19 May – 16 June 2016
This section covers the 2,900k from Jiayuguan to the Kyrgyz border riding south of the Taklamakan Desert. I averaged 170k per day with the shortest day being 65k and the longest 265k - crossing into Kyrgyzstan my trip total is now 45,000k. As always on the longer bike stretches, I describe some overall topics below while the pictures depict the trip in chronological sequence.
From Jiayuguan, I rode 300k northwest to Guazhou on terrible main road G312 running parallel to highway G30 – lots of headwind and gradual up and down halfway through the desert and halfway through irrigated countryside. In Guazhou, the Silk Road splits so I had to decide whether to ride the northern or southern route to Kashgar close to the Kyrgyz border. Every bicyclists I’ve read about did the northern route but never explained their choice. The pros going north was that it’s more populated making it easier to stock up frequently (less weight), get help if having a problem and that it’s allegedly a good road (plus the highway taking part of the traffic from the main road). I expected the southern road would be decent since there are no alternatives even for vehicles. I also expected it to be less busy in this remote and desolate area which would be an advantage (e.g. when camping) as long as I could get enough water along the way and didn’t need help. The southern route is closer to Tibet’s beautiful mountain ranges and despite 500-1,000k between the two routes, the weather forecast looked about the same.
I decided to go south primarily because of the remoteness and to do something that nobody else does. So from Guazhou, I rode west on G313 to Silk Road stronghold Dunhuang and then south on G215 – great roads with shoulders, still through desert and all the way a long gradual uphill. I unexpectedly had to cross a beautiful snowy mountain range – the pass was at 3.780 metres and I crossed it in a snowstorm so unfortunately no views for the hard work. An hour from the top, I had dropped over 1,000 metres and was back in the hot desert heading SW on secondary road S305 cutting a big corner and saving hundreds of kilometres before connecting to G315 that I rode most of the way to Kashgar. From the top, the following 750-800k was still in the mountains though it rarely felt like it since I mostly navigated desert and sand dunes; though almost always with mountains in view – the elevation changed between 1,800-3,540 metres with the latter being another mountain pass. The road was very bumpy which entailed daily broken spokes until I changed to my spare wheel. It was an extremely windy region with everyday permanent winds between 40-60 k/h and much stronger gusts – fairly equally distributed from all directions. In areas with loose sand, I encountered constant sand flight and once I rode 30k in a sandstorm; luckily with a tailwind.
About 100k before Ruogiang, I had a 60k downhill roll through endless beautiful mountain gorges, though the poor road and countless trucks racing by partly spoilt the experience. I descended 2,500 elevation metres in a few hours - the most I have ever experienced except 4,000 metres from Tibet to Nepal though that was in a car. From the descend, it was about 650k SW towards Minfeng, 300k zigzag west to Kalakashen and then 600k NW to Kashgar. The road took me on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert and partly through it – the elevation changing between 800-1,500 metres. I had expected it to be an all-desert ride but long stretches were irrigated and farmed while other parts were irrigated just to prevent sand flight. So the landscape was everything from green fields to reed/scrub to gravel/sand desert. The road was mostly good and often with a wide shoulder making it pleasant despite the sometimes heavy traffic. It was still windy but now more manageable 30-40 k/h – it was more often a head/sidewind but occasionally a lovely tailwind. A lot of sand tornadoes, sand flight and even a very unpleasant night in a sand storm (see accommodation below).
With the long days of riding, I had abused my body and lost a lot of weight, so I spent over a week in Kashgar to recuperate though it was partly offset by 2 days of diarrhea likely caused by excessive eating of local food. Kashgar is more Muslim than Chinese and most Chinese people I saw were tourists – for the first time since Xi’an, I saw a few white people. I stocked up, got my blog updated and my bike tuned before illegally riding highway G3013 the 95k west to the border post in Ulugqat where I got a mandatory taxi the last 140k to the actual border. Together with India, China is the only country I travelled and looked forward to leaving.
As expected, China never became really interesting, but I certainly got a feel of the hardship that the Silk Road traders had to endure with the mountains and not least the endless desert – including a snowstorm and sandstorms. Now I look forward to spending the Summer in the Pamir Highlands and other beautiful regions of Central Asia.
At lower altitudes (below 2,000 metres), the temperature was somewhere between 28-35C during the day and 12-17C at night. A mix of sunny and overcast days but only ½ hour rain. Despite being sunny, blue skies were not that common – often it was hazy with a visibility down to 3-500 metres. So unfortunately, I seldom saw the Tibetan mountains to the south and when I did, it was only in silhouette. Most days, the wind picked up mid morning and slowed down around 18, so except for that one night in the sandstorm, camping was a quiet and pleasant affair. The wind slowing down was also the reason I ended up with a high kilometre average, since I would typically ride minimum 50-60k in the more quiet evenings. Bike attire was sandals, bike shorts and my woollen shirt - not because it was cold but to better protect my neck and arms against the sun. After some very long days, I got a big blister under my right foot and had to ride in sneakers despite the heat.
At higher altitudes (above 2,000 metres), the temperature was somewhere between 15-28C during the day and 5-10C at night. Also a mix of sunny and overcast, and always dry except for the 3-4 hour snowstorm when crossing the mountain range. Up here, the air was clear and the visibility always good – so good that I often had the deceiving experience of a distance looking like a few kilometres but in fact being 10-20k. As described above, the wind was always strong – mostly from the west in the morning, turning north every day between 13.30-14.30. It never slowed down until hours after dark, so camping was always a hassle trying to find a protected area and getting the tent up in the strong wind. Bike attire was sneakers, long bike pants and 2-3 layers on the upper body depending on the time of day and how cold the wind was.
“Timing” was more often poor as uphills regularly were on good roads while downhills were on very bad roads so I constantly had to brake. The wind added to this challenge - more often tailwinds were on the downhills so I had to brake even more and uphill I had to fight harder in the headwind.
Road quality and drivers
As mentioned above, the poor road sections were the first 300k to Guazhou and the 750-800k in the mountains. The 300k was a continuation of riding the G312 running parallel to the highway (as described in the previous section from Xi’an to Jiayuguan) – narrow, poor pavement or gravel/dirt/stones and a number of trucks squeezing by leaving me in clouds of dust, sand, pebbles and exhaust fumes. Riding the poor mountain roads was a mixed affair – coming down from the 3.780 metres mountain on S305, there was hardly any traffic, so I could zigzag across the road on what looked like the best “path”. Still the road was so bumpy (invisible holes and bumps) that I had broken spokes every day. It continued on main road G315 though some stretches were extremely busy with heavy traffic. And here the true nature of the Chinese drivers appeared – creating dangerous situations both overtaking me and oncoming traffic overtaking other vehicles. Not once did somebody slow down and wait or pull back in when they saw me – just more honking and light flashing and then squeezing by sometimes with over 100 k/h. Completely irresponsible, reckless and unnecessary, as it was a matter of seconds and I would likely be the only bicyclist they ever encountered of here. The roads were mostly straight, so they could see me far in advance, but as most drivers around the world, they were incapable of timing their overtaking (or they just didn’t care). The only time somebody slowed down, was sudden braking to study the “da bizi” which created even more dangerous situations.
I have to add one more poor stretch as it was the worst gravel and stone "road" I’ve biked in China and possibly on this trip (though recent experiences always seem worse than previous). The last day before Kashgar, l left Yarkand late evening not being able to find a hotel. I could have backtracked 7-8k to the great G3012 I had arrived on, but decided to ride G315 for 25-30k before it connected with G3012 - a huge mistake. It began with poor pavement, but quickly I ran into road work sending me on a long gravel road detour. At this point I should have turned around, but I expected the road work to be short and the road to become somewhat decent afterwards – also it was late and I wanted to get to G3012 before it got dark so going back seemed like a bad idea. The detour led me close to G3012 (a bridge under), but I couldn’t access it because of barbed wire. Afterwards it just got worse and worse and despite short, bumpy stretches of pavement, it took 4 hours to reach G3012 just after dark.
The better road sections amounted to approx. 1,800k and about half of that had a shoulder. Most of the time it was as good as the actual road, and since it was wide most drivers understood not to honk - the unnecessary honking was left to all buses (must be the stupidest drivers) and some of the trucks. When the shoulder was full of stones, glass, exploded tires or like a washing board because of repair, I biked the road, which entailed more honking as I’m sure people felt I should be on the shoulder.
Long stretches of good road did not have a shoulder but mostly it was in the countryside where there was limited traffic, so most drivers went wide around me – though the lack of overtaking timing capabilities was still an issue.
As mentioned, I have never read about people doing the southern Taklamakan Desert route, so it was no surprise I didn’t meet any foreign bicyclists. However, I did meet a couple of Chinese bike groups on their way to Lhasa. One group was at the hostel in Kashgar where their mechanic kindly lend me some tools and helped me change a gear cable.
The gps worked perfectly all the way so I never used the hardcopy maps I bought in Xi’an. As mentioned, my gps doesn’t show distances, but road signs always showed the distance to the next one or two towns, so there was never any doubt especially because there was usually only one road. I never knew if the landscape would be irrigated or desert but it didn’t matter much. As the temperature was the same, my water requirement was the same and since the longest distance between towns was 350-400k, I never had to camp out more than once or twice before I could get new supplies. Sometimes I would pass a village or town neither on my map nor on the road signs, but I couldn’t count on it, so I always brought enough water for the next official town.
It was mostly desert but still I had expected more wildlife especially while camping and riding late evenings. I encountered a number of pitiful looking camels but whether they were wild, I don’t know - maybe just straying or used for a purpose and afterwards set free. A few birds and to my surprise even some desert predators (falcon or buzzard) so there must be mice or other rodents though I never saw or heard any. A couple of roadkill snakes but never any live snakes.
An extensive description of my perception of the Chinese system and people, is depicted in a separate section including my many very different experiences with the police.
Accommodation and sleeping
On this leg, I camped about 2/3 of the time. Most of the leg was through desert but the extensive irrigation created some opportunities to camp amongst bushes and trees outside towns. Another preferred place was under bridges providing shade and privacy from the road, easy road access (not having to drag the heavy bike far through soft sand) and protection from the wind (except when it turned and became a downside). The Chinese are everywhere at all hours, so I’m surprised nobody found me - and appreciative as one curious Chinese would attract many more and some might even call the police. Once, when it got very late and I had a flat tire, some kind farmers allowed me to camp, but when I asked at other times everybody declined obviously nervous to get in trouble with the local police.
In the previous section from Xi’an to Jiayuguan, I described how difficult it was to find a cheap hotel. On this leg, the problem was finding any hotel to stay at. In every town I wanted to stay, I spent hours riding around looking for a hotel – in general, it got more and more difficult the further west I travelled. The major reason for the problem being that the Xinjiang police apparently see it as their primary task to prevent foreigners from staying in affordable hotels. Foreigners have to stay in certain “approved” hotels but nobody knows which; not even the police (or they won’t tell), so it’s a hopeless task finding them. Most places the owner was scared to death by the thought of being caught with a foreigner in the hotel and even some bigger hotels said no before I could even ask for a room (hoping for a good deal) - though this might have been because it was easier for the employees to say no than having the hassle registering a foreigner. No wonder the owners were nervous with the police focus – looking for a hotel, I often ran into police checking guest lists. I think there are a lot of police bribes to have a hotel permit and breaking the rules implies higher bribes or losing the permit. A number of times the owner “approved” me but other people told him not to have foreigners staying, and one time a policeman showed up at the small place I had found and angrily kicked me out without a hint of help for finding a legal place.
Many times local people wanted to help but they never understood the foreigner challenge, so they often complicated things. For instance, when insisting on coming into the hotel with me to help – the owner would never risk breaking the law in front of an unknown Chinese and always declined. The best help I could get was a name of a hotel and then asking myself, but this caused other challenges. They often suggested very expensive hotels despite my note saying a cheap hotel and a maximum price. Secondly, Chinese don’t know how to draw a simple map or something as simple as distance and right or left side of the road, so more often I never found the suggested places; not even when they wrote down a hotel name.
Most times, I managed to find a place in the end, because some owner was greedy and therefore willing to let a foreigner stay illegally – and most often it was late so they probably considered the risk of a police check to be limited. However, they always wanted a premium for the risk-taking, so I often paid US 12 instead of the USD 5-6 I was used to paying (for the same poor quality room). Several times, I never succeeded in finding a hotel and had to camp out of town, sleep amongst some trees on my tarp or keep riding all night. Not an easy part of China to travel.
See my description in the previous section. Worth adding is, that the further west I travelled, the more prevalent the local language. To me it looked and sounded Arabic, but a language researcher I met in Kashgar told me it was from the Turkish language tribe and had come with here with the Ottoman Empire. Some places the street signs were only local and less and less people understood my one-page Chinese “dictionary”. As with other places I had passed by, many people were illiterate, but the biggest problem was that people here didn’t read or write Chinese – only the local language.
Food and water
Breakfast was as always oatmeal and fruit to get something filling for riding - even in small desert villages there was always fairly cheap fruit available. I know it’s unwise, but I hardly ever had lunch since I most often couldn’t find decent bread to eat with my tuna. Instead, I ate candy, 3-500 grams of peanuts and drank 6-8 litres of softdrink – not the healthiest diet but it kept me going. The advantage of softdrink was that it provided both energy and fluid – if drinking water, I had to find a substitute for the sugar which was difficult. Chocolate would be my choice but local chocolate was foul tasting and foreign chocolate was very expensive bad milk chocolate – and anyway chocolate would melt in the heat.
When I occasionally stayed in a town, I often arrived so late that I had no time/energy to go look for a restaurant after shopping, showering, etc. Instead, I ate the same variety of noodles that I ate on the road – so easy to add hot water and a few minutes later, it was ready. Especially because all Chinese hotel rooms have a water boiler.
A few times, I got the hot water as described in the previous section, but mostly I just got some cold local water that I used for washing and cooking. The little water I drank (1-2 litres per day), I bought to avoid stomach problems.
Equipment and health
The broken spoke I encountered and repaired in Jiayuguan, unfortunately turned out not to be a one-off. 5 of the first 6 days out of Jiayuguan I had a broken spoke and it might even have been every day as I forgot to check one day. Admittedly, most of the roads on this stretch were very bad but I’ve biked equally bad roads without problems amongst other on my spare wheel from Australia that had already done 12,500k without problems. I changed to this wheel and since then no spoke problems. However, moving the rear gear cassette over was a challenge as the ”strap” holding the rings together was broken (never happened before), so I had to manually assemble the cassette which was not as easy as it might sound; the upside was that it was easier to clean. When oiling the chain the gears couldn't free wheel because of sand in the bottom bracket. I didn't want to change it as another sand storm could occur any time. However, I couldn't even take it apart to clean it so the riding just had to be a bit tougher. In the process, I had made the "rockie mistake" of putting the wheel on with a small angle to fit the brakes instead of adjusting the brakes. This caused the gears not to work, so I spent hours adjusting them before all except the middle two gears worked properly. When I put the wheel straight in the evening, I spent another hour next morning adjusting the gears. The cassette rings were dancing like crazy, but having to re-assemble the cassette only once more, it lasted the following 2,000k to Kashgar where I changed it together with chain and gear cable. I got the bottom bracket out and to my surprise, it wasn’t too bad, so I cleaned it and put it back in hoping it can last a while longer. People in every bike shop I ever visited are horrified by my parts being so worn, but that’s how it is being on the road for so long. Every part has to be used until it malfunctions and sometimes even a bit longer.
I had a flat tire coming down the mountains and by mistake, I pumped 105 psi in the tube. In the sunlight, I mistook 5.65 bar for 56.5 psi, but it’s 82 psi which about the tire pressure I ride with. I’ve tried to over-pump a tube once before and what happens is that it becomes fragile on the inside around the spoke holes. This time too, so I had a number of consecutive flat’s until I lost my patience and changed the tube.
Finally, the strap on one of the front pannier’s broke off when I took the pannier off the bike. Fortunately, it could be screwed back in but I’m disappointed with the Ortlieb panniers, having two strap problems after only 8,000k when I hardly had any problems in 60,000k with my previous panniers.
The used – bought as new – Panasonic camera that wrote about in the last section died after less than 3,000 pictures - as with my many previous same model cameras, it was a ”system error zoom”. As described in the Malaysia section, the problems began already after 500 pictures, so I guess I’m lucky to have kept it alive for another 2,500 pictures (by hitting it hard in a certain way) but really this is unacceptable poor quality. 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 - that will surely change your mind.
My petrol stove has not worked properly since the overnight sandstorm. The pump doesn’t create sufficient pressure in the fuel container so the burner has an actual flame like the Tragia stoves of my past. Inefficient and messy so I’ll see if I can clean it – otherwise I’ll have to get a new one together with the bike parts, I hope to get shipped from Denmark.
Riding on average 170k per day and often around 200k per day can be hard on the body. However, in general I felt good all the way. The worst day was (as always) after the rest day where my joints ached. My butt suffered the most riding 9-12 hours per day and despite being very sore at times, I didn’t use Compeed. I think part of the problem was my weight loss as the bike shorts are now at least a size too big and therefore doesn’t fit properly.
With the long days of riding and simple food, I lost a lot of weight, but it caused no health problems. However, when I stayed in Kashgar and ate a lot of local food to regain some weight I had a 2-day very unpleasant stomach ache. Not helpful recuperating, so I had to stay a couple of extra days to regain strength – luckily, there was ample time before my visa expired.