Getting to Kashgar

I went to SFO ready to take on the challenge of getting to Kashgar via Shanghai (including an airport change across the city in the 4-hour layover), Beijing (an overnighter) and Urumqi (brief layover) before touching down in KSH some day and a half after I started. Unfortunately these best laid plans were put to rest from the outset as the outbound United flight was at least 4 hours delayed, meaning I wouldn’t make my onward connections.

After some nightmarish haggling with United and Air China I finally managed to wangle myself onto the direct SFO-Beijing flight, and slept most of the way on what seemed an endless flight over Alaska and the remote north-east of Russia.

Emerging from Beijing airport’s incredible Terminal 3 it felt otherworldly with thick smoggy haze, muggy temperatures, a weak orange evening sun and a cream-colored moon in the sky. I now had time to burn in Beijing overnight and treated myself to a surprisingly decent $20 hotel room near the terminal. The room was clean and functional, and somehow a lifetime of Chinese cigarettes had given it a pleasant odor of Argentinian maté. After a bargain $5 dinner and a beer around the corner – in which I perhaps unwisely went for the spiciest thing on the menu after a day of bland airline food – I went to bed knowing I’d be up in a few hours to head back to the terminal.

At 5am I was already back at the terminal to check in for my flights. At security I was ushered in to a separate queue for additional screening as I was heading to the Wild West badlands of the country (there has been some violence recently in Xinjiang between the indigenous Uighur Muslims and the Han Chinese).

The flight to Urumqi was uneventful, although I sat glued to the window as we flew over the empty, sandy expanse of the Gobi Desert, which then contrasted with some fabulous views of one of the snow-capped and forested ranges of the Tian Shan mountains at eye level on approach to the airport (see photo below).

After a quick transfer I hopped on to the final flight of my trip, this time choosing to sit on the right side of the plane to nab some views of the Tian Shan mountains as we took off and climbed to crushing altitude. On the run from Urumqi down to Kashgar, the flights parallel the mountain range that separates China from Kyrgyzstan, and it was quite the contrast setting snowy peaks out one window and the Taklamakan Desert on the other side.

As we approached to land, Kashgar emerged as a green oasis in the desert: the city taps into the great rivers of glacial runoff that emerge from the towering mountains to the south (Karakoram) and west (Pamir). In Kashgar I met with two of the clients and the other trip leader Vassi who is to be my mentor for this tour (check out his site:, and together we rendezvoused with the local Wild China (GeoEx’s local operator in the country) representatives Tahir and Gloria who took us to our hotel in town. Driving through the pleasant, sunny streets lined with poplar trees and mulberry trees took me back to my Silk Road travels through the region back in 2006 – it feels good to be back!

Following our check-in at the romantically named Tarim Petroleum Barony Hotel, we met a few more of the clients and went for a quick dinner around the corner at a Uighur restaurant – back to kebabs and rice. After that I collapsed into bed exhausted after almost two days of travel. Need to get my rest – the tour starts tomorrow!


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