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December 6, 2010

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Ancient allure and unspoiled nature

THE city of Kashgar provides a glimpse of what life was once like all those years ago while the lakes in Xinjiang are natural wonders offering great scenery, glorious hikes and a welcome respite from the city.

It is the whiff in the air that makes Kashgar so unique. The distinctive aroma of barbecued lamb kebabs is very welcoming, especially after the 7-hour flight from Shanghai. The first thing you want is to have a bite - and Kashgar does not disappoint.

The roads, streets and lanes of this southwestern city of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in western China are lined with stalls selling their local specialties - kebabs (yang rou chuan) and nan breads (nang).

The horde of tourists who throng to Kashgar feast on it as well, making this a one-of-a-kind dining experience that stays glued to the taste buds.

The city center itself resembles one large kitchen of sorts - brick ovens or grills with burning coal or wood, and chunks of lamb on skewers are all that the eyes can see.

The marinated meat is continuously turned over fire and, when done, is sprinkled with salt, pepper, cumin and other seasonings. Charcoal is preferred over firewood for a simple reason - money (coal is cheaper), but also because it gives a distinct flavor that is not available on firewood. It is best relished with a nan - a thick local bread, with the grease from the barbecued lamb adding to the essence.

The best part of the meal is that it doesn't bite into the pocket. A skewer costs from 1 yuan (15 US cents) to 3 yuan. It is best enjoyed outdoors, good enough to keep you on the road for a while.

While on roads, the breathtaking Karakoram Highway that connects China with Pakistan should be a must-do on every traveler's itinerary. The Wikipedia claims it is "the highest paved international road in the world" and "the ninth wonder of the world." But if statistics don't matter, the sheer joy of driving, or even biking, on this route is astounding.

Simply put: you are one with nature here.

To paraphrase what the enlightened Buddha once told us: "There are two mistakes one can make along the road - not going all the way and not starting."

And you do meet backpackers on the way who are simply living that dream - biking or trekking all the way from Pakistan into China and visa versa.

There are no major twists and turns on the Chinese side of the highway - at some point just an endless straight that cuts across the majestic Karakoram mountain range all the way to Khunjerab Pass - said to be the world's highest border crossing - which is where the 494-kilometer China leg of the highway ends.

On the way, you will likely have to maneuver herds of sheep, slow down for those two-humped camels to pass while taking in sights of all hues across the horizon.

And, of course, the Karakul Lake at the Pamir foothills - its best-kept secret.

At 3,600 meters above sea level, Karakul offers a welcome break on the long stretch of the highway and tour buses and private cars stop over to feel the air and soak in a picture of divine beauty. Despite growing tourism, the lake and its neighborhood have retained its virgin charm, undisturbed by any modern structure.

On a clear morning, the snow-capped Mustagh Ata that towers over 7,000 meters is reflected in the lake's crystal-clear water, much to the delight of all shutterbugs. With time in hand, you can enjoy a leisurely walk around the lake with grazing sheep, horses, camels and yaks for company.

For the adventurous few who are willing to forego the comforts of a hotel or an inn, there are the Kyrgyz yurts - a tent-like structure of the nomadic tribe - who offer a night's shelter in their hard but comfortable beds. There is no electricity, although some have managed to procure dimly lit solar-powered lamps, while very basic food is available on request.

As night falls, its eerie-like silence can be haunting, disturbed only by the occasional car passing on the highway. The yurt has its own romance and it is heartening to see that there are quite a few takers for it.

The changing colors of the morning by the lake is probably the most blissful of the tour and just sitting and gazing at the mountains and the drifting clouds can be both satisfying and fulfilling.

The early peace and tranquility are only disturbed by the honking of cars and motorbikes a couple of hours later on our drive back to Kashgar - once an oasis city on the Silk Road, but which has still managed to retain its old-world charm in these changing times.

A walk through a maze of alleyways and the mud-brick walls of the Old Quarter is a journey back in time. The entrance to the neighborhood is a hive of activity with smoking BBQ pits, colorful shops, dentists and blacksmiths going about their chores.

The intricately carved entrances to the houses and mosques are a ready-made set for any film. Not so surprisingly, the makers of the Hollywood film "The Kite Runner" chose Kashgar as a setting for a brief portion of their film.

Muslim majority Uygurs have ensured a thriving Islamic culture that is not restricted to places of worship alone.

It is paramount in their language, arts, food, tradition and lifestyle. One of Kashgar's highlights is the Sunday bazaar that deals in livestock - unique to this part of the world.

Traders flock to the market in their donkey or horse-driven carts, while others simply haul their cows, goats, camels and sheep to be sold off for cash or barter. Buyers and sellers argue and debate at length that at times seem like a heated argument.

The rest of the time can be spent wandering and bargaining for famed local products from carpets to knives to mandolins and other artifacts - and there are plenty.

Kashgar has survived the vagaries of time for over 2,000 years and seems to have something for every visitor - be it art, history or plain tourist. But it is impossible that any of them will leave without the slow burning aroma of kebabs tickling their lips.


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