Category Archives: Xinjiang

China 16 – Silk Road 13 – Up the Karakoram Highway

Full photoset @ flickr

The Karakoram Highway runs south from Kashgar across the Khunjerab Pass at nearly 5000m all the way down to Islamabad in Pakistan. Khunjerab means ‘Valley of Blood’ from the days when bandits guarded the pass and plundered anyone foolish enough to come through this way without the protection of a small army. The name Karakoram comes from the days of the Mongol Empire who used this route to reach their south Asian territories, Karakoram was the capital of the empire at the time.

I’ve joined a car for a couple of day’s tour exploring up these parts as the prospect of sitting on a bus looking at closed curtains and passing all the best scenery didn’t appeal too much. We head south across the Kashgar oasis and gradually into more dusty plains for a couple of hours before hitting the abrupt line of the northern flank of the Himalayas and into the Ghez Canyon which climbs all the way up to the high plateau through sheer sided walls with glimpses of high icy peaks way above.

When upgrading a road in China, the strategy seems to be to rip up the entire length in one hit, then maybe work on a little bit at a time occasionally while the rest of the stretch goes to hell turning a one hour trip into a five hour 4WD adventure. That was the lucky experience along the length of the canyon with most of the road reduced to single lane mud and rock – add to this the habit of drivers in China to drive at each other in an endless game of chicken, it added a bit of spice to journey. On the plus side, you don’t want to be in a hurry driving through this kind of scenery.

Eventually, back on proper road, we popped out at a dazzling blue lake surrounded by sand dunes of the Sarikol Pamir at around 4000m, and pass through an ever increasing scenery as the two massive peaks of Kongur and Mutzagh Ata mountains loom up at over 7500m each. We stop Karakul Lake for some amazing views across to these mountains, the ice bound tops and massive glaciers tumbling down the valley towards the lake with great reflections.

The road beyond takes over more high passes and through deep green lush valley floors dotted with round nomadic tents with grazing yaks and camels, flanked by stark barren mountains. Tajikistan and Afghanistan lie just over the ridge to the right.

We reach the small city of Tashkurgan set in a broad valley walled in by two long lines of imposing mountains. The 1400 year old fort gives incredible views of the vista in all directions (it was used in the filming of The Kite Runner). It feels far removed from China up here, more part of a Central Asian republic, with the predominant Tajik people and landscape more reminiscent of Afghanistan or Iran.

We have a great couple of hours wandering the fort and the grasslands below before heading back to Karakul Lake for the night.

By the time we reach the lake, the sun is angling low through high snow clouds making for some dramatic lighting as the day draws to a close. We stay in a nomadic tent and the temperature plummets (the tents inside are incredibly warm, fuelled by a hearty yak dung fire): clear skies, 4500m altitude and the proximity to so much snow and ice don’t make for balmy evenings.

The night sky is incredible with the Milky Way arcing overhead, the high Himalayas lit up by a bright moon. It’s a stunning sight to see which lasts as long as my ability to not shake violently with the cold.

Morning breaks with clear skies and more superb scenery. A few hours kicking around the lakeside and it’s time to head back to Kashgar and on to a flight to Beijing to pick up my Mongolian visa to begin the next leg of the adventure. This is the end of the Silk Road for me ….

China 14 – Silk Road 11 – A Central Asian Crossroads

Full photoset @ Flickr

Kashgar was a major hub in the Silk Road days. To the south lies the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan, the west is Kyrgyzstan with Afghanistan and Tajikistan in between and Kazakhstan further north. More Stans than you can shake a stick at. Being at such a strategic crossroads surrounded by regions ruled over by competing factions and warlords, it’s changed hands more times than a hot potato at a hot potato changing hands competition:

754 Tibetan Empire
840 Karakhanid Khanate
1041 Eastern Karakhanid
1134 Karakhitai Khanate
1218 Mongol Empire
1225 Chagatai Khanate
1306 Moghulistan
1392 Timurid dynasty
1432 Chagatay
1466 Dughlats
1524 Yarkent Khanate
1697 Dzungar Khanate
1759 Qing dynasty
1867 Emirate of Kashgaria
1878 Qing dynasty
1913 Republic of China
1933 East Turkestan Republic
1934 Republic of China
1949 People’s Republic of China

The people here are mostly Uighur with Tajik, Kazakh and ancestors of a host of other peoples who came in its heyday and never left. In the last twenty years a significant number of Han Chinese have moved here as part of the government’s resettlement programme, the cynic might say to Sinicise the area, something that doesn’t go down well with the more traditional inhabitants who are strongly Muslim. There’s a strong feeling of control going on here including posters displaying what is considered appropriate Muslim dress and what is forbidden (including hijabs, niqabs, veils of any description and any beards considered excessively Islamic). It’s not a touristy town, in fact many Chinese stay away from the area believing it to be some kind of hotbed for terrorism. It’s safer than a lot of Western cities that I’ve been in.

“Is the meat fresh at this butchers?”
Meanwhile, at the “Rest Assured That The Meat Shop” …

I’ve missed seeing the original old town. The historic buildings were torn down a few years back and replaced with a new old town made from concrete and sprayed with a synthetic mud to give the appearance of the original style. If you don’t know that it’s surprisingly got a very historic feel to it, largely due to the streets being filled with people selling all kinds of wares as it probably once was – various bazaars cater for different specialities including metal work, spices, carpets, musical instruments and hats. Oddly, it seemed every few shops popped up a back street dentistry … maybe not.

Dentest surgeon anyone?

While not Turpan heat, it’s still hitting low 40’s and with clear skies the sun is packing some punch. Ramadan is on, meaning the Muslim population are fasting during daylight hours and have taken on a decidedly lethargic attitude to everything. It’s contagious and a few hours of wandering the streets is enough to fog the mind and call for a siesta followed by a cold beer or two. There’s a good crowd in at the hostel, this pattern seems to continue for the next few days. I’m happy to turn down the pace a little after the last 10 days or so of constantly being on the move in the heat.

Lethargy – there’s a lot of it about
Street bazaar near the grand mosque

Evening brings more respectable temperatures and the day’s end to the fast kicks off with the opening of the night market street food, which the locals descend on with the vigour of hungry locusts. There’s all sorts of food on offer here, some recognisable, some not. I’m game to try just about anything including the sheep’s head, but I draw the line at stomach (bad experience in Morocco) and the “Fountain of Dysentery” – a dubious hose firing white liquid of some sort into the air and back into an entirely unsanitary looking trough. Good call as it happens, I meet someone later who tried this one and ended up three days in bed. It’s a noisy bustling affair, you squeeze onto tables where you can and get shouted at if you linger too long. Sensory overload.

The Fountain of Dysentery with special ameoba
The best meal $2 can buy …

China 13 – Silk Road 10 – A Hard Sleep and a Mysterious Canyon

Full photoset @ flick

I’ve arrived in Kuqa as a watery sun struggles to pierce the early morning smog. I’m a bit tired and grumpy from the overnight train due to sleep deprivation – it was an all-night circus going on with the Chinese lack of concept of personal space or consideration that people might be trying to sleep on a sleeper car, possibly so named from a Confucian sense of irony but I’m doubting that.

The hard sleeper cars are chicken coups set up in bays of two lots of three tiered bunks open to a narrow corridor the length of the carriage. It’s open game to have long conversations with someone at the other end of the carriage at a volume to overcome the distance, the noise of the train and the noise of other people doing the same. Add into this the curse of the Chinese mobile phone addiction which means people playing games and movies at competing volumes (nobody has heard of earphones seemingly) and the curious Chinese habit of a) watching your phone for a good minute while the ringtone plays at full volume before answering it and b) putting the phone on speaker mode then holding the speaker to your ear, then holding the phone out in front of you and yelling as loudly as possible (repeat this cycle for a good 15 minutes minimum). This went on all night.

Chinese hard sleeper carriage (chicken coup class)

My first impression of Kuqa is “what the hell have I come here for?”, possibly due to aforementioned sleep deprivation, possibly due to it being ugly and smoggy as hell. I’m more interested in getting out of the city to some of the remote sites but even my best haggling powers struggled to get a driver down below NZ$100 for the day – seems the distances were more than I realised and nobody was that desperate for business. I figure to cut my losses and catch the next train on to Kashgar, but that turns out to be at 2am the next morning, 20 hours away. I book that and go for Plan B – find a cheap hotel, get a shower and catch up on some sleep. At the hotel, I meet a couple of Korean and Chinese tourists who are wanting to head out to a canyon in the desert and figure I might as well chew up some time and tag along.

After a long drive through dust flat desert we reach a mountain chain and, shortly afterwards, the mysteriously named “Mysterious Grand Canyon of Tianshan”. The mystery being “what’s so mysterious about a canyon in the desert?”.

The “Mysterious Grand Canyon”

It’s a narrow cleft a few hundred metres deep with a thin stream running through with some nice sandstone patterns. Along the way up we reach a side canyon with the mysterious sign reading “… the whole valley twists and turns leaving anyone roaming inside with an endless aftertaste”. A bit like eating Durian fruit then.

Gaishi Valley – 5.2m wide and 5.2-6m wide, leaving an endless aftertaste …

Further up the canyon gets narrow enough to almost be a squeeze to get through before ending up at a small waterfall (more of a water-trickle really). The drive back through the dusty plain and intense heat send me off to a blissful slumber.

The Mysterious Canyon becomes a squeeze

I figure I might as well visit Kuqa’s one site to visit, a mausoleum and palace from the days when this was an important city in the now defunct country of Kashgaria. It’s pretty run down and a bit of a fizzer so I wander back through the markets, but even here it seems everyone is in a kind of torpor. Time for that shower and bed before the 2am train, which, as luck would have it, I find in a dreamy state of dormancy, not a sound. I’m rocked to sleep as the train pulls out, headed south the old capital of Kashagria itself.

Kuqa – even the locals struggle to find interest in it all …

China 12 – Silk Road 09 – Out of the Fire, Into the Fan Assisted Oven

Full photo set @ Flickr

The train glides into Turpan, the doors open and a wall of heat normally only found inside a fission reactor greets me. It’s the evening and the temperature is a bone dry 47 degrees. A bit like sticking your face into an oven on gas mark 6 to see if it’s heated yet.
Despite being thousands of kilometres from the nearest coastline, Turpan sits at 154 metres below sea level in the second deepest depression in the world. Daytime temperatures are hitting low to mid 50’s. Maybe I’ll crack out the shorts for that one then.

Winters here on the other hand are bitter as Siberian winds arrive dropping the temperature to -20 and below and then some for the wind chill. Spring time brings dust storms so I’m guessing there are a couple of days in late autumn when the climate is agreeable.

On my way out of the station, I meet a Ahmed, with light skin, fair hair and pale green eyes, he looks more Russian than Chinese, and speaks perfect English. He’s never taken a lesson and had learnt everything from watching movies apparently. He’s Uighur as it turns out and also a tour guide with an amazing knowledge of the history and culture of the area, and has a car as a bonus. I’m dropped at the hostel and arrange to meet the next day to tour the surrounding sites scattered far and wide around Turpan. The hostel’s a bare bones affair with no air con and a heat radiating off the walls that could grill bacon. Luckily they’ve given me a duvet in case it’s not warm enough for me.

Scenery north from Turpan
Karez aqueduct

The area around Turpan is one of the largest raisin producing regions in the world. The surrounding countryside is covered in vineyards with adobe drying houses scattered around. Despite the dry arid climate, Turpan is home to one of the engineering marvels of the ancient world, the Karez System – hundred of kilometres of underground aqueducts that have existed for thousands of years to bring water down from the distant mountains and turn the scorched earth green.

After travelling through long kilometres of grapes we reach the Flaming Mountains, so named because of the orange and red hues of the rocks that glow in the sun. Apt considering the already soaring temperature despite only being 7:30 in the morning. In fact they’re a bit murky today as fair amount of dust is blowing in from the desert.

Grape drying rooms for raisin production, Tuyoq town

We pass through an impressive gorge and reach the ancient village of Tuyoq, inhabited for thousands of years and home to the most sacred shrine for Uighur muslims – seven trips to this one is equivalent to one to Mecca apparently. There are also some 2nd century Buddhist caves in the cliffs close by which have somehow resisted centuries of attempts to destroy them by both muslims and the Red Book waving zealots of the 1960’s, mostly due to their apparent haunting by the spirits of massacred monks. Who said realism was dead?

Buddhist caves at Tuyoq
Tuyoq mosque

The countryside contrasts with stark barren mountains on one side and lush green vineyards at the other. The ancient Buddhist caves at Bezeklik weren’t so lucky as the caves at Tuyoq, local and passing muslim people have sabotaged the huge wall murals depicting scenes from the sutras and the life of Buddha. Portraits of living things (plants, animals, people) are considered haram and in their zeal for kuranic purity, any offending portion of these once amazing paintings dating from the 6th Century were chipped and ripped from the walls. What was left was largely looted by European and Japanese treasure hunters in the early 20th Century and then suffered further damage from bombing campaigns during World War II (I can’t think what anyone would have even been targeting way out here). Still, there are enough remains to get an idea of what once was, and the setting is dramatic enough.

The Bezeklik Cave complex

We visit some other villages and sites, stop for some lunch at a local hangout and then, early afternoon, arrive at the 1600 year old remains of the garrison town of Jiaohe on the edge of the desert. A thermometer nailed to a shady tree proudly proclaims that the temperature is currently sitting at 55°C which just pips my previous record of 54°C. The site was built on an island between two (now dry) river beds and built of mud and adobe. The city spread over around six square kilometres now mostly just the remains of walls and streets to wander along. The heat is radiating off every surface, my two litres of water has gone before I’ve even reached the far end and I’m feeling like I’m wandering about in a heat induced stupor. I’m sparing a thought for those ancient soldiers that used to have to stand out in this in full battle dress standing guard over the town.

The ancient ruins at Jiaohe
Emin Minaret

Last stop for the day is the impressive Emin Minaret built in the 18th Century and standing 44 metres high, it’s the tallest in China and one of the tallest mud brick structures in the world.

I’m on an overnight train to the west this evening, and fortune has it that as I mention this to Ahmed he tells me that it’s from a different Turpan station that lies an hours taxi ride to the south in the desert. Nothing like Chinese travel to keep you on your toes …