Tag Archives: Central Asia

Bags (an accounting)

9 Feb

Contents of two well-worn bags unpacked from a moving carton last week:

1. Tumi laptop attaché in black ballistic nylon, circa 1997:

  • Immodium A-D (two tablets) carried in case of emergency during a year in Xinjiang. Not taken as the cure was often worse than letting a violent but quick purge run its course.
  • Sheaffer rollerball pen, red marbled finish, high school graduation present. No ink.
  • Cheap disposable rollerball pen, black. Ink still wet.
  • Plastic llama, white, 0.5″ in. high. Gift from then-girlfriend, now wife.
  • Photos in wallet holder: sister in jr. high, mini-polaroid of grad school roomate’s perfectly rectangular ass bruise after she borrowed my bike once and fell over after not being able to get out of the toe clips.
  • Missing: AM/FM/Shortwave radio, battery-powered, black. Removed from bag during a pee stop on an all-night bus trip to Khotan; came back from bathroom to find bag upended, radio missing, laptop, field notes, camera still there. Loudly cursed the thief who must have been still sitting there within arm’s reach, while silently thanking him for not making me pay more dearly for my stupidity.

2. Jansport daypack, purple with green trim:

  • Button pin with rainbow flag; meant as an expression of support but led to me being hit on several times in college, with disappointing results for the other party.
  • Receipt for spine-warping load of groceries from Safeway in Manoa Valley, Honolulu, January 1997. Groceries carried by bike to a group house shared with seven others, consumed therein.
  • Bootlace, black, broken.
  • Twenty-use punch card for Reykjavík city swimming pools, used.

Getting a taste for it.

29 Jan

This is an account I wrote of the trip that probably opened my eyes up to just how far you could go if you don’t care about how uncomfortable you are.  Though my travel rookie sense of “can you believe that this is actually happening?” is apparent throughout, the feeling that day that I could just keep going on that road — all the way into Pakistan and who knows where after that — stuck with me.

Kashgar to Tashkorgan on the Karakoram Highway, Xinjiang, China.

July 26, 1995: The road seems to stretch on forever, disappearing into the horizon somewhere around the area of the distant blue mountains. The morning cool as we leave Kashgar makes the traveling comfortable as we sweep past rows of wind-breaking trees, agricultural fields, and coal piles. Gradually, the shade and trees give way to dusty, scrub-filled plains, until finally we are truly in the desert. Open, windswept stretches on right and left, with the ever- present mountains looming closer.

The road goes on, and as we reach the edge of the plateau to begin our ascent, the heat of the day seems to suddenly arrive. The foothills now on either side rapidly grow into mountains, Karakorams on the west and Pamirs on the right, as the sun bakes us onto the pavement. A river appears on the left side, water the color of coffee with cream, born of glacial water and muddied by desert clay. Bare, craggy mountainsides hemming us in, the road condition deteriorating with every increase in altitude, and all the while the mountains wait in front of us, guarding their secrets in silence.

Now snow appears on the peaks to the fore, as we bounce along over a road that can hardly be called paved. The peaks are white year-round here, immense height giving the snow a permanent home. The road hugs the mountainside to our right, climbing still. Occasional streams of glacial melt force us to slow down every now and then, as the water has strewn the road with rocks and sand. The slowing and stopping as agony, as ventilation comes to an absolute halt and the sun threatens to dissolve us into a puddle on the mountainside. Between the sun and the precarious tilting of the bus as it rolls over rocks the size of small grapefruits, it’s a wonder no one becomes ill. And somehow, the road still stretches ahead of us.

Rounding a bend, we discover that the road has been washed out by expansion of the glacial river to our left. We pull off to the side to drive across a more stable section of land, bouncing over rocks the entire way.

Thick, brown dust from the road fills the bus, forcing us to close the windows and seal off all breeze. We’re told the same sections of the road wash out year after year…perhaps some sort of perpetual employment measure? The washout past, we pull back onto the road and press on, slowing from the now-significant incline.

The road winds on around the mountains, with more washouts along the way. We have to get out at some points so the bus will ride high enough to clear the rocks. We jump across what is practically a river, then turn to watch the bus ford the same stream, water reaching halfway up the tires. Three hours of driving have passed. The mountains have changed in appearance now, from rocky conglomerations of boulders to seemingly carved sawteeth.

Some switchbacks, and then we arrive at the buffer checkpoint for the Sino- Pakistani border. Only those with official permission are allowed to pass, which means most Chinese residents are forbidden unless they are connected with a specific tour group. Five or six PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in sweaty uniforms stand around the gate, looking bored.

A small stand on the other side sells cigarettes, bread, and drinks. On the wall of the guard station are two signs. One, painted directly onto the wall, reads: “No urinating or defecating within 20 meters of this building.” The other reads: “No photography allowed.” There are no other travelers around.

Our guides Sadik and Mohtar finish with the paperwork, and we start again. We are surrounded by mountains, with only the thin ribbon of road winding along the slopes providing a means of escape. The ever-present glacial river follows the curve of the road, muddy water still flowing downhill. The wind swirls by, whipping up dust that settles upon anything exposed, coating it in a thin layer of brown.

We pass other vehicles, mostly heavy commercial trucks carrying wire, car parts, coal, and the like. By the end of the day the sensation of barely squeaking by on a road that is simply too narrow for two vehicles no longer bothers anyone on the bus. Four hours have passed…

After seven hours of driving, we reach another buffer checkpoint. This one seems a bit more established, with multiple buildings under a shady grove of trees. The paperwork proceeds smoothly, and we press onward, now descending. After another 90 minutes, we arrive in the town of Tashkorgan, our stop for the night.

Relieved to be off the bus, we are greeted at the door of the Pamir Hotel by what appears to be the entire staff of five. Unfortunately, the hotel is refinishing its lobby, the fumes causing our near-asphyxiation while we check in and sort out room assignments.

We head out across the hotel grounds to the wing our rooms are in, passing along the way the incongruously named “Pamir Hotel Pakistan Restöurent.” Debate at dinner focuses on whether the name stems from the restaurant’s menu of Pakistani food, or from a case of geographical confusion on the part of the hotel, as the Pakistani border lies 84 kilometers from Tashkorgan. We can be sure of neither, as the “restöurent” shows no signs of having been open at any time in the last five years.

Though night has yet to fall, the sun has already slipped behind the mountains that ring Tashkorgan, and the temperature descends rapidly. Some take this as a sign to stay indoors and rest, while others head out for a walk down the town’s one main street. The street runs the length of the town, and is lined on either side by poplars.

It appears we’ve arrived a bit late, as most of the small number of shops are closed already. The group as a whole takes an early rest, most eschewing use of the rather frightening bathrooms and instead intending to bathe once we make the 260-km return trip to Kashgar tomorrow.

Crazy Kazakhs & Spaniards, oh my!

2 Jan

Today’s topic:  Early indicators of life on Planet Astana in 2010:


1. Last year’s Astana kits were a bit of a design mess, but seen from the right angles, were sometimes interesting. I didn’t really expect them to get worse, but hey, they did! Now they’re just plain ugly. The red Specialized “S” is not helping, probably because it’s the only saturated color in the design.

2. Portrait backdrop: It’s like a high school prom!  They’ve got the velvet, but where’s the trellis? Especially loving this group shot, which was on the VeloNews home page but for some reason isn’t included with the article.

3. Further on the last comment: See the last two paras. “This team is like we start from zero, because almost everything is new.” Yes, everything except the firm, meathook-like hand of Vino’s “business partner” Nikolai on your shoulder when you sit down with the DS to talk about the makeup of this year’s Tour team, Alberto. A quick image search for Vino and Contador turns up this one, which is a good “write your own caption” contender.

This will be an entertaining season if for nothing else besides off-bike drama.