Ok, I hope I don’t come across as too negative, but this was another day of desert riding where a lot didn’t really happen. Riding in the desert tends to be a case of mind over matter as mile after mile of nothingness provides little to motivation to continue. It also means I don’t have much material for these daily write ups so they will probably be pretty short.
In the morning we left our field and filled up water in a gas station. The morning started in what I would describe as sort of savanna type environment with dry grassland and a few scattered trees. Small streams coursed intermittently, I presume what allowed these trees and grass to grow. This was a nice area to ride through but after about two hours we stared to climb out of this basin and up into sandy, exposed, windy desert.
We cycled in the desert for the rest of the day,mouth so little stimulation you tend to obsess over small thoughts over and over until you become a little bit crazy. For me I couldn’t get the thought of a full Irish breakfast out of my head. I suppose because it presents the highest concentration of tasty foodstuffs from home that I haven’t had in eight or nine months: Good bread, creamy butter, delicious pork based products: bacon, sausage and of course pudding. I don’t think a day went by in the desert that a fired breakfast didn’t float through my brain. At lunch we took shelter under a tree and ate instant noodles.
We were starting to run out of water, though we should be passing a village tomorrow according to the map we needed to try and find something. Finally towards the end of the day we passed a small building that was trying to irrigate the dusty sand and turn it into a fruit farm. The pumps were turned off but there was a barrel of clean looking standing water. We took a couple of litres and threw some iodine pills in it to sterilise just in case.
We came across a small scattering of trees in the evening and decided to camp. Despite the desert appearing devoid of life in the day as the sun went down a swarm of mosquitoes emerged and chased us into the tents for the rest of the night.
Not a whole lot to say about today’s ride. It was in the flat desert with limited visibility and into a headwind, not much else to say about it. The desert was sandy but marram grass or something like it had been planted alongside the road to prevent the sand from blowing out into it.
This morning we saw our first Bactrian camels, the shaggy-furred two humped cousin if the single humped camels we’d seen in Iran and Pakistan. Spotting them provided a bit of excitement in an otherwise uneventful morning.
More desolate desert riding after lunch and eventually we came across a police checkpost that signalled the return of civilisation. After the checkpost a long avenue lined with trees where serious irrigation attempted to repel the desert. A petrol station was the first shop we passed since yesterday and we bought cold drinks and tested outside a while.
We pulled into Niya, another surprisingly large and well developed town and found a noodle place for dinner. In the vanishing light we rolled out of town into the irrigated belt which surrounded the town. We pulled off the main road onto a dirt track until we found a disused field to set up camp.
Most of the day was spent spent riding through a pleasant little oasis region where grassy pasture fronted the road left and right and tree lined routes through small villages provided welcome shade. A real effort was being made to stop the encroachment of the desert into this comparatively verdant region. Large wooden frames formed tunnels along walkways that ivy and other climbing plants would soon cover to create shaded paths from house to house.
Riding along this cool, flat road with a tailwind we were making great time.mwe took a rest at a small shop along one of these tree lined roads. The young girl who was looking after the place brought us out some bread and tea while we sat by our bikes. She had a smattering of English which she shyly practiced on us.
By lunchtime we had made it to Keriya, a medium sized town with the usual, somewhat out of place wide roads and high rise buildings at the centre.
After lunch and out the other side of Keriya the desert returned again, dusty and sandy as ever. The road was straight and flat and there wasn’t much to see all around. A haze hung on the horizon. Off in the distance a line of trees indicated a welcome change of scenery. But soon we couldn’t see the trees, even thought we had gotten closer. They were swallowed up in the haze, which was moving towards us.
It wasn’t haze, it was a sandstorm barreling down on us. The wind hit then the sand, we donned sunglasses and buffs to cover our face as the wind blew right into us and the sand streamed around. The sand only lasted about ten or so minutes mercifully, but the headwind continued and the dusty haze stuck around to limit visibility to about 2km.
We only found this out later: the sandstorm was the start of a season dust storm that would last for the rest of this leg to Qiemo. Normally the wind blows from the west, which would have provided a tailwind all the way to Qiemo but around this time of year for a week or so the wind changes direction and blows from the North East, picking up dust and sand as it crosses the Taklamakan.
We passed a small checkpost as evening closed in filling up our water and then walking our bikes out to one of the barren fields next to the road. A raised earthen barrier, designed to protect the crops from the wind when the field was fertile provided us with some rudimentary shelter from the wind that night which howled until the early morining.
Free at last, we awoke ready to cycle and eager to get going without the ever present looming of the Pakistan police escort. This was China, we were free to travel where we please as long as it wasn’t Tibet or any other region off limits to foreigners.
We left our little field and rode to a nearby town where stalls set up at the central crossroads were selling food. Im sure they get very few foreigners stopping in this towns outside of a major city so our presence caused quite a ruckus. Mercifully they have a concept of personal space in this country so we weren’t immediately surrounded and were able to enjoy a bit of banter with the locals. We bought three meat pies, the meat encased in a crusty, bagel-y sort of bread. We hadn’t a clue how to eat it so one of the guys came over and showed us how to cut the bread open with a knife and us that to pull out the meat. They then gave us some tea and wrapped it all up with watermelon, a fantastic breakfast.
We were riding in a desert region, and from what we had seen from the bus it was quite a dusty, sandy desert (unlike the rocky deserts of Iran). However around most of the towns and cities some serious irrigation work had and was going on to reclaim the land, so for most of the morning we were riding next to farmland and stunted trees.
By lunchtime though we were well and truly in the desert. Long lonely road wound through nothing but sandy vistas. A strong tailwind brought a bit of excitement to the ride but it was hot and dry and empty nonetheless. We had better get used to it though, we have 600km of desert to cover before Qiemo, the city where we will get to turn off and ride up along the plateau for a while.
Intermittent cell phone towers dotted the sandy nothingness and provided much need shade at lunchtime. We waited out the heat of the day and then rode off, but after lunch the wind shifted to a crosswind and the sand was whipped across the road buffeting us as we peddled.
We rested a while in the shade of one of these trees before eating dinner, a tasty noodle dish, and riding out of the city to find somewhere to camp. The desert didn’t come right back though, irrigation meant trees and far land lined the road and we came across a little patch of dirt away from the road to set up camp in.
It was a challenge to get into China, as I described in the last post. Despite trying everything we could getting across the land border in a timely manner was not possible. The worst landslides in 20 years had hit and the road wasn’t going to be cleared any time soon. So, feeling a bit deflated at the thought but comforted by the fact we had exhausted all other options, we flew.
We would have flown to Kashgar, the first big city we would have arrived at in China had the road been open. However, in a case of perfectly terrible timing the company that ran the flights to Kashgar from Islamabad had stopped for the month while,they renewed a lease (or something like that) so we flew instead to Urumqi.
Urumqi is the regional capital for the Xinjiang province, a semi-autonomous region at the very western edge of China. The culture here is more Central Asian than Chinese and it is the homeland of the Uighers, a Muslim peoples of Turkic descent. We flew out of Islamabad, catching a lucky break (one we felt was long overdue) when the airline let us put our bikes on the plane for free, along with our overweight luggage.
Travelling from country to country on the bike means that everything changes very gradually, rarely are you hit full force the the shock of an entirely new country and culture all at once. Flying, of course, is a different matter and arriving in Urumiqi a modern Chinese city of some 4 million people was a huge shock, especially coming from Pakistan.
The roads were new and clean, the traffic was disconcertingly organised. People were walking about in regular clothes, there were even women walking around with their hair in full view! Scandalous! Everything was new and exciting, a wild array of restaurants, fast food places and noodle bars serving a wide variety of cuisine. Electricity being used willy-nilly to power signs and advertisements. And of course the Chinese characters emblazoned everywhere. In other words Urumqi was the complete reverse of what we had experienced in Pakistan and wonderful for it.
We spent four days in Urumqi just enjoying the amenities and conveniences offered by a big city. On top of that we ran into not one but three different groups of bike tourers in the hostel. Having not seen another bike tourer since that brief encounter with the Frenchmen in an Iranian village it was real treat to be able to sit around and swap stories with other cyclists who had been through similar situations.
There was an English couple who incredibly Andre had already met many months ago back in Bulgaria where they had been riding on a tandem. They had since flown out to Indonesia and were riding back to England, this time on individual bicycles. Mitch and Steve, two brothers from Australia followed them. They were on a trip to Scotland where their family were from originally and hoped to be there by Christmas. And finally three girls from England also making he return journey overland, who had hoped to stay with a Warmshowers host but had to change plans when the police told their host he should stop having foreigners staying with him.
After three days we left Urumqi. Urumqi is quite far north and we wanted to join back up with where would have been cycling had we not flown. At least, as close as we reasonably could. We took a 24 hour bus across the Taklamakan desert the city of Hotan where we stared to cycle once again. Our bus arrived in the early evening and after getting something to eat we rode a little way out of the city and found a small patch of a unused field to camp in.
We walked back to Sost the next morning, a 35km hike back along the road we had just come up. We left the heavy bikes and luggage behind since it took so long to carry them over each blockage and we were coming back to them anyway, returning to Sost to get the exit stamps was just a formality at this stage anyway, right?
We left at 6 in the morning and made it back to Sost by 1. Right away we went to go collect the stamps. We met with the official and, probably unsurprisingly we had sort of expected this would happen all along, he said no. No stamp. So we tried to reason (argue?) with him and he pulled the irritating move of walking away as were speaking to him, exasperated by his crony attempting to placate us win empty pleasantries such as “Please, you are our guest” which of course made us all burst out laughing.
Eventually he agreed to let us talk to his superior, who when we got through to him was the first person we had dealt with who could listen to reason and could agree that yes, this was a pretty extraordinary circumstance. The main problem was that the China wants all people crossing the land border from Pakistan to be on government run busses – and would have had no problem complying with that rule, only the government run buses weren’t running on account of the terrible landslides that were blocking the roads.
Pakistan maintained that they couldn’t give us the stamp because we weren’t in the bus and we couldn’t get past checkpoint Dihh without the stamp. We were hoping that they would give us the stamp or let us go past the checkpoint, either or, so that we could make it to the border where we would be China’s problem (we had heard from tourers in the past that the Chinese authorities were more pragmatic in terms of following this ride the bus rule and that in certain extraordinary circumstances, which we liked to fancy our current situation was, they would let cyclist cross the border independently).
In the end the immigration official we were talking to came up with an elegant solution: he gave us the number of the Chinese immigration official in charge of the border and told us to call him up, if he said yes we could cycle then we could go.
Richie spoke to the Chinese official on the phone, a man named Liang and was talking to him for a good half an hour. It seemed like he had almost convinced this Mr Liang but ultimately the answer was a no. So now what?
So now what? The two options were wait for the road to be cleared or go back to Islamabad and fly into China. There was currently no work being done to clear he road, not a single man with a shovel, but not wanting to rush the decision we decided to sleep on it.
The next day, flurry of activity – there was bulldozer and it had started to clear the road. Local officials had all turned up in Sost the place was a hive of activity. People were saying the road would be clear in three days, a gross underestimate but a week? Maybe not outside the realm of possibility. So we decided to wait. In the meantime all our stuff was still stuck up the mountain at Dihh.
The following day the dozer was gone. Not great. It had gone further south to clear some other blockages. The road to China remained blocked. In the guesthouse was a Pakistani fellow by the name of Saeed, a friendly guy who worked as a trader and had a small business in Kashgar he was trying to get to. With him we started a small campaign to get the national news to report on the blocked road, the lack of action to clear it and the four poor, trapped foreigners who only wanted some help at the end of the day.
We weren’t allowed to walk back up and collect our stuff, so even if we wanted to leave we couldn’t. We held out hope that Saeeds little media campaign would get something done so we waited another day. Or two, I can’t exactly remember the timeline but you get the gist.
Eventually Saeeds story got picked up by one of the national news organisations and a clip of us he had filmed and sent to them imploring the authorities to do something (lie start clearing the road which still hadn’t resumed) and the next day something seemed to have come of it. For some reason people were saying we were going to be getting a chopper out of here, but we didn’t know why. Eventually we surmised that after the news had aired the piece about us the government had been asked to comment and said that they were sending a chopper to help the four foreigners trapped is Sost. Not outside the realm of possibility, given that all the tourist who had been trapped in Karimabad had been choppered out.
Well instead of sending a chopper to rescue the foreigners the secret police were sent to intimidate and assault the guy who had brought their attention to the foreigners in the first place. This is what made us finally decided to abandon the whole endeavour and get our asses out of Pakistan on the first plane to China. The road wasn’t clear, wasn’t nearly clear and work wasn’t going to begin anytime soon. We had tried everything short of sneaking to the border, calling up immigration in Pakistan and China. Making our own way up the road despite the blockage, starting a small media campaign, enlisting our embassies – anything we could think of to get something done. We had tried everything we could think of and more and still nothing had happened. There was even a long meeting the same say the secret police showed up with Saeed, his friends, the local magistrate and us wherein everyone spoke together for an hour in Urdu, and at the end when we asked what was happening, if anything had been resolved we were told pretty much no, nothing had happened they had just had a meeting for the sake of it.
After this meeting we got talking to a fellow who had arrived with the local government entourage who had good English. This interaction summed up the entire problem perfectly.
“Why are you not doing anything to clear the road?”
“It is not our responsibility.”
“Why is the army not here to help clear the road?”
“It is not their responsibility.”
“Whose responsibility is it?”
“No ones responsibility.” With a big grin on his face.
So now we just wanted out. All that remained was to rescue our gear from Checkpoint Dihh. We implored the local magistrate who had shown up for this pointless meeting to help us on this. Finally he called up his superior (because by god no one can take action themselves) who agreed to organise something for us. In the end what they came up with was to send a single pick up truck. A truck was the solution to this problem of all our gear stuck in road inaccessible to autos. We realised right away this wasn’t going to work, the penny dropped for them about three hours later once they had been up to ‘inspect the road’. By then it was too late to organise an alternative apparently.
The next day we went out to find the magistrate to try and organise an alternative means of recovering our gear. We were happy to walk back up and carry it down ourselves but now we were on the governments radar we weren’t allowed to walk on that road as it was ‘too dangerous’ (even though officials had made us walk down it five days before). We eventually found him in town, he seemed surprised to see us. I’m sure nothing would have happened if we hadn’t gone to find him.
The solution they came up with was to have the KSF guards stationed up at checkpoint Dihh to bring our bikes down. We couldn’t trust the guards to pack and load the bikes properly and carry them without at least one of us there. We managed to convince them to let one of us go up with them (they were sending a relief group up to the checkpost so some of the other guards could come to town for a bit).
This is getting a bit long so ill wind it up. We got the bikes back eventually, with all the gear. Two days of bussed got us back to Islamabad where once again we stayed with Frank for a couple of days while we booked flights to China. Richie flew home, his time with us had come to an end. Having him around had been great, it was too bad we didn’t get into China with hime after all but thems the breaks. It was too bad we couldn’t cycle across the Kunjerab pass into China but at least we tried, flying was always a last resort after everything we had to resort to it at last.
We awoke with a fresh and eager vigour to tackle the big avalanche and proceed on to China. We started hauling the luggage and bikes across the snowfield, and partway through this endeavour (it took a good five minutes to walk over the snow without carrying any luggage, so it was taking some time to carry everything over but by bit) we saw some Pakistani guys coming down from the other direction.
They had come from another police checkpost at a place called Dihh, where the police yesterday had expected us to arrive the night before. When we didn’t arrive yesterday they came out and started looking for us. After giving out to us initially about being on the road when it was blocked they then seemed to take a shine to us and didn’t really mention it again. Two of them even stayed behind to help us get our gear over the next couple of blockages in the road.
After the huge avalanche that blocked us yesterday there were three more that we had to cross before we arrived at the checkpoint at Dihh. It took about three hours to get over all the blockages but with each one we were getting to closer to the border. Finally we arrived at Dihh, not a town or village but a pair of checkposts. One for the national park run by civilians where you pay to enter the Kunjerab Park, and one checkpoint run by the KSF, or Karakorum security forces. We pulled into the wildlife checkpost and had lunch.
We were now 40km from the China border. We still had to climb the Kunjerab pass but we were so close now. The KSF wanted to see us about the exit stamps in our passports (which we didn’t have) and we were a little bit apprehensive about what they might say. Surely, we reasoned with ourselves, they would understand about the flight Richie had to catch and the rush that put us in. surely they could take into account that the region had gone through the worst landslides in 20 years and if we wanted to get to China climbing over all these landslides was our only option.
Well in the end they didn’t understand, consider or take into account any if the extraordinary factors that had led us to this position. We had a meeting with the KSF chief and without the stamps in our passports we wouldn’t be given permission to continue. We argued for about an hour over this, and in the end agreed to walk back down to Sost the following day and get the stamp if he radioed ahead and told them we were coming and if they would give us the stamp when we arrived. He said that he would, and that the people is Sost had agreed.
We were all frustrated and angry by the end of it all. To have come so far, to be so close to leaving, only to be blocked by such an obtuse man enforcing some minute piece of bureaucracy despite everything that had happened was infuriating. We spent the rest of the afternoon bitching and moaning and complaining about the KSF and then went to sleep back at the wildlife checkpost.
In the morning we waited at checkpost belly for the police to make their decision. I went back into town to try and get some fuel for the stoves which we forgot to pick up yesterday. When I got back (no fuel, there were fuel restriction in place a result of the shortage caused by the blocked roads) Finn had been taken by the police with our passports back to Sost to get exit stamps on the passport. He came back about half an hour later without the stamps, the official in town had refused to grant them.
Without the stamps they expected us to give up and go back to Sost, but we were determined to make a decent try at crossing this border anyway so once the police left we cycled up to the blockage in the road north and started carrying our gear over. The guy in the checkpost was surprised at our choice of direction to travel, North further up the road rather than South back to Sost. He ran off to get the police again who arrived as we were halfway finished carrying our gear over the landslide. They just sort of watched us go over, said something about the stamp then left.
Once on the other side it was wonderful, completely quiet and traffic free road. Not a cloud in the sky, the river running swiftly to our right and the mountains getting ever taller and closer together. Of course we could never actually ride the bikes for more than a kilometre before shale or mud or a big slide blocked the path and we had to push or carry the bikes over.
The hardest part was getting the bikes through the sticky mud which clogged the wheels, stuck to the frame and bags and blocked up the drivetrain. It was like trying to pull the bikes through glue. After twenty minutes we got to the other side of the mud and brought the bikes down to the river to wash them off so they could actually function again.
At last we crossed the bridge that indicated we had entered the Karakorum National Park. It took us most of the day to make it this far, even though this point is only 35km from Sost. But we were 35km closer to the Chinese border now, and we held out hope, having come this far, that we could cross it in the next few days.
Our progress came to an abrupt halt when we ran into the remnants of an avalanche of a week or so ago out on the road. It was huge, at least 100m in length and 30m or 40m in height at its tallest. Atop it stood a herd of benevolent yaks, enjoying cool air of the snow. It had brought with it rocks, shale and boulders as it came down but we decided to cross it fresh tomorrow morning, rested and with the snow harder after the cold night. We camped close to the river in a wide meander and, a surprisingly rare occasion on this trip, lit a fire. We were the only ones out in the Karakorum that night and the sky was clear and full of stars.