Caravanserai at Tash Rabat on the Silk Road

The next step gave a real idea of life on the high mountain steppes separating Central Asia from western China.

The road rose from 3,000 feet to 10,000, occasionally 12,000 feet with the inevitable impact on breathing, to sunlit uplands where the nomadic Kyrgyzs continue a way of life typical of tough animal herders in many of the Stans. Daily life involves moving their animals and yurt homes every so often for pastures new across the grass plains in what is often bitterly cold (down to -54 degrees), or sweltering summer temperatures and indeed we were to experience just a little of such a life that night, see below.. Alternatively their living accommodation was provided bu what seemed to be old railway carriages but were probably just dicrepid-looking caravans usually painted blue/green. There are numerous myths about these people including the belief to grow cotton you had to bury a sheep the year before.

Our overnight site consisted of half a dozen yurts, resembling Indian wigwams from a distance in wagon train formation nestled up a remote ravine to provide our night's rest though I use the word advisedly. Temperature was below freezing and the stoves burnt out by midnight. Thermal clothing provided some respite but not to ones extremities. Trekking across the uneven ground at 3 am to reach the 'thunderboxes' was only relieved, so to speak, by the beauty of the luminous starry night sky and the rustle of animal life, presumably cattle or horses roaming nearby. For the record all conveniences in this part of the world can be measured on a negative tripadvisor scale: 0 to -5. Zero was bog standard of course. Local wildlife consisted of mainly of marmets which it is now known led to the Black Death because locals picked up their flees wearing market fleeces and rubbing marmet animal flat on their chests to keep themselves healthy! The Silk Road assisted with transmitting into Europe of course.

After this invigorating experience the rest of the day was less uplifting as we faced the challenge of crossing the border into western China at the Togurat pass up at 12,000 feet. Moving 20 people required about seven hours, seven stops at different locations to repeat the same checks over and over. Part of the delay was due to the fact that we arrived just before lunch time so naturally border staff needed a three hour lunch break after such rigorous work at which time nothing moves. Getting timing is tricky because with a two hour time difference between the countries, it always seems to be lunch time so where round here. Curiously a kind of no-mans-land then stretches for 100 kilometres from leaving the border before immigration. It would be like someone arriving at Dover but stamped into the UK in London. Things were even slower for truck drivers whose vehicles formed long queues in each direction with lower priority even than private traffic.

Posters at immigration outline their mission statement: faster, more efficient among other stated objectives, so some way to go then. There is a feeling that the Han Chinese do not welcome visitors into this sensitive autonomous part of the country and would rather you just flew into Beijing and went to the Great Wall. This is a hardship posting for the Hans so they probably resent being in the remote (from Beijing) hostile environment.

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