A Fell Voice on the Air


Map from Urumqi to Baluntai


There appear to be four rules of thumb emerging from my journey so far:


1)      if I have a puncture, expect something good to follow;

2)      if I get sick, it invariably comes at a point where I’m fed up with the whole journey and have had enough, and it’s God’s way of making me get some rest and take a day off (which I otherwise wouldn’t allow myself) and generally re-motivate;

3)      if I think there’s something going wrong with my bike, it’s not the bike, it’s because I haven’t read the manual properly; and the final one,

4)      if I take the time to clean and oil my bike, expect heavy rain within less than 48 hours.


This last rule certainly held true as I left Urumqi. 


My bike was in sparklingly good order the day prior to departure, and all my kit had been carefully rearranged and repacked for this next chapter of my route through China. 


Within roughly 300m of setting out along the road out of Urumqi on a grey lunchtime as the rain more or less poured down, my shoes were soaked through, my legs covered in grit and my lovely clean bike and chain were once again covered in the black grimy muck that can only be found in Chinese gutters.  I must have been in an unusually good mood because I let this pass without a complaint. 


As I carried on out of the main city, I did consider whether it might be better to retreat to my friend’s flat once more and make another attempt the following day – but I decided I couldn’t be put off every time there was a little rain, even if this was more or less the first time I’d had to cycle through a downpour.


It wasn’t long outside the city that the rain stopped, though the day remained cold and damp.  The road heading southwest from Urumqi is initially very uninteresting.  Dead straight passing through agricultural land, and for most of the first 50km long sections of the road were under repair which made for quite a bumpy and muddy ride. 


But I was surprised how inspired I felt when off in the distance I first caught a glimpse of the first rolling contours of the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains.  Covered in grass and, further on, pine trees, these mountains are the most similar to European mountains of any I’ve yet seen in China.  It made me quite nostalgic for the green and fertile lands of Europe, at the same time as creating an odd sense of confusion about where I actually was.  Trundling along dodging potholes on a muddy road surface past farmyards that could easily have been from my home county of Norfolk in the UK, while grassland hills rose about me that reminded me of Wales, with higher peaks and crags and treelines more reminiscent of the Alpes or Pyrenées looming ahead.  And then I’d pass a local school with dozens of Chinese kids spilling out along the roadside, and a little further on a Kyrkyz-looking man mounted on horseback astride a Western saddle, looking like a wayward extra from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western.


A drizzly road into the Tian Shan

The road starts climbing up into the Tian Shan


“Where am I?” I kept thinking.  And having to remind myself, this is still China. 


I’d left late and the day wore on, with the road surface so bad that I made pretty slow progress.  Eventually the road started climbing into the mountains proper, and the valley sides steepened and closed up around and above me, so that the road was following the line of a gorge, probably 50 or 60m from the river valley bottom, barely wide enough for the sparse traffic that appeared to pass one another.  It was still drizzling and was well into the evening.  The light had started to fade and I began to wonder whether I would reach any point in the road where there would be room enough to pitch a tent.  There certainly hadn’t been anywhere for a long stretch amid these rock cliffs and the sheer drop off to one side. 


Road into the Tian Shan

The drizzly road up into the mountains


At one point I stopped and had a think.  Perhaps it was better to go back to before the gorge, where the landscape was a little more open, and find a spot in the grassland to camp?  Then a rock fell in front of me….followed by another smaller one.


I looked up and saw a collection of about 5 wild deer, standing precariously but steadily on the steep slope above the rock cut.  They backed away a little but then stood still and then seemed to gain the confidence to look back at me.  We watched each other for a few moments without moving.  They settled briefly, took a few nonchalant sniffs at the tufts of grass that were sprouting from the cracks in the rocks and then began clambering back up the slope till I lost sight of them amongst the bigger shrubs and bushes. 


This was the first wildlife I believe I’ve seen in China.  Not including birds of course.  That thought alone was surprising after cutting a line of nearly 6,000km through this land.  After they’d gone, I continued to stand still.  There was not another sound.  No cars.  Just the light drizzle that began to fall a little heavier now.


OK – I’m not going back.   I don’t go back.  That was my decision. 


So I got on the bike and carried on – remaining optimistic that something would emerge in my favour. 


A couple of kilometres further on, I came round a bend and the gorge widened a little to reveal a road bridge that was obviously only half finished.  The actual road skirted round to the right following the rock face and then crossed to the other side of the gorge at the far end of the bridge, but across the river on the other side was a dirty white building.  It hardly looked comfortable or inviting but it was quite large and had a roof, and was clearly in use. 


As I followed the road round to the right, I had a quick debate as to whether I should try my luck here.  The prospect of trying to set up a tent in this rain and the gathering gloom even if I did find a suitable spot was hardly tempting.  I was cold as well.  As I looked at the road beyond that led up the hill, I couldn’t see any sign of the gorge opening out, so my mind made up, I drew up at the far end of the bridge and lent my bike against the concrete wall, near to a big yellow digger that I imagined was being used to work on the bridge, but stood lifeless and empty. 


The area leading up to the building was filthy – thick with black mud and scattered all about with the detritus of construction work – broken bolts, chunks of wood and metal, discarded noodle wrappers and plastic bottles, old bits of stripped wiring, nails.  I picked my way fairly carefully through it all. 


A wild and angry looking dog started barking as I got within 30 yards of the door.  He was tied up on a dirty scrap of rope outside a tiny wooden hut.  He might have been an Alsatian once, but he was a sorry looking mutt by now.  His bark seemed to be the last scrap of dignity left in him.  At last I saw a figure on an upper level to the right of the building.  He noticed me and I called out to him, asking him if he could help me out.


When I got a bit closer, I explained what I was doing and asked whether I could have a roof for the night, as he squelched down the steps in a pair of flip-flops.  He was quite a young Han man, a little bit fatter than most, with a lopsided smile and a thin showing of hair running along his top lip.  He warmed to the idea of me staying immediately.  The dog continued to bark, but immediately shut up and retreated into its little hut after an aggressive retort from him.  It seemed like a worn-out exchange between the two of them.


I collected my bike and he helped me carry all my bags to the upper level.  This led to the back of the building, past a couple of sodden looking canvas tents to a balcony and some other rooms, where, it turned out, a collection of maybe a dozen or more construction workers were huddled into two or three rooms.  I looked in on them and said a cheery hello, and they all responded with a friendly word or two before getting back to their game of poker, lighting up another cigarette or sinking back under their blankets to carry on dozing. 


My new friend Wang indicated a decaying heap of material in one corner of one of the dorm rooms.  I imagined at some point it might have been a bed.  He said I was welcome to sleep there.  I declined that particular offer and explained I really just needed a piece of floor as I had my own mattress. 


In the end we settled on sweeping clean a corner of the food store room and unfolding a metal bed frame, which I could put my air mattress on top of.  This served excellently as a bed and I was pretty happy about my situation for the night, even though the room was quite cold. 


Wang told me there was hot water to wash with and showed me where I could wash and put on some dry clothes.  This washing area was no more than a kind of outhouse shack, which was perfectly adequate, but for the fact that it doubled as the community urinal.  The smell meant one didn’t waste any time in getting clean and getting out of there, and I was soon sat down in the only heated room in the building (it seemed), having a broken chat with Wang while his workmates slapped down cards on a rickety table, seated on the bottom bunks of an 8-man dorm. 


Wang explained they were a road construction team shipped in from Sichuan province, mostly from the city of Chengdu, and they had been working on the bridge there for the past 4 weeks.  He reckoned they had two more weeks to go and they would then head back to Sichuan, before being sent on another construction project.  We talked a bit about the differences between England and China, and he wanted to know all about what sports people were interested in in the West.  I gathered he was an avid basketball fan.  He also took great delight in being the first to teach me the Chinese words for taking a piss and…..well, the other means of relief.  He thought this an amazing oversight in my attempts to learn Mandarin that I didn’t yet know this.  (I’ve since forgotten these phrases which would no doubt infuriate him and disappoint his professorial instincts.)


After I’d finished eating, a strong desire to lie down and sleep quickly overtook me, so the conversation was cut short and I wandered off to my bed – feeling to all purposes like a 21st century Snow White to this collection of Sichuanese dwarves.  Perhaps Little Red Cycling Top is a better analogy – but that would be to mix my metaphors. 


Whichever fits bestI was none the less grateful for their taking me in and giving me a roof for the night.


Indeed, I slept so well I must have dozed right through their rendition of “Hi Ho Hi Ho, it’s off to work we go”.  (Actually they didn’t have far to go.)  By the time I poked my head outside, diggers were manoeuvring about in the mud, and the card-players of the previous evening were dotted around the bridge in hard hats and day-glo waistcoats going about their various tasks. 


The weather had cleared a bit and the clouds were broken by large patches of blue sky.  So feeling ready for a big day, I packed all my stuff up, took a few moments to feed an entire packet of biscuits to the angry dog (and his two chums, who’d only appeared in the morning, having been put off their duty the previous evening, no doubt by the drizzle), said a farewell to Wang and one or two others and set out. 


The plan for the day was – I thought – unambitious in terms of distance.  There was a pass some 60km up the road that rose up to an altitude of 4,280m called the Shengli Daban.  I had no ambitions other than to get myself over that pass for the day and then come to a stop somewhere sensible on the other side. 


I thought this modest enough, given I had all day and pretty much all of that 60km was uphill, and the high altitude would make it that much harder physically.  But I was optimistic that I’d probably get over it by about 5 or 6pm and then have two or three hours to descend the other side to the nearest town or else camp. 


The cool morning steadily transformed into a glorious warm and sunny day.  The narrow gorge road of the previous evening only continued for another 5km or so, before opening out into the beginning of an attractive valley.  The road curled around one side of this, but not too steeply, and then went into a shallow descent into the little mountain town of Houxian.  I stopped here for a late breakfast, feeling fantastic and enjoying the change in scenery.  If I had expectations setting out from Urumqi, this was exactly what I had in mind. 


If a town in China could ever resemble a placid little Swiss village tucked away in some forgotten valley in the Alpes, then this was it. (Albeit with some kind of concrete factory puffing out smoke on the outskirts of the little town just to remind you where you actually were.)  But the road was lined with meadows, framed by wooden fencing, keeping in sleepy looking cows, shaking their heads and chasing away the flies as the heat in the day grew.  Old men with only a few teeth left in their heads, and their elbows poking through their threadbare suits leant on their shovels and pitchforks as they paused from shifting around piles of hay.  Their wives thrashed out pieces of clothing against washing boards as they chattered away to each other, apparently oblivious to the work they were doing. 


Even the road traffic seemed to mellow to the scene, as the passing trucks seemed more and more intermittent, their drivers happy to drop their speed, hanging their arms out the open window enjoying the sunshine on their bare skin. 


I climbed on my bike to begin this 50km ascent that lay before me, and drew in a deep breath of satisfaction at the pleasant scenes around me.   


The next 25km were wonderful and some of the most enjoyable riding I’ve done.  The sun shone warmly, the river tumbled passed on my right at the bottom of the gorge, and the road snapped this way and that, following the contours of the mountains that took me higher and higher. 


Again early in the day before the weather closed in

Sunlit road halfway up the climb to the Shengli Daban


As I stopped for lunch I had only 25km to go.  I had plenty of time left in the day, and felt like I had plenty of energy in my legs.  A wind began to pick up behind me, which added a chill to the air, so I ate my snacks behind the wind-shadow of a big rock by the river.  I didn’t notice a single vehicle pass me by in 45 minutes. 


....and the sun was shining - beautiful at this stage

Everything still looking good at this stage...


The wind was definitely cold by the time I got going again.  And round two or three more corners and I was starting to feel it in my legs.  The air was thinning and I was forced to take another break just 5km later.  At this point, the road kicked up and the wind seemed to swing round into a headwind.  A few trucks passed me at agonisingly slow speeds, themselves seeming to struggle as much as I was beginning to get up this hill.


The climb became too hot to wear a heavy top so I was just in a t-shirt, but it started to fleck with rain and then even sleet.  The effort was so much I didn’t really notice the cold.  Back in Urumqi I had weighed all my kit before I set out.  It had come to more than 50kg.  I began to severely regret having quite this much deadweight to carry. 


I thought I had at least some experience doing climbs like this having done some road racing climbs in the Pyrenees and Alpes.  But to give you some idea of comparison, Mount Blanc is 4,260m high – just 20m short of what I was intending to climb over that day on my bicycle.  So most of the cycling climbs I’d done previously in Europe were considerably lower and with a racing bike with no extra gear.  (I chewed over all this as I watched the speedo drop to 5kph.)


My next scheduled break was to be at 15km to go, and by this stage I was actually having trouble moving the bike forward up the hill at all.  Even in the lowest gear my legs seemed barely to have the strength to get over the top of the crank cycle.  This was not good.  The temperature dropped further and the road ramped up once more so that all my efforts were focused on getting just another 1km up the road, let alone another 15km. 


At 15km, my legs seized up in a way they hadn’t done before.  I dropped the bike by the side of the road, pulled out a tracksuit top and pulled it over my soaking wet t-shirt to shelter from the snow that had now started blowing about me.  I ducked off the road to the right and found a little gulley where I lay down to get out of the blowing wind.  I couldn’t believe how heavy my legs felt and how hard I was breathing.  I thought to myself this is not a good situation.  I don’t even think I can do these last 15km.  My body was so tired that all I wanted to do was go to sleep, which I almost began to do despite the horrible conditions.


As I lay there, I said to God: “OK – I really need a break here.  Either stop the snow, ease up the road, change the wind direction…..do something please!  Or I’m gonna get stuck on this mountain.”


So I got back on the bike hoping something would change.   For a few minutes it seemed just as agonising, but then I saw probably 1,500m up the road a collection of buildings and some parked trucks.  “There must be something there.  At least somewhere warm to rest for a little while.”  Perhaps this was the break I had asked for.


Slowly, slowly I drew up towards them, and finally I was there.  Close up, everything looked considerably more deserted than it had done from a distance.  The doors of the main building were shut up, and there wasn’t a soul about amongst the trucks and tents and other surrounding buildings. 


There was a car outside though and there were lights on inside so I tried the door again, this time banging loudly with my fist. 


I saw a shadow pass by the window and then the door opened to reveal a middle-aged Han man with an intelligent looking face wearing a bomber jacket and long underwear – but no trousers.  I thought this a little unusual. 


Although I wouldn’t have taken no for an answer I asked him politely if I could simply rest inside for a while as I was very cold and tired.  Without great enthusiasm, he did at least agree easily enough. 


He led me down the corridor and gestured at a leather sofa in the corner of one room, and almost immediately left me to return to his office next door.  The room was lovely and warm, and I didn’t need a second invitation to take up a spot on the sofa. 


Within about 5 minutes, I’d eaten all the food in my little rucksack that I carry on my back – including the sweets and toffees that have sat at the bottom uneaten for some weeks, and then fell into a deep sleep stretched out along the sofa.


I woke about an hour later.  I hadn’t intended to fall asleep at all – merely to lie down and rest my body, and I was quite surprised how long I’d slept.


It was now just before 7pm (Beijing Time).  This meant – as far as the sun was concerned – it was actually around 5pm (Xinjiang time).  So there were around another 3 hours of daylight left in the day.  I got up and went to speak to the man.  It turned out that this building was a Metrological Station and he was some kind of scientist, based up here taking readings of various kinds around the area.  He explained that actually it was only 9km to the pass at the top (I thought it was 12km), and he said the gradient was much easier than the last 15km or so up to that point. 


I reflected on the situation.  Although I’d rested, my legs felt pretty awful.  Still leaden and stiff.  But I was loathe to give up getting over that pass.  It was at this point that I think I made one of the few clearly wrong decisions of the entire journey. 


Instead of asking him if I could bed down in his nice warm sitting room, I stubbornly determined that I would not give up and that I would continue over the top.  It didn’t take much reflection to realise that even if I did get over the top, it was another 30km to the nearest town with nothing before that, but I figured I would deal with that problem when I came to it.


So off I went.  9km of switchback bends, and almost immediately the asphalt surface gave way to grit, lose stones and rubble.


Up to the station I’d had to break the road down into 5km chunks, then 3km, and then 2km.  For this section, I was straight away down to 1km at a time.   The tyres slewed around, and skidded, and bobbled me roughly over chunks of rock and awkward-shaped stones, which with the heavy deadweight and my empty legs often spewed me into the gutter, or made me veer dangerously towards the edge, which got steeper all the time.


Occasional cars and trucks slipped down the road from above, telling me it was 30km to the top, or 5km, or 12km.  None of them really knew.  One of them offered to run me to the top for 100RMB (£10) but I obstinately refused.  Another gave me some food and a bottle of water. 


It was snowing now properly and settling on the ground.  My body was getting cold again and every time I stopped to rest, I just had to square off my legs, and lean my upper body forward on the bar bag, turn my head to one side and just gasp for air.  Each time I could have stayed there for minutes on end but I allowed myself only to the count of 100 before I would try to move on again. 


The last 9km over the pass - becoming a bit of a nightmare!

Nearing the pass as oxygen and energy are in short supply


At 6km to go, I fantasized about how amazing it would feel to be at 3km to go.  Or even 2km.   Imagine.  Only 2,000m to the top. 


But really my brain functions were breaking down.  Reducing themselves to a single word. 


You may remember – either from the film or the book – in the Fellowship of the Ring, at one point Frodo and his pals are trying to climb over Mount Caradhras.  They get stuck in a snowstorm and have to turn back, apparently defeated by “a fell voice on the air” as Gandalf calls it – that of Saruman. 


This image kept coming back into my head, and I realised that here too there was just such a fell voice on the air. 


It was in fact my very own.  


I found myself repeatedly screaming out a word that really, as a Christian, I should have stopped using a long time ago.  As the wheels would slip from under me again, it was a very basic expression of rage, exasperation, despair, encouragement, and exhaustion – all that in one word.


Here I can relate to the prophet Isaiah who records:


Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips…”


Certainly that description could be extended to me.  There was no other thought in my head.  My legs were over.  I could barely imagine anything beyond my struggle against this slope.  At the same time as crying out this swearword again and again as my breath would allow, I was mentally saying “Father I am sorry, I just have to do this.” 


Silly man.


The time was ticking by.  It was getting darker.  With 2,000m to go, I was reduced to 500m stretches.  Then 300m.  Then I couldn’t even make it to 200m. 


Finally in a state of total mental liquidation, my little distance meter said I’d done 9,000m.   But where was the top?  As far as I could see – several hundred metres ahead – the road still climbed up. 


I swore  - just a little bit more – and carried on.  All the while, there was a huge temptation to turn around and let gravity carry me back to the Met Station, but two things stopped me:  1) What if the man didn’t stay up there but had already driven home? (I’d still be stuck in a snow storm at 3,500m); and 2) I was loathe to do this climb a second time in the morning. 


At 9,200m I couldn’t cycle anymore.  So I got off and pushed.  I still couldn’t see the top.


I did my best not to castigate the Met man for his estimation of 9km (in a car who cares about the odd 100m here or there?), and determined that if the top didn’t come within 500m I would turn around and go back down.


After pushing for 350m I finally saw the split in the rock – the cut that led through to the other side of the Shengli Daban.  I paused only to take a quick photo and then went through.


The top - looks so unassuming yet it was not pleasant conditions when I got there...

Here's the moment as I passed through the cut


It’s amazing how quickly spirits can turn around.  And as you’d imagine, mine lifted at an astronomical rate on passing through that little cut at 9.19pm that evening.  It wasn’t so much elation at getting over, as heaving a defeated sigh of relief that my torment was at an end.


On the other side, the weather was completely different.  There was no snow and far less wind.  But the light was dropping fast.  The cloud base was almost at the same level as me – as I now stood at 4,280m above sea level – and hung there eerily and still, framing the landscape that stretched out below.  A mountain wilderness of dull brown earth and dirty patches of snow spread out beneath me with no sign of human disturbance but for the paler brown ribbon that was the dirt-track road that wend its way down onto the valley floor, and off towards the south.


The view on the other side - a road, but not much else...

The view down the other side of Shengli Daban


I took off my t-shirt and put on a woolly hat and several layers of dry clothes and pulled on some gloves, whilst shoving as much food inside me as I could quickly manage.  I wanted to get going and get down to that valley floor at a reasonable altitude before it got dark.


The official height of the Shengli Daban pass - 4,280m

The very top of the pass - 4,280m - which is just 20m higher than the top of Mount Blanc, France


Just then two trucks joined me at the summit – one coming from each direction.  They stopped level with one another to chat and I squeezed through the gap between them to roll on downhill. 


This was no triumphant speedy descent as I’ve been lucky enough to have on other mountains.  The road surface was atrocious, my hands were completely numb and I was having to ride the brakes all the way to stop my speed building up too much.  To make things more difficult, the elastic straps that held on the clobber behind my seat were overstretched and the tent and sleeping bag were working themselves loose with all the vibration from the road.  My vision and mind were also a little blurry from the physical exhaustion at that altitude and I felt very light-headed.


The light was dropping fast now, and the temperature with it.  I was freezing cold and now at a point where I thought this might get at least very uncomfortable, and possibly dangerous.  Given how cold I was, I was worried I might lapse into hypothermia if I didn’t get warm and some decent food in me soon, neither of which did I see happening very easily with the few provisions I had with me, or in that surrounding landscape. 


So I drew up in the bend of a switchback (still someway from the bottom of the hill) and pulled my bike off the road.  Having finished his conversation at the summit, the truck behind me was negotiating the bends very slowly, and as I watched him come closer and closer his lights went on in the growing darkness.


Within a few minutes he was coming round the last bend to reach where I was standing, and I stuck out my arm and drew him to a stop.


A little man hopped out.  His expression hardly concealed the fact that he knew he would have to help this hapless foreigner, but that he really didn’t want to.  He had a longer and more pointed nose than most Han men, and he was balding with a slightly flattened forehead, and a quick nervous manner of movement, all of which came to remind me of some kind of rodent.  (For the benefit of the doubt, let’s say a nice friendly one).  He was driving a big blue truck with a load of large chunks of coal in the main bin, the tops of which you could see towering precariously above the cab. 


[I find it very ironic - and who knows, maybe even prophetic - that my salvation from this situation and my restoration to civilization should involve lumps of coal.  If you ever doubted that God has a sense of humour, just read Isaiah chapter 6.]


While the driver agreed quickly enough to give me a lift, I was trying to figure out where I could put my bike.  The coal was piled so high I didn’t think that was a good place, but when I started stripping down the bike and telling him we could fit it in the cab, he put his foot down and was adamant it was going on top.


Too tired to argue, I passed it up to him and he did some kind of jiggery-pokery on the top that I couldn’t see – giving the bike a good shake to make sure it was firmly lodged in amongst the lumps of coal. 


“Well, if the bike falls off, I can always find another one – or just fly home,” was my very apathetic thought.


We got all my other stuff in the cab, and set off at an unbelievably slow pace down the road.  I was still very cold and asked for more heat which he was reluctant to give me because (I gathered) it made the cab stuffy. 


Very quickly my head was lolling into a kind of fitful sleep.  Actually it was more like a series of bizarre and vivid hallucinations about angels, Oreo biscuits, and prep school, and endless Chinese hotel rooms, and beautiful women who hated me, and pot noodles, crowd of friends I had lost touch with, fairy tales, half-sinking rowing boats and that awful blowing wind in my ears.  All these crowded into my head at once like some nightmarish reworking of Sgt Pepper's album cover.  Then my eyes would briefly open to the monotonous framing of the pale dirt road in the headlamps, as my body juddered with the washboard rivulets that cut into its surface.


It was just weird.


I felt so awful that I actually started to wonder whether I would need a doctor wherever this man took me to, and I was trying to think that I had to hold onto my mind long enough to end up somewhere safe, preferably with all my stuff. 


I must have slept properly at some point because I awoke as we were drawing into a town.  The man stopped for some time outside some kind of tyre workshop (I think one of his tyres had gone though I couldn’t say for sure).  We sat there for some time.


I managed to dig out some more food and eat it, although I had little appetite by then.  That made me feel a bit better. 


When the driver got back in, I was now confident that I wasn’t slipping into a hypothermic coma!  In fact I had just needed a good sleep.  Phew!


So we got talking and it turned out – despite his initial protestations that he couldn’t understand a word I was saying – that he could be quite friendly. 


His name was Rao (I believe).  I’ve never heard this name for a Chinese person before, which is what gives me some doubt.  It’s pronounced in the same way as if you would do an impression of a very small and unintimidating tiger doing a little growl. 


He’d been driving up and down this road between Urumqi and Korla for years, and driving a truck for nearly 20.  5 years ago he’d managed to buy his truck from the company he drove for, and said now life was a lot better.  I asked him how much he earned in a month.  He said roughly 30,000RMB. 


He asked me what about me.  I said the last job I had was working as a lawyer in Hong Kong which in fact paid me almost exactly the same – since the Chinese Yuan and the Hong Kong dollar are roughly at parity.  There was no doubt which of the two of us in the cab felt more smug at that point.  (It’s good to know I’ve managed to monetise my wonderful education and first rate professional training so effectively.)


Be that as it may, Rao seemed to warm to me as we discussed his family and his original hometown of Chongqing and what he thought of Xinjiang (and various other short lived veins of inquiry that I could come up with).


With a decidedly different atmosphere in the cab by now, I drifted off to a far less fitful sleep and was woken again at the next town of Baluntai, where both he and I would stop for the night. 


We’d come about 60km off the mountain.  As we pulled off the main street into the courtyard of a little motel (which looks nothing like the motel you are probably imagining), I was feeling a bit more normal despite the fact that it was now 3 o’clock in the morning.  There’d been some talk between Rao and his friend who was ahead of us that foreigners are not allowed to stay in this motel. 


Sure enough, as we all tried to check in, everyone except me was processed very quickly and given a bed.  As the owners restated that foreigners couldn’t stay, I said I understood that, I quite agreed, I thought it was an excellent rule, but could they just please give me a 6 foot by 2 foot area of floor for 5 hours and I would be on my way. 


Nope.  Nothing doing.


Oh crap.  Alright.  Well, where do you expect me to go? 


Leaving this question hanging in the air, instead the owners summoned the local police, who, never ones to shirk a detail, were on parade within a few minutes.  One of them had remarkably good English.  It seemed that Rao – brave rescuer though he was – had deposited me in the only “closed” town in the region, apparently because it was the location of some kind of military base.


In measured tones, the police officer said he was very sorry but I couldn’t stay.  Without getting angry, I asked him as reasonably and politely as possible what difference it made if I just slept on the floor for a few hours and then left immediately in the morning.  I said I had absolutely no interest in his military base and promised I would do no peeking as I left in the morning. 


Chewing this over, he could see my point of view.  So he then shifted his position twice.  First saying OK, I could stay on the floor but I had to leave by 8am (in less than four hours’ time by then) at the latest. 


And then (perhaps at the prompting of the enterprising motel owners) relenting and saying in fact I could stay in a proper room.  So this I did, apparently paying three times more than anyone else in the motel because I had a room to myself in which there were three beds – so I must pay for all three.


At past 4 in the morning, this seemed fair to me - one gets used to Chinese commercial logic like this - so I staggered upstairs and lay my aching bones to rest for their precious few hours’ of sleep, without the slightest intention of keeping to my 8am curfew.


Was that all one day?


My goodness……..!

Comments (1)

Josh Thorp
Said this on 6-16-2011 At 03:56 am

What an amazing day. And yes, you really should have stopped saying that word a long time ago!

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