Saturday 15 June 2013

The Tibet Diaries, Part 1 - The Tian Shan Mountans & The Desert of No Return

For those who haven't seen my previous blog post, I completed my journey from England to India by bicycle on June 7th 2013. Check out that entry here.

This entry continues to bring you up to date on what went on between England and India. Next up is Tibet.

In Tibet, for the first time ever, I kept a physical journal. For that reason this blog is a bit different from my others. It still has lots of photos but instead of writing now about what happened a few months ago, I have written up word for word my journal as it was written on the day.

This first part of the journal isn't actually in Tibet, but I'm getting close and the idea to right the journal came from my knowing that Tibet, and the lands before it, would throw up some cracking stories. My time in Tibet was not only physically and mentally tougher than any environment I'd passed through before, but it was also illegal due to a ban on independent foreign travel by the Chinese government.

The following takes place in the north of China, crossing the Tian Shan mountain range and the Taklamakan (place of no return) desert.

View England to India in a larger map

The photos for each day are included at the end of every day's entry.

Day 276 - 23/03/2013

Left Urumqi at 3pm. Win (Couchsurfing host) gave me hashbrownies and an envelope which he said was Chinese tradition. He told me to open it once I was a long way away.

Began climbing immediately. Urumqi is at 700m altitude, the pass I was aiming for was 4280m. Highway had a very gradual gradient. Stopped cycling after 40km when I realised I had lost my Polar fleece in Uqumri. Called Win to check the flat. Negative.

Set up camp in woods near road after 20km more (1600m altitude). Decided against using tent, even though it was cloudy, as I wanted to get away quickly in the morning. Remebered that my stove fuel bottle had been emptied by train staff. No noodles then, bread only. Was left speechless when I opened letter from Win and found 600RMB. Recounted it; 700RMB (£73/$114). Called him to say thanks. Didn’t fall asleep easily due to wearing tight cycling top and padded shorts. Also, couldn’t get Win’s kindness out of my mind.

Day 277 – 24/03/2013

Woke in night due to very light rain. Wasn’t sure. Tried to sleep more. Checked time; 07:30. 40 minutes before sunrise. Got up. Rain increased so I hurried up. Tarpaulin got soaked.

Looked for shelter to eat. Found a shop, bought supplies for the big climb. 3 sausages, 2 apples and 3 chocolate bars. I already had bread, raisins and noodles. Ate in a petrol station. Saw 3 all day, none had fuel.

Road became steeper after 25km as it entered valley. Needed to find water, had got some in petrol station but it was not clean. My Steripen (water purifier) stopped working. Tried twice more, unsuccessfully, to get water from ice covered river. Eventually found a river with no ice on 3rd attempt. 3L water. Listened to heavy rock &  XFM (The Ricky Gervais Show).

By 4pm had read doubts about making the top in 1 day. Plenty of food but by 6pm (2 hours before sunset) my legs were done. I had cycled 5 hours and 67km all uphill so I was not sad. Wanted to break my record for biggest climb in 1 day.

Camped at 3080m on mountain side. Soaked noodles in cold water for 30 minutes. Ok but will leave out the spicy stock next time. Low on water. 18km to top tomorrow. Hope to find food and water. Slight tailwind.

Day 278 – 25/03/2013

Woken multiple times by whistling. Assumed/hoped it was just animals. Had related dreams. Slept in 1 hour after sunrise. -4c in tent at night; ok. Frozen leftover noodles for breakfast. Taste ok, strange sludge formed in mouth upon thawing.

Used much lower gear, felt easy. No music all day, preferred this. Found water after climbing down 20m canyon upon hearing a trickle. Saw sign for ‘No. 1 Glacier’, couldn’t tell if it was 4 or 14km away due to Chinese character preceding ‘4km’. Later saw it was 4.

Slight tailwind. Makes little difference when gravity, not air resistance is my greatest foe. Wouldn’t say the same for headwind tho. Counted 9 switchbacks to the top. Saw glacier from 3rd up. Stunning view also of 1000+m vertical ice field.

Let some air out of rear tyre to compensate for low outside air pressure. Tried to stop only at the end of every switchback, which got longer and longer. Had to move solar panel from front to back to front of bike every switchback.

Had lunch (bread and raisins) at start of 9th switch back and put on warm clothes (snow trousers, wind jacket, Buff, glasses and gloves) as I knew the top would be cold and windy. Tibetan prayer flags at top; nowhere near Tibet. Achieved target time of 2 hours and 30 minutes to top minus 1 minute.

No asphalt whole way down, bike and equipment was strong; very shaky ride. Found another river. Great grassy plains with wild horses. Bought snacks in shop. Found perfect single room building for sleeping. Justified stopping early to make fire; still no fuel. Successful noodles. ‘Chimney’ didn't work, lots of smoke.

Enjoyed greatly the view of opposing hill in golden light and took my best photo of the moon. “This is why I do this”, I thought. It had been a while.


Saw truck smashed to pieces half way down near-vertical cliff.

Cycled off side of 0.5m raised road, no damage.

Chased seriously by 2 large dogs for 300m, almost fell off while trying to throw stones behind me while cycling.

Covered in dust from trucks

First sighting of the climb to the pass

Although incredibly daunting and overwhelming, I liked this climb as I could very clearly see the whole route and, most importantly, exactly where the top was. On most passes I have to cycle for a few hours before I get an idea or sighting of what is definitely the top.

The sign which caused all the confusion.

Vertical ice field

Given to me by the truck driver seen earlier.

This is the reason I'd rather go in the wild than any "public toilet" like this. The only reason a ditch isn't considered a toilet as much as this place is that it lacks the 6ft high stinking pile of turd which one has to squat over. I'd go for the ditch any day.

Day 279 – 26/03/2013

Slept poorly as was near railway crossing (which is closed by default), trains have to sound horn for some reason. Woke with painful right arm, must have slept on it. Slept in 1 hour after sunrise. 3 day old bread and sausages for breakfast. Washed pans and filled bottles in river. Green speckles in water but few settlements upstream so I drank it.

No asphalt for first 30km until town. Back wheel developed bad wobble. Bought food and fuel after 30km. Enjoyed asphalt but headwind made for hard work. Mountains stopped and turned to desert. Filled up water bottles from river although I’d passed numerous factories. 20km of proper desert before rivers began.

Listened to ‘A Horse With No Name’. Cruising above 30KMH due to slight hill and slight wind. Would later become side and then head wind. Bought biscuits for breakfast and bottled water. After 120km, with 2 hours until sunset, I decided to go for 100 miles (160km). Was doing 35KMH at the time.

Road direction and this wind soon changed. Tried to pump rear tyre more, valve wouldn’t open. Broke valve, replaced tube. Joined motorway. Did 11KMH up unexpected pass. Tempted by hotel as I saw how big Korla was. Camped near river/quarry. Stove worked well.

First day above 100km since 27/11/2012!

Woke in night for long time; bright full moon. Used eye mask. Very warm, 9c minimum. Used moonlight instead of torch.

A long day! The Speedometer reads 168.1km (104.5 miles)

My hard-earned reward - 3 packs of instant noodles.

Day 280 – 27/03/2013

Painful arm again. Slept in 1 hour. Poor sleep doesn’t seem to affect me during day. Fixed wobble in back wheel, spokes very loose.

Bought food in Korla. Almost embarrassing how dirty I was; black, brown and grey marks on skin including face. Replaced broken bottle cage for 5RMB (50p). Used internet in shop to check population density of route through desert.

Changed into summer gear once outside Korla. Used Afghan head-scarf Arab style and poured water on it. Very effective. 25c in shade. Very slight tailwind. More encounters with nice locals than normal. Tailed a tractor for 15km; wind break enabled me to go 5KMH faster with same work rate. Would have loved a dog to chase me today.

Felt great cycling in shorts. Real desert started after 60km. Bigger sand dunes after 80km. Not as remote as I’d hoped, maybe later. Listened to ‘101 Running Songs’. Aimed for lake to finish. Found Euro-style 4m wide asphalt track running alongside lake. Camped next to track; no traffic.

Had to use tent due to hundreds of huge mosquitos. Prepared to eat dinner in tent but then mosquitoes left me alone. I was covered head to toe with clothes.

Watched dusty moonrise reflect in lake. Fathomed that the moon was an actual thing thousands of miles away. Looked at it differently, gauging distance and size. Baffled further by the fact that it’s moving around us. I wonder how far I’ve cycled in terms of going around the moon. Warm in tent.

Day 281 – 28/03/2013

Arm better, slept ok. Woke for obscure sunrise. Washed in lake. Took one step in and both feet sank 30cm into mud. People working on lake gave me water, cakes and other snacks. Set up camera pole on front of bike. Fish-eye camera is useless.

Rejoined main road after 7km. Pulled a red 6 or 8 legged bug off my neck after I felt a bite. Petrol stations were useful, all have water machines, shade and chairs. Staff gave me an apple. 

Speedometer jumped to 50.2KMH. Replaced batteries; didn’t work. Resorted to original battery. Lost real maximum speed statistic as a result of this. I knew it was 30-something KMH. Pushed hard to reach 42KMH to be sure. Toyed with the idea of breaking 50.2KMH.

Many dead trees and plants due to diverted rivers. Broke many milestones; 100km in the day, 5 hours ride time, 11800km trip total, 900km road marker (joined at 551km at noon 2 days before), 124km in day to break 400km in 3 days.

River, plant and population stopped after 120km. Had option to sleep in ghost town but opted for desert experience. Much of the sand has a crispy layer on top making it easy to push bicycle. Camped without tent.

25c 1 hour before sunset, 7c 2 hours after. 1.8c minimum, a bit cold due to wind and compressed down in sleeping bag. Spent ages working out circumference of 26x1.75 inch wheel; couldn’t. Foul mood. Watched moonrise.


Another day of high morale

Day 282 – 29/03/2013

A bit cold at night. Woke with sun to strong headwind. Spent until noon measuring circumference of front tyre. This put me in a bad mood. Ate bread and sausage for breakfast.

18KMH in headwind. Next town should have been 22km away; was abonded. Climbed watch tower to view desert. Saw water 200m back with some truckers next to it. Looked at water (dirty, stagnant) with bottles in hand. Trucker saw this and gave me 3 500ml bottles. The real ‘plan A’ worked.

Next name on road sign was 55km away. Desert became entirely empty. Definitely saw a fly with no buzz. Used sun cream for first time in months; the smell made me miss family. Cycled in half hour sessions; very effective, helped bum be less sore.

Listened to Wailers, Lighthouse Family, Mattafix and Kalkbrenner (later). No GPS due to batteries and solar panel being useless. Rationed water. Ate last sausage, a different brand, smelt and tasted like cat food. Arrived in next town after 4 hours, so hungry. Abandoned.

Saw chickens, thought about it. Tried to break into only surviving building. Found water; stagnant. Realised I could cook noodles. Finally made Steripen work. Tasted of mud.

Started cycling again at 19:00. Decided not to stop until I found more food. Was going to cycle all night, 200+km to what I hoped was a big town. Tailwind; 27KMH. Didn’t stop for one hour. Downgraded idea to ‘stop when tired, not when dark’.

Enjoyed cooler temperature. Pushed hard. Found some type of industrial camp. Was given food and water. Slept nearby. More stars, later moon.

My emergency food - sesame cream from Iran. Stored at the bottom of my pannier since October 2012. High in calories, fat and protein and perfect for when I've ran out of all other food

The stagnant water I drank in the abandoned town.

Day 283 – 30/03/2013

Woke with sun. Oil workers summoned me to eat. Boiled rice (in lots of water), ‘dinner food’, ‘raw’ bread and hardboiled egg, egg nearly made me vomit; thought of foetus.

Desert very flat. 5-10km of gravel road. Road became surrounded by water with fish for rest of day. Straightest, longest roads yet. Did some filming, Good tailwind. Earlier, oil workers gave me 7 uncooked buns, 6 spicy vegetable snacks and 5 sausages for the road when I asked for 1 bun.

Had to choose between following shorter route across desolate looking road (tempting) or longer route which went via a town of unknown size. Desperately hoped town would at least have internet café to research route, if not a hotel.

Saw first green plants in days. Outskirts of town did not look promising. Stopped at intersection and spotted a grand hotel; 138RMB (£14/$22) / night. 3/4 start UK standard. Initially accidentally asked for a ‘1 hour’ room as I saw it cheapest on price list.

Was shown to room. When staff closed the door and left I spun in circles with my arms out. Felt so happy, a real high from completing the desert stretch. Used internet to reconnect with world. Started watching ‘Rome’.

My left arm started burning quite badly so I used my Buff, held up by a strap, normally used to stop trousers falling into my front gears, to give my arm some shade.

Day 284 – 31/03/2013

Lazy day in hotel. Skyped friends and family. Learnt from Janne that people have been arrested in the past for cycling where I did. Very close to where Chinese did their nuclear bomb tests. Would explain the abandoned villages and the barrier at start of shortcut I considered. Read that people in the area have 30-40% higher rates of cancer. I shouldn’t have drank stagnant water! Researched route.

Day 285 – 01/04/2013

Woke occasionally in morning, really didn’t want to go. Won’t explain here; see email to family below. Checked out at 2pm. Saw near gale-force headwind outside as I bought supplies. Decided to stay another day for this to pass and the aforementioned feeling. Got new, clean room.

Skyped family briefly. Watched football. Tuned in an hour late to due to clocks going forward in UK but not in China. Slept at 04:30.

Excerpt from email to family:
Well, I have to admit that I have a slightly sad feeling to be leaving such a lovely hotel. It's actually one of the hardest things I have to deal with on my trip; going from living on the bike and being disconnected from the world, to be connected again and having lots of contact with everyone, and then going back again.

Of course, once I'm on the bike I always feel great. But in the same way that it's a huge high to get back in touch with everyone, I also feel a very peculiar feeling about becoming disconnected again.
It's also got something to do with being very relaxed, and able to be disorganised in my hotel room to having to think about every decision again. As I said, once I'm out there, I never think about this, so I'll be fine!
I think if, next time I stop somewhere, I do anything that needs to be organised to continue first, such as washing clothes and buying food, and then relax, then I won't feel such a big difference. I do feel good about the fact that I've finished my packing 2 hours before checkout (2pm my time)!

Day 286 02/04/2013

Woke at 10. Same negative feeling. Kept pretending I had things to do online to delay departure. Checked out at 1pm. Withdrew 1,000RMB.

Slight headwind soon dropped. Really nice Ughyur bread. Highway was most monotonous of all trip. Everything grey (sky too from the dust) except for yellow line in middle of road and litter running continuously down side of road.

Missed turn off. Tried to cycle off-road on gravel desert to rejoin correct road. Gravel too fine; wheels sank in. Saw a jeep track in right direction a few kilometres later. 7km on it. Wasn’t sure if ‘correct’ road existed as I was surprised I didn’t see the turning.

Finally got to the road! Still gravel. It was, in fact, the old 318, the new one of which I was on previously. Cycled 15-20km until it joined road to mountains. Really bad gravel and some washboard.

Dripping with sweat; surprised as sun was obscured by dust. Tarmac on road I joined stopped exactly where I joined it. Got muddy water from river. Cycled uphill on track as per GPS route. Not a single car in sight; strange. Continued up to 1,400m.

Huge canyon; river 100% dry. May not have enough water to make it. Purposely camped near road to learn of any traffic. Enjoyed the smell of sweat for the 1st time this year.

Saw 2 men on motorbikes. Asked if there was water up the road; no. Told them I was going to Germu (Goldmud). They pointed that the new road to Germu was in fact the highway I was on before. Confirmed on GPS. First time Google Maps has let me down.

Took all bags off bicycle and, like undressing a woman, realised how beautiful my Surly is.

Trying to find the right road.

Day 287 – 03/04/2013

Slept well. Turned bike over to apply oil. Saw eyelet on fork where rack attaches has snapped from frame. Explains noise heard on gravel on 30/03/2013. Ok to ride. Fixed in place with string.

Went back down hill climbed yesterday. Filled bottles from same river, the only river all day. Water very brown from mud; tasted fine. 28KMH downhill on asphalt to rejoin new road. 70+km wasted on wrong road.

Hot water (for noodles later) and snack in petrol station. Very strong headwind as I turned east. Could only make 12KMH. By end of day 9KMH. Didn’t expect road to be so empty. No shops, building, anything. Many dry rivers.

Speedometer stopped working for 10km. Pushed bike a bit. Pain in upper front of right leg. Shorts rubbed on inside thigh. Listened to XFM, Selfish Gene. Kept going hoping to find cellular tower with wall surrounding it – only possible shelter from wind.

Found small building at base of one around 18:30. Planned to wake in night and cycle in less wind. Wind only getting stronger though. Tried camping without tent. Wind shelter worked ok but sand everywhere. Used tent and Mum’s wind breaker.

Not enough time to get to Golmud (before visa expires), will hitch over pass tomorrow. Sand in teeth. Watched ‘Rome’ in tent. Mood better in tent than in day. Thought about 21st birthday.


My original plan to sleep without a tent and use anything I could find to stop the sand coming my way.

After 2 minutes my sleeping bag was covered with sand

Day 288 – 04/04/2013
Slept fine despite strong wind. Sand came through inner netting at ends of tent. Outside completely covered; grey.

Cycled 1km to find spot to hitch. Before I’d even applied kickstand I saw a 4x4. Picked me up. Confused as to how far he was going. Overtaken by coach. We re-overtook it and stopped it. My driver spoke to coach driver and got me on the coach for free. Gave me a bottle of water too.

I asked “Germu”? He gestured ‘2’ with his fingers. Unsure if this meant 2 days to Germu or I’d need to take a 2nd ride. Saw 1 river on way up pass, all others dry for 600 kilometres after. Saw amazing salt lakes and wind-eroded rocks.

Sat at back for space to myself. Survived on raisins and 500ml water for most of day until coach stopped and I had instant noodles and Pepsi around 19:00.

Mid-evening the driver saw a sign for Germu, told me to go. People very kind and helpful, gave me 6 500ml waters. Coach left, road to Germu didn’t exist. I thought the turn off should be 100km later. Saw another coach coming. Flagged it down as I ran back to road. Entirely empty. Took me to correct Germu turning.

Cycled down onto highway. Dark now and less than -5c, 3,200m altitude. Two dozen vehicles passed without stopping. I shone light on myself so drivers would see me. Open-back truck carrying cement stopped. Driver said I had to lift bike onto top of truck (on top of cement). Took all bags off and climbed up, he passed me my bike.

Truck very slow most of time, around 20-30KMH. Door wouldn’t seal; quite cold. 80km from Golmud we stopped in truck-stop near train station. I wanted to sleep in truck. He told me I’d have to pay 50RMG to sleep in truck-stop. Lost driver. Found a place for 20RMB with electric blanket.

Considering that my tent is normally quite a bright green, I think it was a good idea to use it.

Day 289 – 05/04/2013

Considered cycling to Germu; couldn’t be bothered. Picked up by nice guys in mini pick-up truck. Land around road flooded/salt lakes. Saw 10,000s of electricity pylons; didn’t regret not cycling.

Went to hostel in Germu. Foreigners not allowed. Went to bad hotel for 80RMB. I was asked to leave after 90 minutes for same reason. Back to hostel. 2 Chinese tourists who spoke a little English and could translate on their phones helped me. Said hostel boss would be here tomorrow and then I could stay.

Had to stay in 258RMB (£27/$42) hotel than night. Went for lunch with one of them; 68RMB, too expensive! Skyped family. Decided to stay in hotel for convenience of internet.

Day 290 – 06/04/2013

Went out to fix eyelet on front fork. Went to Merida bike shop. Passer-by asked if I needed help. He asked shop owner for location of welders. Took me there, only 200m away. Welding done in a flash. Bike on fire for almost 10 seconds. Welding obstructed screw entering eyelet. He got out an angle-grinder.

Eyelet now at a slight angle from where it was before but rack attaches perfectly although it’s very difficult to get screw in.  Charlie (the passer-by) insisted on paying. 10RMB. Took me for lunch. Gave me half his food as he’d already eaten. I couldn’t finish. Then he bought me instant coffee and sweet yoghurt.

Skyped Fred in Cairo. Finished ‘Rome’. Watched ‘Empire Records’; great. Downloaded loads of audiobooks. Slept through breakfast every day in hotel. Gave clothes for washing.

I hope you've enjoyed reading this first instalment! Some bloggers take the time to write in order to gain money from advertising or simply to make their voices heard. Personally, I took the time to write this in hope that you may be inspired to donate to the cause which inspires and motivates me, St. Margaret's Hospice.

I don't have a media team or any sponsorship helping me along so this is my only way of turning hard-fought miles into kind donations. I started fundraising for them over a year ago and so far you guys have donated a whopping £5,390 ($8,340) My target is, and always has been, £25,000 and I am always so happy when I see another donation come through so please give generously.

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