On the fourth morning in Urumqi we nervously peered out of our hostel window in the hope that the weather forecast had been correct and the snow had abated. It had! There was absolutely no time to linger; we had roughly 1,250km to get through to reach Jiayuguan (the edge of the historical Middle Kingdom of China) and the Great Wall… one of our non-negotiable priorities.
Based on what we had already cycled, how many days had already been consumed (including the three days in Urumqi), and the fact we had to average 100km per day to reach Lanzhou in time to renew our visas we were feeling a little apprehensive. We were only 680km into China and already found ourselves two days behind schedule. We decided on 125km per day for ten days and then a day off to see The Wall; this would get us almost back on track and we could reassess in Jiayuguan.
The first morning did not start so well; even though the snow had mostly been cleared off the streets by the enormous army of workers, the traffic was still thick and slightly intimidating. We decided that the best course of action was to push the bikes until we felt comfortable. This lasted well over an hour, but by the time we hopped on the bikes and started pedalling the sun was beaming down on us, and the traffic had thinned. The glorious G30, which we had been cycling on was off limits for the time being as it looked backed up with trucks and the hard shoulder was non-existent (it is technically always off limits based on the no cycling signs, but given there is no other road all cycle tourists tend to turn a blind eye, as do the police). This meant we had to head for the G312, an old national road, which in some places has fallen into a horrible state. It just so happened that the road out of Urumqi was one of these stretches that had fallen into a horrible state, akin to cycling in Central Asia really, not at all conducive to completing our China Challenge.
Progress was slow, but at least most of the traffic had headed for the G30; in fact, the only traffic that seemed to be on the G312 were the countless driving school drivers and their students. This seems to be the norm here in China. Innumerable cars, packed with up to four students ply the same stretch of road on the outskirts of cities with the students rotating through the driving seat. Students are taught not only to drive, but other essential skills such as honking their horns at anything that moves, slowing down to take photos of camels, helping the driving instructor out with his cigarette, and the most important of all… hitting each and every pot hole at full speed in order to try and drown foreign cycle tourists in mud. The attire is spot on as well… more often than not a high riding mini with accompanying stilettos is the order of the day.
After two hours of this madness it was deemed safer to try our luck with the numerous trucks and the non-existent hard shoulder of the G30, so we pulled off into a petrol station, put even more clothes on (it was -10 out of the wind by this point), cleaned off the icicles hanging from our bicycle frames and took stock of our current situation. Less than a fleeting moment of relaxation following the glory of putting on more warm clothes and basking out of the biting wind and we were hurriedly escorted off the premises by armed guards and pointed on our way. This part of China being akin to Afghanistan or Iraq (according to more than one paranoid local, and numerous foreigners) we could definitely see the logic… two near frozen cycle tourists sheltering out of the wind roughly 100m from the forecourt are definitely a security threat?!?! We did as we were directed and headed straight for the G30, ignoring the no-cycling sign by simply looking the other way and sheltering from the now ghastly wind by cowering as far inside our jackets as humanly possible. We must have looked a most ridiculous sight. As luck would have it the hard shoulder was not only devoid of any remnants of snow but it had actually been swept clean. The day was getting better!
With the wind now reaching ferocious speeds we hurtled along. The plan had always been to reach Turpan on the second day, resupply and crack on; but by 15:30 it was evident that if we continued to get lucky with the wind and the descent (Urumqi is at roughly 1100m and Turpan is at roughly sea-level) we had a real chance of making Turpan in a day. This was unthinkable even at noon when we had pulled into the petrol station, but we weren’t complaining. High-speed tail winds and a relentless down hill were perfect and we ate away the kilometres; even a nasty puncture could not deter us. With our stubborn minds made up we were going to get to Turpan that day no matter what. Well, no matter what happened at around 60km from our destination. We turned at right angles to the wind, entered the largest wind farm we had ever seen and what had been our friend became our enemy. We were literally being blown off the road (in Katie’s words “that was the scariest thing I have done on this journey”)! Our speed had to drop to account for this and when trucks came thundering towards us we jumped off and braced ourselves with all our strength. The trucks would create a pocket of air that was like a vacuum; enticing us, and our bikes to be acquainted with their wheels. As with everything in life, perseverance pays off and eventually we turned again, caught the tail wind and sailed effortlessly into Turpan. 185.7km in the bag, temperatures soaring in the high teens, and BBQs cranking everywhere… a great day!
After a dreamless sleep we awoke as refreshed as we possibly could be after such a long ride the day before and made our way into the deserted streets of early morning Turpan in search of dumplings. A sure fire way to identify the location of dumplings is to look for the associated steam rising in the cool(ish) morning air; it did not take long! When I say cool(ish) morning air I mean not really cool at all, certainly compared to Urumqi. There we were sitting out in the sunshine on the roadside consuming our staple breakfast, something that would have been unthinkable less than 24 hours previously in Urumqi. We were very pleased with our current situation and happy beyond words to have left Urumqi (according to the Guinness Book of Records – the furthest city from any coast in the world) behind us.
Having reached Turpan in break neck speed we set about readjusting our goal of reaching Hami, a city/area notorious in cycle touring circles for its unparalleled wind; wind that can be so strong it is impossible to walk, let alone cycle. We decided that we would attempt the 400 odd kms in three days. The only problem (aside from potentially debilitating wind) lay in the fact that Turpan sits almost at sea level in the second deepest depression on earth, which meant climbing out. This started almost immediately! Thankfully the scenery was stunning as we passed up through the Flaming Mountains and the kms melted away in the midday sun. At the top of the first climb we were rewarded with fruit sellers showing off their wares. It was wonderful; we just pulled up, pointed at a melon and it was carved for our consumption right there and then.
As with most days in the saddle there are ups and downs and after the joy of consuming the tastiest melon either of us had ever had the pleasure of eating it was back to the grind, but this time with a hell of a lot less motivation. The scenery became same-same, the wind picked up just enough to annoy us and the thought of having to find somewhere to camp was not at all appealing. Eventually as the day drew to a close we found a gap in the fence separating the G30 expressway from the immense emptiness of the desert, clambered through and set up the tent. We had only managed just over 100km and to make matters worse, when I went to light the MSR Multi-fuel stove it did not work. This had been an on-going problem for sometime; sometimes it would work, sometimes it would not and no matter how much love and attention we gave it, it was always a game of roulette. So the day ended with us lying in bed consuming one shrink wrapped, overly spicy, fat congealing chicken leg each and 12 biscuits (each). It must be noted that the biscuits were excellent, but the sugar rush probably did not do wonders for our sleep.
Over the next two days our fortunes ebbed and flowed, but there is no denying how stunning this part of the journey was. Following on from a sugar induced restless evening we spent the best part of 80km grinding through the gears up hill, down dale… mostly up hill to find ourselves completely and utterly overwhelmed by the sheer size of the desert. We were also acutely aware that our food supplies were running very very low. Actually they weren’t too low, but given that the MSR had basically raised the proverbial finger at us our pasta was rendered useless… more ballast for Katie’s bike than anything else.
Again, as is the case every evening on the G30 we were forced to play the “find the hole in the fence” game. Not only are we not really meant to be on the G30; but also there is no definitive rule (to our knowledge) about camping in China either. It is best (in our opinion) to stay completely invisible to all and sundry as the last thing we want in the middle of the night is a shaking of our tent by a police officer and a completely useless conversation in Mandarin-English resulting in being escorted to hotel to be registered. Anyway, with the hole in the fence game a success and that night’s invisible camping location established we again found ourselves in a truly spectacular location. The location however did not disguise the stark realisation that it was going to be cold water soaked oats drenched in honey for dinner… this was, in hindsight, a watershed moment for us. The dinner was really flippn EXCELLENT! Who would have known?!?! We delved in for seconds all the time praising the MSR Multi-fuel stove for behaving so badly. Another great day!
With our plan of reaching Hami hanging by a thread it was with some joy that we awoke to a slight tail wind and a reasonable descent. Within 10km of leaving our campsite we also passed by a expressway services, where we drew quite a crowd in the petrol station when we sat down to consume the instant noodles for breakfast… followed of course by an ice-cream (only when cycle touring is this sort of behaviour even remotely acceptable). By the end of the day we had made it to Hami with relative ease, passed 11,000km for the journey and checked into a nice hotel where we spent the rest of the night checking, and double checking the weather forecast, and more accurately, the forecast for the wind. We knew we had been lucky up until this point and it was surely only a matter of time until our luck ran out.
Our next milestone was passing out of the province of Xinjiang and into Gansu, en-route to the end of the desert proper and the beginning of the Middle Kingdom at the city of Jiayuguan. With Jiayuguan being a nudge over 600km from Hami we decided on a five-day strategy, hoped for favourable wind and terrain and got to work at chipping away at the kms early on the first day. Unfortunately our tyres had other ideas. Within 20km of leaving the relative comfort and false security of our hotel we were both sporting flat front tyres (thankfully the only “double-whammy” of the journey to date). This was to become an all too familiar routine for us on our way to Jiayuguan. Six punctures in 620km was, if I am honest, one of the most demoralising ways to spend time on the road. We would wake every morning with the nagging feeling that a patch was leaking or we had picked up a puncture in the evening.
With the constant threat of punctures looming over us at all times it was with some joy that we finally passed out of Xinjiang and into Gansu. We had cycled just over 1450km across this enormous province, and although there was a small sense of relief, the realisation that China is a very very large country dominated our thoughts.
The first thing that we noticed when passing into Gansu was that the road signs were now devoid of Uighur and sported English translations, even if at times they did not make a lot of sense. The second thing that we noticed was that we were absolutely smashing through the kms; so much so that we decided very early on after passing into Gansu that we would push for Jiayuguan in four days from Hami, not the originally mooted five. It was going to be a monumental effort (made infinitely harder by the demoralising punctures) but if we were again lucky with the wind we knew we had a chance.
The first night in Gansu we passed the sign for the crescent lake of Dunhuang (a mere 100km to the south). This had always been on my list of things I really wanted to see in China, but given the time constraints and the snow in Urumqi it was with a heavy heart we cycled past the turn-off and into one of the most horrible looking towns the world has ever known. Liuyuan was truly a depressing looking town, the fact it was located 5km up a more than gentle hill directly into a head wind did not help. The town is situated amongst mountains of coal that seem to blow in every direction, coating it in a fine dust and giving weary cycle tourists a very bad case of the black-lung. To accompany the black-lung is also the constant buzzing of innumerable pylons carrying China’s ever increasing renewable wind energy to the masses as well as more aggressive dogs that we have seen in the rest of China (On the whole I love the dogs in China; they are absolutely, 100% petrified of cycle tourists). On the plus side, we were a real novelty to almost everyone in the town and were treated like royalty. The locals were super nice and once the morning arrived and our tired bodies had had time to rest the town looked more appealing; the local market was buzzing, dumplings were being consumed everywhere we looked, and we had been given a kind message of support and cookies from the girl at the hotel reception. It is these sorts of experiences that really make cycle touring a fantastic way to see the world. Almost every single tourist would bypass this depressing looking town, and had it not been for desperation we would certainly have as well; but we didn’t, and we were rewarded with some truly wonderful memories.
With our fill of dumplings, cookies and deep fried dough sticks we headed off with the knowledge that in two days, all going well we would be waking in Jiayuguan, stepping outside our hotel, hailing a taxi and heading off to see the Great Wall. There was the small matter of 330km in two days and the very real chance that we would be blown off the road by gale force winds; but it was now or never because in three days time our weather app on the iPhone was predicting 40km/h head winds (gusts of 70km/h).
Leaving Liuyuan was much easier than entering; a downhill took us all the way back to the G30 where we again looked the other way when passing the no cycling sign and cycled on to the expressway. The day was strange and for a long time we could not really work out what it was that made it strange. We were coasting along at 20km/h, eating up the tarmac and feeling good and then it occurred to me. I asked Katie a simple (yet very random) question… “How many wind turbines, ball-park, do you think you have seen in your life before cycle touring?” We both concluded that it was probably around 200 give or take (like I mentioned, it was a very random question). Well on this day, we cycled for well over 100km and all we could see out to our left, genuinely as far as the eye could see (at least before the desert blurred into the mountains) was wind turbines. For occasional stretches of this 100km there was also a mirror image to our right as well. It would not be an exaggeration to say the number was in the thousands, probably south of 10,000; but you get my point. Aside from the sea of wind turbines already installed there were also wind turbine components being transported to and fro along the G30, and these things are enormous (see below image). China really has taken this renewable energy to a new level, and coming from an engineering background it is impossible not to be impressed by what they are achieving. I was mesmerised all day by this project on a truly mind-blowing scale.
As the day passed we realised that there would be no hotel bed for the evening and with the fence accompanying the G30 in Gansu proving almost impregnable (we think the folk in Xinjiang are a bit lax with their fence maintenance) the options for sleeping were fast becoming very slim indeed. Eventually as the sun was dipping behind the mountains we conceded that we would be spending a night sleeping under the expressway in a tunnel. We are completely comfortable with sleeping almost anywhere in the wild these days, but there was something slightly sinister about bedding down in a tunnel. It is fair to say with the classic Nirvana song Something in the Way going around and around in my head, and the thought of a desert hobo waking us to use the tunnel as a toilet I did not sleep at all well. Katie on the other hand was out like a light and could not have cared less. What pushing on and sleeping in the tunnel meant though was that we were on the cusp of the Middle Kingdom two days ahead of our schedule when we set out from Urumqi.
In an ideal world I would finish this blog by saying that we cycled into Jiayuguan through gates in the Great Wall to a super chilled bottle of beer. This however could not be further from the truth. In truth we limped across the line happy in the knowledge that our sanity was still mostly in tact after what can only be described as a very testing day in the desert. We had made it to Jiayuguan in phenomenal time (phenomenal for us), but the multiple punctures, heavy traffic and blinding dust storm brought us back to earth plus the reality that we still had the best part of 3,500km to negotiate in China. The thought of that challenge could wait though because this was THE town we had been gunning for since Urumqi and we knew that in a few short hours we would be walking a top of one of man’s greatest engineering feats…The Great Wall of China. Amazing!