Musings - Day 12
Day 12 – 7th January 2020
Hello all – Thank you to the new contributors to the Lullaby Trust, via our site pages – I cannot express how grateful I am.
I made it into China (Wow! Quite an experience.) but the internet here is so hit and miss. I can get it on my phone via an installed Chinese phone number, but as yet can’t get for my laptop. Things may change and the blogs may become a little more sporadic – but fingers crossed.
Also great messages of support guys please keep them coming via the website blog pages as they really do spur me on.
So at 5am my phone alarm goes off. I am already awake, showered and ready, just because my mind clock is wired. I re pack my bag and make it through to the minute reception are where I find myself locked into the building. No night porter, no taxi, no way out of the hostel. Good start. So I put the bag down, rationalise the situation, and actually phone the hotel reception not two feet away from where I am standing. Logically the phone should be on divert. I woke the night porter who rushes to my assistance from a cupboard somewhere close by. When he appeared I had to do a double take. He is the only guy I ever met that could call Warwick Davies “Lofty.” So he shuffles in and thankfully he speaks reasonable English, albeit via a helium vacuum. So Mr Squeak as I’ve nicknamed him, fetches a footstool to stand on to put the key in the outside door, unlocks it, puts the footstool back and electronically orders me a cab. The cab is going to be fifteen minutes so he takes the footstool behind reception, stands on it to pour me a cup of coffee while waiting. Gets off the footstool, spills a lot of the coffee and hands me up the remainder. I chat, Mr "S" helium talks and we get along fine. The cab arrives and Mr Squeak asks me if he can help me with my bag. What? My back pack was a foot taller than he was. You know what’s coming next here don’t you? The absolute devilment in me said, “Yeah okay.” Bless this guy for having a go, on reflection it was hilarious to see him try but I couldn’t let him go through with it in the end. Somehow he had got his leg caught in one of the straps. Actually Mr Squeak was a really nice man who was very quick to promote with an absolute passion his beloved city, Almaty.
I arrived at the bus station with an hour to spare only to find this board (see below)
My destination wasn’t even listed there until I worked out that “уяумдй” means URUMQI the place I was heading to.
The last sleep bus that I had taken was so luxurious compared to this one. As I boarded I felt that I was in a converted school bus, where the metal seats had been replaced by metal bunks. The bedding was atrocious and as fluffy as hard core. My reserved bunk was number nine at the rear of the bus. This would have been just big enough for Mr squeaky, but for me, I really struggled. The bus got away on time and thankfully wasn’t full capacity. The guy behind me occupied the big five joined rear bunks, having only his Chinese wife with him. He very kindly asked me to join the two of them which gave me so much more room, meaning that three of us occupied the rear five bunks. Much better. It was still so bitterly cold, with frost forming on the inside of the windows, that every passenger slept in full overcoats.
It was around six hours to the border including two toilet breaks en route. The terrain we were traversing was so bleak. Probably around - 15°C complete with a blanket of thick cold fog. In fact the sun didn’t break through until probably around midday. The roadside toilets were not worthy of description but suffice to say the concrete hole in the ground served its purpose, no form of flushing. There were a couple of feral dogs here who eked a living out of scraps. People would give them bread, or sausage meat that they had no further need of.
The coach arrived at the border. For fifteen minutes prior we had been inside barbed wire mesh lining the road. Once given permission and the guard had been on board checking our Id’s, we're allowed through the gates. So the procedure was to take all your belongings, including the backpack in the hold, leave the bus, and walk into the customs hall. Bags scanned, humans electronically scanned, passports checked again, then retrieve the bags.
This was the first of three times that we went through that procedure just to get out of Kazakhstan. Meanwhile as the passengers walked out of one, into the bracing outside to wait for the bus to be scanned. This was the time that the dogs had their fun. An Alsatian came up to me sniffing everything I had in pairs, even to the point where I had to go down on my haunches for the dog to sniff my hair. What? I was okay but one of the passengers cases gave the dog cause for concern. In front of all fifteen or so passengers, outside in the freezing cold temperature, this man had to completely take out every item packed in the case. There was no contraband found, but the dog did get his little treat. So we are outside now for half an hour whilst the bus is in a drive in shed being strip searched. It came through with a clean bill of health, but I have to stress that this was just to get out of the country. What on earth would it be like trying to get into China. Soon to find out that one, only after being in no man’s land for the best part of two hours.
So onto phase two – China! Their buildings are some mile or so away, and what buildings they were. As we drove toward them, the size was the first thing to strike you, as they were enormous. Meant to be intimidating, they certainly worked. You weren’t getting in here without a battle! So the same applies now that we are in the land of the squint. All bags and possessions are hand wielded into a very modern, pristine, gigantic customs hall. Same process in triplicate before my interview. – A point to note. – The Chinese need every single piece of administration to marry. They need the application paperwork to be identical to the entry paperwork, which has to match the paperwork generated for the actual paperwork to go through. This allows final paperwork to be produced. A single digit or misspelled item would be rejected out of hand, as I witnessed by one of the passengers not correctly filling in their entry card. So I am in a very daunting position, in front of the final interviewer (Some forty five minutes in,) with my information relayed back to me. They did not believe that I was a retiree with a passport full of stamps from nine years of travel. They were fascinated especially by the Egypt stamp from four years ago, together with the South American stamps from early 2019. What did I want to go to their country for? My response all the way through had been purely tourism – nothing more than that, just tourism. Why? Their argument was (put quite forcefully to me,) that tourists fly in. Why would I enter their country to be a tourist from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan? My explanation was the silk routes which created a massive furore among them. Four customs officers on my case all giving it the major “Ping nong ding dongs.” So they went through the whole thing again each time like the last, searching through every stamp in my passport. Finally after all my fellow bus passengers had been let through out of my sight, to customs hall number three, they wanted to check my bags.
This would be no problem for me but it was for them. Bearing in mind I am now the only person in the huge customs hall that doesn’t work for the Peoples Republic of China, they want me to follow them into a private room. They marched me, (no I am not exaggerating because there was one uniformed officer in front and one armed officer called in directly behind me,) into a small room with one table no chairs. The one officer said, "On table!" (Did he mean me or the bag? - Thankfully got it right.) I admit that I am a little bit bothered by this, but I try to stay aloof as much as possible, by just answering their barked questions as simply as I can, holding onto the tourist mantra. They stripped my bag completely, and made me open both phones, a kindle, and my MacBook. So there are now five of us in this small room, with three looking through my electronic equipment, one going through time and time again the stamps in my passport, and me. The went through every photo stored on all of the pieces and then they came to the big one. They found a text sent to me from one of our drivers (I used to have a taxi company) dated July 2018. His name was Sheik Chowdhury which immediately fingered him, by virtue of his name, to be a person of interest. The text was totally innocuous and completely to do with business of the time, but they somehow believed it was possible evidence of espionage. Just madness! I have now been in this small room surrounded by officials for probably half an hour going through my stuff and then for no reason, they got me to sign a paper that said I was here for tourism, and let me go. I tell you that it was scary! But that wasn’t the end of it.
Oh no, I still had to go back to the same officer on the desk, go through it all again, have my visa stamped and my fingerprints taken. On to customs hall three where a cut down version of what just happened was repeated. I think with many “Ping nong ding dongs” over radios they must have been double/ treble checking my story. A further problem occurred when the last officer noticed that I was carrying a rolled up banner on the outside of my back pack. (It is about three feet by two feet with all the sponsors logos on it, meant for use on video clips. People who I meet along the way have been writing good luck messages on it.) He looked at it for a good three minutes just wondering, I am guessing, whether or not it was subversive. I was fully expecting him to confiscate it, but he didn’t. I am through, but not before I have leave this impressive building, walking some four hundred yards in the sub-zero frost, to have my visa verified for the two millionth time. The large electric gates opened and I re-joined my fellow passengers in another half hour wait for our scanned bus. This whole process had taken five hours.
Welcome to China!
Position: 43°79'77” N 87°61'27”E – Miles completed: 05914
Location: Urumqi, China. 08:30 - 8th January 2020 - Journey 13 days 6 hours