Kashgar, alas and alack, did not impress. I built the concept, the wispy words of friends and former blog posts describing that something which lives in the storied culture of travelers from millennia ago to the present age as “Kashgar,” in my mind too much as a place completely different from China. In many ways it does differ from the culture of its political overlord, but it’s also disappointingly clad in the same architecture and layout as other Chinese cities. To make matters more depressing, the old town is under the ball and hammer in a classic example of Chinese “restoration.”
We got a room at the Chini Bagh, which used to be the British Consulate in Kashgar during the “Great Game” of the 19th Century. I thought we would go to Tashkurgan the following day, but we decided to stay in Kashgar to arrange better transportation opportunities and secure passage to Urumqi. I gave my dirty clothes to be laundered, and it turned out to be 84 kuai – about five times higher than I ever paid to launder clothes at hotels in China. Furthermore, the Chini Bagh’s service was generally awful, despite its reputation as one of the more famous hotels in Kashgar.
After eating at a local place, I used the Internet for an hour – had to stay fresh on the job search. The next morning we secured the room for another night before embarking on some haphazard sightseeing. Per the Lonely Planet’s one-size-fits-all recommendations, we taxied to a nice mausoleum, the Abakh Hoja Maziri, and a livestock market with no livestock. I also came down with a sore throat due to the inefficient, overpowered air conditioner in the hotel room. It didn’t help that I drank a couple of delicious Sinkiang Dark beers in the cafe of the hotel, thus lulling my immune system into a relaxed state.
In the afternoon we strolled around the half-rubble old town. Historically (i.e. until about 2008) Kashgar’s Old Town was the largest intact authentic Silk Road town, dating from the days when it served as a vibrant hub for the many cultures that passed through its streets bearing all the goods one could want in Eurasia. The extent to which it has been destroyed is painful to witness, and I think that it is exemplary of cultural-related development in modern China: demolish the real McCoy and put up a fake version of it. The story unfolding in Kashgar’s old town ties together many of the themes of China’s “growing pains:” transition from old infrastructure to new, forced displacement of residents from traditional community spaces into new high-rise apartments, an overriding focus on municipal district-level quarterly GDP growth, the bizarre preference of Chinese tourists for “Disneyland” culture to authentic artifacts and places, and the central government’s efforts to exert control over restive minorities by undermining their shared cultural heritage. Note that the images below are not unique to Kashgar; different versions of these scenes are found all over China.
Since Kashgar was underwhelming, covered in nasty dust and we had a few days to kill before Eid ul-Fitr, we sought out transport to the Khunjerab Pass, the highest motorable border pass in the world at 4,693 meters – nearly as high as that low-oxygen, high-star count night at Nam Tso in Tibet. We first sought the services of the folks at CITS, which has an office right next to the Chini Bagh. Their price to see both Karakul Lake and the Pass was 1,700 RMB for the both of us – pretty expensive. He called the border office in Tashkurgan to ask about foreigners getting to the border, and the officer told him that foreigners without a forward visa (to Pakistan) could not go up to the Pass. This disappointed us, but we still wanted to get up into the scenic highlands of Tashkurgan. The fellow who runs the cafe at the Chini Bagh offered to do the trip for only 1,000 RMB. We sealed the deal, albeit without the Pass as a part of the package, and proceeded to eat WAY too much da pan ji and tasty yogurt at some place that night.
We awoke the next morning to leave for Tashkurgan at ten on the Karakoram Highway. The driver pulled over to allow us to buy hot naan bread on the way, surprisingly tasty for breakfast. We passed Karakol Lake about three hours into the journey; it is beautiful, but the weather was too cloudy for it to be really majestic. After that, I fell asleep until at some point we had to get out of the taxi and present our passports at a police checkpoint. In this part of Xinjiang, they also have the silly registration-checkpoint speed limit that Tibet has. The road was badly washed out in some spots on the Highway.
I awoke in Tashkurgan at 15:00, five hours after leaving Kashgar. We lodged at the ubiquitous jiaotong bingguan or “traffic hotel” where we rested for 30 minutes, then got some laghmian for lunch. Arnab and I sat around waiting on the driver for an hour or more (during which I burned through more of Team of Rivals) until he finally came down to the lobby and drove us to a couple of sites. The river delta-meadow at the east end of Tashkurgan is beautiful and idyllic, ringed by massive mountain ranges. This great peace of cool weather, clean(-ish) air and pastoral quiet was totally sullied when a family living in a concrete yurt there, no doubt spurred on by the presence of tourists, switched on the fake ethnic music. It was as loud as a rock concert and echoed off all the mountains – and worst of all, the amplifier was pointed directly at the walkway into and out of the middle of the field, where we were strolling. After we escaped that visual siren’s trap, we climbed up to the ancient fort ruins where I took some more landscape pictures. We then returned to the hotel, ate dinner including Arnab’s precious tudou si, and slept. By the end of the day, we found out that we wold be able to see the Khunjerab Pass, and we agreed to pay 350 RMB extra to the driver for this purpose.
The next morning, the 9th of September, we left for the Khunjerab Pass. The Karakoram Highway here rolls through amazing, epically beautiful scenery through a long straight valley set on either side by world-class mountain ranges, the Karakoram. Tajiks abound in this part of China, especially in Tashkurgan and the southern valley. To reach the Pass we had to pay ten kuai and turn in our passports at the customs station just south of Tashkurgan; this earned us a permit to move forward to, but not far beyond, the border. Along the Highway we passed within about 20 km of Tajikistan, 80 km of Afghanistan, and 40 km of Kyrgyzstan. One kilometer before the border with Pakistan, we stopped for what seemed like an hour – it was hard to tell since we were 4600 m up and our heads hurt. When enough tourists queued, the border army police opened the gate, one of the army men sat in our taxi, and we drove up to the border itself at the pass, which is quite wide and long. The Chinese road is paved right up to the line itself, at which point it abruptly ends. The Pakstani side of the Highway is a rough dirt track. We stood in Kashmir, currently controlled by Pakistan, for a bit. I had to wear Arnab’s coat since it was so cold up there and I was not prepared. Some Pakistani border guards came and we shook hands with them. One of them said Arnab “looked Pakistani,” which made him laugh ironically since he’s of Indian ancestry. After maybe ten minutes, we were shooed back into the cars by the Chinese police.
Thus, on the fifth anniversary of my joining AIESEC, I visited the highest border crossing in the world and stood astride two worlds.
We ate da pan ji in Tashkurgan for lunch and had to pay for the driver’s share. After we got our passports back, we had an uneventful return to Kashgar. Upon our return there commenced an episode in which the Chini Bagh did not honor our reservations, so we got a room at the much more pleasant Home Inn just down the street. At first the concierge said “no foreigners, you don’t have a permit” so I showed him my visa, when he replied “oh, yes you do.” Do they really believe that foreigners can / do get into the country without the proper paperwork?
I slept fitfully that night and awoke on Eid ul-Fitr, Friday the tenth. We saw about twenty thousand penitents pray at Id Kah Mosque. I felt disliked by the locals and very out of place. This was right around the time when Obama had announced the “end” of “combat missions” in Iraq, and it was the day before September 11 and when that guy in Florida said he would burn a Koran. It may have been my imagination, but it sounded like the imam said “Obama” a lot during the prayer. This was the first time I had ever seen any kind of Muslim religious ceremony, and I think that Eid ul-Fitr counts as the top example of such an occasion.
After the morning ceremony, I relaxed most of the day. At the infamous Fubar, just outside the Chini Bagh, I met a friendly fellow named Brian from San Francisco. We talked for awhile about the Karakoram Highway – he was looking to cycle up to Karakul Lake – and agreed to meet for dinner later that night. Despite it being Eid we had a hard time finding a proper restaurant; the place where we wound up was rather dirty. At Arnab’s insistence we got da pan ji again. Arnab, not being much of a drinker, retired after this to prepare for our 24-hour train journey to Urumqi the next day. I joined Brian at Fubar for a drink. Before we even reached the bar I started feeling a bit queasy. In the middle of our conversation at Fubar I had to excuse myself to employ the facilities. Post-facilities I felt fine again, so it was clear that the da pan ji was bad, though I was the only one to get ill.
The next morning, my final act before departing to the train station was to check my email for any news on DC employment updates. Fortuna had smiled upon me – I was accepted to a three-month internship at the New America Foundation‘s Open Technology Initiative! My search for some form of employment had finally come to an end. I sent a quick positive reply, and we began our grueling nine-day journey from the farthest point in the PRC from Beijing back to the city that had been my home for a year. Thus commenced my final fortnight in China.