Kashgar was a welcome break, I stuffed myself with wholesome food and delicious tea, though, as a cycle tourer, it doesn’t take long until my soles start to itch with the urge to get back on the road. We left Kashgar at 07:30 in the morning twilight to take advantage of the deserted roads. The morning ride was a breeze, our tyres chewed through the kilometres like a hot knife through butter. It felt great to ride as a threesome with our new companion, Mario. As the heat of the day set in we decided to call in at a local restaurant in the heart of a small Muslim community for a dish of spicy vegetable noodles. The young chef was so delighted to serve us, he informed Mario that we were his first ever ‘guests‘ to eat at the restaurant and insisted that our lunch was on the house. We assumed that by ‘guests’ he was referring to our Western heritage. We felt honoured and gladly posed for a series of photographs, causing quite a stir and attracting a crowd as if walking down the red carpet as actors of the latest Blockbuster.
Our luck ended abruptly, the road deteriorated as we battled through the next 5km of rocks, gravel and sand to finally rejoin the G314. A good test for our touring bikes, but not such a welcome crotch massage, or in the words of Jacob, “a ball breaker“. The G314, the road that becomes the Karkoram Highway, met the Gaizi River, my eyes widened and excitement grew as the tiptoes of mountains began to engulf us. The dry ridges, cracked and shaped by the harsh weather resembled a series of ancient, gnarled cathedral organ pipes as far as the eyes could see. We stopped for a rest at Aoyitakezhan to quench our parched, dry mouths with sweet, luscious watermelon. To our surprise Mario absolutely annihilated slice after slice, a skill he was extremely proud of. He smiled jubilantly as he was crowned ‘Mario The Machine‘.
Proud to have covered our greatest distance, 80.77km, in a single day, we decided it was time to search for a suitable camping spot. As we passed a large red building Mario stopped in his tracks “Hey guys, I think we can refill our drinking water here! This is restaurant“. With diminishing water levels this was a welcome relief. The owners, who it turns out had relatives who had cycle toured across China, they kindly offered unlimited, fresh drinking water and allowed us to pitch our tents around the back and miraculously even take a shower. Mario later described this as a cycle tourers “Utopia“. I had been anxious about camping in China, we had previously heard stories from other travellers who had been turned in by locals, questioned by police and escorted back to the nearest major city. Mario found this hilarious, to Jacob and Mario’s amusement, I later became the butt of a string of jokes.
The next morning the sunrise was sweetened by the symphonic tones of 90s pop classics emanating from Jacob’s Terra Nova as we enthusiastically packed up camp in high spirits, excited for what the day will offer us. The G314 ran South along the Pamir Mountains, as we gradually gained altitude the road lead us into the foothills of the Karakoram range. Being a religious man and prophet of Rocky Balboa, Mario would play the Rocky soundtrack for motivation whenever we hit a tough stretch of road worthy of a road sign indicating the gradient. With all the talk of the ‘Italian Stallion‘, the wildly irritating tune of “Dominick The Italian Christmas Donkey” was playing on repeat, cycling relentlessly in my head. It cycle touring style, I sung at the top of my voice in an attempt to nullify my mind as we cruised down a short descent and surprisingly, past a herd of camels. My excitement for the Karakoram Highway, our road to Pakistan, grew evermore as the grandeur of the surrounding mountains continued to impress, deep earthy hues, oranges, reds, and browns later turned into huge rock faces, screaming to be climbed. I longed for my climbing gear and climbing companions.
We continued our way South throughout the morning and into the early afternoon. Having only fuelled our legs with left over nan and biscuits we thought it wise to stop by a roadside restaurant before crossing a police checkpoint. This day happened to be a special celebration in the Muslim calendar and to our dismay the restaurant was about to close, but kindly gave us permission to refill our water bottles. Mario, had a brief chat with the restaurant owner, unable to understand what was being discussed, Jacob and I made the most of a brief rest, on a chair with a backrest and out of the sun. By some dark wizardry, Mario managed to swindle three bowls of steamed rice and fresh bread, I can only assume that we must have looked a bunch of sorry, sweaty souls as they then refused payment, that or Mario’s cheeky, Chinese charm. To top it off, previous customers had left remains of noodles and a variety of vegetable dishes. We were given the nod, each pulled up a chair and ate like kings. Devouring our bowls of rice, now vibrantly flavoured and garnished, dipping bread into the noodle dishes and downing bowl after bowl of chai. We couldn’t believe the generosity of the restaurant owners and our fortune and good timing. Ten minutes later and the restaurant would have closed. Cycling day after day you develop an insatiable appetite, or in my case, have always had an insatiable appetite and at least now have an excuse to fill my boots. However, after this banquet it took in excess of 90 minutes to overcome the self imposed food coma.
As the day came to a close, our legs began to tire, the terrain along side the road was becoming ever more rugged, the feasibility of finding a camping spot dwindled so we decided to call it a day. Just off the highway I scouted out a suitably covert, yet rock hard, camping ground. We found a series of rocks to sit and rest our legs as we introduced Mario to cycle touring porridge. By chance, we had chosen a camp perfectly situated in view of two great glacial peaks peaking out under a soft blanket of white cloud. We relaxed, sat back in awe of our surroundings and observed a trio of birds circling thousands of meters above in search of prey. Although flat, the surface was as firm as set concrete, pegs were useless. We set out individually working out a method to pitch our tents using rocks as anchors, as a perfectionist, this was activity I thoroughly enjoyed and was proud of the final product.
Rousing eagerly at an early hour, all of a sudden in desperate need of fulfilling my morning ritual, I was fortunate to squat, gazing upwards in awe at the heavenly constellations glistening quaintly between the snowcapped peaks. Unfortunately for Jacob, his slumber was interrupted by a somewhat less angelic series of sounds, a clumsy shuffling of feet across loose rock followed by a melody of dissonant undertones. We made up camp and headed off early, knowing we had some serious altitude to climb. The following 24 hours were just awesome, a culmination of the countless days at home, planning and fantasising about he trip finally became a reality. I was on top of the word and loving life, soaking up every ounce. It is difficult to put into words the magnitude of the proceeding day. Rather elegantly describing the scenes of the White Sand Lake, Karakul Lake, The Muztagh Tower and the distant snowcapped skyline, I will embed a series of images to tell the tale.
The following night camped by Karakul Lake was idyllic. I sat gazing across the lake, staring up at the Muztagh Tower, imagining myself roped up, equipped with crampons and ice axes climbing my way to the summit at 7276m. The entire panorama was epic, what a place to camp, I was in a state of astonishment, feeling that I was officially ‘Living the Dream’. I tried longingly to capture this moment, the emotions, the feelings. Wishing I could bottle it up, to open at a later date, to take a sip and experience this all over again, and again and again. Knowing that this was an impossibility, I was comforted by the hope that we would be fortuitous enough to experience these emotions at other awe inspiring, picturesque locations throughout our trip.
We started riding the next day after a roadside coffee, gifted with hot water from a lady cleaning outside her stall in preparation for the days business, and a breakfast of nan, or flat bread, a staple of the cycle touring diet, with banana and jam. We cruised through the next 20 km in the still, cool morning air. We cycled through a vast, open expanse, Muztagh standing shoulders above all other surroundings. We passed marmots frolicking about, snickering in their high pitched, almost sarcastic tones. In the distance, one long, dramatic switchback wound its way up and over the foreboding mountain, the final ascent and mountain pass of this leg of the journey. Leading the way, Jacob, in his element, accompanied with a rekindled appetite after his colonic discomfort, powered through the proceeding hour of climbing, valiantly summiting the 4100m pass in one effort with the support of enthusiastic Chinese tourists, leaving the vast views of the valley behind. Knowing that this was our final ascent in China, we were ecstatic, the next 75 km of descent would take us into the ‘Tajik Autonomous Country of Tashkurgan‘.
We cycled the final leg to Tashkurgan in high spirits, screaming down the long descent at high speeds with beaming smiles as the powerful mid afternoon sun beat down on us. The road paved its way through a wide expanse before nestling itself between two mountain sides where it snaked alongside the Tegermensu River. Loving life, as we meandered through the foothills, I shouted over to Jacob “I can’t actually believe we are almost at Tashkurgan!“. Tashkurgan sadly marks the end of our Chinese adventure, but is the glamorous gateway to the long awaited and crown jewel of our tour, Northern Pakistan.
Tashkurgan greeted us with what seemed to be a never ending 5 km uphill, nondescript duel carriageway. Our weary legs and empty stomachs decided to call it a day, as we reluctantly churned through the gears. We unloaded our bikes at the Kute Hostel and scouted out the nearest restaurant where we devoutly attacked a series of dishes accompanied by rice; spicy tofu, aubergine with peppers and shredded potato and chilli. Exactly what the doctor ordered. A well deserved banquet after the accomplishment of our highest mountain pass and farthest daily distance of 96 km.
The border crossing into Pakistan, The Khunjerab Pass, is closed during weekends, meaning that we had to wait until Monday to catch the bus to Sost, the Pakistan border town. We therefore spent the next three nights in Tashkurgan, dosing ourselves up with excessive, yet much needed calories and ticking chores off our to do list. Struggling to withdraw cash from an ATM in such a far out town, Mario so kindly offered to withdraw money for us in exchange for US Dollars. Mario was the absolute corner stone to our successful, stress free ride between Kashgar and Tashkurgan. A kinship was developed that can only manifest itself between three individuals who are exposed in such extreme circumstances. Spending four arduous days cycling and camping together, through the shared vulnerability of a bond was formed with fond memories of community, encouragement and camaraderie. Mario will be sorely missed, but we can reminiss over the good times of grimacing up steep inclines to the Rocky soundtrack shouting “Adrian!”, Mario breaking a chair in a small local restaurant after demolishing eight steamed boazis, his endless questions despite how out of breath we were and reluctant to spark up a conversation whilst sweating through the gears; “Do you know Che Guevara?”, “Where does the queen live?”, “Do you like Adele?”, “How much does an ice cream cost in London?”, and his triumphant achievement of four ‘fumpys’ in one day, or in English, four Poos. He could never be replaced but we can only hope that we have the pleasure of meeting a Pakistani ‘Mario‘ across the border.