I am sat on an old stone monument with a cup of tea and some instant noodles, looking up at the blue sky and enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face. According to my map it should be around 1900km out of China and I have 15 days left on my visa. An endless expanse of nothingness lies before me as far as the eye can see. In order to reach the northern silk road into Central Asia I will have to ride straight through the heart of the Taklamakan Desert.
I am both excited and intimidated by the incredible scale of the emptiness before me. A wall of brown mountains, the edge of the Kunlan Shan range, is outlined in the distance to the south west. In every other direction there is nothing on the horizon. I love the exotic romance of the desert; there is a certain magic to be sought amidst the long slow silence of the sands. Aside from the occasional overtaking lorry, I am completely alone. At night I sleep hidden behind sand dunes, not bothering with my tent but sleeping happily under the stars, comfortable and at peace surrounded by what feels like an eternity of emptiness.
Every day or two I reach a small town. I will see it in the distance at least an hour before I reach it; a faint shimmer, tiny dark shapes on the horizon that gradually solidify to form distant buildings. Seeing a town is always a relief, a sign that water is close and that I can resupply. If it has been a particularly long time since the last one, I have to carefully ration my remaining water and sighting a new settlement is cause for celebration and a long draught of my dwindling reserves.
When I finally reach them, towns are almost as quiet as the desert. A few restaurants, a general store and a petrol station are about as much as they ever have. Hundreds of years ago towns like these would have served as vital lifelines to travellers making their way along the southern silk road. Today they serve the same purpose for modern travellers – mainly long haul truckers and the occasional idiot on a bicycle. I drink as much water as I can, fill up with another 8 litres and pedal out into the desert once again.
Mornings are my favourite part of every day. Nights are cold and I always wake before dawn to take advantage. I am already riding as the stars fade and the sun rises orange on the horizon. Within a few hours the daily headwinds have started and for the rest of the day I am battling hard to keep moving. The hardest part is mental; because of the vastness and monotony of the desert it feels as if I am making no progress at all as the wind continues to sap my strength.
Slowly but surely though I am advancing west. The line of mountains to my left grows fainter every day and I cross over into Xinjiang, China’s largest province. Almost every town has a military checkpoint manned by armed soldiers and my passport is regularly checked. I am often advised not to continue by men who tell me there is ‘nothing’ ahead. I am surprised to reach more mountains, climbing another pass before enjoying my longest ever descent of almost 70km. The headwinds slightly ruin the downhill but I am pleased to have finally got back down from the outside edge of the Tibetan Plateau, which has stretched far further west than I had realised.
Having spent most of the last few weeks at over 4000 metres, I am now down to around 1000. The heat is instantly oppressive and the winds have lost none of their intensity. One morning I awake to find that I have unknowingly camped in the long dead ruins of an ancient settlement. Only the faint outlines of the foundation stones are visible but I can see vestiges of what would have been a fairly large town spread out around me. I have seen a number of places such as this, some with crumbling walls still standing but most of which have been almost entirely swallowed up by the sands. It is daunting to think that people once lived and died in a place that is now all but lost to the desert.
As I turn north the landscape begins to change. The sand becomes lighter and less gritty until I am in an environment that feels more and more like the Sahara. The heat of the day is brutal and the wind unrelenting. I am now forging through the very heart of the Taklamakan on a much busier road. Cars, trucks and tour buses screech past me with annoying regularity, the quiet of past days long forgotten. I am now seeing a few towns a day with plenty of rest stops in between, very welcome as the heat now has me going through more than ten litres of water a day.
I see a beautiful oasis not far away from the road and drop the bike in preparation to dive into the water. My hopes of cooling off are dashed however when on closer inspection I find that the oasis is not what it appeared. Not a mirage, but rather the victim of the many Chinese tourists passing through. Rubbish is strewn everywhere and the pungent smell of urine is strong enough to make me abandon any desire to swim. Throughout China I have been saddened to find beautiful places treated in this way by Chinese tourists who apparently give no thought to their actions. With the exception of a few individual travellers, before entering China my experience with Chinese tourists had been mostly negative. It is a great shame that so many of them treat their own country with the same lack of respect as they do foreign lands.
I am seeing more and more Muslims as I ride north and soon catch sight of my first mosque since Malaysia. I have become very weary of dealing with Chinese people who can often be very rude and inconsiderate so I am very happy to be back in Islamic lands. The Uighurs are the Muslim ethnic minority group in Xinjiang province, who in my experience have a lot more in common with Central Asia than they do with China. I immediately find them to be significantly more friendly and respectful than the Han Chinese.
My first proper encounter is in a small desert town. I stock up on food at a market and then stop outside a small restaurant to ask for water. Skewers of meat are being barbecued outside and it smells delicious. A young man wearing a skull cap fills up my bottles and asks if I would like to eat. Through sign language I tell him that I would love to but that I have very little money and will have to continue. Smiling warmly, he brings me into his restaurant and insists on cooking me an enormous meal free of charge. Huge slabs of deliciously seasoned meats are piled high on a bed of fried rice, alongside half a dozen beautifully barbecued kebab skewers. Chinese food tends to be delicate, so such big chunks of simple meat is a very welcome change.
It is the best meal I have had in China and it even comes with second helpings. I talk for a while to the men sitting outside in the shade, thanking everyone with hearty handshakes before being sent off with a smile, a wave and three huge pieces of flatbread. There is no better hospitality in all the world than Islamic hospitality.
Encouraged by all the smiles and supporting waves I am receiving on the roads, I press on. Slowly at first, and then more abruptly, the desert gives way to a landscape that is green and bountiful. The roads are busier with local traffic as towns are now much closer together. The end of the desert at last. I ride hard until sunset, finishing the day on 240km, my biggest distance yet. I camp in one of the many cotton fields surrounding the road and celebrate with fresh fruit from the market. After so long on the Plateau and through the Taklamakan, where all I could find were rations of instant noodles and stale biscuits, apples have me in rapture.
I still have a way to go, with around 700km to the Kazakh border, but I have 7 days left on my visa and I am ahead of schedule. I am confident that with the Tibetan Plateau and the Taklamakan Desert behind me, I have done the hard part. I have not had a day off since leaving Kangding three weeks before, and have covered around 3000km since then, with headwinds almost every day. Still, I feel good and am happy to be here. One week left in China. I am nearly through.