The worst thing you can do to a person who struggles to make decisions is give them a lot to choose from. I know. I am that person. The problem is especially trying for me when I like all the things I am trying to choose from. This is the predicament I found myself in when trying to choose the route of my summer bike trip.
Where to Choose, Where to Choose
There were so many amazing options to choose from that I struggled to make a final decision. I would think I had chosen only to wake up the next day and feel more uncertain than I had before choosing in the first place. It was a kind of buyer’s remorse: initially ecstatic followed the next day by feelings of wrong doing and regret. Eventually, using the factors of budget, weather, and time, I whittled away at a much longer list and got it down to three possibilities: Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, Malaysia, and Vietnam. And after much deliberation I chose Xinjiang for my summer tour.
Xinjiang won in the end because it offered the most adventure, the greatest unknown. I love Vietnam and plan to ride the full length of the country some day. However, due to heavy summer rains and oppressive heat, I decided that summer is a poor time for that trip. Malaysia was enticing, too. It has a lot of great things to see and do and I hear the people are friendly and the food amazing. But it just wasn’t “wild” enough for my needs right now. It was too safe, too tame. It wasn’t “out there” enough. Like Vietnam, I plan to cycle there some day but it won’t be this summer. In the end, Xinjiang was the only choice for me.
Xinjiang in Brief
Xinjiang Autonomous Region is the western frontier of China and is the largest of the 32 administrative divisions that make up the country. At 1.66 million square kilometers, on its own it would be the 17th largest country in the world after Libya and before Iran. Dense mountains, arid wastelands, and deadly seas of sand separate it from it’s neighbors. Led by the majority Uyghur people, Xinjiang is central Asian in culture, history, and location. They share little with their distant Han Chinese countrymen centered in the east and ruling from Beijing. This cultural distinction from the rest of China is one of the many things that draws visitors to this beautiful region.
I have already spent several hours poring over maps staking out towns and villages, and must-see attractions. I have created a route that satisfies all the itches that I hope this trip will scratch. The route reaches about 4000 kilometers to see all that I want to see. But I harbor no fantasy of riding all 4000 kilometers. Not in the time I have. My goal is to ride at least 3000 and use an occasional bus or train to make up the difference.
My trip will begin on July 5th in the far west at the ancient city of Kashgar. Kashgar is one of the pearls of the Silk Road and a great cultural hearth. Long an important meeting place and center of exchange for east and west, Kashgar is home to the Grand Bazaar, the largest market in central Asia. It is also the site of the splendid Id Kah Mosque, and the Kashgar Old Town area which retains much of the rich cultural flavor of an age gone by.
From Kashgar I will proceed north first skirting the edge of the massive Taklamakan Desert before climbing into the tangled morass of rock that is the Tian Shan Mountains. Along the way, possible sites include ancient grottos that were home to thousands of early Buddhist texts, the Tian Shan Grand Canyon, and the vast and astounding grasslands of Ili. These grasslands, found high in the Tian Shan Mountains are some of the finest examples of alpine grasslands in Asia.
North to Kanas
The ride north will continue past beautiful lakes and mountains, interesting cultural sites, vast wastelands of sere parched earth, and sudden and unexpected forest until the road reaches the far northwest of Xinjiang and the gorgeous Kanas Lake. Kanas is not only a place of much natural beauty but also offers the opportunity to do a traditional yurt homestay with the indigenous Mongol and Kazakh people that call this region home.
From the northwest, the route will sweep an arc south east eventually passing near the eastern range of the Tian Shan and arrive in Turpan. Turpan (pronounced Tulufan) is the hottest place in China, where daytime temperatures routinely reach into the 40’s. The small city sits in the middle of the Turpan Depression. This is the lowest place in China. At 154 meters below sea level at Lake Ayding, it is the 4th lowest place on earth. Nearby is the Flaming Mountains. Here the red rock absorbs so much of the hot sun that surface temperatures reach above 70 degrees Celsius. Turpan is also home to many interesting cultural attractions such as Emin Minaret, the 2000-year-old Karez Irrigation system, and Jiaohe ancient city. Also, nearby to Turpan is Grape Valley. The grapes here are widely known as the sweetest in all of China.
From Turpan the plan is to head east across the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert to the small city of Barkol before ending in the oasis city of Kumul.
Lots to See? Better Take Lots of Camera Batteries
These are just a few of the many highlights that this journey through Xinjiang offers. They are too many to list here. And that doesn’t consider all the unknown things that are out there waiting for me to discover.
Last year I rode in Gansu and Qinghai. Many of my favorite moments were discovering the unknown wonders and beauty that I happened upon. They are not things that are marked on any maps or appear in guidebooks. Yet their beauty provides a type of wonder that the expected cannot.
That is not to take away from the many things that I already know from photos. In these cases, the excitement comes from wondering how they will look in person. How it will feel to see them? Can those grasslands really be as beautiful as they appear in pictures? Will I see the mountains that I have seen in pictures? Or will I see something different, perhaps even more wondrous than I imagined? Even in the known there is much that is unknown. And that is so exciting. And of course there are the people that I meet along the trail. People with warm smiles and open hearts. People that share a moment of their life with me that make any journey complete.
This should be an epic journey full of incredible sights and wonderful experiences. I can’t wait to begin this trip and share it with you. I hope you will all come along with me. Feel free to bring a friend.
See you soon in Xinjiang!