Saturday, July 13, 2013

A nice climb, bad mobs and a forgettable ride in Ili valley

Location: Qingshuihezhen
Counter: 2906 kms

Note written on July 6th in China, waiting for the border to open. Posted from Almaty.

This note is long, but I can write 3 like this one: riding in Xinjiang was very intense, and I met really great persons. Time in China was not as good as expected, due to massive police and army control of the whole Ili valley. I really love China, but I got to really hate it also, and sometimes within the same minute. It poarised me strongly. I'm quite happy to be in the 'Stans' now, and to enjoy FREEDOM! I'm feeling really sorry for all those people in Xinjiang, who can't know what it means...

I left Ürümqi with a bad headache and a strange feeling in the stomach. It started three days before. I thought that cycling and being in the mountains would be good.

The road started to climb in the city, and kept going up the following 130 kms. The first day, I rode quietly, happy to root out my lazy body from the city and its never-ending suburb. At this point, the mountains were visible: true ones, building a massive rock wall above 4000 m, with glaciers and snow on top. What a nice feeling! I managed to eat something at midday, enjoying a kind of 'team-motivation' of the police, where about one hundred of them, one after the other, had to sing something in front of the others. It was 95% terrible or ridiculous, as you want, and of course way too loud like too often here in China. I can tell you that I really had fun.

Shepherd family starting the transhumance

The afternoon saw a beautiful ride in a steep gorge, followed by nice grasslands. I climbed this day from 800 to 2000 meters, a third of the contract. I was always feeling bad and couldn't eat in the evening.

A truck traffic-jam on the dirt at a gorge entry.

The second day started with a biscuit with water and a long and beautiful ride through another steep gorge. At this point, I quit the civilization, and saw only shepherds with their animals. At about 2300m, the road started to climb steep and constantly, following the river through grasslands, cliffs and boulders. It was really extatic. Every turn showed new peaks, and I knew that soon or later, the road would be higher than them. I tried to imagine when I would reach that point...

At about 3300m, the final wall was in view, and a strong storm was coming. I put the tent between boulders, and just had the time to hide inside before it went on. I cooked after, but ended eating two biscuits with water, the menu of the day. I was sure of one thing: if I eat the rice, I throw up. The night was bad. The headache went always stronger, the sleep was hard to find, and the only dreams I could remember were absolutely horrible, involving people killing and dismembering elephants and horses. And people looking for me to do the same with me...

View somewhere during the climb

On the third morning, I climbed the last steep wall with an empty stomach. He refused categorically any kind of food! The ride was cold, mineral, and snowy. At this point, the road turned to a rocky and wet dirt-road. It was surrounded with glaciers, but also with a lot of clouds, so the pass was not visible. I could only drink a bit of water, and had to stop every kilometer to deal with my stomach and tell him to keep quiet, one more kilometer...

I first saw the pass a few minutes before riding through it. I must have stayed only five minutes there, and could not remember any feeling of joy or reward. I was busy dealing with the stomach, and took just the time to put warm clothes, before starting the (loooong) downhill. At midday, at about 3000m, I tried to eat the rice from the day before, but no, Mister Stomach was still in a bad mood. So I laid one hour on a boulder, and was happy to be in the sun for the first time this day.

Now, it's going down...

Going down on a dirt-road with a heavy-loaded bike is not funny. You have to focus on the rocks, holes, humps and bumps: enjoying the landscape is not recommended. And this downhill was a never ending story.

At 4 P.M., I stopped at the first small village, to ask for water. When the mother saw my face, she grabed my arm and forced me to go inside. I was welcomed with tea and a noodle soup with mutton and vegetables. I ate it whole, it was so great. The whole village came and they taught me a few words of arab. At 6, I left and put the tent at the riverside a few kilometers further. I slept 12 hours like a stone.

Quiet place to recover
On the next morning, I was lazy like never before. Even letting the gravity do the job was boring. A strange feeling. It was the first time that I lost motivation and asked myself why I was here, on a bike, in the mountains, somewhere in Asia. Why not in a comfortable place somewhere in Europe with Alina? A hot bath, a warm coffee, a fridge full of food, a grill with friends... I learnt that without motivation, every kilometer, even downhill, is a torture! I stopped one hundred time this morning. Maybe a reaction of the body after those days of fighting.

I was in this state of mind when I reached Balguntay and the paved road, that I wanted to follow to the west. I was welcomed by a hectic army demonstration. Helmets, machine guns, barricades, tanks... But didn't realize. I was focused on finding a good restaurant. The appetite was back, and once again without any limits.

The second plate came with a visit from the police.
Policeman: 'Ni hao! Where are you from? Where are you going?'
Me: 'Fã guó rén (French). I'm heading to Kazakhstan.'
Policeman: 'No, you go to Ürümqi now.'
Me: 'Why? I'm coming from Ürümqi, I won't go back!'
Policeman: 'You eat and you follow us.'

Dirt roads were sometimes really bad.

30 minutes later I was in a room of the local police station. They told me that it would be too dangerous for me to ride further west because of 'terrorists', that the police will put me in a bus, and that I had no choice! I begged them fifty times not to Ürümqi. They checked my camera and erased quite a lot of pictures. After two hours alone, two of them came in a rush, told me to go outside, where I saw my bike in an overcrowded minibus. They pushed me inside and was dropped two hours later at the police station of Hejing.

They were nice there, and explained me a bit more. Two days ago (Wednesday 26th), 35 people lost their life near Turpan in what happens to be the worst mobs between Uighurs and Hans since 2009's riots. On 28th, in Hotan, it went on with 'hundreds of assaillants', but a black out on information was carefully put on by the gouvernment. They were facing troubles between Balguntay und Narati, and the road was controlled by the army. That's why I will be put in a bus to Xinyuan the day after. 'No Photos, or you'll be send back to Germany, and pay for the flight', they added. For the rest of my trip to Yining, I'll have to register every evening to the police with a hotel receipe. If not? 'Same as for taking photos!'

In Yining. They rode the whole night in the city.

When I was young, I spent many years learning Judo. I was never good at it, but I learnt one important thing for the life: use the force of your adversary, don't fight against it. I applied this with the police, and let them bargain for me for hotels: you force me to sleep in those expensive hotels, it's not fair, I have no money, so bargain for me or you'll have to find a place at the police station. I was put this night in a huge hotel room, where I paid 8€, instead of 80. When I entered the room with my bike, policemen were a bit stressed that I break or scratch something. In a really funny scene, the chef explained me that I have to behave good with the sheets, or they will have to pay. I'll never forget his imploring eyes, a sheet in one hand, when he explained it. One second after, we all exploded in laugh, everybody having imagined a variation about how a decadent french cyclist could maculate a luxuous hotel room paid by the chinese police.

The next day was spent in the bus. Sad, because landscapes were crazy: two passes over 3200m, mountains everywhere, grasslands, rivers, forests, magic places to put the tent... Exactly what I was looking for. But also too many police and militar controls, too many guns... Beijing decided to show its muscles to Uighurs. At every checkpoints, welcome with tanks, machine guns, and the same story: pass control, loss of time, neurotic questions...

At an army checkpoint with two Uighur civilians. The Hans thought quite often that I was Uighur. Do you see any resemblance?

Apparently, there was another cyclist in the region, who slept one night outside. In Kalabulak, I was woken up at 1 A.M. by light, three policemen and the english teacher of the village: all of them around my bed. They checked pass and camera, and asked insistently where 'the other' was. I told them that I was riding alone, but they didn't believe me and kept asking, one hour long. Of course, I had no idea, but I would have been glad to meet you, 'the other', and make a ride with you!

I saw The Death. He is also gone for a ride on his horse, somewhere in Asia! He told me that it was not for now, so I could keep riding happily...

Now that I'm reading this note before sending it, I don't feel proud. I read a reaction of a lucky boy, who grown up and has been living in true democracies, who can work and move nearly everywhere in the world, who can live his dreams, who have the choice to lead his life...

I had the chance to meet Ibrahim in Tokkuztara. We spent two great days talking and walking in the city. He is 29, Uighur, and living these silliness everyday, without any possibilities to escape it. This boy is brilliant: he speaks 7 languages (excellent english!), all learnt by his own, but obtained only a basic job in a bank. He wants to travel, but doesn't obtain a pass, despite all his demands. If you're Uighur, your life will be complicated.

He escapes in books, dreaming of this day when he would be allowed to move from China. And from his 'boring' job, where he already knows he will never go up, because hierarchy is closed for people of its minority.

It was a great lesson of life with him!

People's square of Yining. But this time without civilians...


  1. Hi Maxime,

    Couz' is back ;)
    What thrilling events you lived in three weeks time !!
    I'm glad you met such an inoffensive riding Death instead of the one, unfortunate people in Turpan violently met :(
    I know you quite well but according to the picture you sent, there is doubt about your Uighur belonging... ;P

    Still beautiful & astounding pictures you took ! I couldn't stop reading your writing till the far end as the suspense was at its height O_O'

    Hoping better news next time, take extra care and keep riding safe !
    Thanks to make us realize, once more, we are lucky here in Europe... despite Mister Fromage president leading (or not...) France ;)

    @ bientôt très cher Gruson (private joke)

    1. So, better news in the following messages? Travelling is not always easy, but always nice and intense!
      Par contre, j'ai pas saisit la private ;)

  2. Hallo Maxl,
    schön endlich wieder von dir zu lesen! Habe schon mit Spannung auf Neuigkeiten gewartet. Ich hoffe du kannst die nächsten Wochen mit mehr Freiheit geniessen, ohne Polizeikontrollen, Terroristen usw...
    Hier in Großhelfendorf passt alles, wir vermissen dich und bei Mauri gibt es immer eine Gedenkminute an dich ;-)

    1. Salut Kathrin ;)
      Diese Gedenkminute spüre ich ganz stark, toll von Euch! Sag Maurizio und Gabriella, dass ich sie so krass vermisse... Ich hoffe, dass ich bald mit Euch die tolle Pizzas geniessen kann!
      Liebe Grüße

  3. Hey Maxime,

    ich habe heute endlich mal wieder einen Blick auf Deinen Blog geworfen. Dabei war und bin ich erstaunt und auf verschiedene Weisen bewegt: ich bewundere Deine Ausdauer und Geduld, glaube Deine Sorgen und Gedanken zu verstehen, und hoffe, dass die nächsten Tage wieder etwas ruhiger werden und Du Zeit und Muße für die Schönheit der Landschaften und der Begegnungen mit den Menschen auf Deinem Weg findest!

    Bises, für heute aus Unterfranken,

    1. Merci mon Philou pour tes beaux mots!
      Bon, on s'est pas croisé cet été, j'espère qu'on aura plus de chance vers Noël: où serez-vous?
      Bisoux les amoureux

  4. Bonjour mon maxou,
    Tu racontes bien les histoires! J'etais dans les montagnes avec toi... quelle expérience.
    je salue ton exploit , monter si haut c'est pour moi inimaginable, je sais a peine grimper la côte qui mène a la maison!
    Mais je trouve que ce n'est pas très prudent de le faire seul, un mal aigu des montagnes n'est pas anodin. (oui, maman! )
    Je remercie cette mère de t'avoir requinque.
    Bravo aussi pour ton sens des négociations avec la police chinoise.
    J'espère qu'un jour tu pourras accueillir Ibrahim, en Europe. Il faut garder espoir.
    Je t'embrasse très très fort et je pense a toi souvent

  5. Servus Maxime,

    endlich! Habe schon sehnsüchtig auf deinen nächsten Blog gewartet und mir auch schon etwas Sorgen gemacht. Und wenn man so liest was dir alles passiert, dann waren die Sorgen wohl auch nicht umsonst. Sind schon grasse Erfahrungen, aber die bereichern ja bekanntlich das Leben.

    Wir sind hier aber auch nicht ganz untätig, Kathrin, Andi und ich waren letztes Wochenende auf dem Watzmann oben und haben ihn auch umrundet. War ne schöne und anstrengende Tour, aber wohl nicht mit deinen Tortouren zu vergleichen ;-)

    Pass gut auf dich auf und noch viele SCHÖNE & GUTE Erfahrungen.

    Gruß Bettina

    1. Hi Bettina!
      Watzman mit Kathrin und Andi: Toll! Nächstes Mal will ich mit. Oder erstmal ordentlich skitouren ;)
      Ich vermisse Euch, und freue mich auf die gute Momente zusammen ab dem Winter!
      Liebe Grüße an alle!
      PS: Tortouren! Hat jemand Tortouren gesehen? ;)