1 – 18 May 2016
This section covers Xi’an to Jiayuguan though I skipped the part up the first mountain and only biked the 1,000k from Guyuan to Jiayuguan making my trip total 42,100k. As always on the longer bike stretches, I describe some overall topics below while the pictures depict the trip in chronological sequence.
After taking buses from Luang Prabang to Kunming and Xi’an, I felt invigorated and motivated to begin biking the old Silk Road towards Europe. Not so much for the Chinese people (see separate section) or the landscape that I expected to be mostly dry, baren and desolate, but to get a feel of the distance and hardship the old traders had to overcome. When looking up The Silk Road, there are countless routes. A majority of maps depict it from Xi'an heading west to Lanzhou and then northwest and west towards Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. I had no desire to go to another big city Lanzhou, which also entailed some steep climbs that would be difficult being out of shape. Looking for an easier start, I found a more northern route and then pick up the other route north of Lanzhou.
Xi’an is in a valley so to avoid starting on a very long uphill out of shape and on the 100 kg bike, I decided taking the bus up the first mountain to Guyuan eliminating a 6-7,000 elevation metres climb in 150k. Certainly doable but a bit tough start – on average over 4% for 150k is still quite a climb. From Guyuan, I rode S101 north to Zhong Zhu Xian and S201 west to Wuwei before connecting with S312 and heading northwest to Jiayuguan – just above 1,000k.
With little biking since I entered Myanmar over two months before late February and another long break (the fourth since Singapore), I expected a tough ride getting back in shape but it went surprisingly well. I had conservatively set aside two weeks for the ride, but it only took 8 days leaving 6 days for relaxing and updating my website as I could not apply for visa extension until a few days before the expiry of the existing visa. And I couldn’t continue and apply in another city as Jiayuguan was the last chance before the southern route across/around the Taklamakan Desert.
As expected, the landscape was mostly very dry though in the valleys they managed to grow different fruit and vegetables using extensive irrigation. I was happy to avoid the big cities though even smaller Chinese towns are big inhabiting several hundred thousand people. The towns and villages all seemed placed in the middle of nowhere in an otherwise desolate region. When looking at elevation maps, I expected to ride G2012 most of the way, but it turned out to be a highway (that I couldn’t ride) even though they are usually 1-2 digit. The main roads often followed the highway but they didn’t cut through the landscape the same way and therefore entailed frequent and bigger climbs – my guess is around 8,000 elevation metres instead of the expected 4,300 metres. However, the three mountains I had to pass were all gradual climbs of no more than 25k and 6-7%, so nothing compared to the mountains I had skipped taking buses.
The route may not have been the most predominant part of the Silk Road, but especially the first half of the ride was Muslim dominated. The restaurants and shops were mostly Muslim, the road signs were in Chinese, the local Turkish resembling language (I thought it was Arabic) and occasionally English and the first day alone, I counted over 30 mosques in only 120k.
When I got off the bus in Guyuan, it was sunny but cool because of the strong cold wind. Consequently, I expected to wear somewhat warmer clothes but I was very surprised waking up to frost and 10 cm snow. I found some of my warmer clothes and rode the first day in three layers top and two layers bottom. It turned out to be a one-off and despite being overcast and cool many mornings (and some full days), it was enough with my woollen shirt and a t-shirt and occasionally long bike pants. I replaced the sandals with sneakers and though I could have used sandals some afternoons I decided not to, as it was too much of a hassle changing and repacking. Depending on whether it was overcast or sunny, morning temperatures were around 10-15C and afternoon temperatures around 17-22C though the wind was always cool.
The wind changed a lot and the first 6 days and 750k to Zhangye there seemed to be some pattern. When overcast it was mostly (light/moderate) eastern winds and when sunny mostly (stronger) western winds. Riding predominantly west towards Kyrgyzstan (and Europe), it left me a little disillusioned as the beautiful days would always be tough riding while the less amazing days would be easier. The last 2 days to Jiayuguan were completely opposite, so I guess there is no pattern and since there is nothing I can do about it anyway, I just have to see how it goes. It’s almost 3,000k to the Kyrgyz border so a lot can change along the way. Under all circumstances, very pleasant temperatures compared to the horrible heat in Laos.
Road quality and drivers
Highways are off limit for bikes so I rode different main (national) roads. My Xi’an host Feng was right when he told me there were lots of truck (and buses) because they are too cheap to pay for the toll roads but it was nothing compared to the logging trucks in North America and the road trains in Australia. Most of the way there were fairly wide shoulders though I always had to pay attention as trucks, buses, cars and motorbikes sometimes used it – going in both directions! And they always believed to have the right of way as long as they honked and honked they did (everybody, but worst the buses and trucks) – 10 times at everything within 25 metres of the road. It was extremely annoying being honked at thousands of times every day especially because there was no reason except if the driver planned to drive (and push me off) the shoulder. To me it doesn’t make sense to honk so much as it has a “cry wolf” effect. The government already indoctrinate kids in schools so why not teach them how to behave in traffic and then heavily fine (and enforce) it - or if they really don’t care, initiate that all vehicles honk permanently when inserting the key in the ignition.
The first 300k through Ningxia Province generally entailed good roads though an annoying element was longer sections where cracked pavement had been repaired with tar leaving 2-4 cm high bumps every 3-10 metres (and all the way across the road so I couldn’t go around). Also there was construction all the way on what could have been a great 20k downhill to the Gansu border – always better when construction is uphill as I go slow anyway. Gansu Province generally entailed bad roads especially the last 200k from Wuwei to Zhangye being amongst the worst I have ever biked including Ukraine that I otherwise always keep out of comparison because it was so terrible. First countless mud/dirt/stone sections and later endless dirt/stone sections – accumulated 60-70k with no alternative as there was no other road except the illegal highway that I had to ride for 15k when the main road suddenly ended abruptly (including 3k in the wrong direction until I could cross over).
The shoulders were almost always full of sand and pebbles and too often also broken glass so i was lucky not to have a flat tire. Since the road was the same, passing vehicles constantly left me in clouds of dust, sand, pebbles and exhaust fumes and occosionally I got showered with sand, coal and other things from trucks' uncovered cargo.
The Silk Road is a popular route for bicyclists going to/from Europe, but I haven't met any international bicyclists - only a couple of Chinese guys going to Russia after biking Thailand and Laos.
I prefer hardcopy maps, and though I found some in Xi’an they can only be used as a backup since they are in Chinese and only comprise town names – nothing about distances, elevation, etc.
So I’m left with my gps but after the initial challenges in Kunming, it has been an invaluable help especially getting in and out of town/cities and when the road splits in the middle of nowhere. Contrary to the highways, the main roads have few signs and only in Chinese but the kilometre stones are useful as they also depict the road number.
My gps doesn’t show distances, so I’m content to have printed different itineraries with distances from google. And I’m happy to have done it before I entered China as google is blocked. It has not been crucial for this part of the ride, but it will be during the next part through the desert, particularly in regards to water.
An extensive description of my perception of the Chinese system and people is depicted in a separate section.
Accommodation and sleeping
It usually took some time to find cheap and simple accommodation - on average about USD 5. Asking the locals for advice, the first challenge was getting them to focus instead of asking me a million childish questions and the second not being sent to an expensive place, which was common despite my Chinese notes mentioning a low maximum price. Maybe it’s pride not wanting to send me to a cheap, dirty hotel; maybe they didn’t expect a foreigner really wanting to stay in such a place or maybe they just didn’t know a cheap place? In the end, I always managed to find a cheap place, but then there was the issue of storing the bike somewhere inside, and a number of times I had to find another place because they refused. Why I don’t know, as these places were often so dirty that nobody could see if a bike had touched the floor and I even flipped the bike upside-down and carried it in so it could rest on the handlebar and saddle – still they hesitated because it was unknown/unusual (see section about Chinese people).
Another recurrent issue was hotel registration as all hotel stays must be registered in a national IT system. The fact that I didn’t have a Chinese ID but a passport with foreign letters made it (close to) impossible for them. Some didn’t take it too seriously and let me stay without registration while others called the police to ask permission and what to do. It must happen thousands of times every day that foreigners need a hotel room, so this issue should have been solved centrally with information/guidelines provided to all hotels. And maybe it is and the places I went just never had a foreigner staying before?
After registration, the final challenge was being allowed to stay. Three times (out of eight), I was told to leave. The first time after 10 minutes without any explanation. The second time, I was told the police wanted me to stay in a more expensive hotel, but inquiring revealed it was in fact the owner having police problems. He offered I could stay privately with his “uncle” (I China everybody is called uncle or aunt) for the same amount, so I suspect that was the reason why he withheld the information for over 3 hours until 20.15. I was very angry, because his selfishness put me in a difficult situation having to repack and find a new place in the dark in a city I didn’t know. The third time, I was told to leave after an hour – he was very apologetic and I think he tried to explain that he didn’t have the required permit for having a foreigner staying (probably obtained with a bribe).
Chinese people are generally very selfish and inconsiderate. In hotels at all hours, they talk and watch tv very loudly and have their ring tones on full blast as well as smoking (always with an open door); everything preventing much sleep. Getting my own room reduced the smoke (only from previous inhabitants and what came under the door) while the noise usually travelled everywhere also between floors. Consequently, I would have preferred camping except there were very few camping spots and never when I needed them. Also the risk of being found was big which inevitably would imply countless curious people and maybe a call to the police. With little civilisation, I expect to camp a lot on the next stretch through the desert.
Before this part of my trip, I bought a Chinese dictionary with many different dialects as I expected to travel in many different regions. This however entailed only few pages per dialect so in practice it was useless. Instead, I wrote a couple of pages with sentences/words I expected to use and had Feng translate it to Chinese. He wrote it in Mandarin and most of the approx. 75% of the people who could read (illiteracy is still widespread even in big towns) at least got the meaning. But surprisingly many times people had no idea so either Mandarin is not as common as expected or even Mandarin has different ways of writing the same thing?
Despite the challenges, I was very happy to have the notes - without them everything would have been incredibly more difficult partly because my sign language doesn’t work well in China and partly because nobody speaks English. As I understand it, young people have two years of English in (high) school so it’s shocking they literally only know “hello”. Nothing very simple as their name, numbers, colours, directions, fruit and vegetables as I think the kids in Denmark learn during the first month in 1. grade English. If that’s all Chinese people get out of two years’ education they might be better off quitting school and getting a job.
Food and water
Breakfast was oatmeal to get something filling for riding though on my rest days I had bread and fruit. For lunch I had tuna, bread and some fruit as I was never near a town and mostly ate in a local restaurant. Except for the prices, it was often impossible to tell the difference between the cheap and expensive restaurants as the food and interior seemed the same. I never managed to use the notes for explaining what dish I wanted, so I looked around on other people’s plates and picked what looked good making sure I got a non-spicy version (which was mostly still quite spicy). The food I ordered was always cheap, plentiful and tasty, but a few times I had to give up when nobody else was in the restaurant or nobody had ordered something interesting. I that case, I cooked something on my stove, but in general it wasn’t worth the hassle when a cheap restaurant dish was USD ½-1.
In China they serve warm water everywhere e.g. for customers in shops and restaurants. I think the reason being that tap water is not clean and therefore needs boiling before serving. However, they just boil it for a few seconds contrary to my learning where it has to boil for at least 3 minutes to kill all bacteria. Anyway, I think it’s more of a historical habit – today the big city water is likely okay containing chlorine and should there be heavy metals or poisonous elements (e.g. arsenic) in it, boiling doesn’t help anyway. I stuck to my usual philosophy – if the locals eat and drink it, I eat and drink it.
Health and equipment
I’m very happy, I had no health problems and more importantly no significant bike problems despite the often terrible roads. During a bike tune-up in Jiayuguan, I was surpised to encounter a broken spoke. Surprised because I always hear when they break, so it must have happened on a windy and/or busy section.
Amazon sold me a used Panasonic Lumix camera as new when I bought 3 before I left the US some years ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t check it properly as I would have discovered that it was used starting around photo 14,000. I’m sure it had been returned with zoom problems, because the zoom quickly began making the familiar error noise and after less than 500 photos the zoom stopped working properly. I know the drill – just hit it hard in a certain way and it works again; the question being how long. It’s little comfort, but I guess I should be happy it’s still working 2,000 photes later. In Xi’an, I had an additional problem as the metal ring around the lens fell off and had to be glued back on. I can only repeat myself – don’t buy Panasonic Lumix cameras, and if you consider it anyway, do yourself a favour and first google “system error zoom” for the specific camera.
Before reaching the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts I tested my Life Straw water filter and found out it didn’t work. I think I have used it for 20-25 litres since I bought it 2012, so it’s quite disappointing as it’s supposed to last 1,000 litres. It has of course experienced diverse weather from -10C to +50C so maybe that’s the problem but still…. Fortunately, I also have some purifying pills - they expired years ago, so I hope they work should they be necessary at some point.