I crawl out of my tent and stretch, yawning as I look around at the new day breaking. For the first time in weeks, I am camped surrounded by greenery. The main body of the Taklamakan Desert lies behind me and I am finally on the northern silk road out of China. I have one week left on my visa, but with only 700km left to cover I am two days ahead of schedule and therefore confident and relaxed about making it through in time. I ride north through the city of Korla and climb a short pass over the mountains and down the other side back into the desert. It is much more populated and interesting than the main body of the Taklamakan – I regularly pass through dusty settlements and there are many faded ruins visible from the roadside. Enormous piles of red chillies picked from nearby fields make for a colourful break from the uniformity of the desert.
As I have penetrated deeper into Xinjiang Province there has been an ever increasing military presence. Tensions between the native Uighurs and the Han Chinese seem to be high, with many Uighurs wishing for independence from the government in Beijing. Armed police are everywhere and I pass a checkpoint every few hours. I am becoming a little nervous but I am always waved through after showing my passport. Petrol stations are surrounded with razor wire and guarded by armed security. When I want my water bottles filled up I have to wait outside while a very suspicious man takes my bottles and fills them for me. The sense of danger adds an element of excitement to the ride which I have not felt since leaving Papua New Guinea, and all the security does not really hinder me much so I’m happy to keep riding north towards another row of mountains in the distance.
Around 100km north of Korla however my luck runs out. I reach another police checkpoint and this time I am not waved through but questioned for over an hour by four armed policemen. They speak no English and my Mandarin is hopeless so communication is difficult. Eventually they get an English speaking woman on the phone who tells me that I do not have the permit required to continue north as the area ahead is a restricted military zone currently closed to foreigners. My attempts at persuasion are to no avail; they are friendly but firm. They will not let me through.
I retreat a short distance and sit on the ground to consider. Studying my map, it soon begins to dawn on me that I could be completely screwed. I am about to enter the mountains and I know of no roads around the restricted military area. My only alternative will be to backtrack 100km to Korla and then detour west back through the desert before cutting north to rejoin the road out of China. But this route is significantly further – instead of an easy 600km in 6 days I would have to smash out almost double that, around 1200km. Averaging 200km a day for almost a week would be challenging at the best of times, but I am also still facing strong headwinds every day and a significant chunk of that distance will be mountainous. I have also ridden over 3000km, in just 20 days, since I last had a day off. I am knackered, filthy and fed up with China.
I am fighting to keep it together, taking deep breaths as I weigh up my options. I apparently look about as wretched as I feel, for before long an Uighur man stops to check if I am alright, and then insists on inviting me to a nearby cafe for chai and some spicy lagman noodles. Using sign language I explain my predicament, and the men pat me on the shoulder consolingly. From the way they respond, I realise that they too are irritated and inconvenienced by the Chinese here. The combination of food, tea and sympathy does a lot to raise my spirits, and my self pity begins to turn to irritation. My time in China has been one battle after another with stupid rules and bureaucracy, and now with less than a week to go it has happened again. Most annoying is the fact that I had researched this route and been told that it was open to foreigners.
I do not think I can make it out of China on the alternative route without cheating and taking a bus. I am running on fumes, and 1200km in 6 days is a tall order at the best of times. But could I not try sneaking around the checkpoint and making it through the restricted area by night? The policemen have showed me on my map which parts were restricted, and after a few more cups of tea and agonising indecision, I say to hell with it. To hell with the bloody Chinese. I am going for it.
I stay in the cafe and wait for nightfall, then walk my bike off the road, passing out of sight and past the checkpoint. Feeling very cloak and dagger, I rejoin the road and continue on. The moon is almost full so I am riding without lights, sticking to the side of the road and focusing intensely on the road ahead for any further checkpoints. I am extremely nervous and my heart is pounding. I do not know what will happen if I am caught, I worry that I would be taken for a foreign spy and arrested. I force myself to remain calm, but with every car that passes my stomach knots up. I am reminded of my first day riding the Magi Highway in Papua New Guinea, where I was half convinced I would be murdered. Now, as then, all I can do is trust to luck.
I ride on for a couple of hours, sneaking past two more checkpoints and beginning to climb up into the mountains. Then just before midnight my luck finally runs out. I am clocked by a mobile checkpoint; a military jeep pulls up and two soldiers get out and start shouting at me. Both of them are armed. The next hour is nerve-wracking. I am escorted on a few kilometres to the next checkpoint where I am interrogated by three men who speak no English. All I can do is stick to my tried and tested ‘dumb tourist’ routine. Friendly, stupid, definitely harmless, not at all like James Bond. Not a spy. I smile a lot, look very confused and show them a lot of photos and maps from my journey.
In my head I have given names for the soldiers based on their guns. Massive Shotgun is not impressed, and continues to shout angrily and accusingly at me. SMG and Assault Rifle are calmer, and gradually suspicion turns to confusion. They have no idea what to do with me. I know they have radioed the other checkpoints, who will have said that they didn’t see me. They keep asking questions, and I keep acting confused and smiling a lot. It is past midnight and apparently English Speaking Lady has gone to bed for they cannot get anyone on the phone. More and more time goes by and we are getting nowhere, talking in circles. My terror has given way to tiredness. Even Massive Shotgun is getting fed up.
Eventually a decision is made and Assault Rifle gestures that I will have to turn around and go back. Overwhelmed with relief that I appear to have escaped arrest, I happily agree and hastily pedal back the way I have come. I’m mentally exhausted by all the stress and want nothing more than to go to sleep, but a glance back tells me that SMG is following me in the jeep to make sure I leave the restricted area. I have to pedal on for another two hours until I am back past the first checkpoint before SMG finally lets me go. I pull off the road and wearily erect my tent, falling into an exhausted sleep at around 3am.
Three hours later I am back on the road riding south. I have decided to attempt the detour. I will need to ride 200km per day for the next six days in order to make it out of China before my visa expires, so I have no time to waste. It is quite depressing having to ride 100km back the way I came the day before, but for once there is no wind and so the distance goes by quickly. I climb back up the pass towards Korla, stopping at the top for a quick breather. As I do so, an Uighur truck driver who has parked nearby waves me over and after a brief chat asks if I would like a drink. It is already very hot so I gladly accept. Grinning widely, he passes down two cans of Red Bull and an iced coffee. He follows this with several naans, some muffins, chocolate and a huge bunch of fresh grapes. More and more gifts are passed down, far more than I can carry. I am blown away by his generosity. So many times during my journey when times have been hard I have been buoyed by acts of random kindness from strangers. The world really is full of beautiful people.
Spurred by this, and taking advantage of the first windless day in weeks, I get my head down and hammer out the miles. Passing back through Korla I head out west into the desert once again, riding hard all day and long into the night. The moon is full and though I am tired and saddle sore, it is pleasantly cool and the desert looks beautiful bathed in silver moonlight. At 3am I finally decide to call it a night, finishing the day on a massive 330km, smashing my previous record to pieces. After more than 17 hours in the saddle, I am too exhausted to bother with the tent, pulling out my sleeping bag and collapsing onto the sand.
The next day I make it back out of the desert and into the town of Kuqa. I am leaving China behind – signs are now written in both Chinese and Arabic, and Muslims are everywhere. All around me are the mouth watering smells of barbecued meat. The vibe is different too, utterly different from the China I entered almost two months ago. I turn north, passing rows of street side fruit sellers. Ripe watermelon smells delicious in the desert heat but I am almost out of money and have no time to spare. It is painful to have to ride past empty handed.
I spend the next two days climbing up into the mountains, riding through a couple of massive thunderstorms. The mountains are incredible. At first they are dry and rocky, but as I get higher they become more and more alpine. There are hills showing all the colours of the rainbow as well as a couple of the most beautiful lakes I have seen since leaving New Zealand. It is hard riding, almost all uphill, and the headwind has returned to torment me once again. I am miserable, and absolutely spent. All day I watch my bike computer, forcing myself to keep pedalling until I have hit my daily mileage. The beauty of my surroundings are a balm that helps numb my fatigue and gives me the energy and enthusiasm which I desperately need to keep going.
All day I look forward to the moment when I can finally stop, put up my tent and relax for a few hours before going to sleep. I have to keep telling myself to take it one day at a time, that every day takes me one day closer to the end. I dream of days off, of finally having a proper rest. Then I wake and reset my mileage to zero, another painful days ride ahead of me.
I am hit by a truck close to the top of one pass. Grinding slowly around blind switchbacks, I suddenly see it coming around a bend, on the wrong side of the road, overtaking a slow moving car. There is no room to get out of the way – I am already as close to the edge of the road as I can be. I am very lucky, he swerves to try to avoid me and in the end it is only my inside pannier that gets clipped. I am shunted hard into the metal barrier, smashing my knee and giving me a frightening look down at the cliff before me. To my relief the barrier holds and I am spared a fatal fall. My bike and panniers are not seriously damaged. My knee is painful, but not broken. I will have some spectacular bruises but feel very lucky to have escaped mostly unharmed. The truck does not stop, and I have to pick myself back up and keep riding. It is a reminder that although Xinjiang might not feel like China in many ways, the driving is much the same. It is the second time I have been hit in the last month. The Chinese are the worst drivers in the world.
By now the mountains have become truly spectacular. I ride over a vast plain, watching groups of horses gallop across the grasslands. I am held at another military checkpoint for almost an hour, but to my enormous relief my passport checks out and I am allowed to continue. My weariness is temporarily forgotten in a spectacular descent, one of my best ever. The mountains of Xinjiang are my favourite part of China, their beauty is utterly breathtaking and I regret that I do not have more time to appreciate it.
On the other side of the mountains the landscape is completely different. Rolling hills and rocky mountains surround soft grassland and shallow rivers. Horses and horsemen are everywhere and I feel like I am finally entering Central Asia. The wind is as strong as ever but to my amazement I am actually ahead of schedule. On my final night in China I camp beside a river, weighing down my tent with rocks to keep it in place before the battering winds. I am only 130km away from the border to Kazakhstan and the end of China at last.
Predictably though, my final day is not straightforward. 15km from the border I am stopped at another checkpoint and told that the border is only open to Chinese and Kazakh nationals, not to foreigners. Once again my information has proven to be inaccurate. Instead I will have to ride another 70km north to a much larger and busier border point. The last week has made me so cynical about China that I am not even particularly surprised. I am cross though. Extremely cross. It is a very cruel thing to be so close after so long only to be told that there is still more to come.
It is already early afternoon so I have to ride hard, grumpily grinding out the distance and making it to the border a few hours before it closes. I am eventually stamped through the Chinese side but told that I will not be allowed to ride through no man’s land and will have to take a bus. I will have to pay for the bus. Getting even more cross, I argue and stamp my foot but to no avail. Then I learn that there are over a hundred other people waiting for a bus, most of them dragging enormous packages to be taken into Kazakhstan. We will need a lot of buses.
An hour passes, then two. There are still no buses. I have my first conversation in English for almost one month with a former Olympic heavyweight boxer from South Korea. It is amazing the people you meet at border crossings. Frustration reigns as time drags on. Eventually a few buses turn up but they are quickly filled. I keep asking if I can just ride over but I am always refused. Bicycles are very awkward things to get onto buses so I have no idea how I will even fit it in. I feel very weary and all I want to do is get out of China.
Finally, one the soldiers gets off his radio and beckons me forward. He tells me that I can now ride over the border and gestures that I should hurry. I have no idea why I am now suddenly allowed to cross, but I ride on quickly before anyone can change their minds. Just before the no man’s land, I have my passport checked again and am told that the border will be closing in 15 minutes time. He tells me to ride fast. I ask how far it is through no man’s land to the Kazakh border. He points me to a sign. It is 7.3km.
Biting down panic and exasperation, I immediately set off at a sprint. I quickly work out that to ride 7.3km in 15 minutes I will have to average about 30km per hour. My normal speed is a bit over 20. There is still a strong headwind. All I can do is try. I bend low over the bars, pedalling furiously. I can hear the wind howling in my ears and my heart thumping in my head. I give it everything I have, leaving nothing in reserve. My legs are a blur.
I arrive at the Kazakh border with only a minute to spare. I am soaked in sweat and gasping for breath. My legs are burning in agony. The Kazakh officials give me a puzzled look but stamp my passport and welcome me to Kazakhstan. I can hardly believe I am actually going to get through. The sun is setting as I ride out into the 10th country of my trip and quickly find a place to camp. I sit against a tree, pop open a beer and munch on my traditional celebratory snickers. I start to grin, then chuckle, and am soon laughing almost hysterically to myself. I have actually done it.
The relief is overwhelming. For almost a month I have had one single focus – to cycle out of China before my visa expired. By the skin of my teeth, I have made it. I have cycled almost 4300km in just 27 days, crossing the Tibetan Plateau and the Taklamakan Desert. For the last week I have averaged over 200km per day. So much has been against me, nothing more so than the endless headwind, but I have pulled through. It has been an amazing ride and the hardest thing I have ever done. I am more spent than I thought possible, but I am here. An enormous weight has been lifted and I am giddy with happiness to be where I am. Central Asia at last.