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.
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 now! 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a fast surfaced road, the oases welcome foreigners, and the grindingly crawling lorries on which I hitch-hiked have been replaced by air-conditioned buses.
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.
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.
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.
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.