Saturday, July 12, 2014

DAY 25 – 10 July 2014; Akesu to Kashgar

Breakfast spread at the restaurant of the Zhongtian Hotel was substantial. Apart from the Garden Hotel in Kuerle this was the most impressive. The only difference was that the latter had more Continental variety. This Chinese feast had a lot of vegetable, boiled, cooked and pickled. Thus, there was Fried Rice, Porridge, cabbage, lettuce, celery, spinach, radish, carrot, cucumber, mushroom, boiled egg, sesame balls, cakes, hard bread and eggs to order. We took time over the breakfast since the drive was a long one and, like yesterday, would find no place to stop for regular meal. The only thing lacking was tea and coffee.

We were to take the G3012 to Kashgar from Akesu. As we experienced it during the day the G3012 was closed for most of its length; there were many diversions to take the G314, which itself was under repair in many places. Thus, it was not a stretch conducive to speed as we had yesterday. The road was bumpy in a few places too. However, we got into Kashgar by 3 pm, when the fuel tank was almost about to yield. There were no hassles filling up fuel. The friendly fuel station attendant wanted to know how easy it was to drive the RH car in China. I gave him the special bookmark as a souvenir.

Yingchu had arranged accommodation in Xiyu Holiday Hotel within the city. It had private parking facilities. We checked in and sought the restaurant. It was a Continental restaurant and the staff spoke English, which was a relief. We were seated by a window and the dry heat penetrated the thick window glazing and made it uncomfortable for us as the lunch wore on. The menu was rather elaborate and so were the prices! Instead of trying anything fancy we ordered two fried rice dishes, one with Ham and the other with Abalone, and a Noodle dish with beef. For the first time in a couple of weeks we were served water, else it was either green or black tea, mostly on demand. The food was good; it vanished faster than it took time to prepare, for we were ravenously hungry.

With Yingchu we decided to visit the Grand Bazaar and the Id-Kah Mosque after some rest to wait out the blazing Sun. In the meanwhile, I went with Yingchu to get the car water washed. The car was covered in a thick layer of dust and grime. The Car Wash was a short distance from the hotel and was operated by a family of three; the young son chipped in too with his mother to wipe dry the car after it had been expertly hose down by the father. Even by 6.30 pm, when we got out of the Hotel, the Sun was fierce and the heat was intolerable. Local people went about their businesses as usual. It was only visitors like us who were getting fried. The city of Kashgar, or Kashi for short, is an ancient city and has been inhabited for over 2000 years. The city was an important hub along the old silk road. It was from Kashgar that the northern (via Turpan) and the southern (via Yutian) routes diverged to the East. The city has a population of over 3.5 million and it can be felt on the roads, where taxi drivers (in smart uniform), women on scooters, men driving electric hand carts, public transport and swanky private vehicle jostle to get ahead of each other.
We took a taxi to the Eastern Entrance of the Grand Bazaar. It is more known as the Sunday Bazaar, for it is on that day that one can get the best bargain. It is reputed to be the biggest market in Asia, and most definitely in China. As I got in through the carved gate of the Bazaar the strong smell of spices hit me point blank. The Bazaar has abundant varieties of all kinds of commodities, durable and perishable. There are almost exclusive alleys for clothing, handicrafts, carpets, footwear, hardware, electrical and electronic goods, dry fruits, spices, musical instruments, hats, capes and stoles, etc. There were even vendors selling CDs of Hindi movies – Chennai Express seemed to be a hot favourite. (We were asked by many shopkeepers, once they came to know that we are from Hindustan, if we knew Shah Rukh Khan!) The local people, I understood, flock to this market to source their wares. Even retailers from other villages and cities could be seen bargaining for the right price. I bought a pant piece for Yuan 35 (INR 350), which will certainly cost over INR 1000. The market offered goods from various parts, as was the tradition during the heydays of the Silk Road. The opening of the Khunjerab Pass and the Tourgat border has resulted in more merchant and tourist activity in the recent past, which in turn has increased commercial activity in the Bazaar. People started coming from faraway places to buy things from Kashgar for sale in their own countries. It is said that the annual sales in the Grand Bazaar totes 125 million Yuan. A walk through the Bazaar was a wonderful experience to feel the folk custom and culture of the Xinjiang Uyghur people. The shopkeepers are so hospitable that were only too keen to explain and make you experience their products. Within the Bazaar large number of battery operated handcarts convey huge bags from and to the shops. The Bazaar, for the number of people it serves, is neat and clean.

From the Grand Bazaar it was another taxi ride to the Id-Kah mosque, which is the largest in China. It was built around 1442 (it incorporated structures that belonged to the 10th century). It is one of the holiest places of worship for Muslims around the world. The street around the mosque is extremely colorful and busy. Stall selling small electrical and electronic items, bakeries, kebab shops, food stalls, homemade ice cream shops, etc made for a very congested but thoroughly enjoyable walk. We picked up a few sticks of chicken and duck kebabs and returned to the hotel. Thus, the last city on the China leg of the journey had been completed. The experience was thoroughly enjoyable, mostly due to the effervescent presence of Yingchu. She was calm and composed at all times. She always explained anything that you asked of her without any hesitation; questions were never brushed away, however controversial the topic was. She sourced us the best accommodation for the price we wanted and helped us flavor local cuisine and experiment with them. She even got us hooked to the chopsticks. Most importantly, she was like a team member during the entire two weeks, eating what we ate, drinking what we did and even humming Hindi songs! Three cheers to her and the NAVO team, who made this a memorable trip for us. We had a lot of misgivings, but they were all belied.

Tomorrow morning another NAVO guide will take us to the Tourgat border to exit China. I have also arranged another on the Kyrgyzstan side. We have decided to leave Kashgar by 9 am. There are two customs points on the Chinese side. Most importantly, there is a time difference of two hours between the two borders – we will gain two hours as we move to Kyrgyzstan. From now on it is going to be a journey from +8 GMT to 0 GMT. 25 of the 75 days have been completed, and we hope that the rest of the experience is as pleasant as it has been till now. The prayers and good wishes of our families and friends back home, I am sure, will ensure that.

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