This post combines photographs from the two hiking trips taken over the past weeks. After the Six City concert, I returned to Lujiaowan with three friends on a day trip, as the forecast had predicted rain all weekend. The locals running "New Yurt City," an enclave of permanent tourist tents at the entrance, thought we were crazy to go hiking in this weather. In fact, dense fog covered most of the mountains, so we barely could see beyond the foothills, save some camels and cows that grazed on fluorescent yellow wildflowers near the park. We picnicked somewhere in the clouds, then mimicked the animals as we walked around. At one point, we became embroiled in a screaming match with some primary school students who were frolicking with sheep on the next hill over.
This weekend, CWB's twin came to visit, so PT decided to lead a trip to the Tianshan Mountains near Manas (玛纳斯), an ancient town east of Rockriverton. At first we could not leave because Xi Jinping, the vice president of China, was meeting with Rockriverton's XPCC officials, so the police blockaded every road exit out of the city. When the traffic eased, we started our two-hour drive to the mountains, passing some Kazakh villages of mud-brick. Living among the shiny buildings and verdant green of Rockriverton, I often feel stuck in the pleasantness of The Truman Show. It troubled me that just beyond the edges of the city lay crumbling houses whose welfare has been overshadowed by the quickening development of our town. Moreover, as Rockriverton continues to deprive the countryside of its water to feed our showers and sprinklers, I imagine that these places, like the village above, soon will disappear.
We began our trip near a coalmine tucked in the foothills of the Tianshan near nightfall. Because hikers never come to this area, the workers and their families came out of their company housing and canteen to stare at the seven strangers who were dismounting motorcycles and expensive camping gear. Later on the trail, we met more miners, clutching prized ginseng roots dug out of the mountains, who warned us of the impending rain and prowling wolves. While passing the herder houses that had been abandoned for the summer, KL suddenly stopped and pointed to a patch of nondescript grass. It was wild marijuana. We spent the night a mile beyond the coalmine, next to a river with "the purest drinking water you can find anywhere," as PT insisted. The next morning, however, we stumbled upon a maggot-ridden horse corpse farther upstream. Since the locals built no bridges over the river, we hopped across it a dozen or so times, following the somewhat treacherous trail up to the source. The sky itself began to darken with rain clouds by mid-afternoon. We tried to beat the phalanx of storms racing us up the mountain, just as we cleared the tree line, the sky erupted in a torrential downpour. Despite the thunder and lightning, PT stubbornly wanted to continue climbing out in the open. Terrified, I scampered down the steep slope to the tree line, which I now know increases the chances of electrocution. Then, it started to hail. After half an hour, the ice and rain ceased, and we finished our nine-hour ascent. At three thousand meters, we found ourselves staring at this set of severe peaks, jutting out beyond a rolling plain.
Several more thunderstorms disrupted our usual routine that night, but we managed to set up tents, cook macaroni and cheese, and watch the sunset in between rain showers. Fearing that we might be struck by lightning, we collected our walking sticks, butane stoves, and cooking pans, and moved them somewhere beyond our campsite, though we had forgotten that we had pitched our tents with metal poles in the middle of a watery bog, on the top of a mountain, anyway. Sometime past midnight, however, we heard a loud bang. Immediately, I thought that PT had been electrocuted, as he had decided to sleep on the crest of the plain, while the rest of us had bunked on lower ground. KL, my tent-mate, was convinced that instead, a drunk Kazakh had shot him, not an entirely outrageous conclusion, given that Xinjiang does conduct an illegal, yet lucrative trade in guns. DFL, armed with only a flashlight, was ready to venture into the darkness to check on PT. Alas! His tent-mate stopped him, morbidly adding that "There's ... nothing you can do." Needless to say, I spent the rest of the night quivering in my sleeping bag, imagining preposterous scenarios of carrying one-hundred-plus kilos of dead PT down the mountain. By the time CWB "woke" us up at dawn, I had been on high alert for hours. Even so, the mountains looked spectacular in the rosy morning light.
At breakfast, we were discussing the mysterious shot, when CWB admitted that he had lit a dynamite-sized firecracker to scare off any potential wolves in the area. The twins then doped up on benzodiazepine and passed out, while the rest of us had kept a neurotic vigil all night long. As for the "drunk Kazakhs," PT had met some herders here last year and took their picture. For this trip, he had printed out their digital photos, at least to thank them for letting us trespass their fields again. Unfortunately, they had yet to occupy their summer sod houses on the plateau. Unable to find them, we headed down the mountain under clear skies, saddened to leave such a beautiful landscape, but relieved to sleep on safe ground.