From Kashgar to Pakistan on the Karakorum Highway

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.

Skirting the Pamir Mountains

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.

Lake Karakul

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.

Tashkurgan

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

Crossing from Xinjiang into Pakistan

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.

(And read more about China here.)

Over the Border From Kyrgyzstan

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.

Xinjiang Province

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.

Exploring Kashgar

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.

Kashgar Old Town

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.

Kashgar Mosques and Mausoleum

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.

Kashgar Bazaar

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.

Kashgar Livestock Market

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.

The New Old Town of Kashgar

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

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.

(And read more about China here.)

Over the Border - Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan

My ANZAC tour of The Silk Road, with guide Surat, continues over the border from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan. (It's taken me a long time to learn to spell that properly.)

The crossing Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan is extremely tedious. Passports are checked at four different places before I am allowed an exit stamp. We are also enjoined to keep the registration document from each hotel we have stayed at. Guards need to look at them and other Uzbek hotels will not be allowed to register us unless they have seen these. The customs officers are bored and rifle through everything in my bag before spending ten minutes looking at all the pictures on my iPad and asking who everyone is. They are bewildered because I don't speak Russian. All foreigners speak Russian.

A Brief History of Kyrgyzstan

  • For much of the time Kyrgyzstan's has remained isolated and buffered by its mountains. But it is still on a silk Road crossroads, so the area has been subsumed by various other empires over the years.
  • The lands have been subjugated most notably by the Turkic nomads, the Mongols and the Dzungar and Kokand Khanates. In 1876, Kyrgyzstan became part of the Russian Empire, and, consequently in 1936, part of the Soviet Union, as the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1991, Kyrgyzstan declared independence from the USSR and a democratic government was established. But there has been ongoing ethnic and political conflict. The so called Tulip revolution in 2005 took the country some way towards democracy and leader Akayev coined the term to signify peaceful protest, aligned with other peaceful 'flower revolutions'.

Osh, the Capital of South Kyrgyzstan

Another minivan and another driver and Osh, Osh is both ancient (It is the oldest city in the country, estimated at more than 3000 years old) and the second town in Kyrgyzstan. There's a bustling, fascinating and friendly bazaar and another mosque, before we return to find yet another driver. The last one has been taken sick. I hope it's not an omen. We don't get lunch, as it takes so long to get through the border, so dinner is fairly early. Traditional rice plov, (pilaff) eaten on a blanket covered wooden verandah that is built out over a swift flowing river. There is a little water wheel turning to one side.

It is immediately obvious that Kyrgyzstan is much poorer and more liberal than Uzbekistan. Lenin is in favour here again, but otherwise there is little in the way of buildings or monuments to admire. The roads are decrepit, and structures are low build and crumbling with corrugated tin roofs. Most of the cars on the road are Japanese. These are cheaper when the steering wheel is on the left so fifty percent of the cars in the country are left hand drive and fifty percent right hand. There are a lot of accidents - the government, we are told, is going to take steps. There are also flies everywhere.

We are in a homestay tonight. I have been allocated the dining room and I am sleeping on a sofa bed. There is a shared bathroom and very hard toilet paper. But at least there is some. I don't think it's a good idea to inspect anything too closely. There is a huge dining table and a large flat screen TV and an extension lead with sockets. The latter might possibly have been an advantage except that there are no batteries in the remote control and the lead fuses with a loud bang when I plug in my phone. There is no WiFi. This is a residential area and outside there is nothing but trees, houses and shrieking children. It looks like an early night, Except that there are glass doors to my dining room and  no curtains or blinds.

Facts and Factoids

  • 'Kyrgy' is thought to be derived from the Turkic word for 'forty' – a reference to the 40 clans, united by the legendary hero Manas. So the country’s flag features a 40-ray sun.
  • Kyrgyzstan is most definitely landlocked. It's farther from the sea than any other individual countr.
  • The Tian Shan (Heavenly) Mountains cover over 80% of the country. with the average peak coming in at over 2000 metres. It's yet another Switzerland - "the Switzerland of Central Asia" - as a result.
  • This is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, but here, many of the five million or so population live in the mountains or countryside. Only 36% live in the cities.
  • The main income generator here, surprisingly, is gold is really king here. It accounts for 43 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s exports. It's hidden beneath the Tian Shan Mountains.
  • The second highest export is dried legumes.

Solomon's Throne

A climb up Solomon's Mountain (Sulayman Too). This is possibly Kyrgyzstan's biggest claim to a tourist trap and the only UNESCO site wholly in the country. Sulayman is a prophet in the Qur'an and this mountain is important to Muslim pilgrims, the most important sacred mountain in Central Asia. The trees and bushes on the mountain are draped with numerous "prayer flags". There are seven caves in the interior. One houses a historical museum with some wax figures.

At the top, there's a shrine which supposedly marks Solomon's grave. Women who crawl though an opening across the holy rock will, according to legend, give birth to healthy children. As if that wasn't enough, if you slide down a slippy piece of slope on the rock three times then all your back problems are cured. I try it, but it's difficult to stop without jarring your spine, so I suspect that more problems are generated than are actually cured. There's also a fifteenth-century house built by Babur (Tamerlane's descendant and the founder of the Mughal Empire), a mosque with a cemetery and a viewpoint. There's a great panoramic view of the city and the valley beyond the mountains beckoning in the distance.

As with Uzbekistan, the most interesting aspect of town visiting is people watching. The Kyrgyzs are slightly more reserved than the Uzbeks, but still friendly, and there is some great headgear. Most notable are tall felt embroidered hats for men.

Leaving Kyrgyzstan - The Irkeshtam Pass

A very well travelled lady, I met in the Philippines, told me that the dramatic scenery here on the Silk Road was the best thing she ever saw. So I have high hopes. Over the Irkeshtam Pass mountain pass, three thousand metres up. a deep gorge where the southern flank of the Tian Shan mountains meet the Pamir Mountains. The views are not undersold. It's stunning, the colour palette sublime .There are sprinklings of gers (now called yurts) and goats, horses and donkeys meander onto the twisting roads.

Sary Tash

We end today's journey in another homestay, at Sary Tash, the seven thousand metre peaks of Tajikistan painting a picture before us. I'm not looking forward to tonight. There are six of us crammed into one room - sleeping on blankets on the floor. The temperature outside is around zero degrees as the sun sets. There are two long drop toilets (grade 2 out of ten) fifty yards away. The smell is indescribable. And it's even harder to hold your breath and go to the toilet at the same time. All I've had to drink at dinner is vodka. I'm hoping it will put me to sleep and I won't have to go the toilet too often.

A diabolical night's sleep. There is a chorus of snoring all night and the ground is hard and cold. It is just about compensated for by the unfolding mountain vistas as we climb higher and higher: velvety green folds backed by white blanketed peaks and azure skies. There are no other cars on the road. 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 there - in Kashgar.

The Chinese Border

On the road again, returning from our excursion to Kashgar. Back through the rocky border zone, but not so far this time, turning off over the Torugart Pass towards northern Kyrgyzstan and the Tien Shan Mountains. Border procedures are less onerous, but still irksome. However, the road is single track and not nearly as well maintained. Chinese trucks tear in the opposite direction, taking the middle of the road on the hairpin bends and causing our happy driver to shriek. There are also landslides and wash out from rivers to contend with

The Torugart Port of Entry where travellers must clear for customs, is about 70 miles from the pass itself. Several miles before the border proper there is a broken down lorry stuck in one of the wash outs. Some trucks attempt to manoeuvre round it, wobbling precariously in the mud, but there is a long queue of traffic at a standstill for 20 minutes. After much reversing we are on our way again, the scent of chamomile in the air. The truck drivers continue to be a menace; one misses us by a millimetre. I'm trying to concentrate on the peaks, which are now snow capped again, but it's difficult with all the bumping and Chinese swearing. We ascend once more to well over three thousand metres, snow lying along the side of the road.

Back to Kyrgyzstan - The Torugart Pass

There is another minibus waiting at the very top, on the border. This one has so many cracks in the wind screen it looks like a spider's web. Heaven knows how the driver can see. As we enter Kyrgyzstan the pass follows a long wide valley with the iridescent Lake of Chatyr-Kul off to one side. The highest peak in the Tian Shan is Jengish Chokusu (also called Victory Peak) on the border with China. At 7,439 metres, it is also the highest point in Kyrgyzstan Eventually, we turn off into a gorge that gradually narrows. This road, stretching for some 250 miles to Bishkek, is often impassable in winter, due to heavy snowfall and frequent avalanches.

Tash Rabat

At the end of the gorge is Tash Rabat, a famous stone caravanserai, a stone domed resting place for Silk Road travellers. Or a temple. Or a fortress. Take your pick. We drive the seven kilometres to have a look and I walk back savouring the crisp mountain air and the dinosaur like rock formations. There are little yellow and sapphire alpine flowers. It's picture postcard perfect.

Tonight, we are doing the tourist thing and staying in a yurt. The decent ones are made out of layers of felt, supported by wooden beams. Some of them, however, are plastic covered with steel poles. The locals call these Chinese yurts. There are several yurt camps set along the little stream that tumbles through the gorge. Naturally, ours is the most fleabitten. Tonight all seven of us are crammed into one tent, so I'm not going to escape the snoring. At least we have beds this time.

The snoring was considerably diminished last night. Possibly because no alcohol was consumed at last night's yurt feast of cabbage and potato with microscopic chunks of meat. Fat marmots posture and then scurry back to their burrows, as we head back down the gorge. I'm sitting up front next to the driver. There are a few perks associated with being a The Spare Part. His name is Reynard and he has the usual gold teeth (until recently these were regarded as a sign of wealth). He is driving with one bare foot and one foot in shoe and sock. I'm sure there is a good reason. I have accused him of aspiring to be English, as he spends most of his time driving on the wrong (left hand side) of the road and listening to bad eighties music, like Village People. He thinks I'm being funny.

On the Road, in Kyrgyzstan

There is very little traffic (fortunately) on our route through more wide valleys and high passes. For most of the way the road surface is very poor. No-one has done much to the highways since Kyrgyzstan left the Soviet Union and the old Russian roads have disintegrated badly. The Chinese have begun to reconstruct the roads on this side of the country too, but there is little tar-macadam in evidence yet, just plenty of piled up rocks, some concrete piping and a swarm of bulldozers. As with much of Central Asia, any car is a potential taxi. You just have to get the price right.

And, the scenery is still magnificent. The mountains vary between rolling brown and green, herds of goats and horses roam (it's still foaling season) and there are snow tipped peaks visible still for most of the time. The roadside stalls here are touting apricots and the trees in the orchards are laden with the fruit.

Issyk Kul

Kyrzgstan is landlocked and mountainous so there is no seaside. Right? Our destination today is Issyk Kul (Warm Lake). It's also known as Karakol and is the second highest lake in the world, after Titicaca, (there are nearly 2000 lakes here.) The sandy beach here is thronged with sunbathers, bright umbrellas and bouncy castles, not to mention donkey and camel rides. The water is heaving with intrepid swimmers (at 17 degrees I wouldn't exactly describe it as warm, but the lake is so named because it never freezes, because of hot springs in the depths) . A row of white capped mountains form the scenic backdrop. Around the lake, the apricot stalls are supplemented with racks of smoked fish.

Tonight's accommodation is another homestay. Yet again I'm in one of the sitting rooms with no curtains. The toilet and shower are at the bottom of the garden.

We detour along the lake to admire petroglyphs that are nearly three thousand years old. These are of interest, but the field of rocks, seemingly the remains of a moraine, is a more enjoyable experience, another great view in both directions, towards the mountains and back across the lake.

A visit to the eleventh century Burana Tower follows. It is all that remains of the ancient (ninth century) Karakhanid city of Balasagun. As with so many of these Central Asian towers, its height has been reduced by earthquakes over the centuries. This one was originally 45 metres high. and it's now only 25 metres. The whole site, including some mausoleums, is a museum and you can climb to the top of the tower, if you are feeling energetic.

As is also often the case, there's a legend associated with the tower. It says that a fortune tellers told a powerful khan that his baby daughter would die from a spider bite on her sixteenth birthday. To protect her, the khan built this tall tower for her to live in Food was thoroughly inspected and delivered in a basket via a ladder. On her sixteenth birthday the khan himself took her fruit in basket. A spider was hiding inside.

Yesterday the seaside, today Hawaii. Lunch is at a restaurant, on a lagoon full of fountains and floating pavilions and bedecked with plastic palm trees in yellow and red. There are all manner of bizarre statues. The highlight is probably the blue horse.

Bishkek, the Capital of Kyrgyzstan

Then on to Bishkek, nipping through the bottom most finger of Kazakhstan, barricaded with barbed wire. Bishkek evolved from a Russian fortress on the Silk Road called Pishpek. At first glance, the capital of Kyrgyzstan could rival Cuzco or Kathmandu for scenic city views of snowy peaks. However, it is a haphazard sprawl of residential and industrial buildings. There are wide boulevards and marble-faced public buildings, combined with numerous Soviet-style apartment blocks. I can't see any signposts, but people seem to know where they are going. I'm not sure it has a centre, although there is a square, with a statue and government buildings, with soldiers goose-stepping to change the guard this time. Here are also a couple of impressive museums, one with a collection of soviet era statues and tableaux, mostly featuring Lenin.

It's been roasting hot today and a few of us are displaying symptoms of heatstroke. (Temperatures here range from 40 degrees in Summer to minus thirty in winter.)I have compounded the situation as I have been drinking very little to avoid midnight trips to the longdrops. Early bed, with some dioralyte. Surat, the local, is red eyed and looks worse than me. He's got even more confused as the trip wears on and he lives up to the depressed Soviet stereotype. He's called both of us Sues, Susie, the whole trip so far. Tomorrow we fly back to Tashkent, to pick up The Silk Road again.

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