Tashkurgan – the Stone City – and Goodbye China

Tashkurgan is known as the stone city. It has a history of more than 2,000 years. For a long period of time it was a major town on the main old Silk Road to South-West Asia. There is a big Stone Fort which was the central palace of the Tajik Kingdom long time ago. Still today, Tashkurgan’s population is mostly ethnically Tajik. The town is near to the Pakistani, Tajik and Afghani borders.

While visiting the Stone Fort we met Chinese tourists from Shanghai. They started talking with us. The lady said that she had seen Andy on the animal market in Kashgar two days ago. We were very surprised because we couldn’t remember them. But she said that only one person on this market was wearing flip-flops – and that was Andy…. in the middle of all the “animal shit” on the floor…..!

Tashkurgan is embedded in a wide valley with grassland and rivers. We encountered local Tajik nomads in yurt houses and herds of grazing animals. The scenery is calm and beautiful!

On the 5th September we drove back to Kashgar. In the morning of the 6th September it was time to say goodbye to China.

We drove from Kashgar north towards the Tien Schan Mountain Range, i.e. to the border with Kyrgyzstan. This border immigration requires special authorization for foreigners. And timing is essential too – as we learned. After a 1.5 hours drive we arrived at the main Chinese immigration control building at 10:30am Bejing time (8:30am Uyghur time) – to be the first when they opened. Once successfully passed, after almost a one hour process, we were allowed to continue our journey to the Chinese border control at Torugart pass. This takes in the best case two hours what we achieved thanks to our driver. We successfully passed this last Chinese checkpoint at 1:30pm Chinese time. Then we had to drive another 2km in a corridor protected by fence and barbwire to reach the immigration in Kyrgyzstan at about 1:45pm Chinese time or 11:45am Kyrgyz time.

These 15 minutes before Kyrgyz lunch time were enough to be allowed to enter Kyrgyzstan. A bit later and we would have been caught by the Kyrgyz one hour lunch break and following two hours siesta …. it often happens that tourists have to wait in the noman’s land (which is no fun!) for three hours – so happened to a big Swiss/German group we have met.

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On the Karakorum Highway to Tashkurgan in between the Pamir and Karakorum Mountain Range

The Karakorum Highway is one of the most adventurous and breath-taking roads in the world. It starts from Kashgar over passes of the Pamir Mountain Range, Karakorum Mountain Range (with K2 peak) and Himalaya Moutain Range to Islamabad in Pakistan (1,284 km distance). One can see several seven and eight thousand meter high mountains. The landscape is amazing!

We could “only” do the Chinese part of the Karakorum Highway from Kashgar to Tashkurgan which is about 300km away from Kashgar. Tashkurgan is the last town before getting to the boarder to Pakistan. We did this trip on the 4th and 5th of September.

Starting in Kashgar we passed poplar alleys, cotton and rice plantations on our way to the village Upal. We visited the large local market and bought some lunch for the next two days – in particular the very tasty local bread which is baked on the inside wall of the open oven.

Thereafter, we drove through a stone desert and got to the Ghez river valley. The views of the colorful mountains were breathtaking (different shades of red, orange, grey, black combined with varying shapes – impossible to describe) … and on the left-hand side we saw the amazing ice-snow covered Kongur Shan peak (7,719 meters) … and even camels in the river bed … and our car climbed up to 3,300 meters.

Once we got up to the top of the canyon the landscape changed dramatically. Broad valleys with lakes, green grassland, a chain of snow mountain peaks and even sand dunes (unbelievable in combination with water on such mountain area) offer fantastic views. We could not get enough of it….

These elevated valleys can be divided in a Northern part up to the 4,300 meters high Kelasi pass and a Sourthern part which ends after Tashkurgan at the border to Pakistan. The Northern part is inhabited by Kirghiz nomads. There is also the famous Karakul lake with the majestic 7,546 meters high Muztagh Ata mountain. This mountain is also called “father of icebergs”.

The Southern part of the elevated valleys is inhabited by Uzbek nomads. Kirghiz and Uzbek nomads are minorities in this remote area of China – which is very interesting.

Kashgar – the Junction of the Southern and Northern Silk Road before Crossing the Pamir or Karakoram or Tian-Shan Mountain Ranges

Kashgar is at the Southwest extreme of Xinjiang/China – close to the borders of Tadzhikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Kashgar has been an important trading centre since the Silk Road days. The Northern and Southern Silk Roads come together in Kashgar. It was the last large oasis before the caravans had to cross challenging mountain ranges on their way to the West (Northern route over the Tian-Shan Mountain Range, Western route over the Pamir Mountain Range, South-Western route over the Karakoram Mountain Range).

The local population is a mixture of Uyghurs, Hui Chinese, Han Chinese, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz – a true ethnic mixture. You definitely feel no longer in China …. it has become very oriental! Kashgar is said to have the largest bazaar in Asia and is also famous for its livestock market taking place every Sunday. Local farmers come to this market to buy and sell their sheep, goats, cows, dunkies, camels, horses and yaks. The trading negotiations are very interesting to watch – very lively!

Two important buildings in Kashgar are the Id Kah Mosque in the city center and the Tomb of Apak Hoja 3km away from the center. The Mosque is the biggest mosque in China and was built in 1442. Its yellow walls and Central Asian architecture make it special.

The Apak Hoja mausoleum reminds us of the Taj Mahal in India which was the source of inspiration at the time of construction in 1640.

The old town is split in two areas – one part with renovated beautiful houses and a second part with old slum-like mud houses.

View from the famous 100 years old tea-house where we enjoyed “Uyghur Power Tea” among many locals. But watch the kind of people on the street ….

The days of the old mud houses are counted. There is a project to rebuild this part too.

Through the Taklamakan Desert to Hotan and on to Kashgar

On 1 September 2017, we started our journey through the famous and impressive Taklamakan Desert. Already during the Bronce Period (i.e. long before the silk road) there was a trading route along the Hotan river directly across the Taklamakan Desert. It was a very long travel (573km) – first with blue sky and later dark because of clouds and a sand storm – we imagined how it must have been on foot and/or on a camel ……

Hotan is located on the Southern Silk Road. It was a glorious kingdom and very important cultural centre for Buddhism. However, this is no longer visible at all – all taken back by the desert…. There are only small remains of a nearby ancient city Malikewat which is just besides the Jade river. In Hotan you can buy Jade in many specialized shops. But the Jade river does no longer deliver the same amount of treasures than in the past.

Our journey from Hotan to Kashgar (508km) went through stone desert, sand desert and oasĀ§es. Camels drinking at potholes were always a nice surprise. Local farmers grow walnuts, melon, tomato and corn.

Being on the road for such a long time isn’t always easy. If one thinks that sitting for 9 hours in a car (with all the checkpoint breaks) is a challenge then one is wrong. The real challenge are the toilets on the road. First of all there aren’t that many – and the ones one should use are really disgusting. We have seen a lot in that respect, and Beatrice’s worst experience so far was a toilet in a monks’ monastery in Bhutan. But the west of China has won the prize. Never, never, never seen something more disgusting. So Beatrice decided to use the open air behind the official toilet – but don’t ask her how it looked like behind there.

The Kuqa City Silk Road Area

On Tuesday, 29 August 2017, late afternoon we drove from Turpan to Urumqi (3h drive). We had to say goodbye to Valentin who had joined us for the last two weeks. He flew from Urumqi to Beijing and back to Switzerland. He needed to take over a flat together with two friends in Lausanne on 1 September 2017. His second year of the Ecole Hoteliere Lausanne is going to start soon. What a gift to have children who still like to travel with their parents. Our stay in Beijing with the whole family and the days with Valentin have given us so precious memories that we can always share and remember.

We took a one hour flight from Urumqi to Kuqa. During the night there was a storm and the next day was a rainy day :-(. But we can’t complain about the weather conditions so far! It has mostly been sunny and warm. We visited the ruins of the Buddhist monastery town Subashi. It was founded during 4th century and abandoned about 300 years later.

Thereafter, we visited the mosque, the old town and a local market of Kuqa.

The next day we drove to the Kiril Grottoes which are the oldest caves (3rd century). Most of the beautiful paintings were stolen (but also protected and not destroyed by the moslems) and can be seen in a museum in Berlin. The caves are located in a beautiful valley and the caves with some left paintings were very fascinating.

We continued our journey to Aksu on the Northern Silk Road.

Uyghurs and their History in Turpan

Turpan is our first city in the autonomous region Xinjiang which is the largest province of China. Uyghurs are the biggest ethnic group in Xinjiang. While whole of China runs on Beijing time, the Uyghures have their own time which is two hours behind Beijing time (but all official times are still Beijing time).

While the official language is Chinese the most common language spoken is Uyghur, a Turkic language similar to Uzbek but written in Arabic script. Uyghurs feel very much connected to Turkish people and sometime you get the impression you are rather in Turkey than in China (e.g. in some restaurants).

Xinjiang experienced some riots in the past. Today, one is faced with armed policemen every 100m-250m in the cities, many armed patrols, cameras everywhere (really everywhere!!!) and a lot of small and large (high tech) check points. Everybody has to identify him/herself. It is most import to carry your ID or passport with you all the time. Mobile and Internet are to a large extent restricted. We did no longer have access to WhatsApp, Google, our Blog, most Western News, etc.. We were very surprised when we realized that the internet restrictions did not work in remote areas like on the Taklamakan Desert highway (we had strongest 3G mobile without restrictions….).

Once we had to drive back a road for 1.5 hours after some police officers at a check-point did not allow us to continue this route. They forced us to drive the longer way on a motorway – according to them for our own safety. The gasoline stations are protected by barbwire and checkpoint gates with guards and cameras. Each driver must first register and wait for being let in to fuel. Passengers are not allowed to enter the area and must wait outside the gate. Motor bikers must get their gasoline in cans and then fuel their tanks outside. All important places and buildings are protected by barbwire, cameras and checkpoints.

We could not imagine anything like this before our travel to Xinjiang. One definitely gets a strange feeling in this environment. On the other hand we also felt save when driving and in particular when walking – on our own – around the cities. But nevertheless we were looking forward to leaving these extraordinary circumstances behind us.

Our Uyghur guide in Turpan was one of our best guides ever. He was very professional, open and interested. He took us to his favorite local restaurants. When we asked him if he thought our western stomachs could handle this food – he said. “You will only find out by eating it.” So we tried all he suggested – and we loved it. Valentin and Beatrice even tried delicious fresh yoghurt drinks. Fried beans with a lot of chillie and garlic, tomatoes cooked with eggs and noodle dishes were our favourites. Believe it or not – we were fine;-).

The Turpan area has a glorious history. The Emin Minaret of Turpan is one of the most well-known monuments of the Silk Road. It is the tallest minaret in China. Its design is beautiful – in particular with the right sun light.

The Silk Road brought wealth into trading posts with its trading and road-tolls. The caravans were covering a silk road section only (e.g. Turpan – Kashgar). They sold their goods and bought new goods on their way back to their cities. Consequently, the cities were large trading places and this resulted in prosperous cities along the silk road. In the Turpan area one can visit the remainders of two ancient cities, Goachang and Jiahoe. Many of these prosperous places were targets of barbarians or foreign kingdoms.

The ruins of Gaochang city stand isolated in the Gobi Desert. It was built in the 1st century BC and abandoned in the 17th century. There is not much left but still very impressive to see the remaining of such a large, ancient Silk Road city.

The people from Gaochang city were burried in the Astana tombs. Again, just a field with walkable tombs and fascinating paintings.

The ruins of Jiahoe city are even more impressive and beautiful. On a high cliff (30-50m) between two river beds, the local people built a city mostly into the sandstone on the cliff (1.6km long and 300m wide). It was built 200 BC and about 5,000 people lived there. The army of Dschingghis’ Khan destroyed the city in the 13th century.

Another fascinating ancient site are the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves. They are located on a cliff in one of the seven valleys of the Flaming Mountain. Originally 83 caves existed. Today 57 remain but most paintings are either stolen (by Germans, English, French and/or Japanese) or destroyed during religious clashes (moslems). But there are some fascinating paintings left which give an idea of how beautiful and glorious the site must have been in the past.

Turpan – the Hottest Place in China and Second Lowest on Earth

…. today, 6 September 2017, we crossed the border to Kyrgyzstan and we are back to normal in terms of internet access ….. but now step by step – we have to catch up quite a few days of our travel over the last ten days ;-)) …

Monday afternoon, 27 August 2017: Dunhuang is not (yet) connected to the east-west high speed train line. Consequently, we had to drive by car three hours to Liuyuan. From there we traveled 3.5 hours by train (about 200km/h) to Turpan.

Turpan is known as the hottest place in China. The Turpan Depression is the lowest point in China and second lowest on Earth (after the Dead Sea) at 154 meters below sea level. It is very hot – well into the 40’sC and the soil surface gets up to the 80’sC. At least it is a dry heat! You can fry your eggs on the street or boil your eggs in the hot sand (5 minutes in summer time) – amazing!

Nearby Turpan is the Flaming Mountain (also famous because of the classic Chinese mythological novel: Journey to the West). Thanks to its red color (as if the mountain is on fire) and its seven valleys, beautiful sceneries are guaranteed when traveling through the mountain area. Further away from Turpan there are very high, snowy mountains which are the source of rivers crossing the Flaming Mountain in these seven valleys.

To survive in this area people have developed the fascinating Kariz Water System. Local people have been using this system for the last 2,000 years! It is considered as one of the three great ancient projects in China, other two being the Great Wall and Grand Canal. Kariz is an irrigation system composed of vertical wells (amazing picture of rows of wells from the air) connected by underground channels starting at the bottom of the Flaming Mountain. The channels are between 10m and up to 80m below surface and up to 40 km long. A channel was dug with a height of 1.5-1.7m and a width of 0.6-0.7m. Today, the whole Kariz System in Turpan has a length of more than 2,000km which is about 40% of its length during its peak time.

Thanks to the Kariz water system people can grow a variety of agricultural products like melon, peach, almond, apricot, corn, sunflower, cotton and most important grapes. We loved the sweet melons – fresh and dried:-).

There is also a grape valley which is in combination with the Flaming Mountain unique. Obviously, you can buy all different kind of extremely sweet and almost seedless fresh grapes – yummy :-)). It is said that the best grapes of China grow here.

The farmers use different techniques to dry the grapes. One method is simply putting the grapes onto the floor. Another technique is to dry the grapes in special brick storage buildings. We have never seen so many different kinds of raisins. And they all taste delicious, too.