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Kashgar, a cycle-nomads’ oasis
14 September 2007 Gośka Romanowicz

Spending a few days in Kashgar, the old Silk Road oasis, we quickly felt part of a global tribe of cycle nomads.

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Arriving in the modern chinese Oasis after months of desert

Arriving in the Chinese countryside from Kyrgystan, one of the first things we noticed was the motorbikes: young men on Harley-style chinese monsters, women in sparkly Uyghur dresses on Suzuki copies, white-bearded old men in traditional pointy hats on scooters, whole groups of 4 or 5 bundled onto trailers… In Kashgar, the regional capital, there are some bicycles but many more scooters, cars, taxis and buses.

When it came to Westerners though the picture was reversed: Germans, French, Russians, Scots, all travelling across the continent or even round the world by bicycle. “Pedestrian” tourists were few and far between – at least at the Seman hotel, admittedly the cheapest “foreigner” hotel in town. After sharing the road only with donkey-carts, old Volgas and rickety bicycles in Central Asia we suddenly found ourselves in the company of Western mountain bikes, recumbents and tandems. Over the four days we stayed in Kashgar we really felt part of a community of cycle-travellers, swapping guidebooks, language lessons, clothes, and especially stories. These encounters also made us realise another major advantage of cycle tourism: the company of other cyclists. They’re all very different but – unsurprisingly – they’ve all got plenty of stories, interesting conversation and enthusiasm to offer (you won’t make it across all those 4000m mountain passes feeling apathetic!).

People travel by bike for different reasons and in different ways. Claude, a Swiss cyclist we met in Sari-Tash, is a travel writer with a seven-year cycle journey under his belt. He and his girlfriend Nathalie have been on the road since October 2005 and seem to be doing it for the experiences, taking the time to meet the people and savour the cultures. On the other side of the spectrum is Daniel who we cycled with for three days – doing up to 280km a day on his aerodynamic recumbent bike with the minimum of luggage (he even cuts the labels of his clothes to save weight), he’s zooming across from Germany to Beijing more for the thrill of making it across thousands of miles on the power of his muscles. There are so many others – Bettina and Torstein are a German couple going back home after a year spent working in Beijing; Boris is a Slovak who wanted to go for a spin around Southern Europe but found he was enjoying himself too much to stop there, and ended up in China; Erika and Robin left Scotland 53 months ago and are now heading for Tibet, thinking of going home soon but still undecided…

Kashgar is one of the few places where so many cycle tourists can be found at once, located on the crossroads between Tibet, Beijing, India and the Central Asian ‘stans, and offering the rare luxury of Western bicycle shops for repairs. Once an oasis for silk road travellers, Kashgar has always been a strategic stopping point wedged in between the high plateaus of the Pamir Altay to the West, the Taklamakan Desert to the North-East and the Karakoram mountain range to the South. But while the power of the desert has somewhat diminished at the assault of a motorised civilisation, to those travelling by bicycle the city has remained a true oasis.

Websites of some of the travellers we met in and around Kashgar:

Claude and Nathalie http://www.yaksite.org
Daniel "Speedy Gonzales" http://www.parispeking.de
Bettina and Torstein http://www.136-10.com
Erika and Robin http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/...
Nicolas the French horse rider http://www.cavalensteppe.com
Mandy and Benny http://www.globecyclers.de
Sebastien http://lyonpekin.free.fr

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