Sunday, October 22, 2006


As we leave Kashgar, Leni.. I mean, Mao shows us the way. Different guy, but same ubiquitous statue and cult of personality. The Karakoram Highway (KKH) really starts from Kashgar, but the Chinese side is very different from the Pakistan side: it follows the edge of the Pamirs (Kongur, 7719m and Muztagh Ata, 7546m). There's a very touristy stop at Karakul lake (another one), where noisy Chinese climb on a camel and take pictures in front of Muztagh Ata. At Tashkurgan our guide finds out that most hotels are booked by an American crew shooting a movie supposed to take place in Afghanistan, but we eventually find a (cold) room for the night.
Although Tashkurgan is more than 100km away from the pass and the border, the customs are conveniently located here, so we start the day by going through the papers. Our passports are stamped out and our temperature taken by some bizarre machine (or so I guess, could be also a "M.I.B." brain wash..?). Then the custom officer wants us to open all our bags... as a matter of fact, we have avoided this until now, and don't miss it as it is a pain to unpack all the panniers. I start with my big black bag containing my sleeping bag, tent and books. The Chinese asks to see the bag with books and maps, so I open it and he immediately spots and takes out... my Russian Playboy magazine! Good snatch, as Playboy is only available in the black market here. He starts to flip the pages and not deterred by the Cyrillic text he quickly walks away, telling us we're OK and can go. When I bought it back in Kazakhstan I didn't think it would save us half an hour at the customs! Of course we all had a good laugh about the Chinese (including the Uygurs around), thinking about what he's about to do in the privacy of his office.

Eventually, after 1 1/2 hour we're cleared, leave our guide and follow a long and wide valley that slowly climbs from 3100m to 4300m in 100km. It's a bit boring and very cold, and doesn't look very much like a pass, except for the last few switch backs to the last Chinese check point. As we reach the pass we meet a couple Pakistani border guards who shake our hand, without even bothering to check our passport. Picture, congratulations, and we quickly leave before freezing our ass, after a perilous change to left-hand drive (the Chinese truck drivers tend to forget that detail as well, which makes for interesting crossing...).

Here we are in the junction between the Pamirs, that we have just left, the Hindu Kush that leads west across Afghanistan, the Karakoram and the Himalayas! This the last part of the globe to have been fully explored by Europeans, and now we see why. At that time, in the 19th century, Afghanistan was a very dangerous country to cross, although the most direct route between the central Asia trading centers and India. 150 years later it’s no different, but now the Khunjerab pass offers a safe way for traveling the Silk Road, and as in the old tradition of the caravans, the Chinese tax us heavily for this privilege.

The way down on the Pakistani side is very steep, and the road is much worse than in China, but OK as far as we're concerned. The mountains and glaciers surrounding us are spectacular; we’re literally in the middle of 6000- and 7000-m high mountains. That's an awesome work done by the Chinese and Pakistanis workers in the 70's and 80's, and even now there are many Chinese workers repairing the road all along. We quickly lose 2000m of elevation (but gain a few much appreciated degrees) to reach Sost, acting both as a Pakistani border post and a truck terminal where Chinese trucks unload and the colorful Pakistani trucks take over.

Next day we reach Karimabad, up the side of the beautiful Hunza valley, where we chill out and spend a day hiking up the amazing water channels. The weather is great and the atmosphere very friendly, even during this time of Ramadan, so much that we find without problem a restaurant serving us lunch, and even a shop selling beer.. the explanation is that this particular village is Ismaili Muslim, and they are much more relaxed about the rules than Sunnite and Shiite, as we already experienced in Tajikistan.

Further down the valley we stop in Gilgit, the major town half-way to Islamabad. We stay at a very friendly guest house where we meet backpackers from everywhere. Anders would have preferred the Girl's school but then there was this armed guard at the entry. The army is very present around and inside the town, with many heavily armed check points protected by sand bags, even an Indian Army helicopter displayed there as a hunting trophy. It seems that the army is keeping a close eye on those Northern tribes, and indeed on our way down we were stopped in a village by an anti-American demonstration, ending with a burning flag. People seemed not very much interested though, and more keen to clean up the road so that they could drive through, so we didn't feel threatened at all. Well, I kept alow profile anyway, you never know..

Sunday, October 15, 2006


Here we are, China. Actually I should say Xinjian, as it is very different from the rest of China: people are Uygur in majority (75%), the language is Uygur (Turkic like Kygryz and Uzbek, but written in an arabic script), the food is Uygyr, etc.. We feel more in Central Asia than in China, except for our license plates.. yes we now have a Chinese license plate and a Chinese driver's license!

Kashgar is now a modern city but in the old city one can still see craftsmen working in the street, and in the rug factory the women still work like centuries ago. Although they also make wool rugs the local specialty is really silk rugs, and the precision and patience needed to make one is mind-boggling. It would be nice to buy one as a souvenir but even the small ones run for more than 1000$.

We were looking forward to seeing the world-famous Sunday market, and we
weren't disappointed: it truly is amazing in its diversity and size: it is
said to have 10'000 shops. The livestock market on the other hand was half-empty and a bit boring. The one camel there was surrounded by tourists taking pictures more than by potential buyers.

And, at last, we get some good food! Soup and potatoes is OK to feed you and keep you alive, but after 3 months it's a real pleasure to enjoy eating someting that was nicely cooked.

Tomorrow we hit the road, and not just any road: the Karakoram Highway (KKH), another mythical road that will lead us south to Pakistan through the mountains, just a couple freezing days away.

Oh, and I finally got rid of that beard, courtesy of a barber working in the middle of the livestock market, between donkeys and sheep.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Back on the Silk Road

We left Murgab to Kara-Kul Lake. A short drive, but over the highest pass in Pamir, Ak-Baital at 4655m. That also about the same altitude as Khunjerab pass (depending on the map, some put it 4700), at the Chinese-Pakistan border, so it is for us the top of our trip. Amazingly, the highest pass in Ladakh is a whole 1000 meters higher, so we still have a challenge in front of us. The bikes are doing OK at that altitude, although I cheated a bit by removing one of the air filters; it does quite a bit of a difference, and not much harm on this mostly paved road. It was a bit chilly up there obviously so we shortly stop for a tap on the back and snap a few pictures, before going down to lake Kara-Kul, situated in a large plateau 3900m high.

We stop in Karakul, the only settlement around the lake, as we find the first home stay of our trip that is well advertised on the roadside. No need to stop and ask people. In summer there are yurt camps around there where one can sleep, but at this season the Kyrgyz herders have buggered off to warmer countries. The town is a bit depressing, as is the food: the breakfast is made of tea, bread and butter, period.

The next day, we decide to cross over to Kyrgyzstan as there is not much else to do around there, and we need to get in contact with the Chinese guide to check if we're OK for China. It's a short ride along barbed wires, a hint that the Chinese border is just a few kilometers away. That must be the easiest border crossing of all central Asia: 10 minutes on each the Tajik and Kyrgyz side and we get through. But the no-man's land between both border posts is also one of the worst roads we've seen so far, it seems both countries are waiting for the other to fix the road.

First such incident in the trip, I lost my rain gear on a long stretch of road along the lake. When I noticed, we had crossed only 2 cars, but when we drove back 25km to Karakol, the gear were nowhere to be seen, so one happy sunnuvabitch in those cars stopped and snatched it, and it must be now for sale in a Bazaar in Tajikistan.. Oh well, my fault. And it's not going to rain again for the next year or so anyway..

Down the pass marking the border we exit the Pamir and reach a high valley (3100m) that runs along the Pamir Alay range, of which Peak Lenin is the high point: 7100m. Looking back it's a stunning view, much different from the Tajik side because the foot of the mountains starts literally in the valley, unobstructed by other high peaks as on the Tajik side. So we ride at sunset down the valley and stop at Sary Moghul, right across the 4000m vertical drop of Lenin Peak, just 50km away.

A guy offers us to stay overnight at his place, so off we go. As often in these places, the hosts give us constant attention, trying to ask questions, posing when we take pictures, following us everywhere and literally stuffing us we as much food as they have, no matter if we try to decline for the sake of our overloaded stomach. After 10 days of this, we are a bit tired and are looking forward to just stay on our own and relax a bit.

We also tried to phone China from Sary Tash. We find the "Telephone" center and wait for somebody to come and open up for us. They have so little work that they stay home and wait that somebody comes knocking at their door to open the office. They're still running the place on an old soviet, mechanical switchboard. After a few tries it's clear that the communication is not getting through so we decide to go to Osh, second biggest city in Kyrgyzstan and some 180km away.

But 180km on very bad road, some old potholed asphalt that is much worse than any dirt track, so it takes us the best part of the day to make it, while I notice both a leak in my oil tank and my speedometer stop working. Anders on his side experiences a cracked on his baggage rack that he fixes with a strap. No show-stopper though, and we check in in Osh in a hotel for the first real shower in 2 weeks.

First thing first, we call China (10 cents per minute in one of those IP telephony centers that's all the rage in central Asia) and get the confirmation that we're all set for crossing 3 days later. That gives us one full day in Osh to fix the bikes and get some other food than the soup-bread-and-potato that kept us alive in Pamir.

So in 2 days we're in Kashgar, China, a major Silk Road trade post. Also, and finally, we get out of the "Vodka empire", the Russian sphere of influence after 3 months from St Petersburg to Mongolia to Tajikistan.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Roof of the World

Eventually we reach the end of the valley and we climb up a pass at 4300m that gives access to the Pamir plateau itself, between 3600 and 4000 meters. The temperature drops dramatically, and we have to put the warm clothes on. The pass leads us to the Pamir highway near lake Yashil-Kul. According to my excellent Pamir map there is a village near the lake, so we ride there and we end up in a settlement in the middle of nowhere, in a moon-like landscape where only sheep and yaks can survive. We’re welcome by a few people who argue over where we should spend the night. The winners (three brothers) install us in their house, start up the generator and sit and watch TV while their sister is cooking and serving us dinner. We’re of course a bit surprised to see in that remote place a satellite dish hooked to a nice TV, but unfortunately most of these people don't have much to do and TV is the only entertainment that they can get.

In the morning we find out it had been snowing a little during the night, not enough to stop us though, and by midday it has mostly thawed. We ride along the lake for some sightseeing, before carrying on to Murgab, main town of the East Pamir, populated mainly by Kyrgyz in majority. Unfortunately at that time of the year most herders have left the high plateau for lower valleys, so we see no yurts on our way in the desert-like landscape.

In Murgab we register at the police again (free this time) and get us a permit to go to Rang-Kul lake. This area is very close to the Chinese border, so any side road apart from the main highway needs a permit. We've been told that the area beyond Rangkul is prohibited altogether, but we decide to go as close as possible until we're turned down by a military check point. Arriving in Rangkul we stop and just see a deserted watchtower but no gate or fence of any kind so we keep going, at which time somebody far away comes waving and yelling at us. We fake not to see him and carry on, bringing us along the Chinese border with very fine views of Muztagata (7400m) in China, knowing that we will ride down the road just 10 km away in China a few days later.

Finally we reach a military camp and a gate guarded by a soldier. He's very surprised to see those funny guys in this restricted area and doesn't quite know what to do, so he runs away to fetch the commanding officer. He arrives wearing sweat pants, sneakers and a lose sweater and instead of lecturing us on restricted areas he gives us a warm welcome, telling us to ride into the camp for a cup of tea. There are only 11 people manning what was used to be a big soviet military post, at the time when the relations between the Soviet Union and China were very bad.

And with the tea comes a plate of very tasty fried pieces of meat, and the officer explains us proudly that this is from a Marco Polo sheep. And indeed he shows us the whole severed head with the long curly horns. So much for protecting an endangered species, but what can you do against bored militaries? But I have to admit it's the best meat I have eaten for 3 months!
Before leaving, he gives us a piece of paper where he’s written something for his colleague down the road in Rangkul, probably (it’s in Tajik) telling him that we’re nice guys and he should let us go without hassle. Good for us, because as we reach Rangkul, the soldier who was waving at us a couple hours ago is now standing in the middle of the road with his Kalashnikov well in sight. No way to ignore him, so we stop and he leads us to his officer, this time wearing an impeccable suit with shiny shoes. He gives us the bad eye and starts yelling at us but we immediately show him the paper, and after careful reading he lightens up and become almost friendly (but still a bit pissed to realize he’s function is totally useless as a couple funky bikers just pass through his guards without any problem). He must be the only one military that we’ve crossed (and we’ve seen a lot in all those check points) really believing in his function, but his soldiers of course don’t have a clue what they’re doing here in what seems the end of the world.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Back in Khorog over the main highway, on a very slick asphalt but the wide valley is just a bit boring. We register our visa (22$ each, thank you) and immediately leave by taking the third road out of Khorog to Ishkashim all the way south, that marks the entrance to the magnificent Wakhan valley. We prefer to overnight in a village next to a hot spring and sanatorium, Garm-Chashma. We stop and ask a guy on the road for a place to sleep, and (not surprisingly) he immediately leads us to his place, a very nice house up the village. A very nice typical Pamir house with a well-crafted ceiling in the five-pillar room. He insists heavily on giving us some food, although it’s only early afternoon, and then leads us to the hot spring and to a mineral water spring. Somehow that was a bit suspicious, and we’ll find out later that he’s actually running a guest house, and asks us 17$ each for the stay, which is way overpriced (the usual price is around 6$ for a night and 2$ for a meal). But as we haven’t discussed it beforehand, we don’t argue and pay what he’s asking for.

We keep following the river (and therefore the Afghan border), which is now named Wakhan. Across the river is a narrow stretch of Afghan territory, that leads all the way to China, called the Wakhan corridor, designed by the British and Russians when they split up the region in the 19th century as a buffer between their respective empires. This means that Pakistan, where we eventually want to go, is a mere 15km away, but quite far indeed as one would have to cross the Hindu Kush range, with its 6000m and 7000m peaks. As a consequence also there is no direct border between Tajikistan and Pakistan.

After chatting on the way with schoolchildren (practicing their English) and farmers in the fields (fluent in Russian, but unfortunately it doesn’t help), we try to get some petrol, not knowing where we could then get some. So we buy what’s probably the most expensive petrol in the whole central Asia, at a bit more than 1 Euro per liter! Next day we stop over at another sanatorium next to another hot spring, Bibi Fatima, where I hope to cure my cold. Tough luck, this spring is supposed to improve woman fertility, so I’m not sure what is the effect is on us, except that my cold took another few days to get rid of.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Pamirs, at last!

The day we leave Dushanbe is actually the day where the daylight and the night are each exactly 12h long. That means for us that by 17h we need to find a place to stay as we don’t ride at dusk. That also means that if we’re camping, then we need to eat before 18h and spend at least 12h in our tent waiting for the sun to come back (and the temperature to get warmer). Not as pleasant as Mongolia, where we had time to put up the tents and eat dinner, and go to sleep at sunset. Also, the nights at 4000m in October are quite a bit colder than in Gobi in August, so we’ll try to find home stays as much as possible. The downside of course is that we’ll miss some privacy and quietness in the long run.

There are two roads to go to the Pamir from Dushanbe, the traditional M41 highway, and a new road, longer but that avoids a high pass so is open all year around. We're going to face much higher passes later in Pamir so there's no reason not to take the “official” Pamir highway. We took it easy, and by the second day we hit the Panj River that marks the border with Afghanistan, and becomes later the Amu-Darya (formerly known as the Oxus). This part of Afghanistan is inhabited by ethnic Tajik people as well, and indeed they live in the same kind of Pamir houses made of clay. The only difference between the two sides of the river seems to be the infrastructure: paved road bordered by electricity poles on the Tajik side, a mere donkey trail for the Afghans.

We cross many small villages on our way, and as soon as they see us coming everybody is turning around and waving at us, so we spend our time waving back at them (when we can free a hand). Of course, the kids are running toward the road to see us drive by, as if it was a Tour de France stage. Strangely they also sometimes throw rock at us, or more probably fake to do so as I’ve never been hit by one, so I guess it’s more of a game to see if we would react by ducking.
In Khorog, the Pamir capital, we stopped to register our visa, as we were told, although not sure if we have to deal with the police or with the militaries. After asking around, we find the office.. which is closed on Saturday, not to open before Monday.
Now instead of staying in that little town that’s just boring, we decide to ride up a side valley (Shakh-Dara) which turns out to be one of the prettiest of the whole trip. The sun is shining (as it will during our whole trip in the Pamir) and the temperature is perfect, around 25 degrees. The road is very nice, paved only half-way so the upper part is good dirt track, unencumbered by remains of asphalts. The tree leaves are now turning bright yellow and the farmers are busy harvesting wheat in the fields, often by hand with just ox and donkeys to help them. As we stop in mid-morning to rest by a nice waterfall, the nearby farmer drops his work in the fields and asks us to stay there until he’s back. He returns from his house carrying bread, jam, yoghurt, dried fruits, etc.. all this with a large smile and much interest for us. With a few words of Russian we manage to tell the basics of who we are, where we come from and where we're going (besides the mandatory technical details about our bikes, needless to say).

At night we would stop by a house and ask where we can sleep, and usually the answer would be: you can stay in my house of course. Then they start by giving you some water and soap to wash your hands, before taking you inside and offering you the mandatory tea with bread and butter, often with very good apricot and cherry jam. But this is just the welcome, after comes the dinner, a simple soup with pieces of meat or a plate of fried potatoes with onions. During the day we would just eat alone as they mostly respect Ramadan, but after sunset the men would sit with us and share the meal. The women are eating in a different room with the kids, and serve us. The men don’t help to anything inside the house, it’s the woman (and girls) job. Then they would make a bed, in the same central room, by taking away the low table (or simple table cloth spread on the raised floor) and lay a mattress and cushions. These houses have almost no furniture, but many rugs and cushions to sit on. The next morning when we wake up (usually at the same time as they do, as they use the room for storing a lot of stuff) they serve us the breakfast, tea with bread and butter, and often some very good yoghurt from cow or yak milk, depending on what they have. For us Europeans it's really an extraordinary display of generosity, but so natural for them, and quite a bit embarrassing when they firmly refuse our money if we try to pay for it. We respect this and don’t argue, but try to find other ways to leave some bills.

It would have been a shame to miss that experience, but we crossed several bikers who just dashed through the well paved Pamir highway without stopping to share the Pamir lifestyle. I guess it depends on what you’re looking for.

Instead of backtracking on the same road to Khorog, we prefer to continue all the way up the valley and join the main road over a pass that is overlooked by Marx and Engels (6700 and 6500m; not yet rechristened by the Tajiks as they’ve done with Peak Communism, top of the Pamir at 7400m but out of sight). The road pretty much disappears on the top and we make our way across rivers and big round rocks that are a bit tricky to get through, but always a lot of fun, even at more than 4000m.