Phew, what a rush. I’ve just arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan after a pretty hectic time crossing the Xinjiang province of China and getting across the border. When I went to get the last extension for my Chinese visa, rather than the standard 30 day extension, the grumpy policeman only gave me 20 days. In that time, I had to cycle the guts of 2000km, sort out my Kazakh visa in Urumqi, and get across the border.
My route took me skirting the southern edge of the Gobi Desert, and through part of the Taklamakan desert. It was mainly flat, windy, and baron with little to stir the senses. Occasionally I would see Bactrian camels or cycle across small mountain sections, but generally it was flat as a board. For the first few days, the wind was very strong, happily it was generally from the back or sides. At times, all I would need to stand up, and the wind would push me along without pedalling! On one particular day, on a smooth road, I broke nearly all my own records. I managed 66.3km/hr on the flat; averaged 38.9km/hr for the whole morning; did my longest ever non stop stint, 64km; and the longest distance between meals, 120km!
But while the wind was good for cycling it was bad for setting up the tent. After a decent days cycle, I spotted a small niche in a sand dune that I figured would give me some shelter from the wind. I put down my plastic ground sheet, then the outer, and pegged it down. Just as I fixed the waterproof topsheet onto the frame, a huge gust of wind came, pulled out the 2 windward pegs, and the tent tried to fold itself in two pieces. Then the other pegs came out, and the ground sheet blew away, but I couldn’t chase it as I was stuck holding the rest of the tent, which was now above my head and trying to get airborne. For a decent few minutes, there was a stalemate between myself and the wind, I couldn’t take the tent down, but the wind couldn’t carry it away either. I was stranded there, in the middle of the desert, at night, trying to stop my home from blowing away. Eventually though, the wind relented for long enough for me to take down the tent which I quickly bundled up and threw into my dry bag. I searched around for another more sheltered spot, and luckily came across my runaway ground sheet that had snagged on some brush. My second attempt went slightly better than the first, I had placed my bags in the tent to stop it from flying away, but I still managed to snap 2 pegs and had to weigh down the rest with big piles of rocks. After that episode, I tried to refrain from using the tent, and instead opted to sleep directly under the stars, under the fine mist of the milky way.
Another mornings events made me recall when I first told people back at home about the cycle, some of the responses were “isn’t that lovely”. I had camped near a small road underpassage that I used to shelter from the strong crosswind, to my surprise I woke to find it raining outside. As the desert was flat all around, people had used this underpassage to do their “business” in private. I sat, eating my noodle breakfast, surrounded by little dried up human “jobbies”, with both sand and rain stinging my face and thought, this definately isn’t “lovely”.
After 10 days cycling in the desert, I got to Urumqi where I was to sort out my Kazakh visa. The mood was tense there, and the military had a strong presence, with armed patrols at street corners and driving the streets in huge open back trucks. From Urumqi it was purely a matter of burning to the border before my Chinese visa expired. I whacked out a few 175km days, then a 140km day with about 3000m of climbing up to this gorgeous lake where I camped for the night. The following morning was, for me, the most beautiful cycle in the whole of China. The sun was out and it’s rays glistened on the calm deep blue lake. The surrounding mountains were covered in a lush soft grass on their lower slopes, and snow near their peaks. Men on horseback rode about, some collecting mushrooms and others herding sheep and goats. I descended down the green valleys, on towards the Kazakh border, happy to end cycling in China on a high note.