The fairy-tale scenery of the North of Pakistan should have been enough. My previous trip had opened up enormous trekking possibilities. The village of Passu made a wonderful base, but it was also tantalisingly close to the border with China. The knowledge that just round the corner was something very different and hardly touched by foreign backpackers was just too much of a temptation.
I approached the Chinese Embassy requesting a visa to visit Xinjiang, this being the far west province of China abutting Pakistan and connected via the Karakorum Highway.
‘Do you have an invite?’ came the reply.
After further questioning it became clear that I was not to become an honoured guest of the People’s Republic of China. I reassessed the position and a few weeks later I visited the Chinese Embassy in London again. This time with a slightly different approach, a lie.
‘I’m visiting Hong Kong and would like to spend a little time in Canton.’
At the time, Hong Kong was British territory and Canton, now known as Guangzhou, was just across the water. It was, and still is a special economic zone, which in those days meant it was ahead of the pack in opening up to foreigners. The visa was incomprehensible to me, but working on the assumption that it was simply a Chinese visa, I set out that summer for Pakistan. I knew full well that if I were to fail in my quest I could happily spend another summer in the north of Pakistan.
The journey was as on the previous trip but involved one interesting lesson. Feeling like a seasoned traveller on the Karakorum Highway, I joined others on the roof of the bus among the sacks and baggage, pleased at being able to stretch my legs. I was mindful of the perils of the overhead wires crossing the road, threatening to bring my trip to an abrupt end. Tucked down amongst the sacks and bags and aided by shouts from my fellow passengers I survived that obstacle. But as is so often the case, the challenge confronting me came from an unexpected quarter. Left on my own as others returned to the inside of the bus, I revelled in the scene of the sun going down with the roof to myself. The descending sun created glorious colours on the fields, the orchards, the bare rock and the snow covered peaks. But as the sun descended so too did the temperature. At altitude, with a thin atmosphere and no cloud cover it descends at an alarming rate. With no protection other than a t-shirt I was doomed to a miserable chilling until perilously dangling over the edge of the roof I managed to attract the attention of the driver. Another lesson in doing as the locals do.
Arriving at the Pakistani border, the only problem encountered was the attention taken to my store of milk powder.
‘Eat it’, said the border guard.
It seemed an unreasonable request at the time, as my already parched mouth became caked with the white powder. Nevertheless, he seemed happy when I failed to convulse with a drug overdose, and the bus continued on its way with me still on board. From this episode I must assume that the major trade routes for opium are not entirely in a westerly direction.
It was some time before the Chinese side of the border was reached. The guards seemed a little confused when, vocally supported by the local Pakistani traders who made up the bulk of the bus, I presented my bona fide Chinese visa. To this day I do not know whether it was the chivying by my fellow passengers, the lack of clarity in the visa or just the young border guard’s fear of challenging that got my passport stamped.
The Pakistani bus ended its journey at the border and I continued in the back of an open truck to the first main town of Tashkurgan.
Fears that I might be rejected by the local hotels were unfounded and I was able to settle for the night in reasonable comfort. My journey then continued with a ride in a jeep all the way to Kashgar. This is a journey that needs revisiting. As so often, the modern artificial borders created by colonial powers, both past and more recent, have little respect for geography or ethnicity. The west to east journey both towards Kashgar and later beyond showed enormous ethnic diversity, with Tajiks, Uyghur, Kazakhs, Hui, Kyrgyz, Mongols, Han, and Russians all encountered along the route. At one point we stopped by a camel train. It was heading north out of China and into one of the 'stans', seemingly oblivious to the identity of the country ahead.
The pictures that follow aim to give some flavour of the scenery and mix of peoples on the journey. The road had deteriorated after leaving Pakistan, no longer needing to be a showpiece.
The final picture in the series says much about the changes going on in this part of China, in particular the men. The old man still sports his felt hat, boots and quilted coat and trousers. The next generation wears. Chinese style ‘uniform’ with blue jacket and cloth hat. Finally the little boy is in trainers.
The city of Kashgar was, and to some extent still is, fabled among travellers. It did not disappoint. Despite being prepared for a more Turkish than Chinese ethnic mix, I was overwhelmed by the total domination, at least in number, by the Turkish language speaking Uygur. It quickly became clear to me that the relationship of China to Xinjiang was similar to the relationship of Britain to India during the 19th century. Han Chinese were significantly absent from the markets and streets of the town centre. ‘Turkishness’ was the dominant culture. It permeated all aspects of life from religion, with its mosques and minarets, its food in the form of bread and kebabs cooked on the street, and its traditional skills in such arts as metalwork and jewellery. It is only recently through visiting other countries on the silk route that I have become aware of the way traditions have spread along these ancient trading routes.
But from what I understand, this city has undergone considerable change since the time I visited. I hear travellers bemoaning the loss of the medieval streets, and Chinese, speaking of the regeneration of the city. These two contrasting stories are unlikely to be reconciled.
There are a number of more obvious sights to be seen in and around Kashgar, not least the Abakh Khoja Tomb. This is some five kilometers from the city. It is commonly known as Fragrant Lady's Tomb after one of the favourite concubines of Emperor Qian Long of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Kashgar itself has the Id Kah Mosque, the largest mosque and centre of Islam in Xinjiang.
But rather than historic sights, my interests were concerned with the atmosphere, the people and how they live. The centre of the city seemed as if it had changed little for centuries. A maze of narrow streets, many descending into covered alleyways, housed tiny workshops, shops, bakeries and houses, often with lush green courtyards. It was all romantically attractive but on reflection could be seen as a city of hard dangerous labour and poor hygiene, contributing to a low life expectancy. (China claimed in 2009 that life expectancy in Xinjiang had doubled over the last 50 years)
There is always the temptation to travel further, and the further one travels, the more that drive seems to take over. How easy it would be to press on to the Tien Shan Mountains. A bus to Turpan would get me nearly there, and anyway it seemed an interesting place. I set off together with a young Italian backpacker who had arrived from western China.
After the drama of the Karakorum Mountains, the journey was monotonous, with on the right hand side the open desert of the Takla Makan and on the left the foothills of the Tien Shan. This pattern was punctuated by occasional arid mountainous sections. Although much of the journey is now a fog in my mind, I vividly recall a brief overnight stop. Stopping late and leaving in the early hours of the morning was no great problem. Neither was sharing a bare room with several passengers. What I found quite uncomfortable was sharing the communal toilet. This consisted of one long wooden bench, which to be fair, was in a shed where males and females were segregated. It would have been tolerable had the bus driver not installed himself next to me. Earlier in the journey we seemed to have established that I was having language difficulties. Undeterred by this handicap, he decided we could have a conversation while we were going about our individual businesses. It was a one way conversation prompted by his smoking, clearing his throat and spitting on the plank in front of him. Meanwhile, behind and below us the produce was being shovelled into a cart to fertize the crops.
At that time I knew little about the Silk Road and the significance of these important trading posts. As a result, Turfan itself and a trip out to one of the abandoned cities and the Bezeklik Caves held little appeal. On reflection I should have gained more from these significant Buddhist remains dating back many centuries. The draw at that time was the Tien Shan Mountains, so little known to the west.
Googling Urumqi today produces images which bear no resemblance to the Urumqi of 1986. This was a bleak industrial city seemingly dominated by factories billowing smoke. But to me it was an access point to the Tien Shan Mountains and, despite my initial impressions, beneath the surface it had its charms. It is the main Uygur city of Xinjiang Province, and although heavily industrialised, the small town feel generated by so much activity taking place on the street managed to win through. The street is the centre of all activity, whether it be selling traditional cures or vegetables, playing cards, reading books or just hanging around with friends.
I soon found that Lake Tianshi, the Heavenly Lake, was visited by many, mainly Han Chinese, on day trips. A request for a one way ticket was ignored so I took a return, the ticket office believing that I would return the same day. The prospect of staying there seemed more impractical when the sole English speaking passenger on the bus warned me of the dreadful Kazakhs who lived in filth and squalor.
The lake is beautiful and well justified a day trip. I enjoyed the notoriety and the frequent requests to be snapped with the day trippers. This was of course long before digital cameras and selfies. I wandered off alone and in the evening set up camp by a stream.
As the sun went down,, I felt at perfect peace as I took out my petrol cooker and heated up my meal of dried potato and tomato soup. Camping alone as the sun sets is the perfect time to let your imagination wander. Maybe I had gone too far, maybe I can’t get back, maybe there are bears here. The last of these worries prompted me to build a fire. This reassured me until I noticed on the skyline above my camp a group of horsemen gazing down on me. They descended, slowly and deliberately, and waited, grouped around the tent. There was little I could do but to offer some of my supper. This was declined, and one of the riders dismounted. He looked at the tent, rubbed the material between his fingers and shook his head.
‘Don’t worry’, I said, ‘I’m leaving tomorrow’.
There was obviously no reply. Neither he nor I had a clue about each other’s languages. He mounted up and they all turned round and set off back up the hill. It felt like one of those incidents in old cowboy films where the Indians, clearly in total charge, come to visit John Wayne camped out on his own. I was not then, nor am I now, a John Wayne. The decision was made, I would be off at first light.
In the morning, as I packed up my tent, to my horror they returned. But it was not quite as I had expected. One was leading a spare horse and I was beckoned to join them. not at all sure what I was letting myself in for, I made the snap decision to go with them.
This was the start of several days of an extraordinary experience. I was invited to stay in the yurt, to eat with them and to accompany the men on their trips up to the higher pastures. Their hospitality was enormously generous but I was cautious to not impose, particularly when it came to food where I was anyway self-sufficient. It was clear that these were poor people.
At the end of several days I was escorted back to the lake, tellingly, dropped a little way back from the day trippers.
The journey back was not without its problems. The first setback came with my desire to quickly get back to Kashgar by flying. My first attempt was a total failure. What I had not reckoned with were the time zones. There are at least two, Beijing time and Xinjiang time. While locals work on local times, flights work on Beijing time. (I seem to remember that this also differed from Kashgar time.)
But that was not the only problem. On arriving in Kashgar I went immediately to the bus station to take a place on a bus to Pakistan. To my horror my request for a ticket was met with ‘The Pakistan border is not open to foreigners. You must go to the office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.’
Here a man seated behind a large desk repeated the statement, adding, ‘You must leave via Beijing.’
This was, of course out of the question. Time and money would not permit it. I was due back to teach in a few days. My flight was booked. I had no idea how I could get more money. He was resolute.
I returned to my hotel disconsolate. There were a handful of other tourists in Kashgar, having travelled from Beijing. Two, an American and a Swede, were wandering Asia, but without my time restrictions. I extolled the wonders of the Karakorum Mountains and eventually convinced them of the virtues of the route through Pakistan. We returned to the bus station and got an agreement that we would be able to charter a bus to the border. It seemed there would be no problem in filling the empty seats with Pakistani traders.
We returned to the Ministry with me in better spirits. But my hopes were quickly dashed.
‘Not possible’, we were told. ‘The border is closed to foreigners like yourselves. You must go out through Beijing’
I was desperate, but along with the Swedish woman, who happened to be a journalist, I hit upon a plan. The next morning we returned to the office.
‘We’ve agreed, we will go to Beijing.’
His eyes lit up.
‘You have heard of the Times newspaper?’
‘Oh yes', he replied. At that time, the Times was the gold standard throughout much of the world.
‘When I return,' I continued, 'I will be writing an article in the Times. I will write about what generosity and kindness we foreigners have received in the People’s Republic of China. How helpful everyone has been …. except for one man. But, of course, you have your reasons and when your London Embassy contacts Beijing and your boss asks you questions, will be able to explain.'
The Swedish journalist and the American repeated the story as the man sunk lower and lower behind his vast desk.
‘You shall go,’ came the answer.
I heaved a sigh of relief. The next thing I remember was galloping to the bus station early in the morning in a horse and trap. I was off, and despite the unreliability of Pakistan’s transport system, I arrived in time to teach.