After Xining things start changing – again! We have gone from Qinghai Province and back into Gansu. Minarets are popping up and men are wearing skull caps and the woman are covering their hair with scarves (mainly made of lace fabric).
We are near Tibet so there are lots of grasslands but the houses are getting a Muslim look about them. Lunch at a small town has snow-capped peaks all around us and we are again the main attraction.
Ploughing is in full force as the growing summer season must be so short here. We are yet to hit double figures so it is cool riding as we ascend and there is lots of snow still on the ground. The river is frozen as we get higher and the road is spectacular – surface and views.
We come out of a long, dark tunnel and it is white everywhere – snow for miles and very barren. Lots of trucks to keep us on our toes and we stop often. As we come through a toll gate we come across a 50-pack camel train – they are going from Xi’an to Horgas – the same as us – but they will take two years and we are taking two weeks!!
They all talk to us and wave – it would be good to be able to google and find out all about them! After another spectacular pass we come down onto a vast plateau and very intensive farming – much more mechanised as tractors dot the fields everywhere. The roads are all lined with poplars – leaves very fresh, and we are definitely in a food bowl – hundreds of hot-houses made with one u-shaped clay wall and then plastic covering to keep in the heat and moisture. After dinner in Zhangye we walk into around 300 line dancers covering a whole street corner – great entertainment.
We visit a Buddhist temple before leaving Zhangye – the city square opposite the entrance had us enthralled with tai chi groups, a woman doing a dance with a sword and men practicing calligraphy using foam brushes on sticks and water for ink – I got invited to have a go!
The landscape becomes very dry, desert-like and straight as we head up the Hexi Corridor – an important part of the Silk Road. We have the huge Qilian mountains flanking our left – all with snow caps. We visit the Great Wall via Jiayuguan and a fort – parts have been restored – but we learn a lot from the museums and walking around. Quite different to what we’ve seen in Beijing. Afterwards we tried to ride nearer to photograph the bikes next to the wall but it was too hard!
It didn’t take long for the desert to start after Zhangye – it started off hazy and as we progressed right into the Gobi Desert, the wind picked up and visibility was down to between one and three kilometres – quite eerie and surreal. Never been in a real desert before!
We had periods of weird landforms and going past hundreds and hundreds of wind turbines in neat rows – then it just became quite flat and almost like a crushed metal laid on the ground with a layer of fawn-coloured sand and fine dust over the top. Sand was drifting over the highway and the wind was quite gusty at times. We could find the sun and look at it without hurting our eyes! We turned off to Dunhuang on a brand new highway and you started to wonder why people would even want to live out here!! Wang tells us this is spring winds and haze and once the rain comes it clears up! We visit the famous Mogao Grottoes just outside town where Buddhists started making caves over a thousand year period for meditation and worship. Inside each cave the walls and ceilings are entirely hand painted and tell stories of the time along with the statues. There is a huge history here but basically foreigners came in and got hold of most of the valuable manuscripts found in a sealed section in the early twentieth century and it wasn’t until the 50’s that China started realising the historical significance of the place and have started preserving it.
We are staying in Dunhuang – once a commercial hub for the Silk Road – in a guesthouse right below a huge sand dune! A day off and a walk up is on the cards..
For over an hour after leaving Dunhuang we don’t turn a corner – completely straight road! There has been some rain which has cleared the dust and provided an exquisitely clear morning and no wind. The desert has a new look and on this leg there isn’t a giant power pylon in sight!!
An accident brings us to a halt – two cars have had a head on – unbelievably on a road where you can see for miles. There are bodies laid out on the road and the ambulance is yet to arrive. It is carnage and they want us to go up on the desert sands and skirt the scene. We have lots of kilometres to cover and so we meet the desert highway once more – with an ever-changing landscape. Once we change provinces again, English goes from the signs and is replaced with Arabic and Chinese – thank God we have a guide!
Mid afternoon we see a strange weather front ahead and what looks like spot fires – these turn out to be little whirlwinds which are whipping the sand and dust up into the atmosphere! Next thing we know we are riding through a sand storm – incredible gusts of wind and sand lashing at us and the road! There is no stopping in this – just keep riding through it! I keep my bike in fourth gear and a speed of around 70kmh and concentrate on staying upright! At times there is no visibility at all but we make it through and eventually cover 730km and arrive in Shanshan for the night.
Filling up with fuel the next day we find all the gas stations with barricades and checks – Wang has to sign us all in with his rego number and details. The reason is Muslims have been blowing up fuel stations randomly in the last year in Xinjiang Province using scooters – so in this town they are taking it seriously! Normally the bikes have to be pushed into the station and filled with large teapots but Wang talks them in to letting us ride in. The desert is so diverse and we have another brilliant day to ride.
With a short distance to Turfan we get to do the “old” city in the afternoon – an interesting ancient relic of the “Silk Road” days where you can really get the essence for the era. Turfan is quite Muslim – the people are friendly and we enjoy weaving through the traffic and taking in the new sights.
We check in to an International Youth Hostel and are able to park our bikes right in the main area. The local museum has been recommended and has some worthwhile exhibits. They have basically raped and pillaged the local cemeteries and put everything on display – the mummies were quite fascinating (you could even see tattoos on the skin!!) and the detailing on the clothes, shoes and jewellery was exquisite for 3rd – 6th century AD. The memorable item for me was a pair of linen shoes – almost like macrame in their makeup – so much handwork. We have a Silk Road Dry Red Wine with our dinner to celebrate our travels and share it with Patrick, a lovely Swiss guy we met at the hostel.
The highway to Urumqui is covered in a staggering number of wind turbines and our need for fuel becomes a real issue when every fuel stop starts refusing to sell it to us. We limp in to the city after being refused at 6 stations! There’s an armed barricade at the city limits and we have to show passports. Paul has a gash in his rear tyre so has it replaced and while we are waiting, Wang goes off to the police station with our passports and Chinese licences to get us a clearance to get fuel! So when we pull in to the next fuel station – they ring the police to check who we are! Wang keeps saying that Muslims are “dangerous” and you can tell he’s not real happy in this part of the country! Urumqui is the “centre” of Asia and we are the furtherest we could ever get in the world from an ocean – 2,500kms!! It is like Chinese Labour Day weekend and the hotels are all full so we push on to the next town. Our hotel has riot shields and helmets in the foyer and there is bullet-proof glass for the office girl! Anyone would think we should start to get paranoid!! Paul even spots an armoured riot wagon with armed guard looking round from the turret!
We move on along the desert highway to Jinghe and decide to have two nights. We are a day’s ride from the Kazakstan border and a whole new country – it is almost overwhelming to think we have ridden over 8,000km across China!! It has been an amazing journey with so many sights, interesting people and places. The roads have been 98% paved and easy – the only “broken” roads were being replaced as we rode on them. China’s infrastructure – the scale of it and the funds made available for it – is absolutely staggering!!
And we can’t leave China without another mention of our guide, Wang! Without him we would not have experienced all the amazing foods, talked so easily with the people, got through the toll gates on to highways, negotiated with the police, made possible the best hotel rates….the list goes on! He is always there to move my bike when I find it difficult and it is always “no problem”! I will miss him for his gentlemanly ways, as a fellow rider and as a friend…
So we have been on the desert highway for a long, long way. Mr Wang is in foreign territory – he has never been to this part of China before. We have had a group discussion at lunch and have decided to stay in a smaller town – so we are looking for Jinghe. There is nothing around us for miles – just desert and the ever-present mountains on our left. He indicates right at an exit which apparently says Jinghe (it is written in Arabic and Chinese!) and then pulls over. There is some abandoned buildings and not much else. He comes running back to us with this memorable look on his face and is saying “City….it is lost!!” Pete looks up his GPS and we should be getting off at the next exit – some 10kms down the road! Jinghe appears and all is well. So ends the tale of Mr Wang and the city that got lost….
WHAT DID WE LEARN ABOUT CHINA?!
Tourism is all domestic – they love to see their own country.
There are no obese people!
You don’t see people in wheelchairs.
Paul thinks they drive like they are still on bicycles – just ring your bell and look forward!
The Chinese fascination with devices and photography – they have no hobbies really so this is it!
Bring all the electric scooters to the north west as the issue with fuel is beyond ridiculous!
Always expect to be the centre of attention!
There really seems to be no unemployment.
You don’t have to eat gut, bugs and unmentionables when you have a Chinese-speaking guide!
Unforgettable – that’s what China is….