The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Silk Road: 5,100 miles of riot police, kebabs and desert

Dropping our dust covered bags after 38 straight hours of bus travel we prepared to sign into the Kashgar Old City hostel. A man dressed in the black uniform of the People's Republic Police force, flanked by two aviator wearing heavies, followed us in. These three had challenged us at the bus station and it seemed had followed us across town. The leader was swinging a spiked black truncheon menacingly. Before we can grab the long dreamed of beer from the fridge next to us we are ordered to sit down:

“Passports. What job do you do?”
“[Pause] You can't stay here. You go Qini Bagh Hotel”
“But we have a reservation here...”
“No you go now. NOW.”
In the most measured tone I could muster having not slept for 2 nights, “Do you mind if I ask why?”
“Your safety. National Day”

This was our cordial welcome to Kashgar. We had traveled for thousands of miles to get as far from the grasp of the People's Republic as we could, but it seemed that the further we went from Beijing the tighter the grip had become.

Kashgar is a legendary oasis settlement where the Silk Road splinters into the mountains of Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgzstan, and I had dreamed of visiting it for as long as I can remember. As a child there is little that fires an imagination like tales of camel trains being swallowed without trace in shifting sands, murderous bandits lurking hidden in icy mountain passes and people running unimaginable risks across the deserts in pursuit of undreamed of wealth. So it was we laid an ambitious plan to retrace the route from Beijing via Xian, to the far west of China's troubled Xinjiang ('New frontier') province and then do a loop round the southern edge of the Taklamakan desert. The route would take us as far along the silk road as our visas would carry us and would also lead us well off the tourist route and into a rarely seen part of China. 20 days was the plan and when we looked at the distances, potential sandstorms and delays involved we soon began to not only question our own sanity, but we also begun to appreciate the scale of the undertaking of those who had traveled the route over 2,000 years before us.

After a 2 day stop in the smoggy disappointment that was Xi'an we boarded the train to Jiayaguan in the Hexi Corridor. This narrow strip of land running up to the North of China winds between the Tian Shan and Qilian Shan mountains and the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts. The Chinese refer to the town as the mouth of China. To the East of it lay civilisation and to the West nothing but barbarians, desert demons and the promise of a lingering death. Leaving the town and seeing the Western extremity of the Great Wall crumbling into endless scrubland it was tempting to agree. Wedged in my 5'4” sleeper bus bunk surrounded by an army of smoking, hacking and spitting companions I tried to imagine the trains of camels and their drivers wrapped to withstand dust storms, heat and bitter cold as they plodded at a camel's pace across the featureless land. It was a struggle.

The scale of the journey they did needs some kind of context. It is 2,700 miles just from Xian to Kashgar; roughly the half way point along the Silk Road that stretched all the way to Rome. This is about 3 times Lands End to John O'Groats or the length of our whole ride from Mexico to Canada on the tandem. But the difference is that there is nothing there... The Taklamakan translates as 'the desert that people enter and do not leave' and it was hard to disagree watching the scorched scenery slip endlessly by. Swirling dust devils are the only things to break the vista of stone and sand that stretches to the horizon. Dried gulleys and sections of washed away road hint at occasional flash flooding, but to our untrained eye there is simply nothing for 38 hours of constant bus travel. To try and comprehend what it must have been like for these early traders makes your head implode and it seems anything we undertake ourselves is a cotton wool wrapped walk in the park in comparison.

But we did finally make it to Kashgar after 14 hours by train, and 49 hours on various buses. We disembarked warily as the region had a recent history of unrest and our arrival coincided with the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. In Beijing and for the dominant ethnic Han Chinese this meant mass celebrations and a no expenses spared showcasing of China's industrial, economic and military might. In Xinjiang it meant a flexing of the already significant military muscle in place to keep the area 'safe'.

In Xinjiang the population is primarily Muslim and tensions between the Han and the native Uighurs have run high since the 1950's. This has been due to the ruling Communist party flooding the region with Han Chinese. The Taklamakan sits atop large reserves of oil and natural gas and the control of this is seen as a vital foundation for China's rapid development. The Communist Party claim they have invested in the region's infrastructure, the Uighurs claim all the opportunities are reserved for Han immigrants and their ancient culture is being bulldozed to make way for identikit Chinese concrete towers. In April this year there were uprisings in the province's capital Urumqi. Quickly put down by the military, Beijing puts the death toll at just over 200. Other sources claim closer to 2,000. The multiple police checkpoints along the roads in the province and our welcome to Kashgar were just the tip of the iceberg, but on exploring the streets we uncovered a fuller and sadder story.

The traditional main square in Kashgar is the Id Kah mosque. Prayer time on Friday and the thousands of people swarming into the mosque are watched over by around 750 heavily armed troops. They are hunkered down in machine gun nests, formed in lines behind riot shields with taser-tipped batons and sat in a line of trucks surrounding the square. We are gob-smacked. The local population seems to have a weary resignation. I surreptitiously snap some photos from a couple of streets back and then wait while Hol goes to investigate a fetching orange Adidas bumbag. I notice the two armed men approaching from across the street. My mind flicks to the photos on the camera and I wonder about sliding out the memory card, but the suspicion of a blank camera seems even more risky. I pretend to not notice them, but they weave their way towards me. I notice the fixed bayonet on the end of his rifle:

'You. You are taking photos. Show me camera now.'
'Oh, ok fine. I was just taking photos of the mosque'

The first 3 photos show the mosque neatly framed by heavily armed men, but luckily the mosque remains central. I offer to delete them swiftly and soon it is photos of donkeys, kebab sellers and Hol grinning on the Great Wall.

'OK, no photos though. No photos of military or trouble for you.'

Jeez. Luckily, we still have a camera and they didn't even find the ones of the machine gun nests in front of the giant Mao statue from earlier in the day. Ha ha! Fools. It was pretty scary though and we were careful to be well clear of the square before whipping out the camera again.

Walking the city was a bizarre experience. The population speaks an Arabic toned Uighur dialect totally different from the guttural Mandarin of the East. Beautifully embroidered skull caps adorn the men whilst silk head scarves, long skirts and heavy eye makeup make the women look like fairytale Romany gypsies compared to the garish synthetic materials of Beijing's population. Flat breads and mutton kebabs replace fried rice and impaled scorpions and there are children playing in narrow crumbling adobe back streets peopled with wood-turners, blacksmiths, cobblers and bakers. Individual characters, smiling faces and a sense of history stirs in all the back streets in a way we hadn't felt since landing in China. However, rounding a corner the future loomed ahead of us. A huge swathe of old town was laid flat and hunkering in the middle of the destruction was a wrecking ball wielding rusty crane. There was a large sign next to the site in Uighur, Mandarin and English. It proceeded to explain how the local government had consulted with UNESCO and locals to ensure a sympathetic reconstruction of the area, but we then saw the first swathe of new buildings.

Narrow streets had been widened into 4 lane traffic choked boulevards. Small workshops had been replaced by concrete and glass shop fronts lit with the ubiquitous hospital glare of energy saving light-bulbs. Original wood-worked banisters and intricate detailing had been replaced with crap Chinese reproductions all in concrete. The delicacy, history and character had been replaced by cheap imitations devoid of any local craft or soul. Colourful billboards were posted round town showing the plans for the old town and seeing wrinkled old men bent double, eyes straining to see what would happen to their homes made you want to cry out. Maybe we see the crumbling streets as a romantic piece of history, but for the inhabitants the renovation promises better conditions and quality of life. However, the uprisings in the region and seeing what pains the government takes to justify their changes you sense this may not be the case. We returned to the hotel to catch on TV parades of ballistic missiles file past Tiannamen Square and legions of Chinese waving plastic flowers in celebration of 'China on the Move', but in Kashgar Friday prayers continue as they have for hundreds of years while their city is swept from beneath them.

Glad to have seen Kashgar at this stage in it's history, we left to skirt the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert back to Xining. A journey again of a couple of thousand miles and a total of 62 hours on local buses, jeeps and sleeper coaches. The China we saw here was one of medieval oasis villages with women bent double picking cotton, ruined towns reclaimed by shifting sand dunes, expanses of barren deserts, distant snow capped mountains and solitary factories pouring smoke into frozen skies. In Hotan we were once again moved hotels by police while the local garrison did bayonet training in the main town square. In Charklik we waited for hours in the freezing pre-dawn before 12 of us squeezed into a jeep for a cross desert slog through a martian landscape of dunes, cliffs and liquid dust. Then in Shimiankuang we found the most god-forsaken place on earth. After traveling for 7 hours through uninhabited desert we see clouds of smoke rising from the horizon. Approaching we find a town with everything coated in a choking layer of white dust. The town is built around China's largest asbestos mine. The landscape for miles in every direction had been ripped up into piles of white rock and dust while machines crushed the earth and jetted plumes of fine white powder into the air. Our bus plucked people from amongst this alien landscape totally devoid of colour and clean air. They appeared as specks of blackness as they waited for the bus by their crumbling houses. Abandoned shells of videovehicles and factories only added to the apocalyptic feel and to know the deadly effects of the asbestos laden air gave us a terrifying insight into China's working practices. To live and work in the middle of a high altitude plateau in a town of several thousand, hundreds of miles from the next habitation mining asbestos for a living? Any complaint I have ever had of cramped commutes or long working hours evaporated as I wondered what twists of fate had led these people to this place.

The southern leg of the route took us into the least populated areas of our whole trip so far. Places you think no human should ever need to work. But where there is money to be made, there will be people there to do so. Nodding donkey oil wells littered the landscape as we crossed the plain between the Altun and Kunlun mountains, and sure enough the town of weather beaten and grimy faces was sure to follow. The scale and scenery of this area where so few people travel, the attractions are admittedly few, is stunning. You travel for mile upon mile seeing nothing but a ribbon of dirt or tarmac road stretching away in front of you, but for some people this is their whole world. You wonder what their impression would be of our lives if they passed through it?



Monday, October 19, 2009

'China on the Move'

10 miles offshore in the East China Sea it is apparent that we're approaching somewhere big and busy. As we chug into Tianjin Port our precious eco-conscious minds are gravely disturbed. Vast fishing nets swallow up anything and everything within a mile radius. A 5 mile long queue of rusty ships unburden themselves of sludge and sewage into a brown, scum-covered ocean. Closer to shore dredgers are busy dumping soil on metal flat beds in what looks like an attempt to turn the useless sea to more industry holding land. Finally, a huge port rises up in front of us; miles and miles of industry of every kind, the details of which are masked by a smog that bleaches everything to a dull grey. We must have arrived in China.

Before we can fully take in the extent of the port, we're whisked through immigration and climbing into a taxi to a station that we hope will led us to Beijing. The journey is an instant eyeopener to the scale of things in China. The roads are monster 6 lane affairs. Traffic is managed by death seeking, florescent wand waving cops, who seem to spend more time dodging trucks than directing them. Taking a shortcut by driving down the wrong side of the highway is totally legit' here. On either side of the road huge tower blocks are being built, all at least 15 stories high and no more than 20 feet apart. The development stretchess uninterrupted into the distance. The building work only adds to the grey haze that we now realise is not a feature of the port alone. As if to counteract my negative impressions brand new trees and topiaried bushes line the roadways. Amongst the smog and dust they look painfully unnatural, desperately clinging onto a very precarious life. The combination of spherical plant life, huge red bill boards full of forced smiles and aggressive 'Welcome to China' neon signs, it feels a little bit like entering a Butlins-esq resort. It turns out that that early impressions weren't far off.

In Beijing we quickly suffer from the communication breakdown that would effect our travels for the next 30 days. We are pointed to a bus and promptly seem to go around in circles for 2 hours unsure of quite what is going on. Our jaws drop as we pass huge floodlit squares filled with people, tower blocks garnished in enough neon to relive the 80s 10 times over and boarded up 'undesirable' neighbourhoods. Finally we reach Beijing Central Station and can place ourselves on the map. People flood the area shouting, pushing, shoving, spitting and laughing. Police roam amongst the crowds waving taser ended batons menacingly. We suddenly realise that it is the day when rail tickets for the week long holiday coming up are released. 50 or so ticket kiosks have queues of at least 100m deep. 200 million people are due to travel around China in the next fortnight. But before that can sink in and cause any panic about buying our own rail tickets out of Beijing, we hurry to the safety of our hostel.

At our hostel we are pleasantly surprised to find we had a TV in our room (just as well given that facebook, our blog and flickr are all blocked!). Needing respite after our hectic journey we open a beer and put it on. No break from China here! We flick through the channels and our options are the news, entitled 'China on the Move', a war drama about the communists fighting and being awesome at it, a drama about Mao's private life, a documentary about Mao, a documentary about Hu Jintao, another communist war drama or a showcase of Chinese nukes on the Chinese Military Channel. Wow. Neither of us have ever had such a quick cultural introduction to a country as this, and all within the comfort of our own bed. We opt for China on the Move (given that its the only in English). Highlights of which included:

'American wishes America could be China, even if its just for a day'
'South Korean wives dislike their husbands'
'China leads the way in international climate change'
'60,000 doves to fly over Tianammen Square on 1st October', one man 'just wishes he could give back [to the PRC] more than his 5 doves'
'Mao is trendier than ever'

And the horribly overt display of the brilliance of China didn't stop there. We managed to time our travels with the 60th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Not only was this the busiest traveling week in Chinese history, with an estimated 200m train journeys planned, but it was also a chance for the PRC to demonstrate the glory of their state on a mass scale. The round the clock celebrations were in our faces everywhere we went. From nuke heads being showcased around Beijing, kitsch plastic flower waving parades, thousands of red pot plants lining the streets or huge banners of Han Chinese people dressed up as the 52 different ethnicities of the nation. The Chinese government did everything possible to ensure that celebrations were peacefully watched on TV or seen on banners. Participation on any other level was reserved for VIPS. I don't think you could ever experience a country more polished, scrubbed and painted red (on the surface) than China for this occasion. And so it was in this context we begun our very long journey into the far flung Western desert lands...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Willy stew and obese wrestlers, it must be Korea and Japan!

We had built up the moment of arriving in Asia for months; the end of Western comforts and the start of the overland adventure home. It began well. After 2 hours of creeping through the industrial bedlam of the Kwangyang steel works freight terminal we landed ourselves a cheap hotel room. This was a surprise to us as the customs official said we were the first ever passengers to disembark at the freighter terminal and no one in town could speak English. Not exactly a well worn tourist trail. But the room came complete with its own slippers, hairdryer, styling combs, hair gel, tooth brushes, computer, neon lights and water cooler. Result! However, early optimism was lessened somewhat as I struggled to come to terms with having to eat what looked like penis broth and later turned out to be intenstine sausage.

Since that moment the whirlwind of Asia has been relentless. From the industrial backwaters of Kwangyang we hopped on a bus to cosmopolitan Busan; the gateway to the Korean Peninsula. Here we spent 3 very content days staying right next door to the huge Jagalchi fish market. For over a mile outside our hotel the streets were lined with overflowing tanks and buckets containing snapping crabs, inert urchins, phallic sea slugs, writhing eels, disgruntled lobsters and a thousand varieties of fish and molluscs. The worst thing we saw was the skinning of eels... alive. Once skinned they were left to wriggle around a plate until someone took an interest when they got thrown into a blender and whizzed up into some kind of bloody slop. Despite this, we braved some sushimi which involved the chef hauling an unsuspecting red giant from a tank and holding a knife to it's belly and waiting. We asked how much and promptly opted for something half the price. Big red goes back and 2 smaller ones are hauled up gulping for air. Before we even nodded guts were on the table and razor sharp knives sent the fish from tank to table in about 2 minutes. A little too fresh at first as our stomachs took a moment to adjust, but adding wasabi, soy and spring onions into the mix and the result was spectacular.

Pondering our imminent departure to Japan after only 5 days in South Korea we sat sipping the local rice wine, 'sojo' on the port side with hundreds of oldies, families and business men. We decided we liked the locals as their kids came over to try and teach us Korean and they smiled, laughed and chatted away. Shortly, one young man also came to chat to us who had incredible English and turned out to be one of the nicest people either of us have ever met. He talked about impressions of the English gentleman, Shakespeare, humanity, history, our travels and our love and commitment for each other. Before leaving he spent about 15 minutes just saying goodbye, blessing our futures and our happiness together which was so touching that tears ran freely down my face the moment he left. I think we may come back to Korea someday. But this was only to be a short sojourn as we boarded a hydrofoil and zoomed at pace to Japan. From there our traveling speeds only got greater as we tore up Japan on the high speed shinkansen trains for the next 10 days. Nick pretty much wet himself with excitement every time we got on one of the bullet trains and I was grateful that Nick's bro Ben was with us to share in the interest when mine was waning.

First impressions of Japan were of efficiency and tidiness, so much so that you feel inclined to tip toe around. You also very quickly get a sense of a thirst for modernity colliding with the very traditional. On our first evening we watched florescent dancing water displays in a huge mall with an artificial canal running through it and then headed back to our traditional guesthouse, with its tiny wooden corridors, bonzai planted courtyard, futon beds, shoes off and communal bath culture. It was summed up by on our first train journey when we saw the platform attendants bow to the high tech trains as they left the station.

Despite only having minimum time in Japan we managed to squeeze in a lot of things we have been excited about for the whole trip. Hiroshima was first up. Having both read John Heresy's horrifying account of the bomb we were intrigued to see how it was portrayed on site. It is an incredible place and between a very informative and harrowing museum and beautiful park memorial we were left with lots to ponder over. Like Einstein's role in encouraging its creation? Like the notes circulated in US government outlining the necessity of the bomb being seen to end the war to avoid awkward questions about the use of billions of dollars of tax money? Like how long Japan can be expected to obey their no military clause 9? To see beyond the city we spent the next day climbing to the top of the sacred island of Miyajima where the poor locals, out in their Sunday best, were given quite a shock at the sight of Tuppen sweats induced by the muggy temperatures. Luckily the bum scratching and bit picking monkeys meant we weren't the most disgraceful creatures on the island.

In an attempt to find a more random Japan we headed to a small island called Ikuchi Jima, home to 'Sunset Beach', which was more off season Bognor than Baywatch. But it was still a worthwhile stop, if only for watching Ben's reaction when his dinner was presented as 2 eggs, a bowl of uncooked vegetables, a pile of noodles, a variety of sauces and a hot plate after a crucial miming error. Next up was a cultural overload in Kyoto where we got lost in a magical mountain of shrines, gazed at geisha's in Gion and enjoyed bottles of sake by the river. In an attempt to avoid temple overload we whizzed out to another coastal town to see how the Japanese holiday. This time were we welcomed off the train by conductors in Hawaiian shirts and taken to 'Paradise Beach'. After enjoying a cliff side onsen bath and the white sand beach we were very entertained for the evening watching students run around in their bath robes, slugging back beer and throwing fireworks at each other. The last week of our Japanese stay was spent in Tokyo, a much anticipated destination. Wandering around never ceased to amaze, but obvious highlights were watching the night close in from Tokyo tower, admiring tuna auctioned at dawn in the fish market, eating tiny kebabs with giant beers in street stalls and celebrating a year of being on the road with some fat slapping, bum wagging sumo action.

As we traveled the country we couldn't believe how urban it is. From the train lines arrowing between tiny paddy fields and huge apartment blocks, there does not seem to be an inch of land left alone. Even when we tried to escape the civilized and headed to some remote coastal towns there were huge ports, bridges and radio masts everywhere you look; even lifts operate on cliffs so people can easily get up and down. There is constant artificial noise. Beeps, jingles, buzzes, speaking ads, announcements and singing vending machines. On top of this we were bombarded by the screeching enthusiasm of school children when they spot some tall white folk or the giggles of teenagers on hearing that Nick and I are engaged. But despite the bizarre nature of such communication, it was great to have so many people wanting to practice English with us. A 60 year old women chatted with us for an hour on a local train, walked us to our port to catch the boat and even bought us a box a cakes to say goodbye, because she was so thankful that she got to speak to English people.

Japan was always somewhere we were intrigued to visit and we left more intrigued than ever. It is a country that has all the development and wealth of the West but has evolved within a completely different tradition and culture. On the surface it puts the West to shame on most fronts. People are quiet, civilized and kind. There isn't a trace of litter anywhere to be seen. There is no obvious presence of authorities and very little crime. No one seems to have an ounce of fat on them and 60 year old women look about 40. Young people always seem very happy and excitable but are never threatening or out of control. There are vending machines selling beer for one quid on every street corner, but very little drunkenness. On the ferry out of Japan there were 4 other Westerners on board and we all expressed woe at why our societies had got to where they are now when Japan seems so perfect. The answer suggested to us by a young Japanese passenger was the calming influence of Buddhism.

But we couldn't help thinking that this 'perfect' society was partly held together by cultural undercurrents that we would find oppressive. There's an implicit judgement in the air if you step out of line. All the hype, noise and mania of the youth seems to be an immediate backlash against an agonisingly restrained older generation. In the city, men dominate the bars and clubs, where the younger men fawn on their bosses or senior colleagues. There are enclaves of seediness dotted all over the big cities, serving the wants of business men who otherwise lead restrained lives. One Sunday we found a sunny spot in the park and sat down to watch everyone lolling around on picnic blankets only for a policemen to turn up and angrily nudge everyone who was lying down ordering them to sit up. I was horrified that people's peace and quite could be shattered just like that!

We have now spent a week in China and can't help but draw some comparisons. In some ways people in the two countries seem to be the complete opposites. In China people are generally loud and boisterous, they will empty their noses or throats anywhere and everywhere and will eat anything and everything. From feeling oafish, sweaty and scruffy in Japan we seem quite clean and sophisticated in China. People here aren't oppressed in their behaviour but then the level of propaganda has far, FAR outweighed our expectations. But more on that to come.

Speaking of propaganda, we cannot get onto our website in China so sorry for the delay. In 5 days time we are heading over the Himalayas through Tibet to Kathmandu. Once there we will be back online and will update you with our 30 day epic, albeit very dusty, silk road adventure to the far flung West of China and back.

If you want to see more photos of Japan and Korea here they are: