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

Day 5: Kashgar- The Edge of China

Kashgar was exactly what I was looking for on this trip -- a new culture (Muslim) and people and even better attractions to see. Our hotel, the Seman Hotel, was the former Russian consulate.

We hired a driver for the day and toured the city and outer areas.

Our first stop were tombs of Abakh Khoja and the nearby mosque. We then drove off into the nearby desert to see the ruins of the Mor Stupa. A whole town used to surrounded the temple and stupa area, but had since been lost to the sands of time.

On the way back to Kashgar we stopped and visited a Uyghur family. They were very welcoming and offered us grapes and other snacks and even invited us into their home. Our driver told us it was a great honor for them to host foreigners.

After a brief stop as a mosque, where my girlfriend had to cover her arms because she was wearing a short sleeved shirt, we took a stroll through the Old City of Kashgar. It reminded me of the hutong of Beijing, only older and much more ancient looking. Around every corner was something interesting to see -- cattle roaming the streets, kids playing or someone washing clothes or preparing food.

Kashgar, like most other Chinese cities, is changing everyday. The old is being replaced with the new and people who have visited the city many times over the years told me they don't recognize it anymore. I'm glad I got to see it, before it changes too much.

ROYAL TOMBS: Abakh Khoja tombs house the royal families of Kashgar

GRAPE DEAL: I shake hands with the husband of the family we visited outside Kashgar

ANCIENT TEMPLE: The Mor Stupa outside Kashgar sits on the outskirts of a desert area

ALL THAT STANDS: There used to be a whole town here, surrounding the temple and stupa

SMILE FOR THE CAMERA: All the kids we ran into on our walk through the old city wanted their photos taken. I'd show them each photo and they'd all look at the strange black device that had captured their image

OLD CITY: The old city corridors were thin -- to thin for cars (thank God)

PLAYING AROUND: Two Uyghur children play with a tire

DONKEY TIME: When they weren't using camels, the locals used donkeys to get around

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Day 4: Urumqi-Kashgar

The flight from Urumqi to Kashgar was about 2.5 hours. The flight was a little bumpy and the food was bad but Kashgar would be the highlight of the trip.

Located in the southwest tip of Xinjiang, Kashgar is the "real" Xinjiang -- not the Beijing-similar Urumqi.

The drive to our hotel was interesting. We ran into a few camels walking around the streets. Lots of people ride motorbikes.