Friday, September 29, 2006

The Road to Karakul Lake, Part 1

The day before my trip, I went to John's Cafe in the westernmost Xinjiang city of Kashgar to hire a driver. John's Cafe is strictly a meeting place for Western backpackers, mountaineers, and tourists of the obscure. It is run by a Han Chinese, John, who has exploited his proficiency in English, entrepreneurial saavy, and no doubt government connections, into a successful business. The restaurant tries its best to provide a menu familiar to foreigners. However, in such a remote place, one has to improvise. As an example, ketchup for the fries was essentially canned tomato paste with sugar. It gets an A for effort.

More than just food, John's Cafe arranges trips and rides to the surrounding environs. The most adventurous would hire one of John's new-ish Land Cruisers, along with a driver and assistants/porters, to go to K2's base camp. Others can hire a driver with an older Japanese sedan for a guided tour of Kashgar. I opted for something in between. I wanted to go to Karakul Lake, 200 km to the south. At that point, all I knew about the lake was the quick blurb in Lonely Planet. Apparently, it is a beautiful lake set halfway up the Pamir mountain range, about 75 km north of Afghanistan's Walkan Corridor.

I make the deal with John. In exchange for $100 U.S., I would get a driver, a co-driver, a 4wd van for two days, meals, and a night in a yurt at the lake. Having just spent 1 RMB, or 12.5 cents, on a lamb kebab, I was a little shocked at the price. Nevertheless, I rationalized the cost by thinking about all the money I saved thus far on my trip to China.

Kebab grill in Kashgar

Why John insisted on a driver and a co-driver, I still do not know. It certainly did make my experience richer, to be sure.

John tells me that the drivers will be in a van waiting for me outside my hotel at 9 a.m.

It is 9 a.m., Xinjiang time. In a cruel edict by Beijing, the powers that be decided that the entire nation would only have one time zone. That means when it's 10 p.m. in Beijing, the sun has still not set yet in Xinjiang, thousands of miles to Beijing's west. All banks, government agencies, and large stores in Kashgar go by Beijing time. However, many Uyghurs, the indigenous people of the region who speak a Turkic language, as a small but significant protest, refuse to live by Beijing time. So, when someone in Xinjiang tells you that he will meet you at 9 a.m., it could mean 6 a.m.,9 a.m., or noon.

Part of my obsessive-compulsive behavior is manifested by my mortal fear of being late for the beginning of any journey. The night before this trip, as I lay in my Soviet era hotel bed, I cursed myself for not asking John whether or not he was going by Beijing time.

For some reason, I intuited that John meant Xinjiang time, not Beijing time. Luckily, as I stepped out of my hotel's lobby, I see a bronze 4wd Delica with two middle aged Han men inside, parked across the street. I carefully navigate across the street, not wanting an unfortunate run-in with a green VW Jetta taxi cab to ruin a journey that has barely started. I make it across, ask the men in Mandarin if they were waiting for me, and climb on board with my backpack.

Typical Kashgar scene

As we wind through the streets of Kashgar, clogged with Land Cruisers, Jetta taxis, and donkey carts, I look out the window with glee. I'm going to Karakul Lake.

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