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Uighurs and Other Friends: A Xinjiang Travel Experience - By John McHale

(Click here for John's XinJiang Photo Essay)

PROLOGUE

I'm sitting in a hospital bed in Hongkong with forty-one stitches in my head and taking stock of things.

This means yet another delay to my Karakoram trip. I'm also worried about the inevitable scar on my head. I try to imagine that it will end up looking rather staunch, but when I look in the mirror the reality is just plain ugly.

I still haven't decided what the lesson is here. Maybe something along the lines of: "when biking down steps along a cliff edge, don't let bees fly into your mouth"…?? I went over head-first, and it's obvious that my helmet saved my life.

A week later I go back to the scene of the accident to try to find my glasses. I know they were smashed because the surgeons found glass fragments in the wound. It's easy to see where I fell, as there is still lots of my blood splattered around the place, and it's a little spooky.

I eventually find my glasses at the bottom of the cliff where I landed five metres below. The frame is mangled and minus one lens, but salvageable. The climb back up is tricky, and I can't imagine how I did it in my previous, semi-dazed state. I still have no memory of it. Only a vague recollection of cycling home, and the horrified expressions from various people along the way. Then my own feelings of horror when I finally get home and see what I've done to myself. My skull was exposed in two places, and it wasn't until I was eventually stitched up that I dared to look in the mirror again.

After leaving hospital I spend the week preparing for my trip, and enjoying the sympathy of friends. I discover that women really have a thing about guys with bandages. It really brings out their maternal instincts. The effect is entirely the opposite once the bandage finally comes off, and it seems quite appropriate that I should now head off into the middle of nowhere.

DAY 1 : HONGKONG - GUANGZHOU - URUMQI 12 August 1998

On the day of my departure from Hongkong it is raining. I have a sense of apprehension as I load my bike into the taxi. It doesn't feel like I'm going on holiday. Certainly it's not a holiday in the normal sense, like lazing on a beach in Thailand. Admittedly, that kind of holiday has never appealed to me, although I have no illusions about China - it's hard work. I consider briefly the possibility of going somewhere else….somewhere easier. I wonder if anyone would find out? But eventually I arrive at the KCR. Getting on the through train to Guangzhou is very easy and efficient, and my resistance gradually evaporates.

It's obvious on arrival that Guangzhou has changed enormously since my first visit in 1990, and it's clear also that China has been learning English much faster than I have been learning Chinese. Many people seem to have a basic grasp of the language, which, like so many other things in Guangzhou, is motivated by the pursuit of profit. As a result, I feel self-conscious about saying anything in Chinese.

Coming out of the railway station with my bike I am surrounded in the usual fashion by transport touts. I feel more comfortable asking directions from those who don't speak English, although my attempts to speak Chinese still sound clumsy and stilted. I think to myself that I really must settle down one day to learn this language properly. My half knowledge often gets me into far more trouble.

Guangzhou Airport is a very busy place and seems to operate more like a bus station. I'm hoping to catch the earlier flight to Urumqi. The alternative is a long wait and then an extended flight via Beijing which arrives in Urumqi at 1 a.m. I ask at the counter nervously You mei you kongwei?…Excellent, there are still seats! In my excitement I forget to let down the tyre pressure and the bike disappears down the conveyor belt along with the other suitcases. I'm never happy about the way airlines treat a bike as just another piece of luggage to be banged around, but I'm relieved all the same.

While waiting for the departure I chat with another westerner who is visiting China for the first time. We spend most of the time talking about snowboarding of all things. He's doing one of the popular tourist routes: Guangzhou - Guilin - Yangshuo, which serves as the "China Experience" for many foreigners. I eventually say good-bye and I'm soon onboard the plane waiting for takeoff. The air-hostesses look beautiful and bored. One of them glances at me in a way that suggests my two week old scar really is looking like the result of a lobotomy.

The concerns about my appearance are quickly put aside however, as I'm starting to feel excited about my trip again. I recall what I have read about the area I am going to: Xinjiang, the far-western reaches of China, where the Uighur/Turkic minorities represent the transition from China to Central Asia. There is a fabulous history of this area told by Peter Fleming, along with stories of the colourful Sunday bazaar in Kashgar, where nomad warriors ride into town carrying weapons, in much the same way they did hundreds of years ago.

Two hours into the flight we leave Central China and the clouds finally clear. We are over a bizarre landscape that resembles a vast wood carving with sharply chiselled terraces. The contour relief in the evening light is so striking. We then pass over the awesome Yellow River, which is in fact a deep pink, and flanked on either side by a continuous lining of green farmland. Then what must be the city of Lanzhou, which appears dry and barren, and is setout with rigid, military precision.

We continue over an area of incredible emptiness - like a lunar landscape. I have never seen anything like this before, and I spend the remainder of the flight completely captivated by the view. Then suddenly there appears a straight line of red/brown mountains running endlessly from north to south. Nowhere have I seen a more precise and clearly defined fault line than here in this featureless desert. We pass over these mountains, and on the other side there is an even more striking nothingness: just a vast, windblown flatness where the only features are the clouds and their direct shadows on a two-dimensional landscape. How can anything be so continuously empty? This is the famous Gobi Desert, and it has me transfixed for over an hour.

Finally, we pass over another confined band of mountains and land in Urumqi on the plains beyond. As I enter the airport building I see the luggage attendants in the distance taking turns on the bike. I smile with relief, since it means that not only is the bike here, but it's still in working order. I pick up the bike from an excited Chinese man waiting in the baggage reclaim area, and he gives me a thumbs up saying in English "good bike! good bike!". It's a nice welcome to Urumqi.

At the Hongshan Hotel I meet two Korean girls who are having a break from Chinese study in Qingdao. It's a pleasant opportunity for further Chinese practice since they don't speak English. Later that evening a walk through the streets provides a glimpse of the harsh reality of life in this isolated city in the far North-West of China. I go back to the hotel feeling tired. There seems little of interest in Urumqi itself. I remind myself that my only purpose here is to visit Heaven Lake 50 kilometres outside of town, and then fly onward to Kashi, which marks the beginning of the Karakoram Highway.

DAY 2 : HEAVEN LAKE 13 August 1998

Tianqi bu hao…….it's raining. I'm supposed to go to Heaven Lake with the two Korean girls, but I'm up late and I resign myself to catching a later bus. I have breakfast at the Holiday Inn down the road, and can't help feeling like a pampered wimp. Among other things, it's taking me a while to adjust again to the local toilet standards, and I'm pre-occupied by the issue of where to buy toilet paper. It's difficult to find anyone who sells this stuff on the street, and I notice that the toilet rolls in the Holiday Inn are screwfixed tightly to the holders. I'm obviously not the first scruffy westerner to come in here with the thought of stealing some for the days ahead.

I eventually catch a bus to Heaven Lake. It's a pleasant two hour trip, and the weather slowly improves. On arrival it immediately strikes me that Heaven Lake was clearly a beautiful, unspoilt place at one time. Like so many of the world's nature spots, the commercial aspects of tourism generally makes a mess of things. Tourism though is the only means of livelihood for the locals who live within yurts along the lakeside. Although many of the tourists arrive in tour buses and only stay a few hours at a time, the attraction for many foreigners and local travellers is to stay overnight in these yurts.

In between tour buses Heaven Lake does take on a sudden tranquility, which after three years living in Hongkong, seems a little unsettling. I'm not used to quiet places and the lack of amenities. The locals here are so poor. For Y40 you get to stay one night in a smelly, mosquito infested tent, complete with three dubious looking meals. Still fresh out of a modern, western environment, these yurt communities seem like miserable, uncomfortable places, and I spend a long time trying to decide if this is really an experience that I will treasure.

An old man shows me the way around the lake in the hope that I will stay with his family. He points out his six-year old grand-daughter who is waving next to a yurt in the distance. I nod my head and shake his hand, and he goes back in the hope of finding more tourists.

The final stretch around the lake becomes a bit difficult, and I convince myself (maybe too easily) that it's not worth it. I go back to another yurt in the nearer bay and chat with two American girls. Gia and Christina are travelling around Xinjiang before starting their English teaching jobs in Shanghai, and are staying for the yurt plus horse-riding package. I'm tempted to join them. But the grand-daughter sees me, and nimbly races around from the next bay to remind me where her family yurt is.

I'm in a kind of dilemna. Certainly if I was going to stay I would prefer to remain with the Americans, but the anxious look on the little girl's face seems so pitiful. Eventually however, I decide to catch the final bus back to Urumqi that afternoon: rather than disappoint the little girl and her family by staying at a different yurt.

Back at the hotel in Urumqi that evening I'm anxious to get a view of the sunset and the now distant, snow covered mountains. A young tourism student: "Li WuShi" kindly goes out of her way to show me a good viewpoint. Naturally she is hoping I will buy a tour from her, but she seems genuinely interested in my efforts to learn Chinese. I don't see the mountains, but the sunset makes Urumqi seem less like a garbage dump. I'm excited about the thought of getting to Kashgar (Kashi) tomorrow.

That evening, the hotel workers have a great time racing up and down the corridors on my bike. But eventually it's time for me to go to bed, and like a strict parent, I disappoint them by putting the bike away.

DAY 3 : URUMQI - KASHI 14 August 1998

I leave early in the morning and take a taxi to the airport. But on arrival I discover no morning flight to Kashi - how stupid of me! Why didn't I ring to check?? Anyway, I manage to book myself on a flight at 7.00 pm that night. I have breakfast near the airport and try to decide what to do for 12 hours. It occurs to me that I've been slow to get back into the habit of scrutinising prices and bargaining, but I start to pay more attention to this after noting what locals are paying alongside me.

I decide to use my bike for the first time since arriving in China and plan to cycle the 20 kms back to town. I'm nervous about cycling again after the accident and take a long time preparing, but eventually I'm off. It's a beautiful morning, and gliding along a pleasant tree-lined lane with the sunlight peeking through the leaves, my trip already seems worthwhile. I'm reminded of how cycling can be a very relaxing way to travel in China.

I say "ni hao" to a pretty girl as I pass by, and she flashes an amazing smile and says "hi". I take a few photos along the way and amble on with my walkman going. I have more breakfast at a roadside stall - this time I'm paying the same as the locals.

It takes me two hours to get back to town, and still pampering myself, I have a decadent western lunch and beer at the Holiday Inn. I'm now feeling satisfied in preparation for the return trip to the airport. The beautiful weather continues through the afternoon as I cycle back.

The airport is now crowded with evening passengers and there is a sense of stress and chaos everywhere. A shy Uighur kid peeks out from behind his mother and seems transfixed by my bike. I lower the seat and encourage him to try riding it around the terminal. Nothing like provoking airport authority with a harmless bit of fun, and it somehow helps to take the nervous edge off things.

During the flight the view of the mountains is fabulous - these are real mountains with permanent snow and form the beginnings of the Karakorams separating China , Pakistan and Uzbekistan. I'm now getting more of a sense of being in a barren, wild place which is so different from anywhere else I've been. From 30 000 feet I see smoke from one or two nomadic campfires - how do people survive in this hostile terrain?, what do they eat? There's no vegetation.!?

I cycle fast from the airport into the Kashi township attracting a lot of attention along the way. It's 9.30 pm (Beijing Time) but still light, although I'm worried that it's going to rain. I ask directions along the way. The Uighurs seem like very relaxed, friendly people. Eventually I arrive at the Seman Hotel: "One of the Ten Best Hotels in the World". The stupid thing is they really believe it, and I guess it demonstrates their limited view of the world which probably only extends as far as Urumqi.

I check into the dorm and chat to a Japanese person already there. He doesn't speak English but we communicate at a basic level in Chinese. I'm amazed at how many Japanese are studying Chinese. "Ishigawa" is a nice guy who deals in tea/coffee products from Xiamen. He gives me a bag of filter coffee and filters, and the idea of real coffee in a place like this seems like heaven.

Eventually I get into the shower. It's grubby and dark, but ok. I'm not sure then exactly what happened….maybe as I turned to face the taps, or while I had my face covered in shampoo, but suddenly I notice that my waist bag is missing. I'm stunned, and in a nervous panic I run in and out of the shower area like an idiot. I remember someone coming into the shower area to use the toilet next door, but now there's no sign of anyone. I try to imagine that it's fallen somewhere or just been mislaid, and I search frantically. But then I start to feel numb as reality slowly bites.

Two passports, all money, visa card - everything gone.

I've heard of things like this happening - this time it's me, and I can't imagine anywhere worse. I go down to the Hotel reception and tell them what has happened. They say all phones are down because of the flooding in Central China and that I should call the police tomorrow morning. They don't seem to care. No embassies, no police available. As far as bad situations go it doesn't get much worse than this. I suddenly realise how vital these things are to my survival. What happens now? Do I end up dying here? No sleep that night.

DAY 4 : KASHI 15 August 1998

I'm up early but the hotel reception tells me the phones are still down and that the police will be on holiday for two days - I'm hungry, not having had dinner the night before. It seems ridiculous that there are no police available. One of the few people who seems willing to help is a 21 year old Uighur graduate who works at the hotel. "Ani" shows me the way to a police station in the hope that I can get a police report filed for insurance purposes. That's really all I need the police for, and according to my insurance policy the theft needs to be reported within 24 hours.

The two policemen at the station aren't the slightest bit interested in my situation. As far as they're concerned it's a public holiday for two days, and are clearly annoyed that they are the ones who have to work during this time ….so what happens if someone gets murdered??!! …does nothing happen for two days?? I'm obviously dealing with the wrong people here.

On the way back Ani buys me a muslim breakfast of bread and milk. I'm worried about the hygiene of the restaurant, but I'm grateful, and too hungry to resist anyway. Right now I need a friend. The most important thing at this stage is to cancel my visa card. It's seems that the hotel are not interested in letting me use their phone. They're concerned about the cost and my inability to pay. I need to get into contact with my Hongkong flatmate: Nigel, who is the only one who can help. If I can get through to him he should be able to sort everything out, including making contact with the embassies . He'll be at work now - what the hell is his phone/fax number??

After a limbo period at the hotel of two hours another Uighur man: "Muntsillop" offers to take me to the post office where I can use the phones - I've decided I really like the Uighurs. When we get there the phones are clearly working but connections are unreliable. Miraculously, I get through to Hongkong straight away. I'm confused when "Ayty" our filipino maid answers. But then I remember it's Saturday morning. Her English isn't that great and the desperation in my voice must have freaked her a bit. I leave a voicemail message for Nigel also, but it still seems inconclusive.

This Uighur man is very talkative. As we walk back I try to follow his Chinese, and understand what he is saying, although I can't help being pre-occupied with my own situation. Everything depends on the success of that phone call. It seems Muntsillop is hoping to be accepted into a British University. I wonder if he has any concept of how expensive London is? But he has been so kind. He left his watch as part payment for the phone calls. He says he is leaving town soon and I tell him to give me his address so I can send the money to him. He says it doesn't matter, but eventually he gives me a pager number.

Back at the Hotel I decide that I can't rely on the Hotel to help me. I refuse to believe there are no police available and go off in search on my own. After asking directions from a military post I find another small police office where a couple of officers are lounging around in their singlets watching TV. These guys clearly don't want to be disturbed, and after explaining to them what has happened I wait and wait, becoming more depressed. I wonder if they fully understand my Chinese, but I note they are making phone calls.

My brain is spinning - Nigel has to cancel my visa card. That is the most important thing. It's 2.30 pm and I'm feeling very hungry again. I wonder what it's like to starve to death: probably very uncomfortable. The irony is that if this hadn't happened I would probably be really enjoying Kashi. What a waste! I try to imagine if I have ever been in a worse situation - I can't.

Finally after an hour someone indicates that something is happening. I continue to wait. There is plenty of time to reflect on things, and I torment myself with the now obvious flaws in my preparation for this trip.

I had three separate items:

  • a wallet under my shirt containing one passport, US dollars, Visa card, and HKID card.
  • a waist bag with one passport, US dollars, HK dollars, RMB, and Visa phone no.
  • a wallet in my pocket with small denominations of RMB.

During my infamous shower I momentarily combined all three and put them on the window ledge immediately next to the shower. All I have now is a photocopy of my NZ passport, but not of my Chinese or Pakistan visa. Now there is only one way out of here - back via Urumqi.

Mistake No. 1: should have locked door to shower/toilet area - but of course I didn't want to restrict anyone's access to the toilets.

Mistake No. 2: should have kept things separate - even taking the risk of leaving something in the dorm would have been better.

Mistake No.3: should have been suspicious of the person that came in, and should not have taken my eyes off my things for a second.

What happens next seems ludricrous, and would be funny if I was in the mood. Another Police Officer turns up looking like he's just woken up. He tells me we are going back to the Hotel, and that I should follow him. Then he gets on his bicycle and beckons me to trot after him in the 30 degree heat. Sweating, I eventually arrive at a different Hotel which is also called the "Seman" hotel, but at least there are indications that I'm finally being taken seriously. There are two military vehicles and five young soldiers waiting. One looks like a banana republic general, and one is in full camouflage gear. Great guys.….but wrong hotel!

Finally we get to the right hotel, and for the third time I explain what has happened. On seeing these official looking people the hotel also starts to take my situation a little more seriously. But I'm starting to feel a little frustrated by the disorganisation of these guys. After a lot of endless milling around, two plain clothes policemen finally turn up and to my relief seem to have a much more professional attitude. They take photos and begin preparing a formal report. They tell me I don't need to use Chinese anymore. They are the Foreign Service Police and one of them has good English.

For the first time since the incident I'm beginning to feel there might be a way out of this situation. The hotel is requested to let me stay and run up a tab until money arrives, and in deference to the police they agree. It takes a lot more convincing, but finally they also agree to let me use the phone in the Business Centre. Before I was simply told: dianhua huaile (phone doesn't work).

Such a relief to talk to Nigel. As expected he's on the ball and things are in motion, although it sounds like it will take a while for money to get here - maybe up to two weeks! Nobody it seems, including the banks, have ever heard of this part of the world, and how money gets transferred here is a big question. I'll try ringing Nigel again tonight. I'm beginning to feel more resigned and philosophical about my situation now, and it no longer seems life threatening. Maybe I can have a wander round tonight and pretend this is still a holiday..?

Ishigawa my Japanese room-mate has gone, but he has left me apples and biscuits, along with the coffee. What a nice guy. I knew he was sympathetic, but also a bit embarrassed about the whole thing. There is now another Japanese guy in the dorm, but since he doesn't speak English or Chinese we don't communicate much beyond smiling.

Later that evening I get a fax from the British Consulate in Beijing. This is great - they know about my situation and are switched on to the Kashi scene. The fax somehow gives extra validity to my situation and the staff in the hotel suddenly adopt me as if I'm some famous movie star! Many of the staff there seem genuinely concerned, although I'm still feeling generally resentful towards the management, particularly the painted tart who runs the Business Centre, who previously was so uncooperative. She now seems especially obsequious, and for some reason starts fawning on me:

Ni ji tsui?…..ni jiehuan le ma?…..ni you mei you nu pengyou?

It's agreed that the hotel restaurant will feed me three meals a day for Y40…..a bargain! My first dinner that night is overwhelming. I count eleven dishes plus rice and beer. In fact the waitresses fall over themselves to feed me. Certainly I'm hungry but they must imagine me to be near death. My stomach is so small I fill up within minutes. Hen baoqian, wo yijing bao le!.

I feel embarrassed by their overly attentive service, and it seems that whether I like it or not I'm going to be fed three large meals a day for the entire period. I try to escape as soon as possible.

As the sun sets a sandstorm hits town and really highlights the isolation of this place. It occurs to me that my Chinese has improved enormously since the incident. Clearly by necessity. I spend the evening sitting in the "groovy" traveller's café across the road, while my stomach starts to lurch threateningly. I remember that I had to use the restaurant chopsticks as mine were among the stolen items. I can now imagine the bacterial count in my gut slowly reaching critical mass, and a possible meltdown in my underpants. It seems only a matter of time.

Tomorrow is the famous Sunday Market, so hopefully that will take my mind off things. I know that pickpockets are a feature of the market, and I take comfort in the fact that I now have nothing for anyone to steal.

DAY 5 : KASHI 16 August 1998

It's a clear blue day. I'm force fed at breakfast again but manage to leave for the market by 9.30 (Beijing Time). The market is a wild, wonderful place. Every bit as exciting as I imagined it would be with so many interesting things to photograph. I just wish people would stay still. The best photos I get are close ups within the crowd. Most of my subjects are old men and young girls. Many of the girls are actually keen for me to photograph them which seems very unusual. I spend several hours there until I'm all dried up and then stagger back to the hotel. The air here is extremely dry and parts of the city are reminiscent of Kathmandu. I pass by some stunning women on the way back.

There's a phone message from Muntsillop at the hotel, but there's no response to his pager number. I guess he was about to leave town. I feel terrible now that there no longer seems an opportunity to repay him.

I realise I haven't had a shower since the theft and I wonder if there's been a subconscious resistance to it. During my second shower I realise how often I must have looked away from the window ledge or had my eyes closed. Certainly during the daylight it seems a much easier and safer exercise.

I spend the afternoon back at the café chatting to some Brits who have travelled overland from Uzbekistan. They're leaving tomorrow for the border pass. Three will travel to India via Pakistan, and one will go to Afghanistan to carry out research for his dissertation. I admire his courage. Afghanistan is also on my future list, but I know that things are particularly unstable at the moment outside of Kabul. Still - is there ever a safe time to visit Afghanistan?

There is also a tour group nearby who are having a restrained argument. There have been a couple of major landslides on the Karakoram Highway this side of the border. The tour group has to be in Islamabad by Friday, and they are debating the responsibility for the cost of extra flights in the event of not being able to get to Pakistan overland as originally intended. I'm so glad I didn't book a return flight out of Pakistan. The extra flexibility has paid off now that I can't get into Pakistan.

My stomach is still unsettled. I figure that once I get some money I should still try to cycle up to the Pakistan border. I won't be able to cross of course, since I no longer have a passport or Pakistan visa. I put a note on the café notice board for a cycling partner.

I have my first bout of diarrhoea, but I'm determined to have dinner, as if to deny the fact that I'm sick. Later that afternoon I go back to the market - this time on the bike, and it's a lot of fun weaving my way through the crowd and taking more photos. I feel very tired coming back, and by the time I get to the dinner table I'm listless and weak. The chopsticks in front of me look ominous - hell, I could get hepatitis from these! Must get a clean pair as soon as possible. Eleven dishes again and the only thing I can manage is beer, rice, one or two dumplings, and watermelon. I feel guilty about turning down so much of the food. I apologise again for not eating enough and return to sit at the café across the road………Baoqian, hen haochi keshi wo douzi bu shufu.

About 10% of the traveller population here seem to be hippy types. A group begin chanting in a corner of the restaurant, which is then followed by "Hava Nagila" with guitars. I'm finding it all a bit hard to take, but then I realise that my worsening condition is making me less tolerant. I decide to be sensible and go to bed early. By the time I'm in bed I'm shivering with fever.

DAY 6 : KASHI 17 August 1998

Jintian shi wo de shengri! My fever broke at midnight but I'm still feeling delicate in the early hours. A man wailing in the distance keeps me awake but it's not a problem. I've always enjoyed the sound of Muslim prayer in the morning, and it reminds me of what an amazing place I'm in. My stomach is cramping and I have to get up several times. I'm very weak at the breakfast table and only manage a glass of tea and a small piece of bread. Even then I have to rush out to the toilet.

I try to fax Nigel but it doesn't work so I go back to bed. Around 11.00 am I'm told the police have caught the thief and I have to go to the Police station. What surprises me even more is the hotel giving me Y10 for a taxi.

The thief is a youngish looking Chinese guy who doesn't look at all like the evil villain I imagined. I'm nervous about the prospect of meeting him and what I will say - but it doesn't happen. I feel hostile, but at the same time I can appreciate how much of a temptation it was for him. I'm not sure what will happen to him….but then I realise this is China where life is cheap, and I suspect his punishment might be a little too harsh. It's probably best that I don't meet him.

Apparently, after changing my US dollars into RMB at the bank this morning he tried to use my visa card - blatantly stupid. But then I realise there is general ignorance here about how credit cards work. Even amongst the police I have to explain the difference between traveller's cheques and cash, and a visa card and a travel visa. My two passports are still missing but I get back my credit card, HKID card, and waist bag. It's a shame my visa card no longer works.

One of the police officers gives me Y5 for a taxi back. I try to refuse saying I can walk, but they insist. I walk anyway. Maybe I can use the money to buy some chopsticks. I have another gut attack on the way back and have to duck into a nearby hotel. It's a close call.

Back at the hotel I pick up a fax from Julie: a friend who happens to work in the HK British Consulate. I'm glad she is involved now as well with her connections. I manage a glass of tea and a soft drink for lunch. Soft drink goes down well. I spend the rest of the day in bed without any thought at all of going down to the restaurant for dinner. A California girl has arrived in the dorm. Her name is Shanti and she's a bit of a space cadet….but harmless. She immediately asks me about my scar, but I forgive her when she offers me a bread roll and watermelon. Towards the evening I start to feel a little better.

A different group of police arrive in the evening to take more photos and I repeat my story yet again. Wow - don't these guys talk to each other? How many reports are they writing? I go back to bed getting up only to retrieve a further fax from Julie/Nigel. Ani arrives later and we chat for a bit. I try to give him the Y5 for the breakfast he bought me but he refuses. I fall asleep around 8 pm and generally sleep until morning. So much for my birthday.

DAY 7 : KASHI 18 August 1998

It's another clear morning. I feel a lot better and sit up to see what effect gravity has on my stomach. Seems o.k. and I'm vaguely hungry. I guess I can stop feeling sorry for myself now. I wonder if it's worth risking the hotel restaurant for breakfast, but of course I have no other option. I sit down at the restaurant and the chopsticks (or deathsticks as I've come think of them) are ceremoniously laid out in front of me. I ask for just bread and tea, but as usual there is an assortment of greasy meat and vegetable dishes. I give everything a token wipe with the grubby napkin and try eating what I can.

I spend the morning at the traveller's café reading about all the mountain trekking I could be doing in Pakistan if I were there. The staff there don't know anything about my situation, but kindly bring me a free glass of tea. When I return to the hotel there is a further fax from Nigel, and four representatives from the Bank of China are there to see me. The main purpose of this visit it seems is to tell me what a great job they did catching the thief. They take back my visa card after I have folded it in half and tell me that it should only take one day for money to be transferred from their branch in Beijing - so, in theory, tomorrow. I thank them and we spend the rest of the time chatting. It's obvious that they are in no hurry to go back to the bank.

The police also arrive to tell me my passports were thrown in the Kashi river. I'm vaguely sceptical about this - there is a big market for passports here. But that's it - I have no choice now but to backtrack via Beijing to pick up a new passport, and all hopes of getting to Pakistan are gone.

I go to the police station that evening to pick up the money that has been retrieved. For some reason the police have noted in their report US $400 rather than the $500 that I had stated previously. After a moment's thought it occurs to me that this may be deliberate, and I suspect that they have pocketed the difference. I realise then that it doesn't make any difference to me providing they have the amount stated correctly in the report. They seem happy to correct this and hand to me the RMB that was exchanged. In any case I would rather have lost all the money and got back my passports.

I'm still a little perplexed as I leave the police station and head to the café, but at the same time I'm relieved to have some money at last. Suddenly a voice calls out and I'm pleased to see it's Gia and Christina. I sit down with them and have a relaxing coke, bought with my own money and with the comfort of never having to eat in the hotel restaurant again. From the café I'm also able to send an email to Nigel and Julie. I then return to the hotel to pay off my outstanding bills. The phone bills are ridiculously expensive which I guess is typical of hotels.

I'm now able to devote my thoughts to other activities. At the hotel I also arrange to have some laundry done, and suddenly I am face to face with the laundry girl. She is Turkic, and one of the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. From the first glance I am speechless, and then slowly I starting mouthing some words. Oh tragedy!! she doesn't speak Chinese - we can't communicate! The laundry transaction is completed far too quickly. She takes the bundle and hands me a receipt while hardly giving me a glance. I'm left standing there like an idiot. Reluctantly I leave, but continue looking back in her direction like a puppy dog. She doesn't show any interest in me, but of course it's difficult to charm someone when all you can offer is a gormless grin.

I spend the rest of the evening planning my journey up to the border. I'll travel to Lake Karakul with the American girls on Thursday with a view to getting to Beijing by 31 August. I go to bed with at last a feeling of certainty about my future.

DAY 8 : KASHI 19 August 1998

I pay off the rest of my debts and then loiter around the laundry area. The laundry goddess has her hair down this morning. Again it's all a major tragedy for me. Finally I say goodbye for ever, and go to ring the British and NZ embassies in Beijing. I have breakfast with a loud, friendly Bostonian and his two kids.

I cycle to the bus station to check out tickets for tomorrow and become acquainted with two other girls on rental bikes: Helen (meiguo huaqiao) and Xiemeng (beijing ren). Xiemeng joins me for a bike ride to some of the sights around Kashi which generally are pretty boring, but she's very pleasant company.

I guess it really emphasises the important thing about travelling. It's not so much about seeing sights but more to do with meeting different people and experiencing different lifestyles. We often cycle past the sights because we are too busy talking. There is a good language exchange between us since her English is about as good as my Chinese. We have lunch at a Uighur restaurant - the laghman is the best food I've had in Kashi so far: noodles, meat, vegetables. My stomach is fine now and it's a pleasant day. We agree we should meet up in Beijing since we're likely to arrive there a similar time.

That night I arrange purchase of a plane ticket back to Urumqi and afterwards Xiemeng and I meet again for dinner, along with her friends Helen, Melanie: a British girl, and Melanie's Chinese boyfriend. Melanie is on holiday from her job at the British Consulate in Beijing. Naturally she knows the people I've been dealing with. The conversation at the dinner table is almost entirely in Chinese and I struggle to keep up, but they're all good company.

DAY 9 : KASHI - KARAKUL - SUBASH 20 August 1998

I get up knowing I haven't had enough sleep. I meet with Xiemeng and we go to the military station to see if there are going to be any problems for me travelling to Karakul without a passport. There is a military checkpoint along the way, and according to Xiemeng, the PLA soldiers are notoriously stupid. Xiemeng's Chinese makes the whole exercise a lot easier and quicker. Apparently the stamp on my police report blitzes all other bureaucracy and there won't be a problem. The report can serve as my travel document until I get a replacement passport. Unfortunately it still doesn't allow me to exit China.

I meet Gia and Christina again at the bus station and say goodbye to Xiemeng. As usual the locals are amazed at the concept of quick release wheels as I load my bike onto the bus. It's a pleasant trip up to Lake Karakul with the scenery becoming progressively more dramatic, although I have the beginnings of a cold. I unload at the lake but Gia and Christina decide to carry on to Tashkurgan. The accomodation at the lake is a bit more spartan than they imagined. I start cycling at 6.30 pm thinking that I can make Tashkurgan by nightfall.

It's a slight uphill with a headwind - not a good start, and my lack of fitness begins to show. Being at 12 000 feet doesn't help either. I pass by various Kirghiz huts. The people living in these communities seem so pathetic. They have all given up their traditional lifestyle in exchange for grubbing for tourist dollars.

It's obvious by 9 pm that I'm not going to make Tashkurgan tonight - no way. The map I have is not very detailed but I set my sights on Subash. It turns out that I'm mistaken about it's location. I see a series of uphill switchbacks in the distance and I decide that getting up this, and out of the valley, is my goal for the day.

The 1000 ft climb seems endless, but finally I get to the top just on sunset. I'm exhausted and feeling the effects of altitude. I've also drunk all my water. There's no plateau at the top as I had imagined, but I'm still convinced Subash is around somewhere. The place is empty - no signs of habitation, just miles of rubble desert. After downhilling in the dark for ten minutes I see some lights. I'm completely wasted when I arrive at what is a military training camp. I ask if I can stay the night but they don't want me there and become increasingly aggressive. In my delirious state I also become aggressive and take my time leaving. I'm sure they see me as just another crazy foreigner, and certainly I'm feeling stupid about my mistake.

Subash was obviously the small collection of stone huts at the foot of the hill I had just climbed, and the Subash "plateau" was in fact the valley below. I resign myself to sleeping out in the desert that night. I move off the road in the near darkness and try to feel heroic about the idea of sleeping on a pile of rubble and having no dinner. It's cold already but I have a good sleeping bag. During the night the temperature plummets to near zero but I'm warm. In spite of that I don't sleep at all and spend the whole night thinking under a brilliant blanket of stars. It occurs to me that there may not be any food or water until Tashkurgan 70 kms away, and I'm not sure if it is downhill all the way.

DAY 10: SUBASH - KARAKUL - TASHKURGAN 21 August 1998

It's very cold in the morning when I get out of the sleeping bag, and I'm very hungry. It goes against my instincts, but I decide that the most prudent thing to do would be to backtrack and get some food at Subash or Karakul. I hate the thought of going back up the hill and wasting all that hard work the night before, but I can't risk collapsing through exhaustion or dehydration looking for food in this barren wasteland.

Going back uphill proves even harder than I imagined and I'm dreaming of a continental breakfast: coffee, croissants, maybe a pancake, and lots and lots of orange juice. No chance of that in this part of the world. I'm thinking also that it might be worth flagging down a truck going to Tashkurgan. I don't mind being hungry for another hour or so if I'm on the back of a truck, but there's little or no traffic at this time.

I reach an emotional low point three quarters of the way up, and for some perverse reason I decide to take a self-timed photo for posterity - just in case I ever forget how bad it was.

After another half hour I decide to stop and wait for a ride back to Karakul. Sure enough a truck pulls up and I load up. It's not until I start speaking that I realise how haggard I am. We set off around the first corner and immediately we are at the top. The view over the valley is fantastic and I suddenly feel anxious. I should be photographing this. After all, this is the whole point of being here.

I make a quick decision and ask the two Chinese men in the cab if they have any food. They give me a fried dough concoction, and they're confused when I tell them I want to get out after only two minutes. I guzzle their tea, give them Y10, and clamber out. They drive off looking confused, and maybe a bit intimidated by this crazy foreigner. I don't care. I sit on the road edge admiring the view and eating the mutton/dough thing which is delicious. My stomach has shrunk so much I can't eat it all in one go, but I'm feeling a lot better. I take photos all the way down and amble into the group of huts at the bottom.

The kids there offer me cold yak milk but I don't want to risk getting sick again. Eventually they give me some murky tea, and I finish the mutton. I fill up my water bottles and it's an easy cycle back to Karakul. This time a slight downhill and no wind. At Karakul I finally get a proper meal of rice and vegetables. I'm expecting a tourist bus to Tashkurgan to arrive at 6 pm, but in spite of the pleasant lakeside view of mountains I get sick of waiting and flag down a local bus. The local bus is every bit as bad as I imagined it with people and animals crammed inside. My real concern though is whether the bike will fall off the roof. It's a rough ride. We get to the point where I spent the previous night and I get off the bus, again to the astonishment of the locals. As it turns out it is downhill all the way, and there are settlements at regular intervals.

It's hot in the desert as I get lower down, and very dry and barren but with views of distant snow covered mountains. Vegetation starts appearing again 20 kms out from Tashkurgan as I enter a gorge. Coming out of the gorge the road flattens out and becomes a bit of a drag. It strikes me that the only sensible way to go on a bike is downhill.

Tashkurgan means "stone fortress" and I'm looking out for signs in the distance of the 600 year old ruins. Finally I arrive at the town and check into the Bingshan (Icemountain) Hotel. I'm tired, but I want to photograph the fort before sunset. The ruins seem a bit of an anti-climax - but then I remind myself: they are 600 years old. I take several photos to celebrate my arrival. Walking back, I spot some familiar fellow tourists: a very pleasant French/Chinese family. They tell me Gia and Christina are in their Hotel. Makes me think how wonderful it is that fellow travellers relate so easily to one another.

I spend most of the evening trying to organise some hot water for a shower and shave which I desperately need. I'm so tired and don't manage to eat dinner until 11.00 pm. Dinner is in a dark, smoky hut filled with quiet, serious men with beards and head rags. I finally get back to the Hotel and it's a relief to get to bed away from the freezing cold outside. My cold is much worse, but my bed is infinitely more comfortable than the pile of rocks I experienced the previous night.

DAY 11: TASHKURGAN - KARAKUL - BULUNKUL 22 August 1998

The following morning I arrive at the bus station at 9.00 am and finally catch up with Gia and Christina. I've decided also to catch a bus back. There's no point cycling up to the pass since it's uphill all the way and there doesn't seem to be anything more of interest along the way - just more rocks. Later I came to regret this laziness, since the pass itself is a significant place.

Finally the ticket office opens and the locals begin to scrap. Obviously there are limited seats available. I'm wondering if I also need to join in the fight, but then I'm relieved to see that there is a separate tourist bus for foreigners.

There are quite a few other foreigners around, including a fellow kiwi wearing a shalwar chamiz. The bus is delayed by two hours, but the time is spent chatting with other travellers against a backdrop of mountains shining in the morning sun. I'm in two minds about whether to take the bus all the way back to Kashi. But I tell myself not to be such a wimp, and end up buying a ticket to Karakul. We finally head away and I spend most of the trip chatting with Gia beside me. We exchange farewells and addresses at Karakul. Hopefully, I'll catch up with both of them again in Kashi tomorrow.

After another "expensive" meal at Karakul (Y30) I set off on a leisurely ride to Bulunkul. It's windy and I'm in no hurry to get to the Ghez checkpoint until tomorrow - hopefully when there is less wind. Unlike my experiences in Heaven Lake, I now have romantic notions of staying in one of the yurts in Bulunkul. The ride is pleasant with some reasonable photos along the way, but it's starting to get late. The wind picks up as I approach the head of the Ghez canyon, and I'm standing on the pedals while going downhill as I finally approach two solitary yurts opposite a range of sandy mountains.

I arrive at 6.00 pm and I'm greeted with enthusiasm. I'm reminded again of Heaven Lake and I'm wondering if I really want to do this - but I guess at this stage the only option is to camp out. After two hours inside the yurt I'm seriously considering the option. These people are so backward, and I must seem like a freak from another planet to them. I'm not able to communicate with them very effectively in Chinese, and they seem to have a limited knowledge of even the major Chinese cities. The food is awful and as expected the yurt is filled with dust and flies. Mum occupies herself by picking the nits out of her daughter's hair, while Grandad sits and grins at me with a half drool expression.

I spend the time writing up my diary which I've neglected for two days - probably because I haven't been so self-obsessed recently. I decide to kill more time by going out for a walk, and hopefully it will be time to go to bed soon after. Outside it starts to gets very cold with a gale force wind. After a beautiful sunset I resign myself to going back inside.

Finally the lights are out, but Mum is continuously ranting on to Dad about something. After an hour I can't handle it anymore, along with the thought of catching nits or some other interesting disease. So I grab my things and head outside to sleep under the stars. It's freezing and windy, but once I'm in my bag I'm fine. I'm dreading the thought of it raining and having to sheepishly go back inside the yurt. Luckily, it doesn't rain and I have a reasonable night.

DAY 12: BULUNKUL - GHEZ - KASHI 23 August 1998

The next morning it's clear with no wind. There is already plenty of noise coming from the yurts. With a minimum of fuss I pack my bags, and then breakfast on tea and a stale lump of bread. I pay them Y20 and start riding again around 10 am.

Already the wind has picked up but the final hill ahead of me is easier than expected. I linger at the top of the Ghez canyon taking photos and experience a sudden euphoria about being in the mountains alone again. It's downhill all the way from here, and I'm excited by the prospect of having a whole day to explore this awesome place. I have a great time going down the canyon taking photos, and rolling easily over the washed out sections of the Karakoram highway. On the way down I pass four trucks heading the opposite way towards Pakistan, although one is stationary with a broken axle. It will be days before he gets out.

I stop at the Hotsprings restaurant and have a breakfast of eggs and tomato. I'm tired but enjoying the peacefulness of the mountains. Although the peace is eventually disturbed by a bunch of Chinese tourists from Tianjin who arrive in a minivan. Although I'm friendly at first, I react unkindly when they continue to treat me like I'm one of the tourist attractions to be goggled at from close quarters.

I carry on savouring the downhill to Ghez and finally arrive at the checkpoint around 2 pm. As I'm ordering some nan bread a Chinese person appears around the corner with a voice so familiar that I immediately relate to him: "Yeah gidday, hey have you got any spanners?" After chatting for a few minutes my suspicions are confirmed: he's a kiwi, and like me, he's cycling the Karakoram Highway. Only he's on a $ 50 clunker he bought in Kashi, and he seems so poorly equipped with a haphazard arrangement of bags tied on with string. I feel sorry for him. Particularly as he is going the opposite way up the Ghez canyon. I'm tempted to give him my miniature shot pump so that he can discard the industrial size model he has sellotaped to his bike frame - but it doesn't suit his tyres, and of course I still need it myself.

After only one day out of Kashi his bike is already falling apart. I'm not able to help him with spanners either since my bike doesn't need them, but we have a good chat for an hour or so. He has travelled the Silk Road from Iran and is now trying to cycle to Pakistan. As I imagined, he is finding the journey very hard. He is now spending a day at Ghez recovering from his previous day of cycling, and I don't envy the climb ahead of him tomorrow. He has spent most of his life in NZ and, ironically, doesn't speak any Chinese.

I can recognise that young Kiwi "have a go" mentality in him that drives people to undergo ridiculous physical ordeals, and ignore all common sense. Admittedly, I'm still a bit like that, but hopefully getting away from the more extreme tendencies. Although it could also be that I'm simply getting soft in my old age. I feel very spoilt next to him with my high-tech Cannondale and state of the art panniers. I've got all the gear and yet I still find it hard.

I wish him luck and go through the checkpoint. I know that the 130 kms back to Kashi is a long, hot stretch with little worthwhile scenery, so I feel justified in trying to hitch a ride. As it happens a modern tourist minivan is returning half empty, and I'm able to sit in comfort with my bike next to me in the aisle. It only takes two hours to get back, and I manage to catch Gia and Christina in the Seman hotel before they leave on their flight to Urumqi. My flight is not until Wednesday, and it occurs to me that I could have problems getting out on an earlier flight.

That evening I have dinner with the Kiwi I met in Tashkurgan, and two Aussies at the local al fresco dining scene. This now seems more appropriate and enjoyable than the "groovy" and overpriced traveller's café that attracts most foreigners staying in Kashi.

DAY 13: KASHI 24 August 1998

I pick up the money that has been transferred to me by the British Consulate. Back at the hotel a thermos flask explodes onto my bare foot and they want me to pay for it. I tell them to go to hell - really starting to hate this hotel.

I go for a longish bike ride to nowhere eating Hami melon at regular intervals and then head out to the airport that evening to try my luck catching an earlier flight to Urumqi. There is an Italian family there who also want to catch an earlier flight, since they were bumped off their scheduled flight yesterday. They hear me speaking Chinese to the airport staff and ask me to translate for them. I do my best, but the officials are generally unhelpful. Ultimately though they manage to get on the 9.00 pm flight, but mainly as a result of their own efforts.

I'm concentrating on the midnight flight now. It starts to rain as it gets dark and I don't want to have to cycle back to town after waiting for six hours. The French-Chinese family are also there and the Chinese father tries to help me secure one of the empty seats remaining. But the guys behind the desk won't confirm anything.

I meet Xue-hua while waiting and she tries to help also. She's from Chengdu and not without her attractiveness. If nothing else it helps to pass the time waiting. She will be passing through HK next month and I give her my address.

I manage to get the last seat on the plane and feel enormously relieved. When we arrive at Urumqi airport the same man is patiently waiting in the baggage area with my bike. Xue-hua is staying with friends and I head to the Hongshan Hotel. She says she'll give me a call in HK - women always say that.

DAY 14: URUMQI 25 August 1998

I now have to fly to Beijing to pick up a new passport and I talk to the tour people at the hotel about buying a plane ticket. Among the people there is Li WuShi who doesn't seem to recognise me. The only confirmed seat available is in two days time so I buy a ticket in the hope of catching the earlier flight tomorrow.

After overfeeding myself at the Holiday Inn breakfast buffet I spend the rest of the morning waddling along trying to find Urumqi's only email café. Once there I'm able to send a further message to Nigel.

In the afternoon I decide that Urumqi is a really boring place to cycle around, although I do meet an interesting Chinese guy who is in the middle of a cycle trip around China. He's already done a phenomenal distance starting from Harbin in the north-east, then down through Shanghai and across to Urumqi - all on a Chinese made clunker complete with flag. He has a large scale return loop planned also. Wow! He must really like road cycling - something I still can only partly relate to.

I ring the NZ/British Embassies in Beijing to confirm my likely arrival. Damn! NZ passport is going to take three days after I arrive - then I've got to get a replacement visa from the Chinese authorities. So much for getting back to HK by the weekend.

I spend the evening drinking beer morosely in one of the cafes. Urumqi isn't exactly the garden spot of China and I don't want to spend too much time here. A pleasant American sits down and we talk about the status of the Pakistan border. He's planning to go to Pakistan but is concerned about the sensationalised reports coming from CNN and the US Embassy there recommending that all American citizens leave. I tell him that I don't really know how serious things are, but that there are still plenty of foreigners crossing the border into Pakistan.

Eventually I go for a walk looking for icecream. I buy one and throw it away, then buy another one and throw it away - the colour alone puts me off. I settle for an iceblock.

DAY 15: URUMQI 26 August 1998

Urumqi Airport is another exercise in stress management and ends with me not getting on the flight. Apparently it's the end of a public holiday and there are a lot of people returning to Beijing - but Beijing is always a popular destination for business and travel from anywhere in China. I met up briefly again with Xue-hua. She wasn't able to get to Chengdu yesterday but has got a seat for today's flight. I help her with luggage and we say good-bye again.

It takes two leisurely hours to cycle back to town and again it's very pleasant, but I now have more time to kill in this place. I try to cheer myself up with lunch at Holiday Inn and lots of coffee - but I don't have much appetite in spite of no breakfast. I spend a lot of the day sleeping and thinking. Again little appetite for dinner, but the beer is o.k. I'm told that Bogda Feng is visible from Urumqi, and I try to find some high ground before sunset to get a glimpse. But I only get a partial view of snow covered mountains from a rubbish dump.

DAY16: URUMQI - BEIJING 27 August 1998

This time I get up early and cycle to the airport. Urumqi Airport seems a much more relaxed place now that I have a ticket for today's flight. Unfortunately I'm on the wrong side of the plane and don't get a view of Bogda Feng and the Tianshan mountains. The aircraft is the oldest thing I've ever flown in and all the safety instructions are in Russian. My seat belt doesn't work properly and music is played at high volume throughout the flight. I'm not too bothered though as we are flying across Mongolia and the landscape is fascinating.

We land at Beijing Airport and I'm expecting a similar chinese man to be waiting in the baggage area with my bike, but this time there's no one. Everyone's luggage is arriving up the conveyor belt and I'm thinking: surely they wouldn't try to send it up on the conveyor??!

Sure enough there's a banging and crushing sound, and my bike jams at the top. I haul it free but there's no serious damage. All the same it puts me in a bad mood as I head directly to the NZ embassy.

Debbie looks like she's straight out of some provincial NZ university, and experiencing the world for the first time. She has a naïve homeliness that I've seen before in kiwi girls, and it's unlikely that working in a sheltered environment like an overseas embassy will change that. But she's very nice, and is the one responsible for my new passport. Contrary to her previous advice it will be ready tomorrow, but will cost Y1500 (NZ$ 400) - even for an express passport it's a ridiculous price, but I have no choice. It's a large proportion of the money I have left, and I now have to be careful about my spending if I want to get back to HK. Consequently I don't bother to get a replacement British passport, but I call around to the British Consulate to thank Scott: the person responsible for helping me, and pass on a message from his colleague Melanie.

I go straight to the Beijing Public Service Bureau who say it will take five working days to issue a replacement visa. This seemss ridiculous for a large, international city like Beijing, when in HK a new visa is available in one day. But then I realise I am up against the epitomy of Chinese bureaucracy. The people there don't even want to talk to me because it is fifteen minutes to closing time, and I begin to get a further insight into the non-thinking mentality of Chinese officialdom. In hindsight, dealing with these people proves to be the one of the most difficult and disturbing aspects of the trip.

I check into a hotel that Gia told me about in the southern part of the city. After sneaking my bike into the room I ring Xiemeng's number and manage to talk reasonably effectively to her father. Xiemeng is now in Turfan, so I leave the hotel number for her to call when she arrives back in Beijing. I spend the evening drinking beer with an interesting bunch of Slovakian travellers.

DAY 17 - 22: BEIJING 28 August - 1 September 1998

Cycling around Beijing is fun, but relies on listening to a walkman and avoiding eye contact with bus drivers. This is my second visit to the Chinese capital, and it occurs to me that a bike is the only sensible way to get around. It's a big city and definitely not a place for walking.

I pick up my new passport and head straight to the PSB office. But at 11.30 am they are already closed for lunch. I waste a bit of time cycling around Tiananmen Square and eating ice-blocks. When I return at 1.00 pm there is a long queue waiting to go in. I'm finally at the counter and it takes a long time before anyone even looks at me. It's the start of a long and difficult process, and the detail of it is too boring and frustrating to bother recording - suffice to say that I eventually get a replacement visa issued on Tuesday the following week i.e. three working days.

The rest of that time is spent cycling around and enjoying Beijing, including a visit to the Great Wall at Simatai. Beijing certainly appeals to me as a place to work and study.

DAY 23: BEIJING - SHENZHEN - HK 2 September 1998

On my last day in Beijing I finally catch up with Xiemeng and we have brunch together. I have a cheap flight to Shenzhen in the afternoon, since I don't have enough money for a direct flight to HK. I've heard Shenzhen is a bad place, but I haven't stopped there before and in some ways it's just as convenient, since the new HK airport is quite a distance from HK island also.

I kiss Xiemeng on the cheek and say goodbye for the last time, and then start cycling out to the airport. I can't afford the taxi fare. Unlike all the previous flights this one is a boring four hours, and we arrive at 6.00 pm. It takes a while for me to orient myself at the airport but then I realise that I need to take a bus into the city since it's a long way and getting late. In any case the airport is within a buffer zone surrounding the Special Economic Zone that is Shenzhen. The bus conductor eventually lets me take the bike on the bus when I show him how I can remove the wheels. I have to buy two tickets even though I'm only taking up one seat.

We travel towards the city and stop at a passport control checkpoint in the outskirts. This place is like a post-nuclear wasteland with rubbish scattered everywhere. The traffic clogs up as we get nearer the centre, and in my typically impulsive fashion I decide it will be quicker by bike.

It's dark when I unload at one of the early stops, and then it begins to rain - excellent! One of the gear cables on the bike has also broken - hmmm, not bad I guess, considering it is the first and only problem I have had with the bike. I pedal off in one gear in the rain towards the neon lights and rush hour traffic.

Shenzhen city seems o.k. compared to it's disastrous surroundings. In fact in many ways it is cleaner and more pedestrian friendly than Hongkong, but I don't want to spend the night there. I cycle with increasing urgency in the humid conditions, and the locals are friendly and happy to give me directions. I get to the railway station hot and grubby, and flounder around trying to find the right exit level. The Chinese immigration officials look bored and disgruntled, and only give me a cursory glance as I pass.

Eventually I cross a line and suddenly I'm in HK. The difference is immediate. Everything seems so ordered and familiar. The platform attendants are relaxed and efficient, and even have a sense of humour. I realise that I'm in a typical Hongkong MTR station. I put on a clean shirt, and with my last few dollars I buy a ticket to Kowloon and a Mars bar - home at last!

EPILOGUE:

The most striking memories I have of this trip are not of despair and hunger, or disappointment about my trip not going to plan. Instead, they are of staggering mountain scenery, the experience of a fascinating culture, and of the great friends I made along the way. This is captured in the many photographs I took, and outweighs by far the low points of the trip.

In fact, the theft of my belongings, although distressing at the time, has given me a better perspective on things and made me realise how lucky I am to have these travel opportunities.

I remain convinced that travel of any kind, and the good and bad experiences that result, is ultimately worthwhile and rewarding. I would welcome an opportunity to go back to this area, and similarly would recommend this trip to anyone.

John McHale