India to London road trip, Part 6: An unplanned snow storm in China

The group saw some tough days going through China, battling extreme weather, rough terrain and a strange traffic jam

Updated: Aug 5, 2019 07:22:50 PM UTC

Kumar Shah is a motorcycle enthusiast who realised his dream of riding across the world at 52, despite three heart attacks. A newspaper proprietor and editor of Vadodara Samachar, a daily newspaper in Vadodara, he rode from Vadodara, Gujarat to London, United Kingdom on his 1994-make Royal Enfield in 2013. Shah has been an active part of the motorsports community in India, organising blind car rallies and motorcross events in his hometown since the 1980s. He is an award-winning golfer, and spends his free time coaching a university football team—he was the goalkeeper of the same team in college. He launched Ride Your Dreams a year ago to design and curate extraordinary journeys for biking enthusiasts. In May 2019, he has set off on the maiden journey to London with motorcycles and a back-up car in tow. Follow this blog for live updates of the journey.

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The treacherous route to Golmud: 421 kms

I woke up to snow at 6 am. We waited till 9 am, when the snow stopped--but 30 km later, it started to come down again. The forecast was even worse for the next day, so we went on. It was difficult for the Biking Queen riders to go on in the snow, even though the roads were clear, as they didn't have the recommended waterproof riding gloves. In this situation, one rider would hop into the car every 15-20 km to warm up, while the mechanic, Honey Desai, would replace her on the bike.

Our brave guide, Tenzin, opted to ride against my advice. He wore the riding wetsuit of one of the lady riders over his jeans and jacket with normal shoes and a shoe cover, but froze to the bone. At a petrol station some 123 km from China's Tuotuohe, from where we had started, I told the Biking Queen riders it would be sensible to load the vehicles in a truck and send them to Golmud, and they readily agreed. It snowed rest of the way, as we drove through mountain passes above 4,000 metres.

It was a terrible day in our journey so far. The bikes, loaded in a truck, would reach Golmud by midnight. The Biking Queen riders wanted to sit in the car, and asked the mechanic and photographer to ride in the truck instead. Both were unequipped for the weather, but agreed eventually.

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It was snowing heavily, and after half an hour in the mountains, we saw a big traffic jam of trucks. Hundreds of heavy vehicles lined up one behind another for reasons we did not know. Some local cars started to steadily go ahead and after a while I followed them. There was only one road that lead to Golmud city, and it was a single track. The traffic jam grew longer, when I decided to park my car behind a truck. That's when I saw five cars following each other, neck to neck, into a muddy, slushy path. I contemplated whether to follow them—my car had mroe than 850 kg of luggage, five passengers, and did not have offroad tyres like the other cars did. There was no way out. It was a tough call. I saw many cars stuck in the wet mud along with many trucks that were stuck too. Without any more thought, I began following the rough path, difficult to go through due to continuous snowing and collection of water everywhere.

Surprisingly, with all that heavy luggage and a full car, my Isuzu sailed through in the dark without any issue. This rough path was more than 5 km long, and finally we got to the other side of the traffic jam. There were hundreds of truck on the other side too. In all, only six cars, including mine, managed to set free.

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We were getting worried about the two members of the team in the truck. They did not have any special clothing or food for the cold night ahead. To make things worse, we had noted the wrong number for the truck driver. As per our estimate, because of the conditions, the truck would arrive way after midnight, and Tenzin and I would go get them from the entry of Golmud city, where truckers de-load. We drove on and checked in the hotel in Golmud city at 9.30 pm.

Imtiyaz Ansari, the Biking Queens photographer, called me at 11.30 pm using the truck driver's mobile phone. He panicked, as I listened patiently. He started by telling me he felt cheated made to sit in the truck, and the lady riders should have made other arrangements for him. It was not his duty to accompany the bikes. All the trucks had switched off their engines and lights, and they were stranded in pitch darkness at a pass where breathing had become very difficult. He literally begged me to get him to the hotel somehow. He was freezing and very scared. While I felt tears well up too, all I could do was ask the driver to share his blanket with Imtiaz. Soon, Imtiaz feel asleep. Honey Desai, the mechanic, wore his riding suit and slept on the seat of the truck, shivering through the night. It sure was the worst night of their lives.

It was morning before we knew it, and the truck arrived at 11 am. We took an unscheduled rest day in Golmud. I bought the teammates goodies and food as they had been starving from yesterday, through the chilling night. I had already spoken to their families and assured them of their safety.

As they rested in the hotel, I met our new guide, Yingchu, who would now take us through the rest of China and Tenzin would go back home. In all there would be three guide the last to clear us at border of China from Kashgar, which is mandatory.

Golmud to Dunhuang: 530 km China's Dunhuang is a very important city on the silk route. This city is about 800 years old. One can visit the Magao Buddha Grottos, caves, one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist in the world. These caves fell in disuse after the collapse of the Yuan dynasty and were largely forgotten until the 20th century, when they were rediscovered by some foreign travellers.

I must say the Chinese infrastructure is excellent. Every sign, every marking, every path is designed keeping in mind the safety of the driver. The landscape is very difficult to write about. The mountain ranges change shape, colour and terrain every few kilometres. They are beautiful, and the toll costs are similar to those in India. The winds are strong en-route, and the signs warn you of wind direction too.

The government controls everything here. After each tool booth, there is a rest area with excellent washrooms, snack shops and automobile repair shops. Believe it or not, we found the Gujarati gathiyas here, tasting the same, at one of the outlets, and bought four packets. We reached Turpan at 7.15 pm and went to the night market there, which was one big festival. Hundreds of eateries, local handicraft stalls, dry fruit, jewellery, and so on. We had a barbecue meal and walked back to the hotel. Our rooms were excellent, and each bed has a big teddy bear to welcome us.

Dunhuang to Hami: 415 km
We set out to leave Gansu province and enter the Xinjang province, where rules for foreigners and security check are even stricter than before. Almost every 100 km, there is a police check post. Before we got to our hotel, the bikes needed a wash, which was reasonably cheap. There are car washes available everywhere in China; The highway winds make your vehicle dirty with a sticky kind of mud, which needs to be washed off at regular intervals. We got late reaching Hami, and stopped by a local supermarket to buy fruit, bread, milk, etc. Hami is famous for its melons—called the Hami melon. We ended the day with the sweet, juicy fruit.

Hami to Turpan: 410 kms
For breakfast, I tried a black noodle dish, nicely cooked in oil. It was tasty and a bit muddy—at first, I thought they were earthworms, but our guide confirmed that they were weeds.

The drive to Turpan was beautiful, going through the Gobi desert. Turpan is known as the Death Valley, as the second lowest depression in the world at 154 m below sea level, and the hottest spot in China. However, Turpan is blessed with good ground water, which makes the soil fertile, so this depression makes this a veritable oasis in the desert. Turpan grows the best grapes in China. You can take leisurely walks on streets where grapes are grown all along. Turpan has large mosques and deserts, making a visit here worthwhile.

The next day was a rest day in Turpan, when we visited the city and had lunch at a local restaurant. There vegetables are more than two times the size of those we get in India. I played a local game where I had to throw a soft, shapeless ball into numbers drawn on the payment, and won a box of diapers. It was fun to mix with the locals, who asked to take pictures with us.

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Turpan to Korla: 400 km
On this patch of drive, we experienced very heavy winds. Hundreds of windmills dotted the highways. As we neared Korla, we saw the Flaming Mountains, very popular here in China. Our guide told us the popular story of a Chinese monk, accompanied by a monkey, a pig and a junior monk, who walked from here to India on the order of the king. In the travel book, the monk mentioned that they had to cross over a hot red flaming mountain, which is now a tourist spot. The mountains are reddish, and in the heat, look like they are on fire.

We drove across various highways. From the border, we set off on the G218 and by the time we set off to Lhasa, we were on G219. Lhasa onwards, we got onto G109 to Golmud. Then we took the G30-11 highway and finally exited Kashgar on G30-12 highway. I tried the famous mutton polov on the highway, which was excellently made, similar to biryani or pulao. Just as in India, the food here changes as per the province.

Korla to Aksu: 540 km
It was a long day driving to Aksu. We reached quite late, and wandered off to the town's central park, where locals learn dance free of cost. I wanted to see the popular Chinese 'ghost dance', a difficult form that I had watched on YouTube earlier. It was a pleasure to catch it live. Dance groups were all over the park, young and old, and I hope to see such a park open in India too.

Aksu to Kashgar: 460 kms
Our journey in China was soon coming to an end. Our guide, Yingchu, was pleasant and had answers for all the questions we asked. She knew the terrain very well. We got to Kashgar by 7 pm. This is the main city for trade between East and West China. We left to see a market, which was bustling. All the shops had heavy metal grilles, to guard them from thieves, I suppose. We visited the local square, which houses the old mosque in Kashgar. The square has many tourist activities, including camel rides, along with local pubs and eateries.

Kashgar to Irkeshtam: 252 km
Finally, it was the last day in China. At 8 am, our new guide, Marcelo, was introduced to us. The first check point came at 100 km. Each item of our 850 kg of luggage had to be taken out and scanned. Then, each item was opened and physically checked. The guards went through our cameras and for reasons unknown, deleted some images. A software was installed on each mobile phone to scan through it. The vehicles were checked thoroughly, and we were asked a load of questions. A tiring two hours later, we were allowed to go.

...Or so we thought. After a few kilometres, the same process was followed. We drove to the customs point, where the luggage separately scanned from the vehicles. We finished with the formalities at 5.30 pm, just in time, since the border shuts at 6 pm. From Kashgar, we crossed over the China border into Kyrgyzstan, a 252 km ride. It was a tough day with all the checks, and we were glad to finally be out of China. We were in Kyrgyzstan by 4 pm, as there is a time difference of two hours from China, and 30 minutes from India.

Read the previous part of the travel blog series here.

The author is a motorcycle enthusiast who realised his dream of riding across the world in his 50s, despite three heart attacks

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India to London road trip: Magnificent Mt Everest and rigorous Chinese inspections
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India to London road trip, part 7: The beauty of Kyrgyzstan