The Pamiri Dance: Dushanbe to Khorog (Tajikistan)

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Fall in the Pamirs

Air travel is a strange adjustment when you have been used to cycling for so long. What would normally take a few tumultuous months is over in a stale few hours. I flew from Delhi to Bishkek, spending as little time in chaotic Delhi as possible. Marcus and Kirsty had told me about a small haven for cyclists in Bishkek called the AT House. The AT House is run by a Canadian/Bulgarian couple, Nathan and Angie. I heard that Nathan was an excellent bike mechanic, which was perfect considering I needed to have my two wheels rebuilt with new rims sent from the UK. My Indian steel beast of a front rim had miraculously made it through the Himalaya, but now it was time for another that weight less than half as much. I had only planned four days in Bishkek, before I would fly to Osh to meet my Danish “sisters” – my very good friends Marianne and Heidi, whom I first cycled with in Tibet in 2011 and later Patagonia in 2013. From Osh, we would start Westward on the Pamir Highway. This was the original idea, but the Central Asian bureaucratic machine had begun to thwart my plans. Before leaving Delhi, I received a photo of this notice from a fellow cyclist through Facebook:

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The original plan was to leave on the 13th from Bishkek, but now I had no choice to wait in order to get my visa. The AT House was a great place to pass the time and meet many other fellow touring cyclists.

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Good times in Bishkek at the AT House

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Master French chef Timo dishing out his latest creation

I met people from the UK, New Zealand, Italy, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. We were lucky enough to have a keen French chef, Timo cook for the masses of us. Perhaps the most interesting of all the guests staying at the At House was Miss Emma Trenchard, who drove from England to Kyrgyzstan on her Vespa Grettle. I am not sure what is nuttier – cycling through Tajikistan’s rough Wakhan Valley or riding a Vespa. Emma is the kind of person that I think woke up one morning and thought “maybe I’ll drive to Kyrgyzstan today.” I loved hanging out with this crazy and awesome woman.

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Emma on her Vespa, Grettle. www.emmatrenchard.com

Soon, the 15th of September came and my friends and I crossed our fingers that the Tajik embassy would reopen so that I could get my visa. When I arrived, to my dismay, there was a new sign saying that the embassy would be closed until at least September 30th. This was terrible news for me and my friends, who had no choice but to leave Osh without me as they only had limited vacation time. It was upsetting as we had planned to meet up and cycle together almost a year ago. I immediately I had to form a plan B. I had no desire to wait in Bishkek another two weeks and winter was fast approaching. Also there was no way that I could missing cycling the Pamirs. I decided to fly to Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, where I could get a visa on arrival at the airport and cycle back towards Bishkek. This would mean skipping Uzbekistan, but I would be able to cross paths with my friends. To get the visa, I ended up having to pay $50 for a letter of invitation. Once this was done, I bought my plane ticket and was off to Dushanbe on September 22nd.

In Dushanbe, I stayed with famous Warm Showers host Véronique and her son Gabriel. Many cyclists that pass through Dushanbe stay with Véro to experience her legendary hospitality. Surprisingly, I was the only cyclist there and in summer months she has hosted up to 22 people at once in her home. She is the coolest mom ever, taking her young son Gabriel on tour with her, who is now nine years old . They have done several adventurous trips together, including the Pamir Highway, that he cycled at age 8. Surely, he must be the youngest in the world to have done so and what an incredible achievement.

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The amazing Véronique and Gabriel. Seriously, how many 8-year-olds can say they have cycled up to 4655m?

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Véro’s equally awesome cat, Jack

While I greatly enjoyed staying with Véro and Gabriel (and her awesome cat Jack) I kept my time in Dushanbe brief as I only had a 30-day visa. Part of my route in Tajikistan required a GBAO (Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) permit to travel a particular region of the country that bordered Afghanistan. The Gorno Badakhshan province encompasses 45% of the land area of the country but only 3% of its population. In the past there have been clashes with region and the Tajik government as it has tried to declare independence from the rest of the country. After one day, I obtained the permit and headed east for my next set of mountains – the Pamirs.

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Walking on the hills above the river

It was late September and Dushanbe was surprisingly hot. It was close to 30 degrees when I pedalled out of the city. I knew that I was heading into the Pamirs late in the season and I expected cold weather most of the way. Hints of autumn could be seen across the landscape. Hillsides were turning golden brown and leaves shone a vibrant yellow in the sun. As I started to climb, the air grew cooler and cooler. Fall has always been my favourite time of year to be outside. The traffic just outside of Dushanbe was minimal and gradually began to disappear.

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Tajik girls and their colourful outfits

Tajikistan is a muslim country, with many women dressed in long loose dresses of wild patterns such as tiger stripes and clashes of bright colours coated in sequins to match to match their headscarves. I got many friendly waves and “hellos!” with the odd stare of disapproval from the local men. Tajikistan is a former state of the old USSR and Russian is widely spoken, along with Tajik and Pamiri in Gorno Badakhshan. My Russian was rusty at best and used a combination of the few words I knew, my phrasebook and gestures to communicate.

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At the end of the day, I found a scenic campsite that required a considerable amount of effort to get in and out of, because it was at the bottom of a steep hill. When the sun dipped low, shadows helped to highlight the gold in the surrounding hills. I could see men on horses leading their herds of sheep along the river below. The evening was pleasantly cool. It was a peaceful scene and peering my tent door and I felt content to be on the road again.

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From Dushanbe, there are a choice of two roads to Khorog – the rougher northern route or the southern route, which most vehicles take.  The northern route suffers from rough road conditions but has the benefit of no vehicles and outstanding scenery of the Western Pamir. The remoteness gave me a thrill that I hadn’t experienced since Mongolia. It was a special feeling indeed to be alone in such a dramatic setting, devoid of people. Very occasionally a small village would appear with a dusty general store stocking over sweet fizzy drinks, Snickers bars and instant noodles. I got my first invitation for tea, “please come in, mister” a shopkeeper said. I guess my androgynous cycling look was working out.

Onwards through the desolate land, the mountains got more dramatic and copper red hues started to appear to match the sandy road.

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Loving the remote and traffic free road through the Western Pamir

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The only real traffic on the road

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Enjoying the silence and presence of the mountains

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I soon started to pass some police checkpoints. I didn’t particularly enjoy the company of the officers who would look me up and down, linger too long over my passport and immediately enquire about my husband (who was ahead in Khorog because he cycles too fast, of course) and the children that I didn’t have (tough to come up with a story for that one).

When I got to Talvidera, I went into the only restaurant in town and met a fellow from South Africa with the coolest job ever – working for an organization for the conservation of snow leopards worldwide. He was visiting some of the protected areas in Tajikistan on this trip. Unfortunately, he had never seen a snow leopard himself. Through his work in wildlife conservation he had travelled to 65 countries. When I told him of my plans to cycle from Cairo to Capetown, he said that Cairo had the worst traffic out of all 65.

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Leaving Talvidera, I soon followed the contours of the river along a rocky, copper hued road. I eventually left its curves and climbed my way into a small village just before the start of the climb to a pass at 3252m.

I passed by some small houses and I suddenly I saw a young girl run out to the road and yell “chai! chai!” Chai is the word used for tea and refers to a general offer of hospitality. She was adorable and I couldn’t say no, so I stopped and followed, pushing my bike. At first, I wasn’t sure if the young girl had informed her family of the offer she had extended to me, because they seem surprised to see me arrive. But within minutes, big smiles grew across their faces and I was ushered into a room where a group of local women sat. They were clustered around a carpet with an an absolutely enormous spread of food.

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Tajik hospitality. The little girl on the right in front invited me in to the home.

Bread, sweets and fruit were offered to me. Even without a common language, we had a lot of laughs. With smiles, funny gestures, pointing to my map, miming cycling on rough roads, using my phrasebook and writing out each others ages we had conversation for an hour.  Also my “magic letter” in Russian was used for the first time (thanks to my friend Dimitri in Canada for translating!). This letter explained who I was and talked about my trip. Of course, the “conversation” can only stretch so far and sometimes it can feel a bit awkward afterwards.

In the end, the family offered that I stay with them inside after inquiring about using my “palatka” (tent). The girl that invited me in was absolutely fascinated with me and sat about a foot away watching me intently as I wrote in my diary.

It wasn’t the most restful sleep because many people moved around throughout the night. I had breakfast with the family and offered them money in the end for my stay. I am always unsure of this as I didn’t want to mean any offence or change the original intention – but they happily accepted. In this situation I always felt like I wasn’t giving enough for the amazing hospitality I was continually receiving.

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View on the climb…

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and the descent…

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The climb to the pass was challenging, but with wonderful views. The descent was even more impressive, but what a bone shaker! I can only imagine the difficulty ascending from the other direction. I passed a view signs along the way warning of unexploded ordinance/landmines in the area so I made sure not to wander off the road.

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I think the message was pretty clear…

I had another military checkpoint and more pointless lingering over all the various colourful visas in my passport. I can only imagine how bored these guy must be. After looking at my passport the soldier picked up a card and made a phone call.  “Oh god, what now?” I thought. But I had a bit of a surprise. When I arrived in Kalaikhum that night, a man waved to me saying “homestay, homestay!” and I checked into a comfortable room and had an amazing hot shower. When I entered the room, I saw a business card tucked into the door frame. I have a good photographic memory, and saw that this was the same card that the soldier had used to make the phone call. So it seemed that the guy wasn’t there to just waste my time, but to insure that I had a place to stay for the night.

The kindness of the Tajik people shone through the further I travelled, even though the repeated “hello! hello! hello!” from the children got a little bit tiring.  And then, amongst all the excited children, I heard “chai?” and stopped. A woman was inviting me into her home and I happily accepted. I had expected the customary tea with nan (bread), but then she said in English “hungry? we have…eggs!” And I was treated to more than just eggs.. a hearty egg and potato stew, fresh tomato salad, a big bowl of pomegranates and apples, fresh yogurt and loads of bread. What incredible people!

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The amazing family that fed me the world’s biggest lunch

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One of the teenage boys (not in the photos) could speak a few words of English and enjoyed practicing with me. When I would finish anything, they would just keep bringing more. I will continue to be humbled by experiences like this and as result feel the need to give back to others in the future.

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Afghan homes

Leaving Kalaikhum I was following Afghanistan, just on the other side of the Panj river. Some children would yell and wave to me, giving me a tiny taste of a country so feared by the West.

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Afghanistan across the river

I rode by a parked jeep and heard a guy yell “are you Tara?” It was Don, who was from my home town of Toronto, Canada on a short trip through Tajikistan. He had met my Danish friends, Marianne and Heidi in Murghab about a week ago. They had told him to look out for my yellow bike and blue hat. It was great to hear from them through Don and it got me excited for our brief reunion in Khorog, now only a three day ride away. I camped on some terraced land hidden behind trees and boulders that night, trying to stay out of sight from the neighbouring village. I waited until darkness to pitch my tent, working on my rear wheel that had gone slightly out of true. Two local boys found me and stared at me for about half an hour. Eventually one came down with a wrench and asked if I needed it for my bike. Then they tried to get me to come with them but I insisted that I was OK to stay where I was to keep working. It was very nice of them to offer their help. Eventually they left and I was alone.  I was somewhat cautious, because I had heard stories of cyclists camping in this area and being woken up in the middle of the night by military. This was to make sure that the cyclists were indeed just cyclist and not unwanted visitors from Afghanistan. Luckily I didn’t have any 3am wake up calls and slept soundly.

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The mountains grow in size

The following day I had a run in with two soldiers toting AK-47s. When they motioned for me to stop, I groaned to myself dreading unwanted hassle and a lengthy passport check. But the only thing they wanted was a photo. So after figuring out the most photogenic position for the gun, the other soldier took this gem.

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With two more days to Khorog, I was getting very excited to see my friends. Although I had been enjoying myself immensely, I sometimes missed having the company – especially after riding with Marcus and Kirsty in India for over a month. But with my pleasant daily encounters with the kind people of Tajikistan, it was hard to be lonely.

I met the world’s kindest man. Even if there are others kinder than this one, he definitely had the world’s kindest face. He had a smile that radiated deep into his eyes and the creases of his face when he spoke.

He invited me to sit outside his home with him, bringing out several different types of bread, tea and unbelievably delicious homemade butter. He told me about the many cyclists that he had met – mainly from Germany and France (I was often asked first if I was from either of these countries). He had a daughter in Dushanbe and was also a grandfather. Once he had lived there, but instead preferred the natural beauty and peace of living in this part of the country.  We gazed across the river while sipping tea. “Afghanistan.” he said, in a tone of fascination. Sitting and watching life unfold slowly across the river in a strange land was a sight that I don’t think he tired of. I really enjoyed my time with this man – his calm and welcoming presence brought me great joy. His is a face I will never forget.

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Meet the world’s kindest man.

By now, autumn was at its most dramatic, revealing spectacular colours on the trees lining the road.

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Autumn in all its glory

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Friendly children just outside of Khorog

And the mountains reached higher and higher into the sky…

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I covered the final 66km to Khorog at a quick pace, excited to see Marianne and Heidi and take a day of rest. I was lucky to have an intense tailwind pushing me along. This was definitely a big benefit of travelling east from Dushanbe – so far I had tailwinds the whole way! Khorog is a highly educated city in Tajikistan and I could tell because instead of just constantly shouting “hello!!!” they kids now said “hello, how are you? What is your name? What is your name?!” And no matter what answer you gave them, they would just keep shouting the same questions over and over.

Getting into town, traffic suddenly appeared, which was something I had forgotten about altogether in the past week. I started towards the famous Pamir Lodge, where I would meet my friends. Going up a hill in that direction I suddenly heard Marianne yelling “Taaaarraaaaaaaa!” I quickly stopped and saw the two of them coming up the hill towards me. I cruised down and gave them both a massive hug. Marianne, the crazy camera woman had the Go Pro out, documenting our reunion. It was so great to finally see them.  I originally met these two on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum while trying to form a group to cycle Tibet in 2011. We joined again in 2013 to cycle from Puerto Montt, Chile to Ushuaia, Argentina via the Carretera Austral.

Flashback to Tibet in 2011 – from left, me, Heidi, Marianne and Gigi, our Italian companion

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Patagonia 2013. We become the “hermanas del mundo”

At the Pamir Lodge, I met Australian cyclist Adam and Michael from the USA. Both were on long trips. I knew about Adam because he was the “go nowhere champion” of the At House in Bishkek, remaining there for 34 days. Just for fun, Angie and Nathan had a list going on a whiteboard of the cyclists that had remained in Bishkek the longest – usually waiting on visas or mail. After hanging out and chatting, it was time to explore Khorog.

I had read about an Indian restaurant in Khorog – the last place I would expect to find an Indian restaurant. The three of us decided to go there for dinner. When we entered the restaurant, we said a large group of women around several tables pushed together. It seemed like there was some kind of event going on, but we were seated anyway. We ordered food and all of a sudden, without warning, some Tajik dance music started blasting through the speakers. Most of the women got up from the table, yelling out loud “wooo wooo!” and started clapping and dancing. It was a birthday party. They were having a great time. The music was quite fun and very catchy. Marianne and I started moving in our seats with Heidi sitting and laughing us. The women noticed our rhythm and invited us up to dance. How could we say no?

So Marianne and I went up and made a fool of ourselves with Heidi documenting the whole thing (The embarrassing video is being edited as I write this). As ridiculous as I may have looked, I had great time. The ladies particularly enjoyed mimicking my dance moves (I’m that good). Then, we were invited to join the feast.

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The party! Marianne on the left looking very happy with what’s in front of her

This spread of food was like something out of a Hollywood movie (I talk about food a lot, don’t I?). It looked like enough to feed 50 people. Later, we left the restaurant grinning from ear to ear, laughing and dancing around like the music was still following us. It was the perfect reunion.

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Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Ain’t No Road Rocky Enough… : A Voyage Through Spiti and Kinnaur, India

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The reality of the roads in the Spiti Valley

“A road so bad even goats avoid walking on it” is the description given for the 30km section between Chattru and Batal in the Spiti Valley. It was our first full day of cycling in this region – so at least it couldn’t possibly get any worse. It didn’t and I can’t remember many roads in my cycle touring ‘career’ that have been equally as bad. Even with my travels in Mongolia, it made its way into the top three.

The road from our camp to Chattru was quite rocky and steep in sections, with the odd riverbed to push across. It was strenuous cycling, and with Kirsty’s health worsening, she concluded that it was too much for her to ride. Also, I have learned that on rough roads, the difficulty of riding is increased considerably with a tandem. She decided to take a lift to Batal while we continued to ride. She definitely chose the right section to do it.

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The Spiti highway

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We passed tiny houses and locals on the roads with their herds of goats. A few motorcycles passed us on the road and we could see that they were struggling themselves to stay balanced on the rocky terrain. We stop for a lunch of watery paneer curry and dal and rice, before starting the notoriously bad road to Batal.

For the first 10km, I think we felt overconfident, because we concluded that the road was rough, but no where near as bad as people had made it out to be. We had quite a few river crossings that were shallow enough to put the bikes in their lowest gears and charge across, while fighting to steer over the large rocks. I found this section quite fun. But I spoke too soon, because it got worse – A LOT worse.

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“the road is basically a riverbed” – an accurate description by a French cyclist we had met in Ladakh

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Marcus getting it done

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me navigating the river/road

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…and then it became a boulder field

The smaller rocks on the road eventually grew into boulders and across these boulders were rushing rivers. We would attempt to ride against the current uphill before it no longer become possible and I was almost dumped sideways, soaking my feet in the freezing waters. These road conditions quickly went from amusing to exhausting and aggravating. A truck drove by us and took pity, handing over a bag of dried fruit and nuts to help fuel us. The last 8km to Batal was like riding over a rock beach. As Marcus exclaimed “they really saved the best for last.” A few kilometres from town we passed some road workers and when I stopped, I didn’t unclip from my pedals fast enough and fell sideways. I am sure the sight was quite comical – that’s how tired I was. One guy took pity and pushed my bike for me through the construction site. Luckily, Marcus was ahead and missed my embarrassing fall.

It Batal, we were happy to see Kirsty and heard that she had an adventurous ride of her own. At one point their vehicle got stuck in a river and they were there for a while trying to haul it out. Not an easy road for anyone. We were exhausted and slept in the basic guest quarters at the only dhaba in Batal. The turquoise lake of Chandra Tal was on the agenda for the next day.

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View from the road to Chandra Tal

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The journey was as inspiring as the destination

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Chandra Tal (Moon Lake)

Even though it was only 16km to Chandra Tal, it was a tiring ride with my legs heavy from the previous day. This lake is a detour off of the main road that came highly recommended in my bible, Himalaya by Bike. I loved the unusual pink hues of the mountains to compliment wavering strands of silver on the dried riverbed. The lake itself was a lovely turquoise, but the real attraction here was the backdrop. After some pushing up and over a steep hill, I found possibly the world’s greatest camp site. I can’t really remember any (and I’ve had many) that were quite that beautiful. When the sun began to set, it cast a heavenly ray that framed one side of the mountains.  This single, extraordinary beam of light reaching out and illuminating the valley floor is a sight that will stay with me forever.

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heaven on Earth really exists…

Along with the many highs we were experiencing riding in the Himalaya were the ongoing battles with illness. I had to keep a certain pace for India because I had a flight booked out of Delhi to meet some friends to cycle the Pamir Highway. Although we didn’t feel too rushed, it wasn’t enough time to stay anywhere for a week and fully recover. I didn’t want Marcus and Kirsty to feel rushed to accommodate my schedule. While Marcus and I had mainly recovered, Kirsty was still suffering from bad amoebic dysentry. She decided to catch a jeep to Manali and recover because riding the strenuous roads of Spiti would be unwise in such poor health. We made a plan to rendezvous in Shimla at the end. We were both very sad to see her go.

Backtracking on the Chandra Tal road we eventually reconnected with the switchbacks headed up towards the Kunzum La at 4590m. This would be the highest pass we would cross in the Spiti Valley.

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Marcus scaling the Kunzum la

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…and me behind…

The road was unsurprisingly rough with some steep sections. Pressing down hard on the pedals while trying to coordinate my short breaths, I sometimes went slower than walking pace. But when I got to the top that view was worth every forced pedal stroke.

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View from the top

The extraordinary colour palette of Spiti revealed itself on the descent. I haven’t seen so much pink in a landscape before. It was so unusual it looked like a setting in a surrealist painting.

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Pink rocks on the riverbed

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The rocky descent rattled our brains and were relieved to finally reach Losar, check into cheap accommodation and eat a massive meal. As usual, I ordered too much, but finished it all – french fries, momos and Tibetan noodles (thenthuk).

From Losar, the average quality road suddenly felt like a highway compared to what had ridden the past few days. We passed one village with one tiny restaurant where I saw the cutest rosy-cheeked children.

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Children just outside of Losar

We were treated to more wonderful mountain views and passed Tibetan style villages.

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Tibetan style homes in the Spiti Valley

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Monasteries could be seen perched high in the cliffs above.

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There were a view short sections with road construction. One of the workers had an excellent work ethic, blasting Indian dance music from his machine. We nicknamed it the “disco tractor” and it drove slowly in front of us for about a kilometre, giving us both a good laugh. It had surprisingly good bass. We needed to reach Kaza that day in order to obtain an Inner Line Permit before the weekend to travel onward as the road would pass very close to the Tibetan Autonomous Region in China. We took a day off in Kaza catching a lift the next day to Ki Gompa, one of the most famous monasteries in Spiti. On the drive up we passed some road workers fixing a small section. Our young driver told us that these people are only paid about 300-400Rs per day ($5-7). No one wonder none of them ever seem to be working very hard.

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An Iconic image of Spiti – Ki Gompa

We are lucky to catch the mid afternoon prayers at the monastery. My first experiences at Buddhist monasteries were in Tibet in 2011 and I always found the deep, raspy chanting to be hypnotic. Most of the prayer sessions I have seen used similar patterns in the sound of the chanting and use of percussion instruments at various points. This one was more elaborate – at one stage the monks put on strange conical hats and golden tiaras. When this happened we noticed that some of them were unable to keep a straight face.

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Morning prayers – Ki Gompa. Photo by Marcus. http://www.shesnotpedallingontheback.com

On our monastic tour, the next was Tabo gompa. En route we passed some very small villages, one with the world’s tiniest shop.

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Through that door is a tiny shop

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Marcus can barely fit inside the world’s tiniest shop

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The monastery in Tabo is noted for being the oldest continuously operating Buddhist enclave in both India and the Himalayas, founded in 996 AD. We stayed in the traveler’s dormitory. Morning prayer or puja, began at 6am. Although there were no funny black and gold hats this time, it was still enjoyable to sit and listen to the voices interlocking in their chanting. I think we were having a better time than the young monks that were yawning and barely staying awake in the back. Some of the older ones yawned mid chant as well.

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Stupa at Tabo Gompa. Photo by Marcus.

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Ancient frescoes inside Tabo Gompa. Photo by Marcus.

Afterwards, we entered the temples. The dark rooms only became slightly illuminated by cracks of light through the doors or the flickering of a butter lamp. In the partial darkness, you could still make out the elaborate centuries old frescoes of buddhist imagery on the ancient mud walls.

We rode a surprisingly smooth road to Sumdo, the first checkpoint for the Inner Line Permit. We passed a tiny army canteen where a friendly soldier brought us delicious samosas and some tasty bright orange pretzel shaped sweets. Here we are about 2km from China, the Tibetan Autonomous Region. “That is Tibet, captured,” he said. During the Chinese takeover, some families were divided – some relatives in Tibet and others in India. Now, separated by a closed border it is unlikely that they will see each other again.

We ride onward to Nako village past through more areas of road damaged by landslides.

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pushing through the mess

These are an ongoing threat in the Spiti and Kinnaur valleys, with unstable scree slopes threatening to wipe out roads and bury traffic at any moment. We eventually pass through a tiny “one horse” town called Chango with local women in the colourful Kinnauri dress.

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After a tough climb we reach Nako, a town in an extraordinary location.

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Nako

On the way up we meet Karl, a 68-year-old Swiss cyclist that had first cycle toured in India in the 1970s. We would cross paths several times over the next few days, enjoying lots of good conversation. His love for cycling was inspiring and I hope to be doing the same when I reach his age.

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Village clinging to the green springing out of sheer rock

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On the descent from Nako – green life fighting outward from the rock

We drop down from Nako and pass a friendly army post that is set up to provide travellers with chai (a little too sugary) and snacks. It is run by a very well dressed man that greets passing travellers by the road. The day ends in a small village called Spillow after a dusty ride through many sections of road construction.

From Spillow, the plan was to push on towards Sarahan to visit the Bhimikali Hindu temple. The road from Spillow is pristine and paved, but we know too well that this will not last. Sure enough, the familiar rocks and sand reappear 20km later. Our plan to reach Sarahan is thwarted when we come across an unexpected detour. A new power plant was being built in the area and the drilling for the pipelines last summer caused a landslide that destroyed the main road below. As result the diversion took us up 600m in elevation and an extra 15km out of the way.

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Quite the detour…

The steep switchbacks are lined with ditches of marijuana and curious monkeys gawk at us before quickly disappearing when we notice them.

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local greenery

When we finally get back to the main road, I think we maybe moved 7km since the start of the detour. With our original plan thwarted, we settle in the village of Tapri for the night. Now, the area has started to feel more “Indian” – colourful saris become a more common sight and the fly population has increased, along with the traffic.

The Kinnauri roads are a massive feat of engineering. It boggles my mind that someone could just look at a vertical cliff face and decide “let’s blast a road through it.”

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Insane roads in Kinnaur

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The heat and humidity is starting to feel more oppressive and I already miss the cool air in the high altitude. In Jeori, we hitch a lift up to Sarahan, not in the mood for another 800m of climbing. The Bhimikali Hindu temple was tranquil place to relax with its nearly empty grounds and peaceful setting.

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Bhimikali Temple

We wanted to get a early start the next day for the climb up to alpine Narkanda. Ahead of us was a 37km climb that would take us from 900m back to 2800m.

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The green of Kinnaur

While Marcus suffered from a poor night’s sleep due to a backpacker snoring in the temple dormitory, I must have been tired enough that I heard nothing whatsoever.

The air grew heavy in the heat and was tiring but we were making good progress. The climb to Narkanda was unrelenting for the entire 37km, but we both felt strong and were reaping the benefits of cycling at extreme altitude on rough terrain for so long. 110km and 12 hours later we hit the India ski town of Narkanda -surely the Whistler of India? We got a room that was more “posh” than usual and had a massive dinner – a little treat for all the effort!

It was an easy ride on a busy road to Shimla, the end of the Indian Himalaya ride. In 1864, Shimla was officially designated the summer capital of British India. The town is ruled by monkeys and they see people as a major inconvenience. At our guesthouse I was told not to leave my laundry outside because the monkeys would take it.

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“This is our town”

I only had one night in the town and was taking the famous ‘toy train’ down the mountain from Shimla to Kalka and then another onwards to Delhi to catch my flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

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Shimla’s famous toy train

This was the end of the Himalayas. We cycled over 1500km and climbed somewhere in the realm of 30,000m. We celebrate with pizza, beer and various baked goods along the street. I was very disappointed that Kirsty was not with us. She would take a bus from Manali to meet Marcus the next day when she felt more up to the long journey as she was still trying to beat the sickness. I was really lucky to have such awesome riding companions on this epic journey full of so many highs and lows (mainly highs). But I’m not finished with these hills yet. The Himalayas still have their hold on me and I hope that my two wheels will travel its roads once again.

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“Heroes” of the Himalayas

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The Highest Highs and the Lowest Lows in Ladakh

5328m. The Taglang La pass was beckoning us out of the comforts of Leh. Even after a few days rest, all three of us still felt weakened from sickness. At the point it was hard to know which food was really safe to eat. Still, we decided to try to cycle a short day to Thikse gompa, which according to my guidebook was an “iconic image of Ladakh.”

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Thikse Gompa

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Monk, Thikse Gompa

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View from Thikse Gompa

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At the top of Thikse Gompa

In Ladakh, Tibetan culture is colourful and thriving. During the cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and ’70s,  Buddhist culture in Tibet experience a massacre – 1000 year old scriptures burned, monasteries reduced to rubble. Because the provinces of Ladakh and Spiti remained a part of the Indian union, Tibetan buddhism in this region remained protected. As a result, this extraordinary part of India has monasteries that have been untouched and preserved for up to a thousand years.

Thikse gompa was an impressive sight. We climbed to the top, from where we had amazing view of the valley and mountains in the distance. Inside of the rooms were fascinating statues including a gigantic gold Buddha.

Inside of a temple there was one terrifying statue of a god (I think?) that had many arms. Supposedly this creature represented anger and sometimes the emotion would become so intense that it would consume itself. Leaving the temple, we later camped at the base of what looked like an abandoned shrine. Barren mountains surrounded us, defined by the shadows being cast from the fading light. I slept well that night, hoping to feel more energetic the next day.

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Camping just outside of Thikse

I woke up the next morning feeling worse that the previous day. I knew from experience that it wasn’t altitude sickness, but my stomach and it continued to protest. On the way to Lato, we stopped at a small Tibetan restaurant. I asked for tsampa – a popular Tibetan breakfast of ground roasted barley. It wasn’t on the menu, but the owner dug through some cupboards, coming out with a large bag. I asked for milk, hot water and sugar to have with it. While I thought this was a safe meal, sure enough my guts paid for it again later.

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On the road to Lato

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The road carved its way along a beautiful river valley surrounded by wild, jagged rock faces and coloured rocks.  Small Tibetan style houses were spread out along the river. We reached Lato, barely a town with a few guesthouses and gorgeous areas to camp. We decided to stop here for the night and had a wonderful campsite. The stars that night were something of dreams. The three of us sat outside of our tents gazing intently at the clear streak of milky way, awestruck. The experience of a Himalayan night sky – the silence and the billion tiny balls of light against the darkness cradled by the mountains is unforgettable.

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Camping in Lato

We ended spending two extra days in Lato, which really wasn’t such a bad place to be stuck. Kirsty had a worrisome headache the first day and we had decided to play it safe. We knew that once we had crossed the Taglang La we wouldn’t be descending much below 4000m. If you got altitude sickness, the only way to get to a lower elevation would be to go back the way we had come or over another high pass in the other direction. In Lato we ate our meals at a cozy little guesthouse where we had Tibetan noodle soup called thukpa, along with the staple of dal and rice. There, we met another Scottish couple touring on a tandem, along with some Polish backpackers who had some panniers made out of cheap school backpacks to go with the bikes they had picked up in Delhi. It was their first bicycle tour and they were doing remarkably well considering the difficulty of the route.

The day we had planned to leave the guesthouse it was raining like crazy – a horrible cold rain and we could see that the Taglang la was shrouded in cloud. We decided that it wasn’t the most ideal weather for trying to climb a 5000m pass and ended up waiting one extra day.

Finally, the day came. We left Lato and headed towards the Taglang la. The weather was perfect and clear. From Lato the road continued to climb and climb. We got many thumbs up from passing motorbikes. I had seen more motorcyclists on this route than any country I had previously visited. Many were riding Royal Enfields, part of the legacy left by the British.

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Ladakh woman spinning Pashmina

Passing a small town about 8km from Lato called Rumptse I suddenly felt transported back to Tibet with the high altitude desert scenery all around and white washed houses. We passed a Ladakh women walking around spinning Pashmina by hand. As the air grew thinner, I started to adopt my high altitude breathing pattern of two quick breaths in, two quick breaths out. I had cycled over 5000m before, but this was with a support van in Tibet and I wasn’t carrying any of my own gear. With 35kg, it was a challenge. Once you get over 5000m, sometimes you can feel like you are barely holding on. And that’s how we felt.

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“almost” there! Only 24 km…

The headaches crept in and I felt so fatigued that I could barely think. There was an ultramarathon race taking place on this route (yes, seriously) and we met one of the support cars on the way up, but no runners. Since it was the end of the race the guy had all sorts of supplies to offer us – Snickers bars, peanut butter and a kilogram of sports energy drink. During this whole interaction I felt so out of it that I couldn’t even get excited over free peanut butter. I could barely get out sentences and felt like I was drunk. This is what high altitude does to you. If not taken seriously, it can be dangerous. But we would eventually descend low enough that it wouldn’t be an issue.

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The rigours of the climb taking its toll on all of us. Marcus taking a mental break…

The last 10km were hell. The last 500m felt like 500km. Then, the prayer flags! This time I didn’t get the usual excitement and surge of energy. I felt like I barely made it. Kirsty and Marcus were a bit ahead and I eventually caught up. We were all beyond wiped from the climb. We were almost too tired to appreciate the stunning scenery all around.

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“Unbelievable, is not it?”

At the top there is a sign claiming that the Taglang la is the 2nd highest motorable pass in the world. Supposedly the highest is the Khardung La Northeast of Leh at 5359m, with an incorrect sign at the summit saying it is 5602m. These are dubious claims as there are some roads in Tibet that are supposedly higher.

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View from the top of the Taglang La that I was almost too tired to appreciate…

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We took some photos, made sure to get one of the classic sign and then concluded “Let’s get off this f***ing mountain.”

One of the greatest rewards of a strenuous climb is the exhilarating descent on the other side. Well, the descent from the Taglang La was far from it – slow and rough. With all of the rattling, I wonder for a crazy moment if the climbing was less torturous. Eventually, we reached Debring –  a small “village” of parachute tents. All along the Manali to Leh highway are temporary settlements consisting solely of these parachute tents. Inside, they offer basic bedding and food. They are around usually from late June to mid October before the harsh winter arrives and the highway is closed until the following summer. In Debring, we decided to camp by a lake and had a dinner of momos (Tibetan style dumplings) noodle soup and omelettes.

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camping in Debring

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The next morning I felt so exhausted from the previous day that I could barely cover the 40 something kilometeres across the flat Morei plains to Pang. But the stark and beautiful scenery helped to ignite the senses and give me enough energy to pull through.  I was beginning to understand more and more why the Manali to Leh highway is considered one of the best rides in the world. The one drawback, however, was the amount of truck traffic on the road – more than I had expected. Also, the obsession with honking. But crossing the vast Morei plains there were barely any vehicles at all.

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Morei Plains

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Then, just before Pang, we came to a stunning river gorge lined with hoodoos.

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Descending into Pang

The town of Pang itself was quite filthy, but had a great parachute tent scene. Despite feeling terrible and low on energy, I still hadn’t lost my appetite! While Marcus and Kirsty were still battling sickness on and off themselves I was often ordering too much food and finishing theirs as well.

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Chilling out in a parachute tent in Pang

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The parachute tent scene in Pang

We spent the afternoon hanging out in a parachute tent and ran into some young British cyclists that we had met earlier. They were fast and full of pep and were sensible to be carrying half of what I was. Outside of the tents were a few bicycles and many rows of motorbikes.

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Motorcycling is immensely popular in the Indian Himalaya

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Crawling up the Lachlung La

_DSF3358  The next day, my health had a complete turnaround. I felt incredible. I can sincerely say that this day was the highlight of the India tour so far (maybe even of my entire tour). The first pass of the day was the Lachlung La at 5077m. Then. at the start of the descent, my jaw dropped at the scenery ahead and stayed like this for the rest of the day.

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Tara India

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Climbing the Nakeela

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Descending the Lachlung la

After a brief stop in a tent dhaba in Whiskey Nallah for some of our beloved ginger lemon and honey tea, we set out to climb the next pass, the Nakee La.

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Truck on the road towards the Gata Loops

After the pass, another treat lay ahead – the famous Gata Loops, which are 21 switchbacks. We were lucky enough to be descending them. Before we reached this point, we zoomed downhill through more epic landscape. It set my heart racing and I felt so tiny and overwhelmed in its presence. I thought to myself, this is why I bike tour and this is when I feel the most alive. _DSF3416
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The Gata Loops

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End of the Gata Loops

Racing down the Gata Loops was a lot of fun and from the top we had wonderful views of the river valley in the fading light. We camped that night and it was one of the best campsites we had in India so far (this was going to be topped in Spiti). The intense stars prolonged the magic of the day and I fell asleep with a deep satisfaction of what I had just experienced.

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View from our tents

The next day had a whole other character. It did start off with an amazing 20km to Sarchu. We passed another beautiful river gorge with wonderfully textured mountains all around. Really, I think I am running out of adjectives to describe Ladakh. In Sarchu we had a second breakfast of our beloved Maggi instant noodles and an omelet. Maybe too many noodles for me. While Marcus and I felt fairly strong, Kirsty was still suffering from the sickness that I had  finally managed to shake off. She had been on and off for a about a month and it was becoming concerning. These roads were challenging enough in perfect health. Leaving Sarchu, we cycled into a terrible headwind on a road that went from bad to worse. We had plans to cross the Baralacha la pass, but with the conditions this was becoming less and less of a reality.

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Ascending on the rough stuff

Today the truck traffic was especially heavy, sometimes with barely enough room for two to get by on the perilous roads. We ran into a traffic jam that was almost comical – two trucks on each side of a blind corner high on a cliff driving almost side by side, towards one another and then trying to pass. When they came to a standstill, we said “have fun with that one guys” and snuck by with clearly the vehicle of choice in an absurd situation.

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Back of an Indian truck – as if they needed to be reminded…

The road was really terrible – lots of loose rocks. We knew there was a parachute tent village called Bharatpur just below the Baralacha la and we decided we would spend the night there. A cold and unpleasant rain began and Bharatpur still seemed so far away as we were uncertain of the exact distance. We were thrilled to arrive and spent the night in a very cozy tent dhaba. This one was larger than usual with wood beams in more of a triangular house shape. We sat around the tables and wrapped ourselves in blankets, eating chips and drinking milky coffee. We didn’t move for about a hour. We didn’t regret our decision as the weather turned frigid. We met some freezing Italian motorbikers that said it was snowing on the pass. Clearly we made the right decision to stop! We slept in the main restaurant with bedding and about 3 huge blankets each. After dinner, I dozed off with an Indian version of American Idol playing on the TV in the background.

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Morning. Time to ride the last pass on the Manali to Leh highway. The weather had improved significantly, but it was still quite cold. We loaded up on omlettes and pranthas (a tasty, thick fried Indian flatbread) and set off. The road was still in terrible condition, with lots of short steep climbs that winded us. We reached the top of the Baralacha la at 4890m and then had about 60km of descending. It was cold, so we stopped a lot for photos. As usual, the scenery was mind blowing.

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Descending from the Baralacha la

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The landscape grew greener and greener the more we descended. Suddenly it felt like a different world.

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The return of green

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We made it to Keylong that night – an 85km ride, which was the longest we had ridden in a while. We found a budget hotel, that suddenly felt way too fancy with fast wi-fi. Kirsty and I indulged that night in a delicious butter chicken dinner and Marcus with some kind of chili chicken. At this point, everyone had had their fill of dal and rice.

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Mark and John, two Brits we met near Gramphoo

The following day the cycling was dusty, busy and rather unpleasant. There was lots of climbing on sandy or broken roads with construction. At the end of the day we made it just past Gramphoo, leaving the Manali to Leh highway and turning off towards Spiti. We met Mark and John, two English guys that were camping near the junction. While Mark lives in Tokyo and John in Paris they make it a yearly event to meet up for a few weeks and cycle together. Here are some of the photos that they took while we were there:

India Cycling 2015 Mark (796)

Entering the Spiti Valley

India Cycling 2015 Mark (770) India Cycling 2015 Mark (782)

Next up was the Spiti Valley and the notoriously rough roads. We had met a French cyclist that said one part of the road was like “riding on a riverbed.”

The road from Leh and left me completely amazed and I had heard equally great things about Spiti (aside from the disastrous roads).  One of the highlights had also been the hilarious road signs that are an amusing characteristic of the Indian Himalaya. We would see them on a daily basis. Here are a few.

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Reaching New Heights: Amritsar and the Srinagar – Leh Highway

My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon
I will return again
Sure as the dust that floats high in June
When movin’ through Kashmir

Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”

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Climbing the Zoji la pass, Kashmir

Like the Karakoram highway in Pakistan, the Indian Himalaya had been a dream cycling destination for me for years. When India comes to mind, many people conjure up images of intense crowds and heavily polluted cities. The Himalaya of India couldn’t be more different. In fact, it can feel like an entirely different country altogether. Due to the extreme geography, much of the land isn’t suitable for human habitation. Having now cycled the Karakoram Highway, The Andes, Tibet and the Pamir highway I can say that the Indian provinces of Kashmir, Ladakh and Spiti have some of the most extraordinary mountain scenery I have ever ridden. My 1600km route through this dramatic region began in Srinagar, Kashmir through a region historically in dispute by India and Pakistan.

When I crossed the Wagah border from Pakistan to India I was a long way from the mountains. Like in Pakistan, I was still caught in sweltering August heat as I cycled to the hectic city of Amritsar. At this point I was eager to get back into the hills.

Pedalling into Amritsar I headed straight for the Golden Temple, the holiest temple in the Sikh religion. Out of the crowds and heavy traffic the temple was a peaceful refuge. Pushing my bike through the crowds, I eventually came to the temple grounds. I had heard about a free dormitory for travelers and opted to stay there. As I approached the building I noticed a bicycle with panniers, but not just any bicycle – a tandem! This was the first touring tandem I had ever seen. So, naturally I was eager to talk to the riders. A tandem bicycle is very exotic in this area of the world and many curious locals hovered around and stared at the strange “double cycle.” (the only real Hindi I learned)

Marcus and Kirsty were one year into their two year trip from England, heading eastwards towards Australia.We hung out in Amritsar for the next few days taking in the unique atmosphere of the Golden temple, while battling various stomach ailments – a welcome present from India.

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The Golden Temple, Amritsar

The ornate main temple is coated in 750kg of gold and is surrounded by holy water, where one can take a dip. Crowds of pilgrims with Sikh men in colourful turbans and thick beards glided in and out of the temple complex. When entering the temple, one must cover their head and remove their shoes. Inside of the temple are a group of musicians singing the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy scriptures). It takes two and a half days, 16 hours per day to sing the entire book – and when it is finished,  they start all over again. The tranquil music is broadcast throughout the temple complex adding to the serene atmosphere.

One of the most fascinating experiences of visiting the Golden Temple is to take part in its free meal service. With over 100,000 people eating at the temple per day, the level of organization is incredible. At the entrance, each diner is handed a metal try and joins the cue of thousands into the eating area. The line moves swiftly and I am directed into a large room with rows of people and their trays in front of them.

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Meal service for the thousands. Photo courtesy of Marcus and Kirsty http://www.shesnotpedallingontheback.com

Once I am seated people, whiz by with buckets of dahl and rice pudding swiftly dropping a ladle full onto the dishes. Next, discs of nan bread are dropped up and down the rows. They even come by for seconds. The most intriguing part is the dish washing service. Thousands of trays are washed and tossed back and forth with a rhythm that almost seems rehearsed. The loudest and most unusual orchestra.

While in Amritsar, we also decided that it was a good idea to check out the famous border retreat ceremony at the Wagah border with Pakistan, where I had just come from, 30km away.

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Getting ready for the border retreat ceremony on the Indian side (Pakistan was louder)

At the border, we took our seats in the bleachers, at the “foreigners gallery.” Loud, high energy Indian music blasted through speakers, amping up the crowd. It felt like I was at a sports match.

Through the border gates in the distance I could see that the Pakistani side was even louder than the Indian side. In hindsight I should have experienced it from the Pakistani side when I was there. The ceremony itself was a ridiculous show of military bravado between both sides. It was a competition of who could kick their legs the highest or march with the most authority. All of this happening with a loud drum roll in the background and crowds cheering. At the end, the flags on each side of the borders were lowered and the gates shut. While the whole thing seemed like some sort of parody,  it was completely serious. A entertaining way to symbolize the ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan. And they did this every night.

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Who can kick the highest? Photo from http://www.shesnotpedallingontheback.com

To get a better idea, here is a video from BBC of the ceremony.

The heat of Amritsar was getting to me after a few days, which didn’t compliment the assault on my stomach from a suspect Punjab Lassi (even though it was the most delicious lassi I’ve ever had). Marcus and Kirsty were also headed to Srinagar and we all had opted to take the train to Jammu in order to avoid the heat and heavy traffic of the lowlands.

We arrived at the train station around 11:30pm for our 1am departure and it was still stupidly hot. When simply sitting still and breathing makes you burst into a sweat, it is just too much.

Because the train was only stopping for a few minutes en route to Jammu, we had to sprint with our bikes towards the luggage car. We heaved my bike and tandem onto the train before anyone could tell us what to do and ran towards our air conditioned car. It wasn’t long before someone found us and demanded to talk to us about the bikes. Marcus went out to deal with the problem. Because we hadn’t officially booked the bikes, they had threatened to take them off. Really, a worthy cause to hold up a train of over 100 people for 20 minutes…

Eventually they gave up and we would simply have to pay a 1000 rupee bribe (about $15) at the other end for all the ‘inconvenience’ we had caused putting the bikes into an empty luggage car.

In Jammu, I continued to Srinagar via a shared taxi. Marcus and Kirsty had planned to cycle, but Kirsty was still suffering badly from “Delhi belly” and they decided to get a hotel for the night. The traffic was heavy all the way to Srinagar and the roads twisted and turned sometimes hugging the edges of dramatic cliffs. It really tested my tendency for motion sickness and with the insane driving I wondered if I would be safer on a bicycle, being in control of my own vehicle.

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Shikaras in Srinagar – like a water taxi.

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Sunset on Dal Lake, Srinagar

Srinagar is a unique place because of the communities that live on houseboats. Along with staying on a houseboats, you can take a shikhara ride (a small boat) to explore this watery way of life with floating markets. Like in most cities, I was a lazy tourist and instead wanted to spend my time preparing for the start of the Himalayan ride. The night before I was preparing to set off, I was adjusting my front brakes when I noticed a large crack in my front rim.

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Crack #2!

Just over a month ago, my rear rim had cracked just outside of Urumqi. “F***!” I thought. So then I had no choice by to stay another day in Srinagar to find a new rim. I went to Hero Cycles, India’s flagship brand, whose quality of bicycles made Wal-Mart bikes look like Cervélos (sorry if this reference is too North American – it means complete sh*t). I ended up having to go back the next day, because the mechanic was away. I ended up with a big hunk of Indian steel that weighed twice as much of one of my alloy rims. The best part – it only cost $10. I couldn’t take a risk with a poor quality aluminum rim, that looked like it would crack if I stepped on it. The shop only stocked 36 spoke rims and my front Dynamo hub took 32 spokes, so I had no choice but to carry my own hub and spokes and get a whole new wheel. So, armed with more weight, less braking power and the power of steel my bike was ready for the Himalaya (maybe).

My delay in Srinagar ended up putting me on the same schedule as Marcus and Kirsty, who had also decided last minute to take transport from Jammu. On a lucky meeting online, we decided to rendezvous the next day to start the ride together. The next morning, after getting a good laugh at my new steel rim we started out on the road to Leh.

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It was a very hot and humid day up to Sonamarg. For me it was one of the toughest I’ve had so far. The valley of Kashmir was lush and green and so far, fairly populated. This region of India is mainly muslim, with Urdu as the main language (also the official language of Pakistan). This area had a very heavy military presence and we could see many soldiers with AK-47s hanging out on the hills above the road.  It was nice travelling with a tandem, because for once the attention was being taken away from me! We would hear indecipherable words being spoken and all of a sudden “ohhhhhh – double cycle!” Whenever we stopped, a crowd of locals immediately formed.

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“Double cycle!!!”

I was completely exhausted when we arrived in Sonamarg and I guess in a heat inflicted stupor I failed to notice that my front brake had been rubbing on my new rim the whole time (doh! thanks Marcus!).

We had climbed over 1000m that day and would continue to ascend another 800m to the Zoji La pass at 3528m before dropping down to Drass.

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Marcus and Kirsty taking a break on the climb up the Zoji La

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Soft greens morphed into more barren rock as we ascended higher and higher. Today, I was relieved to be temporarily escaping the heat and really felt the lure of the Himalaya. There were still many army vehicles about and soldiers on patrol. We were never bothered, only for photographs.

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Military guys on the Zoji La, armed with their smart phones.

It was also becoming common practice for vehicles to stop in front us and having passengers run out for “just one selfie!” We met more touring cyclists this day than elsewhere in the himalaya. Amongst them were several men and women from Poland along with guys from Ireland, USA and the UK.

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A meeting of touring cyclists

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Polish riders

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Descending from the Zoji La

After summiting the rough but beautiful climb up the Zoji La, we came to a small tent dhaba (parachute tent restaurant) and had some Maggi instant noodles. This would become a staple of our Indian Himalaya diet along with dal (curried lentils) and rice. We descended to Drass and found a friendly little dive hotel, sharing a room for about $1.50 USD each. Drass claims to be the second coldest inhabited place in the world, where a temperature of -60C was recorded in 1995. Hard to imagine when it was in 30s when we arrived. There, we met a Russian cyclist with an enviable, ultra light set up of two tiny panniers. It was only a matter of time before I realized how tough hauling 40kg up in the Himalayas would be.

After the climb up the Zoji La, the road to Leh was in excellent condition. We enjoyed many long, swooping descents to Kargil. En route, we met Zaver from the South of India doing a 5400km ride through the country. At 30 years older than me, he could still ride faster than all of us.

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Having lunch with Zaver on his 5400km ride around India

The heat came back full force again and reached 35 degrees, even at 2700m. Kargil reminded me of Pakistan, with men running about between the fly invested shops in Salwar Kameez and girls in tiny hijabs.

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Girls in Kargil

We decided to take a break from the heat and indulged in several bags of chips and ice cream. We had opted to camp that night, but it was proving to be tricky in this area. Any area that was flat was populated. Also, my invaluable guidebook, Laura Stone’s amazing Himalaya by Bike had advised against camping from Srinagar to Kargil due to the military presence. We eventually found a place barely tucked away off of the road – not ideal and more like a last resort,  but not the worst I had seen. It was nice to camp at night with friends – something I often miss while cycling solo. I was also grateful for Marcus’s mechanical skills to help prevent my steel piece-of-junk front wheel from falling apart. While the rim itself seemed bomb proof, the hub was already rattling loose after a few days. Along the way I also enjoyed learning some British.

Me, preparing dinner: “Do you guys have any or-reg-enno?”

“Any wawt?”

“or-reg-enno?”

“Oh you mean or-ig-ah-no!”

“Uh..yeah!”

Another favourite of mine – Marcus pointing to his bike:

“If the bike was broken I would say, ‘that’s bollocks!’ But otherwise, I would say it’s the dog’s bollocks.”

Me: “Oh, like saying something is the cat’s ass…”

Leaving Kashmir

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We had now entered Buddhist Ladakh and monasteries began to replace mosques. In Mulbekh, we saw the impressive 30 foot tall limestone structure of the Maitreya Buddha. Scholars date it back to the 8th Century.

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8th Century Buddha

Today, unfortunately, it was Marcus’s turn for feeling under the weather. Since we had started cycling together, there wasn’t a single day where the entire group was feeling 100%. The food in India was just not agreeing with us. Still, we decided to push on and climb the Namika La  pass at 3700m. The landscape made me feel like I was on the moon. The descent was incredible – fast and smooth. Tucked low in the valley floor were villages surrounded in bright green – a contrast to the stark beige mountains rising above.

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On top of the Namika la

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On the descent from the Namika La

The scenery got more and more dramatic and hit its peak the following day.

We climbed to the highest pass on the Leh-Srinagar highway, the Fotu La pass at 4108m. As I neared the top, I could see the Tibetan prayer flags. With a rare burst of energy, I surged towards the top. Since I had the privilege of cycling in Tibet in 2011, the sight of prayer flags on the passes always stirs up something inside of me. For me it is reminder of imminent victory after struggle and the spiritual experience of cycling in the Himalaya.

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Iconic image of riding in the Himalaya – prayer flags whipping in the wind

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At the summit we met several cyclists in a group who had climbed up the other way. We met a few people on their first supported bicycle trip from the South of India that had never been at altitude before. They were absolutely thrilled to reach the top. An amazing accomplishment.

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Descending from the Fotu La

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Lamayuru Monastery

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The descent was exhilarating and from there it only got more impressive. In Himalaya by Bike we had read about an alternate route that went high above the valley through Lamayuru, known for its famous monastery. Along this road we would be descending down 17 hairpins called the Jalebi bends – through “the most extraordinary landscape you can imagine” as the book had claimed. With that description, we knew we had to take the road.

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On the high road above Lamayuru

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If you click on the photo and look closely, the tiny speck on the road is Marcus and Kirsty…

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And extraordinary it was. An incredible palette of of oranges, red and purple covered the surfaces of the rock faces. Watching Marcus and Kirsty’s tiny tandem from a distance glide along the road really gave me a sense of the scale of the land we were travelling through. With the road teetering at the edge of cliffs it sometimes tested my fear of heights. We passed some strange cream coloured rock formations that looked like a coral reef. Marcus and Kirsty described it better comparing it to a “giant brain.”

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Me overlooking the “brain”

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This place was a geologist’s paradise. Next were the Jalebi Bends – a truly awesome descent.

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Racing down the 17 Jalebi Bends

At the bottom, we couldn’t stopping talking about what we had just ridden through. For me, it was easily one of the top five stretches of road that I have ever cycled.

With only 100km left until Leh and the lure of good food and much needed recovery, we had ideas of completing the ride in one day. But with our continued stomach problems, we felt too weak and decided to split the ride into two days.

The amount and variety of food in Leh was overwhelming. Pizzas, pastas, shakes, smoothies, Israeli food, Indian food, Tibetan food, German bakeries, muesli and yogurt… it was paradise.

Leh was a good place to recover, even though none of us were able to feel 100 per cent. The battle was never-ending and it was taking its toll. My once large stock of Ciprofloxacin and Imodium pills for diarrhea was quickly disappearing. People weren’t kidding when they said that India was rough on the stomach. We had planned celebratory beer for reaching Leh, but in our weakened states, we lacked the energy. Instead, we ate and ate and ate. From Leh at 3500m we had about 120km to climb to reach the Taglang la at 5330m, the highest pass I would ever cycle (my previous record was the Gyatso La in Tibet at 5200m). With our current health issues, we hoped that we could regain enough strength for the challenge.

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A wise saying on the road…

Leaving Shangri-la: Karimabad to Lahore

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Crossing a glacier from Rakaposhi Base Camp to Diran Base Camp

To really experience the soul of a country’s landscapes, one needs to travel away from the roads. I was enjoying every minute of cycling Pakistan’s incredible Karakoram highway, but my experience was made that much richer by my travels on foot. From Karimabad I cycled towards the village of Minapin, the base for the 2-day trek to Rakaposhi Base camp. Out of Karimabad the mountains continued to soar high above and the road was lined with apricot trees. Being apricot season I took every chance I could to gorge myself on the delicious fruit. Minapin was a small detour off of the main road and I climbed past tiny villages and friendly locals.

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Hiding out in one of Hunza’s many apricot trees

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I pitched my tent in the beautiful garden at the Diran Guesthouse while waiting for my Russian friend Semen that would accompany me on the Rakaposhi base camp trek. The garden was like a mini orchard of apple trees and I ate far too many. I immediately regretted my actions and I lay awake all night with horrible stomach cramps. I got up the next morning feeling far from 100 per cent, but I wasn’t willing to miss the trek.

It was a very hot morning and we started the long ascent to Rakaposhi base camp. The higher we climbed, the cooler the air became. We were surrounding by steep hillsides of small conifers.

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The continuous ascent to Rakaposhi base camp

_DSF2752  On the way up we met several locals from Minapin that wanted to hike to Diran peak base camp – a few hours further from Rakaposhi. To get to Diran, we would have to cross a glacier and to do so technically required a guide. We were lucky to run into these guys, who were willing to take us across. They spoke the Pakistani language Urdu, a tiny bit of English and the local language Burushaski, which has no relation to any other language group.

The bad apples from the previously day were wrecking havoc on stomach and it was a very challenging climb to the top for me. We stopped several times to drink from the icy clear streams and soak our heads. The ascent was continuous, swerving through bits of pine forest and rock cradled by the steep hillsides. As we neared the crest of the climb, our local guides suggested that we follow them up to a particular viewpoint. I scrambled up some loose rocks and what I saw next was nothing short of jaw-dropping.

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It is sight that will be forever etched into my memory. I have seen a lot of extraordinary mountain scenery in my life, but this glacial field was something truly unique.

We continued hiking high above the glacier and then started to descend to a small meadow. Then we could see the base camp, with a view of Rakaposhi – one of the most beautiful mountains.

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Rakaposhi Base Camp, 3568m

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Rakaposhi, 7788m

We set up camp for the night and decided to hike to Diran Peak across the glacier the next morning. We were all well taken care of by other locals and their families camping. We enjoyed some local curries while a bon fire raged in the background. A crowd of locals gathered around yelling and singing in Burushaski, playing makeshift drums made out of plastic containers. I eventually fell into a deep sleep in my tent, the evening songs fading away into silence.

Semen, our local guide and me left Rakaposhi Base Camp around 9am and headed for Diran Base Camp. It was beautiful morning, with Rakoposhi in full view, filling the sky. We scrambled over small fields of boulders before making contact with the glacial ice. Once on the glacier, it was exhausting work scrambling up and down its steep curvatures.

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The many forms of glacial ice

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Rakaposhi in all its glory

Sometimes we had to jump across rushing streams carving a path through the ice. I wondered about the safety of our mission and whether or not crampons would have been useful. The sun was intense, creating a blinding glow. Our “guide” paused often, often walking in circles and we started to feel like he was lost. Later, we learned that new crevasses had formed and the usual path to base camp was no longer safe to cross. With the language barrier, he wasn’t able to explain this to us. This led to a bit of improvisation and we could see that our local friend had grown tired and frustrated. After close to three hours of walking, we reached Diran Peak. We laid out a mat and took a nap on the green meadow under the face of the mountain.

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Taking a break at Diran Base Camp

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All three of us were quite tired at this point and tried to muster up some energy for the return journey.

On the way back we met some people from the previous night at Rakaposhi base camp. They also had trouble finding their way and navigating around the crevasses. My legs grew increasingly heavy and it was tough knowing that we still had a long descent back to Minapin. We arrived back at base camp in the early evening, our guide collapsing onto the grass near his friends. We gave him a few rupees and thanked him. It was a challenging but thrilling experience to cross a glacier. Before our journey back, we were given some instant noodles by a local  – the famous “Maggi” brand that was found all over Pakistan. If we had wanted to stay for dinner, he would feed us also. The kindness of Pakistani people was never ending. We said our goodbyes and started the knee-knackering hike down to Minapin.

We walked at a quick pace, racing against the darkness. We stopped for a break near a stream before continuing the hike down. Half an hour later I noticed in a panic that my camera was not with me. My only thought was that I had left it in the spot where we had taken a break. The light was fading fast and I sprinted back up the steep hill that I had just so happily descended. Some nice local men offered to help me find the camera.Thankfully I found it and ran back down.

At this point Semen and I quickened our pace, our knees taking a hammering with each step downward. We finished the last few kilometers in the dark. finally arriving in Minapin. I was so incredibly hungry that I wanted to eat everything in sight at the first shop that appeared.

A couple of hundred meters further, we spotted the world’s smallest ice cream shop. After such a long day, that bit of soft ice cream was the simplest and sweetest reward.

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From left: me, my hiking buddy Semen and one of our generous hosts Akif with his son Mahd

I spent most of the next day relaxing at Minapin guesthouse, recovering from the trek. I met an amazing family from a small town called Liaquat pur in the Punjab province. My friend Semen and I were invited to spend lunch with them. I had a great time chatting and sharing a delicious meal with Sarwat, her husband Akif and their four children Zahra , Smeet, Mahd and Rebecca. This was muslim hospitality at its finest. In Islam, travellers are given very high priority and are always treated like honoured guests. The next morning was my final cycling day in Pakistan – to Gilgit.

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A kind man fetching me some delicious Hunza apricots near Minapin

The ride to Gilgit was overwhelmingly hot. Only a few kilometres from the guesthouse a local man waved to me, asked if I was enjoying Pakistan and if I would like some Hunza apricots. He climbed a tree and brought me down handfuls. They were a delicious snack in the morning heat. Not very far from Minapin I had a spectacular view of Rakaposhi from the road. I went to a tourist shop to buy a few postcards to mail home to family. They were covered in dust and the designs reminded me of the early 90s – I guess the last time the country had large amounts of foreign tourists. I had a few local men aski to take photos with me – a solo female on a bike in Pakistan is a novelty indeed.

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I stopped many times for cold drinks and felt like I was melting away in the heat. From Gilgit onwards cyclists required a police escort which they would have to pay for themselves. I opted to take a bus to Islamabad and onward to Lahore. The reputation for general unfriendliness towards foreigners in the area and the extreme heat had put me off from cycling it. The closer I got to Gilgit the less dramatic the mountains become, but the scenery was no less awe-inspiring.

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Gilgit itself was a fairly busy place, chaotic in comparison to the Upper Hunza Valley. It wasn’t a place I would want to spend much time in. I went and bought a bus ticket, not looking forward to the 18 hour plus journey that lay ahead.

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Dozer the bike didn’t want to go either…

You know you are on an adventurous bus route when the driver walks on with a rifle and tucks it under the spare seat beside him. Sectarian violence has been an issue in the past in the Indus Kohistan area, between Besham and Chilas and I guess it was a “necessary” precaution. Buses also travel in a tight convoy through this area.

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In the convoy through Indus Kohistan

But the only act of terror on that road was against my stomach.  The combination of sketchy food from the night before and motion sickness from made it a tough journey for me. It led made for a not-so-lovely scene with me getting sick in front of a large group men at one of the stops. Luckily the people on the bus took good care of me, the only foreigner on the bus. They gave me medicine and made sure I had enough to eat. The good road stopped South of Gilgit, and the bus rode like a jackhammer down the Karakoram Highway. This area felt very different from the Northern Karakoram Highway as it was much more conservative. At one restaurant at a rest stop the men sat outside at the tables and they women were seated separately in a small room on a carpeted floor.  This was something I hadn’t really experienced North of Gilgit.

About 17 hours of hell later, I arrived in Islamabad at the ungodly hour of 3am. I had made a contact through Facebook that was going to pick me up when I arrived. I don’t know what I would have done without Shahzeb, who came to the bus terminal in the middle of the night. He told me back to his home, where I met the rest of the amazing Sarwar family. Here, I wasn’t a stranger – I was treated like a daughter. Unfortunately I was sick for my entire stay, and I felt bad that I couldn’t be a more energetic guest. I didn’t see much of Islamabad – that will have to wait for another visit. Next stop was the intriguing city of Lahore.

Islamabad was insanely hot and Lahore worse. Being Canadian, I have much more experience dealing with cold weather and in 40 plus degrees my body almost shuts down. Laziness takes over and all I want to do is remain indoors. This was how I spent a lot of my time in Lahore unfortunately. Though it was a fascinating city, the heat and chaos during the day was too much for me to handle. I did, however stay at a great hostel called Lahore Backpackers. The manager, Sajjad, was one of the most welcoming and generous people I’ve met. He told me that I had arrived on a good day, because it was Sufi Night in Lahore. Not knowing what to expect I went with another guy that worked at the hotel across the city for this event.  The atmosphere was electric. Hash smoke clung to the heavy air, encircling the dense crowd. Sweat poured down faces, people dancing frantically to the rhythm eyes locked into a heavy trance. The drumming was very fast-paced and captivating. The heat was so intense that several boys lingered by with rags to wipe the sweaty faces of the musicians.

The music was intoxicating and its effect took hold of the crowd.

The following night I visited parts of the old city and had a view of the Badshahi Mosque – the fifth largest in the world. Then, it was time to leave Lahore and head to the Indian border at Wagah.

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Badshahi Mosque, Lahore

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Pakistan was everything I had wanted it to be. As a country it offers so much to the traveller and its people and its people are waiting to welcome you. Riding the Karakoram highway was a long-held dream come true. Its people and landscapes have found a special place in my heart and will stay there forever. Out of about 22 countries I have visited, Pakistan is my #1 favourite. One day I will return to this amazing place, Inshallah.

Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway: My Shangri-la

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On the way to Passu, Karakoram Highway

Shangri-la is a mythical place that was first described in James Hilton’s classic 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. He describes a utopia tucked away in the mountains in isolation, where its inhabitants have resisted aging, living years beyond a normal lifespan.  There are speculations that Pakistan’s Hunza Valley was the inspiration for the setting in the novel, where Hilton spent time travelling. Having cycled and trekked through this spectacular region, I think I may have found my own personal Shangri-la.

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Friendly faces of Hunza

A misrepresented country 

Pakistan has long suffered from a poor image in the West. Up until the terrorist attacks of September 11th, many visitors flocked to the region. Now the country struggles to get tourists. During the three weeks I spent in the country, I didn’t once feel unsafe, even as a solo female. Though there are still some unsafe regions in the country, the Hunza Valley is definitely not one of them. The kindness and generosity I received from the Pakistani people day after day was humbling. They wanted to communicate to the world that they are good people and travellers to their country are welcomed guests. I was often asked what I thought of the country and was given numbers to phone if I needed any help. Strangers bought me food and drink and I was welcomed into family homes. This country left such a strong impact on me and I want the world to know that this is not the place that the Western media portrays. The region of Gilgit-Balistan is a paradise in every sense of the word.

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The Karakoram Highway – the beginning

My entry into Pakistan was on a overpriced bus made mandatory by the Chinese government. Since 2008, cyclists have been banned from riding the 200km stretch of no man’s land between Tashkorgan in China and Sost in Pakistan over the highest point on the highway, the 4693m Khunjerab Pass. With the Muslim holiday of Eid just around the corner and a quickly expiring Chinese visa, I was stressed out that I wouldn’t get a seat on the bus. After hours of lining up and misinformation at Chinese customs in Tashkorgan, I finally got my ticket. It was a scenic ride to Sost, that left me itching to cycle it. Sost was a tiny place, and one of the more mellow border towns that I’ve been to. The next day I started my ride on the Karakoram Highway to Passu.

The Karakoram Highway is an incredible feat of engineering and a unique mountain experience for cyclists. Northern Pakistan has the highest concentration of 8000m peaks in the world. Since the road usually doesn’t climb much higher than 2000m, these mountains tower high above, filling the sky.  Riding out of Sost, I quickly felt dwarfed by their immensity. My first day cycling on the Karakoram Highway was bliss and for me, the highlight of the route.

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The road rolled up and down and I passed a few friendly green villages on the way to Passu. I stopped by two women on the road with 2 young boys.Their smiles ran deep into the creases of their faces. They were gathering fresh water from a stream and offered me some mixed with peach juice crystals. It was delicious in the hot weather.  I rode on and the farther I travelled, the more spectacular the scenery became.

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Passu Cathedrals

I was looking forward to seeing the famous “Passu Cathedrals” – a large expanse of barren, jagged peaks. When I arrived in Passu, I explored the tiny, desolate village. There were narrow dirt lanes surrounded by greenery and tiny rock houses. Women in colourful dress walked quietly in and out of sight.

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Passu village

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I really loved the place and its stunning surroundings. I pitched my tent in the backyard of the famous Glacier Breeze restaurant overlooking the “cathedrals”. This was one of those moments where I had to pause and ask myself if it were real. And then came the stars at night – another wonder to behold.

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The next morning I was back on the smooth, rolling road to Karimabad. Today was much hotter than the previous day, which made the ride quite tiring. A highlight of the ride was a the crossing of Attabad Lake.

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Passenger boats on Attabad Lake

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Pakistani motorcycle stud

The lake was created in 2010 when a massive landslide blocked the Hunza River near the village of Attabad, flooding over 20km of the Karakoram Highway. The new highway around the lake was set to open in August of this year. The Chinese have spent the last few years blasting through the mountainside creating a series of insane tunnels. I really enjoyed the boat ride across and the conversation with a few friendly passengers. One younger guy wanted to know all about my experience so far in the country and made it clear that Hunza’s people were laid back, liberal and “different from the rest.” At the other end of the lake I was invited into the world’s tiniest restaurant for a drink and snacks. At first I was unsure if it was it acceptable for me to crowd into this tiny restaurant with a bunch of local men, but I immediately felt very comfortable. I was asked the usual questions about where I was from and if I was enjoying Pakistan. I was offered rides by several people if I was too tired to continue.  After climbing away from the lake I had a glorious descent into the Hunza Valley. The mountains were as majestic as ever.

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Into the Hunza Valley

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I passed the Sacred Rocks of Hunza, which are hundreds of carvings into the these rocks made by travelers since 200AD, when the gorge connected the ancient kingdom of Gandhara (northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan) and the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang, China). A short, but steep and scorching climb followed up to Karimabad. Soaked in sweat I arrived at the Old Hunza Inn, which would become my home away from home in the spectacularly situated town.

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Social scene in Karimabad

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On the hike to Ulter base camp from Karimabad

Karimabad

Some of my most memorable times in Pakistan took place in the mountain paradise of Karimadbad. Karimabad is completely surrounded by massive peaks, some of which are over 7000m. I met several foreign travellers at the Old Hunza Inn from Germany – one was Sarah. another rare solo female traveller in Pakistan.  I also met one fellow Canadian, Karim. From Pakistan I met Hadia, Sarah and Khizer from Karachi, who were students fortunate enough to have a work placement in Hunza. I also ran into my Russian friend Semen that had taken the bus with me from Tashkorgan. He was hitchhiking across the country. All of these people became like family over the next few days. It was here in Karimabad that I also got to experience the festivities of Eid for the first time. Sarah from Karachi turned out to be an expert henna artist and decorated our hands in beautiful designs for the occasion. The following morning we dressed up and had a mini breakfast celebration with the owner of the hotel and his family.

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From left: Karim, Sarah, me, Sarah, Hadia and our hotel owner

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There was also a dinner and music night planned and I was persuaded to stay one extra day so that I could take part. Karimabad was also surrounded by the some excellent opportunities for trekking and I felt like it was great way to further explore Northern Pakistan’s mountains.

I had read in my bible, Laura Stone’s Himalaya By Bike about Duikar, a town 500m above Karimabad where you could have a wonderful view at dawn over the Hunza Valley. Karim, Khizer, Sarah and Hadia had all planned to do the hike and I was happy to join. For three hours we climbed up the spiralling road past picturesque villages in a light rain that provided much needed relief in the heat. It was a steep climb and we were tired and ravenous when we got to the top. I was also reminded that the muscles used for walking and cycling are very different indeed. At the top we found a semi-luxury tent camp near the posh Eagle’s Nest hotel, where the viewpoint was. We had a great time hanging out in our massive tent and enjoyed some absolutely delicious food. I ate probably the best chicken curry in all of Pakistan. We also walked up to the viewpoint at night and had a glimpse of the large expanse of Hunza shrouded in cloud. Dim lights in surrounding villages shone through the mist.  In the fading light, it was a wonderful  sight.

_DSF2604We awoke at 3am to more cloud and unfortunately did not get our sunrise. But the in full light, the view was worth every bit of effort we made to get there.

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View from Duikar over the Hunza Valley

We hiked back to Karimabad to prepare for that night’s Eid festivities. For dinner we had a massive amount of Chicken biryani followed by a custard type desert. Quickly, my friends became aware of my bottomless appetite and any leftovers were offered to me – “Tara will eat it!”

When dinner was over, the common area of the Old Hunza Inn was cleared to make space for the local musicians from Hunza. Many people from the village came to see the band play. The music was strange, almost dissonant – but I enjoyed it. Several different types of flutes were played, a drum and a reid instrument that sounded like a clarinet, but more shrill. Soon the first local man got up to dance. The movements were very simple and precise – strangely graceful. The audience cheered the dancers on and sometimes walked up to them to stuff small Pakistani rupee notes into their hands. Eventually I worked up the courage and joined fellow Canadian Karim in the dance. The music carried on until about 2am. I had retired early (12:30am) because Semen, Khizir and I had planned to trek to Ultar Peak base camp the next day.

It was a slow start after the previous nights festivities (not that festive, Pakistan is a dry country). The three of us started our trek towards Ulter base camp. Eventually the trail crawled across a precarious ridge with the river raging below. With my fear of heights emerging, I stuck as close to the inside as possible.

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This calf was quite fond of us

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After some steep trail and a few rock scrambles we reached the picturesque Ulter Base Camp. The mountain itself sits at 7388m. Still keen to keep hiking we had the idea to ascend higher, where where we could have a better view over Hunza from another small summit.

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Baaaaad idea!

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We paid for our keenness in due time, when symptoms of altitude sickness started to strike. It was another 1100m up from Ulter Basecamp to the top, which would put us at over 4000m – and we weren’t acclimatized. Semen still had the energy, but Khizer and I felt like we had been hit by a ton of bricks. We decided to turn around and head back to Karimabad. This involved a steep scramble downhill back to the basecamp.

The way up to the basecamp had seemed simple enough. But on the return trip we made a wrong turn and ended on a very high trail. The trail soon turned into a faint line overgrown with bushes. It was something even a goat would probably avoid. The width was reduced to less than a foot at some points, with a long vertical plunge to the river below.

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Where’s the trail?

We pressed against the rock face and tiptoed across to rid ourselves of the sensation that we would fall off the cliff. Eventually we agreed that this adventurous alternative route was taking us nowhere, except higher. We carefully backtracked and found the junction where we had taken the wrong turn.

It was a very adventurous day. Back on the correct trail, the walk back to Karimabad was amazing.

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Rakaposhi, 7788m

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Foolishly we changed our plans without telling others, so we arrived back in town about 4 hours later than expected. Our worried friend Hadia had even climbed up to look for us! We were exhausted. But through our wearied faces crept small grins – it was a great day indeed.

Operation Desert Storm: Xinjiang Part 2

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Stormy skies on the long haul to Kashgar

On a long cycling trip, sometimes you get those days where you are just “going through the motions.” When the scenery around you is uninspring, the traffic steady you are merely pedalling to cover distance. On the long haul to Kashgar, I had several days like this. Sometimes it was difficult to stay off of the main highway and I grew tired of the monotonous Taklamakan desert scenery.

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zzzzzz…are we there yet?

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Of course, not all of it was dull.


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I tried to stay on the smaller roads that paralled the highway. These little poplar lined streets were like portals into the past. Leaving the modern highway, I was soon pedalling beside little old men riding donkey carts. These two worlds existed parallel to one another and couldn’t be more different. If was on these backroads, resisting the modern world that one could see traditional Uyghur life unfold.

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special parking

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Leaving Korla I took the old road 317 until it eventually turned into a dirt track, which led me backtracking to the main highway. On the way I stopped for a lunch of laghman, my new favourite noodle dish. The lady serving me insisted that I sit at the back in front of a large air conditioning unit to stay cool. Soon she and few other kitchen staff sat around me and asked me a few questions. Unable to understand I took out my “Magic letter” written in Mandarin:

您好,亲爱的中国朋友,

我叫黛拉,是一个来自加拿大的女孩。骑自行车周游世界是我自儿时以来就有的梦想。我计划分别横穿亚洲和非洲大陆。具体路线是从蒙古到乌兹别克斯坦,然后经开罗骑行到开普敦。这次旅行预计持续18个月,行程2万5千公里。很开心中国将是我这次旅行中的一站。我会特意放慢我的脚步,细细欣赏这东方国度神秘而美丽的景色。

我会向我远在加拿大的朋友及家人讲述我旅途中见闻,讲述我所领略到中国风俗文化, 进述我所遇到的热情友好的中国朋友。

我已随身携带了旅行所需的全部物品,包括一顶帐篷和厨具,因此这次旅行花销都在我的预算范围内。

能够在这次漫长的旅行中遇到你,我的内心倍感激动。但是很遗憾,我无法用中文和您交流。

衷心希望您能帮我,使我的旅程更加安全和愉快。

谢谢,祝好!

黛拉

(Thank you to my friend Ye Huang for the translation)

and in English..

Dear Friend

I am a Canadian cycling around the world. My route is taking me across Asia from Mongolia to Uzbekistan and then into Africa from Cairo to Capetown. The journey will take approximately 18 months and will cover around 25,000 km. I am travelling slowly by bicycle as it gives me time to enjoy your beautiful country.

I am writing to my friends and family in Canada about my trip and will enjoy telling them about your culture and meeting local people. I am able to travel cheaply as I have everything I need on my bike including a tent and cooking equipment.

I am excited to be riding across your country and I apologize for not being able to speak your language.

I hope that you can help my journey to continue safely and happily.

Thank you.

With warmest regards, Tara

After that I was given many more smiles and thumbs up. They asked if I needed more noodles and a second heaping plate came my way. This was follow by a whole watermelon, and another plate of rice and mutton. Even for a starving cyclist, it was too much and I could barely finish it! At the end they refused to accept any payment and gave me another big bag of rice and meat to take with me. I was truly humbled by their kindness and I left that restaurant almost too full to ride, but very happy.

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I think I needed a shower just as much as I needed food…

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The kind people at the restaurant that fed me heaps of food at no charge

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Remote off-roading? No, this is my attempt at avoiding the main highway 80m away.

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dirt track beside the highway – very scenic.

Late in the evening I managed to escape the highway again and ended up passing through a picturesque Uyghur village. Small rectangular homes surrounded by groves of apricot trees lined the road. I asked a local woman if there was somewhere that I could pitch my tent. I was taking a risk doing this as foreigners are technically supposed to stay in hotels every night. She offered me a place in her home to sleep that night. I followed her back to a very cosy little house. There, I met her husband and children. They gave me a bowl of fresh apricots from their garden and a vase of water to wash off. She made fresh laghman for dinner which was absolutely delicious. The language barrier was challenging as I only knew about three Uyghur phrases (and maybe five in Mandarin). The husband knew the word “yes” very well which he used many times. Many Uyghur people can speak Mandarin but cannot read it, so my Mandarin phrasebook was not as useful. Still, we got by well enough through the universal language of smiling and gestures. Later in the evening, I was visited by the Uyghur police. I was afraid that they would make me leave the village but they took photos of me and my passport and went on their way. I had a wonderful experience that night staying with the family.

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My Uyghur home for the night

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Children of the family I stayed with

_DSF2287  Down the road, the hospitality was never ending. One morning I stopped by some fruit sellers to buy apricots. When I said that I wanted five, they motioned for me to sit down and then handed me the whole box to munch on. As I said thank you and stood up to leave, they dumped another full box into some bags for me to take. It was ridiculously heavy to cycle, but I crammed them into my panniers anyway – eating apricots all day.

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I was given a full box to take with me for free!

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I also had many great encounters with the local police. The passport checks were frequent – at least 1-2 times per day. The police were just as keen on examining my passport as they were handing me over giant watermelons and cold drinks. One man came over to talk to me while I was having lunch and insisted on paying my bill. Another invited me into the station and insisted that I have dinner with them. I only had one unwanted encounter with police and even then it was with a pretty relaxed demeanour.

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This kind officer bought me lunch just outside of the city of Aksu

There is certainly a bit of paranoia in Xinjiang. This is felt by the heavy police presence. I also noticed right away that most gas stations were blocked off with barbed wire fences. When I wanted to buy gasoline for my camp stove, I found out that it was illegal for foreigners to buy gas. Even for Chinese citizens, only the driver was allowed inside and the passengers had to exit the vehicle and wait outside the fence. Foreigners were also not allowed to stay with locals in Uyghur villages, because it was deemed “unsafe”. After my first successful night of staying in a village I decided to make a second attempt. This time it didn’t work out so well.

35 km West of the city of Luntai I stopped in a small village in the late afternoon. After eating melons given to me by a shopkeeper and nan (bread) I decided to carry on.  The lady said that I should take the highway because the road surface ahead wasn’t very good. I had no desire to go back to the highway so I said that I would try to continue straight. Sure enough, the road disappeared altogether and I ended up backtracking to the village. At this point, menacing clouds roared over head and thunder crashed. I knew that if I returned to the highway I would be stuck on it for a while. I asked the shop keeper if there was any guesthouse in the town that I could stay in. She said there wasn’t and offered me the use of a dirty old apartment by the store. I was grateful to have shelter from the storm that began to rage, but it was far from relaxing. Some annoying kids gathered around the window, yelling out “hello! hello! hello” and kept banging on the glass. I was worried about drawing too much attention. Right away, I wish that I hadn’t decided to stay. Sure enough, around 9pm, there was a loud bang on my door. Not surprisingly, a policeman stood outside. He told me to bring my passport and camera to the station. I felt very guilty for imposing on the locals. The man took me into the station and sat me down with about six other officers. I gave my innocent naive foreigner look again while they pondered what to do with me. One man spoke very little English and said that I could not stay in the village, but had to move to a hotel. The only hotel was 80km away in Kuqa or 35km back in the wrong direction to Luntai. I was definitely not keen on going backwards, so I lied and said that I would cycle all the way to Kuqa. They insisted that this was too dangerous and would arrange a taxi to Luntai for me. Eventually I had to accept that I would have to cycle the 35km again the next day. The officers were very polite and helpful and wanted to make sure that I would get to a hotel safely. I couldn’t really get upset since I was the one technically breaking the rules. So that night I paid more than I wanted to for a hotel, but it was luxury. I felt like I was paying $30 for a $250/night value back home in Canada.

Despite my run-in with the police, I still camped most of the way to Kashgar, but I had to be discreet. From the ugly city of Kuqa I was cycling very long days – covering around 160km and stopping around 9:30pm to camp. I had some of the most “interesting” campsites to date. One night I found a gap in the barbed wire fenced along the road and ran with my bike towards some hills near hydro towers. It was about 500m of pushing frantically out in the open until I could get out of sight. That night a crazy thunderstorm raged in the distance and I was certainly glad it didn’t come any closer. On my ride across to Kashgar, I definitely experienced some extreme weather. At least once a day there was a short, but powerful thunderstorm. Then, mixed with a sandstorm, created another beast altogether.

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This was actually one of my better campsites.

I experienced several sandstorms on my ride across. Normally riding was possible, covering my nose and mouth with a buff and wearing sunglasses. There was one such storm, however that was too dangerous to attempt to cycle through. Visibility was reduced significantly and the sand became mixed with rain – whipping a sludge mixture through the air at breakneck speed. So I hid under a tunnel for 30 minutes and let the storm pass. After riding through dull scenery all day, it provided me with some much needed entertainment.

After the storm had passed I was able to ride an amazing tailwind for the rest of the day. The wind throughout the ride was very unpredictable, but I was lucky enough to have tailwinds most of the time. I was eager to get to Kashgar, pushing hard through heat and terrible saddle sores that were only relieved by a double daily dose of ibuprofen. The kind people along the way and the delicious food helped to  carry me through. One man gave me a cold green melon that was perhaps the most delicious piece of fruit I have ever had in my life. The sweetness, dripping juice was like medicine in the heat. In my state of fatigue it was hard to describe how good this melon tasted. Even now, its taste lingers.

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Kashgar’s old town

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nan

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I was thrilled to finally be in Kashgar, staying at the Old Town Youth hostel, where my bicycle joined several others. I met many interesting travellers including one from Russia who was also headed to Pakistan (not by bike). I didn’t think I would find anyone else! With the oppressive heat I spent several lazy days hanging around the hostel, chatting to other travellers. At night I visited the lively night market, sampling various types of Uyghur cuisine. I tried many types of kebabs including some kind of testicle, which was surprisingly tasty. I also tried a delicious mixture of yogourt, ice shavings and honey, which my stomach paid for later. More exotic dishes such as goat’s head soup were also available.

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unknown animal parts at the market


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In Kashgar, the Uyghur culture is thriving. Chaotic streets in the old town were crowded with vendors selling fruit, sweets, bread, clothing and other miscellaneous goods. A chorus of men shouting to advertise their various products on offer joined the constant roar of motorbikes whizzing through the narrow streets. I also witnessed the skinning of a goat that had just been slaughtered. Smells of grilled meat wafted through the air. Kashgar was a thriving and fascinating place, if a bit exhausting at times. Unfortunately a lot of the old town has been destroyed in attempt to modernize the city for “economic progress.” Kashgar is also famous for its Sunday livestock market which I was unfortunately unable to attend due to an expiring visa. Kashgar is the official start of the Karakoram highway into Pakistan.

I had a lot of climbing out of Kashgar to get to the mountains again. The first day was extremely hot and after 80km I hit road construction. The road was quite broken in parts and I was eating dust from passing trucks. It looked like a freeway was being built beside the old highway, with some significant bridge construction.

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New super highway?

The mountains grew higher and higher and I finally hit smooth paved road near a beautiful aquamarine lake.

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This continued all the way to stunning Karakul Lake at over 3000m, surrounded by Kyrgyz yurts. The locals were friendly if a bit pushy, with many boys approaching me on motorbikes trying to get me to stay in their yurts. Eventually I agreed to pay for dinner and breakfast in a yurt and pitched my tent near the shore of the lake. The cool temperature was a relief after the scorching heat of Kashgar. I slept very well that night.

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Karakul Lake

The next morning I cycled the final 100km to Tashkurgan over the Ulugh Rabat pass at 3955m. While it was supposed to be downhill most of the way to Tashkurgan, strong headwinds made it a very unpleasant ride. I passed many small Tajik settlements on the way. The border town of Tashkurgan is also mainly Tajik. I met several people from my hostel in Kashgar, including my new Russian friend Semen that would take the mandatory bus to Sost in Pakistan with me the next day. Since 2001, the Chinese have banned cyclists from riding the 200km stretch of no man’s land between China and Pakistan. Because of the Muslim Eid holidays, many Pakistanis were taking the bus and we worried that we wouldn’t be able to get a seat. I had to, as my Chinese visa would expire in two days.

The next morning we got up unnecessarily early to get our tickets, only to find out that Chinese customs would open almost four hours later. I talked to several Pakistanis waiting in the crowd and was already given several numbers to call in case I needed any help at all while in the country. The Pakistani hospitality had already begun. I was relieved when I finally got my ticket. I had butterflies in my stomach as I boarded the bus to Pakistan. One of my long-time dreams would soon be a reality – I was about to cycle the Pakistani Karakoram highway, a truly legendary road.