On Saturday, Mike, Wendy, Alana, and I got into a hired car (with driver) and headed up into the mountains west of Kasghar. Our destination was Karakul Lake, along the highway that leads down into Pakistan. I, of course, would have loved to go all the way to the border, but it’s too far, and the weather this time of year makes it a difficult trip. So we had settled on going to this lake, with the plan of getting up there early afternoon, hiking around the lake, then staying overnight in a yurt.
It was a gorgeous drive up into the mountains, but as we got higher, we eventually drove into the cloud cover and the snow. About halfway up, we had to stop at a border region checkpoint to show our passports and register our presence in the border region. We got to the lake around 1:00pm, and our driver took us straight to some "yurts" along the lake. I put the word in quotation marks, because they were more permanant structures, obviously built for tourists. In the middle was a real one, where the proprieters live. For those of you from Minnesota, think lakeside "tourist cabins" or "resorts" up north! Only these are yurts!! A woman met us and invited us in.
We entered what I called the "double wide" yurt. It had been newly built by the Kyrgyz family, and with the main tourist season having just been closed, they were living in this new structure themselves. The main door took us into one yurt, which was connected by another door into the other one. As we entered the "outer" yurt, the first thing I saw was a freshly chopped off yak head, with the brains and guts brightly exposed, and 4 yak feet. Once I recovered from the shocking sight and smell, I wondered what happened to the rest of the poor fellow!
We quickly walked into the "inner" yurt (the residence part), and my question was answered. The father was bent over a cutting board, chopping intestines and meat for a stew. Later he added a couple of onions for good measure. The two young boys were chewing on slabs of raw yak meat and trying to stick the liver to the side of the coal stove to get it to cook.
We sat down with the family, drank tea, and chatted. Our driver was good friends with this family, so obviously this was where we were going to stay for the night. But of course we had to do some negotiations. Their first price seemed steep to us, so we sort of hesitated. "It includes meals," they said. We looked at the yak intestine stew and the liver cooking away on the side of the stove and responded, "we’ll eat our own food." That gave us room to ask for a lower price, which they were happy to agree to. Whew! Actually, given the fact that it was snowing outside and we could barely see the lake, much less the surrounding mountains, we contemplated heading back to Kashgar after a couple of hours, but decided that we didn’t want to be on the road after dark, and we chose to be hopeful that the weather might clear during the night, so decided to stay.
We tromped around in the snow for awhile, hoping that the clouds would lift. They never did. We were also looking for a toilet, something which we also never found, having to settle instead for hiding behind large rocks. Ok, enough said about that!
Getting through the "outer" yurt where the yak heads were became quite the challenge for me. The smell was awful, and one time I honestly nearly lost the soda crackers that had become my diet for the weekend. Finally, I decided that I just needed to hold my breath as a I walked through. Well, this flat-lander had a little lesson to learn: at an altitude of 10,000 feet, taking a deep breath doesn’t get you enough oxygen to walk 3 steps!! Further, that smell of dead yak had a way of permeating everything, and it began clinging to me like some evil blob from a horror film. I wondered if I’d ever get that smell out of my brain!
The family were delightful. Even though they were Kyrgyz, they spoke Uighur as well, so Mike and Wendy were able to converse with them. I was the complete outsider, because I don’t speak Uighur, and no one in the family spoke Chinese. The mom spent the afternoon preparing the evening meal, and in general doing all the work, as far as I could tell. Everything was done on the ground, and all cooking down on the coal stove in the middle of the room, whose function was also to provide heat. Their two young sons were darling, and we had fun horsing around with them.
As night fell (and the temperature along with it), our host family laid out piles of quilts for us to sleep on and under, and then went off to their yurt (which was a traditional one, made out of felt) for the night. We were on the ground, on top of one quilt, and under about five (I honestly lost count after awhile). With layers of clothes on, and lying under about 30 pounds of quilts, we all looked like beached whales. There is some dispute in our party about what time it was when we hunkered down for the night. I say it was 7:30, but Mike swears it was around 9:30. I still think I’m right, but whatever time it was, within 30 minutes our coal stove was OUT! By morning the temperature inside the yurt was below freezing.
I got up, took a deep breath, held it, and ran to the door, staggering outside to find a foot of fresh new snow!! So much for being hopeful about the weather. After I got some oxygen back into my system I looked around. The highway was above us, and the car was down at the bottom of a hill. Now I’m from Minnesota, so I had some appreciation of this predicament. Car at bottom of snowy hill with no driveway up to highway. This was not good! For a few moments I wondered what it was going to be like to spend the winter up here with this nice Kyrgyz family. Certainly I could lose some weight! The driver emerged from the family yurt where he’d spent the night, and of course sucked his teeth! Definitely not a good sign! Fortunately the family had a shovel. One shovel. Not a snow shovel. Just a shovel. The driver tromped through the snow, trying to map out a route back to the highway, and then we started to dig. With one shovel, and taking shifts, and throwing dirt down, we slowly made a path for the car to move forward. About 2 hours later, we made the last push to the summit where the highway sat! Of course, the highway was covered with snow as well, and out there things like snow plows and graders simply do not exist. We all went back in to rest up and wait for more traffic to pack down the higway. We finally left around 11:30. The road was pretty bad for the first 20 miles or so, but as we got lower, it cleared up.
We made it back to Kashgar around 2:30, where the first thing on our agenda was to try to shower away the dirt and smell of yak! Only then did we go for food!
While up up there, Wendy and I had stood by the lake in the snow and contemplated the fact that there was absolutely nothing that we had done to be the ones chosen to live a life of relative comfort and ease as opposed to the hard life of the family we were spending time with. It was a good reminder that everything that I have is a gift of grace.
You can go here to read Mike’s account of the weekend.