After leaving the main highway, both of us were interested in cycling the G 315, another one of those green lines on our Chinese map. We knew there was a mountain pass that would be standing between us and our intended route but that is all we knew. We had passed a curious blue sign just after leaving the main road that stated “Foreigners Are Prohibited From Entering Non-Open Areas”. There was nothing on our map that suggested a “non-open” area, so we decided to continue, caulking it up to possibility for more adventures.
Climbing to the pass took two full days with the first seeing us ascend over 2700 vertical meters. The second day began to appear as if someone was trying to play a cruel trick on us. We were led to believe, at each set of switchbacks that pass was just ahead. It took us five hours to finally reach the 3500 meter pass, although we have plans to ride higher passes, it seemed to be lots of up, given that we started out at 500 meters and rode over another pass along the way. For much of the last two days we had the road to ourselves except for the occasional construction vehicle slowly passing us by. At the pass we finally understood why, the last kilometer of the pass was having a formidable looking avalanche barrier installed and just after that, behind a think veil of dirty tarps, lay a dark tunnel. Despite the fact that the road was open the tunnel itself was not. We, being on bikes, were lucky enough to be able to walk through the tunnel. Armed with our headlamps, we pushed our bikes under the arm of a working excavator and out to the other side, where again Kevin had another flat.
The ride down the other side of the pass was exhilarating. Unlike the side of the pass we slowly climbed up, which was marked by steep slopes, rock and little vegetation, the side we were now coasting down had beautiful green slopes that were at much gentler angles and numerous yurts could be seen in the distance with horses grazing.
We finally reached the small town of Chorma, nestled between two mountain ranges and a beautiful green valley running east to west. That night we decided to stay in a hotel room while a large Chinese family of four generations was enjoying a tremendous feast and plenty of karaoke.
In the morning, after talking with a bus driver we decided to take the G315, a road that was said to be paved. Shortly outside of town we were immediately stuck be the beauty of the valley and continued to be in awe for most the day. With yurts scattered about and huge flocks of sheep guided by their owners riding beautiful chestnut colored horses. The sheep took over the road, so thick that it appeared to be a sea of fur where not even a bicycle could pass.
We experienced the fall movement of animals and people to lower wintering grounds throughout the day as we slowly descended down the valley. Whole yurts were being dismantled and carefully packed into the back of trucks, while several thousand sheep and hundreds of cows were making the slow march down the valley. Each herd of animals caused cars and busses to slow to a halt, with horns blaring until the animals gave way. It was very rewarding to see the occasional traditional herder, who had their yurts packed on the backs of their camels, that were slowly plodded along behind the flocks of sheep.
Later that evening we entered a small town that both of us immediately felt uneasy about. The roads were riddled with huge potholes while the town itself had a distinctive air of being dilapidated giving it the feel of a border town or something out of the wild-west.
After a delicious dinner at a restaurant we left in search of accommodations for the night, finding something just across the street. As Kevin finalized the price for the hotel room with two beds a young man wearing a blue collared shirt with an embroidered insignia that poked through his jacket began asking questions about the police. We ignored him and continued to move our mountains of bags up to the second floor.
After a long day and many nights of camping we were just settling into our new home for the night, looking forward to our first shower in a week, when a young policeman barged in without warning followed closely by the same young man who now also looks to be a policeman. There seems to be a problem and passports are required as well as a visit to the local police station.
Thinking this will be over soon enough we follow the pair back to the station to see what needs to be addressed. After much deliberation, very little English and Kevin’s broken Chinese we discover we are now in a restricted area were foreigners are not allowed. Perhaps that sign we saw days ago meant something after all.
The one policeman disappears, then upon returning, presents a page of hand written English questions and information. We are starting to see that this is not going anywhere fast as there is now a fine to pay and we must be escorted out of town or more to the point out of the whole district! Shit! Looking blankly at each other we make a deal to come back in the morning to pay the fine and for a car to leave the county. Walking home the wheels are madly turning in our heads as we contemplate the best plan with the dwindling money we have left to make it to the Kazakh border.
Morning comes all to quickly. We set about doing what we think is necessary to be searched which includes moving all pictures and video onto the computer and hiding all unneeded money. Leaving the hotel at 9am, knowing we must be at the police station at 11am we ride through empty streets with closed shops. We make our way toward the police check point that we learned is just outside town and sits just beyond the gates of the police station. Thinking that we will see our escape route blocked, we find it unattended on a quiet road! Blood courses through our veins as we consider the consequences of running, of not paying any money for a fine or for a car and driver. There is just something holding us there for minutes that pass like hours. In a vain attempt we try a side road that proves to be a dead end.
Coming back out to the main road, we see a bus and ask where it is going. The bus happens to be going 60kms to the west which is exactly where we intend to escape to. In seconds bags are unloaded and thrown in the back with bikes hauled to the roof to be tied down for the journey. This was it, the desired escape!
We hide ourselves at the back of the bus as it makes one more pass through town and hit the road to our destination.
Upon arrival, we get out before the bus station to avoid too many viewing eyes and quickly throw our bikes together to continue our escape. The next 4 hours were spent pretty much riding as through we were a Tour de France time trial team, as we sped down the flat road toward the city of Yining where we knew we are allowed to be. This would get us to within 150kms of the Kazakh border.