Monday, September 28, 2015

China - Kashgar

I never thought I'd say this but the almost perfect roads in China made the ride from Shipton's Arch to Kashgar somewhat boring. The smooth roads were more than welcome but at the same time we missed the wild and more adventurous roads of Kyrgyzstan... despite having been rattled to bits there. While the smooth road was more than welcome, the 80 and sometimes even 60 km/hr speed limit wasn't. Kashgar itself was, as we had expected, quite chaotic. We found ourselves once more in an unfamiliar way of driving. One of the others in the group said it was the most stressful ride he had ever had, which we didn't agree with as Georgia had been far worse. The chaos is, I guess, the main reason. People seem to come from anywhere, driving against the traffic is common. Scooters are everywhere too, but not the type we had expected!

Kashgar has only electric scooters. Thousands of them. There is no minimum age to ride one and no maximum age either. You don't hear them coming and yet there are more e-scooters than cars here. The minimum impact on the environment is of course good and we found quite a few of them very fashionable too. They carry impossible loads and have a 150 km range(!) All good then... apart from being almost continuously run over by the totally silent creepy things.

While our first sample of Chinese food hadn't been that good, luckily in Kashgar things improved drastically. We have always liked Chinese food, but in China it is even better! The smells, the flavours are just great. We sampled some of it and found it amazingly cheap too. Our guide knew of course where to go and what to order, which was good as menus are all in Chinese too. Having lived frugally the last 5 months, good food was more than welcome. Our stomachs simply could not stow what our eyes would have liked them too! Back in the hotel we found out why... when their scales showed us we had lost 15-20 kg each! This presented us with an even bigger problem when breakfast was being served the next morning in buffet and all you can eat style... there simply was too much choice! We sampled a bit of everything, which we enjoyed very much but our stomachs didn't... :-)

One part of this trip I had really been looking forward to was the old centre of Kashgar, known as the old town. It's Kashgar as it used to be thousands of years ago when the city was not under Chinese occupation. The Chinese have knocked a lot of it down though and replaced it with their style of building, as if they want to erase the Uyghur history. The streets are narrow, unsuitable for modern vehicles, and winding. It's a maze where you will get lost without a guide. The old town is listed on the GPS but the narrow streets aren't and google maps doesn't work here of course as the Chinese block Google. The old town has been called "the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city in Central Asia. Maybe, but we found it more a shanty town built from mud, bricks and driftwood than anything else. Apart from a few crafty looking doors, we honestly were not impressed. But then again, maybe the Chinese had knocked down the best part of it already?

Another thing we were not impressed with was the banking system. The daily limit for a visa card was nothing short of ridiculous and created quite a problem for us. We simply could not pay the remainder of the tour through China! Being Friday afternoon meant no options whatsoever to sort things out either. Scraping all we had together, plus the limited cash we could get out of the ATM, allowed me just to pay for Mike's trip but did not leave us any cash to buy food or petrol. We skipped dinner that night and drank only water. Our tour guide said we could try the Bank of China the day after and said it would all be ok. Not sure if he believed that himself though... 

When I went to the Bank of China the next morning I found 3 ATMs out of action while the last one was short on cash... Things were looking good... Back to the ATM which dispensed me 4,000 Yen yesterday then. Again most ATMs in that bank were out of cash too. I have no idea what the Chinese spend in the weekend but it must be a lot, as most ATMs had been raided the night before. The only one still working accepted my card and said it was out of paper... ok no receipt then... I gave my pincode, entered the amount and waited for what seemed like forever.... then the machine started rattling and I made a sigh of relief! For a moment I thought I was going to be deported back into Kyrgyzstan but now all looked good again. Lesson learned. Next time bring a wad of US dollars!

I already wrote that China is paranoid, not the people but the government. Google doesn't work in China, so despite finally having internet again, we could not check our gmail or update the blog. Not to worry, we thought, as we have accounts at too... until we found is being blocked as well! Freedom is not a big thing here then. The only way to access our accounts was via webmail and even that was ridiculously slow. Facebook didn't work either.

Meanwhile outside our hotel there was some sort of parade going on. Hundreds of Riot Police were parading with their e-bikes on the square. Plenty of military police present too. It almost seemed as if the military were keeping an eye on the riot police. Walking past it, it seemed as if the attendants were really proud to be there. Then again they might have serious problems if they don't obey orders and don't pretend to be happy doing so? 

Looking at the proceedings made me realise how strange the situation here is in the Uyghur province. The local people are more of Turkish descent. They don't have a Chinese complexion at all. The language is different and even the symbols used are Arabic. At the same time anything remotely related to the government is only done by the Chinese. At the square we saw Chinese police and riot police parading, seemingly trying to intimidate the locals, who weren't impressed at all. After all they know the range of the Police e-bike is only 150 km... :-) It reminded me of an old Star Wars movie I had seen where the drones where lined up in military fashion... In the next post we head for the mountains, seriously high mountains and see an amazing part of China!