Heart of the Grasslands,
Soul of the Pamirs
A story of hospitality from a nomad and his pup.
Ascent to the Last Outpost
After the long ascent up the Karakoram Highway in far Western China - one of the great modern engineering feats on Earth- we stumbled into Taxkurgan, the last outpost in China before Pakistan. Taxkurgan is one of those towns you beg to leave as soon as you arrive. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not as if the town is unpleasant and dingy. Rather, the surroundings are utterly spectacular. From majestic snow-capped peaks extending in all directions to seemingly endless grasslands where nomads tents and sheep number in the hundreds, Taxkurgan invited us to explore the great outdoors like nowhere else we’ve been.
The grasslands start as soon as Taxkorgan ends,
marked by a lonely road with views of passing vehicles. The grasslands are trodden on a confined area of newly constructed wooden walkways, interweaving back and forth with some mills and bridges for aesthetics. As seen from above, the walkway is in the shape of a soaring eagle, with its wings spread wide and about to pounce on a prey. The walkways in a sense restrict ones access to the endless grasslands; most people walked an hour on the guided paths then returned to their warm hotels.
Nearing dusk, we hopped off the path and set foot in the lush and damp grass. From the fortress, the grass appeared so friendly to walk upon, but with our foots on its soil, we found it wet, muddy, and difficult to cross the streams. But this is what makes travel worthy, to get off the beaten path and find our own way, not the way the government what's us to go. Travelling with no destination in mind, but rather with an emphasis on experiences, led us to these grasslands. What we didn't expect was an incredible series of events that made us rejoice in the kindness and hospitality of humanity.
The wooden paths and wild grasslands mirrored modern China.
In one sense, like the newly constructed wooden planks, China controls ones path and choice. Traveling is following other well-trodden footsteps, taking in the same selfie spots as thousands other tourists. On the other side, just one step off the walkway, lies the wild, diverse, and unexpected China, where thousands years of history coincide with the unknown. While this may seem exaggerated, to those who spent an effort to personalize with wild China will realize it's truth. But to personalize with this China requires persistence and even some recklessness.
In the western regions of China, most notably the Tibet and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions, the Chinese government restricts and controls a foreigners experience. Just in this Pamir region, recent laws force foreigners to apply for permits and only arrive by tour, restrict overnighting with and interacting with the locals Tajik and Krygyz, and providing only two accommodation options - the hotel and the hostel. We disregarded all three, and experienced Taxkurgan in a fresh and exhilarating fashion.
We we set foot on the grasslands, the inevitable became the uncertain.
It was too late to turn back towards town and find the hostel. Our minds fancied the adventure and opportunity to interact with the locals. As the sun neared retirement for the day, we walked the grasslands, crossed streams, observed the livestock, and visited yurts. When we came upon an older man tending to his cattle and goats, we asked him, in Chinese, if we could set up tent just outside his yurt. This poor man seemed confused, so we used charades to draw the scene: folding hands like a tent and resting my head in my hands. The man understood this universal language, and motioned us to follow him into his yurt. Apparently he thought we asked him to sleep in his home.
Inside his yurt was decorated in many colors, pleasantly warm compared to the outside cold.
Inside the yurt was his adult son was his young puppy, ever so shy. The smell of freshly made naan and milk tea permeated the interior. The old man offered us these goodies before we could even sit down.
As we sat down and ate together, it was as if though we had been friends for ages. We couldn't speak a common language, but we shared the universal language in laughter and food. He shared with us his simple lifestyle, but not all that different from our own. He was still holding an iPhone in his hand, and his daughter is in town for the day to buy groceries. Such is life in a region locked between two nations - Pakistan and China - that have ever growing trade routes. Modernity is creeping, or has crept in some sense, to Taxkurgan already. Unfortunately, this nomadic lifestyle is slowly disappearing, being displaced by a sedentary lifestyle.
Not quite Tajiks, and entirely not Chinese, these locals of Taxkurgan have a mixed and debated lineage. Most agree they are of Persian descent, and were ancient nomads who settled in the high plains of the Pamir Mountains. They could be called Sarikoli, or Pamir Tajiks.
The old man, with an English hat, baggy trousers, and long coat, called himself Bage. His shy puppy went by Ruckece. Together, they formed a hospitable team, characteristic of these Pamir Tajik locals. We are blessed to be here, in this moment, and learn of a people group so unique in this ancient land.
Thank you for sharing all you have with two strangers from far lands. You taught us a real lesson in hospitality.
Goodbye our friends - the nomad and his pup.