Adventures on the G30
After seven months of cycling we arrived at the border of Kyrgyzstan and China with huge smiles across both of our faces. We had cycled to China! Over 11000km across sixteen countries carrying everything we owned on just two bicycles we had reached the beginning of Asia major and boy did it feel good. Although these feelings did not last too long as we remembered China is the largest country we will cross on the whole trip and the Chinese only give you two months on your visa. We had to go, go go! The border between China and Kyrgyzstan is the largest we have ever seen, with 120km of no mans land between your exit stamp and your arrival stamp. This would not have provided any problem but since you are not allowed to cycle this distance, you are therefore forced to take a taxi. Your passport is taken until you pay the £15pp taxi cost. This is quite a racket going on and it seems that everyone is in on it. Once you arrive at the Chinese border, the stark contrast between Central Asia and China is apparent as you enter a large airport style lobby before having your bags and bikes scanned. Luckily for us the x-ray machine was broken so the guard, who not wanting to check through everything himself, just had a poke around our front bags and off we went. Riding into China.
The first thing we noticed in China was the pollution, the graying cloud hanging low over everything was like nothing either of us had seen before and especially apparent after cycling over the cool clear mountain passes of Kyrgyzstan. Chinese pollution is caused by the huge amounts of coal they burn alongside emissions from their many cars and trucks. An average 1.6million Chinese citizens per year die as a direct result of air pollution, which is the five times the population of Reading. And their consumption for coal has no sign of stopping, with Beijing hitting red alert for air pollution for the first time whilst we were there. As you cycle along the G30 you can see the first signs of change as wind turbines are everywhere, thousand upon thousand of them across the desert. It is such an impressive sight, and something China needs to continue to do to see improvement in their air pollution rates.
The first town we came across is Kashgur, the capital of the Xinjing province, home to 350,000 people and is a great place to spend two days in preparation for the G30. We stayed in the Old Town Hostel there, a nice open planned hostel right in the heart of the old town. It was in Kashgur we started to enjoy Chinese food, a marked improvement on the cuisine of Central Asia, with a bowl of yummy spicy noodle soup costing 70p, although we did struggle to work out what we were ordering.. Nowhere has communication been so hard as in China, in every other country we were able to make ourselves understood with gestures and mimes but in China we were not to be understood anywhere! The Chinese would prefer to just say no than try to help and it would become highly frustrating, especially when trying to buy fuel for the stove. I would have to ask about five times, waving the bottle around and protesting before I could purchase my one litre of petrol. The best tool to assist us was an app called WayGo, which is something you can hold over a menu and it would de-code the Chinese symbols and let you know what the dish is in English. This was a lifesaver and worked on almost every menu. Although chicken can be mean chicken breast/feet/heads!
We were now ready to depart Kashgur and by looking over the maps we found we would have to average 120km per day to reach Vietnam in the two months allowed. This would mean cycling from morning until night every day, for two months and since it was now the beginning of winter there would be very little daylight. (without lights we do not cycle at night). We decided this would be too difficult and not fun so we decided to board a train from Kashgur to Turpan. This journey is 1300km of dry barren desert and our adventure would be no less complete to take the train, especially as once we reached Turpan we would have another 1500km of dry barren desert. This desert is called the Taklamakan Desert and runs across Xinjing and Gansu province south of Mongolia with only one road across the northern section. This is the G30 road and although a motorway, bicycles are permitted due to it being the only road taking you to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. The Taklamakan desert translates literally to 'he who enters will never leave' and shares a similar look to Middle Earth!
Turpan sits in a natural depression 150m below sea level, so upon leaving Turpan you must first climb out of your depression and begin to cycle on the G30. The road starts with beautiful scenery with the flaming mountains rising high either side of you and the excitement of riding though china still beats within you as we were able to take in the scale of this desert and the ride ahead of us. The difficulty of the G30 is since this is a motorway there is a large barbed wire fence running alongside the road making camping a choice of two options. Option 1, find a hole in the wire fence which you are able to crawl through with your bike and make a camp in the desert or option 2, camp underneath the road in one of the many road tunnels. We choose mainly to camp underneath the road due to the cold weather meant our tent and bikes would freeze if out in the desert unprotected. Our first night under road was quite scary since truck's and lorry's rumble over you every few minutes and you lay there hoping the tunnel is stong enough to not collapase on whilst you are sleeping! We soon however got very used to this and we slept under the road almost every night as we pressed on through the desert.
Desert cycling is a thing of beauty since the scale of the desert upon you really reminds you of your place in the world. Cycling on the G30 is in contrast to this since you are cycling toward petrol stations and food stops. The food in the Xinjing province is wonderful, they make it in small roadside huts or shipping containers and always come with either hot water or weak tea and their stirred noodles are beautiful with large truckers portions! Once you cycle into Gansu province the G30 becomes harder food wise since you are limited only to service station stops since the roadside huts do not exsist in Gansu. This means packet noodles and more packet noodles and it is only when you leave the G30 where you are able to sample delicious Chinese food again.
We were cycling hard, and the weather was getting worse, we would often cycle through snow storms and wake up every morning to frozen water bottles and stiff bike chains. Our first 5km every day was accompanied by shouts of pain as our hands and feet took a battering before they warmed up properly. Ensure you get good gloves before you go winter cycling, we didn't and had only thin cotton gloves which were absolutely no good in the cold. We rode the first 600km from Turpan before deciding to take a break in a town called Hami. Hami is a good sized town, although the only hotel which would allow us to stay was a very posh at £15 per night. It was great to have a short break from sleeping under the road and spent two days here, eating food and watching movies. Upon leaving Hami, we were braced with the largest wind storm we have ever experienced. The wind came running straight at us limiting our speed to around 5km/h, in one day we only managed to cycle 20km since we did not have the strength to carry on. On the third day, Finola was struggling with the wind and ice and after leaving the safety of our camp she slipped and was rescued by some of the road workers in their van. They could see we were struggling and offer to take us to their road station 100km away. We were overjoyed as we got out of the wind and shared stories with these young Chinese road workers. They took us to the Xinjing and Gansu border and waved us away following about 10 minutes of photos!
Once we crossed the border we rode about 500km of desert towards our next stop which was a town called Jiuayquan. Famous for being the site of the Overhanging Great Wall, the most Western point of the Wall and something we both wanted to see. I would highly recommend a short stop here, Jiuayquan is a quiet city for China, and we spent two days here in recovery. The Great Wall entrance cost £10pp and gives you access to the old fort and the wall. The scale of the Wall is something to behold and the skill and engineering to complete such a large task 500 years ago is amazing. The wall has been rebuilt in sections and has been done tastefully and lets you see what the Great Wall really looked like in its prime.
Reaching Jiuayquan had taken about 20 days and we were happy and glad to have conquered the desert. The Great Wall was the end point for us of the G30 since whilst we were quite happy to spend another 10 days sleeping under the road, we didn't have enough time so we took another train to Chengdu. I will speak about Chengdu to Vietnam in the next update. The Taklamakan Desert is a tough motorway cycling challenge, and one I am glad we battered though. Looking back there are times in which it was very hard and sometimes it is the hard times you remember best. The joy of reaching a small restaurant or the smiles in the morning when your water is not frozen. These are the best of times and the worse of times forget. It is important to challenge yourself on this trip and desert cycling is just that.
Tim and Fin
Buy me a beer!! Thank you
This blog follows my cycle ride from Reading, Berkshire to Reading, Pennsylvania.