(End September - beginning October)
After waving goodbye to our new found Tibetan and animal friends, we were off again, starting a rather long journey to Kashgar in the very north-west corner of China. This involved a bus to Xiahe (+ overnight stop), a bus to Lanzhou in time for an overnight train (32-hour journey) to Urumqi (+ overnight stop) and then another overnight train (26-hour journey) to Kashgar, 3400km later…quite epic.
It was an interesting journey though, for various reasons, with probably some of the worst toilet stops ever experienced. Those who have visited China will know that squat toilets are pretty much the norm, and we were totally used to this by now and were generally very happy to use them (not that we had a choice). However as we travelled further north of Chengdu and through the very remote western part of China, these did seem to require increasing bravery, with some clearly never being cleaned and worse, squat holes without even separating walls in the public toilets - there is nothing fun about trying to pee with an audience (and I am not talking about yaks this time).
Worsening toilet conditions aside, the most interesting bit was the changing face of China as we moved towards the most far-flung, western corner. From one day to the next we went from being in the 'bullseye' of China in Lanzhou, to Urumqi 2000km away, where we could certainly tell we were heading closer to Central Asia and the Middle East, with more and more prayer caps and headscarves appearing on the men and women respectively and all signs now appearing in the cyrillic Uighur language as well as Chinese (as if trying to decipher the latter wasn't difficult enough!).
Our arrival in Urumqi also marked our arrival in Xinjiang, China's most westerly region, similar in size to Iran. The region is home to a variety of ethnic groups, the largest being the Islamic Uighurs - a Turkic ethnic group living in Eastern and Central Asia - who once made up 90% of the region's population, but now make up less than 50%. This is due to the Chinese government flooding the region with Han Chinese since the 1950s, leading to accusations of discrimination and marginalization from the Uighurs, and flares of violence which continue today. In late October this year you probably heard that five people were killed when a car ploughed into a crowd and then burst into flames in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, in what was called a terrorist attack inspired by Xinjiang-linked extremists.
All seemed well and peaceful however when we were travelling in Xinjiang, and from what we saw in Kashgar at least, Uighur customs and way of life still seemed very vibrant. That was probably easy for us to say though as arriving in Kashgar felt like we had been airlifted into the Middle East, and extremely far removed from the rest of China. But then given its geography it is hardly surprising: as China's most western city, near the border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Kashgar is nearer Tehran and Damascus than Beijing! Contrary to what we were used to in China, we were now surrounded by a mostly Muslim population hurrying to the huge 15th century mosque, the frequent call to prayer coming from said mosque, kebab sellers dotting the dusty streets, and the aroma of exotic spices from the city's bazaars. Kashgar has been an important trading centre since the days of the Silk Road, and still is today… yet despite a lot of the old city being bulldozed in the name of 'modernisation', there remained some pockets where it was very easy to imagine what it was like during Silk Road trading times.
Kashgar was also the location for the filming of the 'The Kite Runner', chosen to represent the parts of the story that were set in Afghanistan (where it was too unsafe to film), which gives as good as indication as any to how different it is compared to the more modern, eastern parts of China. It was a fascinating place to explore, from the Old Town with adobe houses dating from 50-500 years old and the few remains of the 500 year old city walls, to whiling the hours away in one of the city's oldest tea houses and bravely trying the fare at the nightly food market where there were enough vats of goat's head stew to make even the most ardent carnivore think twice. It was certainly quite 'raw' around here: as we walked back to our guesthouse one night, we passed a food stall with a cute goat tethered to the front, the poor thing oblivious to his fate, though perfectly obvious to us given the sight of two severed goats' heads a few feet away.
This rawness was even more apparent at the famous Sunday Livestock Market, which happened to coincide with our stay. This weekly bazaar attracts Uighur farmers and herders from the surrounding villages, who all travel to Kashgar to buy and sell sheep, camels, horses, donkeys, cows, goats etc…mostly anything with four legs it seemed. It was a dusty, rowdy, chaotic affair but also very colourful - we saw gigantic camels, men trying out horses with short, urgent gallops kicking up huge clouds of dust, cows and sheep being inspected and haggled over, and of course all to the backdrop of donkeys braying, sheep baa-ing, and horses snorting. If you weren't careful it was easy to get caught up in a flock of livestock being herded away, as the animal:human ratio was not on our side! It certainly wasn't a place for vegetarians or animal-lovers….I even surprised by myself by witnessing the skinning and dismembering of a sheep, pretty gruesome to see but I was very relieved to have at least missed the part where its throat was cut. The lively experience also had a comical end: on leaving we saw a man on the side of the road trying to shove his two new sheep (alive) into the boot of a taxi!
As well as being an interesting place to visit, the aim of going to Kashgar was also to travel overland through Central Asia, starting with crossing the border from China into Kyrgyzstan. All did not go quite to plan however as due to a national holiday, the land border crossings were closed for a week…argh. Getting visas for the other Central Asian countries we wanted to visit was also proving to be a logistical nightmare, so we ended up flying instead to Kyrgyzstan, which is where we had arranged to pick up our visas for Iran, which we had applied for as a plan B in case Central Asia didn't work out.
Our first stop in Kyrgyzstan was the city of Osh, the second biggest city in the country after the capital Bishkek…but it felt more like a small town than a city. It is apparently one of the country's genuinely ancient towns, and this is much more evident when wandering through the bazaar and away from the Soviet-era architecture. We had just a day in Osh, which we spent mostly chasing the shade in the leafier parts of town, where park benches and tables were occupied with groups of old men sporting traditional Kyrgyz hats playing chess and draughts. Osh has a strong Uzbek population (around 40%), and it seemed that most people we talked to in the short time we were there were from Uzbekistan. We made a climb up the nearby Soloman's Throne - a jagged, barren hill made of rock which seemed to loom above the city wherever one went. It has been an important Muslim place of pilgrimage for centuries, due to the belief that the Prophet Mohammed once prayed there. It was a steep climb up but worth it for some lovely views over the city, as well as the hilarious sight of some elderly, Muslim women lining up to slide down a mini-slide of smooth rock - perhaps worn away by the popularity of this activity? - only a few metres long, clearly having a whale of time! We were accompanied on this climb by a charming Uzbek girl of 14 who had befriended us in the park below - 'may we be acquainted?' was her introduction - and who had an impressive grasp of English (self-taught). She was delighted to find out that we were English so that she could share with us her favourite Shakespeare play ('Othello') and characters (Iago).
We arrived in Bishkek later that night around 10pm, and our first impressions were not great: tired after two days of very early starts and travel to get there, we were pretty keen to just find our hostel and get to bed, but this was easier said than done. We had been warned that the streets of Bishkek were not well-lit….which was something of an understatement. As we walked along a main road in the centre of the city looking for our hostel, it was like we were walking in the middle of a deserted estate (but with less lighting). As with anywhere poorly lit, it felt a bit dodgy wandering around with our backpacks obviously lost at this time of night, taking comically large steps to avoid tripping over in the dark. At last we found our hostel - again the term 'hostel' was dubious, when it was fact just a couple of rooms with bunk beds in someone's apartment! The apartment block was pretty grim - we nicknamed it the Soviet Block, boom boom - and would have been less surprised to come across it in Elephant & Castle in London. Still, it had beds and a hot shower, and by then we were too tired to care.
It seemed that we spent most of our time in Bishkek - the following three days - getting to know the staff at the Iranian Embassy. Our first visit the next day was the first of three that day, as typically picking up our visa was not going to be as straightforward as we thought, because 1) they had had the wrong passport number on my application 2) we were told it would take 5-7 days to process…we had been told it would be 2….and 3) the urgent processing of the visas in time for our flight to Iran four days later would cost double what we had thought ($270 per visa). Our Iran plans looked thwarted, and as much as we wanted to go, at the cost of over $500 it was also making us rethink and we didn't even know if we were going to get the visas in time. After our third visit to the embassy however, and with no doubt some sweet-talking of the very kindly Iranian lady who worked there who managed to get everything rushed through for us, it looked like all was going to be ok. We like to think it was down to the fact that she seemed impressed / amused by our attire when we first came in - Simon with his beard (seen as a sign of respectability) and me wearing a headscarf 'just in case' that was the done thing in the embassy, although when she saw me she laughed and told me I could take it off. Whatever, it looked like we were going to Iran!
When we weren't hanging around the Iranian Embassy we explored Bishkek - which is a nice enough city, with the imposing Soviet-era buildings and statues of Lenin softened by the city's leafy parks. Unlike most of China and South East Asia, where we had spent most of our time the last four months, one of the first things we noticed was that there were no motorbikes/mopeds and no dogs! We made a trip to the Dordoy Bazaar, Central Asia's biggest market of imported goods, to try and find me some more Iran-appropriate clothing, as I was going to have to wear loose-fitting, long-sleeved tops. The first clothing stall brought success, courtesy of H&M and FatFace, as well as a cup of the typical local drink from the friendly Russian owners, which we suspected was fermented mare's milk - a mildly alcoholic drink which tastes as it sounds! Poor Simon was left trying to disguise the fact that he couldn't face drinking it and practice the few words of Russian he remembered, while I happily had the excuse of trying on items for my new wardrobe.
On our last day in Bishkek, with our Iranian visas and passports now returned to us, we spent a day's walking through the beautiful and rugged Ala-Archa canyon, part of a state national park 30km south of Bishkek. Forming part of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range, we had the option of hiking to a glacier which you can ski on even in summer…we didn't make it quite that far but enjoyed a good 5-hour trek amongst some stunning scenery which we had mostly to ourselves, enjoying the fresh mountain air and feeling jubilant that we all going well, we would make it to Iran after all.
It was certainly interesting seeing what we saw of Kyrgyzstan, but we probably didn't get a fair impression of it as I think the real interest and beauty lies in its scenery and rural culture outside the cities, which we really didn't have time to explore…like the rest of Central Asia we will have to leave it for another time.