The ‘road’ to Kashgar

(James) Given that the day would see us pass over 3,700m at the Torugart Pass, which is the border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China, we were relieved to see clear blue sky when we stepped out of our yurt on Friday morning. It’s fair to say that we were all quite relaxed at breakfast; word was that the roads in China were absolutely fine and we were supposedly only 60km from the border, making for a potentially easy day with an estimated arrival time in Kashgar of early afternoon. We knew the road to the border on the Kyrgyz side would continue to be bad so Donato and Roberta headed off at 8.30 am on the Harley, while we packed up at a more leisurely pace and took a few (more) photos. China required our ‘guide’ (it’s impossible to travel in China on your own transport without a government approved guide/observer) to meet us at the Torugart Pass and we had agreed a time of 1pm, although it was unclear whether this was Beijing or Xinjiang time (China officially has one time zone – Beijing time – but unofficially each region operates a more realistic ‘local time’, in our case Xinjiang time…) We set off with confidence, going as fast as the bad road surface allowed, but progress checks on the map quickly revealed that the border was more than 60km away and time was actually tighter than we had anticipated.

(Emily) We rolled up to the Kyrgyz side of the border, shaken and dusty, at five to one in the end – cutting it fine! Unfortunately, it then took over 45 minutes to ‘process’ us (during which time the border guard seemed to go for lunch) and there was a long stretch of no-man’s-land through the mountains on the other side before we got to the Torugart Pass (at 3750m, our highest pass yet!). Hence we were a little late but Muza, our guide, didn’t seem to mind and he dished out some gratefully received bread (none for him – Ramadan). After a passport inspection, Muza jumped into his car and told us to follow him; apparently it was another 40km to the actual customs post. We happily obliged, eager for some lovely smooth Chinese tarmac after several days on unpaved roads… only to be greeted by miles of churned up crap as far as the eye could see. WTF, this wasn’t right!?! We’d only just got going when, on a stretch of road only one lane wide with piles of gravel lining one side, a lorry decided to plough on through in the on-coming direction straight towards Muza’s car and Fabian, Carl and Bene on their bikes. As they tried to swerve into gaps between the gravel piles, the car was scraped all along one side, as was Fabian’s panniers. Carl managed to pull in just in time, whereas Bene, realising she had no-where to go, simply tipped herself and the bike into one of the dirt piles to avoid being crushed. Welcome to China! James and I were still higher up the pass, bringing up the rear, and watched the chaos as we felt the first flutters of snow. This was not how we had envisaged our entrance into country number 17!

It turned out to be a really, really tough day. The poor road continued on and on, in fact it wasn’t just poor, it was ridiculously bad. There was no tarmac to be seen for the first 70km and numerous Chinese roadwork crews were carving up the already gravelly, rocky surface causing thick trenches of clay that were incredibly hard to ride through. Often the road had been entirely destroyed and we were diverted off into the valley; at one point having to ride along (i.e. in) a stream that had formed from flood water, negotiating wet shingle and muddy bits. This horrendous experience culminated in having to cross the actual river to get back to the road, which was deep, fast flowing and muddy bottomed. No siree! The others had already got ahead and conquered the crossing – James now had quite the audience for his turn, and not only that, he had to do it twice!! Comedy moment as he came back across on foot to get my bike, took a running jump and instead of landing in shallow water on the opposite bank as he anticipated, it came up to his knees causing him to fall and dive commando roll stylee on to the bank! However, on the bikes he traversed the water like a pro, despite it being his first time at a river crossing, and was certainly my hero for the day. As I walked over on foot to get across, Muza joked, ‘You have licence?’ Er, not for long actually so shut your face! I did at least get a lift in the car back up to the road (with Roberta – pillions are not helpful when negotiating water) and although the car made it through the water ok, it then ground out on the rocky slope back up to the road. An unfortunate lorry hadn’t even got that far and was stuck fast in the river bed. See photos for the whole delightful scene.

The whole time we were enjoying this lovely route, we had one watchful eye on the weather which was not looking at all good. Luckily the earlier snow had been a brief flurry and, apart from a short hail shower (yes, hail), the threatening rain miraculously held off. This was a relief of huge proportions as a downpour would have turned what was a tricky road into a downright dangerous one and, now we were in China on a strictly regulated schedule, there was no time to stop and sit it out. After we’d been going for three hours, it was clear that Muza’s ‘40km’ to the checkpoint was a vast exaggeration and soon I had to stop and take my tinted goggles off as I was struggling to see due to the dark clouds and lateness of the hour. It was 90km before we finally felt the sweetness of smooth, smooth tarmac and not long after, arrived at customs. The clouds were finally clearing so even though it was 7pm, it was lighter than it had been for most of the afternoon. However, our hopes of arriving in Kashgar early in the day had become a distant memory and I was starting to get anxious about the all too real possibility of having to ride in the dark. Hopefully customs would be quick… ha, ha, ha, this is China we’re talking about!! We all had to remove any soft baggage to be passed through the scanner and the bike details were carefully checked against Muza’s paperwork. They pulled James’ map out of the tank bag and scrutinised it for quite some time, apparently checking that the region we were in was marked as Xingjiang and not it’s old name of East Turkistan. Very important, obviously! We also had to get our laptop out – quite what they expected to find, I don’t know. They gave the programs bar a cursory look and seemed satisfied, so satisfied in fact that they let us off the bag search and scan. Bonus; it seemed we were on our way… Not so fast, smug tourist biker people, another official had decided that he wanted to see a laptop from each nationality… okaaay. James disappeared into the office with all the computers and five minutes later James came out stifling his laughter; they’d looked at a selection of photos and random scenes from the films we have downloaded and of course, came upon the exact moment in ‘Life of Brian’ when Brian opens the window in a flourish, revealing his full frontal nakedness to hoards of waiting followers!! Whoops!

After an hour and a half of boring officialdom, we were on our way to our final destination; Kashgar. Sure enough, we were soon riding along in the dark negotiating hundreds of 125cc bikes (the first motorcycles we’d seen since Turkey pretty much), lorries, carts and all sorts, many without lights on. Thank goodness we had Muza’s car to follow so we didn’t need to worry about which turns to take, and it was good to be riding as part of a group (I was always somewhere in the middle – everyone looks out for me as the newbie!) It was a bit of a shock to enter Kashgar, a busy city with neon everywhere, after the peasant country we’d been riding through all day. In town, the car reduced speed to about 20kph so none of us got left behind at junctions and on roundabouts, so it was actually quite amusing pootling along in a snails pace convoy while locals looked on in bemusement. Well, it would have been amusing if we weren’t all dog tired from the hellish day we’d had. The relief when we finally pulled into the hotel at 10pm was palpable, and everyone’s spirits were buoyed by the hilarity of a tiny police bike arriving two-up with lights flashing all over the place. At first it seemed they wanted to berate Muza for hanging out of the car window to give directions, but as soon as they saw the bikes they got far too excited and forgot all about it!! There were crowds gathered all around – the Chinese are serious bike enthusiasts! The air of joviality didn’t last long once we saw our rooms… not the best. Carl and Bene’s carpet was tacky underfoot and stained like a recent murder scene. Nice. They even took photos as evidence for when they complained at the desk (this made no difference; we didn’t experience great customer service during our stay, that’s for sure). We were so exhausted, we accepted the crapness and went across the road for our first proper meal of the day. It was 11pm and the restaurant was about to close but they duly re-opened and, with the menu all in Chinese, Fabian went to the kitchen to choose some food first-hand (he literally picked out the live fish and five minutes later it was chopped up on a plate in front of us!) It was a great meal – lots of plates of raw vegetables and noodles which we dropped into a communal hot pot of stock in the middle, fishing them out with chopsticks a few minutes later. And they served much required beer! A good ending to a pretty bad day.

8 Responses to “The ‘road’ to Kashgar”

  1. Jackson says:

    thank you both very much for making my morning with the mush awaited updates….love it. moving on now to the next 2 entries

  2. mama/kate says:

    OMG! I don’t think I can take much more of this!

  3. Jess says:

    Absolutely hilarious!! It’s all about finding Life of Brian on your laptop…
    On to the next 2…

  4. julian says:

    OMA oh my A***h!
    I think you guys have left planet earth!
    On to the next two despatches before my eyes get any wider!

  5. joanna says:

    Glad I had the vision of James plopping into the water Harry Hill’s TV burp stylee to make me titter a little (or rather wipe the tears away) followed by the Life of Brian moment – or I would have been in floods of tears! Hope Bene recovered after her immersion in the dirt(?). My advice – keep to the back (or the middle) and James – don’t know about hero of the day – think you’re probably my hero of a lifetime!!!

    Need a quick lie down before I go on to the next two!


  6. M&M says:

    Hope you filmed James’ fall for “You’ve been framed!” We are checking out your blog on the big flat screen TV -coolio! You are so funny! Love you guys!! xxxx

  7. C says:

    Just for the record, if you buy/borrow a motorcycle already in China (with Chinese plates and proper registration) you DO NOT have to have an escort or guide. You can ride freely just about anywhere (except Tibet) for any length of time.

    If you bring a motorcycle in from another country overland and wish to ride around China, then you most certainly have to have a guide. I quote: (China required our ‘guide’ (it’s impossible to travel in China on your own transport without a government approved guide/observer) …..

    Have fun…

  8. Motoventurers says:

    Thanks for your comment C. By ‘your own transport’ we meant your own bike/car brought from home but can see how that might have been misleading. Thanks for the clarification.

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