We had just finished up working two trips with Insight Adventures after taking a little more than a month off to rest our injures from an incredible marathon day. We were rested, willing, and itching to get back on the road to continue our walk. We anticipated this section to be the most challenging, but we had no idea of the kind of challenges it had in store for us.
It took us about 5 days to get back to our stuff from getting our stamp at the border. For the last couple weeks of work, we had left our trailers in a hotel. This was the longest we had been away from our trailers since this trip had started, and to be honest, I was a little nervous as to whether or not they were going to be there when we got back. They were, and I had a sigh of relief when I saw them in the same condition we had left them in.
It had been a while since we had walked a meaningful section, 27 days to be exact, but similarly to riding a bike, we knew what we were doing and knew how to do it. Leaving the city of Liu Yuan wasn't exactly the smoothest. We took a wrong turn almost immediately into the soft desert dust and dirt, but regained our composure straightaway and continued down the road. The lesson we learned on that first day is a lesson we have taught countless times the backcountry. Shortcuts are generally long cuts.
The following days consisted of hours and hours of podcasts. Trucks sounding like freight trains when they roll right by us interrupting our podcasts or interrupting our conversations every 45 seconds. More or less, this area we walked through was pretty desolate. We walked by three truck stops and spent a night hanging out with migrant workers from southern Gansu who were working on the road.
When we got to the first gas station, we had the realization that Xinjiang was going to be very different from the rest of China. The gas station was completely fenced off with steel beams and razor-wire on top. There was an armed guard at the entrance who would only allow the driver of the vehicle into the covered area. If they had passengers, they had to walk around the enclosure to the other side to get picked up again.
Eventually, we made it to the border between Gansu and Xinjiang. This could basically be the border between two countries with all the security and red tape you need to cross this particular border.
When we made it to Xingxingsha, the town straddling the border, we were expecting to be hassled by the army men walking around with shotguns with banana clips attached, or at least by one of the dozen people walking around with police jackets on, seemingly doing nothing. But no one really cared who we were or what we were doing. Sometimes it feels good to be ignored. We were sure that the next section was going to be relatively desolate, so we bunked up for an extra day in Xingxingsha, gathering water, food, and resting our legs and minds for the hurdles about to come.
Crossing the border was a breeze, but when we got maybe 2 hours into the other side, it felt like we were in true Gobi expanse. There was a small mountain range with drastic and steep faces, but on the other side, it was as flat as a soda that has been left out on the counter over night. We walked by an abandoned gas station which confirmed to us that we were not going to be seeing very many people for the next few days.
We found camp early that night and spent our time like we do most nights these days, exploring the landscape away from the highway. From the roadside, it's so easy to imagine "nothing can live here." But when you walk 20 meters away from the road, you start to see tracks, poop, holes, bones, and all sorts of stuff. It makes you reconsider and say, "hey, there is so much life out here!"
The following morning, and every day after that, we walked upon a roadside restaurant and auto shop. Every 17 - 25 kilometers there would be one of these stops. We were pleasantly surprised and realized we didn't need to bring as much water or food as we had planned. The Silk Road is alive and well. Travelers, feel safe!
We were about 3 days outside of Hami proper when we walked into the outer reaches of the oasis which is Hami. The change was drastic and immediate. Within 200 meters we were out of the desert and surrounded by trees and irrigation systems for farming. The water from the Tianshan mountain range is all the water these places get for most of the year, and it genuinely creates a land of plenty.
When we came out of the Gobi and into where society begins (at the edge of the irrigation system), is when we started to finally be noticed. The police were genuinely interested in us and would stop us frequently to look at our passports, asking us what we were doing, and regularly asking for photos with us, which we were always obliged to do.
The night before we would have made it into Hami proper, we were stopped by the police and told that we needed to take a ride into Hami City because where we were at was "too small" to accommodate foreigners. Nothing too out of the ordinary here as this has happened before, so we went along and planned on taking a taxi or a bus back to this town only 20 km outside of Hami City and collect that remaining 20 km later.
When we finally made it to Hami, after all the phone calls and organization the police put together to get us, with all our stuff, to a hotel that accepted foreigners, it was 4:00 AM. We weren't going to walk the next day, and we wanted to spend time in Hami anyways, so we decided to stay a few days before heading back to collect the remaining kilometers.
While walking around the city, I bumped into the only foreigner living in Hami. His name is Tom Sunter and he's been teaching English in Xinjiang for the past three years. He invited us to his local watering hole and we spent the night with him and two of his friends, Danny and Josh, two local Chinese dudes living in Hami. Danny and Josh work at a bakery, and, honest truth, they make the best bread I've had in all of China.
We spent the next few nights hanging out with Tom, Danny, and Josh. We had dinner at Tom's place and at Danny and Josh's local BBQ joint.
When we decided to go collect the remaining kilometers of the Silk Road into Hami, we did not know how difficult it was going to be. We caught a taxi to the town where we had been picked up previously and planned on walking no more than 5 hours that day. When we made it to the edge of the small town, we were stopped by the police and were told that we could not go into the town because we had no business being there. We tried to plead our case and explain what we were doing. With each attempt to continue the conversation we could see the expression on the police officers face grow more aggravated. We cut our losses and said goodbye to the one kilometer we thought we would be missing.
We lifted our chins and started to walk back to Hami. We made it maybe 4 km till we were stopped again by different police, asking the same information every police officer asks. "Passports, where are you going, where did you come from, where are you staying, what are you doing?"
After we answered all their question, they said that they could not read our passports. They then wanted to bring us to the police station where someone could read our passports. They assured us that they would drive us back, so we could continue walking. When we got into the van they asked us which hotel we were staying at, and instead of bringing us to the police station or driving us back, they dropped us off at our hotel and went about their merry way.
During our time walking, we are constantly weighing options and our plan is ever-changing with the situation. While we were in Hami, we had decided that we would change our route from following the south side of the Tianshan Mountains to taking a pass just north and being on the northern side of the mountain range. This was going to make our route longer, but with us being a month behind schedule, currently walking into the hottest season and place of our route, it made sense to change. The northern side of the mountain range has grass, rivers, trees, and much more life, where the southern side has Gobi…lots and lots of Gobi.
This change meant that we didn't have enough time on our visa to make it to Urumqi within our allowed stay in China, so we would have to do an early border run to pull off the route change. We made a plan to border run on the western side of China instead of going east to Hong Kong again like we had done in the past. This meant there were a few silk road cities we were going to go through in order to make it west enough to cross a border in China. We got excited, these places are major cities we weren't going to walk through with the new route change and held great significance to the ancient Silk Road. We made a hasty plan to see 4 different cities and spend 3-4 days in each of them, the first being Turpan.
Turpan is an amazing little oasis town which holds a few different feathers in its cap making it unique. Turpan is known for its extreme summer heat. This is due to it being in the second deepest inland depression in the world, with more than 4,000 sq. km of land below sea level. It has recorded some of the hottest summer days in China, with temperatures as high as 130º F (about 55º C). The joke is that you can literally fry an egg on the sidewalk. Luckily, we were not there in the high summer heat, but it was still hot enough for us to sweat constantly every day. Turpan also has an amazing well system which brings water from the mountains and irrigates the entire city.
Within the second day of being in Turpan, we had a conversation in which we talked about how what we were doing just didn't feel right. That we shouldn't be simply a tourist. We were on the Silk Walk Expedition, not the Silk Road tourist route. We nixed two cities we originally planned on going to, and decided to head to only one more city, Kashgar. Because it was there we planned on doing our border run. Now, the priority was doing the border run, not sightseeing.
While we were in Turpan, we bumped into three girls who were studying in different parts of China getting their masters. Timb was personally invested in hanging out with these girls and for good reason. It is nice to hang out with the opposite sex and share time with people other than your walking partners from time to time. We decided to take the train to Kashgar the following day, and as luck would have it, the girls were on the same train as us.
Kashgar has been an important trading center since the starting days of the Silk Road and still is today. The road from Xi'an, China branches out to both the north and south of the Taklamakan Desert and Kashgar is where the two branches meet again in the western part of the desert. The people of Kashgar are a mixture of Uyghurs, Han, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Uzbeks, making it a city that does not feel like any other city in China. The streets are dotted with BBQ lamb and bread as far as the eye can see. The local architecture is something out of the movie Aladdin. The ancient culture and historical relevance of this city are blatantly evident as it stares you in the face. Of all the places we wanted to see but were no longer going to because of our route change, this was the most significant to us and the historic Silk Road.
At our hostel, and at every hotel in the city, there was a trip being sold where you would be thrown deep into the mountains and have opportunities to meet and talk to the people that call the area their home. Timb decided to go with the girls we had met in Turpan and Pat went the day after.
The day before Pat was going to go up into the mountains he got a text from his friend Lisa, seeing if he wanted to meet in Urumqi to celebrate her birthday.
We talked about this possibility over coffee, Pat and I, and the idea that anyone who wanted to visit us was not something to just pass on. We were not all together though, and the details had not been confirmed. A second conversation was definitely needed.
The next day Pat went up into the mountains. Pat and Timb were only able to see each other in passing, but while Pat was up there his decision was made. Pat was going to see his friend from the 12th to the 19th.
Timb, at this point, had made a connection with Marta, one of the girls he had been hanging out with. When he understood the situation, and how ridged it seemed, she offered to let him spend the two weeks at her place in Xiamen, where he would be able to do his border run and hopefully pick up some work teaching English. He flew to Xiamen, as Pat and I waited for a week for his friend to come and visit.
When Timb landed in Xiamen though, he said he did not feel right. That his decision to fly to Xiamen was the wrong choice and that he wanted to fly right back to Urumqi. We talked on the phone, and I laid it down for him explaining that this was the bed he made for himself and that he had to sleep in it. It was a big expense to fly across the country and it would be stupidly expensive to fly right back after just getting there. As odd as it may seem reading all of this, we do have a budget and we aren't millionaires. Luckily, Timb was able to pick up work teaching English while in Xiamen and was able to make the money he spent back by the end of his time there.
Bizarre as all this might sound, at the time I had no hard feelings about anything that was going on. My plan, when all of this unfolded, was to spend as little money as possible and pretty much just wait it out. As the days went on though, I slowly began to resent what was happening. To the point where I was basically not talking with Pat anymore.
So many things were going through my head:
We are spending too much money
We are spending too much time waiting
What would all our sponsors think of what is happening right now
What would my friends and family think of what is happening right now
I don't want to be waiting, I want to be walking
I don't have my People around me anymore
This is not the Place I'm meant to be at right now
We have lost our Purpose...
This is bullshit.
Pat and I took the train from Kashgar to Urumqi where he was going to meet up with Lisa. Pat left to see her the day after we arrived in Urumqi. I personally did not want to see them together while we were in Urumqi. I like her and I have a lot of love for Pat, but I knew that if we were all together, I would be an asshole because of all the things that were going through my head. Pat must have felt the same way because for those 9 days we didn't talk to each other once.
So, for the first time on our expedition, we were all having over a week away from each other and having 100% different experiences. My initial days in Urumqi were not fun and I was quite lonely. I felt lost and that I didn't know what to do with myself. Fortunately, I was able to find musicians and chefs from Urumqi who showed me an amazing time.
I spent the early part of most days in the hostel, connecting with family and friends back home. But in the afternoon, I would go to the bar where I met a few musicians. We would play pool between their sets and talk about music all night long. All the friends I made were Uyghur, and they had an extremely eclectic music taste. The two bands that were brought up the most were Pantera and Sade. Two drastically different music types. For those not familiar, I recommend both of them, and hopefully, you'll like one of them. It was nice to talk about something so different than the walk with these people.
Pat and I got back together after his friend left and we went to do our border run. We headed to Kazakhstan and from there went back to Hami to meet up with Timb again. The next chapter was right around the corner and we knew that it meant more walking!
Written by Paul Ronan