What a Journey up the Old Silk Road

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August 27th 2011
Published: August 27th 2011
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Before I began this trip I had bought my flight tickets from Moscow to Urumqi and from Xinjiang Province back to Beijing, so it was handy to have that sorted. My next step was to fly to Kashgar. The day after my trip to Turpan I got to Urumqi airport early and had time to look around. In fact I was far too laid back and ended up missing my noon flight to Kashgar – gr-r-r. It wasn’t a tragedy though because the next one was in two hours. It took all of that two hours to reschedule my flight, get my luggage back and check it in again. Each of these steps were very difficult because none of the airport staff spoke English. It was obvious that they were Han Chinese and this supported what Ahmed had said, that all the good jobs go to the Chinese. It is annoying because so many Uyghurs speak good English. The Uyghurs used to have their own university in Urumqi but I think that’s been closed down.

When I arrived in Kashgar there was a bit of a hassle trying to get a taxi driver who would use a meter and charge an honest fare. I later learned that taxis won’t use a meter when they drive people from the airport, so they can charge whatever they think the passenger will pay. I was quoted 100 RMB by the first driver, who thought I was a naive tourist. When I told the next taxi driver that I live in Beijing he said, “OK, 50RMB.” Finally I got a driver who used his meter and the fare was 20RMB. I could tell by the duration of the drive that the fare was accurate.

The Urumqi International Youth Hostel had booked a room for me at the Kashgar YH and it was great, with a courtyard surrounded by balconies. The guys who ran it were really nice and friendly. Before long they had arranged for me to join a group going the next day on the Old Silk Road to Karakuri Lake and the Khunjerab Pass at the Pakistan border. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay there though and had to go up the road to a hotel.

I’d heard so much about Uyghur folk music and dancing that after I had checked in I asked the manager where I might find some. He said that there was going to be a performance in the hotel banquet room that evening. It turned out that there was a dinner for about 10 men and this was the entertainment. Well, it was amazing. There were about 12 young men and women dancers and a singer who also introduced the dances. I have seen traditional performances many times over the years, particularly during the Folklorama Festival in Winnipeg, but I have never seen anything as good as this troupe. They seemed to have costume changes for every piece and the variety of music and dancing was amazing. A couple of the girls did belly dancing that had the male audience on the edges of their seats! One young couple danced a twosome that was breathtaking. I tried to be unobtrusive, since I wasn’t a guest, and sat to the side, but that meant I couldn’t take photos very well. Those I did take weren’t great because the dancers were spinning at such speed. I don’t know if all Uyghur music and dancing is this entertaining but I will certainly look for it in Beijing.

That night the bed was like a r-o-c-k (!) which is typical of China. Which reminds me to say that I have decided that I will not stay in another hotel/hostel in China unless I bring along one of those thin, self-inflating air mattresses campers use nowadays. Every time I’ve stayed in a hotel I’ve had to search the cupboards in the room to find extra bedspreads and quilts and fold them to make a softer pad on top of the mattress.
As arranged through the Youth Hostel, the next morning four Han young people and myself went in a mini-van with a woman driver on a tour up the Old Silk road on the Karakoram Highway. Just by-the-way, I would guess that these Han young people are completely oblivious to the way the Han people are viewed by the Uyghur people. I think that universally the people who are of the ruling majority think that they are in their rightful place at the top and that the “ruled” respect and accept their superior position. Take for example, the shocked and hurt reaction of white Americans after 9/11 – “Why us?!” The university-educated Han young people I travelled with were really nice, but in two full days they never discussed the tensions in Xinjiang between the Uyghur and the Han populations. They may not have been aware of it. Amazing, but probably true.

OK, back to the drive up the Old Silk Road. The first stretch crossed the Pamir Plateau we passed herds of grazing yaks and even some camels. (I know from Ethiopia that camels don’t do high altitudes.) We stopped for lunch, mutton soup, at the home of an elderly Uyghur couple. I was fascinated by their pot-bellied stove --- see my photo. Later we stopped at Lake Karakul which is fed with water from the surrounding glaciers. A Kyrgysh (as in Kyrgystan) couple invited us into their home nearby for fermented yak milk and yak milk yogurt which was delicious. The Snow Mountains and scenery en route to the Pass can only be described as stunning. I know the term “unreal” is overdone, but some of the mountains of the harsh terrain are so sharply defined they seemed like something you might see painted on a chip shop wall! I hope my photos illustrate what I observed.

Tashkurgan is the last town on the Chinese side of the border and the plan was to overnight there. But we decided to go up to the border before it got dark, then come back to the town. I read that the snow mantles on the surrounding Snow Mountains are hundreds of metres thick. The river beds were dry in Kashgar but by the time we got up into the mountains they were flowing with rusty-coloured water. We even spotted some chubby ginger Himalayan marmots, a kind of large squirrel and one of the few animals that can survive at these altitudes.

The road was closed for many years and the Karakoram Highway was only opened in 1986. The area is prone to landslides and extremes of weather and the highway to the Khunjerab Pass took 20 years to build. At an elevation of 4,693 metres, the Pass is a clear, silent and wind-swept. As with Olkhon Island, I was once more enjoying some of the cleanest air on the planet. I had been roasting in the streets of Kashgar which was about 35°C mid-morning, but up in the Khunjerab Pass, judging from my time in Winnipeg, I was guessing that it was about -15°C. A 50°C drop in temperature in 8 hours is weird. Of course, having done battle with Customs officials worldwide, I took great pleasure in stepping into Pakistan without a visa! If we had kept driving we would have reached Islamabad. No such luck.

Back in Tashkurgan the others in the group of course wanted a Chinese restaurant and the driver was able to advise us of a good one. The hotel room rates were prominently displayed in the reception area. I took a photo which I’ll include showing that they include an hourly rate, called the “O’Clock Room”. You can guess what that’s for. Actually, one surprising thing about China is the prominence of “houses of ill-repute”. I haven’t noticed street prostitutes but apparently every small village has a house full of women who provide this service.

The hotel was OK but once more the mattress was rock hard. The next day my back muscles were throbbing after two nights on rock hard mattresses, plus many hours of driving on bumpy roads. Thankfully back in Kashgar it soon recovered and was fine again.

The drive back to Kashgar on Thursday, 9th June, was equally spectacular as we viewed the mountains and valleys from the opposite direction. When the van had to stop for road works we all leapt out to admire a herd of yaks grazing alongside blue pools in a huge, super-green pasture. We were very lucky that we had great weather, even if the sky at times rolled with huge grey clouds. After a brief shower the sky would be clear blue again.

I have to say that, after the “high” of that two-day trip, my remaining days in Kashgar were not looking too good. For example, at one point on my wander through the town I had been chatting in the street to a Uyghur man of about 30. He was telling me a few things about life in Kashgar. The next thing a platoon of about 8 policemen marched by, each carrying upright in his right hand a roughly-hewn stick about 6-foot long and wearing a white helmet. I was so surprised to see them that I said, “Yikes! What are those sticks for?” He muttered, “I think you know what they are for.” If I was to draw from what he had said earlier, the sticks were to serve as a warning to anyone who might have anti-authoritarian tendencies. I was stunned by the sight. On Friday midday I passed by the large Square in front of the Id Kah mosque in Kashgar. There seemed to be quite a police presence and my Uyghur companion said that the police patrol outside the mosque every Friday. This presents a ridiculous stereotype that Muslims can only think of anti-government protests on Fridays.

I had not anticipated this oppressive atmosphere and it was really putting a damper on my visit to Kashgar. Part of that was the requirement that I stay in that boring hotel. Also, the heat outside was oppressive so it was not much fun to be outside from about 11am until about 5pm daily. Much of the street activity shut down during those hours anyway and then there seemed to be a downpour each evening. But, as I said some time ago, travel is like a box of chocolates and you never know what you’ll get next. I was in for a nice surprise, especially when I experienced traditional Uyghur medicine.

I'll soon be back to tell you about my few days in Kashgar town.
Ciao, Sheila

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


the Khunjerab Passthe Khunjerab Pass
the Khunjerab Pass

viewed from the border archway
moody skiesmoody skies
moody skies

sudden storms seemed to come from nowhere

27th August 2011

A great adventure
Sheila, we continue to enjoy all of your blogs. Quality work. I've recommended your blog. I am also going to recommend you for blogger of the week. You always provide excellent information. Happy travels.
27th August 2011

A great adventure
Sheila, we continue to enjoy all of your blogs. Quality work. I've recommended your blog. I am also going to recommend you for blogger of the week. You always provide excellent information. Happy travels.
27th August 2011

A great adventure
Sheila, we continue to enjoy all of your blogs. Quality work. I've recommended your blog. I am also going to recommend you for blogger of the week. You always provide excellent information. Happy travels.

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