Over the Himalaya by Hand Bike
1400 Kilometres from Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan
The Karakoram Highway has to rank as the most spectacular road in the world…it’s rubble strewn hairpins wind through glacier-draped summits – an exciting descent on anything with wheels, but especially a tandem recumbent and mountain bikes with a trailer and wheelchair balanced behind!
One dark cold winter night, nestled in front of the fire with a select stack of travel guides, we dreamed of seemingly outrageous adventures in distant lands, whose names we could hardly pronounce. A plan took root, and despite skeptical peers, it wouldn’t dissolve. That is how we found ourselves, 6 months later, four cyclists (myself, Lesley, Gheorghe and Pete) with the aim of crossing the Karakoram, with a strange recumbent hand-cranked tandem, two mountain bikes and a trailer for the wheelchair, sat on a plane destined for Kazakhstan. Apprehensive, and be this time skeptical ourselves, we contemplated the challenge ahead – to cycle from Kyrgyzstan, over the Tien Shan mountains to China, then along the Karakoram Highway (KKH) to the 4733 meter Khunjerab Pass, the gateway to the last stretch in Pakistan.
We were greeted by bureaucratic confusion – nothing that couldn’t be resolved with some dollars! Squeezing the tandem (now also known as the Green Beast) into a mini-van for our journey to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, resulted in our first mechanical marathon of fixing the hydraulic brakes. The few days preparation before cycling didn’t bode well. Every few kilometers a bolt could be heard clinking on the tarmac, the bottle rack sheared off, the hand crank was falling apart…..Oops! Was this a realistic plan?!
We had little confidence in anything but the main route east, as the map published in Kyrgyzstan bore little resemblance to the map we’d bought in Britain. Immersed in a sweaty heat we discovered horse traffic instead of trucks and a fairly appalling surface. Wheel trails in the melting tarmac hinted of our presence as we cycled to Lake Issy-Kul where we would turn south and encounter out first mountains. The Dolon Pass (3038 m) was grueling. A steep road was guaranteed to be tarmac-free and deep in gravel – perfect conditions for wheel spin, and impossible to balance the trailer, we resorted to pushing.
In Soviet times, Kyrgyzstan was used for military development, with a top-secret research center for naval weapons at Lake Issy-Kul, and secret uranium mines in remote valleys of the Tien Shan. Since the collapse of the USSR and Kyrgyz independence in 1991, the country has opened to foreigners. Our Russian was appalling, but still a vast improvement on out Kyrgyz, so communication involved a lot of amateur dramatics. We had never felt so welcomed by strangers before. The Kyrgyz people were always willing to share the little they had and insistent that we stayed in their family homes, but on being offered kumus (the national drink of sour horse milk) for the third time in a day, day after day, we wished they weren’t so hospitable!
One week and 400 km later, the town of Naryn, nestled in dry hills resembling a Hollywood western stage set, was our resting post before the remote stretch into the heart of the Tien Shan mountains, and eventually over the Torugart Pass into China. Tourism is not made easy by officialdom. Visas are only the starting point, and you are fined on the spot by OVIR (Office of Visas and Immigration Registration) officials if your passport is lacking in their registration stamp. Leaving the country to anywhere outwith the old Soviet Union requires patience and advance planning, so that border officials can be appeased with acceptable papers and permission. As far as we know, none of the other tourists we met in Naryn made it over the Torugart Pass. It is possible, but not easy, to arrange permission for this once you are in Kyrgyzstan, but bribes are unlikely to work, and we were glad of our advance arrangements.
Naryn to Torugart (200 km) is a tough remote road to cycle. The villages end with the tarmac and the stretch to the pass is dry, windswept and cold. Water cannot be found and we relied on the generosity of the local herdsmen who know where the springs can be found. Our diet went from dull to duller and our stomachs gradually hungrier!
The outer Kyrgyz checkpoint, 60 km from ‘no-man’s land’ is marked by a few very cold and bored looking soldiers. In contrast to this unfriendly official appearance, the soldiers casually flicked through our passports, posed for photos and let us through. We had only cycled a short distance (15 km) but it was a Baltic day with small dust storms and we decided to accept an invitation to stay the night with a road-worker and his family in preference to a night sleeping in some random roadside ditch!
Settling into the hospitality, and disappearing by horseback for afternoon tea in a typical yurta – a nomadic style circular tent, we forgot our colorful conspicuousness, and returning that evening discovered my wallet had been stolen. In response out hosts took it upon themselves to become vigilantes in the local community to find the culprit. The night turned into one of terror as we listened to the vodka-fuelled arguments and fights behind the dark walls only meters away. When dawn came, the wallet was sitting on the doorstep, surrounded by blood splashes. Our hosts were pleased with their efforts. We however discovered the thief’s revenge – a very dubious tasting (fishy!) water, which had been filled from the urn next to the doorstep – probably urine-sabotaged by the thief!
A slow bumpy crawl was the pace at which we proceeded the last desolate stretch to the border. A serene and beautiful landscape, the mountains were gentle and almost distant. The road was dusty washboard, making cycling very unpleasant. A double electric fence with deserted watch towers marks the border between the old Russia and China – clearly not the ultra-sensitive, closed border it once was but still with the air of a war-zone wasteland.
We were saved from the last inhospitable 20 km by Lesley’s bike – the crank was broken and we were forced to hitch with a truck. A spine-chilling high speed rally with two very drunk and letching drivers, the bikes and wheelchair bounced in the back and we all clung on as we hurtled along the dirt road. The only way out was to feign sickness and threaten them with vomit if they didn’t slow down. It worked, and we escaped unscathed into an even more desolate wasteland, but this time littered with caravans and makeshift buildings.
So this was the border. Two days early for our arranged crossing, we took enforced rest. This was no holiday camp. The toilets of Central Asia are of interesting design, and here was one of the best. A wooden hut with a plank balanced precariously over a long trench. As the trench fills, the hut and plank are moved along. Fresh, airy and very spacious….but NOT to be recommended. Careful though we were, the inevitable gut problems began at Torugart, and this wasn’t the best place to contend with them!
The 20 km’s of No-Man’s Land between Kyrgyzstan and China was misty and wet, the officials were surprisingly amicable, and after all the negative hype about this border crossing, it went unexpectedly smoothly. We entered China through a giant stone archway, and the landscape, if it was possible, became even drier. A dirt washboard road through desert abandon took us to the main Chinese customs, 100 km after the border. It’s hard to take Chinese officials seriously when you have just watched them stumble out of their quarters still dressing in vests and translucent silk shirts and then have to face their interrogation! We were not (much to our relief!) allowed to cycle this section and were escorted by our pre-arranged Chinese agency, to Kashgar.
The color and bustle of Kashgar was a stark contrast to the quiet repression of Kyrgyzstan. Fresh food tempted out palettes, tourists were suddenly common place, and cycle-tourers were in their hoards. We no longer felt to be on some intrepid exploratory route. China being famous for its bikes, we managed to gets Lesley’s bike fixed with the help of some interesting Chinese tools and a few bashes of a hammer! After almost three weeks on the road, the Green Beast and other mountain bike were thankfully faring well.
From here we slowly began our long (500 km) up-hill journey, through the hostile Taklamakan desert, towards the source of the mighty river Ghez, churning slide debris along its bed as it carves a path through vertical rock walls. The Karakoram Highway was originally a cross-border trade route which opened after hostility following the Chinese invasion of Tibet and occupation of northern Pakistan had thawed. It threads its way though a knot of four great mountain ranges : the Pamir, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayas, marking the collision zone between the Asian and African continents. The scale of the mountains was hard to comprehend, but given away when the occasional truck is seen as a tiny speck in the mountainous backdrop. Camp spots promised to be roadside gravel- and sand-pits, but as if someone were looking after us, each night we found refuge somewhere.
The people here are mainly Uyghur, Kyrgyz or Tajik in descent, and their homes, mud houses with colorful hand-woven rugs and wall hangings, reflect this. The people of this region were not so friendly as in Kyrgyzstan – the highway has changed their way of life and tourism has had its impact. Cycling here was tough, food was little and far-between, and we developed begging tactics to win food from passing tourists – not recommended as a foolproof technique!
Weeks of cycling along with thinning air and cold windy weather took their toll as we crawled slowly upwards. We met other cyclists, and would always stop and exchange adventures and heed advice. Some were astounded that we were planning to cycle over the high pass ahead - even though they had just cycled over it themselves! This was obviously seen as no place for a tandem recumbent, trailer and wheelchair.
Only a few km remained before the big summit and what promised to be an exciting descent into Pakistan. At snails pace the Green Beast zig-zagged upwards giving us time to notice camels out of place in the glaciated surroundings. A nasty grinding from Lesley’s bike confirmed that the crank had mangled itself again, 5 km from the top. Even walking and pushing she was faster than the tandems crawl! We paused for passport inspection, a salute and a very charitable plate of food at the ‘Frontier Defence of China’ caravan, which had no hope of defending itself from a storm never mind an invasion. The elation at having made it to our highest point (4733 m) and into Pakistan was quenched by piercing cold. We briefly absorbed the majesty of the Karakoram panorama but the descent looked far too exciting to put on hold!
Tyres barely clinging to rubble-strewn hairpins, glacier-draped peaks looming high, infinite scree threatening the route ahead, we descended along the highway that claimed lives to defy nature. Plunging into the Indus gorge, the land becomes very fertile, neat green terraces hosting apples and potatoes. The pressure off and the altitude over, we relaxed, enjoyed a mind-blowing 250 km descent, and soaked-up the spectacular scenery – vertical rock walls and scree capped by the mighty summits 5000 m above the valley floor.
Lack of crank meant Lesley had to be towed. Joined to Gheorghe’s bike by a cable lock, they dared speeds of 50 km/hr, their momentum sending them careering around bends, over landslides and streams, slowing to one-man power on the undulating uphill sections. Fortunately the cycling was easy, though interesting and unexplained noises seemed to be emanating from most moving parts of the bikes and our bodies by now. A few days later, and another temporary ‘botch-job’ with glue and hammer fixed Lesley’s bike again. Our progress was instead hindered by the re-introduction to western food, which along with a few powerful curries, played havoc with our guts and forced us to take rest days. A suitably exciting arrival over two suspension bridges eventually brought us conspicuously to the male-dominated streets of Gilgit. This marked the end of our wee cycling adventure.
Only seven weeks long, but we had experienced so many different landscapes and cultures. Our bikes were our way of life and it was hard to stop. Our dull aching muscles were glad of the rest, and we lapped up forgotten luxuries of civilization. The 1500 km, 35 day journey had undoubtedly been an experience of a lifetime!
Karen Darke was paralysed from the chest down in a climbing accident in 1993. She re-discovered the mountains through skiing. The Himalayan Hand-Cycle raced £12 000 for Scotland’s Alternative Skiers (Tel: 01224 324521), an organisation which provides specialist equipment and volunteers to enable anyone, regardless of their ability / disability to enjoy the thrills of skiing.