Final update: 13th October 2011

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In the previous update we left me wondering about the fate of Kashgar’s old British consulate amid the city’s construction frenzy. I poked around a bit, turned a corner and to my astonishment there it was – a nugget of history in the shadow of a high-rise hotel. Better still, in the 24 years since my last visit it had been well looked after, and the owners of the restaurant inside were clearly proud of their historic home.

Chini Bagh in 1987      Chini Bagh in 2011

In 1987 my plan had been to follow Marco Polo’s route along the southern fringe of the Taklamakan Desert, the great wasteland which in the Uyghur language means ‘Go in, and you won’t come out’. Unfortunately the Chinese police had other ideas, and arrested me halfway across. How different it is today! The sandy 1,200-mile track has become a fast surfaced road, the oases welcome foreigners, and the grindingly crawling lorries on which I hitch-hiked have been replaced by air-conditioned buses.

Taklamakan Desert      Desert road

A sad aspect of China’s development is that you no longer see streets full of bicycles. People now whizz about on electric scooters, which while good for the environment can be a bit spooky till you get used to them. Imagine the sound of a hundred milk floats bearing down on you.

      Bactrian camel

Surprisingly, something that hasn’t disappeared yet is the working camel. Apart from tourist ones, I’ve seen quite a few in western China pulling produce carts or gurgling contentedly at markets. Other flourishing traditions include ‘noodle-pulling’, and of course the street barber.

Haircut, sir? NATURALSIZEFLAG=      Great Wall

At the 14th-century Jiayuguan Fort, I reached the western end of the Great Wall of China and finished the eastbound journey that I’d begun in May. For 650 years, European and Central Asian travellers have passed through the narrow gateway here and celebrated their arrival in China’s heartland. For the Chinese, the gateway was the point where they left civilisation behind and set forth across the desert. For me it was a bit of both.

Jiayuguan Fort      Tianchi Lake

The days were shortening, and in the Taklamakan oases the poplar trees were already turning to gold. I took a westbound overnight train to Xinjiang’s capital Ürümqi, to finish the trip in some mountains as I’d begun. The Tien Shan range north of the city provides rich summer pastures for Kazakh shepherds, and by a chilly lake I found a bed for the night with one of the few families still there. Rashit and Jamey had already packed up everything except the frilly lace. Like me, they were heading for home.

Jamey pours tea      Cosy in my yurt

This is the last ‘Georgia to Afghanistan and China’ update. John returned to the UK on 14th October 2011.

Huge thanks to Tim Jasper at
Rohan Designs for equipping me yet again,
and to Zoë Brookes at the Brasher Boot Company – now
Berghaus – for the brilliant desert and mountain footwear.

Other updates

4th May 2011 30th June 2011 27th July 2011 31st August 2011 22nd September 2011

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