Friday, February 18, 2011

Cycling the High Mountains of Asia

From the Celestial Mountains to the Golden Earth

I've been thinking of this cycling journey for some time now. I've had 3 separate cycling trips in Tibet and explored the Himalaya from that side, both on bike and on foot. The embryonic idea for this trip came out of those very stimulating rides in the shadow of the Himalaya. After completing the 14,000km ride down the Andean mountain chain in South America in 2008-9, the trans-Himalayan traverse was an obvious sequel.

Action Aid

This trip will also be a fund-raising ride for ActionAid, a global NGO fighting poverty and injustice in the developing world. Click on the link above to read more about ActionAid. 

Click on the link below to find out how you can donate to this worthwhile cause through this charity ride.                       
At the end of this post you can read about my personal link with ActionAid in Myanmar (Burma) and  why I chose this NGO as the charity to fundraise for.

Central Asia - a very brief geography/history lesson
For years I've been poring over maps depicting the contorted and crumpled topography of Central Asia. It's not just the physical landscape which is complex but also the political and ethnic make up of the region. The Stans, as they are now known to travellers, were just an invention of Stalin as he took his scissors to the map and cut out 5 republics, based very crudely on their ethnic composition - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kirghizstan and Kazakhstan. I will visit the last four of these countries, but leave the deserts of Turkmenistan untravelled and lost to the sands.

The Mountain Ranges of Asia
Two main mountain ranges, the Tien Shan and the Pamirs stretch along the eastern flank of the Stans. The Tien Shan (or Celestial Mountains) separate Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan from Xinjiang province, China, while the Pamir range is a massive block of high peaks in eastern Tajikistan forming a barrier to Afghanistan and southern Xinjiang.

Another range, straddling the Afghan and Pakistan border is the Hindu Kush (with the ominous translation of  'Hindu Killer'). I won't be attempting to ride into Afghanistan but will cycle under the Hindu Kush from Gilgit to Chitral in Pakistan.

The most formidable of all the ranges is undoubtably the Karakoram. In a relatively small area there are five 8000m peaks looming over the glacier highways and the rugged, austere mountainscape. I visited this area in 1988 and have longed to return to 'The Throne of the Gods' as they are known to the local Balti people.

The final range will be the Himalaya itself, stretching from the dry moonscape environment of Ladakh/Zanskar to the lush sub-tropical forests of Sikkim, Assam and Burma. I'm not exactly sure where the Himalayan range actually comes to a geological end in the east so I'll have to do some more research. From a personal and sentimental perspective, I'd like to finish the trans-Himalayan cycling journey under Hkakabo Razi, at 5889m, the sacred mountain of Khampa Tibetans and the highest peak in Burma(Myanmar). Looming above the Mekong and Salween gorges, it was such an impressive peak when I saw it in 2003 and again in 2006 on my Tibetan rides. Below is a photo of Hkakabo Razi which I took in 2003 from above Deqin, Yunnan, with Tibetan prayer flags, stupa and pilgrims. The last of the ice mountains.

Here is a map of the Greater Himalaya, showing the main mountain ranges of Asia. The location of the ranges are not so accurate (eg the Karakoram range doesn't stretch to the Nepalese border, and the Pamirs should be in Tajikstan). However, it's a simple, basic map with all the main ranges clearly shown.
1 click on the map to enlarge, 2 clicks for X-large.

Go to this link with an interactive map and move over the Himalayan range to find my route.

On the map move the cursor NE (drag the hand up and to the right) until you come to Urumqi. Now move west over the Tien Shan into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Locate the lake, Issyk Kul, then move across to Bishkek, over a few 3000m hills and onto Tashkent, Samarkand & Dushanbe. Move over the Pamirs, following the Afghan border (careful now!), sneak into Kirghizstan and over the Irkeshtam pass to Kashgar, China. From here to Tashkurgan, over the Khungerah pass and down the Karakoram Highway to Gilgit. Follow the Indus river to Skardu and circle back to Gilgit skirting around Nanga Parbat. From Gilgit over to the valleys of the Hindu Kush (Shhh now)and down to Chitral and Islamabad. That's 6 months of cycling...the rest is History (or Geography)...only Time will tell.

The Cycling Route in more detail.........
I will begin my trip in Urumchi, Xinjiang China. Initially I was going to start the journey from Iran but I had so many hassles getting an Iranian visa and faced with the logistical nightmare of Turkmenistan, I decided to enter Central Asia from the east. I had first thought to stretch my cycling legs in the Altay Shan on the border of Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan but it's far north of Urumchi and there are few roads so close to the sensitive border. Most likely it would be better hiking country. It's also quite separate from the Greater Himalayan system so I'll start the trip from the Tien Shan.

Leaving Urumchi early April (I can't be more precise as I'll have to wait for a Kirghiz visa), I'll cross the Tien Shen and cycle to Yining. Cross the border with Kazakhstan- only a week or two here. I might sniff out some nice cycling routes in the foothills of the Tien Shen and may get a permit to trek under Khan Tengri ('Lord of the Skies'), at 7010m the second highest peak in the range. It straddles the borders of China, Kazakhstan & Kirghizstan so it may be off limits. Perhaps there's an easier approach from the Kirghiz side. Also in Kirghizstan I might be able to get up to the base camp of the highest peak, Pik Pobedy at 7439m.

It may be too early for any real exploration of the Tien Shan so I want to focus on the Pamirs. Due to the weird jumble that is the political divisions of states here, I'll have to approach Tajikistan from Uzbekistan by a very circuitous route. But at least I'll get to see the famed city of Samarkand and wait for the snow to melt in the Pamirs. 

A month or so in Kirghizstan. Cross the border by Issyk Kul lake and ride to Bishkek the capital. Another wait for a visa (Uzbek 7-10 days!), then a ride across the mountains and into the Fergana valley and onto Tashkent. Get my Tajik visa  there and ride to Samarkand. The nearby border to Tajikistan is closed presently but I want to cross here in early June and ride over the Fan Mountains and into Dushanbe.

In Dushanbe, more visas and permits (GBAO- for the border area with Afghanistan). Then the famous cycle route over the 750km 'Pamir Highway'. This should be the highlight of the trip and I want to spend a month or more so exploring this remote and spectacular area. If I have enough time I want to get into the Wakhan valley and some trekking sidetrips up to the base camps of the high peaks (incl. Pik Communism 7495m &/or Pik Lenin 7134m), as well as up to the Fedchenko glacier, the longest river of ice outside the polar regions.

Cross back into Kirghizstan for a brief interlude and then ride over Irkestham pass back into China and down to Kashgar. This should be around mid-July or so and will be the end of stage one - Central Asia.

From Kashgar, I will ride to Tashkurgan and take bus transport to the Khungerah pass on the Pakistan/China border (the Chinese prohibit cyclists on this route) and then cycle down to Sust via the Karakoram Highway. I spent three months here in 1988 trekking in the Karakoram Mts. and was enthralled with the immensity and sheer beauty of the place. Depending on time and security issues, I'd like to do a circuit from Gilgit to Skardu and back via the Deosai plateau and Nanga Parbat. The second bike route will be over to Chitral from Gilgit and some exploring in the Hindu Kush. These 2 routes will get me close to some of the high peaks of the two ranges, and hopefully for some short trekking opportunities. It all depends on the security situation in Nth Pakistan though.

And last, but not least, the Himalaya. There are many possibilities and options for cycling in the Himalayas. I haven't decided on a route yet but I might have to forgo the Indian Himalaya and the Ladakh/Zanskar region because of climate and time pressures. The Manali-Leh road is very popular with cyclists. It was thought that Khardung La pass on this route was the highest motorable pass in the world but the Indians were found to be cheating (that's just not cricket,is it?) and is only a paltry 5359m. Check out this link
The roads in the Jammu/Kashmir area have heavy military traffic in the short supply season so I'm not too keen on this one. Also I don't think I will have the time or weather on my side.

Nepal may be a better option in October and November. I could cycle up to Muktinath and trek up to Dhalugiri base camp. Or fly to Lhasa and cycle the Friendship Highway back to Kathmandu. Unfortunately you now have to do this with permits and a driving escort. It was such a wonderful ride when I did it in 2006 as an inspiring solo ride over the Himalaya.

Then onto Sikkim, Arunchal Pradesh, Burma. Not sure where to finish. I would love to reach the base of Mt. Hkakabo Razi on the border of Burma and Yunnan, China. This peak at 5889m, is probably the last gasp of the Greater Himalaya and the last ice mountain above the tropical jungle. 

Action Aid

- fighting poverty and injustice
- raising funds and awareness
I was very privileged to work for ActionAid in Myanmar (Burma) in 2010 as English language support for staff. I was also very fortunate to be able to go on a trip with ActionAid staff to the Ayerwaddy delta region to write case studies and take photographs. The area was devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and over 2 million people were left homeless. I was very impressed with the projects which ActionAid had been involved with there and inspired by the hard work and commitment of the staff and volunteers of this organisation. I have chosen to raise funds and awareness for ActionAid because it targets those most vulnerable, whether as a result of poverty or injustice.

The mountains I have to climb on this journey are small compared to the hardships the poor and vulnerable of the world face in their daily lives. Even though their mountains are high and formidable they are not insurmountable. Please give generously to this worthwhile cause.

You can read more about ActionAid on their homepage


  1. In Asia Pakistan have long range of mountain which also have world 2nd highest peak k2 if you find cheap flights to pakistan don't miss it and make a plan to visit hilly areas of Pakistan i m sure you gonna loving it.

  2. Do you know any top mountain peaks in Pakistan i have once visit Tear Lake situated after naran valley.