High Times

High Times

A mountainous image before mountains themselves appear; Dolly stood in the marble hotel foyer piled high with the winter equipment that for weeks had been waited for. Boots, thermal clothing, arctic sleeping bags, food for a week, flasks, a fine exhibit of dried fruit and nuts. Sleepless nights put behind me. Fears of fatal and authoritarian consequences of the action I was about to take. Wheels slid down the ramped hotel exit in the snowy Kashgar afternoon as electric scooters whizzed past alongside donkeys and carts. Time to leave behind urban juxtapositions for the wild. Steel tubes flexed under the weight and strain of traffic jam swerves, wheels turned again.

Between the insane and the unreal, the historic city and the Himalaya, three days traversing desert. The Karakorum. Dreams and imaginations of vast sandy expanses, dunes and camels, replaced with the reality of waking in thick snow. Snow in the desert. A frozen landscape of nothing, an introduction of what was to come; sparse inhospitable nothingness. Flashbacks and memories of easier times as I introduce myself to the beauty and the beast, the challenge of finding water under frozen rivers, sleeping in the shadows of mountains.

Climbing, climbing, climbing. Day one, day two, day three. Small towns punctuate switchback roads ascending between towering peaks. Air gets thinner, temperature ever decreasing, asphalt becomes a luxury. The first pass, a visual wonder of the world, dreamt of for months before arriving here is invisible, shrouded in thick cloud amidst a blizzard. Stopping to ponder this is impossible. The only colour in the monochrome landscape; the regular red posts of the road markers, beyond which falls a rapid descent to a cold rocky end. Dolly swerves down the narrow snow covered road.

Kudi, 3600m, the political frontier, the beginning of the forbidden. Full moon. Snow covered ground, fully visible in the dead of night, a stupid time to contemplate illegally sneaking through an armed border. A test run and I’m caught, luckily just a local, it’s too early. Look lost and turn back. A second run, further and that could be the other side. 1am and I drag Dolly beneath the barbed wire, between buildings and over rocky mounds. The weight, the weight. “Come on damn you”. Stumbling, falling, slipping in snow. Footprints, the damn footprints, how easy to track. Surely someone saw me? I will be found tomorrow. How to explain this? Keep low as the lights go past. Look up from behind the shrubs. Yes, there, one hundred metres behind me, the lights of the checkpoint glimmer on the moonlit valley. Sweats of joy, perspiration of relief. Ride onwards until 4am. Hide, hide, hide and sleep.

Unfound, camped behind an abandoned building site. Valleys of pure rock emerge in the morning and finally, overcast is banished as perfect rich blue adorns the spaces between grey peaks. Shadows move across valleys. Snow defrosts on sun beat roads. My nose begins to burn, but it is cold, so cold. Base layers, mid layers, thermal layers and pushing a bicycle up a gradient in thick snow. Days grow tough, so difficult but surrounded by such beauty. Altitudes and corrugated roads and finally, five thousand meters, five thousand hard hard meters high. I breathe, I try to breathe, a week of climbing has come to this. Pain: legs, heart and head, all hurt. Snow covered contours behind and, in front, lays out a wonderful etching of contorted rocks, twisting formations of the earth’s core to descend through. Onto the plateaux, the rooftop of the world, for kilometres and kilometres of cycling at over 4000m.

This pain is far from over, and for weeks I feel despair, I feel alone, I feel the end but with no way out. A time to find my limit and to learn what it takes to go beyond this. A time to cry, to shout out loud where nobody can hear me. To feel my insignificance in the great power of the world and to have the extremes of that world throw in my face. But what more wonderful place to fight this than in a landscape painted by Dali, somewhere close to heaven, somewhere far from earthly, somewhere very, very special…

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