Week 11 & 12: Mud, Sand and Tunnels

Korle – Kuche – Aksu – Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, China.

Much to our dismay, the letter to the Wind God did not quite have the desired effect we were hoping for. Rather than bow to the threat from the Beijing Government or take pity on two poor chaps trying to pedal against nature’s wrath, the Wind God called his mate. We assume we are not alone in thinking that deserts don’t usually get a lot of rainfall. This desert is no different, with an average precipitation rate of 25mm each June. This, it turns out, is not the average June. Most days only turned unpleasant in the mid-afternoon, starting with a light rumble from the gathering clouds above the mountains shadowing us to the right.

Armageddon

The wind would then suddenly gather pace and stir up the sand on either side of the road before the heavens opened up for anything between four hours or until the following morning. This happened everyday from Korla to Aksu.

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Camping in such conditions is not too much fun though when faced with disaster, laughter is the often the best recourse. The most challenging night we faced was so bad that in the middle both of us just sat up in the tent and laughed our heads off for a good five minutes. It began with a rookie error, which surely will not be made again.

Matthieu: “Do you think there will be trains through the night on this line?”
Oli: “I seriously doubt it. We’ve only seen two freight trains pass the entire day, there definitely won’t be any in the middle of the night.”
Matthieu: “Bon point.”

Camping
The theory proved flawless during the tent set-up, through washing rituals (yes, we do sort of wash even when camping), past dinner and our evening reading time. Around 30 minutes after “lights-out” the first locomotive came chugging into earshot and as it got closer flashed its lights and bellowed its horn. We were sensible enough not to pitch the tent on the tracks but even being 30 metres away and down the slope, it still felt like the 26-carriage juggernaut was passing directly through the middle of our modest two-man shelter. And so started the procession of around two trains per hour, complimented by the rain-sand storm that began at around 3am.

The morning after....uncomfortable

The morning after….uncomfortable

Only really managing to get some much needed shut-eye around 6am we packed up the soaking tent that also had a layer of sand on the inside (N.B. excellent at preventing mosquitoes getting into the inner sanctum, alas the mosquito netting holes are still large enough to allow sand therein).

Mud

Muddy Matt

The day was not to prove much better when Matthieu got the first of his four punctures. Each attempt to change the inner tube was met with disappointment as the puncture repairs gave way under the air pressure. We have been using a new design of repair kit from Taiwan that has a self-adhesive and therefore is supposedly easier/less messy to use. It may not get your fingers sticky but it also does not patch up punctured tubes – an over-excited eel has a stickier skin. Some things are not meant to be changed so we will be using the good old-fashioned sandpaper, tube of glue and black patch for the rest of our trip. When we were just about to give up hope though, a knight in shining armour appeared on the horizon. Ryo Asaji, the veteran bicycle tourer and general Mr Nice Guy that we had met in Korla pedalled up to us and immediately reached for one of his new inner tubes. It was a very kind gesture and one that we hope we can repay both directly to him or if that is not possible by helping another tourer-in-need that we come across on our journey.

The moment Ryo Asaji reveals that the inner tube is meant to go on the inside of the tyre.

The moment Ryo Asaji reveals that the inner tube is meant to go on the inside of the tyre.

We also took the opportunity to ask him how he had dealt with the unforgiving camping weather. We had considered sleeping under the road a number of times but had been put off by the assumption it would be incredibly noisy every time a truck passed overhead, compounded by the irrational fear that it may collapse at anytime and last but by no means least, the thought that if this was a nice place to rest it was probably also a nice place for the truckies to do their “business”. Ryo’s blessing was good enough for us though and as the rain began once more at around 5pm we found a suitable tunnel and had the best night’s sleep so far.

Rat hole

Good for sleeping, bad for crick-necks

Good for sleeping, bad for crick-necks

With an ingenius trip-wire assembly and British Bulldog on guard, Matthieu slept comfortably for the first time in weeks

With an ingenius trip-wire assembly and British Bulldog on guard, Matthieu slept comfortably for the first time in weeks

By the time we reached Aksu the need for a shower and a sink to wash all our sodden gear was much in need. As if a reward for the relentless bad luck, we were able to find a website live streaming both the France vs. All Blacks game followed by the Lions match against the ACT Brumbies (rugby union to non-sports fans). Not wanting to sit still, Matthieu set to work washing the tent and Oli on repairing the eight punctured inner tubes for the onward journey, watching on as both of our teams battled their old foes. Despite a double loss on the pitch the few hours of being able to do something normal, i.e. watching a sport other than ping-pong, raised our spirits significantly.

After weeks in a tent Matthieu took some convincing before he agreed to sleep on the bed.

After weeks in a tent Matthieu took some convincing before he agreed to sleep on the bed.

Oli wondered why it took an entire 90 minutes to mend only one inner tube.

Oli wondered why it took an entire 90 minutes to mend only one inner tube.

The road from Korla to Kashgar has probably been the hardest to-date. Not because of the physical challenges of the route but because of the incredible boredom that the same scenery day in day out for 12 days brings. 1000km with the same arid mountains a few kilometres to our right and the vast expanses of the Taklamakan Desert to our left has been a daily motivation a little jaded. As we pull into Kashgar, the final frontier city in China and 300 miles from the border with Kyrgystan, we feel relieved to have finally completed one of the longest, straightest, hottest roads in the world and excited by the prospects of what Central Asia can bring in the coming weeks.

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