April 27, 2009

The Karakorum Highway to Tashgurgan and back

The Karakorum Highway connects China and Pakistan. The esophagus connects the mouth and the stomach. And the connection between these sentences is that as I was passing through the incredible mountain ranges along the “highest highway in the world”, my Uyghur chicken dinner from the night before was passing through my esophagus, out my mouth and littering the majestic countryside all the way to Tashkurgan.
As my three travel companions sat ooohing and aaahing at nearly every new bend in the road, I was lying on a spare tire in the back of the jeep ooowing at every new bump in the road, only manually lifting my eyelids to weakly look out the back window when the chorus got exceptionally loud and excited.
It could have started as a piece of chicken gone awry, but any previous illness soon gave way to the extreme altitude at which we were driving. With over 10,000 feet below me, I spent the entire first day on one of the most scenic drives of my life passed out in fetal position, drooling on extra rubber and a flat tire jack. I finally came to seven hours later when we reached the town of Tashkurgan, which is a groovy mountain town in the Tajik Autonomous Region within China and 120 km from the Pakistani border.
Luckily for me, the way back was the same way we arrived. And luckily for me again, by the next morning, my body had adjusted to the altitude and I was walking and talking like a normal human being. With clear blue skies welcoming me back to the world of the living, I sat transfixed by the images that rolled past my window; green farmland slowly morphed into barren fields, which turned into sand dunes which drifted into rocky cliffs and then became tremendous snow capped mountains with heights of over 15,000 feet. Yaks, yurts, camels, and clay house villages dotted the landscape as sandstorms in one direction and snowstorms in the other clouded the distant view.
I was happy my own eyelids weren’t clouding the view any longer because even though I only caught the stunning scenery once on a two-way ride, once was all I needed to appreciate the endless beauty of the Karakorum.

April 23, 2009

Hotan, Uyghur Autonomous Region within China

Crossing the length of the Taklamaken Desert was like traveling through a long and sandy border, which divided a multi-ethnic region to that of Uyghur-ville. Stepping out of the bus in Hotan was like stepping into another country altogether.
It might be easier to just rip open your chest upon arrival and have someone sandblast your lungs and then sandpaper your pupils so that you get it over with all at once, rather than suffer the slow sand erosion that eventually takes over your body…breath by breath, blink by blink. Walking the streets feels a bit like your inside a vacuum trying to suck up a shoreline, but once you get used to the tearing and the wheezing, there is definitely some fun to be had in Hotan.

Catch a Glimpse of the Stone Age
On the bus ride in, we passed an incredibly white, mostly dried up river which had foggy looking humans lurking about its’ rocky bed. Inquiring about this to the only person I briefly met who spoke a tiny shred of English, I found out that this is where the locals pick natural Jade to buy and sell in the markets. Salivating at the photo-op, I found my way back to this river and to the market that sat along its’ dusty bank. It was filled almost entirely with men; men washing stones, men rubbing stones, men talking to stones, men trading stones, men transporting stones...in other words, men playing with stones. The only women that were there were the ones providing food to all the stoneheads, and since I knew more about dumplings than I did stones, I decided to take a seat with the ladies, front and center, and watch all the men getting stoned.
After leaving the market, and over the next day that I was in town, I saw many stone gatherings on the streets. The same ritual seemed to occur every time: men hanging out, men hanging out with stones, men using stones as a way to hang out, men are stuck in the stone ages.

Become a Bus Driving Assistant
It’s not what you see, it’s how you get there. Or don't get there for that matter. On my first day in Hotan I had secured local lodging, made it to the white jade river, the city park, the outdoor market and the town square. For my second day, I had written down that I wanted to see the silk factory and the winery. The silk factory made sense since I was following the ancient silk road, but an Uyghur winery located in remote western China was a far, and probably very wrong, stretch of the imagination.
Traveling without a guidebook or any useful foreign language skills in places like this, I had managed to get the same guy who spoke a shred of English to write down the very simple description of silk house and wine house in Mandarin. Written characters gets you everywhere in China, but not so much in Uyghur-ville, where they read according to a modified Arabic alphabet. Mandarin is the minority language in Hotan and English is non-existent. But I had my translated piece of paper, so I started waving it about town, until I stumbled upon a bus driver who wanted to make me Second in Command. That’s right, Co-captain of local Uyghur Bus #4.
How should I describe this experience? Well, it was kind of like being a child and getting invited into the cockpit to sit with the captain and steer the plane for a minute. While I didn’t quite steer the bus while sitting on the driver’s lap, I did get to sit up front on the consul next to him and press the button that opens and closes the doors. And while we never did figure out the location of the silk factory or the winery (not that I would have understood anything there anyway), I was having so much fun on the bus that I took two entire city loops as Second in Command.

Lost in the Double Translation
As I mentioned, Mandarin is the minority language in Hotan and English is non-existent. It’s really fun if you can find a Chinese person, like I did, who can translate something from English into Chinese characters. Then you take that to an Uyghur person who then takes that back to a Chinese person for translation and then reports to you in a language you don’t understand anyway. It’s like a good game of telephone.

Trans-Taklamaken Express

Many years ago, during one of my frequent daydreaming moments of If I could travel, where would I go?, I scribbled down the Taklamaken Desert, along with a few other places, on a small sheet of paper and tucked it away in the I’m probably never going to do this file. Staring at maps and contemplating history is more than a rainy day activity for me, and when I came across the description of the Taklamaken Desert as being such a harsh and inhospitable landscape that not even the weathered and hardened people of ancient times could penetrate it’s core, I immediately wanted to go.
I read that Takla Maken in Uyghur language means, “Go in and you will never come out.” History records that even on the edges, along the very outskirts of this desert, there was an extremely high mortality rate and plentiful amounts of human and animal bones have been found scattered about the old trading routes.
After traveling on the long road of my own history and circumstance, I remarkably found myself, years later, on the fringes of the mighty Taklamaken Desert. Usually the blending of technology with a plundering of the earth’s natural resources results in a negative, but this time, for me at least, the combination of the two meant that I would have the opportunity to travel right into the beating heart of this sandy Grim Reaper.
Oil was found in this desert, and in the 90’s, the petrol companies built a highway that sliced, from North to South, right through what was once nearly impossible terrain. And there I was, standing in the Korla bus station, purchasing a ticket for a 15-hour bus ride through what I once thought was a near impossible dream.
I excitedly boarded the stinky sleeper bus, which last saw a cleaning before the birth of Jesus, and soon became the object of local fascination. My plan was to get off the beaten tourist track by traveling the Silk Road, and as I tried to ungracefully twist my legs into my miniature, assigned overnight compartment as a full busload of eyes intently watched every itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny move I made, I realized I was in the process of successfully completing that goal.
My fantasy of traveling through the desert was in motion, but the reality of actually seeing it taking place was another matter all together. The bus left in the evening, and I had about an hour’s worth of light, just enough time to enter the highway and get a brief glimpse of her surface, before night covered the view. But even though I was rolling through in complete darkness, carried by a dirty sock on wheels, it did not matter. It did not matter because I was still there. I had once written down a far-flung travel fantasy on a small piece of paper, and though many mountains to climb in between, there I was actually living it.

April 18, 2009

Turpan, China

To really feel like you are a dusty, ancient person following the Silk Road, take a three- hour bus ride from Urumqi to Turpan, rent a bike and peddle out to Jiaohe, an extremely well preserved old trading city situated by an oasis in the middle of the desert. This is exactly what Sam from Australia and I did, after the heat of the day had started to subside, and we had the entire place to ourselves, which not only made us feel anciently authentic as we walked upon a thousand years of history, it also inspired us to strip down for an International Almost Naked Photo…..naturally.

Urumqi, China

It’s official: Uyghur’s are cooool.
The Uyghur people are originally a Turkish-Muslim tribe that settled near the Altai Mountains and over the centuries have mixed with the people of the surrounding regions of Russia, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. At first, Urumqi can make you feel like you have walked into a DNA chemistry testing lab whereby you see some of the most unique examples of human cross-breeding ever and at other times it looks as though there were too many cooks in the kitchen. But the new palette of people had me completely intrigued and I spent my first day in the city just walking through the busy and colorful markets, creepily staring at the bizarre blend of people.
The Uyghur’s live in an “autonomous” region within The People’s Republic of China and suffer from similar circumstances as their Tibetan neighbors, although they have no benefit of media or aid organizations vocalizing or helping their cause. The Han Chinese are given healthy incentives to move into the area, start businesses and built Buddhist temples, creating an ethnic animosity between the two groups. There is a definite neighborhood segregation within the city and there can be no confusion in which you are in.
Only a short train ride from Dunhuang, I went from eating stir fried vegetables to mutton kebabs, from walking in glossy shopping centers to small back alleys lined with local shops where women walk veiled and men wear traditional Islamic dress. Hearing people speaking the local Uyghur language, which sounds like a Turko-Chino-Russian dialect, and seeing Arabic lettering alongside Chinese, It was as if I had passed into an entirely different country, which…… after three months in China,
was a welcomed change.

Now You Snow Her, Now You Don't! Now You Sand Her, Now You Don't!

A two day's train ride in China can transport you from the snowy summit of a mountain to the sandy dunes of the desert.

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