The slow road to Kashgar

The last stage of the journey had all the hallmarks that define the Karakoram Highway – it required patience, involved the unexpected and had spectacular scenery.

After leaving the hostel and walking to the bus station, we passed through the security scanner at the gate and saw Calvin. An Indonesian he has just finished doing a Masters degree in Beijing and is travelling around China for a couple of months before finding his next job or going home. We’d spend much of the evening before talking to him at the hostel and knew he was also planning to take the bus to Kashgar.

IMG_2522We were pointed towards where 4 shared taxis were parked on an empty lot. We wanted the bus but weren’t concerned as it was parked just past us. Marie was left with the bags while Emma and Calvin went into the building to buy tickets. Sometime later they appeared, even Calvin was saying it was very confusing and he is both used to China and speaks the language, but they had tickets. For the shared taxi. It turned out there were so many Pakistani men making the journey that day someone had deemed the bus to be only for them and that everyone else was to take shared taxis. This frustrated us because the shared taxis were 50% more expensive for only a marginally faster journey.

After an hour and a half or so we had our 6 passengers and could finally leave. We crawled out of town on the big wide empty streets. We naturally assumed once we left the city limits that would change. It didn’t. The great sealed highway that for the most part is really quite straight and has not much traffic has a speed limit of 60kmph.

The scenery was stunning; wide valleys surrounded by big mountains. We enjoyed chatting to Calvin (the 3 of us had landed the back seat) but it was mildly tortuous to travel so slowly. It took us nearly 6 hours to cover 290km.

A short video of the journey:

It was with a mixture of relief and sadness that we finally reached Kashgar.

Tucked away in the western-most corner of China, Kashgar (population around half a million) is geographically closer to Baghdad and Tehran than it is to Beijing. A border ‘town’ with Central Asia it is only 240km from Sary Tash in Kyrgyzstan, where last year after entering Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan we’d headed down the straight road off the mountain border and then hit a crossroads, we had gazed at the branch heading east to Kashgar/China.

Kashgar has served as a trading post and strategically important city on the Silk Road between China, the Middle East, and Europe for over 2,000 years.

An isolated oasis, traders from Delhi and Samarkand, wearied by hard treks over huge mountain ranges, unloaded their horses and sold saffron and lutes. Chinese traders unloaded their camels laden with silk and porcelain, did the same.

Being at the meeting point of differing cultures and empires, it has been the site of numerous battles on the steppes and has been under the rule of the Turkic, Mongol, and Tibetan empires, before the Chinese.

It had heated up as we’d lost altitude and we were back in the early 30’s Celsius. Calvin had been before so knew a hostel in the Old Town and how to get there. He was heading out of town on a night train but was keen to head to the hostel and hang out until he needed to depart. He was insistent he could get us there on a bus and we had no need to take a taxi. We think he got us off at the wrong stop but he did successfully navigate us there after quite a long hot walk with the rucksacks on.

The hostel is split into 2 parts and we ended up in the smaller back part which was a 2 storey building with varying configurations of rooms wrapped around a small courtyard. We’d got 2 toilets and showers between us, which appeared a better ratio than the main part.

We freshened up and then headed out with Calvin. We had ideas about having a bite to eat or a drink together. In the end he enjoyed introducing us to the backstreets of the Old Town and taking us to Kashgar’s most famous tourist sight – Id Kah Mosque. The largest mosque in China, it was built in 1442 and is a distinctive yellow brick building in Central Asian style. We hung out on seats next to it and shared a cold drink while letting some local kids play with Marie’s camera (which stayed safely around her neck, but they loved taking photos).

After saying goodbye to Calvin that evening we went out to find dinner. It was a challenge (as it was to be for our whole stay in Kashgar). Marie was in no mood to risk her stomach and the options we could find looked dubious, small shops not doing anything much by way of trade. Eventually, just as we were on the verge of passing on dinner entirely, in the busier area we found a noodle café with a good turnover of local people. It was fresh and good, but even after sticking to noodles and veggies Marie’s stomach wasn’t overly thrilled.

There has been much media attention recently on the number of Uighur Muslims and other Muslims in re-education programmes in the far West of China. Like in Tashkurgan there was a heavy police presence, but in Kashgar it is supplemented in the Old Town by police checks around the perimeter where locals had to scan their ID cards. As foreigners we didn’t have to go through these, we could just walk round them.

IMG_2654Kashgar’s ‘Old’ Town has mainly been bulldozed and rebuilt in the old style in the name of ‘progress.’ The rebuild is surprisingly charming and its spirit appears to have survived; craftspeople and artisans ply their skill and offer their wares, the smoke from street barbeques wafts through the air and there are endless children playing in the streets.

We spent the last day of the trip in our favourite travel mode – simply walking and exploring, taking the time stop and look around and engage with the locals.

Click on any image to enlarge and scroll through

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