Day 105 Aksu – Wutan 67 km
Day 106 Wutan – Service station Xinhe 168 km
Day 107 Service station Xinhe – Yangxia Service station 178 km
Day 108 Yangxia Service station – Korla 139 km
It seems that it is impossible for us to make an early start every time we stay at a nice hotel. The breakfast buffet is something we don’t want to miss and then it takes time to pack and carry down our luggage, get our bikes and then find our way out of the city.
The last part takes more time than one would imagine. When we camp, we can just load our bikes and continue in the same direction without having to navigate out of a large city with many roads leading in different directions.
There are two main roads that go in an east-west direction along the northern end of the Taklamakan desert. One of them is the old road and the other is a big and very nice motorway (we cycled on un-finished parts of it from Kashgar).
We have heard stories from other cyclists that it is OK to cycle on Chinese motorways, at least in the western part of the country where there are not any really good alternatives. Outside Aksu there is a large intersection where the old road and the motorway cross each other. Clear signs showed that pedestrians, motorcycles, horse carriages and bicycles are not allowed on the motorway. What to do, follow the law and go on the smaller and longer old road or break the law and go on the smooth, shorter and bigger motorway?
China is a big country and it accounts for about 1/3 of our entire trip. Our visa is valid for 60 days and can only be extended once with 30 more days so we will need to move on quickly. The landscape in this part of China is not very exiting so we have decided to try to put in as many kilometers as possible in this region so we chose going on the motorway.
This motorway is a tollway and after 3 kilometers we came to a toll station. We were afraid that they might tell us to turn back and go on the old road but instead the lady in the ticket booth waved us through and indicated by pointing that we should ride on the shoulder.
We have passed many tollstations since we first got on the motorway. They have all waved us through but one day there was a police checkpoint immediately after the toll station. The police officer pointed in our direction but we thought he pointed at the truck behind us. When we continued cycling he made it clear that he wanted us to stop by pointing directly at us and where we should stop. Having been to many police checkpoints before we gave the officer our passport even before he asked for them. He then flipped among the pages and carefully inspected us, the photos and our expired visa for Uzbekistan before he allowed us to go. It is good that the police keep a high level of security. How would it look if foreigners were running around in China with the wrong type of Uzbekistan visas in their passports….. 😉
The motorway is very modern. It has two lanes and a very wide shoulder – actually that shoulder is just as wide as each lane, and nobody travels on that shoulder. Nobody but two cyclists on their way from Göteborg to Bangkok.
There are advantages and disadvantages by cycling on a motorway. The main advantage is that we can travel at high speed and do many kilometers per day. The disadvantages is that it is far between gas stations or shops (up to 100 km) and that the motorway is fenced off by a barbed wire fence along its route.
Although the road was very good to ride on our late start meant that we didn’t get very far and since we hadn’t learnt how to deal with the motorway yet, we decided to leave it and ride to a small town on the old road. In the middle of that town Wej spotted something she thought was a hotel. She stopped, went in and came out and told me that there was a room for 80 Yuan (10 €). The room had definately seen better days but we didn’t mind.
Having eaten mainly central asian food even since we entered China we were happy to find a chinese restaurant in front of our ”hotel”.
The following morning was cool and I decided to wear my long pants and jacket. I have sometimes considered to send them home, but I needed them in Kyrgyzstan and now I needed them in the chinese desert too.
After 30 km on the old road we once again entered the new motorway that goes along the mountain ridge. The landscape is rather boring and it wouldn’t have been better if we had cycled on the old road which sometimes is next to where we cycle or sometimes very far away. The traffic on the motorway was not intense at all and we could do many kilometers without putting in too much effort.
So why do we cycle along a road that isn’t very beautiful, has few cities and tourist attractions? Why simply not take the train?
The answer to this takes us back to the topic about bikers vs. travelers that is often dicussed among cycling enthusiasts.
A biker is someone who wants to cycle from A to B just to have done it and who is mainly not interested in exploring what is in between A and B. The biker may want to prove that it is possible or want to do it under a certain time etc.
A traveler is the opposite. For the traveler it is not the cycling that is important. The traveler have for one reason or another found out that a bicycle is a very suitable means of transportation when exploring the world. A traveler wouldn’t mind taking a train to skip some uninteresting parts.
During our journey we have met many cycling tourists, some can easily be labeled as bikers, some as pure cycle travelers and some have been something in between.
I have written about this before but I think it is now time to come back to the question of what we are, bikers or travelers?
We think that we are a bit of both. While we hadn’t yet crossed the Caspian Sean we saw ourselves as mainly travelers. We enjoyed meeting people, doing sidetrips, having nice food in restaurants and going to museums and so on.
The endeavors in the Kazak and Uzbek deserts put us more into the biker category. We could have gone by train this part, but we wanted to try to cycle in a dessert and having come all the way here on our own wheels we wanted to continue to go by our own muscle power. I think it is fair to say that we have now moved into the biker category – if we move back to the traveler category, we will soon be on a train through this region….
Riding on the motorway along the Taklamakan desert is nothing exiting at all. When it can’t be an exiting journey through a interesting landscape it may still be a journey into the landscapes of one’s own mind. Cycling kilometer after kilometer and the views stay the same, the same kind of trucks pass every few minutes and sometimes the road does a little bend – that’s what happens during our days now. Sometimes we play games such as guessing who can make the best guess of the distance to a bridge that we can see far ahead of us.
It would be great to listen to music or audio books but we don’t dare to not be able to hear the oncoming traffic. If there is no traffic we ride beside each other and talk.
So what else to do to kill the time?
I personally have allowed myself to start thinking of the end of this journey. Before, when we were still in Turkey or Caucasus, I would immediately force myself to think about something else everytime my brain painted the picture of me arriving to Banglen or riding across the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. Now I have started to allow myself to think about how it will be to get there, what kind of reactions I think I will have, what I would like to do when I arrive and so on.
We arrived China on August 12 so we have to leave the country no later than November 10 and then to Laos which is a neighbour to Thailand, so it is as fair to start thinking about getting there as it was to think about riding into Istanbul when we boarded the ferry that took us to Poland.
If entertaining oneself by fantasies about the end of the trip isn’t enough, one could always resort to some practical jobs such as fixing flat tyres…..
The service areas with gas stations and shops are far apart but there are a few signs indicating the distance to the next one. Towards the end of the second day after leaving Aksu we spotted the service area from far away. 500 meter before arriving there I got a flat tyre on my rear wheel. First I thought about walking the bike to the service area, but then I re-considered and decided to change the innertube beside the road.
20 minutes later we rolled into the service area. It was late in the afternoon and time to find a place to camp. Our intention was to cook our own food so we only needed to buy some water and wash ourselves at the restrooms. Unfortunately the water was turned off so we couldn’t wash away the dust on our faces. When we left the service area I got a second flat tyre when I was still on the entry ramp to the motorway.
Two flat tyres within a kilometer is one too much. We walked back to the service station and I changed to yet another innertube and repaired the two ones that had got a puncture.
Being delayed by the flat tyre we had to quickly find a camp site and only 2 km from the service station we found a hole in the barbed wire fence where we could get off the motorway.
When I moved our bikes away after having had our dinner beside the tent I discovered that my rear tyre was flat again. Three punctures in one day….. 🙂
Wej urged me to throw away my old tyre and use the spare one we bought in Baku. I am not so convinced that it is as strong as the old one I have so I decided to only swap places. Front tyre was moved to the rear wheel and vice versa.
Although we started a bit late due to our work with changing tyres and patching holes in our innertubes we managed to make almost 180 km the third day after leaving Aksu.
Google maps had indicated that there was a service station far away and these places usually has shops that sell food and water so we pressed hard to get there only to discover that this place was under construction. There was only a small food stall there and no restrooms. We bought two dozens of 0.5 liter water and used these to shower before going to bed in front of one of the buildings that were under construction.
The next morning all hell broke loose….
After 471 meter I got my first flat tyre… Of course on the rear wheel (more difficult to change). I hadn’t even left the service area yet and I was disappointed to say the least.
Wej usually gets 1 flat tyre when I get 10, but after 21 km Wej got her 5th flat tyre on this trip (rear wheel). We changed it and continued and after 54 kilometers we arrived at a service area and decided to have lunch. We parked our bikes beside the table and when it was time to leave I saw that there was no air in my rear tyre….. 🙁
There was nothing to do but to change the innertube while all the kids around and the ladies working at the restaurant were watching.
36 kilometers later (at 90 km that day) Wej shouts the all too familiar words ”My tyre is flat”.
I got completely mad….. The sunshine was strong and we brought her bike and all tools to a culvert under the road and repaired it there. Once again it was a very thin and sharp little steel wire that had penetrated the wheel – this time at three different positions.
We were now starting to run out of patches to repair the punctures and our pump show signs of wearing out so the situation was not good.
Those steel wires were the culprits behind all our punctures the last few days but where do they come from? They are so small that is impossible to see them when cycling and we felt we didn’t have a fair chance to avoid them.
Later when we were back on the road I stopped and took a look at a black string that lay on the roadside. It was a piece of a burst car or truck tyre that contained a metal cord. Now we knew where the little steel wires penetrating our tyres came from and we started to point at them to warn each other.
This is really disturbing and when we talked to our polish friend who rides 4 days ahead of us he confirmed that he had also got a couple of flat tyres when cycling on the highway.
When we made it to the top of a little hill we suddenly saw the city of Korla. We thought it would be a small town, but instead we saw a city with a skyline. It has 700.000 inhabitants and is a small provincial town by chinese measures….
When we cycled into the city we spotted a proper bicycle shop. We stopped and wanted to patches and a new pump. I also needed to true my rear wheel and what happened was that we stopped for a day to settle all our bike matters. Both bikes now have new cassettes, chains and we have bought extra thick innertubes, 3 tubes of glue and 50 patches. We hope that will be enough to take us to our next target – Turpan which is almost 400 km from here.