A bus ride in Xinjiang

Opened in 1986 to foreigners, the Karakorum has been attracting intrepid travelers for a long time, wishing to travel this exchange route connecting China to Pakistan, in a landscape worthy of Kessel's novels. Following a portion of this mythical road, we traveled by bus from Kashgar to Tashkurgan, a few kilometers from the Pakistani border. At daybreak, we left Kashgar's crammed bus station for a five hours journey on the famous Karakorum Highway. Story of a bus ride that took way longer than expected…

Massif du Pamir

10 o'clock in the morning : the bus has been traveling for a few hours on a straight and monotonous road. On the horizon, the snowy summits of the Pamir range grow more and more. The passengers, mainly Uyghur and Pachtoun families, almost all fell asleep, rocked by the rhythm of the road.

Massif du Pamir

  Route du Karakorum

11 am : little by little as our bus climbs, we gain altitude. With it, the road also becomes more sinuous and steeper… Our bus, until then, seemed to ride at a rather regular pace, now shows obvious signs of weakness. When the slope is harder to climb, the engine races and the machine slows down dangerously. To avoid any incident, our driver, obviously trustful, sucks frantically on a sprinkler pipe connected to a water bucket, pouring the liquid on the overheating engine. He seems to have had such an experience before… Rule n°1 on such a trip : do not ask yourself too many questions…

13h : our bus stops abruptly on a recently asphalted road. The passengers, for the majority still sleepy, wake up gradually. We look out by the window : our bus is parked behind an impressive queue of vehicles, obviously stopped for some time… In the distance, a couple of bulldozers and twenty men work on the tar, still smoking.

 

We quickly learn that the rest of the road is to be asphalted, blocking circulation in both directions for an unspecified duration. Rule n°2 : patience, always patience…

14h30: immobilized for a few hours, the passengers of the various vehicles scatter along the road. While some take a nap, small groups are formed, trying to get any information on our situation. Alarmist and contradictory rumors circulate shortly after : we would be blocked here during 2 hours, no, during 2 days!

15h : despite the beauty of the surrounding mountains, the passengers start to show signs of impatience. In the absence of relevant information, we start to realize that our stay on this road is going to last… The only alternative to solve the problem is to go for a muddy track skirting the road. Why not? Followed by a long line of vehicles ready to give it a try, our bus embarks on a somewhat jolty and broken track…

A few hundred meters are laboriously crossed. Quickly, the bus slows down, its wheels spin, before stopping, completely stuck in the thick mud which covers the track.

Even if the driver insists in vain, nothing helps ; we are indeed wedged, and we are not the only ones !

 

One by one, all the vehicles are immobilized : here, it's a China Post truck which is wedged ; there, minibuses of Chinese tourists who suffer before stopping, incapable of going further…

 

16h : blocked once again, the majority of the distraught passengers leave the vehicles, hoping to allow them through this tricky stretch of mud. Another failure. The weather is overcast and nobody seems enchanted by the idea to spending the night there. Thus, it is necessary to be organized : little groups are formed and try to bring their assistance to the helpless drivers.

Here, passengers dig the heavy mud to release the wheels of blocked vehicles. There, some Chinese tourists try to pull their wedged minibus. A group of young Uyghurs finally try to push our bus deeply stuck in the sludge. Everywhere, laughter and shouts of encouragement burst out !

 

Curiously, the atmosphere is merry and light. Everyone helps each other, while some comment on the chances of the various vehicles to leave the area. After is all, isn't it more fun than to wait by the road ? Rule n°3 : try to smile about things you will laugh about later…

18h : after several hours of efforts, in a last acceleration after a strong push by the passengers, our driver finally succeeds to pull our bus out this bad situation. Unfortunately, the liberation so much awaited for is not done without pain… It's with violence that the bus comes crashing down after a bump on the ground, breaking a piece on the vehicle. New incident, new delay. After all, we now are experienced…

 

The broken part has to be replaced. Several men start working under the bus, hoping to solve the problem… The light goes down, the driver loses one of his tool in the mud… nothing goes right anymore. The feelings are heating up, we are not going to spend the night here ! 20h : The bus is finally fixed, we climb on board, starving and exhausted by this long day...

21h30 : We take the road again, relieved, but with 3 more hours to go... The end of a day in Chinese Xinjiang, a beautiful experience also. But, after all, isn't the unexpected, often, the most beautiful gift of the journey ? Rule n°4 : Enjoy !

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