Tuesday, September 01, 2009

There really is a Kyrgyzstan

So this is Kyrgyzstan, and what have you done? Another trip to China, and a new one to Europe just begun. So this is Kyrgyzstan, and I didn't blog for a week because there is no Internet access (and has not been) in all of Xinjiang province for almost two months now. I composed an angry polemic about this on the Urumqi-Kashgar train, but I'll leave that behind, since it's of little consequence.

Kashgar was one of those places I always imagined existed, a place that is the nexus of the world, where China, Pakistan, Turkey and all-and-sundry meet. It was a place where I bought Kyrgyz som at the bank from a Uighur who sat waiting on the couches (the teller directed me there) insisted on speaking to me in Urdu, even though I spoke better Chinese than his Urdu, and we both spoke good English. It was a place where I traveled to spectacular Karakul Lake at 12,000 feet on the Karakoram Highway connecting China and Pakistan, and heard, in order, songs in Korean, English and Hindi. It was a place where I spoke a mixture of Chinese and Urdu to buy kebabs from people who spoke neither.

In so many ways, Kashgar (the K and the g are those guttoral sounds that make Arabic so great) was like going back to Pakistan. I stayed at the wonderful Old City Hostel amidst ancient brown buildings, narrow alleys and a lively street scene that picked up at night, seemingly never to stop. There were mosques, camels, donkey carts, open gutters on the side of the street and so many things that I haven't seen in so long. There was, of course, the highway to Pakistan, and many people pointed at me and asked "Pakistan?" I usually said no, since it's never in your interest to be Pakistani, ever, except when bargaining.

The courtyard at the Kashgar Old City Hostel was a fantastically social place, where I met Italians, Frenchmen, an Indian and others. There was a group of five people on my first day, none of whom lived in their country of origin: a French woman living in Singapore, a French man living in Switzerland, an Italian living in Japan, a Chinese guy living in America and a Canadian living in Korea. Since then, I've met nothing but Japanese. I went to Karakul Lake, a spectacular lake surrounded by snowy 7,000-metre mountains, with two Japanese people and a Uighur who spoke fluent Japanese but almost no English (we communicated in Chinese and assorted Arabic words).

I will always, always remember Kashgar. It was a place where so many things were possible (except contacting the outside world). So many countries were together, and talk of travel to Pakistan, Tajikistan, Tibet or any other remote, dangerous destination was routine. The people were intelligent, worldly and always, guaranteed to be interesting. A new arrival comes in with a bike and a watermelon, which he feeds to everyone, and announces his intention to take it to Europe via Pakistan and Iran. A man casually talks of a month in the south of Punjab (I never went!). Others study Pashto and share their pictures from Madagascar.

But this is Kyrgyzstan. The trip to Kyrgyzstan was bizarre to say the least. The bus was scheduled to leave at 8 am Xinjiang time (all of China is officially on Beijing time, two hours ahead). It left an hour late, rumbled down to a gas station, where it was loaded up with...produce. For an hour. Then we drove 90 minutes, had lunch, drove another two hours to the border. At the Chinese side, I showed my passport to enter a building. Then a man checked my passport. Then he asked for my camera. I took it out, but I was told to wait. While I waited, two people checked my passport, reading it through like a magazine. Then a man went through all 444 pictures on the camera with an eye for pictures from Xinjiang. Then they checked my passport again.

I went to a booth where they checked my passport, then had my bag put through a scanner. Then I waited for everyone else. While I waited, they checked my passport again. We went to another booth where they checked my passport. There was a final crossing, marking the no-man's land between countries, where they checked everybody's name against the list provided. Then we entered Kyrgyzstan. The immigration office was a pale blue shed with no sign, where my details were entered into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. In another unmarked room, ununiformed man recorded my details and informed me that while it was okay for the Japanese I was with to laugh at his questions, laughing was for the Jews and kafirs.

For dinner, we had jujubes, naan and a chicken's head provided to us by the bus driver. I ate the naan and jujubes. The bus arrived via a dirt road into Osh, Kyrgyzstan at 3 am. We slept on the bus until 6 and then arrived into town. Kyrgyzstan is cleaner than much of China and developed (at times, at times crumbling), but my four days here will cost less than my visa ($80 US).

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