Where Eagles Fly
Part 2 of The Land of Nomads
Exploring Sayram Lake at the "middle" of earth.
It's 2 am, pitch dark, and eerily quiet.
We are dropped off the side of a road with not a soul in sight. Hopefully we are at Sayram Lake, an expanse of blue water high in the Tianshan Mountains. However, nothing can be seen or heard, forcing us to trust that our taxi driver brought us to the correct place.
“It’s over there, the lake”, the old driver pointed across the road, as if reading our minds. “Thank you, sir,” I said, with a hint of doubt as we grabbed our backpacks from the trunk. At that he sped off, leaving us alone in a wild and remote corner of China, just a few miles from the border of Kazakhstan. And though China we may be in, we are closer to Europe than Shanghai, firmly in the heart of Central Asia. In fact, and quite ironically, the shores of this lakes lies at, or very near, the farthest point from any ocean on earth.
At least 2,600 kilometers in any direction to the sea.
We walk across the road and come across a large fence running parallel and extending as far as the darkness allows. With no other options, we follow the fence west. “I’ve gotten myself into quite the predicament,” I thought to myself, yet hoping not to instill doubt to my wife, Mary. I assumed I could just set up our tent along the peaceful edge of the lake; however, by the looks of it, we could be far from any nature. Suddenly behind us and coming toward us, a bright and growing light illuminated the metal panes of the fence. An old and muttering car abruptly stopped beside us.
“May I help you? It’s very late out.” a young man asked, seated next to another man, stating the obvious.
“Do you know of a safe place we could set up our tent?” asked Mary in Chinese.
“Yes, please get in the car and we can take you to my place.” Once again, with no better options, we are forced to trust in strangers. They follow the fence west then take us up a meandering hillside road to a small house. “We run a small guesthouse for occasional travelers like yourselves,” the young man said, “you may stay at our place or set up your tent in the grass in front of our yard.” We chose the latter, thanking them and hoping not to inconvenience them further in this late hour. We set up our small tent and shut our eyes for the short night. “Oh, I forgot to ask them if this was Sayram Lake,” Mary said to me, laughing. I responded.
I guess we will find out in the morning.
The sun began to rise from the horizon.
We found ourselves wide awake in the tent. We peaked out and simply gaped in amazement at the sight. A bright blue sky with soft wisps of clouds shined on craggy peaks filled with snow in the crevaces. The peaks sharply graded to forested hillsides with dense pine trees and hidden valleys, which then transformed into gentle ridges and rolling meadows of bright green grass. The undulating meadows gracefully extended to the small hillside where we, and a row of three yurts, lay. As giddy as children on Christmas morning, we hurriedly packed our tent and threw on our backpacks and walked into the sunrise, in full enchantment at the beauty.
We found a small, horse-strewn trail heading west towards one of the ridges. As we were venturing along the path, the suns first rays illuminated the green meadows we tread, awakening hundreds of purple wildflowers from their slumber. The fields of flowers rolled down a gentle slope, as if beckoning us to fix our eyes in that direction. An expanse opened, and there it lay - a bright-blue and shining Pearl. “The lake!” We have made it at last to Sayram Lake, a glistening star 6,800 feet in the Tianshan Mountains. Legends and stories are aplenty about this lake, casting a spell on passerby’s for thousands of years. Sayram means “blessing” in Kazakh and has been coined the “Pearl of the Silk Road” from passerby’s of far lands. We are equally cast under a spell of its beauty.
The Pearl of the Silk Road
We sit in silence among the fields of flowers taking in the heavenly view until we are interrupted by a Kazakh shepherd galloping on horseback. He flew past us and vanish into the ridge beyond. Curious of the shepherd’s whereabouts, we decide to orient ourselves in his direction. The open meadows dance between dense forests, rocky ledges and fields of flowers as we hike further into the mountains, with the lake disappearing then reappearing in even greater fashion than before. At each new vantage point, we engage in a short pause to catch our breath and contemplate the beauty. We finally come upon a bright green meadow overlooking the lake filled with at least fifteen wild horses. These graceful beasts are of varying shades of brown and black with their coats shining brightly in the morning sun. We slowly walk toward these creatures when two of them take notice and boldly speed into our direction, snarling and menacingly stomping the ground. Startled at their unexpected behavior, we quickly run in the other direction. The peace of the moment vanished as quickly as an eagle dives for its prey.
Boomed a voice behind us. We turn around to find a group of four Kazakh shepherds on horseback marching toward us. “These horses are wild. They are not too fond of humans,” the same voice said, in a milder tone and in the Mandarin dialect. We greeted them with smiles and simple gestures. They seem curious as to our whereabouts high on this ridge, as most visitors stay only on the lakeshore. We simply just wandered here, we tell them, captivated by the beauty along the edge of the wild.
“If you don’t mind, please join our ride. I can take you and the rider behind me can take your wife,” the shepherd unpredictably offered. “If you don’t mind, please join our ride. I can take you and the rider behind me can take your wife,” the shepherd unpredictably offered. Without hesitating, we accepted their offer and hopped on the backs of their domesticated beasts, journeying along the precipice of the ridge. It was a surreal experience trotting then galloping on horseback through the fields of green, meanuvering ledges and trees in gracefulness. We could very well have been explorers on the Silk Road from a millennium past, as very little, or nothing at all, has changed. It is such a simple moment of adventure using beasts to roam through wild lands - especially in a world where success is defined by motors and skyscrapers. After a moderate distance, the riders halted their calvary and bid us to disembark. We cheerfully exchanged thanks and parted ways as we watched them disappear further into the wild.
“That was an experience - and surely unexpected!” I shared with Mary. “Now what do you think: should we descend the mountain and finally try to reach the shores of the lake?” We took what seemed to be the shortest and most direct path to the lakeshore, but we greatly underestimated the dense forest and incline. The vegetative cover on the ground was moist and deep and sections were very steep. As we clambered down the hillside, we found ourselves stuck in think trees and muddy streams, forcing us to backtrack and reroute. But at last, the terrain leveled out and the trees opened up to tall grasses with a clear line of sight to Sayram Lake. We frolicked quickly through the grasses, fully ignoring the prickly stickers adhering to our clothes, until we reached at last the cool, alpine waters.
The shore gently lapped back and forth, revealing then hiding the polished stones beneath. Large trumpeter swans swam by, gawking at us humans. Above, a golden eagle flew overhead, effortlessly hovering about the blue expanse looking for a tasty treat to appear. We took off our shoes and felt the cool water run over our weary feet.
Quiet. Peace. Simplicity.
These words surely took on new meaning. In this quiet moment, with only golden eagles and swans as companions in a place of raw and wild majesty, all of life’s troubles seemed to dissipate, and the simplicity takes center stage.
Well… maybe not all of our troubles. We have eaten little all day while our pack is now empty of all snacks, the sun is fast approaching the horizon, and literally not a building or establishment is in sight for miles that might offer food. “We’ve been in situations like this before,” I tried to comfort myself. It is no small battle that is unfolding in my consciousness- should I continue to be humbled by the beauty around me, or should I let my mind stew in the inconveniences of lack of food or shelter? For the moment at least, I chose the former.
We continue our immersion in the beauty around us, feeling as though we are a small part in the grand scheme of nature. As we are walking north along the shore of the lake, we notice a small, white yurt appear over the horizon. “Perhaps someone there knows where some food may be.” As the yurt drew closer in focus, we saw clearly the dirty white cloth of the yurt with bright blue motifs. A short, middle-aged man was tarrying about the side of the yurt where he had piled several items. He was clothed in simple and well-worn attire of black trousers, a blue shirt and a soviet-styled cap.
“Hello, good evening!” Mary asked him in Chinese. He turned his head towards us, gave a cautious, yet gentle, gander and waved hello. “Do you know of any place we could buy some food,” Mary began again. His smile turned into a glint of laughter as he shook his head negatively. Mary asked the same question once more, hoping he misunderstood the first time. At last he opened his mouth - “No food here,” as he shook his hand, pointing all around of endless and desolate nature, as if signaling this is no place for restaurants. “Well… I guessed so,” Mary whispered to me. We retreated back to sitting beside the lake as his yurt was only a few meters from a beautiful section of shore - as expected when you can set up a yurt anywhere. In that same line of reasoning, we felt it reasonable to set up our tent nearby on a dry piece of land for the night, preparing our minds for hunger until, hopefully, late morning tomorrow.
Preparing our minds for hunger.
As we were watching more eagles fly overhead with the sun nearly touching down on the far side of the lake, the man from the yurt walked over to us.
“We can have dinner together if you like. I am about to make some myself.” Seemingly out of nowhere, or maybe due to pity, this kind man displayed a real sense of hospitality, helping strangers in need. We excitedly walked over with him to his yurt and helped him in preparations for a meal.
Mary felt right at home in the makeshift kitchen amidst endless grasslands. She gathered vegetables and sliced them up into trays, adding spices as available. Our new friend butchered some beef into cubes, as naturally as could be. I awkwardly attempted to help, but as cooking is not my strong suit, I merely observed. Not much chatter was conducted with him as he kept his silent demeanor, but his seriousness slowly began dissipate. The sizzling stir fry smelled heavenly and further made us realize how hungry we are. The first bite I can still taste to this day - hot, spicy and hearty. As we sat inside his circular yurt, each gobbling the stir fry, it felt as if we were friends for ages.
What food does to bring people together.
Upon finishing and stepping outside, I notice dark clouds form above the dusk skies. Hurriedly, I grabbed my tent and began assembling, but not in necessary time as the rain already began to patter the grasslands. The aluminum poles were playing tricks with me in a time it should behave, and frazzled I became. But our superhero, err... friend... the nomad came to the rescue once again.
“Sleep inside the yurt, there is plenty of room.” He said with a wide grin. Thankfulness doesn’t describe our feeling this time. We felt humbled by his kindness, as if welcoming us into his family. I aggressively folded those aluminum tent poles into the bag and hopped into the yurt, though by now a little more than damp. We sat around a quaint stove, keeping warm and sharing stories to what we are able. This man is a Uyghur who lives off the land, while also collecting a small income from the local authorities as a “security guard” for the lake. Official tickets to enter the lake area we did not have, nor do we think he cared. Whatever his job description, I think he was going way beyond it to help us two strange backpackers with no food and a thin canvas covering for shelter.
We pulled out a deck of cards and taught the nomad our favorite game - Shanghai. He was enthralled with the game, even though it took twice as long as normal to finish. Explaining the rules in simple terms was interesting, as well as his exceedingly long turns. Upon finishing, well past our bedtimes and possibly his, we retired for the night. Me and Mary slept in a corner of the yurt with a generous supply of warm, woolen blankets. Our eyes shut, but my mind wandered. We took the chance the night before to reach the lake at 2 in the morning. The events that unfolded couldn’t be replicated if attempted. Sleeping in this yurt is a far cry from the disappointment two days ago where we shut eye in a concrete basement. And tomorrow, another long day awaits. But I couldn't help but to relive this amazing day at Sayram Lake, where nomads live, shepherds wander, and eagles fly.
There is a beauty in a life built in simplicity, being content with what is in front of you right now, and not worrying about what tomorrow holds.