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).