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Kashgar and thereabouts

Photos from a big trip in August, 2007. (The ‘thereabouts’ is used rather loosely as the trip also included Hong Kong, Urumqi, Turpan, and Beijing.)

The idea for all of this started with an email from BigUncleB.

Hay bro you still keen to do some travel through China? If not that’s cool but I was wondering whether you would have a place for me to stay so I could come over and see some of Beijing? But I am still keen to see a lot of the country.

A few more emails and we ended up with a rough plan that overlapped with some of HJ’s plans for Xinjiang-area travels.

  1. Overnight train to Hong Kong to meet up with BigUncleB
  2. Fly up to Beijing
  3. Fly up to Urumqi to meet HJ and C
  4. Fly out to Kashgar
  5. Trek to the basecamp of Mt. Muztagh-Ata, then back to Kashgar
  6. To Turpan and then back to Urumqi
  7. Farewell to HJ, back to Beijing
Map of China showing Beijing, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Urumqi, Kashgar, Muztagh, and Turpan
From Beijing to Hong Kong it’s about 2,000km; from Beijing to Kashgar it’s nearly 3,500km.

This post is mostly photos. Most of those photos were taken with my brick-like Canon G5 Powershot. Others are from BigUncleB’s 0.1 mega-pixel miniature camera. Some photos are low-res because we lost the originals, but also mainly because this trip took place in 2007.

1. Overnight train to Hong Kong to meet up with Big Uncle B

My train number is T97, scheduled to arrive at 13:05 on the 1st. 

I decided to take the train down to Hong Kong to save money and also because I kind of like going on trains.

The plan went off the rails (ahem) almost immediately because I missed the train in Beijing. (If you’ve noticed I’m occasionally anxious about being early for flights it’s precisely because of this incident.)

I wasn’t able to call or txt BigUncleB to let him know either. This was before data roaming and all the messaging apps, and I wasn’t sure if he’d see an email in time. And then we’d miss linking up, and the plan would be fairly well ruined.

But after a hastily bought flight ticket, and then a bit of a rush to meet the train I was supposed be on, and then meeting BigUncleB meeting that same train, the trip was back on track.

So much for saving money by taking the train down to Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong we started with a beer in the first pub we passed, made a quick visit to a visa agent, and then had a few days to tour about while we waited for BigUncleB’s China visa to come through.

Flamingos in a Hong Kong garden.
Flamingos?
Hong Kong skyline at night
Night scene by the harbour.
HK Watertours ferry
Ferry time.
Hong Kong Star Ferry
The iconic Star Ferry.
Hong Kong Star Ferry

We were getting the ferry to see the Tiantan Buddha on Lantau Island.

Tiantan Buddha, Lantau Island, Hong Kong
BigUncleB flexing with the 0.1 mega-pixel mini camera. So high-tech, so miniature.
Tiantan Buddha, Lantau Island, Hong Kong
The Tiantan Buddha.
Stairs to the Tiantan Buddha
Nearby the Tiantan Buddha
Close shot, nearby the Tiantan Buddha

2. Fly up to Beijing

There isn’t much to say here—we took the ferry to the border crossing at Shenzhen, a bus to the airport, and then a flight to Beijing.

In Beijing I had to work a bit, BigUncleB did a bit of touring about, and then …

3. Fly up to Urumqi to meet HJ and C

HJ and C had been trekking about the Bogda Mountains, and would be in Urumqi by the time we flew up.

I didn’t get a lot of photos from Urumqi, and I accidentally deleted lost most of what I did get. We visited the Urumqi bazaar, and I also have extremely vivid memories of getting a good telling-off by supermarket ladies for trying to order pork dumplings for BigUncleB.

Here’s how you don’t do it.

“Can we buy some baozi please?”
“What kind do you want.”
(Aside to BigUncleB “Maybe pork?” Because that’s what he’d been eating in Beijing, I promise!)
“Pork baozi please, four of them.”
“WE DON’T EAT PORK HERE” (Followed by more scolding, unfortunately untranslatable)

I should have known. I’m still going to blame BigUncleB for the order of haram baozi. I mean, I’m vegetarian, I would have ordered cabbage or mushroom-with-egg or something like that. (There’s more to come on being vegetarian in Xinjiang.)

Urumqi bazaar
Pulling up to the Urumqi Grand Bazaar.
Minarets of the Urumqi Grand Bazaar

4. Fly out to Kashgar

I wrote a little bit about Kashgar and some of the sights for a Beijing Hikers trip, “Silk Road: Korla to Kashgar“.

Kashgar is an ancient city in the far west of China, with many historically interesting sites and a strong Muslim influence from the large Uyghur community.

The earliest recorded mention of Kashgar can be found in Han Dynasty records that date back to 125 BC. At that point it was already one of the many stops on the Northern Silk Road, and, despite wars and battles, has been populated ever since.

Read more about Kasghar on Wikipedia

I was also interested in Kashgar for its role in what’s called “the Great Game“. We’d actually planned to stay in the old Russian Consulate here (converted to a hotel), but on arrival HJ and C deemed it too shabby. We switched to a modern hotel by the big square.

Also,

The local culture doesn’t really do vegetarian, and us attempting to use Mandarin to order vegetarian noodles from restauranteurs whose first language was Uyghur was how I got a bowl of just noodles, no toppings, and plenty of strange looks from the waiters, cooks, and neighbouring tables.

It went a bit like this:

“Do you have vege noodles?”
(What)
“Errr, noodles with no meat?”
(What)
Some further attempts at explaining …
(An “Are you kidding me?” look, and a shrug)

Then the waiter brought out literally just noodles in a bowl. Cooked noodles, at least.

“Err, how about some more naan bread then?”

The main square in Kashgar City.
Views from the modern hotel by the big square.
Streets in Kashgar.
The streets outside the Grand Bazaar in Kashgar.
Melon seller, Kashgar
Melons for sale. (Photo: 0.1 mini-pixel BigUncleB)
Melon stall, Kashgar
Girls in red, Kashgar
Girls in red near the Id Kah Mosque.

With a history that stretches back until at least the 14th century, the Id Kah Mosque is an active mosque and perhaps the largest in China. (Note: this was written around 2007.)

See Wikipedia for more on the Id Kah mosque
The Id-Kah Mosque in Kashgar.
Id Kah Mosque.
The entrance of Id-Kah Mosque
Taking a look at the mosque.
In the square in front of the Id Kah Mosque
Photos with camels in Kashgar.
Take a photo with a camel, goat, or horse.
Patting a camel, Kashgar

5. Trek to the basecamp of Mt. Muztagh-Ata

We drove south on the Karakorum Highway, which joins China and Pakistan and eventually turns into one of the highest paved roads in the world at the 4,714m Khunjerab Pass.

On the way to the starting point of our trek we passed the checkpoint at Gez, the stalls by Baisha Lake, and Lake Karakul.

Ruined tower by the roadside
Yak/bus accident
Oops.
Yak/bus accident

We found another cow/yak-thing in the gutter a bit further up the road, being butchered – halal-style – by the passengers of the bus.

The sign in the front window of the bus indicates it was coming down the Karakorum Highway from Sust in Pakistan (the first town on that side of the border), and going all the way to Kashgar.

Gez checkpoint, Karakorum Highway
The checkpoint at Gez. We’d applied for a permit to be able to get past the checkpoint.
Gez checkpoint, Karakorum Highway
Gez village sign
Stalls at a roadside stop by Baisha Lake, Karakorum Highway
Stalls at a stop by Baisha Lake.
Stalls at a roadside stop by Baisha Lake, Karakorum Highway
Stalls at a roadside stop by Baisha Lake, Karakorum Highway
Donkey and mountains

Lake Karakul, Muztagh-Ata, and thereabouts

I wrote about Lake Karakul and thereabouts for a Beijing Hikers trip called “Kashgar and Lake Karakul“.

The tall and snowcapped mountains in this remote and relatively unpopulated area form a superb backdrop for our high-altitude hike between small settlements and seasonal nomad camps.

The long road from Kashgar up and over the Karakorams and on to Pakistan passes by Lake Karakul, a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. On a clear day, it’s possible to see the 7,500m-plus peaks of Kongur-Tagh, Kongur-Tiube, and Muztagh-Ata pointing up from the line of mountains in the distance.

With a peak at 7,546m, Muztagh-Ata is the second-highest mountain in the area, and will form an impressive backdrop for much of our trek. Our hike will be along trails in the foothills of the mountain, following part of the path climbers take up on the way up to the basecamp.

On the second night of the trek, we’ll camp at a nomad settlement near the stream that runs down through the basecamp from the mountain’s glacier. The large boulders strewn over the foothills of Muztagh-Ata give an indication of the previous size of the glaciers in the area – very large!

We based that trip on this trip.

Lake Karakul

Lake Karakul
Lake Karakul
A camel at Lake Karakul
Riding a bike by Lake Karakul
Gers and goats by Lake Karakul
HJ and a camel
HJ and kids on horses

204 campsite and walkabout

This spot was called ‘204’ because it was 204 kilometres from somewhere. The driver told us the name of the somewhere but now I can’t remember. I guess the somewhere was either Kashgar or the China-Pakistan border.

After pitching the tents we set off on a walkabout to see what the nearby buildings were all about.

204 campsite, Subashi, Xinjiang
204 campsite, Subashi, Xinjiang
Mountains behind a small cluster of buildings
Mountains behind a small cluster of buildings
Stone/mud buildings, with
That’s Mt. Muztagh-Ata in the background there.
Yaks in a pen
Maybe relatives of the two that were hit by the bus.
People by a stone wall
Girls by the stone wall
The girls.
Guys at the village
The guys.
Two of the people at the village
Writing the name of the village

After a bit of a chat we were invited inside to check out their carpets. As well as being decorative, the carpets were a store of value for the Mr and Mrs here—wool from their flock of sheep and yaks is crafted into carpets, carried around as they move from place to place, and (hopefully) eventually sold to visiting trekkers from Beijing. (We bought the green and red carpet in the photo below.)

Carpets cover the floor and wall in a village house
Carpets cover the floor and wall in a village house
A man sitting on the carpets

On our way back to our tents we crossed the river and took a detour to look at a cemetery.

A river with mountains in the background
Hills and pasture
A cemetery with snowy mountains behind
A cemetery with snowy mountains behind

Up to the basecamp

This wasn’t a tough hike, but by the time we got to the base camp (4,500m above sea level) I felt like I was wading in chest-deep water.

There was a kitchen tent set up at the base camp, and while our French fries cooked (!) the camp staff entertained us with stories of how many people had died on the mountain—some of them recently. Maybe ‘entertained’ isn’t quite the right word. (I have noticed that hiking and mountain guides do tend to share tales of mishaps and various disasters when they get together. I’d say it’s half gossip, half sharing tips on what to do and what to not do in tricky situations.)

So anyway, not long after the French fries, BigUncleB crashed out in his tent. Not long after that, the camp guys started talking about how he probably had altitude sickness and could be dead already, and it turned into a Schrödinger’s cat situation, only instead of a cat in a box it was a BigUncleB in a tent.

(He was okay!)

The basecamp stay was amazing (except for a minor controversy over the actual price of French fries), although it was so cold during the night that the little stream running through the camp started to freeze over.

The peak of Mt. Muztagh-Ata
The peak of Muztagh-Ata.
Crossing a river
A river runs down from the mountain
HJ crossing a bridge
Mountain river
A view of the Muztagh-Ata basecamp
Our tents are the three on the right. We didn’t feel professional enough to camp with all the climbers.
The basecamp is near a glacier
The terminus of a glacier looked close enough to hike up to for a look.
By the glacier
By the glacier

Cheltemak and walking out

We did a short hike down from the base camp to the aforementioned nomad settlement, which is also known as Qortomak. It’s a seasonal settlement—when it’s warm enough for the grass to grow, nomadic herders set up here to graze their yaks and sheep. It was settled at the time of our visit, and we took the opportunity to upgrade our accommodation by staying with a family in their ger—much, much warmer than our tents.

Cheltemak settlement
Cheltemak settlement
Cheltemak settlement
Cheltemak settlement
Inside our ger for the night
We slept over here, with feet towards the burner in the middle to stay warm in the night.
HIking team with the camel and luggage
Getting ready to move on.
Hiking team with the camels and luggage
Hiking out through the foothills of Muztagh-Ata
Another shot from the 0.1 megapixel mini-cam.
Hiking out through the foothills of Muztagh-Ata
The track would take us back to the 204 campsite.
Stone walls and houses.

6. Back to Kashgar

Back in Kashgar, we revisited the Old City to complete some carpet shopping, took a short day trip to look at the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum, and visited the long-distance bus station to organise our tickets for the overnighter to Turpan.

Known as an excellent example of a traditional Islamic city, Kashgar’s Old City has undergone significant changes in recent times—some parts have been knocked down due to new regulations about building to meet earthquake and fire codes, and some sections are undergoing reconstruction.

Alleys in Kashgar’s Old Quarter
We hired a tour guide to take us around the Old City (and to help us shop for carpets), and he told us the hexagonal paving stones indicate a thoroughfare, with square paving stones indicating a dead-end street.
In Kashgar’s Old Quarter
HJ and C with some Old Town residents.
Outside a bread shop, Kashgar Old Quarter
A charismatic bread salesperson.
Bread shop, Kashgar Old Quarter
Kashgar kids
Kashgar kids.
Restaurant and tea shop with awning over streetside seating.
Restaurant and tea shop.

Afaq Khoja Mausoleum

Commonly known as the Tomb of the Fragrant Concubine, it is more accurately described as the tomb of Afaq Khoja, a religious and political leader said to be a relative of Muhammad, and is one of the key Muslim sites in Xinjiang.

The mausoleum was built around 1640 for Muhammed Yusuf, the father of Afaq Khoja, and is a domed structure with four corner minarets and a beautiful cladding of glazed tiles.

The key points of the story of the Fragrant Concubine differ greatly, depending on which side is telling it. One side has it that her captivating scent caused her presentation as a gift to the Emperor, who she grew to love until her death. The other side has it that she was kidnapped and held against her will in the Forbidden City, where she plotted to kill him until she was murdered by the Empress Dowager.

Read more about the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum on Wikipedia
A gate in the Afaq Khoja mausoleum complex.
Outside the Afaq Khoja Mausoleum.
The Green Mosque in the Afaq Khoja mausoleum complex
The Green Mosque in the mausoleum complex.

7. To Turpan and then back to Urumqi

We went from Kashgar to Turpan on the overnight bus, which ran along the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.

BigUncleB and I thought taking a few beers for the road might make it more interesting. We cancelled that plan after noticing we weren’t on the kind of overnight bus that includes an onboard toilet.

That turned out to be a good decision, as toilet stops were extremely few and far between. Adding to the discomfort were ‘sleeper’ seats that were fixed and a wee bit too small.

After arrival in Turpan we went out for lunch at a fairly large restaurant, and this was the occasion of another extremely vivid memory from the trip, which I’d title “The Worst Smell Ever”.

I won’t say more on that, because it’s actually way too disgusting. I will say that the experience featured a swift retreat from the toilets of an otherwise clean restaurant, and if I did say more I’d be using phrases such as “worse than that time at the IHC facility when we had to clean up meat that had been rotting in the sun for a week”, “no walls or door for a squat-style toilet”, “like a perfectly formed McDonalds ice cream cone but gigantic and with notes of baijiu”, and “imagine the ████ was a nest of wasps, and the smell of the ████ was like all of the wasps in the nest flying out of it into your nose and stinging and stinging and stinging”.

Anyway.

In Turpan we visited the Gaochang Ruined City, and the Emir Minaret. We also visited the Karez irrigation system and stayed a night in Grape Valley.

Gaochang Ruined City

Gaochang (AKA Kara-Khoja) was a trading stop on the Silk Road, mentioned in historical records from 1 BC, and destroyed during wars in the 14th century.

It was 45°C when we drove out past the Flaming Mountains to get here. Up until then I’d never been in temperatures that high, outside of a sauna.

“It’s a dry heat”, they say. “At least it’s not humid.”

We lasted about 30 minutes before moping back to the ticket office to cool down with slices of watermelon.

Gaochang Ruined City, Turpan.
Gaochang Ruined City, Turpan.
Gaochang Ruined City
Gaochang Ruined City

Emin Minaret

The Emin Minaret was completed in 1778, is the tallest minaret in China (44m), and is all made of wood and brick.

Emin Minaret, Turpan
Emin Minaret, Turpan
Emin Minaret, Turpan

8. Back to Beijing

HJ continued her Xinjiang adventure with a trip to the big lake at Ili.

The rest of us flew back to Beijing.

Before BigUncleB made his way back to the UK we squeezed in a bit of Great Wall adventure, tagging along with a Beijing Hikers group to hike the rough and wild stretch of Great Wall between Moyashike and Jiankou.

(Beijing Hikers visits this part of the Great Wall on a hike called the ‘Chinese Knot Great Wall’)

Great Wall in Huairou, Beijing
Great Wall in Huairou, Beijing

Overall a great trip, would do again.


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This travelogue is brought to you by the Warkworth Non-Sports-Related Friendly Friendship Association (Grey Lynn Chapter)