Part Three — Leaving Hami for the Border of Gansu

Look carefully, you can see some shade — we took any opportunity like this to stop for a break

You may recall from the end of the last episode we were slowed down by another pannier breaking and forced to leave much of my equipment in a culvert under the road. The important thing was getting back out to the 165km milestone, on the G328 to collect my panniers and camping equipment which had to be left when we rode away. What happened was typical of a day in China, long distance riding, we set out early, it wasn’t easy to sleep anyway, and got underway before the sun was too hot. We were low on water, but not dangerously so. However, shortly after setting out we saw three trucks parked at the side of the road and did what all good cyclists in the desert would do, we asked if they had any spare water and we were able to top up with another 4 bottles between us. We travelled on to a point about 50km down the long road and stopped for a break in the shade of a broken-down truck, the driver of which was kind enough to give us another bottle of water each.

Last stop before the final push, this poor guy had been waiting 24 hours for a tow truck — it was still 12 hours away he told us: as he generously gave us three more bottle of water

So, after leaving this guy with the information that the next stopping point is about 30km away, we set out hoping to make it without any further stops. Knowing there was a truck stop, a restaurant and, perhaps somewhere to spend the night before heading on into Hami, a further 70–80km away.

Well, on arrival, we found it was a better organised place than we had been the day before, one building was a tyre repair shop for trucks, one was a restaurant, similar to the one we had slept in two days prior and there was a toll booth and petrol station. We were never so happy as we were that day to see civilisation. We know there were more deserts to come, but this spell was to be our longest away from any real civilisation. Nearly 300km across the driest place on earth and we had made it.

When you get out of the desert sun, there isn’t a better drink than this one — Pineapple beer

Better yet, after a good meal, which included several bottles of the most fantastically refreshing drink we had discovered, pineapple beer, we were able to chat with the guy who owned the tyre repair service. For a fee, which was high, but given that we were on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert and we didn’t have many options, we accepted (900 RMB, about $120, or £85) he would not only drive me back to pick up our bags, but would load our bikes into his truck, drive us into Hami, which we now knew was 60km away, and drop us at a hotel he knew could accept foreigners. Three people, 900rmb, we weren’t going to argue much, we got him down from 1000!!!

And this is why I say it was a typical day of riding long distances in China, there’s always someone willing to help you if you have a problem.

Everything was intact and untouched which was hardly surprising as there is not a living soul within 100 km. When we consider that it took the driver over four hours, including more than 30 minutes at one police check and 20 minutes at another, plus tolls of nearly 100 RMB, it probably wasn’t a bad deal but definitely hurt our budget.

When I say it was better organised than the other place, don’t misunderstand, it’s still a desert truckstop. The places aren’t known for their comforts but the food is good and the AC is on

When I say there isn’t a living soul anywhere near there, that isn’t strictly true. We had seen another biker on that road going in the same direction as us, he has been cycling for 9 years and never been home. We shared dinner with him in the truck stop the day before. Another cyclist we saw coming the opposite direction but he was well past the point where we left my equipment. The area we were in is called Lop Nor and is part of the Taklamakan desert that’s also quite famous for missile testing and rocket launching, but we didn’t see any of that.

An idea of riding in the desert, this is the view for the next 180–200km. It never changes

We do have more desert riding to do, but without a doubt, the road from Shanshan to Hami is a road I never want to go on again. Total exposure to extreme heat, mostly uphill in the direction we were heading until the last 40 km before Hami. Only trucks for company and total isolation from any form of human interaction. No one lives there, no one goes there, only trucks and a few mad cyclists exist there at any time. On the entire road from Turpan to Hami, there is only the one place we stopped at 80km out of Turpan and this one, 80km out of Hami, the total distance between the two of them is over 100km with not a tree, a rock or any other form of shade — the temperature was rarely below 35c (95f)

Ann points out where we are: Lop Nor Camel Reserve — also a testing site for nuclear weapons not so long ago

Getting into Hami, even with the driver being a local, was a difficult task. Several police checks and both Bev and I have had our passports checked several times. The presence is oppressive and it’s not a nice feeling, I certainly wouldn’t want to live here. Police visited the hotel when we checked in and took photos of our passports, they want our phone numbers and Ann has started telling them she is our translator rather than my wife. It’s less hassle and one less document to be checked as they always want to see the marriage book.

On a better note, after a good night’s sleep, we found a street with several bike shops and bought a new pannier rack for my bike and decided to upgrade the one on Ann’s bike. We also took the bikes and racks to a local tradesman and had wider holes drilled so we can put stronger bolts onto them. We also now have one spare pannier, from Ann’s bike, which I will carry in case of future emergency.

We’ve decided to take an extra day’s break in Hami for two reasons. One is that we are completely exhausted and today, so far has been all about fixing the bikes up. The other reason is that tomorrow, Monday, the temperature is forecast to be 33 and Tuesday is forecast to be 22. Given a choice, after our recent experience, riding in 22 will be a much wiser choice as we have more desert to cross between here and the Gansu border, as well as a big uphill climb to 1900 metres to get to Xing Xing Xia, the city on the border, which isn’t a city at all…

Day 11 and we have left Hami, heading towards Xing Xing Xia (which means many star canyon, or gorge), the border of Gansu. We left about 9:10 on a cool and cloudy day. There was a slight breeze but it was going in our direction. We travelled well out of the city, stopped for breakfast in the outer suburbs and set off on the G312 about 10:30. Within an hour it was perfect. I often say we don’t have many perfect days when we ride, usually something goes wrong in the morning or something goes wrong in the afternoon, today was no exception, but in fact it wasn’t a bad day at all. We had a fast ride for the first 4 hours and had covered over 65k when we stopped for lunch. During lunch, it seemed to get colder and it started to rain slightly. Strange how this is a very arid region, but 5 years ago, when I left Hami heading for Turpan, it started raining and even snowed. So now, we decided to camp on some open ground, between a few dunes, behind a service station, it’s only about 16C and it’s raining. It seems that every time I come to Hami, I arrive in intense heat and leave in cold rain.

Having said all that, the road conditions were perfect, some hills but equal amounts of up and down and our average speed was about 20kph. We settled for a very cool night, but not so cold that our tents and bags couldn’t keep us warm enough.

Another plug for our sponsors, the @Vaudesport jackets kept us both dry and warm and everything we possess is still dry inside of the panniers, backpacks and handlebar boxes.

The @StarRapid bikes are doing great, no mishaps today except another puncture for Ann which we changed and got going again with a minimum of fuss. And this was one of the better day’s riding so far in the journey having just tipped over 100km before stopping for the evening.

Day 12 was an interesting day. We are in Xing Xing Xia and with the exception of a few short downhill stretches, most of the journey from Hami has been uphill, over 200 kilometres.

One the evening after arriving in this town I wrote this:

“..and are now at the border of Gansu Province waiting to see if we can have a room or not. It looks like we will, but we’ve been advised to have a meal and wait for the boss of the hotel to come. We have no idea where the boss is coming from, Hami is 200k away, Yumen is 180k away and there is nothing else… All the binguans (guest houses) here have been ordered to close by the fire department. They apparently all have rooms but can’t let them. The local police have helped us and called in this boss guy. Last night was a cold and windy night, the rain stopped about 10pm but the wind kept up most of the night. We were warm and dry in our tents though, but getting out of the tent to go to the toilet was indescribably cold. There is a bit more of that to come too. Tonight, is forecast to be down to 4C. And already, we can feel it’s pretty cold, probably about 10C outside. Let’s hope the boss of the hotel is amenable”.

Onto the story of the ride today. Very hard, not brutal but gruelling. It wasn’t hot, thank goodness but the road is still quite remote. We did have the benefit of some stopping places where we could get food and drinks but they aren’t beautiful, very “rustic” Bev Calls it “Mad Maxish”. All we needed was a place to stop, rest, revive, rehydrate and go to the toilet. We had them all except the toilet. That’s a walk to the sand dune behind the truck stop with a wet wipe and a confidence that, even if anyone is watching, no one cares!

Anyway, we finished 100k again and I can’t express how proud I am of Ann. It’s a really tough job getting up these hills yet every time I turn around, there she is slogging her way to the top. When I say top, I need to emphasise what I really mean. There hasn’t been a top. Each time we think we are at the top, the road bends, there might be a flattening out but there is always another slope in front of us. Anyone who has access to google Maps can view the distance from Kumul (the real name of Hami) and Xing Xing Xia, look at the profile and you’ll see, it’s a constant uphill from sea level to 1800 metres above, without a single dip. I am sure that, in the last 200k we have climbed 180 of it. Yet Ann is still alongside and seems to be handling everything without a word of complaint.

Arriving in Xing Xing Xia we went through the same kind of security check we had been through in every town and city we had stopped at. Xing Xing Xia is an interesting one though, it’s the last, that’s important, because tomorrow we will be in Gansu and not so many police issues there. The town itself is not a town at all, it’s a row of shops, a row of hotels and nothing else except for a massive police station and a 5-lane highway in each direction with nothing but trucks and police cars going up and down all night.

After the police check and a cold beer with a warm meal, we met with a guy who had driven from somewhere but we don’t know where, just to open his hotel for us — the police officer was adamant that foreigners couldn’t sleep in their tent under the stairs, that was ok for another couple of cyclists we met, but he didn’t want us walking away from his town with the impression it was uncivilised. Once we met the hotel owner, he opened everything up for us and another cyclist who had joined us for dinner (one we would meet regularly over the next three weeks) a pair of older gentlemen who had already set up in the corridor and ourselves went to the hotel and occupied 5 different rooms — not bad business for a hotel that should have been closed.

Not the best place in town, but better than our tents!

And tomorrow, we start what I would call the second leg of the journey, two weeks and one day after leaving Urumqi, we will enter Gansu and see some wonderful things…

I’m British born Australian citizen. I live in Guangdong and have an MA in Cross Cultural Change Management. I write about China experiences on and off my bike