August 1984. Every morning for four days we boarded a plane, each one smaller and older than the last: Sydney to Hong Kong to Beijing to Urumqi and finally Kashgar. Thirteen thousand five hundred kilometres later we landed in China’s far and wild west, Xinjiang Province.
“It’s like Genghis Khan come to Chinatown,” says Patricia, a rugged skydiver and schoolteacher from Adelaide, summing-up Kashgar on first sight. The central market is a rip-roaring son et lumiere of braying donkeys, boisterous kids, honking trucks and a million watermelons for sale. Then add kebab sellers, camels, carpets, ancient hutong alleys, the looping scrawls of Arabic text, fading Cyrillic signs, high cheekbones, men in skull caps and women in purdah. The faces are Turkic, Tartar, Mongol and Han, but ironically it is us, a rare gaggle of Western tourists, who turn out to be the “exotics” here. Children press in, peering wide-eyed at our hairy arms, blue eyes and Disney-colored trekking gear.
Our final flight from Urumqi to Kashgar was aboard a vintage Russian Ilyushin operated by the Civil Aviation Authority of China, ominously known as CAAC. I looked down to watch the endless corrugated ridges and parched lakes of the Taklamakan Desert drift far below, with an occasional ruler-straight road bisecting it all from horizon to horizon. Where the Pamir Mountains rise in the south I see passes that were the old Silk Road trading routes to Afghanistan, Persia and beyond.
Our Ilyushin rattles and bounces to a halt at Kashgar, the legendary oasis where those Silk Road routes began. We — seven of us, mostly Australian — are here to do two weeks trekking under the auspices of the Chinese Mountaineering Authority. We meet the CMA team. Zhuang, the interpreter is a nervous, moon-faced young Han originally from the east coast. Asila, the cook has a Turkic face straight out of Istanbul or Erzurum. And then there’s a lantern-jawed “liaison officer” from Beijing, Mr Lee, a dour flatlander who soon demonstrates little interest in mountains, exertion or “minorities” (as the central government patronisingly calls their ethnic nations). Meanwhile, “we” are the usual mottle of trekker types: Pat the schoolteacher, Judy a Melbourne pharmacist, Michael a dapper Kenyan lawyer (and dead ringer for British actor Rex Harrison) and a family of three from suburban Sydney, plus me as escort and general dogsbody.
Xinjiang (“new frontier”) is a huge province of over 1.6 million square kilometres whose official tag, Uyghur Autonomous Region is an exercise in irony — “autonomy” for anyone not being Beijing’s strong suit.In Kashgar a grandiose statue of Mao Tse Tung poses rampant but ignored by the town’s passing ethnic Uyghur, Kirghiz and Kazakh residents. In the streets here’s a scattering of blue Mao suits and khaki PLA uniforms but as far as the locals seem concerned out here in East Turkestan, 4000 kilometres from the capital, the Great Helmsman can probably, well, go row a boat.
All day we bounce south in a bus, climbing onto the Pamir Plateau via the Karakoram Highway. It’s a military-capable road but in places is no more than on-loan from the crumbling banks of the Gez River. Blinding snow peaks and heart-stopping cliffs overshadow it. One tremor and they’d close on the road like a book slammed shut. We unload our gear at a yurt camp at 3500 metres beside the beautiful Lake Karakul. The snow-capped massifs of Mounts Kongur and Muztagata float, mirrored in its waters. Meanwhile, the CMA team sets about hiring seven pack camels — the shaggy, two-humped Bactrian kind — and a team of Kirghiz handlers.
After acclimatizing for a day we start our first trek, traversing a set of stony ridges that rise towards 7719-metre Mt Kongur. A few hours, however, we’re forced to halt at a river so swollen by mid-summer glacial melt-water that the camels cannot cross. The handlers tell us that only at dawn, before the daytime 40°C temperature melts the higher snows will there be a chance to cross. But if we do, we might not be able to return for a week. Over lunch we parley and decide to reroute tomorrow from Mt Kongur to nearby Mt Muztagata, “Ice Mountain Father”.
The following afternoon we linger with the villagers in a dusty settlement called Supas, only to discover that our camel team and Me Lee have advanced far out of sight. A weary, catch-up trudge along a desert valley follows as we try to locate the camp. Darkness falls and we are still wading through creeks, calling in the bloody wilderness for Lee to lead us from it. Tough. In camp he is already sacked-out, snoring in his tent. Only Asila’s excellent dinner of mutton, capsicum and noodles, plus soup (always served last) saves the sullen day. I fall asleep, drafting indignant exposés of the CMA to Chairman Deng Xiaoping.
Next day we wind our way out of Karakul Lake valley and onto Muztagata’s lower slopes until at 4200 metres we pitch our dome tents on a grassy high pasture. There’s a roaring torrent nearby and in the dusk we watch a dozen plump yellow marmots come out to gambol along the river bank. Come morning we set out for the Muztagata base camp at 4700 metres from where an Italian climbing expedition is wending its ant-like way up the slopes far above us, en route towards the 7546-metre summit.
We take a lower, less ambitious trail, scrambling across a scree of unstable boulders. Suddenly Mr Lee announces that he will go no further.”We’ve paid the CMA a small fortune for you to guide us,” I protest. Zhuang translates briefly but replies, “Mr Lee says his contract only requires him to go to 4700 metres and he has already exceeded this height.” Lee slopes off down the mountain, back to camp where for the rest of the day he diligently maintains the party line, horizontal on a stretcher.
We continue across the boulders and scree, and soon reach Jambluck Glacier, the largest in China, a spectacular ice-fall that tumbles out of a deep fissure in Muztagata’s flank. We make our way through it amid a sea of frozen waves, shark fins, mutant pyramids and scissor peaks that are endlessly sculpted by the sun and wind. We’re at one of the most distant points on earth from either a city or the sea. The high altitude light, unscreened by pollution or humidity is almost blinding but from here we can see west to Russia and south to the Karakoram Range, as well as downwards to a thousand feet of shale and vertigo. Colin, a realtor from Sydney squats on his haunches, scanning a panorama that’s like the goalmouth of heaven. Every good trek has its absolute “Just shut up” moments. Colin recognises his one. With his camera left deep in his pack, he murmurs, “No point. You can’t photograph an experience.”
Days later, back at Lake Karakul, we’re invited to the wildest horse game on earth, Buz Kashi, the savage first draft today’s well-bred polo. The name like the game itself comes from Afghanistan: buz means goat and kashidan, to pull. Kirghiz horsemen from around the valley have gathered on a natural arena, a long plain bordered by hills and a river. Spectators with faces straight from the days of Tamurlane are perched on a “grandstand”, a rocky outcrop right above the action. Like the players, almost to a man they are dressed in black corduroy breeches and coats, high leather boots and karakul-trimmed hats. “Almost to a man” is a fair term because the only two women spectators are Uyghurs. A blokey event like this, replete with strange men and sneak-a-peek youths is no place for a shelteredKirghiz girl.
The “ball” is the body of a kid goat slaughtered for the occasion. In the good old bad days, in Afghanistan where the game originated, it was sometimes played with a live human as the ball, along with whipping chains for use against the rival team. Without ceremony or a signal the tournament begins. Sixty wild horsemen thunder across the plain in pursuit of a bloke who’s got the goat. He whips his horse but they catch him and crush around in a furious scrum of tugged reins, flailing whips and jerking mounts.
A spirited youth on a superb black colt bursts from the pack, the goat tucked beneath his leg and his whip singing. The mob streams after him, hell-bent for leather but he gallops straight for the goal line at the base of the rocky outcrop where we sit. Spectators flee as the hooves shower them with sand. A pandemonium of roaring men, still grappling for the dusty carcass, erupts around the rider. He has scored. He drops the goat and someone tosses him a red and blue-checkered scarf that he winds around his waist as a panache trophy.
In a frenetic display of horsemanship riders swing down out of the saddle at full gallop to scoop the dropped goat from the ground. Not once does a rider fall. The pursuit is always at full-tilt, the rules if any are unclear. As suddenly and as unceremoniously as it began, the game ends. The horsemen amble off into the distance, to their herds and yurts, and echoes of Kublai Khan. I note that by the Islamic Hijri calendar we are in the year 1404.
A truck arrives to ferry us back to Kashgar and its famous Sunday market. Over ten thousand people throng the town’s colonnaded bazaars and its huge maidan of vendor stalls. If aromas could riot, this would be it, with gusts of garlic and saffron, musk, dung and horseflesh, samovar chai and pirated perfumes assailing every nostril. There are families on donkey carts, tribesmen in long chapan gowns and turbans, Uyghur women in brocaded frocks and bright kerchiefs, and Chinese office girls in high heels and Mickey Mouse T-shirts: they’re all here to mix and flirt, drink tea and gossip, and to sell, buy or trade everything from herbs, tractors, hats, goats, camels and air-conditioners to the services of al fresco barbers, tooth-pullers and knife-smiths. Here at the largest free market in China it’s always been old-style Silk Road capitalism. Socialism doesn’t even bother to get out of bed.
From the yellow tiles and minaret of the Id Kah Mosque in the main square to the border of Soviet Tajikistan, it’s clear that Xinjiang prays, eats and trades not as Communist China but as part of a deeper, far older abstraction, Greater Turkestan, Moslem Central Asia. Awash with weathered tribals in baggy pantaloons and flowing coats, it strikes me that Kashgar looks more like old Afghanistan than today’s Afghanistan — following the Russian invasion and mujahideen fight-back — ever will again.
Colin has a condition that causes his hand to tremble slightly. Attempting to cash travellers cheques he is almost accused of forgery when his counter-signature doesn’t match the original. A female bank teller with beady, abacus-hard eyes snaps at him, “No same sign, no money, tell police.” “But none of my signatures ever looks like another,” he pleads, showing his shaky hand. Interpreter Zhuang won’t get involved because, as he explains, the teller is a Party girl and if he aggravates her…? Don’t ask. Wanting to be rid of this troublesome gweilo, the teller tells Colin where to go — the black market moneychanger down the street.
“You know that CAAC stands for ‘Chinese Aircraft Always Crash’, don’t you?” says someone. Thanks. We’re on a shamelessly bootlegged version of a Fokker Friendship, heading north back to Urumqi. On a wing and a prayer we cross arid plains scrawled with calligraphic cloud shadows. The capital city, of around one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Tartars, Mongols, Hui and Hans, is a long way from lovely, having been slam-dunked with heavy industries. No stately pleasure-domes of Kublai Khan here. The early-‘60s, Soviet-inspired civic structures — pure Socialist Brutalism — might explain why China soon after started throwing things back across the border at the Russians, if not their architects.
Our second trekking region is in Tienshan, the Heavenly Mountains. Aboard a minibus we wind upwards into the fittingly celestial scenery around Tianche, Heaven Lake. Steep hills drop from the snowline in a rhythm of serrated ridges dense with un-logged spruce forests. Nine oxen, a horse and three Kazakh herdsmen meet us at a lakeside yurt. After loading the pack animals we’re soon off, hiking into classic postcard-style scenery whose lushness feels like an alpine oasis compared to Muztagata’s high desert-scapes. We’re invited for tea into the yurt of a Kazakh family who for a few summer months are back in their traditional high pastures and free from the lowlands government commune where they must spend most of the year.
We’ve collected new cook Wei who, besides being a dab hand at garlic eggplant and even desserts, is an actual mountaineer, speaks excellent English, seems smarter than our interpreter Zhuang and is certainly more fun than Chairman Lee.
A glorious two-day trek from Tianche gets us to 3000 metres and the base camp of Mt Bogda, the Mountain of God. An intensely blue sky vibrates against the snows of Bogda’s seven-peaked massif and its neighboring mountain. The latter is a poetically challenged giant known only by its surveyed height, Mount 4613. Near Bogda base campwe come upon the poignant shrine to a young Japanese woman who died on the mountain in 1981. She had reached Bogda’s summit and was returning to base ahead of her team in order to cook a cake for them — it was her 29th birthday. Crossing a glacier she slipped into a crevasse and died.
We pitch our tents among moraine rocks below the snowline while Wei cooks a giant omelet — quiche moraine, of course — for supper. Our plan is to make daily excursions from here. The first is to the eastern slope of Mt 4613 where a half-kilometre ramp of virgin snow falls invitingly from a craggy overhang. The skiers in our group groan for their absent skis or snowboards. It’s a good, hard scramble to reach the pass from there we look down on another absolute, “Just shut up” vision, the uninhabited Jian Jung Gou valley and its floating jade-green lake.
Next morning Lee casually announces, “We will return today to Lake Tianche.”
“What? We’ve gotthree more nights here. Why would we go back?” I ask. Lee replies with a smirk but Zhuang translates shamefaced: “Because there’s no food for the pack animals.”
“Lee’s in charge of that. Why didn’t he arrange to bring fodder?”
“Because you didn’t tell him to,” answers Zhuang, sheepishly.
“Me! His job is to arrange supplies — including for the animals.”
I soon understand why early political negotiations with the Chinese were dubbed “ping-pong” diplomacy. The discussion is a back-and-forth volley, with Zhuang rendering oddly brief translations to Lee of our much longer questions — the other trekkers have now joined in and are livid about Lee’s Great Leap Backwards. Questions, answers, half-answers and Lee’s stonewalling continue until I notice Wei rolling his eyes. Stir-frying noodles, he mutters over his wok, in English, “Oh boy, wish I was translating here.” Being “only” The Cook he is not permitted to intervene as The Translator.
“Zhuang,” I ask. “Are you translating everything to Lee?”
“Please understand, Mr John, there are many things I cannot say to him.”
“Because Mr Lee is a Party member and I am not.”
Lee’s agenda has been to return us to the yurts by the lake where he can spend the final days snoozing and smoking. The group is having none of his sabotage. Stalemate. Eventually we move the pack beasts to higher pasture and change the trek route but not the duration. Patricia announces that “Lee couldn’t organise a root in a brothel.” Zhuang, anxious that this jibe lies both above his head and below the belt, sidesteps the translation.
We spend our last three days exploring pine-forested valleys and a necklace of frozen lakes. Finally, cautiously, we hike the base of Bogda’s fateful glacier where the seracs soar like giant ice-carvings and the Japanese climber’s silent cairn tells its story.
And then it is time to descend, down through chocolate-box scenery of grazing horses and snowy peaks, past summer yurts and log bridges, and back to Tianche’s heavenly lake, there to farewell the crew and Lee, our own Great Wall, and commence the long rewind back from Tamurlane time.
POSTSCRIPT. XINJIANG 2020
In 2020 The United Nations and Human Rights Watch continue to report that Xinjiang is home to an extensive gulag network of ideological-industrial holding camps. Their purpose is to “re-educate” Moslem Uyghurs and others into Han culture and over-write local ethnic identities. An estimated one million principally non-Han citizens are believed to be detained or working in these centres which often double as factories for export products. “1984” lives on in Xinjiang.
All images and words ©John Borthwick 2020