I have joined a mad Irishman on a cycling trip around the world.

Monday, 1 July 2013

China: An Epic. Part 3

We started riding pretty hard after Chengdu once we'd got out of the habit of late morning starts and once our legs, arms, shoulders, bums and hands had limbered up again. We were keen to make up some of our lost time. I did my longest day time wise, an unplanned double climb up to 3000m over nine hours, and I almost beat my longest day distance wise too (over 150km by my clock). The days were getting longer which meant we could ride late into the evening.

Glam rock Tibetan mastiffs

Some Army boy cyclists with top-secret jobs

Confucian himself

A city on the edge of the desert

We entered Gansu province and so began our problems with the police. We were only able to stay in hotels which had the means to register us properly. If we stayed in small hotels the police would come every evening, get us to fill in a lot of forms, hand over our passports for photocopying or photographing and sometimes try to make us move to an international or business hotel which was at least twice the price. This got very boring. At the end of an extra long day we were forced to stay in a very posh and expensive hotel by Chinese standards. Still, for our twenty five pounds we got a very handsome doorman in an orange turban who said how nice it was to see foreigners, a bell hop to take our bags up and a huge bed and computer to watch movies on. One time we weren't allowed to stay in any hotels at all. We'd just spent two hours climbing through a freezing drizzle and the temperature was dropping. We asked to stay in a hotel but the hotel owner took us straight to the police station. We huddled round the stove as the scowling policeman told us we were welcome to stay in the town two hours back down the hill. He was unmoving and unsympathetic but I wasn't about to retrace all that hill so we pushed on as the first snow flakes drifted down. Thankfully we found a well sheltered spot in the side of a hill but we woke up in the snow.

A very fortuitous camp spot

Pirate cyclist on his way to Lhasa

A very cheeky monkey

We did the 1000km to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, in about two weeks. There we stayed with Kevin, an American born Irani volunteering with the Peace Corps and teaching English at the university. He showed us a good time taking us to gigs and bars and introducing us to all his friends. Julian gave a talk about the trip at the English club to a room of enthusiastic and suitably impressed students. We had such a good time with Kevin, his friend Cassidy and Dutch hitchhiker Adam all piled into Kevin's apartment that we stayed an extra day.
Julian giving his talk at English Club

Love for the fire safety instructions!

Cool old signs

The Chinese love to take their own advice

Scary face

A gang of absolute loonies
We decided to pick up the pace a bit on the 2000km to Urumqi. We planned to be on the old G312 all the way and it was fun to watch the kilometer markers counting down (well up really). We had a long slow climb out of Lanzhou, 180km up to 3000m. The road disintegrated on the way down so we nipped through a gap in the fence onto the G30 highway and had a glorious run down, averaging over 30kmph. We were unceremoniously kicked off again onto the sand and gravel track passing for the G312. I was very unimpressed.

We got waylaid again in the small town of Yangchang at the bottom of the hill, partly due to Vinny (real name Chiwellsun) who has a habit of capturing passing cyclists and taking them to his bar to drink, play pool and bash around on his drum kit, and partly due to a nasty sinus infection I was busy developing. It was really painful, I had tooth ache, ear ache, nose ache and a sore throat and was very very snotty. When we looked up the symptoms online we read how an infection can last twelve weeks! Well we weren't stopping again for any illnesses so the next day we pressed on.

Vinny and the lads

Racking up the beer shots for the drinking games

It was hard going with long climbs, strong headwinds and lots of snot to our second couch surfing Peace Corps volunteer. We broke the law more regularly shunning the shitty G312 in favour of the wide smooth G30. The police didn't stop us, just hopped around taking our photos like paparazzi. We saw our first pieces of the Great Wall. It wasn't terribly impressive, just a few broken stretches of piled up mud really. Much more impressive was the tail wind that day so we didn't hang around taking photos and flew into Zhang Ye, the last bastion of the Peace Corps.

The Great Wall, apparently

The even greater tail wind!

Too cool for school

Old fellows playing Chinese chess amongst the ruins of their homes

You massive bell!

Cool old streets

Can't even get away from the CCTV in the temples!

We had a good time with Justin. He'd completed his two years with the Peace Corps and decided to stay on teaching at the university. He'd even brought his sister Dorothy over too. I'd been feeling really rotton and was very glad to take it easy for a couple of days. Once I was up and about again we had fun trying all the local specialties such as noodle cubes and cold gelatin squares (we declined the chicken innards for fear of H7N9). I had completely lost my sense of taste however but that did mean I was able to enjoy stinky tofu for the first time. Normally it tastes as bad as it smells, like baby poo.

Stinky tofu - looks better than it smells

Justin, Julian and Dorothy

After an extra days rest we got down to some serious desert riding and camping. The G312 had all but disappeared so we had no trouble passing through the toll gates under the big "NO CYCLING" signs. Traffic had thinned out considerably which meant we could really enjoy the actual cycling again. The only vehicles on the road were trucks, some were huge transporters carrying twice as many cars and vans as they do at home, some carrying huge bits of machinery and some fully loaded with pigs and sheep. The animals were packed in nose to tail, they didn't have room to sit down or turn around and they stank. Many of them didn't make the 1000km to Urumqi and were thrown unceremoniously onto the side of the road and left to rot in the desert sun. We came to call this road Dead Pig Highway.

Our biggest obstacle for the next three weeks was the wind. Wind turbines were our constant companions. Some days they were our friends, herralding a wonderful day of blasting tailwinds and huge distances (up to 150km no problems). On other days the turbines were our sworn enemies, making the relentless headwinds visible on top of everything. Either way though it was great to see China making use of the incredible power of the desert winds.

On the long slow headwind days I would listen to podcasts. I bought myself a posh new ipod in Hong Kong and have only just discovered the joys of podcasts. The Classic Tale podcast has some great G. K. Chesterton stories and Sir Aurthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World) but I could do without BJ Harrison thanking me for "allowing classic literature to awaken my better self" every episode. Another good and very long one was Underwood and Flinch by Mike Bennett, a vampyre story with plenty of references to Brighton to make me homesick and spur me on through the Gobi.

Julian clocks his 70,000km

The celebratory beer and camp-spot

The road goes ever ever on

I was great to be camping again, especially when we could pull off the road into the empty space of the desert. Other nights the barbed wire along the roadside meant we had to camp in the drainage tunnels under the road. They weren't so bad once we'd cleared them of fossilised poos.

Some nights the wind didn't die down as it usually did. We would double peg the tent and pile rocks on the guy ropes. Still, once or twice it really felt like the tent was going to blow away with us in it and we'd wake up in Oz. One night the wind was so gusty and strong it blew the fine sand straight through the side of the tent and we woke up with everthing covered. It was everywhere, in our hair and in our teeth. I had to wash absolutely everything we own.

Camping with just the wind turbines for company

A sandy spot
Once or twice the headwinds were so strong we didn't even manage to do our most conservative estimation of kilometers possible for the day and we had to camp without much water. The second time this happened we didn't have enough to make breakfast and had to set off hungry and thirsty with 30km to do 'til the next toll booth. Amazingly, just a few kilometers down the road was an unscheduled enormerous service area with a huge breakfast buffet. We stuffed ourselves with rice, eggs, potatoes, veggies, meatballs and steamed buns AND took more for later. It was brilliant. We set off full and with about 17 litres of water between us.

How much can YOU eat in one go?

It's pretty flat in the Gobi desert

We didn't see much animal life in the desert except fat truckers, shaggy camels and a whole host of very weird looking insects. We did hear cuckoos all the time though, who'd have thought there would be cuckoos in the desert?

There were about fifty million of these at one petrol station, Julian trod on one

Hairy camels!


This is my hot-rod!

EXTREMELY dry and barren

The last few days into Urumqi we felt like we were in a different country. Suddenly people looked very different, almost European with green eyes, fair skin, mustachios and brown hair. The ladies wore long dresses and covered their hair and we even saw a few with their faces covered. We saw bread for the first time since Laos (white sliced pan doesn't count), they were huge round flat breads not unlike a pizza base. Delicious. The country transformed as we rode through the Flaming Mountains, pink and orange craggy hills with stalagmites like the moon in Wallace and Grommit's A Grand Day Out. They were surrounded by squat square structures used for drying grapes. This is Chinese wine county with vines growing in the oases in the "Extremely Dry and Barren Desert".

The small city of Turpan is the heart of wine country. We rode below sea level to reach it and in summer temperatures can rise to 50 degrees. The streets are lined with grape vines and the population is mainly Uiger. Uiger perople are an ethnic minority living in the north of China and in Khazakstan. The Chinese government has been encouraging Han Chinese people to move into Uiger regions by offering incentives of jobs and housing in the hope of having more control in those places. The Uigers fear their culture is being diluted and tensions are high.

The shady streets of Turpan

The Flaming Mountain and grape drying houses

We were given rubbish directions and got on this "road" instead of the highway

We stopped for a day in Turpan, eating lots of bread and other new dishes from the north. In the evening we were invited by a Khazak immegration officer ("I am police! BANG BANG!") to join him and his friends for beer and a taste of the local wine. They took us to an enormous fancy and completely empty restaurant for dinner. Food was brought out and the table piled high with dishes: friend chicken, noodles, tofu, mutton and rice, more food than could possibly be consumed by six people, even if two of them were hungry cyclists.

The completely empty restaurant (the policeman had given me the flower that guy is wearing behind his ear but I passed it on)

Trying to teach Julian to dance - an impossible task

Do you think we've got enough?

Best friends forever!

Suddenly a huge precession of people came in, it was a wedding! The bridge wore a puffy princess gown and was covered in glitter while the men wore more traditional looking dress. The men danced while the couple held court at a table laden with fizzy pop. We watched the dancing, even joining in a bit before we said good night.

The Bride and Groom dance

He was a very happy man

All the girls danced too

After a couple of days battling furiously with the wind we finally made it to our last stop in China. It had been exactly 2000km from Lanzhou to Urumqi and had taken exactly a month. We've been holed up in a hostel here first waiting for our Khazak visa and then for a new Rholloff gear unit for Julian which has been in transit for over a week. We have had good company here with other cyclists Beth, Edgar, Killian and Antoine but they've all since moved on and we've been going quite mad. It's only 750km to the border and I for one cannot wait. China is so vast and we've been here so long, Khazakstan was starting to feel like a distant dream which might not ever come true. I'm not sure what cycling will be like in the 'stans and we've heard there might be fewer smiles but I am excited about the countries coming thick and fast for the next few months. The Chinese epic is over, roll on Central Asia! Please let there be less horns.

Kids doing some rather Communist looking dancing in the school behind the hostel

p.s. I clocked my 30,000km!

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