On August 26th, the day before our departure of China, I found myself wandering the hallway of the K2 Hostel in Tashkurgan in search of a quiet spot to put my feet up and read my kindle. I had time to kill, a luxury that I had been so deprived of throughout the six months leading up to this cycle tour, occupied by leaving work, moving out of my apartment, closing my business and, of course, applying for visas and planning the adventure of a lifetime. I chuckled to myself as I noted the somewhat eclectic selection of posters lining the hostel hallway; Albert Einstein, The King’s Speech, Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, a picture of Lionel Messi, The Fast and the Furious movie poster and giant beer bottle tops that seemed to attract a string of Chinese tourists posing for selfies. The hallway was also lined with a series of maps. As a self-proclaimed ‘wanderer’ I was drawn to a world map that centralised on China, a perspective of the planet that is rarely seen as a Westerner. Having endured an unforgettable two weeks cycling through southern Kyrgyzstan and northwest China I was growing ever more excited to cross the border into Pakistan, the leg of this journey that I most longed for. I eyed our planned route across the map through Pakistan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It occurred to me that, as a matter of fact, southeast Asia isn’t too far away. Perhaps this journey doesn’t have to end in Sri Lanka, perhaps I could continue my way around the globe, a continuation of my wanderings that date back to my Mongol Rally experience in 2010, where my best friend, Biskit and I road tripped our way from Leicester to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and we happened to pass through Osh, Kyrgyzstan, the starting point of this trip. My mind buzzed with possible routes, skirting through Indonesia to Australia and New Zealand, or hopping across to Myanmar and cycling through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. I caught myself grinning in a sense of wonder, with no mortgage or career to pull me back home in a hurry, perhaps I could see the world. I snapped myself out of the fantasy and continued my way down the corridor and up the stairs to the roof terrace where I gazed out across the valley at the Karakoram mountains. I was so content, in my element, loving life, the simple life. Time to relax and think, nothing to worry about, except for my slight concern about the availability of fresh ground coffee. My French coffee bag supply was diminishing rapidly and I was uncertain if Pakistan will offer anything more than your standard freeze dried coffee granules. I pulled a reclining chair onto the terrace, sat back and immersed myself into Brandon Sanderson’s fantastical ‘Cosmere’, I turned through the pages of Oathbringer, the third book in his Stormlight series. I read until I dozed off in the warmth of the afternoon sun, what a luxury.
That evening Jacob, Mario and I wandered through the town of Tashkurgan to find a restaurant that offered a variety of vegetarian dishes. We reminisced and laughed over the memories we shared of cycling from Kashgar while at the same time enjoyed bowls of rice and noodles with a strange spiced cucumber dish that we accidentally ordered mistaking the faded menu photo for courgette. We woke the following morning before the sun had risen above the distant peaks. We packed our belongings, loaded our bikes and treated ourselves to a breakfast of vegetable baozi, fried vegetable cakes and eggs, slightly annoyed that we didn’t find this restaurant three days earlier. Mario accompanied us to the bus station where we bought our tickets to Sost, Pakistan as it is forbidden to cycle this stretch of no man’s land. Sadly our time together had to end here, Mario would continue cycling solo onto the Tibetan plateau before making his way past Mount Everest and into Nepal. We embraced and wished each other a safe journey ahead. Initially, Mario planned to travel alone, yet since Kashgar, he had grown accustomed to life on the road accompanied by others. His eyes filled with tears as we were about to go our separate ways. We embraced a final time. With a lump in my throat I said goodbye as Mario wiped the tears from his eyes. He reluctantly pushed his bike onto the road, we watched him pedal away into the distance. It is amazing how close you become despite knowing each other for little more than a week. We can only hope that our paths cross once again in Nepal or India.
Jacob and I proceeded to the China Immigration Checkpoint where we once again had to repeatedly unload and reload our bikes for a series of what seemed lackadaisical, routine security checks that were a stark contrast to the immigration checks whilst entering China at the Irkenshtam border. The bus resembled a 1980s sleeper with the faint smell of ash tray, equipped with reclined seats and holes in the roof where the modern conveniences of air conditioning and lighting were once installed. Fortunately, we were given our own personal luggage compartments for our bikes. The bus journeyed along the Karakoram Highway, deeper and higher into the mountains, gradually climbing to the Khunjerab Pass, the world’s highest paved border crossing that has become quite the tourist attraction. As we crossed the border we were greeted with a series of smiles and waves, tourists were filming our bus on their smart phones, shouting “Welcome to Pakistan!” as if we were a disjointed, mixed race water polo team. Unable to cross from China by bicycle, Jacob and I gazed out of the window and took note of the series of switchbacks we knew that we would be climbing in a few days time. We planned to cycle the stretch of road from Sost back up to the Khunjerab Pass on the Pakistan side, and back down again.
After a rather uncomfortable, five hour journey, the bus came to a stop at Sost, the Pakistan border town, where our baggage should have been checked. The border guard peered into one of my panniers, looked rather puzzled over an old drinks bottle that we use to transport jam to avoid carrying glass and prevent a sticky preserve disaster. He asked me if I was carrying any wine, I replied “no wine” and that was it, Jacob and I were given the nod and waved on through. We loaded our bikes and left the Pakistan Immigration office. At first sight, I felt this place was a bustling, dingy concrete jungle, but as we gently rolled down the main road, we were greeted enthusiastically with great smiles, Pakistani men calling “Hello, welcome to Pakistan!” Strangers approached us one after another asking if we could pose for a photo, asking “Where are you from?” and “What do you think to Pakistan?” We were overwhelmed by how amiable these people were. We soon came to realise that they were genuinely excited to have foreigners visit their home country in spite of Pakistan’s infamous reputation for terrorism and violence.
We rode the short length of the town bartering with hotel owners for a good price of a twin room with a private bathroom. Satisfied with the Asia Hotel, we unpacked and found our way to a small restaurant where we drank sweet tea and conversed with our new found friend, Abbas Daso, who worked at the restaurant and had been a mountain guide in Pakistan for nine years. After sharing stories about family life, meeting some of his friends and showing photos of his expeditions to K2 base camp, we ordered two bowls of daal. Ditching our Chinese chopstick skills for chapatis, we made a mess as we attempted to master the art of the chapati scoop. I had been longing for Pakistani food for some time, I suspected that Jacob was relieved when our food was brought to the table as my cravings were sated at last.
As the afternoon turned to evening and light started to fade, Jacob and I took in the surrounding views. Sost was a small town that resembled an almost breeze block style Wild West, nestled in a valley with steep mountain sides crowned with sharp, snow capped pinnacles. We were both jubilant to have made it to Pakistan, the heart of our fantasies whilst planning the trip. Again, I found myself staring out into the distance, in awe of the magnificent views, it felt like a fairy tale of sorts, perhaps a fairy tale where Prince Charming washed rather infrequently, rode a bike instead of a horse and had a hell of a long way to go to find his Princess. These thoughts ended when reality sunk in, our ride up to the Khunjerab Pass was looming, a ride we knew would be the biggest test of will and endurance yet.