Xinjiang & the Karakorum Highway - 2006
Past World Cycling Tour
This ride up the Karakorum Highway was fulfilling a long time dream. I never did manage to ride right to the top of Khunjerab Pass, as I was rousted by immigration police, and had to put my bike on top of a bus to head into north Pakistan. This trip whet my appetite for the high mountains of Central Asia. It introduced me to Xinjiang and the mighty Taklamakan desert, which I rode for a thousand kms. And to the ancient silk road trading city of Kashgar, one of my favourite places.
Most of this ride was in Xinjiang, far west China. But Khunjerab Pass, highpoint of the Karakorum Highway, is the border between China & Pakistan, and I spent about a week in the incredible mountains of north Pakistan. There are areas of Pakistan which might not be safe for foreign travellers these days, but Hunza, the far north, is mostly Ismaili people, and has been a relatively stable area.
If you look carefully, you'll see the border area between China, Pakistan and India is all dotted. This is Google maps attempt to steer clear of the incendiary debates going on about these contested borders, perhaps most notably between India and Pakistan around Kashmir, but also between India and China.
Check out the SLIDESHOW
If you hover over the picture below, you'll see forward/backward arrows for navigating. Click on the slide to open in viewer mode (good to see text when viewing with small mobile screen).
Some of the comments were packaged after my visit, and may no longer be current. I had just bought my first digital camera when I left for this trip. You may note I inadvertently set things up to date stamp many photos (ahem).
Xinjiang & the Karakoram - Route map
I flew into surprising Urumqi, over 3m people, expecting a drab factory city, but found a shining, bustling, modern city core. Some years later, 2 days after I flew out after riding the Pamir Highway, Urumqi exploded into ethnic violence between the mostly immigrant Han Chinese population and the Muslim Uighur people, the traditional inhabitants of vast Xinjiang, at the borders of east and central Asia. Hundreds were killed, and the ferocious security clampdown endures to this day.
From Urumqi, I headed south to the northern fringe of the mighty Taklamakan, the world's 2nd largest 'shifting sands desert', almost the size of Germany. I rode this SW for 1,000kms to Kashgar, the fabled Silk Road entrepôt. It was hot, with nasty winds, and sand blew at times, but I was riding a wide shouldered smooth highway, with almost no traffic - evidence of China's frenetic infrastructure building boom, and perhaps a desire to show 'progress' to the restless Uighurs.
From Kashgar it was south up the Karakorum Highway, realizing a decades long dream. The summit, Khunjerab Pass, is ~4,700m, the border between China & Pakistan. A great ride - although I never made it to the top! The border is considered a sensitive area by the Chinese, so everyone is required to board a bus in Tashkurgan, to Sost in north Pakistan. Well - I really wanted to ride to the top, so got up real early, and started before the check point was manned. I made it to about 5kms shy of the pass before an immigration police truck stopped me and took me back to Tashkurgan, where I was questioned for several hours (very professionally, it seemed to me) before being told I had sure better take the bus the next day, and let go with a warning (ahem - this broke one of my usual traveling rules, which is to always stay on the good side of officialdom).
(continued after map)
Pakistan can be an iffy place to travel, but I was only heading into the far north region of Hunza, where most of the people are Ismaili, not part off any of the violent movements wracking the region. Stayed a few days in Karimabad, in the shadows of mighty Mt Rakaposhi - an incredibly beautiful and friendly place.
Then one of my longer bus escapades, as bike and I bussed back to Tashkurgan, then to Kashgar, and then all the way to to Korla - basically retracing my steps (see dotted line on map). Got 'adopted' by a family on the long final bus stint to Korla, who must have noticed my apparent ineptitude. They ensured I was well fed and that staring kids were chased away.
To cap off this amazing trip, from Korla I rode up and over the majestic Tian Shan Mountains (~4,400m) back to Urumqi by an almost deserted dirt track. Glorious, as I was real fit by this time. And made all the more memorable as much of the time I had no certainty I was even going the right way.