Longtime explorer, adventure cyclist and Rhodes Scholar Kate Harris sets out to retrace Marco Polo’s trail across the deserts and mountains of remote northern China.
Story and Photos by Kate Harris
Biking along the Silk Road last summer taught me something about the nature of gravity that Marco Polo neglected to mention in his writings. While burning muscle to the bone cycling through some of the most torturous terrain in Asia, I discovered that gravity is not fixed and immutable; not simply a quantifiable force defined by the laws of physics. Rather, gravity’s effects are subjectively felt, transformed by topography and defined by degrees of physical fitness.
The lesson came only three days into the four-month cycling expedition that my two friends, Melissa Yule and Ben Rawluk, and I were on. We were breaking ourselves in gently—by tackling a 4,280-metre-high pass in the Tian Shan mountains. The final climb was a series of Zorro-like slashes switchbacking three kilometres up the face of a scowling, snow-capped peak. We were office-job unfit and wheezing from the breathless, airless heights. Gravity—going up—is a cursed enemy.
“Remind me again,” I gasped to my pals, “why we thought that ‘bulking up’ was our best training strategy?”
Usually one of the benefits of biking up mountains is the gravitational gift of the descent. Not so in China. Once over the top of the pass, the focus required to remain upright on the excuse-for-a-road we were on robbed us of an effortless cruise down. Swaddled in full mountaineering gear to fend off –14 C temperatures, our faces froze beneath a slurry of sweat and our fingers and toes were icy nuggets by the time the road finally flattened hours later.
Welcome to biking in China, where gravity betrays and every pedal stroke reminds you that you have a pulse—and thanks to the altitude, a very quick one.
Melissa, Ben and I launched on this journey seeking to explore the rhythm and pulse of life on the fringe. As three young Canadians who long to live in a world where maps still bear blank spaces, we were inspired by Marco Polo, who in 1271 and at the age of 17 left Italy and rambled through Asia for 24 years. In his wanderings, Polo charmed Kublai Khan into appointing him as a diplomat within the Great Khan’s court, a role with duties that involved exploratory missions to far-flung destinations along the Silk Road.
The Silk Road is misleadingly named, for it is not a single trade route but rather a tangled web of caravan trails linking Asia to Europe.
Stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to China and traversing the Middle East, northern India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Xinjiang and parts of Tibet, the Silk Road serves as a conduit through which a myriad of products, people and ideas travel. Although Marco Polo was not the first European to explore the Silk Road, he was the first to write about his travels. In doing so he wrote himself into history.
Our goal was to retrace an abridged section of the famed explorer’s route through the Chinese autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet. For four months, we would live as nomads and explore more than 4,000 kilometres of China’s bumpy back roads, where we hoped to discover whether or not the culture of the ancient Silk Road still endures. And while Marco Polo relied on camels and caravans to get around, we opted instead for two wheels and our own two legs.
After the brutal first week of freezing temperatures in the mountains, nothing appealed to me more than thawing in the desert—in this case the Taklimakan, a rolling sea of sand that begins at the base of the Tian Shan range.
“We’ve got time, we’ve got sunscreen and, best of all, we’ve got pavement,” I reason to Ben and Melissa, who are understandably leery about crossing this fabled wasteland by bike. Ben is anxious about finding water since our bikes fall short of camel-carrying capacity. Mel is worried about her knees, which have been giving her trouble since our gruelling initiation into cycling the topographical tumult that is China.
But in the end, the allure of asphalt and adventure is irresistible and we strike off down the only road that dissects the 270,000-square-kilometre Taklimakan, a shifting sand desert dwarfed only by the Sahara and the Gobi. According to lore, Taklimakan translates to “he who goes in never comes out.” Nearly eight centuries ago Marco Polo warned travellers of the “spirit voices” that echo through this haunted desert, voices that lure travellers away from their intended paths to their demise. As I bike, I strain my ears for those voices but they seem to have been silenced by the centuries.
Our strategy is to ride at dawn and dusk, and park ourselves in the artificial shade of a pitched tent during the oven-hot hours of the day. One afternoon we are melting on the side of the road when a lone car appears and discharges a curious Chinese couple. They look cool and clean and in my sandblasted, sweat-basted state I envy the air-conditioned oasis of their car, shimmering on the side of the road like a mirage.
“Where you go?” the man ventures in elementary-school English. I point down the road toward the depths of the desert, which produces astonished gasps and clucks of hearty disapproval from them both.
“Where you from?” the woman asks next, wide-eyed and worried.
“Canada,” I respond in Chinese, one of the few words I know in the language. My answer provokes knowing “Ahhhhs,” from the couple—either because this fact alone explains why we’d be foolish enough to bike across a desert or because they are impressed that I appear to speak their tongue.
When they discover my language skills end there, they proceed to act out in a grim pantomime the various ways we will perish if we pursue our intended course. There is death by dehydration, death by starvation, death by bandits, death by transport truck, death by sandstorm and death by a number of other gruesome means that we can’t quite decipher from their miming—but in short, death by desert. If these are the “spirit voices” Polo warned of, at least they have admirable intentions in their attempt to lure us from our path—not to mention impressive skills at charades. We thank them for their genuine concern and they leave us with ice-cold water and, in truth, slightly heavier hearts about what we face on the road ahead.
Fortunately, the Taklimakan is not as bleak as their forebodings. In the chill calm of the early morning, the desert is a beautiful and benevolent place. As the sun rises, the stars slowly surrender to daylight and the emerging shadows sculpt the corrugated dunes into weird and fantastical forms. At this hour, there is no hint of the blasting heat to come, no premonition of the desert’s imminent transformation into a stinging maelstrom of wind and sand. Just sublime, vast, silent space.
But by midday, all that is good evaporates in the fierce heat. Sandstorms rage around us in awesome and oblivious force. Dust defines our days, coats our bikes and bodies, makes our gears grind and our minds groan. Water is a serious worry, and after a few days of severe budgeting we are forced to flag down trucks in order to replenish our stocks. The drivers are unstintingly generous but traffic is sporadic.
Early evening on our third day in the desert we’re screaming up a ridge thanks to a rocket-booster tailwind. I distract myself from the rolling monotony of the landscape by calculating how many more days until we’re out of the desert—and, more realistically, how many days until we’re forced to hitch a ride to slake our thirst, which intensifies with every kilometre.
Suddenly Ben yells back to Mel and me from up ahead: “You guys are not going to believe this.” We catch up to him at a roadside billboard proudly proclaiming a governmental initiative to grow a forest in the desert, with the sign depicting an extravagant tangle of trees growing defiantly amidst dunes. The reality is slightly less impressive. Lining the road are stunted, struggling shrubs hooked up to a network of intravenous-like hoses that periodically spray the parched plants.
The hoses are connected to wells drilled at distant, staggered intervals along the road. At each well, a married couple is stationed and charged with the task of nurturing the forest to life. The idea is that the trees will prevent dunes from drifting onto the road. Apparently, paying people to live like hermits and water plants in the heart of the Taklimakan is cheaper than sweeping the sand away by mechanical means.
So one minute I am parched and pedalling through desert desolation, and the next minute I find myself squashed in a tiny concrete hut with Ben, Melissa and two socially-starved, newlywed well-caretakers. We are choking down shots of sickly sweet, throat-singeing homebrew and crooning Nirvana songs to the twanging accompaniment of an untuned guitar.
It turns out we were welcomed into this refuge just in time. Outside, our friendly tailwind has turned foe, and the desert is a flinging fury of sand.
The hut, however, is a lifeboat of calm, though admittedly it seems anchored in the domain of the absurd, as is increasingly apparent with every song sung and shot swallowed. Our hosts find the situation equally surreal, but they treat us desert-wrecked vagabonds like itinerant royalty: there is more water than we can drink, more alcohol than we should shoot and more food than we can possibly stuff in our stomachs.
When we run out of cross-culturally recognizable karaoke ballads, the wife busies herself in the kitchen and the husband, who has long lacked an audience, delights in telling us tall desert tales in his broken English. With hands flailing and a wicked twinkle in his eyes, he informs us that the Taklimakan is home to sand-swimming dragons and dagger-beaked vultures. We nod and smile indulgently, but in truth I half-believe him. In Marco Polo’s writings, stranger creatures haunt the wild wasteland of the Taklimakan.
A week of biking later, we finally emerge from the desert sunburnt and sandy but hale and hydrated thanks to a half-dozen different well-station visits along the way. Our next destination is Hotan, an outpost of the Silk Road renowned since Marco Polo’s days for its jade and bustling bazaar.
Hotan is a city predominantly populated by Uyghurs, an ethnic minority of Turkic descent who practice Islam and who previously comprised an independent nation called East Turkistan. China is home to 56 ethnic groups; isolated pockets like Xinjiang and Tibet feel fiercely foreign compared to the rest of the nation.
Though Chinese architecture dominates sections of Hotan, most of the city is full-on Uyghur in flavour and flair. Beginning at dawn on market day, the city clatters and clamours with hooves and humans as villagers stream in to trade their wares. On the streets, donkeys hauling carts towering with avalanche-prone produce jockey for room with dignified Uyghur men, whose billowing robes and sandblasted faces lend them an air of savage nobility that is strikingly incongruous with the rusty, battered bikes they pedal.
The air is a pungent punch of aromas, with the smell of sizzling kebabs mingling with the chemical cough of diesel engines and the vague perfume of poplar trees. We weave past market stalls selling sheep-sized boulders of pure jade, freshly ground rose-petal pulp and pyramids of kaleidoscope carpets. We are completely ignored by those around us—everyone is too busy with business to bother heckling us foreigners. At the end of the day, we join the mass exodus from the city and steer our bikes west on a rough track of a road.
“You know, this might be the first time our road atlas has actually been accurate,” Mel wryly points out. Our nearly indecipherable and reliably incorrect Chinese map depicts the road as a twisty, squiggly, barely-there line. And in reality, the road actually is a twisty, squiggly, barely-there scrawl in the dirt, a mere scratch in the mountainside. It is a gauntlet of sand traps, landslides, washboard ruts and boulder-sized cobblestones that has us frequently crashing and cursing the bikes.
For two weeks we bounce our way toward Pakistan through the Pamir Mountain range, tracing a surging glacial river to its source along a track travelled only by Tajik locals mounted on mules or motorbikes. This is both a wilderness and a cultural landscape; whenever we believe ourselves to be truly isolated, greetings of “Chai! Chai!” ring out from some hidden human outpost. Tea breaks with families always swell into massive gatherings of people who materialize out of the mountain rock.
We discover a surefire path to popularity at these impromptu parties: through the view screen of our video camera. Shyness is shattered by the hilarity that ensues when the isolated villagers see themselves—likely for the first time—on screen. Little kids ham it up as little kids universally do, scrunching their faces and shrieking with delight at their own daring. The elderly stare intently at their reflection, perhaps stunned at the sight of their own faces so weirdly wizened by the wear of time and weather. A jester of a teenager stands behind an elf of an old man and strokes the man’s gnarled beard while grinning comically and saying, “Yakshee! Yakshee!” (Uyghur for “Good! Good!”). The old man smiles sweetly into the camera, obligingly tolerant as the target of the fun-making.
Thanks to our almost total inability to communicate with people, I find it near impossible to glean much beyond the superficial about their lives in these remote communities. I long to learn more than smiles and simple gestures can convey. What did they really think of us biking through, muttering a few words in their language, grinning and gesturing like fools, eating their food and drinking their tea, taking photos and shooting video, and then riding off to who knows where?
I hope they see us as curious ambassadors from a distant land, not just cultural voyeurs who marvel at the quaintness of their isolated existence, only to scuttle back to civilization as soon as we miss hot showers and coffee. But however they view us, the fact remains that we enjoy freedoms they may never know, and that fundamental imbalance is blatant when we can hop on our bikes and simply ride away.
We continue along the Karakoram highway and reach Kashgar a few weeks later, marking the temporal halfway point of our adventure.
Kashgar is a curious clash of a place where ancient crumbling city walls are sandwiched between Chinese convenience stores and modern apartment buildings. For a week, we explore the city and recuperate from two months of taxing riding. But after calling home, checking email, fixing the bikes, indulging in hot showers and gorging on obscene amounts of food, I find I’m itching to hit the open road. Despite the comforts and conveniences of city life, I prefer returning to civilization just long enough to say hello and to remember why it’s worth leaving in the first place.
And well worth leaving for what lies ahead on the open road: Tibet. In Travels, Marco Polo had little to say that was favourable about the place: “The people are Idolaters and an evil generation, holding it no sin to rob and maltreat: in fact, they are the greatest brigands on earth.” He also warned people of the desolation and dangers of the Tibetan wilderness, where “you ride for 20 days without finding any inhabited spot, so that travellers are obliged to carry all their provisions with them, and are constantly falling in with those wild beasts which are so numerous and so dangerous.”
Intrigued rather than repelled by Polo’s warnings about Tibet, our trio decides to join forces with two German cyclists—Matthias Ertmer and Florian Block—and tackle the highest, roughest and toughest road in the world: the Xinjiang-Tibet highway. This road stretches over 1,000 kilometres between the city of Yecheng in Xinjiang and Ali in western Tibet, with only nomad camps and tiny villages in between. En route are nine epic passes, including the highest at over 5,400 metres. Nearly a week of the route will be spent riding above 5,000 metres on the Tibetan plateau, where more than one unwary truck driver has died of cerebral edema.
“I’m nervous about the altitude,” Ben confesses. “Because once we go up, we’re up for good.”
I nod in silent agreement as we stand hesitantly at the crossroads to Tibet. Even Matthias and Florian are apprehensive despite having biked here from their hometown in Germany, passing through countries like Iran and Turkmenistan along the way. They agree that from the low vantage point of these desert flats, never has a road appeared so daunting for so many reasons: the lung-gasping and potentially brain-bursting heights, the scarcity of reliable food and water sources, the atrocious condition of the road for which the label “highway” is an ironic misnomer.
Then there is the dubious legality of the route itself. Tibet is technically closed to independent travellers, so our fate is entirely out of our hands—we might slip in unnoticed through the poorly monitored backdoor or we might get turned away at any point.
There is a rich historical tradition of explorers sneaking into Tibet, a land with a deserved reputation as one of the most mysterious, inaccessible and forbidden places on the planet. Alexandra David-Neel was an intrepid Frenchwoman who disguised herself as a male Buddhist pilgrim in order to penetrate the forbidden heart of Lhasa in the last century. Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer snuck into Tibet in order to escape imprisonment in India by the British during World War II. Harrer befriended the Dalai Lama and witnessed firsthand the early Chinese occupancy of the country.
But while Tibet’s isolation was formerly self-sought, today it is imposed by the Chinese government, which makes a princely profit from charging exorbitant entry fees to tourists.
We know from the stories of other cyclists that if we can make it to the Tibetan city of Ali, we can secure an Alien Travel Permit. We also know that Ali is a long, high, hard ride away. So we launch on a bumpy and uncertain pilgrimage to the land of snows.
The road to Tibet is truly paved in pain: pain in the butt, legs and in the brain that can’t conceive an intelligent thought because all it knows is the jackhammer jolting of the body and bike to which it is connected. By day we cycle over rumpled mountains of impossible dimensions and circuit vast lakes with intensely indigo water. By night we camp beneath the inscrutable stare of the stars, strangely luminous and sublime in the distilled air of altitude.
Because of enduring tension between the Chinese and Tibetans, western Tibet is home to a massive Chinese military presence. Winding convoys of army trucks rattle past us daily and send our world dissolving into dust. Amazingly, the army ignores us except to occasionally request a test ride on our bikes or ask us to pose for pictures they snap with their cell phone cameras. Despite the blatant blank pages in our passports where there should be permits, we are waved through checkpoints with casual nonchalance. On one occasion, the Chinese military even hosts us for a feast at their base.
Maybe as cyclists far off the trampled tourist track we are small game not worth their bother, or maybe the western frontier of Tibet is a land loosed from the grips of strict governmental control. Most probably, we are just lucky. Whatever the case, China is a pulsing, perplexing mess of contradictions. In Tibet, we never encounter the fierce brigands or wild beasts Marco Polo warned of, but neither do we meet the ruthless imperialists we half-expect to find among the Chinese. The people along the modern-day Silk Road are paradoxical products of an ever-evolving China, where maps are obsolete before the ink dries, where deserts sprout forests overnight. On any given day, we are as likely to greet a follower of the Dalai Lama as we are to meet a Maoist.
Most days, though, we don’t run into anyone. Every so often a vehicle rattles past or we spot some nomad tents dotting distant valleys.
Otherwise, it’s just us and the land. Our surroundings are breathtaking, as is the altitude, but the obsessive attention required to negotiate the rubble roads means I can rarely afford to look up and around. Absorbed in the road directly ahead, I can’t shake the lurking suspicion that I’m riding on a revolving treadmill track of pebbles and potholes, and that I’m going nowhere, slowly. For all I know, I could be biking on any bad road any place on the planet.
But on this day, Tibet falls into focus again when a motorcycle whizzes past and leaves in its wake a cloud of dust and the faint bleating of baby goats. The driver stops ahead and when we catch up, he hands Florian one of the beleaguered beasts straddled on his vehicle.
“Eat, eat!” he urges us, scooping his hand to his mouth to make clear his meaning. We must look visibly gaunt from the exertions of the ride combined with our daily diet of muesli and instant noodles, a hardscrabble diet even by the standards of Tibetan nomads who subsist primarily on yak butter tea.
Tempting as his offer may be, we give back the goat—we lack both the knife and the nerve necessary for the task he proposes. Besides, we only have a few days left until we reach the frontier Tibetan town of Ali, our ultimate destination. Knowing that our journey is almost over makes even muesli mouthwatering. We are in the epilogue of the expedition and each day of riding takes us closer to the end of the stirring wildness, the terrible and beautiful isolation, the paradox of pain and paradise that is cycling through northwestern China.
We climb one final pass and suddenly Ali is beneath us, a smattering of buildings that anywhere else would be a small outpost, but in western Tibet qualifies as a thriving metropolis. As we push off for the downhill cruise to the finish line of our Silk Road cycling journey, I can hear Matthias mutter to himself: “Here we will never pass again.”
I’m not sure if his still-struggling English has charmingly mangled whatever he meant, but I take his words to heart: we are leaving this world not just for now, but for all time. The Silk Road is not just a path through physical space, it is a route chartered in the unique geography of human experience. It can never be travelled twice; it can never be retraced. Tracking the ghosts of other Silk Road explorers, including Marco Polo, is a futile if fantastic chase.
After Ali, we say goodbye to the Germans, who continue on to Kathmandu. Ben takes off for Canada immediately and after a few more weeks of trekking and travelling, Melissa and I pack our bags, box our bikes and hop on a plane destined for home. Looking out the window, I watch China shrink until the land is blurred of colours and collapsed of contours. The Silk Road we spent four months biking disappears from view in minutes.
When Marco Polo returned to Italy after two dozen years travelling in Asia, he recounted the wonders of his Silk Road wanderings in a book, dictated to a writer named Rustichello, while they were both imprisoned during the Venice-Genoa war. The Travels of Marco Polo went on to become one of the most famous and influential travelogues of all time.
While skeptics have long questioned the authenticity of his account, after journeying the road, I know I can be certain that one thing he said was true. Defiant on his deathbed, Marco Polo had this to say to those who accused him of exaggerating his tale: “I did not tell the half of what I saw.”
- This article first appeared in Outpost magazine.