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.


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