Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)

Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)
Where it all began: Xian, May 2002

Friday, July 08, 2005

Silk Road Ride, 2002: Part 1 (From Xian to Dunhuang)

Labrang Monastery prayer wheel--a touch of Tibetan culture

May 27, 2002, Dunhuang

Xian-Dunhuang, 2380 km, 23 days of cycling

I'm in Dunhuang, the little oasis on the edge of the Gobi Desert, taking a much-needed day away from the bicycle. I've been cycling almost every day since I started on May 3rd in Xian, and the constant exercise is catching up with my legs.

The idea of this trip is to ride from Xian, the old capital of China under the Western Han, Sui and Tang dynasties, across Central Asia to Turkey, roughly following the old Silk Road trade routes that linked China and Europe for the better part of 15 centuries until unrest in Central Asia, the spread of the secrets of silk production to Europe and the rise of quicker, safer sea routes spelled an end to camel caravans traversing the steppes, deserts and mountain ranges covering the heart of Asia. This first stage, from Xian to Dunhuang, roughly marks the transition fromt the Chinese heartland to the furthest dependably Chinese outpost in the west. From time to time, under emperors who pursued a "forward policy" in Central Asia (the Han emperors, the early Tang emperors and some of the abler Qing rulers), China extended its tentacles westward as far as Kashgar and even into what is now northern Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Most of the time, though, the Chinese drew the line somewhere near Dunhuang: "The long-nosed foreign devils begin at Dunhuang" might have been their motto. For a quick look at some Silk Road history, you can check out


The Silk Road Foundation (articles on famous travellers along the Silk Road)


Andre Engels' Discovers Web (although this only covers the period from the 13th century onwards, the era of Marco Polo and Friar Odoric of Pordenone)

I started off with a quick flight from Guangzhou to Xian on May 2nd, after the May 1st holiday rush prevented me from taking the (much cheaper) train. On the way into town from Xian airport, I rode past the mausoleum of the Western Han emperor Jingdi, whose son, Wudi, would open up Central Asian trade with China. The tomb, like all 9 Han tombs north and west of Xian, is a huge earth mound almost the size of an Egyptian pyramid, surrounded by smaller mounds for sons and wives and prime ministers. Around the tomb, rather like the famous Terracotta Army found around the tomb of the first Chinese emperor Qing Shihuangdi, were found thousands of terracotta model soldiers. These ones, unlike the life-size ones for Shihuangdi, are half-sized and, oddly, naked, their clothes having rotted off over the centuries. As well, their arms were wooden and have turned to sawdust over the years, and the overall effect is a bit comical. There are lots of model horses as well, and looking at them, they're awfully small, squat pony-like creatures. It was the Chinese need for bigger, faster horses that was one motivation for the Han emperors to open trade with the Ferghana and Ili valleys in Central Asia; their enemies, the Huns, always had an advantage over the Chinese because of their superior horses. This tomb has only recently been opened to the public, and should in time become as famous as the Terracotta Army.

Setting off from the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, Xian, with Xuanzang's statue
Full of historical musings, I continued into Xian. The modern city is an unlovely industrial smog-choked sprawl, but there are hints of the new China here and there in new suburban stand-alone houses straight out of a North American subdivision, and the spanking new Audi cars racing along the broad highway into town. In a vignette of the new China, a nouveaux-riche Chinese man was washing his new Audi a few metres from where a penniless peasant, his few belongings forming a pillow for his head, was sleeping on his first day in the big city where he hoped to make his fortune. I fetched up in the foreigner ghetto hotel The Flats of Renmin and turned in.

Tacky concrete Silk Road monument on the way out of Xian
Smoggy sunset over the Mao Ling, the tomb of the Han emperor Wudi
The next day, after visiting a few sights around town such as the monument to one of my favourite travellers, the monk Xuan Zang, I set out on my bike for Europe. I didn't get too far, as I stopped 25 km down the road in Xianyang, the Chinese capital under the first emperor Qin Shihuangdi. The museum had another terracotta army on display, 3000 one-third life size warriors from the tomb of an unidentified noble; model soldiers were obviously all the rage among dead Chinese 2200 years ago. Then it was off into the countryside to another Han emperor's tomb, this time that of the emperor Wudi, the long-reigning (138-87 BC) ruler who opened up the Silk Road. It was another grassy mound up which I climbed, along with a few dozen Chinese tourists, to enjoy the view amidst the discarded plastic bottles, ice cream wrappers and plastic bags that adorned the top. Again the view was over subsidiary tombs and, distantly, those of other emperors. After the tourists had zipped back to Xian, I pitched my tent among a small forest, planted to cover archaeological digging around the tomb, and spent the night imbibing historical ambience.

The next day I continued along the tourist trail west of Xian. I left behind the Western Han tombs and moved into the Tang dynasty (7th-10th centuries AD), in some ways the apex of Chinese power and civilization. I visited the tomb of the emperor Gaozhang, an impressive hilltop tomb with the obligatory huge earthen mound and a processional way of fantastic beasts and statues of subjects bearing gifts. It was rather like an Egyptian pharaoh's tomb, only much less well-known to the outside world. I also looked in at an excavated tomb of the prince Yi De. It was also very Egyptian, like the tombs in Luxor's Valley of the Kings, with a long downward-sloping entrance tunnel adorned with impressive painted frescoes, leading to a mammoth black stone sarcophagus in the tomb chamber. I finished the day at the Doorway Temple, Famen Si, the site of a spectacular find of Buddhist relics and (oddly) tea ceremony implements from the Tang Dynasty. I retired into my hotel to escape the rain and to eat the delicious pork sandwiches that sidewalk vendors were selling outside the temple. Rain and grey skies were to plague me for much of the rest of the ride, depriving me of views and making riding a depressing slog.

New mosque in Linxia
Big church in the Wei River Valley
From Famen Si I ground up the Wei River valley, through a landscape of soft soil eroded into steep escarpments and full of subterranean houses and barns dug out of the earth. The population in the countryside was largely Muslim, the so-called Hui ethnic minority, distinguished by the white, puffy caps that the women wear, making them all look like bakers. They're ethnically Chinese, but converted to Islam 8 centuries ago under the Mongols, whose armies and administrators were full of Muslims. For all the Muslim villages, though, I didn't see a single mosque or hear any calls to prayer. As a counterpoint to this, I saw a surprising number of Christian churches, most of them big and imposing, and even some tiny Christian shrines and graves in farmer's fields. I don't know when these villagers converted to Christianity: in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Western missionaries were active in China, or much earlier, when Nestorian Christians were prominent in China during the Tang Dynasty. At any rate, it was interesting to see the Silk Road, the route of dissemination of Buddhism, also doing the same for other religions.
Hilltop fortification in eastern Gansu
Gian Buddha statue at Maijishan
After passing through the gargantuan new industrial city of Baoji (China is full of million-plus cities that no-one outside China has ever heard of), I soldiered on through deep, dramatic gorges that the piddling stream of the Wei River seemed incapable of having carved. I eventually made it to another industrial smog-hole called Tianshui (Heavenly Water, a misnomer for the polluted muddy Wei) where I checked out some Buddhist caves, the Maijishan Grottoes. Billed as "The Fourth-Largest Buddhist Caves in China", the caves were numerous but largely underimpressive. The nicest part about them were the beautiful forested hills in which they were set, the first real forests I'd seen since arriving in China. This phenomenon of carving cave temples into mountains was all the rage throughout the Buddhist world from about the 4th to 10th centuries, with examples in India, Sri Lanka, Tibet and China from this period. The Silk Road sometimes seems to be a road linking one cluster of Buddhist caves with another.
Scenery in the hill country of eastern Gansu
An elderly gentleman pruning trees on the bank of the Yellow River
From there, I ground on, climbing atop the flat plateaux above the river valley, getting rained on and wondering what I was doing. It was slow going, and it was impossible to camp at night because all available flat land was either under cultivation or under houses. Here and there ruins of ancient forts and castles topped the higher hills. It was astonishing how dense the rural population was; talking to them in my pidgin Chinese left me convinced that a lot of them were dense in other ways as well. The population continued to be largely Muslim, with old men sporting picturesque wispy goatees and 1920s-style round glasses that Elton John might wear. Around Lingxia, I passed through a staunch Muslim heartland full of new space-age mosques and full Taliban beards. I was making a detour around Lanzhou, the most polluted city in China (and hence, probably, the world) to visit a Tibetan monastery, Xiahe, to get a quick fix of Tibet before pressing on into Muslim Central Asia.

Labrang Monastery prayer wheel
When I finally got to Xiahe, after several hard days of climbing, I almost wished I hadn't bothered. The city was an unlovely concrete jungle, indistinguishable from any other Chinese city. The Tibetan monastery, Labrang, is one of the Big Six monasteries of the Dalai Lama's Gelugpa sect, and seemed more inhabited and more alive than the ones I'd seen in Lhasa and Shigatse last year, but still seemed to be lacking something. The monastery was flattened during the Cultural Revolution and has no genuinely old buildings; maybe what it was lacking was history. There were more pilgrims prostrating their way around the monastery than I've ever seen anywhere; there must have been 200 monks and civilians measuring their length on the ground as they inchwormed their way around, taking hours to complete the circuit.

Crossing the Yellow River
Camped in the wind shadow of the Great Wall of China
Sheep grazing beside the Great Wall, western Gansu
After backtracking to Linxia, I had more short, steep climbs through precipitous valleys to get to the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization. I crossed it three times, cutting over some S bends, and then finally left it behind on May 16th. I followed a tributary upstream, crossed a high, barren pass that reminded me of Tibet, and entered, geographically, Central Asia. At the top of the pass I met up with the Great Wall of China for the first time and picnicked atop it, looking at the old earth wall and parallel ditches that carved their way arrow straight across the mountains. From then on, until here, I've been parallelling the Wall, occasionally in sight of it, and frequently in sight of forts and of ancient beacon towers for transmitting news of attacks quickly along the Wall. I even camped right next to the Wall one night, using it to hide my tent from curious passersby on the road. Here at Dunhuang I'm finally turning away from the Wall, leaving behind the 2100-year-old towers that look no older than the mud-brick villages that dot the countryside.
Old Ming or Qing-era watchtower, a westward extension of the Great Wall
Stately elderly gentleman on his bicycle
Once I got over that pass, I started to make better time. The road, following the old Silk Road, runs to the north of a long range of snow-capped 5000-metre mountains and to the south of the barren wastes of the Gobi Desert. There was one more high pass to cross this, at the foot of which a huge herd of horses was blocking the expressway. Near the top of the pass I ran into Terry and Tim, a pair of American cyclists who had ridden from Switzerland to China. (Check out Tim's web site by clicking here) The road runs from irrigated oasis to irrigated oasis, so food and water haven't been a problem at all. If the sky had been clear, I'm sure I would have seen spectacular mountain scenery, but as it was, it continued grey and I encountered far more rain than you might expect in a desert.I can add the Gobi to the Sahara, the Atacama and the Australian deserts as places I have brought rain to. I should hire myself out as an itinerant rain god to drought-stricken places like Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.
Giant dune (and tiny person) near Dunhuang
The western end of the Great Wall, outside Jiayuguan
Anyway, lately I've been rolling along flat desert with tailwinds, making an easy 130 or 140 km a day, taking pictures of furry Bactrian camels, camping in the desert and enjoying riding again. I checked out the end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall in Jiayuguan, then zipped here to see the biggest Buddhist cave complex in China and, probably, the world. It's a wonderful place; I just wish the Chinese authorities would make it easier actually to see the caves. They're all kept locked, and to see them you have to join a (Chinese-language) tour. They hustle you in and out as quickly as possible, barely giving you enough time to see the statues and the intricate paintings that cover the walls and ceilings. The phrase of the day was "Quickly!! Let's go!! Come outside now!!" My tour visited only 5 of the 492 caves, so I hung around and joined a string of other tours in order to see other caves, eventually tallying 20. I got chased out of several "special caves" not open to any old visitor, only to special, expensive tours. For US$10, a fifth of the average monthly wage, you don't get much for your money. It seems to me that, given that 1000 or so visitors come to the caves every day, each paying $10, they could open dozens of caves, hire attendants to guard each cave, and let people wander in and out at will, spending as much or as little time in each as they wished. But perhaps I'm thinking too much from a libertarian, Western, decadent, capitalist, imperialist, bourgeois point of view.

Footsteps on the dunes of Dunhuang
The plan now is to ride to Urumqi, 1000 km west of here, to pick up my Kazakh visa, then 600 km further to the Kazakh border. After the expense and hassle of getting a Kazakh visa, I will end up only cutting across a tiny corner of Kazakhstan to get to Kyrgyzstan and meet up with Audie and Saakje (my sisters) and Audie's partner Serge tp do some hiking and mountain climbing. Then I hope to cycle through Uzbekistan, visiting the old Islamic cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, before cutting across Turkmenistan at its narrowest point to get to Iran and, finally, Turkey. It all depends a bit on getting visas arranged (the 'Stans are a Soviet nightmare in terms of visas), on not running out of funds and on there not being unrest or US bombing along my route. Things are a bit dicey in Kyrgyzstan at the moment, according to the BBC World Service, with big anti-government protests blocking the main road. I hope it all clears up by the time I get there.

Until the next installment from the Silk Road,

Zai Qian (Goodbye)


Riding Day No.
from Xian airport (km)
Daily Destination
Mao Ling
Famen Si
Past Baoji

Before Tianshui
5/141191.7136.38:3615.8Dong Shen
5/151264.072.35:5612.2Between Yongjing and Hekou
5/171529.2131.67:5216.7Wuwei turnoff
5/181638.4109.27:1115.2near Shuiquanzi
5/191728.690.26:0414.8between Shandun and Zhangye
5/222119.396.85:4616.840 km past Jiayuguan
5/232242.3123.06:1419.7outside Yumen Zhen
5/262535.267.83:2419.9Dunhuang (day trip to Mogao caves)

Silk Road Ride, 2002: Part 2 (Dunhuang-Urumqi)

Ottawa, April 26

Note:  I first wrote this post in 2002, while recovering from rheumatic fever, and then tried to publish it in 2005 on my blog, while I was putting up lots of updates from the 2002 and 2004 legs of the Silk Road Ride.  I somehow never got around to getting it properly posted back in 2005, and just found it in my folder of drafts, so I am publishing it now, with a few more pictures, a mere 15 years after the events in question.  Since I am trying to write a book about the trip at the moment, it's good for me to go through the post again to remember some of what I was experiencing and feeling during the toughest section of the entire Silk Road Ride.

May-June 2002

It took a few seconds for my mind to register what I had just seen. I was being blown at tremendous speed across the Gobi desert on my bicycle, zipping up hills at 20 km/h with my legs resting on my crossbar, letting the wind battle gravity for me. The landscape was unbearably desolate, with not a blade of vegetation to break the monotonous parched earth that stretched to the horizon. It was a sunny day, and the ferocious heat combined with the wind to make me feel as though I was riding through a convection oven. I had 8 litres of water with me, and I had drunk my way through more than half, but my mouth was still as dry as the desert around me. As I was pushed up another small incline, I happened to look down into the ditch beside the road, where I saw what I took to be yet more garbage strewn along the roadside, the latest installment in a 2000-km trail of broken glass, plastic bottles, lone shoes, old clothes, shredded tires, plastic bags and leftovers of innumerable roadside picnics. It looked like a pile of abandoned clothes, and it wasn’t until I had passed it that my mind registered that the clothes seemed neatly arranged, almost as though they were on a mannequin. Then I realized that the mannequin had an arm protruding from a sleeve, and the arm seemed black and leathery. I stopped, wheeled the bike around and went back to take another look.

It was, of course, not a mannequin. Instead I found myself looking at a dead human body, legs drawn up into a sitting position. The exposed arm was as black as a 2000-year-old mummy, but in the air there was still a strong odour of death and decay, and the body seemed still to be in the throes of rigor mortis. The head was concealed by the back of the jacket, but the shape revealed by the fabric seemed too small and oddly shaped, as though it had been shattered with a blow. I sat back on my bicycle, shocked, and tried to think..

Old Qing or Ming-era border watchtowers in the Gobi
The man, judging by his tattered clothes, had been a tramp, one of the small army of mentally ill men (I never saw a female tramp) who wander the highways of China, their hair matted into dreadlocks, their possessions in gunny sacks, their eyes speaking of a schizophrenic inner world only glancingly tangent to the one you and I inhabit. I don’t know what happened to him; conceivably he ran out of water in this arid, inhospitable wasteland, where 130 km separate adjacent water sources, and sat down beside the road to die. Possibly, and more tragically, he was hit by a truck, perhaps with the outside wing mirror; Chinese truck drivers are notoriously careless, and it was a rare day that I didn’t see at least one truck being pulled out of a river or from the bottom of an embankment. If a truck had hit this unfortunate man, with no witnesses likely in the middle of the Gobi Desert, the driver might well simply have driven on, leaving his victim where he fell.

Out in the rotisserie oven of the Gashun Gobi desert
Whatever the case, I had to consider what to do. I hadn’t seen a police car all day, nor did I expect to see one before sunset. I didn’t know the Chinese words to explain “I have found a dead body”, and I doubted that I would be able to convey my meaning to a policeman. As for telling anyone else, I doubted that anyone else would want to get involved. A couple of weeks earlier, near Lanzhou, I had seen an entire traffic jam standing around staring at another dead body, a man run over by a truck, with no-one showing the slightest inclination to do anything. I decided that if I saw a policeman that day, I would try to explain my grisly discovery, but that if there were no cops, I would simply do as a number of Chinese drivers had evidently already done, and keep my discovery to myself. After all, I rationalized, the man was obviously dead, so a further delay in disposing of his remains would have no effect on him.

I turned around and cycled on in a sombre mood. I saw no policemen that day or the next, and so I continued the conspiracy of silence. For all I know, the body of the unlucky man is still roasting in the Gobi convection oven today. What preyed on my mind in the days to come was that the body in the ditch could so easily have been mine. The inhospitable desert stretches separating Dunhuang and Hami, and between Hami and Turfan, are the bleakest, most dangerous places I have ever cycled. In western Tibet, there are long stretches without settlement or food, but there is always water to be had, and the weather is rarely so hot that you get dehydrated. In the Gobi, water just doesn’t occur except in widely separated oases that can take a day or more to reach by bicycle. In a pinch, a thirsty cyclist can always try to flag down passing vehicles to beg for water, but there’s always the spectre of heatstroke as well. If you suddenly faint from heatstroke (not inconceivable when the temperature tops 40 degrees and the sun hits you like a hammerstroke), it could be days or weeks before someone bothers to stop to collect your corpse, as the body I found testified. Or if an erratically driving truck hits you, no-one will stop to help you until you are as mummified as my unfortunate fellow traveller. These were not comforting thoughts.

Having biked west from Dunhuang, it amazes me that anyone in their right minds would ever have explored and opened the trade routes linking China with Central Asia in the first place. I wonder how many unfortunate would-be traders and explorers lie dead and forgotten in the desert, having failed to find water along their way. Early travellers must have had camels or horses to carry huge waterskins, since it would have taken them days to get between springs. Once travellers reached oases, the temptation simply to settle down and not do any more desert crossings must have been enormous.

Ancient and modern:  watchtower and windmills in the Gobi
Even famous travellers, such as my hero Xuan Zang, the 7th-century Buddhist monk, nearly came unstuck in these deserts. Xuan Zang, in a rather modern predicament, was forbidden by the Chinese government from leaving the country, and so elected to try to sneak past the border guards near the modern town of Anxi, near Dunhuang. His guide, who had promised to lead him to Hami, abandoned him in the desert after trying to murder him by night, and Xuan Zang was unable to find his way through a landscape of low hills that look the same in every direction. He dropped his waterbag and spilled his last life-sustaining liquid into the sand. Unable to find the next spring,, he had given up hope of survival when his horse, guided by instinct or a keen sense of smell, led him to a tiny spring. He crawled into Hami half-dead.

Other travellers, while not having brushes with death, have warned of the perils of crossing the Gobi and its westerly extension, the Desert of Lop. Fa Xian, a 5th century precursor of Xuan Zang, noted that “In this desert there are a great many evil demons, and there are also sirocco winds, which kill all who encounter them. There are no birds or beasts to be seen; but as far as the eye can reach, the route is marked out by the bleached bones of men who have perished in the attempt to cross the desert.” Marco Polo, who passed this way in 1273, writes that “it is all mountains and sand and valleys, and nothing eatable is to be found in it…There are neither beasts nor birds, for they find nothing to eat…he [a lost traveller] hears spirits speaking to him as if they were his companions, for sometimes they even call him by name. And often a traveller is thus led astray, and never found again, so that many have died or disappeared in this way…one seems at times to hear the sound of various instruments, and especially of drums.”

My own trip through this treacherous landscape began in Dunhuang on May 28 after a good breakfast in a tourist café. I breezed through the greenery of the oasis, shaded by Lombardy poplars, until, 20 km from town, I rolled out into the gravel of the desert. It was at this point that I realized that the light-hearted easy downwind days that I had ridden to get to Dunhuang were over. I spent the entire day crawling gradually uphill into a stiff crosswind, my progress limited to 13 km/h. The only recompense I had were fine morning views of the snow-capped mountains south of Dunhuang that mark the edge of the Tibetan plateau. I had to quit some 40 km from the main highway and beg water from passing cars in order to have enough to cook dinner.

The next day I laboured uphill into the wind until lunchtime when a strip of squalid restaurant-cum-brothels marked the intersection with the main Lanzhou-Urumqi highway. I ate enormously, then turned west into a blissful tailwind that erased memories of the preceding day and a half. The landscape was hilly and bone-dry, and I had soon drained most of my water supplies. Luckily by late afternoon I had reached a small spring that supported a cement factory (in the middle of uninhabited desert?) and a tiny general store at which I stocked up on water. Then, near dusk, I came into the tiny town of Xingxingxia, overlooked by old earthen fortifications on the surrounding hills, that marked the border between Gansu and Xinjiang provinces. I feasted, then rode just out of town to camp in peace and quiet (two things utterly lacking in Chinese hotels) in the desert.

I started the next morning by riding back into Xingxingxia to eat again and load up on water and snacks. According to my map, there were a couple of towns ahead of me, 75 and 105 km away, at which I should be able to get water and maybe some food. I started off with a long uphill, but within 10 km I had ridden into a windtunnel that was blowing me along at a comfortable pace without me moving a muscle. This was just as well, since the hot, dry wind was dehydrating me plenty without me working up a sweat to make it worse. The winds of this desert are infamous, and Marco Polo’s reference to the spirits calling travellers by name may refer to the constant winds whose whistling can drive men mad, luring them from the main path to their dessicated death.

It was on this afternoon that I found the corpse, and after that I biked along in a state of mingled depression and apprehension. The apprehension increased when the settlements shown on my map, both of which were heralded by distance signs on the highway, proved to be cruel cartographers’ jokes. Both had signs saying “Welcome to Nowhereville” in both Chinese and Uighur, but the signs were the only evidence that people had ever lived there. As I was now almost entirely out of water, the non-existence of these villages was a serious concern. Then, as though to taunt me further, the road began climbing uphill, out of the featureless desert, and veered enough to turn the tailwind into a crosswind. My speed slowed down to barely walking pace, and, as the sun beat down on me, I began thinking about the likelihood of sunstroke. Eventually, tired and thirsty, I crawled into a road culvert and sheltered from the sun for half an hour before continuing to slog uphill. Finally, 130 km from Xingxingxia, I came to a derelict roadside complex that still had one person living in it, and there I drank so deeply of the cool spring water that he had that I thought I might burst. Refreshed but still worn out by the heat and the sun, I crawled the remaining 10 km to a small oasis where I sat for a few hours drinking litres of cold drinks and gorging myself on fried noodles before crawling off to camp in a roadside orchard. It had been a harrowing day.

By now I thought that the worst of the desert crossings were over. In the distance, ahead of me, I could see the glaciated peaks of the Tien Shan, the Celestial Mountains. While the road as far as Dunhuang had followed the northern slopes of the Nan Shan, the mountains on the northern boundary of cultural Tibet, over the past few days I had crossed the narrow neck of the Gobi desert that separates the Nan Shan from the Tien Shan. It is this absence of mountain glaciers that explains the utter lack of water in this desert; all the oases of western China derive their life-giving water from glacial meltwater in the mountains overlooking them. Now, according to my discredited map, the road would follow the southern edge of the Tien Shan, presumably through an almost continuous band of oasis.

I spent the following morning riding hard through the desert to reach the major town of Hami. The road followed the edge of the oasis but stayed out in the desolate gravel, presumably so as not to waste valuable agricultural land by building the road through the oasis. For the second time in the trip (the first was on the way into Anxi), I was pursued by a swarm of angry bees intent on divebombing my head. The bees, for some strange reason, regard the asphalt of the highway as their territory. To escape from them, it was only necessary for my to move a metre into the sand of the desert, but as soon as I rejoined the road, I was under attack again.

In Hami I experienced the frustration of being somewhere not covered by my Lonely Planet guide. It was easy enough to find restaurants and a market, but when it came to looking for the local museum and whatever historical ruins the ancient settlement possessed, I was out of luck. I asked 5 different people, all seemingly prosperous, educated folk, for directions to the museum and was sent in 5 wildly divergent directions. The problem was compounded by the Chinese inability to point; directions are indicated by a vague wave in the air that covers 180 degrees but rarely includes the actual direction needed. I eventually gave up and cycled off towards Turpan, the next major town on the route. It was disappointing, since Hami is one of the oases of the Tarim basin that have been populated since time immemorial, and I’m sure there might have been interesting things to see, but an hour and a half of fruitless searching sapped my enthusiasm. It’s still a largely Chinese town, with only a small scattering of Turkic Uighur inhabitants, another reason that the town was less interesting than I had hoped. I rode out of town through endless vineyards and melon patches; Hami is renowned throughout China for producing the finest melons in the country, and I had been eating them on a daily basis for much of my trip.

For some reason, I felt depressed and on the verge of tears as I rode through more sterile gravel plains to camp 50 km past Hami; at the time I ascribed it to dehydration, but in retrospect it may have been the first symptoms of something more serious. The next day I continued to struggle on the enthusiasm front, as the oases died away (the Tien Shan here were lower and lacked life-giving glaciers), the winds reverted to crosswinds and the scenery turned grey and uninspiring. After 100 long kilometres I came to a tollgate in the middle of nowhere, and just beyond it, in a small roadside truckstop, I met two of the most remarkable bike tourists I have ever encountered.

Sekhmet and Mehmettin, the Uighur speedsters 
Sekhmet and Mehmettin were two Uighurs from the northwest corner of China, up against the Kazakh border not far from Mongolia. They had taken the train to Beijing, bought Chinese-made Giant road bikes there along with luggage racks, lights and cycling computers, and were riding back home. They travelled supremely light, with one small duffel bag strapped to their back racks, since they knew that they would be sleeping in hotels every night, and since they assumed that new bikes would have few mechanical problems. The bikes were pretty low-end, with only 10 speeds and cheap derailleurs and plastic pedal cranks, but they had performed sterling service thus far.

What was truly remarkable about these two guys, other than that they were doing the trip in the first place (Chinese bike tourists are as rare as helpful Chinese bureaucrats), was their pace. They were cycling machines, capable of putting in 12 or 14 hours in the saddle each and every day. I met them on June 1, and they had left Beijing on May 10, 23 days and 4200 km ago. That worked out to a gaudy average of over 180 km a day; their record was an almost unbelievable 280 km in a single day. I have never met bike tourists who average anything close to this.

I rode with them the next day; at least I tried to. The two of them would wait for me now and again beside the road, smoking cigarettes or drinking ice tea, but I could not match their pace. I enjoyed their company, and it was fun talking to them because, like me, they spoke Chinese as a second language learned late in life, and so I could understand their slow, atonal pronunciation far more easily than I could the rural drawl of Gansu that I had suffered through for a month. They were unfailingly hospitable, in the way most Central Asian Muslims I have met are. They insisted on paying for all my meals, and for my bed in the roadhouse the night before; every time I reached for my wallet it was brushed aside with a laugh. That day we did 150 km before stopping for an enormous meal of laghman, the standard noodles’n’meat dish of the Uighurs. It was 8:30 in the evening and I assumed that they would call it a day, but they decided to do another 40 km before bed because “the food is better in Shanshan”. I regretfully said goodbye and arranged to meet up with them the next evening in Turfan, an arrangement unfortunately scuttled by my ridiculously late arrival there.

Local transport in Xinjiang
By now I was in Uighur country. After so long in ethnic Chinese territory, it was a welcome change to see European features, colourful hats, long beards and shaven heads on grave-faced elders, silk dresses on the women, donkey carts carrying entire families. The entire pace and way of life seemed to shift from the frantic money-making of China to the more sedate, timeless rhythms of Central Asia. The Uighurs, ethnic Turks originally from further north and east, have been prominent in Chinese history over the years, making and unmaking emperors in the Tang dynasty, exercising a monopoly over money-changing from then until only a few years ago, periodically sacking the Chinese capital and providing the Chinese army with an endless supply of horses.

The Chinese regard the Uighurs, who until recently dominated the oases of the Tarim Basin, as even more dangerous to the unity of the Chinese state than the Tibetans, and are busy trying to drown the Uighurs in a sea of ethnic Chinese immigrants. Rumour has it that Chinese settlers already outnumber Uighurs overall in Xinjiang, although the southwestern corner of the province is still largely Uighur. Sekhmet and Mehmettin had little use for the Chinese, dismissing the Chinese provinces they had cycled through as worthless compared to their native Xinjiang, and making deprecating remarks in Uighur about the Chinese who owned the roadhouse we stayed at. While I was in Xinjiang, I heard on the BBC that the Chinese have announced that, as of September, university education will no longer be available in the Uighur language because it is “a backward language, unsuited for higher education”; another attempt to undermine Uighur nationalism?

Local family near Turfan
June 3, exactly a month after leaving Xian, I headed off towards Turfan, the next great oasis west of Hami. It has the distinction of being the second lowest point on earth after the Dead Sea, at about 250 metres below sea level, and as a consequence it is the hottest place in China in the summer. I knew that I had 150 km ahead of me that day, including sidetrips, but I figured that it had to be downhill most of the way, especially at the end. Sometimes I think too much for my own good. The day was hot, blazingly hot, but at least I had the occasional small oasis to provide food and cold ice tea and water to replenish my waterskin. I rode along the base of the Tien Shan, wondering where the road would lead, and was surprised when it suddenly dived to the left down a narrow gorge of red rock. As I descended the temperature, already hot, soared to furnace levels. Near the bottom of the gorge, I found the turnoff for the Beziklik Thousand-Buddha caves and sweated my way 7 km up a small tributary valley to one of Turfan’s main attractions.

View of Bezeklik
In the days before Islam, when numerous faiths jostled for importance in the towns of the Silk Road, Buddhists frequently developed complexes of meditation grottoes and cave chapels. The Beziklik caves, while much less numerous than those of Dunhuang, are still regarded as artistically important, although most of the best frescoes were carted off 90 years ago by German and British archaeologists. What remains are a series of heavily chipped and defaced caves; the local Muslims, offended by depictions of the human form, have systematically gouged out the eyes of almost every figure in the paintings. To historians, what is more interesting than the ruined paintings is that at least two of the caves are believed to have been Manichaean rather than Buddhist. Manichaeism, an attempt to synthesize Zoroastrianism with elements of Buddhism and Christianity, was once the official religion of the Uighurs, and Turpan was the leading centre of the religion in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Eroded old Buddha statues at Bezeklik
However, I was unable to see the Manichaean caves because they were locked. As in Dunhuang, the caves are mostly kept locked, with the keys in the possession of a guardian harpy; happily, a few caves are kept open, and most of the others I was able to glimpse through the ventilation grates over the door. Once again, the Chinese, with their genius for ruining historical sites, have made it an ordeal to see much of anything other than endless souvenir stands. At least the scenery, with vineyards filling the floor of the valley below the flame-red hills, was a compensation.

From Beziklik I made my way back to the road and then 12 km off in the other direction, looking for the old capital of Turfan, Karakhoja, now known as Gaochang. The ride, under shady poplars, past white-bearded village elders and young kids, pretty women in silk dresses and a steady stream of donkey carts, through extensive vineyards full of drying sheds for making raisins, was very pretty, as well as downhill. Half the population were hard at work at their afternoon siesta, sprawled beside the road or on the banks of irrigation channels, in awkward poses that made them look as though they’d dropped to earth, oblivious to the noise of passing traffic. At the ruined city my bike caused a sensation and a near-riot among the dozens of local kids who hang around the entrance hoping to work as guides.

Gaochang ruins near Turfan
The ruins were surprisingly extensive and impressive, stretching nearly 2 km on a side, with city walls that were 12 metres high and 11 metres thick. The town had served as the capital of the Uighur kingdom in the 12th and 13th centuries until the rulers made the fatal blunder of rebelling against Kubilai Khan’s Mongols. The town was sacked after a 3-month siege and the population systematically butchered; it was never populated again. Since the buildings were of mud brick, they have eroded over 7 centuries of rainstorms into fantastic shapes reminiscent of melted waxworks. This makes it hard to identify what buildings once were, although a huge Buddhist monastery in the far corner gave itself away with its layout and with the traces of painted Buddhas still visible on the walls. There were a couple of lumps that might once have been Buddhist stupas, and I understand that somewhere there was another Manichaean temple, but mostly I enjoyed the melancholy air of wrack and ruin of the place, especially with the dark red Flaming Mountains as a backdrop.

I made my way back to my bike, convinced that I could knock off the remaining 40 km in under two hours. After all, it had to be downhill, right? Wrong. It took over three hours to get to Turfan town, uphill the entire way into a strong headwind. As it turned out, Gaochang was located nearly at the bottom of the Turfan depression. I had drunk 10 litres of fluid that day, and yet I was still dehydrated, a result of the 43 degree heat. As I neared town, my pace slowed bit by bit as I completely ran out of energy. By the time I made it into town, it was 11 pm, pitch black and blowing a hurricane. I ate and then collapsed gladly into bed.

Emin Minaret in Turfan
I took three rest days in Turfan, seduced by the cold beer and the conversations with fellow travellers, and driven into sloth by the heat. One day I rode out to more ruins, those of Jiaohe; they were better preserved than those of Gaochang but lacked the dramatic backdrop, and the midday sun quickly drove away any enthusiasm for poking around. Another day I took the bus into Urumqi to start the week-long process of getting my Kazakh visa, and then, on my return, biked out to the Emin Minaret, a dramatic, squat brick cylinder squatting out in the midst of more vineyards. It was beautiful in a Central Asian way, decorated with geometric brickwork, but surrounded by a vast sea of Chinese souvenir stands; local Muslims are banned from worshipping there except on Friday afternoons, as they would interfere with the flow of admission-paying tourists. A third day was spent lethargically sending e-mail and drinking more beer.

Grape-drying houses, Turfan
I was only 200 km from Urumqi, and the two Uighur robocyclists had planned to ride there from Turfan in one long day, but I figured on two days for myself. As it turned out, it was two and a half days, as my first day’s progress was brought to a crashing halt by the strongest winds I have ever experienced. I don’t know what the wind speed was; I would guess something like 100 km/h. The wind was strong enough to blow decent-sized branches down the highway. It was so strong that I could not pedal against it, and could barely push my bike through it. It took over 5 hours to cover my last 25 km. When I finally gave up and found a sheltered place to camp, I found that my front fender had been torn right off the bike without me even noticing. The winds were strong. I went to bed exhausted, only to be buffeted by torrential rains all night.

The next day was easier, as I set off early enough to escape the winds. I continued up the Valley of the Hurricane and finally emerged on the flat grasslands in the middle of the Tien Shan that are the home of the nomadic Kazakh herders. I rode through the grasslands until they gave way to the familiar gravel plains, covered (no surprise) with an array of nearly 1000 windmills to generate power. Thinking I was still 30 km from Urumqi, I camped in a range of pretty grass hills that reminded me of Tibet.

The next morning I found myself in the suburbs of the city within 9 km. It took forever to find my way to a hotel, but I still had a free afternoon to run errands and snooze, worn out by my battle with the wind. I still had 3 days to wait until my visa was ready, so I took a bus up to Tian Chi, Heaven Lake, for a couple of days of hiking.

Heaven Lake
At 2000 metres’ elevation, the Tien Shan is surprisingly Canadian, full of spruce forests, dandelions and buttercups surrounding a pretty alpine lake. Unfortunately the Chinese have declared it a major tourist attraction, so the near end of the lake is disfigured by tour buses, cable cars, speedboats, loudspeakers and thousands of Chinese tourists. I walked around the lake, though, out of range of the Chinese, to the area where Kazakh families pitch their yurts for the summer while they graze their flocks in the mountain valleys. I felt pretty tired, and by the time I set up my tent, my feet were sore, a fact that I ascribed to my new boots not having hard enough soles. The next day I hiked up a pretty side valley before retracing my steps back to the bus. By the time I got back, my calves and ankles were sore as well, but I thought that this was because I had limped to protect my sore feet. I decided to rest up for a day or two in Urumqi before setting off again.

I lay in bed in my hotel for 5 days, dulling my mind with three World Cup games a day on TV, progressively sorer and less able to move, before I realized that whatever was wrong with me, it had nothing to do with boots, limping or any physical cause. Within a few days I was unable to walk and unable even to roll over in bed. My joints had swollen to elephantine size, and my muscles, exhausted, were twitching uncontrollably. I decided to go to hospital when I realized that my left wrist had swollen so much that my hand was clenched into a claw that I couldn’t open, and when I realized that I was running a heavy fever. I crawled out into the hall of the hotel, calling for help, and luckily my next-door neighbours were a party of French nurses. They put me to bed, put my left arm in a sling and put themselves in charge of phoning my insurance company and the Canadian consulate in Beijing. Within an hour I was in an ambulance, headed for hospital.

I spent eight long days in Urumqi People’s Hospital, the best facility in Xinjiang province. The doctors were cagey about telling me what I had, but they did eventually tame the fever with IV drips of saline solution and penicillin. After 3 hellish days of joint pain, twitching, and effective paralysis, I was very suddenly able to walk again, although my arms were still swollen and my left forearm was numb and without strength. The doctors came in now and again to poke and prod, to listen to my heart or to try to get my legs to lift (a process that had me nearly levitating with pain). The whole time I was losing all my muscle mass in a stream of dark orange urine that did not look healthy at all.

I heard three different diagnoses from the Chinese doctors: rheumatic fever, reactive arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatic fever has become rare in the West since the development of antibiotics, but it was once a common childhood illness that often left its victims with permanent damage to heart’s mitral valves, leading to heart attacks and premature death later on. Heart damage could put a major damper on my lifestyle, so I hope that it hasn’t happened to me. As soon as I could walk again, I resolved to escape from China back to Canada, where I could go see doctors who spoke the same language as me, and who might tell me what was wrong with me.

This proved to be a somewhat forlorn hope. I saw a lot of doctors during the month I was in Toronto, but no one would commit themselves to a diagnosis. Most of the non-medical people who heard my symptoms thought immediately that it must be rheumatic fever, and reading medical books myself it seemed as though I fit all the criteria for it, but the doctors seemed curiously reluctant to come to this conclusion. I had a serious relapse and ended up in the hospital in Toronto for 5 days, but anti-inflammatory drugs made the swelling disappear quickly. I began having strange heartbeats, which did nothing for my peace of mind. At the end of July, my father drove down to Toronto and chauffeured me back to Thunder Bay to recover.

I felt pretty well for a while, and then another relapse drove me to despair, as the heart symptoms became more acute. I went to see a specialist here in Thunder Bay whom I found to be a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal idiot, utterly uninterested in my case. I ended up flying down to Toronto to consult a very knowledgeable doctor who finally confirmed that I had rheumatic fever and prescribed a heavy course of anti-inflammatory drugs. Since these often have nasty side effects, I put off taking these for a month while I tried homeopathic remedies. Meanwhile I saw a cardiologist who reassured me that my heart looked fine; the heart murmur and irregular heartbeat had probably been due to temporary inflammation of the pericardium, the membrane around the heart. At the end of September, though, I decided I wasn’t getting better quickly enough and was worried that I was going to end up with permanent heart damage, so I went on anti-inflammatories.

I’ve been pretty depressed over the whole affair, not least because I’m now broke, at home and not well enough to work full-time and rebuild my finances. I had planned in August, while feeling that I was on the mend, to go work yet again in Japan, but that plan has been put on hold. I’m working on a book about my 1998 bike trip, reading and playing the piano, just waiting to get better. So my travelling days seem to be behind me for the foreseeable future, until I get healthy (the first priority) and financial (second). I realize, though, how lucky I am that I didn’t fall ill in the middle of the Gobi, and Marco Polo, as always, offers a bit of perspective. He fell ill on his outward journey, spending nearly a year recovering in the healthy mountain air of Badakhshan, in northern Afghanistan, before continuing on his way. It may take longer than a year, and I will likely recover in more salubrious conditions than are found in today’s Afghanistan, but I will return to the bike and the Silk Road some time in the future to complete a job left undone.

Riding Day No.
from Xian airport (km)


Daily Destination
5/282628.192.96:2614.440 km short of Liuyuan
5/302893.5138.67:2218.865 km before Hami town
5/313008.4114.97:0616.250 km past Hami
6/23257.2151.28:5916.8outside Qitim
6/73483.575.28:029.375 km past Turfan
6/83579.696.18:2811.328 km before Urumqi