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Home / Trip Diary / Days 41-42: The Precarious 4,000m Ascent
The valley and switchbacks

Days 41-42: The Precarious 4,000m Ascent

August 28th-29th; 9,489km-9643km; Urumqi to G216 highway station

Had to take another day off as we sorted everything out with the bike in Urumqi. This was our last inspection before Tibet so we wanted to make sure everything was in working order. Actually it turned out that in Xi’an the brakes had been improperly installed and so what we thought had been the bike overheating a few days ago was in fact the brakes expanding to the point that the rear wheel would freeze up. So in addition to the regular tune up (oil, filter, etc) we had to get new brakes installed.

Route Planning With The Boss

Requisite post maintenance pictures!

Requisite post maintenance pictures!

The next day we got quite a bit of a late start. We slept in since I hadn’t gotten a call on the status of the bike and went in to the shop at around 10:30 to check in. The guys there were actually really good and everything seemed to be doing well. They also showed me a way to “patch” a blown fuse in case I didn’t have any spares yet.

We took some pictures together (a requisite at every pitstop now) and I was getting ready to go when they said the boss of the shop wanted to meet me. I was reluctant as we needed to get going but they had helped me out by doing what seemed to be our first thorough maintenance so I figured it was the least I could do.

I also needed to ask about the route as there didn’t really seem to be a clear way forward towards Kashgar. One option was 200km back east towards Turpan where we’d come from or another smaller provincial road that no one at the shop seemed to know about. Fortunately the boss, Mr Lao, rode around here a lot and he was able to tell me about the road, helping to make the decision a little bit easier. It’s difficult in these parts because as we enter more remote areas the condition of roads becomes less certain.

Apparently it was going to be quite a trek. He told me that for about 80km it was smooth pavement. After that though it was going to be 100km of gravel and dirt until the next town and during the course of that 100km the road would climb up nearly 4000m through a glacial capped mountain pass. I was dubious to say the least, particularly since we would be breaking in new tires and brakes. They assured me it would be OK and that it should only take about 6 hours. Plenty of time for them to take Amy and I out to lunch before we left!

I went back to the hotel where Amy was packing up to talk it over with her first. We both decided that we did not want to backtrack 200km through potentially very strong winds back towards Turpan so we would try the pass. From the pictures that Lao showed me, the views looked spectacular which added a bit more of an incentive.

Local Specialty For Lunch

We went out for a quick lunch of 抓饭 (Zhua Fan) a local Xinjiang specialty which is basically rice pilaf with a giant slab of mutton on top. You are given a plastic glove to wear in order to eat the meat with and the rice is “free refills”. It was a delicious lunch and something Amy had been craving since we had entered the more Arabic influenced Xinjiang province, so we had no regrets about the lunch stop.

We were finally on the road by 2:30, late but if it was only 6 hours we expected we should be fine. The approach to the mountains was beautiful. Both impressive and intimidating. This is especially so when you know you’re about to be climbing up the mountains to a height 4,600m rather than driving around as we’d been used to up to this point.

Narrow Roads, Chinese Cowboys, and Trucks, Trucks, Trucks

Driving past one of the large flocks of sheep coming down some of the narrow roads

Driving past one of the large flocks of sheep coming down some of the narrow roads

The road started climbing into the mountains, hugging the side of a gorge as the pavement we had been riding on was quickly swallowed up by gravel and potholes. Trucks coming from the other direction were frequent and we’d often have to pull right over to let them past, letting the dust settle before being able to see the road again (not to mention the steep drop-off to the bottom of the gorge). We also passed several herds of sheep on the road up being brought back down the mountain by their herders from a day of grazing on the mountain. These were good old fashioned cowboys too, riding their horses to keep the sheep in line as the only form of transportation that could handle the paths on the mountain.

Some New Riding Companions

Chatting with our new friends Sean and Slash before the climb

Chatting with our new friends Sean and Slash before the climb

Just before the main part of the ascent where we could see the switchbacks starting up across the valley from a glacier we passed two other motorcycle travelers. At first I thought they were Chinese, but as I greeted them with a “Ni hao!” one took off his helmet and revealed himself to be foreign, British actually. The other was Chinese but spoke perfect English. Sean, the Brit, and Slash, the Chinese, were also traveling around China by motorcycle and had been on the road for almost a month out of Chongqing.

We rode the whole way up the mountain together, slowly making our way up the gravelly switchbacks. At one point we had to stop because there had been a landslide that was being cleaned up by an excavator truck. Apparently the way to clean up the rubble was to pick it up off the road and dump it down the side of the mountain, a sure fire way to keep the mountain reinforced and avoid further landslides on top of other switchbacks… Right? The wait wasn’t too long though and we were soon back on our way to the top of the pass.

As we were coming down the other side (even slower than going up) it was pretty obvious that with about 60km left to the town and the end of the gravel, we weren’t going to make it before dark. We decided we’d keep an eye out for a place to camp before it got too late. We hadn’t packed for it but Amy and I figured that the nuts, raisins, and cookies that we had packed for snacks would suffice as long as we were next to water.

Luckily though, after the terrain had flattened out for a bit, we came up on to a highway station with dorms for the highway workers, a shop for soda and snacks, and an animal pen where we could set up tents (in between the cow paddies). It was not a bad spot when all was said and done and we even managed to get some instant noodles for dinner before heading to bed, a group of 3 tents now expanded from our usual one!

Video of the Switchbacks

We’ve got our Youtube page setup finally so we can actually post some of the myriad of videos we’ve been recording. Search for “The Great Ride of China” on Youtube to subscribe. In the meantime, here’s a look at what the switchbacks were like. Enjoy!

About Buck

Buck, originally from New York, first came to China in 2006 traveling with some friends and immediately fell in love with the country, returning frequently including a semester studying at Tsinghua University in 2009. He finally moved to Beijing after graduating from the University of Toronto in 2010. He has a passion for adventure and travel, completing numerous long distance motorcycling and hiking trips around the U.S., Canada, and China including a circumnavigation of the U.S. (13,840km) and a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (3,500km). When he's not wandering (and sometimes when he is), Buck works as a web developer and marketing consultant in Beijing.