Cyclist on Tour Of Asia Coins Phrase
Emily Chappell got in touch with us some time ago while putting together plans for a long distance bike tour of the world. The former cycle courier now finds herself over a year in on her trip, currently racing through China with 14 days left on her visa to reach Tianjin.
Emily has a website, which functions partly as an excellent resource of general technical information for anybody thinking about taking off on a tour (her set up includes, unsurprisingly perhaps, one of our saddles), but also as an archive for some of her own great travel writing.
As well as this, she gives particular focus to the challenge that such a ride presents specifically to solo female cyclists. There are links to the sites of other women on similar paths, both past and present.
Since setting off last September through Europe, she has been a fastidious recorder of events. Click here to browse, or continue reading below for a flavour of life on the road.
THE SUPERLATIVES OF CHINA
I try to avoid that lazy travellers’ cliche of describing countries I’ve visited as ‘a land of extremes’ or ‘a place of contrasts’, reasoning that every country has its extremes and contrasts, and that, as an outsider and a traveller, one is simply more likely to be exposed to them.
But for China I can’t resist. It was my 19th country, and the largest I’d attempted to cycle across by a long chalk. I entered from Pakistan, over the Khunjerab Pass, which is the crowning glory of the famous Karakorum Highway and, at 4700m above sea level, the world’s highest paved border crossing, and the greatest altitude I’d ever reached.
I couldn’t help but remember this when, less than a month later, I found myself skirting the Turpan Depression in the Taklamakan Desert, parts of which are 154m below sea level. I had never been so low before, and nor had I been so hot. Even the fearsome headwind (yes, the strongest I’d ever encountered) couldn’t cool me down – at times it was so hot that the breeze felt like flames licking against my skin. I reminded myself that four weeks ago I’d been gasping and shivering in the thin air and snowdrifts of Khunjerab, but it didn’t really help.
I spent a week in Urumqi, and added a few more superlatives to my growing list. Urumqi is not only further from the sea than any other city in the world; it is also the closest city to the geographical centre of Asia (depressingly for me, since at this point I’d been on the road ten months, and yet was apparently only halfway across my first continent).
And then I set off to ride across the Gobi Desert. Until now I had managed to coordinate pretty well with the seasons, riding through Europe in the autumn, Turkey and Iran in the winter and Pakistan in the spring, exposing myself to plenty of snow and ice, which I love, and avoiding the worst of the hot weather. But now there was no escaping the summer. For two weeks I battled into the furnace, my hands and feet and face swollen, my skin throbbing with sunburn.
Just like extreme cold, extreme heat saps all your skill and strength and stamina. The road surface was immaculate (such a relief after the scree and gravel of the Karakorum Highway) and the gradients were gentle, but still I struggled to cover 100km in a day. (On similar roads in Iran it had been more like 200km.) I felt weak, ashamed, pathetic.
But, just as I found during winter in the Turkish mountains, extreme weather generates extreme kindness. In Turkey, almost everyone I met would offer me tea, or food, or a lift, or somewhere to sleep. And in the scorching Xinjiang summer I discovered another of China’s great contrasts.
Officially, the country is extremely unwelcoming. The visas are expensive and difficult to obtain. When I arrived, bossy customs officials searched every inch of my panniers and person. The Chinese government doesn’t like foreigners to travel in Xinjiang or Qinghai, and Tibet is now completely out-of-bounds. But once I was on the road, Chinese people proved every bit as friendly as Turks and Iranians, and the hotter the weather got, the more people wanted to help me. Truck drivers would flag me down and hand me slices of chilled watermelon.
Every day or so I’d reach a petrol station, and a curious crowd would surround me and my bike, examining my maps, squeezing my tyres, and handing me armfuls of biscuits and soft drinks. (I had worried about dehydrating, but ended up acquiring water at a faster rate than I could drink it.) And often, when I asked if I could camp next to a cafe or petrol station, the owners would invite me in, give me a room of my own, feed me dinner, and refuse to accept any sort of payment.
Like most people crazy enough to attempt to cycle round the world, I prefer my life to go to extremes, and sometimes think I enjoy the grinding lows almost as much as I do the soaring highs. So China suited me perfectly.