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Horizons: China - The Silk Road 2010

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This is the final instalment of my China journals, which may be described as a Suzhou ex-pat blog by some, but as I’m a little more old fashioned, I’ll stick to journal! It deals specifically with our recent trip to Xinjiang, Gansu and Shaanxi. I’ll be leaving out the overly emotional stuff about leaving and have stuck to the tried and tested formula of my usual travel write up, throwing in both oddly humorous and deeply serious discussion items, in an attempt to distract from the more mundane aspects of the piece. It might look like there’s a lot of stuff written below, but I’d like to reassure each every one of you that there are a lot of pictures to look at!

Anyone who wants details of contacts for bookings and suchlike can find them on the last page.

Andrea and I had never before visited the far western provinces and returned somewhat in awe of what we encountered. It gave me some very helpful pointers as regards my novel and allowed Andrea to learn to ask for the toilet in two more languages. All in all it proved to be an excellent trip and in the end everything went as smoothly as could be expected; that is not to say there was not the odd incident along the Silk Road, but there was nothing that a camel could not take in its stride!

Kashgar, XinjiangThere are few things more irksome than to arr ive at a destination, in this case Kashgar, only to be told the hotel you booked some six weeks before had no beds available. The fact that the guy giving you the information is also responsible for handling several other elements of your holiday makes things even more hairy. However, it seemed that the governor of Xinjiang had determined to invite all and sundry from around China, and beyond, to a freebie in his backyard, and rooms had been held off to accommodate these visitors. Of course, this does not mean that they were intended for the purpose of sleeping, but rather that they were available should any of the invitees wish to take advantage of the charms of the Kashgari natives.

And so it was that we only finally entered our room at the Seman Hotel (spelt ‘Semen’ on one or two signs) at three minutes before the kick off of the England v. Germany game. Two hours later, any feelings of irritation about being housed in a room with all the trimmings one would expect from somewhere decorated by an infantile jeweller, disappeared, as England dropped out of the World Cup. My own feelings as regard the “goal that wasn’t” are that it certainly changed the course of the game; for twenty minutes England were finally rampant. But twenty minutes good football does not win a big tournament and we deserved to be sent home; in the end I would have liked to see Germany win, instead I rooted for the Netherlands, in support of Hans, Kitty, Esther and Jeannie, my Dutch friends, and was disappointed that Spain came out top.

The first day of our holiday actually proved to be the worst. On the five hour flight from Shanghai to Urumqi I suffered from having a Little Emperor behind me, who constantly kicked at the back of my seat and slammed his tray table up and down; his mother simply couldn’t control him. Until I looked round I had thought he was about three years old, it turned out he must have been seven or so, and it should have been easy for the problem to be sorted out. Unfortunately, this is a major issue in China, not only are these single kids getting their way all the time, but in many cases only the father has any control over the child. I’m not one for corporal punishment, but I would happily have strangled him with his seat belt.

We crossed over the fertile Chinese plains, deserts, the mountains of Qinghai, more deserts and then the mountains around Urumqi as we came into land. As my atlas is now packed, I’ll not make myself look foolish by trying to name them all, but get out your own and trace a line from Shanghai to Urumqi; you’ll get the picture! The mountains to the south and east of Urumqi are stunningly beautiful and look ideal for hill walking; I would suspect they are devoid of tourists.

Throughout this entire trip, with the exception of the last day, we experienced excellent weather. In places where it was supposed to be very hot, it proved only to be warm. In places where it should have been wet, it was dry. In the desert, it rained slightly! Whilst we were enjoying the climate of each location, many areas of China that we were not in suffered horrendously from heat waves, severe rain and flooding; it can only be said that we were very lucky.

Urumqi airport meant a meal and then a flight to Kashgar; the airport’s a strange place! Two terminals that, for a pedestrian, are only connected by a 500m walk along a pavement-less road. Once you’ve checked in at the China Southern terminal don’t expect to find water, soft drinks or even a beer; you can however buy coffee or fruit juices at £7 each, which is more expensive than Heathrow. It is also possible to buy a joint of frozen lamb, although quite how this helps anyone waiting for a flight I’ve yet to comprehend.

Kashgar, Xinjiang, BazaarI’ll stop. After the football fiasco we spent our first day in Kashgar. I’d tried to be all “p.c.” and call it Kashi, until I found out that the locals call it Kashgar; Kashi is the Putonghua version. The place proved a little disappointing; it seems like ninety percent of the old town is being knocked down and the remaining ten percent turned into a tourist trap; the photo to the left demonstrates this trend. We managed to wander around some interesting old streets but they were all, more or less, in the process of demolition.

Kashgar, Xinjiang, ChilliOf course there were the market stalls and the old workshops were fascinating, where artisans produced pans, pots and tools by hand, but behind each workshop was the ever present wrecking ball.

Kashgar has a long and interesting history; it could once have been considered Asia’s premier port, if it were not so far from the sea. Its situation at the head of the passes into Pakistan and Afghanistan to the south and all the other “Stans” to the west made it an absolutely key node on the Silk Road.

Karakorum Pass, Xinjiang, ChinaWe had determined to visit the Karakorum Pass, which heads into Pakistan, and it seemed that so had an insane Israeli cyclist, whose hand written note requested a volunteer companion to accompany him up the pass and into that great nation to the south. Only Rob Mander could be persuaded this bike trip would be a good idea. Riding with an Israeli, turning up on the Pakistani border, an area noted for its extremism and fundamentalist Islamic values, after a 5500 metre ascent on a torturous road, yep – Rob, I’ve got this guy’s email address somewhere!

Karakorum Pass, Xinjiang, China, Sand on mountainsOn the way up you pass this bizarre sight of mountains with snow on the top and sand and salt swept onto their lower slopes; it also starts to get cold. Moving higher up the pass, taking in the yurts, the yaks, the sheep and somewhat bizarrely, the camels, you finally arrive at Lake Karakul.

Karakorum Pass, Lake Karakul, Xinjiang, ChinaThe lake is rather special, but so is the weather. As Andrea and I hauled up, the sky turned black and it began to snow. It wasn’t that nice pleasant snow, that you always imagine would improve Christmas, it was that biting, vicious, windswept snow that stings the face and enters parts of your clothing you’d rather it didn’t. We took shelter in a local restaurant, only to be joined ten minutes later by ten Chinese tourists, who had come up the pass in a bus, equipped only with T-shirts and shorts. It made Andrea and I look overdressed in our fleeces, buffs, gloves, woolly hats and walking boots. The picture shown here was taken just as the blue sky disappeared, you can see the shadows coming over the lake and how close the snowline is.

The area is startlingly beautiful and given decent weather would be a lovely place to spend a couple of nights, if you’re happy enough to stay in a yurt with a local family. I reckon my days of bedding down in an oversize tent with a strange family are past me; although I’ll concede that I’m displaying a somewhat conservative part of my nature, one which I’d prefer stayed hidden!

The driving on the Karakorum Highway, which is a two lane, single carriageway road, winding through a serious gorge, was the best I’d come across in China, until we were almost taken out by two overtaking lorries on the way down. A lot of people died constructing this road and I’m sure many more die each month due to accidents. It’s certainly not a route I’d pick for an ascent by bicycle.

At the top of the pass, around the lake, most of the housing takes the form of yurts. Obviously these are temporary structures and as the road is closed for the winter it is highly likely the occupants move down the gorge to warmer climes. A bit lower down there are permanent structures, which are almost universally made of tamped earth rather than stone, which would be more usual in mountainous areas; more of these buildings later.

There was quite a serious passport check on the way up and down the pass; obviously this is the route that the Taliban/Al Qaeda would use to penetrate the China. While we were in Xinjiang there were joint exercises between the Chinese and Pakistani military; there is genuine concern here that the Taliban are already operating within China. We visited exactly a year after the riots of 2009 and it was evident there was still some tension amongst the military. There was little evidence of any friction amongst the general public, but the regular patrols of troops in riot gear, in Kashgar and Urumqi, and in riot vans in Turpan, were evidence of the military wishing to openly display their presence. (Please note I have used the most common international spelling of place names.)