The border with China, a surreal passage
The last time I was here - says Sebastiano - it was easier to cross the border between Pakistan and China. Now it's all complicated: crossing this border is undoubtedly the most difficult part of our adventure. We can't get to the border on our bicycles: at Post we have to load everything on government buses that take us to customs, which is 60 km away, at the Khunjerab Pass.
Here begins what for me is a journey within the journey. This time not geographically, but in the paradoxical world of Chinese bureaucracy. We are taken to a hangar and searched with the exact same method three times: nothing is overlooked, from the toothpaste to the memory cards of the photos every little thing is carefully controlled.
After this first checkpoint we finally cross the border but we cannot get back to our bikes and simply resume our journey. No, we have to stay on the bus for another 110 km, along a road bordered by barbed wire and fence. It almost seems like a spy movie or a parallel dimension where freedom of movement no longer exists: here they’ve created a strip of land monitored at all times. I wonder what the Chinese giant is afraid of ... In 2000 it wasn't like this, once you crossed the border you could simply continue your journey. Who knows what they fear today.
And that’s not all: when we arrive at the customs we are taken once again to a hangar and undergo another, meticulous check of all our equipment, in addition to being subjected to disinfestation. With all this procedure, the time is very long and you never have the certainty of when you can continue your journey.
The challenge at Muztagh Ata
We finally abandon the buses and can set off again on our two wheels. We pedal for about sixty kilometers, until we reach the "material field". This is a preliminary camp where the camels are waiting for us to start the ascent to the base camp of the Muztagh Ata, at 4,600 meters above sea level.
The Muztagh Ata is a mountain all in all technically simple and, in the last years, has become a popular destination for many commercial mountaineering expeditions from China and Japan. The summit reaches 7546 meters, it is the second highest peak in the Pamir. For us, the main challenge will be to summit it alone, only me and Valter.
At the base camp we meet mountaineers from different countries with whom we fraternize quickly. This is how it works in the mountains: united by the same goal, it's easy to become almost a family for the time of the expedition.
We are lucky: we manage to reach the summit of Muztagh Ata and descend in just 9 days. Surely the acclimatization phase in Pakistan has been of great help to us to arrive here, at the feet of the "Father of the Mountains of Ice", well prepared from a physical point of view. Usually, those who practice mountaineering concentrate on the moment of the ascent and arrive rested, without great recent efforts behind them. We on the other hand - and this is precisely what distinguishes Caravanserai - arrive with miles and miles of elevation gain in our legs thanks to the very demanding bike trip that requires a lot of energy. But it is as if this extreme physical strain were balanced by the wealth of emotions collected during the journey: colors, faces, memories that have cleansed our minds and given us an inner well-being difficult to describe, but that puts you in the ideal condition to face such a mountaineering challenge.
Of course, getting to the top of the Muztagh Ata all alone was no picnic: between camp 2 and camp 3, at 6,850 meters, we faced a tremendous storm, with very strong winds and visibility practically reduced to zero because of the fog. In the morning, however, we got a window of good weather, allowing us to push for the summit. And this is where the mountain really puts you to the test! Not with technical difficulties, because at 250 meters from the peak the route levels out. But these relatively easy meters become almost an insurmountable mental obstacle: you cannot see the summit and you get the impression of not getting anywhere. Step after step, you feel that you are always at the same point. But then you arrive and it is an immense satisfaction: the summit of Muztagh Ata has been reached!
Even the descent was not easy. Immediately after reaching the summit, the weather worsened and visibility was really bad. In those conditions, we decided to stop and sleep in camp 3, even if it wasn't initially planned and we found ourselves facing the night without food. But the decision turned out to be the right one, because in the morning the weather had improved and we were able to descend to the base camp in complete safety, gradually dismantling the materials used for the climb.
At the base camp we found our mountaineering friends who welcomed us with a big smile and pats on the back. Here, at this moment, the Caravanserai 2019 puzzle has been pieced together: we have reached our goal and we have shared it with those who live our same passion.
A quick visit to Afghanistan
From Muztagh Ata, we then head towards the border with Tajikistan, where we have to go through more procedures to pass customs. Fortunately it is not as complicated as crossing the Chinese border and, above all, we do not have precise travel plans to respect. Not knowing in advance how long it would take for the ascent in Pamir, we kept these days in Tajikistan as a "buffer" to arrive at the border with Afghanistan in no rush. Thus, we cross this country that immediately seems very different from China: a succession of infinite spaces, dominated by nature, where the human presence is almost absent.
We then arrive at Khorogh, a border crossing point for Afghanistan. The passage between the two countries is marked by a bridge and here geography really wanted to make clear a greater transition. Here we leave Central Asia to enter a remote world, where time really seems to be going backwards.
We are always in Pamir, in the so-called Wakhan Corridor, a thin strip of land that separates Tajikistan, Pakistan and China. Here we pedal for the last 300 kilometers of this journey that introduced us to people, places and stories that we will never forget. Returning to Khorogh, as we move towards Dusanbe where the flight that will take us back home awaits us, I think of everything we have experienced and seen in these 50 days in the heart of Asia. And the thought at the forefront of all the memories is that here we could really touch the difference between border and boundary. The first, the one created by man, is synonymous with barbed wire and closure, voluntary isolation and control. The second, on the other hand, carries with it a sense of sharing: a common trait that does not separate but highlights what unites peoples. And it is precisely here that we find the message of Caravanserai and the Occitan culture that represents us and that we want to spread: a common cultural space is a powerful base on which to build relationships beyond differences.
From the incredible journey of Sebastiano Audisio and Valter Perlino, a documentary was made that will be previewed on December 27th at the Teatro La Confraternita in Limone Piemonte. Garmont is very proud to have supported this project by providing the boots that accompanied the two travelers on the bicycle routes and along the ridges of the Asian peaks. In an adventure of this kind - says Valter - it is important to carefully choose the technical material to take on the trip. Reliable and well-structured, the Dragontail MNT GTXs were ideal for long mountain bike routes, also guaranteeing excellent grip when pushing the bike on foot. On the other hand, during the mountain climb up to Camp 3 at 6800 meters on the Muztagh Ata, the Tower Extreme boots have shown all their qualities of stability, comfort and breathability, also guaranteeing excellent thermal insulation.