Saturday, July 12, 2014

DAY 26 – 11 July 2014; Kashgar to Naryn

We had arranged with Yingchu to meet for breakfast at 8.30 am in the Hotel restaurant. When we got there breakfast was not yet underway. I got the log sheets signed by Yingchu as also the Campaign Poster. She was mighty thrilled being asked to do it. She signed off with a goodwill message in Mandarin. It was tough taking leave of her. As I mentioned yesterday, she had become part of the team and we had come to bank on her efficiency. After breakfast, Chinese fare of Baozi, boiled egg, vegetables and cakes, Baiju presented Yingchu with a token of our gratitude – a small tip. She was overwhelmed. She deserved more than what we gave her; nevertheless, it was a gesture.

Mohammed, the local guide who was to take us to the border, arrived as appointed at 9 am. By the time we left after goodbyes and photos it was 9.30 am. The first stop was the Customs station about 100 kms short of the Tourgat border. It was evident when we reached there shortly after 10.30 am that the station was just opening up. We used the time to change the left over Yuan to Som (Kyrgyz currency) and USD. The rate was poor, but that’s the best we could manage at the border. There were many local people vending foreign currency. But one of them was definitely the leader. He refused to negotiate the rates and berated others who ventured to. After that it was an endless wait till we were summoned into the Customs Exit Hall with our luggage. The formalities there were done soon. But then after that we had to wait for more than an hour and half before the permit was handed over to Mohammed. We reached the Chinese border with the permit by 2 pm, traversing some really bad roads, and a couple of stubborn police check posts. The final 20 kms to the Chinese border in Tourgat Pass is in very poor condition. The work at the final check point was completed and we reached the gate at 2.30 pm, where Alexander (our guide from Ak-Sai Travels) could be seen on the Kyrgyz side with my name on a placard. The gate was closed and no one could be seen around the place, except for a lone Chinese military guy in a watch tower. I parked just ahead of the gate and went across to meet Alexander. He said that the gate had been closed just a few minutes earlier after passing some freight trucks. We had to wait till after 3.30 pm (Beijing Time) for the gate to be opened. It was cold and windy at the Tourgat Pass. From the altitude of 1280m (Kashgar) we had reached 3800m at the Pass.

Once the gate was opened we moved across and adjusted our watches to reflect the +6 GMT against +8 GMT Beijing time. The No-Man’s Land stretched for about 8 kms. The reception at the Kyrgyz Customs and Immigration was very different from the cold and distant behavior of the Chinese officials we had faced in the past two weeks. A lady officer handled the Immigration while a Gent handled the formalities connected with the car. There was no Customs check or declaration. The road for about 20 kms beyond the border was being constructed but the surface was well compacted and hence decently motorable. The next 125 kms plus was in excellent condition. The last 15 kms on the approach to Naryn town was completely broken down. Despite all the waits and bad roads we reached the Khan Tengri Hotel in Naryn by 6 pm LT. the drive from the Kyrgyz border was extremely pleasant with Alexander displaying considerable knowledge in history, economics, culture and politics.

The Hotel was quite adequate for a night’s stay. We had a three bed dorm room with attached bath and toilet. Since we had not had lunch it had to be early dinner at the Hotel restaurant. The menu was in Kyrgyz language and hence without the assistance of Alexander we could not even order a beer. Arpa beer is the only beer of Kyrgyzstan. That and a bottle of local Vivat Vodka were ordered. When we asked for fruit juice to be had with the Vodka there was much mirth around the restaurant. Alexander also ordered a dish of lamb, potatoes and onions for dinner. The Laprechka – round bread made with wheat flour and water – was the accompaniment for drinks. After dinner we made a bee line for the common computer in the reception. We had been out of touch due to the ban in China of Fb. Even Gmail was a casualty. I had operated a Chinese mail account to facilitate the blog updates.

As I concluded the end of my stay in China I put together a few observations from interactions with those I met during the fascinating 14 day stay in China.
-          The developments in China over the past three decades have been a mixed blessing. Income levels have gone up but so has the gap between the rich and the poor. Urbanization has been frenetic, which has led to massive influx of village people into cities in search of jobs. This has led to congestion and pressure on civic amenities in the city agglomerates. Property prices have shot up and become unaffordable to the vast majority of citizens. Young people take out mortgages on their property and are forced by circumstances to continue with their job even if they do not like it for fear of default of the mortgage. In Shanghai 1 sq mtr of living accommodation can cost as much as Yuan 10000 (INR 1 lakh). Even food prices have been on the increase. Crime has not only reared its ugly head, it has become a way of life with some sections of society.
-      Modern times have also brought in social changes – dating, live in, casual flings are all becoming socially acceptable. Parents still frown upon relationships in school but they accept relationships after high school. The legal age for marriage is 20 for girls and 22 for boys. When girls go past the age of 25 parents start getting worried and work their social and professional networks to get her introduced to suitable boys.
      Formal education starts at age 7. Almost all schools are government run. The fee structure is reasonable. Education is compulsory up to high school. English, Chinese and Math are compulsory subjects in school. However, many have started to question the need to learn English for they don’t get to use it later. The routine is 12 years in school and 3 to 4 years thereafter for graduation, depending on the course. Most professional courses are for 5 years. Members of the minority communities get financial assistance for higher education and relaxation in the eligibility for entry into institutions for education.
-      Controls are still in place in so far as the number of children one can have is concerned. Single child parents can have two children, so also parents with two girl children. Parents with physically or mentally challenged children are also exempt from the single child norm. In case the norm is violated heavy fines have to be paid which depends on whether one is from a village or a city, earning capacity, number of violations, etc. Yingchu claimed to be the legal child of her parents while they had to pay a fine of Y 1000 for her younger brother! The restrictions are basically for the numerically large Han population. However, minority communities are exempt from the family size norm. One of the reasons is that they inhabit sparsely populated regions such as Tibet, where the government even encourage parents to have more children. It is not uncommon for families to even have 6 children.
-          Dowry system is prevalent in China. Household articles and ornaments normally form the substance of the dowry (does vary depending on need – in mountainous areas a herd of Yak is a more preferred dowry!), which is decided at the time of fixing the marriage. It is a matter of prestige for some families to offer large dowries to make their children ‘comfortable’ in the house they go to. The larger the dowry the girl brings the more significant is her ‘voice’ in the house.
-   The importance of Yak in the daily life of a Tibetan – the animal is useful in life (milk, butter, wool, transportation) and in death (horn, hoofs, skin, meat, intestines). Dependence on the Yak is total in the Tibetan region.
-          God in personal life of Han people – basically observe Taoism and Buddhism; they do go to places of worship, but do not have deities ruling their lives. It is not as if they do not believe in a Supreme Being, it is just that the Supreme Being does not have a form. They do pray for personal comfort, wealth and material needs but do not have worship at home and daily prayer.
-          Physical features of the inhabitants change quite a bit through the vast sweep of Tibet to Xinjiang. They also indicate the without a guidinfluences these regions have had in the past. Apart from the Tibetan and Han characteristics the influence of Mongols in Kuerle and Russians in Turpan was quite distinct. As for religion and language the influence of Islam and Arabic could be seen right from Qinghai Province (minimal) bordering Tibet to Xinjiang that has 8 international neighbours.
-          The use of electric vehicles is encouraged in China by pricing it lower than the rest. It is quite popular with city and town users. Many local transport vehicles are also battery operated. This, along with emission norms, keeps cities and towns free from fuel particle contamination.
-          Almost entire townships have been set up with solar roofs that can be manipulated to maximize the use of sunshine. Solar water heaters are a norm for most households, hotels and restaurants. In Tibet locally assembled solar units are used for heating water for making tea. The solar farms in Geermu were an encouraging sight. Wind energy is substantially leveraged in Xinjiang Province.
-   Without a local guide and interpreter life in China, at least the places I travelled to, can be tough and disappointing. The only word you hear from a Chinese person when you try to communicate in English is ‘Mayo’, meaning ‘No’. And that was the only Chinese word I picked up too, for I heard it so often! It they are taught English in schools I fail to understand why they do not make an effort to speak the language, for China is opening up big time to Tourism and tourism related activity.

All in all the experience in China was very good, thanks mostly to Yingchu. The team of NAVO Tours had done a most competent job making our stay comfortable and transit easy. However, if possible, NAVO Tours should try and compress the self-driving trip to 10 days.

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