So here I was, in a hotel in Hotan. I’ve already cycled a stretch of 230km from Kargilik to Hotan through the Taklamakan desert but what seemed to be like a lot of distance, just looked like a short part of the desert on the map. Ahead of me was still a stretch of 1047km through the second biggest sand desert on earth.
A stop in Hotan
In Hotan, I decided to stay for two nights to get enough rest from the previous 400+ kilometers and to prepare for the next section of 614km to the city of Qarqan, which I planned to cycle in 6 consecutive days.
Here in Hotan I also became aware of the extent of the surveillance towards me. When I approached the city and as I left the G3012 Highway, I quickly got into another road check by the police. There I had to leave the bike and wait on a chair for about an hour until a team of the local police arrived to check my passport and to escort me once again on civil cars.
Hotan was quite a big city with around 300’000+ residents. Despite the fact my chinese-maps app showed me dozens of available hotels, after asking in five of the cheaper ones, one told me that there is only one hotel I could go to. Here in Xinjiang, it was always the same, as a foreign traveler, there were specific hotels for foreigners, if you were lucky there was one in each bigger city, sometimes even two of them. Of course, the hotels for foreigners were near double the price of the other ones for Chinese people.
The police justified this fact with the higher standard of the hotel, a standard I definitely don’t need as a cycle tourer. I was just looking for a simple bed and probably a shower, that’s it. In reality, however, it was the case that also the tourist hotels had the same low standard as the ones for the local people. Compared to hotels in the western world, approximately a 1 or 2-star hotel, which was actually still more than I needed.
The number one thing I really needed wasn’t a comfy bed or a shower, but much more a place to hide and get some privacy, away from the police following me for days, all the waiting and discussions.
As soon as I left my hotel room, there was the same civil policeman already waiting at the hotel lobby. Here followed me walking through the city, through the shelves of a grocery store and he took a seat at the neighboring table when I went to a restaurant. Nevertheless, I had a pretty good stay in Hotan and enjoyed a lot of western Chinese food, such as several Laghman dishes (noodles), soups, plov, and different fried food on sticks where you pay on the number of wooden sticks you had left when leaving the restaurant.
Back to the desert
After two full days it was time to move on again. From Hotan, I was no longer able to cycle on the new Highway G3012, as this road was only finished as far as Hotan coming from the west. The G315, the main road and southern route through the Taklamakan desert, was perfectly paved too. The main difference on this one was that here there was no longer a hard shoulder so as much more traffic.
The traffic was almost exclusively trucks, or to be precise, red construction trucks or massively overloaded freight trucks carrying goods from the west to the east or visa versa along the old silk road. It was the kind of trucks that I would now encounter every day in China. The construction trucks were transporting building materials to different construction sites for the new highway. All along the existing highway, just a few hundred meters out in the desert, they were building on the new highway simultaneously.
The road itself was flat, straight and infinitely long, something I already knew from the last desert crossing in Uzbekistan. This time tough, the Taklamakan desert was a bigger one and the distance to be cycled was quite longer.
Along the road there were even big signs warning the drivers from falling asleep when driving. This was something I could well imagine thinking about all these hundreds of trucks a day which had drive goods from west to east as fast as possible. Regarding this, my biggest concern cycling on this road was definitely the drivers. I was super happy I had my rear view mirror so I was able to check every single truck coming from behind.
The mental aspect of a desert crossing
For several weeks, my view consisted of an endless horizon, half of it the sky and half of it a barren desert landscape. Compared to the desert crossing in Uzbekistan where we cycled in a group of five, here in the Taklamakan desert I was alone. Something I quickly noticed after a few days on the bike was that the challenge of crossing the Taklamakan desert was not necessarily a physical matter, but far more a mental one.
For days there was just the desert, a few hundred trucks, one long straight road and myself. There was really nothing to be seen here, no landscapes, no animals, no mountains, no people. If there are no impressions from the outside, nothing at all that distracts you in any way, you start to deal with yourself. Thinking back, this was precisely where the challenge and at the same time the fascination of this desert crossing lay.
After a while you switch into a state of trance, a kind of meditation, a tunnel view where time suddenly passes faster and you forget everything around you. Your brain starts to play a kind of mental game with yourself, trying to keep going, to keep motivated and to somehow entertain yourself in some weird ways.
Several times I caught myself talking to myself. I can now truly understand why Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” is talking to “Wilson”, a volleyball. When there were strong headwinds, I sometimes screamed to myself about this shitty situation, “why the hell am I doing this here?!”. On the other hand I was smiling like crazy when I just saw a bird far in the sky or something new, unexpected happened along the road.
Before starting this bicycle journey, I always thought that on long days on the bike and when cycling alone, you’re going to think about all kinds of things as you have that much time to do so while cycling. In reality, however, I probably kept thinking about the same 10 things all the time. It was about highlights from the past years or my childhood, things I was missing at home or things in the future such as upcoming highlights on that tour or what I’m going to do when I’m back home.
Day by day, here in the Taklamakan desert, I was always thinking about these specific few things, over and over again. I imagined it figuratively and how it felt walking through that specific event in the past or how the food is going to smell when I arrive in eastern China. Things like that.
As much as I wanted to think about some new things or plans or whatever, I alway landed back on the same few ones. It’s a bit like laying in bed at night when you’re not able to sleep because you think about things that are not really important at the moment and you simply want to sleep.
On a long tour like this and also in everyday life at home it is important to have some hours during a day or a stressful week which you spend with yourself. Doing some meditation or just doing nothing but concentrating on your thoughts or listening to your surroundings, being outside and just listening to nature or in any other way, being in the moment.
Here in the Taklamakan desert, however, it was like being in that kind of state all the time. Here it was more important to distract yourself somehow and getting the kilometers and days done.
The best way to escape these recurring thoughts was listening to music or even better, some audiobooks or podcasts.
There are deserts and there are deserts. Desert landscapes are changing, this was the case in the Kysylkum desert so as here in the Taklamakan. When I arrived at the desert city of Niya on my 8th day since leaving Kashgar, I had to stock op on food and water for the longest uninhabited desert section I had to cross here in the Taklamakan. Ahead of me were roughly 300km without any villages or cities between, so I had to buy enough food for the next 2-3 days.
As soon as I left Niya, the desert landscape quickly changed and one after the other sand dune appeared on both sides of the road. The rather stony desert ground packed with lots of small and dry desert plants slowly disappeared and soon I was cycling through a sandy scenery how one usually imagines a desert. This was a welcome change as for once, there was something new to see along the road. Even camping became much easier now, cause since Niya there haven’t been any police checkpoints anymore an no police following me anymore.
Some rest in Qarqan
After 5 nights in the tent and 6 days on the bike, I was now approaching Qarqan, also known as Qiemo. A few kilometers outside the city, I reached the second last road checkpoint before reaching the city centre. There, next to the usual passport check and photograph of my face, they handed me over a phone where I had to talk with a policeman in Qarqan. For the first time I was able to speak with a Chinese policeman who was almost fluent in English. He wanted to know if I’m cycling to Qarqan and about which time I will arrive there.
When I then arrived about 2 hours later at the last road checkpoint just before the city centre, he’s already been waiting for me. He followed me by car to the only Hotel there was. I already knew where the Hotel was thanks to Karl who told me that at the same place, there was an older and a newer hotel I could choose from.
I booked a quite cheap room for two nights in the older Hotel to once again having some much needed rest for the legs and a shower after a week without. Here in Qarqan, being in a large city again, I also enjoyed several Chinese meals a day, something I still couldn’t get enough from and which was a nice change to rice and lentils I cooked myself for dinner when camping.
From Qarqan it was another 280km and 3 days to the next city of Qakilik aka. Ruoqian, where I also had a day off and before leaving for the last few days in the Taklamakan desert.
The desert here on the eastern side of the Taklamakan was still more to the sandy side. Once it was time to find a camp spot, it was definitely a lot of effort to push a 70+ kg bike through loose sand but once I found a place, it was quite comfortable to sleep on a sandy flat surface that had adapted to your body when laying in the tent. Temperature wise I more or less had the same temperature range up to this point. During the day it was between 0-10 degrees while at night, the temperatures were between 0 and -10 degrees. A little on the colder side but still very comfortable for cycling and sleeping in the tent.
A story I’ll never forget
The police weren’t seen that often in this part of the Taklamakan desert either. Except one particular night, I didn’t have any problems anymore with wild camping since leaving the city of Niya. On that day of the night mentioned before, I haven’t been followed by the police until the sun slowly started to set. I was looking around for a suitable camp spot somewhere hidden behind a sand dune or something else when I then cycled past several cameras observing this part of the highway. Less than 10 minutes later, I had a police car following me.
This exactly happened at the worst time of the day and I was angry about myself I didn’t left the road a bit earlier. At a suitable time, when the police car was around 500 meters away and as there were around 3 trucks between us, I quickly jumped of the bike and tried to walk as far into the desert and down a small hill as possible. As I found a good spot, I waited for another 15 minutes and since there was nobody coming, I put my tent and cooked some dinner.
Actually it was a pretty nice sunset with a huge golden sun going down at the horizon. One of these magical sunsets I was able to enjoy several times now in the Taklamakan desert. As there was still nobody around 2.5 hours later and it got completely dark by now, I decided to go to sleep. Suddenly, around 23:00 pm, I woke up and noticed some lights outside the tent.
After some time, I hear someone saying “police, please come out the tent”. I first had to put some more clothes again and leave my sleeping bag, so he had to wait a bit. The policeman then told me that I can’t sleep here. I, on the other hand, a little frustrated, told him that I was not going to leave and that I’m definitely going to camp here as it was already 23:00 and cause I needed enough sleep for another 100+ km on the road.
As it was already around -5 degrees outside and as he saw me shacking a little from the cold, he told me to go back into my tent and then he disappeared again. Once again I thought this was it, but I was also aware that now they knew my location. Nevertheless I decided to not care about too much and fell asleep again pretty quickly. The next time I woke up was because of the noise and lights of a car. Quickly I knew they were back again, it was already 1 AM at that time.
Outside the tent there were 4 policemen, one of them being the police chief of this county. They once again told me that I was not allowed to stay here and that I have to go to the next Hotel around 60 km’s away. This time I remembered and learned from the last encounter with the police late at night and persisted to sleep here. I also told them that I didn’t have cash with me for the hotel and my card was blocked for the next 5 days.
They then offered me to take me and my bike to the hotel and that I could stay one night for free. Once again, I stuck to my opinion. As it was still my goal to cycle every possible meter, they would have to drive me back to this place again the next morning. I also knew that at that time when I was going to arrive at the hotel, I only would have around 3 more hours of sleep, which was not enough. So this was for sure not an option for me. After about 30 minutes of discussion they finally gave up, allowed me to stay and even gave me a bottle of water.
They then drove off again and when I was just before falling asleep again, some strong lights have brightened my tent again. I opened the door of my tent and saw that they placed another police car just about 100m from my tent. Although I almost couldn’t believe it, I also didn’t care about anymore. I was just too tired at this point and finally fell asleep again. The car stayed at this place the whole night long until I left around 9:00 in the morning.
something on the horizon
From Qaqilik there were just another 160km left in the Taklamakan desert until the beginning of the climb up to the Tibetan plateau. Only 160km to finally finish this huge desert ride. On my day off in Qaqilik I not only bought enough food again for the next days, I also bought a pair of lined gloves, as I knew what to expect up on the Tibetan plateau. Here in the city, I also had the time to prepare the route and split the climb in suitable sections.
To leave the Taklamakan, I also had to climb from an altitude of 1000m back to 3000m again. After leaving Qarqan and another 100km ride, I then spent my last night out in the flat Taklamakan desert. When I packed the tent the next morning, I once again had the same weather I had the previous two weeks through the Taklamakan. It was always quite sunny, however, most of the time you couldn’t see the blue sky and the sun as there was always a thick layer of haze in the air.
After cycling a few kilometers that morning, slowly something dark started to show up on the horizon.There on the horizon where nothing could be seen for weeks. The closer I got, the better they could be seen through the thick layer of haze. It was such a relief to finally see the mountains again. For days I was looking for a change in landscape, now I had it right in front of me. In the afternoon of this day, I slowly climbed up around 800m. The inclination was so low that I couldn’t see that I was climbing up, but I definitely could feel the difference.
After two weeks of cycling exclusively on a flat road, I could now feel the smallest change in inclination. At the foot of the mountains I stopped to look around for a proper camp spot. Now I also had to work again a little harder to find a flat spot instead of just leaving the road to the left or right and heading a few hundred meters out in the desert. Between some hills, which formed a beautiful looking and moon-like landscape, I found a good spot just around 100 meters away from the road.
Back in the mountains
There, I spent another super calm night, but this time, I also got a much better view in the morning with shining, snow covered mountains around me. The next day I cycled up to 2600 meters where I planned to spend another night before going over the top of the pass and rolling down the other side back down to 3000m for the third night in the mountains.
The climb on that day was a quite tough one. The further I went into the mountains, the narrower the valley became. It was freezing cold by now as an icy wind blew up the valley. Because of the freezing temperatures and despite the climbing I had to do, I couldn’t take longer breaks than just a few minutes. The worst thing on this day though was not the climb itself or the temperatures but much more the traffic. There were hundreds of fully loaded, stinky and loud trucks overtaking me or coming down the other side.
Despite the fact I sometimes I had the same amount of trucks in the flat Taklamakan desert, here it was much more stressful regarding all the switchbacks and as I was cycling way slower. At the end of this exhausting day I found a small flat spot just next to the road in the narrow valley.
As it was already below 0 degrees during the day, the floor so as the small river next to the camping spot were frozen. When camping in these temperatures, which was already the case the weeks before, I had to prepare a bit better before going to sleep. For example I had to be sure I put the water for the next day in one of the pans so I was able to melt and cook it the next morning. The water I had left in my insulated bottle, which was around half a liter, I alway put into the tent to have some water if needed during the night.
The water I had left in my 2L single wall Klean Kanteen bottle, I filled in one of the cooking pots or sometimes I just let it inside the bottle. The good thing was, as it is a single wall stainless steel bottle, that I was able to put it directly on the stove to melt the ice again inside the bottle. Normally, before heading out to find a camp spot, I filled both of the bottles ( 2.5 liters totally) in one of the small roadside restaurants. Here in China you always got hot water in any restaurant for free which was great cause normally it held long enough before it was going to freeze again during the day.
When I was not able to fill the bottles before camping, I looked around to find a camp spot near a small water stream. There I filled the pans with cold water or ice to melt it again the next morning. This particular camp spot I had here at 2600m was definitely not the coziest place. The whole night long It was super noisy from all the trucks which continue to drive all night long. Also it was one of the coldest nights I ever spent in a tent. I got probably 7 hours of sleep, but not a restful one.
The climb up to the Tibetan plateau
On the third day of climbing I had to overcome another 1000hm up to 3550m of altitude. This day too, as already the last one, was super grueling. I didn’t just have tired legs from the previous days and the tiredness from the short night but on that day also a super strong and freezing cold headwind. The wind was that strong that I pushed my bike up most of the way although the road wasn’t too steep to be cycled. The further up I got, the thinner the air became. I screamed around cause I didn’t understand why I was doing all this to myself.
At that point I easily could have asked one of the truck drivers to take me up to the top, but I would never have forgiven myself for that, so I continued, step by step. At around 4pm I finally made it to the top of the pass with a lot of trucks having a break up there. I couldn’t stop for more than five minutes cause of the cold but I couldn’t have been happier.
Up there was a yellow sign indicating the upcoming descent. There was this bright blue sky again without any haze anymore and ahead of me there was descent of around 15-20km’s. With full speed and full of motivation I rolled down the other side of the Mountain. Down there was this massively huge plateau and in the far distance I could see a lot of mountain ranges.
It was like cycling down into another flat desert like the Taklamakan, the surface looked the same with a lot of sand, stones and tiny bushes. But this time it all looked much more impressive as you could see the mountains around it which also gave a scale about the size of the area.
Howdy! I'm Fabian, a Swiss adventurer, photographer / filmmaker who loves exploring and capturing our beautiful planet. From March 2019 - April 2020 I cycled 20'000km from Bern Switzerland to the pacific coast in Vietnam, trying to inspire others to do the same, to travel more, going outdoors, enjoying nature and get to know our amazing planet wi live on.