China part #1 – the first thousand miles

Leaving Almaty after our last blog was very tough – we’d got way too comfy during our week relaxing there, enjoying an amazing house, proper food, and a western-style city. The prospect of dusting off the bikes and tents for a 3 month stint across China was not too appealing, to say the least. We did eventually manage it (I promise we’re not secretly blogging from Almaty), and knocked off the 250 miles that remained before the Chinese border.

Sometimes border crossings mean an instant change of landscape and culture, sometimes the change is more gradual. The crossing to China from Kazakhstan felt like the former and the two border towns prove the point. ‘Khorgos’, on the Kazakh side, seemed a typical Kazak village. Potholed roads, bare-shelved village shops, surrounded by open green land for sheep and cows to graze. Getting into Kazakh customs control was a pushing and shoving match with about 50 other people. On the Chinese side, ‘Khorgas’ had high-rise buildings, a perfectly smooth highway, shops bursting with weird and wonderful food and drink (shrink-wrapped hardboiled egg anyone?) and was surrounded by intensively cultivated fields. Before entering Chinese customs control we were made to stand in a line by a uniformed officer, like school children.

We’re currently about 1,000 miles into China and the landscape has changed dramatically already within the country – we’ve cycled up/through/past mountains, deserts, switchback climbs, frozen lakes and sweltering oasis towns. We’d expected West China to be the emptiest stretch of our journey so far, but the first 600 miles were reasonable busy: a mixture of large developed cities (with hotels, supermarkets and department stores) and small truck-stop villages (full of dirty roadside cafes and no running water). Toddlers run free in the road with clever/insane trousers that have a massive split around the arse. No need for nappies – if they need the loo they just squat on the street, the split magically opens and away they go. I’m considering getting Bex a pair to help speed things along.

China has been completely different to anywhere else we’ve been. Food, mannerisms, language – it’s all very bizarre to us. Sign posts are written in Chinese characters, as expected, but helpfully they’ve also included Farsi for those that can’t read Chinese. The most common food appears to be noodles from little cafes, and unless you request otherwise, is served with 4 to 5 whole chillies chopped up and mixed in. The other day in a cafe we saw someone munching on a raw onion as if it were an apple, whilst chatting to his mate who was popping garlic cloves into his mouth as if they were sweets.

General western manners are irrelevant in the truck-stop cafes of rural China. Spitting is the norm, whether it’s on the streets or on the floor inside cafes and restaurants. Chopsticks are used to eat every meal, and I’d assumed that the locals would have some seriously slick chopstick skills. However the standard technique is to lower mouth to within an inch of bowl, stab chopsticks into noodles, lever one end of a massive bundle of noodles into mouth, then suck & slurp the remainder of the bundle up into your mouth as loudly as possible. It has to be seen to be believed!

Urumqi is the largest city in Xinjiang, and is the most remote city from any sea in the world. It felt huge as we cycled in, neon lights and people everywhere, much like I’d imagined a large Chinese city to be like. Urumqi lies at 800 metres above sea level and our next stop was Turpan, just 120 miles away but 150 metres below sea level. We anticipated a glorious day of freewheeling but unfortunately the wind had other ideas and blew strongly in our faces for the full two days that it took to get there. Devastating.

When we did eventually descend into the Turpan basin the heat rose noticeably – Turpan is officially the hottest place in China with a face-melting record temperature of 49 degrees Celsius. Fortunately it was only a balmy 36 degrees when we were there, although that’s still much too hot for me. We spent a day in this old town on the Silk Road’s northern route eating fruit and nuts (the region is famous for grapes and raisins). The old bazar was suitably smelly complete with the usual horrors of the meat section.

After leaving Turpan the farmland and towns gave way to desert. There’s only one road to take if you want to travel to the east and it’s extremely bleak: to the north lies emptiness and the southern edge of the Gobi desert, whilst to the south lies more emptiness and the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert. This is the first time that we’ve really had to be careful how much water we’re carrying. It’s usually about 200 miles (3 or 4 days by bike, depending on the wind) between towns, and although there is the occasional petrol station plonked out in the middle of nowhere, it’s impossible to find out for sure exactly where these are. As team sherpa, I’ve been carrying the water and food required for wild camping throughout the trip, but for Princess Bex the weight of an additional 10kg waterbag on her bike must’ve been a real shock to the system.

During one of these empty sections between Turpan and Hami we passed through an area notorious for strong winds – apparently a train had been blown off the tracks recently. We loaded up with water and food and set off. On day one, the heat was unbearable – even the wind was hot and we found ourselves leapfrogging from tunnel to tunnel to escape from the heat of the sun for a while. Despite all the extra water we carried, it’s impossible to quench our thirst when the temperatures rise in the desert. The heat seems to radiate up from the ground as well as down from the sun, and our water turns luke warm in minutes and loses all appeal. I keep day dreaming about ice-cold drinks from fridges, which is torture when you know there’s no chance of getting one for the next few days.

On day two we set the alarm for sunrise in an attempt to beat the increasing wind, so after evicting a scorpion from our tent (who’d crawled in whilst we were outside having breakfast!) we began what was to be one of the worst days of our journey to date. A savage cross-headwind was blowing, getting stronger by the minute, and before long we couldn’t ride our bikes as the gusts blew us sideways off the road. Bex looked terrified as she leaned into the wind (and traffic!) trying to keep her bike upright. Each time a lorry goes past it creates a wind shadow, sucking us in towards the wheels and then spitting us furiously back out the other way. The gusts pick up any loose surface sand and grit and fires it sideways into our faces. It didn’t feel like we had anywhere to escape to, the barren landscape offered no shelter and the angle of the wind meant our trusty tunnels under the road just acted as funnels, so we just had to keep going.

After battling the elements for a miserable 15 miles, a truckers’ cafe appeared from nowhere, so we ditched the bikes and dived inside. We huddled inside that cafe all day, feeling sorry for ourselves as the wind buffeted the corrugated iron building. The walls shook and the roof creaked as a nearby weather station recorded wind speeds of up to 97kph! We got worried as the cafe owner kept glancing nervously at his roof, which started to come away from the walls. The wind sent gusts of grit and dust past the window at incredible speed – I’ve never seen or felt anything like it before. Tables and chairs were pushed against the walls to stop them collapsing and all we could do was sit and wait. Cycling onwards or camping outdoors was obviously a recipe for doom, few trucks were still driving in the wind, and the forecast for the following day was for more strong winds. We considered our options over another plate of greasy noodles:

A) Find a lorry still willing to travel in the winds, hitch a lift back to the previous town 80 miles back down the road, wait out the storm for a few days, before hitching a lift back and trying again.

B) Persuade the cafe owner to let us pitch the tent inside the cafe, hope that the wind drops overnight and try to battle on the following day.

Neither sounded particularly appealing. We both agreed that whatever happened we had to cycle this section, even if we had to hitch a lift back to safety and attempt it again in a few days – but the thought of going back on ourselves after so much misery was awful.

We sat around helplessly for hours, trapped in the tiny tin box and not really sure what to do. What if the wind is strong tomorrow? But if we go back now it will mean lots of extra money spent and what if we could’ve cycled?! Each day we lose is precious as our visa ticks by regardless, and China doesn’t get any smaller. Eventually we’d been messing around for so long  that it became too late to get back to the previous town: my motto held true once again (ignore a problem, and it will go away) and our decision was made. The cafe owner kindly said we could pitch our tent on the floor after his customers had finished drinking beer, slurping and spitting on the floor at approximately 2am.

After propping my eyes open in a corner of the cafe, finally the last of the boozers retired to their trucks for the night and we whipped the tent up for a 6 hour kip, earplugs essential to drown out the sodding wind. We woke feeling ‘refreshed’ at 8am to find a strong but hopefully not lethal wind, and so jumped on the bikes. We battled a ‘steady’ 50kph crosshead wind for 5 hours, whilst going up endless hills. We were over one hundred miles from the nearest town and camping out in these conditions would be a challenge. Morale was off the scale. Fortunately, everything changed extremely quickly.

We reached the top of the mountains as the road bent 45 degrees to the right, transforming the crosshead wind into a once-in-a-lifetime tailwind! YEEEEHAAAA! After a terrible morning we now cycled at warp speed, smashed out 196km for the day (a record that will not be broken!) and arrived in Hami days earlier than expected. It hammered home how gutting the wind can be – we pedaled at maximum effort all morning and covered 50 kilometres, and then free-wheeled for most of the afternoon but covered 140 kilometres!

The desert after Hami has been nearly as unforgiving as the part before and the wind has been relentless. It seems like we spend every day at the moment flogging ourselves across a barren landscape, battling headwinds, sandstorms and trucks. Our options for camping are determined by the wind – either in a tunnel under the road (noisy, but sheltered) or a few hundred metres off to the side of the road out in the desert (quiet, but exposed to the elements).

On the first day after leaving Hami the wind forced us to camp in a tunnel under the road, but unfortunately the wind shifted direction just after we went to bed and our sheltered underpass was quickly transformed into a very sandy wind tunnel. We lay there, sticky and dirty from a day’s cycling, trucks racing past 6 feet above our heads, tent flapping manically in the wind. Sand quickly began leaking through the mesh door and filling up my side of the tent. We soon had sand in every orifice and unfortunately we were still four days of cycling and camping from the nearest town. It was definitely one of those moments when you wonder how the hell you’ve ended up here – and we’ve had a few of those recently!

This was easily the dirtiest I’d ever been, and when we finally reached the next town the highly anticipated shower was world class – the build up of road grime turned the water black and blocked the plug!

We’re now in a tiny town called Liuyuan, getting ready for what is hopefully the last desert stretch. Any romantic notions of cycling across huge empty landscapes have been completely lost on me now, and I can’t wait to see the back of them. Although China has been pretty tough at times, I’m definitely still enjoying being here overall – some of the scenery has been spectacular, the change in culture is interesting and fun, and the food is generally tasty (if you remember to shout ‘no chilli’ when ordering). I’m looking forward to seeing the country change as we move east and south over the next few weeks.

If you would like slightly more regular updates than these blogs, you can check our current location over on the route page (updated every week or so), or take a look at our micro-updates on Twitter (you don’t need to be a member to view the page).

28 Responses to China part #1 – the first thousand miles

  1. Mark Davies says:

    I am half way through this blog and laughing out loud for the fourth time already. You make me smile! Back to reading…

  2. Mark Davies says:

    OK – finished. Wow – what a drama in the second half. You’re writing really paints a picture and gives a sense of what you’re experiencing, which makes reading the blog so enjoyable. I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets massivley excited when I receive notification of a new blog – it’s a real “drop everything” moment 🙂

    On the day you left home I lifted your bike and was amazed at the weight of it. Can’t imagine having an extra 10kg of water on board. You are both coping brilliantly.

    When you reach Yonhchang (which looks like it’s around the point when the desert changes to fields) I’m going to make another donation – so keep pedalling!

    Hugs to both of you x

  3. Ian Holliday says:

    Great blog – I hope you adapt to chilis in everything before you get to VietNam. Hope you get quickly over the last of the desert and make it to the south in time to sample the tropical storms that are raging down there currently. At least water won’t be a problem…

    well done and keep them wheels a-truning’ !

  4. Felix Dance says:

    Wow, awesome blog post guys! Love that 196km day – what a dream 🙂


  5. Guiv says:

    Absolutely awesome mate! Haha yeah enjoy the Chinese loogie hocking and horrific bogs. Amazing country though and the food was delish (apart from the wierd non-descript shrink-wrapped faeces they sell in the ‘rest stops’). In answer to your facey-b question, yeah the ship we got was 80 Euros a day each through the Mediterranean Shipping Company. Our boat was the MSC Basel I think, going from Singapore to Fremantle (and on to Sydders but we hopped off at Fremantle). Great banter and solid scran but make sure you’ve got a stern stomach in time for the humongous waves off the West Coast of Oz! Anyway, such an amazing achievement from you both and keep up the solid blogging – always a captivating read! Big love, the Guivs

    • Ryan says:

      Thanks for the info. All the companies we’ve tried so far have stopped taking passengers recently. Yep, rest stop food is questionable!

  6. Lucy smith says:

    Amazing blog post once again. I remember the spitting well! Sad we didn’t hear more of scorpion incident. I would have literally cried. Miss you both xxx

    • Bex says:

      So the scorpion incident – basically Ryan refused to assist on getting rid of it (WHIMP) and pretended he was busy making porridge so I had to get all our stuff out of the tent while it was scuttling (at 100mph) around and definitely attempting to take me out. I then couldn’t find it anywhere, it was translucent so very well camouflaged, so I packed the tent away (my hand literally shoving the tent in the bag) – then the next night when we got the tent out it was still in there!!!!!

      We now have a very strict door shutting policy, that when broken causes Ryan to get all hysterical.

      • Ryan says:

        A reasonable account, if you switch the names round. After Bex had ‘checked’ the tent, Ryan found it, killed it and disposed of it. Then changed my underwear.

      • Well, Bex, I’m sure making porridge was far more important than looking for a tiny little scorpion! 😛
        But glad it all ended safely. (I have read the follow up from Tyan, but not sure who to believe – except that he WOULD say that, wouldn’t he? A man’s pride is at stake!)

  7. Steve Littler says:

    I can confirm that both I and Lucy would have cried. Awesome blog post yet again. I can’t imagine how much fun it’s going to be tootling down the coast of Vietnam and Thailand … I don’t think we’ll get you back!

  8. Henry B says:

    Great blog matey…just wanted to say that the club doing free whiskey for foreigners in Chengdu is cc Club. Make sure you stay at Sims Cozy Guesthose, it fookin mega and I guarantee you’ll find hard to leave! We’re in Laos now and its amlost a trippy as an Amsterdam excursion. Enjoy Southern China, its truly mint. All the best, Henry

  9. dorian says:

    i can only imagine how dark the darkest moment for you has been…i often complain of being in misery corner but i feel being several days without a shower, horrific heat, scorpions, forever thirsty, horrible dirt filled wind and sleeping under a motorway frankly takes the trophy as misery corner….Thank you for giving me a perspective on things :)..stay safe

  10. Sue says:

    Just re-read the blog after seeing your recent photos – both fantastic and paint such a vivid picture of this leg of the journey – well done again for maintaining such an informative record even though it must be tough at times – much appreciated at this end!!!

  11. Adrian says:

    Well done you guys.
    By comparison our lejog seems somewhat unambitious, but that’s not how it felt when we were doing it.
    10 days was a strict and difficult deadline for us given the weather. (85 mph gusts, regular 25 – 30 mph headwinds) Psychologically draining, as you know. My riding companion described the heavy trucks passing by our ears as ‘ a near-death experience every 10 seconds’. Unpleasant. I’m glad its over and wouldn’t recommend our route or deadline. The only payback was our last day’s tail wind which gave us 164 km in one day.
    Well done to you both.

    • Rebecca says:

      Hey Adrian, great to hear from you – and that you survived LEJOG! We have now cycled through 16 countries, over mountain ranges, across deserts and Ryan STILL says that some of the worst climbs and toughest cycling he has ever done was on LEJOG! So well done!

      I certainly know how it feels to have honking great lorries hurtling past you, and savage headwinds – it can be soul destroying. But you did it, and are a total hero!

      I hope to see some photos on flickr, or a short story about your ride at some point:-)

      Love Bex

    • Ryan says:

      Well done for finishing in 10 days – that’s much faster than I did it! Headwinds are awful, it’s awful that an uncontrollable like the wind can make a day so easy or so hard (but almost always hard…)

  12. Teleri says:

    Great reading what you’re up to and watching the video clip, it really shows how strong minded you both are to get back on those bikes and cycle through the good and the bad conditions…..i don’t know how you do it Bex…..superwoman!! Keep up the good work and keep your eyes on the prize…..there will no doubt be pleanty of ice cold beers waiting for you in NZ! lots of love xxx

    • Rebecca says:

      Hey Tel,

      We just got to a bit city, Lanzhou, so Im going to treat myself to a few of those ice cold beers tonight, woooooop!

      Miss you all the world!

      Bex xxxx

      ps send me an email with all your gossip!

  13. Pleased to read you’re halfway to NZ, though I would have been certain it was far more than that had anyone asked. There’s always something special about realising you’re halfway through your journey, especially the longer ones. It’s sort of comforting to think there is less distance to go that you’ve already cycled.
    Enjoy Lanzhou and the comforts it affords you, but not too much – there’s a road out there beconing you onwards.
    Keep up the wonderful blog – an amazing read.

  14. Mark, Soraya, Alex says:

    Wow. Another amazing, incredible, honest, brilliant update. Congratulations guys on being half way. Thought you might like to see some nice pics of the planet you have cycled a large part of!

    Soyuz TMA-20 crew meet the press at Star City

    Mark, Soraya and Alex

  15. Pingback: Adelaide to Melbourne & the Great Ocean Road « World Cycling Tour

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