When we were planning this cycle trip, Ash and I had earmarked Central Asia as the region that might pose the most interesting challenges...it hasn't disappointed!
After our emotionally charged arrival into Dushanbe, we decided to continue as planned towards Khorogs. The journey began innocently enough, with nicely paved roads taking us across agricultural landscapes. However, as we had opted to take the more scenic northern route which is only passable during the summer months, The paved road soon disappeared and we were left to cycle a combination of dry river beds, gravel tracks and exposed bedrock for a 200km stretch leading to Darvaz. It sternly tested both our legs and our minds as our cycling was interspersed with frequent mad dashes behind roadside boulders due to the lingering effects of the illness we had picked up way back in Tashkent. Often, there were no boulders to 'perform' behind (or no time to reach one!) and our inhibitions and humility just had to go out of the window! Despite the challenges, it was a ruggedly beautiful stretch of road and the scenery that we absorbed made up for any inconveniences that we may have had to overcome!
After a fascinating couple of days cycling along the Afghanistan border and observing life in a country that is pretty much a 'no go' zone for all but the most adventurous of tourists, our arrival into Khorogs was a very happy moment as the prospect of a shower and some hearty food was in the offing...the opportunity to get clean had to be put on hold until the evening as there was no water available, but a few extra hours caked in grime didn't stop us from enjoying a stroll around the well-stocked bazaar and eagerly devouring a bowl of some delicious cheese and salad concoction! The Pamir Lodge was a great place to rest for a couple of days and meet some other like-minded travellers.
With time running out before we had to enter China (coupled with a degree of frustration at constantly chasing visa deadlines) we opted to hire a jeep to take us the 320km to Murgab. Whilst at $280 (ouch!) it was a relatively expensive decision to make, it allowed us to really enjoy the Eastern Pamirs at a much slower pace and enjoy them we did! The road surface was, with a couple of exceptions, pretty good and we never tired of the mountainous landscape. We crossed three 4000m+ passes (they never get any easier!) and the first (at 4,655m) was the highest point (above sea level) that I have ever stood on planet earth, which was a really awesome fact to take in as we stood there gasping for breath!
The four days that it took us to cycle from Murgab to Sary-Tash were wonderful! Kara-Kul (the highest lake in Central Asia) was a definite highlight for me. The turquoise, salty waters surrounded by snow-capped mountains in such an isolated location gave us the feeling of really being on an adventure and witnessing some pretty special sights. One night (needing a wee!) I tried to creep quietly out of the tent (which is an impossibility) so as not to wake Ash, and was rewarded with the most stunning starlit sky ever, complete with shooting stars and a virtually full moon...it was all very Disney-magical! Of course, there were a few testing moments too: we got scammed by the border control guards when leaving Tajikistan (Ash handed over his entry/exit form that was in his passport but, in the time it took us to remove our shoes and enter the office, it had mysteriously disappeared and we were forced to pay a fine of $10 if we wanted to leave! We left the border a bit pissed off at our naivety and headed into a snow shower (complete with head wind), which degenerated into freezing rain and hail as we descended from 4,200m towards the Kyrgyz border. Our hands and faces were frozen and after getting my bike stuck in some rocks of a river we had to negotiate and being forced to plunge my feet into the freezing water, I just had to vent some steam and let out a deafening bellow of frustration, which kind of helped! Soon after crossing into Kyrgyzstan we decided to put the tent up, eat biscuits, nuts and raisins until the weather cleared and allow the pent up feelings of angst to completely subside and return to a state of serenity. It worked a treat and soon the sun was shining once again and we were able to merrily continue along our way across the wonderfully verdant countryside. I love Kyrgyzstan...every square inch of it that I have seen has left me awestruck by its gorgeousness!
So, after a very chilly start on Tuesday (which we eased into with a steaming hot mug of Cadbury's hot chocolate, courtesy of Mark and Cheryl - a thoroughly lovely English couple, we met in Khorogs) we pressed forth towards China and, after leaving Kyrgyzstan (anti-corruption signs on full display at the border control offices...Tajikistan take note!) cycled for a few kilometres of no-man's-land to the Chinese border control, just in time to be bundled into a lorry for a 6 hour (140km) drive to the actual border just outside Wuqia (I think I'm right in saying that tourists are only allowed to cross before 12pm). The road is apparently too dangerous for cyclists which is why we were almost instantly allocated a lorry driver who had been asked (a.k.a ordered) to take us. I was perched in the sleeping section of the cab...constantly sliding towards the dashboard due to the combination of the bumpy road and the surprisingly slippery combination of my underwear and shorts! It was a fun experience, tinged with a nagging fear that our bikes might be breaking into a million pieces as we watched the world go by. Fortunately, Ash, myself, Dorothy and Clara all arrived in one piece, albeit a little dusty, and felt like we were receiving a special welcome by the immigration team as they had all been forced to work overtime in anticipation of our arrival at 9pm Beijing time (time is a slightly weird thing in this part of China...there are two time zones: local and Beijing...I'm still getting used to which is which!). The upshot of arriving so late in the day is that our entry was processed in super-quick time and little interest was paid to the contents of our luggage!
By the time we arrived in the town centre, looking for a hotel, there was a mere half an hour of daylight remaining. You can imagine our slight panic when we were unable to withdraw any cash from the ATM and the hotel wouldn't accept payment in US dollars or our VISA cards. Fortunately, the receptionist took pity on us after we implied that if we weren't able to stay at the hotel then we would just have to cycle for four hours in darkness to Kashgar. She was incredibly kind to let us stay at her house for the night! As she was working the night shift, her friend escorted us on her moped and opened up the house, made beds for us both, picked fruit from the orchard for us to eat, filled a bucket of water for us to wash in and another for us to wash our clothes. Once she was happy that we were settled, she waved goodbye, locked the front gate and said that she'd see us in the morning at 5.30am! We forgot to confirm whether she meant 5.30am local time or Beijing time so decided to get up half way between the two...she ended up arriving at 9.30am Beijing time, just as we were putting our escape plan (over the garden wall) into practice!
The cycle to Kashgar was just great! Downhill for most of the way, on decent roads and passing through some really bustling market villages. We even saw camels grazing beside the road which kind of made the fact that we were cycling a section of the old Silk Route more authentic! We arrived into Kashgar full of renewed enthusiasm and optimism for the trip and have enjoyed walking around this bustling city which is a real fusion of Central Asian and Chinese cultures. It's a crazy place to wander round as pedestrians, mopeds, tuc-tucs and market stalls all jostle for space on the roads (pavements are used as extensions for shops, parking or more market stalls!). We have met some other, friendly cyclists here and enjoyed spending time in their company: sharing experiences, drinking beer and trying as much of the local cuisine as (pretty-much-fully-recovered) stomachs will allow!
From here, Dorothy and Clara will be shipped to Xining and we will enjoy taking the comfort of train travel across the desert, before we resume our pedalling adventures in a week-or-so!
Love and hugs. X