Qiemo is a funny town. Like most of the major settlements along the southern Silk Road it has received the Chinese development overhaul, so all the streets are wide and and well maintained, there are large, imposing municipal buildings and new apart blocks and business hotels. Despite all this however, the city still a manages to maintains its Uigher personality. It’s not so big that development like this can overwhelm it. What helps most is that along the main street is a large traditional bazaar where most of the citizens spend most of the day, but the bazaar doesn’t contain all the street stalls which spill out along this main street.
So we grew kind of fond of Qiemo. I’m sure it helped that we ended up spending a bit longer there than we planned. The next leg of the trip would take us off the main road and up into the Kunlun Mountains, the northern boundary of the Tibetan Plateau. As far as we could tell this road would have us cycling for at least a week if not ten days without passing another shop so we had stocked up on a whole lot of food.
We spent three days in Qiemo cleaning and fixing everything that needed it and planning for this next part of our trip. The day we left the wind was blowing strong again, but this time behind us propelling us outbid the city. The route up into the mountains wasn’t signposted but we had seen it on our map and surveyed it a bit from the satellite images on Google Maps. It seemed to be a fairly straightforward cycle out of town, through some farmland then out into sandy desert for about 80km until we hit the mountains.
We followed what we thought was the correct road but as we entered the farmland it soon deteriorated and we were on dirt track next to dusty empty fields. We were confused: the road should be sealed Tarmac all the way to the mountains, at least according to the satellite images. And the road by now should be cutting through the sandy desert. Eventually the road just sort of ended. We were in a shallow bowl framed in on either side by large dikes that had narrowed to a point in front of us, and the road had petered out.
We split up to try and see where the road continued. I went to climb one of the dikes. Cresting the top I saw miles and miles and miles of sand. Nothing but sand dunes all the way to the horizon, and no clue of the road. When I got back to the others I saw an unmarked car had pulled up and three police had gotten out. One spoke English and was friendly enough. He assumed (probably quite rightly) that we had taken a wrong turn and were just looking for the main road. He offered to help us find our way, but only back to the main road not to the secondary route we showed him on our map. He had a funny way of starting every sentence with “I think”, which made his ultimatum:
“I think this is China. I think I am police. I think you should listen to me.” sound a lot less definitive than perhaps it was supposed to. We got the gist though and followed him back to the city.
It was late now, and we didn’t know what to do. We were still confused about what had happened to the road we were going to take. We must have ended up on a wrong turn somehow, but as far as we could tell we had followed the map perfectly. Since we weren’t making any more progress tonight we returned to the hotel.
We checked out the route on Google maps again. Turns out we had followed what we thought was the right road but that road didn’t actually exists a couple of kilometres outside the city despite being marked. We found the proper road to the mountains, which as it turned out was easy enough to navigate: if we kept going straight along Qiemo main street and out of the city eventually we should arrive at the mountains.