Chinastan

After our final border crossing of the trip – and our last border crossing until going home to America! – we began our tour of the last country on our six month Asian expedition: China! While China is technically not part of Central Asia, the city of Kashgar is still along the Silk Road, and it’s actually closer to Tehran than Beijing, ethnically more Uighur (with some Kyrgyz, Kazakh, etc.) and predominantly Muslim, so it felt a lot different from other Chinese cities like Beijing.

While there was obvious influence from China (including a giant Mao statue, some Mandarin speakers, and lots of proper Chinese food), the Uighur culture is definitely prevalent. We couldn’t decide if it felt more like a Chinese Central Asia, or a Central Asian China, finding instead that it fills some sort of nice hybrid space. The neon signs at the traffic lights would scroll right to left with Mandarin, and then switch direction for Uighur, which felt kind of like a metaphor for Kashgar itself. The city can’t even pick a side when it comes to the time zone. While all of mainland China is technically in the same time zone (kind of crazy when you realize that it’s thousands of miles wide), there are two times used in Kashgar (local time and Beijing. Meaning that if you follow Beijing time, it stays light out super super late).

While we came here almost exclusively for the animal market (so awesome it will be covered in its own separate post, coming right up), we were surprised by how much we enjoyed the rest of the city. It’s chock full of developing nation style markets, great old guys with crazy long white beards and our personal favorite attribute: super friendly people! As soon as we crossed over the border from Kyrgyzstan to China we noticed a marked increase in friendliness (no offense to the Kyrgyz). If you’ve been following our posts on Central Asia you know we’ve had some unpleasant experiences at the borders, but the Chinese border patrol employees were stellar. I legit got into a conversation with one sweet lady about pandas. I had to restrain myself from hugging her, lest it be construed as aggressive. So, we were off to a great start with China.

Once we hit the open Chinese road, the scenery changed from that in Kyrgyzstan, but it certainly did not decrease in splendor. We passed through a deep gorge, and the rocks were a beautiful red color. And the roads. Oh, the roads. We have never been so ecstatic to see a nicely paved, smooth, divided highway. (For those who haven’t followed our posts on the previous several weeks in Central Asia, know that we spent more time in cars on the most impressively poor roads than I ever thought I would in my life). But this was still Chinastan, so the division didn’t stop the occasional scooter driver from heading down the wrong side of the road.

The views from the plane on our way out were equally impressive.

We got our first taste of Chinese food while here, though it was surprisingly difficult to order given that our guide and the wait staff did not speak the same language. We basically got as far as “chicken” or “soup” on a menu with about 100 items listed. Nonetheless, it was pretty tasty.

Kashgar is a dusty place. In fact, I pulled up the weather on my iPhone one day and the forecast was literally “dust.” I had no idea that was one of the options. I guess that’s a result of the sandy deserts all around, but it results in one strange and eye irritating condition.

IMG_3067
::dusty with no chance of meatballs::

And here I thought the smog in Beijing would be suffocating, turns out Kashgar was the place we needed a gas mask. And, funny enough, they do place gas masks in the hotel rooms for purchase! China is crazy, man.

We had planned on a visit to Lake Karakol as a little day trip, but when we discovered that such a “little” day trip would entail about thirteen hours of driving and less than two hours of actually being at the lake (unfortunately there was some construction on the roads), we did some quick research to find an alternate option. Shipton’s Arch fit the bill, and we were quite pleased to be backed into the activity since it turned out to be really stunning. This arch is supposedly the largest freestanding arch in the world.

The drive in takes you through, basically, the middle of nowhere, though there is a nice brand new road leading up through the desert. And the drive affords some pretty neat views, scraggly camel sightings included.

We also saw this awesome lady prepping a giant pig’s head for what’s sure to be a feast.

Once at the parking lot for Shipton’s Arch, it’s a little hike to get to the base of the arch, and a pretty steep climb up a number of switchbacks to get the money shot. They’re busy building a staircase, and what appears to be the beginnings of a viewing deck, but for now it’s au naturel. The pictures barely convey the depth of this thing. It’s a spectacular view. I’ve not been to Arches National Park yet (seriously need to do that soon!), but I imagine this rivals it in scale if nothing else.

Sunday was obviously our day to check out the famed animal market, but since it was so great, and we have so many lovely photos (and video!) to share, we’ll be covering that in a separate post. We had the rest of the day to explore Kashgar’s other sights and so we did. The first, Abakh Hoja tomb, was definitely worth the visit, if only for the beautiful rose garden. The tomb itself was maybe not as impressive as others we’d seen in the ‘Stans, but the coloring was more green than blue and a lovely change of pace from the ones we’d been checking out over weeks past.

What we most adored about Kashgar was the old town. It really feels like you are stepping into the olden times. Where else can you see someone’s fat-tailed sheep tied up next to their Beemer?

We wandered into a blacksmiths’ shop and admired the men with remarkable aim and tolerance for heat. We meandered into a few other shops where locals sold their wares, ranging from lots of metal and copper products, to ceramics and woodwork.

The streets feel almost like India here, with crowds and activity buzzing everywhere.

We also checked out the Central Asian Bazaar, which was quite the market. It seemed to go on for miles, lined with stalls selling furs, carpets, shoes, spices, nuts, instruments, snake oils (literally)… you name it.

Also, how cute is this man?

We tried our best to get a photo of these hilarious assless pants the kids wear (I assume in lieu of diapers though it strikes me as an odd choice ripe for even less fortunate accidents), but there’s only so many attempts you can make to capture a shot of a baby’s ass without looking/feeling like a total creeper. Among other interesting baby accessories: they put their babes in these beds that are essentially long cradles with a hole. In the hole they place a ceramic pot, and the babies just go (as in using the toilet) into the pots. Fascinating, right? I’ve never heard of anything like that!

Craft street was lined with beautiful copper wares, and also some really good Turkish style ice cream. FYI, this is apparently where they filmed the Kite Runner.

Our last stop was the Id Kah Mosque. While the mosque itself wasn’t particularly mindblowing from an architectural point of view, it felt like a nice park inside with lots of trees. We also got a kick out of the propaganda on the signage.

And we started to see some of the awesome signage that proved to a be a theme throughout our stay in China. It seems like they have signs warning you about everything. I mean, there was a sign in the hotel shower warning that it could be wet, and hence slippery. Are there many people unfamiliar with the fact that showers get wet? Exhibit A (and do stay tuned for Xian and Beijing signs, because believe you me, they just keep getting better!):

Practical Info

Our Kashgar visit was coordinated through the same agency as our Central Asia travels. However, since this is our first post on China, I will cover the “can you travel in China independently” topic here. We went on to visit Xian and Beijing, and it was a tough decision whether to work with an agent or go it alone. We opted to go it alone.

I had received quotes from two agents for the Xian and Beijing portions, each of which included flights from Kashgar to Xian and the overnight train from Xian to Beijing (i.e. only five nights of hotels, not six as we chose in order to take the day train), plus transfers, hotels, and private guides. These quotes were both in the range of $1,900-2,500/person. This seemed shockingly high to me.

To make a long story short, we saved $2,000-3,000 by traveling independently. It was much easier than I expected. I will cover our flights from Kashgar to Xian and high speed train from Xian to Beijing in more detail in another post, but I purchased the air tickets on Ctrip’s English language site and the train tickets on the Travel China Guide website. We arranged a private full-day tour in Xian and a group Great Wall trip from Beijing. Locals were friendly. We took the subway in Xian and Beijing, and it was cheap and quite easy to figure out. Our hotel in Beijing had these neat little cards with top tourist sights written in English and Chinese, so you could hop in a cab and just point. Plus the hotel’s name and address were written in Chinese so you could get home, too!

Of course comparing a fully private guided tour with generally independent travel is apples to oranges. With the former you do not need to plan much nor worry about the details. But having just spent a few weeks with guides in Central Asia, we were really tired of all the history lessons and required interaction with relative strangers. So I would say we did not even want a fully guided tour in China, even leaving costs aside. Considering the thousands of dollars saved by going it alone, I am extremely happy we did China this way.

The exchange rate was 1 USD = 6.2 Chinese Yuan (CNY). Each place we stayed in China had electrical outlets that worked with US style plugs.

Transportation: We arrived from Kyrgyzstan via the Torugart Pass and covered that experience in more detail here. Since we worked with a travel agent, I never investigated the details of coordinating this. You can also cross the border from Kyrgyzstan to China via the Irkeshtam Pass. For onward travel, we flew to Xian via Urumqi. The airport was ~15 minutes from our hotel. There are some direct flights to a few cities, but most flights go through Urumqi.

Accommodation: We stayed at Tian Yuan Hotel. It seems pretty well-located, very near the Old Town and not too far from the Id Kah Mosque. Our room was spacious and nice. The WiFi did not really work, but it was great once they put a router in our room. The breakfast left a bit to be desired.

Food: At the markets and on the street there is quite a lot of food. We also ate at Karakoram Cafe, which serves a limited menu of Western food. The pizza was pretty good and the WiFi worked well. It cost ~120 CNY for a pizza to share (for two) plus a smoothie and soda. Dinner at the restaurant at the Chini (or Qini) Bagh Hotel was uninspiring (cost ~240 CNY for four of us). My dad and Linda ate at John’s Cafe and liked it.

Activities: The Sunday animal market is the biggest draw, and it is pretty impressive. Whether it is worth the effort required to visit Kashgar is another question. I would vote “yes,” because I rather liked Kashgar in general and the long journey here involved some wonderful scenery. For more information on the animal market, including a comparison vs. the Karakol (Kyrgyzstan) animal market, see our separate post here.

The Grand Bazaar (I think it’s also called the Central and West Asia International Trading Market, the Sunday Bazaar and other names, and it’s open every day but is most active on Sunday, when we visited) was fairly impressive. It is somewhat touristy, but mostly filled with Chinese tourists. There is a very large assortment of furs, shoes, spices (including exotics like dried snake, frog, lizard, etc.), nuts, carpets, instruments, toys, cloth, etc.

We didn’t see that much of Old Town and may have walked on a street restored for tourists. But it was pretty neat with blacksmiths, wood craftsmen, food carts, etc.

Abakh (or Apak) Hoja Tomb is a mausoleum along with a couple mosques. It cost 30 CNY each to enter. If you are coming from the ‘Stans and have seen glorious mosques and madrasas, you may be underwhelmed. Still, I thought it was nice and worth a visit.

Id Kah Mosque is in the center of town and any tour would probably visit here. It was OK but not terribly exciting or beautiful, at least compared to other things we’ve seen recently.

Our day trip to Shipton’s Arch was fun. The arch is a relatively unknown natural wonder, clocking in at 1,200 feet high by some measurements (it depends from which you side you view it and how you measure). It is very impressive. It took 1 hour 20 minutes driving from Kashgar, all on nice, paved roads. From there we walked on gravel plus some rocks and some metal staircases through slot canyons, culminating in a walk on dirt switchbacks up a steep hill to the arch. The round-trip hiking portion took us 2 hours 15 minutes, including some time at the top. They are doing a lot of work, so by the time you get here the path may be easier and there may be stairs all the way up to the arch. If you read about bad roads or rickety ladders, those articles are probably old…or possibly approaching from the other side??

We had intended to visit Lake Karakol but passed after our guide said it would take about six hours each way, partly on roads under construction. And this would have been the day after we spent nine hours in the car crossing the Torugart Pass. It is said to have wonderful mountain scenery, including multiple 7,000 meter peaks visible. There are options for multi-day treks in that area. We also considered a day trip to Davakul Lake, where I believe you can go camel trekking in the Taklamakan Desert.

May 16-19, 2014 (Friday-Monday)

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