Monday, March 03, 2008
The stone fortress in Tashkurgan.
There were a lot of Tajiks on the bus up to Tashkurgan; the women wore an interesting headdress that looked like this(Wikipedia link; not my pic). Tajik, unlike the Turkic languages of most of the -stan countries, is an Iranian language, related to Farsi and Pashto. The Tajik spoken in China is actually different from that spoken in Tajikistan; it's an Eastern Iranian language (as opposed to Tajik, which is Western Iranian) and also called Sarikoli. At any rate, I don't understand any, but I remember it being very pleasant-sounding. Tashkurgan borders Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and is not far from the Khunjerab pass to Pakistan. As we neared the town, we passed by a road sign welcoming us to "Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County"; according to official statistics, Tajiks make up 84% of the population.
A last glimpse of Muztagh Ata on the way up to Tashkurgan.
Tashkurgan's namesake and claim to fame is the huge Tajik rock fortress (Tashkurgan literally means "rock fortress") dating back to the 13th century. Some PLA guys helpfully pointed the way there - it's just a few minutes walk down the main road, at the edge of town.
The Tashkurgan stone fortress.
Grasslands around Tashkurgan.
The fortress was pretty impressive and well-preserved, with a great view of the grasslands and the Pamir mountains. As we were climbing about, a Russian-looking kid in a military jacket ran up and asked us to show our tickets. The ticket seller hadn't bothered giving us actual tickets, but they were a weird price (13 kuai each if I'm not wrong) and apparently knowing the exact price was enough to satisfy him. Some Koreans from the bus came up and greeted us, but didn't seem terribly interested in sharing the cost of a driver up to the Khunjerab pass to Pakistan.
Tashkurgan's a small town, but it has its own Ihlas and Arman (Uyghur grocery chains) and a nice view of the Pamirs. It was too late to go up to the Khunjerab pass that day, so we strolled around town a bit and visited the little market. I finally managed to buy myself a working tape player after testing almost every one of the seller's stock and finding they were already broken (seems like an awful investment!) Later on, we had dinner at a run-of-the-mill Sichuanese place. Like most Chinese restaurants in out-of-the-way Xinjiang towns, it was pretty awful and overpriced. But sometimes you just get tired of eating kebabs, laghman, and nan every day, you know?
The next day was our big day for Pakistan. We went to the town center, at the intersection of its two roads, and found a driver who would take us up to the Khunjerab pass. He expressed doubt that we'd be allowed to go up there, mentioning that other foreigners had been turned away in the past, but we'd give it a shot. The driver was a tall, friendly man, originally from Xi'an. He had a little son who jumped about in the back of the van, singing along to "你真的伤害我" and rolling down the window sometimes to throw out his empty bags of chips.
Our first stop was the local PLA base just at the edge of town - we had to obtain a permit to travel to the border region. The guy in the guard booth looked skeptical when our driver asked about the possibility of taking us up, asking what we were doing in China. We replied that we were students, and suddenly, I remembered our student IDs from Xi'an Jiaotong! For some reason, the student IDs seemed to change everything, and after a couple of radio calls and consulting with superiors, he decided to issue us the permit.
On the road up to the Khunjerab pass.
The drive up was really scenic - out in the wide open grasslands, up into the mountains. There was nobody around except for a few local Tajik shepherds and rock cottages on the side of the road. Every now and then we passed some locals riding donkey carts right on the highway. As we headed further up into the mountains and up through the clouds, I was surprised to see there were still small rock houses up there. Halfway up into the mountains, we ran into another PLA checkpoint, where the guard checked our border travel permit, saluted, and waved us through.
When we reached the Khunjerab pass, at an altitude of over 15,000 feet, it was snowing and pretty cold despite it being early August. We ran over to the border and snapped a few shots. A lone Chinese guard stood watch, checking some cars who wanted to pass through to Pakistan. The guard was a friendly guy and didn't mind when we walked over to the Pakistani side, even agreeing to take pictures with us! I have to say, crossing the Pakistani border wasn't nearly as harrowing as the time I crossed the border to North Korea. I asked the guard where the Pakistanis were - I had been hoping to get a pic with a Pakistani guard, too - but he told me they only come out when it's more sunny and warm. We were freezing and there wasn't much to see other than fog and a few signs, so we ran back to the van and headed back to town. I didn't get to see any Pakistanis, but at least I can say I've been.
A sign reminds you to drive on the left in Pakistan.
Welcome to Khunjerab national park! Elevation 11000 to 16000 feet!
One of these cars actually gunned it across the border before the guard checked their papers. He radioed them in, I don't know what happened to them.
We didn't have much else to do before the bus back to Kashgar came, so we had lunch at an open-air restaurant, which set the record for the longest time in Xinjiang to prepare a single plate of suoman - around 45 minutes! Things are pretty laid-back up here, I guess.
The bus back to Kashgar arrived, but couldn't leave since there was nobody at the station to sell tickets. We waited around for almost an hour despite the urging of an old Tajik man who spoke pretty good Chinese - "这不是毛泽东时代!"(this aren't Mao Zedong times) he quipped, to the amusement of everyone on the bus. He was an interesting character, having attended BeiDa during the cultural revolution on a minority scholarship. Finally, the bus station guys showed up, selling the tickets in that slow, laid-back Tashkurgan style, stamping everything about twenty times with official seals - if I hadn't known better, it really did seem like we were back in 毛泽东 times!
Heading back down to Kashgar. I tried colorizing this photo in Photoshop like some people do; I'm not sure if I like it. It looks kind of weird.
The trip back down through the mountains was pretty uneventful, although I was surprised to see that the road was flooded at some points, and in places had completely broken off! We were pretty tired of the Chini Bagh hotel, so we walked around Kashgar's new town and found a new hotel that was nicer and cheaper to boot. The next day, we'd be headed off down the southern Silk Road, to Yarkand and Karghilik...