Beware the Ides of March

The Desert Road

We arrived in Cherchen, a small oasis town, tired from a long 112 mile cycle that day and the build up of covering 700 miles in just 9 days. The Taklamakan Desert was draining us and disaster was just around the corner.

Cherchen was an odd city. The roads in and out were lined with Uyghur farms. Ramshackle wooden and adobe buildings, family homes with just one or two rooms surrounded by fields and animals – a traditional way of life that might never have changed. The center of the city, in stark contrast, is a modern grid of four blocks full of high rise buildings and Han Chinese. The Uyghurs are present here but mostly just in the bazaar selling their produce where bartering is fierce but friendly.

Cycling through the desert wilderness had made me reflect on all the things I miss and those that I don’t*. It began in the parched desert with day dreams about orange flavoured Lucosade Sport and soon my mind was flooded. Aside from the obvious shower and bed combo food tended to dominate my thoughts.

On a demanding physical expedition food takes on a different dimension. It becomes the reward you defer all your exertion to. Meal times are no longer for the faint hearted, we will now often consume two or even three main meals each in one sitting much to the astonishment of those around us.

Furthermore having been away for over 7 months we crave the foods we cant get. Pizza, curry, roast dinner, fry ups, good chocolate, fruit juice, ice cream, peanut butter even Marmite. This list is far from exhaustive. Lunch and dinner especially become occasions to savor and look forward to. Little rewards such as a bar of chocolate for a tough eight hour ride become your raison d’être.

Leaving Cherchen conditions were perfect! We cycled under blue skies and sunshine. A light tailwind nudging us along. For the first time since Turkey, four months prior, I cycled in shorts and was treated to some vitamin D.

We stopped for a break by a car wreck and ended up spending 45 minutes throwing rocks at the hunk of crushed metal. It felt like the most fun we had enjoyed in weeks.

Camping in the desert is not the easiest task. Finding a secluded spot is difficult. Culverts were where we spent most of our nights. Being under the road they are completely hidden from sight and provide shelter but they are noisy and often double as toilets for animals. The sound of the traffic overhead is amplified and in the morning a lack of sunshine makes for a frosty start.

Occasionally we found a mobile phone mast compound unlocked which provided the best of both worlds. With a high brick fence they are sheltered from the road but they are quieter and get sunshine in the mornings.

On our second day in the desert I was already running low on water despite setting off with 4 liters. I was therefore glad to find a small town where I guzzled 2 liters of Pepsi in a bid to quench my thirst.

The last 30 miles into Charklik were tough as we battled a hideous headwind. A desert storm was sweeping in coating us in a layer of sand and limiting our progress to 5 mph. Arriving just before dark we began the tedious process of trying to find a hotel that would accept foreigners (many in China don’t due to the police registration). This process was made substantially easier by a friendly hotelier who called around and found a place on budget and then guided us there on his motorbike.

Thankfully we decided to take another rest day having almost cycled through Xinjiang province. It was now that disaster struck. I wont horrify you with the gory details but liquid was being excreted at high velocity from both ends of my body. I have never suffered with dysentery like this before and I will be happy if it is never visited upon me again.

For three days and three nights I lay in a crumpled heap squirming and sweating on my bed. This position was only broken by regular ‘toilet runs’. Eventually I was able to hold down a small amount of food and water. Having quarantined myself in the room we allowed the cleaner in on the fourth day and even she involuntarily let out a yelp as she stumbled into the bathroom!

The following day we tentatively left the hotel room. I cant imagine how abhorrent this experience would have been if I had been stuck down in the wild, trapped in my tent. That said I was elated to leave the confines of the room and taste fresh air. Within minutes of leaving the hotel we were in a wide expanse of open desert. The road was lined by baked, deeply cracked sand. After that only a few low scrub bushes altered the endless horizon.

After lunch we cycled into a wall of wind – one moment we were cruising along, the next we were struggling to move. The sky became overcast and visibility was reduced from sand whipped up by the storm. We were teased by culverts which offered sanctity and safe-haven from the atrocious conditions. For six and a half hours we struggled into the gale, moving forward depressingly slowly until just before dark we pitched the tents under a bridge next to the corpse of a wild boar.

It occurred to me that the fight was only in my head. I was still moving forwards just not as fast as I wanted to or as fast as I felt my efforts deserved. A Chinese proverb kept circling through my mind: “Be not afraid of moving slowly, only of standing still”.

We were now climbing towards the Altun Mountains, a natural barrier separating Xinjiang province with Qinghai. We would be up on the Tibetan plateau at over 3,000 meters once we had conquered this climb.

One night tired and seeking refuge other than our tents we spotted a quarry with a few shacks and signs of life and so decided to investigate. We were greeted at the gate by five angry dogs hungry for blood. The alpha, a large Alsatian led the pack and was the most aggressive. In contrast the quarry workers, Mr Liu and Mr Yang were welcoming. Instantly recognising we were after a place to sleep they offered us our own portacabin. All we had to do now was negotiate a way past the dogs to the cabins. The dogs began to circle us and grow bolder despite the attempts of Mr Liu to shoo them away. The large Alsatian went for me and I had to swing my 40kg bike around in circles to keep the mutt from biting me, he only managed to get a mouthful of my saddle and pannier. After a few minutes of terror inducing fear we made it to the cabins surrounded by dogs on all sides. We scrambled inside and were offered a plate piled with scraps of bones. At this point we thought we had made the wrong decision to stop here but it was soon mimed that we should spit on the bones and throw them out to the dogs to eat. With our scent accepted the savage pack became friendly and playful! As Andy and I sat and drank tea we agreed this was the scariest moment of the entire trip so far.

We spent a full day climbing up through the Altun Mountains where the going was tough but the scenery was stunning. I felt a pang of disappointment as we rose above the snow line. At the end of a long day we reached a vast plateau where a stinging cold wind coming down from the Tibetan mountains biting into us.

The following day we arrived in Yitunbulake the border town leading to Qinghai Province. An environmental disaster, it is an asbestos mining town. The land was bleached white and looked like a post apocalyptic landscape. We covered our faces and pedaled on quickly. Ahead was a mostly uninhabited plateau between 3,000 and 4,000 meters. One of the three old Tibetan provinces called Amdo it would be our first taste of Tibetan culture.

* The tube is a clear winner followed by Monday mornings, bad weather and a feeling of not living our lives to the full.

For those who missed it here is the latest column from the Daily Telegraph

2 Responses to “Beware the Ides of March”

  1. Another nice report guys. Saw the vid you sent Mark W today – your sustenance looks decidedly dodgy!

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