Wednesday, 30 June 2010

A Bit of Retail Therapy

On the way to Santai today we stopped by at a Kazakh house for food. Here are Niyaz and Peng stuffing their faces on a traditional spread of sliced nan bread served up on a cloth with delicious thick sour cream and washed down with copious bowls of slightly salted milk tea. The tea may not sound as if it would appeal to our western taste buds, but in fact I am now beginning to develop a quite a liking for it. Just as well as I am about to tackle Central Asia.

I am a sucker for Kazakh embroidery, and when the lady of the house produced a colourful set of wedding saddle bags for Shandan to model, there was not much internal debate before I yielded and persuaded her to part with them.

She very proudly showed off their living quarters - here are some of the family members with Michelin woman. This luxurious interior richly furnished with carpets and embroidered wall hangings is typical of Kazakh houses, and a throwback to their traditional nomadic lifestyle living in yurts. The young son was quick to seize the opportunity to display his Kazakh accessories.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Close Encounters

Saturday 15th May
We have been taking a break in Jimsar, partly to get the horses shod and partly as Peng wanted to do a spot of sightseeing here. He is always up for visiting any Buddhist places of interest within miles, and was very keen to visit the old Buddhist city of Beiting just to the north of Jimsar. I was rather surprised that I had never heard of it before, until I realised that this was the Chinese name for the ancient Uighur city of Beshbalik, the site of which is now being excavated and developed. French and Cable mistakenly identified it as the old name for Urumqi. Beshbalik dates from at least the eighth century and became capital of the Uighur Karakhoja kingdom following the fall of the Uighur Empire of Mongolia in the ninth century. It was abandoned in the 13th century. At this time the Uighurs had not yet converted to Islam, but practised Buddhism, as well as Manichaeaism, the latter being an extinct and somewhat bizarre religion. The West Temple is being excavated from a huge mound reminiscent of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', though I was the only alien in evidence. It has been encased in an enormous building in the style of the Terracotta warriors.

The Chinese authorities cannot resist an opportunity to make a political point.

We also had another close encounter with the police, but once they were confident we were official, they could not have been more helpful, though they told us not to film in town - rather strangely as Jimsar is indistinguishable from any other standard Chinese town. They not only treated us to a delicious Chinese meal (at which Niyaz sat rather glumly until they rustled up some nan bread for him) but tracked down some fodder for the horses, as our supplies are getting perilously short. This comprised a load of maize stalks from one yard, and some chopped straw from another. To our surprise, the latter transpired to be part of the rations for a pen of wild asses which had been rescued from the winter snows, and were recuperating prior to release back into the wild. They were certainly wild.

To Peng's delight if not mine and Niyaz', the police also told us about a Buddhist temple at the top of a nearby hill, so off we all traipsed again. But in fact, although it was not very old (only Qing dynasty!) it was well worth visiting, if only for the sinister Turkic looking buddhas which lined the walls. An iinteresting reminder that the Uighurs were not always Muslim. Is the gentleman on the right really wearing spectacles?

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Ding Dang

The horses are in desperate need of shoeing. As we have been riding carefully, I had hoped the original shoes might possibly hang on until we reached Urumqi, where we are more likely to find a good farrier. But Shandan lost a shoe yesterday, and Peng also had to pull off Bajiu's front shoes as they were paper thin. However it is a job to find someone capable of shoeing horses, and we have spent the day being told there is someone at the next town, only to arrive and discover it was not so. Here is Peng in his Man of Mystery guise, being told yet again to try the next town.

In the meantime we are going slow and keeping to earth tracks where possible. If the worst comes to the worst we can always fall back on Peng's rubber tyre shoes as he has his shoeing kit with him, but the beat on the street is that there is definitely a farrier somewhere here in Jimsar.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

The Hair of the Horse

Thursday May 13th.
On the way to Qitai, we were directed along this pleasant rural back road, and Niyaz also decided to negotiate it in the truck.

Unfortunately he met a truck barrier at the other end. Here he is trying to pump a young driver for tips on how to get out of this pickle.

Eventually an elderly resident came to the rescue with an escape route. But the price of the information - a lock of Shandan's tail ...............

.............. apparently for use with some unidentified musical instrument!

I had hoped to visit Qitai, (previously Gucheng) as it is historically an important hub of trade routes, and the Trio stayed there on their journey in 1926. But we have taken a short cut to the south of the main town, and Peng wants to press on to Jimsar (Tsimusa) and have a day's rest there to visit a nearby Buddhist site.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Kazakh Country

Wednesday May 12th
From Muleihe we have been riding through a greener and more cultivated area studded with neat little Kazakh houses traditionally painted white with pale blue doors and window frames.

It appears to be a prosperous agricultural area - we have seen no ploughing animals as in other parts of China, and American company John Deere have a strong presence, though large pieces of machinery such as shown below outside a farmhouse are likely to be contracted. We saw a lot of agricultural eqipment such as this being transported across the Gobi.

We have even had some rain, and had to negotiate this river weir just outside Muleihe - the wooden bridge described by French and Cable is no more, although the main road crosses a modern bridge to the south of the town.

The horses were not at all impressed by the swift sheet of floodwater, and Peng sacrificed himself to the cause by dismounting and giving us all a lead - but he had a change of clothes at the ready!

Arriving at Laoqitai (Old Qitai). In the days of French and Cable it was called Qitai, whereas the current Qitai was called Gucheng (Old City).

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Unusual Wildlife

Tuesday May 11th.
In Xinjiang we have seen a fair amount of birdlife and wildlife, including an antelope which bounded in front of the truck near Qijiaojing, and some 'huang yang' or 'yellow sheep' fleeing into the distance as we rode up the ravine. I am actually none too sure what 'huang yang' are, but they are certainly some sort of wild sheep, probably argali.

However it was a surprise to see these in a stream near Sangequanzi.

Find the lizard.

And this close up is easy compared with from the back of a horse. There are lots of these little lizards in the desert, only noticeable when they scuttle away.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Into Dzungaria

Monday May 10th.
In travelling north across the eastern end of the Tian Shan mountains into Dzungaria, we have definitely moved into horse country. The numerous flocks of multi-coloured sheep are guarded by Kazakh horsemen riding lanky raw-boned horses with ewe necks, although in keeping with progress, they are sometimes replaced by motorbikes.

Horses are a common means of transport - here is a horse at the ready outside a local shop.

The demon boy racer below was very keen to show off his speedy 'zou ma' or pacer, though I imagine a fully trained Zorbee could give him a run for his money.

The grazing is very sparse, and consists mainly of scattered shrubs and herbage rather than the thick carpet of grass we are used to in the UK. We were warned not to let our horses eat the lush looking vegetation below - does anyone know what it is? It is a fact that it had not been touched by local grazing animals, though Zorbee seemed none the worse when he was caught filling his belly after an overnight escape.

By an old watch tower set in typical country at Sangequanzi

Monday, 21 June 2010

Through the Ravine

Sunday May 9th.
For me, one of the most memorable descriptions given by French and Cable is of their journey crossing the Tian Shan by moonlight through a long winding ravine. ‘Great naked crags towered above us, and in some parts the side of the mountain was cut clean through as if with a gigantic knife. Our previous experience of mountain passes has led us to expect a road which must rise and fall with the course of the mountains, and we were greatly astonished when, hour after hour, we still pursued a course with no sign of a hill.’ I had been intrigued by the possibility of following this old route, but had no idea if it was still feasible, or if the Chinese had since blasted another motorway through it. The untouched gorge could be clearly seen on satellite maps, but on the other hand some Chinese maps showed a road – but had this just been copied from a very old map?
So I was very excited when Meymeyti told me this route still existed as a track passable by horse but not vehicle. And at the same time came the news that Peng would be rejoining us – I had not felt it would be safe to tackle this route on my own, particularly due to my wobbly level of communication with Niyaz.
Soon after sunrise, Peng and I rode from the house of our Kazakh hosts in Qijiaojing xiang across the desert to the start of the ravine. This is near a gravel road passable by vehicle which crosses the mountains a little further east. Niyaz would be driving the truck round on this road and meeting up with us on the good metalled road that runs along the north side of the Tian Shan. We let Shandan follow loose, as I felt it would be better for him than standing on the truck all day over a rough route.
The Trio took nine hours to negotiate the dry bedded ravine, and we were told it was about 30kms long, though I estimated it was probably much further with all the bends. Thus we knew we could expect to be a long time without water for the horses, and made sure they had a good drink and a small hard feed before setting out up the gorge, the mouth of which was not too difficult to find.

This had to be the most amazing day’s riding I have had in China, winding for hours along the deserted ravine through some of the most dramatic scenery imaginable.

Often the track seemed to end in a gigantic impassable wall of rock, and it was only as we got nearer that we could see that the gorge swung sharply to left or right. And as French and Cable described, the route was astonishingly level for one crossing a mountain range.
We were expecting to water the horses at the end of the gorge at Towshui, where the Trio stayed, and where we were reliably informed there was a source of water, but at some point we went wrong or overshot it. However by now there was the occasional isolated dwelling, and we were able to ask directions from the odd Kazakh shepherd.
In the late afternoon we eventually reached a small river, and the horses were able to drink at last.

But it was still several hours ride north to the road to meet Niyaz just before dusk at about 9.30.
To our surprise it had taken Niyaz about 10 hours to reach the metalled road along the gravel road, and the drive had also involved a lot of steep gradients, unlike our route.
We all slept in the truck overnight and rode on to Dashitou the next day. It was total luxury to have the comfort and privacy of a room to myself and a basin bath after almost a week sleeping in my straw nest, apart from one night sharing a room with ‘the boys’.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Mr Peng Is Back

Friday May 7th. Qijiaojing was once a place of some importance, being the point where the roads from Hami to Turfan and Hami to Qitai (Gucheng) diverged. French and Cable refer to the telegraph line which turned towards Turfan at this point, and there are still remnants of the old telephone line today, but with no wires.
With the building of the new metalled road to Urumqi via Turfan which runs about 25 miles to south, Qijiaojing became an unimportant backwater, and fell into ruin.
In spite of its ruined state it is a remote and charming spot with a few small fields and green poplars set in dramatic desert scenery. This morning after breakfast of milk tea and nan bread kindly laid on by our Chinese hosts, Mr Li showed us their water source which comes from a karez system – man-made underground tunnels channeling fresh water from the hills.
Here is Mr Li and his wife outside their farmhouse.
Peng called to say he had arrived in Hami and would be catching the bus, so Niyaz and I went to pick him up from the main road. . about an hour’s drive along a rough track across the plain with desert dust coming in through every crevice. In true style Peng was immediately at work looking after the horses the moment he arrived back. We decided to move on to the nearby town of Qijiaojing xiang where we were assured of accommodation for all us. It is based around the local salt flats. Peng and I rode the horses around the edge of the centre of the plain, which is composed entirely of sand - the wind was whipping it up into an enormous localised sandstorm – an incredible sight, particularly when a large group of camels slowly crossed in front of us and into the storm, but unfortunately I did not have my camera with me.

This whole small area is full of strange and wonderful scenery.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Mei You Ren

Thursday May 6th. Whereas on our crowded little island the ambition of most British is to get away from it all, most Chinese are utterly aghast at the thought of spending the night anywhere away from other people –hence Peng’s amazing ability to find human life to stay with even in the middle of the desert. Niyaz, although a Uighur, is no exception. The term ‘mei you ren’ (there is no-one there) expressed in tones of horror, crops up with regularity.
About 20kms on from Yiwanquan, an old abandoned trade route strikes off from the current main road (which leads to Urumqi via Turfan), and crosses the end of the Tian Shan to Dzungaria, continuing to Urumqi on the northern side of the Tian Shan mountains.. This was the route taken by the Trio in 1926 and one I am following. The first stop on this northern route was Cheguluquan (referred to as Cart Wheel Halt by the Trio) and as Mehmehti had told me there was still a water source and someone living there, and it was a longish haul to the next settlement Qijiaojingcun, I hoped to stop there overnight.

However, on my rendezvous with Niyaz at the above waterhole just before the turn off, it was clear he had other plans. A Kazakh shepherd had just given him the dreadful information ‘Cheguluquan mei you ren’. Niyaz first suggested staying at a ghastly truck stop down the road, and then with the family of the shepherd – the latter being quite an attractive proposition had it not been for the fact that it involved riding 3kms in a completely different direction. Added to this another Kazakh family member turned up on a scary camel which caused panic among the horses and I can’t say I blame them as it did resemble a kind of Camel of the Baskervilles. Here it is glowering at Zorbee and Shandan and I felt I could not expect them to spend the night with it.

So I stuck to my guns and set off along the gravel cart track to Cheguluquan, preceded by a resigned Niyaz. French and Cable comment about Cheguluquan ‘The little row of inns stood in a gorge between stony hills, and force of the gales through the narrow ravine was so great as to have worn the rocks into hollows, in the depths of which birds had made their nests. This was the most striking example of wind erosion that we saw’. To my delight, although all that is left of the row of inns is rubble, and there was no evidence of nesting birds, the narrow gorge with its wind eroded rocks is there as they describe it.

But the prediction ‘mei you ren’ was correct, and I could not see any source of water (though I later found a scummy pool) Faced with the sighs of a baleful Niyaz and the fact that it was still only 3 o’clock, I decided to push on to Qijiaojingcun where it was rumoured three people lived.
This in fact was one of the loveliest rides I have had in China. After winding along the lonely gorge for a couple of hours, I emerged into a wide desert basin ringed by bare rugged mountains and completely without sign of human impact apart from the ancient trade route. Leading the horses down the old earth track through the sparse scrub I felt for the first time that I was living the route exactly as the Trio would have experienced it eighty years ago. All that was missing was the creak and rumble of their heavy carts.

The distances are quite misleading – the Trio reckoned the basin to be about 20 miles across, but as you can see from the photo it looks much less. From this point Niyaz thought we would reach Qijiaojing in a couple of hours, but I was rightly not so optimistic, and was still plodding across the sandy plain as shadows lengthened. Approaching Qijiaojing we passed through surreal scenery of great tamarisk mounds up to 20ft high – the Trio stated that they had been computed to be up to 1000 years old.
We reached Qijiaojing as dusk fell, and to my amazement it was not the couple of inhabited houses I had been expecting, but a whole ghost town – even more ghostly as I padded in through the failing light. However, Niyaz had tracked down one of the inhabited houses, which belonged to a most welcoming farming couple. They let us park truck and horses in their large courtyard, and invited us in for milk tea and chat.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010


Wednesday May 5th. Feng means ‘wind’ in Chinese, as well as ‘mad’, depending on which Chinese character you use. French and Cable commented on the strength of the wind on this part of the Silk route between Hami and Urumqi, and having just spent the best part of two days struggling against a gale force head wind I can now personally vouch for this fact. And there were moments when I thought I must be mad.
It was not helped today as I optimistically followed the new unopened G3 expressway to avoid traffic and rough ground, but then found myself trapped on it by a never ending fence and railings. As I was being channelled further and further away from the current main road, and up into the exposed and windy mountains, I was worried I might end up blown to bits in Barkul (on the other side of the hills). However to my relief the G3 eventually reunited with the main road just before my destination Yiwanquan.
After surviving the battle through the gale to arrive here, I feel it must be the location of the isolated inn stayed in by the Trio - ‘the wind blows with such force down this valley that whole caravans have perished, the carts being blown to pieces and the men and overwhelmed by the whirling sand.’

It is now also the location of a grand new toll gate, and Niyaz has found what must be the only sheltered spot for miles around, tucked in beside the attached police station. I was pleasantly surprised to be met by a welcoming delegation of police bearing bottled water and cakes, and they also lugged out water for the horses from the station!
I am sleeping in my straw nest again, but have paid for Niyaz to stay in one of the only lodging rooms.

Uighur Hospitality

Tuesday 4th May
As I am now riding on my own, but there is only room for one horse on the truck, I am leading Zorbee – luckily he is a very easy horse to lead. But at least I had perfect riding weather yesterday – breezy and cool. And the added bonus that the Karlik Tagh mountains suddenly emerged out of the haze to the northeast to provide a picturesque backdrop.

However a pleasant day’s ride along a quiet road across the desert had a slightly frustrating end as there appears to be some confusion over the location of Yaziquan, the ‘Duck Pond’ referred to by the Trio, and where I had aimed to stay. I am still not sure where Niyaz went, but he was not waiting at the place I had identified as Yaziquan (just to the north of the new town of Sandaoling), and the resident Chinese seemed unaware of its existence. Slight panic when I also then discovered Niyaz was not using the mobile number he had given me. I did not relish the thought of spending the night alone at the side of the road in the dark with two horses and no money. However, eventually I managed to contact him via his family, and he thankfully turned up after I had asked some locals where I was – Sandaoling according to them.
Today I followed the abandoned old road across scrub desert at the foot of the Karlik Tagh, stopping at a lovely small oasis at midday. The new unopened and empty G3 motorway then provided a fast track route to Liaodun, where there is an old watchtower by a pretty little oasis pond surrounded by sheep.
Niyaz had met up with friendly fellow Uighur Mehmehti, who let us park the truck and horses in front of his farmhouse, and invited us in for milk tea and the stale bread which seems to be de rigeur in these parts. He keeps sheep and also runs a herd of about fifteen horses on the foothills, so we had plenty in common.
And when Niyaz and I had a shopping trip to Sandaoling, we were treated to a meal at Mehmehti’s son’s restaurant. I am sleeping in the lorry tonight and have made myself a cosy nest in the straw, and Niyaz is sleeping in the farmhouse with Mehmehti – there is no separate accommodation for women!
Cheering news today that Peng’s father is better, and Peng hopes to rejoin us as soon as he can.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Kazakh Hospitality

Sunday 2nd May. After an emotional farewell to Peng, we set off from Hami on the next stage of the journey, leading Zorbee as the truck is full of straw. It is proving a bit of a learning curve for Niyaz, particularly due to the communication problem, but his local knowledge is turning out useful. After being confronted by police almost immediately we reached our first stop Erpu, the horses ended up being hosted courtesy of the police once more, a warm welcome being ensured when a Uighur police friend of Niyaz turned up on the scene. However the disconsolate scene below was caused when we discovered our early start the following morning had been foiled
- we were locked out of Police premises.

Rowena eventually managed to squeeze through the side gate to feed the horses and someone arrived soon after with the key.
We are still riding through oases, but also across stretches of intervening desert. We have passed Sanpu, where the Trio stayed, as Niyaz has found lodgings a little further on at Luxuan with a Kazakh family.
On arrival we had a welcome bowl of milk tea on a kang in one of the main living rooms – served with stale bread which is dipped in to soften it. Here is Niyaz in his element relaxing with the Kazakh patriarch and his two composed little twin grandsons …

…before taking Rowena off to catch the train in Hami – she is flying home tomorrow from Urumqi. I was taken off to another large room almost entirely filled with a carpeted platform on which we sat and ate delicious jiaozi dumplings. Then came an inspection by a train of curious lady visitors – here they are poring over my photo album.