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