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Posts in China
Chengdu - Kunming China Oct 12-Nov 4 2018
eastcapades-graphics-4.jpg

challenge

+25032/-23662

ROUTE

875km

    TIME

16 days

off road

0km

SYLVIA

Human contact - interaction with people 

We’re back in Chengdu and ready for the last part of our Chinese journey. Our bikes are with Larry, an American who came to Chengdu as a Teacher, and never left because he loves China. 

He has a bike mechanic shop in the outskirts of the city where he builds custom made Bamboo bikes, organizes Tibetan biking tours and sometimes helps lost touring bikers who need bike repairs and tune-ups. Larry is our ‘bike’ savior.  Without him we would still be cycling around Chengdu trying to find a bike mechanic. Isn’t it hard to believe that there are no bike shops in a 14 mil people city? This is probably due to the fact that the city has a very easy bike rental system in place and the rentals are available everywhere, so there is no need to own a bike.

On our way to Leshan, we bike through small villages and discover a new side of China. Mining and Agricultural industries are omnipresent, each cm of land is used for something. The Chinese are amazing gardeners & farmers.  It's even more impressive because the terrain we bike through is difficult to work - almost all is done by hand and not machines. Altogether, there are 300 mil farmers, and China holds the #1 rank in farm output in the world even though only 15% of the land is farmland. The farmed land can be confiscated at any time by the government for new roads, train tracks, bridges and industry. If a farmer's land is seized, they are displaced and have to work on construction sites or in other industries like a handy man. I encourage you to read more information about the agriculture industry in China, and the challenges farmers face by clicking on the following link: 

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agriculture_in_China

As usual, we are being photographed by many people, including being the main attraction at a "stag/stagette party" which they do the same just like we do in Europe or America. 

On that same day, we have to wait behind a big concrete truck that drove into a big hole on a small village road and we get rained on. Eventually, we make it to Leashan. 

We are really happy when we arrive and the hotel staff gives us a room even though we look dirty and drenched.  The city is mostly known for the Giant Buddha - biggest in the world. The tall stone statue, carved out of a cliff of red sandstone faces Leshan and the Dadu and Min river. It’s under renovation at the moment, and unfortunately we’re not able to see the 71m high statue from the bottom. It’s hair has been carved so the rain water can run all the way down to the ground to prevent the erosion of the statue. 

This technique clearly works as the statue was completed in 803 and still stands even though it does need some repair. After a couple of rest days, we try to continue our trip, but Frank breaks his chain. Luckily, we are not too far from the city and once Frank has replaced the chain and identified the issue, we return to the hotel. Another rest day in a nice hotel for me :) Sometimes, I get a bit restless when we’re not biking and hang around in a nice place, but my legs are very thankful and say ‘merci’. We have the replacement pieces within 24 hours thanks to Larry and off we go again. It’s raining again and we arrive in Emei Shan fully soaked. We’re happy when we see the McDonald sign. We can order food, have wifi and dry our clothes a bit. McDonalds have become our savior in desperate moments. Coffee, fries and burgers bring back our smiles. We hope to visit Mount Emei the next day, but in the morning we realize that this will not happen. It is still pouring down, and we decide to take the train and miss 300 km (and the rain) of our biking road. Getting our bikes on the train was another adventure, but thanks to an efficient young train agent, the problem is resolved very quickly. On the train, Frank speaks with two young women who speak English very well. One of them is a teacher in Computer Science. The school she is working for has an exchange program with a High school in...White Rock, BC. And the other woman works as admin staff for Chevron. She has an interesting work schedule. She works 28 days non stop (12 hrs/day, except for Sunday 6 hrs/day), and then she has 28 days off. Her schedule overlaps with her colleague for one day so they can brief each other about the ongoing work. My guess is North American or European unions would not allow this kind of schedule, although it sounds somehow appealing.

The rest of the road to Kunming has lot of mileage and elevation plus big temperature differences. We’re back drinking a lot of sodas for refreshment, and we feel our stomachs are not always happy with the bubbles and sugar intake. The two bigger cities we visit (Xichan and Panzhihua), are pleasant and are a manageable size population wise (1 mil vs 10 mil). Nevertheless, we’re still a rare species, we meet no other Caucasians and we are by now used to the staring, which is not always friendly. That said, we also have a wonderful experience in Yongren, when two young Chinese men invite us to stay overnight at their place. 

relieved smiles when our Chinese friends invite us to stay overnight

our hotel room in Yongren

We’re invited for dinner, breakfast and a sightseeing tour, and a big party dinner with more friends. They even get fries, steak and a pizza for us. We finish the second evening in a Karaoke bar with a group of 15 people where we sing very badly, drink too much beer and cry when we leave. They are the most hospitable people we met on our trip, and it was the nicest evening in China. 

our hospitable new friends

The time we’ve spent together will definitely be one my fondest Chinese memories. 

The road into Kunming is very dirty and the air quality is probably the worst we had so far. When we cross through a tunnel (we’re not allowed to use), we come out the other end wet and totally covered in mud due to riding behind a truck cleaning the street with water. The truck is so slow which allowed us to safely cross the tunnel. On the other side of the mountain, the climate is completely different, it’s cold and rainy, and we’re happy to eventually see the Ibis hotel sign. The hotel staff is very friendly and helpful, we’re even allowed to take the bikes into our hotel room. 

The hotel also has a laundry service so I don’t have to wash our clothes in the sink while Frank is packing our bikes before flying out to Bangladesh. Everyone and everything has been cleaned and tuned-up as necessary before the next part of our journey begins. Our bikes have been reviewed by Bruce, a Chinese bike mechanic. 

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Both of us had some issues that needed to be addressed, and to our surprise, our bikes are literally like new. He is very meticulous and organized, I guess both go well together :) Frank has shaved, which is very challenging because razor blades are of very poor quality in China and there are no barbershops in Kunming, or at least we didn’t find one. 

Our Chinese journey comes to an end tomorrow, and I am still fascinated by China. It’s huge,  beautiful and contains a lot of contradictions. The majority of people in the country side are fatigued with their lives in general. In some villages and smaller towns, propaganda music wakes them in the morning and puts them to sleep in the evening. The differences between the urban wealth and rural poverty are big. Historical tourism is weird as almost all the temples and artifacts were destroyed during the cultural revolution and rebuilt in the last 20 years. The revolution has deprived them of their past, good or bad. Freedom of speech and circulation is not for everyone. The government censorship has deprived them of the fundamental right of information and thoughts. The pro government media tells people what to think but if you scratch hard enough, you find scared but rebellious minds. It’s frightening what the Chinese government does to their own people, you wonder what they would do if they take over the world by being successful with the world road belt they are building. And even though I admire their capacity to move mountains, which they literally do, I would not like to live under their scrutiny. Hundreds of years of government oppression has created a sad nation, where everyone is supposed to think and believe alike.

My only regret of our time in China is that I didn’t spend enough time with people to discuss my observations because of the language barrier. As a result, my thoughts about China are single sided, maybe even narrow minded. Most of all, I really missed the human contact with Chinese.

Below a few more notes about my likes and dislikes:

Likes:

  • I never felt unsafe on my bike or elsewhere 

  • No road rage in China. While drivers, bikers and pedestrians follow their own rules, moving the wrong way or crossing red lights, everyone keeps moving in the traffic chaos without being upset.

  • families eat their meals together, either along the street, in restaurants or in the stores/shops they own

  • Kunming is my favourite city in China. The blue sky and air remind me Vancouver.  It is unbelievably quiet due to the electric motorbikes and the amazing pavement

  • Mapo tofu - a specialty in Sichuan

  • Weird food, like bee larvae’s and pig feet 

  • Delicious fruit and vegetables 

  • Kunming Underground transit staff - they helped us finding a minivan to the airport. Thanks to them we did not miss our flight to Dhaka

  • Ibis hotel staff in Kunming

  • People dancing everywhere in the evening 

Frank in 15 years...

Dislikes:

  • real estate speculation - there are thousands if not hundred of thousands of unoccupied high rises

  • life conditions of people living on the country side is miserable 

  • almost impossible to find a camping spot but in a cemetery 

  • additional entrance fees within a tourist attraction. In Xichang, the city is asking an entrance fee to see the lake

  • water and air pollution in Sichuan and Yunnan

 And as a good finishing note, a huge thank you to Zenija who uploads our stories and pictures. Without her, no blog! Thank you to Alexa who reviews our stories, Eric for reviewing and inspiring me to write better and shorter stories, and a big smile on Frank’s face.


 

FRANK

A taxi ride with all our panniers from the hotel in Chengdu took us to the South East side of the city to meet Larry from Natooke Chengdu  at his bicycle workshop. Larry is from the US, found his happiness in Chengdu and settled down making his passion for bikes his main source of income. Occasionally he guides bike tours in Sichuan and Yunnan with “Bike China Adventure” for clients from all around the world. Larry is not only a bike technician and a bike adventure guide he also builds Bamboo Bikes and ship them anywhere you want :) . It's a passion that became almost a lifestyle. As we re-pack our tuned up bikes we chat about bikes, gears, bike parts, guiding and we left his bike cave with good tips for the rest of our journey to Kunming.

Kunming is about 650Km South of Chengdu “as a crow flies”. Crows don’t care about mountains and deep valleys....they don't care about temples and other interesting places to visit or to ride through. It is a big dilemma to pick one road that will satisfy our hunger to see everything and be in the mountains. The problem with the Sichuan and Yunnan provinces is the lack of connection between one valley and another...you pick one and you stick with it...what ever the direction the valley is bearing. Better to double check before you head into one of them as the way out can be very far from where you want to eventually go.

Based on Larry's recommendations and our ....guts (Sylvia’s and mine :) ) we drew a sort of a draft plan on the map that gives us some kind of flexibility to change plans. A 1200Km itinerary, we definitely have nothing in common with a crow. 

First goal, reach Emeishan. A good warm up after few days off the bikes. Riding bikes in China can be problematic and not only because of the language. During and since the cultural revolution many cities and locations have been re-baptized with new names. From one map to another, from one generation to another the same place has been named differently. With the Mega project to make China more progressive and up to date with the occidental countries, little villages are turning into towns, towns into cities and cities into megalopolises. 

Even with updated digital maps we stay confused when we cross a town that is not even shown on our map, we get frustrated when a road we have been following for many km becomes deactivated or transformed into a unexpected muddy road forcing us to choose between turning back to another option that would mean many km detour or taking the risk to persist on the same path hoping that it won't be muddy for too long and more importantly that it will take us somewhere. The good side of this is we cross amazing country side and can document a farming lifestyle in villages that for most part are turning in ghost places. All the young generation, in a quest for jobs and attracted by shining new cities growing or expanding like weeds, leave their villages and older generations behind.

We crossed many villages with no life, all stores closed, a few old souls getting together in what used to be a shop to play cards or dominos. Few are still working really hard in numerous small fields leased for free from the government knowing that any time it can be seized to build a huge Hwy, a fast train track or a new city.

We have the feeling that human beings and nature have no consideration from the decisions of leaders. What has to be done will be done, no matter what. There is a cost for everything and collateral damages are part of the cost.

We cannot avoid seeing major speculations in many aspects and the fundamental fragility of such speculations that can have huge implications at every level. But we are just modest wanderers, seeing and translating with our senses what is around us. In 2 generations China may show us that it was the way to go but for now what we have seen along the road was deprivation in the quality of lives for many people. And that has been true during the 2 months cycling through the Chinese country sides.

Weather did not add any bright light on our route. Mainly overcast, with drizzly conditions that progressively will become constant torrential rain. We arrived in Leshan after a long 130km ride. Longer than we thought because of the unexpected detours and road conditions. A very awful end of the day. With our headlamps, on a very misty late afternoon, rainy early evening and through endless road construction creating a huge traffic jams we cycled.  Fighting for our space on the now muddy, very muddy road (or what remains from the original one) there is no way we can stop. Soon we have a place among the trucks and other motorized vehicles honking to signal their presence we better keep at it. Screaming over my shoulder but keeping an eye on the potholes I make sure Sylvia is still behind me and alive. Between nervous honking I can vaguely hear something like “WTF are we doing here?” that I translate into “all is ok, I am handling it, how fun is this!". If I decide to stop for more info on her condition we would lose our place in the moving train and not be able to jump in again. She is alive and knows we are getting close to shelter.

The shelter is a nice IBIS hotel we decided to stay at, using information from an out-of-date offline application we find while resting curb side when the road finally got wider and allowed us to regroup. Reasonable rates, close to the side of the city we came in on. Within a few more minutes we are in a warm shower, bikes out of the rain. High five. Tonight we are celebrating with fried rice and eggs!

A couple of days off the bikes to visit the biggest Buddha in the world. 70 meters tall, carved in a red sandstone cliff where 3 major rivers merged.

The giant Buddha project started under the Tang Dynasty. It took about 100 years from 703AD to 803AD to finish the project that a Monk started by himself with the hope that in the future the Buddha will reduce flooding problems and calm the turbulent water threatening vessels. Actually, sediment and rock waste accumulations from the carving during the 100 years helped immensely but the success is still today attributed to the Giant Buddha... And another tourist attraction is born. I must say a very interesting one and impressive. But like in many other touristic places you are constantly being asked to contribute not only once at the main entrance but very often more times when you are inside the site. The general admittance is not always full admittance.

Buddha has been nice with us and offered us few hours of sunny warm conditions...just for the time of the visit. 

Back under heavy rain we biked to Emeishan. We know we will be soaked but it is only 30km to reach another high tourist destination. High in elevation and high in tourist interest the “attraction” is a gold temple perched at 4000m. Accessed only by buses from the little Emi town after a 2h drive one way. That by itself multiplies the opportunities to charge more tourists.

Totally drenched we ended up in one of the first hotels on the street. The Main Street of Emi is a juxtaposition of hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants. The first pick is basic but good enough. The hotel is dark, room smells of moisture and an AC on the ceiling tries to hide its age with a lot of duct tape. We gained some elevation since Chengdu but are definitely still in a humid subtropical climate. We asked the AC device to change its attitude for a brief moment. We are cold enough, a little bit of heat would be appreciated and would allow us to dry our gears.

A quick look at the weather forecast and satellite photo, it is going to rain for few days. Webcams of the peak attraction show nothing but clouds with no hope of a change anytime soon.

A quick check with a very casual internet connection and the decision is taken to jump on a train to the very next and closest destination showing sun on the weather forecast.

Xichang or Liangshan, according to your generation, arrival time scheduled for 11:30PM, departing at 3pm...We left the hotel, trying to bike between the rain drops to go for what we thought was a train station. Classic useless explanation of our goal to a counter agent to be told it was not a train station but a high speed bus station. The rail track can be seen from outside the building, though. Back on the bikes we headed back on the road we came  in on the day before to go to another train station.... the good one. We gave up the stupid idea of trying to stay as dry as possible. The rain is torrential. Back to scratch with explanations. 

“We-Want-To-Buy-Tickets-For-2persons-And-2bikes”

The translator app tries to help us but does not seem to do a good job. Short sentences, easy wording,... in response we have only long silences, laughs and definitely incomprehension. There is always ONE person somewhere who is keen to help us either with few words in English, better skill at using the translator app, or by using a little bit of common sense. When you find one person with one of these specifications, you grab him/her and you don’t let it go. The hunt for that rare pearl was on.

Took us about another 2 hours to finalize the project “train to the sun”, a lot of sweat and self control but 2 hours later the bikes were registered for another train 2 days later (ah, yes why would we still expect anything easier?) and we just had to wait a couple more hours in the waiting room. Stress and pressure fading out, we could then enjoy outside a now cleared up sky (no kidding!). The train station doors are only opened 2hours prior the train schedule. Well at least that gave us time and chance to finish drying our still wet clothes.

Xichang where we get off the train, Panzhihua, Yongren are “classic” Chinese cities of different sizes, different interests, differently pleasant (or not) on our itinerary. A route that will constantly be re-evaluated on the way to Kunming. A few sections have been very fun to ride, a few climbs have been challenging with very nice rewards at the top but to summarize we did not enjoy it that much. 

The scenery offers some really nice spots but separated by long dusty polluted and busy section that have undermined the enjoyment to be back in the mountains. Camping is very difficult if not impossible (a couple of times we pitched the tent in old mountain graveyards), 

industrialization of the valleys producing dust and heavy traffic, agriculture on any square meter of soil reducing access to more quiet areas or camping options, in some  places the feelings of not being welcomed to say the least, have not contributed to making that section as pleasant as we were expecting. Not pleasant but very educating and that is what a bike trip is about as well. 

We have not seen more than maybe 20 Caucasians since Lanzhou, about 2300km to the North in the Gansu province. We can document about how fast China is changing and at what cost. Human cost and financial cost. The feeling that such fast development makes everything fragile, precarious. Maintenance of infrastructures is not a priority and when they are falling apart they are demolished and rebuilt ...bigger. 

In Kunming, one of the most pleasant cities along with Panzhihua and Xichang on our route, we witnessed activities in parks that could be seen as fun moments for the locals but we can not avoid perceiving some sort of sadness hidden behind. 

Chinese people have been through a lot for generations and you can feel it.

We met people on the road, we spent time with few of them, different generations, same comments shyly or prudently expressed. Fatigue and desire for more from life. 

It is hard to answer questions when you know the answers may hurt their own life reality. Those questions are legitimate. Sometimes the answers are only confirming what they know. They are followed by a silence of deep thought. You can feel it, you can see it in their eyes. Those kinds of conversations never last long either out of fear to be heard by someone or because they won’t change their daily lives anyway. Internet is used by the young generation with VPN to go through banned info and websites. They find there all answers to their questions. Our answers, when we can not avoid the subject, are only confirming what they found on the web. Quickly, the desire of enjoying the moment is leading our new friends and hosts of the day to the Karaoke club where cigarettes and beers help to end the day with an insouciant mood.

We can confirm our singing skills are no where near as good compared to theirs.

Wrapping now our bikes to fly out of Kunming and for the first time heading West. 

Bangladesh next stop.

ChinaZenija Esmits
Kashgar - Chengdu Sept 4 - Sept 30
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challenge

+11570m/-12606m

ROUTE

1184km

    TIME

      95:01

off road

0km

SYLVIA

New skill learned: being comfortable in the uncomfortable.  

Sept 4 - we’re up early in the morning to catch our flight to Lanzhou (capital and largest city of the northwest Gansu Province). It has been difficult to buy a flight ticket, and we’re a bit worried that the bikes might cause an issue at the airport of Kashgar.

When we leave the Sultan Hotel at 6 in the morning on our bikes, downtown is still closed to traffic with roadblocks and heavy police presence. It feels like being in a city under siege. No surprise I’m happy to leave Kashgar. This city doesn’t feel tourist friendly to me at all.

At the airport we pack our backpacks, Frank takes off the pedals, turns the handle-bars inwards, and let some air out of our tube-less tires. “Ready for check-in!” we naively think, whereas the real adventure is about to start.

When purchasing our tickets, China Southern Airlines confirmed that packaging service would be available at the airport. The check-in is easy until they see our bikes. From that moment on until arriving at the gate it took us 4 hours. Packaging means wrapping a cardboard around the frame and attaching the tires to the bike. Then, we must carry our bikes to the loading zone. Once there, we worry how the company will store bikes on the plane (I guess we will never know) and that our tires will be deflate completely. By now, in normal life, I would have been stressed. Here, on the road, I feel that if it doesn’t work out, we will find a solution at the end.

When we wait for our luggage at the carousel at Lanzhou airport and search for the oversized luggage pickup, our bikes show up on the carousel like regular luggage, with completely deflated tires. Frank and I look a bit worried at each other because it’s really difficult to inflate tubeless tires with a hand-pump. But Frank, my hero, is able to get enough air into the tires to get us to a hotel. Altogether, it took us no less than 14 hours from Kashgar to our hotel room. We arrive exhausted and hungry.

Hotel staff is very friendly, and the Hui Muslims in the small restaurant even nicer. I start feeling welcomed in China, and it’s a really good feeling.

We have no idea what kind of food we ordered, but when the plates are finally in front of us, we love it. Very spicy, both of us try to figure out what kind of meat we’re eating until Frank discovers the head of a chicken in the plate. Nevertheless, we finish the whole thing and the business owners look happy that we appreciate their cuisine.

Next morning, we bike from Lanzhou airport to Lanzhou city (65 km apart). It is slightly rainy and grey, but it feels good not overheating for once, and we arrive early afternoon in Lanzhou. A 3,6 million people industrial city with very bad air quality. Frank is struggling to keep his nose clear from the dust, and because I’m always behind him on the bike, at multiple times, I get sprayed with some of his mucus residue. Ah, life is always surprising with him.

Finding the home-stay we’ve booked, is another challenge. Luckily two very nice University students walk us to the place and call our host. The location of the homestay is off by 2 km on the app Frank is using. Without the help of the friendly students, we would still be wandering in Lanzhou to find a place to stay because we could not call them.

For your good information: it’s almost impossible for foreigners to get a SIM card in China, unless you have a Chinese friend or stay a few months in the same place.

The retired couple who rents one of their rooms to tourists is very welcoming. They even invite us for lunch and dinner, and every evening we share a white melon, specialty fruit from the area.

The prefecture-level city, located on the banks of the Yellow River, is a key regional transportation hub, connecting areas further west by rail to the eastern half of the country. Historically, it has been a major link on the Northern Silk Road. The city is also a centre for heavy industry and petrochemical industry. Lanzhou was previously ranked as one of the cities with the worst air quality in the world, due to industrial pollution and its situation in a narrow river valley. Since 2014, the government recommends not to drink the tap water due to high levels of benzene. Government measures to reduce pollution levels have been effective, and in 2015 the city was awarded China ‘s climate progress title.

Lanzhou is a vibrant city with many busy bazaars, and a wonderful Museum (Gansu Provincial Museum) displaying artifacts from the area’s Silk Road past. My absolute favourite place in the city. One plaque at the beginning of the Silk Road exhibit shows the information below.

The romantic idea that in the past it was possible to live in peace together appeals to me. Today however it is very clear that minorities are oppressed by the Chinese government.

In general, Hui Muslims are a bit reserved, but you can feel a real kindness when they look or talk to you. Specialty food is the Lanzhou Spicy Beef Noodles. It’s so spicy that both of us have to deal with frequent washroom stops. After our visit in Lanzhou, we bike to Linxia.

 Before leaving the city, we try to buy gas for our stove at the gas station. An impossible mission it appears. Frank is ready to call all the gas station employees ‘stupid’ (with the help of Google translate). When he realizes that nobody will sell us gas, he starts to bike in full speed Frank mode, and I have a hard time to keep up. Eventually, the misty green landscapes and a few photos further calms his nerves. 

 Later, we try to replace the gas with a dissolvent but it doesn’t work either. So, no cooking or hot tea while camping. Only bread with some honey, a carrot and some fruit. I did not sign up for this, but I guess this is also part of our trip. The uncomfortable becomes acceptable.

On the way to Linxia, we even meet a fellow Chinese biker, coming from Chengdu biking to Kashgar. At many occasions, people look at us, and clearly, we are the first Caucasian they see in the flesh. Our bare legs fascinate them. I think Frank has even more success than me, because his legs are full of hair. I work hard with my tweezers every week to keep control over the looks of my legs, and even though I love Frank’s legs, I don’t want mine to look like his.

On our way to Linxia, we encounter big construction projects, either new highways, train tracks, or at the entrance of cities and towns, new housings. Lots of them are still empty, or abandoned for a few years already. Is the Chinese economy doing well or is it just another (extremely) big speculative bubble? I would like to ask people living in China for their opinion but my Mandarin is too poor.

I’m quite disappointed with Linxia even though people and food are nice. The mosques are mostly new buildings and the old Hui quarters of the city have been destroyed, rebuild and now look like another Chinese Disney World. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can have a glimpse behind the scenes and see the old Linxia. Or when you take a picture and the locals rediscover their home town.

I am excited to leave Linxia and go to Eastern Tibet. Our next town is Xiahe. After 100km biking, we see our first Stupa on the way. Tibet land starts.

When we avoid biking through a tunnel, we discover for the first time a Tibetan village with a small monastery and children monks playing in the streets. We were happy to spend some time with them, and they seem to share our pleasure. 

The road to Xiahe is pleasant, even if it goes up and it’s raining occasionally. Camping is definitely a challenge since we’re in China. It is hard to find a spot away from the road, with a clean water source and a bit hidden. One evening, we’re happy when we can sleep in a Tibetan cabin/restaurant for one night, heat some water for a tea and rest. 

In Xiahe, we stay in a nice hotel owned by a Dutch Tibetan couple. The place feels a bit like home, with its beautiful Tibetan decoration and Western & Chinese food. I can recharge my batteries for a few days, have our clothes washed, connect with my kids and grandkids, friends and family. Without rest days, I feel overwhelmed, unable to digest what I have seen and would feel disconnected from the people I love. 

Xiahe is a nice little town, with a majority of Tibetans and Hui Muslims, although with no political or administrative power, like all minority’s in China. Han Chinese hold power in all regions of China, even if they are a minority in some localities.

One of the biggest Tibetan Monasteries outside of the Tibetan Autonomy Region is in Xiahe. Like ninety seven percent of all the monasteries, Labrang Monastery has also been destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Today, almost the entire place has been rebuilt, renovated, and even improved with running water and electricity. It still holds six different schools, with a famous Tibetan Buddhism Medicine school. Before the revolution, it housed 4000 monks, but today the Chinese government allows no more than 1500 monks. Labrang is a famous pilgrim place for many Tibetan Buddhists who come from far. I have not felt spirituality in the many monasteries we visited, however watching their devotion to Buddhism, makes them look serene. The payed guided tour of the monastery is rather disappointing. The snobby Tibetan monk has no pleasure sharing the place and information with the small group of tourists we are.

For more informative about the Cultural Revolution and how it affected the Tibetans, please click on link below:

http://tibet.net/2016/10/revisiting-the-cultural-revolution-in-tibet/

From Xiahe we bike to Langmusi, a lovely small town in a breath taking location surrounded by alpine mountains located at 3300 m. On the way to the little town, we enjoy the beautiful surrounding sights. It is colder and we see the first snow. Unfortunately, our mountain high has been a bit spoiled when both of us were attacked and bitten by a big dog. A very scary experience, hopefully the dog didn’t have rabies. From now on, we always carry a wooden stick with us, and we already have to use it on several occasions. These wild dogs are lingering along the road in the Grasslands waiting to attack for food or to defend their territory. Even the Tibetans fear them. They’re a mix of Tibetan Mastiffs and street dogs, and they are absolutely frightening.

Fortunately, Langmusi makes up for our bad experiences. It is separated in two. The biggest part of the town belongs to the Gansu province, and the smaller part to the Sichuan province.  It is administered by two different provinces, because of the two rivalling monasteries. The Sichuan Monastery looks older and more authentic. Even the monks seem to come from another time. Prior to their evening prayers, they run in the streets, pee without any shyness in front of the Tibetans and tourists, and continue their way to the temple. I like Langmusi better than Xiahe. There’s a really good vibe, and not only because of a small Hui restaurant serving the best apple pie in China. 

After three rest days, our legs are still a bit tired when we get back on our bikes on another misty morning. Next longer stop is Songpan. It takes us three days to bike through more Grassland, Wetlands and tunnels. I love the first two parts, but not so much the tunnels. For one of them, a lovely Chinese stayed behind us with his car to keep us safe. It’s a scary experience to bike through these dark tunnels with only a small front and rear light, trucks and cars honking. I rather take the headwind, rain and crazy dogs if I could choose. But in the end, the exciting views and experiences let me forget the negatives. On the way to Songpan, we stop in a small town, Wanzhou, eat more spicy food, see again fellow Chinese travellers we’ve met in Langmusi, and in the evening, we watch men and women dancing on a public square. Dancing seems to be the favourite occupation in China, either in bigger groups or the classic tango. The secret to a long healthy life?

 In Songpan, we look for the ‘lonely planet’ recommended hotel ‘Emma’s guesthouse’ and leave disappointed. The rooms are not very welcoming, it is humid and the showers run very slowly. It’s not the first time we are disappointed with the travel guide recommendations. Most of the time, the guides have not been updated, and other travellers we talked to have the same feeling. When we look around, we find better and cheaper options to stay overnight. However, Emma was very helpful adding us ‘last minute’ to a sightseeing tour to Huanglong Scenic Valley (Unesco World Heritage site). The area is known for its colourful pools. Absolutely breath taking.

The stay in Songpan was even better because we met new friends, Murielle and Bertrand. Two lovely French with a caustic humour, like Frank’s. Bertrand was even able to fluster Frank and make him speechless. Can you imagine this? 

From Songpan we bike for two days to Dujiangyan. We bike through the area where the 2008 ‘Great Sichuan Earthquake’ and the 2017 big landslide destroyed many places and killed thousands of people.

The earthquake caused the largest number of aftershocks ever recorded, including 200,000 landslides. Over 69,000 lost their lives, 375,000 reported injured. The earthquake left more than 4.8 Mio people homeless. The entire corridor we biked from Songpan to Dujiangyan was very depressing. Narrow valleys, misty weather and dead villages did not help our morale. Even after so many years and all the efforts of the Chinese governments to rebuild roads and villages, it feels morose and sad. I can’t imagine how hard it has been for the population to rebuild their lives and livelihood. The tunnels we cross to get to Dujiangyan don’t help me to feel safe in the area. One of the tunnels we cross is more than 10 km long, and I am happy when we arrive in town and don’t have to cross further dark tunnels. Not so comfortable being uncomfortable! But then the Giant Panda bears make up for everything. I usually don’t like watching animals in captivity, but I must admit that they are absolutely adorable. They are quite a lazy bunch of animals, and we are happy to be the first in line (we’re at the research centre 45 min before opening) to observe them. Eating, playing, sleeping. All this takes about 45 minutes. And when the next visitors arrive at 10 am, the Panda bears are just slouching on the trees.

The same day we visit the Panda research facility, we walk up the mountains (500 m elevation gain - from 660 m to 1250 m) to a big Taoist temple on the Qingcheng Shan mountain. The site is beautiful but very busy two days before the Chinese National Day (October 1). On our way up and down, we meet this amazing man (94 years) with his son. We say hi, and he almost makes us cry. No teeth but the happiest face we have seen in a long time. By the way, Frank and I did feel our legs for two days after the hike. That’s why we’re so impressed by this old fellow.

The next morning, we bike another 65 km to Chengdu. The administrative capital of Sichuan. Huge city of 14,5 Mio people. The city in itself doesn’t have any particular attraction other than the Panda bears and the nature surrounding the city. On our way into the city, we observe big tree ‘replanting operation’ over a 15 km stretch. We don’t quite understand why and where the trees are coming from but it is really impressive. Otherwise, we enjoy our stay in the Holiday Inn Express at a horrendous price because booking.com screwed up our hotel reservation twice during a week long national holiday. The good thing is that we can rest in a luxurious hotel room, do our laundry, and prepare the next segment of our trip. It is also very exciting to know that my son and his family might join us for a short time of our trip, as well as very good friends.

I am now comfortable being uncomfortable, but it’s exciting to share the beautiful moments with my people.

And now my favourite gear since Kashgar:

  • my wooden stick

  • my shoes (they kept my feet warm at 4000m in the mountains)

  • my new tuque - you might remember, I send my blue tuque home to have less weight on my bike

  • my Thermarest mattress - I put it on the mattress in the hotels (mattresses feel like concrete in China)

What do I love about China so far:

  • no more diarrhea 

  • fruit and vegetables

  • Yak yoghurt and Tibetan butter tea

  • Chinese speaking English - I appreciate even more now how difficult it must be to learn it

  • the amazing paved roads

  • beautiful nature and Hui Muslims

What I don’t like about China on this part of our trip:

  • long tunnels you can’t avoid

  • menus without pictures - it becomes very challenging to order food 

  • camping spots are difficult to find

  • ferocious dogs

 

FRANK

It is a dark early morning, a couple of hours before sunrise, that we left our Kashgar hotel, heading to the airport.

After few rest, laundry, and bike maintenance days we did not really leave the city, I would say we escaped a city that has nothing to do anymore with the city I discovered in '95. What used to be a nice but already changing Uighurs town, full of good vibes, is now a big Chinese city where fake decorum remains in what was a charming original town.

Most of the Uighurs have “vanished”, only few from the old generation wander sadly around town surrounded by a now wide majority of Chinese Hans. Even the Animal Market, once known as the biggest and the most colorful on the Silk Road has lost its soul.

The all consuming state of surveillance, check points, and police presence everywhere has had a toll on the serenity that this place had before.

So yes, it was more an escape from something more enjoyable, especially after our border crossing experience  ( read the previous Story).

We have about 15Km to ride to the airport. It will be done with our headlamps on our foreheads, riding wide and empty boulevards. Some parts seem to be closed by a sort of curfew as access is blocked by police cars. As a result, it took no time to reach the airport.

Our naive dreams to find a way to travel western Tibet quickly faded away. It is a “no Zone” for foreigners. I biked across the Taklamakan desert in the past and there is no way I repeat that experience and there is definitely no reason to impose it on Sylvia.

So we booked a flight to get over that segment. Destination Lanzhou in the Gansu Province. From there we will be able to navigate our bikes through the Eastern side of Tibet. Less spectacular maybe than the Western wild section but richer in Tibetan culture as many Tibetans found refuge there.

Playing Dumb

Biking to the airport means no cardboard for the bikes. Bikes must be in boxes in order to be loaded in the plane. 

Knowing that it will be a “chaotic” process we arrived at the departure terminal about 4hours before the flight time.

Emptying our panniers and stocking everything in our 2 backpacks, panniers packed into each other to make one that will be our carry on. All fine except the bike with no box.

Pedals removed, handlebar turned at 90 degrees, chain off the chain ring and tires slightly deflated, it is with our best dumb smiles that we showed up at the check-in.

The bikes still on the floor, the backpacks are checked in first. 17kg each. No problem - we are good passengers traveling light-. The 2 backpacks tagged, they disappeared on the rolling mat. We now have one foot in the door, it will be hard to reject us.

Not sure what the lady at the check-in really said but the bikes that I think she tried to ignore at first, suddenly became a sure thing. 


“Those 2 Caucasians are not speaking mandarin, they are only smiling pointing the bikes on the floor and I've never been in that situation before”

The difficulty for us is to keep smiling and pretend that we have no clue why it may be a problem. Using the Translator App on her cell phone, we are told: “bike with box”.

A booth in a corner of the check-in area offers to wrap packages. I mean small packages. 

We are like hot potatoes that no one wants to keep in hands and so are thrown to someone else.

Still smiling but adding a sort of “I am sorry, so so sorry” grin on our faces, we pushed our bikes to the booth. Transforming in a second the still early eventless day of the poor guy into a real nightmare. No other option for him to get rid of the 2 hot potatoes. The airport at 7am is still empty.

Smartly, we bought some duct tape at the market the day before. So we can show our willingness to help him despite the deep distress (!?) we are in.

We found 2 small boxes that I cut to make them look like a one cardboard panel. Straddled the bike at its middle frame with the panel and duct tapped it. The guy did help, making me think that we were on a good path to a final solution. But then he decided that the wheels should be wrapped with or by something. String, rope, industrial straps,....the bikes look like a mummy. 

Back to the counter, dragging the bike on the floor since the wheels are now locked. 

Here are the “bikes with boxes”.

We are devoted passengers.

A manager is asked to rescue the overwhelmed employee and a manager always solves problems. Clearly annoyed by the situation, or by our idiotic smiles, constantly talking loudly to her radio device we followed her to the back building carrying and dragging our bikes almost inside the airplane. Mission accomplished.

Back on the road

Lanzhou, capital of the Gansu province,  is reached right before dark. So by the time we re-assembled and gears, entertaining in the same time hundreds of passengers rushing to either a taxi or a bus, it was with our headlamps again that we left the airport in a quest of the first hotel. The bikes surprisingly are fine, no damage. The lack of protection probably was the best protection.

We are 70km from Lanzhou city. We covered the distance the following day after a night in a crappy hotel.

A couple of days in Lanzhou hosted by an elderly couple renting a guest room in their apartment for few Yuans. The second part of our journey being decided we left a busy, polluted and noisy city like most of the Chinese cities behind us to get back into the mountains and their peaceful environment.

Surrounded by green sceneries contrasting with the dry and mineral landscapes we crossed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan we progressed gradually uphill to get back far above the 3000m marks.

The Eastern slopes of the Himalayas known as the Kham and Amdo regions being under the effect of the coastal climate means our camp spots are definitely not as dusty but it does mean the are more wet. Day after day the Tibetan culture became omnipresent. Temples, monasteries, prayer flags everywhere hanging on poles and trees but also marking the top of each pass. We stopped in many little villages as the veracity of their temples and monasteries make them more interesting to discover than what is now more a touristic attraction in other main tourist destinations.

Chinese do not maintain. They build, they use and when the time has passed by, they demolish to rebuild bigger. It is true for any infrastructure like roads but also for what could be seen as a part of their historical heritage. Many times we had the impression of visiting a Disneyland. Cheap copies of what used to be old but now supporting multiple souvenir stores or restaurants. That includes the Tibetan culture that in some well known cities has become a real economic support for the area. We are still wondering if Tibetans have their fair part in that sort of economic development. 

A lot of money has been invested to give a reason for local tourists or foreigners to make a stop.

Money is also invested in huge proportions into what can probably been qualified as pure speculation. High rise apartment buildings, entirely new cities annexed to older towns that maybe one day will be knocked down for newer dwellings.

Villages turned in towns, towns turned in little cities, little cities turned in metropolises.

Feelings that the country side in its entirety must move in only a few places.

Vast but locked

Within few hours of riding we realized that camping will be challenging. We do not mind a bed and white sheets but we feel cozier in our tent. Camping means cooking on our stove. It is a multifuel stove. One of those we always have with us. It works in any type of weather, any altitude, any temperature and as a multifuel item works anywhere..... except in China.

The easiest way to get fuel when we don’t know what is available is to go to a gas station and fill up our fuel bottle with gas for car. It works everywhere in the world....except in China.

For some reason we are not allowed to fill up the 1 liter canister at any gas station. Figure out why!? We tried few times and were rejected each time. I lost my temper more than once. I explain, they can see it is for our stove and by the way, the canister smells gas...so this is not the first time. I know a close friend who would have just whispered and said “idiots” leaving the discussion there. Not me. Stupidly I persisted and insisted until my “attitude” was not helping anymore...obviously.

Cooking was just not possible for the moment despite an unsuccessful test done with paint dissolvent. Not much more luck with wild camping either. Along each road we see only fences, sometimes a gate but locked. Not sure why these fences are everywhere. No clear justification.

We are far from the abundant and gorgeous camp spots in Central Asia. However sometimes we were lucky and either hidden or isolated enough we had some good nights in our 3 square meter tent after a cold evening meal.

So many smiles

Less ethnic Chinese, more Tibetan smiles and good moods. On the 1200Km between Lanzhou and Chengdu we probably have seen less than 10 Caucasians. Just our presence always brings a reaction. It felt like they had never seen anyone like us before. Hard to believe but it happens all the time. We become a curiosity, a subject for tons of new selfies, politely requested or not.

When we come across some Tibetans dressed with clothes showing their origin we may have had some scruples to ask to take a picture. These scruples quickly faded away. Our portraits have been taken more often than we took theirs. Tibetans asked shyly, chinese have a more direct approach. Our legs showed because of our Mountain bike shorts (not the Lycra cyclist shorts !! ) are a mystery for them when they think it is already winter. Our fat tires (and I am here talking about the inflated rubber band around the rims) added to catch the attention and provoke what are still mysterious comments for us. Even though we  have a vague idea of their contents.

When we see stupor on faces, usually a big smile is the master key to unlock and can be sometimes followed by a big surprising “hello Baby”. Not sure where that comes from.

We have visited nice cities like Xiahe (watch the short video on our gallery page) and its huge Labrang monastery (one of the 6th biggest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries). We have experienced even nicer small villages sometimes away from main roads, like Langmusi, nested into Rocky Mountain slopes. These villages have special vibes and in a couple of them we stayed more than one night, captivated by the atmosphere.

Accommodations in small villages are very cheap, if you look for them. Sometimes less than US$10. Although very rustic and sometimes....smelly, their main quality remains their price. But they also offered good shelter on rainy nights and if by chance we were camping out on one of these stormy nights, the room can be transformed in a drying space for our tent and gears...until the next rainy night camping.

Not everything went that smoothly.

We have to attest that nothing is too big, too impossible for chinese. They do not do things half way. They go for it and they go fast. We crossed brand new cities or towns that are not even existing on google maps, huge 6 lane boulevards that when showing on a map are still represented as simple streets. Confusing at the beginning when you try to orientate. Huge cranes everywhere but sometimes a new town is totally empty, no soul except the poor few guys trying to run a business (restaurant, grocery, ...) in an empty city. Looking closely at the construction, the quality is not what it may look like at a first glance. You can count on a reconstruction within the next 10 years or so. Same for the roads and bridges. Can be scary sometimes but if you are lucky enough to be among the firsts to ride or drive the new asphalt then you don't care what may happen in 10 years. The G213 is a long road of 2500km, crossing Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. From deep valleys, mountain passes to high grassland plateaus. We have cycled the road for over 1000km. At least 2/3 of it was freshly re-paved with the smoothest asphalt you can imagine. Making our few steep climbs to high passes “almost” a fun experience. Sylvia does not like the word “almost” but would agree on that. The only problem is that they never take off the previous layer of asphalt. They cover it. And layers after layers we end up sometimes at about 30cm above the side of the road. Tricky when a truck or a car can not give you enough room because the road is narrow and traffic  is coming at you from the opposite direction.

Sometimes a such “easy” progress makes me feel nostalgic for the gravel roads we had in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The challenge defines the pride that comes soon after the pass has been reached.

....“Almost.....”

Crossing the grasslands and wetlands were one of the highlights of the Gansu and Sichuan traverse. Summer season was over but many shepherds and nomads were still present with their livestock. Mainly yaks but sometimes some sheeps or goats. Rain at nights with the drop in temperatures turned it to snow. Melting during the day but offering superb contrasted landscapes in the morning.

The EasternTibetan plateau, the grasslands, is not the habitat of Yaks only, it is also the property of wild dogs. We have friends back in Vancouver owning a very cute Tibetan terrier. We were expecting to see many of them. None, we have not seen one. Do they really exist somewhere in Tibet? Instead, they have the famous Tibetan Mastiff. A huge monster that looks so friendly on the Internet forum. 

Sylvia made the first encounter. In a long downhill, the switchbacks after the pass with the green background and dark clouds were perfect for a video. I stayed at the pass filming and photographing her descent. She was flying on the smooth pavement. I stopped a few times during my ride down. The light was magic and prayer flags everywhere added nice touches of colors. When I finally caught up with her, she was standing on the side of the road in tears. At first, I thought she fell, seeing the big tear in her pants. 

She urged me to take out the safety kit, showing me her bleeding ankle and mentioning a dog attacked her by surprise.

As cyclists in Asia, like in South America or Africa, we get used to dogs chasing us and barking at us. Most of the time, just slowing down and facing them is enough to make them think twice. I had a few problems in the past while cycling through the Mongolian steppes where roads did not exist, barely some tracks not even a dirt roads. But nothing really serious.

I gave Sylvia the first aid kit and decided to teach some lesson to that dog hidden behind the concrete wall that was limiting the edge of the pavement in that tight curve. I could hear Sylvia behind me screaming that the dog was aggressive and I should stay put. Holding a rope in my hand I was sure of myself, this guy was going to remember that day....big time!

Not sure what exactly happened or how it did happen but in a fraction of second I was facing a much bigger sized dog than expected and the bastard decided to jump on me, not one moment concerned by my determination to show who was the chief. Everything went really fast, the not so proud Frank anymore managed to get back on his 2 feet, with a bleeding knee and a big hole in the wind proof pants we put on for the cold downhill.

I could not believe what was just happening.

We both calmed down, disinfected the wounds and lucky us we found a dirt path that allowed us to loop around that section of the road and its ferocious guardian.

After that episode, we both carried a long wood stick. Many times we had to thread the dogs, sometimes in gangs of 4-5, pushing the bike so that they can be used as shields. Tapping the stick on the handlebar or on the pavement and clearly showing it, was enough to back them off but sometimes they ambushed us and we were not ready for them.  A few more scary moments happened but nothing turned really ugly.

Our wild camping spots in the grasslands were also dog stories. We could hear them in groups wandering around nomads camps, their livestock and our tent, barking all night long. Not our best nights.

Chengdu, end of the second chapter

The last 300km, roughly, were downhill. From 4000m, the last pass, we dropped down to 500m. The elevation of Chengdu. A great but oppressive section. Surrounded by steep slopes the valleys are narrow, dark, and the mountains are totally unstable. Never have I seen mountains falling apart from everywhere on such a long distance. Landslides, rocks and dirt on the road. Still the Chinese government is investing in big projects. A fast train railway is under construction, the 2 lane road will probably be very soon a 3 lane road. New tunnels are built. Nothing seems to stop the development not even the nature of the terrain nor the geology. 

The area is known to be a very high risk earthquake zone. In 2008, a 7.5 on the Richter scale, earthquake devastated the region, killing more than 50000 people, among them many kids at school. 10 years after you can still see the scars of the catastrophe. It took about 4 years to re-open access to the entire valley. By then, many of the survivors had left the area. Transforming some of the few villages remaining intact into ghost towns. In 2017 a huge landslide washed out a big chunk of the road, the only access to the high plateau and the grassland. It was an ultimate stress to the entire local tourism industry and life in the valleys and plateau in general.

Along the road we have seen abandoned villages for about 3 days. The few towns on the other end of the road, despite their touristic assets, could not been reached as the valley and the road are the only overland access. Very sad.

Not sure what the train and road constructions will bring back. Most of the population, mainly the young generation, has moved away in a quest of work. Most of the villages that in some aspect could offer a cultural support (mainly Tibetan ), are in full rejuvenation. Few locals are working hard to restore a form of heritage that may attract some tourists soon. But I can not avoid seeing the fragile environment and despite the huge investment done how a simple landslide or worse, another earthquake can bring back to post 2008 the entire region. Everything seems so ephemeral and uncertain.

Having no clue of the road sign significance we are just happy to ride and enjoy our surroundings. The last 150km are in a very narrow valley. Really impressive and as said very unstable. We get used to the endless honking. All motorized vehicles are honking to let you know they are there. The driving code is fairly simple. If you are bigger than the others sharing the road with you, you have the right to impose yourself. Just let them know you are there. Honk!

In that concept, cyclists are just before pedestrians...at the bottom of the ladder. That being said we never felt unsafe and eventually the honking stopped bothering us....”almost”

So when suddenly you realize that everything is quiet around you, you begin to worry. Something is not right.
As usual if/when you see police agents, they are around 18 years old and rather too busy with their cell phones to be ....efficient. 

We have seen, a few times in a row, police along the road where workers were working at road construction. We vaguely “heard” about a new landslide that washed out a bridge and indeed we have been deviated to another road that took us higher and higher up above the valley before going down back to the main road. We went through some tunnels. No lights inside so always a bit stressful with just our headlamps and traffic that does not really slow down because the loud honking is enough to let you know you are not alone.

More and more worker crews on the road and inside tunnels less and less to none traffic forced some questioning. Workers nor police stopped us, they even waved us with a big smile. We have ridden many kilometers on a road officially closed, crossed more than 12 tunnels, the longest one was 10km long with just our headlamp. It has been our private driveway and our private tunnels on a very smooth chinese asphalt.

In Chengdu, with 13 million people, most of the sightseeing and tourist attractions are located outside of the city and we passed them on our way or they will be on our way South later. The panda research centers and reserves, the monasteries, the Taoist temples, the earthquake memorial have been visited and explored on our way to the city. The city is a metropolis with no real interest. A mix of different social classes with quarters for the wealthiest and quarters for the less fortunate.

Showers and laundry done, it won’t be too long before we heading back into the mountains for the third chapter of our journey. To be continued.

ChinaZenija Esmits
Osh, Kyrgyzstan - Kashgar, China  Aug 11 - Sept 4
eastcapades-graphics-4.jpg

challenge

+8293m/-8011m

ROUTE

767.6km

    TIME

      79:23

off road

312km

SYLVIA

Man sieht nur, was man weiss (Goethe)

Aug 11 - Frank and I are alone again. Our friends from Belgium have departed for Bishkek and it leaves me with a bit of homesickness. We’re on the road for 1 month now, and I realize how spoiled my life in general is, and that I miss it. Family, friends, good health (with some hiccups), financial security, fun things to do, and Frank, of course, are my happiness. I realize that all these good things in my life make me also lethargic, scared to move out of my comfort zone. Being on the road in Central Asia has definitely moved me out of this zone, and I try to prove Goethe’s saying at the beginning of my story wrong - we only see, what we know. I want to see.

On the first day going to Sary Tash, we bike through the food supply of Kyrgystan. The first 50 km are full of fruit and vegetable fields. It is very hot and we try to leave very early in the morning to avoid the peak of the heat and we rest during lunch time. Finding a quiet spot for a short nap or a camping spot becomes almost impossible, kids spot us from far away and they must have a communication system to inform all kids in the next village that we’re on our way. One night, Frank had to chase them away, to discover an hour later they were hanging around our tents and bikes when we wanted to fall asleep. 

We stay one night in a guesthouse in Gulcha, a little town, with a busy bazaar and an active community. People stay their whole life where they are born, and young women & men come back to their home town once they have completed their degree.

And we’re again surprised by the kindness of everyone.  While we’re waiting in front of a guesthouse for the owner, a young woman helps us to find the phone number and calls her. Five minutes later, the owner shows up. After Gulcha, the environment changes dramatically and becomes more mountainous and desert like. The mountains have different shades of yellow brown and orange. When the sun goes down, it looks like they are on fire.We keep our routine to leave early in the morning and try to get close to the next pass. You might think the biking is getting easier since we started but it doesn’t seem to be that way. Although, I think I get more resistant to the effort, and the changing beautiful landscape helps me to overcome the fatigue. On the road, we meet again fellow travellers, Thomas and Judith from Switzerland, and chat a bit. It feels like meeting old friends on the road, even though we met only once before.

Shy little girl on the way to Sary Tash

After the pass, we arrive in Sary Tash, where we stay one night in a very bad guesthouse, most likely the worst so far. The old owner talks me into staying, my bad. Next day we move to Muras guesthouse, where Ainura und Gulzat, two sisters, run the business. It is a great place with a real shower & toilet, and great food. Gulzat is the chef of the place, and Ainura runs the business and is cleaning everything multiple times a day. Sheets are clean, and blankets are aired in the sun. 

The same evening, I catch a very bad stomach bug that leaves me completely dehydrated. My stomach can’t keep anything down, and I’m in agony the entire night. Next day, Ainura drives us to the hospital for an IV and to bring my 40 C fever down. Thanks to the good care of Frank, who was a bit scared to see me that sick, Vera and Teresa, my preferred Doctors, and both sisters, I am feeling better after 48 hours. We stay another 2 days to recover and start the way to the boarder of Tajikistan. One thing that should be noted, we had nice paved road from Osh to Sary Tash. Being remote on dirt roads is really nice, but a good paved road feels really good to our butts.

Before moving forward to Tajikistan, there are a few things that marked me in Kyrgystan:

  • Kyrgyz people love their family time. Tea, bread and Kaymak (creamy dairy product similar to butter) are shared almost every two hours in the day. Apparently, eating and drinking small quantities helps with altitude sickness. When they prepare their table, bread is abundant everywhere on the table, candies, sugar. A table has to look full.

  • A lot of Kyrgyz people have golden teeth. White ceramic teeth replacement must be difficult to find or more expensive.

  • Farmers and herders rarely have a tractor. Somehow, old Audi 100's (25-30 years old) do the trick.

  • Osh is a more beautiful city than Bishkek. There are more flowers, laughing children in the streets and parks, and even though the city is old everything is very clean and buildings nicely painted.

  • The Mal Bazaar (Animal-bazaar for sheep, goat, horses, cows and steers) is fascinating. Dusty, smelly and loud. It is a lot of fun to observe the negotiations between the herder and the buyer with the final handshake and money exchange.

  • Most important business in Kyrgyzstan? Organizing weddings or washing cars.

  • Women love to dress up and like vibrant colours. Men wear blue suits at weddings.

  • The Lenin Square in Osh is still blocked for traffic since the revolution in 2010. Chinese do and pay for street markings on the Lenin Square for an upcoming event. What do they want in return?

  • It is refreshing to see that youth is like everywhere in the world, their heads down and focused on their cellphones, on their horses and donkeys, and even when moving the cattle to the field in the morning.

  • There are still 1300 Kyrgyz nomads living in Afghanistan with no Identity and abandoned by the Afghan and Kyrgyz government. If you are interested, watch the short movie for more info: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=eQ48kW3yMbU

In short, we loved Kyrgystan. 

Aug 22 - we leave Sary Tash for Tajikistan. For the first time, we’re bothered by quite aggressive children on donkeys asking for candies and chocolate. When we say we don’t have any, they try to take items of our bikes, like water bottles. Frank has to yell a bit before they let us go. Crossing the Kyrgyz boarder is very quick and we’re in no man’s land for 20 km. We meet Kyrgyz soldiers on foot and in cars along the road. Apparently, the Kyrgyz government increased military presence along the boarder since the attack in Tajikistan. We’re now biking at much higher altitude, and the next pass we climb is ‘Kyzyl Art Pass’ 4280 m. Strong head wind, air is getting rare and we are very slow. It takes us longer to cross the Tajik boarder than the Kyrgyz boarder, first checkpoint it takes about 45 minutes before it is our turn to show our Passport and VBAO visa (special Visa allowing us to be in the boarder areas of Tajikistan). The next checkpoint is 50 m further down the road, we have to wait another 1H30 just to show our papers again. Some cash hidden in the Passport would most likely speed up the process. While waiting, we chat with a Polish person who organizes motorbike trips in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He is now also operating in BC, so we might reconnect next year. When we tell him we want to camp right after the Tajik boarder, he tells it is impossible because it is too windy and there is no water. He gives us three litres of water and recommends for us to push to Karakul.

Once we’re in the valley, we understand what he meant. I put on my long pants, gloves and warm jacket to feel slightly comfortable. Luckily, we have tailwind and we fly on the paved road. The area has a very unfriendly climate, but the views are stunning. It is a moon-like landscape with the Chinese boarder on our left. There are hundreds of kilometres of uninterrupted barbed wired fences in wide open areas with the mountains behind. Even though, there is no conflict between both countries now, you can imagine how it was while Tajikistan was still part of the Soviet Union. Eventually, we decide to camp 20 km before Karakul which we can see in the far distance. Prior, I am so tired tears are running down my cheeks (remember, it is the first day back on my bike after my gastrointestinal issue). Frank can see I’m tired but we can not stop because there is no shelter from the wind. It is almost like in Alaska, just less cold. The wind is blowing so hard, that I have to lay on the tent so Frank can pitch the pegs. We are both freezing and take refuge very quickly in the tent. We are so tired that we decide just to have some leftover Samsy (little pockets of mutton, onions in dough, baked in a tandoori) from Ainura’s mother and some dried food for dinner before falling asleep with the wind howling around us. Next morning, it is like the wind storm never existed, and we have a nice breakfast in the warmth of the sun. Karakul - Karakul, Qarokul is a 25 km diameter lake within a 52 km impact crater, located in the Tajik National Park in the Pamir Mountains - is glittering in different blues from afar. There is one village at the lake also called Karakul. There are already many differences between the Kyrgyz and Tajik villages to be observed, even though the population is also Kyrgyz. Roofs are flat, and houses are white, mostly with blue doors. Children are a bit more shy and they are not waiting for you on the road. People in general are kind and more reserved. After a bottle of Fanta, some bread and cheese in Karakul, we hit the road again to bike along the lake. We’re pretty much alone on the road with maybe some Chinese in the far observing us from the other side of the barbed wire. We bike another 20 km of paved road and we decide to camp before we hit the dirt road a bit further down the next morning. 

The area we bike now is even more bare than before. Almost nobody lives here, except a few nomads every 10 km. Headwinds are already blowing which doesn’t make the climb to Ak Baitat Pass (4753 m) easier. Surprisingly, we can almost bike the last 4 km of the pass. Are my legs getting stronger, at last?!

And then 70 km downhill to Murghab on a paved road. Heaven!

Murghab is the capital of Murghob District in the Pamir Mountains of Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, Tajikistan. With a population of 4,000, Murghab is about the only significant town the eastern half of Gorno-Badakhshan. The little town is without electricity since the Russians left in 1991. Inhabitants who are a bit more wealthy have small solar panels on their roof, but the population is in general poor. While we bike through downtown, we discover that administration buildings are being renovated and painted, and wonder why.

We stay in a nice guesthouse called Sarykul Lodge. The owner, Nurzat speaks English and welcomes us with a nice cup of tea and light lunch. I guess we think people are nice and welcoming when they serve us drinks and food as we are always hungry. Nurzat explains us that Rhamon, President of Tajikistan, will visit Murghab to inaugurate a small new power plant around September 5 that will provide electricity to the whole town. Everyone seems to be very happy to have power in their homes.

With Nurzat’s help, we book her brother Kanat, a tourist guide, for two days and drive to Zorkul. It is a lake in the Pamir Mountains that runs along the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It extends east to west for about 25 km. On the way to Zorkul, we drive off-road through wild and remote areas. He doesn’t speak a lot of English but he masters driving his old Russian SUV through rivers and mountains.

On the way out to Zorkul, we visited his wife’s family, ate Marco Polo liver and fresh bread. Delicious. At Zorkul, we slept in a nomad yurte and next day we returned to Murghab. The more time I spend with people in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the closer I feel and the more I want to help.  Nurzat’s son f.eg. had to go the hospital because he was in terrible pain. It turns out that his front teeth are rotten and the dentist is unable to pull them out. The only treatment are painkillers. Many young children in both countries have rotten teeth at a very young age. I am not sure if it is due to the lack of calcium or too many candies.

What I liked about Tajikistan:

  • Tajik people. A little bit more reserved than in Kyrgyzstan, but same strong hospitality.

  • Wide open spaces and some solitude.

  • Marco Polo liver. It almost tastes like chocolate.

  • Being invited to a wedding without knowing anybody. We were just passing by, and the father of the bride invited us to share food and tea with the party.

 After our two day excursion, Kanat drove us from Murghab to Kulma Pass to cross the boarder to China. Crossing the Tajik boarder was easy, but once arrived on the Chinese side, we had to unpack all our bags, all our belongings got screened three times, us included. And Frank’s phone got hacked by the Chinese boarder agents. China is definitely a different world, and I promise never to complain again about US boarder control. We even have to put our bikes in a Tajik truck to drive through a 20 km highly secured area before being checked for the third time. However, the Muztgagh Ata mountain view makes up for all the bad feelings I can have about Chinese boarder control. It is the second highest of the mountains which form the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. It is sometimes regarded as being part of the Kunlun Shan, although physically it is more closely connected to the Pamirs.

The road connecting Kashgar to Pakistan is in a wonderful smooth pavement. For security, or better said oppression, reasons there are cameras everywhere. Military and police are omnipresent. When we want to pitch our tent, we are interrupted within 10 minutes and have to bike another 15 km with a military pick-up truck following us to make sure we don’t stop before. The rule is to report to a police office and they then force you to go to a guesthouse. Obviously, we didn’t do that. There is surveillance everywhere on the road to Kashgar and they are cameras every 100 m, and cameras point even into small dirt roads. 

For more information about what is going on in Xinjiang Province , read the following article: https://www.businessinsider.com/xianjiang-province-china-police-state-surveillance-2018-7

Frank doesn’t recognize Kashi (Kashgar) anymore. Almost all the adobe houses have been destroyed and rebuilt new. It now looks like a Disneyland Chinese Tourist attraction. The Uyghur population has to carry an ID card, and depending on their status, they can enter an area or not. As Westerners, we never had to show our ID or bags. It must be terrible for them to be considered as a second class citizen. Even the malbazaar (animal bazaar) feels sad compared to Osh’s bazaar. There is no ‘joie de vivre’ in Kashgar and we decide to move on and fly to Lanzhou.

So even though I try to see, I might not be able to understand the political situation in Xinjiang with my spoiled white nose mentality. For now, the well established mentality to pay bribes in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan seems so much more acceptable to me than the police state in Xinjiang. 

A few more short notes before I go:

  • as you can read, I did not get rid of my diarrhea.

  • I don’t take the picture if I have to get off my bike. It is too tiring. Frank, however, can be found on many photographs, standing, kneeling or laying on the ground. Search for Waldo :)

  • We saw many cars participating in the Mongul rally. 400 vehicles start in Prague and drive 10,000 km all the way to Mongolia without support in small cars. Young people from all over Europe participate and try to collect 1000 Euro for a good cause of their choice. Just before Karakul, we also met a Belgian team with 4 young people squeezed in a small car, looking tired but having fun.

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  • In Kashgar, we saw people walking around in orange safety vests and wooden sticks. You will find out why in the above article.

  • The declination of the roads are precisely indicated.

  • As soon as we leave Xinjiang province for Gansu District, people are lovely even though we don’t understand a word.

  • I love my bike mechanic!

FRANK

OSH

Fred, Jean Phil and Matthieu, our Belgian friends left us. It was pure chance we were able to meet with them in Osh as they were ending their cycle Tajikistan trip. It was a real Belgian couple of days. Sharing stories from the road, making fun of our weight loss and of course talking about the terrorist attack that happened a few days before on their itinerary. The attack has shocked all the cycletouring community - 4 cyclists randomly targeted, among them a couple who had been on the road already for 4 years. That episode has to be added to the 2 Germans cyclists killed and robbed only few weeks earlier in Mexico. Quickly claimed by Daesh, the Tajik attack, is more a concern for us at the moment. Cyclists are easy prey. Slow, wild camping most of the time, there is not much chance of a quick escape.

The M41, also known as the Pamir Hwy, links Dushanbe in Tajikistan to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. Recently open to foreigners, the road quickly became a must for many cycle tourists and motorcyclists looking for adventure and remote Himalaya valleys. A challenging itinerary with many passes above 4000m and unpaved roads.

Rumors of another possible attack is spreading out quickly. Cyclists are perfect targets. We are like pearls on a string...a roughly 1000km unique string through deep valleys in a mineral environment with no real exit.

The general feeling expressed by cyclists met on our way in Kyrgyzstan is positive. Most of the inhabitants are Ismai’li, it was a unique tragic incident. A message sent to Rahmon, the Tajik president, shaking the country with new laws and rules. Obviously not appreciated by some of the inhabitants. The attack occurred in his hometown. Point has been made. Period.

Decision taken

We are leaving Osh with the sun on our face. South instead of West as initially thought. Compromise found and done between us. Team decision. It will be the western side of Tajikistan. Anyway,  we were less keen to cycle along the Uzbekistan border as initially planned. Still 34c in Osh and the itinerary to Dushanbe would have been in that heat for few more days. A couple of cyclists met were not too enthusiast by that road cycled either.

By heading straight to Murghab, we may miss the Wakhan corridor but still discover a very nice section of the Pamir. The original idea to cross the Kulma pass that gives access to still China remains, though. The pass has been open to foreigner since September 2017, linking the Pamir with the Karakoram. When I was cycling the Karakoram on the way to Pakistan 25 years ago I promised myself to come back for the Pamir one day, when the pass would be accessible.  

200km of mountains from Osh to Sary Tash, last village before the Tajik border but also an unbelievable lookout to the entire Pamir massif and the Lenin peak, a 7100m summit. We easily managed the heavy traffic out of Osh. Never had any real problem with Kyrgyz drivers. Trucks and cars show respect to the cyclists. Slowly but surely we climbed the first “pass leaving the 1000m elevation of Osh to the 2450m of the Chyrchyk Pass. The road crossed fields and ends up in a green alpine environment. We are surprised to discover many yurts at the pass, places to eat and to re-hydrate. A very  

enjoyable 20km of downhill brought us back to a much lower elevation in Gulcha. From green landscapes we are back to dry and hot mineral scenery. Gulcha is the gateway to a fantastic Alay region. We may have missed the info but it seems that the area deserves much more attention and probably requires, by itself, a lot of time to be explored. It has been a real “coup de cœur”. Arriving around noon, we thought we could find some food for a lunch. We’ve finally spent the night in a guesthouse and wandered in that little town full of life with a nice bazar. We knew the next pass would be more of a challenge. Known to be a “ double head” pass we left Gulcha right before sunrise. Beating the heat for few hours. A light headwind forced us to stay  steady, saving the energy for later.

The 3615m Taldyk Pass could have been a piece of cake with the strong tailwind that finally showed up around noon when the deep valley heats up and creates that airflow from hot to cold. Captivated by so many varieties in the scenery and all the little villages we went through we multiplied the stops for rest or for pictures. As usual, snacking or camping in a village or too close to it brings a lot of attention. Especially from the kids. From curiosity at first, to source a of entertainment. To be honest, it is fun for us too....for a while. 

Sometimes surrounded by 15 kids staring at you. Commenting the big fat tires, begging to have some kind of souvenirs from the bike....insisting to have that red carabiners that has its purpose with our gear on the bike. After a while they lose their interest for about everything, us included. Yet, they stick  around. Our camp spot becomes their playground. So we watch them playing, running around our bikes, our tent, ....we wait, .....we watch. We know that soon we will  take the stove out and start cooking we will be that magnet again and go back to scratch. So we hold on with the fragile hope that eventually they will go. It is getting late, we are hungry. Are the parents not concerned their kids have been gone for sooooooo long?

Yes! ...Here they are. 

Hi! ... we are from Canada

You have nice beautiful kids. We trust it is time for them to go back home and have dinner, right ?!

Ah, ok, first they want to know who we are, how much the bikes cost, if we are married, how many kids we have - please Sylvia, do not take your iPad to show the pictures of the kids and grand kids, please ....don’t ....NO!

She did it !

When they have answers to most of their questions they - the parents- leave back home. Satisfied and happy to know that their kids can stay playing around our camp spot safely...we  are nice polite Canadians.

Maybe the darkness after the sunset will be our last chance.
It is  .... sometimes.

The real climb to the double head pass can not be missed. We switched from our soft 3% grade to a good 10%. We switched from spinning the legs type of effort to a hike the bike on that bloody uphill. Why are we complaining? We have been through this more than once and this time the road is paved the wind is helping. Well 10% is ok for a while but here it seems endless. The road switchbacks can be seen far above our heads. Sylvia starts to count in German (you must have read the previous story to understand ), I can hear her drop from 25 double steps down to 20....a quick look at my gps Garmin watch, another 6km to the pass, another 300m of elevation gain. Sounds totally doable. We have done much harder. There is a kind of exercise happening in your brain. You try to figure out what 6km is like back home. Ok, it is like 15 laps on the track. Well, when I am on the track, it is at sea level, I am not pushing a heavily loaded bike and I try to avoid being there at the warmest time of the day. Does not help.

We were not over our surprises. Soon we dropped to the other side, a

I quick look over my shoulder, Sylvia is still there not far behind, moving.... stopping....bending over her handlebar to get a short rest...sometimes only for few seconds then back in motion. Leading in a switchback I can discreetly observe her as she progresses to the turn. Checking and counting her step #’s.  Huh! I need to double check that. I counted only 15 double steps. Yup, confirmed. I need to find something quickly to avoid trouble. Not that she ever complained in the past. Really,  she always shows a positive attitude even when it was really tough. I guess her past long distance race experiences helps.

Another 5km, I need to find some kind of reward or mental support/ distraction/ diversion other than naively claim “almost there”. She has a problem with the word “ almost”.

In a cloud of dark smoke a little pickup truck overtook Sylvia and slowed down at my level. No clue what the passenger says but it sounds like he asks if we want a ride..... to the top. I can not see Sylvia hidden by the road switchback but this could be “my” reward.

When she showed up she can see me loading the bike on the pick up truck. Will she be endlessly appeciative to understand that I dropped my body in the middle of the road to stop the truck? Not sure of her reaction, quickly I know it will be fine. From 15 double steps she went to a full “jog the bike” pace and joined us out of breath with a big smile on her face. I am such a good guy.

Sary Tash and survive

A quick snack at the pass and we have only few km downhill to Sary Tash. Once again unbelievable scenery. So different from the other side. We can see the village, the huge wide valley and the white peaks of the Pamir. Really intimidating barriers of some 7000m summits. We ended up in a nice, very nice, guesthouse. Muras guesthouse is owned by a family from Osh. Our thoughts were to have a rest day before heading to Tajikistan and some very high passes to cross. A sitting toilet and real hot shower.... real luxuries for us after many days of cold river water and squats.

Wandering in the village, a very picturesque place, clouds are almost all gone. The Pamir mountains are majestic.

We rarely stay in a guesthouse. If we do it is to break the camp routine, wash our clothes, hopefully have a WiFi. It is also an opportunity to meet other cyclists/motor-bikers - both very present in what seems to be a trendy loop now. We trade between us the local currency, everyone emptying pockets to get rid of their last notes or coins to exchange them with those traveling to the opposite direction.

As always these are friendly moments with people from all around the world sharing the same passion.

Bug

Sylvia has been dealing, almost from day one, with some stomach issue.

We followed the rules but hard to not sometimes eat and drink in a nomad yurt. Altitude, drought climate, and the  effort force us to drink a lot...and often. The rivers, creeks, streams are not always running. Many are dry this time of the year. Local rain storms turn the clear rivers into muddy brown sources of water and damaging our water filter. As soon as we find some water to filter we try to stock up at least 4liters each. Still, that does not cover the needs. 

We lose weight - food is not the best thing we find in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan- probably around 8kgs each since the beginning and we are always on the edge of being dehydrated.

Literally, within few minutes Sylvia shifted from upbeat to really, really sick.

All night she will have deep spasms and vomit every 20 minutes. No fluid can stay in the stomach. She is vomiting on a totally empty stomach. In the morning she has 40c fever. Not a good place to deal with this.

Lucky us, Ainura and her sister who own the guesthouse were a good support. They helped us by feeding Sylvia with appropriate food and introduced us to the local nurse/doctor. The clinic is a regular building not much different than any other house in the village. 

After a face time with Belgium and Sylvia’s sister-in-law and niece, both in the medical field, it has been decided to find the possibility of an IV. Easy to decide...not that easy to find in this remote area.

The nurse we meet says it is ok to make one from scratch. Many needles, thinner and thinner will be needed as she could not find a good vein.  Dehydrated and at 3200m, the veins are not very easy to find and to reach. 

A shot in the butt to calm the abdomen spasms and only 250ml from the 500ml will be injected. We stopped the bloody mess then. Returning to the guesthouse, I will force Sylvia to drink one sip of electrolyte every 15-20’ for 36 hours.  

3 days later we hit the gravel roads to the Tajik border, still a little bit weak but in the mood to move. We will do an easy first day bike to monitor her and assess how well she is.

90km and 2 passes above 4000m

The first 25km are on a sort of pavement. Crossing the wide bottom flat valley. We left early as usual. Light breeze, great light, the mountains get closer. We discover slowly the narrow valley given access between these colossal mountains. Gravel replaced asphalt and we reach the Kyrgyz border. Quick formalities done we are now in a 20km stretch of nomansland. Few army patrols met reminded us the fragile politic situation of such places. A little short of breath and obviously not in a great condition, Sylvia is moving well. The beauty of the place keeps us  distracted and entertained. Then become the first pass reality. We did it slowly but in a good

time. We keep in mind that another one follows just after ....the highest one, 4650m, is planned  to be done in 2 days, so we did not put any pressure and expectation on our aims.

A little drop and we reach the Tajik border. Not as fast and smooth than the Kyrgyz. A group of motocyclistes from Poland passed us on the climb. We caught them up and get stuck with  them. They need to register one by one their motorcycles. We will waste over 2h there but made new friends. The leaders and guides for the groups are from Poland and Australia. They have been organizing trips in the regions for years , they know every little corner of it. 

Big black clouds are coming up....wind is picking up, temperatures is dropping...not good signs at 4000m.

The owner of the adventure company tells us - no chance to bivy beyond the pass as we planned, no water either between the 2 passes. 

All formalities done we shake hands, even hug each other, if I remember well and they took off leaving us with another 3liters of their water supply. 

We flew downhill, tricky as the gravel road is full of gravel traps. First sights of the Chinese advance security barbed wire fence that marks the entire border in Tajikistan. An amazing work done for an illusion of security. But I guess the point has to be made.

Very unwelcoming area, blowing wind, clouds of dust, landscape looks like those pictures of planet Mars.  Fantastic but really not a place to pitch a tent.

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We will half circumnavigate the lake by its East side, and end our day in So momentum and wind helping we decided to cross over the next pass. Did it. Getting dark  and now really cold. Noless wind on the other side. Still tailwind. We can barely hear talking to each other. So we keep moving. Headlamps ready in case it is getting too dark. We can vaguely see Karakul lake...maybe another 20km to the village. It was supposed to be an easy first day after Sylvia’s stomach problems. We ended up in a gravel ravine on the edge of the now paved road, covered by with dust, shivering, trying to pitch a tent willing to play with the wind instead of helping us to build up our shelter for the night.

It will be a cold snack for dinner, as we warm up in our solid bombproof Hilleberg tent. The short day concluded with over 80km, 2 passes above 4200m. We are tired but well. At midnight the wind calmed down.

Closer to the sky

We stopped in karakul for a lunch, we left later than usual. Superb scenery, superb morning light. Glaciers, the salty Karakul lake created in a meteorite crater, sand dunes (yes, sand dunes at 3500m) and the peaceful village houses made with Adobe and with their white walls and blue doors. A taste of Greece, in Tajikistan. Another night in a dusty ravine and we hit the highlight of the Pamir circuit. The 4650m Ak-Baital Pass is the second highest road pass in the world - that is what they claim ....definitely the highest in the Pamir.

Again no words to describe the scenery, the ambiance, the loneliness. We have not seen anyone. All is just for us. We are pushing hard but feeling strong. Right before the real pass, a little plateau with a creek and a tiny stretch of grass along the creek. The rest is only minerals and rock. From faddish yellow to dark brown. So beautiful that we do not care too much about the washboard gravel road that makes any effort at that elevation a pain in the .... 

Photos at the pass. We did it ...instant of joy and emotion. Sylvia has recovered miraculously very well. Big smile on her face.

Stressed on the breaks, the downhill is even more spectacular. We need to stay focused on the road surface, though. Full of loose gravel, sand or big holes. Tricky.

And the wind is back in our favor. We have a quick sorry feeling for those who have done the pass northbound. 

45km before Murghab we found a paradise camp spot. All the needs, green thick grass (no dust), a creek (with clear water), and great surroundings. We keep the last 45km for tomorrow. It is all downhill anyway.

Murghab and the Sary Kol guesthouse

We avoid the classic Pamir lodge stop. Full of adventurers of all kinds. Rather we prefer a quiet family guesthouse at the end of the village. Nurzat and Kanak her brother are our host. Probably one of the best place we stayed with Muras lodge in Sary tash. Both extremely clean, with a good atmosphere and hosting by super friendly people. Nothing better than a family business. The Pamir lodge is running down and has no more to offer than our accommodation choice. There is no electricity anywhere in the village and water comes from the pumps and wells in the streets.

By chance we see a Swiss cyclist couple met already many times in different places. 

We feel like almost family. Hugging each other like we have been known for years.

Only few days in Tajikistan and we feel in love already. We want more. Kyrgyzstan has been so green, so magic in many aspects, we thought we could not be more surprised anymore. Tajikistan is so different, that we feel we are really in another country. Dry, dusty, minerals...tortured.

Ainura from the Muras guesthouse in Sary Tash is working for an organization that painfully tries to bring back isolated Kyrgyz stuck with no more identity above 4500m in a little corner of the Pamir near the Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, China unstable border. Pushed there by the war, the fear, different circumstances, they have been forgotten by the world. They are dying there not able to go anywhere.

The story of these 1200 souls is really heartbreaking. No real hope for them.

We made a deal with Kanak. He and his old Russian jeep will take us for a couple of days off the grid in some secret places to be discovered. He knows the area, sometimes totally off road, the jeep took us through places that can not be described properly. We went to some wrecked places, left behind by the Russians. Trucks, buildings falling apart, even an old observatory on a summit of a mountain. The Russian jeep took us everywhere beyond imagination. Kanak not only knows very well that little corner squeezed between 4 countries disputing their borders he is also a very skilled off road driver with a great sense of humor. We stopped and visited some nomad friends, spent nights with them in their yurt camp in a magic area. From all the trips done biking, hitchiking, or backpacking in the world I have never seen so much diversity, so much beauty in these both countries.

Back in Murghab, we repacked everything and Kanak insisted to give some ride towards the Chinese border to ease our day.

Kulma pass 4300m. I dreamed about it many time since ‘95 when I was cycling with a friend the Karakoram on my bike trip from Siberia through Mongolia, China, Pakistan, India, Nepal.

As expected the view when you approach the pass is stunning. Slowly as you climb the pass you discover the summit of Muztagh Ataon the Chinese side. A colossal mountain covered by a huge glaciers at 7500m. It is so big, so close that it seems we can almost touch it. Impressive.

Welcome to China

The process to cross the newly open border is...let’s say....very strict. The border has always been open to trucks exporting goods from China. But not to foreigners. Everything is new, security infrastructure at a level of a secret base. Cameras everywhere, army, police, multiple check points, building to go through. Empty our panniers, searching our cameras, iPads, devices, scrolling down all our photo libraries and folders.

When we thought it was over, it is starting again with other police or army guys. Then, we have been “asked” politely but firmly to load our bikes in the trailer of one of these trucks on their way back to China. Empty. China exports....doesn’t import. The truck driver has no choice but to accept to drop us at the bottom of the 14km downhill to ...the next check point. 

A final full inspection and we are free to hit the Karakorum highway with its very smooth asphalt. Leaving Pakistan (Tajikistan?) and the Kunjerab pass behind us we are heading North for the first time in our trip. No need of face sunscreen today. 

You enter in Xinjiang and you change your watch. Not to the official time zone, though. Even at 4000km from Beijing everything is at Beijing time. We feel a little bit of bearing when we realize we are still cycling while our watch shows 7:30pm and the sun is still high in the sky. It is dark until 7:30am but sunny till 10pm. Disturbing. Even our Garmin watches showing the time based on our gps position are lost. Strangely our Gps positions are not accurate anymore. Our tracker is not working properly. We are in a different world, in a different dimension. 

Could have been confirmed  by the unexpected sight of camels along the road at 4000m. 

Maybe just the time to pitch the tent and recover from all the events of the day.

Rules...

Fences everywhere, it was not like that the last time I was here. We understand. Sensitive area. Too many borders around. Sometimes many rows of fences. We finally find a breach. We sneak in and hide behind a sort of a gravel dam. No one around, perfect and discreet. We have not even finished pitching the last peg than an army jeep showed up. 

Clearly, we are not welcome for the night here.

Repacking everything and being forced to move further for another 15km. The jeep will escort us 13km and disappears.

It is almost dark when we found a spot behind a sort of a tourist building made by a set of little booths. Based on the front doors they are stores selling food and tourist stuff.

The spot is definitely ugly but we need to sleep.

The next 2 days will be take us through canyons, deep gorges, surrounded by glaciers and very unstable terrain. Multiple landslide. The road has been greatly improved since 95. 

It is pay back time for us now. All the tailwind we had in Tajik while heading South is now headwind as we are heading North. So strong that we have to push hard on the pedals on downhill 6% grade. Oooops sorry, the sign says 5.9%. 

We really feeling we are leaving the mountains and heading to the desert and the flat part of Xinjiang.

The 245km from the border to Kashgar has been a smooth ride despite the headwind. We pushed to cover the last 120km in one stretch. We had no local money and been told by the police in a small town that we were not allowed to go in a bank before Kashgar to exchange 

some currency. So unfortunately no reason to stop anywhere on the way. Too bad. 

The entire 245km were also a good way to be educated to the local rules. Every km and when crossing some villages every 100m, an arch “straddles” the road with many cameras. A flash light confirms a picture has been taken of anything or anyone moving under the arch on the road. There must be plenty of us, more than 245, I hope they have at least one not blurry.

The Chinese are consistent. All Kashgar is under siege. Multiple check points, in the streets, for each hotel or store/mall entrance. Mainly for locals. The security is everywhere. An obsession. Tensions between the government, its interior politic, and the Uyghurs claiming their independence is sweating from everywhere. Everyone is suspicious but tourists are preserved from any check points. Their pictures taken everywhere and stored in, probably, gigantic computer hard drives seems to be enough. We stayed in one of those hotels allowed to take foreigners as clients. Kashgar is not the Kashgar I saw in the past. It is a huge big city now. High rises, traffic, not the desert sort of oasis from the past. Still touristically claims to be the capital of the Silk Road. All the old city made with mud brick houses is now 99% gone. A reproduction of some quarters is now a main tourist attraction and an opportunity for some Chinese entrepreneur from other provinces to run businesses. The Uyghurs are definitely now a minority, the famous Sunday animal market is sad compared with what it used to be and definitely not as animated as other Central Asia animal Markets. 

Kashgar being a milepost in our trip, it is time to wrap up the first segment of our route and to work on part 2. All will start again soon we find a way to move more East since Tibet remains closed for us. Rumors say the Chinese government may be ready to open the autonomous Tibet region to foreigners next year....