Xinjiang - Tibet hwy 3

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On the 19 July we broke our hastily constructed camp (we beat the rain by about 12seconds) and rode 5km to a small roadside collection of huts. Primarily a Chinese army base and partially a road builders camp, it was one step down from being a truck stop. Nonetheless, someone fetched the proprietress of the supplies hut so we could buy cokes and meagre provisions. These sustained us for what we quickly came to think of as a normal days ride, bumping over unpaved road, climbing a steep pass, descending into a lush valley and always surrounded by the wildest country any of us had ever seen. We camped in a wide green stretch between river and road, a few kilometers before the next town. We took care not to be too close to some large yellow and blue tents we'd seen. We weren't sure if they were army, trucker or... what? alien? but we avoided them just in case.  

All became clear in the morning, when, having broken camp and moved on before them, we rode past. Our first clue was a flock of mountain bikes lying together in front of the tents, which turned out to be merely the largest communal tents. The rest were more camouflaged green two-man tents. Tourers. Tourists. A collection of Swiss mountain-biking enthusiasts riding the Xinjian - Tibet highway legally, with permits, support, suspension, a sag wagon, supplies and all manner of unthinkable luxuries. We scoffed as we rode past, but were obliged to make polite conversation when we were all together in Xaidulla (the first town even near deserving of the title on this road). I was bandaged, riding into Xaidulla. I had, in my preparedness, purchased in Kashgar suncream of factor 45. Unfortunately, it was Chinese F45 suncream, and about as effective as cooking oil. I was wearing a new T-shirt, which exposed more of my arm than the previous, and the gap of tender white flesh blistered as though scalded, so, in a period of lame attention seeking, I'd bandaged it in my headscarf. When we met the Swiss in Xaidulla, I reasoned, correctly, that they were probably carrying a full bottle of top-notch Swiss suncream each, and that they couldn't possibly need it all. So I sobbed my story and peeled down my bandage and offered vast sums of hard currency for real sunblock. Before long a tube of suncream materialised, and my (lacklustre) efforts to pay were rebuffed.

Not long after Xaidulla the road deteriorated to one of it's worst 'riverbed' stretches, the arch-nemesis of Pawel and Magda's skinny road tyres. We stuck together for another day, but it seemed like the going would never improve and I wanted to make better headway. We camped in a relatively barren valley, on a patch of sandy grass just out of sight of an army base (it's generally unwise to camp too close to the bases, or to take photos near them). The valley was fairly narrow, with sandy slopes rising on each side, and the sunset was a beautiful deep purple I've never seen before. I'd bought some beers in the previous village and an army truck had stopped and handed us a watermelon and a ration-pack (well... handed to Magda...), so we were able to have a parting party.

The next morning we said our tearful fairwells and I set off ahead, for what would transpire to be a very long day. I passed the Swiss encampment within half an hour, and within another halfhour they whizzed past me. The first couple to reach me barely turned their head to acknowledge me as I said hello, and five people had passed me before one slowed down to chatting pace.

-Those guys are in a hurry, huh?
-Yeah, everyday they say they don't race, and then it's all about who got to the rest point first...
-Hehe, fair enough.

We rode chatting for a few kilometers, until the tail-end Swiss started to pass us and my friend felt obliged to speed up. However, they stopped for a rest a few kilometers up, and I caught them again. Hoping for a better reception now they weren't racing, I stopped and offered around some biscuits. No response. Nothing. What's wrong with these people!

I pushed on, soon to be overtaken once again, on the steep final aproach to a low but exhausting pass. I reached the pass overtaking a couple of the Swiss riders. The group had developed the comradely tradition of waiting at the top of the passes and cheering each other as they arrived, so I got a resounding cheer of my own. As we all rested at the top, Katrina brought me a mars bar from their sag wagon. I was almost speechless.
-Are you sure?
-Of course!
-But... it's a mars bar!
-There are no mars bars in Tibet! This is the only mars bar for 2000km in any direction!
-No it isn't, we've got loads of them.
- ... -

At this demonstration of largesse, the rest of the group seemed to suddenly realise the appropriate way to treat a fellow cyclist on a barren road, (share and share alike, unless one of you has a sag wagon full of mars bars) and I was piled high with dried apricots, sweets and water, as well as the usual questions and photographs. I suspect their initial hostility stemmed from a vague resentment that I was there, enjoying the same road as them, without having paid 10,000USD for the priveledge.

From the pass I descended to the Karakax valley, a broad, barren, windswept plain. The road was a corrugated atrocity, and I descended about the same pace as I climbed, the Swiss having long since left me in their dust. It took about half an hour to descend to the valley, and only a short while later I passed the Swiss encampment, occupying the only available green space this side of the horizon. It was only around 3pm, so I decided to carry on, especially as there was an army base within view (I later found out that the soldiers did come to the Swiss camp and demand to see permits and cameras).

There was a crosswind sweeping the bare plain, strong enough to make steering, even balancing, hard work, especially when combined with the shifting rocks under my tyres. The wind carried sand and dust which forced their way into my eyes, despite wrapping my head in my Egyptian teatowel and wearing wraparound glasses. Intermittent drizzle completed the elemental assault. As if this wasn't struggle enough, the morning's snowmelt from the mountain slopes had reached the streams and rivulets crossing the plain, so what would at least be an uninterrupted ride in the morning involved, for me, inumerable fords. Each one required unloading the panniers, changing into sandals, wading through and back at least twice to ferry everything across, reloading the bike and carrying on. A hard, slow, demoralising and cold procedure.

It was around 7pm, after four hours of this toil, that there was finally a break in the monotonous moonscape. I was beginning to worry, the loose gravel and total lack of protection from the gale made pitching the tent more than merely challenging- I was not at all confident I could make it stay up. The end of the Karakax valley was another, equally barren valley crossing it at an oblique angle, as if two glaciers merged at this point. The middle of this subsidiary glacial valley, which again resembled a giant, dry riverbed, was an ordinary sized, dry riverbed, with a bridge across it. Again this offered no promising campsite. It took thirty minutes to cross and climb out of this valley, and follow the road into the river valley also abutting this point, (the three valleys making more or less a Y shape, with the Karakax valley being the bottom, the dry river being the left fork, and the river valley being the right fork, with some low mountains between the latter two).

Reaching this new valley offered blessed relief, as it was more V shaped in cross-section than the previous, so there was no wind. The road was cut into the side of a steep valley wall, which required more engineering effort and maintenance, and was therefore in better condition. At the bottom there was a river and soft, green vegetation to balm my eyes. The steep valley walls above and river below meant that there was not, however, a camp site. It wasn't until around 8.30, a halfhour before dark, that I found a siding used by roadbuilding machinery, in which I could pitch my tent for the night. I forced myself to heat and swallow a bowl of noodles before collapsing in the tent. 


I was woken the following morning by a loud 'BOOM' reverberating off the valley walls.

Oh crap.

I had no idea what it was, and could see nothing unusual, but in some mountainous countries it's illegal to slam a car door for fear of causing an avalanche, and I'd already clocked the steepness of these valley walls. I packed my life and rode on, flinching everytime I heard another explosion and nervously looking around me for signs of falling rubble. I made it to the next collection of buildings, Dongliatang, (another truckstop/army base) in time for an early lunch, and stopped in the chinese restaurant. I had a leisurely lunch, as the owners of the restaurant had taken their lunch break while I was eating; they shared my table, in exchange for which I shared their food. The population of the restaurant, (mostly drunk soldiers) laughed uproarously every time I took a bite.

As I was preparing to leave, the Swiss frontrunners appeared; they would have caught me up sooner, but they'd been prevented from entering the valley by an army officer, due to dangerous maneuvers taking place.
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