adventures in the people's republic of china and beyond

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Along the Karakoram Highway: Karakul Lake

Karakul lake in the morning.

We arrived at Kashgar's international bus terminal, noticing they had departures to destinations in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Pakistan. We were tempted to get on the next bus to Bishkek, but lacking a visa for Kyrgyzstan, we requested tickets for our original destination, Karakul lake. The ticket lady informed us we had arrived at the wrong bus terminal (there are two bus stations in Kashgar, one for international and another for domestic destinations). A quick taxi-ride later, we arrived at the right bus station and I bought some nan bread for the road before we hopped on the bus for Tashkurgan. Karakul lake is at the halfway point before you reach Tashkurgan, a small town right on the Chinese side of the border with Pakistan.

The Karakoram highway goes high up into its namesake Karakoram mountains and continues all the way to Pakistan. The scenery along the highway was really incredible. Halfway up, we stopped at a checkpoint and had to show our passports and tickets - the border region is a sensitive area. Convinced that we weren't going to Pakistan, the officials waved us through and we got back on the bus.

Heavy trucks on the way to Pakistan.

The driver dropped us off at Karakul lake and we were immediately swarmed by a bunch of elderly Kyrgyz men who wanted us to stay at their yurts. We were originally going to stay at the official Karakul lake place, but these guys offered much cheaper prices and were friendly enough, so why not? At 40 yuan(5 dollars) a night, the price really wasn't bad. We went with one of the men, and hopped onto the motorcycle of his younger brother, who drove us off to their yurts. The scenery at the lake was really amazing, and hard to capture with a camera:

Our yurts in the distance.

Views of Karakul lake. The mountain up there is Muztagh Ata.

Kongur mountains.

We dropped off our bags in one of the yurts, which they tied up with rope, then went to the main yurt to sit around and have some tea and extremely stale bread. Dry-style nan is the staple food in these regions; it keeps for months, but is really hard and stale-tasting. We chatted a bit with our host, a Krygyz man of about 50 who wore a navy blue Mao suit and cap. His "younger brother", Bakir, who looked around my age, sat around and plucked at a guitar. They suggested we go up and see Muztagh Ata up close, or the "冰川" as they called it - Bakir would take us on his motorcycle for a small fee. We agreed and all three of us piled onto the motorcycle.

Open grasslands.

Bakir's house. He looks young, but he's married with kids!

We zoomed off down the highway, then turned onto a dirt road leading to a small, permanent settlement in the middle of the grasslands. Bakir's house was a little ways off to the side. As we walked up to the house, Bakir pointed at some lambs that were resting in the shade. "Cat," he said. "No, not cat, lamb." Bakir managed to identify the kitten sitting on the windowsill correctly, though, and he brought us some "mipan" for lunch. People in these regions don't actually eat rice very often; apart from polo(pilaf), they have a dish called "mipan", a mispronunciation of the Chinese word for cooked rice, mifan(米饭). Mipan is white rice with cooked vegetables in sauce on top; not unlike the sauce you get on top of laghman. It was OK, but we weren't terribly hungry. Bakir asked us our names, and for the first time, someone had more difficulty pronouncing Rebecca's name than mine!

After lunch, we hopped onto Bakir's motorcycle again and drove off into the mountains. I'd never ridden on a motorcycle before, but the ride was surprisingly smooth, despite the rugged terrain we were driving over. Bakir negotiated the rocky mountain trails with expertise, stopping in the middle of a large field to relieve himself. He pointed at a small furry animal out in the field. "Barmut." I thought he was teaching us the Kyrgyz name for the animal, but after looking more closely at my photo, it looks more like a marmot (which I had previously never heard of), so maybe this was just another round of the animal-naming game.

We drove off again, higher up into the mountains. A herd of yaks blocked the road, but leaped aside when Bakir beeped a couple times. "Marmut," he said, pointing at the yaks. Finally, we arrived at a couple huts high up on the mountain. Muztagh Ata's snowy peak loomed over us, and herds of yaks stood around grazing. Yak manure chips lay outside to dry. A couple Krygyz girls came out of one of the huts and invited us inside for tea.

Up on the mountain.

Nurguli and Nurbibi.

We had some stale bread and the girls offered us ayrun, which is a very sour yogurt-water drink. They got some dried yak manure and started up the stove, heating us some tea. Surprisingly, the younger Kyrgyz girl of about 13 or so could speak good Chinese, introducing herself as Nurbibi; her shy older sister was named Nurguli, and there were a couple friends over visiting. After an initial awkward period where they tried to sell us Kyrgyz handicrafts but we didn't want to buy anything, we started chatting, with Nurbibi translating. Nurguli asked where I was from. After I responded "the US", Bakir said something in Kyrgyz and elbowed Nurguli, who blushed. Nurbibi told us she was in middle school in Tashkurgan; her older sister was at a technical college in Urumqi. They were both up here for the summer, tending the family's yaks.

We took some group pictures, and as we were about to leave, Nurbibi ran out and asked if she could have our addresses. We exchanged addresses, promising to send her the photos. I asked if they had e-mail addresses or QQ numbers (QQ is the Chinese instant messenger). Surprisingly enough, they did! I still occasionally exchange e-mails with Nurguli. Even out here at a yak-herding camp in a desolate corner of the Pamir mountains, you're never too far away from civilization, I guess.

We headed back down the mountain again, passing through the Kyrgyz town where Bakir ran a few errands. When we got back, Bakir pulled the classic trick of claiming that the earlier agreed-upon price was actually per person, and not for the vehicle. It wasn't much of a difference to us at an extra $10, but still irritating. We had a dinner of lamian at the communal yurt. They made noodles in an interesting fashion; usually you take dough, fold it over, and pull it several times, but up here they rolled them out and coiled them up with their hands. It was OK but we were again not terribly hungry, and for some reason I had to go out and vomit in the middle of the night. Too much stale bread, I guess.

Kyrgyz men wearing their special hat outside a China Mobile branch. I'm telling you, China Mobile is everywhere!

The Kyrgyz town.

A Kyrgyz wedding celebration. Our host didn't want to get too close, because if they noticed him, he'd have to stay for the hours-long ordeal to be polite.

It got rather cold at night, given the high altitude, but we had a lot of blankets in the yurt. Early the next morning, I went out to use the bathroom at the large rock outcropping that served as their toilet. It's fine to be one with nature and all that, but awfully cold to squat high up in the mountains with the wind blowing! As we left the next morning, we offered 10 yuan to the lady who had served us food, and all of a sudden she burst into the first Chinese words I'd ever heard out of her, demanding 20 yuan from me! Later in the morning, the bus from Kashgar stopped to pick us up, and we headed on to Tashkurgan and the Pakistani border.

Waiting for the bus.

To be continued...

<< Home

Friday, February 15, 2008


Yusup Has tomb, Ha Noi/Mor Lam, and the middle of nowhere

We had a quick lunch (liangpi, cold and spicy noodles) then headed out to the Yusup Has tomb. I thought it was really beautiful - it's a large domed building covered in glazed tile, surrounded by a courtyard of white arches. There was almost nobody about, unlike the Abakh Khoja tomb, so we had the place all to ourselves. I really liked it - the LP guide claims that it's in a state of disrepair, but it looked like it was fine condition when I saw it. Here are some more pics:

Having seen almost everything in Kashgar, we decided to head out of town to see the Ha Noi ruins - a huge pyramid-like structure in the middle of the desert. We got a taxi to drive us out there, one-way as usual. The drive took almost an hour, over really rough dirt roads. We kind of dozed off... the taxi driver pointed out to something on the horizon and said, "Those are the ruins. If you hire me to take you back, I'll take you all the way there and wait for you." I couldn't really tell what he was pointing at, but I figured we'd be able to make our own way back, so I turned down his offer and we got out.

I'm in the middle of nowhere and happy as ever!

The taxi drove off with a cloud of dust, and there we were standing around in the middle of nowhere. There was a farm nearby. We walked up the dirt road for a while, and eventually came across some formations of dried mud and a big sign. Was this the ruins?!?

I feel cheated...

We stood around for a while, disappointed. Then all of a sudden, I saw some movement on the horizon!

I could make out a man and a boy coming over a ridge, leading a flock of sheep. They seemed to be coming in our direction, so I waited for them. They waved the sheep off, and the whole flock ran off to graze. The two approached, and I walked over to greet them.

"Yakshim siz!" I called out. The man nodded to me in greeting. He looked slightly perplexed that two foreigners were standing out in the middle of nowhere, but friendly.

I only remembered one other Uyghur phrase, so I tried it out: "Sizning ismingiz neme?"(what's your name?"

He told me his name was Kamil Jan. We both stood there, kicking around at the ground. The boy who came with him grinned. This was getting awkward...

I began the typical direction-asking procedure for tourists who can't speak the native language: repeat the name of the place several times like an idiot while shrugging and looking lost. He initially pointed at the ground where we were standing, then after I made some gestures with my hand indicating it should be a very big place, a look of recognition came over his face. He pointed over to the horizon.

"Thaaaat's Ha Noi", he chuckled. I couldn't see what he was pointing at. "Yirakmu?(is it far)", I asked, my Uyghur vocabulary being completely exhausted.
"Yirak, yirak..." he said. Straining to see what he was pointing at, I could make out a large pyramid-like structure in the distance. It looked to be several miles away. I wouldn't have minded walking, but we had no water and it was soon sunset. And we had no idea how we would get back from here in the first place. Unlike the Jiaohe ruins or the Emin minaret, it really seeme like we were in the middle of nowhere. I hadn't seen a single car around when we drove up here.

Rebecca and I walked back down the dirt road. It was typical of a rural Uyghur farming area, with tall trees lining both sides of the dirt road, and a canal on one side with flowing water.

We walked down the road in the setting sun. A water-mill type thing bubbled away on one side. After walking for a while, I noticed a group of men standing around a dusty old trike. We had gotten lucky!!

We walked up to the men, who seemed amused that two foreigners had walked out of the middle of nowhere. The three men were quite ruddy-faced, with sandy brown hair and blueish eyes. One squatted on the ground, patting the trike with admiration. They grinned at us. After some confusion, a taller, unshaven guy piped up. He could speak some Chinese (I always find it amazing that even in the most remote Uyghur villages, there's at least one guy who can speak decent Chinese). Explaining I wanted to get back to Kashgar, the three men started discussing amongst themselves rapidly. After some discussion, the driver offered me five kuai, but then his two friends were like "No! You idiot! Ten kuai!", so he offered me ten kuai. The Chinese-speaking guy explained that he would drive me up to where a bus for Kashgar stopped. Fair enough!

They even have China Mobile out here! People in the remotest regions of Xinjiang always tend to have way cooler cellphones than I do...

We hopped into the back of the trike, and it puttered up and we sped off down the road, getting a good glimpse of rural Uyghur life. There were families hanging out by the canal, washing clothes and getting water. We passed by donkey carts filled with people, who grinned at us curiously as we went by. Every now and then the driver would cast a glance at us with his big blue eyes, smiling. He asked me the inevitable question: "ni jia zai nali(where is your home?)" Besides the usual communication problems, it was kind of hard to talk over the motor and the wind blowing at us. Finally, we saw a bus by the side of the road and we stopped next to it and got out. After talking to the bus driver, the driver gave me a hearty pat on the back and motioned at the bus, grinning.

Can't I ever take a "local people" picture without everyone turning to look at me?!

For some reason the dentistry business is really good in Xinjiang. I think it's all the candy and Turkish chocolate they eat. And that terrible grape cough syrup drink.

Ah, Kashgar, if only I never had to leave...

The bus took us back to the market, where we walked around a bit before getting another bus back to town. We ate at a typical Uyghur place, eating kebabs and pilaf. In the morning, we'd be leaving for Karakul!

<< Home

Saturday, February 02, 2008


Kashgar, part 3

Also see these posts about Kashgar: Yusup Has tomb, Kashgar part 2, and Kashgar part 1

An Uyghur bagel maker at work.

I really liked walking around the old neighborhoods, so the next morning, we did just that, getting lost in the branching, twisting alleyways of Kashgar. It's so noisy and busy on the street, and then you go into these alleyways and it's so quiet and peaceful. Groups of kids are playing on the street and start yelling "HELLO!" to you when you walk past, some housewives are out doing the daily chores... the pictures do a better job of describing than I do.

Some pictures walking around in town:

How do people take those "street scene" pictures where nobody is looking at them, with huge DSLR cameras to boot? I only have a tiny pocket camera, yet it seems everyone turned to look at me when I took pictures.

Kashgar street scene. The brown veils that the women wear don't have any eye holes!

Fresh nan bread for just 1 kuai each. I love Xinjiang!

Uyghur bagels are one of Rebecca's favorite treats. They cost only "besh mo"(5 mao) if I remember right.

Next: the Yusup Has tomb and an excursion to Ha Noi!

<< Home