//: To Liuyuan Camp km (Odometer passes km)
We pedalled out of Dunhuang into a headwind. At our lunch stop in the only village, a girl of about seven or eight was afraid of us at first, but became less nervous when we’d finished our noodles and trotted out the family photo page for her mother. She allowed Chris to take a photo of her as she was having her hair brushed and braided. There is something weirdly ritualistic about taking snapshots in China. The obligatory posed shot seems to mean it’s all OK.
We reached Liuyuan, rejoining the road that Carsten had taken westward from Anxi. We tried to get a room in the only hotel. I was shown a room for which I would have paid perhaps yuan rather than get out the tent. When I asked how much for the room, three young women ignored me for some time, giggling over a calculator and making derisive pedalling motions with their hands. The gist was they thought they had us cornered because it was getting dark and we were on bikes. One finally blurted out “ yuan”. I said Bu yao –as in “not want” or “no” and quickly left; they were being too absurd to bother trying to bargain. Chris was outside with the bikes . She followed me outside, quickly lowering the price to yuan as came, but I was really fed up with their attitude.
We had supper down the road, then rode back to the junction and camped behind a flash flood dyke, where Chris had noticed a potential campsite as we arrived. I made my displeasure at the hotel ladies quite clear to the nice restaurant family, and enough people watched us leave town in the dark that we’re pretty sure the message that we’re well-equipped and not that bloody stupid will get back to the hotel. The point is not just to avoid being scammed or to vent, but to encourage more appropriate behaviour towards the next travellers.
In the morning, we returned to the junction for a noodle breakfast and to stock up on liquids. We started fast with a tailwind and uphill through dark hilly landscape into Xinjiang province, China’s Uyghar “Autonomous” Region. Signs are bilingual, in both characters and an Arabic script. Then a downhill with favouring wind, and we saw a herd of camels grazing. Each beast was hobbled, with halter rope tied to foreleg, and two Kazakh yurts could be seen in the distance. The wind veered, and we battled a crosswind as the day wore on. As it increased in strength, the sky grew hazy with dust.
We met three Chinese cyclists travelling from Urumqi to Dunhuang, and stopped for the obligatory photograph.
We are not experts on desert weather, but had heard enough about sandstorms to worry. The topography gave no shelter at all, and our tent would have been vulnerable. As the sun set, we checked out the underpasses (culverts in case of flash flood, also used as toilets) but the angle of the wind was such that they gave little protection. We tried unsuccessfully to hitch-hike. Some highway construction workers in a pick-up truck invited us to camp out of the wind at their work camp km away. We rode there with lights on, and set up our tent (with a crowd of onlookers) between some large trucks and a sturdy wall tent. We were invited to a tent for tea and snacks, by two men who proudly showed me their ID cards and announced they were Uyghar. I was exhausted after a record km, but civilities are a necessary part of travel, so I got out my Central Asia phrasebook for the first time, and they seemed very pleased when I haltingly read assalamu alaykum -Peace be upon you (good evening), and promptly brought out the beer. We slept well, all things considered.
//: To Hami km
We rode with crosswinds into Hami the next day. It also got hotter and hotter during the day. We wore soaked cotton bandanas under our helmets, and we slept for several hours in an underpass. (It’s the ends that are used as toilets, and the middle part is OK..if you’re careful.) Stopping for drinks at a gas station, I saw the group of girls in yellow jackets and cringed at the thought of being giggled at like some freak. I was tired, thinking of the Liuyuan hotel experience, and ready to be rude. “Patience,” said Chris. They were the nicest of lasses, and our Coke stop turned into a reciprocal language and geography lesson . We unfolded maps and even blew up our inflatable globe. I left feeling restored by more than caffeine and sugar.
These desert days are naturally long because settlements and places to even get water are so far apart. The pedalling isn’t especially hard on the legs, but it takes it’s toll on other parts of the body and on the mind. Holding the loaded bikes steady in a strong crosswind is a bit like steering an over-canvassed sailboat in a gale; it gets the arms and shoulders. And Chris has a bottom-end problem (infected sore) that is causing him to sit crookedly as he rides, which does in his back. The bandanas protect our ears from the sun, but I get dust in my lungs and am coughing, and the dry wind is hard on the nasal passages. Many locals wear face masks, and farmers tie cloths around their tractors’ air intakes, but we are exerting ourselves more than the locals, and covering one’s face is a hot option.
We will take two days off here in Hami to give Chris’s bottom end a chance to heal. We look forward to moving from desert to grassland, and are now proposing to use the route from Urumqi through Kazakhstan, rather than ride to Kashgar and on to Kyrgyztstan. Deserts have a certain dramatic beauty, but this hot dry cycling is taking it’s toll, and we’ll be getting more in Uzbekistan and beyond. We could do with some gurgling streams, green vegetation, and higher humidity.