30th October - 6th November 2003
It was not permitted to cycle across the border from Mongolia to China so we had to take a mini-van taxi. This actually made the border crossing a little easier because the taxi driver shepherded us through passport control and took us to a cheap hotel in Erlian.
The transition from Mongolia to China was amazing, suddenly there were wide smooth tarmac roads, rows of shops, markets filled with fruit and vegetables, even stalls selling seaweed of all things! There was a vast range of food in the restaurants, none of it mutton, and we had to eat with chopsticks. Best of all were the bicycles, and the pedicabs (rickshaws) and tricycles used to transport things up to the size of sofas. We took a pedicab to the bookshop (in search of a road atlas), the guy pedalled steadily along with three people sat in the back!
Next day we set off south, the landscape had changed little from Mongolia, open desolate grasslands with the odd flock of sheep. The gers had gone though, replaced by brick houses and the cows were kept in barns during the winter. The wind had also changed, the north-westerly that had blown us across the Gobi had become a strong westerly that often hindered our progress. We had expected cafes but found none so that evening found us camped in a sheltered hollow cooking for ourselves. This was typical of the scenery:
In our enthusiasm for some Chinese food we stopped at a police post thinking that it might be a cafe. The policemen were friendly and one spoke English. He took us to a house where a Mongolian family served us milk tea and "white food" (snacks and biscuits made from milk). Interestingly although he had been born in Hohhot in Inner Mongolia and spoke Mongolian, he didn't drink his milk tea. Han Chinese are lactose intolerant. Further south we passed a wind farm which was hardly surprising as the wind had been screaming out of the west for three days now.
Next day we hit trouble. We had just sat down to a delicious meal in a cafe on the outskirts of town when a policeman came in and asked us for our passports. He waitied politely while we finished our meal and then escorted us to the police station. We rode through the town on our bikes with one policeman in front and one behind on motor bikes! In the police station they brought along an English teacher to explain to us that we were in a closed town and would have to "accept the punishment". Closed towns are a serious hazard for the Chinese cycle tourist, they are not marked in any way and may lie across major highways. I had wrongly assumed that because some people we knew had cycled this way two years ago, we would have no problems, but they were obviously lucky enough to avoid detection. Strangely the police do not seem to be interested in stopping cyclists on the road, they like to catch them in towns, perhaps because then it is less trouble to take them to the police station.
Anyway the "punishment" was a 1000 Yuan fine, about $125. We genuinely didn't have that much money on us (except in dollars) and were able to get them down to 500 Yuan which seemed bad enough. They wrote out statements in Chinese which I had to sign by writing my name and making a fingerprint in red ink over it. This took most of the afternoon, it was 4pm by the time we were allowed to leave. They had said we must leave by bus, but relented as we were going, perhaps because we agreed to go without waiting for the receipt for the fine from the bank (maybe thus allowing them to pocket it). As a result instead of getting into Jining that day we camped 10km down the road, with 45km still to go to Jining.
Had we been in Jining that night we would have been laughing, as it was we were camped in a shallow quarry and about 9pm it began to snow heavily. It snowed all night, as morning approached the wind swung round from the east to the north and the temperature plumeted. We weren't cold but in the morning the tent flysheet was stiff with ice and the road was covered in snow.
The snow wasn't too much of a problem but as we approached Jining the snow changed to black ice. In the space of 15km we passed no fewer than three crashed buses (fortunately none of them overturned), five overturned lorries and a couple of cars that had left the road.
We were very relieved to arrive safely in Jining. The whole town was a skating rink but we found our way to a cheap hotel, got ourselves into the warm and then went out for a big meal!
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