Week 7: Rainbow Mountain to Dunhuang, 628km
I left Danxia and was feeling pretty good, still enjoying the nice gradual descent from the Tibetan Plateau. I decided to try my longest day in the saddle yet, and aimed for Jiuquan which was about 210km away. The ride itself was fairly uneventful, with just desert and scrubland for most of the day and not much else interesting to look at.
There was also a short climb in the middle that managed to sneak itself in on the elevation profile without me noticing before I set out. So about 100km in, I stopped at the top for some lunch and rechecked the profile to be sure that the next 100km was all actually down hill. Thankfully, it was.
I enjoyed the long rolling descent into Jiuquan, arriving just as the sun was going down. This was probably the best time to arrive as the bell tower in the middle was nicely lit up. I found a hotel for the night and left myself with an easy 35km to do the next day. The first 200km day done! Surprisingly I felt pretty good. If it wasn’t for the light fading, I could’ve probably pushed on to Jiayuguan that day.
Since I hadn’t left until about 10:30 that morning, I developed a new belief that I could probably manage a 250km day in the saddle given the right conditions. This was good to know considering I will probably have some big milage days coming up in Xinjiang, especially if I am going to make it to Kazakhstan for the end of September to meet my fiancé.
I kinda underestimated the short jaunt across to Jiayuguan. Recently I have been doubling up on cycling shorts to combat the saddle sores that I’ve developed on like the second week of this trip. I’ve not really been able to tell if that has been helping or not since it still hurts after a long day in the saddle. Since I was only riding a short distance today, I decided I wouldn’t need to double up… I was wrong. I didn’t realise how much it actually helps. I guess it’s good to know, for anyone reading who’s feeling the pain, double up, it helps!
Anyway, I made the 30km to Jiayuguan and went to a hostel right by the gate of the fortress. I assumed since it was in such a prominent tourist area that they would accept foreigners, wrong again. I rode back into the centre where there was another one called Herdsman International Hostel. The clue seems to be in the name. I should just look for place with “international” and I won’t have any problems.
This hostel was quite interesting. It had those little pod/capsule beds to sleep in. This was my first time staying in such a place and I really enjoyed it. The pod did promise a lot of things that didn’t actually work, such as the TV, USB chargers, air conditioning…But, the things that it did deliver were lights that made you feel like you were in a spaceship and one working charger, which was more than enough to warrant the fiver a night that they charge.
I took the day off today to explore the fortress at Jiayuguan. This was the western-most outpost of ancient China and the first point of call for traders or merchants traveling through old silk road from Persia, Venice, Genoa or wherever.
I took the bus to the gates of the fort and bought my ticket. The fort is set within a big park and I rented this awesome little e-bike to get around. It was fairly rapid, easily reaching 60km/h. Once I reached the actual fort however, I needed to leave the bike with a guard before entering.
Passing through the outer wall I could get a feel for the construction of the ancient fort, with the stratification visible in the rammed earth walls. The main gate is pretty special, with a large wooden watch tower constructed atop the rammed earth walls. The whole place is actually really impressive and one can’t help but compare this western end of the great wall with the more famous sections near Beijing. Although I love the mountainous setting of the wall near Beijing, I think the fact that this is just built in the middle of the desert with nothing else around makes it even more striking. It’s a close one, but I might be tempted to say that Jiayuguan is a better sight to see than the Great Wall—what everyone pictures when they think of China.
Today I rode from my hostel up past the fort again and out into the same desert, along the same road that merchants and armies have crossed for thousands of years. I was contemplating the idea of trying to ride 260km to the city of Guazhou. But to be able to cover that sort of distance in a day, everything would need to go perfectly and about 30km in, I hit a stretch of gravel road. It didn’t go on for too long but it put me far enough behind where I wanted to be to make me think I probably won’t make the 260km. About 130km in, I passed through the city of Yumen and decided to call it day there and get an early night.
That left me with about 140km to go before I reached Guazhou. I continued along the G312, which ran parallel with the big motorway. Big sections of the road were closed as they were working on it but it seemed as though most of the work was finished. This, luckily for me, meant I had the freshly lain road all to myself and could make good time through the vast openness of the desert. I made it to Guazhou and found a hotel for the night.
After Guazhou, I took a slight detour to head south towards Dunhuang, as I wanted to visit the Mogao Caves and the crescent moon oasis in the middle of the Gobi. I had heard that these major sights along the silk road route, which hopefully would be worth the three-day detour to get to. The first day of that detour started amazingly well. As I turned south, the wind was behind me and I was blown through the vast expanse of nothingness at 40km/h. I arrived in Dunhuang—the desert city—and found myself another little capsule hostel to stay in.
I visited the dunes and crescent lake that evening as the sun was going down, which was nice as it was much cooler, but it also meant I had to contend with the gale force desert winds that were responsible for creating the beautiful landscape that surrounded me. This would ultimately lead to a clinic and hospital visit the next day as grains of sand got blown into my eye. Still, the view from atop the dune was worth it!
The next sight on my list was Mogao caves. This world heritage sight is a collection of more than 600 caves carved into the side of a mountain, each with its own unique statue of the buddha within. There are actually many such sights scattered across China but the thing that makes Mogao unique is how well the original artwork is preserved. All of the walls are covered with paintings telling various stories from over a thousand years ago. The final cave contains a massive Buddha statue, apparently the third largest in the world. A very interesting window into the past.
Sadly, pictures are not allowed inside so you’ll just have to trust me when I confirm that it was definitely worth the three-day detour for the chance to experience these sights.