Khorgas, China, May 6, 2004:
It's my last night in China for this trip and maybe forever. I had a huge day of downhills and tailwinds to get here unexpectedly early, so tomorrow I will enter Kazakhstan, my first new country in almost three years. I'm quite excited, although it will be sad to say goodbye to a country that I've biked over 11,000 km through over the course of four trips.
So, first off, the knees are better. Not 100 percent, and they complain from time to time, but no more swelling and inability to walk. I took an extra day off back in Shawan and then did a couple of gentle days to get tuned up for riding again. I think that as long as I don't try to be Lance Armstrong, I should be fine. My whole body is slowly getting into cycling shape, I think: the legs are feeling stronger, the Achilles tendons are better, and my butt is no longer quite as tender.
The ride from Shawan here took me through increasingly arid steppe which eventually became real desert, sand dunes, camels and all. The road, which had been really, really good all the way from Xian (two years ago) suddenly went straight down the drain at the town of Wusu, the beer-brewing capital of Xinjiang. They're building a new road from Wusu to here, and it's only about half done, which means that there's about 200 km of torn-up road to navigate in the middle. Rather than build the new road next to the old one and let traffic drive on the old road, most of the way the old road has been ripped up, leaving a Calvary of boulders, dirt, mud and bits of asphalt to navigate. In the heat and dust, this is not pleasant. It's not the worst roads I've seen in China (the road to Mt. Kailash in Western Tibet is far worse, and the 300 km of cobblestones I rode in Yunnan was more painful on the backside), but it was a harsh surprise. ! ; I've been on the new road since yesterday, and I certainly appreciate the luxury of smooth pavement far more now. It's funny; my cycling acquaintance Dale Myers, who rode this route 2 years ago, told me about how horrible the road from Wusu to Urumqi was back then, and I had a good laugh at his expense as I rode on brand-new divided highway where he had bumped along a construction site. I guess Dale's having the last laugh now.
Anyway, after days of parallelling the Tien Shan and slowly making out more and more of their snow-capped peaks through the haze and the clouds of choking dust along the road, I turned south yesterday and headed up into the mountains. The Tien Shan is quite a broad mountain chain, with three main parallel ranges, and I was crossing the northernmost range. The road uphill was arrow-straight, newly paved and through a bone-dry desert.
I camped halfway to the top yesterday and set off this morning planning to get to the top of the climb (2100 metres above sea level) and spend the rest of the day relaxing beside the lake up there. I did indeed spend the morning climbing relentlessly under a hot sun to the crest of the pass, and the lake was quite pretty (although not nearly as spectacular as Karakul Lake or Namtso, from earlier Chinese bike trips), with snow-capped Tien Shan peaks behind a white-capped blue jewel of a lake. It was those whitecaps that were a problem; I wanted to camp but my tent would not have stood up to the gale-force winds raking the lake. I was blown around the lake at 25 km/h without the bother of having to pedal.
I stopped for lunch at the far end of the lake, and then set off down the other side expecting another desert descent. Instead I found myself in Switzerland: emerald green steep alpine pastures interspersed with spruce forests and jagged peaks high, high above. If this is what the Tien Shan will be like in Kyrgyzstan, then I'm really looking forward to it. It was an exhilirating descent, made more so by the tailwinds which had strengthened as they were funneled down the valley. I got to use my new zillion-dollar drum brake for the first time to slow my descent; it certainly beats burning my rims out by riding my normal brakes. Even with numerous photo stops (I took as many photos today as I had taken the whole way from Urumqi; I think I like mountains), it took very little time to fly down to the lowlands on the other side, dodging clouds of bees from the plethora of beekeepers lining the road.
Once I was in the lowlands, the winds got even stronger, with the poplar trees lining the roads and fields bent nearly double by the hurricane. I was still going slightly downhill, but the main factor in my speed was the fact that the wind was squarely in my back. I rocketed along at 50 km/h, occasionally having to brake when the wind got me going too quickly. I ate up the kilometres so quickly that I realized it would be silly to waste such a memorable wind by stopping short of the border. I shot out into the plains and still kept going at a decent 35 km/h without pedalling. The wind finally turned against me 2 km from Khorgas, but by that point it had done its work. Those of you who followed my first attempt to ride the Silk Road two years ago will remember that headwinds nearly killed me twice on that trip; I think that this is a sort of apology from the weather gods, and it's one that I gladly accept!
So tomorrow I hit Kazakhstan; I should only be there for three days, cutting across a tiny corner to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, but with road conditions and winds playing such a role in determining how far I get in a day, it might take a bit longer than I plan. Then I'll cross into Kyrgyzstan and make my way to Karakol and maybe do some hiking near the highest peaks in the Tien Shan, Pik Pobedy and Khan Tengri. I should be back in e-mail contact there in Karakol. Until then, zai qian and have fun!