Or to as near to it as we are likely to get
China is now a memory and we have left the land of our sojourn for the last month. Xinjiang has proved most interesting. People kept saying to us: if you haven’t been to Xinjiang, then you haven’t been to China, and if you haven’t been to Kashgar, then you haven’t been to Xinjiang. Certainly it gives one a different view of China – much less crowded, a land where the sun shines and you can see blue sky, with barren deserts and green oases. Together with Gansu, the provinces form the ancient Silk Road, a highway now filled with modern cities and modes of transport. Kashgar seems very middle eastern, very Moslem, vibrant, friendly and fascinating.
In some ways coming to Kashgar felt like coming to the edge of the world – so far from anywhere and definitely so far from home. But perhaps, it would be truer to say we were at the centre of the world, for the city developed on the crossroads of the northern (our journey) and southern Silk Road routes around the Taklamakan Desert over a period of 1000 years.
Before we finish with China, Bilbo has a confession to make – he and his driver nearly got a speeding fine which could have cost 500 yuan, about $100NZ. We were driving on a wonderful new road through an amazing mountain pass in Xinjiang and Bilbo accelerated to pass a truck, right where a traffic camera was in operation. Consequently, he and Heehaw were pulled over in the next town, to be presented with the incriminating photograph. There followed a half hour discussion with the drivers, our guide and the gentlemen in uniform in a small building at the side of the road, followed by a reprieve for Bilbo and a warning for his driver, who fortunately was a foreigner and could therefore be excused.
We left Kashgar at 5am, local time, to cross the border two hours away into Kyrgyzstan via the Irkeshtam Pass. (The province of Xinjiang operates on two times, Beijing time, the same for all China, and Xinjiang time, two hours later.) Our goal was to be first in the queue for the passport checks, of which there are three for China and three for Kyrgyzstan. Consequently it is a long process requiring much patience. Yes, we were first in line – except for the hundreds of trucks waiting, and fortunately we were able to drive right pass them all. Goodness knows how long they wait there; it can’t benefit the economy. After about two hours we were driving in Kyrgyzstan with a new guide for our two days there.
We were truly blessed with the most fabulous of days – brilliant blue sky and clear air to view the snow covered mountains of the Pamir Range, the roof of the world, so magnificent in their white glory. The roads through the mountains, dusty and gravelly in part, are not as bad as we had been led to believe – I think the main road was renewed about two years ago and they were free from snow, so driving was not too difficult. The mountain peaks viewed from the passes invited many photo opportunities, one after the other. Marco Polo travelled in this area as did many other Silk Road voyagers and today numerous trekking groups climb Lenin Peak which our guide told us was the tallest of the peaks (though the Lonely Planet places it second).
We stayed the first night in the small town of Sary Tash in a simple farming home: animals in the back yard, pit toilet, no shower, mattresses on the floor; however the food was good with no repercussions, and the hospitality warm. The Pamir range, though 50 kilometres away, filled our view from the yard, the warm weather allowing us to sit outside and enjoy the outlook. We drove 30 km along the road that would eventually lead to Dusanbe in Tajikistan (remember Linda Topp on NZ television), to get a closer view of Lenin Peak. A local family invited us to have bread and yogurt and offered Martin a ride on their horse – farming families here often own horses, using them to tend their sheep and cattle. A most memorable part of the journey.
Sometimes we are tempted to think we are so adventurous and brave driving from Hong Kong to Europe, but at the border crossing from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan we met three young women, an Aussie, a New Zealander and a Belgian, who really deserve these epithets. They are cycling the journey through Central Asia and free camping in tents along the road. Two of them had begun in Kashgar and cycled over the ranges and passes that we had driven. We listened to them with admiration and astonishment, - but are grateful for Bilbo and Heehaw, our trusty camels and the pleasant hotels we come to most nights night.