Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Leaving Urumqi - no. 2

I rested up with Karsten in Urumqi for a day before heading off across the plains towards Kazakhstan. Considering the rapidly rising pre Olympic anxiety levels amongst Chinese officials it seemed the only viable route. Tibet and much of Xinjiang were completely off limits. Travel for local Uyghurs and Tibetans was also very restricted, though not for Chinese, according to Karsten, who had come overland from Kashgar and tried to head into Tibet.

So we hung out in Urumqi, chewed the fat, and compared bike touring notes for a day. Urumqi comes across as a modern Chinese city, clean, pleasant and not very Central Asian at all. Bland.

At a bar we found some Pakistani boys and girls, and even two Sudanese girls, who were studying medicine in Urumqi - in English. Bizarre.

The next day after a big feed I got out of town fast on the freeway - plenty of room, minimal broken glass/crap, and despite all the 'no bikes' signs I had absolutely no problems from either trucks or police. I rode straight past toll stations. The country was soon pretty agicultural, and traffic minimal. I pushed on to Manas. It was dark when I arrived, but my dynamo lights work a treat, so that was fine. As I rolled down the freeway exit a huge hulk loomed up in the dark, completely unlit. It was a semi trailer fully laden with logs, obviously avoiding the toll station on the on ramp.

For the next few days I stayed in little hotels and rode about 130-150km/day. The country became more and more arid. Around Kuytun there was massive development, with at least 3 new (coal fired?) power stations being built, and several oil refineries. I didn't quite see a new power station being built every day I was there... but I was close at times.

On the outskirts there were about 5 massive petrol stations, amongst the biggest I've ever seen, which were rusting and dust covered. Perhaps because the Chinese have decided to scale back petroleum use?? I think not.

There were also occasional massive placards spread across this vast landscape depicting some kind of glorious future, mostly involving pictures of upmarket urban apartment blocks and freeways.

Beyond Kuytun I stayed in Usu, a prosperous Chinese mini city. Further up the road, settlements were few and far between. There were no roads visible apart from the freeway, at best dusty tracks. A new pipeline was being built - for oil? Or water? I headed into a huge headwind very gradually up a long pass to a beautiful lake, Sayram, at 2076m alt. At this point the freeway abruptly ended and all hell broke loose. The next 150km, right up to the Chinese border, were an almost uninterrupted building site. Around the lake, at least, there weren't any cities. But as I descended from the far shore of the lake the building activity was extraordinary. It seemed to me that a relatively unspoilt, extraordinarily beautiful valley was being shredded to build a 4 lane (or more?) freeway. The only vaguely funny thing about the whole spectacle were the herds of goats that periodically got in the way of activities.

The freeway that was finished (from Urumqi to Lake Sayran) was completely underutilised and must be aimed at projected massive growth in road traffic. Or maybe it's so that they can get the tanks into Kazakhstan more quickly.

The border town was a bustling mini-Shenzhen with huge shopping centres and stacks of building activity, hordes of Chinese and Uighur, and sparse gangs of Kazakhs meandering around. Funnily enough, I got here without being stopped by police once, not even friendly, inquisitive ones!

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