Wandering Around Kashgar One Last Time

We arrived in Kashgar and were reminded that we were going on a 12 hour round trip to Karakul Lake the next day.  Since we had been at Heavenly Lake 6 hours before our response was less than enthusiastic.  Instead of, “Yay! We are so lucky” at this point on the Silk Road all we were able to say was, “Oh, my God, I need to sleep.”  In fact, we were kind of dreading the drive in an incredibly uncomfortable van with no actual bathroom for the whole day.

Unexpected Experiences

It ended up being spectacular.  Easily, my favorite day of the trip so far. We drove through the Taklimakan Desert and into foothills, stopped in the last village for melons and the started out assent.  We drove up, and up, and up. Everywhere you looked was breathtaking.  We passed a mountain that was over 7000 meters and were stopped when a herd of camels blocked the road.  For the last three hours or so I we were on a gravel road with no shoulder and no guardrail. 

The Silk Road in my head

When we finally got to the lake it felt like I had imagined the Silk Road to feel like.  We were less than 40 km from Kyrgyzstan and a old Kyrgyz woman brought us into her stone house and let us eat our picnic on her floor.  It was one of those singular experiences that don’t happen all that often as a traveler.  The moment feel important, and important, and I was truly aware of how lucky I am to be able to travel and meet people like her.  We also had the best melon in the history of all melon.  No exaggeration.  Honey melon.  Is that a thing?  Whatever.  We bought it from an old man on the side of the road and it was infused with magic deliciousness.  I don’t even like melon but if you ask me to describe ambrosia to you now I am pretty sure that I would describe the taste of that melon.

Somewhere special

We walked along this small mountain lake every once in a while assuring a local that we didn’t need a ride on his horse, or yak, or camel.  You can feel the purity of the air, see how clear the water is.  This place is probably visited by thousands of people every year.  It isn’t as if it is undiscovered.  But there remains that sense of self that some places retain.  As if it is saying to you, “You do not change me.  I shall remain.”  There is construction of a highway through the pass.  In two years you might be able to drive from Kashgar to Karakul Lake in an hour.  I wonder how that will change things.

After the crowds

The throngs of tourists were gone by this time.  Kashgar is a city just for us.  The locals went about their lives as we wandered through the old town and the new old town.  We peaked into shops where they were making copper pots, tasted the local honey that one man had brought in on a donkey cart that morning.    Kashgar is an unexpected side of China.  My idea of Chinese culture and cities has been formed by my experience of living in Beijing.  But Kashgar reminds you that China brushes up against Uzbekistan, Kygystan, Kazakstan, Afganistan, and Pakistan. 

The mosques were different in style than I had become used to seeing in Morocco.  I hadn’t realized how similar all the mosques there were until I saw these.  The minarets were different and there was something about their tile work that reminded me that I was still in China.  In Kashgar they cannot broadcast the call to prayer.  The Mosque relies, as it has for the last thousand years, on the voice of one man.  I notice that when you are that close to the man doing the call to prayer (What is the correct term?  I cannot remember.  I will have to look it up.) it becomes much more personal.  He isn’t just doing the call to prayer.  He is doing the call to prayer for YOU.

The people here looked different. 80 to 90% of the population of Kashgar is Uygur.  This is China’s largest Muslim minority but you can see a thousand ethnic backgrounds as you look at their faces.  The Uygur ethnicity seems to be a melting pot of all the peoples of the Silk Road.   It reminds you that China always has one more face to show to you.

The last thing that we did was go the the Sunday Animal Market.  If I was looking for authenticity, I found it.  Men came in from all over to sell their cows, goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, and camels.  There were sheep coming in on motorcycles, cows shoved willy nilly into trucks, and goats were tossed around like hay bales. I got in the way more times than I can count.  It was all interesting but you can’t forget that this is someone’s real life and that you need to make sure you are messing it up unintentionally.  I didn’t see any outright cruelty but it made me think that it was time to think about becoming a vegetarian again.

And just like that it was over.  We try to quantify the experience as we pack our bags.

Do you think that travel has something to teach us?

Ten things to do in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region before you get to Kashgar

1. Try the food- Pilaf, handmade noodles, all the mutton.  So much dried fruit you won’t know what to do with yourself and the best pomegranate juice on the planet.

2.The ruins of ancient city of Jiao He in the Yarnaz Valley outside of Turpan- WHY DON”T WE LEARN ANYTHING ABOUT CHINA?*  I cannot get over exactly how much I do not know about the country where I have lived for the last three years. These ruins are larger and better preserved than Pompeii. Let me pause for effect.   We wandered through this 2000  year fortress city Eventually the river that protected the city dried up and the people were conquered.  Or absorbed.  I guess it all depends on your perspective.

 

 

3. Heavenly Lake- So I thought that I was going to die. This lake is about 2000 meters above sea level.  The rest of the parched area of Turpan is is around sea level so the climb is pretty dramatic. You also have to take a shuttle bus (it is a full sized bus) the last hour up the mountains.  This an evil twisted road that the driver’s hurtle up and down always a second from disaster.  The view at the top makes the insane ride worth it.

4. Karex Irrigation System- a 2000 year design that you can see from the air is basically the only reason that the city of Turpan exists.  There are over 3000 miles of tunnels carrying water still.  The lifeblood of the city.

5. Emin Minaret- This mosques looks so different from any others on the trip.  Is is rounded and made of sun dried bricks.

6. Erdaoqiao Market or International Bazaar-  You can buy anything under the sun.  But if you are planning on flying out of Urumqi leave the Uygur knifes.  You can’t bring it even in your checked luggage.  This region of China has the largest harvest of lavender outside of Provence.  I ended up with a ton of dried lavender and some essential oil.  There is also an essential oil made from desert rose.  Yup, I bought that,too.

7. Drive from Turpan to Urumqi- There is a vastness to the desert landscapes that make them timeless.  You can’t help wondering who has been there before you.

8. Uyghur Music- there are little stalls everywhere to buy instruments.  Some of them are beautiful works of art. 

9. The Bezeklik Caves- You can find these in the Flaming Mountains. I am actually serious.  You aren’t being sent on a quest to Mordor.  The mountains are actually called the Flaming Mountains. These are not as impressive as the MoGao Caves.  Most of the murals were destroyed by Muslim Red Guards in the 60’s or stolen away to a museum in Berlin where they were destroyed by allied bombing.  But the drive and the setting are enough.

10. Silk in Khotan-  You can actually watch silk being made.  They don’t sugar coat it and you should steel yourself to the sight of thousands of dead caterpillars.  I may have just been being overly sensitive.  It is loud and hot and you will totally be in the way.  I dare you not to buy something.

*answer: I suppose that the western bias against admitting that anyone else came up with anything despite all the evidence is the reason for this.

The Night Train: Continuing the Silk Road Journey

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The Night train is an essential experience to have while travelling in China.  Or so I kept being told.  We sprung for hard sleeper cabins but the night train was still the part of our Silk Road trip that I was least looking forward to. And by least looking forward to I mean that I had an actual panic attack in the hotel in the morning before we packed up for the train. 

I have taken night trains before in Europe and they were not pretty there.  Bathrooms on trains are pretty horrific (easily clogged and the train is you know, moving) I was not looking forward to the Chinese version.  I could not imagine that the whole train toilet would be improve by making it a squat toilet.  We were also sharing the room.  Not with strangers than God, but I am enough of an introvert that this was a major point of stress.  Oh, my God what if I snore or something!  My brain sometimes does not know when to shut up.

Reality was much more forgiving than the nightmare that had been going on in my head.  There was a (pretty damn clean) western toilet and a separate room with three sink.  Tooth Brushing was possible!  There weren’t too many others in the carriage aside from us and there weren’t very many rooms either.  Huzzah!

We entertained ourselves for a couple of hours by coming up with as many idioms in English that have to do with body parts.  I recommend this highly as a say to pass time.  You can pretty much randomly name any boy part and find a corresponding phrase.  I wonder what this says about English…

Surprise!

I slept astonishingly well.  So much better than I had anticipated and I was shocked.  I think that it might have been the swaying motion or the soothing white noise of the train itself.  It helps that the journey was relatively short.  We got on the train about 9:30 and were off by 7 in the morning. 

Pretty sure that the sheets in hotels and on the night train in China are washed with that acid that the Joker fell into in the 1989 movie.  All of my skin hates me right now.  Now, your skin might be battle hardened and rough enough for sandpaper but I basically have the most sensitive skin on the planet.  You know those weird hothouse flowers that only thrive and bloom and annoyingly specific temperature, humidity, and ground conditions.  My skin is basically like that.  68/20 degrees, humid, and with absolutely absolutely no irritants is the only time that it is happy. Anyway, long story short I have hives.

Final verdict.  If you have to take the night train in China splurge on the soft sleeper.  The hard sleeper had six people in the same place as we had 4 (and it wasn’t a large space) and much more mankiness.  It wasn’t a super unique experience from other night trains so if you have it on your sis tans have done a sleeper train before then you already know the drill.