Kashgar is still very much the intriguing city that is has been for centuries, and also still a major crossroad for international traders and travellers.
Our 3-night stopover in Kasha was more than warranted, with a full day city tour on day one, witnessing the transformation of the old Kashgar into a more modern and affluent city. Day two was a time to relax and enjoy this bustling place. Kashgar belongs to the wealthy, oil-rich, Xinjiang region, home of 8 million Persian speaking “Uighur” people, making this more like travelling in Afghanistan than China.
We also tuned our entire itinerary around being in Kashgar for the famous Sunday morning animal market. This is an event not to be missed. It is not unlike a stock sale day in NZ but there are no stockyards, no auctioneers and no real organisation. Animals of all description change hands for large amounts of cash and it is a fun event to watch and should not be missed.
China is a vast country of varying landscapes. The first few days of our drive east were on good roads, over vast deserts and through poor villages. We took the northern route, skirting the north side of the Taklimakan desert, via the cities of Aksu and Korla. During our night stopovers, the degree of westernisation in these relatively remote but prosperous cities surprised our kiwi travellers. However, while we generally ate at Chinese restaurants, one of the experiences we did not want to miss was sitting at a local food court. These generally appear in a large, centrally located, our door car parks, after normal business hours and consist of lots of tables and chairs, cooking apparatus, food of all descriptions and plenty of people willing to cook up a meal and lots of family groups willing to eat it. We witnessed a live fish being selected prepared, cooked and served in less than 20 minutes!!
“Turpan” was the next stop on our west to east trek across China. The Turpan basin is one of the hottest regions in China, as close to the city of Turpan is the 2nd lowest altitude in the world. Needless to say, it is worth visiting to see the altimeter on the GPS register -154m below sea level!! It was hot, and on the day we trekked cross-country to the monument it was 46 degrees Celsius at the lowest point. Interestingly enough, this area grows China’s best grapes and produces lots of wine of a dubious quality. I guess we are a bit spoilt with the wine quality in our homeland.
After a two night stop in Turpan, we continued to Hami and then on to Jiayuguan, the most western point of the Great Wall of China. The day we travelled from Hami to Jiayuguan, we entered Gansu Province and immediately the poorer economic structure of this area was evident. The flash, dual lane expressways disappeared and the basic rugged roads, with heavy truck traffic, meant that it took at least 3 hours to cover 100kms. It was also a reminder as to why we need to use heavy 4×4 type vehicles.
The route is, however, synonymous with the Silk Road and as we travelled through a narrow section of land called the “Hexi Corridor”, we saw how it was controlled by the early Chinese emperors, through building a great wall and fortress at one of its narrowest points. We visited the fortress at Jiayuguan, which has become a major and important tourist attraction and portrays an important time in Chinese history. As a contrast, you can look from the top of the fortress towers, out into the hazy desert and see more of rapidly developing China, in the way of thousands of wind turbines and the new east to west fast passenger train line.
The rough roads continued in short sections through the Gansu province, while new expressways and tunnels were being built alongside. That, however, didn’t alter the fact that we had to pay large amounts of money for road tolls on a regular basis. Our 5500km traverse through China to Beijing cost $NZ300 in road tolls. We continued via Lanzhou, a busy city nestled between two high mountain ranges, with the huge Yellow River dividing the city in two. It is a sister city to Christchurch. Lanzhou has a reputation for blinding smog during the winter, due to being locked between the mountains. However, this complaint pales in comparison to what we saw closer to the coastal cities.
Xi’an is the end of the Silk Road route and the home of the Terracotta Warriors. The entrance to Xi’an from the West is spectacular, passing through mountains that resemble the French or Italian Alps. It marks our return back to civilisation and certainly, we could appreciate how the Silk Road caravans must have felt, after their 360-day trek on foot across Central Asia. There is a memorial garden to those great travellers and traders on the way into Xi’an city, where of course we had to stop and take the obligatory photos. We also at this point, had a sense of satisfaction, having negotiated one of the many recognised Silk Road routes from Istanbul, in just 35 days, in our modern Japanese camels.
Beijing, our ultimate destination, was just 3 days out from Xi’an and an easy drive on busy roads. We did, however, have one more important site to visit, which necessitated a detour to Denfang, the city closest to the Shaolin temple. This is the home of the Kung Fu Warriors and now a popular academy, teaching more than 12,000 young men the art of Shaolin martial arts. This was an interesting visit as we saw a demonstration by the masters of this art, the Shaolin temple and the Pagoda forest of Shaolin Buddhist tombs.
The “Qianmen Jianguo” Hotel in Beijing was a welcome sight and located in an area close to Tiananmen Square. We arrived early afternoon, having easily negotiated Beijing’s heavy traffic. This was not too difficult after all we had tackled over the last 50 days, 16,050kms and 14 countries.
This is still the ultimate overland trip and fortunately not too much had changed politically, in the 12 months since we had last travelled it. Changes in some countries are inevitable and are taking place slowly. The weather had changed slightly and definitely cooler in the warm countries and warmer in the hills of the Pamir, region meaning that snow and road closures were not a threat.
The people in all of the countries we passed through were receptive and very pleased to see us. In some cases they were amazed that anyone would tackle such a trip and would go out of their way to help us, in any way possible. These relationships we forged with our representatives in the various countries and the locals we met along the way, is part of what this expedition is all about.
It certainly was a life experience and I am pleased to be able to offer such an experience to my fellow countrymen and others again next year and into the future.
Photos: Murray Taylor & Greg Paul