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.

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