Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Kashgar, Kara Kul Lake and More Kashgar

Turpan, China - We are currently on the edge of the Turpan Basin, the second lowest spot on earth and therefore also one of the hottest (at least it's a dry heat). My fingers are sweating as I type. We are waiting for the night train heading east and figured we'd get caught up on the blog.

We start with our arrival in Kashgar. Kashgar feels like the last outpost of China. It's an oasis in the desert, a silk road city, and a center of trade with Central Asia for the last 2000 years. It's surrounded by a hell of a lot of nothing but sand and dried mud.

We had our driver drop us off at the Chini Bagh Hotel. The folks at the hotel make a big deal of it being on the grounds of the former British Consulate, but for us, we couldn't figure out what was old consulate and what was just a fading three-star mess. Housed in two buildings, the hotel seemed to keep one nice and let the other fall apart. For 50 Yuan a bed the four of us squeezed into a three-bed dorm on the fifth floor of the not-so-nice building. Ted and I went in to scope out the room, but had to wait as every staff member shouted at each other across the five floor atrium trying to figure out who had the keys. In the meantime, Suwei and Barb watched the bags and cooked in desert sun out front. The room was clean and the AC worked but the room lacked a working toilet and the cold water didn't make it up that far when folks on the lower floors were using it. We fixed the toilet with a little dental floss and devised a plan for flushing it using the hot water from the shower and the "dingdang" trash bin. After napping and washing up we headed out for dinner and and a late night stroll through the Uighur section of town.

The time in Kashgar can mess with you. The whole time there I felt like I had some sort of warped jet lag. China geographically spans 4 time zones while the province of Xinjiang itself probably spans 3 alone. However, in Kashgar the Chinese government chooses to ignore this fact and runs on Beijing time. Therefore all government offices, post offices, and train stations run on Beijing time. "Local" bus stations run on "local time" which is two hours earlier. The locals use a combination of both. Add to that the fact that it gets crazy hot in the afternoon and many people retreat to the shade for a few hours of napping in the afternoons and continue life after the sun goes down (about 10pm Beijing or 8pm local time). We found ourselves still out and about at 12am local time. The result? We ate when we got hungry and slept when sleepy and had folks write down what time they were actually talking about when it mattered.

Our first day in Kashgar we had to get a few basic tasks done before truely exploring the town. It's summer in China and we're quickly learning to travel by train you need to book ahead. So we joined Ted and Barb in a search of an ATM, train tickets, a cheap internet cafe, and groceries. As usual it took all day. "What's the problem?", you ask. At the first bank we found no working ATMs inside and the one outside was dominated by a guy taking out 38,000 Yuans...1000 Yuan at a time. We tried to ask him to scoot over for a minute or two so that we could get some cash out. He grunted, took Barb's pen and kept punching away at the machine. After cooking in the sun another 10 minutes, we tried again. Failing yet again, Suwei took Barb's pen back and we set off to find another bank. It took a while, but we finally found a machine that would take Barb's card.

Next we went to the bus station where we were told we could buy train tickets. Barb and Ted made an attempt to book their passage all the way back to Beijing. Their request seemed to repeatedly lock up the computer so the girl manning the window repeatedly rebooted. The line grew longer and longer. Finally she gave up and closed the window. Suwei and I used that time to find an ATM where our card worked.

So to book the ticket we decided to go to the train station. The station is located 10 km out of town, and the lady at the bus station said we needed to take bus #16 to get there. We rode bus #16 to the end of it's route, got off and looked for the train station using a number of pantomimes and sketches of a train and station, that had no effect on the Chinese what-so-ever. The most common pantimime amongst us was the pulling of the steam handle accompanied by a "whoo, whoo" sound. In the end it was Ted's fine drawing of a train and station that finally broke the communication barrier and we were told to take bus #28 instead. Tickets in hand we returned to town for lunch and naps. We gave up on the internet and didn't hit the grocery store until just before closing time at 12:30am...local time (Barb bought peanut butter).

Barb & Ted - After sharing the Lada from Kyrgystan, cramming into a three bed dorm, and hanging out everyday with Barb and Ted with hardly a lapse in conversation, we felt like they were old friends...not to mention that they were damn interesting folks to talk to. In any case we enjoyed spending time with them and were happy to hear that they were going to stick around for Kashgar's big Sunday Market. With a few days to kill, we all decided to head up to Karakul Lake together.

Karakol or Karakul or QaraQul or قراقل meaning "black lake" in several Turkic languages, is also a breed of domesticated sheep. So far we have stayed in Karakol, Kyrgystan and hiked in the Karakol valley, we passed through Kara-Kol on our way to Osh and now we where headed to Karakul lake on the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan. The drive up to the lake in our green and white taxi...was spetacular...steep mud canyons, overflowing rivers heavy with silt, sand dunes rising from shallow lakes, and jagged snow-covered peaks dripping from the summer melt. The lake itself...was not-so impressive. It was flanked by concrete yurts built for tourists and had the look of a well trodden tourist trap. However...the lake's saving grace was the impressive peaks surrounding it. We had the Pamir range to the east with the impressive Mt. Kongur at 7719m and to the southwest was Muztagh Ata at 7546m. Very cool.

Our Trip to Karakol Lake

We passed up the concrete yurts and booked ourselves a more traditional felt yurt closer to the water. We were invited in for some salty milk tea and stale bread. Suwei and I were having serious flashbacks to Mongolia. This time however, we were surrounded with villagers trying to sell rugs, handbags, jewelery, afghans, and hats. It just didn't have the same authentic, welcoming feel to it.

We spent the afternoon hiking around the lake, visiting a nearby village (more salty milk tea and more purses, jewelery, rugs and hats for sale), dodging blood sucking lake flys and avoiding the kids shouting..."Ride horse? Ride Camel?". We actually enjoyed it, but towards the end we were rushing for the yurt to avoid an oncoming sand storm. We didn't make it. Double-timing through the blowing sand, we saw a father and daughter riding their horse through the storm. "Ride horse?", they shouted to us through the wind. We passed, but were still well-exfoliated by the time we got back to the yurt.

Hiking Around Lake Karakul

Sand Storm

That night and into the next morning it rained. The yurt was surrounded with grey mud that was slippery as hell but would stick like glue to your shoes. We decided to return to heat of Kashgar.

Back in Kashgar we moved back into the Chini Bagh Hotel (same floor, different room this time but still had to fix the toilet here as well). Suwei and I spent the cooler hours of Saturday morning wandering around Kashgar's old town. The old town here consists of a maze of narrow alleys winding their way around mud and straw homes with misshappen, hand-packed walls leaning in at odd angles. Many of the alley ways were like tunnels with rooms overhead, held up with log posts or mud-packed, crumbling-brick walls. Very cool...and surprisingly, very clean. The alleys are well-swept with hardly a piece of trash to be seen. I'm not sure what they do about sewage but there was none in the streets. Kids dominated the alleys...riding bikes and peaking out of door ways. "Hello. How are you?" We had fun getting lost.

Old Town

Kashgar Doors

On Sunday we got an early start and headed out to the livestock market. Ted and Barb had a 1pm Beijing time train to catch and wanted to see as much of the famous Sunday markets as they could. When we got there it was still a little early and folks were just starting to arrive with their goats, cows and sheep. We were hoping for some camels, but I think they were all sleeping in. We didn't wait for them. Ted & Barb had a schedule to keep and we still wanted to make it to the main market.

Again, we arrived a bit early. Kashgar's Sunday market is one of the area's must sees. It's massive. When we arrived, it's size was even more apparent due to the amount of space still empty. Row after row after row of blue and white steel doors slowly opened up and showed their wares. Shoes, blankets, hats, spices, rugs, cloth, perfumes, knives, dishes, buckets, and souvenirs. Suwei and I bought another felted carpet.

Unfortunately...Ted and Barb had to get moving before things really took off. We said a sad goodbye and drowned our sorrows in fatty mutton dumplings and Pepsi.

We stayed another hour or so and watched the market grow. It spilled out of the main plaza and into the surrounding streets and alleys in every even went underground. Hardware, saris, evening gowns, toys, socks, kids clothes, farm tools, bike parts, fans, electrical parts, nails, bolts, fruits, veggies, meat, etc. On the west side there must have been 50 to 60 donkey carts lines up along the river. Parched and overheated, Suwei and I walked back through the old town towards our hotel to partake in our now habitual afternoon nap.

The Kashgar Sunday Market

That evening we posted our spoils, got haircuts, ate more spicy pork, mourned the loss of Barb & Ted, and rested up for our 23-hour train ride to Turpan. On our last night in Kashgar, the sink drain in our hotel room fell apart...all the dental floss in the world couldn't help this thing.

Well, that's it for now. Gotta catch the train for Dunhuang. For more pics check out the following link. Also there's a second link if you are interested in Doors.

Kashgar and Karakul Lake, China

Kashgar Doors, China


Guru said...

Wow! Beautiful pics.
Keep them coming.

Brent said...

Hey there,

I'm a close friend of Ted and Barb's. Just explored your blog--great trip and you've taken some great pics. Well done,