shashlik, both spit loudly and frequently, both enjoy their food very noisily, both smoke apparently very many cigarettes (however only men, especially on the Uighur side), and both put their children into crotch-cut-pants: instead of a seam from the front to the back around the crotch, there is a large cut through which every kind of urgent natural relief is handled easily and quickly, no money wasted on diapers!

After the beautiful ride down to Kashgar and a few days in this interesting, legendary Silk Road city, we start off into the dryness, the goal to get around the Taklamakan desert before it gets all too hot. We are surprised how interesting the landscapes remain even though its all dust and rock. The colors are ever changing, the views on the Tianshan mountains or into the Taklamakan are splendid, and the countless oasis' with small villages are far more frequent than expected. There are several large cities along this way that is also called the Northern Silk Road, some of them with interesting sights or spectacular sceneries. The centers of these cities finally give us the first time a chinese feel, with modern buildings and infrastructure, flashing neonlight, dumpling shops and Karaoke bars!
But it is not before Jiayuguan where we actually leave the 'barbarian lands' and enter the true, ancient China! Here, the apparently first pillar of the Great Wall stands close to the great Fort of Jiayuguan (the 'mouth of China'), the main gate from the west into China. To the east, the Wall carries on with the once upon-a-time-intention to protect the Middle Kingdom from the Mongols, Huns and other barbarians. Here all the trade of the Silkroad times must have gone through in order to enter the Hexi corridor and make its way on to Xi'an and Beijing.
So do we!