China, Xinjiang Province
Two failed Torugart Pass-crossing attempts later and two expiring-today visas in hand, we have resignedly bitten the pricey bullet. This means hiring a vehicle both to carry us and the bike over the icy snow to the China border as well as hiring another to meet us at the top to take us down the other side into China itself. Dave's stomach relaxes as we get the bike safely off the Kyrgyz van, bidding farewell to that gonzo Kyrgyz driver.
The scenery on top of the Torugart pass is otherworldly. Ominous gray clouds part for brief moments to show a crescent of teeny tantalizing snowy peaks to our left. In cahoots with the brusque rigid Chinese guard barking orders to put that camera away, the clouds end photographic temptation by suddenly descending in a dark shroud almost to the feet of the guard himself. He certainly seems to consider himself worthy of worship, or at least a world above the rest of us. This slim guard who can't be more than 20 is displaying every stereotype of small-guy syndrome by hollering at anyone within whispering distance in an overly big, aggressive voice. He blusters at Dave to move the bike, then once Dave has moved it hollers all over again to move it somewhere else. It's pretty funny if you can distance yourself from how irritating he is.
The truck from China is late, so we stand around shivering as the clouds start shedding snow. There's what looks like a waiting room in a brick building to the side, but heaven forbid we go in--veins in Bluster Guy's neck start popping as Erika peers inside. There's a truck about a quarter mile down the hill--is that the one coming for us? The truck's residents start unloading some wood onto the road. Maybe they're making room for the bike. That is taking about half an hour. Now they're turning around and going back. Ah, finally, another truck is heading our way. A Western-dressed young guy hops out along with the driver. Bluster Guy hollers at them to move the truck this way and that. Dave's heart sinks as he notices how high the truck bed is and wonders how the bike will be lifted on. 250 kilos of bike takes at least 5 strong people to lift and B.G. is refusing to let any guards help unless we produce dollars or cigarettes. The local truck drivers don't need any bribery; with their free assistance the bike is finally loaded and strapped down on the open truckbed.
Then we're in the minimally-warmer cab with Iskander, our friendly English-speaking guide, and the driver, whose name neither we nor Iskander can figure out. In order to enter China with the bike, we are required to have the services of a paid guide for the three travel days out of our two week visa en route to Pakistan; during the time spent in the big city we can go out on our own unescorted.
Iskander is Uyghur, an ethnic minority of Moslem Chinese which predominates in most of Xinjiang Province and whose people clearly stand out from the majority Han Chinese. Women in Kashgar wear headscarves in the tradition of Islam, along with a unique fashion statement consisting of socks in varying shapes and sizes under their beige stockings. The language is also quite different from Mandarin or Cantonese which we've often heard spoken by people of Chinese descent in California. Han Chinese apparently hold most of the better jobs.
Miles of snow and ice on the road validate the expense of hiring this truck. The disadvantage is that photography of the stark surroundings has to be done through a dirty cracked window glass. The advantage (as far as Erika's concerned) is...everything else. It's (almost) WARM in here! We're in a TRUCK, not on a bike freezing our hindquarters off as a torrent of hail starts coming down. The pellets hitting the metal truck roof sound like gunfire. One could suggest, for dramatic effect, that they are the size of oranges but to the poor farmers in their little open carts they look painful and dangerous enough being the size of large peas. The hail goes on for an amazing hour or more, reducing the surprisingly good paved highway to a rumbly skidding stretch of icy gravel. No matter, we're in a TRUCK.
Now we must stop at a cavernous, modern customs station. Maybe it will be warm in here. Warmth, it seems, would be a sissy thing. Customs officials have flung open every door and window in order to prevent stiff-backed employees from cuddling up in blankets, wiggling their toes and eating chocolate. Iskander efficiently takes care of all the paperwork. Erika can hardly wait to get back into the truck.
The paperwork for getting into China with a motorcycle is considerably more complicated than most countries which freely allow temporary import of a vehicle. Legal requirements include having a Chinese driver's license, a Chinese registration for the bike, and an accompanying guide. The Carnet, which allows one to temporarily import a bike into many other countries, is not recognized in China. Fulfilling the above requirements on our own would involve extensive entanglement with the cumbersome Chinese bureaucracy, so we have chosen to utilize the services of Caravan Cafe, a Chinese travel agency in Kashgar. This service does not come cheap; however, virtually no one has been able to cross into China with their vehicle independently. With the necessary documents, not to mention Iskander's knowledge of Mandarin, the customs procedure is a breeze.
Homes are similar to those in the Kyrgyzstan countryside, mud compounds with small windows and imagined courtyards. Yet more hail continues to barrel down for another half hour before finally letting up. As soon as the hail stops, people start coming out of hiding. Soon an endless stream of children bicycling back home after a long day at school greets the eye. Bursts of red clothing streak the wet dark brown earthen homes crimson under glistening stands of drenched autumn poplars.
Something has changed however, since crossing from Kyrgyzstan. The dirt road from the border has been smooth and in excellent condition; it has now turned into the best paved road we've seen since Western Europe. There are signs on the road too, although of course they are written in indecipherable Chinese characters. China seems to have the highest level of infrastructure we've encountered since Turkey. Traffic moves in a smooth, orderly manner. No one seems to be drunk on the road. Iskander tells us to buckle our seat belts at an upcoming police checkpoint. Are the police really that serious about seat belt enforcement? asks Dave. With a serious look, Iskander answers, "yes". Looks like we're not in Central Asia any more...
Suddenly the major city of Kashgar appears in the distance. Blocky buildings line the streets. Neon signs and vivid billboards abound.
People are buzzing about on miniature motorcycles alongside belching buses, bicycles and donkey carts. Old and new reside in separate parts of town here but everyone comes together on the road.
We pull into the famously named Hotel Seman, a sprawling compound with neatly blue-uniformed floor attendants, travel agents, (closed) restaurants and internet. Iskander gets us a cheaper rate on a huge fancy room with a big hard bed decorated in ornate pastel Uyghur style. It's like sleeping on a concrete block under silk bedcovers surrounded by walls covered in Easter-cake frosting. Erika quite likes it.
The city's food options raise our deprived stomachs' low roar to the decibel of a bloodthirsty crowd. Iskander knows of a really good restaurant. It's in a modern 5 story hotel complex and boasts huge elegantly set round tables on one floor with two levels of private rooms available as well. Though apparently food prices are the same no matter where you sit, we'd feel a little silly sitting with Iskander at a huge round table for 12 in a room designed elaborately enough to host diplomats. A simpler (12 seat) table downstairs will do. Seated with big gaps between us around the yawning table, it's like being three remaining teeth in an open mouth after all the other cuspids have fallen out. Nonetheless, it's heaven to see a refrigerator case full of potential dinner presentations as there is no English menu. (As far as we can tell there are only 2 open restaurants in Kashgar with English menus--despite its modern buzz and acclaimed old city it doesn't seem much interested in accomodating traveller language differences.) We point to some pot-sticker-looking things and some pasta-like-array while Iskander describes the ingredients for Singapore Rice Stick, Dave's favorite dish. Not too much later the dishes materialize, with Yummy Added Dimensions. The plump dumplings are embedded in a sea of egg omelet studded with attractive greenery, the pasta is frolicking with bamboo shoots and meaty fish tails in a big broth lake, and the Singapore Rice Stick is just about as good as Singapore Rice Stick back in San Francisco. No tears are being shed for the lack of dry bread and mutton lard.
The next day we walk through the broad bustling streets with their abundance of western clothing stores and a few fast food joints. Mao directs a performance of pink-frilled little girls in the main city square and they respond in kind.
Destination: Bank Of China, the only place in town that will allegedly change travellers checks. Erika is thwarted in her efforts to use the ATM as Foreign Cards Are Not Accepted. As usual we arrive at the bank just as it's closing for a 1 1/2 hour lunch break. As usual Dave gets irate over 1 1/2 hour lunch breaks. He heads back for the hotel while Erika heads into Kashgar's Old City.
How cool is this, totally uncorrupted by tourist stalls or tourists at all (besides you-know-who pretending she isn't one). People go about their business in the narrow old streets, cobbling shoes, baking bread, selling fruit, patching tree-grown tires.
Erika has the usual mixed feelings about snapping pictures which simultaneously honor and preserve peoples' unique visages while transforming them into photogenic blog oddities.
Not to mention how snapping photos is Such A Tourist Thing To Do.
Sometimes these thoughts do make her pass up A Great Photo Opportunity because it just feels too objectifying and invasive. No one around here seems concerned about being objectified, however, so the camera is put to good use.
Hours seem to have passed and suddenly Erika is worried that the bank has closed and we're now yuan-less. She rushes back to the bank to discover that it's just barely re-opening after lunchbreak--only 45 minutes have gone by. Talk about being all-encompassingly swept up in another world. Banking gets done. More mysterious hustle bustle on the walk home outside the Old City.
There is a mosque, some surprising old architecture, and more vendors in a square which had apparently been part of the old city but was torn down for a slightly more modern look. Later we have another great dinner at the yummy restaurant with fantastically metamorphosizing refrigerated food plates.
Though our room is a beautiful splurge it fulfils the typical ironic disappointment of boasting neither heat nor hot water along with a rock-hard bed and pillows. Time to trade down to a cheaper room in the same hotel, which though relatively grimy does leak out some warm water dribbles from the tap. The new room turns out to perch almost on top of a woeful Karaoke bar, where off-notes of remarkably ghastly singers wind like tentacles through our restless dreams.
After nice lukewarm showers we set out the next day to meet the guy who organized all the expensive elaborate paperwork required by the Chinese bureaucracy to enter the country with a motorcycle, not to mention the truck that saved us from snow and hail on the way in. (The only good thing about all this rigamarole, by the way, is that Dave proudly posesses a Chinese license plate and driver's license.) Greg, an American, owns Caravan Cafe and has done a great job of procuring the necessary stuff. Caravan Cafe is both an online travel service specializing in Central Asia and a real life cafe in Kashgar which, though just closed for the season, provides Erika with a cup of the first real coffee in quite some time. We are meeting to arrange yet ANOTHER (pricey) truck to haul the bike over the Khunjerab Pass into Pakistan the following week, once again unsure if the weather will warrant the added expense but having had enough bad luck with weather and passes that the truck seems warranted.
Dave enlists Iskander's help to procure a new battery, making obsolete once and for all the daily push starts demanded by the motorcycle throughout Kyrgyzstan. Erika walks around some more, eating hot baked yams and checking out the scene.
Our short lived joy over the delectable food is cut cruelly short when both of us come down with bad stomachs in the next few days. The first night Erika is sick so Dave has dinner with some more bicyclists who share his love of travel and beer. The second night Dave is sick so Erika has dinner with Stephanie and Gibi, Canadians who are bicycling across Central Asia and beyond.
Dave is bummed to be lacking any energy for visiting the famous Sunday Market, but Erika sets off for the long walk across town. The market takes place for what seems like many square kilometers, not in the oldest part of town but oozing character nonetheless. People transport their wares however they can
and display them however they like.
Almost everyone seems to be Uyghur. As in the old town, people seem neither interested in nor disinterested in the differentness which is Erika. This anonymity suits her perfectly.
An hour or so of wandering is enough for some people.
Time to head back to the hotel. En route she stumbles across the canal area where the farmers and country people have parked their vehicles. Though hundreds of yard-long protrusions standing at parallel attention look like militia about to charge, they're really nothing more than the prows of dozens and hundreds of donkey carts wedged side to side.
Dave is still feeling poorly, but the next day he rallies enough for a walk around the old town (which now for some reason is almost abandoned) and a stop at Caravan Cafe to wave good-bye to another chunk o' cash for the Pakistan backup truck. Logistics entail that tomorrow when we set off from Kashgar towards the cold frontier town of Tashkurgan, the truck will follow in case we need delivery from inclement weather and road conditions. Dave has been checking the forecast in every possible way (internet, Greg, other travellers, fortune tellers, snake charmers, etc.) to somehow reassure himself that at least THIS time a pass will be conquered ON THE MOTORCYCLE. But Tuesday dawns gray and rainy--which means there will be snow at the pass. At least we can BEGIN the last leg in China on the bike. An hour into the trip we reach Karakul Lake, rumored to be surrounded by spectacular mountain peaks. But you can barely see the low hills on the lake's far side.
Dave looks down at the bike's thermometer: it registers 32 degrees. On cue, snow begins falling. We agree to abandon bike for the truck at the upcoming security stop. The guards here are far more accomodating than Bluster Guy and the bike's on board in no time. Dave's getting to be quite an inadvertent expert at bike-to-truck-in-bad-weather-loading.
Scenery's stark and dramatic even before we catch a few glimpses of some of the lower pyramid peaks.
After some time we arrive in the stark frontier town of Tashgurgan. Iskander gets us a very fine, very cheap room at the Traffic Hotel. There are no lights on in the lobby, and the hallways are as dark and cold as the great outdoors. Our room, however, has what is supposedly the only heater in the place. This provides erratic bits of warmth during the night until morning brings a flash of smoke and the heater's last sputter. Uh, we didn't see anything.
Tashkurgan has a long long main street with a few hotels and restaurants and one small cross street with a few more places of commerce. Loudspeakers blast what Iskander says is political propaganda from high posts at the streets's crossing. The propaganda follows us down to the end of the road where an older part of town descends to a river-crossed plain. In the other direction you can see big cold snowy mountains.
Up above the town are the thick crumbling walls of the abandoned ruin of a fort. From a distance it looks like a big old chocolate cake with some of the frosting peeled off. Some blog writer seems to have cake on the brain today. There's no one to be seen. It's a very cool place to wander around.
The next morning it's time to cross into Pakistan. At China Customs, another uppity righteous guard tries to show off his authority by prohibiting Iskander from standing on our side of the steps, the same spot where the moment before we'd finalized our paperwork he was sitting right next to us. Luckily we've already snapped his photo and passed over a good tip for all his help.
We're saying good-bye to Iskander here at the China customs post, but we'll be with the driver through the no-man's-land up to Pakistan. It's still plenty snowy as we drive under this gate. The gate speaks to us with its inscription, which reads:
a) "Ruiners of Chinese Hotel Heaters Will Be Prosecuted"
b) "Don't Expect Much Cake In Pakistan"
c) "Coke Adds Life!"
d) _____(insert actual meaning here if you can read this sign)
Trucks coming in from Pakistan block the road near the summit of the Khunjerab Pass, at 4733 meters (15,777 feet) the highest international border crossing in the world.
Everyone has to rearrange for our truck to pass by, a rather time consuming procedure with all that ice. Soon we will be heading over the last of the snow and bidding farewell to the driver. Then finally we'll be back on the bike, heading down into Pakistan on the Karakoram Highway.
Posted by Erika Tunick at 04:34 AM