Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Going West: Yurt Style

Monday and Tuesday of our trip was spent in the Karakoram Mountains, which connect China, Pakistan, and India. (PS: If any of you have read "Three Cups of Tea," we were on the Chinese side of the mountain range where Greg Mortenson built his first school!). We drove through the mountains on our way to Karakul Lake and the town of Tashkurgan. (Warning: another monstrous post due to pictures. Enjoy...!)

The drive was beyond spectacular. I took tons and tons of pictures, and then we would turn a corner and Adam would nudge me and say "Alison! Where is your camera?!" Bottom line: you're lucky we only chose the highlights from our 5.5 hour drive:
We also passed many grazing animals. Apparently the people who own the animals live within relative distance and use them when necessary (e.g. yak milk for breakfast and lamb for dinner). I learned this useful tidbit after passing cows and commenting that "it's weird that they don't really belong to anybody." Adam died laughing and told me that I'm "such a city girl" because obviously cattle don't just hang out--they're too dumb to take care of themselves so someone HAS to own them. (Obviously...?)
So there were yaks:
several camels:
and my personal favorite, the sheep crossing!
Instead of posting the entire the "we've been driving forever and we're slightly stir crazy" series, I'll include the ones of me and Adam with the unbelievable scenery surrounding us (notice how the layers keep piling on as we get further into the mountains):
We finally arrived at Karakul Lake, where we planned to spend the night in a Kirghiz yurt with a family. We took walked around parts of the lake for a bit, before heading off for another long drive to Tashkurgan.
The yurts next to the lake, where we spent the night:
Tashkurgan is the closest Chinese city to the Pakistani border. As we wove through the mountains, we passed what Akpar claimed was the third largest mountain in the world (apparently not when you google "3rd largest mountain," as I just did, but who knows...)
When we arrived, we ate a delicious Uygher meal and headed to the 1,400 year old "Stone Forest," which are ruins of a small town. We climbed to the top of the ruins and had a clear view of pastures and valleys between the surrounding mountains. It was gorgeous. (BIg surprise. How many adjectives can I use to describe the scenery in this post?)

Hello Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan! (1. Thank you spell check. 2. Afghanistan is to the left, about 25-50 km away).
Hello Pakistan! (other side of the mountain, 50-100 km away)
As we drove back down to Karakul Lake, Adam and I both agreed that this is probably the closest either of us will ever get to visiting any of the --stans :)

The sun was setting (and temperature plummeting!) upon our return:
Adam and I went into "our" yurt (shared with 8 others) and bundled up--I think I had on 5 layers plus a jacket/gloves/hat. It was surprisingly much warmer inside than out, even with the hole in the roof to let out smoke from the fire (no fire for us that night). 
The night sky:
Inside is what looks like a cement block covered in rugs.
When it's time to sleep, they lay out thick blankets in a row, like sleeping bags without the zippers, and then fold them up again in the morning. Ours are the 2 furthest to the right.
We drank tea and ate rice and then made one last trip outside to enjoy the stars and use the bathroom. (I use that term veeeery loosely! This is me stepping out of the bathroom in the morning. The dark hole on the bottom right of where I'm standing is the "sewage system.")
Both of us actually slept more than we expected, considering we were shivering alongside our newest Kirghiz and Uygher friends. We woke up in time to catch the end of the sunrise and have a quick breakfast of bread and yak milk.However, after the first taste of yak milk, both of us claimed that we have bad stomachs when it comes to dairy and got out of drinking it. It tastes how sour milk smells, if that makes sense.
En route to the bathroom in the morning, we passed several piles o' human waste (the bathroom was too far in the cold?) and leftovers from the previous night's dinner, as seen below:
We left pretty early for the ride back to Kashgar. Our main stop along the way was to Oytagh Glacier Park. We turned off and drove another 35 kilometers through a curvy mountain road to get there. To get to the actual glacier, you have to walk another 20 or so minutes up a steep hill, which apparently is not a fan favorite for Chinese tourists; many of them hired people to take them up by motorcycle or by horse!
The glacier was really cool, although it was sad to see how much it has receded from global warming (Adam went glacier trekking in Patagonia with his dad and uncle and learned a little bit about glaciers...so was able to gauge where the original glacier had been and pointed it out to me. That's the black part in the background of the picture with him). I'm glad we were able to see it while it's still there.
We had a fantastic 2-day trip and returned to Kashgar happy and ready for our final day...and a shower :)

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