At around 4200m above sea level, perched on a rocky slope and huddled in layers in the shade, I hurled my last stone into the rushing torrent below. It had been a motif on this trek, throwing stones, shifting slopes, the clinking sound of small rockfalls and the unpredictable splashes when they hit water. Instead of chucking the things I decided to copy the local shepherds, engage in a more constructive exercise and stack a small cairn while we rested on our descent of Muztagh Ata – the ‘Father of Ice Mountain’ in China’s far western Xinjiang province.
We got here via the Karakoram Highway, a road route from the city of Kashgar and on to Pakistan, over the imposing Khunjerab Pass, that encompasses much of the ancient Silk Road route. Until the latest collosal construction project is complete (late 2016), the route is a bumpy off-road experience, taking roughly 7 hours to complete the barely 200km between Kashgar and our first stop, by the western shore of Karakul Lake. Along the way, army green trucks flying the PRC flag stalk the highway in convoys, transporting coal and iron ore. These commodities are the sole property of the government 4000km away in Beijing. The Uyghur, Kyrgyz and Tajik urban and nomadic communities of the area, in their ‘autonomous counties’ have no stake in the riches beneath their feet. Construction on the highway is carried out by companies from across the PRC, from faraway places like Shandong and Guangxi. A new dam and hydroelectric power station has been built beneath the imposing Kongur mountain, creating a new lake and sinking the winter pastures of the local Kyrgyz villagers, and a part of the old Silk Road. Just like the housing developments in Xinjiang’s cities, financed by municipal goverments like Shanghai and Shenzhen, these projects that flow on from the discovery of western mineral wealth are eastern ventures, and the locals of the west will have to take advantage where they can, or be damned.
They are doing just that, as evidenced by our very presence, renting Kyrgyz villagers’ homes as part of an organised tour. The villagers are also by the roadside hawking jewellery and traditional headwear when the Han Chinese spill from their enormous tour buses for photos by the lakes. These are resilient communities that have seen their fair share of cataclysmic changes and tyrannical rule, and the belated arrival of the full force of the PRC juggernaut is just the latest.
For our first day’s trek we set off clockwise around Karakul Lake, as if traversing an ancient Buddhist circuit. The skies are clear and the views of white capped mountains in almost every direction are breathtaking. We pass through Kyrgyz winter villages, deserted except for the odd curious family. The children usually stare wide-eyed at us strangers until we wave to them, then they crack a smile and hide behind their mother or each other. The clear skies prevail, and the daunting peak of 7500m Muztagh Ata, our purpose, watches over us to the east throughout the day. We pass the odd local on a motorbike, plying the dirt trails between villages. Our guide and donkey driver greet them warmly and uniformly: a smile, the right hand placed on the heart, ‘assalamaleikum (waleikumassalam)’ a firm shake of the right hand, and it returns to to the chest, as inquisitive conversation begins. It’s repeated all over Xinjiang, but here in the mountains there is that warm, rural, genuine concern that inhabits the countryside the world over.
Walking the eastern edge of Karakul Lake, the ink black water is so calm, the stratified tan foothills of the Pamir reflect so clearly that peering over the edge feels like staring into an abyss, the sky deep beneath our feet. We leave the lake behind us, swing around a small hill and across a valley of grassland to a house in the village of Idara – a collection of stone houses with a modest mazar (cemetery) on the western side. The almost 18km walk is exhausting. We’ve barely gained 50m in altitude, but there’s extra effort in even the simplest of tasks at 3700m. Idara is a winter village, but in mid July the family are there to host us for the night, to return to their cattle higher up the slopes as soon as we are gone. To our east, the day’s last rays of sunlight glint off the western glaciers of Muztagh Ata, and the clouds clear for a cold, starlit night.
The next day it’s an 8km walk, 400m up to the busy summer village of Qaltamuk, full of lounging juvenile yaks and energetic children on their summer holidays. We cross a vast pebbled riverbed. The streams running through it are high enough that at one point we are forced into our first effort at rock-throwing: establishing a series of stepping stones to traverse the bubbling waters. Across the grasslands beside the riverbed rust-coloured marmots chirp their warning signs to each other, keeping their distance and stood so still they resemble the rocks that dot the hills. We have a brief lunch in Qaltamuk in the early afternoon before attempting to reach the glacier on Muztagh Ata. The ascent is slow and conversation scarce. Marmots chirp somewhere nearby. We cross a herd of bolshy yaks grazing the upper slopes. Between sips of water and gulps of thin air, we snack on Albeni bars – a kind of Turkish Twix. When the grass slopes end we scuttle over the rocks that the retreating glacier has long since left lie, towards its crumbling ice fringes. We reach 4500m. That’s as high as we’ll get. Rain and hail begin to fall, and the mountain is obscured by clouds except for the white wall lower reaches of the glacier. We hang out at the glacier, grinning for photos beside giant blocks of ice and topping up our bottles with crisp, fresh glacier melt. The weather eases and we begin our difficult descent along the moraine, following the path of the ice. Climbing was tiring, but simple and repetitive. Descending loose rocks requires concentration. We rest often, and throw, or stack, rocks in contemplation. The sun comes out. The cavernous sound of rushing water echoes beneath the glacier, and silvery trickles drip from the melting ice to our right. These drips become the waters that divert through the summer village where we will sleep and fill the pebbled valleys far below. They paint green the grasslands where marmots burrow and horses graze and each ever so slightly lifts the level of Karakul Lake. Unlike where I come from, water is plentiful here and electricity is not.
We return to Qaltamuk just before sunset and slump by the warm stone house stove, spent. Our Uyghur guide and Kyrgyz donkey driver roll out their rugs and pray with the hosts, as they have done each evening, night and morning throughout the trek. They whisper Bismillah before our meal of white rice and fried vegetables, and offer thanks with Alhamdulillah after, placing their palms up and then covering their face before clearing the plates. These Sufi traditions sit comfortably alongside the more ancient superstitions that attribute a divine nature to the mountain, and respect for the countryside and the food on their table – echoes of the region’s Buddhist, and pre-Buddhist, past.
Our appetites shot by altitude, we’re grateful too for the mouthfuls that we managed. And for our descent next morning, back across the river via another rocky crossing. Then further down the highway and into the next valley, where the weather is warmer and the air is thicker. As the stone house lights go out and rain falls on the roof, I wonder how long my little stack of 6 rocks will last, so close to the water’s edge, and with winter not far away. Will the shepherds acknowledge it? I’ll never know.