Ni hao ma, China!
Our original plan was to travel North through Kyrgyzstan, cross into Kazakhstan and enter China via a Kazakh-Chinese border crossing. But then we heard this crossing is only open in the summer season. As we felt winter closing in on us and heard stories about snow on Kyrgyz mountain passes we made a quick decision. Head straight East from Sary-Tash and enter China via the Irkeshtam pass, towards Kashgar.
China. We have come such a long way. The ‘stans were our halfway point of the journey, and everything beyond is Really Far Away. We just started to get fluent in reading the cyrillic road signs in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, now we’ll have to decipher Chinese characters for the next couple of months. We install some Chinese language apps on our phones and fingers crossed more people will be able to speak English than 16 years ago, when I visited China for the first (and last) time. Ni hao ma, China!
I would like to say that everything is completely different since crossing the border from Kyrgyzstan into China, but it is not. China’s westernmost Xinjiang province is predominantly muslim (Uyghur, to be precise) so we are still basking in the warm islamic glow of hospitality, courteousness, quiet modesty and good cheer. We thoroughly enjoyed getting to know islamic culture in the past couple of months and we will sure miss it when we start heading further East. There are other Central Asian features here that make us feel like we are not in the ‘real’ China just yet. The men wear traditional central Asian hats (Tajik, Kyrgyz, Uzbek or Uyghur), the women wear towering turban style headscarves. The faces are an eclectic mix of Central Asian, Turkic and Han Chinese. The Uyghur language is a form of Turkic, written in Arabic.
Since we are so deeply inspired by the incredibly generous hospitality of the muslim community in the past few months we commission a local calligraphy artist to make a small artwork for us. We ask him to write ‘A guest is a gift from God’. This is problematic. The wife of the artist phones him from his workshop to ask if he can do this but she cannot use the word God/Allah in a phone conversation. The Chinese government is cracking down hard on Uyghur separatists and intolerant of islam and there is fear of phone tapping. The artist comes up with a suitable alternative: A guest is/guests are a blessing for a home.
Since we changed our plan to cross into China from Kyrgyzstan we get to visit Kashgar, an old Silk Route trading town, set in an oasis on the westernmost edge of the enormous Taklamakan desert. It is one of those historical cities with a romantic ring to its name so I’m glad with this opportunity. It certainly lives up to it’s history and we spend almost a week enjoying the smells and the sights of this town.
After a beautiful ride from Sary Tash to the Kyrgyz border town of Nura and another half day spent putting our luggage through the various x-ray machines of the ‘Sunshine Service’ of Chinese immigration (‘Calm, Intelligent & Instant’ is their motto) we find ourselves in China. We spend one last night camping before we roll into Kashgar. It is love at first sight. Good asphalt, smiley people and food, glorious food. Another name for the Silk Road is the Spice Route and we love all the sugar and spice on offer in Kashgar. Ever since arriving in China a few days ago we are doing our best to forget about the limited food options of the Pamirs and we gorge ourselves on all the fresh and tasty dishes of Kashgars night market. Spicy-sour cold jelly noodles with chick-peas and coriander, baked mutton pastries, skewers of barbecued meat, fried tofu lollies with chili sauce, pomegranate juice, bagels and honey, pots of delicious saffron tea. We will try and regain some of the kilos we lost in the last month.
Apart from the culinary delights Kashgar is a joy to explore. The old town is small, the traffic is mostly electric and therefor quiet and clean, there are many pedestrian areas, the warm weather of late autumn is lovely after the cold of the Pamirs. Apart from one day when the sky is opaque because of a sand storm. We even feel the sand crunching between our teeth.
As we have quite a long time in Kashgar we are spending a few unhurried days with 5 cycling buddies who cycled with Cyril from Murghab and continued with us from Sary-Tash. Together we visit the huge bazaar and also the Sunday animal market, where people trade cows, sheep, goat, donkeys, yaks and camels. We see one old lady wandering around with two goats. A man is interested, he checks their teeth and lifts up one of the goats to weigh them. This must be a big day for village people, when they come to the big smoke with a few of their animals to sell. It is a hectic place full of strange sounds and smells. The animals are mostly quite calm but we still need to jump out of the way when a feisty bull is led away through the crowd. One man is doing an elaborate demonstration with a collection of live snakes.
Under the surface
One day we hire a local guide who takes us on a long afternoon stroll through the old town. He is also the one who introduces us to the calligraphy artist. Since it is a relatively small area we have seen most of the streets already, but it is interesting to see the city through the eyes of a local. We have some interesting conversations about changing life in Kashgar, Sufism, tourism and culture. He says Chinese tourists are not interested in his services, they only come to take pictures. Funnily enough we are also a bit of a tourist attraction. Some of the Chinese tourists like to point their long telelenses at us when we are enjoying tea in the historical tea house. We get to visit a local holy man and his wife at their home.
Big brother China
We are currently residing in the Kashgar Old Town hostel. A friendly if somewhat chaotic place ordered around a busy communal courtyard. Today we are the only Western tourists. The rest is Chinese, so this is where we are getting our first taste of the China beyond Xinjiang province.
Another way the Chinese influence is felt is in the way the government deals with this Uyghur outpost. Xinjiang is far away from Beijing (about 4.500km) and there has been a lot of unrest lately. One recent instance of violence is the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan by Uyghur separatists. The Uyghur people and their culture are systematically repressed in an ongoing political and cultural crackdown, resulting in occasional uprisings. On the surface it all feels very calm and relaxed here, but the Chinese oppression is nevertheless palpable.
One example is the calligraphy incident I mentioned before, another one is the tearing down of whole traditional Uyghur neighbourhoods. Only the Old Town has been renovated, adorned with Chinese and English signs explaining the history, to be kept as a tourist attraction. In effect this reduces this ancient but living culture to a museum park, or a zoo, sanitised for hordes of domestic and international tourists. The government furthermore offers big incentives for ethnic Han Chinese to move to Kashgar, in an effort to dilute the predominantly Uyghur population. Our tour guide tells us that the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese don’t mix, maybe in the next generation? The older Kashgar people don’t speak Mandarin but the children all learn it at school. There are checkpoints everywhere, we have to put our bags through x-ray scanners every time we enter a crowded area like a bazaar.
Despite this almost imperceptible tension under the surface we love Kashgar. We hope it will retain most of its warmhearted muslim culture despite the oppressive government interference. Tomorrow we will say goodbye to Kashgar and take a train to another historical place: Turpan. Then onwards to Xi’an (of the terracotta warriors) and finally Chengdu. If all goes well our bicycles and luggage will be waiting for us in Chengdu, we forwarded them with a transport company from Kashgar. From Chengdu we will cycle South towards Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.