Our reliably indecipherable Chinese road map showed this backroad as a twisty, squiggly line. For once the map reflected the reality, with the road itself a thin scrawl in the dirt, a scar in a mountainside, stitched here and there by streams. After the desert, where we covered 120km a day propelled by tailwinds along pristine asphalt roads, this was a major change of pace. But well worth it to bike on exactly the sort of Abbey-approved trail we had come to China seeking.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. – Ed Abbey
For nearly two weeks we rode from Yecheng (or Kargilik) in the direction of Tashkurgan through the Pamir mountains, tracking a glacial river to its source along a road only traveled by Tajiks on muleback and motorbike. The kindness, hospitality, and generosity of the people we met along the way were superlative – countless families invited us in for chai and food, and we spent a few nights in Tajik homes, constructed like everykid’s dream fort, mud-walled buildings with huge sleeping platforms strewn with colorful rugs and pillows. It was a fantastic adventure, except for the fact that we weren’t supposed to be there.
We honestly had no clue this was an area restricted to foreigners until a week into our trip, when we arrived at a tiny village just 75km from our ultimate destination and were accosted by the police. Since Pakistan and Afghanistan are just a few hundred kilometers away, this was a “sensitive border region,” and passage was forbidden. The police called in three officers from Tashkurgan, who drove three hours to reach us, pack us in the back of a truck and fling our bikes in the trunk, and escort us to Tashkurgan – by dark, deliberately, so we couldn’t see whatever we weren’t meant to see. Riding bikes on such a tortuous, twisting road was rough enough, but jolting and jarring along in a rickety pick-up in the pitch black, heading to an uncertain fate and destination, was a harrowing new low. I regretted stuffing my camera’s memory cards and a couple of digital video tapes down my pants, just in case they tried to confiscate them, as this subterfuge didn’t make the ride any smoother.
In Tashkurgan, they dropped us off at a hotel and kept our passports, promising to collect us in the morning. The next day we wasted away for six hours at the PSB office, the police interrogating Ben the entire time, leaving Mel and I ignored if bored in the next room – sometimes being female has its advantages in China, since women are assumed to play only passives role in any matter of importance. Eventually we paid a fine (less than $10), expressed due penitence, and were set free to ride the Karakoram highway to Kashgar.
After rattling our bones on rough backroads for so long, we had envisioned this segment of the ride as well-earned vacation, paved and downhill all the way to Kashgar, so we were told. But the smooth road lasted precisely a kilometer out of Tashkurgan, then it was back on gravel and even worse, climbing uphill. Fortunately, the rough gravel and elevation gaining lasted only a few days, then we cruised downhill without pushing a pedal for kilometers, gawking at the mountains and grinning at such a sudden joyride. The only downside was that we were back on the (relatively) beaten path, and kindness and hospitality came attached with pricetags.
Exhilarated and strangely rested, we arrived in Kashgar, the pulsing hub of long-distance cycling in China. Since arriving here we’ve befriended Mattias and Florian, two German cyclists riding from Germany to Nepal ( http://www.fblock.com ), and Eelco, a Dutch cyclist in the middle of a two year round-the-world adventure ( http://www.backtobali.net). Nothing like hearing about the wild travels of other far more hardcore cyclists to put our own relatively meager challenges in perspective. After hearing stories about the insane dictatorship of Turkmenistan, the rutted roads in Tadjikistan, and the oil-slick and unfriendly streets of Dubai, China almost – not quite, but almost! – seems like child’s play. So while these guys put us into proper pansy perspective, I’ve now an expanded perception of what is possible in this world, both on and off a bike. My brain is absolutely bursting with mad schemes for future adventures…
But our next adventure is hopefully just down the road. We’ve now explored most of the Silk Road regions in Xinjiang, and we’re joining forces with the Germans to tackle one of the highest, roughest roads in the world, the Xinjiang-Tibet highway. There are so many uncertainties involved in this route: altitude, atrocious road conditions, and the minor detail that foreigners require a permit to ride the road. But we’re so close, and heck, what’s the point of setting out to do something you’re certain to achieve? We’re determined give it a shot. Should our first attempt fail, I’m plotting a back-up strategy à la Alexandra David-Neel, an intrepid Frenchwoman who in middle age disguised herself as a male pilgrim to sneak into forbidden Tibet.
He goes because he must, as Galahad went towards the Grail: knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life. -Evelyn Underhill