What I had hoped would take less than two weeks to get finished, ended up taking a little more time. The man’s name whom I previously called to help me get the ATA is Marc. I agreed to do business with him in part because he was extremely confident he could get me the ATA, which I was previously told many times this would be impossible to obtain. He said he helped a German man and his Chinese wife get an ATA a couple of years ago. So we agreed to work together. He would send me the document at most in ten days time. I decided to use this time as a blessing in disguise to explore Northwest Xinjiang, a little known area to most foreigners outside of China.
Exploring Northwest Xinjiang.
ATA update Week 1- make deal and travel around
A couple of days after I was told it would take ten days for the ATA to be finished, I received a message from a friend I made in Urumqi. Taozi told me that she and her traveling companions would be arriving in Khorgas. We met up for dinner and they invited me to join them for an overnight trip to Sanlimu Lake. So the next day I packed light and met them there. It is a big lake with water as blue as the sky. So big in fact I decided to go for a little swim. After a little walking around to dry off, we found some yurts to sleep in for the night. They were in a perfect setting nestled among the hillside. We were fortunate enough to witness a spectacular sunset that night as well.
Top: Enjoying the view. Second from top: Going for a swim. Bottom two: View of the yurts after a little rain and at sunset.
Out of the all the days and weeks that I waited for the ATA to get finished, the next day was easily one of my favorites. When I woke up though, my new friends had already left, but messaged me to say they were in a hurry. I did a quick little hike to wake my body up and got a really nice view of the yurts as well as the lake. Then I drove down to some old ruins near the lake to walk around and explore. There was no name or sign explaining its history but this was the only time I had even seen anything like this since I was in Gaocheng.
After finishing a complete circuit of the lake, I found a place with a nice view and took some pictures. When I finished, an older woman walked up to me and asked if I was hungry. She offered me a place to sleep and food. But I was only able to accept lunch. Her daughter told me that in this area there are many people who put up yurts for the summer and invite tourists to come live with them. Similar to the experience I had the prior week near Hami. After a nice meal, I did some hiking and got a great view of the lake and surrounding mountains. As with all other hikes I have done in China, the entire way up the mountain had stairs, which is a little strange but makes the walk up incredibly efficient and relatively easy. Immediately following the hike I enjoyed a smooth ride back to Khorgas.
Top: View of yurts. Second from top: Old ruins near lake. Middle two: Inside and outside view of where I had lunch. Bottom: View from top of mountain.
A few days later, I did a day trip to Yili, which is by far the largest city in the area. My experience avoiding the highway has always been rewarding. The day I drove to Yili was another great one. It was fun to see the countryside and small towns. I even randomly drove by a place in Qapqal county, which is known as the “hometown of Chinese Archery.” I walked around the park and museum, and as an added bonus, shot off an arrow.
Top: Countryside homes. Second from top to bottom: Qapqal county, home of Chinese archery.
As mentioned in my previous article, driving around Xinjiang can be stressful at times. There are police checkpoints everywhere, particularly entering cities. At one of these checkpoints, after he and his colleagues badgered me with questions and sent me off to talk with their superiors, a police officer asked to add my Wechat so he could add me to a motorbike group he was in. After saying yes, a few hours later a couple of other people in the group added me and we talked about motorbikes on and off the rest of the day.
Yili was a fun city to walk around. In the heart of the city is Baytullah Mosque. This mosque is actually two, one being the old Hui Mosque and the other being the new Uyghur mosque. The juxtaposition of the two in color and design is striking. There was also the Kazanqi Market, which sold things such as horse saddles, shoes, carpets, fruit, and sheeps wool. Carpets in particular are a very famous good that is sold in Xinjiang, and this market in particular had many more designs than other places I had been to.
Baytullah Mosque and Kazanqi Market.
At this point, it had been nearly two weeks of waiting at the border. I spent a lot of this time watching movies, reading, running or exploring the city and surrounding area. But every time I left the city with my motorbike, I would have to register with the police when I entered a new city and even when I came back to town. Even with no language barrier, it was still incredibly stressful to answer so many mundane and harmless questions over and over again. I had been in Xinjiang for about a month now, so one would assume I would be used to this. But for me, it’s more like boiling water with a lid on top.
Every interaction just pushed me further to boiling over and exploding. But one day I was walking home late after ordering take out, and I saw many policeman playing basketball behind their checkpoint station. One guy who was not playing, looked at me strangely and asked, “Is there something wrong? Is there a problem?” I said no, and that I just liked watching and playing basketball. Almost instantly, the look on his face changed and he said, “Go on ahead, I’m sure you can join them.” Ten minutes later, I was playing with them and we had a good time chatting and finding common ground with a game we love.
A few days later, Xiaofei, one of the members of the motorbike WeChat group, invited me to his hometown of Tekesi. The drive there was great but I dreaded the inevitable registration upon entering the city and the barrage of questions and suspicion that would ensue. But when I arrived, something unexpected happened. Two ethnic minorities asked to see my passport and then almost immediately asked for selfies with me after learning I was a foreigner. Then we went inside to register, where almost no questions were asked. When their boss arrived (who was Han Chinese), he invited me to join all of them for lunch. While we were eating, he wouldn’t stop talking about how proud he was to work with people who were from all over Central Asia. Ethnic Kazaks, Kyrgs, Tajiks and Uyghur worked under him. When Xiaofei arrived, he escorted me into town. Over the next 24 hours we drove around the area and ate lots of delicious food together. My original plan was to stay just for a couple of hours but Xiaofei hosted me that night and introduced me to his motorbike friends the next day.
Top: Arial shot of Tekesi taken by Xiaofei. Second from top: Tekesi countryside. Bottom two: Lunch with new friends and a group shot.
Driving back to Khorgas the next day wasn’t eventful, but the scenery was some of the best I have seen on the trip so far.
Top to Bottom: Scenery on the way home, police checkpoint taking me to immigration building in Zhaosu, views from mountain pass, grazing camel.
Week 2- ATA is finished but not signed because the head official is in and out of the office.
Over the course of the following week, I did next to nothing. This was a very difficult time for me, as I had been told the ATA had been finished but just needed to be signed by the head official. Every time I asked for an update, I was given a plethora of excuses as to why there were delays, all of them being out of Marc’s control. One day this week, though, I decided to see the area to the north of the city where there were more mountains that looked fun to explore. But on each road I tried to use to go up into the mountains, I was stopped by police and told that foreigners could go no further. I went back and found a nice park to walk around in. While there I met a nice family who shared watermelon with me. Later that afternoon, we ate dinner together.
Top to Bottom: View of Khorgas, dinner with new friends I met at the park, relaxing drive back.
Week 3- Head ATA official learns I am a foreigner. He doesn’t agree that I am eligible for an ATA. The German couple who had previously been granted ATA before was by a different official. Marc promises to follow through on deal and pursue an outcome for the ATA. He then flew to Beijing.
While all this waiting has been going on, I watched some of the World Cup games. But I thought for the final match, I should go back to Urumqi and find a proper place to watch the match. When I told Marc I would be coming, and we could meet if he had time, he said that there was no need because he would be flying to Beijing on my behalf to sort out all of the delays. It was at this very moment that I knew deep down, no matter how long the wait was, that this guy had my back and would do everything in his power to see this through. He could very well have given up and there would have been nothing I could do about it.
While I was back in Urumqi, the majority of my time was spent walking around parks and exploring neighborhoods I didn’t have time for before. Coming back on the train was bittersweet for me. Trains are the most efficient way of getting around China and are a very unique experience. The bullet trains are better than planes and the slower trains are great for people watching. Especially in the “hard seat” area where people from all walks of life sit together and sometimes mingle. I have used the train to get around many times while living in China and it was an interesting feeling knowing this could be the last.
Top to Bottom: Hongshan Park, Yuantiao building, Yamalike Mountain, train ride back to Khorgas.
Over the next few days, I didn’t do very much. The most exciting thing I did was drive to Yili to make a small repair to my bike. After spending so much time in the same hotel, I started to build relationships with everyone who worked there. The hotel is run by a couple with two boys. There are two maids, one front desk woman (who has a daughter about the same age as the two boys) and three guards that I would see and say hello to every day. One in particular was really friendly. He and his wife, one of the maids, invited me for lunch one day. It was an honor to be invited into their home and was a humbling experience. While we were waiting for the food to be cooked, he told me how proud he was to only pay 200RMB, about $30, per month for rent. Their home was made out of brick and mud. Inside were two rooms. It was very clear to me that what was served was almost everything they had. We drank tea, had nuts and bread, homemade jam for the bread, and vegetable noodles with lamb for the main course.
Top to Bottom: Farmers gathering fruit, children playing at hotel, lunch is served at the friendly guards home.
Week 4- The Beijing boss meets with his boss and is told not to work with me because it is too risky to deal with a foreigner. He has a meeting with Marc and tells him to fly to Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia, China. Marc flew to Manzhouli and pays extra to get the new ATA made. The new company demands a higher deposit. Marc’s company pays for it and states that he will assume all responsibility if I don’t come back to China with the motorbike.
No matter how hard Marc fought for me, and the more time that passed, I started to get depressed. I woke up every morning on weekdays in the hopes that good news would come. Living in a very small border town, where I was constantly being watched and monitored by police didn’t help. This border town does have a place that is very unique to all of Central Asia: The Khorgas Port International Business and Trade Center. This is a special economic zone where people can enter from the Kazakhstan side, without a Chinese visa, and buy all kinds of cheap Chinese goods. This is the same on the Chinese side, where people can buy many different kinds of international goods for a cheap price.
There are also Duty Free stores that allow you to buy things in bulk: the more you buy, the cheaper it gets. Many businesses from China and all over Central Asia will come here to buy in bulk and then return home to sell to their customers. I spent two and a half days exploring this area with many different buildings to see. The total area is about the size of two football stadiums.
Khorgas Port International Business and Trade Center.
A few uneventful days after my adventures in Duty Free, I got an unexpected package. A good friend of mine, Krista, from college recommended that I get in touch with our alma mater, Pacific Lutheran University, about working together with them. After a long talk about how the school would send me a package, it finally arrived. Inside there was a hat, t-shirt, banners and Cliff Bars. So many days had gone by with nothing happening. That package arrving was a big deal. But the next day was a wild and crazy one filled with a roller coaster of emotions. The day started with hearing news from my brother that our dad had been in a bicycle accident. We were informed by doctors that he would make a full recovery but it was difficult to not be able to be there for him. Later that day I left town to buy a new pair of glasses and some gas.
When I came back I was stuck talking with the police for hours just because I didn’t take my drivers license with me. Out of all the checkpoints I have been to, entering/leaving a city or random spots on roads, this was only the second time they asked for my license. They criticized me and said, “Well in THIS country you must carry your drivers license with you every time you drive. Isn’t this the same in your country?” Yes, that is a fair point, but does everyone carry it just to go pick up some groceries or some gas?
After talking with the traffic police and getting all my documents back from them, I then had to talk with the Public Security Bureau and explain to them why I was still there. They told me that because this is Xinjiang and it is a small border town, I wasn’t allowed to be there for such a long time and I would need to leave that day. But when I explained the ATA would be done soon, they said I could stay for a few more days. At the end of the day, I received word from Marc that the ATA was finished and would be issued to him the next day. After all this time waiting, I was so overwhelmed with joy. Sure enough, he didn’t get it the next day, even after filling out acceptance forms.
Week 5-New ATA is finished?? Marc sat in their office all day and wasn’t given the ATA. He told to wait by the Beijing ATA official who assured him it would get done in Manzhouli. He thought it was a game of Cat and Mouse and they were waiting for him and I to quit.
A few days later, the Public Security Bureau, PSB, called my hotel and told them I would have to leave the next day. Over the next couple of days, I spent my time in the nearest town called Qingshuihe. But even here, police came to my hotel room late at night and asked me to leave in a couple of days, after thoroughly checking all of my belongings. While I was waiting, I spent time hiking around the area and exploring the town. Before I left my hotel in Khorgas, the owners told me I could come back as long as it was approved by the PSB. I came back, although when I tried to meet with them, the boss wouldn’t see me, so I spent a night in the countryside. The next day I went to them again and explained that Marc had filed a complaint to the city government and that he was sure I would receive it a few days later. They agreed to let me stay in town for three more nights and then I would have to leave again.
Top to Bottom: Exploring Qingshuihe, hiking near the city, and sleeping a kilomter outside of town.
This time I was sure Marc would get it on Monday, but when it came time for an update from Marc, he said someone at the Manzhouli office was in a minor car accident and the boss had to be out of the office. But the next morning, a minor miracle happened. The ATA was finally issued to Marc! Now I just needed to wait a couple of days for it to be delivered. Astonishingly, the ATA was lost in transit after it arrived in Urumqi.
Marc called the ATA authority in Beijing to explain what happened. They then used the original ATA that was made and used a digital signature of head official in Manzhouli. This time it was express airmailed to Urumqi and then driven overnight to me. The night before I received it, I was told by Marc what was happening, and this time, I was truly overjoyed with excitement and relief. The dream could go on. I told everyone working at the hotel I would be leaving the next day. One of the owners said to me, “Really, are you sure this time, because you said you would leave before and here you are?” I laughed and said that this time I was sure.
Top to Bottom: Celebratory dinner with friends, finally getting the ATA, some of the people I spent so much time with for five weeks, finally leaving China.
The next morning was bittersweet. Five weeks after it was supposed to be finished, I finally had the ATA in my hands and I would be able to leave China. Logically it didn’t really make sense for me to wait so long. But each week, I was under the impression it would be done soon, and with all of the hard work that Marc was putting in, how could I quit? After saying my good byes and packing my bags, I was finally off to Kazakhstan! Words cannot describe how amazing it felt to effortlessly clear Chinese customs and make it with the motorcycle across into Kazakhstan. I can’t wait to drive through this country and the rest of Central Asia.