“Mister Swiss you have big problem… very big problem”
“Ah indeed, how can we solve it?”
“No, no you need to go back. Big problem, big fine you know! ”
I’m standing opposite a border guard two years younger and about a head shorter than me. We are smoking Winston cigarettes that I bought for situations like these. Smoking always helps when dealing with officials. I try to look as casual as possible while inhaling the smoke in this thin air.
The scene was surreal: me standing on this muddy piece of land a bit more than 4’000m over sea level. The first border guard had not caught that I had overstayed my visa by one day. The second one did and saw of course the possibility to earn some dollars.
But let the story start at its beginning.
After the rough roads through the Wakhan and Zorkul that I had passed together with the three French cyclists I had to catch up on some rest. The "city" of Murghab had an interesting touch to it. A post soviet vibe difficult to describe. Maybe some pictures can tell the story better.
A highlight was the bazaar that is build out of shipping containers and the backs of old soviet trucks.
We actually hoped to charge up some of our electric devices after being off the grid for some time. The city has an intact power grid but there is actually no power coming to this place. So everybody operates a generator to power the light and TV between 7pm and midnight. The only problem with the place we stayed was that the generator was broken.
I’m normally self sufficient concerning power since I use the hub generator in my front wheel to power up all the electronic devices I carry around - but this only works when I’m cycling. After two days I had no juice left and was forced to cycle on ;). I know, I know, this is a very first world problem.
When I had absolutely no more electricity left, François and I set off for the highest part of my journey so far - the Ak Baital Pass. The road was good, the weather fair and we rolled on with the goal to do the pass on the first day. But it should not be. After sixty kilometers I was lying on the ground and could not make one more pedal stroke. Heavy stomach cramps and severe diarrhea incapacitated me completely.
Luckily, it went as fast as it came and the next morning I could cycle on but felt exhausted for some days to come.
The pass was actually very easy. The road was in good shape and only the last three hundred meters of altitude were not paved. The descent was a nightmare though. Washboard roads and bad road conditions in general. Somehow we made it to the last village in Tajikistan called Karakul next to the salty Lake with the same name.
There is this story about a man who lived on an island in this lake: Due to the remoteness of this place he did not realize that the second world war was finished until the summer of 1947.
Another cool thing (I think): the highest sailing regatta in the world took place on the Karakul lake in September 2014.
Anyway the lake has one problem - mosquitos. So we were happy to sleep in a hermetically sealed guest house.
The following day we started for the border. The ride was mainly uphill and over two other 4’000+ meter passes. Due to the fact that I had been ill the days before I arrived a day too late at the boarder. I knew it, but did not really care.
There is a saying in Central Asia: If it didn't work - you haven't tried hard enough.
With this in mind I made a deal with the border guards and could eventually (after three hours) leave the country for a fine of about 30 USD. Of course they pocketed it themselves but I was in no mood to take a taxi back to Murghab to pay the official fine and then return. The money would by all means land in the wrong hands.
From the Tajik border the street leads over another pass and then through 25km of Kyrgyz land before you arrive at the Kyrgyz border checkpoint. A few kilometers after the pass heavy rain started pouring. I had not faced rain for quite some time. The unpaved street turned quickly into a mud river and we were soaked within minutes.
Now I realized what it means when people tell me that Kyrgyzstan is a much greener place. To be green, water is needed and water is what I got as a welcome.
The border guard was not particularly interested in checking our bags since the wind swept the rain under the shelter where he would normally check the bags. So within five minutes we passed the border and cycled on towards Sary Tash an important silk road hub in the area.
We slept in a guest house where we caught up with Claire and Jeremy, two French cyclists who had been cycling a day ahead of us. The following day we dried all our belongings and celebrated Claire's birthday.
From here on, my way took me east while the French bunch cycled north towards Osh and then Bishkek.
The day I went towards the Chinese border was dominated by wind and rain showers. For most of them I found shelter either inside a yurt or in the camper of a German guy who passed by and pitied me.
The road proved to be spectacular. It twisted along an old moraine and offered a good view into the valley and the adjacent mountains.
After a very windy night in which I had to re-pitch my tent multiple times - because the wind ripped out the pegs - I continued to the Kyrgyz - Chinese boarder. As expected, the Kyrgyz side was simple but the Chinese wasn't.
It was the first border where all my bags where checked thoroughly and the guys went through all of my camera, phone and laptop. The whole procedure took about two hours. I also had to go through multiple scanners. So did my bicycle.
From the border I had to take a taxi into the next bigger town called Ulugqat. Luckily the driver I got was friendly and a border fixer (a person who helps you with the border formalities) joined us as well. He explained me how to deal with the customs people and the multiple checkpoints along the way.
For his help I invited him for dinner that day and made me taste the local food. It was actually noodles with vegetables and meat in Uighur style. I enjoyed the new kind of food which I appreciated even more after the relatively simple kitchen of the weeks before.
In Ulugqat I was allowed to stay in one hotel only - the Foreigners Hotel. Fun fact: I found some bugs, for example in the phone receiver. However, they did not seem to work anymore. I also realized a lot of police in the streets. At every corner there were at least two police women or men.
From here on it got only worse. I knew that Xinjiang was an oppressed region but it was tough to see how much. There where some native Uighur people in the police force but they only had bats. The Han Chinese were the ones with the guns and the more militarized weapons. Also checkpoints on the road to Kashgar were very frequent - to be precise every 15 kilometers.
It did not take long for me to fall in love with Kashgar. The mix out of traditional Uighur and modern Han China fascinated me. The only thing I could not bear was this constant police presence. Whenever you want to enter a shop or a hotel you have to go through a complete scan. It was also obvious that local Uighur Chinese were treated worse than the migrated Han Chinese.
But then I have to admit that the Han Chinese brought a twist to this cuisine that made me overeat every single time I was going out.
Kashgar's most famous place is the night market. Here you can eat whatever you wish: from all the different parts of every animal to some delicious vegetarian food. Below are some samples.
Another highlight in Kashgar is the live stock market that is held every Sunday and attracts every creature on four feet within a radius of 50 kilometers. The treatment of those animals is not very kind but the vibe in the air is brilliant. Every time a potential buyer is bargaining with an owner, a crowd forms around them and is following the procedure very carefully. The voices and tempers rise until both are more or less happy with the price and they shake hands to fix the deal.
After that, the crowd disperses instantly and the new owner gets the animal.
Whenever you visit Kashgar make sure that you do so on a Sunday!
For those who are not able to come here I will tell you the story of Dolly the sheep and how she experiences the market. Enjoy!
There is also a huge so-called Sunday market. Despite its name, the market is open every day but really kicks off on Sundays when half the city is there to buy whatever they may or may not need. The other half of the city is of course on the life stock market ;).
I’m actually very sad to leave China for Pakistan. I think there would be so much more to discover. I put it on my bucket list. The only problem is - this list is already very long.
Stay tuned to hear more from my second high mountain traverse - the mighty Karakoram Highway that takes me past some of the highest peaks in the world!