I stared at the floor of the police van wincing at the sight of damp spots of blood accompanied by some fleshy bits and the ubiquitous phlegm branding found on every inhabited surface in Xinjiang Province."First time I've been in a police van" I mused glancing across at James, a fellow cyclist, who had one hand grasped firmly on the door handle ready to activate and evacuate should the policemen in the front seats decide to take us to the police station after all. I peered closer at one of the fleshy bits and reassured myself I could see the fluff of sheepskin. A car braked to a halt alongside us and four more policeman stepped out. "Balls" I muttered reaching for the handle on my side. With 6 policeman now surrounding us we tried to explain that all we wanted to do was lay our mats down and sleep outside the building and that we would leave early to reach the next town of Hotan. They shook their heads, took our passports and made phonecalls. Within 10 minutes the doors of the government building were unlocked, we were ushered in and the wood burning stove was lit, 2 local Uyghur men in their tall fur hats brought me bread and walnuts then content that I was warm and fed left the building. I lay down under the portrait of Chairman Mao and drifted off to the sounds of rats gnawing at the wires of the television in the corner of the room.
Four weeks later I stood alone and desolate on the S305 in the Taklamakan Desert, over 200 km from anywhere and over 3km above sea level. Two tears of frustration fell and froze. Clumsily I tried with numb fingers to undo the straps of my panniers to reach for biscuits to no avail. I reached for my water bottle wrapped in 2 pairs of merino wool socks and a trickle of water meandered its way through the ice and reached my lips. The wind and isolation whipped my face and taunted me: it had been -24'C when I'd set off that morning and that was out of the wind. I can't do this any longer, I can't. I can. F*ck. I can't. For weeks my feet had been frozen solid for 10 hours a day, each stretch of the desert was 3-5 days between towns, bed was under a mobile phone mast or in a low tunnel under the road, or behind a sand dune. Get a grip, damn it. I could no longer see the beauty of the desert. It was now just colourless wasteland. My body shook uncontrollably. I'd ascended too quickly and the altitude had taken hold, I just wasn't acclimatising and the cold had kidnapped my core. Wait, what's that? I could hear a vehicle and leapt out of my despair. Over the crest of the hill a police van appeared. I stepped into the road and waved it down. Down. Wave. Please stop.Stop. Please. With my hand still aloft I watched it pass me and watched it still until it disappeared over the curve of the earth. The silence and the solitude returned. Nothing. Nothingness. Not a thing. Not. Can Not. I was startled by a inhuman roaring cry that echoed the fear, frustration and failure I felt. I looked helplessly around me and then realised it had come from me.
I sat down in the dust and continued a lengthy battle with my thoughts. Finally a smile crept to my lips: I'm a celebrity, get me out of here! But I'm not and I can't. I stood up, picked up my bike, rearranged my frozen balaclava and continued pedalling east.
The wind eased and the wasteland transformed into ancient cities of sand, wind shaped pyramids and sweeping dunes. 60km later I spied a mobile phone mast. I removed the bricks in front of the door and wheeled my bike into the walled enclosure. "Aah..home at last." I thought..