Xinjiang had been high up on the travel priority list (YES! that definitely exists) for a while and we finally found a long weekend to make it happen.
We only had a few fixed parameters:
We went through the China Travel guide and landed on the page of Tulufan (Turpan). It looked simply geourgeous with all those grapes, desert, old silk road ruins and remains and a completely “un-“Chinese look and feel.
April, we thought, would be extra beautiful with everything blossoming and pleasant temperatures all around. Little did we know, what Xinjiang had in store for us.
The route was going to take us from Wulumuqi over the mountains to Yu Er Gou, on through the Talamakan desert to Turpan. From there around the ancient sites and over the Flaming mountains. This trip had EPICNESS written all over it.
We left to the news that the weather in fact was going to be quite chilly still in Wulumuqi and in the mountains, ice and snow were in fact still on the ground.
We didn’t let that deter us and checked in with a few kilos to many and high expectations. The 6 hour delay (hooray, China!) couldn’t dampen the mood and when we finally arrived in Wulumuqi at 5am, it was decided to just build the bikes, have breakfast and get going, since we were scheduled to be picked up at 9am to a transfer 50km outside of Wulumuqi to the foot of the Tianshan mountain range (because, obviously, you can sleep when you’re dead!).
Day 1. Wulumuqi to Yu Er Gou. Click here for the route.
On way too little sleep and in conditions of -7degrees Celcius we assembeled the last bits in inch deep snow and then set off towards that mountain range. A cute little street soon turned into a frozen mud bath and climbing the 1.300meters of altitude proved to be a challenge on this first adventurous day.
The higher we climbed the colder it got. Mud froze our gears together. The first (and only!) gas station we encountered thankfully had floor heating and a hose.
Reaching the peak of the mountain range was extra rewarding and the descend towards Yu Er Gou started at dusk but it tooks us all the way until it was completely dark to arrive at Yu Er Gous’s best (and only) hotel.
Here we had hot showers for ourselves and our bicycles – we got to peel off those extra socks from our hands and unfreeze bit by bit. An extraordinary achievement, running on 2 hours of sleep and having had to withstand the temptation of calling in the rescue van (because there just really wasn’t one!).
Day 2. Yu Er Gou to Turpan. Here’s the route.
We woke up in the dingiest hotel in town and quickly set off to get out of there.
Today was going to be the day that would take us straight towards the Talakaman desert and city of Turpan. The train set in motion and we bombed down the only highway in a fast pace line – today was going to be a completely different adventure.
Every kilometer brought another whiff of warm air and we unmistakably left the dreaded mountains behind and traded them in for a smooth, Beijing funded road towards the promised land (remember… raisins, sun, flowers..).
In the late afternoon, we had left all oil refineries, power plants and giganto trucks behind and entered a foreign land of mosques, roadside halal slaughtering, and sandy little villages.
Industrial zones turned into farmland and clothes begged to be taken off to adjust to these warmer climates and dry air.
Arriving in Turpan finally felt like meeting the true objective of our trip (cycling, Xinjiang and manageable) and we checked ourselves into our home for the next two nights. The fun could begin!
Day 3. Ancient Silk Road cycling around Turpan. Here’s the route.
Having blasted through 240km over the past 2 days in the most adverse conditions, today we were looking forward to first and foremost an excellent breakfast and then the actual tourism bit of the trip.
Turpan begged to be explored: it’s one of the most outstanding outposts on the Ancient Silk Road, squeezed between the mountains and the desert and it’s a place where the kings used to dwell. We wanted to see their habitat.
Turpan’s fame lies in its impressive water irrigation system, which makes it an oasis in its own right and is the foundation for its significance both historically and today.
We set out for a 100km loop around Turpan, exploring the grape cultivation areas, the little villages that were inviting for lunch, and full of curious kids and grown-ups who couldn’t wait to try out our bikes.
The cultural highlight of the day was Gaochang, for which we demounted and walked. A busy trading center in the 14th century, today impressive ruins are all tat remains.
Day 4. The Flaming Mountains. Find our route here.
We awoke on day 4 with tired limbs and the knowledge that today was going to be the easiest day. Just another final loop around Turpan – climbing a small mountain on the way.
RIGHT.. Little did we know.
We started off with a 30km traverse east. The more progress we made the more we felt like we had landed on Mars. The landscape became more and more dry, dusty, dirty and industrial. The climb was deadly – slow and steady, yet almost invisible to the eye, did we manage to climb 1.000 meters from sea level, steadily up.
As we climbed towards the peak, the road leveled out on a plateau between two mountains. The surroundings were beyond surreal – The actual mountain was rather small in comparison and coming out of the other side we landed straight into Xinjiang’s own Mordor! We had never seen anything like it. It was time to mask up and breathe deep – what we encountered was a landscape that had been dug through, turned up-side down, exploited and left behind. Beijing had come in, walked through and forgotten to clean up after themselves.
Huge factories for as far as you could see (not very far, with all that dust!)
As we came up, up towards Turpan, the road all the sudden turned into a paradisiac stretch of valley, vineyards, and sunshine – stark contrasts and all the more charming. We all the sudden absolutely loved it. As we rolled back into town on smooth roads we picked up lamb samosas and Xinjiang black beer to celebrate the achievements of the weekend. Trip and experience of a lifetime.
We were almost ready to it all again. Immediately!
The good guys over at Factory Five put together a little clip of this trip:
Find the Factory Five blog posts on day 1, day 2, day 3 and day 4 with many more additional photos. See my photo album here.