Strange Sleeps in Xinjiang

In my last post “Alone In China” I mentioned being ushered from foreign hotel to foreign hotel. In Xinjiang Province, there are certain hotels specifically for foreigners. They are a rare find, however.

One afternoon, for example, I was taken in a police van for 200 km, past four different cities, in search of a foreign hotel. Once we finally reached the intended city, the border patrol told us that, in fact, there was no foreign hotel here, either. It was 11 pm at this time and I actually started laughing out loud. “HAHA Why did you take me here!!!?” They were just doing their job, I understood that, but REALLY?! Isn’t that something that you’d check before driving for hours?!! It was a bit comical, but I had a situation on my hands. Camping is forbidden, but there is no foreign hotel. What to do?

Then, I saw him. A tall, lanky, string bean of a man with white hair, sun tanned skin and micro mini pink short-shorts. I probably scared him half to death when I ran over screaming “HELLO! WHERE ARE YOU FROM? YOU’RE THE FIRST FOREIGNER I’VE SEEN IN DAYS! WHEN DID YOU GET HERE?” It was a bit much. But I was so unreasonably excited to speak to someone and have a big ole laugh about what we were going through separately but together.

His name is Marcel, or something like that. He’s an adventurer from Belgium that was traveling by tricle (trycle?) The point was to race other Europeans to Beijing using only solar power and human power.

Anyway, overwhelmed by my energetic presence or not, Marcel and I decided to persuade the guards to let us pitch our tents at the border where they could see us and we’d be on our way early morning. They reluctantly agreed and we started unloading our things.

Marcel didn’t have a free-standing tent so I offered for him to share my tent. He looked trustworthy enough. We spent the night sharing tales of the road and about our lives before this adventure and at some point in the conversation we drifted to sleep. Thank the universe he wasn’t a creep or a snorer. We slept well, despite the occasional truck headlights illuminating the tent and were both up at 7 am saying our goodbyes and riding our separate ways.

 

I had many a strange sleep in Xinjiang Province, the last, however, was probably amongst the strangest. It was my last day in the province and I had spent that day zooming downhill through a lush gorge with waterfalls, horses and small yurts tucked between rock walls. Finally arriving to the border town, Khorgas, I searched for a foreign hotel to sleep. It was near nightfall and I had been to about 15 hotels which had all rejected me. “No foreigners allowed” they said. Strange for a border town. So, I went to the one place that I had been avoiding for the past week– the police station, to ask for help. They accompanied me to 3 or 4 more hotels until eventually, they also gave up. I was nearly in tears, exhausted from the day and from the constant rejection.

A woman who worked in the last hotel was watching and listening as the police officers tried to decide what to do with me. Eventually, she approached. She spoke to them in Chinese, left, spoke to her boss and returned. They chatted some more amongst themselves until eventually, they told me she’d let me sleep in her room beneath the hotel. “Is that okay?” They police asked me through their phone translators. “Yes, thank you!!! Any bed at this point is fine!!”

The woman led the police officers and me to the back of the hotel through an alley way that smelled of piss and cigarettes. Rats scurried from behind boxes when they heard our footsteps approaching the backdoor. It creaked open with difficulty and we proceeded down the dark steps and into a hallway lit with flourecent flickering lights and finally into her bedroom. There was a single bed with colorful bedsheets and a dresser with photos of her friends and family, a hairbrush and some make up. In the corner of the room were a couple of pairs of clothing and her uniforms.

 

She told me I could stay for free and that she would go to a friends house for the night. “The shower’s just there” She pointed to the room next door. “Sorry about the smell.” It was, indeed, repulsive. But I hadn’t showered in a few days so I held my breath and made it a quick one.

I slept well that night, got up in the morning, and got the hell out of China.

ONE MONTH!

ONE MONTH!!!

We are all connected. I left down a road in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and with fewer turns than you can imagine, I am in Dali, China. The roads may have changed names but they flow into one another, into country after country and after a while this road will bring me all the way to the other side of the world. Let that sink in for a moment. You can leave your front door in Princeton, Denver, Bhaktapur, Changwon– ANYWHERE– and end up on the other side of the world with the push of a bicycle. If that isn’t a unifying and freeing thought, I don’t know what is. It is a thought that has utterly consumed my mind from the commencement of this journey and brought me a sense of connection that startles the soul. It’s journey that allows you to join in on the dance of human spirit.

While all of these roads are connected, they are only mere splices of the countries that I am traveling through. They are glimpses into Thai hippy towns, stilted Laos villages and Chinese cities that seem to be popping up out of nowhere. With slow and sometimes arduous pushes of my bicycle pedals I’ve seen landscapes change under my tires and customs changes across borders. I still miss the Laos children running out into the streets  with a big ‘SABAI DEEEEE!’ with their hands outstretched for a high five.

On these roads that connect us all, I’ve started my days quite similarly. After a terrible instant coffee, I take the few items I own and shove them down my waterproof Ortlieb panniers and open up maps.me to scout out possible stopping destinations and altitude maps for the day. The rest of the day however, I am in the hands of the road. Whether the day is marked by the watermelon truck drivers who pull me over to share some watermelons and selfies or the Laos Gibbons Experience Tour Guides who shared conversations with me before all jumping into a river fully clothed to find relief from the heat of the day, every day has its mark.

Sometimes, the day brings me the most glorious of gifts. New friends from different countries crammed into an abandoned shack in the middle of a rice patty field, surrounded by fireflies and the sound of water making its way through the fields, eating a hodgepodge of sticky rice, tomatoes and mushrooms and laughing at the absurdities of life, comes to mind. Being alone on the road can be difficult sometimes but luckily, when you need it the most, friends appear.

5 months ago, I met Oliver, who had been working in Beijing for three years. He heard about my bike trip and months later, after taking a flight to meet me in Xishuanbanna, we were cycling along side each other en route to Kunming. In Kunming, I met three cyclists in a hostel and nearly one week later, here we are all together in Dali, planning a route out together.

In this month, I have been invited into so many homes, dinner tables, and even given free lifts when the day is heavy with heat and my face, painted with exhaustion. I have been baffled with how much can change in only a few miles and yet how much stays the same. The human spirit– the will to help one another, the innate curiosity for that which is different and the ability to enjoy and bring life to the mundane, is what stays the same.

It’s been a hell of a month full of unlearning and an increased level of curiosity and a trust that everyday has a gem waiting for me somewhere. Let’s see what these next few months have in store..

Tailwinds,

Nicole.

 

Let’s do this.

Hello!!

Welcome to Unlearning by Bike!

I’m sitting in Princeton Public Library right now. A stack of nine books sit to my left, a pad and paper on my right and my two back roller Ortlieb bike bags are on the chair next to me. For the past few months I’ve been preparing. I’ve been slowly accumulating gear, doing my research, and building this website amongst other things. The clock is slowly ticking down to the beginning of a journey that I have been dreaming about for over a year now. My feelings generally oscillate between pure excitement and utter fear. Can I do this? Is often the phrase that pops into my head in the still night. Can I do this? I imagine all that can go wrong– all of the things that people have been filling my head with since i’ve been home begin to dance like a personal montage on the backs of my eyes and a list of “I’m not..’s.” sing me a false lullaby. It is a familiar sensation. I felt it before setting off for the 30-day solo journey on the Camino de Santiago in 2014. I felt it when I bought a one way ticket to Thailand after college. I felt it as laid in bed in Pokhara, Nepal the night before I began the 18-day Annapurna Circuit. So, I try, to welcome this familiar fear as a friend-a precursor to a journey that will shape my inner landscape as others have done before. I can. I am. But it wont be easy. I am not a cyclist. I’m not even an athlete of any kind, but I love a challenge and adventure. I love changing my story and being the designer of my fate. So, I sit here in Princeton Public Library with a stack of nine books, my pad of paper and pencil and my bike bags and I continue to move forward and prepare– one day at a time. I can do this.

Cheers,

Nicole