Year Of The Dragon

Uygher Musicians

Kyrgyzstan had been the focus of my fear for a long time. Our ill timed winter crossing of the mountainous country had been playing on my mind since we decided to change our route back in Greece. What I had failed to give any prior though to was China. As we crossed the border at Irkeshtam, saw that famous red flag and every sign turned into an illegible yet exotic and alluring script I got a rush of excitement about what lay ahead.

My initial anticipation was soon dampened. An inspection of the Map showed almost 2,000 miles of desolate desert had first to be negotiated before we would reach the readily associated images we all have of China and the more interesting cultural, historic and scenic attractions. To put some context around this the province we entered in China, Xinjiang, is three times the size of France (despite this only 4.3% of Xinjiang’s land area is deemed fit for human habitation). The 2,000 miles of desert we would need to cross through Xinjiang and Qinghai would be just shy of our total distance across Europe.

I reminded myself that we set out on this expedition with three distilled objectives: a remarkable adventure, a great challenge and to raise a significant amount of money for War Child. This leg (especially coming after our Kyrgyzstan crossing) would certain go some way to providing the all encompassing mental and physical challenge we sought. Furthermore once we reached southern China we would be rewarded with a spectacular run down into Indonesia.

We had an important decision to make. There are two routes (north and south) which circle the huge desert that comprises most of Xinjiang, the Taklamakan. Both routes are roughly equivalent in length but the northern route is more populace and has greater numbers of Han Chinese (mainly due to the railway which runs along this route). The southern route is more sparsely populated but has a larger population of Uygher’s (the original ethnic people). Never ones to shirk a challenge and keen to sample the last bastion of Uygher culture we settled on the south – the route Marco Polo is said to have taken.

There are differing explanations as to what the meaning of Taklamakan is (‘place of ruins’, ‘desert of death’, ‘point of no return’ etc.) but whichever is correct it is clear that is not the most inviting of places. It is one of the largest deserts in the world and in its formidable centre unlike for instance in the Sahara, nothing lives.

As we waited to be stamped into China at the border crossing it became clear we had more pressing problems. Despite our pleas we were ordered to board separate HGVs to Ulugqat. It transpired that the immigration checkpoint was in fact 150km from the enforced border so that travellers from various border crossings can be processed in the same place. This did allow me to hole up in a hotel for three days until my deadly bout of man flu abated enough for us to roll down into Kashgar.

We enjoyed our first showers in a week, clean clothes and our first taste of the local food. China is a huge country, accordingly its people and food also vary greatly. Furthermore the ‘Chinese’ food we are usually served in England is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the food here. In the Uygher region of Xinjiang Lagman is a staple. Noodles with some stir fried veg, a few scraps of meat and plenty of chilli. Although the Uygher people look similar to their Central Asian neighbours the food is vastly different and we took it as a personal mission to become acquainted with it. In cafes and restaurants you will hear the constant slurping and sucking of noodles mixed with hacking and spitting as cigarette smoke wafts around.

Getting to Kashgar was straight forward. We left Ulugqat on an icy plateau and dropped 1000 meters in height. For the first time in months downhill was again a pleasure with the temperature in China significantly warmer than in Central Asia. After checking into the Qinibagh Hotel we met Leigh a friendly Aussie and arranged to go for dinner with him and his English girlfriend Lottie. They had lived in China for four years on the east coast and were now travelling back to the UK overland before heading to South America later in the year. We spent the next few days eating well, drinking beer, playing cards and strolling around Kashgar soaking in the local culture.

Wandering around the old town, down thin pedestrian alleys where children played I was amazed by how much of it was falling down or being torn down. Some buildings were re-built in the traditional style but many were left to crumble leaving rubble littering the streets – as is the case with the old city walls. Many we re-built in a modern style which seems slowly to be removing the soul from this ancient silk road city. I stumbled across the fruit and veg market by the Id Kah Mosque where Uygher men wore big fur hats and pointy triangular beards. I ventured on to the Sunday Market which was an assault on my senses. Thousands of people gathered selling or buying all manner of goods. The sights, sounds and smells were almost overwhelming despite the fact that they have relocated the animal market to the south of the city.

Soon enough though it was time to begin the desert crossing, the Taklamakan was calling us. The recent Chinese new year had welcomed in the ‘lucky’ year of the dragon, surely this was a positive sign.

2 Responses to “Year Of The Dragon”

  1. Steven says:

    What a joy to find sonmeoe else who thinks this way.

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