Where are all the people? Tashkurgan

Tashkurgan is totally different to Pakistan. Dominated by big concrete buildings, many behind barricades, and while only a small town it’s main road is a big 4 lane highway. There was barely anything on it as we walked down the side, we wondered where all the life was.

The only other foreigner on the border bus was a Korean woman, also heading to K2 hostel (which is where all the travellers in Tashkurgan go), we had said we could head there together. There was no sign of any form of transport we could take and everything we had read said the town was walkable. The map we had didn’t extend as far as the immigration office so we asked a couple of young Pakistani guys on our bus, who are studying in China to become doctors and do the journey every holiday.

Tashkurgan empty street

Knowing which direction to walk we set off in a 3 person snake. After a while we asked a policeman at a police van parked up and he seemed to offer us a lift but we declined. Given we’re in China’s most sensitive province and there was a heavy police presence, and we had gone through so many hoops to get into the country we weren’t entirely sure how much we should trust the police.

We kept walking down the highway until eventually we were on our map. The blocks were big and we still had a few to go. The Korean woman had short legs, a heavy bag and clearly hadn’t done much walking with it during her time in India and Pakistan so we walked very slowly. As the walk started to drag on we started to regret our kindness as our bags got increasingly heavy and our lungs felt the thin air (the town sits at 3600m). The only thing in our favour was the weather, a perfect 20C. We passed an ATM which we all needed and took a rest at the same time.

Finally we found a little life in the form of some shops and street sellers. Knowing we must be close to the hostel we asked someone and a short time later we’d found it. It must have been a 40 minute walk. Now we hoped they had beds for us as we were all knackered after the long journey. Thankfully they did, the Korean woman got a dorm bed and us a room without bathroom.

A big typical Chinese affair it had a heap of rooms and a bar serving food. They had 11 wifi routers. Nearly everyone was a domestic tourist. Information on the wall told us about the daily bus to Kashgar which was useful as that was our final destination. Our room turned out to be opposite a line of sinks and either side were the toilets and showers. The flip side of the convenience was we knew that meant we’d get some noise.

The clocks had changed when we crossed the border. Officially China has only one time zone known locally as Beijing time. That meant the clocks had gone forward 3 hours but there is also an unofficial local time which meant we’d only gone forward one hour. We didn’t know what time we were supposed to go by, it was light outside but we just wanted our beds.

We dumped our stuff, explored the hostel and headed out to get a bit more of a sense of the place. We figured out that the shops that looked closed were usually open, everywhere has 2 sets of doors, a normal one and a metal gated door that was always shut. We learnt these are open. It is really difficult to tell what the shop sells but we found veggie shops and drinks and a good snack shop. You just have to be brazen in going in looking around and if they don’t have what you want walking back out.

The restaurants we’d seen all looked dubious street affairs and Marie was in no mood to risk her stomach after the antibiotics had just fixed the worst of her issues, so we decided to eat at the hostel. The menu offered false hope, they turned out to only actually have one dish, chicken curry and Pakistani chappatis. Marie would only eat the potatoes and chappatis. It was terrible food but the water in the shower was properly hot so that made up for it (we’d already found chocolate so we figured we’d survive). Clean sheets and comfy beds topped it off.

The hostel went quiet late at night so we slept pretty well but still woke up feeling we could sleep for another week. We dragged ourselves up and out.

The day after we planned to take the bus to Kashgar so we decided our first task was to find the bus station, as we didn’t want to walk the streets looking for it with our big rucksacks when we came to leave.

The woman at the hostel reception clearly doesn’t know her left from her right as she told us the wrong way. Luckily we felt it wasn’t correct so after 10 minutes asked someone. No one outside the hostel speaks English and google translate didn’t seem to be doing the business. Eventually we were pointed back up the road. We asked a couple more times, resorting to drawing a picture of a bus and as the last person we asked pointed us back down the road we realised it must be behind one of the barricades and we’d overshot it. We soon found it. The security guard confirmed that was it. What should have been a 5 minute walk had taken 30.

Tashkurgan shops and electric 3 wheeler

We took a break in the main shopping street and people watched. It was a perfect 22C. It was quiet, we still can’t figure out where all the 20,000 people in this town are. Adding to the quietness many of the vehicles are electric – scooters and all manner of 3 wheelers as well as cars. Given we are now only a couple of hundred kilometres from Tajikistan there are Chinese and Central Asian ethnicities with some Pakistan mixed in. A number of women wear a form of local dress, very decorative with flat hats that have a veil off them. Very Central Asian.

We’d walked past a lot of heavily barricaded police stations so were careful with what we photographed. There are also police vans on the street that either sit there or cruise around slowly. We even saw a 4 person armed and shielded foot patrol. We noticed all the streets have cameras too. We couldn’t imagine anything ever kicking off, police seem to outnumber residents many times over.

Tashkurgan has one tourist site, a stone city. One of only 4 in the world (3 are in China) it was once the capital of an ancient kingdom located on a junction of the Silk roads. Around 2500 years old it consisted of an inner city and an outer city. The inner city still has walls remaining and gives great views of the town, the outer was mainly rubble. We were the only ones there but the facilities were clearly designed for tour groups.

After that we spent the afternoon walking the streets and exploring the different directions of the town, before stocking up on some supplies for the bus trip to Kashgar. Having not found any cafe that looked tempting and the hostel having a bit of a kitchen we bought a pan and some things resembling pasta and tomato sauce, an onion and garlic for dinner. It was edible and Marie’s stomach didn’t react but still not much sleep was to be had as our room was hot, we had to listen to men hacking all night in the washbasins and one guy decided it was a good place to violently throw up so we had been woken up by that at 5am and lived through the multiple bouts with him. Chinese people don’t do quiet. We weren’t sorry when the alarm went off to be leaving.

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