It’s time to go through the usual rounds again – up early, have no breakfast, check out of the Qini Bagh, and rush to the Kashgar bus stand where we wait for tickets. Jorg is unwell, suffering from a bout of food poisoning. There is a hilarious incident when Jorg thinks that a Uighur man stole his medicines. The man of course can’t speak Chinese – and Jorg can’t speak Uighur. All we can make out is Jorg is angry – his nose is red – and he is sputtering in rapid fire German to the bewildered old man. Birdy and I are standing at the ticket counter, waiting to see if there is a bus and we are stunned to see an angry German gesticulating to an old man, pointing repeatedly at his trouser pockets. “He took my medicines,” snarls Jorg. “Your medicines?!” asks an aghast Birdy. “Why would he want your medicines?” she asks, but there is no answer as Jorg runs behind the man, who by now has purchased his tickets, and is now walking out of the station. We stand there, surprised stunned and well, to be honest, smiling at the scene. Jorg gives up, comes back, and I point to his hand, and ask “are those not your medicines?” Jorg looks at his palms, and he realizes that the medicines he thought he had lost he had only been clenching in his fist. Birdy and I can’t stop laughing as the angry red on his face slowly turns into the pink shades of embarrassment. It’s an incident that will remain in my mind for a long time.
But back to the ticket counter – a miracle has occurred and the promised bus has arrived! Tickets are available, and scarcely believing our luck, we rush to board it. The bus reeks of human stench – I gingerly place myself on the seat. I have to remind myself that Xinjiang is one of the least developed provinces in China – the standards I am used to in the rest of China just don’t apply here. And that’s where Beijing’s problems begin and end. Just how can the government ‘control’ and develop this restive province? I don’t think it will. Xinjiang is a bubbling cauldron, filled with an angry people, and Beijing will probably find that it is easier to talk to the Dalai Lama than have a dialogue with these in Xinjiang. But the stink and stench is forgotten as the bus moves. I have already swallowed a couple of Avomins out of fear of motion sickness – and I am drowsy. I nap for a couple of hours and wake up just in time to be surrounded by the most amazing mountain scenery I have seen. This is one of the most famous roads in the world – the Karakoram Highway – a labor of bloody-mindedness that cost the lives of 100s as it stretches across into Pakistan. The road is super smooth, but there are numerous checkpoints, including one controlled by the Chinese Army. Around 5 hours later though, the bus stops at Karakul Lake. We wake up the sleeping Jorg, and step outside. Despite the thermals, I can immediately feel the difference. From 30+ degrees Celsius in Kashgar, it is now around 5 degrees. And it’s midday! And it’s Karakul’s summer! Getting down from the bus we are immediately accosted by a bunch of Kazakhs, all of who try to convince us to stay in their yurt. Mahmet seems to be the nicest of the lot, and we agree immediately once we hear it’s just 50 yuan per person for the yurt, with food included. Birdy is shivering in the cold, but we can’t stop looking at the unimaginable beauty of the landscape in front of me.
There is Karakul – its shimmering waters a reflection of the immense snow-capped mountains that tower over it.
We walk up to the yurt, which looks small from the outside, but is beautifully decorated and furnished inside. There are no beds, of course, But the yurt is carpeted – and the quilts are clean and warm. Jorg in particular falls in love with rich traditional Muslim designs on the quilts and spreads. We are given some bread and milk tea on arrival while Mahmet asks us about our plans.
Jorg is still reeling from the food poisoning, and Karakul sits at an elevation of 3800m. We decide to take it easy, getting used to the altitude. In the meantime, we can’t stop clicking photos. Words do no justice. How can I talk about that immense majesty of Mustagh Ata lording it over the lake? This is one of the highest mountains in the world, yet for some reason it looks like a pygmy from here. Ice and snow glisten off its face, and the bright sun is no protection against the biting winds that sweep off the lake. I am in heaven, of course. The cold, the mountains and nothing to do but to just sit and watch the mountains change as the sun moves along on its course. Mahmet and his family are not Uighurs. They are from Tajikistan, just around an hour away from here. It’s only for a few months in summer that they are open – by September it gets impossible to live here, and they move to other areas, living off their goats during the long harsh winter. Mahmet’s trousers are torn, and it is obvious that the family lead a tough life. He has no parents, he tells me, his sister’s husband is his father and family, he says. There are two children – and both are exquisitely beautiful. Do they go to school? I wonder.
They spend the days taking care of the family’s precious sheep and goats (I can’t seem to distinguish one from another!), and much of their income comes from tourists during these two or three months that the lake is open. It’s one of the most beautiful days in my life – I know that just a month later when I am back in Bangalore, and I feel my way through the dust and heat, I have at least this memory – when I breathed in the purest air, and hot tea watching a splendid play of lights in one of the most spectacular locations in the world.