Asia | China | North West | Lake Karakul – Lake Karakul, Trouble in paradise
When I first planned the trip, Dunhuang was to be my last stop. It was more than I could bargain for to reach Kashgar, and it was exciting enough just to think about traveling onward to Tashkorgan along a section of the Karakorum Highway.
We got off at Karakul Lake, or black water in the local Kirgiz language. The water, however, was a mix of deep navy and aqua blue and reflected the shadows of the snowy Mt. Mustagata in the southeast the Kongur peak in the north, both perching well above 7000m. I could barely see a few colorfully dressed figures going about their yurts on the green pasture by the lake. Birds suspended themselves in mid air, then dropping in a straight vertical line into the water, as if suddenly succumbing to gravity. I enjoyed the suns gentle caresses on my face, and became really excited at the thought that I was looking at the same mountain range that stretched northward from the Himalayas.
But not all was tranquil in paradise. We had a grossly over-priced meal at the family-run Karakol Lake Resort, the only brick building by the lake. With white bathroom tiles covering the exterior, its very existence almost broke the harmony of the lake and the mountains. A man forced us to buy a 20yuan entrance ticket. He said the government would eventually use the money for lake improvement projects, even though the only facility I saw was an ugly wire fence around the lake. We headed to the yurts a bit farther away, hoping to stay there for the night, and ran into a few other travelers who had just been turned away. They told us that the local families were afraid to take foreign guests because the PSB (police department) had already come and threatened them, and would come again at night to kick out all the guests and fine the hosts should they find any foreigners in the yurts then. Our only option was to return to Karakol Lake Resort and stay at their ridiculously expensive yurts that cost us more than a hotel room in Urumqi.
We were assigned a chilly yurt with cracks on the door, and then left ignored with cold demeanors when we raised other requests and questions. So we took off for a walk along the lake. A few pieces of candy bought us the hearts of the Kirgiz kids playing on the meadow, and they invited us into their yurt, warmly lit by a stove in the middle and sealed with layers of wool mats and hand-woven rugs. A girl dressed in urban Chinese style and spoke fluent Mandarin sat inside. A student in Atosh, she was spending the summer vacation here with her relatives. Speaking with the anger of an activist for the rights of the local Kirgiz, she told us the story behind the police threats.
Friction had always existed between the Uyghers and the Kirgiz in many parts of Xinjiang, and in most cases the Kirgiz were the ones being bullied because they were the minority. The family that ran Karakol Lake Resort was Uyghers from another town, and had bribed the police with gifts and frequent banquets. In turn, the PSB would help them monopolize the market by brutalizing and fining the Kirgiz herders should any foreigner stay in their yurts overnight. This would particularly be the case on the days when business was slow. Local herders were usually too uneducated and too afraid of authority to protest, and ended up making their tourism money by pestering visitors with offers of horse and camel rides or selling plastic jewelry.
At first I thought there were always two sides to a story. Yet back at the resort, two tables were full with loud policemen, red-faced from the alcohol. I was outraged at the sight, but couldnt do much now that we had already paid for tonights stay.