Down into China
The transition from Kyrgyzstan to China was always going to be a big step. So far our Silk Road odyssey has been through Turkic cultures. Also both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan had been part of the Soviet Union and were strongly influenced by Russia. We were now about to cross the massive physical barrier of the Tian Shan, leave the former Soviet empire behind and enter the People’s Republic of China.
We leave the simple amenities of Yuri’s yurt camp in Tash Rabat (3,200 metres) to head for the oasis city of Kashgar (1,200 metres) in the Uighur-dominated province of Xinjiang. This involves a protracted border crossing through the Torugart Pass (3,750 metres). There are no fewer than six checkpoints between Kyrgyzstan and China, spread out over 60 km. The first two are Kyrgyz – an introductory check and then the real immigration checkpoint. These are followed by a long stretch of No Man’s Land (with plenty of farmers living in it) and then we reach the top of the pass itself where there is a metal gate with guards on each side – Kyrgyz and Chinese. Although not the formal border, this is the actual crossing point and foreigners can only do so if they have a pre-arranged vehicle awaiting them on the other side. Huge lines of heavy trucks queue up on both sides: empty on the Kyrgyz side, full on the Chinese, bringing in vast quantities of imports from the markets of Kashgar.
We have a fairly short wait for our Chinese driver and guide, made slightly nervous by the fact that it was close to midday when the border closes for lunch. Vichislav, our driver, is keen to get away as he has another job awaiting him on the other side of the country. Just as we resigned ourselves to sitting it out over the lunch hour, a black SUV pulls up on the Chinese side and our new guide signals that he has arrived. Two English women emerge from the vehicle and, a la Checkpoint Charlie, there is a tourist swap across the border. We greet our replacements as we pass.
On the Chinese side, we are met by Raman, our new Uighur guide, and Alim, our driver. They are keen to get started on the journey as it is still 160 km to Kashgar. We also have three more Chinese checkpoints to negotiate: the first to X-ray our bags, the second to check our passports, the third (being the actual immigration point) to do both of these checks again. At this last hurdle, we encounter a problem: there is a power cut and the border officials don’t know what to do. Eventually, faced by two large groups of foreign tourists as well as us, they start looking slowly at passports still not really sure how to proceed. They are saved in the end by the return of electrical power and we go through all of the checks again in the approved manner. At last, we are in the People’s Republic! The road had been rough and mountainous most of the way so far but for the last 50 km it is upgraded to a smooth superhighway – a bit of a culture shock in itself!
Immediately, it is clear that Xinjiang is undergoing rapid development and some fairly serious industrialisation. The edge of the Taklamakan desert is being torn up for all manner of reasons: road building and construction materials, chemicals, oil. The developments sprawl over the tabula rasa of the desert. In another part of the province, we pass the biggest wind farm we have ever seen, with thousands of turbines spread over a huge area. We reach Kashgar in the late afternoon and have another bout of culture shock as we stop in front of the enormous – and very ugly – Tarim Petroleum Barony Hotel, our abode for the next two nights. Nevertheless, we are delighted to get back to the mod cons of a comfortable room with an en suite bathroom after 5 days of camping!
Xinjiang feels very different from the Stans. A sense of unease gradually makes itself felt. There are all sorts of under-currents – too many and too complex for us to fathom in our short visit. How much will we understand?