A Bussy Border

There’s a concept known among some cycle tourers as EFI. This is a desire to avoid alternative methods of transport, instead cycling Every Flipping Inch. (I sanitise somewhat)

I generally try and hold to this, for example cycling across the deserts of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Xinjiang where many people opt for trains instead. It’s hard to describe why I choose to do this: certainly skipping a week of boring riding in order to have more time in more interesting places is a very sensible decision.

Nonetheless I do prefer to opt for cycling everything, or as much as possible. I’m willing to fly between continents (some insist on only using boats), and even take taxis to the airport. I’m also willing to take other modes of transport so long as the bike remains behind, – for example taking taxis in a city.

Overall though I like to maintain as continuous as possible a line of cycling, barring exceptions for large bodies of water. One major exception to this was in South America, where the Argentina-Paraguay border crossing was closed to cyclists. I put the bike on a train for a kilometre, as I decided it was more important for me to see Paraguay.

Here at the Chinese-Pakistan crossing I made a similar decision. On the Chinese side of the border bicycles are not permitted, and travellers have to take a bus for a whopping 180km. My desire to visit Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh was stronger than my desire to cycle every inch.

It was therefore with slightly mixed emotions that I left the hostel and headed to the bus station. After some confusion and delays I was able to buy my ticket from Tashkorgan, China to Sost, Pakistan.

The bus did not leave from the bus station – that would have made far too much sense. Instead I cycled over to customs.

During the long wait lots of Pakistani men showed up, most of whom were traders. They were friendly guys, with big bags and boxes of goods purchased in Chin to be sold in Pakistan. There were also a few tourists, including a pair of Chinese guys, a Singaporean couple, a Chinese-Pakistani couple and some Japanese. One of the Japanese was a cyclist who, although travelling alone, used a tandem. Occasionally he would collect other travellers or locals and ride with them for a while.

Slowly we made our way through customs, with our bags being sent through scanners. There was another wait for the bus to arrive outside.

Thankfully we foreigners were able to load our things first. There was significant storage capacity under the seats – the bikes were just about able to go in upright, without any disassembly. The Pakistani traders had some more difficulty fitting their things in, with lots of kicking and body slamming to try and get as much on as possible.

The bus itself was remarkably comfortable. It was a sleeper bus, so instead of seats there were three aisles of beds.

The Pakistani traders on the bus were friendly and spoke English, a welcome change. Most were from Gilgit-Baltistan (just the other side of the border), but one man was from Lahore. Every three months or so he makes the long journey to buy shoes from China, which he then sells in Lahore.

I’d wondered if there might be any hostility due to my being British (i.e. colonist). They all seemed quite pro-British though, with one proudly telling me of his grandfather who’d fought in the British army. They also told me that Prince William was in the country, which they again considered a point of pride.

After leaving the town of Tashkorgan the bus entered what is officially called the border area, and gradually climbed up through the wide valley.

It wasn’t until shortly before the border that the road became steeper and the bus drove along a series of switchbacks up to the border, marked by a pass with an altitude of about 4700m.

There were a few checkpoints on the Chinese side but eventually we crossed over. A couple of minutes into Pakistan, the bus stopped and everyone got out to stretch their legs. The Pakistanis in particular were very relieved to be away from the oppressive Chinese police.

There were just two women on the bus – a Pakistani with a Chinese partner, and a Singaporean. When we crossed the border the Singaporean put on a headscarf, though the Pakistani woman did not.

From the pass there was a big descent before the first town of Sost, almost 2000m below the pass.

Immigration proceedings took place in Sost, and were a quick process. With that done I got the bike off the bus and made my way to a cheap hotel – at 1000 rupees (£5) it is the cheapest place I’ve stayed for some time!

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