There are only 2 border crossings between Kyrgyzstan and China and we were set to cross over the most logistically difficult international border crossing in the world – the infamous Torugart Pass. This remote mountain pass links Naryn (in Kyrgyzstan) to Kashgar (China’s westernmost city). And why does the Torugart have such an daunting reputation? Because it is considered one of the world’s most unpredictable border posts due to the myriad of permits, paperwork, invitations and checkpoints all the way from Naryn to Kashgar. Even with all the prerequisite paperwork in order, the border crossing is still quite dicey because of sudden border closures which are quite frequent at this remote 3752 meter pass due to inclement weather, snow, holidays, festivals, etc. In fact, tackling the Torugart Pass was the reason we left Kyrgyzstan two days early once Kate caught wind of an upcoming Chinese holiday on the horizon. We endured no less than 5 separate checkpoints where our documents and passports were inspected and all of our luggage offloaded and screened (poor Lars lost his Damascus forged steel knife from Bukhara once the guards spotted it). Even Habibi (our truck) wasn’t spared…she was x-rayed, sniffed by guard dogs, and sprayed with disinfectant before permission was granted to proceed any further. All was going well until checkpoint #3. There, we received the crushing news that Helen and Dya weren’t allowed to proceed any further due to their invalid China visas! At least Helen had an inkling that she might have problems because she discovered to her dismay last night that her double entry China visa was only valid for entry before 30 June 2016. Since we were crossing on 4 July, that 4 day gap most likely meant her visa was no longer valid. Poor Dya was caught unawares that she was in the same predicament. Leave it to the extra alert eyes at the security checkpoint to catch the mistake! Fingers crossed we will see both of them again soon in China – get it sorted out ladies!!
Kashgar is an oasis town that provided us with immediate relief. After days of roughing it at bush camps without a shower, the Seman Hotel (former Russian consulate) was a welcome sight. We wasted no time taking advantage of the wifi (email) and hot water (to wash and do laundry). Email proved problematic because we found out that in China, almost everything on the web is blocked. That meant no Gmail and no Facebook until we could find a VPN that would work in China. That night, a bountiful Chinese feast awaited us (thanks to Tom, our guide who translated and ordered), and we went to bed happy and relieved to make it into China. Next day was a whirlwind tour of Kashgar’s old city and bazaar. Then we spent a few days heading south (200 km) driving on the spectacularly scenic Karakoram Highway to Lake Karakol (“black lake”). Lake Karakol is the highest lake of the Pamir plateau near the junction of the Pamir, Tian Shan and Kunlun mountain ranges. It was incredibly photogenic and cold (3600 meters). Poor Daniel will never forget Lake Karakol! While setting up his tent, he had every intention of staking it down (he had pegs but no mallet). In his quest to get a mallet, it only took a moment for the wind to lift his tent up and into the lake, where it quickly formed a sail and floated away. Daniel didn’t hesitate for a minute…he jumped into the lake and saved his tent, getting completely soaked in the process. Luckily he didn’t freeze to death but boy, what a shock to his body! The sunset views of the mountain ranges were stunning and breath-taking (yes, we were breathing hard at this elevation hiking up slight hills). From Lake Karakol, we continued further along the Karakoram Highway to a hot spring resort. Shockingly, the resort lacked pools to soak in, instead offering us a chance to dip into a wooden bathtub…no thanks, we can do that in our hotel rooms! We had another bush camp enroute back to Kashgar where Kate brought out prawn crackers and s’mores…happy tummies. Then it was another 3 full nights in Kashgar to rest, relax and visit the famous Sunday animal market. First week in China down, only 3 more to go!
04 Jul – At checkpoint number 4, we were officially out of Kyrgyzstan and into China. Everyone had to unload all their baggage to be searched individually. Things were going along smoothly until Lars stepped up to be inspected. Once the inspector spotted his Damascus forged steel knife, it was game over…it was immediately seized by the official who claimed the blade was too long to be allowed into China. Poor Lars was gutted…his Bukhara souvenir was irreplaceable. Even our Chinese escort and guide (Tom) weren’t able to intervene or help. To rub salt into the wound, Lars later saw the border guards swooshing his knife through the air as they laughed and played with their new toy. Even though we were stamped into China, we still weren’t done with our checkpoints! We still had to drive another 100 km to another checkpoint where the officials sprayed our truck with some type of disinfectant. And from there we went just a little further to the final checkpoint where they searched all of our bags again and officially stamped us into China. Yay, we survived the Torugart Pass! The landscape all along the border on both sides was pretty amazing. Kyrgyzstan was cold and green, but as we made our way to Kashgar it became more warm, rocky and dry. Arriving in Kashgar, we found the city to be more developed than expected. Kyle had a hell of a time maneuvering Habibi into our hotel’s parking lot for the next few nights (Seman Hotel, formerly used as the Russian consulate). After checking in and figuring out where the light switch was (on the front panel of the night stand in between our two beds), we took quick showers and linked up with the group for a celebratory dinner at 8:30 pm. Tom took us to a local restaurant and ordered several dishes for us. His selection of sweet and sour chicken, shredded potato strips, pork with mushrooms, pork with onions and peppers, and white sticky rice was awesome and hit the spot. Tom advised us that since Kashgar is predominantly Muslim, we would be hard pressed to find places that served alcohol but this restaurant did, so we ordered some beer and green tea to accompany our meal. Amazingly we were all stuffed for about $5 each…good value! Before returning to the hotel for the night, we stopped by a convenience store to stock up on some supplies. Robby discovered a budget whiskey to his delight (aged 12 years bottles of Jeike Chalixun). Back at the hotel, we were keen to check our email but none of our VPNs were working in China so no Gmail or Facebook for us! Boo! It was really annoying to have slow internet while searching for a suitable VPN alternative. Boy its gonna be a long month in China.
05 Jul – Got up for breakfast at 9 am which sounds later than normal for us on this trip but it actually seemed like 5 am when our alarm went off this morning. The hotel has an arrangement with Ali Mustafa Restaurant to provide breakfast and yesterday evening, Tom coordinated for our group to have breakfast. However, when we walked over, surprise, surprise…Ali Mustafa restaurant was closed. About an hour later they finally got the staff in and we were served some tea right away. Then things went downhill from there. We were actually served some cake slices, watermelon and tomato for breakfast! Incredulous and in disbelief, we asked if there would be anything else and the staff begrudgingly said we could also have eggs. Tom inquired if they could serve us some bread and instead we were given yet more cake and jam. What a joke. Our bizarre first breakfast in China left a lot to be desired to say the least. Then we were off to do our walking tour of the city, but first we had to stop and pick up several members of our group who decided to opt for the bank to change money. We did the math and calculated that the bank would have offered about $2 more per $100 changed versus using Kate’s money exchange connection in the hotel lobby. It was insane that we sat and waited for over an hour for part of our group to exchange their money. The kicker was that after wasting the group’s time for the better part of an hour, no one had been able to exchange any money! Sometimes being part of a group sucks balls and this was one of those times. Our first morning in China was proving to be an exercise in patience and we were failing the test! After everyone regrouped, we walked across town to the Mosque, then through the bazaars of the old town, out the gate and onward to the Sunday Bazaar. On the way back we stopped for a late lunch of noodles and mutton with veggies. Young Kate ordered a vegetarian dish and our waiter nodded his head reassuringly. Then he brought out another mutton with veggies dish for her. Tom repeated her request for a vegetarian dish and poor Kate had to wait for everyone else to eat while she patiently waited for her food. When we were done eating, Tom finally asked the staff what was going on and we were shocked when they responded that the chef was busy and he refused to make a special meal for her. When Tom went back to plead her case, he asked for any kind of sauce or something to accompany her pasta. Guess what? The staff picked most of the mutton out of the original dish and gave Kate the same exact meal they had already tried to give her over an hour ago! Kate is a champ though…she had to pick out a few extra pieces of meat but wasn’t fussy about it at all and we didn’t hear her complain about it once. After lunch we continued on our walk through Kashgar and eventually ended up back at our hotel. We were finally able to use a VPN to check Facebook and Gmail which was our minor success for the day.
06 Jul – After yesterday’s breakfast fiasco, Kate suggested we have a truck breakfast and provided bread and peanut better. We were packed and ready to leave Kashgar for a quick excursion on the Karakoram Highway and were on the road by 10 am. Our destination for the day? Lake Karakul. The drive was quite picturesque but as we got into the mountainous region, the paved road deteriorated into a rocky trail, coating the back of the truck with a thick level of dust. We sucked up the dusty conditions because the views were quite scenic and it would have quickly become unbearably hot if we threw the tarps down the side of the truck. At a military checkpoint, everyone had to disembark with their passports so we could be screened. Lunch was a quick pit stop at about 1 pm, and we continued on our drive until we got to a “traffic jam”. All vehicular traffic had ground to a halt in the middle of a mountain and we weren’t sure how long the delay would be. Kyle checked it out and discovered that the hold up was because the road narrowed to a single lane and it took a while for trucks to get through. Luckily, we were through the logjam in about 30 minutes. The scenery here was quite stunning as we drove past a lake held captive by mountains. By 6 pm, we finally pulled into our “campsite” for the night, right on the edge of Lake Karakol. The campsite consisted on a few yurts and some old concrete yurt frames that were falling apart. Toilet facilities were a short stroll away behind a small rock barrier but they left a lot to be desired so we decided to take care of business elsewhere. The temperature had dropped dramatically since we arrived to Karakol, so Kate decided to rent a yurt that could be used as a kitchen area so that cook group could get out of the cold. We set up our tent and staked it down since the wind was picking up. Poor Daniel had an experience he will never forget! Becky saw that he was struggling to set up his tent by himself and offered a helping hand. Since he was right on the edge of the lake, she cautioned him that staking it down would be recommended since the wind was blowing something fierce. Daniel had several stakes but no hammer and in his quest to get one, his tent got picked up by the wind and catapulted itself into the freezing lake. Daniel immediately hopped in after it and everyone on shore looked on in disbelief when his tent collapsed into a wind sail and quickly bounced several hundred meters into the lake! He ended up having to wade in chest deep to retrieve his tent while several dry paparazzi recorded the event for posterity. Ha ha…Daniel will never forget Lake Karakol. We hiked up a hill just behind our campsite for amazing panoramic views over Lake Karakol…what a beautiful (but cold) destination. The snow capped mountains surrounding the lake looked like postcard material and we hung out there until the sun set. Then it was off to enjoy a quick dinner before retreating to the warmth of our tents.
07 Jul – Apparently we were gouged in fees at the Karakol campsite, so Kate was keen on finding an alternate place to camp tonight. We broke camp after breakfast and drove several hours in the direction of Tashkurgan, which was reputedly a hot spring resort. Unfortunately, the term “resort” is used loosely. There were no pools to soak in and the resort resembled a facility where people would go to for medical treatment. We were offered several wooden tubs to cram ourselves into but they did not look inviting and more importantly, we could do the same thing in a bathtub at any hotel room. So we used the stop as an impromptu lunch break and retreated back towards Lake Karakol, stopping at the entrance of Oytagh Glacier Park for a quick view of the glacier. Kyle was treated like a rock star here, with locals rushing up to take photos with him! Amazingly, Kate and Kyle managed to find a secluded bush camp that we could pull into so we were able to avoid a second night of extortionate camping fees. Kate was bursting with excitement as we pulled into this bush camp, stating she had a surprise for us but just needed help with a fire. The surprise ended up being prawn crackers (yum) and S’mores (marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers). It was a nice treat and helped kill the time as we didn’t want to set up our tents too early in case nosy locals came by to demand we move on. Robby’s cookgroup (Robby, Ichi and Chris) was on tap to prepare dinner tonight and unfortunately it was one of the coldest nights of the trip so they came up with a group dance to stay warm. An unexpected rain storm had everyone retreating to their tents but thankfully it passed in a few minutes so we could emerge to enjoy the frigid conditions together. After dinner, the truck became our toasty retreat as young Gill read off “Who wants to be a millionaire” quiz questions for our evening entertainment. Amazingly, when we decided to retire to our tents for the night at 10 pm, the light was still conducive for photos. This section of the Karakoram Highway is undoubtedly beautiful.
08 Jul – When Robby got up early for cook group, there was a thick layer of morning frost on the tent. This was definitely the coldest morning we have had on the trip thus far! It was still dark when we were ready to depart just before 7 am, which is probably the reason why Denise didn’t see her iPad when she inadvertently rolled it up in her tent! As Kyle was getting ready to depart our bush camp, Denise cried out in dismay that her iPad was missing and the search was under way. Thankfully, someone suggested it might be in her tent so early morning crisis averted. Kudos to Denise and Ant for being able to pack away their tent with an iPad in it!! No idea how that is possible but they managed to do it, ha ha. Everyone bundled up in their warmest gear for the morning drive, so it was a quiet and subdued affair on board Habibi. We stopped for lunch at the same place we stopped at on the way to Lake Karakol. Little did we know that the time that we were going to be the subject of intense scrutinization and amusement. Our lunch stop prompted several locals to pull over, hop out and come over to check us out. Our every move was being recorded and what was bizarre was no one actually talked to us. They just invaded our lunch spot and proceeded to analyze everything we were doing. It was all a bit too much, especially when one of the bolder guys started digging through our food and calling his family to explain the strange salads that we were eating. We had to draw the line when they decided to hop up on Habibi to go through all our stuff. They appeared nonplussed when they were furiously told they were NOT allowed to just wander through our personal effects! Their behavior was borderline comical but definitely rude, and the endless curiosity got old fast. After lunch we drove back to Kashgar and checked into the Seman Hotel again around 3 pm. We were both rather hungry so we head over to the Pakistani joint across the street for an early light dinner of dumplings and mutton stew with chapatti (yum). Greg and Molly joined us but were disappointed since the dal they ate here the first time was better than what they got today. After dinner we returned to the hotel and relaxed for the remainder of the day.
9 Jul – Sometimes you just need a day to chill and do nothing. Today was one of those days. Kate and Kyle made pancakes for breakfast! How awesome are those two? We enjoyed our pancake treats and then relaxed in our room until we had a late lunch at a noodle shack that Lars & Ichiyo recommended. Kyle was already there waiting for his food so we joined him for a quick meal. Afterwards, Robby picked up some Jieke Chalixun (rip off Jack Daniels) and we sauntered back to the hotel. Our one big activity today was linking up with everyone at 8 pm for the Kashgar night market. It was a smaller night market than we had anticipated but had lots of interesting photo opportunities. We tried a couple of the strange snacks on offer for our dinner meal and were back at the hotel by 10 pm. The internet was OK for a quick call back to the family before relaxing for the rest of the night. An easy, low stress day!
10 Jul – Despite Tom’s guarantees that things would improve, we tried to have breakfast at the hotel affiliated restaurant again and were served the exact same crap breakfast. This time, everyone’s patience had worn out so the majority of the group stormed out angrily when we saw was happening. Why is it impossible to get bread in Kashgar when there are plenty of vendors selling round pockets of bread throughout the city? We don’t want sliced cake and tomato slices for breakfast…in what country is that normal!? Kate went back to the truck and put out some bread and spreads for anyone who wanted it. This morning we were headed to the famous Kashgar Sunday market and we were looking forward to it. Our group hopped into several taxis for the short ride out there. By 10:30 am, the livestock market was a happening place. There were lots of sheep, cows, goats, donkeys and horses. 3 camels even made an appearance towards the end of our visit. Visiting the Kashgar market even today is a scene you could imagine playing out several hundred years ago. Traders from multiple countries speaking many tongues and wearing unique clothes all intermingling, haggling and conducting business today…it was magical. For the animal lover in us, the market was disheartening…the animals are not kept in humane conditions. But it was a colorful, exciting and brilliant visit nonetheless, and definitely a highlight of Kashgar. For lunch, we grabbed several oven-baked lamb dumplings (delicious) and we were back at the hotel by 1 pm. The rest of the afternoon was ours to do what we liked so we headed over to the People’s Square where we got to see the largest Mao statue in China. The People’s park had an amusement park with lots of crazy (unsafe) rides so we opted to skip those and people watch instead. For dinner we went to the restaurant that Tom took us to for our first group dinner. Young Gill, Kate P and Andy were already there, and Ant and Denise joined us a few minutes after we had ordered our meal. Good food and plenty of it since the two of us were sharing 2 dishes. Back at the hotel, we decided to take advantage of the decent Internet to call home. Not sure when we will get another chance to get online since we will be bush camping for the next 5 days.