The Slough of Despond...
- Categorized in: May 2011
For all its appeal, after my three days in Dunhuang, I was keen to get away. Knowing what an effort it had been to reach the place, leaving it felt like a kind of break-out. If you look at the map, you will see the road I had to take to get back to the main east/west highway into Xinjiang is perhaps the straightest 130km of the entire length and breadth of China (at least the parts that I’ve passed).
Looking back towards Dunhuang
Setting out shortly after 6am to beat the wind (which sometimes works), I was on this relentless strip of tarmac by about 7am. Either side of me flat nothingness, in front of me the road disappeared into a mirage pool and behind me the green trees of the Dunhuang oasis quickly fell under the horizon. This was not interesting riding so I imagine it would make even less interesting reading if I described it to you. Suffice to say the ride was occasionally broken up by mobile phone pylons appearing on the horizon – an hour later I would still be approaching them. After about 25km I’d finally pass them.
Looking ahead - down the road towards Liuyuan
The only other thing to say is that in the final 20km into the railway depot town of Liuyuan, the landscape changed into a dead wilderness of low black shale hills which had all the poetic appeal of a Slough housing estate. Although I’d made the distance pretty quickly, I didn’t anticipate a memorable stay as I rolled slowly into this dirty little settlement which was mainly made up of railway sidings and messy shops and food kitchens, slop spilling out liberally onto the street under my wheels. On this occasion, I was a bit irritated by the open-mouthed vacant looks I received as I weakly made my way along the only street looking for a hotel. Evidently, Liuyuan doesn’t often receive visitors, and I am not about to encourage that to change.
The hotel I found was rather over-priced but at least comfortable and I settled in for a good afternoon nap which more or less continued on into the night. It was broken only by a little light reading of my guidebook which told me that the next portion of the Silk Road was so barren, bereft of water and habitation and so demoralising that one of the heroes of its history, the Buddhist monk Xuan Zang became so despondent that he nearly turned back from his great “journey to the west”.
Xuan Zang was a monk who lived in Xi’an (then called Chang’An – the imperial capital) during the 7th century AD during the Tang Dynasty. He set out on what proved to be a 15 year quest to India (and then Sri Lanka) to obtain the entire collection of Buddhist scriptures, which he intended to bring back to China and complete the first full Chinese translation of these texts, for the edification and benefit of his countrymen who were just beginning to take on this religion. In the end, after many thrilling adventures, he proved successful, and on his return to Chinese territory, the Tang emperor despatched a guard of honour which accompanied him from the imperial frontier all the way back to the capital of Chang’An (modern day Xi’an). Here he was further honoured by the emperor who built the Da Yan Ta - the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (one of Xi’an’s historical sites) – as the monk’s new seat of learning and a home for his precious Buddhist scriptures. This story was immortalised in a 14th century novel called “Journey to the West” which is obligatory reading for every Chinese student. In the novel, the monk is accompanied by several remarkable companions including the Monkey King – “Monkey” - and a trident-wielding pig – “Piggsy”. (English men and women of a certain age will remember these characters well from the tea-time TV programme of their childhood.)
Statues of Xuan Zang and his companions Monkey and Piggsy by the Yellow River in Lanzhou
Anyway, reading that this fearless pilgrim came close to packing it all in on the road between Dunhuang and Hami strangely served to encourage me. It seemed to acknowledge what I was feeling – that this was not easy. Right now, not even fun. But of course, that’s what makes it an adventure.
The following day I had rather less distance to cover and again was labouring into a headwind – this time with the added bite of my first (ever!) rain showers which occasionally strayed into sleet. My hands were so cold it would take me close to a minute to do up my flies after a – ahem – comfort stop. This often took even longer because I would burst into laughter at my scrabbling fingers’ pathetic efforts.
I am learning that the best approach during these kind of situations is to slip my brain into neutral – as far as this is possible. Either that or listen to one of the audiobooks I have on my ipod. (One of the many advantages I have over Xuan Zang.)
So as I listened to the story of the young man Chris McCandless (“Into the Wild”) who comes to a sorry end in the Alaskan bush, having chosen a life of alternative adventure, rejecting the pursuit of a conventional life, I suppose it made me reflect on my own situation. The landscape was not conducive to coming up with positive conclusions. Bleak, cold and windswept – the ground surface continued to be covered in black shale and occasionally the contours would undulate and rise up into low craggy hills. There was barely a hamlet to break up the monotony of the road all day. By the end of the day, I felt less affinity for a man like McCandless and his romanticizing of the wild and solitude than I ever have. But there were some lessons to be drawn.
While most people are unlikely to find themselves alone and toiling through sleet and hale in a barren wasteland to continue progressing towards the achievement of their goal, I’m sure everyone goes through times when life may feel like that. I am cycling from one side of the world to the other. But the challenge might be starting a business or writing a book, completing a finance deal or setting up a charity, raising a child or building a marriage or relationship (or even getting over a broken heart), training for a sporting challenge or simply finishing your work shift. The sleet whips your face, big over-ladden trucks with unnecessarily loud horns threaten to ride you into the ditch, your legs are tired and the end (or any kind of destination) is nowhere in sight. But you’ve got to keep that little crank turning, and turning…..and forward you will go. I was reminded of a lesser known Winston Churchill quote – “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Sage advice, whatever it is you are doing.
Despite this, even just a little perspective shows that it is overcoming sections like this that really makes this whole enterprise worth doing. If it was all easy, could I say the same thing?
Quite early in the afternoon I reached an equally sorry little settlement called XingXingXia. This was the first town in the final western province of China – Xinjiang (meaning “New Frontier”). Except to call it a town is being generous. It was really no more than a collection of petrol stations and a small row of low buildings containing a few mechanic shops, a dirty little restaurant and a small shop – and behind these a so-called “jiudian” – a kind of truckers’ lodging place.
There was precious little to see or do once I’d eaten and cleaned up a bit using cold water in the plastic bowl that I eventually persuaded the landlady to lend me. I went to sleep as soon as it was dark resolving get away as soon as I could in the morning.
It was at least a pleasant morning when I awoke, and I quickly discovered that there was no food to be had so early in the day. Just wanting to put this place behind me, I got everything ready and set off.
So began a long long day – but a successful one. From XingXingXia to the city of Hami – one of the fertile oasis towns of Xinjiang – is a distance of 200km. As I set out I had no intention or expectation that I could get that done in one day, but by lunchtime, with nice flat going and a bit of a tailwind behind me I was already within 100km. My spirits were further lifted by the appearance of a snow-capped range of mountains off to the north – the Karlik range. I don’t know why but these had an amazingly positive effect on my morale – I suppose because it felt like progress after all that black emptiness.
First glimpse of the Karlik Range - an innocuous little collection of peaks stranded in the Gobi desert
True to form, the wind swung round into a headwind in the afternoon for the last 50km and my legs starting running out of energy. I was coming to the end of 400km done in less than 3 days so perhaps that was to be expected.
I was counting down the metres by the time the sun was dropping low to the horizon, but I knew I’d make it. As my love-hate relationship with the wind grows, I have to admit losing my cool at least a little bit in the last 7 or 8km as the wind seemed to pick up another gear. “Windrage” is one of the most pointless of exercises and is not to be indulged in too frequently, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Screaming violent obscenities into the air only highlights the ridiculousness of the situation and the powerlessness of man. Usually I would laugh at myself after my more frustrated outbursts. And then apologise for my un-gentlemanly language.
To anyone who struggles to deal with the idea that the world does not revolve around him or her, I suggest a trip out to the wilderness to get acquainted with the utter indifference of nature to your bleating yelps - this will soon drive the point home.
Regaining at least a modicum of composure, I broke off the main highway onto the road that would take me the last 10km into Hami. At this point, I turned out of the wind and could enjoy – as far as I was concerned – my victory….or achievement of covering 200km in a day to reach this (wonderful) resting place.
The sun sets as I finally can leave the highway and roll into Hami
More specifically, my resting place for the evening turned out to be a 4 star hotel, replete with two soft double beds in my room, a power-shower and a buffet dinner offering as much as I could eat. When I considered how my day had started – with a rather awkward moment when the motel landlady had stumbled across me relieving myself, bare arse to the wind, into a ditch as she trotted off towards the latrine (which I refused to use) – and how it ended – falling asleep in a luxuriant dressing gown, lullabied into my dreams by the dulcet tones of a CNN newsreader, I reflected I really had come from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Or rather the other way round….
Hami – the first flavours of Xinjiang
Hami is not a big city by Chinese standards – only about 100,000 people – but it is a remarkably pleasant place to be if you’ve fought your way there through winds and deserts. All the streets are lined with bushy green trees and one is never too far from the welcome shade they afford.
Arriving half-dead from dehydration, the monk Xuan Zang stayed here for over six weeks after the stress of his ordeal before moving on. Other travellers found Hami notable for quite different reasons. Marco Polo records an unusual local custom in his day. Under a duty of hospitality to any traveller who happened through their town, the locals would offer their guests every comfort – food, drink, a roof for the night, their own beds, which would come complete with a leery and obliging wife in it. The husband would then discretely make himself scarce for a couple of days until the traveller had satisfied his needs and moved on. Signor Polo describes the women of Hami in those days as “beautiful and vivacious and always ready to oblige”, so I imagine this practice may have done much to encourage a pretty steady flow of visitors through the town. The story goes that during a period when the city was under the control of the Mongols, one of the Mongol khans disapproved of this adulterous behaviour and ordered it to cease. The locals obliged for three years, but then came, cap in hand, back to the khan begging to be allowed to re-institute their tradition, “for their ancestors had declared that by the pleasure they gave to guests with their wives they won the favour of their idols and multiplied the yield of their crops and tillage.” No doubt a bit non-plused at their pagan coarseness, the khan replied “Since you desire your own shame, you may have it.”
Anyway, my Lonely Planet didn’t mention anything about this going on today, and I didn’t think to ask.
Ornamental roofing at the "Hami Governor's Mansion" - not the most interesting historical site in China, certainly
What is true is that the people of Hami are very different to those I’ve seen so far. The native population of Xinjiang are mostly Uighurs. There are 9 million of them across Xinjiang and they come from an entirely different people group than the Han Chinese. A Turkic people, they are more closely related to Uzbeks and Turks than their fellow citizens from the “Inner Cities” (as they call them) to the east.
The men are taller, have longer noses, and darker skin, and sometimes may even have a lighter colour hair than the (absolutely) ubiquitous black hair of the Han people. Their brows are heavier and they often wear facial hair – but usually no more than moustaches or small beards. They walk with a different gait too – the traces of a proud nobility seems to linger in their stride, something still defiant and independent despite their status as just one of the 56 “minorities peoples” of New China.
But it is the women that are most noticeable. With stronger features, wider mouths with fuller lips, darker eyes and a deeper olive skin, the Uighurs of the fairer sex are the first real evidence of my transition from Eastern into Central Asia. They too stand taller and carry themselves with an elegance of movement quite different to the delicacy of Han women. But it is their clothing and adornments that stand out. Their long dark hair is often swept back from their smooth foreheads, carried high behind their heads wrapped under in colourful head scarves, interwoven with gold and silver thread that glints in the bright sunshine. Gold jewellery hangs from their necks and ears and wrists, and their strong eyebrows move your gaze to their long dark eyelashes.
I think you could say the Uighurs are a handsome people – and certainly I have seen some women of genuine beauty. I only really discovered this after an uninteresting visit to the only “place of local interest” I was aware existed in the town – the tombs of the Hami kings. This is perhaps the worst maintained historical legacy in the whole of China – although they did get 40RMB out of me to take a turn around the shady enclosure. I trust they will put this to good use. The only thing of real note was the fusion of Chinese and Islamic architecture used to build these tombs, but all the buildings, including a small on-site mosque, were falling into serious disrepair.
Inside the mosque at the Hami Kings' Mausoleum
Still unable to rein in that uniquely English tendency to try to venture out in the noon day sun, by the end of this little sight-seeing venture, I had a headache. I needed a drink and some shade.
I soon found these back in the centre of town in the day-market, set back off the main north-south road that ran from the central square. The market was huge, and contained rows and rows of clothes mainly, but also food stalls as well as the odd souvenir store arrayed with all the traditional Uighur greatest hits: ornamented knives, leather gourds, elaborate tall metal teapots, silk scarves, polished stones, rugs and an assorted collection of bizarre looking musical instruments, mainly tambourines and a sort of banjos (using snakeskin stretched taught across the drum).
There was also a large open area – under cover of a corrugated roof – where all kinds of food could be bought and eaten on the fragile little trestle tables that stood by steaming cauldrons of noodles and dumpling towers. I sat to have a couple of plates of baozi and jiaozi, drinking the flower tea that every Uighur restaurant will pour you.
A woman sat down with her child and I poured her a cup. She carried on fussing over her daughter and I looked at the two women sitting on a table a few feet away. They took their seats and preened themselves, one of them pulling back her headscarf and retying it.
They looked at me and I looked at them. Apparently both simply curious, unabashed to gaze thoughtfully into the face of a people so different.
The language chattering about my ears was no longer Chinese, but Uighur. I let this knew atmosphere settle on me and began to feel very content and excited. Here was something new again – the beginning of a new pattern in the human patchwork that spreads from the Eastern shores of the Middle Kingdom to the Western isles of Europe. What more would it reveal?
I will leave Hami behind now and we must press on.
After a single day’s rest, I loaded up once more and set out for Route 312 with the words of good luck and a “peaceful road” fresh in my ears from some Han businessmen who had taken an interest in me outside my hotel.
From Hami to the next big resting point – the city of Turpan – is another 400km stretch. There are almost no settlements along this route until the provincial town of Shanshan, 100km short of Turpan, so I anticipated to camp out for at least the next two nights in the desert.
Despite making good initial progress, I fell foul once more of the afternoon convection currents and the wind swung round into a headwind once more. The road was not itself bad – the Karlik mountains tagged along about 15km off to the right (north), but to the south – nothing. I hadn’t left until around noon so I didn’t make a huge distance – only just over 100km for the day, and occasionally I’d had to take quite long breaks from the steady warm wind blowing in my face.
With no towns around, and certainly no hotels, I pulled off the road quite late as dusk was falling. The desert land to the south undulated into little bluffs and gulleys formed by the wind and mountain stream run-off that must rarely follow that direction. Standing isolated on the top of a low rise at the end of a wretched looking line of poplars, the ground around it scattered with hard black stones, was the remains of an ancient watchtower – now reduced to a wind-worn stub that looked like an up-ended lump of mouldy cheese.
My campsite 100km west of Hami
I pushed my bike clumsily up into the lee of this old relic and managed to pitch my tent, despite the wind, relatively quickly. Some distance off the cars and lorries continued to pass by on the highway but I couldn’t be seen from any direction.
Cosy enough in my tent, I made myself supper and had a good feed. The stove and I appear to have reached some kind of reconciliation so preparing supper is now relatively straight-forward. And this time I had remembered by ear plugs so even the incessant wind could now not deprive me of the sleep into which I feel quite freely.
The next day I awoke having slept well but wanting to be on my way early. It was a bleak grey morning and the wind was still there. Despite eating a good dinner and breakfast, my legs felt extremely heavy almost immediately that I set out.
The riding that morning was sluggish. I was running low on food , sick of eating biscuits and hard bread to try to gain some energy and wondering when (if ever) the next service station would come.
I didn’t have to wait long it turned out, and a quite sponge down, downing about 5 bottles of assorted drinks, wolfing down two tubs of fast noodles and brushing my teeth, and I felt like a new man! The staff at the service station was very friendly and obliging and I set out on my way feeling altogether far more positive than earlier in the day.
From this point onward the landscape changed dramatically. The city I was heading for – Turpan – is located in an area called the Turpan Depression. This sits boiling away at the infernal elevation of 154m below sea level – apparently the third lowest dry point on the planet after the Dead Sea (approx. 500m bsl) and somewhere in Djibouti (156m bsl). Happily for me, it takes some time to get down that far, and even as far as 150km away the road starting heading down.
So I was treated to a steady but fast descent for nearly an hour before a couple of shorter climbs and then resuming the descent again. Various mountains and crags and rock formations closed in around the road, and I saw some of the most unusual scenery I’d passed in a number of days.
For all my complaining about the wind, sometimes it swings in my favour – and this was such a day. Although my legs were tired, the distance got eaten up at a phenomenal rate as the wind pushed me along and the land dropped away, till I soon realised I was even be able to avoid another night in the tent, and actually make it in one shot to Shanshan – a distance of well over 200km.
In this more positive frame of mind, I was able to look about me with a little more relish than on previous days and appreciate what an extraordinary experience it was to pass along this empty and forgotten land.
I was now passing by black and brutal looking mountains to the north – these would have done fairly well as a rendition of the boundary into the land of Mordor had the Lord of the Rings production team’s computers crashed, and meanwhile the whole landscape was on a barely noticeable tilt towards another wide and empty (and hot) plain.
It was hard to tell that the road was going down at all, except that my speed was now up to over 50kph – which with all my stuff meant having to concentrate quite hard.
It was a rather warm and bright evening by the time I pedalled into the elongated town of Shanshan, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself within less than a day’s ride of Turpan after leaving Hami only two days before. Although Shanshan is seated next to a collection of quite dramatic dunes, I wasn’t about to hang around and do any sight-seeing here.
The Sand Mountains, that begin shortly after leaving Shanshan
I love downhill. When you’re going downhill, the world is full of possibilities – the future is bright as the crystal day and your heart sings as your spokes whirr.
The final ride down into the actual Turpan Depression went by like a gunshot. I passed more interesting scenery – great mountains that seemed to be made of billowing waves of sand, and then the plunging road cutting down through the fiery red rock faces, following a dried out old river. Past sunny green vineyards and dozens and dozens of sun-baked lattice-bricked buildings that I later learnt are used for drying out the famous Turpan grapes to make raisins.
The Flaming Mountains - I wish this was my photo but it didn't really look like this as I passed by
About 25km from the city of Turpan itself, the road breaks out onto a flat and featureless plain from the sheer wall of the Flaming Mountains – so-called because the effect of the light at sunrise and sunset on the multitude of graven rivulets and gulleys on the mountainside creates the impression of molten fire pouring down from their peaks. Unfortunately at high noon as I went by, the effect is very much reduced, and they look flat and dull in the midday haze.
I stopped in a gas station for more drinks and sat on a little formica chair outside the kiosk and watched the attendant girl help a man who couldn’t start his motorbike.
She was extraordinarily beautiful to watch. She had a perfectly oval face, and almond-shaped eyes evenly set about a small straight nose. She was wearing a lightweight white shirt with sleeves just below her elbows that revealed her slender brown forearms and was drawn tight around her waist. The wind kept catching a strand of her dark hair and blowing it into her face. Each time, she would calmly raise her hand to smooth it back behind her ear in one graceful movement, and stoop again to help the man.
I sat there watching them, enjoying the cold feeling of the bottle of water in my hand and the warm wind on my legs and face. My mind was empty. Time seemed to slow down as my whole body and soul felt at rest.
A momentary splinter of joy.....
Eventually the motorbike choked into life. I stretched my legs and stood up, ready to complete the final 20km of the second of my 400km legs through this wild land.
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