After gorging ourselves on a dumpling breakfast, we (reluctantly) leave Jeannie and James at the Xining long distance bus station, and head back to the expressway, keen to make up some lost distance. We have one ‘spare’ day in our itinerary, and we both want to make sure we don’t use it up driving! 

It’s been awesome having two more friends in the car for a couple of days, and we lament what it’s going to be like when our guide leaves us at the border – and it’s just two of us again, and a long way from home.

Expressway quickly diminishes into Joe’s nemesis – national roads – and the wacky races begin again. We start winding up the altitude, and are quickly above 3000m once more. Bob huffs and puffs, slowly meandering around the hills, some snow capped in the distance. I try not to notice the trail of black smoke we leave in our wake. The fuel in China has probably been the worst so far, and once again we’re running low.  When we finally find a fuel station, Bob has been struggling overr 3700m for about an hour, and Joe has had to roll down the hill in neutral to make sure we don’t run out*

In a town on plateau, we slurp down another delicious bowl of beef noodles, whilst the locals with their dark Tibeten looking faces stare at us, and a little boy with chinese toddler pants (the ones that have a split in the bottom so parents can conveniently hold them over a gutter to do their business) stares at Joe and then gets hysterically terrified when Joe tries to strike up conversation.

As we leave town, we start debating when we will first see snow falling (not just on distant mountains). Joe puts his money on Russia, I think the north of Kazakhstan. Half an hour later, as we wind up the altitude once more, rain turns to sleet, and sleet turns to snow. Within minutes, China is our first winter wonderland, (and we find out that Bob’s heating works). The fuel station had been selling -20 Diesel, the kind that doesn’t freeze until the temperature drops to -20 (um, duh). I start to wonder when we’ll need it, and how else we’re going to have to prepare ourselves for the conditions over the next few months that will change the nature of the trip completely.

*despite the fact that we have TWO fuel tanks and a jerry can, Joe insists on only filling up one at a time, and refuses to fill up until necessary so as not to damage the budget spreadsheet. This is a constant source of anxiety for me, and when we get to Kazakhstan I will be putting my foot down.