Xinjiang

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.

Almost Famous

China | Chengdu - Urumqi | 4th to 11th September 2015 | 12692km

Having warily gone through how we met, 'fell in love', pointed out Penrith on a map and made sweeping comparison between Hadrian’s wall and the Great Wall of China we got onto the actual tour. Our host Li Rui, had asked us do a short presentation of our trip to his travel group, which in exchange for 4 nights in Chengdu, we were happy to do. On arrival we were given a run down of our schedule for the next few days and informed that a second talk had been scheduled for Sichuan University. By the time we'd had the poster unveiled to us, using a sultry photo of Flo in a Lake and a title which translated to something like travelling to end of the earth with the love of your life, it had got past weird and we were just going with it. The PowerPoint we ended up with was 75% our story of young love, early years spent living in Penrith castle and later, designing/architecting most of Manchester's city centre. 20% chasing Frodo et al around New Zealand and being heroic/romantic in various places, 5% rest of trip. To celebrate a job well done our crack team of power pointers took us for a the local specialty, Sichuan hotpot, which was fantastic, especially for a now fully recovered Luke. Both presentations were a little awkward, but good hearted and a few people were really keen to ask us questions on planning a long trip. The main event though was having Flora write you a postcard saying come and see us in Manchester. Many of the Chinese we spoke to held quite black and white views of the world. Whilst very interested in western life, they were all adamant that British food was terrible and everything was horribly expensive (which to an extent we agreed with, but we could point out a few gripes we had with China…). So, very Britishly we held our tongues, avoiding getting too patriotic. Li Rui’s Mum was particularly lovely and breakfast time was great fun as she got us right back into Chinese food with dumplings, and the Chinese equivalent of a meat pie which we need to learn the name of, boiled peanuts, oranges, rice porridge, eggs and sweetcorn. Initially Flo had them stumped food wise but was soon presented with a bowl of ‘vegetarian’ dumplings. 'What are they?’ Flo asked. Thinking for a few seconds, ’semen balls’, Li replied, just as Flo had braved putting one in her mouth. Only after she’d managed to keep it down, did Li find the word he was looking for, sesame balls. The fact that Flora was frying her eggs with chopsticks was testament to how long we’d spent in Asia! Li Rui, his friends and his Mum had us right back into liking China, for the most part, after a difficult week or so.

You can travel on a hard seat, hard sleeper or soft sleeper on Chinese trains. The latter being the most expensive and the only option we’d been left with when we booked our tickets back in Zhaotong. At £80, for a 48hour journey, that still wasn’t too bad. The bikes had been sent the previous day, as is the system with oversized cargo on long distance Chinese trains. This left us to haul all our kit through the crowds and onto platform 6 for the 11.21 to Urumqi Xinjiang autonomous province in the far north west of china. 6 panniers, 2 bar bags, 1 large dry back, a rack top bag and two plastic bags can be made to look almost graceful when loaded onto the bikes, but are horribly impractical to load onto two humans. Our little soft sleeper cabin had 4 beds, a little table and just enough room in the middle to swing a very small cat. Plenty of people came past several times to watch the westerners do thing like eat and watch films (All the Harry Potters, if you’re wondering). One chatty lad, Simon, was learning english and seemed to know more about England than us. We were pretty stumped when he asked us how we felt about the constitutional monarchy in England. Having ran out of UK places names to ask if we’d knew of, he went off and came back with his Cambridge English text book. He'd got it on the cheap and as such was convinced it wasn’t legit and wanted us to check to make sure. Soothed to sleep by the huge shunts as the coaches caught up with each other under breaking for each station, we woke up on the second day to a much flatter and emptier world which we guess was Gobi desert. Among other moderately interesting things there were some enormous wind farms - we read somewhere that China had spent more in 2014 on renewable energy than Europe and America combined. Big snow caps in the distance as we approached our stop and the end of the line.

The sun was out but it was cool in the shade and having collected the bikes pleasing easily and remounted everything with the traditional circle of onlookers we realised we weren’t sweating, having cleared the tropics after 4 or 5 months. It was a dry heat and it was bloody lovely! Signs are in Chinese and Uighur script and the police swat presence was very noticeable. Tensions between the indigenous Uighur people and Chinese authorities have sparked violent clashes in the past and security is high at banks, parks and petrol stations etc. We had to scan our bags just to get into a supermarket. From Steven and Cal’s flat we watched a chap on a lower rooftop waving a big flag in circles, which seemed to be encouraging his pigeons to fly in an orderly fashion around him. In search of a recommended American owned, English speaking, Mexican food serving, French named cafe we stopped someone to ask for directions (mimic drinking coffee, say name of cafe and look as confused as them) and got a response in Russian! To complicate matters even further, most locals run on a different time zone, two hours behind Beijing time, making more sense of the daylight hours. So now essentially we’ve no idea what time it is or which language we're meant to be not understanding...

Hindsight

China | Kunming - Zhaotong - Leshan - Chengdu | 24th August to 3rd September 2015 | 12692km

Kunming was to be the change over point where we adapted the bikes and kit to suit the impending cold months in Central Asia. The Mum's had bought out a few bits from home (cheers Cam, though not for the mirror) and we'd collected the box of stuff we’d sent on to Hugo. Most fortunately, we had the loaned kit we'd happily agreed to ride back to Joe and Carmen (we owe you guys a beer!) - rack top bag, two goose down sleeping bags, full length roll mats and a down jackets. We spent a day fettling the bikes, which were a state from when we’d rolled into Kunming nearly three weeks previously and tried to pack our new collation of feather filled, weather proofed gear into increasingly space starved panniers. Both bikes had their second chain and cassette of the tour and now both sported the knobbly half used Marathon Mondial tyres left behind by some Germans in Bangkok. We acquired two more at ‘you’re in need of these tyres and not in a country that imports them’ prices. Added a 50 lux Busch and Muller dynamo light to Luke’s front end as we’re expecting fewer day light hours, blizzards and tunnels. It's easy to get worked up planning and planning, think of stuff you might need for every eventuality, but there is only so much you can do before you just need to get on with it. Time to go.

Clomping around in our new walking boots and saying final goodbyes, we were more nervous than when we’d originally set off. We decided to ride another 10 days north to Chengdu before getting a train out to the northwest of China, but in hindsight we should have gone directly from Kunming, both feeling ready for the 'next phase'. As is guaranteed after lovingly cleaning everything, as soon as we left it pissed down. China wielded it’s moral bashing hammer and summoned thick gloopy mud, disappearing roads and a succession of the greyest, grimmest towns we’ve been through yet. The local drivers welcomed us back into the fray with a cacophony of blaring horns - impatience is a virtue for Chinese drivers. We were just thinking about how... ‘BEEP BEEEP’. We wanted to say th... 'BEEEEEP'. To say... 'BE BEEEP'. We... 'BEEEEEEEEEEPPP'. Oh bugger it.

A slow 60km clearing Kunming and we were firmly back down to earth after the time spent with friends and family, morale was low. At a small road side shop we stopped for a drink and for a few minutes of being started at. Having finished, we motioned looking for a bin, to which the owner lady looked ambivalent, reluctantly took both bottles and lobbed them in the ditch beside her shop. Luke fell ill after a second day and could barely leave bed for the next 48 hours. We’ve no idea what caused this particular bout of internal pyrotechnics but he was glad to be somewhere with a reasonable toilet. At the risk of mentioning the loos too frequently, the ones Flora braved at Zhaotong bus station do deserve a mention. With no doors and only waist high walls designating which part of the communal defecating channel to take aim at, Flora became acutely aware how well hydrated the lady to her left (upstream) was that day.

We limped another 100km further north, now behind schedule to a point we were getting uncomfortable about visas running out. We needed to take some public transport, which as we’ve said before is unenviable with touring bikes, let alone in China. The language barrier means we are essentially big useless babies trying to communicate that we need two tickets to X and that we need to take those two huge bicycles on your overcrowded bus/train/truck. It can depend on who you’re dealing with but if it's the type that isn't keen on hand signals either, it can be impossible! The nearest bus station was on the other side of at 2300m pass but happily, after an hour grinding away in the morning, a ute stopped and the two chirpy blokes inside were happy to take us up and over. Luke hadn’t eaten in 3 days (yes, same person), it was raining and the road looked to be losing it's battle with landslides, so we were chuffed. After 10 minutes, we'd been through all the Premiership footballers the chirpy blokes could think of, and established that there were no working seat belts in the back. Throwing the truck into a hairpin the chain-smoking driver almost lost it on the mud slicked tarmac. In the few seconds of silence that followed, whilst the driver searched for his dropped cigarette, a loud crack told us the car behind hadn’t faired so well, spinning off into the low wall. This broke the silence as they thought it was hilarious. A few more seconds later, post hysterics, the driver put his, working, seat belt on.

We did make it to Zhaotong in one piece and the first unenviable task was to brave the local train ticketing office. The Chinese are numerous and mobile - you have to book tickets on popular routes very early. With the help of a translator who we called with the phone of a lady in the queue with us, we came away triumphantly with the next available tickets from Chengdu to Urmuqi in just over a weeks time. Through a series of fortunate encounters with English speaking locals, including one extremely helpful policeman named Allen, we also made it onto a bus headed to Leshan the following day - another fine achievement! The bus stopped for less than a minute on the side of the freeway and was mercifully big enough for the bikes to be crammed in underneath with minimal hassle. In Leshan, known as the place for 24hr visa renewals, we had to stay in a hotel legitimate (expensive) enough to register us with the PSB. A day before expiry we were stamped in for another 30 days to a country we were quite keen to leave asap.

Luckily, Leshan’s star attraction, The Big Buddha, was awesome. We paid the tiny entrance fee, climbed the steps and were almost the only people there, gazing down on the 233ft stone carving from the Tang Dynasty. Did we bush. It was a public holiday and we’d been warned not to go near the place, so we looked it up on google. No we didn’t because you can’t use google. In the end we made do with a fine impression from a local. From there it was a long, flat 170km days ride into Chengdu, Sichuan province, home of spicy foods, a few days ahead of our train.