Murphy Tour Part VI: Xinjiang and Qinghai.

The thing I dislike the most is to be forced not to use the bike at certain times...

After the normal bullshit at the Chinese border (the border officials had to check with some higher authority if it was possible to bring a private bicycle into the country) I got the normal friendly welcome. First by some Chinese businessmen who gave me soft drinks and later by some Uighirs who invited me for tea and watermelon.

Ravenous for food after the days almost without in Kazakhstan and after a five hour long eating break in Yining I decided to try to take out revenge on the failed attempt to reach the higher parts of the Tien Shan in Kyrgyzstan. Set off for the Pik Pobedy Massif again, this time on the Chinese side of the border.

Managed to stay of trouble for 23 hours before I once again was arrested. It all started in a small village. Had a food break, the police arrived and wanted to have a look at my passport, they let me go after some time of interrogations and I cycled on. Should had been much more careful and alert. When I arrived in the next main city, the police were waiting for me. Tried to outrun them in the back alleys, but three running officials and a jeep was too much, caught and brought to the police station. More interrogations, had to pay a fine and was told to go back the way I had come. Had a long break in a restaurant and waited for sunset. A police guy was tailing me. Cycled 10 km back, got rid of the tail and waited 'til it was pitch black. Dodged the checkpoint and passed the city I had been caught in a couple of hours earlier on. 

Cycled until the first rays of light came over the horizon. Slept in a little tunnel underneath the road. Didn't want to take any risks, so I didn't start my cycling until it was dark again. Wondered a bit what the hell I was doing...cycling at night, without lights, almost getting swept off the road a couple of times by overloaded hay trucks. Didn't manage to get up into the Tien Shan I had planned to, too risky to be arrested one more time in the same county, but headed for the Bayanbulak county, also well known for being a forbidden sensitive area.

The climb out of the Yining valley is fantastic, all of sudden you just leave the hot lowlands, friendly beekeepers who sell great honey all around, pine forests and loads of waterfalls. Green and lush. Climb a bit further and you are on the central plateau of the Chinese Tien Shan. High snow caps, herds of horses and nomadic tents everywhere.

Yurt on central Tien Shan Plateau. 
Horses and sheep everywhere.
The smaller of The Dragon Lakes.  

Dreaded the next part of the journey - the stretch through the Taklamakan towards Kashi. Went full on, 200km/day+ just to have it done. Hot, but fortunately not windy and I arrived in Kashi without any incidents. 

Kashi was basically the same since last time I was there: John, Kashi's shithead #1 - and his overpriced shit cafe is still the same, still recommended by Lonely Planet, even if he is the PSB's greatest snitch and help in nabbing people heading for Tibet. The food in Oasis Cafe is still outstanding, the old Uighir part of the city is ever so charming and the Chinese food markets can blow your mind when it comes to food.

I wonder if there's a better place in the world for bike repair - The Oasis Restaurant. Fix your bike, have some breaks with delicious food.

Got bored waiting for Tom and Stefan, the Swedish cyclists I was supposed to meet. Headed off for a short side trip on the KKH. Joined forces with Nadine from Quebec, who was on her way to Pakistan. Easy cycling on great asphalt towards the high plateau, where the two impressive massifs of Muztagh Ata and Kongur Shan are located. 

Encounters on the KKH.
The Kongur Massif and probably one of the few places in the world where you can see yaks, camels, horses, sheep and goats, grazing side by side.
muztaghatacamp.JPG (68417 byte) Camping at the foot of Muztagh Ata.

Met Tom, Stefan and some other cyclists just before Tashkurgan and we went back to Kashi. Nadine changed her mind about Pakistan and joined us for the upcoming adventures in China. It was great to have a little break from the hardship of hard cycling on shitty back roads, long distances and cycling alone. KKH is a great place even if I have seen a dramatic change in the attitude of the locals along the way...a hardened traveller I met in Kashi had renamed to CCH - The Coca Cola Highway. Anyway, the natural beauty will hopefully be the same.

Nadine, Adhina and Tom on the last, flat part before returning to Kashi.

Nadine had already spent many months in China and we were a bit worried about the visa time. Took the bus through the boring parts in through the Taklamakan to Qiemo. Tom's bottom bracket was in bad condition and he had to wait in Kashi for a replacement.

One of those wonderful Chinese monster meals, this one in a truck stop on the way to Qiemo.

Arrived in Qiemo and stocked the bikes with food for 40-45 days. The bikes were quite heavy when we left the oasis town...on top of the normal gear we had: 3 kilos of rice, 160 packs of three-minute noodles, 3 kilos of raisins, 4 kilos of mixed nuts, dried vegetables, 3 kilos of sugar, 5 litres of gasoline, 4 kilos of spaghetti, etc, etc. The total weight gain was approx. 35 kilos and was loaded in an ice hockey bag on top of the rest. Was a bit afraid that my bike was going to snap in half, but on the other hand, some cyclists you meet cycle around with that size of the load all the time. 

coraxasphaltdesert.JPG (79576 byte) The new enormous load on the back of the bike.
The first very hot camp in the outskirts of the Taklamakan.
nadidirtywater.JPG (60320 byte) The only water we could find in the area was pretty full of sand. Someone would Q: Why don't you use a filter? A: How many times would you have to clean it before a litre is filtered? 
altunshan.JPG (50898 byte) All of a sudden the mountains were just there! They stood approx. 5000 meters higher than the desert. When we first saw them, we thought: What a barrier! Is there any possibility to find a way through that wall of mountains?

The tries, misery, dead ends, sand hell, road conditions, heat, hope and disappointment, route choices, Nadine's upcoming pneumonia and so on, could fill up a whole site, but to make it a bit short: We tried, really hard for 15 days to reach the Tibetan high plateau from the Taklamakan and failed.

Amazing small primitive villages on the foothills of the Altun Shan welcomed us with open arms, loads of grapes and help with the route choice.

aqqa.JPG (97110 byte) Stocking up with more food. Nadine surrounded with the very curious and colourful inhabitants of Aqqa.

The elusive Karamiran Shankou was somewhere up there between the massive peaks and everyone we met seemed to know exactly where, but time and time again we ended up in a dead end. Long sandy up hills, usually over 15% steep, with a fully loaded bike was hard. The uncertainty not knowing if we were on the right track was also a major hassle...fighting, fighting, fighting from the early morning to dark going nowhere...mentally hard.

We had been expecting a pretty straight forward climb into the mountains, but no. It was up in the Altun Shan and back into the Desert time and time again. Camels in the borderlines between desert and foothills.

One of the big problems was that we had met a myth maniac in Kashi - the climbing leader for Highalpex (the most unserious rip off mountaineering company ever encountered - more about this fraud on another place on the site), who said he had been over the Karamiran Shankou and at the foot of Ulugh Muztagh. This was of course lies, invented in the drug hazed mind of Mr Heersink and we paid dearly for trusting this liar. If we had never met him, we had tried out a completely different route.

We never reached the Karamiran Shankou (pass), but the Karamiran River we found. At that time of the year, not so deep and hard, but we could easily imagine what it could look like in the spring. No way to cross it on foot then. 
karamiranhe.JPG (108148 byte) Finally we got over the river. We were happy we arrived in late fall. It was easy to imagine how big the river could be in another season. What the hell is that bridge doing there in the middle of the river... 

Anyway, in the end we thought we had found the key to the route over the Altun and Kunlun mountain ranges. Fighting our way up another sandy track towards the mountains, we met a road crew which was busy digging up the road. They informed us the old road was destroyed some years back and it was in bad disrepair for a good five km. After that the man we talked to, had no clue, but he further told us, that if we could negotiate the two passes over the ranges, the tracks on the plateau was probably in better condition. He had travelled that way all the way to Lhasa a long way back and wished us good luck, but at the same time recommended us to go via Golmud instead. 

tracks.JPG (64696 byte) One of the standard tracks in the area. It would've been ok, if we could be sure it lead somewhere, but they never did...
noodlepackets.JPG (80761 byte) Desperately trying to save some weight and volume. Getting rid of over a hundred noodle bags and all other wrapping material. Every gram was easily felt in the killer up hills.
crushingcheese.JPG (82057 byte) Saving food as well. Had no idea when to be able to buy some new rations. Crushing some rock hard, very dry very old cheese some nice people gave us. 

It felt like it was our last chance and we headed up the steep valley. The track got smaller and smaller and at 3800m we stopped for camp. Nadine had had a cold which didn't got better. The next morning I decided to go alone and check out what was ahead of us. Ok, track for another km and then it entered a narrow gorge. Left the bike behind and started to walk. After another km even walking got hard, loads of rocks blocked the way and in the end I ended up rock climbing on the sides of the gorges. Started to feel miserable - was this the end? Had all the hard work had come to end in a this valley? We had talked about paying some locals for help with the transport if it got too hard, but now it seemed that even that was out of the question. No way even yaks or donkeys could get through some of the passages in the canyon, let alone climb the almost vertical walls. Finally reached a vantage point on a hill and saw a road! A switch back section leading up to the first pass over the Altun Shan. It looked promising, the catch was, it was at least 5 km of almost impossible terrain to reach the switch backs and it was snow at that pass. The lower first one according to the road workers. What would the other higher pass be like, how far away was it and was there any hope that the road conditions would improve on the other side. Battled my way back to the tent and delivered the bad news to Nadine. She was in a bad state, feverish and not feeling very well, but refused to give up. Decided to wait a day and see how it was the following day.

No improvement and we decided to throw in the towel. The Changtang is not the place to go with an upcoming pneumonia. It was very hard to go back the way we had come. Not so much physical as mental. Felt a lot of the bitter taste of defeat in our souls.

Promised to give a shot at a later occasion and hitched a ride with truck full of goats and sheep. I think it may be the hardest ride I've ever endured. Thrown all over the place on the miserable roads, had to help goats to recover their position after falling in a heap and almost crushing the ones underneath. After 7 hours I felt I didn't care about anything, laid down in the pile of sheep and slept. Woke up a couple of km outside Qiemo completely soiled from all kinds of goat excrements. Crashed, depressed in the same hotel we had left a fortnight earlier. 

Tom arrived and some days later Stefan. Nadine got slightly better, but we still thought it was better not to cycle all the way to Golmud, also, the visa time was ticking away to quickly.

Studying the horizon from the only high point in the desert.

Bus to Rouqiang.

ontopofbus.JPG (79177 byte) Stuck in the middle of nowhere. With the help of logs, shovels and a lot of hard work, the bus drivers managed to get out of the numerous sand traps.
drysand.JPG (100866 byte) Dry.

Cycled parts of the way towards Magnai Shen, got a ride and another crazy ride started. Over the high border pass between Xinjiang and Qinghai. Freezing cold on the back of the truck and we all of a sudden missed the suffocating heat of the Taklamakan we had hated so much just 12 hours earlier.

backoftruck.JPG (80814 byte) Tom, Stefan and Nadine on the way towards the Qinghai border. Bumpy (to say the least), cold and oil barrels flying all over the place. I really hate not to be able to cycle!

Another ride took us to Golmud and we were read to take off for the Tibetan high plateau. It was not the way I had wanted to cross it, but there was nothing I could do about it. After a couple of days of relaxing in the fall atmosphere of Golmud I felt I was ready for the Golmud Highway, which would take us to Lhasa and Central Tibet.

Continue to the next part of the journey!


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