In September 2016 Jerry and Will (together with Mako & Mika) biked the Karakoram highway in Pakistan and China
here’s the maps and the detail on the rides:
The story starts years ago with conversations about doing a ride to Lhasa. One of the things that was discovered during those discussions was existence of guide services offering rides on the ancient silk road from Islamabad into China. In the the spring of 2016 Will indicated that now was the time for Lhasa. He invited his housemates and after some back and forth they collectively decided that they didn’t have the month or six-weeks that would be required to ride from Szechuan to Tibet. Will recalled the silk road links and remembered his previous trips to Kashgar and Urumqi and proposed a three-week trip from Gilgit to Kashgar and maybe beyond.
Until the very last minute it wasn’t clear if the trip was going to come together. All of us were taking foreign trips during the summer and couldn’t afford to be without passports for the several weeks Pakistani and Chinese visas required. After getting back from France I applied for a 10-year multiple entry Chinese visa and found the process relatively easy and quick (of course I paid for the convenience of going through an agency.) Mako had to do the same thing but he needed to renew his passport first… The first step in getting a Pakstani visa was getting a letter of invitation from a travel agency that would take responsibility for us.
I consulted the Lonely Planet guidebook (which I’d actually bought in a bookstore in Montpellier, France) and google and came up with a list of tour agencies that I emailed. Most of the email addresses were bad and I didn’t get serious responses from most of the ones with functional addresses, but I did find one agency in Gilgit that said they could do a letter for us for $200US. I forwarded that information to Will and then came across a link to Hunza Adventure Tours which claimed to have arranged bike tours on the Karakoram Highway. I emailed them and got back a reply from a guy named Nisar with reasonable questions. I forwarded that to Will and told him that they were the best of what I had uncovered.
Then we paused for a few weeks while various of us travelled to various places. In August Will took up the correspondence with Hunza Adventure and for some reason they were slow to respond. Eventually we got a quote from them for a letter of invitation and a driver with a van to carry our stuff from Gilgit to Sost. They needed a deposit so I wired them half of the quoted amount and then we waited.
It was the end of August when we got the letter – and the Pakistani Consulate said it took 3 or 4 weeks to process a visa. Will and Mako called and were assured it could be done more quickly so we spent a day filling out the application forms and assembling passports, photos, resumes, bank statements, etc. and I got a cashiers check to pay the fees. Will had a wedding in Ithaca, NY and then was flying to the UAE for a presentation. We decided that if his passport wasn’t back when he had to leave for the wedding we’d overnight it to him in NYC and he could pick it up on the way to the airport – which was what happened. Our back-up plan, if the visas didn’t come through in time, was to fly to Kashgar and improvise a trip in China.
I disassembled Will’s bike and my own and packed them in S&S hardshell cases. I added our helmets and shoes and a trunk bag and a small assortment of tools and realized that I was getting over 50 lbs. I got the scale and started pulling stuff out and realized that to get down to that level I had to remove everything except the bicycle. I checked the Hainan Airlines website and thought that the weight limit was 70 lbs so I put it all back in the cases.
I had gotten both bikes serviced at R+E in anticipation of the trip and I bought a couple of spare 42mm “Continental Speedride” tires and a couple of each size spoke needed for each of the bikes. I fit a cork into the seat posts and plugged six spokes into each cork – then secured the spoke ends with blue tape to keep them from rattling. I decided to bring a chain whip and a cassette tool so that I would be able to fix a broken spoke on the drive side. I threw a groundcloth into each case so that I’d have a clean place to organize parts and I added a frame pump and a rack to Will’s bike.
I stuffed three weeks of clothing plus a camera and electronics into a backpack and hoisted my two heavy bike cases into a yellow cab to the airport. At the check-in counter I found that the limit was in fact 50 lbs (or rather 20 kg.) I was about 5 kgs over on each bag and the staff suggested that I go to the gift shop for a duffel and carry on 10 kgs of stuff. When I didn’t want to deal with that they suggested that I move 5 kgs from one bag to the other so that I only had to pay one overweight charge. I decided to leave well enough alone and just pay them the $200 they wanted. I got to the gate plenty early and eventually met up with Mako and Mika. They had packed only the bikes in their cases and had a 20 kg duffel but since there were two of them they didn’t have an excess baggage fee. The flight was uneventful.
We collected our baggage and went through customs in Beijing and then checked baggage and checked ourselves in for a domestic flight to Urumqi. That process was pretty much what you’d expect and the flight was again uneventful. We got into Urumqi late at night and learned that our flight to Islamabad left from a different terminal. We walked to the other terminal (on the edge of a busy ramp) and then couldn’t get into the arrival area because our cases were too big for the scanning equipment. After much confusion the security guys found a woman in uniform with google translate who informed us that we couldn’t spend the next seven hours in the terminal because it was closed for the night. She called a nearby hotel for us and then shepherded us to the hotel shuttle van. We didn’t make the first van because we had too much luggage but a second one showed up and took us to a very Chinese hotel near the airport. At that point we realized that we had no Chinese currency. They were unable to process any or our credit cards and we sat and pondered options – until a bystander offered to convert some US dollars in a private deal. Mako had some $100 bills and got a rate that he could accept so we paid for a room with three beds and carried our bikes and stuff up there and collapsed. After a couple of knocks inquiring if we wanted to change more currency we slept until about 6:00 when we hauled everything back down to the lobby and eventually got a shuttle van to take us back to the airport.
Getting on that flight to Islamabad was a thrash. There was a complicated process that wasn’t elucidated anywhere and the only way to find out what you needed to do was to make mistakes and get called for them. We queued up to get scanned and frisked at the front door to the terminal and then got in the check-in line for China Southern. It was a long line with a lot of people carrying a lot of miscellaneous products – generally they needed to tape their stuff into a single checkable lump when they got to the front of the line – and that process took a while. Eventually we got to the front and found that we were allowed one 20 kg bag each. We could check extra or heavier bags but had to stand in a separate line to pay for that (while our passports were retained by the original clerk.) After that we learned that our bike cases were “oversize” so we had to stand in another line to check them – which meant feeding them into another scanner and then walking around to collect them on the other side so that we could load them into an elevator. In general we figured out what we needed to do with help from other passengers.
After checking in we tracked down an ATM and I discovered that my debit card wouldn’t work in any of the machines from the three banks available. We got in the customs line and then Mako saw his name on a reader board at the top of a list. Nobody could tell us what that meant or what we needed to do, but eventually we figured out that after checking in and checking baggage there was another line you needed to stand in to get clearance that your bags had passed the scanning process. We went back, stood in that line, and got the stamp that said we were okay before returning to customs.
We had cleared Chinese customs and immigration and were in line for security screening before heading to the gate when they announced that our flight was leaving soon and that we should board immediately. We jumped the line and put our stuff on the belt and got scanned and frisked and then headed for the gate. I didn’t want to take the time to lace up my boots so I ended up running down the corridor with my belt and boots in one hand and trying to keep my pants up with the other. They were still boarding when we got there. The food on the China Southern flight was spicer and generally more interesting than Hainan’s.
Pakistani customs at Islamabad was a mess. They had six or eight lines for various categories of passengers but half the volume ended up in the diplomat/foreigner line with a single clerk processing. People cut over to the other lines and some got kicked back. Periodically the people at the front of our line raised a cry when somebody from one of the other lines tried to cut into the front of ours. When the noise got too loud the supervisor would come out and force everybody into a narrower queue. Mako was trying to read a textbook on his kindle and wasn’t being aggressive about line management so we ended up the last people in the hall to get processed. It took about 4 hours. Will was waiting on the other side of a window in the baggage claim area. Eventually we connected, grabbed our luggage and headed out into a swarm of humanity to see if our van had shown up. We hadn’t taken more than a few steps when a guy emerged from the crowd saying “Welcome to Pakistan” and informing us that our van was out back and that our driver would be along momentarily. Presumably three caucasians and a japanese with bike cases stood out pretty clearly.
The van was parked in a fire lane and we loaded our luggage with the help of bystanders and army personnel. I got a driver’s side (right hand) window in the middle row. We headed out and onto a major highway but we were apparently still a long way from the center of town – I was surprised that Islamabad didn’t seem more developed. We stopped and had lunch and talked about options for the trip to Gilgit, eventually settling a long drive to somewhere near the pass and then riding the bikes down the other side to Gilgit the next day. The first thing after lunch was Abbottabad – the place where Bin Ladin was killed. It didn’t strike me at all like the place described by the US government – Abbottabad is an attractive, modern residential suburb on the outskirts of Islamabad. The road then got twisty and more and more mountainous and, unfortunately, after we got 25 km up to road to Naran we were stopped at a police checkpoint and informed that there was a bridge out and that we couldn’t get to Gilgit that way. We backtracked and took the Karakoram Highway until we ran out of daylight. We drove on with heat lightening flashing on the ridge above us. At another police checkpoint we were told that we needed to call it a day and we were escorted to a hotel at Besham. In the morning we found that it was a really nice hotel, apparently part of a hydroelectric project on the Indus, but their breakfast service was lethargic.
We drove on to Gilgit, stopping in Chilas for lunch. We’d read about the Indus Kohistan but the country we saw didn’t seem particularly intimidating. We got to Gilgit late in the afternoon and were preoccupied with finding an ATM and with getting our bikes assembled. We checked into a hotel and started organizing workspaces when Mako realized that he had left his backpack (with his passport, credit cards and money) in the restaurant where we’d had lunch. Mansoor, our driver and guide, called the restaurant and confirmed that they had the bag. He volunteered to get a cab and go back to fetch it. The cost of the cab ate up most of our Pakistani currency but we didn’t really have any other choice. Once Mansoor was dispatched we got to work building bikes and quickly assembled all four of them.
In the morning we took a quick ride to find an ATM and buy some chapatis. We had breakfast at the hotel and then headed out on a road featuring a suspension bridge that didn’t allow cars. Once we picked up the main highway we followed the river and had a long but easy climb. We passed the monument to the workers killed building the highway and Will had a flat tire. We fixed his tire and the caught up to the rest of the group in a tea stall that was notable mainly because they sold wooden utensils and bowls and were using a water-powered lathe to turn the bowls.
After tea we rode along until lunch at a “glacier view” place and then rode on upriver to Karimabad. The last couple of kilometers were exceptionally steep as we climbed to the Hilltop hotel. We checked in and then got a ride to the Baltit fort. Karimabad is a tourist town with lots of shops selling dried fruit and polished stones and carpets. The fort was the ancient Hunza royal palace and reminded me a lot of the Ladakh royal palace we saw in Leh. The carved lintels and low ceilings suggest the Buddhist influence at the time it was built. After the fort we watched soccer on the polo field and then had dinner at a place that advertised Hunza cuisine. It was good.
In the morning, after mounting a spare tire on Will’s bike because he had another flat and we couldn’t find the cause, we coasted down the hill and headed for Gulmit – a short day but Gulmit was where Zahir, the proprietor of the travel agency, was located. The police were alerted to our plans and made a show of handing us off to a new escort every half-hour or so. The road was much like the previous day – a wide lush valley with spectacular peaks – until we got to Attabad and the new tunnels bypassing the lake caused by the landslide. The tunnels were long and dark and we mounted headlights – but between the general lack of traffic and the escorts and our own van our way seem well lit and quite secure. At the end of the tunnels we climbed down the bluff and had a ride on one of the ferries. The boat was the most interesting part of the ride, but the scenery was spectacular, too.
In Gulmit we ate and talked and then got in the van and drove to Borit lake for a short walk, followed by the Passu glacier for a longer walk and by a tour of the suspension bridge in Hussaini. We repaired to the Glacier View cafe for apricot cake and met a German woman cycling from Kyrgyzstan to India who warned us that the pass was closed for ten days. (She also asked Mika to go to the youth hostel in Kashgar to retrieve two pairs of pants that she’d left there.) We went back to Gulmit and ate most of a dinner prepared by the Zahir’s mom.
We breakfasted on the remainder of the food from the Zahir’s mom and then biked from Gulmit to Sost – another short stage but Sost is where you clear customs when leaving Pakaistan. The road was not difficult but you know that you are climbing. The mountains were incredible. We noted the sign to Boybar – the place where Shipton rejoined the caravan route in 1937 when he crossed Shimshall pass. We had lunch in Sost and noted that nothing was moving. We took a short ride to upper Sost on dirt trails (I got too far forward and went over the handlebars, breaking the zip tie holding my handlebar bag.) We wandered over to the customs office and confirmed with the Chinese truck drivers that the pass was closed until Monday. Then we bought a bottle of bootleg brandy from them. We had dinner that evening in a really sketchy joint and spent the whole meal arguing about doing the ride to the pass in one day or two.
When Will and I came down for breakfast the next morning we found Mako and Mika leaving for the pass having decided to go on their own. We left an hour and a half later with the van, heading for Misgar (the route to Mintaka Pass) for lunch and then on the Dih for the night. We got cut off about a quarter of a mile up the Misgar road by an un-uniformed security guy who was really rude and who threatened to punch Mansoor. We paid the park entry fee and cleared the checkpoint at Dih at about 10:00 and it seemed too early to stop for the night so we headed for the pass. The road was good, the valley narrow and the traffic nonexistent. At the second checkpoint the climbing started with only 10 KM or so left to the pass – but the road turned to switchbacks reminiscent of those on the way to Kargil so the elevation was the main challenge, not the climb. We stopped with a road crew to admire the Ibex. We got snowed on. We caught up to Mako and Mika as they approached the border crossing. It was a good ride.
We spent some time on the 15.000+ ft. pass looking at Yaks and getting photos taken by random Pakistanis. We crossed over to the Chinese post and Will confirmed with a Chinese soldier that the pass opened on Monday. We bundled up for the descent and finally headed down as the sun was getting low. The descent went fast and it was really cold. I started shivering and was holding on to the handlebars tightly enough that the shiver caused a shimmy in the front end. (I eventually attributed the shimmy to the trunk bag which was mounted too far aft.) I stopped at the checkpoint at the bottom of the switchbacks to regroup and to restore feeling to my fingers. One of the guards came out and invited us in for tea – he turned out to be a relative of Mansoor. Mako took off, but the rest of us trooped in to the one-room guard shack and sat and talked while milk tea was prepared on a pot-bellied stove. It really hit the spot.
We caught up with Mako in the dark just before Dih. There weren’t any beds there by then so we headed back to Sost in the van. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant proceeded by the bottle of brandy to celebrate the climb. We agreed that we’d head up the Chapursan valley to Zoodkhun the next day, planning to get driven out to the village, spend the night, and bike back the next day. In the morning Mansoor went to the police to get a permit and it emerged that 1) we couldn’t get a permit but they gave him a phone number to call if anyone challenged us, and 2) they weren’t going to authorize anything more than a day-trip by van. So we set out in the van up a rugged dirt road carved out of the sides of a canyon. After getting through a set of cliffs the valley opened up and looked pretty prosperous. We stopped at the site of a bridge construction project and tried out the temporary cable car crossing. At the upper end of the valley there is a Sufi shrine about 10 km from the Afghan border, but a police checkpoint gets in the way of approaching the shrine. We stopped and talked to villagers and Mansoor identified one of them as a relative so we had to go to his house for tea. We had packed food for an overnight so we went in for tea carrying chapattis and canned curry and we had that along with the tea. The house looked like it was derived from a yurt – mud brick walls, carpeted platforms, a hole in the center of the ceiling. There was a granddaughter who spoke english and who had very fair skin. We gifted them a watermelon and drove back down in gathering darkness and saw a fox crossing the road.
The next day, since we were killing time, we biked back to Gulmit with a stop at the Glacier View cafe for another apricot cake. We got there early enough for Mako & Mika to walk the loop to Ghulkin. The following day Will and I biked to Passu and across the suspension bridge to the start of the road to Shimshall. Mako and Mika walked to Hussaini and did the suspension bridge loop there. Will and I climbed to the Andra fort and I washed bikes in the afternoon. That evening Zahir gifted us with a bottle of local wine – or something – it tasted as if it had been distilled but we were never clear what the fruit was or how it had been produced. Mansoor stopped by but he had been drinking something much stronger.
We had breakfast early and then loaded our stuff into a van to return to Sost. We withdrew enough money from an ATM to settle up with the tour company and then sat in the van company’s office while they prepared a manifest. The customs people wouldn’t deal with us until 9:00 at which time we unloaded all of our stuff and stacked it in a line in the middle of the floor so that their dog could sniff it. After pictures were taken and numbers entered we were off to the pass.
The soldier at the Chinese border post deigned to open the gate after we honked for a while and then we backed in next to the customs building and waited. Eventually more soldiers assembled and lined up in formation for review. Finally they allowed us to exit the van. We unloaded everything (including the bicycles from the roof) and stacked it next to the scanners and then waited. Eventually they started processing us one at a time. They took everything out of every bag and inspected it, seemingly looking for photos and maps. I didn’t have any surprises when they looked at the photos on my camera, but they confiscated Will’s laptop and kept his passport for good measure. Once we had been inspected we reloaded the bikes and luggage and drove across the driveway to wait some more. After about four hours they had scanned two more vans and six or eight motorcycles and they decided to send that group down as a convoy. (While waiting Mako got yelled at for talking to unscreened passengers with the threat that we might have to be rescreened. The offense taken may have been due to the conversation about how bad the roads were below Karakul Lake.) A soldier (holding a stack of passports and a briefcase that presumably housed Will’s laptop) joined us in the van and we drove to Tashkurgan.
As soon as we were over the pass the road changed from driving on the left to driving on the right and the geography changed, too. Not only did the river flow in the other direction but it didn’t drop as steeply and the valley was much wider. Before Tashkurgan the valley opened out into a plain with a lot of grassland and a lot of livestock. There seemed to be a ton of new construction and the tractors and threshing machinery around make the place look prosperous. We pulled into customs in Tashkurgan and got sprayed down with pesticide. Our van was allowed in the inbound parking lot but not in the city at large so once we’d cleared customs we exited the other side of the building and were on our own. (Will was interviewed but got his laptop and passport back with no problems.) We hauled all of our stuff out to the street and found a guy with a pickup to carry it to a hotel.
Will sprinted away after the pickup so that he could be at the hotel when the luggage arrived. Mika and I followed Mako but he hadn’t been paying attention to Will’s directions and also hadn’t counted the cross streets so pretty soon we stopped to discover that none of us knew where we were going. By the time we found the hotel Will had gotten us rooms and we stowed our stuff and then walked out for a dinner of street food. We learned that on the streets of Tashkurgan the meat skewers come much more quickly than the vegetable noodles.
The next morning we had a breakfast buffet and then learned that the Chinese van that was supposed to support us as we rode to Karakul Lake had never made contact. The Pakistani driver from the previous day showed up with a friend and a pickup but he was only interested in a one-day trip all the way to Kashgar. Some complicated negotiations followed with the tour agency saying that they had budgeted 600 Pakistani rupees for the stages after Tashkurgan and if we decided to spend more than that it would be on us. We eventually settled on 1,000 for the whole distance and agreed that he would go slowly to Karakul and pick us up there for the final segment to Kashgar. We loaded our luggage, covered it with a tarp, and strapped it down securely.
On the way out of town we visited the rock city – not terribly impressive but historically significant. We rode upstream through a broad grassland with lots of yaks and donkeys and camels. We circled around Muztagh Atta with a few strenuous climbs. We stopped at Kekyor for lunch and met an Italian guy on a mountain bike we’d befriended in Sost. Just before the pass we met a group of four Chinese cyclists heading for Islamabad who said the construction below Karakul Lake “wasn’t bad.” We loaded the bikes into the pickup at the lake and crowded into the the cab for the 120 km to Kashgar. The construction was actually quite bad – probably not really rideable. The police checkpoint at Ghez was pretty painless. We got into Kashgar after dark and had some fun finding the Sultan hotel (it was right downtown next to the main mosque but streets weren’t open to cars and didn’t run both ways.) It turned out that the Pakistani driver hadn’t given any money to his friend so while we were prepared to pay 400 the driver was looking for 1,000. It took a bunch of phone calls to sort things out. We hauled our luggage, bikes included, up to our rooms and went out for street food before going to sleep.
The next day we walked around Kashgar admiring the market and the mosque and the restoration of the old parts of the city. We had dinner at a fancy restaurant while we fielded calls from the hotel and Zahir and the Pakistani driver about getting us our 600 rupees. We got back to the hotel and the money was there and we went to bed.
We got up in the morning and rode back up the Karakoram highway heading for Upal and the shrine to a philosopher named Kashgari. The highway wasn’t very exciting but we found Upal and the shrine and Mako and Mika bought tickets and said it had nice gardens. We had lunch in Upal and then headed back to Kashgar. We attempted to take a smaller road parallel to the highway but we were detained at a police checkpoint and spent a bunch of time waiting for higher authorities to figure out what to do with us. Eventually they told us that we were interfering with the locals and that we needed to get back on the highway and mind our own business. Half an hour later they stopped us on the highway and inspected all of the photos on our cellphones (or rather they looked at our cellphone phones really quickly and carefully inspected each photo on Mika’s camera.) We walked around town for a while in the afternoon, had dinner and went to bed again. Somewhere in the afternoon I tried to shave for the first time on the trip and I clogged my razor before I’d done anything but my cheeks and mustache. We went to a shopping mall and I found a pack of disposable razors and finished the job later that evening.
The final morning in Kashgar was spent disassembling bicycles and packing luggage. Will went to the bazar and got a duffel so that we could pack nothing but the bikes in the cases and keep their weight to 20 kg. We caught a couple of cabs to the airport and then checked in – learning that we had a combined weight allowance that we exceeded so that overweight charges had to be paid. The whole scene was much less confusing than Urumqi, though, maybe we had learned a few things or maybe having Will along made it easier. The flight itself was pretty straightforward.
We stowed our bike cases at left luggage in Urumqi and grabbed a cab downtown. Our previous visit hadn’t prepared us for how big of a city it was. There was a striking difference from Kashgar where electric motorskooters were the dominant mode of transportation – in Urumqi everybody seems to drive a car or at least a (gasoline powered) motorcycle. I discovered that my debit card worked on the Bank of China network. We walked a long time looking for a place to have dinner and then walked some more to the neighborhood around the (closed) Uighur bazar. We got back to the hotel, said goodby to Mako and Mika, and went to bed.
In the morning we walked around for while looking for breakfast and finally stopped into a coffee shop for tea. We returned to the Uighur bazar and spent most of the morning inside. Even though most of the buildings in the compound have minarets only one of the smaller buildings is a mosque (the one with the Carrefours underneath.) We had streetfood for lunch and then returned to the hotel. I caught a cab to the airport at about 3:00.
I had no trouble reclaiming my luggage. The check-in process was much easier than on our previous flight out of Urumqi. I bought a necklace for Odette in the airport giftshop and then waited for my flight to be called. It was only a couple hours in the air but it was late when I got to Beijing. I collected my luggage and hauled it to the storage place which was closed. Eventually I managed to rouse somebody and check the bike cases. Then I started looking for a hotel shuttle.
At midnight outside of the international departures terminal there is little traffic and no taxis or shuttles. Eventually I talked to a woman in an airport uniform who called the hotel for me and then told me to go to terminal 2 door 10 and to look for the Hinan shuttle. I did that (a long walk in the dark) with no better results. Another uniformed woman there made a second call for me and was told that the Ibis hotel didn’t have a shuttle. I called Will who advised me to get a cab. I worked my way down through a parking garage, fending off people who wanted to procure “taxis” for me. I found the arrivals gates with the taxi stand out front and approached the woman at the head of the stand (where no vehicles were parked and no people were waiting.) She spoke english, was in uniform, had a nametag and was only too eager to help. She shepherded me past the security checkpoint at the door of the terminal down to a corridor that took me back under the ramp and told me that a cab would cost 200 quai. She got me into the car of a guy she identified as my driver and I handed him two 100 bills – then she asked me for her tip and I realized that I had just been scammed.
In retrospect the cab ride probably should have cost me 20 quai. The long cab ride in Urumqi was 50 quai. The necklace I bought in the airport was 200 quai. I don’t know why I didn’t realize what was going on…
I told her no tip and she reiterated a request for 50 quai. I gave her a 20 quai bill that was torn in half and closed the door. The driver (it wasn’t a cab with a meter) took me to the hotel – maybe a 10 minute ride. I woke up the guy in the lobby and checked in. I got to my room (small and square and with no furniture but a bed) and was too wired to sleep so I boiled some water in the electric teakettle and drank a couple of cups of hot water. It was probably about 2:00 AM.
I woke up a little before 9:00 and had a couple more cups of hot water. It didn’t take long to pack my stuff back up and I sat in the lobby and waited for the 10:00 shuttle (they did have a breakfast but it took me a while to figure that out and I decided I’d skip.) While I waited what looked like an off duty Hinan aircrew (matching hats and wheelie bags but no blazers) loaded into the big grey step van with the Ibis logo and drove away. The 10:00 shuttle was an unmarked toyota minivan with captain’s seats in the middle row. We loaded 12 people into it with all their luggage and headed for the airport. I got the bike cases from the storage place at terminal 1 and hauled them down to terminal 2 and then waited for an hour for check-in to open. Mako stopped by on his way to check into a flight to Boston. He’d had a good couple of days in Beijing and had a backpack full of tea. I was the second person in line when check-in opened.
Customs and security were straightforward and uncomplicated. I bought some sesame crackers and a bottle of mango juice and sat at the gate to wait for the flight. The plane ended up full of college age Chinese kids and it was a good flight. About an hour before Seattle they turned off the flight tracker and my stomach started feeling uncomfortable.
US customs was as good as I’ve ever seen it and Odette met me at baggage claim. I probably should have found a bathroom before leaving the airport but we drove home and arrived without incident. I spent the next couple of days battling diarrhea and, when that resolved, a nasty head cold. I blame the electric teakettle in Beijing.
The view from the parking lot in front of our hotel in Sost sticks with me:
Here are a couple more observations:
Ismaili Islam – I knew the difference between Suni and Shia muslims and I vaguely knew that Sufis were a more mystical branch, but I didn’t appreciate the Ismailis. At least as practiced in the Hunza valley these guys have community centers instead of mosques, don’t prostrate themselves when praying, and the women don’t wear head covers. They seem to be more liberal about things like alcohol, too. We saw a ton of health clinics and schools and development projects attributed to the Aga Khan and we didn’t see the Iranian-style banners and posters we’d seen in Kargil. (This is relevant, too, as is this.)
Shipton’s routes to Kashgar – Eric Shipton served at the British general counsel in Kashgar for two terms, in 1940 and in 1946. That meant that he was there during the “great game” competition between the Russians, Chinese and British, that he saw the rise of Mao in western china, and that he was on the border during the fall of the British Indian empire, the India/Pakistan partition and the annexation of Kashmir. His writing is really good and the stories are spellbinding. Among other things he describes two trips from Srinagar to Kashgar – the first via Kargil, Gilgit the Hunza valley and Mintaka pass; the second (with his new wife) via Leh, Kardung La, Panamic and Karakoram pass. On our trip to Kashmir Will and I biked the road from Kargil to Leh and recognized the names of the villages he described. We were driven over Kardung La and out to Panamic but the pass was off limits. On this trip we biked the road between Gilgit and the turn-off to Misgar but the old pass is blocked by a glacier. We also biked or were driven along his route from the Pakistani border to Kashgar.
Here is a gallery of my photos
Here are Mika’s photos