Our last train ride in China is one of our longest - a full two days from Chengdu, north through the barren lands of Ningxia province and then west through the Hexi Corridor of Gansu and finally to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Somewhere during our second night we pass by the western end of the Great Wall and the fort which marked the frontier of ancient China. The silk road camel trains would pass through the Hexi Corridor and then branch north or south around the Taklamakan Desert. Our train goes just a little bit faster than a camel....
Urumqi has the familiar look and feel of any big Chinese city. But here there's quite a mixture of people - Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz along with the ubiquitous Han. Some shops have cyrillic signs. We stop for a couple of nights and get our first taste of mutton kebabs and the Uighur bread baked into the size and shape of dinner plates (best eaten fresh otherwise they are just like plates). And then we set off south for Korla, over the Tian Shan mountains, loaded up with nutella, peanut butter and a packet of mature cheddar cheese. Once out of the city we find ourselves cycling through flat desert land, along straight roads lined with plane trees. It gets more interesting as we get closer to the mountains and by late afternoon we are following the Urumqi river into a wide green valley that climbs gradually. We pass through a narrow gorge and emerge into a higher valley where the good road ends. There are signs of quarrying and mining and the skies turn grey. Up ahead is an alarming cloud of smoke appearing from behind the next corner. This turns out to be Houxia, our stop for the night. It's a grim little communist-era coal mine and power station colony. It starts to rain. Perfect.
We stop the night in the Town Hall. Or the Communist Party Rest House/ Cultural Centre. We don't really know what the big institutional building is, but on the top floor are some basic rooms with beds like stone. We dig out our Thermarests. Just before nodding off a couple of policeman knock on our door. Uh-oh. It turns out they just want to practise their English and have a photo taken with us. Next day the weather is fine and we set off up a canyon, the road climbing steadily. We're slow going uphill though and eventually pitch our tent away from the road just as the valley is opening up again. The only traffic seems to be trucks. It's windy but sunny and the landscape is wild and remote. Tomorrow we climb to the pass, which is out of sight from our tent. But tomorrow everything is out of sight. The cloud has descended and it's snowing steadily. We lie in our sleeping bags most of the morning trying to keep warm and wondering what to do. The pass ahead is over 4000 metres and we're not entirely sure how many kilometres we have to cycle to reach it. Finally we pack up and set off just as the snow is stopping. The road is clear but everywhere is in mist. The lorry traffic has died down. It feels like we're cycling into the unknown. After some time the road deteriorates into a filthy muddy dirt road. And then the switchbacks begin and we climb what looks like a near-vertical boulder field. The mud turns to ice and we can't pedal anymore, so off we get and start pushing - but without a clue as to how far we have to go to the top. We stop for an apple and a breather and then suddenly the clouds part and we get a glimpse of the valley we are in. It's a dead end, with a huge snowfield opposite and up on the ridge is a gap that looks like a missing tooth. We can see our road leading into it and a couple of trucks coming down very very slowly. So we plod on, but with a little more spirit now we know we're nearly there. The clouds close in again and then suddenly we're in the gap - we're at the pass. I feel like crying for joy. Out on the other side the weather is quite different - sunny and very windy and no clouds at all. The landscape below is much drier. We know it's nearly all down hill to Korla, still two days' ride away, but the road off the top is not paved, so it's a slow descent at first. And freezing. Now I feel like crying in pain as my fingers turn numb. We pass through lots of grassy pastures with flocks of sheep, yaks or horses munching away.
Our stop for the night is in a forlorn little village built next to the rail line that has come through a side valley from Urumqi. There's one shop and we ask the woman who runs it if she has a room. She does. It's a funky little wooden cubicle inside an adobe hut, but there's space in the hut to cook and eat our noodles out of the fierce wind, so it feels much more comfortable than it looks. We sleep the sleep of the truly knackered.