June 22nd-26th: Tashkurgan to Kashgar...the KKH winds to an end, Western China
June 22nd: Tashkurgan to Karakol Lake
The hazy curtain that's dropped over the land since our arrival in China has yet to lift; the headwind remains adamantly fierce. Laden once more with a cargo of supplies, we resume our journey. Only trucks hurtle by, swerving round the tiny donkeys that shuttle local travellers along the Karakoram Highway.
Nestled in a small canyon, the mountains around are contoured like the folds of rhino skin, the gullies that trickle down them like giant hooves. Soon, the far corner of the sky seeps with darkness, as a storm gusts towards us like an angry spirit. But it's a blessing in disguise, for we're lifted over the pass by a torrent of air that reverses the headwind in its path. On this desolate stretch of plateau, swirls of sand race beside us and tangle in our wheels. Lonesome road workers, faces shrouded by scarves, stoop in silhouette like forsaken Giacometti carvings. Resonating telephone wires, an endless thread running into the distance, compose an eerie soundtrack to these tumultuous elements...
But with the same sense of urgency, the storm is gone, wiping the sky free of haze like a giant mop. Ahead, a mountain rises some 7,000m high, sliced into canyons by glaciers. Below, a plain reaches out, smooth as a billiard table. A steep descent funnels us towards Karakol Lake, a spill of turquoise water, backed by steppe and glacial peaks. Hail begins to fall, and fat drops of rain strike hard as we battle against a newly invigorated headwind, past Kyrgyz yurts and burial mounds shaped like honey pots.
In typical Chinese fashion, a fence cordons off most of Karakol Lake. No money, no view. But we persevere across the plains to find our own more personal site. Nestled in the Terra Nova, we watch storms roll in and out across the valley, lingering over the mountain tops to unleash a new layer of snow, leaving a trail of blue sky and thinning clouds. Our camping spot is idyllic. To one side, the flysheet zips out to the lake and its surreal backdrop of mountains, placed like giant black boulders in a neat row. In this clear air, I feel like I can almost reach out and touch them.
To the other, nomad pastures and a belt of steppe, powdered in fresh snow, are towered over by 7500m, Muztagh Ata. I can ask for no more. Long ago on a descent from a high pass in Tibet, I listened to David, my French cycling friend, describe this very special place. Now I am finally here for myself.
A family of children pass by on their donkeys as they make their way around the lake to school, and stop to peer into our own nomadic home, eyes scouring our strange belongings. I spend the day writing and taking photos, happy just to be here, emerging from the tent at the end of each brief storm to marvel at the change of light left behind.
June 24th-26th: Karakol to Ghez to Kashgar
It's time to pack up and find the main road once again, cycling round the network of waterways that stretch like sinewy fingers across the plain. A descent of over 2000m awaits. Enveloped by a crystal clear air, my eyes are locked onto the surrounding peaks. I'm overwhelmed by a feeling of peace. This is why I'm here, why I do what I am doing. As if the air has dusted my mind, this clarity fills my body with a sensation of warmth and comfort. Cycling beneath a torrent of rain in the forests of Cape Tribulation, Australia, and reaching Everest Base Camp, Tibet, are two other moments that remain vivid in my mind and soul on this long journey home.
The road snakes long into the distance. I feel the icy bite of high altitude wind that keeps me so in touch with the present. Lakes mirror mountains like stolen moments in time, clouds float just beyond my head. Curling onwards, I pass yaks and their reflections in perfect pools of water, descending into a deep, steep canyon that plummets through the earth like a natural stairway. At times the road is washed away by landslides, simply crumbling into emptiness. Here, the Kyrghyz men wear tall felt headwear like Asian top hats, motifs in black and white, and their faces are charismatic and noble.
We stop to spend the night in the village of Ghez, and in a darkened restaurant, watch 'lagman' noodles prepared by hand: twisted, stretched and spun as in a hypnotic ritual. Smoke pours from a wood fire thickening the air, pierced by a shaft of light from a ceiling hole. The hotel we find is simple, our room little more than a collection of traditional beds - hardboards covered in a thin bactrian camel hair mattress. A slightly disgruntled grandpa, dressed in leather donkey-riding boots, a matching trenchcoat and sporting a tapering goatee, gathers his few belongings and shuffles out, turfed into the kitchen. There's little to do amongst these mudbrick homes but watch the mighty torrent of the river below, following a path that's strewn with litter, incongruous only to the Western eye.
As darkness falls, I slurp on another bowl of lagman, watching Hong Kong action movies dubbed into Khyrgyz with the rest of the village. Powered by a generator that fills our room with fumes, we wait till video night is over before going to sleep. Outside, only the subtle glow of the moon offer light, reducing the rocky outcrops that jut towards the stars into a world of silhouettes.
Our last day of the Karakoram is upon us. Morning comes, and we breakfast on savoury pancakes and tea. Giving way to a gently meandering river, our descent from the high altitudes has almost come to an end. Under an intense sun, a thin layer of cloud stretches over the horizon, patterned like a giant comb has been drawn across it. We emerge into a dry and empty desert, dabbed with Uyghur villages. As welcome to us as to travellers of the Silk Road in bygone times, we enjoy these respites from the baking midday heat, under the cool shade of their poplar lined streets. Riding their donkey-drawn carts sedately, these Muslim people seem relaxed and friendly, offering us apricots and watermelon to quench our thirst.
Reaching Kashgar, the austere and imposing reception of the our Chinese hotel seems far removed from the mountain passes that have lead us here. As a shower washes away the last particles of Karakoram dust, I'm left to ponder words etched into a memorial stone at Khunjerab Pass that commemorates 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 Himalayas to link up the destinies of two nations.'
It's hard to believe the Karakoram is finally over. I'm sad to say goodbye to this historic road. It's carried us so far; from the lowlands of Pakistan, to the deserts of Xinjiang, via some of the most spectacular mountainscapes in the world. Towards the post Soviet intrigue of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, our first taste of Central Asia beckons us on.