When Marco Polo came across the mountain spine of Asia, over the Karakorams and the Pamirs into what are now the western regions of China, he wasn’t much taken with the people. They were nomads, Kirghiz and Tadjik peoples, who migrated with the seasons. Marco described them as “out and out bad”.
I had decided to spend a few days among these degenerates at Karakol, a remote lake in the lap of the Pamirs where I had heard one could rent a yurt. With several-dozen homeward-bound Pakistani merchants, I booked a seat on a bus from Kashgar that took the route of the Karakoram Highway (known as the ‘New Silk Road’) over the mountains, and hoped for the best.
The Karakoram Highway followed the valley of the Ghez River into the mountains. We crossed high, wide valleys, monochrome, treeless and silent. An ashen river pooled in slate-coloured lakes. Charcoal clouds were piling above the mountain summits to the south. In the distance, villages were marked by the yellow blaze of poplars. We stopped for lunch at Upal, where an itinerant magician was sticking skewers up his nose and swallowing golf balls before an enraptured audience.
By late afternoon the valley had narrowed dramatically. Nibbling at the edges of the asphalt, the river pressed the road against red cliffs, so that at times the rock faces seemed to scrape the windows. When the sun went off the road temperatures plummeted and we felt ourselves in the grip of a bleaker, colder world.
At day’s end, at the last request stop in China, the bus pulled up and I got down into a biting wind. The Pakistanis pleaded with me to stay on the bus. “You can’t sleep here”, they cried, peering out through the grimy windows at the empty, darkening landscapes. “Come to Pakistan.” I waved goodbye and the bus bumped away, its taillights winking a farewell as it disappeared beyond the shoulder of the snow-capped Mount Muztagh.
On the shores of the lake I found three bedraggled yurts – a kind of primitive motel – waiting for guests. Finding no-one about, I let myself into one of them, ate a dinner of instant noodles and brandy, then settled onto a cot under five quilts. I tried to read, but the wind crept under the skirts of the yurt and blew my candle out. I tried to sleep, but the cold kept me awake. I got up and put on another sweater, a coat, and a pair of gloves, then dragged the carpet off the floor and flung it over my quilts. Marco Polo had slept here at Karakol, en route to Cathay. He too had complained of the cold and the capricious winds.
In the morning a Kirghiz horsemen appeared outside my yurt, materialising from the early mists to invite me to a wedding. He wore a splendid silver hat, like an upturned jelly mould, and carried a shotgun over his shoulder. “Come anytime”, he barked. “The festivities last three days.”
I was delighted to accept. My social calendar in the Chinese Pamirs was still relatively empty.
In the afternoon I set off for the wedding. It was in a summer encampment of Kirghiz nomads on the far side of the lake, beyond wild pastures littered with camels, yaks, sheep and water courses. Along the way I passed three amorous donkeys. The love-life of donkeys always merits notice; In this ménage a trois there was the usual uncertainty about who was doing what to whom, but once things were in full swing it was a remarkable affair. Two yaks looked on with expressions that probably pass, in the yak world, for unabashed admiration.
On the lakeshore the wedding guests milled about between the yurts in their finest outfits, swapping salutations and gossip. The married women wore silver jewellery, white wimples and gold teeth. The unmarried women had all turned up in the same outfit: red jackets, crimson skirts and scarlet headscarves – as happily uniform as a party of stock brokers. The men’s clothes were more eclectic: Mao suits, tweed jackets and overcoats that would have cut a dash in a Chicago speakeasy were accompanied by colourful silk sashes, tall boots and the spectacular jelly-mould hats. Their faces were whiskery and shrewd and dark as walnuts.
An elderly patriarch beckoned me to follow him. A game of buzkashi was underway on a stretch of open ground beyond the yurts. The ancestor of polo, this traditional game of horsemen is played with a dead goat rather than a ball. There are no rules and no teams; it is every man for himself. With their whips in their teeth, the riders try to manoeuvre their mounts through the scrum of horses, leaning down among the stamping hooves to pluck the carcass from the ground. When one succeeds in lifting it, the chase is on. Wild, galloping charges sweep back and forth across the plain as riders try to wrestle the carcass from one another. Players ‘score’ by dropping the goat into a circle of stones – the goal. Originally the game was played with a dead man – a prisoner of war, or someone equally dispensable. Older enthusiasts bemoan the substitution of a goat carcass the way elderly members might decry the one-day game in the Long Room at Lords.
Back on the lakeshore the speeches were underway. At Kirghiz weddings the speeches have the novelty of being sung. Flanked by two attendants, the groom was singing his way towards married life – a dirge-like tune – as he slowly approached the bride’s tent surrounded by the wedding party. He was a bit of a heart-throb, tall and bashfully handsome. His cashmere overcoat and shiny Russian boots marked him out as a man who was not short of a sheep or two.
It was more difficult to form an opinion of the bride. She emerged from the family yurt under a red blanket like an accused prisoner. Her attendants ushered her forward to stand beside her betrothed, while the best man made his peroration from the back of a donkey cart. This was sung as well, with improvised verses about the groom that had the crowds slapping their thighs. When it was over the bride was hustled away again, still under her blanket. Later, someone told me that the groom had paid a bride price of ten camels and twenty goats for his mystery woman, a figure that was considered dangerously inflationary.
Later, in one of the yurts, I sat in a cross-legged circle with a group of guests eating balls of rancid yak butter. Everyone was in high spirits. Someone asked if we played buzkashi in my country. I tried to explain about polo but they quickly recognised it as a game for wimps. From sport the conversation turned to geopolitics. They were unsure of England’s whereabouts, but agreed it must lie somewhere to the north of Kashgar. Did England, too, belong to China, they wanted to know? I said it didn’t, but that parts of China had once belonged to England. An embarrassed silence fell over the yurt. The other guests glanced at each other out of the corner of their eyes. I was clearly a braggart and a fool.
Later, after several bowls of fermented yak’s milk, we staggered outside for the dancing. Night had fallen and constellations floated between ghostly snow peaks. While musicians played three-stringed lutes and whining flutes, men and women danced in segregated lines, their arms around one another’s shoulders. At around midnight antique trucks arrived to carry the revellers home to outlying encampments, their headlights dancing away into the darkness while I made my way back to my cold yurt, past the lake brimming with moonlight.
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.