Cycling the Karakoram Highway

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With a nice big chunk of time off work, we had a lot of options in terms of where to cycle. Originally having booked a trip to cycle in Tibet and Nepal, our plans changed as the border was closed during our trip dates. A quick alternative came up (through RedSpokes tours who we had booked our original trip with) to cycle the Karakoram Highway (starting in Pakistan and travelling through China ending in Kyrgyzstan).

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Our adventure started in the little city of Gilgit after an amazing flight from Islamabad. It was first time I’ve ever been in a flight where the mountains on either side are actually higher than the plane!

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Kids near Gilgit

Kids near Gilgit

After settling in to Gilgit, our first ride took us out to the small mountain village of Chirah which is located in the remote Bagrote Valley. This ride ended up being one of our most challenging as it was steep with loose gravel.

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Not much wiggle room for passing.

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This poor guy was trying so hard to communicate with us but we had no idea what he was saying…

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We couldn’t believe the views along the way and also the traffic on such a remote road. It was also neat to see such curious kids and how excited they were to try out their English and inspect our bikes. We must have looked quite “foreign” to them :).

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En route to Chirah, we stopped at a local school. It was great to see how high the education rate is in the area we were visiting. It was warm out and the kids were all sitting outside taking a test. I’m sure we were a distraction 🙂

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No seat belts, riding on the roof, potatoes in the back and a super sketchy road…doesn’t seem to faze them.

After a night in Chirah (and my body’s first unpleasant reaction to travel in very different territory ;)) we headed back to Gilgit for another night before heading out officially on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) – en route to Minapin where we got our first glances of the stunning Rakaposhi Mountain. We could not believe how amazing the pavement was. The Chinese government has funded the paving of the Karakoram Highway (which was completed within the last year). With very little traffic, this highway is a road rider’s absolute dream. The only caveat is that with new tunnels open as of a few weeks ago, the traffic from China will be significantly higher…but still the fresh pavement is really spectacular.

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Our first peek at Rakaposhi

On the way to the small village of Minapin, we took a detour from the highway to stop in a tiny village where one of our local guides’ family fed us a lunch time feast. With this village situated high above a beautiful river, the cycling was again nothing short of jaw dropping.

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Up close and personal with Rakaposhi

Up close and personal with Rakaposhi

Standard shops in the small villages along the KKH.

Standard shops in the small villages along the KKH.

From Minapin, we made our way towards the beautiful city of Karimabad. Looking up at Ultar Mountain (7,338m) this city made for a fantastic location to head out on a day hike up to the stunning Ultar Meadows.

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Amazing views from Karimabad with Ultar Mountain peeking from the clouds

Views from Ultar Meadow with Lady Finger and Ultar Mountain in the background

Views from Ultar Meadow with Lady Finger and Ultar Mountain in the background

Watch your step!

Watch your step! En route back to Karimabad from Ultar Meadows

Rocking our local Pakistani apparel for a dinner with the best views that were pretty tough to compete with.

Rocking our local Pakistani apparel for a dinner with the best views that were pretty tough to compete with.

Heading back on the KKH, we made our way to Passu via Attabad Lake. This lake was a highlight of the trip for me. With new tunnels opening two days after we went through, this lake won’t be used nearly as much (besides perhaps just tourism) but it was the main mode of transportation prior to the tunnels opening. It was spectacular to see the transport of goods by hand and boat. The decorations on the lorries and boats made the trip even more special.

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Fully loaded

Fully loaded

Following the lake, we continued our ride with a view of one of the most extraordinary mountain ranges we’d encounter on our ride as well as a fantastic descent down into town (so good in fact that Chris went back to do it again with the excuse of wanting to get some more photos ;)). With the Passu Glacier behind our accommodations, it was a great place to spend a couple nights and explore by foot.

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This descent was worth an extra climb for Chris to get a “redo” 🙂

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To think there is a village that is connected to the rest of this valley by this bridge...it was way to sketchy for me to cross and people walk it multiple times a day.

There is a village that is connected to the rest of this valley by this bridge…it was way to sketchy for me to cross and yet people walk it back and forth every day.

Continuing to make our way towards the Chinese border, we rode from Passu on the KKH up to the border town of Sost.

En route to Sost

En route to Sost

With one last chance to explore another mountain village, we headed up to Misgar from Sost. On our climb up to the town, we were stopped by road construction. It was amazing to see men reconstructing the road directly in front of us to remove debris from a small landslide. They were of course doing this all by hand. It’s pretty crazy to think that the villagers would be stuck without access to the main highway when there was significant road damage. Fortunately, with a bit of rock removal, we were on our way and had a great little picnic in the heart of this little village before a super fun descent back down to the main highway.

Road repair

Road repair

Looking towards Misgar

Looking towards Misgar

Chris teaching some kids to ride my bike...they could have done this all day :) - pure joy!

Chris teaching some kids to ride my bike…they could have done this all day 🙂 – pure joy!

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Views coming back from Misgar

So many locals would stop us and want photos. It's pretty special to be a tourist in Pakistan right now. They are very appreciative and you do feel a bit like a celebrity ;)

So many locals would stop us and want photos. It’s pretty special to be a tourist in Pakistan right now. They are very appreciative and you do feel a bit like a celebrity 😉

Unfortunately due to limitations from the Chinese government, we were unable to ride up the Khunjerab Pass to the border crossing. This would definitely have been a highlight of the trip with stunning views along the switchbacks making their way up to 4,800m. The border crossing itself was very interesting…the guards went through all our photos and personal effects. It’s pretty detailed. Also, with all the waiting around, the altitude definitely can get to you (even just unloading your baggage for checking and standing around). Fortunately, there is oxygen at the ready in the waiting room :).

Khunjerab Pass

Khunjerab Pass

Once in China, we started riding in Tashkurgan – making our way to Kara Kul. This was a stunning ride with views of Muztagh Ata Massif (7,546m) and winding up to 4,200m at the top of the pass with a screaming descent down to our yurts for the evening. A great day of accomplishment to ride our highest elevation of the trip!

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Looking up at Muztagh Ata Massif

Descending to Kara Kul

Descending to Kara Kul

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Yurt life at Kara Kul

Yurt life at Kara Kul

So cozy

So cozy

The next day we bundled up for a long descent before heading into Kashgar…our first real “city” visit since the start of our trip. The hustle and bustle was a drastic change from yurt life. We even took in the local livestock market. It was quite the experience seeing all the camels, sheep, goats, yaks, cows and donkeys up for sale.

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Old city Kashgar

Old city Kashgar

Kashgar traffic :)

Kashgar traffic 🙂

We found this gem of a bike outside a cafe in China.

We found this gem of a bike outside a cafe. If we had room in our suitcases, I’m sure Chris would have tried to take it home.

Hustle and bustle of the livestock market

Hustle and bustle of the livestock market

This is one of my favourite photos from the trip.  You certainly wouldn't expect this guy to have this window sticker :)

This is one of my favourite photos from the trip. You certainly wouldn’t expect this guy to have this window sticker 🙂

Following Kashgar, it was another border crossing to get us into Kyrgyzstan. We spent our first night in Kyrgyzstan at Tash Rabat which is a small cluster of communal yurts…and a sauna!!! Chris and I could not have been happier, especially given how cool the nights were getting up at the higher elevations.

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Reluctantly leaving our yurts the next morning, we set out (bundled up) on gravel roads leading to fresh pavement to our destination of At-Bashy –  which translates to “head of the horse”. En route to this small town, we enjoyed an amazing ride with stunning views of the mountains and the intricate tombs that are coming in Kyrgyz culture.

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From At-Bashy we veered off the well maintained roads and took a lovely gravel road descending down to the lovely little town of Naryn. We spent the afternoon exploring the lovely river valley.

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Waking up in Naryn the next morning meant we were about to ride our last leg of the trip. We took our support vehicle up through construction to the top of our final descent where we scooted down in no time to the small town of Kochkor where we stopped for lunch at a local guest house and packed our bikes up for their long journey home.

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Last ride of the trip

Last ride of the trip

We were sad to be leaving Kyrgyzstan so soon but also were pleased to be ending our trip with a stop over in Istanbul where we were pampered in a lavish hotel with hot showers…ah the things you’re appreciative for after a few weeks of travel :).

If you’re looking to plan a cycling trip in this region, we had some key learnings for next time (don’t worry Mom, no immediate trips planned ;)). For the KKH, the freshly paved roads made cyclocross bikes ideal (great choice Chris :)) and road bikes would also be perfect. However, there are also tons of side valleys worth exploring and they are mostly all gravel so our cyclocross bikes were ok but a bit rough on some of the long descents where a hard tail mountain bike would excel.

While we enjoyed the folks we got to travel with and it was easy having a route pre-planned and everything organized, I think in hindsight we would have liked to have been able to cover more distance per day (which would totally be doable) and there are lots of great local guides that could easily support in these regions which could mean more interaction with locals and a route that’s personalized to your skillsets and travel interests.

Until the next adventure…happy exploring!

P.S. Chris took a lot of these photos so full credit is due there 🙂

9 Oct 2015 14

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