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Aksai Chin

Friendly Chines soldiersI immediately run into a brand-new highly sophisticated military terrain vehicle after the short descent to the flat plateau, a strong indication on the modernization of the Chinese army. The English-speaking officers driving this vehicle are really friendly and very interested in changing US$ and buying the GPS they sense I've got. They give me a day's ration of newly developed food for the Army which is filled with energy and tastes very good, before I have to decline their very generous offer of driving me some 30 km to the nearby military base. This trip is by bike and not in something on four wheels. Doing this by bike has become a mantra for me and this is not the only time friendly Chinese soldiers offer their help. Most don't seem to understand traveling this place not designed for humans on a bike - but they always express their admiration and this is really a big kick for keeping on bicycling. The same goes for Truck drivers, who seem to fear Aksai Chin by heart.

barren desolationI stop for a short eat at a shelter of a restaurant in the middle on nowhere, a place apparently very popular, and at least 40 people are at the place by the time I leave. Distances cheat one here. What looks like a five minute ride to the mountains in front of you, often becomes a 45 minute ride. This place both scares and fascinates me, and I fell quite sad when I later leave Aksai Chin. Somehow this wilderness is what I have been searching for and knowing that the gigantic Chang Tang nature reserve lies on the left of the road only makes the place more interesting. "Tibet's empty quarter" as naturalist George Schaller wrote in an article in Natural Geographic on his field work in Chang Tang. I camp near a salt lake with huge salt formations late in the day and keep my ice axe ready for action in case of a wolf. Somehow the wolf story scared me off.

Campsite  The wind is gone in the morning and the missing clouds make a brilliant and splendid sight of the surrounding mountains. If only one could build a house here. Today is really hot even though most of the area is above 5000 meters and finding water is bit of a problem until I run into a river crossing the road. It is quite deep and cold and it takes some time before I have passed it. A landcruiser passes me near the military base the Chinese officers wanted to take me to. It stops and out steps a giant, seen from a Chinese point of view. Edwin and his girlfriend Inti are from Holland and seem astonished by the sight of a cyclist in this region and give me loads of drinking water, while I talk about everything and nothing. They are on their way to Lhasa and tell me what to expect further on. They are suddenly gone as fast as they showed up. I find a small restaurant minutes later. The rest of the day is a long ride along a straight road, which is so bad that it is better to cycle next to it in the trails from trucks.

Nice Chines offering watermelonI discover a broken truck near darkness - wake up the sleeping guy in it and end up sleeping there myself. The alternative was to put up the tent in the strong wind without any protection, because everything is flat along this road. The young guy explains that he has been waiting for 5 (!) days in the truck for his father to come back from Ali with spare parts. As in the case of the other guy, someone has to be in the truck to make sure the load does not suddenly disappear. Had a bad sleep on the front seat and to make things worse, the stove is gasping for air -I have big problems making it work and end up eating canned instant beans some nice soldiers gave me. Today I have to reach Tielong, catching up on the gang of two, again a long road without interruption, again telephone pole soldiers. A truck with Han-Chinese surprises me when it stops to chat with me in exchange for some watermelon. A tall Chinese actually digs down the leftover of the watermelon we just have enjoyed. Maybe there still is hope for the environment in Tibet. I must admit my morale on garbage has been falling just a much as the loads of dumplings in the small cities. The road becomes very muddy and gigantic holes make it possible to overtake a truck and keep it behind for Tielong next to lake10 kilometers until I reach Tielong, a partly flooded truck stop from the nearby lake. I even see a Tibetan Antelope just before town. A Chinese guy speaking worse than bad English informs me that the gang of two was in town two days ago. Suddenly a guy runs like hell to catch me while his arms fumble around in the air, trying to explaining something. Foreigners in town must be the message while he drags me to a dirty little tent I avoided at first place. For a moment I get the impression that it is the gang of two and become disappointed when it turns out to be a hitchhiking Spanish guy with altitude problems, but nothing serious it turns out. Impossible to see anything in the darkness and we soon fall asleep while trucks passes on the road next to the tent.

The Spaniard sounds and looks much better the next morning and turns out to be a hardy traveler - more than two years on the road. He has minimized his gear to nothing, except for an enormous guitar he has been hiding behind his bed. I start cycling up the 5356 meters pass just outside town soon after the Spaniard catches a truck ride to Ali for 250 yuan after some bargaining. I cycle around a lake after the pass and some road workers inform me that the next pass is some three kilometers ahead. I reach it after a hard pushing experience on the muddy road. I pass a truck which is covered in mud near the top of the pass. This pass is special not only because of the prayer flags but also because it the end of Aksai Chin and marks the official border between the Xinjiang and Xizang (Tibet)provinces.