Rolling Across Xinjiang Day Four

Posted on May 05 2015

The Flaming Mountains rise in a tidy 75km line along the northern edge of the Silk Road. From the city of Turpan they looked like a piece of cake considering the frozen peaks we had climbed in day one, the 125km transition we had made in day two and the ancient desert we had circled in day three. It seemed only fair that we should nonchalantly cruise straight up the nearest peak and stick a cherry on top. We’d just roll up there, sit at the top and look back out over all we had achieved on the trip.

How wrong we were. After all that Xinjiang had thrown at us, this final day would be the one to smash our group to pieces.

As we set out east from Turpan we were rolling parallel to the mountains. There are only two routes in this area which actually go into the hills and we were taking the furthest one on the map. After 25km of traversing we finally turned north and faced them square on, trying to pick out the line that would deliver us to the top. We felt like space-pilots locking onto a path, ready to be blasted into unchartered territory.

Day four’s route would be a real exploration. 100km up and through the hills, rising from below sea-level to 1,000m of elevation. We didn’t really know what to expect, even adding an optional 15km climb somewhere near the top… should the initial ascent turned out to be too easy.

It really wasn’t too easy. Not by a long shot. After 30 minutes we had risen only 100m of the smooth, straight, constant climb at the mountain’s base. It was going to be more grueling than the route-planning had suggested. The path soon steepened and began to weave up a valley between two peaks. As the desert faded behind, a martian landscape emerged ahead. It was beautiful, following the road up to god-knows-where as the red mountains grew around us. Boldly contrasted against the deep blue sky they felt even more unworldly.

However, what a lot of people don’t know is that Turpan’s impressive Flaming Mountains are actually quite small and tidy. After 350 metres of elevation and 10km of climbing, the road emerges out of their back-side… and into Mordor.

Mordor, Xinjiang is all about producing, extracting and moving large volumes of heavy industry. Crossing a deceptively flat-looking section of constant climbing we encountered a number of train lines, a rather large oil field and the paths of a few modestly sized twisters sauntering across the scrubland. Looming on the horizon were two things; the real mountains… and a really really big factory.

With only one route to choose from all we could do was be drawn slowly closer to the mountain and the factory. The sheer scale of the landscape played tricks on our vision. We were flecks of humankind traversing across a 50km planetary void. With little to use as perspective or frame of reference we were left with only a solitary telegraph line alongside the road to judge angle. As it curved down towards the horizon we cursed at our aching bodies. Why we were still defying physics by riding uphill?

It was thoroughly relentless. We were broken and teary eyed when for the first time in 30km the road finally leveled. We had made it to the entrance of the world’s largest concrete producing factory. By then our group was scattered back down the road like tumbleweed.

We were filthy, starving and surrounded by heavy industry. The only shade from the scorching sun was a freight-train bridge somehow made from coal dust. As we picked ourselves up, questions about existence and purpose started coming to our speechless mouths. But then an apparition appeared out of nowhere.

On the only section of road so steep we had to walk. At the very top of Mordor’s tallest peak. In 3cm of fine black powder. There he was. A dude, in the middle of freaking nowhere, jamming along on an electric scooter like he was on the way to the club. On his jumper: ‘Your attitude determines your direction’

In fits of hysteria we had the energy. That guy, in his deal-with-it shades, had granted us the boost we needed to blast up that hill, even up the extra hill to the quarry, and beyond into a secret land of cherry blossoms and mountain air. It was magical, perhaps only so magical because of what we had just come through.

What followed was truly magical by any measure. As we finally turned south, back out of the mountains, we hit a road so smooth and clean it looked freshly laid. This road, the Xinjiang S202, is a road from which dreams are made. For 30km it rolls straight down the mountain. As we descended we whooped and hollered across a vast open plain, carved down a tree-covered valley and arced though vineyard villages.

It was totally immense. Worth every inch of pain. Thoughts of doing it all again soon emerged. As we sat back in town with a pile of freshly baked Samsa (lamb-pies) and a bottle of Sinkiang Black Beer we had a moment to reflect on just how immense our Xinjiang trip had been.

This region, like of all of China, is an incredible land of contrast. There can be the preserved ruins of ancient civilizations across a small range from Mordor-level heavy industry. There can be world-class ascents through snowy sub-zero temperatures linking day-long descents to immense deserts. There are smooth, fresh, empty roads leading downhill through bustling vineyards from the gates of the world’s largest concrete factory. To experience one you’ve got to appreciate the other. These are a people with thousands of years of history, running full speed at the future with whatever they’ve got.

There’s a whole world inside one region, inside one nation… and a whole year of seasons and styles to be encountered in as little as four days. We had done it all – but in truth, we had done nothing.

Watch our trip video here:

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

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