The three rules of travelling, as handed down through the ages to intrepid travellers everywhere, are as follows:
Number 1: Do not lose your passport
Number 2: Do not lose your passport in China
Number 3: Do not lose your passport in China about as far as possible from the nearest place that can reissue it.
But more of that later.
When I last left you I was enjoying the comforts of Bishkek. There were many beers, chicken flavoured crisps and statues of Lenin. Enough for anyone it would seem? Perhaps, but I wanted more. And it seemed my tour group was the best way to do it after the taxi related shenanigans of Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan. Things started a little disappointingly as breakfast in our retro-Soviet style hotel (I don't believe any irony was involved) became a game of what did the waiter find in the cupboard/oven/bin. I left before the cold spagetti and "meat" was served. Then it was off into the blue yonder to our homestay in the town of Kochkor. This town is famous predominantly for.... no I can't remember. Anyway suffice to say I bought a stylish felt hat before a delightful meal of sugar cubes and jam.
Next day was a long drive towards the Chinese border. The special thing about overland tours is that you can start drinking early and carry on right through to the time you attempt to put up a tent at 3000 metres in a gale. The Icelandic members of our party seemed to have a music taste based on 80s/90s heavy metal, which was nice, and this only added to the ambience. Sleep seemed only a secondary concern, which was lucky as I didn't get any. But I'm sure I'll get used to this camping lark.
Day 4 was the day we would cross the infamous Torogut pass. At 3800 metres this would be a chance to test ourselves at altitude and also a chance to enjoy 6 checkpoints of various styles and standards of professionalism. The early high spirits, which saw us play football, badminton and a cowboy shoot-em up at the first checkpoint, rapidly declined as we waited at the various barriers and drove the many kilometres between them. My own worries increased as it was revealed that my name had been left off an official list (or to be more accurate I'd been listed as a 68 year old woman) and that I might be left at the border. This would have allowed me to accompany the truck which also lacked the appropriate paperwork and was to stay in the Chinese customs compound until.... well until. Well to cut a short story shorter I was allowed through, and the truck wasn't. So we were given a big yellow Chinese bus to take us to the fabled Silk Road city of Kashgar. It wasn't quite as I expected as a four lane highway and highrise, bright lights city centre were the main "highlights"on the way to our hotel. We were further surprised to be greeted by a troop of muscians and dancers (I think). I shall expect more of this VIP treatment.
All too soon our comfortable slumber was disturbed and we were off on t
he next part of our journey. Down the Karakoram Highway towards the border with Pakistan. This would allow us to witness some magnificent scenery and stay at nomadic yurt camps in an undisturbed lakeside setting. Well that would have been the case if the Chinese hadn't decided to rebuild the entire 300km of road at once. Yes the scenery was spectacular as we crossed 4000 metre passes with 7000 metre peaks all around us. But to have to share this with so many Chinese road builders and subsequently suffer some of the most appalling roads in Asia was a little too much. The unscheduled and lengthy puncture stop of the "Yellow Devil" (our beloved bus) only served to try our patience even more. The startling inability of the Chinese to deal sensibly with a relatively simple rep
air and the alarming lack of any decent tools led me to wonder whether we would soon discover huge graveyards of almost roadworthy vehicles rusting away in the Chinese hinterland. But there were only several hours available for such reflections as by sunset we reached the less than homely town of Taskurgen. We were in an exhausted state but that was ok because we'd be staying by the glorious Lake Karakol tomorrow.
Tomorrow started early for me, at approximately 4am infact. Some quite startling stomach cramps led me to rapidly eject fluids from every available exit. This rather painful process of speed dehydration left me in a bit of a unfortunate state. A state in which I was perhaps not best able to appreciate the ironies inherent in China's use of a single time zone in a country spread over 4000km of latitude. It was all I could do to (weakly) curse the fact that even by 9am I couldn't find any water for love nor money. Unfortunately everywhere in town (except for government offices) operated by unofficial Xinxiang time (2 hours behind Beijing time) so everyone was still in bed. My unfortunate illness coupled with the effects of altitude meant that I was very happy to accept the offer of a taxi all the way back to Kashgar rather than take my chances with the group in the concrete yurts of Karakol. A nightmare ride along roads that were seemingly 180 times worse than yesterday ensued, with me lying on the backseat just willing myself not to leave any more of my special marks on the edge of the road. Somehow we made it to Kashgar without any more disasters and I was beginning to feel a bit better at the thought of a comfortable bed and a relaxing day off. I waved goodbye to the friendly taxi driver and prepared to check in to the hotel. That was the moment I realised that I had broken all three rules of travelling. I could not find my passport. Where could it be? Still badly dehydrated and quite weak I tried to recall the journey. There were three possibilites. Perhaps I'd lost it as I wandered in a daze the wrong way through the Chinese military checkpoint some way along the road, or maybe it had disappeared into the mud when I was summoned from my sickbed to push the taxi out of the offroad trucktrap that it had sunk into. Most likely, however it was still in the taxi. So dreams of relaxing pillows and soft toilet paper were put on hold as I dragged myself to the police station to report my loss and attempt to locate the taxi driver. At this point I can say for certain that I was rather unhappy with the whole situation.
This unhappiness increased the next morning as a call to the British embassy emergency number revealed that I would have to travel all the way to Beijing (around 4000km away) in order to get a new passport. As this was plainly stupid, I knew I would have to find my ol
d passport. A trawl of long distance bus stations and taxi ranks found no trace of the mystery taxi cab so I made the decision to take another cab ride along my favourite piece of highway in search of the elusive passport. 7 wasted hours and 75 wasted dollars later and I was no nearer to being legal. I had discovered that when it rains in the mountains the road can become a river, particularly in the area where the cab had got stuck the day before. I was also surprised to witness a failure in Chinese form keeping as there was no record of yesterdays taxi in the checkpoint logbook. Despite the two staff ignoring any locals wanting to go through the checkpoint as they went through page after page of handwritten records we came up blank. I'd all but given up hope on my return when I was suddenly summoned to hotel reception. The mystery taxi driver had been located and he was on his way. But the cliche "from hope to despair"barely does justice to my feelings after I'd searched that cursed taxi. On discovering a couple of unusual bits of plastic and 35 years worth of dust, but no passport, I felt the life draining out of me. I may also have been a bit peckish as it was over 2 days since I'd eaten anything but I have seldom felt so deflated by an experience. My dream of spending a day and a half relaxing in front of Chinese daytime TV had been dashed (I must note here that this would not have happened anyway as all three televsion sets I have come across have shown no sign of life whatsoever) and instead... well enough said.
So today has been more of the same with the small but photograpically insane diversion of the Kashgar Sunday market. My worries were forgotten for a while as I learnt to value a goat in less than thirty seconds by looking down its throat, discovered how to persuade cows to jump off trucks and took part in an unexpected noodle skipping ceremony. 650 ph
otos later I had to leave this fantastic, colourful and ethnically diverse experience and return to my epic battle with Chinese bureaucracy. Latest problem being that I need a passport and valid visa to fly despite the fact that the only reason I am flying is to get a new passport and visa. Tomoorow I will be taking on the combined forces of the Chinese police departmemt and the PBS (foreigners buearu thingy) and then, all being well, I will make a dramatic 7000km round trip to Beijing. After a brief pause to read the English papers and visit McDonalds I will attempt to obtain a new passport and visa before catching up with my tour group (wherever they happen to be). This can't possibly work (partially as I can't access any money and no-one takes credit cards but mainly because I can't go into Tibet as an individual traveller) but I'm going to give it a go anyway. So cross your fingers for me, or laugh at my misfortune. But whatever you do don't miss out on the next entralling installment....This was originally written on 31 July 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.