Other stuff
Contact Me

Reports @

14) September 29th, Gansu, China - farewell desert, hello China...Lanzhou

The beginning of the end of the desert (and I'm already feeling nostalgic), superb lonely stretches of the Great Wall, and acre upon acre of agriculture - Gansu has an incedible variety of landscape. And also some of the worst roads I have ever seen. Still, that's the price of progress: the new highway is intensively under construction (it has been for several years now) and once finally complete I can see there will be big changes in store for Gansu province.

But for better or worse ? I expect I'll have a taste of Gansu's future as I head eastwards to Xi'an and step into modern, prosperous China...

18 september, Sun: The road out of Dunhuang split off into a new road in the last stages of construction, and as yet, no traffic. Perfect - a smooth, traffic-free path through the empty desert. Towards Anxi an ancient walled-city could be seen west of the road - part of the Great Wall. It's incredible to think that these structures are from an age long gone, and the sense of history you feel from these lonely broken remains is so much more than many of the restored monuments present in the cities.

Throughout the desert there were mounds of earth marking the graves of people. Surprizingly many. Are these graves of the migrant workers labouring on the road ? I'd ran across Taiichi again, and after Anxi, the road we were on became unrecognisable. It was truly - shit. The new road-to-be ran parallel, still in unfinished, while we had to battle rocks, gravel, sand and the clouds of dust from every passing truck.

Unusually, there was no wind (the guidebook actually says that Anxi is the windiest place in China), so we camped off into the desert, under a huge full moon..

Distance: 138 km. Overnight near Anxi (Gansu prov, China).

19 september, Mon: An atrocious narrow road of dirt, stones and sand, an insane headwind, a long uphill, manic trucks madly bearing down on me, and blinding sandstorms. A bugger of a day ...

At first this road was entertainment - the uneven surface, deep sand and gravel & rocks provided a real test of skill and technique and kept my mind busy. For a good hour it was almost a zen-like state of alertness in negoiating the various hazards. But it didn't take long before I saw that this was really not a fun day out.

The sandstorms started and the day was reduced to a hazy brown glow and nothing but the road immediately ahead was visible. It was surreal, travelling through this featureless twilight world. But progress was very slow and very painful. It took over 10 intensive hours in these conditions to travel 70km before we arrived in a small village, covered completely in sand. The highlight of the day was the friendly mind-reading restaurant owner who had an unnerving ability to know exactly what we were going to order (yes, he could predict it was beer!), and the Great Wall, a few miles from the road and running parallel... huge.

Distance: 70 km. Overnight in Qiawan (Gansu prov, China).

20 september, Tue: A dawn start - shook the sand off the bed (it really gets everywhere) and set off. There was, of course, a headwind, but thankfully no sandstorm, so in-between the clouds of dust & gravel thrown up by passing trucks, there was scenery. There were also more asphalt sections today and if it wasn't for the wind, progress would have been good.

For lunch, I stopped in a Uighur restaurant - obvious from the Uighur writing over the Chinese on the sign. These are getting rarer and rarer since passing out of Xinjiang province, but after 6000km since Turkey I'm still passing places - this far east! - where Turkish is spoken or understood. When I went to pay my bill the woman who ran the restaurant refused payment, waving me off with a smile

Some parts of the road today were truly abysmal - a dash of concrete and a sprinking of rocks sticking up from the surface. However, once, when crossing a railway bridge, the road was elevated enough that when I looked south a could see a dead-straight huge structure stretching as far as the eye can see across the desert - the Greal Wall. I took a track across the plain to get a closer look. Above ground, this part of the wall was basically earth and rubble, but below there was a deep trench showing the well-preserved foundations. Still, the absolute scale of the thing is so impressive.

In the evening the wind picked up to a terrifying pitch. I found some abandoned farm buildings and set up camp in the stable as the sandstorm closed in.

Distance: 119 km. Overnight in a stable (Gansu prov, China).

21 september, Wed: The last of the bad road - but the worst. The surface was either deep sand, or sharp rocks hidden by deep sand. Oh how I cursed. Oncoming trucks would leave me in a cloud of dust & sand, and I would be riding blind for a few seconds. Then the next truck would do the same. I got waves and thumbs-up but it was all I could do to keep the bike upright and bounce over all these obstacles. Still, it had to be done. There was actually an alternative route to this, via another town over a smooth asphalt road. But it wouldn't feel right: like the travellers of old, I had to suffer and earn my right to pass Jiyuguan fort and into China proper.

A milestone in China for me and it deserved the proper ceremony - an extortionate 60 yuan to enter the fort with the hundreds of other tourists. Apparently this is the most photographed spot in China, with the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The other side was, however, industrial landscape. What I found impressive was the wall heading out into the desert. The information board boasted: "you can see the beautiful vast Gobi desert, snow-capped Quilian mountains, mirages, and the steel and iron blast-furnace".

Into the city, and the first hotel on seeing the sight of me and my bike (both completely covered by white sand...) said there were no rooms free. Oh no, I worried, maybe all hotels here treat unwashed barbarians from the Gobi badlands the same way... Thankfully, the next hotel was much friendlier, cheaper and the cleanest shared bathroom I have ever seen. There was even a bell-boy, who continued smiling despite soon being splattered with white sand from my bags...

Distance: 77 km. Overnight in Jiyuguan (Gansu prov, China).

22 september, Thu: What a change! Towns, cities, green fields of agriculture, trees lining the road... civilization perhaps really does start here. And hardly any wind. After 60km of this I figured I won't be needing my spare water any more and dumped it. 5km later I was back in the desert.
Still, there were a couple of oasis towns where I could eat and drink. The scenery changed remarkably - bare desert as far as the eye can see, mountains in the distance, canyons.. there were crumbling chimney-shaped structures with a walled compound at intervals in the desert. Guardposts from long ago ?

Recently I've strangely been having trouble ordering "cha" - tea - with my meal. It's only one syllable, surely not that difficult, but nobody seems to understand anymore. Today I pronounced it in all variations I could think of, mimed drinking a cup of tea, smacking my lips and pouring a refill. The restaurant owner was still lost. At last I got out the dictionary and pointed to the Chinese character for "cha" - and he promptly went outside to flag down a taxi for me, which just happened to be the word above "tea" in the dictionary...
I've also become a magnet for mini-tractor drivers since arriving into Gansu. They hover just behind me and follow me for miles.

But anyway, today was such a nice change from the assault course I've been riding on the last few days - smooth tarmac. I was unleashed ! I could have easily done more than the 166km but as the cultivated greenery had started again it might have been difficult to find a secluded spot for the tent, so I decided to get a bed in town. The half-dozen girls at reception giggled madly as I came in with my bike, and fought among themselves to take a piece of luggage up to my room!

Distance: 166 km. Overnight in Gaotai (Gansu prov, China).

23 september, Fri: Lots & lots of corn fields, small villages and a few towns. The mornings are quite cool now and it's nice to feel the coldness on the skin. But gone is the serenity of the desert, now only visible down the odd track through rippened corn that ends there. When I stopped for lunch about fifteen locals stood around me watching, commenting on how I used my chopsticks or childishly giggling "hello" or "goodbye" to get a laugh from their mates. I'm already missing the lonely desert truckstops, where the only other person might be perhaps a solitary truck-driver, solemly smoking his carton of 200 cigarettes.

Arriving in Zhangye I had a hard time getting my bearings. I wandered around for over an hour, past a major thoroughfare that had a hundred mobile phone shops lined up next to each other, and large buildings with nothing but "China Telecom" or "China Mobile" plastered on them. Other streets full of banks and glitzy clothes shops, others crammed full of electrical appliance shops... and occasionally amongst this barrage of modernness a couple of old men on little portable chairs would be playing an impromptu game of Majong on an upturned cardboard box...

Distance: 85 km. Overnight in Zhangye (Gansu prov, China).


24 september, Sat - day off in Zhangye: Went to see the Reclining Budda - the largest in China/Asia/the World, depending on which information board you read. Although the Budda itself was covered in scaffolding and many of his (her?) guardians were obscured by the restoration work in progress, the temple complex was quite large and uncluttered, with trees and walkways, and several exhibitions in various outlying temples. It was quite serene, and made a very pleasant couple of hours. It made me think of Kyoto and now I've promised myself that I'll pass that way once I reach Japan.

The rest of the day was spent cleaning the bike, on the internet, and - strangely mesmerizing - watching Chinese TV. I noticed on many commercials, dramas and variety shows that the female actress or celebrity often has these huge wide-open eyes - like a rabbit permanently caught in a car's headlights, or a Japanese "manga" character. Then I realised - they've all had cosmetic surgery to widen their eyes! I've heard this procedure was getting popular in China, but still, I'm a little shocked.

Later on CCTV channel 7 - which seems to carry a lot of military programs - there was a competition between two army teams. It was a little like "It's a knockout" between a Blue team and Red team, with the supporters seated stiffly on army-issue camp chairs waving little coloured flags for their team. Meanwhile the competitors would fire mortars at targets, or drive jeeps over narrow ramps, and so on. The program was hosted by a stern-looking, though not unattractive woman officer, shouting out commands and demanding answers to her quiz questions.

Strangely, later that night, she featured in a dream of mine, putting me through my paces ...

25 september, Sun: A day spent cycling through rough grazing country and some semi-desert. But almost all of it running parallel to the Great Wall - the scale of this just astounds me more & more. Some fortresses were still over 8 metres tall, and sections of the wall over 5 metres, despite the ravaging of the centuries. Following this was the only thing that kept me sane through the appalling headwind I was up against all day (barely managing 10kph most of the time). Otherwise the usual countryside scene: sheep trussed up on the back of motorbikes, a family of three generations in a tractor trailer sullenly staring at me... lunch at a very friendly restaurant with a really sweet little girl who quietly brought out her school english textbook to practise a few phrases - if only all kids were this well-behaved!

Later, route 312 (the "Silk Road") led up to the highway. Trying to get off it I found myself passing a well-preserved rectangular fortress (the old man looking after it let me inside - there were also a couple of old murals on the wall of the entrance passage), and then a dirt track passing under huge sections of the wall: very impressive. But also very slow - I eventually found a track through a "midget" tunnel under the highway which took me to a narrow lane. That night for dinner: a large bowl of noodles, mince & tofu, a plate of meat & vegetables, and a beer. 7 yuan (about 60 pence)!

Distance: 105 km. Overnight in a village (Gansu prov, China).

26 september, Mon: Staying in a dusty but prosperous town tonight, 7km off the main road, down a lane lined with restaurants, and everyone of a pleasant dismeanor. This morning was cold & cloudy, with a 15km climb left to the pass at 2600m, and a chilly descent. I took the crappy lane rather than the highway, which was a mistake, and by noon the headwind had started up and continued until late afternoon. When it ceased, I figured I had to make the most of the opportunity and pressed on. I had "the runs" and it's now getting increasingly difficult to find a private patch of ground to do one's "business". The last 40km was impossible, and as the road got increasingly bumpy I had to grimace and hold it all in ...

Distance: 175 km. Overnight in Huangyongzhen (Gansu prov, China).

27 september, Tue: Some nice cycling today and a change of landscape. From the farmlands of yesterday the road rose steadily upwards, winding through a green-sloped valley. A few eyesores - smoke belching factories - but a welcome change, reaching a pass at 2900m, topped by a Tibetan Buddist stupa! The descent was glorious - very gentle through rolling plains of fields, still being worked manually with bullocks and a wooden plough. And it was cold! The road continued on through tree-lined lanes, somewhat bumpy... I'd heard that this area was Tibetan, though I couldn't really tell. In the town, there was another Uighur-like language supplementing the Chinese on shop-signs and people were wearing something similar to the skull-cap I'd seen in Xinjiang. People smiled at me and said hello, and were not so rudely intrusive with their staring as I'd been experiencing recently. Are these Tibetans, I wondered.

A little later down the track (asphalt having disappeared) I heard the unmistakable sound of Tibetan horn-pipes and ran into a funeral procession. Suddenly, I became the centre of attention, surrounded by dozens of smiling faces, laughing and joking - I don't know what happened to the funeral. I drank some viciously strong alcohol, made some conversation, drank some viciously strong alcohol, posed for a few photographs, drank some viciously strong alcohol, and eventually made a path through the throng, while about a hundred Tibetans waved me off. Looking at the state of the road ahead, I was thankful for the potent fire-water that had started to have it's effect...

Arrived after sunset in Yongdeng, still at 2100m. Dusty non-descript town, friendly people, the cold and the rain (yes - rain!) sporadically interrupted by bursts of firecrackers on the pavement.

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

28 september, Wed: A grey drizzly morning, the local roads were a sea of mud. Sweet-talked my way ("I don't understand, I don't understand") onto the toll-road which undulated up and down through a misty landscape of small hills and canyons, every available patch of land under cultivation. As the road went on, the hills became bigger and caves were dotted all over them. There were thousands of caves, some with huge openings. What were these used for, I wondered. Anyway, it was lucky I had something to take my mind off my increasing hunger. The toll-road had led onto the expressway and there wasn't any place to eat for 100km...

Arrived at my destination for the next couple days - Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province and a population of 3 million - and found a reasonably priced hotel with an astoundingly nice room. The catch ? The entire population of Lanzhou in their cars, outside my hotel room, banging their car horns...

Distance: 113 km. Overnight in Lanzhou (Gansu prov, China).

Return to top of page To next page