Here lies a story of riding the Karakoram highway by bicycle, from Tashkurgan, a small town in Tajik autonomous territory deep in Western Xinjiang, back to the outskirts of Kashgar.
The journey started in a place called Kashgar, which is a huge market town deep in Xinjiang’s autonomous region* (and home to Central Asia’s largest market). I won’t go into the details of the town, as that will be the subject of future posts, but suffice to say it’s a place of clashing cultures, where political tensions are the norm.
We hired the bikes, after struggling to find a place with decent enough equipment and frames that would fit me, and took them back to the hostel for preparation. It would be an understatement to say that we were underprepared for the trip, as we shared two panniers (between 5), very few tools, some very uncomfortable hammocks, a LOT instant coffee sachets and an obscene amount of instant noodles (Sichuan flavour though, of course).
So the sun rose and we head off early in a 4×4 to Tashkurgan. The town is about as far as you can go along the road that connects china with Pakistan, without permits to travel further, and is a world away from the China many of you might be familiar with. We were dropped off in some dusty alley, where we waved goodbye to our driver. Our bikes were to be dropped off later in the day, and thus at that point we were equipped with little more than our meagre supplies.
We spent the day exploring the town and its’ beautiful surrounding steppes, and mentally preparing for the days ahead with beers and distilled grape juice.
The result of such little preparation for the Karakoram highway, unsurprisingly, was a hangover and no supplies… Three hours later we were on the road, zipping down long stretches of highway with reggae music blaring out of the speakers I’d strapped to my handle bars. With the wind behind us, we wandered why everyone had warned us that the first day would be so hard – and then we turned the corner… You see, the road from Tashkurgan goes downhill for a solid 20km until it hits a mountain range, for a solid 20km. It’s once you go around that range that you have around a 40km stretch of uphill climb that the going gets tough, especially when you bear in mind that you’re climbing to over 12,000 feet.
I’d been really lucky and got the best bike of the bunch, as the owner had actually lent me his own personal ride, and was thus out towards the front with our friend Sean, who has very kindly allowed me to use some of his photos in this post. We decided to stop for a food break, so that we could wait for our friends to catch up, but after a while gave up and powered on through (we later found out that they all had broken bikes with flat tyres).
It wasn’t until about an hour or so later that a huge flatbed rolled past, with a bunch of Englishmen waving and shouting, that we realised what had happened. They pulled over and signalled to jump on, and I’m embarrassed to say that we did… It was a momentary lapse in our determination and grit though, and was only a short moment before I jumped off with Ben, armed with more snacks and cookies, to resume the adventure.
The hills kept climbing and only eased off occasionally, affording us a gentle flat piece of road, a mild downhill, or a more gentle incline, before continuing to punish our puny legs.
Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, appeared a sign to tell us we’d reached the pass. The hardest part was behind us and it was all downhill from there (or so we thought). We bumped into an Italian film crew who were driving around the world and they welcomed us with an Italian beer – what legends!
It was at this point, whilst stationary and talking, that the two of us realised just how cold it had become. It was time to part ways, and descend about a kilometre in altitude into what we thought were the flat lands.
We rode for an hour or two and the scenery continued to impress. The problem was that it had begun to rain, and continued to , until the point when we were riding through a little bit of a downpour. That, and the extremely cold winds, when you bear in mind that in my battle against the elements I was armed with swimming trunks and a light weight (free) National Geographic jumper, made the conditions more and more difficult. We pushed on, but soon it became too much, and we sought shelter by the fireplace of a small shack. Our Tajik was non-existent, and our Chinese was pretty poor too, so reaching an understanding was a little difficult. We’d concluded that options were to man up and carry on, or take a ride in their 4×4. From what they had suggested it seemed like the journey was a fair distance, so we decided to take the hit and hitch a ride for a semi-extortionate fee.
Prepare for the let-down, because the camp was around the corner, literally within a mile of where we left off. We were gutted to not have made it, but delighted to be welcomed by our friends into a yurt heated by a fire place running solely on donkey poo. We had made it, and truly earned our nights sleep in a cloud of smokey shit.
An early start was in order if we were to make it back to Kashgar before nightfall, and some loud donkeys made sleeping in late a difficulty anyway. So I hobbled to the door of the tent, mumbling about the fact that my legs were in agony, and folded back the fabric to this…
All in all, I think it’s safe to say that at that moment I couldn’t care less about how my legs felt, and the whole thing felt very surreal. What’s more, I looked around me, and realised that we were just by the side of some random lake a few hundred miles from the world’s highest road pass. Travel can be crazy like that sometimes, to the extent where you forget how magical the whole thing is and take it for granted, but it’s moments like that which should remind us of why we do it, and love it so much.
Breakfast was swiftly served up, however salty tea and dry bread didn’t quite seem like what we wanted before another day of high altitude cycling, and thus it was time for the long awaited instant noodles and coffee mix to have their deserved moments of glory.
With breakfast out of the way, it was time to get moving, and thankfully day 2 was a lot easier, with far more downhill, than day 1. We rode some 40 kilometres to another lake, and despite two punctures, arrived there safe and sound.
A Pit stop, with more noodles and coffee, was in order whilst we waited for the others, before it was finally time for the grand finale… Almost 40 kilometres of pure downhill. In about an hour we went from 4000 and something metres to sea level. This last part was both exhilarating and relieving after the morning and previous day, and gave me some serious reflection time as I coasted down the mountain roads. We passed the checkpoint, which was there to check travellers/locals in and out of the autonomous zone for security reasons, and soon reunited with the lost souls of our pack, who had previously had to bail due to technical difficulties with their bikes.
The trip had sadly come to an end, and arriving back in Kashgar, with all its’ noise and smoke, was a little saddening. We rode our bikes back to the shop, a little nervous about the various snaps, cracks and scrapes we were about to unveil, but passed through ‘security checks’ with relatively few problems.
The Karakoram highway trip has always stuck in my memory as a favourite of mine, and has had me longing for more for a long time now. There’s something so liberating about seeing the world on a bicycle, and I think the difficulties you, or your body, come up against make the experience of travel so much more rewarding than just sitting there on a bus or train. It’s been a dream of mine to cycle around the world for a long time now, and I’m thinking that dream might become a reality in the next few years – I even bought a little road bike last weekend to get practicing…
Anyway, tune in next month for more memory lane. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.
See you soon,
PS. For those of you interested in doing the ride, check out the Merida bike shop in Kashgar for rentals… The guys at the HI over in the old town have a great place too, and can help you sort out rides to get to Tashkurgangan. Talk to them about staying in their sister hostel in Taskurgan itself for the night before your ride too, everyone there is great and the beds are super comfy (The shower is warm and they have a western toilet too!)
*Xinjiang is China’s most western province, which endures a similar political position to that of Tibet. The people there have a second class status however their beliefs in Islam, alongside the fact that their struggle has been labelled as a kind of terrorism akin to that of Al-Qaeda, has prevented them from getting the same kind of international exposure as the Tibetan cause has. I found their position fascinating, and of course depressing.. This led me to write my dissertation about their identity within the region, and anybody interested out there should get in touch for a copy 🙂