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.
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.
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?