First a note on Kashgar. This is probably one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Some places look exactly like they’re supposed to. For example Vietnam looks just like Vietnam should. It really is a country of women in conical hats and flowing pajama pants riding motor scooters in front of terraced rice fields. The Ukraine also, unfortunately, looks just as you’d expect. Kashgar is another one of these places but the thing about Kashgar is I had no idea what to expect and it still seemed just like the city in my imagination. Kashgar is basically two cities all mixed up. A big modern Chinese city, albeit with a gritty frontier edge, and an ancient Uigher silk road city. The Silk Road city is unbelievable. It seems straight out of Indiana Jones. It’s a place of winding alley ways, ancient Islamic mud brick buildings, Donkey carts and even the occasional camel. Every evening the population gathers at the huge central mosque and after prayers the streets and alleyways around the mosque turn into a massive outdoor bazaar. The age old Silk Road trade is alive and well here. Trucks bring in Russian and Kazak goods and everywhere Uighyers pile melons, clothes, nuts and spices. (The fruit is the best I have ever had). The roads are over flowing with donkey carts, mini buses and a kind of open bed tractor usually driven by children between the ages of six and eleven ferrying rows of ancient bearded men, and their brightly veiled wives home from evening prayers. The whole scene is choked with the smoke of endless open air barbeques and if you take a wrong turn you come face to face with towering LED television screens, restaurants/ karaoke bars five stories tall and dripping in neon, or huge stone communist monuments to the workers struggle. I’m telling you this place is fucking awesome.
Awesome or not after three days here I was beginning to get a little stir crazy. Every evening when returning to my hotel I passed a huge poster inviting me to go on a camel trek into the infamous Telekamakan desert. On day four I decided to go for it.
Now, anyone who knows me knows I enjoy a good desert (read Palm Springs) but my taste in animals is skewed distinctly in favor of the petting zoo variety excepting of course the noble donkey. That and I'm not even quite sure what trekking is exactly… maybe hiking with snacks? Anyway, skipping the boring bits, by that afternoon my guide and I had arrived at a grape plantation on the outskirts of the desert and were waiting for the “camel man” to arrive. I was happy as can be munching on grapes off the vine and making friends with an adorable little two year old boy I had met who was naked from the waist down wearing my sunglasses and sharing my grapes. The camel man arrived. The only two words I can think of to describe him are rugged and pious. He brought with him two pissy looking camels. The camels knelt down and allowed the camel man to load them with our tents, blankets, saddles and our dinner of melons and bread. The first sign of things to come came when the camel man put my little two year old friend on the camel’s saddle. At first it was an umissible photo op but then the camel stood up launching the child into the air and sending him face first into the sand. I was about to freak out and was preparing to take the kid to the hospital but the camel man just spanked his butt, told him not to cry and sent him running off back to the farm house. It was at this moment that I decided that particular camel was a jerk. He quickly went from grouchy to downright uncooperative which was exasperated by the camel mans only form of discipline which involved beating the camel in the face with a length of rope. Under normal circumstances this would be unpleasant but this time my camel (a smaller one) was tethered to the big cranky one and was being pulled back and forth by his panicking fellow. It was in this state that we set off. Riding a camel is uncomfortable. Every step manages simultaneously to mash your testicles, wrench your lower back, bruise your ass and pry your hips apart from each other. This is if the camel is walking on level ground. If the camel is running or walking on even a slight incline it feels as if you are actually birthing the camel. There is a longstanding camel-myth which states that camels are the most sure footed of all of the beasts. This is false. Camels travel through the desert in much the same way that I do. I may not actually fall on my face but I will not miss an opportunity to stumble and slide around and if the going gets real tough I’m libel to just stop wherever I am and lie down. So goes the mighty camel. After the first twenty minutes of camel riding I was just starting to get comfortable when the camel man shrieked and started beating a shrub with the rope he was using to lead the camels. Then he took off at a full sprint into the desert trailing my running and freaked out camel behind him. Finally he stopped and began throwing his shoes repeatedly at the bush in front of him. After about a minute of this he came up beaming holding a small dead snake, announced that he would sell if for medicine and went back to camel-leading as if nothing had happened. Just as I was calming down, the camel in front of me shat. He shat so hard his anus prolapsed, leaving his ass looking like it had given up trying to inflate a pink party balloon. Normally the camel’s anus would have been his business but the nature of the camel caravan meant that the front camel’s posterior made up about half of my view. That was bad enough but this was an especially flatulent camel and often his rear resembled Sylvester the cat trying to urgently communicate something to me. It was around this time that the lead camel shat again but this time directly into my camel’s waiting mouth. I suppose this happens from time to time in the life of a camel but unfortunately this time my camel reacted by turning and sneezing a nice mixture of snot and camel poop all over me. After sneezing my camel promptly sat down. The camel man began kicking him savagely but my guide saw my horrified face and told him to try a more humane technique. The camel man looked momentarily confused but then rallied and began throwing rocks at the camel while I was still perched on his back. It really freaked me out but it must have also freaked out the camel because we were quickly back on our feet and headed off into the dunes. For the next three hours things progressed in about the same vein. Eventually we reached a flat sandy spot in the dunes and set up camp. Then we spread out blankets and feasted on melon, bread and nuts breaking Ramadan with the guides. We told stories, sang songs and I dispelled myths about the Jews. As night fell I pulled my sleeping bag and blankets out from the tent and slept under the most amazing stars I’ve ever seen. Every now and then the peace was broken by bright flashes on the horizon further out into the desert and the guide told us they were cause by secret military experiments. What started unpleasantly was in the end one of the most undeniably pleasant experiences of
my trip so far.
More to follow