Tuesday, 22 September 2015

GRAPES AND MELONS

PICTURES OF THE NORTHERN SILK ROUTE DESERT. TURPAN (GRAPE TOWN) AND HAMI (MELON TOWN) TO DUN HUANG. Again there were fairly long stretches between hostels where I could scrub my laundry and myself. I mostly camped where there was some shelter from the wind, and I could get water, like at this gas station. This picture was taken the following morning (with the night manager), as I had arrived there after dark the previous evening.
From Turpan to ShanShan and beyond (more than 100 km) was a strip-oasis, with the regular poplar trees and vineyards on one side of the road, and the air-brick raisin drying structures on the opposite dry hillsides.
It was harvest season, and all manner of vehicles were charging back and forth between the vineyards and the drying sheds. Often when they passed me they would stop and offer me a big bunch of the sweet seedless grapes (delicious). It happened so often that eventually I had to decline, as there was no more space in my stomach or on the bike for more grapes. Later I whished they could have followed me into the desert, and supplied 3 bunches per day.
I guess I was still in the Turpan depression, where they probably don't have to dig all that deep for the oil. Interesting that the oil derick is right amongst the raisin sheds.
Sunset in the desert, deceptively pretty. But be warned, the red colour means dust in the air! It was windless and hot when I went to bed. I woke at 2 AM to a strong wind and an impending dust storm. The wind picked up that I feared for the tent (but it is a good tent, and it held). However, the tent can keep out the rain, but not the dust, which swirls around and under the fly sheet through the mesh. Once again, I had to make sure everything was packed and closed, I pulled the buff over my face, and was covered by a good layer of dust in the morning.
Often the pictures of my camp site show the bike leaning against a pole. Why? Well, it is a lot easier unloading and loading all that baggage when the bike is uprite (no stand, and a stand would not work in the sand anyway). And the other thing is, a pole is a good place to which I can lock the bike. Oh, and no, I do not carry the pole with me!
One morning the wind was howling, and it seemed to become even stronger during the day. The very strong winds seemed to come from the North (as in the western Taklamakan desert), which means a side wind. Combined with the dust, the wind kept blowing me off the paved road, but I was usually going slow enough to prevent a crash (except once, when the wheel dug into the sand, I went over the handles, and in the process destroyed my cycle computer). So after that I had to judge distances by the road signs.
The wind was too powerful for me to risk pitching the tent. I had hardly made any distance that day, and it was already getting late. I envisioned just rolling myself up in the tarp and sleeping in a ditch, if I could find one. Then out of nowhere I saw a walled place (I thought I was hallucinating again, as often happens in that desert area). But to my immense pleasure it turned out to be a derelict road camp, with one of the shacks still half standing. In that region I mostly carried food and water for 3 days (poor bike), so I had enough.
I don't know how many pictures of the desert one can take without getting bored of it, so whenever I saw a feature like these power stations, then out came the camera.
Sometimes the roads were good, such as this main road. At times I was even allowed to cycle on the G30 highway, as there was no alternative. At other times the road was narrow and busy with trucks (avoiding the toll). That was a huge problem in the strong crosswinds, as I had to stop each time a truck came bye (from back or front, as I was on the lee-side of the wind). It was just too dangerous to stay on the bike when a truck came past.
I have met a lot of kind people along the way. At a surprise small town I sheltered from the wind in this shed. The owner also had a small restaurant for truckers attached, and he gave me free drinks, dinner, and breakfast.
Hami is known for its melons, apparently the best in the world. They grow all sorts of sweet melons and watermelons, and when the farmers gave me a watermelon to take along, they were thoughtful enough to give me a really small one!
Conditions vary a lot in the desert. Sometimes it can be hot, or windy and dusty, and sometimes it can be surprisingly cool in the evening (like where I camped at this gas station).
When I asked at the Yandun toll gate refreshment stop to camp behind their building, the vehicle inspectors carried a bed into the common room for me (en-suite toilet!), they gave me dinner, and then breakfast as well. The guy in the white shirt is the cook.
Going East into Gansu province. Still, the desert refused to let up. At least I could amuse myself by trying to make sense of the road signs (generally referred to by foreigners as "Chinglish").
I turned off the main road towards the touristy town of Dunhuang (caves and dunes, in case you ask). I was headed there because this was the closest visa office on my route, at a time when my visa was about to expire again. Unfortunately the 140 km long road was being re-built, and most of the way was a terrible bumpy (and dusty, with all the trucks)temporary "road". At sunset after about 10 k's on this road I stopped (close to a pole) in order to set up camp. The roadworkers, who were headed to their camp at the end of their day, came running over and insisted that I spend the night with them at their camp. They set me up in a big empty tent, gave me dinner and wash water, offered me drinks, and some breakfast in the morning. I usually wake up with the daylight, but these poor guys are out on the job by that time (the generator started up, and general activity erupted around 5 AM).
Good thing I was up and away early from the road camp, as I didn't even make it all the way to Dunhuang that day. I camped on the sidewalk in front of a friendly old man's shop.
And this is where it ended, at the railway station outside the Desert town of Dun Huang, Gansu province. My 2nd visa extention was denyed, so I had to high-tail it out of China. The PSB officers there could have given me some extra time, but perhaps they were afraid of my beard and effectively gave me 3 days to leave the country (impossible, unless I had to fly - but no flying with my finances!). In Aksu I had stayed with people, and the guy recommended that I shave my beard off because Chinese people were afraid of bearded men after the 2009 uprising (mostly bearded Uighur men, I guess).
And so, short-notice train bookings meant that I had to sit in a hard seat for 3 days to Kunming. From Kunming it took 2 busses before I got to the border with Laos (and I was by then 3 days over the time by which I had to exit the country).
I arrived at Kunming train station in the rain, to find my bike and bags were not there (tomorrow, they said). My 3-day visa had already expired, so I knew that no registered hostel would be allowed to take me in for the night. I walked to Cloudlands Hostel anyway, as I had forgotten my phone there on the way north (disaster, no gps maps!). They still had my phone (I'd e-mailed them about it), and they let me hang around in their common areas. That night the strict old security guy (I knew him from previous times) brought me a blanket and allowed me to sleep on the couch in the bar. I am very thankful to the friendly staff at Kunming Cloudlands IYH. Daily distances cycled:;- ShanShan 93 km; Windy Desert 100 km; Road Camp 48 km; Truck Stop 110 km; Nangu 60 km; Hami 55 km; Yandun 75 km; XinXinJia 99 km; LiuYuan 100 km; Village Str 100 km; DunHuang 25 km; and distances in China from Bus and Train stations 130 km. Total so far is 132 133 km.

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