Sunday, August 30, 2009


Kyrgyzstan is ace. China is rubbish. Here's why.

I got a 20 hour overnight train from Turpan to Kashgar with Crystal from Canada and Theo from Holland. We grabbed a taxi in Kashgar and the driver asked us all where we were from. "Ah, Canada. Very big country," he said to Crystal. "Well, China is a very big country," we ventured. The taxi driver turned slightly in his seat and with a wink and a smile said, "You're not in China." Damn right. Kashgar was at the crossroads of the old silk road. A meeting place for traders and travelers from east Asia through to Europe and back again. It was the Hong Kong or Singapore of it's day and it still reeks of a bygone age with markets and bazaars, donkeys and car horns, kebabs and mosques, dust and dirt and the Chinese army in abundance none of which will be appearing on any postcards very soon. Kashgar is Kashgar.

On the Friday that i was there me and two other English fellas, James and Martin, went for a wander around Kashgar taking in markets and alleyways and people and sounds. We came back to the centre of town to see a row of about 15 jeeps all armed with huge guns, side arms and even bayonets lined up in front of the main square and the mosque. The men in the jeeps were casually pointing their guns at the market and shoppers on the other side of the road where we stood. It was a very provocative sight. A mosque, a town square, a load of jeeps with guns, a road, shoppers and then us stood there with our cameras. Just as i was about to take a picture, a group of policemen appeared and shouted at me and James. They took our cameras from us and looked at our pics and then handed my camera back, with looks of disapproval, before taking James to the police station. We met up later and giggled like school kids who'd been caught doing something wrong. The whole time we were in Kashgar we saw dozens of police or army patrols on foot or in massive trucks, always armed and always telling tourists not to take pictures. They are extremely paranoid and obviously have orders to stop any demo or violence, whatever size, and to minimise any publicity, however small, from the area.

China needs Xinjiang province more than Xinjiang province needs China. Uighur people have been there for centuries (since the Silk Road and probably before) but as China's economy booms it needs the oil and gas and minerals flowing out of central Asia which borders the province. So they're modernising it, building roads, train lines and hospitals and apartments that nobody really asked for whilst destroying the old alleyways and markets and marginalising the culture in favour of development, trying to include Xinjiang and Uighurs into China Inc. with the rest of the country. It's strange and quite sad to see a kind of economic colonialism in action but who am i to criticise? I'm British.

Anyway, enough of all of that political human rights boring crap. I saw a thousands of goats on a Sunday morning in the drizzle. Kashgar Livestock Market is uniquely unique. Farmers and herders from, well, from everywhere, bring goats, sheep, cattle and donkeys on foot, jeeps, trailers and tractors to a market on the outskirts of the city and then shout and haggle over the price of animals that will be turned into a load of kebabs or hand bags or milk or whatever it is you make donkeys out of. Animal mayhem every week.

At 10am on Monday i got a bus from Kashgar to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. Actually, that's a lie. We left at 11.30 as the passengers on the sleeper bus were secondary to all the cargo that was loaded onto it. Pipes, boxes, TVs, chairs and massive amounts of food was the real cargo. We got in the way really. The bus took 20 hours to get to Osh and we climbed out of Kashgar (after fixing two wheels and a puncture at a mechanic in a village) and arrived at the border in the late afternoon. We all piled into the large immigration building to be confronted by some angry looking border guards. All the foreigners (about 10 of us) had to line up and hand in our cameras. They were all looked at. Three of us had pictures of the Chinese army including me. They took our passports and memory cards, copied and deleted the pictures that they deemed "illegal" and then allowed us to pass through. I didn't care much as i'd copied all my pictures to CD-ROM at a travel agents in Kashgar but it was strange seeing the lengths the government is going to try and hide what's happening in Xinjiang. The border guard gave me my camera back. I asked if i could take his picture. He didn't really see the funny side.

I find China intoxicating. It's people, landscapes, cities, foods and drinks all fascinate me but i won't care much if i never go back. I've had enough. And to emphasise just how OTT the officialdom of China is we crossed into Kyrgyzstan to be greeted by yet another man in an army uniform who stepped onto the bus and looked blankly at us. Then he grinned a huge grin and said in a loud proud voice, "Welcome! To Kyrgyzstan border! Come on!" and waved his hand toward the door and three ramshackle green corrugated bungalows that passed for immigration. We lined up by the side of the the first green structure waiting to hand our passports through a window where a man was sat at a desk with two computers humming along to Baby Don't Hurt Me by Haddaway and smiling for no reason. Then we had to have a "medical examination" where a man in a mask in another corrugated house asked me if i had swine flu whilst pointing to a cold sore on my face. When i assured him that it wasn't swine flu but a cold sore on my face he lifted up my t-shirt and looked at me stomach and then rubbed my arms to double check which must be some kind of swine flu testing procedure i'm not yet aware of. A man from Austria who had long hair and a large beard was asked if he was Jesus. Martin got told he looked like a movie star. I'm sure if there are any highly contagious diseases making their way across the Chinese border to Kyrgyzstan that they will be detected with extreme efficiency.

I guess when somebody mentions a country that ends in "stan" people think one of two things. War or Borat. Kyrgyzstan is neither. We arrived in Osh early that morning to find a happy and friendly little city with hustle and bustle and colour and kebabs. Endless kebabs. The next day i got a shared taxi to the capital city Bishkek with two people who were on the bus from Kashgar, Trish from the USA and Aki from Japan. The journey was 12 hours and passed through some majestic scenic mountains and lakes. I was sat in the middle of the back seat whilst Aki spent the almost the whole trip sleeping to my right and Trish read War and Peace to me left and all the time i gazed through the taxi's windscreen which had a crack in it like a lightening bolt. The driver was a huge gruff man who sat next to Casper in the passenger seat who was a student from Osh and asked us questions like "How hot is Miami?". I like Kyrgyzstan a lot.

Bishkek is a cute little city and somehow i'm staying in a guesthouse in an old Soviet apartment building with a Muslim and two Israelis. I managed to get a Uzbekistan visa here the other day so i'll be there in a few weeks and i also did something that i didn't want to do but had to - i bought a plane ticket. I fly from Tashkent in Uzbekistan to Baku in Azerbaijan at the start of October as visas and boats across the Caspian Sea were too much of pain in the arse and time consuming. And it means that i'll have more time to see the mountains and the mild craziness that is Kyrgyzstan. I can hardly wait.

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