Post script on China

Just before I leave China behind I feel a reflection on the last month’s experience would be a good idea. I am not sure what I expected from this part of the journey. I have been to China twice before – once to walk on the Wall for the Hospice movement and again to travel the Yangtse River before it was flooded. Both trips were interesting, challenging and enjoyable in their own way. I knew I wanted to see the Warriors, but beyond that I had not thought too much about it. China just marked the start of the westward journey of the Silk Road.

What I found was a ”full on’ nation, with a very different feel to my previous trips, determinedly hurtling into playing a leading role on the world commercial stage. A country where every citizen wants to be part of the action. There is an almost ferocious drive and energy – from the major roadworks that seem to be taking place everywhere you turn to the frenetic tourists. We obviously saw people living at a subsistence level, particularly in the rural areas but the overwhelming impression was of the burgeoning middle class. They are taming their land – even the desert! – in a way that I have never seen before.

We have seen some amazing sights and learnt many things. I would not have missed it, but I think I am glad it is over. I wish them well with it they deserve it for the energy

I must add two more things for the record that have not appeared in my commentary.

The first is that I have slept in the hardest beds in the last month that I have ever experienced! Sleeping in a tent on my sleeping mat has been far softer!
Some of our fellow travellers have taken to placing their inflatable sleeping mats on the beds in hotel rooms to make the beds tolerable. What a hoot! I’ll have it known that I have not succumbed to this extreme solution but the beds have consistently been like lying on bricks.

The second thing is the total absence of mosquitoes or indeed any other flying, stinging thing. It has been amazing. There has been the occasional fly but even these have been incidental rather than a permanent feature. I can only ask the question – in the Chinese attempt to create the perfect environment, have all nasty flying things been eradicated like the cracks in their historic buildings?

Thursday – Tash Rabat

Tash Rabat, the site of our a Yurt Camp was a few scattered farms and Yurt settlements along a beautiful narrow valley. It was the classic scene. High mountains ether side of a narrow, grassy valley bottom, perhaps 2 kilometres across at its narrowest. A fast running, rocky mountain stream meandered along through the pastureland. There was a roadway that followed the base of the mountain as far as the Caravanserai site and then ran out. The location was stunning, particularly in the sparkling sunlight first thing in the morning.

Our camp was specifically for travellers. Kyrgyzstan, having become state following the break up of the Soviet Union, is developing a thriving tourist industry and tourism now makes a considerable contribution to the country’s economy, alongside the revenue from hydro electrics and water that it sells to its neighbours. Our Yurts will be taken down during September as winter arrives in the valley, but the place where we feasted is a year round home. I imagine the winters to be quite ferocious.

We were warm enough overnight although without the benefit of the stove that Yuri (the camp manager) rather unexpectedly appeared to light after we had all adjourned for the night and were asleep and went out after about half an hour. His surprise appearance had woken us all up thoroughly, so we could all vouch for the stove’s performance, or lack of it, despite his reassurance that it would ‘stay alight until morning’. The beds were supplied with thick heavy over blankets, although any extremity left out got cold very quickly. The wind was very sprightly and the yurt’s build meant there was little chance of suffocation as daylight was readily available through a number of apertures open to the elements.

Breakfast was served in a separate Yurt where the stove had been well and truly stoked up and was extremely hot. The porridge, followed by meats and a cheese (!), something like emmenthal, was a real treat after a month of Chinese breakfasts!

Once fed and watered we were off for our proper visit of the Caravanserai previously sighted further up the valley. This building is something of an enigma as no-one really knows what it is. My first impression was that it was similar to the domed fortresses seen in the northern part of Jordan. It was a robust, stone built structure, built into the hillside. It’s external appearance seriously belied the inside. It was far bigger than it appeared, with rooms and tunnels leading off from the main area under the dome. Some say it was built to accommodate Silk Road travellers when the original route passed this way in the 4th century. Others think it a much later fort. It certainly appears to have dungeon like underground areas. A mystery. It was fascinating.

Following an hour or so’s investigation and theorising we all opted to walk back to our camp, on Saeed’s assessment of an hour’s stroll. We were to come to realise that Saeed’s timings should be at least doubled! However it was a lovely walk. The day had warmed up quickly and I was shedding layers at a rate of knots but the walk was great from every perspective. The sun and the scenery – just perfect.

After lunch a party departed under the supervision of Saeed, a qualified walking guide, to climb one of the slopes leading away from the camp to go bird watching. By now it was really hot and the sun was fierce. This, together with the altitude – we are at about 3,500 metres which makes being too energetic a bit of a challenge – led to our decision not to go. Four hours later when they had still not returned, we were glad that we had decided on a quiet afternoon instead.

We had begun to get quite concerned but they eventually turned up. I think for some it had been quite an ordeal.

Supper was served in the cosy Yurt and the vodka flowed. There is still a very Russian feel to the Kysygstan and everyone speaks Russian. Many of the few buildings in the valley were old Soviet farmsteads.

Out of China and into Kyrsygstan

For a country that makes it difficult to get in. with visa applications and so on, they make a really big issue of getting out……..

We arrived at the first border checkpoint at just before 10.00 having said our goodbyes to Jason, our Chinese guide, at the hotel and picked up our border ‘fixer’. There was a delay until the office decided to open. When it did it was all out of the truck with one bag (bedding bag left in the truck) plus day rucksacks. The bags were run through an x-Ray machine, which was not manned, forms were completed, we were lined up and there were two inspections of us and the passports and the second inspector gave us the exit stamp. You could be excused for thinking that might be it. You would be wrong. We were then allowed back on the truck. Some time later our passports were handed back (circa12.15). They were subsequently collected again as a problem had been found and they were carried off. Eventually they were returned and handed out individually by yet another military looking chap and we were allowed to leave. Time1.00 pm.

Following a 20 kilometre drive along the road (during which time we made ourselves a sandwich lunch) and at the end of a mountain skirted valley, we came to the next checkpoint. Here everyone was asked to get off the truck with their passport and we again individually handed over our documents, this time under cover of an armed guard. Eventually we were allowed back into the truck. Time 3.00.

At 3.30 we arrived at the next checkpoint. This was pretty derelict in parts, but the key issue was that it was closed for lunch. After half an hour, lunch finished, the passports were collected and individually handed back. This gentleman was particularly interesting as, although he peered at each passport hard before handing it over – he was in the truck for this process – I am convinced he could not read what he was looking at, but he was definitely not the sort of chap you would be inclined to have raised the issue with!

At about 4.15 we reached the final checkpoint at about 3,500 metres above sea level. All the way through the process there were guards and high fences and spike covered barriers to encourage us to keep moving and do what we were told. There were also signs of trucks and cars that had not made it for whatever reason. It was something like a truck graveyard and felt a bit sinister.

Anyway,we were out of China. As we as we got to the other side of the final barrier, there was Saeed our vey chirpy Kyrgy guide. He was very cheery and it seemed immediately the countryside around us changed. There were flowers and green covered hills and pastureland. Somehow everyone’s spirits lifted. After another few kilometres we were out of the truck, this time to enter Kyrgystan. It was rather a battered border post with electricity cables dangling, one once nicely wallpapered room and then a sealed up room with a duty free sign lying on its floor. There were no formalities here, no visa, no military uniforms. No guns. We drove on for another couple of hours – Kyrgystan time is 2 hours behind Beijing time – and we arrived at our Yurted campsite at about 6.00 pm local time. Had we still been on Beijing time, it would have been 8.00.

It was a lovely spot in the valley called Tash Rabat, just off the Silk Road. Steep hills soared either side of the yurt camp. Buzzards circled overhead in the pure blue sky. It was great to be in the peace and quiet of the countryside.

However, the day seemed never ending. Having identified our Yurt buddies – we have a double bed and Diane is in with us and there are another two beds spare, at 7.30 we were whisked off by truck to a Kyrgyk feast about 4 kilometres up the valley by a building called the Caravanserai (more of which later).

Rather bizarrely the car park was filled with German and Dutch motor caravans of all sorts of shapes and varieties! It really seemed a very odd place to find such a collection of vehicles. It would seem that the are all part of a club that wonders the world for six months of each year. And some think we are a bit off the wall!

Anyway, our feast awaited. What a feast it was! A long table literally groaned with every sweet concoction that you could imagine. Towering fruit bowls made the centre piece with wine goblets full of home made preserves of apricots, blackberry and black current. Then there were sweet biscuits and bon bons. While our eyes were taking in this display, salads, bread and then noodles arrived. Apparently the Kygys people do not eat food in any particular order, you eat what you want at whatever stage you want…..,

We did not get anywhere near eating everything on the table, but Seead told us that for the same number of Kyrgys people, three times the amount of food would have been required to satiate their appetites. Obviously good eaters!

Tuesday a day in Kashgar

Issues relating to our Azerbaijan visa – some way away – resulted in a delayed start to the day as we had to complete our visa application on line.

However, we were determined to make the most of our last full day in a Chinese city and particularly one with such an interesting history and character.

We set off initially looking for the Apple store as we have had a breakdown in one of our charging leads. Having found it, from there, by contrast, we headed towards the old town in search of the Idakhe Mosque which dates can house 20,000 people and dates from 1442. This sized gathering happens mainly at Eid celebrations. It is one of the largest mosques in China. Mysteriously it is not signposted or labelled on the outside and there are no minarets. There is no call to prayer in Kashgar.

On the way there I realised that I had nothing to cover my head. Luckily we found a ladies shop with two delightful young assistants who were only too happy to assist me in managing my head dress to meet the standards required to be acceptable as a woman to enter the Mosque. We met a young American and Australian outside, both teaching in China, who told us that they had previously attempted to get in with a girlfriend who was not allowed access. I felt very privileged to be allowed in.

There was cleaning going on in the prayer area, so many of the carpets had been taken up but the place had a very peaceful ‘aura’. Keith was surprised that much of it was outside but we were lucky enough to have a man open a door to allow us to see the ‘inner sanctum’.

We wandered out of the mosque, obviously the heart of Kashgar, but the area in front of it has been totally cleared of the stalls and traders that we understand were there before and is now is a pristine concreted ‘palazzio’ where very few people walk. Beyond this we found wonderful roads full of small shops selling textiles, clothing and food of all sorts. Bread was a dominant feature, as was meat preparation – often with the next sheep tethered to the stall where they were chopping up the meat of the previous animal to have been slaughtered.

There a number of different trade areas. We passed the hat sellers and the copper beaters, the tool makers and musical instrument craftsman. We saw buildings being demolished and new buildings being built.

Something that is particularly prevalent here is the electrically driven cars, mopeds and scooters. The scooter is a popular mode of transport, often with a family of four on board and absolutely silent as there is no engine noise. It can be slightly disconcerting as they are often driven along pavements as well as on the roads!

We have loved Kashgar. A city if character and history. A city of interesting sights and the smell of cumin. Wonderful. How lucky we are to have spent time here.

Kashgar not only marks the end of the Taklamaken desert and but also of our time in China. Tomorrow we leave for Kyrgyzstan and probably will have no wifi connection for a couple of weeks. I will continue to write my diary daily and will post it whenever I can. For now, a bientot……

Monday – on to Kashgar

Kashgar lies in the westernmost corner of China and was a major hub on the Silk Road. It has always, for me, held an element of edgy mystery so an exciting stop. Everything you read about it talks of the Chinese authorities efforts to eradicate its old city in the name of ‘economic progress’. They are physically paving over the more colourful traditional bits at a pace, causing local tensions.

We arrived after another long hot journey through the desert. The area through which we travelled was noticeably poorer with far fewer sections of irrigated and cultivated land or sightings of larger conurbations, although the fact that there are any is quite remarkable given the terrain! Another indicator of the lack of prosperity was the road along which we travelled. Although it is still ‘tolled’ the major part of the day was spent on a road with single line traffic in both directions. Although it had a reasonable surface, it was frequently blocked and Penelope quite literally became ‘Queen of the Desert’ for a bit to avoid invisible problems on the tarmac. This invariably involved major rocking as we lurched off the road, tremendous dust clouds and ponderously as we carefully remounted the carriageway further along. There was occasionally evidence of the skeletons of dead trucks who had not made it …..,

Inside the truck it was extremely hot and quiet as everyone hunkered down for the long haul. There was no energy for games. There were two major highlights of the day. One was our lunch stop. During our drives along the expressways, lunch stops have mainly be at service stations where there is usually a small supermarket and some food of some variety. Our route today does not sport such luxury. We stopped at a roadside shanty town of single story shops and dwellings with lots of abandoned large tyres, dogs and children playing in the dust and groups of elderly men sitting on ancient plastic chairs ‘putting the world to rights’. Dress now is more or less totally Muslim with men wearing hats that seem to defy gravity to stay on their head and the women are covered from head to toe, although not totally veiled.

The second was a toilet stop. This was at a garage where we were directed to the back of the building over waste ground at the back of the building and through a wall at the back. Et voila! The ladies toilet – a rubbish tip. It had two major benefits – one was the amazing view over the mountains and the other the absence of the evil odour of Chinese public toilets!

We eventually arrived at Kashgar at circa 8.00 pm. We were pretty worn out so opted for Johns cafe at the back of the hotel. The hotel itself used to be the Russian consulate and was very exotically decorated in an over embellished sort of way…….

Things weren’t quite straight forward though – John’s had a pre booked party arriving who had to be served first – so we had to wait about an hour for our meal. Sometimes you are the pigeon and sometimes the statue…….