Monday, May 31, 2010

Flying the Karakoram Highway

There's only so much potato curry and chapati you can eat. Despite Saleem's relaxed hospitality, we know it's time to move on and try to get to Karimabad in Hunza. I ride over to the 'helipad' about 500 metres from the hotel. It's really just a scrap of broken flat ground. There are a couple of ruined brick buildings in which the army are camping. I meet Scott, an American, here chatting with the friendly soldiers. They offer me a cup of tea and Scott explains how they've been telling hime that they are Taliban. He looks highly amused and a little shocked. Apparently there are good Taliban and bad Taliban. Of course, these are the good guys. Masood, from the Punjab has been in the army 14 years. Ali, the NCO, has 17 years service. I can only guess that they might have seen some fighting in that time. Scott is calling the NCO Aliji, ji being a suffix to denote respect. We assume he's never heard of Ali G. After a while I'm surprised to realise Aliji is in charge. At some point a man runs in and everyone runs outside. Is there a helicopter coming? Better hurry, they advise. So I hurtle back to the inn, pay the bill and we load up and ride back to the helipad in about 3 and a half minutes. There's not a lot going on. Surprise, surprise. So we chat a while with Scott and arrange a bookswap with him. He's waiting for a ride to Shimshal, but the man with the jeep is stuck on the other side with a spare part. There are a few others hanging around, a tent with seats for the ladies, and a bunker covered with tarpaulin where chai is being brewed. There appears to be no organisation or reliable information. This is Pakistan.

Finally we give up waiting. It's cloudy and chilly, but the weather is not too bad for an army helicopter to fly, even a 30 year-old Russian helicopter. Saleem cooks us another potato curry and chapati. After our late lunch Gayle wanders outside and shortly afterwards rushes back inside. "Incoming!!" We wave goodbye again to Saleem, and dash over to the helipad just as the 'copter is landing and blowing dust and dirt everywhere. We join the back of the line and go forward to the door, the blades whirring above our heads, the noise of the machine making it impossible to hear anyone. And then all of a sudden we are pushed back, waved away by the crew. Passengers on board are told to get off. It's chaotic. We're left clutching our bikes as the helicopter flies off completely empty. Apparently the pilot got in a huff with the disorderly queue. We are flabbergasted. No-one queues in South Asia. What a wasted opportunity and a waste of money. Everyone regroups, and the local community scouts get us organised into a line. These guys are more authoritative than the soldiers who have all slunk off. After getting us all to agree to behave and not push in, we take our seat on a concrete bench and wait for the helicopter to return. It doesn't. Saleem seems completely unsurprised to see us back at the inn.

The morning looks brighter and it's with Saleem's confidence that we return to the helipad and find all the familiar faces waiting there, including Scott. Two more tourists arrive, one a Dutch tour guide who tells us without asking that he's been here 30 times and how wonderful it is here. We enter into a heated debate about whether the army treat the people like shit or not (we have yesterday's example) and whether the Pakistani government treat its people like shit or not (we have the example of the landslide). The authorities did nothing about the landslide for two months and refused the assisitance of the Chinese, who we feel could easily have dealt with the problem before the lake got too big. The Dutchman explains that his friends, local officials, had said the Chinese asked for too much money. Right. So now what is this disaster costing the Pakistani government in evacuation, IDP camps, helicopter flights, loss of trade and business etc? Let alone the cost to the people of Hunza directly affected. But think what face they have saved.
And then there comes a 'copter. Everyone is excited and tense. Will we get on. Aliji tells us that we must get on with our bicycles last. This seems reasonable, but it does the beg the question will we get on at all. Saleem is there and wants to help but the soldiers are trying to let only passengers through to the helicopter. A lady faints and is carried aboard. I'm wondering if I can pull off the same trick, but I'd probably just get trampled in the dirt. We are about to approach when everyone is waved back. They're full. There are camera crews aboard taking up space. It's possible another one will come later. But then someone shouts "Four more!" We turn and the chief scout sees Gayle and waves her forward. Saleem almost pushes me through the crowd. I start to feel bad about getting special treatment until I rememeber that were next in the queue. It's a drag unloading the bikes and getting the panniers inside, but we're prepared and board quickly. Gayle sts on the floor, the bikes in the aisle with me stood holding them as we take off. The cabin is crowded. I count thirty people and the helicopter seems to be struggling, but in fact its just going slowly. We're up and away. It's not long before we reach the lake and then the landslide dam. I can see hardly nothing stood up, but the flight is fairly steady. Within minutes we are landing in the cricket ground of Aliabad College and unloading before another group boards and the helicopter takes off again.
Slightly dazed and still with a little adrenaline in our blood, we load up and pedal along the back road to Karimabad, the lovely village that sits high above the Hunza river, with some of the best views in the world. We learn that the road onwards to Gilgit has closed. Now we're technically on the worng side of the lake - if a disaster happens it'll happen in this part of the valley - but at least in Karimabad we are safe. At our guesthouse there's a Russian who has come to paraglide. He can take off from nearby and fly beyond Gilgit on the thermals, a feat he achieves the next day. It's possible that the only way we too can reach Gilgit is by flying again....

probably the best view from an internet cafe in the world

Friday, May 28, 2010

Bussing the Karakoram Highway

On our way back to the immigration post in the morning we spot a couple of foreigners getting on a bus to Kashgar. This means they've probably come from Pakistan - they have. The news is that the helicopter service is in place flying people over the lake that is now almost at the top of the landslide dam. It's now about 25 km in length and several villages have been submerged or cut off. Although this is not good news for anyone, the fact that the helicopters are flying and carrying tourists means that we have a chance to get into Pakistan. After a wait at immigration for staff to arrive, a bus turns up. We ask the driver if he has space for us and the bikes - he has. And so we buy our tickets and wait in line with mostly Chinese workers who are all heading to Pakistan to work on the road-widening and reconstruction. The Chinese do not allow cyclists to go by bike south of Tashkurgan, but there is a chance the driver will let us off at the border to ride down to Sost, where Pakistan immigration is.

The scenery on the Chinese side is beautiful - a big wide valley lined by snowy peaks and pastures full of grass, settlements here and there, animals happily munching away. The people here are Tajik, and the women wear bright red clothes and embroidered rimless hats. There are a couple of Pakistanis on board and an Australian tourist. Everyone else is Chinese. One of them, an engineer, translates our request to the driver when we get over the Khunjerab pass. The border here is at 4800m, and on the Pakistani side the road deteriorates immediately as it slaloms down a narrow rocky valley. The driver doesn't want to let us off. Our names are on his passenger list and he must deliver us to immigration. However, at the first checkpoint we ask the smart Pakistani soldiers if we can get off and cycle. "Yes, of course, no problem" they say, smiling. Great. "But it is the driver's decsion." Hmm. The driver says no, but finally he relents at Dih, a small village about 35km from Sost. So we unload our gear and set off down the road. The valley is still narrow and twisting as we descend, with glimpses of huge snowy peaks. The road itself is a catastrophe. Like all the other roads we have ridden in China which are under construction. We take our time to Sost. The scenery is imposing and the going is slow as we navigate around the works. In one spot the Chinese are tunelling through the mountain to avoid a landslide-prone zone.

Late afternoon we pull up at the police checkpoint at the entrance to Sost. The policeman asks if we are coming from China and points us to the immigration building. It's deserted. He rings someone and he rings someone else and eventually there are about eight officials gathered to admit us. We are applying for a visa on arrival and the process is fairly straightforward if slow. For a start, we sit in the Immigration Officer's office while his flunkeys do the paperwork. The flunkeys can't tell where we are from. "You are from where, sir?" "England" They look at our passport. "Not Ireland?" "No, England, Britain, U.K." They read the title in our passport slowly. "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". It is admittedly a mouthful. "So, U.K. sir?" "Yes." That'll be $90 each. They show Britain/UK on the price list. Gayle points to Brunei, below it. "I'm from Brunei", she jokes. Those from Brunei pay $12. No-one in the office laughs. Finally, after about seven people have handled our passports we are stamped in and allowed to go. We are officially in Pakistan and it feels great. We were not sure that we'd ever arrive here without a single hitch.

After a tasty chicken biryani and a good night's sleep we leave Sost and nosey on down the road to Passu. The road here is not too dramatic, and it was pretty well-paved in 2008. Not now. The Chinese have built retaining walls and drainage ditches and there's not a scrap of tarmac left. The scenery on the hand is wonderful. The mountains here are craggy and dramatic. The villages are green with irrigated fields and tall plane trees all around. It's a lovely sunny day and we enjoy the ride, but by the time we get to the village of Passu we're hungry and tired. And this is cycling more or less downhill. We stop at a guesthouse run by Saleem. There are a few other travellers there , all heading north. A young Japanese couple on their honeymoon, a Chinese woman (only the third Chinese we've met travelling) and an old Aussie man. He immediately dominates the conversation and we recognise immediately what he is - a pontificationg old fart. Now and again, we meet these older men who have been everywhere and done everything and know it all. They like to listen to their own voice and they are invariably boring. It turns out that this is the guy who Alex warned us about in Kashgar. Now we know why.

The Passu peak Inn is in a great location, just outside the village but with a clear view of the beautiful mountains across the river. The valley is fairly flat at the bottom, the river winding its way slowly, and the mountains rise upwards in huge sheer towers. On either side of the village are two huge glaciers. The Batura is one of the world's longest outside the polar peaks, but all you can see from the road is the mass of rock and detritus of the morraine. These glaciers are now releasing meltwater fast into the Hunza river, thus adding to the lake at a fast rate. The news is that helicopters are flying to Aliabad and we need to turn up early and put our name down on the waiting list when we wish to leave. First, we have a rest day and wash some clothes. Then we go and have a look at the outer reaches of the lake. It's a turquoise blue and looks lovely, but in reality it's a disaster waiting to happen. There is a strong likelihood that eventually the landslide will give way and the lake will force it's way down the valley, destroying everything in its path. Villages close to the river have been evacuated, some bridges removed. It's possible that the lake will erode the landslide slowly, but the authorities cannot afford to take the chance. Meanwhile there are a few foolhardy tourists trying to still travel this part of the KKH and lots of locals stuck trying to get to the other side of the lake, in both directions.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cycling the Karakoram Highway

It's a good feeling to be back in the saddle and riding the first leg of our final journey through Asia. The KKH was opened up back 1982 and it runs from Kashgar to Islamabad. We're full of hope that we'll get into Pakistan and see the wonderful Karakoram mountains again. And it'll be cherry season. Our lunch stop is in a little town with some shady open-air restaurants. We are served soupbowls full of tea. We look around. This could be Turkey. Out on the road the riding is easy - the road is smooth and fairly flat. We have notes of this journey from our friend James, who bought a bike in Kashgar in 2008 and cycled this way. Before we start climbing through a narrow valley we spot a small field just off the road and mainly hidden from the passing traffic of trucks. To reach it though we have to thrash through some bushes. Gayle gets a punture and I get bitten. By my bike. I should know not to push my bike on the side with the spokes. Gayle's puncture is from a huge wooden thorn. It's our first. We merrily set to repairing it and then try and pump up the tyre. We can't. It suddenly dawns on me that I've never been able to pump any air into the tyres with our pump - I thought it was just too cheap to pump the tyres hard. Now I realise it's just too cheap. After a lot of frenzied (panicky) attempts by me and some cool reflection by Gayle, we remove part of the valve adaptor and manage to inflate the tyre.

Next day we start to climb, and follow the winding valley past some sheer high cliffs. Near to a police checkpoint we meet a bunch of overlanders in a truck and they invite us for lunch of stale bread and salad. It's very kind of them but not enough. We stop again for laghman and tea soon afterwards. We're aiming to find some hot springs where James stayed and looking forward to a soak before bed, but when we get to them the manager is not so welcoming. No he doesn't have a room. No, we can't camp. We don't feel like bathing now that we know we have to continue up the valley to find a camp spot. Not far on we do - right out in the open, above the river. It's not a bad spot and we cook our tea in the sunshine. But then the wind whips up and the skies darken. Therew are big mountains around us and then we hear the forbidding roll of thunder. Lightning flashes and rain drive us inside the tent. Not long after we hear voices. We shout out hello. They reply in English: "Hello! Just Looking!" A couple of locals peer through the gap in our tent door smiling.

After a night of howling wind that bucked and rocked the tent, we are happy to set off and upwards out of the narrow valley. At the top the landscape opens up wide. Big sky. Big country. We stop in a small place for lunch but a little man tells us to leave. We ignore him. He starts dialling on his mobile. Another man, a Han Chinese, takes us to a little restaurant where we can get some food. Little Man returns with a logbook. He wants to know where we're going. Tashkurgan, we reply, is that okay? Stupid git, we mutter to ourselves. Everyone else looks amused by us on our bikes but friendly. Our destination is Karakul Lake where there are local Kyrghyz who will put you up in a yurt at the lakeshore. A concrete yurt, mind. The times, they're a changin'. However, there is a small problem with the local police. Only a crappy Han-run hotel is allowed to have foreigners, apparently, and the police like to enforec this. We roll up mid-afternoon and are met by a family who have a yurt we can stay in. When they show it to us there are about 35 family members inside. We explain we want to sleep alone. No problem, the family also have a house close by. A bit later a jeep drops off seven French tourists who stay in the the family's other yurt. We are snug and warm inside. Outside the wind is blowing and the two big mountains that dominate the landscape here, Kongur and Muztagh Ata, are hidden in cloud at the top. Just before tea though there is a warning motorbike horn. The family spring up quickly and go outside. "Police! Police!" They drop the curtains, shut the fire off, and close the door, locking us inside. We sit in the gloom for about an hour during which someone tries the door. We whisper to each other for fear of discovery. And then a police siren goes off. We expect the police to bust the door open at any moment. But what would their catchphrase be? Y'know, like in all the good cop shows on TV they have to have a catchphrase. Bored and hungry we try and remember some. Book him, Danno! Remember, be careful out there. Who loves ya, baby? You're nicked, my son! The French are rumbled and sent off to the Chinese hotel. When the police drive off the family reappear with our dinner, apologising, relighting the fire, lighting candles. It looks like a daily duck and dive between them and the gendarmes.

Next day is a long ride to Tashkurgan, but it's the best day for the landscape. First we have a tedious climb for 30kms across what looks like a dried lake and then up a few switchbacks to a pass at 4000 metres. But after that it's almost 70 kilometres downhill on good road. We're convinced we have a headwind until we meet Adam and Cat on their way over the pass in the opposite direction, and they came also to have a head wind. We stop and chat for a bit until it gets too cold to just stand around. Shame really, as we haven't met any cyclists for a while. We get into Tashkurgan at the end of the afternoon, too late to find out if we can cross the border into Pakistan - the immigration building is closed for the day. So we find a hotel and get some food supplies and a bowl of laghman for tea. We go to sleep, not sure in which direction we'll be heading tomorrow.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Finally. We should have been here in 2008 on our way from Kyrghyzstan to Pakistan, but it was not to be. In the meantime it seems that the Chinese Government has been a little busy demolishing the old town of adobe houses. They're still at it. Modernisation. It's understandable in the context of China. But for those who hope to capture a glimpse of life in an ancient Silk Road city, it's a disappointment. Kashgar was a trading post on the trade routes over 2000 years ago, with routes into Kashmir, Afghanistan, west through the Pamirs and east either along the southern or northern routes around the Taklamakan. It retains a strong Uighur influence, with a big bazaar and a weekend livestock market. At the centre of town is the Id Kah mosque and down the backstreets you can still find the artisans at work beating copper into pots, steel into tools. There are bakeries and barbecues everywhere. Tandoor ovens producing lovely samsas (mutton fat pies) and to our delight, chickens roasted on the spit.

We stop in a hostel that's once been a family house, with a nice patio and seating area to meet other travellers. At last we have a hot shower and get some clean clothes on. Other travellers have come from Pakistan or Kyrgyzstan. And now we learn that the Chinese government has finally lifted the internet ban so we can shangwang (get online) and learn the latest from Hunza about the lake on the Karakoram Highway. We meet Alex, a young Australian who has just come from there and rode one of the boats across the lake. He's heading to Kyrgyzstan which seems to have another whole set of problems going on. Alex looks quite unfazed.

We enjoy wandering around the town, checking out the markets on the Sunday. There's a whole theatre performance when it comes to buying donkeys or sheep. Handshakes go on for ten minutes. An audience gathers around. Sheep are lifted off the ground (to check their weight?). Sometimes a middleman acts as go-between for a small commission. There's a bit of shouting, more handshaking and then the ritual of money-counting followed by more shouting. The donkeys and sheep are enormous - I wonder what they feed 'em. In the main bazaar there are tourist souvenirs, jewellery and gems, aisles filled with dark suits and stripey polo shirts, food stalls, kitchen pots and farming tools. It's jammed in places. We enjoy a nice plate of polo (pilaf) in a busy restaurant. The father and daughter who share the table with us both wipe their faces in a prayer of thanks before departing. Walking back to our hostel we wander through streets of boarded houses being demolished. They look shabby and gloomy on the outside, but where walls have gone we can see fancy plasterwork decoration, moorish niches in walls, carved and painted wooden columns and beams. Locals are busy at work salvaging some of these gems, presumably to use again, but not here. At evening time we pass a small mosque on a road where the muezzin is calling the men to prayer. But he has no microphone - he stands on the parapet above the doorway and cups his hands to his mouth and does it the old-fashioned way. We wonder if the call is allowed by the authorities - it's such a rare sound.

We enjoy ourselves here and are ready to leave to Pakistan when we read that the boat service across the lake on the KKH has been suspended. There is no transport between the north and south side, although there is talk of a helicopter service. The news throws up lots of question marks about our route, and we have only a week left on our Chinese visa. We are terribly indecisive at the best of times, so when there are dilemmas like this we are even worse. What if the Pakistan authorities stop issuing visas at the border? In a bid to gain some breathing space we go to the Public Security Bureau to enquire about a visa extension. The good news is that they say it's possible. The bad news is that they say we have to go to Urumqi to get it. Cressida, another Aussie, helps us look up alternative flights to Europe. There's a Baltic Air flight from Almaty to Frankfurt for peanuts (the pilots are monkeys). It's tempting to go for the simple option. But Gayle is also tempted by the opportunity to cycle into Kyrgyzstan as well. Oh no, we can't agree on what to do. Vreeni, one of the other guests, bakes us a cake in anticipation of good news. There is no news from Pakistan, but perhaps the cake is a good blessing. So we decide to stick to the original plan. We'll head to Pakistan with our fingers crossed. Which anyone who has ridden a bicycle knows , is quite a hard thing to do...........

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Just Deserts

It's hard to explain how excited you can get at the sight of a tarmacced road. We've been riding down a dirt road all morning, through a dry valley, dustclouds everywhere and when we finally breeze into Balguntay it looks like we were dragged here rather than cycled. Even the camels we had passed looked dusty. But here is a real road. Yeah! And here is the Traffic Police, asking us to walk this way, into the station house. It's full of chain-smoking Kyrghyz and Uighur truck drivers presenting documents. We present our passports which are duly copied and handed back, once they know where we are heading. In the town we stop at a restaurant for laghman (hand-pulled noodles). When the food arrives so do more policemen. One speaks good English and he's very polite. Where are we going? Korla. Where will we spend the night? Mmmm. Whwere do you suggest? He suggests a town off our route. We smile and say thanks for the suggestion. He keeps our passports and asks us to collect them at another station down the street after we've eaten. We guess they don't see many tourists in these parts. (Much later we find out from our friends Bert and Gill that they are refused to stay the night because it's in a 'military zone').
Joyfully we pedal on down the paved road, following a large river and passing through some rather grim industrial villages. One factory is surrounded by adobe hovels - the worst slum housing we've seen in China. Chimneys belch dirty smoke. Goodness only knows what goes into the river. Towards late afternoon we finally approach the end of the valley we've been cycling all day. There's a hotel by the side of the road with a big garden on the river bank. We check it out and ask if we can camp on the river bank. No problem. The hotel even has water. It's only when we boil it for tea and noodles that the rust-coloured scum comes to the surface and we realise it's the water from the main river. Probably full of chemical waste, heavy metals and much more. The camp spot turns out to be perfect bar one thing - across the river is the railtrack. Every half hour a huge goods train roars past, and if its going up the valley it has three engines. And a bloody big train hooter. As we're nodding off there's the strange sensation that a train is about to enter the tent.

Our final day's ride to Korla is out of the mountains and across desert plains interspersed with a few oases and hills. The road is a super-highway, which is a relief because we've a 100km to clock up. The new road has bridges every 500 metres. We're cycling across a desert. Sometimes the wadis must run with water, but it's hard to imagine. In a village we buy fresh bread and mutton fat pies, mmmm. A little huddle of men quickly surrounds us to check us out. We don't understand a word they say until one says "Pakistan". Ah-ha - they've seen cyclists heading this way before then. We shove off, and fill up our water bottles from an urn in a restaurant. (Only a day later do I look in my water bottle because there are some bits floating around at the bottom. Well, not just floating, swimming more like. Is that a worm? Yes, it is. Extra protein then.)

I'm not sure what they put in the pies, but we motor for a good long way before we suddenly hit a headwind that stops us in our tracks. We sit in a field surrounded by plane trees to eat our lunch. The sky is full of cloud and the wind is still blowing, but thankfully it's moving around a bit. A crosswind almost knocks us over, but at least we can still pedal forwards. Now we're getting close to the edge of the Taklamakan Desert and the landscape becomes quite bleak and ugly. Harsh. There are occasional run-down industrial sites and some shabby towns. We stop in one for fruit before climbing over a ridge of hills and descending through a hazy moonscape and down to Korla. We thought it would be a big town, but actually it's another big city, with skyscrapers. We've not had a shower for four days and looking forward to a comfy hotel room, but then we think we ought to check out the buses to Hotan first. Our hope is to get across the desert in time for the Sunday market there, and then continue on to Kashgar. We finally find the bus yard and a sleeper bus is about to depart for Hotan. The problem is that the driver wants 30 quid to take our bikes. This is way too much. After some discussion with a helpful woman in the ticket office, we decide instead to go directly to Kashgar. There's a bus leaving at 7pm and the driver agrees on 20 quid for the bikes (ouch). Instead of a shower and a comfy hotel room we're climbing into narrow bunks built for dwarves and waving goodbye to Korla not long after arriving.

The bus journey is interminable and quite dull, as we skirt the northern side of the desert. There is only some excitement during the night when we stop in a small town and everyone gets off to pee. Well, that's what Gayle thought. It turns out a man has been run over in the road and everyone is just rubber-necking. Gayle takes advantage of the distraction to relieve herself before the bus is moved on by the police. Everyone hustles back on board and we set off. About half an hour later it is noticed that one of the old men aboard is no longer among us. We have left him behind. After a long debate the driver finally turns around and we go to look for him. He's not to be found.

In the morning the view becomes rather monotonous, and we seem to be running about 5 hours late. We stop for a dusty old man stood by the road in the middle of nowhere. His suit is frayed and filthy and when he passes up the aisle he brings a rather cheesey aroma with him. More Rocquefort than Rockerfeller. After a while the smell becomes quite alluring. I lie in my bunk and dream of food.

Already it feels like we have left China behind. The towns look much poorer and scruffier, the people are quite different. Women are wearing colourful headscarves. The men are in dark suits, stripey polo shirts, white socks and slip-ons. Uighur men are wearing an embroidered box cap like the Uzbeks. Some have flat caps at jaunty angles. Their skins are sunburnt, their features sharp. Moustaches are prominent. It feels like we've travelled back through time and space to 1950's Sicily. Through the bus window, the desert is endless.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Go West

Our last train ride in China is one of our longest - a full two days from Chengdu, north through the barren lands of Ningxia province and then west through the Hexi Corridor of Gansu and finally to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Somewhere during our second night we pass by the western end of the Great Wall and the fort which marked the frontier of ancient China. The silk road camel trains would pass through the Hexi Corridor and then branch north or south around the Taklamakan Desert. Our train goes just a little bit faster than a camel....

Urumqi has the familiar look and feel of any big Chinese city. But here there's quite a mixture of people - Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz along with the ubiquitous Han. Some shops have cyrillic signs. We stop for a couple of nights and get our first taste of mutton kebabs and the Uighur bread baked into the size and shape of dinner plates (best eaten fresh otherwise they are just like plates). And then we set off south for Korla, over the Tian Shan mountains, loaded up with nutella, peanut butter and a packet of mature cheddar cheese. Once out of the city we find ourselves cycling through flat desert land, along straight roads lined with plane trees. It gets more interesting as we get closer to the mountains and by late afternoon we are following the Urumqi river into a wide green valley that climbs gradually. We pass through a narrow gorge and emerge into a higher valley where the good road ends. There are signs of quarrying and mining and the skies turn grey. Up ahead is an alarming cloud of smoke appearing from behind the next corner. This turns out to be Houxia, our stop for the night. It's a grim little communist-era coal mine and power station colony. It starts to rain. Perfect.

We stop the night in the Town Hall. Or the Communist Party Rest House/ Cultural Centre. We don't really know what the big institutional building is, but on the top floor are some basic rooms with beds like stone. We dig out our Thermarests. Just before nodding off a couple of policeman knock on our door. Uh-oh. It turns out they just want to practise their English and have a photo taken with us. Next day the weather is fine and we set off up a canyon, the road climbing steadily. We're slow going uphill though and eventually pitch our tent away from the road just as the valley is opening up again. The only traffic seems to be trucks. It's windy but sunny and the landscape is wild and remote. Tomorrow we climb to the pass, which is out of sight from our tent. But tomorrow everything is out of sight. The cloud has descended and it's snowing steadily. We lie in our sleeping bags most of the morning trying to keep warm and wondering what to do. The pass ahead is over 4000 metres and we're not entirely sure how many kilometres we have to cycle to reach it. Finally we pack up and set off just as the snow is stopping. The road is clear but everywhere is in mist. The lorry traffic has died down. It feels like we're cycling into the unknown. After some time the road deteriorates into a filthy muddy dirt road. And then the switchbacks begin and we climb what looks like a near-vertical boulder field. The mud turns to ice and we can't pedal anymore, so off we get and start pushing - but without a clue as to how far we have to go to the top. We stop for an apple and a breather and then suddenly the clouds part and we get a glimpse of the valley we are in. It's a dead end, with a huge snowfield opposite and up on the ridge is a gap that looks like a missing tooth. We can see our road leading into it and a couple of trucks coming down very very slowly. So we plod on, but with a little more spirit now we know we're nearly there. The clouds close in again and then suddenly we're in the gap - we're at the pass. I feel like crying for joy. Out on the other side the weather is quite different - sunny and very windy and no clouds at all. The landscape below is much drier. We know it's nearly all down hill to Korla, still two days' ride away, but the road off the top is not paved, so it's a slow descent at first. And freezing. Now I feel like crying in pain as my fingers turn numb. We pass through lots of grassy pastures with flocks of sheep, yaks or horses munching away.

Our stop for the night is in a forlorn little village built next to the rail line that has come through a side valley from Urumqi. There's one shop and we ask the woman who runs it if she has a room. She does. It's a funky little wooden cubicle inside an adobe hut, but there's space in the hut to cook and eat our noodles out of the fierce wind, so it feels much more comfortable than it looks. We sleep the sleep of the truly knackered.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Days of Beer and Bananas

The days whirl by in Chengdu. We're spending a lot of time using the internet and catching up with people we've been out of touch with. We've got a train to book to Urumqi in west China and a flight to book from Pakistan back to Europe. There's photos to upload to Flickr and a blog to update. Laundry. Nothing too strenuous. In fact, life in Sim's Guesthouse is rather relaxed. It's not really a guesthouse, but a large hostel. But it's well-run, and spacious, and very comfortable. Too comfortable probably. I'm trying to put some weight back on, aided by the odd beer and chocolate bar and an abundance of bananas. Gayle is happily researching our route homewards - at least I think they're tears of happiness I see.

Our plan is to cycle from Urumqi to Korla then cross the Taklamakan Desert on a bus to Hotan where we'll ride to Kashgar. Then we intend to take the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan. There's one hitch in our plans - a large landslide about three months ago wiped out a village, killing 19 people, closing the road and blocking the river just to the south of the border with China. With snow melt the river has now turned into a growing lake. (Take a look.) I suddenly become an avid reader of the Hunza Times for news updates. I feel like the man who enters the casino and puts it all on black, only for it to turn out red. There is no other way for us. And we have to book our flight before we leave Chengdu as there's no free internet access in Xin Jiang province. The Chinese government have imposed a blackout there. And then up pops a photo of some enterprising Pakistanis using a boat to ferry people. Okay, so there's transport. We book our flight to Frankfurt. We have received an invite to visit a lovely German man, Reinhard, whom we met at Nomad's Open Prison in Bishkek back in 2008. Then we'll cycle across to the coast of Holland and get a boat back to England.

Our days at Sim's are Groundhog Days as we slowly sort out our plans. Sim kindly comes with us to the station to book our bicycles onto a freight train a few days before our own train. He's got the hang of cycling in the city - you can literally go anywhere you want on a bike, just make sure to avoid whatever is coming straight at you. Bert and Gill arrive after their long ride down to the lowlands, happy to be somewhere warm. There are other cyclists too - one Frenchman, Yann, whom we met at Sim's last November. One evening Sim takes us all out for a meal. Such a lovely man.

And then all of a sudden the time has come to move on - off to the station armed with a two-day supply of pot noodles.