Xinjiang It is now late July 2006. A few weeks earlier, I had met an American couple who raved about Xinjiang province and specifically a town called Kashgar. Xinjiang is the extreme western province of China, with numerous 7000+ meter mountains forming natural boundaries between China and the Stans (Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). Kashgar, or Kashi as the Chinese call it, is the last big city before the borders, a major trading hub on the ancient Silk Road, evoking all kinds of exotic images, sounds and smells. The city is principally populated by Muslim Uighurs, a decided minority people in Han China. Some cursory research excited the travel bug, and soon my wife and I were on our way. The strange mixture of China and Central Asia comes alive in Kashgar. The Uighurs dominate the city with their customs their language and their religion. Seemingly, the only dent the Chinese have made in this magical town, other than the installation of a massive statue of Chairman Mao, is to wipe out entire sections of the historical city, replacing fragile adobe buildings with non-descript glass and brick structures on ridiculously wide avenues. Luckily, enough of the old city still exists, allowing visitors to have a reasonable picture of what this oasis on the Silk Road was once like. As we ventured into the old city, dozens of detours into small side streets abound. Immediately we are locked in an unending maze of winding alleyways, mysterious passages, stunningly beautiful old homes and ancient mosques. Playing children are everywhere, veiled women amble by, painted gate doors are often ajar, allowing you a glimpse into the courtyards of these historic structures. Winding your way through the lanes, even smaller alleyways materialize, giving you more opportunities to be sucked in to the mystery. Move over Venice. Kashgar has you beat. The Uighurs seem friendly. The children, in fact, demand to have their picture taken. The women, covered from head to toe, are understandably more shy. But give them a smile or a respectful nod, and they instantly light up. The men, loud and talkative to each other, appear to be quite reserved when dealing with westerners. Even the hawkers in the bazaars are not as pushy as in other Asian countries. The street atmosphere is electric, frantic and fascinating. Wares of every description are sold in tiny shops. Fruit vendors with ubiquitous melons surround each corner. Bakers tend to outdoor ovens, using tongs to pry out steaming round breads, some looking just like a NYC bagel. Carpets, varying from ancient and tattered to gaudy and new, are flaunted on sidewalks, streets and walls. Dried fruits, nuts and fragrant spices are neatly laid out. Gleaming knives, some menacing, others ornate, are on display. It’s a lot to take in, and we linger, slowly finding our way through this bustling bazaar of a city. As the afternoon progresses towards dusk, I find myself in a big square in the old city. The men are either cooking in the neighboring stalls or at prayer in the Mosque adjoining the square. Women and children throng for their evening meal. The late afternoon sun casts a golden glow over the sand colored buildings. The dry heat of the day dissipates, replaced by a light, refreshing breeze, swirling the sounds and smells of Central Asia. Kashgar is not China and its people are certainly not Chinese. Kashgar is a jumping-off point for many mountain treks, among those to the K2 base camp. While the prospect of struggling to such a famous spot was intriguing, we were told we needed 14-17 days to properly "do" K2. After conferring with some local guides, we "settled" for eleven days around the Mustagh Ata and Kangor mountains, with a quick side trip afterwards to the Taklamakan Desert. Our guide, Wahap, a 19 year old Uighur, thin as a whip and with an engaging smile, went through the itinerary with us in surprisingly good English. First were the basic requirements and logistics. We would need warm clothes, as nighttime temperatures would likely be around or below freezing. Wahap would arrange for a cook, three camels (he explained that yaks are actually better, but are too unreliable as they frequently run off during the night and the staff has to spend hours in the morning chasing them down) and two camel drivers to haul our tents, sleeping bags, cooking supplies and food. Since snowmelt is at its peak in early August, he raised concerns that there might be some difficult river crossings, with strong, icy rapids to negotiate. But the promise of spectacular views and rarely visited Kyrgyz and Tajik villages easily drowned out any of my visions of discomfort in the days ahead. Day one would be spent primarily in a jeep, conveying us to a small town called Tashkorgan. The following day we would be taken again by jeep to the China/Pakistan border (elevation at the Kunjeraph Pass is 4700 meters), primarily as an exercise in altitude acclimatization for the upcoming trek. That night we would camp in Xindi, a small village populated mostly by Tajiks and Han Chinese, with the real work beginning the next morning. Thereafter, our routine would be rising around 6am, and after eating breakfast, breaking down/packing up the campsite and loading up the camels, to set off by 8am. We would be expected to walk six to seven hours a day, setting up our new camp by mid to late afternoon. Along the way, several passes would need to be climbed as we hiked from one valley to the next. Having never been above 4500 meters, and with a predisposition to nausea and headaches at high altitudes, I was a bit concerned as the height of the passes on the first few days ranged from 4700 to 4900, with nighttime camping still plenty lofty (4200 to 4400). But the latter part of the trek promised to be easier, as we would descend and stay below 4000 meters for the last four days before heading back to Kashgar and our brief desert fling. The night before we left Kashgar, Wahap took us to dinner and brought topographic maps of the region. It was all very exciting (and the ice cold beer did nothing to quell our anticipation) as we discussed the last minute preparations. Wahap casually mentioned that another person would be joining us on the trek. A nice, English woman in her 50's is what we were told. Word to the wise. Beware of nice, English women in their 50’s! I didn’t think much of the news of our surprise companion until much later that night, as I lay in bed. I remembered seeing a particularly disagreeable English woman, in her 50’s, complaining about the service in a local café. As sleep overcame me, I prayed that she was not to be the lady in question. Diana, it turned out, was appropriately named. She quickly established herself as the Princess of condescension, telling off our hardworking staff at any and every opportunity. She proved also to be quick at criticizing the local customs, sometimes even within the very homes of the people that had kindly invited us inside to share some of their hard-earned tea and bread. But more on that later. We were one big, happy family as we set off on day one. From the get-go, I could sense some tension between the jeep driver, Enawar, and Wahap. Enawar was much older and clearly did not like being ordered around by a 19 year old kid. But the day passed uneventfully, though the ride was long, tedious and bumpy. As we returned to Tashkorgan from the Kunjeraph pass on day two, the two were having what seemed like clear disagreements. From that point, events began to take a clear turn for the worse. The cook, Kahraman, was supposed to meet us that afternoon in Tashkorgan (he was bussing from Kashgar) but was AWOL. Enawar, who was responsible for packing the jeep, had stomach problems and decided to check himself into the local hospital. Wahap was left with a half-packed van, no driver, no cook, and a fast-fading afternoon. We still had a good one-hour drive to our campsite in Xindi, plus we had to set up tents, etc. Dinnertime approached, and we grabbed a quick bite and contemplated our options. Soon after dinner, Kahraman appeared, muttering loud excuses in Uighur. Almost immediately thereafter, Enawar returned from the hospital, the IV coupling nozzle still dangling from his wrist. The situation appeared to be saved and hope sprung in our hearts. All that remained to be done was to pack the jeep and we’d be off. It happened slowly at first, but soon Enawar and Wahap were engaged in a sharp exchange. Wahap had gone to the luggage rack at the top of the jeep to finish packing, as many items could not fit in the back of the jeep. Enawar, standing to the side and not helping, appeared to be criticizing the way Wahap was stowing the items. Even though I spoke not a word of Uighur, it was clear that four-letter expletives were being hurled around. Suddenly, Enawar decided he had enough, and raced to the top of the jeep, punching Wahap and desperately trying to fling him to the pavement. We all intervened as did many onlookers, as by now a large crowd had gathered in front of the hotel to watch this spectacle. It was a good ten minutes before a semblance of calm was restored and we could get back to the task of reaching Xindi before nightfall. My wife, Diana and I exchanged numerous worried looks as the jeep raced on the rutted roads to our campsite. The trek hadn’t even started and already our staff was at odds. Luckily, Enawar’s job would be done as soon as we were dropped off at Xindi. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking of ways to prematurely terminate the trip. Because the Bank of China in Kashgar had been unable to cash our traveler’s checks before our departure, we had actually not paid a penny to Wahap’s company. Arriving at Xindi, we had maybe 15 minutes of dusk before it would be pitch black. Of course Wahap and Enawar used 14 of these minutes to continue their heated verbal disagreements. Not knowing where any of our equipment was located (or even how to put up the tents), our nerves grew increasingly frayed as we implored the two men to quit fighting and to set up camp. A fair number of Xindi residents had now also joined our turf, curiously watching this rag-tag, amateurish group, bickering amongst each other. It was at this point that a light rain began to fall. In the end, the rain proved not to be serious, Enawar drove off in a huff, and our tents were erected. It would be an inauspicious start to the longest stretch in my life without a bed, shower or toilet. We dozed off to the sound of the pitter-patter of rain against the nylon cover of our tent, not sure what future lay ahead. The trek itself, all nine days, proved to be a real gem of a trip, despite Diana’s worst efforts. The scenery was jaw-dropping. Numerous magnificently tall, snow-capped mountains spiraled out of green valleys, yaks, sheep and goats grazed everywhere, mud huts, yurts and crumbling brick structures dotted throughout. We all suffered a bit from the altitude, but not enough to really curtail our activities (we were slow movers at times). The Tajik and Kyrgyz locals we met were extremely friendly, constantly inviting us into their homes and imploring us to photograph them. With a few exceptions, Wahap, Kahraman and the camel drivers (Zaibidin and Askar) all got on extremely well. By the seventh day we were a well-oiled machine, efficiently setting up camp and cooking meals each afternoon, then quickly packing up each morning. That seventh day presented us with a challenging stream crossing. The night before, Wahap had scouted the stream and reported that the current was strong and the icy water was waist deep. We would need to cross in two locations. The first about 1 meter wide, the second about a meter and a half. The plan was to set off very early in the morning, when the stream would be at its lowest level (it’s fed by melting snow from the mountains). Wahap said we would join hands as we crossed, to add further support in mind of the strong current. This all sounded a bit dubious to me. I had lots of expensive camera equipment in my pack and even more importantly, about 40 rolls of exposed film that I was not going to risk under any circumstances. But the short distances of the crossings tempered my concern, and we trudged off that morning by 7am. The night before there had been horsemen around our campsite who were friendly with the camel drivers. I asked Wahap why we don’t just use the horses to cross the stream. He was mysteriously quiet about this option, and repeated that we would cross on foot. About an hour later we reached the stream. I was with Wahap, about ten minutes ahead of my wife and the Princess. You didn’t even need to look at the stream to know it was madness to cross on foot. The sound was deafening. Furthermore, the width of the streams were nowhere near Wahap’s report. I estimated the first at around four meters wide, the second at about seven. There was no way I was crossing on my own two feet. I told Wahap to get some horses. The ladies arrived and surveyed the situation. After ten seconds or so my wife calmly said, “Ok, let’s do it.” Either she was blind, insane or I was delusional. I kicked her in the shins and advised that I had already told Wahap that we’re not crossing and to go get some horses. Wahap actually had agreed that it was dangerous but had confessed that he had no money to pay the horsemen. This explained his mysterious silence about that option. I told him not to worry about the money. Within five minutes or so, the camels arrived with their drivers and the horsemen. Some negotiations followed (the cost agreed to be 50 Yuan/head) and Zaibidin, the head camel driver, was the first to be ferried over by the horsemen. Zaibidin offered to carry my pack as he went across. I agreed but found myself paralyzed with fear as the horse gingerly negotiated the strong currents and rocky streambed. The film being carried in that backpack was, for all intents and purposes, my most important possession. Ever. Zaibidin made it to the other side without incident and the horsemen returned to our side of the stream. But they demanded to renegotiate the price due to the difficulty of the crossing. The cost was now going to be 100 Yuan/head. This set Kahraman and Wahap into a fury. A good five minutes of Uighur arguing and swearing ensued. At several junctures, the horsemen threatened to ride off, leaving us to our sorry plight. I intervened and told Wahap and Kahraman to forget the arguing, and let’s get to the other side. We gathered the cash, and ten minutes later we were all safely transported. The rest of that day was marked by intense arguments between Kahraman and Zaibidin. It turns out that one of the horsemen was Zaibidin’s brother. Kahraman was outraged that Zaibidin did not intervene to cut the costs and suspected that Zaibidin was receiving a slice of the inflated fee. We couldn’t care less because we were simply deducting the price from our balance for the tour. Regardless, by nightfall, the two seemed to be best buddies again, playing cards by flashlight and candle into the wee hours. Throughout the trek, we were blessed with spectacularly sunny, albeit cold, weather. But on day eight, dark skies were perched right over our tents. An icy and unrelenting rain had been falling since dawn. We played cards in Kahraman’s tent, hoping to outlast the weather, but by 10am we accepted the inevitable and trudged out to the cold, damp gloom. Three hours later we arrived in Sarjagag, a small Kyrgyz village where Wahap knew a local family quite well. Soon we were being affectionately greeted inside a dry and warm home, hot tea and bread being thrust in our laps and places provided to dry our soggy clothes. The day, though starting so miserably, became the most interesting of the entire trek. We spent a good eight hours with this Kyrgyz family, eating, talking, photographing, watching Kyrgyz movies (they had solar panels for storing electricity) and simply thawing out. Kahraman spent the afternoon planning a huge meal as many of the family’s friends and relatives came from nearby villages to meet with us. Later in the afternoon, the eldest daughter led me to a field and corralled a beautiful white goat, cradling the animal in her arms while I photographed her. Then her brothers appeared with knives and I could see that this poor beast was to be a major part of our feast. I didn’t stay to watch the slaughter, but within ten minutes or so, the blood-soaked head was brought into the house, to be toasted in the fire and then plonked into a soupy caldron. Our Kyrgyz feast proved to be ritually intricate. First, we removed our shoes and sat on an elevated, carpeted area of the main room. Then the woman of the house brought a basin and water pitcher. As we extended our hands, she poured each of us exactly three douses of water for us to wash. A table cloth was laid out and the first items to be consumed were milk tea and bread, brought on a platter and then broken by hand into many pieces by the man of the house. Kahraman’s lavish feast was then brought in, one dish at a time. Afterwards there followed a broth of the goat’s bones (presumably the toasted head was part of this soup) and finally the grandfather had the honors of ripping meat with his hands from the goat carcass, distributing it to all the guests. Since the Kyrgyz are Muslim, no liquor was served. Diana freely offered up her perceptions and did her best to criticize as much as she could, including the role of the woman in the household and the lack of food and attention being given to the children. But the evening’s cultural and culinary exchange proved too magical to be spoiled by the Princess’ comments, and we went to sleep warm and dry, the stars once again glimmering overhead and a once-in-a-lifetime experience glowing in our hearts. The remaining portion of our trek involved a brief, one-night return to Kashgar (including a hot SHOWER, a real TOILET, a BED and CABLE TV), followed by a quick trip to Yarkant, at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. We trekked in the desert for an afternoon and camped under the stars, the glowing embers of a crackling bonfire soothing us to sleep. The next day we returned again to Kashgar for our celebratory, farewell dinner (in my mind, the celebration was about bidding goodbye forever to Diana). We ate at a traditional Uighur restaurant, in a private room that had its own TV and VCD player. Instantly after sitting down, a waitress brought in a thick binder filled with VCD’s (she was to be our vcd-jay for the night), and soon Wahap was up on his feet, dancing with considerable skill in traditional Uighur style. It was a fun evening and a fitting end to a remarkable 11 day excursion. At breakfast the next morning, still reeling from the effects of the rich food and cold beer, we struck up a conversation with an American woman and her Canadian boyfriend. They were stopping off in Kashgar on their way to Kyrgyzstan to see a friend, and were planning to go the livestock market on Sunday to buy a camel, yes that’s right, to buy a camel. Their plan was to trek on their own, overland to the border (about 200 kilometers), donating the camel to a local Kyrgyz family once in Kyrgyzstan. They had done very little research about tending to camels, but had decided that it would be a neat way to travel. I had to break the news to them that we didn’t see any camels at the livestock market, just goats, yaks and sheep. They nodded, muttering that other travelers had just told them this as well, but they were determined to find a camel and make the trip. Wherever you two (or three) are, I hope you made it.