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The toughest bike ride in the world

KASHGAR to DARCHENKashgar impressed Marco Polo more than 700 years ago; he says it was the biggest and most splendid city in the region.


Kashgar impressed Marco Polo more than 700 years ago; he says it was the biggest and most splendid city in the region.

It still is, though redevelopment has eaten into the warren of mud brick structures of the ages old city.

In this prosperous melting pot of a city, with modern buildings and a network of broad streets, there are supermarkets, outdoor stores and bike shops for our needs, while the most famous landmarks are thriving.

The bazaar, centuries old when Marco Polo saw it, has 4,000 stalls on it’s 8.4 hectares selling, in the Silk Road tradition, the products of many lands.

The place to be on Sundays is the livestock market.

In a big dusty field, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz and the local Uyghurs haggle long and loudly over camels, sheep, donkeys and cows.

Around the edges the lively sub-trades of shearers, butchers and cafes, services the main activity.

A striking rarity is that taxi drivers do not expect a tip, even rounding down the fare to make change easier.

The taxis are all powered by propane gas.

Hundreds of electric motor bikes and scooters are another striking feature, especially because they are silent and usually drive on the sidewalks.

After a week of good food and Sinkiang beer, and with panniers loaded with chocolate and peanut butter, we ride out of Kashgar.

For three days we ride along the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert repeatedly startled by the sudden green surrounding an irrigation project and the abrupt return to desert.

At Kargilik, the last town we will pass through for weeks, we stock up on instant noodles and the only protein that’s portable — a nutritional health drink for seniors, made from dried milk mixed with powdered walnut, hazelnut and almond.

Leaving the desert behind, heading south into the Kunlun Mountains, we follow a stream between grassy hills to a pass at 3,500 metres and drop 1,000 metres into the next valley that climbs to another pass.

That is the pattern for weeks ahead.

There are few villages and little traffic; we camp by the road each night.

Dinner is tea, instant noodles and a hot drink of nut flavoured milk powder. Breakfast is tea, peanut butter on crackers and more hot milk. We snack on peanuts and raisins during the day.

Water is easy to find, most valleys have a clear stream draining out of the mountains

The hills, barren and rocky, turn to snow peaks as the passes get higher and it is cool after the desert.

Camping and riding above 4,000 metres is a new experience, and though we have to push the bikes around many of the switchback ascents, we are surprised it is not more difficult.

On the way to the summit of the 4,900-metre Chiragsaldi pass we are overtaken by two female cyclists: Tescha a Dane, and Karin from France.

We talk of the ride so far and the comforts ahead at Mazar 24 kilometres away and 1,000 metres lower on the southern side of the Kunlun Mountains.

Mazar is an army camp fronted by a collection of about 10 tin shacks, leaning against each other for support in the windswept valley of the silty grey Yarkand River.

The shacks offer basic food and drink to off-duty soldiers and a dormitory bed to occasional travellers.

The pavement ended days ago and the road following the Yarkand River upstream is slow going, slippery with loose rocks and sandy sections.

A patch of grass by a clear stream at 4,400 metres gives us a pretty spot to camp on the way up to another 4,900-metre pass.

We meet a Chinese cyclist going the other way. He is pushing a one-speed Chinese Flying Pigeon bicycle with all his belongings packed in plastic bags and strapped to his bike with strips of inner tube.

He has the poorest clothes; his face and hands are cracked and sunburned yet he shows us on his road atlas he has come across China.

A humbling experience for us, carrying modern camping equipment on 24-gear bikes.

We have crossed the Qitai La, our first 5,000-metre pass, five times the height of the Haines Summit that this weekend’s bike racers will be crossing, to reach the Aksai Chin plateau, a high altitude salt desert.

In this disputed borderland with India, a string of army camps maintains China’s claims and the settlements that grow around them provide us with shops and cafes.

The shops have little beyond instant noodles and cookies and, if we are lucky, small packets of peanuts.

The cafes cook whatever we point to in the kitchen.

Often it is stir-fried eggs and tomatoes or stir-fried vegetables with rice.

Everything tastes good when the alternative is another packet of instant noodles.

Whatever we eat, we are not getting enough calories; we are much thinner than a couple of weeks ago.

The Aksai Chin blends into the Tibetan plateau at the Satsum La, 5,150 metres, and we descend to the first Tibetan settlement of Sumzhi.

A few army tents in a neat row contrast with the dirt and garbage piled around the single-storey buildings that form three sides of a square.

I stick my head in a few doors to find the cleanest place and we get a good lunch of homemade noodles with meat and onions.

It is trying to snow and the highest pass on the road, 5,250 metres is seven kilometres ahead, but we prefer that to staying here.

Cycle tourists are not allowed in Tibet (except for the so-called Friendship Highway that runs south from Lhasa to Nepal), so on top of the physical hardships we also have the mental stress of being here illegally.

There are several accounts of cyclists who have been caught and fined, their bicycles confiscated and ordered to hire a vehicle to deport themselves.

Our routine hardly varies: passes, descents, camping, instant noodles, as we slowly move south, always above 4,000 metres. The road varies, from bad to terrible and back again. It can be sand or mud, washed out or corrugated, rocks or potholes.

Because it is routine we keep going, and it is not all bad.

We have some beautiful camping spots, with the whole landscape to ourselves, or we spot a wild antelope loping across grassland or a herd of wild donkeys each, like clones, with identical markings.

And then we reach Ali, an absolute mirage of civilization in the desert and the town with four names (also called Senge Tsangpo, Shiquanhe, Gar). We have a clean hotel room with bath, a bed that covers acres and satellite television.

In the surrounding streets there are restaurants, supermarkets and internet. Best of all, in a Chinese face-saving accommodation, we are advised to go to the police and turn ourselves in; get fined 300 yuan each (about $50) and for another 50 yuan are issued Alien Travel Permits that are good to Lhasa.

Ali is on the Indus river, here just a baby, with about 3,000 kilometres to go, west, and south through Pakistan, before it gets to the Arabian Sea.

Within days we are crossing the Jerko La, well named because of the long ascent against the wind, to drop into the valley that is the source of the Brahmaputra River.

It also has close to 3,000 kilometres to go, but in the opposite direction, all the way along the northern side of the Himalaya, gathering strength and volume before the inevitable floods in Bangladesh we will soon be reading about.

A few more days and we reach the village of Darchen where we will take time off the bikes to go for a hike.

It has long been an ambition to do a kora around the holiest mountain in the world, Mount Kailash, and we are at its foot.

David Sillery is a Haines Junction-based writer.

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