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Saddled up on a motorcycle tour of China's Silk Road
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.
FOR THE RECORD:
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.
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.
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.
The people were friendly, for the most part. A smile or wave typically won the same in return, but no one spoke with us except children, who giggled and yelled "hello" before hiding in their mothers' flowing skirts.
Even our Chinese tour guide, nicknamed Rick, had difficulty talking with the locals because this part of the country is populated by Uygurs, an Uzbek ethnic group that has its own dialect.
Because we were so close to Pakistan, the tour brochure offered an optional trip to the border over the 16,000-foot Khunjerab Pass, notable for its glacial landscape, oversized Himalayan squirrels and proximity to one of Osama bin Laden's reputed hiding places.
Most of our group was game for the trip, but Rick said new laws bar motorcycles from traveling the pass. My tour group figured Rick knew what he was talking about, but later that same day, we ran into a pack of New Zealand bikers who had just traveled the road.
So our ride on the second day was exactly the same as the first, only back the other direction, from Tashkurgan through the military checkpoint and into Kashgar.
The tour guides let us go ahead of them to explore the area's mud-hut towns, which looked a lot like Luke Skywalker's home town in "Star Wars." I checked them out with a couple of other riders, one of whom brought his GPS. It really wasn't possible to get lost. There's only one major road between Tashkurgan and the military checkpoint. It's also the area's only paved road -- a well-kept military thoroughfare with asphalt so smooth it could have been poured the previous day.
At Kashgar, we had a night of rest before exploring the weekly livestock extravaganza known as the Sunday Market and visiting the Taj Mahal-esque Tomb of Abakh Hoja, an Islamic spiritual leader. For that day's sightseeing, we swapped our motorcycles for bicycles because it was easier to negotiate the chaotic city streets.
There are few traffic rules in China, but at least everyone moves slowly -- even on the freeway, where we pedaled beside soot-spewing big rigs and clip-clopping carts loaded with sheep.
Our day in Kashgar was our only one to rest on the tour. It was also one of the few times we ate somewhere besides a hotel, where the food was less likely to roil our innards.
Probably the last thing you want to see when you walk into a restaurant are flies, an ax and a bloody wooden tree stump that serves as a carcass cutting board, but that's what I saw at the small tea shop where we had fried noodles, called "laghman," for lunch and at the traditional Uygur restaurant where we ate like cavemen, ripping grilled chunks of somewhat gristly lamb off skewers with our bare teeth.
STOPPED BY POLICE
The next day, we were presented with two paths to our next stop, Akso. We could take the 370-mile, twisty-canyon route across the Tianshan mountains bordering Kyrgyzstan or a more direct, straight-line road akin to Interstate 10. Seven of the nine of us chose the twisties, which followed the spirit of the group. The party-hearty Europeans were all game, but only half the Americans.
We were just beginning to wind our way up the mountain when the police stopped us. I suppose it was inevitable. We were big people on big bikes -- half the riders in our tour were 6-feet-4 or taller -- and looked like space aliens in our head-to-toe protective gear.
In China, police don't need firearms or cars to stop vehicles. They just saunter into the road, wave a gloved hand and traffic comes to a screeching halt. At least that's what happened with our group. Then we were led by bicycle to the nicest building in town -- the police station -- where our passports were collected, our cameras were checked and we were invited inside for tea -- served in little paper cups with bunnies on the side -- before being sent back the way we came. On the plus side, we got our passports back and didn't end up in prison. On the negative, we weren't allowed to continue along the border, which was said to be a spectacular ride.
Because it's so close to Islamic hotspots, Xinjiang province is a politically sensitive region, and, as Rick said, we didn't have the proper traveling permits. So for the next 300 miles, we backtracked and traversed a dull two-lane highway -- wheeling over mirage after mirage, where there was little to see but sand.
Our brush with the law was kind of fun, partly because it was an adventure and partly because the outcome was so benign. Otherwise, that day's ride was a disappointment that was compounded by where we ended up.
Akso is a charmless city of 3 million that's been poisoned by prosperity. We stayed near a place that was almost identical to Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, only it was Asian. The one amusing part of this stop: On one side of the street was an Izod shop. Across from it was another called Alligator.
I couldn't leave fast enough, especially because our next day's ride was a twofer -- an off-road adventure through China's Grand Canyon-esque Tianmen Mystery Canyon, followed by a visit to a Buddhist grotto that had been pillaged successively by Mongols and the Muslims who now inhabit the area.
Unfortunately, our adventure through the stunning, red-rocked Tianmen Mystery Canyon turned into an adventure to it because Rick missed the turnoff.
We ended up seeing the grotto first, which was just as well. We had to climb, in motorcycle boots, up a ton of stairs to the cliff with the caves where we saw the many Buddhas that have been unburdened of their eyes. If we had stuck with the original plan, I might have been too exhausted.
The 100 miles of dirt we rode that day came afterward: on our way to and from the Mystery Canyon, which was majestic but oddly vacant, probably because we had to take a well-traveled truck route to get there.
SUNSCREEN AT 6 P.M.
It was around this point that the Silk Road Tour became the Tour of Diminishing Returns. The next days' rides, from Kuqa to Korla to Turpan, were boring freeway treks that really had me appreciating how difficult it must have been to travel these parts by camel in ancient times, when the route was used to move goods between Rome and China.
The only interruptions to these 300-plus-mile days were unusual, though not particularly interesting, diversions, such as Desert Forest Park (a small desert preserve with dead trees) and Bosten Lake (China's largest freshwater lake). Just as at most other tourist attractions on our trip, we were the only visitors. In the case of Desert Forest Park and Bosten Lake, it was for good reason. As a Californian, I enjoyed the lack of visitors to Xinjiang's nature preserves, but they paled compared with what I can find within an hour's drive of my own house.
Nearing the end of our tour, we landed in Turpan, which, at 30 feet below sea level, is the hottest place in China. When we arrived at our hotel at 5 p.m., it was 104 degrees, but it felt hotter in full riding gear. An hour later, when we headed out to explore the ancient city of Jiaohe, it was still so sunny that our tour guide told us to wear sunscreen.
On this, our second-to-last day of the tour, Jiaohe was probably the last remarkable place we saw. The ruins, which are on a three-quarter-mile-long rock plateau overlooking lush vineyards, were home to about 5,000 Buddhists several hundred years ago. Today, they're a sprawl of rocks and half-standing mud buildings that may or may not be authentic.
One of my fellow motorcycle tourists, a former social history professor at Yale, said, "Uh-oh" as soon as he walked in and saw the light posts wired with underground electricity, sensing a phoniness to what was supposed to be a historical landmark. The light posts were spread out throughout the ancient city, as were security cameras and loudspeakers.
Our time in Turpan was the most touristy of the trip. In less than 24 hours' time, we were whisked from an exhibit of the area's Karez underground irrigation channels to the Bezeklik Buddhist caves to the Emin Minaret and mosque to a museum celebrating the surrounding Flaming Mountains. Each had accompanying and overstaffed trinket stands that, in some cases, were even larger than the tourist attractions.
Pashmina scarves, silk scarves, faux vintage Mao posters -- they could all be purchased for about $2 or less, if you negotiated. In Turpan, there were also endless vendors hawking all varieties of raisins.
Turpan is China's Napa Valley, only hotter, which is why most of the grapes grown here are dried rather than crushed and fermented into wine. In May, the vineyards were thick and green, the fields dotted with ventilated brick barns that would later be used for drying.
At Grape Valley Paradise, our final tourist stop in Turpan, grapevines provided the shade for a long corridor of outdoor restaurants. This was some of the best food on our tour -- freshly butchered lamb kebabs, where chunks of meat alternated with even more delicious chunks of fat.
It was good fuel for the final stretch of the tour, a 125-mile ride from Turpan to Urumqi, with an impending rainstorm pretty much mimicking the group's mood. The tour was 11 days, but it seemed as though it had just fizzled out. The most spectacular riding and dramatic sights and experiences on the tour occurred in the first week, which made the tour feel as though we'd eaten dessert first.
If we'd traveled in the opposite direction, the tour might have felt as though it was growing more exciting with each day -- and the issues we had with the guide promising us roads we couldn't ride might not have seemed significant. That said, it's hard to have a rotten time on a motorcycle.
RIDING WITH THE TOUR
Edelweiss Bike Travel's new Silk Road Tour had some issues, but it was still a spectacular journey -- a privilege, really, to see such an unusual part of the world in such an unusual way, from the saddle of a 600 cc Chinese bike. The only other time I've ridden a motorcycle in a foreign country was in Cuba, where I traded my passport to a stranger for a Czech motorcycle that I rode around Havana for a week. Perhaps that's one more indication of the benefits of using a tour when riding overseas.
I learned two things on that Cuba trip: how young and foolish I was and how much fun it is to travel by motorcycle. Not only does it offer more flexibility than a bus, train or car, in terms of when and where you stop, but it's also more involving because you're operating with all five senses fully attuned.
Until taking the Silk Road Tour, Cuba was my all-time favorite trip. It's now a close second.
Susan Carpenter is The Times' motorcycle critic. She can be reached at email@example.com.