China by Bicycle :: April -- October '98

Subject: Crossings.
Date: Tue, 22 Sep 1998 22:07:35 -0700

20:51 196.25km out of Liuyuan; in Xinjiang--China :: SU 06 SEP 98

Very nearly got my first 'metric double century' in today. Nearly 200K across one mean desert. An apple from a passing truck: they waited for me down the road. Water, a litre of it, from a road crew. Dry, dry, dry. And hot from early on. By 10:30AM I felt the sun bearing down on my back. By afternoon, OOHH!

Now camped in an abandoned, roofless, only partially walled building for the night, just off the highway. Two thirds of the way to Hami. Should make it by noon tomorrow. But for now, to sleep...

9:55 Hami Hotel, Hami; Xinjiang--China :: TU 08 SEP 98

...sleep came, but not so quickly. Lying atop the mound of sand flattened for a sleeping platform, exhausted, but adrenalin still pumping. Above, a smattering of stars dulled by an absolutely electric full moon. I walk around the campsite a little, seeing how the lay of the land contrasts under the incisive grey light, high in the east, just an hour after the sun's wavering orange-yellow rolled off the horizon's lingering mirage. To the southeast and northwest, an intermittent stream of headlights. Night-crossing trucks. The rumble of tires and barely maintained engines, the clanking of loose parts, these contribute to the haunting sleeplessness.

About 25K before, a perfect-looking campsite. An enormous boulder, well off the highway with an infrequently used service road leading to it. The highway cuts behind a hillock, obscuring the rock from line-of-sight, and line-of-hearing. I look at it. And look at it. Long-in-the-distance, I look at it, while thinking.

odometer reads 170K
legs still feel strong
sun still high, and hot
double metric century
best campsite all afternoon
maybe not another
double metric century
legs still strong
go to 180K and re-evaluate
At 180K, still a possibility for serviceable campsites in the rolling, butted terrain.
legs weakening
sun still up there
double metric century
terrain holding up
legs holding up
go to 190K and re-evaluate
At 190K, a telecom booster station on the edge of a valley.

8:42 Hami Binguan, Hami; Xinjiang--China :: WE 09 SEP 98

Oh dear,
valley floor
sun slowly sinking
double metric
legs weakening
coast into valley and re-evaluate
always have the booster station up here
god, hope I don't have to climb back out of the valley
On the valley floor, at 193K, I know the valley floor's terrain offers no campsites. And I see the opposite valley wall, which the road climbs, and disappears into. Smooth, long sloping, capped by buttes. The plateau above will probably be just as flat. Not promising. But ahead, a few kilometers on the left, something man-made, squared off.
Pedal on.
A closer look.
Something crumbling.
Pedal on.
Something abandoned.
Pedal, pedal.
Something roofless.
One hundred meters from the highway.
Inside the walls, I will be invisible,
sheltered from the low sun and wind.
At 196K I come to a stop. Options. The trip meter could be off by as much as 2%. Depends on front tire pressure. Checked against the mileage markers back a ways: at least 1% over but Chinese mileage markers can't be trusted. Still, to be certain I've attained the milestone, to say with complete honesty, "My first double metric century came on the first day of a 300K desert crossing, on an absolutely overloaded bicycle," I need to click off 204K on the trip meter. Eight more kilometers.
Legs withering
100K to go tomorrow
Sun sinking low
No better campsite on the horizon
No reason to believe situation better out of the valley
could ride out 4K and come back?!
coulda done it
not collecting milestones
cycling silk road
desert crossing
legs withering
100K tomorrow
sun low
So, after the noodle soup made with dried mushrooms Em and I had bought between Wuwei and Zhangye and an onion which had kicked off the back of an overloaded truck earlier in the day, and the some barely palateable canned fish, after dinner I filtered water into the depleted water bottles while watching the fiery orange sun drop behind the valley floor. Surfaces radiated the day's reservoir of heat for hours after and when I finally crawled atop my sand mound mattress, I had to lay atop the sleeping bag, on my back, extremities splayed. I watched the stars, felt the drowsiness of my mind and body battling the heart and lungs perhaps still eager to cycle just eight more kilometers while my legs screamed out, "MURDER!".

And the stars bring to mind the broken spoke, over a hundred kilometers ago, before Xingxingxia, Valley of the Stars. An emergency spoke, a nifty kevlar cord, keeps the rear wheel true and strong. But a metal spoke would be more comforting. Wanted to replace it in camp, but just too damn tired.

You lie awake for hours on nights like these, wondering if you will ever get to sleep. And then you wake up. Once, twice in the night. Wow. I slept. Then, as suddenly, back to sleep again.

At 5:47AM, though, I am awake. Breakfast. A large pot of oatmeal made

edible by two scooping handfuls of raisins. No sugar. No cinnamon. At least a thickly mixed batch of powdered milk adds some richness. Nearly able to finish it. Packing. Sun rising. More water filtering replaces what I drank last night from the water bottle. Check camp for forgotten objects.

I am on the road. Groggy sun rises behind, over my right shoulder. Shadows of outrageously oblong wheels stretch across the black highway and onto the orange-tinged desert floor beyond. Cool. Pull the cycle jersey's zipper to the neck. Find that 20K pace. Thinking about Hami by lunchtime. Random thought, random thought in the cool morning with the warm coloured light. Thinking about the previous days.


DAY ONE: Dunhuang to Liuyuan. (Still in Gansu.)

I departed from Liuyuan, the ivory town in the ebony hills, yesterday morning. Em and I had ridden the 130K there from Dunhuang three days earlier in a single, nasty day. Many people on the list have offered an Irish traveller's blessing: may the road rise up to meet you and the wind be always at your back. And That day, those words were a curse.

Between start and destination stood just one small town to make a living off through-going trucks and buses, the santanas and expensive Japanese four-wheel drives. We stopped for bing shui (ice cold water) and Jian Li Bao (sort of a chinese gatorade), and should have eaten lunch as well. Hot. Hot. Hot. Em hoped out loud, "Perhaps we'll get an afternoon tailwind." I thought to myself, "mind what you wish for...."

17:19 Baiyinguolieng Hotel, Korla; Xinjiang--China TU 22 SEP 98

We climbed back on board the bikes and from there, upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. And not too far down the road, a wind change, a tailwind, light, matching our pace of about 16km/hr. On super-heated days these are killers.

We are air-cooled machines. Engineers carefully install fans on such devices, or they depend on the fact that if the engine is not moving faster than the surrounding air by a good margin then the vehicle it is supposedly propelling (for example, an airplane) will plummet to the earth before the engine overheats anyway.

We have no fans, and aren't moving faster than the surrounding air. For Em, plummeting to earth is becoming a distinct possibility. "I'm basically a nordic person," she says. "Sixty, sixty-five degrees; shorts and a t-shirt; nights in the fifties in a light jacket: I'm happy." (Apologies to those who are fahrenheit challenged.) That day, shaded mercury in the nineties and we're plagued by inadequate engineering for the conditions.

And still upgrading along.

And along. Paced by the wind, the air static around sweating bodies.

Now a ways back, but some ways after the stop where Emma had wished this tail wind upon us, I'd seen in the distance a lone shimmering figure emerge from the heat-haze and road-mirage.

It's odd how that happens in China. You cycle along in the remotest of places and sitting there, transportationless except for the ubiquitous black-cotton and brown-plastic soled chinese shoes, provisionless except for whatever the pockets of their tattered sports jackets hold, is some lone Chinese person patiently waiting at the roadside for I know not what event to transpire. Perhaps awaiting a bus? Which begs a question: how did they get here? They walked? Someone dropped them here, in the middle of nowhere. Hey! Why are you sitting here forty kilometers from everything you need to live?

But there's something additionally odd about this vague, upright figure whose image wavers in the heat-roiled air above the highway. The blur weaves and seemingly totters from side to side, like a poorly acted drunkard in a B-movie. I'm not closing on it as quickly as expected. It can only

I pick up my cadence, finally outracing the wind but legs paying the price for the self-made breeze. Closing, a little, I pass an abandoned building. "Damn," probably the only shade for two-dozen kilometers. Em'll need a break here. I'll have to come back. I pedal harder and, a kilometer later, a little out of breath, I can make is...a lone cyclist.

A Chinese male, youngish, on a Chinese bicycle, knees splayed out, pedals crookedly rotating under the arch of his outward-turned feet, saddle too low and legs never extended in a bent-kneed stroke. He could be riding through the streets of any Chinese town or city. But he's not. He's just about exactly half way between Dunhuang--which I'm guessing he left at sunrise this morning--and Liuyuan--his only possible destination. 65km of desert still separate him from shelter, food, water. Well, 65km if he were riding in a straight line. Judging from the tire tracks weaving onto the gravelly shoulder then back onto the highway, then onto the gravelly shoulder, he'll probably add another 15km to the total.

I shake my head. Turn around and cycle for the shade. I'll catch him after a break.

I'm sitting in the cool shade, legs splayed, bike propped along the wall so it's also shaded. I hear Em's tires and look around the wall. "Now, how did I know you'd be here?" she asks rhetorically. I tell her about the cyclist. I don't tell her he didn't stop here, but continued weaving and pedalling on past, as if it were no big thing to pedal 130km on a wobbly bicycle through Chinese gebi, waterless waste land. We rest for a bit. Drink water. Eat gorp. Drink more water. Then another hope strikes her, "Do you think it will level off ahead?"

I'd been thinking about this myself, and watching the lay of the land. Next time I do one of these mad cross-country bicycle journeys, I bring along accurate topographical maps to take the guesswork out of it. However, not much speculation involved here. A couple dozen kilometers back we'd tagged a parallel line along the southeast of the Bei Shan, the Northern Mountains. Liuyuan lay somewhere along the middle of the range, also on the southeast side. But in the distance, running east-west and merging with the Bei Shan directly in our path, another long ridge of mountains. I figured Liuyan lay at just about the intersection point.

"I have no reason to believe this road levels off," I told her gently. A few days later she'd remind me of that moment, "I understood your meaning." Yes, the climb would steepen.

It takes about 15km to catch the guy. Longsleeves rolled up. Top buttons undone. His pantlegs rolled up. It's common to see Chinese men roll up their pantlegs, especially since it's uncommon to see them wear shorts--no matter how hot it gets--except in the bigger, more metropolitan, more westernized cites. But the legs displayed are always sallow-white, never witnessing direct sunlight for long. This young man's legs are red-brown. I'm wondering if this isn't the first time he's made this crossing. Then again, his handle-bar basket contains four small bottles of water--three of which are empty--and a Nalgene tea bottle, just half full. There's a half-eaten bingzi, Muslim flat bread, that must be like brick by now. Perhaps this is his first time afterall.

I pull alongside and we exchange "Ni Hao's" and other pleasantries. Cycling on ahead, I toss a "Zai Jian!" over my shoulder. "Zai Jian," he says. See ya later. No doubt. I'm wondering if Emma will catch him before then.

She doesn't. It's about 20km later. I'm beginning the rise into those ebony hills and realize, DAMN! I'm carrying eight litres of water in the Ortlieb water bags. Uphill. On fried legs. In the crisp desert sunshine and heat. Tailwind still doggedly robbing me of the cooling breeze. I could dump some of it, but this is desert. And we're not in Liuyuan, yet. Judging from the continuing heat and Emma's condition at the last break, we could end up camping. We'd need the water. So stop. Filter some into the empty bottles. Wait for Em and replenish her supply.

Four litres drunk today so far, plus the bing shuis back in the little town. Five litres. Man. Even with the extra eight litres, we'd have been hard-pressed to carry enough water for two people on a two-day crossing. I know I'll be drinking all night in Liuyuan trying to rehydrate. No doubt there's a bing pijiu, a cold beer, with my name on it. Two maybe. Those one-litre bottles.

The Chinese fellow nears and I call out to him, "Ni yao shui ma?" Do you want some water? "Meiyou," he responds, meaning, "there isn't any." I smile at the misunderstanding, and repeat myself, deliberately. "Aaaah, dui, dui, dui! Xie xie!" Meaning, "Yes, thank-you, some water would be swell." While I squeeze water from one of my replenished bottles into one of his depleted ones, and filter more water back into my own bottle, we try some phrasebook-less conversation, which I'm starting to manage with some success.

We talk about here I'm from; where we're coming from and going, "Ni qu Liuyuan ma?" I ask, as if it isn't ridiculously self-evident. And yes, he left Dunhuang that morning. Wow. I'm impressed. But he points to the bike, to me, toward Liuyuan, and beats me to the Thumbs Up! sign. "Bu, bu, bu," I shake my hand vigorously, then point at him, at his creaky, wobbly, single-geared bicycle, at Liuyuan, and return the Thumbs Up! repeating, "Ni, Ni, Ni." You. You. You.

It's tempting to add an indexed finger pointed at my temple, circled frantically, but I quickly perish the thought. Besides, his complacency in the face of this arduous desert crossing is downright cheerful. Emma pulls up about then, and she's getting that drawn, hollow look which registers imminent bonk--not much left in her but desire to complete the crossing. I imagine my own image to be not quite so cheery. So, who's out of their depth here?

While I attend to Emma's empties the smiling miracle pushes off with a happy, "Zai Jian." To Emma I say, with a nod down the road, "something else, eh?" She comes back from wherever she was. Nods. "Yeah."

He and I leap-frog each other a couple times. I pass him; stop for a photograph of Liuyuan in the ebony hills and he passes me back; Emma arrives shortly thereafter and once I'm assured she'll finish the remaining 5K climb into Liuyuan I pedal off to pass him again on the surprisingly steep climb as dusk gathers in the ebony valley. "Ni che hao!" he beams. "Your wheels are great!"

In Liuyuan I stop in front of a white-tiled edifice which can only be a hotel, gather my usual crowd of Chinese and converse while waiting for Emma. A drunk barges to the front--I can smell him--gives me a calculating look, demands to read the Lonely Planet which I've been showing around, but I tuck it under my arm. The crowd chuckles at him, at the situation, lightly. No need to worry about repercussions if I insult him. He gives me the "you're bad!" sign--a closed hand with the pinky out. I smile, deeply, nudge my sunglasses from the top of my head so they cover my eyes, cross arms again and quietly confront him. He splutters for a bit. A few members of the crowd nudge him away. He resists. Splutters some more. Waves that pinky some more. I stand firm, smiling, unrepentant. He gives up and wanders off.

The crowd and I continue our stumblingly merry conversation until Emma arrives, depleted like her water bottles. The hotel we're standing in front of turns out to be too expensive and I make a run up the street to another, find it to be OK, go back and collect Em. We splay on the beds and wait for hot water. And I let the reality of the day's physical exertion sink in.

"These legs are going nowhere tomorrow. Day of rest," I say. It's disappointing, and worrisome. I'm looking at 300km to Hami. Out of it after only 130K is not a good sign.

For her part, Em's now pretty glad to have decided in Dunhuang on skipping the crossings to Hami and Turpan. She'll be taking the train instead. "It gets worse after today?" she reassures herself. The first day out of Jiayuguan was the last fun day for her. Our arrivals in Anxi, Dunhuang and, now, Liuyuan came at the edge of total exhaustion, days almost completely built upon "pedal, pedal, pedal. You can make it. Pedal, pedal, pedal."

But I'm still thinking, even with my throbbing legs, well, it gets worse but kinda better. Challenge. And through the spare, spiteful beauty of the desert. Through all the day's exertion and discomfort I never lost sight of the changing landscape. Early on, after leaving the Qilian Shan--our parallel companion through the Hexi Corridor--to dwindle in the heat haze at our backs, we cycled through the sandy ruins of rammed earth walls that once were Silk Road cities and towns, but now provide afternoon shade to the camel herders leading their double-humped charges through the thorny brushland. Then a rolling expanse of stone-thick gravel out of which the Bei Shan gradually rose. The ebony hills and the ivory town I have already described. This is a beautiful, endlessly fascinating land. Always changing. Always surprising. Ever deceitful.

For Emma, this beauty and the challenge of the ride were now offering too little in return for the effort. Even on the killer climbs from Lanzhou to Xiahe, in the rain-soaked entrance to the Hexi Corridor, she'd get to the end of the ride thinking, WOW! What a day! But the crossing to Anxi just wasn't fun any more. And neither from there to Dunhuang. And now from Dunhuang to Liuyuan.

We talk about all this, Em and I. Gradually, it becomes clear that the Northern Silk Road across Xinjiang consists of a long, nearly unbroken, series of potential Anxi/Dunhuang/Liuyuan crossings. From Turpan to Kashgar nearly 1500km of gebi. And even in the early fall months deserts are prone to devestating afternoon heat, particularly if you're the nordic type.

We talk for a long time. Even if it does turn consistently cooler, her ability to ride consecutive days for the required distances remains unproven. I've been using a computer spreadsheet to project possible itineraries, and we try shortening some of the crossings, adding a couple rest days. But this narrows the margin for delays, catastrophe and unexpected opportunity within an uncomfortable few days of my visa expiration. And no more extensions are possible.

Neither of us is much for giving up on our dreams, and though Kashgar began as my dream it became Em's too. "I really want to go," she says. "This is not like me. To give up." And I understand.

Time for a new dream. She decides on overlanding as far as Kashgar. First by train to Turpan, where she'll leave her bike and other non-essential gear, then bus the rest of the way. "I said I'm going to Kashgar and I'm going!" From there, scoot back to Turpan, collect her bike and take the train to one of my favourite places in China, Pingyao. And from there, cycle into Beijing.

Of course, travel plans never quite work out as we expect, though sometimes they improve. That's the case here, as some of you are already aware, but the rest will have to wait a couple more crossings to learn the outcome.

The Master has no mind of her own.
She works with the mind of the people.

She is good to people who are good.
She is also good to people who aren't good.
This is true goodness.

She trusts people who are trustworthy.
She also trusts people who aren't trustworthy.
This is true trust.

The Master's mind is like space.
People don't understand her.
They look to her and wait.
She treats them like her own children.
  graphical element Attributed to Lao Tse
The Tao Te Ching
Chapter 49
trans. Stephen Mitchell