Archive for July, 2009

Change of heart

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Posted by Dan
Kashgar, Xinjiang

We still hadn’t let go of the idea of cycling the Tibetan Highway, the G219 that leads through the heart of Tibet to sacred Mount Kailash and onto Lhasa, when we passed through customs and across the Chinese border into Xinjiang. I had folded and hidden our Tibet maps in my back pocket in case of a bag search. So much fear, intrepidation and drama had filled many of the travellers reports of journeys through China and particularly pathways that lead to Lhasa. We didn’t want our maps confiscated or entry blocked.

However, after a 3-hour wait in the scorching sun, border guards opened the gate, and with relative ease, slack and random swine-flu checks and a single pannier bag through the scan machine, we were processed as Aliens and entered ‘The People’s Republic of China’. Just whose ‘people’s republic’ is anyone’s guess! ‘Power to the people’ seems like a very alien concept here. It didn’t take us long to see this as the first example of Communist propoganda. This land does not belong to the people.

Initially, we were excited by the friendly Chinese people we met, and challenged by Chinese script and a hopeless chance of understanding anything said to us. But we soon discovered that Chinese wasn’t the only language spoken here. A variation of Turkish, spoken by the indigenous people of this land, the Uighurs, saved us from pointing and gesturing. Their traditional script is Arabic, which luckily Krista can read, helping us to decipher roadsigns.

Reaching this giant landmass, called China, feels like a huge accomplishment to us and means we’ve almost covered the distance we set out to attempt. But getting here is bitter-sweet. We see now that if we’d reached Kashgar 60 years earlier, we’d actually be in East Turkestan, the homeland of Muslim Uighars, and a very different place. For in 1949, the Chinese government expanded its borders and forcefully occupied Xinjiang, just as it did when it entered and began to decimate Buddhist Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

These occupied regions, rich in natural resources and ancient cultures, make up more than half of the landmass called The People’s Republic of China.

A beautiful but thought-provoking 250km ride from the border at Irkeshtam took us to Kashgar, the most westerly city of China.

In Kashgar, every morning, just after dawn, we hear a recorder version of “Happy Birthday” ringing out on the citywide PA system to celebrate 2009 being the 60th year of China as we know it. However, according to the faces of the indigenous Uighar population, we are very much in an occupied region under a Chinese government regime, and this is no celebration.

Unfortunately, the Uighars, who want for a quiet, content, peaceful life, practising Islam and tolerance, don’t have a figurehead and spokesperson like the Dalai Lama of Tibet. So when the Chinese government shut down all telecommunications and internet access in Xinjiang at the start of July, the Uighars voice was silenced.

A local man, calling himself Abdul (but probably disguising his real identity from us in fear of the Secret Police) told us that reports of the number of people killed by the military in the July demonstration in Urumqi, before communications were cut, could easily be five times greater. He explained the events that led to the demonstration, which sound very much like an effort to dilute the Uighar culture and population. The government took young Uighar men between the ages of 15 and 25 from their home and forcefully put them to work in a Chinese government toy factory thousands of kilometres away. In this factory, 80 Uighars suffered physical injuries from racial attacks and 2 were killed. As a result, Uighars demonstrated against Chinese government repression of their people, but killings and indiscriminate arrests by the military silenced their freedom of speech.

As we entered Kashgar, we were met by troops of heavily armed Chinese soldiers on street corners and military trucks circling the Uighar districts, day and night, in convoy. 19-year old soldiers, crammed into caged troop trucks wielding machine guns and riot shields naively and innocently waved to a sarcastic foreigner cycling behind. PA system messages blasted from the back of these trucks as they circled, leaving no moment of silence, propaganda of which locals told us they’ll never believe.

In the days we were in Kashgar, we saw huge troops occupying the shady spots in the main square under the trees outside the mosque where the pious old Muslim men have always sat. New recruits for the local branch of citizens’ police practice walking drills and aggressive chants, taking delivery of uniforms and huge wooden batons outside our hotel. We spotted snipers on the roof of buildings surrounding the bazaar.

A friend we made told us how the government are destroying the Old City and paying people out of their traditional mudbrick homes to replace with with ugly, faceless Chinese concrete appartments – actions that are very obviously erasing the presence and history of Uighar tradition and culture.

He doesn’t want to sell his home that has been passed on from generation to generation, but is worried that next year, his block will be demolished anyway and he’ll be left with nothing. So far, about 50% of the Old City in Kashgar has been destroyed.

We were left feeling sad and disturbed at seeing a very palpable example of racial genocide, cultural dilution, regime and oppression. The weight of our feelings could of course never be compared to that of the repression Uighar people are being forced to live with. Tibetans have been living under the same kind of conditions, but the international world is more aware of their plight due to the proactive and vocal Dalai Lama. He states clearly that the Tibetan people in Tibet are not free and are constantly living in fear. We feel that this is also true for the indigenous population living in Xinjiang.

For us, the journey we are on is not about politics or fighting the grain of a situation, yet we feel that, since we have the fortune of freedom of movement, we owe it to those who don’t, to remove ourselves from an area of the world that is controlled by such ‘bloody-bastard-guys’.

Passport in hand, Pakistan is the closest country we can enter without prior arrangement of a visa (at least we think so!). We’ll head south-west towards the Khunjerab Pass, past the Kongur-Muztagata and Sariqul mountain ranges through Tajik and Kyrgyz settlements.

Deciding to change our route and reach the Himalayas via Pakistan and India instead of via Lhasa has not been easy. But we have chosen to do this in opposition to the occupation of Xinjiang and Tibet by the Chinese government, who are imposing a fearful and oppressive regime over the Uighur and Tibetan indigenous people.

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Halfway round the world

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Kashgar, Xinjiang

Greetings from the road!

As we freewheeled down to the city of Kashgar, sun and dust in our eyes, haze in the air, second-largest sand shifting desert to our east, we felt elated to have made it this far. To me, reaching China symbolises having ridden halfway around the world – HOORAY for pedal power!

From Osh, Kyrgyzstan, we were joined by two cyclists, Ben and Sylvie, who’ve ridden all the way from France on recumbents.

The first 60kms of road was smooth as a runway. But then, as predicted, the roadworks began.

Smiling faces greeted us and we learnt our first few words of Chinese, yelling, “Nee-ha” (hello) to all the Chinese road builders as we bumped and clunked along. My forearms and hands ached from the vibrations and corrugations, my lungs stung from the dust of the trucks, but my heart sang with the mountains that surrounded us.

At the end of our second day, we were waved down by a young lad, Timur, who invited us to camp in his back garden. We stayed there for 3 days, swam in the mountain meltwater and visited the jailoos – the summer pastures – riding a donkey!

The families living in the yurts invited us in…

…and plied us with yoghurt, hard balls of cheese, green tea, fresh cream, nan bread and… fermented mare’s milk, a Kyrgyz specialty, known as kummuz.

Crossing the 3615m Taldyk Pass wasn’t half as difficult as I had imagined (I’d been creating a nightmare road based on what all the cyclists in Osh had described). As we climbed higher and higher, a cold flutter of snow greeted us.

Dan sped ahead, strong and sure, I was slower, having to stay in Granny Gear. This was not because of a steep incline, but because my gears were becoming more and more jammed. Ben and Sylvie had a near collision with a speeding truck, which hadn’t judged the angle of the hairpin bend.

The air was thin at the top, and I was breathless but happy.

And when I looked back at where we had come from, I was quite impressed.

The village of Sary Tash was horrible and we fought with the local kids who were throwing stones at us and trying to catch hold of our bikes. But to counterbalance this was the stunning view. And we followed this mountain range all the way to China…

The road deteriorated quite a lot more, but we didn’t care, we just loved being amongst all these beautiful mountains …

And 250kms later, we were in China, where the stinking floppy-humped camels, the wind-sculpted rocks and the mud-brick Uighur settlements kept us constantly surprised.

Towards Xinjiang

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Osh, Kyrgyzstan

China has seemed so elusive, so far away for so long, and yet now its snow-capped peaks are beckoning us, inviting us, challenging us. These grand mountains bring tears to my eyes – their presence and strength remind me of my own eternal nature.

From Osh, a road winds its way into the Alay Mountain range. We’re gonna follow it for some 250 kilometres, crossing three high passes, to reach Irkeshtam, the border with China.

I’m a bit nervous cos we’ve met a stack of other cyclists here who’ve reported that this particular road is the worst they’ve ever ridden. Its whole length is currently under construction, and by all accounts, apart from the first smooth and tarmacked 60kms, it’s rubble, mud, diggers, sand and gravel all the way to China.

I hope my bike will last until we reach Kashgar. It’s creaking and groaning from within the front hub and the gears have some unsolved problems that elude even Dan. And neither of us know how we’ll deal with the altitude yet – the Taldyk Pass is at 3615 metres – and is the highest we’ve been on bikes.

But, one pedal at a time, and I’m sure we’ll get there.

Rainforest Rescue update

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Posted by Krista

Our trip is to raise funds for Rainforest Rescue, an environmental organisation working to protect rainforests of the world. Here is an update on their progress…


Good news! Since January of this year Rainforest Rescue has planted 10,000 trees on previously cleared land inside the Daintree National Park in far-north Queensland.


Also, on 13 May 2009, Rainforest Rescue purchased Lot 29 Cape Tribulation Road in the Daintree! This is the 11th property in Rainforest Rescue’s Daintree Buy Back and Protect Forever Project – identifying and purchasing precious rainforest at risk of development and establishing Nature Refuge status, which protects it forever under covenants ratified by the Queensland Parliament in Australia.

Owning this 11th property not only means that the unique rainforest flora here, including the impressive fan palms are safe, but rare and endangered species like the Bennett’s tree kangaroo and cassowaries now have a vital corridor through the rural residential subdivision from the Daintree National Park on its northern side to two declared Nature Reserves in the south. This is particularly important in this area, as residential development fragments essential cassowary habitat through clearing and the introduction of weeds and dogs.

Unlike the properties to the south of the adjoining road, which are in wet lowland areas, Lot 29 runs up the side of the foothills of the Daintree National Park, offering a significantly different ecosystem especially worthy of conservation.

The vegetation type here is described as notophyll to mesophyll vine forest with significant numbers of fan palms on the slopes with the main emergent being the swamp mahogany — host to the rare redeye butterfly and bottlebrush orchids. The biodiversity values of this ecosystem type are described as being ‘very species rich’.

As a dedicated Nature Refuge, no development is possible at all now on this property; no dogs, no traffic, no clearing, nothing. Just nature doing what it does best (under the watchful eye of biologist and Conservation Manager David Cook). You can visit this and other properties we have secured on a self guided tour, Rainforest Rescue can give you directions any time.

Your continued support is vital in keeping up the momentum on this project. Please help secure even more of the Daintree by making a donation to Rainforest Rescue.

Click here to donate, thank you! xxx

Onward from Osh

Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Posted by Krista
Osh, Kyrgyzstan

Osh is situated at a major travellers crossroads – if you go south-east you reach China via the Irkesham Pass, south will take you to the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, go north and you will reach Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek and just a few kms away to the north-west is the border with Uzbekistan. All very nice cycling territory! And it’s here that we’ve met NINE other cyclists! Yee ha!

Together with our new two-wheeled friends, we’ve been discussing routes and plans and ideas for the way ahead. It’s becoming more and more apparent to us that the original route we wanted to take – along the high altitude Tibetan Highway to Lhasa – is virtually impossible this year.

Travellers and cyclists reaching Osh from China have reported that the Chinese authorities have clamped down EVEN more strongly on independent travel through this region since the Olympics. And for the past couple of months, travellers have been forbidden to enter Lhasa without an official guide.

So we’re reconsidering our route and here are the possibilities.