Heading for the mountains – 28th/29th March

This morning there were some gun shots near the hotel but we did not find out what had happened.  The fact that a SWAT team was permanently camped in the lobby of the hotel with good views of the square did not really alarm us but raised our curiosity.  Every so often they would go out into the square, armed to the teeth with shields, bullet proof vests, batons and automatic weapons to put the fear of God into the indigenous population.  It was noticeable that all the SWAT team were Chinese.

After a leisurely breakfast we vacated our rooms and boarded our land cruisers for the journey to Kargilik (YeCheng).  It gave us an opportunity to see the extent of growth and development of Kashgar, with massive housing projects on a scale unprecedented in the UK.  The speed and scale of development is phenomenal.

Motorway services!

The landscape throughout the journey was flat.  I doubt there was a fluctuation in height more than 10m all day.  To begin with, once we had left the urbanisation of the city, we passed farmland of small fields.  The road was brilliant, brand new and in places cut right through the middle of these farming communities, not providing them with anything but destroying their community and environment.  Where there wasn’t farmland, there was a barren, stony, infertile wasteland, the Taklamaken Desert, the second largest desert in the world.  Gradually white, snowcapped peaks  came into view on our right, although we did not venture much towards them but ran parallel with them.  The further we went the more barren the landscape became.  We stopped at a ‘services’.  I use the term loosely as it was nothing more than a flattened area of desert awaiting development.  Soon, a railway ran parallel to the motorway linking Kashgar to the cities 5000km on the other side of China.  These new transport communications help speed up the colonisation of the west by people from the east, given financial incentives from the government. It is so easy for the Chinese to move huge numbers to the west and swamp the indigenous muslim population.  It is hardly surprising that the Uygars are unhappy and feel the need to make their feelings known from time to time.  Hence the need for the Chinese to make their presence felt with SWAT teams and over zealous police surveillance. I think the Chinese philosophy of ‘progress at any cost’ was summed up when the motorway we were travelling on,  scythed through the middle of a cemetery with no regard for the feelings such action might produce.

Electricity Hotel

On reaching Yecheng, our vehicle took us to the strangely named Electricity Hotel.  Having disembarked our driver received a call to say we had to go to the police post to have our passports registered.   This took quite a while as our names were carefully written into a register.  Job done, we returned to the Electricity Hotel, got out of the vehicles and planned settling in when Akbar told us we were staying in another hotel.  Returning to the vehicles, we drove the other hotel, a cavernous, empty place which we discovered had no water.  Akbar decided we could not stay there so we returned to the Electricity Hotel and settled in.  It is not very clean.  The walls have damp and peeling wallpaper and there is a musty smell about the place.  One room had dried vomit down the wall adjacent to the bed.  Most people rearranged the furniture to avoid coming into contact with anything unsavoury and, just in case the beds were infested, many of us used our sleeping bags.  Part of the problem was that the tourist season has not really started yet, so most hotels are not open and those that are have a certain aroma of being shut up for several months. It is a shame that they have not learnt to do maintenance work during the off-season.

Having settled in as best we could we decided to go for a walk and explore the town, which was much bigger that I imagined.  I thought it was going to be a bit of a one-horse town but it has a population of several hundred thousand – not bad for a city built out of nothing in the desert.  We noticed a lot of soldiers and police on the street corners as we drove around and were warned not to go too far from the hotel as a couple of weeks previously there had been a bomb, hence the military presence.  It was not unpleasant walking around, although it was as though the circus had come to town and we were it!  We were the only white faces in town and we appealed to the children coming out of school.  We also appealed to a member of the Chinese Secret Police whom we spotted following us.  He was wearing a brown leather jacket and kept speaking into his lapel. There were five in our little group and when we got together with others we discovered that they too had been followed and in each case the followers were wearing brown leather jackets.  Hardly very secret!

In the evening we went to a restaurant for another banquet!  Realising we were not getting enough exercise we played on an exercise park, putting off the inevitable return to the Electricity Hotel for as long as we could.

Looking south from the top of the first pass

We left Yecheng after breakfast and drove south across the desert, eventually reaching the foothills.  From now on we steadily climbed up a series of hairpin bends to the 3150m summit of a mountain pass.  The view over the other side was superb and extensive.  A huge wall of snowcapped mountains on the horizon with orange and red mountains in the foreground.  From the pass the road, still a very good one, dropped dramatically to the valley floor below to follow the Kudi River.  We stopped for lunch in a village, which preceded a lengthy stop at a checkpoint.  All the time there were lorries thundering up and down the road, those going up empty and those down full of iron ore.

Having passed through the checkpoint we began to climb for the second time.  We stopped to view the line of the original silk road half way up a cliff face.  It was hard to believe that anybody would consider travelling on such a route.  One of the vehicles failed to join us at this stop as it had had a puncture.  This delayed us a little.  Simon went on walkabout and when we left we were all convinced that he was somewhere ahead of us on the road.  In fact he was behind us.  Unfortunately, one of the other vehicles picked him up and he was soon repatriated with us.  We tried to lose him and give ourselves more room, but failed.

The road 'work in progress' running alongside the frozen river

Soon the good road turned into a ‘work in progress’, which slowed us slightly.  One of the other vehicles kept having power problems and overheating so our progress became very stop/start for the remainder of the journey.  We eventually reached the top of the next pass at about 4900m but it was far less impressive so we did not bother to stop.  The scenery close to the road was much more interesting with the frozen river running alongside the us.

A Hotel! You were lucky. When I was a kid we stayed in.....!!

Eventually we reached the village of Mazar, which is nothing more than a junction in the road and a few shoddily built shacks. If you turned left you followed the iron ore trucks, or right you followed the Yarkand River to Yilik where there was another checkpoint.  Having successfully passed through the checkpoint we travelled a few more kilometres to the village of Yilik and our first camp.  It had been a fantastic, if not rather long journey and because our arrival was quite late some of the group were able to sleep in a village house, while the rest of us pitched tents nearby.  It was a beautiful, if chilly, starlit night.


Related Images:

Kashgar – 27th March

Daily bread

Waking refreshed and headache free, I took myself down to the restaurant for breakfast.  There was hardly anything that I would call breakfast fare and as all the labels were in Chinese, no idea what most of it was.  What I had was quite tasty but also quite strange.

The hotel is comfortable and clean but has some features, which cause amusement and intrigue.  In the bathroom of each room there is a basket by the wash bowl, which contains a variety of products.  I don’t think I have stayed in a hotel before where such products are so readily available – condoms, arousal oils and creams for ‘him’ and ‘her’ with very clear instructions as to which part of the anatomy they should be applied and for how long, and cream to prevent premature ejaculation.  Nothing was left to the imagination.  Needless to say, it all remained unused!

In the room’s information pack there was a price list for every item of furniture and every fitting and every item not fitted, including condoms, so that if you liked anything sufficiently, you could pick it up and take it with you, providing you settled up with reception first.  I did not see anybody leave the hotel with their mattress under their arm,

Copper craft work shop

Today we explored Kashgar, a bustling, vibrant city of 4.5 million.  As we walked about the streets we took our lives into our hands.  Nearly everybody has an electric scooter, which is fantastic for keeping the city’s noise levels down but also means we do not hear them as  they aim straight for us from behind.  It is necessary to have your wits about you at all times, even if you think you are safe on the pavement – scooters can and do go everywhere.

Musical interlude

We focused our attention on the older and more interesting Uygar area of city, calling first at Cotton Traders Road.  This road might have been known for cotton trading in the past but now it holds a variety of handicraft shops, which seem to bunch together according to craft skills.  The first group we came across were copper and tin workers who create vessels of every size and shape and then hammer them to give them texture.  There were jewellery shops, bread shops, carpet shops, hat shops (I bought another, a Uygar hat), wooden crafts and musical instruments.  The latter was particularly interesting as we were given a recital while we were there.

The Idkah Mosque

Around the corner we visited the yellow tiled Idkah Mosque before going on to the old town built on a hill of dried mud.  The majority of the houses were made of wattle and daub, although some are being replaced using more modern materials.  We were led to believe that this would be very interesting and photogenic but, in fact, it was disappointing.  It was a series of alleys with little colour and not a lot going on.

For lunch we went to a very elaborately decorated restaurant, although we were given a plainer room to ourselves.  We sat around a huge round table with a turntable in the middle.  We understood we were having a light lunch but the food just kept coming!

The cemetery by the Aba Khoja Mausoleum

After lunch we travelled a little further afield, using a bus which picked us up from the restaurant.  We went to a jade and carpet centre where there was a workshop for each craft.  Nobody really wanted to go there and it proved a little embarrassing as everything was incredibly expensive.  I guess Akbar, our guide, could not miss out on the chance of a bit of commission.  We did not stay long.  Much more interesting was the Aba Khoja Mausoleum, the final resting place of the Fragrant Concubine, Xiangfei.  There were casks from five generations in the mausoleum, which, with their colourful silk drapes, would have made an interesting picture had photos been allowed.  The cemetery next door for more ordinary mortals was impressive.

Sunday Market stall

Finally we went to the Sunday Market (open every day but called as it is because that is the main market day) where there was an array of things on sale from shoes to materials, from nuts to stockings, from electrical goods to toys.  I was hijacked from my wanderings to speak to a young man running a pashmina and scarf stall.  He did not want to sell me anything but just wanted to improve his English.  A couple of his mates joined us, who did not speak English, and the questions flowed.  It was an enjoyable way of spending 20 minutes.  Continuing my wanderings I came across a chap who was determined to sell me some binoculars.  I showed him mine but he was not deterred.  He was very persistent, showing me some Japanese and then Russian binoculars.  The price kept dropping to ridiculous levels.  Eventually I just walked away.

The square at night with a more modern form of indoctrination on the right

In the evening we went to a restaurant which, unfortunately, was not very good.  The food was not very warm, and to make matters worse we could not make the bill fit.  It turned out that they had added Akbar’s meal on to our bill despite telling him his was free.  We also discovered that, because we were in a room on our own, they had also charged us for the use of the room, by the hour.  We won’t be going back there again.

Uygar man

One thing that struck me today was the ethnicity of the people.  The Uygars are not at all Chinese but are very closely linked to Turks from the days of the Ottoman Empire.  The Chinese are all settlers from the east who have come to inhabit the area relatively recently. The Uygar men tend to be very traditional in their dress, particularly the older generation, while the women seem to love big hair and high heeled boots.  Traditionally the women partially cover their big hair with some form of head scarf.

Observing the comings and goings through the hotel reception as we returned from our evening out, I have come to the conclusion that the hotel is a rather expensive knocking shop for businessmen.  There is a night club on the fifth floor where businessmen pick up young girls, take them to their rooms and make use of the facilities and products on offer, so long as, according to the rules, visitors are gone by 1.00am.


Bishkek to Kashgar – 25th/26th March

I woke refreshed.  Unfortunately the sky was not so clear this morning and the mountains could only just be seen.

We left Bishkek at 8.30 and started our journey towards the Chinese border.  The road followed the Ushi River, which forms the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan.  A razor wire fence and lookout towers decorate the other side of the river.  Bizarrely the road briefly crosses the river into Kazakstan for about a quarter of a mile before it crosses back.

Burana Tower

En route, we visited historically interesting Burana Tower, an open museum in the site of an ancient Kyrgyz settlement with a fort and mosque.  There is nothing left of the fort other than the mound on which it was built and the minaret has been rebuilt, now looking more like the leaning tower of Pisa rather than a minaret.  There was an incredibly narrow, steep spiral staircase to the top giving expansive views over the surrounding countryside.  Back at ground level there was a yert, which acted as a shop, where I bought a typical Kyrgyz hat as worn by men.  The fact that it only cost £3.50 was a bonus.

Continuing our journey, we stopped in the village of Kochkor for lunch, not in a restaurant but in a home stay.  The house was immaculate inside and, remarkably, all of us were able to sit around one table heaving with food, not the meal but the accompaniments to the meal.  The first course was a plate of salad with a fennel dressing.  This was followed by noodle soup with potato and pieces of tender lamb.  Thinking that was it, you can imagine our surprise to receive a plate of beef, rice, buckwheat and vegetables.  Not surprisingly everyone fell asleep in the buses in the afternoon.

The bleak and cold Dolon Pass

The post lunch journey saw us climbing further until we reached to top of the 3030m Dolon Pass.  Deep snow lay all around us.  From the pass it was downhill to Naryn, a former Russian military town which now seems to have little going for it.  Until the Russians left it was a ‘no go’ area as it had military significance and things were happening here that they did not want the rest of the world to see or know about.


Having settled into our guest house, we took a stroll around the town, which only confirmed that it is not a pretty place, even with lots of snow.  Like the lunch we had had earlier in the day, the dinner was excellent and the vodka also went down very well.

The next day was a day of snow and check points.  We left Naryn at 7.30 and climbed out of the valley to an aptly named Red Pass.  This led on to a wide, high plateau with a mountain chain on either side.  Here the snow was deep in places, piled high on either side of the road.  It was cold and bleak, and anybody who lives up here really does live through a long, harsh winter.  Summer probably only lasts three months.

Blocked road leading up to the Tourogat Pass

At about 10.00 we came to our first checkpoint.  We could stay in the vehicles but Maria, our Krygyz guide, had to take our passports to be scrutinised.  This done, we continued towards the border. We soon came across a stationary convoy of lorries blocking our way.  The front bus, driven by Vladimir, known as ‘Vlad the Impailer’, took the cavalier approach and decided he could drive past this convoy where there was clearly not enough room.  Sure enough, the front of the bus plunged off the road and into deep snow, leaving it leaning precariously to one side.  Thankfully our driver, Mikael, did not attempt to follow.

Releasing Vlad's bus from the snow

In his cavalier haste, Vlad managed to dig the bus deeper into the snow.  Our bus positioned itself to attach a tow strap but it did not have the power for the job.  With thirteen English, Vlad, Mikael, Maria and an assortment of Kyrgyzstani and Chinese lorry drivers all chipping in with ideas we did not get very far, particularly as everything the English suggested was ignored.  The line was now attached to the front of a lorry but with the front wheels firmly entrenched it was not long before the line snapped.  The simple solution was to dig out the snow behind the front wheels but it was hard to get the message across and nobody understood what we meant.  The now shortened line snapped again, as did the steel wire used next.  Eventually we found a shovel and cleared the snow.  The combined strap and steel wire then did the job and the bus was pulled free and back on to the road.

Before we went any further snow chains were fitted to our vehicles while the lorries obligingly moved over enough to give us room to pass.

Our next stop was at the Kyrgyzstan border post where we had to leave our vehicles and go into a fridge of a building.  The marble floor had a layer of ice on top, making it lethal.  We queued up to have our exit stamps, which took a while, and by the time that was done we all needed the loo.  Unfortunately the loo was on the Kyrgyzstan side and we were now on the Chinese side and could not go back.  At the first opportunity we created some yellow snow patterns at the side of the road!

We had now entered ‘no man’s land’ and it should only have taken us twenty minutes to reach the Chinese border but delays behind stationary lorries, or one in particularly who decided to move off just as we approached and slewed across the road, blocking it entirely for at least fifteen minutes while the driver, realising he was going nowhere, put chains on.  We need not have worried because by the time we reached the border there was no sign of our Chinese crew.  There were problems on the other side of the Tourogat Pass.  The snow on the top of the pass was several feet deep and despite the sunshine there was a cold breeze.  After, maybe, half an hour or so, word came that our Chinese takeover crew had arrived.  Everybody leapt out of the buses, got their kit bags out, put them down and headed for the border guard who wanted to see their passports.  When they reralised that they were in China and their bags were in ‘no man’s land’ it was too late, they couldn’t go back.  Those of us who were left ferried the bags to the border where they were loaded on to a pick-up truck before we finally crossed the border.

Our bus was not able to reach us, being stuck behind lorries, so we set off to walk down the road to meet it.  The scenery was stunning with white mountains as far as the eye could see.  It was good to stretch our legs, unfortunately it did not last for long as our bus had crept closer than we expected.

All aboard, the bus turned round and took us down the hill, past a lorry who’s trailer had toppled off the road into a ditch on a hairpin bend, which had caused many of the problems on the Chinese side of the pass.  We soon pulled in to a check point where our passports were scrutinised yet again.  At least officials, like all those we encountered during the day, were pleasant and smiled.  We discovered that we were the first tourists this year to cross into China via the Tourogat Pass, so, I guess, they were quite pleased to see us as we broke the monotony of lorry driver after lorry driver.  The scenery on the Chinese side of the pass suddenly became more spectacular.  The other side was beautiful but it had a bleakness about it and lacked the ‘wow’ factor.  This side had everything, vertical faces, pointed peaks, snow fields, the lot.

100km inside China we came to the custom post where we had to have our entry stamped and our bags checked.  This was the bit I was worried about because of all the cash we were carrying but I should not have bothered.  As we lined up we had our temperatures taken and they also wanted to give Katrina and Mo a polio vaccination!  Anybody entering China who was born after 1978 has to have it.  They refused so had to sign a disclaimer.

The only thing that concerned customs was food.  They confiscated the remains of our packed lunches and seemed convinced we had sausages!  Sigg bottles look like large sausages on the x-ray machine.  Satisfied, they let us go, but not before checking that our passports had been correctly stamped, before they let the bus out of the compound.

An hour later we were in Kashgar.  We had been on the road, stuck in snow or having our passports checked for thirteen hours.

Mao overlooking the Peoples' Square in Kashgar

We stayed in the Tianyuan International Hotel.  We were not supposed to be here but the hotel where we should have been had plumbing problems.  This is a 4* hotel and, reportedly, one of the best in Kashgar.  It is right in the centre of town, adjacent to the Peoples’ Square, lit up lavishly at night and overlooked by a giant statue of Mao.

Having a headache from the travelling, I skipped dinner and retired to bed early.  It was good to briefly see Hira, Bishnu and Tendi before I disappeared.

Starting the journey in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – 23rd/24th March

Here we go again! It has taken me about six days to recover from the journey home from new Zealand and now I am off again.  This time the flights are a little more acceptable with 3.5 hours to Istanbul and a further 5 hours to Bishkek.  I managed to sleep (loose term) for most of that five hours.  It was still dark when we landed at 5.35am but it was very light by the time we emerged from the airport with our newly acquired, $100 visa.  A thirty minute journey from the airport took us into Bishkek.  A fiery, orange sun blazed just above the horizon to the east, casting a warm glow on to the snowy mountains to the west.

State central heating

The hotel, Asia Mountains, is very reminiscent of hotels in Austria during the 60s – lots of pine furniture and artwork made of leather adorning the walls.  We had a breakfast of cold meats and cheese in the dining area, whose centre piece was a huge, unlit, open fire with chimney above.  Opposite the hotel is the only railway line in Kyrgyzstan.  Hardly anybody uses the railway, just the very occasional freight train taking coal to the nearby power station.  Running along the side of the tracks are some huge pipes encased in decaying asbestos.  These carry and distribute the state central heating from the power station to all the properties in Bishkek.

The old Russian style housing block

After a brief rest we met at 10.00 for a stroll into town. We had each been given a city map. The city is built on the grid system so is quite easy to get around.  The roads are wide and tree lined.  The trees help to hide our view of large Russian housing blocks looking bleak and run down.  I soon released I was seeing Bishkek at just about the worst time of year. Nature was still asleep after the winter, but the snow had gone, leaving everywhere looking bland, dirty and colourless.  I would not describe Bishkek as dirty though.  People were out in front of their houses and shops sweeping, clearing up the autumn leaves and making things look tidy.  There is very little litter at the sides of the roads.  Exploring the city it soon became clear that there are large areas of parkland available for public use and just behind the presidential palace there is a fun fair, not in great demand at this time of year but I suspect a family favourite in the summer.  Throughout the city there are irrigation pipes to water the grass and flowers during the relatively brief, but hot, dry summer.

Today is a celebration day of the first revolution which took place on the 24th March 2005. Kyrgyzstan is a new country, created following the break up of the Soviet Union.  The first president had already had two terms in office when he changed the constitution to allow him two further terms.  The people did not like it so they held a revolution.  It was peaceful and the president left and went to Russia.  Sadly there was a second revolution in 2010 which was not so peaceful and many people were killed, not particularly in Bishkek but in the city of Osh in the south.

Walking around Bishkek I got the feeling it is a reluctant capital city.  It is quiet.  Any noise is quite muted.  It has not been overwhelmed with consumerism; shops do not stand out and hit you in the face but are hidden behind fairly dull facades, almost embarrassed to show themselves.  Perhaps people do not have the money to spend and I am not sure what people do to earn a living.  When the Soviet Union lost control, many of the Soviet run factories closed down and remain, today, as a derelict symbol of the past.  Other factories have fallen into decline because they were owned by friends of the first president and people power has influenced their downfall.  Taxis line the streets but nobody seems to use them very much so taxi drivers hang around waiting for custom, looking bored and dejected.

Government House, Bishkek

On either side of the main street, Chui Avenue, there are some large, stolid buildings left over from the Russian era.  They cannot be described as beautiful but imposing monuments to power over people.  In front of these buildings are dramatic statues depicting heroic struggle.  At least the sun was shining, casting a warm light over these austere buildings under a clear blue sky.  I expect when we return towards the end of April we will notice a difference; nature will have woken up and there will be more colour.

One of the many statues in Bishkek

Towards the end of our stroll, when tiredness was beginning to set in, Chris suggested we take a look at the ruins of the wattle and daub Pishkek Fort, destroyed by Russian artillery in 1861.  That is what it was, destroyed!  There was nothing to see.

By the time we returned to the hotel we had been walking the streets for almost six hours.  It was time for a rest before dinner, followed by a long night’s sleep to catch up.