China | Urumqi - Kuytun - Sayram Lake - Korghas | 12th to 20th September 2015 | 13,489km
Failing to to pull a wheelie ala Charlie Borman in the Long Way Down, we made do with a purposeful wobble southwards out of the city, many breads strapped to panniers. Urumqi is known for being further away from the ocean than any other city in the world, and being very close to ‘the geographical centre point' of the Asian continent. Choking on the dust and sand swirled up by a gusty side wind we knew that after an impending right hander we’d earmarked on our detailed 1:3000000 map, it should be right behind us. We needed petrol for the stove but the military security at each petrol station were highly suspicious and we gave up until well clear of the city. Right hander found and there was indeed a tailwind that nearly blew us right past the centre point statue, heads down avoiding the wheel shattering potholes that laced the road. Once clear of the city the few buildings still inhabited were extra shabby, mud brick, and sand blasted, but the hills ahead were enticing.
We didn’t appreciate it at the time but we left the last shop for a long time without getting anywhere near enough water and rather hastily too after a chap had crossed the friendly/weird line with excessive hand kissing and a map to his house drawn in the sand. As we hit the hills, the tarmac disappeared, the wind died and it got really hot. We’re so glad we have all this cold weather gear in our bags. Slow going, but entirely new scenery - we’d call it desert mountain but that’s probably doing it huge geological injustice. After cadging a couple of bottles of water from a truck we veered off the road and found an idilic camp spot over looking a lake. In the morning we saw actual camels, just chillin’! They were huge, even in the distance. We were unsuccessfully channeling our inner camel and were very low on water. This meant readying our steripen, purchased back in Brisbane, for it’s first use in anger to top up at the next river crossing. One of the few cars that passed stopped and actually offered us water. When we pointed in the direction we intended to pedal he bought out 6 bottles - what did he know that we didn’t?! He also insisted on hacking into a big melon which tasted incredible at the time. 44km in a whole day, a classic misestimation of terrain and distance. Reassessing we saw that there might be a way to escape the mountains earlier and we also understood (miraculously) from a coal truck driver, sat happily beside the truck he’d just flipped, that the road ahead was blocked. So in fact we had no other choice, which was probably a blessing in disguise. Said blockage seemed to be causing chaos with many trucks backed up along the tiny diversion road, seemingly stopping each other from getting through the cut through at the top. Once we’d squeezed past, a guy on a motorbike pulled along side and motioned for some water, which took us back a bit. We gave him half a bottle and he was off. That evening, whilst impatiently waiting for pasta to cook we watched a Kazakh sheep herder, in full suit, romp down a steep hill side, lobbing rocks to control his flock. He spotted us, wandered over and inquisitively poked around our kit until we were joined by his mate on a motorbike. The conversation was cut short as they both noticed the clouds rolling in and chipped off pronto, pointing at the sky. It pissed down that night and this turned the sandy dusty roads into clay, with the coals trucks churning it up as there romped down the detour over night. After 15km of slippnig and sliding around, we finally escaped the clutches of the hills and found tarmac, flying down towards relative civilisation. Three days and we were a whole 70km from Urumqi, with a wimpy looking loop on our tracker map.
Flo had picked up a nasty chest cough, so we took a rest day to eat bread and noodles - finally left the world of rice! Hocking and spitting every few minutes meant Flo didn’t actually look out of place at all. Watched the staff of a kebab place form two lines outside and do a sort of Hokekoke dance/pledge of allegiance to the sound of Gangnam style. Though we were beginning to feel otherwise, we were reminded that we hadn’t left China yet as we got in the way of a ferocious street badminton game. A row of arcade grabber games had been reincentivised with a pool of cigarettes in place of the usual cuddly toys, just too small to actually be grabbed.
Now heading directly West on the old highway we put in some bigger days of 124km and 178km, Flo’s longest of the tour. Hazy Tian Shan foothills to the left, flat, shrubby nothingness to the right. On our map the road was marked evocatively as the ‘Silk Road’, but was more rusting truck hulks, stacks of old tyres and men bashing large bits of coal into smaller ones with sledgehammers. We caught up with a Chinese cyclist on a slow drag past some huge chilli drying stations, unmistakably Chinese with a face covered by at least three buffs, full length fluorescent threads and mountain bike with two small rear panniers, presumably full of spare buffs. He spoke less English than we did Chinese, which was saying something, but we seemed to agree that we were going the same way. He liked his three hot, chilli laden meals a day and by association we were to join in. Lui insisted on paying and it was ace to have him order for us (usually a massive hassle/gamble), explain to onlookers what we were doing or quickly ask a local for directions. As lone tourer, he was a bit of a surger and weaver and didn’t adhere to peleton etiquette. Still feeling her chest infection, had she had known the Chinese for ‘hold your line you chopper!’, Flo might have snapped a couple of times. Waiting for our new chapereone roadside, he caught up and explained through mime that either his behind was cut or the blister on his bum had burst. He then motioned ‘strong legs’ to Luke and rolled his shorts up, felt his thighs and took a photograph that was dispatched to his cycling club mates. Luke says he wasn’t even tensing.
Had our first proper flat out refusal from a hotel in Jinghe and were escorted to the more expensive (£15) 'foreigners' place, the silver lining being that breakfast was included - all 6 off us in a 2000 seater karaoke mega hall. Lui left us to romp around a lake somewhere, up at the crack of dawn looking like he may have slept in the clothes we’d seen him in for the last two days. We imagine he just dozed off sat in a chair, middle buff pulled up over his eyes. Feeling smug about how many hard boiled eggs we’d pilfered from the exceptionally grumpy breakfast lady, the morning was tempered by another spongey looking rear tyre on Flo’s Kona. That rear wheel accounts for 75% of our flats. How exciting is that?
The morning after a stealthy road side camp the road started to climb and we noticed three figures dashing across the central reservation ahead. They were cyclists from Latvia and Spain coming from Europe with no intentions of stopping, and a Russian guy from Siberia heading for Vietnam. As we swapped sim cards and some money they confirmed we had a lot of climbing to do that afternoon. We had planned to celebrate the end of our Chinese odyssey at Sayram Lake, basking in the sun and sipping red wine from one of the many vineyards we’d passed. Naturally, the only service station that might have sold wine hadn’t actually been built yet and as we inched up and over 2000m the wind got bitterly cold and we found our selves digging around in the least accessible corners of our panniers for the really cold weather stuff we hadn’t imagined needing yet. Mitts were donned and a gap in the fence revealed a spot that afforded just enough shelter. We bailed into the flimsy looking tent and celebrated China with some lovely chilled water and what dry food we had left, shivering and wishing we had more buffs. The dustbin lid sized breads we’d acquired two days ago still tasted good, but could also have been used to bash the tent pegs in, had we thought of it 10 minutes earlier. In the morning we inched to the other end of the lake, wind in faces, yurts on the hill side to the left just below a dusting of snow from the night before. The two black dots at the end of the road were a tunnel entrance and we gladly dived in and downwards for 3km, warming up and happy to be losing some altitude. Emerging into mountains, the road builders were just starting to have fun - a big sweeping section high up on stilts into a valley spanning suspension bridge spiralling down through another tunnel before looping back under itself, top marks! Tooth breaking, slightly rancid salty cheese and hard boiled eggs on the side of the road in the sun a couple of hours later we were wondering how to repack all the clothing we’d just shed.