Home » Exploration – A Bicycle Ride from Pakistan to China by Mark Jolly
FEATURE (December 2018)
EXPLORATION: A bicycle ride from Pakistan to China
Mark Jolly describes A Journey on two wheels along the Karakoram Highway
‘In Kashgar we came face to face with a totalitarian state in all its glory…’
BEFORE I went to Pakistan to cycle the Karakoram Highway, two people who know the country well gave me warnings. One said that to use a cashpoint in Islamabad was taking your life in your hands, such was the probability of robbery at gunpoint. The other told me that while 90 per cent of the Pakistanis liked the British, the rest were not so keen.
A couple of weeks in, I was sitting at Baltit Fort in the Hunza Valley of northern Pakistan telling all this to a local man who had asked me about my impressions of his country. He looked out over the valley – reportedly the inspiration for Shangri-La – and said: ‘It’s bullshit.’
He was right. Pakistan has its problems, but from what I saw in the very northern tip of the country, he summed it up perfectly.
The Karakoram Highway, KKH for short, runs from near Islamabad, 800 miles through the Karakoram mountains, over the 4,900-metre Khunjerab pass into China, and down to the city of Kashgar. Our trip went on to Kyrgyzstan.
I had wanted to cycle the KKH for 30 years, since I was last in Pakistan. I had read of its stark beauty and the friendliness of the people. I also wanted to see how it felt to cycle from one culture, race and landscape in Pakistan to a completely different one in China, simply by crossing a mountain range. And different it certainly turned out to be.
Back then, I was in Rawalpindi, near the start of the highway, but still 600 miles away from the interesting part in the high mountains. I had limited time, so I decided on my other option – to go back to India and meet the Dalai Lama.
I never regretted that decision, but the KKH was always in the back of my mind. Two things stopped me. I didn’t want to do it while my mother was alive, as last time I was there the worry almost finished her off. And in that 30 years, the news reporting of terrorism in Pakistan made me think it was dangerous.
I started to think about it when my mother died in 2016, and even more so when I discovered that whatever was happening in the rest of the country, the extreme north was still as peaceful as it ever was.
In September 2018, I finally cycled the KKH. It was everything I hoped it would be. A sensational place to be, let alone on a bike. Five of the world’s 14 peaks of 8,000 metres or more are in this part of Pakistan, where the arid climate makes for scenery like nothing else on earth.
But it is the people who really make the area. We couldn’t cycle 100 metres without someone shouting out “Hello! How are you?” The adults were often more excited than the children. Life expectancy in the upper reaches is said to be 120.
An example, from a village called Minapin. I passed a school and as ever, the children outside waved, smiled and yelled out friendly greetings. After returning their smiles, I cycled on. A couple of hundred metres later I looked back to see a crowd of 30 or 40 children running as fast as their legs would carry them up the hill after me. They didn’t know quite what to do when they got there and when one of my riding companions asked if she could take a photo, they took fright and bolted, like a flock of sheep.
They didn’t go too far, and in fact they didn’t mind at all having their photograph taken at all, especially when I lined them up to try on my bike helmet. When we were finished, a small hand pushed a walnut into my palm and they went back to school.
A minor episode, but similar things happened all the time. Any stop would find the whole village gathering round. Respect would be shown to the older men, and space given for them to come and meet the visitors (although Shangri La hasn’t got quite as far as extending that honour to the women).
There was a time when the KKH and the Hunza Valley was a popular tourist destination. But then came the attacks on the World Trade Center, to say nothing of the assault on the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore in 2009. At that Baltit Fort, a Tibetan style fortress high in the mountains, before 9/11 they had 250,000 visitors each year. This year it was 50,000.
Last year, just 3,699 foreign visitors went over the Khunjerab pass into China – an average of 10 per day.
At 4,880 metres, the border between Pakistan and China, the Khunjerab Pass, is the highest paved road international border in the world.
Along with the Pakistanis who had driven up there, we posed for photographs under the arch that marks the border and laughed at the sign boasting about the world’s highest ATM.
The high road in China. Photo by Craig Thomas
We drove under that arch and into China. In a moment, everything was different. Part of my reason for going on the trip was to experience that change of culture but I wasn’t expecting this.
Firstly, there was no one about. The Pakistanis were going back the way they came. Then we became aware of how cold it was, and not just in terms of temperature. We drove two miles – having changed from the left to the right side of the road – to the first of many checkpoints, an imposing shed-like building no one was foolish enough to photograph.
The doors were shut but our driver knew the routine. We waited. After perhaps half an hour a roller door went up, and we drove in to be greeted by a sight that became very common over the next few days. Armed police.
We’d seen plenty of guns in Pakistan, but here those carrying them certainly weren’t up for a selfie.
Written down, it doesn’t sound so different to anywhere else in the world – automatic passport readers, scanners, soldiers going through the bags. But here it so much more oppressive. We were ordered into a side room, where we waited an hour or more, interrupted only by a scowling Chinese soldier coming in every few minutes telling us not to leave.
Perhaps he may have been simply making sure we stayed in the warm. But the stern faces on the teenage conscripts told us that the good times of Pakistan were well and truly over.
Another checkpoint, then a drive along a road fenced in with barbed wire, then more waiting before the official immigration post, in case what we had already been through was not enough.
All in all, a drive of 128 miles took more than eight hours.
The first town we came to was Tashkurgan, where every shop had bars across its front and the locals avoided eye contact with us and made themselves scarce when the cameras came out. A particular police van never seemed too far away, presumably in case the ever present CCTV wasn’t working.
The hotel was surprisingly good but the receptionist donned a bullet-proof vest to see us through yet another scanner in the doorway.
Welcome to Xinxiang province, home to the Uyghurs, a Moslem race distinct from the Han Chinese, who have been oppressing them since long before Islamic terror gave them a reason.
A couple of days later, we cycled through another series of checkpoints to reach the small city of Kashgar and the end of the KKH. Tashkurgan was bad enough but in Kashgar we came face to face with a totalitarian state in all its ‘glory’.
One morning I left the hotel stepped to find the nearby laundry. As I looked at the shops, all with those same bars across the doors, I came across a group of about 15 people wearing hi-vis vests and wielding baseball-bat sized clubs.
I didn’t even want to look directly at them, such was my paranoia about who may be watching.
One of them, a middle-aged woman, spotted me and asked, via sign language, whether I wanted to have my clothes washed. She indicated that I should walk straight through the group to the laundry. Once there, she took off her hi-vis jacket and when the paperwork was done, she put her jacket back on, picked up her club and rejoined the group.
I looked at them properly: they were the local shopkeepers. A policeman at the front was enthusiastic as he demonstrated how to wield the club, but his group, especially the women at the back, some of whom were well dressed and in high heels, showed little interest.
I laughed but it’s not remotely funny. We saw police with sticks with a claw on the end, used to grab someone around the neck. There were armed police in checkpoints on most corners, and cash-rich China is using the area to develop face-recognition software for the ever-present CCTV cameras.
The Xinxiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as it is formally known, or East Turkestan, as the locals would like to call it, borders the Tibet Autonomous Region, a more well-known example of China’s attempt to subjugate an entire people and their religion. The effective head of government in Xinxiang, Chen Quanguo, used to do the same job in Tibet. And a very effective job he is doing.
Of the roughly 10 million Uyghurs, it is estimated that one million of them are in ‘re-education camps’ where the authorities try to ‘de-extremify’ them and force them to denounce Islam. People who have escaped the area talk of forced abortions and organ harvesting. China recently admitted, or should that be proclaimed, the existence of these camps.
One of our group of cyclists has visited other parts of China, which he said was nothing like as bad. I replied that in Kashgar, at least people know they are not free.
All of which was frightening. and the worst aspect of that was that China is the world’s most populous country and has the second largest economy, and growing. China is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council. All that means the rest of the world will not or cannot do anything about the human rights abuses in Xinxiang, Tibet, or anywhere else in China.
Let’s be fair. China is not the only country in the world to be concerned about Islamic terror. Is Xinxiang really so different to Guantanamo Bay? And what about Rodney King or the Charlottesville Riots of 2017? Are people not subjugated in democracies as well?
For one thing, 22 Uyghurs were held in Guantanamo Bay, so the west can hardly claim the moral high ground.
But yes, it is different. Guatanamo Bay only ever had 779 prisoners, and whatever atrocities are carried out by the authorities in democracies, at least we get to hear about it. The policemen who beat Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991 eventually ended up in court and some of them in jail.
The Chinese army marched into Tibet in 1950 and the oppression has been so successful it hardly gets in the news at all. If someone disappears from Kashgar, even the family don’t get to hear about it.
I was extremely glad to have visited and seen this for myself, but even happier to leave. The journey out was even longer than the one in: our passports were checked no less than five times on the way to Kyrgyzstan, and our bus driver was fined for pulling over to the other side of the road in order to park and wait for us.
Finally, we arrived at a shackled old gate that was the actual border, at the Torugart Pass. Even then we had to wait for the border guards to come back from lunch.
Mark Jolly is a journalist and the author of a novel, Suburban Guerrilla. He has travelled extensively, often on a bike, and is working on a novel for young people, The Unicorn Society. He lives in London.
Find more of his work – including a version of this article featuring the third leg of his journey, to Kyrgyzstan, at booksandbikes.co.uk
As with all writing at Horla, any views expressed in this article are the writer’s.