May 30th to June 6th. 662km
After four days of 5 star luxury in Urumqi, it was time we moved on. Fresh sheets, a soft bed and buffet breakfasts were great, but we were (ok, maybe I was) keen to get back on the bikes. We went out to explore a bit, had a wander around Hongshan Park and did some shopping to stock up on supplies for the next week on the road. A lot of good food was eaten too, some foreign, some local, and lots of kebabs with flat bread, washed down with cold beer.
We kind of expected to be heading out in to the wilderness as soon as we crossed the city limits, but that definitely wasn’t the case. Actually for the first three days, we cycled through intensely farmed plains between large and unremarkable cities. The weather was kind to us so the views over to the mountains to the south were good but the riding itself was, dare I say it, a bit boring and monotonous. There was no shortage of shade under the trees for tea stops, and the people were always friendly whenever we stopped for drinks or food, so that helped keep the smiles on our faces.
We also ended each of the first three days in a hotel, which was a pleasant surprise. In this area, Xinjiang Province, far fewer hotels are licensed to accept foreign guests. We’ve heard of cyclists checking into hotels then getting kicked out several hours later once the staff try to register their details with the police. We found we were turned away from more hotels here, and the hotels we could stay in were a little more expensive, but we managed to find rooms without too much trouble. One evening at about 10 o’clock we were relaxing in our room and we got a knock on the door. We expected it to be the police and to be chucked out onto the street to find another hotel or a stealthy camp spot. But, I opened the door to the receptionist, who’d been really friendly when we checked in. She’d gone to get us a cake and written us a lovely note, welcoming us to the area and the hotel. The cake probably cost well over Y100 (the room only cost Y88!) and I imagine the note took her quite a while to translate into English and write out. In another hotel, we asked to take our bikes up to the room, but they were worried it’d be too small for us, so they upgraded us to a larger room for free.
By the end of the third day, we started to get into some wilder landscapes. Between Shihezi and Kuytun the irrigated farm fields stopped and a big empty area of grasslands began. The road was dead straight and climbed slowly as it got closer to the mountains. We reached the crest and looked out at the road continuing straight, all the way down into Kuytun, about 25km away. To the north, the plain extended as far as the eye could see. The rest of the day was coasting down the gentle gradient into town, watching the power station chimneys and factories get closer and closer. It took a couple of tries to find a hotel that evening, and the one we found was a bit of a rip off, but the view from the window over the industrial city to the mountains was pretty crazy.
From here on, we’d definitely be camping. It’s about time! We had a lazy start, leaving the hotel after midday. All of China is technically in one timezone to suit Beijing, so the evenings here in the west are long, especially at this time of year. It doesn’t get dark until well after 10pm, so there’s never any real rush to get moving. Leaving Kuytun, we had to join the motorway. We’d been able to avoid it up until now as there was always the option of a side road. So, on to the G30, nice and smooth, with a wide shoulder, but hemmed in on all sides by barriers and fences. It was quiet though, so there was never any problem stopping for photos, or sitting on the railings for a rest and a drink. Once we were well and truly out of town and into the middle of nowhere, I felt a bumping from my rear tyre. Then when I braked to slow down, the deceleration came in pulses. Uh-oh. Looking at the rear wheel, the tyre was bulging out in one small section where the rim had cracked. Shit. Weighing up our options, we decided to push on to get to the next town, a days ride away. The mentality of not back-tracking is a tough one to get out of. We weren’t sure what we’d find there, whether there’d be anywhere that had a suitable rim, or if there’d be a bike shop at all. If not, it’d be a bus or train back towards Urumqi until we found a shop that could help us. I let a load of air out of the tyre to reduce the pressure on the split, and rode very carefully. Luckily, being on the motorway, the surface was smooth and there weren’t any unexpected bumps.
That evening we did camp. We exited the motorway at a junction with nothing else around but some deserted buildings. We sat for a while behind them, looking out at the desert waiting for the sun to get a bit lower before we pitched the tent. No one was around, and it didn’t look like we’d be disturbed so we cooked some dinner and then put the tent up. The clouds were starting to roll in over the mountains, we could see intense rainfall in the distance, and then the lightning started. Initially it was just a few flashes but soon the sky was dark and we were treated to an unbelievable light show. Forks of lightning lit up the sky and the whole valley. It was only when the rain started that we retreated into the tent. Over the next couple of hours the lightning and thunder were almost constant, there were storms cells all around us. Occasionally we’d stick our heads out to have a look, but would cower back inside when there was a particularly loud crack of thunder. Eventually the storm passed, rumbling away further down the valley and we were able to get to sleep.
The next morning was beautiful. Clear and warm. We rejoined the motorway, on a mission to get to Jinghe, some 90 kilometres away, to start the search for a bike shop. The views were stunning, and we enjoyed the ride, but always nagging in the back of the mind was my wheel. Would it make it to Jinghe, would we find a shop, would we need to backtrack to Urumqi, could we get it fixed? At a petrol station we pulled in for some water and, by chance, it was the first service station we’d seen that had wi-fi. We spent a while searching for bike shops and bus timetables. I also shot an email to Natooke, the bike shop we’d been to back in Chengdu. Big-up to them. Larry got back to me later saying that if we didn’t have any luck sourcing a rim, we could send the wheel back to them. They’d rebuild it with a new rim and express it back to us, with an estimated 3-4 day turnaround. (Would thoroughly recommend them if you’re looking for a bike shop in that area www.natooke.com) Luckily, it didn’t come to that. In Jinghe we found a small workshop tucked underneath a row of shops who’s owner was super helpful. He hopped on his scooter, and searched around town for a 26 inch, 36 spoke rim, returning triumphant. He rebuilt the wheel that afternoon, and charged us Y100, a tenner. It’s nothing special, but decent enough to keep us on the road as far as Almaty where we’ll get a decent rim that’ll stand up to the rough roads to come.
It was raining the next day as we were ready to leave Jinghe. We hung around for a bit longer, getting some lunch and picking up some delicious meat pasties (like Cornish pasties, but with lamb and flavoured with cumin) to take with us for later. The rain soon cleared and we had more blue skies as we continued west. We probably should’ve got back onto the motorway, but we saw a side road running parallel to it that looked good, so we took that. We followed it for most of the morning, mostly it was ok but there were a few stretches where it deteriorated to dirt. We stopped for a drink at a small shop where the woman asked in English where we were from. After a very quick chat, exhausting her English and our couple of words of Chinese we went and sat outside. Just as we were leaving she came outside with a bag of sweets for us. A small gesture, but just one example of the many acts of kindness we’ve been on the receiving end of. The Chinese have a bit of an image problem in the West, probably based on some of the wealthier people who travel overseas. In the past, we certainly have been guilty of generalising everyone based on a few experiences with rude tourists. But in our time here we’ve experienced incredible generosity and genuine friendliness from almost everyone we’ve met.
When our side road ran out, we rejoined the motorway and were powering along, helped by a decent tailwind. Soon after a mid-afternoon break, where Clare put away a whole punnet of strawberries, for some reason I flicked through the modes on my speedo. Somehow, without realising it, we’d ticked over 11,000km. Normally I’m bang on it when it comes to our total distance, this is the first time we’ve missed out on a photo of ticking over the 1,000km milestone. I think with the views around us, the tailwind, and the wheel problem solved, we were just too busy enjoying ourselves to worry about the numbers. Anyway, we got a photo at 11,004km which is close enough.
As the afternoon wore on, we started a gentle climb. Ahead lay the long ascent up to Lake Sayam, at 2,100 metres, which we’d reach the following day. We stopped at a petrol station for some noodles at 7 o’clock, the sun still high in the sky. With the wind working for us, we decided to continue for a bit and take a small bite, a nibble, out of the next days climbing. Just before we decided to stop, we saw a lone cyclist riding downhill, but fighting the headwind, coming in the opposite direction. A shout and a wave, then he left his bike and jumped the central reservation to come over and say hi. We didn’t catch his name, but he was a Chinese guy, from Guangdong Province, down near Hong Kong. He didn’t speak much English, but I think he’d cycled from Europe and was on his way back home. We had a good ‘chat’ mostly pointing at maps and saying names of places, then took a few photos. Soon after that, we found a gap in the railings so were able to get off the road to find a camp spot.
We pitched our tent in a hollow a little way from the road. Surrounded by desert and mountains, we were able to sit outside the tent chatting and drinking tea until the last light of the sun disappeared and the stars came out. A good night’s sleep, only interrupted when we both happened to wake up at about 3am and went out to look at the stars, incredibly bright and clear with so little light pollution around. Not often you could say that in China. I tried to take a picture, but setting my camera up in the dark I didn’t realise there was a big bush right in front of it.
Another clear and beautiful morning the next day. We had 55km to the lake, all of it uphill. It was a slow day, our average speed was under 10km/h. The wind that had been our friend the previous day had turned, and was now our enemy. The amazing views were enough to keep us going for the first couple of hours. We saw camels and goats grazing on the plains below snow capped peaks, and eagles soaring above us. The sky was a deep blue that intensified as we gained altitude. This was the kind of place we had been imagining when we thought of the Silk Road and the wilderness of Central Asia. But the wind sapped our energy and our enthusiasm. We both plugged in to our mp3 players and slowly ground out the last part of the climb, stopping frequently for water and to bitch about the wind.
Once we reached the plateau and saw the lake, the tough few hours were mostly forgotten. That’s the beauty of travelling by bicycle, the hard work almost always has a payoff. We hoped for a gap in the railing, but unfortunately it never came. We saw a great camp spot next to the lake behind a mound, so had to lift our bikes over the barriers and wheel them through a gap in the fence to get there. First priority was to get some food inside us, so we cooked up some noodles before pitching the tent behind the mound, hidden from view from the road. The clouds had rolled in again, turning the sky very grey. Just as the rain started, a couple of shepherds rode past on their horses. They kept asking us for food, which we didn’t have much of to spare. In the end, we gave them a handful of sweets each and they cheerfully went on their way.
Later in the evening, a few cracks of sun started to appear from behind the clouds, so we sat outside for a while, hoping for a sunset. Being Brits, we persevered way too long, until it was really very cold before we conceded defeat and admitted to ourselves that the clouds weren’t going to ‘burn off.’ We retreated back inside to read and write our journals in the warmth of the tent. We were woken through the night by heavy rain and wind, and we needed our down sleeping bags for the first time since autumn last year in Korea. We did read of a couple passing this way a few weeks ago who had freezing sleet when they rode over this pass (http://bike-back-home.blogspot.com/), so we still got off fairly lightly.
The morning made everything worth it. What a stunning place to wake up, completely alone, next to a beautiful blue lake. The mountains that looked distant and shrouded in cloud the day before were clear and looked close enough to reach out and touch, the snow standing out so clearly against the blue sky. We were slow to pack up, soaking up our surroundings over breakfast and coffee. Following the dirt track back to the gap in the fence to rejoin the motorway we spotted a group of horses grazing at the lakeside. Many photos. Then it was back over the barrier onto the the road, into a long tunnel, goodbye to Lake Sayam.
The rest of the way to Khorgas was downhill. This section of road is relatively new. I’ve seen many a photo on cycling journals of this valley and of the bridges and tunnels still under construction. Everything is finished now though and it was an amazing ride. We wound through the mountains, over a huge suspension bridge through a full 360 degree turn, coasting for a good couple of hours down into a tight valley, the steep sides dotted with yurts and grazing animals.
After about 60km barely turning the pedals we stopped at the first service area we saw for a bowl of lagman, a local noodle dish, fuelling us for the remaining 30km. We were back into a farming area, the valley floor opened out and was covered with crops, vineyards and lavender. Luckily for us, the wind was back behind us, pushing us for the last stretch into town. This will be our last day riding in China, as Khorgas sits on the border to Kazakhstan. Our last few days have been on the G30, which will take us all the way to the checkpoint. It’s the longest expressway in China, running 4,243km between Khorgas and Lianyungang, which is where we first entered the country by ferry from Korea on November 1st last year. We only discovered this when we looked at Wikipedia this evening, but it was a nice coincidence and gave a feeling of completeness to our ride through China. In total we’ve ridden 5,265km, so even with our train to Urumqi, we’ve more than covered the distance. We’ll have a rest day here, then enter Kazakhstan on the 8th.
Here’s our route from Urumqi to Khorgas