Leaving Urumqi was not as straight forward as we were hoping, with a flat tire to fix and cycling in the wrong direction, it took us a bit of time to get out of the city. The day started off with a bewildering array of breakfast items as we pushed out bikes through one of the many morning markets, sampling the stuffed dumplings and fried breads seasoned to perfection.
As we rode away from the city we were looking for the G101. A couple of days earlier we had decided that the thin green line on our map would offer more adventure than the busy red lines denoting the main roads. When we finally found the 101, a shopkeeper implored us not to take the road as she called it “a bad road”. On hearing this news we both knew we would be riding the road west. As we travelled along perfect black top road the landscape quickly changed from flat brown desert like earth with low shrubs to brightly colored sandstone peaks and water etched river valleys. It seemed we could not make if far before pulling out our cameras to get another picture. As we ascended out of each river valley to gain the elevation of another highpoint or pass the landscape and sandstone seemed to add another hue of red, yellow, green or brown.
Finding suitable camp sites on the 101 was not a problem as much of the road was uninhabited but this did bring the unintended consequence of finding food or packing enough for several days. The road that started out paved quickly turned into a dirt road, at times black from the dust that would fall from the numerous passing trucks carrying coal. At times trucks would be descending upon us with huge billowing clouds of dust that we would soon be navigating through. As the one approached and entered this plume of dust only a faint outline of the rider in front could be seen as the brown and black haze enveloped us. After a day of riding we would look as though we had just stepped out of one of the many coal mines that dotted the surrounding brown landscape.
As the sun was beginning to set on the first day, we cycled up a steep hill to what we had thought was a village only to find a coal processing plant. Workers, some filling big bags full of coal chunks while others secured tarps over long trucks. When we asked about finding food the answer was a predictable “no, not here”. As we began heading back down the hill we stopped off at a ram-shackled brick building that made up several small rooms with two cows grazing in the blackened earth of coal dust.
We asked once again about food and this time the young workers, most of whom were already heating a bowl of laghman (hand stretched wheat noodles with vegetable and meat topping) invited us in, insisting that that they would not accept our money. Instead the young workers, with blackened faces and hands from a day spent working around coal, were interested in talking to us, finding out where we had come from and if we were married. Sometimes one can find the nicest people on the worst roads.
We went to bed that night, listening to the coal trucks slowly make their way around the tight corners of the mountain road.