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…….

Sunday and the road to Kuche

We all convened at Turpan’s Johns bar behind the hotel for breakfast. They had opened early by special request. By just after 8.00 we were on the road again and back into the desert.

It was not long before the cool morning air started warming up. 10 hours later at the end of our journey it was intense.

‘Desert’ is a word that conjures up a vision of miles of the same. There is a lot of that, but at times the scenery changed dramatically and always there is evidence of the Chinese efforts to master the elements. Not long after leaving the laid back suburban feel of Turpan we were travelling through a man made mountain pass. The two lane road twisted and turned through the contours of the cutting and once again we commented on the skill and ingenuity that had obviously gone into its creation, particularly as somewhere out of our sight there was another carriageway carrying the traffic in the other direction.

Later we were to see watering systems that allowed acres of chilli peppers to grow, plantations of new woodland and fields and fields of maize. Whole cities reared up in what seemed a totally inhospitable landscape. In the more remote areas menacing looking chemical factories with a maze of domes and exterior pipe work belched vapour out of tall chimneys

When we stop now there is no English signage at service areas, only Chinese and Arabic characters. We are definitely moving to the western extremes of China. We have travelled just over 6,000 kilometres since we set out on the truck nearly a month ago.

We arrived in Kuche pretty drained. It had been a long day. Jason was excited about the buffet opportunity the hotel next to ours offered. Some went there for dinner but we set off for a small market that had been sighted near the hotel to forage for fruit, vegetables and local delicacies. We were rewarded handsomely by smiling Muslim ladies who supplied us with savoury flatbreads (at last bread that is not sweet!) and small lamb patties tasting very much like a Cornish pasty with less pastry. We could find no cold beer, so collected some from the truck ‘fridge on the way back and adjourned to Wendy and Sarah’s room to partake of our feast.

I fell into bed feeling the most weary I have felt thus far on the trip.

Saturday the Karez system and ancient city of Jiaohe

We had a free morning so decided to visit the Turpan Museum. On the way we came across Jason who was is not only our Chinese guide but, during our long drives, has become our Mah Jong tutor. We have enjoyed the game so much that we asked him to give us some advice on the game equipment. Jason said he had identified a shop selling Mah Jong and it was en route to the museum. He has been extolling the virtues of the Mah Jong table, so we went along to view one. It was amazing! No committed Mah Jong player worth his salt would be without one! It is a table approximately two foot square with a hole in the middle. Instead of the ‘chore’ required of us fledgling types in mixing up the pieces prior to play, this beast swallows the pieces through the hole in the middle of the table, shuffles them and efficiently delivers them in suitable wall formation, ready for the next game!
Magic! Regrettably not magic enough for us to pay the £500 necessary to enable us to put Newark Cottage on the map as the Mah Jong Mecca in East Peckham….

The a Museum of Turpan was, like all the other museums we have visited in China, a very modern, well presented institution. It housed a number of interesting exhibits including some excellent dinasaurs from the Gobi Desert
and a number of mummified bodies with their associated artifacts found in local ancient burial caves. It was well worth the visit.

After lunch in the Turpan version of John’s cafe under cover of the sun deflecting grape vine, we set off for what was described as underground irrigation tunnels. Ho hum I thought. Not a riveting way to spend an afternoon, but I am up for most things. How wrong can you be.

The Karez irrigation system was introduced to the area 2000 years ago to
provide the water necessary to enable people to live in this parched desert environment. It is a system found in other parts of Asia. Turpan is surrounded by mountains where snow exists throughout the year. A Karez or head well was dug on high ground where snowmelt collects in the mountains and a long underground tunnel was then dug to conduct water down to the the village farmlands where it was desperately needed. A system of vertical wells were then dug every few metres along the path of the tunnel (there were many) where the water was required. The wells were fed by gravity. Each tunnel ended in a pond. Once the pond was full the wells filled. Because the water flowed through the underground tunnels it did not evaporate in the intense heat of the area. Turpan owes its existence to the the wells – originally there were many thousands, all constructed by hand. There are now 615 as electric wells were created in the 1950’s to support the increasing population. The Karez system is considered to be one of the three great ancient projects of China, along with the Great Wall and the county’s canal system. What a feat!

Our second and most challenging trip of the day was to the ancient city of
Jiaohe. Once again it was really interesting, but instead of being in cool underground tunnels we were out in the open in over 100 degree heat. Even the water we took to drink got really hot!!

Undaunted we set out to look at the ruins of Jiaohe, a city built by nomads who saw the potential of the location – an area of high ground 1.6 km long by 300 metres wide caused by a river dividing at the north end of the site. Here they dug out their city. First enclosed courtyards and then designed cave type houses within the courtyard. No courtyard opened out on to the main thoroughfares that are still visible today. There were the remains of temples and administrative buildings. There was a ‘forest’ of the roots of 100 stupas. The city originally housed 6,500 people. It was an awesome sight only eclipsed by the intense heat.

Who were these people who could not only exist but devise a house building system in this hostile, energy sapping environment?

We returned to base exhausted and remained close to barracks for dinner. The energy to go further afield had evaporated!1