One of the many bits that I left out of the last blog was that my bike was impounded overnight.
Even though I had cleared Immigration and my luggage had cleared Customs, because we had arrived so late Customs had refused to process the bike itself. Consequently, I had to ride the bike to a bonded store about 1km from the Customs post and leave it there overnight under lock and key.
This left my guide, Abdul Rekip, and I stranded in some dingy industrial estate late at night with no transport (no buses or taxis at that time of night). Fortunately, the hotel was only about 1-2km away so Abdul and I trudged off into the gloom of the night until we finally arrived at the hotel well after 10pm. It had been a very long day and night and I was relieved to find the hotel room had a shower with relatively trouble-free hot water.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to enjoy the luxury of sleeping in the next morning as Abdul and I had to return to the bonded store at 8am to get the bike released from Customs. We arrived shortly after 8am and I mentally prepared myself for yet another marathon bout with officialdom. Abdul showed the Customs official all the permits that I had to obtain to get the bike into China. The Customs official gave the wad of A4 documents a cursory glance and said I could go. Amazingly, it had taken no more than 10min from the time we arrived to the time we rode out of the gates.
Finally, I was in China with all of my luggage and my bike – officially. The rest of the day was mine to enjoy as I chose without any further assistance from government officials.
Tashkurgan is a very ancient city and is believed to have been around in one form or another for over 2000 years. For many years it was the centre of a large Buddhist empire before falling to the sword of Islam. Now it is a mixture of predominantly Tajiks with a minority of Uyghurs. Tashkurgan means ‘stone fort’ in the Uyghur language, and the remnants of the original stone fort are still standing, although the outer walls are made from mud bricks rather than stones. The ruins were just a short 20min walk from my hotel. I was amazed that any of the fort remained at all as the mud walls seemed to have dissolved with the passing of the centuries.
It was while walking back to my hotel from the fort that I was greeted by the stunning view from one of the main streets of Tashkurgan looking back towards the nearby mountain range. It is true that often the best scenery is behind you and you must make the effort to turn around – particularly when travelling by motorcycle. While aimlessly wandering down the other main street of Tashkurgan I came across a shop selling T-shirts emblazoned with English text. There will be a prize for anybody can give me a plausible translation of what this T-shirt is trying to say!
The afternoon was taken up catching up on some long-overdue sleep before dinner. Abdul suggested that we try a Uyghur restaurant close to the hotel. I was all for it and had a delicious meal of shish kababs, vegetables and green tea.
It was over dinner that I asked Abdul about the events of yesterday and whether this was normal practice for tourists entering China. He assured this this was not normal practice. Abdul then explained that there were two events that had coincided to make the “perfect storm” of petty officialdom just for me – and the poor passengers of the Natco bus.
Firstly, a few months prior, a ute-load of heroin (well, only 250kg really) had been intercepted at one of the north-western borders posts of China – no doubt destined for the Russian mafia somewhere. The bad news for me was it had come over the Khunjerab Pass from Pakistan (just like I had) and it had not been detected. Consequently all the Customs officials, on both sides of the Khunjerab Pass (Pakistani and Chinese), had received a huge rocket up the a..e and were told, not so politely, to pull up their socks. This was where Mr Nasty at Sost fitted into the picture. He was desperately trying to pull his socks up over his knees! Although I am still at a loss to explain his fanatical obsession with my first aid kit and shaving kit, particularly when my backpack and one of my panniers were left completely untouched.
And obviously the same orders were given to the officials at Chinese Customs post at Khunjerab – which turned out not to be a Customs post at all, but a Police security checkpoint. This is where the second event amplified the already massively-heightened paranoia of the border security Police and played its part in creating my day from hell.
Apparently I had overlooked one small, but important, detail in my plans for entering China from Pakistan. I was entering China on July 3 for no reason other than it was convenient for travelling times and visa conditions etc, etc. Unfortunately for me, July 5 was the anniversary of a massive demonstration/riot several years ago by the local Uyghur population in Kashgar against the Chinese government in Beijing. Apparently the police had overreacted and many locals had been killed or injured in the resulting confrontation. The police were now on ultra-high alert should there be any attempt by the locals to commemorate the anniversary of the riot and the lives of the people killed.
Due to the timing of my arrival, just days before the anniversary, the border security police were instructed to go through every person’s luggage item by item looking for anything subversive like Lonely Planet guidebooks or road maps of Europe – both of which were inspected methodically page by page!
Tashkurgan fortressThis very plausible explanation by Abdul illustrated that I just happened to be “in the wrong place at the wrong time” – entering China via a border crossing very rarely used by foreign tourists any more.
After a very enjoyable evening discussing the long and convoluted history of Uyghur/Chinese relations over the centuries, tired but happy, I retired to the sanctuary of my hotel bed with its rock-hard mattress and thought about what tomorrow may bring.
My short stay in Tashkurgan was about to end and, next morning, I would head north to ride the final 280km of the KKH to the fabled Silk Road city of Kashgar.