Posted in on the road

Hard Times (IV)

Hard Times (IV) Posted on June 3, 20126 Comments

Pain – has an Element of Blank –
It cannot recollect
When it begun – or if there were –
A time when it was not –
(Emily Dickinson)

We made it, of course.

And the road was horrible almost all the way.

But I didn’t die of altitude sickness – not even slightly. All I really noticed was that I was a bit more breathless and exhausted and trembly than usual as I neared the top of the pass, and that could just as easily been due to my exertions over the past week as to the lack of oxygen in the air.

Or maybe the lack of oxygen to my brain left me incapable of registering or remembering just how painful Khunjerab really was. Because I know that it hurt, make no mistake. I distinctly remember that at certain points of the climb the thought flitted through my head that it was simply not possible to go on, and that I dismissed the thought, because I knew that it was. I don’t often feel like that, so I can thus infer that this climb must have been one of the points of the trip at which I was pushing myself closest to my physical limits.

But, honestly, I remember very little of it. Maybe that’s why I’ve been unable to summon much of a sense of achievement, and maybe that’s why, later that evening, tucked up sleepily in the police post at Koksil after a celebratory dinner of chicken and illegal Chinese beer (the equivalent of being offered a joint in a British police station), Michael asked me “was it really that hard?”, and we tried lining Khunjerab up against other difficult days we’d both had, to see how it compared.

It had been hard, of course. We both recalled struggling and gasping and aching and having to stop and rest a lot. But the memory of Khunjerab didn’t carry as much of a sting as that of the day I rode into Istanbul, arriving after midnight with at least 140 miles under my belt. Or of the day I rode a mere 45 miles from Shipka to Shivachevo, shivering with fever and having to stop every few miles to lie down. Even a couple of mornings of icy fingers and toes in Turkey seemed to have made more of an impression on me than this pass, which ought to have been the pinnacle of my achievement to date.

Could it be that we forget the worst of our pain?


  1. Hi Emily, I came across your blog a few days ago – quite a feat and very well written. I spend most of my spare time going through the archives now. At this rate I am sure I will finish it all during the long weekend.
    Congratulations on fulfilling your dream of riding the KKH and climbing the Khunjerab Pass. I don’t live very far from KKH and have always wanted to bike from Naran to Kashgar but, like the other 99.9% people, had many more things to worry about. I cycled the Babusar Pass a long time ago:
    I have not yet given up on the dream of cycling the KKH and may think about it again after retiring from my job in a few years time. In the meantime I continue to cycle to work (Walthamstow to Tower Hamlets – I live in London now)

  2. Hello Emily,
    I’m Laudan, a friend of Chloe’s, and she told me about your amazing journey. I’ve just been reading your earlier blog entries and was particularly interested in those from Iran. Your stories are wonderful and heart warming. Thank you. I took a group of students to Iran about 4 years ago and they had such a great time and found the country so different from what they had expected – given how Iran is portrayed by the media in the UK. Well, good luck with the rest of your trip and thanks again for your beautiful blog.

  3. I guess those other tougher days were tougher because of circumstance rather than intrinsic nature. Keep up the good writing and good luck with your ongoing travels.

  4. You seem so focused on pain and hardship that it’s difficult to understand why you even cycle. That road is not hard – I’ve been there myself like hundreds of other bicycle tourists.

    Try to focus instead of the beautiful climate, on the kind people you must meet or on the delicious food you get served by the locals. That is interesting, not pain.

  5. Well done Emily (and Michael); sounds like you are both amazingly fit and already well acclimatised to the altitude. I can’t imagine doing a climb like that straight from sea-level!!

    Am I right in understanding that you had to do the ‘up and back’ because the Chinese don’t allow you to descend into their territory by bike? That seems a shame. Will you have to go back over it the same way in the bus? Sorry for the stupid questions by the way!

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