Entering the Far West of China: Kashgar

Ni hao ma, China!

Our original plan was to travel North through Kyrgyzstan, cross into Kazakhstan and enter China via a Kazakh-Chinese border crossing. But then we heard this crossing is only open in the summer season. As we felt winter closing in on us and heard stories about snow on Kyrgyz mountain passes we made a quick decision. Head straight East from Sary-Tash and enter China via the Irkeshtam pass, towards Kashgar.

China. We have come such a long way. The ‘stans were our halfway point of the journey, and everything beyond is Really Far Away. We just started to get fluent in reading the cyrillic road signs in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, now we’ll have to decipher Chinese characters for the next couple of months. We install some Chinese language apps on our phones and fingers crossed more people will be able to speak English than 16 years ago, when I visited China for the first (and last) time. Ni hao ma, China!

Uyghur Xinjiang

I would like to say that everything is completely different since crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan into China, but it is not. China’s westernmost Xinjiang province is predominantly muslim (Uyghur, to be precise) so we are still basking in the warm islamic glow of hospitality, courteousness, quiet modesty and good cheer. We thoroughly enjoyed getting to know islamic culture in the past couple of months and we will sure miss it when we start heading further East. There are other Central Asian features here that make us feel like we are not in the ‘real’ China just yet. The men wear traditional central Asian hats (Tajik, Kyrgyz, Uzbek or Uyghur), the women wear towering turban style headscarves. The faces are an eclectic mix of Central Asian, Turkic and Han Chinese. The Uyghur language is a form of Turkic, written in Arabic.

Since we are so deeply inspired by the incredibly generous hospitality of the muslim community in the past few months we commission a local calligraphy artist to make a small artwork for us. We ask him to write ‘A guest is a gift from God’. This is problematic. The wife of the artist phones him from his workshop to ask if he can do this but she cannot use the word God/Allah in a phone conversation. The Chinese government is cracking down hard on Uyghur separatists and intolerant of islam and there is fear of phone tapping. The artist comes up with a suitable alternative: A guest is/guests are a blessing for a home.


Since we changed our plan to cross into China from Kyrgyzstan we get to visit Kashgar, an old Silk Route trading town, set in an oasis on the westernmost edge of the enormous Taklamakan desert. It is one of those historical cities with a romantic ring to its name so I’m glad with this opportunity. It certainly lives up to it’s history and we spend almost a week enjoying the smells and the sights of this town.

After a beautiful ride from Sary Tash to the Kyrgyz border town of Nura and another half day spent putting our luggage through the various x-ray machines of the ‘Sunshine Service’ of Chinese immigration (‘Calm, Intelligent & Instant’ is their motto) we find ourselves in China. We spend one last night camping before we roll into Kashgar. It is love at first sight. Good asphalt, smiley people and food, glorious food. Another name for the Silk Road is the Spice Route and we love all the sugar and spice on offer in Kashgar. Ever since arriving in China a few days ago we are doing our best to forget about the limited food options of the Pamirs and we gorge ourselves on all the fresh and tasty dishes of Kashgars night market. Spicy-sour cold jelly noodles with chick-peas and coriander, baked mutton pastries, skewers of barbecued meat, fried tofu lollies with chili sauce, pomegranate juice, bagels and honey, pots of delicious saffron tea. We will try and regain some of the kilos we lost in the last month.

Apart from the culinary delights Kashgar is a joy to explore. The old town is small, the traffic is mostly electric and therefor quiet and clean, there are many pedestrian areas, the warm weather of late autumn is lovely after the cold of the Pamirs. Apart from one day when the sky is opaque because of a sand storm. We even feel the sand crunching between our teeth.

As we have quite a long time in Kashgar we are spending a few unhurried days with 5 cycling buddies who cycled with Cyril from Murghab and continued with us from Sary-Tash. Together we visit the huge bazaar and also the Sunday animal market, where people trade cows, sheep, goat, donkeys, yaks and camels. We see one old lady wandering around with two goats. A man is interested, he checks their teeth and lifts up one of the goats to weigh them. This must be a big day for village people, when they come to the big smoke with a few of their animals to sell. It is a hectic place full of strange sounds and smells. The animals are mostly quite calm but we still need to jump out of the way when a feisty bull is led away through the crowd. One man is doing an elaborate demonstration with a collection of live snakes.

Under the surface

One day we hire a local guide who takes us on a long afternoon stroll through the old town. He is also the one who introduces us to the calligraphy artist. Since it is a relatively small area we have seen most of the streets already, but it is interesting to see the city through the eyes of a local. We have some interesting conversations about changing life in Kashgar, Sufism, tourism and culture. He says Chinese tourists are not interested in his services, they only come to take pictures. Funnily enough we are also a bit of a tourist attraction. Some of the Chinese tourists like to point their long telelenses at us when we are enjoying tea in the historical tea house. We get to visit a local holy man and his wife at their home.

Big brother China

We are currently residing in the Kashgar Old Town hostel. A friendly if somewhat chaotic place ordered around a busy communal courtyard. Today we are the only Western tourists. The rest is Chinese, so this is where we are getting our first taste of the China beyond Xinjiang province.

Another way the Chinese influence is felt is in the way the government deals with this Uyghur outpost. Xinjiang is far away from Beijing (about 4.500km) and there has been a lot of unrest lately. One recent instance of violence is the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan by Uyghur separatists. The Uyghur people and their culture are systematically repressed in an ongoing political and cultural crackdown, resulting in occasional uprisings. On the surface it all feels very calm and relaxed here, but the Chinese oppression is nevertheless palpable.

One example is the calligraphy incident I mentioned before, another one is the tearing down of whole traditional Uyghur neighbourhoods. Only the Old Town has been renovated, adorned with Chinese and English signs explaining the history, to be kept as a tourist attraction. In effect this reduces this ancient but living culture to a museum park, or a zoo, sanitised for hordes of domestic and international tourists. The government furthermore offers big incentives for ethnic Han Chinese to move to Kashgar, in an effort to dilute the predominantly Uyghur population. Our tour guide tells us that the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese don’t mix, maybe in the next generation? The older Kashgar people don’t speak Mandarin but the children all learn it at school. There are checkpoints everywhere, we have to put our bags through x-ray scanners every time we enter a crowded area like a bazaar.

Despite this almost imperceptible tension under the surface we love Kashgar. We hope it will retain most of its warmhearted muslim culture despite the oppressive government interference. Tomorrow we will say goodbye to Kashgar and take a train to another historical place: Turpan. Then onwards to Xi’an (of the terracotta warriors) and finally Chengdu. If all goes well our bicycles and luggage will be waiting for us in Chengdu, we forwarded them with a transport company from Kashgar. From Chengdu we will cycle South towards Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.

Pamir Highway part 2: High on a bike

It wasn’t easy to split up in Murghab after 5 months of being together for almost 24 hours every day, but it also shows how we can be a team of two individuals. Vera was having trouble with the altitude on the Pamir Highway, the kind of trouble I was afraid of back home in the lowlands. The only time I’ve been above 4.000m in South America I was struggling… a lot. So the idea of cycling a 4.655m pass was daunting to say the least. After Vera took a taxi to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, I teamed up with 2 other cyclists: The Bicycle Diaries. Tim and Jess cycled roughly the same route as us until Murghab and are also heading North into Kyrgyzstan. I just hoped I wouldn’t become a third wheel on their wagon and we left Murghab after stocking up on Snickers.

Bone shaking washboards

The first day is easy rolling and climbing. No serious passes, but also no more villages or other signs of civilization. Tim and Jess are a pleasure to cycle with; they even have their wee-stops in sync. They’re and adventurous young couple and we enjoy cycling together and sharing our breakfast. But on our second day it is time for what turns out to be the hardest 75 kilometres I’ve ever ridden. Right after our porridge it is time for the 4655m high Ak-Baital pass. The Pamir Highway is the second highest road in the world apparently. I curse my stubbornness in not fitting a triple chain ring in the front and chug along the okay road. Stopping every 100 metres or so to catch my breath, the little that is left of it. Cycling at this altitude is challenging to say the least. You get dizzy, feel like you have just outsprinted Peter Sagan, gasping for breath all the time. Fortunately the steeper bit is only a few kilometres long. We reach the top, take the pictures and only then discover that the road going down is even worse than going up. A gruelling 20K stretch of bone-shaking washboard road follows the pass and almost crushes our high spirits. Luckily the views are impressive with sweeping valleys and snow-topped peaks all around us.


As soon as the road gets better the wind picks up, and not in our back unfortunately. The final stretch to the hamlet of Karakol seems to take forever, as the road is as straight as it is long. Almost 2 hours long we can see the houses in the distance as we fight the wind and the cold. Of course a ride like this also ends on a high. We find shelter, warmth and food at a homestay where Sadat and het husband, a former army general welcome us. Karakol is situated on the edge of one of the highest lakes in the world, created by the impact of a meteorite. We see it on a beautifully clear day, the water reflecting the snowy mountain peaks. However as it is 4 seasons in one day here we realize we are lucky. Our cycling friend Verena was here only a few days ago and couldn’t see the lake because of a snowstorm.

Feeling high with Chloe & WIll from Whalebone on a bike an Tim from Bicycle Diaries
Getting high with Chloe & WIll from Whalebone on a bike an Tim from Bicycle Diaries


For the last two day stretch to the Kyrgyz border we decide to wait for Chloe and Will (Whalebone on a bike), Steffi and Adriano (Team BimBom) and Jean and Kati, cyclists we met in Khorog or earlier. It is quite amazing to cycle in an area this remote with people who along the way become friends. Together we climb the last passes, now and then going over the 4.000m mark, but never feeling the altitude as much as on the Ak-Baital. I do however experience the coldest night in a tent ever. Three pair of socks, two trousers, several jumpers, gloves and an Icelandic woollen hat are part of my defence against the cold. In the morning ice particles cover the inside of the inner tent. Our last push to the border treats us to more vistas of the 7.134m peak Lenin and surrounding mountains and leaves us breathless again.


Looking back at the peaks in the Pamirs with Jean
Looking back at the peaks in the Pamirs with Jean

Cycling this last part of the Pamir Highway really is an experience. Both Vera and I felt we made the right choice by splitting up for a week. I was happy to cycle together with all these other travellers and never felt in the way. Actually we’ve made some new friends we definitely hope to see again back home. And the best part awaits me at the end: Vera spots us riding towards Sary Tash with her binoculars and is waiting besides the road for me.

the Pamir Highway part 1: Higher and higher

The Pamir Highway! Finally. We got sick of being sick and being stuck in Khorog recovering. So when we felt we were about 80% better we checked out of the hostel and started pedalling towards the high plains of the Pamirs.

To M41 or not to M41

Before we left we didn’t even know there were different ways to cross the Pamirs apart from the M41 or Pamir Highway. From around Khorog there are a few options: firstly there is the remote Bartang where you have to bring enough food to last the week or so it takes to traverse to the end. The ‘road’ is often washed away by rivers so this is one for the adventurous. The other pretty hardcore option is the Wakhan valley. This route follows the river that constitutes the Afghan border and is similarly remote and rewarding with beautiful landscapes and village life that is unspoilt by tourism. The Wakhan valley joins the Pamir Highway eventually but this involves crossing a gruelling pass with very bad roadsurface (read: push your bike uphill for two days). Since we were still not feeling 100% well we decided to do the ‘regular’ M41 Pamir Highway. This route has doable gradients and a paved surface for most of the way. It has also a pass of 4275m altitude, looong stretches of nothingness, and freezing nights at this time of year. So despite this being the least hardcore way it is no walk in the park.

The Pamir Highway

On the first day we start following the Gunt river out of Khorog. The scenery is beautiful, the river is a spectacular Celeste shade of green lined with poplars and bare mountains rise up on both sides.

Cyril cruising along the Gunt river
Cyril cruising along the Gunt river

We ride through many well maintained villages and the smooth asphalt is great. Kids run out to high-five with us, the road is lined by autumn-yellow trees, there are still shops.

Flame trees
Flame trees

Despite the immediate climbing it is a relatively nice and easy start. Our bodies have a chance to get back into the cycling rhythm without too much of a shock to the system. We set up camp in one village and get invited for chai by Sasha.

Sasha and Cyril just hangin'
Sasha and Cyril just hangin’

He is an older man, a bit drunk, and after a while the overbearing hospitality gets a bit annoying so we head to our tent. It is lovely to be camping again.

First camp after Khorog
First camp after Khorog

The second day is equally pleasant, with warm sunny weather during the day but a chilly morning when we wake up in the shade of a mountain. We have morning tea with Noushin (5 years old) and her mother.

Sweet Noushin & mum
Sweet Noushin & mum

We climb about 500m every day and at around 3400m altitude we start to feel the air get thinner. I am struggling with the altitude and a bad head cold as we come across a simple wooden cabin with a hot spring. It is ladies hour so I don’t hesitate but strip and jump right in. The Tajik girls and women who are already bathing are lovely and I emerge fully recharged from the sulphurous hot water.

The hot spring just before Jelondy
The hot spring just before Jelondy

As we get even higher the warm weather changes to chilly but bright sunny days with strong tail winds and ice cold nights. On our third night of camping, just before the 4275m Koitezek pass, we find our water has frozen during the night. Nevertheless we are very comfortable in our tent and sleeping bags and don’t feel the frost at night. The Koitezek is a bad mofo, we find out on the fourth day. The last 7km of the climb are unpaved road with some steep gradients. This might have been doable at a different altitude, but the lack of oxygen is really starting to bother us. I push the bike up most of the way, taking a small break every few minutes to catch my breath. Still, we tackle the pass. Reaching the top of the pass opens up the vista of the Pamir highlands: a wide valley with a little river, clear pools and yellowing grasslands where cattle grazes in the summer, flanked by snow capped mountains. It is very quiet and empty now, just the occaisional goat herd in the distance and a Chinese truck rumbling by every few hours. We feel very small in this gigantic landscape. 

In the middle of this huge emptiness sits one old goat farm, just over the Koitezek pass. The lady of the farm waves us down and we spend the night in the spare room. The living room is toasty because of the furnace that is blasting all day so we end the day rosy and warm while it gets well below freezing outside. Unfortunately we cannot talk because we don’t speak Russian so we spend the evening relaxing and observing farm life. Wool spinning with a stick, putting the goats who have been out on the plains in the pen behind the house, cooking, praying, watching a Turkish soap opera. Life here is hard. They spend the winter here as well, their only means of contact with the outside world an accu powered radio. There is no running water, no toilet, no electricty apart from a small solar panel which runs the soap opera and a single light bulb. The furnace burns on dried patties of goat shit as there is no wood around. If owning things is an indication of wealth they are very, very poor. In the morning they wave us off and off we go, towards the second pass. We had a bad night, suffering the 4200m altitude: pounding headaches and a wheezy short breath wake us up in the night. Nonetheless we feel very good when we set off. It is around 0 degrees, crisp and clear, and the upcoming pass is a gradual climb with mostly very good surface.

Pamir plateau
Pamir plateau

We enjoy a beautiful day on the high plains of the Pamirs, admiring the bottle green Bulunkul, Issy Kul and Sassy Kul lakes. Still, the altitude combined with my worsening cold makes it a tough day and we spend the night in another warm and comfortable homestay in the village of Alichur. From here on we venture into a region where the people are predominantly Kyrgyz.

Kyrgyz kids at the village well
Kyrgyz kids at the village well

We see men wearing the typical Kyrgyz felt hat and a couple of yurts in the distance. A lot of yurts seem to have been packed up for the winter judging by the empty round circles in the grass where they stood during the summer. 

Yurt life
Yurt life

From Alichur we make it to Murghab in two days. We spend one more night camping at an abandoned yurt spot, meaning there is a perfectly round and level area to put our tent, next to some stone little walls that offer protection from the wind while we are cooking and for our campfire.

Keeping warm
Keeping warm

Just before the sun sets we are joined by our cycling friends Tim and Jess of the bicycle diaries so we get to enjoy some good conversation by the fire. Later we find out that the place we used to make our fire was probably some sort of shrine, since Marco Polo sheep horns were incorporated into the stone walls. A single raven is cawing when we wake up in the cold morning, and we do hope we didn’t disturb any local ghosts or disrespect tradition.


Last camp before Murghab
Last camp before Murghab

Checkpoint & endpoint: Murghab

For me the last day of the Pamir Highway is the day we roll into Murghab. One last little pass takes us around the bend of a river, and below us stretches a Wild East valley surrounded by high peaks, with grazing cows and yaks by the river, a small town of low whitewashed adobe houses in the distance, obscured by dust clouds kicked up by a sandstorm. One more police checkpoint and we are in Murghab, after 316 kilometers of beautiful, cold, high and wild emptiness. Murghab is a dusty little Kyrgyz town and offers little luxuries like a hot shower, a bazaar made out of old shipping containers and two simple restaurants. We meet up with all of our cycling friends and make a new plan: because I can no longer handle the ever worsening effects of the high altitude (worsened by the cold) we decide to split up for a few days. I take a taxi to Osh and Cyril will continue on the Highway, crossing the 4655m high Akbaital pass and the Kyzyl-Art pass that will take him into Kyrgyzstan.

We will meet up again soon in Sary Tash (Kyrgyzstan) and from there roll into China, towards the warmer weather of Southeast Asia. The whole month in Tajikistan we have been plagued by sickness and never been 100% fit, but still: I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The imposing emptiness of the highlands, uninterrupted by traffic or signposts or any other form of human intervention is something that cannot be found in Europe. The absolute darkness at night so we could see the Milky Way bright and clear. The people who gave us so much even if they have so little. The Pamirs for us were a cold and hard place to be, but incredibly bright and crystal clear too.

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