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The Filthy Lucre Tour
Massage by the blind
24th Aug 2006
Mustagh Ata Part One - Beijing and Kashgar

It's taken me a few weeks to collect my thoughts about this. They say that people who've been to war come back somewhat unable to talk about the event as it's so different to everyday life, and I feel strangely similar about China. So far all I've managed to come up with when people say "so, tell me about China" is the fact that car insurance isn't manditory there. One notable exception to these people is one of my Greek relatives-to-be, who is under the impression that I climbed Everest, a misunderstanding I've currently not corrected and an accidental glory I'm secretly basking in.

I don't know if you've ever watched any mountaineering documentaries, but they tend to be fairly boring affairs until somebody dies. I'm sorry to report that nobody died on this one, but I'll try and hurry through the "got up, walked up a bit, came back down, slept" parts. I'll start at the beginning.

The documentation on the expedition itinerary said "fly into Beijing", so I did. This might have been a mistake, as a cursory glance at a world map would show Kashgar, our ultimate destination, to be almost exactly halfway between Athens and Beijing. Urumchi, where we changed planes, also appeared to have direct flights to Istanbul, where I was changing flights anyway. Where was I going with this, it isn't very interesting. Let's hurry on.

I've not been anywhere in Asia before, so I wasn't wholly sure what to expect of Beijing. I was due to be met at the airport, which almost ended up in calamity when I picked up Chris Reigh's taxi, on the assumption that he (or she) was a spelling mistake. As the taxi driver and I shook hands and got into the lift, he explained to me that we were going to go straight to the office, at which point I chose to duck out gracefully. I then made the mistake of assuming that the person holding up the "CHRIS LIVINGSTONRAE" sign was my taxi driver, when he was in fact the person who was there to tell me that my taxi driver wouldn't be at the airport for another half hour as he was stuck on the expressway. When the taxi driver showed up, we headed off. Beijing's general standard of driving is approximately the same as Athens', though with a bit less speed and a bit more pulling out in front of people. Horses for courses.

Standing in the middle of the road outside the airport was a small child begging. All the drivers were averting their gazes except for one, who pulled up aside him. As I smiled, ready to witness an act of real human kindness shine out in the smog of the city traffic, the driver leaned as far as he could out of the window in an attempt to stub his cigarette out on the unfortunate's face. This is clearly an everyday hazard of begging, as the child skipped lightly aside and without missing a beat peered even more plantively at another driver just further than an arm's length away, who was therefore pretty much obliged to give some cash to the poor little kid who'd narrowly avoided having a cigarette put out on his face. Just as I began to wonder whether this whole thing was an elaborate ruse, my taxi driver almost crashed into yet another bus and my attention was diverted to the car-jammed "expressway" ahead of us, where a taxi in as poor condition as the one I inhabited had left its entire rear bumped in the fast lane. The taxi driver and his remarkeably kind customer were heading up the middle lane together in an attempt to retrieve it.

I met the other Mountain Madness clients at the hotel. One was called Ian, formerly worked in sales for Credit Suisse and was on gardening leave between that job and a hedge fund. The other was called Brad, was once a chef but now received a steady income from some shopping malls he owned in Atlanta, lived in Colorado and pretty much spent his life in the mountains. Mountain Madness had generously booked us into a hotel-cum-brothel. During the course of the twenty four hours or so we were there, Ian and I received three phone calls asking if we wanted "massage", followed finally by a knock on the room door at midnight, shortly after we'd arrived back from dinner. Ian answered it to find a Chinese gentleman with two young ladies he'd thoughtfully procured for us, and the tagline "massage! very cheap!". It seemed an odd way to advertise to westerners - it's almost intriguing that he clearly felt the largest stumbling block we'd likely have would be an inability to come up with twelve dollars. And no, I'm not entirely sure whether that was for the pair. And no, we didn't ask the price, he volunteered it. Perhaps it was negotiable. If I was a prostitute in Beijing, I think I'd risk operating without a pimp - this chap was about four feet high and looked like he'd come off the worse in a late-night street fight with a mosquito.

Ian and I walked around Beijing a little in the late afternoon. The map we bought from the hotel appeared to show us being within spitting distance of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, so off we went. It turns out that Beijing is in fact a remarkeably large city, and a centimetre on our map worked out to something near a kilometre. Upon arriving at the Forbidden City we discovered that it was forbidde to visitors after 4pm, but that didn't deter the hordes of Chinese people at the gates who descended upon anyone white-looking and volunteered to be a tour guide. We met a young Chinese art student who spoke very good English and, after helping us out quite a bit with our orientation and recommending some sights, asked if we'd like to come and see an art exhibition that his school was running in order that we might give him some feedback on his works, which were exhibited there. We politely declined, partly because it looked a little shady, but mostly because we were running out of time for our whistle-stop sightseeing. It looked marginally more shady when we arrived at the hotel to discover Brad, who'd purchased three paintings from a lovely young art student who had chatted to him for quite some time and was apparently trying to pay for her sister to go to university. We heard later in Kashgar that this was a rather popular current Beijing ruse. I'm not sure I'd say it was a scam per se, so let's call it a method of advertising.

The following afternoon we flew from Beijing to Urumqi. I can't tell you much about Urumqi, other than that it has a nice airport and is pronounced "Oo-room-chee". From there we flew to Kashgar and met our guide, Ted. For some reason I expected him to be a jovial bearded gentleman, which unsurprisingly he wasn't. I was now almost halfway back to Athens, a fact reflected in the time zone. All of China is officially on one large time zone, but in reality many people in Kashgar (and no doubt the rest of China) shun the official government line, which involves the sun setting at eleven thirty at night, and set their watches two hours back from Beijing. As it's not very popular with the People's Republic, all the advertised times for things are in Beijing Time and it can cause a degree of confusion.

I'd built myself a mental picture of Kashgar consisting of two men and a tuk-tuk, but in reality it's a large town, with over two hundred thousand inhabitants. It lives at the western edge of the Takla Makan desert, and was once an important hub on the silk road as it saw the meeting of the two roads which passed to the north and south of the Takla Makan. Now it functions as the "nearest large town" for many country inhabitants, and a centre for the many variants of the mining industry which exist around here. We checked into the "Seman Hotel" (pronounced Shoo-mahn, apparently), which used to be the Russian Consulate, and after a couple of beers we turned in. Perhaps surprisingly there was no massage available in the Seman Hotel, but then no toilet paper either. Until 1949, when it was "liberated" by the Communists, Kashgar was in Eastern Turkestan. Turkestan's population were Uyghurs (pronounced "weeger"), the largest Turkic group in Central Asia. Recently the People's Republic have been eagerly injecting as many Han ("hahn") Chinese as possible into the more remote parts of the empire, in order to make them all a bit happier about being Chinese. The Han are already jolly happy about being Chinese, because they have all the nice jobs and lots of the money. One of the PRC's great weapons in this effort has been to build railways into the back and beyond, and since the railway was extended to Kashgar in 1999, the Han population has swelled. Official statistics show the Han as 49% of Kashgar, but this number tells us more about the clandestine nature of China's Hanification programme than it does about people in Kashgar. The recent opening of a "they said it couldn't be done" railway into Tibet ( is another fine example of the Han by Railway ideal.

The next day we trekked to a gigantic natural arch, which can be seen from a long way off to the South but is only approachable from the North. Eric Shipton, who was British Consul in Kashgar during the 1940s, laid claim to the discovery of the first manageable route to it and it was this that we followed. It's regarded as being "probably the largest natural arch in the world", and it is jolly big. Its vastness is only appreciable once you've climbed up a small hillock to discover that you were only gazing at half of it, and the rest sinks into a valley below. It's largely impossible to photograph the whole thing, so what you can see in my picture is only the top half. An enterprising Chinaman had built a few ladders in order to get up to the hillock, and was charging for their use. He accompanied us all of the way up, no doubt to make sure that we didn't double-back and use one of his ladders twice without paying.

Kashgar lies 1200m above sea level and the walk to Shipton's arch finished at around the 3000m mark, so all of this could legitimately be counted as acclimatisation. I decided I could get quite used to this particular form of mountaineering, as most of that acclimatisation had involved sitting around drinking beer or bumping down a dirt-road in a jeep.

The following day we went to Kashgar's world famous (well, world famous if you've heard of Kashgar) markets. The animal and, well, non-animal markets are held on the same day, and one can travel quite easily between them by taxi. They used to be both held in the same location, but eventually the Chinese decided that they'd had enough of people dragging donkeys into the centre of town and moved the animal market out a bit. You can see why they did this, as the road approaching the animal market is something of a chaos with various carts and drawn animals trying to fit in with the rest of the everyday traffic. Both markets were a splendid hoot. There was really quite a large volume of trade going on at the animal market - for each trade that goes on the buyer and seller are joined by an intermediary, who seems to do nothing other than manage the bargaining and help seal a deal attractive to both parties. It looks like an immensely simple job.

People are extraordinarily keen to sell you things in China. They expect you to be fairly forceful if you're not interested - a friendly push is perfectly acceptable, and "no" or hand-waving just means "I need to be chased around the market". Brad's splendid plan of taking his wallet out of his pocket, frowning and saying something like "thanks very much, but I have loads of those at home" caused us to have a fairly steady stream of knife-sellers tailing us all around the market. The knife-sellers' preferred way to show the sharpness of their wares was to grip your hand, roll your sleeve up and shave a clump of hairs off your arm, something that caused a little alarm the first time it happened, and something that caused Brad to leave the animal market looking like a monkey who'd had a lead role in the American space programme. Yes, they sell knives in the animal market. They sell knives everywhere. I don't think there's a man in Xinjian without a knife. When the guide translated my own knife-seller rebuttal, "I don't really like knives much", was taken as "I don't like THAT knife much - do you have any larger ones?"

Whilst moseying through the animal market we were accosted by a rather elderly looking gentleman who gesticulated at a wooden chair, plonked next to a selection of other wooden chairs where several local Uyghur men were being shaved. As I had a considerably bushy beard it seemed a shame not to take advantage of this fine opportunity, so down I sat. The chap produced a small bar of soap, whipped a no doubt filthy razor blade out of a vase of the local water that I'd been so carefully trying not to drink and proceeded to lacerate my face in several places, amid the gasps and winces of the rather large crowd of onlookers that had gathered. Eventually his colleague stepped in and explained to our interpreter that the chap hadn't been entirely expecting me to sit down, that the pronounced shake he had was due to nervousness and that this was most likely the first time he'd ever had to shave a paleface like myself. While the whole experience was rather splendid, I felt a bit of a moron for so obviously subjecting myself to the various blood and water-borne diseases that I'd fortunately been innoculated against. As yet I've no symptoms of anything terrible.

As we left the animal market, a gaggle of knife vendors... what is the collective noun for knife vendors? A block? A sharpening? Where was I... as we left the animal market chased by Brad's entourage, we caught sight of a tractor pulling a trailer carrying about a cubic metre of nothing but bouncing intestines. As it zoomed past us, a small portion of what we deemed to be bowel flopped off the top and landed at our feet. We held Brad back, just in case the tractor driver mistook his waving for an intention to purchase.

The everything-but-animals market was in town, and a much more conventional affair. It was separated into quite organised sections - cloth and clothing over there, pots and pans over here. Plastic binoculars (Brad bought a pair) and torches here. Knives everywhere.

Like most markets, haggling is compulsory. Due to the considerable language barriers, each stallholder posessed a pocket calculator. When you pointed at an item, he would type its price into the calculator, and then immediately pass it to you. You then had to peer at the calculator, peer at the item and then type roughly half of what he had typed, and hand it back to him. He'd sigh, shake his head, type 90% of his original number in and then hand it back. You sigh, shake your head and make to leave the stall. He snatches the calculator, grabs your sleeve and pulls you back in. You type 60% of his starter price, he types 80% and you agree 75%. The numbers vary somewhat - the best I managed to trade at was 60% of initial price, the worst was 85%. I'm one of those people who hates bargaining for anything, but in this instance it was particularly fun. Quite often, other stallholders would gather around to watch the moron westerners bargaining a 300%-inflated price down to a mere 200%.

"But what is this", I hear you cry, "a goddamned shopping trip?"

Mountaineering stuff in Episode Two. I promise.

Next: Mustagh Ata Part Two
Previous: Back on terra firma

Diary Photos

Massage by the blind

Shipton`s arch

Shipton`s arch

Brad buying knives

Buying horses

Brad buying knives again



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