Posted by Krista
…and the new…
…and the not so nutritious…
How happy we were to have met met Lok, Fish and Bruce, 3 Chinese cyclists about to embark upon the infamous G219 Tibetan Highway to Lhasa, the day before we left for the Karakorum Highway to Pakistan. They invited us to come with them to Yecheng and try and get permits, but we declined – albeit reluctantly – and wished them the best for their long and difficult journey.
But our route wasn’t to be so easy either, not just because of the terrain – but also because of these strange and ever-changing rules and regulations that make independent travel a nightmare in China. A few days before, we heard of a cyclist that had taken our road and had been turned back by the military at the first checkpost just out of Kashgar – forced to take a bus all the way to Sust in Pakistan. Another traveller we met had wanted to visit the high altitude lake at Karakol, also on our route, but was told he wasn’t permitted unless accompanied by a guide in a hired vehicle. Very expensive and very annoying. We didn’t know if we’d be lucky enough to get through this first checkpost, but we thought we’d give it a go.
The checkpost appeared, we kept close and put our heads down. I heard a loud, “OY!”, but kept pedalling. I heard another louder, “OY!” but still kept pedalling, not knowing if Dan was behind me or not. “Dan, Dan, are you there?” I shouted.
“Yes, keep going!” he replied, so we did.
Later that day, we saw a bus pass us with four bikes strapped onto the roof. Oh no, the cyclists we’d met in our hotel in Kashgar hadn’t been as lucky as us…
The intolerable wind blowing from the desert was dehydrating and exhausting. We stopped for a rest, sheltering from wind and blinding sun near a mosque and its mud cemetery. The family harvesting the field nearby came to visit us, proffering a honeydew and watermelon! When we cracked the watermelon open, the man was horrified that it wasn’t ripe, and he rushed back home to get us another two. Relief all round when we opened one to find it juicy and red.
The other 2 melons we strapped precariously onto the backs of our bikes. Goodness knows how they balanced there. But they refreshed us at the end of the day as we camped in the backgarden of a local family. After the pips had been spat, a giant sandstorm hit, and we escaped into our only-just erected tent.
The next day, the valley narrowed into a deep gorge. Mountains, bare and foreboding loomed above us, threatening landslides. Dan heard a rumble across the river and, looking up, saw a cloud of rubble and dust descending from the heights.
It was a tiring day as we followed the river up just past the military checkpost at Ghez. Reading the contours on our map, we decided this would be the best place to stop for the night as the gorge would continue steeply for another 20kms and there would be no place for our tent between river, road and sheer mountainside.
The only chaikhana (teahouse) in the village also served as a petrol station (selling fuel from old plastic coke bottles), and a raucous drinking hole. It had a small, stinky room attached to the restaurant with hard beds, which, much against Dan’s intuition, we decided to stay for the night. Just as we were about to sleep, we heard a loud, sharp rap at the door. “Police!”
A drunk and disorderly captain, wearing 3 stars on his breast, motioned Dan and I out of our room. Using aggressive arm swings, he signalled to us that we could not stay here the night and we must take a bus 70 kilometres away, to the lake at Karakol, where we were obliged stay in the tourist hotel.
This was ridiculous! We’d arrived in Ghez at 3pm, and it was 8pm now. Why hadn’t the soldiers told us we were prohibited to stay when they’d taken our passport details at the checkpoint 5 hours ago? We had unpacked, washed, were ready for bed and completely exhausted.
We argued, debated, pleaded and tried to reason with the unyielding military man – whose blatant misuse of power disgusted us to the core. Conversations went back and forth between myself, a translator that he had phoned, and him. After a 3 hour stand-off, the translator finally told me that if we did not leave, we would be sent to prison.
I attempted one last bluff. With a stern face I demanded the captain tell me his name and number because I wanted to make an official complaint. It was at that point that he disappeared, and never returned!
We left Ghez just before dawn broke. No-one was around as we filled up our water bottles with warm mountain spring water trickling from the mountainside. We knew the next part of the road would be steep and thirsty work.
It was beautiful. Occasionally, the road opened up and small settlements appeared, from where we could buy a fizzy drink, boiled eggs, or get some hot water to make noodles.
And as we passed Bulungkol Lake and Sand Mountain (Kumtagh), we raced against the wind and a fierce storm in the mountains.
This was the first time I was hit by altitude sickness, I was giddy and seemed to have tunnel vision, and the last 10 kilometres was tough as we ascended further to reach the striking Karakol Lake, framed by the Kongur-Muztagata mountain range.
We made camp and rested for a couple of days, swimming at midday in the icy water…
…and circumnavigating the lake by horse to find more springwater to drink…
It was a great rest and important acclimatisation, for the next section of the road would bring us to the Ulugrabatdavan Pass of 4098 metres – the highest yet.
Along the way, we passed woolly yaks and screeching marmots, ancient Kyrgyz burial sites and breathtaking mountain views.
The Karakorum Highway on the Chinese side is like a runway. With never a pimple or a crease, the gradient is always steady and smooth. It was therefore effortless to reach the top of the pass, where we ate lunch and had a siesta. We were woken suddenly by two other cyclists, heading in the other direction: lungi-clad Paulo from Italy and Fran from Argentina, who was carrying a didgeridoo! They only had 3 yuan (30 pence) and a few rupees to their name, so we gave them what Chinese money we had in exchange for their tatty, ageing Pakistani and Indian rupees. Fran didn’t think we’d get into Pakistan without a visa, and this put some doubt and worry into us.
It was then a long descent to Beskorgan, where we stopped the night in a yurtcamp run by some local Tajiks.
In Tashkurgan, the exit point for China, finally the Chinese rules and regulations caught up with us. We were forced to take a bus to Sust, the immigration point into Pakistan, 210 kms away! We were really disappointed as it would mean our journey would be broken up and we would miss cycling over the Khunjerab Pass. However, we managed to persuade the bus driver to let us out as soon as we got outside of Chinese territory, so we got to wheel down the 90kms from Khunjerab to Sust after all!
The border guards on the Pakistani side at Khunjerab welcomed us heartily.
It was a glorious and exhilarating ride from Khunjerab down to Sust, the official Northern Areas entry point into Pakistan. Giant, jagged peaks…Switchbacks…
…Meltwater rushing from ever-shifting glaciers… Smiling roadworkers…
…Crazy colourful trucks with jingling bells attached to their bumpers…
We were in Pakistan without a visa, and late for the immigration entry point at Sust, 89 kilometres away. Lonely Planet warned that all documents should be in order before entering Pakistan – firstly as there was a chance the Chinese wouldn’t allow you to exit without an onward visa, and secondly – because Pakistan may not grant a visa upon arrival. Fran, the cyclist we had met on the Ulugrabatdavan Pass had also put some doubts in our minds about this, as had the countless other travellers spinning gossip, fear and dramatic hearsay.
But we pushed on anyway, against the dry, strong headwind, and the dust that blew from the withered track that is the Karakorum Highway on the Pakistani side, stopping only occasionally to check where we were on the map and grab a handful of scroggin.
We finally reached Sust at 9pm, stumbling off our bikes at the gated post and saying a weary, “Asalaam ailekum” to the border guards.
Shereef, a large, fatherly figure in the local dress of shalwar khameese, appeared as if from nowhere and declared that he was, “Immigration”. But he seemed flustered – it was evening prayer time and his friend had the key to the locked customs building. As well as this, there was a power cut and he was reluctant to turn the generator on. So he told us to take a room in Sust and come back for immigration formalities at 9am the next day.
We asked him to recommend a place to stay and he escorted us down the road to a cheap guesthouse, chatting all the while. By the time we reached the bazaar, evening prayers had finished and we bumped into his friend who had the key for the customs building. So we turned back to immigration.
The generator was switched on and the building buzzed and lit up. Shereef’s friend took our passports to stamp and we admitted that we didn’t have visas, but please could we get one? “Oh, yes, no problem. I will give you 30 days visa, no problem. You can extend easily if you like, in Gilgit, Skardu, or Islamabad. As you like!” declared Shereef. “Let me just call another friend, he has the key for the visa stickers.”
And so it was, another friend was called in to help us. Meticulously, this man took our details, the visa fee, and gummed the visas neatly into our passports. “Please wait a moment”, said Shereef when this process was finished. “One more friend must come to sign your visas” he said, tapping at his mobile phone.
This was incredible. Not only had immigration been closed for the day, but 4 men had come out from their family homes to welcome us to their country and help us to fulfil the entry requirements of Pakistan.
And when all was done, Shereef declared, “This is Pakistan. We welcome you as our honoured guests!”
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