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Cycling Plus

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 frozen waves, 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, beehive cemeteries, and smoking yurts. The Kyrgyz village we reach by late afternoon offers a simple hotel and a feast of noodle squares laced with garlic, respite 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 Himalayas to 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...



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