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, September 03, 2007

The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 8, Part 1)

Breakfast was at the cafeteria downstairs, the same one with the cigarettes in the drawer. In sharp contrast to our experience at Turpan, here we found a sumptuous Chinese buffet laid out, consisting mostly of Sichuan food plus a variety of dumplings and steamed breads, and some excellent stuffed pancakes. This was easily the best breakfast we’d had in the entire trip. Only, the venue was so small and crowded that the two of us had to go sit by ourselves at a large round table in an adjoining banquet room.

Our hotel was situated on one of Kashgar’s main arteries. From our bedroom window the road was indistinguishable from a major road in any other city in the world except for the distinctive Islamic flavor to the architecture of the long low building across the street. However, as we drove out of the hotel that morning, things began to look very different. Abdul had said the previous evening that “we like to carve on everything”, and that assertion certainly found a lot of evidence all around us. There were engravings on every door and wall, and the main doors of houses were brightly and attractively painted – reminding me of an aphorism I’d learned in a rural marketing class long ago. Even more striking was the difference in the quality of the roads and buildings the moment we took a couple of shortcuts – the houses became single or at most double storeyed structures made of unpainted brown mud and brick blocks, the road a mud track. Women sat outside their houses, “gossiping” as A put it. Donkey carts and tempo trucks labored by, overloaded with melons or firewood. Carcasses of freshly slaughtered sheep hung at every other street corner, ready to cook for lunch. Piles and piles of watermelons and honeydew melons lay everywhere. But soon we were through this mélange of interesting sights, and on to a straight, broad, nearly flawless strip of road heading south – the Karakoram Highway.

This brand new highway, running all the way to Islamabad, was completed just last July. The nature of the terrain it traverses can be guessed at from the knowledge that an astonishing 870 people lost their lives during its construction. But Abdulwali’s pride in it was tempered by something else – a barely hidden contempt for the Chinese contractors who had built it. Apparently the amount of graft involved had been beyond belief, and it was showing the way the top surface was coming off in places, less than a year into use. Besides the mountains in the distance, colored white, red, brown, and black, the single other interesting sight along the first stretch of that drive were the tall radio towers that appeared at regular intervals. Broadcasting China-loving messages? I wondered. But no – their task was more high-tech than that. These were radio interceptors scrambling signals beamed in by the Voice of America and Saudi Arabian radio. The Chinese rulers of this Muslim-majority land were intent on keeping a tight hold on the airwaves. I noted the conjunction of American and Wahhabi with interest – in the contexts of politics, bedfellows, and your enemy’s enemy not always being your friend.

Our first stop was at a little village called Opal (“Opel with an a,” as Abdul put it). A line of fruit sellers had set up stall by the roadside. We tasted a couple of types of melon and TPB decided we’d go with the standard light-orange one rather than the green one that Abdul said was both rarer and in season for just a few weeks. A couple of other buses with tourists appeared a little after us. Not all contained Chinese people, for a change. Some of the goras went for short walks around the village – the local mosque was just off on a lane to the left. Others milled about near the fruit stalls, tasting, buying. A very pretty, young baker lady selling bagels (“girde naan”) stood bored by her stall – people were more interested in the fruit than in her wares. I thought she was incredibly beautiful; my surreptitious attempts to take a picture kept getting spoiled by tourists marching across the frame in their quest for the perfect melon.

We drove on. The scenery kept getting increasingly beautiful the further we ascended up the mountains. An hour or so later we stopped again, at the local tourist office / gift shop, to use the facilities. It was basically a couple of buildings by the road, across from a dry river bed in the foothills in the middle of nowhere. In the shallow of the riverbed a tiny shepherd tended to his flock. A few stray sheep wandered over nearer us – I had one lined up for a beautiful picture looking right at me from a couple of meters away with the gorgeous red mountains in the backdrop, but my camera strangely malfunctioned. I got a few more in, but none were that expressively naïve. I continued trying to get a good angle on the few sheep that were there, but they were wise to it and kept presenting me with variously angled rear views. TPB and Abdul stood by on the middle of the road - the Karakoram Highway - talking, and watching with mild amusement. A single passing motorcycle that they stepped aside for reminded me that this was indeed an international thoroughfare. A few moments later, a shepherd lady appeared from somewhere and made a clicking sound with her mouth – my friends the sheep ran straight to her. Clearly these guys knew which side their bread was buttered.

The next stop was at a heart-stoppingly beautiful lake where the Kunlun mountains were reflected in perfect, pristine, stark, ethereal glory. A group of Kirghiz nomads had set up a couple of tables by the side of the road, with a few handmade trinkets laid out to sell to passers-by. I skipped down the slope and walked to the edge of the lake, taking great care not to slip in the slush. It was hard not to take good photos in that place. When we got back to the car, a couple of the Kirghiz girls followed us. They smiled when TPB waved goodbye, their expressions of startled pleasure suggesting to me that this was not something that they were used to seeing the average visitor do.

As we drove, Abdul kept us a steady conversation with us. His English was excellent due to a few years he’d spent working in Dubai, and, as we discovered later that day, he had few qualms about sharing his strong opinions. But at first we were just getting to know each other, so the conversation was bright and informative. A major part of the discussion during those first few hours was the mutual discovery of common words in Uyghur and Hindi. Among those we discovered were (Uyghur meanings in parentheses) khan (king), huzoor (a term of respect), bai (like bhai, a rich man), aka (another term of respect), khalam, daphtar, khitab, and korma (a thin soup of mutton and vegetables, usually served at weddings). We also asked him about Arman – the name of the brand we’d seen so heavily advertised in Turpan, and he affirmed that it means hope. He also told us the story of the brand – of how the brothers Adil and Radil who had founded the powdered-drinks company just eleven years ago had built it into such a success story that they already were multi-millionaires, rivaled in the grocery business only by the Ihlas brand (ihlas meaning to do things with passion as opposed to just for the heck of it).

We stopped again in a few minutes at a vast dry salty lake bed. TPB wandered off all the way into the distance, and Abdul walked ruminatively round the car to where I was standing. He asked me what it takes to do an MBA. I mentioned the GMAT (pronouncing it G-MAT). It took him a moment and then he got it, spelling out all the letters. He’d heard of it - asked me what it entailed. The moment I said it had a math section he said he’d never clear it then but his genius younger brother might. He said he’s interested in doing an MBA to help him set up his own thing in the tourism / hospitality business. I told him there are specialized MBA programs as well, and they may not require GMAT or math proficiency. He asked if there were any on Hong Kong; I said probably not, but there may be some at the large universities on the east coast. The conversation went to Hong Kong. He asked me if I’d seen any outlets of a particular French brand there. I said no, but he said he had, during his three day trip there a few years ago. With a bashful air he said his decisions weren’t always rational – he’d spent the equivalent of a hundred US dollars on a pair of jeans he’d liked a lot. I was stunned – he didn’t look particularly rich or poor, but that’s a whopping amount of money in Kashgar.

TPB had gone out really far onto the lake so I decided to get a little more chatty. I asked him his opinion about America and Iraq. His response was unequivocal: “Kick their asses out of the place. Did you know they have killed 780,000 Iraqis?” The response wasn't unexpected, but the accuracy of the number intrigued me. Unfortunately, right that moment I couldn't think of a non-leading way to lead him on. I needn't have worried; he would soon open up.

Later he told us about his view of Islam and his passion for the Quran, how beautiful the verses were. Then he told us about his time working in Eastern China, on the job with Buddhists as colleagues – how he made fun of their “little God”. “That little jade thing is your God? That will save you if I hit you right now?” TPB’s eyes went wide, really wide. Then, when talking about Pakistan he mentioned the Aga Khan and his known preference for fifteen year olds, whose marriage prices appreciate sharply after a night spent with the esteemed man. Abdul’s voice dripped with contempt as he spat the words “against Islam”. This was truly a dumbfounding - not to say unnerving - change from the urbane young man who’d been discussing MBAs and French-branded clothing!

We drove through the Karakoram range. Karakoram in Uyghur means mountains that fall in black layers and folds, and indeed, the stone faces we drove past were majestic and black. This was now plumb spang on the Pamir Knot, and, five minutes later, we were there. Karakuli, the black lake, with Muztagata, the Father of Ice Mountains rising grandly to over seven and a half thousand feet behind it, and ringed by the Kunlun range and the mountains of the Pamir Knot. A group of maybe five cars were parked in a depression between the lake and the road (what a change from the teeming crowds at Heaven Lake!), and five or so round yurts were lined up to their left, roughly perpendicular to the lake shore. A few Kirghiz nomads dotted the area, standing, sitting, walking their donkeys, horses and camels, asking if you wanted a ride. There could not have been more than a few dozen mammals there, all told.

The views were beyond magnificent. The lake stretched to the east of us, we were on a long edge of a very large oval shape. To the right loomed the glorious Muztagata, dominating the skyline, reflected beautifully in the water. And all round, some closer, some further, ranged the mountains. It was cool, crisp, and quiet. The occasional Kirghiz thundered by on horseback. Two young nomad children, cheeks impossibly rosy, played with a toddler by the side of the pool. We stood there, just breathing it in.

Abdul came by and suggested we have lunch so the afternoon time goes uninterrupted. We said okay, but in ten minutes. We walked around, trying to take it all in. Scrambling to road level from lake level, a climb of a few mere feet, left me breathless, reminding me that we were now 3,500 meters above sea level – TPB had nearly collapsed with altitude sickness while snowshoeing at a thousand feet lower down, in Colorado just a few months ago. So we entered the food yurt, white on the outside but bright red with colorful patterns on the inside, little square windows covered with netting, looking out onto the lake and the mountains. Lunch consisted of yak, mutton, and vegetables with noodles, followed by the melon we’d bought in Opal. It was too much for the three of us plus the driver, so as we stepped out after eating TPB gave the few remaining slices to some of the local kids. It was hard to tell which side was more delighted at the transaction.

We separated momentarily after lunch, and walking around, I came up on a middle-aged Kirghiz gentleman. He tried to ask me some stuff but the only words we had in common were mama, baba, and Yindestan. He asked me, mama? Baba? I gestured towards Mount Muztagata – Yindestan. He nodded. He was carrying a thin bone flute with three holes. I tried to see if I could play it, but to my dismay not a sound came out. He tried to coach me, but to no avail. I tried really hard. A non-resident Chinese tourist who had wandered up also tried, and quit at once. Abdul came up to me and said we have two more hours to spend here. Just then I heard TPB calling me from the entrance to a yurt slightly further away from the others. She’d found a bracelet that she really liked, being sold by a Kirghiz lady, and had agreed to the first stated price of fifty bucks without bargaining. Now she wanted help in the form of a photographer, and a pen so she could take the lady’s address. I served both functions. Inside the largely empty yurt the sweet looking plump lady wrote her address in Arabic script on a half-torn off sheet from the back of a school notebook (the exercises were in Chinese), and looked quite bewildered possibly at the fact that she’d made a sale without having to engage in any bargaining. We took the photos with her and her husband, thanked them several times, and walked off leaving my pen behind.


Blogger Szerelem said...

lovely pictures of the lakes...especially the one with the horse. Reminded me of Ladakh.

I was going to ask you a couple of posts back about Islam in western China, but figured it would come up sooner or later. I know there has been a fair amount of oppression in those areas and there is quite a bit of dislike for the Chinese...

Off topic but I have so much dislike for the Wahhabis. Root of half the world problems.

9/03/2007 3:11 PM  
Blogger ??! said...

that mountain-reflecting lake pic is arguably the best of the lot. for me, at least. weeeeoooow.

9/03/2007 5:14 PM  
Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Every time I think I've had enough of the Silk Route, you come up with something like this.
What pictures.

Damn you!


9/03/2007 8:11 PM  
Blogger Space Bar said...

joining the chorus to say, what fantastic pictures!

9/03/2007 11:18 PM  
Blogger km said...

You are hereby ordered to go back to the "girde naan" lady and take a picture.

9/04/2007 1:26 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

thanks :-) that bit about ladakh makes sense doesn't it - it's just the other side of the border. re: the wahhabis, i'd say it's a touch more complicated than that. have you read The Shia Revival. by Vali Nasr? I strongly recommend it to everyone!

heh. serious question -- which one of the two do you prefer - the one on top or the one below?

still have another 250+ pix to go, sir. as for the second part of your comment, that could be managed, i think, although i regret to inform that i wasn't able to carry out your earlier injunctions about the blisters, the jock itch, or the pustulent fungoid globules stalking each other down my Y-fronts. mea culpa.

space bar:
welcome, and thank you very much :-)

my dear floater, there *is* indeed a picture of her, right in the middle of that post. i accept it doesn't make her look at her best, but i assure you she was almost as good to look at as the mountains. so now you can go back and post another comment.

9/04/2007 8:12 AM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

I know it's more copmplicated than that. But Wahhabism has had a more negative impact than other form of Islam - yet. The Shia - Sunni is a whole other cess pool. Haven't read the book buit shall put it on the read list - am frankly on a break from middle east reading, have too many books on India I lugged back to finish first including one in Hindi so that will take its own time.

9/04/2007 1:41 PM  
Blogger km said...

Hey, nice melons.

//How did i miss the picture? i must be going blind. No hairy palms yet.

9/05/2007 3:42 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

heh, enjoy!

HAH! :-D

9/05/2007 8:24 AM  

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