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Published: February 8th 2012
The next day we had a 5.30am start to cross the border to China through the Torugart pass, one of the toughest & most remote border crossings in the world. Of the few homes we passed, many were made out of old disused train carriages, rusted single skeletons made new, usually with a yurt nearby, and a broken out house metres away. There were many shepherds, many herds of horses & goats, and miles & miles of wide open space. We drove & drove, watching the scenery change & feeling the oxygen levels sink every time we got out of the truck & did anything more strenuous than a stroll. Kyrgyzstan's red rocks & wide green slopes with beautiful blue rivers, gradually got a little more empty, a little more icey, a little less grassy, a few more patches of snow here & there. Before I knew it we were surrounded by the pristine white of untouched snow, everything frozen, an empty terrain.
I was thankful I'd kept on the thermals I had worn the night before, and wished I'd looked a bit harder for an extra pair of socks as my feet went from painfully tingly to
numb, my fingers achey. The only interruption to the sea of white was the striped black sticks of the fence all along the road. Occasionally a yurt (how do people survive somewhere so remote?) or the tall skeletal towers of look out posts along the way. And everywhere mountains & peaks, the beautiful contrast of the snowy peaks against the blue sky, the creased patterns of the ridges down the slopes & the cottony clouds. Breath taking, the kind of place you'd think you could only dream about.
I could have taken photo after photo, but unfortunately we were unable to stop even to take a picture or two from inside the truck, let alone take time to step outside & feel the snow under our feet. The pass is so notoriously difficult to go through because they're so strict on time (amongst other things) so it was imperative we get there, and Adam & Ant were pretty stressed about getting through and getting sorted before the bank holiday week kicked in the next day, and understandably so... And honestly, despite loving photography, I really do not subscribe to this idea that you almost haven't 'been'
somewhere unless you've got the snapshot to prove it, but I still love getting that
shot, the one that'll help you remember how beautiful it all was fifty years down the line. And really, two minutes to take a few photos in one of the most stunning places any of us had ever seen, that there was a good chance we'd never see again... It didn't seem so much to ask, especially when they kept going on about how few tourists get to see it & how special & amazing it was, and
what good time we were making. It was just frustrating.
None the less, we had a pretty straight forward crossing, somehow when we went through the Kyrgyzstan part it stopped being anywhere near as beautiful, but the China immigration was shockingly uneventful, & we continued on to Kashgar to get there hours ahead of schedule...
We spent the following day wondering around Kashgar's old town. When I say we, I mainly mean myself, Nigel (who joined the truck at the same time as me) Julia and Thomas (when he wasn't off snapping approximately 10 billion photos a day, he's
just not happy if he's not got his Lumix to hand). The four of us became a pretty close knit group.
Kashgar was awesome, I was expecting the whole place to be like the old town- all beige & dusty and muddled, your standard Arabic street scene. Truth is, no matter how much these remote Chinese towns get described as bustling oasis' in the middle of the desert (I.e. Turpan & Kashgar) they're always so built up, they end up seeming like just another big town, and can be somewhat void of character.But the old town was exactly how you'd want it to be, loads of old guys chatting away, cute little kids with chubby bums on show (toddlers all have baggy long pants with a slit at the back for ease of potty training) hustle, bustle, sights, smells, snap shots... I often find when I travel, that I get to live out my childhood dreams, usually from Disney movies. Kashgar totally made my Aladdin fantasty come alive, a few more rips in my jeans and a little more practice swiping bread off street stalls and my 'street-rat' dream would have been a
reality. We brought a few things (I got a cool little pocket watch) and generally had fun fooling around with the locals, it was great just walking around, interrupted by a delicious lunch of noodles with tea- total cost £2 for four of us... I can't get used to those prices.
The next day was an all day drive- but the drive was what we went for, down the Karakoram highway. For any of you that have read Three Cups of Tea (you may have heard me mention that one before- but again, best book ever- READ) you'll get why I was so so amped to see it, the Pakistan side is supposed to be twice as breath taking, but I'm really not sure how. Every twist and turn through the mountains my jaw dropped a little further. It's everything you want mountains to be. It's jagged peaks surrounded by fluffy clouds, it's got that blue hue like something out of a Studio Ghibli cartoon. Either side of you you've got the red rocks of the low lands, the running water from the glaciers. Then you stop, and there's a lake so still
it could be a mirror, reflecting those perfect views again, like there's another mountain range sitting just below the surface, and you have to be careful not to prick your finger on the mountain top. On the banks there's the familiar yurts, guys riding their horses and camels, people selling their wares on top of old broken snooker tables. Down across the sand and rocks, I found the actual village they lived in, deserted of all inhabitants and their animals, while they were up at the top taking advantage of us tourists, and took the opportunity to get some photo's of the small houses and enclosures.
Our 'destination' of sorts, though I suppose it was really more of a mid point, was Tashkurgan, a very small old town, with nothing special, other than locals wearing cool hats, and far more importantly, featuring a restaurant with our first real taste of good Chinese food. John, our local guide, ordered for us. He's travelled the length and breadth of China, speaks ridiculously good English, is learning Spanish to set up business in South America somewhere, and also happens to a helluva mean poker player, with an awesome sense
Yurt on the Lake
of humour, and crucially in this instance, has excellent taste when it comes to food. We all sat around a fairly small (for twelve people) round table, starting out with plenty of hot chai and beer, and waited for the dishes to arrive, which we all shared around on the spinning central platform. It was deeeelicious- spicy yak meat, tasty aubergine, standard sweet & sour stuff (SO much better over here) we left full as, to retire to the hotel for a game of cards in reception, which was uneventful, other than the fact the table we played on was meant for mahjong (a Chinese game with dice, with an electronic table) so when a seven of clubs fell down a slat we had to dismantle the whole thing to get it out, though no one seemed to mind too much. The next day it was back through the same windy roads to get back to Kashgar for the weekend animal market...
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