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To Kashgar and beyond in Xinjiang, China’s wild west

I am almost flattened by a charging donkey at the Sunday livestock market in Kashgar, a town in the far west of Xinjiang province. The mount is being test ridden by a Han Chinese trader at a furious pace, dust kicking up beneath whirling hooves, and if it wasn’t for the warning shout of “Boish! Boish!” I would certainly have been trampled underhoof.

It would be foolish to make a purchase of something as important as a donkey without a test ride, so I can forgive the trader.

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Elsewhere amid this fascinating melee of camels, horses and mules, hundreds of sheep are packed tightly into pens or being roughly manhandled on and off rusty flatbed trucks, with much shouting and exchanges of views on the size, quality and health of the animals. Uygur farmers bargain roughly, too, shouting and slapping hands in great theatrical gestures as a deal is struck and a sheep is led balefully away by a rope knotted to its horns to a new life on a new truck. The unluckiest of the animals make it only to the nearby tar­paulin restaurants, to be unceremoni­ously dispatched and chopped up to fill the mutton pastries being cooked on a roaring fire.

The market may be in China, but it’s about as far removed from Beijing – both geographically and culturally – as it’s possible to be in the country. Locals complain about the imposition of Beijing time, which means it doesn’t get light in Kashgar until 10am and the sun doesn’t set until close to midnight, and they protest the heavy police presence and the lack of a firewall-free internet. But there have been benefits; the mosque is still open for business and attended by thousands of worshippers every day; and the roads have been improved, farmers now travelling to market by electric tricycle instead of having to coax a reluctant, wooden-cart-pulling donkey along dirt roads. This is unfortu­nate for the camera-toting tourist but is no doubt a great relief to the farmers.

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In Kashgar’s old town, many of the ancient buildings have been repaired or replaced, but in a sympathetic way and in keeping with traditional Uygur archi­tecture. My guide – a Uygur enlisted through Beijing-based travel company Wild China – tells me the new houses do not look quite the same as the old (though, to the untrained eye, it’s hard to tell) but there is a general relief at having running water and flushing toilets. Old, dusty and beige, with squat, flat-topped buildings, the old town has been used as the location for films that are supposedly set in Kabul, such as The Kite Runner (2007), because it’s much safer than the real thing.

Outside the old town, however, Kashgar resembles many other Chinese cities – concreted, sprawling and rather cheaply built. So it is with some relief that we cross the city limits and head south by bus along the Karakoram Highway, towards Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan.

The route climbs steadily and inexorably into the high mountains. Plumes of dust cover everything as laden trucks thunder their way east and army lorries lumber in both directions, their camouflage green paint itself camouflaged by brown Xinjiang dust.

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The route is made tortuous by seemingly innumerable roadworks. To improve and widen a route constructed between 1959 and 1979 as a joint venture between Pakistan and China to cross the 4,693-metre-high Khunjerab Pass, the Chinese are building high bridges and laying smooth tarmac. The work will take years to complete and, in the meantime, results in many diversions along winding switchback roads that beetle beside sheer cliff faces.

Two hundred kilometres from Kashgar, Karakul Lake is a sparkling gem of clear, freezing water below a magnificent panorama of snow-capped mountains – all offshoots of the Himalayas, the Pamir, Tien Shan and Kunlun ranges converge here, at 3,600 metres above sea level.

Thanks to arrangements made by the guide, we stay the night by the shores of the lake, in domed felt tents belonging to Kyrgyz herdsmen. There could hardly be a cosier type of accommodation in the mountains – yurts, complete with iron pot-bellied stove, colourful blankets and padded walls, are designed to withstand winter temperatures of minus-30 degrees Celsius, so the summer chill under a curtain of stars presents no challenge at all.

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The biggest mountain in this region is Muztagh Ata (“ice-mountain father”), which, at 7,546 metres above sea level, is the 43rd highest in the world. We wake to see two Muztagh Atas – one pushing its bulk into the impossibly blue high-altitude sky and the other reflected perfectly in Lake Karakul, at its broad foot. We eat a simple breakfast of dumplings and porridge on the shore and set off slowly, breathing thin air on a trek around the lake and towards the mountain.

Docile Bactrian camels, whose thick winter coats hang messily in matted lumps from their backs and legs, have been enlisted to carry our food and tents. Unconcerned at the paucity of oxygen, they stride unhurriedly along, probably just happy to not be in a Kashgar live-stock market.

The oxygen level is no concern to the Kyrgyz villagers, either, as they wander out from their squat stone homes to watch us and our camels as we puff and pant our way past and exchange waves with us. The child­ren follow for a mile or so, before ambling back home.

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The villages become smaller as we climb steadily to the Muztagh Ata base camp, at 4,500 metres above sea level, but the locals are no less pleased to see us. There is no attempt to sell souvenirs because they have none, although they are very interested in our camels and I do at least manage to acquire one of the strange vertical pill-box hats embroidered with elaborate swirls and patterns the Kyrgyz men wear in these mountains.

Base camp is cold and bleak, and the sheer cliff faces of ol’ Ice Mountain Father, split in half by a mighty glacier, appear frighteningly close. It starts to snow as thunder rumbles with great booming solemnity around the rocks and soon the landscape is freshly dusted in white.

We descend back towards the Karakoram Highway, where overladen trucks trundle along in the distance like tiny toys at the foot of the brown mountains that mark the border with Tajikistan, and crawl gratefully into our tents to see out the storm.

In the morning, we awake to clear blue skies and the bulk of the moun­tain under a fresh white coat of dazzling snow. Breakfast – nuts, watermelon and flat bread from packs carried by the camels and fresh sour yogurt supplied by one of the sheep-rearing villages nearby – is taken outside.

As an eagle rides the warming air above the camp and a woman in a headscarf, face browned by the sun, herds her yaks – the metal clank of their bells echoing through the valley and across the hills – I realise there’s a peaceful side to China’s Wild West, after all.