And so, after nearly six months steady going and the long, long distances across Central Asia it feels like I’ve arrived at a major stage of the journey – I am in China! A really enjoyable day’s cycle – apart from the detours and roadworks – through desert and between mountains along good tarmac roads lined with poplars brings me into Kashgar. The last hour along an eight lane motorway.
Kashgar has been a major hub, a trading and refuelling post, for the world’s famous trade route system the Silk Route. It became popular during the Han empire in China particularly between the second century BC to the fifth century AD carrying mainly silk and tea from China to the markets of the Mediterranean. From Spain to China and back – trade, culture and ideas were on the move.
A town on the western edge of the Taklamakan desert after the 1,000 kilometre crossing, before negotiating the Tien Shan mountains next. From the opposite direction the first town reached after crossing the mountains from Central Asia into China. Or the destination for those enduring months of hardship travelling up the river valleys and clambering across the formidable barrier of the Hindu Kush and Himalayas from the Indian subcontinent. Over thousands of years merchandise from eastern China, India, Russia, the rest of Central Asia, Persia and as far away as Turkey were traded in Kashgar. The Sunday Market is reputed to be the biggest bazaar in the world. And this city is not Chinese, it is Uyghur, a Turkic people, similar to Central Asians not Han Chinese. The city is steeped in history and atmosphere, the best preserved example of a traditional Islamic city in Central Asia. Or so I remembered.
My previous experience was arriving here in the late nineties from the east, and disappointingly, I remembered, it didn’t appear so different from the rest of China. There was a familiarity about the industrialised outskirts and commercial centre of a large Chinese town. However as you stepped away from the main drag the buildings got lower and more traditional. It didn’t take long to lose your way through the winding, earth walled alleys. Deeper into the maze sheep and donkeys jostled past, a boy driving them ahead or being pulled hanging on a leash. An ornate carved wooden doorway left open would offer a view into the courtyard, of a goat tethered to a post or a colourful rose garden.
Warm air wafted the smoke and smells of lamb on skewers being grilled on charcoal braziers. Bakers leaned down and expertly flicked out crusty discs of flat bread from blackened earth stoves: wheat – bread and thick noodles – was the staple food in this Muslim desert culture. A turner paired away at branches to fashion sticks for furniture or sat hunched over a foot operated lathe shaping a chair leg, tossing it onto the pile with a light clatter before starting the next. Sounds of metal on metal rang out from tiny workshops each side of the narrow passageways working with iron or tap tap tapping on tin or copper. One vivid image in my mind is of two smiths making nails – one holding the small piece of iron into the yellow coal fire with pincers, the second pumping the bellows. The operation picked up a gear as the pincer man would then position the molten piece onto the anvil, continuously turning it as the bellow man belted it with a hammer. Before my eyes, in a matter of maybe 20 seconds a nail was made, flung into the basket and the next started. The nails were like the old style nails I had to jemmy out replacing old floorboards at home in Ireland.
But now this city is unrecognisable. As I make my way through the city it appears to be remodelled as just another Chinese shrine to consumerism. The main road leads into what I remember as the old town, around the Id Kah mosque on the large central square. The streets have been rebuilt, and many of the old buildings and ornate shop fronts replaced. Wooden signs in Chinese are hung above the doorways, some translated into English – ‘minority folk art’ or ‘traditional ethnic crafts’. The hostel on the square is quite new and welcoming, with cold beer, a restaurant, helpful English speaking staff, wifi – indeed all the comforts the Western traveller appreciates. And up three flights of stairs. It takes a couple of trips with first my bags then the bike. In the morning I treat myself to freshly brewed coffee and toast.
The following day I go in search of the old town I remember. But my misgivings were borne out – all was changed, replaced with recently constructed replica buildings in brick, superseding the adobe. Chinese script and English was added to Uyghur. At thoroughfare junctions, kitsch little signposts in three languages indicated the streets for various trades.This was a Kashgar Disneyland for the growing tourism market.
Eventually I made it to what remained of Koziqi Yarbeshi as its known locally, an old neighborhood of earth-built buildings on a slight hill by the river. Mostly demolished. These structures that had lasted centuries were deemed unsafe in the event of earthquakes. Unbelievably there was a booth selling tickets to enter. To avoid paying I followed a track around the rear of the enclave and found an alleyway in. The entrance fee confirmed its status now as a museum.
After widespread international protests at the central authority’s demolition a stop was put to it. Now only about an acre of the original area is left intact. All around this last hilltop remnant had been bulldozed. Roofless structures and demolished walls exposed the private interiors of former homes, some limply hanging above the slope. Passageways ended with a step out into space. It didn’t take long for me to wander through the narrow, higgledy piggledy alleys. There wasn’t much sign of life – I guessed because not many folks were living here anymore. It is suggested the demolition of the old town had more to do with land values and a plan to move Uyghur communities to the high rises on the outskirts of town. Fulfilling “political as well as economic goals” according to an article in the London Review of Books by my new pal Nick Holdstock.
A guest in the hostel, Nick had an Elvis Costello look about him with his short back and sides and black rimmed glasses. And matching acerbic take on things, leavened with the Englishman’s distinctive self deprecating humour. Chatting about my cycle I had mentioned the pleasure of listening to audiobooks. The most recent was Colin Thubron’s In the Shadow of The Silk Road, who Nick claimed was his favourite travel writer. Nick had been a school teacher in Xinjiang province for three years, developing both a proficiency in Chinese and a strong interest and affection for the country. Or perhaps rather an affection for the Uyghur people. He became, I found, an interesting companion, filling me in with bits of historical background which adds so much to experiencing a sense of a place. Nick had published a book recently about his experience in Xinjiang, The Tree that Bleeds- A Uighur town on the edge. He too was revisiting Kashgar after a lengthy absence and, like me, was left feeling a little taken aback at the changes in the past decade or so.
More valuably, Nick introduced me to the delights of Chinese dishes. I didn’t have to spell out to him my anticipation arriving here with the prospect of this exciting cuisine after months of Central Asian noodles dishes. Lagman, in various forms, had been the staple – handmade noodles made from flour, salt and water rolled into little balls before being pulled and stretched into long strings, boiled until very soft and served with stir fried meat and vegetables in a broth. Tasty enough and certainly fortifying for the cyclist, but after months of it I was ready for Chinese! The couple of nights I was there we left the Uyghur part of town in search of Chinese restaurants. I wrote down his menu suggestions phonetically: jia chang dofu (a tofu stirfry), shi hung sher ji dan (a delicious version of scrambled egg and tomatoes), sha gwo (a noodle dish) and my favourite discovery tudo suh (julienned potato, chilli and vinegar) – knockout.
Kashgar – with a desert climate and barely any rainfall – was now cool at night, though quickly warmed with the morning sun. After a couple of days, one spent wandering through the centre, coming upon one or two purchases that would be handy – a neck warmer, some electronic knick knacks (this was China) – it was time to continue on my journey. Besides the obvious comforts – great food, Europeans to chat with, the energy and stimulation of city life – there wasn’t too much to detain me longer in Kashgar. A regret? I didn’t get to pay a visit to the tomb of Kashgar’s much loved poet and philosopher Yusup Khass Hajip, author of the wonderfully titled 13,290-line poem, The Wisdom of Happiness and Pleasure (in the Uighur language). Must read that one day.
I had been cycling in an easterly direction more or less since leaving home. Any cyclists I’d read about on the internet in this part of the world had either continued through or were coming from China. Beijing seemed to be a destination. For various reasons – security concerns, visa difficulties – (with some of the world’s most dramatic and spectacular scenery) Pakistan was no longer on the travel map. My intention was now to take a right to Pakistan, along the famous Karakorum Highway through the Himalayas. From there to India, Nepal and hopefully Burma. This was now entering the final leg of the journey.
And so the bike and panniers carried back down the three flights – with the kind help of a fellow cyclist heading to Europe – I loaded up and headed south.
On the outskirts, estates of housing tower blocks lined the road in what had recently been bare scrub and desert. Some for those displaced Uyghurs from the old town I presumed. But principally for the continuous influx of Han immigrants from further east, offered incentives to move to the Uyghur Autonomous Region as Xinjiang was called. Part of central government policy to subsidise the local economy, dilute the local culture and identity, and so dissipate ethnic dissent. A strategy successfully practiced in Tibet over the decades.
The outskirts of Kashgar disappeared behind me. Tajikistan lay over the Pamir mountains on my right, the daunting wall of the Himalayas some distance ahead. Kashgar is 1,400 metres above sea level. The town of Tashkurgan – the last town in China before the Pakistan border – was 300 kilometres away at 3,200 metres in altitude. The road rising to over 4,000 metre on the way.
The first day’s very gentle incline was barely noticeable, a good road surface as always a pleasure. A long but steady day got longer however when I asked the wrong person for information. From experience I can usually sense who to stop and ask information off. And who not to. At the risk of sounding sexist, women are generally not the ones to ask. In mostly traditional societies why would a woman need to be savvy about directions when they’re not let drive or navigate? Similarly, a cowherd may not be so quick with a direction or mileage estimation when he rarely has to consider it. Stereotypes I know, but who to stop and ask directions of becomes a kind of second nature. You learn.
Anyway I hadn’t learned and selected wrong this time. There were few options and the man on the side of the road, looking at me as a strange distraction when I stopped to ask how far to the next shop to buy food, offered misleading information. Communication is not easy in the first place but I usually could get my question across with a mixture of mime and pointing. Sometimes I’d revert to my iPod dictionary to help translate a few words. Here, the indication was that the next house was eight kilometres on. He didn’t instil huge confidence, but it suited me to believe him. It fitted my plan.
Approaching evening the road was beginning to climb more and there were less signs of life. I should have settled on a place to camp and stopped then but pressed on, believing in the guidance I’d been given. After twenty kilometres I accepted there had been a mistake. It was dark but more worryingly there hadn’t been any place to put up a tent as the road followed the narrow canyon. From the river below I could see faint glows from the rushing white water and the roaring of fast flowing water. I had a rear light on the bike but realised things were becoming potentially dodgy, as the odd truck may not see me as it came around a bend. Continuing on in the hope of finally coming upon the village I cursed the man on the side of the road who had given me the (to be fair – readily accepted) information. It was now a situation of stopping at the first opportunity to pitch a tent.
Eventually rounding a bend a walled off bit of rock and sand offered the possibility of some space. With the head torch I managed to push the bike behind a derelict stone cabin and pitched the tent, protected from headlights from the road. It was always a practice of mine to stay out of sight at night – unwelcome curiosity is not something I wished to deal with. It had been a very long day and it was good to stop. I was pleased with my progress.
The next morning I came upon a truckers’ shop just a few minutes from my camp and treated myself to a shi hung sher ji dan, scrambled eggs and tomatoes. Everything was alright with the world. A little further, in the last town on this road for a couple of days, from a baker I tried to buy a piece of the tasty, crusty non – the flat bread – but it was too late, they were sold out. The friendly young girl insisted on giving me a couple of crispy hot samsas to take on my way, without accepting payment.
If I thought the previous day was unpleasant after the unanticipated cycling through the dark, this was to be challenging. The terrain was now more dramatic, the pastoral scenes from yesterday left behind. Not only was I crawling uphill in my lowest gear, a hostile wind was howling against me. Twice, because of my slow speed, I was blown off balance, off the side of the road. This was becoming hairy. Mid afternoon and I was struggling, losing energy. More significantly, the determination began to flag. I had been climbing for nearly two days, very slowly, it was getting steeper, the road was following the river through a canyon that was becoming more daunting. The bare, flinty terrain seemed hostile. The clouds were low. But it was that strong headwind that was the most dispiriting, nearly stopping me in my tracks. A number of times I had to put my foot down to stop from toppling over.
I pulled into a lay-by. And gave up. I had lost the will to continue cycling up the canyon. The excuses had been accumulating, too many factors were against me – the wind, the unrelenting incline, my inadequate gearing… I piled adversity on top of adversity feeling sorry for myself, my mind building an argument for justifying the surrender. For that’s what it was. For the first time on the journey I’d found the going so demanding that I gave up. Sticking my hand out for a lift from one of the construction trucks that periodically passed, it felt like I was compromising myself.
The first one stopped, thinking I was in trouble and in need of something. As I performed my usual mime and point routine his helpful demeanour changed as he tried to explain he wasn’t allowed. A couple more trucks drove past without stopping and I understood the problem. It was clear they had to follow orders, it was more than their jobs were worth to break the rules. After about fifteen minutes, a subliminal sense of perseverance – which had abdicated altogether, deserted its post – very tentatively began to raise its head above the surface. Even though progress had been agonisingly slow, as time passed so did the kilometres. Over the day I had made headway. So after the little break, with the resolve now more plainly returned, back I climbed into the saddle and continued the steady slog. A few more hours passed and so did the worst bit of the climb. I had broken the back of it.
At a higher altitude than any villages, the first people I’d seen – apart from a few truck drivers – a group of Tajik women were clustered around an abandoned container on the side of the road. As I cycled up they thrust bunched fists of semi precious gemstones and jewellery towards me. They made their living flogging roughly polished lapis lazuli, jade, rubies – from the surrounding rivers and valleys – to the odd Chinese tourist driving past. Of course I took the opportunity for a break and to exchange greetings. And maybe have a look at their shiny merchandise without, I insisted, the slightest intention to buy any. What fool struggling up the Himalayas on a laden bicycle would add stones to his load I laughed! Well, this one. They looked like such bargains, and predictably I couldn’t pass them up. The women must have made a week’s business out of me. The container had a few shelves inside with soft drinks, Chinese snacks and other staples. I bought a few packets of noodles for my dinner.
Evening drew in and I knew I wouldn’t make Karakul Lake, my hoped for destination. Twenty kilometres short I came upon a well timed chaihana, a hungry boy. It was Tajik, not Chinese – that would have been a bonus – but I wasn’t fussy as I entered the very basic greasy spoon, wooden benches on an earth floor. A faint tang of yak butter hung in the air. It was cold. On the wall was a print of an American suburban mansion on green lawns, red sports car in the garage. So strange, and incongruous up here. Someone’s idea of paradise. Or an aspirational life. But then perhaps in a US diner in the Arizona desert there may be a poster on the wall of a simple, earth building surrounded by snow capped Pamir mountains. The lagman was on the lower end of the quality scale – mushy noodles from a packet, ripe tasting broth and grisly mutton – but I dived into it, feeling fortunate to be inside eating a hot meal. Ten kilometres further I pitched my tent behind a hill with a vista of snowy mountains in the yellow sunset.
After a fitful night’s sleep – more a doze, wrapped in all my clothes against the cold – I emerged from the tent to a magnificent view of China’s highest mountain, the snow covered Mustagh Ata. Spectacular. Stepping out of the shade into the rays of the rising sun I began to warm up. I remembered years previously delayed in the morning up here having to light a fire under the truck to defrost the frozen diesel. A short cycle took me to Karakul Lake, one of the special sights, among many, on the Karakorum Highway.
I approached a local woman outside her yurt and she agreed to prepare me some lagman. The sun was warm and embracing. Part of me was reminding myself I still had a day’s cycle ahead of me, Tashkurgan wasn’t getting any nearer. Another part gave myself permission to take a couple of hours out. I lounged on a rock above the lake luxuriating in it, absorbing my surroundings and the magnificence of Mustagh Ata reflected in the still water of Karakul. I had earned this.
Eventually, reluctantly, I continued, past the odd yurt settlement towards the winding ascent I could see ahead. The switchback climb was to a pass over 4,000 metres but it was fine, no stiff winds funnelled down against me. A steady plod and I was at the crest. An olive green four wheel drive slowed down next to me, four military leaning out grinning and gesturing could they take a photo. Fuck off I wanted to shout in bad grace. I had a rhythmic momentum going and didn’t want to stop, but raised my hand grudgingly as they clicked away. Rummaging around in the vehicle they handed me some fruit and a Coke out the window before speeding off waving. What could I do but smile and wave in appreciation. Stopped for a breather a little further two gay guys, dressed in Western check shirts, pressed jeans and fancy trekking boots pulled over and greeted me with excitement. On holiday from Lanzhou, a major city in central China, they were very excited, absolutely loved Xinjiang and plied me with questions in halting English, gasping in disbelief at the idea of me having cycled from Ireland. I was beginning to feel like a bit of a celebrity. They left me with a sweet, luminous coloured soft drink and some crackers.
Eventually I reached Tashkurgan, not the sleepy small town I remembered with an end of the world feel about it, speakers hanging off telephone poles blaring out crackly propaganda in Chinese to the mainly Tajik population, but now quite a prosperous looking, thriving business hub. It was the last town before the Pakistan border, or first after it, and had been earmarked for development with a major increase in cross border trade in mind. From eight kilometres out, unoccupied hotels and business parks and newly built housing estates were dotted along the new two-laned highway into the centre. Lines of kids were walking out along the road the few kilometres home I guessed. Not Chinese features, not flatter faces like the Uyghur, but nearly Mediterranean, with sharp noses and longer faces. The Tajik are Persian and not Turkic.
The K2 hostel is also a recent addition to the town. And in the mould of the hostel found everywhere the ubiquitous global traveller passes through. Cartoon murals on the wall, beer, pool tables… The only guests were Chinese. And it was confirmed to me this was as far as I would be allowed to progress on my bicycle. The Chinese Immigration station was here, and this is where you are stamped out of the country. I could continue to cycle up to the Kunjerab Pass but I wouldn’t be allowed cross the border. Once my passport had the exit stamp here that was it – there was only one option. Get on the daily bus to bring me over the border to Pakistan.