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Karakoram Highway

Page history last edited by PBworks 14 years, 2 months ago

A Cyclist's Journey on Karakoram Highway

 

 

 

1. Introduction to the Karakoram Highway


    The souls that paved the way for the modern tarmac road named the Karakoram Highway still seem to flicker amongst the sharp moving shadows of the unstable rocks and the almost countless but crumbly lucent glaciers that constantly threaten it's existence. There has always been a long pass into, and out of China over what is sometimes called the 'roof of the world' but in ancient times it was a very perilous pathway.
    Extant writings, etched in a fourth century A.D. Chinese travellers diary, record ' The trail was very precipitous, and vertigo accompanied us as we edged along it...' The path was certainly narrow, and often clung to the sheer faces of the many deep resonant gorges that still confine their turgid, animated rivers. Even today, one can still see vestiges of an old crumbling trail high up above the present road. Although it is not the same trail that this particular merchant scrabbled breathlessly along, if one scrambles up to it and edges along it for a few meters, one can experience the same feelings of dizziness and danger that the diarist wrote about.
    The new wide metalled road also winds along high palisade like cliffs in some places, and sometimes short sections of the tarmac rumble down into the river below or become buried under tonnes of rock and mud. However a modern traveller on this modern road will not experience the same fear or vertigo as the ancients.
    The present highway is also popularly called the 'Silk Route' by many romantics because it approximates the trail of what was once one of the many silk, jade and spice carrying caravan trails that congregated somewhere near Xi'an, in China, and terminated in the vicinity of modern Syria on the Mediterranean sea coast. Like long lines of exploring ants, determined traders, merchants, and adventurers wore a path through narrow gorges, high grass sheathed valleys, across waterless deserts, around 6,000 meter - and higher mountains, and over raging rivers in pursuit of barter.
    The passage of time hasn't altered any of these geophysical conditions, nor were the reasons for building this new road (apart from its obvious military significance) any different from the ancients reasons for undertaking such a hazardous journey. The new road was built to facilitate trade between China and Pakistan.
    Tourist literature published by the Pakistan Tourist Authorities states that the road took twenty years to build. The pamphlets also mention the amount of earth moved, rocks blasted out of the way and more poignantly, the number of men and women, both Pakistani and Chinese who died in this great joint engineering feat.
    Although the brochures write that it 'took twenty years to build', the road is in fact never finished! Because of the uniqueness of it's geophysical surroundings, constant natural activity frequently destroys sections of the highway. A small army of workers are on hand to reroute the road and join the new sections to the ends of the undamaged highway. The road in other words, is constantly being moved!
    Put very simply, the road meanders through an area where highly active tectonic plate pressure is causing mountains to grow faster than the elements can wear them down! Swift flowing rivers and the measurable movements of glaciers crush, undercut and wash away the sides of these same mountains contributing to the constant rock falls and landslides that changes the face of the land almost daily! This uniquely accelerated geological activity can be felt, seen, and heard if one sits quietly on any high vantage point for a few hours. The road is in fact an observable reflection of man's incessant, but unequal struggle against nature's transcendental power.
    Starting near Rawalpindi, the bitumen sealed motorway winds through gently rolling, sandy foothills for approximately one hundred and twenty kilometres before intersecting the Indus river. (Called the 'Sind' by the Urdu language speaking Pakistanis) it then twines along the Indus's arc north eastward to within forty kilometres of the town of Gilgit.
    Between these two points, (about four hundred kilometres) the road sometimes takes on a 'roller-coaster' aspect as it dips into, and out of the Indus's wide river bed. The final dip is at this forty kilometres point when the road joins the Gilgit river and continues to within twelve kilometres of the town of that name, then swings North, crossing the Gilgit river to join the Hunza river. The town of Gilgit is twelve kilometres off the actual Karakoram highway and is reached by a fairly smoothly laid and slightly inclined tarred road.
    Although the Karakoram Highway inclines upwards the whole way to the pass it's not until you get close to Gilgit that you begin to feel as if you are in mountains. Even so, the town is only at one thousand, five hundred meters (approx. five thousand feet) elevation and there is still a feeling of being in desert. The barren, dust laden and tan coloured hills that surround the area give the impression of being made from sand, however, it only takes a ride of a couple of kilometres north from Gilgit for one to get the impression of being in 'real' mountains - very high, and very sheer mountains.
    This is not to say that the actual road itself is steep - it's not, it's just that the demarcation between the almost sand dune like foothills, and the seemingly abrupt line of six to eight thousand meters high glacier and snow plaited mountains is almost overpoweringly awesome.
    The road then accompanies the Hunza river through these mountains, climbing gently almost all the way to the 4,700 metre high Khunjerab Pass. Only during the last twenty-odd kilometres from the top of the pass will you find short stretches of consistently steep road gradients of six to fourteen degrees. At the top of the pass, two tall memorial stones show that this is the convenient dividing line between political Pakistan, and political China. Both countries respective customs and immigration posts are some kilometres away on their respective sides of the pass. Sust, the Pakistan customs post is ninety kilometres before the peak. Taxgorgan, the Chinese customs post and town of that name, is one hundred and thirty kilometres from the peak.
    The pass also separates two differently named mountain ranges, the Karakoram range (on the Pakistani side), from the Pamir in China. Within these two massive ranges, there are other named but smaller clusters of rugged mountains, and a quick glance at a map can confuse one as there is no illustrated way that one can separate one range from the next.
    On the Chinese side of the pass the road is given a different name by the Chinese, who call it, loosely translated, 'The Big Pakistan/China Friendship Road'. This continuation of the Karakoram is also smoothly finished and well graded. It scrolls up and down through generally wide valleys for approximately four hundred and fifty kilometres to the camel market town of Kashgar, which is in the mostly Taklamakan desert filled Chinese province of Xinjiang.
    As most travellers consider the Karakoram highway and the Big Pakistan-China Friendship Road to be one and the same, I have done so in this guide, with the exception that I refer to the Chinese road(s) by their route numbers. All Chinese roads have designated route numbers and periodic 'kilometre' markers tell you what numbered road, or track you are on at any given time, for example, the Chinese side of the Karakoram road is route number 314, and you can stay on this route half way across China.
The actual kilometre numbers on the stones don't seem to make any sense, and they certainly did not usually reflect accuracy as compared to both of our cyclometers, which always came out to within a hundred or so meters of each another at the end of every day. The numbers on the stones often showed a ten or fifteen kilometre difference to our daily total.

 

 

 


2. Traffic, Eating, & Sleeping


    Between Rawalpindi and Mansehra voluminous traffic and the attendant exhaust fumes make for rather unpleasant riding conditions. However after leaving Mansehra traffic becomes lighter and remains so almost to the end of the highway in Kashgar, China. The heaviest traffic encountered in Pakistan will be tourist related vehicles, i.e., buses and jeeps as well as the four to six convoyed Chinese trucks bringing merchandise and foodstuffs from China to Pakistan. These vehicles return empty. All drivers are used to cyclists, and although they may 'skim' you sometimes if there is a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, I've yet to hear of a foreign cyclist actually being hit. Vehicles are rarely going fast enough to cause slipstream problems and can be drafted up hills, you may however have to dismount when a vehicle overtakes you on a hill - to let the thick exhaust fumes settle.
    Traffic on the Chinese side of the highway is mostly four footed, rather than twin axle, except for the aforementioned trucks. We came to the conclusion that it was far more dangerous overtaking skittish donkeys, horses and camels than it was being overtaken by vehicles!
    Between Thakot and Chilas the road snakes through the area called Kohistan. Up to about a decade ago this stretch of road was frequently occupied by transitory bandits, (called 'Dacoits -owners of the land' by most of the Muslim world) who held up buses and other vehicles occasionally killing the occupants. Some people, including Westerners, disappeared as well. There is still occasional nocturnal robbery along this section of the road and public vehicles are provided with a four man armed police escort if they travel through it overnight. There have been no daylight raids for several years and travel between dawn and dusk is considered safe. It is strongly recommended however that independent travellers stay in villages overnight if they are not confined to a vehicle, i.e. if they are animal, pedal, or foot powered.
    Although maps do not show them, there are lots of small villages straddling, or within two or three kilometres of the road. The tracks leading to off-road villages are rough, but rideable in low gear. Almost all of the roadside villages have restaurants where 'beds' can be rented overnight. The beds are actually wooden framed, rattan laced cots that double as seats during the day. One sleeps on them 'as-is'; they are quite comfortable, but you may be bothered by mosquitoes and/or the snoring or talking of other overnighters. The cots are cheap but they cannot be rented by women! Women can usually be found a room in the building that houses the restaurant, or sometimes, with a local family. All amenities are spartan, toiletries often being done in, or near the closest river, spring, or water barrel. Toilets are rare!
    Women travelling without a male escort will undoubtedly suffer from the mostly unwanted, and often reported persistently annoying attentions of men almost anywhere in the world, but in the Muslim world where western women are jaundicely viewed as 'free', or 'loose' morally, these attentions can become magnified to the point where a holiday can become a nightmare. We would strongly recommend that women not travel in Pakistan without a male escort at least as far as Gilgit. Thereafter it seems that women can travel relatively hassle free through what is an Ishmaily sect dominated area. There is virtually no harassment of foreign females in western China.

 

 


3. Short Cuts


    We could not get any official estimates of how many cyclists push along the Karakoram highway each year or season, but all locals agree that the number of cyclists is growing almost to the point that they are no longer interesting enough to be watched or surrounded if they stop moving.
    We spent about three months on the road,(including about one month trekking alongside it) and met approximately eighty cyclists travelling alone, in pairs, and in small groups. We also met 'adventure tour' groups of cyclists, and a few bikers who had planned six month or more itineraries and were passing through. Of all these cyclists, only four had originated from within China, the rest had started in Pakistan, or had cycled overland from Europe. If all of this sounds like the highway is crowded with cyclists - it isn't. We met almost all of them because we were travelling slowly and camping. They often overtook us as we were making a cup of tea, or were sitting on some warm rock to gaze at the scenery. Sometimes the same cyclists would overtake us two or three times, they having stopped to enjoy some of the exhilarating hiking, or had been holed up in a hotel to overcome some minor health problem. Most of the cyclists were under some kind of time limitation and had, out of necessity, taken short cuts to get to the most scenic and challenging part of the highway - between Gilgit and the town of Kashgar in China.
    If you are coming to the highway for a 'holiday', that is to generally cycle, relax, and hike, then the following is for you. If you come for the challenge of the highway, then you can ignore most of what is written here.
    No matter how you get to the Karakoram highway, you should allow at least four days from leaving your house, to actually putting your wheels onto the tarmac. You should allow for at least four weeks, including the travelling time if you only want to cycle the Pakistan side of the road - from Rawalpindi to the Pass, and you should allow about six weeks if you want to cycle the whole length of the highway, from Rawalpindi to Kashgar, an overall distance of approximately one thousand, three hundred kilometres (800 miles).
    If you start your trip from within China you should allow an extra week, that is seven weeks, to allow for the time it takes to reach Kashgar, rest up, and semi-acclimatize to the elevation and temperature, dietary and water differences found in Asia. Unlike the Pakistani side of the road, the Chinese side climbs up a series of very steep 'steps' to reach above the three thousand meters point within one hundred and thirty kilometres of the town of Kashgar (which is at elevation one thousand five hundred meters) Time should be taken for this altitude adjustment! (The Pakistan three thousand meters point is approximately six hundred and sixty kilometres from Rawalpindi or about one hundred and fifty from Gilgit but the climb is not steep.) see: Elevation Profiles in the appendices.
    Before leaving the airport in Islamabad it's worth enquiring about the flights to Gilgit as it may be possible to fly directly there with your bike. The flights are heavily booked, and subject to the whims of mountain weather, e.g., too much wind in Gilgit and the plane cannot land. You can also ask your travel agent at home about a flight - you might be able to book it through them.
    There are several bus companies making the eighteen to twenty four hour ride to Gilgit, and there are private Jeeps that drive through in about fourteen hours. All of the vehicles going to Gilgit originate from Rawalpindi, which is fourteen kilometres away from the capital, Islamabad. The least uncomfortable of the buses are the small thirty seater buses that line the road outside of the main bus station in Rawalpindi. Bikes and gear ride safely on top of these vehicles free of charge. These buses stop very infrequently and drive overnight so it is wise to take something to nibble on and drink along with you. Asian bus drivers are notoriously deaf to women's needs! allow plenty of time if you want the bus to stop for you, and expect to have to walk a considerable distance to escape the stares of the men!
    If you choose a private jeep, all prices are negotiable, and you will be charged for your bike and gear because it will not go onto the soft roofs of the jeeps, but has to be carried inside, and therefore takes the place of fare paying passengers.
    Another short cut that is becoming increasingly popular is to come without a bike, use public transportation to get to Kashgar, in China, spend some time looking around that town then buy eighteen geared Chinese made mountain bikes there and cycle back to Gilgit. The bikes can be sold in Gilgit for almost as much as they cost in China.(although we did meet one French traveller who cycled the whole way on a single geared Asian bike! Now that's a challenge!)
    The Chinese bikes incidently, are currently (1996 prices) selling for about the equivalent to $150.00 U.S. The only drawback, if indeed it is, is that you cannot get western type bicycle pumps, front racks, or bungy (shock) cords in western China or Pakistan and you will have to be somewhat creative when it comes to fastening your backpacking gear onto the bike. (In Eastern China, in the larger cities, you can find these products) It's worth either bringing these items with you, or remembering that innertubes can be bought, cut into long strips and used to tie things onto the bike. The Chinese bikes are poor quality but they do make the trip intact if you keep an eye on the bolts that hold them together.
    It's also worth noting that almost all buses take bikes and gear on their roof and if you do have a problem with the bike, or if you overstay the amount of time that you've allocated for a section of the road, you can always hop on a bus to keep abreast of your planned itinerary.
    Another option that can be fitted into an extended vacation is to buy bikes in Pakistan. Good quality, western name brand bicycles can be ordered through many Pakistan cycle dealers in the larger cities. From date of order to delivery is about two weeks, the bikes coming out of Saudi Arabia because of China's insistence that countries friendly to China do not purchase goods from Taiwan, where many western name brand bicycles are manufactured.
    The snag is that you will not find, nor can you order the parts and sundries for the bike except for the rear rack. This means that if you consider this option, you should bring spares and parts with you. Prices for bicycles run about half of western prices. Of course you can always do what the iron muscled Frenchman did - buy a local bike!
    The easiest short cut, but not necessarily the best, is to join an organized group tour. Check the credentials of the tour operator before signing anything, or parting with cash. Bear in mind that lots of things can go wrong in a group, one member doesn't fit in perhaps, or there are the chronic complainers, people get sick etc. Don't expect a group leader to be able to solve all problems. He, or she may not be able to, especially in a land where resources are few, comfort levels are low, and expectations are rarely met!
    There are several reputable bicycling and trekking tour operators in Pakistan who are licensed by the Pakistan government. Feedback that we received from people who used the local companies was mostly positive, and locally purchased tours are definitely less expensive than tours purchased in Europe or North America. These local companies are located in Islamabad, Gilgit, and Karimabad and are easily identified by their English written advertisements and sandwich boards.

 

 


4. What to expect


    In spite of the troubles in Pakistan, you can expect in northern Pakistan at least, to be treated with a respect, friendliness, and courtesy that has alas almost disappeared in the western world. You can expect to find most locals speaking at least a smattering of English and usually even in the smaller villages, schoolchildren who are able to converse in English. You can expect to find western type foods, goods and medicines in the larger towns and villages. You can also expect to find a much lower level of material comfort, and a much more philosophical approach to the practicalities of living with hardship in a mostly inhospitable environment and climate. In China you can expect similar living standards, but there the similarities end. See Section V., 'Into China', for more details.

 


5. What NOT to expect!


    Do not expect your standards of hygiene to be met in Pakistan or China, or in fact anywhere else in Asia. Although personal hygiene levels may be very high, commercial levels are not. Hygiene is an expensive commodity and as such, is low on the list of most Asian country's priorities. Do not expect to find clean toilets, clean bedsheets, clean water, clean tables and utensils in eating establishments, or clean ablution facilities.
    Once you have left Islamabad, or Rawalpindi, don't expect to have constant electricity, air conditioning, hot showers, or even clear washing water. Don't expect immediate service when you enter a store, or eat in a restaurant, and don't expect to find something you are looking for as soon as you enter a store or supermarket. In other words, do not expect anything to be like it is at home!

 


6. Food and Shopping


    Most of us travelling through Asia on bicycles eat our meals at the ubiquitous roadside food stalls and small restaurants. Most of our nutritional intake is therefor starch as the dominant bulk of the foods we eat is rice (in Pakistan), and 'noodles' in China.
    Both Chinese and Pakistanis are avid meat eaters and it is difficult to get a meal that does not have meat either on, or in it. The meat is usually fatty or gristly and in Pakistan in general almost everything is cooked in oil so most meals are what we in the west would consider to be greasy. Chinese cooking is lighter and more water based and we found it to be much more palatable than the food in Pakistan.
    There is no 'bread' in the sense that we know it, but rather, unleavened 'chappati,' a round flat, dry oven roasted dough that is delicious when fresh. They go stale very quickly if you keep them to crunch on at a later time. In Pakistan one can find most western type, that is, recognizably packaged foods, including cornflakes, oatmeal, flour, muesli and Pasta, noodles and canned foods, and a special delight - canned cheese and jams, in most stores. Dried fruits and nuts are found in every village as are packets of biscuits of various sorts.
    In China food shopping becomes more difficult. There are no imported foods in Xinjiang province and only two kinds of tinned foods - pork and fish. Other food is packaged in opaque, often coloured cellophane, or plain brown paper with a few ideograms scrawled on it making the contents difficult to identify, however, packets of instant noodles are found everywhere and only need the addition of hot water to make a meal. The Chinese authorities incidently, attribute the increase in the general standard of health of the population to the introduction of these packets and containers of instant noodles some fifteen years ago.
As in Pakistan, dried fruits and nuts are found everywhere as are roadside stalls selling fruits and vegetables. We found that although stores in Western China sell Chinese food, that most of the roadside cooking is in fact Uygur - pronounced 'weeger' which is the name for the indigenous (Turkish related) people who populate much of western China.Their food combinations are actually nutritionally well balanced and we considered the meals to be tastier than the 'real' Chinese food that we ate later on in 'Chinese' China.
    In both countries, one finds market stalls that are roasting, baking, or barbecuing vegetables and meats on order. If you order a barbecued egg,-yes 'egg'! or two, for example, it is perfectly permissible to sit at that stall, and ask for boiling water to pour over your packet of instant noodles or whatever, to eat with the egg, or yam, or potato that you just ordered from the stall keeper.
    Shops are laid out differently in Asia from the way they are laid out in the western world where there is a great variety of consumer choice. Asian proprietors stock not only what they think they can sell, but also whatever they can obtain at a reasonable wholesale price. Most stores are a little smaller than the space taken up by the garage attached to your house and are also the homes of many proprietors, hence many of the things they sell cannot be seen by a shopper because items are stuffed under the beds and chairs. Calculators, socks, spaghetti, candles, cigarettes, biscuits, rope, and soap powder can cram all three walls, fruits and vegetables may spill out onto the pavement. Shopping can be fun, and visiting markets and bazaars is part of the holiday, however, if you are looking for something specific it can be a long trudging ordeal from store to store, compounded by not being understood if you ask for something that you cannot actually see. We have for example, spent many hours looking for noodles, jam, postcards, puncture repair kits and so on. We quickly learned to have a rule of thumb that states: 'If we see something that we know we are going to use or need within the next few hours or day we buy it then and there -we may not easily find it again!'
    In China, there are department type stores that are often two or three stories high. Goods are compartmentalized just as they are in most western stores but they do not have a large choice of products. Most locals seem to do almost all of their shopping in the street markets or smaller stores where cheaper day to day necessities are found.
Supermarkets have higher priced goods and luxury items that many locals either don't want, or cannot afford. If you are looking for bicycle parts, and you cannot find a bicycle store, the department stores are the place to find parts. Parts can be found in the hardware department of the store which is almost always in the basement of the building. Usually, bike parts are laid out in saucers with the prices of each item written on a small card attached to the saucer. Larger items such as wheels and tyres are piled up behind the counter, or on shelves. You will find the latest in bicycle parts in the department that sells bicycles but they are not for sale, only to fill up shelves and make the department look 'busy'. In general, cycle dealers do not sell parts, they only sell the whole (new) bicycle. We found that the store owners cannot be cajoled into selling any parts off a new bike. However, if they are carrying second hand bikes, they will sell you parts off them - at highly inflated prices.
    The street bicycle repairers will sell whatever they have on their stall or in their bucket, but most of the parts are used and probably unreliable. They should never be overlooked though if you really need something for the bike, or if you need a fresh insight into bike repairing!

 

 

7. Visas


    Valid visas are required before a person can enter Pakistan or China, with one exception. If you arrive at the Pakistan customs and immigration in Sust, that is, if you came from China into Pakistan, the officers there will issue you a two week 'transit visa' which will give you time to get to Islamabad to obtain a 'tourist visa', or to fly out of the country. This is the only border crossing where you can enter Pakistan without a visa. Usually, one arrives having already obtained a visa in ones homeland. Pakistan visas are easy to obtain, in person, or by mail from the appropriate consular department in any country.
    Chinese visas may involve some tooth gnashing as there is currently no consistency amongst issuing authorities, and diplomatic tiffs may make it even more difficult. Some people applying for a Chinese visa after having their Pakistan visa stamped into their passports have been refused a Chinese visa on the grounds that they can obtain one in Pakistan! If you do have difficulty obtaining a Chinese visa, it is easy to get one in Pakistan (Islamabad), or in Hong Kong, where they are issued almost automatically in one to three days. Both visas are 'dated', which means they are only valid within a specified time after issuance, normally ninety days. If you do apply for a Chinese visa in your homeland allow as much time as possible before expected arrival in China to accommodate for any problems you may have in obtaining it.
    If you make the decision to only cycle the Pakistan side of the road and don't get a Chinese visa, you will not be able to get past the Customs and Immigration post in Sust, Pakistan, (This is about ninety kilometres south from the top of the Kunjerab pass) without surrendering your passport to them. They will then allow you to cycle, or ride on a bus up to the peak where you can turn around and cycle back down. There is a police post on the peak. They will not permit you to travel any further than that point. There doesn't seem to be any time limitations imposed on travellers who do this, and you can take your time to camp, enjoy the scenery, or do some hiking on the way back down.
    You cannot obtain a Chinese visa at any Chinese border crossing with the exception of the five day visa issued to visitors originating from Hong Kong. This visa restricts one to the "Special Economic Zone of Guangzhou" You cannot cycle into China from Hong Kong so if you choose to come this way, you will have to cycle into China from Macau which is about forty kilometres from Hong Kong and can be easily reached by ferry. You can also catch a ferry to Wuzhou, a nine hour ride, or any one of the other of the various ports served from Hong Kong and cycle from there. No visa is needed for the small Portuguese colony of Macau but you will need a valid Chinese visa if you choose to land on mainland China. You can cycle over most other land borders if you have a valid visa.
    Note:
        If you plan to cycle from a port on the south east coast of China to Tibet, be aware that legally(!) you must belong to a permit carrying group tour and you cannot                         (again-legally) cycle all the way.
    People do cycle all the way however, and most report few, if any hassles from police. It is important to cycle quickly through towns, and avoid hotels in bigger towns. Road checkpoints can be rode through after dark- or just before dawn. If you are caught, a small fine and a bus ride back the way you came will result. Articles written in Chinese newspapers have acknowledged that individuals do visit Tibet in spite of the legal restrictions. The same reports also stress that as tourist income is so important, that they will even allow a party of two, and that the permit application forms and procedures have been made easier in order to encourage travellers to obtain them "for their own safety" The reports do not mention whether these liberalized laws are actually being practised on the ground. It is important to remember that Chinese authorities do not bow to demands, but will easily 'negotiate' a 'request' for a permit! If you decide to visit Tibet after arriving in Kashgar, (China) you won't be able to get a permit there or in Yetcheng which is the beginning (or end) of the Lhasa - Yetcheng road. The road is officially 'closed'.
    You can get extensions to your visa easily, in both countries, however in Pakistan, you must return to Islamabad for an extension. (The Pakistan Government is contemplating setting up a visa extension office in Gilgit due to the number of visitors who have complained about having to make this uncomfortable and time consuming journey - you should ask there first)
    In China, visas are extended immediately and without fuss, by the foreign affairs officer in the Foreign Affairs office which is always attached to the main police station found in every town. Chinese visa extensions are usually a multiple of the original visa, for example, if the original was for one month, you will get a one month extension however, regional officials seem to have a great deal of personal independence over who they issue a visa to, how long it will last, and how much it will cost! If you are on a "long term" trip, it is worth "shopping around" the various towns' foreign affairs offices to get the best deal on an extension.
    Even so, you are currently allowed only three extensions, then you must exit China to another country and apply for a new visa at the consular office of China in that country. You may re-enter China as soon as you have the new visa stamped in your passport, e.g., the next day.
    You may transport your bikes and gear into and out of Pakistan without any formalities. Practically you can do the same into or out of China, but legally you are required to have an import-export permit for the bicycle.
    It is quite possible that you might be asked for this permit by a foreign affairs official. We were asked, (in Dunhuang when a couple of officials visited us in our hotel room to also ask us if we had cycled there. Although the town itself is 'open', the area surrounding it is 'closed') We answered them by stating that we had bussed to the town, and also that the Taxgorgan border police had told us that we didn't need a permit for our bikes if we were taking the bicycles out of the country with us. The officer who had asked to see the permit was not happy with this answer but politely told us that we would have to exit the country by the same border we had entered. We didn't argue, just carried on our way, later flying out of China from Xi'an without any complications.

 

 


8. The Bike


    Your bike and it's components should be well tested and proven before you leave home. You will not find critical parts after arriving in Pakistan or China - as many a rueful cyclist can testify. Bicycles manufactured for, or in these countries use a different size format from bikes made in or for the western markets and very few components are interchangeable. The odd parts that can be substituted are poor quality and break down quickly. Most of the accessories used to equip a bike for touring are also nonexistent, therefore you must bring everything with you.
    If you do have a major problem with the bike, for example a smashed wheel, snapped derailleur etc., and need parts sent from home, Pakistan honours 'speedmail' type postal services and you can expect to receive a parcel within four or five days of phoning home.
    Western China does NOT currently honour these types of services, and more than likely, you will wait a month or more for the parcel, and when, or if it arrives, it will probably have been broken into.
    In both countries it is advisable to have a postal address, i.e., a hotel or business rather than using the Post Restante (general delivery) facilities. Mail addressed there can languish in sorting bins for many weeks or months before it is put into hopefully, the correct, if any, slot behind the counter! Some of our mail has belatedly arrived with boot prints stamped all over it! We also sent registered letters from - and to China. None ever arrived at their destination!
    If you are really in a jam over getting parts for the bike, it's worth remembering that you can fly to Hong Kong from almost any major city in China comparatively cheaply, perhaps even cheaper than phoning home and waiting for parts to arrive? If you do go to Hong Kong for bike parts you will find lots of dealers who are very capable at talking, but very short on quality! After a year of meandering around the bike shops of Hong Kong I would unreservedly suggest you also look around before buying anything.             However, I can recommend one shop where the owner, who religiously offers prayers to the ancestral icon of honesty every morning before work, practises what he preaches, has cycled around China, and does stock quality parts at fair prices. His store is in Mong Kok, on Tung Choi st. (number 180) He speaks English and owns the Mong Kok Pro Bicycle Shop, His name is Mr. Kwong - ask for him by name.
    It is best however to try and bring all spares with you. For a short term holiday, a spare tyre, a few spokes, a couple of spare cables, and the tools you need to install them should suffice. For a longer safari you should consider bringing two spare tyres, a freewheel and chain as well as spare cables for both brake and gear cable replacement plus the specialized tools for freewheel, crank and chain replacement. If you suffer an irreparably damaged wheel, you can in a pinch substitute an Asian wheel but you will lose the use of the brakes as the Asian rim configuration does not lend itself to modern braking systems.
    Many pedallers, us included, have had sidewall problems with our tyres, for example the sidewall of the tyre fractures and the tube pops out and bursts. We solved the problem temporarily by gluing strips of cordura material into the inside of the tyre wall. It lasted for a couple of hundred kilometres before the tires blew out again. We were more successful when we 'tied' the tyre to the rim using the plastic cable binders that are normally used to tie telephone and electrical cables together (they are also used as disposable handcuffs in the U.S.A.) We lost the use of the brakes, but the tyres lasted for three or four hundred kilometres before we had to resort to buying Asian wheels (because we could not find the right size tyres). We found that the Asian axles fitted our wheels, (the Shimano bearing cones had cracked in my front wheel) but we could not find 'quick release' axles, and were glad that we carried a six inch adjustable spanner in our tool kit(- to tighten the bolts on the axle). Asian cable covers also worked for a few hundred kilometres before they 'unspiralled' and had to be replaced. If you start your trip with top quality components you should not have some of the problems that we had (we had already cycled about eight thousand kilometres over some very rough Himalayan tracks before we reached the Karakoram highway.)
    If your bike is equipped for touring there are no special changes needed to ride the Karakoram, however if you have a 28-38-46 or 48 tooth chainwheel configuration, then changing the 46T or 48T to a 50 tooth blade will give you a more comfortable cadence on the long, almost level stretches, a slightly higher touring speed, and a head start down hills. Your 28T by 28T gear (the 'granny gear') will help you up hills against strong headwinds, off-road, and cross country to reach villages.
    Obviously, the amount of spare parts you bring will reflect the amount of confidence that you have in your bike, but the Asian highways and the terrain is hard on laden bikes, and at least you should bring the above mentioned spare parts. Tools should include a spoke key! It's easier to keep a wheel 'true' than it is to re-true an egged wheel. It's also obvious that you cannot bring every tool that you think you may need. Never be afraid to challenge the ingenuity of a local cycle shop if you have what seems to be an insurmountable problem! See: 'Starters Tips', for more information.
    I mentioned in the general information that you can buy imported, e.g., western, bikes in Pakistan. If you choose to do this, perhaps with the idea of continuing through China, or possibly riding back to Europe, you will have to bring spares with you. This implies that you will need to know what bike you are going to order before you leave home as not all components fit all bikes. You will need to know for example, which wheels you are going to order so that you can buy the right kind, and size freewheel as well as the right size spokes and tires. You should bring all spares and all tools with you - including innertubes. (Asian innertubes have the old style valves - a rubber tube over a hole in the stem of the valve. They are extremely unreliable!)
    A Full list of suggested spares and tools can be found in the 'quick-checklists in the appendices.

 

 


9. Camping


    Being able to camp is like having the 'cream-on-top-of-the -icing' for people who bring camping gear with them. Between Gilgit and Kashgar, (or anywhere else along the Taklamakan desert)the whole area lends itself to the delightful independence that a cooker, sleeping bag, and tent brings to the visitor. For the already semi-independent cyclist, this equipment adds a wider dimension to cycling, - yet few cyclists carry this means of being totally independent. Many are perhaps overly weight conscious, most are ignorant of the potential for camping, and almost everyone, travellers and cyclists alike, is afraid to camp.
    Firstly, camping is absolutely safe. Locals, no matter how apparently roughly dressed or 'poor' looking, just do not go around stealing campers equipment, or molesting people in tents. The mountain locals have a highly developed sense of personal pride, a large part of which is based on honesty and a high degree of integrity. Noxious insects, ground animals, and injurious reptiles are rare, and if you do see any - you are a rare observer!
    Secondly, carrying basic camping gear and some food far outweighs the stress of trying to cycle to a schedule that conveniently places you outside the front door of a restaurant or hotel whenever you are hungry or tired.
    Lastly, most of the accommodations that you encounter along the road won't be much better than being in a tent, and you can wash in (cold!) silted river water just as well as you can wash in (often cold) silted tap water! - for free.
    Safe or not, we always take almost routine precautions when we camp. We go off-road as far as we think necessary, a couple of hundred meters or more, or into woods whenever possible. We try to remain out of sight of a house or building, or village, and if we camp by a river, we don't camp on the edge of the water, but a few meters from it, amongst the rocks, or bushes. In general, we try to make ourselves as unobtrusive as possible.
    We have almost always entertained visitors at some time or other, or we have had people bring us things that they thought we could use, for example firewood, some fish, a thermos full of hot water or whatever. The thoughtful gift bringers usually tried to cajole us back to their houses or village but I think that really they were just inquisitive and too afraid to approach us without some excuse to do so. Surprisingly, we found that locals are also afraid to camp! Many of them approached us merely to offer us their house to sleep in for the night because it's "dangerous" to sleep outside! (in one case it was 'dangerous' because there may be people buried nearby!) If you do camp, and you do get visitors, offer them some tea or if you are cooking, some food - more than likely they will refuse your offering - they are just curious about you and your gear.
    Some camping rules are worth mentioning because they apply anywhere in the world. If you camp on open ground lay the bikes on the ground so that they cannot be seen so easily and don't attract attention. Keep your gear packed when not actually using it or put it into the tent. Keep the tent closed unless you are actually getting in or out. Do not leave gear such as cooking equipment, food, clothes etc. lying around the exterior of the tent. Burn, bury, or place rubbish several metres away from the tent before you retire for the night.(to discourage animals) Do not get 'uptight' if intruders arrive, don't show off your 'space age' equipment - use the visitors intrusion to learn something about them! If your visitors start to get on your nerves, tell them you are going to bed, and if they don't understand you, point to the tent, make snoring noises, then get into it and close it. If you have kept the area clean as suggested, they will leave.
    Basic camping equipment should include a multi-fuel stove, a container to carry the fuel in, a sleeping bag, a freestanding type tent (or a bivi) and cooking utensils. if you balk at carrying a tent, you should at least carry a groundsheet. A sleeping mattress is optional but should be considered.
Modern, lightweight camping equipment should not add more than twenty-odd pounds (ten kilos) to your carrying weight. More than likely, you will lose this off your body weight after a few days of cycling or walking, so it more or less evens out.
    A multi fuel stove is necessary because once you leave the urban areas you will only be able to find petrol or diesel fuel. You will not be able to find other types of fuel such as camping 'gaz', white fuel, spirits and so on. Airplane restrictions also prohibit you from bringing inflammable substances with you so it is important to have a multi fuel cooker.
    Your sleeping bag should be rated to 0 degrees Celsius as it often drops to this temperature and lower during nights in both the mountains and the deserts.
A freestanding tent can be pegged down, but often, rocks, or soft sand make this a worthless chore. For a single 'overnight' it's not usually worth trying to peg a tent down unless there is a strong wind. See: Starters Tips for more information.
    If you choose to do some hiking along the way, hotels and lodges are very understanding about your need to leave your excess gear somewhere while you are hiking. Some of them even have locked rooms where you can store your gear, free of charge, while you're away. Bikes can be locked, and safely left where ever the hotel or lodge owner tells you it's safe to leave them. If you go onto a trail and decide to set up a base camp to leave gear in while you go for a 'day hike', it is quite safe to leave unattended gear by the side of the trail for the day. If you arrive without camping equipment, some items can be rented from shops, tour operators, and some hotels in the area, but most of the equipment is heavy duty stuff (Army surplus type) and heavy.
    Most hiking trails are NOT SUITABLE for bike riding unless you are prepared to do a lot of lugging of both bike and gear. As far as off roadside riding is concerned, it has to be considered hazardous as deep, grass hidden gullies are almost impossible to see, and rocks can be hidden anywhere in the grass.
    Perhaps the most important piece of equipment, whether you choose to camp or not, is a water filter or purifier. DO NOT ARRIVE IN ASIA WITHOUT SOME MEANS OF PURIFYING AND/OR FILTERING WATER! There is water all along the highway and you can buy bottled water almost everywhere there is a town, but lugging bottled water, at one kilo per litre is somewhat impractical in Asia if you can filter water as you need it. You will only be able to drink ground and river water if you can firstly, filter it to remove the sediment, and secondly, sterilize it to remove noxious bugs. Most of the mountain water in Pakistan is heavily sedimented, even some of the tap water is too! Although locals drink the sedimented (and untreated!) water with apparent impunity, most foreigners are put off drinking it.
    You should also remember that no matter how clean some of the mountain streams may look, that above you there are thousands of sheep, yaks and goats.
When you pass through settlements or small villages in China almost anyone will give you boiled water - but the water will be boiling when they give it to you - this means that you should carry a container capable of holding boiling hot water! Aluminium bottles are not suitable because the lining inside melts and can be harmful to your health. The 'Ortlieb' bags mentioned below held boiling water without problem.
    As a guide to filters, we use the 'Katadyn Pocket Filter PF' (weight: 500grams) brand water filter. It is a ceramic core filter that can be cleaned easily. It is arguably the best filter in the world and you may balk when you see the price of it, however, consider your choice of filter carefully, and do not take manufacturers claims too seriously, for example, when they state 'will filter five thousand gallons' does this mean tap water - or heavily sedimented river water? The best filter will be one where you can remove the filter core, clean it, and replace it into the jacket. Of course, you can always boil water, silted or not if you have a cooker, or you can put sterilizing tablets in it.
    As a guide to how much water to carry, we use two, four litre 'Ortlieb' collapsible water containers, as well as two extra one litre bottles. We also carried two one litre bottles each on our bikes, giving us a carrying capacity of fourteen litres of water. Usually we filled up the four litre bags at the last available clean water source (often a spring, or from a restaurant) that we found before we camped for the night, this meant that we only carried the weight of them for a couple of kilometres or so. This was sufficient water, along with our filled bottles, to enjoy a shower each evening, as well as enough for cooking, teamaking, and at least two or more litres left over to get us to the next water the following day. Of course, if we knew that there was access to the river ahead, (there is water all along the KKH but access to it is sometimes impossible because of steep cliffs) we didn't bother picking up water - we could filter or boil the river water.

 


10. Other Considerations


    Dust and dirt is endemic along the highway. Delicate equipment such as Walkmans, laptops, binoculars, cameras etc. can be protected by enclosing them in waterproof - and therefore dustproof containers. The cheapest and lightest are the 'Zip-lok" type plastic bags found in supermarkets. They are extremely durable, and can also be used for carrying food, or water. A step up in quality, but a leap in price and weight is the 'Ortlieb' brand waterproof 'map cases' found in camping stores. they are rather heavier and much stronger than the zip-loc bags, but also more difficult to close and less maliable, however because they are much sturdier they will last a lot longer.
    Vibration is another damaging phenomenon. Again, delicate gear should be protected by making or buying padded bags to hold it. If you carry spare glasses wrap them before you put them in the case otherwise they will quickly become scratched. Make a 'holder' out of a paper clip to press into the centre holes of cassette tapes to stop them from unwinding. If you like a 'quiet' ride, you will have to wrap everything to inhibit rattling! this includes your tools and cooking gear.
    Vibration also severely affects the bicycle and a religious check of all nuts and bolts should be made at least once in a while, or better, once a day. This check should include the spokes as well as the bolts that hold the chainwheels together and the bolts holding the carriers onto the frame.

 

 


11. Theft


    ...is almost nonexistent, but take the same precautions against loss of documents and gear as you would anywhere else in the world. Bikes should always be locked when not in use not so much because someone would steal them but because people may well attempt to take them for a ride to 'try them out'. Both Pakistanis and Chinese are highly tactile people, that is they tend to want to touch or feel everything that you have on the bicycle. Anything that is loosely attached, i.e., water bottles, pumps and so on, will be removed for inspection. The locals will also squeeze the brakes, move the gear levers, kick the tires, spin the pedals, and lift the bike off the ground to see how heavy it is.
    We and other cyclists haven't been able to totally overcome this tampering problem so if you leave your bike where there are people (which means literally anywhere) then you can expect to find your gears jammed up when you return to the bike to continue riding. Always remove the cyclometer and pump if you park and keep all bags closed. More than likely you will get annoyed at the seemingly lack of respect for what is after all, your property. You will not be able to change it so try to accept it light heartedly - you have been warned!
    (We used Velcro strips to secure our water bottles in the racks after finding that they bounced out too often. A side effect of this was that people left the bottles alone after finding that they were 'tied' to the bike!)

 

 

 

12. Nutrition


    Of all the many differences between cycling in the West, and cycling in the East, the difference in diet is rarely addressed in books or guides. There are in fact virtually no comprehensive guidelines to advise or inform an active western traveller on how to make up for the almost total lack of dairy products and other western types of food that help us to maintain our energy, dietary, and fitness levels at home.
    For cyclists especially, maintaining weight and health becomes somewhat problematic in Asia. As most of us don't know the nutritional value of Asian foods so we eat what we can get, find ourselves losing weight and succumbing to unaccustomed fatigue so we eat more of the same in the hopes that we can regain both our weight and our energy levels, when in fact it is the quality and mix of food that is important - not the quantity.
    Almost every cyclist that we met in Pakistan and China had suffered from some form of sickness after they had been cycling for more than four or five weeks. We could only assume that they arrived in the peak of health but their nutritional intake since leaving home had not been sufficient to maintain that peak.
    The first thing that one must realize is that dairy products and salads probably supply our bodies with more than a third of our daily nutrient requirements in the west. These are non- existent in rural Asia and as most of us eat in the roadside restaurants, we should supplement this food by eating extra things like nuts, fruits, and vegetables every day.
    If you are a meat eater you may be dismayed to find that you won't be able to recognize most of the cuts of meat you see. Perhaps after passing a row of boiled sheep and goats heads, bulls testicles hanging in their scrotum bags, and various other parts of their anatomies speared to the walls behind the stalls, you may have second thoughts about gnawing on some of the blobs of 'stuff' that appears on your plate or in your soup.
    Some meats are recognizable however, liver, and kidneys for example are in fact more nutritionally viable than plain meat. Often one finds fish -its never filleted, but picking through the bones is better than stuffing rice down your throat. Seasonal fruits and nuts are found everywhere as are vegetables. Do not eat raw vegetables - they can contain a parasite transferred from the human excrement which is used to fertilize the soil they grow in. Dried fruits are an exceptionally good source of vitamins and acids and can be eaten rather like chewing gum is chewed.
    If you carry cooking equipment you can always buy a few fresh vegetables and cook them - the same with rice - rice pudding perhaps? with some nuts, dried fruits, raisins etc., thrown in?
    A good buy is powdered milk. It is found everywhere; not infants milk but plain powdered milk. Unlike the powder found in the west, Asian milk is fortified with vegetable fat to make it 'full cream'. It is quite tasty - and nutritious.
    In sum you must consciously change your western eating habits to compensate for the carbohydrate rich but vitamin poor restaurant foods. Even though you can go into any restaurant kitchen to point out what you want to eat, the available choice is often very limited; You will have to subsidize this food with market purchases if you want to maintain a high energy and health level.
    If you carry a cooking stove, you can buy produce to cook,in small enough quantities to avoid having to carry excess weight on your bike or back. Of the available root crops, sweet potatoes, cassava, carrots and turnips will benefit you more than potatoes. Preferential greens include beansprouts, spinach, peas and beans all of which are recognizable and widely available. Self cooked rice is preferable to restaurant rice which may have been cooked several hours before you eat it. It can contain an enteropathogen (bacillus Cereus) if kept too long after cooking.
    Tofu, a paste made from crushed soya beans is extraordinarily high in protein, and a dish of fresh cooked rice and fried tofu will give you a protein complete meal in itself.
If you are unable to cook for yourself, then try to pick combinations such as tofu, legumes and noodles or bread, soybean, rice and vegetables.
I mentioned in the general information about the 'instant noodle packets' these have been proven to be nutritious and according to another couple of cyclists we met can also be eaten without water if you are really hungry.
    Obviously, eating the same combinations of foods every day can become boring - but it's better than becoming malnourished - or sick. Dispel the boredom by eating fruits and chewing nuts as you roll along. Remember that nuts and seeds must be chewed thoroughly if they are to benefit you.
    If you like eggs, you may find that eggs are plentiful in one area, then none existent in another. Most of the eggs in the rural areas come from free ranging hens and during the moulting season, that is between the end of August and the middle of October, they just do not lay eggs therefore you will not be able to find them unless you are in an area where refrigeration allows for 'imported' eggs from elsewhere in the more agriculturally advanced areas of the country.
    Remaining healthy is also contingent on your mental health! Your individual ability to cope, accept, or object to the different conditions found in Asia will affect your whole physio-psychological ability to remain unstressed. While there are only recently conducted studies to investigate this phenomena, We believe that most of us who 'have a hard time of it' are the ones who get sick the soonest. We get 'sick' because we judge and compare, complain and criticize, instead of accepting what we see around us and letting it take us along with it! The Karakoram road, especially on the Chinese side, necessitates having a totally open mind about the conditions that one finds oneself in at any given time. There are no comparisons... therefore an open mind is a contented mind and this will assuredly create the circumstances for the most enjoyable ride you've ever had.

 

 


13 Illness & Accident


    It's a little known fact but no more than thirty per cent of travellers to Asia actually contract any kind of debilitating sickness. Most of them suffer from simple diarrhoea which is sometimes exacerbated by other factors such as taking the wrong medication, not eating correctly, or succumbing to the mental depression that temporary physical disability induces in many of us. Simple diarrhoea is not fun - but it is called 'simple' because it is a short term upset which is induced by the pervasive E. Coli microbe. It's normal duration is from three to five days - with, or without medication.
    More serious is persistent diarrhoea which can be caused by several different microbes. It requires medically prescribed treatment as it will not go away on its own. If you suffer from loose stools for more than five or six days the best thing to do is to visit a local hospital and have a blood, stool, and urine test.
If you are worried about the surgical sterility of the hospital's equipment you can supply your own needles and syringes which you can buy in sterile wrapping in most pharmacies for pennies.
    In line with this advice It should be mentioned that most guidebooks generally list impressive numbers of pre-trip vaccinations and inoculations that you should consider having before a trip to Asia.In this respect heed their advice! But they also list prevalent local diseases and the medicines you should carry to combat them. Unfortunately, the writers of all these lists make the assumption that the reader is capable of diagnosing his or her malaise correctly - and popping a pill.
    Most of us do not diagnose our symptoms correctly and even if we were able to, would we know which one of the many strains of E.coli, Shigella, Giardia, and so on that have attacked us, and whether they are multi resistant strains or if they will they succumb to the particular antibiotic that we may be carrying? There is no way of knowing this without an analysis of at least a stool or two! We have met travellers in dire straights because they refused to trust a local doctor (usually because of what they had read in their guide books about them!), or were worried about both the sterility of equipment and/or the integrity of the personnel in a local hospital.
    The important point here is that if you suffer any form of illness for more than six or seven days, take a blood, urine, and stool test before you start popping antibiotics and other medications into your system. Usually, you will be given the results of such a test within twenty four hours, you can then take that to a local doctor or pharmacy and they will give, or sell you the appropriate medication.
    No matter how careful you are in Asia there are bugs that your body is not used to. Occasional runs can be expected but drinking oral rehydration salts is probably the best short term medicine. The various world and international health organizations suggest a home-made oral rehydration mixture of 5 grams of salt (one level teaspoonful), and 40 grams of sugar (eight level teaspoonsful), in ONE litre of water. We found though, that commercially made, flavoured salts are available in almost every pharmacy.
    Water-born microbes are endemic and even if you only use bottled water you are still not in the clear as most eating establishments wash utensils in cold water and droplets adhering to plates, chopsticks, cutlery, cups etc. can contain noxious bacteria. Eventually though, your body gets used to the Asian bugs and the loose stools and queasiness if any, will cease.
    If you are eating correctly, staying within or on the edge of your physical limits, i.e., not driving yourself to exhaustion, then your chances of getting sick are quite slim - as are your chances of having an accident.
    Most guide books recommend that you obtain a travellers insurance policy before embarking on your trip. In the west, where insurance coverage is widely recognized, this may be a good idea, but in most of Asia, and especially in China, it may be a worthless investment unless you can get it in writing that you will be reimbursed - as a cyclist, walker, or donkey cart driver, (don't laugh! four Frenchmen just completed a camel ride across the Taklamakan, and a European family is still on the road in Asia after two years in their horse drawn caravan) for any money spent, or laid out in the event of 1, property damage ( i.e., scratching someone's car if your bike or gear scrapes or falls against it), and 2, personal injury - yours or someone else's where possibly high medical expenses or damages have to be paid out in cash.
    For example, the Chinese authorities will not recognize anything that is not written in Chinese! The Chinese police, or 'Public Security' as they are known, have almost total discretionary powers when called to the scene of an altercation, accident, or other breach of the peoples peace. They will decide who is at fault and whenever possible arbitrate a financial settlement on the spot. Cash payment will be demanded from the offender. If you are the guilty party you will have to pay cash. If the other party is found guilty they will have to pay you - but only at Chinese par value. For instance if you have parked your bicycle and your rear wheel is run over and destroyed by a vehicle and the driver is found guilty of negligence, he will have to pay you the going rate for a new wheel, currently about the equivalent to four United States dollars! You will not be paid for the cost of phoning home to order a new wheel, nor for the hotel bill where you stay until it arrives - and so on, so it is important to be sure that your insurance company will reimburse you.
    Insurance, by the way, is almost unheard of in China - as is civil litigation. Your chances of recovering reasonable damages from a Chinese citizen are very remote.

 

 


14. Natural Hazards


    Insect swarms are rare along the Karakoram highway, but mosquitoes can be found as high as three thousand, five hundred meters! In China, flies have been replaced by meat eating wasps, although it can be somewhat disconcerting to be surrounded by them, they don't seem to be attracted to live human flesh and can be considered as quite harmless. They do sometimes get caught up in the hair or clothes when cycling. It's best to let them extricate themselves!
    Across the South Taklamakan desert road, strong, fast moving dust vortexes criss-cross the highway and it's easy to suddenly become swallowed up - keep your mouth closed when cycling this route! Camping is safe insofar as insects, reptiles and rodents are concerned, but normal camp tidiness should always be observed, i.e., don't leave food out overnight, don't leave clothes lying on the ground, (both snakes and scorpions enjoy the warmth of clothing left on the ground!) and keep the tent closed when not actually entering or leaving it.

 

 


15. Nuisances


    Without doubt, the biggest 'nuisance'- if I can call it that, is constantly being surrounded by people whenever one stops moving, either to check a map, to sightsee, or to shop.
    As previously mentioned, individuals are extraordinarily curious, and almost persistently friendly. They have a very different concept of 'space', and 'privacy', and in Pakistan especially, a very different view of women who are travelling alone or in pairs. For western travellers in general, this lack of privacy and space, and viz., women the annoying harassment from males, can vitiate a holiday to the point where some travellers are glad to get out of the country.
    In Pakistan, or indeed, in most of the Islamic countries, the cultural consensus imbued in the minds of both men and women in general is that women should be actively engaged in seeking marriage, marriage itself, and child rearing. If she is not doing any of these things, then there is something 'wrong' with her and she becomes fair game for any male who chances upon her. In the case of Western women, this illusion is enhanced by the many western films and TV shows that depict extramarital sex scenes.
    The least hassled women travellers that we have met are the single women who know this, and wear a wedding ring and carry photos of their 'husband', and 'children' to dissuade insistent suitors from pursuing them. It works, and being respectfully married has meant that many women have been invited to meet families (and wives), and have gained an insight into the culture that is just impossible for a male to get. Although you may abhor this kind of deception, if you are not married it is worth taking the trouble, before you leave home, to scrounge a few photos of a friend's children and husband and carry them with you.
    Pakistan, like all Muslim countries, has a fairly strict dress code. It's okay to do sports, including cycling, in shorts and 'T' shirt, but it's not alright to walk around in them once you are off the bike. Pakistani clothing is very loose and quite comfortable - it's also very cheap to buy, and slipping it over you after you have dismounted will not only reflect respect, but will deter adverse reactions from locals and discourage insects from taking a bite out of you.
    Fortunately, both Pakistanis and Chinese are outgoing and have an easy sense of humour. This has often tempered our annoyance at constantly being surrounded, poked, trodden on, or watched by ever-increasing numbers of pushing, shoving crowds of people. In fact, humour is the best way to enforce 'crowd control' and if you can develop the verbal skills, or a sign language to indicate, for example, how stupid you are to be cycling along a hot dusty road in the middle of nowhere, you will get along much better with locals.
    One fact became obvious to us as we travelled, and that is that there is a great deal of respect for foreign cyclists, and self deprecating humour was seen as modesty, a trait that most cultures seem to admire. We also learned to spend only a couple of minutes or so within a crowd, then either park the bikes and do our sightseeing, or slowly edge out of the crowd. They give way very reluctantly but we always insisted, even running over toes if necessary, or nudging people with our front wheels. If you do this - don't be aggressive, it's both unwarranted and unnecessary, and apt to provoke confrontation rather than co-operation.
    Another major nuisance is being cheated, especially in China. I don't mean the kind of cheating that occurs when failure to haggle skilfully in a bazaar means you pay much more than an item is worth, I mean that it is the policy of the Chinese government to steal money from tourists by overcharging them for the same services that locals receive, so it is not surprising that locals also do the same for goods or services rendered to foreigners.
    Unless you are purchasing in a department store, where prices for goods are written under the item, you must establish a price before you purchase anything. This includes ordering a meal, buying food or other necessities in a market, or using any public transportation. Even so, you might agree to a price, eat your meal, or sleep in the hotel bed, only to find that the price has gone up when you go to pay! The only thing to do in this case is to put the exact agreed amount on the table or counter, and walk out. Hopefully, you will have packed your bikes first. Get on them and ignore the screaming and shouting behind you! If you are physically grabbed, release yourself defensively and go and get a policeman, or better, go to the foreign affairs office and lodge a complaint. It is better to lodge a complaint than do nothing! In one case where this happened, the foreigner lodged the complaint (she was an American), was driven back to the restaurant by the police who demanded her money back for her, gave it to her,then asked her what punishment she would like to impose. 'close it down' was her reply. 'for how long' asked the cops. 'Three months' - and the cops did just that.
    Of course, you can avoid all this emotional (and time consuming) turmoil by just paying what is asked of you, but if you do you make it more expensive and perhaps more difficult for someone coming after you have left the area.

 

 


16. Medical Supplies


    No matter where you travel, you should have a basic first aid kit, as recommended in every travellers guide book however, you should also carry some things that you just won't find in Pakistan or China. Cotton Buds, ophthalmic drops (for sore eyes) and if you wear contact lenses, cleaning fluid. Dental floss, and a good insect repellent, sun screen lotion and a calamine, for bites and stings. Practically all prescription medicines can be bought over the counter and are readily obtainable in Pakistan where almost all pharmaceutical products are imported from western firms. If you enter China, you must bring ALL needed medicines with you as dangerously fake and illegally manufactured drugs have flooded the market.They appear to be exactly the same as imported labels but the contents are locally made by inexperienced pharmacists and have caused many deaths throughout China!
    Several cyclists who looked through this manuscript suggested a range of medicaments, however, as with tools, you cannot carry everything and for things like anti-fungal cream, sleeping tablets, diarrhoea pills and antibiotics etc., you will have to decide what you want to carry. Do not underestimate local herbal remedies!

 

 

 

 

17. Hazards


    Road surfaces can vary immensely over very short distances, from newly laid to worn smooth and potholes or patched, gravel, washboard, or compacted mud and rocks. Even long stretches of metalled road are not as smoothly or evenly consistent as roads built in Europe or North America. This is not a reflection on the integrity of the road engineers but more because of the extremes of heat and cold, rock and water damage and sometimes finances. Almost always, overladen vehicular traffic adds to the stresses that even well designed and built Asian roads endure.
    For we cyclists these roads create a lot of vibration, hence slower touring speeds than we could achieve if we were travelling in say, the Rockies, the Alps, or the western world in general, where both Mecki and I have exceeded sixty-odd miles an hour coasting down hills and felt reasonably secure about the consistency of the road surface under our wheels and the camber of the road on the next bend! In contrast the Kararakoram highway became a very rough ride if we exceeded fifty Kilometres an hour - that's just about half the speed that we enjoy in Europe or north America!
    The point here is that higher speed riding will require more concentration on the road itself (rather than the scenery), a much firmer overall control of the bike and more frequent checks of the bike itself to insure 'tightness' of all the components. The lower speeds will also have to be taken into account if you are planning a 'tight' itinerary! The road also has other hazards that demand attention, slow you down, or send you spinning off it!- I believe "grabbing air" is the current phrase?
    Frequent rock-slides decimate sections of the road surface as do the tracks of the heavy machinery hauled in to push the slide off the road. Fresh slides can also hold one up for several hours as many of them are accompanied by water and the resultant mix is just too hazardous to attempt to cross - with or without a laden bicycle. Attempting to go around some slides is also frequently impossible because of the steepness of the slope that created the slide in the first place. There will be little option but to wait until it's passable. Lighter slides drag boulders and rocks down. These merely pit the road, but the often accompanying water washes out the underlayment leaving sometimes very deep potholes that can rip a tyre in two and severely damage rims. The rivers, coursing against the embankment that supports the road in places, washes away the underlayment leaving a very thin layer of tarmac that may or may not support your weight as you ride over it. There are rarely any warnings posted ahead of these dangers, so high speed pedallers need to have high speed reflexes! - and a little luck.
    Other often encountered hazards include rounding a corner and finding a herd of unruly goats, sheep, yaks, or camels straddling the road. Animals rarely move out of the way voluntarily - ditto people, and both are unpredictable as to which way they will move, when they finally do!
    Vehicle drivers will often turn a corner and head towards you on your side of the road beeping because you are in their way! You will have little option but to move off the road. Vehicle drivers are also often responsible for rocks left scattered along the road. When a vehicle stops or breaks down the driver puts a ring of rocks around it. Why? I don't know, but when they drive off they leave the rocks in place and these are subsequently run over by other vehicles, crushing and fragmenting them and spreading smaller, sharper stones over the whole road surface.
    In China, two distinct hazards come to mind. One, is missing manhole covers, especially in the smaller towns and villages. I was puzzled by this especially after almost becoming a victim to one just outside a hotel that we stayed at. Apparently the covers are made of cast iron but not cast thick enough to stand up to the pounding of frequently overladen vehicles. They crack into pieces and fall into the manhole. No one bothers to replace them! The second hazard is 'runaway' draught animals. This happens when the drivers fall asleep on the cart and the animal decides to turn around in the middle of the road - a sudden 'U' turn! We clocked some of the donkey powered carts and found that they clip along at an average speed of fifteen kilometres per hour.
    In spite of all this however the road is safe if you keep your attention on it. Stop if you want to enjoy the scenery, and stop to rest occasionally!

 

 


18. Riding, & Maps


    As almost any touring cyclist will concur, most maps contain inaccuracies, some more than others. Our experience has been that every map that we have used while in Asia has, from our cyclists point of view been grossly inaccurate, i.e., road distances incorrect, no roads shown where there are roads, roads shown as surfaced when they are, in fact, dirt tracks, and on some maps that show the geophysical ground, plains where there are mountains and vice versa. In other words as far as cycling is concerned, maps should be viewed with a great deal of suspicion and used only as rough guides to facilitate direction and approximate distances from one point to another. Cyclists should alas, carry more than one map makers map in order to make sound judgements about conditions versus their individual abilities and so on.
    All maps of the Karakoram highway, including the so called 'satellite' maps show the same (identical) errors, most note worthy of which is the absence of the fourteen kilometre road that precedes the western side of the town of Karimabad. It is an old tarmac road that winds through several villages. This road is not shown on any map! the 'road' to Karimabad shown on maps is a four kilometre, rough, sixteen per cent graded bulldozed track! Most maps also show the highway to be on the west side of the Hunza or Indus rivers when it is in fact on the east side in many places. No maps show all of the numerous settlements and villages along the highway - we actually met two cyclists carrying twelve litres - that's twelve kilos of water because they didn't know that there were villages every few kilometres! (they were not, incidently, carrying a water filter with them!)
    If you plan on continuing into China you might as well throw the maps away - well, almost, as they bear very little relationship to what is actually under your wheels. In any case, there is only one fully paved road through western China and this is route 314, the continuation of the Karakoram highway. This road goes across the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert to Korla then becomes route 218 and heads North to Urumqi. ANY OTHER ROAD that you ride in western China will entail long distances over rock, brick, sand, or cobblestones and dirt surfaces!
    We carried several European made maps but the best map we found was actually a Chinese drivers map book (written in Chinese) which we bought in China. The cover is reproduced on page 40 and 41. You can use the illustration to buy it when you get into China (at roughly, $1.50 U.S.) Translated as 'The car drivers map book' its pages are illustrated in scales that are rather nebulous but it does show all villages, route numbers, roads, and road distances. It does not show whether roads are metalled or not, but as stated above, there is only one tarred road anyway. Of the European maps, the best we found is the Swedish 'Esseles Co.'or the 'GLA Kartor AB'. Both maps seem to be the same, bulky, and at a scale of 1: 4 000 000 they are hardly 'cycling' maps, but are written in both Chinese ideograms and Roman script and can be used to show locals to ask for directions, distances etc. They also reflect the geophysical ground reasonably accurately.

 

 


19. Sleeping


    As previously mentioned the only area where it is unsafe to sleep out is the Pakistan district called Kohistan. In North Pakistan, other than this area it is safe to sleep anywhere, and most locals are extraordinarily hospitable and will welcome you into their house if you need a place to crash for the night and don't have a sleeping bag, or if it's raining. We found the same in China, but often it was ten or more below zero degrees celsius so we often opted to stay in hotels, hostels, and bus station 'waiting rooms'. If you have difficulty locating a hotel go directly to ANY main bus terminus and you will find that there are beds for rent overnight, within small rooms that line the walls of the compound that houses the busses. These are ground floor rooms and very rudimentary, often with only four beds, a coal burning stove, and a plastic bucket. Beds are rented individually and are so cheap (less than US$1) that you will be able to rent all four beds if you want privacy. Toilets are open air pit type (see 'into China') and ablutions are done in the bucket, (found in every room), or under a pump. Boiling water is always available for tea or cooking.
    If you are turned away from these places by some arm waving person - hold your ground... We found that local people will make great efforts to find an English speaking comrade to tell you why you can't stay there. Be patient and more than likely, you will end up being able to stay!
    Although we were frequently cheated in China, at no time was money actually coerced from us...nor did we ever get an indication that money would secure otherwise unsecurable things. The one time when we were so blatantly cheated that we became angry, refused to pay, and walked out of the hotel, we were stopped by a local who immediately summoned the local 'comrade manager' who listened to our complaint, ordered a room for us, escorted us to an excellent dinner, and refused any payment whatsoever.(In Argan, Eastern edge of the Taklamakan desert)

 

 

 

20. Introduction to China


    The fascination of the word 'China' has prompted hundreds, if not thousands of latter day travellers to brave harsh natural hazards, clannish tribes, and international intrigues to explore what was behind the enigmatic veil of what is today known as the 'Peoples Republic of China'.
    This fascination is still unsatiated because China, scarred by the aggressively colonialistic ambitions of insensitive European powers and the so called 'gunboat diplomacy' of nineteenth century capitalists threw the 'invaders' out and closed her border to all but a few carefully scrutinised and monitored visitors. Today however China has once more opened up her borders and much of her countryside to visitors who bring much needed cash to a country that is in the throes of changing over from an almost feudal culture to a modern twentieth century 'superpower'.
    Unlike the Western world which has a steady if turbulent history of industrial/socioeconomic growth, China has suddenly found herself in the twentieth century without the modern laws, sciences, economical structure, educational facilities, and social cohesiveness to cope with what the market oriented western world is demanding from her. She is also a Socialist country which until fairly recently used the former Soviet socialist system as a model for her own development. When she broke away from the Soviet system (in the sixties), there came a period of acute indecision and chaos. Although the chaotic conditions that we in the west call the 'Cultural Revolution", and the modern Chinese call a 'Leftist Mistake' are over, the physical and social effects are still in evidence in some parts of China.
    China is still more or less experimenting in an effort to find her own viable political system, and today, 1996, has a mixture of capitalism and socialism. Because of a somewhat autocratic government she is being pressured by both the western world and dissidents and intellectuals within her own borders to accommodate Democracy.
China is a very large country, with over one point seven billion people within it's political boundaries. Of these millions, several are unable to speak Chinese, or read and write the Chinese ideograms, and some millions do not even 'look' Chinese (Asian) in the physical sense. There are five officially recognized languages (Chinese, Tibetan, Uyger, Mongolian, and Hui) and all five use a different 'script' from one another. There are also estimates of another few hundred different languages or at least mutually unintelligible dialects currently being spoken within the land. The official lingua franca is Mandarin.
    All Chinese citizens use the same currency, the 'Renminbi' or peoples money, called the Yuan and which is divided into ten jiao or one hundred fen. Most notes show their denominational value in Pinyan Chinese, (readable, from a western readers viewpoint), and Arabic numerals. The 'fen' are hardly ever accepted from foreigners and you may have difficulty getting rid of them if you are given any in change - save them for the market where an odd piece of garlic etc. can be bought.with them.
    A careful look at a map will show many areas designated as 'Peoples Autonomous Region'. Of these many areas, two of the largest, Tibet and Xinjiang provinces (taking over one third of China's land mass) and the indigenous millions who live in them, owe no real allegiance to the central government in Beijing and are openly or covertly railing against what they see as Chinese 'occupation' of their respective territory. The Chinese justify their presence in these areas on the basis of an arguably contentious historical right, (from the Han dynasty. 206 B.C. - A.D. 220) but the social cohesiveness,if any, between the indigenous locals and Chinese seems to be contingent on the number of Chinese government troops and officials stationed in these areas.
    In the western part of China, the area covered in this guide, new towns, settled by cash or official position incentive driven 'real' (Han, or any member of the six or seven recognised political parties in China) Chinese are being founded and built at a rapid rate. Roads are being rebuilt, irrigation systems which were hurriedly built during the 'cultural revolution' but abandoned later are being revitalized, and the omnipresent satellite dish reflects modern communications - that may, or may not work at any given time.
    A cursory glance at any of these new towns will give the impression of modernity, but a closer inspection will reveal that there is a great deal of illusion - what I call 'razzle-dazzle'. Behind the thin, glittering facades of colourful fragile glass, buildings that were built less than twelve months before are already in need of major maintenance work. Doors stick or don't close, indicating, amongst other things, poor foundations. See-through cracks splinter walls, plumbing malfunctions, sewer waters pour into rivers or seep into the ground, newly laid roads are already pot-holed, and electronics break down, and stay broken because there isn't anyone able to repair them properly.
    Many of the these problems result from the so called 'technology transfer' whereby western companies provide the 'know-how' or the plants necessary to produce basic articles such as steel or glass or plastics etc., but do not give China the almost secretly guarded processes necessary to produce quality materials. China, for example, can have a partnership to produce four wheel drive vehicles with an American company who will sell them the designs, the mould and the (often outdated) factory, but will not sell, or show China how to make the hardened steel necessary to produce an engine that will last for more than a few thousand kilometres.
    China's attempts to modernize her agriculture have also run into severe problems. Each time a small farmer acquires a tractor or an electric water pump, it displaces several farm workers who flock to the cities to find jobs. There aren't any, and the ex-farm workers remain jobless, and skill-less.
    It's worth remembering that these are the conditions that Europe faced not so long ago, and in fact Russia (among other countries) is also currently facing. No doubt China's strength and determination to 'modernise' will eventually overcome these setbacks, just as Europe has done, but if the Karakoram highway can be imagined as a microcosms of mans incessant struggle with nature, China has currently to be seen as a macrocosms of a huge country's attempts to leap into the increasingly globalized twentieth century from the back of a feudal culture without any precedents to guide it! It's an exciting thing to witness, and bearing in mind some of the things written here may make some of the difficulties that you will encounter, easier to understand.
    The only consistency in China at the moment is - Inconsistency. To quote a current Chinese joke: 'There is only one religion in China, and that's 'Confusion', a Chinese word play on the word 'Confucius'.

 

 


21. Difficulties


    For the independent traveller, that is the traveller who is not in an organized group tour, or who doesn't have any knowledge of the Chinese language, China is acknowledged by all visitors to be the most difficult country in the world to travel in.
    Few of it's citizens outside of the two or three major tourist areas in western China speak or understand a foreign language. Nothing can be grasped onto by the visitor, who may have travelled all over the rest of the world and been understood when using words like 'hotel', or 'toilet', 'telephone','bank', and so on. Even if the traveller is astute enough to learn these words in the local language in any given locality, they may become redundant a few kilometres down the road when he, or she finds themselves in a linguistically different area. Even a well written phrase book is sometimes not much use outside of the cities where one finds that many people cannot read Chinese. This communication problem becomes exacerbated when one urgently needs a toilet, or phone, or a hotel and so on, and what would take seconds, or minutes to find out in the rest of the world, can take hours in this part of the world.
    There is also a great deal of official inconsistency which means that what may be allowed in one area, or province, is not allowed in another area or province. In all fairness, it must be explained that even though China is a socialist country, regionally elected councils tend to override nationally sponsored and legislated laws if the laws do not suit local conditions. The central government in Beijing, for example, promulgated several new laws, effective as of January, 1994 which were enacted to give greater freedom of movement to foreigners visiting the Peoples Republic of China. These laws included an edict that a foreigner may stay wherever he, or she wished without having to register with the local foreign affairs police if they stayed in any open area for less than twelve hours, i.e., overnight. What this means is that a visitor to China is no longer obligated to stay in an 'official' hotel (for 100 to 1,000+ Yuan a night) if the visitor can find (as we did) comparable lodgings for 5, to 10 Yuan! By implication, it also means that the visitor can camp anywhere, either by the landowners permission, or in the mountains and deserts, freely. (again,as we did)
    We found that often, local police were either not aware of the new laws, (hard to believe), or that they were sure that foreigners weren't aware, and insisted that foreigners found in cheap accommodations should move to the more expensive'official' hotels. When we were refused cheap accommodations we actually called a policeman, told him (and a 'her') to check the laws. They did, and sided with us against lodge owners who had refused us permission to stay in their premises. The implications here are tremendous, it makes China a far cheaper country to travel through than even a couple of years ago and it also allows access to communities that were, prior to 1994, unpenetratable.
    For independents and Cyclists especially, this means that one can literally stay anywhere in China (in 'open areas' that is) including someone's house, a room at a bus station, or alongside the road in some farmers field! In many towns, the local bus station is enclosed by a high wall Fronting the street or road will be the 'official' tourist hotel.     Behind the hotel, and within the bus station compound there are usually 'overnight rooms' or as they are called in most Asian countries, 'waiting rooms'. Beds in these rooms are rented out at somewhere around 5 Yuan each, therefor one can rent a bed, or rent all of the beds in the room, sometimes two, sometimes four beds. One can wheel ones bicycle directly into the room (they are all on the ground floor), and take it from there. It is far more expedient to be able to do this, than to check into the 'hotel', where actually, the amenities are not that much better, and where one frequently has to lug ones bike and gear up several flights of stairs! (it's a rare hotel that has either a lift, or a lift that works!)
    If you are really interested in meeting locals, then there is no better way than to camp. I wouldn't state this if I hadn't met so many people, cyclists, and independent travellers who came away from China with some almost traumatic tales of how they were 'treated' in that country. I believe what they said because at first, we also had some hostile interactions in China but these experiences were due mainly to our ignorance of how to accept or interact with the Chinese. Almost all of the tales recounted to us by other travellers were from their interaction with business people and hotel staff's in heavily visited tourist areas.
    We spent very little of our time in these areas and found that the majority of the Chinese that were not involved in the tourist industry had a totally different attitude towards strangers. We can remember so many incidence's of thoughtfulness and kindness that we could write a book, but meanwhile a couple of examples are worth reciting.
    We were on the Karakoram, on the Chinese side and had started to get hungry. Passing a village, we stopped and asked if the village had a store, or an eating place. It didn't have either, but a youngish man pointed us in the direction of a house. We rode over to the house and were immediately invited inside. The couple moved the furniture around, put a fresh kettle of water on the fire, brought us some bread, made 'butter' tea and pressed it upon us. The bread was a made from leavened dough - the first we had seen since leaving Islamabad. We obviously must have appeared to have enjoyed it because as we made signs that we wanted to leave, the wife brought us a newly baked loaf. We asked where it came from - she herself had baked it. We asked if she had another one for the family. She would make some more she replied. At no time was there any question of payment.
    On another occasion we had set up the tent for the evening. We had not seen any houses around us but just after dark we heard someone approaching. I unzipped the tent and looked out. There was an old, almost toothless face peering at me. It belonged to an old man, and he was carrying a two litre thermos bottle full of hot water - for tea he said, and insisted that we take it. It took us a good fifteen minutes to persuade him that we were quite warm and comfortable and did not need to come to his house where, he said, it was warmer and safer.
    We can recount a couple of dozen similar stories, and perhaps to illustrate the difficulties of communication, one more should be added.
    We were in a post office and I wanted to send a registered letter (which, by the way, never arrived at it's destined address) I paid the registration fee and was told to take the letter to another counter where the clerk took it from me, then in the seemingly belligerent way that Chinese conduct business, asked me something I didn't understand. I thought he was asking me for more money so I took out a twenty Yuan note. No, he shook his hand.(The Chinese do not shake their heads like we do in the west, they shake their hands, rather in the same way that the British Queen waves from her coach) I pulled out another twenty Yuan note thinking that he wanted more money. Again no, he was pointing at the address and shouting quite loudly. I was getting angry - and he also appeared to me to be getting angry too. I was not prepared to pay more than forty Yuan for the letter. By now, we were screaming and shouting at each other. Mecki meanwhile, had found the phrase book and gave it to the clerk, he leafed through it, then showed us the question 'where are you from'! By now I was in absolutely no mood to be friendly, but Mecki found U.K. in the book and showed him. He then pointed to the U.K. on the envelope, and wrote the equivalent to U.K. in Chinese ideograms. All he had been trying to do was to ascertain which country the letter was going to - he couldn't understand the roman script. He was in other words, trying to help us by making sure that the letter went to the right country.
    Getting water can sometimes be difficult. All Chinese drink only boiled water, and one of the delightful touches in otherwise miserably equipped and the indifferently inclined staff of hotels is that one always finds a two litre thermos of boiled water in ones room, along with tea and cups. Asking for water alongside the road however means that the Chinese will only give you boiled water, and usually directly from the just boiled kettle sitting on the fire.(This implies of course that you must have some way of handling a handleless plastic or metal bottle full of boiling water - and have somewhere to carry it!) If they have a lake in their front yard they will not give you water if they don't happen to have any boiled water when you ask! If you can filter or sterilize water from ground sources, you will have to indicate that you don't want to drink the water - you only want it for washing - then they will give you all you can carry.
    All restaurants have pots of boiling water available, and it is not necessary to purchase anything. You may walk into them and fill up your bottles. Ground water alongside the road is sometimes saline - check it before filling bottles. Incidently, if you are accustomed to drinking European tea, i.e., black tea - you won't find it in western China without a great deal of searching. The Chinese only drink green tea. While on this subject, if you do find something that you enjoy eating or drinking - do not throw the wrapper away, you can use it to show shopkeepers when you run out and go to buy more of the same.
    In China, it is customary to have the money IN your hand before you purchase something. This shows intent to buy, in other words, you are not wasting the merchants time - he can serve ten people while you are fumbling for your money. (a la western supermarkets?) More than likely, he or she will totally ignore you if you don't have money in your hand, and this has led many foreigners to consider the Chinese rude - rather than good business people.
    If you are unsure about what the price is wait for a local to buy whatever it is you wish to purchase, see what they pay, then have the same amount in your hand when you buy the identical amount of the same product. Try to remember the prices you pay for things so that you know exactly what, for example, four oranges cost, or two onions etc. Merchants will almost always try to squeeze an extra Yuan out of a stranger - don't let them!
    Chinese concepts of sanitation (in the western sense of the word) are almost non existent outside of cities. Toilets are 'pit toilets', holes dug in the ground and covered by a slab of rough concrete with square cornered oblong holes cut in it. Mens and ladies are often separated from each other by a mere three foot high wall. Usually there are no doors, and when the cubicles are full, people squat anywhere on the concrete to relieve themselves. At night, these places can become quagmires! take a torch or candle with you if you go to use one. In hotels, especially the cheaper, dorm type hostels, toilets are also the Asian style, 'hole in the ground type', and they are fitted with flushing systems. They are usually tiled and kept somewhat cleaner than their outdoor counterparts. The Chinese however, do not flush a toilet after use - they flush it before use!     Also, you will rarely find toilet paper in a toilet - take some with you.
    In general, the Chinese are much more direct about things than we are in the west. They tend to react, rather than act to create a given situation and hence are perceived as rude, or uncaring when we westerners come along and expect the same kind of recognition that we are used to in the west. If you want something from a Chinese person, you will have to ask. Don't expect him or her to anticipate what you want.
    Finally, one more perplexing problem one finds in China is the dual time system. There is the time of day that the locals use, which more or less means the time at 'x' number of hours east of Greenwich, and there is 'Beijing' time, which means that all official offices, including hotels and police, tour offices and banks, open and close according to the time in Beijing - not the local time! Wherever you are in Western China, Beijing time can be up to four hours different from 'real' time, so be careful when trying, for example, to find out when a post office, or a bank opens and closes. They open and close to Beijing time - not local time!

 

 


22. Closed Areas


    The closed areas, that is stretches of road that are out of bounds to foreigners, are becoming fewer and fewer. We have ridden through these zones and in fact didn't see anything that would reveal why they are 'closed'. We got the overall impression that they were closed because no one had bothered to 'open' them!
    A foreigner must be confined to a vehicle in order to go through these areas. For cyclists, hitchers, and walkers, it is easy to inadvertently go through as there are no warning signs, and even if there are, they are written in Chinese and hence incomprehensible to us. In general though, the only way one will be apprehended in a closed area is if, or when one checks into a hotel where the registration of foreigners is automatically forwarded to the foreign affairs police. They will visit you, and if you do not have a bus receipt to prove that you bussed into the area, you will be fined, and probably escorted to the bus station the following morning and put onto a bus. Although perhaps annoying, it is a mere formality as far as the police are concerned, and your ignorance of their laws is not an excuse. The fine, somewhere between fifty and a hundred and fifty Yuan is negotiatable - if you argue tactfully, you can probably get it reduced from what they ask at first. In any case, you will achieve nothing by being belligerent, or argumentative. (those that were had their gear confiscated - and were quickly bundled out of the country!)
    The best, in fact the only way to avoid being caught is to avoid staying in official tourist hotels, and as previously mentioned, this is no longer a legal requirement.
The foreign affairs police do not patrol roads looking for foreigners and you can, as we have, pass through these areas without any problems. You can also, in any town in an 'open' area, visit the foreign affairs offices and ask them if any stretches along your proposed route are 'closed'. We did this and found the cops manning these offices to be polite and helpful, although often we had to wait a while until they could find someone who spoke English, and in every office that we visited, there was someone who could. We also checked with the C.I.T.S., the China International Travel Service. In spite of some of the pessimistic comments made by some guide book contributors, we found the personnel in these offices to be friendly and informative, at least as far as they knew anything, or could communicate in English. In any case, getting information in China -on China, is difficult enough, so any information gleaned from these sources is better than some of the outdated information found in 'new edition' guide books!
    Local police tend to ignore foreigners unless they are approached by the foreigner. They will usually react in a friendly manner. Often, one finds police check points blocking the road. These are mostly vehicle checkpoints at municipal, county, and State lines and we quickly found out that we weren't required to stop for them, even when the barrier (usually a striped pole) was down. We just rode around them without incident, however we were required to stop at one barrier by a couple of arm waving policemen but we ignored them and carried on through it only to find that the road ended after a couple of kilometres and became deep, soft sand! We returned. (another cyclist we met also chose to ignore a checkpoint and rounding a corner a few minutes later was almost blown of his bike by a huge explosion. The road was 'under repair') see Appendix G: Chinese Characters for the difference between 'road closed' and 'vehicle checkpoint' signs.

 


23. A Final Word


    We quickly learned to take everything in it's stride in China. No two days were the same, no two encounters were the same, and when we ran into other travellers, no two tales were the same. As we mentioned before, the only way to enjoy China is to 'go with the flow'. Do not expect anything, do not anticipate anything, and do not plan anything - It's great.

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