Kashgar, China, to Sary-Tash, Kyrgyzstan.
The remnants of a city once built of clay. Wonderful mutton buns. Klish-clang, the sound of an artisan shaping his copper tea pot. Barbecue lamb smoking on every corner. A chip-chip-chipping of a giant ice block to be mixed with fresh yoghurt and honey. Veils and burkhas walk past five girls promoting a supermarket wearing hot-pants: a rare intersection of otherwise segregated communities. Hami melons, Turpan melons, honey melons, watermelons. Dried fruit and round nan bread speckled with sesame seeds. Big beards, bushy eyebrows. The sound of morning prayers, chaos in disorganized streets. In this town, we eat outside. This is Kashgar, the last frontier town before leaving China over the mighty Pamir mountain range.
After almost a week off in Kashgar, renewing visas, getting food poisoning, and trying to cure ailments and allow wounds to heal, we finally set off for the border with Kyrgyzstan. There were a few vague reports online from travelers coming the other way but nothing to help us prepare from this side of the border. All we knew was that the China border was between 100-140km from the Kyrgyz border with a no man’s land in the middle that was forbidden from being cycled. The 95km ride to alleged border town of Ulugqat (or Wuqia in Chinese) was mostly uphill making the first day back in the saddle quite tough. We weren’t sure if it was the extra supplies of condensed milk and porridge in our panniers or simply that the time off had made us tighten up, but it really did not feel like we were three-month riding fit. We crawled into the town at around 10pm hungry and very tired. The only place we could find food was a tiny restaurant next to the hotel. What seemed like a rather drab establishment turned out to be fitting end to the China adventure: home cooked food prepared by the mother of two; feeding her husband alongside us after a hard day’s manual work; the younger child doing his maths homework on the table next to us; and the eldest daughter, the pride of the family, the hope of her parents, practicing her broken English with these two strange hairy white men. This encounter marked the end of the familiar environment, the unique family-orientated hospitality, the great food and the warmth of the ordinary Chinese people. We left their little restaurant with bellies full of food, heavy hearts and a mind filled with apprehension at leaving our adopted homeland to enter the unknowns of Central Asia.
We woke bright and early the next day to face the customs house. It’s amazing how the Chinese can make the simplest of tasks so complicated. After an hour of trying to work out what was going on it came to light that we needed pre-arranged transport before they would stamp us through. More discussions, hand gestures and laughing in disbelief later it transpired that all vehicles charged a flat rate of 600rmb (£60/€70) regardless of number of passengers or equipment. All of this would have been made far easier by a sign at the entrance explaining everything but that would be far too sensible. A Japanese couple were also going through the same ordeal so we partnered up and agreed to split the vehicle and fee between us. Traveling as a Japanese in China brings a whole different level of complexity to an already challenging environment. Despite Japanese youth culture having a strong influence on China there is also strong nationalistic antipathy toward the small island nation that committed many atrocities on the mainland in the 30s and 40s and that now dares claim ownership on sacred Diaoyu islands (which have belonged to motherland China for more than 5,000 years, as anyone would tell you). Not helped by the government endorsed historical soap operas depicting heroic Chinese soldiers chopping the ‘evil’ Japanese in half with their bare hands, the general feeling of suspicion is most definitely present at grass roots level. Our new friends at the border had their entire laptop and cameras checked through (they had already had films deleted upon their arrival) to make sure there was no damaging material. We in turn sang our way through the green ‘nothing to declare’ channel and no question was asked. ‘Western devils’ rank a step lower than Japanese on the ‘enemies of the People’ ladder.
Eight hours later after the worst road in China and a rather grumpy border guard, we were in Kyrgyzstan. Rolling green hills, streams running through grassland valleys, wild horses galloping across the open plain, flocks of sheep and goats in their hundreds, cottages with smokey chimneys and excitable kids at every settlement. 10km from the border, just beyond a small town we set up camp in a lovely little patch of grassland set away from the road.
Surrounded by mountains, the smell of thyme filling our nostrils and feeling a chill in the air, we both felt incredibly relaxed for the first time in a couple of months.