Tien Shan Mountains

The road began to climb immediately. After an hour or so I made it out of the city and could see in the distance the Tien Shan mountains, where I’d be spending the next few days.

The road I was on led to a high pass over the mountains, at en altitude of slightly over 4000m. However I’d only gained a few hundred metres of elevation when I saw a sign warning of road closures. Checking with the map, it seemed the road I planned to use was closed.

Often cyclists can ride on closed roads. In this case though, it seemed likely that the road closure was due to snow which could be very deep at 4000m, so I opted for an alternative.

The main option was a road that veers east, taking two lower passes. The problem with reaching this road was that the Urumqi river was in the way. According to my map, the nearest bridges were 20km away in either direction. Upstream, the road after the bridge turned to return downstream for ten kilometres, making it a longer route. Downstream, though, the shortest option for reaching the brudge involved a short section on a motorway where cyclists wouldn’t be allowed. If enforced that might mean returning into Urumqi. I decided to take the upstream option.

I rode a few kilometres further, until I saw a road turning left. I could see lots of buildings on the other side of the gorge, and hoped there might be a bridge. Sure enough, there was.

This meant I had a much more direct route, which was ideal. Less good, though, was the police checkpoint shortly after the bridge. It was quite a small setup and they wrote down my passport information and let me go. It had been very quick. Shortly after I left, though, a police car overtook me then slowed down. After it left the road, another car started following me. It maintained a reasonable distance – I think I wasn’t supposed to see it.

For a couple of hours I rode through a series of villages and small towns, with frequent changeovers in the following police car. At one point I stopped for a break. The policemen came over to see what I was doing. They stared at me for a while then went and parked a short distance away.

Back on the bike, the road took me out of the villages and heading into the mountains, where the climb would start getting steeper.

I hoped that the police would stop following me now, and at first I thought they were going to. Instead they followed me from a significantly greater distance, presumably because this narrow valley was the only road, and I had nowhere to hide!

I’m not a big fan of being followed and spied on, and now that we were out of populated areas I felt they had even less justification. I decided to talk to them. I stopped around a blind corner, to force them to catch up with me. I then went over to them and said that I was fine, I didn’t need them to follow me. After some back and forth a policeman said they’d be turning around in five minutes.

I didn’t believe him but it turned out to be true. This coincided with the beginning of a 10k stretch of dirt road. This often occurs at the boundary of two authorities, where each take responsibility for their own part of the road but no-one deals with the bit in-between. Perhaps it was also the end of a police jurisdiction.

For the next hour or so I rode without sign of any police. Then I reached another checkpoint. Here the officer called his wife to translate the questions for me! Normally they just use a translator app. Thankfully they did not decide I needed to have minders, and I continued on cycling.

The climb became slightly steeper during this final section, as the road rose to just under 2500m. There it dipped slightly and made its way across a small plateau.

There was a settlement that seemed to be essentially an enormous truck stop, of a type I’ve seen a few times in China. A long line of buildings hosted mechanics, cafes and small shops. Lots of trucks were parked there. I’m guessing there’s also accommodation, though I doubt they’d allow foreigners to stay.

Throughout the day I’d seen a few people on horseback, guiding flocks of sheep or cows. Up on this plateau I saw a few yurts on the other side of a ridge. Presumably this is their summer pasture area.

After the plateau the road climbed gently up to about 2600m, where a long descent begins. I rode for an hour or so further before setting up camp in a storm drain.

The descent continued for the first hour or so of riding the next morning. I rapidly lost elevation as I passed through the barren landscape.

At the bottom of the descent, at an elevation slightly under 800m, I took a short detour to go to a shop. That done, it was time to head back up into the mountains!

The road passed through desert for a while before following the course of a river. The gradient was quite gentle, and a tailwind grew stronger as I climbed. By the time I’d been climbing for three hours, the wind was quite strong. I was glad it was a tailwind rather than a headwind! Then I reached a checkpoint and was told I had to turn around.

There were a couple of things that were different about this checkpoint. A sign outside stated, in English, that “foreigners must show ID. Also, it was manned not just by police but by soldiers as well. They told me that the upcoming area was controlled by the military and closed to foreigners. This was particularly irritating as the sign yesterday had given this as the recommended route to get around the closed road. There was nothing I could do but turn around to take an even longer detour.

The wind was so strong that to begin with I was descending barely faster than I’d been climbing. Thankfully this only lasted for a few kilometres before the wind died down. For the next 50 kilometres I returned the way I’d come, down to Alehui. There seemed to be quite a bit of industry here – possibly related to the high volume of trucks I’d seen coming down the first mountain pass.

Past Alehui I returned to the desert. I was still descending gradually but in such a wide open space it was imperceptible.

The road I was on had quite a lot of truck traffic, but also a wide shoulder where I could ride without them bothering me. The one downside of this was that I got a puncture! Truck tyres here are used until they are completely worn through. They leave tiny bits of wire, which are pushed to the side by the wheels of other vehicles. They wait in the shoulder, lying in wait for the passing cyclist.

After repairing the puncture I rode for a little longer before setting up camp. I pushed away from the rode and set up next to a small river, hidden from the road by a bank of gravel.

I set off early the next morning, when the sun was hanging low in the sky, a dim red orb.

For the first hour or so I continued my descent down to sea levels at the edge of the Turpan depression. At the town of Tokson I intended to turn and begin to climb again. There was one problem: my map said the only road was a highway, where bikes wouldn’t be allowed.

I hoped the map was wrong, and that it’d be a smaller road, or there would be another road running parallel. When I reached Tokson I saw the signs: no bikes. There was no sign of a parallel road. There was, of course, a police checkpoint. I asked there about options for cycling to Korla, the next city. At one point I was suggested to go the way I’d tried yesterday! After a while two policemen showed up and told me to follow them.

They led me on some roads through the town. On my map these only lasted a few kilometres before merging with the highway – and that’s what happened. Apparently in the last 5 kilometres something had changed and from this point on I was allowed to ride on the highway. A successful result in my book.

The road soon began to climb. It was a particularly scenic road, which was good as I had a long way to go! It was a 1750m or so climb and, due to the low initial altitude, it was boiling hot and I was dripping with sweat.

There were several designated parking areas for cars to stop and people to take photographs of our beautiful surroundings. As often as not I was the focus of their photos and videos! One couple handed me a bottle of water and some fruit before asking for a picture.

Many hours later I reached the top of the pass and began to descend. For the first section I descended steeply until the road levelled out. It was then a few kilometres on the flat into a strong headwind until I reached a town. The delay by the headwind was rather unwelcome as I was running low on water, and had thus delayed taking a break. I was looking forward to reaching the town and being able to stop!

Eventually I did make it to Kumishen, a very small town that presumably survives off passing traffic. The highway doesn’t go through the town, and I saw very few people on the street. Mostly there were just police cars slowly driving up and down. It didn’t look like a very exciting job!

After a good long back on the road I got back to cycling, where the headwind was even stronger than before. I decided to stop a couple hours earlier than usual. Due to barbed wire running next to the road, this meant stopping and clambering in to a storm drain.

The wind died down overnight and was gone by the time I set off cycling in the morning. For an hour or so I rode along the flat desert, until I reached the beginning of another climb.This one was much shorter, rising from 1000m to 1500m. The gradient was gentle and before too long I’d made it to the pass. The descent was lovely: extremely gentle gradient, a smooth road, and a slight tailwind. I spent much of the next hour flying along in my highest gear.

I reached yet another police checkpoint and took my passport inside. It took them some time to figure out the process, and after half an hour or so I returned outside to find my rear tyre flat. I found a bit of metal wire, patched the corresponding hole, and pumped it back up – with the “help” of some policemen.

I made it a few metres before the tyre was flat again. I pushed it away from the checkpoint and found some shade on which to work on it. My initial assumption was that there had been a problem with the patch, but it looked fine. I then realised that my mistake had been assuming the puncture I found was the only one. I found six more bits of wire embedded in the tyre, three of which had penetrated enough to cause punctures. I decided to put in a new tube.

In Urumqi the only tube I’d been able to purchase with a Presta valve was too narrow. I’ve had some success using overly narrow tubes in the last but not this time; it exploded. My other spare tube was the one I’d been using before swapping tyres in Urumqi. When I’d gone to put it back in it wouldn’t take any air; I thought there was a problem with the valve. On closer inspection there was a large hole in the tube. I patched it, put it back on, and pumped it back up. It was soon flat again.

Someone nearby offered me a bucket of water to check for leaks. I pumped up the tube and we checked but found nothing. I think the issue was the patch I’d just put on, but it would only cause a leak at a very high pressure. I replaced the patch. It failed again. And again. I think the hole was just too big and was causing the patches to stretch too much.

Someone told me there was a bike shop nearby and suggested I ask the police for a lift to get a new tube. I figured it was worth a go. At first they told me there wasn’t a bike shop for 50km, but then someone decided that there was one in the nearby town. I took the wheel, locked up the bike, and got a lift. As it turns out he didn’t actually know where the bike shop was. Instead he took me to the police station where we waited for someone more local to arrive.

After a while a policeman arrived and I was told to go with him. He, and another man (not in uniform) led me to a market where a guy did bike repairs. He didn’t have 700c tubes, but did have 26inch ones – not a big problem; inner tubes can stretch. A bigger problem was that he only had tubes with Schrader valves. These are somewhat bigger than Presta valves, but thankfully my rear rim would take either. I then needed to buy a pump too – he only had a full-size one, about a metre long. This done, I was driven back to my bike. It was an interesting experience: being driven by a policeman who was smoking, texting, not wearing a seatbelt, and blaring ridiculously loud music.

I thanked them for the help, put the wheel back on the bike and headed off cycling. I rode through the town with the bike shop, where the road was lined with colourful flowers on one side and (of course) flags on the other.

Back to the countryside, there were small patches of cotton growing by the road – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen cotton growing before.

Another product grown in the region seems to be chilli. They were laid out in huge piles on the sand next to the road.

In the evening I passed a river. I very much needed to wash and do some laundry, so I figured this would be a good spot. The river was cool but pleasant after the high temperature of the day. After washing I found my rear tyre was flat – again! I found a bit of wire in it (for the eighth time that day) and repaired it. The repair worked!

September 26th: 154 km

September 27th: 162 km

September 28th: 125 km

September 29th: 104 km

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