While my parents had been in Kashgar we’d made an effort to get out and see the sights. When they departed, Sarah and I still had another six days until our Kyrgyzstan visas started their validity period, so we actually did relatively little IN Kashgar.
We sat on the rooftop of the Pamir Youth Hostel. We read books. I wrote. We baked in the early summer Xinjiang heat (it had, of course, stopped raining when my parents went home.) We made salads of cucumber, tomato and onion (three local staples.) And we took turns going on several short missions a day to buy iced tea, bread (expecially “Xinjiang bagels”) and chocolate bars (there was a huge selection of Turkish manufactured chocolate at the local supermarket, doubtless a result of the strong linguistic connection between Uighur and Turkish.)
However the only really interesting thing we got up to wasn’t in Kashgar at all, but further afield and much, much higher up along the Karakoram Highway.
Muztagh Ata (the mountain in the background, 7546m) and the tiny stream that drained the fairly large Karakul Lake (which, as with so many such things, is redundant, as Kul means lake in Uighur)
The Karakoram Highway winds its way through the mountain range of the same name from just outside Islamabad, Pakistan to Kashgar in China. Superlative in its engineering and construction, its scenery and its general sense of adventure, it really is one of the world’s great road trips.
I’d travelled most of the Pakistani side in my trip there in 2005, getting within about 100km by road (or 50km as the alpine chough flies) of the Chinese border. This time we would be still closer to the border (a mere 10km or so) though rather farther (200km) from the Khunjerab Pass where the road traverses between the two countries.
The proximity of the road to the Pakistani border meant that Chinese authorities were touchy about who visited there. In the past any travel along the upper parts of the road required a special permit. This requirement had been at least partially waived recently, though we still weren’t exactly sure where we were allowed to go and how we could get there.
While there were travel agencies that could organize tours to the area, taking care of all administrative details for us, we decided to have a crack at making the journey ourselves.
We really wanted to go to Karakul, a large alpine lake that sits right alongside the highway beneath three massive 7500m+ peaks. We’d done a bit of research, and though the hostel staff weren’t certain about how accurate it was we headed to the bus station and tried to buy a ticket.
At first it appeared we were out of luck, the lady at the counter saying there were no buses to Karakul that day. But as we left a tall thin bus station employee grabbed us and directed us to a bus outside. We joined a few others there, bought a ticket (all the way to the town of Tashkurgan, not just to Karakul) from the driver as he made the rounds and after an hour or so of waiting we were on our way.
The road wasn’t particularly dramatic at first. It ran flat and straight through the desert, passing the outskirts of Kashgar, then occasional market towns (though who brought what to market there wasn’t entirely clear… when we stopped for lunch at one it was clear that there was an animal market there, but given the appearance of the surrounding lands the pasture for these animals must have been rather distant from the town.)
Sarah on a side street at our lunch stop town. Residents were out grading the street with hand held hoes while we visited
Finally the mountains began. They started with cliffs, often brightly coloured, rising up above the river that the road was following. We carried on up through the valley, following its long, sweeping arcs. The cliffs turned to hills, the hills to mountains. Just before we reached the Chinese checkpoint marking the edge of the tightly controlled border areas the first snow covered mountain, a long ridge towering high above the road, came into view.
The broad valley that the road followed as it began its climb up to Karakul. This area was fairly similar to some parts of the highway that I’d seen in Pakistan in 2005
Gateway to the Karakoram
Note the utterly ridiculous set of switchbacks up the mountainside on the right of this photo. They led up to what appeared to be a small mine or quarry site
The first of the brilliantly white snow capped peaks
As we arrived at the border post the bus driver came to us and explained in broken English that we shouldn’t say anything to the police at the checkpoint about Karakul and that, if asked, we should simply say that we were going to Tashkurgan. Thankfully it didn’t come up, but it led me to suspect that the relaxation of the permit requirements only applied to Tashkurgan town and that we weren’t actually supposed to be spending the night at Karakul.
Though that’s exactly what we did. After another hour or so on the road, passing by more towering, snowcapped peaks, as well as some stunning sand dunes, and a wide flat depression with a small pale blue lake at its centre, Karakul itself came in to view and we pulled over. The bus driver got out to open the luggage compartment for us, told us what time he’d be coming by the next day and introduced us to the owner of the mud hut and the yurt on the roadside that we’d stopped near.
This guy was not Uighur, but Kyrgyz, and was wearing the traditional high peaked felt hat of his ethnic group. The family obviously had somewhat regular guests, and explained that we were welcome to stay in the yurt next to his home and have dinner with him and his family for 50 kuai apiece.
Um. More pretty mountains. This is probably going to be one of those entries where every photo doesn’t necessarily have an original (or indeed any) caption
The folds in and very tilted bedding of the rocks in many parts of the mountains were impressive
Sand dunes piled up at a bend in the valley
Murztagh Ata looming over the road. I’ve seen some big mountains in my life, but very few could beat Murztagh Ata for pure size
Our time in the lake wasn’t tremendously eventful, but it was wonderful. Despite being over 4000m up it was warm in the brilliant mountain sunshine. When we first saw the lake it was a gorgeous azure colour, similar to other famous alpine lakes like Tekapo in NZ or Lake Louise in Canada. As the light changed, so did the lake’s colour, finishing in a slate grey in the late evening when the sky had become cloud covered and the sun was about to set.
As gorgeous as the lake was, it was actually somewhat difficult to decide what to look at. There were a small collection of yurts and mud houses like the one we were staying in near our end of the lake. And then there was the snow capped line of peaks on the eastern horizon, with glaciers tumbling down the mountains almost everywhere you looked (at one point I counted ten glaciers in sight at once.) And, of course, the massive bulk of Muztagh Ata looming over the lake.
The tiny seven-yurt, four mud hut community where we spent the night
Karakul with the mountains in the backgrounds
Sarah, lake, mountain. As we sat in this spot a guy on a motorbike came along, climbed up the hill to sit with us, offered us first a selection of souvenirs (some of which he claimed to have made, which seemed doubtful) and then a ride around the lake on his bike, and finally rode off disappointed. This was about as far as commercial activity went (at this part of the lake at least.)
During our afternoon there I went for a walk, a surprisingly easy climb of perhaps 300m up to a hill behind the lake. The views were even better than at ground level so I spent a while climbing and a while longer at the summit of the hill. Unfortunately we hadn’t discussed exactly how long I’d be gone, so Sarah was getting a bit worried on her lakeside perch by the time I returned at 20:45 (though remember that because we were in Xinjiang, sunset wasn’t for another two hours or so after that.)
Lake, mountain. No Sarah, but the hill I climbed is the brown one in the foreground
Yak, mountain. Yak!
The view from atop the hill. When I arrived at the top I found a trig point and a sign, written in both Uihghur and Chinese, with two phone numbers at the bottom. Of course I had no idea what it said. Doubtless something like “this sensitive border area has been mined. You shouldn’t be here. Call these numbers for help getting down without being blown up.”
Another view from the summit of my hill. I think odds are reasonably good that you can see Pakistan somewhere in this photo
Back at our home for the evening, we arrived just in time for dinner (or at least dinner started when we arrived. It was at least possible that the family were waiting for us, just as Sarah had been waiting for me.) We ate sitting on the edge of the raised portion of the floor that was also the sleeping area for the family. The father of the family who we’d already met was perhaps 47, but it was so often hard to tell with many rural Chinese who had lived such difficult lives, all the moreso with those who had lived them in the harsh environs of the high mountains. We were also joined by his wife and daughter, while two other children were away at school in Kashgar (as noted before, China’s one child policy doesn’t really extend to the rural poor who need large families to work the fields and/or tend to the flocks.) We ate together, thoroughly enjoying the polo (oily pressure-cooked rice with meat and vegetable.) It was actually rather more enjoyable than the polo we’d had in Kashgar, probably because it was a bit lighter on the “luxurious” meat and animal fat. Throughout the meal yaks would keep poking their heads in the door, hoping for a bit of a treat for themselves.
A baby yak outside our host’s home. Unlike female yaks, which have an interesting specific name (“nak”), baby yaks are simply called calves.
Honey! There’s a yak at the door who’d like a word with you!
Me and my polo. For the second time in less than a month, our day’s meals had been cooked over a yak poo fire! The colourful carpets on the wall are a common form of decoration plus insulation common to many homes in the area
After dinner dad pulled out his Komuz, a long necked three stringed instrument, and started to play. There was electricity in the house, though not a lot to use it for. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling and a radio in the corner which now and then would replace our host’s music when he needed a break from playing. Over the next hour or so, several others would come to the house, be warmly greeted then sit down for some polo or a cup of tea while the music continued. Now and then his daughter would also take a turn playing, though she wasn’t nearly as skilled at coaxing the quick, intricate music from the instrument. I could easily imagine these songs being played around the hearth in a village pub somewhere. After a while I even got a turn. I plucked out a few notes, and tried some chords, intrigued that the two outer strings were tuned to the same note, while the inner one was a bit higher. As the daughter’s skill was to the father’s, so mine was to hers. So I happily handed the instrument back and let him continue.
After an hour or so of music we were growing tired and we headed off to sleep. The bed that had been made up in the yurt was wonderfully comfortable and though there was no heating the 25cm thick layer of blankets kept us warm through the night.
Dad and the komuz. The after dinner concert seemed like the usual evening entertainment for the family. The evening in the dirt floored, mud walled hut, the yurt next door, and this style of family gathering felt like a very strong illustration of how incredibly different parts of China can be (urban vs. rural, east vs. west, Han vs. minority)
Sarah in our yurt in the morning
The next morning we asked our host about the bus and transportation back to Kashgar. He phoned the bus station and told us that the bus back was full that day. This seemed a bit implausible, and our suspicions were further raised when he asked us how much we’d paid for our bus tickets as a prelude to introducing the idea of having a friend of his drive us back. In the end all was okay, however. The trip back in his friend’s pickup truck was quicker and more comfortable than the bus had been, and even allowed us a few stops for photos. And when we stopped at the police checkpoint to let a convoy of bigwigs pass in the other direction we saw the public bus and noted that it was, indeed full.
One of the two other 7500m peaks near Karakul. I’m not sure if this one is Kongur Tagh or Kongur Tiube
Striking colours and particularly tilted bedding in the valley on our way back to Kashgar
We arrived back in Kashgar in mid afternoon, walking back to our hostel from the inner suburbs and getting back to the same business that had occupied us there before we left.
In addition to the general laziness described earlier, during our stay in Kashgar we’d also been doing our best to find ourselves some travel companions for the next leg of our journey, over the Torugart Pass, out of China and into Kyrgyzstan. This was accomplished by posting notes in the hostels around town, talking with other foreigners we ran into, e-mailing travel agencies and eventually presenting ourselves in person to one.
As noted above, booking a trip with a travel agent wasn’t our typical way of doing things, but for this journey there just wasn’t a choice. The classification of the border by the Chinese government meant that the only foreigners allowed to cross there were those who had special border areas permits and who could prove that they had outbound transport waiting for them on the Kyrgyz side of the border. It might have been possible to do this on one’s own, but certainly not with the limited command of Chinese we had, not to mention our non-existent contacts in Kyrgyzstan.
This meant we had to hire a vehicle from a travel agent to take us there. This was a pricey proposition, though the only other way into Kyrgyzstan was none too cheap either, and would leave us at a rather inconvenient end of the country given our plans there.
So eventually we went into Old Road Tours office and made an “offical” inquiry about making the trip. It was a Friday afternoon. I said we were interested in leaving on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. They said that that could easily be arranged. I said we’d like another day or two for us and them to try to find travelling companions to share the costs of the vehicle (we made an arrangement whereby we’d pay slightly more overall, but considerably less per person if they managed to find companions for us, thus giving them genuine motivation for the search as well as us.)
Unfortunately it didn’t pan out, so Sunday afternoon came and we returned to the office and told them that we were ready to pay the full cost of the trip ourselves, and would be set to go the following morning. This was all it took. A few phone calls were made. Our passport details were sent off to the authorities and we had an appointment to meet our driver and guide the following morning at 10:00 Beijing time (8:00 western )
Friday prayers at the Id Kah Masjid in Kashgar. Although we heard the call to prayer several times a day, the mosque usually wasn’t very busy, but it seemed as though every man (and virtually no women) from within 2km of the place came on Friday. Some hustled up late, quietly moving their neighbour’s shoes aside and then spreading out their prayer mats to join the throng. At the end a row of mostly women and a few men queued up outside the exit, asking for charity from the mosque-goers. There were a large number of beggars in Kashgar, probably the most we’d seen anywhere. Many were women and almost all were Uighur
The young tiny kitten who was the newest resident of the hostel we stayed at for the second half of our time in Kashgar (newer even than us… she appeared in the middle of our stay there!)
The tandoor baked shashlik (marinated in yogurt sauce, each with two lumps of meat, one of fat and one of kidney) that were my last dinner in Kashgar. The metal skewers become coated in fat and meat drippings as they cooked. If you look closely you can see the chef is dipping them in water after removing them, partly because they were very hot, and partly because they were on fire when they came out of the oven!
Shashlik, bread and tea. The archetypical Uighur meal
Farewell to Kashgar. If we ever meet again, I believe you won’t be quite the same place anymore
Tags: China, Karakol, Karakul, Kashgar, Kashi, Lake Karakol, Lake Karakul, Llew Bardecki, Travel, Xinjiang