Tag Archives: Xinjiang

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).

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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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China’s Hidden Gem – The Ili Valley

We didn’t know much about Ili before going there. We’d just heard it was nice and seen some nice pictures on the internet.

We didn’t see a single foreigner here, it’s so far from anywhere, located closer to Kazahkstan than to Xinjiang’s own capital, Urumqi. However, if you have the time, it’s well worth a visit.

Sandwiched between two huge mountain ranges, the Ili Valley is a lush green oasis that stretches for several hundred kilometres between them. Magnificent doesn’t do the place justice (although the entrance fee racket does put a downer on things). We spent two glorious days hiking here, in what is without doubt one of the most beautiful places we have visited in China. Just don’t ask us about the ‘hostel’, urghhhh.

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Our next destination was Kuqa, a seven hour bus journey down the Highway 217 from Narat, through Bayanbalak and the Tian Shan Mountains. An incredible journey – sadly the pictures taken from our moving bus don’t do it justice!

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Practical Information

To get here, you can either take a train to Yining from Urumqi, stay overnight in Yining and then take a bus to Narat (5 hours). Entrance is 175 RMB per person, the eastern side of the park is much nicer and quieter than the west side. where the tour buses go to. If you get on the green buses (NOT the big white tour buses at the entrance) they will take you towards the eastern side. There is plenty of opportunity for some nice hiking around here, but beware of the dogs!

There is a YHA hostel within the park  close to the east entrance. Be prepared to share your room with centipedes, beetles and spiders.

I assume you can also take a bus from Kuqa to Narat, but I’m not sure if foreigners are supposed to be issued tickets. Heading out, we took a bus from Narat to Kuqa, which leaves daily at 12:30 from Narat bus terminal.

A Night at Scenic Sayram

We stayed one night in a Kazhk yurt at Sayram Lake as a stop-off en-route to the Ili Valley.

Our arrival could have gone better. Upon pulling into the entrance of the park the locals discovered there were foreigners in the car, after I had got out and stretched my legs. Now we are used to being hassled when we get to new places, but this soon became a new experience for all of us, one which all of us would rather not have again.

A large group of Kazahks, maybe two dozen quickly surrounded the car. They were desperate for business, we climbed back into the car because they were over-bearing, beyond rude. The Kazakhs then opened our doors, and started trying to climb into the car to get us to go with them. Several of them started arguing, and at one point it looked as though they might trade blows. We were starting to feel very intimidated, for the situation was starting to get a little out of control as more people gathered round. Clearly they don’t see many foreigners around here. Our driver was getting very agitated and concerned, and ended up pushing the people out, slamming the doors, locking them and speeding off to escape.

We drove a couple of hundred metres away, and a local Kazakh man followed on his motorbike. We had a Chinese friend with us who negotiated for us, and the man told us we could stay in his yurt for 50RMB per person. We were short on options, the scenery was stunning and we wanted to get out the car. He assured us we wouldn’t have any more problems, so we agreed to go with him.

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The landscape was great, the yurt very cosy, the toilets – well we hiked up a hill into the woods, and the food wasn’t great, but it was an enjoyable afternoon / evening.

There are two entrance/exits. One is in the middle of nowhere and will try to charge 75RMB entrance per person, the other (the east entrance/exit) is free (The Kazahks had broken the fences down) and has plenty of yurts available.

You can take a bus from the main road (the only road), which will take you to Yining (the closest major town, about three hours away) for 40RMBamelia-horse-sayram-lake kazahk-baby-on-horse-sayram kazahk-yurt sayram-sunrise sayram-yurt

China’s far, far North – Kanas Lake National Park, Northern Xinjiang

Getting to Kanas Lake wasn’t easy. From Urumqi, we took a twelve-hour overnight sleeper train to Beitun, a small town seemingly in the middle of no-where, with a train station even more so, in the middle of no-where. The train line just ends, miles from anywhere.

From Beitun Train Station we hired a driver to take us to Kanas. There were public transport options available, but these were confusing and time-consuming. We were tired and wanted to get to Kanas as soon as possible. We paid our driver 550RMB for the four-five hour road trip to Kanas.

The scenery en-route was nothing short of magnificent. We were able to enjoy a surprisingly smooth journey as the road cut through spectacular grasslands on which Kazakh, Mongol and Tuvan nomads call home..

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A few hours later, we arrived to Kanas. We strongly advise you stay inside the park. The entrance fee is steep, 250RMB per person or so, for one entrance, so once you leave, you can’t get back in. It’s a waste to stay one day,  we recommend you stay in the park over-night, maybe two.

The surroundings are stupendous, the accommodation basic – but cosy and cheap. Finding a room is easy inside the park; you get on the tourist bus at the entrance, get off at the terminus some forty-odd minutes later, and walk towards the small single-storey wooden houses. You will be able to find a room for 40-50RMB a night.

Our digs for the night
Our digs for the night
Tasty homemade noodles
Tasty homemade noodles

Now, as for the actual park. Sandwiched between Kazahkstan, Russia and Mongolia this part of China is pretty much southern Siberia. It was the middle of July, but temperatures were cooler, much cooler than the rest of the country. Daytime highs struggled to climb above 20°C. It was chilly at times, and humidity felt as though it was at 0%, bliss. The weather was temperamental, and reminded us of the UK in its changeability. We found ourselves asking, “Is this really China?”, for the landscapes and even the blue sky were completely different to what we had grown accustomed to in the east.

Kanas-Lake-Location

Pine-trees lined the mountainsides and valley through which the Kanas River carved its way through the majestic alpine setting on its course to the Russian Arctic. There were a few domestic tourists, but not the masses we had experienced elsewhere in China. Their movements were predictable, they all came in on the tour bus, stopped at the three designated ‘scenic spots’, took some pictures and left. We walked along a nicely built path that clung to the rivers edge as it flowed through the valley, we had it wholly to ourselves. Beautiful scenery, clean air and complete tranquility – it’s rare to be able to enjoy all three of these at once in China.

I imagined there to be places like this in North America, but not China. Even the small number of buildings which had been built to cater for tourists were classily done, and generally kept in character with their surroundings – another rarity in modern China.

Kanas Lake National Park had become our favourite national park in China. It retained a charm, a picturesque landscape that remains relatively undeveloped and unspoiled. There are plenty of beautiful parks in China, some arguably more beautiful than this, but almost all of them have been ruined by commercial development and the thousands of domestic tourists that visit these places each day.

Kanas hasn’t got there, yet. Undoubtedly helped in part by its remote location and isolation. Long may that continue!

Dan Plummer - male model.
Dan Plummer – male model.

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Western China – Summer 2013

This summer Amelia and I were lucky enough to spend five weeks backpacking around western China.

This trip turned out to be the most adventurous trip we’ve been on by far, and certainly one of the most rewarding. Travelling was at times rough, with numerous horrific long distance bus journey’s, terrible food, and the ever present worry that local authorities will take a disliking to our presence (they didn’t, on the whole). The scenery however, the places we saw and many of the people we met, were quite simply amazing, and more than made up for this.

Over the next few weeks we will share some of our pictures, stories and newly-acquired knowledge for the benefit of other travellers, because quite frankly, there is little to-no information available in the English language about some of these areas, and if we had known some things beforehand, it could have made life much easier for us.

We started in Xinjiang, and eventually headed south-east through Gansu and Tibetan parts of Sichuan, before finishing off in Chengdu. Below is a rough map of the route we took.

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