The Taklamakan

July 8th

Kashgar’s sun signs a bright midday-kind of heat even though it’s early morning. The skies are crystal blue, and today would be the Karakoram Highway. This is what I was looking forward to – the entire reason why I chose Xinjiang once I realized that Tibet would not be possible this time.

We check out of the Qini Bagh, and take a taxi to the bus station. Lonely Planet assures us that there is a bus that leaves to Karakul Lake on its way to Tashkorgan at precisely 9:30AM. We are there well ahead of time. We are ready. Turns out that the bus isn’t quite ready. With barely a turn of her head, the woman at the counter tells us that she can’t issue tickets as she doesn’t know if the bus has arrived yet. Wait, she says, in much the manner that my old school principal would tell punished children. Wait we do. There is a long queue snaking in front of the counter that sells train tickets. It’s summer vacation time, and China’s displaced university students are trying to make their way back. Wait wait wait. It’s almost 10AM. There is still no word on the bus, and meanwhile we are joined by another foreigner, a Israeli. I walk out of the station, out into a sea of private cars doubling as taxis. Immediately, a man comes across and we understand through the beautiful medium of no communication that he might take us to Karakul. Wait a while, he says. Of course, what else do we like to do early in the morning? Meanwhile, at the counter, the woman there suddenly calls us over. I rush over, ready to pay. But no. There is no bus TODAY, but she is willing to sell us tickets for TOMORROW. I decline, disappointment jostling with laughter at the situation we have found ourselves in. It’s hot. And wearing thermals doesn’t help in hot weather, in case you haven’t experimented. Jorg and Birdy are even more heavily clad than me, anticipating the freezing waters of the Karakul Lake.

Back to the man outside, who hustles us outside, and into a mini-van. We settle in. 100 Yuan per person, he says. That is fine, although the bus was just 33Yuan. The Israeli joins us, and there are two other Chinese passengers already there. Off we go. To another bus station. Wait there again. The man comes back with two other passengers, who refuse to get in. More talk, none of it in Chinese, between the man and his companion. Eventually, we know where it is leading to. Unable to fill up the mini-van with more passengers, he is going to refuse to take us. And there it comes. “There is an accident on the Karakoram Highway, and we can’t go,” the companion says in his best “look, I am saying the truth,” voice. Irritated, it being almost noon now, we call his bluff. “If we pay 200 Yuan per person, you will take us, right?” I ask. “Of course,” he says, hope lighting up his greedy eyes. Of course, we say and get out of the mini-van in front of John’s Cafe. Now we are in a spot. We have checked out of our hotel, we are clad in thermals, and well, what to do in such situations? You ask John, of course! John, we have changed our plans. We would like to go to the desert today instead of day after. Is it possible? Of course, it’s possible, John says with a laugh. Going to the desert clad in thermals is not the brightest idea. But John’s spacy bathroom solves that problem. We take a walk around to Kashgar’s market later – this is the Sunday market. Or rather the Friday market.

It reminds me a bit of markets in India rather. I can understand the fascination with it – this is the place that merges a 100 cultures. The place that was once a major hub on the Silk Route. Wandering in the cool aisles, I see fur hats on one side, and colorful Muslim caps on the other. Carpets, rows of them, colorful and rich. Shawls and scarves. Shoes and sandals. And nuts. Almonds in more varieties than I thought existed. Rows and rows of raisins, dark, light, brown, yellow. The colors a soothing balm to Kashgar’s madness.

Going nuts

Later, we walk to a nearby mosque and watch Xinjiang’s Muslims at prayer. Watching over them are policemen. All Han Chinese policemen. As the men bow, their backs to the policemen, they watch. Guns ready at the hip. It encapsulates everything about Xinjiang – one race/one culture and the suffocating eyes of another race/culture. Xinjiang is not at peace, not in a mosque nor in a market. Time will tell just how this uneasy land finds peace with itself.

Watching over you...

Eventually, we make our way back to John’s Cafe. It’s around 6PM, and it’s a 2-hour drive to the Taklamakan desert. A huge hamper is packed. Wine, lots of food, lots of drink. It’s going to be a party under the stars. Ah, little did we know what a party.

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