Rolling Across Xinjiang Day Three

Posted on April 28 2015

After taking on Tianshan and then charging across the Xinjiang backcountry, we awoke early on day three with plenty to think about. It was time for a change of clothes and a huge breakfast and to rationalize why we had just ridden 240 kilometres in 36hrs to get here.

Here was Turpan, an ancient city along the silk road, one of the world’s most badass and humbling routes. Sandwiched between a towering mountain range and the Taklamakan desert, Turpan has thrived since the 1st millennium BC mostly thanks to a monumental water irrigation system. The Kariz is a series of huge underground wells and channels collecting the mountain’s moisture and forming a rather significant oasis.

The result is a rich history of several developing and overlapping cultures. For day three, we had planned a comparatively relaxed route which would take us on a 100km loop through some of the highlights. It would be mostly flat too, those mountains to the north could be tomorrow’s problem.

Waving goodbye to our too-comfortable lodge we rolled south, down into the depression of the desert. The rough houses thinned, the dry cool air became warm and arid and the landscape turned into a tapestry of vineyard greenhouses.

These long, unique, earthen structures tessellated into the horizon, allowing for an extended season of grape-growing. We paused at an abandoned, 10 acre plot and wondered where we had come to. Even in the mid-morning sun the heat was building and we were already peeling off layers.

An early lunch seemed the only option and as we basked outside a small village’s only fridge, the locals came out to check out our bikes. They gave us a good eyeballing too, so we let them go for a spin whilst munching down on one of Turpan’s most famous snacks; huge 24inch wheels of Nang bread. Freshly baked they are warm, stiff, substantial and slightly salty. We felt a big personal connection with the Nang.

Back on the road we looped around one of Turpan’s most famous historical treasures, Gaochang… and managed to find the entrance. Then, for the first time in three days, we actually walked somewhere. It felt damn strange, waddling through the humbling ruins of an ancient civilization wearing cycling bibs. Before the bipedal transformation was complete we were back to the safety of wheels.

North of Turpan lies a sub-branch of the Tianshan Mountain range and as it grew on the horizon, the butterflies in our stomachs harked back to that first morning. Instead of a snow-covered, wintery range, what loomed ahead this time was glowing red and orange. Turpan’s Flaming Mountains are full of legend. Depending who you ask they are fallen embers of a kiln knocked over by the Monkey King in heaven… or the blood of a slayed dragon living within the hills. Either way, these eroded sandstone cliffs were beckoning us towards and we almost burst straight up them.

As the sun was beginning to drop over the desert, we managed to resist its pull and turned back towards Turpan. 40km of highway led us back and we took the chance to form a couple of pace lines and let the Xinjiang Express power us home.

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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