I'm about to travel down the Karakorum highway with a small group. To begin, I'm returning to Kashgar in China. I was last here, in Xinjiang province three years ago. Read about that trip here. Kashgar is about as far west as you can get in China. What has changed since then? There are banners along the road celebrating 60 years since 'liberation'. More of the Old Old Town has been bulldozed away. The replacement of new old town facades has been accelerated. The endemic Uighur population (an ethnic minority in China) is now increasingly being subjected to human rights abuses.
I revisit the new Old Town, the mosques, the mausoleum and the bazaar. 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, across Xinjiang, skirting the Pamir Mountains, as they spill over from Tajikistan and Afghanistan is possibly even more scenic than last times' journey back to Kyrgzstan. They are truly stunning.
A relaxing halt at Lake Karakul. Curiously, Karakul means Black Lake. From here, in the distance, we can see Kongur Tagh, (Brown Mountain) the tallest peak in the Pamir mountains. It contrasts with the amazing snow white slopes sliding into the lake. Someone has thoughtfully left an armchair on the beach here and it's gently warm. There are yak and camels to watch. It's hard to tear myself away.
We overnight at Tashkurgan, the last town in Xinjiang before the border. There's a stone fort straddling the hill here. It purports to date back 2,000 years. From uptop, there are views across the floodplains to a pair of waterwheels. They're modern - part of the town's irrigation system. And there's a sort of Mongolian theme park beyond all the boardwalks and bridges. Sheep, horses and smoking yurts
The Khunjerab Pass at 4,600 metres above sea level, takes the Karakorum Highway from Xinjiang Province to Pakistan at Sust. This is the highest border crossing in the world and it's only open from May to October because of snow. You also have to get a special permit to travel to this stretch.
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.
Shangri-La is punctuated by stops at border crossings for more passport checks, as we inch closer to China and Kashgar, from osh and the Irkeshtam Pass in Kyrgyzstan. 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 Province. 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 impressively mountainous, but the stunning colours have gone. 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 the building is due for demolition.
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.
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.
Kashgar is oasis city, on the Silk Road. It's 3,000 years old and so historically important that Marco Polo wrote about it'there are a good number of towns and villages, but the greatest and finest is Cascar itsel'.
Today, it has become 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 an 18 metre tall Chairman Mao on the other, in The Peoples' Square. (The locals refer to him as the Pigeon Keeper). 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.
The Chinese decided to demolish the labyrinthine and historic old city, because they were worried about the fragility of the buildings, they said. Nothing to do with tensions with the Uighur population. The hillsides are covered with ruined, half demolished buildings, staircases leading to the sky. There remains one tourist route, through twenty or so streets, in the middle of Yar Beshi Hill. A few stalwart stallholders remain - pottery and sweets, but for the most part it is forlorn and probably dangerous. Chinese tourists wear hard yellow hats to follow their guide. I've been given local headgear by a Turkish delight vendor instead.
We visit a mausoleum complex, in a village about five miles away and the main Kashgar mosque. 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 Afāq Khoja Mausoleum was initially built around 1640 as the tomb of Muhammad Yūsuf, a Central Asian Naqshbandi Sufi master. His family became well known for being active in Sufism. It's believed, the tiled mausoleum contains the tombs of five generations of the Afāqi family, providing resting places for 72 of its members. The most visited is that of Xiang Rei (daughter of Abak Koja). She was a concubine of Emperor Quialong and lived for 25 years in the Forbidden City of Beijing. Some of the pattern work, on the pillars in the attached mosques, is extraordinary. Signboards tell you where you may and may not take pictures. There's a camel equipped with tourist dressing up clothes, conveniently next to the sign that says you may take pictures.
The Id Kah Mosque, in the centre of town, was built by Saqsiz Mirza, in 1442 (although it incorporated older structures dating back to 996). It's one of the biggest mosques in China - some say the biggest. The Imam was knifed to death three days ago - there have been separatist issues in the province for a few years.
Lively Idkar Square opposite is used for celebrating after prayers. 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. The square really comes alive in the evening
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.
Today is shopping day. First, the legendary Kashgar Sunday Bazaar. This is over 2,000 years old and you can supposedly 'buy anything here except chicken milk and cows' eggs'. As the name suggests, some of the stall are only open on Sundays, when folk travel far and wide to buy and sell here. I've read that it's the biggest market in Central Asia. I've also read that Urumqi has the biggest bazaar in China. So who knows?
It's held in two huge warehouses in town which make Leeds Market look tiny. And indeed, 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 around the entrances, spilling onto the road. Smoky barbecues, snakes and scorpions, scuttling in plastic bowls. Guide Surat waves dried lizards around.
Next, the livestock market, six kilometres, battling the traffic, out of town. It was once part of the Bazaar, but the authorities have deemed it fit to move it. We join the streams of motorised carts stuffed with animals heading up the freeway and join the melee at the new (ish) 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.
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 city bazaars (much more interesting than the much hyped central market), hawking musical instruments, fur hats, spices, silk and woodcarvings. The people continue to provide the main interest, on family days out, shopping and touting their wares in the handicraft streets. 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 Islamic style facades with elaborate shutters on most of the buildings. This part of town is now officially labelled The Old City. There's a sign to say so. Which makes the part we saw before The Old, Old City I suppose. The buildings are going up very fast. I wonder if they are earthquake proof.
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 Kyrgyzstan and the Torugart Pass.
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