A Different Kind of Freedom A Different Kind of Freedom: A 3300 Mile Solo Bicycle Trip Across Tibet Tibetan Nomads in Western Tibet

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Life in the Civilized World

Once I entered the city of Kashgar, I headed straight for the Seaman Hotel. The guys whom I met back in Ali had informed me that the Seaman was a decent place to stay. It sat across from "John's Restaurant," where you could place international phone calls and get an endless supply of french fries delivered to your table. The Seaman actually occupied the old Russian Embassy complex. You could tell that the days of splendor and elegance had passed this hotel by long ago. When I got there the pool sat empty, while old age and gravity slowly peeled the remaining paint from the walls, but hot water flowing from showers and clean beds certainly made up for any deficiencies in the decor.

Over the course of the next week, I just rested under the shade of the umbrellas at John's, eating french fries, ice cream, and Sichuan chicken. I knew that it would take a while to gain back all the weight I had lost in the past months, but I was anxious to start working on it. Most of the travelers in town had come up from Pakistan, traveling by bus on the Karakoram Highway. This rugged mountain road, which connects Pakistan and China, opened to foreigners in 1986. Nick Danziger tells an hair-raising tale in Danziger's Travels of how he wrangled his way across the Chinese border from Pakistan to become the first Westerner to travel this road. He assured the Pakistani border officials that the Chinese had already given him permission to cross into China while he promised the Chinese that the Pakistani officials approved of his crossing. The Chinese police quickly pursued him a day or two after he crossed when the web of stories became uncovered.Kun Lun Shan mountains, Xinjiang, China

While I stuffed my mouth with an unending stream of food, I saw a couple who looked somewhat familiar. Damien and Dominique called over to me. After a moment I realized that the French couple whom I had met in Western Tibet sat across from me. They told me how they just arrived in Kashgar. Only 48 hours before, they had left Ali. They had ridden with a crazy Uyghur truck driver that made a non-stop high speed trip from Ali to Yechen. Talking to someone else who had lived through some of the adventures that I had just emerged from excited me. We had traveled the same roads, they just moved at a much higher rate of speed.

During my stay in Kashgar I met many travelers who had just come up from Pakistan and wanted to travel the route across Western Tibet and on to Mt. Kailash and Lhasa. When word got out that I had recently come from that direction, groups of people formed who wanted to talk to me about the details of making the journey to Lhasa. I tried to give a realistic picture to people as to what the trip would entail, but I always tried to caution fellow travelers of the dangers involved. The most dangerous problem with traveling from Kashgar to Western Tibet is that the altitude increases too much, too fast. Kashgar sits at an altitude of only 4,000 feet [1219 meters]. Once you leave Kashgar you will most likely have only a couple days until you enter the Askin Chin, which sits at an awesome 17,000 feet [5182 meters]. If your truck breaks down in the Askin Chin and you have any kind of altitude sickness there is no way out and no way down. When you cross a mountain pass you can always descend quickly in case you get altitude sickness. Since the Askin Chin consists of a high altitude basin there is no way down. Every year one or two travelers either dies or comes close to death on the road through the Askin Chin. While I rested at Mt. Kailash I heard about a Japanese traveler who almost died in the Askin Chin. After I presented my view of what the journey would entail, most people decided not to travel on the road to Western Tibet but rather opted for a safer route through Qinghai Province and on to Lhasa. Nevertheless a small handful of hard-core folks started asking for even more details of how to survive the trip. Just about all of these people were headed to Mt. Kailash.

During my entire trip my bike computer kept a total of how many miles I had traveled along with how many vertical feet I climbed, giving me the total combined uphill climb. During a conversation on the phone with my brother back in the USA, one of the Chinese guys in John's examined my bike computer. He flipped it over and pulled off the battery cover, resetting the mileage back to zero. In an instant the electronic record of the distance that I had traveled disappeared. I relayed the event to my brother, he thought that I would be furious with the Chinese guy who erased my bike computer. I knew that there was nothing that I could do, it was gone.

Kashgar marked the end of the difficult part of my trip. I knew that anything after Kashgar would constitute more or less a "vacation ride." The Karakoram Highway goes south for 450 miles [750 km], winding its way through the Western extent of the Himalayan and the Karakoram mountains. The road took more than 20 years to build by both Chinese and Pakistani workers. Every day landslides, washouts and collapses continue to plague the road. But compared to the route I had just traveled, I knew that it would make for a relatively easy ride. In recent years even a couple of commercial companies ran organized mountain bike trips down the Karakoram Highway. Throughout this length of road both food and basic shelter would always be easy to find.

I guess by normal standards a 500-mile [833 km] mountain bike ride from Kashgar in far Western China down the Karakoram Highway to Gilget, Pakistan would make for an exciting extreme adventure, but for me it meant just the opposite. In Kashgar I found a guidebook that described the route in detail. Most of the ride ran through a land foreign to me. The people who live in this part of Western China are Caucasians, mostly Uyghur, Kossacks, and Tajiks. I did not know their culture or their language. Fortunately for me, there were still enough people around who spoke Chinese for me to be able to know what was going on.

The Kunjirab Pass demarcates the official border between China and Pakistan. Since the actual border line lies in an uninhabited region, neither the Chinese nor the Pakistanis have a border post at the pass . Each day a couple guards patrol their respective sides of the border. I received a Chinese exit stamp in my passport in the Tajik town of Taskargant. It is another 78 miles [130 km] until the Pakistani border post. When I thought about it, the concept of not officially being in either China or Pakistan seemed a strange idea. The notion of being some place but not residing in a country had never occurred to me before.

The last Chinese guard post consist a small building on the side of the road, manned by two PLA soldiers. The guard flipped through my passport and took my exit papers. I felt a little sad to be leaving China, it marked another step in the ending of my trip. A busload of Japanese tourists stopped on the side of the road next to me. They had paused to take pictures of the mountains around us, jagged snowcapped peaks that rose up out of the pristine grassy meadows. When a few of the Japanese heard where I had recently traveled, they offered me some candy and soda pop that they had brought with them from Japan.

At the actual border, two or three Chinese PLA soldiers with automatic weapons leisurely guarded the Chinese side, while a few Pakistani soldiers followed suit on their side. I stopped at the stone marker on the top of the pass for a short break and to celebrate what I had done in the four and a half months. I asked one of the Pakistani soldiers, "Could you please take a picture of me ?" He certainly did not show much enthusiasm but finally agreed. Upon handing my camera back, he asked to see my Pakistani visa. I answered, "I am sorry but I don't have a Pakistani visa, I want to get a 72-hour transit visa. I'm sorry but I have been in China for 4 and a half months. I was instructed that any Pakistan visa that I received in the USA would only be valid for 3 months. The Pakistani consulate in Los Angeles told me that it would not be a problem to get a visa at the border." The solider was upset, because obviously he had too many people showing up at the border without a visa. He flatly told me, "You must return to China, it is not possible to enter Pakistan without a visa." I knew that the only Pakistani consulate in all of China was located in Beijing, and there was also one in Hong Kong; both of these were more than 2000 miles [3333 km] away. That would mean that I would have to fly all the way across the country and spend a week in Beijing just to get a visa. I had no interest in doing this. I pleaded with the solider again, "Sir, I am very sorry that I don't have a Pakistani visa, but at this point I no longer have a Chinese visa, so it is not possible for me to return to China. I know that it is not possible for me to get a regular visa at the border, but I only want a 72-hour transit visa, so I can take the bus to Islamabad, where I can get an official visa." The discussion went on for the next 20 minutes. He continued to tell me over and over that I must return to China, that it was not possible to enter Pakistan. I was just about in tears, because after all I had been through, to have a border guard end my trip was not a pleasant idea. Finally he told me, "All of you Americans, French and British come here with no visa, it is not right. You must have a visa to enter Pakistan. You can cross the Kunjirab Pass, but you must go straight to my boss, who is at the next road construction camp and ask him if it is possible for you to enter Pakistan. When the immigration official in Sust, Pakistan heard about my journey, he made sure that I got a 15-day visa so that I would not have any visa problems in Pakistan.

 

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All images and text Copyright © 1996 Ray Kreisel