Sunday 9 April 2017

XinJiang, China - Summer 2017

Living in two timezones
Monday, 3 April

As I sit on the plane I open the BBC news app on my phone to read a front page article about the exact place I am flying to.  It is fair to say that XinJiang is not at the top of anybody's travel list at the best of times and right now things are very sensitive.  Land that has, for decades, been pulled back and forth between being independent "East Turkistan" and Chinese owned "XinJiang".  The local Uyghur people try to hold on tightly to their culture and dream of a land that was once their's, the shipped in Han Chinese people see it as an opportunity to make money with fewer people and less competition. The contrast between the two could not be greater as two very different cultures try to coexist rather than intermingle. How long XinJiang has been owned by China is down to who you speak to. Some would say thousands of years, others would say since 1949.  Our Uighur guide said... "no comment".

The whole of China runs on the same time - Beijing time. That makes my flight from Beijing the furthest you could possibly fly longitude and still remain in the same time zone.  Turns out that this is not entirely true.  Ask a Uyghur for the time and you will get "local time", a time two hours earlier, more fitting for the surrounding countries.  Ask a Han Chinese for the time and you will get the official Beijing time. Schools start at 10am and rush hours at 7pm.  We learnt quickly that our guide is working on local time and so when he told us to meet him at 5pm in the hotel lobby we weren't two hours early. I have local time on my phone and Beijing time on my watch and pick and choose which one to follow how I fancy.  It's great going to bed on Beijing time and waking up on local time!

And so here I am writing a blog post that I feel needs to be worded delicately but truthfully.  My experience so far has been breath-taking with no comparison to anything or anywhere that I have been before.  Military presence is strong here and we arrive at our hotel guarded 24/7 by a number of army men and a heavily armoured vehicle.  Our guide warned us about taking photos of any military (but clearly one of us enjoyed the risk - not me!) and gave us the general pep talk on staying safe.  With this we used our first evening roaming around the fascinating old town of Kashgar.  A refreshing look at age old traditions still standing strong that have not been taken over by modern day conveniences.  Where pottery, hat making, wood carving and blacksmithing are real skilled and respected professions done by hand.  Where family run bakeries and butchers sit on every street and food vendors have just one item that they make and make well and seem to have made their whole life.  It is like stepping back in time before machines and technology took over and every direction you look makes you smile.  

Everyone we interacted with were very friendly and utterly amused to have us sampling their butter icing ice cream or buying their samsas fresh from the tandoor or sharing Uyghur bread on the street.  With so many new sites, sounds and smells in one place we could not help ourselves but buy, sample and taste absolutely everything!  From a bag of the most delicious raisins I have ever eaten to a stomach sac filled with offal, Kashgar is overloaded with the weird and wonderful.  We sat among old cheery Uyghur men and drank tea in a 100 year old tea house and we shared an enormous mixed grilled meat platter for dinner at Eden Cafe - Apparently the most popular restaurant chain in XinJiang.  It was great and we vowed to return before the end of the holiday.  We all agreed that Kashgar was completely unique and utterly fascinating.  I couldn't feel further away from China!

Yesterday was the Sunday livestock market which again took us back in time where farmers from all over Kashgar brought their livestock to sell.  Anyone and everyone was welcome from the big farmers bringing trucks of camels and cows to little old white-bearded men bringing their 2 or 3 hand reared sheep ready for the slaughter (the J-Lo of the sheep species may I add with seemingly human buttock implants!).  Yes, you feel a little heartache for them but when you think of the bigger picture you could guarantee that these animals lived a much fuller life than the western mass reared intensively farmed animals.  No doubt about it!  It is still not for the faint hearted; animals are slaughtered there and then and little shacks along the sides will cook up the freshest meat you could ever eat.  I never would have thought that the tastiest grilled lamb skewers would have nothing more than a bit of salt on them.  Smokey and juicy with the odd crunch of charred fat is a taste sensation that could never be replicated outside of this market.  Uyghur "Laghman Noodles" are hand stretched, thick and have a nice bouncy chew to them; delicious tossed up in a meaty broth with a heap of vegetables.  The Sunday livestock market is without a doubt my number one thing to do in Kashgar.  All human senses are overwhelmed in the first 10 minutes.  It's busy, its smelly, its loud and you have to be on constant alert for the stray hoof of a cow, butt of a sheep, spit of a camel and trample from a horse.  All of which we nearly experienced in some way or other.  Not to mention the highly probable odds of being defecated on by any of the aforementioned animals.  

Long live the Chinese-Pakistan friendship!
Wednesday, 5 April

Over time I have started to witness the Chinese influence here and the difficulties that the local Uyghurs face.  We visited mud built towns that will soon be knocked down taking old local traditions along with it.  When we went to the Id Kah Mosque our guide told us that he doesn't pray there anymore since Chinese law has enforced the requirement of an ID card to enter.  He says he worries what else the ID cards are really used for.  Other rules include no Korans to be seen in public and no traditional call to prayer from the mosque speakers.  Even the typical greeting of "As-salamu alaykum" between Uyghurs is hushed and discreet.  I purposely shaved my beard right down to avoid potential problems but had to keep some beard to still look like my passport photo for the regular passport security checks.  I was still singled out by the Chinese military as "not English" and questioned about my religion.  Instead of the call to prayer waking you up in the mornings you have big TV screens and radio towers placed in busy areas blurting out Chinese propaganda instead.

On Monday we drove 7 hours to get to Tashkurgan - a town that borders closely with Tajikistan and Afghanistan.  It's a good 7 hour drive but the scenery along the way is incredible and Karakul Lake (above) looked beautiful with the mountainous backdrop.  At an altitude of over 3000m the landscape and atmosphere is drastically different to Kashgar.  Tashkurgan is one of those places where you walk around and thank the lord that you grew up somewhere else.  It manages to have the stunning surroundings of snow capped peaks and yet still feel a bit tired, dingy and small with very little to do; I dread to think what the winters are like.  It's also my first experience of being at altitude which may contribute to the general sense of dullness.  At 3200m it kind of feels like the times you say, "I'm not hungover but I can definitely tell that I have had a drink"; a little spaced and the overwhelming desire to just sit and do nothing.  With a large population of Tajiks and some shipped in Chinese it's another interesting dynamic where the two rarely exchange pleasantries.  When we arrived, we had a bit of a walk around the quiet, somewhat eerie town centre and a dinner of spicy lamb skewers and noodles.  I think I have probably had at least one lamb skewer a day so far and they're still amazing.  Even when you're in the middle of the absolute armpit of nowhere.

We were woken up by the radio towers booming out their routine propaganda at 7am before we started our drive to the Khunjerab Pass which is the border to Pakistan.  The journey was beautiful in the snow but the end product is essentially a box tick of the "highest border in the world".  In the snow, their really was not much to see.  As mentioned earlier there are a tonne of police checks and passport checks and they like to single me out as "not English" or "他不是英国人" thinking I don't understand.  I happened to mindlessly snap a photo at one of these checks which resulted in a police officer going through all of my pictures and deleting anything he didn't like. Annoying but I was warned to be careful with my camera by the guide and I accepted the punishment!  More annoying was the fact that the same officer proceeded to ask if he could have a selfie with us all...  Another difficult police check, heading back from the Khunjerab Pass, was not resolved so easily.  So much so that we were escorted to a police compound, asked a load of questions and ultimately got the car impounded.  Something along the lines of tourists not being allowed in this particular car.  This took several hours into the evening and refusing to allow our guide to takes us they decided to call us a taxi to drive us the 7 hours down the mountain back to Kashgar.  We decided that we would rather not go down the snowy mountain in the dark and instead spend one more night in the lovely, happy town that is Tashkurgan.

With more snow overnight and not our usual car with snow ready tires our journey down the mountain was dicey to say the least.  There is no exaggeration when I say I think we almost died! Before we even started our descent we slid uncontrollably on flat road and ended up head on with the side of the mountain.  We all got out, pushed the car out of the ditch and got back on our way.  A little shaken but all OK... and then we actually started our descent.  No road to be seen, just compacted ice and snow on a 20% gradient slope.  The view down over the tight corners of the road were truly horrifying and having already slid and crashed on the straight and flat roads none of us held much hope.  "Let's just get out a walk down" I nervously muttered but then decided that, as a way to depart from this world, being hit by a sliding car or freezing to death probably isn't preferable over flying off a cliff.  With a slow, cold shiver down the spine, sweaty palms and one hand on my belt buckle I was ready to jump out of that car if necessary.  At one point my buckle was undone as we held our breath and slid in slow motion towards an un-bollarded corner.  Our driver was more confident as he told us not to jump out of the car as we gradually came to a stop on the edge.  No reading, no listening to music and absolutely not relaxing was had on that journey.  Just a dead silence in the car as we all stared out the front windscreen, through the snow, passing other crashed cars and gripping the seats.
Never had I thought it would feel this great to be back in Kashgur.  We walked around the old town like it was a well-loved old village that we grew up in.  It almost felt nostalgic.  We ate fried fish off the street and consumed an innumerable amount of chapatis with curry in a small Pakistani restaurant.  All of this went down extremely well.  Oh Kashi how we missed you!

Meat and bread
Saturday, 8 April

I'm still not sick of it.  We've eaten some seriously tasty food in Kashgar many of which our fusions of Chinese and Uyghur cuisines.  The best example of this is the incredibly moreish Da Pan Ji (大盘鸡) which literally translates to big plate of chicken but I can assure you that it is much more than that!  Full of mild chillies fried into the sauce with vegetables and bony chicken it is a deliciously spicy dish.  Also made with lamb or Oxtail it is perfectly accompanied by the dry, hard Uyghur bread that just sits in the sauce ready to be slurped up at the end.

I feel like I may have mentioned lamb kebabs at some point already on this blog post but it really is the backbone to XinJiang cuisine.  The old town is completely taken over by a thick meaty smoke in the evenings as every butcher that was selling their meat in the day have now turned to barbecuing their leftovers.  The city seems to evolve around barbecued lamb.  You will see truck loads (literally!) of lamb carcasses and you may even be lucky enough to witness a street side slaughter.  The smokiness is key to the flavour which is caused by throwing a few pieces of the butt fat mentioned earlier into the burning coals.  It makes the pollution worse than Beijing every evening but totally worth it!

Yesterday we sought out a popular breakfast called Polo which is a lamb rice pilaf which does not seem to differ in recipe no matter where you are in XinJiang.  Carrot, onion, big chunks of lamb and a substantial amount of lamb grease.  A comforting bowl of sweet and savoury stodge that fixed us up well for our hike to the biggest natural arch in the world!
There was no mention of snow and any pictures we Googled of Shipton's Arch looked warm!  With one of us in shorts, most of us in trainers and our guide in a 3-piece suit I don't think any of us expected snow.  Completely ill-equipped we spent the best part of 3 hours hiking in the snow to reach Shipton's Arch and the chances of it being worth it seemed enormously slim.  Everyone slipped at least once and sometimes it was just easier to slide down on your backside.  It really was 100% totally worth it.  The trek was actually a lot of fun in itself but the final view at the top was genuinely stunning.  You instantly recognise a view that you have never witnessed before and will probably never witness again.  This was one of those views.

Our final day was spent in a bazaar off-season theme park come desert that barely filled the criteria of either.  Other than break my life long vow of never riding a camel again we didn't do much here. We saw out our final meal with one more enormous meat feast at Eden Cafe and talked over our completely mad holiday in far west China.  None of us have ever had a holiday like it!  Fascinating culture? Check! Tasty food? Check! Beautiful scenery? Check! Chilled out relaxing atmosphere? Ch...not so much.  It is probably the closest I have come to dying, being arrested and being pooped on by a cow all in one trip...  You should go I recommend it!  Jokes aside I genuinely do recommend it.  It is one of the few trips that I would call a once in a life time experience.  It's not for everyone but if you're a fanatic foodie, culture vulture or just simply fancy something different you really must check out XinJiang.