Saturday, August 9, 2008

Aug 8 - Kashgar

The day of the Olympics had finally arrived. At the furthest point from Beijing, still in China, the Olympics were 24/7 on TV, and scattered all over public signage.

We got out of the hotel about 11:30, to explore the town. Three goals: (1) change some more money; (2) get a taxi to go on a day trip to Tashkurgan on the road to Pakistan tomorrow (Saturday); and (3) buy bus tickets for the Monday ride across into Kazakhstan.

As for number 2, this road climbs and passes within 30 km of Kongur Tag, a 7700+ meter mountain, along Karakol (Lake), a 10000 foot high supposedly pristine lake, and 20 km of Mustaghata Tag, a 7550 meter mountain. Mustaghata is the tallest mountain in the world within 20 km of a road, and Kongur is the tallest mountain in the world within 30 km of a road, so they are likely to be the tallest mountains we would ever see in our lifetimes. These heights, in the 24000-25000 foot range, are higher than any mountains in the Americas, Africa, Europe, and the former Soviet Union. The only higher mountains are in the Himalayas and the Karakorum Ranges. As an aside, Mustaghata is reportedly to be an easy mountain to climb among the mountains of this height, needing only 12 days to climb and come down from. Tashkurgan is a town of people who speak their own language, a Tajik-like language called Tashkurgani. The town is in the Tashkurgani Autonomous Region of Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

We were told by several people that we could not just take a taxi down this road, but needed a permit. That was quite too bad, because a taxi driver gave us a quote of 500 RMB for the whole day, at least as far as Mustaghata, which we decided was far enough. We also asked about laundromats, and were told none existed.

There are two centers of tourist concentration in Kashgar, one at Qinibagh, and the other, 1+ km away, at Seman Hotel. Both feel like Sultanahmet in Istanbul, catering to backpackers and groups of international travelers. We hadn't seen this many round-eyed ones yet on this trip (other than the eclipse groups in their own buses).

On the way we changed $300 US easily, for the first time, after finding the right kind of bank. It was Carol's turn for general collapse. We hadn't eaten anything since a piece of leftover bread this morning, and nothing else since Hotan. We stopped at a supermarket and bought 5 popsicles, 3 milk-mung bean, one "green," and one chocolate. The sugar and coldness revived us. There was a bookstore across the street where, on the way back to the hotel, we bought two nice maps of Kashgar, and were able to figure out the local bus system.

By 1:30 or so, we were at the Seman Hotel. There were three travel agencies, vying for our business. We finally settled on John, who runs John's Information Cafe. For 800 RMB ($118 USD), plus another 100 RMB for two travel permits, we arranged for a 9 AM departure on the next morning. As we were to clearly see the next day, there are travel considerations right now that have isolated the regular tour drivers, causing difficulties in getting in and out of town in certain directions. We heard that Torugart Pass was closed for several days, and met one guy who had waited five days to cross over into Pakistan.

On the way back to the hotel we bought 2 4 liter bottles of water (8 in all) for 16 RMB. That is a better price than buying individual bottles, to say nothing of the environmental impact.

Finally, up to the International Bus Station, where by 4 pm, we had two tickets on the Monday sleeper bus to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. The bus runs only once a week, and costs 440 RMB per ticket. By this time, we had a choice between the back of the bus lower level, and first seats upper level. We chose upper level front. Time will tell whether this was the right decision. The 500 km or so trip, over difficult and rough road, is scheduled to take 28 hours. This will either be the high point of the trip, or a hellish experience.

It was time for food and internet, so we took an 8 bus, into south Kashgar, a different part of town, far from the tourists. We got off at a small bazaar street, got our eyes attracted by roasted ducks, complete with head and neck, coming fresh off the grill, and bought a whole duck for 30 RMB ($4.50 USD). The duck was hacked up and we ate it right there. It was quite tasty, but did not come with its own numbered certificate. We bought for the next days trip. We got 6 carrots, and a pickled beet root. Walking out of the market, Carol spied dried apricots, 20 RMB for a kilogram bag.

Purchases complete, we crossed the street, and after a few questions, found a local internet cafe, where the guys in charge had never sold time to foreigners. They sort of finally figured it out, but when our time ran out, the place was closed down, and we had to leave. Mike thinks that as soon as we left, they all came back, and reopened the place.

It was already 6:30 pm, and the Olympic Opening Ceremony was to begin in aboiut 1.5 hours. We got back to the hotel, and started a monumental wash of everything dirty in our possession, heaviest first.

Mike was thinking about trying to go to a public square, where earlier we had spotted a Jumbotron, to watch the Olympics. Nobody at the hotel would give us an unequivocal answer as to whether the Olympics were going to be shown in public. Carol was still washing clothes, and Mike chose not to go out exploring on what was likely to be a wild goose chase, so we watched the opening ceremonies on TV in our hotel room. The entire uncut (no commercials on China CCTV) thing was already going at 6 pm XT (8 pm BT), and lasted close to 4 hours. We fell asleep without going out again for some kind of dinner.

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