Wednesday 30th May – Desert run to Turfan by Simon

When you get the map of Asia spread out on the table the first thing your mind does is shrink it. Quite a lot of central east Asia and especially the Taklimakan and Gobi desert have few roads and fewer cities so you mind shrinks it still further. Xingiang is the biggest provence in China. It appears as a big brown blob on a relatively green map. In reality it is a vast hot high altitude plateau and now we are really beginning to feel the size of it. Yesterday we crossed 350 miles of the this Desert- we saw about 20 people and a few trucks. An example of our scale readjustment problems is our refuelling. Normally a tank of fuel will last about one and half days but at reasonably high altitude ,at high temperature and a forced march of nearly 400 miles. We are having to use our spare fuel supplies twice in one day. We carry an extra 100 litres in the van.The Chinese authorities do not allow motor bikes to directly refuel and so we have to take our three 22litre fuel cans out of the van , decant and refill twice a day now. In temperatures of over 40 deg C with loose petrol flowing down the saddles of the bikes we put our cigars out!

Fuel topped off in both van and bikes and the early morning temp kicking off at a pleasant 17 deg C we thought today would be a picturesque run through the hills to Turfan. It wasn’t, it was the bleakest, toughest ride we have done so far . 375 miles of sand, mountain, one city and two blades of grass and the top temperature at about 43 deg C. When I got the map out at the end of the day and had a look how far we had gone since Tour U ghat- virtually nowhere. This part of China is gi- normouse – it makes the Mojave Desert look like a sand pit on the one sunny day in June. Not only that, after lunch in the roughest service station in the world, we set off through a range of desiccated mountains and appeared to be going down hill. And down hill, and more down hill. We knew that Turfan our destination was low but it wasn’t until later that we saw that we had gone from an arid plain at 10,000 ft down through the biggest switchback I have ever ridden to a flare out at Turfan at the princely altitude of MINUS 200 metres above ( or below if you like ) Sea level. A 10,200 ft desecnt on a road like the Cresta Bob Sleigh Run and if you are driving a 40 tonne truck over laden to 60 tonne you may need some stopping assistance?? Some of the emergency run out areas are the size of Snowdon.

If I were forced at gun point to test a nuclear weapon I would probably do it around here because it is such a geological and ecological ShoneT hole that the chances are that rearranging some of the molecules could well make it better. And until recently I don’t think anyone lived here. Check your history because I may not be the first person to have thought of this.

I have had a calm scenic ride in my little van and have followed the lads down the hills to the Turfan depression. It has been a cool and pleasant day in my cab, listening to Patrick O’Brian and sucking on some nice spring water. At the bottom of the hills we stop for a rest. I open the door of the van I have jumped out into a blast furnace- air at 42 deg C. The guys have been drinking 4-6 litres per day in the saddle to keep cool . Their physiology appears to have completely adjusted to these conditions and they are enjoying it!!!!!!..

I’ll take you through a few shots to see if we can give you a feeling of what must be by far the biggest hotest dust pan in the world.

Climbing the northern rim of the Taklimakan we come upon a Spanish couple who have biked from Barcelona- we tell them to look out for Nathan. Also the police think Richard is very cuddly

 

Barcelona-Beijing

In China road safety is improving and mortality has halved in ten years but their trucks are massive!!??

seriously big trucks

we start out descent

start of the plateau

The road winds down through a completely lifeless range of brown mountains- 4000 metres

3000m

Brake failure and you looking at ski jumping a 60 tonne truck on one an olympic sized ramp!

AE 882 if your brakes are not working take that ski jump

 run outBit dry at the bottom

42 deg c at the bottom

And this guy is not  bothered

rest day tomorrow

Simon

Tuesday, May 29 – Minfeng to Luntai – Across the Taklamakan – Dave

Awoke in the spartan Minfeng government guest house to the sound of loudspeakers blasting out ‘important government messages’ for the locals – a modern version, I suppose, of the Muezzin’s calls to prayer that echoed around Xinjiang for centuries.

Today is a big day for us, the crossing of the Taklamakan desert – source of the many British Museum treasures unearthed by Aurel Stein (someone gifted me a copy of Hopkirk’s  fascinating ‘Foreign Devils on the Silk Route’ before I left), but also the graveyard of many a Silk Route traveler.

We left Minfeng and headed north towards the desert.   We have now been in China a week and, despite cloudless skies have yet to see the sun, such is the incredible level of dust pollution.

As we find the narrow road north we’re surprised to find ourselves not in sand dunes, but rather in marshland – the snow melt of Tibet leeching out into the edge of the desert.

 

….however, this soon gave way to the desert proper, so Simon waded off into the dunes to take this photo of the road.  There is next to no traffic – we are alone on this incredibly long, dead straight road.

 

Comparing the desert with the ocean is an age-old trope, but for a reason – dunes rolling like waves to unbroken horizons, sand blown over the surface like a fine mist of spray etc. etc.   The motorbike ahead carves out a sharp wake as it blasts through the layer of fine sand that covers the road.  It’s strangely hypnotic  and even pleasurable riding  – especially after the madness of Chinese city traffic.  For a change one’s thoughts can safely drift and tens of miles disappear in what seem like an instant.

For hundreds of kilometers the Chinese have attempted to prevent sand dunes forming on the road by irrigating twenty meters on each side and planting tough shrubs.  Every five or ten kilometers there’s a small blue building housing a well and pump and water is pumped to the shrubs via what must be thousands of kilometers of hosepipe.  It has taken ten years to accomplish all this, but seems to be working.  For these sections it creates for us the strange effect of riding along a green corridor and only occasionally glimpsing the infinite desert beyond.

We stopped for a simple lunch by the road.  By now the temperature was hovering around 100 F, but we were all coping fine, even enjoying it…

 

…so when, at 2:30, we arrived at the sleazy little halfway community that has grown up to service truck drivers and bus passengers, and took one look at our hotel, we decided to push on.

So it was back to another three hundred kilometers of nothing but sand and a blinding but sunless sky.  A bleached-out world.

When we finally made it to our hotel at Luntai – having crossed the 600KM of desert in one day rather than the planned two – we were shattered but content.  How the hell Aurel Stein lived for years in that searing void is a testimony to the extreme power of man’s curiosity and/or ambition.

Thanks, as always, to Simon for the wonderful photos.  And best to you all.

Dave

Monday 28th May- Hotan to Minfeng- Simon

We have left Hotan for a further 250 kms of desert road inter spliced with the oases fed by the Tibet Plateau. Our goal is Minfeng, and as we later discover it is the Milton Keynes of Xingiang, a new town with wide three lane boulevards in both directions and government missives broadcast from the roof of the local administrative buildings. -on the way we have our usual entertaining assortment of obstacles and modes of transport.

spot the obstacles

The dust and lower atmosphere pollution prevents us from seeing what should be the ramparts of an impressive range of mountains to the south of us. We know they are close but are they occluded by a desert breeze that picks all the crap from the Kaliimakan and swirls it in front off us. We get glimpses of big sand dunes, desert rivers and then periods of green poplars where the water has been tamed and irrigated to provide shade and agriculture for a small town. Primitive buildings perhaps but make do ariels show that everyone is plugged into the local TV:-

Between the desert stretches sections the local population  fire up their fine chariots

Others less fortunate just walk ( this maybe some hardy European who has decided to walk from London to Beijing- we never found out!)

lonely man on the desert stretch

Xingiang Provence is mostly desert but still there great volumes of water flowing through it.

Wadi

Over the years these streams have been contained and channeled to form fingers of green, like the fertile land either side of the Nile, stretching for miles along the water courses. We rush from the searing bright heat of desert to jade coloured avenues of poplars. My camera cannot cope with the changes in light intensity and shuts down for short periods.

The guys on the bikes are whizzing through air at temperatures between about 28 and 38 deg C . This in fact ideal for them. At 40-60 mph they can evaporate loads of sweat and keep very cool. They carry tanker loads of water or electrolyte based fluids to rehydrate en route. I however am lucky I sit in the cool of an air-conditioned cab. When we shoot the tunnels of poplars there is a stretch of cool  shade which is an added bonus for the bikers. Out in the hot bright air they stand on their pegs to get a full frontal of dry desert wind which turbo s the evaporation and also to give their legs a stretch.

Only problem is that when standing, the mirrors point in the wrong direction – you can see Dave looking back to check that I am still there and also to see if it safe to pull out round that sheep truck.

Back into the extreme haze and heat . More local travellers cart their wares more or less successfully to the next market

Straw hedge hog

Just when it is getting really hot and dry -another stream and suddenly you have what looks like paddy fields!?

?paddy fields

We get stopped at a police road block. Initially I am singled out and told to pull over but suddenly, having spotted the Uk plates I am waved on but Paul and gerry our guides get stopped. They are charged with not wearing seat belts and are required to go 10 miles back to the previous town and pay at the police station.Paul argues that they always wear their belts and the only reason that Gerry was not was because the policeman had asked him for his licence which was in his hip bag which he couldnt open without undoing his belt. There was an enormous row which went on for over an hour. eventually the police rang head quarters and the fine was rescinded!

The last stretch to Minfeng- very hot and dry. Frequent twisters are being generated by the heat of the desert sand. In the morning they were about 10 metres across but by midday have doubled in size and can give the van and the bikes quite a wrench.

Twister

These twisters like to creep up you too, as Dave finds as he suddenly gets engulfed.

Dave hits dust twister

At 2.00 pm everyone is tired and since it is impossible to find a quiet place in the oasis towns we stop in the open desert for a break. Paul and Gerry erect a tent as quick as you like and have some coffee on the go. We wrench open a couple of tins of sardines and having quaffed a couple of swimming pools of water and coffee we remount for the final two hours into Minfeng.

Hydrated and ready for the last stretch-Richard and Nick

Quick kip before supper in our simple government hotel and a relatively early night in preparation for the trip northwards on the “ new Desert road “ as the map proudly describes . We have 700 km before we are out the other side.

simon

Sunday May 27 – Hotan – Dave

Unfortunately we were unable to time our visit to Kashgar to make the legendary Sunday market, so we spent today in Hotan to see their smaller version of it.

Firstly we went to the clothes and food section.  It was just cranking up for the day, but already heaving with people and full of tasty and not-so-tasty smells from stalls preparing lunch.

A woman sat on the ground singing her heart out and the yuan (some of them ours) flowed in…

And everywhere children ran about, playing or doing their best to help.

Then it was on to the animal market where cows, goats, sheep and camels arrived by truck, put-put or tractor-pulled trailer to be manhandled by a stream of potential buys eager to identify the cream of the flock.

On the way back to the hotel we bumped into the ubiquitous Nathan who had arrived in late last night after having cycled 190KM yesterday!

So he joined us for dinner along with another English tourist, Andrew Christie-Miller, who we’d met at the market and who was staying at our hotel.  And it turned out that he and John had pals in common.  Small world.

Best to you all,

Dave