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