Takashiken to Urumqi and Khorgas: notes from the last few days:
I cycled the 600km from Takashiken to Urumqi in 4 days, you could do it in 3 if you're really going for it. Five or 6 days would be comfortable. I went S320, S228, east on the Z917, South on the G216. The Z917 was full of trucks, but the G216 from where it meets the Z917 is newly paved, still being painted and not open to vehicles yet. Makes for a really nice quiet 70km without police, trucks or cars.
A policeman told me I should have taken the sightly longer route and used the G216 all the way as there are fewer trucks. Not sure if that's good advice, or just the route with more checkpoints.
Police checkpoints were leaving Takashiken, entering Ertay, halfway down the S228, then not again until 60km from Urumqi where there are lots of them. So averaging every 100-200km away from the cities, depending on route. Lots more checkpoints along the G30 route heading west, but you'll avoid them if you're on the G30.
Each stop took about 20 minutes. One took 90 minutes, but I realised a week later that's because I had turned up at 7am, not realising that even though officially they use Beijing time they actually run on Xinjiang time, so I'd turned up at 5am equivalent, so had to spend an hour waiting for the right person to (presumably get out of bed and) turn up. All asked the usual questions, except everyone does ask where your stayed the previous night and where you will stay that night. No bag searches at any checkpoints, but I'd keep your Leatherman/multitool out of sight in case they peer into the top of your bag.
Police don't have any real understanding of how long is a reasonable day by bike, or which hotels accept foreigners, or any knowledge of towns outside the immediate area. So if you're camping just have some towns with hotels bookmarked on Baidu maps to show them. There was no checking with other checkpoints or confirming with hotels, so you can be vague and they will be satisfied. They will often ask if you need help so getting them to point out hotels on your map is good. A few filled up my drinking water, some offered a hose for or a wash on hot days. All were polite, some were more friendly than others.
I camped the first 3 nights until Urumqi. My only big mistake was to camp 15km North of Ertay, making it difficult to explain where I had come from when arriving at a checkpoint after 30 minutes, at 5am. I just said 'near the previous town' and stayed vague, claiming not to have recorded the name. I think they knew what was going on. They also knew there were no towns with hotels within 235km South...so I just said 'oh well, long day for me then' and pretended like I was going to make it that distance anyway. It was an uncomfortable stop, but survivable. I guess make sure you pass any towns or potential checkpoints before setting up for the night. Obvious in retrospect.
I didn't ask any hotels before Urumqi if they accepted foreigners, so they may do. It's worth checking, probably by getting a Chinese speaking friend to call ahead if you want to avoid difficulty.
Very few water stops on the S228 and Z917. Prep for a couple of days without restocking. This isn't Mongolia and there aren't hamlets/nomads/etc everywhere, just big expanses of desert. That said, multiple times per day people would stop their cars and hand me water - your mileage may vary, maybe I just looked particularly sweaty and pitiful.
Aside from permanent checkpoints I've been stopped by passing police around twice per day when near towns (not at all in the countryside). Stops are quick, usual boring questions.
Lots of hotels in Urumqi, you'll have no bother. No police hassles after the checkpoints on the outskirts.
Cycling to Khorgas, the Wuyuang Holiday in Hutubi is apparently OK for foreigners and I was told that Hutubi is not off limits, but was told that as I was being driven through Hutubi to the next county by the police (not mandatory, but 'a very good offer' that I 'should definitely accept'). Advised by police that it's OK to camp after Shehezi, but I'm sure that's not true and I think they just wanted me out of their county. Next checkpoint gave me a lift the rest of the way to Shehezi.
Shawan is indeed off limits, was driven from 10km before to about 30km after. Police say that no foreigners are allowed.
Huochzhan Hofon OK for foreigners, and so is one more hotel about a block north. Both ~400/night. Neither listed on Baidu or maps.me. Apparently the place listed as accepting foreighners on maps.me does not (?anymore).
Road through Wusu is "being repaired" wink wink so police gave me a lift through the town. No sign of road repairs taking place. So also off limits. Advised by 2 sets of police officers that bikes are not allowed on the G30, and there is a 'national road' running parallel that's about 70% paved. Later on the police at a checkpoint put me on the G30, the toll booth people later seemed surprised but just waved me through. Kept using the G30 next day without issue.
Stayed at a hotel in NE Jinghe, near the station (288/night, didn't investigate other options much but all looked pricey). Lots of good places to eat dinner in town.
Was trying to decide between cycling to Sayram lake in one go via the G30 (145km), or taking 2 days via Bortala and the smaller roads. At the decision point I had a tail wind and some clouds to temper the sun so decided to climb the whole lot while conditions were good. 60km all uphill, nothing much to see on the way, no shade so hot as when the sun is out. The other way might be more interesting, but it's about 70km longer. Stayed at a motel just before the lake (120/night and very basic, you can do better), pretty sure he snuck me in and they're not licensed. Motel owner said camping at the lake isn't allowed anymore, but that may not be true.
Lovely ride down to Khorgas with some stunning views, after the downhill got directed to the G312 instead of the G30. Many places to stay, very easy, could make it to Zharkent same day if needed. Lots of places to stay in Khorgas (Chinese side).
New port is hilariously oversized on the Chinese end. Crossing by bike no problem at all. Port opens at 11am (Beijing time) and the staff take a good half an hour or so to warm up and get to their desks. Don't bother to turn up early thinking you'll get a headstart, I'd just wait until after lunch. Expect the same level of searching and questions that you got going in to Xinjiang, maybe even a more thorough search of electronic devices. There is a little snack shop, or just bring your next meal, this border takes a while.
Leaving was the first time anybody really looked very hard at my passport, inc under UV light. It had gotten wet nearly 10 years ago and the ink from some European entry stamp ran, looking gross under UV. This caused several hours of delay while they worried about it.
There were a few other foreigners trying to cross at the same time (Japanese, not sure of other nationalities). Mysterious delays meant their bus left without them. They tried to walk to the Kazakh border but were told that's not allowed. The next bus picked them up instead - seemed to be common.
A couple of police and border staff had stories about grumpy westerners who was fed up with the questions and quick to anger at the intrusion. Their attitude was 'why would we help when the foreigner is being rude?'. So keep relaxed and calm, try and have a chat when appropriate and let all the searching wash over you, then you'll be done quicker and have more fun.
And that's me out of China!
All about China. Expert: bwv812
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