Josh Summers had been blogging his Xinjiang adventures for the past three years at Far West China when events overtook him, along with everyone else in the "Uyghur Autonomous Region." Since the Urumqi riots, his blog has been blocked, but it hasn't stopped him from exploring Xinjiang by motorcycle. We're pleased to present a bit of Josh's Xinjiang motorcycle diaries here on China Travel.
"I'm going to have to confiscate your motorcycle" the Chinese police officer stoically informed me. "You have got to be kidding me!" I said to myself. Never mind that I was hours from home in the middle of the desert. Never mind that it was the heat of the day and I was at least 10 km from civilization. I shouldn't have been surprised, though. Freedom comes at a price, I've learned, but it's a price I don't mind paying. Since obtaining my Chinese driver's license this year and purchasing my first motorcycle I have yet to take a motorcycle journey in Xinjiang that hasn't led to some unexpected adventure.
My wife and I used to be perfectly happy traveling around China strictly the old-fashioned way – buses, trains, and the occasional airplane. It wasn't until early spring of this year when a couple of travelers passed through our city on motorcycles that I decided I needed to try it myself. By this point, my third year in China, I had ridden a bicycle through our city enough to understand Chinese traffic patterns and had learned enough of the language to feel comfortable taking a written driving test.
So, two months and a large chunk of change later I earned the first drivers license ever given to a foreigner in our city. A day later I was cruising the flattop and avoiding potholes in my used, domestic-brand motorcycle.
The first weekend of freedom was spent doing something my wife and I had always wanted to do in Xinjiang: go camping. Back in the States we had loved camping and were reluctant to give up this freedom when moving to China, so this was our chance. After strapping all the necessary equipment to the bike we headed west toward Kazakhstan, determining to make it all the way to the cool mountain ranges along the border. What we expected was a nice relaxing ride followed by a comfortable evening around the tent, but what we got was a very different experience.
Instead of trouble-free sections of spacious highway, vast stretches of terribly windy desert combined with oversized tractor-trailers sharing a narrow road forced me to stay fully alert while driving. To make matters worse, the beautiful mountain ranges we could see in the distance just didn't arrive fast enough. Since Xinjiang has no campgrounds, we just pulled off the road before we ran out of daylight and set up tent in the desert. It wasn't at all what we had planned but it somehow exceeded our expectations. The absence of cars, cities, and wildlife produced a night so quiet that I could hear my heart beating as I slept.
Naturally, on our next trip we avoided the desert at all costs as we headed south toward the capital of Urumqi. This time, however, I was struck not by the sounds that were missing but rather by the smells I had missed all these years. Throughout my travels in Xinjiang and China, most of my time outside the city was spent within the confines of an enclosed vehicle, allowing me to see the landscape but preventing me from using any of my other 4 senses.
On my motorcycle we were able to stop and, literally, smell the sunflowers—Xinjiang's most abundant bloom. Open stretches of road that carved through endless blocks of farmland supplied us with such a variety of scents that it was hard to keep up with what I smelled. I parked the bike halfway through the trip to observe and take pictures of a herd of wild camels grazing not even two meters from the highway.
Of course, not every smell was pleasant. At one point nearer to the city when I came upon a long line of slow-moving cars I was hit by a blend of smells so wretched I almost stopped the bike. For minutes I searched my surroundings trying to find the source of this offensive odor and did my best to breathe through my mouth while spitting out any stray bugs. The answer to my question finally came when the vehicle creating this slow line of traffic—a dump truck—turned off the road.
None of these experiences, however, compares to our surprising run-in with the law that led to the fear that my motorcycle was about to be seized. Ever since the deadly Urumqi riots last July, security checkpoints have been set up at random points along all Xinjiang highways and all vehicles are required to stop. We had been through this procedure many times while riding a bus or taxi so I didn't think there would be a problem on the bike. I posed no threat as far as I can tell and all my paperwork is in order...or so I thought.
As I confidently handed over my passport, driver's license, and registration I glanced around at the open nothingness all around me. Last time I was riding through a desert like this, I thought, I ended up camping. It had been a fun experience, for sure, but tonight I was not prepared for a camping adventure; tonight I was planning to sleep in my own bed.
"I'm going to have to confiscate your motorcycle" he said. Amid the flood of thoughts that hit me that moment I was somehow able to manage to gather my thoughts and ask the officer what was wrong. As it turns out, I had purchased a used vehicle whose inspection and insurance was 3 months overdue, a tiny fact the dealer had failed to mention and I in blind faith had failed to notice. I knew from taking the written test that the police had every legal right to seize the bike, but I was less excited with the possibility of walking home through the desert. My wife, who was sitting right behind me, strongly agreed.
It's never fun to beg for mercy from cops, especially when your wife is watching, but this was an extraordinary circumstance. Using my most pathetic Chinese and "confused foreigner" look, I argued my case in front of this one-man judge and jury. I promised him I would correct the situation the next day and that I was driving home immediately anyway.
I think I might have even told him how ruggedly handsome he looked in his uniform that day. I'm not sure if he got tired of my pleas or if he just realized I wasn't going to offer him any bribe money, but after a few calls to his higher-ups he thankfully decided to allow me ride my motorcycle home.
Yet again, the trip I had planned ended quite different than expected as we raced home to beat the sunset that night. Yet again, I was forced to jump through extra hoops to protect the freedom this motorcycle offered me. But yet again, as the setting sun created a gorgeous palette of evolving colors in the evening sky, I was reminded that these unusual circumstances and unexpected outcomes usually offered more benefits than I could have planned on my own. Something "out of the blue" had inadvertently given me the chance to ride my motorcycle into the colorful Xinjiang sunset, an experience that left me anything but blue.
All photos courtesy of Josh Summers
About the author: Josh first came to China without a motorcycle in August of 2006. Since that time he has traveled extensively throughout China and especially Xinjiang, sharing stories and photos on his website, Far West China.