There is something faintly terrifying about altitude sickness – the pounding headaches, the blunted focus, the inability to make decisions. And that’s while sitting still. Walk a few paces and your chest heaves and rasps and your heart pounds heavily as you suck in cold, thin air that never seems enough.
We had landed in Kashgar only to head immediately westwards towards the Karakoram Highway, high into the mountains and to Lake Karakul, with our newly-met Uighur guide Waheed. Foreigners travelling westwards need a guide and driver, a permit, and a detailed itinerary to avoid trouble with the local Chinese police who restrict and control movements of local Uighurs and foreigners alike.
Kashgar’s outskirts tantalised us with carts of melons and peaches, boxes of dripping red pomegranates and tables piled with rounds of bread, fresh from the oven and sprinkled with onion seeds and salt. These would have to wait, because we needed to traverse the moubtain road before nightfall, parts having become very difficult to pass with the commencement of construction for a hydro-electric powerstation.
I hadn’t really thought through the rapid ascent to 3600m until we reached the checkpoint where we had to show ourselves, our permits and our passports. We had passed through a bare rocky landscape, through ravines and up to the base of snow-tipped mountains, with not a whisper of a blade of grass or stunted tree. Stepping out of the van in the gathering dusk the air was glacial, a frozen wind whipping our faces. It hurt to breathe. We all had headaches.
I hoped the children and the parents-in-law would be OK, but as a precaution I had photocopied the American Wilderness Medicine Society guidelines for acute mountain sickness and brought along acetazolamide, just in case. That’s what doctors do – prepare for the worst, hope for the best. It’s a bit nerdy but it’s gotten us out of trouble many times before.
Arriving through a mountain pass the road opened out suddenly into a broad alpine pasture, now brown with frosts. A low line of yurts lay ahead on the shores of Lake Karakul, our destination for the night where Waheed had made arrangements for us to stay with a local Kyrgyz family for the night, although there wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere and no smoke rose from the chimneys.
Ringed by snowy peaks touched with last of the setting sun, the lake itself glowed steel blue in the cold evening air. A group of camels were gathering by the shores to feed, snorting and huffing at us as they passed. I felt like we were in another world entirely, certainly not in China.
At this point it bacame clear my mother-in-law was quite dreadfully ill. A bad headache had turned into nausea, vomiting and dizziness, and she was barely able to stand. Our host Kyrgyz family, with wonderful timing, returned from a nearby village where they were preparing a wedding for the following day. The father, wth a brown furred hat and long dark winter coat stepped off the bike followed by his wife in pink headscarf and coat, and his two daughters. They welcomed us into their house, a low square building next to their yurt, stoked the fire and made a comfortable bed for my mother-in-law, F.
The inside of their house, like the inside of their adjacent yurt, was a riot of colour and rich texture, every surface draped and lined with carpets, blankets, quilts and curtains in rich jewel colours and elaborate designs, in total contrast to the bare monotone landscape outside. Along a low shelf dozens of thick quilts were folded and hidden by a fringed red velvet cloth. The centre of the room was the hearth, with a wrought iron pot belly stove fired by coal and dried yak dung, topped with an enormous teapot.
The Kyrgyz mother explained that F needed to drink hot salted yak milk tea and rest, in order to get better. I added some acetazolamide, just in case the yak milk tea didn’t work, and some stemetil, just in case yak milk was a little hard on the stomach.
We sat round the hearth, warm as toast, as the dusk deepened and the wind howled outside, and all of us tasted our first salted yak milk tea, rich, creamy and hot from shallow bowls. F seemed to be getting no worse, although we did discuss descending down the same treacherous road in the dark to a lower altitude, and decided against it.
The family made us a simple vegetable pilau for dinner, with more yak milk tea, and we were joined by a second family and their children. In all sixteen of us crammed tightly in to their crimson lined box, chatting, and watching fascinated as the mother used a pasta maker to fashion noodles for all of us. F had fallen asleep, and looked more peaceful. I began to worry less, although in the dim light of the stove I realised she had ‘moderate to severe acute mountain sickness’ according to my guidelines. But she wasn’t worsening.
We unfolded rows and rows of gold, green, sapphire blue purple quilts and fully clothed, settled down to sleep side by side like so many gloriously dressed sardines.
The morning sunlight came pale and golden, resting on the mountain tops. I walked down to the water’s edge and washed my face in the waters of Lake Karakul, glacial and bracing. The smoke rising from the chimney showed everyone was awake, including F who had rallied during the night and was ready for another cup of hot yak milk tea, feeling a little better but very pleased we would be descending today to less than 3000m. Our lovely family had taken such good care of us, and we thanked them as best we could without a single word of Kyrgyz. They posed for me, very formally, for a photograph outside their house.
And so we went, onwards and downwards.
Travels on the Silk Road