Sunday, July 20, 2008

Week 21

Saturday July 5

Up before 6, exhausted. Stephen calls the beach to wish his family a happy 4th of July. Rory now has his insurance to drive and drove himself and Jeremy to the festivities. Really homesick now. Head back to Urumqi airport. Fly to Kashgar and immediately feel like we have left China and headed for the middle east. Signs in Uighur language look more like Arabic than Chinese. The men are wearing the round hats, women are veiled. Our guide is a devout Muslim. He has a young daughter, 11 mos old, but does not want her to work with men when she grows up it would be unpure. He takes us to Mausoleum that looks like its in Saudi, tiled pillars, Islamic architecture. The Chinese version is that some Han dynasty emporer’s concubine is Uighur and buried here. The Uighurs don’t believe it and think it is propaganda to stake a claim to the region. There is a real segregated society; Chinese and Uighurs do not mix much. The locals work on Uighur time, even though the official time is set in Beijing, Kashgar operates two hours later. The sun is up until very late at night, Beijing time. The government has been knocking down the old mud walls in front of people’s homes and telling people to build with bricks for earthquake prevention, yet not giving them enough bricks to rebuild… but critics say it is to homogenize the architecture, to “appear” other than Uighur. Kids are told to go to school during Friday Muslim prayers. The laws and agreements between the Uighurs are apparently good but unfortunately not enforced. So the sino-fication of Uighur areas is well under way. Little meaning to the ‘autonomous Uighur Province” – kind of like Tibet, but with much less western support or awareness. In part it is because a few Uighurs showed up in an Al Qaeda training camp, which didn’t win them many friends in the west. We walk around the old town, narrow alleyways like a Morrocan medina, women stay at home and work inside their front door. Men are all in trades -- tin, copper, woodworking, in shops that are a throwback to another century. We end up at the largest mosque in China, a yellow building with a very quiet cool courtyard. I recorded lots of great sound for The World radio show. We had lunch and dinner at the same place, BAKED goods! Lamb kebabs, lamb “Pizza” that is delicious, baked nut dumplings, noodle soup with spicy sauce, pilaf, yogurt, we’re not in China anymore! Great day!

Sunday July 6.

Head to the Sunday animal market where livestock is traded. The roads are clogged with donkey carts and other makeshift vehicles bringing animals to market. I have stepped back in time. Donkeys, goats, sheep, cows, horses…noisy but surprisingly not smelly. All men doing the trading. All wearing caps. A few women come in herding goats or cooking soups on the outskirts. One woman is in charge of the donkey parking lot and saves me from being kicked! Middleman helps negotiations between the traders and at times it is quite a heated exchange. At one point the guys are having a hard time getting a cow off the back of a truck, but after a lot of shoving, the cow falls off and starts to bolt. He gets wedged between two trucks and they lasoo him and tie him around the horns. I have new appreciation for the term ‘cattle prod’. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, although we did not buy a horse, much to Katie’s chagrine. From there we head to the main Sunday bazaar, which is a vast market with glittery fabric (which all the women seem to be wearing – I feel very underdressed) and dried flute, and musical instruments and a lot of junk. Our guide takes us upstairs the carpet store and we spend quite a bit of time there, buying two rugs, figuring out shipping, finding enough ATMs to get cash to pay for them. It has been a long hot day, and after a brief rest at the hotel I go out at 8 to record the Muslim call to prayer at a local mosque and then head out to dinner.

Monday July 7. Karakorum Highway. It is the highest paved highway in the world connecting China with Pakistan. It is also vividly written about (at least the Pakistani side) in Greg Mortensen’s book “Three Cups of Tea”, so read that if you want to really experience it! Leaving Kashgar we drive through some smaller villages which to me look like what New Mexico must have looked like a century ago – mud adobe small houses, dry, brown dirt, with little oases of greenery. But there is a definite Muslim overlay here, veils, hats, little mud mosques dot the road. But soon we are in no man’s land, driving along a rocky gray river ravine whose water power seems mighty strong. In places, the water has washed out the road and we drive over some pretty bumpy, rocky or pot-holed patches. At one point we see a huge truck overturned on the side of the road. On either side are jagged, brown, bare, gargantuan snow capped peaks. About the only activity out here is mining and we see caves where coal, iron ore and copper are being mined. We have to go through a passport check point with some surly and trigger happy looking Chinese officials, and from here we can easily head over the hills to Pakistan, Afghanistan and some other Stans. We are about 65 kilometers from the Afghan border so I joke that maybe Osama is in one of these caves. Our guide says he would never sell out a fellow Muslim and there is little evidence that Osama was behind 9/11. Since we are several hours from any other humans, I decide this is not a good time to get into a political debate with him. About three hours out of Kashgar we come to a drying up lake, surrounded by sand dune mountains. It is the most unusual landscape I have ever seen. And then four hours out of Kashgar we reach our destination, Karakul Lake. It is a still, glacial turquoise-blue-green lake surrounded by snow capped peaks, with a near perfect reflection in the lake. We eat lunch in a little roadside restaurant with a few other tourists and then Katie sees some horses and wants to ride. So we drive down the road, away from the few tourists that are there and have the lake all to ourselves. It is the first TRULY QUIET place in all of China. Still, calm, tranquil, peaceful, heavenly. We enjoy the serenity and take a little walk around the lake, through a little area where some Tajik or Khazak folks are living in yurts with solar panels! Al Gore and Stephen’s dream home! And before long a few men come along on horse back and we pay a few pennies to have a horse ride. Well, my horse decides he’s thirsty and proceeds to walk right into the lake. I cannot get the horse to turn back to the path. I have the camera in my hand and I’m trying to decide how deep I am willing to go with this horse into the lake before I bail, and how am I going to save the camera with hundreds of pictures when he tosses me overboard?!?! Fortunately, the man who owns the horse decides to ruin his shoes and wades into the water to rescue this damsel in distress. Katie is laughing hysterically from her horse and Stephen is happily oblivious back in the parking lot with the car – no horse for him. Sadly, we need to get back into the car and re-trace our four hour trek down the valley back to Kashgar. On the way back we get caught in a donkey traffic jam in the town of Opal. Our guide says donkeys are better than cars because donkeys know their way home, so the driver can sleep on the back of the donkey cart on the way home from the town. We have a quick dinner and pack up for our morning flight.

Tuesday We go to the airport and the flight from Kashgar to Urumqi is delayed, but eventually we get airborne, and arrive to meet Ricky, our new guide. I am beginning to feel sick but we have little time to rest at the hotel before we need to be at the Urumqi Museum by 3:30. The museum is really another attempt at Chinese propaganda, to cement the fiction that Xinjiang Uighur region has been an “eternal part of the motherland”. One gallery conists of four dead bodies dug out of the sand and it gives me the creeps. These aren’t mummies in sarcophaguses, these look like someone you know, frozen in time on their death bed. Katie and Stephen are somehow enjoying it but I am outa there. I wait for them at the gift shop that you must go through to exit. We also check out a rug display that the guide neglected to tell us about and it’s the only decent thing in the museum. The guide is tedious and hovering and I just want to be left alone. There is also a display of costumes of region that he talks endlessly about, but adds no insight. From there we head to the Urumqi Baazar but it is more junk. The guide then takes us to a yukky restaurant and I am turned off by the food. Then, for the highlight of the day…the guide wants us to get up at 6am for an early start. The road to the lake we are going to is under construction and “because of the Olympic” we need to be at the airport 3 hours early for our flight to Beijing. Well, Stephen and I both protest, the schedule makes no sense, and we are not happy. After a protracted negotiation about start time and cutting the wait at the airport, Ricky comes clean: he has an appointment at his school at 4 and needs to dump us at the airport at 3 for a 7pm flight. Stephen is way kinder than I am (but you already knew that) and thanks Ricky for his belated honesty. We say we will drop him and his school by 4 and get ourselves to the airport. What a snake! And for this we are paying money? I have had enough travel and am tempted to bail on the whole next days excursion, but we decide to suck it up and go to the “Lake of Heaven” the next day.


To call the “road” to the Lake of Heaven a road, would be an exaggeration. It is in fact under construction as billed, but the construction has not yet begun. It is a rock pile, for nearly an hour, in a van with no shock absorbers. My nerves are shattered, my stomach has turned from bad to worse. I am holding down my belly to keep from heaving.

But, at last we arrive and I am looking forward to some peace and tranquility. NOT! Immediately we hear muzak coming from the tourist stalls near the parking lot. We walk to the lake and it IS, in fact, absolutely gorgeous, but it echoes from the performance stage music nearby. The shore is lined with tacky costumes that you can try on and have your photo taken with. And we are marched by our favorite guide Ricky down to a boat, where two bullhorns blare at us incessantly as we ride around the lake. Not an ounce of peace and tranquilty here. I have my fingers in my ears, I feel like I am going to vomit and I know we have to rush back to the drive-from-hell to get Ricky home in time. All I can think about is the title of the golf book “A Good Walk Spoiled”. This is nature, spoiled. I feel even sicker on the return trip, and feel like I am going to DIE on the eternally long flight from Urumqi to Beijing. I spend the flight sitting in the vacant seat next to the toilets (when I am not in the john itself). The plane arrives early so I am ready to bolt to the nearest land toilet, but we are told to sit back down, there is a delay getting to the gate. I march up to the first seat in first class, barf bag in hand, and dare anyone to try to remove me! I am the first person off the plane when it finally gets to the gate.

Thursday 2am: The only thing worse than vomiting, is going both ways at once, and the only thing worse than that, is to do it in a toilet that does not flush, at 2am, in China. I cannot plunge in my current state of health, so I wake up Stephen, poor guy, who plunges us back to a functioning toilet. Three hours later I am now fainting in the bathroom, am running a delirious fever, and just want to die, right there and then. I cannot imagine what I would have done without Stephen. From 5-7am he gave me sips of water every few minutes to keep me from getting totally dehydrated, and then I slept most of the next day while he packed us up to get out of there.

Friday I still feel weak but fell well enough to start packing some stuff. We need to make sure we can fit it all in six suitcases, and we need to segregate the stuff heading to Belmont vs the stuff I will move with me to Elizabeth’s. I am shockingly unsentimental about this move. The only thing I regret is not going home with Katie and Stephen on Sunday.

Saturday. My student Eve comes by with details on her further explorations in Yiyang. There was some disturbing and inexplicable news from Eve that we needed to sort out privately. She was there most of the afternoon, and later her friend Wang comes for photo shoot of us that went on for more than an hour. Eve is an extraordinary person, wise beyond her years, and has risen above her circumstance to an exceptional level. I keep thinking of David Copperfield (the Dickens character, not the magician) somehow, with all the coincidences and relatives and small world happenings that seem to surround her.

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