Saturday, November 6, 2010

Like a Bat Out of Beijing

This blog post appeared as an Expat Eye in the November 4 issue of Beijing Review

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about China since moving here, it’s this: the rules of the road are far different than those Stateside. Actually, perhaps the word rules is a bit of an overstatement; “suggestions of the road” may be more fitting.

Now, I don’t want to come off as just another foreigner complaining about the chaos that is called driving in China, especially in Beijing – because I actually find it quite fascinating. Yes, at times it seems a bit unsafe, compared to just being a nuisance, but this China-specific driving style adds to the excitement of city living.

And while no two driving experiences have been the same, one driver stands out -- his name was John Ping.

John is a driver for hire, specializing in tours of Beijing and trips to Mutianyu and other parts of the Great Wall. I found him on the Web with a simple Google search of "Beijing, driver, Mutianyu." Family members would be visiting and I wanted to take them to the Great Wall, but avoid the hassle of a tour bus or tour group. John seemed to be the perfect option.

Reviews on his website were favorable. He was a nice, easygoing, funny guy. He spoke English extremely well. He'd get us to Mutianyu fast. He was just the kind of driver I was looking for.

John picked us up bright and early and off we went in his dark colored, American-made Chevrolet car. John liked American cars. He needed the horsepower, he said, but I didn't know why. I soon found out.

From previous trips to Mutianyu, I knew that it usually takes an hour and a half to get to the parking area. John got us there in just under an hour.

On the Airport Expressway, John cruised along, passing cars, trucks and a few police cars. Left lane, right lane, left lane, right lane -- he'd spend only a few seconds in each before passing one car, coming bumper to bumper with another and passing that one as well. Once we reached the back roads, John slowed a bit but persisted in passing car after car. On turns where you couldn't see oncoming traffic, he'd pass. He even managed to pass while sending a text on his iPhone -- and while I, sitting in the front seat, held my breath.

The whole drive he was laughing, but not like a madman, despite almost driving like one at times. From the moment we left Beijing, he was joking about life in the city, politics and news from America. He told us about his family, about his daughter who wanted to study in the United States and his ambition to go to America with her and continue his driving service (perhaps with tours around Washington, D.C. or New York City, depending on where she was accepted). He asked about my family's visit to Beijing and made some suggestions for Peking opera performances, restaurants, acrobatic shows and other sights around the city. He really knew his stuff.

And his English was superb, the best I'd heard from any driver in Beijing. It made our conversations more enjoyable and the ride less stressful.

After walking the wall, I thought I'd be able to catch some sleep on the drive back, but sleep couldn't catch me -- John was driving too fast. But I think he got the message from the looks on our faces and gasps as we maneuvered between traffic and he slowed down. It took over an hour to get back to Beijing, and we were perfectly fine with that.

Was John a reckless driver? Perhaps. But was he a bad driver? Absolutely not. While I felt like he was taking a few too many liberties with the road, not once did I feel like we were in any serious danger or that John wasn’t in control of the vehicle. We never had any near hits – only near misses (hey, I'm an optimist) – and John was quite confident in the way he was driving.

That's why I hired him a second time.

When the next batch of family members came to visit, I called John. They'd been forewarned about the trip to Mutianyu, but even with a complete briefing John still had a few tricks up his sleeve. In the parking lot, John maneuvered the car into the through way where cars get out, proclaiming, "This is MY space." Oh, John.

Since my two trips I've recommended John to several friends and received no complaints. Because, all in all, despite a little wild driving, John knew what he was doing. And I doubt for only 600 RMB he'd put anyone's lives, or his car, in danger.

DARING DRIVER: I know I may seem critical of John's driving, but he was much better behind the wheel than most cab drivers in Beijing. I highly recommend him to any travelers in Beijing who don't want the hassle of buses or tour groups, but are looking for a fun ride. Be sure to check out his website for more information on his driving services

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Happy Halloween in Happy Valley

A few weeks ago some friends asked if I wanted to go to Happy Valley. Happy Valley? I've been there, albeit back in central Pennsylvania. I inquired: What is this "Happy Valley"?

Happy Valley (Beijing), as it turns out, is a theme park in the southeast of the city. It's similar to Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure in Florida with the park divided into different areas with different themes. The areas included Atlantis, the Ant Kingdom, the Aegean (Mediterranean), an ancient Maya Civilization, and a race car/speed way area.

Happy Valley had thrill rides. Happy Valley had games you can never win. Happy Valley had people in costume in the different themed areas. And Happy Valley had roller coasters.

Back in the States, when I was in high school, my dad and I would go to a major theme park every summer to try out some of the best roller coasters America had to offer. Six Flags was one of our favorite parks, but we also took a road trip to Cedar Point in Ohio to ride the world's tallest roller coaster (at the time), Millennium Force. Happy Valley's roller coasters weren't the biggest, or best, but they served their purpose and provided me with a much needed adrenaline boost.

Halloween decorations were everywhere in preparation for the coming ghoulish holiday. It was nice to see jack-o-lanterns since the Western holiday is largely ignored outside major tourist spots.

Happy Valley Beijing wasn't as fun as Happy Valley PA -- rides and roller coasters just can't compensate for football games, parties and the college life. But buckling into the seat of a roller coaster and letting the anticipation of the first drop build up brought back great memories of summer trips to some of America's best theme parks.

ATLANTIS DISCOVERED: Who knew that the lost city of Atlantis was actually in the suburbs of Beijing? The roller coast had the same design as the Superman ride at Six Flags theme park in New Jersey

MA MA MAYA: Another themed area of Happy Valley was like ancient South America, with Mayan statues and other native structures

MAYAN PARADE: A few park staff in costume paraded around the Mayan themed area

ANT KINGDOM: The kid area of the theme park was a larger-than-life ant colony. The ant in this photo is doing a traditional Chinese camera pose: two fingers up making the "peace" sign

HAPPY HALLOWEEN: Halloween decorations were all around -- a nice reminder that the holiday was upon us

BIG SPLASH: A visitor to the Aegean sea area is about to get his by a wave from a Poseidon ride, similar to the Sploosh at Knoebel's Grove in Pennsylvania

SAFE ZONE: I also took the opportunity to get a cool photo of the massive wave -- but I stood far enough away to avoid getting wet

Friday, October 22, 2010

The 163 lb White Guy in the Room

Beijing Review flew me and their French foreign expert Guillaum down to Shanghai the other week for a press conference for the DVD release of Days and Nights in Shanghai. Recall from earlier posts (April and July) that I was in Shanghai on business -- this was the reason.

The DVD covers 24 hours in the Chinese city that never sleeps as a promotional tool for Shanghai and Beijing Review's new initiative into multimedia news coverage and projects.

You can watch a trailer of the project HERE. Try using Firefox if your current browser doesn't work.

The press conference went as expected -- the big bosses of China International Publishing Group took turns talking about the project and saying what a wonderful thing it was for Beijing Review. At least I'm assuming that's what they were saying since my Chinese is bu hao (not good), but I did pick up a few "very good" and "Shanghai this" and "Shanghai that" along with "DVD."

One of the producers had asked me the day of the press conference if I had anything to say to the media, since they'd probably ask me a few questions -- this came after she told me the day before that all I had to do was show up wearing a suit and look professional-- so naturally I had nothing to say. So I thought quickly.

I could take the presidential route and throw out an “Ich bin ein Shanghai-er,” following President John F. Kennedy’s jelly-donut remark in Berlin. Or maybe I’d take a comical route with a loud “Goooooood morning Shanghai, China!” No, too cliché. Ah hell, I thought, I'll just wing it, throw in some "I Heart Shanghai" comments and smile for the cameras.

A large, red veiled display was rolled out and uncovered, ushering applause and flashes from numerous cameras. A few people shook hands. And then it was over. Most of the media filtered out of the room in a hurry.

What just happened, I thought to myself. The French foreign expert who had done the French version of the DVD had the same thought.

I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Having foreign employees at predominantly Chinese events to add a touch of diversity to the affairs is fairly common here. But a few companies go to extremes, hiring foreigners off the street to fill is as "temps" to attend corporate functions or pose as employees or business partners. Said foreigners aren’t required to have any background experience in the company’s industry, they just have to show up for the event, shake hands, maybe give out business cards (with their real or stage names) and smile.

It’s like hiring models for a car show or clowns for a kid’s birthday – sans big goofy shoes but requiring nice white faces. It also apparently pays well -- somewhere around $500 with paid airfare per event-- because foreigners are more than willing to take part in the facade for a day and shake hands with businesspeople from around the world. And, I’m not going to lie, I’ve been keeping my ears open for a few opportunities.

But I was glad to be at the press conference with a legitimate employee with a legitimate company in Beijing.

In the end, I got to do a quick one-minute interview with Shanghai’s English International Channel, which you can watch HERE (it's about 10 minutes or so into the program) so at least I got to make a small contribution to promoting the DVD. Maybe if I improve my Chinese to a level where I can say more than “I’m American” or “Are you sure this isn’t dog meat?” they’ll let me give that speech at the next press conference.

SHANGHAI TV: A woman from Shanghai's English channel ICS interviews me about the project

TEAM SHANGHAI: Chen Ran, producer for the project, myself and Guillaum, the French foreign expert, stand in front of the cutout display of the Days and Nights in Shanghai DVD

Photos property of BEIJING REVIEW

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Close to Heaven

My ears popped as the cable car ascended the green mountains around me. Large gorges and rocks jutting out from the mountain were all around. I was traveling with a few Chinese and foreign co-workers, one of whom muttered some random statistic about the probability of us falling to our doom.

Just then, the cable car passed over some low lying trees revealing the scene above: a temple on top of Mount Tai (Taishan) about a mile above sea level and entrance ways called the Gates of Heaven.

Well, if we were all going to die here, at least we’d be pretty close to heaven, I thought.

Taishan, in Shandong Province, is one of China’s sacred mountains. It’s a place of cultural and religious significance – there’s a few temples and worship halls at the peak – and is the best place to catch a great sunrise or sunset and feel spiritually awakened or reborn, so our guide said. We were there midday, so there was no chance of such revitalization for me.

From base to peak it can take up to 10 hours walking (at a leisurely pace) along paths and a 7,000-plus step staircase.

The chairlift took less than 10 minutes, and although lacking the enlightenment – in spirit and altitude change -- I was sure to feel taking the stairs, I was fine with taking pictures of the paths and steps to heaven from the cable car.

The mountain heights had been developed in proper tourist fashion. Large walkways facilitated a mountain of tourists on the mountain’s peak. Even in the off travel season, landmarks like Taishan, which is one of China’s UNESCO Natural Heritage Sites, draw huge crowds.

And like all tourist areas, there were people trying to sell me things I really didn’t need, but wanted nonetheless – who can say no to an ordinary rock with red Chinese characters on it, or stones washed in “sacred water” from the mountains?

A large telecommunications tower loomed next to the Daoist temple, an out of place obstruction from the modern era that detracted from the natural beauty of the ancient mountains. But hey, even Daoist monks need cell phone reception.

Our group ate at a restaurant in a hotel near the mountaintop. Looking out through the window, we could see the clouds below. Our guide told us they were rain clouds and that Tai’an City below would be getting wet, but not us. Naturally, the food and beverage was overpriced, but we figured there was some kind of transportation charge for getting it up the mountain on top of the inflated prices for tourists.

Taishan even has a beer named after it, although the taste was far from heavenly.

Taishan wasn’t nearly as impressive as the mountains I’d seen in Xinjiang on my August adventure, but the air was fresh, the sights beautiful and the trip relaxing. And since I didn’t have to take 7,000 stairs to get there or walk up winding forest paths, I’ll mark this one down as a fun trip in my travelogue.

GROUP PHOTO: Foreign experts along for the trip included Michael Fuksman (American), myself, Patrick O'Dea (New Zealand) and Christian O'Brien (Great Britain)

BARE PEAKS: Patches of rock jut out from the Taishan range

PICTURE PERFECT: A couple looks sits on a path at the peak of Taishan mountain, watching the mountains roll off into the distance

TOURISM IN THE CLOUDS: Taishan, a UNESCO site, is a popular tourist destination. Even in the off tourist season, there was a mountain of people on top of the Taishan

Some photos by Liu Xinlian, Beijing Review

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Walking in Confucius' Footsteps

For the yearly Beijing Review foreign expert trip, the HR department took us to Shandong Province south of Beijing to visit Qufu and Taishan. A guide picked us up at the train station for a three-day tour.

Our first stop was Qufu, the hometown of Chinese philosopher Confucius.

As widely known as Confucius and his teachings are, Qufu was small and quaint. Even with the enormous Confucius Temple (Kong Miao) and the grandiose Confucius Family Mansion and surrounding gardens, not to mention the large crowds of Chinese tourists, the town was quiet and remote, yet chock full of history. The nearby Confucius forest, where the great Chinese sage and his descendants are buried, was solemn with trees standing side by side ancient burial mounds.
But with the exception of a few smaller Chinese-style pavilions, Confucius never got to see any of it – the temple, mansion and monuments were all constructed after he died.

The temple grounds were built in rings, like the rings of a tree, with each ring contributed by a different Chinese emperor. The inner most ring housed a number of important monuments to the philosopher: a pavilion where Confucius had taught some of his students and a tree planted by Confucius himself, so said my guide. The tree leaned against one of the entrance gates to the temple ground center, held up by a long steel cable.

The Confucius family mansion was somewhat simple, not at all like the Forbidden City or other royal grounds I’d seen in Beijing or Shanghai, although Confucius’s descendants were highly regarded and revered by the emperor’s family. The mansion property was large, yet largely empty with only a few artifacts on display. Most of the Kong family (Confucius’s family name) has since relocated to Taiwan, following the end of the Chinese Civil War and defeat of Chinese Nationalist forces in 1949, but the lineage continues, now in its 83rd generation.

The tomb of the great philosopher and generations of the Kong family was located in a forest near the city’s limits. And much like his teachings, it was simple, yet elegant. A large stele displaying words of remembrance stood proudly above his resting place; a prayer mat in front for people to pay their respects. Some of Confucius’s sons were buried nearby. Large stone statues watched over the sacred grounds. Throughout the wooded area were large mounds -- the burial sites of other Confucian descendants. The graves looked like large turtle shells, shaped somewhat like septic tanks yet containing much more valuable remains. The burial mounds ran off into the forest in all directions, for miles and miles.

And the grounds were quiet, much more so than they should have been considering the flux of people who were visiting. It was like someone had pressed the mute button. The only sound was that of birds and blowing branches as I walked on the paths with burial mounds on either side.

Visiting Qufu helped put a face to a name I’d only ever read about in history books. To walk where Confucius had walked and sit where he had sat was truly inspiring. I can only hope some of that age-old wisdom rubbed off on me.

TOMBS OF THE UNKNOWN: The descendants of Confucius are buried in a forest outside of Qufu. Our guide said there were "millions" of descendants

RESTING PLACE: The tomb of Confucius

THE CONFUCIUS TEMPLE: The entrance to the Confucius Temple. The temple was built after the sage died and was visited by China's emperors and royalty

REALLY OLD TREE: Our guide told us this tree was planted by Confucius over 2,000 years ago

FAMOUS FOOTSTEPS: The three white-tiled paths were for the emperor (center path) and his aids/assistants/concubines/etc

Monday, September 6, 2010

Day 10-11: Kashgar to Urumqi to Beijing

We flew back to Urumqi on Sunday. We'd be flying back to Beijing Monday evening. The last two days were supposed to be nothing but fun and relaxation -- no traveling, no sightseeing. But I'd manage to to get horrendously food poisoned and spend most of the evening running to and from a bathroom. But I guess it was fitting since Layla had been sick the day we left Urumqi for Kashgar.

So ended my Xinjiang adventure. Not since coming to China over a year ago had I enjoyed a trip like this. From mountains to deserts and old cities in between, I'd seen so much that most people only see in movies -- and most of Xinjiang's features don't even make it that far. They're more or less overlooked by China's other marvels, the Great Wall and Forbidden City to name a few.

Xinjiang will always hold a special place in my mind as a place away from the monstrous crowds of tourists; a backwater area where only brave souls go. I'll never forget the reflections of the mountains on Karakul Lake, looking off into the endless desert, or visiting the ruins around Turpan. And I'll certainly never forget the restaurant were I got food poisoning that I was convinced was going to kill me.

And as I look at the photos I took -- all 1,200 of them -- I'm already planning a return trip, at least in my mind. Wanna join?

Day 9: Sandstorm

We went to a market to buy a few souvenirs and then stopped by the Kashgar city square. There's a big, out of place Mao statue there.

A sandstorm rolled in, forcing us to put on our glasses and cover our faces. A lot of people around us acted like nothing was happening -- this must have been nothing out of the norm for them.

We stumbled into a park where we found a few Disney character statues -- Minnie Mouse and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Days 7-8: Taklamakan Desert - An Ocean of Sand

The Taklamakan Desert was about 30 minutes from Yarkand. We'd be staying overnight with our guide, two camels and a camel handler. I had hyped this part of the trip up since Layla and I decided to come to Xinjiang. I'd never been in, or even near, a desert before, let alone go on a desert trek on camelback.

The desert is one of the largest shifting sand dune deserts in the world. Trekking from east to west takes about 92 days. But a night and a day in the desert was more than enough for me.

But from the get go, our trip turned to dust in the wind. When we arrived at the edge of the desert, we were greeted by a large group of camels, and an equally large group of German tourists. Soon enough, the camels were all "rented" and we had to wait while our guide went to a neighboring village to get two more camels. An hour later, our guide returned.

When the camels arrived, I thought we'd be good to go, but the one camel decided to be stubborn, so we had to wait while the camel handlers got it under control. An hour later, our camels were saddled up and we were ready to go.

My camel was still upset about something (maybe he had been sleeping and awoken from a dream by our guide) and didn't want to obey the handler, but I was just glad to be heading off into the desert as the sun started to go down. That lasted for about five minutes, because after that all I wanted to do was get off the camel -- the inside of my legs had started to hurt as the camel bobbed up and down crossing the sand dunes.

Even that didn't last long -- the sun was going down so we needed to make camp, just 30 minutes into our journey. And at that point, we had only traveled about a quarter mile since camels travel a bit slower than I'd imagined and our pair needed to stop every three feet to munch on something lying around on the ground. The village and farms we'd left being at the camel camp could still be heard in the background.

The next big disappointment was the sand dunes themselves -- they were covered in shrubs. A few bottles and trash was even lying around. I had pictured our 2-day trek as being like something out of Lawrence of Arabia, but alas, it was more like riding a camel at a carnival, with a bit more sand. Our guide explained that if you wanted to see the real sand dunes, you needed to trek three days out into the desert, then three days back.

So there we were, within smelling distance of a farm and in range of a few visible lights from the main camp. The camp fire we were promised we was too small to cook anything with, so dinner consisted of bread and a few granola bars.

To top it all off, at night it rained three times.

The next morning, having slept on the desert floor and not wanting to spend another minute around the sand, we called it early and headed back to the camp. Our camels had wandered off in the night, so our guide and handler had to go find them. And my legs still hurt from the day before, so I wasn't looking forward to getting back on my S.O.B. camel, who was still angry about something. At one point the guide and handler couldn't get the camels to move and started yelling and hitting them with sticks while we were still on them. Eventually, my camel spit up whatever it was chewing all over Layla. And I'm also pretty sure Layla's camel farted, on numerous occasions, in my general direction.

At last we reached the main camp, after taking the long way back, and headed back to Kashgar.

Ultimately, the trek was a total bust. But I was glad to have been done it, because when was I ever going to have this opportunity again. Maybe next time, I'll walk alongside the camels, or take that weeklong trip to the real part of the desert. I'll check the weather ahead of time too, although, in my defense, I had thought we'd be out a bit further in the desert where i didn't rain.

EAGER TRAVELER: Camel riding is overrated -- camels smell, they're slow and they're very touchy animals

ATTA BOY: Layla's camel was slightly more well behaved than mine, although he had to stop every three seconds to eat or go to the bathroom

DESERT SUNSET: We were lucky that an overcast blocked out the sun for most of our trek. Temperatures in the desert, even our part, sometimes reach 110 degrees we were told

DESERT HEROES: Two bickering camels, three rain showers and a thunderstorm later, we had survived our desert "adventure"

CHILLING: Sitting on the hardwood swinging chair was only a bit more comfortable than sleeping on sand. But the view was stunning

DESERT HOME: Somehow, our tent managed to stay in place during the rains the night before. But in the morning, the camels had run away, leaving us stranded for an hour

SITTING ON THE SAND DUNES: There's something about the desert that's just inspiring. Maybe it's the unscathed landscape or the rolling hills of sand concealing hidden treasures from the past. It was just fun to look out and see nothing in the distance but sand, sand, sand

DESERT BEAUTY: Layla sits on top of a sand dune. On wrong step and you could tumble down a hill of sand and rock -- which would have been a lot of fun compared to putting up with those damn camels

Day 7: Yengisar and Yarkand - The Old Silk Road

While I'd enjoyed the lakes and cities of Xinjiang, my big trip was an overnight trip in the Taklamakan Desert. To get there, we'd spend a day driving down the old Silk Road to Yarkand, a city near the edge of the desert.

The Silk Road was a major trade route from China, through Central Asia and the Middle East to Turkey and Europe. Marco Polo made the route famous.

On the way we stopped at Yengisar, a village known for its elegant knives, and then move on to a weekly city market. I got to see quite a few animals being traded and the process was interesting too -- a buyer and seller would work through a middle man who got a cut after the deal had been made. Sheep, cattle and a few goats changed hands before my eyes. I was tempted to buy one too, but honestly, what would I have done with a goat?

Yarkand was much larger than I thought it would be. We walked around the old city area and found another market street. Check out the last photo for a sample of the things I saw along the street. It was pretty wild.

MAP: Yarkand is about a 4-hour drive from Kashgar, across deserts, and rolling hills. It was a major capital in ancient times for the Uyghur people and a main stopping point for traders traversing the Silk Road

MELONS, MELONS, MELONS: The market along the old Silk Road was similar to farmer's markets back home -- just with 10 times the number of produce

ANIMAL MARKET: On our way to Yarkand we stopped at an animal market and watched people barter and trade livestock

BIG KNIFE: Yengisar is known for its knives. Knives are used for decoration and slitting the throats of livestock (so I was told)

SKILLED CRAFTSMAN: A Uyghur man slowly crafts a knife. A high quality knife takes 15 days to make

DAGGERS GALORE: You can't come to Xinjiang and not buy a knife. The trick is getting it home -- you can't bring them on your carry0=-on baggage. I had mine shipped home via courier

YARKAND TOMBS: The main tombs in Yarkand belongs to Aman Isa Khan, a famous poet. The other tombs were for the Yarkand Khans and other rulers

OPEN-AIR BUTCHER: Looks very, very closely at this guy's stand. He's a butcher, and those are goat, sheep and cattle heads on the table in front of him. He also seems to be blowing into a bag, but (again, looking closely) you'll notice that its no bag... it's a pair of sheep lungs

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Day 6: Karakul Lake - Mountain in the Clouds

After visiting the over-touristy Tian Chi near Urumqi, I was somewhat hesitant to visit another lake. But having enjoyed the complete absence of tourists so far in Kashgar I thought I'd give Karakul Lake a try.

Karakul Lake is 200 km (124 miles) from Kashgar on the Karakoram Highway, which runs all the way to Pakistan. It took 4 hours to get there.

The ride in was amazing. The highway runs along the side of a mountain valley, a river flowing through the middle. Each side was a different color, sometimes red, sometimes orange and sometimes grayish green. A storm had just swept the area, so piece of the road were washed away. But we made it nonetheless in the 4 hours our guide had said we would, even after stopping at a checkpoint so that we could enter China's "Frontier Territory" (or as I like to think, the "lawless land" of China's wild, wild west).

Karakul left me breathless. I felt as though this lake should be called the Heavenly Lake, not Tian Chi. The sky was blue and the mountains were snow covered. Goats and dogs wandered around the villages nearby. The people were Tajik, from neighboring Tajikistan, and took every opportunity to try to sell Layla and me something. But we were too taken in by the grandeur of the area to care about what they were selling.

The lake is located 3600 m in the mountains. The air was thin and after two hours I felt short of breath. I also started to get a bit dizzy, so we called it a day and made our way back.

Aside from the environment and landscape, what really impressed me was the complete absence of any other tourists. Layla and I were the only ones. And it was great, sheer bliss, to be away from the noisy crowds of Chinese tourists.

MAP: Karakul Lake is located in the mountains, so far up that the thin air will quickly affect travelers to the area. It's also relatively close to Afghanistan and inside China's "Frontier Territory."

A YURT CALLED HOME: Most of the Tajiks in the area live in yurts, tent like buildings that can easily be set up and taken down to ensure mobility

LOCAL GUIDE: A Tajik woman walks along the rocky shore of the lake

MOUNTAIN PASS: The 4-hour drive to Karakul Lake passed quickly as I stared out, wide eyed, at the landscape quickly passing us by

OFF ROADING: The road was washed out, a result of recent floods. Our cab trudged through the mud, and sometimes stopped

SAND MOUNTAIN: On the far shore of the one river was Sand Mountain. You can guess how it got this name

BEAUTIFUL BACKGROUND: Layla and I stand in front of the main peak near Karakul

TAJIK GOODS: A Tajik woman tries to sell Layla different Tajik goods, including a purse and a hat

AWE STRUCK: A Tajik woman looks off into the distance of the mountains near Karakul Lake

GOAT OF A GOOD TIME: Goats could be found all around the lake, enjoying the water and a few snacks I thew their way