China is again a misleading title….more precise would be’ Kashghar’ as it is here that we spent most of our five days in China( its self a very atypical Chinese city). admittedly it’s going to be hard to keep any ones attention after the last dramatic posts, so (thank god!) here goes for just another boring travel story…….
After our exhilarating entry in to China at 4800m, 150km further down the valley we have to officialise our entry into the country. Parked in a new modern ware house complex we perform a strange customs procedure, that involved the children being sent into line to present their own passports, and the filling of bags with dirty washing to show as ‘hand luggage’ ( no hand luggage was not conceivable!). We sleep in a hotel parking lot and then head straight to Kashgar, where some of the group need to prolong their visas and where an M.O.T. is supposedly meant to be done on our trucks (oh dear!!)
The immediate impression after Pakistanand the Hunza area, is of jumping a little awkwardly twenty years forward. Here packed fast food of strange content and beer is sold by unsmiling vendors at the roadside ,the children are mesmerised by the colorfully flashing luminous signs, and it all feels a little strange….perhaps even a little too ‘normal’ like stepping out of a dream. The usual overland softening and blending of cultures hasn’t worked here, and I have the impression of stepping out of a plane. To my surprise the women wear high hats with scarves tied over the top and tight knee-length skirts, looking very elegant in an antiquated sort of way. My imagination stuck in the old clichés of blue trousers flat shoes and bicycles is truly out of date and I even feel a little foolish.
Kashgar centre feels like a well-kept modern city with airy avenues and plenty o f green parks and shopping malls for its inhabitants. It is hard to imagine the old bustling caravan route that it used to be…..but first impressions are often misleading and there is a truly charming heart to be found here.
We park after much discussion and a little haggling, just a few hundred metres from the imposing statue of Mao near the main central square. Here we soon become an attraction for the city dwellers and i’m immediately struck by the curiosity and friendliness of the people of Kashgar. Our evening meal is in a little kiosk at the side of the road. A small t.v. with an old chinese pantomime,and an old steel bed at disposition for the clients. We order fried skewers of mushrooms, soya, pork and something else unidentified but tasty, and celebrate with a bottle of local Chinese red wine. when we go to pay the owner refuses our money.. we are his guests.
The food in China is irresistibly varied, strange and very tasty, the incomprehensible characters on the menu making ordering in restaurants more exciting…will it be fishy, meaty , veggie or maybe even a sweet….or are we maybe ordering drinks ?? On the side of the road strange salads with white wobbly cubes and tangy sauces are sold, chop sticks are still the only tools for eating, and to my surprise our children get a good technique in noodle winding . Slurping is definitely permitted, so no problems fitting in.
Our priority before visiting the town is to try to get a proper windscreen for the truck. In the morning a Chinese man with a canon 5D
camera gets friendly and wants to take us to a workshop he knows. He doesn’t speak a word of English but phones his friend that does, the three-way conversations are effective and we find just what we need ..a little workshop that will work on the truck immediately. We tell him he has until evening, and to our joy he not only fits a Perspex window but also somehow gets my window winding up and down, even spray painting the welding with a perfectly matching orange. We are looking much better and less of a target for police to stop and question….The next day again, although unable to speak a single word of English our welder passes by the parking lot with his wife and invites us for dinner. We communicate with gestures , big bottles of fruity drinks for the kids, wide smiles, copious nodding and the universal ‘o.k.’ We are shown photos of their wedding on a small digital camera and discover to our surprise that both have more than one brother or sister…..the rule of the one child family is obviously not as strict as i imagined…another myth dispelled.
Finally we have time to visit the old town, that proves quick to weave its magic spell on us. The population is mostly muslim and one is immediately struck by the mix of facial characteristics there, faces often seem more Caucasian or Turkish than typically Chinese. The modern is casually mixed with the old in an unusual and pleasing way, and in the age of cell phones, as silent electric mopeds whistle past, near a sweet sticky rice stall, you can phone home on a row of old telephones. Smiles are easy and the pace of life is slow.
Somehow the crumbling old clay buildings have kept a small part of the past in tact not only in their structures but also within the inhabitants, who spend their time forging and carving on the roadsides. Practicing old dying crafts whilst chatting idly with hot chai and beating their big hammers on soft copper bowls… creating an atmosphere so , so different to that inside the shiny shops a few blocks ahead.
The bazaar sells large chunks of yellow crystalized sugar along side beautifully painted gourds and …..dried hedgehogs, lizards, live scorpions not forgetting, strange balls of insects to be used as shampoo. I’m tempted, but am dissuaded by Lucas’ horrified look…..we buy a beautifully hand forged shovel to use in our vegetable garden at home and imagine myself digging our clayey soil and remembering this special moment.
The days fly and we must go. Thank god the M.O.T. wasn’t necessary and we head off towards the Kirghikistan boarder early in the morning…another high pass. It is snowing, we again pack some dirty washing for the customs control and order the kids to be seen and not heard. Very soon we are again free of obligatory guides and free to move and stop where we please. The cold somehow invigorates this feeling of freedom and we celebrate with snow men and hard alcohol. Soon we will all separate in different directions…. east to Mongolia, south west to Tajikistan and Uzbekistanand north to Kazakistan…..We are still undecided, our wounds are still fresh and we are still unsure of the real damage done to the truck. So far it’s raining inside on our bed and the gears are a little difficult to insert due to the bent cabin…. We need a few days of calm to decide….i feel like i need to decode a secret message, read some proficy…this time i want to do the right thing, i have no more energy for any other kind of adventure…..i just want to be a simple tourist. Our visas are prepared for the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, to explore the high mountains near bordering Afghanistan. It has always been a dream of mine to visit the Hindu Kush but we will see…. For now I want to enjoy this new-found intimacy with my family that always seems to follows disasters.