Sunday, 5 May 2013

114. Into the Gobi

Leaving Yongchang, the Hexi corridor's famous wind finally caught up with us and kept progress in the single digits as we gradually climbed up to a pass. Settlements were sparsely scattered and after filling the panniers with supplies in Shuiquanzi from a couple of village shops we pushed on. Ellie was still dealing with the sinusitis and we crouched down in a dry irrigation trench while sipping tea from the flask. The pass itself was a wide open plain that gradually tipped forward. We camped up in a drainage tunnel under the busy G30 that gave good shelter. Ellie was asleep before our dinner of vegetables and noodles was ready. 

The wind forecast on weather underground was right again as a gentle flutter from the east soon became a ferocious tailwind. We soon got exasperated at the broken state of the old G312 as we descended towards Shandan and after 10 km we took advantage of a gap that locals had made in the fence protecting the G30 and we were soon whizzing down the motorway shoulder at 40 kph. Remnants of the Great Wall lay just to our right. The earthen wall crumbling back into the ground in many spots but still impressive as it ran to the horizon across the featureless plain.

After Shandan we met Sam, a Japanese-German transcontinental cyclist pedalling east and we chatted by the roadside for awhile before he pushed on slowly into the fierce headwind. We covered the 130 km to Zhangye by early afternoon and made our way over to Hexi university campus where Justin, an American teacher and couchsurfing host, very kindly put us up for three days while Ellie recovered. Zhangye is another important Silk Road stopover, birthplace of Khublai Khan and home to Marco Polo for a year. Little remains from that era but the city is friendly and fun to explore. We hung out with Justin and his sister  Dorothy in the evenings and caught up on some films.

Two more favourable days brought us the 250 km to Jiayuguan. The fort that guards the nearby Jiayu pass was the last stronghold during imperial China and was responsible for keeping the barbarians beyond in the desert. It was also the primary route between the Middle Kingdom and the west and linked Rome with Xian and the lands between in an exchange of goods, philosophy and ideas. Exiled poets, criminals and soldiers passed through Jiayuguan gate into oblivion, most never to return. As we walked the walls of the fort yesterday a thick pall of black smoke drifted over the site from vegetation that was being cleared giving the impression that the fort was under attack. Most of the buildings were covered in scaffolding as reconstruction takes place. Camel rides, quads and tennis ball firing cannons now stood out on the western plain where previously the barbarian armies of central Asia and demons of the Gobi would have been anxiously watched for.

Our highway, the 312, follows the northern Silk Road and over the next ten days we are desert bound for Xinjiang autonomous region and the old oasis cities of Hami and Turpan.

Jiayuguan, Gansu, PRC
Pedalled: 70,234 km

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