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
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
This is where I update on my progress. Expect lots of fabricated statistics and dated music references.