For a few disconcerting moments, the gridlock that ensnared our minivan on the highway linking China to Pakistan sent my mind reeling to the countless hours I’d wasted on Beijing’s perpetually congested, smog-choked ring roads.
But then I stepped out of the vehicle and saw that we were facing an entirely different nemesis.
A few dozen yards ahead, a rivulet of glacial melt from the Kunlun Mountains looming above us had suddenly changed direction, turning the Karakoram Highway into a watery scree course. A line of cargo trucks, taxis and buses snaked toward the horizon.
But what a gorgeous horizon it was, with snow-doused peaks puncturing Windex blue skies. Double-humped Bactrian camels lazed insouciantly amid a reddish, rocky moonscape. Even if the air was uncomfortably thin at 10,000 feet, it had none of the acrid bouquet I’d come to know during five years living in the Chinese capital.
And as we waited for a lone bulldozer to clear the road, there was another consolation prize — the kaleidoscope of fellow travelers who emerged from their vehicles, passed around cigarettes and kept one another entertained.
There were giddy Pakistani gem traders returning from a successful buying trip in China’s southwest, a triumphant Kyrgyz medical student who had just passed his exams in eastern Shandong Province and grizzled Chinese migrant workers heading to an iron ore mine near the Tajikistan border. At the head of the column of stalled traffic, members of a Tajik wedding party, outfitted in embroidered tunics and felt pillbox hats, invited strangers to a banquet scheduled for that evening, road conditions permitting.
Stretching more than 800 miles from Abbottabad in Pakistan to Kashgar in China’s western Xinjiang region, the Karakoram Highway is the world’s highest transnational roadway and a testament to modern China’s determination to shape and contain nature’s most daunting obstacles. Completed in 1979, the roadway’s ostensible aim was to foster trade between Beijing and Karachi, but also to sweeten a marriage between two allies united in their enmity for India.
More than 1,000 lives were lost during the two decades it took to blast out the highway from dizzying escarpments, and keeping the road passable depends on an army of workers kept busy by one of the world’s most seismically active regions; in
2010, the collapse of a mountain on the Pakistani side created a lake that inundated a dozen miles of highway, forcing goods and passengers onto boats to continue the journey through the Hunza Valley.
Over the course of a leisurely three-day expedition from Kashgar to Tashkurgan in late summer, our vehicle was forced to navigate at least a half-dozen recent landslides that helped explain why the word Karakoram, which means “black rock” in Turkish, strikes fear into the hearts of local travelers. Since 1986, when it opened to tourists, though, the highway has
provided access to a mesmerizing slice of a Chinese Central Asia, a high-altitude melting pot of seminomadic tribes who share a landscape of harsh but breathtaking beauty.
Except for the smooth asphalt and steady cellphone service that puts Verizon and AT&T to shame, the journey is little
changed in the 2,000 years since Silk Road traders shuttling between Europe, Asia and the Middle East found safe passage through the Karakoram Mountains at the Khunjerab Pass. Visitors today are confronted with the same barren stretches of dun-colored stone punctuated by the occasional glacial lake, the roiling Gez River and emerald grasslands speckled with white yurts and black yaks.
这就是传说中的丝绸之路，两千年前，来往于欧洲、亚洲和中东的商人发现了喀喇昆仑山脉和红其拉甫山口(Khunjerab Pass)之间这条安全的通道，而今几乎一切如旧，新增的只有平稳的柏油路和令Verizon与AT&T蒙羞的优质手机服务。今天，徐徐展开在旅行者面前的还是那片苍茫的群山，山间偶尔几处冰湖，盖兹河(Gez River) 奔流在山脚，墨绿的草原上点缀着洁白的毡房和乌黑的牦牛。
For accredited journalists in China like me, and the two others I was traveling with, a reporting trip to southern Xinjiang can be a frustrating experience, with local police officers often serving as unwanted chaperones who sometimes insist on joining you for meals. This time, we enlisted the services of Kashgar Guide, an officially sanctioned travel agency, and made clear we would be on holiday. Besides guaranteeing a seamlessly executed visit, the arrangement apparently convinced the authorities that we had left our notebooks at home. We would have a rare unfiltered look at a timeless place, weaving through the myriad communities for whom it is simply just home.
A trip to the southern crescent of Xinjiang invariably begins in Urumqi, the regional capital and a swelling Chinese-style city of three million that offers frequent flights to Beijing, Shanghai and several Central Asian capitals. We landed there, and had a day-and-a-half layover that afforded us adequate time to take in the sprawling Grand Bazaar, an ersatz Islamic-style shopping emporium that draws Uzbeks, Russian and Mongol traders, and the Xinjiang Regional Museum, where a nearly 4,000-year-old redheaded mummy known as the Loulan Beauty is the primary draw. We stayed at a small boutique hotel that rarely receives foreign guests and, thanks to a well-practiced sleight of hand, managed to avoid handing over our passports at the desk, which would have immediately alerted the Public Security Bureau to our arrival.
The rail line heading south from Urumqi provides access to the Uighur heartland, but travelers who don’t have a spare 25 hours to spend on the train can hop over the vast Taklimakan Desert by flying to Kashgar, the fabled Silk Road pit stop that has entranced visitors for centuries. We opted for the 90-minute plane ride and arrived to find that a turbocharged
redevelopment project that was ramping up during a visit two years earlier had largely erased the millenniums-old mud-brick solar plexus of the city.
Despite the devastation — and the depressing replacement structures faced with clay-colored stucco — Kashgar retains much of its Central Asian charm. The streets of the Uighur quarter are a cacophony of blacksmiths hammering out copper ewers and donkey carts heaving with yellow-skinned Hami melons. Women draped in richly patterned fabric seem to float past the fifth-generation spice merchants selling Iranian saffron and Indian cardamom. At busy intersections, hazel-eyed vendors hawk mounds of sugary shaved ice and offal stew — its main ingredient advertised by a goat head poised atop giant, bubbling caldrons.
Kashgar’s markets here are your easiest entry point into Uighur culture. Vegetarians might want to skip the city’s Sunday livestock market, a raucous jamboree of fat-rumped sheep, yaks and the occasional camel — one of which can feed an entire village for days on end.
The city’s other main draw is the Central Asia International Grand Bazaar, a gargantuan market that overflows with
Chinese-made textiles, Malaysian sweets, Turkish appliances and a full range of doppa, the traditional embroidered hats that crown the heads of Muslim men from Istanbul to Bishkek. A few blocks away is a pigeon market, where collectors practically coo over prized specimens, some of which sell for more than $1,000. (Unlike creatures sold in the city’s other markets, these birds do not end up on the dinner plate.)
喀什的另一个重要的魅力之源是中亚国际大市场(the Central Asia International Grand Bazaar)，这片巨大的集市里摆满了中国的布匹、马来西亚的糖果、土耳其的生活用品及各种各样的维族花帽，从土耳其的伊斯坦布尔到吉尔吉斯斯坦的比什凯克
The old city is anchored by the Id Kah Mosque, China’s largest, which can accommodate 20,000 worshipers during Ramadan and other religious holidays. First built in 1442, the complex is a tranquil refuge from the surrounding mercantile buzz, with a series of poplar-shaded courtyards and open-air prayer halls draped in vermilion rugs. Even if Chinese law bars locals under 18 from entering the mosque, an English-language placard reminds visitors of the Communist Party’s magnanimity toward Islam. The sign makes no mention of a dark event associated with the mosque: it was here, in 1933, that troops allied with the
Chinese Nationalist army displayed the severed head of Timur Beg, a Uighur rebel leader whose failed attempt to establish an independent East Turkestan Republic led to the slaughter of thousands of local residents.
老城的精神中心是艾提尕尔清真寺(Id Kah Mosque)。这是中国最大的清真寺，在斋月及其他宗教节日期间可以容纳两万名礼拜者。这片建筑群初建于1442年，像个宁静的港湾，隔开了周围的喧嚣市声与红尘纷扰。几重进深的院落绿杨成荫，开放式礼拜殿内铺着朱红色的地毯。虽然中国的法律禁止十八岁以下的本地人进清真寺，但一张英文告示仍然提醒着游客们共产党对伊斯兰教多么的宽容。告示上没有提到与这座清真寺有关的黑暗历史：19xx年，维族叛军首领铁木尔·伯格(Timur Beg)被杀之后，首级就在这里示众。铁木尔曾经试图参与建立独立的东突厥斯坦共和国(East Turkestan Republic)，国民党的联军镇压了那次活动，屠杀了数千名本地居民。
For those who have spent time in the monotonously modern cities of China’s east, southern Xinjiang is an exotic feast more redolent of Bukhara than Beijing. “Except for the military checkpoints, there’s little to remind you that you’re in China,” said Andrew Shepherd, an American English teacher we met in Tashkurgan.
It was true. Despite billions of dollars in investment, a growing influx of ethnic Han migrants and government policies that seek to dampen religious devotion, southern Xinjiang holds tight to its age-old traditions — and a defiance that occasionally finds expression through attacks on police stations or Chinese soldiers.
Such tensions are largely invisible to the casual visitor, and foreign tourists are enthusiastically welcomed by locals who lament the drop-off in tourism that followed the deadly ethnic rioting that traumatized Urumqi four years ago. Uighurs also insist on eating and sleeping according to what’s known as “Xinjiang time,” which is two hours later than official Beijing time, a legacy of Mao Zedong’s effort to force a country as broad as the United States to adhere to a single time zone.
Having sufficiently stuffed ourselves on lamb kebabs and pulao, the Uighur rice dish not unlike Persian pilaf that is served at the city’s lavishly decorated restaurants, we headed south on the Karakoram Highway, passing a lute factory festooned with plaster musical instruments, and the fast-expanding Special Economic Zone, three years in the making, that the government hopes will turn Kashgar into the manufacturing and trading dynamo of Central Asia.
After whizzing past cotton fields and grape arbors watered by a centuries-old skein of irrigation canals, we stopped for provisions in Upal, a dusky town that hosts a lively market on Mondays. It is authentically Uighur; few people here speak fluent Mandarin, and the town and surrounding countryside have a timeless feel that highlights the challenges Beijing faces as it tries to nudge southern Xinjiang into its idealized vision of a harmonious Greater China.
Residents have a deep connection to their history and are quick to cite the region’s associations with Marco Polo, whose
13th-century crawl from the Republic of Venice to the Mongol-ruled imperial capital in Peking is said to have taken him along a route that follows the modern-day Karakoram Highway.
本地居民对家乡的历史了如指掌，很快就如数家珍地谈起这片地区与马可波罗的渊源。十三世纪，马可波罗从威尼斯共和国出发，跋山涉水，来到了蒙古统治下的元朝的都城北京（元大都），而他走过的那条路，基本就是今天的喀喇昆仑公路。 The explorer certainly left his mark here, with residents insisting the origins of spaghetti can be traced back to the thick,
chewy lahman noodles that are a stable of Uighur cuisine. “Italians think they invented pasta but they are mistaken,” boasted an elderly man pulling noodles at a roadside stand.
Beyond Upal, the well-irrigated farms quickly give way to the parched foothills of the Kunlun Mountains and later, a deep river valley tracing the Gez River that can be challenging to the acrophobic. For hours, as the highway climbs higher, there is little sign of human habitation. Then the rock-strewn desolation is suddenly interrupted by a blinding expanse of aquamarine, a giant glacial lake whose southern end is framed by enormous sand dunes.
We stopped to take photos and were immediately besieged by a cheerful band of Kyrgyz peddlers who had turned discarded truck cabs into stalls selling polished hunks of jade and scorpions entombed in an amber-colored substance that smelled suspiciously like Lucite.
From there, the road ascended above 11,000 feet, leaving half our party unpleasantly lightheaded. The next stop, Karakul Lake, had little to offer in the way of increased oxygen, but its placid waters reflecting glacier-capped peaks helped ease the malaise.
Karakul, the lake that launched a million Chinese postcards, is surprisingly unspoiled, with almost no development along its banks, except for a once-picturesque Kyrgyz village that the local government is rapidly “modernizing” with rows of concrete boxes. We avoided the unsightly Chinese-built hotel (reportedly owned by relatives of a powerful Communist Party official) and instead settled down with a family of shepherds who had turned their summer encampment of yurts into no-frills tourist accommodations.
There are roughly 145,000 ethnic Kyrgyz in China, a nomadic people who have been cut off from their brethren in
neighboring Kyrgyzstan since a falling-out between Mao and Stalin in the early 1960s effectively sealed the border. These days, the Kyrgyz in Xinjiang still depend on wandering flocks of yaks and goats for survival, although younger people are heading to the cities in increasing numbers.
As our host, Sapar Said, a 48-year-old mother of five, stoked a dung-fueled fire and prepared a meal of tangy noodle soup and circular flat bread flecked with sesame seeds, she took a call on her cellphone. It was her 19-year-old son, who had recently taken a factory job in China’s southern Guangdong Province more than 2,500 miles away. Her first question to him: “Have you eaten?”
Before serving her guests, her husband, his head topped by a tall white Kyrgyz cap, knelt toward the east, his weathered
palms turned upward in silent prayer. After dinner, they spoke about how cellphones and solar panels had transformed their lives, the trepidation they felt first meeting a foreigner (“they are so affectionate in public!”) and how the fear quickly turned to familiarity. Asked whether overnight guests ever send back photos they shoot of the family, Mr. Said laughed and used his hands to suggest a foot-thick pile.
We eventually clambered through the darkness, pulled aside the heavy felt flap that sealed our yurt from the wind and
crawled beneath a mound of blankets. In the morning, we awoke to blinding sunshine and a train of horses waiting to take us around the lake. The hourlong circumambulation was led by a trio of teenage boys who listened to Chinese pop music on their cellphones but spoke halting Mandarin. The ride was magical; less so the plastic bags and bits of Styrofoam that floated in the crystalline waters.
South of Karakul, the highway climbs to the wind-whipped Subash pass, which rises to a woozy 13,400 feet. There, we gasped for air and briefly marveled at a lonely bus stop beneath a propaganda billboard extolling ethnic harmony, and then
descended into Tashkurgan, a city noted by the Greek scholar Ptolemy in his second-century B.C. geographic guidebook of the known world. Set in a lush river valley near the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the city is the westernmost settlement in China and still has the feel of a frontier outpost.
Once the capital of the Sarikol Kingdom, it is peppered with evocative ruins, including a crumbling stone fortress at the center of town that gives Tashkurgan its name. The Stone Fort has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times through the centuries; the final sacking, locals say, took place during the decade-long Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976. These days, the tumbledown walls of the fortress provide a rookery for squawking crows.
Tashkurgan remains a thoroughly Tajik city whose 5,000 residents speak an Indo-European dialect related to Persian. We arrived near sunset, and as we walked through the center of town looking for a place to eat, we found ourselves distracted by the faces of passers-by: women with striking green eyes, their heads topped by circular hats draped in colorful scarves, and square-jawed men who could easily blend into a lunchtime crowd in Rome. The Tajiks, famously proud of their traditions, also distinguish themselves from the region’s other ethnic minorities by greeting one another with an elaborate exchange of handshakes and kisses.
The Chinese government has sought to capitalize on this admittedly exotic corner of their territory by subjecting Tashkurgan to a radical makeover, including smoothly paved roads, an imposing police station and 10 new hotels, more than triple the number just two years ago. Chinese flags hang from every lamppost and along the main drag, a procession of illuminated columns change colors in unison, resembling oversized glow sticks at a rave. Rising above a sleepy traffic circle is a sculpture of an eagle — a nod to a cherished fixture of Tajik culture.
塔什库尔干是中国边疆一个公认的充满异族风情的角落，政府对它进行了彻底的改头换面，修建了平整的马路和宏伟的警察局，还新建了十家酒店，这个数目是两年前的三倍以上。五星红旗在每一根灯柱上飘扬，大道上一排排彩灯整齐地变幻色彩，仿佛狂舞派对上巨大的光柱。死气沉沉的街头环岛上矗立着一座雄鹰雕塑，这是塔吉克民族的图腾，也是对塔吉克文化的肯定。 Despite the surge in new construction, the manager of one hotel complained of diminishing crowds, the result of an austerity campaign by China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, who has been discouraging government junkets. “Now that the officials can’t use taxpayer money to travel, they have stopped coming,” she said.
In the meantime, local residents seem to be enjoying the new public amenities, including a boardwalk across the grasslands that on a recent day proved popular with cows seeking to avoid the soggy terrain. At night, both Tajik and Han gravitated to a recently built park, where young people flirted as a troupe of folk dancers performed on a nearby stage.
A few blocks away, a group of Pakistani merchants from the Swat Valley had just stepped off a long-distance bus, weary from their travels, their white shalwar kameez flapping in the wind. Inside their oversize bundles were cheap metal bangles they planned to sell in cities farther east. “Chinese women love anything that shines like gold,” one of the traders, Mohamed Razwan, said hopefully.
几个街区之外，一群来自巴基斯坦斯瓦特山谷(Swat Valley)的商贩刚刚走下长途客车，满脸舟车劳顿之后的倦容，白色的沙瓦克米兹（shalwar kameez，巴基斯坦的民族服装，包括一套长衫与长裤，男女均可穿）飘荡在风中。他们把大包廉价的金属饰品运到远东各个城市出售。“中国女人喜欢一切金光闪闪的东西。”商贩穆罕默德·拉兹万(Mohamed Razwan)充满希望地说。 It was their inaugural trip outside Pakistan, and the men, all in their 20s, were thrilled to be meeting Americans, their first face-to-face encounter with a people frequently vilified at home as hegemonic warmongers. The two groups of strangers could
barely communicate, but we reveled in the moment, snapping pictures of one another, and marveling at our unlikely encounter on a strange, far-flung corner of the world.