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13) September 17th, Gansu, China - Wind-beaten in Dunhuang

The desert is big, so very big. And it does not change a great deal... But Xinjiang province, with the easy humour of the local Uighur people, yearning to be free of Chinese rule, the noisy bustling towns and rough & ready truckstops make for an unexpectedly colourful ride. Even the Gobi desert, a monotonous landscape of black sand and rock has grown on me, and I can enjoy the solitude of riding this long road, and lose myself in my thoughts.

But all is not good. Not good at all... the wind. Oh, the unrelenting, soul-destroying wind. I've never experienced anything like this before. Physically exhausting, but even more mentally draining ("how can I be going so slow with this much effort?"), in some ways this is the toughest part of my trip yet.

But it is satisfying to know I'm making progress along the line I haphazardly drew on a world map over a year ago, and it's exciting to see people and culture change slowly before my eyes. Out of the Xinjiang and now heading towards the Great Wall and the beginning of China "proper"... And the legendary rudeness I hear all about the closer I get to Shanghai!

7 september, Wed: I reached my target distance for the day by 5 o'clock. Unfortunately, half of it was in the wrong direction. A F**K of a headwind - the strongest yet. And dry, so dry. My mouth felt like I'd swallowed a bag of sawdust, and then the saw. Between swearing and crying for most of the day I summarised the problems with asking Chinese people for directions.

Out of ten local people you call out to:
- Two will completely ignore you
- Three will acknowledge you, shrug their shoulders and walk on
- Five will look at your map, shake their head in puzzlement and walk on
- Two will look at your map, and give you the right directions
- One will look at your map, and confidently give you totally the wrong information
Statistically I have to ask a lot of Chinese people every time I reach a fork in the road...

After picking up a few rocks to ward off dogs I noticed that coincidently that my misfortune ceased for the day. Superstitiously I've attributed the change in my luck to these three rocks and now feel compelled to carry them in my pocket for the remaining three months.

Distance: 117 km. Overnight in Dabancheng (Xinjiang prov, China).

8 september, Thu: My oh my oh my. Heading toward Turpan today, first through a long narrow rocky gorge and then into a desert of endless black rocks. And what a wind ! At first I didn't notice and put my high speed down to the steepness of the road and, er, my supreme level of fitness... it was wonderful sailing through pinacles of rock either side. But when I stopped - oooh, then I noticed. Incredible wind. I leant my bike against a wall but the wind kept pushing it forward - that's 70kg of metal and luggage! With the wind howling around me I got back on the bike and like it had a mind of it's own I was away again.
Descending through a bleak endless rocky plain the road changed direction so that the wind was hitting me from behind left. It was horrible, absolutely horrible. The wind propelled me forward and at the same time was trying to knock me over. Every time a bus or truck went by I would be sucked into the middle of the road and then spat out again, Chinese style. When I stopped the bike it was even worse - I could barely hold it up. It was terrifying (it had knocked one cyclist I met later clean off his bike!) and I began foolishly wishing for the headwinds of yesterday.
After, unbelievably, getting safely through this section (thanking my lucky rocks..) I got the headwind of yesterday back.

Distance: 102 km. Overnight in Turpan (Xinjiang prov, China).

9 september, Fri: Today was meant to be a sightseeing day, but instead was spent on bus to and from Urumqi to replace the rear-hub on my bike, of which part had mysteriously shattered after yesterday's nightmare. A really friendly bike mechanic found a compatible hub (the only one) and rebuilt the wheel in less than two hours. He was mute, which interestingly meant that he was much better at communicating with mime (my chosen language) than most people. We had a good conversation.
On the bus back to Turpan I was glad that I'd be back on my bike soon. The driver was a "fidgeter" - he was continually wiping the dashboard, combing his hair, rearranging the bottles around him, eating corn-on-the-cob, leaning back in his seat to sneak a glance at the onboard TV - and occasionally looking at the road.
Highlight of the day: drinking a beer under the grape trellises along with the other tourists.

10 september, Sat: A bugger of a headwind again ("oh fer Chrissakes Steve don't go on about it..") made things very tough-going. Out of Turpan and through the desert. The villages I passed were unmistakedly Uighur. Mud-walled houses with courtyards inside, and a reappearance of the "tapans" of Central Asia - the platforms used to sleep and relax on. The area also seemed covered with monotone villages of lattised mud-brick houses, with flat straw roofs. I found out later that these are used for drying grapes, the main produce of the area.
Early morning there were mists in the desert - silouettes of the occasional solitary tree in the distance. Buying a drink from an old lady at a roadside stall she ritually waved over all her goods with the notes that I had given her. A melon seller ran out towards me from his shack at the side of the road - "I can speak English" he yelled. I sat with him for a while and he treated me to some "Hami melon" - the famed juiciest melons on China. He was actually a qualified English teacher, but at 27 years old had never had a teaching job. Being Uighur, he had always been passed over in favour of Han Chinese. A theme I was to hear many times in this reluctant province of China.

Stopped in Shanshan for dinner at a Uighur restaurant. Chatted with the incredibly friendly cook and owner's son and they invited me to stay for the night. Xindang, the owner's son, took me out for a night on the town. We went to the bazaar - this is very much a Uighur town and the bazaar was buzzing. Hundreds of food stalls, amazing colours and noises and gorgeous smells. I had freshwater fish for the first time in months and it was delicious! Several beers and lots of introductions later we headed home. He said he'd treat me to a massage in a nearby shop. I was disappointed - I got a massage.

Distance: 96 km. Overnight in Shanshan (Xinjiang prov, China).

11 september, Sun: This morning I sat with a group of Uighur truck-drivers who treated me to breakfast. As with almost all truck-drivers I've met a real friendly down-to-earth bunch of blokes. They were all against China, and lamented the persecution of their people, no opportunities or hope for young and the Chinese theft of their homeland's natural resources (there's a lot of oil in the desert). One guy was very emotional about it as he sadly shook his head in sorrow.

A ridiculous headwind and sidewind today. Earlier on there were some nice oasis towns but these now abruptly ended and there was only desert. Monotonous, uphill, and dirty black (the colour of the Gobi) - and nowhere to hide from the winds. And cold, with - unbelievably - spots of rain. An Israeli motorcyclist coming the other way in this forlorn place told me about another solo cyclist ten or twenty kilometres infront of me. "It's a girl", he said, "in her early twenties, I think".
Barely saying goodbye, I hit the peddles like a madman and the miles raced by. After a couple of hours I saw a figure in the distance. In approximately ten seconds I pulled up alongside, flashed my winning smile ... it was bloke with long hair (damm those short-sighted motorcyclists!) - Taichi, a young Japanese guy, going the same way as me. We talked and cycled on. Eventually we found shelter - a single makeshift restaurant in the middle of the desert. We slept in the barn.

Distance: 105 km. Overnight in a barn (Xinjiang prov, China).

12 september, Mon: Yes, atrocious winds again today. Urrrrrrgh! Some nice scenery - stark mountains, especially beautiful just after dawn. Climing out of a large basin, the view back was impressive. Bits of green (green!) moss appeared here and there... but we were soon back into the black sands of the Gobi desert. Passing the only oasis was a relief to the eyes - strange to see verdant green agriculture for a strip of only two kilometres. Otherwise the only landmarks were mobile-phone antennas and the rack of solar-panels that powered them. And occasionally old crumbling fortresses could be seen in the desert, relics of a bygone age, and a very real reminder that this is indeed the path of the Silk Road.

A jovial truck-driver who I'd talked to earlier in the day led us to a truck-stop where we got a simple room and had dinner. Four young friendly women ran the place and judging by the way they dressed and a knock on the door later that night I think they did a little more than just cooking and cleaning...

Distance: 124 km. Overnight in Sandaoling (Xinjiang prov, China).

13 september, Tue: It's almost funny how the Chinese government propogates it's propaganda via the media. Travelling with Taichi I've seen how the locals react when he says he's from Japan. Maybe a good-natured imitation of machine-gunning or sword-slashing. Last night at the truck-stop there was a film on TV about the Japanese bullying Mongolia! I saw a film the other day set in the days of the Great Game, about British aggression against Tibet. Realistically produced, the dialogue between the "British" (some appalling actors, probably backpackers) and the Tibetans was in English. "No, you will not make us part of the British Empire", the Tibetan warlord said, "we are Chinese!".

Needless to say, another terrible headwind. Arrived in Hami and took a half-day off in a nice hotel. I weighed myself - 69kg. I was 76kg when I started this trip.

Distance: 86 km. Overnight in Hami (Xinjiang prov, China).

14 september, Wed: Oooooh a hard day today. After a single truck-stop at 60km, 140km of pure desert. Relentless sun, heat and a long long uphill. I'd left Taichi behind at some point (someone has to teach these young bucks a lesson), and after loading up with water at the truck-stop I pressed on. The two towns marked on my map were in reality just signposts, two in each town - "You are entering ****", and 50cm later, "You are leaving ****".

At one point there was a line of mini-cyclones crossing the road infront of me, pulling up everything in a whirlwind of dust and tumbleweeds. Like a video-game I waited for a gap in-between and raced through. Later I was attacked by a swarm of wasps, dozens of them hitting me and bouncing off dazed. It seems they were aiming for my face. Really alarmed and waving my arms around me like a crazy man (and eliciting some waves back for the occasional motorist), with a burst of adrenelin I speeded up as much as I could but they followed me for the next 10km, and a couple managed to painfully sting me around my eye. It was pretty scary and I couldn't help thinking of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds".

After that experience I decided to "go for it" and head for the town on the other side of this stretch of desert, on the border with the next province, Gansu. Very hard, and the last 10km was a steep climb through a rocky canyon in fading light. When I got into town it was dark. Oooooooh, a hard day.

Distance: 198 km. Overnight in Xiaxiaxing (Xinjiang prov, China).


15 september, Thu: Oh the desolation of the desert, and the howling wind slapping me around like a pair of fists on the losing side of a Friday night brawl. In the midst of all this, on a long straight road in the desert, I met a group of elderly Chinese on touring bikes coming the other way. And then, a few minutes later, two Brits on their way home to the UK from Beijing! You have just entered the Twilight Zone...

Oh what slow progress. Eventually came to Hongliuyuan - a truckstop - and after filling up with water headed off into the desert towards Dunhuang. The scenery immediately changed into a road winding it's way through a sea of black dunes. The wind was full against me and I was worried I wouldn't be able to camp in these conditions. Even behind the dunes the wind blasted through. And I saw a sandstorm in the distance heading my way... It was no good - I turned back to the town, got a dorm room and consoled myself with alcohol.

Distance: 104 km. Overnight in Hongliuyuan (Gansu prov, China).

16 september, Fri: Last night I got a shock when I looked in the mirror - my eye had swollen to mutant proportions. I'd realised that I had trouble seeing out of it since the Attack of the Chinese Killer Wasps, but I hadn't realised to what extent I was now frightening women and children.

In stark contrast to yesterday's attempt, this time the road to Dunhuang went very smoothly. Downhill and a light tailwind meant that I could appreciate the scenery of black dunes and then the vast empty flat sand desert that followed. West of the road, large remains of an old fortress could be seen. My map marks this as "The End of the Great Wall". Is this my first glimpse of the Great Wall of China ?

Making good speed, and passing the phenomenally green oasis town of Xihe, soon arrived in the outskirts of Dunhuang. Dunhuang is where the North and South branches of the Silk Road met, and the importance to those ancient travellers is already clear 15km from the town, when the desert is replaced by green fields, prosperous mudbrick villages, tree lined lanes and dozens of people cruising lazily along on bicycles and scooters. An idyllic scene...

The area is famous for the Mogao Caves - hundreds of caves decorated with intricate colourful frescos and statues, and the Cresent Moon Springs - massive sand dunes to the south of the town. The dunes are serious tourist territory. Dozens of coaches, hundreds of tourists - Chinese and Japanese mainly - and massive dunes, well over 100m high. Impressive, but practically a camel-ride theme park... long camel trains of camera-toting tourists, tobogganing down the dunes, jeep rides, para-gliding, shooting ranges, microlight rides (there was even a runway)... Ahhhh, the magic of the desert.

Distance: 135 km. Overnight in Dunhuang (Gansu prov, China).

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