One holiday while we were working in Beijing it was decided that we would go and have a look at Xin Jiang Province – the most northern and westerly of China’s provinces. In case you have never heard of Xin Jiang (nor had we!) it lies in the top corner of China, nestling against Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and a load of other Stans. And was the part of China where the Silk Road first entered China. It is also an area inhabited by a race of people called Uigars, who are not Chinese, but of Turkish descent, and who speak a language that is nearer to Turkish than Chinese.
It is also an area that is Muslim, and at that time (2008) not in any real way involved with Islamic fundamentalism, but owing to the idiotic actions of the Chinese government, it was rapidly become so – sadly.
Anyhow, we were not bothered with such matters, simply wishing to have a look at the place and walk around in it.
To which end we went to Kashgar, a city that at that time was an enchanting mix of mud houses in winding little streets, amazing markets and generally appealing aspect. Full of friendly Uigars selling tea and snacks in delightful street cafes and such like. Amazing food too of course. An intriguing mix of Arab and Chinese cuisine and to finish it off properly, the one remaining statue of Mao in China, an enormous one too, about 18 meters tall and for some inexplicable reason seems to be giving a Hitler salute.
So, once we had arrived there, and spent a couple of days wandering around and enjoying this really fine small city, it was time to head off to the Pamir mountains where we had arranged to go for a long walk up to a glacier at about 5500 meters above sea level.
This was my first sight of Central Asia, and I was at once knocked out by the sweeping shape of the landscape that had been formed by the advancing and retreating glaciers during the various Ice Ages. That wondrous collection of gentle curves that are so typical of such landscapes, much the same as in the Scottish Highlands and similar places, pleased me no end.
We drove for hours along the river valley in the bottom of one such smooth channel with the very shallow, but wide and winding river beside the road as we went along, slowly getting higher and higher, which given that the altitude of Kashgar is already pretty high at about 1300 meters, I began to wonder if I might have perhaps been a bit silly in going directly from Beijing, which is about 50 meters above sea level to such a hight. However all seemed well, and no signs of altitude sickness made themselves apparent.
After many hours of this driving, we arrived at the place where our camel train awaited us, to take us further into the hills.
But as it was late in the day when we arrived, it had been decided that we would spend the night in what at first sight seemed to be a village. Well it was a collection of stone huts, so we assumed it was populated. But nope, not a soul there, just us and our Camel herders and their camels of course.
It was here that I discovered one of the major disadvantages of the smooth and bare Central Asian landscape… where do you go if you need a crap? None of the huts had anything resembling a toilet (dunny, bog, bathroom, WC lavatory depending on which version of English you happen to speak), and not a bush in sight! So I went for a long walk, over the flat landscape in the hope that by being far enough away from the huts I would be effectively invisible. As you can see from the photo below, a forlorn hope.
Ah well…. this was a problem that we all had to deal with in the course of the next days as we wandered around in this flat and bare landscape.
The next morning we were introduced to our camels – not for riding, but to carry our tents, food and other stuff.. They were under the control of a cheerful bunch of Tadjik camel herders, who spoke hardly any English nor Mandarin, but only Tadjik. But we seasoned travellers managed to communicate easily enough in spite of this… None of us spoke a word of Tadjik of course – do you?
So for the next couple of days we plodded cheerfully enough across this vast and unchanging landscape, slowly getting higher and higher as we went. By the third day we had reached about 4000 meters, and I began to feel the first effects of altitude sickness, but not enough to stop me, just a bit of a head ache and breathlessness, so I had to stop every 80 or so meters, lie down for a few minutes until I had recovered, and then plod on again.
This carried on until we reached the base camp of the glacier, at some 4500 meters. An impressive encampment of tents, yurts and several battered wooden huts and lots of extremely serious mountaineers – made me feel a bit out of place, not being in the wildest stretch of the imagination any sort of mountaineer.
Here I had to make a tough decision, to go on up onto the glacier (another 1000 meters higher) or be sensible and stay put while the others went on up to the top, Actually, one of the other folk in our group was in a much worse state than I was with altitude sickness, she was seriously ill.
So it was decided that she and I would descend about 1000 meters to a small collection of yurts below, that indicated one of the local nomadic groups was there for a while and await the others after they had gone up onto the glacier.
But before that could happen, it was party time. This took the form of a lot of Tadjik dancing in an enormous yurt that was more or less permanently sitting in the base camp. So I was duly given a large white felt hat that apparently indicated to any Tadjik I might happen to meet that I was a grandfather, and taught how to dance in the approved Tadjik style….
The next morning, the poor soul who was truly sick was heaved up onto a camel, and off we went down the hill to the village below, where we were to spend the following night in a yurt, awaiting the arrival of the others after they had made their ascent to the glacier.
And that was our first adventure in Xin Jiang…. Many more to follow.