We had enjoyed a slight tailwind on the latter part of Monday’s cycle ride, but when we woke up bright and early at 5.30am on Tuesday, all was calm. Perhaps, if we were more familiar with the local weather patterns, we would have guessed what was coming, but as it was, we had no idea.
Barely an hour after setting off we were beginning to struggle against a ferocious headwind. It seemed to be continually building, and we were left struggling to make even 8km per hour.
Around midday we were just a little over ten kilometres from our previous night’s camp, despite two hard hours of cycling. We decided that, instead of trying to make our target campsite for the night, another 35km away, we would stop at the only other water source on route in just 8km. It would mean an early finish to the day’s riding, but would reduce the risk of ending up stranded on route with limited water.
By the time the lake appeared in view, we were tired both of the ever increasing headwind and trucks that kept hurtling past us, throwing us off balance each time they passed us. The road was narrow, and we had little room for manouvre. I was forced to a standstill on more than one occasion, as this was preferable to wobbling into the road on one side of me or the steep, concrete ditch on the other.
We cycled off the road and began to look for a suitable spot to camp. There were a couple of lines of trees, possibly planted as windbreaks in view, and we considered camping behind these. As we cycled, or tried to, along that sandy track on the side of the road, we came across our best bit of luck yet.
There, in front of us, was a small, abandoned building, just big enough for us to pitch our tent inside, store our bikes, and have a little extra space. It was as close to perfect as we could have hoped for.
The Small House
While I set up the tent and made some lunch, Arron kindly braved the gusting wind once more to fetch a large supply of ice from the nearby lake – a 25 litre dry bag full to be exact! We definitely weren’t going to go thirsty.
By late afternoon, the wind was still getting stronger, and, suspecting a storm later in the day, we decided we needed to make few home improvements before it hit us in full force. We spent the next hour collecting stones to fill in the various holes gaping in the walls and Arron found a large piece of plywood to block up half of the open doorway. By the time we had finished, we could barely feel the wind inside the little house.
That night, and the following morning, we woke up to the sounds of a howling wind outside. Until about 6am we feebly hoped the wind might die down when we finally accepted that it probably wasn’t, and we were going to have to wait the day out inside our little shelter. This was confirmed when Arron unzipped the tent to start making breakfast, and was greeted by a flurry of snow falling from the tent.
This brought another problem into the spotlight that we had discovered earlier in the week and had yet to find a solution for.
Our entire trip relies heavily on our stoves, and the fuel to heat them. They are what we use to not only heat our food, but also melt our ice into water, and then boil it to purify it.
We were already running low on gas, with each canister lasting for about a day. As you can probably imagine, camping in these conditions uses far more fuel than a lovely summer’s day in the UK.
What’s more, Xinjiang, the province of China we are currently in, is heavily controlled. Armed police roam every street, security personnel guard almost every building and it is not uncommon to see enormous tanks parked up on the sides of the road.
Petrol stations are also heavily guarded and in order to be sold fuel, you need special card, which I assume is issued by the local government, that then allows you into the fuel station to purchase fuel for your vehicle. We of course don’t have this special card, and despite our best efforts of persuasion, we have not yet been successful in acquiring any fuel. In fact, with the amount of security checks we have been through, it is amazing we have managed to keep hold of the fuel we do have.
With all this in mind, we decided that the best solution while we waited out the storm, was to build a fire. There are much worse things to do in a cold environment, and it gave us some purpose for the day. We collected wood and coal from outside (there is a lot of coal overspill on the sides of the road) and, with a flint and steel, in true Bear-Grylls style, Arron lit our fire.
We spent the rest of the day refilling our now empty flasks of slightly muddy, gritty water, infused with the acrid taste of coal. Thankfully(?), we were also infused with that same acrid smell and, until the following day, couldn’t taste just how bad our water was! I was also grateful that I couldn’t see the true colour of the water we were drinking until we no longer had to drink it…
Boiling up our Water
What I have discovered is that the simplest of things become the greatest of pleasures in this extreme environment. Simply having an unlimited supply of hot water for the day and a fire on which to warm our fingers and toes was enough to keep us happy while we waited out the storm. Our life became very small for the 40 hours we were inside that hut, but somehow still enjoyable.
Having said that, when we woke up on our second morning to find the wind had died down and we could set off cycling again, we were both excited.
Perhaps we were a little overexcited…as Arron rigged up a light inside the hut so that we could cook our breakfast in the light (it is after all still pitch black at 6am), he stumbled and fell into the uncovered well in the middle of the room, inadvertently throwing the light onto the fire as he did so. I looked on in horror from the otherside of the room, utterly helpless and terrified he might fall too far down. But no, he scrambled up and out of it as fast as he had fell into it, more concerned about the burning plastic light in the fire than the fact he had almost fallen into the depths below. I was so relieved, I couldn’t help but laugh, after checking he was OK of course!
We took that as our signal to leave and, in record time, we were out of there by 9am!
We didn’t get very far however, before we were invited into a shopkeeper’s home just 5km from our starting point. Too tempted by the warmth of some time inside, and with fingers and toes already suffering in the cold, we gratefully accepted his offer. We were plied with tea and biscuits and bread and each time we tried to leave, he insisted we stayed for more. He spoke no English, and we could barely communicate, but he and his wife are, I believe, the reason we made it to Urumqi later that same day.
The cycling, however, got progressively harder the closer we got to the city. About 20km outside of it, the roads became small mountain passes, covered in snow…and it wasn’t long before I went flying sideways across the ground. It was now Arron’s turn to laugh at me, as I struggled to get my boot free of the pile of luggage that had landed on top of it. Thankfully I was OK, just a little shaken, but it wasn’t long until the wind, unable to decide which direction it wanted to blow, became unbearbly cold and we had to stop to layer up. Balaclavas and goggles were pulled out and put on, so you know how serious it was!!
Staying warm has been by far the biggest challenge for me this first week. The cycling, though hard work with so mych extra weight, is bearable even in the worst moments; but the cold. The cold creeps into you and won’t let go once it does. I pedal harder and faster in an attempt to stave of the cold but still my toes and fingers feel numb.
By the time we arrived in Urumqi, after six days cycling and camping, I was ready for a the lovely warm hotel room that awaited us. It may not be in our budget, but with the issue of fuel (or lack of) and our dependence on it, the budget might not be the only thing to change on this journey.