Sunday, October 30, 2016


The Erkeshtam Border Crossing

The last step in my Central Asian adventure was crossing back into China overland from Kyrgyzstan, travelling from Osh to Kashgar. By taking this route I was faithfully retracing the ancient Silk Road on which both Osh and Kashgar were major stops, long before national borders existed.

In order to get from Kyrgyzstan into China I had to pass through the Erkeshtam crossing. Situated at over 3000 meters of elevation, this border post sits deep within the Tien Shan and Pamir mountain ranges. It is China's westernmost border crossing, and one of its most remote ones. In fact it is probably the most remote border crossing I have ever passed through, and I have been around.

It was the owner of my hostel in Osh who arranged a place for me in a private car which was going to make the four-hour drive to the Chinese border. Public transport in Kyrgyzstan is under-developed, and the best way to make the journey remains hitching a ride with a private driver. The ride cost me the equivalent of about 20 euros. The car unfortunately came to pick me up at 7 in the morning. The other passengers in the car were a Kyrgyz soldier in uniform, and two older women wearing traditional ethnic clothing. I later realized that these women were Chinese citizens crossing back into China, but they belonged to an ethnic minority and seemed to speak no Chinese. I was completely unable to communicate with anyone in the car.

Pictures of the scenery on the way to the Erkestham Border crossing

The drive towards the border brought us progressively to higher and higher altitudes. Even though Osh was quite warm, by the time we approached the border we were driving through huge, snow-covered mountains. As usual the scenery was majestic and almost devoid of signs of human presence, as I had become used to in Central Asia. By about 11 am we reached the last Kyrgyz border post. I said goodbye to my driver, and went through the guard post where I would officially receive my stamp and leave Kyrgyzstan. Once I'd walked through the border post though, I realized I had no idea what to do next. All I could see in front of me was a long road stretching into the mountains, with a long line of lorries heading towards China. There was no sign of a Chinese border post. From the other side of the post, my driver gestured for me to get into one of the lorries. I don't know whether he knew the driver or had tipped him, since I could not communicate with anyone, but I did as I was told. The lorry then drove the 20 minute drive through no man's land to the first Chinese border post. When exactly we entered Chinese-controlled land I cannot say, but at some point I realized that I was back in China.

No man's land between Kyrgyzstan and China

When we approached the border post I got out of the lorry, and walked towards the rather unimpressive building officially marked as the "Erkeshtam border crossing" in Chinese. There was no longer snow here, but due to the fierce mountain winds I was compelled to get my heavy winter coat out of my suitcase. As I approached the entrance I was met by a pretty young soldier who was clearly from a local minority and spoke extremely accented Chinese. I handed over my passport and was told to wait in a waiting room. After about 20 minutes I was shown through the building's exit, and into a big empty square in front of the border post. There was a bunch of Chinese men probably returning from doing business in Kyrgyzstan, a young Chinese couple and a few young Tajik men all waiting around. I had no idea how long I would have to wait to get my passport back, but figured it wouldn't take long.

About half an hour later, all of the border post's soldiers suddenly left. I asked the Chinese men what was going on, and I was told that the soldiers had gone off duty, and we would have to wait for them to resume work at 4 pm in order to be get our passports back. At this point it was nearly 2 pm, Chinese time. I was aghast. I really wasn't expecting this kind of inefficiency on the Chinese side of the border. I had had no breakfast, it was cold, and all we had to do was hang around and admire the scenery. One of the men told me I was lucky it wasn't December, when it gets cold for real. I later went for a walk and discovered that nearby there was a little row of shops and restaurants serving travellers and lorry drivers stuck at the border. The restaurants looked awful, but I was able to buy some instant noodles in a shop and fill my stomach.

The Chinese border post

At 4.30 pm the soldiers finally returned, and told us to get on a minivan waiting for us. Our passports were handed over to the driver. It was clear to me now that we still hadn't reached the place where we would officially go through customs and enter China. After much confusion about seating arrangements, the minivan finally drove off into the wilderness. We drove for ages, descending into the vast desolation of the Tarim Basin. The landscape became more desert-like, and I even saw a flock of camels out of the window. After about one and a half hours we reached another guard post. We all had to get out and show the soldiers our passports. When one of the machine-gun totting Chinese soldiers saw my British passport and realized I spoke Chinese, he became extremely chatty and friendly. While his colleague checked our passports, he asked me if I had voted for Brexit. He then asked me how the Pound was doing, how long I have lived in China, if I have a Chinese girlfriend, and told me I'd love it in Kashgar. My fellow Chinese and Tajik travellers looked at the scene in amazement. I assume the soldiers don't act so friendly with them.

Flock of camels in Xinjiang

We then got back into the minivan, and drove another half hour to the customs facility where we were finally going to have our passports stamped and officially enter China. The whole process was quite quick for once. I filled out the arrivals form and got my stamp. Six hours and a 100 kilometres after officially leaving Kyrgyzstan, I had finally entered China.

I had never imagined the whole process would be so complicated, but I guess that is what you have to expect when entering China at such a remote location, where the flow of people crossing is quite low. I later learned that the Chinese customs facility was relocated 100 kilometres east of the actual border in 2011. What happens if a foreigner wants to visit the huge area in between, which contains some towns too, I am not sure. It may well not be possible. What are 100 kilometres of wilderness in huge Xinjiang anyway?


After crossing the border, I teamed up with the young Chinese couple and one of the middle-aged businessmen, who were all going to Kashgar as well. We shared a taxi to the city. On the way we were stopped at a checkpoint, and when the soldiers saw me they asked me to get out of the car and have my passport scanned. Only I, being a foreigner, had to get out of the car. This was the kind of intense security checks and suspicion that I was expecting in Xinjiang.

The Chinese businessman in our taxi seemed friendly and rather rustic, the sort of person you would only meet in a Chinese backwater. In the end he paid the ride for all of us, something which quite amazed me. After travelling through more desert landscape and little Uyghur towns, we reached Kashgar after dark. The taxi dropped us off at the train station. I was exhausted, hungry, hadn't booked anywhere to stay, and the internet on my phone wasn't working. I took a taxi and asked the driver to go to Kashgar's Old City, which worked. Once in the city centre I identified a reasonable hotel and went in. It was a four-star hotel, and a double room only cost 200 Yuan a night. That's the kind of prices you can still find in small towns and remote parts of China. My first impression of Kashgar was that it seemed recognizably Chinese, and at the same time very un-Chinese and exotic. The centre was replete with the typical neon-lit high-rises and skyscrapers of a provincial Chinese town. Although Kashgar is a small city by Chinese standards, with 500,000 people, coming from Kyrgyzstan it looked impressively big and modern.

Kashgar, a city whose very name invokes images of exoticism, has a history of 2000 years as a major outpost on the Silk Road. Marco Polo went through Kashgar during his great journey to China, and his description is a curious mix of praise and criticism: "There are a good number of towns and villages, but the greatest and finest is Cascar itself. The inhabitants live by trade and handicrafts; they have beautiful gardens and vineyards, and fine estates, and grow a great deal of cotton. From this country many merchants go forth about the world on trading journeys. The natives are a wretched, niggardly set of people; they eat and drink in miserable fashion."

Although a lot of places are described as being at the "crossroad of different civilizations", this is true of Kashgar as it is of few other places. Historically, Kashgar was for a long time a Persian-speaking, Buddhist city which was a vassal to a succession of Chinese dynasties. Then it became part of the Tibetan empire. Later it became the capital of the Karakhanid Khanate. During this period the city (and the whole region) turned into a Turkic-speaking and Islamic one, as it basically remains today. Later on Kashgar was ruled by the Mongols, then incorporated into the Qing Dynasty's empire, and finally into the People's Republic of China.

Today, Kashgar remains the city most representative of Uyghur culture. The word Uyghur is basically a modern invention of Soviet ethnography, just like many of the other names for Central Asian peoples. It refers to the sedentary speakers of a Turkic dialects living in what is now China's Xinjiang province. While the North of Xinjiang is now heavily populated by Han Chinese with origins further East, the South of Xinjiang is still heavily Uyghur. The provincial capital Urumqi is now 80% Han, but in Kashgar, which lies in the South, the proportions are reversed: 80% of the city's population is Uyghur, according to official statistics. This lends the city an extremely exotic air (from a Chinese perspective). Most women wear veils, most men have beards and/or traditional round hats, and the food and lifestyle are totally Central Asian.

What has probably helped to preserve Kashgar's traditional character is the city's truly amazing geographical isolation from anywhere else in China, nestled as it is right in the Western corner of gigantic Xinjiang, which on its own is as big as Western Europe. Even Urumqi is a 16-hour train ride from Kashgar. In fact, Kashgar is geographically closer to Damascus then it is to Beijing. Although the whole of China officially operates on Beijing time, Western Xinjiang is so far from Beijing that this would result in people going to work before the sun has risen. As a result, people operate on their own unofficial time which is two hours behind the rest of China, and the same as in Kyrgyzstan. For this reason I had no problem finding a restaurant still open on my first night, although it was already 11 pm Beijing time when I went out to eat.

What really struck me was how little the Chinese language has penetrated Kashgar. From the taxi drivers to the shopkeepers to the people at my hotel's reception desk, everyone seemed to speak limited and heavily accented Mandarin. The average inhabitant speaks Chinese like a Middle Eastern student entering his second year of language studies in Beijing's Language and Culture University. Most of the writing on the streets and shopfronts is in Uyghur's Arabic script. This is a far cry from the situation in Inner Mongolia, for instance, where shop names have to be displayed in Mongolian script by decree, but the tiny Mongolian writing is always flanked by much larger writing in Chinese, the actual language everyone speaks and reads.

Uyghur language and Uyghur culture clearly survive and in some way even thrive in Kashgar, to an extent that few minority cultures still do in China. The fact that primary education is actually provided in Uyghur must be an important factor in this. The Chinese authorities can be pretty hands-off about such things, especially when confronted with a determined people like the Uyghurs who have made it very clear that they do not wish to simply be swept up in the high tide of Chinese culture. As a result, the Uyghurs speak much less Chinese than the Kyrgyz across the border do Russian, in spite of 26 years of independence. Relations between the Han and the Uyghurs remain notoriously tense however, and a few years ago Kashgar was at the center of some very serious terrorist attacks directed at Han immigrants.

The security measures in the city are very striking. There are police vehicles and riot troops stationed at every one of Kashgar's squares, and it is necessary to go through a security check and a scanner just in order to get into supermarkets and public places, something which reminded me of Israel. There was even a security check at the entrance to my hotel, which I had to go through every time I entered the building. Having said that, the city itself did not feel tense, and the locals were mostly friendly and forthcoming. My hotel was situated right next to an extremely Middle Eastern feeling-souk, with jewellery and spices for sale. About a 20 minute walk away was Kashgar's old city.

Pictures of Kashgar

The old city is a collection of traditional mud houses on a hill. It has been called the best collection of traditional Islamic architecture to be found anywhere in Central Asia, showing that the USSR was even more destructive than China when it came to old buildings. The Chinese have not been idle, however: a few years ago there was an uproar in the international media about a government plan to relocate the residents and raze the old city. Some claim that the outrage was misplaced, and the plans were justified. The authorities have definitely been paying residents to relocate to modern flats, claiming among other things that the old city's houses represent an earthquake risk. Although some areas of the old city did appear to me to have been destroyed, there was still a large intact area of old courtyards and little winding alleyways that reminded me somewhat of Jerusalem's much larger historic centre. It was all quite atmospheric and attractive. Uyghur traders and potters still ply their trade in houses that have belonged to them for generations, while the odd tourist from Eastern China takes photos.

The Old City of Kashgar

A potter in his home

Pictures of the Old City

The huge statue of Mao in the middle of Kashgar

A little distance away I chanced across what seems to be a sanitized "old city" approved by the authorities, with new houses built in a replica of the ancient Islamic style. At the entrance there was the inevitable sign claiming that this was a "国家AAAA景点" (National AAAA Tourist Site), and the main street displayed the unmistakable signs of a Chinese tourist trap. Having said that, even in that area the little alleyways off the main street had a genuine local feel, and some of the buildings actually looked old. After leaving the old city I walked to Kashgar's main city square, which contains an imposing 18 metre statue of Chairman Mao, one of the biggest ones remaining anywhere in China.

I had lunch in a local restaurant near my hotel, where I impressed the curious waiters with my ability to write my name in Arabic writing and the Kyrgyzstani money in my wallet. That evening I went for a walk in another direction, and I soon reached an area that I suppose is where Han immigrants tend to live, since I suddenly felt like I was back in Beijing, with people speaking Chinese and the shop signs only in Chinese.

The next day I flew over the Taklimakan desert to Urumqi, where I caught a connecting flight to Beijing. My journey across Central Asia was over. 


Gilman Grundy said...

"Once in the city center I identified a reasonable hotel and went in. It was a four-star hotel, and a double room only cost 200 Yuan a night."

I stayed at the Astor House Hotel in Shanghai for 100 a night back in 2003-4 (admittedly not good rooms despite being in China's oldest hotel). Prices really have gone up since then!

"After leaving the old city I walked to Kashgar's main city square, which contains an imposing 18 metre statue of Chairman Mao, one of the biggest ones remaining anywhere in China."

Never mind, soon the empty plinths you occasionally see where a Mao statue used to be will be filled with statues of Xi.

Ji Xiang said...

In 2004 I remember staying in a hostel in Kunming, and a bed in a dorm cost 10 yuan a night. Nowadays even a bed in a dorm will cost 60 or 70 yuan. Prices have risen 6 or 7 fold.