Xinjiang, Xinjiang. Where to start with this absurd place. Xinjiang shares much with the oppressive political situation in Tibet, but doesn’t get nearly the coverage. And the Chinese Government has a vested interest in keeping it that way. Geographically, it is a vast province spanning most of Western China. That fact alone should raise red flags on its own about potential political troubles in the region. The province is sandwiched between China and the predominantly Muslim Turkic peoples of Central Asia, and this creates an obvious conflict. The Uygur minority is kept under constant surveillance, with “abnormal” (real term!) beards and head scarves banned. It’s known to be a nightmare to cycle through, but I think I’ve found a very good way to do it and I want to share that information. So this is a writing-heavy post. But first, back to the last few days of riding in Kazakhstan. The long days riding in Kazakhstan are so crucial to understanding why eventually entering China felt a little like getting hit with a bag of bricks.
Well, the boring connecty parts of this trip have turned out to be… pretty boring and connecty. This is a short post covering a little more than half of the distance from Bishkek to my entry to China at Tacheng. This stretch is about 1100km long, and has proved to be unexpectedly hilly and pretty hot. And thus, in comparison to the previous 1100km+ of riding, it was kind of monotonous. The scenery isn’t great (except for later after Taldykorgon), just endless steppe with tall mountains looming in the distance. The one fortunate thing about this stretch were the amount of services and (until Taldykorgan) the condition of the road. Kazakhstan is much wealthier than Kyrgyzstan, and this means that the average road condition is better, and the average town has more to offer. It’s probably the most developed area I’ve been in since Azerbaijan. Oil will do that to a country.
I spent almost a week in Osh, to the clear confusion of my hotel owners. Where does he go all day? Why doesn’t he eat our breakfast or have tea with us? The answer to the first was that I was usually wandering the aisles of Osh’s grocery stores reveling in the availability of things like cold drinks and yogurt. The answer to the second was that the breakfast was much better at my mom’s swankier hotel. I was also, as would turn out to be more common than I would have liked along this stretch, sick. It wasn’t the beans. It might have been the Nutella. But the third and final culprit, discovered two days out of Osh, was the peanut butter I’d bought in Dushanbe. I would end up throwing away any food (not very much left, mind you) I’d bought before Osh.
It’s somewhat demoralizing to wake up at 3,600m and see nothing out your hotel window but a whiteout. Especially when there’s no heating, and the next time you’ll have electricity (but no heat, mind you) is 7:30pm that night. That was my first morning in Murghab, Tajikistan. Murghab is a sort of depressing town with a good (for the area) hotel and a few shops selling the standard unhealthy Pamir fare. Juice, carbohydrates, candy, bread, etc. The market in town is just a collection of numbered shipping containers with various goods. The main point here being not to expect much from Murghab in this season. At the Pamir Hotel, the generator runs from 7:30pm to 11pm, so it’s only during this time that you can take a hot shower and charge electronics. I spent a rest day in Murghab, partly because I woke up after the first night with a few inches of snow on the ground. It melted very quickly, but the sight out my window upon waking up had already pushed me decisively into rest day territory.
Alright, on to part two of the Pamir Highway. The Pamir Highway is the second highest international road (or whatever, I don’t know what the internet says, it’s the second highest something or other) in the world. The more famous Karakorum Highway, which can be reached easily from the Pamir, but is more politically sensitive, is higher.
Man, where to even start with writing about the Pamir Highway? I’m going to split this, oh, 1300km or so into three posts, because It deserves it. The first post will be the ‘low’ section of the road from Dushanbe to Khorog, the second the ‘high’ part of the road from Khorog to Murghab way out in the middle of nowhere in the Pamir Plateau, and third the final pass and descent to Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
I was struggling to find an umbrella narrative for the first section of the Pamir Highway. The experience of traveling in this region alone on a bike just demands more nuance than just saying ‘it was difficult, here’s why.’ One night lying comfortably alone in my tent, watching the sun set over Afghanistan, I finally hit on something that ties this whole stretch together. It’s vulnerability. Here, in this wild, wild place, a sort of constant undercurrent of vulnerability affects everything I do. It affects how I interact with others, how I manage the ups and downs of each day, and maintain my mental and physical wellbeing over time.
I get very restless if I spend even a day not cycling. I don’t know why, but that’s what happens. When I’m not traveling, I regularly skip gym days. I don’t stick to routines. I don’t set an alarm. But when I’m out on the road, suddenly everything is regimented, and anything outside of my careful routine strikes me as almost frivolous. I wake up at 6:30am sharp pretty much every day. I’m on the road by 8am at the latest. Cities sort of become obstacles, because they break my routine. Also, hostels and other places to stay are close to tourist sites and not necessarily good grocery stores at which to restock on food. If I could just camp outside grocery stores, that would be great, but those tend to be high-traffic places where people would (gasp!) stop by my tent and question why I’m biking across Uzbekistan alone. The answer is supposed to be ‘because I like it’, right? The conviction has been lacking behind those words in recent weeks. Over tea and kebabs in Aktau I said it with a smirk and an abundance of swagger. 100km outside Bukhara I screamed it through tears into a suffocating desert headwind. Fortunately, as I rode for the Tajik border, conditions were about to improve dramatically.