June 18th-20th: First Impressions of Chinese Turkestan, Xinjiang Province, Western China
Khunjerab Zero Point, 4730 metres. The China we look out upon is striking in its difference from the rugged rockscape of Pakistan. Rolling hills, patched with softened colours, lilt over a grassy plateau; a determined wind blusters through the valley. But aside from a network of outlines, there's little else to see. Sand from the distant Taklamakan Desert has muffled the land like a giant duvet, smothering its grandeur into silhouette.
Guards at the forlorn Chinese check post wordlessly inspect our passports, then wave us onwards into the featureless distance. Before long, we encounter a band of two-humped camels, grazing peacefully by the roadside. Scraggly and unkempt, they watch us with a look of mild interest. On the KKH, we're nothing new - plenty of cyclists have come before us and plenty more are sure to follow.
The battle against the headwind is soon over as we stop to pitch camp, feeling lost, like a pinprick in the desert of emptiness. Huddled in the tiny Terra Nova, a disastrous bowl of Pakistani pasta and a temperamental cooker fails to boost our morale. Instant noodles and chocolates provide sustenance for the night, as the tent twists and turns like a restless sleeper.
Morning comes and the land around us is wrapped in mystery. But the wind has yet to bluster, and the world seems eerily silent. Back on the road, we meet a Dutch climber and his Chinese mountain bike, complete with rice bag panniers. Soon, a few clusters of square mud-brick houses emerge, their walls patched with discs of dung, brightly clad women lounging in the doorways. Xinjiang, bordering eight countries, is a melting pot of minorities, and right now we're just ten kilometres from the border with Tajikistan.
Indeed, to eyes accustomed to months of Chadois Camiz wearing Pakistanis, the Tajiks seem wonderfully eccentric dressers. We cycle alongside a man in a flat-cap, oversized shades, and Adidas socks. We pass women in neon-pin skirts, scarves and heels, 'Dallas style.' Noble old men in thick fur hats on horseback greet us with a hand to the heart. Tracksuited youths on donkeys trot into view, a motorbike and sidecar rattles by...just moments later we're overtaken by a gleaming BMW. Caught in this confused time capsule, each face is a fascinating meld of European and Asiatic features, quite unlike anything I've seen before.
After the non-stop spotlight of India and Pakistan, a distinct lack of attention is strangely comforting. More reserved than their sub-continental neighbours, our waves are returned with smiles or simply lingering stares. When we stop to chew on our stockpile of dried apricots, a young man saunters by whistling a tune, barely pausing as he passes. Young children are more vocal in their greetings. Grappling with our first Tajik words from the phrasebook, we stop to chat with some success to two girls sitting by the roadside. Thankfully, the 'one pen' slogan, the calling card of all Pakistani kids, has not made it over the pass.
The road runs on, cutting across a barren and arid plain that might stretch for an eternity if we could only see it. Though we can sense the mountainous outlines around us our view is focused on the tarmac ahead, punctuated by the kilometre stones that count us down to Kashgar. Dust devils race alongside, and a slowly ambling river reminds us that we are indeed descending. The headwind has returned with vigour, countering the free-wheeling descent we had hoped for.
At last, Tashkurgan is in sight. An enormous white gate, resembling a giant goal post, marks Chinese immigration. The guards put on a personal display of army pomp, inspect our passports and wave us through customs. Local time is just one hour behind, though the official Beijing time is a three hour leap away. But under this haze that cloaks the sun like a lampshade, the world around seems timeless.
We've arrived in Chinese Turkestan, officially named in 1955, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. It is China's largest province, four times the size of Japan, and our first step into Central Asia beckons us on.