The Silk Road Chronicles (Day 8, Part 2)
Since everyone else seemed to be ambling south after lunch, we decided to walk northwards round the lake. Within a minute or two, round a rare large rock, we were completely alone. It was *just us*. A very few other humans (exactly seven in all) wandered by within visible range during the next hour and a bit while we walked by the lake, over a little wooden bridge over a stream that fed into the lake, and then sat by the north bank in complete solitude. We sat in silence on a grassy sloping bank under the towering mountains, skipping pebbles over water, taking a video of the waves lapping at the thin strip of sand by our feet. The black lake stretched in front of us, reflecting the glory of Muztagata. Away to the left, and behind us, the land stretched far, far away, and mountains rose up like walls of different colors. To our right a hill interrupted the view, red, rocky, and immediate.
As our time there drew to a close we slowly walked back the way we had come. We’d only walked some 90 degrees around the perimeter of the lake but it was still overwhelmingly satisfying. I got a little taken aback when TPB suddenly skipped off to a rock by the side, and soon comprehended why when I saw her picking up a bottle of water placed on it – she had left it there on our way out.
We knew we were nearing the camp when a horseman thundered past us. Soon we walked past a few parked camels and donkeys, and were at the camp. As we walked past the yurts I noticed TPB, not for the first time, looking out of the corner of her eye at some of the rugs that the Kirghiz folk had laid out for sale on a couple of stalls outside. I asked if she wanted to take a closer look; she said no, because then they start pressing you to buy. But when and where else would one ever indulge one’s wife, if not at a time and a place like this? So I pressed just a little bit more – I said, if you like it then just see it, no? So we stopped to look.
One rug, slim, long, narrow, looked nice. We lifted it up to see. Suddenly we were surrounded by about a dozen locals, curious to watch us and what we did. A plump middle-aged lady, evidently the owner of the stall, materialized. TPB looked at the other two or three rugs on display – nothing was as good as this one. And then she saw the one she liked. A lady, about two feet away from us, was sitting on it, on the side of a low mud wall. TPB pointed. The lady got off at once, and a man brought this rug to us. It was just as slim as the other one, and way longer. TPB loved it at first look. She turned to Abdul who had quietly joined us – Ask him how much it is. The man said 100 RMB per meter. We said that’s too much, meanwhile the guy said – eight meters. Abdul measured it out in cubit-approximates with his arm and said he thought it was shorter. He asked the man for a meter scale. “Mitter, mitter!” the cry went round, and a lad was sent running off to a yurt slightly apart from the others, the one I had had my abortive flute lessons outside. The scale arrived and the rug was ceremoniously measured. It came to a little above 5 meters. TPB said – I’ll pay 300 for the rug. The man thought a little while and said – 400 for this rug and this other one, and he threw a little one on top of the long one which now lay concertina-ed up from its measurement. The entire conversation was being translated through Abdul, except for the numbers which were being flashed on fingers as well, although my rudimentary Mandarin managed to keep abreast. We thought about it. He broke the silence by lifting a section of the rug and telling us it was authentic camel wool – as evidence he pulled out a lighter and set a fiber alight, then made us smell it. We both smelled the burning fabric and nodded dumbly. He also told us his grandmother had knitted it herself thirty years ago. TPB responded to all of this by saying she’d pay 300 for both rugs together. I gasped a little, inwardly. The man responded with a grand gesture, theatrically pulling the little one out. 300 for only the big one. We said okay at once.
And the atmosphere, which had been tense and thick and quiet, changed all at once. Everyone was laughing, shaking hands, and talking. “Photo!” said I, not forgetting my priorities. Abdul stepped forward and gestured to my camera, saying, “Let me help you,” and the man and the lady only stopped smiling when they posed for the camera.
We took the rug, tied up in an old white plastic bag, put it in the trunk of the car, and drove off from that wonderful place. As we left, Abdul informed us that the man is a local headman, his name is Daoud, and he owns the yurt we had eaten at. He asked us to guess at the age of his wife. From the tone of his voice, I tried to guess as low as I could go. Forty? I asked with some hesitation. Abdul burst out laughing and said – she’s at most 31 or 32. “That’s what the sun and the wind do to them.”
TPB slept as we drove. I plugged in the poodle and listened to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. After the passport control stop (a room by the side of the road where a bored looking Chinese official wearing shades wrote down the names and passport numbers of all travelers going in either direction) I decided to resume the conversation. I asked Abdul – he said he’d been to Pakistan, had he ever been to Kashmir? He said no, and asked me what exactly the problem there was. I explained the historical and political contexts briefly. He listened carefully as I spoke, and then said, “That is why I never trust politicians. It’s the nature of politics. What’s good one day is undesirable the next day. That’s the problem with politics. It’s essentially…” he searched for the right word, “… capricious.”
I was completely stunned by this statement. I would have been impressed if it had come from several of my regular friends; to hear it from this tour guide in the backwaters of China was beyond surprising. Feeling slightly lightheaded, I opened up a little and told him about the beauty of Kashmir, and the Persian verse that had described it as Paradise, “Firdaus”. His expression clouded over at once. “That’s stupid,” he said. “You can’t compare anything with Firdaus. That’s meaningless. It’s against the Quran. It’s against Islam. What kind of people can write this?” I tried to point out that the verse said *if* there is heaven on earth, but he was having none of it. He described the Quran’s depiction of Firdaus to us: your favorite things all within easy reach, streams with sherbet running at your feet, just dip your cup any time you’d like to taste any of anything, even your wife is there – and if you don’t like her, someone else is there. TPB stared fixedly out of the window. I changed the topic.
Back in Kashgar at 8, we found the car stopping in a deserted side lane outside a place that wasn’t our hotel. Abdul turned and said – this is a carpet factory. I recalled I’d told him that I wanted to go to a place that sells carpets; I thought we’d be going the next morning, when we were due to visit Kashgar’s famous Grand Bazaar. But here we were. We walked in through a wide hallway where women sat weaving carpets into a large warehouse like space chock-full of exquisite carpets of all sizes. The merchandise on display was simply amazing – breathtaking handwoven silk carpets ranging from mousepad size to those that could cover an entire wall – carpets layered with intricate motifs and designs, patterns and colors that changed with the angle that they were viewed from. We threw ourselves into the carpet-inspection process; a smart young American-accented Han salesman came to help us out. At the end of it, several shortlists options, and counter-offers later, we emerged with a small carpet and a medium-sized one for what I thought was a very decent price. They even wrapped them up tightly – the entire package small enough to fit into the extra space in the suitcase I had been carrying around for just this eventuality. Back in the car I asked Abdul what he thought of the price. He said it was good. I said, no, tell me what you really think. Without missing a beat, he said – you are not a bargain-hunter. I chuckled; I thought that was remarkably accurate. He was right – if I did it his way, I’d have had no time left to do anything else in Kashgar.
We went for dinner to a restaurant just opened by a close friend of Abdul’s. It was called Miran, after a nearby oasis town. The food: chuchura (miniature lamb dumplings in soup), lamb skewers, sweet saffron tea, and samsas, was excellent. Our smiling driver commented to Abdul about our proficiency with chopsticks, then rationalized it by saying that we were from Hong Kong. Abdul refilled our small cups with the subtle tea, saying, this is how we hang out in the teahouses of an evening, and our women honor us by pouring our tea. To my surprise, TPB poured the next round. “Thank you for your hospitality,” said Abdul. As we ate, he kept pointing to various aspects of the overblown décor, ornaments such as the central chandelier, the water fountain, the mock stone vases that were actually carved from wood, and the chairs, and telling us how much each of them cost.