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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

I'm behind

Hello after too long an absence. I am struggling to figure out where to start now, and what to write about now and what to save for next internet visit as there is just too much. Today I am in Hotan and nice and red and dirty after a visit to the Sunday Bazaar. I think that the next post will go into detail about this (and about the free lunch and banana I was given by various people, as well as some interesting little indications as to where relations between Uighers and Chinese stand here in Hotan and in general).

David - had a chance to see my blog page, and I could even do these posts myself now, but I like so much what you are doing that I am going to keep things in your hands. [Glad to help.--ed.]

And now back to Kashgar. I had one more day to walk around Kashgar, concentrating my time in the old neighborhoods, taking pictures when they were there and just enjoying the atmosphere. I was offered hash for the first time as I enjoyed a beer at the hottest part of the day (I passed, for those interested) and I was invited into a few more houses to peek around and drink some tea. I was also invited into some places to try to buy some things. And what things! I realize now that I don't have my little sheet of notes of all the things I saw for sale there, but I do recall there were lots of knives and axes, several old-fashioned (and quite beautiful) sewing machines, and plenty of intestines and other bits of lamb. Really, there was so much more and I knew this would happen if I didn't get to internet access sooner, but what can you do?

Anyway, the following day--this would have been three days ago?--I took a bus down down the Karakorum Highway to Lake Karakul. I have heard many things said about this highway, the one that takes you from China to Pakistan, about the dangers of the road and about the beauty. I can not say much about the danger, although it was not the most comfortable drive, but there is certainly plenty to say about the beauty.

As you leave Kashgar, you follow a poplar-lined road (and after my time in Xinjiang I now dream of having a house with a long driveway lined with full grown poplars--of course I also dream of Natalia and me somehow being paid to take a five-year trip around the world, so I'm not holding my breath for this to happen). The road takes you first past flat, fertile farmland. Then there start to appear low hills in the background, hills devoid of life. Soon the farmland is less, the poplars fewer, and the hills taller. The houses, the brown-yellow mud brick houses that are everywhere in Xinjiang, in the countryside and in the old neighborhoods of the cities, are more spread out and soon there is not much of anything.

Then the hills become more severe. They are jagged and cut by wide swaths of angry red stone, the color of raw, healing skin. A few houses front these, and they too are red, reflecting the material used to build them. Then there is nothing. No houses. A few trees. The hills now qualify as mountains. They rise on both sides of the road. On the left side of the road, they are separated from the bus by an ever-widening river bed. The river bed at first glance appears to be dry, filled only with large and small smooth stones. The it becomes apparent that there are veins and arteries of cement colored water flowing back towards Kashgar. Mountains continue to rise steeper and higher, and then the first snow capper peaks come into evidence.

The water, it seems, might be coming from mountain run-off. It looks also as if there has been a recent avalanche high up in the peaks. Water, stone, mountains.

There is a checkpoint where Chinese people show their ID cards and foreigners show their passports (so if you are going there, make sure you remember your passport! I didn't know about this point, but I had it with me...don't know what would have happened if not). [Funny, this thing about having your passport when crossing national borders. Just kidding, Alan.--ed.]

After this the mountains get taller. Things are more desolate. Off to the right there is what appears to be a lake, except that there is almost no water. I am told this huge stretch of land is similar to quicksand and hearing this terrified me. I thought of Kekexili, and not for the last time on this trip. This "sand lake" is backed by impressive sweeping sand dunes and it makes for one of the most unique landscapes I have seen. [Alan talks about Kekexili here in his archives--look for Friday, June 17.--ed.]

Then there is another small lake, this with water, and a small town. And then, around another bend in the road is Lake Karakul.

Lake Karakul does not have the size of Sayram Lake, and while the water is blue, it is not nearly as stunning as Sayram. The mountains do not crowd the lake as they do at Heaven Lake. The beauty of Karakul lies in its desolation.

The water, as I said, is blue. And across from the lake is a massive snow-covered mountain. There are actually several visible but only one stands out. While I say massive, it does not really seem to be so. But considering that the Lake is above 3000 meters, one begins to realize that this mountain is large. In fact it takes more than a week to climb (and David, can you please find out what it is called and how high it is. I don't have my notes with me!) [Well, first, here's another, zoomable image of the lake. Next up, scroll down this page to "The Pamirs." I think Alan is talking about either Pik Lenina or Mount Garmo.--ed.

I walked around the lake seeing how much different yerts cost to sleep in as I was doing some research for the travel book girl. [See previous post "In Kashgar."--ed.] (Let it be noted that the yert I stayed in was bloody cold at night - it was down to 6 C when I woke up). I then came to the way overpriced entrance gate and hotel (strange how they charge when all you have to do is get off the bus a bit down the road and not have to pay anything). While there, a young guy (17) was telling me about how you can also stay in a village across the lake. I could see it from where we were. These houses were mud houses and the village, as I found out, was quite nice. The people there, despite the proximity to the Tajikistan border are Kyrgyz and very friendly (though a bit eager to sell you things). I paid the kid 20 yuan (2.50 USD) to take me on his motorbike around the lake.

This is where the beauty of the lake became more evident. We passed marshy grasslands being grazed by yak. The grass was taking on fall colors. The mountains ringing the far side of the lake, closer to where I was staying came into clearer focus, the snow shimmering in the sun, the size more impressive. The closer mountains were seen in more detail as well, the ridges and the sparse vegetation clinging to the steep slopes. As we drove around the bumpy road (I almost flew off the bike once or twice) the wind blew against our faces and I understood better why everyone there has perma-red cheeks.

The wind picked up even more in the evening, making it difficult to stay outside to enjoy the Milky Way making an appearance across the sky. I did stick it out through the sunset though, as I enjoyed watching a woman washing dishes in the lake, her red dress a sharp contrast to everything around her. The ground around the yert was scattered with loose toilet paper and yak hair. There were also scraps of wool and a sheep skull which still had a few tufts of hair clingling to it. Smoke blew from the chimney of the yert as our dinner was cooked and the shadow of the smoke blew as well from the lengthening shadows on the ground.

I was staying in the yert with a Chinese-American living in Beijing, a Mexican-American living in Shanghai and an Australian couple. We chatted late into the night and slept side by side, looking something like young children sharing a big bed. It was still cold.

The morning brought a stunning sight. It was not a gorgeous sunrise, or even impressive. What was impressive was can this be described? While the wind was not felt, it was heard. The sun rose above the mountains and then disappeared into a low long bank of gray clouds that cut across the mountains, leaving the bottoms and the tops visible. I wish everyone who reads this had seen Kekexili, because again, this is what I was reminded of. The sound of the wind as picked up by the camera, and a landscape as deadly as it is beautiful. This feeling of danger and desolation was made more real by the cold and the image of a man carrying a heavy sack across his back as he went from one yert to another.

And later, as we waited for a bus to take us back, we shivered without end by the side of the road. The sides of the road are littered with huge rocks, and across the road are empty hills. The workers swung pickaxes and trucks rumbled by bearing more rocks. The wind swept clouds of dust across the road and towards the lake. Cars would not stop. The bus did not stop, and neither did a tourist bus. Though I knew it was ridiculous to start worrying, we all did. Would we be able to find a ride back? The sun came out for moments at a time. Gray clouds built and menaced. The wind was there for real and cut right through our clothes. It became very real, the idea that it is so easy to take for granted that coming to places like this means no danger and no worries because if it is a tourist destination, it must fine. Waiting for a ride, shivering, it was easy, as I thought of Kekexili, to imagine unhappy endings.

But the ending was happy, and then it wasn't. We were picked up by a tourist bus with plenty of seats for us. It was warm and the people were nice. The bus was fast, too. In fact, we passed the bus that was supposed to pick us up and did not an hour outside of Kashgar (and we had waited more than an hour after that bus passed us before getting picked up). The problem: the love of karoake. But without the music. We were treated to several solo versions of Chinese pop songs and such standards as "Moon River" and "Unchained Melody." We were also pressured to sing as well, but I held out.

That night in Kashgar the five of us from the lake had an excellent hot pot, half-spicy half-not spicy, and several beers. Perhaps the best meal I've had in four weeks. The following day (yesterday) the travel book girl and I took a bus to Yarkand (or Shache in Chinese) and then to Yecheng, and finally a bus to Hotan, which is where I am now. One note on that last bus inquisitive man first took a book out of my hands as I was reading. Then he blew smoke in my face after I made it obvious I hate cigarette smoke (and for the first time I was quite a bit pissed off at a Uigher). Then another guy tried to take out the earphone of my Ipod. Having none of that. Also, we were sitting next to a speaker, and thus made deaf. At least the driver's spit did not land on my face as it did on that of the travel girl. Small mercies.

So tomorrow will try to write about the Bazaar before I begin the long trek to Xian. I have a 20-plus-hour ride to Wulumuqi leaving tomorrow at 1, and I hope to be able to hop onto a train the same day to Xian (which will take 25 hours)...My time in Xinjiang is almost up.


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12:38 AM  

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