CHINA, 18th January 2018
We are writing to you from a warm hotel in Jinghe where we have sought refuge after some more hard days of cycling. Here’s what has happened with us since we arrived in China:
13th January 2018: Day Eight – 44 kilometres
A warm night in the hotel in Khorgas did us both good and we were up and back on our way early in the morning. Actually, it was noon, but now we were on Beijing time we had skipped ahead two hours since Kazakhstan, so our bodies were quite sure it was early morning really. The first thing we did was go into the shop right next to the hotel and delight in the wide array of interesting and exciting snack foods we could now buy (although we resisted the vacum-packed chicken feet). Then we cycled back to the main street, which looked a lot less crazy in the daylight, and found a phone shop where Dea got a SIM card to hopefully enable us to tweet nightly updates from our tent. After that we found an ATM where I was able to successfully withdraw more money, and with everything going surprisingly well, we were ready to go.
We left town and soon found ourselves cycling on the G30, the big expressway that shot east from here unimaginable distances and a road we would be spending plenty of time on. The shoulder only had a little snow on it and was fine to cycle on. However, cycling on the expressway is not allowed when there is an alternative road, and there soon appeared a service road right next to the expressway. The ‘no cycling’ sign on the expressway and the number of police cars everywhere meant we could not risk cycling there, lest we get stopped and forcibly removed by motor vehicle, so the smaller service road it had to be.
There was more snow on the smaller road which made it quite hard to cycle, and there was a fair bit of traffic in places too. The expressway right next to us would have been easier and safer but we just couldn’t afford to take any chances with the police here, so we stuck with the small road. And it turned out to have some advantages, taking us through a few small towns. In one we noticed lots of round bread for sale and stopped to buy some. It was being baked on the walls of a big round oven by a group of smiling women. We were soon invited inside by them and offered chai. We took a seat and our tea was brought to us, though it was unlike any tea I recognised. We each received a giant bowl, easily three times as big as any normal tea vestibule, in which resided a splodgy pale salty liquid. But the ladies generosity did not end there, for they then placed in the middle of the table a salad of grated vegetables for us to enjoy.
The salty tea was a challenge, and so was the salad, for of course the only utensils we had to eat it with were chopsticks. It had been a while since I’d used chopsticks, and my track record with them was not great. Picking up grated carrot and carrying it all the way from the middle of the table to my mouth was never going to go very well, but it was a pleasure to sit there and watch the women who were back at work. They were rolling out dough, shaping it into large circles by hand and kneading it down, adding pieces of onion for flavour, and preparing them for the oven. It was nice to sit out of the cold and watch them for half an hour as they went about their daily work. We finished the salad and did our best with the tea, although consuming all of it was never going to happen, and in any case would only have exposed all of the salad I’d dropped in it, so we said our thank-yous and returned to the road.
Our progress was slow all day, what with the snow on the ground and the fact that we were climbing gradually. Ahead of us was a big test, the last mountain pass before Mori, a climb to over 2,000 metres. So it was a bit of a disaster when, late in the day, I tried to get my bike restarted through some deep snow and as I pushed down on my right pedal I felt a nasty pain shoot through my knee. It was the same knee that had hurt on my ride from Bishkek to Almaty, though now in quite a different way. It wasn’t pain under the kneecap, but rather all the way around the knee. It felt like a sprain and was very painful. I did the only thing I knew, and kept on cycling.
Finding a camping place was difficult. In the end we took a quiet side road away from the road we were on, but this road had not been cleared of snow at all, and so we had to get off and push the bikes all the way through it. After a few hundred metres we found a way into a field with a small concrete building that we could camp behind. It was not an ideal location, but it would have to do. To our further dismay as soon as we got inside we heard the sound of snow falling on the flysheet. We knew that a heavy snowfall overnight could make the pass almost impossible, and we were worried.
Distance cycled: 408 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 1092 kilometres.
14th January 2018: Day Nine – 44 kilometres
It snowed pretty much the whole night, but it was not too cold, and with considerable relief we found in the morning that the volume of snow on the ground had not greatly increased. We had to push the bikes back from our field to the side road, but from there we could cycle again. My knee was also not too painful, and we had hopes that we could make it up to the summit of the pass.
We could only follow the service road for a further nine kilometres before it ended and the G30 was the only option and (we hoped) would now be okay for us to cycle on. At the end of the service road there was a little restaurant where we stopped to fill our bottles with boiling water (we’d by now developed a system of filling the flask and topping up our other bottles with boiling water whenever we could to avoid carrying lumps of ice around with us) and to eat a meal. The female chef cooked us up a dish with egg, tomato and pepper, served with steamed doughballs, that was genuinely one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in a long time. It even came with tea that was actually tea. It was just what we needed to set us up for the challenge that was ahead of us.
To get onto the G30 we needed to pass through a toll booth, and did so as best we could hidden in the shadow of a truck, so as to avoid any unwanted questions. Soon we were through and pedalling away on the expressway. The shoulder was wide and mostly just had a light covering of snow, although big mounds of it lay against the right side crash barrier. In any case the road was surprisingly quiet, and often we could cycle out on the smooth tarmac of the inside lane, just moving over onto the shoulder when something would come past.
Big mountains began to appear all around us as we made our way up a valley. There were evergreen trees on the slopes, though they were not living up to their name today, covered as they were in a dusting of snow. Our world was made up of various shades of white and grey, but the fact was that the scenery around us was staggeringly beautiful, I mean staggeringly so. As we took a break sitting on a pile of snow in the shoulder we looked around and agreed that despite all the difficulties we were both so pleased to be here at this time of year, because to see this place looking as it did in winter was so very special. We felt very lucky.
More snow fell and the winds picked up, but thankfully they were blowing the right way, up the valley, and we made steady progress all afternoon. Then the valley opened up a bit and we saw what we had been waiting for. A massive bridge appeared high above us. It was one of the most impressive construction feats I’d ever seen, and we were going to cycle on it. For China, building a road of switchbacks up the mountainside had probably been a bit too easy, so they’d done things a bit differently. The road we were on was going to spiral up around and through the mountains to our right, then take us over the valley up on the bridge, before spiralling around again through another tunnel to the summit plateau. It was an incredible spectacle, but unfortunately my bicycle must have been intimidated by the thought of it, because my gears began to skip terribly, as if my bike was actually trying to wimp out of the task. The deterioration was rapid, and soon my lowest gears became impossible to use. That meant I had to ride in a higher gear, which put more pressure on my knee, which in turn began to hurt like hell. It was intense, excruciating pain every time I turned my right leg around. I knew that removing a few links from my chain should give me at least some temporary relief from the chain skipping and give me a chance, but Dea was off ahead of me and I didn’t want to stop and do that without letting her know, so I kept on riding, simply saying “ow!” with every rotation of my right pedal.
I caught up to Dea at the start of the first long tunnel and stopped to remove some links from the chain. Thankfully the powerlink came off quickly and it was only a two minute job. Then we entered the tunnel. There was a footpath but we decided to cycle in the road as there wasn’t much traffic. The tunnel was 1.4 kilometres long and we made it through, but we were lucky, for no sooner were we out the other side than lots of trucks came along the road. Had they come while we were in the tunnel it would have made for a very uncomfortable experience.
Exiting the tunnel we were now on the bridge over the valley and it was a funny sort of feeling to be up so high. We’d been a bit worried about the wind up there, so it was a relief that it wasn’t a problem. We rode across the bridge then circled around to the next tunnel, where we elected to take the footpath this time. By Chinese standards it was an excellent tunnel footpath.
We exited this second tunnel and cheered, for ahead of us at last was the summit plateau. To our left was Sayram Lake, though it was hard to recognise it, for it was frozen and covered in snow, much like the rest of our surroundings. It was also late, soon to get dark, and finding a place to sleep became an urgent priority. The expressway was lined with a crash barrier and then a pretty sturdy layer of fencing, so finding any place to get off it was difficult under normal circumstances, but with snow a foot or more deep it was sure to prove very tricky. But we got very lucky, and in the end the snow actually helped enormously. There was an underground culvert passing under the road at the same moment that their was a gap in the crash barrier. There was still a high fence to get over and a big drop on the other side, but the snow here was so deep that it rose most of the way up the fence, offering us an unlikely means of navigating over it. The snow on our side was so compact that we could even roll the bikes down it to the fence. On the other side the snow was less stable, but it was still good enough to hold our weight as we ferried our bags and bikes down it to the culvert below. We quickly put on all of our clothes, got the tent up, and settled into our many sleeping bags. It had been a good day, we had made it to the summit plateau, and even found a place to sleep, but we were now 2,100 metres above sea level, and it was sure to be a cold one – the weather forecasts we’d seen predicted a night of -22 C.
Distance cycled: 452 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 1048 kilometres.
15th January 2018: Day Ten – 91 kilometres
Surely I was dressed in nothing less than seven layers of clothes and four layers of down vest/sleeping bags, but I was still surprised to wake up feeling very warm and comfortable the next morning. Camping in -22 C was not as bad as I had feared and when Chris made us a rare morning coffee on the stove that we could drink in our sleeping bags it made for a pretty good start of the day. However, I had noticed the sound of snow falling on the flysheet (a very light prickling sound a bit like opening a fizzy drink) mixed in with the noise of the flapping flysheet all night long and as we packed up our gear snowflakes and iceflakes (from the inside of the tent) danced everywhere in the playful wind. As we began to carry all our stuff up over the snow slopes and onto the road, I noticed that there was a lot more snow laying on it now than there had been yesterday, and that it looked like it would be quite impossible to cycle there until the snow plough had come past. I looked back up the road, there was no sign of such a snow plough…
Fortunately, the bad look of the road was deceiving as we could actually quite easily cycle either in the tracks from the passing vehicles or on the shoulder in a light layer of fresh snow. And it was a special feeling. Everything was white around us, neither the lake nor the mountains could be seen, only the snow that was on the ground, in the air and coming down from the snow-white sky and clouds that lay low over the grounds. As it is with snow, all sounds became muffled and made it a somehow peaceful and otherwordly experience despite seeming so tough. It felt pretty cool still to be able to cycle in such conditions. Especially when three hairy camels appeared out of the white nothingness in a field next to the road.
As we made our way around the lake up on the plateau the snowfall eased off and Chris happily pronounced that we had broken through the snow. He spoke too soon though because soon after we were once again cycling through the soft and fluffy white and continued to do so all the way until the descent began. Here we stopped to once again dress in our 5-10 layers of clothes and to put on our newly purchased balaclavas that were intended exactly for this. I could hardly move my arms and legs in al the clothes, my neck was locked in a straight position by the many scarfs, hats and neckwarmers, and my glasses kept fogging up as I breathed into the cloth that covered my nose and mouth, but the strategy was still good as it kept me just warm enough (although fingers and toes still got numb from time to time) all the way down the 55 kilometre long descent. The snow fall eased and the skies cleared just enough so that we could see the wide, barren plains and mountains around us, so different from the landscape coming up to the plateau. It was beautiful too, but at the same time brutal and too cold to take pictures.
We were aiming for a meal indoors at a service station that we knew (from Racpat RTW blog) was located at the 4088 kilometre mark (apparently referring to 4088 kilometres to Beijing) on the G30 and we didn’t make a proper stop until we reached it. Exhausted, but relieved, we found what we hoped for and had another Chinese meal of fried eggs, tomato and pepper with noodles. There didn’t seem to come many customers here (and certainly not many cyclists in January) and the many staff members who took care of cooking, shop keeping, security checking and sweeping the floors curiously gathered at the table next to us until they couldn’t hold back anymore and burst into the classical photo session with them posing with us one by one. Then the cook went outside to squat a few metres from our bikes just staring and staring at them. I stared at the bikes outside the window too, and at the many layers of clothes I had taken off as we got inside, at the half frozen water bottle, the dirty, melted water from the snow of my shoes on the floor and Chris’s tired face that was red from the cold and the wind. I had been worried about this pass, the cold and the heavy snowfall, but we had made it and now I somehow felt that I was ready for the winter in China.
A little later we lifted the loaded bikes over the crash barrier and made camp some hundred metres from the G30 where trucks constantly passed by in a colourful light show of red and blue. This was China, and I began to feel it.
Distance cycled: 543 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 957 kilometres.
16th January 2018: Day Eleven – 70 kilometres
We both woke up too early by the cold. We were well down from the pass now and had not expected a night colder than the previous one, however that was what it was. A biting cold that crept into my bones and quickly drew all sensation out of my hands and feet as we packed up and got ready to go. On the plus side it was a beautiful morning, the first time we had seen a clear blue sky for many days and with the sun breaking through over the mountain range in the horizon with a warm orange light that did not warm up anything though. And so we began our ride into the sunrise.
Only after having cycled 10 kilometres did I get the feeling back in my toes. In this kind of cold it was necessary to just keep moving to stay warm, and that was perfect because all we wanted to do that day was to cycle so that we could reach our goal of Jinghe before nightfall. Here we had promised ourselves at least two nights in a hotel, but as both my knees and Chris’s sprained knee were still hurting we were considering making it three.
As we were now down from the mountains the monotonous ride through the vast steppes of Northwestern China officially had begun. With podcasts in my ears and the wide, smooth hard shoulder of the G30 I didn’t mind much and the day passed by quickly and uneventful. Being on the G30 we only passed villages at a distance and over the day I only saw a few people along the road. It was certainly a different way of experiencing China, perhaps not so authentic and vibrant, but somehow a mental break from the chaos and randomness I was otherwise prepared for.
After another late lunch in a service station we turned off the endless G30 to enter Jinghe. Doing so we were led through a police checkpoint where the young policemen struggled taking our passport details as they didn’t seem to have much experience with reading a passport that was not in Chinese. We were held back for about ten minutes, but the atmosphere was never aggresive or suspicious, only these guys were doing their best to do what was expected of them.
And finally they let us go to cycle into Jinghe. A rush of excitement flowed through me as we pedalled down the wide boulevard. Rows of identical apartment buildings lined the road, so did bushes full of fake red flowers and red Chinese paper lamps were hanging from every lamp post. On this grand road we were overtaken mostly by old, motorised tricycles and scooters with drivers covered in blankets, pogies and mouth masks. As we reached the centre the streets were lined with little grimy shops, there was a lot of Chinese writing on the facade, but only a few pictures indicating what each shop was for. And so I felt I was right where I had hoped to be, in a smaller Chinese town out in the middle of nowhere where I understood only that this was something so different from everything I knew. Had it not been so damn cold I could have stayed out in these streets for hours with my eyes and mind wide open. But as it was damn cold I was extremely pleased when we found the recommended hotel, booked into a room, transported all our belongings – and again and again I’m stunned to see how much stuff we actually carry around – in one load in the elevator on the outside of the building and walked into yet another neat and incredibly warm hotel room. A perfect place to relax and recover a bit after the first challenging days of cycling through China.
Distance cycled: 613 kilometres. Distance to Mori: 887 kilometres.
17th & 18th January 2018: 0 kilometres
And so our rest in Jinghe continues into a second day without cycling. It may yet turn into more, for our knees still trouble us. We are getting so close to Mori, but bad news from home has reminded us not to take anything for granted. Nothing is guaranteed. But it’s also a reminder that a cycling trip is far from the most important thing in the world, either.
Still, the mission to Mori will hopefully continue sometime soon. With the final mountain pass overcome it should be a straight run for the last few hundred kilometres, except for a couple of problems. There’s still the weather of course, but the most worrying threat now comes from China and the Chinese police. Yesterday I contacted another cyclist online who rode this way last month. He was forced into police vehicles a total of four times along this route. He made some errors, like staying with locals, stopping at toll booths, going to the wrong hotel, which we hope to learn from. But we’re not immune. There are many, many police around in Xinjiang. All we can really do is try to avoid situations where they might want to force us into a car, and hope for the best!