Sept 10 – 24 Kashgar
The Eden hotel is yet another in the string of business type hotels that I have stayed in across China on this trip. It is next to the Chini Bagh (the old British Consulate, now a hotel, made famous in writings of the Great Game) where I had wanted to stay, but which had no room when I pulled into town exhausted and I know now quite de-hydrated. I immediately had some beer and a cool shower in the cool room I was given. That first night I had little sleep, as sometimes happens when you are over-tired, but in this case the dehydration meant that I had drunk too much (mostly water) becoming bloated and yet I felt parched and so had to keep wetting my mouth. Being awake I got to thinking too much as well, as I hashed over the various options I had. Goodness knows I had enough time (two weeks) to think this all through, but by morning I was out to the recommended booking agent and had bought a plane ticket to Beijing, deciding to hopefully alleviate the hassle of getting my bike across China and to the airport for my flight home. On that first day I also worked on my bike, changing both tubes and I headed off to a good bike store to talk about bike boxes. One of my multi-patched tubes failed and I ended walking my bike the rest of the way to the shop where I was able to buy new shraeder valved tubes for the first time since arriving in China. The tires have been fine since. By mid-afternoon that first day I was almost out on my feet. It took two more days before I began to gain back my energy. On my final day’s ride in, which I did in a rush, worried about my tires, I did with no food and without enough water. But possibly even more problematic, was the extended period of inadequate fluid and rest as I did the Silk Road. Even as I look back, just a few days after finishing this ride, I am very pleased with having done the ride, but I guess I could have done it better. Slower, more rest days, and certainly more stops to drink as I rode. As we get older it seems to be harder to drink as much as we need. How many times do you have to learn some lessons?
Over the next five days I did very little. I went to the Abakh Hoja mosque and tomb and the Sunday Market, but mostly I did leisurely walks or rides around town, absorbing things. I very much enjoy the market environment that seems to be everywhere. I love the people on the streets in Kashgar and am pleasantly surprised by the fun the little girls in their flowing robes show as they run or ride their bikes around. I buy and eat things off the street a fair amount and I look at the various things that are being “traded” today and imagine what would have been traded over the two thousand years that Kashgar has been a trading centre on the Silk Road. I still try to guess at the ethnic background of the people I see, even though I really have no clue and, being the cross roads Kashgar is, there are people here from all of the “stans” as well as the various Chinese ethnic groups. The men are fairly drably dressed as everywhere, but they have very interesting faces and there are a high number of white bearded old guys that are interesting. The women are often incredibly dressed. The traditional are dressed very colourfully, often sequinned and very flowing. The veils range from full veils to nothing, but it all seems very alluring and in the whole very attractive. The majority of women are not veiled and can be strikingly beautiful. As always it is the people that draw most of my interest.
I came to really enjoy my hotel and began to eat regularly in the hotel restaurant which seems to be Turkish, and have decided to stay and make it my home here in Kashgar. I also visited the hotels frequented by the western budget travelers and sometime had lunch or a beer there, and I used them as places to trade my books. At one hostel there always seems to be half a dozen cyclists mostly having arrived over the Irkeshtam pass from Krygystan, or trying to get permits to head that way. They all seem to spend an extended period here repairing their bikes, as I did, and figuring out how to get into Tibet, which they fail to do. Some carry on up the Karakoram highway towards Pakistan, some seem to be flying out to go home. None that I have talked with are planning on tackling the Taklamakan. I have not been in any other place that acts as such a cycling crossroads for extreme cyclists as Kashgar.
Sept 17-19 – Karakoram Highway by bus
I taxied to the bus station, deciding when it rained through the night and into the morning not to take my bike. In some ways that was a no win situation. If it was bad weather in the mountains I would think the decision to take my bike was bad, if good I would regret having left my bike behind. I was on a small bus, that probably would not have taken my bike, but it only cost 51Y for the seven hour ride,
The rain continued through the morning but as we entered the scenic Ghez River canyon where much of the climbing occurred the rain gave way to the normal arid climate. There are some lovely shaded parts of the highway leaving Kashgar and through some of the river sections, but mostly it is barren rock. The canyon is incredibly tight and they must have dramatic rock fall problems as big boulders lined the roads and a number of washouts have caused little deviations in the otherwise good road. Above the canyon, in a few flat sections Kirghiz nomad tents and their yaks, goats and sheep mix in with the Chinese construction of mines and official settlements that are seen everywhere in China. It is hard to imagine the Silk Road merchants, explorers and spies, making their way through this route. Xuan Zhang, for one, used this route to bring Buddhist sutras from India in the 6th century. The modern road, completed in 1986 through to Islamabad, took twenty years and cost 500 lives.
We passed Karakul Lake, where I would spend a night on my return, without stopping. I failed to see much there. We continued climbing up to a bit over 4000 m, before dropping to 3000 m at Tashkurgan, the main city on the Chinese side of the highway. I checked into the Traffic Hotel, near the station; I have seen a number of these around China, but this is the first I have used. It had some traditional two bed rooms like I am used to and a number of simpler four bed dorm rooms which I was not given the chance to use. My, fancier room was only 100Y and so I didn’t look further. There are a few other hotels in town that might be nicer, but the Traffic is fine. The people here are Tajik, a Persian people and pure Caucasian, mostly Muslim I believe. Walking around town was like being in a Mennonite settlement, the features of the people all quite similar. The men wear the same drab western clothes everyone in rural Asia seems to wear. The women are much more stylish, with the young often in western dress. A common feature for women is a pillbox type hat, often with a fine silk shawl holding it on. A small percentage are veiled. I failed to get a good look at the “Stone City” that Tashkurgan is named for.
Mid morning I took a bus back down to Karakul. Noting the snow along the road at the pass I guess I was not completely unhappy not to be cycling, although it would definitely have been possible and even pleasant. As I was walking from the road down to the lake I was besieged by young boys selling Yurt stays, horse or camel rides and a variety of bric-a-brac. I chose to go with the only woman among them and we walked around a boardwalk to her yurt overlooking the lake.
My hostess, a Kirghiz nomad, has little in common with the smartly dressed women in Tashkurgan and is ethnically more connected with the people of Western Tibet. Her little boy who I played with quire a bit during my stay looks nothing like the boys in the street in Tash. I slept on the floor of the Yurt using my sleeping bag and mat, along with the woman, her boy and her husband who came in from work around 9:30 at night and left at 7:00 the next morning well before the sun or the rest of us were up. Both parents seemed old to me, but how can you tell. I had three very basic meals with the family and spent some time walking along the lake. It was too cloudy to get good views of the two mountains that drew me here in the first place. Kongur (7719m) and Muztagh Alta (7546) bracket the lake and are fully glaciated. The latter must run for thiry km and it is said that you can see 21 glaciers flowing from it down towards the lake.
It was 9:30 (Beijing time) before the woman and I were able to stir from the warmth of our sleeping rugs; the boy took another hour. The yak stove gradually drove the cold of the night out of the Yurt but there was sill half a cm of frost on the boardwalk along the lake when I left at about 11:00. The clouds were beginning to build again and I decided against spending another day here as it was just not comfortable enough to walk about and there was no place to sit and read. I think I missed by a few days the opportunity to have a better visit.
Up at the highway I negotiated a ride to Kashgar in a truck with a couple of other people and so didn’t have to wait for the bus from Tashkurgan. I got back into the Eden hotel at about 3:00 pm. My final days in Kashgar, were spent doing more of the same: Walking and biking around town and most importantly eating.
I ate regularly on the street, soon finding favourite items and places to get them. I ate hot bread right out of the ovens I first saw in Ladakh, and a meat stuffed muffin cooked in the same oven. I had shish kebabs cooked in grills on the street, and a lovely sugar coated after meal treat I only found in one place. I had fruit, most notably the sweet green grapes I first had in Turpan. Most of my sit down meals were in the Turkish restaurant, a part of the Eden hotel where I continue to stay. I had a number of meals here, never the same one, all good and reasonable. My beer consumption was down, as the Muslim places do not sell beer; it was colder and I wasn’t doing anything physical, although beer is readily available in Chinese places. I had the odd meal in traveler type restaurants when I wanted to exchange a book or to seek travel information. In chatting with other western travelers, some of them cyclists, I found myself gleaning information regarding the issues of biking through the “stans” and on into Pakistan, in other words the rest of the Silk Road, although it is hard to imagine setting out on that venture soon. (In 2012 I returned to Kashgar with Rich King and we cycled the Karakoram and continued on through Pakistan into South India.)
Even after almost two weeks here, I continued to enjoy setting out on bike or foot to wander the town, particularly the “old town”. I love watching the people, most of whom, except for the kids, had no interest in me. The variation in dress and physical features speaks to the continuous mixing of peoples that has occurred here in the thousands of years Kashgar has served as a cross-road. The street market scene that is so much a part of life in all of Asia seems exaggerated here, and is one of constant fascination for me. Because I will not be biking on from here I am able to search for a few trinkets to take home. A large part of my enjoyment is the negotiation. I no doubt am no better than any other westerner, but it is fun all the same. I am not spending much and have little room anyway, so my expectations are low. It does put a bit more spice in the process when you can actually buy a few things. It is probably my glowing personality but a few of the merchants I met and dealt with treated me as a personal friend and gave me a great deal and so that felt good. I am easily had.
I will long treasure my time in Kashgar, as it has become one of my favourite ports of call.