Kashgar – Gilgit – new regime, and the most epic ride EVER.
New cycling partners meant new time schedules, and after many months of lazy mornings and finding camp in the dark, I was ready for a change of pace, and Jessie and Ludo were the ones to enact it.
Up at 7, on the road by 830, there we were out the door of The Old Town Youth Hostel, ready to hit the road and start the KKH. Mathias was a little late in the morning, so we agreed to meet him down the road – he wouldnt be far behind and he’s fast so we would see him shortly.
Not long out of the hostel and Julian’s gear cable sleeve had shredded, meaning a false start. He went to the bike shop with Ludo to replace it while me and Jessie headed back to the hostel, to wait for them and find Mathias, but he had gone.
We must’ve just missed eachother, he was nowhere to be seen, most likely on the road now ahead of us wondering how far ahead we were, not realising we were now behind. No doubt he would be pushing harder to catch us, but to no avail.
We got on the road after a successful repair, and found the KKH heading out of Kashgar, in all its supremely paved wonderful Chinese glory. It was as smooth as silk, as all the roads in China are, and we effortlessly saw off the first day, camping in a beautifully secluded field with a banana eating donkey to watch over us.
It was really great cycling with Jessie and Ludo. They had a strong routine, which we easily got into the groove of. I never thought being a team of four would work, ( i dont think anyof us did) but it worked really well. We camped before dark, cooked up and ate dinner outside in the sunshine(a first for us!) and had time to enjoy the evening, and were asleep by 8pm. Bonza!
The next day the climbing started in earnest. We calculated that we should pass Mathias, most likely still asleep, that morning. Sure enough we did, and we stopped for water up ahead to find him coming up after us. Reunited! Now we were 5, the biggest group of cyclists the world has ever seen (or at least that I’ve ever cycled with) and we ploughed through the climb, enjoying the ever heightening scenery and the silky roads. We worked well even as a unit of 5, and saw off a solid 60km day, though by the close Jessie was feeling worse for wear (as was I, damn Chinese water) and we stopped at a police checkpoint, negotiating with a stall owner to let us sleep in a room round the back for the night. It wasnt long before the police got wind of this, and came in, all 5 of them, and told them we could not stay here. It was against government regulations – we had to go back to Kashgar or go to Karakol Lake 100km up the road where there was a hotel. They didnt seem to understand we were on bikes and that Jessie was ill. It wasnt long though before they realised the predicament of our situation, and Ludo’s quite forceful stand against them ‘what you gonna do, shoot me?’ encouraged them to change their minds and let us stay, as long as we registered. This was not the first nor the last time we will have run ins with the tetchy chinese authorities.
We slept well, eating noodles and Porridge, and the next day saw the biggest climbs, working our way up towards Karakol Lake. The scenery was stunning – the road was clear, the air was fresh, and the mountains were growing and growing as we worked our way towards Pakistan and The Karakol Range.
We stopped early that day to camp in the valley right by the river, one of the most picturesque camp spots of the trip, and 4 tents, it was a night to remember! We were also briefly joined by another cyclist, Paul from the UK, who was travelling lightweight into Pakistan the same route as we were. He bounded on ahead after stopping for a chat, destined to reach Karakol that night and stay in a yurt.
We saw him the next morning, after a slow rise due to the rain that kept us hiding in the tents until 10am (this was very late by Jessie and Ludo’s standards – Daddy Ludo was itching to get moving)
We reached the lake just as the weather was passing, and Muztag Ata cameinto full view. The scene was stunning – a crystal turquiose lake, framed beautifully by the mountain rising over 7,000m into the air, with a foreground of yurts – it couldnt be beaten. We shopped around for somewhere to spend the night, but the majority of the lake side is run by the mafia who have fenced it off, meaning you need to buy a pass to get close to the water. We lucked out on a yurt that was housing Paul, and negotiated a good deal, chilled in the yurt and enjoyed the increasing good weather.
We were quickly joined by a growing group of guests, and before long the yurt was packed. 12 people in all, from Israel, France, UK, Iran and of course little Belgium. It was a crowded night. We cooked up and got ready for an early start tomorrow, eager to get over the looming 4,030m pass before the descent into Tashkurgan and the end of the Chinese road.
The pass was relatively straight forward, thanks to favourable weather, good road conditions and the fact that we had spent the last 3 days climbing, meant that we were up and over the top before lunch. The descent into Tashkurgan was great, coming off the mountain it bolted straight down the valley, round Muztag Ata and down onto a plateau. It then darted into a narrow steep valley before opening up into small villages on the outskirts of the town. It was a hot day and there was little headwind, and I was knackered. We arrived in Tashkurgan about 4pm, having done a full 100km day.
On the map Tashkurgan looks like a remote outpost, but its a bustling town. We found a cheap hotel and had or last dinner in China, with a few beers and celebrated our shared road together with Jessie and Ludo. It was a pleasure cycling with them – we had many laughs and some great road, and the new routine was invaluable. I will definitely be sticking to the Belgian Plan from now on –thanks guys!
The next morning they left early, heading back to Kashgar. Despite our attempts to get them to come to Pakistan, they would not budge. We prepared to get the bus across the border.
Unfortunately, there’s a great stretch of The KKH between Tashkurgan and Sost in Pakistan, about 250km, that the Chinese Authorities wont let you cycle. It happens to be the highest paved road in the world, The Khunjerab Pass, but there’s no way you can cross it unless youre on a bus. What a dissappointment.
We didnt know the timings for this bus, and turned up an hour late. The next bus wasnt until tomorrow, so we had to wait around in Tashkurgan all day, finding a hotel lobby that would let us use their power to write some blog, before dissappearing off to go camp somewhere out of town. It wasnt long before our camp was distrubed by the police, who told us it was forbidden to camp in this region. We of course protested (I was literally about to go to sleep) but they wouldnt have it. We had to pack up all our gear and follow them back into town, where they checked us into a hotel at their expense. Despite the stupid laws they were kind, and even did our washing up while we packed. I did feel a bit cheeky asking, but before i knew it the police woman was on her knees scrubbing my plate!
The next day we did catch the bus, and it was a rather torrid affair. The bus was less than comfortable, without seats but instead opting for a bizarre lying cushion, stacked in three rows like cramped bunkbeds. The bikes were loaded rather haphazrdly into the back and we were off, watching the road dissappear beneath the wheels of the bus, wishing we were cycling. Before long we were at the pass, and as soon as we went over the gate, the road diminished into bumpy rocky track. Welcome to Pakistan.
We tried and tried to get the bus driver to let us off at the top, but he wasn’t having it. We had to endure watching switchback after switchback of great cycling behind the bus.
Eventually we reached Sost, and getting the Pakistani visa was a simple, if rather expensive, formailty($90!). we changed some money and headed out into Pakistan, fully aware of the change in people – everyone was dressed in Shalwar Kameez – and the looks we were getting. Most were smiles and excited waves (a novelty once again after the glum faces of China) but some were a little more suspicious. A group of Pashtuns who looked remarkebly like a stereotypical group of Taliban eyed us up as we passed. I waved and one hesitantly waved back. They were probably just as surprised to see us as we were to be in Pakistan. We headed out and made camp, hiding from the road.
The nex few days were mesemerising in their beauty, adventure and total, unprecedented awesomeness.
The road from Sost to Passu was eclipsed by the jagged mountains of the Karakoram Range. Their unimaginably steep rocky sides were capped with white razor sharp teeth that seemed to bite at the sky. The villages below were green and the water was clear, the air was fresh and the road undulated downhill mostly towards the plains in the south. It was some amazing riding. People were warm, friendly and polite, waving excitedly at our arrival and stopping to say hello in often perfect English whenever we stopped for lunch or for a refresh. There was peace and tranquility – something you dont associate with Pakistan. We reached Passu to find a cricket tournament going on – the excited yelps every once in a while when the heavily swinging batsmen finally conntected and sent the ball rocketing over the stands reminded my of being at school. Everyone wants a six!
It wasnt long before we were at the lake – the formidable lake that we had heard so much about. It was even in the news last year – accounts of a landslide that had blocked the Hunza river, causing a huge lake to be formed, washing away villages and destroying homes, as well as cutting off a large swathe of The Northern Areas from the rest of the country. We arrived at the waters edge, and it was a pandamonium of brightly coloured lorries hastily unloading their cargo into the overloaded boats. We found a passenger boat that was due to set off to the other side, and a wide range of Pakistani tourists was on board. Half of the passengers were residents of the villages that had been severed by the water, and the other half were Lahorei on holiday, as well as one recently wed Pakistani couple from Southall. This was to be a recurring theme in Pakistan – meeting people who are Pakistani by origin but are heartedly British, with many having thick northern accents! It was bizarre.
The boat quickly turned into a party boat when one of the passengers discovered my drum – i realised it didnt take much for Pakistanis to break out into dance, and the whole boat was a festive eruption of clapping, wailing, laughing, and some slightly homoerotic behaviour – quite often (and completely innocently) directed towards us. They were just happy to be alive, and we were very happy to be on that boat with them – it was jokes.
The other side topped off all the adventures of the recent day and a half, as we moored at the landslide itself. With no road and a hell of a lot of cargo to shift, they had fashioned a track that climbed almost vertically up over the recently fallen rocks. The only way to navigate it was by tractor as the sand was so thick. There was no space, and about 100 tractors, all vying for the cargo. It was total chaos – like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. We had help from about 20 porters to move our gear off the boat, having to hop from one boat to another just to get to the shore. We resorted to pushing our bikes up and over the landslide,but didnt appreciate the scale until half way up – it was enourmous. It completely blocked the valley, making it about 400m in depth, and about 500m high. The sand was up to my knees at some points, and so fine it was like wading through water. Everything was covered in it. It was getting dark, and the steaming tractor traffic was relentless. We pushed the bikes down the switchbacks on the other side, looking back occaisionally to marvel at the sight of the headlights of the tractors coming down the hill, like worker ants in an ant hill. We reached solid ground in pitch black, and had nowhere to camp. We were directed to an army camp about a kilometre up ahead, and made our way towards it, but not finding it. We camped out on a building site by the river, away from the road, and tried not get our tents completley filled with the dust from the landslide. It wasnt long before, while i was cooking, two men were standing outside my tent, dressed in shalwar kameez, with scarfs round their faces, holding kalashnikovs. They told me in perfect english they were the police. They asked if i needed anything, and said they would be here on guard as our protection. I thanked them and they sauntered off back up the hill. I was scared shitless. Its not a sight you want to see, i was just thankful they werent pointing the guns in my face or i probably woult have shit my tent.
The next few days to Gilgit were as beautiful as the first – mountains beyond my wildest dreams, green lush villages perched on the side of the Hunza valley and fesh running water. It wasnt long before we started seeing Cannabis EVERYWHERE. Its true what they say, it really does just grow wild in northern Pakistan. And every village stinks of the heady smell. We tried to make some tea with it, but it was fruitless – all the plants are germinated so have no potency- it literally is just a weed.
We arrived in Gilgit tired but elated after 5 days of truly great, unforgettable riding, ready for a curry or three, some new slacks and lots of mango juice – thank you Pakistan!