This past week, my university gave us a three-day holiday for the Dragon Boat Festival. Unfortunately, we live in a wasteland where rivers and lakes are evaporating rapidly, so we did not celebrate by launching canoes in polluted bodies of water. Rather, my friend MSM and I signed up for a camping trip to Ili (伊犁) organized by LM, who owns one of Rockriverton's outdoors shop. Bordering Kazakhstan, this area is the only place in Xinjiang where the American embassy warns tourists about contracting malaria, as the Ili River flows into a verdant valley of mushrooms, ferns, and snails. On Wednesday night, we left Rockriverton by bus, crammed with twenty-five Chinese hikers, their packs, and LM's soon-to-be muddy Samoyed.
Around 3 am local time, after driving on a gravel mountain road for what seemed like hours, LM stopped the bus and we stumbled into the icy darkness to set up camp by flashlight. Gazing at the sky, as my fingers numbly threaded tent poles through fabric, I could see the Milky Way, as well as the first streaks of dawn to the east. MSM and I collapsed in our sleeping bags, convinced that we had camped in the middle of nowhere. Four hours later, I peeked out of the tent to see that we actually sat on an alpine meadow of buttercups, mere feet away from Lake Sayram (赛里木湖). I climbed out of the tent, an event that the grandfather of the hiking group found worthy of photographing. Unfortunately, he continued to do so as I staked out a place to pee in my Fair Isle long underwear.
Within an hour of waking up, we were on the road again. Our bus began its descent from the lake, dwarfed by half-built concrete columns ten stories high. These columns eventually will support a direct highway up to Lake Sayram, which will run through mountain tunnels already blasted open by dynamite. The current construction around Lake Sayram has completely transformed the landscape of the region, which for many years consisted of a single dirt road with hairpin turns and no guardrails. While this impressive highway will provide safety and convenience, it will come with the cost of a visually jarring environment. For lunch, we ate at Lucaogou (芦草沟), a one-street town lined with hundreds of restaurants, differentiated only by number. We ate at Restaurant Number 60 under the gaze of Chinese pop stars on sun-bleached posters. At first, I thought that this truck stop sprung out of the desert due to recent interstate traffic, but I was surprised to find that the Qing Empire had established Lucaogou in the 1760s as one of nine fortified towns in Ili.
In the middle of the afternoon, we passed through at the prefectural capital of Gulja, officially known as Yining, the site of a 1997 demonstration that resulted in a harsh crackdown by paramilitary forces. The bus only paused for an ice-cream break while some of the hikers rushed into a souvenir shop to buy locally produced lavender perfume. In Gulja and its suburbs, security officers sat outside with tables that blocked entrances to every township and village. Back in the winter, the police had kicked out an American acquaintance who had been visiting friends in Gulja solely because she was a foreigner. This time, however, they were less concerned with our presence on the bus, than with the towering pile of camping packs blocking the bus door. We continued the seven-hour drive-- in sweltering heat and no air-conditioning-- further south into the mountains, following the Tekes River (特克斯) to a nature reserve called Kuerdening (库尔德宁).
Like Altay's Koktohay Park, which I visited back in September, Kuerdening's herders also share their pastureland and forests with tourists (though perhaps not by choice). Tourism in Kuerdening, however, is more established-- tin-roofed summer cottages beckon travelers to stay, while an "ethnic village" nearby promises them performances of Kazakh song and dance. We actually slept in a meadow with the cows, all of them branded with a star on their left hind. In the morning, some of us decided to hike the sides of the ravine. We soon lost the trail and climbed directly up the steep slope, its soil anchored by century-old trees-- some of the oldest I have seen so far in China. After five hours, we could see the western Tianshan rise up behind the valley of yellow and purple wildflowers.
After returning to camp, LM hurriedly ushered us onto the bus again, and we spent most of Friday night driving back to Lake Sayram. In the morning, one of the Kazakh horseback riders approached me as I was reading the park map, so I asked him to point out our location. He said he did not know, despite having lived here for ten years, basically since he was a child. I guess some people in the world have managed to escape this "cartographic modality" and still "read" space differently. Basically, once the tourist bureau translated the coastlines and hills of Sayram onto the page, it rendered the geography meaningless; he had no interest in the two-dimensional order the tourist map imposed on the land. (Conversely, I could not process the real landscape unfolded before me.) But, he also could have been illiterate. This charmer proceeded to tell me that I should marry someone from Xinjiang (namely him) and then followed me around for the next hour. When KL had visited Lake Sayram last year, he had a more frightening experience with some drunk Kazakhs who tried to charge him a thousand kuai for camping and nearly assaulted two female travelers. The entire episode almost came to blows. Luckily we returned late Saturday night to Rockriverton exhausted but unscathed.