Posts Tagged 'Karakul'

To the Desert Planet (trekking beginnings)

Mutzagh-Ata. Or, cooler: "Father Ice Mountain"

After our initial foray into Kashgar, we left the next morning to head for the hills (literally). Our whole trip was organized with the help of the Beijing Hikers, so all we had to do was role out of bed in the morning and head down stairs to meet our local guides and bus, along with our four other traveling companions (Steffan, Chuck, Han Ye, and Jo).

We drove out of the poplar-lined city of Kashgar and towards the Pamir mountain range on the far western border of China. The 3 1/2 hour drive along the Karakoram Highway was beautiful, through fruit market filled towns and past golden fields of wheat (we were there during harvest time), towards white, snow-capped mountains. After stopping for a few photo ops along the way (at the red and sand mountains, respectively, pictured below), we ended at the incredibly beautiful Karakul Lake. The lake is home to a large Kyrgyz settlement and is the starting point for many camel treks into the surrounding mountains. As such we were no novelties to the locals, who swarmed around our bus and seemed to haggle with our local guides on all manner of camel-loading (I think…) related issues. For our four-day trek around Karakul Lake and to the base of Mutzagh-Ata we loaded up five camels (who did not spit at me, despite several warnings to the contrary, and who I thought were pretty awesome) and set out from the lake at just before 2 o’clock to begin the trekking part of our adventure.

The first day we hiked about five hours around the lake and through a dry riverbed to our first camp of the trip. After getting in to camp we were all pretty exhausted and a little out of it from the altitude (about 3,900 meters), so we spent most of the (very chilly) evening resting in our tents. By the time we had rolled in to camp the clouds had rolled in, too, so it was an awesome surprise to wake up in the middle of the night to a serenely starry sky lighting up Mutzagh-Ata (Father Ice Mountain, in Uighur) in the background. I made Craig get up too, and we wandered out of our tent to spend a cold twenty minutes admiring the moonlit mountain and the incredibly quiet beauty of the valley. In the morning we poked our heads out of our tent again to see the picture above — soft sunlight rolling across the snowy mountains, shaking us from our sleepy stupor with its beauty.

The second day we backtracked slightly from our riverbed camp and walked through the valley floor, stopping along the way at a Kyrgyz village where our local guide happened to know a family who let us in and graciously shared their food; bread and yak yoghurt, the local specialty, which were incredibly tasty after a long morning’s hike. Most of the area locals are nomads and walking out of the village we saw many herds of sheep and goats and yaks across the valley floor. It was walking among these many animals across the increasingly lush (and wet…) valley that we came upon our second night’s camp, nestled in the outskirts of another small Kyrgyz village. After an incredibly delicious dinner of a western pasta and a local lamb dish served with naan, we went to bed to rest up for our hard climb up to Mutzagh-Ata’s base camp the following morning.

For more photos from the trip (yes! there are so many more), view my Picasa page here. More updates on the remainder of the trip coming soon!

LakeKarakulXinjiang 06-2009

A week in Xinjiang…

Stepho and Crank do Xinjiang!

Crank and I just got back from a week-long excursion to the Xinjiang province of China. Though many probably haven’t heard of Xinjiang, it is actually China’s largest province and has an incredibly rich history, steeped in the heart of the Silk Road, which I knew nothing about before visiting. Turns out: Xinjiang is hugely important to China. One-sixth the total size of the country, rich in natural resources like oil, gas and minerals, and bordering eight different countries, Xinjiang is a target for intense PRC scrutiny. Although it does not have the media profile of Tibet, Xinjiang has similarly been a target of ethnic conflict and at times cultural suppression. The area is ethnically quite different from the rest of the mainland, with a completely different linguistic family and alphabet (part of the Turkic languages). The majority of the population is Uighur (Turkic Muslims), with small pockets of Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and other ethnicities. Over the last century more and more Han Chinese have moved into the west, so that now Han Chinese are the second largest ethnic group in the region (second to the Uighurs).

I feel ill-equipped to adequately address the political and ethnic tensions that underlie the vast Xinjiang province. I know that a similar story afflicts Xinjiang that is prevalent in so many areas where different cultures and politics come to a head. I can really only speak to our narrow experience, which introduced us to Han, Uighur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz people. To us, evidence of tension seemed sporadic but was there — terse discussions of Mao’s influence on the Xinjiang people while driving past his statue looming over the town’s square; road signs that we learned were changed into a new language to prevent locals from learning English; our guide’s brief mention that he is unable to get a passport or leave the country. But for each strange tense episode there was evidence of different, less politically divided real life — our Uighur guide joking with our Han cooks; local Kyrgyz villagers conversing with American travelers in broken Chinese. For now it seems China’s relationship with the Xinjiang people and province will remain a quixotic one — them continuing to keep hold of an important strategic resource and encouraging development of the area while trying to protect the value of the region’s unique cultural history.

More posts soon on some of our specific exploits in camels and kebabs and windy old town streets, but for now a brief itinerary of our travels and some teaser photos:

    Day 1: Flew from Beijing to Urumqi (capital of Xinjiang), and then on to Kashgar.

    Day 2: Left Kashgar for the incredibly beautiful Karakul Lake, close to the border of Kyrgysztan. Met up with our camels and began trekking!

    Day 3: After breaking camp from our riverbed site (with amazing views of the mountain) we continued trekking, today through two new Kyrgyz villages.

    Day 4: The plan: Walk up to the basecamp of Mutzagh-Ata, camp for the night. The reality: Stepho gets horribly ill, we spend the day and night camped out in the home of a Kyrgyz nomad while Stepho lies unmoving for 36-hours, trying to recover. Family thinks she has swine flu. She does not.

    Day 5: We drive back to Kashgar. Some people continue to explore the city, others continue to explore the fascinating reaches of the hotel bed.

    Day 6: Spend the morning visiting the Old City of Kashgar, filled with winding roads and hundreds of Uighur families, and then head to the airport for our flights back home.

Valley floor, hiking around Mutzagh-ata

Lake Karakul



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