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
vehicles 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?