10 201 km to date
Cold morning! It’s 2C at wake up. We look up the valley where we rode last evening and see we are just below the snowline, with dark clouds socking in the mountain peaks. We just missed that one. Numb fingers when we pack up camp. We only have enough water for tea. Last night in our frenzy to get lower we failed to notice the shrinking river until it was far away from the road and only a muddy stream. Our dishes must stay mucky and filled with last night’s noodles until later today.
We load on all of our clothes for the numbing descent. Teeth clenched to prevent chattering. We are expecting to coast for a long time but head winds prevent our ride. The snow chases us but we manage to stay ahead of it, riding towards blue sky.
Disappointment at 45 km. We stop for Jianlibao, looking for food, but we only find a smoky army kitchen and two guys putting out a fire. How far to Golmud? He scribes “90” in the sand. No, we say, that 9 must really be a 4. Maybe that’s the way he writes his 4’s. We are wrong. Later I trade my Canda “Jiandada” pins with an army officer for his Red Army pins. A score. He also confirms the extra distance to Golmud. Damn! We pull out, discouraged. They shout back at us that we’ve forgotten to take our empty cans with us. They run after us.
Further down, the cold turns to dry hot. A lone, Japanese cyclist approaches. He is wearing a button down dress shirt and a Gilligan hat. He looks like an easy victim of the mountains he is about to undertake. We give maps and advice and show him how God damn cold we were at elevations over 5000m. His gear is missing the warm clothes he will need and he seems not to believe us. Alex grills him on staying warm.
Gliding down to the end of the Tibetan plateau, the temperature soars, rivers disappear, and we see flat, beautiful, consistent desert ahead. A different world. Majestic and pristine looking mountains behind us disguise their menacing weather from this vantage. We think about the Japanese guy and wonder if he’ll freeze tonight.
Lunch at the end of the mountains. Nothing but flat ahead. Convoys wave as they pass, still. We wonder how many of these soldiers have seen us before, in the last few days. We hammer the road in to Golmud, excited at the prospect of rest. My broken shoe does not slow me down, cruising at 28 to 30 kph past stalled convoys, overtaking a black smoke spewing plough used as people transport. The soldiers wave, salute, and high five us as we speedily drive by. We lock on and speed past local cyclist going the same direction. They hate that.
Golmud. Coasting to town. We check in to our dormitory not before enduring the “Red Card”- ten yuan deposit. Give the red card to the xiaojie in exchange for a blue card. Once we have a blue card, she will then open the door.
Crash. Exhausted and filthy after 10 days on the road. Too tired to shower, we venture to the hotel restaurant. As usual, there are 40 items on the menu, of which 35 the surly bitch of a waitress snarls, “meiyou”. She tries to collect our money before we have our food, to which we protest and wait for the food. As we eat, she sits next to us, scowling, and presumably ensuring we do not “dine and dash”.
Jean Francois arrives with English guy. I’m sure I recognize him, and ask where he is from. He replies with a familiar shout, “Quebec!” I remember him from Yalta, from May 24. What a coincidence to run in to him here. He raves again about “la Quebec libre.” I tell him I’m not interested and basically neither is the rest of Canada. A conversation stopper. Later we are friends again over a beer in the market, exchanging travel stories and moderating our stands. He says, “I think we will probably lose the referendum anyways.”
Morning. I am bitter and agitated about having to deal with my shoe. Ready for a shower, but they conveniently did not tell us, “shower open 9pm –11pm onry.” I stew all day in my ten day old road gunk, picking dirt from my scalp and balls of toe jam from between my toes.
The sparse and soulless hotel room is splattered with graffiti and notices. The English ones say, “Fuck the CITS.” “God damn CITS parasites.” People come and go. Golmud is not a place people come to visit, only to pass through to get somewhere else. The coldness of the lobby reminds me of our stays in the Soviet Gastinetzas.
Boy we stink. For breakfast we find the restaurant we saw yesterday on the way in. It had big letters in the window that looked promising. “Yar Burger – The Big Yar”, “French Fraies” (sic), and “Banana Pancak” (sic). We go for the pancaks. The six staff seem overwhelmed, particularly with our request for maple syrup. We settle on jam, but the look shifty. Even this has them stymied. We wait for thirty minutes before they return to our table and tell us, “banana….meiyou.” We leave.
One of my big projects is to get my shoe repaired. Yesterday’s fall tore the cleat right out of the sole. I wander through autoshops picking at scrap metal and trying to explain to disinterested mechanics what I need done. I find a plate of sheet metal and take it. A corridor or shoe repair stalls is next as I vainly try to explain the concept of an SPD cleat. They all vie for my business, fitting swatches of rubber over the hole where the cleat goes. No, no, no. Finally a family operation takes me on. Mom cuts the steel. Dad finds rivets and screws to make the fit. A crowd gathers as we shout encouragement at each other. When Dad is stumped the onlookers lend a hand. I inspect as he goes, skeptical, but see no other options. Besides, this dad is really into my shoe. Pounding with the hammer and boring holes through my sole he finishes and holds the shoe up to the crowd triumphantly. “doshao kwai?”, how much, I ask. The crowd whispers, “forty”. He asks for thirty. I say thank you and offer forty, but he declines and takes only thirty. We shake hands and say goodbye.
Laundry seemed simple enough when we dropped it off. They snicker at my tight cycling shorts. I convince them that they’re harmless despite the skid marks. Woops. I specifically emphasize, with phrasebook in hand, “do not iron”, and they nod obediently. Later, at six in the evening, return to pick up our clothes and inspect their work after paying. The staff bow their heads in embarrassment. Indeed, my socks are soaking wet and worse, my pullover has a huge burn mark in it. I argue, “you have ruined my garment, give me my money back” (using this exact phrase from the phrasebook). They refuse. Alex gets in the guy’s face, closer and louder. A crowd gathers. Anger boils. Alex repeats it again. The owner tells us to go away. The small, scrappy guy from next door shoves us and shouts from behind. I rub a wet sock in the face of one of the laundry ladies. More shouting and insults in at least two languages continues until finally, the owner relents and throws our twenty-three yuan into the street. Ha, victory. Or so I think.
Later we eat pork in sweet and sour sauce with young army officers. “Your Chinese very good.” He tells us of the seven day convoys from Lhasa to Beijing. Even though we can’t understand a word, he makes it sound grueling. He’s been in the army for nine years. I just can’t picture this joker firing on the students at Tianminan.
We have more dorm-mates tonight; two Japanese guys, one of whom is a Tibetan history major. He’s had a rough time getting his visa for Tibet, paying big bucks to the CITS. As we tell him of our clandestine (free) adventure, he moans in agony. Dinner tonight is a feast. We charge back huge bowls of noodles at the market food court. Mom and Pop proudly watch as we stuff it back. They laugh as we say, “haoche jile”—that was delicious.
The showers finally turn on, sending streams of scalding hot water across the shower room and turning it into a thirty minute steam bath. Feels good. Back at the room, I’m sorting through my gear for tomorrow when I notice that my polypro shirt is missing. Damn! The laundry ladies didn’t return it. Ah, crap. Alex, who, yes, was credited with returning our money but also nearly incited a brawl, lies calmly across from me, “well, you’re just going to have to go back there tomorrow.”
140 km time 7:20, climb 700m
10 341 km to date
after Golmud salt flats 3370m
At 8:55 I’m parked outside the Laundromat. The door is still rolled down, but I’ve laid my plan of attack. As soon as it begins to roll up I’m waiting. The worker girl is startled but she’s given me my cue. I walk into the shop, pushing aside the table that just yesterday was the scene of our near rumble. The girl is nervous. She recognizes me even though I’m clean now. I’m wearing the jersey from yesterday—the offending jersey. Once again the Mandarin phrasebook is spot on. I point to the phrase, “there is one piece missing” “meiyou zou”. I repeat the phrase and describe the shirt, “blue… long-sleeved… meiyou zou”. She calls the boss and disappears herself. Alone, I work through all the racks, through piles of laundry. The boss arrives. The guy from yesterday, shouting at me to get out. I repeat the phrase. He shouts louder, grabbing me, but I pull a deke on him. I get back to looking through the racks as he races after me. He grabs me again and again I pull away. Just then I see it. I check to make sure. I’m positive it’s my shirt. I pull it from the hanger and show it. He grabs for it, shouting, “san kwai.” Oh crap. I would gladly pay, but only then I realize I don’t have my wallet. It’s with my bike at the restaurant, where Alex is waiting for me. This is too hard to explain, and it is probably impossible to ever come back here and be rational. I plot my escape. He blocks the door, grabbing me again. I throw him a head fake, spin free, and leap over the table in the doorway and onto the street, away from his groping hands. He is shouting and very angry. The worker girl is screaming in fear. I start to turn away but the short guy from the propane shop next door stops me. He shouts and grabs. I swear back and pull away. He throws a weak punch an grabs me again, binding my hands. I kick him in the groin and he lets go and I punch him in the face. Turning away, another guy stops me, grabbing my jersey and pulling it over my head, hockey fight style. I twist free and deck him in the face too. He releases and now I run away a wave of angry voices following me. One more guy makes a move to follow but I’m past him. I run, looking back for chasers or projectile rocks. I’m free, but I’m shaking hard. Damn. First fight in about fifteen years. That mace sure would have come in handy.
I’m still shaking when I get back to the restaurant. Alex is sipping tea and eating a huge stack of pancakes. “What took you so long? Everything go ok?” I’m shaking from the adrenaline rush, but end up cracking up the restaurant staff as I try to tell the story using the phrasebook. The only relevant word I can find is “Lao”, meaning, “punch.” They all laugh, repeating “lao”. As I finish the story for the third time, we decide that we should probably get out of town in case the police come looking for the Laundromat Kid.
Once again, we leave town on the run, feeling paranoid every time we see a police officer. They all seem to slow and stare at us, like the police report from the Laundromat just came over their “SCMODS” (from the Blues Brothers: “State. County. Municipal. Offender Data System”. I’m sure we’re on their screen as they examine us as they pass. The best defense is a big wave and a smile. I feel better when they shout back, “O.K.!”
It’s a cruising morning. The road deteriorates, but we power through the corduroy road, asses bouncing up off the saddles. We’ll be sore tomorrow for sure. The Tibetan plateau fades into blue behind us. We’re in some very flat land now; completely flat, dry desert. We pass the, “Farest Salt Flat Bridge” (sic), a raised road through a depressed, white coated plain. Lunch is a ramen stop on a sandy dune, backs to a lattice of straw work in the ground that serves as a windbreak for the train. There’s no final town stop today, just a work camp outpost, where we stop for water. They offer us “mantou” steam rolls, whatever they are. I use, “wu chibaole” (I’m full) to get out of a taste test. Massive convoys carrying cargo of coal pass us and honk their greeting.
130 km time 6:30, climb 510m
10 471 km to date
after Ige He river, China 3345m
We awaken to a cool morning and disappoint ourselves with a lame breakfast, feeling bonked at 55 kilometers and looking for lunch. The chef in the town of Da Qaidam Zhen does us up. Walking through the kitchen, we point to as many recognizable vegetables as we can see. The result is a wondrous stir fried vegetable, egg, tomato and spinach salty, greasy delight. A man sits beside the awful wailing Chinese music and sings along. We drink bottomless tea and double up on Jianlibaos. At the market we search for quality cookie packages—it’s easy to buy crappy cookies if you’re not careful. This one has some unique packaging:
“ This proudu. This produ was m made with best quealit and enspetedion.” (sic)
Who writes this stuff?
More dry scenery and Turkmenistan style mountains. We pass our last snow capped peak, 18, 350’. Weaving through the jagged, dry ranges, one after another, we suffer from the optical illusion that we’re on flat ground, yet in reality we’re climbing slightly. Flat tire syndrome.
We stop at the Ige He river bridge, snack, and fill our water bags. It’s the first really crystal clean river we’ve seen in days. It’s a relaxing afternoon. Our campsite is identical to last night. Our routine is solidified. Arrive at camp. Alex pitches tent while I get the stoves and pots out. Make dinner. Eat dinner. Make breakfast for tomorrow. Write. Go to sleep. I often wonder if that extra thirty minutes of sleep Alex is getting while I write is having long term impact.
115 km time 7:10, climb 680m
10 586 km to date
Suhai Hu Valley, China 3020m
It’s our first autumn day. -4 Celcius at wakeup. Brrr. It doesn’t get above 8C until noon. The sun stays hidden in the grey sky as cool winds meet us head on from the northwest.
It’s a rollercoaster for the first 35 kilometers. From 3300meters to 3800m; back down to 3400m and up to 3900m. Finally we reach a huge vista ahead; one that will last us well into tomorrow morning. It’s vast, lifeless and dusty. Only work camps and the lonely outpost of Huahaizi exist here. We stop for Jianlibao and stock up on anything they have. Score: they have preserved pineapple. Though it’s only the 80 kilometer mark we stock up on water, know that the rest of the day will be riverless.
All of a sudden the headwinds kick up out of nowhere. Crap. We’re getting hammered by the wind enough when the asphalt turns to a gravelly corduroy road. Trucks choke us in swirling dust as they pass. Our expected progress is cut in half. Our 50 kilometer afternoon is cut to 35. We set up camp in the dark.
Curiously, the side of the road is lined with Mao hats. I count twelve by the 85 kilometer mark today. The mystery is solved when one of those plough / public transit trailers passes us, packed with workers. As it chugs by, the hat comes flying off one of the riders. The plough doesn’t stop to pick it up and the hatless guy isn’t about to jump off and risk getting left behind in the desert.
160 km time 8:00, climb 975m
10 746 km to date
Dunhuong, China 1350m
From 3000meters we start our day climbing this deceiving mountain range, finally reaching the top, where the only sign of life is a man working beside a broken down aqua blue truck pounding the daylights out of the removed wheel rim with a crowbar. The descent is freezing cold! We’re decked out in our full gear. It is autumn indeed. Out tent was covered with frost this morning. So this is the Gobi desert. What a change from just a few months ago in the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan where the morning cool was the only respite from crushing heat.
We bounce down the horrid road in an arm-numbing descent into a new vista theatre. We have left the mountains behind and ahead lays only flat, open desert, dry river beds and sand dunes. The afternoon is a rocket shot to Dunhuong. Along the way I blow a sidewall out on my tire. This is a problem we’ve had with the Avocet tires from the outset. They seem to fail after about 2500 kilometers. It’s the last of my original tires so now I’m on to the ones I bought in India. The seem hefty enough. Just another 2000 to go. Hang in there, bike.
Once again, I’m way too excited about the new scenery and a town ahead and go way too fast, overheating by the time we make town. What a rookie, four months into the trip. At our dinner restaurant, between my bonk-ness and the spiciness of our food, it takes me hours to get it down, but I know I’ll need it. Eventually I’m stuffed on an amazing noodle, eggplant and tofu dish. By the time we’re finished it’s too late to ride out of town so we check in to a total shithole of a hotel next door for 7 yuan each—on par with India prices. Hey! Where’s the flush toilet? No such luck; just a shack outside our room with two holes in the floor. I have to pull a bandana over my face to keep from hurling. Later, fire up the stoves and heat our leftovers right on the floor of our hotel; a violation of fire prevention procedures, no doubt. But the floor lady doesn’t notice—she’s the sweetest one we’ve encountered yet. She at least has some human qualities and doesn’t hiss at us when we pass her desk at the end of the hall.
Sleep comes hard. Coal truck drivers relentlessly rev their engines through the night.
184 km time 7:22, climb 360m
10 930 km to date
75 km past Anxi, China 1500m
Ok, what is up with these maps. We’ve banked on two long, but doable riding days to Jiayuguan, but where our maps read 82 kilometers, the actual is 117. If this rate of failure continues we’ll be another day on the road. Given our time frame to cross the Gobi into Mongolia, every day counts now. Thankfully, tailwinds bless, and we’re cruising through cotton fields outside Dunhuong early in the morning, off to a good start. The cotton pickers all wear matching tracksuits, emerging from the foliage as we pass, squinting, double-taking, waving, then shouting, “O.K!”, like everyone else. Is this the Chinese swim team on retreat?
Before leaving town, we each buy “Dunhuong” t-shirts. Dunhuong has an almost tourist quality to it. There are apparently some ancient caves near by that are quite an attraction. Well, at least we got the t-shirt. I wonder which hotel the tourists stay at?
It’s a big morning, cruising at 30 to 35 kph for extended periods. Wahoo! Defiantly, we promise that we’ll write to Hildebrand and correct their terrible cartography.
As we pass some muddy towers, I wonder if this is the supposed remains of some of the Great Wall. Again, apparently there were once sections in this area, though the “official” western terminus is a day ahead of us, in Jiayuguan. I hope it’s more impressive there than here. Looks like nothing more than some oversized, melted sand castles.
The climate has changed. We seem to be in either a sandstorm or shrouded in fog. It doesn’t really matter. I don’t think there’s much we’re missing around us anyway. Then again, that’s what we said about he northern Karakoram Highway, which turned out to have some amazing vistas—totally missed by us until we saw postcards in Pakistan.
We take lunch in Anxi, a non-descript desert town with a descent restaurant. A group of drunken army officials eat at a table beside us, playing a drinking game of some kind that seems to be a derivative of “rock, paper, scissors.” Increasingly boisterous and shouting, it seems that the slowest person to flash the right number of fingers has to drink. They’re plastered. One of them tries to take an apple from our pannier, when we shout him down one of his cohorts recovers a degree of dignity and pulls him away.
A road food sensation has been discovered: sweet potatoes. Locals roast them in oil drum barbecues in the market. They travel well, are full of calories and taste great. Mmmmm. After our huge lunch and a couple of potatoes each, we sloth our way out of town.
Near dark we fill our water bags in a deserted village with mud walls beside the highway. We draw water from a well behind what appears to be the main building. Continuing, we ride till dark when Alex gets another flat. We reheat some lunch leftovers and cook up rice pudding for tomorrow’s breakfast. Big day today.
127 km time 6:10, climb 450m
11 057 km to date
85 km before Jiayuguan, China 1750m
We chalk up a good morning and arrive in Yumenzhen to disappointment. We were expecting that a big afternoon push could take us to Jiayuguan, but once again, our maps deceive us. On the edge of town the mileage to Jiayuguan reads 150 kilometers—a big day anyway. There’s no way we can make it today, so we take it easy, have some lunch, and cruise the afternoon into evening.
This morning’s ride found me in a real trance. With a nice tailwind, I put on one of my tapes I haven’t listened to much so far, kind of an ambient, jazzy thing, and locked into the vibe. My eyes fixed on the horizon, ground whizzing by my feet, every pedal stroke seemed to match my heart rate. My arms locked straight, feeling feverish and balloon like in my trance. It felt as though even if I had to turn, my body would not have responded. Very trippy.
The road turns south and we lose our tailwind, now an annoying blast hitting us from the south. It’s work now, and I’m feeling sore from our big days recently. The 150 km sign hurts us mentally. We’ve been banking on hitting a big city for some relaxation for a few days. I munch peanuts, another China staple, while Alex patches his tubes. At lunch we down a new Chinese, “Peach Drink” in a restaurant in Yumenzhen that isn’t bad at all. Alex snoozes on the restaurant couch after a filling plate of stirfry. The “xiojie” snaps our picture.
Days are cool and overcast. At camp we pull off and set up behind a roadside sand dune. It’s not till after we’re set up that we realize we’ve made camp beside what appears to be a funeral pyre.
Without bugs in the air, we leave the tent door open at night and marvel at the starry sky. As we lay staring at the sky, we list off the equipment we’ve used on the trip and give it a one out of five star rating. Stoves, for example: five. They kick ass. The Avocet tires: wall of shame. It’s a night of talking about home, touching on movies, family, and dates. I’m dying for something to read. I feel like I’ve forgotten how.
88 km time 4:30, climb 600m
11 145 km to date
Jiayuguan, China 1600m
I awake from a coma-like sleep. We both slept hard, exhausted from the long haul we’ve pulled since Lhasa. Recognizing that we’re wearing thin, we promise to take it easy for a few days before our assault to into Mongolia.
It’s a leisurely ride up to 2000m before a slow descent into town. We lunch roadside, with a view of the town of Yumen to the south. Industrial smog hangs over the southern horizon, where coal trains roll along constantly. Jiayuguan comes into view and we return to coasting mode, knowing great rest lies just ahead. We pass more fragment of the Great Wall—unimpressive muddy watchtowers, eroded and undignified. Road crews give confused waves through white, surgical vapor masks.
It’s a hazy day, adding to the dreary feel if this industrial town. Six tall smoke stacks and two cooling towers belch black smoke into the air over the city. Overburdened lorries chug past us as we pull in to town. How much can they possibly load in these things? The payload is probably doubled in capacity, spilling out over the top, held in only by the red, white and blue tarps tying each of their load down. Approaching from behind they lean dangerously to one side and give a healthy blast on the horn, the passenger leaning almost out of the window just to shout, “O.K!”
Cruise mode. We arrive early into town for once, early enough to enjoy the day and not scramble to find accommodation. Wide streets are busy, mainly with bicycle traffic. Flying Pigeon bikes dominate, though the more modern, “Tiger” mountain bikes are slowly overtaking the classic one-speeds. It seems to be a status symbol to retain the bubble wrap around the frame long after purchase. Women in tight skirts and pumps daintily pedal their bikes as we fly by, not varying from their 20 rpm cadence.
We load up from a street vendor with sweet potatoes. It’s good to see these again. Cheap, filling and delicious. We also fill up on some not too bad ice cream: “Purple Ice Cream and Jam”
Later, we’re denied accommodation at the “no foreigners allowed” hotel. Imagine such a place back home. I suppose we had them at one point. The hotel we finally stay at is no more welcoming. As usual, they insist we not take the bikes into the room, though this time they win. Worse, they charge us extra to store the bikes in the luggage room. The guards at the hotel gate try and stop us from riding our bikes into the courtyard, following us every step. They’re embarrassed when we totally ignore them. The one nice lady at the front counter comes to our room later. Is she hitting on me? “I think you and your friend are great,” she smiles.
While soulless, blue glass modern buildings with expensive packaged goods are everywhere in town, the real action is in the market. As we walk past the fruit stands, vendors hold their fruit proudly and call us over for a try. Vegetables are stacked and displayed with care. Diligent presentation seems as important as back home. Shoppers pick through, looking for that perfect tomato or onion, or eggplant, or pepper. Masked ladies in white hats look scared when I approach their aquarium full of buns and steamrolls. They look good, but I know by now to test for freshness first.
Down the crowded aisle we push our bikes, jostling with cards with onions or some guy in a hurry to get past us. The sweet potato roasters shift the spuds around the coals like a suburban dad on the barbecue. I ask one storekeeper where she keeps her chocolate and I get an all to familiar, “meiyou”. But we score, finding popcorn. What a smell! Sweeter than movie corn and not as greasy. “boom! Screech! Weeeyouuu, weeeyouuuu!” With half a dozen loudspeakers each blaring a different violent movie soundtracks into the market, it’s almost like being in the theatre. In one shop I peek inside, still looking for chocolate, but find a mother snoozing on the bed in the corner. Above the din of the movies a real fight breaks out. A group of men playing that “rock, paper, scissors” game erupts. A table turns, bodies collied and a crowd gathers to watch the flailing arms until the police arrive to break it up.
In the “food court”, you know you’ve arrived from the collage of smells, smoke and steam drifting about. Men sit at very narrow benches slurping soup with no apparent regard for what we call manners. Deep fryers bubble and sizzle—out come the dough covered vegetable patties. One less, appetizing bucket holds a mangled pile of crispy, deep fried chicken claws. My favorite spot is a fresh pasta bar. The cute woman bangs away at the long noodles and drops the strands into the pot. Right away, she’s onto another pile of dough, kneading it with oil and flour. When I ask for one bowl, using the phrasebook to show them, “not too spicy”, she nods and smiles, hollering to her so chefs to get my order going. Behind the stove the young man pedals at the fan, keeping the coal glowing. Her dad fries up my vegetables, nodding in understanding when I repeat the “not too spicy” routine. Naturally, when I get the bowl, it just about burns my mouth off. My nose drips endlessly, eyes running, while the staff laugh at me. I knock back bottomless black cherry sodas. Sadly, local beer is undrinkable.
We’ve developed an unstoppable affliction to consume everything edible in sight. Always stuffed, with a belly sticking out. It’s so cheap. It’s so good. Must buy. Must eat. Lying in bed, I feel like a boa constrictor, having just swallowed a mouse. Think I’ll just lie here for a few months and digest this.
Our hotel room has grown a huge pile of groceries. The sullen floor lady sighs each time we return. Have to stock up for the days ahead into Mongolia.
A few days ago we stumbled on a prize: Great Wall Cigarettes. We vowed to pose with them once we reach Jiayuguan. It’s a struggle to get past the power tripping, acne-faced “economic police” at the gate. He wants to charge us for parking our bikes. We return later and pose at the Great Wall’s western terminus. A couple from Prague strikes a conversation with us and end up meeting us for dinner at the market. Once again, they blew my brains out on the spices. Humiliated, I have to bag mine for left overs for tomorrow.
114 km time 5:45, climb 150m
11 259 km to date
37 km past Jinta, China 1430m
We bust out of town on a mission, hauling down the miles early. Before long, we reach the turnoff to Jinta, the last town we’ll see before the fabled Ejin Qi, on the Mongolian border. We again stuff ourselves in town, loading up on stir fried vegetables with noodles and of course, sweet potatoes. Something is different here, though. In Jiayuguan, the people seemed to be cool about the two white guys in bikes, asking where we were from, repeating, “oh, Jianada!”. Here, though, we’re getting the staring squads again. It’s a different vibe.
I’ve had a theory about China since we got here. It seems that in terms of a fashion statement, the bigger the glasses you have, the cooler you are. In the optometrist shop, I find the biggest, baddest pair I can find and pose with them. I’m cool.
After Jinta, we weave our way through agricultural land and poplar-lined streets. It looks like the crop they’re growing is marijuana, and I get excited about picking some. I realize that this might not completely be congruent with what Beijing would condone, and conclude that it must be hemp.
Our campsite is a quick dive off the road behind a sand dune. Very little traffic passes us. It’s open road now.
79 km time 4:30
11 338 km to date
The only discernable man-made object on the horizon comes from a coal-spewing steam engine to the east, following the eastern loop up to Ejin Qi. We are in the open now. It isn’t until the late afternoon that we pass by anything else man-made. This time it’s a curious looking complex of buildings on the right side of the road. Men stroll about the compound but seem not to take notice of us. We cycle on.
The road begins to deteriorate to sand. Crap. If this is what we’re facing, this last leg of the journey could be a long one. Contemplating the difficult road ahead, we pull over for a snack of banana chips when a mirage appears. Not having seen a single on the road since yesterday, I double-take when a Honda Accord with tinted windows slowly approaches from the road to the south. They stop in front of us and three men hop out. Trying to stay cool, we offer them banana chips. They decline, and demand our passports. Once again, we do our best attempt at the Jedi mind trick, but these guys are all Jabba, and it’s clear we’re screwed.
Three to two in their advantage, it looks like we have to acquiesce. They demand we follow them back to the south. This is particularly painful. Backtracking has is one of those things we’ve always had an unwritten rule about. But with our passports forcefully taken from us, there’s not much we can do.
Back at the compound, we’re forced to sit and wait in the courtyard. Fuming, we demand to know what crime we have committed, but we get no answer. A crowd gathers around us and one man attempts English with us. Smiling, he asks us how we are today. Getting past his phrasebook pleasantries, we eventually get out of him that this is the site of a copper mine. Funny, I don’t see a mineshaft.
After hours of waiting, we learn that they have sent for a translator back in Jinta. It will be some time yet. When he finally arrives, they take us into separate rooms to “interview” us. Our translator is the English teacher from Jinta, and appears to be on our side.
“What are you doing here?”
“It is every Canadian’s dream to bicycle in the Gobi desert”
He grins. “I cannot tell them that. If you are Canadian and he is American, why are you friends?”
“That’s a good question, indeed.” I go into a lengthy story about how we met, how we planned the trip, my translator hanging on every word.
Finally, he seems satisfied with my story, but we’re not free to go. It appears that we have violated a “closed area”, and must be escorted back to Jinta. How could we, as cyclists, known that it was a closed area? There is a sign, he says. In what language is the sign written? In Mandarin. Well, duh.
Even our escort to Jinta is generous, he says, because even Jinta is closed. We must not come back this way. Crap. What now? As we bounce along the highway, cringing at having to rewind our mileage, we consider our options. We could double back under cover of night, but who knows. Maybe we won’t get lucky, like in Tibet. Besides, our visas are set to expire in three days. If we get caught again, we could really be in trouble. Back in Jinta, they keep our passports for the night, ensuring we are on a tight leash. They check us in to a truckers rest house, in a dormitory with several other horking, underwear clad men.
Back to Jiayuguan
In the morning we meet at the police station again, where, before we are handed back our passports, we must confess to our crime. Having violated the “administrative law of the People’s Republic of China”, it follows that we must pay a fine. After dozens of man hours in administration, transportation, and general inconvenience, we are both levied a fifty yuan fine. We snort under our breath, expecting to have to pay ten times that, recalling stories of other travelers having their bicycles confiscated.
The police chief finds us the bus back to Jiayuguan, where we hope to catch a flight to Beijing. Beijing, because only there can we extend our visas. Only in Beijing can we legally cross the border, on a train, to Mongolia. Over the next seven cloudy days, our transportation is summarized:
Jeep and coal truck from arrest point to Jinta (3 yuan)
Bus from Jinta to Jiayuguan (driver wants 100 yuan)
Bus Jiayuguan to Landzhou. 17 hours of hell
Bus from Landzhou to airport, stay with Daniel, jet engineer, watch African Queen
Airplane Landzhou to Beijing
Taxi Jinghua hotel to Beijing train station (Checking baggage is a 1/2 day affair. Chinese student helps us through the red tape until, finally as frustrated with the red tap us we are, declares: "I have found the end of my patience."
Train Beijing to Zamen Ude, stay in home of Zanhoo
Jeep Zamen Ude to Seinsand, driven by Eggie, "hey mans! That's fuckin great!"
Jeep Seinsand to Dalanzadagad, sparking dashboard and Choco Pies.