Cycling the Silk Road

Yurts, Yak's-Hide Patches, and a Wary Uighur Separatist
Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 16 2007 7:20 AM

Cycling the Silk Road

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One morning, after a night of sleeping beside the road, I woke to find a boy standing over my tent, peering at me through the screen. My body was sore and dehydrated, and I passed out. Several hours later, I woke up with him once again standing over me, holding a bottle of yogurt. He helped me pack up my tent in the strong wind and took me to his camp.

His family's yurt was just beside a mountain that blocked a little of the wind and gave the goats a place to forage. Outside, it was cold, rocky, and windy. The floor and walls of the yurt were covered in carpets. So, inside, it was warm, still, quiet, and comfortable. I sat with the boy's father, and it took a few minutes for me to realize we were speaking different languages but communicating perfectly. The yurt and tea were a perfect respite from the cold, dry wind outside. My tire had a tear that kept making the tubes explode, so he sewed it together with a yak's hide patch.

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I cycled 40 miles before seeing anyone else. I have never experienced freedom, independence, and purity like this. Every mountain and valley offered a trail to adventure. Every stream offered me a drink and a bath. These mountains are so high, and there are so few people and animals to pollute them, that I drank straight from the streams. I loved the isolation and the stark beauty. The next people I came across were soldiers at an army check post. They invited me in for yak-butter tea and bread. They had no chairs, so they brought me a bed to sit on. In the process, they knocked over six of their Kalishnikovs that were leaning against the wall. They were bored and had no idea what their purpose out there was. I was older than most of them, and they cared more about American movies than about whether my passport was in order. They gave me a loaf of nan for the two passes I was about to cross.

The next day, I rode 50 miles and passed three houses. I was invited in and fed by the residents of each one of them. That day I crossed the highest pass I will probably ever bike over in my life, about 14,500 feet. The pass wasn't all that steep, but with the altitude, I had trouble pedaling more than two minutes before I was panting like a dog. I coasted downhill for a couple of hours and I came to Karakol—a lake at 13,000 feet surrounded by 20,000-foot snowcapped peaks. I stopped for a meal at a guesthouse and sat all day playing chess. I didn't have enough money to stay and told them so, but they didn't seem to care. The next morning, I woke to watch the sun turn the white mountains pink and orange before lighting up the whole valley. I gave them everything I had and rode the last 50 miles to Kyrgyzstan.

The day started out magnificently, with beautiful scenery and the wind at my back. About 15 miles from Karakol, I passed a lone soldier carrying a spool of telephone wire. He was headed to Karakol by foot and had probably been walking since early that morning, so we sat down and ate all the food that I had left. After the first pass, the road turned into an absurd wash of stones, often marked by the skull of an ibex or a Marco Polo sheep. An endangered species found only in the Pamirs, their curly horns can stretch up to 6 feet. At several spots, I had to carry my bike through the streams that cut across the path. It was the worst possible road for biking—undulations or waves of rock, where the crests are only a few inches apart. It was impossible to get any speed and constantly rattled my brain. Even on flat ground, with the wind and rain, I sometimes had to walk. At the top of the second pass was the Tajik border control post, an old 500-gallon, graffitied petrol tank on cinder blocks. I creaked the door open and woke up the guard to get my passport stamped.

Kyrgyzstan welcomed me with a blinding rain. My road was downhill for the next 25 miles. Rain is cold at 14,000 feet. I put on all my faulty Turkish rain gear and hat and kept going down. The road was all mud and rocks, so the more it rained, the more I slipped around. It kept stinging my eyes, so I put on my sunglasses, which immediately fogged up. My hands were freezing, and I was wet all over, but there was nowhere to stop. I was above the tree line, and there were no people or houses.

I find that in situations like this, the best thing to do is to sing Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" as loudly and as far off-key as possible. This worked until I came to a spot where the asphalt had washed away. There was a 30-foot section of the road missing. In its place was a torrent of muddy water. The destruction was recent, and chunks were still being dragged in. I threw my bike on my shoulder and waded into the thigh-high water. A van loaded down with food and three Japanese tourists was stuck in the river. I smiled at them and waded on, still singing Bob Seger.

On my last day, I rode more than a hundred miles through China's westernmost province, Xinjiang. It was hot, and the desert sun was scorching, but the roads were smooth and the Chinese are sticklers for placing kilometer markers. I ticked them off, passing Bactrian camels, inching closer to Kashgar, the oldest bazaar in the world, at least according to Mikey.

I checked into a dorm room at Qinibagh, the old British consulate, where in former days White Russians had sought refuge from Bolshevik assassins. My dorm mate, Isla, asked, "Where are you coming from?" This being the end of my trip, the only appropriate answer was Istanbul. This being insane, she made the only appropriate response, "Fuck!"

Mikey and Cam showed up at 5 o'clock one rainy morning. They had ridden straight through the prior night, 160 miles from Kyrgyzstan to Kashgar. Barbarians. I greeted them with Oreos and soft-serve.

We wandered the streets as Mikey pontificated about Kashgar's people, the Uighurs, who, oddly enough, were his academic focus in college. I think he knows more about Uighurs than Uighurs know about Uighurs. The name "Xinjiang," he told us as we searched for more soft-serve, means "New Dominion" in Chinese. Throughout history, or at least since the ninth century, the area has been more commonly known as East Turkistan, due to the Uighur Turks who settled the oasis on the rim of the Takalamaken Desert. Today Uighurs make up a little over half the population of Xinjiang, just outweighing the Chinese as the majority ethnic group. In the 1930s, when Hui armies were reconquering Xinjiang in the name of China, Uighurs accounted for 80 percent of the population.

Being of strategic importance, guarding the approaches to the Soviet Union and British India, and rich in natural resources, the integration of Xinjiang was an important policy for the newly victorious Communist China of the 1950s. Since then, China has actively pursued policies to dilute the Uighur influence in the region, building a railroad and colonizing Xinjiang with millions of militia-trained ethnic Chinese. Uighurs, mostly Muslims, are not allowed to enter a mosque until they reach the age of 18.

I found myself waiting for a deep-fried sugary dough concoction with a Uighur man who was staring at me. I asked him what the word was, expecting to be ignored or to get a baffled response in the Uighur language. In perfect English, he asked how we found Kashgar.

He made it clear that he had something to say but was wary in such a crowded place. He gave us his number, although he wouldn't let us write it down, making us memorize it instead.

The next night, we met on the street. A mutual glance was the only acknowledgment. We followed him to a Uighur-owned restaurant, trailing 50 feet behind him. Only when the four of us were seated in a private booth, upstairs, in the back of a restaurant, would he speak freely.

Our friend asked, "How are we to maintain our identity when our young people cannot be a part of our religious life?" He conceded that violent resistance to the Chinese, a tactic that has been employed in the name of Uighur separatism, is useless. Uighurs number 8 million in a nation of 1.5 billion. "I want to kill them, but there are so many that it wouldn't make any difference. I would if I could kill hundreds, but not if I could only kill five or six," he said.

On his travels through Xinjiang in 1935, Peter Fleming noted, "He who starts on a ride of two or three thousand miles may experience, at the moment of departure, a variety of emotions. He may feel excited, sentimental, anxious, carefree, heroic, roistering, picaresque, introspective, or practically anything else; but above all he must and will feel a fool."

Arriving in Kashgar, I was five weeks overdue for a shower. In the bathroom, I took off my clothes and stared at my face in the mirror. I was filthy. My face was chapped, sunburned, and peeling from a combination of hot Chinese desert sun and cold Tajik desert wind. Seven months of unkempt beard and hair growth made me look like a caveman. I gazed into wild eyes, and a gigantic smile of accomplishment spread across my face. A fool's accomplishment, but hey, it's something.

Greg Grim lives in Washington, D.C., and builds bogs and does carpentry in Annapolis, Md.Mike Church lives and works in Annapolis, Md., where he builds bogs and does carpentry. The third cyclist, Campbell Moore, is serving in the Peace Corps in Gambia.

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