Finally. We should have been here in 2008 on our way from Kyrghyzstan to Pakistan, but it was not to be. In the meantime it seems that the Chinese Government has been a little busy demolishing the old town of adobe houses. They're still at it. Modernisation. It's understandable in the context of China. But for those who hope to capture a glimpse of life in an ancient Silk Road city, it's a disappointment. Kashgar was a trading post on the trade routes over 2000 years ago, with routes into Kashmir, Afghanistan, west through the Pamirs and east either along the southern or northern routes around the Taklamakan. It retains a strong Uighur influence, with a big bazaar and a weekend livestock market. At the centre of town is the Id Kah mosque and down the backstreets you can still find the artisans at work beating copper into pots, steel into tools. There are bakeries and barbecues everywhere. Tandoor ovens producing lovely samsas (mutton fat pies) and to our delight, chickens roasted on the spit.
We stop in a hostel that's once been a family house, with a nice patio and seating area to meet other travellers. At last we have a hot shower and get some clean clothes on. Other travellers have come from Pakistan or Kyrgyzstan. And now we learn that the Chinese government has finally lifted the internet ban so we can shangwang (get online) and learn the latest from Hunza about the lake on the Karakoram Highway. We meet Alex, a young Australian who has just come from there and rode one of the boats across the lake. He's heading to Kyrgyzstan which seems to have another whole set of problems going on. Alex looks quite unfazed.
We enjoy wandering around the town, checking out the markets on the Sunday. There's a whole theatre performance when it comes to buying donkeys or sheep. Handshakes go on for ten minutes. An audience gathers around. Sheep are lifted off the ground (to check their weight?). Sometimes a middleman acts as go-between for a small commission. There's a bit of shouting, more handshaking and then the ritual of money-counting followed by more shouting. The donkeys and sheep are enormous - I wonder what they feed 'em. In the main bazaar there are tourist souvenirs, jewellery and gems, aisles filled with dark suits and stripey polo shirts, food stalls, kitchen pots and farming tools. It's jammed in places. We enjoy a nice plate of polo (pilaf) in a busy restaurant. The father and daughter who share the table with us both wipe their faces in a prayer of thanks before departing. Walking back to our hostel we wander through streets of boarded houses being demolished. They look shabby and gloomy on the outside, but where walls have gone we can see fancy plasterwork decoration, moorish niches in walls, carved and painted wooden columns and beams. Locals are busy at work salvaging some of these gems, presumably to use again, but not here. At evening time we pass a small mosque on a road where the muezzin is calling the men to prayer. But he has no microphone - he stands on the parapet above the doorway and cups his hands to his mouth and does it the old-fashioned way. We wonder if the call is allowed by the authorities - it's such a rare sound.
We enjoy ourselves here and are ready to leave to Pakistan when we read that the boat service across the lake on the KKH has been suspended. There is no transport between the north and south side, although there is talk of a helicopter service. The news throws up lots of question marks about our route, and we have only a week left on our Chinese visa. We are terribly indecisive at the best of times, so when there are dilemmas like this we are even worse. What if the Pakistan authorities stop issuing visas at the border? In a bid to gain some breathing space we go to the Public Security Bureau to enquire about a visa extension. The good news is that they say it's possible. The bad news is that they say we have to go to Urumqi to get it. Cressida, another Aussie, helps us look up alternative flights to Europe. There's a Baltic Air flight from Almaty to Frankfurt for peanuts (the pilots are monkeys). It's tempting to go for the simple option. But Gayle is also tempted by the opportunity to cycle into Kyrgyzstan as well. Oh no, we can't agree on what to do. Vreeni, one of the other guests, bakes us a cake in anticipation of good news. There is no news from Pakistan, but perhaps the cake is a good blessing. So we decide to stick to the original plan. We'll head to Pakistan with our fingers crossed. Which anyone who has ridden a bicycle knows , is quite a hard thing to do...........