A wedding the in the wilderness

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 April, 1998, 12:00am

On my first morning at Karakul a passing Kirghiz horseman appeared outside my yurt to invite me to a wedding. He wore a splendid silver hat like an upturned jelly mould and carried a shot-gun over his shoulder.

'Come anytime,' he barked. 'The festivities last for three days.' I was delighted to accept. Since leaving Kashgar, my social calendar in the Chinese Pamirs had been decidedly empty.

Kashgar is not an easy place to leave. In these remote regions, at the far end of China, beyond the Gobi and the Taklamakan deserts, the name of Kashgar spells Comfort and Civilisation.

I was installed in the Hotel Samen, long ago the home of the formidable Count Petrovsky, Russian Consul, militant Anglophobe, and secret agent. Of all the rare luxuries that Kashgar can boast, few can compete with the Count's commodious bath-tub.

I had crossed China along the ancient Silk Road, and in Kashgar I put my feet up. It was autumn and the great mountains that lay to the south were hidden behind veils of dust and haze, some exhalation of the desert.

I lingered in the city, and became something of fixture in the tea-houses of the bazaar. Then one morning the haze lifted and I saw the Pamirs for the first time.

They were a siren call, snow-capped and voluptuous. I bought a trilby in the bazaar, said goodbye to my friends at the Hotel Samen, and caught the bus for Pakistan.

It is said that the construction of the Karakoram Highway claimed a life for every mile of roadway. It runs from Kashgar to Rawalpindi, a distance of nearly 1,300 kilometres, across the mountain spine of Asia.

At the Khunjerab Pass on the border between China and Pakistan, the Karakoram Highway becomes the highest public road in the world.

From Kashgar the road climbed through the wide flood plain of the Gez River where Bactrian camels were grazing among the boulders. As the valley narrowed, the river pressed the road against russet-coloured cliffs, nibbling at its edges, carrying off chunks of asphalt.

In places the cliffs had collapsed blocking the road with cascades of boulders and the bus sought a path over the steep ground above these obstacles. Ahead, the snow peaks of the Pamirs shone in the last of the light.

At dusk I hailed the driver and got down into a biting wind. I had not done with China yet, and planned to stay for a few days on the shores of Lake Karakul.

The Pakistanis on the bus, stunned by distance and altitude, peered out through grimy windows at the Roof of the World and shuddered. 'You cannot stop here,' they cried, waggling their heads in unison. 'Come to Pakistan.' I put on a brave face and waved good-bye. The bus bumped away up the road, its tail-lights winking goodbye, then disappeared behind the great white shoulder of Mount Muztagata.

The sole accommodation at Karakul is a primitive motel of half a dozen yurts, the round felt tents of Central Asia, pitched on the shores of the lake.

The staff, who lived in a shed, hadn't seen a guest for weeks and yurt service had become a trifle erratic. The men spent their days in bed, playing cards, getting up only to urinate outside the door. The women had succumbed to hysteria.

From their dormitory came gales of hilarity, verging on tears. When the horseman materialised out of the morning mist in his jelly mould hat he was a welcome diversion.

Karakul lake lies between the great peaks of Kongur and Muztagata, both in the 7,000-metre range. This was the hub of Asia where nations and mountains collide.

To the west the Pamirs shouldered past the Hindu Kush riding through Afghanistan. To the east the Kunlun Shan marched out of China towards India and the Himalayas, while south lay the Karakorams, the colour of thunder, along Pakistan's Northwest frontier. On a clear day you could see K2 in one direction and the Gobi desert in the other.

The Karakoram Highway, the only road up here, followed the route of the Silk Road. In places it looked as if it hadn't been upgraded much since Marco Polo's day.

Few people lived here. The Kirghiz nomads, who moved between winter houses and summer yurts with their flocks of fat-tailed sheep, yak and Bactrian camels, were a Turkic people, racially and linguistically distinct from their Chinese overlords.

They had a reputation for fierce independence. Marco Polo, somewhat uncharitably, described them as 'out and out bad'.

Marco had slept at Karakul, en route to Cathay, complaining of the cold and the capricious wind. Temperatures plummeted with sunset. By seven in the evening it was too cold for anywhere but bed.

I tried to read, but the wind crept under the felt skirts of the yurt and blew my candle out. In a vain effort to keep warm I slept in my overcoat beneath five eiderdowns and two carpets. With nights this cold, marriage was obviously an act of survival.

In the wedding village at the end of the valley, yaks sniffed between the adobe houses like tall outlandish dogs. I arrived just as two sheep were being slaughtered; their last glimpse of this world was of a tall Englishman in a brown trilby with a runny nose.

The wedding guests milled about in their finest outfits, swapping salutations and gossip. The women were an exciting splash of colour in a dun-coloured landscape.

The married women wore elaborate silver jewellery, white wimples and gold teeth. The unmarried women had all turned up wearing the same outfit. In their red jackets, crimson skirts, and scarlet headscarves, they were as happily uniform as stockbrokers.

The men's clothes were a more eclectic collection. Bits of old Mao suits, tweed jackets and overcoats which would have cut a dash in a Chicago speakeasy were accompanied by silk sashes, tall Cossack boots, knives with beautiful inlaid handles, and the jelly mould hats. Their faces were whiskery and shrewd and dark as walnuts.

On the plain beyond the village buzkashi had begun. The game is the ancestor of polo, 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 amid the stamping hooves to pluck the carcass from the ground.

When one succeeds in lifting it, the chase is on. One scores by dropping the dead goat into a circle of stones.

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 over drinks in the bar at Lords.

Back on the lake shore the speeches were underway. At Kirghiz weddings the speeches are sung. With his best man in tow, the groom was singing his way towards married life - a dirge-like tune - as he approached the bride's house, surrounded by the wedding party. The bride, it seemed, had done well. The groom was a bit of a heart-throb, tall and bashfully handsome. His cashmere overcoat and high-heeled 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 house under a red blanket like an accused prisoner avoiding the press. Her attendants ushered her out to stand beside her betrothed while the best man began his peroration from the back of a donkey cart.

This was sung as well, with improvised verses about the groom which had his audience slapping each other with hilarity. 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 10 camels and 20 goats for her, a figure that was considered dangerously inflationary. The buzkashi players rode up like a victorious army and I found myself swept into a yurt in their midst. We sat round in a cross-legged circle and merrily ate balls of rancid yak's butter.

'What are weddings like in your country?' one man asked.

The butter balls made speech difficult. 'Similar sort of thing,' I managed at last. 'Less butter, more cake.' Unaccountably they thought this hilarious, and thumped me on the back, a gesture which proved a great aid to digestion.

'Do you play buzkashi in your country?' one asked, his face still flushed with the game. I tried to explain about polo which they quickly recognised as a game for wimps.

After a time the main course arrived: grilled mutton atop huge plates of pilau, washed down with bowls of sour milk. Later we staggered outside for the dancing. Night had fallen, and the lake was brimming with moonlight. Cold constellations hung between the snow peaks.

The musicians played three-stringed lutes and whining flutes which sent the sheep running for cover. Men and women danced in segregated lines, their arms round each other's shoulders, in the manner of drunken football supporters.

Later still antique trucks arrived to carry many of the revellers home to outlying encampments, their headlights dancing away into the darkness.

I made my way back to my yurt across the plain, the sound of the music trailing at my heels. Bactrian camels and horses were grazing in the moonlight. I gave the yaks a wide berth. They have an evil reputation and are said to hate foreigners.

The next afternoon I heard the daily bus from Kashgar long before it reached Karakul, a distant whine among these silent mountains. I packed my bag and trudged up to the road to flag it down.

The empty road climbed steadily through wide valleys slung between the snow peaks. Yurts were dotted here and there, sheltering in the hollows, and flocks of sheep grazed as far as the snow line. Not far from the top, a caravan of shaggy camels came down from the direction of Afghanistan.

The end of China was a wide valley of yellow and red grasses littered with snow beneath an assembly of magnificent snow peaks. An army hut flew a red flag, a gesture dwarfed in these landscapes.

On the other side the Khunjerab pass plummets spectacularly. The road was a heart-stopping switch-back and we fell into Pakistan as into a very deep well. At the bottom we emerged in the valleys of Upper Hunza where immigration officials in pressed flannels and spectacular moustaches awaited us.

'How do you do, sir,' the official said in English. 'Delighted to see you.' After months in China, I had crossed some dramatic divide. Still thousands of miles from home, I suddenly found myself among people who spoke English, took milk in their tea and knew all the latest cricket results.

In Kashgar, doubles in the new wing of the Samen Hotel are from US$30 (HK$230). Beds in the dorms in the older wing are from about $7. The yurts at Karakul are only open between June and September, and cost from about $8. They serve meals as well. There are buses almost every day between Kashgar and Sust, the first town inside Pakistan.