By Daniel Allen
Region of Renown
Chinese Turkestan – a long-time inspiration for die-hard travelers that brings to mind towering dunes, exotic bazaars and camel caravans laden with silk and spice. As my train crawled away from the drab confines of Beijing West station, headed for the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, it wasnt easy to get excited by such romantic imagery. Nonetheless, compared with humdrum urban life in the Chinese capital, I knew that the next two weeks on Chinas wild western frontier were going to be a fascinating blend of the strange and scenic. I first read about Xinjiang and Central Asia (formerly Turkestan) in Sir Aurel Stein's enthralling book On Ancient Central-Asian Tracks. Stein, a Hungarian archaeologist-cum-explorer in the service of the British at the turn of the twentieth century, was the Indiana Jones of his day. Performing amazing feats of endurance and surviving the subterfuge of the "Great Game", he discovered lost cities and hidden treasure across the region (most of which ended up, to the later chagrin of the Chinese, in London 's BritishMuseum). His three Xinjiang expeditions of 1900, 1906 and 1913, in which he and his party covered forty thousand kilometers on foot or pony-back, were instrumental in the re-discovery of the Silk Route. Back in the relative luxury of my soft sleeper compartment, entertained by DVDs, MP3s and a couple of hefty tomes, I couldn 't help being a little blasé about Stein 's various hardships (a couple of fingers and toes lost to frostbite, for example). I was envious of his opportunity to travel in such an unsullied environment, ripe for adventure and the perfect backdrop for demonstrations of that stiff-upper-lip attitude that so characterized British imperialism at the time. As the trolley carrying warm beer and pig 's trotters passed my door for the fourth time, I resolved myself to the fact that the next 50-odd hours on board would give me plenty of time to display a stiff upper lip if I so chose.
After a fitful night's sleep and several long card-playing sessions in the restaurant car, the train pulled in to the city of Wuwei in late afternoon hazy sunshine. After the dusty, barren plains of the previous day, the lushness of the surrounding countryside and intensive hillside terracing were a welcome contrast. Wuwei marks the beginning of the Hexi Corridor, a strategic and fertile strip of land running along the base of the Qilian Mountains, separating the expansive and unforgiving Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts. By far the easiest route into and out of eastern Xinjiang, the fortunes of the Silk Route were closely linked to control of the Hexi Corridor, and sections of Great Wall were constructed around it in an attempt to protect passing caravans from hostile tribes and bandits. The train was now climbing noticeably, and by early evening the landscape had once again changed dramatically. We were strangers in a rock-strewn lunar landscape, stretching for miles to the hilly horizon, with only the occasional ink-blot stain of a coal heap or vivid yellow mustard field to break the monotony. As the last few rays of the dying sun softened the grey and brown hues of this inhospitable land, I couldn't help wondering what Marco Polo had thought as he arrived here after an arduous trek across the dunes of the Taklamakan, on his way to Beijing in 1266. As night fell we passed the grimy outskirts of Zhangye, once a major Silk Route oasis where Polo was reputed to have stayed as a guest for a year, no doubt recouping his strength for a final push towards his goal. Pulling back the heavy compartment curtains the following morning, my eyes momentarily balked at the glare of sun on sand. Not yet 9 o'clock, the low dunes and coarse scrub were already shimmering in the furnace-like heat. Despite the cooling effect of the train's air-conditioning, it was easy to see how Xinjiang's deserts presented a huge obstacle for those traversing the Silk Route. Besides the obvious lack of water and extreme temperatures, fierce sandstorms could suddenly engulf travelers, turning day into night. The desert was also said to be haunted by ghosts, waiting to lure the weary to their death by calling for help in the dark of night. The name "Taklamakan" literally means "those who enter, fail to return" in the Turkic Uyghur language, and despite the technological advances of the last thousand-odd years, this oven-like ocean of sand still didn't appear particularly inviting.
A Tale of Two Cities
Leaving the desert, the train entered the foothills of the Tian Shan (Heavenly Mountain) range. Together with the great Altai and Kunlun ranges to the north and south, the towering ramparts of the Tian Shan form a forbidding natural barrier that encircles Xinjiang on three sides. Snaking between ravine and snowy peak, we abruptly emerged, mole-like, from one final tunnel, into the bright sunshine and verdant greenery of a heavily cultivated plain. Beyond the wind farms and swaying crops, Urumqi was finally in sight. Roughly half of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region's nineteen million citizens are Muslims, living across a vast area that covers one-sixth of all China. With a distinct and well-preserved cultural identity, the majority of these Muslims are Uyghur, claiming a 1300-year old descent from the Uyghur kingdom of Karabalghasan, located in present day Mongolia. After attack by Kyrgyz tribesmen in 840 CE, the Uyghur fled southwest and settled in the oasis towns surrounding the Taklamakan, maintaining trading relations along the Silk Route. Nowadays, Urumqi is a vibrant, interesting mix of Han and Uyghur, with street vendors peddling succulent yangrou chuar (lamb kebabs) and roundels of crispy, delicately spiced nang bread outside shiny new office blocks and department stores.
A useful introduction to Uyghur culture, Urumqi certainly isn't the real Xinjiang deal. After a day wandering the streets, sampling numerous types of chuar (it 's amazing what you can cook on a barbecue) and lamian (Uyghur noodles), I boarded my hard sleeper train carriage for the 30-hour jaunt to Kashgar. Completed in 2000, the serpentine track between capitals new and old skirts the mammoth dunes of the Taklamakan proper to the south, and the service is plagued by sand storms, ferocious winds and frequent derailments.
I was overjoyed, after a quick glance into the bedlam of the hard seat carriage, that should we be derailed, I would at least be spending my time stretched out on a bed. As the dying desert sun imparted stunning hues of crimson and pink onto the eerie, jagged peaks sliding past the window, I fell asleep to the metronomic sound of my carriages stately progress, and the grunts, snores and wheezes of various traveling companions.
Kashgar, self-styled "crown jewel " of the Silk Route, sits at an altitude of 4,228 feet on the western edge of the Taklamakan. It has been an important trading centre for over two millennia, and merchants from neighboring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan continue to fuel the city with impromptu street-corner negotiations, perpetual bazaars and back-room deals. Shifting geopolitics have re-opened lines of communication, and it 's not hard to visualize a new high-tech Silk Route extending across the region. Kashgar 's future appears firmly rooted in its celebrated past. Prior to the arrival of the Mongols (the great Genghis Khan occupied Kashgar in 1219), Islam first arrived in Kashgar by the tenth century CE. The city became such a centre of Islamic learning that one of the greatest Muslim scholars and lexicographers of the eleventh century, Mahmud al-Kashgari, was buried just outside of the city in Upal Village. Al-Kashgari compiled the first complete Turkish dictionary, which has been translated into 26 languages. Here, the early Muslims encountered strong Chinese, Persian, Turkic, and Indian influences, much of which can still be seen in the region 's art and architecture. Today, Kashgar train station is a glistening, marble-clad monolith connected to the city by an umbilical two-lane highway, freshly painted and totally empty. My battered taxi wheezed past the People 's Park, complete with its outsized statue of Mao (reportedly one of only three places in China still graced by the great leader), and pulled up at the appointed hotel. Despite the glowing neon and selection of shops from the usual Chinese chains, there was thankfully still an air of the exotic about this far-flung outpost. Grabbing my camera, I re-entered the stifling midday heat and immediately headed for Kashgar's old quarter.
Captivated by Kashgar
To enter the labyrinthine, jumbled mass of backstreets centered around Kashgar's dominating Id Kah mosque is to experience Uyghur life at its busiest and most authentic. Mud brick homes with ornate doorways jostle for space with quaint, diminutive mosques, shopfronts decorated with assorted cuts of mutton, and merchants plying their roadside trade. Groups of Uyghur men with sun-darkened, careworn faces and pristine white taqiyah (caps) sit on low stools, engaged in animated conversation, or gather round battered pool tables. Uyghur women in colorful headscarves and long dresses, occasionally veiled, walk arm-in-arm through the din and confusion, the epitomy of serenity and modesty. It's hard not to go a little photo-crazy in the midst of this cultural treasure trove of sights and smells. However, displaying a camera in Kashgar's old quarter is an open invitation to the hordes of loitering Uyghur children who naturally congregate around anyone looking remotely foreign. Blithely snapping away, I was quickly surrounded by a mass of highly photogenic kids, literally begging to be captured on film. Using surprisingly good English, my new found gaggle of friends quickly quizzed me on my nationality, occupation and marital status, and willingly arranged themselves at my discretion for a lengthy photoshoot which only ended when I dove for cover into a nearby teahouse. After a dinner of delicious dapanji (chicken, potatoes and noodles Uyghur-style) and a comfortable night's sleep in a stationary bed, I awoke early the next day ready to experience Kashgar's famed Sunday market. Once a week Kashgar's population swells by 50,000 as people from near and far flock to one of Asia's most incredible open markets. With the sun still low in the sky, I was carried along by a raucous crowd of pedestrians, horses, bikes, motorcycles, donkey carts, tractors, trucks and tuk-tuks to a massive outdoor maze of livestock pens and covered stalls on Kashgar's eastern periphery. The air was thick with dust as sheep, goats, camels, cows and donkeys mingled with buyers and sellers, and money was changing hands everywhere. Rugs and blankets, boots and clothing, fruit and vegetables, hardware and all manner of junk were on sale. To my right a market blacksmith was doing a brisk trade, and to my left a vendor of dogh (a local drink made from ice, syrup, yogurt and water) was rapidly quenching people's thirst. After a few unforgettable hours my memory card was full and my nose and eyes thoroughly clogged with dirt - it was time to head back to the hotel to wash, eat and plan the next leg of my journey, along the Karakoram Highway to Lake Karakul.
High Life on the Highway
As a feat of engineering, the Karakoram Highway is a triumph of man over nature (at least temporarily). It is the highest paved international road in the world, and follows a network of ancient trade routes linking Kashgar with the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Along the way it crosses the Khunjerab Pass (4800m), otherwise known as the "Valley of Blood " - a reference to local bandits who took advantage of the terrain to plunder caravans and slaughter merchants. More blood was spilt during the 20 years it took to push level and blast the present 1300km highway through the mountains: over 400 road-builders died, and it didn 't take me more than a few hours in my hired taxi to see why. Lake Karakul is located in the snappily named Kizilsu Kirgiz Autonomous Prefecture, and my Uyghur cabbie informed me it would be a five hour ride from Kashgar. Leaving the city, the imposing, snow-capped Pamir Mountains quickly swung into view, like silent sentinels guarding a hidden kingdom. After an hour barreling down an unmade road we halted at the village of Upal, taking a breather to inspect an interesting local cemetery behind the tomb of Mahmud Al-Kashgari. As I made my way between the multitude of crumbling, earthen headstones, I realized that this was the first proper graveyard I had seen in China, slowly merging with its surroundings as it suffered the vagaries of time and weather.
Continuing from Upal the highway began to climb, and the surrounding geology became increasingly spectacular. Flanking the road were massive sandstone cliffs, long-eroded and twisted by unseen natural forces. The subtle red, black and grey shades of these impressive rock formations were incredibly beautiful, and I found myself apologizing to the driver for incessant photo stops. Passing through the border checkpoint at Ghez, the road became even steeper, and the air noticeably cooler and moister. Gushing mountain torrents cascaded from mist-shrouded slopes to accompany the road, and huge boulders balanced precariously above us on overhanging crags.
As the road leveled out at the top of the incline, we entered a world of crystal clear pools and lakes, sweeping dunes and boulder-strewn plains, ringed by snowy peaks wreathed in heavy cloud. The highway was being reconstructed here, and camels and yaks vied with earth-moving equipment for space next to makeshift roadside dwellings. Clutching the wheel with one hand, my driver pointed out the twin summits of Kongur Shan (7719m) and Muztagh Ata (7546m), which cradle Lake Karakul in their vastness, and give the area a stunning backdrop. Enclosed by ice mountains, the still, translucent waters of Lake Karakul (literally "black water " in Kyrgyz) reflected their surroundings with startling clarity. Like a slow-moving film, the color of the water mirrored the sky above, bright blue and aquamarine hues merging with somber greys as dark cumulus scudded overhead. Spurning the overly commercial lakeside yurts, I made my way to a nearby Kyrgyz village, seeking accommodation. The ancestors of the Kyrgyz were probably European, and the fair skin and blue eyes of the villagers who took me in was initially quite startling. Subash enjoys the luxury of part-time electricity, and most inhabitants make their living from animal husbandry and the occasional sale of trinkets, jewelry and rugs to passing tourists. The spartan nature of my mud-brick living quarters was easily offset by the genuine warmth of my hosts, and every villager was keen to meet and greet me, despite the general lack of a common language. After an undisturbed afternoon 's lakeside horse riding, a night spent chatting and sipping yak butter tea with these delightful people was a fitting climax to my journey. Despite the changes that this region will undoubtedly undergo in the near future, I came away hoping that this special and remote corner of China would remain undeveloped for years to come.