Cycling in Kazakhstan was hot, dusty and super challenging but China has just swept the board – certainly in the heat department. (I am still awarding KZ the ‘Worst Roads’ in the world award). I write this on a rare (but exceedingly welcome) Rest Day, from Jiayuguan, Gansu Province, in the North of China, the place where the Great Wall starts at its most westerly end before running East to Beijing. We, too, are headed for Beijing, though recently it has been at more of a plod than a run. Daily mileages have plummeted and the main goal for the day has often been ‘ Eat, drink, pedal where possible and mind the poo.’ Any miles East have been good miles because it has been such a slog to cover them. Yes, it is still ‘we’ as Gao trucks on, mending bits of his ‘Made in China’ kit as we go, flag still billowing, grin still huge. Yes, he is slower than I am and falls asleep at the table of every place that we eat at, but he is great company and having a wonderful adventure. Besides, his Chinese know-how is both super interesting and super useful as well, so I am still glad that he and his bike Stranger are here. So then, to the pedalling, slogging and poo.
The slog has been thanks to the hottest region in China (Turpan) and the fun and games presented by the Gobi desert. Gao and I hit Turpan just a couple of days after he joined me. At 45 degrees, pedalling after midday and before sunset was well-nigh impossible. The only way round it has been to live a strange existence whereby we have pedalled when it is cool enough and slept when it is too hot. This has meant lots of night rides, each one an increasingly tough battle with sleep monsters, as we have also been pedalling in the cooler parts of the day. Generally in the wee hours, eyelids heavy and almost falling off our bikes with fatigue, we pull over, roll out our mats alongside our bikes and sleep for an hour or three, depending on how bad I am at snoozing my alarm. Every time it goes off my whole body rebels at the thought – sleep is all I have wanted since we started this night riding lark. It is beautiful to be out under the moon – lately a wonderful silvery full – and delicious to be cool and not sweat with every breath, but it has taken its toll. Once the sun is too strong to pedal or the winds have beaten us back (we have had fierce headwinds for what seems like forever) we look for shelter of some sort from both heat and light. On one occasion this was our tents – an utterly hideous experience of sweating and sticking, and on another it was a tunnel beneath the road – also hideous but rather cooler than the tent. The most unrestful (I am sure this is a word somewhere in the world) was the other day as we sought refuge from the 40 knot winds which had blasted us all day. There was only a road bridge, offering moving shade as the sun swung round and the tiniest bit of wind protection behind the narrow columns supporting the whole structure. Where we have been lucky we have found a little hostel or hotel to wait it out and sleep and rest and sweat a little bit less than if we were outside.
As such, the pedalling has been tough at times, really grit-your-teeth and get-on-with-it sort of tough. The sort that, once finished and fed, your thirst quenched and, if you’re really lucky, washed and clean again, makes you glow inside with quiet satisfaction at having made it through. I had heard that this road we have been on through the Gobi hit a 300km stretch with nothing on it – having pedalled it, that’s not true at all. There have been oil stations or villages every 80-100km. However, the 300km bit was a lie – it has been much longer than that, more like 800km of hot, dry, dusty landscapes. Until yesterday all the river beds I had seen were dry, marked only by scrubby vegetation and the tell tales marks of eroded mud, and I hadn’t seen a tree outside of the managed interior of a city for days. But I had seen some beautiful sights – sandstone mountains, shifting dunes, sunsets and sunsrises and some interesting wee creatures and plants, all of whom are far better adapted to life in the hot than this ‘ere cyclist.
And the poo part of my initial description is because this is China – sanitation infrastructure is either poor or non-existent and the general consensus is that you go when you need to go, and that roadsides and road tunnels are particularly fine spots to answer nature’s call. Given that road tunnels are also perfect places for road weary cyclists to rest out the hottest part of the day, it makes for a rather unwholesome experience to lay out your roll mat and sleep awhile. (I haven’t yet woken up to someone else’s used loo roll on my face but I live in dread.) Forgive me if you were eating your breakfast while reading this – I wanted you to feel like you were here, too, warts and all. Happily, we have been told that the wind should die down from here on East; the roads should improve and there is no more desert to slow things up. That’s good, because I have a date in Beijing with my sponsor, Accenture in just a few weeks. And the Russian coast is waiting…. Until next time, Sarah and all my boys x (Hercules, Gao and Gerald the Giraffe)