In 1989, when I was in Class 4, I mugged up two paragraphs on the Silk Route from the history textbook for a class test. Later, I repeated the exercise for the mid-term and final examinations. It wasn't fascinating, but I have remembered the description ever since.
In 1999, I read about Genghis Khan and his invasions through the Silk Route into the present day northwest frontier of China. I discovered a romantic and pretty world of snow-capped mountains, camels, silk, fruits and traders (till I came to the war and Mongols' plundering bit). I remember that as well.
Another 10 years and a few jobs later I had saved up enough to travel to China myself.
I remembered the Silk Route and some very basic things about it. But it hadn't been my first choice. I wanted to go to Tibet on the Roof of the World -- a train that takes 50 hours from Beijing to Lhasa.
But my journalist friends did not get a Tibet travel permit; the authorities don't like journalists on the loose in politically sensitive parts.
So Tibet got canned and I had to bid the Lhasa beer at the Tibet Cafe goodbye, something I'd really, really been looking forward to.
But there's a supreme travel writer out there who has scripted great journeys for all travellers.
As fate would have it...
I landed in the extremely pretty Xinjiang province in the northwest corner of China, thanks to my friends who had a backup plan. A 3-hour flight from Beijing took us to Urumqi, which has been in news recently for the wrong reasons. Then a comfortable 23-hour train ride from then on dropped us off at Kashgar, the last city within the Chinese frontier where the Silk Route, for all practical purposes, starts. Go beyond this and you enter the "-stan" countries -- Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Pakistan.
While checking into the Kashgar International Youth Hostel -- a clean, warm and traditional Uighur style building in the Old City -- a notice stared me in the face: "We are two guys (Americans Jonathan and Noah) looking for company to cycle from Karakul Lake to Kashgar." They were planning to ride along the southern Silk Route, which is now a smooth, tarred highway. Excited by the proposition, by evening we'd already booked tickets on the bus to Pakistan. We would get off at Tashkurgan, the last city before Pakistan, and continue our journey further on rented mountain bikes. My two friends were also coming along, but they preferred the taxi.
On two wheels
Our cycling plan: After the bus dropped us off at Tashkurgan, we'd sightsee in the town for a couple of hours before heading to the Karakul Lake 60 km away. Three of us would cycle and the other two would take a taxi. We'd spend the night at the pretty Karakul Lake and start early the next day to cover about 100 km. Then we'd camp somewhere for the night and cycle all the way to Kashgar the third day.
But there was another prong. The daily bus to Pakistan got cancelled. Although the tickets sell every day, the bus leaves only 3-4 times a week. We collected our refunds and hired a mini pick-up truck to take us and the three cycles to Tashkurgan for RMB 100 (Rs 770) per person. Cycles for free. We were back on track.
A leisurely 6-hour drive took us past Lake Karakul all the way up to Tashkurgan, where we ate dinner at the Pakistani Best Food restaurant, the sun still shining bright at 7.30 pm Xinjiang time. The taxi driver, Jabba, took us to some interesting ruins and bylanes, and showed us the house where parts of the film The Kite Runner were shot. After an hour there, we decided to head back to Karakul Lake. The ride cost us all a steep RMB 350 (Rs 2,695).
The night was cold and uncomfortable. And more so for the Americans who were roughing it out in the tent on the shore of the lake at an altitude of 3,600 m. The snow-capped Pamirs rose menacingly against the backdrop of the dark, starry night. My friends and I were cosy in the warm yurt (an old style circular house in the hilly regions, much like what one finds along the Manali-Leh highway).
After a sparse breakfast of a naan and a banana, we started at 7.30 am. The sun was very low and the weather cold. Noah lent me a pair of gloves, and since I didn't have a jacket, I put on a sweatshirt and another T-shirt over my shirt. The chilly wind stabbed at our faces, our fingers numb within 10 minutes of riding.
A twisty decline
After the first two hours of descent, it started to get warm. Our layers came off one by one just as the empty water bottles started piling up. We wanted to stick to the modern Silk Route for as long as we could. The villages and hamlets there are nothing like the Chinese highrises that have a Western water chamber. Nor do the people look like those in Beijing. It's China like no one has ever told me about.
We were travelling from an altitude of 3,600 m to 2,700 m, but anyone who has been to the hills can assure you that the descent is not all downhill -- you come down one hill, pedal up another.
After a point, Noah and I held on to the rear bumper of a slow moving truck to reach the other side of the slope. Jonathan, a true American, avoided all risk and struggled on. By 4 pm, we had reached the first checkpoint 70 km away. We had lunch at an Uighur family's home: handmade noodles with vegetables and meat for RMB 6 each. At 5.30 pm we started again, and after another hour-and-a-half of cycling, we were close to the plains. We had cycled for about 90 km and my legs were starting to hurt, the strong wind making it real difficult to keep the bike steady.
The progress was painfully slow. The ride wasn't fun anymore. Noah and Jonathan flagged down a truck headed to Kashgar. The driver offered to drop me off for nothing at all. Throughout the journey we didn't speak to each other -- I knew no Mandarin and he knew no English.
As luck would have it, Noah's cycle had a flat tyre an hour later. Incidentally, my friends, who had stayed back at Karakul Lake, were on their way back in a taxi around the same time. They picked up the other cyclists and returned to the Kashgar International Youth Hostel an hour after I did, at 9 pm.
With aching bodies and sore, sunburnt limbs, we regrouped for the night one last time in the familiar comfort of the hostel to trade our stories!