Tashkorgan, China to Sost, Pakistan

Distance: 134 miles
Time on bikes: 6 hours

What a day. We begin with a light, cold and pretty horrible breakfast which by now we’d become accustomed to in China. Still, it’ll take more than that to dampen our spirits.

We’re heading for the border with Pakistan today which takes us over the Khunjerab Pass – at 4,715 m the highest paved mountain pass in the World. But first we have to exit China. Coming in was a real pain as the officials insisted on being over the top, even checking laptops for any suspicious content and asking if they were wi-fi enabled. We’re told to say no, even though a five year old would be able to tell if a laptop was capable of detecting wi-fi. We’ve only spent a short period of time in the country, but it’s been enough of an insight to witness quite an odd situation in which a civilisation is ruled. Superpower maybe, but stuck well in the past.

We’ve all agreed to get going at 8 am so we can tackle the border and try and get into Pakistan at a reasonable time. We don’t do too badly, and we’re all rolling at 8.20 am. The car our guide had been using has returned Kashgar with engine problems, but the guide is apparently getting a taxi to the first checkpoint where he’ll say goodbye to us.

We pull out of the hotel and ride along the road towards the direction of Pakistan, passing the guide who waves us along the road as he tries to flag a passing taxi. We’re riding for a few minutes when the guide catches us up in his taxi and gestures for us to stop. Strange, as we’re still in town, but we stop and wait for him to catch the others and return. It turns out that the first checkpoint is only a few hundred meters from our hotel, so we have to retrace our steps and pull in. Not sure why he couldn’t have told us this before we left.

This is where life gets a bit tedious, as we have to get passports and papers checked by three different departments. The most amusing is the one checking the bike details against the paperwork as they insist on the bikes being perfectly lined up and go about looking at the bikes in a most absurd manner. There’s one man taking many photos with a digital camera, but we can’t decide if this is for official business, or just his personal collection. We have to laugh when Roberta is commandeered to pose for photographs with some of the officials next to the bikes in some kind of propaganda imagery on how China is welcoming tourists. If only the description of their work could be broadcast to other travellers on how daft their bureaucracy is.

When we’re waiting for the final check clearance to leave a few of us decide to make use of the facilities, but really have to laugh when we realise there’s a guard assigned to follow us and watch us in the toilets. Great job.

After arriving at about 8.30 am we eventually leave the immigration check point at 11.45 am. It is a great feeling to be leaving China and heading towards Pakistan. One good thing about being in the checkpoint however is that we see a number of aid trucks ready to go to Pakistan, including four fuel tankers. That hopefully is good news, as it looks like we’re entering the country at the same time that aid is getting through. This may also mean that some of the problems with the road we’re anticipating may be fixed by the time we get there.

Unsurprisingly the road is very quiet and the tarmac is good as we ride along the valley to where the Khunjerab Pass starts. There’s no steep ascent, but we just gradually ascend to where the road gets to about 4,000 m and then starts to snake up to the head of the pass. Unfortunately Fabian’s Honda Transalp is fitted with carbs and is really struggling to deal with the altitude. His bike gradually slows until we get to 4,200 m where it’ll only run in first gear at about 8 mph with the engine coughing and spluttering as there’s so little oxygen in the air. As the other bikes run with fuel injection, they manage to adjust and although well down on power, have no problems making it up the pass.

At least Fabian’s problems give us plenty of time to take in the views, and he sees the funny side as we manage to get a few photographs and videos of him crawling up the hill. A few times we stop to give him a push, but it’s really only a gesture rather than a solution. Towards the top however, we have to stop and Stefano volunteers to tow him up the last few hundred meters to the last Chinese checkpoint and then onto the top of the pass about half a mile later. We stop at the top of the pass and the air is incredibly thin with any movement leaving us all short of breath.

After topping up the tanks with the fuel we’d been carrying in bottles from Tashkorgan and also topping ourselves up with a selection of dried fruit that Fabian had bought, we get on our way down the pass. The descent is long and the tarmac ends literally at the top of the pass. From here, it’s just going to be gravel for a long time. The clocks go back one hour when crossing over the pass, so it’s 3 pm when we start the decent. In an effort to save fuel, Carl manages to ride over eight miles with no engine power.

On the way down we have to stop at a road closure and we meet a Spanish chap that Fabian had been in contact with, getting updates on the condition of the road. Our first impressions of him are that he’s a complete twat as he walks up to Donato’s Harley and Stefano’s 1150 GS and tells them that they can’t make it along the road because the bikes are too heavy to get across the river further ahead where a bridge has been destroyed. He seems like a complete knob and we just ignore him as he seems to underestimate our determination of getting the bikes along the highway. We know it’ll be difficult, but impossible we don’t think so.

We pass many road crews, working on the endless task of maintaining the highway and we begin to see why the road is so susceptible to sporadic closures as a result of landslides and rock falls. The formation of the surrounding mountains is really something and we are in absolute awe when riding down.

The people are also really something. Rather than crossing a land border it’s more like stepping off a plane. From their appearance, it’s clear we’re in Pakistan. But their manner, smiling faces and welcoming waves make us feel very comfortable.

It’s getting late when we arrive at the first checkpoint, however after China it’s a revelation. The guys, although wielding AK47’s are just smartly dressed, rather than being in ill-fitting uniforms like the Chinese (the Government must think their soldiers are about 30% bigger than they actually are). They are also incredibly efficient at checking our passports and letting us get on our way. There’s no searching or daft questioning of our intentions, just a very clear welcome to the country.

The main immigration post we need to get to is in Sost, but we don’t get there until 8 pm and it’s dark. It would appear there’s also no power, so we need to deal with the processing of passports and also the Carnet’s for the bikes by torchlight. Stefano and Donato also don’t have visas, but it’s an incredibly straight forward procedure and within ten minutes of arriving they have 30 day visas for $25 each. This makes a bit of a mockery of the real hassle we had in London to obtain a 15 day visa, which required two letters of invitation, a written itinery, a hotel booking and four visits to the Embassy. The real Pakistan seems to be a place that is really wanting to welcome tourists and it’s such a shame that the foreign embassies are making it nigh on impossible for people to come here. Especially as there seem to be hardly any tourists visiting this year because of the problems some parts of the country have faced.

When dealing with the papers, the owner of a nearby hotel offers to get us dinner ready and to stay at his place. We’re all absolutely shattered so it doesn’t take us long to agree to this offer. At about 9 pm we’re following him to his hotel and quickly get turned around to enjoy a nice meal and get to bed to rest. We agree that our agenda for tomorrow will be to visit the destroyed bridge ten miles down the road, where we’ll need to work out how we can get our bikes across the river. That should be fun.

The hotel turns out to be ok, but there’s no hot water and we seem to have a pet mouse in the room with us who is soon ejected. Maybe we’ll have a look to see if there are any better hotels tomorrow.

Jour 136 – Mercredi 1 Septembre 2010. De Tashkorgan, Chine a Sost, Pakistan

Distance: 214 km – Temps a moto: 6 hours

Le petit déjeuner de l’hôtel est maigre, nous passons donc a la patisserie que nous avons repere la veille avant de partir, le guide nous a conseille de partir a 8 heures. Nous sommes un peu surpris qu’il nous mene a la douanne qui est dans le village de Tashkorgan. Le premier arret est a l’entree, puis quelques minutes plus tard nous allons dans une autre partie de la douane ou les officiels nous demandent de garer les motos en ligne, a 1 mètre les unes des autres. Il verifient les papiers des motos et les numeros de carde ainsi que les plaques d’immatriculation, puis prennent de nombreuses photos. Ils nous font attendre d’une heure, puis nous deplacent de quelques centaines de metres puis comme internet ne marche pas, nous ne pouvons pas passer pour la verification des passports, ils nous font attendre une heure de plus avant de commencer a verifier les passports, la queue est a l’interieur d’un batiment ou nous devons faire une queue en ligne et les officiels nous disent plusieur fois de rester en ligne plutôt qu’en groupe…ils sont assez strics, ils accompagnent même les gens aux toilettes. Une autre heure passe et nous sommes enfin devant le batiment, ou le guide nous quitte et nous dit de ne pas depasser une fourgonette qui va dans notre direction. Il y a un guarde dedans qui dira aux postes de contrôle suivant que nos papiers sont en regle.

Nous partons donc vers midi en direction du col de Kunjurab, qui est la plus haute route goudronnee du monde. La montée est longue, mais les montagnes sont superbes, nous savons que les motos auront peut être du mal a avancer avec le manque d’oxygene… quand nous approchons les 4000 metres la moto de Fabian a vraiment du mal, il roule vraiment au ralenti, et n’arrive qu’a rouler a moins de 5km/h. Nous nous arrêtons pour l’attendre, et Carl, Stefano et James le poussent a tour de role pour lui redonner un peu de vitesse. Fabian prends ca plutôt bien et en rigole, ca ne doit pas être drôle pour lui, ne pas savoir si sa moto va arriver en haut…

Avec Emily nous avancons pour aller donner des nouvelles de la situation a Donato et Roberta qui etaient devant et doivent se demander ou nous sommes. Nous les rejoignons a un poste de contrôle chinois, presque au sommet du col. Les Soldats ne parlent pas du tout anglais et une fois le contrôle de passeport fait pour Roberta Donato et moi ils insistent a ce que nous passions du cote Pakistanais. Emily doit rester comme c’est James qui a son passeport. Nous avancons donc et les attendons au sommet.

Ils arrivent tous presque une demi heure plus tard en avancant un peu plus rapidement : Stefano tire Fabian avec une corde car sa moto n’avancait vraiment pas.

Après une pause et une bonne dose de fruits secs, nous faisons le plein de nos motos avec les jericans d’essence et vers 4 heures nous commencons la descente vers le poste de contrôle du Pakistan. Des le passage du col avec le dernier symbol chinois le goudrons s’arrete et la route est en gravier. Il y a un premier poste, et déjà le changement de pays est très agréable, les soldats sont très amicaux et verifient a peine nos passeports. Nous descendons plus loin, et la route est bloquee par un eboulement, mais alors que nous essayons de créer un passage autours un buldozzer arrive et degage le passage en 2 minutes. La vallée est superbe et très impressionnante, et nous savons que la route est en traveaux et qu’il y a de nombreuses parts endommagees par les intemperies, et les traveaux sont en cours pour la renforcer. Ce sont des equipes Chinoises qui en sont en charge ; le Pakistan ne doit pas avoir les moyens de finaner ces traveaux et la Chine veut pouvoir utiliser la route pour ses livraisons.

Le poste de contrôle des visas est dans le village de Sost qui est bien plus bas dans la vallée, et nous y arrivons a la nuit tombante vers 8 heures. Il n’y a pas d’electricite mais les officier font ce qu’ils peuvent pour faire un contrôle rapide. Le contrôle des passeports est des visas est rapide, et ceux du groupe qui n’avaient pas de visa peuvent l’acheter sur place, et les papiers sont fait en 10 minutes. Leur visa est de 30 jours alors que de Londres nous n’avons reussi a obtenir que 15 jours en faisant tout un dossier avec une lettre d’invitation de la part d’un ami du travail a Carl qui est d’origine du Pakistan, d’un itineraire, d’une reservation d’hôtel et de 4 visites a l’embassade… on nous avait dit qu’il serait impossible d’obtenir le visa a la frontière. Ca nous semble dommage que les embassades decourage des touristes en compliquant les procedures, alors que le pays même est très acceuillant. Surtout cette annee quand les quelques touristes qui ne se laissent pas decourager par les paperasses risquent d’être decourages par les problemes d’innondations et d’efondrement de terrain sur la route que nous prenons.

Le contrôle suivant est celui du ‘carnet de passage’ de la moto, c’est la premiere fois qu’on l’utilise, c’est un passeport pour la moto qui garanti que nous ne sommes pas la pour vendre la moto dans le pays. C’est un carnet qui nous coute assez cher, mais qui est obligatoire, et dans chaque pays qui le demande il doit rempli a la frontière d’entree et de sortie.

Tout est fini pour notre groupe de 8 personnes en une heure et quand nous sortons James a rencontre quelqu’un qui a un hôtel et il a commande de quoi manger pour  nous tous et ca n’est qu’a cinq minutes du poste de contrôle.

Nous sommes contents de nous y pauser et d’y manger un plat de riz et d’epinards et de pommes de terre avant d’aller nous coucher. Carl arrive a chasser une petite souris qui essaye de nous joindre dans la chambre et nous sommescontents de nous coucher, un peu anxieux pour le lendemain car nous irons voir notre premier gros obstacle : a 15 km au sud de Sost, un pont a été endomage par un eboulement et il n’est passable qu’a pieds en passant dans une cage qui est suspendue a un cable. On nous a dit qu’elle pourrai supporter un poids de 200 kg, ce qui cerai possible pour 4 des 7 motos, mais ca n’est pas assez pour les 3 grosses motos du groupe.