After 36 hours, three flights and two sleeping pills, I arrived in the western Chinese city of Kashgar. It was 10 p.m., and the sun was only starting to set when I disembarked on the runway, collected my bags from the airport's single conveyor belt and boarded a barely functioning minibus for town.
The long haul to Kashgar was the first leg of an exhilarating, exhausting and occasionally annoying journey to a part of the world I would never have associated with the China I hear and read about.
As the sort of traveler who prefers surprise to preparation, I found Kashgar to be just my style, but it was only the starting point of an 11-day motorcycle tour I was about to undertake with eight other paying motorcyclists. We would ride 1,700 miles as part of the new Silk Road Tour offered by Edelweiss Bike Travel, a longtime Austrian motorcycle adventure company.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, December 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 84 words Type of Material: Correction
Travel: An article in the Dec. 2 Travel section about a motorcycle tour in China said that the Uygurs are of the Uzbek ethnic group. The Uygurs are of Turkic origin. Also, the town of Aksu was misspelled as Akso, and the population of Aksu was reported at 3 million. The area has just more than 2 million residents. Additionally, the article said that the city of Jiaohe was a few hundred years old. Its age is estimated to be 2,000 to 2,300 years.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 09, 2007 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
Motorcycle tour: An article that appeared Dec. 2 on a motorcycle tour of northwestern China said that the Uygurs are an Uzbek ethnic group. The Uygurs are of Turkic origin, not Uzbek. The town of Aksu was misspelled as Akso. The population of Aksu was mistakenly reported at 3 million; the area has just more than 2 million residents. The story also reported that the city Jiaohe is a few hundred years old. Its age is estimated to be 2,000 to 2,300 years.
Now I just needed to get to the hotel where our group was to meet. As the minibus chugged along the six-lane, poplar-lined boulevard, we were -- at 30 mph -- the fastest thing on the road as we jockeyed with donkey carts, motorcycles, pedestrians, bicyclists and taxis, passing mud-brick homes, smoking kebab stands and high-rises that had seen better days.
Rundown and exotic, Kashgar is a far cry from Beijing, both in distance (2,135 miles) and cultural orientation. The city is just as sooty, but Kashgar lacks that distinct whiff of capitalism. The predominantly Muslim population subsists on very little. With heightened interest in both the Muslim world and China (the latter centered on Beijing because of the 2008 Olympics, Aug. 8 to 24), the Silk Road Tour offered the best of both worlds, with a twist. My tour didn't just offer a close-up view of China's Islamic western frontier. It did it from the saddle of a motorcycle. That's my preferred mode of transportation, because it engages all the senses and allows for a more off-the-cuff experience.
The tour had been run only once before my May trip. Because of the extreme changes in elevations (sea level to 13,400 feet) and temperatures (zero to 120 degrees), Edelweiss runs the trip only in spring and fall, with two in each season for 2008.
Kashgar, the first of seven cities we visited, is in Xinjiang, the country's largest province but among its least populated. The province pushes up against the borders of Pakistan, Kashmir, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan in China's northwestern corner.
Its center is the Taklimakan Desert, an area so forbidding that some visitors don't survive it. Wisely, my tour skirted the Taklimakan, along a 1,700-mile stretch of Marco Polo's turf.
CLIMBING THE PAMIRS
Our first riding day started along flat country roads and at a temperate 70 degrees that cooled to freezing at night. We encountered mostly foot traffic -- women balancing buckets of water on sticks across their shoulders and men in embroidered caps herding sheep, goats and yaks -- as we worked our way toward the military checkpoint that granted us access to the Karakoram Highway and scenery so spectacular I could have crashed.
As my Chinese motorcycle -- a Jialing JH600 -- and I climbed the Pamir Mountains, monochromatic rocky passes gave way to snow-capped peaks and the postcard-perfect but incredibly windy Lake Karakul.
Despite its status as an official Chinese tourist destination, Lake Karakul had almost no visitors that day. It did, however, have an abundance of wind-worn and persistent peddlers who saw us coming and sped into the dirt parking lot on their motorbikes to try to sell us camel-bone flasks, polished stone necklaces and rabbit-fur caps.
Alas for them, we were there only to admire the lake, with its camel and yurt backdrop, and for lunch, a delectable smorgasbord of mutton soup and entrees made with eggplant, peanuts, bell peppers, eggs and tomatoes, cooked in a place that got its electricity from a wind turbine.
Then it was back on the bikes to continue on our way to Tashkurgan, a town just 60 miles from the Kashmir border. Tashkurgan is also known as Stone City, partly because the main tourist attraction is a crumbling, 600-year-old stone fortress once occupied by a Pakistani emperor and also because of the terrain, which seemed to me mostly rocks.
We stayed at the Crown Inn, a Best Western-esque place that had been open just a month, in anticipation, it seems, of spillover tourism from the Olympics. To celebrate our arrival, flute-heavy Tajik music blared, and a pair of dancers spun through the lobby. At dinner later in the hotel restaurant, I recognized one of the dancers. She was one of the waitresses.
Tashkurgan's town center consists of two intersecting streets lined with fabric shops and hardware and other stores with crumbling facades signed in Chinese characters and Arabic. There weren't any sidewalks, but there weren't many cars either, so the streets were freed for other activities, such as walking the family bull or playing ball.