Published: October 28th 2004October 28th 2004
Relaxing into my seat a rush of well-being floods over my body. I’ve become totally irrational, my priorities skewed by six months on the 'silk' road. This little bout of Euphoria is brought about by a road; a brand-new shiny black road - oh how effortlessly we glide.
Kashgar is our destination. We arrive in a blanket of grey, the whereabouts of the sun a mystery. This is London 10 months of the year, but here the offender isn’t cloud; a dust bowl blown in from the Gobi desert has cast Kashgar in its spell.
The city is much bigger than I anticipated. The streets are wide, straight and full of modern Chinese office blocks, shops and department stores. This is China no doubt, and its exhilarating. But where are the Uyghurs, the original Turkic inhabitants of this region? Have they moved to the hills? As we cruise around the city looking for our hotel the Uyghurs become more numerous and Kashgar begins to look like a Chinese city with a large immigrant population.
Our hotel is cheap and luxurious in comparison to those we have become accustomed. We head off into the night for our eagerly anticipated
introduction to Chinese food. I wouldn’t be the first person to rave about Chinese food - the sheer variety and quality for me has no equal. Seemingly every part of every animal, plant and fungi has been thoroughly tried and tested over thousands of years of culinary alchemy. Unfortunately the western heathen’s impulse to explore the inner sanctums of Chinese cuisine is fraught with risk. Going commando by picking some random squiggle on the menu resulted in the ‘cold-raw-spicy-pig-stomach-special’ and a few days later I got a fright when I unwittingly ordered the ‘goldfish supreme’. Fortunately he evaded capture by darting around the fish tank long enough for me to realise the error of my choice and he was exchanged for good 'ol sweet-n-sour porky.
Our first full day in Kashgar was October 1st (Chinese National day). Every shop was open for business, catering to the thousands who’d descended on the city to join the festivities. A capitalist free-for-all! But hang on; aren’t we celebrating 55 years of communism
here? All shop signs display Chinese script with smaller Arabic Uyghur script underneath. Western products fill the shops, people shout through megaphones to lure people into department stores. Firecrackers explode
at every turn and Uyghur wedding processions cruise down the streets in highly decorated vehicles, complete with musicians crammed into the back of pick-up trucks jamming away on flutes and drums. We take an underpass to cross a busy shopping street and underneath the street running parallel to the one above is another shopping street! ...We could learn a few tricks about capitalism from these communists, I thought.
We also discovered there are seemingly invisible ethnic dividing lines in the city, not immediately apparent to the casual visitor; walking down the street in contemporary communist China you swing a left and quickly realise your in something that could easily pass for Turkestan, with not a single Chinaman to be seen.
For it is surprising that here, in China, that I experienced what I thought I would find in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. The behaviour of people, the hustle and bustle in the streets feel like a scene straight out of the Middle East. This fabled Muslim oasis on the silk road is famous for its Sunday market. Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, Turkmen and Tajiks all descend on the city to sell their wares in a riot of Central Asian
culture. The Chinese authorities have modernised the market building, numbered aisles and corrugated roofs complete with no smoking signs, housing stalls selling the usual-useless tourist tripe. fortunately Kashgar’s market is bigger than this inner sanctioned-sterilized-core, and outside on the streets, throngs of people spill out, jostling for space, selling whatever they can wherever they can.
Since we were at the market, we thought we might try some Uyghur specialities. This of course meant Shashlyk. Though, for a change, we opted for chicken instead of mutton. Using our considerably honed language skills we gave the internationally recognised symbol for chicken by flapping our arms madly about the place. Seven sticks of chicken Shashlyk we'd ordered; but half an hour later we became a little anxious when our order still hadn’t arrived. Then our birds materialised. It wasn’t chicken at all; apparently we'd been impersonating pigeons! Since Ditte and Yair had some strange ideological objection to eating pigeon I proceeded to devour SEVEN kashgari pigeons... I only wish I’d known of this food source when I was a student in London!
China is a rigid communist dictatorship. The Chinese political elite holds onto the rigid ideological dogma of communism because
it allows them to remain in power. Even the slight easing of this control could lead to the collapse of the regime as seen in The Soviet Union; resulting in a halt to the massive economic growth currently being witnessed and even internal fragmentation.
But the reality on the street is that many of the economic trappings of communism are nowhere to be seen.
Xingjiang is the biggest region in China and contains three-quarters of its mineral wealth. The Chinese government invests huge amounts of money in these areas, and juicy tax benefits tempt workers from overpopulated southeastern China. Now the Chinese make up almost half the population of Xingjian. Though to be fair Uyghurs also benefit from this investment, with monthly wages approaching $200 compared to $50 in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. It’s hard to imagine China ever relinquishing this priceless territory. (Not that I’ve never seen anyone in the west wearing a ‘Free Xingjian’ T-shirt?)
The Karakoram Highway (KKH) links Kashgar to Pakistan over one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. On my last trip, the Pakistani side simply blew me away, and since we were in Kashgar why not join the dots?
After a few hours travelling through the flat featureless desert past lonely sand dunes we began our ascent. Karakol Lake, a high altitude lake surrounded by 7000m snowy peaks, was our first port of call. We stayed in a Kyrgyz Yurt for the evening and by noon the following day we had to leave. The reason you have to understand is that it was just too bloody picturesque! It’s unnerving beauty started to freak me out and my head began to ache. Somehow rendering it one-dimensional and almost clichéd.
We set off further up the KKH to Tashkurgan, the home of China’s 20,000 strong Tajik population. It is said that here there are Tajiks more 'in tune' to their ancient culture than those across the border in Tajikistan, who’d lived through 70 years of Russia’s ideological vomit. Tajiks are Aryans. Though this doesn’t mean they goose-step about the place shouting ‘Sieg Heil’! They’re related to the Persians of Iran and are the oldest ethnic group in Central Asia.
Tashkurgan is a clone of most other Chinese towns. A Chinese populated Main Street, beyond, which the 'original' inhabitants of the area lived. The Tajik women wore beautifully coloured picturesque
complete with funky boots and communist style jacket
headdresses and charmingly kissed each other full on the lips when greeting. Unfortunately I never managed to catch this wonderful moment for you on camera (though not for want of trying). The setting however was as beautiful as that just over the border in Pakistan; a place where you will most definitely not be wiling away the hours trying to photograph women kissing each other on the lips in public!
I could have stayed a week in Tashkurgan, but my decision to attempt the illegal Western route to Tibet meant I only had two days. Upon returning to Kashgar we learn that two English tourists had died on their trip down from Karakol Lake when their jeep drove off the road and overturned in a river. The driver had been drunk and survived.
So after only just over a week in Xingjiang I was leaving. The road to Tibet was purportedly only open 3 days a month on the 10th 20thand 30th. I parted company with Ditte who would be taking the ‘long’ route around China to enter Tibet legally via Golmud, and headed to Karghilik, a town xx kilometeres from Kashgar, with Yair. All the talk in
Kashgar had been about the illegal route to Tibet and in Karghilik we assembled our three-man team for the expedition:
Yoshi, a 29yr old Japanese electrical engineer who’d quit his job with Fuji film and been travelling now for 14 months.
Mark, a 31yr old Englishman from Sunderland who’d quite his job and wife to travel the world - he’d been travelling two months out of a planned two years (In actual fact, a northerner with an MBA!).
Yair would be returning to Kyrgyzstan to fly onto Amsterdam then home to Israel (poor bastard!).
Yoshi had undertaken this same trip almost exactly a year ago and the first stretch of the journey from Karghilik to Ali (1100km) had taken him two weeks to hitch. Though hitching was an option this time, we had other ideas. The word on the street was that there was a bus to Ali, and although it was illegal for foreigners to take, it was possible to bribe the driver. We paid $50 each, double the normal price. But since this was the same fee for hitching, it was a bargain if we succeeded. On our day of departure the
...notice the mediteranean look.
driver informed us that we wouldn’t be able to leave until the next morning because it was too hot with the police.
The Public Security Branch (PSB) were the people to avoid. If they caught us we would be fined between $35-$120 and sent back from whence we’d came. They had dozens of checkpoints set up along the road all the way to Lhasa. Though strangely enough the army had no qualms about foreigners, and when we stopped at the first military checkpoint, we showed our passports and passed through unimpeded. Two kilometres after the checkpoint the bus rolled to a halt and an Uyghur women was freed from her hiding spot in the rear luggage department. She dusted herself off amid cheers from the passengers!
We travelled 50hrs through freezing conditions at altitudes that rarely dipped below 4800m. The cold and the altitude made it hard to sleep - but on arrival in Ali we were elated.
The thing to do on arrival wasapparantely hand yourself into the local PSB; pretend you had come from Lhasa, pay a $40 fine and receive a permit allowing one to continue the 1500km journey to Lhasa legally. Though the
ease at which we had made it this far had given me other ideas.
“What do you think about doing the whole lot without permits lads?”
…To be continued…
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