It's hard to explain how excited you can get at the sight of a tarmacced road. We've been riding down a dirt road all morning, through a dry valley, dustclouds everywhere and when we finally breeze into Balguntay it looks like we were dragged here rather than cycled. Even the camels we had passed looked dusty. But here is a real road. Yeah! And here is the Traffic Police, asking us to walk this way, into the station house. It's full of chain-smoking Kyrghyz and Uighur truck drivers presenting documents. We present our passports which are duly copied and handed back, once they know where we are heading. In the town we stop at a restaurant for laghman (hand-pulled noodles). When the food arrives so do more policemen. One speaks good English and he's very polite. Where are we going? Korla. Where will we spend the night? Mmmm. Whwere do you suggest? He suggests a town off our route. We smile and say thanks for the suggestion. He keeps our passports and asks us to collect them at another station down the street after we've eaten. We guess they don't see many tourists in these parts. (Much later we find out from our friends Bert and Gill that they are refused to stay the night because it's in a 'military zone').
Joyfully we pedal on down the paved road, following a large river and passing through some rather grim industrial villages. One factory is surrounded by adobe hovels - the worst slum housing we've seen in China. Chimneys belch dirty smoke. Goodness only knows what goes into the river. Towards late afternoon we finally approach the end of the valley we've been cycling all day. There's a hotel by the side of the road with a big garden on the river bank. We check it out and ask if we can camp on the river bank. No problem. The hotel even has water. It's only when we boil it for tea and noodles that the rust-coloured scum comes to the surface and we realise it's the water from the main river. Probably full of chemical waste, heavy metals and much more. The camp spot turns out to be perfect bar one thing - across the river is the railtrack. Every half hour a huge goods train roars past, and if its going up the valley it has three engines. And a bloody big train hooter. As we're nodding off there's the strange sensation that a train is about to enter the tent.
Our final day's ride to Korla is out of the mountains and across desert plains interspersed with a few oases and hills. The road is a super-highway, which is a relief because we've a 100km to clock up. The new road has bridges every 500 metres. We're cycling across a desert. Sometimes the wadis must run with water, but it's hard to imagine. In a village we buy fresh bread and mutton fat pies, mmmm. A little huddle of men quickly surrounds us to check us out. We don't understand a word they say until one says "Pakistan". Ah-ha - they've seen cyclists heading this way before then. We shove off, and fill up our water bottles from an urn in a restaurant. (Only a day later do I look in my water bottle because there are some bits floating around at the bottom. Well, not just floating, swimming more like. Is that a worm? Yes, it is. Extra protein then.)
I'm not sure what they put in the pies, but we motor for a good long way before we suddenly hit a headwind that stops us in our tracks. We sit in a field surrounded by plane trees to eat our lunch. The sky is full of cloud and the wind is still blowing, but thankfully it's moving around a bit. A crosswind almost knocks us over, but at least we can still pedal forwards. Now we're getting close to the edge of the Taklamakan Desert and the landscape becomes quite bleak and ugly. Harsh. There are occasional run-down industrial sites and some shabby towns. We stop in one for fruit before climbing over a ridge of hills and descending through a hazy moonscape and down to Korla. We thought it would be a big town, but actually it's another big city, with skyscrapers. We've not had a shower for four days and looking forward to a comfy hotel room, but then we think we ought to check out the buses to Hotan first. Our hope is to get across the desert in time for the Sunday market there, and then continue on to Kashgar. We finally find the bus yard and a sleeper bus is about to depart for Hotan. The problem is that the driver wants 30 quid to take our bikes. This is way too much. After some discussion with a helpful woman in the ticket office, we decide instead to go directly to Kashgar. There's a bus leaving at 7pm and the driver agrees on 20 quid for the bikes (ouch). Instead of a shower and a comfy hotel room we're climbing into narrow bunks built for dwarves and waving goodbye to Korla not long after arriving.
The bus journey is interminable and quite dull, as we skirt the northern side of the desert. There is only some excitement during the night when we stop in a small town and everyone gets off to pee. Well, that's what Gayle thought. It turns out a man has been run over in the road and everyone is just rubber-necking. Gayle takes advantage of the distraction to relieve herself before the bus is moved on by the police. Everyone hustles back on board and we set off. About half an hour later it is noticed that one of the old men aboard is no longer among us. We have left him behind. After a long debate the driver finally turns around and we go to look for him. He's not to be found.
In the morning the view becomes rather monotonous, and we seem to be running about 5 hours late. We stop for a dusty old man stood by the road in the middle of nowhere. His suit is frayed and filthy and when he passes up the aisle he brings a rather cheesey aroma with him. More Rocquefort than Rockerfeller. After a while the smell becomes quite alluring. I lie in my bunk and dream of food.
Already it feels like we have left China behind. The towns look much poorer and scruffier, the people are quite different. Women are wearing colourful headscarves. The men are in dark suits, stripey polo shirts, white socks and slip-ons. Uighur men are wearing an embroidered box cap like the Uzbeks. Some have flat caps at jaunty angles. Their skins are sunburnt, their features sharp. Moustaches are prominent. It feels like we've travelled back through time and space to 1950's Sicily. Through the bus window, the desert is endless.