Week 7 & 8: Entering the Taklamakan Desert (part 1)

Jiuquan, Gansu, China to Kumul, Xinjiang, China.

Jiuquan to Kumul (Hami in Mandarin) was always a part of the expedition that we were both worried about and thus week seven was started with trepidation. If you look at the map (see link above) you will see the road marks a border between two of the most inhospitable places on earth, the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts. Such names conjure up images of sandstorms, mirages of lush oases and the odd camel lumbering through the distant heat wave. Whilst each of these did not disappoint, it has been the mental rather than the physical battle which has been the most difficult to overcome.

Shortly after leaving Jiuquan, one of China’s most revered tourist sites appears only 20km up the road in Jiayuguan. After three and half years in China and never having visited the Great Wall Oli was excited to finally be getting the opportunity to see the second most visited part of the country’s most iconic landmark. The posters around the city showing the epic fort surrounded by snow-capped mountains heightened the sense of anticipation. Not helped by the worst day of pollution since we started (out here?  Really?) meaning the visibility went about as far as the port-a-loos 100m from the main towers, half the structure was under renovation and combined with some banale historical performances by 40 guys who were obviously bored stiff of their hourly performance, we were glad to get back on the road.

IMG_1654 Jiayouguan fort

That night we found a great little camping spot and going against all advice from our Discovery Channel heroes we pitched the tent right on the top of a hill, in full view of a village and exposed to a strong South-Westerly wind. Oli wanted to wake up to the sunrise on his 31st birthday and his wish came true. Despite a rather uncomfortable night because of the wind and from thinking about unwelcome guests (we had been warned that there were regular wolf attacks on sheep herds) it was a great start to a truly memorable day.

This is what the boys woke up to the morning of Oli's 31st birthday

This is what the boys woke up to the morning of Oli’s 31st birthday


This Shepherd left his flock to climb up to our camp to see (in vain) if we could make the music play on his phone

This shepherd left his flock to climb up to our camp to see (in vain) if we could make the music play on his phone

Room with a view

By mid-afternoon we had entered an area covered in reeds and water, making an almost swamp-like setting with flies and midges to compliment. Not what we had expected to find in a desert! Needless to say that after an excellent birthday dinner and celebratory beer, we left our new found friends behind and set out to find a place to camp.

Swamp in desert

Birthday lunch mark 2

When we posted "free bar" on our Weibo this was not the reception we were expecting

When we posted “free bar” on our Weibo this was not the reception we were expecting

Birthday dinner mrk 3

6pm became 7pm, became 8pm. Unfortunately we had never thought we would encounter such terrain on the expedition, especially at this point in the journey so Plan B was simply to ride out of the swamp (that didn’t officially exist). By 9pm we thought we had returned to our old friend, the dry, flat, enemy-of-mosquito desert so went off-piste to set up camp. Within a few moments of finding a suitable spot we were both getting eaten alive. Mosquitoes, sand flies, spiders running around our feet, all came out for a late night feast on the rare western delicacy that had been delivered to their party. This along with some rather large burrows nearby were enough to make us hit the road again despite the rapidly fading sun. Another hour and a half riding and under an immensly bright full moon, we finally found a place that was insect free and set up camp. After over 12hours riding and 140km covered, this was certainly a birthday neither of us will forget.

Stealth camping part 2

A long third day of riding took us to Guazhou, a normally sleepy modern city that acts as a stopover on the way to Dunhuang. After being turned away from the 8th guest-house / hotel because of the lack of vacancy, we figured that something was amiss. It transpired that the day we arrived coincided with the last day of the four-day 120km Gobi Desert Red Bull Ultra-marathon. Over 900 competitors, all of whom we saw were Chinese, were arriving back after the gruelling race across one of the hottest deserts in the world and gearing up for a huge party. Sorely disappointed to have missed taking part in the marathon we felt obliged to take make an appearance at the party, which with all these competitors we thought had some potential. Brushing aside the rumours that a ticket cost 1,000rmb (£100/110 euros) we headed towards the sound of music and finally came to an enormous stage and outside concert area that any Festival would be proud of.

Light sabre

“Obi-Wan has taught you well. But I am not sure he’d approve you chewing on your light sabre”


In disbelief that we had stumbled upon such a large event that yet again the all powerful Google had absolute no mention of, we set about trying to get in. As we approached the VIP entrance we quickly concocted our story. Our attempt at saying we worked for Red Bull fell on deaf ears, mostly because the literal translation sounded a little like we were shepherds of a rather strange bread of livestock. Trying quickly to redeem ourselves as Fudan University students who had taken part in the race and pointing with a pained expression at our feet did not receive any greater success. And so, in the face of defeat we resorted to Plan C, used many times before as a final attempt to win over an unimpressed young lady in a bar. And so, after many failed attempts using the same lines, the Marine Biologist specialising in Dolphin Training and the Astronaut who had just returned from a mission to Venus walked proudly into the main arena with heads held high and officials chuckling behind us. We found ourself spending the next two hours at the front of a 5,000 strong crowd all singing along to some of their favourite tunes, as a host of Taiwanese celebrities entertained.


(to be continued Monday….)

3 thoughts on “Week 7 & 8: Entering the Taklamakan Desert (part 1)

  1. Great stuff Oli and happy belated birthday, keep the posts coming! I look forward to reading the book one of these days…

  2. I am sorry i missed your previous adventures i just flew back from a rafting trip on Mars last river sponsored by red bull with mike horn and felix baumgartner.
    On our way back we had a great party on asteroid 143.der.

    Seriously what about your man vs wild eating habits ? Did you come up with weird insects in your noodle soups ?

    • We have a very strict diet and our weekly menus are approved by a certified nutritionist. At the moment it consists mostly of mutton, mutton, a bit of lamb and sometimes ovine meat. We will share all the recipes very soon in a new episode of our culinary adventures.

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