14degrees off the beaten track
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May 29th, 2008 | categorizilation: all categories,China

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Well I finally dragged myself out of this nice airconditioned internet cafe yesterday and checked out the sandunes at the southern end of this small city of Shanshan.

Hiking in the sand dunes near Shanshan, Xinjiang Province, China

I jumped on my longboard and skated south downhill towards the river that acts as the boundary between city and no-man’s land. It was 6pm, and it was still sweltering hot. A hot wind increased the intensity of the sun’s rays, despite it already being about three hours till sunset.

I decided that it was still too early to wander into the desert, so I stopped in the shade of a small store to wait for an hour.

I bought a small 5 Mao (0.05 Euro) icecream, and the store owner and his three friends offered me a seat in the shade.

I squatted down on the low plastic stool. It was a light baby blue with illustrations of young naked babies frolicking in a meadow. It seemed out of place; the entrance to the store was dirt, and flies buzzed constantly. The locals seemed unfazed by the flies. They were more interested in this out-of-towner who slithered up on a skateboard.

They were Uyghur, so were speaking in their Turkic tounge as they inspected my board. When addressing me, they spoke in heavily accented, halting Chinese.

“Where are you from?” a man of about 45 years asked. He seemed to be the most well-to-do of the four men squatting on stools around me.

“New Zealand,” I replied in Chinese.

They looked confused, so I tried the Turkish for New Zealand. “Yeni Zelandia,” I said.

“Ah, New Zealand. That’s close to Australia, yes?” The man knew more than most I meet on the road.

They asked many questions about how far I could travel in one day, where I slept, where I ate. I asked them how far it was to Hami, the next major city I will pass through on my way across the Gobi desert.

“320kms, so it will take you about four or five days, at your pace,” an older gentleman replied. “Yes, there are many places for getting water and food up until Hami,” he said in reply to my question about services on the way to Hami. “Every 50km at least. Usually only 30km at a stretch.”

We got onto the topic of money. When speaking to people in China, you always get onto the topic of money. I had my Picture Talk book out, and the store owner pointed to the picture of a dentist. “Do you need money for going to the dentist in New Zealand?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“What about going to the hospital?”

This was a hard one to explain. How do you explain that it depends on the situation…

The best I could do was to indicate with gestures that if you get in an accident, like if you are hit by a car, you do not have to pay. This seemed to suffice.

“How much is a salary in New Zealand?”

I answered honestly about an average middle-income salary in New Zealand, and they blew through their teeth in amazement. I was quick to tell them that the salaries may be much higher than in China, but so are house prices and food prices.

We sat and chatted for an hour, and at 7pm I excused myself, left my longboard at the store, and headed for the sand dunes. Once again I skirted around the main tourist entrance, thus avoiding the rediculous 60RMB fee, and entered via a local’s entrance through the vineyards.

The sun was now low enough that it was just bearable in the dunes. A hot wind still blew from the west.

I felt free out in the dunes. It was quiet, I was connected with nature.

And then reality hit again. I am still in China…

Hiking in the sand dunes near Shanshan, Xinjiang Province, China

The tourist train came putting along the brick pathway that appeared as I crested a small dune. Inside were smiling, gawking, affluent Chinese with digital cameras poised to strike. Further on I noticed no fewer than three couples having wedding photos taken in the dunes.

Hiking in the sand dunes near Shanshan, Xinjiang Province, China

I took a less-traveled ridge up to the top of the most prominent sand dune in the immediate vicinity. As I climbed I watched a worker digging at an old flight of wooden stairs that had been swallowed by the shifting sands.

Hiking in the sand dunes near Shanshan, Xinjiang Province, China

The going was tough for the worker, and I felt it too. The sand on the ridge was soft, and for every step up and forwards, I would sink downwards half a step. It felt good to be exercising my legs in a different way.

Hiking in the sand dunes near Shanshan, Xinjiang Province, China

I arrived at the top of the sand dune sooner than I had expected. From the bottom, it looked farther away than it actually was. Sand dunes stretched to the horizon to the south, and I could see where concious tree planting efforts were keeping the sands from inching further towards the city to the north.

Hiking in the sand dunes near Shanshan, Xinjiang Province, China

The wind was not strong, but there was a stiff breeze blowing. I took shelter in the lee of the dune and lay in the quiet for half an hour, waiting for the sun to lower itself to the horizon.

Hiking in the sand dunes near Shanshan, Xinjiang Province, China

Hiking in the sand dunes near Shanshan, Xinjiang Province, China

It was still light when I made my way back to the store to pick up my board. The four old men were not there anymore, so I headed back to town.

For the last seven days here in Shanshan, I have kept a very regular schedule and routine. I will get up around 9am, and head to the same noodle shop every morning for breakfast. The noodle shop ladies know that I prefer no chillies in my noodle soup now, and upon ordering, they shout the order to the kitchen, adding “No chillies!”.

After breakfast, at around 10am, I go to the internet cafe. There are two internet cafes in this strip of shops, and the first one I went to suited me fine, so I have been coming here every day. I pay for four hours, which costs 8RMB (0.80 Euro). At 2pm I retun to the noodle shop for lunch.

After lunch I head back to my accommodation and read for a few hours. I have just finished River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler. A great book about life as a foreigner in rural China. Reading it is like looking in a mirror for me right now.

In the evening I might head back to the internet cafe for another two hours, before eating dinner at a Chinese-run restaurant that serves rice. The same place every day.

It is nice to have people recognise me. Plus, the places I have been going to are all run by very nice people. Not pushy, not overly careful of giving the foreigner special service. Just nice.

For the last two nights, I have not slept well. Last night, I did not sleep at all. I’m at a loss as to why. It is a weird situation…I was all hyped up to get going this morning, but with no sleep, I decided to stay here another day.

Skating with the current environmental conditions is brutal. The last day I had before arriving in Shanshan, I started skating at 6am (before sun-up) and skated until 12 noon. Trying to sleep in the shade of some trees was difficult; it was too hot. And then there was the indigestion/heart burn. The added pressure of communicating across cultures is quite a stress at times, and there’s the spicy food that is also perhaps giving me grief.

And add to that a peculiar change of mentality that I have noticed since I began skating. When I was on the bike, destinations were meerly a means to an end. I was cycling to London. But I very rarely thought about London. I was able to focus on the here an now much easier.

With the skating, it is different. In my mind, I am always just trying to get somewhere. Get to the next store to get water. Get to the next town. Get to Shanghai. I really don’t know where this change has some from. Perhaps it is because of the pain. I feel pain on the board. It’s not that I didn’t feel pain or effort on the bike, but in some unexplainable way, it’s different on the board. I end a day on the board exhausted. I wake up the next morning with stiff muscles. That was not the case on the bike…

How do I get my mind back to the here and now? I am struggling with this. I want to be able to roll and enjoy it. Welcome to a definite dry-spell in my journey.

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    Permanent Link     Comments (7)

Comment by marcCO — May 30, 2008 @ 1:05 am | post a comment

After reading all of this website: one question for you: what did you enjoy most? Skateboard or bike? Would you consider to travel by other ways, like motorcycle, mountain bike ?

Comment by Rob Thomson — May 30, 2008 @ 4:33 am | post a comment

Marco, that's a good question. You see, traveling by bike is a great way to travel, because it is only as challenging as you push yourself for it to be. You can take it easy on the uphills, coast down the downhills, cruise along the flats.

In comparison, traveling by skateboard is a marathon every day. It is always physically brutal. But then that's part of why I enjoy the skateboard. It is also part of the reason why I hate it. It is very much a love hate realationship.

I do look forward to cycle touring again. With the bike, you can get off the busy roads and onto quiet back roads. One thing that is really not nice about the skateboard is that you are always limited to the paved roads, which carry more traffic.

So what are the benefits of the board? There is still an element of joy being only inches off the ground, hovering across the pavement. And when the body and mind cooperate and you get into a zone, it is a great feeling.

As for motorcycle, at this stage I don't have much desire for that. Too complicated. The joy of a bike is in its simplicity.

As for mountain bike…I am still quite chuffed with the Street Machine GTe. It is a little skittery and light at the front on really steep uphills, but everything else, it seemed to perform just fine.

Comment by rob — May 30, 2008 @ 9:02 pm | post a comment

Some brilliant shots there… Love the train….. could either make you depressed or laugh out loud at the rediculousness of it all.

Great writing too….

Comment by Liam — June 2, 2008 @ 11:23 pm | post a comment

Keep it up man, it's an incredible challenge you've set yourself. I've travelled by road through some of these places, I can't imagine trying to do it by skateboard (although I may go back and do it by cycle).

Comment by Liam — June 2, 2008 @ 11:23 pm | post a comment

Also – great photos :)

Comment by Aunty Les — June 3, 2008 @ 3:41 pm | post a comment

Amazing photos, Rob. Nana and I got some good sunset photos on Lake Hochstetter while on holiday on the /west Coast. I'll send you some via the email.

Comment by Lee — June 5, 2008 @ 4:44 pm | post a comment

Hooray for having a space in the journey where you're recognised, and become part of other people's days… and having relief from being extraordinary to everyone.

Sorry to hear about the not-sleeping-well bit. I don't know what that's like but I imagine it'd have a fairly big impact on your days.

Love the reflections (verbal) on the dunes – the juxtapositions and the battling with nature's course.

Keep it up, brother.

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