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Wind, Sun, Sand, and Food: Cycling the Chinese Altai

We make certain assumptions when looking at a map. It is a designed object, the recipient of refinement, and bears a certain authority in its geometry. But despite the weight of accumulated knowledge they exhibit, maps are not infallible. The person who designed our map of Xinjiang lives, I believe, in Budapest. I don’t think this person has ever been to this lonely spot in north China, but they created a layered image representing it that was then printed, and is now in a plastic bag in my hands flapping a tih-tih-tih staccato around my thumb and forefinger.

I am in a town that doesn’t exist, and on a road whose route is deviant from the world as known to our Hungarian cartographer. In this barren stretch, we rely on sparse settlements to restock. Beyond the kilometer marker where our village should be, an empty valley of rock, sand, and scrub stretches to the horizon. This is our third phantom village today, and evening has begun to draw the curtain on our misfortune. The road is not right, and the towns we expect for food and water do not exist.

We inescapably anchor our perception of spatial reality to what we see on the map, and when what we expect fails to appear, there is a feeling of betrayal. When I show a passing Kazakh horseman the map and ask directions, he shakes his head at the lines and road numbers. His spatial reality operates without grid lines, and a sweeping wave covering 100 degrees of the compass usually indicates the way. He, of course, won’t get lost, but we may. The road signs are in Kazakh written in Arabic script, and in Chinese. Numbers are in our familiar Arabic numerals, and are our only tenuous connection.

We camp behind a low brown hill, and use our last water to cook our last food. I find a scrap of rug fallen from a camel train and set it before Brian’s tent as an entry way to lighten the mood. I find a scorpion on it as I set it down, spoiling the gift.

The wind rises at 1AM, and we lose our sleep wondering if the tents will hold. They do, and at 6AM we move to the road and encounter an early morning resumption of the previous days direct, soul crushing headwind. Today it is stronger, and has come earlier. We make five kilometers in an hour, and are exhausted. There is little traffic, and we rage that the moment the road improves to fine asphalt, the wind rises to rob us of advantage. By the time we leave China, it will have become an assumption: if it appears as though we will gain some advantage, wait five minutes. Something – long climbs, rough surfaces, wind – will come along and put us back again.

With eighty kilometers to the next settlement and no water in bottles or landscape – not a drop to the horizon – we flag down a truck and are whisked into Beitun. I can think of no other activity comparable to cycling into a 35 knot wind. It is soul crushing. You can still crawl along without much risk, but it is excruciatingly difficult and slow. There is no rhythm. In this land, there is no where to hide and it roars in your ears the whole day long.

The steppe is utterly empty until we reach the abrupt edge of downtown. Our map uses font size to indicate settlement size. Beitun is marked as being the same size as Saribulak, one of the towns that did not exist. In reality, Beitun has 90,000 people in a compact city of modern buildings, leafy avenues, hotels, markets, and restaurants. It is the opposite of the countryside in every way.

Beitun is brand new, and under construction. It speaks of recent Han colonization, of a risen China appropriating its ethnic periphery and casting a web of super modern infrastructure across a landscape unaccustomed to such attention. See: Tibet, the Uighur lands in central and west Xinjiang. Here, in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, the people are not restive and the soldiers and police we see and interact with everyday are not overly suspicious of us. They are not guarded. The same 19th century Russian expansion into Dzungaria and the Kazakh Steppe that pushed the Middle Kazakh Horde towards Mongolia also forced many Kazakhs into China. The Manchu Qing dynasty that ruled China at the time had once been nomadic as well, and took an ambivalent view of the newcomers. Today, over a million Kazakhs live here.

Our road across China does not run through the mountains. The Chinese Altai is visible to the north in snow-flecked ridges hazy in air filled with wind-blown dust and sand, but we lack the time to access it. With our visa issue in March, we have six weeks instead of eight and must press on. The turquoise waters of Kanas, the native skiers of the Tuvan minority, they elude us in the hot, howling basin of the Black Irytsh.

We are weary from weeks of hard travel in the mountains, both by ski and bike. China is a nightmare. All day and night, the wind blasts out of the west. We are incredulous as the days add up. Seven, eight, ten in a row without a break or a calm or a direction shift, save when the road shifts a few degrees; the wind must shift to stay directly opposed. A hundred photos of the land describe nothing, it must be fought through in wind and slept on to be appreciated.

Leaving our two stops here, the small cities of Beitun and Burqin (named after the town in Palestine), proves difficult. We know that beyond the last building, where the leafy street ends and the land reverts to this particular brand of ultra-bare steppe, the wind will be waiting to meet us. So we linger, and eat. We wander markets and bazaars and Dungan noodle shops and collect tiny tissue-paper thing bags of sweet, savory, crunchy, baked, the known and the unfamiliar in these blended Han outposts.

We feast on the colors of the vegetable stands. Scallions and garlic fills pastry dough, and cooking oil moves in two gallon jugs to apartment, cafe, kiosk, food cart. We move through apples, nuts, fresh naan and fresh noodles, vitamins and minerals, we assume, filling the gaps left by two weeks in a Mongolia and the flavorless mutton diet that now seems such a stomach turning hardship. We eat ice cream, peppers, watermelon, and watch Kazakh dancers practice in a park. These towns feel like islands in a dry land.

When we leave Jeminay, we are ready for Kazakhstan, mountains, and an armistice with our environment. It does not abide. We camp in a poplar windbreak, and hunker as thunder rolls over the grasslands, heralding our first rain.

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