We started walking from the old capital of China, called Chang’an, which means Long Peace, but today is referred to as Xi’an. Xi’an is an ancient city with lots of culture and history that can’t be avoided as you walk down any street. What also stands out is that it is the year 2018, because of all the development everywhere. The historic Bell Tower in the middle of the city is surrounded by skyscrapers advertising the newest mobile phone or the next hot reality TV show. New meets old is the reoccurring story in China.
Our walk away from Xi’an was filled with apple orchards, wheat fields, and mud houses. Far off on the horizon, you could see the high-speed railway slashing across farms that have fed Xi’an for thousands of years. Even as we made it into the mountains, there was no escape from China’s development. We crossed mountains to get to Gansu Province, where we first saw highway G30, not knowing we would follow it all the way to the border of Kazakhstan. It would pass through tunnels dug into the side of the mountains casting shadows over the vales and saddles we walked through.
Gansu and the Hexi Corridor were either barren or under construction. It was easy to see if there was a city up ahead without ever looking at the map, because there would be a visible cloud of smog long before we could see any buildings. Inside every city is a KTV karaoke bar, pretty much two every block. In between the karaoke bars would be skeletal structures of buildings being made before your eyes. Chinese cities seem to be constantly growing, no city is complete in China. We never looked far for food as about half of the businesses lining the street were restaurants or shops.
We spent our winter walking through northern Gansu, and we were cold most of the time. Every single building we passed in the countryside towns had a coal stove for heat and a coal pile outside, mounded against the wall, as a form of storage. The people there have no other way to warm their homes. We had many conversations about the lack of trees in the area and the lack of infrastructure to provide gas or enough electricity. It is the system that has been in place for some time and the most convenient to simply continue. The trucks, sometimes carrying coal, sometimes carrying cows, sheep, fruit or encased with unknown cargo, passing us on the road would be in the triple digits every day, maybe more. Even as trucks wiped up dust and thick coal smoke rolled gently from each chimney, the vast spaces between cities and villages were dominated by wind turbines or solar fields that disappeared into the distant haze. It was apparent that these expansive investments had been steadily added on to over time because of the amount of power lines that layered and paralleled themselves along the road side were almost as engulfed in the distant haze as the solar panels and turbines.
We crossed into Xinjiang around early spring. We had expectations of what the autonomous region would be like, but we didn’t completely understand what we were getting into. We knew it would be harder to travel in Xinjiang with the deserts and lack of water, but we did not expect it to be a police state. In each city and town, there’s a police station every 100 meters. One day we were stopped 8 times by the police as we explored a city and were asked to produce our passports for them to inspect. They would bring us to one of their police stations and hook our phones up to a device that would scan and add an app to our phones for them to see what pictures and videos we had taken. They would even tell us not to take pictures of the people in the city nor should we talk with them.
When we were outside of the cities it did not always mean we were away from police interference. Multiple times they stopped us from walking, loaded our stuff into a truck, drove us 20 – 40 km down the road just to be dropped off in a random location, and allowed to continue walking. This never made much sense to us besides to get us out of their jurisdiction. From the windows of the paddy wagon, the countryside view never changed. The only thing we could guess was that doing nothing, on their part, was the wrong action, and so all manner of actions was taken, which almost always ended in selfies.
Every town has a police checkpoint at all access points to monitor who comes in and who leaves. At the city of Wusu, we were told that we were not allowed in at all, and that we would have to go around. The reason was the same at all three check points we tried, which was the first and last time we experienced consistency, other than the constant interactions, during our time in Xinjiang. The reason was that no foreigners were allowed into this particular city while the Minister of Defense was out of town, whatever that meant. The only way for us to get passed the checkpoints that defined the city limits of Wusu was to walk on G30 itself as these interstate thoroughfares do not have police checkpoints, until you take an exit.
Exiting China was a pretty weird experience, too. As we walked closer and closer to the border of Kazakhstan it became more and more noticeable the culture was changing. People started to look different, the languages started to change, and the food was different. Chinese culture was still prevalent everywhere we went but it was only hanging on, not predominate. But here’s the weird thing, when we actually crossed the border into Kazakhstan there was no Chinese culture at all on the other side. It just, all of a sudden, stopped.
All in all, China is growing fast and without any signs of stopping from an on the ground point of view. At the end of this walk, when we eventually come back to China, I predict that it will still be growing internally, and the reach will be affecting more countries along, but not limited to, the ancient Silk Road trading routes.