Tuesday, January 22, 2008

China-Camel Riding and the World's Freshest Chicken

It is a frigid night here in Almaty, with temperatures well below zero. Definitely a good night to stay inside and drink tea—and perhaps catch up on some of the writing I have been intending to do.

The trip to go camel riding started well before dawn, at 10am Beijing time. It is rather strange to think that 10am is before sunrise, but it was only 8am local time—and during winter in these latitudes, sunrise is rather late. Before we left, we had breakfast in the hotel. I am usually willing to try different things, but the Chinese-style breakfasts are a bit beyond me. Pickled vegetables first thing in the morning can be a little hard to stomach—even for someone who likes rather non-traditional breakfasts.

Our guide met us in the hotel lobby—it would be an interesting trip, since she spoke no English and we only had a few phrases in Chinese. We had agreed (through Amelia’s sister, who interpreted via cellphone) to pay a grand total of 600 quai ($80) to drive us to our destination and bring us back. The camel ride would be an additional 100 quai ($13) each. So, for around $40 each, we would have a day of camel riding and exploring the Taklamakan Desert.

It was a drive of about 150km from Kashgar to the camel reserve. In Kazakhstan, the drive would last no longer than 70 minutes. After the kamikaze drivers in Almaty, it was something of a surprise to have a driver who obeyed speed limits. Within towns/villages, the speed limit was 40km per hour and outside of towns/villages speeds increased to 80km per hour. I actually found myself wishing that our guide would speed up! The drive was fascinating, though. We had left early enough to be able to see children on their way to local schools. In each village that we drove through, we first encountered what appeared to be the wealthier children riding bicycles. They were usually several hundred meters ahead of the remaining students—who had to walk to the village school.

The region we drove through was clearly dominated by Uyghur families—we saw small mosques, signs written in Arabic script (Uyghur is written in the Arabic alphabet), and even a Muslim cemetery. Our guide stopped to allow us to take pictures of this cemetery, which was fascinating (there is a picture in a previous blog). It was just after sunrise and the morning fog had yet to burn off, which made it seem rather unreal. I am not familiar with Uyghur burial customs, but the cemetery appeared to consist of numerous above-ground crypts.

Traffic on the highway was fairly heavy. However, cars were not the only means of transportation—or even the most popular means of transportation. That honor would have to belong to the donkey cart. At one point, our guide stopped to ask one man driving a donkey cart (with his wife sitting in the back of the cart) if we could take his picture. He appeared to be amused, and agreed. I am sure that he had no idea why we thought the image was so fascinating, since donkey carts were part of his everyday landscape.

Before arriving at the camel reserve, we had one more stop to make. Our guide showed us a willow tree that was over 1000 years old. As you might expect, it is absolutely massive. Many of branches have fallen due to their weight, and lay in a twisted mass on the ground. To reach the tree, we had to walk along a narrow path that falls between an irrigation canal and a school. We attracted the attention of the students, who gathered by the school windows and repeatedly called to us—in English. It was rather charming.

Eventually, we reached the camel reserve. By this time, it was nearly 1pm. We were to ride camels for two hours, and then have lunch before returning to Kashgar. The camel ride itself was incredible. Since I’m sure that people are going to ask what type of camels we rode, I should note that they were Bactrian camels, not Dromedaries. Bactrian camels have 2 humps, and are much better adapted to extreme cold and heat than Dromedaries. I should also note that the aroma of camels leaves something to be desired. Although I would imagine that they smell even worse during the hot summer months.

Camels are rather ungainly animals. They don’t appear to be particularly coordinated, and riding a camel can be rather like being on a boat in rough water (they are called the ‘ships of the desert’, after all!). We rode in a convoy, with a guide walking alongside us. It was an incredible way to see the desert—the swirls of sand, the sharp peaks of some of the dunes, a man herding his sheep in the scrubland at the edge of the desert. The Taklamakan is the 2nd largest shifting sand desert in the world—although Xinjiang is the largest province in China (1/6 of the country’s total territory) and has a relatively small population, population densities are as high as those in Eastern China because so much of the region is encompassed by the desert. Traders along the Silk Road would have had to skirt the southern borders of the desert to reach Kashgar. This was the same portion of the desert where we were able to ride camels. Before leaving for Kazakhstan, I commented that one of the things that I wanted to do before returning home was to ride a camel in the desert. To have done so along the ancient Silk Road was truly a phenomenal experience. There will be some great stories to tell the next time I teach about Central Asia!

I don’t know what our guide thought of us, though. Especially when we decided to start singing. It was a little hard to decide on what song to sing—since we couldn’t seem to find a song that all three of us knew the words to. Eventually we found a song we could agree on—I leave it to you to imagine three women riding camels, singing “Goodbye Earl”.

By the time our camel ride was over, the three of us were hungry and, once we were away from the warmth of the camels, freezing cold. Since we had made arrangements for lunch to be served, we thought that it would be ready upon our return. That did not turn out to be the case. Using a combination of hand signals and pictures, our guide asked us what we wanted for lunch. Eventually, we settled on the appropriate menu and then we were shown into a small room heated by a coal brazier. Initially there was a problem with the chimney and the room was filled with smoke. So…we were outside for the next stage of the lunch preparations. When we had been deciding what we wanted for lunch, our guide had indicated a cage filled with chickens. Initially, we thought that she was pointing to the chickens so we knew what sort of meat was available. As it turned out, that was NOT the case. We were being asked if we wanted one of the chickens in the cage. Before we quite realized what was happening, one of the men working at the reserve was inside the cage and having a debate with our guide about which chicken to serve us for lunch. In the past, I have been able to pick which lobster or fish I’d like for dinner—but never which chicken.

When lunch was finally served (at around 4 pm, by which time we were all glad to have eaten breakfast at the hotel), we were a little uncertain as to what we were eating. There was clearly chicken in the dish, but there was also another meat. Given the freshness of the chicken, and the fact that the only other animal we had seen was a dog, we weren’t quite sure what we were eating. But the dog was still sitting outside, and we eventually figured out that it was goat. Thank goodness! It would have been difficult if it had been dog, especially since it was pretty tasty.

Eventually, it was time to head back to Kashgar. It had been an exhausting day, and I was more than ready for a shower and to take a nap. But the day was not over yet. Our guide had one more stop for us on the way back. We were able to visit with a Uyghur family in their farmhouse. It was like walking into a living museum. The house only had two rooms—a living area and a kitchen. Carpet-covered pallets lined one side of the living area, and a dombra (traditional stringed instrument) hung on the wall. It was clearly the gathering place in the house, and also served as a bedroom at night. The only other room was the kitchen, which was significantly warmer. There was a cradle on the floor in the room, but it bore little resemblance to cradles in the US. This cradle had no sides and would be considered an antique by western standards. The farmer’s wife went over to the cradle and pulled back several layers of blankets. After she did so, we realized that her infant son was sleeping in the cradle. She untied a band of cloth that prevented him from falling out of the cradle, and proudly showed him off to us. His father came into the kitchen and played with the baby while we were there. It was clear that they were a happy family. It is a difficult life, though—with no running water, no electricity, none of the amenities that we are accustomed to in the west.

By this time, we thought that the adventures were over. But then we started hearing noises from the back of the car. Eventually, the noise became loud enough for our guide to pull over and open up the trunk—so she could quiet the three live chickens she had bought back at the camel reserve. Apparently, city prices for live chickens were rather high and these chickens were less expensive. The truly strange thing about the situation, though, was that it did not seem to be strange at all. It was just another day in Central Asia.