Kara Kul

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of China  ,
Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The sky was bright, but we left Tashkurgan under a cloud, having picked a fight with the guesthouse we spent the night in. We had discovered that there were rooms, nearly identical to those we stayed in, available for 5 yuan cheaper than ours, which we hadn't been told the night before. We claimed we should have been offered that rate, and refused to pay more. They argued that we'd agreed to a price and now must stick to it. They were right, and we pushed our luck further than we should have. Eventually we agreed to split the difference, and were able to push on, but I felt guilty about the whole episode.

The road out of Tashkurgan was a joy to ride, almost empty of traffic, in pristine condition and through a wide, open, gradually declining valley. The Kunjerab pass divides the Karakoram from the Pamir mountains, and the change was evident immediately. The steep gorges of golden rock were replaced by high-altitude hills, later descending through the aptly named 'Tiger Mouth Gorge', with red walls and snow-capped mountain 'teeth'.

There was a low pass between us and the long descent to Kashgar, although none of our various maps could agree about where or how high it was, one even claiming there were two passes. As it happened, we knew when we'd reached the pass- we could see the rest of the day's ride in one glance- down a series of hairpins and then following our noses, skirting the edge of the stunning giant, 7500m mount Mustagata. The quick pace, open spaces and beautiful, slightly alien scenery lifted our moods and we had a great days ride, taking posed 'on the go' photos with Mustagata behind us, and racing down the hills. I was taken with the altitude; the clear, dry, thin air suited me, despite chapped lips, and I loved the deeper blue of the sky and the strange dissociative feeling of seeing most clouds side-on.

Our destination for the day was by far the most beautiful campsite so far on this trip, and quite possibly the most beautiful anywhere. On the shore of Kara Kul lake, facing the still, clear-blue waters. On the left a serrated horizon of high peaks and deep, glacial valleys, while opposite the breathtaking Mt. Mustagata rose up from the water. A couple of sand dunes screened the nearby village and more distant town from view, and sheltered the rear of our camp from the wind. Our camp was on a shallow rise, a meter or so above the level or the lake, so the lakeside path was obscured from us, and we from it. We could even swim and wash in the lake's outflow. Perfect.

As if we hadn't already hit the jackpot, Peter managed to score some bottles of beer from the village. We sat outside the tents, drinking in the view along with the beer and chatting aimicably. It's not every day you can look at yourself and say 'there's nowhere I'd rather be than right here, right now' (and it's even rarer for those to be days you woke up alone). This was very much one.

As the night drew in around us, we noticed a bright light coming from behind the shoulder of Mustagata.
-What's that light?
-Dunno. It's bright though. Town?
-There's no town on the map
-Could be an army base
-Big army base, especially for out here
-Maybe its a secret army base
-It's really bright!
-Yeah. Weird!
-Maybe we should hike over there tomorrow, see whats there!

Luckily the beer didn't addle us for the whole night, and we didn't go for a day's hike in search of the moon.

Pawel and Magda had saved for their trip by working in the UK, so naturally the conversation turned to how they were scrounging immigrants milking the system and taking jobs from honest dole-claiming British bigots. I happened to mention the chagrin of Bulgarians I met at being admitted to the EU but denied the freedom to travel to UK for work. Pawel sympathised.
P- You know, most Polish were upset at EU expansion
Me- Really?
P- Yeah, they're afraid the Romanians are all gonna move to England and take Polish jobs...

We had to drag ourselves away from Kara Kul, and with the next day's ride characterised by the most brutal, soul-sapping, energy-draining headwind I've ever experienced, I regretted that we had. We were pedalling hard downhill for much of the day, which is never a good sign. Tiger Mouth Gorge was dramatic, and gave every impression that on a clear day it could be a highlight of the KKH trip, but the high peaks were obscured in cloud, the mist drained the colour from the cliffs and the headwind blew away our enthusiasm. We ended up camped in a road-builders ad-hoc quarry, a bleak and windswept campsite unsheltered from the falling drizzle.

One of the great things about mountain weather, is that if you don't like it you have only to sit still for a few minutes and it'll change. The following days ride, down into Kashgar, was clear and bright. We were soon back in civilisation, with crops either side of the road and occasional villages. We stopped for Uighur bagels, which were on sale in giant stacks every couple of kilometers. Dense, salty and with a brick-hard crust, these provided excellent bike-fuel so long as we were careful not to chip teeth.

One of the villages we passed through was having their market day; it seems the famous Kashgar Sunday market roves the surrounding area the rest of the week, and this was what we had stumbled upon. The road was crowded with donkey carts, rickshaws and pedestrians, most of whom were dressed in their finest and looked in festival mood. We loitered for a while, enjoying the ambience and allowing the photographers (Peter and Pawel) to molest the locals.

Kashgar turned out to be a city with streets too wide for it's traffic, which made it seem quite calm and a tad underpopulated. We cynically put this down to the Chinese government designing roads they can drive tanks down if need be. Xinjiang province, being one of China's more recent territorial 'acquisitions' (Previously, very briefly, 'East Turkestan Republic' and before that 'Kashgaria'), is mostly populated by Uighar Muslims, who periodically make trouble for the government. China took swift advantage of the unofficial international moratorium on human rights for Muslims post 9/11, and cracked down on Uighur dissidents. This may explain why the town seemed so quiet.
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