Monday, January 17, 2005

China: Freezin' in Kashgar

For the long Martin Luther King weekend, I took the opportunity to visit China again.  What better way to celebrate the life of a civil rights superstar than to visit a place where individual rights are such a top priority.

This trip was to Kashgar, which is also called Kashi.  Kashgar is near the China/Pakistan border, on the other side of the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Himalaya mountain ranges.  There is a direct flight from Islamabad that takes about an hour and a half.

So, on a fine Saturday afternoon, I hopped on the plane to Kashgar.  The flight was nearly empty, and the scenery alone more than justified the cost of the ticket.  For probably 45 solid minutes, we were flying over the world’s tallest mountain ranges, at an altitude that permitted an excellent view.  The glaciers were especially nice.

In no time, we were in Kashgar.  As we landed at the airport, a group of Chinese soldiers was marching across the runway.  As it was winter, they were wearing their green oversized overcoats that made them all look like children wearing their parents’ clothes.

I cleared passport control, left the airport, and entered the territory of the taxi drivers.  Several pounced on the bait.  None of them could speak English, however, so I pointed to the name of my hotel written in Chinese in my guidebook.  None of the drivers would use the meter.  The driver I ended up taking told me he would take me for 50 RMB (about $6.20).  I told him I’d give him 30 RMB (about $3.70), and he agreed.  Once I agreed to pay 30, the driver ran to the other drivers jubilantly telling them.  I guess I was still paying top dollar.

The largest minority group in the western Chinese state of Xinjiang is the Uighurs (sounds like wiggers).  In Kashgar, the population is mostly Uighur, and there are very few Han Chinese there.  The Uighur culture is a mixture of Central Asian cultures drawing from nearby Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.  They are predominantly Muslim, and their written language is based on the Arabic alphabet.

So anyway, I was cruising down the road with my Uighur taxi driver.  He tried making conversation in Mandarin, but he could tell pretty quickly I was clueless.  He gave Uighur a shot.  The greeting in Uighur happens to be the same as in Urdu, so I thought maybe there was hope.  He greeted me, and I responded to him in Urdu.  Unfortunately, the greeting was the only commonality between the languages that I could detect.

The driver was going the speed limit, so we had a slow ride into town.  There were also a few roads that were closed for VIP motorcades, further delaying us.

Once we got to the hotel, the driver came inside so that he could ask the clerk at the desk to apologize to me on his behalf for taking so long, since the clerk could speak English.  That was a nice surprise since I was thinking he would try to raise the price since it had taken so much time.  At check-in, a man from the in-house tour agency gave me a sheet of paper titled “Learn Uigher: Speak to Them in Their Own Language” and asked me to stop by his office later.  The handout had a few phrases on it.

I was staying at the Seman Hotel, which had formerly been a Russian Consulate.  The Seman offered a wide range of rooms.  The room I got was small and cold, and there was no hot water.  The price was right, though.

I had the whole afternoon remaining, so I ditched my bag in the room and set out with my camera.  I walked for a good while and took in the sites along the main drag.  Actually, the main drag was mostly just stores, and most of the stores were selling the same coats and long johns.  I tried on some jackets, but nothing fit.  The chest fit in a size large, but even in an XXXXL, my arms were hanging out by inches.  I guess the Chinese can maybe do big, but definitely not tall.

On my walk, I passed the People’s (Renmin) Square and the huge Mao statue across the street.  I continued on and came to the East Lake, which was frozen over.  Near the lake, there was a small park with several statues of Disney characters (all officially licensed, I’m sure) and a Ferris wheel which was not running.  At this point, I decided to walk back toward the hotel.

Kashgar in January was quite cold, and nearly everyone was wearing a fur hat as well as a fur or leather coat.

On my walk, a few boys on bicycles rode next to me for a bit and tried to speak English.  Then two girls asked me to take their photo, which I did.  Beyond that, everyone else just gawked at me.

I didn’t go directly back to the hotel, and instead I found a cool street with vendors selling handmade local musical instruments.  I got some street food and browsed the shops.  Specifically, I bought some breads that were about the size of a bagel.  Each was flat in the center, and the puffed outer ring was full of a meat, fat, and onion mixture.  If you are wondering about the fat part, rest assured it was an actual ingredient.  The cook would sit behind two large piles of ingredients – a big red pile (diced beef or sheep) and a big white pile (diced sheep fat) – and take equal measures of each to make the filling.  I finished those two breads that night, and they were tasty.  From that point on, however, my tolerance for sheep fat was rapidly waning.

As I was having my sheep fat bagels, one shopkeeper called me over.  He invited me back into his workshop where all sorts of crazy instruments were in various stages of construction.  There was an old man in the workshop, playing a violin-like instrument and singing.

It was entertaining, but after like ten minutes, I was bored.  I couldn’t find a good time to excuse myself since the old guy just kept going and going.

Finally after another 30 or 45 minutes, they decided it was time to close, and the old guy packed it up.  The clerk showed me the merchandise again, but I didn’t buy anything.  After all, everything was as expensive as it was beautifully crafted.  Plus I wouldn’t have known how to properly play whatever I bought unless I got something totally basic like a rattle.

I walked on back to the hotel, stopping along the way for some more street food.  This time I got some confections made of nuts and raisins in a hard sugar casing, sort of like peanut brittle.  These were on sale everywhere, and I would buy them several more times.

At some point during my walk, I lost my silver bracelet that I had gotten in India on an earlier trip.  Bummer.

At the hotel, I was on the ground floor.  There were no bars on the windows, but more disturbingly the windows didn’t even fully close.  I decided to sleep with my valuables under the covers.

I got ready for bed and started watching some Chinese TV.  At around 11:00, before I had gone to bed, the phone rang.  It was late, and, having been to China before, I was wise to the fact that prostitutes, in collaboration with hotel staff, were known to cold-call foreign guests late at night.  I didn’t answer, and the caller gave up.

I went to sleep, and at 1:30, the phone rang again.  This time I answered.  It was the freakin’ boy working the night shift at the reception desk.  He was either terribly bored or up to no good.  The call went something like this:


“Hello, Mr. Christopher.  I am Aslam from the reception desk.”


“Welcome to Kashgar.”


“What did you do today?”

“I went for a walk, and then I went to sleep.  Is there a problem?”

“No problem.  I am just calling to see if I can help you plan anything.”




“So what do you want to do?”

“Go back to sleep.  Good night.”

“OK.  Call me later.  I get off at 7 o’clock.”

I’m no trained detective, but this was possibly a variation on the prostitute calling game.  With the “What do you want to do?” question, there were any number of ways that call could have ended.

I woke up after 7:00 and missed the helpful night clerk.  Damn!  It was Sunday, and on the agenda was the famous Kashgar Sunday market, an event that draws vendors from all over Central Asia.

I caught a cab, and soon I was browsing the stalls.  I was interested in the souvenir side of things, so I bypassed all the stalls of leather coats, jeans, shampoo, and the like.  The first thing that caught my eye was a chapatti press – a tool that could put a star pattern on flatbread before it was cooked.  As soon as I stopped to look at it, all the people who had previously just been craning their necks to stare at me came over for a closer look.  There were probably 20 or 30 people crowded around me on the sidewalk watching me bargain.  Since I was bargaining for the chapatti press, it would be logical to assume that I was interested in buying it.  Still, people kept trying to be helpful in an annoying kind of way.  Some onlookers ran over to a bread vendor and got some bread that had been stamped with a pattern.  Then they took the chapatti press and pretended to be stamping the bread.  This demonstration was good and well, but I already knew how to use the tool.  The vendor put up four fingers, so I thought he wanted 4 RMB (about 50 cents).  I thought that was a real steal.  I gave the guy 4 RMB, but that wasn’t the price.  He clarified by writing 40 on a paper (about $5).  That was a bit steep, so I walked away.  In no time, there was a rumble from the crowd – the seller wanted to deal.  I ended up taking 2 for 40.  As I was paying, in further attempts at helpfulness, a few onlookers took it upon themselves to reach into my wallet to help me find the right bills.  That was a bit extreme, so I gave them a gesture to step back.

Once the sale was finished, I moved on.  A few people from my entourage followed me, but most went off in other directions.

I continued browsing and came to the main market building.  It was full of everything – hats, clothes, carpets, cooking supplies, herbs, housewares, toiletries, and more.  I bought one of the traditional Uighur hats.  It looked like a toboggan with the top part being black velvet and the trim rust-colored mink fur.  This was very popular in town.  I still had my beard then, and a hat vendor also sold me a hat that was “very good for Muslims”.  It was a black hat with a thick grey band that was made of wool.

Another famous Kashgar product is their knife.  Like the hat vendors, who had their own section of the market, the knife vendors also had a section.  I went to a few shops, and the salesmen were totally annoying.  They would pull out all these knives and cut whatever was handy to show the sharpness.  A favorite demonstration of the knife vendors was to slice the shopper’s fingernails.  It was very annoying.  These guys thought nothing of grabbing a person’s hand and cutting grooves into his nails.  After a few people did this to me, I started pulling my hand away before they could cut the nail, and the vendors would actually start yanking my hand back over as if they were entitled to demonstrate their blades on my nails.  I wasn’t worried about getting cut or anything like that; it was more of a personal space issue.

The knife vendors would also point out the stamped dates on their knives to show how old they were.  Call me a skeptic, but I had no faith that knives made last year weren’t being stamped 1926, for example.  The vendors were all super desperate.

I ended up buying a knife that supposedly had a deer bone handle.  A subsequent vendor saw it and claimed it was plastic.  He could have been telling the truth or perhaps he was engaging in the popular practice among vendors of trying to discredit the competition.  I didn’t really care if it was fake since it only cost about $12.  One knife was enough, though, so I had to blow off all the other aggressive knife hawkers.

I walked out of the market building with my new Uighur hat on, and I think it reduced the staring by the locals by 0.0021 percent.  It’s not like I was trying to blend in though.

Several people did give my hat the thumbs-up.

Just outside the market building, there were more hat vendors.  They were selling knock-offs that were made with synthetic fur.  I ended up getting a third hat.  This type, also very popular in Kashgar, was the kind most people associate with Russians.  It was the black mink hat with the earflaps tied on top.  The real ones were going for like $80 in the market, but my fake one cost only $2.  I changed hats, and I was styling to be sure.  No one could tell it was fake without close inspection, and the vendors who sold it to me even tried to claim it was real.

I ended up roaming the market for hours, and every so often, I would pick up some “helpful” kid.  One kid attached himself to me while I was buying my fake hat.  He spoke pretty good English, but said that he wanted to tag along with me and practice.  I told him fine.

Things were going OK until this kid took it upon himself to try to help vendors sell thing to me:  “Sir, the children make these, and they are not very expensive.”  “Sir, this tea pot is very special.”  Blah, blah, blah.

Practicing English was one thing, but trying to influence sales was quite another.  I cut this kid loose.

I stopped for some pomegranate juice and street bread.  This time I got a large piece with no filling, kind of like a pizza crust.

My last stop was to the carpet section, where I decided that my tastes in carpets did not have anything in common with those of the Kashgar vendors.  Every last piece was ugly and overpriced.

After I made a few passes through the market for shopping, I went back through intending to take pictures.  I hardly took any, although there were plenty of interesting things to see – food stalls with locals hunkering down to whole steamed or boiled sheep heads, chemist shops with all kinds of dried animals and animal parts in jars, hordes of people in fur hats, roads choked with cars, buses, people, and donkey carts, with everyone yelling “Push!” which must have meant “Move!” or “Coming through!”.

After the market, I walked back to the hotel, stopping in the stores on the way whenever I needed to warm up.  A few minutes from the hotel, I went into a supermarket.  I had on my backpack, which was holding my camera and my souvenirs.  At many stores, there were lockers outside.  I had always skipped the lockers, and no one much cared.  At this grocery store, they did care.  An employee started making a big fuss about my backpack, and since I didn’t feel like using the lockers, I left.  And while I was getting kicked out, wouldn’t you know that there were two tourists (who looked French to me), who clearly hadn’t been kicked out, at the check-out counter watching the whole thing.  I don’t mind looking silly in front of locals, but to look silly in front of other tourists is more embarrassing.  I walked a little down the road and found a grocery store that wasn’t so uptight on the locker policy.

On the previous evening, I had inquired at the hotel’s in-house travel agency as to what day trip I could do on my final day.  The two tour operators were both named Abdul.  They showed me three or four excursions I could take, but unfortunately, they were all inaccessible because of the winter weather.  The only choice on the table was a Kashgar city tour, which did not interest me.

There was also a small chance that I would be able to take an excursion to Karakuli Lake (also sometimes written as Karakuri, Karakol, and so forth).  Karakuli Lake is called the Father of Glaciers.  It’s about 3,600 meters (11,808 feet) high, at the foot of Mount Maztagata.  The road to the lake had been impassable for weeks, but Abdul the Shorter said he would check the following day to see if any trucks had been able to get through.  In order to illustrate how dangerous the roads could be in the winter, he relayed the story to me of how in March 2004 he had been in tour-guide training.  He had taken a bus of people up Tiantan Mountain that ended up sliding off the road after some interactions with a mini-bus, leading to a recovery operation that lasted several hours.  And what a small world it is!  I told him how I had been in a mini-bus in March 2004 going up Tiantan Mountain when my car and a tour bus ended up in the ditch and required an effort of several hours to free them.  I’m sure this situation happened more than once on Tiantan Mountain in March ’04, but who knows.  Perhaps Abdul the Shorter and I had crossed paths before.

Anyhow, I was to check back the following day to get the latest on road conditions.  The main tourist season in Kashgar is in the summer, so there weren’t many tourists when I was there.  Besides me and the French people in the supermarket, there were two German guys staying at my hotel.  There was a possibility they would be joining me on the trip to the lake.

When I checked about the trip, I got good news.  The first trucks in weeks had gotten through the road, and the trip was a go.  I was told to be back at the travel office the following morning at 7:00.

Before I left the tour office, I asked Abdul the Shorter for a recommendation for dinner.  He suggested a place near the hotel, which had no restaurant of its own or else it had one that was closed for the winter.  Knowing that the staff at the restaurant he was recommending didn’t speak English, he asked me what I wanted to eat and wrote it out for me in Uighur.  I was getting a local noodle dish and some kebabs, but the translation he wrote for me was several sentences long.  According to what he told me, it said something to this effect: “I want one order of Uighur noodles.  Make it spicy, but not too spicy.  Add all the non-spicy extra toppings.  Bring two beef jungle kebabs with no vegetables.  Make them regular spicy.  Also bring a pot of tea.”  It looked like a novel on the paper.

With my very specific order in hand, I went over to the restaurant.  There was the initial confusion among the staff when they realized we couldn’t communicate, but they eventually seated me and brought me a menu.  I gave the waitress my pre-written order.  She got a kick out of it and passed it around to several of the other staff members.  They were all laughing, but before long, the order appeared as written.

Not to be culturally insensitive, but it was not the best meal I’ve ever had.  The kebabs were heroically tough, and the noodles were nothing special.  Uighur food is nothing like Chinese food; that’s for sure.  As I was jawing on my meat and choking down the noodle soup amidst large quantities of tea, I got the urge for a beer.  That’s one word I know in Chinese, so I ordered one.  They told me they didn’t have any beer, and then I realized my mistake.  Uighur restaurant = Muslim staff = no alcohol = no beer.  Doh!

I felt like a doofus, so I asked for a Sprite instead.  Meanwhile, the manager had dispatched a waitress to get me a beer from a liquor store in the area.  She was proud to present it to me a few minutes later, and I felt like more of a doofus than before.

I finished dinner, and then I called it a night.  Again, I watched Chinese TV, had a cold shower, and went to bed with my belongings under the blanket.

And again the phone rang at o-dark-30.  I answered again, and this time it was a woman who it seemed could speak no English.  It was probably just a wrong number, so I hung up.

The next day, I woke up and reported to the lobby by 7:00.  There was no sign of the tour office staff until 7:30, which was the new starting time that they forgot to tell me about.  The Germans weren’t there, so I asked where they were.  It turned out that they were going to wait and see how my trip went before they committed to one.  Weenies!

My driver was a man whose name I can’t recall.  I’ll just call him Wilbur for this story.  Wilbur spoke no English.  We took off in his old beater with no heat in the freezing cold, and like my taxi drivers before, he strictly adhered to the speed limit.  We slowly drove through the empty city streets, and on the edge of town, we stopped for gas.

Shortly outside town, the paved road ended, and we continued on over raggedy gravel roads for at least an hour.  Wilbur kept going at his slow city driving pace, which, when transferred to a gravel road, seemed quite fast.  On the way, we stopped for breakfast at a roadside restaurant.  The chef had several large pots of food outside, so we each got a heaping plate of a rice dish and went inside to eat.  The dish was a greasy concoction of rice and diced carrots.  Wilbur got his with meat, but it appeared to be goat jaw and I passed.  The rice wasn’t bad, although I’m sure the greasy component was my old friend: sheep fat.  For drink, we both had bottomless tea.

I was the only foreigner in the restaurant, but no one batted an eye.  It must’ve been my hat.  Just kidding.

Wilbur and I both ate every last grain of rice, and then we left.  Wilbur paid, and for both of us breakfast cost a dollar.

Before long, we reached the mountain ranges, and they were spectacular.  The gravel road gave way to a nice paved road.  It was kind of screwy, though, because the perfect blacktop was peppered with snowy stretches and patches with dirt and rocks and portions that were severely pocked.  So, there would be miles of perfect road, a few hundred yards of random crappy road, miles of perfect road, and then more random crappy road.

Highway through the Mountains

As we cruised along, we passed some government checkpoints where I had to get out of the car and go in a building and present my passport, while Wilbur waited outside and allowed a soldier to search the car.  Five or ten minutes after one of these checks, we were cruising along when we came to one of the bad spots in the road.  It was an icy stretch where a stream seemed to have decided to develop after the highway had been built.  The ominous aspects of this stretch were three huge pools of ice and water that we would have to cross.  They were one after another, separated by large mounds of ice.  Wilbur stopped the car for a moment, gauged the situation, and looked over at me.  I gave the thumbs up.  Then he gunned it.

We cleared the first pool and the first hump and the second pool and … and, well, that was it.  We were stuck with the back tires in the middle pool, the front tires in the last pool, and the belly of the car high and dry on the mound of ice between the two.  Wilbur got no response in forward or reverse, so we got out of the car to check it out.  At first we tried to push the car to get it off the hump.  Since the back of the car was in a huge puddle, we couldn’t push directly from behind.  Instead, we each pushed from the back corners of the car so that we could stand on the banks of the puddle.

And as we were pushing, I slid into the pool.  I was up to the knee, both legs, in the ice water.  I climbed out, and I was numb.  My pants immediately froze.  Wilbur, meanwhile, assessed the situation with a look of concern for his tip.

So, we were a few kilometers away from the nearest people, our car was stuck, it was freezing, and I was wet.  Things were not looking all that good.

Not wanting to die and all, I started digging up dirt and rocks out of the snow on the sides of the road to start filling the space under the tires.  I didn’t have gloves, so it was painful work.  Wilbur decided to help after a bit, and before long we had not much to show for our efforts.  Then after a bit more, we finally started making headway.

About the time we were ready to try firing up the car again, two people came up on horseback.  One was a Chinese soldier or some other type of uniformed officer, and I don’t know who his friend was.  Anyhow, Wilbur started the car, and the three of us pushed.  And in a puff of smoke, the car struggled over the hump of ice, flopped into the third pool, and ended up on the good stretch of pavement.  We were all cheering and high-fiving.  If only one of us had brought a flask, we could have toasted.

The soldier who helped us get our car out of the ice (left) and my driver "Wilbur" (right).

Wilbur stopped the car, and the soldier and I got in.  The soldier left his friend to get both of their horses home and we drove him down the road a ways and dropped him off.

Meanwhile, it was still cold enough to see my breath in the car, and I couldn’t feel anything below my knees.  I took off my shoes and socks and started massaging my feet.  As much as I like a crazy story, I had no intention of losing my toes to frostbite on this trip.

As I was kneading my toes, the feeling was starting to come back.  Wilbur reached over and felt my toes, and then he turned on the heat.  Classic!  We had been freezing all morning, and he had been holding out on the heat until it was absolutely necessary.  I reasonably had assumed that the car had no heat.  Before long, though, my toes were in the clear, and we soon reached Karakuli Lake.

Karakuli Lake, ringed by mountains

It was beautiful.  We admired it, photographed it, and moved on.

This excursion also included a visit to a local family’s home, so we continued on toward this objective.  The Abduls had told me that the driver would stop along the way so I could buy some candy or another small gift for the family I would be visiting.  Wilbur did not stop.  We arrived empty-handed.

The local family’s house was in a small village surrounded by mountains and a pasture where yak were grazing.  (As an aside, the word yak in Uighur means yes, and they call the big furry animals something different.)  The scene was quite pastoral.

We pulled up and the son of the house (maybe 14 or 15 years old) came out to meet us.  We went inside and met the rest of the family – the father, the grandmother, the mother, and her baby.  Of course, I can’t say for sure what relationship these people were to each other since I couldn’t communicate with them.  As you’ll recall, I couldn’t even communicate with Wilbur.

The house seemed to be constructed of mud bricks.  Near the door, there was an incongruous solar panel propped against the wall.  I’m not sure what it was powering.

The scene of the home-visit.

Anyhow, inside the house, we followed the lead of our host and took off our shoes.  Wilbur must have relayed my wet feet story because the grandmother took my shoes and then my socks and hung them near the stove that was near the door.  When we first entered, the father, a short, round man, was asleep under some blankets in the middle of the floor.  Wilbur roused him, and he quickly got up, folded his blanket, and invited us to sit.

I thoroughly enjoyed the decor of the house.  While houses in the States might have photos on the walls of mountain vistas and quaint villages, such things were the everyday reality for these people.  Instead, they had a few large posters of tropical island scenes and a large poster of a standard two-story house that could have been photographed in any American suburb.  Their exotic was my familiar and vice versa.

Getting back to the story, the father, Wilbur, and I sat on the floor.  The son kept coming in and out of the house.  The grandmother was doing laundry in a small tub on the floor.  The wife spent her time helping the grandmother hang the washed clothes, tending the fire, and amusing the baby.

I greeted the family, and they greeted me back.  The father and I had a few gestured conversations.  That was pretty much the extent of our interactions.

Remembering my Uighur cheat sheet from the hotel, I pulled it out.  It didn’t get me anywhere.  It had a few dozen phrases like, “Where’s the toilet?” and “That’s too expensive.  Will you take 100 RMB?”.  Nothing much was useful for an actual conversation.

I wasn’t keen on the home-visit in the first place, but once the excursion started it was too late to back out due to the fact that I couldn’t convey to Wilbur that I wasn’t really interested.  He and the father spent most of the time chatting, and whenever they’d address me, it would just result in awkwardness all around.

After a bit, they offered us bread and tea.  It was plain bread with no filling.  Everything was tasty.

Before long, the baby went into a crying fit, and this provided a good opportunity for us to leave.  I was grateful to the little screamer.  As we were leaving, I gestured to Wilbur in private to ask if I should tip the family.  He gestured back that they were good friends of his and that I should not offer any money.  We bid them farewell and headed back to Kashgar the same way we had come.  If we had instead continued on further south, we would have reached the Pakistani border in a few hours.  This, however, was their two-day tour, and I only had one day.

On the way back to Kashgar, we stopped at a second, smaller lake and took a few photos.

When we reached the spot where we had been stuck earlier, there was another car stuck in the ice water.  It, however, was part of a convoy of three vehicles, and the other two were on the verge of freeing it.  This time, Wilbur drove on a side track that was a good ways off the road and thereby avoided the major puddles.

Soon we were back at the passport checkpoint.  When I came out of the building, I found Wilbur talking with a load of people on a bus.  Evidently, he was friends with some of them because we ended up with two kids, a boy and a girl, in the backseat.  They were also heading to Kashgar.  Technically, I suppose they should have paid part of the fare for the ride, but I didn’t really care about that.  At least they could talk with Wilbur, and the car wasn’t silent.

When we came to the place where we had had breakfast that morning, there was now a market in progress.  There were farm animals and people with fur hats everywhere.

Wilbur stopped the car and ran me through the market.  We went straight through and didn’t pause once.  It all seemed a bit pointless, but I guess he had been instructed to take me to the market, which is what he did.  I didn’t want to shop anyway, so I didn’t much care.

We left the kids in the car, but they went off to the store to buy candy.  We got back before they did.

On the gravel road, we were again going along at a good clip.  The whole car was violently shaking like we were in the space shuttle re-entering Earth's atmosphere.  After a while, we hit pavement.  Curiously, the car continued shaking.  Wilbur stopped to have a look, and the right rear tire was blown.

We were out in the boonies, so he drove for several minutes until we came to a service station.  There he had his spare inflated, and he changed the tire.  The blown tire was totally destroyed and the rim was bent.  The kids started laughing when they saw it.  I’m a sucker for laughing kids, so I joined them in laughing.  I watched as Wilbur changed the tire, and about twenty Chinese men watched me watching Wilbur change the tire.  The kids, meanwhile, were off buying steamed sweet potatoes from a street vendor.

We finally reached the hotel, and I relayed our adventures to Abdul the Taller.  He was embarrassed that we had had some problems, but he offered, “At least it was exciting.”  And that it was.  It’s the parts that go wrong that generally make the best stories, anyway.

As I was leaving, Abdul the Taller commented that he really liked my hat.  It looked exactly like his – the same style and color.  The big difference was that his was real mink and cost $80; mine was fake and cost $2.  He told me that he had been looking for two new hats to give to his father and brother, but that everything he had seen was too expensive.  When he asked me how much mine had cost, he was totally confused.  I tried to explain that mine wasn’t real, but he never did understand.  He was still trying to wrap his brain around it when I left.

It was my last evening in town, so I wandered around to some areas I had missed before.  Then I went in search of dinner.  I was through with Uighur food and all its delightful variations on sheep fat, so I was looking for anything else.  I passed several Pakistani restaurants, but none seemed to be open.  Beyond that it was slim pickings.  I ended up going to a Chinese fast food chain.  It was closely patterned on McDonald’s, but served soups, ribs, pizza, cakes, tacos, and Chinese food in addition to hamburgers and fries.

I got a pepper burger (hamburger with black pepper sauce) combo, and it was just what the doctor ordered.

Then I had some street raisin-nut dessert, and I was ready for bed.  I got no mystery calls that night.

The next day, I was back at the airport ready to head home.  The place was nice and cold, so all of us waiting passengers sat on the heater that ran the length of the waiting lounge.

The flight home was packed with Pakistani businessmen, which meant that the baggage, both checked and carry-on, was voluminous.  We did manage to get all the passengers and bags shoe-horned into place, though, and we were off.

As we took off, the whole valley was covered with clouds, and visibility was low.  As a result, we were treated to an awesome view.  Once we climbed high enough, we came out on top of the clouds, only to see the peaks of the huge mountains.  It was the strangest thing because it totally looked like the clouds were supporting the mountains.  I couldn’t look away.

Soon enough, we crossed the rest of the mountains and landed in Islamabad.  And darned if I didn’t have a powerful craving for bagels with sheep fat.

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