Monday, July 2, 2007

We finally reached the Silk Road, or at least part of it.
Unfortunately, not the smoothest start, more like The Corduroy Road, but as Gal mentioned It was probably more difficult doing it in ancient times.
Sorry for the messy post, but it was a messy part of the trip.

Ramis' bike
Since Ramis' rim broke, Rami has lost confident in his bicycle. The new wobbly wheel, badly built in Xining, was obviously not going to hold. An expensive package, with expensive wheels, was sent to Urumqi.

Visa problems
We had two weeks left on our visa. For conventional travelers, its' plenty of time. For cyclists, it's only a few c"m on the map. Our first visa extension was given 28 days before our visa expired, without loosing any days – heaven! This was done in Zhongdian, a very touristy place.
In Xining, we were told that visa extension can be done only a week before the previous visa expires. Later, going to the boss for a second opinion, we were told that you cannot extend a second time (for L type visa), so we searched onwards.
Our next attempt was in Dunhuang, Gansu province. The problem there was that the computers were not working (until 21/07), so we headed to Hami, planning on being there on 28/07.
Our "last" option was Urumqi, but we didn't want to take the chance of being declined and getting thrown out of the country, when we need to get a Kyrgyz visa and receive a package with two new back wheels.
So, we had an itinerary – the one thing cyclist don't need.

Time constraints
It's already July, and as Yossi mentioned – we're behind schedule.
If we plan on crossing the Katchkar, we better do it before November (maybe even that is too late). So we had to hurry west, towards the Kyrgyz border and westwards; meaning we had to hitch a bit.

With all this pressure around, Rami lost it. The only thing he could think of was reaching the next destination A.S.A.P (hitch) to solve part of the mess. It was difficult for him to enjoy, thinking of the bikes, the package, the visa expiring before the package arrives, no water, strong wind, no food – AHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
Like many weak souls, he "slid into hitching", he became addicted!
Every time Gal had to hear a different excuse.

We left Xining 3 days ago, taking a bus west, for about 700km, of a 3,000m plateau. It took over a half an hour to get the 2 bikes + trailers into the luggage cabinet + 100 RMB. Due to us, all the passage of the bus was packed with luggage, being stepped on. Thank god/Allah, the bikes survived, with no immediate damage. Gal, fighting for the only chair with a window, kept it slightly open, the woman needs air, managed to freeze everyone on the back of the bus.
At 01:00 the lights were turned on, and Gal saw from the window people trying to pull her bicycle out of the compartment. Rami was fighting all the luggage in the passage, trying to exit the bus to save the bikes, before some damage would be done.
The nice thing about bus traveling is that there's always food & accommodation. We were dropped at 01:00, in front of a few tents, Muslim Shishkubub restaurants, and behind them a shitty hotel, so we had a soft landing.

21/06/07 The longest day ever
June 21 is the longest day of the year – the longest day ever!
As of tomorrow, we have less time to ride.
We headed off not knowing what's in front of us and very unprepared.
Till now, we didn't have these 'big jumps' (Tibetan plateau to Xining, Xining to the desert). Till now, we predicted 'tomorrow' according to 'today'; the change was gradual. Our last ride was in the wet & green area of the plateau, many yaks, rivers and small villages on the way. Now, we landed in the desert, without realizing it! No rivers, no villages. At least we were used to the strong winds.
We left town with our typical 4.5 liter of water and a small food supply, for a day & a half. We didn't even fill our snack supply – sweets & fruits.
We started cycling at 12:00, after a short night. It was lightly raining, and continued till the afternoon, with strong headwinds. As the day passed, we understood that the smallest dots (+ names), on our Chinese map of Qinghai, were not always (always not, in our case) villages, meaning we couldn't get more food or water.
We took some water from workers at an electric company complex (one of the dots on our map), and headed on, to the 300km desert to Dunhuang, ignoring the "There's nothing on the way" warnings. It's china! There's always something in the way.
At around 19:30 (Beijing time) we crossed a stream. The landscape was beautiful: desert surrounded by snow-peaked mountains.
The land was sort of white; Rami said it might be salt.
While making tea at our camp, we noticed that the water was salty. We carried enough water for the night, but didn't prepare any tea for the following day.

Camping near the salt river.

22/06 Hitching
After a few hours of climbing and fighting the wind, Rami decided it's time to hitch.
We were out of water, out of food, out of conversation topics and the map showed nothing for the next gazillion km.
It was Ramis' first "good" excuse…
We stopped a truck and threw our stuff behind, telling the driver we have no water.
80km later we reached a small nothing with water and food. Rami didn't want to get off! The truck driver tried to push him but he kept the seatbelt on (kidding). We continued another 100km, totally nothing on the way (excuses) except for beautiful landscape.
Reaching the pass was very easy, but, just as we reached the pass, Gal said she wants to cycle the downhill. Our last big descend was ruined due to Ramis' broken rim, and after sweating and climbing to the Tibetan plateau, we deserved this downhill!!!
The truck driver told us it's a long downhill (47km) that reaches a village. It was 18:30, so we hurried.
The downhill was fun! Long, fast, a bit bumpy and with beautiful scenery.

Off the hitch, on the pass.

Qinghai - Gansu border.

First night in the desert
22:00, still last drops of light. We're sitting in our camp spot, drinking 2 bottles of beer (brought from the restaurant, 6 km back).
To the north, the infinite planes of the desert. To our south – the Altun mountains, a desert ridge, covered with snow.
An hour ago was our first burning, red sunset, since Laos (Vietnam was covered with clouds, and since then we're in mountains).
Gal was sad about leaving the mountains.
Rami had too many reasons to reach the flatlands (though, there are many mountains yet to come). First, he was anxious to descend under 2,000m. We're now at 2,600, and hope to be there tomorrow (since Kunming, we've been twice under 2,000, for a few hours, each). Second, our visa will expire in 12 days. 3'rd, we're way behind schedule, winter is coming. 4'th, we are on our way to Xinjiang, maybe one of the most fascinating provinces in China, especially for us, who are lured to the Muslim culture. Etc. etc.
But, Gal is still sad to leave the mountains.

Finally, a sunset.

Sheep (mutton).

24/06/07 Bummer, Bummer, Bummer
We were cycling in the desert, actually enjoying the scenery, even the monotonous flat parts.
Again, the familiar sound (you probably already recognize it) of Ramis' back-inner spoke break.
This was after less that 200 km on the new wheel, built at the Giant shop in Xining. Rami was not surprised at all. The wheel was built badly, and the mechanic couldn't fine-tune (not even rough-tune) the wobbling wheel.
We replaced the spoke quickly, thanks to a friendly vehicle, who stopped and we used its' wrench, and continued.
20 km later (20 km from Dunhuang, our destination) another spoke broke. Rami was shattered, loosing all confidence in his bike, understanding that when cycle-touring, you need good bicycle. Before we left, many people told us: "go to China, buy a pair of cheap bikes and head off. If they break, buy another pair…". It doesn't work that way. YOU NEED A GOOD, STRONG BICYCLE!!!
We hitched to the town, Rami having no energy to replace the spoke ("what will it help, if we don't fine-tune the wobbly wheel?").
In town, while Gal was waiting for Rami to find a hotel (surrounded by hundreds of people), a friendly old man understood the problem and later took us around the corner, to a mechanic who worked for 3 hours on our wheel, bringing it to a much better condition.

The town itself, deep on the tourist trail, with many expensive tourists' attractions nearby, was not our taste, Just another big Chinese Han town.

A twister.

Bummer, Bummer, Bummer!

A humble donation (watermellon and cold tea).

Finally, Ramis' rim is sort of tuned!


26/06/07 Storm
Nothing for miles ahead of us, or behind us, the headwind too strong to fight it, we decided to stop and find a camp spot. It all looked the same – a flat dry desert! We chose the left side of the road, so the wind will push away the noise from the road. We took out our books and rested, hoping the wind will settle down so we could continue for a bit. It didn't, so we slowly started unpacking. While doing that, a local stopped his motorcycle and jumped over, sat down and looked. We tried to ignore the old bum, but after a few minutes of this emptiness around us, and HIM, Rami asked him to leave. He tried to tell us something, but we didn't understand. Then, he took out from his pocket some kind of an electronic device, switched it on and showed us how it 'beeps' strongly near our camp spot. Rami was surprised that someone like him will have such a sophisticated device. Gal was impressed from the high level of radiation in the area. The old bum recommended we move to the other side of the road, and we did, quickly!
We build our camp, ate and went to sleep. Gal insisted we don't use the tent cover, "It's the desert – what could happen?".
We woke up from the horrible, sand sweeping wind. The plastic cover, covering our gear, was shouting for help, flying all over the place. Rami was shouting for help, flying all over the tent. Gal said, as usual, "Don't worry, it'll pass soon.". After a few "soon"s rain was added to the party. So, now it was a big, cold, muddy storm. Obviously, we opened only 1 sleeping bag for the night, so we were fighting over it, like a married couple. Finally, we fell asleep. Just then our alarm clock woke us up, 05:00, for an early start. The storm was still around us, so we decided to stay in the tent, wait for everything to calm down. It finally died. The first word that came out of Ramis' mouth this morning was: "hitch?".
We were on our way at around 11:00, tired and some of us grumpy.

No where to hide...

Good vibes
We finally reached XinJiang province.
After 4 months in China, and 5 provinces, we felt a totally different atmosphere.
We were finally cycling on the Silk Road and we felt it. The road passed trough small oasis towns spread in the infinite desert. When the strong wind hit us, we could imagine the camel caravans in the ancient days. Every 50 -100 km there was a clear water stream and when it got too hot we used it to wet our shirts.
The atmosphere in the small towns was lively: in the evening, the streets were filled with small open-air restaurants, serving very cold beer (finally, since Thailand) and Muslim BBQ Shish-Kebabs.
Hami, one of our favorite towns, which was mentioned in our travel guide as a transport hub, was fantastic to walk around; nothing touristy, just good food and good atmosphere.
Turpan was quite touristy, but walking in the small alleys of the old Uigur town with its many water canals took us back hundreds of years. The lively market, mixed with Uigur, Han Chinese, Kyrgyz, Russians, Kazakhs and many other ethnic groups gave a feeling of an old trade town on the Silk Road.

We are in XinJiang.
An American motorcyclist on the way to Paris.

Ramis' new rim.

Our private Expressway (>100km).

A bit of History.



Hami Gua (mellons from Hami).

Flaming mountains.

Alleys in Turpan.

A typical house.

playing "tourists".

More SilkRoad history.

Another hitch...