Friday, 24 May 2013

Rich roads on the Karakoram

The variety of physical landscapes, climatic conditions, and ethnic groups on this four day cycle journey was simply phenomenal. Is their anywhere else on planet earth we could experience such rich diversity in such a short space of time spent on a bike?

Setting out from Kashgar we enjoyed a fairly leisurely afternoon, crossing a minuscule fragment of the far western corner of the Taklamakan Desert. Having trained across the rest of this desert over a total of 48 hours we were highly aware of how much we were merely dipping our toes on the edge of a vast desert ocean. The dry barren flatness was interspersed with leafy green fruit trees and villages of mud brick houses inhabited by the Uighur people.

Having stopped for a snack we were soon joined by a curious old lady. We offered her a handful of our raisins, but to our disappointment she took the whole bag! Any possible resentment was cut short however as she proceeded to invite us in to her dwelling with her husband and son, fed us yoghurt made from their own cow, and insisted that we stay the night and make ourselves at home. The loss of a bag of raisins somehow seemed like a small price to pay. Somewhere in this experience must lie some lessons for us to reflect on??!

The next morning we rose early and savoured the clear and crisp early morning light as we rolled over the remainder of the desert road towards high peaks and into a valley where we were wowed by inspiring rock strata, all shades of brown and rich reds imaginable.

As the valley narrowed and steepened we found ourselves quite suddenly rounding a corner and overwhelmed by towering snowy and heavily glaciated peaks, not long ago on the far horizon yet now brilliantly rising up overhead. One beauty of cycling over being in a car is that there is no roof blocking your view!

After a night camped beneath these beauties, and being generously fed by friendly Chinese road workers who easily discovered our “remote” campsite and showered us with edible gifts, we wound our way slowly through sheer walls of granite. This great rock uprising could literally not be a greater contrast from the sweeping desert plains for which they form a boundary.

Too soon we departed this gorge and entered more rounded and open hill country, some sweeping alpine sand hills and the green pasturelands of the Kyrgyz herdsmen. In just a mere few kilometres the population had largely changed from Uighur to Kyrgyz, another of China’s many ethnic minorities.

By this stage the road had raised us up to being well over 3000m above sea level and with that we were forced to endure increasingly wild weather and ever dropping temperatures. A roaring headwind slowed our progress, sometimes literally to a standstill, but in a dramatic change we were blown the final 10km uphill to Lake Karakol, engulfed in a storming brown haze of desert sand and sleety snowfall! To our delight we were welcomed into a Kyrgyz yurt, warmed beside a fire, and refueled with an amazing meal of noodles, veges and yak!

Waking the next morning we reluctantly left the warmth and good company inside the yurt to endure more raging winds from ahead. We ever-so-gradually ground our way across great expanses of pasturelands, beneath snowy massifs and glaciers creeping valley-ward. In more sleet and temperatures now barely above freezing we summited a desolate mountain pass at 3900m, and entered the Tajik county of Tashkurgan. With Tajikistan not more than 100km to the west, the sprawl that is China encompasses a population of Tajik people also.

Rugged up and fearing a long ride ahead we were ecstatic to be blessed with yet another wind change and finally a downhill. Reaching speeds up to 65km/h and usually rolling at around 35km/h without pealing, the next 60km had us whooping and hollering. We raced to our campsite just short of Tashkurgan, dropping 1000m in the process and enjoying the thawing of cold fingers and the swapping of storm clothes for shorts and shirts once again. We set up our tent among friendly Tajik herdsmen and their flocks of sheep and goats.

In a bizarre contrast to the warm hospitality we had received along this way, right on dusk we were paid a visit from the local Police who insisted we must move on from our idyllic campsite and find paying accommodation in Tashkurgan 5km away! We beat the impending darkness and were relieved to easily find a hostel whom to our delight offered a fluorescent-lit, white-tiled indoor camping space on ‘the terrace’. Every day in China offers something new, and often bizzarre!

This 300km section of the Karakoram Highway had come as highly recommended by my sister Mon and brother-in-law Dave. Sometimes with high expectations can come disappointment, these four days however have surpassed any hopes and left us buzzing and thankful to have been treated to such unbelievable diversity and goodness!


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