Karakul, Xinjiang, China قاراكۆل
I made one last sidetrip from Kashgar before leaving China. Again, it didn’t feel like China. But it didn’t carry at all the Uyghur character of Kashgar either — this is Kyrgyz land.
Karakul means “black lake” in a variety of Turkic languages, and there are multiple places carrying that name in Central Asia. The one in China (Kalakuli Lake 喀拉庫勒湖) is within a Kyrgyz (Ji’erjisi 吉爾吉斯/Ke’erkezi 柯爾克孜) autonomous prefecture, and it’s got two very small settlements around it.
Taking a shared car heading for Tashkurgan, a town in the neighbouring Tajik autonomous prefecture and along the China-Pakistan Karakoram Highway (whew, all these different groups), we passed the gorgeous and touristy White Sand Lake 白沙湖 before I hopped off at Karakul. But the weather quickly turned — we weren’t in the desert lowlands anymore, but rather at an altitude of 3800 m, in the Pamir Mountains. Things were fine at White Sand Lake, and only a mere 35 km down the road… uh oh.
Kashgar, Xinjiang, China قەشقەر
Kashgar — the name itself already evokes the Silk Road. (The Chinese name, Kashi 喀什, not so much.) At the furthest western end of China, it’s closer to Iran and even eastern Turkey geographically than it is to Beijing and feels nothing like China. Well, at least when you’re in the areas of interest: there’s a new downtown that’s Han-dominated and looks just like every other major city in China. But the rest of the city? The ethnic mix is nothing like I’ve ever seen before, and a big dose of culture shock.
Xinjiang is China’s largest province (Tibet is number two), its bland name (literally “new frontier”) masking its heavy diversity. While officially a Uyghur autonomous region, the Uyghurs (Chinese: Weiwu’er 维吾爾) also constitute the largest ethnic group in the province… at less than 50%. Other significant groups, some with their own autonomous prefectures inside the province, include Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Russians, Tajiks, and Mongols.
And on Sundays, the busiest day at Kashgar’s Grand Bazaar, that’s basically who you’re seeing. No one’s speaking Mandarin, unless they see me or another tourist and they want our business. Despite the large variance in physical features within the Uyghur population, it’s very clear that there are other ethnic groups present, buying and selling at one of Central Asia’s largest markets. Sure, there’s the Uyghurs: men with their traditional caps — circular-fitting, square-topped, and pyramid-like if viewed from the front — and their thick eyebrows and thick moustaches that Chinese men can never possibly grow; women with colourful silk scarves tied around their hair, thick white makeup with exaggerated eyes, fashionable unibrows (real or drawn-on), and even moustaches! But there’s also people with blonde hair (Russian?), people with very dark complexions (Pakistani?), and men and women wearing distinctly different headgear than the traditional Uyghur ones, like tall white hats for men (Kyrgyz for sure) or ornately decorated red ones for women (Tajik?). While Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz are similar, mutually-intelligible Turkic languages, the others are not, and hearing them within the crowds does make it all the more overwhelmingly not Chinese.
Turpan, Xinjiang, China تۇرپان
Oh man, it’s way too hot outside.
Turpan (Chinese: Tulufan 吐鲁番) is located 200 km southeast of Ürümqi (Wulumuqi 烏魯木齊), the capital of Xinjiang province 新疆. Ürümqi is already the most landlocked city in the world — it’s far from every ocean. If this lack of water isn’t already enough, Turpan is located in a depression that’s the one of the lowest places in the world. (Though not quite as low as Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression or Israel/Palestine/Jordan’s Dead Sea.) That makes it pretty darn hot, and the low-altitude Ayding Lake has pretty much dried up. Oh, and it’s also surrounded by desert, though Turpan itself is an oasis city. Now why’d I decide to come in August?!
Also, if you’re not familiar with this area of the world and you’re wondering about these names: Xinjiang is officially a Uyghur autonomous province. Uyghur people have far more in common with everything west of China than China itself: they speak a Turkic language like neighbouring Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan and far-away Turkey, and the people look… not Chinese: imagine a mix of everyone between Turkey, Pakistan, and Russia. Not only is that geographically true of Central Asia, it does sort of explain the physical traits of the population.
So it was really weird to get off of a train from Dunhuang and immediately be surrounded by people looking nothing like Chinese people, many following Islamic dress, speaking something that sounds like Turkish, with signs written in the Arabic alphabet. Is this really China? The only giveaways are the bilingual signs and the fact that my only able means of communication here is Mandarin. Even the way people measure time is different: despite being in the same timezone as Beijing, people use “Xinjiang time” (-2 hours) unofficially, due to how far west it is. The sun sets around 10 pm Beijing time!
It’s over 40°C (100°F) outside, the hottest place in China. Can I go inside for some air conditioning now?
Dunhuang, Gansu, China 敦煌
After a month in the highlands and mountains of Greater Tibet, arriving in hot, hot Dunhuang was jarring both visually and physically. The green, rolling hills are replaced by the largely flat and featureless Gobi Desert, dominating my train ride throughout Gansu province 甘肅, and the comfortably cool weather replaced by an oppressive (but thankfully dry) heat reaching over 40°C (104°F) on my arrival. No more Tibetan bilingual signs, although that already stopped in Xining, an ethnically-mixed city. Practically every restaurant is halal 清真, and dopis and hijabs are far more visible than before, even amongst the massive numbers of Han tourists: this is a Hui heartland.
Despite the current demographic, this is a significant site of the Silk Road, an area which saw products hailing from faraway Central Asian lands pass through, holding a reputation as a gateway to Xi’an and the rest of China. Its former grandeur as Shazhou 沙洲, the city of sand (and now a non-descript district of the small city of Dunhuang), may have been lost through time and the central government’s previous attitude of cultural neglect and lack of preservation, but plenty of evidence still exists, primarily as an entry point of Buddhism into China.
Xining, Qinghai, China 西宁
For more context, please first read the previous entry.
Continuing from Yushu, I was again received by church members in Xining (西寧, Tibetan: Ziling), home of the head office of the same ministry. Being an office, there wasn’t much field work to see, and so the pastor here organised for me a whirlwind week of visiting Xining’s surrounds, famous across China for its particularly unique geographical offerings — and oh my, there is a *lot* to see.
Yet in between it all, I still got to learn and see the fruits of their church network’s labour, and learn about their works with Muslim Hui minority communities, aiding the impoverished and building genuine, lasting relationships.
Yushu, Qinghai, China 玉树
My visit to Greater Tibet was extended to twice as much as I had originally planned for, in anticipation of the Tibetan horse racing festival in Yushu. It’s hilarious (and a little disappointing, but mostly just hilarious) then that I went for five days and missed all of the horse racing, due to the lack of a written schedule and multiple venues. No regrets though! That Garzê detour would not have happened otherwise.
I was received in Yushu (trad. 玉樹, Tibetan: Jyekundo) and Xining by pastors and members of a loose affiliation of churches whose ministry my dad supports through Partners International. (For my previous entry on ministry in Xi’an, click here.) This group of unsanctioned, “underground” churches, based primarily in Qinghai province 青海, supports mostly ethnic minorities of China, although their reach has now widened to virtually all corners of China along with parts of Nepal and northern India. Given that most of Qinghai is considered the Amdo region of Greater Tibet, it’s no surprise that Tibetans are by far the largest group they support, although they also have outreach to Hui people and the majority Han. Their mission is simply to bring the church to areas it hasn’t been, pointedly picking empty-looking places on a map where no churches exist.
But this brings to question: given Tibet’s history of forced cultural change and repression at the hands of the Chinese government, having suffered irreparable harm, where does Christianity fit in? And given that Tibetans (Buddhist) and Hui (Muslim) are both ethnoreligious groups (like Jewish people, you could sort of say), how could you possible spread a different faith to them? Despite what you often see in the United States, Christianity considers itself counter-cultural. I’d say never more so than in this case.
Yarchen and Sertar, Sichuan, China ཡ་ཆེན གསེར
Home to two of the biggest Buddhist monasteries in the world, something is going on here and no one’s talking.
Access to Sertar has just begun to be prohibited for foreigners, but there’s a feeling that Yarchen may suffer the same fate soon. Since I’m technically not a foreigner, I was able to waltz right into both places. (As with Tibet province.) Plenty of domestic tourists. Nothing felt amiss.
I took two overnight trips while based in Garzê: first, to Yarchen Gar (Chinese: Yaqing Si 亚青寺), a sprawling monastery city where everyone’s a monk or nun. Well, mostly nuns — way more nuns than monks, in fact. The view from the hilltop is a sight to behold.
Garzê, Sichuan, China དཀར་མཛེས་
Tibet isn’t just the Chinese province of Tibet. Despite having parts annexed into other provinces, Tibetan culture is still well and alive in Sichuan and Qinghai, where Tibetan-majority autonomous areas exist — in some ways, you could say it’s even more Tibet than Tibet.
Garzê (Chinese: Ganzi 甘孜) is probably one of the more famous areas, with domestic and foreign tourists (often those who can’t enter Tibet) alike, but even then it’s hardly a hotspot, with its somewhat remote location in the far west of Sichuan 四川 province. Eschewing any further package tours from Lhasa, few to none of which stop in Garzê, I chose to head to Garzê the local way: wait six hours for a share taxi, then sit for 40 more hours (of Tibetan pop and rap, Bon Jovi, that Vengabus song from the 90s, Bollywood music, and Tibetan covers of western music) as it heads through beautiful but gruelling roads that don’t even exist on the map, crossing rivers, pushing the car up muddy slopes, sleeping in the car as drivers alternate and continue through the night. Everyone was so tired the second night that we gave up and stopped at a guesthouse for all of seven hours.
We were split into a two-car caravan, with Sonam driving the car I was in, along with his wife and two kids. Being stuck in a car together with people you don’t know for three days makes for either massive awkwardness or a quick friendship — and luckily, the latter happened. His young children were remarkably patient and well-behaved (or just sleepy) in a very bumpy and long car ride, and I got to know them a bit — Sonam’s from the Garzê area, his wife Wamu from Shigatse where they live, and they’re heading over to visit his family.
Shigatse and Mt. Everest, Tibet, China གཞིས་ཀ་རྩེ་གྲོང
As if 3600m Lhasa wasn’t enough to leave me breathless, why not head to the highest place in the world? (This, in a year where I headed somewhere close to the opposite already!)
It may be the most touristy thing to do in Tibet, but it’s worth it. (It’s also much easier and cheaper as a Chinese national; access to Tibet is restricted to guided tours only if otherwise.) I joined a four-day tour to the Chinese base camp of Mount Everest — known as Qomolangma in Tibetan (ཇོ་མོ་གླང་མ) and Chinese (珠穆朗玛峰), or just Zhufeng 珠峰 for short. (Being the demarcation of the Nepalese border, it’s known as Sagarmatha there.) We crossed some of the highest roads in the world, passing by countless stretches of stunning scenery: fields of wildflowers, Tibetan villages, impossibly blue lakes (oxygen-deprived, due to the altitude) like Yamdrok-tso, monasteries, and even the Kharola glacier above 7000m with the viewpoint leaving me heaving at 5560m! I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Lhasa, Tibet, China ལྷ་ས།
It took two days to get from Xi’an to Lhasa (with a one-night stop in Xining, Qinghai) by train. China’s rail network is one of the largest in the world, and its 10-year-old extension to Lhasa (Chinese: Lasa 拉薩) is an incredible feat of engineering, climbing the Tibetan Plateau from an elevation of 2300m in Xining, past 4000m somewhere along the line, and about 3500m in Lhasa — so quickly that every single person on the train not already acclimatised to high altitudes suffers from altitude sickness. And that train is full, full, full: vacationers trying to beat the summer heat elsewhere within China, student backpackers, Tibetans returning home or just visiting…
Aside from being breathless and suffering from a mild headache, arriving in Lhasa looks like arriving pretty much anywhere else in China. Hop on a public bus, pass through large shopping areas and glitzy screens, and–
Oh wait. Are we in China? Of course we’re in China. Flags flags flags flags flags. Hmm. I don’t recall ever seeing this many Chinese flags in any city before.