August 22, 2007

The Silk Road Is In Need of Some Road Work

At least the section my bus went bouncing along over for 10 hours today sure was. I'm in the small Uyghur oasis town of Hotan, formerly a jade crafting and carpet weaving center on the silk route, this evening just kind of dusty and low-key. The driver laid on the horn every time we passed trucks carrying big tankers of gasoline, Uyghur families on donkey carts, minibuses and motorcycles. Stretches of desert were interspersed with stands of slender beeches lining the oasis towns we passed through on the way from Kashgar. My seat companion was an older fellow from Suat (mispelled?), Pakistan ("the Switzerland of Pakistan", he tells me) travelling with four Pakistani lawyer friends to Hotan. We chatted a bit and watched pirated Jackie Chan movies and Uyghur music videos over the bus DVD player. I got into Hotan at around 5:00 local time and after two failed attempts managed to find a place that would take me; should've bargained harder for my double, which is of dubious quality, but it was only about 15 bucks for the night really. A friendly Uyghur bus cop helped me figure out the schedule for the bus to Niya, an even smaller oasis town further down the road that I'm checking out on the recommendation of a fellow traveler; if I make it there, I will check out the local Mazar tomb, then take the cross-desert highway bus the following day (Friday) to Korla on the other side of the Taklamakan. Let's hope for no sandstorms.

Karakul Lake was a mixed experience. We left in the morning on Monday and made it to the bus station with plenty of time, partly because the bus sat around and waited another 15 minutes after it was supposed to go to see if it could fill the last two empty seats. We picked up a Kyrgyz fellow in a suit and felt hat at a gas station and then headed southwest for the mountains. The scenery was gorgeous, red rock canyons and huge alluvial sand fields. I was unable to enjoy it fully for two reasons: one, some French guy had taken the seat by the window that opened, so I wasn't able to get my camera out past the glass (the seat was actually mine by the tickets we had, but no one sits in their actual ticketed seats in China anyhow); and two, I had made the mistake of chugging half a liter of water in the morning and reached near-bursting point about an hour into the trip. I was getting close to doing something drastic, like hijacking the bus, when we finally stopped to let some local guy off at a compound out in the cliffs, and I took the opportunity to sprint out and enjoy a solid minute of blissful relief. Anyhow, after that, I was able to enjoy things much more, despite the lingering head cold; the Lord of the Rings soundtrack makes a particularly good companion to the Ghez river canyons, if you happen to be passing that way yourself some day.

We arrived at Karakul Lake at around 11:30 local time and began a walk around the edge. Again, the towering snow-capped mountain faces made for beautiful scenery; but the high elevation also made hell for my already beleagured sinuses, and I was light-headed and headachey from the altitude. Kyrgyz nomads live in this area, renting out yurts to tourists, and we walked through their herds of yaks and camels as we started to circle the lake counter-clockwise. After a bit the two Israelis split off in the direction of one of the mountain base camps, where they were planning on camping for a few days; Miguel (the fluent guy from Michigan) and I had a late lunch of extremely hard bagels and rice with stewed vegetables with a local Kyrgyz family. It was getting on four by this point, and he decided to carry on around the lake; I was still winded, sick, and tired, so I opted to just head back towards the road where the yurts were and call it a day.

It took me about another two hours of stumbling through the marshy grass surrounding the lake to get back to the yurts, where I bargained a bit with the local guy and got myself a meal and a bed for 30 yuan. By this point I was feeling mildly feverish and about ready to crash, so it was all I could do to stay up and exchange a few pleasantries with the German couple (one of them Chinese-German) also staying in my yurt. They seemed pretty suprised that I had come up there already being sick, which I guess was a hint that it wasn't the brightest move on my part.

I passed out almost instantly after finishing the meal but woke up at midnight from a full bladder again and never got back to sleep the entire rest of the night. I was cold despite piles of covers; the "bed" (blankets on the yurt floor, which was the ground) was hard and digging into my back no matter which way I turned; my head was throbbing; I think I may have been hyperventilating a bit. Not the best sleep of my life... I think I got two hours, four hours tops.

On the plus side, let it be said that no matter how freezing and miserable you are, the stars over Karakul Lake at midnight really are gorgeous.

I came back to Kashgar early yesterday morning by catching a ride with a Kyrgyz guy in a pickup; there was supposed to be a bus, but it didn't end up coming before he did, and I just wanted to get the hell out of dodge so I was willing to pay the 60 yuan he was asking. I came back to my hotel and collapsed for a few hours, then gave the ticket queues another lunge for the bus to Hotan today. I know travelling as long as I am, I'm going to have good days and bad; the beautiful scenery notwithstanding, Monday was pretty rough. But this is a marathon, not a sprint, and I'm hoping for good things in Niya tomorrow. Till the next oasis.

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