Over the Border From Kyrgyzstan
Shangri-La is punctuated by stops at border crossings for more passport checks as we inch closer to China. There is the pre-border check in Kyrgyzstan, then the stamp the passport Kyrgyzstan stop, then into No Man's Land and five checks spread over 140 kilometres in China before we actually officially arrive in Xinjiang. We have to change transport again. This involves dragging my bag uphill a kilometre and a half to get to the first Chinese checkpoint. (I’m beginning to think that this is an endurance test rather than a holiday). My passport is inspected 15 times.
There's a dramatic change of scenery when we do enter China. (Well, the border zone.) The terrain is still mountainous, but it is brown and barren, with patches of striated rock reminiscent of The Painted Desert. The road is excellent, but still empty apart from a few Chinese trucks. I'm not surprised when getting through the border is such a trial. The Chinese also paid for the new road we followed from Osh to the border. They want to extend their haulage network into Europe. The Kyrgs took the money, but are wary about too much Chinese influence. Perhaps this accounts for all the hassle.
This is autonomous Xinjiang Province, in and out of China like a yo-yo, and increasingly home to millions of Han Chinese being imported to Kashgar to dilute the local Uighur Moslem population. The Uighurs, speak the Uighur language, which is more like Uzbek or Kyrgzish and dress very much like Emirati Arabs with high backed headscarves for the women, though their clothes are much brighter.
We are not allowed to take photos in the border zone. Apparently the locals snitch on you if you do. And despite the brand new road (dual carriage way for much of the distance) and the absence of traffic, we travel at snail's pace. The speed limit is low and the traffic laws stringent. The driver is keening. I think it's a sort of Chinese singing.
The endurance theme continues when we arrive in Kashgar. It's a hotel this time, I suspect it saw its best days during the Russian Revolution. It's certainly pre-revolution in style; to say it is ornate is an understatement. Sadly, it smells musty and there are holes in the shower curtain and sheets. The hotel beds are extraordinarily hard. Not surprisingly, the TV in my room won't work. (Not that there is anything to watch). The receptionist laughs when I ask for a hairdryer. I won't go on...I’ve discovered it's due for demolition.
No hot water this morning. Breakfast is in the ex-Russian consulate (built in 1890 and untouched since then by the looks of it) across the road.
I'm very confused about what the time is. The whole of China works on Beijing time. Officially. Except that Kashgar is closer to Tehran than to Beijing and the Uighurs use local time or Kyrgzish time. Surat, the guide, has told us to stay on local time, but my phone has automatically changed itself to Beijing time. So, to my disgust my alarm went off at 4.30 a.m. today.
Kashgar is schizophrenic. There is an old town (rapidly diminishing as the Chinese bulldoze it) and a new, cuboid high rise town, bisected by a central highway. Crumbling mud houses one side, plenty of neon and Chinese characters, red balloons and Chairman Mao on the other. The people continue to provide the main interest, on family days out, shopping and touting their wares in the handicraft streets. As well as dual carriageway there are scooter lanes divided from the pavement by low fences. The fences are generally ignored and drivers and pedestrians use both lanes with impunity. As most of the bikes are electric you can't hear them coming, so walking in town is a little fraught.
We visit the main, Friday mosque and a mausoleum. For a change these are several hundred years old, not recently constructed or renovated, and are therefore considered to be mini Hajj destinations for Moslems in Central Asia. The Imam was knifed to death three days ago - there have been separatist issues in the province for a few years. In the big square opposite families dressed in their best clothes, congregate for photographs on double humped Bactrian camels, or in painted carriages drawn by horses or goats with fancy harnesses.
I sleep reasonably after a rocky start. The person in the next door room to me has their TV on really loud. It's Surat, the tour leader. His idea of turning the volume down doesn’t equate with mine. I suppose I should be glad for him that his TV works. Surprisingly, the Wi-Fi in the hotel is operating, some of the time. But many sites, including Google, Hotmail and Twitter are blocked.
Kashgar Livestock Market
Today is shopping day. First, the livestock market, out of town. We join the streams of motorised carts stuffed with animals heading up the freeway and join the melee at the site. There are cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, horses, yaks and a few camels for sale. (Camel season is in the autumn.) The vendors congregate in the allotted areas and mill around, holding onto to their merchandise. It's thrilling, but heart rending, watching the animals packed in together, knowing many of them are going to slaughter. Nannies are separated from their kids, bleating at them through the bars. Most of the owners seem to take great care with their animals, even if they are not exactly tender. Raising money obviously means a great deal to them and some of the old men seemed bewildered by the whole experience, gripping their animals tightly. Deals are struck with handshakes and cash and goats and sheep are trundled off in different carts or even trussed and lumped into car boots. Kebabs in the market cafes are delicious.
Next, the legendary Kashgar Bazaar. This takes place in two huge warehouses in town and ithey maks Leeds Market look tiny. It's where all the locals shop, everything from fridges to spices is on sale, but for me it's a little disappointing. Modernisation has led to some loss of atmosphere and it's all very utilitarian. The more interesting stalls litter the pavement at the entrances- smoky barbecues, snakes and scorpions, scuttling in plastic bowls..
Chinese food for lunch (hurrah - we had to force Surat to eschew Uighur for once) in the equally crumbling old British consulate. Then a wander through the old city (a dusty trail in what is left of the old mud dwellings) and then through local bazaars (much more interesting than the much hyped central market), hawking furs, spices, silk and woodcarvings. Ice cream stands that play We Wish You a Merry Christmas. The Chinese, with an eye on tourism, are busy ‘reconstructing’ much of this area. There are fake carved facades with elaborate shutters on most of the buildings. This part is now officially labelled The Old City. Which makes the part we saw just now The Old, Old City I suppose.
Onwards through Xingjiang. I've noticed that all the petrol stations in Central Asia have gates. Entry is controlled by little men at desks. Customs is quicker but wearisome. We push our bags back down the hill to Kyrgzstan.
Xinjiang 2016 - From Kashgar to Pakistan on the Karakorum Highway
What has changed since 2014? There are banners along the road celebrating 60 years since 'liberation'. More of the old old town has been bulldozed. The replacement of new old town facades has been accelerated. The animal market has been slightly more organised. This visit I have time to test the kebabs, fatty and delicious.
The drive to the border with Pakistan is possibly even more scenic than last times's journey back to Kyrgzstan. We overnight at Tashkurgan and visit a Mongolian theme park. At immigration we are again treated like children at school, lined up and instructed not to talk. A weary Dutch guy declares that everything in China is fake. Though I’m sure that parts of the lofty fort at Tashkurgan are original and there is nothing fake about the stunning views of the snow-capped Pamir range and turquoise Karakul Lake. Curiously, Karakul means Black Lake.