There is another update in me, about general experiences in China and how some things have changed, but a lot have remained the same. That is going to be for another time as it is getting late in the afternoon and I am running out of steam and want to do this bit about the desert instead.
In my Update from Urumqi, I mentioned two other bikers that reported on their experiences in the desert. One of these two was Graydon Hazenberg my roommate in the Bogeta Hotel in Urumqi. He was there when I arrived and still there when I left. Actually when I arrived he was on his way back from a hiking trip to the Sky Lake near Urumqi and what I saw was just his bike and his gear. Serious biker this guy is.
Anyway between resting, banking, and waiting for my visa extension to be processed we had a lot of time to compare bicycle adventures. This is when I heard about his experience in the desert. Later, after he returned to Canada he wrote the same in more detail. It was the oral version that was the most instrumental in my decision to take the bus to JaiYuGuan.
Selections from Graydon's report:
Toronto, July 3, 2002
Stage 2, Dunhuang-Urumqi, 1175 km - It took a few seconds for my mind to register what I had just seen. I was being blown at tremendous speed across the Gobi desert on my bicycle, zipping up hills at 20 km/h with my legs resting on my crossbar, letting the wind battle gravity for me. The landscape was unbearably desolate, with not a blade of vegetation to break the monotonous parched earth that stretched to the horizon. It was a sunny day, and the
ferocious heat combined with the wind to make me feel as though I was riding through a convection oven. I had 8 litres of water with me, and I had drunk my way through more than half, but my mouth was still as dry as the desert around me. As I was pushed up another small incline, I happened to look down into the ditch beside the road, where I saw what I took to be yet more garbage strewn along the roadside, the latest installment in a 2000-km trail of broken glass, plastic bottles, lone shoes, old clothes, shredded tires, plastic bags and leftovers of innumerable roadside picnics. It looked like a pile of abandoned clothes, and it wasn't until I had passed it that my mind registered that the clothes seemed neatly arranged, almost as though they were on a mannequin. Then I realized that the mannequin had an arm protruding from a sleeve, and the arm seemed black and leathery, rather like that of a mummy. I stopped, wheeled the bike around and went back to take another look.
It was, of course, not a mannequin. Instead I found myself looking at a dead human body, legs drawn up into a sitting position. The exposed arm was as black as a 2000-year-old mummy, but in the air there was still a strong odour of death and decay, and the body seemed still to be in the throes of rigor mortis. The head was concealed by the back of the jacket, but the shape revealed by the fabric seemed too small and oddly shaped, as though it had been shattered with a blow. I sat back on my bicycle, shocked, and thought
about what to do. The man, judging by his tattered clothes, had been a tramp, one of the small army of mentally ill men (I never saw a female tramp) who wander the highways of China, their hair matted into dreadlocks, their possessions in gunny sacks, their eyes speaking of a schizophrenic inner world only glancingly tangent to the one you and I inhabit. I don? know what happened to him; conceivably he ran out of water in this arid, inhospitable wasteland, where 130 km separate adjacent water sources, and sat down beside the road to die. Possibly, and more tragically, he was hit by a truck,
perhaps with the outside wing mirror; Chinese truck drivers are notoriously careless, and it was a rare day that I didn? see at least one truck being pulled
out of a river or from the bottom of an embankment. If a truck had hit this unfortunate man, with no witnesses likely in the middle of the Gobi Desert, the
driver might well simply have driven on, leaving his victim where he fell.
What preyed on my mind in the days to come was that the body in the ditch could so easily have been mine. The inhospitable desert stretches separating Dunhuang and Hami, and between Hami and Turfan, are the bleakest, most dangerous places I have ever cycled. In western Tibet, there are long stretches without settlement or food, but there is always water to be had, and the weather is rarely so hot that you get dehydrated. In the Gobi, water just doesn't occur except in widely separated oases that can take a day or more to reach by bicycle. In a pinch, a thirsty cyclist can always try to flag down passing vehicles to beg for water, but there'd always the spectre of heatstroke as well. If you suddenly faint from heatstroke (not inconceivable when the temperature tops 40 degrees and the sun hits you like a hammerstroke), it could be days or weeks before someone bothers to stop to collect your corpse, as the body I found testified. Or if an erratically driving truck hits you, noone will stop to help you until you are as mummified as my unfortunate fellow traveller. These were not comforting thoughts.
My trip through this treacherous landscape began in Dunhuang after a good breakfast in a tourist cafe? I rolled through the greenery of the oasis, shaded by Lombardy poplars, until, 20 km from town, I rolled out into the gravel of the desert. It was at this point that I realized that the light-hearted easy downwind days that I had ridden to get to Dunhuang were over. I spent the entire day crawling gradually uphill into a stiff crosswind, my progress limited to 13 km/h. The only recompense I had were fine morning views of the snow-capped mountains south of Dunhuang that mark the edge of the Tibetan plateau. I had to quit some 40 km from the main highway and beg water from passing cars in order to have enough to cook dinner. The next day I laboured uphill into the wind until unchtime when a strip of squalid restaurant-cum brothels marked the intersection with the main Lanzhou-Urumqi highway. I ate enormously, then turned west into a blissful tailwind that erased memories of the preceding day and a half. The landscape was hilly and bone-dry, and I had soon drained most of my water supplies. Luckily by late afternoon I had reached a small spring that supported a cement factory (in the middle of uninhabited desert?) and a tiny general store at which I stocked up on water. Then, near dusk, I came into the tiny town of Xingxingxia, overlooked by old earthen fortifications on the surrounding hills, that marked the border between Gansu and Xinjiang provinces. I feasted, then rode just out of town to camp in peace and quiet (two things utterly lacking in Chinese hotels) in the desert.
The next morning I started by riding back into Xingxingxia to eat again and load up on water and snacks. According to my map, there were a couple of
towns ahead of me, 75 and 105 km away, at which I should be able to get water and maybe some food. I started off with a long uphill, but within 10 km I had ridden into a windtunnel that was blowing me along at a comfortable pace without me moving a muscle. This was just as well, since the hot, dry wind was dehydrating me plenty without me working up a sweat to make it worse. The winds of this desert are infamous, and both Marco Polo and Xuan Zang refer to the constant winds whose whistling can drive men mad, convincing them that the noise is that of supernatural beings and sirens, luring them from the main path to their dessicated death. It was on this afternoon that I found the corpse, and after that I biked along in a state of mingled depression and apprehension. The apprehension increased when the settlements shown on my map, both of which were heralded by distance signs
on the highway, proved to be cruel cartographers jokes.
Both had signs saying "Welcome to Nowhereville" in both Chinese and Uighur, but the signs were the only evidence that people had ever lived there. As I was now almost entirely out of water, the non-existence of these villages was a
serious concern. Then, as though to taunt me further, the road began climbing uphill, out of the featureless desert, and veered enough to turn the tailwind into a crosswind. My speed slowed down to barely walking pace, and, as the sun beat down on me, I began thinking about the likelihood of sunstroke. Eventually, tired and thirsty, I crawled into a road culvert and sheltered from the sun for half an hour before continuing to slog uphill. Finally, 130 km from Xingxingxia, I came to a derelict roadside complex that still had one person living in it, and there I drank so deeply of the cool spring water that
he had that I thought I might burst. Refreshed but still worn out by the heat and the sun, I crawled the remaining 10 km to a small oasis where I sat for a few hours drinking litres of cold drinks and gorging myself on fried noodles before crawling off to camp in a roadside orchard. It had been a harrowing day. By now I thought that the worst of the desert crossings were over. In the distance, ahead of me, I could see the glaciated peaks of the Tien Shan, the
Celestial Mountains. While the road as far as Dunhuang had followed the northern slopes of the Nan Shan, the mountains on the northern boundary of
cultural Tibet, over the past few days I had crossed the narrow neck of the Gobi desert that separates the Nan Shan from the Tien Shan. It is this absence of mountain glaciers that explains the utter lack of water in this desert; all the oases of western China derive their life-giving water from glacial meltwater in the mountains overlooking them. Now, according to my discredited map, the road would follow the southern edge of the Tien Shan, presumably through an almost continuous band of oasis.
I spent the following morning riding hard through the desert to reach the major town of Hami. The road followed the edge of the oasis but stayed out in the
desolate gravel, presumably so as not to waste valuable agricultural land by building the road through the oasis. For the second time in the trip (the first was on the way into Anxi), I was pursued by a swarm of angry bees intent on divebombing my head. The bees, for some strange reason, regard the asphalt
of the highway as their territory. To escape from them, it was only necessary for me to move a metre into the sand of the desert, but as soon as I rejoined
the road, I was under attack again.
June 3, exactly a month after leaving Xian, I headed off towards Turpan, the next great oasis west of Hami. It has the distinction of being the second lowest
point on earth after the Dead Sea, at about 250 metres below sea level, and as a consequence it is the hottest place in China in the summer. I knew that I
had 150 km ahead of me that day, including sidetrips, but I figured that it had to be downhill most of the way, especially at the end. Sometimes I think too
much for my own good. The day was hot, blazingly hot, but at least I had the occasional small oasis to provide food and cold ice tea and water to replenish
my waterskin. I rode along the base of the Tien Shan, wondering where the road would lead, and was surprised when it suddenly dived to the left down a narrow gorge of red rock. As I descended the temperature, already hot, soared to furnace levels. Near the bottom of the gorge, I found the turnoff for the Beziklik Thousand-Buddha caves and sweated my way 7 km up a small tributary valley to one of Turpan's main attractions.
I made my way back to my bike, convinced that I could knock off the remaining 40 km in under two hours. After all, it had to be downhill, right? Wrong. It took over three hours to get to Turpan town, uphill the entire way into a strong headwind. As it turned out, Gaochang was located nearly at the bottom of the Turpan depression. I had drunk 10 litres of fluid that day, and yet I was still dehydrated, a result of the 43 degree heat. As I neared town, my pace slowed bit by bit as I completely ran out of energy. By the time
I made it into town, it was 11 pm, pitch black and blowing a hurricane. I ate and then collapsed gladly into bed.
I took three rest days in Turpan, seduced by the cold beer and the conversations with fellow travellers, and driven into sloth by the heat. One day I rode out to more ruins, those of Jiaohe; they were better preserved than those of Gaochang but lacked the dramatic backdrop, and the midday sun quickly drove away any enthusiasm for poking around. Another day I took the bus into Urumqi to start the week-long process of getting my Kazakh visa, and then, on my return, biked out to the Emin Minaret, a dramatic, squat brick cylinder squatting out in the midst of more vineyards. It was beautiful in a Central Asian way, decorated with geometric brickwork, but surrounded by a vast sea of Chinese souvenir stands; local Muslims are banned from worshipping there except on Friday afternoons, as they would interfere with the flow of admission-paying tourists. A third day was spent lethargically sending e-mail and drinking more beer.
I was only 200 km from Urumqi, and the two Uighur robocyclists had planned to ride there from Turpan in one long day, but I figured on two days for myself. As it turned out, it was two and a half days, as my first day's progress was brought to a crashing halt by the strongest winds I have ever experienced. I don't know what the wind speed was; I would guess something like 100 km/h. The wind was strong enough to blow decent sized branches down the highway. It was so strong that I could not pedal against it, and could barely push my bike through it. It took over 5 hours to cover my last 25 km. When I finally gave up and found a sheltered place to camp, I found that my front fender had been torn right off the bike without me even noticing. The winds were strong. I went to bed exhausted, only to be buffeted by torrential rains all night.
The next day was easier, as I set off early enough to escape the winds. I continued up the Valley of the Hurricane and finally emerged on the flat grasslands in the middle of the Tien Shan that are the home of the nomadic Kazakh herders. I rode through the grasslands until they gave way to the familiar gravel plains, covered (no surprise) with an array of nearly 1000 windmills to generate power. Thinking I was still 30 km from Urumqi, I camped in a range of pretty grass hills that reminded me of Tibet. The next morning I found myself in the suburbs of the city within 9 km. It took forever to find my way to a hotel, but I still had a free afternoon to run errands and snooze, worn out by my battle with the wind.
Zai Qian, Kher Khosht and Goodbye