Posts Tagged ‘Erkeshtam’

Over the mountains to China

View of mountains, plains and a riverI had read Lonely Planet’s section on crossing the border into China where the possibility of hitching rides on Chinese trucks is mentioned. I had thought to myself “Yes, I’m sure that’s what I would have done when I was a young traveller. Luckily we won’t have to”. So what on earth are we doing here by the side of the road at 8.30 on a very cold morning hoping for a ride on a Chinese truck to take us to the border?

Our attempts to be sensible and middle aged and throw money at the situation failed miserably in Osh where we couldn’t find any taxi willing to take us the whole way. So we got as far as Sary Tash and spent the night there. Sary Tash is a village which owes its existence solely to its position at the fork in the road between the Tajik and Chinese borders – one road leads over one set of mountains into Tajikistan and the other over another set of mountains to western China and Kashgar.

Sary TashIt’s a cold and bleak place where winter already seems to be setting in and the dried dung piles (for winter fuel) are stacked high. The nearby graveyard has a weirdly animist atmosphere with horse tails fixed to the grave posts (presumably a reminder of the occupant’s favourite mount?)

The inhabitants of Sary Tash make their money doing seasonal farm work in Russia or scrape a living from their few animals, taking in the odd traveller (like us) or selling petrol, tea and vodka to passing motorists.

While we are sitting outside the shop (the throbbing heart of this metropolis) a party of Kyrgyz tourists turn up fresh from a day out in the mountains and already rather The Sary Tash shopthe worse for wear. I am dragged into the party (rather unwillingly honestly), have to be introduced to everyone and then just to be sociable,join them in downing a very large shot of neat vodka followed by kurut –crumbly dried sour yogurt, yum! This could easily turn into a bit of a session but Jim is feeling too ill to join in (altitude sickness is diagnosed) so we make our way back to the hovel we call home for the night

Next morning we are standing at the petrol station at the edge of the universe hoping someone will help us to reach the border. Hitching in Kyrgyzstan isn’t quite like elsewhere in that it’s very acceptable and what’s more you always pay for your lift so it’s a good way to share petrol costs -a system which could be adopted everywhere I reckon.

Jim and a truckA couple of trucks go past but luckily it’s not too long before a lovely warm people carrier comes by and praise be! It stops, and in we hop. The mountains look amazing in this light and the road is brand new and as smooth as anything. It was only finished this year and was built by – guess who? The Chinese.

A preliminary passport check, then 10 kms. to the second passport check and we’re out of Kyrgyzstan and on our own. But there’s another seven kms. until Chinese immigration and this is achieved in a series of further passport checks with lifts from lorry drivers in between. As we’re hauling ourselves up into very high truck cabs fully laden with rucksacks, I remind myself that we are doing this trip now while we’re still fit enough to do it.

Jim in front of "Welcome to China" signFinally the last driver pulls up behind a great queue of trucks and tells us it’s still at least 2 kms to the border. He urges us to wait but the rate the trucks are moving means that we could very well still be in the queue at night fall. We decide that we can easily walk 2 kms. – even if it is at 3,600m and thank goodness, we just about can! We’re through the final checks and it’s welcome to China!

Luckily we’re the last people through before the 2½ lunch break which the Chinese border guards obviously need (what for – an extended 14 course banquet?) Unluckily, this means that nothing moves at all and there is no possibility of a lift down to Kashgar.

We spend the time chatting to a group of Uzbek ladies who have come over to buy stuff here to sell back in Kyrgyzstan – same business as us really, and a Dutch guy who is trying to get his Land Rover in. There’s plenty of time for us to negotiate a lift back with the driver who brought Dutch guy’s Chinese guide here, but we can’t go until Dutch guy’s Landy gets the all-clear and various bits of bureaucracy are seen to (it gets complicated)

Three Bactrian camels in front of some red mountainsFinally we’re off through red mountains, past dirt poor villages and herds of horses and huge stately Bactrian camels. The road deteriorates fast and quickly moves up into a second place (behind the never to be forgotten Khiva to Bokhara) as worst road of the trip so far. The story is the same – they’re building a new road but instead of doing it bit by bit, they just tear up the whole lot and then replace it here and there, so there are a couple of miles of smooth tarmac followed by dozens of dust choked rocky track.

Eventually after a journey I thought would never end we get to the outskirts of Kashgar and the Uyghur driver pulls into his favourite Uyghur caff. The Uyghurs are Turkmen people and speak a variation on guttural Turkish but now live in the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” and occasionally feel obliged to riot against their Chinese oppressors.

The restaurant is a showcase of both Chinese kitsch (plastic flowers, electric animated “aquariums”) and Muslim devotional wall decor (huge dioramas of Mecca, enlarged scriptures from the Koran) But the food is delicious (Hello taste buds! Where have you been for the past 2 months?) and the price is ludicrously cheap.

Welcome to Xinjiang!

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