June 20th-22nd: Tashkurgan, Chinese Turkistan, Western China
It's been a long day. Looking a little tired and under-showered, we roll into downtown Tashkhurgan. It's one main street is lined with hotels, restaurants and shops. People loiter in its doorways; mainly Uyghur, the Muslim Central Asiatics, and Han Chinese, the migrating population.
At the Ice Mountain Hotel, quirky manager Abdullah greets us in his bizarre Urgur-American accent. Chinese hotels are renowned for their disinterest in showers, and stomach turning toilets, so there's little to do but eat. Our first forage for food is rewarded with a bowl of local 'lagman', fat noodles laced with peppers, green beans and garlic. Amply filling our empty stomachs, we're recharged for a stroll round town.
Outside, the same characters mill this way and that. A few young Hans, neatly clad in military suits, are sucking on cigarettes, looking disinterested. In the bazaar, local women in pillbox hats and old fashioned jackets rub shoulders with young Chinese girls, whose long and pale legs taper to chunky platform soles. Men in chequered trousers, tidy shirts and navy caps huddle in groups looking like Italian country folk, their dark faces a curious meld of Asiatic and European features.
We patrol the town in search of food for the days ahead: packet noodles, instant cereal and date cakes will provide the bulk our diet. Stores line the bazaar, yet each offers an identically surreal and limited range of goods, from fresh eggs to sturdy tyres to imported wrinkle-free cream. Officially, Beijing has ended its policy of double pricing the 'foreign devils.' But this novel notion has yet to permeate to provincial level. In China, overpricing is as natural as breathing, so subtle it's barely noticeable, so well practised it barely seems necessary to bargain...and we're seriously overcharged as a result! But it's all part of the learning curve, as I find my Chinese feet once again. We console ourselves with the novelty of having our bill totted up on a talking calculator - in Chinese, of course.
Officially known as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the relationship between Beijing and its furthest province has always been frictional. Like the Tibetans, Uyghur people have never enjoyed taking orders from a distant Beijing. But unlike its peaceful Buddhist neighbours, a Muslim separatist bombing campaign has reached as far as the capital. Its a situation that needs tactful handling, surrounded as it is by so many close-knit Muslim nations. Claims are made of vast investments into the area's infrastructure, but locals say all the good jobs go to the Chinese. Even in Tashkurgan, there's a strata of tension bubbling beneath the surface; a little gentle probing points to discontent, reflected by a lack of cultural meshing in language, religion and even food.
Back in the Ice Mountain, we help keen and enthusiastic Abdullah design a new menu on the town's computer, then dine on delicious fried aubergines, glistening in MSG! Back to chopsticks, I fumble with my rice. We meet Claire and Adrian, the Tandem couple whose tracks we've been following since Pakistan. Emigrated to Australia from the UK, their cycling CV includes the epic Gulf Track from Darwin to Cairns, and now they're heading to Kashgar on their giant steed. Relatively, the Karakoram Highway is like a cycle lane for bikers from around the world, and I always enjoy meeting so many like-minded people.
We've decided to take a day's rest, as I grudgingly admit the time for a vigorous clothes wash is upon me. Looking upon my worldly possessions scattered around the sparse room, I'm always just a little proud by the amount of mess the contents of just four pannier bags can make so quickly.
Satisfied, I collapse on the frilly pink bed, rest my head on its teddy bear pillows, feeling thoroughly settled in.