Cyclists tackle deserts and mountains

KASHGAR The just risen sun shines in our eyes, filtered to an orange red by a haze of dust and pollution.

KASHGAR

The just risen sun shines in our eyes, filtered to an orange red by a haze of dust and pollution.

We are cycling out of Tashkent before the traffic and the heat builds up, nervously excited by the idea that the real adventure is just beginning.

The boulevards of downtown give way to narrower roads; commercial blocks and factories morph into fields of cotton and sunflowers.

When the irrigation tails off, dry, brown scrubland is a reminder that this is desert. 

The road slowly curves South East, towards hills we can hardly see through the pollution.

By lunchtime we are climbing gently towards our first 2,000-metre pass, by evening we are still climbing, but now around switchbacks and starting to worry about somewhere to stay.

A gang of road workers comes to our rescue, offering the crab apple orchard below their bunkhouse as a place to camp, and to join them for dinner. This act of generosity is just one in a day of generosities.

Two families, whose cows are grazing in the orchard, offered us apricots and tea and promised fresh milk in the morning.

Earlier we had been given a meal in a chaikhana (café/teahouse), and a car had stopped to offer us bottled water.

“Passports” is the only English word the soldiers know, and they love to practise it.

We are stopped by them at the entrances and exits of two tunnels that shaves 200 metres altitude off the pass — and then down, for 60 kilometres into the Fergana valley, zooming by every truck grinding downhill in first gear.

The well-watered and prosperous farming country of the Fergana valley lies between the western extremities of the Tian Shan Mountains and the Pamir Mountains.

It has a reputation as a hotbed of Islamic religious fervour: Darlene wears long-sleeved tops and long pants despite the 40-Centigrade temperatures.

Arriving in Kokand we have a fine time finding a recommended B & B. We gather a crowd whenever we stop, women around Darlene and men around me.

Everyone wants to help, so there are always plenty of differing opinions as to which way to go.

This time, when consensus is reached, we get an escort of seven boys on four bicycles to lead us there.

The couple running the B & B are a worldly pair.

He is a school principal, she works for a women’s organization and proudly tells us she has facilitated a conference in the states with Hillary Clinton.

Breakfast is perfect for cyclists: boiled eggs, salad, bread, curds topped with rich fresh cream, honey, walnuts and lots of green tea.

Villages and small towns in the valley have kilometre after kilometre of sidewalks with eco-friendly shade from metal trellises hung with grape vines.

We stop to take photos and are immediately given a big bunch of grapes, which is very nice, except that they first get a rinse in the roadside ditch.

Between villages the road is lined with pollarded Mulberry trees. Every year the trees are pruned, to harvest their leaves to feed voracious silkworms.

The town of Margilan has several silk factories and we take a tour of one that still operates traditionally.

In an ill-lit room two women working together, boil the silkworm cocoons to loosen the fibre and kill the grubs inside.

One fishes in the cauldron with a stick to gather enough filaments to spin into thread, which the second winds on to a bobbin.

Outside, an opaquely green pond thrashes with fat carp when the dead silk worms are thrown in. The thread is dyed and hand woven on bulky wooden looms by girls and young women, laughing and singing and stopping work to dance to a cassette tape.

Beyond the pond, the loud clatter of mechanical looms rattles out from the broken windows of a four storey factory.

I suspect the real work is done there, in Dickensian working conditions.

The climb out of the Fergana valley to the Kyrgyzstan border is easier than we expected, past orchards and more cotton fields.

A merry gang of women fieldworkers leave their hoeing and surround us as we take a break in a bus shelter. They ignore the shouts of the foreman, fuming in the background, while they inspect us and the bikes.

Crossing into Kyrgyzstan is straightforward and soon we are lost in the streets of Osh, the country’s second largest city.

Signs are rare and in Russian anyway, so it takes a while to find the hotel we want.

Osh, has a crowded and colourful bazaar, though the lack of hygiene is obvious.

Persistent flies fight over the butchers stalls and rats run along the garbage-choked open drains.

The bread stall owners vie for the shiniest bread, polishing each piece to a gloss with a wet and none-too-clean rag.

Older women dress in the traditional Muslim way, headscarves and dresses over baggy pants.

Old men, bowlegged after a lifetime of horse riding, wear long coats, baggy pants tucked into high boots, and slightly silly looking felt hats.

Younger people have succumbed to the casual western fashion of tee shirts, pants, even shorts.

A gravel road with patches of broken pavement leads us south into the Alay Mountains and we climb into picture book Central Asia.

Bands of half-wild horses roam over treeless green hillsides.

Yurts, the traditional felt-covered homes of Asian nomads, set in sheltered nooks contrast white against the green.

Descending from another pass, we stop for water at the only shop in a village.

Other customers give us a bottle of Fanta while buying beer and vodka for themselves.

In the next village, still looking for water, we are invited to join a group of old men enjoying their liquid lunch of vodka.

Even accounting for the Russian influence, the popularity of vodka is no surprise given the only traditional alcoholic drink in these parts is fermented mares’ milk.

Now we are climbing again, towards the highest pass so far, at 3,600 metres.

Reaching the village of Ak Bosogo, at the foot of the pass, we ask an old man, first for a hotel and then a chaikana; there is neither.

He invites us in for tea and lets us camp in his front yard.

Life in the village is basic, water is brought in pails from some unseen source; just before sunset, boys bring the villager’s sheep down from the hills, and each family stands at their gate to cut out their animals as they pass. Most families grows potatoes and corn in a small garden and keep a cow for milk.

For up to date information we have made notes from the website (www.tour.tk), of an Australian couple who came this way.

They describe the ascent to the pass as “tough, tough, tough.”

From the top, looking back down the rutted dirt of the switchbacks, we agree, and congratulate ourselves on getting up it.

Looking forward we see big snow peaks on the skyline, our first view of the Pamir Mountains.

It is downhill into Sary Tash, a small village at a major crossroads, where we find five other long-distance cyclists.

Some have come through Tajikistan along the Pamir Highway, some, like us, are going to Tibet.

Listening to their stories, feeling the camaraderie of like-minded souls, and with the confidence gained over the last few days of bad roads and a high pass, we feel we have passed a milestone of our own.

We need that confidence because the road is as bad as we had been warned.

The constant jolting over ruts, potholes and rocks give us sore butts, and numb hands from being ever ready on the brakes.

We take to riding along tracks by the road whenever we can, the softer, sandy ground allows a little relief. The road parallels the Pamirs and the panorama is colossal.

A strata of colours begins with a river, red with sediment, separating us from the green grasslands which stretch to the base of the snow white mountains, all under a pure blue sky, dimmed only slightly by the haze.

Here and there, horses, or a twist of smoke from the chimney of a yurt, add movement to the picture.

There are a few more passes close to 3,000 metres on this diabolically bad road before we come to an army check post, and beyond, like magic, is perfect, new pavement.

It is less than 20 kilometres to the Irkeshtam Pass and the Chinese border.

The Irkeshtam Pass was an historic Silk Road route through the mountains. Until the breakup of the Soviet Union it marked the end of the Russian empire, and the beginning of the Chinese, yet peopled with a culture that is alien to both.

The Kyrgyz side of the border is an absolute shambles.

Hundreds of trucks are parked in rows, people are living in abandoned containers and trailers, and every centimetre of ground is littered with bits of metal and discarded truck parts.

Our passports are examined by six different officials and details are recorded three times.

The Chinese side is a complete contrast.

It is clean, orderly and efficiently thorough, to the point that the bicycles get X-rayed.

Another day in the mountains as the road winds around and over a mess of moraines, scoured from the red brown hills and dumped by long gone glaciers.

There is no more green as we ride out of the mountains.

Every cyclist knows of the hotel in Wuqia, the first place in a long time with modern facilities.

For $11 we get a clean room with a king size bed, a TV and a bathroom with hot water. And the impression that Chinese hotels feel that every guest is stopping there by accident, because they not only supply the usual soap, shampoo and shower cap but also bath foam, combs, toothbrush and paste, slippers and condoms.

We drop 1,500 metres into the desert surrounding the oasis haven of Kashgar.

The last 20 kilometres into Kashgar is along a six-lane freeway, which I think is totally wrong for one of the most important places on the Silk Road.

Reflecting later, I change my mind.

The other important Silk Road cities we’ve visited are now living off tourism and need to preserve the old.

Kashgar has maintained its importance as a transport hub into the 21st century, with trans continental routes to each quarter of the compass.

David Sillery is a Haines Junction-based writer.

Just Posted

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley announced 29 new COVID-19 cases on June 19 and community transmission among unvaccinated individuals. (Yukon News file)
Yukon logs record-high 29 new COVID-19 cases

F.H. Collins prom attendees and some Porter Creek Grade 9 students are instructed to self-isolate as community transmission sweeps through unvaccinated populations

Crystal Schick/ Yukon News A former residential school in the Kaska Dena community of Lower Post will be demolished on June 21. Crystal Schick/ Yukon News
Lower Post residential school demolition postponed

On June 21, the old residential school in Lower Post will be demolished and new ground on a multi-cultural centre will be broken

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before using it on Nov. 24. The Yukon government is reopening the drive-thru option on June 18. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Drive-up COVID-19 testing opening June 18 in Whitehorse

The drive-up testing will be open from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. everyday and increase testing capacity by 33 spots

A draft plan has been released by the Dawson Regional Use Planning commission on June 15. Julien Gignac/Yukon News
Draft plan released by the Dawson Regional Land Use Planning Commission

Dawson Regional Land Use Commission releases draft plan, Government of Yukon withdraws additional lands from mineral staking in the planning region

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Let them live in trailers

“I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall (Yukon News file)
City news, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council at its June 14 meeting

Murray Arsenault sits in the drivers seat of his 1975 Bricklin SV1 in Whitehorse on June 16. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Bringing the 1975 Bricklin north

Murray Arsenault remembers his dad’s Bricklin, while now driving his own

A presumptive COVID case was found at Seabridge Gold’s 3 Aces project. (file photo)
Presumptive COVID-19 case reported at mine in southeast Yukon

A rapid antigen rest found a presumptive COVID case on an incoming individual arriving at the 3Aces project

Jonathan Antoine/Cabin Radio
Flooding in Fort Simpson on May 8.
Fort Simpson asked for military help. Two people showed up.

FORT SIMPSON—Residents of a flooded Northwest Territories village expected a helping hand… Continue reading

A woman was rescued from the Pioneer Ridge Trail in Alaska on June 16. (Photo courtesy/AllTrails)
Alaska hiker chased off trail by bears flags down help

ANCHORAGE (AP)—An Alaska hiker who reported needing help following bear encounters on… Continue reading

Two participants cross the finish line at the City of Whitehorse Kids Triathlon on June 12 with Mayor Dan Curtis on hand to present medals. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
2021 Kids’ Triathlon draws 76 young athletes

Youth ages five to 14 swim, run and bike their way to finish line

NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq rises in the House of Commons, in Ottawa on May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Unacceptable’ that Inuk MP felt unsafe in House of Commons, Miller says

OTTAWA—It’s a “sad reflection” on Canada that an Inuk MP feels she’s… Continue reading

Lily Witten performs her Canadian Nationals beam routine on June 14. John Tonin/Yukon News
Three Yukon gymnasts break 20-year Nationals absence

Bianca Berko-Malvasio, Maude Molgat and Lily Witten competed at the Canadian Nationals – the first time in 20 years the Yukon’s been represented at the meet

Most Read