China, October 2016
We were definitely not prepared for this part of our journey, hitchhiking the national highway G216 through the Tian Shan Mountains from Urumqi to Korla in Xinjiang, but luckily we could depend on the incredible hospitality of the people we met along the way. We shared an Uyghur style breakfast on our last day in Urumqi with Merzhat, after which we said our goodbyes to him, Alim and Frank, who were off to the mosque for their Friday prayers. We stocked up and stuffed one last meal into our stomachs, before we headed out to the main road going southwest. Hitching our way out of Urumqi went relatively smooth and after a few shorter rides we found our way into the car of Yuko and Winshan, a soon to be married couple who were traveling through Xinjiang for their pre-wedding photo shoot. They wanted to check out a scenic spot up in the mountains of Nan Shan and invited us to tag along and to drop us off at the road again on their way back.
The meadows turned white with snow as we climbed higher and higher, and with the sun starting to set and the temperature starting to drop, we figured we might not be prepared for this kind of weather. Luckily, we found a tourist camp with yurts and Yuko managed to wind the manager around her finger, shivering frantically while pointing to the snow outside and then pointing in heart wrenched compassion at us. No need for mandarin to understand what she was saying, her body language did all the talking! Yuko managed to negotiate us a good price to spend the night inside one of the heated yurts, saving us from a night in our tent in the freezing cold. After sharing a wonderful Chinese style dinner, Yuko and Winshan drove back to Urmumqi and we cuddled up in our sleeping bags underneath a big pile of five or six blankets. We had our coal oven burning all night and it was still cold… definitely a good idea to nót spend the night in our tent!
We went for a nice hike the next morning, enjoying our winter fun, building snowmen in the warm winter sun. Though we had to get a move on, to be able to make it down far enough to not freeze our butts off in our tent that night. We hopped from one car to the other, until we got to the tiny little village of Ulanbherk Bekint. It was already starting to get chilly, when a small beat up red car stopped for us with the friendly Gabli inside, inviting us for dinner in his home. We thanked him for his very kind gesture, but told him we had to decline as we needed the time to get further down to find a spot to camp. Gabli then promptly invited us to spend the night at his place, which was an offer we couldn’t refuse. Gabli had the loveliest little house, where he lives with his wife Galiba, his 10-year-old son Xiashan and their baby boy Noahjason. Gabli has a Kazakh-Kyrgyz family background and their living- and bedroom was beautifully decorated with carpets that Galiba had woven in Kazakh and Kyrgyz style patterns. With the coal oven burning hot, we cozily leaned back, sipping on our milk tea, while the little Noahjason was racing around the room, plunging himself into the stacks of pillows with his buttocks peeking out of the hole in his Chinese style cut-open pants. Xiashan had learned a few phrases of English in school, but mostly we were trying to communicate with our hands and feet and the translator app on our phone. We shared a wonderful meal of cooked dough and goat meat, which reminded us of the food we had with Sertay and Alma in Kazakhstan on our way to Pavlodar. With our stomachs full and our bodies warm, we quickly fell sound asleep. We said our goodbyes the following morning and made our way back down to the road with our hearts filled with gratitude.
Our first ride brought us out into what seemed to be some kind of a half-abandoned strip of mining infrastructure with empty workers’ houses, decorated with nothing more than a big grey star on the facade. Without much of a better plan, we decided to simply start walking, wondering if any cars would be driving down this way at all (we only later learned that a new highway was built around the Tian Shan mountains to connect Urumqi and Korla, putting the unpaved G216 across the mountain range mostly out of use). So when we finally heard one approaching, we enthusiastically jumped up and down, waving our arms, to try and convince the drivers to take us with. It probably did the trick, because the guys hesitantly slowed down and finally stopped a rather lengthy distance behind us. We ran up to the jeep as fast as we could and sank with relief into the back seats, watching the beautifully mountainous scenery unfold itself as we raced across its narrow winding roads, hugging the deep cut-out valley of the Urumqi river. We started to climb higher and higher, up to an altitude of 4200 meter, while our driver kept a sturdy pace across the snow and ice covered roads, giving us some rather uncomfortable moments peeking down into the unprotected steep rocky gorges, with the occasional slipped-off car or truck laying a few hundred meters down below. Then, with the decreasing altitude, our heart rates went down as well and our drivers dropped us off safely in Hejing. From here it was just another short ride into Korla, but as soon as we had found a car, the police came in between and pulled us aside. They wanted to see our papers, and we figured we might be in for some trouble. Luckily they were only after a selfie 🙂
After we stocked up on groceries in Korla, we headed out again to find a spot to camp. We settled for the only “quiet” spot we could find in an industrious area, where we waited until it was dark to pitch our tent behind some heavy machinery. Linda woke up with a fever the next morning, which made us decide to sick it out in (what once was) a fancy 4-star hotel in Korla for a few days. It wasn’t exactly a place that fit in our budget, but it was our only option and a comfy change of pace from our usual lodgings. Korla doesn’t boast too many attractions, though we greatly enjoyed the city square where we could sit and watch (mostly elderly) people come together to dance. Other than that, we took our time to rest and recollect some of our thoughts from our eventful time in Xinjiang.
After a few nights Linda was feeling better, but not yet fit enough to hitchhike, so we decided to take the overnight train to Kashgar. Unfortunately, the train was delayed and no one knew how long it would take for the train to arrive, but the staff assured us they would warn us in time, so we decided to roll out our sleeping mats in the waiting area, put in some earplugs and crawled into our sleeping bags. About 15 hours later than scheduled, we were on our way to Kashgar.
Kashgar’s city center is completely refurbished, which gives it a mixed vibe of old and new. The oldest teahouse in town still hosted a large audience of elderly men, sharing stories over a pot of tea, while some of the newer shops were decorated with signs that showed some rather creative English translations. You’ll find some of our favorites in the pictures below. Wandering around the bazaar was a lot of fun and we managed to score some souvenirs to send back home. With our packages underway to Europe, we set out on our next adventure down the Karakorum Highway into Pakistan…