We awoke a little after noon, and went forth to investigate the bikes that were offered for our rental by the hostel. At first glance they looked nice, with large frames, high seats, and even had gears. After we had ponied up our $1.20 each, we found the story to be sadly different. So the next hour was spent doing repairs: inflating tires, adjusting seats, bending breaks back into relative alignment, and lugging the massive things down a couple flights of stairs to the street. These cycles were on their last legs to be sure, but operational. They had no bell, but with proper abuse, they would at least stop on command.
Our first way point was the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, where we were to perform a money transfer to the Tianjin Ferry company in order to pay for our tickets to South Korea. This proved to be a breeze, with the help of a security guard at the bank.
We had a quick but delightful breakfast at a Kazakh restaurant underneath the hostel. It consisted of oily hand pulled noodles and a couple of kabobs. And very good tea. Little did I know, we were entering a land which took tea to a whole new level.
We then had a little less than an hour to kill before a Mr. Benjamin Li, Field Agent for Oracle, China North Technology Sales Mid-Market Division, and Official AsiaWheeling Western China Rail Coordinator, was to arrive with our train tickets on into Kashgar and over to Dunhuang. With plans to wheel somewhere for a cool drink, we ran into a fellow who was inquiring at the front desk of the hostel as to how to establish the estimated duration of his case with the Urumqi police. Intrigued as to the nature of this, I sat down next to the fellow in the hostel lobby/bar for the story.
It turned out he had, at a local drinking house, encountered two very well dressed African gentleman purporting themselves to be Nigerian diamond and textile traders. After some conversation, he was convinced to enter into an agreement to invest some 27,000 American dollars in a Chinese textiles and diamonds venture. Needless to say, the fellows split with the cash, and our unfortunate friend headed straight for the police.
According to our hostel-mate, immediately, all boarders to Xinjiang province we closed. And a call was sent out to all cab drivers (god I love those guys). In no time a cabby had identified the perpetrators as a couple of fares he had just dropped at the train station, headed for Turpan. And it was there that they were apprehended.
Now they waited in custody, facing a 20 year sentence. Had there been any violence involved, they would have been facing the death penalty. Heavy. Not an easy place to be a criminal, this country. But as we were to find later, there was still plenty of crime here.
Benjamin Li arrived as we were finishing our commiserations. He was dressed in an Oricle zip-up shirt and had a relaxed and friendly way about him. He produced our tickets, and communicated efficiently and prolifically with us, despite a limited vocabulary. As he left we thanked the stars that we had such a capable and dependable team backing us on this journey.
Now it was almost 4pm and we had still not yet wheeled. So we jumped on the bikes and headed for the international bazaar. Urumqi, unlike all other Chinese cites we have visited so far, is decidedly not a wheeling city. Perhaps we should have seen clues in the disheveled state of our bikes (but then again Agra was a wheeling city… and the bikes there were worse than the any I have ever ridden in my life. It was also one of the most impoverished and scuzzy cities I have every visited too). Back in China, we found there are no bike lanes in Urumqi. They had been forgone in favor of Bus lanes. And as we rode, we were constantly battle for space with buses and the giant Buick sedans and SUVs which are popular in that city.
Despite the hectic nature of the wheel, Urumqi was fascinating. We saw Cyrillic characters everywhere. And many signs were written in Uighur, Mandarin, and Russian (but unlike the rest of China, no English). We battled our way forth, through the dense but accommodating flow and stopped at a crumbling housing development for directions to the giant international Bazaar.
The fellows there both stressed to us that we must hang onto our wallets, and that there were many thieves at the Bazar.
Part way there Scott’s pedal disintegrated and we strapped it to the back of his bike, leaving him to ride his shoe on the raw metal pin. We called a waypoint at a hardware shop where I set about trying to tape the pedal back into place. As I was struggling with this, a fellow came up to us from the street squatted next to me. With a few words yelled in to the woman running the hardware stall, she appeared with some wire. Oh course! How long had I been away from Iowa? Long enough to forget that you can fix anything with wire. So you, dear reader, will no doubt be nonplussed to hear then in no time we had repaired the pedal. He asked for nothing in return but our phone number, and a cigarette’s worth of conversation. Then he too stressed to us that we must protect the contents of our pockets while at the Bazar.
When we arrived, we found ourselves on a street which blended into a sidewalk so packed with people that we had to dismount. Twice I caught people pawing at my pockets and the pouch which held my camera attached to my belt. Once again the old Russian nostalgia glands started up. As we walked into a more open space, I caught site of a scrawny, perhaps 35 year old fellow in a 50% unbuttoned white shirt and ill fitting khakis whip out a giant and gnarled pair of tweezers. This rapscallion then deftly plunged them into another fellow’s pocket. Alarmed, I called out to the victim “hey! hey man!” The fellow getting picked, perked up and the scraggly chap pulled out the tweezers, thankfully empty. He then locked eyes with me and brandished the implements as though to run me through. My blood ran cold.
“Time to wheel!” I called to Scott and mounted my bike. Whipping out in front of a bus, and plunging over a curb. My steed moaned and squawked under my demands. Scott scuttled to follow, producing similar distressing vibrations. As we went over the curb, Scott’s water bottle sprung loose from the flimsy and ancient springs which held it to the back of his bike. In no time, some gentleman from the crowd had grabbed it as it rolled by and tossed, arcing 20 feet through the air to Scott, where he grabbed it from the sky. Then we were wheeling hard. Some blocks up we dismounted to catch our breath. We locked the bikes to a fence and prepped for entry to the Bazaar.
I taped my Camera bag closed with some of the bike repair tape, and transferred all my valuables to the button-able pockets of my shirt. In we went.
The market, was, like all we had seen in China, the same stuff over and over again. But this stuff was quite obviously intended for a different audience. There were many more lacquered handcrafts, looking more Russian than Chinese, dinky little ornamental instruments, furs, knives, dried fruits and nuts, and stand after stand selling çong nan. Nan is a semi-holy flatbread that is a very popular and, according to Scott, savagely delicious. It was, I was told, a special favorite of Scott’s. In fact, he had been raving about this and Uighur food in general for the whole first half the the trip. So I was all to ready to plunge into dinner.
Scott purchased a half kilo of wicked tasty dried melon pieces, but other than that, we found that most of this stuff came from Kashgar anyway, and since that was our next, and most prolonged destination, we held off further purchasing.
Then we were rolling again. We wheeled until our bikes groaned and wheezed with a new level of intensity and it became clear they might not make it back to the hostel. So we called it quits. We stopped at a very local joint not far from the hostel for some beer in metal bowls, and worked on our correspondence with you, dear reader, for a short while. Then we realized we were starving. We hopped in a cab (once again I am so very impressed by the Chinese cab drivers) and Scott most expertly asked him for the best Uighur restaurant he knew of that was not too expensive and not too cheap. Immediately, our man got on the horn, and began a furious exchange with central command, isolating the exact restaurant which would best meet our needs. A short drive, and many subsequent radio relays later, we were there. And man oh man were we not disappointed.
It was some of the tastiest food, hands down, that I have eaten in my life. The restaurant was full of these eastern European looking Uighurs. And our presence as westerners in this very local joint was quite an event. A giant crowd, consisting of the majority of the waitstaff and some of the kitchen, assembled around our table to take our order. The leader of this gang was Mohamed, a smiling Uighur fellow (originally from Kashgar) who spoke quite good English and helped us to order. We tried to order a variety of things, and finding we had chosen too much, then tried to cancel some. The ordering worked just fine. The canceling was unsuccessful. So dish after dish arrived. And, with no other choice, we just laid in.
We walked out, bulging at the seems, and noodled around the neighborhood for a while, taking in the Uiger vibe, and enjoying the cool desert night, and digesting like mad.
It was quite a day. Urumqi is a hard town, not conducive to wheeling, and reasonably stressful to traverse on foot. Regardless, our time here was well spent. And this metropolis in the middle of the desert will, I haven no doubt, prove the perfect primer for our eminent landing in Kashgar.