Star Date: November 15, 2005
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
(May peace be with you also - response to Muslim Uighur greeting)
"Let him who finds good, praise Allah,
(Muhammad (570? - 632?) Arab religious leader and prophet)
"Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man." ~
(Mohandas Karamachand Gandhi)
Exotic. Mysterious. A pulsating maze of colors, sights and smells, more Middle Eastern than Chinese. How do you begin to describe this mesmerizing 3000 year old oasis and trading mecca along the Silk Road?? An ethnic blend of Uighurs, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Han Chinese, some things in the Old Town of Kashgar haven’t changed since medieval times. Every narrow lane beckons you to explore the bazaars full of shimmering silk, knives, jewelry and carpets all moving to the rhythmic beat of metalworkers, cobblers, and weavers producing quality wares by hand; trades passed from generation to generation. Donkey carts, camels, mosques that date back to the early 1400’s, bread shops, mouth watering vegetables, fruits, figs, spices and nuts, kebab shops with sides of mutton proudly on display, women in veils or scarves and endless music on drums, long necked stringed instruments and snake charmer type horns. Quality goldsmiths still supply work for all of Central Asia. It is common to have traders from every surrounding nation arrive via truck caravan, train or plane and spontaneously set up impromptu street corner negotiations or take part in the infamous Sunday Market when the town swells by 50,000 as merchants, of everything that moves or doesn’t, converge. Kashgar’s present, past and future are all connected in a blur of negotiations.
Old Town, with its adobe houses, walls and courtyards, narrow dirt lanes and markets is caught in a time warp. This is where we chose to settle for over a month. We were offered a room in a tiny Uighor hotel with wooden shutters and balconies, right through a narrow gate displaying fur hats and fezzes of every shape and size. Unfortunately the owner checked and the police wouldn’t allow foreigners to stay so we found a suitable hotel room right next to Old Town. Stepping out our door we were immediately transposed back in time. Everything we needed was within a 100 yard radius. Right there were the fruit venders, clay-oven bread shops, and our favorite restaurant that custom cooked the bag of fresh veggies purchased from the vegetable market next door. We had to walk further to reach the modern amenities of the Chinese part of town, as rarely the old towns and new towns meet in Chinese cities. The large People’s Square and China’s largest statue of Chairman Mao (60 ft high) reminds us that everywhere is changing no matter how fervently one resists.
After settling into life in Old Town for a couple of weeks it was time to explore the Karakoram Highway that leads over Khunjerab Pass (14,400 ft.) to Pakistan. This was the perilous route used by caravans for centuries along the Silk Road. Khunjerab means ‘valley of blood’, reliving the terror of bandits who took advantage of the terrain to steal the wealth of the caravans and slaughter the merchants. Can you imagine making it thousands of miles by foot and camel, across some of the deadliest deserts on earth, only to get mugged in the mountains? Besides hairpin turns and a couple checkpoints nothing stands in your way of reaching beautiful Karakul Lake. From the desert below we climbed up through the wine-red sandstone canyon of the Ghez River, past the Kumtagh or Sand Mountains and upward to stay along the shores of Karakul Lake. At this elevation of near 12,000 feet it is necessary to take it easy and allow your body to acclimate to avoid altitude sickness. The lake is ringed by the tops of magnificent snow mountains, some over 20,000 ft. We counted over 15 glaciers on just two of the mountain faces. The crystal clear turquoise lake mirrors the snow peaks and provides an ever changing panorama from sunrise to sunset.
Our bus was met by locals and off we went down a dirt path to spend a couple of nights in a yurt, to observe life with the Kyrgyz people. With only 3 family yurts taking in travelers, our yurt being totally isolated from the others and right on the lake, this was our most authentic yurt visit to date. These simple folk were very poor and lived on nan or stove-top cooked unleavened bread, yak, and butter tea (black tea, salt, and yak butter). The felt covering the yurt had many holes and the tapestry inside was very basic. The little metal stove was fueled by dried yak dung patties and little 4 inch shrubs dug out of the stony alpine dirt by shovel. Knowing the food situation we loaded up in the markets along the way and gladly ate our vegetables and hand made noodles while the family smacked their lips around yak bones cooked in broth, followed by hard bread and butter tea. Meat was pre-chewed for the baby and a loving kiss transferred the prize into the little 'birdie's' mouth. We were met at the door by 2 year old Adeala, the vibrant, intelligent little being who turned out to be the highlight of the visit. We enjoyed watching her curiously explore her small world and try to perfect the everyday chores involved in the life of a yurt. We bedded down in the 20 ft. diameter yurt with Nurungal, Adeala’s 23 year old divorced mother, Sadakat, the 18 and 22 year old brothers, and the 52 year old Grandma, who has been widowed several years. The clear star filled nights were freezing cold, even in the summer, and we were piled high with colorful quilts lined with sheep, yak or camel felt.
One of my favorite parts of yurt life is snuggled under the quilts in the morning, watching the day unfold. First the smell of the fire starting and then the circle flap is peeled away allowing a view of the bright blue sky. The sun beams slowly find their way through the roof to light up the brightly colored tapestries all around us. One by one people get up and their blankets are aired in the sun on the ground outside. Morning offerings were made in the barren hills behind the yurt and then everyone warmed up with a cup of yak butter tea and a piece of hard bread. The carpets were swept off and daily chores started such as fetching lake water, washing last night's dishes, preparing and baking flat bread in a fry pan on the small wood stove, designing and sewing quilts, rugs, and purses by hand, and the all time favorite of just sleeping where you drop on the carpets. The young men took off to meet the 2 daily buses, one from Kashgar and the other from Pakistan, to try to sell their wares at the makeshift market further along the highway. We spent most of our time outside feasting our eyes and souls on the majesty of the mountains and lake below. We walked the full length of the lake and with only 3 Kyrgyz families on this side we were virtually alone, aside from a few kids playing or herding the yaks or sheep. A small mud brick village across the lake provides shelter from the severe cold winters. Without electricity this village was completely black at night, with everyone huddled inside their small mud brick houses around the wood stove or yak butter lamps.
After three glorious days we stood out by the road in hopes of flagging down the Kashgar bound bus. Before its arrival we made a deal with a truck driver to catch a ride to Kashgar, along with a young Japanese backpacker who crawled out of one of the other yurts down the path. The spectacular 8 hour bus ride was reduced to 5 and we were warmly welcomed back into our little hotel next to Old Town. Having spent the last 3 days in the same clothes and only splashing the ice cold lake water on our faces we stood for 'hours' under the hot shower and washed our smoke filled clothes from our daypacks. We love the adventure of plunging into tribal life but returning to the luxury of the 21st century has its rewards. Neither Joseph nor I are very 1st chakra, tribal sort of people. We are more independent, inquisitive personalities and by choice tend to remain on the outside or fringe of the tribe, neither making the effort nor waiting for acceptance of the group. Socialization is a treat not an obligation. Boredom it seems among these people, as is the case in many people’s lives, leads to the creation of dramas. We tend to just give the positive highlights of our travel but people are people are people, world over. This is exemplified in the Far Side cartoon of God in his kitchen creating the world. He creates the Heavens and the Earth. Then into the bowl he adds animals, fish, plants, man and just to make life interesting he throws in a sprinkle of 'Jerks'! Ninety five percent of the population are great, five percent are #*!% idiots. (How’s that for spiritual?) O.K. so they aren’t idiots, they are just “experiencing problems and doing stupid things”. Such is the case worldwide. Wherever you go the same personalities surface. The Grandma (52 years old) in the yurt was the proverbial victim and she continually would sigh “woe is me” in Kyrgyz, complain to the neighbors that dropped by or nag her family members about some newly created problem. One morning she got into a neighborly “ Leaping Lena-type” yelling dispute over where to send the yaks to water in the lake. Not understanding a word we would just smile and say “Oh, everything is ok” and she would calm down. Besides we didn’t have to live with her and spent most of our time outside hiking or enjoying nature. Staying in one of the most sacred and peaceful places we have been in over the last 2 plus years it pointed out how peace dwells inside a person. We tried to take some of Nature’s peace back in our heart to the bustle of Kashgar. Traveling makes us look on life more and more with amusement and interest rather than being annoyed.
The Kyrgyz, a feisty folk to begin with, see a way to make money and open their yurts, legal or not, to the few passing travelers. It is hard for these simple people to see a steady stream of 'rich' foreigners pass in and out of their lives. The truth is that most people they see are hard core low budget travelers, not squishy tourist types who seldom venture out this far. I would guess most people who come to sleep on the floor with a family of Nomads in the middle of nowhere would be friendly and open to the experience. There is always lots of laughing and sharing and learning. We make jokes, play with the babies, share our fruit or little gifts, teach English and learn how to make dung fires or stretch the homemade wheat noodles. It’s a win-win situation. We like to experience the authentic traditions and culture. We (travelers) secretly don’t want them to make the switch to T-shirts and jeans and ride motorcycles. We want native clothes and hats riding on horses or camels. We want the “real thing”! After experiencing their life for a few days and taking a slew photos off we go in search of the next “real experience”. But that’s the point, we go off and they are stuck back there somewhere between cultures. They were content for centuries when this lifestyle was all they knew. Now they have seen pictures, maybe even T.V. and they want some of that modern new life with the modern conveniences and the toys that go along with it. After bargaining, a fair price is agreed to, for food and a place to lay your head. Most families are happy with the good price that these crazy travelers are willing to pay just to sleep on the floor ($3.50 per person is a windfall). Others think that everyone who walks through the door has a fat wallet and needs to have some of that money removed (sounds like your doctor). This family hadn’t figured out that if they ask too high a price for a hand made purse no one will buy it! The money is so close yet so elusive. Change has a hard laborious birth at times.
‘Living’ in Kashgar for 5 weeks gave us time to make friends, become regulars at the many market stalls, and to observe life a little more closely. Times like this, of resting and relaxing for a month or more in one place, are an important part of living overseas. On our daily explorations of Old Town our first stop was to get a steaming hot flat bread from the clay ovens. Across the street was a tiny vegetable cart run by a very poor family with a gaggle of kids. We always bought a cucumber or carrot from their meager selection just to give them some business. One day I tore off a piece of hot bread for the little wide eyed toddler. Everyday after that he would stand there silently hoping that he would get a taste and everyday I would ‘sneak’ him a piece. Further down the road, in the main square, next to the 13th century mosque, Joseph discovered that the disagreeable resident camel also liked bread. From then on when we tried 'stealthing' by, he’d let out an awful moan that only a morsel of bread would quiet. There was no choice but to buy 2 breads to share!
Old Town is like a window peering into the Islamic Middle East. The Uighurs are far from fundamentalist Muslims and although they observe call to prayer 5 times a day the city isn’t taken over with blaring loudspeakers. Being an autonomous region and part of China the idea of a religious run province is unheard of. Chinese women are allowed to dress as they wish throughout the country and the positive Chinese influence on the rights of women here is a breath of fresh air. Although the Muslim women dress modestly they are not required to wear a scarf or veil. It is optional and quite common, for instance, to see a fully veiled woman conversing with a smartly dressed bare headed woman on a motorcycle.Our daily wanderings usually ended up at our favorite Muslim restaurant across the street. The fare normally consists of mutton stew, homemade wheat noodles or kebabs. The first day we showed them our Chinese 'cheat sheet' asking for vegetables only- no meat – little oil- no msg, etc. Only problem is that they didn’t read Chinese and we didn’t speak Uighur. Someone from the gathering crowd stepped forward and ‘kind of’ translated the Chinese words. We then followed them back into the male run domain of sleeping mats and prayer rugs leading to the kitchen filled with wood fired stoves and noodle pots. Initially it was a stretch for these dyed-in-the-wool meat eaters to grasp the concept of vegan fare. They kept wanting to give us meat for strength but one day after Joseph explained, through a translator, that the strongest animals on earth, elephants or rhinoceros, are vegans, they laughed and stopped pushing. All the gesticulating and clowning paid off as we were presented daily, outside next to the hanging sides of mutton and smoky kebab fires, with the best tasting vegetable dishes in Kashgar . Full of food, friendship and smiles we would cross the crazy, busy street to buy the next day's breakfast at the many fruit and melon carts. As regulars they would always throw in an extra bunch of grapes or a crisp peach. Winter was around the corner and when the urge to move on started rising in us again Joseph bought 2 enormous watermelons, cut them up, and presented a platter full to everyone at the restaurant and to the staff at our hotel. Before leaving we spent an evening at a unique vineyard restaurant outside of town, had tea and pie at the western run Caravan Cafe and watched an ethnic dance extravaganza on stage in the main square. Leaving just short of my birthday the girl at the front desk, to whom we had taught and spoken English, was really disappointed as she said she was planning to make me a gift. Our caravan (the public bus) was ready and The Southern Silk Road beckoned us!!
And so it
Love, xoxoox Nancy & Joseph
Travel notes: Hotel in Kashgar, The New Yield Fast Foreign Exchange Hotel one block up the street, same side, from the pricey Chini Bagh Hotel, 70Y-double, unlimited computer use. Joseph downloaded several gbs of updates for his etext collection.
Her eyes are smiling too!
The lively Sunday Market.
Craftsmen in Old Town.
Bountiful, braided garlic.
The famous silk, for which
caravans risked perilous
Music everywhere, especially accompanying wedding parties.
Peek-a-Boo from a mud
brick window, back in a narrow lane in
Mom & Dad at our favorite
Muslim restaurant across the street.
Taking their yaks for water; the view from our yurt on Karakul Lake.
Adeala and Nurungal welcoming us into their Kyrgyz yurt.
Sunset at Karakul Lake. This is one of those places
Enjoying an evening at a
restaurant, in a