Cycling, well, attempting to cycle, the Karakoram Highway

The Karakoram Highway was constructed in the 1970’s to open a land trade route between China and Pakistan. It is a marvel of modern engineering, an 1,800 km road that links the western Chinese city of Kashgar, with the Pakistani city of Abbottabad by cutting through the mighty Karakoram Mountains (Western Himalayas).

karakoram-map

Kashgar is a town with few attractions. Five years ago it may have been more interesting, but most of the ‘interesting’ old town has been demolished to make way for the uniform high rises and ‘civilisation’ of Han China. It took a vast amount of effort and time to reach this immensely troubled outpost, and it proved to be a disappointment.

One of the main things to do in and around Kashgar is to take a trip up the highway, either to the scenic Karakul Lake or further on to the small border town of Tashkurgan. Amelia and I were eager to visit both, but the quotes we received from travel agencies in Kashgar for a driver were expensive.

We had read about people getting a lift up the highway, and then cycling back down – that sounded too cool.  So naturally, when we arrived in Kashgar we investigated this further, and were promptly told it was indeed possible to cycle from Tashkurgan to Kashgar. We quickly allayed a few safety concerns (How much traffic is there? Could we get lost? Is it safe for foreigners?) and subsequently decided to hire the cycling and camping gear at a fraction of the cost it would have been for a driver and car both ways.

We both felt pretty nervous the night before, for we had never attempted anything like this. What’s more, we were going to be in one of the most remote corners of China, hundreds of miles from anywhere, with limited language skills and no map. It sounds a bit reckless, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t – but it certainly felt adventurous. We had our mobile phones and a friend who was in the area – who we knew we could trust, and knew what we were doing and planning. I decided against telling my parents for fear of causing them unnecessary worry.

We were told it’s a straight road back to Kashgar, and it was almost impossible to get lost. It should take somewhere between three-four days depending on your fitness levels, and it’s about 300km to Kashgar in total. We stocked up on supplies (lots of chocolate bars and Jaffa Cakes – yes you can actually buy Jaffa Cakes in Xinjiang. AMAZING.) and got a lift up to Tashkurgan the next morning. Tashkurgan is the last town on the Chinese side of the highway before you have to cross the border into Pakistan, needless to say we weren’t keen on taking a trip into Pakistan – so Tashkurgan was as far up as we were going.

amelia-me-tashkurgan-bikes karakoram-highway-cycling karakoram-highway-cycling2

The cycling started well, almost no traffic and we were averaging 10-12 km/ph – a solid pace. The scenery was great, we felt free and adventurous, the weather was glorious.

After a couple of hours, my legs started to ache, each breath became harder, every metre was needing greater effort, “That’s not good”, I thought. The roads and climb were long, but they were gentle. “This should be easier, I’m not that unfit”, I told myself, but the feeling of lethargy soon turned into one of total exhaustion within two hours. I consoled myself, “It’s the altitude, not my fitness”.

altitude-sickness-cycling-karakoram-highway

We were climbing from 3,000 to 3,600 metres above sea-level, and we stupidly hadn’t allowed ourselves time to acclimatize to being at altitude, having started our cycle as soon as we were dropped off in Tashkurgan. About six hours, and 40km in, I was done for. I could barely cycle 500 metres without feeling like I was going to collapse. Amelia set up the tent and we had a very restless nights sleep (a symptom of altitude sickness is disrupted sleep). We were awoken by the deafening horns of a convoy of juggernauts, they still beep their horns loudly even in the middle of no-where. Damn you Chinese drivers.

Note – Please see below to admire Amelia’s super stylish Leicester City Football Club shorts. That’s my girl.

amelia-tent-karakoram-highway day-two-karakoram-highway

Feeling particularly unrefreshed we packed the tent away, ate a breakfast of Turkish Mars Bars and Jaffa Cakes and set off for day two. We made it probably 800 metres before I had to stop. And that was it. There was no way we could continue. The scenery was stupendous, but the enjoyment had been taken from us by our lack of preparation for the altitude. Pathetic really.

We decided to try and flag down a truck to take us down to Kashgar. Within ten minutes we had flagged down a China Post lorry (only the second vehicle to pass us) and the driver, who amazingly, spoke a little bit of English, agreed to take us to Kashgar for £20. We happily paid, knowing this was far cheaper than the rates we were quoted in Kashgar.

Failure
Failure

Our driver was a nice chap. We had some enlightening conversations, which I will certainly write about in years to come. He stopped at the scenic Karakul Lake for us, and we took a few snaps. The lake was magnificent, but there was nothing really around it. Beforehand, we imagined it might be at least slightly developed for tourism, perhaps a restaurant? But no, there was almost nothing, except for a few nomadic Kyrgyz homes. We were quite thankful we weren’t on our bikes now, as we were originally planning on spending an afternoon and night here. It didn’t look like that would have been much fun!

karakoram-highway-scenery karakul-lake-xinjiang karakul-lake-xinjiang2 plummer-chin-karakullake-xinjiang

The highway from Karakul was pretty much straight down. We found ourselves wishing we had got dropped off there instead of Tashkurgan, and had started from here . It would have been much easier. However, we soon realised the roads were much busier here, with constant convoys of juggernauts and army trucks navigating their way up and down the road as they played their part in the vast exploitation of the mountains’ natural resources. Everywhere you looked, mountainsides had been blown up, were being dug up, or mines were operating and what was clearly once a beautiful mountain range of outstanding natural beauty, had been transformed into yet another industrial, over-exploited eyesore to feed China’s ever-growing appetite for natural resources. It was sad.

The road was often spectacular, but also dangerous. We were caught up in a traffic jam for a couple of hours, apparently a truck had been swept off the edge by a landslide further down. Landslides are a common occurrence around here. It would be interesting to know the life-expectancy of the truckers who drive up and down this road, day in day out.

trafficjam-karakoramhighway waiting-karakoramhighway

Nine hours after hitching a ride somewhere between Tashkurgan and Karakul Lake, we were at last back in Kashgar. Tired, hungry and stinking, we checked into a slightly nicer hotel and got a private room. We were disappointed we had failed, but at least we knew why we had failed. The trip had been a learning curve. Whilst we won’t ever be cycling across remote corners of the earth again, we may in future, think about a cycle trip down the Amalfi Coast, the French Riviera, or even California. Now that sounds more our cup of tea…

Practical information

  • You can hire high quality camping gear and everything else you need (except for bikes) from John at John’s Information Cafe in Kashgar for 30 RMB per day. You will need to pay a hefty deposit, but he seems an honest and decent guy – we had no problems getting it back. He will also provide transport to Karakul or Tashkurgan, although you will need to pay 8-900 RMB.
  • We hired mountain bikes from a bike shop in Kashgar for 50 RMB per bike, per day. Again, no problems. John can give you directions.
  • We recommend you cycle down from Karakul Lake. The scenery isn’t so great between Tashkurgan and Karakul, and it’s 100km further to start from Tashkurgan. Starting from Karakul, the effects of altitude won’t be quite so severe as the road is pretty much straight down from there. If you do start from Tashkurgan, allow yourself at least a night to stay there and acclimatize. Otherwise you will most likely struggle like we did. Tashkurgan does have hotel’s to stay in, and okay local restaurants.
  • Allow yourself 3-4 days in total.
  • It gets cold at night, and the sun is very strong. Wear lots of sun cream and bring warm clothing.
  • Pack lots of food and water, as shops are few and far between.
  • You can take a public bus to Karakul Lake or Tashkurgan. If you go to the Kashgar Bus Terminal, they will tell you the times. I think there is only one or two a day. It is unlikely they will let you take your bike on the bus (we asked, and were told no).
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