Closing out the land of the Dragon...
- Categorized in: May 2011
A decision was nagging my mind when I woke up a few hours’ after my high altitude night time escapades had reached their conclusion.
I had read about a “wonderfully scenic grassland” some way off route to the west in the middle of the Tian Shan, called Bayanbulak, where one was supposed to be able to “enjoy panoramic views of the snow-capped peaks in a natural amphitheatre of majestic beauty”. Etc., etc.
This had sounded like a nice change from the desert flats to the southwest but everyone I asked about this place on the road said it would be very cold. “You’re too early,” they would say. “July and August are the best times to go – the mountains will be green and the weather will be good. Now the weather is still very bad. It still snows up there.”
The previous day I took all this discouragement as mere grist to my mill of determination to go and see it all the same. But after the stress of my ordeal getting over the Shengli Daban pass, and knowing there were at least four other passes to get over on the route I intended, their advice carried a little more weight with me.
My legs didn’t feel particularly happy about the prospect of doing more climbing that day, and the chore of provisioning (and carrying) for four or five days of food felt like a tedious burden, especially in such a tiny town. The idea of four days of “fast noodles” was not tempting either, so I reverted to my original plan to continue on the main road to the city of Korla – joining the outer rim of the Taklamakan Desert once more.
The ride down out of the mountains on a flat grey day was a serious relief on my legs. I went long periods without needing to pedal which suited me fine – and I’d covered over 40km before I really had to engage in the ride. I felt happy though – and the short bursts of human contact, with the road community – of truckers, gas station attendants, fellow travellers along the road – were all fun and full of good humour and goodwill.
The landscape was nothing much to remark upon. I passed the time and distance to Korla (a little over 130km for the day) counting down the years from 2000 backwards to 1900, trying to remember as many historical facts or events about each year, as I passed each kilometre on the clock. I was quite surprised by some incredibly large gaps in my knowledge of 20th century history about what was happening in the world. For example, I can remember nothing about the year 1954 except a black and white shot of John Lennon sitting on a truck that I used to have as a poster on my wall, which had read “Hamburg 1954”. The 1920s were almost entirely empty other than “1924 Paris Olympics” and a couple of UK Statutes.
Anyway, this passed the time pretty well, and before I knew it I was down to the First World War, and then the birth of my grandfather in 1908. Amid happy recollections of this old rogue and the stories of his childhood antics, I crested a small hill and began freewheeling down into the city of Korla, one of the few big cities remaining on the road out of China.
Perhaps it was a response to the prospect of a decent rest and some good food in Korla after the stress of the evening before, but as the bike rolled along the tree-lined boulevard into the heart of the town, I found a wonderful clarity settle on my own heart. It’s hard to explain, but something like a self-conscious sense of firm healing after the recovery from a long-open wound. Maybe this isn’t the place to share this (and I was certainly surprised to feel this with such intensity at that particular moment), but it can seem that a broken heart is a terrible waste of time and emotional energy. I guess some of you are fortunate enough to have avoided a broken heart through your lives, and maybe an unbroken heart can love better than one that carries scars. But as I slowly went along, I caught a glimpse of the wilfulness, the purity and compassion with which a healed heart, one refined by pain, might be able to love again too. I had a sudden strong sense of the danger and fragility and preciousness of love to which a healed heart can bring the wisdom of its experience – even if it is the experience of a fool.
Is a healed world a better one than a world that never suffered? How do you learn compassion and love and sacrifice, or courage and perseverance in a world without pain or suffering or disease or death? Is this unfinished world in fact on the road to the best of all possible worlds after all – where those that want to be there will have learned finally and truly how to love?
I ended up taking two days’ off in Korla. It is a simple enough town – hardly remarkable in any way. The typical streets lined with restaurants, motor shops, banks and mobile phone shops are no different from countless others I’ve seen through China. Although deep in the heart of Xinjiang, it is reckoned to be a Han city – with over 70% of the population from this majority ethnic group.
I was staying in a pretty decent hotel – the first I came to - the main benefits of which were buffet dinners and breakfasts. The serving staff would bring cup after cup of coffee in the mornings as I sat and ate for well over three-quarters of an hour straight, practically rolling out into the lobby once I was finished.
Despite huge amounts of eating, I have lost considerable weight on this trip as you might imagine from 10 or 12 hour cycling sessions on most days. I’m sure that once upon a time God gave me a pair of triceps (and a pair of glutes to sit on) but try as I might I can’t find them anywhere. Instead, my entire body mass seems to be trans-morphing into an oversized pair of hamstrings and quads and calves. And these monsters demand food at any and every opportunity. However, I would say in their defence, that they earn their keep. There are times, 8 or 9 hours into a day, when I look down and marvel at these machines going on and on and on, while the rest of me thinks of different ways to amuse himself till we arrive at our destination. I do appreciate being along for the ride.
After a bit of a refit of various bits of kit on the bike, I was off again from Korla, speeding along to cover the 250km to the next town of Kuqa. It was a straightforward ride, settling into the rhythm and backdrop that would see out the rest of the journey all the way to Kashgar: following the line of mountain ranges on the right hand side to the north, and the flat empty expanse - sometimes of nothing, sometimes of far off oasis agriculture and irrigated land – to the left hand side and south. Late in the day a wind blew up which caused me some irritation, and with it a storm. But it didn’t last long and when it passed over it left the most dramatic and beautiful light falling on the mountains that I think I have ever seen.
The pictures speak for themselves, but I was amazed by the startling range of colours and different shades that appear from the ridges of rock that climbed away from me in the distance.
I broke up the ride by stopping for one night in a derelict collection of farm buildings to the side of the motorway. With the rising temperature as the spring moves towards summer, and my growing camping experience, this was a very comfortable night, and I awoke to find another fine day and a sympathetic wind, which got me to the city of Kuqa by early afternoon.
Kuqa has slightly more character than Korla, turning the demographic percentages on their head – more like 70% Uighur, 30% Han here, so I saw more of the kind of bazaar and food culture that is characteristic of the region of Kashgaria to the south. But in terms of places of interest, both the guide books I carry pretty much gave up when they came to Korla and Kuqa, and later Aksu. And frankly, I can see why.
Fine places though they are, they will not register as particularly notable laid against the grand spectrum of the rest of China – and indeed Xinjiang.
After another rainy rest day, I set off for the last big town before Kashgar. This one is called Aksu. Although the oasis spreading out from Kuqa stretched for a good 50 or 60km to the west, eventually it came to end and I moved into some of the hottest and deadest country I’d seen.
But it was certainly not empty. It seemed I’d reached the limit of the expressway construction that the Chinese masters of engineering have attained. Hundreds of workers driving trucks, diggers, steam rollers, welding, cutting, sweeping – you name it, it was going on, as the westward traffic was pushed out to the side onto rough tracks, full of potholes and grit and clouds of dust.
It was a hot and uncomfortable afternoon but I did make some good distance and came to a stop by a little house, which I hope might have been abandoned. In fact, the inhabitant appeared as I cycled towards it, and I stopped and asked him if I could set up my tent by his house. We couldn’t understand each other well, but I gathered he didn’t mind too much.
I have to admit I was feeling quite deflated and tired at the end of the day. When a minivan-load of labourers from further down the road appeared (I think to take on water to take back to their camp), they crowded round and wanted to know the usual details about what I was up to. I struggled to raise any enthusiasm and almost couldn’t be bothered to say anything – which didn’t feel like me at all. They left when I said I was going to have a wash – a miserable endeavour, trying to clean several hours of dirt and dust from my body and hair with half a mess-tin full of water.
I didn’t sleep well, but left early while there was a bit of rain spitting down. This soon cleared up though and I pushed on and on till about 50km out from Aksu when the desert turned back into oasis again. This was quite an enjoyable section of riding, as the air cools considerably in amongst the trees and of course human life and activity carries on busily within the oasis, while out in the wilderness there are none of these distractions.
It seemed I was passing through on a market day in one little town, and for several kilometres before I reached the marketplace I passed family after family loaded up with their wares, perched or cramped on rickety little wooden carts drawn by donkeys, heading off to find a good bargain with their countrymen.
There was almost a carnival atmosphere amongst them all – the women dressed up in their colourful dresses and headscarves, children sucking on lollipops they’d been given to make them behave, live sheep with their feet bound slung across the back or live poultry hanging upside on racks strapped to the back of little motorbikes – with man, wife and child jammed on the seat.
I passed the focal point to which they were all headed which was already a melée of bartering and chatter as the little groups started to arrive and set up shop.
I suppose I should have stopped and taken a look, but they all looked like they were managing fine without me, and I was within 25km now of arriving at Aksu.
Although I was delighted to have reached Aksu, the final big town before reaching Kashgar, I arrived on a burning hot afternoon, and once I’d got set up in a hotel, there I stayed flat out on my back for most of the afternoon.
Unfortunately during the course of that nap I took a turn for the worse – either from mild food poisoning or, more likely, just plain bodily exhaustion. Whatever it was I felt pretty hideous for the rest of the day, struggling even to move about my room. Taking this lapse as a cue for scheduling an extra rest day, I resigned myself to the fact that all I could do was lie there in the cool of my room and wait till I felt better.
The next day my stomach felt better but I was still exhausted and continued to sleep most of the day, venturing out for a short walk in the late afternoon before scurrying back for more rest. The following day I awoke feeling, if not a new man, at least considerably less worn out and had the energy to do some writing and even break out the Russian grammar book I’ve brought along for the next section of the trip.
Consequently, I saw absolutely nothing of Aksu, and the little I did see when I pedalled my way out of town the next morning made me think I hadn’t missed much.
Feeling pretty deflated and lacking in the sort of spritely energy that is required to cover the remaining 500-odd km to Kashgar, I quite quickly found myself leaving the fields and trees behind again and heading out into the exposed pale heat of the hazy sun. But to my growing delight, I realised that although the wind was building, in fact it was more or less behind me.
I can now happily tell you what desert cycling can be like – and indeed should be like if only everything went one’s way. Out in an exposed wind like that, without too much effort I was zipping along at speeds of 35kph and higher, watching the miles and miles of otherwise uninviting sands getting eaten up on my distance meter. It felt like I was riding on a little motorbike.
Everything was good on this day – which just goes to show, I never know what a day will bring. The ones that start very well, often end up incredibly tough, and the ones when I can barely motivate myself to start pedalling, can end up, like this one, being glorious.
At this speed, I could appreciate the rugged beauty of these desolate places, broken intermittently by tiny towns where I’d continue to be well received at little wayside diners or service stations. At one point, a car pulled up in front of me and three people got out signalling me to pull over. I duly obliged, and almost without a word, they thrust an ice cold bottle of coke and a moderate sized watermelon into my hands; and then immediately jump back in their car. The coke I appreciated. A watermelon – as you might imagine – is a little more problematic to factor into my carefully crafted luggage system. In the end I rigged it up with a couple of plastic bags, tied to my A-frame between my legs. I wondered whether it looked as odd as it felt.
Even though people remain very friendly, communication becomes harder as I reach these more remote areas of Xinjiang where even simple words of Mandarin are hard to convey. But as the afternoon brightness turned into a softer evening light, I was still flying along, passing 200km done in a single day. Late in the day I was joined by a Uighur on his motorbike who was happy to cruise along at my speed and take in the beautiful scenes around him (not me, the mountains!).
I ended up staying the night in a very busy little strip of a town that was entirely geared up to service the road traffic that flowed through it. Trucks queued for miles to be weighed before heading on into Kashgaria, and chefs and their skivvy boys and girls from the endless row of diners did their best to solicit the potential customers under their roof.
All any of these seem to serve is laghman – a fairly plain bowl of noodles with a few peppers, tomatoes, some scraps of mutton and onions that may be tasty the first couple of times you eat it, but after three or four bowls within a couple of days, this comes to be quite sickening. Especially since I know Uighur food can be very varied and interesting – and delicious.
I shacked up at the local Han motel, where I fared much better. There were several engineers and labourers staying there, some for quite lengthy periods of time, as they were engaged in surveying and planning the “big new road” that was being extended down from Kuqa all the way to Kashgar. A couple of them seemed pretty smart and told me about their families back east – as far as Shanghai and Qingdao (both on the east coast of China). I was a bit surprised when they said they were only allowed home once every 6 months, for a couple of weeks. That doesn’t sound much fun for them or their wives and kids, and I couldn’t imagine the missus being that keen to fly out to Kashgar (with child) to come and hang out in the desert.
Anyway, they were kind to me and let me join in with their meal times – which usually is when all conversation falls silent as everyone concentrates on filling mouths and bellies. I suppose because of the language barrier with the Uighur folks, I felt a much greater level of familiarity with these Han pioneers (if you could call them that) simply because we could say much more to each other.
Maybe they felt as foreign in that place as I do.
Since there was a bit of a downpour in the morning, I ended staying an extra day in that little truckers’ town and greatly enjoyed myself. I spent several hours’ writing, but then loafing about between diners, talking to the engineers and admiring the dramatic rock formations that rose up just behind the shallow row of buildings on the north side of the road – appearing out of the ground almost as an after-thought as if merely to decorate the general scene.
But the following day was a brilliant blue sky again and I was on the road and making distance well before noon. The wind wasn’t quite so kind to me that day, but it was nothing compared to winds I have faced further east. The mountains to my right continued to be startlingly beautiful, and I did my best to stop and record some of these with my little camera.
With a good deal of hubris in mind, I thought I may be able to reach Kashgar that evening just around nightfall. I got to about 6pm – with potentially 4 hours or more of daylight still left and only 100km to do. But – as you can see from my photos – at almost precisely 6 o’clock a big wind blew up from the north west, kicking up and lot of sand from beside the road and generally making things unpleasant.
Half an hour of this more or less broke my ambitions of enjoying a cold beer in Kashgar that evening, and my legs started feeling very weary and heavy after more than 150km done.
Still fighting the wind, I drew into a service station for a rest, to get out of the wind, which was cold now, and have a drink. The gas station itself wasn’t yet in service but there were a few people inside. Another work team who were engaged in fitting out the building, and who were sleeping in bunk rooms while they were doing it. One of them persuaded me to stay with them – he showed me a bed and said I could share their dinner. The next town was only 40km away, but after a couple more words from him, I figured it would be good just to lie down.
So after getting washed and having food with them, I crashed into my little bunk and slept for about 12 hours (on and off), dreaming of the number 85 all night – the number of kilometres left to cycle in this massive country.
My final day of riding in China started very calmly. The wind of the previous evening had died down and I went quite steadily along watching each kilometre pass with a growing sense of delight.
I did not go fast. I could not. My legs were sensing that their job was nearly over – at least for a little while – and I was happy to take my final eyefuls of China, of the Taklamakan, of road 314, of Kashgaria, and the rural population, riding along on carts perched lazily on top of their loads, or standing out in orchards and little fields wearing the distinctive black and white pointy hats that are characteristic of the Kyrgyz that also live in this region.
I stopped by a bridge to have a rest and eat something. I looked back behind me and could see the line of mountains that I’d been following trailing off, further and further into the distance till they disappeared in the haze below the horizon. The open expanse of the desert to the south seemed to loom out at me, enveloping me. It is a curious sensation and one that is difficult to explain. There is a ghastliness about looking back into this hostile landscape once you have passed through it. A kind of nausea – perhaps akin to vertigo – where I had the feeling of being sucked back into the desert out of which I was emerging. I struggled to believe that only minutes before I’d been back on that horizon, or days before even hundreds of kilometres back that way – buried under the weight of the Taklamakan’s draw. Maybe that is why I was so hard on myself to keep going and going over these past weeks. I felt a sense that I was making an escape, lest I be sucked back in and never get out.
And yet, once I turned my head forward again, these tricks of the mind lifted and I would continue on as before.
Off in the distance ahead, the hazy clouds seem to coalesce and solidify before my eyes, and I suddenly realised I was looking not at clouds but at mountains. Great white monsters of land that rose up to the west, a vast apparently impassable barrier that looked down, as if with the detached haughtiness of the old gods of Olympus, down at we mere mortals and these little wrinkles of rock and sand that we dared call mountains.
Gradually they drew closer and closer, till I was finally free-wheeling down the last 15km into the busy city of Kashgar itself – which even from the road, seemed like a world away from the Asiatic metropoli of Urumqi, Xi’an, Shanghai and Beijing. A chaotic melting pot of donkey-drawn carts, scooters, blaring buses and sickly green taxis jostling for their place on the road, as the crowd of market goers and children overflowed from the sidewalks into the street.
As the wheels spun, I had time to thank God for bringing me this far. And still do. What an amazing journey he’s brought me on – and through.
The white mountains stood silent and unchanging behind the city, looking almost close enough to reach out and touch, they are visible from every street.
So there I was – here I am – in this fascinating city, wildly different to any other I have ever been to, reflecting on what I have just done, taking in the colours and smells and tastes of this strange town, and turning my mind to the journey to come. I am delighted to be here.
My maps of the vast empty tracts of China now have a solitary scratchy biro trace wending its way across their surface. A line that in itself shows very little, yet it means so much to me. I can now fold them up and send them home, ready for the day when I pull them out again and remind myself of the time when I cycled 7,000km across China.
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