Kashgar and the road to Pakistan
Thursday September 7th
I was supposed to meet with Aaron, the irish guy from yesterday at 10PM Beijing as we were planning to go to the International bus station to get our ticket to Sost, in Pakistan. I actually woke up earlier than that but I went around town trying to find a Pakistani guidebook. I had been told on Thorn Tree that there was one on Carre Cafe in some hotel. I wasn’t too sure where was the Carre cafe but ended up finding it and they indeed had one used guidebook. I tried to bargain the price down but didn’t manage to get it decreased by much. He had me by the balls and he knew it.
I walked back to John’s Cafe and arrived a bit late. Aaron, the british and the swiss guy were there already. I got some pancake with mango juice which was alright. At some point Sahara joined and told me “a lady” had come to see me in the dorm and left a message. I finished my breakfast then went to see the message. Indeed it was Aisling. She had gotten my last email which I wrote in Hotan when I had been quite pissed off so she told me she was gonna try to cheer me up by doing “fun Kashgar thing” and left her room number.
I went up there, knocked and there she was: hair dryer in hand, with the content of her bag covering her whole bed and most of the room’s floor she hadn’t changed much in the past 2 weeks. I was quite happy to see her and we caught up on what had happened in the last few weeks. Previously she had told me she never had diarhea while travelling before which made me think of her as the “Iron Lady”, but she said that after we left she was sick for several days in Dunhuang. Well, it’s a good thing I guess because I won’t mistake her for Margaret Tatcher anymore. She also told me she just came back from a road trip to the Pakistani border and was jealous that I’d be able to get in because she said the scenery was mindblowing.
At some point during the conversation Aaron joined in; he had been looking for me since I told him we’d be going together to the International bus station. I introduced the fellow irishs and told Aaron to join in. A while after, Aisling’s roomate, which had accompanied her to the Pakistani border came in. When she heard where we were going she got really happy and gave me a key and a message for an hotel in Tashkurgan where she had stayed and left with the key. She had been feeling guilty ever since so I told her I’d give it back for her, it’d be my “Bonne action” of the day. Aisling still had things to do (she’s a girl and I had interrupted her while she was drying her hair!) and we had to buy those tickets so we told her to meet at the main Mosque at 1PM local time.
Aaron and I took a cab from the hotel to the bus station as it was a fair bit of walking away (and we’re just lazy). Contrary to what Aisling had told us previously, buying ticket at that bus station turned out to be really easy. There was no line and we got them in about 5 seconds. The only problem is that the lady told us the bus wouldn’t leave unless there were at least 10 tickets sold and we had tickets 2 and 3.
After that we walked over to the main Square near the Old City and the Mosque. We bought a peach juice near the Mosque and just sat under the tree with old men, watching the city. I was quite enjoying myself in Kashgar compared to other places in Xinjiang. It really does feel like a frontier town. The diversity of the people is amazing. There are chinese, uyghur, tajik, uzbek, pakistani, kyrghyz people in the city. When you walk around you see local kids with freckles, blond hair, blue eyes and I even saw a red-hair local girl. The other places in Xinjiang don’t have this feeling. People are also a bit nicer, but I mean we’re in China so “a bit nicer” doesn’t mean much here. I mean Mike Tyson would be more than “a bit nicer” than the average chinese (he might rip off your hear, but at least he’d do it with a smile).
After relaxing in the shade for a while we went for a promenade in the Old City which was which was bustling with life. Old blacksmith making kitchen ustensils by the streetside, woodcarvers making strange looking flutes (which we’ve been told is used by women to pee by a grinning old man, he didn’t speak any english but his gesturing left little room for imagination) and shoe-repairer are all hard-at work, often using techniques that have probably not changed much in the last century. I was happily impressed by all this because I had been told that Kashgar was very touristy but the Old City felt real and we didn’t cross a single tourist in there.
After about an hour we went back to the Main Square in a place where there were a few dozens pool table and played a few games. The locals were starring but I’m afraid we disapointed them because we were really bad. That didn’t stop the ones passing by from freezing and starring at us for a good 2-3 minutes.
A bit before the appointed time we went back to our shaded tree with another juice and crowd-watched for a few more minutes until Aisling joined us, fashionably late. We then went to a restaurant in the Old City which served okay uyghur noodle (none of them beat the first one I had, in a ramshackle “building” in the middle of nowhere close to Turpan). Aisling was raving about this yogurt-ice-honey thing that is served in the Square so we decided to give it a try. I was a bit skeptical as I still remembered her raving about tibetan noodles or tapioca tea a few weeks ago but I was happily surprised, it was pretty good stuff. After this we headed for the Sunday Market, Kashgar’s main attraction. Even if we aren’t Sunday it is still open although less crowded. On the way we passed through the Old City again.
We crossed the river into the Sunday Market. It wasn’t as exciting as the Old City. It is a place where people sell a bunch of stuff. I was looking for decent trekking shoe while Aaron was looking for shawls as souvenirs so we shopped for a bit but I didn’t find anything for me as my feet are too big. Aaron found a suitable shawls which he managed to get for 30RMB after much acting and negotiation. Nothing great but fun to stroll around.
On the way back we had some freshly pressed promeganate juice. Aaron and Aisling didn’t like it but I thought it was great. Very bitter but good. Like cranberry juice on steroid.
After that we slowly walked back to the hotel, stopping on the way in the Old City to buy some kitchen stuff for Aisling, to get some pretty decent fudge, to withdraw money at the bank and do other boring things. One thing I had to do was to repair my daypack. One of the strap was about to break so we decided to go in a small sewing shop and ask for repair. We entered a small shop where 2 girls were working. One of them left her work for a few minutes and repaired my bag, with a smile. When I asked how much she wanted she said “no no, free”. I was really taken aback by the kindness of this girl, never before had there been anything like that offered for free in China. I thanked her from the bottom of my heart and left. Sometimes little things like this move me a lot. After being through 2 months of intense chinese tourist industry it is nice to see that somewhere in the middle of Asia people are still able to be nice not only for money.
After that we went to John’s Cafe to discuss over a beer with the guys from the dorm. We then went to eat to a popular local place closeby which served fairly decent uyghur food. As we had bunch of things to do and were all leaving for long journey the next day, we went to bed fairly quickly.
Friday September 8th
I had some pretty bad allergies that morning because of the dust in the room and the dryness in the air which woke me up pretty early so I went outside in the courtyard where I sat on a bench and read. We were supposed to meet for a last breakfast but I missed them (I got confused with the time since my clock was still on Beijing time and missed the rendez-vous point). I eventually met them before she left. We talked in her room while she was packing her bag (which takes quite a bit of time) and then said goodbye to her as she took a cab to the bus station, where she was heading to Urumqi and then Shanghai to meet a friend of hers.
Aaron and I had a bus to catch in about 2 hours so I went to have a piece of bread while he was finishing packing. At some point he came down to ask if I had seen his guidebook and he spent the next half-hour looking for his Pakistan LP which he never found. It had been sitting in the dorm and disapeared. It might be the first case of theft from a dorm I’ve heard in 3 months of travel. He was quite pissed but it wasn’t too bad as we were gonna travel together until Gilgit where he’d meet his friend from home who had a guidebook so it wasn’t gonna cost him anything.
We took a cab to the International bus station about an hour before the departure time. I went to the counter to confirm that they had sold enough ticket which the lady confirmed (but only after finishing polishing her nails, french style). My daypack finally gave up only the day after I had the strapped repaired for free by a lovely uyghur girl. This time there was no way to repair the damage so I decided to buy a new one since I was pretty sure they’d be cheaper in China. I managed to get one for 30RMB, I thought I had made a decent bargain until one of the zip broke when I first tried it.
Closer to departure time we went to the bus which was very easy to recognize, it is the bus that doesn’t look like a chinese bus with luggage on top and a hole in the floor. We started talking with a Pakistani man with a Che Guevara t-shirt, who, shortly after the usual small-talk informed us that he was a pakistani communist and had done 6 months of prison in Karachi because he had been caught in a manifestation several years ago. He also told us that he was coming to China often to do import stuff with his business partner and that he wished to go to Cuba next year to visit the Communist paradise. We figured he was probably a black market trader but he was a friendly bloke.
In the bus there were also an australian guy, a german guy, a very wierd elderly japanese lady, a few pakistani and a few uyghur. We left about an hour late but that wasn’t too important as we had to overnight in Tashkurgan anyway so it didn’t really matter what time we left as long as we got there during the day. The bus was empty enough that we could have 2 seats each so we were pretty comfy in the back. After merely an hour of bus we stopped somewhere to eat lunch where we had the usual uyghur noodles.
The scenery is at first very similar to the rest of Xinjiang but after a while it starts going up and up until you reach the Pamir plateau at 3000m, the “Roof of the world”. This is a very rough looking, barren place where vegetation is sparse, but gravel and snow-capped mountains are not. The region used to be inhabited only in the summer by kyrghyz and tajik nomads as it is too cold to live in the winter but since China took over there are a few permanent settlements, consisting mostly of tajiks and army men. The scenery were beautiful and since it was the first time we saw snow-capped mountain we all went crazy on pictures.
At some point on the plateau we had a breakdown which took about an hour to repair. The driver had to remove something in the engine, hammer on it for a while before trying to put it back on. He tried to restart the engine several time until it actually worked. No one was overly worried and I wasn’t either. We were leaving China and that enough made me happy, we’d get out one way or another and small inconvenient like being stranded on the side of the road for an hour didn’t manage to put a dent in my good humor. We had another breakdown a bit later which wasn’t as long.
We passed by the famous Karakul Lake, a beautiful lake with kyrghyz nomad and their animals which were peacefully grazing on the grass. The view was magnificient with Mustagh Ata in the background, a massive stand-alone 7000m+ mountain.
We arrived in Tashkurgan after dark and decided to get a room in the hotel that Aisling had recommended us. I gave the key that her roomate had “stolen” from the hotel back and the lady seemed happy when she read the message, if a bit puzzled at first. We had a meal in the Traffic Hotel cafe which was fairly disgusting, the worse sweet and sour meat I’ve had in China.
The japanese lady proved she was very wierd when she offered us all some “hotel shoe” things (the one they give you in upper class hotels) because we were wearing flip flops and she thought it was too cold. We still don’t know why she had 3 pairs of those in her bag. During the meal she told us how she had been in Ireland then came to China and then she was going to France. We tried to ask why she came to China in between Ireland and France but we didn’t manage to get an explanation. Personally I think she’s just a surrealist and likes to do thing just because they don’t make sense. After the meal, she said “Cornerstore, 5 minutes” and disapeared into the dark never to be seen again.
We talked with Jason, the australian guy and the Achim the german guy over a few beers. Jason had similar plans to ours so he decided to come with us to Gulmit tomorrow. The german guy, although he had gotten a visa for Pakistan wasn’t too sure what he was gonna do. “I’ll stay around here for a few days then decide.” He wasn’t afraid that there was nothing to do in Tashkurgan: “If there’s nothing to do, I’ll do nothing”. Very laid-back guy, he previously travelled 7 years continuously around Asia.
We eventually called it a night and headed for the comfort of our beds, saying goodbye to the german guy and hoping the crazy japanese woman hadn’t gotten lost somewhere on her way to the cornerstore.