"At the end of the day, Marco Polo needed permits, turns out so do I."
by Steve McCutcheon
The river had flooded. The road was out. We were stranded. Within one day of leaving Datong, we were stood in the evening twilight gazing across 150m of muddy brown water at the track that continued up the other side. My hope was gone, the locals had been right. We would have to turn back.
For days since Datong, I’d received unconfirmed reports from locals that the road into the Kunlun Shan was blocked. My aim was to cross from the Pamir Mountains into the Kunlun Shan along Tibet’s Northern border via a relatively unknown mountain trail. But where one road was open another was closed, local information could never have a booth and should only be ever treated as a guide. The only solution was to travel to the source.
The roads through the Pamirs flow through an incredible series of gorges along riverside and mountain top. Riverside roads are usually unconditioned jeep tracks that resemble little more than slightly elevated river beds next to mountain torrents. Huge boulders from above and seasonal flooding from below are as much a threat to traffic today as eons before. Yet these were the Silk Road paths I wanted to follow to Beijing.
From Taxkorgan our road followed the Taxkorgan river East across the Pamirs to its confluence with the muddy Yarkand River. From that point the main track travels north and south below sheer cliffs towards the desert by two separate routes. The road I was following was the less used of the two and led onto a further trail that later crossed from the high Pamirs into the mysterious Kunlun Shan beyond. The Pamirs border the western edge of the Taklamakan and the Kunlun Shan border the south. I secretly hoped that the road blockage was only temporary. Perhaps at the most I could divert around it.
Leaving Datong we were stopped several times by donkey drivers, construction workers and stone miners who warned us to turn back. Six hours later we saw the truth for ourselves. The road was naught but a part of the river bed in good times and an actual part of it now. Given the height of the water this was seasonal flooding and the only life present that evening was a small gold mine buried high in the cliffs above on either side of the river, operated by a small aerial runway that dumped debris from the far of the river into a silo on ours.
No human, machine or camel train could make it across the divide. I still hoped to divert the caravan through a small village near the obstruction call Shartung but by 1830 that evening we hadn’t passed it yet. Workers at a mine yard told us Shartung lay up a narrow side valley an hour back down the road. It was already late so we pushed quickly to reach there by nightfall.
Unfortunately, the mountain stream we’d forded earlier had doubled in depth in the three hours since we’d crossed. Conditions from weather to water are extremely changeable in the mountains and nothing can be taken for granted. The bottom of the ford was lined with concrete and the water was running hard and fast. I sent Korban straight over pulling the weighted camel train behind. I was more concerned about the camels at that point and hadn’t given much consideration to myself.
|Rosa Khun fording the demon
torrent before it turned nasty.
Click on this and any other photograph to enlarge it.
With boots slung around our necks and trousers rolled up, Rosa and I braced together and set off across the stream. The undercurrent was strong and a third of the way across Rosa pulled away despite my protests. I continued but halfway over doubt pricked my mind and without time to condemn it, my knees wobbled, confidence evaporated, one knee buckled and I was down on both knees on the edge of a waterfall, trying to claw my way back against the undercurrent with my fingernails.
This wasn’t the movies and over I went, crashing 20m down stream with the other boulders and debris, powerless to the torrent and losing my head beneath the water with frightening regularity. The only thought I had at that point was not to give in. I regained my senses and managed to grab underwater boulders and pull myself along the current until the stream pooled and I clambered out. Stupid and silly! I was shivering from the shock one has after an unexpected threat.
Rosa was still on the other side and though I debated sending Korban across on the heaviest camel to retrieve him, neither of us were in a state for rescue so I sent Rosa back down the road to a mine worker’s yard for the night, hoping the stream would be normal by morning. We pitched our tents nearby and I fell asleep to the rumble of rocks pounding down the nearby water course, thankful that I still wasn’t one of them.
The following morning the ford was normal and I woke to find Rosa sitting nonchalantly on a rock smoking a rolly. Though the stream was low I wasn’t taking any chances and leading the small camel across on Boran, I safely landed Rosa back with the crew despite his objections that he could swim over safely. We had several guests for breakfast that morning including a crowd of semi-precious stone prospectors heading up to Shartung in hope of a lucky find. The area is known for it’s Jade (known as ‘kash’ in Uyghur), Lapis Lazuli and other gems. Some of the men had come from a far a field as Karakul, ten hours away.
I’ve encountered many individuals on the roadside over the last few weeks bearing jagged chunks of rock with thick veins of jade or other. If lucky the vein will be complete and yield a good price for the finder. A profound lack of jobs in the region means that many people resort to looking for stones to supplement their incomes and, given the popularity, I can only assume that many are successful.
|High mountain trails en route to the restricted village of Kosrap.|
Back in ’small Datong’ we restocked on Naan bread and grass before pushing on. Locals are always extremely kind and we had a lovely stay in the grounds of the tiny village hotel. Such stops are crucial for the animals due to the lack of fresh water by the Yarkand River at the moment. The river water is filthy with sand and dirt and certainly not suitable for animal consumption.
Despite the maelstrom on our right, the next day’s riding was one that continued to bear the fruits of gorge country. Huge pillars of granite rock towered on either side of the river echoing the crash of the nearby water. In some places crumbling and in others heaped with sand deposited over millennia by the river to create vast table plateaus riddled with caves.
|Infinity crumpled on a piece of paper and dropped to Earth.|
Into the Dragon’s Lair
Our trouble began at 1930 when a passing jeep we flagged down turned out to be a passing police car. We were heading towards Kosrap, a place where rumours of unrest earlier this year had sparked further rumours that the village was restricted for foreigners. However, like many places away from centers of authority in China, nobody was sure and since Kosrap lay on the only road available to us we pushed on.
On the other hand, the police felt differently. As soon as they found out I was English, I was politely asked into their vehicle also full of police officers and given the choice of leave, leave or leave. The men had a nice office for me at the police station where they questioned me about my journey and purpose. We were 17 kms outside of Kosrap, in an area of precipitous gorges and with slow moving camel train that couldn’t really move anywhere quickly before morning. But they were suspicious and my time with the camel caravan quickly came to a close. It was the 14th August.
In the police vehicle I was told I “you can return tonight.” In the police station I was informed “you can return tomorrow morning.” Then all my equipment and a bewildered Korban suddenly arrived in the middle of the night leaving Rosa to manage three camels, a horse and a 60 kg bag of corn. The police were never rude to me directly, but their treatment of my friends and I left me in doubt that we were guilty until proven innocent. The official in charge had no idea how to deal with us and as soon as High Command near Kashgar found out a strange foreigner was romping around the local countryside with camels, my fate was sealed.
The next morning, the police allowed Korban to rejoin Rosa. They wanted the camels safely secured in Kosrap and only allowed Korban to leave as I made it apparent that their wishes would be difficult for just one man. Yet Rosa wasn’t just one man and at 6am that morning the resourceful camel driver from Markit had saddled a panicky horse, packed the caravan, loaded the corn and tired the lead camel to Boran which he’d walked for the next five hours until he was united with Korban outside of Kosrap.
|Rosa and Korban beating the seeds of grass to feed the animals.|
Meanwhile HQ in Akto (nr. Kashgar), had told Kosrap to bring me in for questioning. The presence of my video camera made them squeamish so all my luggage had to come to. The camels had arrived in town, and with them secured, I became a problem to get rid of as soon as possible as I was rammed in a jeep and off-loaded back to civilisation.
Current events aside, Kosrap was a beautiful mountain village of low mud-brick homes and winding alleyways. Two huge recently slaughtered sheep hung from an outside butchery when I arrived and the bazaar was the kind where every face was a familiar one. Activity moved everywhere from bustling shops to the piety of the local mosque. Still, most of all I was shocked. As a reflection on caravan travel, I was stunned to discover that the village was almost 100% Uyghur after several weeks of Tajik villages. Time with the caravan runs slow and such a change of population after several weeks was a big thing to accept at the time.
Leaving the Mountains
Thus we left the mountains. The jeep bounced out of Kosrap on a rough stone track that descended rapidly over the next two hours to the village of Karchung and the unwelcome arms of the desert. Slopes became more gradual and peaks more eroded. Greenery was as scarce as even a hint of life. And yet, just as the desert seemed ready to claim us, the Yarkand Deriya (river) suddenly opened before us and our world morphed into a greater picture of shunning ridges and rippled terrain. Infinity crumpled on a piece of paper and dropped to Earth on this spot. It was a last gasp of mountainous defiance and I was sad to leave it behind. My heart will always belong to the mountains where tradition clings on in the remotest corners and every new gorge has a different meaning.
We arrived in Akto with nightfall and the next morning travelled slowly from one place to another until I was finally plonked in Artush. There several bigwigs quizzed me on my purpose, donations, camera and equipment. A translator reviewed my latest tape and I was clear to leave. After a courtesy lunch, I was dumped unceremoniously in Kashgar with an inaudible sigh of relief. The verdict: make your own way back to Karchung where you will meet your camel drivers and caravan. You can continue your journey from there. I was a liability they wanted rid of and I never saw those officers again.
The Road to the End
Within 24 hours I was back in Karchung. Rosa and Korban were on their way down to meet me but I was bitter. The arrest meant nothing, but the 100kms I’d lost meant everything. I wasn’t allowed to complete my own journey due to events beyond my control. But then, one should never get too complacent.
Mere hours after arriving in Karchung, a harried phone call from Korban informed me that Rosa was on a major drinking bender, he was out of cash and needed help fast. They had made it to a small hamlet 20kms outside of Kosrap and hiring a motorbike I sped up to rejoin them.
The road up was bleak and I missed all the enjoyment of the journey down. I had no intention of staying, intent only on dropping off bags and cash but Rosa soon changed my mind. Hat missing, shirt unbuttoned, trousers half down and staggering, there was no way I was returning to Karchung that night. Rosa’s 73 year old mother had recently lost her sight in one eye and my camel driver had chosen to wash away the resultant doctor’s fees in alcohol. Whilst Korban set up camp, I walked Rosa around for the next few hours and eventually got him to sleep before we collapsed and faced a long march the next day.
On August 18th, we began a footsore 45 km hike down to Karchung from Aratash. Korban spent most of the day back in Kosrap reclaiming unreturned belongings and we arrived together 13 hours later at 9pm. The bazaar (market) was quiet as we hunted for a place to sleep. A hotel and a hospital proved unwelcoming and as usual it was in a local backyard that we made the best friends and had the best night’s rest.
The Kewip Doctor
Sunday was market day and everybody was in town. Grocery stalls, stationery shops, ice-cream vendors and donkey carts jostled for space and the crowds milled between. Clucks, bays and moos protested as sales were made and the local medicine man was doing a roaring trade.
Amidst a patchwork of multi-hued canopies and stalls, Tahorchi Korban (77) sat with his wife and a hodge-podge of medicines from all over the world. Patients sidled up from all sides to gawp or receive attention. The Kewip doctor’s (local doctor’s) fee was the medicine he sold and he had something for everything. Dried snake (Igiri) for colds and shivers, thistle flowers for sore throats, dried rat droppings for rashes and antibiotics for everything else. Sunday was a relaxing day at the market. Monday was an unwelcome arrival.
A Storm in a Horseshoe
|Boran hated it. He hated being strung up like a side of beef between two poles, but there was no other way to do it.|
Boran hated it. He hated being strung up like a side of beef between two poles, but there was no other way to do it. The experts knew what they were doing. Boran’s front right shoe had snapped in two at the front whilst grazing and needed replacing. I had several spare horseshoes from Pakistan and since his other feet were fine we just replaced the one.
No horse like’s its feet tampering with and Boran least of all. Yet Xinjiang farriers have a ruthlessly effective way of dealing with this and spare no horse leniency when it comes to getting the job done. Without giving him time to think, I led Boran between two large goal posts outside of the farrier’s village shop. His bridle was quickly tethered to a crossbar above and a thick rope circled around his body. Two large loops were then passed under his chest and lower belly, suspending his weight off the ground and effectively immobilizing the equine.
The horse did all he could to escape, bucking, whinnying and sinking on his haunches to put weight on this front feet but he was tethered beyond movement and wasn’t going anywhere. This was a procedure common throughout Xinjiang and though I felt sorry for him, the farrier took only ten minutes to trim the hoof, level it off and place a new shoe on it. Given all the hassle I’ve had with previous horses, the whole operation was like lightning and I appreciated the work done, even if the skill lacked.
Permission to ride my Camel, please?
I’d been back from the farrier’s shop no more than an hour when the phone rang. “Police here, come quick,” Korban breathlessly announced. I rushed over for more fun. “Where is your permit?” the officer demanded. “You should have a permit from Urumchi, where is it?” I had no permit, nor never had. I’d been plainly told before I left that none was needed. My route passed through areas freely open to independent travel and there shouldn’t have been a problem. I did have paperwork stating my itinerary and purpose as well as my own information leaflets, yet neither was good enough for this weasel like man.
‘Out of the frying pan…’ I thought. “Would I ever make it to Beijing?” Though I’d been instructed to continue my journey by the big wigs previously, no police officer at their station would backup events as the reality is they probably shouldn’t have let me continue in the first place. Nobody would take responsibility for their actions. Karchung also lay in a different county to Kosrap and I was basically told, “different county, different rules.” The weasel then tried intimidating me through his superior office who growled over the phone lines, “sell your camels or you will be punished.” Obviously a reasonable man.
As the afternoon wore thin, I suggested meeting in Yarkand the following morning when I hoped to recover the mobile numbers of the officers who had cleared me to come to Karchung. I handed over my passport and arranged to accompany an officer down. I wasn’t going anywhere.
The next morning, the local police officers were all out stone prospecting and didn’t return all day. At 5pm, Keyoum called to inform me that every major police station from Karchung to Urumchi now knew about my ‘case.’ Despite my route lying through open areas, I actually did require a permit to cross Xinjiang with camels. Further more, if I wanted to continue “you must return to Kashgar, send your camel drivers home and arrange the permits you need here.” The visa office also knew about this so complying wasn’t really an option. The powers that be eventually allowed me to keep the camels in Karchung whilst I travelled to Karchung to organise the relevant documents. Rosa and Korban returned to their respective homes and I was soon on the bus to Kashgar weighted with three camel loads of bags.
Taking a Stance
Am I angry? No. Am I determined? Yes. Determined to see this through to the end and get my camel caravan back on the road to Beijing. The past three weeks have been one continual headache after another but I’ve always known China would be a hard nut to crack and I will see this through.
Boran and the camels are presently staying with Alim and Kamil Jan, the two lads who brought us to their house in the middle of the night several days ago. Ironically it was the boys?father, who had notified the police about the camels in his donkey yard some days ago. Yet there was no malicious intent and he was only doing what he deemed right. On the 22nd of August I had a fun final day with Korban and Rosa in Yarkand and I’m presently waiting for news of my applications from the military office in Urumqi (capital of Xinjiang province).
In retrospect, given the inadequacy of my previous paperwork, my run in with the police in Karchung was bound to happen sooner or later. China isn’t Pakistan or India and now that I understand the country a little better I’m presently applying for permits for every province from Xinjiang to Beijing. I hate being separated from my team. I hate being separated from my caravan. But to look on the bright side, the camels are now with a great family whom I know and trust, it’s late summer and a lovely time of year to be on the Southern Silk Road.
At the end of the day, Marco Polo needed permits, turns out so do I.
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