From KL to Porto – The Great Wall of China, West through Xinjiang to Kazakhstan

And here I am again, walking on the motorway to Zhengzhou toll, middle of China. I want to find a ride to Beijing. Police ignores me, I see some locals following my steps. A car stops and Liu gives me a lift to the service station. I am starving. A restaurant at the station is serving dumplings. The menu is in Chinese. I followed my couchsurfing host`s advice and installed Youdao program for translation. I take a picture of the menu and the program translates writing to English. Dumplings are lovely.

Chinese dumplings at service station

Tip 012 Youdao Translate

A program for translation. You can type text, record audio or take a picture. I found it a lot more accurate than Google translation. Additionally you do not require VPN to use it, Google is partially blocked in China. There is a number of languages available. It does require internet connection. Youdao helped me a lot in a variety of situations. I could create a hitchhiking letter in seconds.

Hitchhiking to Beijing

My next ride is going straight to Beijing. A group of three men squeeze me into their car. Once in the city, I take underground and bus to see Silvia. My host in capital of China has colleagues and friends visiting her place. We share watermelon and go for a walk. The bridge close to her place is nicely lighten.

Sylvia is busy with work and has plans for the evening. I decide to sightsee city centre. The Forbidden City, a palace of Chinese emperors is a popular attraction. The day is very hot and many people carry umbrellas. I walk through Tiananmen Square in front of Chairman Mao Memorial Hall.

Tiananmen Square in Beijing

The Gate of Heavenly Peace is a huge entrance to The Forbidden City. I purchase a ticket and enter the square populated by buildings from 15th century.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace
The Forbidden City

It’s impressive, beautiful and hot. I drink water constantly. I do not know lot about the history of this place. I concentrate on architecture and survival.

My highlights are Imperial Garden and The Imperial Treasures & Gifts Museum.

Imperial Garden
A part of Nine-Dragon Wall

Next is Beihai Park nearby. A quiet place with the Zhonghai Lake in the centre and temples on the shore.

Zhonghai Lake in Beihei Park

I fancy company. I contact Gosia and together we sightsee the snack street. It’s busy and lively in the evening. The Peking duck we buy is not very good, but Gosia is fun to be around. We buy some drinks and enjoy the walk.

Beijing city centre

It is the day I’ve been waiting for a while. With the help of local buses and hitchhiking, I arrive to Gubeikou. It’s not very popular place, which surprises me a bit. The Great Wall of China in this area is wild, beautiful, quiet and free to access.

Gubeikou, The Great Wall of China

I found a way through valley and over a hill to the access point. This part of the wall is not maintained and a part of it is ruin. I climb the wall and walk on the top. I can see no living soul. The area is very beautiful. Hills and mountains are covered by forest. The Great Wall with fortifications on top stretches to the horizon.

The Great Wall of China
Remains of watchtower, 1 of 25000

I feel dehydrated, I haven’t brought enough water or food. Thanks to the map and information online, I know about the military zone few km away from here. I decide to walk the wall as far as I can. I try to imagine living here hundreds of years ago. Attacking such a structure must have been quite scary. A number of sentries on top, the system of signal flags, fires and lights, very challenging. A great showcase of country’s strength.

I walk until, I encounter a lonely ticket seller. On the way back, I walk into village and buy a cold drink. Damn, it feels good. A cold, flavoured tea tastes extremely good.

I wait for a local bus to depart. In the meantime, I prepare a sign for Beijing. Once bus is gone from the site, I wave my hand and show a sign to first passing by car. It stops. Few minutes later, I have conversation with my driver, a straight ride to Beijing. He doesn’t speak English but the translator works great.
-I have no car, no house but a lot of friends.
-I have a car, a house, but no freedom.
We laugh.

Sylvia is back at her place. I feel so much better after a shower. I relax and play with her cats. She gives me some tips about the road West.

Sylvia`s pets

I’m about to leave Beijing. I am short on currency, a visit in a bank is a painful experience. Finally after a long wait, I manage to change money. It is already an afternoon, when I am leaving the city. A few smaller rides and a lot of waiting. I push my way forward to a petrol station.

My driver treats me with fruit on the way to Taiyuan. We arrive after midnight. I have no reply on couchsurfing. I find a cheap hostel on booking.com. It takes me an hour to get to the city centre. The hostel is not here. After a while I realise that it is a scam. The property does not exist. I find another two fake accounts.

While walking through city, I meet Drzauwe. He speak some English and wants to help me. We visit five hotels, some over my budget, some can’t accept tourist. I’m determined to camp. Drzauwe offers me to stay at his place for the night. I take a shower at his place and I’m ready to sleep when I hear bad news. His parents are coming in the morning, he can’t have guests. I’m disappointed, but try not to show it. I smile and start to pack. He insist to help me look for another place. It’s 3 am. I refuse.
– Its late, go to sleep, I will camp, I will be okay.
He insists o help me and buys me few apples. I send him to bed.

I’m walking through the streets for a couple of hours, while waiting for the sunrise. There is no good place to camp, I hope to find an accommodation the next day. I continue my hotel hunt at 7 am. I observe people rushing to work and yoga class in local park. Finally I find a place, 25 dollars… I’m tired. I need to wait to check in until 10 am. I leave my luggage and power bank to charge.

I hear more bad news, when I’m back from my walk. I’m informed in English, I can’t stay in the hotel because of the language barrier. The receptionist takes me to another hotel willing to accept me. First they need to register me with a local police unit. We use a scooter to visit police station. I hear more bad news. This hotel can’t guest me. They ask me to use different hotel, 50 dollars a night. Its way over my budget.

I scheduled a meeting the previous day. A local offered to show me around. I have a breakfast and chat with strangers, while waiting. Couchsurfing is not working for me. The girl doesn’t show up, my host requests haven’t been successful. I’m exhausted and disappointed. I decide to leave Taijuan and continue hitchhiking.

With the sign in hand I try to find a car. 10 metres away a police patrol is checking drivers with alcomat, all cars slow down, perfect situation. After two minutes a policeman calls me over. They check my documents, ask me questions and put me in their car. Few minutes later they let me out at police check next to the toll on the motorway. They ask me to sit down and relax. Several policemen with machine guns are standing around my chair, while I’m drinking offered bottle of water. They take some selfies with me and stop a bus for me.

A 100 km free bus ride ends in a small town. I think about travelling further. I fell pretty exhausted, my power bank is empty and my mobile is running low. I find reasonably priced hotel and pass out. I wake up 12 hours later. My power bank and mobile are fully charged, so am I.

Tip 013 Power bank

A portable mobile charger is extremely helpful. I admit I rely on my mobile phone a lot. Maps, couchsurfing, reservations, pictures, blog, flashlight… the list continues. My power bank gives me flexibility and reassurance. It is my last line of defence against my moody and unpredictable mobile phone.

I am picked up while walking back towards the motorway. I have a problem communicating, my internet is suddenly gone and there are many routes and cities in the area of Luliang.

A lovely couple decides to pick me up. They make a call to a speaking English relative. I realise it’s not a good idea to join them. Instead they help me communicate with a truck driver. After three minutes of energetic persuasion, I end up in a truck with two other guys. 300 km later, I have a lunch, instant noodles. All motorway services include a machine with a boiling water.

It’s raining. I put my waterproof cover on and run from car to car. It is a difficult spot. Sometimes it just takes time. A family of three waves me over. My new sign, made of an inside of a cigarette box, works. They deliver me to a hostel in Zhongwei. 600 km in a bad weather, well done! I pay for a dorm and get a room for myself, sweet.

I haggle with a hostel owner and purchase postcards. The post office is not far. Employees are amused, there is actually someone who wants to send a postcard, they laugh. They never heard about Poland, they laugh more. A polite lady process every single postcard on her personal computer, 10 minutes later I’m on the way out of the city.

Zhongwei city centre

A local guy stops to help me. He wants to take me to a different exit. I am assertive, I stick to my guts and follow my instinct. My experience is telling me the motorway is the right way. I walk to the toll. I’m quickly approached by alerted employees. I explain my situation and they start to help me. Within 5 minutes, they find me a truck going straight to Wuhei, 400 km away.

We stop for lunch. My driver introduces me to restaurant owner and makes fun of me sleeping. We share a meal with other travelers. I realise my truck driver is a road bully. He honks and force his way forward.

The area we drive through varies a lot. Mountains, scrub, sunflower plantations, mining sites. Architecture differs from everything, I’ve seen before. Falling apart houses are adjusted to desert climate.

The quickest way to hitchhike in China is to move from one service station to another. I show my sign to a couple pulling out of parking space. They are about to hit motorway. They notice me. A woman looks at her husband. Our eyes meet, I am smiling while being judged. I feel like in a western movie. And there it is, a wave, a universal `come over` sign.

Su and Xiao Mai will take me to services 230 km away. It is past 7 pm, the sun is setting. We speak about my journey, they are fascinated. I learn about their final destination. I ask them if I can join them the following day. They say yes.

We stay for the night close to Zhangye. Local service station is huge. I hope to find a place for my tent. Before I do, the employees notice me. They tell me I can set my tent inside. I haven’t asked! What is this marvelous place?! I have drinks with my drivers and photo session with employees.

Camping at Zhangye service station

Su and Xiao Mai treat me with breakfast. We are back on the road. Horizon is covered by wind powered generators.

Wind powered generators

Desert, scrub and mountains spread out through hundreds of km.

Hitchhiking to Urumqi, horizon

We encounter a police check at the Xinjiang state border. I’m asked to leave the car and go inside the building. A policeman plays a mobile game and ignores me. He starts to check my passport. A moment later his colleague comes over to swap him, he runs away. They never seen Polish passport, they are confused. They take pictures of me and my passport. I answer questions about my plans. My companions argue my side and confirm my story. At some point there are eight policeman and a guy from anti terrorism unit surrounding us. After 20 minutes they are satisfied and let me go through. Xiao Mai explains what just happened. The government expects a terrorist attack. The whole area of Xinjiang is under heavy surveillance.

I learned later that Xinjiang is populated by about 12 millions of Muslims, mostly ethnic Uighurs and Kazakhs. For several years now, Chinese government tries to control religious and cultural expression in Xinjiang area.

I stay for the night in Hami service station. Su and Xiao Mei are visiting family in Hami, we say goodbye and hug. I find a half abandoned building and set my tent.

At 6 am it rains. It takes me an hour to find a ride. My driver is young and patient. We are stopped by police every 100 km. Being photographed and questioned becomes a routine. I prepared standard text in Chinese to explain my presence. `I am a tourist from Poland. I am hitchhiking. I travel to Urumqi` Few words in local language speeds up the process.

Hitchhiking letter in Chinese

We stop to tank petrol. This station is also under surveillance. Wired fence, id checks, metal detectors, guards with machine guns. A Mad Max movie in a real life. My driver goes past the check, they allow only driver. I walk around petrol station to photograph desert and mountains.

Xinjiang, a secured petrol station
Xinjiang, horizon

The road is very interesting. We are passing by villages, clay cemeteries and oil refineries. Wrecks of cars in-between roads are shouting `don’t cross`. The scenery of Flaming Mountains is spectacular.

The Flaming Mountains, road-view

We are driving through Turpan city. It looks very interesting. Culture and economy in the area is vividly visible in the architecture style of the city. I feel like I’m missing out leaving city behind. I consider asking driver to stop. We continue.

Another control stops us at the entrance to Urumqi, a capital city of Xinjiang. I notice straight away, it’s different. I thank the driver and tell him to leave me at check point. I don’t want him stranded, waiting for me. I can easily catch another lift. Within minutes, I’m introduced to ten different people, policeman and soldiers. They collect my passport and ask me to wait in a bus parked outside. Several other people are waiting here, they are all Asian, we socialise. I see a number of policemen, including people I spoke with, depart.

I’m worried. I have no passport and no idea how long I will wait. 30 minutes on a bus fills like ages. Numerous scenarios go through my head. I see policemen driving back. Their body language tells me they had lunch. Damn, I had no breakfast yet and it’s 2 pm. Few minutes later I’m asked to move into car with three other policemen. My passport is there. They drive me through the city with flashing lights. We arrive to central police station in city centre. I’m stuck for 1 hour and 30 minutes approximately. After answering numerous questions and going through time consuming procedure, I got a green light. I get my passport back.

Urumqi city centre

Police is everywhere in the city. I never seen anything like it. There is even a police check in pharmacy store. Random controls on street, metal detectors and control at bus stops. That’s how I have imagined a place under a martial law. A police state.

Urumqi, a police check

I’m looking for a hostel. I have a difficulty finding something cheap. I notice a couple of dogs in one of the stores. I like animals, I walk in to pet them. It’s a pet store, the owner speak a little of English. From word to word, I explain I’m looking for accommodation. Han misunderstood me. He shows me a space for my dog. We laugh. He offers me a free stay and I happily accept.

My accommodation in the pet store

Han invites me to dinner with him and his wife. We are having Korean BBQ. Han and Ren create a great combo. Han takes care of sale, stock and suppliers. Ren provides haircut services for the lovely ones.

Dinner with Han and Ren

Han asks me to stay longer. We really get along. I want to push further, the clock is ticking. I want to cross border to Kazakhstan in Khorgas. The road is breathtaking. Beautiful green mountains with snowy peaks and blue Sayram Lake create a powerful combo. Jali Huan stops for me to take picture. Her daughter is asleep.

Sayram Lake, road-view

Once we exit a tunnel, a beautiful valley opens in front of my eyes. An impressive bridge and mountain scenery, it’s the most beautiful road scenery I’ve seen in China. I see huts shaped like big tents and cows chilling on a side of the mountain.

We arrive to Khorgas. The border is closed. I learn from a soldier that it will open in 2 days. I’m disappointed. I could stay longer with Han and Ren. Life. I find WiFi at nearby hotel and entertain myself until late. The receptionist treats me with watermelon. The hotel is over my budget. I spend the night at construction site.

A construction site, Khorgas

In the morning, I double check border is closed. I meet Morgan and Evan. They are also stuck. We decide to hitchhike together and end up in Yining, 100 km away from Khorgas.

Hitchhiking with Morgan and Evan

Our drivers invite us to lunch. We find a cheap hostel and relax. I look for information on Russian visa. In the evening I walk around old town of Yining and enjoy beer with guys.

Lunch in Yining

I’m hitching back to Khorgas, guys are taking a bus. I can’t walk through the border. I’m informed I need to take a bus to Kazakhstan site, the ticket costs 10 dollars. I speak with a Russian truck driver. He is going to Almaty in Kazakhstan. He wants to help me, but Chinese officials don’t allow it. I tell them I have no money for a ticket. I lie. I’m told to go to bus station, where police supposed to issue a free ticket for me.

Once at bus station, I make a friend with a Kazakh. He talks to a lady and asks me to follow him, she got us a transport. We got into taxi that drives us back to a border check. Finally I realise. The lady actually organises buses through the border and Kazakh paid for my bus ticket. I pay him back.

I fill in my departure card. Chinese officials take my phone and check my pictures looking for an `inappropriate` content. I wait an hour for a bus to depart. I socialise with other travelers. Kazakhs, Chinese, Uzbeks, Morgan and Evan. Bus is overcrowded, people are standing when we drive to Kazakh side. It takes over an hour to process 60 people.

On a bus through the border

The bus goes into Kazakhstan. I get out in a village 20 km before Zharkent, the town I paid ticket for. I feel like I’m about to cheat. Crossing the border is okay, but I don’t feel comfortable driving further to town. It is a middle of a hot day, I might need to walk for 5 hours, I am in a great mood.

A)Zhengzhou B)Beijing C)Taijuan D)Zhongwei E)Zhangye F)Hami G)Urumqi H)Khorgas

2 thoughts on “From KL to Porto – The Great Wall of China, West through Xinjiang to Kazakhstan

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