This is a guest post by Andrew Leese
Ever since reading the bestselling Three Cups of Tea four years ago I had occasionally been needled with the notion of bicycling the exotic, remote Karakoram Highway that links far western China with northern Pakistan. This marvel of engineering continues a joint project between the Chinese and Pakistani governments that cuts through some of the most rugged terrain on Earth. The most dense cluster of high peaks in the natural world, the Karakoram mountain range lies between the Pamir and Himalayan ranges on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau and includes K2 (8,611m), the planet’s second highest mountain. This segment of the Orphan Ride I had anticipated with a tingle of excitement mixed with cautious uncertainty from day one.
On the day that we pedaled out of Kashgar there was a heavy sandstorm, a frequent occurrence in the Xinjiang province of China. Sometimes the sand and dust pelted me so hard from the side that it stung. We found a discreet camping spot in a thick grove behind a farmer’s house and when we awoke in the morning our tents were coated in a thick layer of sandy dust. The young farmer and his family noticed us with surprise and seemed not to know how to handle our inexplicable appearance on his property…whether to invite us in for tea or simply ignore us. In the end he just waved a friendly goodbye as we got started for the second day on the Karakoram .
Today we would attempt an ambitious 100km with 2,000m of climbing onto the Pamir Plateau: not an extreme effort on a carbon fiber racing bike, but big day on a loaded touring bike! We would again be cycling at 3,700m and knew it would be altogether too cold for camping in November. At Karakul Lake (the smaller twin of the high-altitude lake of the same name in Tajikistan) we knew of an opportunity to stay in a Kyrgyz yurt: a large, round tent made from felted sheeps’ wool and canvas with a coal-burning fireplace. There were no other habitations listed in our guidebook. We arrived at the lake one hour after dark and almost missed the lodging since there was no light coming from the hotel portion of the property. Before long we had a roaring fire and spicy-hot instant noodles with boiled eggs under our noses.
My sinus infection that I contracted in freezing Kyrgyzstan had not only grown worse, but it had dropped into my chest, so that during the night I would wake in a fit of coughing, and every time I stopped pedaling to take a break the arctic, dry wind would tear at my lungs causing me to double over with violent hacking. Every time this happened I half-expected to taste the metallic savor of blood, but I never did.
Our windy ride took us up to 4,200 meters (13,800 feet) before gently descending through the thin, glacial air to the last town we would visit in China during this leg of the journey. Tashkurgan is a town inhabited mostly by a farming people of Tajik ethnicity with some Han Chinese running the businesses. Our beds in the spartan Traffic Hotel cost the equivalent of $2 for each of us, and we made the choice to stay an extra day in hopes that my symptoms would improve. Due to the lack of heating in our grim “hotel,” they didn’t noticeably subside. We also enjoyed the last Central Asian cuisine that would bless our discerning palates before passing into the Lands of Curry.
No private transport is allowed by the Chinese government to pass over the 200km between Tashkurgan and the Pakistani border. That includes bicycles. We boarded the bus and at the last minute paid the whiny Tajik transportation officer the extra ‘fees’ for transporting our bicycles. At the frosty-white Kunjerab Pass (4,700m) that forms the border the road changed from smooth asphalt to potholed earth and rock. I later learned that the Chinese road crews dotting the portion of the road that follows the Hunza River Valley had torn out the asphalt to make improvements, which have been in a state of slow progress for over 18 months. In the frontier town of Sost Randall and I got our visas for Pakistan on arrival with no trouble whatsoever. Normally one must go through an application and interview process at the Pakistani consulate in their home country, but it’s well-documented in travel forums that at this border crossing, and only this crossing, one can slip under the red tape by paying a little more cash for the convenience. In our case the total cost was $150 instead of $120.
Sost is not a place one would choose to linger, so we only stayed one night. Our hotel operator claimed that we would have hot water and electricity, but we only received the latter and it was a low current from the generator at that. In spite of this inconvenience our mutton curries and chapati (unleavened flatbread) were a great delight to eat among the fierce-looking, but polite, bearded men in their all-encompassing shalwar kamees.
The guesthouses, which had enjoyed an era of prosperity before 9/11, have slowly been blighted with heavier misfortunes through each passing year since the tragedy.
While Pakistan is an extremely conservative Muslims country overall, the fair-caste Tajik people of the Hunza have a reputation of moderation, warmth, openness and noble hospitality. Belonging to the Ismaeli sect of Islam, they don’t share the hard-line views of the Sunnis to the south. All of my expectations regarding these wonderful souls were surpassed by degrees as we made our way down to the lowlands. There was a melancholy in the air due to a poor fiscal year for the tourist industry. The guesthouses, which had enjoyed an era of prosperity before 9/11, have slowly been blighted with heavier misfortunes through each passing year since the tragedy. Pakistani consulates abroad, due to pressure from western nations, have made it very difficult for foreign tourists to obtain visas to enter the country, while Pakistan herself has has been hammered by recent natural disasters and by international media coverage of Islamist terrorist attacks within the country. Pakistan has been all but taken off the tourist map and the industry is rapidly drying up. This is a shame, because Pakistan was, overall, such a delightful place to visit! On the bright side, the absence of fellow foreigners does make the experience feel more exclusive.
The Hunza Valley, named after it’s celestially lovely turquoise river, is said to rival the Vale of Kashmir in aesthetic appeal, and to have been the inspiration for the mythical valley of Shangri-La from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. With the arrival of Autumn the leaves formed a watercolor mishmash of warm shades lower on the mountains. We first stayed in the tranquil village of Passu, with it’s precarious suspension bridges that cross the broad river. A yak had been butchered near the roadside and some men were busy selling pieces to a few eager villagers. We bought a fleshy, crimson chunk and our delightful host at the Passu Inn made a rich curry from it that night that I’ll never forget. We got a late start for Karimabad the next day and passed only eight kilometers of dusty road before arriving at the point where the river had become a lake, submerging the road for 23 kilometers. Earlier in the year a landslide had blocked the Hunza, forming a natural dam, and the road and lower building of the villages had been swallowed up in the infinitely exquisite turquoise waters. Now long-tail boats run goods and people between the two ends of the lake.
Assuming the worst, I carried my bike up and down the hill, growing more and more anxious and finally desperate to find the trailer that contained my computer with all of the photos from this trip, my tent, sleeping bag, passport and other belongings.
It took two hours in the chill headwind to cross and when we arrived it was already dusk. In the chaos of humanity at the drop-off point some young, desperate looking men snatched our luggage trailers and hustled up the dusty embankment at superhuman speed. Others tried to grab our bikes but we firmly defended our right to take them ourselves. I arrived partway up the tall slope to where the farm tractors were crowded that were used to hall goods to and from the launch point, and it was getting quite dark. Assuming the worst, I carried my bike up and down the hill, growing more and more anxious and finally desperate to find the trailer that contained my computer with all of the photos from this trip, my tent, sleeping bag, passport and other belongings. Observing that I had become quite upset, a young man offered to help and lead me back down to a spot I hadn’t seen, and there was Randall and our trailers encircled by the young men. They were, of course, demanding rupees for their “service” of carrying our belongings part way up the hill. Relieved, but annoyed at the surprise that I had previously perceived as flagrant theft, I paid my man a fraction of what he asked and some worthless denomination of Chinese currency to go away. In retrospect I regret paying him at all since I had not asked for it. On top of this the one who guided me to the spot also asked for cash. On the push up to the top I slipped in the ankle-deep dust and slammed my knee on a rock. The ride down the other side in the pitch-dark clouds of choking dust was reminiscent of riding through light snowdrifts.
We pulled off 15 km in these conditions to Karimabad. I was in one of the darkest moods ever and had a sullen ride into town. I descended into a coughing fit as soon as we summited the climb to where the hotels were and checked into a room in the first cheap place we found. The strong smell of mold in the room at the Hunza Inn failed to arouse my concerns until I had spent two nights in fits of coughing and fever, after which we made the wise choice to switch to the Karimabad Inn. It turned out to be the best value stay of the entire trip at about $1.20 per bed, per night, with a hot shower when the electricity was on long enough to power the water heater! In a quaint, comely mountain town with about twenty lodging options we were two of about seven tourists, most of them Japanese. Our stay lasted nearly a week and I spent my time drinking sweet milk tea, catching up on the journal, reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula and recovering my health.
Andrew Leese, discovered his love for cycling as a toddler.He worked as a barber in an independent, old-fashioned barbershop on the south side of Whidbey Island before joining his brother Randall in a marathon bicycle ride crossing Europe and Asia to raise money for the orphans in South India.
Read about their adventure here and help them in their cause.