Alex and I were on a sanddune looking down at a herd of grazing yak. We actually didn't notice the yak as much as we noticed that there wasn't any snow. Alex told our tour guide as we set out from the village this morning that before we came back to Kashgar, we wanted to hike a little bit, and since most of the mountains reached a point where there was snow, we really wanted to climb up to the snow. Our tour guide thought that was a fine idea (and if he thought we were crazy Americans, he didn't say anything). Every time we saw a mountain he would estimate how long it would take us to climb and return--two and a half hours; four hours; five hours.
Alex and I were standing on a sandy hill because he had told us that that would be the closest place. We couldn't see any snow from the bottom, but he had given us reasonable estimates at other points and we thought we would trust his judgment. We hiked up the dune for about forty-five minutes before realizing that the only snow was far in front of us. And by far, I mean we would have to climb down the sanddune, walk up the foothills, and then start climbing in earnest at what looked like an impossible slope. Naturally, we decided that we would do it.
The yak worried us only as huge animals with large, sharp horns and an impressive running speed would. We walked around them without incident.
Our tour guide told us that the sanddune route would only take us three hours round trip, so all we had with us was a chocolate bar, Chapstick, and three bottles of water.
It took us an hour to hike up the easy, barren terrain (scattered with rocks) leading up to the mountain itself. Then we transitioned into hiking over rocks. The average rock was the size of my fist, medium ones were the size of my head, and large ones were the size of my body. At first it wasn't steep, but we could see that we weren't very close.
Soon the slope increased drastically, and we really had to watch our step or rocks would start to shift. We took more breaks to compensate for the increased difficulty.
Then we reached the point at which when standing by the yak I had predicted we would be unable to continue. From the sand hill it looked like silt, close up it was small pebbles mixed with bigger rocks.
And the slope of it. I'd say the slope was about the height of my body to the length of my arm--I make that comparison because when I stood up to climb, I used my arms because the mountain was right there. It was a good thing I was using my hands and feet. We felt like we slid one foot for every three that we climbed.
The last hundred feet were brutal. There was a little gully that we thought might be serviceable. Alex took a step down into it, slid, and couldn't climb back up, so we had to rondezvous further up. The snow was so close. Bright, white (although from so close we could see the dirt that was on it, too), and massive! The snow continued up to the peak and was a shining mass of unimitable beauty.
Then after four and a half hours of hiking, we arrived. It was about lunch time, so Alex and I feasted on snow and chocolate (water was too precious; we only had half a bottle left).
The descent down was crazy. We had clambered up, but you couldn't step down without sending a huge pile of pebbles and rocks clattering down the mountain. So we surfed down. Alex squatted and pushed himself, I rode like I was skateboarding (and for those who understand, I slide down a mountain switch). It was incredibly exhilarating and very fast, since we had to balance, make sure we weren't causing a landslide, and keep moving since we couldn't stop. We descended uncomfortably fast. Even taking frequent breaks to check for injuries, we still descended the bulk of the mountain in half the time it had taken us to ascend.
About that time we started to worry about our driver, who would have been naively expecting us back before we had even reached the snow. We were out of water, really tired, and still had the yak to pass--but we took a different route and avoided them.
Finally we returned, seven and a half hours after. Our driver was excited that we weren't dead, we were excited he was still there, and it culminated in a cross-cultural bearhug. He told us that he had talked to the police, and either they were going to or they had (tense is difficult in Chinese) come after us on horseback.
Everything turned out okay, though. I snapped a bad picture of the mountain before we left, because we hadn't brought our cameras, but I think that my bruises, sunburn, and excitement from climbing a random mountain near the border of Tajikistan would outlast even the best picture.