9600miles, 7 months on ‘the road’
So George and I have successfully completed our rolling jaunt across China. Over the past month we have pedalled west across the country following the decaying remains of The Great Wall until we reached its final outpost far in the dusty plains of The Gobi. We then went on to explore the ‘Singing Sand Dunes’ on the eastern rim of the Kumtag Desert before descending our way into the Volcanic lands of the Turpan depression. Finally we passed through the landmark location of Urumqi- the most remote city from any sea.
This region of China was a windy one. Wind dominated our days cycling dictating our mood, our alarm call, our speed, our progress…..our kite flying ability. Arid desert regions have this habit of generating huge forces of air, so often right in your face, which doesn’t bode well with riding a bicycle. But this is a feature which China appear to have exploited quite significantly, because vast wind farms became common place along our route. So often we would pedal our way to the brow of a hill only to look out at a sea of large-scale fans dominating every inch of our view- this became a clear indication that life was about to take a more turbulent turn. On some days we could barely turn the pedals of our two wheeled steeds, battling against its sheer force. It was positively exhausting stuff and however hard Celine Dion insisted her ‘heart would go on’, I wasn't entirely confident mine would….
On some occasions you reach such a level of frustration, you find yourself on the verge of yelling at this unrelenting element to just ‘calm down’ for 5 minutes; “Oh will you just settle down. Whats with all this explosive anger?! Jeez, ‘chillax’, grab a drink, take yourself on a spa weekend….just stop taking it out on us”- having since built a better understanding of the relationship between desert regions and atmospheric process’s, it seems that the wind isn’t all that comparable to people after all, thus my words were probably wasted there…..
But of course, its worth mentioning that winds do turn, thus we have also had the luxury of steaming along effortlessly on some days, clocking off the miles barely working a muscle- on these days, I often find myself quietly complimenting my performance, complimenting my dramatic overnight improved fitness as I casually cruise along at 25mph…..choosing to ignore the rocket powered wind driving my back tire.
Turpan- life in the oven
Reaching the raisin capital of Turpan was a joy, not just because raisins make the ideal addition to a muesli mix, but because at just 34m above sea level, during the spring and summer months this region warms up into a bubbling basin of intense heat (so often nicknamed the ‘oven’ of China). In fact, the 20/03/15 has actually become somewhat of a milestone date on our trip- we still talk about it today- ‘The Great Thaw’; the day we took off our jackets, the day the birds tweeted, the day we felt our toes again - “This is it” we cried, “Spring has arrived”, “Its here!”, “Praise the Lord”…..before donning our gospel robes and breaking into song (well that parts not strictly true… it was far too warm to be wearing robes)
Though this was undoubtedly premature celebration for the following few weeks happened to hand out yet another bout of snowy weather. Oh China, you tease…
Cycling across stretches of far north western China through vast open desert lands, along dull dusty plains, endless regions of emptiness- there are undoubtedly moments when you’re led to feel totally disconnected with civilisation, but here in China its really only a matter of time before a bullet train hurries past or a field of cranes huddles in the distance preparing to erect yet another mighty city, or you take in the advanced levels of road infrastructure guiding your wheels- and with this you truly realise that in fact you’re never all that far away from civilisation at all, you’re simply pedalling in a land of nothing but a country with everything.
During some stretches of highway, we passed through deserted small towns, perhaps abandoned to accommodate the greater need of large scale infrastructure, but to us these empty ghost settlements provided us with some first class accommodation. We eagerly jumped off the bikes and pondered our way down the dishevelled streets eyeing up our chosen shelter for the night. Door to door, we fussily weighed up whether we’d be best located in a more established property complete with walls and windows or perhaps we’d be better suited in a property with ‘potential’, ya know, something we could put our ‘stamp’ on (tent in). In the end, we settled on a small semi-detached with ample amounts of natural light (windowless), within an easy commute of the roadside. All in all, a good decision, so much so in fact that it wasn't long after nestling into our abode for the night that, upon hearing footsteps next door, we realised we weren’t alone- slightly alarming since we hadn't noticed any other prospective home owners in town earlier, or anyone for that matter…..
The fuel station
In much the same way as ‘Roadhouses’ became of astronomically huge significance during my time cycling through the lonely desert of outback Australia, the fuel stations along this stretch of uninhabited highway became equally cherished by us. In fact, part of me starts living for the next fuel station (ironically, a place chiefly supplying a substance I definitely don't require on this trip), 110km to go…..65km……30km…..10km (“yay!”). And then we get there, and realise it offers us nothing really, we have all the necessary supplies we require- but you’re in this position where you have stumbled upon a hub of human activity, it would seem reckless to just pedal on by, you just couldn’t.
Therefore, upon rolling towards the service station, there’s really just the two options to yell across to your pedalling companion. These come in the form of:
“Im just going to nip in and grab a bottle of water” (a.k.a At least a 2 hour break stop, lunch, a nap, 45minutes spent huddling next to the heater….)
Or my personal favourite- the golden words;
“Shall we just have a ‘nibble’?’”
Now, for those reading where English isn't your first language, the term ‘nibble’ can be a little misleading, because in quite the opposite way to how a little mouse might nibble away at a small block of cheddar, ‘nibble’ perhaps better translates as ‘Im now going to indulge in an obscene amount of food and I'm making no guarantees that i’ll stopping any time soon’
Reaching the border
Our final days spent cycling towards the Kazakhstan border were an exciting few, primarily because we had spent almost 2 months riding 3200miles through China, and Kazakhstan represented somewhat of a ‘finish line’ for us, but also because we had settled into life in this country, the dynamics of society, the way of life had become familiar to us and though we loved our time here lapping up the dramatic scenery, absorbing this rich mix of cultures and enjoying the welcoming, kind, hospitable delights of the Chinese people, we were excited to see what the road ahead entailed.
Border towns in particular fascinate me- this mismatch of people, languages, the hustle and bustle of movement to and from the border, busy transport systems, families laden with vast packs of goods from the bustling border markets, cars stuffed with every household item you can imagine, men with wads of cash eager to exchange currency- you’re not quite here but you’re not quite there- you’re revved up for change- pushing that door ajar into your onward journey! For us, Kazakhstan!