Urumqi is a strange place: strange because it is concurrently both very different and very not different from the rest of China.
Signs are in Uyghur, food choices are more diverse, military and police presence is ridiculously high, and there are more mosques than your average eastern town. But had we not psychically driven
ourselves from another part of Xinjiang into the city, it would be hard to tell that this is China’s final outpost in the west.
We stay in Urumqi for three days, and it’s not until the third day that I realize that Urumqi is essentially a segregated city. Of course this probably not done purposefully, but the division is surprisingly clear. Around the grand bazar and in southern parts of town, almost every face is Uyghur. Fish and lamb grill on outdoor barbeques and Mandarin is only spoken in patched together pantomimes. But in the area around the hostel we’re staying at (one of three approved by the government), almost the entire population is Han Chinese –who somehow still make up more than 75% of the population. Every now and then there is a veil or a beard in the crowd, but for the most part this looks no different than any other city west of Xi’an. A friend who’s biked here from Shanghai echoes these thoughts as we look up a place for dinner: “The only reason Chinese people care so much about good food,” he says as we page through restaurant listings, “is because every one of our cities looks the exact same. Without eating different local delicacies you’d have no idea that you’re in a new place”
In Urumqi, we spend a day tuning up our bikes and changing out broken parts for replacements we ordered online and had sent to a local shop. Jie puts on a new off-road back tire, brining much welcomed traction to the 250, and replaces all his lights –including the front lights and LEDs we had attached on the crash bars— all of which had managed to burn out systematically in a single week. I replace my LED lights too (which are now almost too bright) and re-adjust my clutch cable, which kept getting stuck. We take our final chance to send back things we’ve been carrying but don’t need (a full-size tripod, yak horns that I saved from Tibet, and extra clothes) and finally feel optimized for the roads ahead.
Riding through China for this long has been not only a joy, but also a blessing. It allowed us to work out the kinks in our trip and with our bikes in an environment where we are comfortable, know people, and actually speak the language. With Urumqi as our last place to do this, it suddenly became clear how unique and overwhelmingly welcoming the motorcycling community in China has been. Every shop we have been in, whether we have known them or not, has welcomed us like brothers. Every single one has refused any payment beyond the cost for parts. Every owner, mechanic, and onlooker has made us feel like we are never alone going on this trip. On the days that were rough, the waves and yells from people by the side of the road –monks in the mountains, farmers in their fields— and the enthusiastic crowds that gather literally every time we park the bikes in a public place, make it feel like everyone in China wants us to succeed. We are pushed by the wind of friendly words at stoplights and picked back up by unnamed strangers who I will never forget.
Back in Dengshi’s shop in Luding there is a poster that says “the motorcyclists of the world are one family” (天下摩友是一家)
In China I believe this through and through.
After realizing we may have more visa issues than we thought, we left Urumqi in a hurry, driving a full-day 635 km sprint to the border at Khorgos. From Urumqi, the desert slowly begins to fade into pale green grasslands in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountain range. This time of year is supposed to be western Xinjiang’s most beautiful, and although I haven’t seen it at any other time, I can wholeheartedly agree. It is absolutely spectacular. The sun finally begins to show some mercy, and we relish in a cruise through alternating brown and green mountains dotted with Kazak yurts and populated by the occasional camel (!). We stop briefly at Sayram lake as the sun begins to set; tourists and locals alike are setting up their tents on the edge of the water clouded in the smoke from the tail-end of afternoon barbeques. The landscape fluctuates between serene and surreal.
In Urumqi, we met a girl from this part of Xinjiang who told us she was a clairvoyant from a family of Shamans. She has been followed through different parts of China by people who she said are trying capture her because of her acute awareness of this world’s energies; she has escaped being surrounded in a hotel in Henan and hid out from a knife wielding assailant in the empty stone stove of a courtyard. We were planning on going with her to visit the temple that her grandfather built on the side of a mountain, but by the time we made it out to the area she told us government has blocked all access to it –apparently too many people were coming to pay their respects.
Sitting in the restaurant in Urumqi where she told us all of this, everything seemed a bit outlandish, or maybe exaggerated at the least. But suddenly, actually being in this place it doesn’t seem so farfetched. If there were to be some sort of magic, it would probably flow out of these hills.
By night we make it to a small town 40km from the border. The deep gorges and mountain vistas our last refuge of China’s unparalleled scenic diversity. Early the next we try to cross the border: less of an exit and more of an escape…