Turpan to Korla, Xinjiang Province, China.
Turpan, pronounced Tu-lu-fan if you want to be understood by the locals, certainly had a different flavour to the other 428 Chinese cities we have been through so far on our journey. The waft of barbecued mutton skewers was one thing that made a welcome change to the usual steamed variant but the more noticeable change came in the laid back approach to doing, well, everything really. Perhaps due to the shift in demographic and most certainly due to the midday heat rising into the low 40s, we nevertheless enjoyed the slower pace of life for a couple of days to recoup and repair.
From Turpan we dropped into the plateau that spread out before us at around 100m below sea level. Well prepared with mask and snorkel we soon realized it would have been wiser to pack our spinnaker as we faced yet another torrent of gale force winds, at one point simultaneously knocking both of us off our bikes. We battled our way through to the small town of Toksun before heading off on a road that on the map looked like a Chris Froome cardiogram (sorry Wiggo).
Squiggles, dear readers, are not put in place to make a road atlas look more interesting. If the Chinese road builders could have built it straight, they would have done. We soon found ourselves making a 1500m climb through some of the most spectacular scenery to-date. Searching for a suitable campsite whilst on a single-file road with more hairpins than Lady Gaga, is not an easy task. After a number of much more ridiculous solutions were vetoed we finally found ourselves perilously plonked in a ravine under the foreboding cliffs either side and just out of reach from the lorry drivers who regularly throw their beer bottles from their window. It was a long night.
Reaching the top of any climb when you are hauling 50kg of equipment always brings a mild feeling of euphoria. After five hours of climbing in low gears, legs burning and sweat pouring off the brow, mind proved victorious over matter yet again. The fact that with every uphill follows a downhill certainly helps the relief of reaching a summit and we rolled into a suitable camping spot shortly after eating our bruncher (yes, new word invented – breaky, lunch and dinner combined).
With more climbing and unrelenting head wind yet again the next day and the prospect of a third difficult night in the tent we were over the moon to come across a small hotel in the village of Taihaqixiang. It is amazing how doing this expedition has reduced our threshold levels to be pleased. Not long ago in our corporate other lives it took a lot to impress us, spoiled by fancy hospitality and the gaudy extravagance of Eastern entertainment. Now, give us shelter and a bowl of noodles and we are like a couple of little boys who have managed to sneak undetected into the girls’ shower rooms (sorry Headmaster, probably another one not to read out in assembly).
As we settled into our basic abode for the night, the tap at the door marked the usual arrival of the local coppers. This is normal practice in the more politically sensitive regions of China where there is a strict travel restriction on journalists, NGOs or anyone else not riding a bike across their territory. Thankfully our disguises yet again seemed to deceive the three friendly officers, by now making themselves comfortable on our beds. However the second knock 30 minutes later spelled trouble. We were told to pack up our gear immediately as we were going to be escorted to the next town 20km down the road. It turned out that the hotel we were staying at did not have a license to accommodate foreigners. The Chief of Police, we were told, would not budge, despite the fact it was 10pm, with not a whiff of trouble in the air, and most annoyingly as we had already put our super-hero pyjamas on. In such cases no level of tantrum will make a difference so off we went to stay in the government hotel up the road.
One more day’s riding and we cruised into the rather non-descript, standard Chinese town of Korla. As we were checking into one of the government endorsed hotels we received a tap on the shoulder and turned to find a fellow touring cyclist with a beaming smile on his face. For anyone that thinks we are crazy doing this trip, let us intoduce Asaji Ryo, a man that has been on his bike for almost 5 years now and currently in the process of conquering his final continent in Asia. Whereas our expedition represents a brief interlude to our careers, to achieve a dream before relationships, children, or mortgages bring us too many responsibilities to do such an adventure, for Ryo this is the life he has chosen. Though we would never want this full time adventure ourselves, we have full admiration for a man that has chosen to shun society norms, especially those that are as strong as in Japan, and make his own path in life. Ryo-san, we salute you, this post is in your honour.