A Ride in the world’s most scenic mountain road, The Karakoram Highway
Give me a beautiful crystal cup and I will fill it with tea. Give me a happy moment and I will carve my face with a smile. Give me a picture and I will write a thousand words to describe it. Give me a good bicycle and I will ride for thousands of kilometers away from home. Give me stunning sceneries and I will write and share my thoughts… my thoughts and ideas, which comes from an unknown source, a mystery to us all the creations. And give me time, strength and good health, and I will fulfill one of my childhood dream, to ride my bicycle in the Karakoram Highway. Riding my bicycle in the Karakoram Highway has long been my wish list for years. And now finally, I get to do it. I finally now managed to turn my dream, that has been long playing in my imagination, to a reality, to the “right here and right now”, to the present time, when the physical body and the soul is connected to the realm of space and time… and feel it with all my 5 senses, when it reach the “now” before it passes like the flowing water in the river, before it becomes history, before it becomes nothing more than a good memory.
Karakoram highway has a long history. It is part of the route of the ancient Silk Road that connects China and Middle East and Europe. And Karakoram Highway, it connects Kashgar on the Chinese side all the way to Islamabad on Pakistani side. The history goes long to a thousand years ago, where caravan always passed by here, crossing into the highest point of Khunjerab Pass, the border of China-Pakistan and in this pass, which sits at 4700m altitude, these caravans usually were robbed by bandits. I wonder how it feels like, been traveling for months and months, carrying spices, silk and so many other goods from Xi’an, China heading towards Baghdad of Babylon (now Iraq) which will take another few more months to reach, and suddenly you get robbed by bandits who are hiding deep in the mountains of Karakoram and the Hindu Kush, and lost everything you carried for months, in only a day. Karakoram Highway is known as the most scenic mountain road in the world. It has been my dream to push the pedal of my bicycle here, flying free like a bird here, watching the magnificent views from the saddle of my bicycle, and camp in the beautiful mountains, sleeping peacefully under the stars. At least this time, I could do half of this road, on the Chinese side, from Tashkorgan to Kashgar. Sadly, the remaining 100km on the Chinese side, from Tashkorgan to Khunjerab Pass (Sost) is forbidden for cyclists at the time of writing. The Pakistani side, from Khunjerab Pass all the way to Islamabad, I will complete that part some other time, since this time I don’t have the visa for Pakistan.
This is the first time on this trip I cycled with someone. The Spanish will ride with me all the way back to Kashgar. But we are all on our own pace, because to keep up with someone else’s pace is tiring. That’s what we are, humans. We all have our own pace. Each of our heart beats at a different rate. Some of us are slow some are fast. We are all unique. There’s nothing wrong with that. We left Tashkorgan quite late since it was cold, we started to push our pedal at around 11 after a good Tajik breakfast in Tashkorgan. The ride was good at first before the headwind started to slow us down. Once the headwind came in, we both were fighting hard to keep going forward. After a few hours, the gravity also joined the wind to slow us down even more, which took us 2 days to reach a mountain pass at over 4000m altitude before the road turned to be easy for us. To me, the wind is harder to fight compared to a big climb. From my experience, fighting the strong headwind in the steppe of Kazakhstan and Mongolia is much harder compared to big climbs in the Lower Himalayas and the southern ring of the Tibetan Plateau.
The sun was shining fiercely but the wind is cold. When we camped in the mountains of Pamir on the first night, I was shocked as it was snowing in the middle of summer here. I woke up in the morning and learned that Susan, the Spanish cyclist couldn’t sleep the whole night, struggled in the cold and she felt jealous to hear me snoring happily from my tent the whole night, sleeping so well in the cold. I pity her but I guess she can take it well, shes a traveler. The hardship and pain of today is always the strength of tomorrow. I’m used to it, sleeping inside my tent at around -3 or -4 celcius is okay even with my lousy sleeping bag, which is as thin as a toilet paper. When I went out from my tent, I discovered that my tent was covered with thick ice and the surrounding hills were filled with snow. But it was beautiful under the soft, pale orange colour morning light. We then approached by a Tajik sheepherder who lives nearby, behind those hills while packing up. He offered us breakfast in his home and we accepted. We then had breakfast with the Tajik family and later a few truck drivers joined us. Language is a barrier but I could understand them a bit, speaking with them combining English and some Chinese and Russian was fun. These truckers were heading towards the Qolma Pass, the border crossing that connects China and Tajikistan, a few kilometers from where we were.
Once we reached the mountainpass which sits at over 4000m, I felt like Im back in Tibet. The air is thin here and I felt that my lungs need more space and my body needs more oxygen. I told Susan that if she snap a photo here, share it with her friends and tell them that shes in Tibet, everybody will believe her. The landscape is exactly the same, the sand, the colours, the altitude, everything. But to me this is more beautiful. To me, Karakoram and Tian Shan Mountains are more beautiful compared to the Himalayas. Himalayas is overrated and filled with tourists, everybody wants to trek the Himalayas. These mountain range on the other hand, is mostly untouched and definitely less traveled. After the mountain pass, it was a good ride down from 4200m all the way to about 2500m altitude, constantly overlooking the beautiful peak of Muztagh Ata in front of us. We reached Karakul Lake, a small high altitude lake that sits at 2500m altitude with a beautiful view of the surrounding snow mountains of the Pamir.
It was amazing to see so many cultures here in Xinjiang, just a few hours before, we have been surrounded by Tajik people, but once we reached the lake, we are surrounded by the Kyrgyz. We had a good lunch and dinner here with the Kyrgyz, who welcomed us with their smiles, tea and bread. I think I understand the Kyrgyz more since I visit this place. These people who live in the surroundings are the real Kyrgyz, more real than those in Kyrgyzstan itself. They speak pure Kyrgyz, they never consumed alcohol since it is prohibited for the Muslims. They don’t understand a word of Russian. It is so different here compared to Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan, even deep inside the village, they still mix Russian and Kyrgyz words in their everyday communication. Some of them consumed alcohol and the lifestyle is a lot Russian. Now I finally understand how the real Kyrgyz life is, without being influenced by the old Soviet of Mother Russia. We then found the best place to put our tent, closed to the water overlooking the Muztagh Ata and other surrounding peaks of the Pamir behind those fresh water. Susan camped a bit far from me, wanted to feel alone like I usually do. She finally went to sleep early since she didn’t sleep the night before struggling in the cold. Day is long here in summer, sunset is almost midnight and the sun rises only 6 hours later.
I watched the sunset in awed, the light of sunset is often magical especially with this kind of breathtaking sceneries. I slept well after the sun was hiding behind the Pamir Mountains. I woke up in the middle of the cold night at around 3am. When I unzipped my tent, I saw something heavenly, my eyes turned wide and the feeling of sleepy has gone once I saw the majestic, vast and heavenly ring of milky way in the night sky, standing proud above the peak of Muztagh Ata. I decided not to continue my sleep, but took my camera out to film it instead while enjoying my hot tea watching this great view. “Heaven must be somewhere out there”, I told myself. Watching this kind of view always reminds me of “Asma ul Husna” a word in Arabic which basically means the attributes of the creator/source of the universe.
While watching the milky way for hours, I remember having a good discussion about the universe with a Polish traveler not so long ago while I was on the road. He believed that the universe has not been created, yet it was always exists, back to the infinity. The universe was always there. There was no beginning. I told him that the infinity doesn’t exist in the realm we live now. Its only a concept. If the universe doesn’t have a starting point, which has infinite history, we would never exist by now. Imagine you are a soldier who is about to fire a shot. But before you pull the trigger, the soldier behind you has to fire the shot first. And he has to wait for another soldier behind him to do the same before he could do it. If this goes back to the infinity, you will never pull the trigger. The same goes that the 21st century has to happen after the 20th century has gone. And 20th century can only happen after the 19th century passed. If it goes back to the infinity, then the 21st century will never happen, and all of us will never exist. The universe has to have a starting point. And some suggested me that the universe was being created by itself, which is again out of logic. If it wants to create itself, it must have the intention first. And to have that intention, it first must exist, so that it can have the intention to create itself. The universe does have a starting and ending point, and only something eternal that has no starting or ending point can have the power to create. The creator can never be compared with its creation. Not even like comparing the land and sky. Understanding the creator is out of the capabilities of the human mind. Many tried to really understand the secret of the universe and its creator but failed. They soon realized that the whole universe is too big to fit inside our human brain. Only our human brain can fit inside the vast universe…
After hours watching the heavenly milky way, the sky slowly turned bright. Some parts of the sky has been lit by the sun, yet the sun was still physically hiding behind the Pamir Mountains, giving very special colours to the surroundings. This is a very special time of a day. This is the time where healthy people wake up, since the frequency, the energy from the universe at this time can only be absorbed when the body and the soul is connected. And the light from the sun has different wavelength at this time, scattered, since it has to go through almost 30% more area of atmosphere and larger particles in the air before it reaches our eyes, giving very special colours, and most photographers/cinematographers will go out and dream to get great footages at this time… and this is also the time where Muslims perform their first prayer of the day… I kept sitting outside my tent, enjoying the transformation of night to day, while slurping my hot coffee slowly, without rush. Watching both the sunrise and sunset in the same day, is always a complete day for me.
Camping in this lake is the highlight of the ride from Tashkorgan to Kashgar for me. After we packed up, we then rode back fast towards Kashgar, riding easily about 100km a day since the road is mostly going downhill from 2500m altitude all the way to 1100m altitude in Kashgar. Going slowly towards the lower altitude, the land changed into brown again, we slowly get ourselves back into the Taklamakan Desert. It gets hotter and hotter the more we rode towards Kashgar in the north. But we saw more people, more cars and trucks, more fruit stalls at the roadside selling delicious melons, apples, grapes and even ice creams. I felt satisfied once I reached Kashgar again. Not only I can celebrate it with good food, but also I’ve done 2 of my wishlist, pitching my tent on the shore of Karakul Lake watching the peak of Muztagh Ata and cycle the Karakoram Highway, even though I only cycled on the Chinese side.