Only in the bright morning light did we see where we were and what we had slept in. At the end of day one, seven exhausted bodies had dropped like stones into Yu Er Gou’s second best hotel. The first best was under renovation. We thanked the spiders and the bed bugs and checked out… after buying the owner a few new towels to replace the ones now covered in Tianshan’s finest thawed soil. Our bikes were definitely now cleaner than we were.
Yu Er Gou is a tiny industrial town at the southern foot of the mountains. It is famous in the region for having a high-speed rail train station direct to Beijing. For a moment, as we stepped out into the bracing 3ÂºC air with that mountain range on the horizon, we considered escape. Of course not. Today was going to be different.
And different it was. Our route took us 125km in an almost straight line East on a constant downhill. We dropped from 1600m to minus 100m, an average of 13 meters of descent for every kilometer travelled. It’s not much, but with the wind on our backs and a smooth road it felt like we were the Xinjiang Express.
The Xinjiang Express chugged through mile after mile of heavy industry. These were some of the the most gargantuan oil refineries and power stations we had ever seen, like great big mechanical monsters endlessly placated by lines of comparatively ant-like trucks. It felt like we were sliding alongside a post apocalyptic world of evil production.
We took the absence of eye-candy as a chance to get our heads down and consume some miles. The group split into two, the fastest forming a pace line and slipping into the distance, visible only as a hazy blur on the horizon. We re-grouped after 40km, only 90 minutes down the road. The landscape had slowly shifted around us from mountain run-off to arid stillness. We were entering the Taklamakan Desert.
At some point the transition was complete. Maybe it was after the last factory, or when the wind started to come warm from the North… or as we passed the first sandy settlements. After 50km, we turned off the desolate main road and hit a zone alive with stores and traffic and people. It felt like re-emerging into society.
From there, we traversed across the bowl of the desert, through tree-line neighborhoods of Turkic homes, cemeteries and farmland. As we hit sea-level we stopped to celebrate and were joined by curious passers by, all wearing taqiyahs and definitely not speaking any version of Chinese we recognized. It felt like we were a couple of countries away. Had we ridden west instead of east?
Back on the road and confirmed eastwards, the villages faded behind and the desert loomed ahead. Today we were only crossing a northern section, across 40km of dunes and tundra, but it gave a vivid taste of what was to come. After the blistering cold breeze of the mountains, here we were only 24 hours later facing into the arid, lip-drying suck of the desert.
The only climb of the day came 15km before the end. The gates to Turpan stand atop a steep 200m hill and we blasted up it with a sense of the oasis to come. Riding through this ancient, silk-road outpost we truly experienced for the first time the curious mix of cultural influences in Xinjiang. We rolled past mosques, markets, manufacturers, wafts of grilled meat and vineyards. Then we looped slightly lost through the same vineyard a few times before finally landing on our lodge.
After 125km and another 8 hours of riding, it felt like a bejeweled oasis inside an oasis town. Our frostbitten ears and sunburnt noses were eclipsed by beaming smiles. Now the fun could really begin.
Watch our trip video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwln8gnejY8
Read about the other days of our journey…
Day One: From Wulumuqi to the mountains / route
Day Two: From the mountains to the desert / route
Day Three: Around the ancient site of Turpan / route
Day Four: Over the flaming mountains / route