Karakul Lake – Trouble in Paradise

Karakul (Lake), some four hours south of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Province, is quite simply one of the most beautiful places we have ever been.

Situated at 3600 meters, and hours from the nearest city, Karakul is isolated and pristine, yet easily accessible from Kashgar by regular bus service on the Karakoram Highway. Not only is it a place of natural beauty, but a visit to the lake offers ample opportunity to interact with the local Kyrgyz–in some ways it offers an even better experience (and certainly in a more beautiful setting) than similar destinations in the Kyrgyz homeland of Kyrgyzstan. It has all the makings of a world-class attraction.

Except that the current situation at the lake is totally fucked up.

It is well-established practice among travelers–has been for the last ten/twenty years at least and is described in every guidebook–to stay on the shores of Karakul in yurts set up by the local Kyrgyz. The yurts are there for tourists, and so it cannot be said to be a fully authentic yurtstay, but the Kyrgyz keepers are from the nearby village and the yurts themselves are authentically and well constructed. The Kyrgyz ask for RMB 40 (USD 6) per person for dinner, lodging and breakfast, which is frankly a very good deal, especially when compared to yurtstay rates in Kyrgyzstan which cost about three times as much. And all this in, again, a drop-dead spectacular setting.

After arriving at the lake by bus from Kashgar and dropping off our bags in a yurt, we were simply ecstatic. The weather and lake were gorgeous, the yurt beautiful and our Kyrgyz host terrific, offering a level of formal hospitality that was warm and sincere. We were to share the yurt with two young Frenchmen, a total of RMB 160 for the host which isn’t a bad take, either. After having some bread and tea, we set off for a walk and ended up hiring horses to go around the perimeter of the lake. Other than my horse choosing at one point to lay down (with me still on it), everything was perfect and according to plan.

The first sign of trouble came when a couple people came around with ticket books, trying to charge us RMB 50 (USD 7.50) each for being at the lake. We thought this ridiculous. Here we were, at a natural lake in the middle of nowhere. There is no way in which the lake has been “developed” nor is there any kind of fence or other barrier to the lake. Worse yet, the people charging the tickets were from the ugly hotel nearby–an eyesore if anything–with which we had had no contact, and frankly didn’t want any contact. Not even knowing whether the tickets were legitimate, we refused to pay, as did many of the other tourists present.

The ticket sellers backed down, but a few hours later proceeded to make a circuit of all the tourists in their yurts, forcing people to buy the tickets. Our host told us that it was in fact required (if you come within 10 kilometers of the lake), and that we could not stay at his yurt if we did not have the tickets. We were pissed off–if it were earlier in the day we would surely have just moved on south to Tashkurgan instead of staying at the lake, and we initially said that we would then just leave. But given the uncertainty of finding transportation at that hour, we finally relented and after some negotiation paid RMB 25 (around USD 4) for student tickets–it was simpler to just consider it part of the cost of the yurt (even at RMB 65 per person not a bad deal) and stay. We didn’t know that the situation was going to turn much worse, much uglier.

We had dinner in the yurt–freshly made laghman–and were settled in for sleep. Our host’s wife set up an impossible platform of quilts–real princess-and-the-pea stuff–in which the four of us were to sleep side-by-side, in what I thought was sort of 19th century style. We were already partially undressed and in bed, chatting, when our host suddenly came in. “Problem. Police are here, problem. You have to be very quiet for the next hour.” We of course had no idea what was going on, although we assumed that it had something to do with our host’s legal ability to take guests. We were, frankly, annoyed, but followed his instructions. Which didn’t deter what would happen next.

About 12:30 AM (although far out west in Xinjiang it did not feel so late), several men in military fatigues barged into our yurt with flashlights. Shining it in our faces, they counted “yi, er, san, si” and left. A few minutes later, they came back in with our host, who explained that we couldn’t sleep in the yurt, and had to go over to the hotel.

We were furious and refused. We had no idea that there was any legal situation involving yurtstays (given that every guidebook says that it is done, there are no signs warning people against it and there are actual yurts surrounding the lake whose sole purpose is to house tourists). We were foreign tourists who were already undressed and in bed. It was past midnight and military had barged into our room shining flashlights in our faces. After the ticket incident, we suspected that the hotel was responsible. It was simply an outrage, and we did not see why we should comply. Derek, standing in only his underwear, screamed as loudly as he could while alternately pressing his wrists together and pointing to the door, saying, “Arrest me or get the fuck out! Arrest me or get the fuck out!” Finally, our Kyrgyz host said that he would be fined a huge sum of money unless we left, and we reluctantly marched to the hotel. Outside were some 12-15 foreign tourists, groggy from having been woken from bed.

There was no way, however, that we would let this end so easily. Our instinct told us that this was the hotel’s doing. The greedy proprietors of the hotel were not only charing RMB 50 tickets for the lake, but pushing everyone to stay at their hotel instead of the local yurts. We walked into the hotel and found a few military officers sitting in one of the rooms along with the manager, in what was set up as a sort of a command post for the operation. Derek started yelling. The hotel people knew, from having collected money for tickets earlier in the day, that there were all these people in the yurts. The police station/military post was less than a kilometer away. If they wanted to enforce the law, or whatever it was, they could easily have done so earlier in the day (or put up signs preventing people from trying to stay in a yurt in the first place), but instead waited until we were all settled in, when there was no possibility of travel away from the lake, presumably so that we would all be forced to pay for rooms at the crummy hotel.

The manager’s attitude was infuriating. She said that she too had yurts (fake cement ones, that is), as if that was something that any of us desired. She lied and said that she had nothing to do with the military crackdown (confirmed as a lie not only from circumstance but by local residents the next morning). The officer said that the move was for our own safety, as if any tourist had ever been harmed by a Kyrgyz yurt-host, and offered some lame excuse about the Olympics, in what is probably the place in China most distant from Beijing.

Using the assistance of a domestic tourist who spoke English, we told the officer in charge that what he was doing was completely unjustifiable, and asked what he thought China’s reputation would be if it became widely known that the military had invaded the lodging rooms of dozens of overseas tourists, shining flashlights in their faces and evicting them in the middle of the night. We asked why, if actually illegal, the yurts have remained in place for ten/twenty years. We had decided that if our experience, our peace was robbed, we would make the night equally troublesome and memorable for the officers and the hotel manager. We persisted and, in fact, the officer had little to say to defend himself.

Derek proposed to end the conflict by having all of return to our yurts with a promise that our hosts would not be fined for having us as guests that night. The officers seemed relieved and accepted. The officer apologized and allowed all of us to return to our yurts, while providing sincere assurances that the Kyrgyz hosts would not be in any way penalized for taking us as guests. Derek was thanked by both local Kyrgyz (it seems that the Kyrgyz yurtkeepers are having something of an ongoing battle with the hotel, which is Han-Chinese run) and a fellow tourist, for taking a stand.

We don’t know what’s going on at the lake now. The last we heard, the enhanced security concerns during the Olympics were resulting in tourists being turned away at a checkpoint between Kashgar and the lake, told that they could not go any further toward Pakistan without an intent to cross the border. But we were told by our host that the military harassment was a frequent occurrence (which actually annoyed us, since this meant that the Kyrgyz were taking customers knowing full well that there was a good chance that the military would come to throw them out). Our guess is that the hotel manager wants to keep the yurts in place because they attract tourists–if the yurts were totally disassembled, and that information out, most people would probably visit the lake only on a daytrip from Kashgar. What should tourists do? I don’t know what the actual legalities are surrounding Karakul, but if the law actually does not permit the Kyrgyz to operate yurts and the law really requires tourists to pay RMB 50 to the hotel for doing absolutely nothing, I think the best answer is that you should visit the lake only for so long as you can get away without paying for admission, and then leave. Well-written letters to well-placed people may not hurt, either. In the end, it is a true tragedy that such a beautiful location with such potential is so wasted by what seems like extreme greed and petty, low-level corruption.

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