End of the (Silk) Roads

Long time coming, but I have made it to Xi’an, the start/end of the Silk Roads – depending on which particular story you read. But it was quite something to get through the city walls, and make my way to the Bell Tower, where my hostel is superbly located.

Random thoughts/views from the road from Lanzhou to Xi’an:

Roll out of Lanzhou, busy busy, lots of commuters, I’m just another cyclist…not quite, I get the thumbs-up from a normally staid policeman. Want to buy water from my favourite street vendor. Seems to be not right in the head. His wife doesn’t trust him, he sells me things, she comes over and makes sure he gets the price right. Saw her hit him once, great left jab. He just defiantly went and sat back down on his chair. Don’t think it was the first time she’s hit him. She clearly felt no threat towards her. The power politics of women here are interesting, but that is another blog entry sometime.

Smog smog smog, as I slowly grind up the hill, I see just how bad it is, hanging over the city, cloaking the valley. Surely it must be just around the city…no, it goes on for miles and miles. Visibility cut right down, filtering out the sun.

Riding through tough terrain, steep hills, but terraces cut into them, small plots cultivating all sorts of crops. A man works a plough behind a pair of donkeys, struggling to keep up with them as they turn the corner at the end of the small field. No tractors used here. They couldn’t get to the small plots. Steep narrow footpaths wind their way up the hills, too steep for any vehicle.

Carts are pulled by people, not animals. A strap across the body, handles on each side, hauling all manner of things. Corn, apples, pears, vast bunches of celery. People with stalls on the side of the road, selling pears – “Refined Pears” – on the box. Some stalls are well setup, tables and umbrellas, lots of stock. One man stands on the side of the road in the rain, only a small amount of stock, no shelter from the rain, he’s holding up the scales, as he doesn’t have a table. Yet he seems the most cheerful of the lot. People are remarkably upbeat, considering what’s been done to them over the last 100 years.

Pass the 2,000km marker on the 312 road I have followed from the border. Started at over 4,800, have gone a long way in a month. Want to take a photo, nothing to steady the camera on, get a slightly odd shot. No matter.

2000km marker

Dirty town, stop for a Coke, sit on the steps outside the store to drink it. Realise a large crowd of girls is gathering at the window of the restaurant next door, pointing and staring. Doesn’t bother me so much, I sit and relax, ignoring it for now. Find a hotel, hot water promised for later, but is still cold, fall asleep, not bothering with a shower.

Rain next day, not happy grinding up the hills in the rain. Puncture. Crap. Rear tyre falling apart, only bought it one month ago. Oh that was about 3,000km ago. Put on new tyre, roll again. Two more punctures that day, not happy, didn’t have much time to spare, days getting shorter now. But where are the trucks? Ah, another main road joins this one, here they all are again. Grind up the hill. At the top is a tunnel. No lights, and roadworks closing one lane. Chat to guy directing traffic. Laugh about tunnel, then go for it. Noisy trucks with me, so loud in the tunnel. Then they speed off and…it’s pitch black and I can’t see anything! Have my rear flashing light, but no front light. I know there are potholes in this tunnel, and lovely metal conduits running across the road to catch cyclists out, so I stop and wait in the darkness. Finally more vehicles come along, lighting the way, and I make my way through, emerging into the light, and the downhill!

Struggled a bit today, thought I wasn’t going to make the planned distance…then I go downhill for ages, onto the flat, racing along, make my planned town just before dark. First hotel wants to look at my passport, calls various others over, mucks around for ages, finally says, “mei yo” – no foreigners. I was obviously foreign, why didn’t they just say that in the first place, instead of mucking me around? LP says this place is a “quintessential northern town, broken streetlights and coaldust everywhere.” Well, there is coaldust, but it’s not that bad, and the streetlights work. Order a bowl of noodles, turns out to be noodles and tripe. Remind myself yet again that I really must learn some more Chinese characters and words for food. Usually I just point at something random on the menu, it’s like a lucky dip. Sometimes wander around pointing at other people’s plates, or walk into the kitchen. Good thing I’m not vegetarian.

Roll along the dual carriageway, lots more farming and people now. But then turn up into the hills, and it’s beautiful, no people, just bush. Too much fog/rain today though, very limited visibility. I think it actually is fog now, not just smog. At least it doesn’t taste like coal. But then I head downhill in Victorian England. Or something like that – coal everywhere, filthy muck along the road, huge piles of it everywhere, trucks carrying it. Stunted bushes along the side of the road are covered in black, small patches of green struggle through. A girl walks out in a shockingly white jacket, the cleanness harsh against the blackness. Wonder how long it stays clean. Ride on into town.

Find a hotel, they show me a room, but then don’t seem to want to look at my passport, and take my money. No, I must sit down in the bedroom with three ladies knitting. A pregnant women sits wrapped up in bed. I am given a cup of tea, and told to wait. Vaguely I’m wondering what’s going on, I’d really like to go to the toilet, and get a shower. But a surprise – a young man walks in, the son I guess, who speaks English, and he gets me sorted out. 24 hour hot water, I need it. The shower represents China to me – it has lights, a radio, 9 different places that water can come from, out of a hose, the roof, jets on the wall…and yet nothing works quite right, and the water isn’t hot enough. But it will do.

Eat a bowl of noodles and other random stuff from a clay pot, down an alleyway. Bit cold and miserable tonight. Getting some supplies from a small store, a man walks in says something to me – hang on, that was in English. He was vice-principal of Bin Xian Number 2 Middle School, and he studied English back in 1989 – must have been an oddity then. He wants me come and talk to a class at his school. Why not? The school is nearby, and even though it is 20:45, classes are still on. We walk into one, and he asks me to “give a lecture on learning English.” Err, OK. So I babble some stuff in front of this class:

Chinese class

After that, I meet the family, including the 16-year old who wants to become an interpreter, and they encourage him to talk with me. Some other students from the class come along too. They don’t understand all I say, but they want to hear the native English speaker. Afterwards, I am given mooncakes and fruit, for the journey to Xi’an. It was getting late, and I need to sleep, but it was a good experience.

Long grind out of town the next morning. Two good climbs, with tunnels to match. Total lack of driver ability, courtesy and understanding mean that minor incidents turn into major traffic jams, trucks backed up for kilometres. I ride past it, make it to the top of the climb before the trucks. Mostly coal trucks, black dust everywhere. Mixed with rain, I watch the fluid running down from my front mudguard. It looks like used engine oil.

Pass through a town, major roadworks on the main road through town. No do one lane at a time stuff, rip up the whole road instead. Lots of rain, total mudbath through town, takes ages to get through. Getting all a bit down about it, but it keeps going and going. Get to the edge of town, a dual carriageway starts, and a wonderful piece of Chinglish lifts my spirits. The road has two lanes in each direction, plus another wide shoulder/lane. Over each of these are signs indicating their use – I can choose from “Non-flexible Lane,” “Runway,” or “Exceeding the Lane.” I have to think a bit, before opting for the “Non-flexible Lane.”

Getting more filthy through the day, I stop to clean vast amounts of muck off my brakes. The drivetrain is a hopeless case. I wonder if I should stop at one of the many little stalls along the side of the road, where you can wash your coaltruck. I would do it, but my panniers don’t seem quite so waterproof as they were when I started, and I don’t really feel like filling them up with water. Dropping the tent and Thermarest has I helped I guess, but my bike still feels heavy enough on those uphills.

Finally get to the outskirts of Xi’an. Distance signs contradict themselves, and the city seems enormous. Try to work out where I am on my maps, not sure. Some locals help out. Always seems to be a bit further than I think. Finally, there they are – the city walls. Still some pedalling to do, but it can’t be far…there is the Bell Tower! And beside it, the first McDonald’s I’ve seen since Istanbul. 6 months, 11,000km. Further investigation this morning reveals that there seems to be 3 Starbucks and 3 McDonald’s within a few hundred metres of where I’m staying. Crazy stuff.

Making it to the hostel, I’m vaguely wondering about what I must look like, and I just want a shower and clean clothes. I’m getting some strange looks from people – even the Westerners are staring at me. Must be because I look like this coalminer:

Coal Miner

For some reason they stuff me around for ages when check in. Just give me the key will you? Put the bike away, don’t even bother cleaning it, don’t want to think about that yet. Will be nasty. But finally I get my room (dorm this time, same price as a cheap hotel in small towns). But it is nice and clean, and there is hot water, lots of it. And I settle into the bar, drinking my free beer, and I’m warm clean, and happy.

It’s a bit strange though, suddenly I’m back into the tourist circuit. Dreadlocks, etc. The usual crowd. People just come in on the plane, or talking about how tough the train journey was. No matter, it’s a very nice change to speak in English for a while.

One more thing, this post is ridiculously long already – there is a fancy supermarket over the road that sells New Zealand Mainland cheese! Colby, Edam, Mild, Tasty! Don’t think I can hold off, I must go and buy some…

Heavy Air is Good For You

Right? Because after all, we just can’t guarantee getting all the minerals, chemicals and various substances we need from our diet. And we can’t just add these things to water, like fluoride, when you are in a town where most people drink bottled or boiled water. No, no, the provincial government in Gansu is far smarter than that – they have come up with an innovative air distribution network for these vital nutrients. OK, OK, it does make it a bit difficult to see more than 200m, and some people think that Lanzhou has the worst air pollution in the world, but they are just lack the true vision of the future that China is trying to realise. Not to mention the side benefits – no need to buy sunglasses or sunscreen, even on a cloudless day, the “heavy air” is filtering out those harmful UV rays. And of course I don’t need to buy cigarettes any more, living here is like smoking a pack a day.

So here I am, relaxing in Lanzhou, one of the most polluted cities in the world. I presume it gets worse in the next month or two, as vast amounts of coal get burnt, to provide heating. Speaking of coal, I’m starting to see more coal trucks on the road, but nothing like what is coming up, based on others’ accounts. The thing that I don’t get though is that I’ve seen fully laden coal trucks going in both directions on the roads. Some sort of market failure happening there, surely.

Fairly good time riding here from Jiayuguan, 5 days on the bike, no more monster days, but some up near the 200km mark. Back in the hills too – a couple of big long slow climbs. Of more concern was a freezing cold day of rain. It was the first day out of Jiayuguan, and I didn’t realise it was going to be so bad when I got up. Started out cold, then after a little while rain started coming down, and just kept coming. If I’d known it was going to be like that, I would have stayed in bed. They wouldn’t let me onto the expressway – shocking that, surely those no biking signs only apply to locals, not laowai? – and so I had to stay on the old road. A couple of days later, the old road disappeared, so I jumped through the gap, and back onto my preferred position riding along the “Urgent Lane” of the smooth expressway.

It wasn’t too bad, but the surface is not so clean, with more glass and sharp objects around. I’m running very slick Maxxis tyres now, much faster than my XRs, but not nearly as robust. So of course I got a puncture. Problem was, since I don’t have full finger gloves anymore, my fingers were frozen and didn’t work properly. I found a bit of shelter in front of a service station in the middle of nowhere, and started trying to sort out my puncture. It took me about five minutes just to remove one fingerless glove. I was really starting to wonder what the hell I was doing there, and why I didn’t just go and find a hotel, then get a train to Lanzhou. But then the girl working at the service station came out, and said, in English, “Can I help you?” She invited me inside, to the warmth, where I could thaw out a bit, and sort out my tyre. There was one other staff member there, sound asleep on the couch – nothing unusual there. I was left in peace, no hassles, just warmth. Rather different to other times when you get crowds gathering to watch you do the most mundane tasks.

Later on, the weather eased up a bit, the rain stopped, the road was downhill, and the wind stayed at my back. Considering I stopped twice for punctures, I still quite easily did 175km. Some more good days after that, but had a few issues. One pump had been playing up for a while, and I’d gotten a new one. The new one didn’t want to come off the valve, and I delivered it a swift kick…resulting in two half-broken pumps. Neither entirely useless, but I couldn’t get my tyres above 40psi, meaning I was having to work harder than I needed to for the next few days, until I could get to here. I have since purchased a new main pump, and a basic, small lightweight backup.

A few interesting places along the way – obviously I was visiting places that very few tourists go to – but clearly almost every tourist that does visit is on a bike. You know that, because looking on your map, it’s the obvious only place for a cyclist to stay in the area – and then when you turn up, they don’t even blink at the bike, and help you get it up the stairs, and put it in your room. Always the best option if you can get away with it, but some hotels don’t like it. Generally the cheaper places are OK with it – not usually carpeted – but then the rooms can be small, making it a bit crowded. For a different storage location, at the enormous hotel I’m staying at in Lanzhou, it’s in the gatehouse, in the guard’s bedroom.

I’ve posted my tent and Thermarest ahead to Darwin. Camping is difficult from here on, and there are many cheap places to stay. This drops a few more kilos from the bike. I could maybe have changed to just all my gear on the back of the bike, saving some more weight, but decided to stick with four panniers, so that the weight is distributed more evenly. I’ve now dropped a few kilos from my gear over the last few weeks, which should make it just that bit easier getting up some of those big climbs. Just checked my body weight today – 78kg – which is only a little bit down from my starting weight of a little over 80kg. Certainly not dropping weight like Jan has been – he’s dropped probably more than my whole luggage weight! But I think I’d be looking pretty unhealthy.

Off to the visa office yesterday, to try and get an extension. Remarkably helpful, very polite, no queues or fuss, excellent English spoken, some of them must have lived overseas. They said I could have gotten an urgent same-day service, but I was planning on being here until Tuesday anyway, so I said no problem, will pick it up on Monday. Fingers crossed of course, but it looks good. A little bit concerned about hotels being full for the first week of October (national holiday week), so have already booked my hostel for Xi’an. It may be the first time I’ve booked a place in advance for this whole trip. Problem is that it means I must leave on Tuesday, and I must do several big days to get there in four days. But I’m feeling up to it. Ate some dodgy street food last night, which came back up in the middle of the night, but that seemed to be it – once it was gone in the first go, my body just returned to normal, and I’m eating well again. Have eaten plenty of food from little carts on the side of the road, not normally a problem when lots of other locals are doing the same.

A bit more mucking around here for the next couple of days. General relaxing, maybe a bit of sightseeing. Apparently the museum is good. Has surprised me a little, this place – it doesn’t really get many tourists, yet I’ve run into many local people who speak English. This is quite a change from most of the places I’ve been to. Thankfully I haven’t had any requests to look at my pianist yet – read Jan’s blog to understand what I mean.

Records in the Desert

I wasn’t going to do it, I really wasn’t. I had read Jan’s account of doing 262km between Anxi and Jiayuguan in one day, and was very impressed, but thought it was just a bit beyond me. I started out from Anxi with headwinds, and it was looking like it could be a long day to achieve the 178km I had planned.

But then as I lay sprawled on the side of the road after 60km, having a rest, as you do, I noticed that the wind had swung around, and was now behind me. It started getting stronger and stronger, and suddenly I was easily doing 30+ km/hr. A couple of hours of racing along like that, and suddenly 260km didn’t seem out of the question. The wind got stronger, I kept racing, and when the 100km sign came up, I realised I could make it – so I put the foot down, and raced along to Jiayuguan. I made it to the “Jiayuguan West” exit around sunset – but of course I needed to do another 10-15km along the expressway to the real exit. As I came off the expressway, darkness really falling now, some petty official came running out of the tollbooth to tell me I couldn’t ride on the expressway. Too late buddy! Every other tollbooth they just wave, or sometimes direct me to an easier path to ride through.

260km, average speed 25.0 km/h – easily my best day. Then of course I had to ride around about 7 different hotels before I could find one that would take foreigners. This has been the most frustrating part of China for me so far – hotels that don’t take tourists – they have English signs, even English-speaking staff (very occasionally) – but they don’t take foreigners! Eventually I found somewhere, total 269km for the day. More than 50km more than my previous best. Then went and had dinner from a street stall – a mobile kitchen on the back of a bike, doing Mongolian hotpot-type skewers of various meats and vegetables. Very nice, and I’ve been back twice since, but I felt I deserved another dinner, so went and had another meal at Dicos – a local version of KFC.

I didn’t feel too bad after all that distance – I’ve done longer days time-wise on the bike before – but I was pretty tired. Collapsed into bed, and then did not much the following day. Have been out doing tourist stuff since, visiting the fort at the end of the Great Wall. Was pretty amazing to think that I am now inside the Great Wall – I am into the real China now, after only 1800km from the border. The last three riding days were 209, 162 and 269km – big miles being covered now.

Back on the bike tomorrow, hope to get to Lanzhou in five days, so that I can start the visa extension process next Friday. Hard to say how long that will take – LP says same day service in Lanzhou, but LP is crap – but I was going to spend a few days in Lanzhou anyway. Still trying to work out my route from there onwards, have got a few different options in front of me. Unfortunately it’s looking like I may end up in Xian around the start of October, which is a national holiday week. Will make finding a hotel difficult/expensive. Hmmm. Could start a big train loop from Lanzhou then, so I get to Xian earlier, then return to Lanzhou to pick up the bike and head south. Decisions decisions.

Oh and I got a few Xinjiang photos uploaded too.

Shoeless Joe

I now have no shoes. I have only worn them a couple of times in the last few months, so I decided to get rid of them. I have noticed that when I walk around town with jandals, I get the usual number of stares, but everyone is looking at my feet now – maybe because they look like this:


I wanted to spend some more time writing a longer post, but the high levels of Honghe smoke in this Internet cafe are making me feel physically ill, and so I think it’s time to leave. I did get my Kazakh photos done though.

In Hami now, about to head out on what should be some of the last long desert stretches for a while, heading across to the end of the Great Wall. Will do some Chinese photos at the next big stop – Jiaguyuan maybe. Big landscapes here, vast emptiness.

Before I go, a few quick notes about some of the T-shirts worn by Chinese girls. Many have fake brandnames, with spelling mistakes (e.g. Abercrombie and Titch). But some of the more amusing ones have English phrases, e.g. “Trouble Everyday” or “Bad-ass Lover.” My current personal favourite is “Juicy American Princess,” worn by someone who was neither juicy nor American, but maybe a princess of sorts. Ah China.

The Great Urumqi Underwear Theft

I only carry two pairs of underwear. Given that with bike shorts, I don’t actually wear any most days, I had been vaguely wondering if that was one pair too many. But now the decision has been made for me! I had done some washing yesterday, and hung my clothes on the communal line at the hostel. This morning everything else was there, except for one pair of underwear. Very strange. They definitely came out of the washing machine, and got hung up. Who would want my undies?

I’m in Turpan now, 154m below sea level. Did 196km today from Urumqi to get here – overall the trend is downhill, and I had some phenomenal tailwinds late in the day – going at 40km/h, hardly pedalling. If I had been going into that wind, I would not have been able to move – I would have to seek shelter, and cry. Except there was no shelter – this was in the middle of a large valley utterly devoid of vegetation. Completely bare, not even small weeds growing between the rocks. Very odd – most other deserts I’ve been in – e.g. the Sahara and Turkmenistan deserts – do have some plantlife. Hopefully more tailwinds tomorrow!

I went to the “Geographical Centre of Asia” yesterday. Rather conveniently, the Chinese have calculated this as being about 30km out of Urumqi. Basically it’s a big monument in the middle of nowhere. I expected a few tourgroup buses, but I was more or less alone there. Pretty cool though – from here I will be getting closer to the ocean, whichever route I take – after chatting with Pete in Urumqi, it may no longer be a straight ride to Beijing. We’ll see.

Looks like a few long hot desert days coming up, should be the last ones before Australia!