And again, the cold and the snow. A couple of mountain passes were waiting for us before the Chinese border and brought the taste of tiredeness and exhaustion to us, of extenuation even.
Once in China, we went down to the desert, that huge desert whose size will surely surprise you if you look it into a map. The Taklamakan left us missing the taste we had thought in it.
The usual haze on this time of the year wouldn´t let us see further than a kilometer away; everything was blurred with the dust carried by the winds. Winds that, in this season, came from the East, and therefore blew so hard on our foreheads, everyday, morning to evening, that sometimes seems to erase our thoughts.
Taking turns we patiently faced the great wear and tear the upwind causes when you are carrying saddlebags.
The fact chineses people are building a motorway on one side of the road made the surrounding landscape continously full of trucks, rollers, the sand and the dust they provoked and little more. Hundreds of kilometres were curiosly being build at the same time: every 30-40 kms all the setup was set up, everyone working, and after another 30 kms, the same scene. We had never seen anywhere this way of working: everything at a time.
– “Do you know how many people and machinery is needed to work that way?, you can´t figure it”- Aitor commented from his bike- “ but we´re in China, they have an excess of those two things”.
During hundreds of kms we´ve also seen how, on both sides, the soil, the sand or the clay were stirred, as when the land is being prepared to erect a building. In the 1600 kms we´ve travelled to Urumqui, it´s been only in a couple of hundreds (across the mountains) where we haven´t seen the soil stirred by excavators.
Along all these years of travels, we already crossed many other deserts, and we always found magic on them, that “something” you can almost cut but can´t see, those sunsets and sunrises that made us be grateful to be there, to be alive. This time,however, there wasn´t anything like that, and sometimes we wandered if that was what the trucks were carrying out from the desert…..they´re loaded of what? Magic, perhaps? Have they found the way to tear up the soul of the Earth, the essence? Will it be perhaps they had taken the red colours of the sunsets away?
Clay, dust, sand and sweat, mixed with the sunburned skin, turned us to people´s eyes into two wild strangers, covered in dust and dirt. The majority of people would come closer to talk, to ask,eveytime we stopped in the little villages´markets we don´t often have came upon.
We keep on learning Geography and History the way we like the most: on field, transmitted by the locals, and this one has turned to be a really interesting corner of the planet. The Xinjiang province seems to have been and it is still, one of the most disputed places on the map. It shares border with 8 countries and it gives home to almost 50 different etnies; so, China isn´t only one, and it isn´t full of chinese people, but it´s a gathering of different etnic groups, zones and countries with very distinctive cultures.
This area is inhabitated since ancestral times by the Uighur, people who have Turkish roots. Their language has nothing to do with Mandarin, neither their writing or caligraphy; they´re Muslims and since long ago this zone houses great tension between them and the “Han” chinese.
It´s been many fights and deaths that continue to happen nowadays in the zone but….history repeats itself. A place rich in oil and gas, taken by a bigger country and powerful, that places its tentacles over the area and devotes itself to absorve it. The locals revolt againts the usually repressing invasor and the fights and tensions begin…
The police control is quite hard, even for the foreigners, who are also tied to many rules and restrictions. It´s been very impressive to see the military groups laid at the school´s corner when children finish theri classes, o walking around on their shields and sticks; and seeing children training at school: they form as the soldiers do, making movements that remind you more of the rabbit from the batteries´ad that a gymnastics class; mechanical, all of them at the same time.
In China everything talks or sounds: calculators, reversing cars, traffic lights…another traveller told us he even heard a garbage truck loading while playing Christmas songs.
The desert, the trip and the nomad life make you taste every day, every moment the impermanence. One day is never the same to the next one, here or there, and for everyone, but living like this the impermanence shows itself more clear: today you´ll sleep on a bridge, tomorro on the dry clay, among dunes or on top of a hill. Ready to see what every day brings you and how to deal with it. Awake, ready, flexible to adapt and with a good sense of humour to face difficulties and the unexpected, which appear, as its name indicates, when less expected.
That is how it happened on the last 200 kms before arriving to Urumqui, where we came to extend our visa. We had only left the mountains to cross, which since that moment had raised like a wall on our left side; the map showed a 2300 m mountain pass and a motorway. All good until there.
We stopped at a little village to eat delicious momo´s (stuffed dough balls, steamed). After that, the asphalt disappeared and that was the first astonishing surprise for me. From that point the route kept upwards, they were 3 or 4 days of steady rise. We had already done the distance the map showed but the climb continued. Yaks ( cows from the heights) began to appear and it started to be colder.
The climb was hard, due to the ground and the weight of the bikes, but some things make you forget the hardness. An example? We had a magic moment at sunset, when we were deciding where to camp, in a rush, since the sun was almost gone and the cold was getting pretty serious. All of a sudden a horseman showed up, riding and shaking his whip, whirling it above his head and screaming at the same time: “Jiiiiiiiu, jiiiiiiiiiiiu, jiiiiiiiii iiiiiiiii”
All the yaks that were disperse on the plain began to run and gather on one side. The image of that man of dark skin and amond-shaped eyes, controlling the vast and strong horse like an extension of himself; his yelling and the sound of the whip echoing over the deep silence of the heights….all that was worth the tiredness and suffering we went through to get there.
To live that moment, to share a few words with him when he later approached to us and offered us his home, and his beautiful and white smile. Feeling greatly blessed and privileged, we saw how he rode away and descended the gorge towards the river surrounded by yaks.
Another two days had to go before topping the pass, where a real surprise awaited us…the sign didn´t say the expected over 2000 metres, but 4280m!!! We then understood the cold and the yaks, the last night snow and the light headache. And I, personally, freed myself from the worry that had invaded me over the last couple of days, worry about the passing time. Those days when the body wouldn´t respond and I had to rest on every bend. I wandered if I was too old and If I would be able to pass the hard test that Mongolia will be. But it wasn´t the age, but the height, that weighted on me and once again the descent began and everything went full swing, asphalt, descent, places to get supplies and so…we got to Urumqi. Huge city where at first, we felt lost, so small among so many lights and signs, cars and people, things and movement.
We already have our visa extended for another month and therefore, the needed time to aventure ourselves to the North, to visit the zone of the mounts “Altay”, that strech along the Russian border. That way, we kill time for the spring to come on these land, and for the frost, snow and cold to decide to go somewhere else.