Into the Wild West: Part 2

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The Olympic Spirit Comes to Kashgar

“The security forces are here,” whispered Hamish. “They’re on every street corner. You can fuckin’ well guarantae it. You just have to know how to spot them.”

As his name suggests, Hamish was Scottish, and spoke with a heavy brogue. He sipped from a can of Coke while he fiddled with a small, expensive-looking video camera.

“I thought this place would be in lockdown,” I said, “after what happened.”

“Not with the Olympics on, mate. The whole world is watching China right now, and you can bet they’ll put their best face forward. Any real reprisals will have to wait until the glare of the spotlight has been removed. Once everyone’s packed up the cameras and gone home—that’s when the heads will roll. But I’m not gaein’ anywhere. I’m stayin’ right here.” He gave his own camera a little shake, for effect.

We were in the town of Kashgar, sitting at the courtyard café of the Chini Bagh Hotel—the gathering place for the smattering of Kashgar’s tourists and expats—as well as our headquarters for the next few days. The massive compound occupied the grounds of the former British Consulate and was of the few places in town that housed foreign travelers.

The Western media always seem to describe the country’s Uyghur population as “restive”—a word utilized so often that it’s become the default adjective when discussing the region. Despite its overuse, it’s not an inaccurate description, since the Uyghurs clearly bristle at the heavy-handed Chinese rule. In fact, just two days before our arrival there was an attack on Chinese security forces. Sixteen cops were killed by two Uyghur radicals in a combined grenade/knife assault. The assailants were apprehended at the scene and dragged away, where they disappeared into the bowels of the state security apparatus and surely faced a nasty, brutal fate.

We were about to leave Ürümqi on the day of the attack, but the trains were held up due to “sandstorms.” Two days later, we were allowed to move on, and after a twenty-four-hour trip, we now found ourselves in this ancient Silk Road city. I was sure the place would be under martial law, but things were strangely normal, at least on the surface. As the Scottish journalist Hamish said, the Chinese needed to keep up appearances. It was the opening day of the 2008 Olympics, and they weren’t about let it be marred by a couple of Uyghur extremists.

Kashgar has been a vital city for centuries, serving as the seat of the Uyghur Empire and the meeting place of both the northern and southern silk routes that skirted the Taklimakan Desert. Stepping into Kashgar is to be, at times, transported to an exotic past. The film The Kite Runner was shot in the city’s old town, a picturesque stand-in for pre-Taliban Kabul, with its rabbit warren of alleys and ancient buildings. It’s a very traditional place, where the men wear skullcaps and the women cover their heads with beautiful, colorful scarves. While moderate when compared to some other Muslims, the people in and around Kashgar are still quite observant. The city’s main mosque—a looming, yellow structure—is mobbed with men during Friday prayers. Donkeys and carts are the chief mode of transportation. The houses are mostly made of mud and supported by wooden beams. Everywhere are locals selling melons and freshly made bread, known as naang. Bread is not just important in Uyghur culture: it is sacred. To step or sit on bread crumbs is a cultural taboo, a kind of blasphemy. Steve joked about insolent, rebellious Uyghur teens, hanging out on street corners, smoking cigarettes, and crushing bits of bread under their derrieres. We imagined some them picking up guitars and forming a punk band called “The Crumb Sitters.”

That afternoon we explored the town’s labyrinthine streets, walking past the many haberdasheries and restaurants serving up steaming bowls of langman, their staple noodle dish. Wafting smoke from grilled mutton was a constant and made our mouths gush: we eventually gave into temptation and took a few savory skewers down. The streets were alive with people—buying, selling, walking, working, or just hanging out. As we ambled through the shaded alleys, we were followed by throngs of children dressed in brightly colored clothing. Some of them—both boys and girls—had shaved heads, a lice-prevention measure. These kids begged not for money, but for photographs. They were fascinated by our digital cameras, and screeched and squealed as they crowded around the screen to get a look at the photos they posed for. They wanted us to take photo after photo. They couldn’t get enough—like the dog who never wants to end his game of fetch. At one point, we had to literally try to outrun the kids, who, when we stopped, grabbed our arms and shirttails and hung on with all they had.

That night the three of us went to back the one restaurant attached to the compound—John’s Travelers’ Cafe— where we drank bottles of watery beer, nibbled on oily piles of stir-fried vegetables, pork, and beef, and took in the full spectacle of the Olympic Opening Ceremony with the rest of the Kashgar’s truly international crowd. About twenty of us sat in the cafe’s wobbly plastic blue chairs, cheering each other’s countries as the teams paraded across the small television screen set up in front. When the camera zoomed in on the dopy visage of George W. Bush, the café erupted in a chorus of boos, most virulently trumpeted forth by our trio of liberal Americans. I ended up sitting with a group of English guys who, after enough beers, began hurling abuse at everyone both on the screen and in the café. I like this idea of affectionate insults and, as a result, often find Brits good company.

The ceremony lasted a good three hours, with coverage and previews afterwards. We continued to make merry. We were eventually joined by Chris and Ian. Chris was an Aussie who was working as a travel guide for rich, middle-aged tourists along the Trans-Siberian Railway. He was enjoying his downtime by doing a little touring himself. Ian was from Tennessee and taught English in China. He claimed to be wanted by the IRS for eighty thousand dollars in unpaid taxes.

“Hell, I might live and die right here in China,” he said between sips. “I can never go home again.”

When the staff tired of us and John’s eventually closed, we ended up in the courtyard of one of the compound’s grungier buildings, which also happened to be the permanent home of a bunch of guys from neighboring Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. We non-Muslims had been drinking for hours and were good and sauced. The café may have kicked us out, but the party’s heart was still beating. At one point someone handed me a guitar and I drunkenly serenaded all of Kashgar with howling renditions of rock standards. Nirvana figured in prominently. Some of the Muslim guys came down and joined us, and before I knew it I was arm in arm with a huge bearded Afghani, pledging international love, brotherhood, and world peace.

 

Up and Down the Karakorum Highway

I woke up to banging.

“Yo! Time to get up!”

Someone was pounding on the door. I jerked up, shook myself awake, and ran my hands through my hair.

“It’s time, boys!” It was Steve’s voice. He knocked some more. “Wakey wakey!”

Sam put a pillow over his head and groaned in agony.

“Yeah, yeah… we’ll be right there,” I shot back.

Sam was a wreck, passed out on his bed without pants, but still wearing his boxers and white tennis shoes. He had raged through the night with a handful of other travelers and was now gripped by a hangover of Nagasakian proportions. I’d taken the evening off and was glad for it; I’d enjoyed a nice, sober sleep, and so had Steve, who also had his own room and was always the earliest riser. He continued his knocking.

“Well hurry up. I’ll be down at the café getting some breakfast.”

“Sure thing.”

I kicked Sam on the soles of his Nikes and ripped the pillow from his head.

“Wake up, asshole. And for the love of God, put some pants on.”

“Urnnnngggg… huh?”

I picked up his jeans from the floor and fired them his way. They landed on his face, which helped to rouse him. In ten minutes, he had them on and the both of us were seated in the café, next to Steve, staring at the menu. Steve sipped coffee, nibbled toast, and worked on a crossword. Sam looked brain-dead and was likely seeing in duplicate, but he managed to order some eggs, and this was a good thing. We needed our sustenance, because after breakfast we were heading up the highest highway in the world.

Our driver’s name was Bao. He was a compulsively laughing Chinese man whose rank breath was an affront to all things living: it smelled like a cocktail of road kill, cigarettes, and dog shit. To make matters worse, he drove like a thrill-junkie high on bath salts. Like so many Chinese drivers, he piloted his vehicle with a surging insanity, careening down the road as if his very manhood was at stake. Bao drove as fast as possible at every moment, laying on ten-second horn blasts to warn any other motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, dogs, cats, goats, or donkeys in the vicinity that he was pushing through. He passed ore-laden dump trucks on blind curves with thousand-foot drop-offs without blinking. He screamed over mountain passes slick with mist and condensation. It seemed he had a death wish; more than once, I had flashes of twisted metal, mutilated flesh, and shattered bones. Was this all worth it? Did I really want to die on the road in one of the most remote corners of Asia?

The Karakoram Highway links Kashgar with Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. On the Chinese side, the road starts by shooting through the arid flatland of the desert—past dusty Uyghur towns packed with donkeys, chickens, and melon carts—before climbing toward the Pakistani border. This atmospheric route jumps over the continentally dominating mass of Kunlun, Pamir, and Karakoram Ranges—all of which converge atop one of the mightiest plateaus on the planet. This area is most famous for K2, the mountain which claimed had the lives of eleven climbers just a week before our journey. We never got within eyeshot of this deadly peak, but we did manage to skirt two of her impressive sisters, Kongur Tagh and Muztag Ata—both behemoths in their own right.

The road slowly rose into the mountains through brilliant red desert hills—reminiscent of the American Southwest—and then entered a sheer gorge, down which the Gez River tumbled in a violent froth. A few pedestrian suspension bridges crossed the canyon, linking the highway with the hardscrabble stone villages on the other side. I was astounded that people were able to eke out a living in such a hostile environment. Things looked tough enough in the summer; the winters must be brutal.

Soon we were stopped at a military checkpoint—one of several on the route—involving stone-faced soldiers sporting flak jackets and automatic weapons. There were sandbags and a couple of armored vehicles on hand. With the Olympics on, security was tight, especially given that the Karakoram Highway is China’s one link to that hotbed of arms and extremism known as Pakistan. One of the men—clad in a camouflage uniform and wearing a helmet—checked our passports, along with Bao’s paperwork, before gruffly waving us through.

The road wound out of the gorge and continued to rise. At this point the elements began punish the hapless pavement. Rivulets ran over the surface of the road like a streambed, partially washing it out in some places. Large rocks sat defiantly on the roadway, deposited there by the water flows and periodic slides.

We were now solidly in the mountains. The temperature dropped and the air became wetter, with periodic patches of mist and grey clouds pouring over the ridges and peaks. The landscape then opened up into a wide valley, with a few small settlements and free-roaming horses in the frost-scarred fields. To our left stood the fattest mountain I’d ever seen, a rocky gargantuan that dwarfed everything nearby. Its top was shrouded in clouds, and much of its rocky face was covered in snow. A few glaciers stretched toward the earth like long white fingers, the beginnings of rivers seeping from their tips.

“Kongur Tagh!” Bao pointed and shouted over the warbling Chinese tunes blasting forth from the van’s cassette player.

“Holy shit,” said Sam.

The three of us stared agog, gut-punched by the mountain’s glory.

Eventually the road entered a huge drainage full of grey runoff and glacial melt, an upper holding tank for the Gez River. Bao pulled over for a pit stop and we got out for a short break. A pack of merchants had set up on the roadside, selling trinkets and handmade rugs. “Kyrgyz,” Bao said, motioning toward them. As soon as we stepped out of the van, we were enveloped by these desperate hawkers, who buzzed around us like hungry mosquitoes. The high mountains are a difficult place to scratch out a living. No creature is immune, and this breeds desperation in all. These Kyrgyz were no exception; they were relentless in their pursuit of a sale. They just swarmed us and repeated the one word in English they had mastered: “This? This? This? This?”

In the end I succumbed to “This?” and bought two small rugs woven from yak hair, but my purchase only served to kindle the fire of the other sellers. They followed me every step I took—grabbing my arms and jostling with each other until I managed to make it back into the shelter of the van—and even then, the rabble banged on the windows and shouted while displaying their wares. These people were hard poor, and stared through the tinted glass with sad, starving hope.

After four hours on the Karakorum Highway, we arrived at Karakul Lake, a glacial-fed alpine reservoir that has become a regular stopover for travelers. Bao dropped us off at the main Kyrgyz settlement on the near shore of the glassy lake. This village consisted of a couple of dilapidated buildings and a cluster of yurts. A young Kyrgyz man met our driver and led us to a vacant yurt. His name was Sereket. He wore a filthy red jacket and black baseball cap. His features were pointy and sharp, his small black eyes friendly and smart. He spoke some English, and once we negotiated a price (meals included), he handed us the keys to our very own yurt.

“What about Bao?” I asked, nodding to our driver.

“He come back tomorrow,” said Sereket. “He stay other place.”

Bao smiled and waved as he got back into the van. He started it up and shot off, peeling out in the gravel. A plume of dust followed the dirty black van as it screamed up the dirt road toward the main highway.

“At least now he’ll only kill himself if he careens off the road,” remarked Steve.

This Kyrgyz village was an actual village—a real, lived-in place—despite the fact that they hosted tourists. It was my first time in a yurt, and it was tidy and inviting: colorful rugs covered the floor, and the rental fee included a fat pile of blankets. The yurt also contained a small metal wood-burning stove in the middle, with a chimney sprouting up through the roof. It was pleasant and cozy and looked like a good place to spend the night, but once I stepped outside, I was greeted with a less-inviting world. The village was nasty, a living garbage dump. Animal and human feces littered the ground, along with trash of all stripes—beer and soft-drink bottles, bits of plastic and paper, discarded clothing, motorcycle tires, and animal bones. The squalor was real, but contained to the area where the people lived. The natural wonder that surrounded the village was staggering in scope—goliath peaks, endless sky, a pure, glacial lake—and luckily the villagers’ hygienic shortcomings did little to diminish the area’s greater effect.

Also, like the roadside carpet hawkers, the touts were unstoppable. As soon as I emerged from my rented yurt-dominium, they converged like zombies. Dead-eyed women held up carpets and mumbled, “Yes? Yes?” Men dangled trinkets and baubles and necklaces in front of my nose when I attempted to breathe in the cold air and absorb the view of the lake. Personal space and privacy meant nothing. “No buy, no buy,” I said firmly, shaking my head. But these hawkers were undeterred: they followed me as I walked away and thrust their goods back in my face when I returned. These were the most persistent touts I’d ever encountered, anywhere. Summer is brief in the Pamirs: it’s the only time the tourists come. The villagers know this, and they milk the teat for all it’s worth, pushing their goods on an endless sales-pitch loop. They’ll even attempt to barter. One man walked up to me holding a massive crystalline geode. It was a giant hunk of geology, a dark stone broken open, with a thick purple-and-white bloom of crystals inside. It was gorgeous but looked impossibly heavy; the skinny old dude visibly struggled as he placed it on ground for my inspection.

“Very nice,” I said, leaning in.

The man gestured to me: Will you buy?

It was a brilliant, mesmerizing stone, and for a moment I savored the thought of a purchase before the practical side of my mind assumed command.

“Sorry. No, no buy. Very heavy.” I pantomimed lifting the thing.

The man then looked toward my feet. I was wearing a brand-new pair of hiking boots purchased for this trip—a two-hundred-dollar set of footwear. He pointed to my boots and then pointed at the geode, offering a trade. I looked at his shoes: they were in a sorry state, beaten to hell and hardly ideal for such taxing surroundings. Quality boots must be a prized possession in such an environment and I felt for the man, but politely walked on. After all, I needed my boots. I couldn’t wear a cluster of crystals.

At one point I asked our host, the impish Sereket, where I could find the nearest toilet. He gleefully pointed me in the right direction, without a hint of shame on his face. Now I understood that I was in China, which, let’s face it, has some of the worst toilets in the world: on this particular trip, I’d shat in open, filthy, collective troughs (just inches from other men) which were flushed out every minute or so, blasting whole cascades of crap right underneath; I’d pooed in reeking, fly-swarmed squatters, and once even evacuated into a tarpaulin-covered ditch on the roadside, next to a rotting dog carcass. Yes, I was in China—Western China—in a mountain village without running water or even electricity, let alone sewers. My expectations were pretty low… but I was still not prepared for the horror which I was about to face. The toilet—or WC, as they’re universally labeled throughout the traveling world—was little more than a shack that covered a creaky wooden platform built over a pit. Three holes were cut into the platform, with black shit towers rising out of each at least a foot above the rim of the holes. The pit below had been filled to capacity. Things had gotten so that most people forwent the holes altogether and shat anywhere in the shack they could, resulting in countless turds littering the dirt floor and other parts of the platform. You could barely walk without hitting one. I later found out that most villagers had given up on the toilet altogether, electing to crap in the field behind the yurts instead, which resulted in a veritable minefield of human excrement.

What was abundantly clear was that the WC needed a thorough shoveling-out, but no one in the village (understandably) was willing to undertake the task. In my opinion, the best course of action would have been to drench the thing in mutton fat and burn it to the ground.

Soon after arriving in the village, Sam crawled into his sleeping bag to sleep off his booze binge from the night before; Steve and I decided to take a hike around the lake. It was a great afternoon walk, though I felt myself gulping for air in the thin atmosphere. Oxygen was scarcer at such elevation, and it was difficult to get a really satisfying breath. At one point, we scurried partway up the loose scree of the mountainside to get a good view of the turquoise water below. The panorama was impressive, giving us a sense of the sheer scale of the place. Just northeast of the lake, Muztag Atta stared down. She was nearly as huge as her sister, Kongur Tagh. Steve and I sat on the rocks and gazed back, looking permanence in the face, filled with a thrilling sense of both wonder and dread.

As we continued our hike, bruise-colored clouds blew up the valley, suddenly menacing our afternoon outing. The wind sliced through our meager summer clothing and into our flesh like blades of ice; soon the clouds opened up with a frigid rain. We were stuck in the open without umbrellas or raincoats: Steve hadn’t packed any, and I’d left mine behind in our hotel in Ürümqi. Our luck prevailed, however, in the form of a villager and his horse, who, for a few yuan, offered us a ride. Steve and I mounted the grey mare while its minder walked, leading us back to the village and the warmth of our yurt.

We returned only to find Sam wrapped in his sleeping bag with several blankets on top. He was near comatose. The rain had chilled Steve to the bone and turned his mood foul. Like Sam, he made himself into a human blanket burrito and set about trying to warm up. He was soaked and shivering. Young Sereket pulled up on his motorbike and entered the yurt. He started a fire in the woodstove, which took an eternity to heat up, eventually providing a modicum of warmth. I sat down just inches away and basked in the welcome radiation of the wood fire’s heat.

Whether Sereket was determined to be a good host or just wanted to escape the constriction his mother’s yurt—which he also shared with his sister and her baby—was anyone’s guess. After he lit the fire, we assumed that he’d head out, but he stuck around, stretching out on the floor and endlessly yapping into his cell phone in whiny and guttural Kyrgyz. A girl’s voice drifted from the speaker. Sam and Steve lay in silence while I sat and sipped from a bottle of whisky I’d brought along—which, along with the wood fire, succeeded in warming my insides. Sereket chatted and chatted away for over an hour and a half, impervious to Steve’s groans of protest.

“Was that your girlfriend?” I asked.

“Yes,” Sereket blushed.

“Would you like some whisky?” I held out the bottle.

“No. I am Muslim. It is forbidden.”

“Fair enough,” I said, taking another pull.

“Are you hungry?” he asked. “Is time for dinner.”

“I’m starving…” groaned Sam.

“Not me. I’m not leaving this yurt,” moaned Steve.

Sereket mounted his dented bike and kicked it into life, while Sam and I followed on foot. We walked through the cold drizzle and over a rocky rise to the second part of the village, made up several concrete yurts. This area was much cleaner, with little refuse on the ground and no human shit—definitely the good side of the tracks. Sereket’s mother lived in one of these more permanent structures, where she served us hot milky tea, followed by huge bowls filled with a kind of buttery Central Asian pasta. It was hearty and delicious, the type of food eaten by people living in a place that even drops below freezing on summer nights. We were also joined by his shy sister and her very new baby. I didn’t ask where the men were. His mother had a soft, gentle way, with a smile and voice that matched. Once we finished up, she laid out a few of her hand-woven carpets and tapestries.

“Maybe tomorrow,” I said, smiling.

“We’ll bring our friend,” Sam said, setting Steve up. “He is very rich.”

Sereket’s eyes glowed at the prospect.

After leaving, Sereket ushered us along the path, back to the humbler side of the village that we were calling home. Once we got back to the yurt, I was expecting him to bid us goodnight and be on his way, but again he came in with us and made himself comfortable, plopping on the floor and calling his girlfriend once again for another interminable puppy-dog conversation. I got the impression that he hung out in this yurt every day, with guests or without. After all, he had the keys.

“How was dinner?” Steve asked. His spirits had improved.

“Great,” Sam said. “You missed out.”

“I should have come. I got hungry and ended up going to the little restaurant near the village entrance, which was a mistake. It was the direst bowl of noodles I’ve ever eaten. I couldn’t finish it.”

“We were properly stuffed with some homemade, Kyrgyz stodge,” I added, rubbing it in. “His mother makes beautiful rugs. You should check them out in the morning.”

“That’s great and all,” Steve said, “but can she knit me a cheeseburger?”

He then motioned to Sereket and lowered his voice: “For fuck’s sake, does he just plan on staying here all night?”

“Maybe so,” I shrugged.

“He lives with his mother, sister, and her baby in a yurt,” said Sam. “I’m sure he’s just happy to be out of the house.”

Sereket was an oddball, with dark, clever eyes and a mischievous grin. He was motivated and ambitious, and had obviously ingratiated himself with the drivers who ferried in the trickle of tourists from Kashgar. His English was self-taught and minimal, but enough to communicate with the people who came to stay in his village. While I understood Steve’s annoyance with Sereket’s continual presence in our yurt, part of me was glad to have him around. The three of us were run down from a combination travel, altitude, drink, and the elements, but Sereket seemed invincibly happy. He helped to cheer up our gloomy little world.

Eventually Sereket left. By this point, we were wrapped up in our sleeping bags and blankets, totally spent, craving only sleep. I heard him walk out the door into the rainy night, start up his dilapidated motorcycle, and putter away, back to the cramped confines of his mom’s concrete yurt. We lay on the ground, staring up into the dark, listening to the rain hit the woolen domed roof. The only other sound was the lull of a man’s voice floating in from the neighboring structure. Though I couldn’t understand the mysterious language, I knew it at once as poetry. It was lyrical and metric, delivered with reverence. From the frequent utterances of “Allah” and “Mohammed,” I took it to be passages from the Koran. The man was reciting holy verses to his family, before they, and we, drifted off to sleep.

 

*

 

The next morning, we had more yak milk tea and the Uyghur version of bagels back at Sereket’s mother’s place. We were joined by our driver, Bao. The bagels were incredibly thick and hard, with “the density of a neutron star,” according to Steve, who joined us for the meal. They were only rendered chewable after a prolonged dip in the steaming hot tea.

After breakfast, Sereket’s mother laid out her handicrafts and her son made the pitch; Steve bargained hard, but in the end walked away with an impressive, hand-woven carpet.

“Where do you go?” asked Sereket as we shook hands.

“Tashkurgan.”

“Oh. You meet Tajik people. See fortress.”

We said our goodbyes, boarded the van, and shot off with our mentally unbalanced driver for a cruise further up the highway through some of the most stunning country yet.

Just as we were leaving Karakul Lake we saw two Western travelers by the side of the road. They were packing up their bags outside of a yurt of their own.

“Don’t we know those guys?” asked Sam.

“Hey Bao,” I said. “Stop here.”

It was Chris and Ian, whom we had met at John’s Café in Kashgar.

I leaned out of the passenger-side window. “Howdy strangers.”

Chris was stuffing some clothes in his pack and looked up. “G’day.”

“Well sheeit,” said Ian, Tennessee twang in full swing. “Did y’all stay here last night?”

“Yeah, down on the lake shore,” I answered.

“Damn… I wished we’d have known.”

“How was it?” asked Chris.

Steve replied: “Wet and cold.”

“Same here.”

“Y’all headin’ up to Tashkurgan?” Ian inquired.

“Yeah,” I said. “We want to check out the fortress. Have you been?”

“Yeah,” said Chris. “We went up there yesterday.”

“How was it?” asked Steve.

Ian put his hand on his hips and shook his head. “Y’all can go if ya want, but there ain’t much to see. It’s just a pile of rocks.”

“It is a beautiful drive,” admitted Chris.

“Yeah… it’s nice drivin’, and all,” continued Ian. “But that fortress? It’s just a pile of rocks.”

Tashkurgan is the end of the line, the last main town before Pakistan, and an ancient trading post. The Chinese wouldn’t let us continue on without the proper visa and no doubt some other onerous permits issued by the local Public Security Bureau, the government cops who regulate travel through “sensitive areas,” of which there were many in the summer of 2008. The place is mainly occupied by Tajik people—close cousins of Persians known for their tall hats, fierce tempers, and large hook noses. There is little in the way of tourist diversions in the town, save taking in the ruins of an ancient fortress.

On the way to Tashkurgan we went through another military checkpoint, this one more sinister than the first. Again, we were all made to get out of the vehicle and present our passports and travel permits. A dour military officer questioned Bao in Chinese. I understood just one word from his response: Meiguo, or “American.” When the officer heard this, his expression turned grave. He slowly perused our documents, repeatedly looking at the photos and faces and back again, examining each stamp and visa for the slightest irregularity. Two soldiers—each clutching a Chinese AK-47—came up just inches behind our backs. The one nearest to me was a towering, broad-shouldered brute. He stood so close that I could nearly feel his breath on my neck, as he menacingly clicked the safety switch on his rifle on and off, on and off.

After about fifteen minutes we were allowed to press on. We drove along a vast, flat region, rimmed with even bigger mountains. A couple of tiny villages dotted the plains, like clusters of dollhouses against the imposing landscape. We then switched back up even higher, until the road came to a slick pass absorbed in moist white clouds. The surroundings took on an eerie, otherworldly flavor, and the road was covered with visible patches of snow and ice. These treacherous conditions did nothing to deter Bao, who pressed on at terminal speeds, chain smoking and singing along with his stupid tapes. I felt the blood pour out of my face. I looked to both Steve and Sam, who were just as scared as me. We were now screaming along the highest highway in the world, when in fact we were in no hurry to get anywhere.

Steve erupted first: “SLOW DOWN!” he yelled. “SLOW THE FUCK DOWN!”

Sam and I joined in: “SLOW DOWN!”

We all pressed our hands down in unison, making our point absolutely clear. Bao gave us a sheepish grin and lay off the gas pedal… slightly. We were paying him to deliver us in one piece, and he was putting everything at risk. He lost some face, but a lot more was at stake.

Bao managed to get us to Tashkurgan safely, just in time for lunch. I wanted to try Tajik food, but he instead brought us to a tattered joint owned and run by people he knew—Chinese—which I’m sure was the plan all along. The meal was oily and unremarkable but did the trick, and after lunch he took us out to see the fortress, driving us to the back side to avoid the entrance fee. He stopped the van, pointed, and signaled for us to get our cameras out. We obliged him and shot away.

Ian was right. The vaunted fortress was indeed “just a pile of rocks”—so ruined and rubble-strewn that it held little interest for the three of us—historical and architectural philistines that we were. After a few clicks I looked at the shots on my camera and realized there was no way to make the object come alive, so instead I pointed my lens in the opposite direction, shooting the herd of yaks grazing in the brilliantly green field to the side of the road.

You don’t have to guess which side gave me the better photo.

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