Sost is a half-Yak town (the other half of the yak we have for dinner) that happens to be the last one before the summit of the Khunjerab Pass and the border with the People’s Republic. The Chinese economy thrives on a ‘build it, they’ll come’ philosophy – the metropolis of Sost is waiting for the ‘they’ll come’ bit to take effect. Although the tentacles of Chinese imperial encroachment can be felt across the Northern Areas, they are directed at infrastructure rather than trade. You wonder what the great minds in Beijing are really planning in the long run behind the facade of trade development, but it probably ends in the warm waters of Gwadr?
OK, so we cheated. 2000m of net height gain (we did nearly 3000m gross in any case), the strains of altitude and an impending storm means local advice insists that we drive up a bit of the Khunjerab. Well most of it. Just not the really steep bit at the end. And even this, especially this, is cruel. 300 heartbeats a minute merge into one great big one as I reach hairpin 81 (or something like that) and the top. This affords little opportunity to glimpse some of the incredible local wildlife – Giant Ibex, Markhoor, Marmot, Snow Leopard, Wolf, Black and Brown Bear, Yak and, king of them all, Marco Polo Sheep. We see an ibex and a cow, but otherwise not a chicken. Probably because of the hypoxia.
I carried the Vision colours up the Khunjerab, politically significant as Vision Pakistan reaches out to Vision China at this time. However, I choose to sport the NorthEdge colours on the descent from China – the most northerly outpost of Pakistan seems to resonate with the NorthEdge brand values. Sort of. In spite of it being nearly 4700m in altitude so you can hardly breathe; in spite of it being minus five and blizzarding, which makes shorts even more inappropriate than normal; and in spite of the hostility to anyone in cycling kit (just me as it happens) of the Chinese military is profound; the rest of us manage to maintain a positive, straight-talking and committed outlook. There’s a job to be done.
Quite frankly, the reaction of the Pakistani public at the Khunjerab, as we stroll towards the Chinese Gate, suggests my current status sits somewhere between rock star and minor deity. I would bask in this warm glow for longer (and probably start charging for selfies), but it’s freezing and there is no basking to be done. ‘It’s All About the Bike’, as The Doc again reminds me. The ‘crazy going down’ bit is upon us. My Urdu isn’t what it should be, but I catch ‘jaraba buktaba cycling boraba juntuwaba ab-sol-loot madness, bhai’ as VisionAli’s bike is lifted from the van. To be fair, it’s 75km from the Khunjerab Pass to Sost and it’s pretty much all downhill.
The next couple of hours pass in a blur – we overtake lorries commanded by drivers new to ‘Bike Safe’ protocols; glide by a car crash in the ice, saved from a plunge into the gorge only by a small concrete block; and strike up a chat with Danish, who’s heading back to Islamabad for his best friend’s wedding on 1st September. At that pace, poor chap, he won’t make Ramadan ’17. He’ll probably get eaten by a bear tonight.
Anyway, we’re hungry enough to eat one too, so curry it is. Again. Yak, chicken, bear, yak, probably yak – who cares?
To read more about Dan and Ali’s bike ride, please click here. Dan Wright is raising money for The Knowledge Foundation, a social enterprise based in Pakistan. The project aims at supporting young people with education and academic development. To donate to Dan’s Virgin Money Giving page, visit this link.