Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Its day 365 of Global Cycle Ride and after spending most of the last 10 weeks cycling from China's north west to its south, I have finally crossed over into Thailand. This blog has been banned throughout China, so now as I cross over into Thailand, I can finally get the chance to update ye on what I've been up over the last 10 weeks. Adventures mentioned below include cycling across the second largest sand desert in the world, reaching heights of up to 4700M above sea level in the Himalayan frontier, witnessing a Sky Burial where human corpses were fed to vultures and I'm after getting tired of cycling, so I bought a boat. Everyday has been a crazy adventure. Read on and enjoy


Off the 3 'Stans' I visited, (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) Kyrgyzstan would definitely be my favourite. If you love mountains, come to Kyrgyzstan. The people are wonderful without that 'over the top in your face' kinda friendly. And the Kyrgyz visa is the least complicated of all the 'Stans'. Its a shame therefore that it ended on a bit of sour note. As I approached the Irkeshtam border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China, I came upon a 'STOP-POLICE CHECK' sign. I could see a police man sitting on a nearby bench. He looked like I couldn't care less if I stopped or otherwise. But a police car pulled up and an officer got out and signalled for me to come over. First thing he did was grab the hat from my head and put in on his own head. The smell of drink off him was over powering. He could barely stand. He was complaining about something or other, but I explained how I didn't understand Kyrgyz and only knew very basic Russian. He then grabbed the bike from me and made an attempt to cycle it. But he was too drunk to get his leg over the cross bar. The then dropped the bike, causing the mirror to break. I was furious. He then asked for my passport. In broken Russian and sign language I told him,'He was too drunk and to go sleep it off'. He didn't take kindly to being told what to do, but I walked past him to the other officer who witnessed all what happened. As I showed the other officer my passport, (using broken Russian and sign language), I said to him, with enough volume so that the drunk officer could hear me; ' I loved Kyrgyzstan. All the people have been great. Surly he's not from Kyrgyzstan. Is he from Uzbekistan?' It had the desired effect. The drunk was furious but I was pedalling down towards customs control before he knew it. Incidentally, all the customs control officer wanted to know was if I had a spare cigarette? I was stamped out of Kyrgyzstan and pedalling across no-mans-land to China. Everything here was handled with a lot more military precision. The first thing that struck me was that everyone was huge. I don't think I've ever seen a tall Chinese man and now I was surrounded by them. It was about 5.15pm and the border was closing in 15 minutes. I had deliberately left it late in getting across this border in the hope that the search of my bags would not be too thorough. I was carrying two guidebooks on Tibet and a detailed map of Tibet. I'd ripped the covers off my books. Even Lonely Planet China can be confiscated at the border,as it shows Taiwan in a different colour to mainland China. At one stage a border official had Kym McConnell's 'Route and planning guide for mountain bikers across Tibet' in his hand. This book contains exact locations of police checkpoints across Tibet. (In fact I just noticed the forward is from the Dalai Lama). I had answers prepared if I was caught with these books, but thankfully I got my entry stamp into China and the border closed on time. It took 5 solid days of cycling from sunrise to sunset to make it from Osh, Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar, China. It was a particularly difficult ride. Dust was my main enemy. Convoys of trucks brought Chinese goods across this rocky dirt track and each rig showered me in dust. The mountains in this region are pretty much the tail end of the Himalayas. The highest pass we crossed was 3615M which makes it the second highest of the trip to date. A boy travelling on horseback offered to swap a ride on his horse for a ride on my bike. It was a 12% incline. I was happy to oblige. It got cold up here but the scenery was just extraordinary. Sunset was a particular treat as it cast shadows across the mountains. I've always been pretty handy at budgeting on long trips but in the last 3 days in China I've only spent €0.40. But this is not due to careful financial planning. Its due to the fact that north western China is predominantly Muslim (I think) and its presently Ramada. This means restaurants close from sunrise to sunset. I had completely overlooked this fact but I knew this part of the trip would be particularly desolate so thankfully I was carrying many days food. I'm after getting another big surprise since arriving in Kashgar. Its well publicised that the People's Republic of China is a very restrictive regime on its people. I expected my blog to be blocked. But since the riots in Urumqi in which the police killed 158 people according to BBC reports, all internet communication has been blocked, including hotmail. International calls are banned. My overriding impression of Kashgar is not the multitude of tower cranes spread across the city sky line. Its not the 50ft high statute of Mao or even the wonderful old town with all its chaotic trading. The over riding impression of Kashgar is the convoys of trucks that go round and round the city centre with approximately 45 riot police clearly visible on each convoy. I've never seen anything like it. They cruise at about 10mph while the traffic buzzes around them. The army trucks are pretty much the same as home, but where the soldiers would be seated in the back, here they are standing behind a presumably bullet proof glass. The only time I've ever seen someone paraded around in a glass boxed vehicle, it was the Pope in the Phoenix park in 1979. But these guys have a whole different objective. Its pure intimidation. You see school children playing on their way home from school, loved up couples-holding hands and strolling by the lake and round and round these convoys go. Soldiers march the streets in full riot gear as if the public parks were a military training ground. I saw this consisteny during my 2 days in Kashgar, but I did not take a photo. I didn't dare take a photo.

When leaving Ireland almost 10 months ago the original plan was always to try to cycle around the globe using just by bicycle and to only progress using a boat or plane when I met a large body of water. Basically no unnecessary motorised transport. But plans change. Just before I left Osh,Kyrgyzstan, I received an email from Markus from Austria. Markus had joined me from Osh to Bishkek. Ye may remember previously in this blog (Day 225) about our adventure off the main road, with our bags on donkeys, as we slid down glaciers and carried the bikes on our shoulders up over steep passes. Well, after 4 attempts, Markus finally got his Chinese visa. He's on his way down from Kazakhstan, and the email reads 'if you fancy giving this Taklamakan desert a go, I'll be in the town of Luntai on the 12th'. Rule number 1 was to cycle every kilometre. But I think its worth breaking rule number 1 to have good company on the world's longest road through a sand desert. And besides, I've never taken the most direct route across Europe and Asia. I think I deserve a sleeper bus after that 550KM adventurous, scenic detour in Kyrgyzstan. So I'm cheating. I'm taking an 800KM bus ride across flat, featureless, arid steepe in the hope of meeting Markus in the town of Luntai on the edge of the Taklamakan.


My understanding of Luntai was a kinda of 'one horse town' on the edge of the desert. My guide book mentions there is one hotel in town opposite the bus station. It seemed like the perfect place to meet Markus before going into the Taklamakan. Even one of my concerns were 'would the town have a big enough store to stock up on supplies'. But things are changing fast throughout China. The Xinjiang provence is seen as the 'Golden Goose' of China. An area rich in oil and gas reserves. And these golden goose prospects have changed our one horse town into a bustling city. With the internet and international phone calls banned in the Xinjiang provence since the recent riots in Urumphi, its become very difficult to find my travelling buddy, Markus. I reckon I'm the only tourist in town. I've checked into a €3 a night hovel but it has all the characteristics I need. It has a balcony overlooking the main street and bus station. Many of the other guests in the 'Hovel Hotel' are truck drivers who are sitting around waiting for a phone call for work. These guys are happy sitting on the balcony watching the traffic go by, and they too are on the watch out for another cycle tourist. The taxi rank is across the road and there is always more taxis than customers and these guys are also on the lookout for a tourist on a bicycle. But after 2 days chilling out on this balcony, with regular cycles around town, I'm quiet sure Markus never made it to Luntai. Maybe we'll cross paths down the road somewhere. The internet/international phone call ban only applies to the provence of Xinjiang so once I get out of this provence (which is 20 times the size of Ireland), I'll hopefully be able to find out what happened to him.The question now is; Should I go into the Taklamakan on my own?? I don't know how many times bigger than Ireland this desert is, but its the second largest sand desert in the world. On the ancient Silk Road, traders would either journey north of the desert or south of it. No route existed through the centre of the desert. Even the name 'Taklamakan' means 'He who enters does not leave'. But now there are two cross desert highways. So am I going in??? Of course I'm going in. The alarm is set for 5am. I know the Chinese have found oil in this desert, so a newly built road has recently been completed. If there is regular trucks on the road, then surely there will be truck stops. I remember reading a blog of one cyclist who made it through earlier this year. My plan was to reread that section of his blog before deciding to go in or not. (But,once again, no internet). Anyway, he must have survived, if he wrote a blog afterwards. My plan is to go in fully loaded with food and water, and as I get into the desert and meet some locals, I will be able to find out more of the road ahead. Also if there is a reasonable amount of traffic on the road, you can always wave down some vehicle with a large dollar bill and get a lift out of the place. Although we had a sand storm in the city today, as long as the wind remains in its present southerly direction, I'll have a strong tail wind. But if the direction changes, I'll skip the Taklamakan and take the main road around the desert instead. Fingers crossed, tomorrow we go in..........


Make no mistake about it - This is the desert of all deserts. Its one massive, beautiful, scary place. It seems one endless horizon of rolling sand dunes. 80KMs south of my lookout tower/Hovel Hotel balcony, I found a very fancy restaurant. The friendly staff fed me great food and close to a gallon of tea as I sat back the afternoon, waiting for the midday sun to ease. Using sign language and a lot of map pointing, I was reassured all round, that my main concern of there being no restaurants along my chosen route, was not going to be a problem. I felt I had over-packed with my 10 litres of water and 4 days food supply. BUT the next restaurant I passed was 250KMs down the road. That was 250KMs of no restaurant, no shop, no house, no camel, no goat herder, one bridge, one crossroad, one long straight road through and infinity of sand dunes. Two camp spots with another infinity of bright stars in the sky. Sunrise and sunset was Mother Nature in glorious form as she toyed with shade and shadow across the dunes. But she wasn't in such glorious form when my tailwind became a headwind. Sand gets into everything. It sticks to your sun cream. It tears up your nostrils causing nose bleeds. Its in your sleeping bag, your bicycle chain and don't drink that last mouthful of your morning mug of tea. Its a mouthful of sand.This is desert number 3 on Global cycle ride;1.Karakum - Turkmenistan2.Kyzulkum - Uzbekistan3.Taklamakan - ChinaThe Karakum was tough. The heat was unreal at the time that I was crossing it. The Kyzulkum was almost friendly in comparison. Although the road was relativity poor, a truck stop every 25 KMs and a powerful tailwind made it all very achievable. But the Taklamakan is an extraordinary place. Just endless sand dunes and not much else. Its truly an amazing achievement for the Chinese to build a road through such terrain. And while sleeper buses tear by leaving behind a trail of dust, fumes and ZZZzzzs, I'm holding my brake levers, to soak in the all my surroundings. Its a beautiful place,but its a not place where you want things to go wrong.When I finally made it to that restaurant 250KMs down the road (where I now am), I entered the town cautiously and quietly just after sunset. The only people of this town are directly or indirectly involved in oil and gas projects. It seemed no place for a foreign tourist to be. I had managed to get this far without any police interference and the plan was to get loads of hot food and tea and venture back out into the dunes to camp up for the night. But instead my arrival was greeted with the frantic horn blowing of some over excited motorist. I pulled over to the road side and looked over my shoulder expecting police. Instead three beaming Chinese faces smiled up and handed me a note. It read, 'You are 1 day ahead of me, Please wait.' It wasn't signed, but I presume its Markus and he has heard I'm down the road from him. There's a basic hotel in town, so my plan for tomorrow is to sit by the window and drink tea. And see who passes by.

Tajung is halfway through the Taklamakan. It was a town of 1 hotel, 1 restaurant, 3 food stores and a handful of other stores. The most noticeable feature of this town was all the brothels. There was more brothels than all other stores combined. I had heard from passing bus and truck drivers that a lone cyclist was seen crossing the desert first 100KM, then 50KM, then 10KM from town. By the time Markus had rolled into town it seemed half the population was expecting him. He was greeted with 'Ireland, Ireland' and was brought by about 15 people to the only restaurant in town , where I had spent the day drinking tea and reading my book. Beer and more beer was ordered and while I had updated him on fun times in south east Asia, Markus talked of having snow up to his waist as he crossed passes from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan, the endless complications in getting his Chinese visa, getting arrested for wandering (deliberately) into an area that was "closed to the world" according to Chinese authorises. "You shall be punished", he was told. Punishment was agreed with a €20 fine. Maps of China were sprawled across the table as discussions of routes, Himalayas, visa extensions, the approaching winter filled our table. The great news is we roughly had the same plan. The question remained; Would it be possible? Firstly we wished to detour from the Cross-Desert-Highway which would bring us out in Minfeng. We wish to take the lesser travelled desert route to Qiemo. Its most likely we would be the first people to attempt this route by bicycle. The plan would be to take road 315 out of the Xinliang provence and into the Quighai provence. This would eventually get us to Golmud. Our visas would be running out at this stage so a visa extension in Golmud would be ideal if possible. (If not Plan B comes into operation,-Presently we don't know what Plan B is). Then it comes down to where we can or cannot go. Tibet is out. End of story. Without a guide to dictate and supervise our every move, permits are impossible. Even if either of us could afford a guide we have no intention of paying and thereby promoting such a system. Independent travel is King. So the plan is to continue south east to the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan. Another visa extension will be needed at this stage. The question remains; Will we get it?The next day started with clear skies. We learned we would not pass an source of food or water for 200KM. By mid afternoon a strong direct headwind through a sand storm brought us to a stop. But with no where to shelter and winds to powerful to pitch a tent in the sand, there was nothing to do but pedal through it. It calmed after sunset and with zero traffic on the road, we pedalled into the night. Exhausted at the end of the day, we didn't even set up our tents; Just blew up our mattresses and climbed into our sleeping bags.We were packing up our stuff before sunrise and decided to venture off walking away from the road and into the desert. A perfectly calm morning with splendid sunrise. The dunes were just spectacular. Plenty of photos and it was time to get back on the bike. Our main aim today was to get out of the desert and to skirt the road around the desert. Making it to a village just before Qiemo was ideal. We bought some food and beers and sat out in front of a convenice store. It was well past sunset and we had no fears of finding a camp spot. Who cares at this stage. Sure we always find somewhere. And sure enough the store owner invited us in to sleep on the shop floor. We had a fine nights sleep here. The rats and mice stayed in one corner and we stayed in the other. One of the best things about sleeping in a convience store is the choice available for breakfast. We were up again at sunrise. It was great to complete the 550KM crossing of the Taklamakan. Now the plan was to skirt around the desert on Highway 315. There was many more days of desert biking before we start into the mountains. Gradually the desert became a completely flat landscape of small stones. It took us 3 days to cross this 'Lunar landscape', as we called it. Neil Armstrong could have saved the American taxpayer millions and gone for a walk here instead. I've been in some wild winds in everywhere from Antarctica to Patagonia to Iceland, but I've never experienced winds like these here in Western China. It was a direct head wind and although we were on a perfectly asphalted road, we had to walk the bikes due to the power of the wind. Both our maps pointed to the fact that we would be passing 5 towns over the coming days. But 3 of them were abandoned. At one stage we were down to 1 litre of water between us. Thankfully we came across a road workers' shelter, and here we could refill our bottles.The past 8 days have been very difficult. We would go from sunrise till way past sunset, and rest for about 4 hours in the afternoon as the wind was generally most powerful then. As the sight of the mountains came into view it was a great relief. We were finally getting off this moon. We had hoped to find regular streams to stock up on water but the mountains are completely barren with no agriculture and the only people seemed to be more road workers. And the stream water we found was too saltly to drink. Yesterday we climbed from the 'Lunar landscape' of 1200M to 33350M into the mountains. It was a massive climb but that powerful headwind in the valley became a tailwind and literally blew us up the mountain. In the desert and lunar landscape, Markus and I never bothered setting up our tents, we would throw down the mattress and sleeping bags and sleep wherever. But once we ventured into the mountains, there was an expected temperature decrease. Its morning now as I lay here in my tent and my thermometer reads 2'C. My water bottle outside the tent is partially frozen. The sun has already risen, but I'm in no mood to get out of my cosy sleeping bag. We believe there is a big town coming up. I'm looking forward to this. A choice of restaurants, Maybe even a hotel. All things considered, we are on schedule to reach Golmud before our visas expire.


MARK: "Hey Markus, look at the big radio mast. Lets camp beside it and climb tomorrow at sunrise.

"MARKUS: " Excellent idea."