Woke up, destroyed a buffet breakfast, failed to transport Holly side-saddle, just about managed to transport her legs-akimbo, visited Apak Hoja's Tomb - the most beautiful building I've seen in China, saw the old British Consulate, failed to find a gin and tonic, had a final kebab and naan fling and then had the perfect ending.
All day I had been playing a game with the 11-16 year olds of Kashgar whereby the first one to say hello in a friendly and open manner would win my bike. We had nearly returned to the hotel by the time the winner revealed himself, after a brief conversation where I explained why I wasn't keeping the bike and he finally believed it wasn't a wind up he looked delighted, as any teenager given a free mountain bike would!
The final stats
Suspiciously round numbers
Total distance: 5000KM
Distance cycled: 4750KM
Distance cheated in a police car, truck, car and pick-up: 250KM
Average speed: 14KPH
Suspiciously accurate numbers
Dead dogs: 67
Dead camels: 4
Dead sheep: 84
Pot noodles consumed: 51
Kebabs consumed: 45
Naans consumed: 17
Flies consumed: 2
Where are we Lionel? We're in Kashgar.
Photo of the day: Done
Day fifty nine.
67km, that was all I had left. So I had a very gentle morning. Eating the emergency pecan crunch cereal bars from my 'if things get really bad' pouch kicked off the last day of school atmosphere.
I then went to buy one of Yengisar's famous knives. I had no interest in a ceremonial knife or cutlery, I wanted a whopper - a proper multi-purpose bone-crushing, garlic-slicing, meat-scoring beauty of a cleaver. After screwing my face up at the first offerings the salesman paused and asked me if I was a chef, or worked in a kitchen. "Yes I am a chef" I lied. With the smell of dishonesty stinking out the place he brought out a handmade beast of a knife. "I'd like two please, my friend is also a chef." I'd show you a photo but they're so heavily wrapped it seems wrong to disturb them until my return to Beijing.
My friend for whom the other knife is a gift, also isn't a chef, but he is the man more responsible than any other for this trip given that he: A) convinced me to move to China four years ago; B) advised Holly on taking the job that made me return this time; and C) introduced me to the stupidity of riding idiotic distances between Chinese cities. This is the perfect gift as on one of my very first weekends in China he, an old China hand, introduced me to the concept of the Chinese cleaver as he was buying one from a market in Hunan. He made clear that you only ever need to buy one as they last forever. Only weeks later, his mother-in-law had already broken it smashing up meat bones.
It's the perfect gift.
With such a short distance to cover, today was a pootle rather than a ride as I tried to arrive just after Holly, an arrival she almost managed to completely miss on film.
Being £500 under budget and with the hotel only having the one brand of champagne I actually like*, I had decided to pre-order champagne to complete that Tour de France winner feeling.
It's important to remember that I have won, I dropped Tom and Jonny weeks ago.
*I really can be an arsehole at times but my preference for Bollinger is dangerously close to marking me out as a monster.
A Photo every hour: today's highlight - Rules of Riding: 1. START AT HOME, 2. GO WHERE THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT AND ROAD SYSTEM ALLOW, 3. FINISH IN TIME FOR JOB INTERVIEWS AND A SUIT FITTING FOR A WEDDING.
Cut my hair, get a job...try and turn this into a coherent book with all the historical colour aund genuine opinions I saved you lot from.
There'll be one final blog about Kashgar this weekend, then I'll tidy the website up and add some photo pages but basically that's it, we're done.
Day 56: How to Be Kidnapped Effectively
Photo of The Day: This Again
Day fifty six
The doorbell must have already rung once before because I felt vaguely conscious when I heard it for what must have been the second time. It was 3.15am. Was I about to be kidnapped or worse, made to move hotels? I tip-toed over to the door, on which I had earlier improvised my own lock as the actual one didn’t work. Looked through the peep hole and saw no one.
In a previous life I had been on a training course to learn how to be kidnapped effectively before I went to post-Sadam, pre-Isis Iraq for a week. Most of the course was common sense but here and there were nuggets of advice that have stuck with me. One such piece of advice was to have a bag of things ready to go if you need to leave somewhere in a hurry. I had adapted this advice to have a bag of all my important things I would need if the police made me leave in a hurry (trousers top of that pile) and a pile of potential weaponry if I was to be kidnapped. Cynics may say the latter pile was actually just the contents of the bin, but delivered accurately seven empty bottles of Sinkiang beer could take out seven kidnappers.
After thirty seconds there was shouting, it wasn’t in Mandarin and there wasn’t an overwhelming amount of blue clothing on show, which all but ruled out the police.
Then one of the shouty men smashed into my door. He smashed into it shoulder first, which tested my engineering fully as the chair rocked back and fell onto the floor.
I picked up the chair and prepared to play an orthodox pull shot, you don’t switch-hit an intruder, but suddenly there was more shouting and a scuffle in the corridor; another man grabbed the man who had smashed into my door by his shirt and dragged him away to what the slam of a different door indicated was his own room that he’d failed to identify in his drunken state.
I slept soundly until 6.45 by when I’d had enough of Pishan. I left early enough to miss any police checks, but I did catch the young PLA recruits fun run up the main road into Pishan. Wearing numbers like it was a race; fifty or so heavily-armed teenagers chased after the lead runner who carried a huge red flag. With their beaming young smiles hurrying after the flag, the front end of this odd scene looked like a school re-enactment of a red army charge against the nationalists. Behind them this thought was quickly expelled as they were followed by one of the riot-tank things that came out in Ruoqiang and three other military vehicles. There’s a thin line between provocation and demonstrating authority, after all of your background reading yesterday and additional reading you’ve done on the three terrorist incidents that have their roots in Pishan, you can decide for yourself where this kind of thing falls.
At the big police check point the serious police were serious and professional and the idiot police were idiots. The serious police must hate every minute they spend with the idiot police.
Talking of idiots, once more I headed straight into a sandstorm, spurning the offer of a lift after only 500m. For two hours I battled through 15km of it before another car offered a lift. With time on my side I was happy to take this one on the chin, especially since it was covered with a scarf. However this car contained a woman who gave me a look that said “look love, I’ve got my hair full of sand from offering you a nice lift, now you and my husband dismantle your stuff and get in the car”. This was my kind of kidnapping.
Once in the car, I was consistently fed sunflower seeds, whilst the normal routine of questioning followed. The twist this time - as is always the case in China – is that the question of relationship status is elevated from afterthought to preeminence where the interrogator is a female. The other difference is that it is also not immediately followed by the suggestion you get a girlfriend in this province too, even if this new relationship is only very temporary.
Despite my short stint on the road today, the desert had aged me 15 years in just two hours. Just look at the state of this.
A photo Every Hour: Today's highlight - Compressed towel; told you it was loved up here.
At the Kargilik check point a different band of PLA youngsters were demonstrating their prowess in taking a man down and pinning him to the floor. No point in doing that indoors I suppose, just put the mats by the side of the road and make the most of the fresh air.
Kargilik felt like another planet from Pishan; as we arrived into the oasis in which it sits, going at car speed rather than bicycle speed, with the Turkic pop on the radio and the husband tormenting his wife in a playful way it all felt like one of those indie films you watch because you’ve got a degree. Not one of the good indie films, one where a big name star does it because he ‘loves the script’; Elijah Wood for example, that kind of thing. Probably on a Saturday in January, with a bottle of wine, whilst you’re not drinking, but it’s not really drinking because it’s a bottle of wine with an indie film.
The town centre was buzzing; peace and prosperity always were friends with benefits. There was row after row of bunting, people holding hands and a sort of loved up feel to the place, similar to the evident happiness in the front of the car I had just been sat in. Kargilik could well be the most loved up place I’ve seen in all of China.
My hotel was, save for a faltering internet that may not be their fault, the best I’ve stayed in since Zhangye; brand new; helpful staff; and shower gel that doesn’t smell like the 1970s (whatever they smelt like, I wasn’t there).
Other than forgetting my lock, today has been a total celebration. For lunch I had Pollo, which is big chunks of lamb in saffron rice with sultanas, dates and berries ( I slipped a n extra two kebabs on top too) and another Uyghur lesson from the boss of the heaving restaurant I visited.
I could stay in Kargilik forever if the internet worked.
Its wonderful final moment came in the evening as I popped around the corner to buy some eggs and water. As I paid, a policeman came up to me and said “you must be David”. Then the shop owner responded with, “yes the cyclist David”. It all sounded very biblical and as if they were a pair of psychics. It transpired it was the policeman who’d done my registration and the shop owner had seen me ride passed his window, but for a brief moment I felt famous. To answer your next question. David is my middle name so it was probably recorded as my first name on these forms.
Day 57: Gritty Shitty City
Photo of the day: Young travel Photographer of the year (Under-14s) third place
A Photo every hour: Today's highlight - Sticky hookers
Day fifty seven.
Having fallen asleep on Beijing time I was awake by 6.30am Xinjiang time. It was a tough call to leave Kargilik this early when I only had 72km to tick off, but having been caught by enough afternoon sandstorms for one lifetime I decided to do just that.
It was arguably the least eventful 72km of the entire journey, but for the now standard police check point, all that interrupted my progress was stopping to pick up a hat that had been lost by another road user. There will be no more accusations of bandanna banditry from you lot now.
Yarkant is a grim city, most aptly pronounced in a strong cockney accent; gritty in both metaphorical and literal senses, shrouded in dust, its grim architecture could bring down the most bouncy of optimists. Indoors it’s worse, my hotel room would see the same bouncy optimists hanging themselves. Even the sticker for the local prostitutes was peeling off the wall by my bed through lack of attention. In addition, the air conditioning didn’t work, the shower didn’t work and best of all my room card failed so many times it was taken off me.
The hotel also has one of my least favourite features of China; where men who clearly don’t need to work through fair means of foul loiter like teenagers in what they deem to be the place to be, which is, almost without fail, the reception of my hotel.
Today this was even more irritating than normal as my room didn’t have the internet and following what can only be described as mysterious activity on my phone (Apple/Spotify nothing sinister) I have no credit again. It was becoming a hell of a final insult, but being pestered by morons whilst I tried to use the reception wifi was too much.
Which is why I spent an inordinate amount of time in Mustafa Burger, eating pizza and chips and drinking Mustafa Cola, whilst failing to guess the passwords to every wifi network in range. To sum up how shit Yarkant is for a grumpy member of Generation Y, nobody has set their password as 12345678 or 88888888, the bastards. Afterwards I visited China Unicom who insisted I couldn’t top up my Beijing sim in Xinjiang, which can’t be true but nobody budged.
To add to my foul mood I then realised that I, a man who is riding through a desert in sandstorm season had managed to lose his sunglasses. Better to realise that at the time rather than the next day at least. The search for a new pair also led me to pass an ICBC with wifi that was unburdened by a password, which lasted long enough to send Holly a message to top my phone up online.
Then, when I finally returned to the hotel, I was informed that I was unable to return to my room for no particular reason and instead put in another room, until someone came to get me thirty minutes later so I could retrieve my items from the first room. Fill in your own gaps or remain none the wiser. It doesn’t really matter.
I then visited Cool Caca, another burger place. It was that kind of day.
Day 58: Trolling
Photo of the day - Good riddance Yar Facking Kant
Day fifty eight.
After an unapologetic phone call at 5.45am to my hotel room I’d decided I’d had enough and slowly got my stuff together, joined four men and four live chickens in the lift, before enduring the usual nonsense at check out.
The literal grit had been cleared by rain and I was leaving Yarkant in perfect conditions for cycling. I stopped to stock up on water and enjoyed a heart melting moment as a toddler fascinated with my bike fetched me an offering of sunflower seeds and was brave enough to accept my handshake as thanks.
After the new motorway appeared I had the old road to myself for two hours of tailwind, but for a brief thunderstorm, where I took shelter under a bridge like a troll, it was perfect. Too perfect in fact. I was in danger of arriving a day early, which would have made Holly’s arrival tomorrow a bit flat. Fortunately the penance I served in Yarkant has been rewarded with a cute little town in the shape of Yengisar, and a spotless, friendly, smoke free hotel. I’m even going to buy some souvenir knives, which appear to constitute the town’s entire industry, if the price is within 50% of right.
67KM to the finish line!
A Photo Every Hour: Today's Highlight - Drive safe
Day 54: Simon of Arabia
Photo of the day: Top Knot
Day fifty four.
After a record breaking 28 minute check out I headed north as the road seeks to avoid who knows what or perhaps join up the attractive villages to the north and west of Hotan. I stopped to pick up a naan for my evening meal and another for breakfast. As I've progressed west it feels like China has become more reserved, even shy at times. At the naan oven I met the exception to prove this rule. As he didn't have change, he gave me an extra naan despite my protestations that I was happy with two spring onion naans for 50p. I promise in the first photo below that he's recreating the moment I ordered two naans.
Please note that's a cycling cap and not, I repeat not, a bandanna.
I also noticed that my honesty test had been failed by Hotan. I've left my watch (£2) on my handlebar for the entire journey and the place it was finally stolen was outside a PSB building and under the gaze of the best hotel in town's security. Shame on you Hotan.
Out of the oasis and back into the desert one last time I made good progress before your friend and mine, the sandstorm arrived. It was a finer grain than it's Qinghai or Gansu sisters, which made it possible to pass through with a quickly fashioned head scarf.
I put the music on shuffle and told the storm to do its worst. There were as many moments of spine tingling goodness as there were moments of horror. Des Lynam reading If by Rudyard Kipling followed by Super Trooper by Abba sums up that shift best.
Then, as if my life was a movie, You'll Never Walk Alone Came on at the end of the storm as a blue circle opened in the sky. Then it closed in again; just can't build on success can we? (rhetorical)
I expertly found a hole to hide in, set up my tent and enjoyed my naan with a pot noodle and garlic oil dip, before falling asleep to the sound of fighter jets.
I'll also admit to old person signal hunting with my mobile; but it worked, somehow in a two man tent I had blackspots and hotspots.
May 30: Hotan to a hole in the ground - 102km
Start Time: 09.30
Finish Time: 19.00
Hours Cycling: 8
A Photo every hour:Today's highlight - the barbecue palace
Day 55: Tip Your Bartender
Photo of the day: It's going to be a riot of an afternoon
Day fifty five.
I've not gone into the politics of Xinjiang on this blog for two good reasons. The best of which is that I'm just - one more time for you Jenny Bradley - a twat on a bike, the second best is that it's too complicated to explain here. So go and read four or five books on it and come back.
Done that? Good, then we can continue.
The day started with suicidal lizards, who are not a provincial punk band who once opened for Capdown (if they are then sorry), but literally suicidal lizards who kept jumping in front of my front wheel. It's a miracle I only killed one.
I passed some road kill watermelons that were starting to ferment in the desert heat, which reminded me that it was time to start working on the torso tan. This immediately earned me an ice coffee from one man and a terrifying stare of sexual intent from another.
With my shirt back on I stopped for a refreshment in a small village and admired the continuing force of Red Bull's marketing domination. In China their red and gold label is an immediate winner, but bugger me when will all other brands realise that free merch is embraced in China in a way no other country does it.
At 2pm I faced a choice, press on into another sandstorm for 77km or stop in a place I'd been calling Piss Mountain since Hotan (Pishan - it's actually skin mountain but with my mixed reading ability Pi Mountain easily because Pee Mountain and then Piss Mountain).
My decision, believe it or not, was to stop at Piss Mountain because otherwise I'd be too far ahead of schedule. An error.
Sitting 8km back from the main road, the first 6km there were scenic vine clad villages. It was also downhill, which is a cycling aphrodisiac if ever there was one.
The first sign that this was possibly the wrong choice was the sight of a gun turret atop a police station, which hadn't even been painted blue and white yet. 2km further in and only 200m from my hotel the sight of a police motorcycle stopping side on in front of me at the traffic lights and two properly armed officers walking towards me confirmed Piss Mountain probably wasn't Disneyland.
Off came the sunglasses and hat to reveal my 'please don't hurt me, my country has a huge trade deficit with yours' appearance. Joking aside - and I'm not just saying this because I'm still in the same town - as with all of the SWAT police I've dealt with they've been firm but professional. They asked me to ride back down the road with them until we were outside the PSB station, where they went through me ID and confirmed I was - alright Jenny, have another - a twat on a bike by looking at my twat on a bike photos on my camera.
All was going well until a child of about eight, who I'm 90% certain was mentally ill, started to grab and then try and touch the end of one of the police officer's guns. This is a part of China where the police shoot first; all the Jason Bourne thoughts ran through my head - you know the ones you wouldn't do if a shot did get fired because you'd be too busy wondering if your cycling shoots would hold the poo*. Fortunately the officers remained calm and waved him away.
I was handed my camera and sent to the hotel. At the hotel I spoke to the police on the phone (another successful Chinese telephone conversation - gold star) and then 30 seconds later the police turned up in person, this went less successfully as I didn't know where I was going next (in Chinese). Fortunately two Uyghurs translated my next location for me as I only knew the Uyghur name of the town.
One final security insult to Pishan, the hotel insisted I keep my bike in the room, which feels a bit like a boundary has been crossed, especially given the boobs on the wall too.
All that said, a quick search has revealed I've accidentally gone on holiday to the centre of terrorist training in Xinjiang (depending who you believe - I'll let you judge after your thorough background reading). Well done me. What with the sandstorm that at least I avoided, raging outside, I reckon it's an afternoon to enjoy a few Sinkiang beers and a bag of sunflower seeds in my hotel room, whilst the boobs watch over me.
*I think I've lost too much weight and my shame would be evident for all to see.
May 31: A Hole in the Ground to Pishan - 84KM
Start Time: 08.30
Finish Time: 14.00
Hours Cycling: 5
Lizards: Countless (1 dead)
A Photo Every Hour: Today's highlight - Fermenting watermelon
After all the cheating and the reduction to 100km days I felt fresh in Hotan, to the extent that my brain started to work again. I went for a cycle around Hotan, visited the disappointing museum, enjoyed the fantastic chaos of Friday prayers around the mosque and the bazaar and then consumed yet more kebab.
In the afternoon I did some cultural wine sampling by buying a bottle of pomegranate wine, which is surprisingly tasty. Best of all the label reads "Hotan Pomegranate Wine, like a shining ruby, sparkling with brilliant gloss. Smell the unequal incense, taste the equably mellowness. Made of rare fruit from the southern part of the Taklamakan Desert. High quality raw pomegranate brown with fine grapes and wild roses. Specially designed for successful person, taste the feelings of paradise." Hardly Umbongo but it'll do.
One friday in Hotan
Running totals - week 8
Average Speed: 13.6 KPH
Soundtrack to the Journey
The road is a lonely place and you probably want to block out the noise of your next puncture anyway. Here are the top ten songs/albums of my journey.
10. Yes it's fucking political - Skunk Anansie
Why?: That riff.
Best for: Starting a long slog into the wind or kick starting the next stint.
Special Fact: Contrary to the songs message, not everything is political - look at Ed Miliband's future for example.
9. Adrenaline - Deftones
Why?: 40 minutes of relentlessness.
Best for: The misery of rain, sandstorms, headwind and cold.
Special Fact: White Pony, their third album released in 2000 is the perfect soundtrack to Beijing at night in 2015.
8. No Sensitivity - Jimmy Eat World
Why?: Because at times you will either want to remember what it felt like to be eighteen to remind yourself how pleased the eighteen year old you would be that you're doing this (and you should keep going) or you want to revel in the fact you the following lyrics have no place in your life now that you're an adult.
The world don't spin without you
I'm amazed you're standing still
I'm taking my kisses back (whoa)
I want my kisses back from you
And no your problems, they aren't problems
So be glad they never will
I'm taking my kisses back (whoa)
I want my kisses back from you, from you, you
Best for: For putting a tent up in a sandstorm.
Special Fact: You can't take kisses back but you can retrieve a 'borrowed' emo band hoody as part of some inevitable teenage heartbreak.
7. Alanis Morissette and the other songs that sound like Beacon FM from the mid 90s
Why?: Because you'll need to block things out and drifting into dated local radio will really help.
Best for: When nothing's happening.
Special Fact: You can easily add in your own local radio advertisements, but you never do.
6. Shakermaker - Oasis
Why?: The intro
Best for: Riding in deserts, this is the perfect song to cycle through a desert too.
Special Fact: This song does not last as long as most deserts.
5. Welcome To The Jungle - Guns N Roses
Why?: Impossible not to increase your RPM with this playing.
Best for: Going unnecessarily fast and ensuring you bonk later in the day.
Special Fact: This is the only GNR song I like, absolutely detest their other output.
4. A Secret History - The Best Of The Divine Comedy
Why?: Because it's the best distraction going.
Best for: Singing along when happy or sad.
Special Fact: I had breached thirty by the time I realised Songs of Love was the theme tune to Father Ted.
3. When the Levee Breaks - Led Zeppelin
Why?: Because rhythm is everything
Best for: The relentless slog into a persistent headwind
Special Fact: It's not as good as Kashmir, a song which is actually too good and will lead you to lose focus and drift out of cycle lanes
2. Rave Tapes - Mogwai
Why?: Because you need to relax in a hotel.
Best for: The 45 minutes between stuffing your face and falling asleep
Special Fact: Track 2 - Simon Ferocious, is nothing to do with me. Track 3 - Remurdered, is either the best song you've heard or the best song you're yet to hear.
1. The Boys Are Back In Town - Thin Lizzy
Why?: Dangerously suitable for Top Gear - The Tunes III, but for some reason it always arrived at the right moment on this journey.
Best For: Arriving into a town, as a boy.
Special Fact: My Dad really likes this song.
If you think that's bad, check out Spotify's best effort.
Photo of the Day - Don't worry the camel photos are coming up
Day fifty two.
Having decided to take the harder, shorter route to Hotan I waved goodbye to Ken Doherty and friends and headed west through what presumably counts as Qira's suburbs. Quaint farms and small holdings foreshadowed orchards and huge trees provided a shade that wasn't quite required yet. After about 15KM I was back in the desert, only this time I got to see some live camels up close. A mother and calf were on one side of the road and another, particularly stupid looking, camel was on my side.
After the tedium of another small town police check point, where I'm sure the opportunity to look at a different passport is the main appeal of pulling me over, I passed through more beautiful farm land and the by then required shade of the tree lined roads.
From the town of Lop onwards the roads became much busier, I really like the modifications made to tuk-tuks in this part of the world. When I return to Beijing, I may look into putting a carpeted and tasselled roof on my own tuk-tuk.
The run into Hotan central is lined with painted China flags on every lamppost, in case you forgot where you were, which is very easy to do. I'm now much closer to Islamabad, Kabul, Tehran and even Baghdad than Beijing.
I'm staying at one of the hotels that has black Range Rovers with personalised (as much as you can with numbers) plates. This is good in terms of pillow quality; but for the first time my cyclist status has relegated me to locking my bike up by the bins, presumably so as not to tarnish the high regard the Range Rover drivers have of themselves.
As part of this pretension and in a nod to this being a troubled region there was also a scanner and body search to pass through in the hotel reception. This sounds obtrusive but the security processes of China are often laughable. I walked in, declared I had a knife, got my knife out and continued to hold it out in the open, whilst the scanner beeped and the guard's own detector beeped over each of my bags. He looked in none of them, before looking at my knife like he was Crocodile Dundee's more relaxed Chinese cousin.
I know there's an element of profiling to even pathetic security checks but I was holding a knife and everything else was beeping.
Just going through the motions.
That said, I once found myself in the hotel where all the many and various Syrian rebel groups that Qatar was funding had been brought together and despite a far more thorough security check and frisk there, everyone was wandering around with swords and daggers on show.
May 28: Qira to Hotan - 90KM
Start Time: 09.00
Finish Time: 15.00
Hours Cycling: 6
Camels: 5 (0 dead)
A Photo every hour: today's highlight - You're in China ok!
Day 50: Anecdotal Evidence
Photo of the day: Man Arrested for being soaking wet and too Beige
The sound of rain against the hotel room’s window didn’t exactly inspire a prompt exit, but after another naan I was trudging through grim rain. The only early cheer came from a man on a motorbike who rode alongside me and literally asked me if I knew it was raining. I told him I did.
Sodden, I spent an irritating amount of time at a police check point with a not-exactly-elite group of policeman who were mostly fascinated by the Northern Ireland aspect of my passport.
From then on the day became anecdote heavy.
The world's biggest road kill?
The misery briefly ceased when I saw my first wild camels; there they were in a real desert, the Taklamakan Desert as I should have mentioned a week ago when I first entered it. Then I saw my first camel road kill, then the second, then the third and then the fourth. How do you not see a camel coming?
What a smell a decomposing camel makes.
Caught by the fuzz.
More rain, more naan and water - I'm very much riding pane e acqua nowadays - was followed by a wonderful break in the weather. 70km in, with heavy rain again on the horizon I put a little air in the back tire only to notice the front was totally flat. As the rain hit me I opted to swap inner tubes and get a fresh one in there. Within two kilometres it was flat again, there must have been something in there.
I wouldn’t find out until later what was causing it as a few minutes later a police car pulled up and insisted on giving me a lift. You know the formula by now, I don’t go looking to cheat but sometimes in horrendous weather I receive offers that are too good to turn down. Remember this isn’t for charity or any great sense of personal achievement, it’s a twat on a bike.
With half the bike hanging out the back of the boot and me desperately trying not to soak the policeman I was squashed up against with my sodden clothes, we made our way for the last 35km with some variations on the standard conversation.
The best variation was them saying I looked much better in a photo on my phone than I did today. Four years and marathon bike rides will do that for you. It was good fun and they took me all the way to my hotel, which was an unexpected bonus. They also advised me I was very unlucky as this was the first rain of the year.
Trigger happy PC.
Keriya was a mish-mash of a town and there seemed to be a bit more tension about the place than further east in Xinjiang. This was signified by a young policeman doing the now normal – ‘shit the bed, it’s a foreigner’ double take - then smiling, starting to wave, before remembering where he was and who he was and rapidly moving his hand back to his gun and his finger to the trigger. A movement that had my flip-flops twitching with readiness to fail to run away.
The brickwork on the façade of the mosque looked fantastic, but for the life of me it looks like the rest of the mosque isn’t there any longer.
Back to the future.
Apple has now formally updated my phone to Kashgar time, but without forewarning me it caused much confusion as I sat down for some dreadful cold noodles and tripe at what I thought was 15.30 not 13.30. Without trying I was back on time.
With two hours to have another crack at, I did what any adventurer would do and went to buy a beer. In the shop I was taught some Uyghur words, which was really useful given I only previously knew naan and kewab. But, and this is a big but, upon saying I was British, one of the guys in the shop did a perfect Nazi salute and shouted “Heil Hitler” at me. In a mutual second language I did my best to say something like “no, that’s Germany" then panicked and continued "but not Gemany now, Germany is really good now.”
In the early evening I wandered to the statue of Mao and Kurban Tulum, which apparently is the only statue of Mao with someone else, other than the larger version of the same one in Hotan 170km down the road. The statue celebrates the effort Kurban Tulum made in travelling 1500km to Urumqi for months to present Mao with one melon to thank him for ridding Xinjiang of the Nationalists and other selected baddies.
I followed this lesson in historical PR with my best kebabs yet and my now staple veggie house noodles (with beef obviously) and some cardamom tea – I didn’t order it but I’m becoming a real tea ponce. I reckon I could drink camomile soon. Maybe.
I finally found the tiny fragment of steel cable that had punctured my front wheel twice and celebrated by fixing both punctures, whilst feeling fortunate for accepting the ride with the police. I would have never found something so small in the torrential rain.
The hotel wifi had been unreliable but I hadn't noticed it was not working at all during a Facetime call with Holly that wiped what must have been £35 of credit (which is about six months of credit for a thirty-something British man in China). That's two nights in a hotel in this part of the world!
May 26: Niya to Keriya - 109km
Start Time: 10.00
Finish Time: 15.30
Hours Cycling: 4
Bonus Hours: 2
Camels: 7 (4 dead)
A Photo Every Hour: Today's Highlight - Kashgar Time
Day 51: Just about the perfect day
Photo of the day: Mountains and not quite molehills
Day fifty one.
Just about the perfect day. Sunshine, a gentle breeze, lush green farmland, huge mountains, wide-eyed toddlers shyly handing back change for refrigerated drinks, the smell of grilled meat, bunny rabbits, though not grilled bunny rabbits. Even today's puncture came in the form of a colourful drawing pin.
Added to which my hotel is above a snooker hall. Here, in the middle of Xinjiang, I have to walk passed Stephen Hendry, John Higgins and others before bed. The world of snooker is tiny; just us, China and Tony Drago.
May 27: Keriya to Qira - 80km
Start Time: 08.00
Finish Time: 14.30
Hours Cycling: 6
A Photo Every Hour: Today's Highlight - A very pink puncture
Sometimes I get lucky. Having effectively spent the last few days sanding my throat and ramping things up to sandblasting it yesterday, I woke up this morning to dispense (put your lunch down) a big load of bloody phlegm. Who knows how much worse it would have been without the trip in the truck yesterday.
Note to Caroline - all better now.
To medicate I slept, moisturised, extensively research New York bars and restaurants, went out for noodles, fixed a puncture, listened to Mogwai so that you'll think I'm cool, watched a selection of films you've already seen and cut off my ear flaps (see below).
Niya occasionally feels like another world, sometimes it looks like stock footage of peacetime Afghanistan at others it's still the Nongfu Spring and Mao branded China of towns further east. Basically everyone rides those motorbikes and wears fantastic hats.
Average Speed: 13.6 KPH
Pot Noodles: 55
Bits and bobs
Things I've forgotten to mention.
1. Hair related matters.
I know I can't grow a beard but nobody likes shaving, it stops at least 3% of face-bound mosquitoes and saves on suncream.
Yet in a cruel twist of fate I can grow nasal hair, and grow it I do. A useful if not perfect sieve against road dirt and sand. It makes the same life saving difference as smoking light cigarettes rather than the real ones - none.
Today I finally removed my ear flaps. I had left them to protect the tops of my ears from the sun, with no more large open stretches left I joyously removed them earlier. You should enjoy this photo though
I'm starting to shed weight now. The waterproof cover/sandstorm blanket was thrown away two days too soon. Warm clothes and spares have gone too. With the increase in hotels for the last leg |I'm going down to one riding kit and washing at nights. I've also gone down to one gas cannister for the stove; those things really over perform. I'm wavering over the inflatable mat that keeps deflating....
3. Chinese guard dogs hate Stevie Wonder
Aftr breaking my first set of sunglasses I had to buy the biggest pair I could find to find my massive Caucasian head. Though I'm free of the badlands of the Qinghai-Xinjiang border dogs still chase me and I think I know why.
To the colour blind canine eye those glasses probably look like the soulless peepers of a devil being. Either that or all Chinese guard dogs hate Stevie Wonder.
Long term fans will remember my excellent guide to the perfect training diet (click here). Today I made a scrambled-egg-naan-pasty in my room in contravention of all health and safety guidance. For your own well being I won't tell you how but here are the pictures.
Serve with three Sinkiang black beers and an episode of Archer. Save olive oil to create on the road garlic naans, that's right it's party time.
Day 47: Storming the Desert
Photo of the day: Shade
Day forty seven.
After an underwhelming breakfast where I alarmed the staff by creating an egg and tomato sandwich rather than maintain the integrity of the individual constituents I left Qarqan through tree-lined avenues that were alive with dragonflies, well behaved dogs, butterflies and fresh air.
After a final water and caffeine stop I headed out into what should have been 312km of uninterrupted misery. The first few hours were fun, the gentle headwind actually cooled me down and I made decent progress. The only delay was caused by roadworks I wasn't allowed to cycle around; I hung about in the shade of the lorries providing large amounts of entertainment to otherwise bored drivers with my piss poor Mandarin.
I saw my first and second lorries that had rolled off the road of the entire trip, the fact I've got this far without seeing one makes that statement as close to unbelievable as the truth gets. I guess a mixture of long straights and heat make this stretch of road particularly prone to it. The first scene was very sombre, with eight or so males crouched around the lorry in silence; the second was a just one man, presumably the driver, sat wearing an expression that said "I should be dead". It was a reminder why rule one of wild camping in China remains "could someone drive over my head if I camp here?".
I also saw my favourite kind of snake; one that's been mercilessly crushed by many tonnes of lorry.
In the heat of the day the temperature passed 35 and the gentle headwind was blowing only hot desert air over me. I persevered and made it to the 1000km to go mark, or 4000km done (sort of, probably) mark but started to become paranoid that my remaining 5 (five) litres wouldn't be enough. It's amazing how often I forget about water being really quite important. I carried on before seeing something I can't write about on the internet in almost exactly the place I intended to stay. This turned out to be very serendipitous as I almost immediately arrived in a town not marked on either of my maps, where I purchased enough water to mean I would be leaving the next morning with a full 5.5 litres to last me the day.
By the time I expertly erected the tent in record time it was practically dark but I'd made it to just over half way across this stretch of nothing and managed to complete 100 miles of cycling through a desert in late May.
23 May: Qarqan to just outside of somewhere that didn't appear on any maps - 160km
Start Time: 08.00
Finish Time: 21.30
Hours Cycling: 12.5
Snakes: 1 (dead)
A Photo every hour: Today's Highlight - 1000km to go
Accidental selfie capturing the suffering (AND THE WORLD'S MOST OFFENSIVE MOUSTACHE) of the day
Day 48: The Desert Storming Me
Photo of the day: No Filter, No Photoshop, Just Monochromed by Dust
Day forty eight.
It started well, on pace after 90 minutes, a big, chunky 20mph wind hit me head on. With that my speed dropped dramatically and I took an early lunch to give the wind the opportunity to go away.
It didn't. Two further kilometres down the road I wobbled up to two drivers from Sichuan who were transporting trucks on trucks to Kashgar. They invited me to shelter in a location that would turn my mother's stomach, but fed up of the wind I joined them in sitting under the overhanging truck to enjoy shade and protection from the wind. We chatted for ten minutes about the weather, the road and (this being China) whether I'd eaten. I was then invited to join them for the rest of the journey.
The first time I cheated, it was out of politeness. The second time, it was because I was in serious trouble. This one was to save you the repetitive story of me pushing - note: not cycling - a bike into the wind for two days listening to old Freakonomics and Football Ramble Podcasts. It wasn't because I'd rather sit in my Rudolph boxer shorts under the air con awaiting the police coming to evict me from a hotel I would have otherwise never reached.
In the cab I had my longest and fullest discussion in Chinese yet. Selected highlights:
Britain doesn't have deserts and it is much smaller than Xinjiang.
Britain does have a lot of sheep.
We also discussed politics, but it's best I don't share my views with you, for what it's worth he was pretty happy but didn't like certain people in the political arena.
After some minor paperwork infringements were sorted out at the police check point we arrived in Niya. I bid them farewell and handed over my only remaining UK money as a token of my appreciation, like many people I've met on this trip my driver was especially keen to get his hands on some foreign currency. I didn't tell him what it was worth but I hope he Baidus* £20 before he starts lighting his cigarettes with it.
The first hotel I found had the equally pleasing and horrifying sign "Hotel for overseas visitors" on the front door. Inside all was OK, but I don't yet have my documentation back and the last time this happened I was evicted at 23:05. If I am evicted I have already decided to sleep in the park three metres away from the hotel.
As I'm on the second floor, the room also comes with two thick lengths of rope in case of a fire or a desire to go out all INXS come over you.
Feeling shattered despite the cheating, I decided against being stared at and shouted at in a language I don't understand and instead popped out to get some surprisingly tasty local plonk, naan and the noodles to dip the naan in. Tomorrow I may do a culinary review of the town because there is nothing else for me to do except fix a slow puncture, but for now I'm not being adventurous.
One last point of disorder. On my shopping spree I was fortunate to be reminded of Sinkiang Beer, a black beer that must be the most metal looking beer in China. It's black, it's got a big, bold, sharp font and it's got sin in its name. Insert death metal growl here.
May 24: JUST OUTSIDE OF SOMEWHERE THAT DIDN'T APPEAR ON ANY MAPS to Niya - 152 km
Start Time: 08.00
Finish Time: 15.30
Hours Cycling: 2
Hours Pushing: 3
Hours in a Truck: 2
A Photo Every Hour: Today's Highlight - A bike on a truck on a truck
Day 45: Sweat Baby Sweat
Photo of the Day - I will have my vengence, in this life or the next
Day forty five.
Once more into the desert. The grey and grim desert surrounding Ruoqiang was as dull as before but served as a great contrast to the oasis that followed. Arriving at the small town of Wushixia was like the moment in old Disney movies where the actors enter a cartoon world. A burst of colour came with bird song and butterflies.
I stopped for kebab here and the contents of my phone became a source of great interest to the boys in the restaurant. Despite the youngest reiterating the fact I was British, the conversation focussed heavily on America - Did I have any dollars? Is this a photo of America? (it was neighbouring Inner Mongolia) Is this a photo of America? (it was Thailand) and it sounded like their entire conversation was America related, whilst I ate. The only break was for them to have a water fight.
I pressed on to 160km before deciding to set up camp. Mosquitoes were everywhere, which led to a horrible situation of me sitting, naked and sweating in the plastic oven because I had no other other choice.
I watched the brilliantly inoffensive Car Share, whilst casually observing the hydration run out of me.
May 21: Ruoqiang to A Sand Dune - 160km
Start Time: 10.00
Finish Time: 19.00
Hours Cycling: 8
Mosquito Bites: 10
A Photo every hour: today's Highlight - Dunes
Day 46: Bitten Me
Photo of the Day: Market Day
Day forty six.
Awoken by the oven being turned on, I tried to leave as soon as possible and with as little time near mosquitoes as I could manage.
More dunes, more oasis, some more oasis, more birds I don't know the names of, more oasis, more oasis etc.
With fear of mosquitoes meaning I had to live off Oreos, today was an energy related struggle. However, I've made it to a hotel I've not been evicted from (yet), I've got 4 cold beers, a pickled egg, some kebab flavoured crisps, a pickled egg, and a tub of thick Nivea. Life couldn't be sweeter.
I'm off to source real food now.
May 22: Sand Dune to Qarqan - 120km
Start Time: 10.00
Finish Time: 17.00
Hours Cycling: 6.5
Hours Wishing I'd Eaten Real Food: 4
A Photo every Hour: Today's Highlight - Pre-Gaming for Friday Night, don't forget the Nivea
Having arrived a day early and not endured any hotel moves it felt like I had a really long time in Ruoqiang. It was a town I instantly liked for it's friendliness, warm air that smelt of charcoal and meat, and attitude to chilling beer. Walking round in flip-flops and my remaining pair of trousers rolled up, whilst smelling of suncream, tingled my holiday senses. A visit to a museum containing bad taxidermy, the sounds of a language I can't comprehend and presence of plastic garden furniture ticked the final boxes - it's holiday time.
Time itself is also exotic, we're officially on Beijing time here but really we're two to three hours behind, going for breakfast at 9.40 made me one of the few active people in the city centre.
With the final stretch ahead of me including a big three days of desert hell I spent the time piling on the protein. By the end of my 48 hours of eating I'd consumed over 24 kebab skewers of lamb.
My illiteracy proved good for my diet, by enforcing five skewers of liver and two of testicles upon me, thus varying my protein sources in ways I would not have deliberately chosen to do so.
Amongst the fun and relaxing there was a reminder of just how on edge the authorities are here. As I strolled around yesterday evening, what appeared to be a minor situation near the restaurant I visited the night before was met with armed police, some of whom had weapons drawn. The road was closed to traffic at both ends of the street, again by police with guns drawn.
Yet no one seemed bothered, people of all backgrounds chatted and watched the events unfold as if this was a perfectly reasonable response to a minor crime. The older men couldn't be drawn from their mahjong game and the teenagers continued with their game of pool, only following events when it wasn't their shot. It was all over in a few minutes but an army-green military riot tank-thing still did a tour of the town afterwards, presumably for the sake of reminding everyone the town still had one.
Running Totals - week 6.5
Average Speed: 13.1 KPH
Pot Noodles: 50
Day 40: Welcome to Naan Country
Photo of the day: You should definitely eat things that are bigger than your head.
I awoke still angry at 7am. I refused to get out of bed until 10am, instead continuing to do useful things like order some clothes that will fit me and buy my Nan's 80th birthday present.
I checked out quickly only to notice that the slow puncture on the front tire had switched to the rear over night. I returned to the Western Business Hotel to retrieve my phone charger before double dropping baozi, having both meat and veg selections.
Finally I returned to the little shop I'd discovered the three 5% Tsingtaos to load up with 10 litres of water and Oreos.
I rejoined the G315 and met my first real police check point just outside Huatugou, not like the temporary one in Lenghuzhen. Again the SWAT boys manning it were friendly and professional, I even got a wave and a smile off one of the snipers.
Should you wave at snipers?
Having failed to buy an anti-dog weapon in town I picked up a piece of 2x4 and a small bit lead piping. If a dog was going to die, it was going to meet a very British end.
Head wind, head wind, mountains, dust, petrol station, big hill. It was an alright day on the road that finished with a big climb that passed a huge quarry, which I've just learned is an asbetos mine - thank fuck the wind was blowing the other way by then. I did wonder if it was asbetos at the time, I don't know why, perhaps it was the colour.
At the top of the hill was the border with Xinjiang. After successfully avoiding the dogs, the transport police near the border started waving at me and shouting watermelon.
After yesterday this was exactly what I needed. In a flash I'd been handed a slice of watermelon, shown to a chair and presented with a naan the size of the Charity Shield (or the big plate they give the best girl at Wimbledon if you like your sports with a side of sexism and short skirts). This was exactly what I needed, spiritually and nutritionally. We had the usual chat with added questions about the 2x4 - "You know there are big dogs, so I have this to hit them on the head" to which the only response was laughter and the correcting of my pronunciation of dog. I tried to explain how much I love naan and why we eat so much of it in Britain but I'm not sure I have the ability to explain migration and empire. In gratitude I handed over my Shrewsbury Town FC badge, which could have been used to identify my remains, as a token of my appreciation.
They don't need to know I'm a Liverpool fan who bought that off a Barnet fan under duress whilst drinking in the wrong pub before a traditional twice yearly guilt visit to watch my home town team play. It's the perceived thought that counts.
At the real check point, it wasn't the same electronic affair that the check at Huatugou was, instead it was all paperwork. I was allowed to fill my own entry in by writing in English.
Five kilometres beyond the border and into the little nub of Xinjiang that sticks into Qinghai, I found an old quarry, with evidence of previous habitation but enough raised windproof spots where you couldn't accidentally drive a lorry over a tent.
I'll do a wild camping blog at some point in the future, but in general selecting a spot comes down to these five questions.
1: Will someone drive over my head?
2: How protected from the wind is this?
3: Is it far enough from the road?
4: Could an animal with paw prints like that be sedated by a piece of 2x4?
5: Are there thorns?
I set up camp using the 2x4 as an improvised bike stand and got stuck in to half of the naan with the usual noodles.
A much better day.
May 16: HuatuGou to a quarry - 70km
Start Time: 11.00
Finish Time: 19.00
Hours Cycling: 5
Hours Pushing: 2
Snipers waved at: 1
A Photo Every Hour: In association with Nongfu Spring
Day 41: Responsible Adult
Photo of the day - Maybe not the best spot (top left).
Some hand-freezing descending kicked the day off before the gradient and the wind meant the day was push-heavy.
Lunch was a highlight with more fusion of Uyghur bread with Han noodles. The good noodles too, the wavy ones; in the same way crinkle cut chips taste better, so do wavy noodles.
Xinjiang and perhaps the shifting of seasons also marks a change in attitude to temperature. Almost every truck driver was topless today and coupled with the region's fearsome commitment to soup strainer moustaches, most cabs looked like a corner of Anfield's dressing room in the early eighties; with two or three nearly naked moustachioed men sat down sweating. Magnificent. I no longer expect to be asked if I'm cold, instead I imagine my pitiful facial hair will be quizzed.
After hours and hours of heaving the bike up the hill I eventually reached a 14KM descent through the mountains, at the bottom was one of the infrequent truck stops that provide water to cool brakes and engines and almost always possess an angry dog. This one was no exception, but having passed one dog another came from the other side. I stuck resiliently to the plan to avoid conflict first and made it to the next slight downhill, before noticing a small stream on in the valley.
I decided to trade midges (bad) for the opportunity to wash and fix the two slow punctures using the stream water (good).
I also swapped the heavily abused rear tire for the front tire and for the first time, cleaned the entire group set. It was borderline responsible behaviour.
May 17: A quarry to A Dried Up River Bed - 80km
Start Time: 09.15
Finish Time: 18.00
Hours Cycling: 4
Hours Pushing: 4
A photo every hour: Today's Highlight - Fusion Food and a Wash!
Day 42: 225KM - That's 140 Miles in Your Money.
Photo of the day: If you can't read either language, this basically says yippeeeeeeee!
My aim at the start of the day was to leave less than 100KM to reach Ruoqiang the following day, but seeing a 34KM of descending sign within the first few pedal strokes indicated today was going to be a bit better than that. Headphones in, Refused on, I flew through spectacular scenery that I should have taken more photos of.
Out of the hills the wind was with me all day long for the first time on this trip. 10KM sections flew by in under half an hour. By Oreo time I was reassessing the day and even decided I could afford a detour. I stopped at Milan, a modern day farming community and festival of greenness amongst the grey of the desert. It was formally a silk road trading town and has some relics that are more ruins, in the way sandstone things tend to be. However it was nice to formally mark my arrival on the southern silk route.
Back on the G315 with The Divine Comedy blaring, and desperate for a hotel, I pushed on. After going to one that didn't allow foreigners I eventually made it to the excellent Loulan Hotel, where the usual helpfulness even came with some conversation in English.
The air here in Ruoqiang smells of Kebab and coals, they keep their beer in fridges and there's no evidence of voluntary ethnic separation between the different minorities and the majority, which seems to colour all the writing on the northern silk road's towns in Xinjiang. In other words it's fantastic. I'm going to stay for three days and eat more kebab than seems possible.
Better still, at 5am I was awoken by a sand and then rain storm. I would have been out in the tent experiencing that had the wind not dragged me here at such speed.
For reference 225KM is like cycling from Telford to London, which is probably the best thing you can do if you're from Telford and own a bicycle.
Other equivalent journeys:
For David Dunne, Tony Gdesis and Huw Baines - Malahide to Galway
For Mike McCarthy and fans of Didcot Parkway - Bristol to Oxford to London
For people on Spring Break - Los Angeles to Tijuana
For EU workers wanting a filthy weekend away - Brussels to Amsterdam
For Sarah Rugg and other South London people - Balham to Brighton to Balham to Brighton
For North London people - It's like cycling around North London a lot.
May 18: A Dried up river Bed to RuoQiang - 225KM
Start Time: 09.30
Finish Time: 20.00
Hours Cycling: 10
Average Speed: 22.5KPH
A Photo every hour: Today's Highlight - Not stopping every hour
First of all the context: I'm writing this on day 42 in a hotel the police told me to go to, where all my forms have been processed, where the functioning aircon is cooling me whilst I hang around in my pants - which are not novelty Christmas themed. Added to which my stomach is full, I've got ice cold beers, I can watch the Giro d'Italia and today I've arrived at a hotel a day early.
So this is the most favourable review day 39 is ever going to get.
It started brilliantly as I left the beautiful campsite amongst the dunes and wound around the first 10KM. Then I saw three vultures. One less than the Jungle Book but have you ever seen a vulture in the wild, they're massive! They take off like sluggish cargo planes too.
Then the day got really hard with 20KM of up-hill, head-wind hell. The cumulative lack of sleep over the last two nights, coupled with a general sense of exhaustion led to the bonk of all bonks at the top of the hill. This bonk was a foursome with Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz and Victoria Coren without a safety word bonk.
After reinflating the mystery slow puncture, I looked down at the ground and the tarmac began to warp in front of me. This was not good. Fortunately two oil workers picked me up and drove me for 45 minutes down the road, before I made the final 50KM chasing the fact that this being an oil town meant there'd be hotels. I had to do so on the first road in a very long time that lacked a cycle lane/hard shoulder along with lorries that were loaded far away from the Emperor and his road traffic regulations.
Already emotionally all over the place (shitting it), 2KM from the town centre a dog went for me. With no matches left it was only adrenaline that stopped me being bitten. I was left with my nerves shattered and breathing like a sixteen year old asthmatic who's just lost his virginity [edited, saved for the book, too good for the blog]
Now let's deal with the facts. I arrived just after 6PM at the Western Business Hotel. I waited for the police and their hurriedly found translator. I was advised I could stay, but only for one night, because the town was not yet open to foreigners. I wanted to rest for a day but what can you do. The town wasn't ready for me.
I checked in, paid, said goodbye to the police and headed off to be laughed at as I consumed a four person stew, noodles and a side of veg in a Xinjiang restaurant. I picked up three of the 5% German style Tsingtaos and headed back to write my blog and sleep.
At 23.05 the cleaner knocked on my door to tell me I wasn't allowed to sleep. After a little more discussion I discovered she meant I couldn't stay in the hotel. This time I was in a towel rather than festive boxers, but it was awkward all the same. Ten minutes later I headed down stairs, where, unapologetically I was told to go to the ******* Hotel. Unlike my last move the police weren't here to ensure I moved, so no one had any interest in getting me to the right place.
Ten minutes of futility followed as I repeatedly said I didn't know where this was until eventually the cleaner hailed a taxi and at 23.30 I was following it through the streets to my new hotel.
it was my worst nightmare and exactly what I was expecting. A Beijing registered Hummer indicated that this was the place to be if you were the biggest c*** in town. It took around an hour to check me in here, despite the presence of police already in the building enjoying their Friday night. It could have been worse, everyone was friendly and once it was established I'd leave the town tomorrow all was OK, but it took an hour.
I got to bed at 1.30am in a room that smelt of the town's dinners from two nights ago.
I was not a happy bunny, it was the kind of farce the one-night rule is no doubt in place to avoid: the embarrassment of how ludicrous old China rules are when applied in new China. It also was the first reminder on this trip of who is in charge, and regardless of how stupid a rule is, that people will follow it and never apologise for it.
I think that's pretty even handed. Tomorrow I'll let you know about my best three days yet!
Day 37: Enter Sandman
My alarm went at seven but the hotel quilt detained me until nine. With desert to come, I took to my hair with some scissors to thin it out and stop my fringe irritating me. I left the bits that hang over my ears to save them from the sun. This looks a brave move, but will pay off on days I forget to suncream my ears.
A final liquid stop at the last petrol station in town confirmed that the next one would be 300km away. Yippee.
Within thirty minutes I had arrived at a stunning scene of wind eroded statues and walls of sandstone, however I’d left the memory card in the computer. It’s ok though as better was to come.
There then followed a monumentally tedious 40km of straight road into a vicious side/ head-wind that slowed me dramatically.
Then my second sandstorm arrived in a more beautiful yellow form, sweeping across the road in front of me. After 500 futile metres of trying to push through it. I sat with my back to a huge dune and weighed up my options. Every time you choose a place to camp you gamble on there not being a better place 1, 2, even 5km further away. This becomes even more important when it’s clear you are about to be bullied by the weather. I pressed on for another 2KM or so before I found a ditch behind a relatively small dune. It was good enough for me.
I began to dam the wind by building a wall, which took a long time in the hostile conditions. Just look how big that bottom stone is and then pick the next sentence that applies to you.
Sexually attracted to men? Not related to me? Over 18? – read A.
All others – read B.
A – I lifted all 80kg of it into place then wiped the dirt from my bicep with a diet coke.
B – I rolled it down the bank and then suffixed the really naughty swear with ‘y’ and ‘ing’ a lot as I heaved it into place. “****ing stone and the ****y wind blowing ****ing sand in my face” by way of an example.
I think you know it was B.
The wall wasn’t perfect but after I’d dug a small trench, caught the tent as a gust threatened to take it to Kazakhstan with a reflex reaction that owes much to a misspent youth of catching coins off my own elbow instead of studying for any A-levels, and unloaded the bike it felt like a little piece of hell. But it was my hell.
You will be unsurprised to learn I didn’t sleep well. Wind and sand will ruin sleep.
Photo of the day - A Great Wall
May 13: Lenghuzhen to the middle of nowhere - 65km
A Photo every Hour: Today's Highlight - Dunes
Day 38: Alpha Male
Photo of the day - I'd have scored it higher than eighty
Fed up with the wind I awoke and packed the tent up in record time, replaced the flat rear inner tune I forgot to mention and attacked the day for all it was worth to make up for yesterday's lost distance. I don't know if there was something in the Oreos, but I was full of aggression today.
Did I cash out too soon on the camping location? Possibly, but what I lostin larger dunes i made up for in big rocks.
I had my quickest photo ever after I noticed the trucker taking my photo was smoking next to his oil tanker.
Talking of aggression, I had my first genuinely traumatic chase from guard dogs. If I haven't mentioned this before, I should have done so; the importance of having a match or two to burn is crucial. In cycling you have a certain number of intense bursts of energy in you, each day, before you are burnt out (like matches, clever innit?). Luckily I had a match here, as the three dogs after me were real attack dogs, not just an angry mungrel but three dogs that would have made my calves look like a leftover Sunday roast before they started on my neck and bollocks.
I pressed on, clearing my 100km mark for the day by late afternoon. As I did so, Rizzo cracked. Literally. After an initial few seconds of laughing at my own misfortune I remembered my water bottles were empty and caught one third of the Rizzo's contents before we parted ways. Two litres down, I began to trade photographs of the mad foreigner for water. It worked too. One driver gave me four bottles of miniral water; prompting a moral dilema as to whether it would be right to wash my balls with one. It was all a bit too much like choosing Waitrose over Tesco Extra despite having a public sector salary in London. This, fortunately, wasn't as important as, say, mozzarella balls, so I did the moral thing and stuck to the hand wipes.
Unfortunate comparison that.
I kept on pushing, keen to make back some of the lost distance from yesterday. I was rewarded with the most spectacular scenery of the whole trip yet and the best camp site I'll ever stay in. Within twenty minutes of getting into my sleeping bag and wrapping my scarf around my head like a hijab, the wind started again.
I really hate the wind.
A Photo More than Every Hour
Day 39: The Bonk
Photo of the Day - It's still worth it, It's still worth it (repeat to fade)
I'm really annoyed. I can't write anything sensible that won't get me in trouble. After the police approved my first hotel I was moved at 23.05 to a different hotel, which coincidentally had drunk policemen in it.
I also had a terrible day, my biggest bonk ever and my nearest miss with a dog yet. Tomorrow I'm going to buy a weapon to deal with the dogs. Sorry animal lovers, I'm killing the next one.
Photo every Hour - A helping hand
Day 34: You Must go to England and Find a Roadie Named Del Preston
Photo of the Day - Sunset
Day thirty four.
This was meant to be the start of the new normal. I left a little later than planned but began the day in what I wanted to be the new way of life: spinning gently along in 5th gear on mostly flat roads to reduce sweating; taking a big break in the heat of the day; and monitoring my water and food consumption carefully. Other than the break, which I didn't need, all went to plan.
As I silently rolled down one of the slight down hills, in the heat haze ahead I noticed the monk was still on my route. About 50 metres before I reached him, he raised his hand and without turning to face me shouted "friend, go on, go on, go on!". If this was Wayne's World 2, I was the one in the silly cap and he was either Jim Morrison or the Weird Naked Indian Guy. I can't yet decide which; he hasn't said anything as profound as Jim Morrison yet, but neither is he naked, Indian, or Weird - though he does appear from nowhere.
I did as I was told and got on with getting on. The 15KM before I reasched Akesai, I rode through magnificent, rippled dunes on a winding, descending road in the shadow of the huge mountains I would turn to ride along into the desert as part of this new normal.
I cruised through Akesai, like David Pleat in his darker days, looking for a bit of meat. Eventually stopping at a sparkling clean Muslim restaurant run by a young (compared to me and my lack of fertility to date) family. I tried my best not to shovel the delicious food in, whilst fielding the usual questions about myself and my journey.
If the new normal could be like this then I was happy. Get one real meal a day if possible, stay hydrated, see the monk etc, it was all great. To celebrate I stopped at a petrol station to buy my final top up of water and a head-melting 3.7% beer!
The panicked male attendant, desperately called the female attendant over to serve me. She looked at him and said "what? what's the problem, it's £1.20?". I got £1.20 out, causing her to exclaim to the boy "look he understands anyway". This prompted my understanding to be tested more fully as a trucker started talking to me at full speed in a strong accent/dialect. After the girl translated his dialect it was established, I'd be staying in my tent not in the town because I wanted to make more distance. The trucker seemed unsure, he didn't think I'd get further than 15km as the road was so steep.
We talked through it a few times, at various speeds and in varying translations of local dialect, Mandarin, Midland's English and Chinese school English. I was sure I had no steep roads for days, he was sure of the opposite. We agreed to disagree (by me agreeing with him and leaving).
He was right, as I headed to join the road that was to be my plan B, two locals flagged me down to explain the road was shut and I must continue on the 215 National Road, which was heading straight into the mountains I'd be smiling at all day. So I'm off to Qinghai, Plan C. At least the monk is going that way too.
I'm not sure I even made it 15KM by the time I set up my best camp yet at the foot of the mountains under the purple/orange/blue/red sunset.
May 10: Dunhuang to akesai - 100km
Start Time: 10:30
Finish Time: 20.30
Hours Cycling: 9
Hours Pushing: 0
A Photo Every Hour - Today's Highlight: Even more sunset
Day 35: A Day of two halves
Photo of the Day: Blast OFF!
Day thirty five.
As I finished packing my tent up, the wind began to rise in every single bit of the wrong direction. It took me an hour to push 3KM, an amount of time that had allowed Mr Guo (I missed the first half of his first name, the second half was Ping) to pass me on the way into Akesai and pull up alongside me on the way back up.
With looming deadlines of real life things like job interviews and weddings in New York, and desires to drink IPAs and have some home made lasagne (subliminal message to one person), I am no longer interested in the wholesome integrity of this as a cycling journey. It is now just a journey. I killed the first bike inside 40km and I took a lift for 60km in Ningxia out of politeness, but from here on in I am very much of the mindset I just want to get to Kashgar by bicycle unless there's a better offer. This is Plan C for ****'s sake.
Mr Guo had a better offer. We heaved the Giant and it's new watery excess weight into the cab of his truck and cleared 20KM of headwind as he drove me to the quarry he works at. Though he was in a rush, we almost stopped for a second breakfast after my poor grasp of tenses made him think I hadn't yet had breakfast. If you want to panic a Chinese person, tell them you're hungry, if you want to distress them tell them, you're hungry and cold!
We covered the usual conversation and even got on to our favourite types of food and which countries in Europe had mountains like these.
At his quarry, he dropped me off, passed me two bottles of water and wished me good luck.
I had to push the rest of the pass myself. There was no peddling to be done, it felt like the air was thin and the presence of snow probably gives that feeling some credence.
The long johns and scarf were back on by the half way point and another water donation was made by a car full of young, affluent Chinese, one of whom was far too beautiful to be touching the same bottle as my filthy hands. I was exhausted by the top and actually felt myself falling asleep as I lay down during one break.
The gravity dividend was great! 25km of descending that was only interrupted by the need to strip down to vest and shorts as I hit the plateau below. What a difference 12 minutes makes.
With more plateau and the odd lake for company I made as much progress as I could stand before setting up camp in time to discover the whole "the desert is cold at night you know" advice, is not a lie. Why Urban Ray didn't buy a better sleeping bag in Dunhuang, I'll never know.
I also became slightly alarmed at the lack of phone signal and roaming data available. Not just because I'm Generation Y, not even because I can't live with not knowing football scores, but because I don't actually know where I'm going and that's a problem.
May 11: Akesai To Suqian Lake - 80KM
Start Time: 09.00
Finish Time: 18.00
Hours Cycling: 3
Hours Pushing: 5
Hours in a Truck: 0.5
A photo Every Hour: Today's Highlight - Mr Guo
Day 36: Pull My Cracker
Photo of the day - The Doctor will see you now
Last night was very cold, especially from 2am until 5am, I'm not sure I slept. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep like a child on Christmas eve, which was apt considering where my day took me.
I slept in until 9.30am once there was enough heat to do so, before taking advantage of a great headwind to pass by scenery that looked as though it featured in the film Hero as I entered the province of Qinghai.
This marked the end of Schengen Area China, where borders are (wo)manned by friendly, smiling transport police. Here though, as I approached Lenghuzhen, I reached my first proper road block. The police were friendly especially when you considered the greeting you get at Heathrow, but the security nob has been turned up a couple of notches. Fortunately, as a solo-cyclist, with correct documentation and hilarious hair I'm clearly not a threat to anyone but fashion.
Still conscious I didn't know where I was going I asked the Police if there was a hotel in this town. There was but I then proceeded to check into the wrong one. There are still hotels in China that foreigners aren't allowed to stay in. I managed to check-in, eat at the restaurant next door, and get halfway through a shower before the first knock at the door.
Receptionist: Can you come out the police are here.
Me: I'm in the shower.
One minute passes
Receptionist: The police are here please come out.
Me: Wait, I'm in the shower.
30 seconds passes, followed by big bang at the door.
Me: OK, but I'm in the shower. (trying desperately to balance the scolding hot/freezing cold tap to rinse my most precious region)
Bang, bang, bang.
Me: I'm putting my clothes on.
Bang, bang, bang.
Me: (in English) You're going to ****ing love this.
I opened the door to the policeman, soaking wet and wearing only my Christmas boxers shorts, which invite viewers of said garment to pull me and demonstrate the explosive outcome of doing so on my crotch.
At first, he was blunt: I had to get dressed quickly (no shit son) as I must leave this hotel quickly. I apologised and after we spoke a little bit of Chinese he relaxed and even carried one of my panniers down to expedite things.
Stopping only to pull up my trousers that had fallen down and get my £12 back from a reluctant receptionist, the policeman started loading my stuff into his van. I didn't know where I was going but realised it was probably going to be OK given he instructed me to follow the van on my bike. For a whole 100m to the (worse) hotel that accepts foreigners. After a prolonged check in I was given the key to a room that possessed a doctors waiting room.
So Plan C looks something like this: down into Qinghai, starting with a no fun 200km stretch of desert; back up over a double helping of mountains; before finally making it into Xinjiang to join the southern silk road further along than intended.
May 12: Suqian Lake to Lenghuzhen - 70KM
Start Time: 10.00
Finish Time: 14.00
Hours Cycling: 4
Hours Pushing: 0
Photo Every Hour: Today's Highlight - Merry Christmas Constable
Day 32: Hate to Say i Told You So
Those of you who follow me on Twitter or have the misfortune to be friends with me on Facebook should just skip to day thirty three.
With genuine real life admin to carry out first, I then spent the day watching the election results and hitting refresh on a three year old wager on Betfair for a Tory majority. On the basis of how non-committal my mother was about Ed Miliband I put a large (but responsible) bet on a Conservative majority at odds somewhere between 5/1 and 6/1. There is no better bellwether than my mum for the state of the cumulative British political mind, if she's voting Labour without a smile, you're getting a small Tory majority.
I am, of course, impartially impartial about the whole thing, though I can now at least add - How are you paying for this ride when you're on a career break, you massive leech? - to the FAQs without having to say my girlfriend is paying me to get further and further away from her.
I celebrated with beer chilled by frozen meat balls in the hotel room bin, more naan bread and by leaving my rucksack, inclusive of bike lock keys in the locker at the supermarket.
Day 33: Preparation
Day thirty three.
Despite the do not disturb sign I was awoken by a hotel maid shouting to come in and clean my room at 9.30am. It was, ironically, a real chore to let her in and clean around me but she wouldn't take no for an answer. Honestly I couldn't dissuade her, I used almost 50% of my Mandarin - "please don't clean, it's ok, there's no problem, I don't want it cleaned" - but to no avail. Interestingly she did not consider the defrosted meat balls as rubbish, so I still have those.
Dunhuang is home to Mogao caves, a magnificent and deserved UNESCO'd place of gobsmacking magnificence. After writing off my rear inner tube (I'm almost entirely sure I've been sold 27.5" in 26" boxes by the way) I pootled the 10km back torwards Guazhou in my flip flops.
I opted to join a Chinese language tour rather than wait an extra hour for the English tour. The visitor centre is brilliant and you first watch a 20 minute film in full epic Chinese cinematic grandeur of the history - the robbing foreigners bit is skipped over quickly. Then you go to a 360 degree cinema for a tour of the site you're about to go to, which is unnecessary but really impressive nonetheless.
The site itself, originally a selection of small grottoes for monks to meditate in that transformed into beautiful temples that are full of colour, is brilliant. I enjoyed being on a Chinese language tour too, not least because our guide had a soothing and easy to understand tone. There was a lot of being told Buddha is wearing a red dress, whilst looking at Buddha wearing a red dress though. The sleeping Buddha also looks like he's sleeping with one eye open as sand has closed his other one. Mr Sandman must have brought a JCB for this guy.
It's a whopping £22 entrance fee but well worth it. By the end a sandstorm was closing in on us, but fortunately it was a good sandstorm and blew me all the way back to Dunhuang before 5pm.
I have decided to take the southern silk road to complete my journey, I can't risk being stopped on the G30 and going on a train for that long is just cheating.
Plan B - looks great fun doesn't it? #sandyballbag
However, other than tomorrow, there doesn't appear to be a hotel between Dunhuang and Kashgar. So my plan is this. 100km a day for three weeks, try and clear as much of it as possible by midday, then rest in the shade before starting again for a couple of hours in the early evening. Then camp. I hope to find enough streams to do some washing but by the time I get to Kashgar I'm going to need to be hosed down and scraped clean.
In an ideal world I'll find the odd place to write a blog and charge my electrical goods, but don't be surprised if things are quiet around here!
With the prospect of going truly wild I unleashed Urban Ray (my version of Ray Mears, it was never going to be Bear was it?) on Dunhuang. I now posses a second external phone charger, ten packets of noodles, five new inner tubes and five non-bleaching 50ml bottles of sun cream. I also picked up Rizzo, the newest member of the team, a pink lady who should make carrying an extra 2.5 litres of water easier and stylish. Just look at that detailing.
Running totals - week 5
Average Speed: 12.5 KPH
Pot Noodles: 38
When I'm not sleeping in my tent near a graveyard, rubbish tip or jaw dropping scenery, I'm frequenting one of China's business hotels. They often award their own stars but by a global standard they're somewhere around two or three stars. What is not in doubt is the value they provide; I have not yet paid more that £25 a night and some have been as cheap as £12.
I write this whilst sat in by far the worst I've stayed in, but more often than not you get at least one bed and a clean bathroom with a powerful shower. You don't need more than that, but how best to maximise the Chinese business hotel experience I hear you ask.
"How best to maximise the Chinese business hotel experience Simon?"
First, your arrival. I quickly learned during the pollution and coal heavy days of Hebei, that if you arrive looking like this....
.....then you need to start by explaining what you've been up to. Also apologise until someone in hotel uniform asks you to stop apologising.
Now, you have a reservation because Ctrip's app is excellent. Only the thing is, 80% of the time they won't find your reservation, but this is irrelevant because there's space in the hotel, because you are in the middle of nowhere. Where it will become irritating is not Ctrip taking Tesco Clubcard points (or whatever they are) off you for failing to arrive for your reservation that you did arrive for, 100% of the time, but phoning you to ask why you failed to show, eight days later, requesting your receipt, then putting you on hold and asking for your room number - which you know because you're a little bit like a serious mental illness even this light-hearted blog won't make fun of.
You make it to your room, normally assisted by an excitable and brilliant security guard staining his white gloves with the road filth of one of your panniers.
Now this is where the magic happens. Your immediate priority is to get clean, unless you have beer. Then your priority is to take the living room bin and fill it with the frozen beef tongue balls and the strongest cans of beer (3.6%) you found in the nearby shop. Here, the word tongue is especially important.
One man's bin, your bin, is another man's ice bucket. The floor is now your bin, as my right of centre friends always remind me, if you cleaned up after yourself then other people would be unemployed.
Now you can wash, unless of course, you have this shower.
After you've showered or sat in a sink like a massive toddler who's shit himself at a barn dance. You need to begin pillaging. The fact you are naked after washing will aid your primitive urges to scavenge. Things you simply must pack up: the toilet roll - you're not a bear but you will be shitting in the woods sooner or later; the cotton buds - sand gets everywhere; sanitary bag - say you do have to shit in the woods but feel some how paper takes too long to decompose, then you'll want something to carry it with you; the sewing kit -you don't know what clothes/tire/panniers you'll need to fix, or sadly, what boil you'll need to pop on your saddle punished arse.
Everything else is superfluous or off limits for stealing (see checking out section).
Always choose the twin room over the double if offered the choice. If staying for two nights, that's a clean bed each night. If staying one night that's a your not bending all the way down to the floor to pick stuff up benefit.
Pillows; search for a spare, because it will be the least used and comfiest. if nothing else it almost certainly won't contain the platinum grade bean bag balls that make the every day pillows so long lasting.
Not sure how I didn't use a hyphen there.
Put the do not disturb sign on, not for any reason because from 7am til midnight your desire to not be disturbed is not relevant. Today I had only four visits from hotel staff; including one man who arrived with polyfilla, looked under one of my quilts and then left.
Your biggest problem is check out. There is no way round this, I've tried declaring my consumption of 2 beers, 2 pot noodles, 2 bottles of water, 2 coffees and 2 Red Bulls, but it doesn't matter, without fail you will suffer a ten minute sweep of your room.
This isn't about your consumption, this is about profit. As yet it's only happened once on this trip. On the boys final weekend as they tried to check out a cleaner radio'd down to see one of them had 'dirtied a towel', the cherubs both proclaimed innocence, so in my best Chinese I requested to see the dirty towel. what followed was a magnificently Chinese experience where, within view of us, the duty manager and cleaners literally kicked all of the towels and bedding around the floor to try and find the offending item, which they failed to do.
In short leave an extra thirty minutes and oppose any charges (also cover your stinky drains with the towels that will never be identified as dirty).
Photo of the Day: Return of the Monk
Another day, another disappearing road. 17km in the 314 disappeared and I joined the G30's little sister the G3010 in an illegal manoeuvre of such severity that five police cars passed me without a glance and the toll booth guards merely laughed at me as I arrived at the other end.
You know what direction the wind was billowing in and can guess how miserable the final 10km walk with a split inner tube was.
However! I did meet the monk who slept through the storm without a tent though! He was also going to Dunhuang and, as is to be expected, is the happiest man on earth.
My hotel is a shambles. I had to wash myself in the sink after the shower produced only a dribble and a smell like the sun baked shit of a city of 200000 people. I made a couple of novelty purchases in the supermarket after people started to follow me, but I did get a naan bread - the real benefit of getting this far west.
The bottle of Did was surprisingly good, and I can't wait to sodomise myself.
May 7: Guazhou to DunHuang - 117km
Start Time: 09.00
Finish Time: 20.00
Hours Cycling: 9
Hours Pushing: 1
A Photo every hour: Today's Highlight - Well it's not just desert.
Day 28: Banished
Photo of the day - The 'Armless Policeman
Day twenty eight.
After eventually getting round to watching the final Breaking Bad last night (finger firmly on the pulse) it was wonderful to be heading out into desolate, you'll never find the bodies, territory. This is where China's historical naughty boys were sent, beyond the wall.
In preparation for this I devastated the hotel breakfast - there will be a separate blog on how to make the most of ** Chinese business hotels, don't worry - and it was a good job I did.
Almost immediately the 312 reverted back to G30 service road rather than the village and town meandering vein of life it can be at its best. It took on its favoured arse-shattering gravel and pot-hole format and then was narrowed to one lane thanks to the encroaching Gobi sand. This left me with the unpalatable entertainment of playing chicken with lorries, which is absolutely unfair if you're on a bicycle.
As ever the lorry drivers of China were first rate and backed down, but the draft they produced in that proximity meant that I too had to swerve onto the sand and gravel. There were some brief moments of relief as the road swerved into the odd village, passed a colourful mosque,and most exciting of all travelled alongside some Cold War style barbed wire. Waste not, want not.
The day was almost exclusively uphill, which was nice.
I don't believe in fate but I do believe in haphazard preparation. My right forearm will be forever grateful for the new floor-pump I bought only the day before, because today I had five, soul-sapping and time consuming, punctures.
By punctures four and five I was doing some world class swearing. Imagine Malcolm Tucker, if he was on fire, and being raped be a giraffe.
From now on, unless I say otherwise just assume that the whole time I'm riding into a headwind, because I am.
At lunch (five Oreos) I noticed that despite Ctrip's protestations otherwise, Yumen - roughly my target for the day - did have a hotel, so despite the punctures I pressed on.
The inner tubes behaved as I bounced around with the grace of a dad on a bouncy castle but today was not my day. Over the wind I heard a snap and a thud. I applied he breaks in the pathetic way a headwind requires and turned around to see a 20ft gap between a pannier and the bike, which is an unworkable distance between the two at best.
With that, 30km short of Yumen and giving it the full Tucker/Giraffe act in the middle of the road, I reverted to plan A and got the tent out for an indulgent double noodle, double Have I Got News For You festival of OKness.
May 4: Jiayuguan to Not Yumen - 100km
a Photo every hour: Today's Highlight - Cold war Barbed wire
Day 29: SandStorm
Photo of the Day: Oh Shit, Umm, hide?
Day twenty nine.
After a decent night in the tent I was awake early with a huge 160km to Guazhou to go. With the pannier zip-tied as tight as a guest on a rendition flight, I was away. Things started in dreadful fashion, another puncture was followed by a 6km detour around nowhere, but then the wind flipped and it was with me.
For a while I was puncture free and flying along the 312, which reverted to being a road linking farms after Yumen, then the surface worsened and within an hour I was on my third puncture. The third puncture, almost led to a second snapped pannier as a kind samaritan tried to flip my bike over too quickly, fortunately it fell off instead.
Then the sand hit the fan.
The wind whipped up a treat just as I managed to pass Qiaomen Fortress. It was tough but I made another 10km. As I rounded a corner I watched as the ground became the air. Within minutes the sky was a horrible orange. I grabbed the waterproof cover for Jonny's panniers, which he had left me, jumped over a nearby bank and covered myself like an inverted tortoise, or esiotrot if you prefer.
The noise of the sand blasting against the plastic cover was horrendous. it lasted for longer than I'd ever really considered these things could go on for. I did some real swearing, no words were off limits; Becky Gdesis would have been appalled. ****y sand.
This was my view for about an hour. It does, I admit, look like I may have been a little excited, but trust me, that's bunching; bunching and fear.
Not yet dead I looked at the orange sky all around me and made a couple of quick judgements: I was in no way making it to Guazhou; and there was at least some shelter where I was now.
For a brief while I became a highly efficient and rational human being. Important things like torches, compasses and Oreos went into zipped pockets. Water, extra phone battery, the waterproof cover I'd just been inside went into my rucksack. I ran up to the highest point around me to identify the most sheltered spot I could see, ran back to the bike and wheeled it into the spot i'd identified and set about getting my real tent up.
Putting up a tent in a gale is no fun at all, but the alternative was unthinkable. Somehow I did it and it held until 2am, when rain, instead of sand, started lashing down and the wind felt like it might take me on a magic tent ride. After twenty minutes it subsided long enough for me to jump out and get the pegs back in the ground. Ten minutes later, wearing everything I could with all useful stuff strapped to me or zipped up in something strapped to me, I wrapped my sleeping back around me and held onto a tent I was only 60% sure wouldn't rip apart and leave me looking for answers that Charles Darwin didn't get round to.
It's at times like this you need distraction. As the violently shaking tent waved my arms from side to side I listened to probably the best episode of An Irishman Abroad podcast I've heard yet. This one was with Rory O'Neill, someone I'd not heard of before but will now only forget when then beer takes its toll. Listen to it, it's life affirming stuff, which is exactly what I needed at that point.
At 5.30am the storms finally gave in and I drifted off.
May 5: Not Yumen to Not Guazhou - 90km
Start Time: 07.00
Finish Time: 17.30
Hours Cycling: 8
A Photo every Hour: Today's Highlight - anything but the sandstorm
Photo of the Day: Be ready for more of this scenery fans
After a full 90 minutes sleep, I forced myself to get up and get moving. It took nearly an hour but breaks of blue in the sky never looked so good.
I cracked on at a pace and ticked off 15km before I begrudgingly piled more Oreos into my mouth. After another 5km I nearly fell off my bike as I saw a monk packing up a plastic sheet and a sleeping bag in a shallow ditch. How did he sleep through last night without a tent? As they say in Shropshire: Zen as fuck lad, Zen as fuck.
Perhaps he was battered on whisky.
I polished off the rest of the day by lunch to arrive in the pristine and pretty city of Guazhou, only to have it confirmed that the 312 disappears for 400km now until Hami, leaving only the G30, which I'm not allowed on.
Meaning I have four options. Two of which are unfeasible: go rogue and try and ride off road until Hami (no); go all the way up to Mongolia an back down (no); take the southern silk road (maybe); or take a train from Liuyuan to Hami for 300km after a detour via Dunhuang (maybe).
I'm going to Dunhuang, where I'll make my decision......vote now.
may 6: Not GuaZhou to Guazhou - 72KM
Start Time: 08.00
Finish Time: 13.00
Hours Cycling: 4.5
Zen Monks: 1
A Photo Every Hour: Today's highlight - That beautiful little tent
Photo Of The Day - Oooh Political
Day twenty seven.
Whilst you filthy capitalist pigs were forking out £19.95 to watch Mayweather v Pacquiao, here in the People's Republic I watched it for free on CCTV 5, at lunchtime. This wasn't all good news at it essentially restricted me to my road diet of pot noodle and Oreos for brunch, and bemused the hotel cleaners who were desperate to clean my room despite the do not disturb sign and me asking to be left alone.
I headed out to the most touristy part of the Great Wall's most westerly point. I'm fully prepared for the sound of thousands of Lonely Planets to be thrown at me by sanctimonious hands, but I really like the way China rebuilds bits of the Great Wall, whilst leaving most of it well alone. I like the imagination aiding 'this is what it would have looked like if you keep the hot dog stands and jade shops behind you' reconstruction.
The Chinese, as I bang on about a lot, are also the world's best tourists. They get dressed up like Emperors and soldiers, spend a fortune, are consistently excited or interested in something and just love to tourist.
Can you imagine a husband in his twenties dressing up as a Roundhead, when nobody else was doing so, as he walked around a provincial museum? No of course not, but have a look at this guy all dressed up for his wife to film. That's the spirit!
This is the place from which people were banished into the desert, where I shall be banishing myself tomorrow.
Yesterday's slow puncture persisted, so I didn't make it to any less polished bits of wall, but I should pass the first pier of the wall tomorrow.
In bike news: I have now bought a pump I can operate with both hands to save me arriving in Kashgar looking like I've spent a little too long alone in a tent with only thoughts of Vicky C to entertain me, it will also hopefully stop inquisitive pensioners, who've never seen such a small pump, asking me what I'm getting up to behind my wheel; my beloved Perfomance Enhancing Water water bottle has gone mouldy (Baijiu almost certainly to blame) and so has been replaced; and I'm upgrading to two water bottles on the bike itself.
In news news: I've decided I will go to Dunhuang, as it's the nearest place with a hotel I can stay in, but I'll be camping the next two nights so enjoy the silence.
A short week after the extended break in Zhangye, but I'm now halfway.
Average Speed: 12.4 KPH
Pot Noodles: 31(really fed up of them now)
Punctures: 12 (3 for the Pigeon, 1 for Jonny)
The Sites of jiaYuGuan
Day 25: The trip to Gansu
Photo Of The day: Another day, Another sign I can't read properly
Day twenty five.
Fully rested after avoiding the wind and rain of yesterday I left Zhangye to the sounds of Alanis Morissette. I thought I'd discovered one of those ultra-rewarding 'oh I didn't know what that was when I was 11' but it turns out that old Alanis doesn't sing "It's like a death row hard on two minutes too late" in Ironic, instead it's "pardon". I thought it was a multi-layered gag about really, really, ironic rigamortis.
An hour in I met a man on a Giant bike, before a Giant support vehicle arrived alongside me in what felt like a premonition of doom. Fortunately it was anything but and instead contained a waving, smiling owner of a Giant shop.
This all led to me joining Zhangye Mountain Bike Club on their May 1 holiday ride for 60km, but for a leg burning 3km jump across to the lead group, the shelter they provided was second only to their friendliness. Yan, a lady with excellent English and even more impressive calves, and friends took me for lunch (of course) and were great fun throughout.
China's development confuses for the very good reason that it is really confusing, multi-layered and happening in a globalised internet age: the picket fences and Chinese flags look like the 50s; the car boom is like the 60s; there's a(n allowed) third wave feminism like the 80s. But these are merely conjecture, what can't be argued with is China's mountain bike fashion being firmly at the early 90s stage of development, just look at those colours!
By afternoon I was alone and climbing through pine scented - no really, pine scented - roads to the feet of the Qilian mountains. It was hard but glorious, other than coming across the canine victim of a car wheel. I am now well over 50 dead dogs into my ride, but this was particularly sad as the poor f*cker was still breathing. Had I not sent the hammer back after the Pigeon's death on day one, I'd have put the thing out of it's misery, in the great British tradition of opposing firearms but being entirely ok with bludgeoning something to death with a blunt instrument. There can't be a Brit alive who believes Professor Plum fired the gun in Cluedo rather than using the handle to cave in his victim's skull.
Tonight's camping spot had no litter, no graves and thanks to my adoption of Jonny's ground mat no icicles hanging off my nose. Magic.
May 1: Zhangye to Sunjiazhuang: 125km
Start Time: 08.00
Finish Time: 18.00
Hours Cycling: 9
Pot Noodles: 2
A Photo Every Hour: Today's highlighT - that's How to Boil a kettle
day 26: Talent Spotting
Photo of the day: See that trailer? I tipped that over didn't I.
Day twenty six
After 20km of climbing to Alanis, Garbage and other mid-nineties stalwarts I was flagged down to help flip over a trailer. In this part of planet earth, by comparison, I'm a giant and the grins in the photo above tell the story of how happy they were the weird white giant (175cm, 70kg and falling) turned up and flipped their trailer. It doesn't tell you how quickly he left afterwards once he'd seen how utterly devastated the axle was.
I was rewarded with sweeping downhills as I swept away from the Qilians. As I hit the first long straight I noticed ahead a man riding in what looked like an erratic way. He was obviously drunk, worst still, he was clearly using the 5km marker stones as his rest stops too. We exchanged waves as I passed him on my way to the next marker. In the great Chinese athletic tradition he was smoking on his rest breaks. I also realised he wasn't drunk but had - and you should feel the Britishness crawling all over me right now as I speculate on disability - a form of cerebral palsy.
I took my rest at the next stone and once again we exchanged waves and pleasantries. For the next 30km or so we repeated this pattern - inclusive of him smoking whilst I scoffed biscuits - until I put in a real kick to get to my target distance by midday. I hammered it, proper 25kph stuff, then stopped for a Pepsi and a great chat with some local old boys. I then hammered it again before stopping for a flag signing (and more holding of signs that could say "British men wear New Balance and Rape Goldfish" for all I know). As we took the third photo, 50km after I first saw him, my friend from earlier reappeared.
Now, I am fully aware I couldn't compete with any paralympic cyclist, but this guy was on a rudimentary shopping bike and about 5 years older than me. Someone from the Chinese Paralympic cycling team needs to pull their stopwatch out of their arse, get down to Gansu, confiscate his cigarettes and see just how fast he can go. He was sustaining 20kph on a f*cking shopper with cigarette breaks. How the f*ck is that possible?
I rode on with the owners of the sign with which I'd been posing, eventually we caught the talent, who was smoking again. I then developed a mystery slow puncture, which ruined my afternoon to the extent that I immediately impregnated the shop owner who kept her beer in a working fridge on my much delayed arrival in Jiayuguan.
As I head west, Beijing Time becomes a right pain in the arse. The heat of the day hit me around 2pm and today was my first real suffering from heat. To replenish I put six different liquids in me and, once the owner had cleared the teenagers who were asking me mundane, yet pleasant, questions, from his establishment, I ordered and scoffed two large pizzas.
If you could all have a think as to how I could create a situation where I could do sport all day in Italy and do the same with real pizza and wine it would be very much appreciated.
May 2: SUNJIAZHUANG To JiayuGuan - 130KM
Start Time: 07.00
Finish Time: 17.30
Hours Cycling: 8
Photo every hour: Today's Highlight - This is where we'd all buy farmhouses and do Them up
Could the Pigeon make it?
Those of you who were here on day one, or those of you who've looked at the pictures, will know that I am not riding my Flying Pigeon bicycle as I had intended. Tragically, the rear wheel could not take the weight of my equipment and 40km in I had to make a cut throat decision to abandon the Pigeon.
I was gutted, I still am a bit, though I do think it can be done on a Pigeon, if I can get hold of an original rear wheel and not one made of such flexible steel.
However, I only had a set amount of time to complete my journey due to other important matters, namely getting on with my life. The simple truth is that the I would not have been able to complete the ride on the Pigeon in the time I'd put aside.The first three days would have taken six, from then on I think I would have fallen short by around 25km a day.
I also would not have been able to have the huge amounts of fun I had with Tom and Jonny as I'd have been travelling around 5kph slower.
In other words it's been fortuitous as well as disappointing.
My main failing, by some margin, has been to rely on Google Maps to give me advice on terrain. On the last leg, I dragged Tom and Jonny up to 2000 metres and almost 300km in distance, in just two days, on a dreadful surface. The Pigeon would have needed four or five days. Until this leg however, the road surface has been Pigeon friendly.
In summary, it can be done on a pigeon but it would take at least three months, and you'd probably need people with you for most, if not all, of the journey.
The Pigeon isn't dead, but long live the Giant.
The Pigeon's hastily arranged replacement is very much the Flying Pigeon of 2015; a £200 Giant mountain bike. One I bought a few months beforehand with no intention of punishing it in this way.
This particular model happens to be an ATX 680, but it doesn't really matter. These bikes, just like the Merida bikes the boys bought, are indestructible performers. The only way I have adapted the bike is by attaching a pannier rack and disconnecting the front derailleur , because you only need the big ring. If you can't turn the big ring, you should be pushing.
In general the bike is fantastic, my only complaint is that the suspension forks are far too flexible, but the whole bike cost £200 so what are you going to get? It's got me 2000km without even thinking about it after all!
Here's some pictures
Photo of the Rest Days: There's a lot more where that came from
Unsurprisingly, the last week had drained Tom, Jonny and I. I had also made it to 2000km in 18 days of cycling. So rest day one was a slow affair that started with the dregs of our hotel breakfast, meandered through life admin but ended with a decent meal and handing over the boys bikes to some Peace Corps volunteers based in Zhangye.
Jonny had to finalise his voting by proxy for the general election, Holly who had joined us, had to work, I had to try and remember my own name ahead of a phone interview and Tom had to sleep.
By 17.30 though, we were sat in brilliant sunshine, drinking Tsingtao and eating sunflower seeds. It finally felt like a holiday. Zhangye has an almost south east Asian feel to it; it's about as relaxing as a Chinese city can feel.
We then met up with Raines and Kelly, two Peace Corps volunteers who we gave Tom and Jonny's bikes to pass on to their successors who would be arriving in the next couple of months. We had great hotpot and yoghurt together, whilst admiring the peace Raines and Kelly were delivering to Zhangye.
On Tuesday, for the boys' final day we visited the fantastic Danxia landscape 40km west of Zhangye. There's enough pictures for me to leave out the adjectives, so enjoy.
I tried to eat myself back up to my natural fighting weight (two KFCs and counting) and got down to the miserable business of washing my clothes in a hotel bathroom. Just look at the water from my shorts - pause - then consider that this was the third rinse.
On Wednesday Holly's flight back to Beijing got cancelled so we went to see China's largest sleeping Buddha together, which even more excitingly, for me anyway, may also be the place Kublai Khan was born.
I just checked the weather (rain) and wind direction (20kph headwind) for tomorrow. Don't be surprised if I have a fourth rest day, if only to avoid breaking 30 pot noodles for one more day.
Average Speed: 12.15 KPH
Pot Noodles: 28 (really fed up of them now)
Punctures: 11 (3 for the Pigeon, 1 for Jonny)
Zhangye and Danxia Photos
As a full time, unprofessional, adventurer I have learnt many things in the past three weeks. Some have been trivial: you shouldn't add 50% spirits to protein shakes; you should look out for lumps of concrete rather than read shop signs; you shouldn't ride off with your camera still balanced on your pannier rack; and you must be careful when locking the bathroom door in two star business hotels.
I have though, learnt some useful things too and feel it's my duty to pass on this information to you, the armchair unprofessional adventurer. First up my three most important pieces of kit.
1. Chamois Crème
I know that this sounds like the filling to a delicious pastry but it isn't, this is the anti-bacterial, clotted-cream textured, tingly fun I've been smearing all over my Graham and his close associates. It cannot be overstated the importance of having a well cared for, smooth, and happy Graham (exhibit A - courtesy of www.51allout.co.uk) , over a raw and angry Graham, which is mistreating your balls (exhibit B - courtesy of the Guardian). So take my advice and apply exhibit C daily.
2. Howies Lightweight Jacket
I purchased this jacket from the always brilliant Howies for a mind boggling £20 in their Christmas sale. In a rare moment for Christmas sales everywhere something useful was available in a size other than small or XXL. For the first week, over the mountains of Hebei and Inner Mongolia, it probably stopped me accidentally giving myself pneumonia. Despite claiming not to be waterproof, so far it has proven to be just that. Best of all though it's doubling up as a groundsheet for my feet allowing me to double over my actual groundsheet.
One further piece of advice: if you're going to ride through China, white probably isn't the colour to go for.
3. ALOCS Gas Camping Stove
For £15, this little belter has kept the pot noodles and coffee coming. It boils enough water for both in just over 2 minutes and only lacks a sign that reads "this way up" to prevent idiots (Tom) from setting fire to a tiny patch of grass rather than cooking dinner.
Day 19: The Lost Legion
Photo of the day: We're at the top of the Mountain (We Weren't)
With unusual smoothness we were on the road by 7am. Even better, by 7.15 we were eating a deep friend spicy lamb pattie. Then me and Mrs Google Maps had a bit of a disagreement as we tried to find an alternative to a dust bowl of a road. Eventually we thought we'd found our way back onto the glorious G30, which we'd flown along yesterday, but we were stopped by a sullen faced official who simply waved us away each time I tried to talk to her. It was confirmed to us that motorways are a definite no go for bicycles in China twice on the following day; but yesterday I'd gleefully waved at the police as we transitioned onto the G30. Who knows why we were allowed on one day but not the next.
By 9 we were out of Wuwei, travelling parallel to the G30 on a road full of pot holes at about half the speed we should have been going. The boys experienced their first real suffering with rain and headwind before we stopped for far too long in Yongchang to eat more lamb and noodles.
Yongchang also held us up with its mural depicting the lost legion of Roman soldiers who were rumoured to have got stranded and settled nearby (they didn't - there's been DNA tests) but Tom explains all below in video format. I tried my best to keep his crotch out of the shot.
Leaving monumentally behind schedule we began to climb into the hills alongside a little bit too much snow for comfort, eventually stopping at what we believed was the top of the ascent to sleep near the dead, again.
Video of the Day: Tom Explains the Lost Legion in 70 seconds
April 27: Wuwei To Santiagou (via Wuwei and Wuwei) - 125km
Start Time: 07.00
Finish Time: 18.30
Hours Cycling in the Right Direction: 8.5
Hours Cycling in the Wrong Direction: 1
A Photo Every Hour: Today's Highlight - Big Snowy
Day 20: They've Moved the Bloody the Road
Photo of the Day: Formula Jon
Yesterday's tardy beginning and Tom-foolery (unfair, it was all of us) in Yongchang, left us with 155KM to Zhangye. It was also quickly established we were at the top of the hill, but we weren't at the top of the mountain that followed. It started well, the first few hours of progress saw us 20km further along the tough road. This is silk road territory, but I bet even Marco Polo had a better surface to be all Venetian on. Then the wind turbines started spinning and hell broke loose. Three hours of pushing and cycling earned us around 10KM. Ten!
The next 30km were downhill, though we still had to peddle into the fearsome wind. We had also spent so long zig-zagging the terrible surface - niche reference alert - which was akin to the road behind the Bayston Hill chip shop in the late 80s, that it wouldn't be unfair to claim today was a 100 mile day. It was also a 100 mile day with over 500 metres of ascending.
We also had the same howling headwind on the flat.It must have been over 30kph, right in our faces or slightly to the side. We even formed mini echelons to combat it at times.
Then the road ended. Seriously. After much discussion at a nearby petrol station, we were advised the road had been moved a few miles back, instead of running parallel to the G30 it was now running through nearby villages. Another 5KM was wasted.
Though the boys had become cyclists over the last week today was a huge ask. After all, the very unprepared one's training involved two hours on a Boris bike and buying some Sudocrem for his Graham. So today was incredibly hard. At 5PM I decided to break their spirits by advising all the suffering to now had got us halfway, furthermore, we were now only 10KM away from the town I had recommended we stop at during the planning phase, which they had both turned down in favour of getting to Zhangye
This reverse psychology worked a treat. Either that or the double Snickers, Ibuprofen and Pepsi cocktail did the job.
As the wind dropped we attacked, back in team time trial formation we peddled our knees into their fifties. The big one was especially useful on the flat, often giving us so much shelter that Tom and I were able to play a few rounds of Top Trumps behind him.
We reached our adjusted target of 20KM to go by dark, before gently spinning into the full beam glare of oncoming traffic all the way to the finish line. The circus arrived at the best hotel in town just before 10PM, where we proceeded to rip what remained of the boys' cheap panniers off and confuse all but Holly with our actions and communal stench.
Then we went to KFC to complete the suffering.
April 26: Santiaogou to Zhangye - 160km
Start Time: 07.00
Finish Time: 21.50
Hours Cycling: 12
Hours Pushing: 1
Numbers of Roads Moved: 1
A Photo every Hour: Today's Highlight - Life on the Road
This is where I update on my progress. Expect lots of fabricated statistics and dated music references.