Part 2, the throat

If the gates of Dunhuang opened China’s mouth to the Western lands,  then the black mountains of Ala Shan to the north and the snow-capped Qilian mountains to the south funnel the mouth into a throat. In between, the string of interconnected oases of the Hexi corridor ensure at least travel westwards from the Yellow River is bearable. But between the mouth and the throat, where the Great Wall reaches its westernmost end, most emphatically, the epiglottis.

Colin is good about this:

‘To the north rose the tormented Black mountains, to the south the Quilian massif floated like an astral ice-field while between them the last of the Great Wall came stumbling in, broken, after its two-thousand mile journey from the Pacific. It crossed the plain in chunks of ramped earth, then heaved itself round the ramparts under my feet, before meandering south to seal the pass under the mountain snows’.

Going up the Wall at the Black Mountains:

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From the way down

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Well trodden steps

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It turns out Colin has the same question I’ve been struggling with: ‘Wait, what WAS the Great Wall for exactly’? As a device to keep out the Mongol and the Hun it failed spectacularly: they breached it whenever they had a mind to, never mind all the bodies built into it to rebuff evil spirits. Apparently there’s an answer: quite a bit of academic capital has been invested in the notion that the the Wall was mostly a demarcation between ‘us in here’ and ‘the others out there’. To emphasize the point, the Ming emperor constructed the ‘First and Greatest Pass under Heaven’, the Great Fort at Jiayuguan as the epicenter of the epiglottis, with this clear intent in mind. I get to see it and I’m in.

Colin is good about this too:

‘But its ramparts still carved a harsh geometry above the desert. Their raked walls and heavy crenellations shone flax-pale in the young light…..Then the weight and the mass of the inner fortress crowded in. Its iron-belted gates were folded ajar…Above the gateways the turrets’ beams were painted with scenes of rural peace, but beneath them the fort turned grimly functional. In the dog-legged baileys attackers would be mown down from walls which loomed vertically for forty feet on all sides. Wide ramps mounted to parapets which became highways for cavalry, five abreast. The entrance tunnels ran thirty-five yards deep’.

None of my photos are going to do Colin’s prose justice.

The Wall and the fort intersect

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The watch towers punctuate the massive ramparts

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The garrison nestled uncertainly inside

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With surgical precision the Ming emperor designed one particular spot – the Runnguan Gate of Sighs – as the tangible demarcation between the ancestral Empire and the outer darkness; it has seared itself into the collective consciousness.

Looking westward we see the long, long road.

Only the brave cross the martial barrier

Who is not afraid of the vast desert?

Should not the scorching heat of heaven make him frightened?

The Gate of Sighs unfolds in three orchestrated stages

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Gate the First

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Gate the Second

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Gate the Third: The unknown emerges tentatively through the double doors

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Silk Road merchants passed through voluntarily, others weren’t so lucky.

‘Down its tunnel the flagstones are worn with exiles’ feet. Its ramp lifts to the empty sky and the empty desert. People went out in terror…. the tunnels were carved with farewell verses scratched by shamed officials as they exchanged their sedan chairs for carts or camels, and as late as the last dynasty, common convicts trudged westward with their whole families in tow, their foreheads tattooed in black characters, without hope of return.’

Shamed Madame of the diorama sees the Western desert and evidently doesn’t like it

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A camel in waiting

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Meanwhile in the other direction some Silk Road likely lads (but not ours, you can tell by the beards)

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And lickety spit here’s a tax bill; understandably they’re deeply skeptical

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But wait Colin – what’s with this ‘young light?’ If anything it’s more like ‘deeply weary’ – a mere pivot and we can figure out why.

The rather less romantic back-side of the fort

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21st century Jiayuguan turns out to be horrendously polluted. The air has a worrying metallic taste and the population are swaddled in scarves and masks up to their eyeballs (I am seriously under-dressed). My room in the highly adequate Jiayuguan Hotel has not one but four sources of water: First, the expected faucet in the bathroom; the second, beside it, is marked ‘potable’. Since the third is bottled water, I deduce the secondary faucet must be for brushing teeth (in an abundance of caution I usually brush my teeth with bottled water, but sometimes if I’m feeling lucky I’ll put tap water in the kettle. However, I’ve definitely got the message that in Jiayuguan no tap water should pass the epiglottis). To reinforce, the floor attendant struggles in with a jeroboam of purified water for the kettle. And frantic hand signals, presumably to prevent me being poisoned

The ever helpful Hotel Jiayuguan. For those of us having trouble orienting to time and place.

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Unusually the population are holed up inside eating, meaning I have to commit to a restaurant rather than making a selection based on peering over people’s shoulders.

The night market has migrated indoors so folks can discard their masks to eat.

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My strategy is to randomly point at something with the price point I’m interested in. In this case 24Y ($4)

I seem to have ordered tripe (Peter Kadzis this is for you) it was delicious!

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Next day the air is even worse and my sinuses are screaming in protest: time to leave town.

Along the Hexi corridor

Let’s sample one of those oh-so convenient oases, and so Zhangye it will be. Convenient it is and also a cozy little market town. The folks at the Silk Road Travelers Hostel are hosts extraordinaire despite their choice of mattresses (tip, next time spring for the full thickness one). They arrange a mammoth 12 hour outing up into the Qilian mountains, to the deep satisfaction of all.

Some of this tour’s companions; unexpectedly the Koreans ‘Brian’ and ‘Wendy’ – we shared a compartment, some cookies and a pleasant nap a couple of train rides ago. He has a bucket list longer than my arm, she has videos of the grand-kids clutched to her heart. Ann-Sophie en-route to New Zealand to milk cows for a year was all the way back in Turpan, it’s starting to feel like the real Silk Road.

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Yet more thousand Buddhas, this time it’s do-it-yourself.

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Up unsteadily through the cliff

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The payoff, right at the top.

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A second set with a different, more typically Chinese, vibe

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And off we go

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Apparently the money means there are Taoist influences

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Not sure about the candy

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Sorry but there’s got to be a door

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Lost in translation. Fish noodles mean noodles that don’t really look like fish, not what they’re served with, which is not fish.

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Zhangye is really rather nice, but I’m too old for the fakir experience I’m having on this mattress so I cut out early. Next, a slight detour toward Tibet.

 

The mouth and the throat of the empire: Part 1, the mouth

At last, welcome to Gansu province! Five ways we know we have left Xinjiang:

  • There are no policemen in full-body armor.
  • Crossing the road does not require a full-body search
  • The only cameras are hanging above the highways, to keep the drivers honest (the speed limit seems to be 30 miles an hour).
  • My passport elicits interest only re: eligibility for senior discounts.
  •  SIM cards no longer represent a security threat.  I pop into China Telecom on the off-chance and the NYL obligingly fishes one out of her handbag for half price and, with a wink, that pesky registration problem is taken care of.

So Dunhuang can focus its energy on being a perfect little tourist town, a bit prissy perhaps, but with an agreeably strong food suit, especially in casseroles.

That’s more like it! The gloriously pretentious Wang Shen International Hotel, fresh flowers b.t.w, even in $25 rooms like mine.

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Dunhuang’s specialties, carefully translated for our edification.

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At least 5 kinds of raisins are needed to be a contender.

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Writing is a la mode. ‘Burt by Enihusiam’ just about sums it up.

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Go masters on every corner

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‘Hallo’ they say. ‘Hallo!’ I reply. ‘How are you? Are you good?’. Whispers and a rapid consensus ‘Yes’ they tell me firmly.

Not pictured, parents bursting with pride.

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But enough trivialities! Tourists are here with a serious agenda: Mogao, the ne-plus-ultra of Thousand Buddha Caves. Constructed between the 5th -14th centuries they are the source of the most extensive collection of Buddhist art in China (of course much of it has ‘migrated’ to random Western European museums in the intervening). No takers for the English language tour other than me; I still get the full two hours worth, but not as I hoped, a look round more of the caves (we visit 8 in total). It IS all very spectacular, but no photos at all (‘no photos’ is often different from ‘no cameras’ which sometimes means cell phones are OK, but not here sadly). Apparently an army of art school students is working on a complete reproduction, racing against the time when all the lead-based paint will oxidize to black. So Google images it will have to be folks.

This nine level pagoda barely houses the 36m Buddha; either the top or the bottom is original Tang dynasty construction (I forget which).

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While the influence of artisans from Central Asia, India and Tibet remains strong here, we are picking up more Chinese style, non-existent further west, as we work our way toward the belly of the Empire.

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Dunhuang: The mouth of the Empire and the start of the Silk Road

The two gates to the south of Dunhuang are iconic. They funneled both the northern route of the Silk Road across the Gashun Gobi desert to Turpan and then Kashgar (my route, in red) and the southern route through the wastes of the Kum Tagh (Sand mountains) via the oases of the Taklaman* desert to Kashgar (in blue). The Southern route, site of military installations and now Uighur detention camps, is currently a no-go for tourists.

Map

*Misspelled on the map (sorry)

But they are more than 60 miles away! I appeal to the tourist office and for once in my life the satisfyingly comprehensive tour leaves tomorrow (as opposed to yesterday). For a mere 78Y (about $13) they will pick me up at 8:30am in their ramshackle bus and in 12 hours, provided the clutch holds out, will deliver me back with all boxes checked.

Our motley tour group: Not shown, the princess who is always late, being late. Everyone (except me) is preternaturally patient. Her parents, sitting at the back and apparently tasked with documenting her experiences on a minute by minute basis, seem to be enjoying the break.

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Princess in a rare unphotographed moment (except surreptitiously by me). She has bought her Mulan style outfit specially for the trip, from the Internet.

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To be fair we all get into the swing of it

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The Dunhuang municipality takes its responsibilities seriously, never passing up the opportunity for a bit of historic re-enactment. He is re-enacting a ticket collector.

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In fact collecting taxes was the gates’ main purpose. These sticks are the accounting of them. They also tell the unhappy story of some poor sod who accidentally sent the wrong beacon signal (it did not end well).

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Less prosaically they furnished the absolute last contact with the Empire, before the wastelands of the west and the onslaught of those terrifying nomads.

Yangguan, the Sun Gate

‘A morning rain has settled the dust in Wei City

Willows are green again by the tavern door

Do not leave until we have drained one more glass of wine

To the west of Yangguan you will meet no more old friends’.

Wang Wei

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To the west of the Sun Gate, south, towards the Sand mountains.

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The camels will handle it.

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Yumenguan, the Jade Gate

‘For years to guard the Jade Pass and the River of Gold

With our hands on our horse whips and on our sword hilts

We have watched the green graves change to icy snow

And the Yellow River ring the Black Mountain forever’

Liu Zhongyong

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To the west of the Jade Gate, north toward the hostile Gashun Gobi, where the temperature can fluctuate 30°C in a single day.

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Original industrial espionage. Silkworm eggs were embedded in the drawing; and so silk production was smuggled to the Western lands.

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After more sights than even I have boxes for, thoroughly exhausted and with decreasing confidence the clutch will hold out, we turn at last towards home.

But wait! Everyone leaps out for one last photo. ‘The moon!’ they gesture exuberantly.

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Moon over the Jade Gate Pass

‘A bright moon rises over the Mountains of Heaven

Lost in vast oceans of clouds

The eternal wind, across thousands upon thousands of miles,

Blows past Jade Gate Pass’

Li Bai Yje

Of course.

 

Turpan turns the tide

I’m definitely ready for a warm welcome in Turpan, not least because as the lowest town in China it’s not coincidentally the hottest. But first the unforced transportation errors incurred in part by the distractions of the last few days but mostly by the (not unreasonable) assumption that Turpan railway station would be in, well, Turpan, and that Turpan North might be located, well, north of Turpan. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact Turpan station is located in some hell-hole 40 kilometers north of Turpan and I never will find out where south of Turpan oh-so-convenient Turpan North is.

So here I am on the overnight train from Kuqe to Urumqi that will actually pass through the Turpan hell-hole en route to Urumqi yet also in possession of a ticket from Urumqi to said hell-hole that in total will add 4 hours onto the journey. Fortunately the vagaries of time in Xinjiang (railways run on Beijing time whereas the ever recalcitrant population doesn’t) kicks in to make it all work out: In the outward direction I get a couple of extra hours sleep – infinitely preferable to ending up miles away from anywhere at 4am (6am Beijing time) and I can theoretically enjoy the scenery as we return to Turpan-hell-hole in the daylight.

She soon warmed up to me, but not so much to mom who has seemingly brought her on a 4 hour trip without any toys or books, and then even refuses to surrender her cell phone. We make do with foreign coins. The scenery wasn’t up to much anyway.

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Turpan Station ‘security’ are bitterly apologetic they can make neither head nor tail of  the instructions Kuqe has sent on about what to do with me. An executive decision is made: ‘Bye Bye’ they say cheerily and ‘Thank you for your co-operation!’ in surprising Portuguese on their  GT.  I even manage to find a cheap taxi into town.

The Dap International Youth Hostel lives up to its Internet hype: the welcome is warm, the beds are hard and the beer is cheap and more to the point cold. Best of all the usual constellation of intrepid Aussies and various European hangers-on – the first Westerners I’ve seen in weeks – are all up for a good time. Among this crowd travel destinations not hair color is the currency, so I play my ace card, Burma, and I’m in. Off we go for dinner (the usual minced lamb that can be wrapped up as dumplings or samosas or, in this breathtaking innovation, pizza) and rent a minibus to see the sights.

This bed, perched on a concrete platform, is precisely as uncomfortable as it looks. Also, what’s with the flannel sheets? Even though its still theoretically winter its at least 80 inside.

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The neighborhood. Never figured out what this was selling

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The crew. For Aussies we have a chef and his NPR podcaster brother and a couple of teachers from somewhere in the bush.  Spot the Portuguese economists (no doubt the inspiration for the train station security GT). The redoubtable Anna (Australia by way of Hong Kong and now Shanghai) provides exuberant if fractured Chinese translation. What a great crowd. Poor things are headed for Kashgar next week.

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First on the agenda (actually second but I think we get the Thousand-Buddha drift at this point, and in any case Le Coq got there first) are the ruins of Karakhoja on the edge of the Lop desert. Originally built as a garrison town by the Han empire in the 1st century BCE  it developed into a major commercial hub. The sheer immensity of the site even though it is pretty much in ruins brings it home how the Silk Road wasn’t just lonely camels pacing off into the moonlight but rather a multinational commercial enterprise with a vast infrastructure of support.

Despite many attempts my inadequate iPhone 6 (and its handler) are unable to convey the sheer immensity of the site. But when we have finished circumnavigating the walls it tells me we have walked nearly 6 miles.

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Apparently Karakhoja, like many Silk Road metropolises fell off the map in the 14th century because of  glacier retreat in mountains we can’t even see. Cue the locals swooping in and hustling off all the building materials they could carry. Final stop is to the village of Turoq to admire what good use they made of them. Here Uighurs are allowed to do their thing largely unassailed provided they let hordes of tourists cough up $5 to stick cameras into their stoic faces.

Scenes from village life, spot the antique bricks

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Someone dreams of Van Gogh

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Such careful poses

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But these guys haven’t quite got it down yet

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Unassailed, but not necessarily unsurveilled

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Later we venture into the neighborhood for dinner.

Madame of the sheep’s-rump fat (tastily grilled). Dinner for eight 158Y  (about $26). Later, beer for eight 40Y ($7).

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Bidding my own Bye Bye to Xinjiang tomorrow – Gansu province here we come!

Kuqe: a tragicomedy in three acts

Kuqe peaked during the Tang dynasty with that unbeatable combination of Buddhist scholarship and perfumed ladies, so not surprisingly yet another must-see for Silk Road caravans headed away from civilization to who knows where. Well that was then; as for now, we’re in the middle of a sandstorm when the K9720 overnight from Kashgar pulls in, and it’s going rapidly downhill from there.

No less than three different SWAT teams have excavated ‘What is your itinerary?’ from the depths of their Chinese GT and one has even insisted I perch inside their fetid bunkhouse while they commune with higher powers as to my fate, which finally involves an armed escort to the Kuche Grand Hotel in the police van and intense scrutiny as I check in.

The considerable disagreement on the Internet as to whether the Kuche Hotel is legitimately ‘Grand’ is easily resolved on inspection. The building presenting itself to the road is indeed a bona-fide 5 star, but the ramshackle assortment round the back (where the Internet usually ends up) are barely holding onto 2 and certainly the freezing and filthy room 316 deserves none, especially since the plumber who just came to reinstate the sink has left his debris all over the floor.

The view from vile room 316 in the sandstorm, enough said.

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This in fact says it all

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To be fair the 5 star (where we eat) has a killer breakfast replete with unusual quantities of recognizable, if not identifiable, vegetables, for a change

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I’m just completing my catalog of complaints when yet another SWAT team shows up this time featuring the Kuqe Director of Immigration. The good news, that he at least can converse in English, is somewhat obscured by whatever he has spent the early morning drinking. I’ve had enough ‘It’s OK!’ I tell him cheerily ‘I’m not immigrating, I’m on vacation!!’ and close the door firmly.

 Kuqe: A tragicomedy in three acts

Recall that all conversation is through GT

Prologue: I have just returned from the 5-star tourist office, where Dragon-lady has offered me a driver who demands twice the going rate for half the usual number of sites, to confer with the NYL at the desk who so obligingly moved me into desirable Building 9 where the rooms are undergoing haphazard renovation and mine has been more or less completed.

Me: That was a very expensive price can you help?

We both become aware of a spectral presence in our peripheral vision.

SP: I can do it for 350Y

Methinks: Fantastic! (350 Y is my aspirational price) but why is he is proposing it as a first offer?  Dragon Lady must have been worse than I thought.

Me (aside to NYL): Is this a good man?

NYL in highly ostentatious spoken GT: ‘You can rest assured of that!!!’

Me: So, I want to go to the Subashi village and the Kizil caves tomorrow, is that OK?

SP: Yes that is OK

Me: What time and what is your name?

SP: I will meet you here at 10am. My name is Akbar. (charming self-deprecating smile) I used to study English in university, but I’ve forgotten so much!

Me: Well we’ll practice tomorrow Akbar! See you then!

Act 1: My surprisingly assiduous guide.

About 30 minutes later I emerge from Building 9. But here is Akbar, and he has brought a friend.

A: Where are you going?

Me: I’m going to the Uighur quarter, it’s to the left isn’t it?

A: Yes. I can take you.

Me: That’s OK, I want to walk.

A: You want to walk alone?

Me: Yes. See you tomorrow!

LP tells me the walk will take 40 min. It is along an extensive and incredibly ugly wall  framed in razor wire and plastered with ghoulish inspirational posters. Every 100 meters the police checkpoints generate an ‘Oi!’ followed by a frenzy of passport checking and photographs. Eventually one fixates on my Cambodian visa and hauls me off up the food chain. A beat-up grey car appears in my peripheral vision, waves him off and somehow I am free to go, but I am dispirited. Maybe a cab there? I move over to the curb. The car glides in.

A: Would you like a ride?

Methinks: What just happened? But why not, save the cab fair?

Me: OK Akbar thanks! Akbar are you keeping an eye on me?

A: No (but he blushes up to his ears).

Methinks: Nice young man

The Uighur quarter mosque was rebuilt after earthquake damage, but may not survive this round of official neglect

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A: Want to have lunch?

Methinks: How sweet and why not, they’ll take me to a better place than I could find myself.

Delicious $1 kebabs (I pay)

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A: Now we’ll go to the palace

I really don’t want to go to the palace, an ugly Chinese reconstruction but somehow I find myself persuaded.

A nice example of the quality of the palace artifacts

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Inside there is only one other visitor – a random milenial who looks just like the pseudo-tourists in Kashgar –  precisely the last person who would voluntarily pay $8 to admire ersatz history, in fact he’s paying more attention to me. I fake him out handily and disappear into the bazaar. Unfortunately in the middle of the afternoon it is deserted and provides little cover.

Scenes from village life, when its mostly absent

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But round the corner here comes Akbar, looking somewhat flustered.

A: We will go back to the hotel now. You are not allowed to go out at night.

Methinks: Wait, what?

Fortunately I am so full from lunch I can’t face dinner, and I have plenty of time to try and figure out what’s going on. Its about 8 o’clock when it finally dawns on me.

Act 2: A nice day out

As anticipated, any pretense of a client relationship has evaporated come the morning and Akbar seems to have reverted to his normal personality, which is rather morose. We bump into each other at least an hour before the agreed-on time.

A: Let’s go.

Me: OK (I turn to Akbar’s friend) What’s your name? (He thinks for a minute)

AF: Eshe

E: Can I smoke?

Me: pointing to the no-smoking sign in Chinese on the dashboard:  maybe your boss won’t like it.

Any lingering doubts I have are quashed when ‘Eshe’ spends the ride smoking and yelling into the walkie-talkie I now notice also on the dashboard, and we are waved through all the checkpoints (the hapless rookie tries to pull us over gets his head handed to him on a plate). At the final checkpoint we pick up an extra, even more surly, Chinese passenger.

Me: Who is this man?

A: He is a friend. We will take him where he can catch a bus.

The Kizil Thousand Buddha caves are worth the drive. Constructed between the 3rd and 8th century they are the earliest Buddhist caves in China, their style derived from the elusive Gandhar kingdom thought to have been located in the Afghanistan/Pakistan area. They underline the importance of the Silk Road as a conduit for religion and culture as well as commodities. They have been desecrated both by Muslim incursions (the faces are disfigured and the eyes are gouged out) and the reviled German archeologist Le Coq  who carted huge chunks of the best stuff to the Berlin museum.

The presence of lapis lazuli in the paintings indicates their Persian influence. The pronounced musculature is in the Ghandaran style – attempting a 3D representation

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The white dots ‘strings of pearls’ are also Persian. The long earlobes are Indian. In fact these caves have no Chinese influence at all. The one guy is black because he was done in lead and it has oxidized.

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The weather is lovely, the setting is gorgeous and I am the only visitor. I set off for a long walk determined that Akbar, ‘Eshe’ and ‘friend’ stew in their fuggy car for as long as possible.

A beautiful day at the caves

+kVx+kXXTs+Xd6%2sEgPzg_thumb_584aAbout an hour into it a golf cart hies into my peripheral vision. Scooting off onto an inaccessible walking trail buys me about 5 minutes.

Policeman in golf cart: Oi!

Me: Yes can I help you?

PIG: What you doing?

Me: Walking

PIG: Can’t walk here

Me: But I am walking here, I’m walking on this walking trail

PIG: Come with me

Me: No its OK, I’ll see you over there (pointing into the distance).

He shadows me slowly all the way back.

Me: OK I’m done Akbar, what happened, your friend missed his bus?

The ‘friend’ who is still with us looks confused.

At the hotel I hand over 350Y. Now its Akbar’s turn to look confused. He picks it up between finger and thumb and drops it on the dashboard. He does not, however, return it.

Me: Thanks Akbar, that was a nice day out. I’ll see you tomorrow!

They blanch, and I realize with some satisfaction that ‘the day after tomorrow’ has been lost in drunken translation.

In the morning ‘Eshe’ is skulking behind the palm plants when I go to eat breakfast, when I come back from a short foray into the town center and when I sit in the lobby for a couple of hours before leaving to catch the train. I make sure to catch his eye and wave as I leave.

Act 3: In which all is explained

My SWAT team friends at the station are delighted to see me again and to have a chance to retake my photo. But wait! A new pair of glasses plus cell phone appears over the counter.

Me: (somewhat rashly out loud) And why not? Everyone else in Kuqe has my picture on their cell phones.

And then with a smile and in impeccable English

POG: And if you’ll come this way, I’ll explain why.

Let’s call him Timmy is a milenial American literature graduate from the University of Shanghai whose mother has forced him to join the Railway Police because of the steady salary and good benefits. But he has been seconded to that first circle of hell, Kuqe. He has also been seconded to baby sit me until such time that the train comes and I get on it.

Timmy is a great conversationalist and it seems rather indiscreet. Evidently legitimate terror that I may be a journalist in (poor) disguise – the first time my demographic has worked against me and BTW thanks a bunch New York Times – has persuaded Kuqe security services to monitor my every move in 5 minute increments, less if you consider Akbar’s assiduousness. How can handle they that much data I wonder. ‘ You’d be surprised’ Timmy says laconically.

Timmy’s office has comfortable chairs and unlimited phone charging opportunities. We spend an agreeable couple of hours polishing the translation of what seems to be a high level policy document for his upcoming exam and then he pops off on his motorbike to fetch me yogurt, bread and water for the trip. ‘I always feel very vulnerable in that Uighur shop’ he says sadly.

Eventually his boss shows up for some final evaluation. Bye-bye we say to each other with varying degrees of regret (we only have a couple of pages to go in the translation) and the Director of the Station is delegated to usher me aboard. I beg him to ask them to keep the Western toilet open (they like to lock it up and the squats are an awful effort albeit usually surprisingly clean). He obliges and I scarf down the delicious Uighur yogurt, have a nice relaxed pee and sleep like a log.

Akbar communing with the mother ship. ‘Eshe’ puts his hands over his face when I try to take his photo

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No picture of Timmy with his full body armor and helmet, Steinbeck in his pocket.

Kashgar’s wild (and woolly)

Why reinvent the wheel? Let’s hear first from Colin, who’s so much more eloquent than me:

‘For three hundred miles the road bends north west to Kashgar. The sands lap against it, but gently now, and the oases multiply and start to merge. You go through towns of venerable decay, past the sleepy Islam of 19th century travelers, of cemeteries disintegrating in solitude for a Sunday sketchbook. To the west the horizon glitters into life as the Pamir foothills trace wavering lines of forest and the peaks beyond them fracture the sky with an unearthly brilliance. Here the desert at last ends and China is petering out. For a long time, as the road veers harder north, the mountains float above Central Asia in a stupendous punctuation mark.’

Over the Tian Shens west to Kashgar, I was exactly on the other side in Kyrgyzstan last year. The train journey from Ururmqi takes 22 hours, it didn’t seem necessary to do it in both directions.

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Yet another $25 score at another Uighur extravaganza, the newly renovated Nurlan Hotel, previously known to everyone (but now only to the taxi drivers) as the Sultan.

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At the confluence of three important Silk Road routes – through the Pamirs to Afghanistan, down to the Indian subcontinent and off over the Tien Shan towards Uzbekistan, Kashgar was always the place to kick back and relax before confronting yet more extortionist nomads. It is a shadow of its former self.

Unstoppable force meets immovable object in uneasy coexistence. The mosque is the largest in China.

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Delighted though that its camel has the necessary ladder

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I am the only Westerner in town. I know this because many friendly people have sought me out to tell me; in fact in most cases they first had to seek someone else out to tell me in their stead. While this has had some advantages (the price of my evening ice-cream steadily declines to zero) it has not alleviated any of the problems with being here, but planning to go elsewhere.

Under the correct lighting my phlegmatic ice-cream man has a twinkle in his eye

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Tashkurgan, 7 hours up the Karakoram Highway, is the putative site of the Stone Tower, where caravans from east and west would exchange merchandise; no one caravan traveling the whole route. It has been on the bucket list for years But no! just last week the rules changed. Now I am only allowed to leave town accompanied by a tour operator (town is defined rather loosely but seems not to include any significant sights). I am not allowed to join an (inexpensive) Chinese tour (if they even exist, there don’t seem to be any Chinese tourists either). I can go with a licensed Uighur tour operator provided we have both a guide and a driver (this seems overkill for what is essentially a trip straight up a 4 lane highway, but what do I know). I reluctantly justify the considerable expense ($250) to myself but alas my putative tour operator should have submitted the permit paperwork a week in advance (it seems churlish to point out the rules were different then). The only option seems to be ignore them and go by myself.

To the hopeful rescue comes (let’s call him Otis Redding since he is paranoid and this will be posted). Like Urmat last year, O’s satisfied clientele pass his name through the bowels of the internet like a talisman.

O is not his actual nom de guerre (his actual one is even more ridiculous) but it seems wise to be a little circumspect. When I ask ‘Why Otis?’ he reminds me of the lauded ‘John’s Cafe’ (now defunct). Tourists flocked there not expecting ‘John’ to be Chinese. Our guy thought he could go one better until someone pointed out that even though Jesus is indeed more famous than John, using that name would be unlikely to attract the type of clientele he had in mind. So it was onto plan B or rather, plan O.

O’s photo will be posted once I am out of the VPN zone

Against his better instincts (I will come to realize O is a fretter) we will confront the dragon in his lair, namely the permit office itself. The mild-mannered permit officer exudes sympathy but cannot be convinced. I am not allowed to simply take the public bus to Tashkurgan, stay the night and return the next day (it is 7 hours away). For one thing the hotel can’t take foreigners (despite having given me a reservation). For another the checkpoint at Karakul lake (4 hours away) will want to see my permit, and in its absence I will be returned post haste. The permit officer would like O to recall that no public transport stops at Karakul lake on its way back to Kashgar, and also that I am not allowed to hitch hike. It all seems a bit much and O feels my pain (he’s not allowed to travel to Tashkurgan, which is a Tajik town, either). Not to worry though, he will dedicate himself to showing me the sights, significant or not.

First we must establish our rules of engagement. Initially O. simply deflects my indiscreet political questions with a slight shudder and a bright ‘Let’s not go there’ but eventually he just positions himself out of camera range to answer (a not insignificant task). By dinner on the second day he’s dishing the dirt on everything.

The buildings in the bazaar area have been torn down and replaced with (excellent) facsimiles. There is indoor plumbing and no outdoor smell. The previous homeowners were given either a renovated house or money.  Many of the new inhabitants work for the ‘Government’. O raises his eyebrows slightly “like your East Germans” – recalling our previous conversation on neighborly surveillance.

All the festering old parts are being renovated for better or worse.

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Next year, coming to a slum near you.

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Scenes from village life.

Checking out the merchandise on the main street

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‘Hundred Year old coffee house’. Only tourists drink coffee so they serve only tea.

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An alfresco breakfast, always appreciated

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An alfresco kindergarten (formidable granny not included)

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Check out his coloring

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And these

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Not in the running for China’s largest mosque

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Besides its notable photogenicity there is even more to the bazaar than the omnipresent cameras and neighborhood snitches. Pairs of pseudo-tourists with sunglasses and day-packs are settled here and there (since there are no actual tourists they stick out like a sore thumb; it is not clear what they are supposed to be doing). Nonetheless O forbids a snap and we give them a wide berth. Being able to identify them will come in handy later.

O considers himself a foodie and in the absence of anything much to see he dedicates himself to showing me the local cuisine (for less than a dollar a dish). It isn’t, as I first imagined, simply noodles, its just that O eats the very same things every day: noodle soup with apricots for breakfast (I manage to avoid this meal) noodle soup and stewed baby pigeon for lunch (delicious actually) and more noodles for dinner; I once insist on a salad and the whole kitchen comes out to object. Dessert, once I send O packing, is ice-cream at the night market.

Noodles galore, unfortunately this is the extent of the vegetable options.

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Madame of the pigeons, and her pigeons, each restaurant prepares only one dish. No utensils.

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It turns out there are two legitimate Lonely Planet-endorsed sites in Kashgar after all –  the Sunday animal market is considered ‘in town’ despite being 40 km away and is therefore accessible to me as well as the many Chinese tourists who finally materialize on Saturday night.

Appraisal

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The deal is done

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And off we go

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Lunch at the market – at least the meat is guaranteed fresh

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The likely lassies dress up for the Chinese tourists. O wheedles me a snap for free

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The second site is the grave of the prominent Uighur poet and scholar Yusuf Has Hajib. O is outraged that the taxi driver claims never to have heard of it, but when we find it shuttered and ringed with razor wire and anti-terrorist barricades, he blanches and we make a hasty retreat (definitely no photos).

Sheep’s feet – the final frontier, like chicken feet but better

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Our quest for sheep’s feet as a last dinner celebration has been accomplished handily and I am headed for a cab, when we are accosted noisily from behind by a couple of teenage boys for a selfie. I am a bit startled (on-the-street demeanor is normally hyper-decorous) but O is distraught. He is convinced this means surveillance (he doesn’t even own his own computer he is so paranoid). To make matters worse he claims to spot the same two at the animal market next day (really unlikely since those ones seemed about 14, and these ones are adults milking goats, but again what do I know). O won’t be shaken and fret descends into gloom.

O.’s explanation of this building in the bazaar is that the fencing is to stop the troublemakers getting out.

This photo will be posted once I’m out of the VPN zone.

Later, at the station, as my entire luggage is deconstructed, they would like me to justify not one but 4 Uighur cookbooks. (O. has instructed me to take two of them to the new Uighur restaurant in Cambridge so I can worm my way into their good graces and hopefully be fed for free). As usual GT fails miserably at this task and my passport is photographed yet again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ah yes, Urumqi.

It is 2:15am and I am definitely feeling the anti-Urumqi vibe from the internet. The capital of the Uighur autonomous region of Xinjiang elicits predictable hysteria: ‘depressing!’, ‘creepy!’, ‘give it a miss!’. And it had all started so well, not only did trusty Air Astana get us in a whole hour early (see below) but the notorious Chinese immigration barely bothered with fingerprinting and retina scanning, let alone my choice of reading material. Then (shades of Iran) the taxi driver’s whole extended family was on speaker to make sure he got me to the depths of the Uighur quarter post haste, plus the hotel had all its lights on and a full, mostly awake, night-time staff.

But that was an hour ago and here we still are with the C-team milenials-at-the-desk who not only are appalled to see me (despite my reservation being clearly evident on the computer along with my frantic [and unanswered] queries for them to confirm they can legally host foreigners, a hazard in this region at least), but they have coerced me into paying my bill up front and have now started on what seems like a satisfaction survey (they’re currently scoring 0). Our problems are compounded by the fact that not only do we not share a language with each other, none of us share a language with Google Translate: to wit neither the millennials nor I speak Chinese and GT doesn’t do Uighur. Enough is enough. ‘I have to tell you’ I enunciate icily ‘At this point I’m starting to get really annoyed’. The universal body language of the irritated mom does its trick and within 20 seconds I am in the elevator and within a minute in the (fabulous) bed. But I must admit my first thought when it becomes clear that the 10 or so men in the room next door are either having a college reunion or plotting a major insurgency is ‘I can’t do this’. Fortunately my second occurs 8 hours later, and when I finally locate the sumptuous breakfast I am fully restored.

The breakfast room at the Aksaray Hotel. Can this be the market for all that subway art in Moscow?

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First on the docket, and the whole reason to be in Urumqi – the museum, one of the best in China. And it doesn’t disappoint. On first floor, and uncannily like Almaty but much better done, charming dioramas of all the (same) ethnic groups that from time immemorial have also called Xinjiang home. On the second, incredible archeological artifacts and the world-class collection of 3000-4000 BC mummies preserved stunningly by the intense dryness of the desert climate. Finally, the over-the-top fancy exhibit, a joint Chinese/Japanese effort to excavate Han and Xing dynasty sites (many unusually fervid hands-across-the-water ecomiums). The message is, well we might not have been here first (the fossil record clearly belies this) but we definitely did the leg work of civilization. (Actually the Uighurs did come much later, from Lake Baikal of all places. They must have asked themselves was it all worth it). In any case it is maybe somewhat beside the point in 21st century Xinjiang where ongoing ‘civilization’ evidently equates to faceless apartment blocks and escalating pollution, not to mention cultural realignment.

A whole slew of amazing museum pictures.

First up, the jolly ethnic dioramas seem to belie the reality on the ground.

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Some gorgeous Uighur clothing from the 19th century

 

Can’t forget the hats

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Onto 2000-3000 BC artifacts. The one on the right was labeled a eunuch, begging the obvious question.

 

Where did that coral come from? Lake Baikal? And the agate?

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Sophisticated 3000 BC gold 

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The intricacy of this weaving is remarkable

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The inevitable stone tools. But these are from 30,000 BC. They are actually about the size of a brick.

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And finally, the piece de resistance. A whole passel of mummies.

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She had her own room, but sadly no English translation

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Look at the bridge of the nose, definitely not Asian

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The dry climate meant their clothes were amazingly preserved

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Including the facial decoration

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So what about Urumqi? The internet hysteria is focused on overbearing police harassment around the bazaar area, where I’m located. Lonely Planet is dripping with affronted back-packers who have had to present their passports, sometimes more than once. The much-reviled police checkpoints every 100 meters are still there (and built of brick so clearly intended to have some permanence) but are shuttered up and gathering dust, so whatever prompted their construction is clearly not an issue right now. All ongoing efforts are directed at the single entrance to the bazaar which is replete with pat downs, scanners etc. (I note we are already at the stage of waving our special friends through unchecked [and a higher proportion of young Uighur men to Uighur grannies which, not to stereotype, seems like defeating the purpose]). Superficially it’s no worse than the shopping mall in Shymkent Kazakhstan or the Tashkent subway. Once inside the police presence is minimal and not particularly focused,  certainly not on me, even though I seem to be the only Westerner here. Maybe on account of the surreptitious snacking.

The entrance to the market, it would not have been wise to photograph the police checkpoint (out of sight below).

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The market is treated with disdain on the internet, it wasn’t at all bad, less Chinese knockoffs than in Istanbul and Uzbekistan.

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What looked like a spontaneous afternoon hoe down.

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On the other hand the scanners at the entrance to the park next to my hotel, the single evidence of green in the whole benighted neighborhood, are also shuttered and the deserted park is soundly padlocked. As I watch the Uighurs struggling to avoid tripping over the hordes of kids playing on the grimy pavement outside, I must admit I feel a bit like spitting too.

Not a good picture of the aggravating padlock on the park (scanner in background). Uighurs watch me take it with sardonic smiles.

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My new friend the English-speaking Assistant manager (who works days and has scored a definite 5 on the survey) tells me to check the time of my flight – all China runs on Beijing time, but Xinjiang exerts autonomy by moving the clock two hours forward (so it matches Almaty, see Air Astana above).  We compare our watches, which are set at different times. In that understated way the gentle Uighurs have, she winks.

Almaty gets its party on!

Those of you kind enough to follow along last year might recall I characterized Almaty as the Bruges of Central Asia, and with those precise expectations I fly in on my new favorite airline, Air Astana (a new plane, adorably upbeat staff, endless goody bag, that chicken curry they all serve but with a real knife and fork, all the wine or beer they think I want, and a seatmate who turns out to be an actual Kazakh film star [despite being way back in row 43] all for $100). But no! It is not to be. Almaty has got its party on!

My genuine Kazakh film-star seatmate Serik Sharip (220,000 followers on Instagram) back from Moscow promoting his most recent film (if you like me find it hard to see the resemblance, rest assured I got independent verification from the doting flight attendants).

Negligently I have failed to take into account that Kazakhstan is one of that random grab-bag of countries (Afghanistan, Albania, Azebaijan, Georgia, Iran, Iraq and Kosovo) celebrating Nowruz. The upshot is that everyone is here – in from the steppes and down from the hills. The nomads have brought their yurts and  swords, rural crones are hawking fermented bulgur from grimy plastic buckets and everyone is out for a decorously great time. Every five yards a surround-sound stage is over-amplifying patriotic songs with the biggest not two blocks from my apartment. Not to worry though, this is still Almaty, so the festivities will be over by 10; a good night’s sleep is still on the cards.

As usual the stylin’ Tajiks win

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But the nomads come a close second. Normal size folk for scale

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This Kyrgiz (you can tell from the hat) has brought his hand made saddle for sale . He’s asking 1 million Tenge ($2000). No takers he tells me sadly (the average Kyrgi monthly salary is $1000).

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City slickers eternally grateful they don’t still have to live in a yurt

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I get shanghai’d into the frame

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Surround sound Almaty style. Despite their natty green suits, the band (in miniature on the left) is singing patriotic songs.

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But Nowruz this year is making a political statement. As one of his last acts, the former president (he just resigned on Thursday after 30 years) has changed the alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin. The problem being that while Russian sounds like cats sliding around under furniture, Kazakh sounds more like a hamster and a gerbil having it out on a training wheel. All that excess energy requires a whole extra 16 letters neither the Cyrillic nor the Latin alphabet can envision (42 in total). Diacritical marks are all very well, but some words will demand more than 10, making it all very taxing.

No-one is feeling Happy Nowruz in the Latin alphabet, and that’s only one diacritical.

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 Kazakh written in Cyrillic has extra letters (like the weird F). But  transliteration of the four letters (bl is one letter) from Kazakh to Latin requires two diacriticals.  GT tells me it will look something like Sigw with a cedilla on the S and a circumflex on the g.

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These delightful young linguistics students collared me for an interview on English accents, then I grilled them on Kazakhstan politics. They allowed that ‘Its time’ for Nazerbaev to step down (Ms. on the left) but as to his daughter taking over Ms. in the white shirt was firm :

‘We’re a democracy but we can’t talk about everything’.

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Actually Kazakhstan is in an increasingly tough situation. To his credit, Nazarbaev built a successful independent and regionally influential economy while by and large avoiding the ridiculous vanity projects and crushing oppression that characterizes some of the neighbors (Turkmenistan we’re looking at you). His successor will need a strong left arm (to keep Russia away from the mineral deposits) and a strong right arm (to keep China at bay). Note that the back is quite firmly to the US and Europe; most young people believe that Russia is a good role model, they don’t like the Chinese*. Kazakhstan has styled itself as the buckle in the Belt and Road initiative but is facing increasing internal pressure to go to bat for the ethnic Kazakhs who are being harassed together with the Uighurs, and the new leader will have to manage these expectations. More about that, probably, next week.

The father of the nation, subway style. It doesn’t look much like him either.

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On a dank and drippy Sunday I take myself to the museum to find out what stories Kazakhstan tells about itself. Excitingly, I find a drone picture of the ruined city in the middle of the Steppes I visited last year.

From this angle the huge pile of archeological debris that is Sauran is tantalizingly evident (the road we broke down on is in the distance).

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These XII century pottery fragments look just like those I scooped from the surface.

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If Moscow smells evocatively of coal, this old Russian area still smells disconcertingly of gas. Remarkably, in the interim, Marina, the usually taciturn ‘concierge’ for my old soviet apartment seems to have acquired near perfect English. ‘Third time!’ she trills, thrilled to see me. I settle into the planned activities of laundry, salads and yes, the banya.

Ah the banya! The Russian baths in Almaty are renowned throughout Central Asia and I’ve been dreaming of them since last year. After an inadvertent 9 mile walk back from the botanical gardens, it’s time.

I should have checked with Google maps before committing to walk back down from the base of the mountains.

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The Russian baths are famous throughout Central Asia.

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At least on a revisit I’ll be able to cope with the order of operations with my glasses off, always a challenge. I collect the necessary bundle of birch branches, sheet (peshtemaI), and towel.

All kinds of branches for beating on sale. That’s my bunch, right there.

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No rookie mistakes! this time the towel stays with the clothes in the locker while the peshtemal, along for the ride, becomes uselessly sodden. First off an ostentatious scrub in the communal shower. Soap must be lathered thickly and how very clean one has become independently verified via the side eye. Skipping this step elicits the cold shoulder, but this year I pass muster. The initial visit to the first circle of hell (AKA the  steam room) will only last about 5 seconds, but acclimatization will eventually occur, whereupon the jedi (who strangely is fully clothed and in a balaclava) will appear to thwack handily with the birch branches, front to back, top to toe. The branches have become pliant and aromatic from soaking, but in combination with the intense heat it is rather traumatic, all the more because the jedi terminates the experience unexpectedly with a swift couple of basins of cold water. A nap must then be taken to hasten recovery, followed by a revitalizing swim in the cold, dim hamam pool, lit only through a single hole in the roof. The steam room/nap/pool combo can be repeated as infinitum, but the Finnish sauna is for wimps and must be shunned. The whole three hour experience including the jedi, an equally fierce massage plus a nice cold beer with the very clean ladies costs $12 (absolutely no photos please).

Nowruz has also thwarted my travel plans somewhat. Those ethnic Kazakhs returning to China have bought up all the train tickets, and since the train only leaves once a week, I need a plan B. Fortunately Air Astana once more comes through in the clutch, and I am off tonight to Urumqi. Hopefully my VPN will allow me to circumvent pesky internet blocking, but that’s as yet untested, so sayonara! Hope to reconnect soon!

* Nazarbayev Generation. Kazakhstan’s Youth, National Identity Transformations and their Political Consequences.  voicesoncentralasia.org