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Difficult cycling days

The last 2 – 3 weeks in China have been really challenging, both physical and mental. Traveling from Dunhuang to the Chinese border had little ups and a lot of downs. Even the two rest days in Kashgar were not what I expected.

After 140km dust, high temperatures and a busy road we arrived in Duhuang. A great city, nice places to hang out and some really good places to get dinner. I’m surprised that the streets are clean, there are many trees, oleander’s and other plants and that most houses are maintained. On our rest day we took a 5AM taxi to the sand dunes, just 6 km out of the city, to see the sun rise. It’s a great way of making money! Just put a gate and ticket office in front of the dunes, charge 120 Yuan (10 euro) and then you can climb the dunes yourself. If you have more money to spend, you can take a camel ride up the dunes. We walked up the dune, of course. The view was spectacular! So was the color of the sand and the patterns the shade caused. I used the afternoon to do my laundry, bike maintenance, walking around to find a milk shake and getting some good kebab for dinner! After the long days on the G30 and G312 highway, it was great to be away from dirty trucks and empty land.

But that was only one day. The highway continued and the next 22 days were difficult. There were 18 cycling days, completing almost 2.500 km with an average of 140 km / day, and the four days before arriving in Kashgar: 1 x 160km + 2 x 170km + 1 x 125km. The distance itself wasn’t the problem, but in combination with the many dirty trucks passing by, the lack of villages or anything to see and stop, made it difficult. According to our tour leader, there were no other roads (which I find hard to believe) so it was all highway and highway. Hard head winds with sand or rain made it almost impossible to climb mountains. And mountain winds can be surprisingly hard and they always push you backwards.

Making to days difficult as well was the camping. Or actually the camp sites: grave yards, dump yards, poop and truck stops, stone fields and desert areas. All with no shade at all! One rider got a serious heat stroke and was not able to ride for about a week. It was almost impossible to get his temperature under control. In addition, most camps were just next to the highway, causing bad nights due to the noise. Without a good night sleep, the cycling days are difficult. The route has not been explored, so many camps were last minute ‘solutions’. Since there is no real plan and things are unknown all effort is going into logistics rather than taking care of customers.

There are many things well organized by the Tour d’Afrique, but customer satisfaction was really low these three weeks. Many riders, including me, feel that there is no effort made to make the tour enjoyable. It’s like pushing everyone from A to B and that’s it. When issues were raised I did not get the impression that they were taken serious: “that’s the way it is” and “there is no other possibility”. Chairs have been broken for more than 5 weeks and they are still not replaced. Camp sites are still close to the highway with no shade; when taking a walk after dinner, I frequently see better camp sites options. And trust me, I don’t mind cycle a bit further it that means a nice camp site. Breakfast is always the same, oatmeal, and some people already making their own. To me, it seems that profit and the time schedule is more important than making clients happy. As a fellow rider says: price/quality ratio is the reason why I am not extending my tour. And from that perspective, I agree and would not recommend Tour d’Afrique.

I got up early on the day we cycled to Kashgar so I would have more time ‘resting’. The 125 km went well and I arrived at the hotel at a little before 13:00 hours. After taken a really nice shower (remember: no showers in camp, only a water bottle and baby wipes) I met with John, Candice and Ingrid to take a taxi to the animal market, just a few kilometers out of town. Many cows, goats and sheep were traded over there. Although this is China, it felt very much the same as the farmers animal market in ‘Zuidlaren’ which I visit when I was a kid.

After two hours or so, John left to find a bike shop and the three of us went to the big Kashgar bazar. Everything you need you can find there! Lots of clothes, kitchen stuff, curtains, all sorts of food, drinks and spices, air conditioners and even building materials. There was this place where we had noodles, some kind of stuffed bread and of course some tea. After another walk around I had a special yoghurt drink: from a huge ice block, they scrapped some ice, added yoghurt and syrup, and mixed it in a bowl by throwing it in the air! Really delicious!

However, since the water probably wasn’t boiled, I needed the bathroom in the middle of the night to get rid of everything in my stomach and intestate.  The good thing about it was that I just needed one bathroom stop so I was able to sleep a little bit the rest of the night. But it kept me in bed for the whole next day as well. Pascal and Candice brought me some drinks and biscuits, and I heard that there were 7 other riders sick as well. The only common place where we all have been together was John’s café next to the hotel. Anyway, I needed the whole second rest day to do my thing: buying a new water bottle, doing laundry, cleaning my bicycle, changing money, buying a new power bank for my bicycle computer and get a haircut. And all of that with no energy in my body at all. It was a tough day.

There were three days from Kashgar to the Chinese border. Long days. For me it’s a very strange feeling to feel ok but have absolutely no energy in my body. Although the diarrhea was gone, I found it very difficult to eat something. I just wasn’t hungry. The first day after Kashgar was one with lots of climbing. Strong head winds even after a corner and a hot afternoon sun didn’t make it easy. I arrived at camp just before dinner. Camp was again close to the road and due to construction work there were trucks passing all night. I did get some sleep and the next day I felt better although low on energy.

Crossing the border was something special. For one, we needed to get the exit stamp in the last city before the border. Bags needed to go through an X-Ray, which was weird because we had another whole day traveling before leaving the country. Of course the fireworks I had in my hotel bag set of an alarm. There was some discussion and I should have notified the head of customs before checking out, but when I told it was for my birthday it seemed to be ok. When arriving at the border, it took more time then entering the country. The ‘exit’ procedure changed all the time: go through immigration one by one, then collect all passports for an exit stamp, after everything was written down and ok, we had to cycle in a group through no-one’s land and get our passport back at the last check point, but then we had to collect our passport by an official and could leave one by one, the second check point just waved friendly and no additional check was carried out. And even in no-one’s land the Chinese are building a new highway. Trucks and dust all over.

I am so happy to leave China! The people are great! The pollution, the trucks, the dust and long highways I can miss. I’m looking forward to Kyrgyzstan!

Desert temperatures

I knew we would have some hot days and here they are: passing the Gobi desert from Langzhou to Turpan. Our first desert camp is next to the Great wall with several other ‘types’ of camps to follow. After a couple of days in camp we would spend a night in a hotel, then camp again. The landscape is mostly flat-ish, some hils and each day we cycle approximately 140 km with now and then some strong head winds (due to the Gobi desert heating up). And with high temperatures each day! Cycling through desert land is great. Although you don’t expect to see much, there is much to see along the road, small and big.

Looking around when cycling through a desert is somehow different. The landscape is often flat, there are no shops, people or houses nor are there trees or farmland. Instead there are dry rivers, long empty roads, lots of winds, lots of sun as well, telegraph lines, GSM towers (I know this sounds weird, but they are located along the road), road signs, trucks, empty beer bottle, road workers or a mosque in a small village. And sometimes there are some animals like camels or corn crickets. Most gas stations are used to buy an iced tea. There was this one gas station with air conditioning and a chair right under it! Really really nice!

Cycling through a desert is also different because there are no ‘natural’ stops; not even a gas station. So it happens that I’m cycling 60 or 70 km before making a stop. And in this heat, that’s a long ride. There is no shade, no places to relax, so the best thing to do is to keep pedaling. Thanks to Nate or Ingrid we have a lunch somewhere around 75 km. Lunches are great and with a canopy there is shade! Fresh fruit and we’re able to make our own sandwiches. My favorite is still tuna salad with tomato, cucumber and a little bit of ketchup. Egg salad is great as well! Lunch at 09:30 AM usually takes 20 minutes before I’m off again. I try to reach camp before it’s too hot to cycle and when leaving at 06:30 AM I arrive usually before 14:00 PM in camp. There is soup and after setting up my tent I usually hang out a bit or listen to music.

After dinner I usually go for a walk. On our second desert camp there was this impressive mountain close by. The thing with mountains is that I usually wanna see what’s there to see from the top, and because I knew that it might be a bit dangerous, I notified Paul that I was climbing that mountain. It was easier than I thought it would be, but then again, there was a ‘mountain-behind-the-mountain-and-one-on-the-other-side’. So it turned out to be quite a walk ;-). Between the first and second mountain I met Chris who also went for a walk. With the hard wind it was great to walk through this area! The views were magnificent! From the top I could see that there were approximately 25 wild (?) camels walking close to camp. And since I was planning to sleep in the open, for the first time without a tent, which was actually a bit exciting.

In my view there are different kinds of deserts with a mix of sand, rocks, hills, with or without small bushes. The environment changes not that often and the roads are long. And all a sudden there is life in the middle of nowhere. Water can change the surroundings completely! On the road to Turpan (hottest town in China) the surroundings change and there are many and many vineyards. And then there are all these strange storage buildings. It seems that these vineyards are used to produce raisins rather than wine. And these structures are used to let the grapes dry. It’s an unexpected thing to realize since I always eat them and never thought about where they came from.

So cycling through desert land is still exciting, and hot. And the good thing is that there is much more to come! The next 11 days I’ll be traveling to Kashgar, along the Taklamakan desert. More sand, more long roads, more beautiful stars at night and more iced tea at gas stations!

A beautiful cycling day in China

This was a great and beautiful day!

The daily riders briefing: 148 km, climbing slowly all day.

Leaving town, the road is closed for traffic due to a big marathon (30,000+ runners): no cars, buses or trucks, and completely free for the group of Silk Road riders. Approximately 15 kilometers through the city on bicycles, riding at the middle of the streets! Sightseeing at its best! Soon after these easy going 15 km the group splits into smaller groups, most riders teaming with a person usually riding in the same pace. Candice and I usually ride together and since we haven’t seen each other on the rest day, we soon were catching up. Before we know it we were already at the lunch place, halfway through the 148 kilometer trek. Ingrid made a great lunch: spicy meat with grated carrot and cabbage, sesame oil and vinegar, sliced tomatoes and cucumber (which is always tasty and crispy) and a little mustard! Ingrid had also fresh mangos! Delicious!

I bought an orange juice and an iced tea for lunch, which I’d probably drank a little too quickly. When we drove away my stomach felt like one large water bottle so we rode the first kilometer easy. When we saw a little temple through an open door, we decided to make a stop and have a look. We parked our bicycles inside and had a sit under a large bell. That helped a lot. The temple was incredibly beautiful and well maintained, or just new, and a woman invited us for a walk around the complex. Gorgeous colors! Beautiful drawings and carvings, great Buddha images and sculptures, impressive prayer wheels, very nice painting.

Buddhism is something I’m interested in, but I have actually never studied it in detail. Nevertheless, based on gestures of the woman, and according tradition, we bowed and kneeled three times before Buddha. That was somehow a special moment!

Candice and I often ride together, and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes there is a photo moment, toilet stop or a nice view. Then we’re one or more kilometers apart. We have the same interests, good conversations, the same pace and share the way we want to experience China by bicycle. She’s a great Silk-Road-cycle-friend! Today, somewhere along the trek, Candice was approximately one kilometer behind me and I had just taken a picture of some old men playing chess. A minute later, I didn’t see Candice anymore so I slowed down a bit. After another minute she was still not within sight and after 5 minutes I decided to go back. Accidents happen and I was a bit concerned, but when I met Mun Yew she said that Candice was playing chess with the old men! And indeed, she wanted to take a picture and could not refuse the invitation for playing a game. We watched the game for half an hour or so while drinking a cola, when one of the old men invited us at his place. Such an invitation is obviously great! After about 15 minutes we arrived at the house of the old man (sorry, I didn’t really catch his name). His wife was waiting for him and you could see she was somewhat surprised that her husband was accompanied by two foreigners. She made a cup of tea for us and we got a slice of cake and a piece of turnip (?). The “cake” was more a piece of very dry bread and difficult to eat, but the people were just so super friendly. I wish we could have talked more than we did; not knowing the Chinese language makes it quite difficult to communicate.

Their living room, basically their whole house, is approximately 6 by 6 meters, and contains a wooden stove with two burners, a dresser a desk, a bench and a very large hard bed. With gestures we found out that these people have a son who lives in Langzhou. The old man looked carefully at the post card I brought with me of the Netherlands. He recognizes some pictures, like a goat and with some gestures that one of the old buildings in Amsterdam is a house. But how do you explain ‘cheese’? Cheese is something that you can eat, and that’s OK. He finds a covered wagon with a horse in front very interesting. We try to explain that we are traveling by bicycle from Shanghai to Kashgar. We are not trying to explain that our actual goal is Istanbul since we noticed that many people find that hard to imagine. We get a warm goodbye as we head back towards Tianzhou on our bicycles. What a great friendly people! It is without doubt one of my best experiences in China!

At the moment we hit the main road again, we run into Nate. He is very surprised to see us because normally he never sees us at the back of the group. He is ‘sweeping’ and securing no one is left behind. We drive some time together and at one point Candice heads in front of us. Her music gives her some extra speed and the distance between us increases until she is out of sight. Nate and I talk quietly and peddling easy. With 30 kilometers left, we arrived in a village with a temple on a hill. We are in for a break and park our bikes down the hill. What immediately strikes is something you can’t ignore: a local music concert organized by and for about 80 people. I can tell you that you would never hear this on the radio. We walked around and look from above the hill over the city. It is interesting to see how China can combine ancient culture with a less beautiful, modern society. With a little head wind and a few small drops of rain, we arrive at our Tibetan hotel in Tianzhu.

Tianzhu is a town in the southwestern corner of Gansu province and is home to a large ethnic Tibetan population. Whether it is due the autonomic regions own authority or not, Tianzhu is a clean and somehow idyllic mountain-like city. The hotel is situated just off the road and has a great shower and a super firm mattress. What more could you want? The hotel also has restaurant and it’s my first experience with the famous Yak. Its meat is actually quite good. Nice and firm!

After dinner I have a walk with Nate and Ingrid, looking for typical old Chinese-man sunglasses! The ones you see many old men wearing. It is real glass and heavy on the nose! But it’s great! On a square, we see a group of people ball room dancing and of course the usual sight: a group of women dancing and doing light gymnastics. Two young girls offer Ingrid a homemade bracelet to her surprise, really great! I climb on a large rock with a lot of children and in the shortest time they are hanging over me. We’re taking some pictures and show them. They laugh and get even wilder. It is funny to see that all the girls get around Ingrid, and all the boys around Nate and me. There are some English words here and there, but mainly it’s laughing and giggling.

In the lobby had a nice conversation with Chris, and then my battery was empty. Time to go to bed. What a great day it was!


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