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The beaten path to Xinjiang

06-08-2010 13:59 BJT

So mesmerized was I by the herd of goats coming down the mountains, I barely noticed the pick-up truck that had pulled over behind me. The brown and gray goats had seemed to come from nowhere, reaching the shores of Lake Karakul with surprising speed.

The Taklmakan desert: a landscape that you won't find in the guidebook. Photos: Lisa Tom
The Taklmakan desert: a landscape that you won't find in the guidebook. 
Photos: Lisa Tom

"Ni qu Kashgar?" the driver shouted. I tore my eyes away from the sight of snowcapped mountains reflected in the water, rippling at the touch of the animals' rough tongues.

I was going to Kashgar! I had never hitchhiked before in my life and wouldn't have that day, if it weren't for my Thai companion, Noot, the only other foreigner at Lake Karakul. We had gotten off together at Lake Karakul together, two lone women. She was brave but sensible, bargaining with our guide for a private car 50-yuan lift back to Kashgar.

We might have slept that night in one of the yurts on the lake's shore or in the nearby village were it not for the truck, which soon also picked up a Kyrgyz and a Uyghur man; they threw their bundles in the back and squeezed in with us.

Safety had dictated much of my route. Due to my solo status, I was reluctant to deviate from Lonely Planet's recommendations, which were guaranteed to be at least well-traveled. But as a dear friend once said, "The places you really want to be and the things you really want to do aren't in a guidebook."

Certainly, the book didn't say anything about the trucks routinely picking up travelers on the Karakoram Highway, the ancient road that connects Islamabad with Kashgar, China. But my gut told me hitchhiking here was both a harmless and common practice.

Of course, my gut wasn't always right. In Turpan I befriended a cute Uyghur boy about the same age as me. When I backed out of hiring his brother's car, he turned nasty, calling and texting dozens of times: "Where are you? I am waiting at the hotel." Past midnight, there was banging at my door. "We had a deal," he shouted. "Lisa, why don't you answer?" He stayed for half an hour until Noot yelled that she was calling the police.

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