- Kashgar (Xinjiang) to Germu (Qinghai)
- 2,450 km
- 9 September 2016 – 4 October 2016
- 5 Punctures
- 1,750Km through desert
- Most litres of water ever carried – 16 litres
- Longest stretch without anything – 385km
- Most kilometres ridden in one day – 188km
- Longest road 2,090km
- Wild camels spotted – 7 🐪
- Caught sleeping outside by police – 2
- Police escort – 3
- Other foreigners seen – 1
After an amazing experience in Tajikistan my sadness at it coming to an end was soon dissipated with the excitement of actually reaching china…holy shit…I’ve cycled all the way to China! I had not even considered anything beyond this point…reaching China was a huge milestone and I had no idea where to go from there. Originally I thought about heading north to Mongolia but decided winter would be pretty brutal and I was now becoming more intrigued with Tibet. A week or so before reaching China some of the guys I was cycling with asked what I was thinking of doing in China…my lose reply…”not too sure…either straight across or towards South East Asia”…”and what about the Taklamakan desert?”…they replied…”never heard of it” 🙈 They informed me it was the second largest sand desert in the world…also named ‘the desert of death’ and they were all skipping it by taking a train 3,000km to central China…fuck that I thought, I’m not taking the train…but maybe I should scope this thing out 🤔
I arrived to the Chinese border on 9 September 2016…exactly one year since rolling away from home 🏡🚵♀️🇨🇳 After getting stamped out of Kyrgyzstan relatively quickly with no fuss we made our way through the 10km of no-mans land to the Chinese border post. Immediately you could see the difference between Kyrgyzstan and China…the Chinese border security was staffed by three women and i felt a sense of relief…i was pretty tired of being in such a male dominant world…instantly I had a good feeling about China ☺
After scanning all of our bags and having a good look through everything we were told we had to take a taxi 150km away to the customs and border control point…no cycling…and just to make sure we didn’t sneak off on our bikes they didnt give us back our passports…instead they gave them to the taxi driver to keep hold of until we arrived at the customs point. After a bizzare ride with a really strange Kyrgyz taxi driver we arrived at the customs control during the two hour lunch period in which everything is closed 🤔 when it finally opened, our bags were scanned and searched again and finally after visiting every desk in the customs place and filling out shit loads of forms and 10 hours after arriving at the border we were finally stamped in! The bizzare entry into the country came to represent my whole 3 months in China of constant confusion…never have a I been to a place where I just don’t get what’s going on most of the time!
Immediately after getting stamped into China things were different…the infrastructure, the food, the colours, the smell, the women, internet…it was like I had been taken back 100 years in time in Central Asia and China had spat me back out somewhere in the middle. We arrived in Kashgar the next day and it was like a sensory overload…after a couple months of simple living Kashgar was buzzing with life and the energy was pretty overwhelming…I could not stop smiling as I rode into the small city. I was so excited 🚴♀️❤🇨🇳Kashgar was a very important trading city back in the days of the Silk Road and this spirit still lives on in the bazaars, night markets and live stock markets.
Xinjiang is China’s largest province…located in the west and is home to many minority ethnic groups including the muslim Uighur people. The territory has an ongoing separatist conflict…meaning a long history of discord between the Chinese authorities and the indigenous Uighur population. Historically the regions economy has relied largely on agriculture and trade until recent years which has seen a high level of development in the oasis cities and has seen an influx of han Chinese (the main Chinese ‘race’ accounting for over 90% of the total population) people which has caused much ethnic tension and violence. This has lead to really high security in the province. I have never be to a place so policed and milatirised…police checkpoints are everywhere, I wasn’t allowed in most hotels, parks have airport style security, I had to show my passport if I wanted to enter a gas station and many other crazy things!
I was pretty exhausted by the time we reached Kashgar…Tajikistan had taken its toll on my body and I really needed a rest and this was a great place to take it. I found a hostel that let me put my tent up on the roof for only £1.50 per night which was twofoldly awesome…1 – cheap and 2 – I didn’t have to deal with other people and their shit 😝 There was a Muslim festival (Id Al-fitr) that week so Kashgar was full of life and I also needed time to work out where I was heading next.
Basically Xinjiang is home to a huge desert (‘the desert of death’)…and I needed to decide if and how I was going to cross it. There wasn’t much information available…not many people seemed to cross it by bicycle…general consensus is to skip and most information I could find was pretty negative! People I asked about it advised me not to go…apparently it’s too long, too hot, too remote, too dangerous (apparently wolves had killed two women in their tent the previous month and also there was problems with terrorists). But anyways I decided I was going to give it a go…how do I know what it’s like to be in a desert if I don’t go! I had only two choices…north or south…south is more remote and has less settlements along the way so I thought I’d go with that.
After some calculations on distances between settlements to ensure I could carry enough water I set off towards the desert with my panniers full of dried fruit, nuts, rice, peanut butter and a few fears and doubts in my head! The first day was a nice, easy introduction with plenty of small towns and amenities along the way but I felt a little nervous wild camping again…it had been so many months since I had camped alone and I was feeling like such a wimp…pretty much shitting myself at every noise 😂
When looking back now I only have amazing memories of my time in The Taklamakan but reading back in my journal that wasn’t always the case. The next day the road turned to shit…i got two flat tyres and it was extremely hot and there was absolutely nowhere to take any shade…I was really beginning to wonder why I’d chosen to do this. The people weren’t being so friendly to me and communication was difficult to the point of complete frustration. I am used to finding other ways to communicate by using a mixture of English/foreign words, sign language, drawing pictures etc. But western China was a whole new ball game…they don’t understand anything…absolutely anything and neither did I! I had gone into a park the next morning (to enter I had to go through airport style security with body scanners and two armed police at the gate) to make my breakfast and within 10 minutes of being there two police vans turned up with 6 police officers demanding to see my passport…none of them spoke English so I didn’t understand anything…I continued to make and eat my breakfast…twenty minutes I was there and twenty minutes they stood next to me passing around my passport but doing nothing. After I’d eaten and cleaned my pots 😂 I got my passport back n left and they showed me a sign saying ‘no aliens’ they then escorted me in their two vans to the edge of town! I felt out of my comfort zone and completely unwelcome…the first three days in the desert was the only time on the trip I have felt properly lonely…never before had I felt loneliness in being alone until that moment!
…And then I had a quiet word with myself and from then on I began to fall in love with the desert ❤🏜🚴♀️…after a few more mishaps of course 🙈
One afternoon I noticed another cyclist in front of me in the distance…I was so excited to talk and within a few minutes had caught up with him! Unfortunately he did not speak one word of English..not even hello but through maps, charades and drawing in the sand with a stick we figured we would cycle together for the next two days as we were heading to the same place.
On the second day of cycling together it became apparent how difficult it was to communicate… with his zero words of English and my 20 mandarin words! I was feeling more and more unwell as the morning went on. I tried to carry on as it was too difficult trying to explain that I wasn’t feeling well and I really couldn’t be arsed trying…big mistake! Eventually I was feeling like I couldn’t continue cycling anymore so I stopped and after a difficult exchange tried to explain to Tang that I was not feeling well and would take a break under a bridge for a while…after I eventually got rid of him I hurried under a small bridge to get out of the sun. After maybe an hour or so, still not feeling great I dragged myself back on the bike and tried to continue…the sun was beating down hard on me and after about thirty minutes I collapsed on the side of the road and began to vomit. I felt completely overheated, drained and disorientated…but knew I needed to get out of the sun desperately. Luckily there was another bridge about 50 metres away and I tried to push my bike along the road and down the ditch into the shade but my energy had completely drained and both myself and my bike went rolling down the ditch landing in a heap at the bottom.
This is sounding like some dramatic over exaggeration now I’m writing it but this is exactly how it played out and I thought I might be a goner😥 I picked myself up and half dragged my bike to the entrance of the bridge…grabbed my bottles of water, slumped on the floor and again began to vomit 😥 and then noticed that the small tunnel was littered with dollops of human shit…but that seemed irrelevant at that point as I began to drift in and out of consciousness. By this point I knew I had sun stroke and images of Levison Wood’s documentary where a member of his team collapsed in the desert and died from sun stroke was running through my head and knew I had to get my temperature down as much as possible…which at that moment seemed an almost impossible task. I checked my pulse whilst lying down which was racing at around 115 bpm…and I knew that meant my body temperature was likely over 40 degrees (luckily cycling with a few doctors previously had left me with some knowledge)! I had about 5 litres of water on me which was all warm and some rehydration sachets so I stripped off as much as possible and took the rehydration tablets. I then spent the next 6 hours until sun down, in and out of consciousness, hallucinating, being sick and mildly panicking I was actually going to die in the Chinese desert in a tunnel filled with shit from self inflicted sun stroke 😵
About 7pm around dusk I decided to try to cycle on and find a suitable place to put up my tent…this tunnel wasn’t tall enough for me to even stand in or wide enough for me to lie down in and the desert drops to around 0 degrees at night so thought I should try to find a place I could put the tent. Still feeling extremely weak, still having weird hallucinations and trembling I got back on the bike…After about 1km two motorcyclists came from behind me and pulled in…it was surreal…I spent the whole time leaning over my handlebars with my head resting on my bullbars with tears in my eyes, feeling as sorry for myself as humanly possiblewhile they filmed and took numerous selfies with me…they then filled my panniers with as much cans of redbull, bottles of water, slices of walnut cake and bags of dried jujube’s (which I hate) as I could fit and sped off. About another 1km further up the road, which felt like 50km I came to a fairly large bridge and decided it was the perfect campspot gift…and even better when I went underneath to check it out there was 3 Chinese cyclists huddled around a camp fire…of course they couldn’t speak English…I began to internally cry and they confusingly helped me setup my tent…where I then collapsed fully clothed inside and with the exception of coming out to be sick I stayed there for 24 hours! Anyways this bizzare day is one of the most memorable worst days I’ve had but I was also extremely lucky to have met other people that helped me!
I got up real early the next morning and made it to the next oasis town of Hotan 100km away…I was so happy to be able to stay in a hotel for the night…but China was determined to make this difficult…after 5 hotel rejections for being ‘an alien’…finally me and my bike were passed out on a king size 😝
After a good night sleep I was happy to find out breakfast was included…that is until I got down there…spiced noodles, vegetables, soy sauce, steamed buns…sat there fucking about with chopsticks first thing in a morning when you’re starving…not for me…but I did go buy a pair and ate every meal for the duration of China with them…it was slow progress! I bought myself a hat and a long sleeve shirt and decided not to cycle between the hours of 12-3pm…hoping not to suffer the same mistake a second time!
As usual in China my day didn’t pass completely uneventful…after over 100km of rocky boring straight desert road I hit the next town but I really didn’t want to pay for accommodation two nights in a row so I pulled up on the edge of town and was immediately ushered over to a small shop by a lady with a young baby. She gave me noodles and fruit and wouldn’t let me pay for anything so I thought I’d ask her if there was a safe place to pitch my tent…in China they have these ‘beds’ everywhere…by beds I mean a wooden slab with a a carpet on. Anyway..they are everywhere…inside and outside shops and the staff are always sleeping on them…so the lady gestured to the bed outside the shop. It wasn’t ideal as there was a few stores and people around but I thought it’d do…so after they left I got my sleeping bag out n went to sleep there. Around 1am I felt something shaking my foot…I opened my eyes to 8 armed police men standing around me 🚓 👮🏽 👮🏽👮🏽👮🏽👮🏽👮🏽👮🏽👮🏽…after about an hour of confusion they said it was very dangerous here and I had to go to a hotel…but the nearest one was 10km away and I wasn’t allowed to cycle. They decided I had to go in the car and one of the police officers had to cycle the bike to the hotel…so on he hopped…fell off…three times. It was hilarious…like some kind of stupid comedy sketch and finally the stern scarey armed police lightened up and everybody was laughing at this idiot 😂 but after the third fall I got annoyed and snatched the bike back. They let me ride the bike the 10k with two police car escorts with lights flashing the whole way!
After an eventful week…I had a couple of standard days…saw a few wild camels in the desert which was really cool. One day as I was cycling along with nothing but a straight road and bland rocky desert for visual stimulation when I saw a man in the distance…looking really random with one of those dodgy Aussie hats on pushing a huge self built wheelbarrow type thing through the sand…I was intrigued so got off the bike and went over. It turned out to be an English guy called Rob Lilwall who’s book (cycling home from Siberia) I had read a few months previously…he was trying to cross the desert on foot self supported! I couldn’t believe I had bumped into this guy in the middle of the Taklamakan desert…this would be the only non Chinese person and English conversation I would have for 7 weeks and I was extremely grateful for it ☺
Most of the desert I had ridden up until about halfway through the Taklamakan had been a little underwhelming but the landscape began to change and it got really beautiful. Up until this point the sand was gravely, the landscape was very flat and the colours were a dull yellow but now the sand was real sand, there was sand dunes every where and I could see the outline of the Kunlun mountains which separate China from Tibet and look really amazing with snow capped mountains…some over 7,000m. It’s amazing to see snowy mountains when you are sweating your arse off in a desert…and that’s why I love China…everything is possible ☺
People have a habit of coming along at the perfect time and this was very true in a stint of the desert with a 315km gap between towns…which had caught me off guard as the two ‘towns’ marked on the map were nonexistent when I arrived and I didn’t have enough water. Luckily for me a BMW X5(probably the only one I saw in the whole of Xinjiang province) came past me and pulled in…three men got out…one of them was an older doppelgänger of the Chinese dude out of “The Hangover”…probably the most eccentric guy I’ve ever met in my life…it was a bizzare meeting but he gave me a heap of apples, red bull (of course) and lots of bottles of water 🙏
The next couple of days riding were awesome…the sand dunes, the stars, the camping spots and being complete alone to really appreciate it all was really amazing. I also experienced a sandstorm one evening which was pretty scary but equally cool. When I arrived in the next oasis town of Qiemo I was just planning on a quick bite to eat, resupply and head out of town to find a quiet campspot but as I was sat in a small restaurant probably eating plain frigging rice 🍚 in stepped Du Sheng (the eccentric Chinese guy from a few days ago) and his two cronies. You have to trust your gut instinct when dealing with new people and weigh them up quickly…I got a good vibe from Du Sheng and decided to accept his offer to pay for my hotel room. I’m glad I trusted my instinct, he turned out to be a really good guy…he owns a big company in Shenzhen and I went out to dinner with him and some friends of his…none of who could speak English…but it was still a good time. From what I could understand he was on a month vacation looking for precious stones.
The next morning I had soooo much breakfast…the Chinese breakfast of rice porridge, steamed buns, noodles and pickled veg has grown on me now…one thing that hasn’t grown on me and never will is Chinese table manners…my god…they are absolute pigs 🐷 mouth open, chomping, slurping, spitting and burping is common place!
I was getting towards the edge of the desert now and there was farmland intermittently and lots of women cotton picking in the fields. I loved eating and trying to share my lunch with them…they were always so confused and creeped out by me 🙈 The landscape became a strange mix of desert and mountains as I left Ruoquang County and started to close in on the Qinghai border. The edge of the Taklamakan desert borders the gobi desert…I couldn’t fucking believe it not more desert but I was soon to be heading south away from the deserts and up into the Kunlun mountains 🚵♀️
Rouqang count…the edge of the desert…who knows what this building was
From Ruoquang County I had only 200km of cycling to a mountain pass of 3,600m. I was loving the change in landscape and a change in cycling as I began the long climb to the top of the pass. The weather began to feel cooler as I began to climb and I camped the first night in a trusty tunnel at 1,850m elevation and got up early the next morning so I could make it to the top of the pass in good time. The gradient of inclines in China astounds me…there is some serious altitude roads but no main roads have a gradient steeper than 8%…in fact it was rare I was doing much more than 6%…but the ascents drag on forever…this one in particular I climbed for 120km and almost 2,500m elevation gain! The top had some amazing views but was freezing so I didn’t stick around for too long before layering up and starting the decent! Unfortunately the descent was pretty short lived and after 40km at sun down I decided to call it a day and set up the tent at altitude of 3,100m.
Great ingenuity by me in case any cars came through at night I set up a huge rock barrier 😂
The next morning was absolutely freezing…my tent was covered in frost and I had to run up and down the banking to warm up before I could pack up my stuff! I love the mountains but started feeling a little apprehensive as to what was in store for me over the next four weeks climbing to over 4,800m heading into winter 😵 I crossed the border and left Xinjiang province and entered Qinghai and felt pretty welcome as a very excited border control official took selfies with me ✌️
Qinghai had a slightly more relaxed feel to it…the electric scooters were replaced with 4x4s, the Uighur people dissappeared and were replaced with ethnic Tibetans and the high police and security presence faded away a little.
After another couple days riding I finally reached my first turning since I left Kashgar 17 days earlier. It doesn’t sound like a big deal but after 2,090km on the same road it was an awesome feeling to finally turn off and get on a new road. Two Chinese truck drivers who had pulled up on the side of the road helped me celebrate with a cup of boiling water, some pears and a really grim pork steamed bun…so much for trying to be a vegetarian 😵
That night I found a really great camping spot in a ditch behind a big sand dune but the wind was pretty strong and there was a small sand storm brewing and I spent most of the night awake…scared that the sand storm was going to create a sand avalanche and bury me inside my tent.
Dragged myself out of the tent at 5am, feeling pretty tired from the lack of sleep and decided to hit the road. The wind was still really strong and it was hard work trying to pack the tent away and the sand was blowing everywhere…in my eyes, mouth, all my bags and I felt pretty cranky 🖕Until I pushed my bike back to the road and realised I had a fucking tail wind! Yes life…I was over the moon as I got shoved along the road and managed to do 188km by the end of the day…the most I had done on the whole trip upto this point 🌪🚴♀️🌝 …treated myself to a night in a truckers hotel at a police checkpoint because it was so windy as I could not be arsed battling on with that damn tent…fucking gross it was 🤐 I don’t think anyone knows what a filthy ‘hotel’ is until they have been to China…I didn’t know it at that point but I had much worse to come!
So many people stopped to give me food,water, encouragement and of course grab a selfie 🙈…are my pants high enough…Christ
The wind had decided to flip around overnight and I now had a strong headwind for my final stint into Germu…it was actually making me scream at the top of my voice with frustration! After a few kilometres I came across a national park…huuuuggge sand dune thing and decided to check it out…the guards let me in for free…looked after my bike and sent me off with a random family for a picnic up on the sand dune…was the perfect remedy to get over that headwind!
I was guessing this was fracking?! But I don’t actually know
I finally made it to Germu at around 9pm in the pitch black with two out of battery lights and my head torch on backwards. I was going so slow because after being in China a month by this point I know how health and safety works over here…it doesn’t…you hurt yoursel, it’s your own fault! Anyways just as I was thinking about the possibility of a massive uncovered manhole I came across a man lying unconscious…half in, half out of an uncovered man hole with his bicycle on top of his legs looking a little worse for wear! I stopped and hurried over to him…his face was lying in a pool of blood and I had to shout n shake him…but he slowly came back around! I helped him over to sit on a wall at the side of the road…got my first aid kit out n helped clean him up a little but his face was a mess n he needed to go to hospital! I can barely speak a word of mandarin and don’t have a phone so I managed to flag a car down to help the poor guy!
I was so exhausted by the time I got to Germu and could barely hold my shit together when I got rejected by 6 hotels that couldn’t take ‘aliens’ before finally finding a hotel that would let me in! The most frustrating thing is that they don’t help you and tell you where you can go they just shake their heads at you n flap you away dismissively!
I got really mad with these two who decided to stand there and stare at me for a full thirty minutes whil I ate my lunch…you need to embrace the staring and the lack of personal space if you go to west China…they don’t give a shit! I’ve turned around to people latched onto the end of my hair discussing it amongst each other, photographs of me eating, people stroking my skin, prodding my nose!