Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 7, Part 1)

The same boring breakfast of eggs and sausage done with, I was in a hurry to leave. However, our checkout was abruptly interrupted by the front desk’s claim that the room maid had reported that I had actually *used* the condom in the bathroom. Lily translated for us: “I don’t know how to say this but when you have sex…” The surprise probably showed on my face. I denied any association with the condom. TPB helpfully added that she’d *moved* it and used the dish to put a bar of soap on. We stood there waiting for a resolution to this, and a couple of minutes later a sheepishly-smiling Uyghur lady stepped out of the lift with the offending package. Yes, the box was open. We vehemently protested our innocence. They let us go. Good morning.

The road to Urumqi was empty. It was barely 8 am, 6 o’clock on the unofficial local clock, and Turpan was just about waking up. After an hour’s drive along an open, straight road we stopped at a gas station that featured an incredibly foul men’s room. I muttered “poisonous” to TPB as I came out, and she was on her way in to the women’s. Luckily for her that one was acceptable – suggesting at the gender ratio amongst travelers on these parts. We drove on towards the Bogda mountains, the arid Gobi desert stretching out on both sides. It wasn’t the sandy expanse of the Taklamakan that we’d seen in Dunhuang, but rather a stony, rocky, bare surface dotted with the occasional little scrub. As we neared the mountains, the slopes began to reveal spots of moss and lichen. The rock faces were absolutely magnificent, and we could see snowy peaks in the distance directly ahead. TPB snoozed; I looked out the windows. As we crossed through the mountains, it was incredible how all at once going from south to north the desert landscape changed to grassland, livestock peacefully grazing, impervious to the barrenness on the other side.

We drove into Urumqi about an hour later, around 11. The skyline was visible from afar (what else would one expect?!), a typical “Manhattan” dropped incongruously in amongst the desert and mountains. Urumqi is a fairly recent city – only about 150 years old – and therefore not a part of the original Silk Road. However it was a central point of the intrigues during the early 20th century when the entire region was unstable and could have gone any which way, and for a few short years Russia tried its very bets to make it the center of Asian thrust. However that didn’t work out, as we all know, and the Chinese took it over and in the 1950s and 60s made it the foundation of *their* Central Asian strategy. This they did by counter-weighting the vastly dominant local Uyghur population by encouraging the immigration to Urumqi of ethnic Hans from the east. So today Urumqi is a “modern” city of 2 million, over 80% of whom are Han, and the remainder a mixture of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Tajiks, and Russians. This stands in stark contrast to the rest of Xinjiang, where Uyghurs alone constitute over 70% of the population, and where the second-largest city, Kashgar, has a population of 400,000 – not having been the focus of any such directed migrations. The word “Urumqi” means something like “pleasant meadows”. We had been warned that that was a complete misnomer, and indeed it was. It was just like any other “Chinese” city: roads, bridges, hoardings, buses, traffic.

Our destination was the Erdaoqiao bazaar. Now, we’d heard it described in several places as a tourist trap so I was none too keen to visit the place, and we’d told Lily as much. Actually, we’d couched it somewhat differently. Urumqi being the capital, the Xinjiang provincial museum was located here. And while the old museum apparently hadn’t been very extensive or interesting, we’d just got to know that they’d added a couple of new galleries. So we’d asked Lily to try and factor the museum into our day with the proviso that we wouldn’t mind spending less time at Erdaoqiao. A little to my surprise she’d been quite approving of that plan and had even said that the bazaar was indeed very touristy, and the bazaar at Kashgar was the real thing, and since we were going to Kashgar we could easily skip the Erdaoqiao if we didn’t have the time. I’d happily said yes, skip the bazaar, but some way into the drive her conscience had kicked in and she’d had second thoughts (oh, this sense of duty!) and said that since it was on the way to Heaven Lake, we should stop by for a bit en route. And so we did.

The bazaar is largely contained inside a four storey building, with a little spillover of stalls onto a concreted-over public space outside. We went up and down the escalators past shops displaying heaps of knives, dried fruit and nuts, clothes from a dozen different traditions, and so on. I entered a carpet shop in the basement and had the young guy inside show me a few rugs. This was my first exposure at close range to silk carpets and their wonderful property of changing appearance depending on which side they’re viewed from. TPB stopped by a hat shop and bought a traditional Uyghur hat – white base with fine black needlework. It turned out to be a men’s hat and so I got to wear it for the rest of the trip, attracting attention wherever I went.

We were out of the bazaar in ten minutes, and, before getting back into the van I asked to use a restroom somewhere. Lily immediately directed me to one that turned out to be inside a KRC on the other side of the square. Pissing on American property, I thought. On the way back to the van, passing a bunch of the stalls TPB decided she wanted to buy raisins and nuts. So into an open stall they went; I hung around outside with my camera. Ten minutes of sampling (by TPB) and bargaining (by Lily) later, we had two packets of 250 grams of black tart raisins (85 per kilo bargained down to 40) and two packets of 250 grams of fragrant almond-like nuts (85 per kilo bargained down to 44). The two of them joined the shopkeeper and his lackey in a complicated dance of weighing and portioning out across plastic bags; when it finished as we left I said “Rehmet” (Thanks, in Uyghur) to the sidekick at the stall, and watched his sullen face transform with pleasure.

A little note about those nuts. They were absolutely amazing. Inside the car, I took about six in my left hand, and held them there while I cracked the shells and ate the insides one by one as we drove. Not only were they delicious, to my intense surprise just holding them there for those few minutes caused my hand to smell of sweet buttery almond cake – a smell that stayed all day. Indeed, we brought some of those nuts back to the US, and the smell remained as intense even a few weeks after the purchase. What were they? Well, according to the guy we bought them from, those ‘nuts’ were apricot seeds. I had no idea. I wish we had some left.

HEAVEN LAKE – Tian Chi – is an hour and a half east of Urumqi. The landscape remained pleasant and green, the buildings ending abruptly as we left the city. As we neared the lake it became increasingly apparent that we were now in Kazakh territory – yurts, horses, and people wearing round felt hats appearing around every bend in the road. The restaurant we stopped at for lunch was Uyghur, though, but the servers were Han and the next table consisted of a Japanese group featuring one middle aged man, one old man, and six old women, including one who could not have been less than 80. The food again was pleasant, and again too much even though we sent all the rice back. The standout dishes for me were laghman, a meat dish that I learned later was yak (my first taste of yak – not very different from lean beef), and chicken.

The entrance to Heaven Lake was a few minutes on from the restaurant. We stopped at a crowded parking lot and walked fifteen minutes through throngs of people going both up and downhill. The reason for the crowd was that it was Sunday, and Heaven Lake, far from the idyllic layaway featured in Vikram Seth’s book, is today *the* go-to day trip spot for Urumqi’s 2-million strong population. There is even a cable car to get to the lake, and we dutifully lined up at the ticket counter. The cars seat two each and are open on the front and sides so that was fun. The views however weren’t spectacular since we were going up a mountainside rather than between peaks – in many places we were barely a few meters above ground level, criss-crossing a smooth two-lane road that ran up the side of the mountain. I found it more fun to look at the faces in the cars going back down.

The lake, when we arrived, was stunningly beautiful but teeming with tourists. SO much so that it took dollops of patience and not a little skill to get a picture that did not include a dozen heads sticking up at various points. Notwithstanding the crowds, the view was magnificent. The mountains provided a perfect backdrop for the cool blue-green waters. Lily led us to the second of two boat-ride companies, and we were the last on board a boat that was to take a 15 minute trip round the lake. My attention was drawn to a Kazakh family sitting at the other end of the boat – the effervescent mother of the family had the most high-pitched voice I’d ever seen! However, the prettiness of the surroundings was drowned the moment the engine started, and that in turn was washed away by a local guide who took up station two feet away from us. Megaphone in hand, she didn’t stop screeching till about a minute before the boat did its round and finally pulled in. It was so bad that TPB suggested we pay her ten bucks to shut up. Stop telling us how beautiful the place is – we *get* the point!

We got off the boat and requested Lily for some time to walk around by ourselves. She thought for a moment, calculating distances and time, then gave us an hour till 3:45. We started off along the paved brick path that ran round by the side of the lake. It quickly narrowed and became wooden, and soon we were climbing up and down flights of steps along the sheer lake face, ducking below overhanging branches. Every once in a while we’d pass a group going the other way – mostly Han or Uyghur although we did see one Caucasian couple. The most remarkable of these was one middle-aged Uyghur group who came upon us round a steep corner – as we stood by to let them pass, a lady in the group saw us and said, “Photo! Photo!” So they took a picture with us. Then I raised my camera and said, “Photo!” So they stayed in formation while I swapped places with their photographer, and as I raised my camera I saw TPB also stepping out of the group. So I waved her back saying, “You go!” Amused, the group repeated after me, “You go!” Later TPB told me that they probably thought I’d said, “Uyghur!” Funny.

We found a stone was to sit on, nicely placed between two protruding cliff faces, forming a broad U shape. The mountainside behind us was decorated with pretty blue flowers. Luckily the traffic of walkers thinned out just then, so we sat alone for a few long stretches – just us, the mountain, and the lake ahead with the occasional boat throbbing by towards the quays off to the right. A video I tried to take of the tranquility of the moment was punctuated by the Tarzan yells of a group coming round the bend – the silence evidently proving too strenuous for their frazzled city nerves.

We got a little lost heading back and found ourselves a little breathless (not surprising in retrospect, Heaven Lake is at an altitude of about 2000 meters, and we’d woke up that morning in Turpan which is below sea level) and somewhat higher up on the mountain than where we needed to be. We’d decided to catch an electric cart back since we’d dawdled a bit, snatching every extra moment we could by the lake. The carts when we found them were crowded and I had to signal an old man to make room for me. Back at the cable car station Lily appeared and said that there was already a huge line so it would be best for us to take a bus downhill. TPB sloped off to buy postcards from a souvenir shop but the prices were too high. Stepping back to the bus stop we found no sign of Lily. Two worried moments later she reappeared carrying a bag full of freshly baked nan bread. We got into a minibus along with a dozen highly-outfitted Chinese campers and their gear, and soon were back at the base of the hill, using the surprisingly clean port-a-potties, and then in the van headed to Urumqi.

I leave you with a few images from the lake. As always, you can click on any image if you'd like to see it enlarged.


Blogger MockTurtle said...

Awesome! The details you remember add a lot to the telling. Should have made you pull out the complete set of travel photos when we met.
Also "the most high-pitched voice I’d ever seen" reminded me of a hash trip a friend had, where he said he could see the audio waves emanating from those talking around him.

8/27/2007 11:11 PM  
Blogger km said...

You may also want to read Sunday's WSJ. Those guys bought a new car and drove down the Silk Road (and wrote about it on the front-page of the Journal, and without dear readers reminiscing about their friends' hash trips)

8/28/2007 5:44 AM  
Blogger km said...

Also, WSJ's story made no mention of Turdpan.

8/28/2007 5:45 AM  
Blogger ??! said...

so you've never eaten dried apricots, and bitten through the hard kernel to get to the seed?

8/28/2007 6:12 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

I love apricot nuts too!!! They are very common in Ladakh too.
And Persian silk carpets are the best - better than the Turkish or even Kashmiri carpets....but I doubt I will ever have the money to own one :(

MT: where have you disappeared?

8/28/2007 10:06 PM  
Blogger MockTurtle said...

@szerelem: Haven't disappeared. Just enjoying the summer... prowling through the blogosphere in stealth mode.
And before anyone says anything - yes, I'm shedding my anonymity. Privacy is for pansies.

8/28/2007 11:37 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

heh, thanks! your friend should have seen this lady - man, she was *high*. and i'm glad i didn't take out the complete set of pictures -- that would have meant we stayed put at home.

say what? the silk road doesn't actually exist in terms of tarmac and white paint :-|
(stop me if you've heard this before, but: get off the turdpan already!)

nope, have you? and did your lips smell of buttery almond cake?

what say you about kashgari silk carpets, then?

whoa - dude, whose photo is *that*?

8/29/2007 9:00 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

i just dug out the wsj article you mentioned. that thing gave me the creeps -- it's precisely because of this reason that i had been *dead set* on making this trip this year. the chinese are opening xinjiang up for tourism bigtime - there will be six major highways running through the province in a couple of years, and then it will have lost its identity just as tibet has. i'm SO glad we went this year.

on a different note - this guy drove from urumqi to kashgar. although they went via khotan, i'm not sure why it took them six days -- our guide abdulwali said a normal bus does the distance in 18 hours.

8/29/2007 9:39 AM  
Blogger Revealed said...

Not gender ratio!! Gender-preferential standards of hygiene! If I may.

8/31/2007 12:44 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

possible, but unlikely.

8/31/2007 8:33 AM  

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