Karakorum Highway Cycling in China
Written by George Balarezo, Intrepid Global Citizen
Barren landscapes with cliffs shooting into the sky on both sides of me. Snow capped glaciers along the glowing horizon. Friendly locals waving as I speed by on my hybrid two wheeled machine. After more than five years of waiting, my dream had finally come true. I unpacked and reassembled my bicycle and was ready to start cycling south along the Karakorum Highway from the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar.
Kashgar is a city like no other. An oasis port which lies on the western tip of the Gobi Desert and home to the Uighur ethnic group who are fighting for independence from the mighty Chinese giants. Known for their artisanship, traditional musical instruments and hand made garments, the Uighur people’s unique talents are on full display in Kashgar. Upon arrival, I quickly found out about their hospitality culture as I was invited into shops for tea and conversations using body language and the little Mardarin Chinese I could muster up. After a few days of roaming the streets and loading up on kebabs, hand made rolled noodles, fresh tandoori naan, fresh peanuts and berries I was itching to start pedaling south.
I sweated my way through the desert terrain that left my throat feeling as dry as snakeskin. Finally, a noodle shack appeared where I posted up for four hours until the midday sunshine released its wrath. I finished several pots of scolding hot green tea that come complimentary with any meal ordered in this region of the world and the sweat continued to pour like a summer monsoon rainfall. I made some progress on my book as the buckets of sweat continued to drench my clothes. On this side of the world, piping hot green tea is the beverage of choice even when the summer months take their wrath on the local population. I was left with a caffeine buzz after chugging two full pots on my own. I knew I should be careful to keep myself as hydrated as possible, but now I was on a full fledged caffeine high. The extent of my caffeine intake during my everyday life in South Korea is about one or two cups of tea per week. Now I had exceeded my weekly caffeine intake by about ten times and was feeling more energized than a bodybuilder on steroids. Nevertheless, I had to wait out the sunshine and pounded out several chapters in my book with the intense concentration of a monk who just emerged from weeks of meditation in the Himalaya. In the west, people normally drink ice cold beverages when the summer strikes full force. I have been avoiding this habit since my move to East Asia several years ago. According to Ayurvedic medicine, the west has it all wrong. Regularly drinking very warm water or tea can heal our bodies, provide digestive power and reduce metabolic waste that could have built up in our immune system. Conversely, processed cold water is devoid of many essential minerals that could become very unfavorable to the digestive tract. Anyway, hot tea has easily become my beverage of choice on a blazing summer day.
I cycled my way through the Xinjaing villages and was looking for a place to crash for the night. The open fields by the side of the road were all fenced off so I couldn’t find a decent area to pitch my tent for the night. I approached a local villager and tried to motion with him using body language that I was looking for a place to stay for the night. “Boe sheu,” he rejected my request with an angry look in his eyes. He was having a bad day for some reason I would never be able to understand. Anyway, I kept going for about thirty minutes more and then saw a sign with some horses around a pond pointing down off to a minor arterial roadway. I decided to go down the road and see what the story was. Upon arrival, I staked out a few canopied sheltered areas that looked like the perfect place to sleep. I was greeted by several men who invited me for more tea and bread. They were excited to see me there and we exchanged identification cards and they were fascinated by my passport and were trying to make out some the English. “GGeeorrgeee Alllfffreeedddooo,” they read off slowly like elementary school students. Finally, I made a request for sleeping space using my superb nonverbal communication skills. “Polizia,” one of them muttered while gesturing that he should make a phone call. Thirty minutes later a police officer arrived and inspected my paperwork. “Kashgar,” he said pointing at his car while attempting to communicate his suggestion to drive me back to where I started cycling from. “Hauw,” he said after a few more minutes accepting my request to sleep there. What nice hospitality on the police officer’s part to offer to drive me back 80 kilometers in his vehicle! Little did I know it but this would be the first of many run ins with the Xinjaing police force. The fun was just starting!