Saturday, October 19, 2013

Naryn to Kochkor

Heading north from Naryn, we were facing a 115km-ish journey, over a mountain pass, until the next town (or amenities). The distance and elevation would probably have made this an otherwise pleasant itinerary, but the forecast for rain and snow threatened to change that.

At some point in my life, the prospect of bad weather didn't deter me from hoping on a bike. I used words like "epic" and "hardcore" to convince myself that I actually enjoyed the sufferous nature of riding in inclement weather.

That time has passed. Now, I prefer my rides dry and comfortable.

And poor Gerry, still suffering from stomach problems and with a limited amount of warm clothing (tired of the heavy burden of panniers and clothing that he hadn't used, he mailed half of his stuff back to Calgary when we were in Kashgar). The weather forecast was hardly inspiring him, either.

Making the distance from Naryn to Kochkor was going to be tough - and a bit risky - we might end up camping in rain and snow at high elevation and we weren't particularly well prepared for that.

We started early and kept a good pace as we pedaled through the valley and eventually began the ascent to Dolon Pass. The climb was long, but the grade was mostly gentle and allowed us keep some momentum. It was chilly, but we were happy for every kilometer that passed without rain. A few kilometers from the pass, the grade kicked up.

That's when the rain began.

If I'd never ridden in the rain before, it probably would have been n big deal. In fact, it was hardly raining at all. Really, hardly at all. But the tyranny of experience plagued my brain with memories of getting caught in the rain, and images of how the rest of the day would unfold. I was actively ruining my own ride.

We had plenty of time left in the day, so I knew that we wouldn't have to set up emergency camp. But I imagined my frozen fingers and dropping body temperature spoiling my afternoon. I feared rolling into Kochkor miserable and wet and cold.

My concerns were unfounded. Within just a few kilometers after cresting the pass, the "rain" cleared and it was smooth sailing. 45 kilometers of gentle descent down to Kochkor.

Arriving in Kochkor dry and unhypothermic felt like an enormous victory. We celebrated the occasion at a little restaurant and ordered some soup and some beer. Just as our soup arrived, the skies opened up and it began pouring rain. It was so nice to be inside.

We got really, really lucky today.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

At-Bashi to Naryn

Following an adventurous first two days into Kyrgyzstan, we elected for a half rest day in Naryn, just 45km north of At-Bashi. A bustling metropolis of 34,000 and peppered with soviet-era relics, Naryn was the perfect place to spend a relaxing afternoon.

We found a tourism office offering community based tourism (CBT). This seems to be an effort (along with the relaxation of visa logistics that was passed about one year ago) aimed at promoting tourism in Kyrgyzstan in a way that directly benefits rural communities. It's like airbnb, without the technology.

I like it.

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Hanging out at the CBT office offered us an opportunity to encounter some other tourists (the first noticeable (western) tourists that we've seen since we entered Kyrgyzstan). We met one girl whose journey started out with pedaling a bicycle through Mongolia and Russia. When she arrived in Kyrgyzstan, she needed a break from the bike, so she bought a horse and has been trekking through the mountains on her own for the past couple of weeks. Seemed like a cool trip - but one that would be a lot more fun with a companion.

We also met a swiss couple who cycled here from switzerland on a tandem! This might be one of the happiest and coolest couples that I've ever met. Full of stories and curiosity and a strong sense of adventure...and love. They just found out today that they were granted some extended visas for China...so their trip will continue south and east and for some time to come.

It is quite possible that, combined, we represented all 5 western tourists in this town on this particular day. And none of us had come by the main road (from bishkek) or by traditional means (car). I thought there was something really, really cool about that.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Kashgar to At-Bashi

We are again in a vehicle with our bicycles. Just as when we entered China from the south, there is a rather large area near the northern border with Kyrgyzstan through which independent travel is not permitted. Our driver has clearly been here before, carefully navigating around the invisible potholes, then recovering time on the good stretches of road.

The road through this 'no mans land' is rather desolate, following a wide, and very dry valley. Gerry is enjoying a little snooze and I'm staring out the window thinking that it would have been a tough ride to get through here. It reminds me of some lonely stretches that I rode along the Dempster a few years back and...RrrrrrrrRrrrrrrrcccchhh!

The driver slams on the brakes.

BAAAMMM! The van hits a bump and takes air. All of us are launched from our seats. This moment of weightlessness lasts an eternity as it's not clear how and when we are going to touch down.

Will the van flip land on its side? Will we hit the ditch? Will we slam into the truck parked less than 100m ahead? This is not how this trip is supposed to end.

BAAAMMM!

The front of the vehicle hits the ground.

BAM!

The back of the vehicle hits the ground. The van rocks and bounces a few more times (we are knocked out of our seats and into the air each time). Finally, the vehicle comes to a stop. We didn't flip. We didn't end up in the ditch. We didn't slam into the truck ahead. Everything seems ok. (Though it is not clear whether the vehicle will move again).

The driver begins to moan. He is sweating and breathing heavily. After a few minutes of this, he leans his chair back and carefully roles himself on to the flat space between the drivers seat and the passengers seat. Moaning. Panting. Sweating. No signs of improvement.

This is one of those moments in life when I must humbly acknowledge that my experience and education are of absolutely no practical use. I'm at a complete loss as to how to end this man's agony. And, if the van is broken, I don't even know how to fix it so that I can get the driver to a doctor.

There is no cell reception. And, as this is not a typical highway, there is little opportunity to flag down help from passing vehicles.

So, we wait, staring at the man, as though our sympathy might somehow transform itself into a miracle. Time, and a bit of luck, it turns out, are sufficient to resolve the situation. The driver eventually peels himself, slowly, painfully, from the space where he has been laying. He hobbles out of the vehicle to stretch. He checks the vehicle; it is in one piece. He starts the engine and we are moving again. Another 80km to the end of the chinese border. This time, moving slowly and softly through the damaged road.

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We crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan around 3pm, with no map, no money and no food**. There were about 4 hours of daylight remaining and we had a vague idea that there might be a community of yurts somewhere between 95km and 125km away.

The road ahead was hard. A strong headwind, combined with washboarded gravel and clouds of dust that blasted us with every passing truck meant that progress was slow. Chinese road construction crews were busy moving huge loads of supplies in either direction. Adding to the difficulty, Gerry was fighting some intestinal demons that he'd picked up a few days ago. This dusty, bumpy road was not helping.

We pitched an emergency camp on a field beside the road, just as the sun was setting. We'd made it just 60km in the four hours since we crossed the border. There was a part of me that was happy that we were finally using the tent; I was beginning to think that I was hauling it around for nothing. There was another part of me worried about how we would manage the uncertain distance ahead without fueling our bodies. The good news was that we had water and we could not really get lost (there is just one road leading to civilization in these parts).

Our alarm clock was a combination of road traffic, blazing sun, and hunger. We expected that we would need to ride either 35km or 65km on empty stomachs to the next town of interest. In the end, it was 90km, over a pass and into a headwind. But the dusty, bumpy road quickly turned to buttery smooth pavement and we had a lot of daylight.

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We searched around in At-Bashi for a bank to exchange money so that we could buy some food and figure out our next move. While the banks posted exchange rates outside their doors, the first three would not actually do money exchange of any sort. The language barrier prevented us from understanding why. And some electricity complications meant that the single ATM that we found was nothing more than a pretty little grey box.

Desperate and down, a helpful local pointed us in the direction of a 4th bank. And it had a functional ATM! Finally, we were set. It took less than 5 minutes from when we had local cash in hand to when we had coca cola in hand. It tasted sooooo good.

Blood sugar levels back in check, we located a restaurant and, ultimately, a place to lay our heads for the night (it didn't matter that there was no shower). We are still in need of a good map, but we are happy to have full bellies and a quiet place to sleep tonight!

**We had emergency nuts and a sleeve of butter cookies hidden away in our packs, but it was really only enough to get through a few hours of riding. We also had US dollars, Chinese Yuan, and Euros, but that won't get you very far in rural Kyrgyzstan. And, technically, we had a map; however, as it was 1 : 2 000 000, it was not particularly informative.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Karakoram Highway: Kashgar

We are staying in the building that was once the Russian consulate. The decor is directly at odds with my personal taste, and it looks as though it has seen better days...but it is a huge step up from a dusty concrete floor at a roadside tire repair shop. If you use your imagination, there is even something resembling a wifi signal. And the fact that we enjoyed our first shower in four days there meant that the place will always have a special place in my heart.

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Kashgar is famous as a crossroads market at the western edge of the Taklimakan desert in China. A critical junction along the silk route, it has historically been the meeting point for vendors from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, Kazakhatan and china.
The 'native' people here called Uygurs (pronounced wee-gar, which makes me smile every time I hear it) and they have a look that is distinctly different than the chinese that we encountered in the east last year. In fact, other than the presence of chinese characters on every sign, it would be easy to think that we are somewhere other than China.

Women's fashion here is comprised of big hair (tastefully decorated with a colourful scarf), gigantic glam sunglasses, high heels, and a dresses or a fancy blouse/skirt combination. Sequins and rhinestones encouraged. It is like we arrived at a convention for airline hostesses from the 1960's. These Jackie-O look-a-likes zip around on noiseless electric scooters, making the whole experience even more twilight zone-ish.

Men's fashion is substantially less sensational, marked very simply by a four cornered hat, decorated according to the area from which they come. They sit around a drink tea and roll cigarettes, which I guess is pretty much what I've seen men do in a lot of places between here and europe - but the hats just make it look cooler.

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Every meal has offered an opportunity to discover a new facet of Kashgar's diverse culinary offering. Handmade ramen noodles. Fresh, hot, clean, delicious dinner for two for under $3.50 (how is that even possible?) Kebabs of all sorts. Dumplings and soups and fresh nan and meter long green beans. And saffron tea. And garlic! And spices!

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We took a day trip out to Shipton's Arch - a geologic feature about an hour and a half drive and another hour and a half hike outside of the city. The Uighar guide (Karesh) was sweet enough to pick up a watermelon for us to enjoy at the top of the hike. Unfortunately, Karesh hadn't considered how to transport the thing up the hill, which meant that he and Gerry took turns gripping the enormous and awkwardly smooth and round fruit up the hill. It was like one of those sadistic crossfit exercises with a medicine ball.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tashkurgen to Kashgar

We took a sit down breakfast in Tashkurgen and enjoyed the morning calmness before setting out. The streets were empty but for a few Tajik women in high heels, nylons and colourful dresses cleaning the street (where was my camera when I needed it!).

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After breakfast, I had an incident with a public toilet (squattie pottie) that involved a broken pipe and getting blasted at high pressure while I was locked in the cubicle.

It may take me a while to recover from that.

Sometimes people tell me that they think that I'm living the dream. I will assume that they are not talking about these sorts of moments.

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Leaving from Tashkurgen, we began ascending another pass. Although it was not as high as Khunjareb Pass (4000m instead of 4800m), which we drove over yesterday, the fact that we were pedaling meant that we could feel the thin air. The difference between what our brains thought we should do, and what out lungs and legs could do, seemed enormous.

I was reminded of a conversation that we had with our hippie friend, Quyam, when we were back in Gilgit. He told us that he knew of a great way to manage the altitude. At the time, I thought for sure he was going to try to sell us some hash. He simply said "apricots".

I wished that I'd brought some apricots with me.

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We took three days to pedal the 300 or so kilometers between Tashkurgen and Kashgar. The first night we slept in a Kyrgyz yurt next to Karakul Lake. It was idyllic and peaceful and there were snow covered mountains on either side of the lake.

The second night was slightly less glamorous. We slept on the concrete floor of a storage unit next to a tire changing shop that was located about 20 meters off the highway. We could feel the vibration from the impact drill until 2am and had to walk 100m to use the "toilets" (which were concrete blocks perched over the edge of a steep cliff - not the sort of place you want to stumble around at in the dark).

You win some, you lose some.

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One sure sign that we are not in Pakistan anymore is that gender roles have shifted. First, there is now a normal (by my standards) proportion of adult women on the street. Second, these women actually play a real (by my standards) role in what is happening.

Case in point, Gerry and I stopped for a coke at a roadside shop. Two men came to check out Gerry's bike, cautiously examining its every detail. They showed constrained curiosity as they discussed how it worked, while resisting the temptation to touch it. Then, a woman arrived, stood the bike up and tried, without hesitation, for herself. Playing with the shifters, rolling the bike back and forth, pushing on the pedals.

It was such an exciting moment, as though it marked the passage into a world in which women are people. (I still don't consider myself a feminist - I'm just a human who had parents who had a sensible perspective on gender roles).

Sost to Tashkurgen

The Pakistan border authority was characterized by process and paperwork. This included having our bags for drugs and weapons (the first time I've had an exit search!) and obtaining three separate signatures before we could proceed to the line up for our exit stamps.

We drove for an hour and a half to get to the Chinese customs point, which looked to be set up to be more efficient than the Pakistan border. This was an illusion. For the next 2 hours, we watched 11 officers playing around outside, sharing videos on their phones, etc, as they tried to cure the same boredom as us and occasionally test their authority by playing games with our driver.

When that was over, it was another couple of hours of driving, with a chinese border patrol in our vehicle, before we reached the actual chinese border. In the end, an 8 hour process to cross the border. Not because they were busy. Not because they were understaffed. Just...apparently...because they could.

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We are spending the night in Tashkurgen - the border town on the chinese side. Everything is different: the landscape, the people, the language, the food, the money. There is a funny mix of pakistani, han chinese and tajik - differentiated by skin tone, facial features and attire. But they all seem to blend in here more than we do.

Our hotel reception guy is wearing a cap that says "POLICE" on it, but we have the strong impression that he does not collect a pay cheque from them. His side kick is a short, chubby girl with an orange hoodie that says "NAUGHTY" and has a winking smiley face. Neither will give us a key for our room, opting instead to show us to our room every time we want to go there. In other circumstances, I might find this frustrating or unusual, but I've resigned myself to this being normal here.

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The night skyline of Tashkurgen makes the town look like its buzzing, lit up by a rainbow of LED lights. Street lamp posts and shop signs are covered in lights. There are three towers visible from our hotel room, fully decorated with flashing lights like a vegas casino or an amusement park. It turns out that they are just nicely decorated cell phone towers (which is funny, considering that I can't seem to get a signal right now).

Friday, September 6, 2013

Karakoram Highway: Karimabad to Sost

Since we left Gilgit, the Karakoram has taken us up the valley formed by the Hunza River. A rock slide (of, like, half of a mountain) in January 2010 dammed this river, blocking its flow for five months and creating a lake that was, at one point 21km in length. The newly formed lake buried 25km of the highway, flooded villages and displaced/stranded tens of thousands of people.

The level of the lake has subsequently been lowered by 33ft, after two intentional blasts to the dam site. The lake that remains is around 6km long (by my estimate) and still covers a sizeable section of road. While the chinese are hard at work to create new roads to replace the sections that remain submerged, the flow of goods and people on this passageway between Pakistan and China is facilitated by small boats that shuttle from one end of the lake to the other. The permanent solution is to build a highway alongside the lake, but that will require at least five tunnels and massive blasting work, so it will not be complete for many years.

For now, the shuttle boats being used are too small to carry a vehicle, which means that all of the goods (of which there appear to be many) moving in either direction must be manually unloaded from a truck and manually loaded on to a boat at one end, and then manually unloaded from the boat and manually loaded on to a truck at the other end. It is quite an operation.

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Moving up through the valley, the physical appearance of the people has changed. At the start, Gerry and I stood out with our white skin, light eyes and western clothing. Progressively, we have noticed more dark skin/light eye combinations, and many people who look entirely caucasian. We've even seen a few gingers. It feels like we are really at a crossroads of cultures.

Fashion has shifted as well. For many kilometers, men were invariably dressed in long sleeved/long pant combinations that resemble pajamas (in the nicest possible way). We are now seeing more variety, individual style as well as clothing that is practical for working on the land. And, since we have started seeing women, they have become less and less conservatively dressed (we have even seen a few without head scarves).

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Tonight we stay in Sost, which is the town that is home to the Pakistani administrative post for the border with China. It is more than 200km from here to the Chinese administrative post, and the chinese do not permit independent travel for a good portion of it. So, we will take a rest day tomorrow and make our way to Tashkurgen, China in a vehicle.

Karakoram Highway: Gilgit to Karimabad

We left this morning at first light (~5h30). The road was delightfully quiet and smooth, but there were packs of dogs every 100m or so leaving town. And then more packs every few kilometers after that. We saw one dog with what appeared to be another dog's leg in his mouth.

We didn't stop to take a picture.

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Gerry accidentally broke into a Pakistani military compound today.

This is another one of those stories that sounds like it can't end well...but, hey, I'm writing this blog post, so I suppose that I've already spoiled the ending for you.

Here's the story, Gerry had spotted a deadgoat-like logo on a gate at the side of the road. Understandably, he was eager to take a picture with it. He leaned his bike against the gate, turned toward me, and smiled for the photo. Yielding to the weight of the bike, the gate doors swung open. Inside were some Pakistani army guys (who were rather surprised to see us). Fortunately, the guys were relaxed about it; I guess that they have bigger concerns on their hands than a white dude in spandex.

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The riding today was steady climbing through some incredible mountains. The highlight, without a doubt, was rounding a corner to see Rakaposhi. Rakaposhi is a stunning, snow-capped behemoth of a mountain, the sight of which reduced me to nervous giggles. It is so mind-blowingly enormous and beautiful that it was hard to look at. It was as though looking at it caused some kind of physical reaction in me as my mind tried to make sense of how nature could produce something so grand.

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A police man, Waseem, befriended us in Karimabad, where we are staying tonight. As a consequence of some communication limitations, he thinks that Gerry has two wives. And, it turns out, he thinks that's pretty awesome.

Waseem was extremely kind with us, helping us find accommodation (for $2/night), taking us for some post-ride chicken soup, some milk tea with a local, and then showing us around town.

After leaving us for a brief rest, Waseem returned to our hotel to take us for dinner with Mr. Foo, who he described as his *best* friend (possible translation issue). Mr Foo is 50 years old and works here as a construction engineer on the Karakoram Highway. We had no language in common, but that didn't stop Mr. Foo from enthusiastically trying to communicate with us. He also showed us some kind of free style karate moves.

Mr. Foo was completely wasted.

Waseem had to keep the intoxicated Mr. Foo in line to keep him out of trouble. He would shout, "Mr. Foo! Hurry up!", "Mr. Foo! Watch out for the car!", and so on.

Another man, Mr. Liu joined us for dinner as well. Mr. Liu is also an engineer on the Karakoram. He spoke english and was not drunk, so we had a chance to learn from him a few things about the chinese works on the highway and the life of a chinese engineer over here.

In a very matter of fact way (ie. not looking for sympathy), Mr. Liu told us about how he has one day off per month (ie. no weekends), during which he is *not* permitted to sightsee (after all, he is there for work, not tourism). After two years of this, he will be entitled to his first holiday allocation, which will last for one month. While he is working in Pakistan, he must stay at a hotel that is exclusively for chinese workers and the pakistani police that are there to supervise and protect them (and, in the case of our police friend, be a companion to them). Outside of the hotel (compound), workers are expected to 'follow the culture', which he says discourages any kind of integration, since it is not precisely clear what that means. What is clear, is that they are here to work. Anything that could be construed as something different is not worth the risk.

Suddenly, Mr. Foo's drunkenness was slightly less hilarious and a lot more sad. It is really sweet that Waseem (who is also probably lonely: away from his family on a remote post) makes the effort to give guys like Mr. Foo companionship and care.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Karakoram Highway: Gilgit

The motivation for our rest day was largely driven by a desire to see a few of the sights around the town. In the end we got lazy and just spent the day riding around town and relaxing at the hotel. Being at the hotel so much has offered us the opportunity to get to know the manager well.

We have nicknamed him Eugene because, aside from the signature eyebrows and mannerisms, every encounter with him could be a sketch from SCTV. Possibly the most anxious and awkward hotel employee that I've ever seen.

In town, we were approached by a stranger, Quyam, who invited us in to his place for some tea. It sounds like the start of a story with a bad ending, but its not. We drank milk tea as he walked us through his photo album. There were a few shots from his childhood, but most were from the 60s and 70s, when he had spent some years in Spain selling jewelry on the Ramblas in Barcelona and on the beaches in Ibiza. It looked like he'd been a bit of a player. He told us stories about the people he'd met and the adventures he had. It was 40 years ago, but he still remembered it with detail.

Quyam also shared photos of people who had stayed at his guest house. It seems there is an odd variety of people who come through this part of the world. He had a photo of a man from california with a white beard that must have reached past his belly button. The man had come to Pakistan in search of mushrooms...to cure AIDS.

We parted ways and went searching for dinner. I saw a kid with a tracy of food that I'd never seen before, but which looked delicious. I chased him down the street to see what it was...he said "chat", or something like that and showed us where to get it. Chat is a delightful mix of chickpeas, onions, cheese, some kind of crunchy stuff...and I don't know...but it is delicious.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Karakoram Highway - Islamabad to Gilgit

On the way to Gilgit, there is a stretch of road (between Besham and Chilas) that is home to communities that follow a particularly strict form of Mohammedism and which have a reputation for being particularly inhospitable with foreigners (especially women). Further, following some recent events near Chilas, it was not clear that we would even be permitted to make it the entire way on bike. In a decision that took all of 10 seconds, Gerry and I decided to shuttle to Gilgit and start our ride from there. There has recently been an increase in the number of police checkpoints and we were told that we should leave some extra time to accommodate for that.

We left at 3am.

Even in the darkness of the early morning, it was exciting to be on the road. Trucks here are decorated with every detail; neon lights, reflective paint, chimes that jingle while the truck is in motion. I felt as though I was back at burning man.

I drifted in and out of sleep as the van rocked back and forth with the twists in the road, until we reached Battagram (about 50km before the problem area). At this point, we were asked to register and wait for a police escort. While waiting, Gerry and I found a small concrete pad from which we had a decent view of the valley. We stood there and pointed at the views until we were advised that this was the place where people come to pray. It was a good reminder of how easy it is to inadvertently offend!

From Battagram, we had a relay of police escorts, tagging off every few kilometers. One ran out of gas. Finally, they just sent a policeman with a large gun to ride shot gun in our van. This continued all the way until Gilgit. It was quite evident that we would not have been permitted to ride through by bicycle the entire way to Gilgit, anyhow. Taking the van was a good choice.

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We saw thousands of people along the road today as we drove through one village after another, carving through the valley created by the Indus river. Of the thousands of people that we saw, only four were women. It was like 600 kilometers of men, many of whom had long beards and serious faces. It made me glad to be in a car as I felt that I had no place here. I wondered if this is something that I would have noticed or been so sensitive to when I was younger.

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We arrived in Gilgit after 14 police checkpoints (and as many different escorts) and 19 hours of driving. We are staying in an overpriced hotel by the raging Indus river. Tomorrow, we will take another rest day, before continuing north, unescorted, in the direction of China.