Friday, 31 August 2012

Kashgar to Osh in two not-so-easy days

There are basically two ways to get from Kashgar to Kyrgyzstan: the Torugart pass and the Irkeshtam pass. The Torugart pass is arguably more scenic and takes you past the Tash Rabat caravenserai on the way to Naryn, but it's a very difficult route to take because China requires a special permit and guide to take you on this route, which effectively means you have to arrange for private transportation with a tour agency. The Irkeshtam pass is much more heavily traveled, and is served by a once- or twice-weekly international bus running between Kashgar and Osh, with tickets running close to $100.

In 2012, it was also possible to hitch-hike over the border. In order to do so, you would take a share taxi or minibus to Ucha/Wuqia/Ulugqat from Kashgar's international bus terminal, then go to the Chinese customs point in Ucha, where you would be stamped out of China (despite being about 135 km  from the actual border) and put onto a truck by Chinese customs officials. You would then take the slow and bumpy ride to the border, which can take up to 6 hours because of the roadwork that limited your speeds to as low as 20 km/h. After that, cross into Kyrgyzstan and then either take a share taxi from the border to Osh or Sary Tash, or jump back on the truck and make it to Osh the next day.

I decided to try this, as it was better than waiting for the bus (which is reported to be quite bad) and braving the multi-hour waits to buy tickets at the international bus station. If you're trying to do something similar today, Caravanistan and Far West China have all the details: the short story is that you absolutely need to take a taxi between Ucha and the border.

Road to Ucha/Ulugqat

When you arrive at the international bus station, there will be huge lines (I estimated it would take 6 hours to get to the front of the line, as I waited in one before realizing I didn't have to), but you don't need to wait in them in order to go to Ucha. Instead, head out of the doors and into the courtyard behind the station: although someone will check you for a ticket, just tell them you're going to Ucha/Wuqia/Ulugqat, and they'll let you through. At the back left, there should be a stand with the Chinese characters for Ucha. I paid 60 yuan for the ride to Ucha in a share taxi, which is apparently a huge overpay, but then again there were only three of us.

Not far outside Kashgar.

Views like this make me regret taking so many night buses and trains.

Note the stone buildings and pens on the left.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Kashgar, take two

I had only been in Kashgar for two full days, but that was really enough time to see most of the things in the city. Really, there's the Sunday Market, the livestock market, the Id Kah mosque, and the Abak Khoja mausoleum. But most of all there's simply wandering around the old city and soaking up the atmosphere. I suppose one could explore the more Chinese parts of the city, but that holds little appeal for me. Maybe visiting the amusement park would have been interesting.

So on my final day in Kashgar, I didn't have much on my plate for the day, and I decided to accompany another tourist staying at the Pamir Hostel as he went to the Sunday Market to buy a carpet. This guy was a European who was living in a big city in Eastern China, and he wanted to buy a carpet or textile to use as a wall decoration.

Given the size of the Sunday Market, the are devoted to rugs and carpets is quite small, but it was interesting to tag along as I would otherwise be hesitant to enter one of the shops and waste the seller's time while being bombarded with high-pressure sales tactics. Accompanying someone else who was interested, while making it clear I wasn't buying anything, was a much better strategy. Virtually all the carpets on display at the shops we went to were used, and they were in a surprising array of styles—not simply the Yarkand or Hotan carpets one might expect to see. Pakistan, and Afghanistan were well represented, and they also had a fair number of Tajik or Uzbek suzani tapestries. I discovered that I quite like strong geometric patterns of the flat-woven kilim rugs they had, most of which were Afghan, and many of which were camel-hair. I know nothing about carpets, and have no idea how much things should cost or what a good deal would be—and in that respect, I'm sure I'm like most consumers.

The Uyghur carpet salesman recognized the two of us for what we were—a couple of tourists with little to spend—and didn't try too hard to sell us on his carpets, though he was friendly and informative. The European guy bought a small suzani for about $60. Small potatoes. But then the carpet seller said something that really encapsulates the reality of traveling in China: "Four or five years ago, Americans and Europeans were the biggest customers, and had lots of money to spend. Now, they buy little and it's the Chinese who spend a lot." It's like that for a lot of things. Those Westerners who are likely to travel to places like Kashgar are simply out-classed, economically speaking, by the kind of Chinese who can also afford to travel there. Prices for many things seem expensive even by Western standards, but that's because there are more than enough wealthy Chinese who think nothing of overpaying and for whom conspicuous consumption is a virtue.

Looking north from Aizirete road bridge, near the Sunday Market.

Making a staw & mud slurry to cover the new buildings along a stretch of old town that was destroyed & widened into a large road.

New buildings going up. At least they didn't widen the road, so it will retain more of its old character.

Sunset in an area still being destroyed. A woman sits on the roof, watching a vanishing way of life.

View along the Tuman river.

Mosque in the dwindling twilight.

Although I loved Xinjiang, and could have spent more time there backtracking to places I had skipped in my rush to get to Kashgar, it felt like it was time to move on to Kyrgyzstan, especially since summer was coming to a close (even if it didn't feel like it in sweltering Kashgar): I decided to try my hand hitching to Osh the next day, aided by a set of instructions posted by a fellow traveler at the hostel.


August 29: 78 yuan
  • Pamir Hostel: 50 yuan
  • Dinner: 15 yuan
  • Drinks: 15 yuan
  • Melon & naan: 8 yuan

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Hotan: the carpet factory, silk workshop, and desert tombs in one easy day

The overnight bus I took from Kashgar to Hotan had the most convenient hours and the cheapest price—86 yuan versus the 115 I paid to get to Kashgar from Hotan—but the 30 yuan discount was the result of the bus lacking air conditioning. In practice this really wasn't the problem you might expect, as the window of the bus opened and I felt perfectly fine with my head sitting next to the open road as I slept (although I had this somewhat irrational fear of falling out of the bus through contortionate sleeping).

My plan for the day was basically to visit the tomb of the four imams after first visiting the other sights en route: the jade market (again), the carpet factory (again), and the silk workshop. Other than that, simply soaking up the local atmosphere and wandering around town would be enough for me.

To get to the silk workshop or the tomb of the four imams, take a bus to Jiya, which will be marked only in Chinese with "吉亚乡." You can catch this bus from the East Bus Station, or from just north of the underpass that's just north of the carpet workshop. On the map below, the stops are: the carpet workshop; where you can catch the bus to Jiya; the Atlas silk workshop (tell the driver, but also keep an eye out on the right); and the tomb of the four imams (Asim Imam), which is a few kilometers past the end of the Jiya bus line. Although Google might tell you that bus 10 runs all the way to the carpet factory, in my experience it always follows the route below but turns around a couple of blocks before the river.

Carpet Factory

On this visit to the carpet factory there were a lot more weavers about, and I was able to wander around and view more of the buildings. You could see the facilities where they washed and dyed the yarn, where they washed the carpets, as well as a shop where they displayed completed carpets. All of these rooms and buildings were completely empty, however (even the shop/storeroom), and I get the sense that they really only gear things up and staff the shop when they have a tour group coming through. That's fine with me, as it was nice to be able to simply wander around.

Two weavers working on a small carpet.

On larger carpets, more weavers work.

Watching them work, it's evident how huge an investment in time hand-knotting carpets is. The fact that they're even somewhat affordable is a testament to how underpaid the weavers/knotters are, and it's no surprise that child slavery is used in South Asia or that many carpets are made by women who are culturally unable to work outside of their home.

They say that weavers can tie about 10,000 knots per day. Assume a knot density of 200 knots per square inch on this rug (which would be considered very good, but far from the 600+ found in ultra-fine rugs) and that's only 50 square inches, or about 2 inches of vertical per day on this carpet being woven by 6 women. If this carpet is 20 feet long, it will take 6 women 120 days of weaving to complete it. This kind of puts the price in perspective.

Camels grazing by the side of the White Jade river. It looks like camels can eat anything.

Is that camel on the left super-pregnant, or what? I don't know, because other camels were still nursing their young. It appears they don't wean their calves until they're up to 2 years old, though.

Mother and child.

I think I like camels more than horses. They seem to have distinct and readily-apparent personalities in way that horses do not, which makes them easier to relate to or understand—even if their personality frequently manifests itself in surliness.

Atlas Silk Workshop

From the carpet workshop, you turn right along the road as you exit and walk north for a while until you pass under another large road (this is the road that the buses to Jiya take). Keep walking north until you get to the petrol station and truck stop on the right, as the buses to Jiya will stop here if you flag them down. Probably any small buses that passes here is on its way to Jiya, but look for the Chinese "吉亚乡" to be sure. Tell the driver you want to go to the Atlas silk workshop (they tend to recognize "Atlas"), but keep your eyes peeled because my driver forgot about it while talking to passengers. Atlas is the Uyghur word for the Ikat dyeing process, as is commonly seen in women's dress in Xinjiang.

When open, the silk factory is interesting, and you might be able to see all aspects of the Ikat-manufacturing process, from the raw silk cocoons to the boiling and spinning of the yarn, to the tying and dyeing process, to the weaving of the fabric. Of course, there's a shop in the center of the facility (the production buildings ring the central courtyard), but there's also no pressure of any sort and you're free to just wander around.

The workshop was quite interesting. If you're headed to Margilon, Uzbekistan, there's a silk workshop there, too, which you can also visit. The Margilon workshop is perhaps a bit more comprehensive and organized, and you'll be escorted by a guide as well as have the opportunity to see commercial weaving machines in operation.

Raw silk cocoons stored outside.

The cocoons are heated and softened, then strands of silk are teased from them, gathered, and collected on a spinning wheel.

Spinning silk on a bicycle wheel.

The silk is prepared for dyeing by running silk thread over a stand, looping the thread back and forth, and then gathering them into bundles. These bundles are then tied (or taped) together in geometric patterns, and the dyed: the taped areas resist the dyes. This is then repeated until you get the desired coloration, with the lightest dyes being applied first.

The pre-dyed warp threads on the loom, while the weaver throws the weft shuttle back and forth.

The loom setup: a ball of dyed yarn runs to the stone weight, which provides tension to the loom. There the yarns are split up and arranged into matching geometric bundles which are run over the loom.

A lot of work goes into a $10 scarf. Either that or the $10 scarves are not hand made.

A male weaver! He invited me to throw the shuttle a few times. I would make a lousy weaver.

There's a scene in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia where the police, who are searching for a body in a back-water village in Turkey, happen upon an outrageously attractive girl who serves them tea at an otherwise unprepossessing teahouse. Everythng in the films stops at that moment, as all the characters are stunned into silence by her beauty, yet none of the comment on it.

Something similar happened at the workshop's showroom. There was this young Uyghur girl, maybe 17, dressed in a gorgeous light green and tan silk dress and scarf, with light green eyes and a pale complexion. She looked something like the famous green-eyed girl on the cover of National Geographic, but less wild and more European. Stunning. As with the Hui girl in Dunhuang, she was someone I would have loved to take a picture of, but there's no way I could do so without feeling somehow intrusive or pervy about it.

Tomb of the Four Imams (Asim Imam)

Sometimes I wonder if Lonely Planet writers really visit the places they write about. I mean, I already know from my time in Kharkhorin that Michael Kohn researched things by reading other people's blogs, but when reading what he had to say about Asim Imam I really had to question if he had even visited it. He simply writes that it has "an interesting cemetery" and is a good place to "slide down the sand dunes." I'm not sure what kind of image that paints in your mind, but it certainly didn't suggest to me what I actually saw. Sure, there are dunes, but they're hardly of the height you would slide down (unlike in Dunhuang, where there are actual toboggan and inner-tube slides), and to say that it is an interesting cemetery is a bit like saying an ossuary or a catacomb is an interesting cemetery. In reality, Asim Imam is unlike any "cemetery" you are likely to see in China or Central Asia, as the graves or tombs are flag-festooned poles in the desert. These structures strongly resemble Mongolian ovoo and Tibetan latse, and it's unlikely a coincidence that the tombs commemorate a Muslim general who turned the region towards Islam and away from Buddhism with his conquests. As with the ovoo and the latse, these structures seem rather shamanistic when compared to mainline Islam burials, and the fact that local women make wishes and puncture the bark of nearby trees to see if their wishes will be granted (if sap runs, they will) is another telling sign of this.

Tombs in the desert, unlike any Muslim tomb you're likely to see again.

Uyghur on a pilgrimage.


The walk to the mosque is littered with tombs.

Dunes with the mosque dome in the background.

The minaret towers over the grape vines that provide shade.

The tomb of Asim Imam.

Looking at the minaret through raisins curing on the vine.

Looks pretty similar to a Tibetan latse to me.

Giant slabs of coal next to the irrigation canal, on the road through Jiya.

Corn fields beyond the poplar-lined street.

I think of this road often, as it was about 20 kilometers of poplar-lined tarmac filled with the warm and friendly faces of traditional Uyghur. It's everything I had hoped I would be able to find in Central Asia, with the real surprise being that I found it in China.

Motorcycles and trikes for the Uyghur. In Han China proper cars would be more typical.

Call to prayer near the carpet factory.

There's absolutely nothing unusual about this scene in Hotan.

I wound up my time in Hotan by walking around and looking at some of the more modern shops around the city center. They're not nearly as interesting as the Uyghur sections and the traditional market, but probably a sign of what's to come.

I then went back to Marco's Dream Cafe—the owner was surprised to see me since she knew I was only staying for the day the last time I was there—where I repaid my debt to her travel binder by adding my own note about how to get to all the sights in and around Jiya. Hopefully future visitors to her cafe will buy more than I did (her Malaysian food is quite good and would be a nice reprieve for those wanting a change from Uyghur and Chinese food).


August 28, 2012: 178 yuan
  • Bus to Kashgar: 115 yuan
  • Polo: 4 yuan
  • Drinks: 19 yuan
  • City bus: 5 yuan
  • Dinner: 18 yuan
  • Drinks, fruit and snacks for bus: 17 yuan

Monday, 27 August 2012

Kashgar, take one

After being in Mongolia, I had learned the importance of getting a jump on things if you want to plan on booking a cheap tour or sharing expenses, so I had two early priorities in Kashgar: one, to figure out how much time I had left on my visa, and if I was limited to 30 days since my last entry (most Chinese visas stipulate that you are only allowed to stay for 30 days, and if you want to stay longer you need an extension, while my visa didn't specify a length of stay limitation); and two, how much it would cost to enter Kyrgyzstan via the Torugart Pass (which requires both a permit and private transportation on both sides of the border) and Irkeshtam Pass.

Thus, after checking into the Pamir Hostel, I made my way to John's Cafe. The Uyghur operators there were pretty helpful, but said that it would cost $400 if you did the Torugart Pass solo, dropping to $150 if you shared with three or more people. This was more than I wanted to spend, so the next step was to find out how much the international bus to Osh would cost and when it left. I went to the international bus station, but the lineups were incredible, so I figured I would come back at a different time when hopefully it would be less busy (it's always busy, from what I can tell, and talking to someone would involve waiting for hours).

I then made it to Kashgar's PSB (public security bureau) office to enquire about my visa status. Althoug htey weren't open to actually do any processing, I managed to get the officer working there to take a look at my visa and let me know if I needed an extension if I wanted to stay for more than 30 days. He took a look, and said that since it didn't explicitly say I was limited to 30 days per entry, I could stay until the expiration of my visa. This was a relief, but it also came a bit too late, because I had essentially rushed my way through Xinjiang in order to make sure I would be able to exit the country if I had been limited to 30 days—had I knew I had more time in advance, I might have stayed a day or so longer in Tashkuragan and Karakul, as well as possibly spent more time on the edges of the Taklamakan desert.

I saw this young Uyghur couple fighting in public, on a busy street near John's Cafe. This was really the first example of public violence I saw in China, and I stopped and looked to make sure it didn't escalate, taking a picture or two in the hope it would defuse the situation. She started pushing him and then he grabbed her neck, and then I stepped in to take his hand away from her neck. I'm not sure I would have done this in all places, but by now I think I had gotten a good enough idea of China to understand that this wouldn't be tolerated and that nothing would really happen to me for intervening. After the couple had calmed down, I was walking away and a older American approached me and asked if I was the Uyghur guy's friend, which he had somehow thought I was (I guess I can pass for Uyghur in an American's eyes).

Is this simply a ripe bitter melon? You can eat the flesh around the seeds, but it was nothing special other than how it looked.

Looking east from the Yingbin Road bridge over the Tuman river; the international bus station is just to the northwest of the bridge.

Modern Uyghur family, walking south over the bridge.

One of my first glimpses of the old city, from a major throroughfare below.

I wasn't sure how accessible the old city would be, since I had read that some places charge admission, so I climbed a tree to get this shot. Locals looked at me like I was crazy. In about 15 minutes I would be just outside that house, talking with kids who lived there.

Mother and child watching the sunset from their roof.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Tashkurgan and the Chinese Karakorum Highway

I arrived at the Kashgar bus station before dawn, and briefly looked outside the station. The only people up and about were the odd taxi driver and the morning street sweepers. I went back inside to check the schedules to Tashkurgan, and decided that since I was already up and at the bus station, I might as well immediately take the bus there.

The bus stops in Upal for breakfast, where I bought some naan and took a picture of the tandoor in which they (and samsas) are cooked. The baker will periodically season the inside of the tandoor by throwing fistfuls of salty water against the interior, which sizzles and leaves the salt coating on the interior. Sometimes you get a chunk of salt on the bottom of your naan. Apparently the government is giving incentives to have bakers switch to electric tandoors, instead of these inefficient coal-fired ovens.

_DSC8693 - _DSC8694
I had an aisle seat, so I wasn't able to take pictures through the window, and could only take pictures when we stopped. This is at the checkpoint at the head of the Ghez river. The Ghez river valley is a wide, stony plain that fills with melt water in the spring and summer, lined with mountains that range from grey to deep red.

Dusty shopfront at the checkpoint.

After the checkpoint the road becomes steeper, and we do most of our climbing. At the end of the climb we arrive on a broad mountain valley—or pamir—at an altitude of about 3,500 meters. The first thing you see on entering the pamir is Bulungkol lake whose opposite shores are formed by sand-dune mountains.

After the sand-dune mountains, the next major place of interest is Karakul lake. The bus will stop here, since it is a major tourist destination, and a few people will get off and maybe someone will get on. I was able to run away and take some pictures while we stopped, but the driver was annoyed because I ended up being the last one back on board and he had to wait a couple of minutes for me.

Tourist yurts on the shores of Lake Karakul, elevation 3,600 meters.

Looking south over the silty, aquamarine lake.

A camel-herder bringing camels to the tourist area for rides.