Beyond the Wall......towards Dunhuang
- Categorized in: April 2011
Sometimes in life we are given glimpses of what might be in the hereafter. There are visions of heaven, and there are visions of hell.
As for me, I now believe I have seen a form of my own personal purgatory (which I will do all I can to avoid). It is essentially very simple. A straight road, a flat and empty landscape, a bicycle and a 40mph headwind. With these few elements, it would not be long before I would be reduced to wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Passing through the last of the Great Wall at Jiayuguan, Gansu province
About midway through the first morning setting out from Jiayuguan, the comfort of the sun-baked mud walls of the final outpost of Imperial China swallowed up in the dust some way behind me, it did occur to me that this was a lesson I should take to heart. As we all know, that which does not kill us only makes stronger (as some armchair philosopher no doubt remarked, as he poured himself another brandy – which probably did kill him in the end). But that doesn’t make the lesson any more enjoyable.
As dust blew in my face, trucks and cars blared their horns, pushing past me merrily on their way, oblivious to the lashing gusts of wind that whipped their windscreens. My legs turned the crank agonisingly slowly against the force of air holding me back, and my speed was reduced to as little as 10kph. With a journey of roughly 130km to do for the day, it was not difficult arithmetic to realise this would be a very long day.
With little external stimuli either to describe to you or to distract myself from the stark reality in which I had placed myself, I had two choices. Let the mental walls of resolution collapse and allow despair through the breach. Or go to my “happy place”.
It had to be the latter of course. Now, my particular “happy place” happens to be an Austrian lake in the Salzkammergut called Lake Hallstatt, not many miles outside of Salzburg. A curiously detached location from the wind-blasted Chinese desert you may think, but I can assure you it is a place of immense beauty and tranquillity – which was just what was needed.
So I imagined the happy day when I would wheel my weary bicycle up to the quietly-lapping waters of this airy idyll some months hence and settle down to cool my feet in its shallows. It is no great flight of imagination to go from this place to the music that surrounds it – namely of course the Sound of Music. So began in my head (and when I could manage it out loud) a medley of childhood songs such as the Lonely Goatherd, Edelweiss, My Favourite Things, as well as other Julie Andrews’ renditions like “It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary” from Mary Poppins. (Judge not these childhood songs until you place yourself in a similar situation and see where your mind must take you!)
This last one I found particularly ironic and began to compose a variation on the theme for myself. It goes something like this, to the same tune of course:
Ain’t it a hideous day?
Is there anything more I can say?
I feel like I could die
‘Ave you ever seen
A wind so mean?
Or a blacker sky?
Oh, it’s a jolly holiday with Theo
Theo makes your ‘eart so light
When the dust is blowing in your ear’ole
Theo makes it seem alright!
Oh, tumbleweed is chasing all around us
The heat is pounding on us from above
When Theo takes your ‘and
You feel so grand
Tho’ the wind is beatin’
Like a big brass band
Oh, it’s a jolly holiday with Theo
No wonder that it’s Theo that we love!
Hard to believe, but all this make-believe did work wonders, up to and well beyond lunch time. But as the sun gradually arced its relentless way over my head and starting dropping in front of me, eventually exhaustion and frustration started to creep in. In fact I found it hard to believe (and very unfair) that in the afternoon the wind picked up even more, becoming so strong that there were a number of times it nearly blew me physically off the road.
Suffice to say, I have been well and truly humbled by nature. There was a time during my final year at Cambridge when I was trying to get into the University rowing team. An injured wrist had forced me from the river so I had to do my training by cycling around the Fens while the rest of the squad continued on the river. Now although the desert west of Jiayuguan makes the Fens look like a soaring landscape of paradisiacal bliss, in fact the Fens are by no means interesting cycling terrain. I recall fighting my way into a pretty violent headwind for 5km or so along a straight fenland road before I was able to turn out of it in the lee of a dyke. When I got to the end I was a boiling cauldron of bile, bitterness and frustration and I remember shaking my fist to the skies at the God I did not then believe in, telling him all sorts of fanciful things about himself and how he wasn’t going to beat me after all. This despite the fact that if asked I would have told you belief in God was a delusion. How many of us have done the same I wonder?
Anyway, this time round there was no cursing the heavens, although I admit some expletives slipped out when the wind got the better of me and I feared I was heading for the ditch. Around 5pm I had a puncture. I was so tired and so far from my intended destination I couldn’t even raise a complaint. I just diligently fixed it and struggled onward.
In fact the puncture proved timely since a few kilometres further on, I happened to be past (very slowly) by a digger returning home from a day’s work. Being sufficiently slow that I could catch him up with a quick burst of effort I settled in to draft behind him. Truly a Godsend I wondered how far he was going but relishing every metre he saved me. In the end he only went about 7 or 8 km but it was enough to lift me so the last part of the day – still another 40km and another 2 ½ hours.
The sun setting on a very tough day - still with 40km to go
It was well into the night-time by the time I finally arrived at the town I was determined to reach – called Yumenzhen. I was physically shattered, mentally worn down, humbled….but there.
However, it was another hour or more of traipsing around the town being passed from hotel to hotel told either that they had no rooms or else they were not permitted to take foreigners. When I thought I’d exhausted all options, it started to rain. Beyond caring, I thought I’ll just go try the hotel which another hotel had called and understood to be full. Of course, it wasn’t.
So, with feelings of elation trying to break through my exhaustion, I checked in and got installed in a beautiful room. When I looked in the mirror, I don’t ever recall seeing such a sight! I was absolutely filthy – caked in dust and sunscreen (a truly horrific sight) – I could have used a trowel to remove all the dirt from my eyes and ears, and my hair was like muddy straw.
This picture doesn't really manage to convey how filthy I was...
Broken, I fell asleep in a lovely warm bath.
I’ll skip over the next couple of days rather quickly. I left Yumen quite late in the day having given myself as good a sleep as I could manage. It seemed clear to me I wouldn’t make the next town so I was prepared to camp that night.
It was still a very hard day but the wind had lightened and it was manageable. Different problems began to arise instead. Perhaps inevitably, I have been increasingly struggling with “saddle soreness” – which roughly translates to an unbelievably raw bottom. On this second day towards Dunhuang, it felt particular tender and it was pure joy, during one or two of my breaks in the empty wilderness when no cars had yet appeared on the horizon, to pull down my pants and let the cool wind gently caress my bottom. Sweet respite – though I must have looked a curious sight.
Whether you find this an unsavoury topic or not, I’m afraid the management of one’s posterior region is essential to the successful continuation of a journey like this. I do what I can with all manner of creams (and air ventilation when I get the chance), and I am acutely aware of the risks of messing this up. Again back in my Cambridge days, I was once rowing in a crew of four during the summer months in preparation for Henley Royal Regatta – the big domestic rowing event in England. One crew member (who shall remain nameless) failed to maintain a tight regime of good cleanliness by wearing sweaty rowing shorts for long periods in the day. (By his account) an ingrown hair turned into a pimple, which turned into a boil, which then turned into an abscess, which then turned into a sort of open wound. By the wound stage of this sorry progression, he had taken to sitting on a cushion on his seat in the boat. (This is not normal in rowing practice I assure you.) I suppose in the interest of good crew solidarity and by way of explanation, our friend did reveal this wound to us in its latter days. We all stood around peering at his bare bottom as he carefully removed the pustulent dressing. There was a certain horrific fascination at the terrible sight he revealed. It looked like a bullet wound that had been infected by a flesh-eating bacteria and then operated on by a drunken surgeon.
As I finally tore my eyes from their morbid fixation on the remains of that part of his buttock, I thought to myself, “It’s no bloomin’ wonder we can’t balance this stupid boat!”
With this lesson in mind, I am careful that my more tender parts should avoid a similar fate.
That evening, the wind dropped and I made better progress but still came up short of the town of Anxi, where I would leave Route 312 and head south-west towards Dunhuang. I ended up spending the night in an abandoned hovel a few hundred metres from the highway, hidden from sight from the road by dead ground. It proved remarkably fit for purpose for an itinerant cyclist passing through, barring the odd nasty looking spider and some overly friendly flying ants for company.
My set-up inside the abandoned hovel I found 30km short of Anxi, Gansu province
I slept well, rose early and was into Anxi for breakfast. With only 100km or so to reach Dunhuang, I was optimistic about making it. That day the wind had swung round on my back, for most of the morning at least, and despite the heat and the utter barrenness of the surroundings, I was in good spirits and made good time to within around 40km of Dunhuang.
A beautiful road, but not much else - within 80km of the oasis of Dunhuang, Gansu province
What I didn’t know, as I took my little breaks underneath the road in the shade of storm channels along the way, was that the hottest part of the day here is not noon time through the early afternoon, but actually 4 – 7pm. So as the day wore on, making Dunhuang became one of those awful exercises in perpetual motion. I forget which Greek mathematician came up with the idea of the maths problem about the impossibility of a body in motion reaching a destination because it always has half the distance again to complete (not clearly explained I’m sorry). For me, this problem manifested itself by a continual drop in speed. With 25km to go, I was travelling at 25kph; with 20km to go, at 20kph; with 18km to go, at 18kph; with 15km to go, at 15kph, and so on, ad sickening nauseam. At all times it seemed I had one more hour on the road, and frankly I didn’t want to be anywhere but in the shade and off the road at that point.
I fixed my eye on the horizon (along the dead straight road) just under the brow of my cap (which was powerless against the fiercest heat of the day) and just kept turning the crank. Eventually, wonderfully, painfully, I was passing trees, and irrigated fields, and drainage ditches and buildings, and an airport, and then hotels and finally the busier streets of the town of Dunhuang itself.
I had made it. 390km in three days in the most brutal conditions I have yet faced. I don’t know how I did this, or why I made myself do this in this time. I just did it.
Too exhausted even to be happy to have made it - collapsed in the shade of a drinks shop in Dunhuang
I stopped at the first drinks shop I came to and bought 2 litres of water – half of which went down my throat and the rest was used to wash the dirt off my face, hands and legs (not wanting a repeat of the unfriendly welcome of Yumen). I then just sat in the shade for 20 minutes, breathing. Not even thinking.
I’ll leave a description of the culture and history of Dunhuang for the next article. It’s enough to say, I will spend three days resting here. The first day and a half have now past I have done little other than sleep and recover from mild heat exhaustion from the third day.
But I’m feeling better now. Drink, drink, drink, drink……and then drink some more. And then apply lotion of course. Two vital maxims for the next few weeks I think!
Since it is a proud day to be a subject of Her Majesty The Queen, I wish everyone in the UK a fun day celebrating the wedding of our favourite Prince and his lovely bride. I hope you and they are spared the rain!
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