Riding Down the Karakorum Highway

I arrived in Kashgar after a nearly three-day trip from DC with a layover and shower in Urumqi lasting only a few hours.  I was met at the airport by a couple of wonderful Uyghur guys from Kashgar Guide/Xinjiang Travel who whisked me straight out of the city and onto the Karakorum Highway for a bit of adventure.  Dust swirled as we sped southwest on the highway past blooming apricot trees and swaths of wheat sprouting bright green amid the sand and clay.  We stopped in Opal to buy food for a picnic and found fresh naan and lamb kebabs as well as a gorgeous seletion of fresh fruit.  We packed it all up for a lunch at Karakol Lake and started out again. We continued for a way on the dusty plain, but soon the mountains were looming up on the left. They rose higher and higher until they formed a massive snow-capped wall in front of us.

Karakorum Highway

As we began to make our way through the Karakorum Range through the Ghez River Valley, the mountains rose higher and higher until some of the peaks topped 8000 meters in height. The land around me was like a living geological textbook – with some of the best examples of uplift and water erosion I’ve ever seen. The strata in most cases can be read like a book. It is not a fertile place. It is dry and forbidding this time of the year. Many of the lakes and streams were low or dry, but I was told that was becasue the snows on the mountaintops hadn’t melted yet. Then water is plentiful and the plains flood and the rivers roar with clean water from on high. Everywhere, domesticated yaks and camels graze freely on the sparse dried vegetation they can find amongst the dry rocks and gravel.

Mighty Muztagh

We were told by some Tajik herdsmen that in this area they only make Yak dairy in September and October becasue the pasture is so poor before the melted snow comes. They leave the milk for the young at this difficult time until the young yak are fully able to graze on their own.

Herd of Grazing Yak

After we left the Ghez Valley the road turned south again and continued to rise in altitude. As we left the mountains we entered into a valley of some of the most splendidly desolate scenery I have ever seen. The Pamir foothills rose on the right. Great cloud banks moved over head casting deep shadows over the land below and my head was full of Steve Reich marimbas and the whistle of cool Spring wind.

Splendid Desolation in the Pamirs

We met a mixed group of Tajik and Kyrgyz traders camped by the roadside selling amber goods ranging from necklaces to scorpions embedded in the harded sap. The tall Kyrgyz trader haltingly told me in English that he would give me the hat off his head – so I bought it. I saw him on the return journey with a new hat, so apparently that is part of his sales routine. So many hats so few tourists.

Tajik and Kyrgyz Traders

We finally stopped for lunch at Karakol Lake and dined on the naan and kebabs as well as the most sweet small oranges I’ve ever had, and fantastic local pears. The fat from the lamb flavored the naan perfectly and the pears were crisp and sweet and juicy with firm texture and would, I think, make good cooking pears. We wanted to make Tashkorgan before dark and walked around only briefly. I was not yet adjusting well to the altitude – we were already approching 4,000 meters – so the briefest of walks was fine with me.

Yurts near Lake Karakol

Tashkorgan gets its name from the ancient Stone Fortress on the outskirts of the city. The ruined fort, which is the ancient capitol of the Tajik people, was inhabited more than 2000 years ago as part of the kingdom of Puli. The capital and surrounding encampments were at their most powerful between the 7th and the 10th Centuries ACE. Then began a period of war and decline that lasted form more than 100 years until the city was a shadow of its former self. When the Mongols conquered, the city was sacked and destroyed. Its odd though, the modern city of Tashkorgan still has a lot of Tajiks living permanently there as if standing guard over the ruins of their lost city. This population swells seasonally with the influx of other semi-nomadic Tajiks as well.

Kids in Tashkorgan

We walked around the modern city first and came upon a small market on a side street. They had the most delicious looking roasted chickens coated with chili peppers and sesame seeds – spicy and earthy at the same time. I bought several different types of chilis – each one more powerful than the next. The kids were everywhere and unlike in the States, they roamed freely through the streets. They are gorgeous and looked like they could be from anywhere in the northern hemisphere – other than China and Eastern Asia.

The Stone Fortress

My guide, Hasan, and I climbed up to the great fortress and sat on top overlooking the deserted plain below. The fort is surrounded on three sides by mountains and opens on the east to the Taklamakan desert. Turning away from the modern city which lay nearby, the rest of the landscape is today exactly as it was when the Stone Fortress was bustling with life and love and trade. Ancient ammunition still littered the ground. Now and again we spied a perfectly rounded stone a bit larger than the rest that was used with a slingshot in defense of the realm. We sat for a long time as the sun started to fade. The silence was broken only by the tittering of an eagle in the distance like an echo out of the past. (Words and photos by Laura Kelley)

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow – The Gobi Desert

Sand Dunes in Dunhuang, China

The Gobi Desert.  Ever since I was a little girl, those were words of wonder for me.  Back then, it was a vast, far-away place that had reluctantly yielded some of its ancient treasures – dinosaur eggs and bones – into the hands of modern scientists.  Back then, my mother would bury bones from our dinner and we would go on expeditions – finding fierce creatures in the backyard garden.  When I grew up, I resolved that I would someday go to the Gobi.

I have spent the better part of the last week or two in various parts of the desert of my childhood dreams. Some parts are hard and forbidding, others are lush with oases where ancient or modern irrigation systems bring precious ground water to the surface.  In some areas, deep but dry canals have been cut by the Spring floods from the melting mountain snows.

As to food, I’ve had yak, horse and donkey not long off the hoof in delicious dishes with mixed vegetables, spices and chillies – LOTS of chillies. I’ve eaten and endless array of noodles and had fresh Chinese elm flowers cooked with leeks and an array of wild Xinjiang mushrooms sauteed with chillies and garlic.  Did I mention the fresh pomegranate juice?  Even from last fall’s crop, the juice from a just split fruit is like remembering a lost love from one’s youth.  Apples, tiny sweet oranges and apricots are everywhere as are the best tasting and most varied raisins I’ve ever eaten.

I had a lesson in Uyghur tea culture to explain the uses for the various herbs, roots and animal parts.  Gecko or certain other reptiles if you are “cold”, antelope horn to reduce cholesterol, and potions for sleep, calm nature and overall well-being.

I’ve been in a sandstorm or two . . . or three. One of the storms swept through like an off-white wall of grit when I was taking a respite in an ancient oasis of grape vines and mulberry trees.  Another felled several fully grown willows, all in the matter of a few minutes.

I’ll be wending my way home soon and will be full of tales of singing sand dunes and flying apsaras as well as stories about the foods, peoples and cultures of the Silk Road from the Gobi, Karakorum and Tashkorgan. Its been a great trip.  (Words and Photo of Sand Dunes in Urumqi, China by Laura Kelley.)