Sunday May 9th.
For me, one of the most memorable descriptions given by French and Cable is of their journey crossing the Tian Shan by moonlight through a long winding ravine. ‘Great naked crags towered above us, and in some parts the side of the mountain was cut clean through as if with a gigantic knife. Our previous experience of mountain passes has led us to expect a road which must rise and fall with the course of the mountains, and we were greatly astonished when, hour after hour, we still pursued a course with no sign of a hill.’ I had been intrigued by the possibility of following this old route, but had no idea if it was still feasible, or if the Chinese had since blasted another motorway through it. The untouched gorge could be clearly seen on satellite maps, but on the other hand some Chinese maps showed a road – but had this just been copied from a very old map?
So I was very excited when Meymeyti told me this route still existed as a track passable by horse but not vehicle. And at the same time came the news that Peng would be rejoining us – I had not felt it would be safe to tackle this route on my own, particularly due to my wobbly level of communication with Niyaz.
Soon after sunrise, Peng and I rode from the house of our Kazakh hosts in Qijiaojing xiang across the desert to the start of the ravine. This is near a gravel road passable by vehicle which crosses the mountains a little further east. Niyaz would be driving the truck round on this road and meeting up with us on the good metalled road that runs along the north side of the Tian Shan. We let Shandan follow loose, as I felt it would be better for him than standing on the truck all day over a rough route.
The Trio took nine hours to negotiate the dry bedded ravine, and we were told it was about 30kms long, though I estimated it was probably much further with all the bends. Thus we knew we could expect to be a long time without water for the horses, and made sure they had a good drink and a small hard feed before setting out up the gorge, the mouth of which was not too difficult to find.
This had to be the most amazing day’s riding I have had in China, winding for hours along the deserted ravine through some of the most dramatic scenery imaginable.
Often the track seemed to end in a gigantic impassable wall of rock, and it was only as we got nearer that we could see that the gorge swung sharply to left or right. And as French and Cable described, the route was astonishingly level for one crossing a mountain range.
We were expecting to water the horses at the end of the gorge at Towshui, where the Trio stayed, and where we were reliably informed there was a source of water, but at some point we went wrong or overshot it. However by now there was the occasional isolated dwelling, and we were able to ask directions from the odd Kazakh shepherd.
In the late afternoon we eventually reached a small river, and the horses were able to drink at last.
But it was still several hours ride north to the road to meet Niyaz just before dusk at about 9.30.
To our surprise it had taken Niyaz about 10 hours to reach the metalled road along the gravel road, and the drive had also involved a lot of steep gradients, unlike our route.
We all slept in the truck overnight and rode on to Dashitou the next day. It was total luxury to have the comfort and privacy of a room to myself and a basin bath after almost a week sleeping in my straw nest, apart from one night sharing a room with ‘the boys’.