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The smell of rotting fruit and sun-scorched meat wafts unapologetically just below my nostrils. My stomach clenches and my throat seizes, performing an obligatory wretch to protest this olfactory overload so early in the morning. Men with fantastically wrinkled and sun-weathered faces lead herds of goats and sheep past us; the animals blissfully unaware of their impending fate as they stroll casually past fat and sweaty cleaver-wielding men standing proudly beside half-dried intestines and skulls. Women in bright orange and pink sequined dresses bargain furiously for vegetables and delicious sea-salted rounds of bread, the black sparkly head scarves they each wear to cover their long and wild hair glisten in the early-morning desert sun. We are surrounded by a maddening sea of sequins and gold-toothed grins. I set my exhaustion aside for long enough to marvel at the scene we have stumbled upon, hardly believing we are still in China.

It took six days on a seemingly endless string of bone-rattling buses and jam-packed trains to get here, but if ever a city were worth such a journey, it is Kashgar. From the coastal city of Nanking, we headed west to Xian, the city of ancient warriors, before taking an equally ancient bus through the lush and mountainous landscape to Lanzhou and beyond, eventually ending up in the western-most province of the Middle Kingdom, Xinjiang.. As the hours and days passed, the polluted concrete memories of eastern China faded gradually from view and we found ourselves transported to a world of winding-mountain passes and terraced green tea plantations.

Moving west through the less populated regions of China, the world flattens out and transforms into a harsh moonscape of tundra-like plains covered in gravel. Occasional tufts of green speckle the otherwise barren landscape, having fought their way through the gravel to provide an unassuming foreground to the low, angular mountains in the distance. On the evening of our fourth day of travel, the sky clouded over and burst into a dramatic spectacle of rain and lightning over the modest plains. When the train finally approached Urumqi the next morning, we had the feeling of being transported to a different world- the sprawling plains of nothingness having given way to a gradual spattering of crumbling dwellings before erupting into a cacophony of shitting children, piles of litter and destitute huts without roofs.

Urumqi itself is exactly what I imagine a Soviet city to look like: Un-dramatic concrete buildings crumbling beneath old overpasses; tiny rust-ridden cars littering cracked roads; grey sky covering grey city covering grey and thirsty earth. The station is a Mecca of activity and there are people living, laughing and dying in full view of anyone with enough time to sit back and watch. The women are strong and fierce-looking, with dark and brooding faces juxtaposed against bright turquoise and red clothing. They appear unceremonious, peppering the sidewalks of the city with idle chit-chat and drawn-out games of chess. The entire city, which may or may not have been impressive in its heyday, is a portrait of dire neglect. Twenty-five hundred kilometers from the nearest ocean coastline, Urumqi is the most inland city on earth. The thirst is evident.

We left Urumqi that evening, and as the train rattled west the landscape changed yet again, from gravel spattered decrepitude to the endless sand of the Taklamakan desert. We wandered into the dining car as the sun began a slow descent behind the horizon and passed our final evening on the train with cold beers and dreams of becoming rogue traders. During the night, the train rattled further into the desert, seducing us with the constant rhythm of movement and romanticized ideas of a wild western frontier. When we awoke the next morning, we had arrived in the silk road oasis of Kashgar.

Situated near China's western-most border, Kashgar is a jumping-off point for travel to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikstan. Han Chinese are a minority in this part of the country and the Muslim Uyghurs, descendants of a Turkish tribe that settled in the region in the 10th century, form the vast majority. Despite the numbers, Beijing maintains a firm grip on the region, visually manifested in the city square by an 18 meter high statue of Chairman Mao, one of the tallest in the country. The Uyghurs have a long history of nationalist movements and Kashgar was the brief capital of the shortly-lived Republic of East Turkestan in the first half of the twentieth century. More recently, Beijing has dealt with nationalism with a firm hand, publicly executing leaders of rebellions and suppressing the prevalence of the Ugyhur language.

My stomach recovers from the smell of the rotting fruit and we continue our walk through the dusty streets of this new and unfamiliar city. The corners are marked by street signs written in the exotic-looking Ugyhur script, and the streets lined with mud brick shops and donkey-carts. It is Saturday morning and the city is throbbing in preparation for the Sunday market. Each week, Kashgar's population swells by approximately 2000 as Central Asian and Ugyhur traders flood into town to buy and sell their wares. We walk past the enormous statue of Chairman Mao before veering to the right in the direction we assume our hotel to be in. My shoulders are aching as we approach the huge white and turquoise domed building thirty minutes later, and I gladly drop my pack on the tiled floor of our third floor room before falling into bed.

When we left Nanking a week ago, we knew traveling the width of one of the largest countries in the world in less than a week for a single city sounded ridiculous. Now, lying in bed and listening to the sounds of a China I never knew existed, I remember that taking the time to let a place surprise you, to find not what you're looking for but what lies hidden beneath the stereotypes of place and culture, is the reason I travel. Indeed, this was a journey to restore my faith in the idea that, given the chance, a new place or culture will blow your mind every time.