Cycling China's New

Frontier

June 2018

Serk Cycling Beijing

Running a cycling adventure in frontier territory is no easy undertaking. Our recent adventure near the border of Xinjiang and Kazakstan was no exception.

Xinjiang is both opening up and hunkering down at the moment. As a key gateway from China into Central Asia the Chinese Governments ambitious ‘Belt and Road’ program is rolling out new infrastructure and economic opportunities. Great news for cyclists as this translates into fresh tarmac, new hotels, new airports and train stations. The shiny new infrastructure creates more accessibility and a bunch more rideable kilometers. On the other hand the government is controlling the movement of people and vehicles in the region as part of it's security plan to keep the region safe. This mix of new riding opportunity and constraint shaped the 5-day riding and ultimately led to a unique adventure typical of the unpredictability that frontier destinations create.

As a key gateway from China into Central Asia the ambitious ‘Belt and Road’ program is rolling out new infrastructure. Great news for cyclists.

Day 1

“You absolutely cannot pass from here!” The head policeman at the check point bursted out at us. It was so loud that the entire valley was echoing his clear message.

We were on our first day of riding in Xinjiang. A beautiful sunny day that started from Yining City out towards Zhaosu, a boarder town of Xinjiang connecting between China’s most western frontier and Kazakstan’s most east. Churning away miles on the false flats, we could see the 3500m elevation mountain pass looming large in the background.

Liman, the Everything-Operational-Guru at Serk, has warned the riders that the mountain pass might have been closed because of the heavy snow fall in the past months and landslides caused by the extra-wet conditions in the mountains this year. Nevertheless, we decided to try our luck on the day — on the frontier of China, things are relatively fluid. Sometimes, when the authorities say no, they simply do not want trouble (read: máfàn) for themselves regardless of the actual road conditions. A bag or two local cigarettes might just solve the problem. Of course, you’ll have to look like you are not going to cause them trouble.

When we reached the start point of the pass, having already done 1000m of elevation on the false flat, things are not looking as bright as the Central Asia sun. A police check-point stood in the way to the high mountain pass.

Liman approached the policeman in charge and asked for permission to let the bikes through. The policeman looked at her, then our caravan with a dozen bikes and two support vehicles, and bursted out the message loud and clear “absolutely not”. The side note of that is that we have gone through two other police checkpoints along the way where local authority has thoroughly checked everyone’s passports, visas and travel history. They have also given us mixed messages about the mountain pass — one said bikes can go through, one said that nobody can get through. As a group, we have decided it’s only fitting that we try our luck. So when the words got to the policeman here, it had probably turned into — “a foreign group want to go on the mountain pass despite repeated warning from the previous police check-points.”

After a while, the policeman calmed down, and Liman started working him.

“Look, our guests came from overseas from the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Britain and America, they are here to enjoy the beautiful roads that you guys have here in Xinjiang. Don’t you want to show them the awesome views of your home?”

“…” He looked a little bit embarrassed.

“Maybe you just let them ride up to the landslide and then ride back down? Our vans will stay here to wait for them?”

“That’s not going to work.” The policeman shook his head.

We happened to have a guest that works for the Italian Diplomatic Service, and jokingly mentioned to the officer something like this, “if you let us pass, I’ll make sure you and your family get 5-year Schengen visa and come to Italy to drink wine and eat Italian food!”

That didn’t make the magic happen, but the policeman said, “OK, if you don’t believe me, I’ll drive you guys up to the landslide and you take a look yourself.” The two hopped into the back of the police truck and went on for a joy ride.

Moments later, when they returned, the Italian kept shaking his head. “He’s right. We can’t go through.”

In the end, we descended down the false flat at 60kph for about 30km before taking a turn off to the east for a long detour to get through the mountain to Zhaosu.

Steinbeck once wrote, “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Day 2

We rode on the original route we had planned and enjoyed the lushness in the famed Yili Valley, an open valley within the Tianshan Mountain Range which separates the Northern and Southern part of Xinjiang.

After finishing our ride, our drivers had a little hick up - they forgot the strict speed limits of 40km/h on the newly paved sections of road. They were traveling at 80km/h which translates to an immediate loss of license. Panic arose as the drivers were sure a camera would have recorded their speed and their vehicles would be impounded. A plan was hatched to send a few riders up the road to check for police and if found start smoothing things over.

Off we went, the German, the Italian and myself. We were flying down the road, coasting at 60 kph without pushing the pedals. After about 5k, we saw an empty police check point and a taxi waiting nearby. The taxi driver said there was no police check down here.

So I called Liman to told her the good news — “there is no police-check here, we are good!”

“No, no. The police check is actually up the hill. We are going there now. You guys can go ahead and ride to the next town if you want to.” Then she hung up.

Not knowing what was going on exactly, we decided it’s not worth the effort to go up the hill again. Map says it’s about 40km flat roads to the next town. Easy.

That was a stupidly naive thought — we had a headwind directly blowing at us from the East - coasting at 60kph seemed like a century ago. We were doing pace line over threshold at 10s intervals and were barely holding 35kph. My vision grew narrower and narrower as we went. Just as we were barely hanging on, a tower like building in the distance stood high into the sky - the town we were aiming at was near. The day of suffering was about to end…

We celebrated with a local ice-cream (very similar to Turkish ice-cream) and local noodle soup. Before rounding out the day, we picked up some extra packs of cigarettes - we figured they'd come in handy later in the trip.

By the third day of the trip, the adventurous spirit is in full swing. We are scheduled to ride the Dukugonglu — one of the most scenic roads in China. It goes from Southern Xinjiang to Northern Xinjiang through the Tianshan Mountains over three mountain passes over 3000m elevation.

Day 3

Steinbeck once wrote, “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” By the third day of the trip, the adventurous spirit was in full swing. We are scheduled to ride the Dukugonglu — one of the most scenic roads in China. It goes from Southern Xinjiang to Northern Xinjiang through the Tianshan Mountains over three mountain passes of 3000m elevation. Upon arrival at the police check point - we were faced with the same issue like the first day - one told us that the road was closed and nobody goes in, and the other said both the bikes and the support vehicles can go. Once we reached the bottom of the climb, a huge construction truck had parked itself in the middle of the road. 

I called Liman, who reassured us just to stay there and wait.

When our van and car arrived, everyone was told to bring enough food for the entire ride — looks like the support vehicles were not going to make it to the other side. As we were splitting bananas and discussing who’s carrying the day’s supply of extra water bottles (you guessed right — me), Liman gathered everyone around and said, “you guys go now! Quickly!”

Turns out, the extra cigarettes we got the previous day were distributed to the road engineers and they have decided to let us through.

One can only imagine how privileged we were to be riding on the most beautiful road in China closed to traffic.. The road is ours, and the climb belonged to us.

About 20k up the mountain, we finally saw the landslide that induced the closing down the of the road — some huge rocks went straight through the road and took off half of the tarmac. As the altitude lifted, green grass on the side of the road slowly transitioned into banks of snow you see at the top of mountain passes in the Giro. God bless it was a nice sunny day.

Upon summiting, we were greeted by locals who sell honey by the side of the road. Turns out the owner of the shop is a great friend of our driver. Thus brought the most enjoyable lunch of all time — nun bread and honey in the belly and the most beautiful view in the world. 

As the altitude lifts, green grass on the side of the road slowly transitioned into snow banks you see at the top of mountain passes in the Giro. God bless it was a nice sunny day.

Day 4

Day 4 was another stunning day with a long climb up and over a 3000m pass. Each bend revealed new vistas of the snowy peaks ahead. We were still on closed roads with just some sheep and their kazakh shepherds for company. The sound of 25c tyres on pavement combined with the silence of carfree roads combined to create a special ambience and experience which we all knew we were so lucky to experience. To cap it off we stayed in a traditional Kazakh yurt tent run by a local herding family. As we lay in bed the sound of heavy rain on tent roof was soothing. The rain persisted for hours and we soon started to toss and turn as we worried that morning might bring fresh landslides and more road blockages.

It had stopped raining couple hours before, but the condensation had elevated to the last 5km of the climb and transformed the top of the mountain into a misty heaven.

Day 5

The last day of riding only is fitting if there was an epic climb to round out the trip.

This was a big one - riding from the homestay, we embarked on the 1600m climb before descending into the northern side of the Tianshan Mountains. It had stopped raining couple hours before, but the condensation had elevated to the last 5km of the climb and transformed the top of the mountain into a misty heaven. The road, again, was closed for everyone else but us. Riding into the mist was like a plane taking off into the clouds. Three kilometres up the road we came out the other side of the cloud and punched the last few bends to the top.

Just as we were dreading the prospect of wet descent, the sun pierced through the clouds and made its first appearance in a few days. The 40km descent on the other side was such bliss - we wondered if the switchbacks would ever end. Lucky bustards we were!

It did end, a little bump on the elevation charted turned out to be a 10km 5% climb that would round out the day and the trip. Teeth gritted and sore muscles ignored we finally made it to Kuitun. Our final destination this city was built on oil money from Zhunge’er Desert.  The kababs tasted extra greasy and beer packed extra punch — a fitting reward for such adventure on the western frontier of China.

Just as we were dreading the prospect of wet descent, the sun pierced through the clouds and made its first appearance in a few days. The 40km descent on the other side was such bliss and we wondered if switchbacks would ever end.