On the evening of my birthday, the Fed Ex tracking information changed from a forbidding red to a more pleasing blue and informed me that my replacement gear unit that Rohloff was shipping out from Germany had cleared customs and would be in Urumqi shortly. Three days later, with a newly installed gear unit running smoothly, we rode out of town at the ridiculous hour of 4 p.m. Here in western China, when you have sunlight until 10:30 pm now, you can do that sort of thing. The day prior to leaving I was down in one of the bike shops near the hostel getting some bits and pieces when I ran into Paul. We chatted for a bit, always eager to share tales from the road and in particular as we were going the same direction. Paul is riding from Korea back to the Gloucestershire. Before we headed back to the hostel to pick up Ellie and go for dinner we realised that we had a mutual friend - Troy, our Yankee cycling partner in southern Thailand and Malaysia last year who abandoned us for a boat. Troy had mentioned a couple of months back in an email that he knew someone who was also heading east this year and then in the middle of all this vastness we meet in a bike shop in Urumqi. But the small world got smaller when we also realised later that Paul's sister and Ellie's brother are old friends and Paul's sister works in Hanoi, Vietnam - where we met her for a pig brain feast when we passed through the city. Unfortunately Paul was waiting another few days for both his Kazakh visa and a package of bike bits, so it will probably be Bishkek before we catch up again.
So we left Paul and rode out of Urumqi and straight into the airport where we sheltered from some rain. We got lost a bit here trying to find the way onto the G312 and our route west but eventually got on track and dodged more showers as we passed through Changji. The few hundred kilometres along the northern foothills of the Tian Shan are completely different from the desert section we rode through in eastern Xinjiang. Here leafy towns are fed by tunnels that flow with meltwater and runoff from the mountains nearby, trees and green fields line the road for much of the way. It's also a lot more populated - migrant Chinese workers along with ethnic minorities such as Uigher, Kazakh and Mongol - living what seem like quite separate lives. Finding a quiet place to pitch up was slightly more challenging on this section and we often had to wait until dusk (10 p.m.) before diving in for cover off the roadside. After some forays past the ever-present roadworks, we got back onto the G30 motorway and headed west. Often one side of the motorway was still closed to traffic but we could get on and ride for kilometres with three lanes of perfect asphalt to ourselves while the motorists battled it out on the other side of the divide. Wonderful.
As we ate at a Muslim restaurant by the roadside near Jinghe the women motioned to the skies to indicate that a big storm was coming. Sure enough, a few minutes later a dust storm blew through and coated everything in the fine dust for a couple of hours. In the evening we continued on our way with a tailwind blowing us closer to where we'd start our climb over the Tian Shan and down to the border. That evening, however, we ended up arriving at night into a small town off the highway. The town was a mixture of Han and Muslim and we contemplated our options for the night. Since we already had 140 km on the clock, riding out in the dark to find a camping spot seemed like hard work, especially as there were no obvious places in the wide, open fields on the way in. Checking in at the one small hotel we could see would no doubt arose the authorities to our presence and we'd have to go through the usual form filling and registration. So instead we opted to ask at the police station if we could stay somewhere and we were quickly led by a team of eager young officers who were in the midst of a basketball game towards the hotel we'd seen. Halfway there however and we did a u-turn back to the station as it dawned on the sergeant that we should really go through all the registering and form filling and form stamping and questions before we settled into a room. They were an eager and pretty friendly bunch of officers and we sat in a room upstairs and asked all sorts of questions while our passports where thumbed through by everyone. Finally at midnight we got to go to bed.
Back out on the road the next day we continued towards our goal of the high altitude lake of Sayram Hu. Something hadn't agreed with Ellie, however, and she felt quite sick whilst we got her rear puncture fixed. A few kilometres on a rest stop appeared with a restaurant and petrol station and we parked up out of the coming thunderstorm and Ellie fell asleep on a worn couch in the restaurant while I ate tofu and beef noodles. By the late afternoon Ellie felt well enough to ride on and we climbed 16 km before pitching up under a bridge. The next day we reached Sayram lake which has a spectacular setting amid the snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan. Like many tourist sites in the country, however, it is undergoing an environmental apocalypse with trucks and diggers carving up the countryside for hotels and plastic yurts. They wanted 10 dollars each for us to enter, so we declined and rode on and found a gap in the fence along the highway and pitched up by the shoreline. Dinner was a bag full of vegetables that the cooks at the hotel beside the tourist centre insisted on giving us along with some bread.
The following morning we rode along the edge of the lake, passing a small yurt village, where the summer inhabitants fatten their animals on the grass whilst playing cowboys for the passing tourists and giving horserides. Transhumance continues today and as we descended back to the lowlands on the incredible new G30 that winds its way in a serpentine manner through tunnels and along elevated sections of highway, herders on horseback urged their flocks of sheep and goats up the other side of the highway to their summer pastures. We dropped down from 2100 metres to 800 metres and after a final double whammy with two punctures in my rear tube (all from the metal shards of blown out truck tyres) and a strong headwind we reached Khorgas and the border to Kazakhstan. Signs now appear in Russian and most people assume we're Russian, the lady of our hotel showing me the room yesterday and proudly stating that they had a Russian language news channel. We're having a rest day today here in Khorgas before crossing the border and into Kazakhstan tomorrow. We've covered 5,857 km in China this time around, averaging 85 km per day over 69 riding days. Together with the first leg I rode in 2011 through eastern China (when Ellie was back home recovering from a fractured elbow), it means I'll have ridden over 10,000 km in China alone, or about 12-14 per cent of the journey's total. Cycling-wise, western China has been a lot more pleasurable with its wide open spaces, less hectic roads and return to camping. Its still incredible to comprehend the scale and pace of development that is happening in this part of the world and its often hard not to be critical about the impact that future generations will bear, particularly in terms of damage and stress on the environment. While interactions with many of the people we meet on a daily basis are often greatly inhibited by the lack of our linguistic skills, we've almost always been met with smiles and wonderful encouragement from a country and people that have come through a lot.
Khorgas, Xinjiang, China
Pedalled: 72,223 km
Please note that as part of this trip I am fundraising for the Dublin-based Peter McVerry Trust who work primarily with supporting homeless youth and this year they mark their 30th anniversary. If you would like to make a donation, you can do so via my fundraising page on the mycharity.ie website (click here). Thank you.