As I looked out the cab on our drive through Kashgar, southwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China, I had to ask myself, "Am I still in China?" Gone were the tall, modern buildings of Beijing. Gone were the busy highway overpasses and floods of cars. Gone were the Chinese people themselves, replaced instead with the minority Uyghur group.
I felt like I'd been plopped down in the middle of some Middle Eastern nation. Signs in Chinese and Uyghur (which resembles some Muslim script), and even a few in English, confirmed that I was still in China, if only on its outer edges.
The Uyghur are a Turkic people, similar in appearance to people of the Middle East and Central Asia as opposed to those in East Asia. Most of the 8 million Uyghurs in China live outside Urumqi, Xinjiang's capital, in the autonomous region.
Kashgar, where we would be spending most of our trip, is but a stone's throw away from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and even Afghanistan in Central Asia.
From mosques and tombs to temples and even a nice visit to a Uyghur family, my girlfriend, Layla, and I saw it all around Kashgar. We saw an ancient royal tomb that housed members of Uyghur dynasties. At the Kashgar city mosque, Layla had to cover her arms with a shawl, since she was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt, which went against Muslim rules. The mosques and Muslim architecture were a nice change from the temples and pagodas of Beijing.
We also walked around the Old City of Kashgar, the part that was being preserved while the rest of the city developed. The alleys were small and tightly built, and reminded me of the hutong in Beijing. Children played in the dirt and followed us they may have never seen a white guy before. When I'd take their pictures, they'd all gather around to see this small picture-taking device that had shrunk their image onto a tiny screen.
But as much as Kashgar had to offer in terms of sights, it was the mountains to the south and desert region to the east that impressed me the most.
Karakul Lake is about 124 miles south of Kashgar, at an elevation of 3,600 meters (2.2 miles) above sea level.
While I was skeptical about visiting another lake after the storm of tourists at Tian Chi, I'd been told this lake was not to be missed. And I'm glad I listened, because once again, the geography caught me like a deer in the headlights a deer with a camcorder and digital camera in each hand.
Karakul Lake glimmered under the sun, the snowcapped peaks surrounding it beckoning in the distance. Had I brought snow gear and climbing equipment, I might have attempted an ascent. The mountains' reflection was clear on the lake's water. A few locals came over to see what Layla and I were doing and make every attempt to sell us something. Even a flock of sheep was curious of our foreign presence.
Because of the elevation, the temperature had dropped from a hot 90 degrees in Kashgar to a cool 59 degrees. The altitude was also noticeable, because after about two hours I was getting short of breath and a little lightheaded.
On another trip outside Kashgar, we took the Old Silk Road, a major trade route of old from China to Europe, to Yarkand and the Taklamakan Desert. The desert's sand dunes rolled off into the distance like a light brown ocean. The camels we'd rented struggled to traverse the unstable terrain. Even the rainstorms all three of them during my stay in the desert were thrilling.
But the crème de la crème of traveling in these backwater territories was the complete and utter absence of a single tourist. At each locale, it was just me, myself and my pale complexion, and Layla, amid a sea of Uyghurs, Tajiks, Kazakhs and other Central Asians. It was bliss.
Yes, I know I'm being a bit hypocritical, because, after all, I was a tourist, and a pretty obvious one at that. But escaping the city life for blue skies and green pastures and desolate sand dunes was a much needed breather from the always-busy Beijing.
The trip was a real eye-opener, shattering the misconception I'd had of Xinjiang being as wild and lawless as the American West in the mid 1800s and allowing me to visit some of nature's most captivating beauties. And I got to do so while being part of my own private, micro tour group.
(Next: Only one semi-Arabian Night)
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.