Olympic paranoia

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of China  , Xinjiang Uygur,
Monday, August 11, 2008

From Pakistan to paranoia.
No other way to put it, really.
The thing about having a travelling, having a good time, and keeping the Goodyears turning, is that one eventually leaves a trail of dust in the fun zone.
Pakistan seems to have come and gone in a flash, a bright flash of great music, madcap road rides, a few bottles of rotgut, and a serious dearth of women.
It was time to sign up for the ride up and over the rest of the Karakoram Highway.
The final night in Gilgit was a steamer. Thickly heated pre-monsoon air lay in a swathe like a stack of Basotho blankets. The fan just played the warm air over a sweaty body. Two hours sleep with a 4.30am wake-up call in mind.
The sight of a huge sleeper bus, with beds instead of seats, raised a sunrise smile.
Until it transpired only eight passengers were heading north. Quickly we are downgraded to a shuttle coach, and just a quickly our tickets are further devalued to a regular local rattletrap.  
Uphill, over broken roads on bad shock absorbers. Impossible to rest the head forward for fear of breaking one's neck in a big dozy bump.
But the scenery more than compensates. More mountainsides, gravel avalanche threats, snow peaks, glaciers that almost reach the road. The great divide between the sub-continent and ancient Asia further north.
Two Pakistani gem 'dealers' offer amusing company. One, a brute of a man, 2m, speaks good English, some Uighur (Weejah) and Mandarin.
"My name is Mujahadeen, and I buy stones on Afghanistan and sell them in China."  
The window of inventiveness possible here seemed too wide to make any queries so early in my relationship with someone finely cut in a black suit, sharp shoes, and unmatched scraggly, shoulder length, greasy black hair.
But his large bag of mixed nuts and dried apricots made a fine breakfast.
Through the Hunza valley and mountains and on to Sost, Pakistan's customs clearance station.
Everybody out the bus, all the bags out. Passports please.
"Open them all up, and take everything out."
Two very laconic, slouching uniforms sloth in slob chairs against the wall of a large corrugated-iron roofed verandah. The backdrop, a large mountain and a lot of snow.
Unbuckle the bag, and take each item out, one at a time, and hand it to the uniform with a very large brass belt buckle.
Toilet bag. Take the bar of soap out. A suspicious item. He finds his spike, a sharpened bicycle spoke with a wooden handle, and pokes a hole through.
Another hole through a sealed packet of cigarettes. Into the heels of thick-soled shoes.
My medi-kit of antibiotics, painkillers, syringes et al barely raises an eyebrow.
A travelling companion gets a sample of her talcum powder poured out on to the ground. Uniform finger dips in and has a sniff. A tin of tea gets a stirring inspection.
"What are you looking for, hashish, opium?"
"Smack, heroin!" Okey dokes.
An hour-and-a-half later the road still climbs, until at close to 5,000m the Khunjerab Plateau levels out, and a roadblock sign proclaims "Point Zero". This is the border. Immigration. Passports please.
Point Zero photo op. Except somebody else has to handle the equipment, and blows the shoot.
Through the post, and the road changes from a veritable dirt/tar track to honest highway quality. Welcome to China.
Across around 50km of plateau, peaks on either side, piles of snow and mid-summer slush, and a host of odd, fat, orangish mongoose-type creatures. They stand like mongooses, very, very furry, lie like rugby balls, and bobble along in a motion crossed between a strolling rabbit and a racoon.
Turns out they're golden marmots. Though an 'image Google' of them fails to reveal the peculiar orange-gold hue the inquisitive little buggers carry, popping up on their hind legs to watch the bus pass, before huddling down in a big ball of family warmth again.
This is kind of no-man's land, though in reality China. The distance between the Pakistani and Chinese immigration post is also home to hidden snow leopards and Himalayan ibex.
This time, game spotting only extends to wild yaks and a few scraggly bunches of wild two-humped (bactrian) camels. With saddles that look they were born to ride, they would surely have to be more comfortable than the discombobulation of sitting on the fore-shoulder of the one-humper.
China's customs post.
All out, all bags out. Stand in the cold, and wait your turn for full search. Passports please.
Four at a time into an open shed. Four degrees. We are in Pakistani summer clothes with a lucky woollen hat and a sarong-style shoulder wrap.
"Can I take a picture of the searching," I ask a shoulder and machine gun. "No," snaps the head around.
My turn. All out. Passport again. Everything is pored over. Guide books are carefully scrutinised. No, there are no bookmarks at Lhasa or Tibet.
"What is on your digital camera? Show me!" I turn it on, and the camouflaged uniform flicks through 200 stills. Temples, mountains, snowdrops, silly faces.
"What's on the DVDs?"
"We take for inspection."
They stumble across a copy of my Hong Kong residence card. "You are Chinese? You speak Chinese?" No and no. "We take this to check as well."
Take my woollen hat off. Finger it all over.
Find 50 rolls of Velvia 50-ASA film. Problem. They can't open the canisters, which are serious smuggling utensils. Scrutinise my face carefully as they play with one or two. Obviously my innocence shines through.
The Pakistani gem 'dealer' has thousands of his small stones poured out on the table. Handful by handful are carefully sifted. He has a China trading permit. His permit name is Mohammed. Mujahadeen? Handful by handful are put back into the boxes, until the camo uniform looks at the final handful, in his hand, and raises a quizzical eyebrow at 'Mujahadeen', a gesture that screams "these will look very good around my wife's neck". 'Mujahadeen' sighs, silently, nods his head, picks up his boxes and we're back on the bus.
I question the problem he had with his travel document. It is a unique border pass available to residents of northern Pakistan and Xinjiang as part of the 'highway' construction deal 15 years or so ago.
Only thing is, 'Mujahadeen' comes from Lahore, in central Pakistan. I tell him that I won't even bother asking how he has the document.
Another 50km, slowly downhill off and out of the plateau, and into Tashkurgan, traditionally the final town for southbound travellers to stock up in before the hard pass yards.
Into the immigration gate, and a squad of camo uniforms await.
By now it's almost (almost) a joke.
Passports please, all out, all bags out, all bags open.
Give me everything, one item at a time. My bag is stuffed full, and carefully packed. Each unpacking is a hassle. Each packing is looser than before. I have to stuff and stuff.
"Can I take a photo?"
Same deal, what's on the camera? Nosey Mr Camo sticks his hand deep into a small fishing bag, and impales his middle finger on a small, sharp fishing hook, to his extreme annoyance, and great amusement of his camo colleagues.
To his credit, he sees the funny side quickly, and after scrutinising my Penn 500 fishing reel, and trying to get 'inside' my breakdown fishing rod, he relents.
"Ok, take your bags into that building."
Inside, I get my passport stamped. A lot of women in camo. One looks at me, and says "give me passport". I smile. She returns with a po-faced, bitch from hell look. Passport disappears behind a slammed door.
"This way, go into this room."
Room? Through a door into a 'cupboard' about a metre by a metre. "Stand on the rubber mat."
Door closes, a humming starts, and the rubber mat moves a few inches this way and that. Thirty seconds.
"What was that, old chap?"
We are just checking your body.
What, checking my temperature?
No, just your body in general.
I peek around a corner and see a monitor screen, with an X-ray kind of image, hazy, of nothing.
Buggars are X-raying my stomach and intestines. Surely they don't think I am carrying explosives wrapping in condoms in my small intestine?
Everybody else is cleared, and I wait another half and hour, sitting outside, until I am called in to another room.
Where are you from? Just like my passport says, South Africa. What is your job. I am retired. What was your job? I fudge, I haven't worked for a while.
Rule number one/one/one ... never ever ever say you work for any kind of media, in any kind of capacity.
Ok, back into the 'box'.
This time I spend a minute behind the X-ray machine.
Out. The bitch returns with my passport. Throws it at me, along with my DVDs and HK ID copy. "Go."
It transpires they thought I was a South African trying to smuggle diamonds, the only thing for which South Africa seems to be known, up the old back passage.
Thank god the X-ray machine saved me from the old inspection techniques. Small mercies.
Into China, proper and legally.
There had been reports of 16 dead in a grenade attack in Kashgar, my destination, a few days earlier, and the Olympics were due to begin in two days' time.
But even paranoia has levels of extreme.
The gem dealer guides us across the road from the immigration office, into a Pakistani eatery.
"This is 'still' Pakistan," he laughs.
"And we can have beer, and pay in rupees."
Islam's portals fall. Beer is ordered all round from the scarfless wife of the owner. The letchery begins, the beer swilling begins.
What a difference a border post makes.
A sleepover in a Chinese nitery, and on to Kashgar (through three more passport checks), the first trading post along the southern silk road into China. A trading post as old as memory itself.
It is a Muslim town.
The Olympics begin. There are no celebrations, no hoots in the street. The majority of the population, Uighurs, are not ethnic Chinese, and don't seem to hold much truck with the nation as a whole either. They seem simply content to live here, where they've been 'for ever'.
I watch the opening ceremony. The locals give barely a glance at the telly, regarding it as a C-grade Bruce Willis show. One Chinese women in the restaurant does have tears running down her cheeks during the anthem.
A town of paranoia, some pride, and a complete lack of prejudice - just nonchalance.
A quiet town, broad streets, modern fronts to new-style blocks, fronting the hidden 'old city' of mud and brick buildings, and rows of traders, artisans, carpenters, metalworkers, eateries, carpet sellers.
And the Kashgar market itself. Hundreds and hundreds of small stalls selling everything from Uighur handmade knives, to Afghan carpets, to delicious watermelons, to wheels for every household appliance possible, as well as all the screws, nuts and bolts and spanners and drivers you would ever require, and medicines, and cosmetics, and, and, and ....
A marketeer's market. The biggest shopping centre going, open-aired. No smoking allowed.
Tomorrow into the southern desert, on another mission to broach Tibet, in these times of paranoic angst.
I failed from the south, let's see what happens from the north. Only thing is, there is no bus, or regular transport for the last 500km of this particular route.
If you haven't heard from me in three weeks' time, I am still waiting for 'that' van.
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