Sunday, May 18, 2008

Xian - Urumqi

In Xian I decided to try the same trick with the bike as from Shenzhen-Xian and arrived an hour early at the station, but this time didn't look for a luggage section. They weren't quite so amused. I put my bags through the scanners and then waited around while nervous station guards, yelling mostly at one another, tried to work out what to do with me. Nothing much happened for 10 minutes. Eventually a girl came back with a dictionary and pointed to the word 'luggage'. I said, 'Yes, and....?' She looked stressed and went away. I spotted the waiting area for my train. Encouraged by some naughty, smiling Chinese passengers, who checked that she had gone for me, I moved in that direction. Traffic was flowing well so I just walked straight through onto the platform; the ticket checker was only mildly interested. I had found my carriage by the time they found me again. Soon a very angry little man (more senior railway official?) appeared and started screaming at me. Other people were making signs 'fold it in half' (or 'break it in half'?) I took all my panniers off the bike. He was still furious so the only resort I had left was to take off the wheels and put the seat down - demonstrating, I hoped, my genuine desire to make the bike as small as possible. In a further attempt at cooperation I pointed at the spot I had stashed my bike on the last trip - but this wasn't well received. By this time about 7 officials were standing around me. A brief detente. I took the chance to give my ticket to the carriage guard and put my bags on the train. She didn't mind that. So I tried the wheels. That seemed to be OK, too. I got off again.

5 minutes before scheduled departure, and I was still waiting on the platform with the frame of my bike, nothing was happening, and I was getting a bit anxious. So I started making motions of putting the frame on the train, and pointing at my watch, and speaking more emphatically. No, no, no. At last a railway girl came who spoke some English. She was very sympathetic and as soon as she arrived (2-3 min before departure) my frame was suddenly allowed on the train. Phew. We went in together and went scouting for storage spots. Eventually I stashed it under a hard sleeper seat (no passengers there yet) and was able to get it almost out of view. When the passengers did get on they didn't mind at all.

I can't say I'd recommend this to anybody else - though on the other hand I got to stash the bike myself and got it from Hong Kong to Urumqi by train (4500km?) undamaged....

The train trips themselves were great and getting tickets not a hassle at all.
Decent restaurant wagon, two minute noodles and Chinese beer.
Xian-Urumqi took about 34 hours, mostly barren rocky plains and occasional rugged outcrops, over a plateau 1800m high in places, though Urumqi is at about 900m.
There were occasional very Chinese cities en route, but I didn't see any agriculture or stock.
The main activity outside was sand/rock mining.

Arrived in Urumqi at 7.30 this morning- a cool, pleasant and friendly city. Turkic letters are over Chinese characters on street signs, lots of missplent (misspelt) Russian language signs - 'supermarket', 'Export affairs base' and the like. I rolled down into town between the high rises to watch the Sunday market setting up, with lots of bananas, fresh greens, a pinkish-red fruit which looks like a small oval pomegranate, and fresh giant pancakes with chives, yum. In the park I saw a man goosestepping John Cleese style (for exercise, I think?) Now some boys seem to be opening a computer shop and are letting me use their laptop as they put up decorations around me! I'm working on the new front counter!

The plan now is to head over to Kazakhstan, probably SW then WNW to Yining- as much as I'd like to have a look at northern Xinjiang it's out of my way (a 1500km detour!)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Hong Kong - Xian

Some of the delights of Hong Kong which Chyn introduced me to were:
-all kinds of local food from outside noodle store to local yum cha (pork knuckles???) to Hainanese coffee shop with egg tart smuggled in (no, Chyn asked for permission)

-high class Scotch whiskey drinking at the Mandarin Oriental, with a special long leather cushion on the bar to lean on, then cruising around most of the local clubs
-dragon boat racing with other ex pats - you even get to race the second time you do it!
-public holiday junk ride out to one of the outer islands, then a swim to shore amidst debris to play volleyball
-as a send off meal, Indian at the 'Khyber Pass Mess Hall' (great name) in the unspeakably decrepit (on the outside at least) Chungking Mansions, a high rise from the early 60's.

Amidst all this I got my Kazakh visa (no hassles, 20USD) and a train ticket from Shenzhen to Xian (soft sleeper 770RMB). I had to be at Shenzhen by 8am.

The next question was: how to get from Hong Kong Island across to Kowloon at 6.30am? No ferries at that time. Bikes prohibited in metro. Road tunnel - bikes no doubt banned, and for good reason.

At the metro there was a man in his little box. I showed him my bike. He said, 'no, no, no' emphatically. I just shrugged my shoulders and said, 'Well, I have to take it over.' He thought for a little bit and said, 'Hmm, OK, you take it down in the lift.' Suits me!

Over the border in Shenzhen the luggage check in building was closed. So I had to take my whole bike through security. Luckily they didn't want to xray it, they were too busy giggling! They were thorough enough to xray my water bottles, though...
When I got down to the platform a senior railway guard tried the 'no, no, no' thing on me again. Again I just shrugged my shoulders and started taking my bags off the bike. (see photo of despondent guard being counselled by colleague.)
Eventually he took me up to one of the spots between wagons and got me to jam my
bike in there. I was pretty happy with that, considering I got to pack it myself! And no charge.

The trip to Xian was cruisy with the same old communication frustrations. It seems 18 year old students still speak appalling English even if they study it. There were plenty of rugged rolling hills and rural scenery with the odd belching concrete factory and a uniform haze. My train companions were busy playing with Chinese iphones, and if they wanted to listen to a song, they used them like transistors - why bother with headphones?

Here in Xian the internet drops in and out a bit but you can get the ABC and BBC websites, not that they are very critical. Particular links make the connection drop out - you can guess which.
I got my next ticket to Urumqi tomorrow (490RMB) easily, at the main station.

I can't see any evidence at all of the earthquake here. The word is that 4 people died in Xian when things fell on them.

View from the train en route to Xian.

Friday, May 9, 2008

In Hong Kong

Flew into HK yesterday and am staying with the most hospitable Chyn in her shoebox which now accommodates not only my bike (see pix of magic transformation) but also my large self!

Plan is to get a Kazakh visa here, then by train to Urumqi in northwestern China, then over into Kazakhstan on the bike.

Rolled down to the consulate today and was greeted in the traditional Central Asian fashion:
the consulate is closed because it's Victory Day (Soviet Victory in WWII) - a public holiday in Kazakhstan, though NOT in HK. Of course on Monday, which IS a HK public holiday, the consulate is open! The Kazakh woman who answered the door said, 'Why do you want to go THERE, anyway?' Must work for the Kazakh tourism board.