Part 3: Urumqi, Kashgar, Karakul lake, Khunjerab pass, Tashkurgan
Hotel Xiangdu, Kashgar. 360 yuan for a
luxurious and very big double, actually a suite with a first room with
a sofa, TV, table etc. and a big bedroom. I actually don't need so much
luxury and would prefer a room with Internet access (which this place
is lacking). Nice and friendly Chinese lady in the reception, whose
daughter studies German in Xian.
Weather: fresh for the whole day in
Urumqi, also due to the thin coulds layer which blocks the sunlight. No
rain. Fresh but not cold (can walk around in a T-shirt even at night)
This time I sleep better and wake up shortly after 9am. I stay in the
room until 10:20am, mainly checking my messages and travelling
information. Dunhuang sounds interesting because of the big sand dunes,
but there are also sand dunes in Jarkand near Kashgar, in the
Taklaman desert. I post a message in the Lonely Planet's Thorntree
message board, asking for information about Jarkand. If the sand dunes
are nice and big enough there, it's not necessary to make the stop in
Dunhuang. Dunhuang has an airport with direct flights from Urumqi (very
early morning however), but to get to Chongqing from Dunhuang you have
to transit across Lanzhou (again an early morning flight from Dunhuang).
At 10:20am I rush down for the breakfast. This morning the breakfast is
less impressive than yesterday. This may be a five star hotel, but it
is not an international class five star hotel like the Hilton or
Marriott hotel for instance.
After the (short) breakfast, at about 10:40am I go to the business
centre in the hotel and enquire about flights to Kashgar. The 7:05pm
China Southern flight is available and costs 700 yuan. But I have to
pay cash. I get back to the room and check the price on the website of
China Southern airlines. There they quote 1230 yuan - quite a
difference! So I pack my things and at 11:45am I check out, leaving the
luggage temporarily with the concierge.
Shortly before 12pm I'm back in the business centre and ask to buy the
ticket. Not sure what goes wrong, but I'm there for almost 45 minutes
and the lady is still unable to issue the ticket (something wrong with
the printer). I start to get impatient, because now I have less than
five hours to do some sightseeing in Urumqi (will have to be back in
the hotel by 5pm, in order to be on time at the airport). With the help
of the receptionist I tell the lady to finish the ticket for me, and
I'll get it when I'm back at 5pm. I also ask the receptionist for some
advice as to what to see in Urumqi. She suggests to have a look at the
grand bazaar (guoji da baza).
Finally at 12:45pm I get out of the hotel and fetch a taxi to the
bazaar (starting fee is 6 yuan). Before getting to the
bazaar I get out of the taxi near an interesting building. From there I
slowly walk towards the bazaar, arriving there at 1:20pm. I spot a KFC
restaurant where I have some fast&greasy food.
Next to the bazaar there is a mosque. The bazaar itself is relatively
modern, actually more of a shopping complex than a bazaar. Outside on
the public square there is lots of activity, kind of a fun fair for
children. So far I'm not too impressed of Urumqi. Lots of modern
buildings, no historic core. But the city here has a middle eastern
/ central Asian flair, i.e. you can see the Muslim, Turkish and Chinese
Today there are lots of people on the streets, lots of activity and
lots of noise everywhere. At 2pm I'm about to go into overload, so I
take a taxi and head towards the next place - Zhongshan road, which is
supposed to be a shopping area and business/financial centre.
The taxi arrives there in a few minutes. The road itself looks kind of
interesting, but again it's very crowded. I'm there for half an hour,
then at 2:40pm I've had enough and take a taxi to the next spot, Renmin
Gongyuan (people's park). There is an entrance fee of 5 yuan which is
surprising, given that public parks in Europe are free, but sufficient
to deter the crowds from entering there. The park is quite nice, an
oasis of tranquillity in this busy metropolis. There is a nice Chinese
temple, but I'd guess that it probably is not too old. The
park contains also a fun fair at the southern end.
After half an hour in the park, at 3:35pm I get out of the southern
and take a taxi to the train station (just out of curiosity). The train
station building is quite modern and clean. I try to get in and have a
look at what trains there are for Turpan or other destinations. You are
only allowed into the train station if you have a ticket and the ticket
office is on the left side. Inside everything is written in Chinese
At 4pm I take a taxi back to the hotel. Before getting there I go to
the Bank of China near the hotel which I spotted today. There I try to
withdraw cash with my ATM card (Citibank Maestro/Cirrus), but although
the ATM supposedly supports Cirrus cards, I'm unable to withdraw cash.
Apparently the max. withdrawal is a meager 1000 yuan and you must use a
credit card. But I would have to transfer some money to the credit
card, otherwise there is a fee of 20 Euro per withdrawal - a lot, if
each individual withdrawal is just 100 Euro (= 1000 yuan). Even with
some money on the card, there still is a 7.50 Euro withdrawal fee.
So basically here in Xinjiang I have a cash problem, as I can't get
cash from the ATMs, but people everywhere require cash (!). Even the
travel agency this morning asked for cash, and I payed for the hotel
with cash, even if the hotel takes credit cards (the travel agents
insisted that they wanted to have cash).
So I decide to stay in a hotel in Kashgar which takes credit cards. I
get back to the hotel, fetch the plane ticket paying cash for it, and
since it's only 4:25pm I go to the restaurant of the Silver Star hotel
and order some food. It turns out that this was no good idea, because
the club sandwich I ordered is disgusting - contains some fried bacon
and some weird fried ham, no salad etc., essentially uneatable.
I pay by credit card. The lady is a bit puzzled and asks me to give her
my PIN code. I wonder why on earth she is asking for my PIN code,
when a signature on the credit card slip is sufficient. Even her male
colleague asks me for the PIN code, and I tell them again to run the
card through the machine and let me sign the slip. Then they ask for my
room number (but I already checked out) and they get back to the
reception of the hotel.
At the reception a group of five people discusses for several
minutes what to do. Pretty weird that in a five star hotel they have
such problems to accept a credit card payment. In the end they finally
get back with a slip, which I sign.
After that I go to the airport by taxi (30 yuan this time, looks like
the first transfer from the airport to the hotel was overpriced by 20
yuan). At the airport again the guy at the China Southern check-in
counter complains that my luggage is overweight (24 Kg, max. 20
allowed). I explain that there is a long queue and there is no time to
do again the queue. He gets rude and throws my ticket on the ground,
then points to an overweight counter.
With any other airline an excess weight of 4Kg would have been no
problem, but China Southern insists that you must not exceed the 20Kg
limit in the economy class. This is annoying because they make you lose
time. The 10% more you have to pay is not a problem, given that the
ticket is not too expensive.
Never mind, I get the boarding pass and head to the gate. The airport
is full of travellers today, but the plane leaves on time
(actually even a few minutes early). The plane is quite full, lots of
people apparently flying to Kashgar. Next to me an idiot
(probably an Uighur because what he says doesn't sound like Chinese)
who 10 minutes before landing switches on his mobile phone in the
middle of a turbulence and tries to make a call. He finally manages to
make the call when the plane is close to touching the ground. Mobile
phones contain powerful radio transmitters which can affect the
electronics of the plane.
We land in Kashgar at 8:45pm. Surprisingly it's still bright (in
Shenzhen it gets dark at 6pm). There is no hotel reservation counter at
the airport, so I take a taxi and ask the driver to bring me to a
hotel. The driver tells me that the drive from Kashgar to the Karakul
takes four hours, from Kashgar to Tashkurgan it's six hours. He would
charge 1000 yuan for the trip from Kashgar to Tashkurgan and back.
At the hotel they take no credit cards. I say 'thanks, but no thanks',
and ask the driver for a hotel where you can pay by credit card. The
driver asks the reception lady (very friendly lady by the way, but why
is she so obsessed with cash?) if she knows a hotel which accepts
credit cards. She makes a couple of phone calls, long discussion,
apparently there is no hotel available which takes credit cards. Cash
only. But there is a bank of China where I should be able to get a
credit card cash advance.
Fine, so I stay in this place and tomorrow I'll go to the bank of China
to get a cash advance. Hopefully this will work out (have never tried
it before), otherwise I really have a problem, because from what I
hear, also the travel agencies take only cash and I still need to buy
the plane tickets to get out of Kashgar.
It seems that the Sunday market in Kashgar is not to be missed. I might
stay in Kashgar until Sunday, then fly on Sunday to Urumqi and from
Urumqi the next day to Dunhuang, and from there to Chongqing via
Lanzhou, thereby delaying my arrival in Chongqing by two days. In the
evening I sleep
Hotel Xiangdu, Kashgar.
Weather: clouded sky in the morning
Again I couldn't fall asleep until 4am last night. This morning I wake
up at 10am. The first thing to do today will be to secure a cash
advance from the Bank of China. After that I'll go to John's cafe to
get some information and make contact with some other travellers in
order to share the cost of a trip to Tashkurgan.
The Uighurs seem a pretty mixed race. So far most Uighurs I've
seen look a bit like Chinese and only few of them have typically
Caucasian faces. Probably they've mixed a lot through intermarriages
with the Chinese
over the past centuries. Kashgar makes a good impression - a cozy,
quiet desert town after so big and busy cities such as Guangzhou,
Shenzhen and Urumqi.
I get out of the hotel at 12:30pm and walk to the Bank of China to get
a cash advance. There they tell me that I have to go to the main branch
of the bank of China. I take a taxi and am there at 12:45pm. The
withdrawal procedure runs smooth. After some queueing up, they process
my request and spend approx. five minutes checking my passport and
credit card. Then I get the 6000 yuan I requested. Lots of cash
actually, but it has to last until Monday at least, as I will be out of
town over the next two days and only back in the weekend when the banks
are closed. I also need to buy the plane ticket to Dunhuang.
At 1:20pm I'm out of the bank and start the sightseeing of Kashgar.
I only walk around for 15 minutes, then fetch a taxi to John's
cafe, where I'm planning to have a lunch, get some information and meet
Everything goes according to the plan. At John's cafe I meet Henning, a
German who works in Shanghai and speaks fluent Chinese, Kuan Li (let's
call him like this for privacy reasons), a Singaporean who shoots
photos for magazines and a Korean guy. They are all more or less
planning to do a two days trip to the Karakul lake. We discuss the
thing then split and I exchange mobile phone numbers with Henning.
At 3pm I take a taxi to the Id Kah mosque. Very unimpressive, at least
if compared with the other mosques I've seen. Near the mosque is some
kind of bazaar, where I buy some raisins (several different raisin
types are available here). The Uighur seller initially charges 20 yuan
for a small bag (100 grams or so), which seems expensive even by German
standards. When I complain he asks how much I'm willing to pay. It
appears that if the seller is an Uighur you have to
negotiate the price, which is usually not the case if the
seller is a Chinese. Later in the evening I buy a bagel and the Uighur
boy initially asks for 5 yuan, which however soon after the other
sellers correct to 1 yuan, after I complain. In Germany such a bagel
would cost the equivalent of 2-3 yuan and here we are in China.
I then look for the old town but can't find it initially. After
exploring a bit the area, I realise that the old town is actually
nothing special and quite small. No particularly interesting
architecture, not much ancient stuff left. It looks like the whole of
Kashgar is not that special, as there are no interesting sights.
Nothing or almost nothing of historical or cultural value. The whole
town seems quite new and modern. Kashgar is overrated.
At 5pm I'm back at John's cafe. There are actually two John's cafes in
Kashgar, one in the Seman hotel and one in the Qinibagh hotel. I have a
drink and a small thing and buy a plane ticket to Dunhuang (leaving
Kashgar on Sunday for Urumqi and Urumqi on Monday morning for
I then get back into town and check my emails in an Internet cafe.
Surprisingly this time they ask for my passport. This has so far never
happened to me in an Internet cafe in Asia. In fact it is annoying and
when later in the evening when I'm back in the Internet cafe they
again ask for the passport I simply walk out and check my emails in an
Internet cafe which does not ask for my passport.
At 9:15pm I'm back in John's cafe where I have some dinner and meet
Henning, Kuan Li and the other travellers. Long discussion about
changed plans, with Kuan
Li who wants to see an arch and canyon near Kashgar. In the end we
settle on a two days trip to Tashkurgan in a Volkswagen Santana,
leaving tomorrow at 9am. We'l leave the big luggage in the hotel and
carry a small bag with us. In the evening packing takes forever and I
sleep at 2:30am,
after I realize at 2am that I forgot to backup some photos.
lake -> Tashkurgan
Hotel Jiao Tong, Tashkurgan,
0998-3421192. 120 yuan for a simple double room with a basic toilet
with a water heater unit to provide the hot water. The room has some
furniture, a TV, a phone but no heating, which would be very important
considering that it is freezing cold.
Weather: great weather today,
sunshine the whole day, blue sky, just some very small clouds every now
and then. Windy, but warm enough at the lake.
The alarm clock wakes me up at 8:20am. I rush to get ready and at 9am I
check out in the lobby. At 9:10am the car is still not there, so I call
Henning. They are also waiting for the driver. The car finally arrives
after 9:30am and we leave Kashgar around 9:50am after shopping for
The car proceeds fast on the smooth and wide Karakoram highway towards
the Karakul lake. We stop every now and then when there is a photo
opportunity. At 10:50am we stop in a village, where Simon and the
Korean guy have some food, while I buy some fruits.
We then continue driving and arrive after several stops at the Karakul
lake at 2:30pm (at 1:35pm we stop at the lake in front of the Shashan
mountain). The scenery so far has been breathtaking. Dry mountain
scenery with canyon-like slopes of different colours, the white peaks
of the Tianshan mountains in the background, glaciers, peaks, rivers
and every now and then some camels and yaks.
We stay at the lake until 5pm, taking a horse ride for 20 yuan around
the lake (beautiful turquoise waters, with the snow capped Muztagh Ata
mountain in the background). Around the lake there are a few yurts
(real ones, made of cloth) and many yurts made of stone. As I'm told
the local people are a Kirghis minority who lives there.
At 5:10pm we continue driving towards Tashkurgan. The scenery now
becomes less impressive, as it's a dry plateau, a vast
and empty plane. I now realise that it would have made more sense to
spend only one day here and do the stone arch the next day.
We arrive in Tashkurgan at 6:55pm and check in at the hotel. After that
the driver brings us to the ruins of the Tashkurgan fortress. In the
evening we have a dinner in a Chinese restaurant.
pass -> Kashgar
Kashgar. Home, sweet home. Again you have to let the water run for over
30 minutes to get hot water in the bathroom.
Weather: great weather today,
sunshine the whole day, spotless blue sky. Freezing cold in the morning
in Tashkurgan, then it gets warmer, as the sun comes out. Cold at the
Khunjerab pass, but the sun is shining. Fresh in the evening in Kashgar
(need a light sweater).
After a good night of sleep (my first since I've arrived to China), I
wake up at 9am and am ready at 9:30am. The shower in the hotel is very
After some discussion with the others (the Korean guy ran out of cash
and can't proceed to Pakistan, so has to go back to Kashgar and stay
there until Monday when the banks in Korea reopen) we reach an
agreement on the plan for the day. We'll go to Khunjerab pass, approx.
5000m high and the border to Pakistan. The driver offered to do so for
200 yuan, go and come back.
At 11am we leave the hotel and head again to the fort, because Kuan Li
yesterday could not visit the fort because he wasn't feeling well. We
spend about 15 minutes at the fort, then start the drive to Khunjerab
pass. But first we get a permit at the customs control point, necessary
for proceeding until the border. The permit costs 10 yuan per
person. It's a piece of paper on which the car licence plate is
noted and the number of travellers.
At 11:40am we finally leave Tashkurgan and reach Khunjerab pass after a
few photo stops at 1:25pm. Beatiful scenery in the last half an hour
before reaching the pass. We pass through one checkpoint which lies
shortly before the border. Very cool to be at 5000m height at the
border to Pakistan.
We stay at the pass until 1:50pm, then leave. At 3:30pm we are back in
Tashkurgan and have a meal at the same restaurant where we had dinner
yesterday. Then, after a brief stop in town, we leave Tashkurgan at
4:25pm. This time the driver drives very fast and we pass by Karakul
lake at 5:37pm. After a few stops in between we are back in
Kashgar at 8:15pm.
It took us just 6:25 hours to get from the Khunjerab pass to Kashgar,
including the breaks. Actually the Karakoram highway is in a very good
state on the Chinese side (while the Pakistani part doesn't look good),
almost like a motorway, allowing you to proceed very fast. Along the
way, we pass by several 4WD vehicles with tourists. Actually a simple
sufficient to get from Kashgar to the Khunjerab pass, because the road
is very good.
In the evening we finally split after a common dinner at the Qinibagh
hotel. Tomorrow we'll probably meet at the Sunday market, then at 5pm
fly to Urumqi. I sleep at 12:30am.
Hotel Silver Star. This time the room
costs 540 yuan, because I'm unable to book the room at the airport.
By the way, painfully slow Internet connection in the room, which makes
me lose a lot of time.
Weather: in Kashgar fresh in the
morning, it takes the sun until noon to warm up the air. Sunny day with
a cloudless blue sky, but in the morning in Kashgar there is sort of a
light fog cover over the city. Well, not really fog, but the sky is
white-blue and only becomes blue around noon. Fresh in the evening in
Urumqi; thin layer of dirty air surrounding the city.
For the second night in a row I sleep well, with no problems falling
asleep. Looks like I finally adapted to the local time. After getting
9:40am I manage to get ready to leave the room by 11am. I leave
the luggage in the hotel lobby then take a taxi to the Sunday market.
Actually not to the Sunday market itself, but to the cattle market
which is held every Sunday, after Henning told me on the phone that
they are all there.
So at 11:30am I'm at the cattle market, where I meet the others. The
cattle market is big, very messy and dusty. Good luck changing a camera
lens here. Today they are selling bulls, calves, sheep and horses. No
camels, as I'm told that the camel market takes place only once per
year. Overall it's a huge number of people with their animals tightly
bound with ropes. Outside the market encirclement (the marketplace is
an open walled space) some animal bodies hang on hooks and are being
slaughtered. This market is actually less impressive that I had
imagined it. Lots of tourists by the way.
Around 1pm the Korean guy and I fetch a taxi to the main Sunday market.
This is a combination of a big bazaar building with lots of vendors
selling mainly clothes and some handicrafts, and an outdoor market
where people sell fruits and vegetables. Lots of people and lots of
motorbikes, cars and trucks trying to get through the crowd. At 1:50pm
I've had enough of it and in fact I'm really hungry as this morning I
only had some small cakes (sort of mini-muffins) for breakfast. So I
walk out of the market, fetch a taxi and go to John's cafe in the
Qinibagh hotel, where I relax for a while and have lunch. In the TV
they are showing the Formula 1 race in Suzuka (Japan), which Alonso
wins (Michal Schumacher isn't even running - apparently he didn't
Shortly before 3pm I take a taxi back to the Xiangdu hotel. Before
fetching my luggage I buy some apples and drinks. Then around 3:10pm I
take a taxi to the airport, arriving there at 3:30pm (15 yuan for the
trip). The check-in procedure is fast and painless, and this time the
employee at the check-in counter does not complain about the 4.5 Kg
excess luggage weight.
The plane takes off at 5pm, even earlier than the official 5:05pm
departure time. The aircraft is very full. Perhaps these are Chinese
tourists heading back home from the holiday week which ends today (the
The plane lands early at 6:30pm in Urumqi. The luggage retrieval is
also quite fast, but then I lose time when I try to book a hotel room
at the airport. All these counters with ladies handing out maps
apparently are not hotel booking counters. In fact in the Urumqi
airport there is no hotel booking counter. I wonder how I was able to
book a room when I arrived here the first time. In any case, the Silver
Star hotel, in which I stayed before, now wants 540 yuan for the same
room for which I paid 480 yuan before. Long discussion, a couple of
phone calls, and after a while I give up and take the room at the
Silver Star hotel.
Outside of the airport I take a taxi (at 7:15pm) and surprise, surprise
the (Chinese) taxi driver refuses to use the meter and insists on
getting 50 yuan (by meter it would be 30 yuan). Since I've already lost
too much time and I'm already in the taxi and am not in the mode to
queue up again for a taxi, I accept the request of this cheater. First
time since I have been to China that a taxi driver cheats.
We arrive at the hotel at 7:40pm (the taxi did the trip in 25 minutes).
After checking in, I get out at 8pm and take a taxi into town to
the big bazaar. There I take some photos of the mosque and the square
at night. Suddenly a compact group of Chinese police and special forces
armed with machine guns arrive on the square. Quite scary, are we in
the middle of a revolution?
Never mind, after taking the photos (the Chinese police ignore me), I
look for a restaurant and end up in the KFC, because I can't find
anything suitable quickly. I'm back in the hotel around 10pm. Once in
the room I'm unable to download the emails from my molon.de mailboxes.