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1st – 8th July – Murgab – Kashgar – Big climbs, cold winds, corrupt borders, familiar faces and noodles

September 30, 2011

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A couple of nights off, a long and pointless walk to the only computer in the town ($8 an hour for internet, which included the price of the gas to power the generator) and we were off on a fresh morning into the high altitude abyss of the Eastern Pamirs.

We enjoyed a fresh and downhill morning, snacking on garlic enfused bread and tomatoes before lunch, guessing where the lonely line of power cables went as it disappeared into nothingness. No one was around. Tumbleweed was literally rolling past us. It was rather lonely

We banked up around a corner and were faced with what Jens and Zouzska had warned us about – what we had been fearing but had yet to expereience – harsh north headwinds. We were reduced to snail pace for the rest of the day, battling hard against a bombardment of icy gales. I had my jacket, gloves and hat on again, frustrated at going so slowly and for being back in arctic conditions again – this is the summer afterall!

We crawled up over a small pass and came down to the only built structure seemingly for the surrounding 150km. a small farming family were in residence, and we sheepishly asked if we could set up our tents in the windshadow of their house. Without hesitation the farmer grabbed a set of keys, led us round the back and showed us to our very own room. We were humbly shocked, and very grateful to have a roof over our heads for the night. Half an hour later he came with two bowls of noodles and bony meat – job done.

The next day was beautiful, and a perfect start for crawling up to the highest climb of the trip to date – The Akbaital pass at 4,635 m. I wasn’t feeling too great today – my bowels were churning away as they had been for the last three days, leaving me quite weak and unable to take in much food. I had saved the noodles from the previous night, and noshed them down at the foot of the steepest section of the pass for that little extra push to the top.

We slowly made our way over, climbing 20metres at a time before having to stop to retain our breath. The air was really thin up there and the road was so steep that it took an eternity to push over the last section. At the top were various scrawls from other road trippers, victorious of their achievements, but we were too cold to add to the plaque and descended off the pass. The highest point on a bike was short lived.

Down the other side was a vast barren valley with one yurt in the distance. The road carved a stright line right down until it disappeared behind the mointains. This was our exit from Tajikistan – the road to Karakul Lake that would take us up and over again, off the Pamirs and into Kyrgyzstan.

Down the other side of the pass, it wasn’t long before the road descended into abysmal corrugated dirt. The frustration of cycling on this surface is unwriteable – after a hard day, with tough winds, the last thing you want is a bad road surface.

We trundled and huffed along for another 30km until the road got the better of us and we took shelter for the night in a ruined building. The night was fresh, and I had to dig my thermals out from the bottom of my bag, but it was snug and peaceful. The morning came and was fresh and the sun was hot, as as we were packing we spotted a cyclist coming the other way. We bounded up to the road to meet him – he was Japanese, and had been coming from Kyrgyzstan and China. We were shocked when he revealed that he’d been on the road for 3 years, and was planning another 4! His aim was 100 countries. We insisted on him joining us for tea, where he told us about illegally cycling in Tibet and almost dying in a car related accident in India. Things to look forward to then!

We reached the Karakul Lake later that day and had a cold and blustery lunch on its shore. The fantasy of swimming in the lake was all but destroyed by the bleak weather, and we pushed on to get a bit of a headstart with an aim to cross the border tomorrow. We camped under the road in a flood channel, thinking it would be well hidden and cosy, which is was until it started to rain up in the mountains, and the channel became a torrent. Our fleed defenses were futile, and the sand wall we made reached high until it burst its banks, forcing us to swiftly move all our gear and sandy dinner up out of the channel before we were swept away.

The next day was border day, and we were determined to make it in good time to get to Sary Tash for the night. The road and the wind had other plans for us though – corrugated for 50km and severe headwinds meant that we were exhausted after 15km. we trundled and trundled our way up the the border, sited high on the Kyzyl Art pass. The border itself was a ramshackle hut with several soldiers and guys in leather jackets claiming to be customs officials. They wanted booze and money, of which we said we had neither, and they grudgingly let us through, unhappy that their attempts at swag were unsuccessful.

We climbed up over the pass and descended for 20km through beautiful nomans land towards the Kyrgyz border, enjoying the copper red sand and the huge mountain scenery of the Pamirs that we were exiting. We came to the border, greeted by spots of rain, and before long were cycling through the lush green pastures of southern Kyrgyzstan.

The green hills were dotted with Yurts and Yak farmers – it was getting late, and this was a perfect time to try and blag a night in a yurt. One family waved us over as we were going by, and we jumped at the chance. They had two yurts, supporting two families of 6 kids each, with hers of goats, horses, donkeys and Yaks. We pitched our tents outside Yurt number one, helped with herding the cattle, and sat down with the throng to eat under LED torch light in yurt 2. It was a truly memorable night, we felt very humbled to be living with these nomadic people, to be accepted, to eat with them, even to count their livestock. It was a blast.

We were relieved to be back on good tarmac now, the Chinese having built into Kyrgyzstan the most amazing silky roads that were to service their trucl drivers coming from Osh. We swanned into Sary Tash, looking for a meal, and came across our estranged Frenchman, Mathias the Missile!

He had an eventful experience in the Pamirs – calling it ‘The Viet Nam’ for bikes. Adventures included a hos of his borrowing his bike for the day unannounced, hiking and playing football with Tajik military.

We decided to rejoin forces and share the road together to Kashgar. The silk was delightful. The road ran down a huge green valley plane between the Pamirs to the South and the Kyrgyz mountains to the north. It was like something out of wonderland. People moved around on horseback – huge Chinese truckes trundled past – we were heading to China, a whole new world of excitement was just around the corner.

We got to the border and were welcomed by Chinese military training, with gunfire and unison shouting filling the sky. The Chinese border post was like stepping into the future – everything was automated and touch screen – a huge and some what bewildering contrast to the world we had been in for the last 3 months.

So here we were – China. I couldn’t quite believe I had got this far. Our first port of call was dumplings and noodles. We stopped in the first village for some food and some Sinkiang beers (some of the best beer for a long time!) and were immediately reprimanded by local police. They insisted we register with them if we are to stay for longer than one hour. We were perplexed – but they insisted. It was a strange event, and I left feeling like this is what we would be in for for the next few weeks – heavy police involvement.

We chilled in a yurt that night, eating shashlik and noodles, drinking beers, and became the focus of a very drunk group of young Han road workers. They were cool (if very drunk) and kept being us beers and cigrettes – by 10pm we were all blasted. They insisted we come with them in their pickup 17km back up the road to sleep in their work tent – we thought it a good idea until trying to get the bikes on to the truck proved impossible – with nowhere else to go, the drunk guys were extremely apologetic, and quite angry that the yurt owner wouldn’t let us sleep in the yurt. Eventually after much hugging and apologising, they drove off, leaving us to stumble in the pitch black to the edge of town to try and find a place to crash.

The next morning we realised where we had pitched – right in someone’s front garden. No-one seemed to bat an eyelid though, and we were just far enough out of sight of the police for them not to throw a hissy fit about us staying longer than an hour. We gingerly packed up , feeling worse for wear, and set about getting to Kashgar for a now well needed rest.

The road was beautiful. Paved, wide, with breathtaking scenery that switched from green pasture to arid mountain. Most of it was downhill, with a few small passes thrown in – it was some truly great riding. The only thing to bring it down a notch was the state of my insides – I was feeling wretched. Strangely enough I felt fine whilst pedalling, and maintained a steady pace all throughout the next two days that would prevent me from squitting out my guts on the roadside. When we stopped however it was a different story – I tried not to stop at all. We made Kashgar in two days, stopping in on a Kyrgyz festival (under the watchful eye of the law) on the way. we checked into The Old Town Youth Hostel on arrival, where we found our old friends Jessie and Ludo, comfortably shacked up for a few days, after having some issues in Tajiksitan causing them to get a 4×4 through Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar in order for them to rest up and recover, as well as four other cyclists. Get the beers in!

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