Coming into China was a slow process filled with intense searches and long waits. Just down from the gate is a customs compound. The next few hours were spent here getting all our possessions rifled through. Before this started we each had to stand on top of a WiFit board between a body scanner. This was followed by being put inside a massive human sized microwave oven that made loud noises and scanned us even further.
All the while, a crew of stern unfriendly young soldiers studied the monitors. We obviously looked like trouble. After this we had to put everything off our bikes through an x-ray machine and then carry it over to a table. This is where we each had an individual officer search through everything we had, and not just a regular airport style search. He made me put each one of my memory cards into my computer so he could see what was on them, searched through all the files on my computer, went through the pictures on my cameras, listened to my voice recorder, and tore apart everything piece by piece. Tent, sleeping bag, each sock, every electronic cord, and piece of paper was intensely inspected.
Luckily, while he was ripping my tent apart, I put my hard-drive into my pocket so I didn’t have to deal with him seeing my whole life story. Once they were semi-confident, but still suspicious, that we weren’t bringing in any Free Tibet propaganda or satchels of opium, we were sent with our bikes to a big warehouse. Inside is a massive Volvo truck with x-ray arms coming off of it. Once parked under them, it drives slowly and scans your vehicle. Customs was finished with us at this point and gave us each a gold star. We ended up having to wait at the gate for a long time while a convoy VIPs rolled up in SUVs. It was actually kind of a neat feeling sitting on my bike at the top of Kunjerab Pass outside the Chinese compound as snow fell.
There was a peacefulness and uniqueness to it and it’s a moment I’ll always remember. Just as I was daydreaming about making it up to this spot, the guards yelled at us that it was time to go. There’s a catch though. You don’t get to drive freely down to the first town of Tashkurgan, which is 120 km from the border. All of our passports were kept by some person that we had no clue of in one on the vans heading down. We were only told to go to the massive immigration and customs compound in Tashkurgan. They made Ben put a dashboard camera in his jeep that recorded everything while he drove. On the way, we finally got a friendly reception to China from a bunch of two-hump camels.
Once at the compound, we met our guide for a brief moment before it was right back to Chinese Bureaucracy. Before driving our vehicles to the rear, they made us pay to “sterilize” them. This consisted of a guy walking by it lazily and spraying a little bit of fluid on part of the bike with a small hand-pump garden sprayer. Pretty hilarious.
Even though they had just cavity searched us back up the road, they wanted everything off the bikes again to be put through scanners. Immigration was a long drug out process once we managed to get out passports back. There was a lot of confusion and frustration going on at this point. The officials definitely don’t make it any easier by being about as rude as possible. Leaving China they ended up being very pleasant and friendly. A complete contrast to coming in. Things weren’t finish until dark and then we weren’t allowed to take our motorcycles to the hotel. They had to be left at another customs office and we took taxis to the hotel. All the stress combined with not having time to eat anything the entire day, kicked all of our butts. A quick meal of delicious new food, first beers in a few of weeks, first hot shower in a few weeks, and we crashed out for the night. China didn’t make it easy to come in, but we took on the gauntlet and made it through. The dream team was on their way.
After an unusual breakfast at the hotel, which looked like a spread from a kids Halloween party, we finished up the final bit of paperwork and hit the road. On the way out-of-town we stopped for some water and snacks, and ended up near a gathering. A bunch of police were lining up with a bunch of regular citizens who wooden poles. Apparently they were security force getting ready to patrol, but they weren’t interested in any questions. Really we had no interest in whatever games they were plying, but were yelled at by a few officials to leave immediately. Something about what thy were doing they didn’t want us to see. There were a lot of odd things going through China. Motorcycles aren’t allowed into the petrol stations. We are supposed to park outside and then fill up cans to take to our bikes. It’s a good situation to act oblivious and just roll in. We overwhelmed them with numbers as the security and attendants went bonkers.
The ride to Kashgar was amazing. If we had any expectations for what it would be, they we beat by a mile. The route gave us our introduction to the Pamir Mountains, which go over into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In my mind I thought we would be riding through flat desert, but there were big glacier covered mountains. At the beginning, this is what it appears to be, and then you see snow-covered mountains off in the distance behind locals picking berries on the road side.
They gave us a handful each, and said that eating one is like medicine for the insides, but warned that eating more than one would make us sick. A fine line. A long straight stretch brought you closer and closer to the mountain range.
Then out of the brown dusty landscape rose a massive glacier covered peak.
An amazing sight that sort of looked out-of-place. Not just one, but many glaciers snaked their way off the sides of the wide mountain.
A view down over the wide valley showed another string of snowy mountains lined up.
Down in this wide flat stretch were groups of two-hump camels framed against a backdrop of beauty, and little villages built out of mud blocks that made you feel like time had stopped hundreds of years ago.
It was a gorgeous day and further along we came to Kala Kule Lake.
The bright blue water sits calmly with a backdrop of glacier covered peaks.
Along the shore are yurts cooking up food. The outsides are white, but the insides are beautifully colored.
From the lake, the road follows a river north. It was stunningly beautiful nature that felt untouched.
Eventually the river becomes dammed up into a reservoir of turquoise water. Riding down towards it is amazing with it’s shores surrounded by mountains and dunes.
I’m a huge sucker for any kind of reflections, and they were top-notch. Without a breath of wind, the shore-line mountains reflected crisply off the water as if it were a bathroom mirror.
Lined up along the road, children, women, and elderly men displayed their geology and enticed you over to have a look. They’re selling all types of gemstones and beautiful rocks from the Pamir Mountains. You can buy pieces as big as a finger-nail to the size of your head.
For now, this spot is definitely the climax of the route because just after here the road is under construction for a long time. It turns from perfect asphalt to lung choking thick dust. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but pull over and wait it out after a big truck passes you. It fills the air so densely that you can barely see past your front tire. Felt like being in a white-out blizzard except it was brown, hot, and burned the eyes.
After the long day of riding, we cruised into Kashgar. It’s China’s westernmost city and located near the Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan borders. It was one of the most important cites along the Silk Road and has a rich history dating back over two thousand years. Throughout history, the city has seen battles between many different people, and has been ruled by Mongol, Persian Tibetan, Turkic, and Chinese empires. It’s part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and controlled by the People’s Republic of China. Similarly to what happened to Tibet, the region was incorporated into China in 1949 during the cultural revolution. One of the largest statues of Mao Zedong is in the People’s Park of Kashgar (59ft).
The region has seen Uyghur unrest and violence since the 1990’s. We met some military personnel from a neighboring country who told us there was “a very bloody civil war going on”. Many of the Uyghur people don’t consider themselves as living in China and have bad feelings about the situation. They want to be independent. You can see the difference between the local central Asian looking people and the Chinese who have been moved in. It’s a complicated situation and I’m not going to get too into it. Last thing I need is the Chinese government showing up on my doorstep.
From the moment we arrived, the city had a different feeling from anywhere I’d been in months. It’s a fairly modern city and the most noticeable thing is the streets are clean and semi-orderly. The old city is the best place to explore and wander around. The architecture is interesting and there are always unique little finds around every corner. The biggest Mosque in China is in the old town. The streets are filled with vendors selling their goods.
The markets are the best place to people watch in Asia. I love the old faces full of character.
The food market really gets going once the sun is down, but even in the afternoon it’s full of fun.
The pig hooves and faces are proudly on display.
Grizzled old faces watch over their fruit and haggle with the bystanders.
Some tasty sliced up goat and sheep insides bursting with juices.
Flaming bbqs with meats of the more traditional fare, or at least most of them.
Sweet desserts served with a home-made wooden spoon.
The old ladies hustling away making the big bucks with piles of fresh naan bread.
Tandoori ovens baking fresh “bagels”.
Guys showing off their skills with the dough.
Sausages are stacked high in the sky.
The goat hoof seller stands proudly with his bowl of feet.
Groups of people gather around large hot-pots of simmering broth and cook sticks of interesting meat and meat looking substances fondue style.
The young guys battle for business and status as the chicken king (even though nobody could beat Harry in Assam).
Old guys getting excited about boiled eggs like it’s easter morning.
Cast and all, carving into a freshly cooked animal, which may have put up a good fight and got one last punch in before being slaughtered.
You could spend hours exploring the market, taking in the colors, meeting colorful people, and dabbling in some interesting food. My favorite stand was guy making fresh Laghman. It’s a traditional Uyghur food putting vegetables, potato, egg, and delicious broth over a bowl of home-made noodles.
The queens of noodles make them right in front of you before boiling and serving them up fresh. It’s awesome watching them fling them apart.
To top off all the delicious choices is the wildest of all. Cooked goat skulls. The eyes, tongue, cheek, and little bits are picked clean off the bone. I didn’t have the guts to try, but Ben was a champ and gobbled one down.
The final day in China was pretty uneventful. They gave us temporary license plates and drivers licenses, which were just put into our bags. We handled immigration and a much easier customs, drove up the Tourgat Pass, and were shoved off into Kyrgyzstan. You got the feeling they were pretty happy to get rid of us, but the feeling might be partly mutual. Stoked to be in Central Asia!