Jiuquan, Gansu, China to Kumul, Xinjiang, China
Following Jiayuguan and a host of other tourist sites we have visited so far in China, our readers may note a certain lack of enthusiasm for these (in China) well advertised destinations. Like many things here, the overuse of photoshop make these often distinctly average places seem like the most amazing sites to see. It’s a bit like a movie with an amazing cast, truly original plot and a great PR campaign firing the anticipation but turning out to be a complete flop. We are glad therefore to report that Dunhuang is not one of these ‘movies’. Epic sand dunes surrounding the very bizarre Moon Crescent Lake tower out of the flat, rocky desert below. Clambering up to the top brings a reward of magnificent views and a sense of vulnerability similar to that sometimes felt while at sea. For here you feel that nature rules and at the flip of a coin you could be gobbled up into its vastness.
The amazing story behind the Mogao Grottoes that lie 20km away are made even more unbelievable by the fact that they are in the middle of this desolate land. This is where fellow Brit Aurel Stein had initially come in 1907 and “borrowed” a good deal of the Buddhist manuscripts that had been hidden here since the 4th Century AD, swiftly followed by famed French archaeologist Paul Pelliot a year later. It made for an awkward moment after listening to this story to be asked where we were from by the Chinese tourists taking the tour with us but with a swift response of “Idali-ren” (Italian) accompanied with some flamboyant hand gestures we think we got away with it.
Culturally enriched we hit the road for the dreaded stretch of land North-West to Kumul / Hami. 360km on one long, straight, desolate and very windy road. With petrol stations only every 100km we ensured we were both carrying 14 litres of water each to have enough to keep hydrated through the day, cook at night and perhaps have a little wash in the “key areas” before sleeping. The lack of available food also means that our diet over the last few days has not been amazing: a can of congee sweetened by condensed milk in the morning, a packet of Alpenliebe for lunch (yoghurt-flavoured sweet from Italy sold almost everywhere) and one ‘proper’ meal at around 4pm (think rice and some meat-vegetable combination in a polystyrene take-away container sold cold at a petrol station). We, like most of you reading this post, have always had the privilege of access to good quality food in abundance. It has been quite humbling for this assumed luxury to be taken away from us, and particularly after a 10 hour ride burning 3-4,000 calories, the lift that any food brings to morale is quite remarkable.
Indeed, what has come as a surprise is not the physical stress that we have encountered but the mental drain that such an expedition has on our daily cycle. Whilst we expected travelling such a long distance would be hard on our bodies we are both learning to deal with the mental pressures of being on the road day after day. Perhaps the best example of this emotional roller coaster is our final day cycling towards Kumul having crossed into Xinjiang Province the day before. We woke with the sun striking a beautiful snow capped mountain in the distance and elated after having our first camp fire the night before – an episode that did not last too long due to the strong winds and the sparse, extremely dry firewood that we were using as fuel.
On the road before 10am after breakfast and packing up the bikes, the road quickly straightened out heading towards the peak. This continued all day, through the heat and a head wind that at times threatened to knock us off the bikes entirely, the mountain ahead did not seem to be getting any closer.
We cycled through to 6pm and having not eaten a proper meal our morale was scraping along the tarmac. Renewed by the polystyrene packed wonder meal we set off again and decided to push on another 65km to Kumul. Having been at rock-bottom only an hour beforehand, the sun began to set in the road ahead of us, the heat of the day began to cool and the incessant drive of wind in our face began to die down.
Elated by the prospect of a warm shower and a bed, and with anthem after anthem coming out of our improvised handlebar speakers, the final hours of riding were perhaps the most euphoric so far. We flew into Kumul at 11pm after cycling 165km and celebrated our arrival to China’s largest province with some lamb skewers and a much deserved beer.
With many a tough day ahead what is clear is that this is not just an expedition of the body but also one of the mind. We have conquered part of the Taklamakan but there are many other barriers and challenges that stand in our way on the road home. Each one will test our resolve but each time we come out the other side we do so with stronger mind and soul.