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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.