Desert, Desert and… More Desert!

For much of the day I rode on a road parallel to a larger highway. This meant it was mostly used by slower traffic, like tractors. This was great as they go just slightly faster than me, so by drafting behind them I was able to ride along at a higher speed for less effort!

The first police checkpoint of the day came on the way into the town of Yanqi. As usual this involved me sitting around while the police tried to figure out how to deal with a person that doesn’t have an ID card. After about twenty minutes I was allowed to continue.

Many Chinese towns have bike paths. They share the usual problems that bike paths face, such as randomly and abruptly ending.

I stopped at a shop and bought some food. After I paid the friendly owner insisted I also take some bananas, bubblegum and cake – for free! I continued on, reaching another police checkpoint just before a short climb. After the usual wait, I cycled up the 200m pass. It was much shorter than the climbs of the last few days and seemed to be over before it really began. Nonetheless this was larger than any climb I’d see for the next week!

I descended to the city of Kuerle. It was a rather large place and as I had no reason to put myself through dealing with the traffic of the city centre, I stuck to the outskirts. I stopped at a small shop to use the WiFi – it had been some time since my application for a Pakistan E-Visa had been submitted so I was hoping for a response.

My Mum (who was very kindly dealing with the process for me as it requires a computer, as opposed to a smartphone) had received a response. Three things were required: a letter of employment, a letter of invitation, and proof of UK address.

I decided to submit a letter stating that I was not employed, and providing my bank statements to demonstrate I had the funding required for travelling. The bank statements also provided the proof of address. I pointed out that their website states a hotel booking will suffice in place of a letter or invitation, and supplied a hotel booking.

The man who’s internet I was using was very friendly. He asked where I was from/going, and offered me a cigarette. Like most people here he was shocked when I refused that offer. When I left it was in the hottest part of afternoon, and he recommended that I stay in a hotel. When I said I’d continue cycling, he gave me four bottles of water! I thanked him and asked his name, which sounded like (but certainly isn’t spelt) Sho Ya Chung.

I made my way out of Kuerle and onto some quieter roads. One of these was a pleasantly quiet canalside road. Suddenly it became a big highway with four lanes – but still no traffic. There were other intersecting roads of similar size, but also with almost no traffic. I arrived at a city, Tiemenguan, with lots of parks and bicycle lanes – but again almost no people!

I rode into the city and mostly only saw construction crews. This is quite a Chinese thing, the concept of building a city from nothing out in the middle of nowhere. As a European, used to cities that have grown organically over the centuries, it seemed quite strange, but interesting.

Leaving the city, I headed out into the desert. It was completely flat, with only sand surrounding me, stretching to the horizon in every direction. This lasted for the rest of the day, and indeed well into the next.

After a couple hours of riding the next morning, I reached a small village. I stopped to pick up some food, much to the interest of the local children.

After this there were about a hundred kilometres of desert cycling before I reached some cultivated land, then a long series of towns and villages. It could hardly be called urban but for a long period the roadside had either farms or houses.

I was a bit worried about finding somewhere to camp, but there was a highway ahead where it seemed more likely I’d be able to find a spot to camp. First, though, I had to get through the police checkpoint near the entrance to the highway.

A few police officers came to talk to me. One took my passport and most of them went inside to process it. A couple of officers were left to watch over me. One of them was very interested in my travelling. He asked lots of questions through his translation app, then excitedly shouted the answers to his friend, a rooftop sniper.

The police wanted me to get into a car as it was getting late. It was about 30km to the town I’d said I was staying in, and there was only half an hour or so until dark. I insisted on cycling and demonstrated that I had good lights. They let me go.

There was a road parallel to the highway, presumably the old road but now used only by mopeds. I rode there mostly so that I’d be able to see if I was followed! Night fell, and there was no traffic, so I wandered off from the road to a rare area of wilderness.

I set off early the next morning, an hour or so before sunrise. After I passed the town of Shaya, the desert returned – and would remain for the next few days. As I cycled, I was overtaken by a red car. Like most cars, it was going much faster than me. Oddly, though, it never got further than a kilometre or so ahead…

After about half an hour it finally did disappear. Entirely coincide ntally, this happened right after I went past a parked car with tinted windows and no numberplate. I looked back and sure enough this car was following me a few hundred metres behind.

After another half hour or so this car left, and I couldn’t see any more vehicles following me. I’m not sure why I was being followed out here in the middle of nowhere – perhaps I was near a military base or an internment camp.

There were a couple checkpoints that afternoon. At both of these I was allowed through relatively quickly and easily, a sharp contrast to the experience of the locals. A mirror was wheeled under each vehicle. The check was quite cursory so the effect was presumably intimidation. While this happened, the driver stood in front of the car, facing a policeman standing in a braced position with riot shield raised threateningly. All this took place under the eye of a rifleman on an elevated walkway.

The only breaks from the desert were truck stops, small collections of shops, restaurants and mechanics. At one of these I was able to get WiFi and received a message that the Pakistan visa authorities were still asking for a letter of employment and either a letter of invitation or a detailed itinerary with a letter from a tour company. I asked my Mum to send me the info we’d submitted with the application, so that I could use it to write up a detailed itinerary. Over the next couple of days I mused over what to do about the letter of employment.

Since they were asking for this extra information, I was concerned I might not be able to get the visa. I decided to change my route to one that would mean a slightly longer ride if I did get the visa, but a significantly shorter ride if I had to ride through China to SEA.

In the evening I wandered out into the desert and set up camp in a dip behind some sand dunes. I was hidden from view, but there was quite a clear trail in the sand leading to my campsite!

I had a bit of a lie-in the next morning. This was partly because there was a junction coming up, where I suspected a police checkpoint. If I showed up early it would be hard to claim I’d ridden the 100km or so from the last hotel.

Such a checkpoint did indeed appear a few kilometres into the day’s ride. The police there gave me some water and told me it was 400km to the next shop. It was indeed 400km to the next town, but the largest gap between shops was only slightly over 100km.

For this 400km between towns I was riding on a road called the Cross-Desert Highway. It was indeed a desert, sand was all around.

Reeds are planted in a grid shape to reduce the amount of sand blowing on to the road

I reached a rest area with one such shop later that afternoon. I attracted quite a crowd as people were surprised to see a cyclist in the middle of nowhere in such inhospitable terrain.

The next afternoon, a Friday, I reached a turning to a smaller road that would lead through some towns. I wanted to get there in order to access the internet in order to submit documents for the Pakistan E-Visa. First, though, I had to get past the police checkpoint.

After some confusion and a few phone calls, they decided we should leave the bicycle at the check point and drive into the town in order to get the boss’s permission. We did so, and I hung around in the courtyard of the police station while I waited. Eventually I was told I couldn’t go this way and had to return to the highway. I got a slice of melon and a bottle of water from the police so it wasn’t a total loss.

Back at the checkpoint, I was about to cycle away when the police demanded my passport again. I was given a slice of watermelon, then led inside and told to sit in the police’s dormitory. I sat there for quite a while, but nothing seemed to be happening. I asked what was going on and it turned out someone had driven off with my passport, to have it photocopied back in the town. When he returned I was given a bottle of water and at last allowed to go.

I continued along the highway. My wheel was making a loud noise – it is a bit loose and I think some sand may have got into the hub. I stopped to have a look at it, and a passing car stopped. The driver checked I was OK and handed me a bottle of water before asking for a selfie.

I cycled on for a few more hours before wandering into the desert and setting up camp.

September 30: 192 km

October 1: 219 km

October 2: 186 km

October 3: 200 km

October 4: 178 km

3 thoughts on “Desert, Desert and… More Desert!

  1. Wow! Those are some impressively long distance days! You really ARE becoming a world class athlete! (I’d tell you not to overdue it but we’ve seen by now that you rather like pushing the envelope.)


  2. Thank you for sharing all this with us. Quite an incredible experience you had in Xinjiang! All these checkpoints… You’ve really become a master at playing hide and seek with the police! Unbelievable.


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