Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Leaving Urumqi - no. 1

In Urumqi I found a pretty decent map at an upmarket hotel, and simultaneously rediscovered the "NOBODY can read a map" principle. It was Sunday morning, so not much was open, including the only expat hangout I knew of (a bar). I found a 'Silk Road Travel Agency' which was open and when I showed them my planned route (southwest then northwest) they shook their heads 'no' emphatically, peering at my bike. Zero English. Who knows what that means - too hilly?

I was busting to leave town so I decided to operate on the principle that 'if they say you can't do it, it may well be the best way to go, with no traffic'.

Leaving Urumqi (900m alt) towards the southwest the road led gradually uphill across dry plains, lined with birch trees as wind breaks. Shashlik, noodles, bananas and green tea for lunch. Soon the first herds of goats started blocking the road - I love them, they are great for slowing trucks down.

Eventually rugged mountains came into view, with the lower slopes covered with Central Asian pines. I rode up this beautiful gorge only to find at the very top a power station, most likely black coal, at the very top (2000m or so). Immediately next to it were several factories (cement or otherwise) belching thick white or black smoke. I could not believe it.

By this time it was getting late so I had some food and on the outskirts of town some kids high on a hill next to a yurt waved me up. I thought about going on but then reconsidered. At first the plan was to camp outside but after dinner in the yurt (bread, meat, homemade wheat noodles, and green tea with a little spoonful of sour cream) they insisted that I stay in their yurt. My inevitable first consultation for lower back pain followed. The next day I headed on up the valley past another few extraordinary sights (more later) then away from hell further up the valley. The road kept climbing relentlessly and 20km seemed to take half a day. Eventually I caught up with a Chinese cyclist; apparently another foreigner was ahead. I kept going and soon found another Chinese cyclist together with a Western cyclist who proved to be Karsten, a German psychiatrist from Cologne. Karsten had come from Kashgar and told me that my planned route was straight through an army zone and not open to foreigners. He was planning to go to the top of the pass and then back down. That sounded like the best idea. So we kept plugging on, riding some sections and then pushing, up some treacherous switchbacks across a very steep rocky slope (just below a glacier) to a pass at 4280m altitude, overlooking 'Glacier No. 1' of the Tien Shan.

We got there at about 9.15pm (it was still light) and within 5 -10 minutes it began to snow, so we soon headed back down, dodging trucks crawling up, and camped at the base of the steepest slope. The next day we rolled back down through sporadic storms which came and went at real alpine speed, 120km back down to Urumqi.


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