Cycling the Silk Road
My interest in the Silk Road really goes back to the time, as a young boy, I first encountered in the library Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde. School history had seemed to me a litany of dates and events. Very boring. I soon chased down all of the central Asia writing that I could find and begun to realize that history was not just about England and its endless string of kings, conquests and dates that we had to memorize in school.
The Silk Road, only named as such in the 19th century, is really a network of trade routes dating back at least 3000 years connecting China and the west. The trade was of a multitude of things, with Silk possibly the most interesting thing going west from China, with horses and religion particularly Buddhism of the things coming into China. In China, the routes kind of start at the ancient capital of Chang’an (today’s Xian) and end along the Mediterranean, on the way to Rome, or in India From Chang’an, the routes all seemed to head up the Hexi Coridor (in modern Gansu province) splitting into a north and a south route around the Taklamkan desert, converging again at Kashgar (Kashi), and then splitting again going south over the Karakoram to India or west through Persia to the Mediterranean. As so much of the routes was through ferocious desert, travel was by camel caravan with major destinations along the way being oases that were the stuff of legend and are still where today’s major cities, and the prime attractions that will entice me across today’s arid highways.
Two heroes of the Silk Road are Zhang Qian (~200 BC), who was sent out to explore the routes and to define for the Chinese Emperor trade opportunities and Marco Polo (~1200 AD) who brought back knowledge of China for the west. Equally important for me are the modern writers who have planted the seeds of interest that have drawn me here. These include Peter Fleming, Colin Thubron and Peter Hopkirk.
From Tibet, I could have gone back to Golmud and then cycled north to meet the Silk Road at Dunhuang, but then I would have had to back-track to see the Fort at Jiayuguan, which really marked, for the ancient Chinese, the transition between the civilized world and the barbarians. I could have gone back to Lanzhou, at the beginning of the Hexi Corridor or even to Xian, but then my ride would have possibly been too far for my remaining time. By starting at Xining and riding through the Qilian Mtns, I am getting a short (340 km) section of mountain riding to get to Zhangye on the Silk Road where Marco Polo spent a year and I am only missing Wuwei, where the wonderful bronze “Galloping Horse” was found.
Aug 17 – to Road Worker’s Camp (3450m); (105 km); (1200m gain, 40 loss)
I left my Xining hostel at 7:30 and was across the city and on the long easy climb towards the Qilian Mtns in good time; the route through the centre of town proved to be very good. I was 20 km into the day before I saw my first km post, indicating that I was indeed on hwy 227, always the final assurance that I am on the right track. I hit Datong at about 30 km, which seemed early against my tourist map that I hoped would get me some 300 km across to Zhangye and the Silk Road. I have a little over a month to get across to Kashgar and I think it is a little under 3000 km, and so my work is cut out for me, but if need be I can always grab a bus or train.
It was at about 50 km that I finally cleared the continuous business streets of the combined cities and at 60 km I had my first bowl of noodles at a shop run by Hui ladies. Most of the people I see along the road seem to be Muslim and I have noticed one significant Muslim prayer tower. This is a well treed area, with some of my ride lined by tall trees and the crops are ripening giving the fields an attractive patchwork look. A bad truck accident took away some of the peacefulness of the road. Beyond my noodle stop the foothills began in earnest and the easy climbing turned to switchbacks as the road had to climb up and around a dam and reservoir. Along the way I hit a 500 m tunnel, which I tried to do without lights. It was unlit and so I lasted about 50 m, and then I pushed my bike the rest of the way, hoping that I was visible enough.
Soon after that the first rain shower hit and I used the lee of a building until the short rain stopped. I got another half an hour up the road when it hit again. This time I waited it out in a second noodle house, but now I had to wait close to an hour and a half. I had done 90 km and so could have looked for a spot to stop, but I was still keen to keep going. And so when the rain let up a bit off I went, but now the climbing started in earnest, and within 5 km the rain hit again, with no noodle house to rescue me. I pulled out my ground sheet and sat under it for a while and then continued on up as the rain got heavier and the hill steeper. This was deep mountains and I knew I was not going to see any more towns until over the range, about 35 km by my rough map. I passed some road workers who were scurrying around to pack up their things and on I went. Through the rain I could see some tents ahead and was figuring out a strategy for how I would ask for shelter when the road workers caught up to me and gestured that I follow them in. I didn’t hesitate long; I was soaked; it was close to 5:00; I was gaining distance at about 8 kph.
There were three tents, one for the three women, one for the dozen men and the cook tent, which was naturally enough the centre of the camp. I was gestured to roll my bike into the cook tent and ushered to a bench covered in rugs beside a big blissfully hot stove. I was asked if I had a cup and it was filled with hot water. The cook was making big white muffins, which captivated my attention for a while. She rolled and cut a dozen, put it in a steamer on top of a big pot of boiling water, and then she did another as the second steamer fit into the first. She had five stacked by the time she was done. I had been given a cold one, and it was good but dry; the hot one, first out of the steamer, was wonderful. By now all of the workers had been in and out and a few had taken over my phrase book and we were well into getting our respective questions answered. I confirmed that the next town was 30 km away and that I still had about 350m to climb before I would top out. And the rain continued. I asked where I might find a place to spend the night and it was fairly definitive that I would spend the night with them. I felt they were a bit taken aback that I would even consider anything else.
The cook flowed from muffins right into dinner. At a certain point she called out and about five came in, washed their hands and proceeded to pull and break noodle bits into the big pot. I pulled out my pot and the cook filled it to the brim. It was wonderful, but by now it was a struggle to find room for it all.
I laid my bag out on the big bench with the other men and drifted off to sleep thinking about how often what looks like a disastrous day turns out to be so wonderful.
Aug 18 – to Ono (3450m); (110/215 km to date); (1280 m gain and loss)
The breakfast routine was very similar to evening, except the young bucks slept in as long as possible. I had tea and a hot mixed meal with more muffins. Everyone was out to see me off and it was like leaving a family. I loved the camp processes and wondered if all camps are as happy.
The mists were rolling around as I continued the climb higher and higher. After 10 km all of a sudden there was a tunnel through the top of the ridge, almost like Japan. This time I pulled out my tail light and head light as the sign indicated it would be 1.5 km long. But it was dimly lit and downhill and so I was able to ride through fairly quickly. Still I was happy to have my lights. Once out, I was terribly cold and disoriented with the clouds and I was pretty spooked about the weather. I stopped at one incredible place above the clouds with the distant giant mountains barely showing through. The 20 km, 800 m drop to the valley left me rigid with cold on my bike, and I was happy to begin to climb again. I now had an 80 km ride up a long series of valleys that seemed to be peopled largely with nomads, given the number of tents and animals that I saw. I crossed two more passes, the second which again got me all the way back up to the 3760 m area, recovering all of the 800m I lost in the morning. With no rain and no towns there was not much stopping and so I got into my Ono early.
I had counted heavily on a place to stay and so I was disappointed when told at the binguan I was directed to that there was no way I could stay there. No idea why not. I went across the street and had a late lunch and struggled again with my alternatives. Using my cryptic questioning technique the woman in the restaurant wrote in my book and pointed me up the street. I showed this to a person on the street and a policeman took over and found me a great place, very obviously a binguan. So it was even more perplexing why I was refused at the first place. I washed my hair and had a nice wash basin bath and it felt like luxury. It rained off and on through the late afternoon, which would have put a bit of a damper on tenting, always my fall-back provision. I returned to the restaurant run by the Muslim ladies and had a dumpling meal and a fun interchange with a 5 year old boy, who tried very hard to communicate with me. We ended up counting for each other, even as I was headed back to my room, to the amusement of those in the street.
Aug 19 – to Zhangye, Gansu (1500m); (135/350 km to date); (250 m gain, 2100 m loss)
I made coffee and noodles in my room and headed out on the chilly morning at my normal 7:30 time. I was expecting a pass of over 4000m and hopeful that the climb that began on the outskirts of town would get me there and that I would not have a big drop and then another climb. I gained altitude quickly as a few switch-backs soon appeared, and I reached a crest at about 3650 m; my fears seemed to be well founded.
Around the first corner, on the way down, a large snow-capped mountain appeared in the north, right in my way. Down I went; at first it seemed that it would be a 2-300 m drop into a gentle valley with lots of sheep, shaggy cattle and more nomad tents. But I kept going down, as the road picked up a small creek and headed for a deep gorge, where it became a serious river. By this time I seemed to have passed the big mountain, and now I began to question how the road would ever get back up to 4000 m, and that possibly the 4000 m pass was on a different road. I guess poor maps don’t always surprise you negatively. The drop was wonderful and I stopped many times to take pictures and to savour the beauty of this valley. Near the end of the mountains a little Buddhist temple popped up at the side of the road; strange in this Muslim world.
And then I was out of the mountains and into lush densely populated agricultural land. The road was still dropping slowly; the asphalt was new and mirror smooth; I was rarely below 30 kph passing motorbikes and farm trucks as I ate up the kms.
I pulled into the outskirts of Zhangye, a moderate sized city, a bit after noon. Even with the 10 km climb in the morning I had averaged over 30 kph for the day. I rode around town for a while trying to find a hotel that was not too big nor too small, and I found one that was just right. It took me and the woman serving me some time to figure out that the extra money she was asking for, above what I thought was the price we agreed to, was for a deposit. We had to enlist some young people who had a translator on their cell phone, before it sunk into my thick head. I walked around Zhangye, up the Drum Tower, a nine story pagoda, and I had two meals before bed.
Aug 20 – to ? (1800m); (120/470 km to date); (400 m gain, 90 loss)
My nice hotel and some exhaustion possibly lead to a feeling early in the morning that I might spend an extra day in Zhangye. I did not have a logical place to get to, as a next leg of the ride and so I resisted getting out of bed. When I did, I had coffee, yoghurt and fruit in my room. It is not often that I can find these sorts of things in roadside kiosks and so I was resisting moving on a bit. And then I decided that I would head out anyway and stop early. I left at 9:00. The Gansu map that I had bought when I got to Zhangye showed me the road out of town, and on the edge of town I saw some appropriate sandstone sculptures. A three camel caravan headed off to the west. I was on my version of a camel, and was hoping also to get safely to the next Oasis. I saw my first hwy 312 marker soon after. I am now on the main Silk Road and will stick with 312 for many days. The early going was good as I had a slight tail wind and was losing altitude very slowly. The road is not as new or smooth as 227 was, and it is of course much busier, but there is lots of activity to watch. I stopped for lunch at a major intersection at about 12:30. This was the place that I had considered getting to, but the going was good and it was still early. After lunch the wind had shifted and it was now stronger and in my face. I was very slow and it took me some time to realize that I was climbing again. Scrub brush had replaced the lush agricultural land and the little towns were also gone. I caught up to a young Chinese bike tourist who was struggling badly, in spite of his very small load. We talked a bit and then he stopped for a break. His destination is Dunhuang and so we could meet again.
By now I had decided to stop at the next town regardless, and I watched anxiously for trees that would mark an oasis and a possibly a small town. Sure enough a strip of businesses appeared in the next bunch of trees and a smiling old man showed me into a 15Y room when I asked for a binguan. This is certainly not the kind of place tour buses stop at, but in many ways it gives me more the flavour of yesterday’s caravasarie. I had a wash basin wash, some pijiu, food in the Muslim restaurant and spent some time just sitting on a plastic lawn chair, with the locals, watching the truck convoys, today’s version of the camel caravan, go by.
Aug 21 – to Jiayuguan (1720 m); (140/610 km to date); (670 m gain 465 m loss)
I was on the road at 6:30, as the sun began to light the flat desert. The mountains were hazy as they would remain much of the day. Even when the snow-capped Qilian appeared it was not that photogenic and so they remain un-captured by my camera. Still, it was cool enough to wear my jersey for a while as I started with a slight down-hill and so it was pleasant. The wind was across the road and mostly not helping. I seemed to spend much of the day climbing, although I know that was not true. I had breakfast at about 8:00 and it felt like I would be in to Jiayu around noon, even though the going was slow. As I approached the twin cities I began to realize that the distance I had been reading on the road signs was to the first of the cities and Jiayuguan is the second, which added another 25 km. So I stopped for yet another noodle meal, had more to drink and a break from the sun. It was now very hot. It seems that riding into noon could be a mistake. The riding was also uninspiring and so I was feeling pretty sluggish. Still, I made it in without a great deal of trouble, even though the final 25 km involved a steady climb. Jiayuguan is on Jiayu pass, and so the climb is not surprising.
In the city I had trouble finding a focal point for my bearings and so ended doing some circle riding until I found a street that was on my Lonely Planet sketch map. The recommended hotel was full, as was one other and so I went a bit upscale rather than riding around. By this time I had decided to spend two nights here and so will not visit the Fort until tomorrow.
Aug 22 – Jiayuguan (30 km/ 640 km to date)
Guan can be roughly translated as to close or shut, and possibly the Fort at Jiayu pass can be thought as a way of closing off the real China from the barbarians. The Fort was not built until 1372 AD, well after the Great Wall had been built and the peak of the Silk Road traffic, but in many ways this is still where the two different worlds meet. The Fort itself is very substantial, with an inner and an outer fort, the walls being a good 20 m high and thick. The Wall here is made of mud and straw, but still appears significant as it runs off in either direction along the pass. The Hexi Corridor comes to an end here and is narrowest, possibly 10 km wide. The Fort is a World Heritage Site and, like other sites of this significance in China is very well developed; it is very possible to stand on the walls looking out over the expanse of nothingness and to wonder what faces you out there. In fact that is what I did this morning, and it does not look very inviting, either on paper or in my imagination, but I guess tomorrow I will begin to find out.
Looking westward, we see the long long road.
Only the brave cross the Martial Barrier,
Who is not afraid of the vast desert?
Should not the scorching heat of heaven make him frightened?
I still have some 400 km of Gansu before I hit Xinjiang province, but my next target is hopefully only three days away when I get to Dunhuang and the Mogao Caves.
Aug 23 – to Yumen (1625 m); (130/770 km to date); (305 m gain, 425 m loss)
I left Jiayuguan at 7:00 without breakfast, trying to get away early. I had a good climb to pass by the Fort and then continued climbing. Soon hwy312 deteriorated to a narrow, almost one lane road with no shoulders. There was little traffic but when five big cement trucks went by, pushing me off the road, I decided that I would jump the fence and get onto the expressway, G30 that has been going parallel to 312 since Zhangye. I noticed that the traffic was much heavier than normal on G30 and concluded that 312 would remain undeveloped for a while. The barbed wire fence was close to 2 m high, so I pushed my stuff under and then there was an easy guard rail to get over. G30 was great; four lane divided with a big shoulder. I passed some police parked on the shoulder and a number passed me but no one said anything. As I continued on the way it was obvious that 312 is being worked on but that it is nowhere the standard it has been, and so most are now using G30. An advantage is that it is limited access so the threat of someone flying out from the side is basically gone. The only downside is that there is now more re-tread debris that I have to watch for. I had to fix my first flat last night, which was a retread wire hole; hopefully it doesn’t get as bad as riding the desert in the US.
I had both front and rear derailleur problems that stopped me a few times. I got one partially fixed, but am going along without my top gear. I made pretty good time, other than the stops. Near the end of the day I had a side wind that helped quite a bit and the road is faster than 312, because it is better engineered. The only activity I see, besides the vehicles on the road, is when we approach an oasis and then there might be a little agriculture.
I pulled into Yumen, a small city, at about 1:30 and checked into the best hotel in town. I had a pepsi and biscuits at a rest stop on the super highway and will now wait until dinner to eat, except of course for a beer and a watermelon. I washed my clothes. My approach, when in a nice place like this is to stay out of the heat and re-hydrate as I know I don’t drink enough when on the move.
Walking around town, as the heat abated, I stumbled into a nice restaurant run by a chicly dressed woman. I had lamb kebabs and eggplant, quiet Chinese music was playing, the sun filtering through the poplar leaves. I would swear that I was in a refined enclave in an Eastern city. Outside on the highway strip running through town and all along the highway, things are rough and sand-swept and the mostly male world is anything but refined and quiet. But for the moment, I am having a piece of peace.
Aug 24 – to Dunhuang (1280 m); (140/910 km to date); (0 m gain, 320 m loss)
I left town around 7:00, worried again about whether I could make it to the corner that goes south to Dunhuang. On the English oriented maps it is called Anxi, but on the highway, in pinyin it is something completely different. At any rate the going was fast early as I gambled again by finding my way onto G30, even though there was a bicyclist with a line through it at the entry. I think it was also slightly downhill. After an hour or so a breeze started to pick up and it was right behind me. I stopped a couple of times and realized that this was no longer a breeze. Before long I was sailing along well above 30 kph. It was extremely rough land, no longer any scrub brush, just rocks and dirt. I could tell that it would get very hot, once the wind slowed. The dirt was also now air-borne and I got to worry about getting caught in a sand-storm. G30 came to an end, well short of the city it was advertising (I hoped it was also Anxi), and the police gave me a scolding as I came off through the toll-gate. The road now headed south and I was angled significantly to counteract the east wind. The road I was now on indeed is the highway to Dunhuang and in a couple of kms I entered a city. It was just before noon, and I had averaged above 30 kph for the day. But instead of getting a hotel and sitting all afternoon I had decided to see if I could find a bus to take my to Dunhuang. I waited until I saw a big bus coming into town and I followed it to what was the bus station. The attendant pointed to a bus that was bound for Dunhuang and would only grant me a ticket when I indicated that my bike could fold. I was given a hold and in about 10 minutes had my bike apart and in the hold. It is much easier than on a train because I don’t have to take it fully apart, and I don’t have to carry the whole load anywhere. The bus was on the way to Dunhuang before 1:00, and I was in my hotel in Dunhuang before 2:30, having assembled my bike and load again with the help of 5 or 6 helpers on the road in front of the Dunhuang bus depot.
Aug 24-26 Dunhuang (30/940 km to date)
The two main attractions in Dunhuang are Mingsha Shan, the biggest sand dunes in China and the Mogoa Caves, a world heritage site and one of the great world repositories of Buddhist art and history. I cycled out to the Mingsha Mtns, around 5:00, the recommended time. The wind was still howling, now mostly from the north, confirming that I would be taking the bus north again to return to the Silk Road. Actually Dunhuang is on the southern Silk Road and was, in the early days, a significant cross-roads for Silk Road travellers.
The Mingsha are one of China’s class A tourist attractions, and as such an expensive entry fee (120Y) was extracted. Once inside the big attractions are riding the Bactrian (two-humped) camels, dune buggies, sand surfing, and so forth. I spent some time waiting for the wind to lessen, to no avail. I walked the short walk to the little Crescent Moon Lake, a small oasis with a pond shaped like a crescent moon. I visited there a little and then hoofed it up onto the sand dunes. Now at their highest they are a good 400 m climb, which was still possible at this time of day, but I stayed off of the highest ridges because of the wind. With the blowing sand, I gambled on taking some photos, but they were marginal at best. My best shots were down in the shelter of the camels sheds. The camels seemed so calm, given the hectic atmosphere. While not the best for prize winning photos if you are concerned about your gear, the wind did give me a flavour of what wind in the desert would be like. I will not go looking for this sort of thing. I did miss not being able to tromp around more on the dunes though.
My visit to the Mogoa Caves will be a highlight of this trip for me. I had been to the two other significant Buddhist Caves near Datong and Luoyang in 2006 and this completes the list. While I was able to enter and wander in those sites on my on, At Mogoa you have to go in with a tour group. The 180 Y fee, got me into a large English speaking group with a good guide. We visited 10 of the 492 caves and it was probably enough. The caves were built between the 4th and 10th centuries AD. Early carvings had a decided Indian and even Persian look, and became more Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian as time went on. The highest qualities of craftsmanship were caves built in the Tang dynasty (7th to 9th C). We saw the caves with the largest Buddhas (36m and 26 m) and a large reclining Buddha. But the most impressive for me was the wonderful painting; the frescoes. The work was done by carving the main features out of the sandstone rock and then doing the detail in straw and mud with paintings on top. The paintings have lasted because of the arid environment and because so many of the caves were filled in with sand, protecting them. In the 10 C doors were also built on many of the higher caves.
The caves of course have been looted and vandalized over the centuries. Some as the region became Muslin, some from such passers-by as the White Russians in the 1920s, fleeing the revolution in Russia. The Red Guards did some, but this was one of the places protected by the efforts of Zhou –Enlai. Possibly the most controversial of the looters were the western archaeologists. A famous cave, #17 the Library cave, at the time of discovery, around 1900 by a monk, held around 50,000 scrolls. Word got out and soon some 80% of the documents had found their way to England, France, Germany, the US, and other countries, including the oldest printed book yet found. The monk sold the documents so that he could work on restoring the caves and in total it is said that he got 220 British pounds. Also taken by the archaeologists were pieces of the frescoes; an American had figured out how to do this effectively. The rationale is that the pieces taken by the archaeologists would be protected from the ravages of time and plundering. Many of the pieces that found their way to Germany and Japan were destroyed by bombing in WWII. Nothing has ever been returned to China.
In contrast to the caves at Datong and Luoyang it is the frescoes that seem so wonderful here, with many colours (depending upon pigment) still vibrant. It is said that if the frescoes were in a 1 m high strip they would be 45 km long, representing all of Buddhist legends and depicting much of ancient Chinese life. My grotto photos were done in the museum in simulated grottos.
My time in Dunhuang was a respite from life along the road as I had a nice hotel, internet in my room, and choices of restaurants with English menus, if not western food that is often a poor gamble anyways. The storm raged on around me as I pondered my next move, but knowing that I needed a bus ride to start.
Aug 26, 27 – to Hami, Xinjiang (900 m) by bus (20/960 km to date)
I was on the bus to avoid the north wind and to get down the road a ways.. I had bought a ticket to the border town between Gansu and Xinjiang, about 200 km from Dunhuang. We left Dunhuang at 2:00 pm, and after a very rough road north to join #312, the road became extremely rough the rest of the way to Xinjiang province. There were three very long waits for truck traffic to clear the road work. I had now rehearsed how I would ask, at the border, if the road was any better from here on and if I could stay on as far as Hami. When I saw the desolation at the border I skipped my first question and went right to the second. We arrived in Hami at about 10:30 pm, the trip had cost me about 140 Y, mostly because of my bike. I think you pay extra because it is storage the driver can’t sell.
There was a fancy hotel across from where I assembled my bike with my headlight, but they were full, and in response to my request they phoned around looking for another. They were a bit dismayed at my upper range (300 Y), which is twice what I normally pay. But soon they found me a room for that amount in a sister business hotel. Hami is some millions and so there was little chance that I could find anything on my own in the dark. One of the girls who was helping me phone and her boy-friend offered to help, and before long I was following the two of them, on their motor-bike, through Hami. This was the nicest hotel I have stayed in yet, and I checked in for two nights. The price included a full multi-course breakfast with all the wonderful coffee I could drink. I rode around Hami for a while in the morning. I could not find a bike shop, but I did ride around quite a while and found the way out of town. I did some good internet work and then sat in the dining room until their buffet dinner was ready to tie into. This is the kind of place where there are 2 servers for every customer. The music was pleasant jazz, with periodic piano music thrown in. I got quite spoiled here.
Aug 28 – to ? (1150 m); (185/1145 km to date); (915 m gain, 650 m loss)
I had to wait until close to 8:00 before I could have any breakfast, but I had an early start and so was on the way soon after they opened. The highway was not nearly as busy as my bus trip had indicated and so I made steady if slow progress doing the 2-3% climb that seems to be so prevalent on this road. I had no idea how much I was to climb and so when I got above 1600 m I was quite surprised. By then I was in the small Tian Shans and they were quite spectacular. I had been able to ride though the day because there was a fairly good cloud and dust cover and so I didn’t die in the heat. At a small stop, 132 km out of Hami, and still climbing I began to wonder where I would spend the night. Having a tent and lots of water made a world of difference to my attitude. I could stop anywhere. But I started to lose altitude and in the cool of the evening I felt I could go on, and thought that I would go until I found a place to eat, unless I started to climb again. I then saw a road sign that seemed like a town 13 km away. That became my target and even though I had a bit of climbing again I pushed on. The town seemed like a strip of deserted buildings off of the road. I rode along in front of them and a woman stepped out from one and waved me in. It was about 7:30 by then, and my first request was for a pijui, which indicated, at least to me, that I wasn’t going any farther. I had a second and then some fried rice and the woman had a bed, so I was able even to get a wash basin clean-up. My total bill here for beer, supper, breakfast and bed was 38 y (about $6) Pretty good day.
Aug 29 – to Shanshan (600m); (135/1280 km to date); (300 m gain, 875 m loss)
I expected an all downhill day, but I began with about 10 km of climbing in a light drizzle; both very surprising. The rain abated, but I then got a little head wind, and at one point had heavy head wind and rain. What was supposed to be an easy day turned out to be a bit of a challenge. I had a nice pulled noodle meal about 25 km out of Shanshan on a shaded patio, with a two part stove and both man and woman cooking. As is so often the case I had eight or ten visitors very interested in my bike and what I was doing. There seem to be two kinds of Uighurs, those very friendly and those quite morose. It will be interesting to see how this impression evolves as I get further into Uighur territory. The Uighur originally came into this extensive area from Mongolia, but their appearance and the sound of their language both seem to me more Persian. I have been seeing Uighurs since Qinghai, but ever more as I head west.
ShanShan is a big city and as I was in fairly early I rode by the big obvious hotel, and my request on the street for a binguang got me into a very basic 50Y place. Slab bed, toilet down the hall, shower down another hall. I was proud that I actually left, and went looking for something in between. And I found one for 90Y that had everything I wanted. I spent a long time sleeping in the cool room and will have to figure out how to balance my work effort to avoid the heat fatigue I am getting.
Aug 30, 31 – to Turpan (0); (90/1370 km to date) (200 m gain; 800 loss)
This should be my easiest biking day since leaving Xining. But again I started by going up. I then had a big downhill that got my below sea level and into Turpan (-260 ft), which is above the lowest point. The heat was very obviously a factor even though I got into town before noon, which was an absolute target. I am trying to conserve some energy and keeping out of heat as much as possible is the key. Again, I rode around town a bit and found my way into the Turpan Hotel, and am quite happy here. I had lunch and arranged a taxi tour in the afternoon at John’s Information café that had a branch in Dunhuang and will in Kashgar as well. I could take tomorrow off with out any visiting loss, but I will take the day off to recuperate some, and I am definitely looking at taking a bus out of here, but will deal with that tomorrow.
My first visit for the afternoon was to a Karez, which is part of the extensive irrigation network that is compared to the Great Wall and the Grand Canal as the significant ancient Chinese engineering feats. The Karez is a series of wells and underground channels that bring water from the high Tian Shan mtns to the north into the low lands. They were built about 2000 years ago and there are about 5000 km of canals. The wells are dug down about 5 m and then the tunnel or canal is dug to the next access well. The water collects out of the snow melt from the mountains and runs underground to the fields that are to be irrigated. The wells are primarily to aid in construction of the tunnel and to provide access to the water. The ancient Turpan area, long a favourite oasis and a great place even today for fruits of all sorts including their incredible grapes, which are the sweetest I have tasted.
My next visit was to the Jiaohe Ruins, a Garrison town built during the Han dynasty. The town at one time could house 6500 people and is primarily carved out of the cliffs, walls supplemented with mud bricks. It is interesting how still today the buildings are built in the sun and all arable land is used for agriculture. But I noticed that once in the deep shade of the cave, or down in the Karez it is lovely and cool.
On my second day in Turpan I was off on my bike again, and rode through the old town to get to the Emin Minaret. I had a good chance to watch the grapes being stored in their drying buildings, and was even given a bunch for my attention. The Minaret is a dun coloured brick column set in a field of grapes. Quite striking with the deep blue sky. The streets are a good place to see some of the old way of life.
I will get the bus for Korla in the morning. I am always ambivalent about catching a bus, and in particular it looks like this section of 300 km would be quite nice to ride, but it is also possibly the hottest section and I have already had some indications that the heat is hard on me. Sitting in John’s cafe, under the shade of the grape vines, it is 37 C, no idea what it would be in the heat of the sun. I will still have a 1000 km of riding to get to Kashgar, and I do want to head into the Karakorum, although I feel like I have a lot of time left. I am also struggling to determine how much time I will need to deal with the train ticket thing to get me back to Beijing. It looks like I will need to make the trip in two segments, rather than one, and that always creates a booking issue. At any rate, I need to ignore these thoughts for the next two weeks as there are some significant problems still to solve to get me to Kashgar.
Sept 1 – To Korla by bus
Getting out of the Turpan Depression, by bike for me would be a bit of a challenge. With temperatures close to 40C right now and about 2000 m of climbing I am not sure I would do too well. My bus ride was good and uneventful. I had paid for my bike, the same as for my body, and so wasn’t too worried about getting on the bus with it. A woman wanted to change seats and so I was in the front row and had a good view through the front window, which I like. There were three significant climbs to get up through the Tian Shan and into the plateau area that I will possibly be on the rest of the way to Kashgar. We arrived after about six hours in Korla, another good sized city and I found a hotel pretty easily, another high end business hotel.
Sept 2 – to ? (125/1495 km to date)
Not a real good riding day. I got away with early light at 7:30, about the earliest that I can start now. In part this is because we are still on Beijing time, but probably a good three time zones effectively west. On the other end, it is still fairly light until 9:00 pm. A combination of poor assumptions, heavy roadwork, bad directions from people and of course no road signs lead me to burn 20 km and an hour and a half getting out of the city. Part of this was also riding on a long stretch of heavily travelled loose dirt and gravel that I think has lead to some serious tire problems. At any rate, due to this there was no way that I was going to get to the next major town, which is 175 km away, so I wasn’t even trying after my screw-ups. About 5 km after the bad gravel section I flatted, and did a too quick look for the problem, as I was in the heat out on the highway. Within another 5 km I was soft again, and so this time I found a shady spot away from the road and spent an hour patching tubes and looking for wire; I found four, at least two of which had caused leaks. I think one is from some days ago, but the others, which seem new, got picked up as I was fish-tailing around the gravel section, where it is hard to see the re-tread debris.
As usual there is a light headwind and so my speed in not great. The up and down, that marks the whole route so far continues, but maybe not so significantly as earlier. I can see the dry beige low mountains of the Tian Shan off to the north, but none of the really big ones yet. To the south it is just horizon as it is about 500 km across the Taklamakan to the Kunlun mountains on the other side. In order to make some time I rode through the early afternoon and then I entered what proved to be about 50 km of treed area, with a number of the irrigation channels flowing in from the Tian Shan. With this came some regular little towns, where I hoped to pick up a place to stay.
My first stop, around 3:30 was in a little market area and I sat on a raised sidewalk to have the wonderful sweet grapes that I had bought and a couple of drinks. I had asked already about a binguan and was given no help. Within minutes of sitting down, there were probably 20 men milling around, looking at my bike and map, which I had to fully extend so they could really look, and trying to answer the barrage of questions. These are all Uighur and so they used both Chinese and Uighur which were equally effective with this old red-faced fool sitting by a bike.
After some time I headed back up to the highway, thinking to get something to eat and then find a camping place. But at the place I picked, on the horrendous truck stop strip that accompanies all little towns, I asked about sleep, another expression I am working on, and was directed into a room with a rug on the floor. This looked fine and so I pulled my bike into the room, threw my sleeping bag down and went looking for a basin of water. The old woman running the place wasn’t too happy about the water but did supply some and I had a full clean up in the room. I then sat outside reading for a while before I was going to ask for some supper. It was still early and I thought that possibly I should have headed on a bit, as these people were not super friendly. After I had been there about an hour, during which the woman asked if I was going to sleep, a young fat guy came storming over and got me to come to my room. He indicated he wanted me and my bike out of the room. Another guy was getting ready to begin his prayers. The man who let me into the room in the first place showed me a coach in the tire room, covered with greasy tools and things and indicated I could sleep there. I argued a bit, but realizing the sleep they thought I wanted was a few hours and then I was expected to carry on. It was now 6:30 and I was on the road again. But I still needed a meal and so within less than an hour another place turned up and in I went, hoping not to make yet another mistake on this day of mistakes.
The atmosphere in this one was completely different. The woman was cleanly dressed and both her and her husband, who turned out to be 70, were very friendly and helpful. I had beer and a lovely pork meal, and so I guess they were not practising Muslim. Near the end of my meal, some young guys turned up, who all worked on the railway and who had rented out rooms attached to my restaurant. The main guy who did most of the talking with me, from Chengdu,, claimed his first love was “hip-hop” . He later showed me a video he had done with his group. He did this while we were loading photos we had taken of every possibly group and each trying to ride my bike. Between his cell-phone, his computer and his hip-hop experience my buddy could communicate fairly well with me. When I went to pay for my meal, my beer and the use of the veranda where I was going to sleep, the owner would take no money. I think the guys paid and would not let me buy anything. Once again, struggles during the day often seems to rectify nicely by day’s end.
My sleep was very patchy. To get away from mosquitoes, I ended up crawling into my tent, which I assembled on the wooden platform I was using as a bed, but the trucks ran continuously all night, 30 m from where I lay in a deep sweat. It never got below 32C and while the wind did pick up in the morning it didn’t penetrate my tent netting enough to help.
Sept 3 – To Luntai (75/1570 km to date)
So, I was all packed up and on the road as soon as there was some light. No one was moving in my place, neither the railroad guys nor the owner, so I just had to leave without saying again how much I enjoyed and appreciated their hospitality. I rode for about an hour and a half and then had a nice road-side breakfast and carried on. I never did see the highway construction that I had spent most of yesterday on, as much of the road was in treed, irrigated land and I passed by a number of small settlements. It did get back to barren land with a little head wind before entering Luntai, but no problem as it was such a short day.
I again got into another business hotel and started with a deep shower and drinks followed by a short nap, shortly after noon. Nothing much to see here, so I just stuck to the hotel, except for a short walk down around the main area and into the ever present market, where I bought a kilo of nuts which should last a few days.
Sept 4,5 – to Kuqa (115 + 40/1725 km to date)
This was to be a bit longer day, but I didn’t get out of Luntai until after 8:00. I was again on and off of the highway construction, which is always so draining, with all the dust. I tried my luck again for a breakfast and was not as lucky as yesterday. The older woman brought me a cold chunk of lamb, mostly bone and where not bone it seemed to be fat. This was to go into a warm greasy broth. She also brought a big round of their pita like break. I drank the broth and the tea, the best part, and about a third of the pita, which was cold and stale. The lamb chunk I left. When I left the woman threw the lamb back in the pot and charged me 1.5Y, about 25 cents. I had a drink stop some time later where I finished some cookies and had some nuts. Quite a bit better. There were no oasis breaks today, and so I was pushing hard to get into Kuqa, which is a major stop. Disappointingly, my tire went soft again. It was a very slow leak and so I pumped it up planning on spending more time looking for the problem, once I was settled. About 15 km out of town the West wind became very strong and so it was quite a struggle, but the capper was after I hit town. This is Saturday, and their main market day is supposed to be Friday, but I rode around town for 2 ½ hours before I found a hotel, back 5 km up the road I had come in on. I tried about 6 hotels in that time, never finding anyone who could give me any help. The hotel I am in is like a big business hotel where weekenders also go.
During that time I did see some of the market activity, and I decided that I just had to take time to figure out what to do with my rapidly deteriorating tire situation and the potential of a dramatic wind, so I checked in for two nights. During the night the winds rose dramatically, with doors banging all night. In the morning dust hung heavily in the air and it would stay so all day. It was also significantly colder than it has been. I spent some time patching tubes and looking for wires, finding one more. I am not sure how I did, but in riding around town, I think the tire is losing air, again very slowly. Naturally I found no place to supplement my tire tube or patches. My tubes are so patched I am worrying about how many more I can put on. I have a tube I bought in Golmud, but would have to have my rim drilled in order to use it. It is a last resort. There have been no effective bike shops in any city.
My next leg is a bit over 200 km, with no apparent stopping point, and I am planning on hitting it early in the morning. I try to carry about 4 l of water, and replenish whenever I have a chance, not comfortable with less than 2 l. I am prepared to spend a night in the tent, but it will not stand up to the wind we had last night. Ideally, if I tent it would be beside a restaurant or store where I could buy things.
Sept 6 – to ? (210/1935 km to date)
I was on the road, still dark but lit by street lights, about 7:15. It was cold enough that I had my jersey on for most of the morning; the wind must have brought a very different front in. I had about 10 km to clear town and it went well, with traffic light. The access road, to Kuqa took about another 10 km to hit 314 and the normal road work on the expressway. It took that long as well to clear the treed areas. It would be so nice if the trees lasted the whole way, but then that would not be the Taklamakan.. I was going very well, and then the wind began to gain steam, but wonders never cease, it was with me. I hit another treed and peopled area around a major town at about 50 km, and found, on my second try, a good breakfast spot. I had a broth, with some good stuff in it and four Chinese dumplings. And then, after clearing the city, I had another 10 km where I was confident but not sure I was on the right road, until I again cleared the trees and joined the road work again.
I had an orange drink and cookies on a bridge at 100 km and then a bus stop drink, nuts and an apple at 140 km. It was here that I finally figured out that Asku is 260 not 200 km from Kuqa. I never did firmly commit, in my mind whether I would try for Asku on one day, but was letting the day dictate, and so I didn’t worry much about it. The dust storm of two nights ago has left the air filled with dust and so I see nothing much more that a km away, and so it was a big surprise when I found a low range of mountains on my right. Somehow in the climbing I had after lunch I worked my way across a low range topping out above 1200 m. I knew a town, not big enough to have a pinyin name on my map, was coming up. I entered at 4:30, and by then had decided that if a binguan was to be found I would stop, or I could ride all the way into Asku. It is only another 55 km and things were still going very well even if the wind had died, and the tires were still holding. And a hotel was found; only a 0 Star, after my 3 Stars of late a bit of a let down but better than I expected. I have a hot shower, with only a hose, the nozzle fell off, and an Asian toilet, no AC, but a working fan. So things are good.
After a shower and beer I walked down to the corner store, where I had been directed to the hotel, and found some un-doctored Nescafe and some good chocolate. It is better supplied than any I have found for more than a week in the bigger cities. I found my way into a restaurant and used my “Chi Fan” request to get good noodles with hot mixed topping; this was obviously their specialty. The real noodles are pulled and are meaty, not the packaged sort that have little substance. I sat out in front and had another beer and chatted with one of six truckers (3 per truck) who were eating and washing their feet in the same restaurant. (They ate inside and washed their feet outside). Once in my room a harsh knock announced three police who wanted to check me out. Only one seemed to be able to keep a straight face, the guy in charge who could also speak a bit of English. He went through every page in my passport and asked for a piece of paper so he could write my particulars down. I’m not sure if he was trying to scare some money out of me or if they were just curious.
I do not know if I will stop in Asku or not, it is the last big city before Kashgar, but if the wind is with me I might aim again for a longer day. There is no real rush. but if I have favourable or even neutral wind I feel I have to take it.
Sept 7 – to Asku (55/1990 km to date)
I actually slept in and didn’t get on the road until 8:30, having decided to stop at Asku. My legs were heavy to start and so obviously yesterday took a bit of a toll. After a brief barren stretch I was in a treed area that was fairly rolling and so I was going slowly and it allowed me to savour the street scene. Many children were walking and cycling to school, some for a number of kms. As often happens some of the young boys tried to keep up with me on their old clunkers. Actually, a couple of days ago one stuck with me for about 4 km, even knowing enough to draft as it was a bit windy. I really enjoy the old men, usually with long wispy white beards, watching their sheep grazing along the road. When not doing that they are going somewhere in their donkey karts. I crossed one river that was fairly large that actually had running water, most have been large dry beds. I am not sure if you can ever see the big mtns in the Tian Shan from the highway. With the dust it is certainly impossible, but there are 7000m peaks less than 100 km from here.
Asku is another moderate sized Chinese city and I have another business class hotel. The first one I tried apparently is closed to foreigners, which doesn’t happen much anymore, although things might be getting tighter in this neck of the woods.
Sept 8 to ? (180/2170 km to date)
Now , leaving the hotel at 7:30 means that it is dark, but being a big city with street lights I found my way back out the same road I came in on. Once on the expressway I could see only a little, but with the big wide shoulder there was not too much problem. The odd truck lit up enough for me to pick out possible re-tread debris or holes in the pavement which are the main risks riding before it is fully light.
Not indicated on my map, which has basically been pretty good, there seems to be fairly continuous little settlements leaving Asku. Even though the favourable wind of two days ago has disappeared I make good progress. I am no longer worried about where I will stay or how I will get on down the road. As long as a big head wind or big bike troubles don’t occur I feel fairly good about my strategy. I feel that I will hit service stations at least and more likely little road side strips where I can get eats and drinks. I will stop for the evening at one of these places and as a last resort put up my tent. Again, my tent gives me that added level of back-up, that I probably will not use, but without it I would not feel as easy.
I know now to ride along a strip until I see people eating and then go into a place and have what others are having. Using my “Chi Fan”, literally “eat rice,” is working well again. The main dish that I am having in the Uighur places is a hearty bowl of rice with a meat and vegetable based sauce; very filling and sustaining. I had one of these at about 60 km, and then a service station drink at 100 and a brief break at the 130 km possible stopping place. It is a major town, but I felt stopping so early in the day made no sense, so on I went.
The air will just not clear up, I passed by some low mountains, but did not see them until I was right in them, and then after that it was just flat dusty riding again. I came into my destination town and was a little surprised by how small it was, only one likely restaurant and nothing much else besides deserted looking buildings, which are not deserted but nothing seems to happen. It was only 4:30 and the first response I got to “binguan” was negative. I had a drink and some peanuts and tried again, giving my “wo lei” expression in response to the 50 km to the next town. I then pointed at the ground and made a tent sign. The young teenage boy pointed to some screened sleeping platforms and asked his mom if those would be ok.
I now kind of sat around, feeling a bit foolish as I could only communicate in phrase book Chinese when they were all talking Uighur. I think they were all wondering when I was going to go lay down on the platform if I was so tired. I stared playing with the young boy and a young girl who was visiting and that filled a bit of time.
Finally at about 7:30, it looked like some truckers were stopping to eat. I joined in and had my Chi Fan, with no questions about what I wanted. After I ate I again tried to ask if it was ok to sleep on one of the platforms, begged some water for cleaning and went to set up for the evening. I did a much better job than a few days ago, and by dark, at 9:30, I was ready for bed. I had offered 20Y for the night and it was accepted. I am sure that truckers just use these spots whenever they arrive. The owners were super busy through all of this and I am sure they served 30 truckers meals between 7:30 and 10:30 or so.
I crawled into my little netted platform with a range of things that could get me through the night. It was about 27C when I went in and so I had no covers; as the night progressed I added more and more, stopping just short of pulling out my sleeping bag, although I was cold by morning.` With the steady stream of trucks, many of which pulled into the little strip, any sleep I had was pretty fitful, but I did awaken at 2:30 when someone shone a flashlight in my face and was talking to me. It doesn’t matter what I answer as they don’t understand me. This one went away and then it happened again a couple of hours later and then again at 7:00. It almost seemed the same guy, but that doesn’t make sense.
Sept 9 – to ? (150/2320 km to date)
I was on the road at 8:00, but it was still quite dark. My tail light is on, and I can kind of see the road, but I do hit more debris, so that is the main risk. Traffic is light as many truckers seem to take a major break at this time. The head wind began after 20 km and the rollers continued. It is now obvious that the road will skirt right along the first low Tian Shan. The dust in the air persists and so I don’t see very much. Two or three times the road either passes through an escarpment or runs right beside it and so I can see a bit then. But mostly, on this day it is just flat dust filled space. Occasionally I see a train go by and of course there are no end of trucks, many buses and the odd car to share the road with.
I had another good breakfast at 50 km, a drink and peanuts at 100 km and topped up the air in my rear tire at 130 km. How about those items as the high-lights of the day.
I had no options for today’s stop; a small town with no name that I know of. With the steady wind during the day, I pulled in here at 3:30, fairly tired. It is close to 100 km to the next place where I would probably find a proper hotel, and with 150 km left to go, this is the place to stop. The room I am in has four bunks, and likely they will be filled during the evening. The owner swept it out the room and straightened it for me. He even used a shovel get a pile of dirt out. I got a basin of water and even washed my hair. In a place like this I use the Rich King approach, and put down my nylon ground sheet on the bed and then use my own sleeping bag, although that possibly won’t be necessary here. I am only moderately confident that the owner expects me to stay the night, not just sleep for a couple of hours and then head on.
I had supper at the Chinese restaurant (they have beer) and visited in front with the Chinese for a while. Then I tried reading on the bed in front of my hotel (all places have a bed or platform that people visit upon), but within minutes the hotel owner, who also owned the bed and the watermelon cart beside the bed, was looking at my book and then at my camera and I was taking pictures of everyone in all sorts of poses. The devolved into sitting with all the kids on the bed until the owner got mad and chased all the kids away. He looks adult but behaves very juvenile, and he had to get one of the little girls to write his address down so I could send him the pictures.
I slept deeply almost all night; I am getting very tired I guess, but no one came in to share the room.
Sept 10 – to Kashgar (150/2470 km to date)
I was up prepared to hit the road at 8:00 again, but when I tried to top up the air in my rear tire my pump failed me, and it has been excellent the whole time I have had it. I wheeled the bike across the street and woke up the tire guy, asleep with his young boy on the bed beside his gear, waiting for business. He filled the rear tire in a few minutes, and I was on the road close to 8:30, but now I have to worry about not having a working pump.
The rollers seemed exaggerated and the head-wind stronger. I decided that I had to ride fairly hard as I now had at least one tire that was slowly leaking and no way of filling it. My next town was 70 km away. I had one brief break in that time and the tire was holding pretty well. At that town I couldn’t get anything to eat and so just drank some and headed on, but within 20 km the bike was not handling well and now the front tire was quite soft. I had no idea how fast it was losing air and so I rode hard for the next 20 km and was able make it to a tire stop and fill both tires; very lucky. For the first time I am grateful that tires are the big problem for truckers and so there are an endless string of tire repair places along every road. Ugly as they are, when you need them they are beautiful.
The day was just slightly less dusty than the other days of late and so I could see some of the low rocky ridges I was passing through, but it was also hotter and so that seemed to drain me more than normally. I was rocketing on, worrying about my tires, behaving like an old horse with the barn in sight, as I closed in on Kashgar. No time to smell the roses or take photos.
I pulled into Kashgar after a stressful and tiring day. I got into the second hotel that I tried, and am at the moment exhausted even though I am showered and beered. I think the last five days were quite hard, even though at the time I felt pretty good. Perhaps I was also more stressed than I noticed at the time. It is a bit sad not to feel the elation that a trip of this magnitude should bring. Perhaps that will come after a few days rest when I awaken one day not worrying about what the day might bring.
For now, this is the end of my Silk Road ride and I will have a visit for time in and around Kashgar, for me another of those long time travel goals. I have begun discussions and done a little thinking about how my last week and some will play out. Tomorrow I want to make some bookings and so it will be standing in line for at least part of the day before I can settle down and appreciate the ancient city of Kashgar.