Saturday 26th May Yecheng to Hotan – Simon

Paul Chi and his brother Jerry make breakfast for us all in the foyer of our hotel  which was built 2 years ago in order to attract custom from would be K2 climbers as they set off north to the great Mountain. However today not a crampon in site but hotel very cheap.

Wheels up at 0900 and we shoot off eastwards along the edge of the Taliimakin desert. It is dusty but only 18 deg C. Hot sun but cool enough for the bikers to enjoy moving through the air. There are two sorts of events this road , bizarre road users and oases, the latter of which are long and thin stretching from uphill in the south to the more dependent northern limits where presumably the water dives even deeper into the dust. Occasionally the water is on the surface and we whiz by brown muddy streams which snake always from right to left off into the desert as we venture eastwards. Flash floods must be a major problem for every mile of the road is protected by a series of inverted V shaped culverts bull dozed out of the sand. The water is then guided under the road through large concrete pipes. They hadn’t go this right in Kyrgyzstan where the road would frequently get washed away in a down pour.

Things going on in the desert

The oasis villages are very regularly spaced and indeed when you look at the map you can see an evenly spaced series of valleys running down from Tibet evacuating they rivers into the Taliimakan. At Karakash just before Hotan a fair sized river shoots northwards and manages to get 50 miles  into the desert before disappearing down a hole at a place called Koshlash! The old Hotan He trail continues northwards without its river past Fort Martzatag for 500 miles right up to Aksu near the great mountains of Tomur Feng on the Kazakhstan border.

Returning to our fellow travelers we enjoy a variety of old and modern vehicles

on the motorway-why not

the horse power

College transport in one of the oasis

but the most unique – to our surprise and great pleasure we come upon Nathan Jones, my son Harry’s friend who is bicycling from Bristol to Tokyo.

Honestly officer , the camel jumped straight out in front of me!

Meanwhile across the road.-

Nathan and the camel share comparing hair styles

We have now met Nathan three times on the road and the guys have been very impressed with his tenacity and hardiness. Nathan has another 7 months to reach Tokyo and has elicited Richard’s help in getting some lessons in Mandarin when he rests in Beijing for a month in the summer.

Nathan and the new Great Game.

Nathan Jones and the Grey Silk Riders

Nathan covers formidable distances and camps out at night in the Taliimakan. You can see the barren landscape around us. He promises to be in Hotan to join us for dinner tomorrow night before we have our own bash at crossing the Taliimakan Shamo on a new road .

Last shot -Yak head on the foremast- no I didn’t hit it.

Love to all

Simon

Refined aerodynamic profile for van

 

Friday 25th. May – Kashgar to Yecheng – Dave

Today we started east towards the Taklamakan Desert.  The traffic was as insane as ever until we left Kashgar and found ourselves speeding through a patchwork of well-tended fields.  It’s arable farming here with few cows, goats or sheep in sight, but the earth is dusty and dry, so it must be backbreaking, hardscrabble work.  And the locals live in a strange, sun-bleached world.

As Nick commented at the end of the day, “We saw just two colors – green and brown”.  He was right, but the brown colour is so diluted it can only really be described as ‘dust’.

After a few hours we stopped in a small town called Yengisar, famous for making knives.  The streets were lined with small shops selling every type of knife and cleaver you can imagine – and many that you can’t because they are so ornate or weird.  It is mystifying that there could be so many traders cheek-by-jowl selling exactly the same products – and, as far as we could tell, we were the only potential customers in town today.

We pushed on down roads lined with poplars, past rice fields and orchards.  Donkey carts became as common as cars.

Then, gradually, the desert pushed in from our left and the trees and fields and their greenery disappeared and the world became truly monotonal – just the dusty brown of the desert.

Somewhere to the right, not far away, were the vast mountains of Tibet but we couldn’t see them through the grit-laden air.  Simon is like Mr. Toad – he has already forgotten his altitude-induced lunacy and his vow to steer clear of mountains for life and is planning a detour to K2 base camp.  It is indeed tantalizingly close, but the logistics of getting into Tibet (and our concerns for Simon’s health) deter us.

We stopped for the night at a modest hotel in the town of Yecheng, which only seems to exist because of the huge Chinese Army bases in the area.  I was worried for Richard because the odds of us finding a decent restaurant in this bleak community looked slim; however, as always, he rose to the occasion and we were soon loaded into taxis and off in search of a recently-opened Szechuan eatery he’d learned of from the hotel receptionist.

Astonishingly, this humble new restaurant – run by a lovely lady from Szechuan  who, until two months ago, had a restaurant in Tibet – served us the best meal we have eaten since leaving Europe – indeed it was much better than most of the meals we ate there.

So – a relatively quiet day on the road here in China.

The best to you all and love to my family (especially Karen, as today is our 38th wedding anniversary).

Dave

Kashgar Thursday 24 Th may -second day -Simon

Xinjiang Provence see brown vertical slash of the karakorum Highway on far right of map

Our second day to rest in Kashgar and a guide for the day to get us through the day- Abdul, Chinese by nationality, Uigur by race. He was an engaging and intelligent man who was able to give expansive and interesting synopses of the history, the people and the current state of Xinjiang Provence- He took us to his favourite old market and the key Islamic sites as we had asked. Dave and I are trying to vary the diet for the blog and I am going today to try and portray the feeling of Kashgar through the faces, styles of dress and modes of transport we have seen .

Abdul runs his own guide company and specializes in treks . He has led groups to the Advanced Base Camp of K2, the second highest mountain in the world and has walked across the Takiimakan Shamo in 16 days ( about 400 miles). He looks fit and walks with that easy grace seen in those who are comfortable in rough terrain. He is a frequent traveler on the Karakoram Highway following its tortuous path though the mountainous border of Western China and then up and over the Khunjerab Pass at 4693 metres into the “ Northern Areas” currently administered by Pakistan.

North section of karakoram Highway

Khunjrab Pass 4693

Xinjiang is the largest Provence of China and the majority race is the Uigar. They are a heterogeneous group ethnically arising from a mix of the Atilla the Huns’ followers, The Turkic peoples and some of Genghis Khan’s rough and tumble mates. The Uigars are proudly Muslim but have not individuated into either Shia or Sunny something Abdul is proud of. The men appear to have come from every corner of the Earth and there are Celtic faces , Southern European faces and all the facial characteristics of the east swirling in the crowd. More remarkable are the beautiful and fiercely independent looking veiless women who scythe through the traffic on their electric motor scooters. I am developing a dangerous habit of standing motionless in the middle of street trying to capture this great spectrum of faces as they flash by.

India and Thailand

Italy

Spain

 

 

I am writing this 3 days after the event because the conquering of the Tour U Ghat got us behind on blog entries. In the intervening period I have flavoured the long passages through the Taliimakain Desert with Patrick O’Brian’s book -HMS Surprise and I find it difficult to get its music out of my head.

Abdul takes to small but quite beautiful mosque near one of old markets

A Kashgar mosque

This market is empty of tourists apart from 3 muscular Dutch rowers. In this part of the world you must stop and chat to every traveler to hear their tales for there are not many. It is also nice to see the jaws drops as they listen to the journey of 5 old men trying to cross a continent on bikes.

John and David buy long beautiful Kashgar coats and John wears his much to the appreciation of the locals. I am wearing my Uzbek hat which I did not realise until now singled me out as an “Uzbek trader” also much appreciated by the local traders who prod me in the arm and looking up at my hat grin and shout “Uzbek”

John and David buy beautiful woolen Kashgar coats

As they try on numerous coats I take to trying photograph these wonderful Uigar faces

The knife sharpener

A man who allowed me to photograph him in the mosque

We live worlds apart

 

Now look here my man!

The last set of faces I catch at a funeral where there is a vast phalanx of men coming down the steps of the mosque to pay last respects to deceased. I ask Abdul if its OK to film. He says no problem and I am completely invisible to this solemn group.

The funeral

 

Paying his respects

Finally we look over the garden wall of the mosque and see small groups sitting around the burial sites paying their last respects.

saying goodbye

I ask Abdul about the women. I am surprised when he tells me they are not allowed to join in . We try and talk about the position of women in Uigar life in Kashgar. I sense he is guarded but he does tells us that he is over 40 and has married a women of 25 recently. He doesn’t enlarge apart from telling us she is a biology graduate and has taken up a job teaching.

I think it is important to say that we have had no problems uplifting narrative and photos onto our private site in China. People speak very freely to us here about the positive and negative aspects of this great country. Although unlikely it is possible that our readership is a lot wider than we think and the fact that people here do speak their minds and appear positive about their futures does say a lot in itself. There is enormous energy here and a great deal going on in terms of construction and development. Despite being in the middle of a desert the draining waters of the high Tibetan plateau seep northwards mostly underground and have a created a vast aquifer in the Taliimakin Shamo which the Uigar people , their new eastern Chinese settlers and the Chinese government are exploiting very creatively. Lets hope it will last.

Last two shots-

“No one appeared veiled”

Love to all

Simon

 

The women now

 

And the women of the future

Wednesday 23rd – Rest Day in Kashgar – Dave

Kashgar is our first experience of a major Chinese city and is both typical and atypical: of the country – typical in its ferocious, bustling energy and barely-contained growth, but atypical in that its people are Uighur rather than Han Chinese.

They are Muslims and generally dark-complexioned – looking more like they come from neighboring Pakistan than from China ‘proper’ – but centuries of swirling populations of traders and conquerors have peppered this core ethnic look with huge variety.  It is not unusual, for instance, to spot with his darker-skinned family, a pale, blond child who might have stepped straight from the streets of Glasgow.

Our first day in China was given over to essential housekeeping.  After breakfast our guide Paul (and his driver brother, ‘Jerry’) led our convoy in their pick-up out of town to the local vehicle registration center so we could temporarily re-register the bikes and van in China.

Driving here is insane – overloaded cars, bikes, motor scooters, put-puts, vans swarming around you, zapping in every direction and only occasionally following the rules of the road.  If it is easier to go the wrong way down the street on a scooter with your family of four, then that’s what you do – at 60 MPH, with the baby under one arm and a phone to your ear.  I kid you not.  The first time you see it you ‘re about to scream “STOP!  PLEASE, STOP!  YOU’RE GOING TO KILL YOUR WHOLE FAMILY – AND ANYONE ELSE WHO GETS IN YOUR WAY!”  when another scooter, much more overloaded and driving even more crazily, speeds past, missing you by a fraction of an inch…and another and another…  And soon what appears outrageous and insanely dangerous has become commonplace.

It’s like living in some health & safety officer’s demented nightmare.  So driving here is a constant game of survival, but we have evolved a fairly safe system of moving in cities as a convoy that seems to be working well.

Vehicle registration involved a lot of waiting around while Paul spearheaded the paperwork effort and, as usual, we found ourselves the center of attention for all the men in the area.  “Where are you from?”  “What did your bike cost?”  “How fast does it go”…  All very direct, abrupt and serious, but if you offer your hand, introduce yourself, and ask their name, it’s suddenly all smiles.

After 8,000 miles, the bikes and van were caked in dirt and mud and desperately in need of a wash.  We had mixed feeling about this as the dirt was evidence of what manly, hard-core adventurers we are, but we decided that on-balance its neither manly nor adventurous to be sitting by the side of the road with a filth-blocked air-intake, so we found a car wash where three ladies in aprons and bonnets attacked the bikes and van with a power hose, cloths and a sense of humor.

 

Finally it was back to the hotel where we met up with Nathan – Harry Britten’s pal who is cycling to Beijing and a reminder that it will need a hell of a lot more than dirt on our bikes to make us look truly manly and adventurous.

We dined with Nathan at a street restaurant beside a ‘healer’ who was surrounded on the pavement by a vast array of animal, vegetable and mineral cures and a mesmerized crowd.  Among his cures was what appeared to be a tiger’s claw.  We’re definitely not in Congresbury any more.
All the best,
Dave