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To Kashgar: flying/hitching/walking to Xinjiang.

To Kashgar: flying/hitching/walking to Xinjiang.

Old Aug 13, 20, 8:38 am
  #1  
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To Kashgar: flying/hitching/walking to Xinjiang.

Hello, thanks for popping by. As far as trip reports go, this is somewhat atypical for Flyertalk. There isn’t a single Business Class seat. Not a lounge. Not even a G&T, a flute of champagne, a chalice of good wine. Or half-decent wine. Or dishwater with an ABV. You can’t say I haven’t warned you.

With that out of the way, on to what the TR is about: this is a chronicle of a trip taken one year ago, in those days where pandemics were the stuff of Netflix documentaries. If you’ve ever read Peter Hopkirk’s books, the names Turkestan and Kashgar will sound both familiar and exotic. Come think of it, I don’t know why there hasn’t been a single place, in the whole Star Wars universe, called Kashgar. Come the long hot summer of 2019, I had one objective: to get in Xinjiang, and to do it overland.

It’d be remiss of me if I didn’t mention that I was also very much aware of something terrible going on there. I’d read the heart-wrenching reports from Jon Sudworth and countless NGO denunciations of atrocities going on there; even more worryingly, people in neighbouring countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan – told me about bad stuff going on there. There are also countless dispatches on Internet fora such as Caravanistan. Still, I wanted to go there. Perhaps, I thought, reality will be different than it seems. Journalistic hyperbole and all that. But more on that later… right now it’s time to start from the beginning, and the beginning involves a chain restaurant not far off from Oxford Circus.

I. The best laid plans…

…go awry. Departure day -1. Backpack filled, hall pass from the Mrs obtained (”Try not to get sick or arrested for 2 weeks” she admonished), a LHR-TXL, TXL-DME-OSS itinerary ticketed and checked-in for, I was ready to go. Not before a dinner with friends.

I should’ve known better. Nothing good comes out of a dinner in a chain restaurant pretending to be Mexican, tucked away in a corner behind Oxford Circus. Nothing. But I ignored wisdom and paid the price.

I’ll spare you the details. Woke up the following day in no fit state to fly. Denis from S7 Airlines was genuinely saddened about my ill health, processed a cancellation that gave me about 50% of the TXL-DME-OSS fare back and suggested “My grandmother’s remedy against food poisoning” although I suspect it worked better in case of hangover. Eurowings weren’t as nice, though.

Two days later, having regained control of my digestive tract, I went to Heathrow with a renewed sense of purpose. A trek in the Alay mountains had been scuppered, but I wasn’t ready to give up just yet. I had a new plan in mind.

The gentleman at the Aeroflot desk in T4 was glad to sell me a one-way Heathrow-Sheremetyevo-Osh ticket at a more than acceptable price, with a comfortable 3-hour connection in Moscow. As a sweetener, he added the beau geste of saying that the 737 which was to do the honours on the Sheremetyevo-Osh portion of the flight was going to be fitted with Wi-Fi.

SU2579
LHR-SVO
VQ-BQX – Airbus A330-300
13:25 – 19:10
Seat 13G - Y



T4 is, by far, my least favourite terminal in LHR. Effectively it’s just a corridor with the occasional shop and far less seating than necessary. The one redeeming feature is the observation deck, allowing for a commanding view of the terminals’ roofs and, at the far end of one of the piers, the Aeroflot A330-300 that was to do the honours today. As I did many times before, I thought to myself that SU’s livery was and remained a class act (they must’ve heard me, for they’ve recently changed it to blend in with the flying suppository attire that is all the rage nowadays).




Anyway, onwards! Time to go.

Economy is economy and, while perfectly acceptable, something told me that I wouldn’t want to fly on this bird on a true long-haul. Perhaps it was the pitch – just good enough if the passenger in front didn’t recline - or maybe it was the fact that the IFE only worked with the airline’s vile headphones. Still, the seat next to me remained empty, a surly matron and her equally unfriendly husband sat on the other side of the pew and, by the corridor, two toddlers banged their heads together and began howling in despair. All was well.



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The flight included a meal service and the options were printed on a menu. Colour me impressed. Mutton or chicken were the options, vegetarians be damned; I went for the former. Ahead of me were two weeks of ovine cooked in all possible ways: I might as well start early.



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Sheremetyevo, once we arrived there after a long holding above Belarus and an interesting bus ride on the apron, felt like Atatürk on a bad day: people everywhere, screaming and shouting at the helpdesks, a cacophony of announcements, and way too little space for the throngs of passengers.



The flight to Osh, when it eventually came to, departed from a bus gate from the basement of Sheremetyevo. Say what you want, but I’m a fan of boarding a plane as the sun sets, the air is fresh and there’s a 777-300 parked just next door.


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SU1894
SVO-OSS
VP-BMO – Boeing 737-800
20:50 – 04:10
Seat 25C - Y


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Flights from Russia to the Central Asian republics attract the same kind of clientele: young emigrants, the unseen and often mistreated engines of this country’s economy, a handful of Russian businessmen and a few tourists.

Not much to write about this flight: a narrow seat, a 4-hour red eye and the promised Wi-Fi required an app in order to be used. Dinner came and went and I passed the time reading, for the umpteenth time, the marvellous A Death in Brazil by Peter Robb. Eventually, in the wee hours of the morning, we touched down in a still-asleep Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan.


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To be continued shortly. Should it be of interest, I'd like to point you to my travel blog, Are We There Yet.
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Old Aug 13, 20, 11:16 am
  #2  
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II. Hitch-hiking through Kyrgyzstan, or “The best laid plans, part 2”

Osh, I’ve grown to know, is a typical specimen of provincial Central Asia: a substrate of ageing Soviet infrastructure at various stages of dilapidation and reappropriation by the nascent national identity, sprinkled with newer – and usually garish – constructions. The mixture is, here, made more complicated by the fact that Osh is 40% Uzbek: the Soviets faced the multiculturality of the Ferghana valley with a Solomonic approach (this town to you, that village to them, this other hamlet to that other guy) that succeeded in pissing everyone off. Riots and pogroms have been fairly frequent, in the past.

Having said that, let’s go for a quick tour of the city of which, I should say, I’m a fan. It won’t feature on Conde Nast Traveller anytime soon, but – having been here a few times – I’ve to say it’s grown on me. It’s friendly, rather easy to navigate and an absolute kaleidoscope of experiences. There’s a post-apocalyptic bazaar, there’s people selling 4G SIM cards next to blokes peddling kumyss, fermented mare’s milk, statues of more-or-less mythological Kyrgyz warlords and monuments to Chernobyl’s liquidators.

Let’s start from the beginning. Not far off from the airport is a boneyard of Soviet cargo aviation. Il-76s, An-22s and more lie nose-to-tail, parked at the end of a dirt road. How they got there, what they’re doing, who put them there: all questions that I have no answer to. All you need to do to see them is to walk down the airport’s road, turn right at the first turn, turn right again at the football pitch, go past the BMX track and you’re there.


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Osh, when you’ll eventually get there is, as I said, a hotchpotch of styles. Kyrgyz horn ram motifs decorate the gloomiest Soviet wedding halls ever built; bas-reliefs of people playing the qomuz mingle with Misha, the bloodthirsty mascot of the 1980s Olympics and, at the butt end of Leninskaya, the man itself gesticulates in front of an empty street and a big-... Kyrgyz flag. Oh, there’s also a Yak plonked in a park and the bazaar, where you’ll find some great lepyoshka bread and fruit of the kind I can never find in London. A bucketful of raspberries and bread is my usual breakfast when there.


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Today, I’ve a problem. I can’t find the marshrutka (aka shared taxi)for Sary-Tash, the gateway to the Pamirs and where I plan to find a car to the Chinese board. I search everywhere there usually are some, but find none. After a while, I resort to contracting an enterprising local cabbie, negotiate a price and set off, aboard a rickety Chevrolet Matiz that, to borrow from my old man, has seen more ditches and trees than repair shops.

Still, everything seems to be going OK. The taxi, driven by an affable man whom I took to call Robert, purred on the road to the mountains. The town gave way to villages, villages to fields and the fields to hills bleached by the sun. We picked up a hitch-hiker and delivered some letters. All was good, up until when I looked at Robert’s dashboard. Odometer: broken. Oil pressure: broken. Rev counter: broken. Fuel indicator: stuck on empty. Surely he wouldn’t get on an 180-km journey on an empty tank, wouldn’t he?

He would.

Long story short: the Matiz died 300 meters from a petrol station. We pushed, filled up, but then the thing wouldn’t depart. We jump-started it, we found help from another Matiz, rolled cables ‘round the batteries, nothing. After thirty attempts the other driver gave up, Robert called somebody, I gave him some money to cover the fuel and the journey so far, he apologised and I bailed.



The good news is that I was in Central Asia, where hitch-hiking is a constitutional right. All you need to have is an idea of your destination, an arm to stretch and a hand to wriggle about. A few minutes later and I had my first ride, a Toyota to Gulcha, a mid-valley village with some incredible architecture.



And then came Murat with his KAMAZ.



Murat spoke even less Russian than I did, but was going to Sary Tash and, more importantly, drove the most awesome of all rides: a KAMAZ truck. Neolithic suspensions, rock-hard seats covered with a woolly blanket, a handle to lower the window. Heaven.



We stopped in Gagarin for fuel and, then, tackled Taldyk pass.


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Here, Murat decided to show off: as we tackled the hairpins he dished out a Rubik cube. One hand on the cube, one alternating between gears and steering wheel.



Eventually we cleared both hairpins and the Cube. The scenery opened up, in the wide plateau that leads to the Pamirs. God's country if you ask me.


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Murat then dropped me off on the edge of Sary-Tash, refused any money, shook my hand and carried on. A gentleman, and a scholar.



Will continue shortly. In the meantime, if you want to read more stories, feel free to check out the blog.
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Old Aug 14, 20, 12:56 am
  #3  
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III. A Pamir gathering

Sary Tash is described in less-than-favourable terms in most guides and travel reports; truth be told, the beauty of the region lies elsewhere. But, nonetheless, it’s a place I like, don’t ask me why. It’s a visceral sympathy: today this feeling is deepened by the views. I mean, look at that.



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Up until my visit, the homestays in this village ranged from the fleapit-ish to the outright unfit for human habitation. Not anymore, thanks to an enterprising young fella called Shamurat and his Pamirextreme homestay, which I’m happy to endorse and recommend to anyone. Pricy for local standards ($20/night for full board) but boasting a Western toilet, hot shower, wi-fi and clean beds. Can’t beat it.




It also comes with some great views and company, which can’t hurt. That day, as the sun sank lower, cows came home and kids oversaw everything I had a great evening in the company of two German overlanders, an Italian bike rider and two French retirees who’d come all the way from Grenoble on a Ural sidecar, see below:




Time to do a last stroll in the village as the sun sets and people come back in for the night.


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Above us, the Pyk Lenina shone in the beauty of its 7,000+ metres of altitude.
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Old Aug 14, 20, 1:16 am
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IV. Entering Xinjiang

Right, D-day, and it's a stunner of a morning.



Shamurat has been kind enough to drive me to the border and so it is that, after breakfast, we jump in his Japanese knock-off (including right-hand drive and Japanese-language entertainment console) for the relatively short ride to the border. Outside, Kyrgyzstan is giving me a misty-eyed farewell of spectacular beauty.



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I must admit: I’m nervous. The Irkeshtam border is described as the easiest of the overland frontier posts between the Pamir countries and China, but it’s still a long, long slog. Read here for more info. Based on what I’ve heard I can expect 8, 10 hours of non-stop checks, possible intrusion in my electronic gadgetry and inspections of every printed material I carry lest it contains photos of the Dalai Lama or anything else that an atheist regime might consider haram. An overland cyclist once told me the mantra for this border: Patience, Smiles, Compliance. PSC shall be my mantra today.

I’m stamped out of Kyrgyzstan in moments. In my limited experience, Kyrgyz border guards have consistently been the friendliest and the least, shall we say, prone to extol some sort of baksheesh. This time is no difference and, thanks to Shamurat having the necessary permit, we can cruise in the no man’s land beyond the border, up until the very last sentry box. We overtake a bumper-to-bumper queue of lorries. Tajik, Kyrgyz, even Uzbek lorries queue up to enter China, their drivers ready for a long period of camping. “It can take up to three days, even if the trucks are empty. Trade with China goes only one way, out” comments Shamurat before dropping me off. I shoulder my pack, shake his hand and also the hand of the Kyrgyz squaddie that is sitting there, and get off. We’re in a wide, Alpine valley, short green grass and a brown torrent. Behind us the white peaks of the Pamirs; ahead, a nude hill covered in barbed wire, red flags and CCTVs.

What ensues is surely the lengthiest, most drawn-out, idiotic and exhausting border crossing I’ve ever done. Twelve hours of checks, controls, metal detectors, questionings. My passport details have been hand-written into a dozen of ledgers at dozens of checkpoints, often within five metres from one another. My backpack’s contents have been disgorged, analysed, patted down three times. Every Snickers bar inspected, every pill of Imodium checked, every photo on my camera carefully controlled. My phone was plugged into a mysterious monolith – the little cousin of the one that starred in 2001 A Space Odyssey, probably – which checked its entire content and installed a spyware app. I was asked to read aloud a few pages of my book to a gaggle of uncomprehending border policemen. There were an immigration checkpoint, a customs checkpoint and, inbetween, more checkpoints.



During the wait for Uluqqat customs to open. The only time I felt sufficiently OK to take a picture.

Once it was all said and done, and I’d been stamped in the country, driven to customs, then to a collective taxi stand, then driven to Kashgar bus station, I’d been stopped sixteen times. I’d hitched a ride on an Uzbek lorry and on a border police SUV and two taxis. By then the sun was setting and I was ready – ripe, I’d say – for a shower, a beer and something oily, fried and possibly dripping with fat.
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Old Aug 14, 20, 1:19 am
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This looks like an interesting trip. I find Central Asia(and rightly or wrongly I will include Xinjiang) incredibly fascinating. I'm curious to read your impression of the situation on the ground because I have also read and heard some bad things about what the Chinese authorities are doing. .
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Old Aug 14, 20, 1:49 am
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V. Nobody speak: Kashgar

Kashgar. I was in! The excitement was palpable, and not even the heat, the fact that cab drivers were Uyghur and didn’t read Chinese (Uyghur uses Arabic script) and that my hotel, one of the few that accepted foreigners, had seemingly disappeared could dampen my feelings. Although, I must admit that after 3 hours of searching I’d gotten a bit frustrated.

Eventually I found it, not where OsmAnd app said it was and trading under a different name. Details. They had my reservation and there was a fridge filled with Tsingtao. As I checked in the receptionist, who was also the only one to be speaking English, informed me that I was “prohibited from taking photos of police, military, police installations, military installations”. Fair enough. She then went on to advise that I exercise “care in my dealings with the Muslims”. I stopped looking at the beers and asked to say again. “The Muslims”, she repeated, unblinking.

I guess this is a good time as any to tackle the obvious elephant in the room Xinjiang and its security situation. I’m well aware that this is a travel forum and not a geopolitics one, so I’ll try and keep it brief and hopefully bipartisan. I’ll start by saying that Xinjiang has, for time immemorial, had Han Chinese presence. Census officers roamed the land in the first centuries AD; garrisons dotted the region too. At the same time, it’s undeniable that the indigenous peoples of these lands – the Uyghurs, the Kazakhs, the Pamiris – have little, in terms of culture, to share with the Hans. Marco Polo mentioned Nestorian churches, here; Herodotus spoke of a Kasia regio where Zoroastrianism was practiced. Closer to now, the indigenous communities speak Turkic languages (Kyrgyz and Uyghurs can sort of understand each other), write in Arabic and, crucially, are Sunni Muslims. Kashgar is famously closer to Baghdad than to Beijing.

This situation has created a degree of friction, throughout history. As soon as China’s power waned, locals made dashes for independence, notably in the century or so that lapsed between the last years of the Empire and the creation of the PRC. This has made Beijing considerably edgy.

In recent years, the situation has worsened. Beijing favoured immigration in the allegedly autonomous province; this caused tension and protest. I won’t go into who fired the first shot, because I don’t know: all I know is that riots were followed by crackdowns, and crackdowns preceded riots. There’s plenty of evidence of atrocities for both.

Another thing worth mentioning is terrorism. Attacks have always been reported with a modicum of scepticism in the Western press, almost as if we could never say for certain whether they’d happened or not. But groups affiliated to Al Qaeda have indeed carried out suicide bombings, car bombings, car-and-knife attacks, knife attacks, attempted plane hijackings and also syringe attacks.

None of this justifies, in my mind, the reaction from the government. Xinjiang does 20% of the arrests of the country, despite accounting only for 2% of the population. There are hundreds of thousands of security personnel. Laws have been passed banning “religious extremism”, which includes growing of beards, refusing to drink or eat pork, naming your son Mohammed. Studying religion is prohibited, the hajj is prohibited, wearing a hijab is forbidden too. Then there’s the extra-judiciary camp situation. Unless you’ve lived under a rock, I’m sure you’ll be familiar with them; and, if not, please check here, here or here.

I haven’t seen them. Bar for a few perplexing situation – schools bordered by cameras and barbed wire, kindergartens decked out like Supermaxes – I saw very little signs of mass incarceration. But that doesn’t mean that everything was tip-top. Allow me to take you out on a day’s walk in Kashgar.



Let’s start at 7 AM. The hotel is asleep: the families of Han tourists are still sleeping and, downstairs in the lobby, an unseen hand is lining up gigantic thermoses full of water heated to a temperature sufficient to melt tungsten. I pour my first coffee of the day and sit outside, looking out to a wide boulevard and, beyond it, a park with an artificial lake. Pensioners practice Tai Chi and birds chirp their lungs out.

Then, it starts. Three Iveco vans, windows protected by a metallic mesh, trundle along the road at a snails’ pace, sirens blaring. Inside, cops sit three deep, fully decked out in helmets and shields and batons. The three vans parade in convoy, the cries of the sirens bouncing off the walls of the tenements. More triplets of vans do the same around town. When I asked Xiaolu, the receptionist, about what was that she laughed and said that it was done to “Wake up drunken Muslims”. I should point out I was the only one to routinely crack the Tsingtao open.



Let’s carry on. Let’s walk along the long, tree-lined boulevards towards the Old Town. Here’s Chairman Mao, waving on the swarms of electric scooters. On the opposite site of the road is a wide park, perfect – though this will happen later in the day – to attempt some panning. Mixed results as you can see.



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And here’s when you notice them. You can all but see them in this photo, but on every other corner there’s a police control post. A van (sometimes an armoured one, like the military has) and two cops: one with a shield, the other with the wildest array of weaponry I’ve ever witnessed: rifles, batons, pikes, some sort of huge clamps stuck at the end of a long pole. Other patrol the streets in groups of two or threes.



Outside of most major buildings – included the one where my hotel is – are security guards. Dressed in grey uniforms, mostly locals, they are bundled in tin helmets and oversized vests. Wooden planks, clubs, sticks complete the ensemble. The photo below shows our hotel's hardware in a lucky moment when the security guard wasn't sat at the desk smoking cigarettes prohibited by some UN convention on chemical weapons and watching videos of cats.



Then there’s the military. These guys appear usually in the late afternoon, in groups of four or five, patrolling in single file. Every time I’ve seen them, their rifles have bayonets on.

At last, the Old City. This is what I wanted to see. It feels like Bukhara, just better kept. Cars are all but forbidden, families do their trades and go about their lives. I find myself walking there every day, waiting out the hotter hours of the day in an outside café with a pot of tea, and then start again.


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The Old City of Kashgar is everything I wanted it to be, but it’s hard not to notice the cameras. They’re everywhere: on poles, swivelling under a trellis, sticking out of buildings. They are all connected to fuse boxes emblazoned with the same logo that adorns police cars. Not a single corner is exempt from a camera, not a single one. And they move as you move.


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Kashgar is said to be having 150 between mosques and madrassahs. I find a few, and all but one are padlocked shut.



The one that isn’t, Id Kah, is the Friday mosque, the largest one. It sits mostly deserted: I sat outside it at Midday on a Friday, for hours, and no worshippers came in, only a crocodile of tourists.




It’s also hard to notice one thing: I can’t speak with the locals.

Central Asians, anyone who’ve visited there will tell you, are the most garrulous people on Earth. If they want to speak with you they will and factors such as language, time of day and you being asleep are minor inconveniences. During my travels there I discussed economics and car brands with a Kazakh train provodnik, childcare costs in Uzbekistan, houses prices in Kyrgyzstan and a lot more. Not here, though. Not in Xinjiang.



Another surefire opener is to wish peace to passer-bys. I’ve done it countless times in Bukhara or the Pamirs or Kazakhststan: stumble into a local, put the right hand on the heart, wish “salaam alaykum”. Smiles will ensure and everyone will reply in kind, “wa alaykum as salaam”. Not here, not with the Uyghurs. At best I got a shy smile.

I pondered on the issue for days: maybe it’s me, maybe they’re the Parisian waiters of Asia, maybe it’s the accent. Then one day, for breakfast, I found a plump man sitting beside his tandoor oven with fresh lepyoshka sprinkled with salt and seeds. Beside him, sitting under a tree, was an older Uyghur gentleman, eating soup from a bowl. I bought my bread, paid and then tried out the word that works for ‘thank you’ in Kazakh and Kyrgyz, “Rakhmat”. Both men smiled, motioned to reply, then looked up – behind me – and stopped. The gentleman with the soup brought his index finger to his lips. Behind me was a CCTV camera.

I’d come to Kashgar hoping for a better reality but, instead, found things to be even worse than I feared. Mosques closed, a population silenced, entire neighbourhoods of traditional compounds – you could see them on the road from the train station – locked shut and being dismantled. “Cultural genocide” is a term that is thrown around a bit in this situation and something that I’d normally be wary of using, but that I believe is very much in order for what’s happening here.

What’s the Han’s opinion about what is going on?

Whilst it’s borderline impossible to speak with the Uyghurs, there are no such qualms in speaking with the Han Chinese, language barriers aside. I longed to ask them whether they found the Uyghur’s treatment fair but, as one can imagine, I had to be a bit oblique in my questions. The almost universal response has been of gratitude to the government for having brought security. Attacks like Kunming’s station might not have had the same echo over here in the West, but they did indeed cause fear in China. “The Uyghurs are different, I don’t understand them, and I’m afraid of them” was a comment I often heard: largely deprived of the means to talk to each other, relying only on news headlines, it’s unsurprising that people eyed each other with fear and suspicion.

Looking back, I’m glad I’ve been able to visit Kashgar the way I did. It hasn’t been the most uplifting of trips, it hasn’t been the easiest, but it’s definitely been an eye opener. For all the violence, for all the despicable acts of terrorism, the Uyghur don’t deserve what’s befallen them. But, unfortunately, I’ve no doubt that the Chinese tactic to assimilate their culture will work. Their civilisation had already changed dramatically in 2019, compared to what others told me of their visits earlier in the decade.

I left Kashgar after approximately one week, heading back to the train station. Ahead of me was a 17-hour journey to Turpan where, I hoped, things would be different.

…or so I thought.
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Old Aug 14, 20, 1:50 am
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Originally Posted by Fredrik74 View Post
This looks like an interesting trip. I find Central Asia(and rightly or wrongly I will include Xinjiang) incredibly fascinating. I'm curious to read your impression of the situation on the ground because I have also read and heard some bad things about what the Chinese authorities are doing. .
Hi Fredrik74, thanks for reading and commenting. I just uploaded one post on Kashgar and from my limited experience I can say that, yes, the situation is as bad as it's been reported.
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Old Aug 14, 20, 2:15 am
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Wow that is indeed a trip off the beaten track! Very interesting adventure - thank you for writing it up!
Looking forward to the rest
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Old Aug 14, 20, 8:39 am
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VI. One does not simply enter Turpan

I’m a naïve man. In my simple mind, long-distance train journeys are a more relaxed affair than plane rides. There’s no need to pass airport security, no trawling through a maze of duty free with people spraying perfumes at you, no gate lice and, finally, no squeeze-in-your-seat-and-fight-for-the-armrest. Even on a third-class ticket you get a bed in these parts of the world. A bed larger than many Business Class lie-flats! So I was kind of looking forward to the journey to Turpan: 17 hours of desert, the rhythmic noise of train cars on the rails, the calm that permeates every car after three hours of lolling progress.

Then I arrived at Kashgar’s station.

Getting in involved a security check; getting to the security check meant a melee to get in the queue and a fight not to lose one’s place in the queue. Having done that, the station revealed itself as a building site. Squads of workers danced on the scaffolding, fixing windows and doing all sorts of stuff that, once it will all be said and done, will result in quite a grand station as is the norm in China. But, right now, a large shed will need to suffice.




Part of the shed was dedicated to ticketing, part to waiting room. I pogoed to get to the ticket booths like I’ve never pogoed since I was a regular at Hootananny in Brixton and they had gypsy folk bands on Fridays. Having retrieved my third-class ticket, it was then time to join the other riot, ticket inspection. It was as if the entire city of Kashgard had decided to high tail it out of Dodge and the train was the only option for it. Station staff screamed and shouted non-stop, using microphones when their lungs weren’t able to do their job, but they did so in Mandarin. The crowd was 99.9% Uyghur. The result was utter, complete, sheer pandemonium.

It felt 50C inside the waiting room. The noise was deafening, especially when a train was called to board. I thought I was the only foreigner until I saw a group of Pakistani traders. We huddled together for comfort; one of them said “I come from Quetta and I thought I’d seen everything there. I was wrong”. Honestly, I don’t want to sound dramatic, but the charges when a train was called were something else. A mob would erupt out of the seats, bags and kids held aloft, and storm out the door.

Eventually, what I thought my turn was came. The screen flickered and… showed the train after mine. I fought my way to the top of the queue, found a station attendant caught in the act of smoking a cigarette and proffered my ticket. She looked at me, passed her hand across her neck (not a good sign) and then, using her phone, told me that the train was delayed, cancelled, retimed to zero-zero-five-three-zero. Airport it was, then.

The next day, having re-obtained my room at the hotel, I went to the airport. A kind fellow guest had booked for me a plane ticket on China Southern to Ürümqi, and from there I planned to continue on to Turpan.

Kashgar International was a lot quieter than the station. The clientele was entirely Han and, but for a photo of a weird-looking guy hanging from the ceiling, I was the only Westerner there. There were some delightful Engrish-labelled products but, strangely enough, no stores selling water.





.


A restaurant did a roaring trade in soups and other menu items I couldn’t, unfortunately, read. But there were beer mugs on the shelf and where there’s beer mugs there’s beer, right? So, I indicated one, asked for one, paid and then sat all happy, waiting for the reward for all my troubles. Here you have it.





Having drank my pint of Lipton, it was time to board.
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Old Aug 14, 20, 8:40 am
  #10  
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Originally Posted by SKT-DK View Post
Wow that is indeed a trip off the beaten track! Very interesting adventure - thank you for writing it up!
Looking forward to the rest
Hi there SKT-DK, thanks for reading. It was indeed a bit 'outside the norm', but worth the effort. I have now written more!
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Old Aug 14, 20, 8:59 am
  #11  
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...Sorry, somehow part VI got cut.CZ6997
KHG-URC
B-1362 – Boeing 737-800
14:30 – 16:20
Seat 45C - Y




I had never been on CZ so didn’t quite know what to expect. The result was a very pleasant surprise: new plane with Boeing’s Sky Interior, decent pitch, power ports and Wi-Fi with freely available films. Not bad at all.



.

.

.



The flight called in at URC first and then continued onwards to Shanghai, where most of my fellow passengers seemed to be heading. All in all, we departed on time, ¾ full.

The in-flight magazine was all in Chinese, including a Playboy-style page with the entire CZ fleet and route map.



.



Surprise surprise, there was even a hot meal! Which wasn’t bad at all.



.



All in all, CZ was a major surprise. We arrived in Ürümqi bang on time and, from the airport, I took a taxi to the new train station (think the Enterprise with added railway tracks). Alas, my hope of reaching Turpan was crushed: no space. There were plenty of trains, from high-speed to those doing the milk run but, the railway employee pointed at his chair and then did an ‘X’ with his arms. Message received.

I was then stuck in Ürümqi with no hotel, and what a different place from Kashgar it was!




Everything was new or being built. The city was a conglomeration of 20-storeys tenements, flyovers, shopping malls, official buildings. Cars carpeted every centimetre of tarmac, a never-ending flow of Buicks, VWs and dozens of Chinese brands I’d never heard of. I walked around, looking for a place that accepted foreigners, but for a few hours I collected only refusals: there are lots of hotels in town but only a handful, it seemed, had the necessary licence to host non-Chinese guests. After my fourth refusal a receptionist, moved by pity, scribbled something on a piece of paper and motioned me towards a taxi driver. The driver slapped in a gear, elbowed its way into the traffic and drove for ages, with me sat in the back.

After a good half hour of motorways, spaghetti junctions and slip roads I started to wonder where I’d be taken. Prison and lunatic asylum where jostling for first place when, in a triumph of screeching break sounds, we passed a checkpoint and alighted here.



The Hilton.

Now, I know that in this audience, a Hilton is nothing to write home about. But after almost two weeks of sleeping on planes, in Kyrgyz guesthouses with Angry Bird quilts and hotels that smell of cigarettes and have running water three hours per day, the Hilton was beyond paradisaical. It was like arriving at the Waffle House after three years stranded on a desert island.

I entered the lobby on tiptoe. I was covered in dust, reeked of fuel exhausts and was sunburned from the hike in the 35C heat. Inside, go-getters lounged on plush sofas, cognacs at the ready, doing business. The shop sold the Zegna tracksuits that are a favourite of Mr. Putin. A Rolls Royce was parked by the lobby entrance.




Eventually, I got a room and, for my troubles, an invite to the lounge. I had barely had the time to get in, plonk my Salomon boots under the shoe rack and put the backpack off that a staffer delivered an extra wad of toiletries, which I gladly accepted despite the slightly offensive hidden message.



.



What a curious place, Ürümqi. My plan to see Turpan was scuppered – it was the end of school year, apparently, so trains were packed to the rafters – so Ürümqi it was. As a city, it wasn’t pretty, not unless one finds rows of highrises appealing; the heat was laced with enough humidity to make it unpleasant, and the smog was palpable. The city had none of the easy-going atmosphere of Kashgar, but it also didn’t share the same level of oppressive control. Perhaps it was because the populace was overwhelmingly Han.



.



I walked for hours and seldom saw a Uyghur. Street signs and official billboards showed messages in Arabic script, but there was almost no one to read them. Even the so-called “bazaar” was empty, a hollowed-out shell that pretended to be ‘local’. The vast majority of those who walked around were Han Chinese. Cameras, police and the military weren’t as omnipresent as down south.

There were some interesting quirks, however. The Hilton’s TV offered a number of foreign channels, including the BBC and CNN. Whenever news came round of the Hong Kong riots, by then in full swing, the TV set would switch off, flickering back to life once the reportage was done. Discovery Channel’s true crime series were beeped out every time the words ‘drug pusher’ or ‘prostitute’ came out.
...to be continued.
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Old Aug 14, 20, 11:47 pm
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Truly fantastic stuff.
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Old Aug 15, 20, 12:10 am
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Originally Posted by YYZC2 View Post
Truly fantastic stuff.
Hi YYZC2, thanks for the kind words!
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Old Aug 15, 20, 11:56 pm
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Fascinating read.

censorship is so demeaning.

we have much to be concerned about
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Old Aug 16, 20, 10:37 am
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Very interesting, not a part of the world I have seen many travel blogs on, and obviously in the news recently, so looking forward to reading more. I really like your writing style.
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