Rolling across Xinjiang Day One

Posted on April 14 2015

Last week we rolled across Xinjiang. We started on the outskirts of Wulumuqi and rode across the snowy Tianshan mountains into the desert surrounding Turpan. It was, in a word, EPIC. Too big to describe in one mouthful. This is the first of our recaps on the trip… Day One.

Electric storms in Shanghai meant our plane took off late. Very late. Six hours late. We landed at 5am, three hours before we were due to be on the road, so we skipped the beds and went straight for breakfast. What follows on this first day, please keep in mind as you read this, happened on two hours of sleep.

It was minus 7ºC in Wulumuqi. Some of us had packed for the poles, others the beach. It didn’t matter. Everybody felt underprepared as we assembled our bikes in a few inches of snow. Above us towered a 3km wall of pristinely white peaks. Our route started 50km outside of Wulumuqi, at the foothills of the Tianshan Mountains. It’s one of the largest ranges in the world, reaching up to 7500 meters. We would weave our way up and over a relatively modest segment, covering 90km and 2500m of altitude.

It started beautiful. Bracing and beautiful. We climbed through breathtaking valleys rising into the blue sky covered in untouched layers of sparkling snow. Compared with the flatness of Shanghai, this felt like a crisp and beautifully rendered 3D model. The road, however, was definitely touched. Heavily trodden by the march of China’s industrial progress, it had been churned into a quagmire of gravel and mud by a thousand dumper trucks.

We trudged through, slipping, sliding and falling in the sludge, covering only 10km in two hours. This was going to be more than a challenge, it would take faith. The thought of turning back crossed all of our minds at some point. But as we sat shaking the life back into our toes and fingers, in a solitary gas station halfway up, we laughed at Xinjiang’s extreme springtime harshness. We hosed the frozen mud off our bikes and cranked up the bluetooth on our Beats Pill speaker. Little did we know the worst was yet to come.

The worst was not to come before we reached the first summit… or the second. The road surface smoothed, the climb steepened and even the snow found nowhere to shelter from the wind. Pumping excess volumes of heat and energy with every stroke, the wind was on our backs and we smashed two 20km climbs back to back. It was all worth it for the views at the blisteringly cold peaks. With the range stretching out in all directions across huge mountain-top meadows, this felt like cycling to another world.

Then came the descent. we’d seen the elevation map beforehand and it looked joyous. Nothing could prepare us for a fast 60km downhill in the freezing cold. We were chasing the clock. It was already 7pm, two hours behind schedule. The sun would be gone by 8:30pm and from the top, the next town to come would be ours. Only one way down – a bone chilling, race against time.

40km/h downhill at minus 5ºC is enough to freeze the water in our bidons. The coldness numbs your toes and makes pedaling bone shattering. It sucks the life out of your hands and makes feathering the brakes feel like torture. You want to close your eyes and tuck into a ball and let your nose guide you to the warmth, wherever it is, anywhere. But you can’t. The road is thin, it’s bumpy as hell and around the next corner the shadows are looming.

We stopped halfway down the mountain to beg the hotel to send a van. With 35km to go and the last of the light dwindling, we knew there was only one option. Spare socks on our hands.

Mountain temperatures increase 0.75ºC for every 100m you drop towards the valley, but somehow it seemed to be warming up a degree with every pedal stroke. We could barely believe it. As the road flattened and the mining town of Drewghur (Yu Er Gou) approached, we knew we had made it out of Tianshan alive – on two hours of sleep.

What we didn’t realize was that the warm front we had just felt was the start of the Taklamakan Desert. This would be tomorrow’s challenge.

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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