Chris Tharp is an American working in Pusan, South Korea, where as he "teaches English to the country's up and coming capitalists." This is Part 3 of Chris' s adventures crossing China along the legendary Silk Road. Stay tuned for Part 4 (Part 1 and Part 2).
In Part 3, Chris takes us up the remote and starkly beautiful Karakorum highway as it climbs through the desert up to the border of Pakistan and K2, the world's second largest and deadliest peak. The adventure continues with Chris staying in a yurt in one of the Kyrgyz settlements on the shores of the glacier-fed Karakul Lake at an altitude of 3600 meters, drinking yak milk tea, visiting the Gez Gorge, passing the AK-47s at military check-points, visiting Shipton's Arch and heading back to Kashgar.
UP AND DOWN THE KARAKORUM HIGHWAY
When I woke up I was still woozy from the bacterial ravaging of my bowels, but felt slightly better from the day before. Sam was a wreck, passed out on his bed, without pants, but still wearing his socks and tennis shoes. He had raged against the dying of the night with a handful of other travelers, and, as a result, was to suffer a hangover of Hiroshiman proportions. Angry Steve, who had his own room and was usually the earliest riser of us three, knocked on our door and told us to meet him at John’s Café for some breakfast. We were going to head up the Karakorum Highway, known as “the highest highway on Earth,” and we needed our sustenance.
We had hired a van and driver to take us on this atmospheric route. The driver was a compulsively laughing Chinese man who smelled like stale cigarettes and drove the same as almost every Chinese driver we had on the trip: like a meth-addict late on his way to make a score. He went as fast as he could at every moment, laying ten second horn blasts to warn any other motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, goats, donkeys, dogs, birds, lizards or fruit flies in the vicinity that he was pushing through. He passed ore-laden dump trucks on blind curves with thousand foot drop offs without blinking. (How many dump trucks operate in China on any given day? The number must be uncountable.) He screamed over mountain passes slick with mist and condensation. He drove as if he had a death wish, and more than once I had flashes of twisted metal, mutilated flesh, and shattered bones. Did I really want to die in one of the most remote corners of Asia? No, but at least it’d be quick…
Up the Karakorum Highway
The Karakorum Highway shoots through the arid flatland of the desert - past dusty Uighur towns filled with women in colorful scarfs and men in skullcaps pushing carts of melons - then climbs towards the Pakistani border, onto the continentally dominating mass of the Pamirs, an arm of the Himalayas most famous for K2, the world's second highest and deadliest peak (Twelve climbers died on it just days before).
We didn't get all the way to K2, but we did manage to skirt two of her impressive sisters, Kongur and Muztag Ata – both behemoth mountains - 7,719 and 7,546 meters respectfully, which is well over 20,000 feet for the metric-impaired Americans out there. Both mountains were partially shrouded in clouds, but the intimidating grandeur of these two masses was not diminished. I’ve never seen mountains so huge.
The road rises into the mountains through brilliant red rock desert hills and then enters the Gez Gorge, a narrow sheer corridor in which the Gez River tumbles down in a violent froth. A few pedestrian suspension bridges cross the canyon, linking the highway with the hardscrabble stone villages on the other side. How people eke out a living in such a brutal environment is beyond my comprehension, but the small settlements look permanent, so they’re getting by.
At one point we were stopped at a checkpoint involving stone-faced soldiers sporting flak jackets and automatic weapons – one of several on the route. As the road comes out of the gorge, small rivulets and streams run over the pavement, partially washing it out in some places. Large rocks lay strewn over the roadway, deposited there by the water flows and periodic slides. Eventually the road enters a huge drainage full of grey runoff and glacial melt, a holding tank for the Gez River. It’s here where we pulled to the side of the road and were marauded by desperate Kyrgyz merchants selling rugs and trinkets. I picked up two colorful hand-made rugs for a steal. These people are extremely poor. They mob you like mosquitoes during the Alaskan summer. The only escape is to get back into the van, and then they still bang on the windows and look towards you with the starving hope that you’ll buy just a little more, if you bothered to buy at all.
After four hours on the Karakorum Highway, we arrived at Karakul Lake (3600 meters), a glacially fed alpine lake that is a popular stopover for travelers. We were immediately dropped off in one of the Kyrgyz settlements on the lake, which was little more than a cluster of yurts on the lake's shore.
We were lead to a vacant one by a young Kyrgyz man named Sereket, negotiated a price (meals included) and were at once handed the keys to our very own yurt. Sam took this opportunity to make a bed and sleep off his deadly hangover, while Steve and I strapped on our boots and spent the afternoon hiking around lake.
The Kyrgyz Village
This Kyrgyz village is an actual village. Yes, they do host tourists in the summer – I’m sure it’s their bread and butter – but it’s a real, lived-in place. The yurts are cozy and well kept inside, but step outside and you are in filth - animal and human feces litter the ground, along with trash of all stripes, beer and coke bottles, bits of plastic and paper, discarded clothing, motorcycle tires, and bones. It's a bizarre reflection when considered next to the pristine alpine lake.
Also, like the roadside carpet hawkers, the touts are RELENTLESS. As soon as you emerge from your rented yurtdominum, they converge. Zombie-eyed women hold up carpets and mumble, “Yes? Yes?” Trinkets and necklaces are dangled in front of your nose as you enjoy a cigarette, or better yet, the fresh air. Say no ten times and walk away, and the same sellers will be back in your face when you return. I’ve traveled through much of Asia at this point, and these were among the most persistent touts I’ve come across. Summer is brief in The Pamirs, and it’s their one chance to make a little money. They’ll even attempt to barter. One man offered to trade a big crystalline geode rock for my hiking boots. I almost considered (it looked impressive), but declined, since I really couldn’t wear a geode.
The worst thing in the village was the "toilet," which is perhaps the worst I've taken in during all my travels, and I've seen some nasty, gut-churning poo holes. Upon arriving in the village, I asked our host, the congenially creepy Sereket, “Which way to the toilet?” He gleefully pointed me in the right direction, without a hint of shame on his face. Now I understood that I was in a mountain village without running water or electricity, so my expectations were low - I'm not assigning Western standards here. But I was not prepared for what I took in. The toilet, or WC, as they're universally labeled in any traveling area, was little more than a shack covering a wooden platform over a pit. Three holes were cut into the platform, and in each one rose a sickening black shit tower, each of which protruded a good SIX TO TEN INCHES above the rim of the hole. Most people seemed to have forwent the holes altogether and just shat anywhere in the shack they could, resulting in nasty little black turds littered all over the dirt floor and other parts of the platform. You could barely walk without hitting one. Those that chose not to crap in the shit shack - which was likely most of the village at this time – instead elected to do so in the vicinity of the yurts, resulting in a veritable minefield of human excrement.
What was abundantly clear was that the WC needed a thorough shoveling-out, but no one in the village (understandably) seemed willing to undertake the task. So instead, they should drench the thing in sheep fat and burn it to the ground.
While Sam slept off his booze-binge from the night before, Steve and I hiked. It was a great hike. At one point we scurried partway up the mountainside to get a good view of the turquoise lake below. The panorama was impressive, giving us a sense of the sheer scale of the place. We were looking permanence in the face, which can fill you with both excitement and a bizarre sense of dread.
Me at the lake
As we continued our hike, dark clouds blew up the valley, riding on a cold wind. It was clear that weather was blowing in, and ten minutes before Steve and I arrived back in yurtville, the sky opened up and a devastating cold rain came down.
Steve and Sam were unprepared for such coldness from the start, as they had packed exclusively for a blisteringly hot desert trek. I had anticipated super high altitudes before leaving Korea, so I wisely included a warm fleece and rain jacket in my pack. However, I had left my rain jacket hanging in the closet of our hotel room in Urumqi, overlooking it during the "idiot check" on the morning we departed that city, my eyes and mind clouded from the endless river of whiskey Sam and I gulped down the night before.
So there we were, in some of the highest mountains of the world, caught in a rainstorm without jackets. Brilliant. The Lonely Planet mentions that the one thing you don’t need to prepare for in Xinjiang Province is rain, yet this was our third rainstorm since entering the west. We found, that with regard to China, the Lonely Planet can be useful for finding a hotel or restaurant, but other than that it proved oft inaccurate. At least I knew that I’d never be short of toilet paper during one of my sudden attacks downstairs, which, as I’ve mentioned, were frequent.
We got back to the yurt, only to find Sam wrapped in about six blankets and still near comatose. The rain had chilled Steve to the bone and turned his mood foul. He in turn made himself into a human blanket burrito and set about trying to fight off this frigidness. Young Sereket entered the yurt and made a fire in the stove, providing a modicum of heat, and I began to nip off a bottle of whisky, which kept me from the shivers.
Whether Sereket was determined to be a good host or just wanted to escape his mother’s yurt, which he shared with his sister and her baby, was anyone’s guess. After he lit the fire we assumed he’d head out, but he stuck around, stretching out on the floor and endlessly chatting with his girlfriend, via cell phone, in guttural Kyrgyz. At one point we left and Sam and I joined him at his mother’s yurt for hot and hearty dinner of a kind of Central Asian pasta (Steve, being miserable, opted out.). After this, he followed us back to our yurt, just hanging out and talking on the phone once again. I tried to offer him whiskey, but he declined, citing his Muslim values.
Sereket was an oddball, and impish young man of about 19 or 20. Sam liked him, but later confessed to believing that he was somehow evil. His English was minimal, but just enough to basically communicate with the adventurous tourists who stayed in his village. He mentioned that they spent the winter in the permanent village on the other side of the lake, a village that Steve and I had hiked through that afternoon. Steve seemed to be annoyed that Sereket wouldn’t leave us be, but Steve was annoyed with everything by this point. A beautiful Korean girl hand feeding him rice cakes would have probably stoked his ire. But as the yurt warmed, so did we, and along with it, Angry Steve’s mood.
Eventually Sereket did leave. We heard him walk into the rainy night, start up his dilapidated motorcycle, and putter away, back to mom’s concrete yurt. Concrete, rather than yak wool. His family was from the good side of the goat tracks. We lay there, looking up into the dark, listening to the rain hit the woolen domed roof, the only other sound the man in the neighboring yurt, reading Koranic verses to his family before they went to sleep.
The next morning we had yak milk tea (not bad) and granite-hard bagels at Sereket’s concrete yurt. The inevitable sales pitch was made, and after some intense negotiations, Angry Steve walked away with an impressive carpet, hand-woven by our young host’s mother. We said goodbye, boarded the van, and joined our possibly mentally unbalanced driver for a cruise up the highway, to the town of Tashkurgan.
Just as we left the lake village we saw Aussie Chris and Tennessee Ian by the side of the road, outside of a yurt of their own. We knew they were heading to the lake at the same time as us, but had missed them the night before, electing to stay out of the rain and listen to Kyrgyz cell phone courtship rituals.
“You guys headin’ up to Tashkurgan?” Ian inquired.
“Yeah. We want to check out the famous fortress.”
“I don’t know…” Ian said, drawl in full swings. “You can go if ya want, but there ain’t much to see there. It’s just a pile of rocks.”
Tashkurgan is the end of the line for anyone not moving on into Pakistan. The Chinese won’t let you continue on without the proper visa and no doubt some other onerous permits issued by the local PSB. Rules rules rules. It is a town occupied by Tajik people, who are a kind of Persian offshoot known for their fierce temperaments and big hook noses. There is little to see or do there, save taking in the ruins of an ancient fortress, which, at risk of sounding like an architectural philistine, are really just a big pile of rocks. Our driver, aware of this fact, took us to a good spot to photograph the said rocks, without having to pay the entry fee.
On the way to Tashkurgan we went through a second and more menacing military checkpoint. Like the first, we were all made to get out of the vehicle and present our passports and travel permits. A military officer slowly perused our documents, repeatedly looking at the photos and faces and back again, while a soldier carrying an AK-47 came up about two feet behind us and repeatedly clicked his safety on and off. The attempt was obviously to intimidate, and let's just say he achieved his effect. I think some of these Chinese soldiers get a specific thrill out of fucking with Americans, as does much of the world, unfortunately. What’s more unfortunate is that we get an even bigger thrill out of fucking with most everyone else.
We got to Tashkurgan, and Ian was right. Aside from the local Tajik people walking the street, there wasn’t too much to see. And the fortress was “just a pile of rocks,” but our mad driver realized this, and drove us to a good vantage point where we could snap some photos without paying the entrance fee.
During our trip along the Karakorum, we came within 16 kilometers of the border with Tajikistan, and within 60 of that of Afghanistan, which has no official crossing into China. Our driver, through sign language and mutually agreed upon Chinese terms, advised us that we could cross into Afghanistan if we wished (to fight the Taliban, he said, cackling), but we'd have to go over a really large mountain. We took his word for it. I did sincerely wish that we could have turned off the road into one of the 'Stans, but we lacked visas and time, so at Tashkurgan we turned around and raced DOWN the highway this time, past the mountains and lakes, and into a sheer rock gorge that looked like it would swallow us up and take us straight to Hell.
THREE UGLY AMERICANS GO TO SHIPTON’S ARCH
Americans get a bad rap as tourists, though I have largely found the grievances against us exaggerated. Sure, we can at times be loud, pushy, and complain when the service doesn’t meet our expectations, but on the whole, most Americans who travel in Asia are courteous, intelligent, and quieter than you may think (Your humble narrator excluded, from the latter, at least.). It’s always been Europeans who I’ve seen exhibit the worst kind of behavior. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some fuckface with a Continental accent berate the waiter in a two dollar restaurant for a late dish or heap abuse upon the poor girl on the other side of the one star hotel desk in a dispute over the bill. But no one is totally immune from acting like a sphincter, from time to time. Somehow, especially when money is involved, even the best of us can turn into assholes.
This happened to the three protagonists of this here travelogue, though I doubt that anyone in their right mind would classify our trio as “the best of us.” Still, we try not to tread on others when we’re traveling, though Angry Steve can live up to his moniker if a taxi driver makes a wrong turn or his yurt host won’t let him be.
We arrived back in Kashgar and sat down for dinner and beers at John’s, exchanging stories with the smattering of travelers who were in the café. Simon, an impossibly tall and emaciated Englishman who we had met a couple nights earlier, joined our table and told us about Shipton’s Arch, a rock formation a couple of hours outside of Kashgar.
Shipton's Arch, or Tushuk Tash ('Pierced Rock' in Uighur), is the tallest natural arch in the world, standing at over 1200 feet. It was undiscovered by foreigners (locals of course knew of its existence) until 1947, when it was found by English explorer/mountaineer Eric Shipton. It was then lost to outsiders again, until 2000, when National Geographic led an expedition to 'rediscover' it, which they did.
“I was just out there today,” Simon said in his lilting Yorkshire accent. “I had the whole place to meself. No one goes there. I would highly recommend checking it out.”
He showed us a little video that he had shot on his cell phone, and even from that, the thing looked impressive. Seeing how the next day was Steve’s last with us, AND his birthday, we decided to give it a go, so we went to the desk at John’s and booked a jeep and driver for the morning.
We set out early the next day, and started on the two hour jeep trek to the trailhead. After a little more than an hour on the paved road, we turned off onto a dried-up riverbed, where the driver switched into 4WD. We slowly worked our way up the rocky bed until we came to the rock hut of a goat herding family, where we were waved to stop by a teenage boy. The driver, who was a Chinese guy in a pink polo shirt (a lover of Korean fashion, evidently), rolled down the window, and proceeded to have a conversation with the kid in Uighur. When they were finished, the driver looked at me, and told me, in Chinese, that there was an “entrance fee” of 20 Yuan a person. I immediately balked. It seemed that everywhere we visited in China had some sort of hidden “entrance fee.” Plus, we were paying John’s Café a lot of money for the jeep and the driver, so the thought of us paying extra made all of us bristle. We also had been traveling for three weeks now and were sick of everyone trying to get in our pockets. The walking dollar sign gig gets old after a while, and today was the day that our tolerance ran out.
So, like the Amy Winehouse song, I told the driver “No, No, No.”
We proceeded on for about ten minutes more, when we reached the trailhead. We got out of the jeep and started the hike up to the arch. From behind I heard the sound of a motorcycle coming up the canyon. There was a motorcycle at the goat herders’ hut, so no doubt the kid was chasing us down, still determined to collect his “entrance fee.”
And that he was. He pulled up behind us on his motorcycle, got off, and began to sprint, in an attempt to overtake us. We picked up the pace, but we saw no need to get into a running contest with this kid. He did eventually pass us, and it was only then when I saw why he was in such a hurry. About 100 meters in front of us, the canyon narrowed and steepened dramatically. A wooden ladder lay against the face of the rock. Climbing this ladder was the only way you could continue up towards the arch.
By the time we got to the Uighur teen, he was clutching the ladder like it was a briefcase full of diamonds. He then requested 20 Yuan from each of us. It was a standoff and he had us by the balls.
We could have gone easily. We could have just coughed up the 20 Yuan, which is the cost of one shitty Korean beer, and been on our way, but we weren’t having it. Today was the day we would stand our ground, draw a line in the sand, and act like complete douchebags in the process.
At first I tried bargaining. After a few weeks in China I had gotten a pretty good hold on the numbers, so I had confidence when it came to negotiating a price. He just shook his head and stood firm. The kid wouldn’t budge. This only served to stoke our indignation, and then we began to demand ID from him and threaten him with the police. We stammered and sputtered and foamed at the mouth. I tried to grab the ladder from him. I shook my finger in his face, and called him an “extorting little fucker.” The three of cornered the poor kid and let loose a torrent of three weeks’ stored up angst. He would not be intimidated. He just stared back with defiance, and contempt.
After huffing and puffing and waving our dicks around, we finally relented and gave this kid his nine bucks, though I had to dramatically spit on the ground when I handed him the cash, which I’ve seen in some movies and is probably an unpardonable offense in Uighur culture.
What is it about righteousness that can be so all-consuming? All three of us were convinced that we were in the right and that this kid – this goat herder, for fuck’s sake – was trying to rip us off, that he saw an opportunity to squeeze some foreigners for money and jumped at it. At no time did it occur to us that EVERYONE who comes to the arch must pay this little tax to the locals who live on and work the land. And 20 Yuan certainly pales in comparison to the 200 Yuan or more that we had to pay at sites run by hordes of uniformed, unsmiling Chinese.
After coughing up, we continued up the trail – scurrying up five or six more ladders - rattled by our anger and loss of face. We plotted revenge against the kid. Shitting on his motorcycle was discussed. But our anger quickly gave way to the serenity of the surroundings. We climbed up a canyon of red and ochre, of stone worn into gnarled, psychedelic shapes by centuries of desert wind, only to come across a hole at the canyon's end. As we approached the hole, we realized that we were actually on the top of a mountain. On the other side of the hole was a chasm, a sheer drop of over one thousand feet.
The arch only revealed its true size once you are up on it. It looks dramatic from a distance, but you have no idea of its scale until you are right up on it. It is enormous. It rips the breath right out of your lungs.And, like English Simon the day before, we had it all to ourselves.
Shipton's Arch is in a very inaccessible part of the desert, and this is why the Chinese have yet to fuck it up – if you don’t count the twenty or so empty plastic water bottles that littered the top, which I’m sure were tossed there by Chinese visitors. (They have no clue when it comes to nature.) They have yet to build a road and a parking lot with souvenir stands and a cable car cranking out terrible pop music and advertisements (as experience in Tien Chi Lake). They have yet to pave a concrete stairway up to the top, with a fenced off viewing platform and karaoke room. They have yet to open the sieve and direct fleets of tour buses there on a daily basis. They have yet to ruin the place.
They have yet.
Let the Uighur goat herders maintain their stewardship. And please, unlike us, don’t give them any hassle when they ask for your three bucks. Consider the alternative.
SCARRED IN YARKAND
Sam and I, now joined by English Simon – who joined us after the departure of Angry Steve, hired a car in Kashgar and made our way across the southern fringe of the Taklamakan Desert to the town of Yarkand. Our driver was ancient Uighur man with a face so weathered that the lines in it looked like they had been dug out with gardening tools. He wore the ubiquitous white Uighur skullcap and belted out traditional songs while he burned down the two-lane, dust covered highway – driving with the
same suicidal bravado that we had come to expect from all drivers in China. Each attempt to get him to slow down was met with an obstinate shake of the head and an increase in singing volume. He was not going to have some infidels telling him what to do. The only thing that temporarily hampered his speed was the sight of a traffic wreck on the other side of the road. Two cars were stopped on the road, with their occupants idly standing outside of their vehicles. Down the embankment lay the husk of a minivan with a banged-up roof – no doubt the victim of a high-speed roll.
“See? See?” we said, while pointing vigorously. “Too fast – BOOM!”
Yarkand sounds like a place that barbarians should hail from. This is the case with most Uighur town names – Turpan, Yengizar, Hotan, Karghilik - I can imagine them on the dangerous part of a map in a game of Dungeons and Dragons: “Here Lie Wyverns, Lichs, and Rock Ogres!” Yarkand is a dusty place, but everywhere in southern Xinjiang Province is dusty, so I can’t say that it made the place stand out. Nothing made Yarkand stand out, really, except two people I saw the next morning at the bus station.
The first was a man whose whole left side of his face was a mass of black polyps, as if one mole had gone supernova and erupted into a fleshy cancerous cluster. It gave him an alien/reptilian look, and made his face a magnet for my iron filing eyeballs. Sometimes I just can’t help myself. But when I tried, I managed not to stare, since the TV in the station was playing the Olympic swimming highlights, and I could concentrate on the image of Michael Phelps winning 673 gold medals and standing on the awards platform with his big, horsey, fratboy smile, rather than be drawn to look at shrink-scab-wrap tumor-face man. Poor guy.
At one point I exited the station to look for a cup of coffee, and what I saw almost made me pass out. A man had come up to the station with a pull-cart. On the back of the cart was his son, I presume – a horribly deformed child with a head like three brown watermelons fused together. His eyes desperately glared out from the deep set sockets, and his mouth was a maw of jutting teeth. I felt the blood leave my head and turn to ice. The boy lay on his back and just kind of twitched, while emitting moans. A crowd of locals gathered around and gawked accordingly, while it seemed that the father nonchalantly described his son’s infirmities. I had an impulse to snap a photo, but surrendered to the better part of my nature, instead heading down the street and grabbing a coffee drink at “Veary Hamburger,” a western Chinese fast-food chain. There I tried to erase the images of these two unfortunate beings from my brain by bombarding it with the radioactive combination of sugar, caffeine, and loud Chinese pop music.
Read on for Part 4 of Chris trip. In Part 4, Chris takes us into the dusty heart of "donkeyland," donkeys, dust, donkeys, melons, Richard Nixon bug killer, Muslim hospitality, from Urumqi and back to Shanghai. And finally, Chris ends the trip with some final thoughts on long-haul travel in China.
Editor's note: We're inviting bloggers who write about travel and life in China to republish select posts on ChinaTravel.net. If you blog your China experience and would like to share with our readers, let us know by email.