The Silk Road, China

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Xian - the end of the Silk Road

It began to sink in as we stood on the old city walls of Xian overlooking the Western gate through which the silk caravans would have passed: this was the end of a long road that has guided my route from Damascus.

Xian, the ancient capital of China, is of course much more than a Silk Road town. The influences of the road remain: there is a Muslim quarter and mosque and round bread loaves and kebabs of Central Asia stubbornly refuse to disappear completely from the street stalls. But for the first time since Iran, I find myself out of the once nomadic steppes and deserts and back into a civilisation steeped in history.

Not that it is very visible today. Apart from the restored old city walls and the odd symbolic bell tower, everything is new; Xian has apparently embraced capitalism with an insatiable appetite. Familiar brands dominate the high street, including Starbucks (perhaps the best soya cappuccino I have ever had in my life), McDonalds, KFC and clothing brands too numerous to mention, ranging from Gucci to Etam.

The sun rarely shines in Xian. Instead a heavy, humid haze hangs over the city, meaning it is impossible to see more than a few hundred metres. Despite the bad weather affecting China at moment which must play a role, this is clearly the effect of pollution. Having spent the best part of a week in Xian in high summer, even immediately following rainfall, I never saw the sun break through enough to cast shadows on the ground.

The City Walls of Xian enveloped in smog

Initially creating an aura of mystery, I quickly came to miss the complete lack of contrast in the light; it reminded me of skiing in flat light! Consequently, the time to enjoy it is at night. The city comes alive with its own lights and the people crowd the streets everywhere to such a degree that would have alarmed me had I not experienced Oxford Street.

Nevertheless, it is a fun city to spend a few days and indulge in some shopping. This we did with considerable dedication before heading out to the Terracotta Army, the jewel in Xian's crown of tourist attractions.

Shopping in the Muslim Quarter

The most impressive thing about the Terracotta Army is that any individual could conceive of - and execute - such an idea: to create a 6,000 strong army of warriors to protect his own tomb and his soul in the afterlife. Perhaps this is best example of the (justified) Chinese conviction of their superiority over all other races in ancient history which in turn caused the country's isolation and for her to be so dramatically overtaken by the rest of the world in the last 500 years. Of course, all this looks set to change now...

It is the scale of the army that will remain with me. The crowds around us and the distance we were from the soldiers sadly destroyed any sense of atmosphere and prevented real appreciation of the detail, but scale of the emperor's ambition came through very powerfully. Yet it is the detail makes the whole even more impressive: every soldier has a unique face, each was hand made and hand painted and equipped with weapons of the day. It is for this reason that the Terracotta Army is called the Eigth Wonder of the World.

Xian sadly marks the end of Helen's trip. In two weeks, we have moved from Central Asian Plov to Chinese style quail, from local beer to Starbucks, from a yurt to a four star hotel and from sand to the lush green terraces of Shaanxi province. I think no other two week period of my trip so far has seen such contrasts. I have enjoyed having her along enormously and will miss having someone to laugh at the trials and tribulations that are part and parcel of travelling in China.


Saturday, 28 July 2007

The Northern Silk Road to Xian - Dunhuang & The Hexi Corridor

Both the Buddhist caves and the sand dunes of Turpan (see previous posting) served to whet our appetites for what was to come in Dunhuang, another oasis town this time where the Southern and Northern Silk Roads merge into a single a route towards Xian.

The Mogao caves were once a complex of over 1000 Buddhist caves, literally hidden away in the desert outside Dunhuang until an itinerant monk happened upon them around the turn of last century. He subsequently devoted the rest of his life to restoring and protecting them and they remain an incredible sight today.

At first the caves were used as retreats by a few monks, but in time their proximity to the Silk Road resulted in a huge increase both in the number of caves and the level of ambition of artwork within them. The caves became a display of devotion and were generously endowed by westbound merchants who hoped to secure their safe return and eastbound merchants who had made it back to the safety of China. At their height in the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th centuries) the caves were a thriving community of 140 monks and nuns, along with numerous local sculptors, painters and calligraphers.

The caves are awe inspiring. Upon entering the first, all that is visible is a huge fold of cloth sculpted into the rock. As the eyes become accustomed to the gloom, they are drawn to the two enormous feet (the big toenails are the length of my forearm) on either side. At this point they slowly are drawn upwards to take in the enormity of the 35 metre high seated Buddha.

We saw just a tiny selection of the caves, but enough to appreciate the quality of the art and to notice the foreign influences - as well as goods - that travelled down the Silk Road: Indian faces and Buddhism shared the same narratives as local people, customs and Taoist ideas. Despite being extremely busy, the Mogao caves were nonetheless a highlight of the entire Silk Road.

The only way to follow such a morning was to opt for a complete contrast. We hired bikes and rode towards the massive (300m high) sand dunes that literally bump up against the outskirts of Dunhuang. As with Tian Chi, we were somewhat surprised to be welcomed by a hefty entrance fee, which presumably funded the camel festival-cum-theme park and wooden steps that had been built up one of the dunes.

We turned our backs on it all and set out to find our own, quiet dune, when suddenly a microlight circled over head. Immediately I knew I had to try it and it conjured up images of the English Patient for Helen; we knew we could not pass up the opportunity. We swallowed our pride, paid our dues and enjoyed a brief, but exhilarating and spectacular flight over the dunes.

The dunes from the microlight

Once back on the ground, we left the camels where they were and trudged up a huge - and almost too hot to walk on - dune, well away from the crowds.

The Hexi Corridor

We were to find last of the desert in a town called Jiaguyuan. Its significance lay in its fortress which - thanks to the Great Wall - guarded the pass into the Chinese Empire through which all travellers had to pass: the Hexi Corridor. For the caravans it offered either the first or the last security and civilisation for months.

Even today, its location is striking. Both the Wall and the Fort have recently been restored and cut an imposing shape in the wilderness. We cycled out from the town to where the wilderness begins. From a turret on the wall at the top of the hill, we looked out to the West: the Hexi corridor is hemmed in by snow capped mountains to the south and the desert to the North. To savour the moment, we walked a short distance into the Gobi desert and sat for while, looking back on the Great Wall of China.

Ahead of us to the east lay the part of China that was driving the economic growth that constantly dominates the headlines. Here the news makes fascinating viewing: every year on year trend reported is a massive increase. The media must contribute to the optimism and energy that you can sense in China, although of course it is closely monitored by the state. Nevertheless, I was surprised at how openly (but not non critically of course) the discussion is around the biggest some of the biggest challenges that China faces. These include the undervaluation of the yuan and the sustainability of the unusually high level of savings - changes in either of which could seriously undermine Chinese stability.

The environmental cost of the Chinese miracle is also visible here for the first time. Well documented in our media, I had initially been encouraged by the widespread use of recycling bins upon arrival in Kashgar. But as we rode back from the Wall towards the town, it was impossible not to notice the countless factory chimneys on the outskirts of the town, spewing black smoke into the bright blue sky. The wind carried the smell to the back of our throats and the smoke hung in the air, hinting at the smog to come in the more urbanised east; the contrast with the wilderness could not be more striking.

Our final stopover before Xian was an unexpected surprise. The small town of Zangye somehow had more atmosphere than anywhere Helen and I had found so far. It was neither a tourist town like Dunhuang nor a sprawling concrete mess like Urumqi: it was simply a pleasant place to pass the time. It had a delightful pedestrianised street where people seemed to be taking time out from the hectic pace of China; a welcome change from the highly functional norm for Chinese towns. We duly joined in with the merriment and tried a local dish called Big Plate Chicken, comprising a whole chopped chicken cooked in a tasty hot sauce. Some pieces were rather less appetising than others...!



Tuesday, 24 July 2007

The Northern Silk Road to Xian - Tian Chi & Turpan

Within a week of Helen (my sister) arriving, I had experience a number of firsts for the trip so far: gin & tonic; rose wine (Chinese, not recommended); red wine (better, but nothing to write home about) and a night in a four star hotel. As someone who appreciates travelling in style (as well as being happy to rough it I should add), Helen is the perfect travel companion to begin the transition from Central Asian simplicity to East Chinese modernity.

The quality and variety of food continues to improve as we head east, and while it remains possible to to pick up a bowl of noodles for a dollar or so, the gap with more expensive restaurants is widening.
Street markets are now the exception rather than the norm, with shops now replacing them on the high streets - increasingly with price tags and familiar western brands.

But first, so that we could compress the entire transition into two weeks, we spent Helen's first day in China heading for the Kazakh border in order to spend a night in a yurt. The wonderful thing about Xinjiang is that it has absorbed so much of Central Asia. Billo and I found a taste of Tajikistan in Tashkurgan (en route to Pakistan) and Helen and I were to find a taste of Kazazhstan in the north of the province with the Kazakh shepherds who live around Tian Chi - the 'Heavenly Lake' - set among steep, tree lined hills with snow capped mountains in the distance at an altitude of 2000m.

The Kazazh yurts

Idyllic as it may look, this was indeed roughing it: our beds the floor of the yurt and there were no such luxuries as electricity or running water. For food we were offered plov (rice fried in ripe mutton fat, mixed with pieces of ripe mutton) and noodle soup - the Central Asian staple diet. These proved less appealing for Helen when it transpired that the 'vegetarian' version of plov is involves simply picking the mutton out!

It would also be misleading to describe Tian Chi as a little corner of Kazakstan. Parts of it were most certainly Chinese. And, we are rapidly coming to discover, (to quote from the film Borat) "the cultural differences are vaaaaast." It seems that the Chinese tourists' idea of appreciation of one of the most stunning mountain lakes I have ever seen is exorbitant entrance fees, a circus of shops and loud music blaring from speakers, tour boats (complete with air horns despite there being just three of them) and visiting a two year old 'temple' with no apparent raison d'etre other than revenue generation.

I would like to briefly explain what I mean by 'exorbitant' entrance fees. At 100 Yuan (13.5 dollars, excluding transfer from the car park and entrance to the temple which increases the price by a further 50%) this is completely out of kilter with other prices in China. Indexing this to the cost of a cheap meal in China, this is like charging 100 pounds to go around Kew Gardens. The price appears to be the same for locals, making tourism totally unaffordable for the vast majority of Chinese people. Nevertheless, the site is packed, showing just how important China's 'mass affluent' population already are.

Once you are in, it is carnage. The noise is unbearable and a scrum of people jostle for position, posing for a snapshot which invariably involves a V sign, a flexed arm muscle or both arms raised towards the sky. Around the lake is a catalogue of overkill: a two lane tarmac road stretches much too far around it, while concrete 'toadstools' (to sit on) and giant 'leaves' (to shelter under) adorn the largely unnecessary concrete stepped walkway.

Fortunately, we have discovered that the horror is inversely proportional to the distance in metres (in particular vertical metres) from the entrance at which everyone is dropped off by their vehicles. Our yurts, at the far end of the lake, were situated in total tranquility with just a handful of other foreign tourists besides ourselves.

Tian Chi - peace at last

The following day we walked around the other side of the lake and sat, quite alone, at the top of hill overlooking the lake as the eagles circled around us, ridingthe thermals. The lake can indeed live up to its name, but very much in spite of the best efforts of the tourist industry.


Next we travelled to Turpan, an oasis town on the Northern Silk Road (I had cut north from the Southern Silk Road in order to meet Helen) which - at 80m below sea level is the hottest place in China. However, in the same way as I have seen in Iran and Pakistan, an extensive irrigation system has transformed the surrounding area in a green land of plenty, famed for its Delicious grapes and sweet water melon.

Sitting under the vines that have even been extended to the main pedestrian street in Turpan eating fruit proved to be an extremely pleasant way to pass the time in the sweltering 40 degree heat. We once ventured out on bikes to explore the town, but we driven back into the shade within a couple of hours.

The vine trellises of Turpan

But we did spend an interesting day visiting two towns nearby Turpan. The first was Jioahe, a 2000 year old former garrison town, perched on top of a steep sided plateau that had been created by a fork in the river. Amazingly intact considering its age, it is possible to walk around what were clearly once streets and see the exact layout of the town.

The ancient desert city of Jiaohe

The second town, Tuyoq, bore an incredible resemblance to Jiaohe but remains inhabited by a devout Muslim population who seem determined to maintain their traditional way of life. The town contains a temple which is believed to be a religious site mentioned in the Koran and is therefore a site of pilgrimage.


Beyond the village, we chanced upon some caves set into the cliffs containing Buddhist wall paintings. We had the place to ourselves (apart from their elderly minder who enthusiastically opened them up for us), making them very atmospheric in the solitude. Sadly, the faces of every Buddha had been systemically destroyed by the Red Guards of Mao's Cultural Revolution of the late sixties, in which he instructed China's youths to destroy all evidence of 'bourgeois thought,' which included cultural heritage.

That evening we sat on the sand dunes just outside Turpan (it was a relief to find desert 'proper' after the flatness of the Taklakaman) and watched the sunset before sleeping out under the stars outside our Uighar guesthouse. The contrast from the freezing cold evening at Tian Chi could not have been more marked.

JM & HM (co written on the train)

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Kashgar & The Southern Silk Road


Kashgar's location has always been significant: it is the Silk Road hub that connects China with Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan via two high altitude mountain passes, both of which I have been lucky enough to experience in the last few weeks (and one of them twice!)

I had expected Kashgar to bring to a close the Central Asian chapter of this trip and had even braced myself for the more testing aspects of Chinese culture that I had read about, such as the staring and the real difficulty being understood even if attempting Mandarin.

All of these concerns proved misplaced - at least for now. Kashgar, like most of Xinjiang province, is far more Central Asian than it is Chinese. The local Uighar people look different from the Han Chinese, speak their own language, are Muslim and have the same customs and food tastes as their Central Asian neighbours - as one person put it quite simply: "I am not Chinese."

The Uighar people in fact have a history of resisting Chinese which extends to the present day, despite the mass migration of Han Chinese into the province which has done something to diminish the Uighar's domination of the population figures in Xinjiang. Within a few minutes of meeting them, a number of people have expressed their dislike for the Chinese (i.e. Han Chinese) - citing reasons as diverse as cultural differences or discrimination in areas such as finding work.

So Kashgar is a muddle of contradictions: a gigantic statue of Chairman Mao (hailing a taxi?!?) is a short walk away from the Id Kah Mosque. Amusingly, the Xinjiang museum attempts to smooth over the cracks in the region's history with an upbeat historical narrative of how regional culture has all contributed to the greatness and unity of the motherland...

Kashgar is most famous for its Sunday market - a magnet which brings thousands of Central Asians together every week to buy or sell just about anything imaginable. Billo and I managed to experience it en route to Pakistan.

Our visit to the animal market got off to a bizarre start with the tourists (and there were rather more than we were used to) beating the locals to it and somewhat outnumbering them. Within an hour or so, however, the market was in full swing with cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, horses and the odd camel changing hands at a furious pace. The sheep were even given the salon treatment to ensure they fetched the best possible price.

The rest of the market was so sprawling it felt more like an area of
town than a market as such, comprising indoor bazaars and a mass of street markets. The real buzz was invariably the latter, where we watched people scrutinizing everything from water melons to the sales pitch of some obscure Chinese medicine. The variety of ethnic groups at the market, each betrayed by their wonderful local hats was wonderful. We spent as much time looking for people as we did for things to buy.

An unexpected highlight of Kashgar was meeting two like minded Londoners - literally as we were waiting at the traffic lights on our rented bikes. Fred & Cederic (from Switzerland) completely humbled us and our little trip by having cycled from Tehran to Kashgar. We enjoyed a couple of great evenings swapping stories and helping them celebrate the end of their trip (it made us think of the bad weather we had experienced at the Torugart pass in a completely different light) with some good food and several very good Chinese beers. Their trip may even have inspired us to seek out some adventure of our own on the Karakorum Highway...

The Southern Silk Road - a road less travelled

The Chinese traders had a tough deal. Heading west from Xian, they had to leave the protection of the Great Wall and contend with the Taklakaman desert in Northwest China - just over a quarter of million square kilometres of some of the most inhospitable nothingness on earth.

Of course they skirted around its edges it rather than battle with the sand dunes in the middle, hence the Northern Silk Road via Turpan and the Southern Silk road via Lop Nor and Khotan. The two roads were reunited at Kashgar, whereupon the Chinese caravans would head up into the Pamirs to exchange their wares (which would either head south into Afghanistan and India) via the Kunjerab pass (see the Karakorum Highway posting) or north to Tashkent and Samarkand (see the Pamir Highway posting). Meanwhile the Chinese merchants retraced their steps 3,000 back to Xian, once again braving the deserts and marauding bandits as they went.

Of the two routes, the Southern is the older and historically more significant - many of the famous travellers (including Marco Polo) took it. In its remoteness lay its attraction to the caravan trains - even the bandits thought twice before attempting it. Today it still lacks any major cities and is certainly the road less travelled. Armed with a Mandarin phrasebook in a Uighar speaking province I was to experience the vast emptiness of the Taklakaman desert first hand and find virtually no one who spoke English for the best part of a week.

Even the desert was not what I had expected. Instead of the evocative sand dunes at the heart of the Taklakaman, the landscape was a simply vast formless desert stretching out to the horizon. In the course of a week of bus journeys, just a few dunes (often stitched together with carefully planted grasses to prevent them from shifting onto the roads) and the odd (two humped) camel was all that interrupted the flatness between the Silk Road oasis towns that remain today.

Instead of searing heat and glaring sunshine, the desert was both windy and cloudy, meaning that the sky muddled together with the horizon in a dusty haze. My first stop was the dusty town of Khotan, famed for its carpets, silk and jade production.

I arrived expected a tour of the carpet and silk factories and hoping to buy a carpet. Quickly my expectations adjusted to the difficulties of traveling where it is hard to communicate and there is absolutely no tourist infrastructure: one factory was closed (the second attempt was more fruitful) and in the other one my 'tour' involved me poking my head into various buildings to see what was going on. The speed with which the women worked (while keeping up an impressive level of banter) was as incredible to me as my inability to tie one knot was hilarious to them.

Women at work at the carpet factory in Khotan

I couldn't leave without seeing the silk production process, and when I finally made into the silk factory, it was was worth the effort. From the silk cocoon, one of which I was able to take away with me, I saw the silk threads being wound onto individual spindles by machines and then eventually being cross-weaved into wide sheets of silk. It was fascinating to watch and the process from start to finish is so incredible that is hardly surprising that many people in the west used to think that silk grew on trees.

Beyond these 'sights' there was little to do other than wander around the few oasis towns and surrounding countryside where the bus stopped and I would spend the night. Each town had a street market that was alive with a Central Asian buzz and the irrigated outskirts were made up of lanes of flat roofed mud houses, each with livestock outside and wheat or maize smallholdings nearby.

The country lanes just outside Ruoqiang

Even in these small towns (which must be rural backwaters compared to the cities that are driving China's economic growth) the charge for modernisation was hard not to notice; sparkling new constructions adorned the few 'downtown' streets, even though the tarmac gave way to sand just a few hundred metres away. The pace of change is clearly rapid; my impressions and experiences were quite different from the descriptions I found in the various books I have with me; yet both were published within the last five years. It is clear that even the remotest parts of China are rapidly being hauled into the twenty first century. Travelling overland right through China will be a fascinating experience; moving east is like travelling through time.


Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Chitral - the Kalasha valleys and lunch with the Finance Minister

After Billo had left Gilgit for his marathon week of traveling / partying (involving a 16 hour bus journey to Islamabad, a flight to London, a flight to Glasgow, Greg and Morag's wedding, another flight to Spain and another wedding!!!) I decided to head into North West Frontier province, which borders with Afghanistan.

NWFP is a mixed bag. Peshawar, Chitral and the Swat valley are perfectly safe for travellers. The Tribal Areas (about a quarter of the province), on the other hand are not: they are run according to local traditions, and - while overseen by a government intermediary - Pakistani laws do not apply and the government has no authority. Consequently, they are closed to foreigners (and non local Pakistanis) except for a few roads like the Khyber pass for which you require an armed escort.

Not so for Chitral, fortunately; the only thing that betrays the fact that you are in NWFP is the need to register with the police literally 10 times en route from Gilgit and again upon arrival. Chitral's attraction is its isolation until very recently; by road it can only be accessed via one of two 3000m+ passes, both of which are impassable in winter. Like many of the other places we have visited on this trip, the spotlight of the 'Great Game' also shone on Chitral about 100 years ago, when Britain saw it as a possible bridgehead for a potential Russian invasion of India.

Getting there was quite an ordeal. On the way there, heavy rain in the preceding days had quite literally obliterated the road; it was not even possible to see where it had once been. I had no choice but to leave my jeep on one side, roll up my trousers and wade through the freezing thigh deep water. After walking a few kilometres on the other side, I was lucky enough to hitch ride in another jeep all the way to Chitral. In total: two full days to travel perhaps 400 kilometres.

Ominously for the return journey, it poured with rain when I arrived in Chitral. This made what is a not particularly picturesque administrative centre even less inspiring. I quickly made plans to explore the Kalasha valleys.

The Kalasha valleys

The Kalasha people are a proudly non Muslim tribe. Their worshipping ceremonies differ by having dance as an important component and their women wear a head dress of brightly coloured beads which is perhaps more reminiscent of African tribes than anything I have seen in this part of the world.

The people farm wheat and millet and live in dark, multi storey mud houses which are set into the hillside. Women have a quite a different status to Muslim women in Pakistan: they are allowed to leave their husbands at will in order to live with another man (although they are not allowed to take their children with them.) As a visitor, the contrast is marked: the women approach you and greet you with a warm hand shake and "Schpata!"; most Muslim women in Pakistan on the other hand - even if accompanied by men - never initiate conversation nor should you do so as a strange male.

The Kalasha also have a bizarre belief that chickens will bring the demise of their people. Consequently, no Kalasha person keeps chickens, although eating chicken or eggs seems to be acceptable!

I planned to walk up Bumboret valley - the most picturesque of the three - to stay the night in a Kalasha guesthouse. The following day I wanted to trek up to two 3000m passes and drop into the top end of another Kalasha valley where I would spend another night before returning to Chitral. This was relatively ambitious - I would be climbing the passes in one day instead of the recommended two - but very doable if I started early and had a guide. Getting lost with Afghanistan only 4km away and the in midst of the Hindu Kush would not be ideal.

I enquired at my guest house and was presented with a kind local man who spoke no English. I was comfortable with this so long as he was clear on where I wanted to go before we left. All we needed to do was climb and end up in the Rumbur valley - how hard could it be?

Very hard in fact. Things didn't look good when my man didn't seem to know the way out of the village. A man called down to me in English, "use your eyes - you know better than him!" This did not inspire great confidence in him. He kept trying to descend and I kept insisting we at least traversed the hill to find the route to the pass, if not climb. He caved in far too easily for my liking, but seemed to know where he was going after asking a number of loggers along the way.

The climb up to the first pass was long, extremely steep and rather sweaty, but it was cool at the top with a cloud sitting amongst the craggy peaks. The views down into the valley were magnificent.

But it was the descent that was to prove so much harder. After a few false starts down the mountainside (retreating back up the hill because it was too steep), in my frustration (I was the one carrying a rucksack up and down!) I suggested we descend slowly anyway. Once again, my 'guide' was lacking in any better ideas.

Unfortunately, the mountain got steeper rather than shallower as we descended. It was actually quite dangerous and I narrowly escaped serious injury twice. On one occasion, the mountain was simply too steep and I began to slide down the scree towards a steep gully... my guide finally came in useful by helping me me off the face out of harms way. On the other, I had to climb across a rock face (not ideal with a rucksack) in order to avoid a large cliff. In the end, the most effective way down the steep, slippery slopes proved to be half running, half swinging - Tarzan style - from handful to handful of fortuitously placed thick green plants...

The descent

It was an enormous relief to reach the bottom!

Towards China

If the journey to Chitral had been testing, the trip back to the Karakorum Highway was another story. I walked out of the village and hitched back to Chitral, only to find further complications with the road. There is distinct catch 22 in these mountains: if it rains the roads are washed out, but if it is hot (it had been for two days) the melting snow also washes the road out! There were no buses back to Gilgit.

I took a minibus as far as I could go, before hitching a ride on a jeep, perched on top of some wheat sacks. I have discovered that this is infinitely preferable to the cramped and sweaty interior: the sun is relaxing, the air cooling and the views simply stunning.

The journey to a the half way village called Mastuj took twice as long as it should have: we picked our way along hair-raising tracks around landslides which seem to have hit the road every few hundred metres and waited an hour or so for a tractor that literally had to be pushed around the hairpin bends of one hill.

Mastuj was the end of the line for now. The water across the road ahead was apparently too deep to cross either on foot or by vehicle - at least until a new causeway had been built. Luckily for me I met another likeminded English guy called Jamie who was in the same predicament: he had left the Kalasha valleys the same morning and also needed to get to the border in order to meet up with someone. We kept either other sane (and played a lot of chess) while watching an entire day drift by with no news on the road. However, we were looked after very well by Khalid, the young guy who ran our guesthouse, and shown around the beautiful orchards and gardens of the village.

The following day our luck changed. We were waiting at the roadside to hitch a lift and a convoy of smart 4WDs pulled up. We eyed them covetously. Within a few minutes we had been introduced to the Finance Minister of Pakistan, his grandfather (a Field Marshall) and offered a ride in the security Landcruiser at the back of the convoy (complete with AK47 on board). He was on holiday with his family and heading over the Shandur pass towards Gilgit.

The 3,800m Shandur pass is famous for two reasons. First, when the British took Gilgit in 1892 and encountered local hostility into trouble a relief force hauled cannon over the pass through waist deep snow to save the day. Second, it is home to the world's highest Polo field and the annual contest between Chitral and Gilgit - something which appeared in Michael Palin's recent Himilaya documentary.

Frustratingly, the polo tournament was due to start just four days after we passed through. Nevertheless, we were able to stop and soak up atmosphere of preparation and the stunning scenery and were generously offered a picnic lunch with the Finance Minister's entourage.

Our luck continued when the party stopped at a hotel for the night and we were able to continue onwards with one of the many local police escort cars that was heading in our direction! In all, it took three and half days to make it back the 400km to Hunza, but it was an experience I would happily repeat.