Cycling Plus #21:
Karakorum Chronicles Part 3: Into Xinjiang Province, Western China
A suspension of sand hangs in the air. Churning the distant Taklimakan
Desert, a relentless headwind whistles up the valley. Beyond, towering
polished hills are barely discernible, muted into a haze of outlines. In
these sombre surroundings, we pitch our lonely tent, observed by a troop of
two-humped camels. Behind us lies Pakistan, for today we have crossed the
pass into Western China.
Xinjiang seems a world apart from neighbouring Hunza, in both the geography
of its sweeping plateau and the people who inhabit it. Communities of
Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Uyghur dot the roadside, each face, a fascinating meld
of European and Asiatic features, curious yet reserved. Men on horseback,
nobly clad in thick fur hats and knee length coats, greet us with a hand to
the heart. We cross paths with children in flat caps, women in neon-pink
skirts, and from nowhere, a track suited youth on a donkey, all with hoes
casually slung over their shoulder. Bordered by no less than eight
countries, the province is a melting-pot of ethnic minorities and a gateway
to Central Asia.
Tashkurgan immigration signals our official arrival to China, where we
stockpile on cakes of raisin and walnut. A storm reverses the demoralising
headwind, whisking us past a string of mud brick villages towards the lake
of Karakul, one of the most beautiful places in Western China. As a
tempestuous night of dark clouds crash against the mountainside the dusty
air is displaced, leaving a trail of blue sky in its wake.
At last, the undefined shapes surrounding us sharpen into focus: seven
thousand metre peaks layered in fresh snow, gouged by glaciers caught in
and sweeping plains as smooth as billiard tables. We camp by the lakeside,
and in the morning light a family of donkey-riding nomads peer into our own
temporary abode. To a backdrop of an indigo sky, a final seventy kilometre
descent funnels us through a landslide prone canyon, past grazing yak,
cemeteries, and smoking yurts. The Kyrgyz village we reach by late
afternoon offers a simple hotel and a feast of noodle squares laced with
from our own tragic cooking attempts at altitude.
Swept away with the romanticism of the Great Game, I had envisaged the
Karakoram as a legendary road. The blend of mountainscapes, eclectic
cultures and the
solitude of an empty highway both inspire and challenge. Reaching Kashgar
the austere reception of our Chinese hotel seems far removed from the
rugged passes that have led us here. As a shower washes away the last
particles of Karakoram dust, I'm left to ponder words etched into a
memorial commemorating those who built this epic highway:
"The KKH...snaking up to the roof of the world... A guiding light to the
Chinese and Pakistanis who heaved and clawed at the towering heights of the
link up the destinies of two nations."
Towards the post-Soviet intrigue of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, our first
taste of Central Asia beckons us on...