We slipped into the New Territories in northern Hong Kong the day before our planned arrival at the Peak, via the subway. This was apparently the only legal way of getting into the country with a bicycle, as we were told in no uncertain terms that we’d be turned back if we attempted the motorway option. To sneak onto the Shenzhen-HK subway pretending our 50kg beasts were commuter bicycles took some convincing, but luckily by this stage we were well-practised at assuring mainland Chinese police of our good intentions. We’d been stopped by police in every province of mainland China along our way, mistaken for terrorists and tailed as spies in the Wild West, expelled from guesthouses and forced off highways in the busy East – I’d like to think that provincial police departments across China had our details logged (under various names and guises) next to our bearded mugshots on office walls.

We were told we’d have to remove our front wheels to make the trip in the subway, logical perhaps for a commuter bike to take up less room, but less straightforward for us. So we duly strapped the wheel to our already wide derrières and dragged our mounts forward, which teetered unpleasantly on front panniers alone. This was deemed okay by the customs officials. In fact, no one seemed to bat an eyelid as between us we took up a whole carriage on a rush hour tube into Hong Kong, passports safely stamped and bags searched. I thought of what might happen if a bloke carried a 50kg bike on one wheel onto the Northern Line in London. Into a New Territories hotel, we were now only dozens of kilometres from the finish line.

Totally normal morning commute

Totally normal morning commute

Nothing to see here

Nothing to see here

Our fancy last night of the expedition

Our fancy last night of the expedition

Neither of us slept much on the last night of the expedition. We were both too excited, and nervous. Friends and family had flown in from across the world to see us over the line, from the UK, Canada, South Korea, Beijing, Shanghai… After spending thousands of kilometres with just each other for company, the prospect of other people was frankly quite daunting. I knew Lobby, and Lobby knew me, and that worked well. Getting on with more than one person for an extended period of time was something we hadn’t tried in months!

We were very fortunate to have gained the support of CIB Productions along the way, a Beijing-based production company with a large focus on the UK, who flew down from Beijing to film our last push up the Peak. We met them at 7am to set up an extra 2 GoPros on our handlebars, arrange a tail van to capture the climb and even wire us up with earpieces and microphones to record every last detail. Endless, nervous equipment testing. We were off.

Pumped up on the morning of our last day

Pumped up on the morning of our last day

Famous Chungking Mansions in Kowloon, a long way from the desert

Famous Chungking Mansions in Kowloon, a long way from the desert

Mentally, we had prepared for the Peak to be at the tough end of the expedition’s many climbs, but the reality was a blur of adrenaline. Warm HK tarmac was far easier than the cracked roads of Central Asia or the icy climbs of the Tibetan Plateau, even if this particular climb’s gradient approached the ridiculous. We thundered through Kowloon, boarded the Star Ferry – the tunnels to Hong Kong Island were strictly no bicycles too – and span our way up the Peak in single file as the day got progressively hotter. I’d love to say I had some deep thoughts running through my head as we climbed, but as with many big occasions I think the brain shuts off to focus on the immediate task at hand: doing the thing. Getting there. Focusing on anything more made us feel giddy.

Less than a dozen kilometres to go

Less than a dozen kilometres to go

Our arrival – carefully coordinated with the media van – was to a small crowd of close friends and family, along with some photographers and curious tourists, right at the top of the Peak. Lobby and I managed to link arms at the top of the final ascent before crossing the finish line, a thick ribbon stretched across the road. Then we were overwhelmed. Cheers, hugs, photos, tears, champagne, interviews, more hugs … whisked up to the Sky Terrace of The Peak Tower (the owner had been a fan), looking out back over the skyline, skyscrapers glinting, to where we’d come from, a banner, more photos. More champagne. It was a blur. We gave an interview to a South China Morning Post reporter as Lobby grew paler with heat stroke. He eventually threw up into the donations bucket midway through a question, to the reporter’s alarm – but it was a fitting end to an expedition which had pushed us right to the limit in so many ways. I do remember looking back over that skyline to Victoria Harbour, towards densely populated Kowloon, and thinking back to how alone we’d been in the desert, and the mountains, and how we’d managed to connect it all. We were both very emotional.

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Posing for photos - our 5 mins of fame

Posing for photos – our 5 mins of fame

On top of the Peak Tower

On top of the Peak Tower

Lobby's face says it all

Lobby’s face says it all

South China Morning Post interview

South China Morning Post interview

We had timed our arrival for party season in Hong Kong, as the annual Hong Kong Rugby Sevens tournament started the day after we crossed the finish line. This suited us perfectly. We were given the opportunity to meet the England team for training, which I have to say was very cool. Free tickets to the finals day, which also happened to be the day our interview was featured on the front page of SCMP Hong Kong, given out free to all spectators. It was a hot day, so quite a few of these papers ended up being used as sun hats, with our faces on the front. The tannoy gave us both a shout-out, and as people began to recognise us from the papers we were bought many drinks throughout the day. I could get definitely get used to this!

Meeting the England 7s team

Meeting the England 7s team

Front page news on Finals Day!

Front page news on Finals Day!

Announcement which accompanied the tannoy

Announcement which accompanied the tannoy

In total we were in Hong Kong for just over a week, our time split a bit frantically between catching up with family and friends and running around for media interviews, a selection of which are below. We featured in TimeOut and were live on Radio HK. We gave a talk to the Royal Geographic Society of Hong Kong, which was a huge honour, and did some outreach work for a local HK school too. After spending so much time on our own, the bright lights and attention we received were totally surreal.

Radio HK

Radio HK

Talk at the Royal Geographical Society of Hong Kong

Talk at the Royal Geographical Society of Hong Kong

Filming in some stunning HK locations after arrival

Filming in some stunning HK locations after arrival

Hong Kong was an incredible end to an incredible journey, and one which neither of us will ever forget. We would both like to say a massive thank you to everyone who has followed this blog, encouraged and helped us along the way, and a special thanks to those who donated to Prostate Cancer UK. Knowing we had such amazing support made a huge difference when things got tough. We ended up smashing our target of £15,000, and instead raised £1 per kilometre for a total of £17,500– thanks to you guys. I had the privilege of going round their offices once back in London and experienced first-hand the amazing work they do. My journey with Prostate Cancer UK has since continued, and I ran the London Marathon for them in April 2016, bringing our combined total donations to £21,000. Unfortunately I’m a terrible swimmer, so the triathlon is not on the cards…

A very generous welcome at the PC UK offices in London

A very generous welcome at the PC UK offices in London

London Marathon 2016

London Marathon 2016

No beards, but still on speaking terms...!

No beards, but still on speaking terms…!

Most importantly, we hope that during the expedition we’ve managed to entertain you with stories about a life outside the office routine. There is plenty of adventure to find if you look for it, and you don’t even have to look very hard. The toughest decision by far – harder than climbing mountains, crossing deserts, dealing with gunmen or facing wolves – was to start looking.

Nick x

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Nearing the Finish Line – 27 March

This one has taken a little while! The penultimate blog post from our expedition, put together part-time on weekends and snatched hours in the evening. Wishing everyone a merry Christmas – ours may be a bit warmer than the Kyrgyz hut we spent it in last year in no-man’s land …

It was March, and we were nearing the end of our journey. Since leaving London on a rainy day last July we’d cycled 16,000km – crossing three deserts, wintry mountain ranges and the sights of the odd hunting rifle, wolf and wild dog to keep us on our toes. Now just over 1,000km separated us from the top of Victoria Peak, Hong Kong. The hard stuff was surely behind us: no more snow, altitude, night-time rides or exhausted sprints. We had a week of gentle countryside riding to get out of Guangxi province, then a final week on the road through the megacities of China’s Pearl River Delta before reaching that famous skyline – the skyline which had totally taken over our waking thoughts and was beginning to creep into our dreams as well. How many times we’d both had bizarre nightmares to do with beard shaving and waking up back in France (“Noooooo!!!”) I couldn’t tell you. But now Hong Kong was just around the corner.

Cycling around Yangshuo

Cycling around Yangshuo

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Fun police in Yangshuo

Fun police in Yangshuo

Reaching Yangshuo and the famous karst peaks around Guilin had coincided with the 8-month anniversary of our expedition, and now we made the most of being in civilisation again to party. There hadn’t been too much opportunity to do that over the last couple of months up on the Plateau or across the Taklamakan, so we emphatically made up for lost time and surprised our livers which had been happily processing tea for months. The evening began with fake Chinese brandy (never a good start) and continued with many losing rounds of dice that is the standard drinking game amongst Chinese men. It ended with me going backwards over a table and cutting my lower back, so all in all, probably a good idea that there had been limited alcohol in the mountains and desert. I woke up the next day with sheets bloodied and head pounding, feeling very sheepish. Lobby then discovered that the rim of his back wheel had split, the same thing which had happened to mine in the Pamirs. The beauty of China was that a new rim was just a short bus ride away (and not the three-day hitchhike it had been in Tajikistan!). But between us we were certainly in no state to push off just yet. The last leg hadn’t begun very auspiciously.

Making friends on a night out

Making friends on a night out

Splashing out for our 8-month on Le Grand Large Hotel

Splashing out for our 8-month on Le Grand Large Hotel

Setting out from Yangshuo

Setting out from Yangshuo

Chilling by the side of the road

Chilling by the side of the road

When we did get back on the bikes, we rode through scenery which could have been out of Jurassic Park: towering karst mounds loomed out of the haze, home to a motley collection of birds which gave chase in a half-hearted teasing sort of way. By accident we crossed into Hunan province to the north, and suddenly orange trees stretched as far as we could see, and farmers hanging bags from spades over their shoulder gave us toothy grins as we overtook them. Further on teams of workers transplanted rice, backs bent at an agonising angle in the paddies so all we could see was the top of their conical straw hats over muddied gumboots. Roadside eateries were full of card-playing men in big groups; the more boisterous of their wives joined the men’s tables and held their own, but most decided to sit apart and rocked their babies to sleep, who were strapped to their backs in little bundles. It was a pretty relaxed scene. However as this was now southern China people spoke a range of different incomprehensible dialects, so we generally had very little idea of what was actually going on. Everything was hot, misty and humid.

Market scene in a big town in Hunan

Market scene in a big town in Hunan

Mist over a river in southern China

Mist over a river in southern China

Child-catcher in southern China

Child-catcher in southern China

Half-built bridge is good enough for us

Half-built bridge is good enough for us

Cards, food and babies

Cards, food and babies

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The partying which had started at Chinese New Year continued all around us as we crossed into Guangdong, our last Chinese province. Banquets sprung up in minutes and extended well into the road, round tables surrounded by colourful plastic stools heaving with suspicious-looking food. Red ribbons, confetti and firecrackers signalled yet another countryside wedding, while a sterner (but equally drunken) funeral band could be heard a few streets away, accompanied by a procession of family and friends all dressed in white cloth. Food was at the centre of all this merriment and our waistlines were finally allowed to balloon from the skeletal shapes they had been trimmed down to. Guangdong is the province of deep fried wonton, deep fried dumplings and sweet and sour pork. We poured the leftover oil at the bottom of fried dishes into bowls of rice and washed down the thick mixture with rice wine.

Fr Christmas enjoys his breakfast dumplings

Father Christmas enjoys his breakfast dumplings

Typical Guandong roadside breakfast

Typical Guandong roadside breakfast

Noodles in a bowl

Noodles in saucepan

Noodles in bowl

Noodles in bowl

As we headed further south the weather system changed to become very humid, and hot again. Neither of us could remember when we had last felt too hot on the bikes, but all of a sudden we were in single layers, lycra wet with sweat and beards trapping glorious moisture which didn’t freeze to our faces. This was an amazing feeling. The walls and floors of houses we passed dripped in condensation and the heavens would open once a day to drench us in a warm downpour. The Guangdong farmers blamed their odd weather system rather dubiously on the southern wind and felt the need to apologise regularly on its behalf. Our bike chains would grow orange rust overnight, so mornings involved scrubbing them down with our cloths, now permanently damp. But there was little that could wipe away the grins now pasted onto our faces: all this meant the end of winter, a winter which had seemed to drag on for so long, and which had been quite tricky to negotiate. Extra bike maintenance was a good trade-off for being able to feel our fingers again! Lobby, who had had a lot of circulation trouble in the mountains, was jubilant.

Straw collection in Guangdong

Straw collection in Guangdong

Drying chillies

Drying chillies

Single layers!!

Single layers!!

Bamboo!

Bamboo!

One important lesson we’d learned over the last 8 months was that if a section of riding felt too easy, forces beyond our control would usually ensure we suffered as a consequence. If the road improved, the weather gods would give us a headwind. A big downhill section? Make it hail. Distance done by midday? Food poisoning. So it was that within the last 5% of our journey our bikes decided they’d done enough, and tried their best to chuck in the towel early. Our front panniers, the bane of the expedition, basically snapped off completely – requiring some inventive bending of screws, aluminium and swearing to force them back into place, as well as our last lengths of duct tape. We cycled the next hundred kilometres or so peering down anxiously at our handiwork to see if it lasted, dreaming up the worst possible demise we could inflict on the useless bits of metal once we were safely up Victoria Peak.

My back tyre, which had been intact since Turkey 12,000km ago, emphatically blew out outside a wedding ceremony. It was so loud that I thought I’d been hit by a firecracker, the combined weight of me plus luggage exploding a tiny pinprick in the inner tube and emptying the air chamber in about five seconds. This happened again at the end of the day only a few kilometres later, which prompted a much lengthier repair job with the help of the local hotel owner’s kids. They provided bucket, water and huge enthusiasm, revolving around my overturned bike with their school bags strapped to their backs, mouths gaping open. Communication had become difficult again now people spoke Cantonese as their first language: kids were the easiest to talk to as they took compulsory Mandarin classes at school. Mesmerised they asked about every step of the repair process, holding tools for me and fitting the inner tube themselves. Where were we going, they asked. I told them, and they pointed down the road. “Hong Kong is that way!” they shouted, and giggled. It was exactly that moment when it hit me that, yes, this was it. We were close. Out of the hundreds of times we’d been asked this same question over the last eight months, these Chinese schoolkids were the first to give us a proper answer, instead of the international you-are-both-bloody-crazy look. Hong Kong, which had pushed us halfway around the globe, really was around the corner.

More and more of our bikes are held together with duct tape

Garden gnome repairs bike with duct tape

Front pannier issues

Front pannier issues

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Tyre blowouts

Tyre blowouts

Our run into Hong Kong was across the urban sprawl in South China’s Pearl River Delta, which is known as The World’s Factory because it contains huge manufacturing bases for the world’s electronics, clothes and textiles industries. It is a sprawl of faceless city after city after city, each one specialising in a certain product. Apparently there is one city which churns out most of the world’s Bic pens. If you have a chip or a piece of clothing which is “Made in China” the chances are that it comes from the Pearl River Delta. It is no wonder then that Guangdong is China’s richest province, because from what we saw the south was entirely paved in concrete and Progress. We joined big lorry convoys once more and a cacophony of horn-happy drivers who did their best to curtail our journey only a few hundred kilometres from the finish. Luckily we managed to escape the chaos for a couple of days on the outskirts of Guangzhou, staying at a Chinese boarding school called Yinghao where Lobby used to teach before university. An oasis of calm, for which we were very grateful, before our renewed onslaught towards Guangzhou and Shenzhen. I’m not sure what the immaculately dressed Chinese schoolkids made of two hairy sweaty foreigners in lycra!

Seven motorways converging

Seven motorways converging

Oasis of calm

Oasis of calm

Teaching the Yinghao schoolkids some rugby

Playing rugby with the Yinghao schoolkids

The next few days were a blur as we sped south in a whirl of traffic, skyscrapers and ridiculous city planning. Lobby outdid himself once again by navigating us through hell without blinking, underpass, overpass, roundabout, all on a silly scale. In just five minutes in a district of Guangzhou we saw more foreigners than we had seen for the last 10,000km! Culture shock began to hit hard. Next we headed for the Guangzhou velodrome, built for the Asian Games of 2010, where we met the British consul-general and were taken round the track by a team of Chinese athletes – a totally surreal experience. They could pick up their feather-light bikes with just one finger and took the 80 degree bends at 80 km/h. Our 50kg beasts struggled on the flat! As we returned to our accommodation that evening we found that the building next door had been flattened by a demolition crew, mounds of broken tiles and cigarette butts in place of what had been a pristine construction at breakfast time. We set the alarm early the next day, just in case our building was the next to go. Shenzhen lay ahead, our last stop in mainland China.

Getting into Guangzhou, China’s biggest city

Getting into Guangzhou, China’s biggest city

Guangzhou velodrome, 24 March 15

Invited for a few spins on the Guangzhou velodrome

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Demolition outside our accommodation

Demolition outside our accommodation

It’s fair to say that our last kilometres on the mainland were a controlled panic of narrow car crash misses and navigational nightmares. In the space of 40km we witnessed three smashes, including one motorcyclist who didn’t look good at all. Traffic ground to a halt across all 12 lanes, in a snake dozens of kilometres long, the ambulances stuck wailing behind huge trucks the likes we’d seen in Western China. We were starting to see Hong Kong number plates, and would have fist-pumped the air for joy had we not been so preoccupied with survival. I got a nudge from a van which clearly assumed it was in the Formula 1, so I decided to plug headphones in and trust in other powers as the noise from car horns intensified on the outskirts. The grey disorderly purgatory of Shenzhen loomed at dusk, and we ducked into a cheap hotel halfway up a high-rise, nerves frayed by the bright lights, noise and stress.

Fans in the traffic chaos

Fans in the traffic

Fans in the gridlock

More fans in the gridlock

Everyone making their way south

Everyone making their way south

Headphones in, mask on

Headphones in, mask on

“Where do you go tomorrow?” the elderly receptionist asked in remarkably good English. Forms had to be filled in and passports handed over now we were so close to the mainland border.

“Hong Kong,” we replied.

Nick x

 

 

 

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Police Chases along the Sky Road: The Hills and Minorities of Southern China – 14 March

Beyond the jet black hillside looming overhead an orange glow filled the sky as if the land beyond had been devoured by some huge fire. The map on my phone showed a snaking road slithering up and over the darkness. It was closing in on midnight, hill climbs weren’t a sensible option at this hour! We cycled up the motorway slip road and merged with the petrol driven peloton. Dicing with death in a tunnel won out as a better option than a several hour midnight climb into oblivion and down the other side. We burst out from the other end, followed by barking horns, and were blinded by the brilliant lights of Chongqing, a fast paced, hustling bustling economic powerhouse, home to almost thirty million people and the spiciest food in China! Our 200km epic had finally come to an end, both very tired, Nick shivering and shaking through complete exhaustion, a rest day was severely needed!

In Chongqing we slept our way back to full health (as full as is possible these days) and then set about the city to discover the sights and sounds of the expansive metropolis. Food attracted most of our attention, hotpot in particular, and we spent a well deserved restful evening fishing meat and vegetables out of the volcanically hot and pungent fire-red broth. We strolled through the oddly juxtaposed old and new Chongqing, glimmering skyscrapers and sparkling shop fronts looked out over ramshackled dwellings and dilapidated alleyways. The central protruding peninsula overlooked the Yangtze on one side and the Jialing on the other. Over more food we planned the next stage of the journey. Chongqing had been a fixed target. What was to come next was only a rough sketch.

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The Yangtze

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‘Old’ and New

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From Ritz to Rubble

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Guizhou was to be our next province, China’s poorest but most demographically diverse province. Almost two-fifths of the population belong to ethnic minority groups, a fifth of China’s 55 minority groups are represented and over half of the province is designated as autonomous regions for ethnic minorities. ‘Only 3% of Guizhou is flat’, we were later told. As we created elevation maps for our route we soon found that it wasn’t going to be easy riding, a roller coaster of hills and valleys awaited us south of the urban sprawl. There is a local Guizhou saying that there are ‘never three days of sun in a row, never three acres of flat land and never three people with any money.’ Our romantic vision of a cultural tour through the heartland of China’s minorities looked like it might turn into a boot camp nightmare.

As we powered our way southwards away from the ‘Capital of Spice’ we soon met with the first of our roller coaster ride climbs. The hills rose up in all directions, roads and paths wound their ways into the greenery, disappearing and reappearing with every bend. We huffed and puffed on the up slopes and tried to re-energise on the down; onlookers smiled radiantly, giving vigorous thumbs up and cheering us on. Progress was slow, and despite beautiful scenery frustration set in. We had set ourselves a deadline for arriving in Guiyang, the provincial capital – Nick’s birthday. Snail pace climbs were certainly going to make the next few days very long indeed. As we meandered our way up another hillside we looked over at the valley below. High above the valley bottom, carried on gigantic stilts, stood the motorway. A flat roadway that ignored the ups and downs on which we struggled, a sky road: a faster route!

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Climbing again

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The most direct route

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Highway in the sky

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The Sky Road

We decided that the only feasible way of reaching our goal in time was to take the shortest and most direct route, leaving our alpine route behind. As is the case in most countries, bicycles are not allowed on the motorway in China. This minor technicality was not going to stop us. We had spent most of the Northern Silk Route on the motorway as it had been the only available road for much of the time, and no authority was ever too worried there. At the next available junction therefore, we made for the toll booth, aiming to sneak by unnoticed. The lady on the booth saw us and shouted after us but in vain, we weren’t going to be climbing mountains all day! We whizzed past and up onto the highway in the sky. The going wasn’t as fast as we’d hoped due to a consistent incline, but at least it was more direct and less steep. The woman who had seen us, however, had clearly raised the alarm. As we tunnelled through the first mountain the loudspeaker crackled into life. Big Brother’s booming voice echoed menacingly, ‘Bicycles are not allowed on the highway, please get off.’ The command reverberated almost incoherently, but we knew who it was aimed at. Leaving the tunnel we smiled for the cameras looking down at us, part of the inescapable net of surveillance that watches over every road in the country. If you want to escape in China, certainly don’t do it on tarmac. A Highway Patrol car soon enough pulled up alongside and beckoned us to stop. We feigned ignorance and suddenly became hapless travellers with no Chinese language skills. Translators, or more likely friends who knew one or two words more than ‘hello’, were called up after some hilarious sign language conversation. We apologised for the confusion and agreed to get off at the next exit. Highway Patrol thus fired up the sirens and flashing lights, following a few metres behind, and escorted us to the exit. Game over for today.

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‘Got you!’

As Nick mentioned in the previous blog, regulations and how they’re enforced in China seem to vary from province to province. Another thing we’ve noticed is that provinces don’t seem to know what their neighbours are up to and information seems not to be shared between them. A friend once told me that if you commit a traffic-offence in Shanghai but your car is registered in another province, then as soon as you leave the city, the Shanghai authorities can no longer catch you. We decided to put this theory to the test. We had just crossed out of Chongqing and into Guizhou and so once more opted for the motorway. Perched on a hilltop we looked down upon the mighty engineering feat that cut its way through nature in the most direct fashion. If it wasn’t high up on stilts, the motorway cut straight into the hillside. We surveyed the toll booth and slip roads below and on our mobiles we pored over blueprints showing the one-way arrows, planning our attack, and most importantly making sure that in the excitement and at speed we didn’t take a wrong turn and end up going back to Chongqing! High on adrenalin and feeling like we were planning our own Ocean’s Eleven raid we began our approach. Passing the booths we heard no shouts this time, had we gotten away without being seen? We maintained full speed ahead until we were safely through the first tunnel – we reasoned that we couldn’t be sent back once through a tunnel as there is no hard shoulder inside, something that gets the heart pumping as a fifty tonne truck comes flying up behind (nor are all tunnels lit!). However we knew that sooner or later Big Brother’s evil eye would spot us and the game would be up. In the meantime we ploughed on, every exit we passed a little victory, a few more yards gained before being thrown off. Night had already fallen by the time the red and blues filled our rear view mirrors. The ‘Super Expressway’ was too dangerous for us, we were told. No explanation that having our own hard shoulder lane was safer than cycling on the mountain roads, fighting for road space with buses and trucks, was going to tell them otherwise. After multiple sign language explanations that we couldn’t put our bikes on their pickup because we had to cycle every kilometre from London to Hong Kong, they agreed to escort us to the next exit. The next exit however was twenty kilometres away and uphill all the way. After the first hour they started talking to us on the loudspeaker as we cycled ahead, saying we must be tired and to just get in the car. We forged on. They found the whole situation rather amusing, a welcome break from their usual work. Each time we came to a tunnel they would turn the sirens on, deafening both of us as the ear-piercingly shrill tones ricocheted round and round. Halfway through the second hour of what we dubbed ‘China’s Slowest Police Chase’ another authoritative car pulled up. Public Security outrank Highway Patrol and they were having none of us cycling on. After more signed explanations, they were eventually persuaded too and so joined the escort. We now had flashing lights in front and behind, and a total of eight law enforcers taking us to the next exit. Upon finally arriving we thanked them profusely for ensuring our safety and helping us find our way. And so they felt they’d done their good deed for the day, helping the lost foreigners, rather than punishing the wrongdoers.

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#Selfie

Drizzle had accompanied us since Chongqing and was certainly doing its best to dampen our spirits. However, for us, every junction on the motorway meant fewer hours night riding and every tunnel meant one less climb. As we sped through ‘The Metropolis of the Future’ (an empty wasteland with pictures of a future city) the sun erupted out through the mist and guided us into Guiyang, ready for Nick’s birthday celebrations. Dumping our bags and bikes with a girl we’d met on the Tibetan Plateau we were straight online and calling round five star hotels in the city. We aimed to have a repeat of our New Year’s buffet in Kashgar, except this time we had cycled all day and hadn’t eaten anything. The Kempinski was the only hotel in our price range that offered free-flow drinks with the buffet. No time for showers! We grabbed a taxi and arrived in style – cycling shorts exchanged for trousers, a spray of deodorant was as much time as we could waste getting ready. Starved of quality cuts of meat for months we took down plate after plate of the stuff. Sushi, oysters and crabs legs were drowned in glass after glass of fine red wine, explaining to the waitress that she didn’t have to ask to keep refilling. By the time we met with dessert we were close to bursting. The last men standing, actually slumped, half lying in our chairs, we stumbled out in a meat and wine haze, Nick falling asleep mid-conversation as we saw in his big day. A day in the spa, some more food (best fish and chips in China!) and a night in a very Chinese club was a welcome break from our saddles! More Guizhou hills were on the horizon…

Making our way into the hilly outskirts of Guiyang we battled with dirt track that claimed to be a national highway, mud flying everywhere as we ploughed headlong into misty rain. We knew Guizhou was one of the poorest provinces in China, its only real source of income being Moutai Baijiu – number one nationwide – but that money was obviously not going into road maintenance! We were directed off the mud road to a new highway that was under construction, not open yet, but which ‘should be okay for bikes’. A very helpful man who patiently drove us the whole way to the turning and gifted us with a book of the area’s scenic beauty – indeed probably very beautiful if you could see it through the mist! The highway was in most parts a dream, but coming across a half-built tunnel that was blocked off we doubted the man’s knowledge of the full length of the road. Unloading the bikes, however, we managed to climb our way into the tunnel and made our way through the pitch black, hoping they’d at least finished the floor!

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Huffing and puffing

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‘No entry!’ – No problem!

Unscathed we made it through and were now entering a very rural landscape, the home of the Miao minority. With a population of about ten million, the Miao are one of China’s largest minority groups. Bright red and blue clothing contrasted with the green stepped paddy fields and simple wooden houses. Smiles greeted us in every hamlet. Water buffalo dotted the fields, some had wandered onto the road, unconcerned at the chaos they could cause. In every direction fields were being tilled by men, women and their beasts. The usual slogans about building a glorious nation whilst maintaining safety and stability were added to with signs calling for population control through reduced offspring. One-off prizes were advertised for families who only had one child. As well as written propaganda, cartoons explained that boys and girls were of equal value. One young girl told us that in her culture newborn babies are meant to be washed in a small stone font next to the well. Neither her nor her sister had been washed, but their younger brother had. ‘Boys are valued more highly than girls’, she told us. ‘It’s not fair, but then the world is an unfair place’. Thought-provoking and deep words from an eight-year-old! In recent times, aborting female babies has been an issue in the countryside where boys are valued greatly, this in turn causes a gender imbalance which the government is trying to resolve.

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Where the buffalo roam

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Tilling the fields

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‘One is enough. Boys and girls are the same.’

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Men outweigh women

Turning south we moved from the Miao and into the Shui region. The Shui number fewer than half a million in total, ninety percent of whom live in Guizhou, and fifty percent in one town. The Shui, or ‘Water People’, live along the banks of the Duliu River, villages of wooden houses connected by small boats which run along ropes stretched across the river, the boatmen pulling the little ferries hand over hand to the other side. The Shui generally dress in green with blue edging to their attire, the traditional costume finished off with a white cloth wraparound headpiece. Throughout China, the modern trend appears to be that it’s the minority women who continue to wear traditional clothing, while the men have opted to wear modern dress. Again we were warmly welcomed into their homeland, becoming the talk of the town wherever we went. Little markets lined the main thoroughfare of several villages, a welcome distraction for us from saddle pains, which increased on every up and down, up and down. Cars and lorries were less interested in the wares on offer and honked their way through raucously.

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The boatman

Winter had lasted so long that we had forgotten what it was like not to wear layer upon layer of clothing, the feeling of warmth a long lost memory. Moving into southern China, despite the oppressive humidity, was a welcome chance to shed some layers. We believe we’ve now cycled on every surface possible, from snow to sand and from mud to rubble. We’ve cycled in +40°C and -40°C. Fortunately we’d had almost no rain along the way. But as we moved into Guangxi we met with Southeast Asian humidity, heat and rainfall. The hills and stepped rice terraces were a brilliant green; but only because it always rained! Fortunately the rain was warm, so we continued cycling and just waited to dry out, when possible. The landscape, the people, the spoken dialects and the food couldn’t have made us feel further from Xinjiang and the Tibetan Plateau.

The world-renowned tourist destination of Guilin was now very much in sight. We wove our way between hills along the river, dodging the coaches going to-and-fro. We passed through Dong and Zhuang minority villages, each with their own individuality and way of life. On our final day before Guilin we hiked through Red Yao villages at the Longji (Dragon Backbone) Rice Terraces. A four hour hike tested muscles that had remained unused for several months. Although rather touristy, the area retains much of its original character. The Yao women have become famous for their long hair, which they never cut. One lady boasted 1.5m of hair, but it was going to cost to see it and take a photo. Leaving Longji we rode through the night, Guilin bound.

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Longji Rice Terraces

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Red Yao village

The famous karst peaks greeted us from afar as we cycled into the city. Guilin is no old town though, and high-rises compete alongside the natural towers. It is one of the must-see destinations for domestic tourists as well as for foreigners. We’d both already been, so descended along the Li River, following it southwards, flanked by karst landscape, in the direction of Yangshuo. We planned to take a short rest here to explore the local area (of course by bike!) unimpeded by heavy panniers. A last rest stop before heading to Guangdong, our final Chinese province.

Laurence

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Pedalling the Plateau, Yushu to Chongqing – 21 Feb

Joining the two red dots: some more climbs after Yushu, then down off the Plateau to Chongqing

Joining the two red dots: some more climbs after Yushu, then down off the Plateau to Chongqing

Our route from Yushu to the end of the Tibetan Plateau crossed another series of high passes over a distance of about 1000km before meeting up with the urban sprawl around Chongqing, where we planned to spend Chinese New Year. We were now heading due east, a huge relief as we lost the battering southerly winds which had been our biggest obstacle to get to Yushu. But Lobby’s fingers were continuing to give him considerable discomfort, and we still reckoned it was dangerous for him to be riding at such high altitude: the first half of the ride ahead rarely dipped below 4000m above sea level. So we searched for trucks, minivans, buses, anything heading in the right direction that could take Lobby and his luggage: I joined up the dots more slowly by bicycle behind him and we met up in the evenings. This section was quite a rough period for poor Lobby as he subsequently got food poisoning on the edge of the Plateau, which took him out for half a week. He was definitely very relieved to be fit and warm once more by the time we reached Chongqing, at a much more manageable altitude of 200m!

Elevation map for first 400km

Elevation map for first 400km

Lobby forced to take transport after some cold scares

Lobby forced to take transport after some cold scares

So I was mostly on my own to cycle the second half of the Tibetan Plateau. Luckily this section wasn’t as hard as our southerly route from Xining, and after a series of very steep climbs in the first few days out of Yushu I descended to a more reasonable 3500m altitude.

Mountain scenery, Feb 2015

Mountain scenery

Snaking up the mountain - spot the road

Snaking up the mountain – spot the road

Summiting a high climb out of Yushu

Summiting a high climb out of Yushu

Yak at the top of another pass

Yak at the top of another pass

The sun came out: after the driving snow and wind of just days before, this was glorious. I skirted along lakes whose water was beginning to unfreeze as I descended below the treeline into a valley framed by much larger mountains to my left and right. Tibetans were getting out of their cars and taking selfies with the trees, as excited as if they’d spotted a snow leopard or rare bird instead of the regularly-spaced sentries on the side of the road. For people constantly living at altitude, trees must be an uncommon sight!

Rivers unfreezing lower down

Rivers unfreezing lower down

On the Tibetan plateau, Feb 2015

These kids out and about as it got warmer

Much warmer lower down

Much warmer lower down

An easier life below the treeline

An easier life below the treeline

Gradually mudhouses were replaced by larger wooden constructions and villages became bigger and more frequent. Again people would invite me in for tea, yak yoghurt, bread and rice with an insistence which made it very hard to refuse. Hygiene standards were still kept very low though, and in guesthouses priority was given to setting up a WiFi connection over building any sort of a loo: even in the bigger villages many people still went to the loo in the gutters alongside the main road, hitching up skirts and squatting down next to festering flaming rubbish piles. Hard to know where to look!

Tea with a monk - his iPhone on the table

Tea with a monk – his iPhone on the table

More Tibetan hospitality

More Tibetan hospitality

It was in one of these villages that a little kid on a tricycle managed to nick one of my water bottles while I chatted to my host over lunch. I only discovered my loss 10km up another steep climb! Being hoodwinked by a small child stung, but I wasn’t about to head back down to chase the tike around the village. It was actually quite a good feeling that after a journey of 13,000km my water bottle would come to rest in the Tibetan village I’d just left. There then followed another more sinister encounter, when a car stopped outside the next small town and a Tibetan man got out, gesturing me to stop too. He was dressed in loose furs, wore a cowboy hat and had several gold teeth. He asked me if I had a full set of teeth. We’d got accustomed to some pretty odd questions on the Plateau so I didn’t think much of it and answered that yes I did, thank you for asking, how were his teeth doing. At this he opened his mouth, pointed to an obvious gap and asked me how much I wanted for one of my incisors. I initially tried to explain that perhaps tooth replacement wasn’t all that simple, but this bloke was having none of it, insisting that all would be well if I handed over one of my incisors in return for some cash. He actually got quite aggressive: I had to dive into a monastery nearby to get away from him! Happy to lose my water bottle to the Plateau but would rather not donate my teeth!

Probably my water bottle thief

Probably my water bottle thief

More worrying than the occasional tooth-hunting crazies I met along the way were the Tibetan dogs whose attacks became more and more frequent. I was riding into the grasslands, an area home to thousands of nomadic Tibetans who raised yak, and often became much wealthier than sedentary Tibetans by doing so. Chained-up guard dogs lined the roads, which was fine as all they did was bark and look fierce. What was less fine were the wild dogs, whose numbers had swollen since controlled dog breeding presumably wasn’t a priority. They gave chase, bit my panniers and snapped at my heels as I frantically kept the pedals spinning to try and outrun them. These dogs – Tibetan mastiffs as they are called properly – are not dogs as we know them. The Chinese have a different word for them, because they more closely resemble a cross between a bear and a lion than the stray dogs you may be imagining. They were huge. No, not as scary as the wolves of the Pamirs, but those were often talked about and rarely seen. The shaggy and rabid dogs of the Plateau were daily menaces; and frustratingly, they were regarded as totally okay by the locals. I had entered a strictly nonviolent region of the Plateau called Kham, where people didn’t kill yak for their meat nor did they slingshot any wild dogs as we’d seen previously. So the bear-lions had nothing to fear from humans: they ruled the grasslands.

The grasslands

The grasslands

The grasslands

Herding yak by motorbike on the grasslands

Herding yak by motorbike on the grasslands

I developed a system of dealing with the dogs to try to stay rabies-free. For a start, I wasn’t tied by Tibetan rules of non-violence. The system worked quite well, though I still got my shoe nipped once and my waterproof trousers raked on two occasions. As I cycled I could see these animals from miles away sprinting across the grasslands towards me, so they never took me by surprise. In fact they would often gather numbers as they ran so I ended up with two or three mastiffs closing in on me from different spots – the trick was to try and keep an eye on all three and not leave an ankle exposed to the fourth I’d missed. It was not possible to outrun them unless I was cycling at 40km/h downhill – this I very quickly found out. If there was a manageable number of chasing dogs I would unclip my left shoe and try to steer them into the oncoming lane, lashing out at them with a kick if they came too close. Usually an oncoming truck would shake their resolve and they would scatter. This tactic involved quite a lot of weaving across the road as the dogs would try to sink their teeth into my spare tyre or rucksack if I maintained a straight line.

A Tibetan mastiff

A Tibetan mastiff

Tucking into a straggler

Tucking into a straggler

If there were no trucks the riskier option was to lure them further in and land a knockout kick to the face, something I achieved once but in another attempt got a nip to the shoe, so we’ll call it 1-1. However the kick I landed was between the animal’s eyes and floored it onto the tarmac, quite a satisfying conclusion to a high speed bear-lion chase. If there were more than a couple of mastiffs chasing then I had to stop the bike – quite a nerve racking decision when they are right behind you! – and use the bike as a shield while pelting rocks at them. I tried to do this near a house if at all possible because the dogs’ barking would provoke a Tibetan to rush out and help me fight them off: it was pretty handy to have an ally in these situations. I made it through without major incident but unfortunately without ever seeing an oncoming truck plough into a rabid bear-lion. Personally, however disgusted you may be at the idea, I think this dramatic conclusion would have made up for the hours of nervous dog chases and rock hurling that became my day-to-day as a cyclist on the Plateau.

The fluffy version

The fluffy version

The real version

The real version

As I descended slowly the weather warmed to the point where there was no longer any ice on the roads, which meant I could finally break a new top speed (67km/h) with less risk of being chucked off the saddle on one of the many steep downhills. I met up with Lobby and we cycled the next two days together, passing a family of pilgrims on their way to Lhasa by foot from their hometown. Their journey would take them two months, they told us, though they were not prostrating themselves at every third step like the most devout do. They asked us where our pilgrimage would take us and seemed a bit taken aback when we gave the bright lights of Hong Kong as our answer!

A long walk to Lhasa

A long walk to Lhasa

Next we headed for a town called Daofu which had seen a monk burn himself to death in protest the previous month: although in public people laughed and smiled in the sun, behind closed doors both Han and Tibetan groups had some very nasty things to say about each other. The unease was less intense than the Han-Uighur divide in Xinjiang, perhaps because the Han felt it less likely that a Tibetan would be wearing a bomb vest. However police points had sprouted now the plains were less agonisingly high, and pedestrians were frequently stopped to be questioned by very Han-looking cops. Despite not being in the TAR, the powers-that-be kept a close eye on the grasslands which we were passing through: local Tibetans told us that telephone signal magically disappeared over important dates such as the Dalai Lama’s birthday, to make it impossible for anyone to make or receive calls. The government also denied many people of Tibetan ethnicity (ethnicity is written on every Chinese person’s ID card) the right to travel to border zones, or big cities: we wouldn’t be seeing any Tibetans in Hong Kong, and that is a major reason why not many are seen in Beijing or Shanghai. The things you can do as a one-party state.

The Daofu vegetable market, 12 Feb 15

The Daofu vegetable market

Special forces on hand

Special forces on hand

We had planned to ride together from Daofu, but unfortunately this was the evening which saw Lobby throwing up into a flowerbed next to a yak eating cardboard out of a bin. Food poisoning compounded a week’s worth of altitude issues, and now Lobby’s priority was to get right off the Plateau and back to sea level, to be ready for our sprint across the urban sprawl. Again I followed slowly behind by bicycle, this time across a region which had been rocked by a series of earthquakes in November last year. Luckily there had been no fatalities, but a large number of the houses I passed had been badly damaged so people now lived at the bottom of their gardens in blue-disaster relief tents. The inside of these tents was small enough that prized possessions had to be crammed in on top of each other, the TV next to the stove next to the Christmas lights around the shrine to Buddha. People seemed very cheerful about their predicament considering they had just spent winter at 3500m in a tent, but that just goes to show how hard the Tibetans are. I got the full story over bread and soup with a couple who invited me in, much more worried about our journey through China’s Wild West than the fact that their house had just been reduced to rubble.

Many houses unsafe to live in

Many houses unsafe to live in

Tibetan couple who invited Nick for yoghurt on solo day, 14 Feb 15

Invited into a disaster relief tent for tea

I was approaching the end of the Plateau but frustratingly still had two small mountains in the way, which was annoying as this meant any chasing dogs would be able to catch me, and by now my legs told me they were just about done with climbing anyway. The first climb emerged from around a hill in the grasslands, a towering beast of a thing with a tiny road snaking up until it disappeared around the side of the mountain and into the snowline. I reckoned the ascent was about 1500m. Seeing all the bends ahead of me was actually pretty rare for a long climb, as usually the road ducked and wove and dipped out of sight long before the summit: here I could calculate my spinning time accurately, which was very helpful. A sweaty four hours later I was at the top, back up at 4300m and looking down at the dots of cars where I had started from below. On the way up I had passed an airstrip which claimed to be the third highest commercial airport in the world – that should give a sense of scale! It felt like being on top of the world again. Next I had the longest continuous descent of the whole expedition, which must also be one of longest continuous descents in the world. I zoomed down 3000m in 90km, all in slightly over two hours, as the scenery around me changed from open grasslands to a rushing gorge. This was very definitely Han China once more, chickens and neat cabbage patches replacing yak and earth walls, people carrying woven baskets and wearing conical hats instead of the colourful furs of the Plateau.

Looking down from the top

Looking down from the top

Tibetan style, Jan 2015

The last of the Tibetan furs of the Plateau

The second climb was at the beginning of another long day, at the end of which I was supposed to be meeting up with Lobby for good, who was now feeling much better. But I never made it – because of awful road conditions I was forced to bail at sunset in a town which looked like it had been bombed. The climb itself was fine, though I was now crossing minibuses of Chinese tourists with sunhats and cameras (heading to where I’d come from, the most accessible point for a one-day ‘Plateau experience’) instead of the more fun but unpredictable motorbikes of the yelling Tibetans with their sound systems blaring Buddhist chants. After three hours of having buses stop for passengers to take my sweaty picture I reached the top, or not quite, as the Chinese had shaved the top off and instead built a tunnel through the mountain in a classic move for efficiency-over-environment. From then on things didn’t go my way: the 100km descent from the tunnel was all unpaved, on roads which made Uzbekistan’s look good. I pedalled some of it, pushed a lot of it, and swore throughout. The occasional tunnels here were all unfinished, unlit, rocky and wet from unknown water sources streaming down the walls on the inside. Quite a shock for the road-building monster that is China! I wondered dimly if this was to discourage the Tibetans from ever descending from the Plateau. The backup plan was to stay in the aforementioned arsehole of Asia, the gutted town I’d found complete with rivers of human waste running down the ruts of its main street. I aimed to leave as soon as possible the next morning, when it was light enough to cycle and not risk cholera by stacking it headlong into one of the waste pits. I would meet up with Lobby and we would continue on as planned.

Not an enticing entrance

Not an enticing entrance

Uzbekistan?

Uzbekistan?

However to compound difficulties, now that I had entered Han China guesthouse owners were more bound by law to register their guests with the police. Technically in China every hotel still has to do this, scanning Chinese people’s ID cards to make sure Big Brother knows where they are when they’re not at home. In practice many rundown places in smaller or more remote towns don’t bother registering their guests, or only do so by hand into an old and very tattered logbook which presumably gets lost in the mists of time. Technically foreigners are also still required to stay in ‘foreigner friendly’ hotels – essentially the expensive ones – which are deemed to be ‘safe’ enough for us to use. The frustrating thing is that these rules are upheld very irregularly: China at a provincial level hasn’t yet found a consistent strategy for dealing with ‘off the beaten track’ foreign tourism. Up until now we hadn’t had any issue with staying in dives, since Xinjiang worked on logbooks (so we were long gone before anyone noticed), and the guesthouse owners on the Tibetan Plateau frankly couldn’t have cared less about Han Chinese box-ticking. But on this occasion I was sat down at a computer with the sweet old man running the guesthouse and asked to fill my details into the system. Naturally the system didn’t allow foreign passports – so instead I assumed the character of a Mr. Zhang, holidaying from his coal mining job in Shanxi province.

At about midnight my door was thrown open and five police officers rushed in, one holding a blinking video camera up like a gun. I had been rumbled. Little did I know but the sweet old man had managed to work a scanner, sending the fuzz a copy of my passport which didn’t match my concocted written description very well. Upon discovery that the holidaymaker from Shanxi was actually a bearded foreigner who had travelled by bicycle through Afghanistan enroute to Xinjiang, the police had got pretty jumpy. They ordered a complete bag search, so I sleepily explained away each item of clothing, pill and noodle sachet in my panniers to the gathered audience. During the process my worldly possessions were chucked around the room with some force and left where they lay – but given that I still hadn’t yet morphed into Mr. Zhang there was little I could complain about. The fuss was over by 2am and I was miraculously allowed to stay put in the shabby guesthouse, so I sneaked downstairs to apologize to the owner for all the hassle. He waved it off in a flamboyant hand movement, blaming his country’s poor administrative system for the mix-up, likening the town’s police force to its disgusting streets and asking what I wanted for breakfast tomorrow, on the house. A true legend. But unfortunately, not the last run-in we would have with the Chinese authorities on this expedition.

So with this nighttime escapade behind me, I met up with Lobby at the edge of the urban sprawl, now badly in need of a good rest. However we still had 500km to pedal before our next planned stop, since we wanted to catch some friends enroute for Chinese New Year. This section was dramatically different to the open plains and blue skies of the Plateau we had just been riding through: white polluted fog hung over huge grey landscapes of skyscrapers which seemed to connect city after city, after city. What’s more we were now only days away from Chinese New Year, the most important holiday of the year which sees hundreds of millions of Chinese make the journey back to their hometowns to celebrate with family. It is the largest human migration in history, and each year it only gets bigger: during the 10 days either side of New Year, it is estimated that 3.65 billion journeys are made domestically across China. This meant that roads were quite busy – and we were right in the middle of it!

Back to navigating through cities, Feb 2015

Grey replaced green

Suddenly streets were lined with stalls selling fireworks, bangers and catharine wheels, bought and handed to small kids who duelled each other with them, chucking firecrackers over their shoulders and at passing cars. This was China finally letting its hair down for the big event of the year: families whose breadwinners worked on the east coast were joyfully reunited, noisy round tables set up outside and banquets laid on at the side of the road. Traffic was sometimes interrupted when long chains of firecrackers were laid across the road and lit, the sound of gunfire accompanying the dragon dancers who skilfully wound their way around the smokey chaotic centre. Handheld fireworks were being shot off like mortars, their trajectory more horizontal than vertical. It seemed there was hardly a moment without a loud bang or the machine gun sound of small explosives going off! On top of the traffic these proved quite a hazard, as a firework launched at speed at the bikes would not have ended well. Luckily we were spared, though some came very close. After dark the display intensified, and we cycled straight through areas which sounded like they were under attack – crates of fireworks were launched up into the night sky, duds spinning energetically away at head height across the fields. Young couples released red love lanterns skyward which joined dozens of others, the flickering yellow flames at their base licking at the canvas as they floated lazily up to the stars.

Selling fireworks on street corners

Selling fireworks on street corners

Dragon dancers and bangers, Feb 2015

Making our way through chaos

We arrived in Suining, a small city outside of Chongqing, after a desperate sprint finish to make it in time for New Year. There we were put up in style and hosted for a big banquet by one of Lobby’s friends from his school days, Sammi, followed by many intense games of mahjong (we each got a helper for this as our level was far below what was acceptable for New Year). The hotel was the fanciest we’d seen all trip, and it was lucky that Sammi met us at the entrance or in our sweaty lycra we would probably have been turned away! The next day we visited a shrine which was teeming with people paying their respects over New Year. The custom was to light a big red candle (or several, the more the merrier) and burn fake paper money in the chimneys on the hill, both of which gave you merit for the coming year. The very wealthy apparently burned real money, which didn’t seem to us a very auspicious way of asking the New Year to provide more of it. We burned our share of fakes, bade farewell to our lovely minders and started on our last few hundred kilometres towards Chongqing, and a long-awaited rest day.

Wonderful hotel in Suining, 19 Feb 15

Things were looking up!

Definitely looking up

Definitely looking up

New Year's banquet

New Year’s banquet

Celebrating New Year at a temple near Chongqing, 23 Feb 15

Gaining merit

As usual Lobby had done a stellar path-finding job, navigating us through the sprawl by negotiating dozens of approach roads – sometimes seven lanes wide – which wound their way under overpasses in a seemingly endless spiral of grey concrete. I hadn’t had a day off in over 1000km so felt like I was running on fumes. However it was right on the outskirts of the prefecture capital that Lobby made an uncharacteristic yet crucial map-reading oversight, which had us detouring 50km along steep country lanes. Our final push into Chongqing was now looking like an epic 200km day, and it was right when dusk fell that I started feeling more and more unwell. We had to stop on the side of the road several times to see if I would throw up. After Lobby’s run of bad health it was definitely my turn! The bright lights loomed just as I started shivering and seeing stars. We were not there yet.

Nick x

Pathfinding with an audience

Pathfinding with an audience

 

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The Rooftop of the World: Tibetan Plateau to Yushu – 3 Feb

We set out from Golmud on a road bound for Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. We wouldn’t be following it all the way, as the Chinese government doesn’t allow independent travel to the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR, hashed in yellow below), which is also called political Tibet. The region is perhaps the most sensitive in China, after Mao declared it part of the PRC in 1950, rolled the tanks in and forced the Dalai Lama into exile. For better or for worse Tibet has remained part of China ever since, a very tightly controlled corner of empire – though frequent protests from inside the TAR still manage to hit Western media and anger Beijing. Luckily for us Greater Tibet (namely the Tibetan plateau) extends far beyond the TAR, and the overwhelming majority of people who live there are ethnically Tibetan. So as cyclists, if you’re prepared for a few weeks of tough high altitude climbs, you can still experience Tibetan lifestyle on what is called the rooftop of the world. This is what we planned to do. The plateau is at a base height of 4000m: similar to the Pamirs, cyclists normally only venture up here during the summer, but as usual, we were stuck with the winter snows and February winds. However buoyed by our recent Taklamakan success, we treated this prospect as an additional challenge.

The direction to Lhasa

Decisions, decisions …

Things get complicated: in green, our route from the Taklamakan and onto the Tibetan plateau, via an enforced overnight bus to Xining (in blue); in red, our original barred route; hashed in yellow, the TAR.

Things get complicated: in green, our route from the Taklamakan and onto the Tibetan plateau, via an enforced overnight bus to Xining (in blue); in red, our original barred route; hashed in yellow, the TAR.

Our attempt to reach the plateau didn’t start well. A windy climb out of Golmud swiftly brought us to a police checkpoint, where it was established in no uncertain terms that we would be cycling no further. Although we were still 400km away from the official boundary with the TAR, from this point onwards special permits were required as we approached the sensitive zone. The fact that we would be turning off east before the TAR was entirely irrelevant, we were told. No permit, no onward passage. No discussion. While Lobby still argued hard for our cause, I started hatching a plan which had us sneaking through the police post after dark. But with beautiful timing the man in charge then turned to address me directly for the first time, as if he could read my mind, reminding me that the post was open 24/7 and that our descriptions had been radioed to the next station. Ah. Desperately frustrated at being held up by Chinese officialdom, we then blurted out that we would be cycling on anyway, as we made for the door, and that there was nothing they could do to stop us. With my hand on the doorhandle I heard the man state that if we crossed his checkpoint like this, he would make sure we were both arrested and then deported from China. This last word stung, as we had already been given the deportation treatment in Azerbaijan all those months ago! Beaten this time by the system, we had no option but to head slowly back to Golmud and regroup. We scrambled for a plan B as we pedalled. On this occasion we had tiptoed too close to the invisible line, following a truckers’ route directly towards the forbidden land: so we decided to head to Xining overnight and approach the plateau from a different tack. This plan would add mileage, and would bizarrely have us cycling west for a few days – but ultimately it should mean that we rejoined our original route in Yushu. Map above!

Climbing up to 3200m from Xining

Climbing up to 3200m from Xining

The next morning saw us stumbling bleary-eyed from our overnight bus in Xining and straight back onto the bikes, following a road which punished our tired bodies with 1800m of steady climbing on our first day out of the urban sprawl. We were heading west for the first time in the expedition, and this combined with tiredness and the never-ending climb made for a tough day mentally. Leaving the outskirts behind we quickly found our first prayer flags, as well as huge white Tibetan carvings, Buddhist scriptures etched into the hills of the plateau. Woolly yak grazed and vultures ripped apart a sheep carcass by the side of the road. Over the next few days we would climb up to a plateau of 4000m, peaking at 4824m. This being China we wouldn’t be facing the Tajik problems of disappearing roads and power outages – but we would be coming up against snow and severe altitude once more, along with a much more potent obstacle: the wind.

Meeting yaks, 27 Jan 15

First Chinese yak

Cue Lion King music

Cue Lion King music

As we climbed further and further the wind began to attack us with unprecedented ferocity. It came down from the peaks to our left and right and swept straight across the plateau, carrying with it helpless birds, prayer flags (a good hazard to entangle our bikes) and even some yak herders wrapped up in their Tibetan furs. As cars reached the top of passes their passengers would pile out, and staying close to the ground they chucked little pieces of paper stamped with Buddhist mantras into the wind with great cries of delight. Afterwards they would dive back into the car, with the urgency of a drowning man being shown a lifeboat. Unfortunately we had no such lifeboat. Our bikes were at the total mercy of Mother Nature and were blown all over the road like twigs instead of the 150kg beasts they really were. I’ve never experienced anything like it, Pamirs included. What’s more, within a couple of days we had risen above the treeline, which made the riding even more exposed. If there was a headwind our speed dropped to a Central Asian 3kmh; if we were hit by a crosswind we would both have to dismount and walk, the safer option, having witnessed Lobby nearly pushed off the road and down a steep drop by a nasty gust. Once without thinking we left our bikes square to the wind, and they were slammed down into the tarmac. The two sellotaped chopsticks which together acted as our flagpole bent out at a horizontal angle to the bike, the Union Jack streaming madly behind us. This was proper wind!

Braced against the wind on the Tibetan plateau

Lobby braced against the wind

Gale outside, Qinggenhecun, 28 Jan 15

Entering the gale outside

The first rundown Tibetan places we stayed in were nearly all in one-street villages, with at least half the houses boarded up for winter. There were very few people outside. It felt like a scene from a Western shootout as we pushed our bikes down the empty wind corridor, dust churned up in front of us and the door of an abandoned house swinging wildly on its hinges. Life up here is harsh. If you were outside during the day you could quickly get sunburnt from the altitude – the Tibetan ‘rosy cheek’ look is actually years of compounded sunburn. If you lingered outside after dusk you could easily get very cold very quickly. Peter Hopkirk writes that the Tibetan plateau is the only place in the world where it is possible to get sunburn and frostbite at the same time, if you sit half in the shade and half in the sun at the end of the day.

Abandoned streets but colourful hills

Abandoned streets but colourful hills

Rosy cheeks actually severe sunburn

Rosy cheeks actually severe sunburn

Those Tibetans who for some unknown reason had decided to stay up here during the winter spent the day huddled around their wood burner in a central room, as we had seen in Kyrgyzstan. I say wood burner but there was no wood at this altitude: it was the wife’s job to collect dried yak poo from the surrounding hills and feed the fire with that instead. Personal hygiene was kept to a minimum because of the lack of running water, which all froze. Poo collection was usually her first job in the early morning, when the stuff had had a chance to freeze overnight. Her next immediate task was to make breakfast for the family, who had presumably got used to the idea of yak particles being in their porridge. Lack of wood is actually a much bigger problem on the plateau than just fuel for cooking, as it also means people can’t be cremated when they die. The frozen ground is also much too hard to be digging graves. So instead of cremating or burying their dead, the Tibetan practice is to cut the corpse up into small pieces, grind up the bones and feed the resulting mince to the many vultures which circle overhead, in a ceremony called a sky burial (in Tibetan this translates as being ‘bird scattered’). Tibetan Buddhism treats the body after death as just an empty vessel (the soul is the important one which moves on), so the fact that it is consumed by birds is not met with the same alarm as it might be in the West.

Tibetan prayer wall, Feb 2015

Long furs to keep warm in winter

So you would expect that having to deal with these living conditions the Tibetans would be the most grumpy and miserable people in the world. I imagine if you put a Londoner somewhere for the winter where he couldn’t go outside, wash or breathe properly then he would lose his sense of humour pretty quickly. But the Tibetans were the complete opposite – extremely friendly people, upbeat, loud, real jokers! They wore colourful woolly caps and thick fur overcoats which they wrapped around like a sheet, with sleeves that went down to their knees, apparently so they could grip the handlebars of their motorbikes without feeling the cold. Motorbikes have largely replaced horses as the way of choice to get about, so many decked these out with rugs and big sound systems to zoom around town in zigzags, shrieking at the top of their voices over the Buddhist chanting droning from their boomboxes. Long black hair tied in a ponytail beneath a cowboy hat, gold teeth in permanent grins framing dark faces, Buddhist amulets dangling from their neck, prayer beads worn like a lasso across the chest and big riding boots over tight jeans: these guys were the opposite of Han Chinese in almost every single aspect. They greeted us in excited yells, and were visibly pleased to bursting when we managed to string a couple of Tibetan words together to shout back from our bikes. Our mangy beards went down pretty well since Tibetans have virtually no body hair at all – it became quite normal when we ate to have a man come across to our table uninvited and stroke one of our beards curiously. Arm hair was totally foreign to them too and produced sharp intakes of breath as well as stunned silence, as if they had just met a talking monkey. Then followed endless photos with the talking monkeys alongside every family member in every different pose, which we had to start refusing eventually or we would never get our mileage cycled for the day! It was a surreal experience.

Motorbike Tibetan style, Jan 2015

Tibetan style

Causing a stir at breakfast

Causing a stir at breakfast

The most impressive building in every village we passed through was the monastery, usually on a hill far removed from the chaos below. On the same hill would be thousands and thousands of prayer flags, sometimes tipi-shaped, sometimes strung out in lines to make massive rectangles, or even spelling Tibetan words in giant multicoloured letters against the snowy mountains. The monastery complex also housed many of the monks who spent years of their lives up there, so there was nearly always somebody keen to show us round if we made the climb up the hill. We would be sat down in the huge kitchens with tea, yak yoghurt and – if we were unlucky – tsampa, a kind of Tibetan porridge (avoid), while monks bustled around us boiling water in gigantic pots and making yak butter sculptures for the monastery. We would then be led around the monastery by a monk who could speak Chinese and therefore could answer most questions we had about the inside – statues of the different Buddhas above pictures of famous lamas, against a backdrop of colourful wooden pillars, draped cloth from the ceiling and the pervasive sickly smell of yak butter.

Always on the top of windy, steep hills

Always on the top of windy, steep hills

On the Tibetan plateau

The long walk down

On the Tibetan plateau

Better way to travel

What to see when strolling around a village

What to see when strolling around a village

Prayer flags everywhere

Prayer flags everywhere

On one occasion a monk about our age invited us to have dinner down the hill, and we were introduced to his extended family over many big bowls of noodles. A framed picture of the Dalai Lama – illegal to display in China though this was largely overlooked outside the TAR – hung on the main wall above more amulets, offerings and quite tacky electric candles. The granny sat in the corner muttering mantras and vigorously spinning her prayer wheel throughout the evening. Our monk showed us the dagger his father used to carry on him for protection when he went outside, as most others had done of his generation. He grumbled that these were no longer allowed, and that the Han police would arrest you if they found you with one on the street (looking at the huge blade, we couldn’t help thinking that was fair enough). He then went on to show us what most people now carried to guard against the many wild dogs on the plateau, basically a small anvil on a thick string. It could be whirled around to strike a dog’s skull with enough force to crack it. Even the pacifist Buddhist monks took the wild dog issue very seriously, which slightly worried us – at the end of the evening he insisted on walking back with us in case we were attacked, anvil firmly in hand! On our walk back he opened up and described his people’s great sadness at not having a country to call their own, at having their spiritual leader in exile, and being routinely discriminated against by the Han. He told the story of being handcuffed as a teenager and put behind bars for a few days, just for being on the street after dark wearing a monk’s robe. It was a very powerful and memorable evening.

The skull-cracker

The skull-cracker

Totally reasonable for self-defence

Totally reasonable for self-defence

On the bikes, we were still rising steadily and started encountering all the same altitude problems that we had suffered in the Pamirs. Lobby in particular began to develop some worrying breathing issues at about 4300m, energy sapping away with each pedal turn while still being buffeted by the strong wind. As usual our bikes were being blown all over the road. Rest stops grew longer and longer, and it soon became clear that Lobby was in quite a bad way: his numb fingers could no longer control his handlebars, which is pretty key when the wind hits you full-force. There were steep drops on either side of the road, so losing control of the bike at the wrong moment could spell the end of your expedition – and perhaps a sky burial if you were unlucky! We decided to try and hail down a car which he could take to our planned evening stop, and I would meet up with him once over the pass (4500m). Magicking his bike into a standard car’s boot space with a howling gale was a delicate process, but we managed it with the help of some very enthusiastic Tibetans and a couple of bungees to keep the boot closed. Lobby was on his way. I joined up with him as planned that evening after the pass, at which point his condition had unfortunately got considerably worse. The highest pass (Bayankala, 4824m) lay between us and Yushu, our rest stop at the halfway point of the plateau. Although extremely gutted, Lobby agreed that it wasn’t sensible for him to be climbing further in his state, or in fact to be on a bicycle at all: he would take a truck going the right way, and we would aim to meet up again in Yushu.

Lobby's bike being loaded in Maduo, en route to Xiewu, 31 Jan 15

Hitching a ride to spare the fingers

So it was at 5 o’clock that I woke up on my own in a little shack, on my second day of a two-day push to the expedition’s highest pass. The windows had no panes and the door didn’t close properly – I’d been caught out overnight by not putting my water bottles in my sleeping bag, which had all frozen by the time the alarm went. Wheeling my bike out into the dark I grabbed a large rock as my host had done the previous evening, aiming my torch at the four pairs of reflective eyes whose owners started howling as if on cue. The dogs made a big racket but did nothing but circle the bike and snap their jaws, so my rock remained unlaunched and I was safely on the road, now fully awake and heart pumping the pedals quickly round into the blackout. It was very important that I cover the uphill to the pass in the morning, as the afternoon winds became much fiercer and could easily dash my summit attempt – much better to face those going downhill.

Staying over with this Tibetan family

Staying over with this Tibetan family

Early morning headlights, 1 Feb 15

Quite a grim morning ride

The first few kilometres threw me as they sloped downhill: I didn’t have time to put my gloves into the handlebar mitts to reach for the brakes before I was skidding all over the place on black ice, ending in a not-so-spectacular fall onto my hip. The bike somehow took most of the impact, which snapped my rearview mirror off and twisted my pannier rack round. I was left feeling stupid but unhurt, a good sharpener for a long day ahead! As the sky grew lighter the early morning truckers started zooming past, headlights flashing as if by blinding me they thought it would be easier to steer my bike on the snowy road. I spent the morning spinning the bike up a series of winding inclines, sheltered for now by the mountainside to my right. My beard froze to my jacket zip, and when I tried to melt it by dribbling saliva down myself that froze too. Not cool! Several cars stopped to ask if I needed help, I was quite impressed that they stopped at all really considering the abominable snowman look I was quickly taking on. One (Han) car offered me an instant noodle sachet, which was sweet but utterly pointless as I pointed out that all my water had frozen – to which they gave me a huge thumbs-up and drove off. To the Han Chinese, the message seemed to be that even at the worst of times there was nothing that couldn’t be solved by a sachet of instant noodles. Even just having one in my possession was a guardian against all ill.

On the Tibetan plateau, Feb 2015

Barren and pretty tricky

The sun rising to reveal compacted ice

The sun rising to reveal compacted ice

He saw my face and offered me his mask, a very sweet man

He saw my face and offered me his mask, a very sweet man

The wind hit with full force at midday during my last two hours of climbing, right when I had planned to be summiting the pass. The climb had been tougher than I’d thought, so I’d been slower – now it would be windier too! There now seemed to be no other option but to groove my way to the top, so I blocked out the howling wind with some Parov Stelar on full volume and punched out the last 8km to the top that my lungs had in me. I realised halfway through that without a rearview I was effectively blind and deaf to the traffic behind me, so decided to ride obnoxiously in the middle of the lane in case anyone tried to jump me. Luckily few cars take the February route over Bayankala Pass.

The pass sign finally came into view with a crescendo of gale, which cut my cycling speed to a walkable 3kmh. I summited a shrieking, fist-pumping maniac, coat zip frozen to face, flagpole horizontal to the wind. A minivan full of monks was kind enough to lend me some hot water to unfreeze my face as they threw prayer papers out the window, which allowed me to record a short video: our donations page to Prostate Cancer UK had just reached £10,000. We had just reached our highest point of the expedition. It was quite a moment.

At the Bayankala Pass, 1 Feb 15

Gale force at the top – car stuck in a snow drift behind me!

Windier than Wales

Windier than Wales

I met up with Lobby in Yushu, who was much happier for having spent a couple of days in bed. Yushu had been worst hit in the Qinghai earthquake of 2010. According to official government reports 3,000 people died and 85% of all buildings were destroyed, though many Tibetans think the death toll was much higher. By complete coincidence I had been travelling through Yushu just three months after the event in 2010, which at that time was lined with rubble and blue disaster-relief tents. Now we entered a completely rebuilt city, with practically no sign that it had been flattened just five years previously – the pace of development was ridiculous. We hitched a ride out of town to a well-known monastery, which had a walking loop up a mountain around it, and were encouraged to follow a whole load of humming and chanting pilgrims around the circuit too as we hoped for a favourable wind over the next section – or at least not so brutally against us. Here for the first time we saw Tibetans prostrating themselves fully on the ground as they performed their slow loop, stretching their whole bodies out horizontally in the dirt after every third step. The most pious make a pilgrimage from their hometown all the way to Lhasa like this, face down in the dust for a third of the time, in a journey which can take months. The prostraters were covered in dust and mud but seemed very happy in their work, cheered on by all the prayer-wheel spinning, chanting, humming walkers who overtook them.

Yushu High Street, 18 June 2010

Yushu High Street, 2010

Yushu High Street, 3 Feb 15

Yushu High Street, 2015

Following the pilgrims' route up the mountain, 3 Feb 15

Following the pilgrims’ route up the mountain

Pilgrims, Yushu, 3 Feb 15

Prostrating themselves at every third step – the hardcore way round

Clinging to the edge of the cliff, 3 Feb 15

Clinging to the edge of the cliff

We finished our day – and the first half of the Tibetan plateau leg – by taking a walk around Yushu’s mani stone pile, which I can tell you was much more exciting than it sounds. A mani stone is a rock inscribed with a Buddhist mantra, usually the most famous “Om mani padme hum”. These are piled on top of each other in huge walls which people then walk around clockwise, accompanied by the usual prayer wheel spinning and devotional humming. The mani stone pile in Yushu is the biggest in the world, so unknowingly we were thrust into the middle of a revolving congregation of thousands and thousands of Tibetan Buddhists. Once part of the moving crowd it was very hard to get out: we were jammed together shoulder to shoulder, prayer wheels smacking anyone within a handheld radius and once in a while the masses parting to let through a yak or a buggy circumambulating the wrong way, swallowed up in a sea of colourful hats and furs. This became chaotic. Not looking in the slightest bit Tibetan we didn’t fit in well, and as soon as people spotted the foreigners they started grabbing us excitedly, tugging at clothes, holding hands, asking for photos. We made the mistake of stopping once for a quick picture, which turned into a paparazzi shootout with dozens of lenses and kids being launched in our general direction for the mantelpiece picture. Those who have already been to China will have experienced the excitement of feeling like a minor celeb as the Chinese anxiously gather round for photos – in Yushu that reached a whole new level. Fighting our way out of the corner we had been squeezed into, we dived into a shop thinking to lose some of our tail, but they marched in behind us, took over the shop floor and blocked off our exits. Some were hysterical. In that moment as we physically wrenched ourselves free of our new Tibetan fans to get to a taxi, I empathised with the daily struggle Justin Bieber must face walking down the street. Mugshots of hands over our faces from the taxi window. Safer to be on the saddle riding across an empty plateau, we thought, breathing heavily from the chase. And fortunately, we were soon doing just that: the second half of our Tibetan route had begun.

Nick x

Some just added the one mani stone...

Some just added the one mani stone…

...others opted for the wheelbarrow

…others opted for the wheelbarrow

Yushu, 3 Feb 15

Joining the swelling masses

Feeling important

Feeling important

Jumped by the excited crowd

Jumped by the excited crowd

Longing for open road once more - all this to come...

Longing for open road once more – all this to come…

 

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The Record Attempt: Crossing the Taklamakan – 14 Jan

Addicted to challenge, we thought the Taklamakan desert would be the ideal place to test how long our bodies could remain upright on bicycles before they passed out from exhaustion. To cycle across Xinjiang there is usually either one of two routes to follow: the Northern or the Southern Silk Road, bordering both edges of the desert. We decided to cycle along both, which involved bisecting the desert right where there is no-one around for hundreds of miles. The Taklamakan is the second largest shifting sand desert.  Ten years ago a road was built cutting it in two from north to south, called ‘The Desert Highway’, mainly used for transporting petrochemicals. It stretches for 550km and for most of its length it is totally uninhabited. We would follow this road into nothingness, and aim to be safely on the Southern Silk Road within 48 hours of our departure. We had time for a little cultural tourism in Kuqa, a visit to some Buddhist caves from the 5th century where caravans used to pay their respects for a safe onward passage – our visit felt very appropriate!! And we even had the chance for a cycling dress rehearsal, covering 230km in one day as we headed east and in the process surpassing our longest ever day (into Vienna, see Mein Arsch!). This was to see how our bodies would manage with the strain, and happily neither of us folded, so the challenge was on. We rolled into Luntai at the northern edge of the desert after an 800km warm-up from Kashgar, ready to take a sharp right the following morning.

Kuqa, 10 Jan 15

Visiting the Buddhist caves in Kuqa, Northern Silk Road

From 12-14 January we successfully made the crossing from north to south by bicycle, without a support crew, covering 559km in a total continuous time of 47hrs 21mins, nearly 35hrs of which our wheels were constantly spinning. We set off from Luntai at the northern edge at 4.13am on the 12th and dragged ourselves across the finish line in Qiemo by 3.34am on the 14th. To the best of our knowledge this sets a new world record, as we don’t reckon anyone has been stupid enough to attempt the crossing before.

The record attempt began and finished in the dark, as we forked right into the sands from Luntai knowing we had 3 hours of riding before sunrise. Thankfully the Desert Highway is not nearly as busy as the Northern Silk Road, so there were fewer nighttime hazards than usual. Earlier in the week we’d had a morning scare as Lobby hit a blown-out tyre on the hard shoulder at speed, still in near-total darkness. I’d been slipstreaming behind him so we both ended up splayed on the tarmac, very shaken but miraculously with only cuts and scrapes to show for it. The beam on our torches does not perform well in the morning cold – neither did my iPod, which froze once again upon setting off. Lobby unfortunately made the mistake of wearing a facemask to fend off the morning ice, only to find that it still formed between face and mask, gluing the mask onto his beard. It took all day for the thing to unfreeze so he could take it off, which made eating pretty difficult! But our spirits were unreasonably high considering what we were attempting, so we took these setbacks in our stride and set an ambitious speed as we forged into the endless scrubland.

A cold start to the Taklamakan, 12 Jan 15

A cold start to the Taklamakan

The Desert Highway is beautifully tarmacked – much better than most of what we’d seen in Central Asia. It is actually the only road of its kind to be built directly onto shifting sand: the Chinese government spent hundreds of millions of yuan fastening the road in place by planting a treeline on either side of it, which stretches for nearly the entirety of its length. What the Communist Party couldn’t control, however, was the wind – this had been our biggest worry after some grim experiences in the Kyzyl Kum of Uzbekistan. Crossing the Taklamakan was a numbers game, constantly pushing for speed against time, and a slight headwind could make things significantly longer and harder for us. Unfortunately this is exactly what happened, just as snowcapped sand dunes began appearing at the 150km mark. Maintaining a speed of 16kmh would mean 21 hours on the saddle on Day One; if we dipped to 15kmh, 22 hours. If we dropped below 14kmh, the challenge began to reach the realms of impossibility. Forget night riding – there wouldn’t be enough hours in the 24hr day to cover the distance, even if we cycled without a single break.

Scrubland turns into snowcapped dunes, 12 Jan 15

Scrubland turns into snowcapped dunes, 12 Jan 15

Still smiling at sunset, Day One. 12 Jan 15

Still smiling at sunset, Day One

Night falling, Day One, 12 Jan 15

Night falling, Day One

We pushed on, putting in a huge amount of effort to maintain 16km/h and keep the dream alive. This must have been what eventually did for us on Day Two, but that will come later. By sunset we were surrounded by sand dunes, 200km from the nearest proper settlement and with another 100km to go to stay on target before we contemplated a 4 hour sleep. The stars above us were incredible. Nighttime temperatures dropped quickly and steadily, about 5C every hour until they reached -30C, which felt pretty nippy. It was not sensible to stop moving for any long period at these temperatures so we kept cycling, side by side to better illuminate the road and keep each other awake. All our water, coke (we carried eight bottles each), snickers, bread and bananas froze. We broke the 300km mark at 12.30am, after 7 hours of riding in complete darkness, and in a euphoric daze searched for a place to crash.

100kms into the North-South crossing of the Taklamakan, 12 Jan 15

Starting well

200kms across the Taklamakan, 12 Jan 15

Smiles fading

300kms across the Taklamakan, 13 Jan 15

Make it stop

We pitched our tent by the side of the road just beyond the treeline, a frenzied digging in the sand to fasten the poles after a quick and necessary scorpion check. A week of desert riding had already taught us the precious value of time spent off the bike, and there was no time more precious than right now. I set the alarm for 5am, or 4 hours after our wheels had stopped turning for the day. An extra minute arranging the tent meant one minute less we could be unconscious for! Day One had lasted 21 hours, 19 of which we had been pedalling constantly. We still had 260km to go.

The stars mark where we slept across Xinjiang. Spot the Taklamakan crossing star.

The stars mark where we slept across Xinjiang. Spot the Taklamakan crossing star.

We both woke in the foetal position with hands involuntarily stuffed down trousers, feeling like we hadn’t slept at all. Sunrise was in two hours. It had been the coldest night of the expedition, if you could call our 4hr power nap a night: the inside of the tent above our heads was lined with ice, where our breath had wafted up, condensed and frozen. Even as tired as we were, we’d automatically put our frozen water bottles inside our sleeping bag liners to try and unfreeze them, but the warmth they sucked out had sent us shivering to sleep. It’s lucky we were so exhausted or we probably wouldn’t have slept at all for the cold!

To make things worse, Day Two was a lot harder than Day One. The wind had died down but was instead replaced by giant rolling sand dunes, transforming the road into a rollercoaster which taxed our now exhausted quads on each incline. We hadn’t bet on such steep ascent in the middle of the desert, but by the end of Day Two we had climbed 1200m up some of the more brutal inclines in China so far. The problem was that we could see for miles: we saw each rising dune a long time before we reached it, and the one after that, and the one after that… It was very tough to stay focussed as our average speed began dipping dangerously close to the impossibility line. Legs cramped up, refused to respond, agonised at the uphills. Perfectly sculpted sand dunes extended as far as the horizon, like gazing out at giant waves in a yellow ocean. I pictured looking down on us from high above, two shrivelled little dots inching their way forward, much like ants stuck right in the middle of an enormous sand pit. I stopped getting off my bike during our five-minute breaks, as getting back on again became too difficult. Early on we passed a line of shops, perfectly placed in the middle of the Taklamakan and with nothing else to the landscape around them. It was totally bizarre. A signpost pointed back to where we had come from and read, “You are now entering an uninhabited area, which lasts for 330km. Please drive carefully.” At the other end an archway had been built over the road which read, “The Taklamakan is the Sea of Death. Safety first.” These didn’t do much to lift morale! We downed a coke – these were essentially what kept us awake during the next 24 hours – and as ever, pushed on.

Entering the Sea of Death, 13 Jan 15

Entering the Sea of Death

The rollercoaster begins, 13 Jan 15

The rollercoaster begins

Struggling on Day Two, 13 Jan 15

Struggling on Day Two

So many dunes, 12 Jan 15

So many dunes

In the late afternoon sun we played many games of cat and mouse, which involved further torturing our muscles by racing each other over the sand. Lobby would set off first and I would chase him down after a headstart. The landscape was so vast that we could see each other from literally miles away: both chased and chaser upped our game and the hunt sometimes lasted for half an hour, the gap closing by a few seconds every kilometre as if we were in the velodrome individual pursuit final. Cat usually caught mouse, which was lucky since there was no option for cat to give up because he would be left stranded in the sands! But by sunset we had still only covered an extra 100km and faced the prospect of another 160km to cycle in the dark. If the hills continued as they had been we realised our attempt to cross the desert in under 48 hours would fail – but neither of us voiced what we both knew, as if that would make it more likely to happen. Instead we chatted, sang, whistled, anything to keep our mind off the monumental task at hand, and make sure neither of us fell asleep on the handlebars. I spent most of our 9 hour night ride into Qiemo working out speeds and distances to keep my brain busy, and singing to myself. Miraculously the hills stopped shortly after nightfall, and the road flattened out to allow for a higher average speed. 9hrs is the equivalent of a normal working day, and during that time I literally cannot remember more than five minutes of thoughts that revolved in my head. I think we were going crazy.

The 50km-to-go bell rang out at about midnight, but we both had nothing extra to give. With 30km to go Lobby had to stop because he was seeing moving black objects on the road which didn’t exist. With 25km left I started seeing black dots too. This was scary. In hindsight I think our bodies were getting back at us for being pushed so hard on Day One, and here were the first signs that they were threatening to shut down. We stopped with 20km to go as Lobby felt dizzy, and both downed the last of our coke. The water inside had frozen so we were left with coke essence, a kind of rocket fuel which burnt our throats as it went down. Lobby had bought a Red Bull precisely for this moment, but the ring-pull came off in his mitts. He frantically stabbed at the top as if the nectar inside was an antidote to some deadly poison he’d been infected with. It was -30C again, our hands and feet were numb, the coke kick seemed to fade as quickly as it had energised. Lobby stared out into the darkness ahead. “I think – I think I’ve reached my limit,” he said with worrying deliberateness. Fair enough, I thought. I was shattered too. 540km down, 20km to go. Less than two hours before the 48 hour mark. We had put in too much to give up now.

Coaxing our damaged derrières back onto the saddle one final time, we continued to ride side by side and focused hard on talking to keep our eyelids from drooping. After 34 hours of nearly continuous riding we had run out of natural conversation (another record for us!), so instead we went through topics alphabetically and exhausted them laboriously one after another. Lobby jolted himself awake just in time to stay on the road, veering sharply sideways as he nodded off in the middle of one of my Blackadder anecdotes. We had just finished Favourite Comedians when bright lights loomed on the horizon: Qiemo, the Southern Silk Road. There was no shouting or fist-pumping this time, just complete and total exhaustion. We hobbled off our bikes, woke a hotel’s night porter who looked surprised to see us, and nearly passed out carrying our kit upstairs. The clock read 4.30am as our heads hit the pillow, and we were asleep within seconds.

It took us a 15 hour sleep to recover from our trials in the desert, followed by several very large meals. On each occasion the cook emerged to tell us we’d ordered too much, and on each occasion we hoovered up our stack of plates, once to the applause of the whole restaurant. After one day’s rest we set off on the Southern Silk Road heading east, completing a 200km warm-down on our first day back on the saddle. Well rested and with somewhere warm to crash at the end of it, this actually felt like a pretty easy day in a tough week! From there we had 500km more to cycle to reach the Xinjiang border where we would start our climb up to altitude on the Tibetan Plateau. The Southern Silk Road which we had joined was much more relaxed, with nowhere near the levels of propaganda as on the Northern Road. Dunes continued to follow us, to be replaced by big oil fields, nodding donkeys gently seesawing as far as the eye could see. Much bigger mountains now lay to our right: the snowy Kun Lun range. We exited Xinjiang and entered Qinghai – our second Chinese province – right by an asbestos factory, which seemed very fitting: we had reached the end of our desert days!

In the Taklamakan desert, Jan 2015

More desert on the Southern Silk Road

16 Jan 15

Perfectly alone

19 Jan 2015

Leaving Xinjiang by the asbestos factory

We had broken many records in Xinjiang: on our leaderboard of longest days on the saddle, Xinjiang takes four out of the top five spots. We had also set unenviable personal records for furthest distance in one day (301km), longest cycle in one day (19hrs), coldest night under the tent (off the scale at -32C), earliest departure (4.13am) and latest arrival (3.34am). Our fastest 1000km (6 days), and our fastest 2000km (12 days) were also pedalled through China’s largest province. We had lost more weight than ever before on the expedition, nighttime feasts not compensating for our daytime marathons. I was a full 20kg lighter than in January last year and Lobby was now boasting an impressive ribcage too! Mentally it had also been quite a tough experience, and I’m not sure I’m keen to see any more sand dunes in the near future. We were now ready for mountains.

20150100

A juicy set of ribs

The turn-off to the Tibetan plateau is in a little city called Golmud at an altitude of 3000m. Unfortunately Qinghai province was just as remote and barren as our desert roads, except now we faced proper headwinds together with a steady incline from about sea level. Golmud is the province’s second biggest city, but with a population of 200,000 it is small even by Western standards, and we had another 500km to cycle from the Xinjiang border to reach it. There were even fewer villages on our route, which became quite a problem for us as we now aimed to sleep with a roof over our heads: as we climbed higher the nights got colder, apparently reaching -40C again. What’s more the ‘villages’ we found (basically a couple of houses) were often boarded up since their owners had already headed east to spend Chinese New Year in their ancestral homes. So the sprint continued! One night it got quite desperate as the only place for 100km was empty and padlocked shut, with mangy stray dogs roaming the premises fighting each other. We had the option of breaking in or sleeping outside with the dogs, so we picked the lock and broke in. Lock put back in place in the morning of course. Still a very cold night, but thankfully rabies-free.

Jan 2015

Where we had to invite ourselves in

DSCN9768

Finding a rare place to rest in Qinghai

We finished our leg through the Wild West with a 360km push to Golmud over two days. As usual now, we set off two hours before dawn but the prospect of being able to sleep properly at the end of the day made the kilometres fly by. Deer danced over the frozen grasslands, where scattered white yurts housed yak-herding nomads who stared out at us as if they’d never seen a foreigner before. They probably hadn’t! On 22nd January we rolled into Golmud. Our next challenge? The Tibetan Plateau.

Nick x

21 Jan 15

Sunrise on our push to Golmud

Jan 2015

Nomads on the plateau

 

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China’s Wild West: Trouble in the Taklamakan – 11 Jan

20150100 Taklamakan map

Our rough route across the desert to Golmud

We left Kashgar on 5th January, having spent a very enjoyable few days back in civilisation. This had mostly involved eating, as well as exploring China’s troubled corner of empire, revealing some fascinating and very real tensions between Han and Uighur ethnic groups (as Lobby’s blog points out). The route ahead was a marathon of daily sprints across China’s largest province, Xinjiang – the size of France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. We hoped to cover all 2,000km in 12 days’ riding, to give us more time to battle the winds and altitude on the Tibetan plateau in February. A 90-day visa seems like a long time, but China is a vast country – and we were going to cycle 7,000km across it. Leaving Kashgar knowing what lay ahead was tough.

The start of the Northern Road, 7 Jan 15

The road ahead

Our daily routine over the first half of January consisted of getting up one or two hours before dawn, leaving the oasis truck stop town which we had overnighted in and pedalling fast towards the next one, hoping to reach it before sunset. The mornings were cold enough that both our beards would freeze (a fond memory of the Pamirs), and if we were still pedalling after dusk the temperature in the desert would rapidly drop below zero too. We had reached proper tarmac, so we sprinted along it gleefully like two dogs let off their leashes after three months of staying at heel. However the initial thrill of being able to exceed 10km/h consistently quickly faded once we got our heads around the daily mileage we had to take on. We needed to average 165km per day, which was the equivalent of 10 to 12 hours on bikes with pedals moving, every day. The cycling distance for an Ironman is 180km – we were effectively taking on 11 cycling Ironmans in the space of 12 days, with just two rest days in between. A very daunting prospect! Early on we worked out that every minute spent off the bikes during the day meant an extra minute of night riding at the end of it to stay on target: knowing this we kept rest stops short, about 5 minutes per hour.

Freezing beards in the morning, 9 Jan 15

Freezing beards in the morning

Rapid lunch breaks, 9 Jan 15

Rapid lunch breaks

Sometimes the mileage we had to cover was physically impossible to cycle in daylight hours. The relentlessness of the challenge ahead presented us with a mental block which was sometimes very significant, a polite way of saying that we were frequently caught screaming obscenities at the empty desert around us. We quickly found out that positivity was the only way forward, so instead whooped and cheered at every major daily milestone. Lobby introduced the idea of a 50km-to-go bell, at which point we agreed that “the miles would cycle themselves”, something we kept repeating but never actually seemed to happen. Our second daily bell announcing 10km-to-go was built up like a velodrome’s cowbell announcing the final lap, and was usually accompanied by a mad sprint into the darkness with cowboy-like yells. Saddle soreness, which we had been spared in Tajikistan due to our low speeds and shorter riding distances, shot upward and ripped through our undercarriages once more. We definitely had our work cut out for us!

Motorway riding in Xinjiang - far more casual than in other parts of China! 8 Jan 15

Motorway riding in Xinjiang – far more casual than in other parts of China!

Sunsets on the saddle, 9 Jan 15

Sunsets on the saddle

During the day we were flanked by towering red cliffs to our left and an expansive nothingness to our right, dirty gravel which gradually turned into sand as we left Kashgar behind. The moonscape went on and on, and on – we acquired a new sense of scale in Xinjiang which is quite hard to describe. We zoomed along flat empty road for hours yet felt like we weren’t moving at all: after all, the mountains around us didn’t change. Only the regular walled enclosures housing mobile telephone masts (in China there is full signal even in the desert) reminded us that we were going anywhere at all! We shared the road with long-haul trucks, which pushed the limits of just how high, how wide and how long a vehicle could be and still stay upright. These metal monsters had 32 wheels each, were about 35m long and weighed in at 55 tonnes. I’ve never seen anything like it. They drove practically the entire length of China in 3-4 days, transporting cotton (which only Xinjiang produces) to the eastern coastal regions to be made into clothing. It was wise to give these guys a wide berth, as we quickly found out their tight schedules meant they had to drive 19 hour days: the growing piles of empty Red Bull cans discarded on the side of the road – next to pee bottles, no time to stop for that! – evidenced some desperately drowsy drivers. It was not too uncommon to see an oncoming truck slip into our lane and weave its way slowly back, which initially provided us with welcome jolts of adrenalin. On our way we saw many cotton factories, long piles of drying chillies spread out onto the dust and huge solar panel fields, the panels constantly being turned towards the sun (surely one of the worse jobs in the desert). We measured these fields to be roughly 25km² and they looked small compared to their surroundings. We felt even smaller!

A 32-wheel flatbed truck makes its way along the Northern Road, 9 Jan 15

A 32-wheel flatbed truck makes its way along the Northern Road

A truck which didn't make it, 5 Jan 15

A truck which didn’t make it, 5 Jan 15

Cotton factory, 8 Jan 15

Cotton factory

Bagging dried chillis, 8 Jan 15

Bagging dried chillies

The villages we passed through were nearly all Uighur, so Arabic script preceded Chinese on each building and road sign. Many buildings were squat and made of earth, and were it not for the Chinese propaganda on their sides (and the tarmac beneath our wheels) we could still have been in Central Asia. Large cemeteries stretched for miles out of town. Our evening stops were in bigger places, which were split between Han and Uighur ethnicities: one half of the town was Uighur, with big halal eateries, meat sellers with dodgy pieces of cow dangling from hooks, and rundown shops; the other half was Han, where faded red neon announced a guesthouse or a brothel (or both, they were usually multifunctional). The equivalent of $10 would get us a room round the back, the type of place where you used your own sleeping bag over what the management claimed were sheets and firmly padlocked the door at night. It did the job – by the end of the day we were often too tired to care. The Han restaurants catered almost exclusively to truckers, the restaurant owners having relocated thousands of miles from their hometowns to find a niche market opportunity on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. They were generally odd characters, unsurprisingly even more fixated on cash than ordinary Chinese, so were very pleased with the amount of food we wolfed down at the end of our long days.

Slogans in both Arabic and Chinese script, here in the Uighur part of Kuqa, 10 Jan 15

Slogans in both Arabic and Chinese script, here in the Uighur part of town

Meeting Uighur kids, Sanchakou, 6 Jan 15

Meeting kids in the Uighur part of town

No chimney in our room, Qilang, 7 Jan 15

You pay extra for the chimney

Jan 2015

A standard evening meal

China is famous for the way it will paper its cities with propaganda with an overtness which no government would get away with in the West. However even by Chinese standards, government slogans took on a whole new level in Xinjiang. Han Chinese were reminded about personal safety wherever they looked, and as a result very few ventured outside after dark. There were certainly no Han seen in the Uighur part of town – the physical split was striking. Han taxi drivers refused to drive through or drop us off in the Uighur districts.

Passing through a Uighur village, 8 Jan 15

Passing through a Uighur village

"Stay in school..." 8 Jan 15

“Stay in school…”

"...don't blow yourself up!" 8 Jan 15

“…don’t blow yourself up!”

Factory wall propaganda - "Vigorously oppose the destructive movement of ethnic separatism", 8 Jan 15

Factory wall propaganda – “Vigorously oppose the destructive movement of ethnic separatism”

More propaganda in the Uighur district

More propaganda in the Uighur district

Slogans condemned separatist cowards, extremists, those wishing ill on the great nation that was the People’s Republic. Propaganda was everywhere, and frankly impossible to get away from. Banners hung from street lamps, Chinese flags flew from every reluctant Uighur shopfront. We tried to think of the best way to translate some of these, and settled on, “Watch out! There’s a Uighur about!” It really was that obviously hostile at times.

"Violent terrorists are the rats which cross our streets and cast fear into our people", Kuqa, 10 Jan 15

“Violent terrorists are the rats which cross our streets and cast fear into our people”

"Everyone should fight terrorism to build a harmonious society together", 8 Jan 15

“Everyone should fight terrorism to build a harmonious society together”

"Unity and stability bring prosperity, separatism and chaos bring calamity", Qilang, 7 Jan 15

“Unity and stability bring prosperity, separatism and chaos bring calamity”

A bigger town, black SWAT figures drawn onto the red sign

A bigger town, black SWAT figures drawn onto the red sign

We had entered one of the more sensitive regions in China (along with Tibet, which would come later!) and like in Kashgar, military presence was striking. The Han had boots on the ground in every small town we passed through. Long distance bus stations were barricaded with masked government gunmen as if expecting trench warfare to erupt at any moment. Police vans crawled along every single street in town, lights flashing, passing more metal barricades with gun emplacements. Petrol stations had their exits blocked off with nasty looking spikes (creating traffic chaos), drivers had passengers ejected, the underside of their vehicles inspected with handheld mirrors and their boots opened. In the bigger towns each hotel had a metal detector at the entrance, with riot shield, helmet and taser behind the front desk. This was serious. Along the road between towns there were also frequent police checkpoints where all road users were forced out of their cars and had their ID cards scanned: the movement of people was carefully controlled. The Uighurs undergoing these George Orwellian checks did so glumly muttering something about it all being “for our safety”. As yet there are no laws restricting foreigner access to Xinjiang, as there are in Tibet. However some people reckon restrictions may come into play imminently. So police didn’t really know what to do with us! Their cars would follow us for some sections of the road, eventually stopping us for yet another passport check. Once it was established that we were not spies nor journalists they reluctantly let us through. Our beards, and Afghan stamps, did not go down well.

Keeping a close eye, Kuqa, 10 Jan 15

Keeping a close eye

Riot shield in the mosque, Kuqa, 10 Jan 15

Riot shield in the mosque

Kuqa main bus station, 11 Jan 15

Kuqa main bus station – taking no chances

Standard petrol station

Standard petrol station

Only in China will they hand a foreigner a riot shield and taser to try out

Only in China will they hand a foreigner a riot shield and taser to try out

Police escort on the way to Luntai, 11 Jan 15

Tailed

We laughed off these police checks at the time, but the situation was probably more serious than we realised. There is strong discontent with Chinese rule in Xinjiang, a region which has never really considered itself part of China. People are beginning to vent their frustration in bolder ways than ever before. Last year’s bomb attack in Tiananmen Square just in terms of sheer daring could be compared to the 9/11 attacks in New York: the plot was aimed at the iconic centre of the Chinese universe. Uighur separatists then butchered many Han Chinese in Kunming’s central train station that same year, to be gunned down very publicly by police. In the beginning of January we cycled through a village which saw six Uighurs shot dead by police just a few days later – they were allegedly carrying homemade explosives. On 6th March last week, there was another series of stabbings in Guangzhou’s central train station with one man shot dead on the scene. The full story has not yet emerged but many Han would point fingers at the Uighur community. And this is just what’s reported! As always in China, a lot of the more sinister stories remain under the radar. The government is very concerned about Uighurs getting hold of fake passports and travelling to neighbouring Afghanistan or further west to Turkey to be trained as jihadist fighters. One month ago a load of fake travel documents were confiscated from separatist Uighurs heading to Turkey. So the paranoia we encountered may not be as ridiculous as it would first appear.

We rolled into Luntai at the northern edge of the desert after an 800km warm-up from Kashgar, ready to take a sharp right the following morning. We were about to embark on our two longest ever days on a bicycle: the void stretched out tauntingly before us.

Nick x

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