Sunday, July 11, 2010

Coda

Our flight takes us to Frankfurt from where we plan to cycle to the Hague, take a ferry to Harwich and cycle to our families in Manchester and the Wirral. In Mainz we are hosted by Judith and Korbinian through Warm Showers.  They're a lovely couple who have ridden their recumbents through the Alps to Judith's home country of Hungary.

Our reason for coming to Germany is essentially a sad one.  Whilst planning our journey home back in Chengdu we received an e-mail form Reinhard, a traveller we met in Bishkek, a fellow inmate at Nomad's Home back in 2008 where he celebrated his 62nd birthday.  We got on well with him and stayed in touch with occasional e-mail.  He wrote telling us that he had been diagnosed with cancer and did not have long to live.  He would be very pleased if we could visit him.  And we said yes.  And so we arrive at his home in Duren, where we stay a few days and spend time with him and his family.  It's a strange experience for us - Reinhard, his wife and children and their families are going through a very painful and difficult time - but at the same time it is also a very special experience and we are treated with such kindness and hospitality by everyone.  

Life suddenly seems all too short and yet it is clear Reinhard has lived a very full and happy life.  He tells us that he wrote to an old school friend living abroad who had come to visit.  We said we thought it was quite unusual to receive his request that we visit and with a smile and a gleam in his eye he replied how unusual it was that we had agreed to come.  

After saying goodbye to Marie-Luisa and Reinhard everything else seems inconsequential.  We had planned a slow return home but suddenly want to see our families.  On our way we make fleeting stops to visit Jeff and Else in Antwerp, Marthein and Eun Yung in Breda, Martine and Guy in Wuurstwezel (am I making that name up?) and Friedel and Andrew in Den Haag.  It's good to see these friends that we have made on this journey and we hope they don't mind us passing through so briefly.

It takes three and a half day's cycling to get from Harwich to Manchester.  The next day we cycle to Oxton. Along the way we are hosted by a friendly family in Harwich, Phil in Cambridgeshire, Chris and Anna near Loughborough and Margaret and Mike in Macclesfield, where there is a Silk Road.  As any scholar could have told us - there's more than one.............

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Taking Flight

We wake up just before the birds. While I start packing up Gayle goes outside to relieve herself behind a tree - not best campsite etiquette, admittedly, but you haven't seen the toilets. It comes as a little surprise to her when she reappears to find a dozen soldiers lined up gazing in her direction. They then prostrate themselves in her direction. What's happening? Ah-ha - it's morning prayers. As we cycle off in the wonderfully cool morning air through woodlands beside the city there seems to be rather a lot of folk around. It's about 5 am. Seems this is the best time of day if you want to avoid the heat. Eventually we emerge onto a main road and pedal fast along the hard shoulder. The main road becomes a motorway. There are signs for "Lahore, Airport". After half an hour I'm wondering if we misread the sign and are actually heading to Lahore Airport. I look back over my shoulder to consult with Gayle and spot an aeroplane taking off well away from where we are. Uh-oh. We check with a taxi driver who tells us to keep going - sure enough, there's a sign ahead directing us to the airport. When we do reach the entrance we realise that we've cycled the length of the runway and some more.


Security at the airport is like all security in Pakistan - highly visible and highly ineffective. At the entrance we get delayed by bored soldiers who just want to look at our passports. At the door into departures a man wants to inspect our ticket and passports. I push onwards and leave Gayle behind who is then held back because I've got our e-ticket and the man couldn't read our names on it. There is an inspection of the contents of our panniers. Then the x-ray machine. The soldiers gamely try and fit our bicycles through the machine. Eventually Gayle's goes through, but mine's too big and after a bit of humming and hah-ing gets wheeled around. A man is deputed to inspect it for goodness knows what. He holds it at arms length with a bemused look on his face and finally waves me on. We join the check-in queue. Islamabad airport isn't that big and we're happy to see that the baggage conveyor belt behind the five check-in desks is just rolling everything outside onto the tarmac. Surely our bicycles won't be a problem.


"Excuse me sir, but your bicycles will be a problem." Two of the PIA staff are at our side shaking their heads at our bikes. But they're not heavy, we protest. It's not the weight - but their bulk, they explain. They'll have to go as freight. But it's too late for freight and we've no money. Why can't they just go as part of our normal baggage allowance? Is the flight full? The two men consult and then ask us to wait at the desk for a supervisor. Meanwhile our other bags are checked in and we get two labels for the bikes. We wait around for about an hour as many more people check in. Airport trolleys laden head high with suitcases and boxes trundle up and are off loaded without anyone batting an eyelid. No problem with bulk for some, it seems. We continue to wait. Our flight is about to close and the woman at the check-in desk is telling us that we have only five minutes more. "But what can we do?" we ask. She points over at the Cling-film Men, who are doing a roaring business wrapping anything plonked in front of them. We need to get the bikes wrapped if they are to go on board. All of a sudden the problem has vanished. What fun this is. The cling film men quote us a ridiculous price to wrap the bikes and then set to with gusto after we agree. Fifteen quid seems like a bargain after all the doubts and head-shaking. And then our prized posessions are carried off by a baggage-handler and disappear out onto the tarmac. Will we ever see them again?


Our flight is being called. We have to dash through all the controls. No time to linger in Departures, we are soon walking up the steps and onto our plane. Buckled up and still feeling pleased with ourselves about the bikes, we slowly begin to realise that we are about to leave Asia. After all this time. We are on our way home, albeit indirectly, and this will be our last flight. It all seems too much to comprehend. I wonder what there is for breakfast?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hotting Up (Doing the Dew)

We've only been in the internet cafe for 10 minutes when the power goes off and we find ourselves in darkness. Load-shedding. The three young guys in the cafe start chatting to us and the load-shedding becomes an off-loading session. Pakistan is stuffed, essentially. With corrupt politicians, an over-powerful military and high unemployment, what are they to do? One of them has two masters degrees and can't get a job. Another has worked in Australia - he enjoyed it there but returned to Pakistan when his daughter died. Their list of woes is long and we can feel their frustration.

In the bazaar we notice many of the barrow boys and traders look different - they're Afghans. And out on the streets we finally get to see lots more women - students and shoppers - their faces are not covered as they have been in most of the towns we've been through since we left the Hunza Valley. Abbottabad's main advantage is the climate - whilst the heat is building up on the plains to the south, the town enjoys fresh coolish air. It's not too hot to wander about and it's perfect when the sunsets. And hey, there's footie on the telly. What's on this evening? Mmmm, Chile versus Honduras. If it does get too hot around mid-afternoon we retreat to our room, sit under the fan and drink a big bottle of Mountain Dew, Pakistan's best pop drink. We are sub-consciously counting the days down to our flight and return journey and thinking about being home more than about where we are right now. It seems inevitable I suppose.


The last leg of our journey is on to Islamabad. Do we take the busy main road or a quiter road that involves a big climb? I don't want to do the former and Gayle's reluctant to do the latter, so instead we take a minibus up to Murree, avoiding the climb, and then free-wheel for 50km all the way into Islamabad. Along the way we stop for chai. We get chatting to a traffic cop, Imran, who is sat reading a book in English - it's a bodice ripper judging by the cover - he's ridden up here from Rawalpindi, the old city that sprawls next to prim and proper Islamabad, in between shifts to escape the heat. He tells us he has an MBA - but this is the best job he can find. He studied accountancy - now all he counts are the cars. He loves reading though - if the traffic is not too heavy he can read. This might explain the traffic flow in 'Pindi. "Are the police respected in the UK?" he asks. Good question. "Mm, yes." "Because here the police have no respect." Political interference, corruption, he explains. Aren't they a bit lazy and incompetent? I want to ask. I remember on my first visit to Pakistan being in a taxi that got pulled over by the traffic police. The driver handed over his licence with a folded rupee note sticking out of it, ready for such an occasion. But Imran is another charming man, and I don't want to offend him. Needless to say we are unable to pay for our tea - he insists.


We arrive in Islamabad as the mid-afternoon heat is wearing off. There's a Tourist Campsite here, unsigned, where we can pitch our tent for about 80 pence a night. The facilities are value for money. Next to the toilet block, some very brave soldiers are camped. They have a sandbagged gun emplacement with a clear line on the entrance gate. Surely they're not here to protect us? Carl, a young Aussie on a bike going to China, is the only other camper. There are a few trees providing some shade, but by 7.30 in the morning we have to get out of the tent. It is much too hot, as they say in these parts. Thank goodness we fly out on Sunday. The heat puts us off doing too much. One thing we plan to do is post home some surplus baggage - but when we turn up at the Post Office on Saturday morning it is closed. We are planning to cycle to the airport and hope the airline takes our bikes without them being boxed. Fingers crossed.


Having a bike in Islamabad is quite liberating. The city is built in a grid system and the distances seem so great. But so many of the roads just end in dead ends. Sometimes it feels like we're in a huge maze. There's a languid air about it all. What's most striking about the city is how green it is - trees everywhere - but ultimately it's a dull place by South Asian standards. Perhaps it'll help us acclimatise to the Western World?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Football Daze

You learn many things on a journey like this. At our hotel in Mansehra where we had a TV showing World Cup football, I learnt that you should not leap into the air, arms aloft in celebration, in a room with a low ceiling and a ceiling fan. Gayle shakes her head and a tut is audible as I writhe in agony on the floor like a... well, like a World Cup footballer. Luckily no appendages are lost. "It's only South Korea", Gayle remarks. Later the same day, as I'm returning to the room with a bag of fresh samosas I fall down a drain. I have already learnt that you should always keep an eye out for the pavement that suddenly disappears, but I had forgotten this valuable lesson. Only one samosa is lost - disappeared down a black hole.


Our ride to Mansehra is not too long and very pleasant as it's mainly downhill. Traffic has picked up though, and as well as the painted trucks there are now tons of minivans and the much-loved Suzuki Maruti. The drivers are uniformly moronic, or at least that's what I tell them when they buzz past close enough to tickle me. I'm not in a laughing mood and practice some new hand signals. We stop at a chaishop for the obligatory tea and get chatting to a young man called Kamran. When we set off again he insists on paying for the drinks. The air is fresh with the scent of pine as we descend through forest. Now and again we pass some dreadful-looking chicken factory farms. I vow never to eat chicken again - a vow that is broken once we arrive Mansehra.


Outside the little restaurant some women stop us to say hello. The younger one is from England, and she invites Gayle/us to her house. In a nice turnaround I am completely ignored by everyone. We're sweaty and starved so we pass on the invite and hurry inside, where we are then 'captured' by Idrees, a young graduate looking for a job. He wants to talk, practice his quaint English, and asks us a few questions while we stuff our faces. At some point he points out how much a pleasure it is for him to talk with a foreign woman for the first time. In true South Asian style he has lost interest in me once he learns I have no university education. Obviously I'm an idiot. Gayle garners all the attention with her masters degree in demography. At first I found this annoying, but ultimately I'm rather relieved. When I am asked what my educational background is (this is usually Question Number Three) I tend to wave dismissively, and say "Nothing. But my wife has a master's degree......" thus getting out of Questions Four to Ten. Idrees turns out to be a very charming young man, if a little serious. I have to hurry off to catch Algeria versus Slovenia.

Abbottabad is only a short ride down the road, but we still manage to squeeze in a tea stop along the way. Another traveller, a tea trader riding on his motorbike with his small son and a large sack of tea, pays for our drinks. The town is becoming a city - with a huge approach road full of new shops and snazzy restaurants, private schools and colleges. After riding into the centre for half an hour we stop for a mango milkshake. A young student pays for these before we can stop him. These kindnesses to strangers are embarrassing. Would an Englisman buy a foreigner a cup of coffee in England like this?? We're still in the hills here, north of Islamabad, and the climate remains fresh. Down on the Punjab plains it's a different story - pre-monsoon heat is cranking up. So we decide to take a few days rest here - the days we saved by taking a minibus through Kohistan. Besides the hotel has TV and look, it's New Zealand versus Slovakia tonight...........

Monday, June 14, 2010

Stoned Again

On our way out of Besham we come to a checkpoint beside a police station. The men are wearing tee-shirts with 'Commando' emblazoned on the front, and 'Anti-Terrorist Squad' on the back. You can probably pick these up in the bazaar. An officer with very good English asks us where we are going. We tell him and he asks us to wait. He consults with someone inside and then explains that they'd prefer us to take a bus to Thakot bridge, about 30km down the road. "Is the road dangerous?" we ask. No, no, it's perfectly safe, but it's just a precaution, he explains. We resign ourselves to wait for a ride, but I get itchy sitting outside a police station at a checkpoint. Surely this is the most dangerous place to hang around in all of Pakistan? After half an hour, and much discussion amongst the 'Anti-Terrorist Squad' it was finally decided that we would be safe to continue alone after all. The road south is much more populated and we find ourselves waving and saying hello to everyone all the time. Everyone is very friendly. The truck drivers in their brightly decorated trucks all give us a thumbs up, as they pass us in a wave of tinkling bells - each truck bears tassled skirts of tiny bells. I love the hand gestures Pakistanis use - the Push is a repeated two-handed mime to mean 'Alright'. The more common is the questioning hand twisting upturned. It means what?where?why? I reply with an improvised all-encompassing wave pointing forwards. It'll do.

We meet some policemen in a truck who insist on 'escorting' us. All of a sudden the cycling feels quite different. People look at us but I feel quite self-conscious with the police right behind us. We don't feel threatened at all. Finally we ask the police to leave us be. They look puzzled and perhaps offended, but when we stop for pop one of the policemen shoos away three little boys just hanging around - we don't want this kind of protection. A local man smiles and says the local people are good people. We have no doubt of this. But, he adds, there are some people........

At Thakot bridge we have lunch and then begin a big climb out of the Indus valley. It's too hot and we're slow climbers. From up above a rock falls onto the road between us. And then I spot another little bastard lobbing stones at us. Where does this come from? The adults seem friendly enough. We crawl up hill for about 25km to a little market town which we instantly recognise as we turn a corner. We spent about five hours in one spot here when our bus had a puncture back in 2008. We stop for numerous teas and to recover from our climb. Unfortunately there's another 16 km to climb to the pass. We plod on, through pine woods, in the afternoon's fading sun.

"Where are you going?"
"Uphill."
"From where are you coming?"
"Downhill."

Finally after a lot of sweat and puffing, we get to the top. There's a fairly nice hotel at the pass and we take a room there. None of the staff speak English, but Akram, a Pakistani man who has lived and worked in Norway for most of his life, translates for us. He might be the owner, we can't tell. He spends most of his time smoking spliffs on the veranda, so he probably is. We take a day's rest here to recover from the ride and do a bit of laundry and Akram acts as our host. Down in the village of Sharkul where we go for lunch we are invited to take a tea by a friendly Kohistani who is waiting for a bus. After a while he observes to me "Your wife looks old". "And you look fat", Gayle replies. Despite their hospitality, some Pakistani men can be quite rude and seem to have a prurient interest in our relationship. For the sake of this part of the journey we are now married with two daughters at university. We have now taken to blanking anyone who, after enquiring about our nationality, suddenlys asks, usually to me, "And what is your relationship to her?" or "Is she your 'friend'?" Gayle is getting fed up with being stared at in the street by all the men and then, when we are approached by a friendly man, being completely ignored. The perils of travelling in such a conservative society.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Badlands

Sad to leave, but we must say goodbye to our friends in Gilgit and continue southwards. We have a lovely sunny day to ride down the valley. There's no tarmac on the road but we're getting used to this now. Late morning we meet the confluence with the mighty Indus river which is coming from the east, cutting through the mountains from Skardu. We last saw this river in Ladakh. There's a crumbling monument indicating that at this juncture is the meeting of the Himalaya to the south-east, the Karakoram to the north and the Hindu Kush to the west. South of us stands Nanga Parbat. At 8125m it is marking the end of the Himalaya in style.

At our lunch stop we recognise a shopkeeper who looks like a Mexican bandit. Gayle took his photo when we stopped here in 2008. We eat our curry and nan and drink our tea with an audience of about twenty men and boys. Minibuses come and go, and so do the men, but the audience figure remains constant. Life must be quite dull here. Any women passengers are herded into a backroom and then herded back out to the bus when it's ready to leave. This must be fun for them.

There's a police checkpoint at Talechi. "Where are you from?" the policeman asks. "The UK". "Is that the UK-US?" he asks. He's either very stupid or he's got it sussed. "Where are you staying tonight?" He looks a bit confused when we say "here". There's a basic truckstop guesthouse and we cook our own noodles for tea. In the morning a truck pulls up overloaded with kids and women. It's a charabanc. They look like they're out on a picnic. The women are wearing bright colourful clothes and are noticeably showing their faces. We guess they are Gujars, nomadic herders, who move up into the mountains during the summer. They remind us of Roma. They look poor but happy together.

Back on the road it's a dusty ride. The road is often just sand. We stop for tea in one place, Mountain Dew in another. While we drink our pop we are stared out by a large group of uncommunicative boys and the shop suddenly acquires a big clientele of men, some of whom try to shoo away the boys. (Presumably so that they could have a better look.) Gayle is wearying rapidly of these gawpers. Further along we wave to some little boys up above the road. They throw stones in reply. Charming. In another village, as we pedal slowly uphill, we are swarmed by little boys. "One pen, one pen" A man roars at them to leave us alone and throws a rock at them. A little later two of them catch up with us on another hill. We ignore them and they too throw stones as a parting. We're conscious of heading to Chilas, which doesn't have a great reputation for hospitality. However, once we get there, and find a room and something to eat, we do relax a little. The young guys at the hotel all seem a bit dazed and confused but want to chat, and one of their friends speaks English. They tell us about their big families - one has 5 brothers and 2 sisters. Another has 9 brothers and 3 sisters. "Always more brothers than sisters" Gayle notes. Some of them are MQM supporters. This Karachi-based political party has been active in the Northern Areas. In the 80's and 90's it was engaged in a war in Karachi and the party boss, wanted for criminal charges, now lives in London. He speaks to political rallies by telephone.

In the morning we decide that we'll take a minibus to Besham. Otherwise it's a three-day ride through the badlands of Kohistan, a notorious district famous for banditry and hostility to outsiders. It's probably not too bad, but we're kind of wary of riding through these hicksville settlements. After a steep ride up to the bazaar we find a minibus heading that way. A man is found who can speak English. We ask the price. We are told 2,000 rupees. This is a phenomenal amount. In disgust I tell the man that they are worse than Indians. It's the best insult I can think of. We ride off in a huff and decide to continue to the next town, where we may or may not find a room. The Indus valley is fairly wide here and the river is rather flat. There aren't many settlements and we have a good ride in the hot sun until about midday, when we take a break in the shade. A minibus pulls up. It's the same one from this morning. Do we want to go to Besham? We do, how much? Two thousand, comes the reply. How about one thousand? We agree and the bikes are quickly tied onto the roof rack and we're away. It's still too much money to pay, but we feel kind of jolly anyway.

The road south gets more dramatic as the valley narrows, the walls steepen to cliffs, and the road climbs higher. It's landslide-prone for huge stretches and the road narrows where rockfall has been barely pushed aside. The driver is in a hurry - as they all are. The letters VIP adorn the minibus windows. "As long as it's not RIP" mutters Gayle. At a truckstop there's a good meal, and then we continue, passing through some grotty little places that we would have had to stay in if we'd cycled. Late afternoon we arrive in Besham, and push our bikes to the evocatively-named Hotel Paris. The rooms have dirty carpets and dirty bedding. Funnily enough, it reminds me of a hotel I once stayed in, in Paris. It's cheap, we take it. We're happy to have passed through Kohistan without mishap, even if it's by bus.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Oasis

Today is gonna be the day that I get myself a new shalwar kameez. (I abandoned my previous one in India after crossing the border. The Indian immigration officer had looked me up and down and said "That's a very nice Pakistani costume you are wearing sir." Not such a subtle hint.) In the bazaar there are lots of small tailor shops. I walk into one and to ask the price. There are three men at work. Jonas is cutting, and the other two are stitching at small sewing machines. There is a rack of finished shalwar kameez waiting for collection. Pakistan is one of those few countries where the majority of men are still wearing traditional dress as opposed to 'western style'. The shalwar kameez is simply a pair of baggy tousers and a matching shirt that goes all the way down to the knees. It takes a bit of getting used to wearing but it suits the hot weather. And I regret not keeping my last one. The tailor sends me with a young boy to buy the material, measures me, buys me a mango juice and then tells me to come back tomorrow. Neither of us speaks the other's language.

The Madina Guesthouse is an oasis in Gilgit and feels like a home away from home. The owner, Mr. Yuqub, and Habib, his young manager, greet us like old family friends. Not for us the usual limp handshake that Pakistani men often greet each other with. Here we qualify for the more affectionate half hug half handshake. It's two years almost since we were last here, but it feels like no time at all. The guesthouse is noticeably quieter though. The tourism business is a tough business in Pakistan. Mr. Yuqub has had to cut back on the staff. A few days later a man in the corner shop asks me if I've been here before - he recognises me from working at the Madina. The Northern Areas of Pakistan can easily compete with Nepal for stunning and beautiful scenery and hospitable people but receives just a percentage of the tourists. But everyone here knows that the media reports of regular bombings and shootings, of the army fighting in Swat and in the border regions are hardly going to draw the crowds. And Mr Yuqub points out that the Tourism Ministry thinks that tourists want discos and bars and luxury hotels - which is inconceivable in such a conservative country and incomprehensible in one famous for its mountaineering and trekking. "The donkeys are running this country", he laments.

There is one other side to Pakistan that might put tourists off. In Gilgit, a large provincial capital, it's rare to see a woman. Gayle is happy to enjoy the garden at the Madina and I, like the local men, go out to do the shopping. If Gayle does come out she is stared at by most of the men. This might be because she has decided not to wear a headscarf, but this segregated society seems quite abnormal in contrast to China and even to Hunza where women and girls are seen out and about. We later meet Sue, an Englishwoman who has married Monty, a local man. They are now applying for his visa to live in Britain. We wonder what it must be like to come from the west and live here in this town. She seems very happy but they are both frustrated by the lengthy and expensive process to obtain permission for Monty to come to the UK. Habib has invited us to tea to meet Sue and Monty and refuses to allow us to contribute to the cost of the meal. Instead he regales us with stories of other travellers, of other guides, of the polticians both local and national.

We're also thrilled to meet up with Saif, a local guide, who we met here at the Madina. Although we didn't use his services, we spent some time talking with him and then met him again when he was guiding a group with our friend Jules on a trek over Pakora Pass. (And a tasty trek it was too.) He immediately takes us for lunch. The seaon has been slow so far, but he is still generously treating us. The kindness and hospitality of Pakistanis can be quite a humbling experience. Saif is about thirty and troubled to find silver whiskers on his chin. I tell him that I have them too but he quickly points out that I'm older and with Gayle. He is yet to find a wife. How can he find a wife when he's looking old? And in this segregated society as well. Our hearts go out to him.

I return to the tailor's to collect my shalwar kameez. Jonas smiles broadly when I enter. But his smile is not as broad as the trousers, which are big enough for me, him and his two assistants to fit in together. A pyjama cord gathers it all in, and I remember the trouble I have had in trying to use a squat toilet and deal with so much material all at the same time. Men here squat when they pee, so as not to splash their shalwar, a technique that continues to mystify me even now. I will stick to tried and tested methods.

Our last evening in Gilgit is slightly bizarre as we find ourselves as extras in a film being shot by a French/Turkish film crew. It's a low-budget movie about a young truck driver who travels in search of some magical waters. At some point he turns up at the Madina where Habib is regaling us with a story about another traveller. Poor Habib has agreed to stand in front of the cameras to do his part, whilst we can sit in the shadows, along with the Koreans who are now here, and laugh at his stories. The director enthusiastically explains that he has wanted to make a film about Pakistan showing it's 'normal' side and it's beauty. They are using only untrained actors. The film will either be absolutely wonderful or absolutely awful.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Surfing the Karakoram Highway

Karimabad is a wonderful place to spend a few days relaxing. It's a big village set high up on the steep valley side. You get great views of the surrounding mountains and an overview of all the other villages in this part of the Hunza valley. At a certain point where the irrigation channels begin the mountains turn green and lush in a series of terraced fields and row upon row of plane trees and fruit trees. The cherries are in season and they're good. The locals here are mainly Ismailis, which is a kind of laid-back and relaxed branch of Islam, and they're spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, has used his foundation to build schools and clinics across the region. As a result the kids here are all very well educated and quite confident. Hunza is also renowned for having a large proportion of centenarians. There must be something in the water. In fact, there is: it looks like mica. The water off the mountains is full of silvery floaty bits.

But attention is currently only focussed on the water that has started to overflow the landslide dam up the valley. One of the big hotels, that normally stands empty due to the drop in tourism post 9/11, is now crowded with TV news teams and their vehicles. After 6 months of little action the country is now awake to the potential disaster about to happen should the dam collapse and the lake burst through the valley. There are nightly bulletins on all the main channels. This is a critical time now the water is overflowing and suddenly everyone is talking in cusecs. Y'know, the cubic metre per second flow of water. Figures are bandied about indicating how much water is entering the lake and leaving the lake.

Unsurprisingly there are very few tourists around. The road between here and Gilgit, the main town, has been closed to traffic. We get chatting to a group of Koreans who have been here a while and are now contemplating a helicopter ride to Gilgit. One of them is making his own cherry liquer and passing it around the cafe to anyone who walks in. But then we hear the road has been re-opened. It seems the dam is holding fast for now. We go down to the helicopter landing ground in Aliabad to ask about onward travel. We are directed to the A-C's Office. When we find it there is the usual collection of men sitting around doing nothing. Everyone is in shalwar kameez so it's hard to tell if they are staff or general public. Apart from that guy sat in front of a typewriter the size of a piano. He ignores me completely, but then a young man in western style clothes asks if he can help me. He might just be the A-C himself, but he doesn't even know that the road has re-opened. In fact he knows nothing. Doesn't know his A-C from his elbow. And what the hell is an A-C anyway?

Probably against our better judgement we decide to cycle to Gilgit. It's about 110km, but with only a few sections of the road exposed to what could be a 40 metre-high wave coming through if the dam collapses. The news is that if the dam is going to break, it will be in the next 48 hours. We pedal fast. The road is in a state from all the widening works and there's not too much tarmac left, but critically it feels like we're going downhill and we're confident our bikes can withstand the rough sections. Along the way there are small boys selling bowls of cherries. We stop in one village and are surrounded by a gang of them. They want 100 rupees for a bowl. We laugh and offer 20. Fifty, they ask. We start to ride off. Okay, 20. These boys are so young, are we just heartless tourists taking advantage of them?

Below one of Rakaposhi's glaciers there's a restaurant/ teashop stop where we pull up. There are three other cyclists, Julie, Chris and Ed who are heading in the opposite direction. They scoff at the talk of a 60 metre-high wave coming down the valley. We chat with them over lunch and after a long break continue down the road. We were warned that there was no tarmac on the stretch to Chalt, but in fact there is enough for quick and fairly smooth cycling down the valley. It's late afternoon when we reach Chalt, but we're feeling good, the cycling's been easy and neither of us fancies staying in Chalt. We're about halfway to Gilgit and we decide to carry on. The valley has narrowed and there are few settlements here. Some of them have been evacuated and we see clutches of tents pitched high up on the valley walls. In the back of our minds we start to think about the possibility of an 80 metre-high wall of water thundering down behind us. The road turns to shale and gets tougher. There's a low bridge to cross over the Hunza river which we do so at about 6 o'clock. Only 20 km or so to Gilgit and the tarmac is back. We motor on and into a very strong headwind. The road drops down to the valley bottom where there is a full-fledged sandstorm.

We are so tired now and this is the last thing we need. It's hard to pedal and we're right by the river and now the light is fading and our mouths are full of grit. Out of nowhere a man appears waving to us. He has a truck full of rocks and is going to Gilgit. Do we want a ride? Is the Mullah a Muslim? Of course we do. In the swirling sand we load up our bikes and panniers and cram into the cab with the driver and his mate. Just as we turn the corner into the Giligit valley the truck breaks down. It's dark now, but we're out of the dreadful sandstorm and also beyond the reaches of the impending 100 metre-high wall of water. The driver is very apologetic, but we thank him for his kindness and pedal off with our headtorches lighting the way. We can see Gilgit town not so far away and it's with great relief that we finally roll up to the Madina Guesthouse at about 8 o'clock.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Flying the Karakoram Highway

There's only so much potato curry and chapati you can eat. Despite Saleem's relaxed hospitality, we know it's time to move on and try to get to Karimabad in Hunza. I ride over to the 'helipad' about 500 metres from the hotel. It's really just a scrap of broken flat ground. There are a couple of ruined brick buildings in which the army are camping. I meet Scott, an American, here chatting with the friendly soldiers. They offer me a cup of tea and Scott explains how they've been telling hime that they are Taliban. He looks highly amused and a little shocked. Apparently there are good Taliban and bad Taliban. Of course, these are the good guys. Masood, from the Punjab has been in the army 14 years. Ali, the NCO, has 17 years service. I can only guess that they might have seen some fighting in that time. Scott is calling the NCO Aliji, ji being a suffix to denote respect. We assume he's never heard of Ali G. After a while I'm surprised to realise Aliji is in charge. At some point a man runs in and everyone runs outside. Is there a helicopter coming? Better hurry, they advise. So I hurtle back to the inn, pay the bill and we load up and ride back to the helipad in about 3 and a half minutes. There's not a lot going on. Surprise, surprise. So we chat a while with Scott and arrange a bookswap with him. He's waiting for a ride to Shimshal, but the man with the jeep is stuck on the other side with a spare part. There are a few others hanging around, a tent with seats for the ladies, and a bunker covered with tarpaulin where chai is being brewed. There appears to be no organisation or reliable information. This is Pakistan.

Finally we give up waiting. It's cloudy and chilly, but the weather is not too bad for an army helicopter to fly, even a 30 year-old Russian helicopter. Saleem cooks us another potato curry and chapati. After our late lunch Gayle wanders outside and shortly afterwards rushes back inside. "Incoming!!" We wave goodbye again to Saleem, and dash over to the helipad just as the 'copter is landing and blowing dust and dirt everywhere. We join the back of the line and go forward to the door, the blades whirring above our heads, the noise of the machine making it impossible to hear anyone. And then all of a sudden we are pushed back, waved away by the crew. Passengers on board are told to get off. It's chaotic. We're left clutching our bikes as the helicopter flies off completely empty. Apparently the pilot got in a huff with the disorderly queue. We are flabbergasted. No-one queues in South Asia. What a wasted opportunity and a waste of money. Everyone regroups, and the local community scouts get us organised into a line. These guys are more authoritative than the soldiers who have all slunk off. After getting us all to agree to behave and not push in, we take our seat on a concrete bench and wait for the helicopter to return. It doesn't. Saleem seems completely unsurprised to see us back at the inn.

The morning looks brighter and it's with Saleem's confidence that we return to the helipad and find all the familiar faces waiting there, including Scott. Two more tourists arrive, one a Dutch tour guide who tells us without asking that he's been here 30 times and how wonderful it is here. We enter into a heated debate about whether the army treat the people like shit or not (we have yesterday's example) and whether the Pakistani government treat its people like shit or not (we have the example of the landslide). The authorities did nothing about the landslide for two months and refused the assisitance of the Chinese, who we feel could easily have dealt with the problem before the lake got too big. The Dutchman explains that his friends, local officials, had said the Chinese asked for too much money. Right. So now what is this disaster costing the Pakistani government in evacuation, IDP camps, helicopter flights, loss of trade and business etc? Let alone the cost to the people of Hunza directly affected. But think what face they have saved.
And then there comes a 'copter. Everyone is excited and tense. Will we get on. Aliji tells us that we must get on with our bicycles last. This seems reasonable, but it does the beg the question will we get on at all. Saleem is there and wants to help but the soldiers are trying to let only passengers through to the helicopter. A lady faints and is carried aboard. I'm wondering if I can pull off the same trick, but I'd probably just get trampled in the dirt. We are about to approach when everyone is waved back. They're full. There are camera crews aboard taking up space. It's possible another one will come later. But then someone shouts "Four more!" We turn and the chief scout sees Gayle and waves her forward. Saleem almost pushes me through the crowd. I start to feel bad about getting special treatment until I rememeber that were next in the queue. It's a drag unloading the bikes and getting the panniers inside, but we're prepared and board quickly. Gayle sts on the floor, the bikes in the aisle with me stood holding them as we take off. The cabin is crowded. I count thirty people and the helicopter seems to be struggling, but in fact its just going slowly. We're up and away. It's not long before we reach the lake and then the landslide dam. I can see hardly nothing stood up, but the flight is fairly steady. Within minutes we are landing in the cricket ground of Aliabad College and unloading before another group boards and the helicopter takes off again.
Slightly dazed and still with a little adrenaline in our blood, we load up and pedal along the back road to Karimabad, the lovely village that sits high above the Hunza river, with some of the best views in the world. We learn that the road onwards to Gilgit has closed. Now we're technically on the worng side of the lake - if a disaster happens it'll happen in this part of the valley - but at least in Karimabad we are safe. At our guesthouse there's a Russian who has come to paraglide. He can take off from nearby and fly beyond Gilgit on the thermals, a feat he achieves the next day. It's possible that the only way we too can reach Gilgit is by flying again....

probably the best view from an internet cafe in the world

Friday, May 28, 2010

Bussing the Karakoram Highway

On our way back to the immigration post in the morning we spot a couple of foreigners getting on a bus to Kashgar. This means they've probably come from Pakistan - they have. The news is that the helicopter service is in place flying people over the lake that is now almost at the top of the landslide dam. It's now about 25 km in length and several villages have been submerged or cut off. Although this is not good news for anyone, the fact that the helicopters are flying and carrying tourists means that we have a chance to get into Pakistan. After a wait at immigration for staff to arrive, a bus turns up. We ask the driver if he has space for us and the bikes - he has. And so we buy our tickets and wait in line with mostly Chinese workers who are all heading to Pakistan to work on the road-widening and reconstruction. The Chinese do not allow cyclists to go by bike south of Tashkurgan, but there is a chance the driver will let us off at the border to ride down to Sost, where Pakistan immigration is.

The scenery on the Chinese side is beautiful - a big wide valley lined by snowy peaks and pastures full of grass, settlements here and there, animals happily munching away. The people here are Tajik, and the women wear bright red clothes and embroidered rimless hats. There are a couple of Pakistanis on board and an Australian tourist. Everyone else is Chinese. One of them, an engineer, translates our request to the driver when we get over the Khunjerab pass. The border here is at 4800m, and on the Pakistani side the road deteriorates immediately as it slaloms down a narrow rocky valley. The driver doesn't want to let us off. Our names are on his passenger list and he must deliver us to immigration. However, at the first checkpoint we ask the smart Pakistani soldiers if we can get off and cycle. "Yes, of course, no problem" they say, smiling. Great. "But it is the driver's decsion." Hmm. The driver says no, but finally he relents at Dih, a small village about 35km from Sost. So we unload our gear and set off down the road. The valley is still narrow and twisting as we descend, with glimpses of huge snowy peaks. The road itself is a catastrophe. Like all the other roads we have ridden in China which are under construction. We take our time to Sost. The scenery is imposing and the going is slow as we navigate around the works. In one spot the Chinese are tunelling through the mountain to avoid a landslide-prone zone.



Late afternoon we pull up at the police checkpoint at the entrance to Sost. The policeman asks if we are coming from China and points us to the immigration building. It's deserted. He rings someone and he rings someone else and eventually there are about eight officials gathered to admit us. We are applying for a visa on arrival and the process is fairly straightforward if slow. For a start, we sit in the Immigration Officer's office while his flunkeys do the paperwork. The flunkeys can't tell where we are from. "You are from where, sir?" "England" They look at our passport. "Not Ireland?" "No, England, Britain, U.K." They read the title in our passport slowly. "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". It is admittedly a mouthful. "So, U.K. sir?" "Yes." That'll be $90 each. They show Britain/UK on the price list. Gayle points to Brunei, below it. "I'm from Brunei", she jokes. Those from Brunei pay $12. No-one in the office laughs. Finally, after about seven people have handled our passports we are stamped in and allowed to go. We are officially in Pakistan and it feels great. We were not sure that we'd ever arrive here without a single hitch.



After a tasty chicken biryani and a good night's sleep we leave Sost and nosey on down the road to Passu. The road here is not too dramatic, and it was pretty well-paved in 2008. Not now. The Chinese have built retaining walls and drainage ditches and there's not a scrap of tarmac left. The scenery on the hand is wonderful. The mountains here are craggy and dramatic. The villages are green with irrigated fields and tall plane trees all around. It's a lovely sunny day and we enjoy the ride, but by the time we get to the village of Passu we're hungry and tired. And this is cycling more or less downhill. We stop at a guesthouse run by Saleem. There are a few other travellers there , all heading north. A young Japanese couple on their honeymoon, a Chinese woman (only the third Chinese we've met travelling) and an old Aussie man. He immediately dominates the conversation and we recognise immediately what he is - a pontificationg old fart. Now and again, we meet these older men who have been everywhere and done everything and know it all. They like to listen to their own voice and they are invariably boring. It turns out that this is the guy who Alex warned us about in Kashgar. Now we know why.


The Passu peak Inn is in a great location, just outside the village but with a clear view of the beautiful mountains across the river. The valley is fairly flat at the bottom, the river winding its way slowly, and the mountains rise upwards in huge sheer towers. On either side of the village are two huge glaciers. The Batura is one of the world's longest outside the polar peaks, but all you can see from the road is the mass of rock and detritus of the morraine. These glaciers are now releasing meltwater fast into the Hunza river, thus adding to the lake at a fast rate. The news is that helicopters are flying to Aliabad and we need to turn up early and put our name down on the waiting list when we wish to leave. First, we have a rest day and wash some clothes. Then we go and have a look at the outer reaches of the lake. It's a turquoise blue and looks lovely, but in reality it's a disaster waiting to happen. There is a strong likelihood that eventually the landslide will give way and the lake will force it's way down the valley, destroying everything in its path. Villages close to the river have been evacuated, some bridges removed. It's possible that the lake will erode the landslide slowly, but the authorities cannot afford to take the chance. Meanwhile there are a few foolhardy tourists trying to still travel this part of the KKH and lots of locals stuck trying to get to the other side of the lake, in both directions.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cycling the Karakoram Highway

It's a good feeling to be back in the saddle and riding the first leg of our final journey through Asia. The KKH was opened up back 1982 and it runs from Kashgar to Islamabad. We're full of hope that we'll get into Pakistan and see the wonderful Karakoram mountains again. And it'll be cherry season. Our lunch stop is in a little town with some shady open-air restaurants. We are served soupbowls full of tea. We look around. This could be Turkey. Out on the road the riding is easy - the road is smooth and fairly flat. We have notes of this journey from our friend James, who bought a bike in Kashgar in 2008 and cycled this way. Before we start climbing through a narrow valley we spot a small field just off the road and mainly hidden from the passing traffic of trucks. To reach it though we have to thrash through some bushes. Gayle gets a punture and I get bitten. By my bike. I should know not to push my bike on the side with the spokes. Gayle's puncture is from a huge wooden thorn. It's our first. We merrily set to repairing it and then try and pump up the tyre. We can't. It suddenly dawns on me that I've never been able to pump any air into the tyres with our pump - I thought it was just too cheap to pump the tyres hard. Now I realise it's just too cheap. After a lot of frenzied (panicky) attempts by me and some cool reflection by Gayle, we remove part of the valve adaptor and manage to inflate the tyre.

Next day we start to climb, and follow the winding valley past some sheer high cliffs. Near to a police checkpoint we meet a bunch of overlanders in a truck and they invite us for lunch of stale bread and salad. It's very kind of them but not enough. We stop again for laghman and tea soon afterwards. We're aiming to find some hot springs where James stayed and looking forward to a soak before bed, but when we get to them the manager is not so welcoming. No he doesn't have a room. No, we can't camp. We don't feel like bathing now that we know we have to continue up the valley to find a camp spot. Not far on we do - right out in the open, above the river. It's not a bad spot and we cook our tea in the sunshine. But then the wind whips up and the skies darken. Therew are big mountains around us and then we hear the forbidding roll of thunder. Lightning flashes and rain drive us inside the tent. Not long after we hear voices. We shout out hello. They reply in English: "Hello! Just Looking!" A couple of locals peer through the gap in our tent door smiling.

After a night of howling wind that bucked and rocked the tent, we are happy to set off and upwards out of the narrow valley. At the top the landscape opens up wide. Big sky. Big country. We stop in a small place for lunch but a little man tells us to leave. We ignore him. He starts dialling on his mobile. Another man, a Han Chinese, takes us to a little restaurant where we can get some food. Little Man returns with a logbook. He wants to know where we're going. Tashkurgan, we reply, is that okay? Stupid git, we mutter to ourselves. Everyone else looks amused by us on our bikes but friendly. Our destination is Karakul Lake where there are local Kyrghyz who will put you up in a yurt at the lakeshore. A concrete yurt, mind. The times, they're a changin'. However, there is a small problem with the local police. Only a crappy Han-run hotel is allowed to have foreigners, apparently, and the police like to enforec this. We roll up mid-afternoon and are met by a family who have a yurt we can stay in. When they show it to us there are about 35 family members inside. We explain we want to sleep alone. No problem, the family also have a house close by. A bit later a jeep drops off seven French tourists who stay in the the family's other yurt. We are snug and warm inside. Outside the wind is blowing and the two big mountains that dominate the landscape here, Kongur and Muztagh Ata, are hidden in cloud at the top. Just before tea though there is a warning motorbike horn. The family spring up quickly and go outside. "Police! Police!" They drop the curtains, shut the fire off, and close the door, locking us inside. We sit in the gloom for about an hour during which someone tries the door. We whisper to each other for fear of discovery. And then a police siren goes off. We expect the police to bust the door open at any moment. But what would their catchphrase be? Y'know, like in all the good cop shows on TV they have to have a catchphrase. Bored and hungry we try and remember some. Book him, Danno! Remember, be careful out there. Who loves ya, baby? You're nicked, my son! The French are rumbled and sent off to the Chinese hotel. When the police drive off the family reappear with our dinner, apologising, relighting the fire, lighting candles. It looks like a daily duck and dive between them and the gendarmes.

Next day is a long ride to Tashkurgan, but it's the best day for the landscape. First we have a tedious climb for 30kms across what looks like a dried lake and then up a few switchbacks to a pass at 4000 metres. But after that it's almost 70 kilometres downhill on good road. We're convinced we have a headwind until we meet Adam and Cat on their way over the pass in the opposite direction, and they came also to have a head wind. We stop and chat for a bit until it gets too cold to just stand around. Shame really, as we haven't met any cyclists for a while. We get into Tashkurgan at the end of the afternoon, too late to find out if we can cross the border into Pakistan - the immigration building is closed for the day. So we find a hotel and get some food supplies and a bowl of laghman for tea. We go to sleep, not sure in which direction we'll be heading tomorrow.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Kashgar

Finally. We should have been here in 2008 on our way from Kyrghyzstan to Pakistan, but it was not to be. In the meantime it seems that the Chinese Government has been a little busy demolishing the old town of adobe houses. They're still at it. Modernisation. It's understandable in the context of China. But for those who hope to capture a glimpse of life in an ancient Silk Road city, it's a disappointment. Kashgar was a trading post on the trade routes over 2000 years ago, with routes into Kashmir, Afghanistan, west through the Pamirs and east either along the southern or northern routes around the Taklamakan. It retains a strong Uighur influence, with a big bazaar and a weekend livestock market. At the centre of town is the Id Kah mosque and down the backstreets you can still find the artisans at work beating copper into pots, steel into tools. There are bakeries and barbecues everywhere. Tandoor ovens producing lovely samsas (mutton fat pies) and to our delight, chickens roasted on the spit.


We stop in a hostel that's once been a family house, with a nice patio and seating area to meet other travellers. At last we have a hot shower and get some clean clothes on. Other travellers have come from Pakistan or Kyrgyzstan. And now we learn that the Chinese government has finally lifted the internet ban so we can shangwang (get online) and learn the latest from Hunza about the lake on the Karakoram Highway. We meet Alex, a young Australian who has just come from there and rode one of the boats across the lake. He's heading to Kyrgyzstan which seems to have another whole set of problems going on. Alex looks quite unfazed.

We enjoy wandering around the town, checking out the markets on the Sunday. There's a whole theatre performance when it comes to buying donkeys or sheep. Handshakes go on for ten minutes. An audience gathers around. Sheep are lifted off the ground (to check their weight?). Sometimes a middleman acts as go-between for a small commission. There's a bit of shouting, more handshaking and then the ritual of money-counting followed by more shouting. The donkeys and sheep are enormous - I wonder what they feed 'em. In the main bazaar there are tourist souvenirs, jewellery and gems, aisles filled with dark suits and stripey polo shirts, food stalls, kitchen pots and farming tools. It's jammed in places. We enjoy a nice plate of polo (pilaf) in a busy restaurant. The father and daughter who share the table with us both wipe their faces in a prayer of thanks before departing. Walking back to our hostel we wander through streets of boarded houses being demolished. They look shabby and gloomy on the outside, but where walls have gone we can see fancy plasterwork decoration, moorish niches in walls, carved and painted wooden columns and beams. Locals are busy at work salvaging some of these gems, presumably to use again, but not here. At evening time we pass a small mosque on a road where the muezzin is calling the men to prayer. But he has no microphone - he stands on the parapet above the doorway and cups his hands to his mouth and does it the old-fashioned way. We wonder if the call is allowed by the authorities - it's such a rare sound.

We enjoy ourselves here and are ready to leave to Pakistan when we read that the boat service across the lake on the KKH has been suspended. There is no transport between the north and south side, although there is talk of a helicopter service. The news throws up lots of question marks about our route, and we have only a week left on our Chinese visa. We are terribly indecisive at the best of times, so when there are dilemmas like this we are even worse. What if the Pakistan authorities stop issuing visas at the border? In a bid to gain some breathing space we go to the Public Security Bureau to enquire about a visa extension. The good news is that they say it's possible. The bad news is that they say we have to go to Urumqi to get it. Cressida, another Aussie, helps us look up alternative flights to Europe. There's a Baltic Air flight from Almaty to Frankfurt for peanuts (the pilots are monkeys). It's tempting to go for the simple option. But Gayle is also tempted by the opportunity to cycle into Kyrgyzstan as well. Oh no, we can't agree on what to do. Vreeni, one of the other guests, bakes us a cake in anticipation of good news. There is no news from Pakistan, but perhaps the cake is a good blessing. So we decide to stick to the original plan. We'll head to Pakistan with our fingers crossed. Which anyone who has ridden a bicycle knows , is quite a hard thing to do...........

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Just Deserts

It's hard to explain how excited you can get at the sight of a tarmacced road. We've been riding down a dirt road all morning, through a dry valley, dustclouds everywhere and when we finally breeze into Balguntay it looks like we were dragged here rather than cycled. Even the camels we had passed looked dusty. But here is a real road. Yeah! And here is the Traffic Police, asking us to walk this way, into the station house. It's full of chain-smoking Kyrghyz and Uighur truck drivers presenting documents. We present our passports which are duly copied and handed back, once they know where we are heading. In the town we stop at a restaurant for laghman (hand-pulled noodles). When the food arrives so do more policemen. One speaks good English and he's very polite. Where are we going? Korla. Where will we spend the night? Mmmm. Whwere do you suggest? He suggests a town off our route. We smile and say thanks for the suggestion. He keeps our passports and asks us to collect them at another station down the street after we've eaten. We guess they don't see many tourists in these parts. (Much later we find out from our friends Bert and Gill that they are refused to stay the night because it's in a 'military zone').
Joyfully we pedal on down the paved road, following a large river and passing through some rather grim industrial villages. One factory is surrounded by adobe hovels - the worst slum housing we've seen in China. Chimneys belch dirty smoke. Goodness only knows what goes into the river. Towards late afternoon we finally approach the end of the valley we've been cycling all day. There's a hotel by the side of the road with a big garden on the river bank. We check it out and ask if we can camp on the river bank. No problem. The hotel even has water. It's only when we boil it for tea and noodles that the rust-coloured scum comes to the surface and we realise it's the water from the main river. Probably full of chemical waste, heavy metals and much more. The camp spot turns out to be perfect bar one thing - across the river is the railtrack. Every half hour a huge goods train roars past, and if its going up the valley it has three engines. And a bloody big train hooter. As we're nodding off there's the strange sensation that a train is about to enter the tent.

Our final day's ride to Korla is out of the mountains and across desert plains interspersed with a few oases and hills. The road is a super-highway, which is a relief because we've a 100km to clock up. The new road has bridges every 500 metres. We're cycling across a desert. Sometimes the wadis must run with water, but it's hard to imagine. In a village we buy fresh bread and mutton fat pies, mmmm. A little huddle of men quickly surrounds us to check us out. We don't understand a word they say until one says "Pakistan". Ah-ha - they've seen cyclists heading this way before then. We shove off, and fill up our water bottles from an urn in a restaurant. (Only a day later do I look in my water bottle because there are some bits floating around at the bottom. Well, not just floating, swimming more like. Is that a worm? Yes, it is. Extra protein then.)

I'm not sure what they put in the pies, but we motor for a good long way before we suddenly hit a headwind that stops us in our tracks. We sit in a field surrounded by plane trees to eat our lunch. The sky is full of cloud and the wind is still blowing, but thankfully it's moving around a bit. A crosswind almost knocks us over, but at least we can still pedal forwards. Now we're getting close to the edge of the Taklamakan Desert and the landscape becomes quite bleak and ugly. Harsh. There are occasional run-down industrial sites and some shabby towns. We stop in one for fruit before climbing over a ridge of hills and descending through a hazy moonscape and down to Korla. We thought it would be a big town, but actually it's another big city, with skyscrapers. We've not had a shower for four days and looking forward to a comfy hotel room, but then we think we ought to check out the buses to Hotan first. Our hope is to get across the desert in time for the Sunday market there, and then continue on to Kashgar. We finally find the bus yard and a sleeper bus is about to depart for Hotan. The problem is that the driver wants 30 quid to take our bikes. This is way too much. After some discussion with a helpful woman in the ticket office, we decide instead to go directly to Kashgar. There's a bus leaving at 7pm and the driver agrees on 20 quid for the bikes (ouch). Instead of a shower and a comfy hotel room we're climbing into narrow bunks built for dwarves and waving goodbye to Korla not long after arriving.

The bus journey is interminable and quite dull, as we skirt the northern side of the desert. There is only some excitement during the night when we stop in a small town and everyone gets off to pee. Well, that's what Gayle thought. It turns out a man has been run over in the road and everyone is just rubber-necking. Gayle takes advantage of the distraction to relieve herself before the bus is moved on by the police. Everyone hustles back on board and we set off. About half an hour later it is noticed that one of the old men aboard is no longer among us. We have left him behind. After a long debate the driver finally turns around and we go to look for him. He's not to be found.

In the morning the view becomes rather monotonous, and we seem to be running about 5 hours late. We stop for a dusty old man stood by the road in the middle of nowhere. His suit is frayed and filthy and when he passes up the aisle he brings a rather cheesey aroma with him. More Rocquefort than Rockerfeller. After a while the smell becomes quite alluring. I lie in my bunk and dream of food.

Already it feels like we have left China behind. The towns look much poorer and scruffier, the people are quite different. Women are wearing colourful headscarves. The men are in dark suits, stripey polo shirts, white socks and slip-ons. Uighur men are wearing an embroidered box cap like the Uzbeks. Some have flat caps at jaunty angles. Their skins are sunburnt, their features sharp. Moustaches are prominent. It feels like we've travelled back through time and space to 1950's Sicily. Through the bus window, the desert is endless.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Go West

Our last train ride in China is one of our longest - a full two days from Chengdu, north through the barren lands of Ningxia province and then west through the Hexi Corridor of Gansu and finally to Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Somewhere during our second night we pass by the western end of the Great Wall and the fort which marked the frontier of ancient China. The silk road camel trains would pass through the Hexi Corridor and then branch north or south around the Taklamakan Desert. Our train goes just a little bit faster than a camel....

Urumqi has the familiar look and feel of any big Chinese city. But here there's quite a mixture of people - Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz along with the ubiquitous Han. Some shops have cyrillic signs. We stop for a couple of nights and get our first taste of mutton kebabs and the Uighur bread baked into the size and shape of dinner plates (best eaten fresh otherwise they are just like plates). And then we set off south for Korla, over the Tian Shan mountains, loaded up with nutella, peanut butter and a packet of mature cheddar cheese. Once out of the city we find ourselves cycling through flat desert land, along straight roads lined with plane trees. It gets more interesting as we get closer to the mountains and by late afternoon we are following the Urumqi river into a wide green valley that climbs gradually. We pass through a narrow gorge and emerge into a higher valley where the good road ends. There are signs of quarrying and mining and the skies turn grey. Up ahead is an alarming cloud of smoke appearing from behind the next corner. This turns out to be Houxia, our stop for the night. It's a grim little communist-era coal mine and power station colony. It starts to rain. Perfect.

We stop the night in the Town Hall. Or the Communist Party Rest House/ Cultural Centre. We don't really know what the big institutional building is, but on the top floor are some basic rooms with beds like stone. We dig out our Thermarests. Just before nodding off a couple of policeman knock on our door. Uh-oh. It turns out they just want to practise their English and have a photo taken with us. Next day the weather is fine and we set off up a canyon, the road climbing steadily. We're slow going uphill though and eventually pitch our tent away from the road just as the valley is opening up again. The only traffic seems to be trucks. It's windy but sunny and the landscape is wild and remote. Tomorrow we climb to the pass, which is out of sight from our tent. But tomorrow everything is out of sight. The cloud has descended and it's snowing steadily. We lie in our sleeping bags most of the morning trying to keep warm and wondering what to do. The pass ahead is over 4000 metres and we're not entirely sure how many kilometres we have to cycle to reach it. Finally we pack up and set off just as the snow is stopping. The road is clear but everywhere is in mist. The lorry traffic has died down. It feels like we're cycling into the unknown. After some time the road deteriorates into a filthy muddy dirt road. And then the switchbacks begin and we climb what looks like a near-vertical boulder field. The mud turns to ice and we can't pedal anymore, so off we get and start pushing - but without a clue as to how far we have to go to the top. We stop for an apple and a breather and then suddenly the clouds part and we get a glimpse of the valley we are in. It's a dead end, with a huge snowfield opposite and up on the ridge is a gap that looks like a missing tooth. We can see our road leading into it and a couple of trucks coming down very very slowly. So we plod on, but with a little more spirit now we know we're nearly there. The clouds close in again and then suddenly we're in the gap - we're at the pass. I feel like crying for joy. Out on the other side the weather is quite different - sunny and very windy and no clouds at all. The landscape below is much drier. We know it's nearly all down hill to Korla, still two days' ride away, but the road off the top is not paved, so it's a slow descent at first. And freezing. Now I feel like crying in pain as my fingers turn numb. We pass through lots of grassy pastures with flocks of sheep, yaks or horses munching away.

Our stop for the night is in a forlorn little village built next to the rail line that has come through a side valley from Urumqi. There's one shop and we ask the woman who runs it if she has a room. She does. It's a funky little wooden cubicle inside an adobe hut, but there's space in the hut to cook and eat our noodles out of the fierce wind, so it feels much more comfortable than it looks. We sleep the sleep of the truly knackered.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Days of Beer and Bananas

The days whirl by in Chengdu. We're spending a lot of time using the internet and catching up with people we've been out of touch with. We've got a train to book to Urumqi in west China and a flight to book from Pakistan back to Europe. There's photos to upload to Flickr and a blog to update. Laundry. Nothing too strenuous. In fact, life in Sim's Guesthouse is rather relaxed. It's not really a guesthouse, but a large hostel. But it's well-run, and spacious, and very comfortable. Too comfortable probably. I'm trying to put some weight back on, aided by the odd beer and chocolate bar and an abundance of bananas. Gayle is happily researching our route homewards - at least I think they're tears of happiness I see.

Our plan is to cycle from Urumqi to Korla then cross the Taklamakan Desert on a bus to Hotan where we'll ride to Kashgar. Then we intend to take the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan. There's one hitch in our plans - a large landslide about three months ago wiped out a village, killing 19 people, closing the road and blocking the river just to the south of the border with China. With snow melt the river has now turned into a growing lake. (Take a look.) I suddenly become an avid reader of the Hunza Times for news updates. I feel like the man who enters the casino and puts it all on black, only for it to turn out red. There is no other way for us. And we have to book our flight before we leave Chengdu as there's no free internet access in Xin Jiang province. The Chinese government have imposed a blackout there. And then up pops a photo of some enterprising Pakistanis using a boat to ferry people. Okay, so there's transport. We book our flight to Frankfurt. We have received an invite to visit a lovely German man, Reinhard, whom we met at Nomad's Open Prison in Bishkek back in 2008. Then we'll cycle across to the coast of Holland and get a boat back to England.

Our days at Sim's are Groundhog Days as we slowly sort out our plans. Sim kindly comes with us to the station to book our bicycles onto a freight train a few days before our own train. He's got the hang of cycling in the city - you can literally go anywhere you want on a bike, just make sure to avoid whatever is coming straight at you. Bert and Gill arrive after their long ride down to the lowlands, happy to be somewhere warm. There are other cyclists too - one Frenchman, Yann, whom we met at Sim's last November. One evening Sim takes us all out for a meal. Such a lovely man.

And then all of a sudden the time has come to move on - off to the station armed with a two-day supply of pot noodles.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Mud And Thunder

We make a beeline for the first hotel we see in Xinduqiao. The woman at reception tries to explain that there's another foreigner staying, and shows us the register. A woman called Gillian. Mmmm. Very interesting. We're knackered and filthy and just want to shower, eat and rest. The receptionist is happy for us to put our bikes in our room for safe-keeping as if she has had other cyclists staying here. And then we think about this Gillian woman and ask her, is Gillian with a man? Yes. Do they have bicycles? Yes. Could they be our friends Gill and Bert? Yes. We knock on their door, and sure enough it's them. They too were heading to Yushu and have chosen to divert to Chengdu as well. They've been cycling the whole way from Zhongdian and had some snowy cold weather along the way, so they're looking forward to getting to a warmer place. Our plan is to detour via Danba so after an evening meal together and a good kip, we part in the morning.

Our ride is north up a wide valley to Tagong, a small Tibetan town set in grasslands at around 3700m. Because of the altitude it still feels wintry as we follow the wide river snaking up through Tibetan villages. Each house stands fortress-like on its land, with most windows facing southwards, the northern sides usually just solid wall. It's supposed to be a short ride but with only 10 more kilometres to ride we hit road works. Except there's not much sign of work. Or road. What there is is just a huge stretch of black mud continuing up the valley. There's a smattering of traffic, or should I say a splattering? We're putting on a brave face, oozing our way onwards when it starts to rain. There's not a tree in sight. With no shelter we soldier on, but it soon becomes impossible to pedal. Our wheels and brakes and gears are soon caked in the thick mud and even pushing becomes hard work. Finally Tagong appears around a bend.

Most towns look crap in the rain, but Tagong looks particularly grim. It's really just a one-street collection of shops, restaurants and hotels but it is full of colourful Tibetans, some of whom have come into town on ponies. We find a cheap little place to stay and then spend some time washing down the bikes. The sun comes out and we start to feel better. We've survived the ordeal. And when we go out for a look around we meet Angela, a friendly young American who is living here with her Tibetan husband and 3 year-old daughter Sumtso. The restaurant we eat in is run by a smiley young woman who rustles up good fresh bread and a hearty noodle soup. We kill a bit of time watching the TV with her and notice her writing down a telephone number during the advert break. We're appalled at this. We've been watching a 10 minute hard sell of a corset so that You Too Can Look Like A Skinny White Chinese Woman! (The all-Asia Skin-Whitening Cream advert has already been up.) Above the TV is a large poster of the Dalai Lama - the first we've seen in China. Gayle spots his picture again, pinned up next to the prayer wheels at the monastery.
The next morning it's snowing and we decide to have a rest day. Our room is chilly but there's electric blankets so we stay in bed and read for a bit. Later on we meet Angela and she invites us back to hers for coffee. Their house is a simple two room affair with a drop toilet out back. Life seems tough from this perspective. They don't have running water, and it's late April and snowing. No wonder the Tibetans look like a hardy bunch. Angela tells us the road northwards is also being reconstructed which bodes ill for us, as it snows all day. Nonetheless, we set off next day with only about 30km to reach before we leave the 'road works'. It's not to be. The road is much worse, probably because of the bad weather, and when we're not wading through mud, we're bouncing over a freshly broken rock bed. Every 500 metres our wheels clog up and a stiff wind is drying out the mud and stone confection, turning it to concrete. We finally surrender at the start of a climb. This is truly awful. After a quick conflab we turn around, and begin to feel better. We don't particularly want to return to our guesthouse - at night the rodents in the roof perform noisy gymnastics - but the thought of being dry, clean and toasty warm in bed is tempting. And we're able to hose down the bikes and all our stuff. Ahh but the experience has weakened our will to continue any further on our bikes right now. We're a bit weary of the cold and the altitude and the thought that we could be in balmy Chengdu quite soon is too tempting.
Of course the morning we leave it's a bright sunny day and the ground is frozen. Unshakeable in our desire to head out of the mountains we haggle a minibus ride back to Xinduqiao and over another 4000m pass on a brand new road to Kangding. At the bus station we are greeted like long-lost friends by the staff who confirm we can catch a bus to Chengdu at 2pm. The driver lets us slide in our bikes and panniers and then takes us to lunch. The rest of the day is spent hurtling along the highway along some deep narrow valleys and through a series of dismal towns. Sometimes the scenery is beautiful and then we come across an ugly factory or some dam-building. This is China.


We arrive in Chengdu at about 9 at night. The city is alive - shops are still open, lots of people about. Such a huge contrast with Tagong. We load up our bikes and join the bike lane on one of the main roads. None of us have got lights, and the riding is chaotic, especially at big junctions. There's one lively moment when Gayle misses a red light and ends up in the middle of a six-lane highway frozen in the headlights of on-rushing cars like a startled rabbit. But for all the anarchy on these city roads, everyone seems pretty good at dodging obstacles. We survive the ride and pull into to Sim's Cozy Garden Guesthouse, returning to the place we stayed last November. It feels good to be back.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Thin Line Between Love And Hate

" I love my bike" Gayle exclaims happily when we stop for a breather. All around are big mountains. There's snow on the tops, pine forest falling into the valleys. The road is in good nick and we're feeling good. Nothing like the open road, big country, high altitudes. Our route east is taking us across some high passes to Xinduqiao, a town where the road from Chengdu splits into the northern and southern Sichuan-Tibetan Highways. Our plan is to branch northwards to the Tagong grasslands and then east again along another route to Chengdu. The first stage is over three days at altitudes mainly between 4000 and 4500 metres, with an annoying drop down to 2700m to stay in Yajiang on the second night. The first night we are camping, and after a longish search we eventually climb away from a village and turn up at a little pass with a knoll above the road. We have to carry the bikes and the luggage up to the top, but it's worth it for the sense of security and privacy. Oh, and the views. It feels chilly when we fall asleep but we awake in the morning feeling very snug. No wonder - the tent is covered in snow.
Our ride to Yajiang is interrupted by a convoy of Chinese Army tankers and trucks. There's about one hundred and twenty vehicles. This highway must be the main supply route to Lhasa. The pass above Yajiang is signposted 4712 metres, but we're not sure of the accuracy of this. Still, it's a bloody long way down to the town. Along the way it hails and then rains heavily. We seek shelter in a carpenter's work room, and sit with the old dears who are perched on tree trunks watching the man at work. We carry on down and pass 4 Chinese cyclists on the way up. This is becoming a popular ride - Chengdu to Tibet - and we see quite a few cyclists heading in the opposite direction.
Down in Yajiang we start looking for a cheap hotel that will take foreigners. Whilst Gayle watches the bikes, a policeman who speaks English comes up to her to chat. By the time I get back she's having to show her passport and there's another man, in a suit, with a Communist Party lapel badge prominent. He seems to be asking the questions, and Bob The Plod is doing the translations. Where are we staying tonight? Well, here, if we can find a hotel. Admittedly, the charmless town is hardly a tourist hot-spot. A little crowd has gathered, but the police are friendly and it's quite low-key. Bob, The Plod, offers to take us to a hotel. It's an offer we're not refusing. Along the way he wants to know England's chances in the World Cup. He laughs at my reply.

Our following day's ride to Xinduqiao begins with a nice ride up a valley full of grand Tibetan houses. And then we reach the switchbacks. Up we go, into a colder climate. The road is narrow and deteriorates quickly - the onslaught of landslides, heavy frosts and overloaded trucks taking it's toll. The climbing is endless. We stop to chat with some Chinese cyclists looking rather jolly - they're going downhill. The climb to the top is about 48km according to my information. Somewhere about the 40km mark I crack. It's drizzling and misty, there are too many trucks and buses and cars and I'm feeling very miserable. There's so much broken road and mud and up above I can see the road heading off into the cloud. I get off and start pushing. Gayle perseveres. The altitude is a killer and cycling is hard. I push about 5km in all to reach the top - a big snowy expanse. Now we have to layer up our clothing and set off on the descent in freezing mist. Our hands freeze as we grip our brakes - there's no easy riding on the broken road until finally we drop out of the cloud and into a wintry valley leading to Xinduqiao. The day has been too long and too tough for me. I hate my bike.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Kham



Windy and cloudy. Is it trying to rain? We're leaving Zhongdian and have a short climb followed by a descent that seems to go on for the rest of the day. We're cold, so cold. But then after lunch we drop down into a gorge and the warmth hits us. There are Tibetan houses dotted around, green fields and trees with blossom. Small communities of people are building new houses in the traditional style - compacted earth walls and brightly painted woodwork. Spring is down here. We finally reach the Yangtze river and have a nice ride along an empty road up the valley to end the day in Waka village. And here we stay a couple of nights because of rain. Whilst we're laid off, we catch the news in Chinese of an earthquake in Qinghai province. And then our ears prick up. Yushu? Did they say Yushu? That's where we are heading. Were heading. Not now. We have no idea of the scale of the earthquake, nor how many are injured or have died, but we know enough of China to think about an alternative route. Over the next couple of weeks the rescue operation and reconstruction efforts get plenty of news coverage, although we can't get the state news channel in English. What we see is the Permier and then the President visiting the zone and speaking to the people. Yushu is another Tibetan area. We see monks and soldiers digging through rubble by hand. Ironically, the large army presence in the area means that soldiers are on hand to help with rescue work. There follows a benefit concert on all the TV channels to highlight the plight of the victims and raise money across China to help. This is an interesting sight. News programmes show communities across the country queuing to put money into a collection box (remember to fan the notes so that you can be seen to be giving generously). The Chinese government doesn't need the cash for reconstruction - it's cash rich, and can invest in infrastructure and housing quite easily. What seems to be important is that the country is seen to be united in helping its citizens. Especially Tibetan citizens.

The following three days we regain the altitude we have lost and some more, as we head northwards up a series of valleys and over three high passes one each day. We stop in Derong the first evening and witness the communal dancing scene again, as a large circle of people dances to Tibetan songs. It's a hypnotic sight. The dancing is a kind of gentle aerobics. I'm invited to join in by a very well-dressed older man. Always a wallflower, I decline. Gayle sits and 'chats' with a group of women munching lychees. The following day we have our first big climb up to about 3900 metres, beginning with some switchbacks that allow me an opportunity for a breather whilst Gayle catches up. We are the Tortoise and the Hare today. There is a small altercation with some Chinese tourists in a four-wheel drive who stop, ostensibly to take photos of the views, but turn their big fat Nikons onto Gayle as she huffs and puffs up the incline. I watch with pity as she asks them not to photograph her. They ignore her and one woman crosses the road to get a better shot. Gayle rides straight at her, forcing her into the ditch. When she finally gets past them I stride down manfully, shouting and waving my fists and asking them to delete the photos. This is the problem with travelling in a country where human rights are non-existent - these Chinese tourists can't comprehend that people might not want to be photographed. And even if they did - what right have you to deny them? After a long climb we end the day dropping down into the next valley which once again is full of farms and Tibetan houses. We're tired when we pass by one with some flat land and stop to ask the women there if we can camp behind their wall. They say yes and sit down to watch as we pitch the tent and start cooking. Then they leave us be.
Next day seems to follow the same pattern - another climb over a pass and a descent to a village spread out along a wider valley floor. We ask an old lady if we can camp in the rock field behind her house and she says yes. There's a dirt track running up a side valley by a stream and the yak herders coming off the hills stop to say hello and have a look on their way home. We fall asleep early only to be awoken by two drunks who are talking to us. They have a motorbike and are mpointing its headlight right at the tent. We decide to stay in the tent as we can't understand them and they sound plastered. Eventually the younger one drags away the more cantankerous old one who picks up a rock and throws it at the tent in parting. It's midnight. We've never had a visiting drunk before - what should we do? If we stay where we are he may come back. But where can we move to? It's pitch black outside. Soon afterwards, the drunks pass by but don't come over. Now we're on edge. Maybe we should move. And then the old drunk returns with someone else. He sounds angry. And he sounds like he needs someone else to hold him up. Finally they stagger off. Okay, we have to move now. We pack up as quietly as we can, load up the bikes and walk off back to the road. We haven't gone far when we find a fallow field behind a low wall. We pitch the tent and go back to sleep. Thankfully there are no more disturbances, but the experience is very unsettling. We'll have to be much more careful to camp out of sight in future.

Inevitably we have another climb the next day but although it's our highest to date, over 4000 metres, the gradient is good and the reward at the end is wonderful views west over big mountains. We're in Sichuan province now, and everywhere we look there are snowy ridges. The pass is littered with prayer flags. We realise we've been blessed with good weather these past three days and we've loved the scenery - maybe all that cycling uphill is worth it. We descend merrily into Xiangcheng with a long downhill ride that ends with Gayle getting chased by a junkyard dog. But she's not as frightened as me of dogs and her bark is greater than her pursuer's. On the outskirts of town are scattered whitewashed houses that remind us both of Morocco and Andalucia. Did we take a wrong turn back there?

After a little deliberation over our route north to Litang we unanimously decide to take a bus. The 4-hour ride over high passes and freezing plateau would take us four days and we're feeling rather slothful. And we're unsure of the weather too. The landscape is wonderful on the ride, but all of a sudden it's passed by - the bus is much too fast. Litang is a poor dusty Tibetan town on the road between Chengdu and Lhasa with nothing to commend it except for the people. As a market town for the surrounding area it's always busy with Tibetans in some of the fanciest outfits we've ever seen. Men, women and monks shuffle around the shops and market stalls in a variety of groovy sunglasses, outlandish brocade hats, embroidered jackets, long woollen or yakskin coats and elaborate bejewelled hair extensions. It's been a while since we've seen such incredible clothing. Many of the men have long hair, every face is burnished by the sun, children have permanently rosy cheeks. The town is at about 4100 metres and the thin air leaves us gasping just tying our shoe laces. The weather's looking a bit 'off and on' but it's time to head east and find some warmer weather.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lost Horizon

We have three good days cycling to reach Zhongdian in the north of Yunnan, starting with a climb up from the Yangtze on a brand new and virtually empty road. We're slow climbers, but it gives us time to appreciate the views. Ha! Looking southwards we get another aspect of Snow Mountain in glorious sunshine, around the bend there's a view over the Yangtze valley to mountains off to the east. We climb through pine forest, and come across small villages and farmland now and again. Towards the top of our first climb we meet a tour group of cyclists flying down in the opposite direction. None have any luggage, of course. An Aussie woman yells "Nearly there!" But she's wrong. After this climb we have a descent and then another climb and a half before we reach Baishuitai, our destination. Still, she means well. At the top we're rewarded with better views north. A couple of men are leading a mule train through the woods and around a bend on a track. It's our turn to fly past a couple of straggling cyclists on their way up as we hurtle down to the village of Ha'ba. After a good late lunch we motor on, and are happy to find that after regaining some height, the road continues along the vallley at the same altitude. Off to our right the Yangtze is taking another dramatic bend to the east and we leave it behind, finally arriving in Baishuitai as the sun is dropping behind the mountains. The guesthouses are rudimentary, and just as we settle on one along come two other cyclists from the opposite direction. Stephane and Leen, from Belgium, stop at the same guesthouse and we chat over our meal in the evening. It seems the only foreigners in these parts are all on bicycles. Next day seems to take a similar pattern, with a big climb, a descent, and then another climb. Lunch is pot noodles from a shack shop in a large village. It's just enough. At the top of the second climb, where we're about 3700 metres, I get off and push - to stretch the muscles of course. And on the way down we have to find a spot to camp. Thankfully Gayle has got a kilometre marker to look out for, from some other cyclists' blog. We find the spot and make our first camp near to a babbling brook in a clearing amongst pine trees. Our third day starts with yet another climb. The good news is that it's our last big one. The bad news is that it's our highest, about 3900m, and a long one. But by now we're better acclimatised and feeling good. The pass eventually comes but here we encounter freezing winds and a barren landscape. We drop down into a bleak brown valley devoid of life except for a few yaks. Having left the Tropics we seem to have passed through the seasons in the wrong order, with summer, then spring and now this wintry scene. We hurtle past a phoney Tibetan village that's been adapted for Chinese tourists, and stop at the next place for yet another pot noodle. We're in Tibetan country now - that huge area of China where Tibetans are living outside of Tibet proper - and the women are wearing traditional clothes, jewellery, various headgear, and the familiar stiped apron. Ruddy cheeks are prominent.
Zhongdian has an old town now swamped by its new counterpart. A while ago the provincial authorities renamed the town Xiangelila (that's Shangrila to you and me), claiming that the town provided the inspiration for Hilton's novel. Essentially a cynical attempt to lure tourists here, it seems to be working, although there is nothing like the development we found in Lijiang or Dali. This means that the town feels quite normal, and if the weather wasn't so wintry, we might stay longer. As it is, we want to keep going and stop only to renew our footwear, visit the local monastery (sneaking past the ticket office), and fill up on the traditional local dish of pizza. In the evenings music is played in the old square and locals, women, men, girls and boys form a circle and dance to the songs. The first time we see this it's dark, and the event thrills us. There are old ladies in traditional clothes, old men in their big hats, young boogaloos in jeans and Rod Stewart haircuts, young women in the latest fashions, all performing an elaborate line dance. This communal act seems like an assertion of their ancient culture and traditions, despite the modernisation of their town and the Han influence that comes with it. Here is a shared act, a public display that asserts their ethnic identity. The next day we arrive a little earlier to see the dancing in the twilight. There are groups of Chinese and foreign tourists gathered with their large cameras pointing at anything or anyone who moves. Suddenly the whole scene just looks like another tacky Chinese tourist show. Lost Horizon indeed.