Xian – where it ends, and where it began

This will be the final stop in my Silk Roads project!

But first let me digress a little about trains.

My Chinese overnight train trips have been somewhat pragmatic: Inevitably they have begun at bedtime and ended before breakfast and so have been all about getting to sleep and I’ve missed the subtle etiquette around sharing food and conversation so absorbing during longer journeys on Russian trains. It turns out sleep quality critically depends on successfully decoding each train’s label: We can ignore D trains – they might be supersonic 21st century bullets, but they don’t travel overnight and are only good for naps. T trains are overnighters and must be absolutely fabulous –  their tickets are invariably snapped up within seconds of going on sale; I never manage to see the inside of one.

Z trains are 20th century workhorses, but the 4 number version can on occasion be rather sophisticated.

The K9669 – lilac brocade, antimacassars, lace curtains and wide enough to sleep on my back – who could ask for more?

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_5946On the other hand 3 number Z trains have rock-hard seats and pillows evidently filled with actual rock dust.

The K553 en route through the Gobi desert – no fancy upholstery. Stuffing my jacket into my own pillowcase significantly increases the likelihood of a good night’s sleep, even when squashed on my side.

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I am currently on a G train which, it is now evident, is the lowest rung on the totem pole. Sleep is going to depend, not only on whether I can stay on my side all night, but also on how effectively I can convince myself that the bedding has been laundered in the recent past. On the plus side, the rest of the G train clientele evidently considers the 4 berth ‘soft sleeper’ an unimaginable extravagance, and I have not only the compartment, but the whole carriage to myself. As a consequence the attendant will be able to sleep through the night and is so happy he he has kept the sitting toilet open as my reward. Nonetheless I wimpily swap the next ‘G’ leg for a daytime D that will cover the distance in 1/4 the time and hence doesn’t need to provide linens, grimy or otherwise.

X’ian – where it began and ends

For three centuries after AD 618 Xian (then called Chang’an) was the greatest city in the world with two million inhabitants encircled by twenty two miles of ramparts. On its eastern side canals provided trade connections all the way to the South China Sea and the Western Gate marked both the end and the beginning of the Silk Roads.

The remaining ramparts, only 9 miles in circumference, encircle the previous inner city of Chang’an. More perfect for a leisurely bike ride if it wasn’t 90 degrees with proportionate humidity.

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The Western Gate

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That’s more like it – the outside of the ramparts are fringed with a quite lovely, and more to the point shady, municipal park.

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The park has something for everyone, especially this useful bed of pebbles for clockwise circling and exercising the feet.

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Historians claim the Silk Roads were established in the 2nd century BC but traffic started long before any written accounts. Chinese silk from 1500BC has turned up in tombs in Afghanistan, in the hair of a 1000BC Egyptian mummy and in a 600BC German grave. The caravans – sometimes a thousand camels strong – also took iron and bronze, lacquer work and ceramics, and brought glass, gold and silver, Indian spices and gems, wool and linen, slaves and at one time the startling invention of chairs from the west. But the same caravans never completed the whole route. The goods were interchanged in an endless complicated relay race, growing even costlier the farther they were from their source.

The Western Market, had two hundred guilds of merchants from almost every people between Arabia and Japan – Persians, Turks and Central Asians – Sogdians especially –  Indians, Bactrians, Jews, Syrians. The moneylenders were Uighurs. Today the Western Market is predominantly Hui Muslim.

The current western market maybe more prosaic, but equally popular

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For a place so far from the sea, grilled squid is unexpectedly popular

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Another lilac pillbox lady and dumplingista friends

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Lost in translation again

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In the second century BCE Xian became the chosen capital of Qin Shihuangdi, a near mythical tyrant who became the first emperor of a unified China. Qin conquered the fragmented feudal princedoms and knit them into a centralized bureaucracy with a cultural unity that has persisted since. So Xian and the Silk Roads flourished. But all did not stay well on the Western Front. As Colin puts it:

‘By the time of his death Qin Shihuangdi became a haunted idolater, searching in vain for the elixir of life. For seventy miles around his capital 270 palaces had been decorated in the native styles of the regions he had conquered, and furnished with their food and concubines. Now these palaces were linked with covered passageways down which the ageing emperor, terrified of assassination moved neurotically, continually, never sleeping in the same bed twice…Yet he died a thousand miles from his capital….for weeks he was carried back to Xian from the coast. Eventually the corpse became so putrid that a wagon of rotting fish was summoned to accompany the closed litter to hide its stench’.

For two millenia grass grew over his neglected mausoleum. Then in 1974 peasants sinking a well broke into a vault were life-sized terracotta warriors stood mysteriously to arms. Soon they uncovered a whole buried army, mustered to guard the paranoid emperor through eternity.

Each of the soldiers in the terracotta army look endearingly different – a charioteer

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Even a section for the pets

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Quite surprisingly most of it hasn’t been excavated yet, and it doesn’t look like there’s any rush.

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The stability following unification allowed the Silk Roads to flourish then in 618 Xian became the capital of the Tang dynasty. But it all collapsed precipitously as the Tangs turned their faces back towards the east.

The massive Tang Dynasty palace is also unexcavated, real people barely seen on top, for scale.

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Some more things I learned about China in Xian

Chinese girls like to dress up

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Where possible they persuade their boyfriends to join in

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When its wedding time everyone gets into the swing

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Even when it’s 90 degrees

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I buy a ticket for an opera about the cultural revolution. The actual performance is a chorale of classical songs

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The ushers are very assiduous. They are equipped with red lasers which they use to illuminate antisocial behavior (examples, shuffling feet, turning round, taking a photo of the performers)

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But unexpectedly afterwards, the cultural area of Xian is illuminated too.

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A short detour towards Tibet, or: Buddha Inc.

The plan is a quick overnight in Lanzhou and an early start tomorrow to Linxia and eventually Xiahe, site of the largest Tibetan monastery in China. It starts, as these things so often do, not well. Neither the taxi driver nor his extended family are able to locate my hotel and even Maps.me gives up the ghost. Eventually I am abandoned in downtown Lanzhou, for mine millenial host of the ‘Orange Hotel’ to collect me, grumbling.  Strangely the hotel appears to be located on the 20th floor of one of those buildings whose crumbling concrete is clearly living on borrowed time. Even more strangely it appears to be an apartment belonging to someone’s grandma (not in residence).

Cast: Mine millenial host; Me. Fortunately MMH speaks English, of a sort.

Me: What’s THIS?

MMH: It’s the room you booked.

Me: No it really isn’t, it doesn’t look anything like the pictures on the site (besides a very well appointed room Trip.com also promised a bath, which I have been fantasizing about for the last 4 hours on the ‘farmer’s train’). Why is it called Orange Hotel?

MMH: This is not exactly a hotel, it’s a homestay. That picture is my room (clearly elsewhere). If it is unavailable we assign you another one (huh? has the scam revealed itself?).

ME: Trip.com said nothing at all about any of that.

MMH: (Eyes start to swivel, we’ve been here before). That’s a problem with their website.

I launch into full excoriating mom mode. He sees his Trip Advisor future flash before his eyes.

MMH: OK how about I take you to the bus station tomorrow to make up for it.

(The bus station is miles away and will be even more of a pain to find, so as the ads say – priceless).

Me: (But I am relentless and bitter because of the bath) – OK, at 8am.

On inspection the building is actually full of students. I find a great dinner, sleep well and am awakened in plenty of time at 7am when all the students (on the 20th floor at least) start simultaneously having sex. At 8am sharp here is MMH in his knock-off aviators and the same white Honda CRV the security forces in Xinjiang drive (a complete coincidence I’m sure). Quick as a flash I’m on the bus and a mere 2 hours later in Linxia (the Trip Advisor review has already been posted).

I am being rather unfair, some attempt has been made to spruce up the unfortunate accommodation; this is it.

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Linxia

I’m interested in majority Muslim Linxia AKA ‘China’s Mecca’. Home to Hui rather than Uighurs and their attendant mosques (more than 80) and sundry Sufi mausoleums it is far more overtly religious than any of the Xinjiang towns. Funnily enough though, no police seem to be required, and co-existence appears relatively seamless, superficially at least (foreigners are only allowed to stay in the Chinese quarter, at one specific hotel). In fact it is a totally unexpected pleasure – a soft spring day with the blossoms exploding and the mostly veiled women out in force, socializing gravely, apart from their menfolk.

Mosques galore

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Stately Sufi mausoleums

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The Sufi in question

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The blossom is out

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Along with everyone, but no-one wants their picture taken.

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A stolen picture, the men are across the street

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Another unexplained back-story in the park

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Store front dentistry

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Illegal furs, the leopard is hidden away (no photos please)

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Can’t resist the colors

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But Linxia is also being co-opted into the great Silk Road tourist machine, as is evident from a tarted up market area complete with bronze camels. Since Linxia has nothing at all to do with the Silk Road the whole effort is being roundly ignored.

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It doesn’t take long to figure out the lack of consensus re: the length of the bus ride from Linxia to Xiahe.  It turns out the conductor’s job is mainly to drum up customers (Initially I’m sympathetic since we set off with only three passengers).  Which means first we stop for breakfast just round the corner and acquire about a dozen more, then, whenever a pedestrian is spotted beside the road, we slow down to walking pace so the conductor can lean out of the door and pitch them the idea of a nice trip. Their success rate is maybe 1 in 4 but to their credit we do finally make full house, about 20 minutes from Xiahe, a mere 4 hours later.

Has another sucker fallen for an impromptu trip? And what’s with the lilac pillbox – clearly a sect, lots of people sport them – but which one?

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Xiahe

Xiahe is at 10,000 feet so I’m not sure whether the feeling that I’m going to pass out is due to the altitude or my horrible cold. The nice Tibetan host of my hotel immediately starts an intensive lemon and honey regime and seconds the other guests, a couple of pleasant Indian guys from Bombay, as my babysitters for the English language tour of the Labrang monastery.

Home to more than 1000 Tibetan and Mongolian monks from the ‘Yellow Hat’ sect Labrang is staggeringly huge and a humming business machine.  There are hundreds of temples and visiting monks get a whole village full of Buddhist necessity shops (saffron colored everything from washing bowls to dish detergent). Disappointingly, no photos of the highly ornate interiors and Buddhas. Disappointingly too, our Buddhist monk guide spends most of our time rearranging his robes to more fetchingly display his upper arms and prodding my new Indian friends about the latest Bollywood movies (that we are told he watches avidly on his smartphone) than giving us any useful or accurate information, so we leave not much wiser than we arrive. We do notice several pictures of the Panchen Lama at different ages, presumably to reassure the faithful he is still alive. ‘He comes to visit often’ our guide lies to us smoothly, who knows why (the poor kid has been disappeared for years).

Labrang monastery was built in the 1700s, it is the largest outside Tibet.

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Many inaccessible courtyards

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And once more, no indoor photos

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I can’t remember what this is called but people process along it clockwise, spinning the cylinders.

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In fact walking clockwise round buildings while surreptitiously chanting seems to be a big thing in general.

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Walking clockwise, but presumably not at this moment praying,

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We are told the monks are practicing for a big philosophical debate. The guide is not prepared to tell us about what.

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After we ditch our unlikable guide the printing ‘press’ is much more forthcoming; thousands upon thousands of sutras.

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the likely lads of the press are sloping off but shape up when I appear. One holds the paper over the sutra the other rubs on the ink.

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Then they toss it to him who stacks it up. They have thousands to get through today.

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The benevolent printing master, the only monk who lets me take his picture.

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Eat your heart out Syracuse and Iowa, these are yak butter sculptures for this year’s competition (they smell vile).

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It is disconcerting to be around such pervasive and intense displays of religion. Everyone is muttering under their breath and even the maids in the hotel are Oming as they clean the rooms, much to my confusion.

The perfectly lovely (and sparkling clean) Tibetan Family Hotel

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After I beg for ‘Anything as long as it’s not Chinese’ Madame rustles me up a fine yak curry.

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It occurs to me that not all my problems are due to the fact that I don’t speak Chinese (although it certainly doesn’t help – current vocabulary – ‘Hello’ ‘thank you’ ‘sorry’ and ‘noodles’ [I don’t think ‘bye-bye’ should count]) but that no-body else round here does either. I must be back at Lanzhou station by 8:30 to catch my overnight train onward to X’ian. Mine nice Tibetan host, who speaks perfect English, but who, as we will see evidently doesn’t read Chinese, pooh-poohs the idea of the noon bus (the fast express that will hoof it along the highway all the way back to Lanzhou in a mere 31/2 hours). ‘You’ll be at the train station far too early’ he says ‘And what will you do there? Wait here comfortably with your lemon and honey and catch the 2:30’.

Mine host. A great number in lemon and honey, not so much in travel advice.

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At 2:00 I’m at the bus station asking for the Lanzhou express and by 2:15 they’ve found someone who can give me the news – ‘tomorrow’ – apparently the 2:30 is not an express and horrors! only goes to Linxia. Still, buses onward to Lanzhou are frequent and in theory I can still make the train. Everybody rallies round but only in Tibetan and Hui,  thereby precluding GT, and I can only deduce the bus driver’s assurance we can arrive in Linxia by 4.  This seems highly unlikely, as our subsequent progress confirms (impromptu trips to Linxia are less popular so we go even more slowly). In fact it is now 4:45 and here we are still about 15km outside Linxia at a complete stop again and I am seriously failing at being Buddhist about it all as the rest of the passengers earnestly recommend (I think).  But wait! the millenial who now bounds aboard seizes my backpack and me, disgorges my roly bag from the bowels and hustles us all across 6 lanes of traffic. There, inexplicably, facing the other direction is another stationary bus – the Linxia-Lanzhou express. The conductor (bless him suddenly) has somehow intercepted it. Our new conductor has got himself another customer and I arrive at the station handily by 7:30. The train however is delayed until 11:00.

 

Part 2, the throat

If the gates of Dunhuang opened China’s mouth to the Western lands,  then the black mountains of Ala Shan to the north and the snow-capped Qilian mountains to the south funnel the mouth into a throat. In between, the string of interconnected oases of the Hexi corridor ensure at least travel westwards from the Yellow River is bearable. But between the mouth and the throat, where the Great Wall reaches its westernmost end, most emphatically, the epiglottis.

Colin is good about this:

‘To the north rose the tormented Black mountains, to the south the Quilian massif floated like an astral ice-field while between them the last of the Great Wall came stumbling in, broken, after its two-thousand mile journey from the Pacific. It crossed the plain in chunks of ramped earth, then heaved itself round the ramparts under my feet, before meandering south to seal the pass under the mountain snows’.

Going up the Wall at the Black Mountains:

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From the way down

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Well trodden steps

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It turns out Colin has the same question I’ve been struggling with: ‘Wait, what WAS the Great Wall for exactly’? As a device to keep out the Mongol and the Hun it failed spectacularly: they breached it whenever they had a mind to, never mind all the bodies built into it to rebuff evil spirits. Apparently there’s an answer: quite a bit of academic capital has been invested in the notion that the the Wall was mostly a demarcation between ‘us in here’ and ‘the others out there’. To emphasize the point, the Ming emperor constructed the ‘First and Greatest Pass under Heaven’, the Great Fort at Jiayuguan as the epicenter of the epiglottis, with this clear intent in mind. I get to see it and I’m in.

Colin is good about this too:

‘But its ramparts still carved a harsh geometry above the desert. Their raked walls and heavy crenellations shone flax-pale in the young light…..Then the weight and the mass of the inner fortress crowded in. Its iron-belted gates were folded ajar…Above the gateways the turrets’ beams were painted with scenes of rural peace, but beneath them the fort turned grimly functional. In the dog-legged baileys attackers would be mown down from walls which loomed vertically for forty feet on all sides. Wide ramps mounted to parapets which became highways for cavalry, five abreast. The entrance tunnels ran thirty-five yards deep’.

None of my photos are going to do Colin’s prose justice.

The Wall and the fort intersect

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The watch towers punctuate the massive ramparts

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The garrison nestled uncertainly inside

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With surgical precision the Ming emperor designed one particular spot – the Runnguan Gate of Sighs – as the tangible demarcation between the ancestral Empire and the outer darkness; it has seared itself into the collective consciousness.

Looking westward we see the long, long road.

Only the brave cross the martial barrier

Who is not afraid of the vast desert?

Should not the scorching heat of heaven make him frightened?

The Gate of Sighs unfolds in three orchestrated stages

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Gate the First

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Gate the Second

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Gate the Third: The unknown emerges tentatively through the double doors

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Silk Road merchants passed through voluntarily, others weren’t so lucky.

‘Down its tunnel the flagstones are worn with exiles’ feet. Its ramp lifts to the empty sky and the empty desert. People went out in terror…. the tunnels were carved with farewell verses scratched by shamed officials as they exchanged their sedan chairs for carts or camels, and as late as the last dynasty, common convicts trudged westward with their whole families in tow, their foreheads tattooed in black characters, without hope of return.’

Shamed Madame of the diorama sees the Western desert and evidently doesn’t like it

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A camel in waiting

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Meanwhile in the other direction some Silk Road likely lads (but not ours, you can tell by the beards)

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And lickety spit here’s a tax bill; understandably they’re deeply skeptical

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But wait Colin – what’s with this ‘young light?’ If anything it’s more like ‘deeply weary’ – a mere pivot and we can figure out why.

The rather less romantic back-side of the fort

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21st century Jiayuguan turns out to be horrendously polluted. The air has a worrying metallic taste and the population are swaddled in scarves and masks up to their eyeballs (I am seriously under-dressed). My room in the highly adequate Jiayuguan Hotel has not one but four sources of water: First, the expected faucet in the bathroom; the second, beside it, is marked ‘potable’. Since the third is bottled water, I deduce the secondary faucet must be for brushing teeth (in an abundance of caution I usually brush my teeth with bottled water, but sometimes if I’m feeling lucky I’ll put tap water in the kettle. However, I’ve definitely got the message that in Jiayuguan no tap water should pass the epiglottis). To reinforce, the floor attendant struggles in with a jeroboam of purified water for the kettle. And frantic hand signals, presumably to prevent me being poisoned

The ever helpful Hotel Jiayuguan. For those of us having trouble orienting to time and place.

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Unusually the population are holed up inside eating, meaning I have to commit to a restaurant rather than making a selection based on peering over people’s shoulders.

The night market has migrated indoors so folks can discard their masks to eat.

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My strategy is to randomly point at something with the price point I’m interested in. In this case 24Y ($4)

I seem to have ordered tripe (Peter Kadzis this is for you) it was delicious!

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Next day the air is even worse and my sinuses are screaming in protest: time to leave town.

Along the Hexi corridor

Let’s sample one of those oh-so convenient oases, and so Zhangye it will be. Convenient it is and also a cozy little market town. The folks at the Silk Road Travelers Hostel are hosts extraordinaire despite their choice of mattresses (tip, next time spring for the full thickness one). They arrange a mammoth 12 hour outing up into the Qilian mountains, to the deep satisfaction of all.

Some of this tour’s companions; unexpectedly the Koreans ‘Brian’ and ‘Wendy’ – we shared a compartment, some cookies and a pleasant nap a couple of train rides ago. He has a bucket list longer than my arm, she has videos of the grand-kids clutched to her heart. Ann-Sophie en-route to New Zealand to milk cows for a year was all the way back in Turpan, it’s starting to feel like the real Silk Road.

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Yet more thousand Buddhas, this time it’s do-it-yourself.

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Up unsteadily through the cliff

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The payoff, right at the top.

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A second set with a different, more typically Chinese, vibe

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And off we go

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Apparently the money means there are Taoist influences

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Not sure about the candy

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Sorry but there’s got to be a door

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Lost in translation. Fish noodles mean noodles that don’t really look like fish, not what they’re served with, which is not fish.

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Zhangye is really rather nice, but I’m too old for the fakir experience I’m having on this mattress so I cut out early. Next, a slight detour toward Tibet.

 

The mouth and the throat of the empire: Part 1, the mouth

At last, welcome to Gansu province! Five ways we know we have left Xinjiang:

  • There are no policemen in full-body armor.
  • Crossing the road does not require a full-body search
  • The only cameras are hanging above the highways, to keep the drivers honest (the speed limit seems to be 30 miles an hour).
  • My passport elicits interest only re: eligibility for senior discounts.
  •  SIM cards no longer represent a security threat.  I pop into China Telecom on the off-chance and the NYL obligingly fishes one out of her handbag for half price and, with a wink, that pesky registration problem is taken care of.

So Dunhuang can focus its energy on being a perfect little tourist town, a bit prissy perhaps, but with an agreeably strong food suit, especially in casseroles.

That’s more like it! The gloriously pretentious Wang Shen International Hotel, fresh flowers b.t.w, even in $25 rooms like mine.

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Dunhuang’s specialties, carefully translated for our edification.

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At least 5 kinds of raisins are needed to be a contender.

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Writing is a la mode. ‘Burt by Enihusiam’ just about sums it up.

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Go masters on every corner

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‘Hallo’ they say. ‘Hallo!’ I reply. ‘How are you? Are you good?’. Whispers and a rapid consensus ‘Yes’ they tell me firmly.

Not pictured, parents bursting with pride.

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But enough trivialities! Tourists are here with a serious agenda: Mogao, the ne-plus-ultra of Thousand Buddha Caves. Constructed between the 5th -14th centuries they are the source of the most extensive collection of Buddhist art in China (of course much of it has ‘migrated’ to random Western European museums in the intervening). No takers for the English language tour other than me; I still get the full two hours worth, but not as I hoped, a look round more of the caves (we visit 8 in total). It IS all very spectacular, but no photos at all (‘no photos’ is often different from ‘no cameras’ which sometimes means cell phones are OK, but not here sadly). Apparently an army of art school students is working on a complete reproduction, racing against the time when all the lead-based paint will oxidize to black. So Google images it will have to be folks.

This nine level pagoda barely houses the 36m Buddha; either the top or the bottom is original Tang dynasty construction (I forget which).

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While the influence of artisans from Central Asia, India and Tibet remains strong here, we are picking up more Chinese style, non-existent further west, as we work our way toward the belly of the Empire.

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Dunhuang: The mouth of the Empire and the start of the Silk Road

The two gates to the south of Dunhuang are iconic. They funneled both the northern route of the Silk Road across the Gashun Gobi desert to Turpan and then Kashgar (my route, in red) and the southern route through the wastes of the Kum Tagh (Sand mountains) via the oases of the Taklaman* desert to Kashgar (in blue). The Southern route, site of military installations and now Uighur detention camps, is currently a no-go for tourists.

Map

*Misspelled on the map (sorry)

But they are more than 60 miles away! I appeal to the tourist office and for once in my life the satisfyingly comprehensive tour leaves tomorrow (as opposed to yesterday). For a mere 78Y (about $13) they will pick me up at 8:30am in their ramshackle bus and in 12 hours, provided the clutch holds out, will deliver me back with all boxes checked.

Our motley tour group: Not shown, the princess who is always late, being late. Everyone (except me) is preternaturally patient. Her parents, sitting at the back and apparently tasked with documenting her experiences on a minute by minute basis, seem to be enjoying the break.

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Princess in a rare unphotographed moment (except surreptitiously by me). She has bought her Mulan style outfit specially for the trip, from the Internet.

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To be fair we all get into the swing of it

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The Dunhuang municipality takes its responsibilities seriously, never passing up the opportunity for a bit of historic re-enactment. He is re-enacting a ticket collector.

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In fact collecting taxes was the gates’ main purpose. These sticks are the accounting of them. They also tell the unhappy story of some poor sod who accidentally sent the wrong beacon signal (it did not end well).

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Less prosaically they furnished the absolute last contact with the Empire, before the wastelands of the west and the onslaught of those terrifying nomads.

Yangguan, the Sun Gate

‘A morning rain has settled the dust in Wei City

Willows are green again by the tavern door

Do not leave until we have drained one more glass of wine

To the west of Yangguan you will meet no more old friends’.

Wang Wei

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To the west of the Sun Gate, south, towards the Sand mountains.

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The camels will handle it.

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Yumenguan, the Jade Gate

‘For years to guard the Jade Pass and the River of Gold

With our hands on our horse whips and on our sword hilts

We have watched the green graves change to icy snow

And the Yellow River ring the Black Mountain forever’

Liu Zhongyong

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To the west of the Jade Gate, north toward the hostile Gashun Gobi, where the temperature can fluctuate 30°C in a single day.

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Original industrial espionage. Silkworm eggs were embedded in the drawing; and so silk production was smuggled to the Western lands.

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After more sights than even I have boxes for, thoroughly exhausted and with decreasing confidence the clutch will hold out, we turn at last towards home.

But wait! Everyone leaps out for one last photo. ‘The moon!’ they gesture exuberantly.

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Moon over the Jade Gate Pass

‘A bright moon rises over the Mountains of Heaven

Lost in vast oceans of clouds

The eternal wind, across thousands upon thousands of miles,

Blows past Jade Gate Pass’

Li Bai Yje

Of course.

 

Turpan turns the tide

I’m definitely ready for a warm welcome in Turpan, not least because as the lowest town in China it’s not coincidentally the hottest. But first the unforced transportation errors incurred in part by the distractions of the last few days but mostly by the (not unreasonable) assumption that Turpan railway station would be in, well, Turpan, and that Turpan North might be located, well, north of Turpan. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact Turpan station is located in some hell-hole 40 kilometers north of Turpan and I never will find out where south of Turpan oh-so-convenient Turpan North is.

So here I am on the overnight train from Kuqe to Urumqi that will actually pass through the Turpan hell-hole en route to Urumqi yet also in possession of a ticket from Urumqi to said hell-hole that in total will add 4 hours onto the journey. Fortunately the vagaries of time in Xinjiang (railways run on Beijing time whereas the ever recalcitrant population doesn’t) kicks in to make it all work out: In the outward direction I get a couple of extra hours sleep – infinitely preferable to ending up miles away from anywhere at 4am (6am Beijing time) and I can theoretically enjoy the scenery as we return to Turpan-hell-hole in the daylight.

She soon warmed up to me, but not so much to mom who has seemingly brought her on a 4 hour trip without any toys or books, and then even refuses to surrender her cell phone. We make do with foreign coins. The scenery wasn’t up to much anyway.

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Turpan Station ‘security’ are bitterly apologetic they can make neither head nor tail of  the instructions Kuqe has sent on about what to do with me. An executive decision is made: ‘Bye Bye’ they say cheerily and ‘Thank you for your co-operation!’ in surprising Portuguese on their  GT.  I even manage to find a cheap taxi into town.

The Dap International Youth Hostel lives up to its Internet hype: the welcome is warm, the beds are hard and the beer is cheap and more to the point cold. Best of all the usual constellation of intrepid Aussies and various European hangers-on – the first Westerners I’ve seen in weeks – are all up for a good time. Among this crowd travel destinations not hair color is the currency, so I play my ace card, Burma, and I’m in. Off we go for dinner (the usual minced lamb that can be wrapped up as dumplings or samosas or, in this breathtaking innovation, pizza) and rent a minibus to see the sights.

This bed, perched on a concrete platform, is precisely as uncomfortable as it looks. Also, what’s with the flannel sheets? Even though its still theoretically winter its at least 80 inside.

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The neighborhood. Never figured out what this was selling

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The crew. For Aussies we have a chef and his NPR podcaster brother and a couple of teachers from somewhere in the bush.  Spot the Portuguese economists (no doubt the inspiration for the train station security GT). The redoubtable Anna (Australia by way of Hong Kong and now Shanghai) provides exuberant if fractured Chinese translation. What a great crowd. Poor things are headed for Kashgar next week.

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First on the agenda (actually second but I think we get the Thousand-Buddha drift at this point, and in any case Le Coq got there first) are the ruins of Karakhoja on the edge of the Lop desert. Originally built as a garrison town by the Han empire in the 1st century BCE  it developed into a major commercial hub. The sheer immensity of the site even though it is pretty much in ruins brings it home how the Silk Road wasn’t just lonely camels pacing off into the moonlight but rather a multinational commercial enterprise with a vast infrastructure of support.

Despite many attempts my inadequate iPhone 6 (and its handler) are unable to convey the sheer immensity of the site. But when we have finished circumnavigating the walls it tells me we have walked nearly 6 miles.

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Apparently Karakhoja, like many Silk Road metropolises fell off the map in the 14th century because of  glacier retreat in mountains we can’t even see. Cue the locals swooping in and hustling off all the building materials they could carry. Final stop is to the village of Turoq to admire what good use they made of them. Here Uighurs are allowed to do their thing largely unassailed provided they let hordes of tourists cough up $5 to stick cameras into their stoic faces.

Scenes from village life, spot the antique bricks

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Someone dreams of Van Gogh

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Such careful poses

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But these guys haven’t quite got it down yet

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Unassailed, but not necessarily unsurveilled

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Later we venture into the neighborhood for dinner.

Madame of the sheep’s-rump fat (tastily grilled). Dinner for eight 158Y  (about $26). Later, beer for eight 40Y ($7).

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Bidding my own Bye Bye to Xinjiang tomorrow – Gansu province here we come!

Kuqe: a tragicomedy in three acts

Kuqe peaked during the Tang dynasty with that unbeatable combination of Buddhist scholarship and perfumed ladies, so not surprisingly yet another must-see for Silk Road caravans headed away from civilization to who knows where. Well that was then; as for now, we’re in the middle of a sandstorm when the K9720 overnight from Kashgar pulls in, and it’s going rapidly downhill from there.

No less than three different SWAT teams have excavated ‘What is your itinerary?’ from the depths of their Chinese GT and one has even insisted I perch inside their fetid bunkhouse while they commune with higher powers as to my fate, which finally involves an armed escort to the Kuche Grand Hotel in the police van and intense scrutiny as I check in.

The considerable disagreement on the Internet as to whether the Kuche Hotel is legitimately ‘Grand’ is easily resolved on inspection. The building presenting itself to the road is indeed a bona-fide 5 star, but the ramshackle assortment round the back (where the Internet usually ends up) are barely holding onto 2 and certainly the freezing and filthy room 316 deserves none, especially since the plumber who just came to reinstate the sink has left his debris all over the floor.

The view from vile room 316 in the sandstorm, enough said.

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This in fact says it all

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To be fair the 5 star (where we eat) has a killer breakfast replete with unusual quantities of recognizable, if not identifiable, vegetables, for a change

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I’m just completing my catalog of complaints when yet another SWAT team shows up this time featuring the Kuqe Director of Immigration. The good news, that he at least can converse in English, is somewhat obscured by whatever he has spent the early morning drinking. I’ve had enough ‘It’s OK!’ I tell him cheerily ‘I’m not immigrating, I’m on vacation!!’ and close the door firmly.

 Kuqe: A tragicomedy in three acts

Recall that all conversation is through GT

Prologue: I have just returned from the 5-star tourist office, where Dragon-lady has offered me a driver who demands twice the going rate for half the usual number of sites, to confer with the NYL at the desk who so obligingly moved me into desirable Building 9 where the rooms are undergoing haphazard renovation and mine has been more or less completed.

Me: That was a very expensive price can you help?

We both become aware of a spectral presence in our peripheral vision.

SP: I can do it for 350Y

Methinks: Fantastic! (350 Y is my aspirational price) but why is he is proposing it as a first offer?  Dragon Lady must have been worse than I thought.

Me (aside to NYL): Is this a good man?

NYL in highly ostentatious spoken GT: ‘You can rest assured of that!!!’

Me: So, I want to go to the Subashi village and the Kizil caves tomorrow, is that OK?

SP: Yes that is OK

Me: What time and what is your name?

SP: I will meet you here at 10am. My name is Akbar. (charming self-deprecating smile) I used to study English in university, but I’ve forgotten so much!

Me: Well we’ll practice tomorrow Akbar! See you then!

Act 1: My surprisingly assiduous guide.

About 30 minutes later I emerge from Building 9. But here is Akbar, and he has brought a friend.

A: Where are you going?

Me: I’m going to the Uighur quarter, it’s to the left isn’t it?

A: Yes. I can take you.

Me: That’s OK, I want to walk.

A: You want to walk alone?

Me: Yes. See you tomorrow!

LP tells me the walk will take 40 min. It is along an extensive and incredibly ugly wall  framed in razor wire and plastered with ghoulish inspirational posters. Every 100 meters the police checkpoints generate an ‘Oi!’ followed by a frenzy of passport checking and photographs. Eventually one fixates on my Cambodian visa and hauls me off up the food chain. A beat-up grey car appears in my peripheral vision, waves him off and somehow I am free to go, but I am dispirited. Maybe a cab there? I move over to the curb. The car glides in.

A: Would you like a ride?

Methinks: What just happened? But why not, save the cab fair?

Me: OK Akbar thanks! Akbar are you keeping an eye on me?

A: No (but he blushes up to his ears).

Methinks: Nice young man

The Uighur quarter mosque was rebuilt after earthquake damage, but may not survive this round of official neglect

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A: Want to have lunch?

Methinks: How sweet and why not, they’ll take me to a better place than I could find myself.

Delicious $1 kebabs (I pay)

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A: Now we’ll go to the palace

I really don’t want to go to the palace, an ugly Chinese reconstruction but somehow I find myself persuaded.

A nice example of the quality of the palace artifacts

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Inside there is only one other visitor – a random milenial who looks just like the pseudo-tourists in Kashgar –  precisely the last person who would voluntarily pay $8 to admire ersatz history, in fact he’s paying more attention to me. I fake him out handily and disappear into the bazaar. Unfortunately in the middle of the afternoon it is deserted and provides little cover.

Scenes from village life, when its mostly absent

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But round the corner here comes Akbar, looking somewhat flustered.

A: We will go back to the hotel now. You are not allowed to go out at night.

Methinks: Wait, what?

Fortunately I am so full from lunch I can’t face dinner, and I have plenty of time to try and figure out what’s going on. Its about 8 o’clock when it finally dawns on me.

Act 2: A nice day out

As anticipated, any pretense of a client relationship has evaporated come the morning and Akbar seems to have reverted to his normal personality, which is rather morose. We bump into each other at least an hour before the agreed-on time.

A: Let’s go.

Me: OK (I turn to Akbar’s friend) What’s your name? (He thinks for a minute)

AF: Eshe

E: Can I smoke?

Me: pointing to the no-smoking sign in Chinese on the dashboard:  maybe your boss won’t like it.

Any lingering doubts I have are quashed when ‘Eshe’ spends the ride smoking and yelling into the walkie-talkie I now notice also on the dashboard, and we are waved through all the checkpoints (the hapless rookie tries to pull us over gets his head handed to him on a plate). At the final checkpoint we pick up an extra, even more surly, Chinese passenger.

Me: Who is this man?

A: He is a friend. We will take him where he can catch a bus.

The Kizil Thousand Buddha caves are worth the drive. Constructed between the 3rd and 8th century they are the earliest Buddhist caves in China, their style derived from the elusive Gandhar kingdom thought to have been located in the Afghanistan/Pakistan area. They underline the importance of the Silk Road as a conduit for religion and culture as well as commodities. They have been desecrated both by Muslim incursions (the faces are disfigured and the eyes are gouged out) and the reviled German archeologist Le Coq  who carted huge chunks of the best stuff to the Berlin museum.

The presence of lapis lazuli in the paintings indicates their Persian influence. The pronounced musculature is in the Ghandaran style – attempting a 3D representation

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The white dots ‘strings of pearls’ are also Persian. The long earlobes are Indian. In fact these caves have no Chinese influence at all. The one guy is black because he was done in lead and it has oxidized.

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The weather is lovely, the setting is gorgeous and I am the only visitor. I set off for a long walk determined that Akbar, ‘Eshe’ and ‘friend’ stew in their fuggy car for as long as possible.

A beautiful day at the caves

+kVx+kXXTs+Xd6%2sEgPzg_thumb_584aAbout an hour into it a golf cart hies into my peripheral vision. Scooting off onto an inaccessible walking trail buys me about 5 minutes.

Policeman in golf cart: Oi!

Me: Yes can I help you?

PIG: What you doing?

Me: Walking

PIG: Can’t walk here

Me: But I am walking here, I’m walking on this walking trail

PIG: Come with me

Me: No its OK, I’ll see you over there (pointing into the distance).

He shadows me slowly all the way back.

Me: OK I’m done Akbar, what happened, your friend missed his bus?

The ‘friend’ who is still with us looks confused.

At the hotel I hand over 350Y. Now its Akbar’s turn to look confused. He picks it up between finger and thumb and drops it on the dashboard. He does not, however, return it.

Me: Thanks Akbar, that was a nice day out. I’ll see you tomorrow!

They blanch, and I realize with some satisfaction that ‘the day after tomorrow’ has been lost in drunken translation.

In the morning ‘Eshe’ is skulking behind the palm plants when I go to eat breakfast, when I come back from a short foray into the town center and when I sit in the lobby for a couple of hours before leaving to catch the train. I make sure to catch his eye and wave as I leave.

Act 3: In which all is explained

My SWAT team friends at the station are delighted to see me again and to have a chance to retake my photo. But wait! A new pair of glasses plus cell phone appears over the counter.

Me: (somewhat rashly out loud) And why not? Everyone else in Kuqe has my picture on their cell phones.

And then with a smile and in impeccable English

POG: And if you’ll come this way, I’ll explain why.

Let’s call him Timmy is a milenial American literature graduate from the University of Shanghai whose mother has forced him to join the Railway Police because of the steady salary and good benefits. But he has been seconded to that first circle of hell, Kuqe. He has also been seconded to baby sit me until such time that the train comes and I get on it.

Timmy is a great conversationalist and it seems rather indiscreet. Evidently legitimate terror that I may be a journalist in (poor) disguise – the first time my demographic has worked against me and BTW thanks a bunch New York Times – has persuaded Kuqe security services to monitor my every move in 5 minute increments, less if you consider Akbar’s assiduousness. How can handle they that much data I wonder. ‘ You’d be surprised’ Timmy says laconically.

Timmy’s office has comfortable chairs and unlimited phone charging opportunities. We spend an agreeable couple of hours polishing the translation of what seems to be a high level policy document for his upcoming exam and then he pops off on his motorbike to fetch me yogurt, bread and water for the trip. ‘I always feel very vulnerable in that Uighur shop’ he says sadly.

Eventually his boss shows up for some final evaluation. Bye-bye we say to each other with varying degrees of regret (we only have a couple of pages to go in the translation) and the Director of the Station is delegated to usher me aboard. I beg him to ask them to keep the Western toilet open (they like to lock it up and the squats are an awful effort albeit usually surprisingly clean). He obliges and I scarf down the delicious Uighur yogurt, have a nice relaxed pee and sleep like a log.

Akbar communing with the mother ship. ‘Eshe’ puts his hands over his face when I try to take his photo

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No picture of Timmy with his full body armor and helmet, Steinbeck in his pocket.

Kashgar’s wild (and woolly)

Why reinvent the wheel? Let’s hear first from Colin, who’s so much more eloquent than me:

‘For three hundred miles the road bends north west to Kashgar. The sands lap against it, but gently now, and the oases multiply and start to merge. You go through towns of venerable decay, past the sleepy Islam of 19th century travelers, of cemeteries disintegrating in solitude for a Sunday sketchbook. To the west the horizon glitters into life as the Pamir foothills trace wavering lines of forest and the peaks beyond them fracture the sky with an unearthly brilliance. Here the desert at last ends and China is petering out. For a long time, as the road veers harder north, the mountains float above Central Asia in a stupendous punctuation mark.’

Over the Tian Shens west to Kashgar, I was exactly on the other side in Kyrgyzstan last year. The train journey from Ururmqi takes 22 hours, it didn’t seem necessary to do it in both directions.

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Yet another $25 score at another Uighur extravaganza, the newly renovated Nurlan Hotel, previously known to everyone (but now only to the taxi drivers) as the Sultan.

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At the confluence of three important Silk Road routes – through the Pamirs to Afghanistan, down to the Indian subcontinent and off over the Tien Shan towards Uzbekistan, Kashgar was always the place to kick back and relax before confronting yet more extortionist nomads. It is a shadow of its former self.

Unstoppable force meets immovable object in uneasy coexistence. The mosque is the largest in China.

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Delighted though that its camel has the necessary ladder

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I am the only Westerner in town. I know this because many friendly people have sought me out to tell me; in fact in most cases they first had to seek someone else out to tell me in their stead. While this has had some advantages (the price of my evening ice-cream steadily declines to zero) it has not alleviated any of the problems with being here, but planning to go elsewhere.

Under the correct lighting my phlegmatic ice-cream man has a twinkle in his eye

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Tashkurgan, 7 hours up the Karakoram Highway, is the putative site of the Stone Tower, where caravans from east and west would exchange merchandise; no one caravan traveling the whole route. It has been on the bucket list for years But no! just last week the rules changed. Now I am only allowed to leave town accompanied by a tour operator (town is defined rather loosely but seems not to include any significant sights). I am not allowed to join an (inexpensive) Chinese tour (if they even exist, there don’t seem to be any Chinese tourists either). I can go with a licensed Uighur tour operator provided we have both a guide and a driver (this seems overkill for what is essentially a trip straight up a 4 lane highway, but what do I know). I reluctantly justify the considerable expense ($250) to myself but alas my putative tour operator should have submitted the permit paperwork a week in advance (it seems churlish to point out the rules were different then). The only option seems to be ignore them and go by myself.

To the hopeful rescue comes (let’s call him Otis Redding since he is paranoid and this will be posted). Like Urmat last year, O’s satisfied clientele pass his name through the bowels of the internet like a talisman.

O is not his actual nom de guerre (his actual one is even more ridiculous) but it seems wise to be a little circumspect. When I ask ‘Why Otis?’ he reminds me of the lauded ‘John’s Cafe’ (now defunct). Tourists flocked there not expecting ‘John’ to be Chinese. Our guy thought he could go one better until someone pointed out that even though Jesus is indeed more famous than John, using that name would be unlikely to attract the type of clientele he had in mind. So it was onto plan B or rather, plan O.

O’s photo will be posted once I am out of the VPN zone

Against his better instincts (I will come to realize O is a fretter) we will confront the dragon in his lair, namely the permit office itself. The mild-mannered permit officer exudes sympathy but cannot be convinced. I am not allowed to simply take the public bus to Tashkurgan, stay the night and return the next day (it is 7 hours away). For one thing the hotel can’t take foreigners (despite having given me a reservation). For another the checkpoint at Karakul lake (4 hours away) will want to see my permit, and in its absence I will be returned post haste. The permit officer would like O to recall that no public transport stops at Karakul lake on its way back to Kashgar, and also that I am not allowed to hitch hike. It all seems a bit much and O feels my pain (he’s not allowed to travel to Tashkurgan, which is a Tajik town, either). Not to worry though, he will dedicate himself to showing me the sights, significant or not.

First we must establish our rules of engagement. Initially O. simply deflects my indiscreet political questions with a slight shudder and a bright ‘Let’s not go there’ but eventually he just positions himself out of camera range to answer (a not insignificant task). By dinner on the second day he’s dishing the dirt on everything.

The buildings in the bazaar area have been torn down and replaced with (excellent) facsimiles. There is indoor plumbing and no outdoor smell. The previous homeowners were given either a renovated house or money.  Many of the new inhabitants work for the ‘Government’. O raises his eyebrows slightly “like your East Germans” – recalling our previous conversation on neighborly surveillance.

All the festering old parts are being renovated for better or worse.

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Next year, coming to a slum near you.

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Scenes from village life.

Checking out the merchandise on the main street

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‘Hundred Year old coffee house’. Only tourists drink coffee so they serve only tea.

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An alfresco breakfast, always appreciated

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An alfresco kindergarten (formidable granny not included)

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Check out his coloring

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And these

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Not in the running for China’s largest mosque

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Besides its notable photogenicity there is even more to the bazaar than the omnipresent cameras and neighborhood snitches. Pairs of pseudo-tourists with sunglasses and day-packs are settled here and there (since there are no actual tourists they stick out like a sore thumb; it is not clear what they are supposed to be doing). Nonetheless O forbids a snap and we give them a wide berth. Being able to identify them will come in handy later.

O considers himself a foodie and in the absence of anything much to see he dedicates himself to showing me the local cuisine (for less than a dollar a dish). It isn’t, as I first imagined, simply noodles, its just that O eats the very same things every day: noodle soup with apricots for breakfast (I manage to avoid this meal) noodle soup and stewed baby pigeon for lunch (delicious actually) and more noodles for dinner; I once insist on a salad and the whole kitchen comes out to object. Dessert, once I send O packing, is ice-cream at the night market.

Noodles galore, unfortunately this is the extent of the vegetable options.

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Madame of the pigeons, and her pigeons, each restaurant prepares only one dish. No utensils.

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It turns out there are two legitimate Lonely Planet-endorsed sites in Kashgar after all –  the Sunday animal market is considered ‘in town’ despite being 40 km away and is therefore accessible to me as well as the many Chinese tourists who finally materialize on Saturday night.

Appraisal

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The deal is done

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And off we go

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Lunch at the market – at least the meat is guaranteed fresh

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The likely lassies dress up for the Chinese tourists. O wheedles me a snap for free

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The second site is the grave of the prominent Uighur poet and scholar Yusuf Has Hajib. O is outraged that the taxi driver claims never to have heard of it, but when we find it shuttered and ringed with razor wire and anti-terrorist barricades, he blanches and we make a hasty retreat (definitely no photos).

Sheep’s feet – the final frontier, like chicken feet but better

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Our quest for sheep’s feet as a last dinner celebration has been accomplished handily and I am headed for a cab, when we are accosted noisily from behind by a couple of teenage boys for a selfie. I am a bit startled (on-the-street demeanor is normally hyper-decorous) but O is distraught. He is convinced this means surveillance (he doesn’t even own his own computer he is so paranoid). To make matters worse he claims to spot the same two at the animal market next day (really unlikely since those ones seemed about 14, and these ones are adults milking goats, but again what do I know). O won’t be shaken and fret descends into gloom.

O.’s explanation of this building in the bazaar is that the fencing is to stop the troublemakers getting out.

This photo will be posted once I’m out of the VPN zone.

Later, at the station, as my entire luggage is deconstructed, they would like me to justify not one but 4 Uighur cookbooks. (O. has instructed me to take two of them to the new Uighur restaurant in Cambridge so I can worm my way into their good graces and hopefully be fed for free). As usual GT fails miserably at this task and my passport is photographed yet again.