Desert and the Devil’s Breath

Since Urumqi, I’ve cycled 1100km. Quite a long way without a blog update, but due to the tight visa schedule and lack of decent WiFi once again I’ve had to cram it all into this mega blog. Grab a cup of tea, this is a long one!

We intended on staying in Urumqi for just one day, but after waking with absolutely dead legs and still completely shattered it took 5 seconds of deliberation to decide on staying another day. That was spent napping and eating kung pow chicken from a local take away. A bargain at about €1.50 for a massive portion delivered to the hostel!

After two days resting we hit the road aiming to get to Hami about 630km East of Urumqi in five days. We took the northern route to avoid the Turpan basin, which is about 200m below sea level and the second hottest place in China. A cyclist we met in Urumqi told us how he’d cycled at night to avoid the 46 degree heat during the day there. No thank you! The route we took would keep us above 1500m for 3 days, so much cooler but more hills and a 2800m pass on the last day. I’ve spent far too much time cycling through scorching deserts so any respite from the heat is most welcome.

Leaving Urumqi we were back on the expressway sharing it with three or four lanes either side, absolutely packed with traffic. Lovely! After a while the traffic thinned out, but sadly we quickly started to see many of China’s coal powered electricity stations and the pollution was RIDICULOUS! At one point I could see a greenish-yellow cloud coming from one of the plants. Out in the countryside and the air was thick with a smell and taste of what can only be described as melting plastic. We noticed that my face in particular was covered in black soot, as was my beard, arms and legs. Disgusting stuff. When we stopped in a petrol station after 110km I managed to wash some of it off in the toilet but it was futile. I was covered again in no time.

Pollution: Nasty clouds of fumes were coming from the endless power plants.

Pollution: Nasty clouds of fumes were coming from the endless power plants.

And this is the result. Lovely.

And this is the result. Lovely.

I passed the 10,000km mark at Urumqi

I passed the 10,000km mark at Urumqi

The only saving grace of the day was the beautiful mountains on our right and a last minute decision to try to find a hotel instead of camping. We’d met a Swiss cyclist in Kazakhstan and when we asked her about camping in China she said “I don’t know why you’d camp in China, hotels are so cheap!”. A quick check on the map and there were a bunch of hotels listed for the town nearest us so off we went. The first one we tried got us in a lovely and clean room with air conditioning (I can’t express how lovely that is after a day on the bike in the heat) and a hot shower (after the day of soot, you can imagine how good that was!). It even had WiFi, all for just €4.50! What a result.

We tried boiling these horrendous eggs in the kettle in the hotel room. This was the result!

We tried boiling these horrendous eggs in the kettle in the hotel room. This was the result!

Typical petrol station stop for pot noodles and processed sausage. Yum.

Typical petrol station stop for pot noodles and processed sausage. Yum.

Back on the road again with 130km to go to Mori, the next decent sized town with hotels on the map and the last town before the tougher mountainous stretch started, we were hit with a hefty headwind. The only way to overcome it was to cycle in single file, drafting off each other and switching every 2km to share the work of breaking the wind. This worked pretty well but we severely under estimated the toll on us and by 90km we were both knackered. With nowhere to stop for a hit of sugar and nothing in the food bags we laboured on. On and on for another 40km. It was agony to be honest, and the worst I’d felt on the bike since Azerbaijan when I had a stomach bug and laboured out some big days feeling similarly. We stopped in the first hotel we saw, haggled a bit on the room and landed in a decent sized twin room similar to before.

After a quick shower and washing the soot out of our clothes (hotel room laundry is now a standard part of our day) we went to the restaurant next door and gorged on a massive serving of beef and peppers with rice. Not quite knowing what we’d ordered nor how much it cost we were surprised with how utterly fantastic the food was and also the price. €9 each for the meal was wayyyy over budget, but we were still learning what the cheapest meals are here.

When we returned to our room we realised one of the keys didn’t work but then noticed it was numbered for the room next door. We checked that it worked but after a brief attempt at trying for a refund without success decided it was a mistake. Then we had a fairly funny problem after locking ourselves out of the toilet in the room with all of our gear drying inside so the hotel staff had to come up twice to try to unlock it. In the morning they tried to charge us for the two rooms but our original receipt was only for one. We weren’t sure if it was a scam or genuine mistake but we eventually got a refund for the second room – they’d taken for it out of our key deposit.

Knackered and having one of those days where my head really wasn’t in it, we headed off loaded with water and supplies as we weren’t sure what lay ahead food-wise. The scenery was quite spectacular with some beautiful mountains to cycle through. At 1500m for most of the day, undulating up and down, the going was tough but luckily not too hot at that altitude. Mid 30s mostly. I wasn’t in a good place in my head and had to shake myself out of it a few times reminding myself of how far I’ve come, I’ve been in this situation before and it’s just a case of getting the head down and doing the miles.

Camels with 2 humps!

Camels with 2 humps!

Saw this lunatic with a sheep on the back of his motorbike.

Saw this lunatic with a sheep on the back of his motorbike.

The clouds and mountains made for some nice scenery.

The clouds and mountains made for some nice scenery.

Nice clouds, nice scenery

Nice clouds, nice scenery

But long flat roads. At least the tarmac was good!

But long flat roads. At least the tarmac was good!

The only eventful part of the day was when I was on a dirt track where the road is being rebuilt and these guys in a 4×4 took the unbuilt part of the road alongside me to get a look at the foreigner. This section was blocked off, so as the car and I approached the road block I sniggered to myself “well lads, looks like you’re in a spot of bother here but me and my nimble Long Haul Trucker will have no trouble navigating this…..” SMASH! The front wheel went sliding off the edge of the unpaved road with me clipped in sending me flying onto some rubble. I nicely banged up my arm and knee, not to mention the damage to my handlebars. The lads in the car had the last laugh. I picked myself up and flew off embarrassed. That’s what I get for being an arrogant c*ck.

This was the gravel road where I had my embarrassing crash.

This was the gravel road where I had my embarrassing crash.

We made the 130km mark and the town we were aiming for, but sadly no hotel or guesthouse. James was wrecked and I wasn’t far behind him. Despite a massive dinner of potato and spicy beef stew neither of us felt the desire to camp, but with no choice we plodded on just 2km out of town to a 2 star tunnel and into the bivvy bags. Looking at the map we could see a developed city 120km away with lots of hotels listed, so that raised our spirits for the next day. A dog paid a us a visit during the night and just sat at the bottom of the tunnel!

So off we went with 120km to go. Nothing too eventful, just a climb up to 2200m, and passing 4 Taiwanese cycle tourists on the way. There are a lot of cycle tourists here, we see them practically every day. What made these guys different was their ages – 2 kids with their parents. They were about 10 years old and we’d seen them early the day before. 10 year old kids had been keeping pace with us for two days and here I am whining on about how tough it is! It is tough! They’re on steroids, there, I said it, it’s the only explanation. Cycling is rotten to the core, even 10 year old cycle tourists are doping. Anyway, after the climb it was a nice enough descent to the town of Barkol where we got into the tourist hotel after a bit of haggling on the price. Haggling seems to be a way of life here and you don’t get any respect if you don’t haggle on everything. The hotel room wasn’t bad, the shower was cold, but we were out of the heat and feeling much better for it.

This was a shop, believe it or not.

This was a shop, believe it or not.

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We stayed in Barkol. Mad that there's a lake out here in the desert. A true oasis.

We stayed in Barkol. Mad that there’s a lake out here in the desert. A true oasis.

From Barkol we were now on our final day into Hami. Just 10km outside the town and there they were, the juicers. After passing them by we stopped in a petrol station for some food and water. As I turned into the station the front wheel went from under me on the dusty road and I went flying across the ground. I hit hard and bashed up my left knee, hip, elbow and shoulder. I was very sore after and quite p*ssed at the locals who just stared at me. No offer of assistance, nothing. I was angry because so often we show up in these places and we’re asked to pose in 100 photos, but as soon as the foreigner smashes himself into the ground they just stared at me. Anyway, with no time to sit about licking my wounds we headed off to do another pass at 2200m (we expected 2800m but it never materialised). I was very sore, and to make matters worse one of my saddle sores had burst and I now had a searing pain in my ass (literally) every stroke of the pedals. Fan-bloody-tastic.

After the pass we descended through a lush green and rocky valley on an insanely bumpy road. So bumpy in fact that both James and I broke panniers. My front right and James’ rear left. His was reparable, mine not. As a result I can’t use just one on the front now as the bike would be off balance, so that left me no choice but to bin a load of gear and cram everything into the rear bags. Not an ideal situation – the extra weight over the rear wheel could lead to damage, but we have no time for fixing such things and so I’ll have to make do with what I have. The upshot is that I binned the broken bag and its counterpart, along with my front rack and mudguard. Why carry the weight?! I’ve gotten my money’s worth at this stage.

After my second crash I made a mess of myself.

After my second crash I made a mess of myself.

I was pretty banged up all over.

I was pretty banged up all over.

And my shorts and jersey were torn.

And my shorts and jersey were torn.

After we cleared the valley it was like entering another world. As I mentioned above, we’d taken the northern route along the mountains to stay above 1500m to stay cool. Once we passed out of the valley, lush and green as it was, we hit 1000m and boom! The heat! Back to barren, dry, empty desert and a hot headwind. With only 25km to do downhill we couldn’t take the heat and had to hide from the sun in a petrol station for a while! We arrived in Hami after five days on the road we were ready for a day off, so we checked into a hotel for two nights.

The valley connecting the north and south routes. lovely

The valley connecting the north and south routes. lovely

One of the rare stretches of flat road on the way to Hami

One of the rare stretches of flat road on the way to Hami

Road to Hami

Road to Hami

James in action

James in action

No more front panniers

No more front panniers

I had to mount everything on the back.

I had to mount everything on the back.

And back into desert!

And back into desert!

I’m sorry to say the day off was uneventful, much like Urumqi. We were just too knackered! I love China so far. The food, the people, the cities. Everything about the country is great except for the poxy visa. If it was just 10 or 15 days longer we’d have the time to go a little slower and not be so exhausted when we stop. Instead we’re racing to write blogs, send emails, wash clothes, repair bikes, eat, rest and then hit the road again. It’s intense! Nevertheless, I’m still having great craic spotting people pointing us out to their friends and then waving like a madman at them “HOWIYE FOLKS!!!!! YES, I AM A FOREIGNER. YES, I DO HAVE BLOND HAIR!!!”. I’m not joking – I do this at least 20 times a day in cities. The locals love it though – they’re quite reserved and shy, always trying to catch a glimpse of us without getting caught. Then when they do get caught and I give a huge wave they love it and give a big cheery wave back. Makes me laugh every time.

The tan lines of a seasoned cycle tourist.

The tan lines of a seasoned cycle tourist.

So after a day of resting, blog writing, emailing, repairing, and healing up my wounds we were back on the road again, this time crossing the Hami desert heading towards Zhangye, about 900km away. I loathe deserts. I really do. They’re just hot, boring places to cycle and this stretch is no exception. What’s more is the services are really far apart. 130km in some spots. So our first day out of Hami was, well, dull. Desert, straight road, trucks, desert, straight road, sun, rinse, repeat. We stopped for a siesta in a pipe and when we emerged the wind had turned into a howling beast of a cross/headwind. To make it worse, this was “Devil’s Breath” – hot headwind. This was the worst wind I’d faced on the entire trip. Worse than Kazakhstan, worse than Wales. We crawled on for 3 hours into the night at 9kph and found a 0 star pipe under the road filled with human shite, rubbish and sand. Eugh.

Back on the road out of Hami. The view rarely changed.

Back on the road out of Hami. The view rarely changed.

Innovative trucker!

Innovative trucker!

The never changing view

The never changing view

It was so hot this guy put cardboard over his tyres to stop them melting!

It was so hot this guy put cardboard over his tyres to stop them melting!

There was a dead horse outside our pipe for lunch. Or what was left of a dead horse.

There was a dead horse outside our pipe for lunch. Or what was left of a dead horse.

The grim pipe we stayed in on the first night of the wind.

The grim pipe we stayed in on the first night of the wind.

The wind was so bad howling through the pipe that neither of us slept all night and the wind was worse in the morning. Normally we’d have started at 5am to get ahead of the wind but without sleep it wasn’t happening. We pushed on for 3 hours in the morning at 7kph and stopped in a dive of a truckstop where we were point blank refused service. To make things worse, the juicer kids were outside. WTF?! How did they get this far?! In that wind?! We got talking to them and it turns out they hitch hike some of the way so that explains how they were ahead of us each morning despite us overtaking them early in the day. Maybe not juicers after all!

Wind turbine blades on the road

Wind turbine blades on the road

This guy stopped for a chat while we rested from the wind.

This guy stopped for a chat while we rested from the wind.

2900km to Beijing

2900km to Beijing

Nothing to see here. Desert. Fun.

Nothing to see here. Desert. Fun.

We left the terrible truck stop after getting some pot noodles and supplies but after 8km the wind got the better of us and we bailed into a pipe under the road. It wasn’t much good as the wind was as bad in there, if not worse. We just needed to be out of the sun. To kill time and find some motivation I watched Rocky on my laptop.

As much as I enjoyed the movie, the motivation was lacking. The excitement of China has been wearing off, and although I’ve been able to dig deep so many times to get through the rough times, this time I hit bedrock. The tank was empty of positive thoughts, my head was down and I’d just had enough. On Facebook someone asked if it was worse than Wales. I’d say yes. Why? Well, in Wales I knew Winter had to pass. In Kazakhstan the desert was new and I knew it had an end point 500km away. With this I knew the area is prone to horrendous headwinds that last for weeks at a time and take many cyclists off the road and into trucks, or worse, they go home. I’ve heard of two separate cyclists doing so recently. With 1000km of desert remaining I was just filled with dread. Having been through this type of weather before several times, knowing how awful it is made things all the worse. The visa is tight, really tight. The headwind was blowing us off the road and there was little I could say to myself to get my head sorted.

During a break at the side of the road I checked my fundraising page and saw over €400 in new donations that day. They really couldn’t have come at a better time! I’m not saying these were the magic spark that reignited my engine, but I was reminded why I’m doing this: To raise money for CMRF. If it was easy, there wouldn’t be any donations. It’s the hard times that make this special. The hardest of times inspire people to donate to CMRF on my behalf. To those who donated that day, and to all who have donated, thank you. When the tank of positive thoughts is empty, I have the donations as backup. Thank you.

We bailed into another tunnel that night, got the head down and hoped things would improve when we woke. They didn’t. That f*cking wind was howling as strong as ever. What could we do? We’d only covered 63km in 7 hours the previous day. The schedule was f*cked now, so there was little point in hoping to recoup the lost distance. There was a town on the map 35km away so we just said feck it, we’ll grab a hotel there and hope the wind dies down overnight.

Desert. Pipe. Wind. Repeat.

Desert. Pipe. Wind. Repeat.

Only 5km up the road we met a Chinese cycle tourist on his own, battling into the wind. “Howza” (best attempt at spelling his name) was going the same was as us so we battled on together, covering the 35km in 4 hours. Eugh. We got food in the town and then. Then it happened. The whistling stopped. The flags stopped fluttering. The wind eased down! The town was an absolute dive, so we decided we’d prefer a pipe than paying for a room there. Howza was onboard so we headed off as a merry trio, not really sure how far we’d get. We managed to hammer out 100km in the afternoon, poor Howza on his mountain bike with fat tyres struggling to keep up, and into a hotel in the next town! A day behind schedule, but delighted to have made progress.

James' anti-wind setup

James’ anti-wind setup

Howza

Howza

Typical truckstop. Bleak.

Typical truckstop. Bleak.

Gansu! A new province!

Gansu! A new province!

A cute puppy I met at a truckstop

A cute puppy I met at a truckstop

Howza, farting I presume!

Howza, farting I presume!

One of the benefits of having a local with you: Checking into a hotel is easy! He got us into a tiny triple room for €6 each (the shower was electrified! We got shocks turning it on and off!!!), then reappeared with 9 beers between us. There’s no way I’d have 3 beers normally but he was such a nice guy and so happy to have foreigners for company we couldn’t refuse. That day we crossed from Xinjiang province into Gansu. Howza has never left Xinjiang in his life, so this was a big day for him. We exchanged photos and email addresses, listened to music and had a good laugh. He was a funny guy and after the misery of the previous couple of days he did a lot to lift my spirits. As Bruce Springsteen said: “Hard times come, hard times go”. I’ve banked this one away to get me out of the next low.

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The view rarely changes

The view rarely changes

But the kms go by

But the kms go by

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A rare chance to practice with no hands (and no helmet!)

A rare chance to practice with no hands (and no helmet!)

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The juicer kids were staying in our hotel, again! Arrrghhh!

The juicer kids were staying in our hotel, again! Arrrghhh!

Howza hit the road early in the morning heading for Dunhuang, whilst James and I, now a day behind schedule took an easy run of it doing only 80km to Guazhou. We’re skipping a planned rest day this week to make up for lost time and get back on track. We checked into a hotel and explored the town, and for the first time had the energy to enjoy seeing the place. Our previous 10 meals in a row (yes 10) were pot noodles with processed sausage, so we indulged ourselves with some local street food, it was fantastic! My long hair and beard have been too hot in the desert, so for the second time on the trip I got a haircut and shaved my beard. The experience in the barbers was quite funny. He didn’t quite understand what I wanted so I just let him cut away. The result wasn’t too bad!

Howza and our cozy room

Howza and our cozy room

Getting there!

Getting there!

Seen enough desert?!

Seen enough desert?!

Guazhou local

Guazhou local

Guazhou moped

Guazhou moped

Guazhou

Guazhou

Guazhou crazy local

Guazhou crazy local

Pre haircut

Pre haircut

Post haircut

Post haircut

So that brings me up to date. 1100km of highs and serious lows, steroid pumping kids, crashes, broken equipment, more sleeping in pipes than I care to remember, horrendous headwinds, new encounters and a load more money in the pot for CMRF. Sure what else could a cycle tourist ask for?!

I’ve about 2700km left. My aim is to be in Beijing on the 20th of August. If you’ve found my story interesting, inspiring, funny, depressing, boring, anything really, you’ve gotten this far. Maybe you’ll go a little further and donate to CMRF on my behalf. There are sick kids in that hospital who have it much much worse than I’ll ever have it on this trip. Spare them a few quid – 4 pints is €20. G’wan, you’ll feel better after donating than after those 4 pints 🙂

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5 Responses to Desert and the Devil’s Breath

  1. Xue says:

    You’ve encountered the dreaded “century egg”! I don’t know if it’s good news to hear or not, but they’re supposed to look like that 🙂 Meant to be more of a condiment for rice or porridge or whatever. Stranger here, been following the blog for only a month or so but love your photos and posts. When I first found you I went back and read everything in the archive. Ride on!

  2. You must love those perfect roads….

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