Start: Between Qumahe and Budongquan, Qinghai, China
End: Budongquan, Qinghai, China
Distance: 78 km
Avg: 8.4 k/h
Max: 19.1 k/h
Total: 10,812 km
Total riding days: 129
Riding hours: 0900 - 2040
From my diary:
...the sun bright, the sky blue, the land black and white and ahead and to the right the Kunluns, mystical mountains, low and dumpy nearby, soft-edged conical towers of sugar up ahead. It was very beautiful but all I could do was swear, pant and curse and inch forward, through deep, slick mud, deep slush, deep snow, deep sand, occasional firmer patches of horrendously washboarded grit. My wheels sank sank sank into mud sand and snow, and the hyper-pedalling needed to get through left me collapsed, slumped over the crossbar, head down on the handlebars, panting panting panting. Often I had to get off and haul, right hand hooked behind the saddle, but just dismounting, swinging a leg over the saddle, left me breathless before I could begin.
Budongquan was in sight but never getting closer, all I could think of was being benighted 10 kilometres from the cluster of tents that is Budongquan, and having to spend the night out in the open (there is no shelter here, it is dead flat) in the wind and the cold and exhausted at 4700 metres. From 40 km away I could see the viaduct of the new Tibet railway, but it was never any closer, despite seeming so close - the air is so clear in this high-altitude desert that all the way to the horizon things appear close enough to touch, but they are always far, far away.
I remember seeing Zamyn Uud in the Gobi in 2004 from 70 km away; it took all of the next day to reach.
A truck came by, towing a bike-sized trailer and offered me a lift. It hurt to say no but it would have hurt more to say yes. And then the going got worse and worse and the truck was disappearing into the distance, churning up more mud and sand and snow for me.
Should I camp now while it is light and I have strength to get clothes on and cook? Perhaps in the morning when everything is frozen hard again the road will be easier. But the sight of the bridge and the railway makes me believe it is possible to make it tonight, even though each time I do the sums - the remaining kilometres, the remaining hours of daylight, my rate of progress - it doesn't add up. I'm making about 4 km/h, I won't make it.
But I plod on because there is nothing else to do and because I'm hoping for a miracle and because bad roads can't go on being bad forever, and then I remember Rob Lilwall took 12 days to cover 100 kilometres in Papua New Guinea.
Now the supposedly bad road from the east joins my road, and I wonder how the bad road can possibly be any worse than my road, and there are 15 km to go and the headwind starts to hit me hard, limiting me more than the terrain now that the track become a sand and grit swathe as wide as an LA 8-lane, just firm enough that you don't sink in, just soft enough to make every pedalstroke hard, washboarded badly but I say Sorry bum, you are called upon to make a sacrifice here and take the pain, and I give it no mercy, riding hard across the washboarding, swinging left to right and back across the 8-lane looking for a stretch that is smoother, but it never is, or where it is the sand is too deep, and off the track the desert looks firm but in fact the top is soft and my tyres cut through and sink deep so it is back to the washboard, sorry bum, the sun nearly gone now, the wind cold, cold, cold, biting, three wild asses stand apart, stare at me, and there is still the railway viaduct, 25 km nearer but no nearer, still the same distant mirage, and I curse myself for allowing myself one extra dream in my tent this morning, and if there was a full moon I could maybe ride with the night, but the moon is new now because I spent too long in Yushu, and now the sun has tucked behind the sky's only cloud on the western rim of the desert, to set and undress in private, it is really really cold and I don't want to be in my tent tonight and all my theories about why surely the wind must die at sunset don't seem to work out in practice, even though yesterday it did, and I resent the people who will soon be riding the rails to Lhasa in smug, snug air-conditioned pressurised comfort, and the travel brochures which will sell it as the Adventure of a Lifetime, and pretty hostesses in prim uniforms will bring them tea and when they look out and think how beautiful is the world outside their cinemascope windows will they see me still dragging and cursing through mud and snow and wind and cold, and will they realise how far away their bloody viaduct still is, how many hours I can slog through mud and snow and water and sand towards their bloody viaduct and it still isn't any closer, please I don't want to be in my tent tonight and I'm hitting those washboard ruts and my bum has stopped complaining, like a dog grown resigned to beatings, and then a deep-cut washed-out river valley appears on my right and geese honk overhead, why can't I fly, because it's too easy that's why, and the river is flowing against me so I must be climbing yet the viaduct seems below me, and then the track swings right and the viaduct really does seem near, but is near one kilometre or ten, I don't know, I'm not going towards it any more but parallel to it and there are some huts down there, or is it up there, and a kind of hill above them with a digger digging out stuff in the half-darkness, and it seems an odd thing to be doing, digging out stuff on top of a sort of hill in the half-darkness, when there is stuff everywhere here, stuck to my wheels, tyres, feet, face, stuff everywhere, enough for everyone and my bum shrieks as I hit the next rut and then goes back to silent whimpering again and those buildings, are they really getting closer now, is the wind blowing them towards me, and suddenly the track slips down into the river-cut and one of the buildings must be a petrol station, The Road! The Road!, and a light is moving along it, lights glowing, is it moving fast, or is it near now, good god the huts have fairy lights and music blaring, yes, yes, this really was the road to hell and here is hell at the end of it, and I'm under the railway, two sturdy viaduct legs the gates to hell, the music louder, the lights brighter, and I am up a slope and an unfamiliar feeling under my wheels, grip, smooth, firm, hell, a road, a real road, and two more lights moving fast towards me now and the music blares louder, a single, angry note, the lights swerve and the music dopplers an ugly semitone down and the rush of wind and the truck is past me and it is Budongquan.
Things spin and ache and I am dog-tired. Inside I lie down and wait for sleep to come, but sleep is busy for a long time with snow and mud and cold and wind and the viaduct, always so close and always so far away, and the passengers looking out at the beautiful world.