I had just a short distance to go on the Cross Desert Highway, with only about 50km to the city of Hetian where I hoped to go to a hotel and have a rest day.
Due to headwinds and a puncture it took about three hours to reach the bridge that marks the entrance to Hetian. I had to wait for quite a while at a police checkpoint there as they processed my information.
Once I was in the city I began searching for a hotel. However all the hotels I could find were more than I was willing to pay, with the cheapest being about £25. I spent a couple of hours searching before giving up. Most of what I’d seen of the city had been modern and thus relatively uninteresting, but I did end up in an older section which was quite nice.
I found a shop with WiFi and sat down to take a break. I submitted a detailed itinerary for my Pakistan E-Visa, and wrote myself a letter of employment. I described having a bank account as being self-employed “managing the planning and implementation of an investment strategy.”
From Hetian I had to decide whether to turn west (towards Pakistan) or east (if I wasn’t able to get the visa). It seemed unlikely they would accept my claim of self-employment, so I decided I would ride east a short distance and then stop at a hotel to wait for their response.
I left the city the way I came, and reached a checkpoint as I made my way through the villages and towns that surround the city. After the usual wait I resumed cycling. After a while I stopped and sat down near the road for a break. Shortly a car passed slowly. It seemed a bit suspicious so I memorised the number plate. Sure enough it passed back and forth several times while I rested. When I set off again it was following me.
I turned off the highway onto a smaller road. I’d been cycling along this road for a while when I reached another checkpoint. This time there were several guys in camouflage uniform, which I was initially worried by as the last checkpoint manned by the military had made me turn around. I soon realised they weren’t military, rather some sort of local group of Uighurs who assist the police. One clue that they weren’t military was the jacket won wore which proclaimed him a soldier in an airborne division… Of the US army.
I was let through that checkpoint quite quickly, and through another one shortly after. After this second checkpoint the villages ended and I was back in the desert. A barbed wire fence ran close to the road which made it difficult to wild camp. I ended up sleeping perhaps 5 metres from the road, behind some bushes. Luckily there wasn’t much traffic.
The next morning I again had only a short distance to a hotel, this time in the town of Qira. I made my way quickly through the two police checkpoints of the morning, but was stopped by police as I rode into the town. They asked the usual questions, which I answered. Then we had to wait a while for the boss to show up. Then they called in a translator. It wasn’t particularly clear why they needed her because she just asked the same things as the other officers had done with their translation apps. Eventually I was allowed to ride on to the hotel.
I made my way there, followed by the police. The hotel staff told me they were closed for renovations. The police offered to arrange a bus for me, which of course I declined. I was allowed to use the hotel WiFi and I received a message from the Pakistani visa people. Surprisingly they’d accepted my letter of employment, and now were just insisting on a letter of invitation. I found a place where I could buy one of these, though the site wasn’t working properly due to the slow internet. I sent the website address to my Mum who very kindly dealt with the process of that.
I now felt that I was in with a good chance of getting the visa. I decided I would turn around and start heading west towards Pakistan. The police were quite confused when I said I was returning towards Hetian!
This time I went via the highway, for what could optimistically be called a change of scenery. One interesting thing here was what happened to burnt out cars. They were raised on top of concrete buildings – a reminder to drive carefully?
I was waves through the first checkpoint of this section, but stopped at the second. After waiting for a while, I continued. I was followed by a police car, though I only noticed it when I stopped to pee. Entirely by coincidence, this was the same place I’d stopped the day before. If it was the same escort they must have been confused as to why I kept stopping here!
I entered Hetian via a different bridge than yesterday, with a police checkpoint that was thankful much quicker. I rode through on roads that were becoming familiar after the hotel search the day before. On the way out of the city there was, of course, a police checkpoint. After a bit of a wait some motorbike police took my passport and told me to follow them a kilometre or so to a police station. My details were entered in a pointless logbook, my passport was returned, and I was allowed to go.
Out of the city I rode through some less built up but still populated areas. After a little while I reached the seventh checkpoint of the day. This one took a long time, so I went across the street and got WiFi access at a small shop while I waited.
When I was eventually allowed to go, I was told to take a different route than the one I’d intented to go, adding about 20km to the distance. Apparently the bridge ahead was closed, though it may have just been closed for me…
I turned and started cycling towards this alternative bridge. I was cycling beside a cargo tricycle, with a young girl staring at me. I waved, and she waved back, dropping her hat. I stopped to pick it up and saw I was being followed by a police car – perhaps the reason for the delay at the previous checkpoint.
The next police checkpoint came just after the bridge. This one involved another long wait. At one point, I was told to sit in the “control room,” which was quite interesting. They had some twenty cameras shown, as well as several close ups for faces and number plates. There was also a satellite map of the area with various markers on it – people being tracked? It didn’t take long for them to realise I shouldn’t be there and I was asked to sit outside instead.
The wait, it turns out, was due to the police waiting for a police van to arrive. I was told to put my bike inside and get in. I told them I wasn’t going to do that, and they agreed to follow me instead. There were a couple of changes of vehicle over the next hour or two, but they disappeared when I turned into an old secondary highway and left the urban area. I made my way away from the road and slept in the sand.
A tractor went past quite nearby in the evening but didn’t see me. Apart from that it was a quiet night and I set off early in the morning. My power banks were now out of charge and my phone had only 14% battery so I hoped to have a short day and stay in a hotel.
The secondary road on which I was riding was quite old, and not much maintained now that a new motorway exists. I rode along the potholed road until I came to an obstruction. A new canal was being built and, although a bridge had been placed, it was blocked by big mounds of sand. I climbed over and continued riding.
A barbed wire fence ran alongside the motorway but after a while I saw a gap in the fence. It involved a bit of scrambling but I managed to get on to the motorway and cycle on there.
Another hour or so brought me to a town which looked like it might be large enough to have a hotel where foreigners could stay. I turned toward the town and reached a checkpoint. I asked the first policeman if there was a hotel in the town. He mostly just looked confused. The next policemen assured me there was. I had to wait for their boss to arrive, and was told that their was no hotel and I couldn’t go through the checkpoint. That didn’t mean I was free to go. I had to wait for them to register my passport details. Even though I hadn’t gone through their checkpoint.
When I did leave, I was told there was a town in Hotan (I’d only stated twice that I was going the other direction) which they said was 18 kilometres away (it’s about 70 kilometres). I was getting rather tired of all this!
The secondary road deteriorated further from here so I wanted to get back to the motorway. There was an on ramp with a tollbooth. Signs prohibited tractors and cargo tricycles, but said nothing about bikes. That was practically an invitation!
To many non-cyclists the idea of riding on a motorway sounds dangerous. I don’t believe it is, for a number of reasons. For one thing, there is no oncoming traffic. If a car overtakes on a motorway, it may be going at 120kph – 100kph faster than me. During an oncoming overtake (which are irritatingly common) the vehicle may only be going at 100kph, but that is a relative speed of 120kph. Furthermore, as a motorway has a large shoulder, cars will leave a far greater passing distance. The choice is therefore of being overtaken by a car 3 metres away at a relative speed of 100kph, or oncoming traffic 30cm away at a relative speed of 120kph. Furthermore, since motorways here have tolls, and infrequent entries/exits, they are not used by local traffic. Traffic volume is therefore lower on the motorways.
I rode along the motorway for a couple of hours until it took a large detour to avoid a town. I knew this town had a hotel (from reading another cyclist’s blog) so I wanted to get back to the secondary road which ran through the town. There was a section where a gap had been forced in the barbed wire fence (rather fortuitous) and I squeezed myself and the bike through. The road surface was by now much improved, though I did get a puncture.
I reached the town of Guma, and turned onto the town streets. I made it a few hundred metres before being stopped by two policemen. Two more shortly arrived. After being made to wait for a while, their boss arrived. After some phone calls I was told the hotel was undergoing renovations so I couldn’t stay.
I asked if I could go to a shop and use the WiFi before leaving, so they walked me over. There was an extension lead outside so I sat down to charge my phone. The policeman offered me a chair but as I only have very short charging cables I stayed sitting on the floor, near the power point. The policeman came back a while later with a small stool and asked, via a translator app, if I would please sit on the stool, so that “the masses” would not think he was being rude. I agreed to do so.
I did get good news via this WiFi connection – my Mum had secured a letter of invitation for Pakistan! That was the final obstacle and now I just had to wait and see…
I returned to the secondary road and resumed cycling. Both tyres were beginning to go flat so, after a police checkpoint, I stopped under a storm drain to patch the tubes. It was quite late so I figured I might as well spend the night there too.
I repaired both tubes, and replaced the front brake pads while I was at it. I also got out my spare phone, which had a 92% charge – I’d last charged it about six weeks earlier. That was enough for a couple days of music, Strava and navigation. In a couple days I’d be in Kashgar, a somewhat touristy city where I would definitely be able to stay in a hostel. I decided to give up on looking for hotels in these towns, and focus on getting to Kashgar.
Later on the front tyre deflated again. I assumed a patch had failed but I’m fact there was a second puncture. In fact, there turned out to be a frankly ridiculous seven punctures in the tube. I discovered each one only after pumping the tube back up. I was quite glad for the oversized pump I was carrying!
October 5: 109 km
October 6: 176 km
October 7: 145 km