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Tajik Nomads camp near Dabdar

At the top of the Pass is a Chinese guard post, surely one of the desolate border post’s in the world. You will be required to be accompanied by Chinese border officials until Tashkurghan, as that is where immigration formalities are conducted. After crossing the Pass plateau that stretches for a few kilometres the scenery is completely unlike the deep scabrous gorge of the Khunjerab River. Here the road is flat and straight with desolate sandy plains stretching to the Pamir Mountains in nearby Tajikistan to the west and the Kulun Mountains to the east. At first sight the panorama appears lifeless as far as the eye can see. At this altitude with the clarity of the air, distances appear never-ending. The treeless, nothingness, bareness and vastness of this area are so unimaginable yet they offer a landscape that is literally stupendous. On closer examination golden marmots abound near the summit of the Pass and shaggy yaks dot the snow-patched hillsides. Forty kilometres into China is the old border post of Pirali, now only a toilet stop, the new immigration and customs post is situated in Tashkurghan.

Where the Karakorams dissolve and the Pamirs appear in the distant west there is a large opening where the Mintaka River flows from Afghanistan, and years ago it was an important route on the Silk Road. North of the river the Karakoram Highway is only fifty kilometres from the Afghanistan border. The scenery barely changes but its immensity is a perpetual amazement that one never tires of. There appears to be something enigmatic; what it is cannot be grasped or understood, one just keeps staring in wonderment.

Map of Karakoram Highway

Occasionally one can see situated in the stark, shallow, rounded valleys a sporadic nomadic tribe of Tajiks. The Tajiks also live in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan where they are known as Wakhi and in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. They will pitch their yurts, tether their camels and graze their cattle, goats and sheep on the available grass before moving on. The women’s bright clothing stands out against the browns and greys of the encircling countryside. One cannot but admire these indefatigable nomads who strive to make a living that most of us would not be able to endure for a few days, let alone a lifetime.

Tashkurghan sundry shop

Following the Tashkurghan River the Karakoram Highway continues north to Tashkurghan. Tashkurghan, 3,500 metres above sea level, is a poplar-lined, one street town and has a population of about 6,000 who are mainly Tajiks. In the Uyghur (pronounced wee-ger) language tash kurghan means stone fortress and that is all there is to see in town. It is an essential overnight stop for north and south bound travellers and there is only one hotel in town that foreigners can stay in. This fortress is at least 600 years old although the town is over 2,000 years old. In AD130 the Greek philosopher Ptolemy mentioned Tashkurghan in his ‘Guide to Geography’ as he believed it to be an important stopover to Eastern China. At the eastern end of the main road is the old town, which stretches across the valley where the locals graze their animals.

From Tashkurghan it is a one and a half hour drive north to the marshy lands of the Tagh Arma Basin. Just outside Tashkurghan is a Tajik cemetery, which is situated on the left of the road as one travels north. The grave huts are about two metres high and four metres square with a domed shape roof. The door faces towards Mecca and there are windows on each side. These grave huts are built over the graves one week after or on the anniversary of the death.

Kyrgyz near Bulun Kul

After passing the police post at Kekyor the highway climbs onto the Subash Plateau, 4,100 metres. Here the Tajikistan border is only ten kilometres away to the west. Apart from the occasional camels, donkeys and horses plying the road and the few Kyrgyz villages in the area where grazing is available all is deserted. The Kyrgyz flat roofed mud covered houses have to keep the occupants cool in the summer and warm in the winter. If you stop on the roadside beside the village the friendly villagers, especially the children, will come and welcome you. They are a little reticent at first but these rosy-cheeked children will always manage a smile. As with the other nationalities in Xinjiang Autonomous Region their everyday clothing is brightly coloured.

Eighty kilometres from Tashkurghan is Kara Kul, kara kul is Uyghur for black lake. This is regarded as one of the most beautiful places in Western China, but that is very dependent on the weather. With clear blue skies, no wind and the correct light it is beautiful but at other times very ordinary, so don’t go there with high expectations. The lake is situated between Muztagh Ata, 7,546 metres, and Mount Kongur, 7,719 metres. These mountains aren’t as imposing as one would expect of over seven thousand metre high mountains, the reason is that the lake is at 3,800 metres. The wind can be very frigid even in the summer and the temperature usually drops below 0°C in the summer evenings.

This is an ideal lunch stop for those travelling from Tashkurghan to Kashgar and a great camping site for those with more time to spare. Tourism has crept into this area with Kyrgyz yurts for rent, camel and horse rides, souvenirs such as woollen Kyrgyz hats, gemstones, jade and weavings for sale. There is a restaurant that serves reasonable local dishes that can be washed down with local beer.

Twenty-five kilometres north of Kara Kul at the base of Mount Kongur is a Kyrgyz village, Bulun Kul, and the end of the Pamir valley. Pamir means pasture and from the Pakistan border there are patches of green that provide sustenance for the camels, horses, goats, sheep, cows and yaks. Marco Polo wrote during his visit here 700 years ago; ‘a lean beast grows fat here in ten days’. In the 240 kilometres from the Khunjerab Pass there is only a 1,270-metre drop in elevation.

Ten kilometres north of Bulun Kul the Highway turns to the east and follows the Ghez River. For the next one and a half hours the road winds its way through the Ghez gorge. The surrounding hills are different shades of red sandstone and in some places so steep that the narrow canyon sees little sunlight even in the summer. Here travel is slower as frequent landslides have scoured the surface of the road, traffic is infrequent with occasional donkeys laden with produce plodding along the road. After the slow descent from the Khunjerab Pass to Bulun Kul, the Highway drops 2,400 metres in 70 kilometres as it winds its way through the Ghez gorge.

Out of the gorge and onto the flat Kashgar Plain with the Tian Shan Mountains to the far north and the Tarim Basin to the east. The Tarim Basin is 1,500 kilometres wide by 600 kilometres and nearly half of it consists of the Takla Makan Desert, 320,000 square kilometres. In the Uyghur language this means ‘the desert of no return’, and through the centuries this name has proven to be justified.

A close shave at Upal

From Ghez it is 85 kilometres to the village of Upal. This unique village is fascinating as one feels that time has stood still only to be brought back to the present by the passing of a modern truck. One can take a motorcycle with a sidecar, a horse or pony drawn cart through the village but the best way to see the sights is by foot. Upal is a one street village with food stalls set amongst the poplar trees making it a perfect location to try the local food. Hot soup, noodles, bread, steaming hot stuffed buns, eggs and fruit are a few of the choices available. Mutton and vegetable soup is served boiling hot from the wood-fired clay ovens so any fears of upset stomachs are alleviated.

Three kilometres down a side road, in the village of Azik, is the tomb of the famous scholar, Mahmud Kashgari, who between 1072 and 1074 compiled the first dictionary in the Uyghur language. The Dictionary of the Tujue, written in Arabic was presented to the Caliph of Baghdad in the spring of 1075. The book is not a true dictionary; it is more of an encyclopaedia as it covers the history, economical, political, cultural and other aspects of their lifestyles.

From Upal the Karakoram Highway has only 40 kilometres remaining before it finally ends at Kashgar, which is home to the Uyghurs. The Uyghur nationality is the largest of the 13 nationalities in the Xinjiang Province. The majority of their six million population live in and around Kashgar and are Muslims. The Uyghurs originated from Central Asia and are descendants of the Northern Di Dingling, Tiele and Huihu peoples. The Uyghurs are great agriculturists and over the centuries have turned the dry and windy Takla Makan Desert into an array of oases. Grapes, watermelons, wheat, pears, figs, pomegranates, rice, walnuts, apricots and corn are all grown in the areas around Kashgar. Their apricots are regarded as the best in China. They begin to ripen in May and for the next four or five months different varieties ripen. The first apricots are the Maoxing (hairy apricot) variety that is small with a sweet and sour taste. Next comes the Hongxing (red apricot), which is half red and half yellow and is regarded as a thirst quenching apricot. The Guangxing (bright apricot) is a plum-like apricot that is crisp and pleasant tasting. It is gold coloured and very glossy. Next to ripen is the Baixing (white apricot), a large oblong fruit that is milky coloured and is regarded as being better than the red and bright apricots. The last variety to ripen is the Youxing (oily apricot), which is large, oblate, but its sugar content is very high and therefore not very popular.

Since ancient times they have grown mulberries and cotton, and cotton spinning and weaving is an ancient household task. They also excel as craftsmen as they are skilled carpenters, bricklayers and engineers, manufacturing items such as water-powered trip hammers for husking rice and water mills. Their handicrafts are still popular today and their fur and embroided caps, leather boots, rugs, knives, and jade carvings are available at the Sunday market in Kashgar.

Getting to the Kashgar market

Perhaps Kashgar is best known for its Sunday market. For 2,000 years travellers, traders and soldiers have passed through this oasis. Situated on the edge of the Takla Makan desert it was the last supply stop for the east bound travellers and a welcome relief for the westbound travellers. Today this market is potpourri of people and commodities. It is said that the population of Kashgar increases from 300,000 to 400,000 every Sunday. A visit to Market Road, 200 metres from the Kashgar Hotel, which leads to the market, makes this figure appear very realistic. From daybreak there is a continuous, indomitable flood of people heading to the market. Pony carts laden with dowry chests (glory boxes), wooden doors, ice, vegetables and other produce compete with trucks, bicycles, taxis, bleating sheep, braying donkeys, horses, push-carts and pedestrians for a way to the market. ‘Boish boish!’ (coming through) is shrieked out by everyone – this has to be the most spellbinding bazaar in Asia and it will leave you wide-eyed and dumbstruck – definitely not to be missed.

Once you have waded through the swarming rabble on the street enter the market. Here you can ‘test drive’ a horse, buy a camel, bargain for a flock of sheep, check the teeth of a donkey, repair your cart wheels, acquire knives, nylon stockings, dried snakes, rakes, baby cradles, leather boots, musical instruments, be entertained by magicians and musicians and that is only the beginning. Hats and more hats, all shapes and sizes; petite embroided ladies hats, felt hats, Kyrgyz sheep’s wool hats, Uyghur fur hats, berets, camel hair hats, Russian yak hats and more. Food stalls abound throughout making this truly the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. To appreciate the market allow a full day to wander around. Sure, it can be dusty and getting to the market can be wearisome for some, but the treasures that unfold are worth any inconvenience.

Kashgar has more to offer, a visit to the old town will continue to astonish you. Go to the Post Office in Renmin Xi Lu and walk up the small street directly opposite, to the left of the cinema. Along this street you will discover old-world blacksmiths, carpenters, cobblers, tinsmiths, turners, musical instrument makers among the coffee shops. Even though they are using antiquated equipment their skill is evident in the quality of their products.

Getting a haircut el fresco in Kashgar

In front of the Id Kah mosque is an ideal spot to ‘people-watch’. Young and old, buses and bicycles, old and modern buildings all add up to pure fascination. Nearby barbers shave their customers under the trees near the main bazaar, which contains more hidden treasures. Standing in the centre of town is Mao’s statue, one of only three left in China.

Kashgar has obviously changed over the decades, today the pony carts are barred from the town centre, replaced by taxis, old shops are being replaced by high-rise buildings and some of the younger Kashgaris are wearing western clothes. Nevertheless Kashgar still has charm; its a people-watching town, around every corner there is something to captivate you, astound your thoughts and allure your sub-consciousness back to the days of the old Silk Road.

This ancient road from Rawalpindi to Kashgar is inundated with history, intrigue, changing landscapes, culture and many civilizations – to have travelled this journey is to be part of history.

For those interested in being part of this history and contemplating this journey contact Afzal Khan at sterlingcrown@yahoo.com